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1. Haven't left yet | 2. Fiji, New Zealand | 3. Australia | 4. Australia, Indonesia | 5. Indonesia, Malaysia | 6. Thailand | 7. Cambodia, Vietnam | 8. China, Hong Kong | 9. Macau, China | 10. Tibet, Pakistan | 11. India, Nepal | 12. Nepal | 13. India | 14. Sri Lanka, India | 15. Pakistan, Iran, Turkey | 16. Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Egypt | 17. Grand Finale

Sri Lanka


From Bangalore a 19-hour train ride brought me almost to the tip of southern India, to the steaming Trivandrum from where I flew to Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Initially there wasn't much of a culture shock arriving in Colombo. The Sri Lankans look like Indians (at least to my untrained eye) and you can almost believe Colombo to be an Indian city until you notice that everything's much cleaner here and the people nicer in general. I hooked up with a guy from New Zealand, Bruce, and after one night in the capital we headed down the coast to the famous beaches.

The best beach we stayed at had to be one at Unawatuna, a regular old palm-fringed strip of paradise. Here I must apologise. I know that before going I promised I'd think of you all at work while lying on the beach. Well, there I was on the beach swinging in my hammock which I'd strung between two palm trees, reading my book, soaking in the wonderful tropical sun and I fully intended thinking of you all but then this guy appears selling these delicious pineapples so I had to gorge myself on one and after that it was time for a dip in the aquamarine sea followed by another stint on the hammock. And then there was the kid selling luscious coconuts, most refreshing, and what with all the half-naked Western women walking about I just never got round to thinking of you but, hey, it's the thought that counts eh? ... Er, not that there was even a thought in this case but you know what I mean right? ;-)

After the beaches I headed up into the cooler hills where all of Sri Lanka's massive output of tea is grown. The scenery up there was really nice with the hills carpeted all over with mottled-green tea bushes. A highlight was climbing up Adam's Peak for sunrise. The peak is so-called because the very top contains an indent in a rock that is reputed to be the footprint of Adam (of Adam and Eve fame). Of course, Buddhists believe it to come from Buddha's foot and Hindus reckon it's from Vishnu. To me, though, it looked all the world like the impression of a foot buried in a large, yielding backside, probably capturing the moment when Adam booted Eve in the ass yelling "What did ya go and give me that apple for ya silly cow!" and, hence, is a memorial to the world's first instance of wife abuse! And if you believe that ...

The special thing about Adam's Peak at sunrise is that, as the sun rises, the mountain top casts a shadow on the mists below, the shadow being in the form of a perfect triangle. It is quite a remarkable sight indeed.

The last week in Sri Lanka was spent in Kandy waiting for a new visa for India. I arrived there 8 days after a widely reported bombing killed nearly twenty people in the centre of town nearby the "Temple of the Tooth." The Tamil Tiger organisation was responsible and were quite active around this time partly due to an upcoming visit by Prince Charles. The ethnic problem in Sri Lanka is a familiar story. When the British started growing tea in Ceylon they found the local Sinhalese population reluctant to work as tea pickers since the work was tough and low paid. So instead they brought over hordes of Indians from the state of Tamil Nadu who were poor enough to be willing to do the tea picking. When the British pulled out 50 years ago they left behind a country with a large minority of Tamil people. Things were fairly quiet until the government (in the '80s I think), under pressure form the powerful Buddhist monasteries, decided to declare Buddhism the official national religion and Sinhalese the official language, an action I suppose the Tamils took as a direct attack on their culture and they've been fighting in earnest ever since. They seem to be losing the war though, 350 Tigers died in one battle in the northeast while I was in Kandy.

Once I secured my Indian visa I headed down to the capital, ready to fly back to India. I arrived in Colombo 4 days after a woman blew herself and six soldiers to smithereens in a suicidal attack, a colour photo of her charred and bloody leg made a prominent appearance on the front pages of newspapers. The Keystone cops had a hand in the affair, she'd originally planned the attack for two days previously but was unable to carry out her scheme as she was in jail at the time! She'd been in jail on suspicion of being a Tamil Tiger sympathiser, was released on Feb 4th, picked up her "suicide kit" the next day and blew herself up on the 6th at a military checkpoint in downtown Colombo, aged 25.

