A Sudden Couple of Months

There have been many moments I have wanted to stop and write over the past couple of months. (And several times I have started…) But time is passing quickly out here on the road. Aside from the occasional photo posted, I realize I have not shared much of my adventures since the day I left Northern Ireland. So here goes… 

My first stop in Scotland was Roslin, just south of Edinburgh. I caught up with an old friend I had not seen in more than fifteen years, Andy, staying with his young family and exploring the stunning countryside there. I was pleasantly surprised by the geology along the River North Esk. I also stopped in to see the spooky and beautiful Rosslyn Chapel (made famous by The DaVinci Code). Following this visit, my days in Scotland slowed considerably, at times becoming somewhat uneventful. I got sick – a heavy head cold that descended into my chest. Yet I was nonetheless blessed in my recovery. After briefly catching up with family friends in Edinburgh, Bob and Sheila generously opened their home to me as they left for ten days in New York. I suddenly had a base in the same home my family had lived in twenty-seven summers before. It was a walk down memory lane (and up a few familiar hills) in the gorgeous and historic city of Edinburgh. I even bought a phone in Edinburgh, realizing in the absence of one what a support it could be to my journey. I am also gladly taking photos now.

After posting the above panoramic photo online, I discovered that a Swedish friend I had met in Rome years before, Sanna, was now living in Edinburgh, and we had a chance to catch up and hang out a couple of times. That was good fun. Otherwise, I rested a fair bit and tried to get over my cold, which proved especially pesky. A doctor prescribed me antibiotics if it worsened any. Even with a week of wonderful weather, I was often home-bound, watching movies and feeling a bit lazy and low at moments, yet randomly laughing at my good fortune in others. I did enjoy a few quality Skype visits with friends and family, which stand out as highlights.

Later in the week, I got a call from a dear friend, Franz, who had frequently hosted and employed me on his family farm in Tuscany over the past several years. He suggested I join he and his wife, Molly, down in Greece to help them run a few yoga retreats. He offered to fly me down, put me up and pay me a decent stipend for a few weeks work, supporting the yoga groups throughout their excursions and other day-to-day activities. Though unexpected, and entirely changing the course that had been gradually developing, the offer proved too good to pass up. 

I first headed south to London (which I had somehow missed in all my travels) and spent a couple of days exploring widely, often walking with an umbrella and raincoat, the English weather performing as advertised. I caught up with another old connection, Adrian, from my days working at Trinity College School. We shared a good visit and a tasty meal, and I saw another slice of London (aside from the touristy bits I had already exhausted). As impressive as much of London obviously was, it was not doing a lot for me. The weather may not have helped its case (nor the museums filled with incredible artifacts stolen from their homes).

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‘Tourist Proof’ I was in London.

I much preferred Cambridge, where I spent a day and a half before flying from London’s far north Stansted Airport. Hosted by a generous friend of friends, Gwen (whom I had met once before), I was given great guidance and found myself walking all over town, popping into churches, museumsand parts of the University campus, also watching rowers on the River Cam. I even found some fresh homemade hummus in a little local market. 🙂 I absolutely loved the calm pace of life in Cambridge, especially relative to London. I could easily imagine setting up shoin a spot like that. It likely helped that the weather had turned for the better by the time I arrived.

Once in Greece – happily reunited with Franz, Molly and their daughter Giulia – I found myself in the peaceful seaside village of Epidavros. Having passed through only briefly years before, I learned much more this time about the heritage of healing in the region. Myths of Asclepius – a hero and god of medicine, with his serpent-entwined staff (still a medical symbol today) – place him as a local. The sleeping volcano of Methana is also renowned for its healing power. Nevertheless, shortly after my arrival, my slowly-mending chest infection seemed to reassert itself, morphing and spreading into my throat and swelling my tonsils. On the first day of our first yoga group, sufficiently aware of the upcoming demands on my energy, I decided it was time to take the antibiotics that had been prescribed to me more than a week before. They seemed to take effect swiftly, enabling me to focus on my work with the group. 

