Catching up with Buddha on Top of the World!

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Unlike most other religions, the central figure of Buddhism is not a God but a human being – Siddhartha Gautama. According to Buddhist tradition, Gautama was a prince who lived circa 500 BC and was heir to a small Himalayan kingdom. The young prince was different from your typical prince because he was deeply affected by the suffering he saw around him. Everywhere he looked he saw that men and women, children and old people, all suffer not just from war and plague, but also from anxiety, frustration and discontent, all of which seemed to be part of the human condition. The price of being alive.

People pursue wealth and power, acquire knowledge and possessions, have sons and daughters, and build houses and fantastic palaces. Yet no matter what they achieve, no matter what they do, they are never content. Those who live in poverty dream of riches. Those who have a million want two million. Those who have two million want 10 million. Even the rich and famous are rarely satisfied. They too are haunted by ceaseless cares and worries, until sickness, old age and death put a bitter end to it all. Everything that one has accumulated in life vanishes in an instant like smoke. You don’t take anything of this world with you to death. No souvenirs!

Life is a pointless rat race. But how to *(fucking) escape it?

[* my words, not Buddha’s!]

At the age of twenty-nine Gautama slipped away from his palace in the middle of the night, leaving behind his family and possessions. He travelled as a homeless vagabond throughout northern India, searching for a way out of suffering. He visited ashrams and sat at the feet of gurus and baba-jee’s and listened to their wisdom, but none of the explanations he heard satisfied nor liberated him entirely – those vexing questions still remained in his mind.

Why the suffering? How to be free of it?

But he did not despair though. He continued wandering like an itinerant vagabond. And if he couldn’t find the answer from others, he resolved to investigate the matter of suffering on his own, until he found the answer. He spent six years chewing and thinking and meditating on the reasons, causes and cures for human anguish and suffering.

And then one day…he had his eureka moment! He finally knew how to rid the world of suffering and how everybody could be made to be happy!

Guatama, came to the realisation that suffering is not caused by ill fortune, or by social injustice, or by divine whims and gods. Rather, suffering is caused by the behaviour patterns of one’s own mind. i.e. suffering is caused by the thoughts in your own head!

Gautama’s brilliant insight was that no matter what the mind experiences, it usually reacts with craving, and craving always involves dissatisfaction. For example,when the mind experiences something distasteful it craves to be rid of the irritation. When the mind experiences something pleasant, it craves that the pleasure remain and even intensify. Therefore, the mind is always unhappy, restless and constantly fidgeting. Think about what happens when you feel pain. As long as the pain continues we are dissatisfied and do all we can to avoid it. Yet even when we experience pleasant things we are never content with the pleasant thing. We fear that the pleasure of the pleasant thing will disappear, or we hope that it will intensify.

For example, people dream for years about finding love but are rarely satisfied when they find it because they are worried their loved one will leave them. Or, they dream of becoming rich, and when they do, they fear they will lose their wealth, or they are dissatisfied with their wealth because now they want more than what their neighbour has! It’s a vicious circle this constant craving and wanting with no satiating our desires.

Gautama, however found that there was a way to escape from this vicious circle. If, when the mind experiences something pleasant or unpleasant, it simply understands things as they are, then there is no suffering. For example, If you experience sadness without craving that the sadness go away, you will continue to feel sadness but you WILL NOT suffer from it. There can actually be richness in the sadness if you accept it for what it is and let it wash over you. Similarly, If you experience joy without craving that the joy linger and intensify, you continue to feel joy but without losing your peace of mind that it last forever.

But how do you get the mind to accept things as they are, without craving? How do you get the mind to accept sadness as sadness, joy as joy, pain as pain – without wishing any of these to disappear or linger?

Gautama developed a set of meditation techniques that train the mind to experience reality as it is. These practices train the mind to focus all its attention on the question:

What am I experiencing now?’ rather than on ‘What would I rather be experiencing?

