Calum McSwiggan

Archive for 2013|Yearly archive page

Finding My Voice

In Eat, Gay on September 10, 2013 at 6:30 pm


‘You have always worn your flaws upon your sleeve, and I have always buried them deep beneath the ground.’

– Bastille

When I was a teenager I had a crippling hatred for my own voice, living in a world where I saw people beaten up on the daily for being gay, I was terrified that my camp rasp would give away my biggest secret. A lot of people hate hearing a recording of themselves back on tape, but I despised it so much that it made me want to cry.

It wasn’t until after I found a more accepting world and came out as gay that I began to be able to accept my voice for the high pitched monstrosity it was. With the support of a close group of friends, I built up the courage to join a gospel choir and, hidden beneath a dozen powerful vocalists where nobody could hear me, I quietly began to embrace my inner voice.

There would still come the time where somebody would make a joke about the way I spoke and I would recoil with disgust and embarrassment, but for the most part my voice and I began to get along just fine. That was until I overheard two of my friends mocking me after hearing me practising singing at the piano. Hearing their hurtful words stung so badly that I never sang in front of anyone again, and just the thought of holding a karaoke microphone was enough to make me succumb to an overwhelming panic.

It was something that never really went away, and when I moved  to University it made me want to shy away from all of the arising opportunities to perform and speak publicly. I had this social butterfly inside of me bursting to get out but this on-going inner conflict seemed to keep bringing me to a standstill.

I continued to push down these inhibitions, successfully sweeping the problem well under the rug, until my best friend one day extended the opportunity to join her in starting our own radio show. Not wanting either of us to miss out on the chance, she relentlessly poked me in the ribs until I hit breaking point. Releasing all of my pent up fear and anger in one sharp burst, I snapped at her and we both fell uncomfortably silent.

It was the only time we ever had anything even close to an argument, and it was in that split second that I knew that I had a problem that I had to overcome. With ample encouragement and support, she convinced me to take up her offer and join her in that radio booth where we worked together in creating our own show. It was the confidence this gave me that lead me on to performing regularly and taking up a job in teaching English that saw me commanding the attention of dozens and singing in front of hundreds.

I noticed a performer inside myself that I had never before met, I now had the emotional stability to speak out but as soon as I finished teaching I had no outlet to share it in. I carried on staying quiet, reserving my stories to be written on my blog or to be shared with friends and strangers around the camp fire, until I became intrigued by a friend from the radio station who had started his own vlog.

His first video had gone viral and reached over 100,000 hits in a matter of days, and not only was I impressed by him personally, I was amazed by the untapped power of YouTube. It was this that inspired me to create my own videos, and working underneath the It Gets Better project and Out4Marriage campaign I published my own videos. For the first time I had exposed myself and my voice to the malicious world of the internet where insults and hurtful words are no holds barred, but I was fully prepared to brush off any unwanted and pesky comments about my womanly voice.

Making videos wasn’t something I could do very well, but it was something that I adored, so after moving to London and being again inspired by the YouTube community, I knew that the next step to take would be to learn how to create my own video blogs, fully embrace social media, and pursue creativity in every way possible.

I cleaved my savings in half by buying myself a new computer and a camera, promised myself that I would stay in one place for at least a little while, and began working on my first video. It’s a nerve racking experience to put the entirety of yourself into something and then push it out to be judged by the masses, but it’s also thrilling and rewarding, and after only a few days I’m already beginning to see the results.

The response I got was relatively small, but for an individual with such a tiny following I was amazed at how much a short video can bring to the table. I only received around 700 views, but scores of strangers were not only hitting my subscribe button but also coming through to my blog, reading my stories, and emailing and tweeting me at a rate I couldn’t keep up with. It’s like vlogging has been the missing link and now everything is beginning to come together.

I’ve only created a single video introducing myself, and even though I still haven’t figured out how to use a camera or a piece of editing software, exciting things are starting to happen. Already I’m collaborating with designers and illustrators and so many talented people who have come forward to offer up their talents, and it’s all stemmed from me putting faith in my own voice.

My only regret is that I let my inhibitions control me for so long and didn’t start a hell of a lot sooner. I can only imagine how amazing it would have been to film a vlog from the inside of a tiger cage or from the back of an elephant, but although it’s only a side project, I’m already excited about things I can potentially shoot in the future.

I’ve finally overcome that fear of my own voice, and although I still won’t take up a microphone and join you in singing a karaoke rendition of Beyoncé’s greatest hits, if you’d be so kind to indulge me, I’d happily share with you a bit of nonsense in my first ever video blog.

Summer In The City

In Eat, Gay, Love on August 25, 2013 at 11:31 am

Alexandra Palace

‘So I put my faith in something unknown, I’m living on such sweet nothing.’

– Calvin Harris 

The screams deafened me as I peered through the heaving crowd and up at some of my biggest inspirations, I couldn’t believe that these people who I had watched and read in solitude were now here in front of me being idolised by thousands. I had the same feeling of excitement that other people must feel when they see their favourite musicians perform, watch their favourite actress, or cheer on their favourite sports team.

I listened to their words intently, taking mental notes to drive my own inspirations, hanging on their every word, and then catching the eye of one of them and smiling. Lost in a crowd of hardcore fans you never expect them to acknowledge you, and so when you see them smiling back, you look around frantically, convinced that they’re looking at someone else.

I’d come here to be inspired, I’d only just moved to London when I heard that this global YouTube event was taking place right on my doorstep, and I just had to be a part of it. International writers, film makers, and vloggers were flying in from all over the world to give talks, run seminars, and to meet with their fans. There was absolutely nowhere in the world I would have rather been.

I had been getting despondent with my creativity, with boxing myself into a career path that wasn’t giving me the same enjoyment it once did, battling self enforced deadlines, and ending up necking a bottle of wine instead of getting anything done. This event was the push I needed to branch out and try something new, inject the life back into my work, and finally bring that big project into fruition.

