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MY GRANDMOTHER: GOMIBEN SHAH

This is the story of my grandmother.  A story stretching over three continents - starting afresh each time with nothing more than the family bond to keep going.  A story of resilience and stoical acceptance in the face of the winds of change they were subjected to.

But more than just her story this is my parents story and my story too - where I've come from and the values that have been imprinted on me.

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South Pole Polar Panel

Really pleased to be part of the polar panel for Antony's South Pole expedition.  This is attempting to push the boundaries of interactivity with schools.  Not only will school children get the opportunity to ask questions directly to Antony but also to a panel of experts ranging from explorers, scientists to nutritionists. 

If any schools want to be involved with this project, visit:  http://www.eteteachers.org/

 Polar Panel for Antony's south pole expedition

Polar Panel for Antony's south pole expedition

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Polio, LSD and Meditation

I met this guy a couple of months ago.  He holds a group meditation session once a week for vipassana meditators.  I've slowly learned about his life which has been far from normal.  Having been stricken with Polio at the age of one his world was suddenly rearranged forever.  He is now 69 and he's created a website on his autobiography which in his own words is "a peculiar mixture of crime, physics, LSD, travel, secondary school teaching and, very importantly, meditation."

His autobiography is free to download from his website and there is an audio version too.

Go to http://benevolencejwest.weebly.com/

"If you know of anyone working with the blind or partially sighted, please direct them to the site above.  Also, anyone with a physical disability might find my story of interest.

For anyone more interested in the meditation aspects, that starts on CD5. "

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EC Bristol Drinks with Vijay Shah: 7th November

I'll be giving a talk at Explorer's Connect: Bristol on the 7th November.  See link below for more details:

EC Drinks with Vijay Shah

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Farewell India

The evolution of emotions on the last few days of a trip typically follows the same pattern.  It starts of with excitement, following onto the planning stage, then as the flight date moves ever closer, melancholy sets in and finally weariness.  The last stage can lead to some rash decisions being made and in these cases, expensive decisions (for which I am far too sensible to do).

It's hard to separate oneself from these emotions and tap into the endless inspiration that they can give to the writer.  These emotions are a literary fountain but the plug is often sealed and the writer, weighed down with weariness does not having the strength to pull.  I don't have the strength to pull even though this time I told myself it would be different.  Alas all I have left is a trickle from this fountain.

I have survived India, pretty much unscathed.  I have no terrible stories to tell but hell do I have some exciting ones.  I said once that India confused me into silence, that was at the beginning of the trip, the beginning of a journey.  This has been a journey of discovery more than of the usual sort;  discovering not only my ancestral past, but my own past, answering questions I have had since childhood.  And in this respect India does not disappoint.  Yet it is not India that has done the work.  India is, just as a mountain is.  The beauty in the poetry etched out from mountaineers has come from within, squeezed out by their experiences and hardships on the mountain and that is what India does to the traveller.  I have expressed some of these profound moments in photos and texts, others remain tucked away in my diary but the vast majority remain within me, dissipating slowly into the ether with time.

Now as I sit in Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi and my laptop battery slowly dies I bid farewell to India and prepare to be transported into a different dimension and time.  I hope some of the lessons I have learnt stay with me.  Tolerance.  Patience.  Impermanence.

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Wedding Crashers

Like the side alleys of main shopping streets, the valleys off of the main touristed routes in the Indian Himalayas remain innoncent of the humdrums of mass tourist transport.  A refreshing breath of crisp mountain air after the stale smell of towns competing for the tourist dollar and offering not much else. And like the side alleys off of the main shopping streets they are actually very easy to get to.  Welcome to Chamba Valley.

As we walked into the village of Kugti at 2600m which clings to side of a steep gorge we had actually stumbled into the middle of a great wedding celebration.  During the celebrations the organisers feed the entire village.  It goes without saying and a true testament to the hospitality of the mountain follk that we were immediately asked to sit and that we MUST eat with them.  Rice and curries were piled onto our thin throw away plates in such frequency and quantities that had we not insisted for them to stop the mountain of rice would have been higher than the 6000m snow capped peaks towering all around us. 

Another adventure awaited us that evening when we left to climb up to the 3000m Hindu temple that was meant to be open and well supplied for cold and weary travellers needing a place to sleep and another wedding we ended up in the following day... but that story is for another time.

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Two Years Ago Today

As I am waking up in the Himalayas I turn on my computer to see this wonderful email.  Great moments come from a lot of hard work.  The memories are priceless: Antony, Vijay,

If memory serves me - 2 years ago today we woke up to find a glorious day as we started down the Norman Glacier. Remember the night before was dark, snow falling and we couldnt quite make out our surroundings?

