Kerala: Gods' Own Country in Words

(You can find the photos to follow this travel story on a separate post here.)

It has been one week since I left India and a five month walkabout of the south. I haven't written much yet. It left such an impression, I needed time to let it settle into my skin and into my bones. India was the beginning of my travels, a place that held space for me for five months, and a place I had my heart set on for four years. It was so many things I never expected, and I didn't up doing several things I thought I might. It has brought me so many stories and friends and somewhere I will forever hold dear.  So now I'll begin at the beginning, which is usually a good place to start.

The first thing I remember of Kerala was the sound of crows in the trees at 3am. That first night we landed and were searching for sleep through the jet lag of three plane journeys and 26 hours travel from Edinburgh via London and Delhi, I woke at 3am and all I could hear were crows. Not the solitary caw that normally follows the rain in Scotland. Before I came to India, I always associated crows with a damp grey dusk; at home, they seem to be the only bird that emerges and calls after the rain and during the mist. The solitary caw of a crow always makes me feel a chill to my bone and the need to wrap my scarf tighter. But in Kerala, they are ever present and they are many. They're not the bird of grey skies and rainfall. They accompany the sun and call amongst the coconuts. The sound of crows followed me all through Kerala.

The second thing I remember is standing in a night market in Kochi (the anglicised name is Cochin) and looking up to the sky as the evening chants from the nearby temple began, to see bats as big as dogs slowly flapping overhead. The bats at home are small and flit fast with anxiety-ridden wings, only visible from the corner of your eye in your peripheral vision. The bats here were flying with purpose in one direction, one straight line on the strength of a slow, heavy beat of their massive wings. It was a natural instinct, at first, to compare birds and bats and other things from the natural world between what was familiar from home to what was new and unfamiliar. Soon, the instinct to compare faded and I began to flow easier, but India continued to take me by surprise.

What stories do I have from our wanderings North to South of Kerala? There was the time Iona and I arrived in Varkala after an intense week-long tour from Kochi through the hill country, and agreed to a slightly shabby looking room run by apparently friendly guys in a legit looking resort. Sure there was no furniture bar the bed and one chair, and there was no one else we could see staying there, and it was dark and dingy which was a hard feat considering we were on a sunshine filled beach town, but it was cheap. They offered us tea and talked about palm reading, then showed us a few card tricks and suggested we could all make fish curry later that night together. Sounded friendly enough. We did however have the advice of a good friend at home creeping in: watch out for sweet-talking sages. We slept, and took our travel weary selves to a two hour yin-yoga class the next morning. There's no better space to really just forget everything else and see how you're really feeling.

Walking back to the room after, there was heavy silence between us. One of us broke it saying “I don’t feel comfortable staying there” and the other agreed in the same breath. What had been tension and mild discomfort at staying in a place we felt uneasy in became a comedic moment of get home, pack all our stuff into our rucksacks as quickly as we could like drug smugglers, and walk out confidently handing over the padlock to our room and saying goodbye to the manager and his friends, weaving our way through the Varkala backstreets as quickly as we could, leaving the resort and dingy room behind us. We felt like criminals on the run, and were laughing as we walked quickly with our heavy, badly packed bags. A few months later, once Iona and I had parted ways as travel buddies, she texted me: “the guy that ran that dodgy place in Varkala has been arrested!" Turns out your instinct doesn't make stuff up, nor your wise friend back home.

And then there was our first encounter with The Seductive Indian. This is a phrase coined by a friend of a friend that I met in Bangalore, and comes from within India. I'm pretty sure there is The Seductive Scotsman too, and Seductive Swede or where ever you might be from. Good stereotypes exist and bad stereotypes exist, as do cultural differences. It turns out smiling and shaking a barman's hand a few times whilst passing as a friendly greeting might position you as someone willing to accept a "proposal". After declining a coffee from Ali, the man with the smile and handshake, and joining two Israeli friends on their scooters for a day trip to the Golden Island, 2 minutes into the trip suddenly this same Ali overtakes and cuts off our scooter and demands to know where my friend is taking "his girlfriend". He asked several other awful questions and seemed to be shaking with rage. Our two male friends managed to talk him down, which saw him revving his bike at least 12 times before tearing back to Varkala cliff. We were all a little rattled and checked over our shoulder for at least 10 minutes before we were clear.

