In Honour of My Mother

 

It was my birthday yesterday. Sixty four years ago, an unhappy young woman suffered in Glasgow’s Rottenrow Maternity Hospital to give me my precious life. My mother passed away a few years ago. I hadn’t seen her in well over thirty years, and although I was unsettled by the news of her death, I wasn’t moved to attend her funeral.

Sally Bowers had been a beautiful and gallus Glasgow girl. From this photo, I can imagine that she had all the world before her, to be successful and enjoy a happy life. I don’t know when her troubles began but my earliest memories were of her frightening intensity, and moods that could shift as suddenly as the Scottish weather. One minute she would have everyone in fits of laughter, and the next she’d be running amok in a violent rage. Tender hearts got smashed, bodies bruised. She was terrifying.

She married my Dad just before her eighteenth birthday, and it’s fair to say they were fecklessly star-crossed lovers. She became a mother one year later. She was only twenty years old when I was born, and twenty-five when our younger sister arrived. There was poverty and dysfunction in our home. My Dad fell into alcoholism and would die an unhappy man in his early fifties. Who knows what girlhood dreams my mother might have had for herself, destroyed in those seven short years so early in her life.

1950’s life in Glasgow was tough. I was with her the day a dentist took all her teeth out, due to poor health and gum disease. About six years old, I remember running to keep up with her as she cried and spat blood in the street. No one was there to care for her or comfort her. She had to wait weeks before dentures could be fitted. What a horrible wounding, beyond physical hurt, to a young woman still in her twenties.

Then her hair began to fall out, and she developed some bald patches. Over the years it grew back, but remained fine and wispy for the rest of her life.

To be sure, my mother suffered great and prolonged anguish, yet she found the will to hold herself together. She was immensely strong, and I’m glad I inherited some of that grit. But I wish she had had the courage to walk away from a bad situation, and forge a life for herself away from the suffering she endured.

She and I never had any meaningful conversations, and I never really knew her. I don’t remember ever being hugged or kissed by my mother, and in her misery she could be vicious and cruel. I wasn’t  easy for her to love. I was withdrawn and hypersensitive – and an unintentional provocation to her.

She could relate better to my noisy siblings; and I’m grateful that her firstborn, my older brother, instinctively knew how to calm her when she was freaking out. He and his family cared for her, and loved her to the end. I can’t express in words how much this comforts me. That she wasn’t alone. Because all mothers love their children, and she did love me somewhere in her torn up heart.

She worked very hard all her life, and never had any little personal luxuries, or the kinds of freedoms I enjoy today. She managed to keep a decent home and put a roof over our heads. We never went hungry and we always had clean clothes to wear.

She was my Mum, and it comes to me now after all these years how grateful I am to her. And that’s all.

 

 

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Holy India!

… and I want to rock your gypsy soul

Just like way back in the days of old

And magnificently we will flow into the mystic … Van Morrison

Our Western senses are not prepared for the assault that is India; the extreme sights and intense colours, the pressing of alien flesh against my flesh (no such thing as personal space here), the sense of chaos everywhere, the noise, the smells, the squalor, the heart-crushing poverty, and so much more – all cooking away in the searing heat and humidity of the monsoon season. As soon as I landed I felt overwhelmed to my soul. I wanted to flee to any place that was cool and clean and safe, where colour was soft and restrained.

I spent my first week holed up in a New Delhi airport hotel, venturing out only to get a taxi or auto-rickshaw to a nearby air-conditioned mall. My windowless hotel room was cave-like, and smelled of rank heat and damp that clung to bed and towels. Finding food safe to eat was a challenge, and even yet I haven’t eaten ‘street food’.

I realised almost immediately that this was a land that would not easily fall before me and my two-wheeled chariot, so I waved a white flag and accepted temporary defeat. I plotted a retreat up into the cooler, fresher airs of the Himalayan foothills. What an amazingly good decision!

The overnight train from New Delhi to Pathankot was not without event, but I did eventually sleep (in my own sleeping bag as the sheets and blankets, although clean, were very damp). I awakened to calls of ‘chai, chai!’ and a hairy hand thrust through my little curtain holding a paper cup of hot sweet tea spiced with cardamom and ginger. I took it with thanks. Then I washed and dressed and made ready for my first Indian cycle ride from Pathankot to Dharamsala, a journey of about 90 kms. I hobbled across the train tracks, bumping the bike up and over them. Surveying the road, my heart sank. What stretched out before me was a red mud track deeply gouged and rutted by heavy rains and heavy vehicles. It was littered with poop from all kinds of life … dogs, horses (small herds of ’em!), cows, and humans. I told myself to man up, and jumped onto the saddle.

