Walkabouts and wonders

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

Tag Archives: adventure

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.

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.


I had a lot of great times in the six weeks I spent in India and Nepal and there are still a couple of blogs I want to write about places that I went, but this one is a selection of some of the pictures I have of some of the people I met on my travels. Enough said.

A workman who passed me on my morning walk to the office.

A workman who passed me on my morning walk to the office.

A stall-holder in Pedong market

A stall-holder in Pedong market

A moment of relaxationfror mother and child - otherwise beggars in the main square at Bhaktapur.

Mother and child in the main square at Bhaktapur.  A little while earlier, they had been begging on the steet corner.

A monk in debate at the monastery in Lava.

Making a point – the daily debate at the monastery in Lava.

Preparing a rice paddy in Chitwan

Preparing a rice paddy in Chitwan

Getting up close to the action at a car workshop in Kalimpong

A car workshop in Kalimpong

A stall-holder in Kalimpong who regulalry supplied me with packets of cookies and bottles of water and pepsi.

My regular supplier of snacks and soft-drinks – a roadside shopkeeper in Kalimpong

Wash day in Kathmandu

Wash day in Kathmandu – just three more buckets out of shot.


Pictures of dedication

My visit to the Nepalese city of Bhaktapur coincided with the country’s New Year celebrations (it is now 2070 in their calendar) and the nine day festival of Bisket Jatra. As a Northern European, used to private and quiet religious celebrations conducted oncwe a week, this was a bit of an eye-opener, on all three fronts.

The chariot of Bhairab at rest in the main square.

The chariot of Bhairab at rest in the main square.

We arrived in the city on New Years’ Eve (13 April’ this year) which is also day 4 of the Bisket Jatra celebrations. Initially, it seemed like nothing more than the usual might be going on – we strolled around, took a couple of pictures, exchanged pleasantries with the flute peddlers and generally relaxed. But then the crowds started growing and moving and we with them. I have no pictures of that evening, so I shall just have to do my best with words.

Bisket Jatra is a nine-day celebration around a romantic story involving a couple of gods, a king’s cursed princess, several dead suitors and a hero. Intertwined with this story is one another, mystery tale, of the principle God and Goddess of the city being the wrathful aspects of Shiva (the destroyer) and his consort. Okay, so far? During the festival, the Gods are placed in great big wooden chariots that are dragged through the streets by groups of young men, who win the privilege in a giant tug of war that is held at the start of the festival. Moving these things on the cobbled streets is no easy task, either to do or control. Our hotel manager told us that the day before we arrived, two people were crushed to death under the wheels of Bhairab on his way to the upper square. He seemed quite excited about it.

The erect "pole" - the crosspiece is supposed to represent an evil snake that has been speared before it could bite the hero, before he could rescue the princess. Um.

The erect “pole” – the crosspiece is supposed to represent an evil snake that has been speared before it could prevent him rescuing the princess. Um.

That evening, we went to see the fourth day of ceremonies in the lower square. Here, literally hundreds of young men, surrounded by a crowd of thousands, worked to erect a 20m (60′) tree trunk on a plinth in the main square. I am afraid my picture from the morning after gives only a slight impression of the size, but imagine, if you can – around 200 men, dragging on eight ropes that are tied to the cross-piece. Their efforts are timed to the beat of a separate tree trunk being lifted and then dropped on the plinth (it takes three men to do just that) amplified by the shouts of the crowd. “Urah! Urah! Urah!” X frames built from the branches of the same tree (and held together by hand-made rope) are pushed into place to provide support, between bouts of effort. But with no guide ropes the pole frequently swings sideways, threatening the mass of onlookers who run away, screaming and laughing, returning in a few minutes when the panic has passed. True; there are armed police attempting some crowd control but any health and safety officers have quietly crawled away to be sick in a corner.

All I can say is that the excitement generated by this event made it clear that our English Maypoles and Morris Dancers have a thing or two to learn about Spring fertility rites! Especially, given that none of these things seemed to be organised in any systematic way. This is a festival of and by the people – while Hindus have their priestly caste, the Brahmins, their Sadhus and temple attendants, the life of their religion is carried in the blood and the dedication of the people. As demonstrated by these other scenes from the day after.

The throng aroun the base of the pillar, doing puja.

The throng around the base of the pillar, doing puja.

A plate of oferings to the gods.

A plate of offerings to the gods.

