Xmas is coming ... I'm so excited

 This year for the first time in many years, I'm looking forward to Xmas.  It's very odd.  I'm a Buddhist a full-on practicing, Buddhist, not one of those part-time Buddhists who have a buddha statue in the garden and tell everyone it's the one religion they'd follow if .... 

Buddhists don't celebrate Xmas.  It's a Christian festival.  Does it matter? In the annals of British history a pagan and a Christian festival were melded together. So this year I'm going to do it differently. maybe next year it'll be different I don't know.

The Three Jewels of Buddhism - Buddha, Dharma, Sangha
Dharma = teachings, scriptures, Sangha = community of Buddhists

I'm part of a Buddhist community that meets for a weekly community get-together (OK on Zoom currently) that celebrates Buddhist festivals which ritual, chanting, meditation and regularly go on retreat together. Sometimes they drive me nuts and sometimes I drive them nuts but we stick it out together, we have a common purpose - 'the fellowship of those who tread the Way. We have made commitments to follow some precepts - here's the five that all 'mitras' (committed Buddhists) follow:

... to undertake to abstain from taking life

...to abstain from taking the not given

... to abstain from sexual misconduct

... to abstain from false/harsh/useless speech speech

... to undertake to abstain from taking intoxicants

These have been hotly debated and discussed for several thousand years, probably since the time of the Buddha who lived around 500 BCE, but remain substantially the same.  Each one has wide interpretations for example - not to take life can mean anything from killing people, or animals (hence vegans and vegetarians) to abuse of any sort towards others. It can include any sort of unkindness to animals or people. Not taking the not given, can mean taking anything from your employer's stationery cupboard, to picking up a phone on a bus and not making efforts to trace the owner; sexual misconduct can relate to watching unpleasant porn or sleeping with someone else's boyfriend or girlfriend, intoxicants can mean any substance that alters your clarity of mind. 

 These differ from the  Christian Ten Commandments (received by Moses) in the following way - the Ten Commandments were given out in an authoritarian way, by a vengeful and authoritarian God figure - those who disobeyed them would be severely punished - Hell awaited.

The Buddhist precepts on the other hand are not administered with such dire warnings by patriarchal church figures.  They are undertakings, in other words you choose to follow them, and none of your Buddhist community or teachers will take out a big verbal stick to you if you don't keep to the letter of the law (well they might if you killed someone). 

Right.  I'm going to stop now.  I don't want you to think I'm on a conversion crusade.  I'm not.  I'm just trying to correct a few misconceptions I come across about Buddhists. I've been a practicing Buddhist for 35 years  Oh one more misconception - some people think you must be a really good, chilled out, calm human being if you're a long term Buddhist - just to say I've still got a long way to go to achieve that, or to achieve enlightenment- like most Buddhists I know (although I always imagine all the other Buddhists are a lot further down the path to reaching the magic balance between wisdom and compassion than I am). 

No! I really am going to stop now.  Make of all that what you will.  I started off by saying how much I'm looking forward to Xmas  - not a day I've celebrated a great deal in the last 10 years, not more than the occasional nut roast etc -because of being a Buddhist and other things eg. the whole commercial thing and family stuff. This time, we've all spent 9-10 months in virtual isolation.  Did I say 'virtual' ffs (oops there goes my speech precepts again). Sometimes I spend the weekends AND weekdays on Zoom.  I've so had enough.  And we Buddhists are very touchy feely huggy people on the whole.  Not any more.  I miss that a lot.

Due to the lockdown(s), both my daughters now work exclusively from home and may well continue to do so for a long time to come.  As it happens they've both been quite pleased about it.  One because she hates office life, one because she now has a 2-year-old. .. and although he's been in nursery (since they opened again) 2 days a week or is with one or other set of grandparents(eg. me) 2 days a week, she's been able to spend a lot more time with him than she ever could have imagined. Many people may never go back to full-time office work.  And you can live anywhere in this country - as long as it's got good commutable transport and wi-fi, you might need to check-in physically at the office a couple of days a week only.  Everything has changed.