I found a decent breakfast of roti and eggs followed by a banana in a Pathankot hotel, then made my way to the highway. The road humbled me, and after only about 40-50 kms and five hours I was beaten. The third bus driver I begged for a lift got a few male passengers together and they hauled my bike onto the roof. I was so grateful, especially since the road became impossibly steep and dangerous further up. Elevation gain was about 1,300 metres (or 4,250 feet).

Which brings me to a repeating observation of India; her people are the kindest, warmest and most generous I have so far encountered. They are always ready with a smile, and full of curiosity and sympathy for this errant old biddy on a bike. The other day as I walked down from McLeodganj to Dharamshala a young girl asked where I was going, where I was from, and was I alone. I smiled and answered her, confirming that, yes, I was quite alone. “Oh, you are feeling so lonesome auntie, isn’t it” she replied. I tugged her schoolgirl braid and told her I would survive.

I was welcomed to Thosamling Convent and Institute a month ago, and well, where to begin? It continues to be a most positively transforming experience, as I do my best to immerse myself in Tibetan Buddhism, prayer and spiritual practice. I’m not very good, but coming along day by day. They have teaching programs here on Buddhist Philosophy and Tibetan Language, and another time I would have sought to make a commitment here.

I’m currently on another mission, but I would love to return. I have met with nothing but kindness here, patience and friendship.

If all this  weren’t enough, my stay happened to coincide with three days of teachings by His Holiness the Dalai Lama at his temple in McLeodganj (you can see footage of all three days at http://www.dalailama.com). I’m not given to hero-worship, but really His Holiness is a special being. I was one of thousands attending and could only watch his discourses on a large screen, listening to an interpreter through headphones. But each and every morning his route took him past me, and he smiled and gave my hand a wiggly shake each time. The kata I offered to him is blessed and I’ll keep it always.

Plans for the immediate future? I’ll write some more about India (there is so much to tell), fly to Hanoi with the bike on 28 October and go on to Guangzhou in China for my beloved son’s marriage to a lovely young Chinese woman who will become my new daughter. I can hardly wait, it’s going to be such a wonderful occasion. I’ll travel back to Vietnam with my best friend (number one daughter) and we’ll go off yomping through the Vietnamese Himalayas around Sapa. We’ll all get together again for Christmas, and on 1st January I’ll resume my cycle adventure around the world via South East Asia, Australia and North America.

Until next time, namaste ….

 

 

 

Everything That Could Go Wrong … the Heartache of Flying With a Bike

 

A bike shop in Istanbul sold me a bike box for 35 lira, and then I spent half a day searching for bubble wrap and parcel tape. I got lost in a labyrinth of small streets only walked by local Istanbulis, but I found a nice hairdressing shop and got my hair cut. Back at the ranch (my friendly budget hotel, hi Salih), I disassembled the bike and packed it with my camping gear inside the box.

I got my India visa. I’d show it to you it but my photo looks like the mugshot of someone just wrestled in by some dudes in white coats. I organised flights to New Delhi via Mumbai, and I booked my airport shuttle ride. Some passengers took exception to the bike box and I apologised more than once, before busting out my scary visa-face again. I enjoyed a quiet hour’s ride to the airport.

At Istanbul Airport, Turkish Airlines staff sent me from one queue to another and back again as I tried to check the bike in. I had ticked every effing box, it was all pre-booked and paid for. After more than two hours, they smiled: 50 euros and the torment stops. OK.

Our plane was still on the ground an hour and a half after boarding. The young man on my right was flying home to his wife and would see his four-month old son for the first time. He couldn’t get away from work in Malta until now. It can feel like a sad old world sometimes.

The three-hour early morning layover in Mumbai had shrunk to less than one because of the flight delay. And I had to collect my luggage and change terminals; and the bike box couldn’t be found. Nobody wanted to look so I lost my temper. Then a young pipsqueak in a suit said something and I verbally annihilated him 🙂

They mobilised after that and my bike showed up. Too late for my connection to New Delhi.

Mumbai monsoons are unimaginable, and I was saturated right to my bra and knickers in the brief exposure between terminals. I’d had no sleep overnight and all my raging had tuckered me out.

At the desk I got whiny about the injustices I’d suffered and they booked me onto the next flight. I was assigned an elderly porter with a sullen face. For the next thirty minutes, whether we were quietly queuing or dashing from counter to counter, he farted. There were deep sonorous rumbles (like elephants do), urgent trumpets, and some cheeky little squeals that made me turn and stare at him. He didn’t even blink.

