It’s that time of year again: the nights are growing longer, and trees are preparing for a long cold winter. Autumn is well and truly here. That means – if you want to live to your fullest potential, and do so in a healthy and wholesome way – it is time to tune into the natural energy of autumn.
Our tendency is to bulldoze our way through each calendar year, by more or less ignoring the cyclical nature of birth (spring), growth (summer), harvest (autumn) and decay (winter). Modern Western culture expects us to be the same every day – look after our families, go to work, be productive, race around, get things done – but we’re not the same every day. Humans, like nature, are cyclical beings. We are in a constant state of rise and fall. We are deeply affected by the natural energy of the changing seasons, the moon, the tides and our own monthly cycles.
Autumn is a time for letting go. Just as deciduous trees must let go of their leaves in order to survive and grow, we too must let go of what no longer serves us. Let it fall gracefully from our branches, and let clarity and lightness take its place.
Here are four practical tips for adapting your daily routines to the autumn season:
- Time outdoors: Make sure you spend time in nature, allowing your skin to drink in vitamin D, as this is essential for your emotional and physical well-being. You might need to adjust your daily routines towards going outdoors more around the middle of the day, instead of early mornings or late evenings, as we prepare for the shorter, darker days ahead. Make sure this is fully incorporated into your daily regime before you lose all motivation when winter sets in!
- Clear the clutter: Make space and time to get rid of clutter in your home and garden (and mind). If it doesn’t light you up, it’s time to release it. Like an autumnal tree, it generously drops its fruit in autumn. When you let things go – recycling them in a responsible way – you will find that someone else can put it to good use and that you yourself end up feeling lighter and more spacious.
- Autumnal foods: Boost your natural immunity by eating foods that are autumnal. Try adding foods to your diet that are naturally orange, red, yellow and deep greens – autumn-like colours. Think pumpkin, squash, oranges, carrots, lemons etc.
- Yoga: Yoga is good for you in all seasons (I would say that as a yoga teacher)! But it is a wonderfully releasing practice to do regularly during autumn, as it encourages you to let things find their resting place, and shed all expectations and pressures that are weighing you down. Join my two new weekly yoga classes in Martyr Worthy Village Hall every Sunday (19:00-20:00 ‘you-time yin yoga’) and Monday (17:30-18:30 ‘fluid flow yoga’). Or treat yourself to a whole day of yoga and walking at Easton Village Hall: upcoming yoga day retreats are detailed here: http://www.sherinshe.com/yoga/
It would have been an ordinary week in March had the majority of the workforce not left the Foreign Office premises in a Covid hurry. It was late on a Wednesday evening, and after a long day at work in the ghost-town Foreign Office building, I was starving.
I went to the local Tesco in Kennington – one of those Tesco the size of a small country – to pick up something, anything, to eat. There was no food. When I say no food, I actually mean no food. I could see panic in the eyes of everyone dashing around in disbelief…
It was now Thursday, and I was walking into work trying to put on a brave face, but I read in the news that the Government was considering shutting down public transport and bringing in the Army. I changed direction and headed to Waterloo train station and escaped back to Hampshire.
On Friday, I woke up worrying about Palmerston. Let me explain. Palmerston is the famous Foreign Office cat. He is by far the most loved of our 14,000 staff members. He has a following of over 110,000 people on Twitter. For good reason: he is an awesome cat. Confident, handsome and aloof. He would send journalists into a frenzy in his turf wars with Larry the No10 cat.
Palmerston would sit on the grandest pieces of furniture in the Foreign Office (the Gold Command chair in the Crisis Centre was a favourite) and he would nonchalantly pose for photographs with famous people. Sometimes he would hang out in the outer office of the Permanent Under-Secretary, and snore on the chair next to my desk, which was supposed to be for Ambassadors and the like waiting to see the boss. No one ever dared ask him to move.
My number one Friday morning priority became: save the cat from the Covid lockdown…
My team pounced into action, and a few hours later we welcomed His Majesty Palmerston to his new countryside abode…
It was only supposed to be temporary. But he suited the countryside.
