Howdy

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Having whetted my appetite for cheesy road trips, I couldn’t resist driving up to the High Desert for a couple of days and exploring Pioneertown. It started out as a 1940s film set for Westerns, and is now a tourist attraction in the desert. It’s got a motel, a Roadhouse bar with great music, and streets with names like Annie Oakley Drive and Rawhide Row.

IMG_0012Did I mention I’m in the United States? IMG_0018Yes, I have flung myself around to the other side of the globe on a whim. That is how I roll. Spent a few weeks in Canada, then flew down to SoCal to see a couple of friends and acquaint myself with the desert and um, commune with the silence in my soul or something. The silence is, I have to say, amazing. You can hear for miles.

It took me all of five minutes to wander Mane Street [sic] with its fake Old West shops, barbers etc., all of which were closed, and its sign advertising the regularly scheduled stampede, which I think occurs in tourist season. (I’m not sure whether it is the cows or the tourists that form the stampede itself.) I then wandered further, and found Pioneertown’s true attraction: a mad junk garden created, presumably, by some local resident. Statues, bits of rubbish, a row of old typewriters, a cross on the ground in shards of dry wood. It captured the spirit of the place more than the film set. Although the fake town is somehow ok too. Authenticity is overrated. IMG_0043

And there, in the midst of the garden, surrounGuanyinded by her own geometrical arrangement of junk, I found a statue of Guan Yin, and I paused for a while to say hello. The Goddess of Mercy smiled at me in the desert. I need a bit of mercy after my recent quixotic endeavours. So thanks for that.

Today I plan to see the Joshua Tree National Park. I’m trying to programme the address in to the Sat Nav, but I am having problems. Turns out the streets have no name.

Shan and the Art of Scooting

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I recently finished a week-long tour of Mae Hong Son province, a region of northern Thailand which borders Burma. I rode around the Mae Hong Son Loop, 600km of mountain roads, on a 150cc Honda scooter which I rented in Chiang Mai. It was a wonderful trip, leisurely enough to get to know a few of the towns along the way, with plenty of lovely curves on the mountain roads and space to reflect as I zipped through magnificent karst landscapes. My possessions fitted (almost) neatly under the saddle of the bike. I felt free.

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Not actual size.

Because I am the Master of Cheese, I decided to take the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance as reading material on this journey. I’ve read it twice before at the ages of 17 and 30 (more or less). Each time it has given me something different. This time was no exception.

The book is the memoir of Robert M. Pirsig.  Pirsig’s life was fairly run-of-the-mill. He studied molecular biology at university, but dropped out after thinking too hard about life and questioning science; then he went to India, studied Eastern philosophy for ten years, left after questioning that too, and taught rhetoric in a remote mountain town in Montana, where he thought himself firmly up his own rear end, went mad and was committed to a mental hospital. So, pretty normal, then.

Wat?
Wat?

In the book, we follow a post-mental-hospital motorcycle trip that he takes across America with his son and some friends. We see both the trip, and the ‘new’ personality of the narrator piecing together the bits of his previous life – the life of a character he calls ‘Phaedrus’ after one of Plato’s Sophists – before they gave him electroconvulsive therapy and he forgot himself. It’s the story of a divided mind searching for a way to reunify itself, as well as an exposition of Pirsig’s philosophy of ‘Quality’, which he claims to be (at least related to) a pre-Socratic way to understand life. By the end of the book, he is styling himself as a modern-day Sophist doing battle against two thousand years of Aristotelian ascendancy, as well as showing us the Tao of being a mechanic. It’s a great read, especially if you’re the kind of person prone to thinking themselves up their own rear end, which I most undoubtedly am.

Here is the story of my 8 day scooter trip in Thailand. Please read and enjoy.

