Calum McSwiggan

Posts Tagged ‘travel’

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.

Highwaymen

In Eat on June 9, 2013 at 9:17 am

Slums in India

‘You’ve seen this all before, life left on the shore, but we’re smiling all the same, you sail away again.’

– Ellie Goulding

Just as I was told there were no seats for tourists left on the train, I was cornered by three angry looking Indian men and told to hand over my bag. Determined to not get robbed a second time, I ducked out of their way, sprinted out of the train station, and went off in search of a safer way to my next destination.

I only had two days left in India, and I wanted to head to the Taj Mahal before catching my flight out of there. It seemed excessive to hail down a private driver to take me four hours across the country, but by western standards it was cheap, and I was running out of options.

We were driving for less than an hour when the traffic began to slow and eventually grinded to a complete halt. I craned my neck to see what was happening and saw flames licking the sky in the distance, an uproar of screaming and yelling filling the air, and black smoke that came down on us so thickly that I couldn’t see any further than three cars ahead.

We were only stationary for a few moments before I saw them, appearing from the slums at the side of the road, darting through the cars and disappearing into the thick black smoke, leaping from roof to roof in search of their victims. They wore bandanas over their faces, and moved with such quickness that they could easily distract lorry drivers while their comrades hopped in the back and raided them of their valuables. I called them the highwaymen. They were as mystifying as they were frightening, and it was only with their demonic presence that the highway truly came to life.

Children appeared and began weaving in-between the cars, selling bottles of murky water or falling to their knees in a plea for food; cattle broke free from one of the lorries and began wandering between the cars, hungrily pressing their faces up against windows and clumsily breaking off wing mirrors; a camel began calling out in desperation before choking on the fumes and collapsing in the heat of the ever thickening smoke; and packs of wild monkeys piled out of the slums like termites, and began raiding anything in sight in search of scraps of food.

It was chaos, we were no longer cars stuck in traffic, but a hectic village market, rife with crime and alive with trade. Music blared and fights broke out, a lorry driver waved his arms furiously as he was pulled from his vehicle and stripped of his treasures, and everyone was acting like this was normal.

Keep your doors locked and don’t make eye contact with anyone, my driver told me sternly, locking down the doors and turning off the engine. I was suddenly very aware that I was a perceived rich white boy in poverty stricken India, and things were probably about to get very, very real.

The cloud of smog thickened until I couldn’t see anything but the inside of the car. The chaos ensued, I could still hear the ruckus raging outside and the occasional footsteps as somebody leapt onto the roof of our vehicle before disappearing back into the mist. My heart was racing in my chest, and just as I leapt back in fear as a bloodied silk wrapped hand slammed against my window, the driver turned back on the engine and we slowly began to move.

We weaved amongst the vacated cars, winding and spiralling out of the slow moving traffic, swerving past two cars ablaze and a mourning family, until we were eventually out of the fog. We drove full speed, hurtling down the highway, away from the scene of the accident, and onwards to our destination.

I caught sight of a tuk-tuk speeding alongside of us, much smaller than the car I was in, and yet loaded with at least thirty people exposed to the luciferous heat. I slumped down in my seat, I felt ashamed to be cruising along in this air-conditioned vehicle while they were exposed to all the elements, and just as I closed my eyes to try to strike out their disgusted glances, we ran into something full speed.

My seat belt sliced through my neck as I was tossed forward out of my seat and slammed back down again. There was a loud thud and then the harrowing sound of screaming as the front and back wheels of the car rolled over something, sending us spinning across the highway. Just as the driver regained control of the vehicle, I turned around to see a writhing mass of limbs lying in the road, desperately trying to crawl to safety, leaving a trail of blood and entrails behind it.

Pull over! I yelled to my driver but he just shook his head. It was just a dog sir, don’t worry, he told me calmly, one of his eyes fixated on a gang of masked men at the side of the road. I was furious, swearing myself blue as I pleaded with him to stop the car, but he wouldn’t. I was sick of this country abusing its animals, but as the bloodied dog and its cries faded into the distance, I knew he hadn’t pulled over out of fear.

The car jolted again and began making some strange noises before the air conditioning cut out. We met our karma as the car became an inferno and eventually came to a rolling stop a few miles down the road.

I looked into the slums for signs of life as my driver hesitantly climbed out and began to assess the damage. He told me to stay inside, but I didn’t. I climbed out to see the bonnet dashed with spatters of red, one of the headlights completely smashed, and the bumper soaked with blood. I turned back to the slums and waited for the highwaymen to appear, to rob me of everything but the shirt on my back, but they didn’t. It was a small child that first appeared from the darkness.

He gasped and yelled something behind him, and then scores of people poured out of the slums, speaking loudly and quickly as they began to examine the vehicle’s damage before setting straight to work on repairs. It amazed me that, these people who lived so simply, in literal heaps of garbage, in houses built from scrap metal and cardboard, had the ability to fix something as complex as a car.

They procured fruits and drinks and even a deck chair for me to sit in while they set about rectifying the problems, children came running to see the white man who’d come to visit, and they took endless photographs with me, on a mish mash of cameras seemingly stolen from different eras.

