Pathological consumption has become so normalised that we scarcely notice it.
There’s nothing they need, nothing they don’t own already, nothing they even want. So you buy them a solar-powered waving queen; a belly button brush; a silver-plated ice cream tub holder; a “hilarious” inflatable zimmer frame; a confection of plastic and electronics called Terry the Swearing Turtle; or – and somehow I find this significant – a Scratch Off World wall map.
They seem amusing on the first day of Christmas, daft on the second, embarrassing on the third. By the twelfth they’re in landfill. For thirty seconds of dubious entertainment, or a hedonic stimulus that lasts no longer than a nicotine hit, we commission the use of materials whose impacts will ramify for generations.
Researching her film The Story of Stuff, Annie Leonard discovered that of the materials flowing through the consumer economy, only 1% remain in use six months after sale(1). Even the goods we might have expected to hold onto are soon condemned to destruction through either planned obsolescence (breaking quickly) or perceived obsolesence (becoming unfashionable).
But many of the products we buy, especially for Christmas, cannot become obsolescent. The term implies a loss of utility, but they had no utility in the first place. An electronic drum-machine t-shirt; a Darth Vader talking piggy bank; an ear-shaped i-phone case; an individual beer can chiller; an electronic wine breather; a sonic screwdriver remote control; bacon toothpaste; a dancing dog: no one is expected to use them, or even look at them, after Christmas Day. They are designed to elicit thanks, perhaps a snigger or two, and then be thrown away.
The fatuity of the products is matched by the profundity of the impacts. Rare materials, complex electronics, the energy needed for manufacture and transport are extracted and refined and combined into compounds of utter pointlessness. When you take account of the fossil fuels whose use we commission in other countries, manufacturing and consumption are responsible for more than half of our carbon dioxide production(2). We are screwing the planet to make solar-powered bath thermometers and desktop crazy golfers.
People in eastern Congo are massacred to facilitate smart phone upgrades of ever diminishing marginal utility(3). Forests are felled to make “personalised heart-shaped wooden cheese board sets”. Rivers are poisoned to manufacture talking fish. This is pathological consumption: a world-consuming epidemic of collective madness, rendered so normal by advertising and the media that we scarcely notice what has happened to us.
In 2007, the journalist Adam Welz records, 13 rhinos were killed by poachers in South Africa. This year, so far, 585 have been shot(4). No one is entirely sure why. But one answer is that very rich people in Vietnam are now sprinkling ground rhino horn on their food or snorting it like cocaine to display their wealth. It’s grotesque, but it scarcely differs from what almost everyone in industrialised nations is doing: trashing the living world through pointless consumption.
This boom has not happened by accident. Our lives have been corralled and shaped in order to encourage it. World trade rules force countries to participate in the festival of junk. Governments cut taxes, deregulate business, manipulate interest rates to stimulate spending. But seldom do the engineers of these policies stop and ask “spending on what?”. When every conceivable want and need has been met (among those who have disposable money), growth depends on selling the utterly useless. The solemnity of the state, its might and majesty, are harnessed to the task of delivering Terry the Swearing Turtle to our doors.
Grown men and women devote their lives to manufacturing and marketing this rubbish, and dissing the idea of living without it. “I always knit my gifts”, says a woman in a television ad for an electronics outlet. “Well you shouldn’t,” replies the narrator(5). An advertisement for Google’s latest tablet shows a father and son camping in the woods. Their enjoyment depends on the Nexus 7’s special features(6). The best things in life are free, but we’ve found a way of selling them to you.
The growth of inequality that has accompanied the consumer boom ensures that the rising economic tide no longer lifts all boats. In the US in 2010 a remarkable 93% of the growth in incomes accrued to the top 1% of the population(7). The old excuse, that we must trash the planet to help the poor, simply does not wash. For a few decades of extra enrichment for those who already possess more money than they know how to spend, the prospects of everyone else who will live on this earth are diminished.
So effectively have governments, the media and advertisers associated consumption with prosperity and happiness that to say these things is to expose yourself to opprobrium and ridicule. Witness last week’s Moral Maze programme, in which most of the panel lined up to decry the idea of consuming less, and to associate it, somehow, with authoritarianism(8). When the world goes mad, those who resist are denounced as lunatics.
Bake them a cake, write them a poem, give them a kiss, tell them a joke, but for god’s sake stop trashing the planet to tell someone you care. All it shows is that you don’t.
2. It’s 57%. See https://www.monbiot.com/2010/05/05/carbon-graveyard/
3. See the film Blood in the Mobile. http://bloodinthemobile.org/
7. Emmanuel Saez, 2nd March 2012. Striking it Richer: the Evolution of Top Incomes in the United States (Updated with 2009 and 2010 estimates). http://elsa.berkeley.edu/~saez/saez-UStopincomes-2010.pdf
Some thinking, some writing. Memories and musings. A daily dose of my ‘views’ in word and image … exactly what you all need for Christmas (yes I’m being ironic)! A collection of thoughts directly and indirectly influenced by this Festive season, images and thoughts I decided to share with you. Follow along on the calendar and we will all reach mid Winter together!
1st : Long Distance Reverie
Some thinking, some writing. Memories and musings. A daily dose of my ‘views’ in word and image … exactly what you all need for Christmas (yes I’m being ironic)! They don’t necessarily correlate to specific Festive themes. They are simply images and thoughts I decided to share with you.
Make sure you check in daily with the Festive gallery (it’s on the main menu, under Galleries – Click the ‘more’ arrow!) for a long distance, shot across the bows of Winter!
The start of December and the ‘outdoor adventure’ and ‘trekking’ shops of Kathmandu are dusting off baubles, putting up plastic Christmas trees and decking the shops with swags of string lights (tr-la-la-la-la-lala-la-la). Their focus is, of course, on catering to the masses of high season tourists, all out to enjoy days or weeks of trekking through clear, crisp mountain air and the best views of the famous Himalayan peaks that Nepal has to offer, far away from the dust and smog of Thamel district and inner city Kathmandu.