Day 1

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A passing motorcycle in Mae Chaem

I take too long over breakfast in The Larder Cafe and don’t leave town until 2pm. Cramming a plastic bag full of clothes and several books into the under-seat compartment of my Honda plus a plastic bag with its handles wedged under the seat dangling off the side, then texting a friend the word ‘Geronimo’, I head to the inner circular road and tentatively south on Highway 108, trying to avoid being squashed by trucks.
After an hour or two, there is a side road off up into the mountains. It’s beautiful. I reach the highest part of Thailand. Pine trees, mountain ridges receding into the distance. After a while I realise that my aim, which is to get to Mae Sariang that evening, is completely over-optimistic, since I’ve been scooting along at 40kph or so. Yes, it’s wild ride.
In Zen, Pirsig is always pitching a couple of tarpaulins as a tent and heading off to find spring water, in a proper man-of-the-mountains purist style. I briefly consider following suit, but decide instead to check in to a lovely guest house in the mountain town of Mae Chaem, strum the house guitar while I watch the sunset with a beer, then head for dinner at the cafe next door. I eat, listen to the acoustic guitarist and befriend some cats. I fail utterly to ponder the meaning of metaphysical ideas, and send lots of text messages instead.

I was the only guest here.
Not a tarpaulin tent.

Day 2

While wandering around Mae Chaem and taking a picture of a cow, I am struck by the friendly of the local people. Such unadulterated niceness must be the result of some fairly deep epiphanies, I reckon. I scratch my head and determine to get to the bottom of the mystery: Why are the people around here all so, like totally Zen? Still pondering this conundrum, I mount my trusty Honda and head down out of the mountains to join back onto the 108 as it winds east OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAtowards the valley where Mae Sariang lies.

I somehow ride blindly straight past Mae Sariang and am stopped at a police checkpoint. I am suddenly aware that I have left my passport with the scooter rental people in Chiang Mai and I am alone, a foreigner, in a border province with no papers. Images of police cells and The Riverhouseespionage charges haunt me as I cheerily greet the officers. Then the nice policeman gives me a glass of Coke and tells me to turn around and head back to Mae Sariang. I check into the Riverhouse Hotel and have a pleasant beer on the terrace, watching the river, pondering again the inexplicable niceness of people round these parts.I also realise that I have badly sunburned knees from the first two days of riding. They have gone the colour of beetroot and are quite painful.

Day 3

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A pig.
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The villagers loved my marvellous trousers.

I have booked a tour to hike to a Karen hill village. Since I am alone, the tour guide takes his moped and I take my scooter. I insist that we stop to buy long trousers so that my knees will not spontaneously combust. I find a marvellous pair of tie-dye brown and purple baggy trousers, and don them proudly.
The guide leads me by motorcycle out into the surrounding

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Karen lady tilling the steep fields

countryside and then we hike for a few hours through rainforest and rice terraces. We pass by a forest full of monkeys and listen to their calls. I might have been imagining it, but the monkeys’ cries seem to me to contain a note of mockery. I cannot understand what they might be mocking, though.

 

On an unrelated matter, my trousers, by this point have more or less disintegrated at the crotch. This just goes to show that you can’t have everything in life. Mae Hong Son: lovely people, poor-quality garments. Yin and Yang. Balance. Et cetera. That’s what life is all about, after all.

We finally arrive at the village. The villagers find me hilarious for some reason, but I am used to the mysteries of the mystic ancient mountain peoples of the world and I expect there is some deeply symbolic cultural reason for their laughter. We have an extended lunch, weather a heavy but brief downpour and hike to the bikes via a waterfall where I cool off.

 

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A motorbike in the rain.

We then go on a ride through steep, rocky dirt roads and winding mountains to
hot springs, where I un-cool off. I end back in Mae Sariang on the terrace of a restaurant with the glorious rain beating down on the roof and a Paenang curry, and more beer.

Day 4-5

This is a straight ride up the valley, ending at the town of Mae Hong Son. I take a day off the sightseeing and work for some time writing in my notebooks. I find a great little dive bar – the Crossroads – and befriend an Irishman, who is teaching grammar and syntax at a local university, much as Pirsig taught rhetoric in remote Montana. He is happy to talk, so we do. Cows return home. By the end of the night, between us, we have solved all of the world’s problems.