He became extraordinarily affectionate – preferring his naps to be on our warm laps – and happily chit-chatting away all day long. He loves to walk across our screens on work calls. Once, he muted me when I was briefing the boss, which he found hilarious. He has different types of meows, which we can now easily understand. One particular meow very clearly means: ‘human, lie down on the sofa, it is snuggle-o’clock.’ He also has certain types of facial expressions, some mean ‘I love you human’, some mean ‘I’m going to eat you human’ which is usually followed by him pouncing on our toes in bed.
He had never seen grass before but turns out he loves eating grass and he has quite a talent for climbing trees too. He spends his hours pouncing dramatically on insects, intensely stalking rodents, and guarding our rhubarb patch.
Palmerston’s priority was to make sure all his fury and feathered garden friends knew there was a new boss in town. Despite his human advisers trying to persuade him of the benefits of more enlightened social and institutional structures, he preferred rather more threatening and medieval ways of exerting control over his new green empire.
After far too many grooms and naps and snuggles, Palmerston decided to retire to my garden to spend more time relaxing away from the limelight.
Palmerston is enjoying his retirement very much. His new favourite hobby, of course, is doing yoga with his mum.
He likes stretching, especially after a good hunting session, but his absolute darling pose is savasana (corpse pose). He waits until I wrap myself up in a cashmere blanket for relaxation at the end. Then he swaggers over, parades up on my chest like I am one of his many conquered victories, lies his body down (tummy to tummy) and purrs very loudly.
He lifts his head to stare at my painting of the full moon in the silver birch tree forest. We always have the same dusty old nostalgic conversation. I say to him: ‘you like that painting, don’t you catty’. He purrs through my whole body in affirmation.
At sunrise, after five non-stop days of being on an overly heated train, I found myself in Ullan Bator, the capital of Mongolia. The cold slapped me in the face as I stood half-asleep on the icy platform. People were talking to me, trying to sell me stuff, but I couldn’t really respond, as I couldn’t quite process just how cold it was. It was about -12 degrees, with about another -10 degrees in wind chill.
I arrived at the only decent hotel in the country, looking frankly terrible. I hadn’t slept for a couple of nights and I was starving, (there are only so many omelets one can eat on a Russian train, trust me). Apparently, there was a veggie restaurant open at that time in the morning so I decided to walk to it. Big mistake. It was so cold that it made me cough uncontrollably. The “restaurant” was hideous and so I decided that leaving the hotel premises for the next 24 hours was prohibited.
The next day, having successfully met up with an exquisite friend Johnny, we decided to actually leave the hotel for an hour or so, and the destination of choice was the highly rated “intellectual museum”. The museum consisted of three floors of puzzles, as this is allegedly the intellectual pride and joy of Mongolia. What followed was an extremely surreal experience. A local girl made us wrap our feet in colourful plastic and proceeded to show us each individual puzzle as if it was the world’s greatest masterpiece. Many of the “puzzles” constituted a kid’s toy, where you put a ball or something in a slot and watched it fall to the bottom. She would demand that we all stand in the right place in front of her, dramatically insert the ball, watch it with glory as it fell to the bottom, and then grandly announce the revelation: “GRAVITY!” She showed us the lego-esk space-ship puzzle, and proclaimed that no one had ever been able to complete it with its 6400 moves. We asked whether anyone had ever tried, given it was on display completed. “No” she said, without the slightest irony. Johnny asked if he could try one of the rubix cube puzzles. She spun round, narrowed her eyes as she looked at him sharply, and said “NO, THE RUBIX CUBE IS NOT A PUZZLE.”
She glided through the museum lifting her hand spectacularly to bring our attention to the walls, which were covered in certificates, explaining that these were certificates for participating in puzzle competitions. Out of nowhere, a Lord of the Rings midget appeared and joined our group. She made mysterious noises and wobbled enthusiastically at the sight of each puzzle. It all got a bit too much when we escaped the museum only to be confronted by a girl running directly into a bench that we were standing next to, (even though the pavement wasn’t particularly narrow).