The competition between the scores and scores of equipment/you-want-it-we-have-it shops must be fierce (they are all squashed together in tiny, touristy Thamel, like multicoloured mountaineers in an undersized tent) and, to my mind, those with trees up really stand out. Its quite a jolt to suddenly see the trees pop-up in amongst rainbow racks of sleeping bags and down jackets, Hindu deity statues (any size from pocket to mantle piece), Buddhist prayer flags and boxes and boxes of Nag Champa incense sticks.
I think about friends I have travelled with, briefly met on the road or spent time with in their homes as I traverse their countries. This time of year always prompts reflection and remembering and these moments thinking about times past are personal advent calendar gifts which I also open each day!
I cannot help but think of England when I see the brightly dressed Christmas trees and my thoughts turn to past times spent with friends and family on hillside walks, beside pub fires, in cosy kitchens and messing about on narrowboats. People I miss and care about are even more in the forefront of my mind during what is traditionally the holiday season for that part of the world and which feels strangely compatible with the rapidly declining temperature and coming winter season here.
I start wondering where friends will be over the coming month, what they will be doing, how they are managing the all-to-often overwhelming enslawt of consumerism (it’s the same here but this time with more of an ‘essential equipment bias’ which is all too easy for me to fall prey to ) that grasps even the most grounded, who can then feel unwillingly swept along in the rip tide of expense and excess that builds to an untenable crest and whose peak is completely unsustainable and …
Well as I said I am in no way immune to that either and since I can feel the edges of anxious nausea at the thought of Boxing Day sales and the stress of whether I have bought the ‘right’ gifts for the right people, I thought I would send you all an almost eco, definitely vegan, minimal waste Advent Calendar from here to share some of the things I have seen and the thoughts they provoke!
It’s my simple way to tell you that you are in my thoughts!
I hope you enjoy it xxx
2nd : Swimming
Sary Chelek – Kyrgyzstan.
A stunning place to spend a couple of days! Not sure how it will fare at this time of the year. My guess is that at over 2000m the main lake will be surrounded by a beautiful fluffy blanket of white and as a result of the protection of the Chatkal mountains to the West and the nearby mighty Tien Shan mountains to the East, the lake will get cold but will retain its incredible microclimate and will provide much needed shelter for the local wildlife (think bear and lynx) in the area.
The mythical Central Asian snow leopard is also said to roam the slopes which extend up from the vast expanse of crystal clear, blue water. Seeing these creatures in their natural habitat would be a dream … just imagine seeing one or more padding stealthily across a snowy landscape with the blue of the water reflecting the colour of the sky …
Sary Chelek is the largest lake ‘amphitheatre’ in the area. There are smaller lesser visited lakes scattered around, nestled in amongst forested depressions and all maintaining the same level of peace.
When I was there in the late summer of 2017 I was one of 6 people coming in the designated area near the rangers cottage. The other people were on a road trip from Tashkent, Uzbekistan. They had spent the past 3 weeks driving, camping and hiking around Kyrgyzstan. Pasha, Elyia and I are now firm friends. The time spent with them discussing camping, hiking, politics, art, literature and all things Central Asian was truly memorable. Elyia is extremely well read and articulate, with impeccable English which gave me the opportunity to find out more about life in Tashkent and to discuss our mutual love of Allen Rickman! Time was spent beside the lake, chatting about everything and nothing, photographing a camera shy dragonfly and swimming in the cold, clear water.
One aspect of the beauty of Sary Chelek can only be seen from the water and to my mind can only be felt from in the water. Taking a trip out with the ranger in his boat (at vast expense) would be one way to appreciate the incredible mountain backdrop but to really feel part of it … plunging, shivering and squealing, into the water’s cold embrace and feeling the magnitude of the mountains, almost completely, surrounding the icy depths … is the best way!
The feeling of having the rocky scree slopes, majestic peaks and forested areas in an almost complete 360º panorama around me really added to the drama of the concept of the ‘immersive’ moment. They create a beautiful dynamic between drama/strength and nurturing/containment! Being in the water added a level of vulnerability to my consciousness of these immense giants of stone and left me speechless from more than just the cold.
From out in the water the sound of the mountains changes and the amphitheatre shape comes into its own, creating a playful opportunity for creating and listening to echoes as they bounce off the slopes and high places. The sounds of nature were also amplified and contributed to a sense of connection which such places often evoke in me.
Getting out of my comfort zone when travelling has to be a conscious effort because it can be all to easy to travel with the same focus and following the same routines, even within an ever changing environment. It may sound counter intuitive but the human capacity for creating stability and a sense of the ‘normal’ even in the most changeable situations really is incredible.
For me getting into lakes, rivers or the sea is a big antidote to complacency. It is too easy to say ‘not now’ or ‘I don’t feel like it’ or ‘it looks too cold’, when actually what I am grappling with is a determined break from my norm and a move into unchartered emotional territory. ‘Laziness’ is only ever an emotional reaction!
Thankfully on that occasion I was not (overly) lazy or resistant. I got into the water there without ‘too much fuss’ …
And am forever glad that I did.
3rd : Star
At Christmas time these can be seen everywhere, central as they are to the Christmas narrative and are iconic, simple and universal in their appeal. However the ones that have the greatest impact on me are those which leave me breathless on cold, crisp nights, numbers too countless to contemplate, creating subtle light paintings as they track across the night sky.
Having finally made a dive out of my toasty, warm sleeping bag, muttering and cross, I am often enroute to finding a suitable spot for a midnight pee when I am stopped in my tracks by the celestial panorama arching over my head.
My Billion Star Hotel is a joy! Depending on its location (geographically and seasonally) there may or may not be running water or heating and cold nights of limited comfort can often be the most beautiful and worthwhile in this regard. The vertiginous feeling when looking up at the night sky and seeing the ‘usual’ atmospheric and conceptual veils drop away, revealing the depths of the universe stretching back and back and back … stars stacked out layer upon layer upon (seemingly) infinite layer … is all the most disconcerting for dropping the realisation of my tiny place in this unfathomable expanse, squarely in my vulnerable, egocentric lap.
