Category Archives: India

Connecting to the Heart

“When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.”
― Kahlil Gibran

I’m in a period of transition and uncertainty at the moment. All the major areas of my life are in flux and changing. My living situation is unclear, my job is only short-term and chaotic and my girlfriend is all the way over in Mexico (although not for long!)
It would be very easy not to feel grounded and to get overwhelmed by all the change and lack of a clear way forward but I naturally like to flow, (my triple water star chart reflects what I have already recognised in myself) and when I allow this all is good.

Legs and heart

Legs and heart – Hermione Armitage

Things were getting a bit much last week though and while I was discussing all of this with Felicity she suggested I pull an Osho Zen Tarot card. I got “Traveling” which you can read here.
To summarise it reminded me of the Lao Tzu quote

“A good traveller has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving”

because it was all about enjoying the journey as a reminder that the important thing is to stay with the present. Your future is not created by endless planning and worrying but is instead manifested as a direct result of what you do right now. We plant seeds and as long as we are aligned and allowing, the right things will emerge for us.

The universe will unfold as it should…

So, how do we know we are aligned, and by that I mean in touch with what is really true for us, what we are passionate about, what makes us feel connected, at peace and happy?

The heart is a wonderful gateway. You can feel all of those things in your heart, you can’t figure it out in the mind because it will always be a reflection. The connection in the heart is always in the present and is where we feel this deep motivation.

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I was at the “Be Love” 11 hour Bhakti Immersion, an event all about the practice of devotion and singing which brings you straight into the heart. It was an amazing reset for me, an opportunity to ground in something far more powerful than the “material” security can offer.

I can have a big house, job and so on but if I’m feeling adrift from this centre then I don’t have peace. All the material stuff is impermanent and when you have this anchor in the deeper space of the heart it seems less important. If you can be happy in any situation then this is surely real freedom.

What is Sufism?
To feel joy in the heart when sorrow appears.

I should mention the fantastic work the Sivani Mata does in arranging these events which bring a large community together in such a beautiful space. We first met while travelling to the fantastic Colourfest, separated in the back of a car by bags stacked so high we couldn’t see each other!

I started teaching yoga on Wednesday at the Jamyang Buddhist centre, taking over from the lovely Naz who is taking the opportunity to head back to Mexico. I’ll be there every week with the class starting at 7.30. I’m charging £10 with the option to pay for a pass at a reduced rate – contact me for details!

I’ll also be running a meditation day with my yoga sister Emma in Bedford on the 8th November, it would be great if you can join with us in diving deep into this heart space and feeling our deep connection.

Feet and Heart - Hermione Armitage

Feet and Heart – Hermione Armitage

Photos courtesy of Hermione Armitage

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Filed under General, India

Indian food – part one

Indian Food

India is rightly famous for its varied and delicious cuisine and in this post I will endeavour to explain a few of the dishes you will most likely come across and suggest a few things that you might want to search for when visiting the subcontinent.

Menu, Indian Food

Menu

Main Courses

Thali

The Thali is ubiquitous throughout India but it varies in quality and substance depending on where you are.

In the south it will most likely be advertised under the name “Meals”.

It is perfect for the indecisive diner like myself who just wants to try a bit of everything.

In the north you will usually be served the Indian food on a metal “Thali plate” with a portion of rice deposited in the largest section and then a dal and one or two curries in the other sections. The dal and rice will get topped up, usually without you having to ask although in a busy place you may need to give them a nudge. There might be a sweet dish – at the Golden Temple in Amritsar where they serve 70,000 people a day in their huge communal and free kitchens they served something akin to rice pudding. You may also get a chapati or papad but do not expect to get more for free!

Ryan and I, ultimate tightwads as we are, meanwhile, wanted to take full advantage of the Sikh hospitality and experience the 24 hour community kitchen which feeds up to 70,000 pilgrims a day.

We approached the large hall to the sound of scores of volunteers washing dishes in rows at the long sinks, the clatter and din rising into a cacophony of cleanliness. Getting nearer and making our way up the steps a volunteer presented us with fork and spoon, the ubiquitous thali tray and a bowl. Following directions to the next hall, either ground floor or upstairs, we filtered in with the groups of pilgrims sitting in long rows on the floor. Then there was a slight pause before more volunteers came around to slop dhal, beans, rice and “rice pudding stuff” into our trays, and drop chapatis into your waiting hands. There isn’t much hanging around, and although you can sometimes get refills, when the room starts to empty, the volunteers tip water on the floor and mop up, signalling it is really time to go.

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Other than the golden temple I had great thali at Mamas, up in High Bank, Rishikesh, a totally backpacker centered enclave away from the pilgrims and temples by the river. She serves communally and is a total enabler (see Banoffee Pie, under desserts). The thali is simple but her pumpkin curry is one of the best things in India. Down on the way to Laxman Jhula bridge you can stop at one of the stalls and pay 30 rupees for a simple local variety, which, while not as sublime is a fantastic staple.

In the south it will most likely be served either on a round metal plate with smaller dishes inside and then a variety of curries, soups and dals in these dishes, or on a banana leaf. The size of some of these meals is truly amazing and you will often get a Gulab Jamun or dessert included.

My favourite Thali, and equally the most plentiful, was in Mangalore. It was a city that I visited briefly and almost entirely because of its reputation for Indian food and I was not disappointed. The place I went had everything you could ever want in a thali and more besides. I got a small bowl of tomato soup to begin with as a gentle opener. The main serving  had three curries, two dhals, a thin soupy side, raita, naan as well as chapatti, a sweet lassi drink and a gulab jamun. Followed by ice cream. Incredible and at about 90 rupees.

Also worthy of a mention is Chennai’s chain, Saravanna Bhavan. While the menu is slightly baffling, especially given that the items on offer change at different times of the day, you can’t go wrong with the hugely varied Special Meals which are sensational.

Banana leaf, Indian food

Banana leaf

In the south, particularly Kerala, you will find thali served on a banana leaf. Simply wash with a little water and wipe. After finishing fold the top down to the bottom for a genius, environmentally friendly and washing-up free plate. The servers come around with big pots of curry and ladle it on top of the rice which is often on the table to help yourself. Traditionally eaten with the hands, mix it all together like the locals and deliver a taste sensation.

One of the most memorable banana leaf thalis I ate was on the backwaters in Kerala. We were on a houseboat where we consistently had the best food in my time in the south and our hosts took us to a village wedding of the daughter of one of our crew. As foreigners and special guests we had a spot reserved in the large communal dining room; in that part of the hall the fans weren’t working but it seemed churlish to object. We sat sweltering waiting for the food and were like puddles when it arrived but what a delight when it did. We wanted to stay and eat as long as possible but were getting close to passing out, comfort and indulgence were the options but I figured: in for a penny…

Thali is almost always vegetarian, although you might have the option of a side dish of chicken or fish. Goan or Keralan fish thalis are sensational but the variety will come in the vegetables with one main fish dish.

Palak Paneer

This dish is simply Spinach (palak) and a type of Cheese (Paneer) which is firm relatively tasteless and used often in curry dishes in place of meat. Palak Paneer is common, particularly in the north and consists of pureed leaves along with the paneer and spices such as garlic.

Palak Paneer, Indian food

Palak Paneer

Channa Masala

Chickpea Curry from the Punjab region. A dry and moderately spicy dish usually, be aware that like with most Indian dishes you will sometimes find things spiced much more than you have had previously.

Aloo Gobi

Aloo is potato, Gobi is Cauliflower so with that information I’ll let you figure out the ingredients of this tasty curry dish. It comes with a gravy and isn’t usually super-spicy but will probably contain cumin and is usually more dry than soupy. It usually also contains tomato.

Dum Aloo

Potato with thick gravy. This is apparently a Kashmiri dish although I found it in many places, particularly in the North of India. The traditional dish sees the potatoes deep-fried and then slow cooked in the rich sauce.

“Potato, was not on the high priority list of vegetables for the “Kulin Bangalis” in ancient times. Warren Hastings, the Governor general in 1790, received a basket of potatoes as a novelty gift from the Dutch, who takes the credit of introducing potatoes to Bengal. The Story goes that Lord Amherst, had potatoes planted in the “Park of Barrackpore”. Bengalis took to the root vegetable with much enthusiasm. The starchy softness of the potatoes worked well as a perfect contrast to sharp taste of mustard seeds and cumin used in Bengali cooking.” Source: Wikipedia

Paneer Butter Masala. (Paneer makhani)

This is a slightly creamy (buttery?) Cheese curry which comes close to the “English Indian” chicken tikka masala since the masala sauce is similar. It’s available all over, particularly in the North and is most common in this vegetarian version although you can get it with chicken.

Carpe Diem Veg Thali

Served as a thali but this is a veg version of the butter masala curry.

Grilled Fish – magic sauce

Fish in India should probably only be eaten when one is near to the coast or in particularly fancy restaurants (unless its river or lake fish of course). I’ve seen the way Indians transport ice; open to the elements on the back of a dirty truck and this suggests to me that freshness is only guaranteed somewhere you can see the fishermen.

