Monday, November 30, 2009

Freelancing for Contact Magazine

Undoubtedly, my 18 months in The Ganj has been enriched through my connection with Lobsang Rabsel, editor of Contact Magazine.

Lobsang is a great and really sociable guy. He seems to know pretty much every Tibetan and International travellist who stays longer than 2 weeks in The Ganj. When not working in his office in the LHA building on Temple Road, he is hanging out at one of several “favourite” coffee-shops or restaurants.

I recently asked him about meeting HH Dalai Lama and he tells me he had met His Holiness twice. I ask him what he talked about. “Oh no, it wasn´t a private meeting, I was just part of a very large group”.

Contact Magazine is the only localised English Language magazine in Dharamsala, and being such a vocal voice for Tibetan propaganda, I was surprised that he doesn´t have regular private meetings.

Lobsang runs Contact almost single handedly, and is always appreciative of assistance. Whether you take photos, want to write articles, proof-read or help in advertising, he will welcome your help. He can often be found at LHA on Temple Road.

Not every assignment has been interesting – being stuck in a meeting for three hours conducted in Tibetan by dignitaries that I am clueless about, spring readily to mind. However, I was both honoured and privileged to be able to record the 50th Anniversary of Tibetans in Exile.

from the 50th Anniversary

I also really appreciate Lobsang´s efforts in getting hold of the press passes required. Security around the Dalai Lama continues to escalate and they are now like gold-dust to secure.

up, close and personal

Whilst very appreciative of my photography, Lobsang always says that my results are far more artistic than journalistic; I would totally agree with. However I am pleased to note that his screen-saver on the office computer, contain several of my photographs. However, I only made the front page once in the April 2009 edition.

my only photo to grace the front cover

Some more of my assignments can be found by clicking the individual links

Pre – 50th Anniversary puja
50th Anniversary
Dalai Lama teachings
Dalai Lama study
Surf liberation anniversary
Anti-Beijing Olympic protests

From the Anti - Beijing Olympics shoot

Tomorrow is likely to be my last Contact assignment. The village has organised a Fun Run for International AIDS Day tomorrow. Miss Tibet 2009 will be starting the run at 10am from The Main Temple in The Ganj to Bhagsu. I´m hoping it will be a classic – after all i will have to leave the bedsit by 8.30am.

Phew...The Return of My Muse

Apologies to more regular readers for all the recent rants.

My Muse was temporarily unavailable, but i´m very pleased to report, it has returned. I am truly blessed, and how precious is that?

With just a few more days left in The Ganj, I really feel I should be whimsically waxing lyrical about Himalayan village life.

It can be difficult of course. Last week alone I was deprived of running water for 24 hours, hot water for several days, shockingly poor Reliance Internet access and loads of power cuts. But what the hell!

Final restaurant reviews, favourite recipes, and, as I start catergorising and streamlining my internal and external hard disc drives, hopefully plenty of photos as well.

And i´ll try to minimise the rants!

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Putting the Pope in the Dock

“Is the Catholic church a force for good?” was the recent Intelligence Squared debate on BBC World.

Surely the answer is obvious?

Pope lovers in the red corner were represented by Nigerian Archbishop John Onaiyekan and British Member of Parliament and ultra-Conservative, Ann Widdecombe.

Facing off against this unlikely duo were the Anglo/American author and journalist Christopher Hitchens and actor, writer and general raconteur Stephen Fry.

Onaiyekan and Widdecombe try taking the moral high-ground pointing to the moral guidance the church offers and it´s charitable work around the World.

Hitchens and Fry completely let rip in eloquent vitriol. Hitchens focuses in on the lies spread about condoms resulting in the deaths of millions of Africans susceptible to HIV and AIDS, whilst Fry plays the “i´m lovable, humorous and gay and the church hates me” card.

The swing against the church at the end of the hour-long debate is colossus, and the look of disbelief on the faces of Onaiyekan and Widdercombe is totally priceless. Clearly embarrassed by the hammering, the presenter expresses an apology to the Archbishop and the MP.

You can find this programme on Youtube by clicking here.

This week saw the publication of the much awaited Dublin report looking at the systematic rapes and serious assaults committed by Irish priests on children over many decades, and their crimes covered up.

LJ sends me over this article from the Irish Times pointing out he is too scared to put it up on Facebook. I am too, but it really should be read.

I mention to LJ the most shocking thing about the report is i´m not the least bit shocked. I just feel completely sickened.

It would be completely naive to think this problem of priest abuse is limited to Ireland. So far, I can find no comment from the Pope on this matter. If he has any sense of dignity and remorse he would he would immediately disband the Catholic church and give away its multi-billion dollar empire to the disadvantaged and abused. I won´t be holding my breath on this one though; this ex-Nazi Pope clearly has no decency or sense of morality. Infallible my ass!


There is a new range of Dalai Lama recycled greetings cards being sold cheaply in town. I particularly like his prose on friendship.
“We have genuine friendship when it is based on true human feelings. A feeling of closeness in which there is a sense of sharing and connectedness…this type of friendship (is) genuine because it is not affected by the increase and decrease of the individual´s wealth, status or power. The factor that sustains that friendship is whether or not the two people will have mutual feelings of love and affection. Genuine human friendship is on the basis of human affection, irrespective of your position. Therefore, the more you show concern about the welfare and rights of others, the more you are a genuine friend. The more you remain open and sincere, then ultimately more benefits will come to you”
What do you think?

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Movie Night in The Ganj - What Remains of Us

It´s packed in Yongling school hall this evening for McLeod Ganj´s premier of this great documentary from 2004. As usual, the viewing is again somewhat disjointed, with 2 power-cuts and a faulty sound system to negotiate.

This documentary is beautiful in its simplicity. It follows a 2nd Generation Tibetan woman, Kalsang Dolma who manages to sneak into Tibet with a portable DVD player and a 5 minute message delivered by HH Dalai Lama.

Of course, in colonially governed Tibet, people are jailed for possession of a mere photo of Dalai Lama.

Dolma plays the DVD to family, friends, monks and yak herders in remote wilderness and their reactions and thoughts are shared to camera. No wonder the Toronto Sun describes it as a tear-jerker – it´s really emotive.

Whether young or old, the intent that viewers watch the brief dvd, often in tears and/or prayer. After all HHDL is a Living God to them. On completion of the message, most viewers are left completely speechless and Dolma often has to push them to share their thoughts.

In the message to his people, Dalai Lama asks Tibetans to be strong. He points to increasing global recognition of the plight of Tibetans and the respect that has been won for adopting a policy of non-violence. He even adds a special message to young Tibetans – don´t drink and smoke.

Most of the Tibetans talk about powerlessness. The Chinese are too strong and they are very much aware of their own witness to their own cultural genocide. They talk about the light that Dalai Lama would bring if he were to return to Tibet, but also understand that his safety would be compromised by doing so.

Dolma makes a very interesting observation. She claims that Tibetans in Tibet believe that the Chinese occupation of Tibet was karma for not praying enough, whilst Dloma and other 2nd generation Tibetans in exile felt the people lost Tibet because all they would do is pray.

One has to admire the bravery of all concerned; Dolma for bringing in and publically showing the Dalai Lama DVD or for these Tibetans who openly share their thoughts to camera at risk of beatings, arrest, brutality and torture.

With gorgeous landscapes, haunting Tibetan music, plenty of wrinkly Tibetans and prostrating pilgrims, this is a classic 76 minutes. Don´t just take my word for it, it won Best Documentary at the 2004 Hollywood Film Festival Awards Gala.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Inhuman Humans

We´re bad! Really...we are really bad. We´re capable of horrendous behaviour which sometimes needs to be seen to be believed. We can read about stuff, hear reportings of stuff, but you get an additional perspective when seeing it with your own eyes.

How do i know this? I make a point of seeing what and when i can.