Morning offerings - take on New Years' Day, but something you might see at any time.

Morning offerings – take on New Years’ Day, but something you might see at any time.

Boys doing their thing - what else.

Boys, meantime, do what they do.

A shrine in the middle of the main square.

A shrine in the middle of the main square.

And if you need a nap, well, take it - and where better, but in the lap of the God.

And if you need a nap, well, take it – and where better, but in the lap of the God.

In closing, this one 24 hours probably taught me more about the true nature of India (and Nepal) than I could ever have expected. What unites these places is not their national boundaries or their politics, or even the religion. There are two main features I keep returning to. There is this irrepressible quality of eagerness and an appetite for living that is quite capable of sweeping all and everything before it; it runs throughout their society – vibrant, wilful, open; unmoderated and therefore dangerous, but exciting and captivating. But there is also this deeper seam of quiet, insistent and persistent dedication which expresses itself in the daily rites of puja that I witnessed everywhere I went – a core of value that seems to speak of something truly ancient and universal in humanity.

The Chitwan, Part 2 – Surrounding lives and other gems

In part 1, I described the fantastic time we had on our jungle excursions. In this part, the focus is on the surroundings – the villagers, their livelihoods and interactions with the national park.

Wood enough for another day; an elderly woman on the way back from the forest.

Wood enough for another day; an elderly woman on the way back home from the forest.

We arrived at our hotel (The Hermitage) by the river in Sauhara at about 1.00pm and after a bit of time to get settled, set off for a visit to the elephant breeding centre, with a tour of a local, tribal village, en route . I have to say that I didn’t expect much from the tribal visit, but the histories described by our guide, the ever patient Mara who acted as our jungle guide the following day (see part 1) made it a bit special.

Cattle being driven home in the evening, to the safety of the village.

Cattle being driven home in the evening, to the safety of the village.

Villagers ploughing the rice paddies by hand, ready for the rains - the distant hut a nighttime lookout for marauding rhinos.

Villagers ploughing the rice paddies by hand, ready for the rains – the distant hut a nighttime lookout for marauding rhinos.

Drawing water from a household pump.

Drawing water from a household pump.

Buildings in the village - note the transition from mud, dung and thatch, to concrete block and tin roof. Sad, one might think, but the thatch has to be replaced every year and mud-walls rebuilt every three - are you going to do it?

Buildings in the village – note the transition from mud, dung and thatch, to concrete block and tin roof. Sad, one might think, but the thatch has to be replaced every year and mud-walls rebuilt every three – a tough job.

Before the 1950s, the Chitwan wilderness spread across a vastly larger area; home to tribal forest people who are collectively known as Tharus. With a peculiar genetic resistance to malaria and other insect borne diseases, they claimed virtually exclusive rights over this part of the Terai (the Nepalese lowlands). Here, for centuries, they maintained a physically demanding but independent life based on a shifting cultivation of rice and other grain crops, supplemented by hunting, fishing and gathering the fruits of the forest, right up to the 1950s. However, elsewhere in Nepal, since the 19th Century, as non-Hindu tribals, the entire Tharu nation was consigned to low-caste exploitation by the ruling Nepalese in Kathmandu. They lost land and other rights to become a source of bonded labour, a practice only outlawed in 2000. In the meantime, in the 1950s, the Nepalese  government embarked on a campaign to eradicate malaria from the area. Though Mara is only in his mid-30’s, as a Tharu himself, he vividly described how the government sent in inspectors to spray the area every two weeks for over ten years. Though we could not use such insecticides today, the fact is that the Chitwan has been malaria free since the 1960s.

two month's supply for cooking, gathered by hand, the old way.

two month’s supply for cooking, gathered by hand, the old way.

A replacement for forest-wood? Gas from manure deposited in the covered pit in the foreground, is piped into the houses for cooking through the year.

A replacement for forest-wood? Gas from manure deposited in the covered pit in the foreground, is piped into the houses for cooking through the year.

But that, of course, has cost the Tharu dear. No longer threatened by this mosquito born disease, and attracted by the fertile soils of this wide valley area, hundreds of thousands of Nepalese and Indian peasants flooded into the area, converting much of the former wilderness into productive farm-land.  Given their low-caste status, many more Tharu were pushed out of their old villages in this process and became increasingly marginalised in a fast evolving society.

