Shanti greetings going out to everyone once again.

Many people have been asking where the hell I’ve been the past few months. Yes, I’m alive and well, and no, I havn’t been living in a cave in the Himalayas (although I think that would have been time well spent). I have slipped back into Australia quietly and have been slowly touching base with my circle of friends and re-establishing myself into Aussie society again.
Many of you who I have already caught up with keep asking for a final journal, one that kind of rounds up my journey, the changes that it has made to me as a person and the effects that it has had on my life back home.

Paul at home on his favorite couch doing what he loves….reading.

My last few weeks in India were interesting to say the least. I was just easing into some serious Yoga training in Rishikesh when I was struck down with the worst case of food poisoning my body has ever encountered. Who knows where I picked that up but it kept me bedridden for a couple of days and depleted of energy for many days after. No real problem, because there was plenty to still see and do in Rishikesh besides Yoga, but it did keep me from getting down to Agra and visiting the Taj Mahal. I wanted that to be one of the final experiences of my Indian journey, but missing out just gives me an excuse to go back someday, right.


Leaving Delhi for a 2-night stopover in Bangkok was an amazing experience. Going from the cramped, rubbish strewn, lawless roads of India and arriving early morning to the incredibly modern airport in Bangkok, I was fascinated with the cleanliness and space of the Thai roadways and the politeness of their drivers. And, yes, I am talking about Bangkok, that thriving metropolis of hedonistic delights. It just seemed so much more developed and easier than the Indian cities. Imagine the culture shock when I touched down in Melbourne – so much opportunity and personal space to be found here, if nothing else I will always take that perspective from my trip. We really do have it good in this country.

So, now back in Australia. Back in a landscape that was parched and undertaking a slow death by dehydration when I left it back in April.
I remember all too well the week I spent on my families rural property before my departure. The dusty and scorched paddocks and the hungry cries of the livestock that had eaten virtually every blade of grass to within millimeters. Most afternoons I spent climbing trees and reluctantly hacking down the leafy branches in the hope of sustaining the cattle a little longer and quietening their hungry voices for a short while.
And now, with the drought having almost broken over the winter months of my absence, I have returned to soft sunshine, green pastures, spring flowers and a landscape of renewed vitality. I just wish we could have a solid couple of months of the kind of monsoon rain like I experienced in northern India. That would really sort out our water concerns.

Fishing in a fast stream, another unforgettable experience

My first week back in Oz I spent with my parents. While travelling over the other side of the world, I actually felt closer to my family than I have in many years. They were my main connection with home, and I really appreciated their regular contact. In Kashmir I was fortunate enough to stay with a local muslim family who were very loving and dedicated to each other. One evening I spent on their houseboat on Dal Lake conversing with the father, a sufi philosopher and deeply religious man. He spoke about the virtues of a closely bonded family and over the course of the evening I was to change many of my attitudes toward life and relationships. In fact, his words of wisdom and many wonderful quotes from the Koran made me reassess my outlook on some day having my own family and children. Kids always used to seem like such a hindrance to the better things in life, now I actually look forward to a future raising my own. Anyone who knows me well enough would be stunned by reading such a revelation coming from me. Travelling and touching other cultures and structures of belief really does make those sort of enormous changes to a person.

Further changes have come from my exploration of other religious faiths and the important lessons I have taken from them.

Already I have mentioned the lessons of family love from my Sufi Muslim friends. It was an honour to watch their devotion to Allah expressed in music and songs of prayer.
Hinduism taught me that life is a celebration that is filled with colour and vitality.
Buddhism was the closest faith I could identify with. It teaches not to seek happiness from an external source. Happiness is an internal process that can be attained through following consistent meditation practice such as Vipassana. The defining mantra of the Buddhist people is ‘Om Mani Padme Hung’, which translates as ‘Wisdom and compassion are inherently within us all’. It’s a belief that gives me much hope in the future of our world.

 

Yet, after spending valuable time within the Buddhist, Muslim and Hindu communities of India, I found that I was still unable to embrace a structured religion. Never being one for elaborate shrines or ceremonies, I always felt most at peace within myself when I was outdoors in the mountains, the forests and the isolated river banks. I particularly connected with a quote from the guru Krishnamurti – ‘When one loses the deep, intimate, relationship with nature then temples, mosques and churches become important.’ I believe it explains a lot about our human condition and what we have lost as we continue to industrialise and urbanise.

When one loses the deep,intimate relationship with nature then temples, mosques and churches become important


 

With that in mind, coming back to the raw and elemental beauty of the rural area where my family have their property truly took my breath away – I was seeing it with fresh vision, my eyes taking it in as if for the very first time. For far too long I had taken it for granted and now I find myself setting a goal to relocate there in the not too distant future. In fact, I almost didn’t return to Melbourne, such was the draw of the countrysides energy and the promise of a quiet, slower-paced lifestyle. Yet, the quiet life may allude me for a while longer, firstly I wish to return to study and the immediate supporting income that the city can provide. Regular visits to the countryside and hugging a few of the local trees will just have to suffice.