The Andaman Islands, being close to Thailand and Burma and offering crystal clear water have perhaps the freshest and tastiest fish dishes and one place in particular on Havelock Island offered grilled fish in a banana leaf and served with “magic sauce” which was a tangy, tamarindy bit of sorcery for sure.

Tandoori

A tandoor is actually an oven, used to cook Naan bread and other dishes such as Tandoori Chicken, Paneer, lamb etc.

Tandoori, Indian food

Tandoori

These dishes will come dry after being marinated in a spicy red sauce and cooked in the tandoor. On Havelock Island in the Andamans prawn tandoori was particularly delicious.

Navrattan Korma

“Fruity” curry containing nuts.

This is a green curry, but not like the ones you get in Thailand. I first tried it in Jaipur at an amazing restaurant we stumbled across while searching for a random bus agency. We were in Jaipur as extras in “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”, a british production with Judy Dench and Bill Nighy among others, and the agency who arranged our work had found us lodgings in the skankiest guesthouse you can imagine (making the hotel in the movie look incredible). A group of us decided to do a side trip to Agra and one of the conditions of our deal on the film was that they would pay onward travel costs.It was all on the cheap though and so it was that we ventured to find the agency to pick up our bus tickets with little more than a name and the street. This street had hundreds of travel agencies and ours, of course, was one of the few that didn’t have its name written in English outside. During this search we walked past Bikaner Bhojanlaya and were immediately arrested by the delicious smells coming from the chef who was working away at the front of the shop. Once we picked up our sleeper bus tickets, which, by the way, were not in the bed compartments common to these buses but in seats, underneath the beds, we went back to the restaurant and had a feast.

Navrattan Curry, Indian Food

Navrattan Curry

The Navrattan Korma, and similar Navratan Curry were both fantastic here and never gotten close to whenever I tried it again. Apparently this is a Kashmiri dish and typically of food from that region it contains fruits to add a sweetness to the spice.

Desserts

Gulab Jamun

A rich, but not so sweet, dumpling ball of mostly thickened milk in rose syrup. It is often served at weddings or other special occasions and, like many Indian sweets, is worryingly moreish.

Rice Pudding

Often served hot with fruit, nuts and cinammon. Great for mountain regions where it gets chilly at night!

Rice Pudding, Indian food

Rice Pudding

Jalebi

These deep-fried, bright orange, swirly desserts are neither as sticky, nor, usually, as sweet as they look like they should be. I didn’t find it easy to get a really great one of these little beauties but they look fantastic and could easily brighten up a table of dishes.

Chikki/Barfi

Otherwise known as peanut brittle this was one of my staples for long bus journeys since you could almost always find it near bus stands across the country.  They are sometimes made with ground peanuts and sometimes with whole ones for a more satisfying crunch. Incredibly sweet, incredibly moreish and incredibly satisfying.

There are some desserts (and dishes) which aren’t necessarily Indian in origin but which are found often in India, particularly on the traveller circuit and I wanted to write about a few of them here as well!

Banoffee Pie

Just where does this dessert come from? A combination of banana and toffee done in a million different ways (but again, the best being at Mama’s in High Bank Rishikesh.) Is it Italian (Ban-offi pai!)? American? No one really seemed to know when I was travelling but after a bit of research I find it actually derives from two Englishmen who adapted an American recipe for “coffee toffee pie” in 1971. Anyway, it’s hugely popular among traveller types and quite delicious.

Bhagsu Cake. (Kudle Beach Cake)

Bagsu Cake, Indian food

Bagsu Cake

In Bhagsu, up the hill from Mcleod Ganj in Dharamsala there are a string of German Bakeries competing with each other in sales of a backpacker treat that is well worth the walk. A little like Millionaire Shortbread but way better; Bhagsu Cake has a biscuit base topped with a layer of caramel and a crispy chocolate topping.

In Karnataka, the up and coming young beach pretender, Gokarna, with its ancient temples and string of slowly developing beaches has a strange echo. Many of the people running businesses in the North in the warm summer months will move down here in the winter when the season is in full swing at the beach. The veritable Vijay for example who teaches his Universal yoga in both Arambol, Goa and Mcleod Ganj. In Gokarna this makes for an interesting conversation with the restaurant owner as he tries to explain what “Kudle Beach Cake” is exactly. He gives up pretty soon with the hopeful “Bhagsu Cake?” and while, maybe, it doesn’t keep quite as well in the sweltering south, it is essentially the same cake.

 

Hello to the Queen/King

This certainly is a royal dessert although I still am none the wiser which King or Queen it refers to… I’m pretty sure it isn’t Lizzie and although many people think this originates from England, it doesn’t. It seems most popular among Israeli travellers, although that could be the munchies kicking in and they certainly don’t claim ownership of the concept.

It consists of a bowl filled with biscuit crumbs, topped with banana, usually lightly fried, and then oodles of ice cream and chocolate sauce. It may have raisins, cashews, pomegranate seeds and the like on the top as well but these aren’t core ingredients. You will get as many different variations on Hello to the Queen as there are restaurants but when you find a good one (like in the Oasis cafe Rishikesh) you will most likely go back again and again.

Oasis cafe Rishikesh, Indian food

Oasis cafe Rishikesh

Hello to the King is the same as Hello to the Queen but topped with Bhagsu Cake for the full OMG experience.

Royal Falooda

Royal Falooda, Port Blair, Andamans

Royal Falooda, Port Blair, Andamans

I don’t know which came first, the Knickerbocker Glory or this, a massive glass full of naughty goodness. The Falooda is a long glass with fruit and maybe a bit of ice cream and the Royal Falooda takes it up several notches by adding cream, sprinkles, loads more ice cream and loads more fruit. The Cool Bars in Port Blair, Andaman islands, serve these up to thirsty and steaming locals and visitors alike, an indulgent alternative to a coffee break.

Accompaniments

Lassi

The yoghurt drink. Perfect when your curry is a little more spicy than anticipated to calm down the palate and good for digestion as well. Various fruit varieties are on offer with banana being the most common but in more local places you will probably just get the option of Sweet or Salty. The best sweet lassis are flavoured with just a hint of cardamom for a deliciously subtle taste. At first the salty lassi is a difficult thing to appreciate but when you have been suffering from a dose of dodgy Indian belly for several days it has a wonderful calmative effect.

The Saffron Lassi, available most famously in Jodhpur where they claim to have the best in the country, is another variety which gives a subtle flavour to the drink.

Lassi, Indian Food

Lassi

Often served in Kulhars or clay mugs you destroy after use making them hygienic and fun!

Papad

You may know them as Poppadoms and will possibly order way too many at your local Indian restaurant as a starter to eat with a variety of dips. In India, however they are more often served as part of a Thali or as a snack in their own right on street stalls. You will often see street vendors frying them up enticingly and Masala Papad are considerably more spicy than the plain variety we most commonly find in the west.

Chapatti

 

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The standard bread that you will find everywhere around India. Cooked in a dry frying pan or over coals and without yeast it is flat and often delicious. Dip it in your curry and dal, enjoy and be prepared to order another one, or two. Order the butter chapatti if you want bread smeared in melted butter to add to the oily ghee in your curry.

Butter Chapatti, Indian food

Butter Chapatti

Samosa

Triangular pastry most commonly stuffed with potato, peas, cumin and other spices. Delicious fresh, hot and crispy but not bad cold and soft as well. Meat varieties also available but you might want to be careful about the source and freshness.

Samosa Chat

Dal

There are many different types of dal, some spicy, some plain, some soupy and some dry. Wherever you go in India though, you will find this staple of lentils cooked until soft is ubiquitous, healthy and filling. Eat as part of a thali or as a side with other dishes, or simply with rice (in more remote places).

Chitkul hospitality, Indian food

Chitkul hospitality

In Chitkul, at the end of the Sangla valley of Himachal Pradesh, we arrived off-season after a very long, uncomfortable and scary bus journey down some beautiful valleys ravaged by dam projects and military bases, to a town that was essentially shut. This place is at the end of the road, and through the mountains you can get to the Tibetan border. In the summer it is supposed to bloom with flowers and be a valley of plenty, but when we arrived it was one of the most desolate, inhospitable and unwelcoming places I have ever been to. We sat on the balcony of our guesthouse and watched two men attempting to plough a small patch of mud that looked as infertile as the moon, waiting for our dinner. We weren’t given an option on what we could have, and what we got was some boiled rice and the most bland slop of lentils cooked with seemingly no salt and absolutely no flavour. After several days eating dal like this you really can tell the subtle differences between what seems exactly the same dish, and this was by far the worst I ever had.

Jeera Rice

Jeera is Cumin so this is rice flavoured with cumin. Sometimes it is spelt Zeera or maybe even other variations but don’t let that fool you. It goes well with most dishes so if you want your rice to have an extra burst of flavour this is a good option.

Raita

Yoghurt and cucumber or other fruit to take the edge off that blisteringly hot curry

Puri

Puffed up bready goodness

Puri, Indian food

Puri

Tibetan food

While there are regional varieties of Indian food which are quite extreme in their difference, I’m creating a separate category for Tibetan food since it is so different and has its origin in a different country and culture.