We awoke to blue skies and granite faced walls looking back at us. It was dead quiet with valleys covered in soft clouds below us.

That was a special day. Just wanted to highlight that.

regards,

Dunca

 

 Penny Ice Cap

Penny Ice Cap

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Self Immolation

Yesterday I joined a candle light vigil in memory of two monks who self immolated the day before (24th April).  The two young monks, both in their twenties, died at the scene from their injuries.  Since 2009, as many as 117 Tibetans living under China's rule have set themselves on fire demanding freedom and the return of His Holiness the Dalai Lama from exile. McLeod Ganj, India, the home of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government in exile is probably the the only place that such a large gathering of Tibetans can happen without fear of oppression to pray for the fallen and protest against the Chinese occupation of Tibet.

We met at the main square at 6pm and walked around the city with candles singing prayers before ending up at the Tsuglagkhang Temple (residence of the Dalai Lama) where more prayers were sung and commemoration was given to the two young monks.

It was impossible not to sympathise with the dispair amongst the Tibetans.  They are not just fighting against an all powerful overlord but an increasingly indifferent international community

I will let these few photos that I took (with my broken camera) speak the words.

More information on the Free Tibet movement and how you can participate at (www.freetibet.org).

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Where are you from?

How can such a simple question lead to such trauma? Not other people's trauma, but my trauma, trauma to my well being. There are several answers I could give, each one correct yet wrong. Taking the question literally I would answer, London, UK. That is where I was born and raised, home for the first eighteen years of my life. But the question is never just simply asking that, it is asking a lot more. Locked away in that small question are numerous questions all being asked at the same time: Where do you live? What is your background? What culture are you from? Tenuously it is even asking 'what languages do you speak?'

Answering London, UK as I normally do leads to much more misinformation than answers. Each encounter other than the most briefest of meetings inevitably ends up in a long monologue qualifying my answer giving my whole history right back to where my grandparents are from to answer that small, simple question. In the end I actually end up disqualifying my own answer.

The monologue starts with the geographical location of my birth: London, UK. Then the fun begins... 'I was born and raised in London, UK in a predominantly Indian culture smattered with some East African and an ever increasing chunk of English-ness. My parents are from Kenya and my grandparents (all of them) are from Gujarat, India. I spent the first eighteen years (about 60%) of my life in London. Due to university and work the following 20% was spent dotted around the UK (one has to differentiate London from the rest of the UK because for all intents and purposes London may as well be a separate country). 10% of my life has been spent travelling and expeditioning around the world and 10% has been in France. The answer to where I am now living? 'Nowhere'.

But no one wants a long answer to that question. What is the short answer? I don't know. The dilemma! The trauma! Maybe the only short, truthful answer I can give is exactly that: 'I don't know'. Oh, but then more times than not I would be dubbed as a pretentious 'new-found-hippie-child-of-the-world'. Any ideas?

Answers on a post(card) please...

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The Darkness of the Mind

I am in a dark place. Physically and psychologically. My eyes are closed to the world and it is only the darkness that is showing itself. The past: things I haven’t thought about for years. The future: Cohesive plans forming. And these words too, inscribed onto my memory to be transcribed later. For I have no hands to write with, nor eyes to see with or ears to hear with. I am but a mind. My body is trapped in a prison now for six days and the darkness is closing in. Memories upon memories, I cry, I laugh, great emotions stir within me. I am in a dark place. Am I the darkness that is enveloping me? A moment of doubt, but profound and soul shaking – a powerful shudder from the subconscious.

I shake my head and come back to the task at hand, to feel the sensations on the body. Bit by bit I move my concentration through the various parts. Starting at the top of the head and moving my attention downwards. I pause at my shoulders, I fail to feel even the touch of my clothes on the skin. I wait there, but my mind doesn’t. It has gone back into the realm of dreams: Thoughts about love, work and family. I realise where it has gone and I wrench it back into the present. I concentrate once again on my shoulders waiting for a sensation to emerge but my mind has gone off again like an unwatched toddler. This time the past turns into the future by some spurious linkages in the sub-conscious. I find solace in the plans of the future, of seeing my girlfriend after three months apart, about starting a new life together, in a new country with a new job, learning a new language. Once again I realise where I am and bring my mind back to the present. I scold myself for enjoying such thoughts for the object of the exercise is to develop an indifference to all things that change. And everything changes.

I leave my shoulders and move my attention to the torso, to the arms and to my legs. My bottom and legs are in pain, I have not moved since starting this exercise and I have no idea how much of the one hour sitting has passed. I fight the impulse to open my eyes and try to view the pain objectively to accept it as it is knowing that it will not last forever. The pain subsides for a few seconds but is soon back in full strength.

