In the river of stars

Let the canvas of your mind be green, the lush and verdant green grown in rain soaked soil. Black and rich and scented by fresh alpine air. Etch out of this picture the following details.

Veined patterns on long leaves. Towering brown trunks with muscular branches, moss covered with braids of lichen that fall from tree-fingers, they fragment cascading light-beams which break though the canopy, showering the forest in light and shadow, revealing spider’s webs, displaying dewdrops, prisons of light.

From the huge stone slab of the protruding cliff-face we stand on, pockets of island like cloud cling to the mountainside below, revealing huge rice paddy terraces that step down to the valley floor. The green becomes an ocean to the horizon, brown of branches like whitecaps, revealed only in the passing of the wind or the jump and reach of a Rhesus monkey.

Behind us, the sky-climbing foothills of the Indian mountains and beyond, the magnificent, snow covered, cloud conquering Himalaya.This is Dharamsala, residence of the Tibetan government in exile and home of the Dalai Lama – you are most welcome.

It is funny where life leads you if you let it – I’m floating like a Poo-Bear hanging onto a balloon.

Two months before, near sandy shores in the south, two guests befriended me, Writers both and successful at it, suggested I travel here to meet their Guru. They were newly wed, you could see the freshness of their love. You could feel the rightness of it, and the warm magnetism between them. It was in the gentle way they walked together, sat together, eat and talked with others – together. Never further than a hands reach, a delicate, swan-lake-skate, two people moving in their very own orbit of sun like love.

Two planes, three trains of 35 hours and more, four buses over 24 hours, one that broke down in the night and in the nowhere of middle. Bumpy rides, white-knuckle frights around precarious cliff top racing roads, sick bags and seat-belts tight

… It was worth it for this view alone. The feeling of warm sunshine on closed eyelids. The sound of complete silence after the tumultuous racket of weeks of chaotic cities.

The swelling feeling, that rises up in the chest and spills from your eyes as you see the mountains on the horizon growing towards and inside you. The feeling that you are home for the first time in your entire life.

Now we sit by the chalk grey Ganges in Rishikesh. Its waters are as smooth as milk, it skims and curls over smooth stones and around huge twin boulders, bending around the mountains shoulder which is green covered and vibrant. Trees climb out of pebbly banks, competing for space on the slopes and heights with chalk pink and blue painted Ashrams, temples, houses and holy sites – many moneymaking places.

Steep steps concertina to the waters edge, where pilgrims and tourists bath in the cream like water. The Sun sets beyond the mountains. The grey day giving way to a deep blue sky, the violet becomes black. As light fades, window-lights twinkle in the now hidden hills like constellations.

A procession of thousands sing a lullaby sound on the shore line, and when the first star shows itself above, they each light candles, send them drifting in the now black Ganges on sauces of flowers – suddenly the river becomes a galaxy of floating, jasmine scented, swift flowing stars.

Once I have lit my own; two for those gone before, two for friends near and far, one for Love, one for regret, and one for the person I haven’t met yet, I splash, climb and sit on a wet rock in the river. Stars above and stars below, the world has become a mirror, I know not which way is up or which way is down.

I feel that all my love is in that river, a light for everyone I meet moving gently past my feet, curving out of sight, I am alone in the dark, surrounded by light.

Above, the true masters of shine and night sky look down at the flattery with silent grace and I wonder who else is looking at the stars tonight.

A fisherman hauling his nets, hopeful.

A teacher with no answers but questions.

A solider in the desert readying weapons for the sunrise he regrets will rise.

Parents showing the stars to their newborn baby maybe.

A doctor who has failed a patient. A man on a yacht ending a call that just made him richer.

A traveller, just checked into a hotel, bed sheets stark and empty goes to the balcony for company and finds…

…Who looks at the stars tonight? Someone I know, someone I love?

A Sadhu towards me sings. What does he see when he looks at me? A fellow likeness? Long scruffy hair, curled and mattered, face sun darkened, clothes worn, another worn out wandering soul? The river rushes past and I wonder, is this the path to take? To become a Sadhu in name as much as nature and wander ever further into the hills, up amongst the higher peaks where the deeper-seekers sit, in caves shallow and deep contemplating life’s secrets, seeking liberation from constant re-incarnation?

I hear its call, the cold stone floor, the empty nights, the dying embers softening the cave walls in shadowy orange, to sleep with only the wind to whisper me goodnight. What would life be like if I go? Spend a week, a year, ten years or twenty. What would I learn… enlightenment? Would the price be worth the years missed in the world by your side? Friends married in my absence, children born and grown, my nephew and niece no longer recognising me for the vast and tangled beard? Loved ones grown old, even passed away whilst I was… not there when it mattered.

And what of love in life for me, a wife, another lover? Will I ever be a Father? Or do I go further on my own, barefoot up this river seeking answers in the solitude of my longing.

I can feel them, at times my children not yet born. With hand out, palm down I can almost feel them as I pat their heads, bend and pick them up and show them the vistas and wonders that astound all around.

To teach them they’re free. To show them that no matter the cost the world tries to charge, no VIP access denied, nothing is as priceless as what they already own – natures gallery, its vastness only limited by the capacity of our own hearts to hold it, and courage to seek it, is yours, belongs to you, belongs to me.

I could climb up the road, throwing my backpacked belongings into the gorge at the last bridge. Continue on higher through the forest and its crunching leaves and sun dappled spaces. Past the rock covered heights where green things no longer grow, following trickling streams until legs burn and become thigh deep in snow. And higher still where the sky ceases to be blue, turns black and the air so thin, lungs fail to rise, instead shallow fall and then we float up into the darkness of space, you and I, ascending lightly as a feather.

Fear grips in the darkness, until realisation hits – that this is the greatest show in the universe – The only one that never gets tired of you looking and you never tire of it looking back. It is an uncountable display of planets and stars and Mars and all the others laid out before you – life on a spectacular scale.

Floating, would you look back at the Earth and see it for the Eden it truly is – life in a lifeless void and utterly precious.