High mountain Passes, vast stony Steppes and seeing the breadth of the Cosmos all compress the concept of the (near) infinite into the space in front of my naked eyes. Occasions for me to marvel at the concepts of spinning worlds, expanding and contracting galaxies, Time and the beauty I see around me without having to understand it …
All seen and felt in a fleeting moment as I rush from one place to another, partially distracted by the needs of a full bladder and the physical reactions resultant from the cold …
Imagine my thoughts if I took more time to sit and really be part of the whole that is playing out in front of me. The more consciousness, the more capacity for appreciating the subtle changes that occur moment to moment, the ability to ‘feel’ the passing of time, the greater the appreciation, the wider opportunity for gratitude to see/feel these things and the chance for a deeper connection which goes beyond words and which links me to everything around me!
For Samantha, Julian, Sebastian, Fraser and Claudia
4th : Blue Skies
I confess … I don’t know how but I am incredibly lucky!
Not just in the fact that I have seen an amazing array of people and places. Eaten a wider range of food than at any time in my life (from quasi-ceremonial sheep’s heart in Mongolia to the plethora of non identical samosas in India). Slept in locations varying from desert to mountain to river bank and hostel to tent to yurt to skyclad (well, not entirely naked if that’s what you are thinking!).
I am also lucky enough to have had more consecutive days of sunshine and blue skies than at any other time in my past 4-point-something decades.
This does not always transmit to warmth but the constant ingestion of Vitamin D is amazing and I have noticed the difference in my body and mind. I like to think that I am a glass-half-full sort of person who can spin a positive out of each and every situation but having blue skies overhead makes this so much easier.
The most difficult part of the journey so far has been the crossing of the Tari in Western Nepal during the monsoon season.
Admitedly it was after a protracted parasite infection, an over estimation of my capabilities following on from that and a stubbornness of ridiculous proportions. However, that time of rain and mist and more rain combined with grey skies to match my mood and a level of humidity which turn my last vestiges of humour into the metaphorical damp rag, was the worst extended period of time of the whole trip.
The weather and I mirrored each other in the most objectionable, continuously downward ricocheting spiral of misery possible, whilst still remaining upright on the bike and moving slowly forward. The grey skies and rain felt like it would never end and the brokenness of my body was all too soon replicated by the broken nature of my mind and my resilience.
Compare this to the halcyon days of crossing parts of the Tibetan Plateau or Mongolia or Central Asia with their stretches of desert Steppe, green pastures and everything in-between stretching out under that endless blue dome. Difficulty and ‘adversity’ feels surmountable and positivity reigns supreme in the Lands of the Blue Skies. Colours seem brighter, smiles from others wider and welcomes more expansive when bodies are topped up with the necessary range of UV light and the ability to convert it.
And so I pass on this image of a landscape and yellow scarf, which was given (‘gifted’) to me as I was crossing the north west of the Xinjiang, China. The days were cold with my smile getting ever wider as I met more and more Tibetan men and women who welcomed me into their homes for minutes, hours and days and who’s ruddy red cheeks and mine spoke of wind, delicious hot momos (Tibetan style dumplings) with spicy, chilli sauce and sunshine and blue skies.
5th : Everywhere?
“Water, water everywhere, Nor any drop to drink”
‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ – Samuel Taylor Coleridge
It can often seem to me that the issue is not a lack of water, it is usually there is some form. The issue is always about the accessibility of the water and whether the water that is available is in fact sanitary and safe to drink.
Filtration systems, one of which I carry with me, are commonly (thanks to access to finance) available to the ‘adventure traveller’ however they are only as good as the person using them and I have, in the past, been too convinced of my bombproof constitution (egotistical), been naive and altogether too haphazard (a combination heading for disaster if ever I saw it … see Sick) in this regard. I have seen first hand the impact of water borne viruses and protozoa. Have felt the havoc that they can do to a previously content digestive system. I can only shudder as I consider the impact on a child’s developing physiology and psychology with this sort of daily onslaught – a battle that becomes the norm and the impact of which is never questioned.
It constantly confounds, amazes and saddens me that in the 21st Century there are still people and places in the world without regular access to sanitary drinking water or failing that the means to make the available water safe. I have cycled in some of these places, places with access to streams or rivers or wells or old and often dysfunctional water dispensation systems. Places dependant on the weather for its regularity of access as well as its levels of problematic micro organisms. Places where people (predominantly women and children) spend an inordinate amount of time, often making several trips a day, walking to the common water point, filling containers of all shapes and sizes (often untenably large and surely difficult to carry) and then taking them back to their homes with incredible grace and dignity.
Unfortunately I have also seen these water points littered with the left over detritus from clothes being laundered and bodies being washed. Heads and Shoulders bottles, individual foil wrappings and washing powder packets spoiling idyllic waterfalls and bathing pools. There is no doubt that there is a need for environmental education and associated support services alongside the need for better access to good water.
I recently saw a sign outside The Hole in the Wall bar in Kathmandu …
In Wine there is Wisdom
In Beer there is Freedom
In Water there is Bacteria
Never a truer word said … on the last point at least, I thought to myself but why is this still the case?
1 person in every 10 … that’s approximately 663 million people … apparently still drinks ‘dirty’ water. Even to cynically adjust the figures down because of a misguided idea that aid agencies are ‘exaggerating’ the issue, the number of people that this issue impacts is incredible (as in “impossible to believe”).
In India I was stupid, unlucky and potentially could have avoided getting sick if I had afforded myself a greater level of care and protection by being more fastidious with my cleanliness, water filtration and where and what I ate and drank.
I am daily reminded of how lucky I am. I have the education and finance to be able to use fuel to boil water, purchase a filter (learn how to use it, buy replacement cartridges or top up its battery) or simply buy clean water should the situation necessitate it. This covers most of the situations I daily encounter. I can’t say privileged because why should access to clean water be a privilege. Surely we can all agree that it should be a universal right. In 2010 the United Nations declared it as such and went further by recognising that the impact of safe water and clean sanitation is ‘essential to the realisation’ of all other human rights.
