Sunday, February 27, 2011

In Transit

If in the future they ever do put buildings on the moon then it‘ll look and feel just like Abu Dhabi airport - a lifeless, timeless and seemingly airless shithole filled with zombies like me trudging around in circles pensively and repeatedly glancing up at the departure board for confirmation that the end of their time here is nigh. Every time I’ve been here it’s always around 2am but time is irrelevant as it’s always halfway between where you were and where you want to be.
Being in India for a prolonged period can be a challenge, sure, but leaving it is almost fucking impossible. Mumbai airport has sphincter-tight security and they go about the business of making your life a misery with relish. Without a doubt, the queues between passport control and security are the slowest moving I’ve ever encountered but, hey, this is still India even if it does feel as if airports are autonomous states at times. The security guards check and double check everything - I’m half expecting them to wheel out fucking Liberace slipping a latex glove onto his hand to say “And I’ll be performing the cavity search.”
Somehow as I was boarding in Mumbai I was told that I’d been upgraded to business class - they didn’t explain and I didn’t ask. I’ve only travelled business class once before - again an upgrade - but that was on Aeroflot so it doesn’t count. Business class on Aeroflot makes Ryanair look like Etihad. Mumbai to Abu Dhabi was only a three hour flight but in my exhausted state I didn’t take advantage of my luxury at all. I can remember ordering a white wine and it being placed within reach before I passed out, waking only as we made our approach to Abu Dhabi.

Saturday, February 26, 2011


I’m in just about the best place right now to write my last entry from India. It’s 6.30am and having arrived from Jalgaon two hours ago I’ve made my way to the Gateway of India for a pre-dawn view and it’s beautiful here. There are a few other people about - what’s their excuse for being up at this hour on a Sunday? - but the sun’s coming up and all is very well indeed. I fly tonight from Mumbai International and by tomorrow morning - all going well - I’ll be in Africa, Morocco to be specific, in just about the only part of northern Africa that isn’t kicking off at this moment in time and which is, fortunately, one of the more stable countries in the region. This gets even better - as I’m sitting here waiting for the sun to rise, I have some chai-wallahs bringing me chai without having to move an inch. Two and a half months in India then, much ground covered and I’ve seen everything that I wanted to. Hard to pick out favourites - Udaipur was a beautiful city, the Sikh hospitality experience in Amritsar’s Golden Temple was unforgettable, Jaisalmer will be remembered for its fort and Christmas Day on a camel in the desert, the Taj Mahal, meeting some wonderful Tibetan folk in the beautiful surrounds of McLeod Ganj, Varanasi’s ghats, the freaky meditation course, Chandigarh’s trippy Rock Garden, chilling out in Pushkar with the hippies and crusties, the shipyards of Kutch……I could go on.

But Africa I hope will be a different rush - a travelling buzz, the hassles of crossing borders and getting from place to place. I have a vague itinerary which sees me begin in Morocco, make my way overland down through Western Sahara and Mauritania. There’s an iron ore train which you can jump on in northern Mauritania which is 2.5km in length and has one passenger carriage at the end which takes twelve hours to bring you to the next city in Mauritania. From there I’ll spend some time travelling around Senegal and then across to Mali where, time permitting I’ll get to Timbuktu (it isn‘t a name your parents made up when you were a kid) and trek in Dogon country amongst the Dogon tribes people and finish up in Burkina Faso. I have no idea if two months is long enough to do all of this - Africa, no doubt, will devour even the loosest of schedules but I’m very excited about getting there and giving it a go.

Well, the sun’s almost up here and the crowds have swelled. I remember writing a blog post a couple of months ago wondering why people called India an intense travelling experience and it’s a bit clearer to me now. I’ve travelled in countries before where any western is immediately the centre of attention but never have I felt it so intensely as I have in India. From morning to night there is no end to people’s fascination with westerners here - if you’re the paranoid type then India is not for you. Almost every Indian will have sufficient English to ask you the following, and in this exact order;

Ÿ Which country?

