M is for Moraine

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Born and brought up mainly in the plains of North India, my geographical vocabulary is meagre. The feeling of being at the toe of a glacier is a thousand times more awe-inspiring than looking at its picture. The expansive agelessness of it! It goes back thousands of years, slowly and steadily, giving. It makes me feel small, as I am reminded of the angst on the railway platforms in London when the 7.12 is delayed by 4 minutes. Time adorns a different cape in the white light of the glaciers.

The debris revealed on the sides and the toe of a glacier as it recedes forms landmasses called (lateral and terminal respectively) moraines.  Often there is a bowl of icy water in the centre as if artfully crafted by a deft potter.

The glaciers have their own weather system. A breeze blows downhill over them cooled by the icefield. It is denser and heavier than the air it replaces. These winds have the staccato name of ‘katabatic’ winds.

The Athabasca Glacier spills from the Columbia Icefield, flowing over three giant bedrock steps like a massive slow-moving waterfall. Although glacial ice is solid, it deforms and flows under pressure, moving like a thick pudding. Gravity and the weight of the ice pulls it downhill towards the valley.

And the valley offers splendour and beauty in abundance.

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Another world.

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It was like being on a film set at the Okotoks Pro Rodeo Competition in Calgary, Canada, yesterday.

Hamburgers and pierogis (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pierogi) for lunch. Cowboy hats and boots. Broad leather belts with huge shiny metallic buckles, checked shirts and jeans all around. A swagger in their gait and a palpable pride in their country life, closely interwoven with that of their animals.

The youngest contestants were no more than 5 years old. Their event was sheep riding (mutton busting). Little boys and girls emerged from the shoot with their little helmets on, hanging on to the sheep coat with all they have, like little monkeys. Within seconds they tumbled off, on to the soft earth. Some dragged on, holding on to the running sheep for a few seconds longer. The rodeo-clown, with an orange shirt with white polka dots gave them all a high-five and got the audience to give each of them a big round of applause. One couldn’t help but admire their bravado.

The bareback riding was shocking to watch live and up close. The core muscles of the riders must be as strong as a slab of cement, their spines, rods of steel and their constitution unshakable. Other events of the day were saddle-bronc, calf tie-down roping, steer wrestling, bull riding, wild pony racing and barrel racing – things I didn’t know existed.  The synchronicity between man and beast on full display. Being celebrated and honoured. A strong community with no pretensions or misapprehensions.

This morning I found a non-electric water-boiling kettle in the kitchen. I filled up just enough water for 2 cups of tea and placed it on the electric hob. It took its own sweet time to come to a boil. Such a refreshing change from the pace of life in London. I had time and space to appreciate the blue of the sky, the rustle of the wind, the song of the birds and the longing in my heart that flows through every cell of my body, every second of every day and yet I smile and enjoy this ‘here and now’.

Lone tree in a desert.

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To up and move the household every couple of years.
To tear away from the warmth of neighbours and friends.
To bleed quietly inside.
To have no say in matters within and without.
It was normal.

To have a new set of chairs, beds, books and windows.
To be the ‘new girl’ in the new uniform in the new school, again.
To prove oneself again.
To pick up ‘the way we do things here’ again.
To keep on keeping the balance despite shearing winds.
It was normal.

To make a home out of any old house.
To know there was only that much money.
To have aromatic homemade meals and smart hand-stitched clothes.
To extract as much joy and laughter as life allowed.
To create some more out of nothing.
To sometimes see grown-ups stressed.
To find blame and shame scattered around like unclaimed marbles.
To be expected to shine at all times.
It was normal.

To not know names of feelings.
To muddle along with them.
Mostly hide them in cotton balls of confusion.
To have no voice except silence.
To shed tears in dark corners.
To feel like a lone tree in a desert.
It was normal.

Some survived. Some didn’t.