I notice the darkness again, it has been with me all day. Right from the wake up call at 4am to now, somewhere between 6-7pm and the last hour of ten hours of meditation. I fight against it, accepting for what it is, a darkness can only be darkness if we take it as such. ‘Equanimity to all sensations’ we are told, ‘to all thoughts’… ‘to pain’. The pain, the darkness is all too strong. I find solace once again in memories. Then the static of the tape starts and the silence of the meditation is broken by the chanting coming from the speakers and the hour is up.

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After the Vipassana

“I’ve just been released from prison.” I leave the prison with wide eyes open to the wonders of the outside world. I talk to everyone I see, the fellow inmates and the prison staff most for the first time. It’s been a tough sentence, not so much physically but mentally I’ve been through a washing machine.

At the prison one cannot talk to the other inmates or prison staff, inclusive of body language, facial gestures or any other form of communication. No reading or writing material or music is allowed inside either. Even eye contact with others is prohibited; a sign reading ‘eyes downcast and you’re bound to be successful’ is displayed on the ground in line with downcast eyes. The inmates are only permitted two meals a day with a small snack in the evening. Sleep is limited to 6 hours of day and the small cells are not much larger than 2x1m. The worst of it though is that the prisoners have to perform ten and a half hours of meditation a day, every day. Three of these hours are in forced discipline where one cannot move for the entire hour. Fortunately the sentence is only ten days long.

That is the best way to describe entering one's first Vipassana course. Prison. That is even how the teacher described it: A self-imposed sentence in a prison with rules harsher than the most severe penitentiaries’. The harsh rules are there for a reason and as this is a sentence one has subject on oneself the prisoners/meditators mostly follow them willingly. I did, finding the inner strength during the darkest hours to continue. Even when some of the inmates started talking clandestinely after day 5 I avoided eye contact with them to prevent any unwanted interaction. That was when the prison analogy was at it’s most exact. The said inmates would stand nearby each other about a metre apart during the short recess recess periods between meditation sessions or after meals. They would look in parallel directions into the forest or far into the horizon apparently unaware of each other’s presence and have hushed conversations in secrecy. When one approaches they stop talking and start again only after one has passed. But in the enforced silence of the place they were not fooling anyone, for there is no other reason for meditators to stand so close to each other and sound travels.

The vow of silence that we took is there like all the rules for a reason. The meditation course is a huge journey within the depth of the mind or as the teacher put it a major operation into the mind. Each meditator is embarking on an individual journey into the darkest corners of their mind and everyone experiences it differently. Discussion and sharing of these experiences can easily lead to confusion, false expectation and ultimately failure in the meditation. But what is this meditation technique?

Vipassana meditation means ‘to see things as they really are’. It is a process of self-observation that was discovered by Gotama the Buddha 2500 years ago in India and the path by which he attained enlightenment. However the technique was very nearly lost to humanity and only by what appears to be a series of coincidences over the millennia the technique survived to today. The technique was preserved in a handful of teachers in Myanmar and handed down orally from teacher to student over hundreds of years but ultimately was limited to within Myanmar. Again by what appears to be a fortunate coincident a promising young student well established in the technique found himself in India to see his parents. A single isolated course given by this young teacher snowballed with an unstoppable force. People travelled from all over India and further afield to learn the technique and in a space of 50 years Vipassana centres have been created all over India and all over the world. After a gap of almost 2000 years this technique that had gained so much popularity in the time of the the Buddha has once again returned to it’s motherland.

The theory behind the technique states that all events are neutral. When they come into contact with the body through one of the six sense organs (sight, sound, touch, taste, smell and thought) they create a sensation on the body. This sensation is itself also neutral but through ignorance we all have developed a habit of associating these sensations as a pleasant or unpleasant. One could see, smell, hear, touch, taste something pleasant or unpleasant or have a pleasant or unpleasant thought. And that, the Buddha says, is the start of all our miseries. When one evaluates a particular sensation as pleasant or unpleasant one develops a craving or aversion to that sensation which themselves are both forms of misery. When one has a craving for something but does not receive/attain it they become disappointed – misery. On the other hand when one develops a dislike to a particular sensation and they are subject to it they will too become upset, become miserable. The other important facet to Vipassana is accepting that nothing is forever. Everything changes. Thus a pleasant or unpleasant sensation has only one true characteristic: That it will change. With everything changing all the time any value we give to these cravings and aversions are bound to result in misery.