Ÿ You are here alone?

Ÿ Are you married?

Ÿ You have girlfriend?

Ÿ Are you virgin?

Ÿ You like India?

And so it goes. In fact you could bump up the virgin question closer to the top. On occasion it’s seemed as if the only reason an Indian guy has approached me is to ask me if I’m a virgin. Anyway, the sun’s about to rise and my time here is literally done.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Ajanta & Ellora caves

Apologies in advance if this post is a bit distracted but I’m sitting here in the city of Jalgaon, beautiful day outside, in my hotel room with the television on in the background showing Ireland playing Bangladesh in the cricket World Cup. And we’ve skittled them for 205! Anyway, back on task here. So what should be some sort of lap of honour in my last few days in India has instead been a hectic rush from Mumbai around Maharashtra to check out the famous Ajanta and Ellora caves. Being honest here I’m pretty much tired of being the tourist right now. I’m not even remotely tired of travelling but going to see ’sights’, taking photos, marking off an other ’must see’ etc has become more of a chore than a joy and so it is with both of the cave complexes I visit. And it’s a shame because they’re both spectacular and worth the journey to get here.

It’s Ajanta’s setting which impresses me the most initially with the caves carved out in a remote horseshoe-shaped ravine. The earlier caves here date back to the second century BC and all of the caves were excavated by Buddhist monks as monasteries during a time when Buddhism flourished in India. Ajanta is most famous for its cave paintings which are in various stages of disrepair and which haven’t been helped by some pretty haphazard attempts at restoration. By the time I’ve seen about 5 caves though - there are 28 in total - it’s all becoming ‘different cave, same painting’ but, fuck it, I’ve come all this way and so I march around all 28 of them. (And the first wicket has fallen for 23!) The paintings really are difficult to make out and the caves are scarcely an attraction in themselves.

Ellora, located to the south of Ajanta, rose to prominence as Ajanta was abandoned, and in fact may well have been the reason that it was abandoned. (And the second wicket is down for 36.) Whereas the setting is not as spectacular as Ajanta, the caves themselves more than make up for it. Whereas the Ajanta experience is predominantly about its paintings, Ellora is all about the caves. There are 34 caves here - some Buddhist, Jain and Hindu - and as the years passed so the craftsmanship developed and became much more ambitious and as I walk from Cave 1 on this becomes perfectly obvious.

The centrepiece is the incredible Kailash temple, hewn from basalt rock and staggering in its architectural intricacies. Sight weary or no it is impossible not to be stunned by Kailash. It’s less a cave than a freestanding structure but it’s the first thing you see upon arrival at the site and I‘m still seeing it as I hurry around the other caves in order to see it again. It took over 100 years and four generations of kings to complete and it’s a monolithic masterpiece. It was conceived of as a replica of Tibet’s Mount Kailash and would make Petra’s sculptors blush.

Having spent half an hour wandering around Kailash - it is that big - my appetite for the remaining caves has disappeared. (Shit, Joyce out and three wickets down.)


Of all the Indian cities, Mumbai is the one which has, let‘s call it previous. With an unforgiving reputation that could come and meet you off the train its sheer size, thronged streets, and sweltering temperatures mean that it’ll be the first true experience I’ll have of an Indian supercity as I’d imagined them to be. And for the 48 hours that I spend there I absolutely love it but it’s very much a city of two halves - the southern half of Colaba and Churchgate is where all of the heavy hitting sights are to be found and the further north you walk from there the narrower the streets become and the more classically Indian the city becomes. Mumbai is equally famous for its dearth of decent budget accommodation but following a recommendation from a guy I met in Bhuj I found a hotel room in Colaba for 350INR in what was the smallest room of the entire trip and there has been some serious competition for that accolade.