It is difficult to achieve this state of mind, but not impossible. And if you learn to master meditation (and many never do because their minds are too restless), and when the flames of craving are completely extinguished, then the craving is replaced by a state of perfect contentment, serenity and inner-bliss, known as nirvana (the literal meaning of which is ‘extinguishing the fire’). From then onward’s Guatama was known as the Buddha (The Enlightened One!) – so you see – a person who does not crave – cannot suffer.

He encapsulated his teachings in a single law:

Suffering arises from craving; the only way to be fully liberated from suffering is to be fully liberated from craving; and the only way to be liberated from craving is to train the mind to experience reality as it is.

Buddhism does not deny the existence of gods – they are described as powerful beings who can bring rains and victories – but they have no influence on the law that suffering arises from craving. If the mind of a person is free of all craving , no god can make him miserable. Conversely, once craving arises in a person’s mind, all the gods in the universe cannot save him from suffering.

 

But how do Buddhist teaching’s square with the advent of modern psychology and our contemporary understanding of the nature of happiness?

 Buddhism has assigned the question of happiness more importance than perhaps any other human creed. And its insights are startling in their modernity. We know that most people spend their lives toiling, worrying , competing and fighting, instead of enjoying peaceful bliss, because their DNA manipulates them for its own selfish aims. Like Satan, DNA uses fleeting pleasures to tempt people and place them in its power.

Buddhism shares the basic insight of modern psychology, namely that happiness results from processes occurring within one’s body, and not from events in the outside world. Basically, It’s the weather patterns in your mind that are the problem!

Most people identify happiness with pleasant feelings, while identifying suffering with pain or unpleasant feelings.

The problem, according to Buddhism, is that our feelings are no more than fleeting vibrations, changing every moment, like the weather. One moment you will feel joy and purposeful, and 5 minutes later, for no apparent reason, you might feel sad and dejected. So, it seems that pleasant feelings never stick around. You have to constantly chase after them! While also driving away the unpleasant feelings. Even if you succeed in catching the pleasant feeling, it won’t last, so there is no lasting reward for your troubles.

So the question arises in Buddhism – What is so important about obtaining such ephemeral prizes? Why struggle so hard to achieve something that is ephemeral and disappears almost as soon as you have it in your hands?

According to Buddhism, the root of suffering is neither the actual feeling of pain nor of sadness nor even of meaninglessness. Rather, the real root of suffering is this never-ending and pointless pursuit of ephemeral feelings, this constant wanting and striving and never being, which causes us to be in a constant state of tension, restlessness and dissatisfaction. Due to this pursuit, the mind is never satisfied.

Thus, the aim of Buddhist mediation is to extinguish this constant craving and restlessness. In meditation, you are supposed to closely observe your mind and body, witness the ceaseless arising and passing of all your feelings, and realise how pointless it is to pursue them.

When the pursuit stops, the mind becomes very relaxed, clear and satisfied. All kinds of feelings go on arising and passing – joy, anger, boredom, lust – but once you stop craving particular feelings, you can just accept them for what they are. You live in the present moment instead of fantasising about what you wish you had.

The resulting serenity is so profound that those who spend their lives in the crazed, frenzied pursuit of pleasant feelings can hardly imagine it. It is like a man standing for decades on the seashore, embracing certain ‘good’ waves and trying to prevent them from disintegrating, while simultaneously pushing back ‘bad’ waves to prevent them from getting near him. Day in, day out, the man stands on the beach, driving himself crazy with this fruitless exercise. Eventually, he sits down on the sand and just allows the waves to come and go as they please. The waves wash over him and he no longer fights the forces of the universe.

Such an enlightened man is at one with the world and his inner self. He watches his cravings and desires come and go inside of him. But they never influence him. They are like children. Fun to watch but not to be taken seriously. He is Buddha. How tranquil!

Art Class: Francisco de Goya’s ‘The Dog’

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This is one of my all time favourite Goya paintings. I keep coming back to this one. It’s a haunting picture don’t you think? Take a good look at it. Stare at it for 2 mins before reading on…

But what is it about? Why did he paint it? And why is it so powerful? These are the questions we will try and answer in our first (of many I hope!) Art Classes. Ladies and Gentlemen welcome to Goya’s ‘The Dog‘.