This was the beginning of our search for the Golden Island which turned into the smallest adventure I've been on. We drove for hours over a very small space of land, looping and going up and down side streets, with the question “which way to the golden island?” becoming our mantra. Like Alice in Wonderland, left became right, right became left. We ended up back at the bridge we started on to find an American expat and ex-military man, accompanied by his Indian compadres, speed his giant boat towards us and pushing his Indian pal into the water as he did so. He direct us to the Golden Island, which was directly behind us. This guy had an air of Rambo meets Apocalypse Now about him, but his advice was good. We got there, we cooled down in the green strangely satisfying slimy water, and sunbathed (me under a towel as I'd burned badly the day before on Varkala beach).

But wait, my travels really began in Kochi. Iona and I had taken on a tour with GoMowgli and made two fast friends in Girish (Popcorn) and Jithin (Popeye). As they were new to Kerala, what might have been a hop-on hop-off bus tour with many backpackers was a private tour for the two of us and led by the two of them. They really allowed us to see parts of Kerala that a lone western traveller wouldn't have been permitted to see so easily.

We visited a fisherman's village as they brought in the morning catch, watching the auction of each basket go to big bucks businessmen and local sellers for their bike and basket. We listened to Freddie Mercury in Kashi Art Café drinking coconut coffee, and in the same day found a man singing morning ragas as meditation. His voice wasn't just a sound from his vocal chords but seemed to emerge from somewhere deep in his chest. We practiced yoga with Aji and Sanjee, and were mesmerised by the tabla accompanying a classical sitar performance.  Popcorn patiently took us to a hospital when a piercing in my ear cartilage became infected (I insisted on a new piercing before coming to India, don't say I'm not stubborn) in the same day that we sought out an Ayurvedic pharmacy for Iona. I met Sarah Auntie, one of the last remaining Jews living in Fort Kochi. When the Jews landed in Kerala seeking sanctuary, the King of Kerala promised them the land for their synagogue as long as the sun remained in the sky. The synagogue is still there, but most of the Jews have since left. Sarah Auntie remains, surviving her husband with no children, looked after by all the locals who see her as family.

Riju, our driver and one of the happiest men I've met, drove us fast and furiously (but ever safely) into the winding hills of Munnar. It was cold and damp (crows would have been more fitting here) but with a distinct lack of heaters to dry out the moisture and bring warmth. An unhappy sleep was forgotten on the bumpy one and a half hour jeep ride to the tea factory. It was more fun than any rollercoaster I've been on, and I would have laughed solid for the whole ride had the bumps not continued to knock the air out of me as I gripped with tight knuckles to stop myself being thrown out the back of the jeep. The fresh green tea leaves smelled like tea, which surprised me probably more than it should have. We ate thali off of giant banana leaves with our fingers, and I like to think I developed the knack pretty quickly; if I didn't, I still gave it gusto. (Use your middle three fingers to lift the food and your thumb to push it into your mouth).

Alleppey and Thekkady came and went quickly. There was time to relax on a quiet, lazy backwater boat ride; and again on a bamboo raft in a wildlife park. But my favourite part of the jungle was hiking 5km there and back, looking down and watching where I stepped (and looking out for spiders and leeches) when the sound of crickets grew louder and louder till it became the only sound inside and outside my head. It could have been the heat, but it felt meditative. Mentioning it to Iona after, she agreed the same thing had happened to her. India was full unusual noises and these noises produced so many different internal sensations in those first few weeks.

After weaving our way through hill country, we reached the cliff front of Varkala. Here we found gin that probably wasn't gin, the friendliest baristas in Coffee Temple who offered me free warm milk at night over a game of cards, and a resident labrador called Tony who co-owned my guest house. I woke every morning to strangely but endearingly Italian-New York sounding "Toh-nee! No! Hey Toh-nee!" by his owners (who were Russian and Malayali, not from New York). I think of all three of them with great affection. We practiced hatha yoga with Shiva, who wanted to start a revolution. We got locked out our guesthouse and had to find our way back to a friend's hammock through the backstreets, watching out for the street dogs who own the streets and beach at night.  I got sun burned and I took a big exhale after my first ten days in India. The jet lag was only starting to wear off, the language (Malayalam) was only beginning to sound familiar, the south Indian head wobble was only beginning to come naturally as a way to say hello, agree, disagree and show interest or disinterest (when words fail).