I have so little time left in India now that this next week will be a bit of a rush around Maharashtra to see Ellora and Ajanta caves and so it is with Mumbai. There’s much to see - too much - in both Colaba and Churchgate but some of the buildings here are magnificent, not least Victoria Terminus - a massive, imposing and very, very British train station. There’s the underwhelming Gateway of India - one of those commemorative constructions (the visit of King George V) that’s famous for being famous in the same way that Pete Doherty is. I walked into the Town Hall, another impressive architectural relic, and walking into the place with its dusted reading rooms, moth-eaten tomes and ancient bookcases makes it feel like it’s still 1920 in there. Southern Mumbai is the air-brushed or photo-shopped version of the city - shit, there’s even a Body Shop there - and so by the end of Day 1 I still feel as if I haven’t seen the real city.

Moving north on the second day I see a different side to Mumbai - poorer, noisier, narrower and a hell of a lot more claustrophobic with bazaars and mosques littered everywhere - this is Muslim Mumbai and the poverty immediately becomes more apparent. The northern part of the city is also home to the wonderful Towers of Silence. There are 7 of them in all and they’re where Mumbai’s Zoroastrian community (no, me either), eh, dispose of their dead. They believe that pollution of the four sacred elements - air, earth, water and fire - contradict their beliefs and so when members of their community die the bodies are laid out on top of the cylindrical towers where the bones are to be ‘cleaned‘ by vultures and the weather. And you thought cremation was unusual. In recent years the tradition has died out - sorry - due in no small part to the decline in the population of India’s vultures but, hey, what a way to go when you’re gone.

Saturday, February 19, 2011


7 days left in India. 7 days! Genuinely no idea where that’s gone but it’s February and much of my time these days is consumed as much by thoughts of West Africa as it is wondering where I’ll spend tomorrow night in India. For now though I’ve made it to Gujarat, the 7th state of my time here. Though no Rajasthan, Gujarat boasts enough attractions of its own to while away a few days before I move on to Maharashtra and Mumbai from where I fly out from on the 27th. First stop in Gujarat after a 20 hour train ride was Ahmedabad; big, busy, dirty, polluted - yes, just your typical Indian city then. And not much to recommend it either. I genuinely don’t have much to write about Ahmedabad other than the fact that my guide book recommended that you don’t spend too long there because of the high levels of carbon monoxide in the old city and that probably sums the place up better than I ever could. Oh and they put fairy lights on the mosques there which managed to be both amusing and disturbing at the same time.

I abandoned my large pack in A’bad and took the train to the city of Bhuj, way out west on the Kutch peninsula and hemmed in by the wonderfully titled Rann of Kutch to the north and Little Rann of Kutch to the east (both are basically treeless marshes - bleak). Bhuj, and Kutch in general, is famous in India for its long tradition of craftsmanship particularly jewellery and clothing design. And Bhuj turns out to be a charming little city and an ideal base from where to explore Kutch. I stay in the City Guest House and everyone staying seems to be there for the textiles and as passionate for them and talking about them as an Indian about the cricket World Cup. It’s absolutely everywhere now and impossible to wander around without seeing Sachin Tendulkar’s face in every nook and cranny and there isn‘t a product on telly that he or his team mates are not endorsing. What they’ll do if they don’t win the World Cup I have no idea and this is a possibility that the Indians I’ve spoken to have not even remotely considered.

I take a day trip south to Mandvi which faces the Arabian Sea and is most famous for its dhow-building industry. The dhows are hand built ships which usually take about two years to build. The shipyard as you pull in on the bus to Mandvi is a stunning sight and you’re free to stroll around and watch the building in progress. The yard is like a Blue Peter studio with boats lying side by side in various advanced states of construction. On completion the dhows are usually purchased by Gulf Arabs for pleasure use for about half a million dollars. Another day trip takes me to Anjar and it turns into one of those ‘Why the fuck am I here?’ days. But Kutch is unique and well worth the week I spent there. Meanwhile back in A’bad, life goes on. The men seem to spend most of their time here drinking chai and dunking bread buns smothered with butter into their chai. And probably discussing how they’ll celebrate when India win the World Cup.