Day 6.

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View from the coffee shop halfway to Pai.
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Does dog have Buddha nature? I think this picture answers the question.

My hangover does not prevent me from enjoying the best ride of the trip, from Mae Hong Son to Pai, through the most stunning mountains. I end in Pai, which I have been told by a friend is ‘a hippie orgy’. I eat a very bad steak.

 

Day 7.

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Stuff that you are not allowed to do on this bit of grass.
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The Circus.

I explore Pai – off to the canyon, where health and safety regulations seem not to have been adequately thought through, and go for a walk along precipitous, crumbling paths in the heat. I then go for a long ride through the surrounding countryside, nearly get lost, but don’t.
Finally, I find the famous Circus Hostel, Jpegwhich is both a hostel and circus skills school, all top knots and braided beards and poi-spinning and people with artistic tattoos all desperate to look cool. It is the main remnant of Pai’s old hippie backpacker scene. I spend a pleasant enough hour or two reading my book and silently mocking the poseurs, because I am not pretentious at all, oh no, au contraire.

Day 8

Back to Chiang Mai through the famous however-many-it-is turns of the road from Pai. I park my trusty scooter outside the Larder Cafe, where the staff are happy to see I haven’t broken my neck. I’m happy to be backing Chiang Mai for a couple of nights before leaving Thailand.

The Larder
The Larder. I use this cafe as my office in Chiang Mai. The breakfast is excellent.

I have come to the conclusion that the chilled-out-ness of the locals around the Mae Hong Son loop must be because they are always riding motorbikes everywhere. There’s something different about this kind of travel. You feel part of the scene. As Pirsig puts it in Zen, the view from a car is just more television.

Did my motorcycle trip have a similar effect on me as Prising’s epic journey across America? Did I piece together the fragments of a previous life? I have felt, during this stay in Thailand, that I have found a lost part of myself, that I have become again closer to someone I used to be. But that happened before this trip, while I was still in Chiang Mai, and the part of me I had lost was not someone with a metaphysical axe to grind, but someone who allowed himself to feel deeply in other ways. So there’s a parallel, yes, but this trip was not an awakening. Rather, it was a pleasant, reflective coda to a stay in Thailand which has shaken me up, turned me around and set me on some new path.

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Hackers

Centre
Centre

I finally found it!

I am not one of those people who thinks that ‘everything happens for a reason’. Au contraire. I embrace the fact that life throws a bunch of meaningless crap at us over and over again, like a screaming cosmic monkey warning us off its tree by flinging faeces in our general direction. And yet, sometimes the temptation to thank providence is great.

Getting liberally caked in Cosmic Monkey Crap over a period of many years can be a dispiriting business. One can feel jaded. One can lose one’s highs and lows, as Linda Ronstadt so poignantly sang in the song ‘Desperado’, a song which seemed to pursue me through my travels this year. And so I have to thank Chiang Mai for throwing that extra load of crap and ridiculousness at me. For tipping me over the edge.

My computer was drowned in Songkran. I am typing this on my ASUS. I have spent 5 weeks with a group of digital nomads. They did computer stuff while I was writing longhand into notebooks. We worked, we talked, we drank, we ate, we explored. We built cool stuff.

Thanks Hacker Paradise and thanks Chiang Mai for a bit of absurdly unjaded real life.

www.hackerparadise.com

Oh, and FYI at the centre of the universe there is a very pleasant swimming pool.

Thought for the day

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Wisdom.

Greetings from Taiwan. I’ve been working hard recently, on a personal project which involves lots of computer coding. In my life as a wandering minstrel/mathematician/aspiring author, sometimes work must be done. So, during the last couple of weeks, I have been cloistered in a hotel room in Kaohsiung, bashing away at a keyboard, working on making some software. It’s a quixotic project, one which might end up being a colossal waste of time and money, but if committing oneself to Sisyphean labours, rolling rocks up hills only to see them roll back down again, isn’t the very essence of the existential lifestyle, then damn it, I don’t know what is. I aspire to the condition of absurdity as popularised by that famous Algerian goalkeeper bloke. I am happy to report that think I might be on my way to being utterly absurd. And so it goes.