Feb 11th saw me fly back to Trivandrum in India. The three weeks in Sri Lanka were very enjoyable. The circular route that I took around the southwest of the country was remarkable for its constant beautiful scenery. The coast south of Colombo was an unbroken strip of palm trees and sandy beaches. The people are very hospitable and I enjoyed several stays in family-run guesthouses and in Unawatuna I had a very pleasant time for a few days in a family's home. The living is cheap, I spent a total of $155 (100 quid) over the 21 days, the fruit is delicious and the food surprisingly edible. A lot more attention is paid to cleanliness than in India, the streets are much tidier and often in restaurants your plate is brought out with hot water on it so that you can make sure it's clean or sometimes the plate is wrapped in new clingfim before food is put on it.

On the downside the local bus transport can be extremely overcrowded and the government encourages special foreigner pricing. For example, entry to three of their primary cultural sites, whose restoration costs were mostly financed by foreign aid, costs an outrageous 900 rupees ($15) for foreigners and 10 rupees for locals, hence the reason I didn't go to see any of them. They even charge $15 for entry to see the view down to the coast at a place called World's End. Contrast this with the Taj Mahal in India which costs 15 rupees (40 cents) to see no matter what nationality you are and there is no charge at all on Fridays which allows the poorest of Indians to see it. Another thing to watch out for is guesthouses slapping a hidden 10% tax on your final bill, the first time in Asia I've seen that trick used.

I would really like to return one day and use, say, a rented car or a bicycle to tour around so that I could enjoy the country's scenery and sights to the fullest. I must mention that Sri Lanka is now the proud recipient of the "Mike Meaney Rock Solid" award. The much sought after prize is given to the select few sovereign states in which I achieved an unbroken run of rock solid bowel movements! Sri Lanka is the first country in a year to receive the honour, last granted to Vietnam in February 1997. Congratulations Sri Lanka, Mike Meaney thanks you from the bottom of his colon.

India


I arrived back in India to some sweltering heat in Trivandrum and pretty soon I made my way down to the small town of Kanniyakumari, right at the very tip of the subcontinent where the waters of three seas meet, the Bay of Bengal, the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea. It was a nice spot, it's one of India's holiest places and is a popular pilgrimage site. Mahatma Gandhi's ashes were immersed in the sea here and a memorial to the event was built near the ocean. There is also an attractive (Catholic?) church here, intriguingly named the Church of Our Lady of Ransom.

From Kanniyakumari I began the long journey northwards up through the centre of India and then toward the coast to the north-east corner. First stop was Madurai, notable for containing the rather remarkable Minakshi Temple at its centre. The temple is built in the "Vijayanagara" style and to Western tastes it might be said to represent the pinnacle of kitsch, the acme of tack or the zenith of garishness! The sheer impressive size of the temple saves it in my opinion though. The massive temple gateways (called gopurams) are profusely decorated with a reputed 33 million carvings and painted in a riot of colours, the idea being, I presume, to impress pilgrims with quantity and spectacle rather than with artistic merit. It's quite a sight and the inside is interesting with a thousand-pillared hall, an art museum and an elephant that takes donations from your hand with his trunk and then pats you on the head!

I left the heat of Madurai for the cool of Ooty, "The Queen of the Blue Mountains." On the way there I eventually caught up with some terrorist bombings. Having missed them in Kandy by 8 days and in Colombo by 4 days I eventually timed it right on Feb 14th in Coimbatore where I had to change buses between Madurai and Ooty. That day 13 bombs exploded in the city killing around 60 people. Actually I was unaware of this at the time, I only found out about it by chance 10 days later when I came across a newspaper article about it. Apparently some Moslems were pissed off at Hindus because of government election tensions and decided to go on a spree.

The climate and countryside was nice in Ooty but otherwise it was fairly unremarkable and pretty soon I found myself in the attractive and clean city of Mysore which has a really beautiful, large palace dominating its centre. After a couple of days in this pleasant town I made my way north to the ruins of Hampi, stopping off for a few hours in Bangalore for an Internet and KFC fix (yum, yum, I guess I'm still a junk food junkie).

Hampi used to be the capital of the great Vijayanagara empire and was an enormously wealthy city, "greater than Rome", but now all that remains is a village set amongst a large area of scattered ruins. The village has long been a magnet for backpackers and hippy types for its laidback atmosphere, its remarkable rock-strewn landscape and the various ruined temples and buildings all around, a nice place to chill out for some days sipping on ice cream and juice shakes and watching life go by.