These weren’t the same ruthless highwaymen I’d seen loot and pillage our convoy, these were generous kind hearted people who wanted to do nothing but help, and I felt I had to do something in return. I offered to help the women as they fetched buckets of water from the other side of the slums, and began teaching the children to draw with some pencils and a sketchpad I had in my bag. They looked at the pencils like they had never seen such an instrument in their lives, and as we drew together, they laughed wildly and clung to me as if I were their brother.

I was stranded at the side of the road for over four hours, and I’d never been made to feel so welcome in my whole life. Just like my first night in India, I had taken a broad brush and assumed all of the people living within the slums were dark-hearted criminals, but now I’d had my eyes opened to their kindness, even their admiration for the colour of my skin couldn’t outweigh my admiration for the colour in their hearts.

We left with just enough time to catch the sunset at the Taj Mahal, but I knew I was never going to find the true India there, because I’d already found it. Right here with the locals, stricken with poverty but always smiling, was where the real India lay.

The Elephant Emperor

In Eat on May 27, 2013 at 1:33 pm

Indian Elephant

‘Every king knows it to be true, that every kingdom must one day come to an end.’

– Ben Howard

The sadness in the eyes of the elephant penetrated me deeply as I walked into the stable and gently stroked her painted trunk. Raising it into the air, she placed it onto my shoulder, and shuffled her enormous feet as if she were trying to tell me something. I had waited for this moment for as long as I could remember, but as I handed over my rupees and climbed onto the elephant’s back, I only felt resentful.

I once lay awake in the Tuscan countryside, promising myself that I’d do something to help animals as I listened to the howls of distress resonating from the bottom of the garden. My host family slept in the next room, indifferent to the suffering they were causing and the cries of the tormented animals. I’d seen the hell that lay beyond that wall at the bottom of the garden; they’d taken me back there, through the gates of Animal Auschwitz, and into the torturous rusted barbed wire cages where they kept scores of afflicted animals that they claimed to love.

I’d shortly after penned ride an elephant in India onto my bucket list for 2013, thinking there would be no better way to show my affection for animals than getting up close and personal with these majestic creatures, but the ride that awaited me was everything but what I’d expected. I wasn’t helping anything or anyone; I was just contributing to the problem.

The elephant walked sluggishly as I towered above her in the cushioned saddle, I wanted to reach down and comfort her, but she was out of reach, and I couldn’t have felt further away. Her spirit had been broken so badly that I could only begin to imagine what might have been done to her to make her so dead behind the eyes. I don’t know why I didn’t call a stop the whole thing immediately, this was not something designed for an animal lover, this was something designed for a rich white man from the western world who wanted to feel like an emperor, superior to his fellow man, as he paraded through the streets.

It wasn’t even as if my money was going towards helping the community rebuild itself. To my right were palatial buildings, lined with priceless art and surrounded with lavish blooming gardens, and yet to my left were children living alone in the slums, without food, family, or water, digging through garbage in search of their salvation. The divide between the rich and the poor was so great that it turned my stomach, and here I was, playing elephant emperor, as the peasants fell to my feet and begged me for food.

It was as if somebody had removed the rosy filter from my fantasies and I was suddenly seeing the real world. The reality of spending a small fortune on an extravagance as ridiculous as an elephant ride, while children starved mere meters away, hit me harder than a careless tuk-tuk driver. I wanted the ride to be over, I wanted the elephant to be free, I wanted the poverty that surrounded me to cease, and yet still I did nothing.

Some of the children stopped searching the piles of garbage for a moment to stare at the white man, throwing me deserving looks of disgust as I passed through the streets. Everyone looked at me as if they wanted to con, rob, or kill me, and I couldn’t blame any of them. Everything about the whole spectacle was as offensive as a slap to the face, it was unforgivable, and it was only the young innocence of a boy named Anil that could see through my pompous charade.

He came running from the slums to the side of the elephant, waving his arms wildly, and desperately trying to catch my attention. He started bombarding me with questions, asking me my name, where I came from, what I was doing here, and where I was heading next. He reminded me so much of one of the students I taught in Switzerland that I had to double take to clarify that it wasn’t him. He was no more than ten years old and yet his English was exceptional, I had no idea where a kid like him had gotten such an impressive education, but I knew immediately that I wanted to befriend him.

Do you want to ride with me? I finally asked after watching him run bare foot alongside the elephant for a good five minutes, but I was quickly interrupted. Street rats don’t ride, the compassionless driver bitterly snapped as he began thrashing the elephant for trying to feed from a nearby tree. I wish I had reprimanded him, climbed down from the back of the elephant, demanded my money back, and used it on something worthwhile like a meal for young Anil. But I didn’t. I let everything continue to happen and watched him violently shoo Anil away as he lashed the elephant mercilessly.

The lack of compassion for his fellow man astonished me, and I could only imagine how uncaring he must be towards this amazing towering beast behind closed doors. Garbed in his expensive finery and golden jewellery, he was everything that was wrong with India, and all the while I did nothing but support his barbarous trade.