Its power lies in it’s simplicity. There’s nothing much there. Minimal. Never was minimal so maximal. This painting is a part of a whole series of paintings he did collectively known as his ‘black paintings’ and the artist painted it on the walls of his home, the Quinta del Sordo, outside Madrid. He painted it (with the other black paintings) on the walls of his home, because they were for him. They were never meant to be seen by the outside world. These black paintings were the equivalent of a personal diary entry. After Goya’s death the murals were detached from the wall; his home demolished, and they ended up (luckily for us) in the Prado Museum – where they remain to this day. Of all the black paintings, for me the dog, is of the very worst. The fact that the paint was flaking before they were removed seems to exacerbate the poor animals misfortune.


Where are we? Who knows. Because the scene is so minimal and non-specific. First, there is the shape of the whole picture, an exceptionally tall narrow upright oblong – indeed perversely tall, narrow and upright, considering that the scene is, after all, a kind of landscape. Secondly, there is the ratio of the areas within it: the upper area very deep, the lower area very shallow. These extreme proportions have an inherent drama. Whatever finds itself in the lower area is right down at the bottom of the vertiginous scene, as if it was at the bottom of a well or a cliff, or despair. The conceit works well.


OK, now let’s talk about the dog…


But of course we only see the head of the dog, poking into the upper area, its body in some way obscured by the lower one. It raises a snout hopefully. It has a most pathetic, anxious look in its eye. It gazes up, in the direction of the rising edge. And the uncertainties and proportions of the scene all fall upon it. You can see the creature as submerged in the lower area, up to its neck in it, buried in the ground. It raises its head, trying to keep itself “above water”. But the great empty gulf that towers above it only emphasises its helplessness. Alternatively, you can see the dog as cowering behind a ridge, trying to hide and protect itself. It raises its head in trepidation, looking up at the impending danger from above.Either way, it is a picture about bare survival in the face of hopeless doom. Whether the danger comes from below or from above, the picture tells us there is no escape. There is no way out of the drowning mire. And the fact that we see only the dog’s head, and nothing of its body and limbs, further reduces its chances of escape. It is deprived of any sense of movement or action. It is only a head, a consciousness, lost in a universe of terrors, afraid for its life – nobody cares. The universe is indifferent. Just like us perhaps? Who knows what Goya is saying. It’s all a mystery.

No it’s not. It’s clear to me what Goya is saying. I love this painting. It speaks to me in ways words cannot.

 

The essence of life is a statistical improbability on a colossal scale

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This is a post I wrote a while back. It is one of my favourites and one I feel is so important that it deserves another hearing. It deserves to be revisited. And perhaps even elaborated. Compared to my usual fare you might find it cold, logical, clinical and devoid of any feeling! But do not despair. You are about to receive a lesson in the highest kind of thinking the human brain is capable of! Vast swathes of existence can be explained through few concepts and ideas – and all from the comfort of your armchair.

So grab a seat. Grab a coffee. Or grab a whiskey. Put on your thinking cap. Sit back, and join me…on an extraordinary journey. To the limits!

You know I started of as a scientist and in many ways I am still at heart – a scientist. I know of no other field that explains so much with so little – especially when it comes down to the deepest questions and profundities of existence, science is our best tool.

So let’s begin:

Our brains are amazing. They are excellent at reading and recognising faces. They are excellent at making nuanced conclusions about people’s intentions in complex social situations: is he friendly, is he telling the truth, can I trust him, there’s something off centre about her…etc etc. Our brains are excellent at such thinking because we are social animals and to succeed, to procreate and have children, you have to be socially savvy and know where threats may lie or where opportunities may hide. So our brains evolved to be successful and make good decisions in a social environment.

But there is a certain class of thinking, where are brains fall flat, and frankly get it wrong. Spectacularly, mind-bogglingly wrong! So wrong that one wonders: how could we be so stupid? And that class of thinking I am talking about is the realm of making statistical judgement calls. I.e statistical thinking of what is possible, probable and improbable. This is where our brains fall flat on their face!