Momos

After having tried Tibetan food on a few occasions I decided that doing a cooking course would be a good way to spend my morning. Lhamo’s Kitchen offers 2 hour classes in different types of Tibetan cuisine, pretty much in his front room, and the first one we attended was to see how to make the Momo dumplings that I may have gone on about. We discovered that “Mo” in Tibetan means “tasty” so the dumplings are literally “Tasty Tasty.”

We made three different types of Momo which were: Vegetable, Cheese & Spinach and a sweet with a sugar and sesame seed filling.

Tibetan Bread

Tingmo

A steamed Tibetan bread usually eaten with soup or butter tea. Pretty tasteless and has a slightly odd spongy texture for most western tastes but does go well in a good Thukpa.

Butter Tea

Wow. Usually tried because someone gives you a cup, I’d be surprised if you order it after trying once. It is tea, made from butter, and pretty much as unpleasant as that sounds… Sometimes it is served as “tea” without too much indication so when in Tibetan areas I would suggest keeping a close eye and if the tea looks a bit pale then sip with caution..

Thukpa

Tibetan Soup, normally clear but with tomato and thin noodles

Thantuk


Tibetan soup, normally thicker broth than Thukpa and with big flat noodles

Breakfasts

Porridge

Oat or Wheat porridge is available throughout India as a breakfast dish, usually served hot with banana, honey or other fruits. At the Tushita Meditation centre in Dharamsala they serve amazing big vats of porridge most mornings to Dharma students in silence, appreciative of something hearty in the chill mornings of the lower Himalaya. In these regions, where Tibetan refugees live you will also find Tsampa porridge made from the traditional barley flour that farmers would live on for days while travelling in the plains.

Parantha

Another type of bread, this time stuffed. Aloo (potato) parantha is one of the more common and is usually served for breakfast with a spicy pickle and curd.

Parantha, Spiti valleyParantha, Spiti valley, Indian food

Parantha, Spiti valley

Masala Chai

Chai! Indian food

Chai!

“Chai, Chai, coffee, Chai, Chai” is a call anyone who has travelled on an Indian train will be more than familiar with from the Chai Wallahs (or tea salesmen) who ply their trade up and down the carriages. Chai is ubiquitous wherever you go in India and not just restricted to transport but there is something strangely refreshing about the thimble sized cups of train-chai.

Don’t be confused by naming conventions, and don’t expect the same name wherever you go. It is advertised as Chai, Masala Chai, Chai Masala, tea, milk tea, masala tea etc and these may all appear on the same menu and be slight variants (or exactly the same). Tea may come with spices or may come plain – if you want the mix of cardamom, ginger, cinnamon, cloves etc (which will vary from place to place) then the key word is Masala. Chai can mean either with or without.

A key task of any visitor to India, as far as I’m concerned, should involve thoroughly investigating the chai available wherever you travel. I have two favourite spots, the first is the Office in Rishikesh and the second opposite Ramana Maharshi’s ashram in Tiruvanimallai.

Service at either is haphazard, slow and maybe slightly surly in Tiru but at both it is worth it to receive the metal mug or beaker of hot, delicious tea. In the Office, if you are lucky and there is more than one guy working then the little old dude will sit over the deeply stained pot steeping tea leaves and spices in hot water and milk. The finished article comes in a large metal mug and is too hot to drink, although I guarantee that you will burn your tongue a few times, so impatient  for the beautiful brew. It’s something to do with the cardamom and ginger that makes it so irresistible, and despite being several times bigger than your average chai, one is never enough. Perfect to sit around one of the tables and talk about yoga or listen to people play guitar while cross-legged on the balcony overlooking the Ganga (and beating off flies).

In Tiru, the ginger is prominent in the flavours and the metal beakers they serve it in are not the most practical items – you can expect to burn your fingers as well as your tongue here, but it is maybe even better than the Office variety. Here you sit in the shade, if you’re lucky, or in the baking sun where you can discuss non-duality, meditation and Shiva in the wake of Aurunachala, one of the holiest hills, said to be an emanation of the Lord of Destruction himself.

There are countless other places to get chai of course – I’d love to hear your favourites!

Chai stall, Rishikesh, Indian food

Chai stall, Rishikesh

Chai Stall, Indian Food

Chai Stall

Omelette (man in Jodhpur)

I’m not sure India lays claim to the omelette but for a dish cooked around the world in a million different ways in India there are subtle local twists. By Jodhpur gate there is a man who goes through 10,000 eggs a week cooking fluffy Cheese and Tomato omelets or spicy masala varieties that will make your mouth water. He is very proud of his stall and has a guest book for you to sign to tell your tale of the best omelette in town. His success has had a common effect in India though and now he has to display a large sign above his stall declaiming that he and he alone is the original omelette man and the several copycat stalls that have now opened either side of him are merely imposters, serving under par egg dishes that presumably do a terrible dishonour to the very concept of an omelette. Great marketing strategy anyway, I’m not sure if he has Twitter yet but  it’s a matter of time…

Omlette man, Indian food

Omlette man

His omelets are great anyway and despite the fact that in certain holy places it is not allowed to eat eggs along with meat it does make you wonder that in such a spiritually awakened country the Om-lette is certainly a staple.

Museli Fruit curd

Many will claim to have found the best in India, but I give you the Office in Rishikesh for its huge bowl full of a variety of fruit, minimal muesli and oodles of yoghurt and honey topped with pomegranate seeds.

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Dosa

A savoury pancake, crispy and often as long as a cricket bat (nearly). This is a southern speciality that is found elsewhere around India BECAUSE IT IS SO GOOD!

Masala Dosa, Indian food

Masala Dosa

Coming up in part two:

Aloo matar , bindi masala  biryani, chaat, chana masala, kheer, kofta, pani puri, parantha, rajma, Appam, idiappam, idli, parotta, pongal, sambar, uttapam, vada, laddu and lots lots more!

 

Some non-Indian, Indian dishes too –

Mad Angles – and other Crisps and snacks

Biscuits!

Shakshuka, Shacklab and others!

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Andaman Islands

Guide to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands

The Andaman and Nicobar Islands are an archipelago of over three hundred small crops of land, governed by India, in the Andaman sea although they are closer to Burma and Thailand.

There are some uninhabited islands and others which are off-limits to tourists due to the protection of the indigenous population. The Nicobarese are a tribal people and the government is now making every effort  to stop modern influences disrupting their traditional way of life as has happened with other groups on some of the main islands. There was controversy a couple of years ago as video footage emerged of “human safaris” being carried out where tourists could go and view local dances and rituals, observing from a jeep as if these people were wildlife. These were the islands on old maps marked “here be monsters” due to the wild nature of their inhabitants.

The contrast between pristine white sand beaches and dense rain-forest is breathtaking at times, and the Andamans have truly some of the most amazing and beautiful beaches in the world. Clear turquoise water framed by bush as far as the eye can see, on Havelock Beach 7 I could go down at 8AM and have the entire Radha Nagar stretch entirely to my self.

Radha Nagar beach, Havelock Island, Andamans

Radha Nagar beach, Havelock Island, Andamans

There is cultural diversity you can explore in the Andamans but given the history of the place and how the British and other rulers treated the indigenous population it is perhaps best to stick to the amazing beaches and nature. The Scuba diving and snorkelling in the Andamans is  some of the best in the world with great visibility and a huge array of fish, rays and other sea creatures. Dive sites include shipwrecks gorges and the like to explore.

Flights to the Andamans are from Calcutta or Chennai and they are sometimes expensive, check for deals! There is also a boat that goes from Chennai or Calcutta, it takes 3 or 4 days and some will say is the only “real” way to get to the islands, man.

 

The Capital: Port Blair

Port Blair is a hub, where flights land and boats dock and although it’s a pleasant enough town in its own right generally it isn’t a place you would want to stay for more than a night or two. It’s small enough that you can stay around the main Bazaar in some cheapish hotels and explore the whole town either on foot or by auto rickshaw. We stayed at Azad lodge where the owner was helpful and you can choose between super cheap and grotty or pay a little bit more for a nice room.

Things to do in the Andaman capital:

– Visit the old Cellular Jail to learn about the history of the islands

– Treat yourself to a massive Royal Falooda at one of the Cool Bars in the Main Bazaar

 

Outside of Port Blair there are several other islands which are on the backpacker trail…

 

1. Havelock Island

Popular for being one of the closest Islands to Port Blair, excellent for diving and with the closest the Andaman Islands have to a party scene. Hang out amongst the scattered guesthouses with large groups of Israelis on Beach 5 or escape to Radha Nagar, Beach 7 with fewer places to stay and a much more relaxed vibe (and a far better beach).

  1. Little Andaman.

More off the beaten track as it takes about 10 hours by ferry from Port Blair and isn’t as developed or hospitable in many ways than Havelock. You kind of need a motorbike to get around and the beaches are notorious for sandflies (some bites can get really infected and cause swelling so be careful). It’s worth it though for the surfing, amazing jungle, waterfalls and end of the world feeling – bring a hammock.

                 3. Neil Island

The island next to Havelock is less developed and so more relaxed. It’s more accessible than Little Andaman so if you want the easy middle ground between the two then this is a good option.

