Prayer Flags

Prayer flags are found wherever Tibetan Buddhism is found. As they flutter in the breeze, they use this wind to send blessings out into the world. Through many parts of the Himalaya they adorn monasteries and humble homes, chortens and bamboo flagpoles. They are tied in their hundreds and thousands to bridges, above mountain peaks, and in the courtyards of every conceivable building.

Elsewhere, they are to be found wherever exiled Tibetans live, and wherever their school of Buddhism flourishes.

The makers of the flags intend the prayers and blessings that adorn them not for their own benefit, but for the benefit of all beings.

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Prayer flags in the Yumtang Valley, Sikkim, India.

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Prayer flags, Observatory Hill, Darjeeling, India.

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Prayer flags outside a monastery in Sikkim, India.

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Prayer flags adorn a pair of chortens and walls of prayer wheels in Khumjung, Nepal.

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Prayer flags at Tengboche, Nepal.

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And adorning a bridge of the Dudh Khosi, again in Nepal.

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Tengboche – 1

Tengboche is a monastery complex and a couple of trekking lodges on the route up to Everest Base Camp from Lukla, in Nepal. It sits high above the waters of the Dudh Khosi.

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Inside Tengboche monastery following a puja (ceremony).

Rightly or wrongly, I don’t like taking photographs of pujas in monasteries. It feels intrusive and bad mannered. I would feel the same in a church, mosque or temple. This has nothing to do with any beliefs of my own, but is born of simple respect.

I noted in my diary: We have just sat in on a chanting puja, but my meditation failed dismally. I was completely unable to concentrate on my breath as all that I could think of were my freezing feet!

It was blooming cold!

Virtually at Everest – part 3

Our guide was waiting for us on the edge of the airfield, with a porter who would load our bags into a large basket on his back.

‘Let’s go to our hotel and settle in,’ said Bob. ‘Then we can go and look at some sights, maybe after lunch.’

‘I’m afraid not, Bob. We’re not staying here. Tonight we’re staying in a little place about six or seven miles up the trail.’

‘Oh, alright.’ He looked a little miffed, but then brightened as a thought seemed to strike him. ‘We could have a second breakfast when we get there.’

‘We won’t be there until mid afternoon.’

‘Huh? Why on earth not?’

‘The paths are pretty steep in places, it makes for a long walk.’

‘Walk?!!?!’

‘Yes, walk. We’re trekking, Bob, remember?’

‘Yes…but…I…’

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Walking up the path with Bob was a pleasure I can only compare to dancing in a deep sea diving suit. Every few steps I took I would hear a plaintive ‘Mick…wait for me…’ from behind.

By lunchtime we had covered approximately half a mile and could still see the buildings of Lukla. Our guide, the impassive Pasang, calmly directed us to a nearby teahouse, and then left us as we ordered.

Bob wasn’t terribly impressed with the menu, though.

‘Do they have pizza?’

‘Is it on the menu?’

‘I can’t see it.’

‘Then, no.’

‘What are momos?’

‘Tibetan dumplings.’

‘Yuk. Dahl baht?’

‘Rice and lentils.’

‘Oh, God!’

We had fried vegetables. At first, I thought Bob wouldn’t eat his, from the face he made when it arrived, but walking half a mile that morning had clearly given him an appetite, and he managed to force it down.

As we ate, Pasang reappeared with another Nepali. They stood in the doorway for a while, looking at us and talking in low voices. The other man seemed a little upset and kept shaking his head, then they both left again. After about ten minutes, Pasang was back, this time with a much larger man. Again, they talked in low voices, with a lot of head shaking from the stranger, but they eventually shook hands, although neither looked particularly happy, and went back outside.

After we had finished lunch, Pasang took us outside where our porter was waiting, as was the large stranger, who also had one of those huge baskets on his back.

‘You will sit in his basket,’ he said to Bob.

‘What? No fear!’ He looked horrified. Pasang was clearly struggling to keep up his ‘impassive’ image.

‘If you do not,’ he said, sharply, it will be midnight before we reach the guest house. And,’ he looked at Bob meaningfully, ‘you will miss supper.’