In 1995 i made a point of touring around Japan. I was in Hiroshima and Nagasaki for 50th Anniversary of the dropping of the nuclear bombs. Just a handful of structures in the cities survive. Parks were filled with literally millions of origami storks as people come to pay their respects to the thousands that died. This remains a constant source of serious disagreement between Pa and myself; for me there is no way you can ever defend the loss of innocent life, not least on a scale of such magnitude. Pa still maintains it was necessary to put an end to WW2.

Yad Washem, the holocaust museum in Jerusalem was another complete eye-opener for me. The monstrous systematic murders by the Nazis during the 2nd World War are clearly chronicled. This one is even more close to home having lost much of my family in the gas chambers. Exhibits include bars of soap made from human fat and a collection of human hair wigs.

There are also war memorial museums in both Ho Chi Minh (Saigon) and Hanoi that vividly depict the American invasion with graphic photos and video footage and young victims of Agent Orange in formaldehyde jars.

For me however, the one that probably disturbed me the most was S21 in Phnom Penh. It´s to be found in one of the suburbs and is now known as Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, this former school was converted in August 1975, four months after the Khmer Rouge won the civil war into a prison and interrogation centre.

It still looks like a school, yet the crimes committed here on Cambodians by Cambodians are just too surreal.

S21 - the converted school

From 1975 to 1979, an estimated 17,000 people were imprisoned at Tuol Sleng. At any one time, the prison held between 1,000-1,500 prisoners. They were repeatedly tortured and coerced into naming family members and close associates, who were in turn arrested, tortured and killed.

Later, the party leadership's paranoia turned on its own ranks and purges throughout the country saw thousands of party activists and their families brought to Tuol Sleng and murdered.

Some of the rules in the prefab prison have been translated as follows: -
You must immediately answer my questions without wasting time to reflect
While getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all
Do nothing, sit still and wait for my orders. If there is no order, keep quiet
When I ask you to do something, you must do it right away without protesting
If you don’t follow all the above rules, you shall get many many lashes of electric wire
If you disobey any point of my regulations you shall get either ten lashes or five shocks of electric discharge

Even though the vast majority of the victims were Cambodian, foreigners were also imprisoned, including Vietnamese, Thai, Laotians, Indians, Pakistanis, Britons, Americans, New Zealanders and Australians.

There are only 12 prisoners known to have survived internment.

The museum is open to the public, and receives an average of 500 visitors every day.

Like all good mass-murdering bastards, everything was documented and photos taken of every prisoner. The partitioned classes are still stained with blood as are some of the wide varieties of torture instruments. Other exhibits include a huge world map made of human skulls as well as a vast pyramid of skulls in the school grounds.
The prison had a staff of 1,720 people. Of those, approximately 300 were office staff, internal workforce and interrogators. The other 1,400 were general workers, including people who grew food for the prison. Several of these workers were children taken from the prisoner families. The chief of the prison was Khang Khek Ieu (also known as Comrade Duch), a former mathematics teacher who worked closely with Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot.

photos of some of the victims of S21

In 1979, the prison was uncovered by the invading Vietnamese army and in 1980, the prison was reopened by the government of the People's Republic of Kampuchea as a historical museum memorializing the actions of the Khmer Rouge regime.

I share this story because at last some kind of justice is being dealt to the protagonists of this civil genocide.

Of course, Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge leader managed to avoid the courts and died in custody in 1998.

Now 67, former S21 former prison chief Duch is one of five aging senior Khmer Rouge members facing trial for the estimated 1.7 million Cambodians who died from overwork, starvation and murder under the regime's attempt to forge an agrarian utopia by abolishing religion, money and schools, and forcing most of the population onto collective farms between 1975 and 1979.

Duch - the mass-murdering bastard before and now

Duch, who converted to Christianity after the fall of the regime, has admitted to his role as prison chief and asked for forgiveness.

However, the remaining defendants — who by all accounts were chief architects in the revolution's policy making — have denied any involvement in the atrocities, making Duch's co-operation all the more important for laying the ground work for their prosecution.

International prosecutor William Smith said the prosecution approached this trial with the case against the remaining defendants "very much in mind," a strategy that looks like it may succeed.

"The major fact remains that he has confessed to his crimes, and his trial will make it nearly impossible for the other defendants to deny that they committed the crimes that Duch witnessed," observes Gregory Stanton, president of the Washington-based Genocide Watch.

"That is why his trial is so important, and why prosecutors were right to open with it."

Prosecutors are asking for a 40 year prison sentence. Duch himself today announced he wants to be acquitted and released.

In a court apology, Duch was quoted as saying

“I am deeply remorseful and profoundly affected by the destruction on such a mind-boggling scale,” he said as more than 1,000 people packed into the courtroom to hear him speak and millions more Cambodians watched on live television. “As for the families of victims, my wish is that you kindly leave your door open for me to make my apologies.”

Speaking so quickly that he had to be asked twice to slow down and repeat himself, Comrade Duch said he “could do nothing to help” his victims once Pol Pot and other senior Khmer Rouge leaders had decided their fate. He described his remorse as “excruciating” and said that he hoped one day “to again be recognized as part of humankind.”

What would be a fair punishment for this former Maths teacher? No human has the right to take another´s life, so, what would be an appropriate sentence for such heinous crimes? I did turn to Criminologist NG from St Mary´s University in London, but unfortunately all i got was "out of remit" in response.

Don´t hold your breath to find out Duch´s sentence however; the trial has been running for eight months and the final sentence won´t be released for several months.

My main African travel consultant Bubba (of bigtubofglue fame) has recommended I visit Kigali in Rwanda for even more shocks. I most certainly will.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

One Year Anniversary (and a bit of a big up for Manmohan Singh)

Today marks the first anniversary that saw more than 170 innocent bystanders murdered in Mumbai.

Prayers started in the economic capital of India last night, and parades of police marched past the Taj Palace and other landmarks today that marked the scene of this horrific terrorist attack.

Pakistan has arrested and charged 7 citizens for master-minding and organising the massacre and the trial continues of Ajmal Qasab, the only surviving gunman arrested in India.

I can´t believe it has only been a year when we were glued to news reports for three continuous days watching events unfold.

Like most economic hubs, resilience is strong and despite the still recent memory of these bloody few day, life goes on. Security on the street is tighter, tourism is up, and despite the World economic recession, business is up as well. Life for the most part has returned back to normal.

Mumbai joins the ever –increasing list of towns and cities to have fallen victim to terrorist attacks with diverse locations of New York, London, Madrid and Denpasar (Bali). Basically, no town or city in the world is safe. I´m staying in a village and keeping a low profile.

Meanwhile it has been good to see the love and respect offered to Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in the US with a full state banquet put on by Obama. I have got a lot respect for India´s 14th Prime minister.

Born in Gah in the Punjab (now in Pakistan), he lost his mother when very young and was bought up by his paternal grandparents. With no electricity, he studied hard by candlelight, first securing a place in Panjab University in Chandigarh and progressing on to study Economics in Oxford where he went on to receive his DPhil. in 1962. He subsequently went on to teach at the University of Delhi.

Not only is he very shrewd, thoughtful and intelligent, remarkably he is seen as honest and incorruptible – rare in politics and most especially in India. His integrity hasn´t slipped during his nine year tenure. Long may this last

Ed Add-on: Having signed a petition to promote the Copenhagen Climate Summit I have been sent Singh´s telephone numbers. Give The Man some love and give him a call on (+91) (11) 23012312 / 23013040 / 23019983

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Respect to Dalai Lama

Over the last two days I have been making the most of my last Dalai Lama teachings in McLeod Ganj.

Sponsored by Buddhist societies of Russia and Confederation of Independent States, the first day´s teaching are delivered by HHDL predominantly in English. He is very adept in its usage, and chooses his words with precision.