I was quickly swept up into the energy and activity of the ‘yoga vortex’. As smooth and easy a program as we endeavoured to present for our clients, it took a good deal of background work from us. I was glad to be a part of the team. We created an interesting schedule and a supportive space for the twenty-six American college students on retreat, most of them coming to Europe for the first time. We had some truly awesome people in the mix, whom I will not soon forget. (I hope I never do!) We saw ancient cultural and archaeological sites, took dance classes, learned about farming and processing olives, went snorkeling and scuba-diving, cleaned plastic from beaches, and met with historians and mythology experts (also learning of the curious intersection between history and mythology which many subscribe to). I was basically just on board to support a pre-existing framework that my friends had developed over years of running retreats in the area (aside from their other retreats in Tuscany, Amalfi Coast, Portugal, Patagonia, Cuba, and Nepal). It was a lively time. With slight alterations to fit each group, we basically repeated the program one retreat after another. Before I knew it, three weeks (and three yoga groups!) had come and gone. I had driven back and forth from the Athens airport (about two and a half hours away) numerous times by then, picking up and dropping off new faces and fast friends.

I also had moments of frustration in Greece, feeling as though I wanted to write something of value, but not quite having the time, energy or impetus. Knowing my body was still in recovery, I usually took spare moments for rest instead of creation. Having set out on this adventure with an intention to reflect on my path through writing, I had thus far felt either too busy, tired, lazy or sick to begin. I sensed there may have been some connection between my illness and my lack of writing, as though I physically had ‘something to say’ lodged in my throat. As I watched my mind frequently composing ‘something to say’, I gradually acknowledged that it was still somewhat invested in becoming ‘someone’ in the world. The effect of this desire was a freezing up of my natural expression, caught up instead in a search for ‘perfection’. Part of me wanted everything to be all figured out before I began. How many times must I face this same hurdle? I continue to remind myself I can only truly be myself, not effectively plan and present myself. In this light, any form of presentation can only reflect our past, not our true presence.

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Random stone Buddha.

Receiving a few acupuncture treatments from Molly (a doctor of Chinese medicine), my body began releasing some of the conflict it was going through. My perspective also clarified a bit, seeing that the body – in its own intelligence – was clearing space for purposes of its own. Whether that would translate into some sort of growth or deeper healing, I had to admit I simply did not know. Around the same time, I began reflecting on a pattern of illness arising on the road. Looking back at past travels, I saw a long string of illnesses emerging while I was away from home. It seemed I never let myself fall so fully apart at home as on the road, whether physically, emotionally or mentally. Strange though it may sound, I value these opportunities to fall apart a bit, to ‘peek through the cracks’ and glimpse more stable ground beneath everything else that comes and goes.

I started viewing illness as a storm, realizing that storms bring new ingredients into our environment, ingredients often essential for growth, healing, release, or re-calibration. A storm is not always enjoyable. (Healing often hurts.) But there is something of value to be uncovered in its wake. Aware that storms eventually clear our atmosphere, I figure there is wisdom in weathering them. We can surrender that which is otherwise clogging our space, opening ourselves to receive whatever other elements life may be ready to offer us. However speculative, these images at least inspired in me a renewed commitment to vigilant awareness and a deeper openness to falling into alignment with life’s will. My sense here is that by listening more intently within, I can speak more freely, fully and surely from my very centre, a source common to all. Speaking from life’s heart. Hardly about being heard, this is about sharing what comes from most deep within. The essence, not surprisingly, is love. And it resonates outwardly. 

Amidst this (ongoing) inner work, supporting the yoga groups was an enjoyable and fitting setting. I loved being tucked into such a pretty little aquamarine cove – a slice of paradise – eating good food that I did not need to prepare, sleeping beside the sea, practicing daily yoga and sharing adventures in and around various Greek islands with fascinating people.

After facilitating our three groups in Greece, I took a van-load of fun folks to the Athens airport (listening to the Grateful Dead much of the way) and then jumped on a flight to Naples, set to lead a retreat at a convent in nearby Sorrento. Shortly after arriving at Convento San Francesco, my illness made a serious resurgence. My tonsils swelled up like golf balls. Though I would love to have weathered it without meds, I had committed to more responsibility for this final retreat (Franz and Molly busy leading another retreat in Greece). So I went for my third trip to the hospital in just over a month. I was prescribed a much stronger course of antibiotics than the first, and after a couple of days, the swelling receded. Fortunately, working alongside Franz’s cousin, Mario, the retreat carried on with only a few ‘learning moments’. It seemed somewhat easier on me perhaps because the group was from Toronto, which offered a sense of familiarity. We even found a few common connections between us. It also helped that the structure of their retreat left me little gaps to sneak away and nap during the day.