Anyway, here I am back in Taipei for a few days, staying in a hostel. The hermit’s luxury cave is gone and I am on the road again. Next week I will fly to Japan for new adventures, including snowboarding (which I have never done) and skiing (which I last did in 1999). I shall also endeavour to see the hot-spring-bathing snow monkeys.

Speaking of snow, Taiwan has had it’s coldest weather in a long, long time over the past few days. From the High Speed Train today I could see the snow-covered tops of the mountains. It lifted my spirits. Yesterday in Kaohsiung felt like winter in Scotland. Shivering, I secretly enjoyed it.

My wisdom for you today comes from the wall of the common room in the Green World Hostel. Obviously, literally, you should never put jam in a toaster, but I think the message goes much deeper than the purely literal. In the great toaster which is life, remember to keep the sweet sticky fruity stuff away from the hot electric bits. Otherwise when it pops you could get a nasty surprise. Something like that. Deep, right?

 

A-wop-bop-a-loo-bop

Smangus June 2015 (13 of 46)-2Taiwan: a mystical land of cloud seas, green mountain forests, misty mountains, hobbits wizards and dragons. Well, dragon boats, anyway. You will be unsurprised to learn that I have gleaned yet more insight from my wanderings among the leafy peaks of this island. Along with an intrepid band of adventurers, I bravely took a minibus to Smangus, known as ‘the most remote village in Taiwan’. And remote it was! Only a stone’s throw from the coffee shop, we found ourselves in a magical bamboo forest where the souls of the mountain seemed to whisper. What did they whisper? I strained my ears couldn’t quite catch it . Something about Jon Snow and the Mother of Dragons. Sounded like a spoiler to me, so I ignored it.

Bamboo is an inspiring plant. It grows really fast. It’s a lovely shade of green. It is flexible, yet strong. It looks great with Zhang Ziyi flying around it. All things to emulate if you can.Smangus June 2015 (27 of 46)

Not just bamboo featured on this walk. There were some huge cypress trees too. Marvellous. There really is nothing better for the soul than looking at impressive vegetation in mountain air. On the way to our accommodation I felt purified. So much so that I only felt the need to purchase two bottles of Taiwan Beer to go with dinner, so that my sense of purity would not be disturbed.

In the evening, we stayed in an indigenous Taiwanese village and were treated to a slap-up meal followed by a sing-song and a dance around a large bonfire. Our hosts proudly sang us the song of their people. Then our party and a load of people circled the fire and sang something in Chinese. Like a good foreign tourist I mouthed syllables that sounded vaguely like what the locals were singing. Having finished my two bottles of beer I mouthed them quite loudly. Everyone thought I was brilliant and exhorted me to sing some more. I did. They cheered my brilliance. Then they brought out some sort of massive pestle and mortar and some people sang while pounding what appeared to be a kind of grainy custard. With perfect timing, a tourist from Hsinchu handed me more beer and talked at length in Chinese. ‘對,’ I said (a lot), ‘是阿,’ because my Mandarin is so awesome.

IMG_20150606_211209220After a while, I claimed the custard stick like the boss that I am and had a go myself. ‘Sing!’ they all shouted. I couldn’t remember what I had been singing earlier but somehow Britney Spears’ classic hit Baby One More Time seemed even more appropriate to the task at hand.

Then we barbecued some very delicious salt-encrusted boar meat on sticks on the bonfire. Roast boar goes really well with beer. This is the greatest insight from my pilgrimage to the mountains around Smangus.

If you want to go there too, I highly recommend Taiwan Adventures. (Thanks to Stu for two of these photographs.)