After Hampi I left southern India and its excellent food behind and stopped next in Hyderabad. Hyderabad is a city which illustrates one of India's enigmas. Time and again in India you find yourself in some unknown city and discover that it's inhabited by gadzillions of people. Most likely you've never heard of Hyderabad before but it's a city of 4.3 million people, ranking itself alongside faceless places like Bangalore (4 million) and Ahmadabad (3.3 million). Hyderabad had the usual quota of fine buildings and a good museum to check out.

Puri, on the east coast, was the next watering hole, a good place for observing how Indian tourists behave on a beach. They basically stand around in groups, in their best clothes, chatting and staring perplexedly at the crashing waves wondering what the big deal about beach life is. Near Puri is Konark, site of yet another amazing piece of architecture, the Surya temple, a UN World Heritage monument. The usual superlatives apply.

Onwards from Puri I made my way to Bodh Gaya, the world's holiest Buddhist pilgrimage centre since it was under the Bo tree here that Gautama the prince attained enlightenment to become the Buddha. It's a strange little town with its various modern Buddhist temples built by different foreign countries mixed in with a typical dirty India village and all set in India's strangest state, Bihar. Bihar is the most lawless state in India with the countryside reputedly filled with "dacoits", bandits, but I managed to avoid them, thank Buddha. I left for Calcutta none too soon having read that the police had just rioted in Gaya, the big town (and my train junction) 10 miles away.

I made it to Calcutta a couple of days before the imminent arrival of the Freckly-Arsed One, Niall Murphy, who was joining me from the Auld Sod for a 3-week stint. He was supposed to arrive on the morning of May 5th but bad weather messed up his flights and it wasn't till the evening that he landed in Calcutta sans backpack which had got lost somewhere in the confusion of connections between Dublin, London, Amsterdam and Delhi.

So we spent the next few days chasing up the airline for news of the backpack. In between trips to the airport we fitted in some sightseeing. Calcutta turns out to be many peoples' favourite large Indian city and we had a good time looking around.

One morning was spent down around the Kali temple, the principal site of worship for Calcutta's Hindus. At 10am we witnessed one of the daily goat sacrifices in the temple grounds where a small goat was speedily separated from its head by a dude with a large machete, all while pilgrims streamed barefoot through the blood-soaked sacrifice area.

Next door to the temple is "Nirmal Hriday", Mother Teresa's first Home for the Dying. We had a look inside but we felt awkward being in there and quickly left. Nearby we strolled through a market area and by a small red-light district which made for a morning of interesting contrasts: nuns, prostitutes and animal sacrifices.

Other places visited were the so-so Indian museum, Asia's largest, the impressive Victoria Monument and various stately British-era buildings. Our last day there we used a local guide to show us around a poor, "slum" neighbourhood which turned out to be inhabited by hordes of extremely friendly kids and we also visited another of Mother Teresa's homes.

Well, Niall's backpack eventually found its way to Calcutta allowing us to leave on the overnight train to Darjeeling, famous for the Darjeeling blend of tea. It's a very nice place in the hills, at an altitude of 7,000ft, with a pleasant climate at this time of the year and I rank it as one of my favourite spots in India. Our main reason for coming here was to do the trek to a place called Phalut which, at a height of 3600m (12,000ft), was supposed to offer views of Kanchenjunga, the world's 3rd highest mountain, as well as, on a good day, Everest (highest), Lhotse (4th highest) and Makalu (5th highest).

We wasted little time in Darjeeling, setting off the next day along the trail with our backpacks in tow. The weather was really misty and cloudy for the first two days allowing us little in the way of views though the cool air made the walking easier. However, at Sandakphu (also at 3600m), the 3rd morning dawned to a clear sky and fantastic views of Kanchenjunga and a vast panorama of the Himalayas as well as mountains in three other countries, Tibet, Nepal and Bhutan. However, Everest was obscured by clouds. By this stage we had met a New Zealand couple, Aaron and Annabel (hi there guys) and the four of us were trekking together. In Sandakphu we were joined by a stray dog that we called Timmy (hi there doggy) and he faithfully accompanied us till the end of the trek three days later.