After the group fanned out in various directions (some bound for trains, others planes, and still more hanging around the area for further exploration), I picked up Franz’s son, Gabriele, from the family summer home up in the hills overlooking Sorrento and we headed north to Ebbio, the farm in Tuscany. We, of course, stopped for lunch in Naples, enjoying a couple of ridiculously delicious pizzas at Antica Pizzeria da Pasqualino. It was a perfect day for driving and the journey was smooth (though not quite as fast as if Mario had been behind the wheel). We reached the farm as the sun was about to set and I was grateful to be back at a place that feels a lot like a spiritual centre for me. I greeted several friends, human, plant and animal. The horses and donkeys seemed pleased to see me, as I was them. I visited a few of my favourite trees, walking the grounds and stopping to soak in the views. I even saw some day old puppies. 🙂 But after a month in the yoga loop – spinning in Franz’s orbit – I was feeling keen to keep moving, so my stay this time was brief. Franz found me a ride north to Milan with a friend of his and I hopped at the chance, with just under an hour’s notice.

Like many of Franz’s friends I have met before, Angelo was quite a character. Our journey to Milan was full of fascinating stories from a life thoroughly lived. I stayed a quick night in a youth hostel (realizing I was pushing the boundary of ‘youth’ now, as 35 is often a cutoff in some hostels) before hopping a bus to Munich, riding for the first time through Switzerland. I was excited to be dropping in on three good friends in the Munich area, catching up after a few years.

I spent a few quality days with a friend from Toronto, Win, who was now living in his wife Julia’s hometown about an hour west of Munich. They have a sweet setup in the countryside there, and a happy dog, Blue. We walked around and talked about a lot, listening to good music (mostly the Grateful Dead) and eating well. One afternoon, they took me on a ‘health’ walk inspired by a famous local priest named Sebastian Kneipp, where you walk through a circuit barefoot, encountering various elements intended to balance your health. I especially liked the mud pool and the multi-textured labyrinth.

Win drove me to my friend Bart’s place in Wörthsee, where I got to meet his fiancée, Hannah, and their beautiful baby girl, Emma (just freshly one year old). Sweet, smiley little Emma did not take long in warming to me. This was a very meaningful stop on my journey. Bart and I, since we met cycling in Spain in 2011, have a strong bond that calls for little maintenance. We pick right up where we left off every time we connect. I loved my time staying with his family in picturesque Wörthsee. Both nights I spent there coincided with World Cup matches, where we gathered in the beer garden with many from the village to cheer on the underdogs.

Heading into Munich to see my friend Robert (who, coincidentally, also met Bart while cycling in Spain), we similarly carried on without missing a beat. I spent a quick couple of days with him, getting into deep conversations as we always do, having plenty of laughs, and enjoying a bike ride around town. We also stopped into Tollwood Festival to drink in the summer fun of the popular local alternative to Oktoberfest. We also ran into Win’s wife Julia and her friend, also named Julia. It was a nice way to connect the dots and sew up my Munich visit with the same thread it began with. Though the time with my Munich friends flew by, it felt great to share energy with each of these old friends.

Arriving in Salzburg to our dear family friend’s home, no sooner had Edda welcomed me than I headed out to Mondsee to join my friend Ralf for a sunset sail. (Edda had told me she would be leaving right after receiving me…hence my other plans cued up.) Getting to know Ralf when I lived a few months in Salzburg years before, we also have a strong bond that suffers nothing from years between visits. Ralf and his friend Christian, both capable sailors, tended to the needs of the vessel while I enjoyed the breathtaking views, savouring the wind, the clouds, and the mountains surrounding the lake. I also chipped in with a bit of musical support, cheerfully strumming away on Ralf’s mini Cordoba guitar. As Christian prepared to head back to Salzburg later that night, I could not have been happier to hear Ralf suggest we stay at the lake and spend the night on the boat. After the stars came out and the air cooled, we cozied into our bunks below deck and shared tales of the life we had each been living, eventually falling asleep to gently rocking waves. A quick, brisk morning dip woke us up and following a bit of breakfast and writing, another day of sailing began, this time just the two of us. Ralf had me helping out as much as I could, even trying my hand at sailing for a stretch. The conditions could not have been better. This brief window together at Mondsee was an amazing way to reconnect with a dear friend.