As seems to be the case for lots of areas of social, physical or emotional ‘lack’, a gap is created between the level needed to meet the most basic, often physical, necessity and to fulfil the needs to meet basic levels of human dignity.
Why are we even contemplating a level below dignity?
And so …
You can then redeem the cost of the ‘book’ for a $30 donation to charity:water which will provide clean water to 1 person and in spite of the massive need in the world, 1 person is still 1 person, the importance of which cannot be forgotten in the midst of the statistics.
It has become a New York Times Bestseller and the reviews for the book consistently say that it’s a pretty good read about one man’s journey from a hedonistic life style as a top nightclub promoter to setting up charity:water as a major player in the non-profit charity sector.
Since it seems to be a good yarn for you and good drinking water for someone else that’s a Win: Win to my mind and a good reason to add it to your shopping list for that difficult to buy for second cousin or the “Dear Santa” wish list for you.
6th : Time
Sitting in my mobile sanctuary, watching the darkness turn to dawn and the morning slowly unfold.
Mountains, once shrouded in mist and barely noticeable, made majestic once more as they dominate the blue skyline, freed by the potential of a new day.
As I sit and consider the world from the comfort of a warm sleeping bag and with the glow of the mornings coffee, I think about how Time passes, how the seasons have changed in the many places I have seen and how children I know continue to grow (either with or) without me.
I forget (until one of the social reminders like birthday or Christmas) that I am ageing and so are the people I know and care about.
I can sometime feel like I am travelling in a space outside Time. Perhaps because the concept of Time is across a linear frame and yet the Present is located in the single moment.
Writing provides a conduit for the Present and Time to inhabit the same space. The act of creation being able to encompass many areas of life which appear impossible to conjoin.
I love the process of creative thought and the way that ideas swirl around in much the same way that the mists swirl and cling to the low places in the mountainside.
Thoughts find a place to settle, often quickly scribbled on scraps of paper which languish alone at the bottom of my rucksack until they collide in a chance encounter with another rogue note, creating a moment of kinetic energy which in turn sparks a new set of scribblings.
Just as I sit and watch the mists drift from numerous mountains and hillsides, allowing the shapes of people and schools and houses to be revealed where before there were only sounds and blind faith to indicate life, I consciously take images etched in my mind and put them into prose.
The water bouncing over shallow rocks in the winding green river below. The tiny houses perched impossibly on cliff edges on the other side. The sounds of folk music fused with modern rap drifting up from the village below, fast and tinny, flute and voice, the quality of sound and high volume coming through speakers I imagine to be held together by twine and votive offerings.
The bell from the school heralding the next class. A small lizard becomes my brief companion as we both enjoy a sunny place for a moment.
Writing as a way to hold the moving moment still. A way to capture Time.
7th : Fire
The instant crackle of old wood, the spitting of sappy pine and smokiness of dung – all provide the distinctive tang in the air which permeates clothing and hair leaving an unmissable and instantly recognizable indicator for fire.
The constituents of each type of fire can be determined by the keen combustion connoisseur utilizing the afore mentioned olfactory sense. I consider myself as a more general lover of the flame and therefore only recognise certain types of wood burning – apple, cedar, pine.
I love a decent sized fire of well seasoned wood which I know will burn hot and long but would swap that in an instant for the promise of a small conflagration from meager dung and driftwood pickings beside a lake in Kyrgyzstan.
Sitting by my small fire, beside Lake Issy-Kul knowing I have my little home behind me and just enough foraged fire wood to enjoy the emotional comfort that such a scene conveys and the brief heat it radiates, gives me enough warmth to still the late summer, evening shivers and fill pockets full of memories of the warmth to light and heat future nights of miserable wet and cold.
I watch the light fade and colours dance across the water as the sun sets behind outlined bulbs of cloud to the West. The cloud threatens rain and I later see lightening flashes light up that far distant sky but it never reaches my shore. As the light grows dim I see the first stars and the tiny fingernail sliver of new moon reflected in the still water.
All these things seen through the ever dancing, dipping and wavering veil of smoke and heat emanating from my little pile of brightly burning then gently glowing, ever evolving sticks and grass.
Once the daylight has gone I drift out into the depths of the cold lake. The water temperature prickles my skin and leaves me slightly breathless but it could also be the stunning sight of the developing night sky starting to be reflected on the surface of the lakes inky black depths.
I feel tiny in this unknown watery world and my fire on the shore provides a beacon for me to follow back to the safety of my sanctuary and the everyday.
On my return from the lake’s cold embrace the fire is low and the wood is giving up the last of its reserves. The rocks placed around the edge of the fire, containing and supporting it, are now repositories of that remembered initial roar.
I wrap one in my blanket as a large and solid central heating system. It gives out enough heat to rid me of the swimmer’s shivers.
Fire has given the means of cooking, light, warmth and solitary or social comforts across ages. It is no different for me. Fire seems to be an element which once conjuered in the mind can generate a simulacrum of response – my body can generate a response from heat by concentrating my imagination on the sensory aspects of fire.
Each moment in front of the fire holds and unlocks memories of past times and situations mirrored by the flames. Campfires with friends on beaches come closer. Long pub lunch fireside chats draw in. Canalside fires and homely narrowboat stoves are rekindled in my minds eye as I sit, watching the colour temperature of the embers change from brilliant white hot to a dusty rose gold glow and then twinkle out. I feel the last of the heat with a well feed satisfaction and joy of connection to friends, my surroundings, Time and the warm, present moment.
8th : Sensory Satiety
India! Varanasi! The Ghats!
The ghats in Varanasi are the areas of steps that lead down to the holy river of the Ganges – Ganga (Ma Ganga) as she is more commonly termed in India. These platforms and stepped areas are places were life can be seen there both as it happens or as in the reflections of the activities that take place.
There are places for everything: for washing, for swimming, for puja (although puja, the act of ritual prayer and offering, can take place anywhere at all it appears, being as it is an intimate and intrinsic part of life and not fully separated into prescriptive places or practices), for laundry, for buffalo washing, for the cremation of bodies and for both laundry and drying.