Seeing the white of distant snow, the brown and green and blue picture patchwork of our world, feeling the presence of all those dreams and hope, the anguish and fears, the screams… does it fill you with rage that they’re building us a cage of convenience from which to feed us false information and food that poisons us as well as the land and sea. Creating new monsters of cancer and obesity?

Microwave meals on ready wheels so long as you’re full of tubes and plastic, paying your taxes. Making us ashamed of our skin and our looks, those profit seeking crooks with their scalpels and surgeons coats, young girls of eight… E i g h t! …Starving themselves sick to be a stick, to fit in clothes no one knows who makes – yet still it isn’t enough to stop us buying the stuff at the checkout lines that makes us vomit.

– yesterday I saw a child crawl through rubbish piles looking for food, fending off dogs –

the magazines making mockery of our lives and our strife’s with its dramas and celebrities of ignorance. Leaders and board members that swop peace for pennies, bombs and warplanes deliver dollars to the bank at the expense of a kind world for those that deal in Hate.

You can hear it, if you listen, the children crying, the cities burning, the forests falling a football pitch an hour, animals fleeing, pollution overflowing… Politicians ignoring scientific evidence, using morals set in stone a thousand years ago to justify the deepening of their pockets and power placements…

As long as we are ok… Building towers of coins with our sweat and toil at the expense of our backs breaking and our relationships creaking, our homes and hearts mortgaged for a rainy day. Our health and education a commodity to be exploited. But that’s not what we’re told because even our freedom of speech is on a leash of profit – so give us scandal and gossip because its so much more interesting. And so our Cynicism and worry for change makes us see we’ve never had it so good….WE HAVE NEVER HAD IT SO GOOD… …but who the hell are we, anyway?

Can we please just stop treating each other like shit? Can we stop overfeeding one group of people and starving another, please. Can we stop placing our happiness into another’s hands, and then punishing them when they inevitably fail to balance the act? Can we stop, not letting love in…can we start loving ourselves again?


That green and blue world – our home – beautiful.

Doesn’t it hurt just looking at it, doesn’t it hurt all that love.


I came here seeking answers the caves and solitude may provide. Yet an answer I have; I found it by a river of starlight. I feel it deep down in the core of me, the part that sees the beauty in the sunrise. Which smiles with delight every time it sees a rainbow rise.

That finds peace in the music of the stream bubbling over rocks in far away Devon. It tells me you are important. You are so very special and significant in this world.

And if all you can do in this life is to live the true expression of yourself, to do those things that bring you joy, and then by extension, bring joy to others then that is enough, start from there.

Because no act of creating, poetry or painting, no act of inspiration, fun, joy and laughter fail to delight and ignite hearts, or go un-noted.

So spread your wonderful self far and wide, share your magic, go… be, it’s free.

Because it’s a good world, it is a good, good world. And if you and me can light just one candle in the worlds heart to send along this river of life, who knows who will be watching in the dark.

I am not ready to give up on my heart, on my dreams and the world and its screams for a cave in the hills, just yet. So, if I can hold on to this crazy ride, hold on tight with courage like Poo Bear to a string on a balloon, no matter the challenge, age, wage, no matter the self-doubt and fear and distractions or delight, and all the things that everyone else wants us to be and to do, our work, drinks and screw, lets just me and you hold on… follow our hearts.

Can we just hold on you and me to our little dream balloons and trust our Souls to do the guiding.

I am going to hold on to this gift, this beautiful, gorgeous, delicious and funky funny world, with all its faults. Light a candle in the cave of my heart and hold on.

Side by side, Orbiting the sun of our life Together, in this fast flowing river of stars,

Will you hold on with me?

Varanasi Part 1- Row your boat, gently down the stream…

Picture me walking towards you across an Indian market by a wide river. It’s early morning and the stalls are empty. My hair is blond, curly and shoulder length. I am wearing a blue t-shirt and knee length shorts. As I come near my smile is replaced by a frown of concentration. I stand with legs wide apart, knees bent, blue eyes straight at you. Suddenly, as my hands mime the beating of a drum, you hear the deep and resonant sound of a drums and symbols playing in time with my hand motions. A huge tambourine clashes as my hands form into a prayer above my head, my arms go out to either-side and wriggle to the rhythm of a sitar that begins to play and the winning of a snake charmers trumpet.

Another pair of arms appear wriggling behind mine and another pair and another pair and another pair.

A base drum sounds once, twice, three times-four, my head drops revealing another person behind me and another and another and another, six Indian men move to either-side of me, each dressed as waiters. We begin to dance in time to the Hindi music that is now in full swing.

The market fills up with people. Women with glittering sarees of purple, green and red carry baskets of brightly cloured fruit singing in high voices. A line of white-robed men with yellow turbans hop and skip their way onto the picture pushing trolleys, singing in deep counter tones. Children run past smiling at you, teeth white, eyes bright, throwing flower petals. Myself and the dances have all dropped low and are kicking our legs out in time to the beat, hands pushed palm out and chanting “ha-ha-ha-ha,” Suddenly, a herd of cows, white, black, yellow and brown come charging from behind you scattering us out of the way.

Once the dust settles, there are seven beautiful girls in sarees of gold and blue who move into the cleared centre space. The music is softer now and the leader of the girls, an especially beautiful young lady, dressed in white and gold sings a song and dances, her maidens twirl their fingers and point their toes mimicking her moves. I roll towards her on to my knees and sing a note in Hindi, clearly entranced. My fellow dancers each roll and sing to one of the girls… Taking note of my t-shirt and shorts she shrugs and skips away, the girls follow her leaving us all crushed.

Then the music picks up again and my dancers produce a large sheet of fabric of spiraled purple patterns that I disappear behind. A holy man hops skips and jumps before you, his brown skin stark against his white beard. He sings a magical word and waves his staff towards the cloth from behind which you can see my clothes been flung into the air.