Now in his 75th year, Dalai Lama remains both erudite and wise. His knowledge through the major academic disciplines is enormous, moving between technology, science, neurosurgery, history, religion and philosophy with complete versatility. Like all good teachers, he provides concrete examples to support his perspective, and asks for his disciples and students to question everything he offers.

His opening address is delivered with clarity. We are all global citizens – the concept of “Us and Them” is based on fear and/or hatred and is an out-moded concept in the 21st century. We must throw the shackles off from superstition and blind faith and show respect, compassion and love to all living things. Basically, it is time for a new renaissance. It all sounds like good stuff to me.

He remains jolly, positive and in up-beat mood. HHDL appears to be enjoying better health than he has for the last few years. He also remains openly confident that he will be alive to over-see a Tibetan Autonomous Region within China, although admits this is still several years away.

Although much-respected globally, (he was recently voted the most trusted global leader in the World), he is not without his detractors. The Chinese government continue to claim he is a divisive cancer to the People´s Republic, whilst others point to his lack of condemnation for the Israeli occupation of Palestine, and the continued ass-licking of consecutive American administrations.

None of his 13 predecessors has ever had to face the challenges now facing the current Dalai Lama or the Tibetan people. As Dalai Lama states, he is a simple monk from the remote regions of Tibet and would have preferred a very different existence from the role and burden that have been placed on his shoulders. The position of Dalai Lama itself is the reincarnate of the Buddha of Compassion. Historically therefore, it has always been a spiritual, not a political position.

Those who accuse him of seeking power delude themselves from very obvious facts. HHDL preaches democracy, and single-handed established the Tibetan Government in Exile in Dharamsala. He continuously encourages them to take the lead in all areas of Tibetan politics whilst trying to distance himself from its proceedings. He has urged Parliament to decide for themselves whether to continue with “the Middle Path” or adopt a different tact with the Chinese authorities.

Nonetheless, HHDL has become a ubiquitous global symbol of Tibet and its people, and is rightly respected by many World leaders. Moreover, Dalai Lama is also a global symbol of compassion, truth, love and peace. How many people can boast that?

Dalai Lama stresses that the Tibetan people will decide if it necessary for a 15th Dalai Lama to be appointed after his death. As a practising Buddhist, of course he believes he will be reincarnated and wants to assist and offer service to others in his next life, but not necessarily with the title of Dalai Lama.

Walking the streets of Mcleod Ganj, i am reminded daily of the plight of exiled Tibetans. I have been fortunate enough to choose to live my life in exile from my Homeland, most Tibetans have not.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

No Paz in Le Paz

I have pretty much travelled around the World and fortunately, with very little trouble. I generally feel very safe wherever i travel. Although fairly lithe, at 1.90 metres, i´m usually much taller than the locals, and psychologically, if not physically, feel i probably have an advantage.

Unfortunately, this all changed in La Paz, the Bolivian capital, back in April 2006. K and I spent two weeks during our Easter vacations to travel through this exceptionally beautiful country, and it has a lot to offer adventure travelers. I´m particularly interested in the wide variety of indigenous peoples, not common in many South American countries due to the rampant and brutal Spanish colonialism of the continent.

indigenous musician

Time is short, and I am keen to explore as much as I can during the limited time available. Having spent time already on Lake Titicaca on the Peruvian side in 2005, we swiftly head south to the Altiplano. This barren, wind-swept desert in the South is totally surreal, and the magic of the vast salt-flats are completely breathtaking.

massive lake of salt

We time our journey to perfection, and we plan to take the overnight bus from Uyuni back to La Paz, spending an additional night in the capital before returning back to work in Bogotá. We have even booked the Rosario Hotel who are expecting our return.

The bus station in Uyuni tells us the bus is safe, tourist friendly, and due to depart at about 8pm. It will arrive at about 9am the following morning. The journey is bumpy and rough, and with my 2 metre long legs, I am unable to fit in the seat let alone grab 40 winks. Of course, whilst saving money on an extra night´s accommodation, there is nothing to see out of the windows.

The bus zooms along nonetheless, and we hit the outskirts of La Paz in complete darkness at about 3.30am. Pulling into the bus station, it is quiet and eerie. We grab our rucksacks and flag a taxi to take us up to the Rosario Hotel.

It´s about 4.15am when we arrive at the hotel, and not surprisingly, we are unable to check into our booked room until 10. Although really tired, we´re both really hungry, but the hotel restaurant doesn’t open to 7am.

We´d discovered a nice café on our arrival 2 weeks before, and decide to wait till first light and then head the 800 metres down the road for sustenance.
We hang out at Reception for more than an hour, and as the first few stall holders arrive outside to put up their wares, we put our large rucksacks in the left-baggage area and head onto the street to satiate our hunger pangs.

I light up a cigarette, so K walks about a metre in front of me up-wind. I am aware of a young man in a red and black anorak walking up towards us with the hood over most of his face.

Suddenly K. screams “Help!” as I become aware of the anoraked guy running toward her, arms outstretched. I try to run forward, but everything has suddenly gone very black.

I gain consciousness for a moment. We´re now not on the street, but in some shop door-way, down a back alley off the roadside. I see K. on the floor and a flurry of men swiftly moving around us both. I immediately clench my right and try to swing out wildly, but i fail to make any contact with anything, and i´m unconscious again.

Darkness. Cold… I am aware that I am lying on cold marble and my eyes begin to focus on a single light-bulb. I desperately try and work out where am I and why am I lying on the floor? After several moments, I am still haven´t worked out the answers, so I continue to lie where I am. I hear K´s voice calling out and I jump up with a start. My throat feels like it has been punched as I stumble over to her.

We´ve lost pretty much everything - passports, money, air-ticket and digital cameras, and worse for K her SLR which was in her day-pack. We´re in some back alleyway with a few locals now looking on at us.

Scarily, we have no idea how long we have been unconscious or indeed what has or hasn´t happened to us during the unknown time period. K reports a similar problem with her throat and indeed we are both heavily marked with red marks around our windpipes. One of the on-lookers describes 5 men. Two carried K, whilst 3 had attacked me from behind and then dumped us in the alleyway.

This helpful witness flags a taxi down and tells the driver to take us to Tourist Police station. I explain that we have absolutely no money. “Tardes! Tardes!” says the taxi driver and we´re down with the Tourist Police in about 20 minutes.

Very routinely, and without any shock or surprise, they collect our statements and advise us to go to our Embassies for full assistance. There is a British Embassy in the city, but K being Singaporean, has no Embassy or Consulate in the whole of South America. Her nearest port of call is in Washington DC.

They tell us that this robbery is fairly standard – there is a well-known pressure point on the throat that karate experts use to render their opposition unconscious, although it can be fatal if not executed accurately. At least our muggers were experts. Indeed, it is a not uncommon form of mugging in the more touristed areas of South America, and we subsequently here of a colleague (who stands at about 2 metres!) who had received the same treatment in Cusco, Peru.

We head back to the hotel with our helpful taxi-driver still in tow. The hotel staff are both kind and supportive. They tell us not to worry, pay off the taxi-driver and allow K to call her consulate in Washington. There is no-one in the office, so she leaves the hotel number and a brief explanation on the answer machine. Meanwhile, i contact our school in Bogotá to explain the situation.

Our saving grace is that K has her credit card, which unusually she had stored in her rucksack. The hotel feed us, and organizes another taxi to make the 40 minute journey to the British Embassy. They tell us the Embassy will help with not just passports, but funds and doctor check-ups as well. Sounds perfect!

There is an elderly British couple in front of us who have just had their belongings pick-pocketed and I try to wait patiently. We´re still both shaken and our throats are burning fiercely.

Eventually I get my chance to approach the counter. The Bolivian woman behind the sealed plexi-glass is both rude and abrupt, and I take an immediate dislike to her. I try to explain what has happened and she really is not interested at all. I ask to see either the Ambassador or another official, but she insists that I will only deal with her.