Happily, since the turn of this century and the end of the civil war, Tharu rights have been improved and the survival of their village culture in places like the Chitwan has at least been respected in managing the park. Thus, while the villagers are no longer allowed to hunt in the park on the scale they once did, some individuals retain grazing rights for cattle and buffalo, while others are still permitted an annual quota of wood for firewood, at least for now. Hopefully, the flow of tourist dollars and government grants will continue, allowing the Tharu to move to more Chitwan friendly fuel supplies (either electricity or the natural gas production referred to in my picture) and to better paid activities in the burgeoning tourist industry.

River, man, fish - a 10,000 year old story.

River, man, fish – a 10,000 year old story.

Which reminds me of something which my host, Norden, in Kalimpong said, concerning his own conservation efforts. “We started out wanting to preserve this unique habitat [the Teesta river and surrounding hills and mountains] but after a while we realised that we couldn’t solve the environmental issues, if we didn’t solve the people issues, first”. And chief amongst those issues is overpopulation and its effects. For the moment, the Chitwan is being maintained by a close cooperation between the government and the local community, both aided by tourist and overseas dollars. But stories we heard from locals suggest that other areas in both Nepal and India are still suffering rapid loss of habitat to the pressures of population and farming. Nepal has one of the highest population growth rates in the world. Yet, this remains the least discussed issue on the environmental agenda; the one that no one seems to dare talk about. The Chitwan and the traditional ways of the Tharu seem safe for now, but for how long?

The Chitwan, Part 1 – Jungle encounters

Before this trip, I had always thought of Nepal as a mountain country, dotted with monasteries and small, isolated villages. Those things exist of course, along the Northern border with Tibet, but on this occasion, my instincts took me into another terrain altogether – the Chitwan.

The Chitwan National Park is one of the largest nature reserves left in lowland Nepal and is generally regarded as the most important. A vast area of flood-plains and swamps surround the East Rapti river which, because it doesn’t arise in the Himalayas, is much warmer than most rivers in this area and therefore supports a wider range of tropical wildlife.  After the end of the civil war, the army has cleared the area of poachers and many rare animals including the Bengal tiger and the Indian rhino are growing in numbers again. It is one of the most succesful conservation programmes in the  sub-continent. There are also wild elephants, sloth bears, deer and monkeys, and many smaller animals, too.  To aid their conservation efforts, the Nepalese government recently banned overnight stays in the park itself, and most of the hotels are now concentrated around the riverside town of Sauraha, where, we spent a total of two days. There was so much to take in, that I have divided this posting in two – part one relates to the wildlife, and part two to the life of the villagers.

Part 1 – Jungle walks and encounters

A rhino seen crossing the river - a first day sighting by our eagle eyed guide. The figure to the right is an uber-confident ranger

A rhino seen crossing the river – a first day sighting by our eagle-eyed guide and a terribly lucky one. The figure to the right is a park ranger – one of the 3,000 or so rangers, troops and policemen who keep the wildlife safe from poachers and the villagers (sort of) safe from the wild-life.

Our timing was excellent; arriving in a gap between larger parties, we had the undivided attention of two guides on our second day, the ever calm and unflappable Mara and his shorter, quick moving colleague, Nitesh. With just us two people to shepherd, our guides enjoyed the walk more themselves. They explained that if there are more than, say, five in a party, they rarely have the time to track things properly and in any case, the noise become too much for most of the animals.

The day begins with a trip up-river by dugout canoe - this a picture of another party

The day begins with a trip up-river by dugout canoe – this a picture of another party. Just one guide – I wonder if he’s told them about the crocodiles, yet.

Mara, leading us into the jungle; the stick he carries his, and our, only defense.

Mara, leading us into the jungle; the stick he carries his, and our, only defense.

After a journey up-river, bird spotting along the way (the colours on the kingfishers were magnificent, but beyond my camera skills to capture) we alighted on the opposite bank and entered the jungle proper. Now, the reality is that you can easily go a whole day on one of these walks and never see any of the larger animals at all. They are wary of humans and will tend to hear (or smell) you and move away, long before you get near enough to see them. To add to that, we were there pretty late in the season. The long jungle grasses had already reached two metres in places  – so we were pretty happy just with the odd signs of passage that Mara and Nitesh pointed out along the way.

The mark of a passing rhino? So reckons Mara.

The mark of a passing rhino? So reckons Mara.

But then, after a steady walk and a couple more photos of smaller beasties, our guides both froze at the sound of a loud rumble forwards and to our right. So began our first encounter with the rhinos that day…..