Let me elaborate:

Our subjective judgement of what is possible, probable and certain is dependent on how long we live. We humans typically live to about 70 years of age (on average). Thus, our entire subjective (subjective = how things appear to us. Objective = what things are in themselves independent of how they appear to us) experience of probability is shaped by our lifespan. It is shaped by how long humans live in general.

Let me explain. Because we only live for about seventy years the likelihood of us, as individuals, being run over by a car on the road is very slim. Most of us will never get run over by a car (fingers crossed). This is because in a life-span of 70 years we will cross the road ‘x’ number of times. Because ‘x’ is so small, so the risk of dying on the road is also very small. But what if ‘x’ is larger? i.e. what if we crossed the road a ‘y’ number of times? ‘Y’ being a number several orders of magnitude greater than ‘x’. Under what circumstances would ‘y’ be so large? Answer: If we lived much much longer. Imagine an alien race for whom the average life-span is a million years. Imagine that this alien race has roads. Also imagine that there are alien cars on these roads. Do you think the people of this long-living hypothetical alien race would cross roads? Of course not!

Why not?

Because, If they did, after a few thousand years, most of them would have perished in road accidents. How many times do you have to cross a road before it becomes more or less certain that you will get run over? Such million year living aliens would never cross roads. They would not take such silly risks. Nor would they for that matter sunbathe, or eat fatty foods, or fly in aeroplanes, or go for a swim, or smoke. Their subjective judgment of what is probable and possible would be very different to ours. We live for 70 years whereas they live for a million. This makes all the difference.

We humans cross roads because we only live for seventy years or so. Thus the probability of us dying in road accidents is very very small. But there is a reason I am discussing this. And a very telling reason too. Our whole subjective apparatus that allows us to calculate probabilities and feeds into our judgment of what is probable over vast expanses of time, over vast stretches of space, over many planetary solar syatems, in a galaxy of billions and billions of stars, in a multiverse of many universes; this subjective judgment of ours is wrong by huge error margins. When it comes to what we think is probable over such expanses of time – we will always be staggeringly wrong. On smaller scales of shorter distances and time – our subjective judgement is fairly accurate. The reason it is accurate is because this is the middle earth we live and have evolved in. If our judgement was wrong for events occurring in our 70 year life spans – i.e. if we couldn’t make an accurate judgement of whether something was risky we’d probably not live long. We’d more likely die of accidents. But when it comes to larger numbers; when it comes to immensely long geological epochs, interstellar distances – we have no clue. Because we don’t live for such long times and our brains don’t need to make risk assessments for such long times.

Life, our existing, our living, is a statistical improbability on a colossal scale. Life’s emergence is hugely improbable. But it requires no miracles. It requires no sleight of mind nor sleight of hand. It requires no spark of divinity. It requires nothing but time – time – time, and worlds – worlds – worlds. You are staggeringly improbable. So am I. So is that flower. So is that turgid bee hovering above it. So it is with our wonderful brains, and our wonderful eyes, and our fleshy ears, and our pointy bulbous noses and our disarming smiles. It’s all so wonderful. And it’s all so fucking improbable. Yet given plenty of time, and given plenty of worlds, it’s more or less inevitable,

Well at-least once anyway. And we are not equipped to see it.

How to travel – (some personal aphorisms to help you)

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Travelling as recreation is a luxury most people can’t afford. If you never forget this, you’ll never get frustrated when things go wrong.

If you come back the same person as when you left – you didn’t travel. You should have stayed at home.

Every man is a fortress with high walls and watchtowers. Lower the drawbridge. Lower the walls. Only then will you see the far horizon and the distant mountains with the white peaks.

We view the world and we view the people in it through the ‘lens’ of our preconceptions and personalities. Some see the world through a gloomy lens. Others through a sunny blue filter. Is the world sunny or gloomy – or is it your filter that makes it so?

When you arrive at a new place and don’t feel anything…you should have gone somewhere else.