Once aboard, I was seated next to a young couple and their baby. What a happy little soul he was, and how much better I felt in his company. His Mum called me ‘auntie’ (older people are all called uncle or auntie in India) and by the time we landed we were all saying warm goodbyes.

Airline staff greeted me on arrival at New Delhi and helped me out to another taxi. I’d like to end this tale in soft focus, but I’m still mad at the two taxi drivers (Mumbai and New Delhi) who saw a soft financial target and made the most of it. Bastards.

In Praise of Great Rivers – The Rhine

I’ve been asked, ‘What have been the best bits so far?’, and I’ve always answered, ‘It’s all been great!’ But thinking about it, two rivers have influenced me on my journey – the Rhine and the Danube.

People have always revered rivers, and even worshipped them; for their life-bringing waters, and for their unknowable and  numinous mystery. Cycling along its banks day after day as it carries all its accumulated memories to the sea, it’s not hard to imagine some other-worldly power inhabiting a river – the ghosts of olden gods and goddesses linger on in our ancestral minds.

I caught my first glimpse of the Rhine from high on a hill at Remagen, sparkling bright blue against lush green hills. I was so excited I lost my balance on the steep cobbled path and fell off the bike. Thankfully I’m quite good at it so no damage was done.

There’s an impressive big Catholic church up there, and some outdoor shrines. I think it’s built over an older pagan/Roman temple. I’d be glad to hear if anyone knows something about them?

I’ve discovered that just about all of Europe was once populated by the Celts, and the word Rhine comes from the Celtic word Rein, meaning ‘the clear’ or ‘stream’. I discovered quite a bit about my Celtic heritage along my cycle journey, we Scots being some of the last remnants of an ancient people still swathed in myth and legend

After cycling through France, Belgium and Holland, all my aches and pains had eased off a bit and I felt stronger. And once joined up with the Rhine the rhythm of my cycle days shifted. Crazy as it sounds, I felt almost carried along by it. Even crazier is that I felt this despite knowing the great body of water was flowing in the opposite direction to me!

I followed the Rhine all the way to Mainz, and crossed it several times by bridge and ferry. Sometimes it was slow and the water slack and at other points where it narrowed, the current was powerful. But there was always something lively about the Rhine. Its banks were busy all day with groups of tourists on electric bikes, the restaurants and beer gardens always bustling.

Commercial cruise boats slo-mo’d up and down the waters, with passengers idly watching us from the decks. Sometimes I’d give them a good race – and often won since the cruise business isn’t about speed. It was all absolutely perfect and pretty, with little medieval villages along the route.

I swam in the Rhine, washed my cycle shorts in it and regularly cooled my feet in its swirling waters. Everything I might need was laid out along my path. Bakeries, grocers, and cafes all waited for me, set in quaint, chocolate-box-perfect small towns, and there were some memorable wild camps.

The playful and light-hearted god of the Rhine was good to me. I felt lifted along by that strange numinous force, and gifted with everything I needed. I became more confident in myself and the bike, and I felt carefree along its happy banks.

Dreams of the Danube to follow next, a very different experience from a different god!

 

Reflections at the Edge of the West

IMG_20190616_1551042I’ve slowed down as I cycled further south into Hungary. A few small mountain ranges and hilly regions across western Europe had me sweatin’-an-spittin’-an-cussin’, but nothing beats you like the heat. Temperatures are in the mid-thirties down here near the Serbian border, and from late morning to late afternoon I feel fairly incapacitated. IMG_20190626_1419382So I’ve taken to having long coffee stops at wonderful air-conditioned petrol stations like this one, dotted along my road.

It’s good to take a while to pause and reflect – on my journey so far, the peoples and cultures I’ve encountered, and the landscapes I’ve crossed. I’ve seen something of France, Belgium, Holland, and Austria, and though they are distinct in their personalities, they’re also familiar. Along with my native Scotland, these countries all feel like family. France seems feminine and vivacious and full of wit, style and charm. Austria has some fine architecture too though I didn’t see enough; whilst the others feel more masculine somehow – with the exception of Bavaria. A new discovery to me, this region seems at ease, relaxed and friendly, and quietly self-assured. They show much empathy and know how to enjoy the good life. I met and made good friends here.

DSCPDC_0001_BURST20190611185106566_COVER (1)Bavaria is so individual it seems like a separate country from Germany. Its lush green landscape, distinguished by the great Danube, produces an abundance of good things to eat. Traditional dishes are fab (cheese and mushroom strudel, yum), and it would be unthinkable not to drink beer here.

