Image

Postcard from The Aeolian Isles near Sicily

I started my recent Mediterranean wanderings in the almost 30 century’s old, now dusty, somewhat faded port of Palermo in Sicily. This once strategic and historically important land of Italy must have been a grand splendour; full of the luxurious delights, amassed from global trade routes forged by Greek, Arabs and Norman’s colonial masters.

Image

As I wandered through the narrow streets of La Kalsa, I catch glimpses of this bygone lavishness passing market stalls brimming with pine nuts, sultanas, dates, cumin, saffron and sumac are common place in Sicilian kitchens. The Arabs also introduced citrus fruits that were cultivated on a wide scale in all parts of the island where orchards can be found in abundance today. However, Arab-Norman architecture with lattice style windows and domes once ubiquitous is a shy whisper today.Image

Vucciria  market has been characterized as a hungry man’s dream for its colourful offer of great food. It was a poor, dirty, shelter for criminals and a mirror of the division between high and low-class that persisted from the Middle Ages up to the last century. Marketed these days as a picturesque and exciting place to stroll around for the thrill-seeking tourist, all very odd as when I strolled through the market not much was going on at all. But I did find  ‘Palermitano’ the painting of La Vucciria market by Renato Guttuso which has an exuberant thrill of its own – don’t you feel?

Image

After my brief encounter with Palermo, I decided to set off to the Aeolian Islands – all once active volcanoes and interestingly all once fine-tuned with nature to be self-sufficient and abundant. The islands achieved this utilising ancient methods (not dissimilar to the Incas) of terrace farming on extremely steep volcanic slopes, holding these in place by nurturing rhizome plants such as the fig tree and purifying the sea air by planting vast swathes of bamboo.

It’s curious to visit a place and hear of how things were and see how they are now. The pre-condition for civilisation washed these shores too; the apparatus for tourism is now a well-oiled machine imbedded all over the islands.

Image

So, when my boat reached Stromboli all thoughts of exploring a lost island were cast aside there and then. However, I was visiting the island out of peak season, an experience which lent itself to a relaxed atmosphere and where by the locals did still outnumber the visitors, including myself.

Image

Stromboli intrigued me; it was the only Aeolian island that was an active volcano – the excitement of just reaching its shores was electric. So much so that I signed up there and then for the guided 3-4 hour walk to the fiery craters at Stromboli’s peak the very same day of my arrival.

Renzo, our guide was a Strombolian and studying natural sciences at Rome university. Back at home in-between studies he was keen to put what he had learnt to action – encouraging the locals to once again adopt ecological farming methods; tuned into the local ecosystem that was Stromboli, rejuvenating bits of the glorious past for a cleaner sustainable future. But he needed money to kick-start processes and incentivize his brethren. When I asked him if he could apply for government funds – he said, in a tone that conveyed he had said this many times over “Now is not the right time”. So his visions, for now remain just that; buds waiting to bloom.

After a couple of hours walking our vantage point was quite impressive; we could see a lighthouse on Strombollicci; the once towering volcanic husband of Stromboli but now 99% submerged in the Thyrrean sea.

Dusk was falling and we all wanted was to get to the craters to see sunset.  So a final push and we walked as fast as we could to the peak.

A cairn signalled we were there and I jumped with joy! There were the craters before us, steaming and rumbling. Stromboli was awake and alive tonight.

The unpredictability of the eruptions, the boom, and explosions of lava from the earth’s core was magnified by the darkening sky. Sun had set and the stars were beginning to twinkle above. And there we sat with our hard hats and masks looking on as one of nature’s show unravelled before us. What a privilege.

Having left Stromboli I set off for the westernmost archipelago, Alicudi – which according to the locals was further off the beaten track, a real hideaway. And it felt so when I arrived; a sleepy sun-drenched dock greeted me in fact.

I couldn’t wait to explore this island – the first thing that hit me was that there was no cars, well actually no traffic whatsoever. The only mode of travel round the island was using the humble donkey.

This once active volcano beckoned to be climbed so I trotted off the next day with the determination to reach the top! As I walked up the steps, I saw remnants of sustainable terraced farming.

It was such an enjoyable walk, filled with the musical natural sounds of spring, the azure Thyrrean sea and an unending expanse of clear blue sky.