We made it to icy Phalut the same day, a 13-mile walk. It was around this time that I was afflicted by a dose of diarrhoea which gave Mr. Freckly Arse much enjoyment as he watched Mr. World Traveller grapple with a rebellious digestive system while he himself was rock solid. However, I was to have the last laugh, yuk yuk.

We were treated to more spectacular Himalayan vistas at dawn in Phalut before heading downwards to the end of the trek and two days later we were back in Darjeeling where we relaxed for a few days, enjoying its pleasant atmosphere, friendly Gorkha people and excellent food. My bout of diarrhoea cleared up quickly after the trek and I wasted no time replenishing my wasted body by indulging in the local gastronomic delights. Special mention must go to Glenary's bakery which managed to produce not only great cakes, coffee and pizza but also offered what could only be India's most delicious, homemade chocolates, quite scrumptious. The New Dish restaurant was also a highlight, it was run by a very interesting Chinese refugee who at one time was the cook for the royal family of Bhutan so the food was naturally pretty good.

From Darjeeling a 19 hour train journey brought the two of us to Varanasi, my second visit to this great city. The usual sightseeing ensued, a boat trip along the Ganges at sunrise to check out the pilgrims coming to bathe, a visit to one of the "burning ghats" to see some dead bodies being cooked and a wander through the bustling alleyways by the river taking care to give the cows as wide a berth as possible. Niall was hankering after a massage so we found an old man, named Ramji, with healing hands and after Freckly-Arse had his muscles kneaded for an hour I asked Ramji to give me a shave, a head shave! So Niall left Varanasi feeling supple and refreshed and I left completely bald.

Agra was the next stop, we visited the Taj Mahal (Niall's comment was "What's all the fuss about?") and the excellent Red Fort. It was here in Agra that Niall began his own battle with the runs which was a useful and humbling experience for him, hee hee!

Our last destination together was New Delhi. We quite cleverly skipped the sightseeing and concentrated on more important matters such as shopping and sampling Indian haute cuisine at Pizza Hut and on the night of March 24th I sent Mr. Freckly off on the bus to Delhi airport and I was alone yet again.

The Buddhism Period


Well, after nearly two years of continuous travelling I was overdue for taking a break. Just since Sri Lanka a month and a half ago I'd covered around 3,000 miles mostly by train, enough to tire most people out so I decided to visit Dharamsala again. I suppose it all began last year when, after a year and a half on the road, I'd begun to wonder what the point of it all was. I guess I was finding the life of collecting tourist sights somewhat unsatisfactory. I was travelling at the time with Dave who I'd listened to talking to people about a meditation course he'd done in Nepal. Now, I'd spent many years being quite an accomplished skeptic on spiritual matters but I figured I should give it at least one try before I left Asia, "you can't knock it till you've tried it." So I did the Vipassana meditation in Nepal and I was impressed by its scientific presentation and that led me eventually to Dharamsala where I'd decided I'd hole up for a while, take it easy and learn a bit more about Buddhism in general. Dharamsala is just about the perfect place to do this. Apart from being situated in some lovely scenery and having the best (?) Western food in India plus several video halls showing the latest movies on pirate tape it is also the home of the Dalai Lama of Tibet and, hence, is a centre of Buddhist learning.

As soon as I got there I signed up for a 10 day course that I'd heard about, an introduction to Buddhism at the Tushita Meditation Centre. I then spent the two weeks or so till the course began concentrating on catching up on some books I'd been meaning to read for a long time. Oddly enough I kept bumping into Irish travellers during that time, to date I think I've met over 10 in one month, a lot more than my usual average of one a month or less.

The course began on April 14th and was taught by a mixture of Western monks and lay teachers and it focussed on Tibetan Buddhism. Instruction was given on three types of meditation and the first seven days were divided between teachings on Buddhist philosophy, a Tibetan mind training program, discussion group sessions and numerous meditation periods with the final three days being devoted entirely to meditation. We covered an awful lot of material the first week and it was difficult to absorb it all. One of my main problems during the course was with the whole Buddhist view of the world and how it seemingly conflicted with the Christian view, are Buddha's and Christ's teachings completely compatible? By a weird stroke of luck one of the course members, John Lundin, happened to be a Christian priest, from San Diego of all places, who was also a Buddhist! He gave a talk about how he reconciled his Christianity with Buddhism that was very helpful for me. In fact, John went on to host a 2 day workshop that compared Judaism and Christianity with Buddhism and illuminated their similarities and differences in an open-minded manner. I found out a lot of interesting stuff at it.

