Walkabouts and wonders

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

Tag Archives: travel

An English garden in spring

Yes, it’s true. I have been around the world and been to so many places that have really stirred the soul. Now that the jet-lag is gone and the first few days chores are done, I can write about more of them. But, before that, here’s a glimpse of the specialness that emerges in an English spring.

First daffodils in my garden

First flowers of spring

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!

Steam, mud and smiles

Sometimes, you just have to let the pictures speak for themselves – these were taken at Wai-o-tapu near Rotarua, part of the still active volcanic centre of New Zealand’s North Island.

The rainbow pool at Wai-o-Tapu

The rainbow pool at Wai-o-Tapu

Close-up to the pool

Close-up to the pool

Yes, it really is that colour.  Promise.

Yes, it really is that colour. Promise.

Mud, gloriously mud.

Mud, glorious mud.

I was in company with an old friend, whom some of you will know and made two new friends, in Brits who were passing through, but in the opposite direction. If you’re reading this, “hi”.

Clive, looking unusually serious.

Clive, looking unusually serious.

Two northern lasses, Shelly and Ali.

Two northern lasses, Shelly and Ali.

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.

Fun in Singapore (?) 2

Who knew? – Singapore houses the best modern museum of art and culture that I have ever seen (at least in Europe) in the form of its Museum of Asian Civilisations. I am sorry to say that I couldn’t get enough decent pictures to do the place justice –  just a few steps beyond my current skill-levels – besides there weren’t just artifacts and stills, but multimedia presentations on where they came from and how they were made, interactive bits made for children and amateurs like me and so on. And it probably has the best and most intelligent presentation on Islamic art and its foundations in that faith, that I have visited. Frankly knocks the Victoria and Albert Islamic and Chinese galleries in London, back into the 19th Century (sorry guys – the Singapore museum even has a nicer restaurant attached).

If you think I am going a bit over the top, go have a look at the website for an idea of its rangeº and, if you live in Singapore or get a chance to visit the island, let this place surprise you.

http://www.acm.org.sg/home/home.html

And although I didn’t go all the way through them, what I saw of two other museums – the National and the Peranakan was pretty impressive, too.

Fun in Singapore (?) 1

To be perfectly honest, when I realised that I was going to spend the better part of five days in Singapore, I thought, “Here’s a chance to catch up on the emails and sort all the pictures”. Actually, if you are happy to play along, there is an energy and forward-looking verve about the centre of Singapore that goes some way to explaining its extraordinary success. Take some of the architecture…….

Let’s start with something you might have been expecting –

Banganga_9

moving onto a guy who clearly wanted to open our minds..

Well, what else can you do to make shutters interesting?

Is it a boat, or maybe an open sub with cheese and a salad garnish….?

Banganga_7

Whereas this guy was just providing a practical solution to the problem of getting space for a garden……

Banganga_12

But I have to end on what happens when demands for new convenience, in the form of cool air, get bolted onto older technologies; the refurbished waterfront district that now houses the ex-pat bar and restaurant district….

Yes, those really are air-conditioners; all of them....

Yes, those really are air-conditioners; all of them….

Down Malabar Hill

As I first looked over a map of Mumbai, I spied a word that held a strange magic for me – Malabar. In my childhood, HMS Malabar was the name of the Royal Naval station in Bermuda; the last remnants of its dockyard were part of a boy’s paradise of real and imagined dangers, amongst the abandoned buildings and rusting cranes, deep moats and empty magazines of Britain’s fortress of the Atlantic.

The view South East, to Old Mumbai.

The view South East, to Old Mumbai.

So, before I even really knew what it was, I was determined to visit this other Malabar and discover what might have linked the two places. I have to say that I haven’t yet discovered that link – it may after all have been no more than (navy) gin fuelled whimsy – but my afternoon walk provided some intriguing glimpses of life in one of the oldest parts of greater Mumbai.

The “Hanging Gardens” lie close to the summit of Malabar Hill, which turns out to contain the highest natural point above the city. Here, young and old stroll through flower beds and winding paths that give haze filled glimpses of the heart of the former capital of the Raj, below. The first steps away from these summit views took me through a children’s playground – there were certainly children around, but the swing area was entirely occupied by a group of young women, thoroughly enjoying an afternoon amongst friends.

Girls on the swings

Girls on the swings

A roadside cobbler - to his left the entrance to the Government guesthouse - a huge palace.

A roadside cobbler – to his left the entrance to the Government guesthouse – a huge palace.

The main road down the hill is a broad avenue between huge buildings, each with high gates and very serious looking security guards. Aware of how tense city police still after the terrorist attacks in 2010 and the riots in 2011, I refrain from transgressing public rule number one – no photographing government buildings. So, I have no pictures, save for this of a roadside cobbler.

But, with the help of a passing cab, I eventually reach the entrance to a narrow alley that I am told leads to the Banganga Tank, a large, open fresh-water reservoir, reputed in some local stories to be the centre of the earth, itself.

This gave me another small set of photos, making too many for this single posting, but see my second post of this series – “By Banganga Tank”.

Then, as I skirted around the side of the tank, I saw this small alleyway off to my left, through which I could just see the sea. As I walked down it, an older man, sitting with his family, caught my eye. Instinctively, I performed a Namaste, bowing slightly. At first surprised, he returned the traditional greeting to the spirit, and then rose to shake my hand, welcoming laughter in his eyes.

The alleyway to the sea

The alleyway to the sea

This mutual ceremony of dignity respect was, I think, the reason why no further heed was paid to either me or my camera as I took these last shots in the failing light of my first day here.

Sunset at the bottom of the hill

Sunset at the bottom of the hill

The other beach life of Mumbai

West along the shore

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.

Faces

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.

 

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