The next day we decided to dip our toes in a traditional “shaman” experience as it constitutes an important part of Mongolian culture. We arrived at a humble Mongolian yurt with a bottle of vodka and a carton of milk (you need to give this as a gift to the spirits before they can communicate with you). The shaman’s costume was captivating. His face covered with black threads, and his hat included some eerie eyes, extravagant feathers and genuine eagle claws hanging from his ears. He drummed and made loud noises, smoked and drank vodka while he conjured up the spirits. He jumped out of his seat when the spirit entered his body. The spirit was a very old man that only spoke an ancient Mongolian dialogue, (so we needed two translators, one to translate the ancient language into Mongolian and one to translate Mongolian to English). He tells me, amongst other things, that I need to grow a tree before I can have babies.
Next, we were off dog sledding across a frozen lake for six days. It took 17 hours to drive from Ullan Bator to Lake Kuvsgul, passing through a town called Moron. The beautiful baron Mongolia landscape slid past as we sat in anticipation. We were flying along the only road that exists in this part of remote Mongolia; plains upon plains of untouched landscapes scattered with wild animals, framed with dramatic mountain ranges in the distance.
When we arrived at the first campsite and I went to brush my teeth outside, I could hear the dogs howling, even though they were staying about 5 kms away. All 42 of them. I stopped in my tracks. So that is what 42 husky dogs howling sounds like. I tried to capture that moment in my mind. I looked up and realised that I had never seen so many stars.
I’d already spent an awful lot of time anticipating what these dogs might be like. So I was nervous when we were taken to meet the crew and the dogs the next day, especially as someone told me that husky dogs do not generally accept instructions from women (I was the only woman). We pulled into the driveway of a wooden hut with 42 husky dogs hanging out in the snowy garden. They are impossibly beautiful. Some of the husky dogs were just how I visualised them; huge, strong dogs, with thick black shiny coats and ice blue eyes. Some of them completely white. Some of them with one blue eye and one brown eye. All were majestic. And in numbers that large, the beauty of all these magnificent creatures interacting with one another was nothing but mesmorising. I couldn’t take my eyes off of them.
A few hours later, we found ourselves just nonchalantly standing on a lake, which is 160 kms long and completely frozen all over. The “musher” (the guy who owns and controls the pack of dogs) started hooking the dogs to the sleds. They all start howling, jumping up and down, and running around in circles, like little children screaming “pick me, pick me!” The noise was deafening.
I asked the musher what would happen if the ice cracked and we fell in, now, or at any time over the next six days. He said that the water was so cold that my body wouldn’t be able to do anything at all. Right… but at least it would be a rather poetic way to die…
The dogs are almost ready and I suddenly snapped out of my trance. Oh no, I realise that I desperately need the toilet. So I walk all the way to the edge of the lake where there are trees only to hear them calling after me. We have to go NOW, because the dogs say so. The dogs are all growling at each other, some properly fighting. I run back like a fat snowman (I had about 15 layers on) only to realise that I left my gloves by the trees. Filled with shame, I ran back to retrieve them, knowing that the 42 screaming dogs were judging me. Time ran in slow-mo as I moved like a clumsy astronaut and jumped on the back of my sled (on my own)! The sleds were released, all six sleds at the same time. My heart was pounding so loud I could practically hear it. Adrenaline was pumping through my veins as I experienced how unbelievably powerful a pack of 42 husky dogs are, especially after spending the last hour working themselves into a frenzy. Through the powder snow we sailed…
It fascinated me to experience how much these dogs love to run. It is what they do – all they do – they were born and bred to it. As soon as they were running, they found their rhythm and they are calm. It was a state of instinctive fulfilment as they were in their “flow”. Hours and hours pass and they don’t get jaded, they don’t moan, they don’t get sloppy in their work. I have never seen creatures want and need something so bad. They work and work and work, until they get to the stated destination. The phrase “I worked like a dog” kept going round and round in my head. They work because they love working, without knowing how, or why, or from where. It is quite simply beautiful.