Sights. Smells. Tastes. Touch. Hearing. These are your tools of exploration. But the biggest and best tool is your brain. Let it soak in everything. Let it be another skin.

To many people travel can seem like just ‘getting to a place’ and then ‘getting to another place’ followed by ‘getting to another place’. Yet it is the intervening period, when you are getting somewhere, en route, that takes up most of your time. The getting to a place and the finally being there are both just as important. It’s not only the destination, it’s also the journey.

Don’t join tour groups if you can help it. Go solo. Explore on your own two feet. Head down alleyways that don’t look inviting and knock on doors…who knows who might answer.

From a distance all places lack detail and seem smooth and perfect and like dreams. Once you’re there – the detail can hit you hard. That is a good thing.

If you don’t suffer any misery or difficulty or annoyance on a trip…you are not stepping outside your zone.

Always try and stay in cheap hotels and eat local food. It is not poisonous. The unique tastes of a place will dissolve into the sights in your memory scape.

People might look different abroad and speak a strange guttural tongue that seems barbarian. But they are like you and me. They want the same things: love, hope, food, shelter, a good fulfilling job and a smile now and again.

The brain. The most amazing thing in the universe. And I have one!

It seems an astonishing thought – one that astonishes me to this day – that everything you are – your memories, dreams, aspirations, thoughts – everything and everyone you love – all the feelings you have, your anger, your jealousies, your inner world rich and colourful as it no doubt is – your beliefs, your prejudices, your feelings of depression – your personality, your quirks, your IQ, your social skills, your creativity – everything, is all – your brain. And nothing else.

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This three pound squishy thing with the consistency and look of scrambled eggs – is without doubt one of the most impressive things in the universe.

And you are the proud owner of one!

You have one! I know this because you wouldn’t be reading this if you didn’t…

And so do I…because I wouldn’t be writing this if I didn’t.

We all – have one of these remarkable squishy things up there, above our eyes.

It is the seat of us.

The seat where ‘we’ sit.

But where exactly in the brain is this seat where ‘we’ sit? Is there a specific part of the brain which can be said to be the seat (or sofa) of Wasimness – or – Youness – or wheoeverness?

Different parts of the brain seem to be responsible for different aspects of our humanity – but from where is it all controlled from? Where is the control centre that sends out the commands and the instructions?

Is there such a place in the brain? A place where I am sitting?

Where are you up there?

Ahh, such is the beauty of mysteries…

I am up there, somewhere…who knows where. I might even be everywhere.

Right now as I type these words and see this white screen and think these thoughts – there is an electrical storm up there bursting and crackling with billions of neurons firing away.

I type this word and it is the result of some amazing stuff happening up there! Oh yes – as I type “oh yes” there is electrical and chemical stuff happening up there!

It feels so good to have a brain.

I feel so happy and proud to have a brain.

I feel so blessed and fortunate to know I have a brain.

I feel so lucky to live at a time where its mysteries are slowly being peeled and revealed.

I am smiling because I have a brain.

I have a big smile on my lips – and this smile, was born (surprise-surprise) somewhere in my brain.

The brain. The most amazing thing in the entire universe.

And I have one.

It’s lonely up here…

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According to Maslow’s theory, humans face a number of challenges in life, from the most basic needs (such as food and sleep), to safety, love, esteem, and ultimately self-actualisation. Only once a person’s circumstances and attitude have allowed them to pass one of the lower stages can they ascend to the next. For Maslow and the generations of humanistic psychologists who followed in his tradition, the self-actualised individual is someone who transcends all lower needs to achieve a state of complete personal and intellectual fulfillment.

Most of us never reach the rarefied heights on top of Maslow’s pyramid – instead we spend our lives thrashing it out in the lower tiers, searching for love, money, or social status; or if we’re less fortunate, simply struggling to survive.

The pinnacle is a privileged and lonely place, not that the self-actualised person who reaches it will mind. These fortunate few are cast as psychological demigods: fully secure at all lower levels while also being compassionate, creative, in complete control of their impulses, comfortable in solitude, socially harmonious, naturally powerful, beyond needing the approval of others, and highly aware of their own thoughts and the world beyond.