Reluctantly, Bob did as he was told. I may have mentioned this already, but Bob is not a slightly built chap. His love of pizza and his fear of exercise combine to produce a body guaranteed to strike fear into the heart of any fitness instructor.

I looked at the stranger with a deep respect.

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They carry large loads, although not usually as large as Bob.

We set off. Pasang led, the two porters walked just behind him, with Bob peering unhappily over the top of the basket, and reminding me strangely of a cat in a basket going to the vets.

Which led to a few unkind thoughts, I’m afraid.

However, two hours later we were at the tea house where we were to spend the night, with no further mishaps. The afternoon had been lovely, and I had wandered along happily at the back of our little group, taking a few photographs but mainly just enjoying being there.

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Bob clambered out of his basket and looked around. Then he whipped his phone out of his pocket. ‘We’ve done really well, haven’t we? Let’s take a couple of selfies!’

The following morning we were woken at six o’clock for an early start, but Bob wasn’t feeling well.

‘I think I’ve caught pneumonia,’ he moaned hoarsely.

‘Oh, it doesn’t look that bad,’ I replied, brightly. ‘Probably just a bit of a sore throat due to the altitude. Let’s see how you are after breakfast.’ He dragged himself out of bed and shuffled wearily to the dining room, where he managed a light breakfast of porridge and banana, omelette, bread, toast, jam and coffee.

‘What do you think?’ I asked Pasang.

‘It is definitely best he stays here until we return,’said Pasang firmly. ‘We should not take the risk of him getting any worse.’ I was about to say that it was only a slight cold, but I saw the wisdom in what he was saying, and so I agreed.

So, it was a shame, but we had to do the rest of the trek without Bob.

Silver linings and all that…

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Everest is the one in the middle!

Virtually at Everest – part 2

Part 2 of my virtual trek to Virtual Everest Base Camp, undertaken while my foot is all sympathy-inducing-poorly. Part 1 can be found here

It was interesting watching Bob haggle with our taxi driver, but annoying to have to spend so long finding another taxi. Still, we reached Swayambunath eventually, and began the long climb up the steps towards the temple complex. As usual, we were surrounded by monkeys hoping for tidbits and just generally getting in everyone’s way.

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‘Oh, aren’t they cute!’ exclaimed Bob, reaching out to stroke one.

‘I wouldn’t,’ I warned him.

‘Oh, why not?’

‘Well, possibly rabies, for a start.’

We were seated in a taxi heading back towards Thamel inside half a minute.

‘For the last time,’ I said, exasperated, if you just leave them alone they won’t be a problem.’

‘But you said they had rabies!’

‘I only said possibly. It’s fairly unlikely, actually. You just have to be…careful.’

‘Well, you said!’ He folded his arms and stared sulkily out of the window. ‘I don’t think I want to do any more sightseeing!’

He brightened up when we got to the hotel and it was time to pay for the taxi. The driver had asked for 200 rupees when he picked us up, and I had just nodded at him, while Bob crammed himself into the back of the taxi, casting nervous looks outside all the time.

But now Bob decided it was time to haggle. I watched them for a moment, then went to get a drink in the garden. Bob joined me about ten minutes later.

‘What did you pay?’

‘Three hundred,’ he said, triumphantly.

I left him at the hotel and went off for a couple of hours, wandering around the backstreets taking a few photos, visiting shops and cafes, and generally building up my strength for an evening of Bob’s company.

But, in the event, he wasn’t too bad. He seemed to take a liking to the Nepalese beer, and was delighted to find he could get pizza in the hotel restaurant. We had quite a pleasant evening, and turned in early since the following day would be busy.

After breakfast, we walked out into Thamel. I had planned to indulge myself by taking the bus up to Jiri, a trip of one day, and then walking from there, which adds an extra week onto the trek, but is very much off the beaten track as far as regular trekkers go, but since I now had Bob with me, I supposed we’d have to fly into Lukla like everyone else, and leave the Jiri leg of it until another virtual time.

The first thing to do, though, was get him kitted up. Fearing the worst, I asked him what clothes he’d brought with him.

‘T-shirts, shorts, sandals.’

‘Is that it?’

‘Oh, I’ve also got a sunhat!’