The Blackened Forests

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They said they’d been having bizarre weather all through last year. The evidence was all around. Fog and mist in the middle of June. Temperatures dipping to low teens – in central Portugal?
Last June was completely different – temperatures of 38 degrees, winds of 80-90 kms/hr and entire hillsides covered in orange and yellow flames, fast expanding in all directions. And again in August and October 2017- covering a total of at least 560,000 hectares, holding at least 2000 people hostage, leaving homes and cars charred, livelihoods ruined, claiming at least 100 lives and leaving many others burnt and traumatised. Leaving villages in deathly silence for months.For a country that makes up just 2 percent of the continent’s landmass, it made up 60 percent of its wildfires. I vaguely remember it being mentioned on BBC.
No one notices a forest until it starts to burn. Thereafter no one can control it. Climate change, Eucalyptus trees grown for commercial use, arsonists, poor management of forests, poor warning systems and a huge exodus of the country’s youth – all added up.
We were in a sweet little village called Tabua on River Alva. The roads were fantastic and traffic the lightest I’ve seen in a very long time. The hillsides were magnificent but covered in black stumps. It must have been a frightening sight when alight. Many locals couldn’t bring themselves to talk about it.
Come spring and tender fresh greenness has started to appear on grey-black, seemingly dead tree trunks. There is regrowth. There is life. The simplicity of existence and people in Portugal makes me question what ‘quality of life’ really means.  We returned home with memories, figs, honey, almonds and hope.

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Cyclists rule!

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We know we are in Holland when the study table in our hotel room has a puncture repair kit in the drawer. Looking out of the window I see people riding their bikes with great abandon – simultaneously texting, chomping at an ice-cream, carrying a big bunch of flowers and chatting with a friend riding a bike in parallel. Pedestrians and automobiles are invisible to them. Bi-cycles go where they like, when they like. Anytime of day or night they shoot out of blind corners and come barging at us from all sides. Walking the cobbled streets as unsure visitor, we feel like an inconvenience to these bikers. I seriously envy them their security, their space and their freedom!

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A white van drives past us with ‘Authentic smaak’ emblazoned across the side in dark green. It brings amusement to our faces. Does this mean what we think it does? We guess it refers to one of the substances that Amsterdam is well known for. We later discover the innocent local meaning of ‘smaak’ is ‘taste’.

‘Dutch masters at the Hermitage‘ is an enlightening exhibition. We got up-close to some of Rembrandt’s great works. The portrait of an old jew from 1654 came out a clear winner in my eyes. The light on his hands and face, the fineness of the wrinkles, the stories hidden in them, the detail on the hands, the use of space, the aura of wisdom …

Our hotel lobby was dominated by a large portrait of a mother and child. Painter unknown. Dates unknown.

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It softened my heart. It spoke to me. It took me right back into the past. It made me sad in the most delightful way. It brought a tear to my eye and a smile to my lips. I didn’t need reminding that my very last holiday with Saagar, in April 2014 was to this very town, Amsterdam. He is with me, wherever I go. Our children never go too far away. They are in our DNA as much as we are in their’s.

 

 

Small talk saves lives.

It’s a dry winter morning. I am in my favourite red jumper and floral denims, on my way to the therapist. I have seen him for 3 years and I remain completely unfinished. My train will arrive at this platform, Platform number 1, West Norwood Station in 4 minutes. There are only 2 tracks and only 2 platforms here. The sun is in hiding and all trains are delayed, allegedly due to bad weather. Despite 2 people ahead of me in the queue there is enough time for me to get a cappuccino with one and a half sugars from the newly-opened kiosk, the Blackbird Bakery. The pair of sweet,  smiley girls behind the counter have a way of making things work while maintaining an environment of relaxed, chatty friendliness.

A toddler in a pram doesn’t want her half-eaten kitkat anymore. She wants to feed it to the birds. Her mum takes it from her and lovingly puts it in her own mouth. She gets a quizzical look from her daughter. She beams a gentle smile back on to her baby.

Just as the train pulls up behind me, my order is ready. In the here and now, the yellowness of the foliage on the ground and on trees is bright as stippled sunshine. My drink smells like the warmth of Brazil. Grateful for no rain, I turn around and step onto the train holding my hand-warming  and heart-warming treat.

I look for a forward-facing window seat with a table. The one I find seats an unclaimed blue knitted scarf, coiled up like a snake. An overweight elderly lady sits with a smile opposite me.