Maybe that's why Christmas is so important this year. It's a reference point of stability after a year of change and disorder where all the rulebooks and social norms have been piled on a bonfire. So many of my friends have polarised into different directions with their interpretation of how not to get the virus - I can't keep up, the situation has induced mass neurosis.  Calm and stability need to be re-established.

Christmas means my small family can come together and spend time with me. It'll be a social occasion.  A real live social occasion.  They will eat chicken (free-range organic), I will eat nut roast and roast potatoes and cauliflower cheese and carrots and Brussel sprouts and... and .. and Xmas pud and pull crackers and open presents.  Oh, what fun.  We can play games, watch a blockbuster movie, chill out ... together.  I'm going to wear a jumper with a reindeer and a Christmas tree on it and a red hat with white bits and a bell.   The Christmas table is going to be red, with gold candles and gold crackers.  ...  I can't wait.

Travels in South Africa: en route to Thula Thula - elephant sanctuary January 2020

Before the pandemic.  I travelled - a distant memory now, but so glad I went, the memories of my adventures stayed with me throughout lockdown.

The 7-hour flight to Cape Town in economy seating was marred by a woman sitting next to me, who in the narrow seats was freaking out every time my arm brushed against her.  As I kept dozing off, this was impossible.  The stewards couldn't move either of us because the flight was full.  Those were the days eh?  No full flights now. A friend went to Majorca recently - 20 people in an aircraft with seating for 180.  Anyway, I got very little sleep as you can imagine.

I'd booked myself into a backpack hostel in Cape Town called The B.I.G, in  Greenpoint. There's about 25 backpack hostels in CT - variable in quality and price.  Most are fine, some cater more to the younger age groups with BBQs (called 'brais' in SA), loud parties etc.  The B.I.G, which I'd not been to before, turned out to be 5 star - lovely,, warm friendly atmosphere, variable age groups, comfortable communal spaces, quiet,  great for solo travellers.   At the beginning, I 'd booked into a female dorm(4-6 bed), but for the first few days they put me in a luxury double room all to myself, at no extra cost. The weather was warm and sunny (about 26C), the sky shone blue all day.  The hostel was a kilometre from the huge ultra-modern shopping mall, boating/yachting dockland area of CT called the Waterfront.  

I quickly discovered that an Uber to the Waterfront with its smart cafes and bars cost approximately £2.  After a few days at the BIG, relaxing and beaching,  I booked an internal flight via Mango airlines to Durban where my Norwegian friend Tor has an apartment, close to the main beach.  He usually goes out there, taking a break from his work based in Norway, around Xmas/ New Year. I'd contacted him via FB, the week before I left the UK.

 In Nov 2019, I'd read a book called The Elephant Whisperer, by Lawrence Anthony.  It was a brilliant story about how the guy rescued and put together a herd of wild elephants, most of whom had been destined to be shot because of difficult behaviours - generally brought on by trauma caused by the terrible things done to them by poachers and other 'human' beings. 

After reading the book, I did some online research and found that the sanctuary he'd founded, was still going strong and being funded by tourism at the luxury end of the tourist industry. His widow Francoise Maltby, was carrying on with running the place.  To stay there for any length of time would have been outside my budget but I decided to book for 2 nights as that would include two drives a day through the bush to see the elephant herd. Francois had founded an orphanage for baby elephants and rhino whose mothers' had been killed by poachers.  She too wrote a book about this titled An Elephant in My Kitchen

So I had booked for  2 nights in a lodge at Thula Thula for the weekend after my arrival in Cape Town.

From the UK, I contacted Tor to see if he was going to be there in January and if so could I stay with him in Durban?  Yes, not only was he pleased to have me come to visit but said he'd come and pick me up from the airport and drive me to Thula Thula the next day.  He had a hire car.  I was delighted - I'd only decided to go to SA after UK Christmas, a very last-minute decision.  It was as though all the pieces of the jigsaw were falling into place to make this a memorable adventure.

I did warn him that Thula Thula was a good two hours drive from Durban, but he insisted he was happy to do the drive.  Ha ha!  I think if he'd known what a bumpy ride on remote roads the latter part of the journey was, he might have withdrawn the offer.   