It was incredible to be able to briefly shake the hands of the people that inspire me, to thank them for their work, and get them to sign a good luck card for a like-minded friend about to take on the biggest change in his life. It was thrilling to tick meet one of my idols off my bucket list for 2013, but what was really unbelievable was what was about to happen next.

After meeting so many of my aspirations, there was just one more person I wanted to meet, the person I’d stared up at from the crowd, the person I’d followed religiously for as long as I could remember. I rushed across the room just in time for his meet and greet to find a two-thousand strong queue already snaking across the hall and outside. I very nearly walked away and went to sit another seminar, but just as I caught his eye again for a split moment, I decided to hop on the end of the line and join the monstrous queue.

I waited for so long that when I was finally rushed forward and instructed to snap a photo and move along, I was flustered and couldn’t get my words out. I wanted to talk to him, pick his brain, and ask him a thousand questions, but instead I whispered a quiet compliment, asked him to sign my friend’s card, and was swiftly hurried along. How can I find you? he called after me as the security guard took my arm and hurried through the next person. Tweet me, I said, @CalumMcSwiggan.

I can’t think of a name more difficult to spell or remember, and that was just one of the reasons that I never expected to hear from him again. He took to the stage again later that day and when I heard the screams of thousands echoing his name, I knew that of course he wasn’t going to contact me. I tried to catch his eye again but I was lost in a sea of people, I’d been fortunate enough to meet a handful of my idols, and to expect anything more was delusional.

Just meeting these amazing people and taking part in their workshops filled me with such creative energy and passion that it began to revitalise my dwindling creative spirit. I’ve not been taking my work seriously, and this was exactly the boost I needed to really start working towards everything I want to achieve.

I wanted to try something new, and meeting these people gave me that push. Not only did I want to start vlogging myself, I wanted to try my hand at photography, take up a dance class, complete a marathon, pose for that life drawing class, and track down my saxophone and piano and relearn my love for music. It didn’t matter that I didn’t know how to do all of these things just as long as I took the leap and got started.

It’s been no secret that I’ve been finding it difficult settling into life in a big city, but all of a sudden I felt like I suddenly fit in, like I was part of something. I understand the importance of building a strong network of friends in the real world, and that’s why I’ve finally settled down and chosen a home, but there’s also a real thriving online community that I’ve been teetering on the outskirts of, and now I really want to throw myself into the centre of it.

I let the last few inspirational words wash over me as the last of my idols waved goodbye and disappeared backstage. I slung my backpack over my shoulder and got ready to leave when my phone buzzed in my pocket and there was a message from him. He wanted to see me again, and even though I only got to see him for the briefest of moments, my heart somersaulted in knowing that he’d chosen to contact me out of the thousands of people who’d queued to meet him.

I never expected to hear from him again as I hugged him goodbye and tumbled down the hillside with a handful of new friends. It was a pleasure to have met him, he was no longer a person inside my computer screen, but he was now a real person and that was enough. I never would have thought I’d have been so lucky to stay in touch with him, that he’d go on to read my work, and become somebody that I could call a friend.

I had wondered if I had made the right decision in moving here into the big city, knowing that I could instead be off island hopping and setting off on my next voyage, but meeting so many of my inspirations changed this. This time last year I was alone in Ibiza in the middle of a whirlwind adventure, but I wouldn’t swap any amount of Mediterranean sunsets for what I have now. I’m just beginning to start this new life, and I couldn’t be happier to spend the last of the summer in the city.

Paint Your Life

In Eat, Gay, Love on August 16, 2013 at 2:40 pm

Hyde Park

 ‘I like it in the city where the air is so thick and opaque, I love to see everybody in short skirts, shorts, and shades.’

– Adele

It only took two days to find a place, to move off my best friend’s sofa, and cart my suitcase through the streets of London and into my new home. The wheels buckled as I dragged the weight of my entire life behind me, and as block by block I approached my new front door, my wheels fell off and the seams of my suitcase began to tear as my belongings toppled and fell out into the street.

This suitcase and I had travelled together for a year and a half, we’d visited countless countries and had countless adventures together, and yet somehow, on the day that I’d finally decided to come back to my own country, it’d given up and was falling apart. It was as if it was telling me that it’d had enough and wanted to stay in one place.

Clutching the keys to my new place in hand, I pushed open the front door and pulled the suitcase up each flight of stairs, breathing in the fragrant flowers nestled in the window boxes, and stepping over the threshold of my new room. I dropped my case to the floor and let all of my worldly possessions spill out, opened the window to the fire escape, and let in the song of a pair of singers duetting in the dusk.

I had more space than I could fill with my few dwindling possessions, and even after mounting my Buddhist tapestry, plastering the walls with several dozen photos, and hanging my gay pride flag, it still seemed terribly empty. I was still missing friends.

I’m so fortunate to now have my best friend living around the corner, but we’ve always operated independently. Like a functioning married couple, we live our own lives so we always have something to talk about when we sit down to dinner. I didn’t want to piggy-back upon her friendships, I wanted to build my own, and that’s why I was so overjoyed when the doorbell finally rang.

Leaping down the stairs three at a time, I pulled open the door and dived into the arms of the American standing there. She was from Ohio, we’d worked together in Italy, and now she was here standing outside my London apartment. It was hard to believe it was really her, and with our combined knowledge of the city totalling nothing, we ventured out together to explore.

This was the life I had wanted when I chose to move here, and in those few days that she was with me, I experienced it all in a snapshot. Just as quickly and as rapidly as she’d come, though, it was soon time for her to disappear on a train and leave me wanting more. It was a scene so familiar to me, except this time it wasn’t me going somewhere new and exciting, it was somebody else, and I was the one being left behind. I might have been living in one of the world’s hubs with people endlessly coming and going, but I still felt very much alone.

 It was a letter from a friend that really made me feel solitary. He said that I was an inspiration for uprooting my life and coming here, and he brazenly played with words like brave and courageous. It was the most flattering letter I’d ever received in my life, but every word stung because I felt like my friendless self was a complete and utter fraud.