Thursday, February 10, 2011


Chandigarh probably isn’t on many people’s Indian itineraries and, being honest here, it wasn’t originally on mine either, but with reports of snow and high winds - and a 12 hour bus ride to get there from McLeod Ganj - Manali suddenly became a bad idea and so, suddenly, Chandigarh seemed like a really good idea. Chandigarh’s main draw is its bizarre if quite intriguing Rock Garden but given what I’d read about the unusual nature of the city itself it was well worth a stop off on my way back south again.

Conceived of by Nehru who saw the construction of Chandigarh as a symbol of an India of the future, he handed the task of constructing this Utopian vision to a Swiss-French architect known as Le Cobusier. Beginning in 1952 Le Corbusier split the city into 29 sectors in a grid like form, each one of them measuring 800 by 1200 metres and sprinkled patches of green all around. It has since grown from the original 29 sectors to its present day 61. Le Corbusier’s original concept was to see the city as a human body with the Capital Complex in the east as the ‘head’, Sector 17, the shopping precinct, as the ‘heart’, with the green open spaces as the ‘lungs’. Finally Chandigarh’s wide network of roads were to be the ‘circulatory system’. All lofty, even laudable ideals, sure, but in India? Chandigarh is the urban equivalent of Dolly the sheep. It looks like a city, smells like a city, sounds like a city but it isn’t really a city at all. Futuristic designs like this belong in a city, they shouldn’t ever be the city. And certainly not in fucking India where the Indiafication of Le Corbusier’s vision is inevitable i.e. like Christmas presents on New Year’s Day, everything looks worn out and neglected. If Chandigarh is the representation of a human body, well in 2011 it has cellulite and sagging tits. Architecturally it’s like Gdansk on downers and has about as much character as you’d expect a large grid-like construction to have.

Chandigarh’s only saving grace for me is its Rock Garden, a truly surreal attraction of its own and said to be India’s second biggest tourist draw after the Taj Mahal. It began construction in 1965 - Chandigarh would have been a moody teenager by then so some light relief was obviously needed - and a man named Nek Chand (so the story goes) decided to build a small garden. By 1973 his small garden measured 12 acres and he was given a team of workers to help expand it. Today it covers 25 acres and a walk around reveals thousands of sculptures, plants and every conceivable type of junk you could imagine thrown together to create what amounts to a 25 acre LSD trip. You'll note that there aren't any photos of the city of Chandigarh above and that's no accident.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

McLeod Ganj

Dharamsala/McLeod Ganj - home to the world’s most famous squatter - is my next port of call in this north western tour of India. Set high in the hills it’s easy to forget that you’re still in India once you arrive and, at times, that’s no bad thing. McLeod Ganj is of course home to the Dalai Lama who was forced into exile here way back in 1959. The fact that he’s still here is as much a testament to enduring Indian hospitality as it is to an unchanging Chinese colonial mentality.
McLeod Ganj has become Little Tibet as thousands have followed him here, many risking - and many others losing - their lives in a hazardous crossing of high Himalayan passes in order to avoid Chinese border controls. There’s a simple but informative museum here which tells their story and shows daily films about the unchanging situation in Tibet.
Being here takes me right back to my visit to Tibet and that is a wonderful thing indeed. The key difference of course is that here in McLeod Ganj images of the Dalai Lama are everywhere - no home is without their little shrine - and people are free to discuss the illegal occupation of their homeland, something which would see them imprisoned, tortured and worse in their home country. In some ways it‘s become the Tibet the Chinese won‘t allow their homeland to become.
There’s a wonderfully mellow vibe here which isn’t tainted in the same way as Rishikesh is by New-Agers tripping over themselves selling you a new path for life. I enjoyed Rishikesh more for the people I met there than for its much vaunted spirituality which seems more than a little contrived. McLeod Ganj also offers the irresistible allure of mountain treks once more and so I visited the local mountaineering institute to find out information on local treks and grab some trail maps. Unfortunately the mountaineering institute here offers no maps and even less information about local treks, therefore I have no idea why the mountaineering institute exists. It’s easy to get around this ignorance when all of the guesthouse owners are all too willing to point you in the right direction of the trail. And it’s that friendliness which I encounter everywhere here that makes this such a special place. When I tell the locals that I’ve been to Tibet as recently as December their faces light up and they quiz me on how it’s changed, how it seems to an outsider and what cities and temples I‘ve visited, eager as they are to cling to anything from their homeland, even the recollections of a passing stranger.
My happiness here stems purely from the little things. Eating delicious thukpa and momos again. The beautiful neighbouring villages of Dharamkot and Bhagsu. Prayer flags and prayer wheels. Monks in every restaurant and cafĂ© drinking copious amounts of chai giving the impression that they're bunking off monastic duties. Not being stared at as you walk down the street. Finding some wonderful bookshops throughout the town - I’ve just picked up a copy of The Rise And Fall Of The Stone Roses which makes me very happy indeed. Ah, the world was theirs.