I try again. I explain that we were mugged, knocked unconscious twice and had all our money, air-tickets and passports taken. She only hears (or understands) that I need a new passport.

Yes, she is prepared to put the wheels in motion providing I give her US$65 and two passport-sized photos.. I explain for third time that I have lost everything including my cash and credit card.

“Then I can´t help you,” she informs me pleasantly with a thin smile. At this point i´m positively seething and spitting venom.

K hands over her credit card. Our delightful new friend scoffs at it. This is no good. Apparently payments have to be made in Bolivianos to US$ equivalents. Helpfully, she informs us that there is a bank that will give cash payment on credit cards only about a kilometer up the road.

K and i both feel very apprehensive to walk on the streets, but we have no choice. Fortunately we sort both the photos and cash within two hours and rush back to the British Embassy. It´s now closed for lunch. Not wanting to head back onto the street unless completely necessary, we hang out at the gate and wait as patiently as possible.

At last the gate opens up and we head back upstairs armed with photos and cash. Unfortunately, it´s still the same woman behind the counter. We hand over the photos and a huge bundle of Bolivianos. Argh yes! There is a problem. I have to pay the exact amount. All or bills are large ones. No worries, I tell her, we´ll donate the extra (all of about US$6). This is not acceptable to this bureaucrat. I ask her if she has change herself. She pulls out a safe-box and explains she does have the key. If I want a passport to be processed, i´ll need to hand over the exact money. Time to head back to the street again, having to wave a large bank-note around to get change. I roam from store to store in desperation to get this pathetic problem sorted.

Within 20 minutes I return to the Embassy triumphantly. The woman looks somewhat disappointed. She now has to let me fill in the forms, and can´t come up with any more excuses to delay the process further. She informs me that it should take between 3 – 7 days to process. I tell her we are staying at the Rosario, pass her the number and ask her to call as soon as she knows the time of collection. We are told the Embassy don´t provide such a service. I am a completely non-violent person, but at this point i´m tempted to check the properties of plexi-glass.

It´s about 4pm by the time we return to the hotel. By contrast to the hell of the British Embassy, the Singaporean Consulate in Washington has been frantically trying to contact K all day. They show genuine concern for her plight, offering her both money and medical attention. They will assist to get a pass from the Bolivian officials to ensure she can depart Bolivia and will inform Colombian officials that her new passport will be sent DHL to our home in Bogotá.

K refuses to leave the hotel, and i am very wary, but feel it´s important for me to get out and about, even if just to explore the surrounding streets. I even manage to walk past the scene of the incident. It kind of feels somewhat surreal, but I only have to swallow and my throat reminds me of the horror and nightmare that we endured.

It takes just four days for my passport to be issued and with the help of the school and not least Willy from Reyes Tours in Bogotá, we finally are able to travel back to the comparative safety of Colombia.

I´m so angry and disappointed about the treatment of the British Embassy, (especially when compared to their Singaporean counterparts), i write a letter of complaint to the Consulate General and copied it to The Sunday Times who publish a half page article the same week. Within three days I receive a full letter of apology from the Ambassador inviting me to visit him La Paz. Merci beaucoup Mr. Ambassador.

Despite this violent episode, I still hold Bolivia as one of the most interesting and beautiful countries in South America, and would recommend it. Muggings, brutal or otherwise, occur in so many regions of the world. We can´t stop our lives and live in fear. Of course with La Paz being the highest capital city in the world at about 3700 metres, you are more likely die of AMS at the airport than fall victim to a violent attack in the country.

the beautiful high altitude wind-swept deserts are not to be missed

You can check out some more photos from the trip by clicking here.

A word of advice however. If you see me in the street, please don´t come running up behind me – I freak.

Monday, November 23, 2009


A dromomaniac is a person who has a compulsive urge to travel. It certainly rings a bell close to home.

It is a cool new word for me, picked up whilst listening to Michael Palin´s “Around the World in 80 Days”. As I try to finalise routings through the African continent I have been listening to quite a lot of his stuff, most notably on his Sahara adventures, looking for both ideas and insights.

This former Monty Python has certainly enjoyed some extensive travel around the planet in the last 20 years.

Whilst envious of his adventures and the comparative comfort that he enjoys (deluxe safari adventures throughout Africa, private jeeps, hot air ballooning, direct flights to the South Pole, swanky Pullman coaches on the Orient Express, etc.) the thought of being accompanied by a complete film crew who endeavour to capture every moment on the road must be appalling.

I really like Palin´s adventurous streak and he hasn´t lost his sense of humour – he has become a bit like everyone´s favourite uncle.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Amma - the Hugging Saint

You can´t help but feel the spirituality that permeates India´s every pore. And what an immense variety! From the several thousand Hindu gods and all their reincarnations, Christians, Muslims as well as being the home of Buddhism and Sikhism. Indeed it has been the diversity of everything that makes India so special.

Of course it is untrue to say that there are not religious tensions exploding from time to time, but you do get the feeling of huge tolerance to pretty much everything.

A few of the volunteers on the Village Clean-Up yesterday are making a pilgrimage down South to get the blessings of Amma – the Hugging Saint. She will be in her ashram over the Christmas and New Year period.

For 30 years Indian spiritual leader Mata Amritanandamayi, to give her her real name, has been hugging people, leading some to give her a saintly nickname. Her motto after all is “embracing the World for peace and harmony”.

This really is as simple as it sounds.

Amma sits on a slightly elevated seat. Strangers come before her, kneeling, and she embraces each as though they were her own flesh and blood.

Time spent with Amma is free and she does not promote any particular faith, being for "all religions and none". She is said to have given some 26 million hugs, or "darshan", as the experience is known. Each is counted off with a clicker. She sits for up to 20 hours a day delivering up to 50,000 hugs in one session.

She has said that to hug someone is to symbolise giving, and that her embrace should help awaken the spirit of selflessness in people.

But there's more than just a cuddle. Her charity, the Mata Amritanandamayi Math, has UN consultative status and claims to have built more than 36,000 homes and several hospitals for India's poor.

Born in 1953, in a tiny village in Kerala, it is claimed she was born with a smile on her face and could walk and talk by 6 months. Even as a three year old, she sang devotional songs to Lord Krishna and carried his image with her. Wanting to put an end to suffering, it became her mission to give love to less fortunate people.

At the age of 22, she “became one” with Krishna and it is said people started coming to her for blessings.

I´ve also heard other somewhat unbelievable stories about her childhood including possessing blue skin as a baby, endured a premature death and reincarnation, and how animal brought her food in deep forests to sustain her.

Amma´s ashram was built in her home village of Amritapuri and started as a cow-shed. It now houses a few thousand devotees who flock to this gaudy pink palace, not just from across India, but from around the World. Discipline is meant to be very severe and some of the long-term devotees are reportedly one sandwich short of a complete picnic.
Amma´s pink ashram

Sarah MacDonald recalls her experience at the Ashram in her book, “Holy Cow”. Just before she is to receive her hug, she is asked to make her wish. She panics at her own indecision before choosing to wish for larger breasts. MacDonald claims that after a few days they had indeed swelled and were causing discomfort. They continue to grow to such an extent, that she flies back to her native Australia for a thorough medical check-up.

I have spoken first-hand to a few of her international disciples. All have raved about the experience and note the power and energy that exudes from Amma.

Reportedly she has hugged and healed some 20 million people all over the world as part of her mission. On Fridays she acts as the goddess Kali, and on many occasions she has claimed to be Lord Krishna himself.

Psychologist Dr Elvidina Adamson-Macedo says being hugged can release powerful natural chemicals in the body.

"Beta-endorphins are released when you are relaxed, and are a natural opium. A hug can induce that in a person.