I knew then that it was time to stop pretending and to actually start building this life for real. It was time to paint a life that suited me, and so I began trying to make friends in whatever way I could. Scrolling through endless Grindr profiles by day, and bar hopping by night, I talked to anyone and everyone in search of someone I might call a friend, but it seemed everyone just wanted benefits. A topless man would ask me for a fuck, my inbox would flood with pictures of penises, and somebody would take me aside and request to pay me generously for my services.

Making friends as an adult is hard, I never seem to have trouble when on the road, but when I finally come back to my home country it seems impossible. Perhaps being the mysterious guy who arrives on a train and then leaves on a plane is easy, but being a new permanent addition to somebody else’s city is hard. I’d make fleeting friendships by chatting to the girls in the ice-cream shop, getting drunk in somebody’s kitchen, falling asleep in a stranger’s bed, but by the time I’d get home, these people couldn’t even remember my name and I’d probably never see them again.

The people I’d pass as I wandered through my local plot of green frustrated me, I was so jealous of them as they laughed with their friends and lapped up the last bit of the summer sunshine. Laid out on their picnic blankets, wrapped up in their happiness, they had everything I craved but were oblivious to me and the rest of the world around them. They’d found their lives, and it was time for me to find mine.

Everything I wanted was here, I just had to be patient enough to let it happen. Trawling bars and casual sex apps was not going to find me the friends that I wanted, and as soon as I started looking, I began to notice the people I’d shut my eyes to before. A girl sat reading a book alone beneath the boughs of a shady tree, a boy sat on the curb with headphones pushed into his ears, and somebody who smiles with such genuine intentions that you know that they’re just as lonely as you.

Like my visiting friend from Ohio, people come and go from this city every single day, but just as people leave, new people arrive, and those people are all looking for the very same thing. They’re looking for a life that isn’t handed to them on a plate, a life they have to work for, a life they can design from scratch. I may not be able to snap my fingers and have everything I want come shooting out from them, but in time it will all come. Yes it’s lonely, yes it’s scary, but more than anything I’m just grateful that I’m able to sit here and paint my life with whichever colours I so choose.

A Beautiful Disaster

In Eat, Love on July 29, 2013 at 2:35 pm

London Skyline

‘And maybe, just maybe, I’ll come home.’

– Ben Howard

It was our last night in the temple, and as we sat atop the skywalk, lighting our bonfire and watching the tigers prowling below us in the darkness, we began to pen our wishes. Armed with a dozen candles, a flashlight, and a notepad, we wrote down all of the things we wanted for ourselves and for each other, and prepared to ceremoniously toss them into the fire.

Living in a Buddhist Temple was making me begin to believe in all things spiritual, but as I scrawled down the specifics of my each and every wish, I could see my friend worriedly watching me before she finally reached out and stopped me. Are you sure these are the things you really want? I looked at the items on the list, the things I would go on to make happen for myself in the following weeks, and nodded. She wasn’t convinced, though, she told me to be less specific and was adamant that I had absolutely no idea what it was that I wanted.

It felt like an attack on me personally, but I knew it was just an acceptance that absolutely nobody really knows exactly what it is that they want, and that you should be extremely careful with what you wish for. She had given me two life-changing tarot card readings in the month that we had spent together, and for that reason, I trusted her with all things spiritual.

I had those readings in mind when I began rewriting my wishes. The first had been about my love life, and the second about my career, and although she stipulated that there’s no such thing as magic beforehand, they really helped me understand the things most important to me.

I asked for love, happiness, friends, and a home before tossing the wishes into the lit bonfire and watching them crackle and burn. It was this moment I thought of as I sat alone in my new Spanish apartment, watching a single candle flickering on the windowsill, having all of the things I’d originally wanted to wish for, and yet being debilitating unhappy. She had been right.

Each day the thought of having to wake up, get dressed, and cross the Spanish border to work both exhausted and depressed me. I had once loved the picturesque walk along the shore and into town, but now it only made me want to scream.

The problem was, despite having everything I thought I’d wanted, I had absolutely nobody to share it with. Without a working internet connection I could no longer chat with my best friend on Skype, send outrageous things to my friends on Twitter, and flirt excessively with the boy I liked on Facebook. I was suddenly disconnected from my world of friends, and for the first time it became apparent that I wasn’t actually surrounded by the people I love. I was alone in an empty room.

I needed to get out and about, and so each evening I’d wander through the streets, soaking up the atmosphere, and popping in and out of tapas bars and warm vibrant cafés. I could feign perfect contentment until I’d get hit with the full emotion of seeing somebody I knew, and then I’d well and truly fall apart.

A sense of overwhelming happiness would fall over me as I’d push through the crowd to try to catch up with Liz from Ohio, Jang from Thailand, or Matteo from Rome. I was so excited to see these amazing people that I missed so much, only to be left deflated when I realised that, of course, it wasn’t them. I was in a quiet Spanish town in the middle of nowhere, and as much as I would have liked to have bumped into friends from all over the world, it was never going to happen.

I remained hopeful that people would come to visit, but as each invitation was politely refused, a date cancelled here, a friend too busy there, I realised I was sitting around waiting for friends who were never going to come. A bottle of champagne sat waiting to be uncorked, a book of vegetarian recipes sat waiting to be cooked, and mood setting candles sat waiting to be lit.

Every day that passed I began to feel more and more alone and wondering why on earth I was out here in the middle of nowhere. I had an incredible job, and family just around the corner, and yet still I craved for so much more, this just wasn’t enough. I was saving every spare penny towards that dream of moving to New York, but I couldn’t wait another second, I needed to be in a big city.

That thought really hit me as I stood in the supermarket looking at frying pans and ready to fall apart. The same excitement I felt when kitting out my spider-infested room in Thailand was somehow lost, and as I walked out of the shop empty handed, I felt something snap. How I had gone from playing with tigers to shopping for cooking utensils at such a short turn around was beyond me. Somewhere something had gone wrong.

I sat at my desk that afternoon and talked to my friends profusely about how exhausted and bored I was of living in Spain, and then as each friend independently revealed to me that they didn’t understand why I was still there, I felt something spark inside of me. It was nothing more than a glimmering idea of what if, but by the time I got home that evening, it had snowballed into so much more.