With a final wave of his stick and a wiggle of his eyebrows, and a rather violent thrusting of his hips, the holy man disappears and I appear from behind the cloth dressed as a prince in white and gold with diamonds glittering in my turban. My fellow dances are each now dressed as rich servants in red and white who follow me and grab you we, conga after the girls…

We dance along the dark and narrow alleyways of the town, between ramshackle buildings, dodging and leaping over dogs and motorbikes, high fiving stall sellers and ducking under baker’s trays laden with chapattis. The girls, led by the beauty in white, conga past us in the opposite direction singing in high whiny voices, ours mid tone, match theirs note for note. A window opens above us; a policeman with a brown face and a huge mustache leans out, grumpily singing about the noise. Above him five more windows open consecutively, each with a policeman older than the last, their mustaches getting bigger and grander and voices higher and higher in note and indignation. Until finally a wizened old head pops out, eyes barely open and sings. Glass breaks somewhere and the music stops. A ball flies through the air and hits the window that smacks the policemen in the face; all the lower windows fall shut knocking each and every policeman back through the windows. The ball falls past washing lines and clothes out to dry to land in my hand. I nod to the band that is huddled inside a shop front waiting.

The music begins again and the seven girls and we chaps following cross a bridge of boats on the river, hop skipping across from boat to boat to the sound of trumpets, sitars, symbols and drums, men in loincloths burst from the water, splashing us each as we pass and mermaids dance and bubbles mutter.

Back in the market place, the whole town is dancing, they lift me and the girl up in a great pyramid of arms and legs, an elephant marches past spraying glitter and rose petals from it’s trunk. The girl impressed with my dancing and new clothes flutters her eyelids and everyone cheers.

In the foreground and quite near to you, a huge tiger is sitting on a stone plinth having it’s paws pampered and nails sharpened by a lovely local girl with doe like eyes. He looks at you and rolls his eyes at my indulgence and extravagance. In the background, un-seen by the cheering crowd a monkey throws a coconut at my head and I fall backwards out of site. The Tiger yawns, then eyes go wide and jaw drops in astonishment as a troop of marvelous mice dance past his feet playing violins.

The Tiger looks at you and shrugs his shoulders…

…I knew I was outside before I woke properly, but wasn’t sure how or why? What I hear before sleep and dreams fully depart are noises normally filtered away by glass and curtain.

Subtle sounds and sensations heard and felt with closed eyes at dawn; The flutter of bird’s wings, the searching tongue and nose of an animal sifting through rubbish, the tightening of my skin and the pulling of my pores as the heat grows. Footsteps, sluggish and scuffing, the yawning of a dog, the splash of a boats oar in water. In the distance a radio turns on, a child cries and a woman silences it with soft words. Nearby someone is washing something, the plunging watery sound is rich and desirable – the roof of my mouth hugs my tongue tight.

The gum that has formed across my eyes slowly tears open. Out of the blur I can see the shape of a man sitting still and cross-legged before me. He wears a robe of orange wrapped about his waist and has a wizened, whitish beard that hangs to his belly is in stark contrast to the wrinkled nut brown of his skin, it’s long tangles fall down together with the locks of his hair to his waist – a Sadhu, a wandering holy man common to the riverside.

We are sitting in the shade of an archway at the bottom of a stairwell made of reddish stone; its coated in the same soft greasy layer of ash that covers all of Varanasi.

He smiles at me, or at least ceases to frown for the fraction of a moment, the deep creasers of his face fold deeper into the recesses about his eyes, he gestures to the right.

Slowly, I turn my head. Before us is the Ganges, grey-blue, still and quite. The red ball of the morning sun, two thumbs widths from the horizon hangs patiently waiting for me to notice it. On the far bank a flock of birds swoop and land on the surface silently. A man stands on his boat in the middle of the river; an oar paused in paddling as he regards the same view. A cloud of incense and hashish blows into my face from the Sadhu’s pipe making me sick.

I try to stand, nausea overwhelms me and for several moments I throw up by my side. My fingers cling to the warm yellow stone floor, as it becomes a wall, ceiling and floor again. My body shakes and what little saliva I have is leaking from my mouth in long strands, a tear falls and splashes in the mess of me.

A dog approaches, or the bare skin and bones of one, it smiles at me both apologetically and with understanding and begins to lick my insides up. I feel, or think I feel someone standing over and behind me; the Sadhu must have come to help. I wave my hand and mumble thanks, but when I swing up right, he hasn’t moved at all. His legs are still folded underneath him in full lotus; his eyes regard me like still water.

I find myself thanking him anyway and apologizing for throwing up so close to his space. From the array of incense sticks and deity statues and pictures it looks as though this is his permanent spot, prime for seeing the Ganges and for being seen by tourists and pilgrims passing along its shore.

After a moment he says something in Hindu, the words roll out his mouth in a babble of noise I don’t understand. Sweat brakes out across my brow and body as I lean back, I look at him through half lidded eyes and try and remember why I am here.

Varanasi Part 2 – … life is but a dream

I wander around the city of Varanasi as the sun begins to set. I am at once appalled and enchanted. It is said to be one of the oldest settlements known to civilisation and I have rarely seen a more magical place. The old part itself is a labyrinth of narrow alleyways created by leaning skeletal buildings that grow out of the bones of those that are rotting in layers beneath.

Here children play cricket in gutters thick with flies and dying animals. Faeces of dog, cow, cat and man mix and patch the floor together.

Dogs, thin and mangy claim any spare space not already taken by cows or passing people. Some lay in dangerous way of the footfall and traffic, as though daring or wishing to be squashed and taken out of the chaos of this life and into the possibility of the next.

The tempo is high and fast. Traders of gold and spices, religious jewellery makers, tourist touts and food sellers all call out from the shadows. Hot plates smoulder and smoke, angry red in dark corners; fried patties and sweet breads fry in oils bubbling on hot coals and gas lit stoves. Men queue in food lines past open urinals bronzed with the stain of ages. In these corridors you breathe through the mouth shallowly.

In the main passages, motorbikes blast their horns impatiently as people pass and go carrying all types of supplies.

Hindu tourists mingle with pilgrims buying flowers or incense for offerings at the cities many temples. Armed police linger at every corner with antique guns and little interest. Chanting and bells ringing call who-knows-who from and to unseen places.