Mara shows me where two rhino were catching a little sun, before we (evidently) got too close and disturbed their rest.

Mara shows me where two rhino were catching a little sun, before we apparently got too close and disturbed their rest. Just behind us, the grass was still wet with a little wee – the rhino’s by the way – in case you were unsure.

I never actually saw the rhinos – but later worked out that Mara had got me within 30 m of this spot when we heard them get up. This is not far. This is in fact, rather close. Very close – an angry rhino can cover 30m in less than three seconds at full pelt. The above picture, by the way, was taken by Jules. She was up a small tree at this point – a doubly smart move really, because it put the best photographer in the tree and the best runner on the ground!

So, although we waited and Jules watched for a while, we didn’t see to o much of these two, nor the next two that we heard a little while later, fighting some way off. By that time, we had left the open grass lands and were threading our way along woodland pathways, pausing every so often as Mara or Nitesh pointed out the tracks of wild boar and deer, or the holes left by sloth bears rooting for termites.

Nitesh with Julie

Nitesh with Jules

Rhino tracks in a small wallow, overlaid with boar, deer and wildcat,... apparently.

Rhino tracks in a small wallow, overlaid with boar, deer and wildcat,… obviously.

A gray langur female and youngster

A gray langur female, her baby and a youngster. And a first for our guides – the youngster had previously been in the arms of the younger (sister?) the first time Mara had ever seen such group care, amongst these monkeys.

Eventually, about an hour late, we made it back to the river crossing (nah –

perfectly on time, bhai[1] – this is the Nepalese jungle, not Times Sq) thence to a late-afternoon ride on an elephant.

Two of our party following across the river. Happily, our mahout (driver) persuaded ours NOT to give us all a refreshing bath half-way across

Two of our party following across the river. Happily, our mahout (driver) persuaded ours NOT to give us all a refreshing bath half-way across

Those three grey bits sticking up out of the water are the ears and horn of a young rhino. Honest.

Being on the back of an elephant means that the animals generally ignore you – This a taken from about 5 m – those three grey bits sticking up out of the water are the ears and horn of a young rhino relaxing in a water hole. Honest.

We were incredibly fortunate and priveliged to see all this in just a single day and a bit. In total, we saw or heard five of these incredibly rare rhinos, besides deer, boar, monkeys and wild chickens. And it was a real eye opener to walk and talk with our guides. They are all highly trained (it takes about two years to get a licence as a guide, and it shows). They patiently pointed out and explained all sorts of things, from tracks to tree species and how to tell the difference between the two types of crocodiles on the river (one can eat you – the other can’t). And it was a real education to watch the way they moved through the terrain – not so much silent as “with-it” – always alert, but equally at ease – armed with only a metre long stick and a lot of nous. And yes, we did ask them about tigers, and yes, there are some in that area (we saw the evidence in the skull and rib cage of a long-dead, but large male deer) but yes, unless you have the time to track them (like a three or five-day trek) there is little chance of seeing one.

Thank goodness there are those in this world – governments and people – of sufficient vision and care to intervene and save these habitats and the beasts that live in them, despite the many pressures to do otherwise.

Part 2 in a few days time.

[1] “a familiar term of address in Nepalese – it means “little brother”.

Mission update 3; hand-over time

Now back home, and after a few of days to get over the jet-lag, I sent off my hand-over report to my English MondoFoundation coordinator. I am pleased to say that it is all looking pretty good. Six weeks was always going to be too short a time to see any material effects (did you know that it takes at least three months to grow a carrot?) but work has properly begun on the first site and the first departures from plan have been 2/3 positive and only 1/3 unnerving…[1]. Next week, I will meet with my coordinator and successor to discuss the practical ramifications of all this, and that will be that, at least for now.

Writing the report has helped me to summarise the business side of the experience, but I am struggling to know what to say about the wider trip. The experience has certainly affected me more deeply than I had imagined, let alone articulate. Staying with Jiwan and his family and working withh them and the schools, this was less of a visit and more of a complete immersion in a very different culture and way of living. At the very least, I do find that I am able to look at my western cultural surroundings with both more value and less attachment.