From Salzburg, I moved quickly to Bratislava, staying only overnight before hopping a bus for the day’s ride to Krakow. The annual European Rainbow Gathering is happening in south east Poland and I am eager to drop in and see what is going on, connecting again with some friends I got to know when I joined the 2012 summer gathering in Slovakia. That was a potent and positive experience, which was at least thoroughly affirming if not somewhat formative. I am only about 200 KM away now and intend to leave either tomorrow or the day after.

Leading up to this celebration of love and light, it felt somehow fitting that I visited Auschwitz today, reflecting on humanity’s capacity for darkness. It impacted me more than I could have anticipated. It was as though I could feel tiny waves of the suffering echoing there. Seeing the potential for such madness still alive in some corners of our globe today motivates me all the more to share widely the love I feel so clearly.

This is what brings me to writing now. This is what I wish to express from most deeply within. On what has become very much a circuit of visiting friends (and unfortunately missing out on catching up with several others), I can see my core drive at work – sharing love. This is all I want to do here in this life. I hope you can take a moment to stop and breathe it in. 🙂 It is here in abundance, if only we can allow ourselves to feel it amidst everything else that so easily captures our attention. It is so vital to prioritize this love, this peace within, thus strengthening and enabling us to share it more freely in the world. We are capable of creating a unified, loving world, but if we fall blind to our role in this process of co-creation, fear can take control and sweep us up in dreams of division – nightmares of us and them. Understanding our true ground is a clear path to radiating peace in the world around us. We cannot try to control much beyond that. I pray we have the courage to lean out love anyhow and trust its transformative power.

I suppose I will sign off there. I could go on. But silence has far more to say than I could ever put into words, so I will return there for now, from where I came. 🙂

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Rainbow Gathering Theme.

ps…I will likely be offline for a couple of weeks while I am camping in the woods. I look forward to catching up with you once I return! Until then, be kind – to yourself and others! 😉 

Finding Sanctuary in Nepal

After a crazy week of travel through the stinking heat of north India, I found myself seeking refuge up in Nepal. Though the air was cool in Kathmandu, I quickly found myself choked by the oppressive pollution. I got pretty sick for a few days and didn’t get up to much. Once I had recovered sufficiently, I made a break for a quiet village in the middle of nowhere. I’ve been here in Bandipur for nearly two weeks now, loving every simple day, passing each peacefully.

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My days crossing India from Rishikesh to Bodh Gaya were packed with action. I slept on trains two nights in a row and burned the candle at both ends trying to cover ground. Stopping for a day in Lucknow and wandering around in the hot sun was nice in some ways – enjoying a lot of impressive Mughal architecture – but it was an assault on my body. I had only wanted to stop there because my Grandfather was born in a small Canadian town of the same name. Perhaps a silly reason, but why not? After a full day in the heat, and more than a four-hour delay, I boarded my train around 2 AM and continued east.

I pulled into Varanasi early in the morning and decided I would stay a day. It was a beautiful visit. I found a friendly hostel near the train station and rested a bit before setting out to explore the ancient, fabled city by the holy river Ganges. Learning about the cremation traditions was especially powerful. Hindus from all over India travel to Varanasi to cremate their loved ones by the banks of ‘Mother Ganga’. Not all can be cremated, though. Some are simply put in the river to be cleansed. Children are too innocent for the fires of cremation. This also goes for pregnant women. Others are kept from the fire for the safety of the living. Lepers and those bitten by cobras could spread their illness through the fires of cremation.

After watching an old woman in the funeral pyre gradually reduced to ash (a young man poking her bones with a bamboo pole), I noticed a body bobbing along the banks, apparently slipping free from the rocks intended to keep it below the surface. Nobody seemed to think much of it. As I set out from the area, I was annointed with ashes from the sacred fire which has been burning for 3500 years (and then I was given a small parcel of them to bring home). Before leaving town, I took a sunrise cruise on the river, watching the morning rituals along the ‘Ghats’ of what many consider the spiritual centre of India.

I took a local bus (the only one I could find) to Bodh Gaya. I surely would have sprung for air conditioning had I had the chance but I couldn’t do much about it. The dusty bus ride ended up being more than ten hours of slow moving on flat terrain as we covered a mere 250 KM. I felt a bit tested at times, though knowing I could only embrace the journey. I rose early the next morning and explored the temple grounds where the Buddha became a Buddha. The massive Bodhi tree there is something to behold. Cameras are not permitted on site so all of us there were ‘forced’ to be more present in our shared experience of the immense beauty and serenity. I felt an incredibly potent peace there, resting in meditation for a couple of hours. But the heat picked up and pressed me onward, reminding me why I wanted to head north to Nepal.

