The Domestic Explorer

There are things every explorer wants to do. Whether it is as drastic as Thoreau spending 2 years, 2 months and 2 days in a cabin in the woods, or Kate Harris finding herself in the process of exploring the Silk Road, there are aspirations for us to reach that state of mind where we can look past the hustle and the bustle of our daily lives. A form of reflection that one gets to experience once in a while, but has no idea how to sustain. (At least I have had no luck at it.)

Quote from Lands of Lost Borders:

“I’m not sure where I go when I spin wheels for hours on end like that, except into the rapture of doing nothing deeply.”

I think Kate Harris’s moving, poignant, lyrical, poetic, beautiful meditations on being, belonging, and living is well on it’s way to becoming one of my favorites. I have re-read sections of it soon after finishing it. Hers is a marvelous mind (I am grateful she penned her thoughts and found a publisher for us to enjoy). It does make me wonder sometimes how many others there are out there, who have similarly exalted thought processes, a Being larger than being squashed into narrow compartments that we seem to slot ourselves into: A Higher Order Thinker.

Kate Harris’s work is one for every traveler’s soul. Every body who has ever dreamed of adventures, ever dreamt of being bigger than your circumstances, hers is an invitation to sample what is possible. For everyone who is unable to sample the world with all its worries and problems, Lands of Lost Borders is there.

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The author writes of her journey across the oldest and possibly most famous road in the World, The Silk Route. Wanting to lose herself in the other worldly, she lands up finding herself on the oldest roads known to civilization.

Along with her friend Mel, the two women cycle through Turkey, the Stan-countries after Russia’s disintegration (Turkemistan, Kyrgystan, Uzbekistan), China, Tibet, Nepal and finally India – camping along the way, accepting the kind hospitality of friends and strangers along the way, navigating authorities, paper work and visa restrictions that make us want to throw our hands up in despair. A true voice of an explorer.

Her voracious reading sparkles in the form of quotations and anecdotes – Carl Sagan, Marco Polo, Charles Darwin, Russell Harris, Wright brothers are all in attendance adding their rich experience to the journey. Her clear heart blurs borders while sizing up people. Sitting up in bed with the wind roaring outside, the rains lashing, it is bliss indeed to pedal relentlessly through the high mountains, past lakes, punishing deserts and sketchy neighborhoods. Two women alone in an alien world.

As she quotes every so often,

“Every explorer dies of heartbreak.”

This is one of those books that will stay with me for a long time. I had the privilege of reading this book alongside another of Miss Read’s comfortable, cozy book. This book of travel and adventure was the perfect pairing to the domestic pleasures that a Miss Read book conjures up.

In Miss Clare Remembers, Miss Read writes about a young child of 8 or 9, who was excited and flushed after seeing the snowdrops when they went out on a school nature walk. Afterwards inside the home of the local farmer, where the farmer’s wife had kindly laid out biscuits, milk and cut fruit for the hungry children, she realizes how much she requires both pleasures in order to thrive. With a clairvoyance that children sometimes possess, she appreciates the vast spaces that nature provided for her soul to soar; and the cozy domestic pleasures where she can feel nurtured and at home. A safe haven from her flights of adventure.

Quote from Emily Davis – By Miss Read:

“One was her nest. The other was the place in which she stretched her wings, and soared, as effortlessly as the lark outside, into a different dimension.”

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I felt that way while reading the Lands of Lost Borders together with a Miss Read book. I savored the stars kindly drawing the constellations out for the explorers to reach out to every night; as much as I enjoyed the domestic problems of a normal life. Ensconced in the modern comforts of living, reading both the books in parallel left me with a deeply delighted sense of having both adventure and comfort, and feeling grateful for it.

I am not sure my blogs can do justice to the books, but it seems a perfect way to begin winding down the year.

The Book of Kells

I was intrigued to see the book that Dublin is so proud of, and I wasn’t disappointed. Walking through the rain-washed squares of Trinity College, past all the students and tourists milling about the campus, I walked into the Trinity College Old Library to see the much talked about Book of Kells. Written about 800 years ago by at least 6 different scribes, it is reputedly the oldest book in existence in its original format. It was probably written at a monastery similar to the one below by monks.