‘Right, you’ll need quite a bit, then.’ There are scores of shops selling all sorts of outdoor clothing in Thamel, and I wasn’t worried about being able to find what we wanted. What did worry me slightly, was that Bob is quite tall, and he is also somewhat overweight. The average Nepali is neither, and my fears that the clothing could be a little on the small side for Bob were soon borne out. By lunchtime Bob was the proud owner of some very smart looking trekking trousers that came down no lower than his shins, and a couple of jackets that came down just to the top of his trousers, and the sleeves of which were a good six inches too short.

Still, he seemed happy enough.

‘How are the shoes, Bob?’

‘Well, a little tight, but they’ll do. It’ll only be for a few days, anyway. It was a good idea of yours to cut the holes in the toes.’

‘Um. Well, no one seemed to have anything your size, Bob. Think of them as a type of, er, mountain sandal. And…a few days? No, the trek takes a couple of weeks.’

‘Weeks? I need to get back for work!’

‘Oh, that’s okay. You needn’t come with me. You can stay here at the hotel and then get your flight home.’ He stared at me in a way that made me feel wretched. ‘Look, I’ll change your flight,’ I said at last.

‘Can you do that?’

‘Yes, it’s my virtual trip, this, so I suppose I can.’

I changed his flight, and then booked us both on a flight up to Lukla. The next morning, we were at the airport ready to fly up into the mountains.

‘Is that what we’re flying on?’

Personally, I love the little twin engine planes that do this journey, and hundreds like it all around the Himalaya, but Bob declared he’d only feel safe on a ‘proper aircraft’ – in other words a jet liner.

‘They can’t land in the tiny airfield where we’re going, Bob.’

‘Why not?’

‘Well, it’s, as I said, tiny.’

‘Oh.’

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He was airsick all the way.

Thank heavens it was virtual sick.

Virtually at Everest – part 1

I’ve not commented much on anyone’s blogs, recently, as I’ve rather gone into my shell for a bit. I do this at times, I’m afraid…engagement feels difficult…

And I’m fed up with having to sit around all the time with my foot in plaster and bandages. Even reading and writing is becoming a bit boring. Probably those two things are connected.

For my previous post, I revived my spirits somewhat by taking a virtual train journey in Sri lanka, so perhaps I should try something a little more adventurous this time, and put my virtually healed foot to a bit of a virtual test.

What about a trek up to Everest base Camp, then? That’d certainly test it out. And since I’ve got all of this virtual time at my disposal, perhaps I’ll do it the hard way.

But to start with, I’ll have a few days in Kathmandu; I always feel better for that. Just walking around Thamel and browsing in the shops there, stopping occasionally for tea or a snack or a beer at the Rum Doodle, ending up with armfuls of books I didn’t really intend to buy, handmade paper to paint on, handmade notebooks with beautiful cloth covers, some wood carvings…

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Luckily, this is a virtual journey, so I don’t have to carry them around with me. I’ll send them back home in a virtual package. But before I do that, I’ll just nip into this inviting looking restaurant for some lunch.

Oh, hell’s bells! Here’s Bob! ‘What on earth are you doing here, Bob?’

‘I heard you were a bit bored, so I thought I’d come along to cheer you up.’

‘Oh, that’s most, er, kind of you, Bob. Where are you staying?’

‘Kathmandu Guest House, Mick. Same place as you. In fact, I got the room next to yours.’

‘Ah. How…nice. Um, have you eaten, yet?’

‘I was just going to order. Oh, they don’t seem to have pizza here.’

‘No, they don’t. there’s a restaurant nearby where you can get one, though. Would you like me to show you where it is?’

‘No, that’s okay. Tell you what, I’ll try whatever you’re having. I’ll have the same.’

‘Really?’ Bob is probably the last person I’d describe as adventurous. I’ve never known him try anything new, and I just can’t believe he’s actually come to Nepal. I’ll ask him why once we’ve ordered some lunch. ‘I’m having the thugpa*, Bob. And a lemon and ginger tea.’

‘Sounds good.’

I order, still slightly shocked, then turn back to Bob.