When we stopped on the sleds, for a cup of tea, or to cook the fish from the lake on a fire, the doggies howled and howled like they were having an existential crisis. It was as if they didn’t know who they were when they were not running. If you ever feel jaded, or lazy, like you can’t be bothered to live your life to its fullest anymore, I recommend going husky dog sledding. They can show you that living the good life is about companionship, hard work, focus and unfettered determination.
The female dogs were the smart ones and the male dogs were the strong ones. So the females were always at the front of the pack, leading the way, and the males were at the back, powering the way. The male dogs ran as if their life depended on it, desperately hoping that they may eventually catch up with the female dog at the front! They all had wonderful individual names. My favourite name was “Osama” (the aggressive male dog that was quite preachy).
The musher knew the dogs like he knew his wife, or better perhaps. He knew each subtly different personality, what type of food they like, their strengths and weaknesses, and their precise hierarchy within the pack. He knew who had the most stamina, who was the fastest, the smartest, strongest etc. He paired them up with the same partner for a while to deepen bonds, but then he would move them to work with someone else so they didn’t form unhealthy attachments. He wanted them all to be close, but not too close in case they decided not to run unless they are running with their preferred partners. He wanted them to learn from each other, so that they all became the best husky dogs they could possibly be, as a pack, but also independently.
Apparently, when husky dogs get old, they just fall over and die. They don’t get slow, or ill, or old; they just push themselves to their absolute maximum and then just die when they can’t experience life as they know it.
The landscape was impossibly beautiful and totally surreal. Sometimes I would wonder whether the whole thing was even real. There were horizontal snow storms (one gave me hypothermia) and ice sculptures and snow capped mountain ranges. We slept in traditional Mongolian yurts every night, completely isolated from humanity, where we would cook over a fire. Sleep was disturbed by either being boiling hot (because of the roaring fire), or being freezing cold (because the fire had died down). My friend Johnny entertained us with his ability to compose brilliant poems on the spot on any subject matter, and we attempted but failed to interact with the other client on the trip, an odd-ball Swiss guy who kept talking to himself and laughing too loudly at the wrong time.
Two final thoughts: 1. people should be more like dogs; and 2. the continuous perception of bordering at the edge of death (due to the obsessive imagination of drowning in a freezing lake) really makes you want to live.
I write this as I sit on the train again, this time leaving Mongolia and entering Beijing. We somehow ended up on this 36-hour train journey with no cash (and they don’t take cards). So we are too broke to buy an omelet. The good news is that we had the foresight to pack a bottle of vodka…
We landed in Minsk, Belarus, in transit to Russia. Apparently, we needed to be escorted by several severe looking women in tiny spandex mini-skirts to our next flight, as a routine transfer procedure doesn’t exist. A menacing blonde woman in a makeshift passport booth (that was created just for us) shook her head disappointingly. It appeared that the worse thing imaginable had happened: Jared had lost the stub of his boarding card from the previous flight. She looked at Jared with her narrowing ice blue eyes and spat out “you are very very bad” whilst waging her finger at him in her ridiculously sexy skin-tight airport security uniform.
I saw a little smirk start to emerge on Jared’s face and I had to look away to hold myself together. She then proceeded to pretend to make phone calls on several different Soviet style phones for what seemed like a very long time, and then just as our next flight was about to close, she decided to let us through, telling Jared that he better not misbehave like that again!
We land in St Petersburg – “Russia’s window to Europe” – and check into a luxurious hotel. There is a lady in a ball gown playing the harp for us as we wonder into the marble reception and there are copious members of staff fussing over us. Tapestries woven into all the walls, exotic fruit bowls at our fingertips, I had to pinch myself to remember that I wasn’t actually a Russian tsar. After some fine dining, we fell asleep in our (oh-so-temporary) cotton wool haven of luxury.