I can remember all this from the vantage point of five months in South India and many adventures that followed after. But at that point I was still very fresh faced and unsure of what India could or would be. So far it had been a great guided tour by two very cool guys from Go Mowgli, and a week in a westernised beach town. Looking back, Kerala was one of the most beautiful places I have visited and left me with a longing to go back.

Kerala is Gods' Own Country. It is the land of green and gold, stretching from tea plantations, endless palm trees that line the lush backwaters and the golden sands along the coast. The story goes that Kerala was raised from the sea by the sixth incarnation of Vishnu. Ever since it has been an abundant land of vegetation. It has the highest level of education of all Indian states, and everywhere you look at any time of day, buses of children immaculately dressed are on their way to and from school. 

Kerala comes from the word for coconut, and coconuts are of course abundant. There are tea plantations in the hills of Kerala, and you'll find chai here as stereotype would suggest. But it's less well known that south India takes pride in its coffee, the beans grown locally. Filter coffee in Kerala is nothing like filter coffee elsewhere. A small cup, usually metal that requires delicate fingers and cautious lips to avoid scalding, made with milk and plenty sugar is a strong hit of caffeine and sugar. It became a daily ritual.

This video by the Malayalam band, Thaikkudam Bridge, is my postcard from Kerala, with stunning videography and music that moves my soul. It's the best representation I've seen of what travelling around Kerala is like by train, tuk tuk, scooter and on bare foot. And this is my own photo story where these words have fallen short.

A Collection of Words on Why We Wander

I read this blog post today – We Are Overdoing This Travel Thing – and found it a very refreshing take on the way Gen-Y portray and perceive travelling . Some of us wander to escape, to bum out not burn out, to see new countries and chase new horizons, to blog or be a “traveller” or a “travel blogger”, or to simply be. These are good reasons to travel. But some of us wander to seek, to find our next steps, to walk enough until we eventually figure out how to walk this new path with purpose.

Some words of others I have collected on what it is to wander and go walkabout.

“The world is blue at its edges and in its depth. This blue is the light that gets lost. Light at the blue end of the spectrum does not travel the whole distance from the sun to us. It disperse among the molecules of the air, it scatters in water. Water is colourless… The blue at the horizon, the blue of land that seems to be dissolving into the sky, is a deeper, dreamier, melancholy blue, the blue at the farthest reaches of the places where you see for miles, the blue of distance.
The colour of distance is the colour of an emotion: the colour of solitude and desire, the colour of there seen from here, the colour of where you are not. And the colour of where you can never go. For the blue is not in that place, those miles away from the horizon, but in the atmospheric distance between you and the mountains.”
A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit

“All the great teachers have preached that 'Man, originally, was a wanderer in the scorching and barren wilderness of this world' – the words are those of Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor – and that to rediscover his humanity, he must slough off attachments and take to the road.
If this were so, then it is easier to understand why greener pastures pall on us; why possessions exhaust us, and why Pascal’s imaginary man found his comfortable lodgings in a prison.”
Songlines, Bruce Chatwin

“The heavens themselves run continually round, the sun rises and sets, the moon increaseth, stars and planets keep their constant motions, the air is still tossed by the winds, the waters ebb and flow… to teach us that we should ever be in motion.”
The Anatomy of Melancholy, Robert Burton

Our nature lies in movement. Complete calm is death.” Pensées, Pascal

“Above all, do not lose your desire to walk: everyday I walk myself into a state of well-being and walk away from every illness; I have walked myself into my best thoughts and know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from… The more one sits still, the closer one comes to feeling ill… Thus if one just keeps on walking, everything will be alright.” 
Kierkegaard

 

But know that you can keep walking in the place where you rest.  Because, wherever we go, we carry ourselves with us. So whatever the reason is that we wander, we better learn to like what we had back home, as there’s no way we’ll avoid it wherever we end up wandering to.