IMG_20190615_0929502.jpgI was on the receiving end of lots of kindness and generosity in Bavaria, and even got a guided tour of Nuremberg – a gorgeous city about the size of Glasgow. IMG_20190611_1603375.jpgSadly defined in our modern age by its its associations with WW2 and the Nazi regime, it is a very old city with a richly embroidered past, and Hitler is really just a blip in its stately process through time.

I’m beginning to believe that nowhere on the planet is ‘flat as a pancake’, since even the flattest roads have undulations that require use of gears! The stretch of land east out of Paris was very hilly and there were some violent thunderstorms along the way. I saw a lot of rain in Belgium and Holland too. One of my toughest days, mentally and physically, was the ride from Aschaffenburg to Wurzburg, a hellish and unexpected little mountain range (I’m not much good at route planning). IMG_20190607_0935175.jpgBut I met Joe who did all my laundry for free in Aschaffenburg (hello friend if you’re reading this), and Wurzburg was so prettily embellished and artful, how can I complain?

I had planned at the outset to cross northern Germany into Poland, but changed my mind at Maastricht after two weeks of cold wet weather. So I took a more southerly route with hopes of more warmth and sunshine. They say you should be careful what you wish or. As I sit here with burned and mosquito-ravished flesh, I realise I’ve got way too much of a good thing. Notions of Nordic cycle touring appeals strongly right now.

Crazy on the Road

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On my way through another dreary day towards Gembloux, I found an open field just outside Corroy-le-Chateau. It was looking like rain again, so I went in and tramped down a crop circle big enough for the tent, tight up against the hedgerow. The Shangri-la was quickly up and everything safely inside before the threat of rain became reality.

With a strong cup of tea brewed, I took time to appreciate the scene. The field stretched away to a far south-east horizon, the wide empty view checked by a towering wind generator. I could hear it’s quiet thrumming and beating as the great vanes turned. It was a comforting rhythm, soft like a heartbeat. Then I saw a distant figure on horseback. In a suspended moment I was transported to La Mancha and the madcap mind of Don Quixote, tilting at windmills.

The approaching rider seemed to take an age, and my mind moved from La Mancha to desert scenes from Lawrence of Arabia. The tension of Omar Sharif’s long and omarsharif_lofa_1962_thisismywell-1silent emergence from the desert wilderness, and the ultimate revelation of his enigmatic beauty, devastated my teenaged heart.

As he came closer, I could see this rider’s dark coloured horse was magnificent … and suddenly he was right in front of me. The ‘laird’ of Corroy-le-Chateau, in whose field I had established myself, was young and handsome. He spoke to me in French, his smile warm and courteous. This was Camelot, and he Sir Lancelot. He said the word ‘chateau’ and I thought he was complimenting my tent. But in fact he was telling me I could find him at his chateau if I needed anything. I was so overcome by his beauty and the magnificence of his steed, I could only mumble a few words of thanks.

IMG_20190527_2042080After saying farewell, he rode off toward the north west. The skies cleared enough to reveal a fine sunset. And I slept soundly, warm and dry, throughout the rainy night.

 

 

 

 

Run, Rabbit

I’ve been running almost non-stop since 16 May, when I did a removal and got my things into storage, and then went out on the bike to Balloch and retraced my tracks as far as Dumbarton the same day.

Life’s been a bit of a blur this past ten days, but yesterday at the little town of Beaumont, Belgium I realised that I need to ease up and take a day off each week for the simple things. I had cycled through spectacular thunderstorms and arrived drenched with a plastic bag stuffed over my lid. I really wish I’d made a better attempt at fixing it, the sight of the flapping loose ends in the loo mirror made me wince and laugh at the same time.

Also, although it’s generally always good to be open to new experience and new ideas, it’s excusable to not always accept the kind hospitality of tavern owners – especially those hosting an insane ‘music’ night with a French punk rock band. Unforgettable, all night, and never to be repeated …

I forgot to switch on the GPS tracker (sorry) but cycled only the 28 Kms to Charleroi where I’ve slept since the afternoon yesterday. As you can see from my bike pic, I’m rigged for comfort rather than speed (though I do a fairly good turn on the downhill). I also really love sunshine and fair overnight temperatures. Which is why you will see the wee arrows on my route map take on a more south-easterly turn as I revert to my original plan to go through Istanbul – and eventually onward and upward through the ‘stans’.

By now, as I expected, everything hurts. It’s physical, and it’s also the kind that always accompanies change. Who knows what wonders the universe has yet to show me? Come on, I’m ready.