Saturday, February 5, 2011


And so on to Punjab - home to the best beards and turbans in all of India. In contrast to the Rajasthani penchant for a traditional red turban, Punjabi men opt for the technicolour approach resulting in what resembles a street heaving with bobbing M & Ms. Amritsar was my base for 24 hours for a twin pronged assault on two of Punjab’s premier sights - the Golden Temple and the border closing ceremony at Wagha, some 30km from the city. I travelled from Ajmer to Amritsar aboard one of the draughtiest and noisiest trains (a combination of a stream of never-ending chai-wallahs, chattering Indian ladies and the inevitable snore’n’fart show) I’ve been on in my 2 months here. Amritsar has little to recommend it other than the Golden Temple but what a recommendation it is. The temple itself is magnificent and as large as the temple complex is, it‘s downright impossible to avert your gaze from the warm glow at the centre of the artificial lake in which it‘s constructed. But for me it’s the warmth of the Sikh welcome which is just as overwhelming. Visitors from every caste, creed and colour are invited to stay at the temple complex (a maximum of 3 nights) and eat breakfast, lunch and dinner there and all for free. It’s a remarkably hospitable place and contrasts sharply with the truculence and unabashed greed I’ve encountered at many a mosque and cathedral over the years.

I arrived there with three Americans - Stevie, Ruby and Mike - and, upon arrival you’re asked to remove your shoes and bathe your feet before you enter the temple complex. After a cursory glance at the wonder that is the temple we make our way to check out our accommodation for the night which is to be in a pretty cramped dorm but there are warm blankets aplenty and literally hundreds of Sikh pilgrims lying out under the stars by night so no-one’s complaining. We try out the dinner experience if for nothing else than the novelty factor and I’m enchanted by it all. It’s run with military style efficiency - upon arrival you’re handed your plate, spoon and cup and directed to the main dining hall.

There you join the madding crowd on the floor, legs crossed sitting upon the carpet, looking across as the other pilgrims who, rest assured, are looking at you looking at them. Within seconds of sitting a man comes with a bucket of rice which he shovels on to your plate, followed by the dal, the curry and the chapatis. I hold out one hand to grab a chapati and he barks “TWO HANDS” at me. Dinner is not to be lingered over and almost before we’re up and away the floor is being dampened, the mops are out and the next serving is imminent. And so it goes 24 hours a day. Everything is done by pilgrim volunteers; the cooking, the food preparation, the serving, the washing up - it’s a remarkable show of community spirit.