I look around me as the gloom gives way to night. On the stone shelves and doorways; skin and bone people curl up and claim spaces warmed by dogs by day, they use their knees for blankets.

A shadowy form detaches itself from a doorway, trails me asking if I want Heroin, his eyes are hungry with desperation for someone to share the ride he is on. I turn to the shadow, reminded of a former client of mine at the homeless shelter in Earls Court.

He’d had Heroin-numb-tortured eyes with ghosts for veins that tried to hide from him and his unstoppable needle, fading away, day by day. He had nothing left but that hunger. It took everything from him and gave shame and guilt back, trapped on a merry-go-round of self-hate with breaks that could not be oiled. Such is the agony of an addict, our criminalised sick, instead of pain numbed, it’s stored up and delayed for later when in sober thought.

The man asks me again.

“Herion? You want my friend?”

“No.” I say, my British’ness escapes my lips before I can stop it, thanks him though for asking.

He returns to his dark doorway and I seek out the light.

A noise causes me to turn and I step aside.  A troop of men carrying a wooden frame with body on top charge past. The body is wrapped in a shroud that’s come lose about the face, a dead eye catches mine, I do not wink.

I come across a press of people forming what could be called a queue to enter a temple beneath a metal detecting doorframe. The atmosphere is excitable, frantic and threatening to spill over into something more… pressing. It reminds me of the restrained lines of eager and anxious partygoers waiting in lines in London’s alleys or football fans on the way to the ground – Religion Hindu style, it pulses in the veins of those who worship, it is alive and feverish,  a far cry from the empty pews and cold stone churches of home.

As dark and grimy as this city feels it has an authentic ordering to its rhythm, as something that has evolved by process of evolution. Those that walk these corridors have earned their right by fight and survival to be here now in this place, walking the warn flagstones, washing in the river over lives and years, they know how to live this life, a community thriving on the passing-through-pilgrims.

It is in the new city that the contrast strikes hardest. Where the light of politics shines, with its infrastructure and education and a developing style of life.

Once out of the labyrinth I am assailed by the babble of a hundred thousand voices of cars and bikes and people. Taking a cycle rickshaw to the station, I see a man, hair shaggy, curly and wild, he wares nothing but an oversized pair of jeans that he clutches at the zip to hold them up. He walks without seeing or caring across the chaos of traffic. Amazingly nothing hits him. Once across, barefoot and shirtless, he fights off two dogs to scavenge through a rubbish pile – The apex animal going to feast. From nearby getting in line a dog, a horned curve necked cow, a half clothed child that watches with nothing in her eyes, the pecking order established – Modern India making way with no plan for the old.

Back into the wandering winding ways I follow a narrow stairway that leads down to the chalk like water where pilgrims and locals wash, waste and burn bodies in the holy waters. Huge crowds thousands strong gather after sunset. They swarm the Ghats, first washing, then singing and clapping as priests with painted brows, in ritualised movements burn clouds of incense that drift across the water to the accompaniment of chimes, bells, drums and clapping.

I walk away and follow the river to the Burning Ghats passing huge buildings of red, yellow and white stone that crowd the spaces with archways and pepper pot windows.

I reach one as the last of the sunlight disappears. Seven fires spaced out burn bodies. Gangs of family men stand nearby; the presence of women is forbidden since grief stricken wives are known to throw themselves or be thrown on the fires.

To be burnt on the Ganges is to free yourself from the cycle of re-incarnation. The four forbidden from burning are Holy men, deemed already pure, those bitten by a cobra the mark of Shiva and pregnant women and children.

Another body is carried to the water to be cleansed before burning. Fresh wood is stacked to build a pyre.

In the darkness an array of fire-lit faces observe the proceedings. Cows, dogs, goats, all stand interspersed with people bearing witness. It’s like bonfire night crossed with the Nativity – only at the other end of life.

Clouds of burning human and wood billow in the air, sparks fly up into the night, whilst men with hammers break up the ashes and bones left in old and cooled pits.

There is no smell such as I thought, not above the ash of wood and cow dung and human piss. Wherever you turn you’re likely to see a man pissing somewhere in India.

My roommate earlier protested the rule that a tourist isn’t allowed to take a photo at the burning Ghats, yet an Indian can piss near a pyre burning someone’s remains. I ask him how he would feel, if a tourist turned up at his relatives funeral taking photos of him grieving? He asks how I’d feel if he pissed at that funeral? On the river, a boatload of tourists observes from the water, cameras flash like a concert crowd. I feel like taking a piss at them.

After the burning I seek the silence of the river, needing to think, needing to be alone. But a constant barrage of young Indian men approach me, repeating the constant mantra a tourist must first hear, then like an old track on the radio, come to know off by heart.

“Boat? You want boat? Hashish, ecstasy, marijuana, cocaine, DMT, heroin, anything you want, you want something my friend?”

Frustrated and disappointed, must I wear an orange robe to gain some solitude? Supply follows demand so who to be angry at, them or tourists? But this is not Ibiza-India for good times; it’s a place where life meets death, is that the reason sought for escape?

Varanasi is an uncompromisingly honest place and beautiful for it. Illusions we wrap around ourselves in like a shroud are stripped away here. Up close and personal, no amount of makeup, sun-tan or skin lightening cream or designer clothing can disguise you, no air-con, luxury hotel nor status will let you escape the truth of what we are in this world – A temporary, living-breathing thing of flesh and bone and shit and sweat that will pass away one day.

Death cannot be locked in a box, transported in metal and glass on wheels to be buried like a treasure, hoarded for a rainy resurrection day.

Death and Life are the same game, it’s in the room, in the air, in the present moment and those that have gone before and care are free to be in the trees that grow and the breeze that blows away our grief, because once grief passes, Love remains.

Sitting by the river at night I wonder why Indians call the Ganges Mother.

I decide to phone mine.

She asks if I am having a nice time.

I don’t know how to answer, what kind of a time am I having?

In the absence of information, she goes straight to the heart of things.