Whilst spending time in the city, walking the ghats – the same places, sometimes at different times, usually daily – gave me the opportunity to see the ever evolving life, colours and textures of the spaces.
One day there would be scores of white washed sheets and vests and lungi stretched out in seemingly infinite lines, the next day in contrast there will be bright girl’s dresses in bold floral colours and t-shirts in multiple hues but the one certainty will be of the vast array of meters and meters of saris newly washed and stretched out on the hot stone of the ghats to dry.
If I started my walk early enough I would see children and teenagers rolling large, tied bundles of clothing down the steep steps which lead from the cooler, maze-like streets of the city, down to the hot stony plateaus of the ghats. These young people looked sadly like stick legged members of the tortoise family, laundry bundles for shells, making their slow way (but surprisingly spritely considering the weight) to the top of the steps, their backs bent doubt and their loads at least twice as wide as they were, before emerging from under these heavy packages and unceremoniously pushing them off the top step. Child labour is still rife in India. Family businesses conscripting their nearest and dearest in order to make a living.
These bouncing bundles swiftly found themselves in the murky depths of the river Ganga, being pounded and slapped on rocks worn smooth and flat by constant use. Saris once washed and exhausted, lay newly clean and flat on the stone walkways, sometimes weighted down by rocks against the threat of a chance gust of wind but mostly held fast but the iron will (and maybe good karma or puja) of it’s cleaner that it not move, get dirty or be lost before it be dried and repackaged into large shell-like bundles for the return trip up the steps to an unknown shop in the maze, for the few rupees payment and collection by its owner.
These vast seas of sari silk are a sensory delight. The colours and textures on the dusty white stone are a bold contrast and provoke a similar but more playful delight to the one I get when looking at the bolts of fabric all tightly and neatly stacked in the tailors shop. Playful because the fresh air creates ripples in the resting saris as they test their rocky anchors to see if they can slip their moorings and set themselves adrift across the long network of ghats and across the river to the other side.
The colours shimmer as they move and as the daylight changes from the softer morning light to the bright harsh heat and sunshine of mid day. Each day brings a new set of saris, a new colour combination. Each set seeming more striking and more fanciful than the last. Colours clash together in haughty collaborations I would never consider. The textures of the newer fabrics competing with the contempt at the older softer more pliable fabrics. The combinations are never the same. The saris are never the same. I can leave my room above the ghats metaphorically hungry for life and return back fully satiated on a diet of colour and texture.
9th : In Transit
Travel … the concentrated, determined movement from Place A to Place Z, flowing through all the minute B to Y (and the rest!) transitional places in between.
Take away Place Z and this is my current life. A state of being in transit.
So far I have used predominantly a bike, numerous occasions on foot (often hauling and cajoling the bike), several trucks, a few buses, the odd train, a number of vans, a couple of cars, 3 boats, 2 scooters, various auto-rickshaws, 2 aeroplanes and 1 man-powered rickshaw (which after much persuasion and great amusement was powered by Ben).
Being in transit doesn’t have to have the connotations of not caring or of being unconscious of the in-between spaces. After all, the negative space gives structure and context to the positive space. Each needs the other in a symbiotic dance. Everything is in relationship to other.
My ideal is the seamless flow from one state to the next, the recognition of the transitions for their capacity to connect and bridge places. These places and processes having colour and texture in their own right, are not just adjuncts to the main event of the ‘points’ of the journey. To see them as that is to miss out on a large chunk of the time and space they take.
It is also for the capacity to enjoy the very different modes of travel which are open to me and to be able to experience the different aspects of a place and time which come with these different types of transport.
Travel for the love of it and with the capacity to choose the means is a very different thing from the majority of people I see. Travel on buses and on foot seem to be the majority through India and Nepal, with motorbikes taking on an increasingly mainstream role, especially as more roads open up. Surprisingly they are very practical for some hideously steep regions and thankfully reduce the isolation of mountain and hillside communities in Nepal.
It is very common to see women and children in Nepal with head straps attached to huge wicker baskets filled with containers of water or sacks of rice or a weeks provisions or all 3.
The amount of weight that people are carrying is unfathomable to me. The head straps and slings can be seen in the hands of people as they walk through Kathmandu as well as in the rural areas and seem to be prized pieces of equipment as they can be utilized at a moments notice for fast employment as the transit of goods from place to place is always necessary.
I wonder at the opportunity or desire that people have at these times to enjoy transitions the way I do. My suspicion is that the spaces between start and finish, location and destination are to be got through as quickly, safely and painlessly as possible.
Its another reminder of my luck to be able to travel physically and emotionally the way I do.
And so why not support people in moving around the Bristol locality more easily and maintaining easier accesses to different necessary services as well their social lives and their various communities?
The Bristol Bike Project supports refugees, asylum seekers and runs women-specific bike maintenance sessions. Bikes are an amazing resource to develop confidence and access the world, whatever you choose that to mean!
9th : In Transit
The beauty of the most seemingly insignificant things cannot be underestimated. The tourist or connoisseur of the specific sees what the local has too often become immune to. The joy of recognising or seeing for the first time flowers or shrubs or roots or weeds that are as dramatically iconic to me as they are commonplace to another can often seem confusing or misjudged.
I frequently catch people’s look of shocked or amusement at my ecstatic facial expressions or hand waving as I try to convey to no one in particular just how amazing it is to see new and unusual fruit or vegetables or to have found the tree whose flowers had previously only resided in dreams, Disney cartoons or exotic adverts for holiday destinations I never imagined I would visit (and sometimes even potentially would never want to visit … the distance is still the same in either case)!
I felt this way seeing the different strains of plumeria in Thailand. The flowers litter the pavements under their parents swinging boughs and are left to turn brown and rot in a way upsetting and alien to my desire for their perfect white or pink petals to remain held static, in a parody of the realism of purity. Each time I passes a tree I would look for the least spotty specimin and place it carefully in my now greying locks. Looking up after this I often caught the amused gaze of a local who’s face cracks into an ear to ear smile as our eyes lock. I am more likely to see the local children doing this than anyone even vaguely approaching my age so I am sure they think its a little bit eccentric.