I paced up and down in my apartment, shaking with excitement and nervousness as I rang my best friend over and over again. I paced for almost an hour waiting for her to finish work and pick up, and when she finally did, I told her that I was going to quit my job and move to London.

To me, this was the most ridiculously spontaneous thing I had ever done, but I was deadly serious and couldn’t think of a single reason not to do it. I lost an absolute fortune on an apartment I’d only lived in for two weeks, and I was wrestling with the idea of losing a well-paid job that I loved, but somehow none of that seemed to matter. I knew that something had to change, and before I could even begin to fathom the consequences, I was packing my bags, negotiating with my boss, booking my flights, and getting on a plane.

I had never been so sure of anything in my life, and yet I could have so easily talked myself out of it. The choice to move into an apartment in Spain was a catastrophic mistake that turned out to be a beautiful disaster, but without taking that leap, I never would have made it here, to my best friend’s East London apartment, filled with all the hope and happiness in the world.

I know that I made the right decision. It’s scary to take such a drastic u-turn, to sever commitments and ties, and accept that you’ve made a massive mistake, but sometimes that’s just exactly what you have to do. It was undoubtedly the craziest choice I’d ever made in my life, but already, as I sleep in the familiar warm of my best friend’s sofa, I’m already beginning to feel like I’ve finally come home.

A Small Piece of Home

In Eat on July 24, 2013 at 12:52 pm

Gibraltar By Night

‘How often have I lain beneath rain on a strange roof, thinking of home.’

– William Faulkner

The rich Spanish man sat opposite me, his feet perched on the desk, and a lit cigar balanced between two of his fingers. He spoke quickly and passionately, filling the air with thick smoke, before clapping his hands together and nodding suggestively towards my bag. This moment had been a long time coming, and as I reached down and withdrew the largest wad of cash I’d ever had, I knew that just like that, I finally had a home.

It had all started on that first day in Thailand when I’d arrived at the temple gates with a colossal case of food poisoning. Still dizzy and nauseated, I stood in the doorway of a dark spider infested room, watching the lodging pigeons flapping their wings in wild panic, and wondering what on earth I’d signed up for. A few meditation mats lay scattered across the floor, the window was a mere hole in the wall, and thick cobwebs hung from the ceiling. It wasn’t much, but it’d be my room for the next five weeks.

Carefully sweeping the arachnid nests from the wall, I uncovered a list of advice that had been left there to help the next volunteer get through the month. Scrawled in the insane handwriting of my predecessor, the guidance was as follows:

Lizards and spiders are your friends, they eat mosquitoes
Don’t watch porn, the monks will check your browser history
Leave powder under the door to stop fire ants getting in
Watch out for scorpions

I laughed as I read these rules aloud but ceased destroying the homes of my spider friends immediately and wasted absolutely no time in sprinkling talcum powder under the door and eradicating the pornography from my search history. Like it or not, this was going to be my home for the next month, and I might as well have made the most of it.

Stacking the meditation mats together to make myself an improvised bed, I gave myself a wide berth from my friends scuttling along the walls, and hung my red and gold mosquito net in the centre of the room. I had bought it in Khan Market in India, and for the next few weeks the only time I’d feel safe would be when I was wrapped up in the safety of its cocoon.

I took a trip into town and bought some cushions and a blanket, lit some citronella candles to keep away the critters, and even found an old abandoned writing desk that I cleaned up and placed in the corner. It’s been no secret that for the past year I’ve been looking for somewhere to call my home, and oddly, fixing up this small infested room began to quickly inspire those very feelings.

I may have squealed in terror at night as unseen creatures skittered across my body, I may not have been able to sleep in the unbearable unrelenting heat, and the room may have flooded every time it rained, but none of that mattered. To me, this was a small piece of home.

Having new friends sleeping in the same squalor is what kept us all sane. The living conditions were beyond dreadful, but by ridiculing the hilarity of the situation, we managed to sugar coat the whole experience. A scorpion attacked me in the shower today, one of us would laugh, and then a tarantula dived onto my head while I was brushing my teeth. We compared stories at the end of each day, and it became almost a competition of who’d had it worse. That’s nothing, someone would cry, a cobra chased me to the temple this morning, and a buffalo kicked my door down last night.

We became a little family, scrounging together food scraps to throw together a meal, staying up late to play forbidden card games,  and sneaking down into Tiger Canyon after dark to indulge in midnight horror films. Stripping everything down to basics with the companionship of new friends made me realise that this is what I’d been searching for all along.

The thought of having to go back to my real job, and again impose upon my parent’s guest bedroom, terrified me more than any scorpion infested shower ever could. Every day that passed only concreted more and more for me what I had to do. Like a broken record, I kept everyone up at night mulling over my options, talking and talking and talking. It became more and more apparent that if I left things how they were, I’d wind up desperately unhappy. Something had to change.

I thought about that wish I’d made on my birthday, I’d wished for summer romance. It was something that, no matter how badly I wanted it, was never going to happen in the situation I was in. I happened upon the idea of having my own place by the beach in Spain, and having friends from all over the world come to visit, and before I could even think it all through, I’d made up my mind.

I was going to move into that dream apartment by the beach, and ask for a pay rise to pay for it. I would set up a life in Spain and spend the rest of the year spending afternoons lazing on the beach, drinking wine, and gorging myself on tapas. I set my plan in motion the moment the plane touched down on the runway, and only one week later, I’d gotten the raise I wanted and was handing over that fat wad of cash for my new apartment.

The rich Spanish man took my money and handed me the keys, and before I’d even moved in, I started booking friends in to visit. It was an incredible feeling as I stepped over the threshold and unpacked my bags for the first time in over a year. This would be it, I thought, climbing into bed on the first night and staring out of the window at the magnificently lit Rock of Gibraltar. This is what I’ve been waiting for. 