Further Life Advice, From Calvin & Hobbes

Poor wee existential Calvin. Asking the same question that ended my last post: What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? Have we made the most of these precious few footsteps? Iterations of this big question has been running rings in my mind lately. Far more from curiosity than despair. It is, after all, the nature of yoga & yogis to seek, to be the eternal seeker (Siddharta is fresh in my mind still). Searching for meaning and offering advice on how to live life well are hella popular in this new century and amongst the minds of Gen X, Y and Z. Life advice blogs from the likes of Mark Manson, philosophical articles from Brain Pickings, endless peppy "live your dream" pop-blog posts from Elite Daily fill our feeds. Subliminal messaging gets through and I'm sure I'm not the only one left pondering the big questions, the millions of small questions, and wondering if I am leading life in the best, most creative, fulfilling, kind, loving, spontaneous, productive, carefree, organised way. It's not so much finding any purpose, but making sure the purpose I settle on and commit my creative energy to is a good one.

I already twigged on something last month. Take away my job, my home, my homeland, and familiar faces of friends, and it becomes a lot harder to pin yourself down to something, to grasp and grapple with something that could define who you are and, as a result of knowing these, why you are. It's tricky. It's hard work. It's perplexing. Sometimes I want to give up. On those days I just read a good book. But on the other days, I read articles and gather up as much advice as I can from different sources: philosophers, psychologists, friends, strangers in cafés. Piecing it all together is the fun part. And I hope not self-indulgent. But writing tends to help make sense of it all. Right now, I am mainly re-write the words of others.
 

"You may be surprised to find how quickly daily routine and the demands of “just getting by” absorb your waking hours. You may be surprised to find how quickly you start to see your politics and religion become matters of habit rather than thought and inquiry. You may be surprised to find how quickly you start to see your life in terms of other people’s expectations rather than issues. I tell you all this because it’s worth recognising that there is no such thing as an overnight success. You will do well to cultivate the resources in yourself that bring you happiness outside of success or failure. The truth is, most of us discover where we are headed when we arrive. At that time, we turn around and say, yes, this is obviously where I was going all along. It’s a good idea to try to enjoy the scenery on the detours, because you’ll probably take a few."
Bill Waterson, Calvin & Hobbes Creator
 
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
Rainer Maria Rilke
 

I love it when great minds somehow meet and overlap with their words.

There's comfort in the words of others, that suggest the author too experienced the same thoughts as you. And that others read them and may find mutual comfort  and increase the circle of those who know how you feel. So I write openly about my musings knowing some friends have the same perplexities on autorepeat, and to bring the comfort of "me too" to anyone that might read this with the dizzy confusion of figuring out those next steps. I doubt anyone goes from Here to There without that internal spaghetti junction rush hour traffic jam where you took a wrong turn and your GPS lost signal, twice. Just not many people explore or express the messy bit in the middle. 

So where am I at right now? I'm being curious about almost everything. I'm engaging in conversations I have not often had due to ignorance or feeling out of my depth: politics, shaping the world from where it's really at not where we're told it's at. I'm studying again: new skills, like graphic design, and new knowledge; anthropology, post-colonial issues. I'm stoking fires I've already had burning: women's rights, being honest about mental health issues and figuring out how I can help, human trafficking, human rights. I'm waking up my long-time dormant writer's brain. I'm creating new habits. I'm exploring a new city. And I'm in Bangalore again. It's a good vantage point for all these things.

 

A Collection of Words on Seeking & Purpose

If I were a collector of anything, I would be a collector of words. Other people's and my own. Cataloguing them neatly by category, or the moment in time I read them, or the reason I was so drawn to them. Well, this is something that is already done, of course: dictionaries hold all meanings but lack emotion, thesauruses expand and introduce new words like a play park of potential, books of quotations hold inspiration, anthologies expanding greater horizons containing whole narratives.

In my mind's eye, however, it is a more organic, living, breathing collection. Recording the words on first reading, my impressions and thoughts, the mark they make on me; only to be revisited later and a new meaning deciphered. A body of work.