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I was all agog to see the Book of Kells, rose early and off I went with nothing but 3 eggs, 2 pieces of toast with butter and blackberry currants jam, 3 cups of tea, some fruit, a spot of yogurt and some freshly squeezed fruit smoothie in me. (European hotels really do have the best continental breakfasts in the world. Try as I might, I could not get them to feed me less. Please can I have just 1 egg, nothing else, I’d say. “Just a leetel beet of vegetables on the side.” they’d say, and soon a tray bearing a couple of fried eggs, mushrooms, spinach, baked beans and toasts accompanying the eggs appeared behind a tottering waiter with a benevolent smile.)

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Anyway, the Book of Kells has scholars poring over its pages, art historians and critics study the dyes used for the illustrations in the book, and the book does look elegant. The letters were different, probably Celtic letters at the time, and the lettering had a calligraphic touch to it that we seem to have lost in the world of keyboards. What the book is about is, I guessed, derived more from the artful illustrations rather than the prose.

While it was inspiring to see writing as early as all that, I was not wholly prepared for how it made me feel later on.

Days later while walking down the streets, I’d recognize some rune from the Book of Kells or something similar looking displayed on the shop fronts, and feel a little strange. How ephemeral are our lives and its influences? Even the greatest works of the times, mean so little now. And only one book survived the times. What about the rest of the books written at that time?

So many languages fade away taking with it, another chunk of literary history forever with it. The thirukkurals in Tamil have had a good run so far.

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What writing will stand the tests of time, and which ones would not? What does it say about the writer who started with the intention of writing about the lofty Books of Kells and wrote instead of the fantastic breakfast she tucked into her stomach? Given how ephemeral even our inscribed works are, shouldn’t we have a little less ego, a little less lust for power, and little more acceptance of our state of being?

I mused on our social media presences. The place most avid users go to share our thoughts and feelings. Maybe we are subconsciously evaluating every thought that flits in like fluffy clouds on a bright day, taking a pulse of our feelings.  What of thoughts not shared, and if thoughts trigger feelings, will the absence of thought then remove suffering, but then what is the state of being?

Maybe that is why the old Eastern philosophers taught us to calm our minds. Ursula Le Guin’s quote comes to mind:

“Things don’t have purposes, as if the universe were a machine, where every part has a useful function. What’s the function of a galaxy? I don’t know if our life has a purpose and I don’t see that it matters. What does matter is that we’re a part. Like a thread in a cloth or a grass-blade in a field. It is and we are. What we do is like wind blowing on the grass.”

I like my spot of writing even if sometimes I have muddled things up a little more by the end of it all.

The Elephant Keeper 

I had been on a short trip to a Green island staying at a Purple hotel with White Christmas decorations in a city center. While there, I decided to make the most of it, and hopped on a tour bus to take in the sights of Ireland. It had been a dry few months in … Continue reading “The Elephant Keeper “

I had been on a short trip to a Green island staying at a Purple hotel with White Christmas decorations in a city center. While there, I decided to make the most of it, and hopped on a tour bus to take in the sights of Ireland.

It has been a while since I went meandering off on my own. As I boarded the day trip for Wicklow mountains and Glendalough lakes, that wily Master of Doubt was trying to work his way into the old brain stand, and I was becoming a little unsure. Most people had come with at least 1 travel companion. I saw the knots of people comfortable in their own little groups as we waited for the bus to come and pick us up.  I wondered whether I shall be alone. Not that it mattered much since I had a book about a jolly esoteric family to keep me company on the trip.

Sitting tentatively in the van, I was reading The Garden of the Gods by Gerald Durrell on the kindle. I giggled before I could help it. I was peeking out at the passing scenery every now and then, and imagining the little household at Corfu. The author, Gerald Durrell, then a boy, lived with his ‘Family and Other Animals’ in the island of Corfu. A budding naturalist, his boyhood is a most interesting one in which no living creature escapes his admiration. His bedroom plays hosts to barn owls, field rats, bats, along with the more traditional form of pets such as cats and dogs. He also has a donkey named Sally, and I could not help laughing at the resulting antics this menagerie produced with his esoteric family.

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The Corfu Trilogy is set in the island of Corfu, and since I read each book in the series a few months apart, it was most satisfying.