I lay still for a few moments before getting up and going to stand on the balcony. I listened to the Spanish celebrating in the streets below, and sucked in the cool sea air as I watched a topless man perched on his window ledge across the street. The yellow glow from his bedroom light drew me in as he took sips from his glass of wine and gave me a small nod. This would do just perfectly, I thought, smiling back at him. This would be my new home.

Oh how wrong I was.

The Year of The Tiger

In Eat, Gay, Love on July 19, 2013 at 12:33 pm

Tiger Temple, Kanchanaburi

‘We ditch the whole scene and end up dreaming instead of sleeping.’

– Taylor Swift

The mosquitoes buzzed noisily in the moonlight as I crept through the forest and began to climb the temple steps. Birthdays have always been like New Year to me, I’ve never wanted to be asleep when the clock strikes midnight, and with everyone else already in bed, I sat myself down in the temple and readied myself to embrace the change of a new year, and the beginning of new beginnings.

A single birthday card sat in my lap as I looked at my watch, breathed in the cool night air, and thought about how quickly the years were starting to pass. I was terrified to age another year, I still felt like a teenager, and yet already my twenties were escaping me.

What seemed like only days ago I’d just turned twenty and was celebrating the last day of my magazine internship; it seemed like only yesterday when my long-term boyfriend had gotten down on one knee and proposed on my twenty-first birthday; and it seemed like only moments ago that I’d quietly escaped my twenty-second birthday by packing my broken heart into a bag and leaving it all behind.

On that birthday I could have never imagined the things that would have happened in the year that followed. How packing those bags would lead me here, atop a Buddhist Temple in Thailand, having done all the things I’d done. It was only when I started adding things up that I truly realised exactly how much had happened.

I’d minced my way through Morocco, had a Vietnamese child find my dildo, fell for a stranger in Ibiza, and was bitten by a tiger in Thailand. I’d crushed on a Spanish student, was stood up on a date in Rome, had a sensational night in Frankfurt, and chased a boy to Berlin. I’d been left for dead on the Indian motorway, seen bandits tear apart cars, I’d written love letters to Juliet, and drank in Swiss and Austrian bars. I’d gotten into a fight in Budapest, watched a hurricane tear through New York, accidentally took a train to Russia, and had a boy stop my heart.

It had undoubtedly been the most incredible year of my life, and I was terrified that everything would be downhill now that it was all behind me. I sighed as the clock struck midnight and I opened my lonesome birthday card. A little disheartened, and totally unconvinced that this next year could live up to such high expectations, I pushed it back into its envelope and sat in silence. Totally unaware of the life-changing greeting that would await me the following morning, I climbed back down the steps and went to sleep.

The goat awoke me by kicking open the door with her hoof and bleating noisily. It was the most bizarre Happy Birthday I’d ever gotten, but as I threw on my clothes and followed her out of the room, I remembered that I’d been given the morning off work to spend time with the monks.

Birthdays are seen as a time for renewal and cleansing, and as the goat lead me down the path and towards the temple gates, I prepared myself to give my offering of pizza and menthol cigarettes. I figured that they were probably sick of rice and flowers, and my estimate paid off. My gesture was well received, and in exchange I was blessed with a year’s good luck and had the tattoo above my heart imbued with eternal protection. It was a welcomed birthday gift, but nothing compared to what was still to come.

I left the monks as the tourists began pouring in the gates, and went and found Universe in his usual resting spot above the temple. It was as I was bottle feeding him and gently stroking his fur that my favourite monk approached me and took me aside. He reached out and clutched the turtle pendant that hung around my neck, holding it close to his eyes, and asking what it was. I explained that it was a good luck charm that had been given to me by my students on the very first leg of my adventure, and had seen me through right until this very moment. He smiled and disappeared for a moment before returning with a small folded square of fabric.

This will bring new luck, he said, pushing it into my hands and watching intently as I unfolded it and revealed the Buddhist symbols and the tiger mirage inked into its surface. I admired the patterns, and just as I went to thank him, a small white object dropped out onto the floor. I bent down to pick it up, and as I held it up to the light, I realised it was the baby tooth of one of the tigers.

He tapped my turtle pendant again and told me that the year of the turtle had passed, and now it was time for the year of the tiger. I thought about what he said for a moment, and instantly knew that he was right. Like that turtle, for a year, I had kept myself protected in a shell, nursing my failures and my heartbreak, and searching for a new life, but now was the time to finally let my guard down and strike.

Wearing my new-found treasure proudly around my neck, I returned from the temple just in time for lunch. I pushed open the door to the common room and was met with smiling faces and a cake lit with twenty three candles. It was something I never expected to see in the heart of a Buddhist temple tucked away in the forest, and as my friends expressed their jealousy over my tooth, I blew out the candles and made a wish. I didn’t know it then, but that wish was about to kick start the most exciting change in my life. The Year of The Tiger had begun.

The Tiger & The Thai Girl

In Eat, Love on July 10, 2013 at 12:42 pm

Tiger Temple

‘How people treat you is their karma, how you react is yours.’

– Wayne Dyer

My shovel dropped to the ground with a clang and I broke into a run as the tiger growled ferociously and came bounding through the open gateway. Leaping onto the stone platform and blocking our exit, he bared his enormous claws and teeth, let out a snarl of ferocity, and readied himself to pounce.

I froze perfectly still, looking at the Thai girl by my side, and wondering how on earth I had wound up in such a ridiculous situation. Face to face with an enraged adult tiger that could kill me in a single swipe, I began to regret that decision to stay an extra week.

I had intended to leave the temple a week before my flight so that I could tour the islands and lay half naked on the beach, but one morning, as I dug a pond in the blistering heat, that all began to change.

I winced with pain each time I drove the spade into the sun hardened ground, swearing and complaining loudly, and just not getting the job done. My hands were sprouting with purple bruises from where Bubbles, the six month old bear, had attacked me, and even holding the shovel was agony. I peeled off my shirt in the heat, wrapped it around my blisters for protection, and watched the tiny Thai girl ploughing through the earth with gusto.