TOP 10 BEST Experiences / Adventures in the Country 

1. Scuba Diving

2. Becoming a beach bum at Radha Nagar Lagoon

3. Surfing Little Andaman

4. Riding a motorbike through the jungle to the crocodile infested waterfall on Little Andaman

5. Exploring villages down little roads

6. The freshest seafood grilled to perfection with magic sauce at Swapan’s on Havelock, the best little local place you will find…

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7. Snorkeling

8. Did I mention the beach?

9. Going up to the north to visit jungle or the beautiful Smith & Ross islands

10. Bonfires, beer and brilliant simplicity


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10 mind expanding places to visit.

I’ve traveled quite a bit in my time and certain places have lived long in my memory. I’ve listed 10 here that I think are particularly mind expanding for a variety of reasons…

Travel is a mind-broadening, mouth-watering eye-opening and loin-moistening experience which if you’re not careful will grab you as a bug and not let go until you are looking at finding ways to make it into a lifestyle. For me it is best to treat travel  as a learning experience whether that be from taking courses and classes or just through interactions with locals and travelers from countries you may never have thought of visiting. Everyone is a teacher and every day can bring new challenges and experiences and travel allows you to open up to these if you let it. Gazing out at the sunset over a beautiful ocean or up at the multitude of stars on a clear night in the mountains the everyday drifts from your consciousness a little and you begin to realise the fundamental value of a life. Doing a long trip before starting a life of work can give you a better perspective I think and stop you getting stuck in a treadmill of unhappiness because you have the knowledge of something satisfying that isn’t reliant upon or judged by your performance in an office.
Embrace the difference, be amused by the difficulty, every long bus journey is a story and every arrival a new beginning. There will be hard times on a long trip, where you miss home and the simplicity of a life that you know but the benefit gained and the satisfaction you feel when you navigate those problems is worth the hardship.
I have traveled extensively in South East Asia, Europe, Australia and India.

Real de Catorce

In the North of Mexico this former silver mining outpost is only accessible through a 2.5km winding mine-shaft tunnel which necessitates moving to a smaller bus on arrival. Since the seam ran dry Real has become a ghost town with abandoned buildings in the valleys surrounding the town.

Taking a horse around the beautiful hillsides is a wonderful way to spend an afternoon, discovering ruins of mansions and mine buildings. You will also find sacred Huichol sites where ceremonies sometimes take place. These hills are alive with Peyote, the cactus that shamans use to give a healing dose of mescaline and the Huichol tribe come here at least once a year to hold large ceremonies.

 

Dharamsala – Triund

From the home of the Dalai Lama in Mcleod Ganj it is around a 4-5 hour trek up to the mountain ridge of Triund, passing screaming monkeys peering out of steaming garbage bins and accumulating stray dogs along the way as you cross beautiful valleys and tree-lined hills.

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If the clouds creep in the majestic view back across the Himalayan foothill valleys will disappear into a white nothingness but once you reach the chai stalls at Triund itself you will be above the clouds to see a majestic mountain appear in front of you from nothing. At sunrise and sunset the views are particularly stunning with any lingering cloud cover dissipating and the mountains bathed in yellow-orange sunlight.

Anapurna Base Camp

While the 26 day trek around the Annapurna circuit has started to become less popular due to the building of roads near part of the previously isolated route, the “ABC” trek is still out there and as inaccessible as things come.

It takes around 7 days including a loop at the bottom to reach the base camp at over 4000 metres with at least two of these days being almost entirely uphill. You will pass through small villages, delightful valleys and gorges, and finally across a snow-covered plateau. There are guesthouses en-route in the various villages, although for the last 3 days you will be staying in lodges that are solely there for the benefit of trekkers since this area is not inhabitable year-round. If you go in March or April, officially the “second season” the hills will be alive with huge rhododendron bushes in red, blue and yellow and the final valley will be a spectacular grass-lined path rather than a snow-covered tundra.

Pinnacles Borneo

Deep in the jungles of Borneo, past nomadic tribes with blow-pipes and a history of cannibalism you can journey out by river-boat and on foot to the base of the Pinnacles, a set of jagged rocks which poke up out of the side of the mountain.

The climb to the top is up a slippery slope of sharp rocks and the last third involves climbing up rope ladders, shimmying across planks and hauling up knotted cable.

Coming down is even more fun, especially if it has been raining, as the downward motion enhances the slipperiness and falling onto those jagged rocks a real possibility. It may not be such a bad move to come down on your bum.

Spiti Valley

To reach this place you have to endure hours of treacherous roads, driving in local Indian buses with drivers who think that honking the horn enables them to safely hurtle around blind corners with drops of thousands of metres awaiting a wrong turn. The buses cheerfully have “Oh God Save Me” handpainted on the front and as you swerve around the 30th bend of the day with crumbling rocks skittling down into the canyon below you realise that maybe grace does have something to do with your survival on this trip.

The views from the bus, if you can stomach to look out of the window, are spectacular though and on arrival in one of the villages along the way, after kissing the ground and praising Shiva, Buddha, Christ and Allah for your survival, you soon realise why some hardy souls choose to live up here.

The “ultra blue” skies are one thing, a shade that reflects the high altitude of the region which is usually around 4000m, but add to that an arid desert landscape with little vegetation and paths hugging the valley which swoops to the trickling rivers below and then the snow peaked Himalaya which surround you at every turn and this is an awesome landscape to trek in.

Staying up here is basic, homestays with the villagers who are welcoming but understandably only able to provide the simplest of food. They burn cow shit to keep warm in the winter and have piles of dung stacked in storage rooms all shaped into neat patties.

Buddhism is rife up here with monasteries everywhere, reflecting the closeness to the border with Tibet, and you can see monks practicing and ancient caves where yogis of the past meditated and gained enlightenment.

We walked from Dhankar to Kaza over five days. The stars at night were the clearest I have seen and sitting on the rooftop of a white-painted house in the middle of this nowhere was an other-worldly experience indeed.

Arunachala – Tiruvanimallai

Tamil Nadu in the South of India is a strongly religious state.  Old and impressive Hindu temples dominate everywhere you go with awesome facades, intense ceremonies and usually a lot of fire.

Tiru is in the shadow of the mountain Arunachala which is said to be an emanation of Lord Shiva, one of the main trinity in the Hindu pantheon. It is a beautiful mountain and walking up amongst its verdant hills and away from the honking and mayhem of the centre of the city is a most peaceful experience.

It was here that Sri Ramana Maharshi, a famous Indian saint, sat in a cave for many years and meditated in silence. At the temple in town, where he also lived for some time, his experiences are recorded;  and on the outskirts a small enclave has grown around his ashram, set up by his followers.

In this part of town things are a bit more relaxed and you can spend your days visiting the western gurus who visit to speak of their take on advaita vedanta or the non-dualistic teachings of existence that Ramana originally expressed.

Every month at full moon, thousands of pilgrims walk the 12km around the base of the mountain barefoot, taking time out along the way to give offerings to the hundreds of Shiva Lingam shrines that ring the base, and ending up at the temple for further blessings.

Andaman Islands

Part of India but closer to Burma and Thailand, this set of Islands (forming a large archipelago with the neighbouring but inaccessible Nicobar islands) are as close to the Robinson Crusoe, perfect beach getaway as you can imagine.

Their history is not so great with the British causing great hardship to the indigenous population meaning that many of the tribes have died or have lost their traditional way of life (and why large portions of the islands are now off-limits to tourists).

The main island houses a huge jail which was used for prisoners who were treated extremely harshly and given unfair punishments when they were unable to keep up with the unreasonable targets set in the hard labour work they were sentenced to undertake.

 

Getting away from the history though, you can find almost untouched beaches that are out of a dream. Radha Nagar beach on Havelock Island for example is known for its beautiful sunsets but there are only 2 small guesthouses serving the beach. There are a couple of more upmarket resorts but they are hidden away in the jungle such that when you walk down past the handful of chai shops offering simple thalis you enter out onto the beach and find it stretching as far as you can see in either direction with barely a soul bothering its pristine sand.

The sea is a clear turquoise and the white sand is fine to the touch, jungle rings the shoreline and other than a couple of wooden umbrellas on immediately entering there is nothing man-made in sight.

Walk along to the right and you will find a lagoon with still green water for when you tire of playing in the waves which are frequent but not too strong.

I used to come down at 8 in the morning and there would never be anyone there, I would swim with the dogs who would come to meet me and be amazed that I was so lucky.

4000 islands Laos

Deep in the south of Laos, not far from the border with Cambodia, is this set of islands in the mighty Mekong river. It is home to Irrawaddy dolphins which you can go and see, but for me, it was more about being the most peaceful and beautiful spot to hang out in a hammock.

 

Mount Bromo, Java

The volcanoes in Java are very much active with Gunung Merapi regularly erupting and causing significant damage to the surrounding region. Bromo is a little less dangerous, although a potential eruption here could be devastating.

You walk, or ride a horse, across large flat plateau with nothing except an old temple in between the small town and the crater.

After a climb up the side of the mountain you reach a hole in the earth with smoke gently rising from the innards which are not quite visible . The slope leading down to the pit is reminiscent of the gaping maw that Han Solo narrowly avoids in Return of the Jedi and the security barrier that existed here at one point has now eroded into barely nothing.