I got to the top of Alicudi peak mid-afternoon with sun blazing but there was a strange mist surrounding Alicudi and the neighbouring isles. Felt wonderful to reach the pinnacle and behold the deep blue all-around, simply wonderful.

Advertisements

Zanskar

I was invited by the Snow Leopard Conservancy India Trust to go on a field trip with them through Zanskar and record some of my experiences. Despite the technical challenges we faced on the road this film is a result of that journey.

http://snowleopardindia.blogspot.co.uk/2011/01/wild-felines-bindus-field-trip-with.html

Malham Cove

One month on since my work-related move up north and I’m noticing how much effort its taking me to ‘settle’ into a work routine, the daily flow of corporate life feels strange, weird, almost alien. Highlighting changes in me perhaps…

Saving grace has been the great outdoors. I can see the hills from my office window and they are calling! Nature abounds all around and despite having loads of stuff to sort out in my new abode (which will get sorted I reassure myself), I dive at any opportunity to get out there – its elixir.
Carolyn, a lovely friend, a true northern lass offers to show me around – take your pick she says and I plunge for Malham Cove.


Sunday morning and I head out leaving a misty Manchester Victoria train station. Sitting on the train, sun beams bathe my face. The poetry of autumn with cascades of fiery reds, canary yellow leaves passing me by; witnessing nature’s performances is a wonderful joy. Especially autumn; the season that symbolises letting go of that which is no longer necessary. Reminding us that no beautiful thing is eternal, nothing lasts, that all things perish to be transmuted into door ways for new life.

Observing the wide open blue sky, not a trace of cloud, incredible beauty.
Get into Leeds station in no time and Carolyn is there in her motor – we natter away catching up and exchanging views on our travel experiences and the BBC!
Passing the city boundary and into the dales proper. Despite loving the open space I am reminded that the landscape is a result of being denuded of heather and peat deposits giving to a desolate rugged feel. There’s not much out there so when we do arrive to Malham Cove it makes for quite an impact.
Malham Cove is a curved limestone cliff standing some 80 metres high and 300 metres wide. Once a cascading waterfall – I try to imagine what it must have been like, abundantly flowing. Now, a climbers dream.

But the gem awaits up top as we climb the steps to the limestone pavement where Harry Potter ventured too…

As a curious feisty soul I instinctly walk to the cliff edge, Carolyn observing me anxiously from a distance. I beckon her over but she’s not tempted at all. I peer over the edge and then decide to settle myself down and take in the vista Malham Dale from this viewpoint – a sigh of relief seeing a sliver of vast open expanse. Renewed until another trip to the dales.

A Stranger arrives in London

When I arrived at London Heathrow airport in late June the first thought that arose was ‘nothing has changed’. Stepping back into the country of my birth felt incredibly surreal. It felt as if I had left as a Londoner and returned as a foreigner, it did not feel like home. Something had changed for this feeling to arise as it was not there 12 months ago. So, what had changed? It was me, Bindu the element that had gone to explore new horizons, new experiences, meet the world with her heart open. Something had been unlocked, seen the light and was now experiencing the familiar with the doors of perception cleansed, viewing phenomena from a different position with a fresh meaning.

I catch myself observing, people watching, examining a way of life. Huge petrol guzzling sports utility vehicles stream down streets I happen to visit. Land Rovers roaming around on Chiswick High Street..por que? Did some rough mountainous terrain erupt whilst I was away that needed traversing? And then Mr Testosterone shows up pulling into a supermarket car park in his red Ferrari to pick up the weekly shopping.

I have a supermarket experience and am overwhelmed with an overload of choice, so many isles full of ‘stuff’. I find myself asking; “for what? Why? Is all this necessary?” I walk down the fruit and vegetable isle; fair trade bananas produced by Ecuador, oranges produced by Chile. Quinoa produced by Bolivia. Free market capitalism has afforded me, a European, the luxury of being able to buy bananas anytime of the year, regardless as to whether they are in season or not. Most fruit is picked and packed before it is even allowed time to mature and ripen so you eat something literally half-cooked – who is this benefiting, really, who?