A few days into the course we were very fortunate to get a chance to go and meet His Holiness the Dalai Lama who had announced he'd be holding one of his regular "handshaking sessions". By coincidence I happened just then to be reading one of his many books, The Good Heart, a remarkable account of the Dalai Lama giving his interpretation of selected Gospel passages to a group of Christian meditators (yes, Christianity does have a meditation tradition) at a seminar which is held yearly in memorial to an Irish priest, John Main. Though it was a time consuming process to get to the point of actually shaking His Holiness's hand it was certainly a worthwhile experience. The more I've learnt about him the more I've come to see what a great man and a great teacher he is.

Well, the course was extended by a couple of days due to several interruptions and I eventually left the lovely Tushita centre on April 28th a little older and hopefully a bit wiser too. The thing that impresses me about Buddhism is that it is more a system of doing rather than a system of believing. It is filled with explicit methods for achieving happiness in life, methods that make a lot of sense to me. It really concentrates on ways to control and purify the mind. My body is fairly alright, it's just my mind that's in a complete and utter mess, I think it needs urgent fixing and I'm hoping that Buddhism will help me fix it.

Here's a couple of interesting nuggets that may illustrate differences between Buddhism and Western religion. While scanning some of the books the Dalai Lama has written on Buddhist philosophy and on discussions he has had with the cream of Western scientists on a range of topics I got a feel for his astounding depth of knowledge of the workings of the human mind but yet, before coming to the West, the Dalai Lama never knew that people suffered from severe depression, an affliction that just does not occur in Tibet. Also, there is no word for guilt in Tibetan. Buddhists do not fixate on blaming themselves for wrong actions, instead their formula is to regret the action, do what they can to make amends and resolve not to repeat it. Contrast this with the Catholic church where guilt has become an institution all of its own.

So, the course gave me a lot of ideas to digest. No, I'm not a Buddhist ... yet! But you never know, ask me in a few years. I do recommend to any of you who have the vaguest curiosity for Buddhist mind training to a least read a book or two on the subject. Ideally it would be best to do a course like the one I did, I think it made a big difference to me to be taught about, what for me, were alien topics like reincarnation, karma, hot hells and hungry ghosts by some very capable teachers off of whom I could bounce my doubts. I had respect for their intelligence and the obvious efforts they were making to teach us something beneficial and therefore I ended up having more respect for what I was being taught.

I would have been quite skeptical when I read in a book by a faceless author that concentrating on your breath in meditation is the basic secret of achieving happiness. But I didn't read it in a book, I heard it day after day from a German monk who is one of the happiest and most joyful people I've ever met and I sat up and took notice. And I took notice of all the jolly Tibetan monks I met and I wondered why they were so happy. I was presented with real life examples of Buddhism in action, something very valuable that's sadly missing when just reading books but, hey, not all of us have the time to arse around like I'm doing and spend two weeks attending a Buddhist retreat so, please, go ahead and check out the Recommended Reading page!

And on the off chance that you do have the time for a course please note that the Tushita course cost a mere $75 (50 quid) so it might actually be economical to fly all the way to India and visit the beautifully located Tushita centre rather than paying for an expensive course in the West! ;-)

So now the time is coming to leave Dharamsala. I will be in New Delhi very soon to get a new passport (my old one is close to full) and visas for Pakistan and Iran and once that is accomplished I'll be off on the hot and dusty trail across the Middle East! Feel free to mail me any of your questions and queries on the above but take it easy on the "get your head out of your ass dude and start living in the real world" e-mails, alright? ;-)

Thich Nhat Hanh, Vietnamese meditation master and peace activist, once wrote: "Buddhism is a clever way to enjoy life. Happiness is available. Please help yourself to it."

1. Haven't left yet | 2. Fiji, New Zealand | 3. Australia | 4. Australia, Indonesia | 5. Indonesia, Malaysia | 6. Thailand | 7. Cambodia, Vietnam | 8. China, Hong Kong | 9. Macau, China | 10. Tibet, Pakistan | 11. India, Nepal | 12. Nepal | 13. India | 14. Sri Lanka, India | 15. Pakistan, Iran, Turkey | 16. Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Egypt | 17. Grand Finale

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