She was my favourite because she embraced any job with a refreshing positivity; whether ankle deep in a slurry of tiger diarrhoea and chicken carcasses, or cutting through overgrowth populated with deadly snakes and insects, she’d wear the same smile and remind me that all of this brought very good karma.

She wasn’t strictly Buddhist, her opinions and beliefs were as wide and diverse as my own, but like most Thai people, she believed that karma was a currency as real as pounds or dollars. It was almost as if it were a real tangible thing that could be weighed and measured, good karma was valued more than any amount of money, and bad karma was like a crippling unpaid deficit.

Everything she did was good natured, she’d escorted a poisonous centipede to a safe distance after I’d tried to cleave it in half; she’d spent hours of her time with the tigers that had left deep lacerations in her back; and she’d even held her tongue and silently spent time in prison for a crime she didn’t commit.

I admired her so much that I wanted to change my behaviours. I had already given up on obeying The Precepts after managing to drink alcohol, gamble, and kill all within my first week, but the path of karma made sense. I could break the rules as long as I was doing what I believed to be fundamentally right. I made an effort to stop bitching and whining about every little thing, and to show The Universe that I was serious, I gave up my secret island hopping adventure and opted to stay for the final week.

So there we were, me, the tiger, and the Thai girl, in this impossible situation. The steel gate lay in pieces, strewn across the yard from where the tiger had destroyed it in his fury, and now he was eyeing us as if to say you’re next. My heart thumped, my hands trembled, and I desperately waited for instruction.

Oh silly tiger! she cried out lovingly, pointing at the destroyed gate and shaking her head like a displeased mother. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, this snarling beast had his six inch teeth prepped and ready to tear us apart, but this five foot Thai girl was entirely unfazed. To her, this was just an ordinary day of work. Just like having a baby tiger nibble on your ears, or listening to the sound of an adult tiger’s heartbeat, these things amazed and astonished us temporary volunteers, but the long term staff weren’t fazed in the slightest.

Don’t worry, she said as the tiger growled fiercely, slinked off his platform, and began to circle us. He’s just being silly. Petrified, I watched as she leaned her head to one side, smiled, and reached down to stroke his back. He jolted suddenly and just as I thought she was going to lose her arm, he retracted his claws and playfully nuzzled into her side.

Had she been aggressive or defensive, I’m pretty sure that both of us would have been floored and ripped apart. It was her loving attitude that allowed her to see past his snarling maw and ultimately save our lives. Unbelievably, she was right, the tiger was just being silly.

I may not have been showered with riches and virgins for my hard work and good deeds, but I knew that The Universe was looking out for me. I’d made the right decision in staying that extra week, and the fact that I was able to walk out of the gates with all of my limbs firmly attached was more than repayment enough.

Atop The Forest Temple

In Eat, Love on July 4, 2013 at 1:08 pm

Tiger Temple Thailand

‘If we taught all eight year olds to meditate, we would eliminate all violence from the world within one generation’ 

– Dalai Lama

We lay on the floor in the stifling afternoon heat, listening to the peaceful silence in the forest canopy, and awaiting the dreaded sound of the chorus of chanting monks. We groaned in unison as their peaceful verse began, stripping out of our filthy work clothes and throwing on our meditation robes with displeasure.

It wasn’t that we didn’t want to go to meditation, it was just that we were exhausted from a day of hard labour. Learning Buddhist Meditation was one of the top items on my bucket list for 2013, I’d even had my robes hand tailored in the heart of New Delhi for the occasion, but now that I was here, my gusto was rapidly waning.

Dressed entirely in white, I’d accompany my fellow volunteers across the forest floor, and we’d complain and drag our feet as we climbed barefoot to the temple. Despite my dying enthusiasm, though, I still made an effort at each and every session.

Snatching up a meditation mat and dancing across the wooden floor in perfect silence, I’d sit and try to imitate the posture of the monks who sat above me on their sacred platform. Focusing my energies on the towering golden Buddha statue as the evening sun glinted over its surface, I’d shut my eyes and let in a whole new world of sound and bothersome thoughts.

Atop the forest temple, rested amongst the treetops, this was the perfect environment for serene meditation. The branches lulled lazily in the wind, and the peaceful chatter of the birds perfectly complimented the dulcet tones of The Abbot’s soft voice. If I listened carefully, I could hear the break of a twig as a deer pranced through the forest, the ferocious roar of a nearby lion, or the restless growl of a tiger pacing below. Everything was perfect, and yet still I hated every moment.

This was not the spiritual experience I had hoped for, I shuffled uncomfortably, folding and unfolding my hands, and trying to straighten my aching back. I tried everything to engage, focusing on my breathing, and trying to adopt perfect stillness. I refused to move an inch despite the sweat that trickled down my forehead, the insects that relentlessly plagued my open wounds, and the twisting knots in my stomach from the Indian poison that refused to leave my system. I tried to embrace the discomfort and bend the pain into something comforting, but my whole body was on fire, and every moment was a living hell.

The same verse was spoken over and over again, and despite my best efforts to learn, I never did understand any of it. I treated the whole thing as a game, counting each breath to try to eradicate each and every thought from my mind, and trying to see how long I could sit perfectly still for. The problem was, that sometimes meditation went on for hours, and one time I even found myself awaking suddenly after having fallen asleep for the entire session.

After weeks of frustration, I approached my favourite monk and asked him for guidance, and only barely overcoming the language barrier, he gave me some poignant advice. He advised me to embrace my inner peace and then share that with somebody I love, somebody I hate, and somebody I was indifferent to.

Finding somebody I loved was easy, I cycled through all of the important people in my life, students, friends, and lovers, and wished them all pure happiness. The same was true for indifference; I wished peace to strangers I’d passed in the street, tourists and taxi drivers, and any unknown face that popped into my mind. Finding somebody I hated, however, was far more difficult.

There’s not a lot of hatred inside of me, but there are a few names that strike a dark chord in my soul. I tried first focusing my energies on my ex and his new fiancé, and wishing them a happy life together, but that dark period of my life had passed, and it was so easy that it felt like that didn’t count. There was nobody I harboured negativity for, absolutely no one, that was until a new staff member arrived and gave me the perfect outlet for my hatred.