"Opening your arms is the act of a mother, who is ready to comfort her child. But it's not only the action; it's everything that comes with it - the emotions and affection that's translated into a non-verbal action.

"But it has to be right. It would not work if it was just a performance."

You can check out her website by clicking here.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Cleaning Up for the Elders of Jampaling

It is a relatively early start for me today as I head up into the village at about 8am this morning. The Clean-Up meet has now been moved to 10.30 at the charitable Hope Centre, so I grab an omelet and espresso on the roof-top of Jimmy´s Kitchen. The weather is perfect; clear air and blue skies and I meditate in the sun.

There are about 60 Tibetans (including 8 monks) and more than a dozen International volunteers, but not an Indian in sight. I´m disappointed – even though the majority of Ganj residents are Tibetan refugees, there is still a sizable Indian population here. If passing travellers are prepared to help, why not the locals? Don´t we all have a duty and moral responsibility to help our neighbours and friends in our local community?

The target area today is at the Jampaling Home for the Elders, situated just behind the Tsuglagkhang temple and Dalai Lama residence on my favourite local kora. I am delighted, as i´m on smiling and greeting acquaintances with a number of the resident who spend days completing multiple koras, and I had been keen to do something for them in return before departing The Ganj.

In fact I recently asked Lobsang to enquire about doing some kind of Powerpoint photographic presentation for them, but unfortunately I have only just a few scanned photos from my two trips in Tibet - damn those pre-digital days. I guess it would have to be a very short presentation, and a clean-up for my elderly friends is probably a much more appropriate and practical gift.

I am not quite sure exactly how it materializes, but i end up in the “monks” group. Our task is to clean the windows using scummy water and dirty rags. Whilst cobweb removal is not a problem, no matter how hard I scrub, the windows look as mucky as ever. A septuagenarian Australian woman who is also helping out on window duty informs me that it is not possible to clean windows in direct sunlight. I don´t understand the physics behind this, but I fear she might be right. A slither of soap is passed around, and despite my best endeavours, there is very little improvement.

monks cleaning windows

I get a chance to peer inside some rooms. Facilities do look very basic, but generally well maintained, The residents are lovely - greeting and thanking all the volunteers, and offer us Tibetan bread and butter tea. Thanks, but certainly not for me.

Other groups have a much tougher day, collecting assorted dry and wet garbage from the compound.

Several of the residents are happy to pose for the camera and admire the results from The Beast, but a young Tibetan guy asks me not to take photos, so I very reluctantly desist.

many elders were happy to pose

By about 3pm, there have been about 40 large sacks of rubbish collected and the Elders Home looks all clean and shiny. Shame the windows aren´t quite as sparkly.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Keeping It Green Again

I´m out early tomorrow as a volunteer mountain-cleaner.

As previously blogged, every few months The Environmental Office asks for volunteers to help clean up the village. Usually there are loads of Tibetans and Westerners, but just a small handful of Indians who give up the best part of the day to collect the ever-increasing rubbish off the streets and hillsides. This is probably in complete opposite proportions to those who continue to litter.

When returning from my last puja down the Rekong Pass to Manali, a traffic snarl-up meant the last 40kms took about 5 hour to complete. I got out of the 4x4 shared taxi regularly to stretch my legs.

On one of meanders, i am walking up close to a rather sparkly red family car. An 8 or 9 year old boy opens the tinted black back-seat window and hurls out a 1 litre empty coke bottle. I go, pick it up and return it to the boy. I tell him calmly that Himachal Pradesh is my home. It is beautiful and should be kept clean. In fairness, he looks guilty, but does not say a word.

As i begin to walk to walk away, the boy´s father picks up the bottle and throws it down the mountainside. I must have a complete look of horror of my face, for the boy´s father gives me a large smile, an ambiguous Indian head-shake and a large shrug in return.

Do you wonder why i am sometimes filled with complete despair for humainity?

It´s going to be horrid, dirty and smelly, but i love The Ganj and it deserves to be kept as pristine as possible. It´s definitely looking a bit scruffy again and needs some extra tender loving care.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

World Cup Run In

I was up till 4.30am last night to follow the text commentary on the France v Rep. of Ireland match. Mad!

However, it does now complete the World Cup qualification stage.

Aubs reviews each country´s chances, but will refuse to give more definitive predictions until after the World Cup groups are drawn on December 4th and discovers what injuries occur to key players between now and June.

Algeria – the last African country to qualify for South Africa, they could well be the first to leave.

– under the reigns of the extraordinary Diego Maradonna, he´ll be putting his all in to oversee his team progress at least beyond the group stages.

Australia – The Socceroos will openly admit they are there to make up the numbers. They made it to the 2nd round last term, but I can´t see them pulling this off this feat again. The supporters will be right behind them though and will add to the World Cup spectacle.

Brazil – it´s a brave person who would bet against the Brazilians who can always turn on the heat in World Cup competitions. However, i´m brave – they´re not going to be lifting the trophy come 11th July.

Cameroon – they´ve pulled a few surprises in the past.

Chile – Chile pulled off several shocks in their qualification. Will need a lot of luck to progress beyond the group stage.

– will need a lucky draw if they are to progress out of their group. Organised, but not inspiring to watch visually.

England – perennial failures, the masters of penalty shoot-out misses, England have had to turn to the Italian Fabio Capello to begin to get the best out of some of the World class players. If England can go into the tournament with key players injury free, England should progress to the last 8.

– French football has declined steadily since their World Cup triumph in 1998. Some true class players, but they´re aging fast. Their manager, Raymond Dominique, looks tactically bereft.

Germany – regular over-achievers, Germany will need more luck if they are to succeed this time. I think even they would be happy with a top 4 place.

Ghana – with some quality players, I expect Ghana to be one of the strongest African teams.

Greece- dull, boring and uninspired, Greece sneaked through the back door, for the first time in 16 years. No chance.

Holland – with both organisation and that orange flair, the Dutch remain one of the Euroean heavyweights. Possibly a final 8 finish, but I can´t see them in the semis.

Honduras – nah.

Ivory Coast – Any team that possesses the cheating, but exceptionally gifted Didier Drogba, must feel confident. Africa´s strongest hope for success with several World class players spread throughout the team.

Italy – current World Champions, Italy just don´t look strong enough to retain the title. I expect them to make the last 8, but will need a lot of luck to go any further.

Japan – lively, organized and quick, if they get a lucky group, don´t be surprised to find them in the 2nd round.

Mexico – after a slow start to their qualification, the Mexicans have pulled together a good-looking string of results. If they can survive the group stages, expect them to make it to the last 16.

New Zealand – watching the All-Whites qualify against Bahrain, they are only in SA to make up the numbers.

Nigeria – Nigeria are becoming regulars on the World Cup scene. Could previous experience enable them to survive to 2nd stage? Possibly if they get a lucky draw.

North Korea
– I confess I have a strong partiality to this maverick country. This is my surprise Asian team. Just watch them go for it.
The documentary of their appearance in the 1966 World Cup finals, entitled The Game of Their Lives, is one of the most incredibly moving sports documentaries ever made. A must-see movie.

Serbia – technically good, Serbia can play some nice football, but not anywhere near as strong as last time.

Slovakia – great to see them at the finals, but they won´t be in South Africa for long.

Slovenia – another last minute sneaky, beating Russia in the play-offs. Good to see them qualify, but don´t expect too much.

South Africa – As hosts for the tournament, qualification has been automatic. Despite the home support, I fear S. Africa will struggle.

South Korea
– lacking the flair and home support that they received in 2002, they will find the competition increasingly challenging.

Spain – clearly Europe´s top team for the last two years, this could well be Spain´s best opportunity for World Cup success. They look class and have enough quality throughout the team.

Switzerland – the progress of Swiss football has been very good, which also included a place in the FIFA Under 17 World Cup final. Tight and organized, it is not always pleasant to watch.