Are you eating properly?

Was there ever a more pure, sincere and divine expression of Motherly Love?

I wander all night long, until lost and too tired to find my hotel I sit down under a sandstone archway where the Sadhu’s sleep near the flowing river, carrying all its life and all its death.

Sleep comes slowly to a place like Varanasi, it settles down in stages, like a dog walking in circles before finally collapsing. There comes a point where you can hear it snoozing, the soft sigh of wind disturbing dust, the patter of a cats feet, the gentle flutter of a white owl flying between boats. Above the archway stars peek at you from behind ash clouds, checking you’re awake, the red eye-like glowing of the Sadhu’s Charas pipes in the dark watch you too as you drift off, whispering up your nostrils with promises of…

… The sun is rising higher, I can feel the shade retreating across my face.

The Sadhu speaks again to me, a babble of Hindi.

“He says, that it is now you are dreaming.” Nearby a boy sits on his haunches watching me, watching the Sadhu.

I look at the old man. He regards me with those deep, still eyes and speaks again.

The boy translates.

“Now you not awake, the dream begins again. Now you dream is the life, but in life we must be waking up.”

He nods, offers me his charras, I thank him, hands closed together, yet decline.

I look at his turban, thinking about glitter firing elephants.

“It gives me funny dreams.” I say.

Watched by the Sadhu, the boy and the dog, I walk to the waters edge and stretch.

A breeze blows off the water, it ruffles my hair.

I will be leaving this place today, a decision to make by the Mother Ganga.

To the right She grows and flows for many miles more, becoming wider, heavy and pregnant with India’s matter which she pours into the Bay of Bengal.

To the left She washers and waters arid-lands green for miles as She comes down from the Himalayas and somewhere, up there, she must narrow to a stream, a trickle under a single stone from snowmelt.

Shall we seek the end? Where it appears to disappear yet in-fact merely merges with something infinitely greater than itself, opening up into a new ocean of possibilities, breeding a new kind of life.

Or to seek its source and origin and perhaps then in discovering what came before, better understand what comes after?

Which way?

A group of seven girls walk past me along the riverbank in Sarees of all colours. One, a beauty catches my eye. She casts a look over my dust covered t-shirt and shorts and dishevelled hair and continues on her way.

I look at the Sadhu and at the boy and at the dog that all look back at me.

Does it matter which way we go, isn’t life only a dream?

In the Ashram there is nowhere to hide

I’ve been holding this yoga position for some time now… legs shake, sweat drips from my brow…

…Excitement shows as it grows in the close faces amongst the crowd as the band we’ve all come to see strides onto the pyramid stage, a 100,000 hands wave, clap, cheer. Adrenaline rushes in the veins; feelings soar and swim in the cocktail of drugs, alcohol, anticipation. The base kicks in. People jump, beer splashes my face, it drips…

…The bus is full and I am pressed in with people going to unknown places. Their faces are close, eyes dark but full of light. Sarees of jade and amethyst, sarees of blue and gold, noses and foreheads are studded with jewels or dots of paint. There are bags of apples and dates, packs of wheat and spices, a goat. The bus smells of saffron and stinks of sweat. Boys hang out the doorway and windows by bars as the ground rushes past; wattle and palm houses whirl past with it … a man with one leg on crutches, a woman with an impossibly huge bag on her head, children in a ditch knee-deep in black water. Bison forage in waist high rubbish piles. A motorbike with a todler perched on her father’s knee overtakes the bus at speed, his wife looking bored sits sidesaddle behind, she cradles a baby in one arm, and the family dog in the other. The bus driver leans on his horn, never on the break as the sheer size and speed and noise of our passage are enough to move bikes, dogs, cars and all but passing cows from our speeding path. One of which forces us to swerve aside, horns glaring back at us, we nearly flatten a man with a cart, the cow is safe, the man I no longer can see. My arms ache with the effort of holding onto the rail above me. Hot air blasts through open windows, cooling my skin, blowing the sweat from my face which falls…

… Sweat drips from my nose to the black, polished stone flagged floor of the Ashram Satang hall and my face held within. Beyond me is the reflection of the bamboo roof which is held up by two rows of white columns that split the room like a mirror. Reaching, stretching, back bending… 90 feet by 30 wide, the room is wide and on the top floor, so that the treetops form a balcony of green leaves, interspersed with views of blue edged mountains and the deeper dark of the dawn sky. Jagged and fiery orange, the rising sun reflects across the stone flagged floor like a dragons tongue reaching towards me. It is 5.40am and I have been holding this position for some time now, legs apart, right knee bent, hand touching right ankle. Sweat drips to the black stone floor and hits my refection..

…in a black puddle. I am 16, holding a press-up, my nose is a few inches from foul smelling river mud. My arms are shaking with the strain and exhaustion and effort. Around me men grunt, breath hard, some cry, others sob muffled in the muck. The voice of the Royal Navy PT instructor racks out, “One day you may have to die for your country, you may have to kill for your country. If you can’t hold your fucking self up, what good are you… to me… to your family? To your…”  The list goes on, the voice is riddled with contempt and disgust: not at the words but at the people not worthy to bother with, people like me, people like you, but I’ll show them. I’ll keep holding, keep shaking arms straight, keep my face from the filthy water and my reflection trapped within, wondering what I am doing here, what am I becoming?… sweat drips…

…drops on the Temple floor in Mandouri, Tamil Nadu. It is a marvel. It is a riot of colour and carved-Pratchitt like gnomes on the outside. Inside, it is a living, breathing place full of people selling, working, praying and hoping for 2,500 years and counting. I walk its passages, past stall-sellers, beggars and holy men who crowd in its shadowy chambers. I walk into an empty, long and narrow chamber, with high circular walls which leads into utter darkness – it’s like looking down a well. Cut from black rock, pillars of beasts both real and imaginary climb up to the ceiling. Flickering light from candles of devotion catch and cast jagged shadows through incense clouds, rose petals fall in my path as from somewhere other. A drum is playing, it misses the beat of the slip slap of my feet, as I pass gods with multiple arms, daggers and tongues dripping blood, elephant heads with open eyes and palms out. I walk past pillars of unicorns, wyverns, lions and deformed monstrous birds, twisting snakes and smiling demon faces. The sound of chanting pulls me on. In the shadows, eyes follow me. Lit by candle light and hope the poor wait for the next life at the feet of black stone carved rocks. Only the ceiling has colour, 3 dimensional patterns of aluminous-trance forming-enticing spirals, the message is clear, up here is the where you want to be, out of the shadows…