Winter at home in Australia

 


Over my lifetime I have collected much knowledge of the human condition and the skills to balance mind, body and spirit. Continuing study is a worthy investment in my eyes and I believe that will be my path over the next few years. I also have my eye on my parents farm when they decide to sell in the coming years. Between all this studying and saving, any dreams of further travel will need to be shelved. But then, the universe always has a way of course correcting, and if I’m meant to pack up my life and go again then I’m sure the resources I will need will surely fall my way. You just have to believe…

Love, light and happiness going out to all,

Paul

Shanty greetings going out to all,


My travels through the Indian Himalayas are continuing to flow long relatively well. I remain fit, healthy, unscathed and, most importantly, continually inspired and educated by the right people, the right books and the right places.

Once again I must apologise that this journal is now a couple of weeks out of date. I had the intention of sending within days of my time in Kashmir, but was unable to finish my writing before undertaking one of the most challenging, yet rewarding experiences of my life – a 10 day retreat in an ancient technique of insight meditation called Vipassana. In a dark forest isolated from the outside world and almost all sensory distractions, I have been taking my quest for inner peace to another blissful level – but I’ll save the details for my following journal.

I believe the last time I wrote I was on top of the world (literally!) in awesome Ladakh. I will continue with my journey West.

On the morning of my departure from Leh, myself and my two Aussie travel-mates arrived at the chaotic bus station at 5am and with bleary eyes searched for the ‘deluxe’ bus that would take us over the mountain ranges to the exotic land of Kashmir.

An amazing way to travel

We were about to experience another truly Indian enigma: the oh-so innocent switch from the simple comforts of a decent bus (at least one with suspension!) to one of the local rusty rattlers, or as I like to call them – ‘cattle class’.
We were 3 big, robust Aussie lads on a single bench seat made to tightly fit 3 small Indians. Our hips could just fit, but our shoulders were far too broad – two of us could lean back at any one time while the third man would have to lean forward. We took our positions in shifts. Despite the cramped conditions and much to their credit, the lads kept their spirits up and we learned to smile our way through every frequent sharp corner and jolting bump that came our way.
The first day we covered only 200 km in 10 hours on the road, arriving in the evening close to the muslim community of Drass, a region which has the unenviable record of being the 2nd coldest place on earth (I’m not sure who takes 1st place, but here it can get to -60c!). Reputedly, this is also the bed-bug capital of the world.
It was a very short rest for all concerned though, as we were told that the bus will be underway again at 2am as strict controls were in place for the times we could cross the heavily militarized mountain passes ahead of us. On this part of our journey we were traveling close to the Line Of Control which separates the disputed borders of India and Pakistan.
As our driver expertly nursed our jam-packed and ailing bus over the final mountain pass, the landscape evolved quite dramatically from rocky desert vistas to one of the most fertile and breathtakingly beautiful regions I have ever laid eyes on – Kashmir. All discomfort from our long, long ride was soon forgotten as the bus descended into a land of lush, green mountain meadows and ancient pine/fir forests surrounded by towering snow-capped ridges and peaks. This was mountain scenery that matches the very best of Switzerland or the Canadian Rockies, almost fairytale-like in its raw beauty.

Land of lush, green mountain meadows and ancient pine/fir forests.

Yet, because of this natural beauty, Kashmir is also a land with a long history of ongoing political violence. As little as 8 years ago, this area was decribed by the then US president, Bill Clinton, as “the most dangerous place on earth”.
The Indian and Pakistani governments wish to claim Kashmir as their own and since their first conflict in 1947 the region has remained a flashpoint between the two countries. The people of Kashmir just wish for their own independence and has produced powerful militant groups striving for this aim.
This has created a situation of unpredictable danger throughout Kashmir, and wherever I travelled their was a huge military prescence to contend with. The soldiers on patrol are heavily armed and decked out in helmets and body armour, roadsides are lined with razor-wire and there are machine-gun bunkers frequently found on street corners.
Roadblocks and bag searches are common practice, and many times I have been stopped and interrogated. Thankfully, being an Australian is a true blessing here – one look at my passport and these hardfaced soldiers and policemen would light up with a beaming smile and congratulate me on being a cricket champion of the world. Just drop a few names like Ricky Ponting or Shane Warne and they will treat you with an open and friendly respect, often earning a vigorous handshake.

The capital city, Srinigar, is famous for the large lakes it has been built around, and even more famous for the hedonistic houseboats that are anchored around their banks. With their faded elegance, the houseboats are leftover from the British Colonial era, when the English would escape the heat of the southern plains for the cool heights and beauty of Kashmir. Apparently, being unable by law to purchase land here, the clever Brits built these floating palaces for themselves. Filled with antique furnishings, carved wooden facades, delicately coloured leadlight windows and plush deckings for long, lazy days of watching life on the lakes drift past, many may be past their glory days, yet most of the boats have remained well-maintained and quite charming.
Luxurious gondolas slip past carrying what little of the tourist trade remains. These are truly something – a pimped up ride with throw cushions to lie back over and lunch and English tea served on request. My friends and I hired one for the day (with guide and paddle boy), and took a tour of the local lakes and surrounding canals. Around us were large floating gardens of lotus lilies, local fisherman and craftsman plying their trade from rowboats, amazing lakeside architecture and a multitude of birdlife living amongst the vegetation on the waters.