No longer am I able to to convince myself or anyone else of my youth and the plumeria has, in my mind, the connotation of the tropical maiden, conche shell in hand, flower in hair, walking the beach towards her handsome (I’m sorry this is so heteronormative but I’m writing the ‘stereotype’ so bare with me!) partner.
The flowers in my mind come along with a sense of exoticism which I am not wholly comfortable with since it can often come from a place of caricature rather than reality but the sent and texture of the flower, newly fallen from the tree, is lovely to me.
Flowers given have a range of connotations. In England, in times, past the choice of colour and type could indicate particular particular emotions and a bouquet of flowers could potentially even spell out a private message to a loved one.
These flowers are specifically sent during the winter to provide some light and life, knowing that the nights are getting longer and the days are getting shorter, because they hold the sunshine and warmth which will return and they contain the breath of new growth and fertility which will drift back across the Green Isle in due time.
11th : Food
Feast or famine. Camp cooking or festive fayre. Food is an essential part of our lives for the nourishment it provides not only our bodies but our souls as well.
When touring I can easily get into a cycle of food obsession which sees me lurching from one meal to the next with frequent internal and external conversations about my culinary hopes and dreams, for the day and beyond, in between. My relationship to food equally ricochets from the desire for well stocked cupboards, infinate herb and spice supplies and a range of useful (if not necessary equipment – I miss having a blender!) to wishing for easy to use, no waste, lightweight packets of capsules which convey the essential amino acids, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals necessary for my maintenance, growth or repair.
However this doesn’t consider the emotional aspect of sitting down for a sustaining snack with friends or the spiritual nourishment which a foodie social gathering brings. There have been so many occasions for me when a number of individuals sitting and eating together have become ‘family’ for a brief time.
Sitting under a large, frayed primary coloured beach umbrella (miles from the nearest beach), having made a recent border crossing over the Kunjareb Pass on a strangely ‘underfilled’ (no people on the roof, one person to a seat), bed decked, smoke filled, grimy windowed bus, with the people I had mostly newly made friends with. The mood was jubuliant and the entire company ecstatic to be in Pakistan.
There was a Japanese woman (Tomoko), an Austrian hitchhiker (Kris), a lovely Pakistani couple and me. All tucking into a large plate of mixed veg and potato pakhora. Our mouths either working on the linguistics of Hindi (teaching or learning) or attempting to be filled as quickly and as often on this delicious second or was it third breakfast.
The time we had spent on the bus together, presenting ourselves and our doucments to various stern faced officials together and then as a team negotiating hotel rooms together the night before meant that this morning had evolved from a quick tea before we all went our seperate ways into a long, leisurely set of breakfasts as Ali and his wife insisted on showing us the local way to order food (namely in sizable quantities, as well as the language for it) and really how to sit around persuing maps and routes and plans in truely Pakistani fashion … with no haste and plenty of tea.
Our little ‘family’ walked around the border town of Sost until early afternoon, sampling food, drinking tea, Tomoko and I delighted to be examining any and every painted lorry which came into our sphere.
When the time came for us to seperate it was with sadness at our departures but fond memories of the time spent together and for me the most striking memories of the food and language we all consumed. As ever the language I learnt in theose first few hours made life throughtout Pakistan so much easier and more accessible. In my experience to be able to speak of the basics in life (especially regarding which food I want and also to convey how well I am enjoying it) in the language of the country has opened many doors and given a lot of pleasure and apparent validation to the receiver.
‘Do you like the country? Do you like the food?’ are often questions asked and the response increases tenfold, sometimes to an overwhelming degree if the local language or the dialect is used! People love it when you enjoy their food and love it when you use their language. The emotional link between language and food is strong and the kudos bestowed on culture if you enjoy something is undeniable.
Until now I have have had a clear run in this regard. I wonder what will happen when I am unable to stomach something.
12th : i Spy
I spy with my little eye something beginning with …
Actually it doesn’t matter what letter you give me or I give myself, I can find you so many things of interest. I spy on people, places, action, stillness.
What is happening? What are they doing? What is the same? What is different? All these things racing around inside me. The colours, sounds, smells. Pleasant or unpleasant? Alarming, shocking, vibrant, even offensive. I feel them all. I ‘am’ them all.
Until, that is, I become complacent.
Too confident, too settled and then sadly even the most incredible, unusual or fantastic can become the mundane.
For me, the trick with travel is to find the mystery in the mundane! Revel in the real. When I take time to unpick the glories of the seemly simple, I inevitable find priceless gems within which the truths of my life and theirs create timeless dances of intense beauty and honesty. As I travel I learn to see more clearly, to love the play of sunlight as it highlights different scenes and illuminates my mind.
Today I see the old rickshaws in their ramshackle graveyard. Broken bicycle bodies in a twisted heap of metal, slowly melding into mysterious half memories of life. Shadows of their former glitz and glory. Tri-cycle steads, abandoned and alone.
Sun-faded folds of fabric, the edges of stitching that have become frey’d and unfastened in the face of the worn and useless stitches. Old totems, ribbons and bows, metal butterflies and plastic flowers. All have long since lost their bloom, their colour, and the ‘branches’ to which they hopefully, helplessly cling have withered and died becoming kindling, fit only for the fire.
I watch a woman through the once colourful and now broken brocade of the rickshaw hood. Her vibrance, her life. The colour, texture and cut of her dress in memoria to the former glories and silent sadness of the lost souls of the ‘shaws.
This febrile fabric and frame no longer canters the streets of Kathmandu, plastic bottle for hooting horn, no longer jostles for tourist trade and demands a ‘necessary’ tour, to be made immediately, scooping up wide-eyed Westerners and emptying their pockets.