After enjoying the delights of the temple we make our way out to the border closing ceremony at Wagha. None of us knew much about it in advance other than the fact that it was quite over the top. On arrival in the stands - yes, they’ve erected stands there which is remarkable in itself - our wandering eyes become fixed on a man dressed in a white tracksuit whom it’s impossible not to dislike and whose job it is - remarkably - to rally the crowds. He bears the demeanour of a man completely unused to failure and who probably trounces his kids at chess in order to teach them valuable lessons about life. He spends the entire hour, encouraging the crowd to cheer, and not just that, but to cheer VERY LOUDLY INDEED. On a couple of occasions when the din does not reach the decibel level he’s seeking, he goes forward to the crowd and barks instructions, quite clearly berating all and sundry for their paltry attempts. This isn’t so much a show of patriotism as barely concealed jingoism.

Once the ceremony is underway, the man in the tracksuit, after each cheer, looks immediately to his left across to the Pakistani border as if to say “Beat that motherfuckers”. And the ceremony itself? A quite ridiculous show of military pomp and preening, featuring soldiers wearing hats which would make Elton John blanch. There’s goose-stepping and high-kicking straight out of the Monty Python school of choreography.

As I watch I’m thinking that here we have two nuclear nations who, with Kashmir just a matter of hours away, are performing some bizarre and utterly futile pantomime for a partisan and sycophantic audience. I’m torn at the end of it all as to whether what I’ve just witnessed was amusing or downright depressing. The stands quickly empty and the man in the white tracksuit goes home to beat his kids at chess. Probably.

The Vipassana Experience Part III

By the end of Day 6, I couldn’t honestly say that I felt changed or altered, or even more relaxed or whatever the hell it was I was supposed to be feeling - I had forgotten why it was I was here in the first place and thus it was difficult to evaluate whether or not my time had been well spent. On the morning of Day 7, if our minds weren’t focused enough then we were introduced to something which hadn’t been advertised that would, if nothing else, certainly help to shut out the outside world - the cell. Measuring 2m x 1m and containing nothing other than a meditation mat and a light switch, this was to be our refuge in times of outside distractions. Now of course it was entirely up to us whether or not we would choose to meditate here and given the fact that the sound of the constant farting, sniffing, sneezing and even snoring was, on occasion, cacophonous, it seemed like a good idea.

From a meditation point of view the focus has by now switched to the different parts of the body and concentrating on any sensations we might be feeling from our heads down to our toes. We focus on each part individually and in the exact same order - so we go from the scalp to the forehead, down the different parts of the face, both arms, upper torso, legs and down to the toes. And then in the reverse order again and again and again……’s every bit as monotonous as you might imagine.

At meal times my thoughts fluctuate between “Fuck this, I’m done with all this crap“, and the thought that it’s only 3 more days so I might as well sit it out. It’s the latter which wins out but the former which would have made more sense.

Regardless, the work continues and on Day 9 its suggested to us that we might be at the stage where not only can we experience sensations on our entire body, but inside our body. And - wait for it - feel our bodies dissolve into a miasma of sub-atomic particles. And, stop the presses, it doesnt end there - that we might be able to swim into our spinal cords and notice any impurities that might exist there. Now this to me is the equivalent of strapping a 6 month old child in a nappy into a car and saying And next to the brake is the clutch. Away you go. Well Im that 6 month old. Im not even remotely suggesting that this feeling isnt possible after much practice, but 9 fucking days?

But finally - finally - Day 10 arrives. Day 10 is known as Metta Day but the most important thing about Day 10 is that we have permission to talk from 10am, a prospect I have been anticipating as eagerly as Fernando Torres’ next hamstring injury. My first question to Floriaan, with whom I travelled to the centre - is “Are you cracking up too?” He’s not and neither is anyone else which leaves me alone with the growing feeling that I’ve missed the point entirely with the meditation and that I somehow feel more strung out now than I did when I began. There’s still a day left to go in the course but the meditation is over and a day of watching happy-clappy DVDs lies ahead and so I excuse myself from the final formalities. There’s a 3 hour walk back to Jaipur from the Vipassana centre but it is exactly what I need now that I have my music and my mind back.

