Throwing off the Bowlines

Tonight I fly to Delhi, continuing the adventure. A few years ago I began planning this voyage, which started as simply a longer trip to India. Over the years and in planning, it grew to the journey it has become. I added on the winter retreat at Abhayagiri, which then meant that I would start six months of India in April, staying through the hottest months of the year.

I wasn’t ready for that much adventure.

So I added a few stops in between, and other stops added themselves. The journey has grown, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed each step so far. The ties that I have made and strengthened, and the lessons I’ve learned even now have made the trip worthwhile already.

So now the time has come to head much further east. I know some have concerns about my safety, and some can’t imagine why I’m going there in the first place. So I’ll offer a quote I found on my friend Tom’s blog:

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bow lines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

So now at 50, I’m without a job, a home, a car, etc.. The safe harbor is doing what I’ve always done, and even when I return to the US, the adventure will continue but in a different way.

There have been so many people that have inspired this trip for me, and continue to do so. Friends that have given up their secure jobs and life to ordain, emigrate, travel, or even just change their approach to what life is for. Friends who instead of saying “I can’t”, said “well….why the heck not?”.

For example, I’ll include a link to one of my friend Tom’s posts here. It’s about traveling at any age. Of course, it’s not just about travel, but about living one’s life without regrets. As Thoreau aptly wrote:

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

I will continue to blog from India, and the adventure will continue. It may be a few days until my next post. In the meantime, dear readers, what, if anything, will you regret twenty years from now? I wish for you sweet dreams that come true.

Say no to crack, but not craic

I waved goodbye to Scotland as I flew across to Dublin, and met a friend of mine I haven’t seen in over 14 years. Larry retired from being a Physician Assistant and made his home in Ireland several years ago. As I knew I was going to be in the neighborhood, so to speak, we agreed to meet in his new hometown of Waterford for a few days.

We did spend a little time in Dublin, and went to the medieval museum in Waterford, along with the Waterford crystal store. I didn’t buy any for several reasons, one of which is that  a few years ago the Waterford store laid off thousands of its workers with essentially a “piss off”  when they moved operations out of the country. 

Most of the time was spent catching up with what we had been doing and just hanging out. One evening we went out to a nearby pub to meet the friends that have become his local family. 

There is a Gaelic term called craic, which loosely translated, is about lively conversation and camaraderie. Yet it’s more than that, lying somewhere beyond where words can go.

I’m not one to frequent bars. I’m not a fan of cigarette smoke, nor do I drink. You might ask, what’s the point? But it was worth going to the pub to spend time with an old friend, make new ones, and to spend some time getting to know them. I would say it was great craic.

Larry, Pat, and Brennan
Good conversation

Larry and I

Oh, for peats sake!

I left Inverness by bus up to Ullapool, then took a ferry to the Isle of Lewis. As the bus headed north, the forests took turn with heather, and green rolling hills became mountains. I could definitely tell now that I was in Scotland. Ullapool arrived on the horizon, with rocky cliffs on one side of a dark gray fjord and windswept hills on the other. The sun would occasionally break through the clouds to create sparkling diamonds on the water. The beauty literally brought tears to my eyes.

The ferry slowly made its way north, over a two and 1/2 hour journey. I did manage to see a dolphin on the way. I made it into Stornoway around noon, and had the afternoon to explore the town and do some much-needed laundry at the hostel.

The next day was Sunday. For the island, that means that nothing except churches are open. No buses, no restaurants, no grocery stores. Nothing. Luckily I had been warned, and I got groceries the night before.

Having nothing open was a perfect opportunity to walk around nearby Lews castle and the extensive grounds around it. This had the main forest of the nearby area, which was a beautiful place to walk. Further afield I walked along green open hills. I smelled an aroma that smelled a bit like the sage found in the desert. Later I realized it was the peat soil, to which I would quickly become accustomed. I also followed a river with water that looked like Guinness. I later realized that this also was from the peat soil.

I returned around noon having walked ten miles. Enough walking, I chatted with the other women in the hostel in the afternoon. The hostel experience is great, but it’s nice to have a private space to retreat to as needed.

On Monday I made it out to the Port of Ness, which is at the northeast corner of the island. There are remains of an old Clan Morrison stronghold called Dun Eistean there, although not many remains remain. Mostly just a small hill with surrounding lumps in the ground. But being near the shore, the cliffs behind the remains were spectacular, and I spent until the afternoon roaming about.

Today was spent in a whirlwind tour of four other ancient sites on the island. Each one of them warrants at least a full day’s visit, but someone at the hostel had worked out a schedule for the buses in which all four could be visited in one day, so there I was.

The first was Carloway Broch, the remains of an ancient structure once used by the Morrison clan. It’s along northern coast of the island, which is more rocky and hilly than the flat interior of the island. The broch was a round structure, with passages within the walls and wee doorways to duck through.

Next stop was the Callanish stone circle. Think Stonehenge, without the horizontal lintels on top. No one really knows why it was built, but the when dates back to 3-4000BC.