It is fit only to stir memories of times gone by and prompt the imagination of a passing tourist, who camera in hand, is in love with these twisted bits of steel and the worlds they encompass. The insight they now offer is so much more than the noisy talk of the rickshaw touts who hoot at her from their seated vantage points, demanding her attention, hawking hash or flogging their uncomplaining, metal companions at high speed past her as she walks the streets of the busy Nepali capital.
They offer her their steely silent promise of a time to come when her bones will be still and her time will offer a lens through which another can spy on a world suddenly unmade and unknown by their own untethered, travelling times.
13th : Light
Candles, fire, a torch, the blinking red or white safety light on the back, side or front of the bike. The sun, the moon, the stars, the blinking red or green or yellow battery indicator light in the corner of my mobile.
Natural or commercially made, I find sources of light everywhere and I utilise them and adapt them to my needs. Light as a source to see by. Light as a byproduct from a heat source. Light as a form of ritual behaviour. Light for thinking, light for cooking, light for security, light for warmth.
In old texts the beginning of the Universe is with the introduction of Light. The interdependant relationship of light and heat being a key factor in the development of so many areas of Life.
In recent days in Nepal it has been the 5 day festival of Tihar. In India it is known as Diwali – The Festival of Lights and whilst I was advised that prior to the festival it was possible to see the surrounding hills of the Kathmandu valley imagine my surprise to enter a city cloaked in the smoke and grease of a billion little candles burning for the gods and for crows, dogs, cows, ox (or self depending on the specific community) and finally for brothers and sisters.
Flower garlands are given to the animals on their respective days. Food and sweet treats are also given. On the final 2 days specific puja is performed for ‘self’ in the Newar community and then for brothers/sisters on the final dy and involves the giving of a 7 coloured tika (forehead blessing). Throughout any puja or festival the lighting of candles or lamps or fires is essential to the practise and is done by all families with large numbers of individual points of flame.
People without siblings visit friends and cousins and the temple on the lake specific to this festival was reopened for 1 day only so people could pay their filial respects. The streets are filled with disguarded, disintegrating marigold garlands and with animals dragging those ratty remnants, of their halycon days of plenty, around with them.
The light of these candles burnt brightly through days and nights in the city and gave spiritual sustenance to some people and created a suffocating, dusty, oil lamp, candle fat greasy environment for the rest.
Don’t misunderstand. I was entranced by the beauty of the lights and candles during the festival and at the same time was utterly amazed by the impact that these little spots of heat and light can have when they become such a multitude. The capacity of these tiny burning wicks to block in the city and block out the surrounding hills shocked me deeply and reminded me of the capacity that arises when there numbers reach a (tipping) point and change from minor to major impact.
The necessity for light also depends on intention. There have been numerous times for me, whilst camping especially, that the sun has hit the horizon and I have not found a suitable spot and so am frantically looking for a practical place to pitch before the light completely fades from the sky.
I make the most of the light available and then when it becomes too dark for cooking or reading I crawl into my warm home and wait for the return of the light the following day! The expectation being that the sun, our major light source, will always return and provide the necessary factors of heat and light for life to continue the same as before, day after day after day.
14th : Dark dancing
Getting up, painlessly.
Like a leaf,
Blown on the wind.
Dancing is when
You tear your heart out
And rise out of your body
between the worlds.
touch or sound
that does not
teach you how to
There are times when cycling alone that the internal darkness of the psyche can rise up and threaten to overwhelm me. These times are infrequent and no less intense and disquieting for that infrequency.
Recent times of illness and loss of physical and emotional confidence and stability have been tough and have proven that the only thing that I can rely on in this life is change.
Anichur … the concept on Impermanence.
The less I hold on and the more adept I am at riding the wave, bending like a reed or fluidly dancing the Dance, accepting the present with grace and adaptability, knowing that it will change and that nothing stays the same …
Then I will endure.
Not in the the same way, not in the same state and not with the same things that I used to hold close to me.
The evolution of the self, the realisation of sickness and death, the loss of ability, the narciscism and recognition of pride. Shame, fear, anxiety, guilt, ego.
All areas of the dark which it becomes impossible to avoid when I spend time alone.
Spending time in the Light inevitably means visiting the Dark.
17th : RE-duce/cycle/use/invent
We all know it and still the amount of materials going into landfill is astronomical.
The image I have choosen for this is of the set of earings which Ben (my brother) gave me last year for the Christmas we spent in Manali, India before heading up into Spiti Valley on a memorable cycling adventure together!
I had been spending the occasional bits of shopping time perusing various shops and stalls in both McLeodganj and Manali, looking for a spiral set of earings to replace the earings I had (one) lost (one) repurposed and been sadly so far unsucessful. Its strange the things that become important when away from a static location. Things like a keyring or a trinket or single favourite pair of earings become strong identifiers for a sense of stability and of ‘me’. Having these attachment objects is not necessarily good because they can get lost and then the (hopefully temporary) feeling of sadness and dislocation can be overwhelming.
These beauties were found in the usual sort of shop that the hippy enclave of Old Manali has to offer. A tiny shop complete with peeling paint on wooden facade, set slightly back from the road. Dusty steps leading into it’s dimly lit interior which potentially hid any issues with the wall to wall displays of silver and brass and macrame jewlery. A rainbow array of gemstones and tumble stones of all shapes, sizes and colours. Full sets of ring, necklace, bracelet and earings almost falling off their wall hangings and out of their cases into the waiting laps of customers convinced to stop for chai and hash, which the young guy selling the goods immediately offered as a gesture of his good nature, good will and honesty regarding the quality of his products craftsmanship!
I refused to buy them, in spite of liking their peacock motif. I’m too stubborn for my own good and get annoyed by the constant hard sell but Ben evidently went back and got them for me before we left the town. Since then they have changed states several times!
The ‘silver’ has worn off and they are proudly displaying their brass hearts, they have been bent and reshaped several times as a result of being caught on clothing, hats and general wear and tear and now, as a result of the outer wire solder snapping, I have lost one and made the last one into a necklace. This necklace has become another one of those important items that have no material worth but which carries a lot of emotional significance.