Here, then, are some words I have read recently that have inspired me, guided me, and grounded me in my wanderings.

" 'When someone is seeking,' said Siddhartha, 'it happens quite easily that he only sees the thing that he is seeking; that he is unable to find anything, unable to absorb anything, because he is only thinking of the thing he is seeking, because he has a goal, because he is obsessed with his goal. Seeking means: to have a goal; but finding means: to be free, to be receptive, to have no goal... What could I say to you that would be of value, except that perhaps you seek too much, that as a result of your seeking you cannot find.' "
Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha
 
"He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how."
Nietzsche, quoted by Victor Frankl  in Man's Search for Meaning,
in reflecting upon his time in a Nazi Concentration Camp
 
"We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life – daily and hourly. Our answer must consist not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfil the tasks which it constantly sets for the individual."
Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning
 
"By declaring that man is responsible and must actualise the potential meaning of his life, I wish to stress that the true meaning of life is to be discovered in the world rather than within man or his own psyche, as though it were a closed system. I have termed this constitutive characteristic "the self-transcendence of human existence."... The more one forgets himself - by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love - the more human he is and he more he actualises himself. In other words, self-actualisation is possible only as a side-effect of self-transcendence."
Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning
 
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life
?
Mary Oliver, from "The Summer Day"

How Can I Serve?

Let me tell you a story. It’s a story my friend told me last April, in a New York cocktail bar. It’s the story of Hanuman, the monkey-headed God of Hinduism and Indian mythology. I’ll tell you the story the way my friend told it to me. It might not be a perfect retelling. And the version she told me was adapted and shortened a little for the scene and setting of sundown cocktails in a New York minute. But this is how it went, and how it goes.

Hanuman is the monkey-headed God, and devotee of the King Rama. He loves him like a brother, like literally, oh my I love you so much I would do anything for you please here have my heart. So one day, Rama’s wife is stolen by a demon from Sri Lanka. Hanuman tells Rama “dude, don’t worry, I’m going to get her back for you.” So he goes to the tip of India that’s closest to Sri Lanka and he jumps. He doesn't know if he's going to make it, but he jumps anyway. And he does makes it! So he’s there, and he finds Rama's wife and the demon and asks the demon for Rama’s wife, Sita, back. Then Hanuman basically loses it, there's a lot bloodshed, an ongoing saga of trying to get Sita back, and a battle. So towards the end of the battle, Rama's brother gets injured. Hanuman realises that if Rama's brother dies, Rama will probably give up himself. But there's this herb that can restore vitality and life, and it grows on a mountain in the Himalayas. So Hanuman is like, "ok, don't worry, I got this” and runs off to find the mountain, and find the herb on the mountain. The whole time his only thought rests in his heart: that he’s gotta get Sita back for Rama, and save Rama's brother, and basically he’s got to help Rama his best and most loved friend. I mean, Hanuman will literally do anything for Rama. So he’s searching and searching and he finally finds a whole bunch of herbs, but he doesn't know which herb it is that he needs!  So he goes back to the battlefield, and he's brought the whole frickin’ mountain him saying “look, I couldn’t find the  flower or herb you need so here: I brought you the mountain.”

I think the storytelling was diverted into excited chatter on India, Sri Lanka, and an upcoming wedding. But this story, and the way this story was told to me, really stuck. I went home and read more on it, discovering more intricacies (Hanuman is half-God as he’s the son of Vayu, the God of the wind; but he doesn't know he's the son of a God. And so when we jumps to Sri Lanka, he doesn't know if he'll be able to make it and so it's a leap of faith and love; but he does makes it as he has the power of the wind within him.)

Regardless of how the story is told, or even if some bits are missing or evolved, what pervades is this: Hanuman was so devoted to Rama that his love for him could literally move mountains.

For the last five years, I've had a yoga practice and journalling practice. Often, one informs the other. At their foundation, they are both a tool of self-reflection, development and growth. For three of these five years, I had largely been focussing on healing. An addiction to running, a hectic lifestyle, unresolved echoes of things gone wrong in the past had left me with some deep-rooted physical, emotional and mental wounds to heal. At that level of healing, a large amount of your attention is needed to focus on yourself.