Paraguay - Paraguay had a cracking qualification from the South American group, and they have the potential to shock and surprise.

Portugal – no longer the team they were until recently, Portugal sneaked in through the back door. They do possess some talent, and defensively still tight, but apart from Ronaldo, they have nothing that looks threatening.

USA – with Watford captain Jay Demerit playing, i really want them to do well. Alas, without a decent group draw, i fear they´ll struggle to progress out of the group stages.

Uruguay – despite some strong performance in qualification, they will need to show greater consistency if they are to progress beyond the group stages.

Watch Honduras put me to shame in South Africa on July 11th.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

A Short Anti - Capitalist Rant

So President Obama has been in China. His top priority? Economic trade.

What kind of f*cked-up world have we created where money is more important than human rights? Tibetans, Uighurs and other minority groups living under Chinese colonialism are facing cultural genocide and the “Leader of the Free World” sits by and worries about the US dollar. Sorry! But did i miss something? No one asked if i want to prioritise money over basic human rights? So much for "democracy".

What will it take for people to realise that capitalism is some horrendous sick nightmare? Whether in the foothills of the Himalaya, crossing Waterloo Bridge in London or riding the New York subway, don´t you ever look at the economically deprived and think there is a flaw in the world system that we live in?

How many bankers are you prepared to watch screw up the world economy and then reward themselves with million dollar bonuses? The rich get richer and the poor thrown into deeper poverty and all the social issues that that entails.

Fortunately, everything is impermanent, and that includes capitalism. I just wish i could witness its downfall first hand.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Death at Mount Kailash

Mount Kailash is the probably the holiest mountain on the planet. Revered by the Bonnists (pre-Buddhist Tibetans) as the point of all creation, whilst Buddhist believe it is the home of the Buddha Demchok who represents supreme bliss. It is even revered by Hindus as the recreational playground of Lord Shiva, who spends his time dancing and smoking copious amounts of cannabis.

Hidden away in the barren deserts of western Tibet, to circumnavigate the mountain is said to wipe away all the sins of ones´ lifetime. Indeed, according to Buddhists, 108 circuits will ensure enlightenment.

It takes about 8 days to make the journey from Lhasa to the sacred mountain in a rented Toyota Land-cruiser 4x4, but Hong Kong Kev, K, Tera and I are determined to make the pilgrimage.

The altitude outside of Lhasa never drops below 4000 metres. Roads, sealed or unsealed, rarely exist, and the drive is long and arduous. The scenery is stunning, and hours can go by before there is any sign of human life. Settlements of any form are very few and far between, and the only people around are the occasional pilgrims and nomads.
a Tibetan pilgrim

We are within a day of arriving in Darcha, the start of the pilgrimage trail, and we stop off late in the evening at an army out-post. Despite it being summer, temperatures drop alarmingly as the sun begins to set. We grab a quick dinner of instant noodles and retire to our “tourist barrack” for some cards before bed. There is no electricity and we sit huddled up in blankets around the light of a candle.

At about 8.30pm there is a knock at the door and a thirty something Chinese guy asks if we have any bottled oxygen for his wife who is “ill”. For a laugh, I had picked up a bottle in Lhasa, and having not long re-qualified for my Red Cross First Aid (pretty much mandatory for a teacher), i offer to go along.

I grab my torch and follow this somewhat troubled guy. He leads me across the rubble into a small hut (no more than 4 by 3) which is lit by a single kerosene lamp. It is a small barrack room filled with about 12 army soldiers. The young Chinese woman is unconscious on the bed and the soldiers are standing watching on. I ask which one of them is the doctor. None of them it transpires, they just want to watch. I make a futile gesture to try and remove some of the spectators, before quickly trying to focus on the situation. I certainly wasn´t expecting anything quite like this and my heart is racing in consuming panic.

The woman (probably in her mid twenties) is exceedingly pale and cold. I check first for breathing in the first instance. Nothing - so much for needing bottled oxygen. I ask questions as i try and locate a pulse. Her husband says they are returning back to Guangzhou (south China) after completing the kora around Kailash. She has been sick for more than a week and hasn´t eaten in more than 5 days. I distinctly remember having to bite my tongue – i am furious at him. However, this is not the time or place to berate his poor judgement. Why hasn´t he brought her down from the kora? – it´s the only way to survive Acute Mountain Sickness.

I try her wrist. I can´t swear to it, but i think i can detect a light pulse. It´s difficult to confirm as my own pulse is now hammering away. I check her neck, but find nothing. I return to her wrist and i am still uncertain if i can feel anything.

I know this is really bad and strip off my bulkier clothes (coat, gloves, hat scarf, etc.) and begin to administer CPR to the unconscious body. The soldiers watch my antics in somewhat confused silence, and i am sure i detect glances of horror as i administer mouth-to-mouth. Her husband understandably is getting more frantic and muttering to himself in Cantonese. I complete the first cycle of three, desperately checking for a pulse, but nada.

After what feels like an hour, but i guess would be no more than 10 minutes, i´m feeling exhausted and sweating like a donkey, despite the encroaching cold. Her husband now wants to give it a go and i count out for him. With no positive results, after a few minutes, he asks me to take over again. By this stage i´m aware of the utter futility in this, but with tears in his eyes, he begs and pleads with me to try, try again. Hell! I am not in a position to say no.

This macabre pantomime continues for a further 20 minutes. Her lips and face are now blue and i stop abruptly. I am not going to be able to raise the dead here. I hug the weeping widower close and stroke his hair. I don´t know what else to do and i certainly don´t know what to say. He cries his tears into me, nestling like a kitten, and again i am aware of the Chinese soldiers staring at us silently.

I collect my coat and gloves and make my way quietly back to the tourist barrack seriously humbled and somewhat dazed by the experience. It´s about 9.30 and the others have been waiting up for me. I´m shaking both through the cold and the scenario, and i briefly retell the story. We´re all very silent, and there is nothing else to do but try and get some sleep. K. hugs me tight as i shudder continuously, and i think we both fail to get any sleep that night.

What else can you do? Early next morning we travel onwards.
Aubs ties a Watford football shirt on Drolma Pass - at 5636 metres it marks the highest point of the Kailash Kora

Monday, November 16, 2009

Tushita Meditation Centre

The Tushita Meditation Centre is situated in the pine and rhododendron forest frequented by monkeys above McLeod Ganj on the road up to Dharamkot at an altitude of 2100 metres.

Established in 1973, it has gained an international reputation for both its introduction to Buddhism courses for all levels delivered by Tibetan and Western instructors. The centre also offers retreats of varying lengths. This is where Sarah MacDonald in her book Holy Cow reports on her retreat and her personal experiences in her raw Australian manner.

Signs around the centre remind all visitors to go around the complex quietly. Accommodation is provided in very basic huts. Basic vegetarian food is available on site.

Site rules include: -
No sex, drugs or alcohol
Respect all living things
No singing or music
Respectful dress
No pointing feet
Stand up when a teacher arrives
Non-Dharma books and reading material are prohibited

There is a good library available and weekly Tibetan and/or Buddhist related movies shown on Mondays and Fridays

The centre closes during December and January.

Check out their website for up and coming courses and information.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

After the Storm and Some General Ketchup Too

After an incredibly severe 30 hour storm, my Internet signal was down in the bedsit when i awoke at about 8 this morning.

It is a beautifully fresh and sunny morning and i need to head into the village to collect some more supplies. I also need to shake off the cobwebs and feel i´m close to cabin fever anyway. I was up till about four listening to some Alan Bennett monologues.

After a particularly successful shop, i stop off at the Cyberpoint Internet cafe on Jogiwara. I´m too lucky! PT is on-line having safely returned from her week-long birthday trip in Disneyland. I have missed her too much and we have a lot to catch up on, and what was meant to be a 10 minute mail-check, turns into a most pleasurable hour or so of ketchup chat.