Happy Dragon Boat Festival!  IMG_20150606_211707950

Epistle from the Hermit’s New Cave

I have returned! Yes, I know, you’d given up. You thought I’d given up. You’d gone through all the seventeen stages of grief – denial, bargaining, Jack Daniels, toenail chewing, et cetera. Your world was impoverished, you were lost, wandering in the darkness like a lamb separated from its hive mind, wondering how you would ever fill the gaping soul-void left by my departed wisdom. But now, I have returned, and – whisper it – I am wiser than ever. I know, it seems unlikely, but would I, the original Existential Vacationer, make such claims lightly? That’s right: no. I make them heavily. Very heavily. With utmost heaviosity. Read on.

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I was on the train from Yilan to somewhere near Taroko Gorge last Friday evening when I saw this sign. Somehow, subconsciously, it spoke to me. The message took a few days to percolate through all the wisdom already in my brain, but I have now realised that, in a very real sense, this sign was telling me what I have done. After another year of living… oh, here and there, traveling hither and thither in a reprise of the original Great Doss, I have, suddenly and randomly, applied pressure to the Great Handbrake of my Soul and, with a squeal of rusty brakes, of spiritual metal meeting wanderer’s wheel of transience, I have come to a halt.

Where have I arrived? In all my wanderings, to mountains, jungles, seas and cities, one country has come closest to being a spiritual home. It is a beautiful mess of contradictions. It seems like everything is all mixed up together in one great big overwhelmingly confusing yet ultimately endearing pile: cities, beaches, rainforests, great towering mountains topped with pine trees, chickens, ducks, bars, beef noodle stalls, Buddhist temples, Hello Kitty airport gates, scooters, musical garbage trucks and lots and lots of Seven-Eleven stores.

The chaos called to me. So here I am. I have moved to Taiwan.

As Ecclesiastes so aptly states, there is a time for everything: a time to reap, a time to sow; a time to live and a time to die; a time to attend a djembe workshop against a backdrop of stunning limestone karst scenery and a time to go for a 120 minute oil massage. There is also a time to travel, and a time to stay put in one place.

All spiritual voyagers need to take root sometimes. Every wandering hermit needs to find his cave now and then. But most seem to require their caves to be far away from civilisation. Perhaps half way up a mountain, or in a desert devoid even of Seven-Elevens, their homes are simple affairs with no electricity, proper sanitation or concierges.

I have decided to make my sojourn even more difficult than that. Instead of fleeing the temptations of civilisation, I have placed myself among them. Like Odysseus chaining himself to the mast of his ship, I see the sirens of the city but still remain pure. Any fool can meditate if that’s the only thing around to do. It takes a truly enlightened soul to live in moderate luxury and still thread his camel through that needle’s eye. IMG_20150528_175916423

With these principles in mind, I have chosen my cave. It is in an apartment building in the Zhongshan district of Taipei.

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I have gone for simplicity. I have a place to work. I have a place to rest and watch reality television (thus making my quest for inner peace even more of a test). There is a modest gym in the basement so I may maintain my sleek exterior. There is a night market outside so I can ruin it. Further afield… we’ll see. Stay tuned to the all new Existential Vacation at its new dedicated web address. Great adventures await.

 

Ping Pong! Ding Dong!