This evaluation of sensations happens deep within the unconscious layers of the mind and whilst we are all only aware of the surface (conscious) level of the mind we are locked into this cycle of misery through our ignorance. But what Gotama the Buddha discovered was that we do not require to be a slave to these evaluations. We can reach into the depths of the mind and change the nature of it and the way that it reacts to these bodily sensations. Once craving and aversion has been eliminated one will no longer be upset by whatever external event that passes but will always be happy and at peace with the world. That is the path to real happiness and harmony and the path that led Gotama the Buddha to enlightenment.

All other searches of happiness, through material gains or diversionary means only strengthen the cravings and aversions our minds have and thus only strengthen our misery.

The method by which the Buddha discovered to change the nature of the mind was by making the conscious mind aware of all the sensations that the body feels that were only previously evaluated by the deep unconscious. That is done by deep meditation.

And deep meditation is what we did. Starting at 4.30am we meditate until 9pm, every day. Three one hour sittings, one after breakfast, lunch and dinner were sittings of ‘strong determination’. One could not move at all during the hour and during the first couple of days the physical pain during the sittings were excruciating. After the sittings we left the hall limping off with stiff legs and backs. These were the hardest tests to control the equanimity of our minds to these sensations, but eventually the pain subsided as our control of the sensations grew stronger. Ten and a half hours of meditation everyday however took it’s toll. Each morning as I woke up I felt my body had been beaten up the previous day. But the physical duress was small compared to what the mind goes through. To be alone with one’s thoughts for so many hours is very revealing. The mind jumps to the past, to the future in an endless foray of thoughts and plans, of happy thoughts and melancholy. One tries to concentrate on the meditation and within seconds it has departed on some journey deep into the past. The greatest lesson on the first couple of days is how wild the mind is. Little by little over the first days the mind is tamed somewhat and concentration appears easier. It is only then that the real work of changing the deeper layers of the mind begins and the vipassana meditation starts.

The course is tough, but the fantastic support of the teachers and support staff makes this personal journey possible. As the days go by one realises that the physical prison that we have subjected ourselves to is nothing compared to the mental prison we are always in.

Alas 10 days is nowhere enough to transform the mind and no one pretends it is. Instead the 10 day course is an introduction to the technique and a tutorial of how to practice the technique oneself. There are years of work ahead to reach the goals sought but every step has its benefits and even after 10 days the effects are already felt. I’m happier as a result.

I'm off to meditate now.

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Vipassana - Some Thoughts

Evelyn asked if I am acared embarking on the ten days of silent meditation. No I am not scared, but I am nervous. I am nervous that I cannot benefit from it as much as I should. That I am not strong or motivated enough. I am inherently a quiet person and so shutting up for ten days does not seem much of a challange to me. But as quiet as my mouth is, my mind makes up for. I am a thinker and my mind is rarely quiet. It is analysing and anticipating and calculating. It chatters away consistently and unrelentingly on a hundred different topics at once. The vipassana course requires not only that I shut my mouth but that I free my mind of thoughts too. That is my challange. The course starts today at 2pm. See you all in ten days!

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Welcome to Backpackerstan

Backpackerstan. I love this term. I'm not sure where it originated from but it describes some places perfectly. The name invokes something exotic and edgy yet with all the fluffiness and comfort of 'back home' - a one word oxymoron. One of these places is Mcleod Ganj where I have just arrived. If I had done some research I would not have been so surprised at arriving here. But as it is I hadn't and all I knew was that this was the seat of the Tibetan Government in exile, home of the Dalai Lama and most important for me where the Vipassana centre is located where I am due to start a ten day silent meditation course. It is fascinating how each of these independent travellers, bent of discovering somethng 'new', something 'real', contributed to the creation of a Backpackerstan. Probably the very thing they were trying to avoid. It is also fascinating how such a place is created in the first place: A trickle of early explorers/travellers discovers a place, a community that accepts them, allowing them to live amongst them, cheaply and with some spiritual or environmental depth. These travellers tell their friends about this place and as the word is passed around the traveller grapevine the trickle turns into a stream. The path becomes troddenand soon enough the guidebooks get hold of it, as it is their job to do. The stream turns into a river as more laid back, less hardy travellers arrive. Businesses emerge catering for thier needs: Toilet roll, biscuits, crisps and beer. Inevitabely, the chocolate banana pancake is served and once the trance parties start the transformation is complete.

But the Backpackerstans of the world are not all the same and they are not necessarily a sell out to the 'true' traveller. There is a real reason why the place became a Backpackerstan in the first place it's not all coincidence.