And, just as Nelson Mandela did in prison, the self-actualised person is thought to find meaning and purpose from life under even the most grievous suffering.

Mandela wasn’t the only famous figure to be regarded as self-actualised. Other examples have included Gandhi, Beethoven, Mother Teresa, Eleanor Roosevelt and Wasim Shafi. But until recently, Mandela may well have been one of the few who was publicly prominent and still alive.

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Afghanistan: Q & A Session

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How am I? Very well. Thanks for asking!

Where am I now? In the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif. A day’s drive from Kabul through spectacular bandit country
Where am I staying? In a guest house called ‘Impeerial Sueets’ (their spelling not mine). They have wi-fi, hot water (actually luke-warm) and towels. Clean one’s.
Most traumatic experience so far? An evil looking toilet I visited in a village near Kabul. Had to hold my nose shut with my hands while taking the longest piss of my life…
Most sublime moment so far?  The long moment between waking up and sleeping
How is Kabul? Dusty. Chaotic. Full of bad drivers. Hemmed in by mountains. Pot pourri of races and languages. Dodgy money exchangers. Lethal ‘rob you blind’ street traders. Brilliant!
Have I stepped on a land mine yet? Don’t be silly
How do you cross roads here? You jump in front of moving vehicles. Just make sure they have enough braking distance! Takes practice but you get better at it trust me! Assuming you’ve not killed yourself.
Have I been shot at, bombed, chased by theTaliban? Yeah, all the time man. I’m persona non grata numero uno. I can handle it.
How do I wash my clothes? Myself! Don’t take clothing to the local dry-cleaners. My jet black jeans came back stone-washed!
Have I brought you anything? Yeah, I’ll soon be sewing it into the lining of my luggage bag. Hopefully I’ll be smelling so bad at the airport the dogs won’t notice
Have I committed any cultural faux pas? Not many luckily. I’ve been invited for many ‘dawats’ (guest meals) at Afghan houses, and the meals have been lavish beyond reckoning. Afghan hospitality deserves the reputation it holds. They treat guest like kings and keep filling your plate with food. You all sit and eat on the floor. You shouldn’t stretch your legs (considered  rude). But you can burrrp loudly. In fact if you DON’T burp loudly after the meal it is considered an insult!
Is it dangerous here? It’s all in the lap pf the gods my friends
Best thing(s) I’ve tasted? Kabuli pilau and a delicious milk ice cream thingy called ‘Sheriak’ (not Shrek!)
What music have I been listening to as the soundtrack to my travels? Green Day’s Boulevard of Broken Dreams!
Most annoying thing? Not knowing if the smile you are getting from an Afghani is cos he is genuinely pleased to see you – or because, he see’s you as a business opportunity.
What have I been drinking? Whiskey. Kiddin’ – green tea and sometimes a delicious milk tea called ‘Dood Pathie’.
How is Afghanistan? Surreal. Nuts. Cruel. Enchanting. Generous. Beautiful. Unique. Like totally.
How cheap are the drugs here? Oh man, that’s the best thing. A couple of quids worth will keep you ‘chasing that dragon’ for days. And it’s not like any of that skanky weedy stuff you get back home. This is pawoper man!!
So I’ve been told.

Live. Love. Learn. Explore. And Feel

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Many times I take a picture instinctively. I don’t know why I take the picture, there is no deliberation, no thought process – I simply lift the camera and shoot. It’s almost second nature for me. My eyes constantly scanning like a tiger on the prowl.

Many times after taking the shot I forget about it, but after uploading to my laptop, I look at it again on the big screen and am overcome by a feeling of utter helplessness and sadness.

This is such a picture. The little boy sitting in the back of the truck in the hot sun.

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His job is to load and unload those bags of apples.

What does his expression tell you? A life of menial labour awaits him. No school. No education. No play. No hope.

No hope.