 I’ve had an Epingphany. It’s a bit like an epiphany, but it involves the use of Ping Pong as a metaphor. As I was experiencing the terror or trying to fit all my worldly possessions into a Hong Kong-size apartment, it occurred to me that I am in fact a cosmic ping pong ball, being batted back and forth between East and West. From London to Singapore then via various places (see previous posts) to Manchester and now to the romantically-named Special Administrative Region. Who are the players in this giant game? Are they gods, or merely blind forces which, when not given to anthropomorphisation (if indeed that is a word – if not, consider it coined), we call Fate, or Physics, or Karma, or… er…. Mojo. I stroked my chin for a while to contemplate then had a San Miguel.
 The standard answer to this kind of blossoming self-awareness is to slow down. Take things easier. Look inward and meditate. Inhale deeply the aroma of coffee, flowers, yak dung or whatever it is greets you as you tread upwards on your spiritual path. But if that’s all I had to offer, then why would you be reading this? A thousand other gurus would tell you the same. And they’d all be right.
 No, Existential Vacation has another answer for you,one which it has taken literally minutes for me to think up as I sit at the Peak Bar with my Saturday afternoon coffee, watching the people on the escalator glide up the hill to the evocatively-monikered ‘Mid Levels’. If you feel that the world has made you into a ball in a giant game of ping pong (or pinball, or rugby, or whatever your favoured ball-oriented metaphor may be*), the answer is this: speed up.
 Being the adventurous sort that I am, the first stage in my quest for speed was to flag a taxi. The door swung open mysteriously on its own, as if some ghostly force wanted me to enter it. “Go, lah!” I instructed the driver. “Go fast!” He tried, but sadly the roads of Hong Kong conspired to obstruct us in our journey. Twenty minutes later we had covered a total of three hundred metres and were being overtaken by an old lady collecting cardboard boxes. I paid my fare and alighted, determined to find some other way to achieve velocity.
  I decided that I would need to be in shape for the speediness of my new life, so I joined the Pure Fitness Gym and paid a frankly stupid amount of money for personal training sessions. Gratifyingly, my trainer is called Gun, an excellent name for someone who inflicts pain for a living. Three mornings a week he tortures me in various ways. I ache. All it seems to do so far is slow me down.
 I therefore decided I needed to be more creative in my interpretation of speed. Perhaps, as a musician, what I need to do was play music fast. So off I went to my local bar, the Peel Fresco Music Lounge, which is great because it has music, a wide selection if drinks, a jam night on Tuesdays where anyone can get in stage and play, and paintings on the wall, some of which feature naked breasts. What more could you want? I borrowed a guitar, plugged in and moved my fingers as fast as I could. Widdly widdly widdly widdle,  I went. Diddly diddly wee!  I turned the volume on the amplifier up to eleven and repeated. Sadly the rest of the band were playing smooth bossa nova jazz, and the customers were pressing their palms to their ears in pain. I was asked to leave. Some people have no appreciation of good music.
 Not to be discouraged, I headed for Happy Valley, named sarcastically by the first British settlers there because they all got malaria. These days, Happy Valley is famous for horse racing. I approached the officials at the race track and demanded they let me ride the favourite in the first race of the night. Inexplicably, they declined. Despondent, I watched the race. The horses whizzed past in a thunder of drumming hooves and flying sweat, a thousand people shouting their lungs out to in encouragement and waving  bits of paper. It was then that I was struck with an idea: perhaps if I put bets on the horses, I could get rich, and then none of that enlightenment or meaning stuff would matter! I pulled out a wodge of cash and hot-footed it down to the betting hall. After some thirty seconds of examining the form and latest odds, I confidently staked a portion of my hard-earned savings on a horse with a funny name. I must in fact be a genius, because the horse won the race… I collected my winnings, a total of thirty three Hong Kong Dollars. This, I could sense, was the beginning of something great.
 However, despite my obvious talent in horse-picking, it just wasn’t quite fast enough for me. Thus it was that I flew down to Singapore, my old haunt, for the Singapore Grand Prix. Ear plugs duly inserted, off I went with a bunch of friends to watch the ‘fast broom brooms’ (Oli’s name for them) go round and round. It was there that I realised that you can find the Tao as much in the scream of a Formula One engine as in the petals of a lotus. (Well I am pretty sure it was the Tao. Actually I don’t really know what that is, but it sounds deep.) I had come close to the ultimate in speed. After the race, we went onto the track and walked around it, soaking up the petrol fumes. I came home to Hong Kong happy, confident that my life would pick up ever greater velocity and I hurtle towards Nirvana.

 *Behave.

The Strange Latest Voyage…

“Here I go again on my own…”

The words of David Coverdale ring prophetically in my ears.

