Walkabouts and wonders

"A life not examined is a life not lived" – Socrates

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Wierded out in US immigration

USBPFor years, I have been hearing and telling stories about the unsmiling harshness of the US immigration service. But at San Francisco, this morning, I was confronted by a smile, a courteous enquiry about my birth place and a friendly invitation to enjoy my stay. Surely, my guy was an exception, I thought, but no – I saw they were all doing it – courteous, polite, relaxed… whoa!

So, folks – is this just in San Francisco, on President’s Day? Or is this part of a wider trend? Next, will it be cheerful non-political chat from taxi drivers in London? …. polite Parisian waiters? …. New Zealanders embracing Aussies as long-lost pals?….. We need to know!

The Shwedagon Pagoda

The Shwedagon Pagoda from the West

Schwe Dagon_2The Shwedagon Pagoda is a Buddhist temple complex that lies a little way apart from the centre of Yangon, in its own parkland. Local legends suggest that the first temple on the site was built more than 2,000 years ago. The present structure is more recent  – the gold plating originating with a Queen Shinsawbu, who ruled Burma in the 15th Century. In the decades following it has been added to, repeatedly to include hundreds of shrines and meditation halls.

Once I’d arrived at the west gate, a huge structure in itself,  I found that I was still 200 yards and 200 feet below the summit of the hill on which the temple stands. A long climb, but this is what I saw when I got to the top

In fact, this picture is a bit of a happy accident –  the place was actually teeming with visitors – quite a few European types, but mainly Burmese, for this is a country in which religion still plays a large part in peoples’ lives. In many part so the world, people circle the stupas clockwise, chanting as they go, but here people wander everywhere alone or in groups – families or friends; walking, talking, pausing to offer a prayer, or sitting to meditate.As part of their devotion, a line of people sweep around the stupa, in unison.

One of the only group devotions - a line of people sweep around the stupa, in unison.

One of the only group devotions – a line of people sweep around the stupa, in unison.

A solitary monk meditates in one of several shrines

A solitary monk meditates from one of many shrines that face towards the stupa

Shortly after I arrived, I started to hear a group of people chanting – intrigued, I went in search of the source, expecting to find, perhaps a group of novice monks at prayer. Instead I found this group of teenage girls, many in uniform, chanting but also preparing some kind of meal, and occasionally, it seemed catching a moment to swap some gossip.

Schwe Dagon_9

I spent about an hour circling the central stupa myself, engaged in my own self-alignment exercises, before I thought it was time to go, struck by the ease with which I had been able to formulate and enact the exercise. Returning downhill I paused briefly at the side of the steps, only to catch the eye of an older local man who was limping towards me. “You are just in time”, he said but the next few words were obscured as he walked past me, pointing as he went; “…… bats ……., wait …… picture…” was all I caught. So, naturally, I stopped and waited…. and waited…… and  waited….. And then they were there, thousands, probably hundreds of thousands of small bats flying in a thick stream out from under the temple roofs and off into the gathering sunset. Despite it going on for nearly half an hour, I got few good pictures, but these may give you a sense of it.

The first swarm of bats flying low above the covered walkway in.

The first swarm of bats flying low above the covered walkway in.

The bats heading westward

The bats heading westward

Well pleased, I eventually walked off to find a taxi back town.

Important discovery..

I think I have made an important discovery –

One glass of wine does seem to help the writing process, while two glasses of wine definitely help. However, much to my surprise and consternation, neither is of any help in editing…..

Yangon – bridging moments

The landing point.

The landing point.

There is a ferry landing, made up of lashed together floating docks and barges, that juts out into the Rangoon river, away from the centre of Yangon. Through an early morning haze, dozens of small motor boats ferry in workers from the cheaper villages on the south bank of the river, threading their way between the fast-moving freighters that supply this former colonial city.

The ferries themselves

The ferries themselves

There are no intermediate steps or stages, so the passengers help each other to scramble over the sides of the barges and cross the planks that span the gaps between them, before they reach the bridges that lead to dry land. Two women spread food and sundries across stalls in the shade of a shed built on one of the barges. As I watched, they are passed by a small group of teenage monks, laughing in their freedom from early-morning disciplines.