He’s a homophobic sexist prick, I said, throwing down the chicken carcass I was de-boning and sighing with exasperation. What happened to your Zen meditation regime? My friend said as she stopped cleaning the tiger cage to mock me. That twat doesn’t deserve my positive thoughts, I grumbled, tearing chunks from the chicken’s breast and letting the six week old tigers eat it from my fingertips. That’s the whole point, though, isn’t it?

She was right, and I knew it. I doubled my efforts and although it was truly agonising to sit and calmly wish this man happiness, my blood boiling as I pictured his face, it took so much of my attention that the rest of my mind fell quiet. The people who mean the most to me would then flutter in and out of my mind, and everyone regardless of love, hatred or indifference would receive the same kind wishes, until all of the negativity was exiled from my mind.

It became so routine that it all happened like clockwork and my mind began to feel lighter. The only person you hurt by harbouring negative thoughts is yourself, and only then did I realise the importance of truly letting go. Eventually those foreign words in the background began to make sense, contorting themselves into something I could understand. It was almost like I had fallen asleep, only this time I was aware of it, and with my eyes shut and my mind emptied, it was as if they were telling me a story.

Everything became as clear as that golden Buddha that burned with fiery brightness just beyond my eyelids, and as time dragged on, it felt like only a very short time had passed. When I finally opened my eyes, I found myself surrounded by darkness, the orange robes of the monks fluttering in the cool night breeze, and the golden Buddha extinguished by the blanket of the night sky. I quietly rose to my feet, followed the other volunteers back down the steps and across the forest as if nothing had happened at all, and then readied myself to complain again when the next session rolled around.

The Whole Universe

In Eat, Love on June 29, 2013 at 8:59 am

Tiger Markings

‘The goal of life is to make your heartbeat match the beat of the universe, to match your nature, with nature.”

– Joseph Campbell

The morning sun had just begun to rise as I sleepily wandered out into the tiger yard and watched the cubs come bounding out of their cage. Aged six to twelve months, they were still considered babies, and yet when fully stretched out they were easily taller than me. With their monstrous paws they could effortlessly floor you in a single well-timed pounce- I’d seen the damage those claws and teeth could do in the grievous wounds of my fellow volunteers- but fortunately, I hadn’t been injured just yet.

I had barely been working at the temple a week, and was still struggling with remember all ten of the cubs’ names. I watched them closely, matching their sizes, markings, and personalities to the names I had scattered in my mind. I spotted Jupiter first, wrestling in the water with Orion, and then noticed Apollo, Gemini, and Venus playfully rolling around atop the hill.

I found it so difficult to place them, when they moved they just looked like dazzling black and orange blurs, but each of them was different, and with time and patience their names continued to come. I knew Mercy by his shaggy matted fur as he rolled around in the dirt, panting goofily as he soaked up the sun; Solo crouched low as she began stalking her prey, creeping up slowly behind one of the volunteers, before Neptune bound into action and pulled her to the floor; and Galaxy was last out of his cage, looking around with those familiar sleepy eyes before slowly plodding out into the yard.

That was all of them, I thought, mentally adding up the number of the tigers I’d accounted for. I doubled back to ensure I hadn’t missed any, and just when I had myself convinced that that was all ten, the ground shook beneath me and the last tiger sank his teeth into my leg. He pulled me to the ground and tore at the flesh, refusing to let go until I gently smacked him away and watched the blood pour down my leg.

I’m a firm believer that everything happens for a reason, and aside from my secret desire to get bitten by a tiger to have a cool scar to show off, this bite was the start of something incredible. For every terrible thing that happens in life, I believe that The Universe has a plan, and that everything works out for the best. Getting bitten by a tiger was no different.

Who was that? I said, knowing I’d accounted for nine of the tigers but couldn’t seem to place the last one’s name. I climbed to my feet and  pointed at the tiger which now slinked away to the back of the yard magnificently as if nothing had happened at all. Universe, one of the staff told me, he never usually bites. I looked at the eight puncture marks from where his enormous teeth had sank into my flesh, and knew that this was no coincidence. The Universe was trying to tell me something, and what better way than taking a chunk out of my leg.

I wanted to get to know this tiger immediately, and he quickly became my favourite. I’d snatch up a dog lead every morning and pick him out of the bunch by the fascinating markings on his face, snapping him up and out of the yard and letting him walk me to the temple. He’d pull the same tricks every morning, walking peacefully until he saw something he wanted, and then dragging me around like a rag doll until he had it.

I was prepared every single day when we climbed the temple steps, anticipating the rush that would follow as soon as the sacred monk platform came into view. I have absolutely no idea what his fascination with it was, but stepping up was forbidden, and I’m pretty sure he just wanted to get me into trouble. With every ounce of strength I could muster, I’d wrap my arms around his heaving galumphing chest and try to drag him to his resting spot beside Mercy. He’d put up a fight for a few minutes, and then eventually settle down with his companion, and the two of them would look out over the forest and fantasize about killing the roaming wildlife.

Apart from his shenanigans and the fact that he took a bite out of my leg as a way of introducing himself, he was the calmest and most trustworthy tiger there was. You could place your head between his humongous paws, wrap your finger around one of his canines, or take a nap on his colossal hulking chest.

He’d let you do anything you wanted, provided you had good intentions, and he’d calmly stare at you with the fondness of a house cat, chuffing affectionately, removing all the hair from your arm with his enormous sandpaper tongue, and playfully swiping for that bottle of milk that he knows you have in your back pocket.

I loved spending time with him, a small part of me was beginning to understand the idea of karma, and I believed that everything I did for this tiger was a repayment to The Universe. Every religion has its deity, Buddhists have The Buddha image, Catholics have Jesus on the cross, and I had Universe, this wonderful living breathing creature.