I could barely believe that it was possible for somebody to live the way he described it. The Universe is not always kind to doubting dunlins, but this time it was.  Within the hour, I was to meet someone whose life was remarkably like the one I had just read about.

The tour bus dropped the folks who had opted to spend time at a Garden. Only two of us had opted for a hike instead of an amble around the Gardens to the dismay of the tour guide. The look we exchanged affirmed that we would be far happier being buffeted by the roaring winds, and gazing longingly at the rolling hills around us. I recognized a kindred nature loving spirit in her, and soon we got walking and talking.

As we loped up the trail with an enthusiastic whoop, she told me a little bit about herself, and I was so glad she did. She loved animals, she said, and lived in a home teeming with pets. I truly did not believe that Gerald Durrell’s family was possible, much as I loved reading his books. But her answer astounded me. She said they had a donkey, 2 geese, 2 cats, 2 dogs and 12 hens. Her business trip was the most interesting one I have heard to date. She worked as an Elephant Keeper in a Zoo in Holland. She was here, she said, on an week-long program to work at the Dublin zoo’s Elephant department, but would be going back to her own zoo at the end of the week.

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I told her that the children would love to meet her, and she nodded understandingly. Looking at the excitement of their mother, she very kindly sent me some pictures and videos of the animals she worked with in her work spot.  She too had come alone, and the pair of us spent the whole day together – on windy hillsides, amidst towers and remnants of castles looking like giant rooks and bishops on a chess board.

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I was so glad that my earlier doubts had not stopped me from having a wonderful day: the serendipity of finding companionship, the beauty of learning of another way of life, and above all, the opportunity of shaking oneself out of the familiar and the tried and tested.

The universe finds a way of showing us the rainbow if only we stick with the rain.

Boarding the Flight of Fancy

A version of this post was published in The India Currents Magazine: On a Flight to a Land Without Borders

I boarded the flight at the end of a long week. I was going to be away for a week, and I had spent weeks trying to get things in order for the week I was gone. It felt good to finally stretch one’s legs (as much as an economy seat would allow anyway), relax one’s senses, and stretch one’s mind.

The flight was strangely beautiful. It left in the evening, and as it took off, I left behind a sparkling firework of lights. The vast, urban sprawling city and surrounding areas looked kindlier from above. The freeways glowed like veins throbbing with cars as they crammed their way home for the week-end along the packed highways. I have watched ants with interest as they scurry about their daily duties and I felt we must look the same if someone were to be observing us. Maybe those monitoring satellites do have the feeling every now and then.

Bay area at night is beautiful from an airplane, however else it feels when one is on the road.

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I fell into an uneasy slumber once we passed the populated sections and darkness fell. I looked out the window hours later, to be pleasantly surprised by the beauty that greeted me. The plane was gently reverberating with the satisfied sighs of sleep from most passengers. A few were watching the brightly glowing screens. I peered out of the window, at first unable to see anything since my eyes took some time adjusting to the sudden lack of light. Once I did though, it was marvelous.

I have always loved gazing at the moon while traveling. The feeling of us moving, and our beautiful cosmic neighbor giving us company even though we are moving so fast is surreal.

I could not see the moon just yet, but I recognized the belt of Orion. We were flying along side the big hunter as he made his way in his pursuit of the seven sisters across the skies. It is a strange feeling to watch the stars and a familiar constellation accompany us on the trip while we journey through the stars.

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The Pale Blue Dot, as Carl Sagan so beautifully christened our lovely, if sometimes crazy planet, seems wonderful from high above. It helps us forget how judgmental, critical, harsh and war-mongering a species we are. While up there, borders and countries seem like a strange concept, like a tiger marking its territory. Can the tiger determine where life can flourish, where the weeds grow, or how many gusts of wind may swish through the bamboo groves? Our borders mean much the same especially when surveyed from the stratosphere: Meaningless asks from an arbitrary marking.

Musings from the wonderful book, Lands of Lost Borders by Kate Harris, took me to an uneasy land of half slumber in which strange dreams accompanied unknown stars through a flight that even a 150 years ago was nothing but a flight of fancy. Kate Harris’s work is one for every traveler’s soul.

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I got up to see the moon looking slightly alarmed at still being up and about when the sun was rising. The pink, and orange skies twinkled benignly upon the clouds below, and all the world was still full of promise and expectant. The blush of joys unknown.

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