My flight arrived in Durban at 7 pm to torrential tropical rain, and there was Tor and his friend Josein waiting for me in Arrivals. The rain had us sprinting for the car with umbrellas up.  With my bag-on wheels safely stowed in the boot, we went in search of a good curry in central Durban. Tor's friend Josein came too, a guy from Malawi, who I soon discovered was, like many Africans,  a strongly practicing Christian (unlike myself and Tor). He was staying with Tor while looking for work - Tor travels all over Africa for his job - he is a senior part of an NGO that deals with sexual health in Africa, so has many friends around the whole continent. 

As you may know, SA is renowned for its violent crime, so whenever I travel there, I'm very careful where I go and who with.  Durban has a very high crime rate and, in central Durban, you frequently see groups of boys on street corners, many of whom are glue-sniffers.  

The street we went to was well known to Tor and seemed quite safe to walk about in, with restaurants and bars on both sides.  The rain was still torrential and rivers of water were pouring down the gullies on both sides of the road, but it was hot and humid.  Durban(unlike Cape Town) is always warm with a semi-tropical climate. The restaurants were all closing as the rain had driven off their customers, but we found one and had a passable curry.  

Tor with a Durban Indian curry called Bunny Chow - half a loaf of white bread - 

all the bread scooped out, filled with curry and a roll of rice on top.

We returned to Tor's flat, to find another lodger asleep on a couch at the back - Sidney, who I met the next day when he returned from his shift doing admin in a local petrol station. He was severely disabled, his body bent and twisted as he walked, but bright, inquisitive and interesting to talk to. He too was from Malawi. He had vacated the second bedroom (a large king size bed)and changed all the sheets for my arrival.  How kind.

Tor's flat is two streets from the main beach, next to the police station. You constantly see police cars and police in uniform coming and going outside, although Tor didn't seem to feel too reassured by their presence.  I remembered what we thought of the SA police in the 70s, not remotely like the British police - SA police take no prisoners.  

Tor's flat is large and open plan but a typical bachelor pad - the lounge had large sofas to sprawl in, the bathroom black and silver, two large bedrooms with giant double beds, decoration quite sparse - plenty of beers in the fridge, not so much food.

Next day, after me cooking us all a slap-up breakfast of egg, chips and beans (Tor had gone out to the shop next door for supplies)  we set off for Thula Thula. The rain of the previous evening had cleared and the sky had  returned to its usual blue, bar a few drifts of clouds, here and there. Tor was driving initially, then he swapped places with Josein who drove the rest of the way.We stopped for sandwiches and crisps halfway there - it was motorway for the first hour and a half. Then it was smaller and smaller roads, trying to follow scraggy signs and Google maps.

Eventually, we pulled up in front of a wide lawn and a large lodge about a hundred metres away.  Suddenly I felt nervous to be leaving the safety of Tor and Josein.  We walked across to the large reception area in the lodge. Firstly I was disappointed to learn that Francoise was away in India.  After reading her book I'd set my heart on meeting her.  But it was not to be.  Then I wanted Tor and Josein to come and settle me into my lodge, so they'd have a chance to look around.  But no, we were told that the Zulu game ranger was going to drive me to the lodge and Tor and Josein couldn't come. I waved them off feeling slightly apprehensive, what was next, what would my lodge be like?

The drive to the lodge was on a winding track and took about 20 minutes and I soon saw why Tor and his hire car would not have been permitted to go there.  Small groups of kudu leapt across the road in front of us, we saw zebras grouped under tangled small trees - this was the bush, we were in the bundu and the low lying bush-shrubbery and small thorny trees all along the track was teaming with life.  We were driving in an open-sided jeep with a bar frame around us, more suitable for this terrain.  My Zulu driver and I spoke little on this rattling drive, except he kept pointing out large birds of prey roosting in trees along the way..  I was so fascinated by the surroundings that I was totally absorbed in looking.

We pulled up again in front of a wide sweep of  lawns with a scattering of large trees.  There were the lodges in a kind of wide semi-circle on the grass.  I could see some lovely elegant kudu (gazelle-like) grazing on the far side, behind the lodges. We'd stopped by a wooden frame with steps, presumably to aid people alighting from the jeeps, but I just jumped out next to the jeep. 