Boys will be boys

Boys will be boys

Standing there, I felt a first connection with the land and the people of Myanmar. Even though the immigration official returned my smile as she handed back my passport (sorry – immigration official? smile? – yes – it happened) it didn’t really create much of a bridge. Completing this writing a week later, the feeling of that first day’s connection is less tangible, but still there – the people have a cheerful buoyancy that was a great contrast to the hurried urgency of Mumbai. Bartering is still done hard but with a smile and a shake of the hand, whereas there was always a more desperate edge in Mumbai. It’s not that Myanmar isn’t poor or that people don’t need the money, but it is not so overwhelmingly overcrowded and the extremes of poverty are not so evident, at least in the city centre. But I owe the people of Mumbai a bit more than that – they have their dignity and their courtesy, too, as I found in the slums by Bandanga. Perhaps it is under more continuous and corrosive threat in Mumbai, and therefore it has to be more fiercely held and defended.

By the entrance

By the entrance

Back in Yangon, close by the landing, is the small monastic compound from which the teenage monks had come and across the road from there, is the Botataung Pagoda. The entry-way is thronged with early morning supplicants, and I wonder a little at what chance there might be for quiet contemplation, as I pay my $3.00 to the government official who guards tourists’ shoes in his hut[1].

The pagoda from the dockside

The pagoda from the dockside

Around the central spire of the pagoda, there is constant movement; young and old, city workers, school-children, labourers and the like, pausing for a few minutes or staying the whole morning, to meditate and pray in one of the dozen halls and shrines that are dotted around the site. A few monks are in evidence, here and there, but these are Theravada Buddhists – their approach to enlightenment emphasises individual dedication and development; so only a party of school-children and the odd group of Europeans has any obvious guide or leader. All is covered in gold, including the hollow pagoda[2], which is reputed to hold a hair of the Buddha himself, within its walls.

One of the shrines, across a pond full of terrapins

One of the shrines, across a pond full of terrapins

As I turn towards the gates to make my exit, I realise how quiet I have become – whatever its outer bustle, something about this place allows me to relax into the peace of my inner self. This peacefulness stays with me for much of the rest of the day. I wonder where it really comes from and what I might do when I return from this walkabout, to make such connection more conscious.

Dedication, family style

A family cleaning one of the shrines, as you do…

The main meditation hall

The main meditation hall


[1] Foreign tourists are expected to pay entry fees at each of the great temples. I am quite happy to do that, but suspect that much of the money goes into the dubious pockets of a government that has been described as amongst the most corrupt in Southern Asia.

[2] Nearly all other Buddhist pagodas and stupas are solid structures many reputed to contain offerings and relics of either the historic Buddha himself or one of his kind. After the Botataung Pagoda was fatally damaged in bombing during World War II, many such objects were found an are now openly displayed inside the rebuilt structure.

By Banganga Tank

Banganga Tank itself

Banganga Tank itself

I came to Banganga Tank towards the end of my walk down from Malabar Hill. It is a place that represents something of the essence of an older India – an ancient public work, created as part of a temple complex tha once extended across much of the area to its West, just a hundred yards or so from the sea that long provided so much sustenance and opportunity to the original populace.

Today, Bandanga tank is the last of its kind in greater Mumbai and it sits in the middle of a concentrated huddle of temples and schools and residences; uphill relatively affluent, downhill, small cramped and impoverished.

Two of the ten temples I spotted.

Two of ten (or so) temples nearby.

And India's other religion, of course.

And India’s other religion, of course.

Spools of thread for sale nearby

Spools of thread for sale nearby

Though of course, there are other ways to relax

But just in case it was all getting  a bit serious

Singapore

Chinatown, Singapore - yes, I know its not a great pic, but can you feel the energy? No? What, are you de....

Chinatown, Singapore – yes, I know its not a great pic, but can you feel the energy? No? What, …….

Just arrived for the first of four nights in Singapore, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised at the energy of the place – should be interesting. And my hotel is right in the middle of Chinatown where they are already getting in the mood for Chinese New Year (still two weeks away, unfortunately for me).

Also, I should mention that over the next few days I will be posting some fresh items on my blog from visits to Mumbai and Yangon. Stunning places, for all sorts of reasons. Each article should re-post onto both Facebook and LinkedIn but you can make sure you don’t miss any by visiting the blog and pressing the button to get email alerts. Enough of the promos and greetings to all of you at home, wherever that happens to be.