The next stop, Garynahine village, was an open air museum of old crofters cottages. Exhibits included a working loom, furnishings typical of the houses, and a peat fire going. Behind the village were stunning vistas with cliffs venturing towards the sea.
Last was Arnol Black House. Black houses got their name from the lack of windows, and because their lack of chimneys meant that smoke from the peat fires would accumulate on the ceilings. They also had half of the house designated for animals and half for people. I’m sure the animals may have contributed to the grime as well.

Tomorrow I’m off to Ireland to visit another friend for a few days. Since I’m limited to about a dozen pictures per post, I’m working on putting together a slideshow on YouTube. There’s just too much beautiful scenery here.

Inverness, I hope

I watched the landscape change from the train window as we headed further north into Scotland. Rolling pastoral hills morphed into mountains, glens, and forests. Animals became shaggier. Accents got a wee bit thicker. 

I arrived at Bazpackers Hostel in the evening, and mostly just relaxed. The hostel was pretty nice, and it was interesting to meet the other people there from all over Europe. I was happy to see others my age and older staying there. There were six beds in the room I was in, and I was surprised to find that the room was coed. There was one guy in the corner who behaved himself, other than snoring.

Today I started out walking along the swiftly moving river Ness. The path goes by the Inverness castle, churches, houses and shops facing the river, along with forests. The whole suggested route on my tour map, complete with stops, didn’t take very long.  So on the way back I looked around a few tourist shops selling tartan kilts, tartan bags, tartan scarves, tartan socks, tartan underwear, and just about everything else. I didn’t buy any. The fun discovery was a grocery store called Morrison’s. How could I not go in? While perusing inside I found condensed milk that comes in a tube and needn’t be refrigerated. Perfect for a “cuppa” on the go. I didn’t ask if they’d give me a discount for having the same name.

After capping off the morning with fish and chips followed by banoffee pie, I arrived back at the hostel. One o’clock. Now what? So I decided the morning’s walking wasn’t enough, and found a trail. The Great Glen Way goes all the way from Inverness to Glencoe, about 60 miles. I wasn’t planning to walk the whole way, but thought it would make a nice out and back walk. 

Thanks to my lack of a map, the out and back turned into a loop of sorts, but the loop took me along a peaceful canal, and through a forested hill offering stunning views of Moray Firth. On my way back, I was pretty sure that I was headed in the right direction, but I will admit that there were a lot of signs for Fort William, and they had me nervous for a bit. I did find my way back. My watch tells me I walked over 14 miles today, so maybe I burned off that banoffee pie.

Tomorrow I’m on my way to the Isle of Lewis. I’ll take a bus to Ullapool, and then a ferry to Stornoway, where my next hostel will be. I’ve bunched up my posts here a bit, so I’ll give you a break until Tuesday or Wednesday. Thanks for following along!

On the Harnham Farm

After a slight transportation/directions snafu, I arrived at Harnham monastery on Tuesday morning. I felt immediately welcomed, and sensed a closer atmosphere. Harnham is a smaller place surrounded by rolling hills of farmland. The sound of sheep bleating and cows mooing provide a soothing, pastoral setting. Although there isn’t much in the way of forest at the monastery, within the grounds are quiet gardens and conservatories, and many quiet spots. There is also a pond on the property which serves as a conservation area and a place for monastic dwellings, and a short walk away is a larger lake surrounded by forest.

The buildings are smaller cottages, and my room on the second floor seemed to me to the best in the house, looking out over the fields and hearing sheep nibbling on grass below my window. 

The abbot, Ajahn Munindo, seemed warm and welcoming, and the rest of the residents were as well. I found myself wishing I had scheduled more time here, as it became my favorite of the three monasteries I’ve been to. Perhaps someday I’ll be able to return for a longer visit.

The main meditation hall
Meditation hall at guest house
Quiet spot

Garden conservatory

Seclusion of the mind

I spent two short days at Chithurst Forest Monastery last week, in southern England. Chithurst is named for the town it’s in, but its Pali name is Cittaviveka, which means seclusion of the mind. In other words, not being distracted by various things, even in the midst of them. 

The monastery is also secluded physically, and is a quiet place in the midst of forests and fields. The buildings are mostly old cottages that originally were in terrible shape. When the monastery started, there were open areas in the roof, and the walls were in equal disrepair. Now you’d never guess, and the hard work of many monastics and lay supporters is very obvious. The grounds are beautiful. Chithurst has a cloister as well, with a garden in the middle and stone walls all around. The meditation hall has a palpable peaceful energy, with post and beam construction, tile floor, and a centered altar that focuses visual attention there. The adjacent forest; Hammer Wood, is peaceful and quiet. A great place to walk through or just stop and sit.

I found myself wishing I had planned more time there, but with monasteries, traveling by the seat of one’s pants doesn’t work very well. Gricel and I just barely got in to stay for the time we did, as the guest spaces fill up fast. I’m glad we were able to visit though. Perhaps the time will come when another visit transpires.

After we left Chithurst, the next day I headed north stopping briefly at Newcastle on Tyne. I spent the evening walking around the castle and the quay (riverside), which was lovely. The next day I headed to Harnham Monastery, but that’s another entry. I’m behind in posting, so I’ll add some pics of Newcastle here as well.