It is a year (and a bit) since my last post. Probably nobody is listening any more. Or reading. But what is time? Merely a concept, like infinity. A year, a second, it’s all the same to the rugged voyager on his journey to Epiphany.
Last year I was at Land’s End. Much has changed since then. My bicycle was stolen by hoodies. The pain in my rear has disappeared. I am now forty years old, and therefore ripe for even more hilarious mid-life antics. Decisions were made.
I decided to move on again, back to the East. But before I got onto the plane, I decided to have a good look at my own country – to journey its length and breadth and peer under some of its stones. It was a good journey. From Manchester, I went north, to Inverness, then to Ullapool and on, via sea, to Stornoway in the Outer Hebrides. The Hebridean Celtic Music Festival was in full swing, and I duly grooved and/or jigged merrily to the pipes.
I then travelled almost the while length of the country back through Manchester, bidding it a fond farewell, to Cleeve Prior (where the ducks are still half-tame) to Exeter, just in time for the arrival of my second niece, Natalie (or ‘Potato’ as her sister calls her). Thence to Heathrow, and here, to Hong Kong, where I have determined to make my fortune, by betting on horse races.
Stay tuned. More adventures and revelations await…

Chris T on a bike!

Sometimes you feel the need to go to the ends of the Earth. This month I settled for the end of England. Struggling with a feeling of constriction, harried by the demands of life in the city, I felt like getting on a plane and going… somewhere… anywhere. I thought about just turning up at an airport and buying a ticket to wherever took my fancy on the day – but apparently this is quite expensive. So I took the money I would have spent and went to the bike shop.

They must have seen me coming. The shop owner, spotting a walking mid-life-crisis coming through the door, rubbed his hands in glee. Glossy brochures were produced. Accessories were demonstrated. A phone call was made. A couple of days later, my bank account significantly lighter, I was the proud owner of a shiny new touring bicycle. I had a steed. All I needed now was a mission.
I shall call my bike Roz. After a mere three hours of negotiation at Piccadilly station, a testament to the modern efficiency of the UK’s privatised rail system, I managed to book a place for Roz and myself on a train to Exeter the following day. I determined that my mission would be in three parts:

1) Play with Alice, my niece;
2) Watch England play Germany at football;
3) Cycle from Exeter to Land’s End.

Alice provided cute and diverting antics; my brother provided the Weissbier, barbecued bratwurst and sauerkraut for the match. I provided the ludicrous optimism about the next stage of my plan. The sports commentators proved even more optimistic about our team’s prospects.
Leaving behind the sports result, I hopped on top of Roz the next morning and headed west, sure that on this persistently pedalling pilgrimage, I would achieve new plateaus of epiphany.
I discovered that the ups and downs of life’s journey are quite literally mirrored, in geologic form, in the hills of Devon and Cornwall. I knew, of course, that the West Country is hilly, but

the theoretical knowledge of that fact is academic – like Plato watching by firelight the shadows that Socrates made with his fingers on the walls of their cave in ancient Greece. Socrates might have done a convincing bunny, but the true essence of bunnyness can only be experienced directly. By waiting silently outside a warren, for example, until a twitching nose ventures tentatively into the evening air. Or perhaps from a trip to a Paris brasserie. But I digress.

As with Socratic bunnyness, so it was with the Platonic essence of hilliness, which I encountered on my bicycle mission. Plato, of course taught that the true nature of things can only be apprehended by using the intellect. Try as I might, for the true appreciation of going up and down hills on a bicycle, I couldn’t get my head around it. Quite the reverse, in fact. The lesson I have learned is that some things can only truly be understood by using your buttocks.
Yes, I know, you are shocked. But nobody said enlightenment would always be genteel. And the pain came with its reward. I reached the end of England. I drank an overpriced coffee. I chatted with the coachload of Pinoy tourists. And I gazed out into the Atlantic Ocean. It seemed endless: full of promise, full of mystery, full of beauty, full of…. water.
The water held my gaze for a few brief hours, and for those hours I forgot the pain in my butt.