Mcleod Ganj's allure is twofold. It lies at just below 2000m in the Indian Himalayas. The beauty of the Himalayan valleus topped by 6000m snow capped peaks and a temperate climate make it a haven from the rest of India. But more importantly (for the creation of a Backpackerstan) it is the home of the Tibetan government in exile and the home of the highest spiritual leader in Buddhism , the Dalai Lama. The popularity of Buddhism amongst western travellers need not be stated and they originally came here for the chance to commune with the great leader. In the streets of Mcleod Ganj, marron robed buddhist monks and Tibetan clothed westerners dot the streets in equal numbers amongst the more western dressed Tibetan and Indian residents. In the background in a plethora of signage restuarants claiming they make the best pizzas in town and guest houses delcaring the best and cheapest rooms vie for business. This is not how the town would've evolved without the backpackers. But it would be wrong also to attribute all the changes of Mcleod Ganj to backpackers. The seat of the Dalai Lama and the beautiful mountain scenery makes it a destination also for the more traditional tourist, foreign and Indian alike as well as a pilgrimage for Buddhists the world over. They too have affected the evolution of the town considerably and many businesses cater for their needs instead: Shops selling expensive Buddhist and Tibetan trinkets, statues and singing bowls line the streets leading to the main temple. However although these tourists have had some affect on the town and the numbers of Indian tourists alone easily outnumber the other type of tourists it is the backpackers that stay long term and have made the biggest differences here.

Once a Backpackerstan is born there is no going back. The culture of the place changes, the young , influenced by their western (richer) visitors fuse their culture with their own to create a hybrid culture sometimes combining the best of both cultures, often combining the worst. But that does not make travellers bad or irresponsible. It would be dishonest to the host for the traveller to pretend to be something they are not in order to prevent cultural changes. That is social engineering in itself. Cultures change all the time, influenced by everything they come in contact with. The fusion of cultures and it's evolution, happening faster here than other places is fascinating to watch.

A message for those that spurn such environments looking for the 'real' India, stop looking and start seeing because this is as real as anything else. Welcome to Backpackerstan!

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Ski Touring in the Himalayas

The shock is almost as pressing on the mind as on the body. Travelling from the tropics of the Andaman Islands into the mountainous regions of Himalayan India is a change worthy of planetary distances. The change certainly took its toll on my health: I immediately came down with a cold and a rogue sand fly bite on my ankle got so badly infected that I couldn't walk. Alas all that mended and I was right as rain (if not a little cold) for a ski touring exped I had organised. When organising such trip it always comes down to a roll of the die if you end up with a good group, of people that get along, of the right fitness and skill level. I rolled a six! Our group consisted of the Swiss/French guide and owner of the company, a Quebecoise and myself. Two cooks made up the base camp staff and looked after all our affairs leaving us free to only contemplate the mountains. I've never taken part in a 5* all inclusive camping trip - but I bet it doesn't get any better than this... one day there was a steaming hot pizza waiting for us as we descended the last slope into camp.

Before I start digressing too much, the mountains were free of any tracks, of any people and we had it to ourselves for the four day expedition. We reached our maximum altitude of 4300m on the third day. Absolutely amazing!

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Andaman Islands: Weeks 3-4

The Andaman Islands are the tropical paradise that they are made out to be. The fine, white, sandy, palm tree fringed beaches are heavenly and the sea a balmy 28 degrees. Although the archipelago consists of hundreds of islands only about 17 are accessible to tourists (without their own boat), Indian and foreigner alike. Geographically the islands are more south east Asia than India, anthropologically they are even further removed - the indigenous population are neither South East Asian nor Indian. Their language descends from a unique historical tree as well as their genealogy. Sadly the cat and mouse games played by the various super powers over the ages have rendered these populations insignificant and their numbers remain in decline. Recently attempts have been made to repair the damage that colonisation has wrecked on these populations and certain measures have been put into place: tourists can only travel to only a few islands, contact with indigenous populations is prohibited and so too is venturing into their territories. But as is often the case, these actions are too little and too late and the majority of the indigenous populations are on a downward slide. Just recently their was the much publiscised case of the last surviving member of the Bo tribe passing away, taking with her a 65000 year of language and history. Instead the main inhabitants of the islands these days are immigrants from the main land. Some have moved over as refugees, others as a deal with the government. These second and third generation immigrants provide all the businesses on the tourist islands. Although tourist numbers are increasing, it is still fairly easy to find a piece of paradise for yourself. :-)

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The Present of Travelling

Tourists gather in a small hotel lobby where wifi is available to connect with their lives. Even though one can physically be thousands of miles away from the strifes of modern life, one's mind, for better or for worse, does not stray more than a click away. Pondicherry, India

P1130335
P1130335

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