As visitors toss their offerings down into the mountain there is often a moment of disquiet as you fear that some over-exuberant fellow may overbalance and follow on down into the middle of the crevasse.

Black Rock City

The home of the Burning Man festival in Nevada. For a month or so the participants transform this site from the most inhospitable desert, with nothing growing on its large flat basin floor and super fine dust covering everything, to something resembling a city, as it might be on Mars.

Taking over the environment by building camps the participants create the vast majority of the city themselves with the organisers only being responsible for some of the main structures.

With massive dance parties all over the landscape, particularly at night when people in EL wire lights fill the entire bowl, art cars parade around pumping out beats and providing their own light show and art exhibits glint and sparkle or flash and titilate depending on their wont.

Burning Man photos by Severin Taranko

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Punjabi Culture and Food in Amritsar

The Punjabi region of India is situated in the north west of the country. It encompasses smaller towns, such as Amritsar. The name Punjab means ‘five rivers’ and refers to the five converging rivers; the Indus, Jehelum, Chinab, Ravi and Sutlej. There are plenty of hotels in Amritsar to stay at providing a good base for your exploration of the area, allowing you to absorb regional food and the local culture. Amritsar is situated in the Punjabi region and it is a wonderful city to explore. With so many facets to the Punjabi culture on display, as well as wonderful fragrant food you really will find a lot to explore.

Spirituality is of great importance in this area and Amritsar is the focal point for the Sikh religion. The town is home to the Golden Temple known locally as ‘Harmandir Sahib’. This temple provides a place of worship, pride and unity – not only to the immediate community but to the area as a whole. This beautiful temple is constructed from white marble and coated with gold leaf, giving it a celestial appearance. It is positioned on a clear lake which is fed by one of the 5 rivers in the region. Sikh food or Langar is served within the temple walls. Langar is consecrated food, which is usually very simple and traditional. The food served to worshippers at the temple usually consists of lentils, rice, vegetables and bread or ‘roti’. These ingredients form a basis for many dishes in the area.

Tandoori chicken is a popular dish in the Punjabi region, and the best can be found in Amritsar at a small roadside eatery called Beera Chicken. The dish is prepared using the traditional method which makes the chicken incredibly moist and succulent, and instead of the using food colourings to enhance the appearance of the dish only the finest local spices are used.

The Punjabi culture is multi faceted, including philosophy, poetry, traditions, art, spirituality and history. One of the most profound events in India’s history happened in Amritsar during it’s struggle for independence. The Jallianwala Bangh is of great cultural and historical importance and is now a popular visitor destination as it is where 2000 people were killed or injured during the battle of Amritsar. The adjoined park features the ‘flame of liberty’, a memorial to remember those who lost their lives during the struggle for independence. This park also features a museum which includes oil paintings, coins, weaponry and other memorabilia from this significant period in history which shaped the local culture.

A visit to Amritsar is not complete without trying the local dish of Amritsari Fish. This succulent meal is prepared from fish – usually sole or singhara – salt, garlic, chilli and chickpea flour amongst a unique combinations of spices which vary throughout the town. This is fried and served with chatt masala and a wedge of lemon. This dish is available from many eateries and roadside outlets, however, the Makhan Dhaba have been preparing this dish with perfection for over a century. While you are out exploring the history and culture of the area, eating a traditional dish is the perfect way to enhance your journey.

The Punjabi region, particularly Amritsar is incredibly welcoming. You will find plenty of food from basic soul food to unique dishes, there are plenty of options available for vegetarians as well as those with a love of meat. As you wander through the streets of Amritsar you will see worship, street art – including dance and maybe hear the sound of the dohl in the distance, the sights sounds and smells of Amritsar are sure to make your visit the visit of a life time.

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Writing Goals: 5 for Winter

Here I will set my writing goals for the next few months as a way of creating an intention, only in this way will I follow through and prevent my inherent laziness!  As we approach winter and all that entails it seems to me a good time to write, to express fully what is burning inside and to make plans for the future while remaining firmly in the present. Setting these writing goals will help me to tap into that creativity.

Writing Goals -  bring back this creativity

Writing Goals – bring back this creativity

I’ve been a lax blogger in the last few months and while I can blame work and domestic issues the fact is I haven’t prioritised writing in any meaningful way, I haven’t taken the hints to write every day, to make time and focus, turn off the internet and lose myself in the written word for a while.

This is going to change. I feel it has to for my general sanity, so here I set my writing goals:

 

First of all I am going to take part in NaNoWriMo – the National Novel Writing Month – otherwise known as November.

The challenge here is to write a novel, from scratch, in the 30 days of the month. The target is 50,000 words, which is a lot considering the pace of London life and the social opportunities that always crop up.

I don’t even have an idea for a plot yet, although I’m thinking it might involve India.

So the first writing goal is to plan for, and then write a novel. Easy.

 

Number two on the list is to blog more regularly. Writing a journal is a good start but putting stuff out there makes me much less likely to become self-indulgent or lazy.

I’ve got several posts I could catch up on, although a lot of them are rather out of date now so it becomes a bit less easy to remember details. Still, I will set the writing goal of 1 blog post a week – minimum.

 

The third writing goal is to use my time more effectively. Get up earlier, stop wasting time on trivialities and spend it on writing, planning and doing practice that energises me.

My daily yoga practice for example has become something of myth and legend. I did practice this morning, and it was great, but I want to do that every morning and face the day rejuvenated.

So the goal is to rise at least an hour earlier than I need to for work. Practice and write before leaving the house. This in itself is what will give me the opportunity to reach the other writing goals in this list since carving out the time to write is the thing that I find hardest.

 

Four is to grasp new opportunities, and follow them through.

It seems simple but I don’t do it often enough. I have a nature that is calm, relaxed and perhaps to the outside seems unflappable but equally unlikely to get over-enthusiastic about things. Positivity is the key and pushing forward with projects that are important to me while only giving the time I absolutely need to for those that aren’t is crucial.

So being open to new things and experiencing whatever comes my way but also to set the time aside to NOT be distracted by messages, tweets and phone calls to actually do what I need to in the first place.

 

Finally, I want to make sure that the things I have going on already come to some fruition.

So, I will write more for the wonderful bods at Le Cool London, I will try to chase the Thai Cookbook that I spent quite a lot of time on last year, and I will continue to write for Weekend Notes, Recipe Yum and the like.

Stir Fried Fresh Beans and Red Curry Paste... Writing goals - publish the cookbook

Writing goals – publish the cookbook

I might never have mentioned I wrote a random e-book about Prince Philip last year and have a couple of others that I started work on, so they need to come to completion.

These are primarily my writing goals for the next few months. Write a novel. Do a minimum of one blog post a week. Keep writing on my existing platforms. Find new platforms. Write some ebooks.

I have other goals too. Learn to drive, speak Spanish, speak more confidently in public and create a lifestyle that allows me to do the things I love more regularly.

 

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Hridaya retreat and aftermath

Sat, Chit, Ananda. Existence, Conciousness, Bliss. The teachings of what we really are. The true self within us all and the awareness that we all spring from. Call it Shiva, or Nirvana, Brahman or the Absolute, Buddha Nature or Christ Conciousness during the 10 day Hridaya Meditation retreat I got some sense of the stillness and peace that lies at the heart of all of us and it opened me to great creativity and love.

Last night,
I saw the realm of joy and pleasure.
There I melted like salt;
no religion; no blasphemy,
no conviction or uncertainty remained.
In the middle of my heart,
a star appeared
and the seven heavens were lost
in its brilliance.
– Rumi

In Chiang Mai I had managed to get myself involved in a total shit-show, blown out of proportion by a lack of solid communication. It was playing on my mind because the events had affected my relationship with three good friends. I felt short-changed by their reactions but also upset with myself for dealing with the situation badly. So the retreat came at the perfect time for me, an opportunity to go deep into myself, to figure out what is really important and to connect with the heart. It was more profound and life-changing than I could ever have expected.

I came to the paradise island of Ko Phangan for the retreat having been told about it by several teachers at the yoga school in Rishikesh. It sounded like the perfect way for me to start to grasp the real meaning behind so much of the spiritual philosophy I had absorbed in the previous months, and it would certainly turn into an experiential beginning.

Hridaya is the Spiritual Heart, a place in the middle of the chest which is the gateway to access the “true self” as talked about in many spiritual traditions. Most clearly this retreat is based on the teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi (who I talked about in my post on Tiruvanimallai here) He explained that the Spiritual Heart is not the same as the physical heart and nor is it the Heart Chakra Anahata but it does contain the sacred tremor and stillness that enables you to touch base with your emotions and realise the greater reality.

The techniques that we used during the retreat were simple but profound. Leaving short pauses after each inhalation and exhalation and trying to be in the stillness that pervades during this pause. This allows the thoughts to slow down and the mind to relax into a point of deeper meditation. When thoughts do arise you counter them by realising that they all stem from the “I” thought. Either “I want” or “I have” or “I am” or some other variation, everything stems from this association with a solid entity we associate with “I”. The question to undercut all of these is “Who am I?” It sounds deceptively simple but when you deeply meditate on this thought you find that there is no “I” there any more, there is nothing solid that you can identify with that is eternal. There is conciousness and there is an observer – but what you see as yourself is not that which is observed. The body is not it because you can observe your body as a seperate entity and the same can be said of the mind. As you watch thoughts arise and fall away it becomes clear that you are really not these thoughts, you are just observing them. We were taught that allowing “I don’t know” to be the answer and greeting that with wonderment can connect you with the sacred within and give you an intimate feeling of existence without consistent form.