After I heard the story of Hanuman, and whilst contemplating it in the days that followed, my thoughts went like this. No matter which way we spin it, human beings need love. A lot of our behaviour, activities and desires come down to this: the need to be loved, and to love. In the time of Tinder and the buffer of irony and sarcasm, romantic love is still seen as the main goal that we can either chase or laughingly reject. Hanuman is a figure that represents a fierce, pure kind of love, a love that isn't often considered: devotion and service. Not a self-seeking or full-circle "love me and I'll love you" love. Pure service, for the love of the other.  

For a long time, my thoughts had been on healing and loving myself (as I think everyone should spend some time doing.) But then I realised, I was caught in a cycle of self-help and self-service. My yoga practice was devoted to healing my overworked body and stressed mind. The time I'd manage to carve for myself each week out of a busy work and social schedule was dedicated preciously to me-time and alone-time. What was once a necessity was becoming a cycle that fed only itself and started to feel a little hollow. Apathy grew. The healing was done, but I hadn't thought to look where to go beyond it.

I realised then, that my focus had to shift. I had a new mantra, and a new metaphorical figure to guide me. Hanuman, the God of love and devotion, and these words: how can I serve?

The surge and popularity of yoga in the West as a largely asana-based practice, and the adoption and adaptation of Hindu deities, religious texts and spiritual doctrines has been something of a curiosity to me. As with all things in the West, if there's a money-making opportunity on something that is culturally popular, it will happen. And it has. There's endless discussion on this, and the sincerity of a yoga practice if it is steeped in, or contains, a large apparent focus on the image of the practice rather than the quiet, humble practice that can take place offline without the need to shout about it and Instagram it. That is not to say if you do promote or post about your practice it makes it insincere. But rather, we know that media leads the minds of many and if a largely visual-based practice is what is seen, on some subliminal or subconscious level the belief forms that our practice should be an external one done for the sake of the practice (improvement in asanas, nailing an arm balance, your new $70 leggings or cushy mat, a practice done on an idyllic beach or up a mountain).  Do we practice for the sake of the practice? Or do we practice with something beyond the one hour spent on the mat or in meditation? In my most extreme moments, I began to feel uncomfortably that spiritual seeking was portrayed and consumed as a luxury that only the middle-class West could afford. I continued my yoga practice, and continued to teach.

Now I am realising and understanding the value of a strong practice, if the focus of the practice is not wholly your own well-being and development. If you can practice, and iron out the mental kinks of anxiety and doubt, and build a strong foundation of good self-esteem and mental soundness, and a physically strong body that can carry a calm and focussed mind, it puts you in the best place to then turn your attention outwards to helping others. This process could take months or years. But we are past the stage, culturally and collectively, of needing to endlessly heal ourselves. Self-healing needs to take place. And it is an ongoing process. But we need to know what lies beyond it, to give us something to aim towards, and to know that we have purpose outside ourselves and our practice. And for some, that may be the need to help and heal others.

These are the colours of my mind both over the last year, and into the start of this one. All largely in reflection of my own past and present. Not in contemplation of any other one individual or even group, just the cultural trend I see at large. As I strengthen my voice and courage to speak my mind louder, and expand my knowledge and horizons of what there is in the world to be done, I hope to find my place in how I can serve and help and heal others.

I'm still wandering, and as I write this I'm in Bangkok. My writing has moved from what I've seen to what I'm thinking and feeling. Sometimes the external things I see intrigue me, and other times I seek a quiet corner to go inwards and make sense of the swirling impressions I've collected, to sort and sound them out before I can continue to wander with a clear mind.

"Wherever you go, there you are." And here I am.

January's Whereabouts

I'm in Bangalore right now. It's a cool city. It's a busy city, and traffic is a nightmare and reminds me of why I never moved to London, but it's cool. There's a craft microbrewery and a yoga café within a stone's throw from where I'm staying. There's the buzz and hum of an energised start-up scene, with tech and social change high on the agenda. People are friendly, you can show your shoulders and hold hands with a loved one in public and drink cocktails with real liquor, and in some ways it reminds me of home whilst in others it reminds me how far from home I am.