If you have money it affords one apparent ‘privileges’ to buy things, buy what you think will make you feel good, happy, and give you a sense of self-worth, a sense if identity – this is the capitalist model of life, the more you earn the more you can buy…endless, keep on that tread mill, keep in the race…show the world who you are, how powerful you are by what you buy & accumulate. But the irony is that no matter how much you buy it’s never enough, it never quite quenches this desire. Why is that? Have you noticed this?

The European consumerist lifestyle is perceived as an enviable reality. Why? How did the world arrive at such inequity, such a gargantuan divide between developed and developing countries? Between the haves and the have-nots?

The inequity of how wealth is distributed is plain to see around the world – if one chooses to see it. The European industrial revolution; capitalism is a direct result of the pillaging from Africa, Asia and South America and introducing monocultures. It is by appropriating the natural wealth taken from ‘developing countries’ that stimulated capitalistic growth; developed nations afforded themselves the lifestyle that prevails cities like London today, indeed is why they can call themselves ‘developed’ in the first place.

How can developing countries compete now in a mature industrial world market when their colonial masters raped them of all they had, squandering it and providing no infrastructure nor means of production of industry? Potosi, in Bolivia is a case in point. The silver mines of the Cerro Rico stimulated growth and development for all of Europe; there were many beneficiaries but they were not Bolivians. What was left for the indigenous? The natives? That sub-human species? What have they today to show for the abundant riches nature had endowed their country with? Not much I can tell you.

Is the behaviour of greed simply an intrinsic part of human nature; something we have to live with regardless of who the current protagonists are? I think not, for to concede with this view would deny humanity any hope of transformation, any hope of salvation. It’s without doubt an incredibly aggressive deluded habit pattern, but it is not our innate nature.

However, in the global competitive game of development Bolivia lost, she lost big time stripped of her natural riches upon which European nations now stand sky-high, enjoying freedoms and a standard of life that the Earth Summit in Johannesburg categorically announced as unsustainable. The simple fact of the matter is that for everyone on this planet (7 billion people and exponentially growing) to enjoy the European lifestyle would take the resources of 3 planet earths. Which we simply do not have.

So why continue to advertise and promote a consumerist economic system, a way of life that is simply not possible for the majority of people on earth? For centuries we have seen that the benefits do not trickle down to all, so why keep up the facade? What is going to result as a consequence of this inequity? Perhaps this human story is too old now, set in its ways that genuine change is not possible, perhaps.

And yet I see glimmers of light amidst the doom that another way of life is possible where we can share nature’s abundance, her gift to us all. But the journey towards this is long; it takes each individual to question for themselves ‘What is it to be human?’ ‘What is it to be part of this earth?’ To truly, deeply feel our connection as one very small part of this cosmos?

For me, the words of D.H Lawrence offer some inspirational guidance;

When we get out of the glass bottles of our ego,
and when we escape like squirrels turning in the
cages of our personality
and get into the forests again,
we shall shiver with cold and fright
but things will happen to us
so that we don’t know ourselves.
Cool, unlying life will rush in,
and passion will make our bodies taut with power,
we shall stamp our feet with new power
and old things will fall down,
we shall laugh, and institutions will curl up like
burnt paper.

World Road Alchemy

12 months on and I close a loop by re-entering London. But it feels strange, surreal in fact. Every thing looks the same, but something is distinctly different, me I have returned with something shifted, something new, fire, water, earth, air, ether, elements have been washed, the doors of perception cleansed for I saw untold beauty, silent magnificent beauty that made my heart sing and cry tears of joy at the same time and what did I feel in essence?

Gratitude, deep wells of gratitude for ALL the stars; shooting stars I was blessed & destined to see. Gratitude for all the beautiful people from all walks of life I met and creatures who shared with me a little preciousness of themselves.

Gratitude for all the one and yet many sunrises, moon lit wanderings, mountains, rivers, glaciers, and horizons I gazed at so lovingly so tenderly, knowing they were my primordial kinship, my natural parents of this cosmos.

Gratitude to feel open-hearted amidst all the imperfections, sadness, flaws, and injustices that so need eradicating. To dwell in peace, happiness and find contentment in simplicity within it all.