10 days of silence was difficult at times, especially when 6 or so hours a day were taken up with meditation but as the time progressed I found the course to be having a profound effect. Some of the meditations for me were unbelievable, with a real feeling of peace, tranquility and physical bliss flowing over my body far more than I have ever experienced with any other type of meditation. I still found 2 hour meditation sessions to be too much for me physically as much as anything and there were times when I wondered what the hell I was doing there. The first few days saw a lot of anger come up, with myself and others as I worked through some things that had been bothering me but I came to a point where I decided that I would let this go and settle into the meditation. After that it became a lot easier as I surrendered into the practice. One effective method for me was when we were taught “Blowing on the Embers of the Heart” where you breathe deeply and focus on the breath in your chest area to invoke feelings in the heart to remind you of this divine source. The technique had me feeling like I was burning anger and negative emotions in the energy that was centred there and I felt a great peace after the meditation. This focus can make you aware of the “Sacred Tremor of the heart”, the divine mystery of the deep throb or tremble at the chest, called the Spanda in Kashmiri Shaivism which shows you the way into the dynamic stillness that at a universal level is the very source of everything.

Last Night As I Was Sleeping

Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that a spring was breaking
out in my heart.
I said: Along which secret aqueduct,
Oh water, are you coming to me,
water of a new life
that I have never drunk?

Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that I had a beehive
here inside my heart.
And the golden bees
were making white combs
and sweet honey
from my old failures.

Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that a fiery sun was giving
light inside my heart.
It was fiery because I felt
warmth as from a hearth,
and sun because it gave light
and brought tears to my eyes.

Last night as I slept,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that it was God I had
here inside my heart.

Antonio Machado

The course included a lot of inspirational teachings and poetry, such as the couple of pieces I’ve quoted here, and also a hatha yoga practice each day. The hatha was similar to the Agama style I was used to but even more internalised making the class almost into a meditation in itself and leaving me perfectly ready to go deep into the practice after finishing.

The teachings in general were getting to the crux that the universiality that one can sense in the heart centre is the microcosmic experience in our ego-self of the greater whole and that it is pure bliss to settle there. Internalising and following practice can lead to this peace – “You are either in Dharma or in Drama”

One simple tenet that really fundamentally affected the way I have thought since is that “Love is in you – you don’t need it from the outside”. That and the advice that out of life’s experiences we choose to emphasise which aspects we remember. We have the choice to be positive or negative and so to avoid getting stuck in patterns we should emphasise the love and be grateful…!

I could go on and on about the teachings but it is apt to remember another snippet and not try to explain my experience too much:

“Silence is the language God speaks and everything else is a bad translation.”

Thomas Keating

After this amazing experience I was glowing. I came into my own power and manifested a world on this island that was quite simply magical. It wasn’t until the day after that I realised the profound effect the retreat had on me. I was seeing the world through eyes that saw things brighter and more intensely but also without fear or attachment. I threw myself into yoga practice, taking 2 classes a day of the Agama level one course and being totally present throughout each.  I pushed myself to the limit in all of these classes and found them extremely powerful (although after 4 days I’d exhausted myself in this fashion.) I was glowing and spoke to several other attendees of the retreat who had a similar experience. We would simply look, smile and sigh and know we were both feeling wonderful. I had amazing phone calls on Skype with my Mum and Dad and every interaction seemed to be full of joy.

I can’t mention all the people who I had great friendships with on the island but I have to bring a few characters in to explain the wonderful time that I had.


Sharon who I met before the retreat and who joined at the last minute to have a similar if not quite as deep an experience as I did. We had a very close friendship and she introduced me to the Shangri La restaurant which I would spend many a happy afternoon. She left to go to the jungle wanting to adopt a Thai girl she met on the beach, a very typical example of the “Sharon zone” the way wacky things seemed to happen around her..!

I met an Israeli girl in the sea one day, Nili, who was a fellow Pisces and we clicked immediately. We had a beautiful friendship for the few days she was on the island as we opened to one another in such an easy and mutually beneficial way. She was studying psychoanalysis and viewing the route to self-improvement very differently but our approaches were complimentary and the empathy we shared was tangible.

When Nili left things began to blossom even more fabulously as there were beautiful people around and our little gang of creatives continued hanging out at the wonderful beachfront restaurant making artwork. All of us were looking to bring more creativity into our lives by opening to the universe, love and being receptive to all that was available.


So there was Jackie O or Coco, living on the island for 2 years while writing some inspirational childrens books. Lulu Kattie, working on creativity through writing, a fellow water sign and showing her nurturing quality with everyone in such a beautiful and loving way. She named Shoo Shoo (and wanted to eat the little pumpkin) and was so in the love with everyone she had approx 13 leaving parties.


Flora, High Security kept us on the straight and narrow with her determination and ability to keep her wits about her when all others were losing their minds (let alone lighters). She led us to the right Mart and made sure we never paid more Bart than we should for a taxi. Strong willed and independent she would be first at the bar, last to bed and always goading us to more adventures.
‘Erbalicious lived up to her name, providing a laid back viewpoint over the whole situation and always ready to indulge in some great Shangri La grub when not getting seasick on her dive boat.


Johnny Hoops was wise and considerate with openness to all our ideas and some great additions. He and I riffed off each other and created a corner of Shiva while surrounded by the girls.


Sabine entered the group late but was one of the most beautiful, gentle souls and totally connected with the loving creatitvity that the group had established.


And then there was Sophie Wilson. Veronica, Kavita Shakti, as she became known, joined our merry group and added a new dimension of fun, flying, sexuality and spirituality all at the same time. We clicked very quickly. In fact it didn’t take long before we were living together in Chiang Mai in a New York Style apartment and starting a business empire … but then, that’s a different story…



So after artwork, writing postcards in the round, day trips to the other side of the island where we made Shiva Lingam sandcastles swam and swung on swings, had meditations interrupted by bacon sandwiches, got lost looking for the right mart and saw Johnny off in the nick of time at the pier we came back for fire shows on the beach and full moon astrological blanket ceremonies, bhajans, bungalow parties and of course that pink bucket…

It was magical and I felt my heart open with all these wonderful souls and somehow I think the retreat allowed me to be in that space and watch everyone blossom and be so grateful to see it and be a part of it.

I don’t want to forget Sofie D and Jade as well as the others who were also an important part of the energy as I continued with level 2 Agama and learnt more and more.
As the original group changed when people left and others joined we carried on in a similar vein and when Gray, Sophie’s Dad arrived he didn’t bat an eyelid, settling into the island vibe very easily and being more than happy to hang out at the Three Monkeys Bar on the beach with the rest of us. We took a second trip to the Sanctuary with him where he discussed football with Chard Jumlong and ate great fish and chips at the most incongruous place on the island the Mason’s Arms…

Good times one and all…
Some photographs are from Clara Jansen, Georgina and Chaitaly Jay

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Spiti

Leah left us in the early morning to head back for a Tantra workshop in Dharamsala which left Sev and I alone. I don’t think Siddarth wanted us to leave as his instructions on how to catch the bus were somewhat reluctantly given but we walked down the hill to the main road and then waited by the chicken shop for about 2 hours. As we are cursing Siddarth the bus eventually comes and Caroline, a French girl we met in Peo is sitting at the front.

We have to stand for some time but eventually arrive at Nako where we stay in an odd room with the most terrifying water heating system I have ever seen. The village is amazing though and we walk up to a past the lake to a pass where we see even more mountains.

It is our first experience of walking at really high altitudes and is noticeable but exhilarating – Sev climbs to the top of a rocky outcrop where for a moment I consider what I would do if he didn’t come back.

There is an old monastery here, a shop that sells Nutella and we find a place with some decent Tibetan food.
Our next stop is Tabo with its very old monastery and meditation caves up the hill.
The road here is particularly treacherous, with steep drops, narrow roads where the bus has to pull over often to allow trucks and cars coming the other way to pass and often you are driving seemingly through the side off the cliff that has been hollowed out.
The bus stop is an incongruous start coming from this direction as you approach the edge of town surrounded by big, ugly, modern buildings, part of some sort of agricultural centre and stop in a big car park.
Things change when we get up early and hear the Monks giving a puja in the new monastery, however. It is a beautiful, meditative experience and the first meditation that I had done for a while.

The ancient mud walled monastery has some incredible frescoes and statues in its dark corners (torches very necessary) and is still well used by the community of Sangha here.
We find a restaurant with a load of local food on the menu, and being adventurous we order about 6 dishes between the 3 of us. This prompts great activity as the 4 staff jump up from their TV watching and begin moving. Two rush out to the market while the others start preparing and soon all four are beavering away in the kitchen leaving new customers unserved as our feast is cooked up in a dervish. The tsampa porridge with Yak Cheese was a bit disappointing but the other dishes were great. A local type of Momo which was more like a Cornish Pastry, another Momo that was similar to normal and a “local” thali, which was a slight variation on the normal sabji.