Friday, February 4, 2011

The Vipassana Experience Part II

Day 1 begins, as promised, with the sounding of a bell at 4am, a sound which will become hatefully familiar over the coming days. It’s easy rising on the first morning, curious as we all are to see what lies ahead. We will spend almost all of our time in dhama hall number 3 where I’ve been allocated cushion number 14. There’s a split right down the middle - men on the left, women on the right - and everyone faces the stage where two teachers sit; the guruji facing the males and who does all of the talking and instructing and his female counterpart who seems to be there in case of emergency. It’s explained to us how we should sit and exactly how we should meditate. In fact all of the instructions are given to us by tape by a man whose voice comes to resemble Johnny Cash singing his entire catalogue backwards from beyond the grave having consumed one too many bottles of JD. It’s hard to concentrate on your breathing when each time you hear your instructor speak you‘re waiting for him to break into Ring Of Fire. Backwards.

On the first day we’re asked to focus our minds on the inhalation and exhalation of air through our nostrils. Nothing else. ‘Easy’, I think to myself. Wrong. Try it. Seriously, try it. Assume the classic meditation position, sit there and focus on your breathing and nothing else. See how long you last. I thought that I’d be good for a few minutes at least but after about ten seconds, my mind is racing elsewhere and this is to continue for the entire day - a Tom and Jerry mental battle between what I should be doing and what I am doing. And I have to face 10 fucking hours of this. And it’s only day 1. Christ, what have I signed up for?

But, little by little some progress is made. I manage, at most, 30 seconds of unbroken concentration by the end of the day and convince myself that this is progress. You’re actually too busy concentrating to realise that you’re bored. And if you start thinking that you’re bored then that means you’re not concentrating….inhale….exhale….inhale. Over the course of the following days the techniques fortunately get more specific and require even greater powers of concentration which, in theory, should be coming more naturally to me. By days 2 and 3 we’re asked to focus on the sensations in a triangular area framed by our nose and the area just above our upper lip. Now by the second day the only body part where I’m feeling really strong sensations is in my arse - if I could focus on the sensations in my rear end then I’d have reached Enlightenment in record time. Breathe in…breathe out…breathe in…..

Break and lunch times are bizarre, if for no other reason than we all walk around a reasonably confined space pretending that no-one else exists. As for the food, well, let’s just say that it could have been a lot worse but there are some hideous looking stew-type concoctions that not even Oliver Twist would have looked for second helpings of. It’s only on Day 5 that I realise that on the previous four days I’d been adding chilli powder to the Indian equivalent of Rice Krispies. On the day I discover this I try sugar instead but it tastes like shit and so I go back to the chilli powder on Day 6. This may all read like mundane stuff but, to me, this was as exciting as it got in there. In fact to pass the time each day menial tasks such as laundry, cleaning the room and brushing your teeth were lingered over and looked forward to - anything to kill the time.

It’s on Day 4 where we’re urged - some might say compelled - to sit unmoving for the three one hour group sittings we have each day. Now, my body was just not designed with the lotus position in mind. Generally I can last twenty minutes before my legs scream in protest and I have to move to revive them but as we’re asked to give it a go, I try. By the end of the week I manage 40 minutes which, to me, is an achievement. We’re told to ignore the inevitable pain that will occur, to understand that it’s our body rejecting the purity of dhama. Great, try telling that to my two legs who clearly couldn‘t give a shit about the purity of dhama, they just need regular blood flow again.

Sitting in the hall together for the 10 days we’re treated to a sound and light show of farting by the Indians around us. We westerners have a repressed attitude to farting, a concept which is clearly alien to those around us. One day as I return to the dhama hall, I stroll in just behind an Indian man who stops abruptly to stare at the floor. I stop out of respect - perhaps he’s having a mental epiphany - and he farts loudly in front of me and then casually and serenely moves on as if nothing happened. An anal epiphany.