On Sunday, I went to a the most sweet yoga flow in Cubbon Park under tree 695 hosted by Yoga Matters and Kiki. On Sunday, a friend back home in Edinburgh gave birth to a beautiful baby girl. On Sunday, David Bowie died.   Today, on Tuesday, I'm considering my whereabouts and about where I am.

I'll admit, I am sometimes confused by mass outpourings of grief for a celebrity that often happens after someone well-known has passed away. Not because I don't believe they deserve to be mourned. But more because everyone deserves to be mourned and often I find one celebrity's passing overshadows the many births and deaths that occur on a daily basis. But also because often everyone jumps on the bandwagon of "I'm sad, a great loss" when until the moment of this person's passing, there was no apparent care or real attachment to said actor / musician / public figure. The advent of social media has made public mourning fashionable, which in turn can make it seem a little false or fabricated for the sake of fitting in. (Not to say that it is false, but this is the impression the mass mourning gives).

However I realised, after paying attention to the many outpourings of grief and bemoaning the passing of Bowie that he did really have an affect on a great many people's lives; the way in which music can be written and produced, the way in which an individual can express themselves both physically and in what they say about themselves. He served as a huge inspiration to generations of musicians, artists, and individuals trying to find their voice and self-expression. The overwhelming outpouring of grief at his death makes sense to me. A moment of 'what would the world have been like had David Bowie not been born' made me realise it would have been very different, and lacking a lot of sparkle.

And so, when I read this quote that was floating around the internet amongst the many posts showcasing the beauty of his life at the moment of his death, it made sense to me in my current whereabouts:

I don't know where I'm going but I promise it won't be boring.

That quote makes perfect sense in life, as well as in death. No one knows what lies beyond the veil, and no one knows what lies ahead in the next day, week or month. Not really. 

Leaving a much-loved job and a wonderful city I call home was very much an outward expression of embracing that unknown. Two months and twelve days in to these travels, and I can now say pretty confidently "I have no fucking idea what I'm doing." It feels good to say it out loud.

I had a job I loved, friends I still hold so dear, in a city I was quite enamoured with. It could be said at that point I did know what I was doing, and in one way I did. But I outgrew certain elements, had a relentless urge for going, and underneath the elements lining up nicely for a life lived with purpose, I didn't really know what I was doing. Case in point: take away the job, the friends, the city, and I don't know what I'm doing. And that's ok.

Accepting that, and even attempting to embrace it, is what's allowing me to be here and begin conversations with others and myself I probably wouldn't have otherwise. None of us can really know what's coming next. Even if we line up all the pieces nicely, something outwith our control can change it all in an instant. Like a birth, or a death. Or a flood. Or international politics, like border control and immigration laws. Life as it plays out is beyond our control, so make the most of what you can do and be prepared for anything.

I get the feeling I'm not the only person who has no idea what they're doing. Yet culturally we all feel the need to pretend that we do, to make-believe and live out that fairytale we've spun to fit in. If you’re open and vulnerable and speak out about not knowing, you invite in far more opportunities for growth and change than you would if you just said you had it together, everything was fine, and you’re not looking to change a single thing. How will things change if you act like you want nothing to change, when underneath you’re craving the new and unknown? So here I am, admitting that 10 years after a successful University education, a successful career in entrepreneurial education, working for a San Francisco start-up and starting-it-up in Edinburgh myself, after all those things that can be called success, and appearing to know what I was doing, I'm hitting reset and figuring it all out again. Except I'm not starting over, because I have those 10 years of work experience, life experience, friends and contacts behind me. I'm so grateful for them all.

So, I really don't know where I'm going next. I have an idea of what I don't want to do, and an idea about the things I would like to do. The fun part is figuring out how to fit them all together.

First on my list is seeking out inspiration. Travel brings new horizons and faces and people with their own stories everyday. The internet brings new blogs and articles and journals and TEDtalks. My kindle brings me new words and worlds to explore. And I've told myself if all I manage to do in January is read and write every day, get on my yoga mat and breathe and move, and keep in touch with the friends I hold dear, then I'll consider it a success for myself. I have no idea what February holds, but what's the use in worrying or planning until January has blossomed in the way I hope it might, but with the curiosity of not knowing what else might come up in the meantime.