I caught a rickshaw to the train station, a train up to Patna, another rickshaw to a bus terminal, where I had a bit of dinner before my bus to the border. That arrived the next morning around 5 AM. I joined some guys from the bus in a horse-drawn cart to the border-crossing where I waited a couple of hours for the customs office to open. I took another rickshaw looking for a bus station, now in Nepal, and ended up hopping in a crammed jeep for passage to Kathmandu. That was another eight hours of bumping around on winding roads climbing higher and higher, wondering how secure some of the soil was beneath us. I had heard talk of recent landslides and couldn’t tell if some of the damage on the road was that recent or perhaps still remnant from the massive earthquake that hit exactly two years earlier. I had entered the country on a somewhat tender anniversary. We made it to the busy city and I was guided by one of my fellow riders to a part of town that had been recommended to me, Boudanath. That was another hour on a few different buses and by the time I arrived and found a room for the night I was ready to collapse.

I looked around the neighborhood the next day and could see why it had been recommended to me. A massive Buddhist temple stood in the centre of the area and many charming shops and restaurants surrounded it. I spent another day there before moving to the very different neighborhood of Thamel. This place was packed with little hotels and guest houses catering to western trekkers. I found a cheap spot and set up shop in a dormitory. I ended up spending more time there than I would have imagined, as I became quite sick, the terrible air quality catching up with me and compounding whatever else I had going on.

I bid farewell to Kathmandu (vowing not to return until they effectively address their air quality troubles) and set out for the quiet little mountain village of Bandipur. After resting for a few days and nursing myself back to reasonable condition, I began enjoying some exploratory hikes through the surrounding countryside. This is a little slice of heaven and I am grateful to have stumbled upon it.

A few days ago was the Buddha’s birthday and I was invited to join my hosts for the annual parade through town. It was quite an event, full of sound and colour. I didn’t have much of a clue about what was going on through most of the day but I carried on with a smile. There were a few monks among us carrying various instruments – drums, horns and cymbals – keeping us in rhythm. Kids and grandparents alike marched along, descending from the temple on the outskirts of town right through the heart of the village before turning around and returning. I had no idea when or where we might stop, so I was kept on my toes, lugging a bound scripture on my right shoulder, which seemed to get heavier as the afternoon progressed. But I was not alone, as most everyone was carrying something. Besides several bound scriptures, we had different kinds of flags, banners, and a small Buddha statue sitting in an open carriage. Villagers would often stop to pay their respects to the tiny Buddha, leaving offerings of snacks or money.

I felt honoured to be the only non-Nepali in the procession and I occasionally caught the curious eye of other travelers watching the parade go by with a tall white guy sticking out in the middle. There were two elders who kept chants going throughout the parade, call and response, and I caught on before long, beginning to fit right in. I was welcomed in to the beautiful Tibetan temple for a feast afterwards, which was accompanied by a short discourse by one of the local teachers. All around us were statues of the Buddha and offerings of rupees, fruit, crackers and even sleeves of digestive biscuits. The Buddha doesn’t discriminate. 

Just last Sunday my dear sweet Grandmother turned 99. As it happened, with my family back home at church celebrating her birthday, I came to a ‘life decision’ on the same day. Saying it that way makes it seem like a big deal, when it didn’t feel like that at all. I didn’t even feel like the agent of this decision. I simply noticed it. But I had been considering this particular possibility for some time, and suddenly saw that it was always going to happen. I felt an immediate peace about it, which seemed funny after watching my mind flip-flop over the past few years (and especially the last couple of months).

So, as I return home to Toronto in a few weeks, I’ll be preparing for a return to University in the fall. After a decade mostly out on the open road, I’ll be shelving my wandering shoes (for a time) and digging into a Masters degree in Pastoral Studies at Emmanuel College, focussing on Spiritual Care. It’s a definite change of pace but I’m excited about it. I trust I’ll continue to have many new opportunities to share the simple joy of life through this next chapter. 🙂

So that’s about all for now! I’m heading back out on the road tomorrow, soon returning to India. I will leave you with a selection of photos from my time up here in beautiful Bandipur, “Where Heaven Meets” (this is a somewhat funny ‘catchphrase’ printed on pamphlets, posters and t-shirts around town):