Fifty yards away on my left was a larger lodge which turned out to be a communal area with a bar and seating for about 50 people.  My driver pointed me in that direction, with my wheelie case, and told me to be back here at 4 pm for 'a game drive'. Wow, already I thought.  Looking over I saw a Zulu woman in a headscarf emerging from the large lodge and walking towards me with a welcoming smile. She walked me over to the lodge on my right about 50 metres away, where I would be staying.  It was very large inside - a 4 poster bed with mosquito nets, draped from a frame high above the bed and a  a big wardrobe on the right - a large ensuite bathroom with bath, shower and toiletries all laid out.

It certainly was at the luxury end of the market. My friendly Zulu assistant said that she'd be laying out lunch for me in the main lodge, so to make my way over there as soon as I'd settled in.  I put out a few things from my small case and then wandered across to the main lodge.  Inside there was a long and well-stocked bar on my right and wooden tables and chairs across a big room with a thatched ceiling. There were pictures of elephants and Zulu shields and spears on the walls. 

Nono led me outside to a large veranda where a table was laid out with crisp white table cloth and silver cutlery.  The veranda looked out across the lawns to a wooded area, where monkeys screeched and crashed about in the branches. I was to sit there in splendid isolation.  There were no other guests about, to my dismay.  When I questioned my 'assistant' about the lack of guests she told me it was the end of the season and last week there'd been 50 people there - they'd all gone 2 days before my arrival. No more were booked until next week when a large party of Americans was arriving. 

I didn't want to sit outside on a large table on my own so got her to bring my cutlery inside to the lounge area.  

'I don't like monkeys much,' I told her.  'They're very noisy and will steal things from you in a flash!'

'Yes,' she agreed  'I don't like them either.'  Soon we were chatting away like old friends.

She handed me a very elaborate menu, but I'd had a sandwich in the car and wasn't that hungry - so chose a macaroni pasta cheesy dish, which arrived after 10 minutes. - it was simple but tasty.  Nono stayed and chatted for a while - she lived in a village nearby, was a single parent with a teenage son.  She'd worked for Francoise (and Lawrence) for 20 years. I recalled reading her name in Francoise's book, so was pleased to meet her. 

It was now 2.30 and I decided to go back to my lodge for a siesta before the game drive at 4 pm. It had clouded over and had become cooler (about 22C), I would need to change from shorts to jeans and take a long-sleeved cardigan I thought.  I climbed onto the huge bed, threw a shawl over myself, set my alarm and fell asleep. 

To be continued - Meeting the Elephants.

Before the pandemic. After the pandemic? During the pandemic? Fear and loathing in ....

I've written 'before the pandemic'  is that how 2020 will be defined from now on - before the pandemic ... after the pandemic.  Except there is no 'after' yet.  There's 'after lockdown' but which lockdown? Seems like there's going to be a series of lockdowns for who knows how long. And the world has been kicked into the worst recession since post WW1.  Conversations (so nice to have face-to-face conversations at last), conversations start and finish amongst my group of friends and relatives with facts and opinions about the latest pandemic news. What's difficult is finding the parameters of opinions amongst that same group of friends - widely disparate views on shielding, staying in, mask-wearing, meeting up (where when and how, going into shops, using public transport, going to the cinema.)  

    Two weeks ago, our local Arts cinema opened and myself and a friend went to see the widely acclaimed movie - Summerland.    Including us, there were 4 other people in the cinema which has plenty of social distancing measures in place.  Where are you people?  The local community cinema will not survive unless you come?  Where a mask, gel up but come.

    Summerland was worth seeing although a bit contrived and sentimental at times I felt.  Bring tissues.

    The point is the fear and paranoia engendered by the government seem to have gone deep and settled in the minds of some, intelligent rational people.  Now they don't want to let go of it.  