It's January, I'm in Bangalore, and I'm in the process of discovering more things about myself and who I could be and who others are and what this world is and how I could fit into it in some meaningful way that can make a difference. That's my whereabouts, in the midst of my walkabout. Sending love from here to wherever you are x

Bits & Pieces // Inspiration

Alok Vaid-Menon's TED Talk We Are Nothing (And That Is Beautiful) which not only includes a sublime spoken word performance, but why it's ok to fail and why we should embrace failure in a system that defined success for us without giving us the choice to decide if that's what we want.

The key to changing the world is to find a way to fail to live up to its expectations.

Brené Brown's TED Talk The Power of Vunerability which reminded me that it's ok to admit I don't know what I'm doing and to open that conversation so that I can invite in more meaningful connection and communication, that might lead me closer to knowing (for a while, at least).

Mark Manson's blog on 10 Life Lessons to Excel in Your 30s which reassured me that no one has any idea what they're doing, and that's ok. The fun of life is figuring it out as you go, into every decade of your life.

“Unless you are already dead — mentally, emotionally, and socially — you cannot anticipate your life 5 years into the future. It will not develop as you expect. So just stop it. Stop assuming you can plan far ahead, stop obsessing about what is happening right now because it will change anyway, and get over the control issue about your life’s direction. Fortunately, because this is true, you can take even more chances and not lose anything; you cannot lose what you never had. Besides, most feelings of loss are in your mind anyway – few matter in the long term.”

Here's to failing and figuring out where you might be tomorrow.

India 7: The Monsoon

It’s monsoon season here in South India. No, scrap that. There is a monsoon. Things rot here. Monsoon season brings endless rain, and there’s a distinct absence of fireplaces. Nothing to burn up the moisture. The life giving water drowns out the air so life grows and then rots. Mould seeps out of walls and seeks clean surfaces. Covers of books curl inwards, laptops must be left on with their small generators of dry heat, the film of moisture that sits on your skin and hair and clothes becomes tolerable. It must unless you want to explore the depths of damp and madness.

At first, the monsoon was akin to a snow-day. The quiet joy of needing to stay indoors, eat good food and read a book. Words flow easier then too. A break in the constant doing. Instead, you’re just being. And so, writing and words. Auroville is a new-age settlement, where seekers come to find what they seek. The Mother? The Matrimandir? At the very least, there’s a french bakery (Pondicherry’s influence). Fresh, crusty white bread with sharp blue cheese and tart red tomatoes are a true pleasure on the first rain-day. By day four, they lose their lustre.

As water continues to pour from the sky, the place that was once fertile with ideas and words begins to reach saturation. More noise is needed, more stimulus, more subject matter and inspiration. For the constant rain will at first water the little seeds of inspirations that were planted before the rains came, or before you came to the rain. But you must leave before it begins to drown them out and turn to rot. 

Auroville was a week of green, and rain, and moisture on every surface. Snow-days turned to cabin fever, and you began to understand the stories you’ve been told of a place in Australia where the humidity gets so bad it drives people to moments of madness. Not planned, but spontaneous suicide. Walking out in front of cars, and off of cliffs. It’s not that bad, of course. But you realise, it is for some. Reading in the newspaper of the floods in Chennai, the worst in a hundred years. Too many have lost their homes, their livelihoods, their lives. And the same at home! In Edinburgh and Cumbria. It gets to the stage you can’t imagine a world not drenched in water. The low pressure, the constant pounding down of rain, the moisture on every surface dampens your spirits, your mind, your spark. Too much water becomes suffocating.

The day the rains stop, you breathe deeply. Coco, the resident 16 year old cat who has been a companion most evenings on the damp couch, ventures outside. It has been an experience, one that was needed after the holy temples of Rameswaram and the crowds of Kanyakumari, and the fever and flu that was brought on by both. But, now, there is a wedding in Chennai!

It’s time to move on.