Those earings had seen me through difficult (sick) times, been complimented on many occasions by many people, been carried up and down mountainsides and now reside in their newly evolved state. They are, of course, worth more than silver or gold (unless I am trying to buy myself out of a difficut situation and for that I have less emotionally weighty pieces). The belief we all have in the importance of the gesture, meaning and the lack of necessity for the material is constantly being eroded by the machinery of consumption.
It is sadly no different in many of the countries I have cycled through. Vast land slides of rainbow coloured trash and outdated electronics, toppling from roadside to riverside. The glint of silver foiled packaging or the shine of eroding circuitry reflecting the bright sunshine through the muddy footprints of the people who eat, sleep and work in the same area. What I think I see is people looking to (wholesale) aquire a style of living they have not considered in relation to their current situation. There is often limited infrastructure for recycling and whilst I have cycled past numerous scrap metal merchants ther metal is sitting and slowly rusting not being converted into cash.
And so for this festive time of year I give you the amazing George Montbiet!
Even if you have read it before it’s worth looking at again, as is his interesting and informative website.
The Gift of Death
18th : Spice
Spice! I don’t think I associate India and Nepal with anything else quite as strongly. The highly flavoured food, the warming depth and strength of the teas. After a while my love can wane from the issue of ‘same, same but different’ however give me a brief respite with a variety of fresh salad from somewhere ‘safe’ (washing uncooked veg is not my things, especially now) and I will happily rekindle my ardour for all things hot and multi masala flavoured.
In recent days there appears to have been a spate of weddings in the areas which I have been cycling through.
Colourful fabrics on swaying bamboo structures in the towns, boughs of freshly cut jungle greenery in rural areas. All have the highly decorated ceremonial fire place dripping in ribbons and tinsel (the closest I feel to festive right now).
It also appears that as a result of the celebrations none of the chai shops and dhabas (local cafes) which have played host or are in fact the families of the matrimonial pair, in the jungle at least, want to fire up their gas stoves and make the chai I crave after a long haul up a dusty road. A waved hand from porch seating indicated ‘not keen, not really’ to the call from me of ‘Namaste, chai/char melega’!
Through eastern Nepal, especially in the more hilly areas, it has been easier and more common to get delicious refreshing black, cardamon chai. In western and more southern areas its usually already made when I ask, in bulk and with milk, a much more Indian type of chai.
In order that you never feel the pinch of going short or the pang of not having experienced ‘real’ chai, click the image above and read the experience of one Indian woman’s vegan’s version of Delhi’s famous Cutting Chai.
21st : Snow
See the world through the eyes of a tourist, see the world through the eyes of a chid.
I feel that I have been away for so long I am looking back at places I love in England with something of the rosy eyed glow of a nostalgic tourist and loving this video of the Tor in snow and the people who gather there for high days and holi-days!
Travelling across different countries and different climactic and time zones leaves me with a lot of emotional confusion regarding having friends and family in an area that is currently having seasonal weather which has absolutely no bearing on my current experience. However as a result of the amount of social media and therefore continuous ‘attachment’ to the UK that there is available I feel that it is much more difficult to truly be ‘away’ when travelling.
There is now a portion of me in the orginating/family/friends state (England), a portion of me in the place that I am actually currrently located (India) and a portion of me in the nebulous, ether state of the Internet. In addition to this there is the expectation from many of the people that I have met that they hold a piece of me too!! Sometimes if feels like there just isn’t enough me to spread around but since it’s the holidays I am making transcontinental efforts to mentally stretch to all these places and hold the threads of all these places
Just as the lack of social reference to the Christmas holiday leaves me feeling holiday lack lustre and forgetful, sitting in the sun, feeling the temperature rise dramatically through the day and then drop, but only slightly, at night, leaves me forgetful of the Gergorian calander and consigns me to a ‘summertime’ mentality with the present situation displaying early sunsets (17:30hrs) and middling sunrises (06:45hrs) and cycling temeperatures which thankfully, currently neither distress not limit me.
So finally, on what I know for some is a cold, dark mid winter day, when the sun, thankfully starts its steady progression back up the arc of the sky to mid summer, the important question is …
Who fancies ham, egg and chips?!
22nd : Luck
Throw a coin …
Hit the pad …
Hear the bell ring and let your luck sing!
Go on … imagine it!!
Visualise the hanging row of red diamond pads, each with their little bell attached and their Chinese symbols for properity, health and luck for the coming year (yes we are in China, Mt Emei to be precise) determining your coming successes.
24th : With love
I am incredibly lucky to have so many friends across this world and so making this is a stretch for me but this I have slowly learnt that keeping things inside (thoughts, feelings, ideas, dreams) never helps and so here are some of my thoughts for some special people.
This video was made in the hope that it conveys to some of my young friends the amazing things that I have seen, the way in which I have travelled, the possibilities that there are in this regard and the hope that they will soon be travelling across the world with the open hearts and open minds that I know their families are nurturing them to develop.
I have and still am learning many life lessons from travelling and one of the big ones is the simple fact that there are so many more good people in the world than are people with hearts of hate.
The divisiveness of much of the things we are taught is incorrect – we are all so similar in the things that really matter and children are, of course, the best teachers in the things that really matter.
I have found myself being taught language, skills and specific social behaviours by the most adept teachers – children – simply becuse they cut through a lot of the social rubbish and engage with me as they see fit … with love, a sometimes shocking honesty and a pragmatism that engages the moment, in the raw and real depth of my and their person.
To all the young friends I have – this is made for you (with love if not polish!)
Happy Winter Holiday xxx
25th : Be Happy!
My one wish is for us all to be happy – not the same way all the time and not with the necessity for there to be the sort of exuberant bust of energy that can leave us feeling deflated and flat afterwards, like a not so nice sugar crash after an over indulgence in mince pies, chocs and cheese (although this is currently likely to be the case for me given that I have found cake and mince pies here in India) but for us to have courage, strength and a sense of humour.
And so here is my Winter addition for your pockets on all accounts … A surprisingly festive Darjeeling!