As the weeks passed by, the wound on my leg began to heal and fade, disappointingly not leaving the impressive scar I’d secretly hoped would remind me of Universe forever. I looked down at him as he lay in my lap lazily, and I knew that the next time I saw him again after I left, he’d be twice the size and able to kill a man with a single swipe, but he’d still have those exact same markings on his face. I gently stroked them with my fingertips, and without having to think about it, I knew immediately that I was going to have them tattooed to my chest.

Getting bitten by Universe was the perfect metaphor for everything I believe in, and every time I look down and see my tattoo, I don’t feel like I just have the markings of a tiger imprinted on my chest, I feel like I have the whole universe engraved above my heart- a permanent reminder that everything does happen for a reason. A terrible break up lead to a new found freedom; a cancelled trip to America lead to a life changing decision; and getting my leg ripped apart by a tiger lead to a friendship that I’ll remember for the rest of my life.

Delhi Belly

In Eat on June 17, 2013 at 12:12 pm

Indian Chaat

‘Food is our common ground, a universal experience.’

– James Beard 

India had opened my eyes to a whole new world, a beautiful yet frightening world, a world that both exhausted and dazzled me, a world that I was glad to finally be leaving behind. I was so used to having my guard up, that when I landed in Thailand in the early hours of the morning, I was ready and prepared for conflict.

Away from the relentless Indian heat, everything seemed so inviting. A cool breeze swept through the eucalyptus scented air, offerings were scattered everywhere I looked, and everybody smiled and bowed as I walked by and took in my new surroundings. I stepped out onto the street and looked around for a taxi, remembering my nightmarish first night in India, and decided to not take any chances.

I approached the most professional driver I could find, dressed in a suit, a tie, and a smile, he opened the door for me and helped me climb inside. The windows were tinted and the cool air conditioning made me relax into the luxurious leather seats, it was only when I asked him to take me the long journey west that I worried about the price. I asked hesitantly, half expecting to be thrown out onto the side of the motorway and stripped of my cash, but he quoted me a price that would barely buy me a cocktail back home.

I felt safe and secure and like I could finally let my guard down. This place seemed like a safe haven where absolutely nothing could go wrong. I watched the twinkling lights disappearing as we drove out and away from the city, and comfortable in this new world, I began to dream about my destination.

I was on my way to work with some of the world’s most dangerous animals while living in harmony alongside Buddhist monks. I racked my mind for the words I would say when I arrived, but I only drew blanks. I didn’t really know what to expect, and like a nervous teenager going on the first date, I practised what I’d say to them over and over in my mind. First impressions were important, but what do you say when an abbey of monks offers to feed and house you for the next five weeks?

My mind drifted and I began to think about the horrors I’d seen in India. A lorry driver pulled from his vehicle and stripped of his belongings, a tortured elephant with its spirit crushed, and starving children sleeping in the streets. I couldn’t shake those images out of my head, and just as I thought I’d escaped India for good, I felt a stabbing sensation in the bottom of my gut.

I sat upright and shuffled uncomfortably, taking a sip of water and trying to breathe through the pain, but my stomach only clenched tighter and searing pains shot through my whole body. India was not through with my yet, you can take the boy out of Delhi, but there’s only one way to take the Delhi out of the boy, and boy is it not pretty.

Sweat began to pour down my forehead, and the flowers that hung on the mirror were beginning to nauseate me. It was as if there was a banghra party in my stomach, and everybody had  explosive diarrhoea. I tapped the driver on the shoulder, and as calmly and collectedly as I could, I asked if we could kindly pull over. Ten minutes, he said with a smile, but I shook my head, let the frantic tones grow in my voice, and told him it was an emergency. Nearest Western bathroom is ten minutes, he repeated, but I was insistent and mistakenly told him that any bathroom was fine. 

Less than twenty four hours prior, I had stopped on the way to the airport for one last taste of Delhi chaat. I coiled my way through the lively streets, hopping over running and laughing children as I browsed the contents of various pans and griddles. Meat sizzled in the heat of open flames, and like wild magic dust, puffs of spice filled the air, catching my attention and pulling me this way and that. I set my eyes on a rich chicken curry, but just as I was about to ask for a cup, a chicken squawked noisily as it was slammed down and decapitated out of sight. I shook my head politely and turned to another stall and began indulging in vegetarian delights.

I took a small bowl of dahl and washed it down with mango lassi, sampling vegetable pakoras and fried paneer until I couldn’t eat another bite. I knew that the food was unhygienic and prepared in the filth ridden streets, but it tasted so good that I just didn’t care. I finished it all off with a small bottle of Thumbs Up, a drink known for being sickeningly sweet and renowned for turning Westerners insides to mush, and now, at the side of the Thai motorway, I was paying the price for my decadence.

I hung onto the latchless door as it repeatedly swung open while I squatted over a six inch hole and violently threw up into the filthy broken sink. The stagnant Indian heat was returning, and as my whole body became immersed in sweat, I realised there was no toilet paper. I looked around for an alternative, and flicked on the tap in hope of a fresh clean stream of water to drain away my vomit, but not one single drop came forward.

I thought about that emergency toilet roll I’d fortuitously never had to use in India, it was still sat inside my backpack in the trunk of the taxi. I peeled my t-shirt off to try to cope with the intense heat, and sheepishly called for the driver to bring over my bag. I waited for a few minutes before there was a timid knock at the door and the dignified suited man stood shielding his eyes and presenting me my backpack.

Leaving the bathroom in the cleanest way I could manage, I got back into the taxi and we continued on our journey. I had to ask my driver to stop thirteen more times before we arrived at my destination almost three hours later than we should have done. He dropped me outside my hotel along The River Kwai, and when I offered him a generous tip, he shook his head and instructed me to get well soon.

By the time I lay down on my bed, the morning sun was beginning to rise, and it was already time to leave. I sucked in the cool air conditioned air, and used the bathroom twice more before accepting that it was time to meet the monks. I jumped into the back of a truck and rolled up into the temple grounds almost thirty minutes late. All of that practising what to say went straight out of the window, and I was sure to have left an unforgettable impression, as I leapt out of the vehicle with panicked gusto and asked for the nearest bathroom.