‘Is this your’s?’ I ask.
The train starts to move.
‘No.’ says she.
‘How are you?’
‘I am ok’, she says in a strong Spanish accent.
‘Doing anything nice today?’
‘Going to see a friend in Victoria. We don’t talk much. We meet once a week. We go for hot-chocolate.’
‘That’s nice.’
She looks down at a picture of 3 pretty young women in her magazine.
‘I always wanted daughters but I got 2 sons and1 grandson. No girls.’
‘Boys are lovely too.’
‘Yes. But I would have liked a girl.’
I smile.
West Norwood station is well behind us by now.
Saagar, my son comes alive in my mind.
Platform 1 was where he spent his last couple of hours. That was 3 years ago. He was more than I could have dreamt of. All I wanted was him, his happiness. Nothing else.

He was there for at least two whole hours. No one spoke with him. Small talk saves lives. For every life lost on the railway, 6 are saved by those around them. Only if someone had interrupted his train of thoughts. Only if someone had trusted their instincts enough, to act. Only if someone had cared enough to ask if he was ok. Only if everyone had the basic tools of suicide prevention, just like they do for choking and drowning. Who knows?

Now, all I want is for him to come back to me.

Free on-line training for all, in Suicide prevention, launched by the Zero Suicide Alliance. 20 minutes of life-saving skills : https://www.relias.co.uk/zero-suicide-alliance/form.

 

Me and the Mountain

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A friend’s house on a mountain has been our home for this week. A little bit of water and electricity flows through it but no phone signal or Wi-fi. It’s more than a kilometre away from the nearest motorable point. It’s made of wood and stone and surrounded by cedars, pines, oaks and rhododendrons on all sides. Every room has a fire place and all the windows are single glazed. It’s about 50 years old, quaint and basic. Since the sun went into hiding yesterday, it has been icy cold and we have been magnetised by the lone wood-burning stove. The overgrown garden around the house still has colour from clusters of wilting maroon dahlias, symbolising the past glory of the house within. Every window looks on to a landscape that could be a picture postcard.

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There is nothing to do but go walkies. Jacob, a neighbour, dropped by to say hello. He is certainly the most energetic 70 years old man I have ever met. An Austrian anthropologist and a tour guide by trade, he has been living on this mountain for more than 40 years. He has a lovely Austrian wife who gave birth to their 4 sons on this mountain. The sons went to the local Tibetan school and then moved on to fulfilling careers.

A Buddhist monk has been living in silence and solitude in a cave on the side of this lush green mountain for the last 15 years. The only visible indicator of his presence is an oil lamp that lights up every evening.

Tea is consumed by the gallons here. It’s milky and sweet enough to float a boat. Its calorific value is high enough to eliminate the need for food. People here have peace, time, clean air and fresh spring water – luxuries for most city dwellers. Stories are exchanged, transmitted and created over cups of tea. They keep the bush telegraph alive and kicking.

There is a distinct beauty and stillness about this mountain, called Dharamkot, in the Dhauladhar range of the Himalayas. The sharp contrast between my inner and outer landscapes is unsettling. I teeter closer to the edge of insanity than usual, feeling ill, walking the scenic slinky mountain tracks every day. Good old grief is bubbling up big time, threatening to push me over the edge. I am plummeting down the roller coaster at the speed of light and the only way seems to be down.

Since ancient times sages and sadhus have recognised and chosen the Himalayas as a seat of peace and enlightenment. The Dalai Lama’s residence and monastery are visible down the valley from this mountain. Smiling monks amble in ochre robes, lending an atmosphere of calm and serenity. The spiritual energy here is palpable. It’s doing its best to hoist me out of my slump.

I sit still, struck by the scale and magnificence of the giant Himalayas. What am I in front of these ancient icons? Insignificant. One little turn in the weather for the worse , one slight ruffle in the tectonic plates beneath me, one tiny miscalculation of a footstep on the mountain slopes, one temper tantrum of the mountain breeze is enough to make me disappear.

How big am I?
How big is my sorrow?
How many stories have these mountains witnessed?
How many more are yet to unfold?

What if the answer is to dissolve the ‘me’ in the mountain, in the basic elements that make up everything – earth, water, fire, air and ether. Be nothing and everything.