How can it be? It makes me cry. I am crying now as I type these words. It’s too overwhelming. This place is too much. I empathize with everyone and everything I see – and it is emotionally draining. I am taking too much on. My emotional shoulders can’t carry all this weight.

This poor kid. I imagine what his life is like. Is he happy? Is he abused? Is he mistreated? Is his father, master, employer etc cruel to him. Is he alone in this world? Does he have a mother that loves him? Does he have a family to look after him?

Why – why – why – oh why. How can it be like this? How can there be so much suffering in the world. So much unfairness. We sit in our glass towers in the West and think life is tough because we never got that promotion, or our job is boring, or whatever. But – take a look at this boy. Take a good fucking look at him. Everyday sitting in the back of that truck in the days heat or the winters cold, loading and unloading bags of apples or whatever.

I want to hug him. I want to hug them all. I really want to help them all, you know – I couldn’t give a fuck about my life. But this suffering. It really is too much. I don’t know if I can take any more of all this constant feeling. I wish I could switch off, but these images, these images won’t let me rest.

But I am glad to do what little I can. You know I feel so helpless and pray for a higher power or some eternal justice. I understand the reason why people believe in a god. If they didn’t, how could they make sense of all this? By shifting the big questions: why? how? – to a divinity, you effectively stop worrying about it. It’s all part of god’s plan and you can live your life without any guilt or feeling because it’s in His domain of responsibility. And you can sleep easy. I can’t do this. so I feel the full weight of what I see.

I will continue to bring a little happiness to the few people whose lives I touch. Every single life is a universe entire. We can never win the game of numbers – there are too many people on this planet.

But every smile you create. Every laugh you generate. Every heart you touch. Every single thing you do has the power to kindle a little spark of happiness, love and humanity. Even if it is for an instant. But it don’t matter in the end if it lasts an instant because in the cosmic dance we are all fleeting moments anyway.

We are all fleeting moments.

And I love you all. Love you all I do.

Live. Love. Learn. Explore. And feel.

 

Dinner times with my new mate

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Let me introduce you to my friend. My new friend. I only met him the other night. His name is Rahullah Jan. He invited me into his palace for a meal. A palace fit for a king. His palace on the side of the street next to the stinking drain. To you, at first acquaintance, he might look like he’s not very good company – but seriously, if looks could deceive. He is the perfect host. Wise. Funny in a childish kind of way (for life should not be taken too seriously). He is also generous to a fault.

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He lives not very far from me, and I have now started visiting him on a regular basis. He lives on his own. His wife died many years ago and he was too old to marry again. He has no children. But he seems content. He doesn’t have much – but he has enough. And he’s lived an extraordinary life.

He has seen the coming and passing of the Soviets. He was even tortured by them. And then the Mujahideen tortured him. And finally when the Taliban took over he fled over the border to Peshawar in Pakistan where he stayed for 10 years eking out a grueling existence on the very edge, and then the  Taliban were removed by the Americans and he came back to Kabul.

His eyes tell it all. Suspicious looking eyes but also weary. Weary and tired of life. Almost as if he has stopped willing and desiring. He has seen enough to know how fickle life and its accoutrements can be.

In one mud hut room on the side of the road he lives. In the same room he cooks. Sleeps and watches TV for entertainment. He has no troubles in life he say’s. He is a quiet man – not a talker, and he is wise beyond words.

His wisdom is etched in the lines on his face and those sparking eyes see much. They may look sneaky and suspicious. But trust me – they hide many truths.

More truths then I could pick up in ten of my lives.

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Flight to Kabul

Looking at the faces of the people about to board the flight to Kabul, I do wonder – what type of person goes to Kabul? Naturally, many of them are Afghans who work abroad. Not very interesting. But it is the Westerners, the non-Afghanis that fascinate me. Who are they and what is there story?

A young pretty girl is sitting there too. On her own. What’s her story? I imagine her to be working for some NGO or non-profit organisation. There’s the scruffy looking white guy who looks as if he has been wearing the same faded jeans for years. There are two young white guys with Bose headphones and laptops. I don’t feel out of place.