Our next stop, off the main road and up a hill overlooking the valley and river is the mighty Dhankar, a village pretty much situated on top of a rock.

There is a monastery here as well (of course) and an old fort, although that is pretty much derelict.

The monastery is literally balanced on a rock, on the edge of the world. We were given tea by the monks there as we looked around and climbed onto the roof.

It was here that we stayed with Anil and his family in a basic but beautiful little homestay at the top of the village. He helped us wash our clothes in the stream, served us home cooked food and then took us on a five day trek.

He has worked with Ecosphere who do a lot of great work in this very impoverished region and Caroline had heard people who had done a similar walk from village to village, ending up at the main hub of Kaza.

After a couple of days exploring the village, visiting the beautiful lake and doing yoga on his terrace we set off for the first town…

The first day in blistering sun took us on an easy 4 hour hike to the village of Lalung along dusty paths and into the wilderness of Spiti. As well as the three of us we had Anil as guide, Tenzin our young porter and the donkeys, later to be named Prem and Dill. We were shown the ancient monastery here, a theme in all parts of the valley, and spent some time meditating by a beautiful tree.

That night we sat and practiced our Momo making skills with the family – mine leave something to be desired but it was nice to have something other than rice and dal to eat.

Day two saw an easy start and then a very difficult second section after crossing the river. We had to climb 800m on this day and the majority was straight up on a steep series of switchbacks. I found untapped energy during this, listening to the Prodigy and storming ahead but we were all knackered by the time we reached Dhomul at the top of the hill. We were fed tsampa porridge with Yak cheese when we arrived and it was significantly better than in Tabo – really tasty actually, but it did include a big heap of sugar which might have helped.

The basic family room was comfortable enough and the corridor was filled with cow dung to be used as fuel for the long winter.

In the morning we had omlette and parantha (as usual) before setting off on the next stage.
This was the day we reached our highest point, the Dhomul pass at roughly 4500m with snow covering the sides of the path and the wind whistling a shrill and freezing breeze around us we only stopped long enough for a quick photo.

Our next stop was slightly lower at Komik where I wasn’t feeling the best. We had a look around the monastery, one of the biggest in the region, but all bar two of the monks were away attending a ceremony in Kaza. The guesthouse was pleasant enough although the large windows made the room a little cold and I couldn’t really stomach much dinner.
The next day we set off for Langza which would be the highest place we would stop at 4325m. We approached through some fields and scanned the whole village before finding the homestay (Anil’s first choice was full.) Sev wanted to go on a search for fossils so we went to a dried up riverbed but I was more interested in the huge herd of animals, yaks, cows, goats, donkeys, sheep etc that were grazing down there. I went and checked out the monastery and the big Buddha statue on the hill and the place felt noticeably closer to civilisation, being just up the road from Kaza.

During this time we spent our evenings watching Arrested Development on my laptop – it’s great by the way. I think this is the best episode…

One night we watched I heart Huckabees which seemed to mirror what was going on in the trek… Caroline and I loved it but Sev wasn’t so sure. (He preferred The Expendables..) For me though I realised that, having watched Huckabees after my last trip to South East Asia and really enjoyed it, this movie could have been my first introduction to Buddhist ideas and explains a lot how I took to Buddhism very quickly. I mean the film isn’t explicit in this, it very cleverly talks philosophy without really specifying where the ideas come from and the techniques clearly aren’t Buddhist per se but the concepts.. oh yeah.

Kaza is the administrative centre of Spiti and finds itself cut off from the rest of India for most of the year when the nearby road to Manali is closed. The town itself is nice though, split into old and new Kaza by a small river but there isn’t too much to distinguish. There is a modern Gompa which is great and I saw the monks doing a big puja with horns, cymbals and drums – one of the more dramatic ceremonies I have attended.
We spent a couple of days winding down from the trek, though, eating Indian sweets and pastries from the German Bakery and enjoying the things we hadn’t been able to get on the trek. Sev and I did a trip up to Kibber for the night, which used to be the highest village in the world with a road (although there are now places higher in Tibet.) We walked down to see Ki Gompa, one of the most famous monasteries in this region and found ourselves on one of the steepest paths we had been on..

Looking back where we had walked from it was hard to believe we had just come down what looked like a sheer cliff face!
The Gompa was impressive as you can see but we found ourselves without a lift back to Kaza and started walking. At first we thought, there will be something we can hitch-hike soon. After a while, with all the traffic going in the opposite direction, it became clear we would have to walk the 11Km back to Kaza – we got a lift for maybe the last 1 or 2 K but pretty much walked the whole way..!

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Himachal Pradesh Valleys

 

Stage One: Parvati.
We could hardly believe it as we sat down in the warm tent on cushioned seats more like beds and perused the menu of Indian, Continental and Israeli food while the more established guests cleaned their chillums. The culmination of a five hour trek through challenging but quite breathtaking scenery led us to this point and it was only then that someone mentioned the hot springs. Pinching myself to be sure my near death experience on our walk had not landed me in some sort of backpacker heaven I was eventually able to relax.


 Our journey had begun 3 days earlier in Rishikesh where Leah, Sev and I set off without a clear destination but with a motivation for mountains, nature and adventure. We took the bus to Dehra Dun and then asked where their buses were going. Kasol was the place that jumped out and despite not entirely being prepared for a lengthy Himachal Pradesh local bus ride we took it in our stride and arrived in the early morning for tea and an omlette while Babaji, our guesthouse owner, shared a joint with an Israeli girl on the opposite table.


The Parvati Valley is known for its beautiful lush valleys, its charas and in recent years its influx of Israeli tourists from where a burgeoning psy-trance scene has developed. It was incredible to hike out of the town into the woods, meditate on a rock by the river and enjoy the serene countryside but less enjoyable to hang out due to every place blasting innappropriate music. There was a festival “Shiva Squad” just out of town when we were there but the whole place felt a bit like the dodgy part of a festival to me, all black light t-shirts and posters and people wandering about looking lost, confused and pale.

From here we follow our noses and some scratchy notes from Leah’s sister towards Pasani by hitch-hike and bus before setting off towards Khir Ganga, the destination we know little about.
Pasani is dominated by a hydro-electric dam project, so we just get off the bus and follow a route pointed to us by tourists and locals. It turns out to be the long way, but what a way… Possibly the most amazing trek I have ever been on saw 5 hours of enormous trees, gushing waterfalls, grassy clearings and the light coming through the leaves and making the place look like a kaleidoscope of colour.

It was challenging as well, with steep sections, muddy sections, slippery sections, bits where you had to climb over trees or hop across rocks and the bit where I nearly lost my footing on a rock and slipped down a ravine. I made it though and arriving in the most amazing place with hot springs and schakhlab with nutella has never been sweeter.

We stayed 2 nights, and it would have been longer but we hadn’t really brought anything with us. So then we returned, this time by the more simple, but still beautiful, path and then took a last minute detour to stay at the small village of Tosh. Tosh is actually a village, with people living there, and things happening. I mean, not much happening, but still. We stayed at the basic Last Resort Guesthouse and were really upset while having a rudimentary chat with the woman running the place on understanding that her husband had died three weeks previously falling from a cliff. It was one of those conversations that started normally and then ended up without any of us knowing what to say or do. The eldest daughter came and showed us a photo of her with her Dad and looked sad so we did our best to keep the children amused and were as generous as we could be, although we hadn’t brought enough money with us to be really charitable.


The next morning we stroll down the hour to Pasani and just make the bus for Kasol where lunch is taken and our next long journey on to Reckong Peo via Mandi begins immediately.
Peo is the entrance to the Kinnaur Valley which leads on to Spiti, one of the most remote places in India.

We self-medicate for the overnight bus from Mandi to Peo and riding along the treacherous mountain roads with the bus swinging from one side to the other it was a good move. From the window all you can see is darkness, lit up by the headlights to show either nothing, or a rock face in front of you. Sometimes you can see stars twinkling but then you realise that stars aren’t below you and that actually these are houses a long, long way down in the valley. To say it is terrifying would be an understatement. At times you start praying, chanting mantras, fingering your mala and crossing yourself in an attempt to cover all the potential bases. It turns out this isn’t even the most dangerous road we travel on during the trip.


We don’t stay in Peo, despite the exhausting journey, but take the bus up the mountain to the pretty village of Kalpa where we meditate in the ancient gompa, are amused by the erotic artwork and enjoy not being on a bus for a while.

We had been recommended a place called Chitkul in the adjoining Sangla valley so take the bus along the scarred countryside where dam projects, military bases, and other construction have left the place looking pretty ugly. Chitkul itself seems pretty well shut. We are greeted in an unfriendly manner, if we are greeted at all and the guesthouses seem to be waiting for the season to start. Apparently in a month the valley is lush and verdant but when we are there it is cold, barren and looks like the end of the world. Entertainment is in the form of the farmers abusing some oxen to plough a field but it is effective farming as while we watch they turn the earth, plant some seeds and cover with fertiliser. Food is hard to come by as is decent accomodation and after one night we turn around and get the 6AM bus back to Peo.