Sitting behind me throughout is a young Jewish American woman who is on Skype to her parents. She clearly has a lot to say, and the conversation seems completely one-sided. She speaks loudly and fast relating every moment of her visit to India. For at least half an hour she raps lyrically and enthusiastically about her few days in The Ganj; her volunteer classes, her students, the storm, what she had for breakfast, everything. She then tries to explain to her parents about her 11 day retreat at the Tushita Meditation centre which starts on Tuesday, and where no talking is allowed.

I´m curious to find out if she can shut up for 11 seconds, let alone 11 days. Maybe this was some sort of pre-cleansing ritual. Actually, it was lovely to hear someone else proclaim their undying love for The Ganj.

Another strange week for me, but fortunately no more poltergeist activity.

My departure date from India is now confirmed for December 23rd. Flying into London, Boy is picking me up, taking me directly to my favourite Chinese restaurant on the planet, helping me to unpack and repack, and then taking me down to The Shot for Christmas.

Boy and pregnant Nic

Heading back to Watford on the 26th, G. is booking me in for a few days of dissertation work – G. is a statistician amongst other things, and has kindly offered me further help on the data handling and final presentation of the thesis. If the thesis is accepted i´m looking at a 7th Feb departure towards the African continent, but a plan B escape route to Africa is also in the offing if there are further amendments required.

A run-around of The South of England and Wales is also on the cards, as well as a visit to my parents who will be wintering in Nice for my birthday. Back in England, games of tennis, badminton and golf (weather permitting) have already been scheduled, as well as a possible and very interesting photo-shoot in a new genre for me. More on that if it materialises.

Having finally had my resubmission of my penultimate Educational Review paper accepted - to huge relief on my part, I can begin submitting the thesis to my Dissertation Tutor in Oxford. Having completed the third draft of the Methodology (about one third of the thesis), this will be sent off on Monday. The Literature Review is also now close to completion leaving about 7,000 words to complete on stats, discussion and conclusions (of which i now have several). The end is now clearly in sight.

Unfortunately, I am feeling even more whimsical about The Ganj. Although i had thought about doing some side trips to Rishikesh, Kinnaur and/or back to Parvati, i just can´t bring myself to leave the village at the moment. If i didn´t have an African adventure to look forward to, i´d probably end up here for the rest of my days.

Having completed my seven day course of Tibetan medicine, apart from a continued sore throat, again, despite the bitter and vile taste, these herbal medications are fantastic. I´m keeping up a steady dose of hot lemon and honey to ease the throat, as well as to stay warm. Much more tasty.

Just 30 more days left in The Ganj then - the countdown has begun. I fear the emotions are going to run riot.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Top 10 Coffee Mecca´s Around the World

It inspires passion, opinion and addiction. It’s the world’s second most valuable commodity (after petroleum), and it will almost certainly play a memorable role in your travels, no matter where you’re headed. We’re talking about coffee, of course, and the best places to partake…

or so says Lonely Planet

Having now been providing articles for Lonely Planet for about a year, i thought it was about time i stole one of theirs for my blog.

More regular readers to Ketchup With Aubs will know of my unashamed love for coffee. Pure, strong, black and sweet is the only way for me. And don´t even think of adding any cow secretions in that for me.

Lonely Planet rates the following as their Top 10

Addis Ababa
Some claim that Ethiopia is coffee’s birthplace, so it’s not surprising that the good stuff is ubiquitous here. If you’re invited to an Ethiopian coffee ceremony, don’t miss it: it’s a unique and elaborate ritual you’ll never forget. If not, there’s always Tomoca, a traditional Italian-style café that’s guaranteed to please.

Cubans love their coffee, which is served strong, black and sweet in small espresso-sized cups. Homegrown in the Escambray and Sierra Maestra Mountains, a fresh brew will be brought out as an icebreaker wherever you go. Coffee houses are sprouting by the minute in Havana, but you can’t go past local classic, Café de las Infusiones.

Surprisingly, Türk kahve (Turkish coffee) isn’t as widely consumed in its homeland as çay (tea). But don’t worry: you’ll have no trouble getting your caffeine fix in Istanbul. Traditional coffee houses such as Etham Tezçakar Kahveci serve a brew thick and powerful enough to put hair on your chest!

Colombia is famous for its rich, aromatic coffee. Unfortunately, it exports most of its best beans, leaving a mainly mediocre brew for its own citizens. One exception to this rule is groovy Le Bon Café in Medellín. You can also visit plantations in the Zona Cafetera and purchase coffee directly from the growers.


Coffee in Melbourne is often trumpeted as the world’s best, lovingly prepared with both Italian and supreme local roasts. The café scene is integral to much of the city’s socialising; lingering over a coffee is sacred, whether with a newspaper or with friends. Try Pellegrini’s for a quintessentially Melburnian experience.

As befitting the land of espresso, Italians take their coffee seriously. Do as the Romans do, and be precise about what you’re drinking: will it be un caffè, un caffè macchiato, un caffè lungo, un cappuccino or un caffè corretto? Famous throughout Rome, Caffè Sant’Eustachio is the perfect place to practise your newfound vocabulary.

Santa María & Valle de Dota

Coffee is probably Costa Rica’s most popular beverage - you’ll be offered cafécitos everywhere you go. Aware of its energising qualities, the country’s government even decreed in 1840 that all labourers building roads should receive a free cup every day. Visit Santa María & Valle de Dota for an insight into the Tico coffee industry.

São Paulo

Brazilians like their coffee strong as the devil, hot as hell and sweet as love. In the morning they take it with milk (café com leite). After that, it’s cafezinhos, regular coffee served in either a glass or an espresso-sized cup. Thanks to its Italian heritage, São Paulo boasts Brazil’s best cafés, with Café Floresta being one of our favourites.

It’s hard to complain about Seattle’s weather when one of the best forms of rainy-day solace, coffee, is available in such abundance. Trust us, this is one inviting city to get a buzz on. Though Seattle is where Starbucks originated, there’s no need to go the chain café route: not with one-off gems like Caffé Vita to choose from.

Vienna has a strong claim to the ‘Coffee Capital of the World’ title. Its Kaffeehäuser (coffee houses) are as famous as its classical music, and an attraction in themselves. The sheer number of coffee houses is staggering, but each has its own flair and flavour. Aida is a 1950s timewarp of a place, with a clientele to match and coffee to sing about.

Nothing like a slug of liquid gold to get a hard day’s sightseeing off to a good start!

I´m very surprised at the absence of Paris from the list and of course, Bogotá - even the tiniest ramshackle tiendas could produce high quality black nectar, not to mention a Juan Valdez coffee house at the corner of almost every major block in the city.

Any other ideas are most welcome.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Dr. Gloves meets Emily Lau

Emily Lau at HKIST

Doctor Gloves has been back in Hong Kong for 18 months. Returning as a lecturer at HKIST University, he is about the only academic who provides specific courses on Hong Kong society.

Gloves complains at his heavy timetable – six hours a week, but fortunately he only teaches Monday and Friday. This gives him plenty of time to pursue his passions for music and painting. Indeed most nights of the week he can be found performing with a Philippino band at the ferry terminal, playing Bee Gee covers. How cool a moonlight is that?

Today, Emily Lau is invited into his class. Lau was the first woman to be directly elected into the Legislative Council (LegCo), in September 1991, and co-founded The Frontier party in 1996. She served as a legislator until 1997, and was re-elected in 1998.

In 1998, she sued the Hong Kong branch of the Xinhua News Agency due to the latter's slow response over her queries for personal information. She lost the case and was ordered by the court to pay a legal fee of HK$1.6 million. Claiming that her lawsuit was in the public interest, she attempted to raise funds from the public to repay the debt. In December 2000, with over $1 million still outstanding, the agency (now the Central People's Government Liaison Office) applied to the court for her bankruptcy.