What was I expecting? A ragtag camel caravan of bearded blokes and an assortment of women with goats and chickens! How silly of me. How parochial of me. People who fly INTO or OUT of Afghanistan in an aeroplane aren’t going to be your typical Afghans by a stretch. This flight in not representative of the country. It is a gross contortion of the truth!

And then there’s me. Alone. With my secrets. I wonder if they can tell that despite my nonchalance and relaxed attitude, I am really, honestly, truthfully, shitting my pants. Can they tell I don’t belong? Or do none of us on that flight belong?

On the flight from London to Istanbul I was sat next to a bunch of Kuwaitis, and upon hearing of my next destination, they exclaimed in surprise:

“Kabul?”
“Kabul? Really?!”

Yes, really.

It is 4am in the morning. And I am still at Istanbul airport, and as you know my flight is delayed, and I am tired, and soporific, and a little half drunk and dazed, and a thought keeps popping into my head. It won’t go away. It keeps nagging me.

“Wasim, what the fuck are you doing here?!”

Let’s hope the next couple of days go some way in answering it.

And so I finished writing this with the expectation that I wouldn’t be writing any more and then guess what happens…?

They changed the fookin gate innit!

So we’ve been sitting at gate 502 which is on one end of Istanbul airport, and then just at the last minute, they change it to gate 310 which is on the other end. What then results is a mad rush to make it to the gate on time!

So to summarise, not only is the flight delayed by 3 hours, we even almost managed to not make it to the right gate on time.

And all this before my trip has even begun. Is this a portent of things to come? I can’t help but feel slightly perturbed at these developments. I haven’t even arrived in the country, and things already seem to be going hay wire.

What the fuck am I doing here?

My new Iraqi friends in Istanbul departure lounge

Departure lounges always fascinate me. No where else on earth do you get to mingle and mix with the germs of so many polyglot passengers from such disparate parts of the world. You can sit down in a Cafe Nero and be surrounded by the guttural exchanges of Yemeni Arabs to your left and a bunch of Iraqi English teachers to your right. And it is only in such international mixing pots as airport departure lounges, especially the Istanbul departure lounge I am sitting in, where the Iraqi English teachers proceed to interrogate me on all things English.

It seems they are fascinated by England and even more fascinated by my accent. These Iraqi English teachers from Baghdad have spent so much time teaching English to Iraqi students, that when they are confronted by a real specimen, the ‘real deal’ as I am to them, they can’t help but ask me a million and one questions – simply so they can hear me talk!

One of them asks me if there is political tension between England and Scotland. It is a good question and I answer it by going into Scottish and English historical rivalry. The Catholic and Protestant divide and the Scottish parliament. I am able to answer the question in sweeping historical terms and manage to weave in a narrative that incorporates social, philosophical and psychological threads. They are left astounded by the breath and depth of my knowledge, and so frankly, am I. I didn’t know I had it in me!

They then continue to quiz me on English accents and the differences between say a Manchurian and a Londoner. I proceed to tell them that my London accent is fairly easy to understand – if I was speaking in an Irish accent they would be struggling.

They then ask me to comment on there accents and how good they are!

What a fascinating exchange it is and I haven’t even left for Kabul yet. However, I get a taste of Kabul fairly quickly when I turn my gaze towards the departure schedule and discover that my flight to Kabul has been delayed by three hours. Three whole hours! And it is the only flight on the entire departure board so delayed.

My mind wonders as to the possible reasons for this delay and my thoughts turn grim and morbid. Maybe the engines had a problem, or there was a threat of the plane being shot down? Who knows, but the floodgates are now open…

I haven’t even landed yet, in fact I haven’t even got on the flight to Kabul from Istanbul, and already I am asking myself that most obvious of questions:

“What the fuck am I doing here?!”

Never mind. Let’s hope Kabul customs don’t discover the two bottles of wine I have hidden away in my hand luggage.

If they do then I’ll definitely be wondering:

“What the fuck am I doing here?!”

Over and out. Dispatches from a crazy person on some crazy adventure.