It has also been one of the most uplifting and satisfying experiences of my recent years; everything about it was new for me – working with schools, working with agriculture, working abroad. And doing it in the vibrant, emergent chaos of northern India; such a contrast to the apparent quietude of my rural English village.  So, there is a lot that I shall miss – not least because I wasn’t there for the first poly-houses go up and won’t see the first crops go into the ground. I’ll get reports of course, not just from Jiwan, the project manager, but from the next Mondo ambassador who will be starting his visit in mid-May. I guess I shall just have to see whether I can get out there again.

And if you want to know more about what I was doing and who with, here are some links –

A video interview in two parts, with Mondo founder Anthony Lunch, about the work of the foundation.


And links to the MondoChallenge website and its sister volunteer organisation, Vanilla – Generation.



I’ll be publishing some other posts from Kalimpong and Nepal in due course, but in the meantime, here are some more pictures of the project, the schools and the team

One of the parents

One of the parents

Meeting Mala, the MCK agricultural advisor

Meeting Mala, the MCK agricultural advisor

Prayers at Pioneer school

Prayers at Pioneer school

The author at lessons...

Me at lessons…

Jiwan looking more relaxed than I'd seen him all visit.

Jiwan looking more relaxed than I’d seen him all visit.

Me (bottom left) being grilled by the three particpating headmasters.

Me (bottom left) being grilled by the three particpating headmasters.

And breaking news………

The first poly-house under construction!

The first poly-house under construction!

[1] In business as in war and life, the whole point of a plan is to help you marshal your resources and get prepared. Generally speaking, if  having got going, you think everything is going completely according to plan, you either weren’t being ambitious enough, or you are about to suffer a rude shock!

Mission update 2 – Smoke and mirrors?

School-children on the way home in Kalimpong

School-children on the way home in Kalimpong

I am at that stage where questions of purpose, value and sanity have risen – i.e. “What is the purpose of this?” “Just who is it benefiting?” and my personal favourite just at the moment, “Why me?”

Events that have prompted these questions include; the night-time chorus of two fighting cats and five stray dogs that tends to kick off hourly between 9.00 pm and 2.00am most nights; the alternating and intermittent supply of electricity typical of the area; a five day bout of flu, which has effortlessly segued into a chest infection. But most of all – the increasing evidence that this agricultural project that I described in Mission Update 1 is facing more challenges than a Ku Klux Klan man falling in love with Will-I-Am.

So, I ask myself, ”Is this all just a game of smoke and mirrors? In which case, who is fooling who?”

But it’s reassuring to know that I am not the only one wondering that – here is my long-time friend Frances’ comment from facebook –  “That’s quite a project, James. Is this your area of expertise? Is the climate and soil conducive to turning this into a viable commercial proposition…?” And a few others of my friends have also made comments like “interesting….” and “challenging…..” and “how long did you say you would be out there…… ?”

And just to rub it in, here are some pics from three of the other schools, showing the quality of the land, etc.

First up, we

First up, we……..?

Well, my idea would be.....?

Well, my idea would be…

Do you think someone livig there might help....

How about we ask in there?

A local expressing their opinion.

A local expressing their opinion.

Oh, and did I forget to tell you that the government officer from the local agricultural development department just told me that, whereas the report I read about this region being pretty fertile was true, this “region” that I had read about included the whole of the state of West Bengal, ignoring the truly calcium-boron-magnesium-nitrogen depleted soils of the uplands, which is, of course where I am….

And, of course, Frances has made another equally valid point – I personally have absolutely no knowledge or experience of farming, growing vegetables or testing soils. So,never mind the fun I am having, – isn’t my decision to volunteer for this job somewhere between irresponsible and insane?  As unlikely as it may seem, I think the answer is going to turn out to be “yes”.

Two of the schools have kept up a good attempt at a subsistence garden for about three years, which means they  know to do the basic stuff. Three more have found land of better quality to start with. A Japanese agricultural team has offered to include the school teams in a 5 day intensive education course. That government guy I just told you about has just confirmed he is free to take the teams on a one day focused workshop for our specific crops and greenhouses. And then there is the discovery that an expert on soil fertility and diseases, who advises the Japanese team I just mentioned, is the brother-in-law of the best friend of the head-master of one of the schools – And he is sitting right next to me in the store run by my host’s sister….

Now, I’d like to claim the credit for being a wonderful researcher to put all this together, but mostly that just comes from a well-developed ability to ask stupid, obvious questions and keep asking until I get to better ones. Plus, I have found that if combine confidence and persistence it’s amazing what you can achieve. But all of this would be as nothing but for working with people whose essential nature is open and helpful (and patient, too, as you may imagine) and believe that there is a new future waiting to be won.