Always believe in your…. soul!

“You’ve got the power to know, you’re indestructible! Always believe in…”

Twenty-seven years ago, a fresh-faced twelve-year boy old was put on a bus one morning at the gates of Fellside Middle School and was taken with his classmates to a television studio in Newcastle, unaware that the events which would happen that day would change his life forever.
We’re going back to where it all began – delving into the genesis of my spiritual quest. Yes, this week on your favourite transcendental blog, you are getting some history.
The year was 1983. The TV programme was Tyne Tees Television’s Razzmatazz. Every week, three popular groups of the day would mime to their latest release while schoolchildren in the audience clapped along. And one of those schoolchildren was me.
Was it Kim Wilde who had such a profound effect on my state of consciousness? Perhaps – she almost fell out of her loose-strapped leather dress – but that is another story. Was it the new single ‘Who’s that girl?’ from the Eurythmics that started me on a quest for true wisdom? Well, it was a good song, but there was something better. As Tony Hadley, the Kemps and that cheery bloke on the bongos took to the stage, we could feel something special was in the air.

“It’s a slow start, so don’t start clapping along until the drums start,” the floor manager said. “Thank you for coming home,” Tony’s voice crooned over the sound system while the man himself moved his lips in time to the recording. We were transported into another world.
Perhaps it would be overstating the case to say that my entire life philosophy was sparked by a chance childhood encounter with Spandau Ballet. But I’m going to say it anyway. And last weekend, at the 2010 Isle of Wight Festival, I came full circle. There they were again. The magic was still alive.

Festivals are an essential part of any Existential Vacationer’s life experience. Paying hundreds of pounds to pitch your tent between the pile of beer cans and the chemical toilets, be hit by flying receptacles of suspiciously warm liquid and stand in the mud while your favourite recording artists try to remember the words of a song they ceased to care about two decades ago is a privilege, and truly develops the soul.

Fortunately, the weather at the Isle of Wight this year was warm and sunny, and a state of bliss was achieved during the saturday afternoon set of Crowded House, who played to a chilled out, sun-drenched crowd. “You’ve got a long night ahead,” Neil Finn called out to the fans, “Pace yourselves!” Rock and roll.
It was a weekend of wit and wisdom between the songs, as well as epiphanic moments during them. Neil Finn spent about twenty minutes trying to guess which county one of the stewards was from. “Dorset? Lancashire? Essex?” The audience was transfixed by his bold attempt to bond with them.
Sadly, it failed.

I have forgotten the name of the Strokes’ lead singer – but this seems appropriate, as I believe he would have been hard pressed to remember his own name during the gig, such was the level of enlightenment he had achieved. “Wow… man… Isle of Wighty!” he slurred, making it clear that he had left his sense of identity far, far behind, before trying to pimp the bass player to women in the audience. Truly an inspiration.

And Paul McCartney demonstrated his sound grasp of Rastafarian patois after what must have been a new song, backed by a strange blue projection of Barack Obama’s face. Yes We Can still perform for two hours at the age of 68. Fortunately he stuck mostly to the old stuff – after the huge pyrotechnics during Live and Let Die, he rested on his piano. “Too loud,” he groaned theatrically, before launching into another story about how he knew Jimi Hendrix and was part of The Beatles. “In the sixties…,” he began, before being interrupted by a cheer. “Don’t give me that, you don’t remember them,” he retorted. A classic put-down.
But if Neil Finn was your embarrassing dad and Macca your slightly confused grandad, Tony Hadley was the slick, suave uncle, returned from making a lot of money on the stock exchange, sharp-suited, tanned and full-voiced, looking prosperous and with a knowing wink to the ladies in the audience. “For some couples out there, this might be your song,” he said before True. And after the pre-encore bow, he said, “We could do the egotistical thing and go off and come on again – but let’s just get it over with. After three, shout ‘Hurrah!’ One, two three…”
“Hurrah!” we shouted.
“You know which song it is,” he said. We sang all the words. It was indestructible.