Why am I moved to tears? So that I sit inside an alcove with a faceless deity, eyes closed in pretend meditation to hide the feelings that are falling from my eyes. This place could not be anymore alien to my past. It’s like an Ayahuasca vision, it holds an otherworldliness to it.. Is that why I feel my Father so close? I haven’t shared tears with another since he passed away six years since. Now, under the prism of light from a temple window, I am 13 again, you are collecting me early from school. Was it a bully, a thoughtless teacher, a broken heart? What must you have thought as I cried out my young misery? That this pain in the long story of my life wouldn’t mean much at all, yet you were kind enough to know it would feel so real to me then and not make light of it. I don’t remember what you said, I know I cried into your shoulder and then you drove me home. Did I ever tell you how grateful I was, am?

Music calls from other walls and realisations hit like chisels and hammers in the darkness. On the wall, tears drip in stone from a statue…

… why does sweating whilst lying still seems so wasteful? The fan above the bed is running so fast I can see faces in the blurring circles of air. The blue of the Mosquito net shimmers, patens of light; blue, purple fly fast in a wheel clockwise, spinning and twisting, a peacocks face with friendly, knowing eyes emerges in front of me, green and blue feathers of patterned beauty. It’s head moves closer, pierces a clear watery layer between me and it. What does it mean when you dream with your eyes open? 

The alarm is rang at 5.30 each morning. The dawn light casts a shimmer of blue through the mosquito net which is fastened squarely around my bed, so tight that it reminds me of a glass case in a museum. In this moment, before the world wakes me fully at the second bell, the light grows from grey to white and dreams slip away like sand in a squeezing hand. I am the exhibited creature, on display to the viewing public of Pete. This is the Ashram and there is no hiding here, not even from yourself.

My feet flip flap across the dorm room, my long legged yoga trousers swishing dust. Outside the world is waking. A peacock cries, a monkey throws an acorn at no-one in particular. A tunnel of green hedges and branches line a red stone path to the Satsam Hall. Flowers with petals of orange, yellow, purple and bright white with the most wonderful smells like jasmine and apricot entice me on. Butterflies bob past, orange and black-white spotted. Above the sky is clear and a blue.

Yet amongst this seemingly paradise retreat, with its charming staff and supportive guests, I have become aware of something sinister, another… something is closeby and does not wish to be seen or noticed. It’s not the green pyramid-patterned cobra which sleeps beneath the bush outside the washroom. Not the rats and mice that roam the dorm room at night, investigating bags and snacks. Nor the Scorpion that scuttles in the shower room avoiding the light. Not even the monkeys who delight in trashing the beds of those who don’t show enough respect to them in the gardens. Yet they are a clue, as are we, it is the in-between of them and me.

It is more dangerous and ugly, which does not want to be seen. Ironic then that I first became aware of it when I was looking in the mirror. I caught a glimpse of it after the tenth time I found myself looking at my new flat, yoga created stomach. I later felt it when it lost its temper with an old French-Canadian who refused to close the dorm door. Denied food at times of it’s choosing it is ever hungry, denied activities to suit its mood it is fidgety and prevented from choosing its company or time to sleep, it becomes demanding. Ladies and Gentlemen, the ego has been identified.

And being so held it wriggles like an eel in many pairs of hands, its jelly’ness slipping all the more tightly I hold it. It would run if it could, slither and slip away under the cover of dramas or news pages… but for the Ashram.

The everyday routine of waking, mediation and chanting is the program to flush out our Egos. Morning yoga, brunch of lentils and rice, lectures about nutrition and relaxation. The selfless devotional work and cleaning, (enter here sinister and lazy laughter from a hiding place) evening yoga (groaning, grunting, sweat filled stretching), super of Dhal and chapatti, more chanting, bell ringing, tambourine clapping and solo singing of hymns in Sanskrit. No alcohol, no sugar, in fact no drugs of any kind to hide behind, no T.V, no internet, no porn, no clothed identity, just you and me in our self-volunteered prison and our ego’s for company.

I will stretch it, love it, and show it that it has a place and purpose and nothing to fear. That it needs not take control of all. Rather it can be part of the team that makes up me.

It resists.

The maze of Memory has many entrances and the ego is as patient and subtle as a green pyramid-patterned cobra…

I’ve been holding this position for some time now… legs shake, sweat drips from my brow…


Soul and Surf

Sometimes you need to leave a place before you truly see its beauty, feel its value, sense the hole that it filled inside of you.

As the Rickshaw chugs and climbs its way up the steep, palm lined road, I catch the last glimpse of the home this place has become. Sunlight filters over treetops casting shadows over the stepped Ghats; pea-green ponds of cool waters, where people wash away their day and prepare for the night. The village temple, two thousand years old and rising, clings to the distinct red rock of Varkala, its gargoyles and gods and dogs watch with indifference as we go by and the house rooftops which shelter beneath the canopy of palm leaves seem to slumber as though we were never there, we were but a dream.