And, above all else, Gratitude for each day I woke up able to venture forth to my heart’s delight, exploring, enchanted, by the wonderment and mysteries of our world in all its diverse manifestations.
Gratitude
Gratitude
Gratitude

Walking a Jaguar through the Amazon Jungle

When I heard about a rescue & care park situated in the Amazon basin of Bolivia, for once-wild animals that had been abused or illegally trafficked in Bolivia’s black markets, I knew straight away this is one experience I did not want to miss. The park, a sprawling 806 hectares, has a vast selection of tropical jungle animals with a special focus on permanently caring for cats; Jaguars, ocelots, pumas. They arrive here as a last resort with nowhere else to go, with no one else to take them on. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect but something in me was saying ‘go, just go!’ Santa Cruz, the biggest city eastside of Bolivia resembles nothing like the rest of Bolivia, could in fact be another country for all the SUV’s and blondes swanning around. But it also serves as the gateway to Guarayos, this being the nearest town (45minutes) to the park known as Ambue Ari. What I had not anticipated when arriving in Santa Cruz was road blocks on the way to Guarayos. Local people from the area were protesting having not had their needs met by the authorities. I was on their side but also wanted to get to the park, this was the last leg of my sojourn and time was getting short. After three days, the bus service was back up and running; I was on my way to Ambue Ari Park! Setting off at 10am in the morning from Santa Cruz I arrived somewhat spaced out at the park around 8.30pm. Fellow volunteers saw the bus pull up and helped me with my luggage and guided me to the comedor to get some supper. The stars were out and everyone was walking around with their head torches, looking like a bunch of miners I chuckled to myself. I was shown to my dorm room and flopped into bed for the night after securing the all important mosquito net. The next day I was instructed to register at the main office and a member of staff gave me the official tour of what’s where as well as receiving my ‘assignment’ Katie, the jaguar I would be working with during my stay. The main camp area was busy with activity, lots of volunteers, far too many was my first impression. How many animals did the park actually have? Meet Katie, the Jaguar I walked through the jungle Katie came to the park on 15 May 2007; she was approximately 1-year-old. Little was known of her history but what is known is that she was a house cat in La Paz, and it is thought she was treated quite well, but most likely reached an age and size that her owners could no longer handle. As such she was anonymously given to the police in La Paz, who in turn passed her onto the park. I remember the first day I met Katie very distinctly. Her natural beauty astounded me as soon as I clapped eyes on her; I was in awe and fell in love with this creature immediately. I worked alongside two other volunteers and we were trained on how to access her impressively spacious enclosure, clip her in order to take her for a walk through her territory in the jungle. The wonderful thing about this park is that each cat is afforded its own territory; mimicking what it would have as if wild. Through each territory trails were cut enabling us humans to walk with Katie with relative ease and safety. Its funny but I don’t remember feeling fear the first day I walked into Katie’s cage to meet her. She appeared to be quite disinterested in me; the new comer and instead was focused on the other 2 volunteers. However, the fear did arise; over the course of the first two weeks I worked with her, fear of not knowing her behaviour, fear of her awesome strength, claws and teeth, she was after all a jaguar and when standing on her hind legs she could look me straight in the eye. Walking Katie Walking her became a daily task that I relished; we would pick her up approximately 0930 everyday and get her out on the trails for what could turn out to be the whole day. This was her time for exercise and enrichment. We did not influence her decision on what trails to go on within her territory nor did we force her back into her cage. If she wanted to stay out all day then that was her prerogative. Walking Katie was one part of her care plan; we also attended to her special diet and ensured that her cage had fresh hay as well as being termite free. I heard some other volunteers say that walking the cats was akin to walking a dog. A Jaguar is a powerful animal and deserves respect because of this fact. To compare a jaguar to a dog would be missing the point, doing the Jaguar and yourself a disservice. I found that with Katie she was testing me in the beginning; would I stay? Was I here to stick around? Was I really going to care for her or just use her for my own kicks? Just as much as I wanted affirmation that she respected me enough to care for her so she built-in mechanisms to work out the above. It was sensing a mutual respect within this dynamic that I felt was key to working with Katie. Katie had been around humans almost from when she was born and had positively absorbed her training at the park to work with humans so that she could experience some freedom in her natural habitat. This meant that whilst she still exhibited her wild instincts they were not at all as prominent compared to a genuine wild jaguar that had no human contact whatsoever. Katie was a highly domesticated jaguar. Could the method of walking a cat be used to prepare it for the wild? I don’t think so. (But all you wild cat specialists out there who know differently please write to me!) Some of the cats in the park had never been walked and never would; for they were either so severely physically injured or were too deeply traumatised. In Katie’s case it was difficult to see how she would ever be rehabilitated for the jungle with this level of intimate human contact. How could she regain her wild self being walked by humans? That part of her life seemed forever lost to oblivion. For me, the tragedy of her loss was exemplified by a wild male jaguar that came to visit Katie when she was on heat but also, most peculiarly, to simply keep her company. It appeared to be the case that he cared for her offering Katie companionship whilst she remained caged.