    My response to fear for a long time is - don't ever let fear get in the way of what you want to do.  I had a Zimbabwean boyfriend once who was fearlessly outspoken in both Zimbabwe and South Africa about the terrible things going on in the reign of Robert Mugabe.  Other people we knew were being kidnapped, beaten up, tortured and murdered by the regime. He was not reckless but he consistently spoke up and then he got out.  He spoke out in rallies and meetings against the regime and continued to do so when he got to first America and then the UK.  He had no truck with fear.

    I have often been told not to go here or there, not to do this or that because the consequences would be .... often unspecified, but violence and death were usually implied.  I have then gone on to (cautiously) do the thing I was warned about and had no problem.  People looked after me, guided me, were kind to me.  

    In 2003, I was a human rights activist with focus on my birthplace - Zimbabwe. I flew to Johannesburg, stayed at a backpack place.  Lots of long term residents there - mainly white S Africans (the poor whites), and Zimbabweans.  I told them I was getting the bus to Harare, in Zimbabwe.  I wanted to get in anonymously, by the back door - I was a very active MDC (opposition party) member who'd been in the news.  It was a time when white farmers were getting murdered and Mugabe was fomenting anti-white hatred wherever he could.  They ALL loudly and vociferously warned me not to go. I would be mad.  Dire things would happen to me.

    I went anyway.  A 14-hour bus journey ending at a big bus garage in Harare - one of the main torture centres was sited at the side of the open-air bus garage (as I'd been told by a friend who had been tortured there). The noise of all the buses and people and bustle concealed the screams apparently. 

    I arrived and was picked up by a man from the local backpack place.  From there, after a few days in Harare, I got the overnight train to Bulawayo.  I travelled everywhere alone.  People picked me up at various stop-overs and drove me to various places, we visited MDC  headquarters, watched by the secret police,  then off I'd go again.  A young man attempted to snatch my bag in Bulawayo, while I was walking with an older grandmother,  her daughter and baby. The grandmother and I fought him off. He ran away empty-handed.

    From there it was on to Vic Falls - empty of tourists (like now I imagine - then because of Mugabe, now because of Covid). People were starving at that time, due to Mugabe's economic policies, so desperation was all around - as it is again today.  You take sensible precautions.  

    What I found everywhere was that people (mainly women) took care of me, made sure I was walking in a safe place, told me when to get a taxi, etc. Each day, I looked at what I wanted to do, where I wanted to go, took sensible common-sense precautions and off I went.  Fear was not going to stop me.

    In the 80s, I was at my sister's wedding.  I remember my uncle- a retired senior Armed Forces officer, telling my brother that he had filled their garage in Cornwall with cans of corned beef 'against the revolution' ...  ie. against CND marching lefties like me who were clearly fomenting this revolution. 🤣
He later succumbed to Alzheimer's...a long deterioration sadly. The right fears the left.  The left fears the right.  The result is more fear, more conflict.

    Fear is in your head - not outside it. If you dwell on it, it expands to fit the universe you occupy.  The post lockdown world is full of extremes - some dismiss the threat altogether as some giant conspiracy theory and ignore precautions.  Some go into permanent lockdown and refuse to come out.  There are many shades of grey in between.

    I don't like being locked up, no ...  I REALLY don't like it.  I'm not going to go the whole way.  Even though, as they say, I have 'underlying health conditions'.  But I do take common-sense precautions.  I've been wearing a mask out since early March.  I frequently gel my hands when I'm out - after getting on a bus, or going in a shop.  And I keep my distance from all not observing the social distancing rules. 

    We can't stop doing everything.  Every day I go out for a walk, maybe in the park or somewhere.  Now I go to libraries to write again or cafes.  The British Library is taking people by appointment only, with a lot of restrictions - but I'm going regularly, while I still can ... until the next lockdown. 😕


    Mental health is important too.  If you let fear take hold it's all-consuming and will fill your life, alter your grip on reality. What I'm saying is get fresh air. walk everywhere,  take sensible precautions.  Don't get paranoid, don't  EVER let fear rule your life.  This virus and the various responses to it have created a huge climate of fear - if you let it take hold.  

Watch your mind - you can allow an unhealthy amount of fear to build up and up to fill the universe - if you let it. ..