Last night I stood in the cliff top garden of Soul and Surf and watched my last sunset over the sea in that place, where the red kites fly and the giant bats haunt the night, where cloud city-scapes pass you by almost in hands-reach and where dreams breach the horizon, caught in the wild wind of the heart and imagination, where the surf sings you to sleep.
Energy collects around particular people-places, then leaves without a trace. The Cafe, now an empty shell, bare and broken down ahead of the monsoon looks sad and alone. I can still sense all the guests and staff busy at the counter, ordering fresh cake and coconut blended juices, yoga slices and fresh chopped salads. I can hear the Hindu beats and the chuckling, excitable singing of the Indian boys, unhurriedly cooking. The garden devoid of its sun-lounges has lost its purpose, lost its soul. The dinner tables, the breakfast bar, the hammocks removed, the reception area with Sunil’s funky, soul-music silent. The entrance where the surf wagon and rusty ambassador sit, the surfboard store-sandy-floor from the beach, clean. Kerala house with its high tilled walls and soft slap of echoing feet… empty. And the space beneath the fig tree where the yoga mats lay and the sessions held in the morning sunshine…

Breathe five; four, and three, hold the position, two, one… Breathe out. Bending, twisting, reaching for toes that no-one seemed to notice or care for before. They are now prizes at the end of the long race up my legs, just out of reach, yet close enough to not give up. Hold the position that would baffle a biologist… dedicate this practice to someone in your life… Knees drawn up, twisting, locking arms and facing back – these are the spaces where we hold our pain caused by others… breathe out… twist and bend… these are the spaces we hold the pain we have caused others… breathe… remember to breathe…

Why am I feeling this pain? It is not inside of me but is it outside of me?

I stood on the rooftop, remembering a dance by torchlight, of an angel moving in the shadows…
Now they are all gone it is as though the world is in a permanent state of dusk. As though denied even the splendor of the sunset, now left simply with the memory of its heat and the remanences of its dying light. Even the dogs sensed the change, becoming at once more irritable and needy by turns. Rupee, keeps the space outside my door warm with her body through the night, keeping others out or keeping me in.

After they left, I tried to summon up the motion to leave the now drab place. But part of me wanted to stay to, until even the locals had left for villages in the mountains out of reach of the floods to come, to become part of the grey, to merge into the rain-rotting furniture, to feel the jungle push through and escape the manicured lawn as the monsoon feeds it’s insatiable appetite, its creepers climbing my legs, passing through my parts, wielding me to the garden chair, keeping me there…

Yet life moves on and you and I must go with it.
India truly is the land of the heart. It beats triple time. Life refuses to be ignored, to go quietly about its routines and rhythms; there are no neat English gardens here. Life is oozing around you. Green and bursting. It flies in your face with a hum and buzz, crawls up your feet, crosses where the vain and bone meet and tickles and bites. Crumbs fallen from your mouth become mountains to be moved by hives of activity and rivers of ants of which a multitude of sizes and colours exist. A splash of honey exposes the addicts, stuck in the mud of sugary heaven, others clamber over the still live but petrified bodies of… friends? Every moment is a new discovery of a creature, insect and plant you’ve never seen or heard of, each as weird and alien as the next.

As with the small, so too with the big. Rivers of people like ants rush through the day, horns beeping, cars and bikes weaving a strange hypnotic dream, a health and safety nightmare. India is an around the clock show, tickets are free and non-refundable – whether you realise it or not, you are part of the exhibition. Hours are passed in the sharing of intimate moments of insight, self realisation. Hope is discovered in the crooks and crannies of each other’s-life’s dark corners. Meaning is chiseled out of the hard rock of our hearts. Every day is a chance to relive your pain and joy, to do it differently, to feel it again. Life is exploding here. It’s like god is ejaculating all over the place and we are swimming in the mess.

Love, it comes along in life, hits you in the stomach. Love comes along in life and punches your nose, love comes into life and twists your nipple and it feels so good but hurts so much too. Love comes along and smacks you in the chops. And you feel that love has had its way with you, Love has moved onto another, passed you by like a cloud. Then Love comes along, when you least expects it and kicks you, really hard in the balls… Bring it on life; let’s see what you have next.

India is Life and Life is love. If you want to know what India is like, it is like love comes knocking in the guise of a stretching wrack. Your pulsating heart is pulled and stretched with all it can take. It hurts, but the hurting helps you grow.

Sometimes you need to leave a place before you truly see its beauty, feel its value, sense the hole that it filled inside of you…that is true of people too. More so than the bits and pieces, the material things… energy flows where people grow, and India is growing inside of you.

Surfing Kerala

Sunlight glitters like a thousand salty tears in the spray that erupts and showers over you, each drop a translucent bubble of cascading light. The board thuds as you dip into the downside of a wave and then begin to rise up as a wall of water, crystal blue rolls; climbing higher than a door-frame towards you, breath taking, board holding, you brace.

A thousand miles away and several hours before you woke, a summer storm swept the sea. Like a child blowing on the surface of a pond the force of it has generated waves that rippled across the Ocean in all directions, traversing the grids of an atlas, gathering speed in great lines of grey blue – The water is not the wave, rather like a lion tamers rope, flicked from one end the energy runs the length of it to crash and smash on this shore, River Temple beach, Kerala.

Your head was down, now lifted with the force and slap of the blue, your spine straight along the length of the surfboard, curls inside the cusp of the wave as your life-raft lifts almost vertical. Even before your pointing toes have entered the rolling rush of water your nose, face, head and neck bust through the energy which has travelled miles to pass through you, your hair flies back in parody of a Mohican as you inhale the sweet salty air as your feet disappear inside. You are at once outside, inside and outside again.

Like life it seems, a struggle and a challenge. The white water tests your strength, smashes your resolve, pounds your willpower, the sheer power and size of the water mocks you and the little bit of plastic and wood you cling to.

You paddle like a drunken man crawls into the open Ocean. All is light blue above, deep beneath, after the rush and roar of foam and crash of waves, all is quiet, you have made it to the place of peace and you are free, alive and happy.

This spot is where the river meets the sea, and where the Indian and Arabian Ocean collide and complete, warm and cold currents dance and swirl. The world famous Kerala backwaters, after months of being cut off from the open water by the drought of hot months have breed a colony of jellyfish, which now with the rising river meeting the Ocean for the first time in a season has spilt its spawn into the currents. Five of us, bobbing beyond the break point watch the white and blue patterned spectral bodies slip us by.