262172_10150287836810236_70680_n I learnt how to read Katie’s many ‘faces’; when she was looking for affection, when she wanted to be on her own, when she was stalking. I’d never helped care for an animal before, let alone a jaguar! It fascinated me and I loved every minute of being with her. Walking with her through the jungle, amongst thick lush patuju leaves, with macaws, squirrel and caper chin monkeys in the palm trees I got glimpses of how she saw and primarily sensed the jungle. The way she picked up on a scent (way before any of us humans had even noticed it) and then tiptoed to its source. The way she dug face down non-stop with her front paws at the base of a fallen tree sensing an armadillo clinging for dear life. The way she rolled around hugging, yes hugging patuju leaves when she was on heat, or simply content, happy or looking for our affections was incredibly impressive and endearing. Working with Katie was expanding my world of experience; she had shown me something new, what a privilege. 267238_10150287836430236_1098432_n

Did I feel scared whilst walking her in the jungle? No not at all. If I had I would not have done it for 30 days. For me the act of taking this animal out of its cage was justified as it gave them some taste of their wild life they had forcibly removed from them by human greed, ignorance and stupidity. The only reason why all the animals were there at the park was because humans had interfered in their natural development, removed them from their families, mothers and wild natural environments. Lorenzo and the House Animals Alongside, walking Katie I also had the pleasure of meeting and caring for the house animals; a sizeable aviary with parakeets, macaws and toucans as well as chanchos, pios, as well as Herbie the Tapir and Rudolpho the deer.

Almost immediately upon my arrival at the park I was befriended by Lorenzo; a stunning blue and yellow macaw. Flying close over my head, following me everywhere I went, sneaking into my dorm room and then suddenly landing on my lap confirmed his affections for me so I returned the compliments and would stroke him, giving him an extra monkey peanut or banana here and there. Lorenzo, or Barry White as I liked to call him (you’ll see why in a minute) was a bit of a Casanova, a bit of a player. He had fallen out with his mate, Chichi Richi, driven her barkers from all accounts and was living the high life with a new tail transplant making ‘friends’ with several dark-haired ladies around the campsite, including myself. He would come over to you and scratch his head incessantly, an invitation to step into Chichi Richi’s role and experience Lorenzo’s grooming ritual; removing the wax lining from his feathers. He also liked an occasional tummy rub. I developed an incredible fondness for this animal and cried a great deal when we parted company. I had never imagined I could be so close to such beauty, caring for these creatures and having it reciprocated with an unfolding mutual respect. Ambue Ari has managed to create an incredible sanctuary where abused animals with no other alternative have been given some modicum of dignity back. For me this was one of the most unique wildlife experiences I think I shall ever have the privilege of encountering. I look forward to returning some day to see how Lorenzo and Katie are doing.

Mama Coca

Travelling through South America, particularly within the Andean communities of Bolivia and Peru one cannot but notice the extraordinary status the coca leaf plant holds for the indigenous masses. I have been fascinated by this leaf, and find its distinctive taste delicious.

The use and history of the coca leaf in South America is a long and complex story, most of all because unfortunately, it is the raw material used to produce cocaine.

But I want to highlight other uses & aspects of the coca leaf prior to the phenomena of cocaine that I witnessed on this world road.

Coca and tradition
Coca one of the oldest domesticated plants in the world, has been traditionally used in South America as a social mechanism for reciprocation between humans and the divine, as a bridge transcending the mundane in order to reach the gods, hence Mama Coca. Coca as the supreme symbol offering a divine connection to humans merging the sacred and the profane. Coca is so intertwined in daily Andean life that the leaf itself is a symbol of the Andean woman and man; it is an integral part of their identity. The coca leaf thus is the supreme magic symbol of the Andean world as mediator and divine cosmic link.