In the land of scones and clotted cream

It’s been a busy week, but very enjoyable.

After leaving Amaravati, my friends took me to a celebratory birthday brunch, where I enjoyed a full English breakfast. Unlike, our typically sweet American breakfast, the English breakfast is more savory. A full breakfast consists of eggs, bacon, sausages, black pudding, roasted tomatoes, baked beans, sautéed mushrooms, and fried bread. And if you haven’t heard of it, black pudding is more like a sausage. Upon discovering the ingredients, one might say “yuck!”, but it’s actually very tasty. Really!

Not for vegetarians

On Monday Gricel and I went to London. She had a harp lesson, and while she was thus engaged, I spent nearly an hour in Tesco’s, a grocery store, marveling at all the unique foods that are here. Afterwards we stood in two separate queues for the London Eye, a giant Ferris wheel with glass “cages”, and a Thames River cruise. The time in queues (waiting in line) was probably longer than the time on the attractions, but worth doing once.

Tuesday was spent doing home projects at the house of Mark’s sister and brother-in-law, then back to Amaravati for the evening. His sister and BIL had gone on vacation, and I was able to get my dog fix by dog sitting until their appointed person could come a few days later. 

“And they call it…puppy love”🎶
Wednesday was spent walking along the canal in Berkhamstead, rewarded with giant scones and clotted cream. Unlike the triangular hockey pucks that are served at Starbucks, true scones are closer to what North Americans call “biscuits”, often with currants or other fruit. They’re best slathered with clotted cream (sort of somewhere between whipped cream and butter) and jam, but views vary widely.

On Thursday, we went out to Stratford on Avon to see Shakespeare’s home. On the way there, I enjoyed a trip down memory lane when we drove through my old stomping grounds of RAF Upper Heyford. I knew the base had been decommissioned, and would look very different, and it certainly did. The airfield is now a giant car park/storage, and many of the buildings have been torn dow and replaced by new houses. I stood in the new neighborhood where my old dormitory was and marveled at the change. There were still enough of the old buildings remaining to provide some nostalgia, and the place was nice to see. It feels like I was there in another life, as so many things have changed there and in my own life in the 30 plus years since I’ve been there. 

Today Gricel and I will head out to Chithurst Buddhist monastery to contemplate impermanence (and other things). I’ll leave you with more photos to enjoy until I get back online.

Tudor almshouses

Death by Shakespeare?
Not an “ugly duckling”!
What? Wait, where am I?

Not all who wander are lost…at least not much, anyway

To start the trip, I stayed at a hotel in Pittsburgh to catch a 6AM flight to Heathrow. Despite the comfy bed with comfy pillows, I did not sleep in said hotel. I stayed up late doing last minute correspondence, and then staying up late became staying up early. The next thing I knew I had only a few hours until I caught the 4AM airport shuttle, so I decided to substitute sleep with a 24oz heavy cream latte at the airport. It worked for a while: I stayed awake until a few hours after I arrived in England, a total of 36 hours without sleep. But the price paid was a deep physical and emotional exhaustion that took at least two days to shake off.

Whisked from the airport by my friends Gricel and Mark, and gently handed to the monastery the next day, I started to recuperate with extra sleep, meditation, and, ironically enough, walking.

I am in love with Britain’s public footpaths.

For the uninitiated, England and Wales have an extensive network of trails that connect all over the country, through farms, forests, and countryside (In Scotland one doesn’t need to use specific trails, as any property is essentially open for public walking). One could walk from one end of the island to the other in a myriad of paths, all through public and private land. It’s a brilliant system. So I’ve been wandering all over Hertfordshire on my time off. There have been times when I’ve, umm…taken an unplanned longer scenic route, but I haven’t wandered too far off. And it’s been a  great way to see the country.

All the red lines are footpaths. How awesome is that?

When I haven’t been walking, I’ve been staying at Amaravati Buddhist Monastery. Amaravati is located northwest of London, and has been around for thirty years. Although it wasn’t the first western monastery in the tradition which I follow, nor the largest in property size, it’s now certainly the largest in terms of residents. There are at present, 28 male and female monastics and monastics-in-training. The monasteries I’ve been to prior to this ranged from only two to twelve. There is also a steady stream of visitors, as the monastery is much more accessible than the monasteries in North America. In addition to the handful of permanent lay residents, there seemed to be about one to two dozen guests staying there during the week, and weekend day visitors reached upwards of two hundred on weekends.

The schedule was typical of the monasteries I’ve been to, with the exception of a very civilized tea break in the middle of the morning work period. It is England, after all.

The grounds are beautiful. The temple portion of the monastery is fashioned like an old cloister, with vines hanging in the walkway. The meditation hall is lovely and spacious with tall, beamed ceilings. There are plenty of small gardens and hedgerows around the property, lending places for rabbits, birds, and voles to hide within. Even during the work period, it’s a peaceful, quiet place.

The Cloister

It was also a great place to spend my 50th birthday. Mark and Gricel came to visit with chocolate cake, flowers, and well wishes, and I felt wrapped in the strength of friendship, family, and community, even from those far away.

So despite the rough start, not a bad way to begin this leg of the journey.