Small fish flirt with the surface; some leaping to escape prey unseen is not uncommon. Today a 2-meter manta ray leaps 10 feet above the water not 20 yards from us in an unexpected display of acrobatics – on my mind is what is chasing that… Yesterday there was a turtle for company, the week before the true masters of the air and water, dolphins. What must they make of us, these creatures of the land, becoming of the sea?

Over the last month I have morphed from a large and long creature of florescent yellow and blue, unwieldy but stable, changing, becoming smaller, faster, more manoeuvrable, changing to a smaller animal, today my fish-tail board cut through the jagged waves, yet left me riding lower in the water and feeling more vulnerable in it’s murky depths.

A yellow bit of rubbish, bobs then washes into my face, a nestle packet… “Milky bars are on me.” Runs through my head as disgust rushes through my being. The thoughts of turtles and Rays swallowing this rubbish, mistaking it for a jellyfish and dying for carelessness is revolting. Advertising and marketing become accountability as Nestle just left their mark at the scene of a crime against nature. The absurdity that we use a material that takes 200,000 years to biodegrade to preserve a throw away item hits me, as more rubbish floats out to sea… the future of airbrushing will be on postcards of paradise it seems.

I see something struggling on the surface of the water. A flying beetle the size of a penny. I scoop it up; let it dry on my finger. It’s face that of a Disney character smiles back at me. Its wings shake off the water, tiny details, so intricate, so beautiful shimmer along it’s span. After a couple of attempts it takes off into the air and away into the sky…

In the vastness of the ocean I am reminded of this quote.

Wisdom tells me I am nothing, Love tells me I am everything… through these two truths my life does flow…

When the peace and quiet of the open water and the singing of distant fisherman, hauling in their nets becomes tiresome, I face the seashore, with its palm trees waving me home I paddle, one two three. I choose a wave to ride not by it’s height, but by whether it scares me or not. The best way to know it’s fast enough to ride on the small board. Such a wave lifts me up, faster and higher. Shouts of encouragement from my companions, all strong surfers prevent me from pulling back as my body wants to do.

Paddle. Paddle. Paddle, hearing the rush and roar, feeling the fear, the wave sucks you into itself like a gaping mouth, you press the board down the face of the wave, push up, knees draw into chest, left foot forward where your hands just were, left foot back over the fins – A serial moment of almost slow motion, hanging in space, flying even. A bump, left hand pointing where eyes wish to go, race and skim along the wave, leaning forward as the power dies off, the land rushes by happily, palms cheer and wave, your stomach catches up with you as adrenaline rushes to your face and pulls your cheeks apart into a grin. Bang! Your off the board and into the churning white water, spinning in the dark with only your imagination to tell you what you look like, flaying in the underbelly of cloud like water, still, silent, vulnerable, holding breath, one, two, three, four, five… six. You spin upside down, kick to the floor where no floor is, begin to swim, feel the board still riding the forceful water above dragging you at speed, feel the leash wrap around your ankles, pull and bite.

Burst out of the water, breathe, grab the board. You look around like a mole in a world of white and light. Climb onto the board and smile, lean your head back and laugh even, but only for a moment… Sunlight glitters like a thousand salty tears in the spray that erupts and showers over you, each drop a translucent bubble of cascading light. The board thuds as you dip into the downside of a wave and then begin to rise up as a wall of water, crystal blue rolls; climbing higher than a door-frame towards you, breath taking, board holding, you brace…

Where we are…

Imagine yourself descending a steep stairway that has been hacked out of the raw, red-rock face of a cliff in Kerala, India.

The sea roars its welcome below you; tall palms wave too, their leafy shadows flirt shamelessly between you and the sun, casting weaving pattern-webs that at once cool and entrance. The sun, possessive of your attention, dazzles through the foliage all the brighter.

Your entire skin is present and loud crying in such a way you have never felt before. It’s in direct and constant translation between you and the worlds messengers. Heat, which at once prickles, soothes and sores, ants crawl and tickle, mosquitoes whine and warble their junky need; what you give them is life, what they leave you is lumps, blood-spill stains and a dependent itch to remember them by.

There is the cool of your sweat, slick in your armpits and between your legs, on your face, rolling like tears and smears on your sun glasses, stinging your eyes with cream and all at the grace and command of the burning sun.

Your feet, barefoot and used to the soft caress of wool and cotton, fitted soles of leather and cushioned padding of trainers are now in screaming observance of rock, grit, scolding sand and litter. There are shells and stones too amongst the plastic, glass and metal to dodge. Ye they are now fulfilling their true and designed purpose; to be ambassadors of you to the world, the first contact, the anchoring point between you and the earth.

On tiptoes and steadying hands you clamber across rocks, ruff with pockmarked faces. To either side of you a golden smile of sand stretches wide and welcoming. You hop and skip across the feet-fire sand, burning your soles like coals, into the cool wash of the wet sand and the swirling shoreline.

Waist deep you become at once present, feeling each and every splash and surge, the taste of salt, the seas breath in your hair. The conflict, this mighty war of elements for your attention and affection; Cool skin against hot, fast air against stubborn sand, rolling water against the constant sun. Embracing each, you surrender, lay on your back, float, feeling the lift and loose lightness.

Blue sky, the colour of hope fills up your world.

Lovingly rocked you are in the arms of the sea and sky, with only the sun and wind for company.

If you care to know, the soothing music of the seashore reminds you where the land is.

P e a c e full n e s s

Distantly there is the cry of Sea eagles and Red winged kites with wings the length of your outstretched arms. They swoop and circle in and out of your sight from their nests in the Mars red rock, green covered cliffs, one, three, five and seven. They rule the blue sky until the black of night takes over; then it’s the turn of the giant fruit bats to rule the thermals, rubbing out the stars with their passing.

How did you get here, to this post card paradise? You followed your heart of course. Why else would you dream of red wings framed against a blue sky, whilst you were back in the Spring of England.

You stand, the Indian Ocean drains down your shorts and legs, feet planted deep in the sand of Kerala. You look towards the setting sun, the first star shyly shows itself, we smile together, you and me, because that is how I remember you, miss you and at once feel close to you.

from Kerala with love,

I am so glad you are here.