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.

Yes. It’s different.

A few days before the wedding Si asked me how I felt about getting married. Smiling, I said “Well, it’s a good way to finally get to know you.” When two people get married after an 8 years long relationship, they hope like hell things stay the same. Do I feel any different after the wedding?

Yes.
It’s like becoming an important part of something much bigger than me. I feel entrusted with a higher level of responsibility and I feel confident that I can live up to it as I feel deeply connected and resourceful. I feel closer to Si than before if that’s possible. I feel stronger and well supported by many. It feels a million times healthier than being the ‘lone wolf’ I have been for a long time.

Our loose 10 day itinerary explores the godly province of Himachal Pradesh in North India. Today we are at ‘The Mirage’ in a tiny village, Andretta.

Andretta is a traditional hub for painters, actors, potters, ceramic and other artists. Norah Richards, an Irish play-write established this focal point in 1924 through her passion for local art and culture.

The artistic heritage of Andretta is evident from the presence of a fascinating pottery museum and a quaint art gallery within half a kilometre, on the village “High Dirt-track”. Being here is tranquil and uplifting. People here are warm, kind and eclectic. They smile generously and look content. Their simplicity is exquisite. Si and I dream of spending more of our time around here.

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Silk resembles love.

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Couple of years before he died, Saagar thought I needed to see a therapist. He didn’t explain why. At the time I couldn’t figure out what he meant. I guess he could see that I did not know how to access the sweetness of life. I allowed preoccupations of work and practicalities of life to fill my time, leaving little room for love.

Painfully delicate and surprisingly strong, silk resembles love. The silkworms destroy the silk they produce as they emerge from their cocoons. That is why farmers have to make a choice between silk and silkworms. Often they kill the silkworm while it is inside the cocoon so as to pull the silk out intact. It takes the lives of hundreds of silkworms to make as scarf. But for the silk to survive, the silkworm has to die.*

At a small and sweet ceremony, in the middle of nowhere, in the presence of twenty people, holding the holy fire as witness, Si and I tied the knot yesterday. It was a joyous day, a celebration of love.

On the previous night the moon was full. Saagar was with us.

“Sorrow prepares you for joy. It violently sweeps everything out of your house, so that new joy can find space to enter. It shakes the yellow leaves from the bough of your heart, so that fresh, green leaves can grow in their place. It pulls up the rotten roots, so that new roots hidden beneath have room to grow. Whatever sorrow shakes from your heart, far better things will take their place.” – Rumi

*Ref: ‘Forty rules of love’ by Elif Shafak.

 

Where the sky and the sea merge

 

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Woke up without an alarm at 8. Looked out of the window into the silence. The light was soft but well established. Went back to bed thinking I’d give myself another 5 minutes. The next I knew of my existence was at 10.41.

The day lay like a blank canvas in front of us and all I wanted was for it to stay that way. Nowhere to go, nothing to do. Our holiday rental on a sea-facing hillside near Salobrena was made for it. The loungers by the pool, the cool breeze balancing the warmth of the sun, the Mediterranean air, the laid-back ambience was the perfect backdrop against which nothing happens. This province of Andalusia was made for it. In fact, the Iberian peninsula was made for it.

Granada gets its name from the Spanish word for pomegranate which grows in abundance here. Yesterday’s trip to the Al-Hambra replayed on the LCD of my mind. It started with a young enthusiastic car-parking assistant in dark glasses inviting, guiding and gesticulating in every way possible with exaggerated dance-like body movements to make himself understood and to gain our custom. Not knowing Spanish makes for a very interesting guessing game.  As we entered the ornate gardens, the first thing that the audio-guide mentioned was ‘Generalife’. The American voice in the head phones spoke everything including Spanish names in American, all without an “h”!  It was most out of place on ears tuned to Europe, like an Englishman in New York. I wasn’t sure if the word referred to the ‘general leafiness’ or ‘general life’ or something else. Many similar queries arose in my head as the day went on but I didn’t seek clarifications. There were too many question-marks to chase. I enjoyed the Arabic calligraphy and the grandeur of the Moorish architecture.

At the centre of the massive circular Palacio de Carlos V was a spot where people were taking turns to stand and speak or sing. It turned out to be a magical spot, for a song sung at that spot resonated with extraordinary depth for the singer but was for a listener a mere foot away. I stood at that spot and sang one line of a prayer softly and found myself soaked in the vibrations that came back to flood me. Never before had such rich resonance fallen on my ear-drums. My prayer was being answered as it was being sung.

The drive home coincided with the sun going down. The sky was decorated with other-worldly pinks and yellows. A deep masculine stirring Turkish voice saturated the car and converted it into a temple. At once I was one with all creation. The unborn and the dead, the manifest and the non-manifest, all collapsed into that one moment. I had tears in my eyes and all was good.

Like a sandcastle, all is temporary.

Build it, tend it, enjoy it.

And when the time comes

let it go.

– Anon.