A lone fisherman on a tranquil lake

In many ways Kashmir does have the feel of country that is independent of the rest of India. With strong roots in the Islamic faith, Srinagar shares more in common with the cities of Central Asia. Many men wear long shirts and long beards, many women remain covered from head to toe and wear dark masks over their faces. At routine times of the day, songs of prayer are broadcast from the mosques and, drifting over the breeze on the lakes, these sounds add a dreamy and surreal feeling to an already exotic and colourful place.
Westerners are a rarity on the streets of the old city and I was met with some curious, suspicious and often hard stares while visiting one of the central mosques. My presence seemed to invoke mixed reactions from the locals. Children followed me around as if I was a Bollywood star, then at one point, on a crowded waterfront street, a stone was thrown at my head. Although feeling calm and centred, I also learned to keep my guard up.

I believe the Kashmiris may very well be the best (and most insistent!) salespeople in the world. To be enticed into one of their stores is truly an experience to behold. They will lead you in by the arm, seat you comfortably and serve tea as if you were an honoured guest visiting the inner sanctum of their home. Then, beginning to display their wares one by one in a steady stream, they will watch your expression with a hawk-like concentration until you show the slightest interest or admiration for an item – and now it’s game on and the hard sell begins. An inexperienced and naive traveller can often feel obligated to purchase just because they have been treated so special! I believe it is not uncommon for a customer to walk out of a Kashmiri store with an armload of treasures, their wallets emptied and finances devastated, wonderng what the hell just happened in there!! I have learned early to toughen my resolve, assertiveness is a must with these guys, but so many of the crafts here are exquisite and painstakngly made, and there is much to admire.

After a slightly uncomfortable stay on a houseboat owned by an overzealous shawl salesman, my friends and I moved to a quieter part of the lakes on a beautiful boat owned by a family of Sufi Muslims. The Sufis are the philosophers, mystics and poets of the islamic religion and these were a wonderful, generous and warm family to stay with. Their kindness and goodwill was inspirational, and they shared valuable insight and guidance from their faith. Together we shared a daytrip into the mountains to try our hand at fly-fishing and caught many tasty rainbow trout for a campfire fry-up on the river bank.

Rainbow trout fry-up on the river bank.

Other journeys into the mountains of Kashmir included taking a horse trek for the day from the village of Aru to some amazing viewpoints, and a challenging round of golf on the worlds highest golfcourse near the ski resorts of Gulmarg. With obscure threats of militant clashes and kidnappings in these regions, tourism remains very quiet. I felt fortunate to share the beauty of these places with so few other travellers, often finding myself in peaceful solitude.

After a few days of chilling out in McLeod Ganj as I recover from my intense studies in Vipassana, the next stop on my journey will be to the sacred Ganges River and the famous town of Rishikesh – believed to be the Yoga capital of the world and the place where the Beatles came in the late sixties to study under their guru and produce the most trippiest tunes of their career.

Wishing everyone peace, love, light and happiness. I certainly feel as if I’m brimming with them after my meditations.

Paul

Hi Mum and Dad,

Good to hear from you. I tried sending an e-mail from Kashmir a few days ago but the server crashed just as I completed it! Bad connections up there.
I have just arrived back in McLeod Ganj after my stay in Kashmir. I have never seen a region of such stunning natural beauty, but unfortunately it is tainted by being a near war-zone. Heavily armed soldiers are everywhere. I was continually stopped in my travels to be searched and interrogated, but once they saw I was an Aussie they treated be with smiles and respect.
There are still very few tourists in the area as security forces patrol the streets and mountain resorts, but I felt I had to see the place and it was well worth any risk. In the mountains I went trout fishing and on a horse riding trek as well as playing a round of golf on the world’s highest golf course. World’s highest golf course

In the capital, Srinigar, I stayed on a houseboat owned by the most genuinely kind and friendly family of Sufi Muslims. Many of the wonderful conversations I shared with them has changed my outlook on life.

House-boats
I have had a very long and hard journey over the past 24 hours. The roads were flooded and washed out at some points and we had to detour several times costing many hours. There was also a transport strike near my destination and I had to leave my jeep ride to finish the last stage of my journey on a packed local bus. Not much fun after driving all night! I’m here safely though and ready for some rest. In 2 days I begin my next meditation course but I’ll call before then.
I’m really surprised my books arrived so soon, they told me 2-3 months by sea! Considering I sent it from the isolated Himalayas, I’m impressed. I am preparing a parcel of clothes to send back soon, I need to free up some room in my pack.

Love you both, please give Bella a big hug for me too.

Paul