Besides being a victim of such institutionalized repression, Lau has been the subject of several criminal nuisance cases, including telephone nuisance to her office in January and October 2003, and two cases where food and/or faeces were splashed outside her office in Shatin in July and September 2003. A woman and an old man were arrested and fined in connection with some of these cases. Most notably, an arson attack against Lau's office took place on 21 June 2004. Posters outside her office, about an upcoming rally, were burned. Words were left saying "All Chinese traitors must die”. Paradoxically, such attacks exemplify how much her fight for freedom of speech remains relevant in today's Hong Kong.

Asked how the students responded, Gloves notes “They were quite in awe. She was passionate in her opinions. Not a whole lot of substance in the talk, but it was quite interesting to hear how she and her colleagues have been banned from entering China."

Lau is planning to have some of the students work in her office and run a voter registration drive.

Dr Gloves swanks it up in the exclusive Mandarin Oriental

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Female Football

My first teaching job was in an Inner-London primary school, with all that that entails. Confiscating drugs from 5 year olds, students who were physically, emotionally, and/or sexually abused - the full works.

I had a class of 29 seven year olds, of which 27 lived with one parent or less. There were 19 different first languages spoken. A real education!

Keen to do anything i could for such disadvantaged kids, i offered to set up a female football team. After all, as my CV proudly boasts, I am a qualified Football Association of Wales coach. Although there hadn´t been a girls team at the school, there were plenty of nearby schools who did. Thus, after 5 weeks of training, i organised a “Friendly” match with a nearby school.

Don´t ask me what causes it, but London kids are big – even at 10 and 11. My goalkeeper was a huge large breasted Nigerian girl, who i´d mistaken for a fellow teaching colleague when i saw her putting a cup into the staffroom sink on my first day at the school. She´d have been served in any and every London pub.

Friendly – it was not. Never have i seen such violence in any sporting arena. My team were pummeled quite literally into the ground.

At half time, we were losing 8 – 2 and my big burly goalkeeper was in floods of tears. My half-time team-talk involved me begging and pleading to her to take the field for the second half. It was a dismal afternoon, and did little to boost their self-esteem.

I share this anecdote following the indefinite ban on US soccer player Elizabeth Lambert who plays soccer for a New Mexican college. Footage of her atrocious misdemeanours on the football field have been shown both on ESPN and BBC World. Indeed, her violence even provoked a Facebook campaign. Interestingly, her coach described her as “a quality student athlete”.

Check her out on youtube by clicking here.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009


I´m often asked what my favourite travel destination is. For me, it is a no-brainer – Antarctica – the ice continent.

K. and I were fortunate enough to take two journeys to this remarkable and unique environment.

In 2004 we took the now-sunken cruise ship, Explorer from Ushuaia down the eastern side of the Peninsular, whilst our trip in 2007 on Antarctic Dream took us down the western side. Both trips were spectacular and magical. To be in an environment untouched by humans was an amazing privilege that few will ever see.

Congratulation to K. who will be holding consecutive photographic exhibitions at the following venues in Singapore starting on Moday: -

The Arts House
Exhibition: 26th November 2009 - 11th December 2009 (FOC)
Opening: 27th Nov 2009, 6pm-8pm, The Arts House

National University of Singapore Society, Kent Ridge Guild House
Exhibition: 14th December 2009 - 14th February 2010 (FOC)
Talk on Antarctica - 18th Dec 2009, 6.30pm-7.30pm, NUSS, ($5 for members, $10 for non-members)

The Blurb for the exhibition states
Antarctica has always been synonymous with unpredictable weather, strong winds, brutal storms and of course, freezing cold temperatures. However, despite its seemingly inhospitable facade, Antarctica possesses a quiet pristineness and unassuming elegance that makes it unique, different and somehow special.

This exhibition brings the beauty of this faraway continent to you in a collection of photographs. They were taken from two separate journeys made by Kemmy Lim.

Visitors will be treated to the delights of the different types of penguins, the amazing wonders of the environment and they will also have a peek at the few cruise ships / ice breakers that dare embark on the treacherous journey across the Drake Passage to the last continent.

Sales and tickets - The proceeds will go to the Children's Cancer Foundation
Do visit if you are around.

Some more of my photos from the 2007 voyage can be found by clicking here.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

A Political Pawn?

His Holiness Dalai Lama is currently visiting Tawang, the Indo-Chinese border town in the state of Arunachal Pradesh. Tawang was birthplace of the 6th Dalai Lama.

The Chinese government are furious, not least as the border has been hotly disputed since borders were drawn up in 1914 after The Great 13th Dalai Lama ceded the area to the British. Indeed, an incursion by the Chinese in 1962 almost led to an out-and-out war between the two most populated countries on the planet.

Dalai Lama holds the town close to his heart, for it marked the end of his harrowing escape from Lhasa and into safety more than 50 years ago. He is giving both teachings and blessings this week. According to his website, HHDL asked the community to work for removing evils like superstition, bring "positive change" in society and become Buddhists of the 21st Century.

Security continues to be a major issue, both for Dalai Lama and this sensitive Indian border region. BBC World today asked the question whether the Indian government were using the Dalai Lama´s visit as part of some mind-game with China? Probably. The Tibetan community will never forget the kindness shown by the Indian government for welcoming Tibetan refugees against the explicit requests of China. Respect! Not surprisingly, the PRC use HH Dalai Lama´s visit as further evidence of separatism.

HHDL will be back in The Ganj to confer the Yamantaka Initiation (jigje kawang) at the request of Russian devotees at the Main Tibetan Temple. On November 24 afternoon will be the preliminary initiation along with teachings on Atisha's Lamp of the Path To Enlightenment (jangchup lamdron) and on November 25 will be the actual initiation. No teachings are scheduled for both the mornings. He will not be giving any further teachings in The Ganj until 28th February for which i definitely won´t be around for. As yet these are the only scheduled teachings in the village. Sensibly HHDL will spend much of December in Australasia.

Whilst no doubt, “outsiders” will be back in the village for 24th November, with winter now firmly in place, The Ganj has been beautifully quiet over the last few days, with just a handful of cold-looking travellists huddling in the coffee shops.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Another Change in the Weather (and a bit of ketchup)

McLeod Ganj is the wettest village in India. Indeed, had I had known this fact before I arrived, I probably wouldn´t have come at all.

However, for the last month, the weather has been bright and gorgeous during the day, even if bloody cold at night. I can´t remember ever having three consecutive dry days, let alone almost a month.

At about midnight last night, the wind picked up dramatically gusting around the apartment. Despite sealing the windows with tape, it still managed to penetrate the bedsit. It continues throughout the night, and in the morning we have sludgy rain and no electricity. There is some snow on the slopes above, but the peaks are hidden by the overhanging clouds.

I´m keen to progress my Literature Review for my dissertation and i´m trying to fill a chunk on phonological awareness (an indicator of reading success), but the battery drains out in less than 3 hours with only a couple of paragraphs completed.

It´s so cold, i´m forced into bed with two hot water bottles and sleep most of the afternoon. Just before sunset, I awake to hear the sound of the heater turning on. Whilst it has stopped raining, the peaks are still buried within the clouds. Come 11pm the winds are up again and it´s hailing outside. Fortunately, the electricity has disappeared again. (Yet!).

The Tibetan medicine has kicked in well; my stomach is more settled and my appetite is returning. The evening medicine balls have to be chewed and taste so foul, it takes all my will-power not to vomit it all out.

Boy has kindly purchased me a return ticket from London – Nice for January 22nd, so I will have to try and sort out flight tickets from Delhi – London. Still unsure if to fly back for Christmas or wait till to the New Year, but decisions will have to be made soon. The thought of leaving the Himalayas after 17 months is horrendous.