The coca leaf dates back to Andean prehistoric times, well before the conquest of the Incas. Small highland indigenous groups that occupied the Andes during the post-glacial period used it, confirming that the coca leaf has been used by South America by indigenous groups for over 4500 years.

Coca & the mining industry
Historians have for a long time written about the importance of coca in the mines based on the fact that most miners will not enter the mine without it.

The price of coca depended on the amount of mining taking place (more exploitation of miners meant higher demand for coca). The Catholic Church saw it as an obstacle against the conquest of indigenous cultures, declaring the plant to be diabolical. However, the conquistador Felipe II recognising the monetary importance of Potosi declared coca to be a product beneficial for the indigenous people and asked that the church end its prohibition and establishes a 10% tax on coca.

During 1573 the mining town of Potosi in Bolivia was as lucrative and powerful as Paris or New York today. Miners consumed a yearly amount of coca leaves equivalent to the price of 450kg of gold. Chewing coca provided slaves with more energy to work, consumption made obligatory by mine owners. The indigenous people worked “days” of 48 continuous hours, without adequate breaks or any food, other than coca leaves to chew. The use of coca by starving slaves increased substantially and it became “the secret potion” the Spanish used to support slavery, preserving its reputation as a divine plant.

The conquistadors seized control of coca making it very difficult for indigenous people to obtain it. In terms of commerce, the coca trade provided a regional market, encompassing Peru, Bolivia, parts of Northern Chile and Argentina with Potosi as its commercial hub. With this, the Spanish effectively transformed Mama Coca; an Andean symbol, traditional and cultural “axis” into money and a means of trade, which persists today.

Chewing coca leaves, with their nutritional and energy providing attributes, was the only way that the Andean were able to continue the infernal work hours and conditions of slave labour. Coca became so important in the mines (and difficult to obtain) that its worth effectively superseded that of gold or silver for the miners. The use of coca increased rapidly during the colonial period. Its use was apparent in the exploitation of indigenous labour in the fields and especially in the mines.

The Andean culture, practically destroyed, was nonetheless able to conserve part of their way of life through the custom of reciprocation using Mama Coca. Today, coca continues to be an important factor in political changes (Evo Morales the Cocalero) and a fundamental cultural ideal for Andean villagers; 92% of men and 82% of women use coca leaves.

Cocaine
Coca considered an incredible plant during the 19thcentury is now considered by the United Nations as the cause of poverty in Bolivia and Peru forcing its prohibition in a 1960 law due to one substance, cocaine.

The production of cocaine involves a chemical reaction to with one of three alkaloids from the raw coca leaf. Coca itself in its raw form is not the same as cocaine. Legal production of cocaine and it use in every day consumer products was rampant in the 1800s including beverages such as the 1863 Parisian Mariani Coca wine and American soft drink Coca Cola. Freud being the first cocaine user in 1884.

The modern association between coca and cocaine as perhaps being one and the same thing is damaging and insulting to the Andean people for whom coca as it was in prehistoric times and it is still held today a sacred plant.

By harnessing the symbolic strength of Mama coca Evo has able to successfully catapult himself to power. The first Bolivian President that is a ‘Cocalero’, (a person who grows coca), a man of the indigenous people, a man who shares their history, pain and dreams. But what tangible differences in terms of Education, Health Care and Waste Management to name but a few areas have taken place since his inception? What policies have been devised to salvage and protect the natural wealth, resources and environment that are inalienable possessions of the Bolivian people? The surreptitious conglomerate pillaging continues, not many care for what is the future of Bolivia? The heart of South America, geographically and in my view culturally too. Look around at Bolivia’s neighbouring developed countries; has anyone of them got the courage to support her? Where is the solidarity? In our postmodern times Mama coca is appropriated and in my view reduced by Evo Morales as a brand, connecting him to the masses of votes he so desperately needs. Perhaps Evo is waiting for his moment to unleash the greater plan that will liberate his people. Perhaps, he is devising ways in which the potency of Mama Coca and her way of reciprocation will lead the way forward…perhaps.