‘What on earth brought you to Nepal, Bob?’ He looks down at the tablecloth, and seems a little embarrassed by my question.

‘Ah, there was a little, um, confusion, there.’ I wait, but he seems reluctant to continue.

‘And?’

‘I was planning to go to Naples. I think the travel agent must have misheard me.’ He looks up. ‘But it was great to bump into you. We’re going to have a brilliant time!’

‘So it was nothing to do with me being bored, then.’ He looks hurt.

‘Oh, it was! I just thought you’d gone to Naples, too. That’s where your wife told me you’d gone.’ My wife is, indeed, under strict instructions not to tell Bob where I am, and Naples must have been the first place she thought of.

Such is life, though. We chat a little, and the food arrives. Bob looks down at his with an expression best described as ‘disappointed’.

‘They’ve brought us soup.’

‘It’s thugpa, Bob. What we ordered.’

‘But I…’

‘You said you’d have what I’m having,’ I say, firmly. ‘I’m having thugpa.’

‘Oh, okay.’ He watches me eat for a few moments, then asks ‘Can I have bread with it?’

‘You can ask.’

He asks. The waiter shakes his head. Bob argues. He doesn’t want rolls. He doesn’t want brown bread. The waiter disappears, and moments later a boy dashes out of the kitchen and out of the front door of the cafe. A few minutes later he is back with a small package wrapped in newspaper. He runs into the kitchen. After another minute the waiter is out again with a plate, holding two slices of white bread, a knife, and a small mountain of oily butter, which he places down in front of Bob. Then he gives Bob a look that I can only describe as ‘withering’ and returns to the kitchen.

‘See, I knew they’d have it,’ Bob says, triumphantly.

Afterwards, he suggests we go sightseeing. ‘Let’s go to Swayambunath,’ I say, ‘You’ll find that interesting, I’m sure.’

‘Oh, what’s that, is it a castle?’

‘They don’t have any castles here, Bob.’

‘None?’ Sightseeing for Bob means castles. Or gardens. ‘I’ve got my phone with me. Let me take a look.’

‘Oh, I was rather hoping you’d have left that at home.’

‘No fear! I don’t want to get lost in a strange place! Now, what was that name again?’

‘Don’t worry about that, Bob. We’ll get a taxi.’

‘Oh, great!’ His eyes seemed to light up at the thought. ‘I know all about that! You have to haggle, right? For everything. I’ll do that, Mick. leave it to me!’

Well, although I seem to be saddled with a virtual Bob, I’m not going to let that put me off. Although I am painfully aware of the potential for him to offend people left, right, and centre, and possibly cause an international incident.

I suppose we’d better find a taxi.

*thugpa is a Tibetan dish, usually a clear soup of noodles and vegetables

Responsible Travelling – Part 2

Volunteering

Many travellers who are spending some time away from home end up volunteering their services at a project that claims to be a Good Cause, or offering to help to sponsor it. And many are, although a goodly number turn out to be money-making scams, some set up very elaborately indeed.

I have seen many sides of charity work – I have worked as a volunteer in UK and in India, worked as a paid employee of a charity and I have been both a trustee and a committee member of charities. I have also watched one go to bad, with various warning signs unheeded and a number of heads buried in the sand.

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So how do you tell a good project from a bad one? There are no hard and fast rules, mainly because projects differ so much. Some are huge, multi-million dollar constructs involving hundreds of volunteers and paid staff whilst others run on a shoestring with one or two staff. Some are run entirely by local people, others may be foreign led or almost entirely staffed by foreigners. They set up and run schools, leprosy or aids centres, save donkeys, teach alternative ways to cook and heat to reduce deforestation, rescue fallen women and street children, restore old temples, and so on and so on. And it is often very difficult to tell a scam from a genuine project.