From Peo into the Spiti Valley it is necessary to get an “Inner Line Permit” because of the proximity to the Tibet/China border. The talkative travel agent suggests an option for us since we don’t want to take another 6 hour bus journey onwards the same day and so we get the bus to the village of Ribbe where we are put up in a homestay by the generous if slightly overbearing, Siddarth. We are most welcome in his awesome house – one of three his family own in the village, and after all the travel it is the most amazing place to relax.
The sun is shining and we have a lawn to relax and do yoga. Siddarth shows us around the village, taking us to meet his father and baby daughter and arranging for a local monk to give us a tour of the three gompas in the village. Ribbe seems to be a pretty well off place, with Siddarth’s family alone having a large farm growing apples as the cash crop but also almonds and wheat alongside the house among other things. Visiting this “backyard” was absolutely beautiful and felt like the garden of Eden in comparison to Chitkul.
Siddarth also made us sit through his wedding video which was interestingly produced and included a segment that was a good 20 minutes long showing cars arriving. There was a lot of money being draped over peoples necks as well. For an hour or so this would have been interesting but I think the film went on for at least 3 hours. He fed and watered us very well though and it would be churlish to complain too much, even when he woke us up at 6 in the morning with a chai. Ribbe was a great experience and off the tourist route so I’m really happy to have stopped there.

It was here that Leah left us and Sev and I found ourselves waiting by the side of the road next to a chicken stall cursing Siddarth for getting the bus times wrong.

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Spiritual as…: Guru Hopping and Mystic Mountain Power in Tiruvanimallai.

Mooji sits at the front of a large, mostly off-white hall crammed full of mostly white, western truth seekers.  He is not a typical yogi; more Laughing Buddha than ascetic monk, Jamaican and with a gurgling chuckle that brings to mind an affable Uncle, albeit one with some profound things to say about the world.  He is delivering Satsang; an opportunity for people to ask questions relating to truth from one who has some experience of the subject.  Mooji, like most of the Gurus in this town, follows the Advaita Vedanta school of Hindu philosophy where the path to enlightenment involves questioning “Who Am I?” until you finally unveil the true “self”.  This is the non-dual view of the universe that takes us all as one, coming from one source and ultimately being the same in our true nature. The illusion of life as we see it comes from our associating truth to it but actually by using self-inquiry you can begin to understand that the “I” we create is not real.  You are not your body and you are not your mind because it is possible to observe both and possible to disassociate from them also.  You are not your past or your future but you are existing as pure consciousness and awareness right now in the present moment observing what the character you are associating with is doing.  Viewing life in this way can bring a great lightness to everything you do, allowing you to take things less seriously and ultimately to exist in a state that is closer to whatever universal truth exists out there.  In this way it is quite beautiful in its simplicity and the way that some of the teachers present it is often said to be in us already. We are already enlightened we just don’t realise it yet.

The search for truth, says Mooji, is like a fish in the ocean looking for water.  The fish complains “I’m really thirsty.”  “So drink, you are surrounded by water” responds Mooji. “Well yes,” replies the fish, “I understand that intellectually…”

On a more subtle level the search for truth is like waves looking for the ocean, it is difficult to see because we are part of the whole.

If there is a spiritual zeitgeist it seems we are riding the wave after hearing that:

“Oh yeah, most of the spiritual world are in Tiru right now, make sure you see Werner”

Werner sits on the roof of his house under a shade with a perfectly framed view of the holy mountain Arunachala in the background.  He is the most happy looking and bright-eyed of meditators, with an ageless air about him as he recieves questions twice a week from another group of western truth seekers.  There are Russians here who through confession don’t understand a word he says and yet come regularly to feel his presence.  Compared to Mooji this is a low key affair but his story is quite extreme by Western standards, having spent at least 7 years  in the basement of Amma’s ashram in the Kerala backwaters meditating until he reached a point of realisation.

The view of the mountain is what dominates this small town and Arunachala, said to be an emanation of Shiva, does seem to have a power to it.  We start walking up the hill and are stopped by a Baba at a temple, stripped to the waist and wearing a black lunghi almost the same colour as his skin. He has bright eyes, a wide smile and good enough English to draw us into his story. We go inside the baking hot shrine room where he shows us a photo book gift he was given by some German tourists who stayed with him.  It is a beautiful present with some touching photos and he is obviously as proud of the present as his visitors were inspired to give it.  He takes our name and performs a blessing on each one individually.

Carrying on along the Inner Path and surrounded by herbs and lush vegetation it doesn’t take long before you turn a corner and find the honking bustle of the town below is long left behind and a peacefulness descends.  It is here that I really begin to understand the magic of the town.

Each full moon the town and pilgrims from afar do a full Cora or circumnambulation of the mountain on the longer 14Km road route which takes in a multitude of Shiva Lingams.  As is often the case in India of course, a spiritual activity like this is turned somewhat into a family holiday trip as shops along the route sell everything from gold watches to posters of WWE wrestlers (or your favourite God). In December the full moon is marked by a giant fire on the top of the hill and the crowd swells to massive numbers. It seemed crowded enough when we did it so I can only imagine the bedlam on this occasion.

The pilgramage or Gilvaram is supposed to be undertaken barefoot although we didn’t realise this when we set off.  We took our time and made several Chai stops, checked out the stalls selling honeyed dates and marvelled at the lengthy queue building to climb through a small gap at one of the many Shiva Lingam shrines around the mountain.

The most famous Guru from Tiru is undoubtedly Sri Ramana Maharisi. His ashram dominates proceedings and the tourist part of town emanates from it as a central hub. (From there and the chai shop opposite doing the best ginger masala chai around).  He meditated in a cave halfway up Arunachala for around 20 years after some years suffering rats in the main temple in town and then established his ashram as a home for truth seekers. The ashram is a relatively peaceful place (as long as you don’t get a room next to the road) with powerful meditation spaces, peacocks roaming the grounds and a beautiful old tree in the entrance courtyard.

His most fundamental and common teaching was to ask the question “Who am I?” while probing at that which marks us out as an individual.  He said that his greatest teacher was the mountain and his silent teachings were the ones he considered most powerful.

Using the subject/object oriented view of the world one can begin to understand that you are not your mind or body because you are able to observe both.  Looking at the awareness that is behind that is when you start to probe the true self and by extension the source of all existence.

The main temple is a huge affair. With 4 gigantic towers marking the compass point entrances and leading through more and more shrines to the central Darshan area which is like an oven as you queue to get the blessing from the Shiva flame burning constantly inside. Stepping in is like something from a fantasy film and the energy is powerful. You get a great birds eye view from up the mountain and going inside is equally impressive.  You can get blessed by the (not particularly happy-looking) elephant, or watch the baby monkeys counting their prayer beads. I stayed down here for the first week or so due to the lack of accomodation and the pissy-smelling street with tourbusses of pilgrims arriving to a honking chorus at 5AM eventually made my decision to move but it was a great area with some fantastic local food and the feel of real, crazy India apart from the sanitised western guru grounds.

James Schwarz sits in a small air-conditioned room on the top of one of the more expensive hotels in town, teaching more intellectual types his interpretation of the Bhagavad Gita.  He is a very impressive scholar, clearly doing a great deal of research and explaining the spiritual path as he sees it from an academic perspective but also reflecting on the different types of practice and how he sees it.  Where Mooji can be vague in his practical teachings but warm and all-encomapssing in his welcome then James is very precise in his teaching but harder to warm to.

He seemed to do a good job of making what is a very simple philosophy rather more complicated than it needed to be and his habit of disparaging the credentials of other spiritual practicioners didn’t really sit right with me but then he has many followers who find his words inspiring so he must be doing something right.
While James was the wordiest guru I went to see the ancient Hindu practice of Mouna or silence is also in effect with some teachers.

Every day sees the opportunity for Darshan (meeting the guru) with Shiva Shakti. We sat in silence in the bright room at her ashram and waited until this small Indian woman descended the stairs.  She looked calm and peaceful and the atmosphere was reverent but positive. Her every move was slow and deliberate as she crossed the room and sat down.  Looking around she would blink her eyes between people as she made to look at everyone in the room individually. Then she stood up and came closer to the group, seemingly making Mudras with her hands and blessing people through this action.  After 15 minutes observing this I was no closer to being convinced by her enlightenment, although I appreciate this isn’t the point.  I did feel peaceful afterwards and it seems that she does have a good energy which perhaps the room leeches from her, I guess this is her gift to us. Going in I knew nothing about her and even now I know little more.

The philosophy of Sri Ramana and by extension Papaji, Mooji and Eckhart Tolle has been a bit of a revelation since I first picked up the Power of Now in Thailand. To arrive in Tiru where the philosophy is so ingrained in the teachings and where this thinking has certainly been popularised is a revelation, particularly since I had no idea what I was coming to beforehand.  As much as I like Buddhism, the core philosophy isn’t so different but Advaita offers a more direct path and with less BS ritual or practice.  Self-inquiry isn’t so easy or simple as it sounds but at the same time it does cut right to the crux and makes a lot of sense to me.

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