In an English country garden

After all the fun in India, a little from my own garden.

Honestly - put the plant in the ground, water it, chuck on some manure - what's all the fuss about.....

Honestly – put the plant in the ground, water it, chuck on some manure – what’s all the fuss about?

This kind of confirms what you always suspected, doesn’t it?

Above the Market

quote unquoteAfter treating a woman for Charles Bonnet syndrome, a condition which causes sufferers to hallucinate and see small people and animals, bright moving shapes or distorted faces, Dr. Bharat Kumar, an internal medicine resident at the University of Kentucky noted that the brain isn’t a sophisticated computer that processes information objectively and efficiently. “It’s more of a wibbly-wobbly, messy-guessy ball of goo.”

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A Sacred Space in the City of Birds

There is a place near the centre of New Delhi which defies the noise and heat of the modern city. It is known as the tomb of Humayun, but as well as a burial site, it is an inspired assay in sacred architecture and design.

Hamayun_23

And let me begin by telling you how I eventually went to this place, rather than the Taj Mahal.

Chandra Chawk_1You see, originally, I had set aside my first day in Delhi for some local sightseeing, before heading south to the Taj Mahal, as you do. It was only after an hour’s walk into the centre of Old Delhi and the market district, that I discovered all of the monuments and museums were closed, this being a Monday. Yes, I know that now.  So, Monday left me with sore feet and this one picture of rickshaw cyclists on the Chandi Chowk, and a curio – why does this city have so many birds?  Look around you in Delhi, and you will see the birds everywhere – true; many are the usual scavengers you find in any city, but not this many – no.

Anyway, come the Tuesday, my last full day in Delhi, I no longer felt like taking the two hour journey south to see the Taj Mahal. Following advice I got on the plane, I braved the Delhi traffic on an auto rickshaw and headed out to Humayun’s tomb.

The tomb is actually a complex of buildings that include some of the earliest surviving monuments of the Moghul period in India. The building at its centre, Humayun’s tomb is actually the resting place of around 140 of his family and descendants. It stands in the centre of a 15 acre formal garden, divided by narrow channels of water that feed a series of fountains.

Hamayun_17

Hamayun_16

As you might suspect from these pictures, the tomb is an early precursor to the Taj Mahal which lies 80 miles south at Agra. Like its more famous neighbour, it is a monument to love, but this time built by the wife, to honour her husband. All of this, of course, you may read in any decent guide-book or online. But what the guidebooks only vaguely refer to, if at all, is the basis of the building in ancient beliefs about life and its purposes.

Hamayun_22

The clues lie partly in the shape – the perfect surrounding squares and partly in the colours of the main building and its domes. And, of course, the numbers – 17 and 4; 72 and 5; 16, 4 and 1, amongst others.

Hamayun_20

But it wasn’t until I was trying to photograph this fountain that I put together the first of two things –

The surrounding wall, the central platform and the gardens are all set out in regular squares, north/south. But the crowning domes are set at an angle, thus

Hamuyun shape

This pattern represents a simple and ancient perception about life. Roughly translated, it says that body and soul are held together, not by food, but by the grace of the spirit of humanity that resides in our innermost being.

And then, I understood about the birds and how there had come to be so many in the city. The surrounding walls of the sanctuary are pierced by small openings – they were put there on purpose, as nesting sites for pigeons and green parrots so that they would always be in attendance. They are a constant reminder of another ancient idea that Islam holds very dear; unlike our bodies and histories, beautiful and arresting as they may be (and here represented by the gardens and the water courses), our minds are free to leave the earth and fly up into the realms of heaven and inspiration.

Hamayun_15

St John’s impressions

Unfortunately, I haven’t been here long enough to offer more than this brief photo-record – a bit of the city, the harbour and the colours – hard looking, but a really welcoming place on the edge of one of the stormiest winter seas in the world.

Across the harbour

Across the harbour
Up we go

Up we go

And down

And down

Next stop, Ireland

Next stop, Ireland

Entering harbour on a calm day.

Entering harbour on a calm day.

The harbour itself

The harbour itself

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