Firstly, please do not just leap in and offer money. There are several good ways to get a feel for the project. Local knowledge is often a good start – talk to people. If you are spending a while in a place, you will get to know people and you can chat about your chosen project to them. If it is dodgy, someone is very likely to warn you. Or spend a while there as a volunteer before offering any money. Watching how it is run at first hand should give you a feel for it. Other than that, look at its website, if it has one. The project should have a board of trustees, or a committee, to oversee it. Contact them. Ask to see how the money is used and accounted for. This should all be open and in the public domain. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. If the people concerned are reluctant to give answers, or resent your asking, be suspicious. Look for obvious signs and use common sense. A large, flashy building with a few children inside and a big new landcruiser parked out in front, in the midst of a squalid village is going to be locally devisive and should also set your alarm bells ringing. If the trustees and committee all live in Europe or US, then it may be very difficult for them to carry out their duties effectively and again you should be wary.

Naturally, all this is unnecessary if you volunteer through a well-known and reputable agency such as Oxfam or VSO – you can be sure that all has been checked out thoroughly. If you can arrange a placement before you travel, using a reputable charity, you are unlikely to encounter problems. Do a little research.

Photography

Just a bit of common sense here, really. Be aware that in some societies taking photos, especially of people or religious objects and buildings, may not be accepted as easily as it is in the west. Often it is best to ask first. Be aware of people’s sensitivities. Years ago as I waited at Dubai airport, an elderly local gentleman in local costume sat drinking coffee in a cafe. He was approached by a western couple; he taking a number of photos of said local gentleman from intrusively close range, whilst she posed beside him. After a while she virtually sat on his knee as her partner continued to snap. The local gentleman sat impassive and stony faced through this whilst I (and I am sure almost everyone else in the room) cringed and wanted to creep away (or hit them!). I hope that just the thought of it makes you cringe, too! I have virtually stopped taking candid shots in places like markets, largely because I feel quite uncomfortable doing so. I feel as though I am both being intrusive, and treating people insensitively. I have found, though, that I have been rewarded with a lot of great photographs by simply asking people if they minded me photographing them. Very few refuse, and quite a few will pose proudly.

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Should you take photos of people and offer to send them copies, please make sure that you honour this. Many people that you meet will want their photo taken – in India I have been frequently approached when taking photos by people who wanted me to photograph them. In more remote areas, you may come across people who have never seen their photograph before.

You should also be aware that in many countries airports, bridges, hydro-electric power stations and many other buildings are regarded as military installations and the authorities take a dim view of attempts to photograph them. It is possible to end up facing years in prison for taking that innocent photograph of a nice-looking bridge! Find out before you travel whether this applies to the country you are visiting.

To go or not to go –

The ethics of visiting an oppressed country.

For visiting – to see it as it really is (you probably won’t. The Army/State/Police will ensure that you don’t get to particularly sensitive areas.), to support the local people (you may or may not be. You can choose to spend your money in little stalls or shops but you may have little choice when it comes to hotels. You may be forced to stay in State-run set-ups. You certainly won’t be allowed to show any political support.).

Against visiting – You would be tacitly supporting the State. You would invariably be financially supporting the state. If the State encourages foreign tourism, it is because it wants the tourists’ dollars. Again, this is another dilemma that you will have to solve for yourself. There are several things that you can do, however, if you want to support the people of an oppressed country.

Campaigning – groups such as Amnesty International (www.amnesty.org.uk) or Avaaz (www.avaaz.org) campaign actively in support of prisoners of conscience or oppressed groups or minorities. Join them, sign their petitions, give money, write letters to governments. Add your voice to those demanding change.

Boycotts – Boycotting the goods of an oppressive regime denies them foreign cash.

There and back again

You might want to think about offsetting your carbon emissions when you travel to and from your holiday (and do not forget about any internal flights that you might take). There are a few companies that use carbon offset payments to either plant trees, or work in the area of low carbon technology with the aim of reducing the effects of global warming – for example developing cheap and easy to produce but highly efficient cooking stoves for use in areas such as Nepal where erosion has become a huge problem due to deforestation for cooking fires.

Climate Care are the company I have contributed to, who do a lot of work in this field. Obviously it is better if you take alternative public transport, but not always possible or convenient. There is a limit to how many 30 hour bus rides in ramshackle vehicles it is possible to put up with! It is not possible to be precise, but usually trains are the least polluting option. When island hopping, ferries rather than planes.

It is far more interesting to travel slowly and be part of the environment than to get into a hermetically sealed container and just emerge at the other end. Surely, that is what travel is all about.