Which brings me back to the first two of my opening questions….

Children at Alpha school

Children at Alpha school

Through the rails

Through the rails

Teachers at Alpha

Teachers at Alpha


My small but loyal following will be aware that I am shortly planning to leave the shores of wet, wet, wet England for the balmy climes of India. Which is why they might have been surprised to see me in my local Cotswolds shop buying rain-resistant trousers, mountain gloves, wooly socks , base-layers (long-underwear to us older folks) and a smarter than average fleece top. Not the sort of thing you would expect to wear on the high street in Calcutta, or even, frankly, in damp-but-rarely-worse Hertfordshire.

St John's old town

St John’s old town, apparently.

Well, I am now off to Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, lands of ice and snow at this time of year, where it blows so hard, they literally have to tie the houses down (see “The Shipping Report” if you don’t believe me) and moose in snow represent a serious driving threat. All because of my brother.

John, I should explain, is the real adventurer. Over the last twenty years he has spent an awful lot of time sailing in the arctic, taking wonderful pictures and gathering amazing stories of local peoples and wild-life. His latest e-published book is a fascinating journal of a world rarely seen by most people which you can find on his website. But the thing about John – he is also one of the most careful guys I know. His boat typically has at least two levels of back-up to the main systems (navigation, propulsion and emergency) and he and Phyllis, his lovely wife, are well studied in outdoor survival, wilderness first aid, and all the rest. Which is what I was thankful for, despite the huge shock I got, when I received an email from Phyllis about him winding up in hospital with a severely broken leg, after a four hour stretcher journey out of the wilderness of Newfoundland. That was about ten weeks ago and although he has made a pretty good start on the road to recovery (though only just able to walk without a frame) he and Phyllis have been stuck all this time in a rented apartment in St John’s, about 500 miles away from home.

And that is why I am going – John and Phyllis not only need to get home, but they need to take their car with them. John can’t drive, so I will be the support driver and substitute muscle – besides providing scintillating conversation, humour and brotherly love…… Ok.

So, my next postings and photos will probably be filled with snow, mountains and mists rather than temples, tea plantations and rhododendrons. What’s not to like!

Camadramarama, mama.

This morning was full of discoveries and re-discoveries. As well as the winter wonders I found, there was the funny little battle that went on between the long-standing “take it all in” me, and the new “Wow! Look at the picture I just took – I wonder how that happened” camera-toting me.

That last – about the camera – came as a bit of a surprise. Both my most recent ex-s are serious photo-heads who always puzzled me by disappearing into their camera bags just when things got interesting. I found it difficult to see how anyone could experience the same degree of awe looking through a narrow, squared off view-finder , that I felt at the thunder of Niagara Falls or the panorama of the English south coast in May.

Whose is that teddy.....

Whose is that teddy…..

But something has changed. I think I get it now, at least for me – that narrowness forces one’s focus into finer details; lifting what you might ordinarily miss into an enhanced significance. If you can resist the early frustrations of hitting the wrong button here, missing the focal point there, and mixing the aperture with the shutter-speed (yes, really) you will emerge with a new love of light and shadow, angle and texture. Of course, you will see immediately that I was not using the auto-function all the time. And maybe that has something to do with it. For all the advantages of point-and-shoot, the care demanded by working the camera is reflected in the experience and, I think, in the quality of the photograph. It is probably true that a lot of good shots appear out of a process of auto-shoot and photo-shop, but the really great photographs – the ones that convey energy and mood, they always come out of the care of the photographer.

Our instant photo-technology is great, but at the end of the day no camera can equal the immediate all-round visual genius of the eye and brain – that is why I think I was always disappointed by my photos – not realising that the care that more devoted camera-users put into their pictures can give the eye and the brain and the mind some new focus or angle through which to appreciate the world.

Which brings me by a quite unintended route, to my mother’s coat – pictured here, where it hangs by my front door, ready to envelop me in its thick comforting warmth, just as it did my mother, when she first wore it heading going ashore in Antarctica from a cruise she went on when she was about 80, some ten years ago. After she passed away, I found it hanging in her wardrobe – easily big enough for me, and I have used it from time to time, ever since, for cold days like today. And what’s this got to do with cameras? Well, not a lot, except she was my mother and so gets quite a lot of credit for my being here, able to write and enjoy life’s opportunities as I do.

You can just see the badge.

You can just see the badge.

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