I loved that elephant so much, and yet I used and abused her like every other tourist who passed through the area. Before I left I thanked her for the ride but my words fell flat. I couldn’t believe I had been so naïve in actually crossing the oceans to come here to participate in something so outrageously cruel. Everywhere I looked I saw and learned more and more about the malevolence of the elephant trade, and with everything I learned I only grew more and more angry with myself.

There was absolutely no silver lining to my story, I was just grateful that I’d had my eyes opened so that I could share my story in hope of helping one day bring the kingdom of the elephant emperor crumbling to its knees.

The Indian Sunrise

In Eat on May 20, 2013 at 10:57 am

Delhi Sunrise

‘Throw those curtains wide, one day like this, a year would see me right.’

– Elbow 

Just as I thought I would never see my suitcase or any of my possessions ever again, a voice boomed from behind me and a young suited man appeared with a large stick and thrashed it violently, rescuing me and my belongings from the clutches of the mad man.

Please sir, I will stay with you, keep you safe, he said reassuringly, handing me my suitcase and leading me in another direction. His name was Vibhor, he worked behind the reception in the hotel and, worried for my safety, he had followed me out. We were both twenty two and shared a birthday, he was very good looking, and had I not been so disorientated and shaken up, I probably would have felt a spark as he put his arm around me and guided me through the streets of squalor.

We walked for what seemed like forever until he finally presented me my salvation. Nestled in the front of a garish yellow building and blocked by a ten foot spiked fence, an ATM light blinked weakly beneath a neon lit sign that read 24/7 free cash withdrawals. Vibhor approached the tightly locked gate and shook it violently, yelling to a none existent security guard to let us in immediately. He tried this for a good few minutes before nonchalantly concluding that we should climb.

Without second thought he lifted himself up onto the filthy railings, tarnishing his clean tailored suit, and offered me he his hand to help me up. I left my suitcase on the ground behind us and we began to climb over the barbed fence. We must have looked like the most unusual pairing, me in my now ripped t-shirt, my pale white skin shining beneath the moonlight, and him with his dark skin and expensive suit, leaping from the fence and brandishing his stick aggressively, preparing to defend me from unseen guard dogs whose howls drew nearer and nearer.

I punched in my details into the ATM over and over but each time my card was declined. I looked at Vibhor despondently but he told me not to worry. You are with Vibhor now, and Vibhor will not let anything bad happen to you.

We hopped back over the fence and he began leading me back through the poverty stricken streets of Delhi. A small girl dressed in rags fell to her knees in front of us and held out her dirt covered hands to beg. I wish I had something to give, I said to Vibhor, who immediately withdrew his wallet and handed me fifty rupees. I thanked him before placing the money into the palms of the small girl who was too weak to even raise her head in acknowledgement.

Is very sad, Vibhor said, but thousands like her in Delhi alone, you cannot feed them all, then he laughed and added, first sir must learn to feed himself. I laughed nervously, I wasn’t in the mood for jokes but appreciated the firm grip he placed on my shoulder as he pulled me in close and lead me back up towards the hotel.

We were greeted by the smiling manager who spoke quickly with Vibhor before turning to me and handing me a glass of minted cranberry juice and a key card. Best room in hotel, she said, free of charge.

Both dazzled and amazed I thanked her over and over again before Vibhor picked up my suitcase and lead me to my room. Sleep well sir, he said, opening the door to the penthouse suite, I will see you in the morning. I told him to wait, and as I reached into my pocket to pull out my wallet, I saw the single American Dollar that the thieves had left me with, and handed it to him. He looked confused but understood the gesture and nodded with an appreciative smile before closing the door behind me.

The room was enormous but I was too tired to care or even take notice. I collapsed on the king size bed and lay with my eyes wide open, thinking about the warnings of those Israeli boys who couldn’t have been more right, before slowly blinking into a dream. I don’t know how much time passed but what seemed like only moments later I was awoken by the sound of chanting in the distance. I sat upright and felt the strong scent of orange blossom filling my nostrils as I opened my eyes to the spectacular morning sunrise.

Without having to leave my bed, I had panoramic views over the beautiful tropical city, magnificent birds soared and caught in the rising sunlight, and the sound of the prayers of thousands pulled the sun from the darkness so it could warmly kiss my cheeks. I rose from the bed sheets and took a piece of mango from my freshly prepared fruit basket and stared down into India with awe.

Two pillars framed the glowing sun as it lit up the city, vibrant colours swayed in the gentle early morning wind as the markets set up in the streets, and as I stood there, I simply couldn’t believe that this was the same cruel city that robbed me of my money and dignity. For the first time since I arrived, I was glad to be in India, and even the cruel actions of those who lived in the darkness could not outweigh the generosity of those who’d tried to help me.

I climbed back onto my bed, sat cross legged, and even though I didn’t really know what I was doing, I silently prayed with the masses. I expressed my thanks for the hospitality of the Indian people, my thanks for the help I received in making it through the night, and finally my thanks for the glorious Indian sunrise.

This is the final part of a three part series, you can read the first part here, and the second part here.