St Petersburg is staggeringly beautiful. We spent hours at the heavy weight Hermitage museum viewing Picassos and such, and getting told off for acting like children (I don’t know why old-school museums engineer such a strong desire to misbehave, but perhaps it is the overly stifled formality and the unspoken understanding between all fellows humans that we are all only pretending, to some degree, to be interested).
Whilst chatting to the concierge back at the hotel, we dropped in that we really wanted to go see the famous Russian ballet Don Quixote at the Marinsky theatre but that there were, of course, no tickets left (it being the day of the performance). He made a few phone calls and told us that if we hand over a large amount of cash, we could get the chauffeur to take us to a woman who would be standing on the street with our name on a board, who would then hand over said ballet tickets. We ask how this is possible if all the tickets had sold out and he said he knows some people that can miraculously add two seats to the stalls for the right price. Ah-ha, so that is how you do things in Russia! Well, when in Rome… A few hours later we were sitting on silly classroom chairs that have blatantly been squashed into the stalls for two corrupt idiot tourists that were staring wide-eyed at the extraordinary three-hour long ballet extravaganza. Totally worth it.
Post-ballet, we decide to have “one drink” somewhere. The taxi driver tells us on the low that there are some “gay bars” nearby. Gay bars are usually the best bars anywhere in the world, so why not have a taste in Russia, we thought. We turn up at a tiny seedy karaoke bar, where they are singing DEATH METAL at full blast in broken English. We are the only tourists. I have just come from the best ballet the world has to offer, so I am wearing a short designer black cocktail dress and stilettos. It is an understatement to say I don’t fit in. All a bit awkward. Quick, order some drinks.
We end up in a club next door, where there is a live death metal band and, believe it or not, a mosh pit!! Jared throws me his coat and jumps into the frenzy of testosterone-laden punks pushing, shoving and punching each other furiously to the thrashing ‘music’. All I could think about was that I needed to save him from getting bashed to pieces by massive Russian dudes, but my outfit simply prevented me from doing so…
I ended up at the bar, to escape the torment. No one could speak English, not even a little bit, and the only word that we could all understand was… Wodka! House rules were that you could only buy six shots at a time (not joking!!) so the bar kept filling up with shots and it was, quite frankly, rude not to drink when you were told to drink. I really don’t know how this happened but about eight shots later, at about 3am in the morning, I was dancing in my cocktail dress like a maniac with my new Russian friends at a death metal club in St Petersburg.
The next day, or what was left of it, was spent meandering through beautiful streets in St Petersburg. I can’t say I really remember what we saw that day. All I remember was that we ended up in Moscow later that evening.
We spent a couple of days walking around in Moscow, marveling at the Kremlin, the Red Square, and the quintessential St Basils cathedral (where the only word for how many photos we took is, quite frankly, disgusting). Everything was just very big in Moscow – symbolic of Stalin’s attempt to show off his Soviet strength. The people didn’t smile at us but underneath the stern surface, they were actually all really friendly. We knobbed around some art galleries and read up on some Russian politics and history, which was all fascinating. It was only zero degrees but there was a snowstorm and the winds were powerful and ice cold. It actually hurt to be outside for longer than 15 minutes. Our lovely host Maria took us to some gorgeous Russian restaurants where we gobbled up Russian cabbage and pies and dumplings while we listened to her take on modern day Russian politics…
The big moment arrived. We were standing at the train station, looking around for our new home for the next six days on the legendary Trans-Siberian railway. Jared, with immeasurable confidence, said the train left from platform 4, so we accordingly stood waiting on platform 4. Lots of Russian military officers arrived and jumped on the train. The train attendant wouldn’t let us on. We. Were. Confused. And then suddenly it dawned on us that this was the wrong platform. We (tried to) run with our ridiculously huge bags (WE STILL JUST CANNOT SEEM TO PACK) to another platform and jumped on. It was the Trans-Siberian railway this time, and phew, because it only leaves once a week.
We giggled at how (sort of) cute our new little home was. We had ordered an “ensuite”. The ensuite was a dirty room with a sink in it and a hole in the floor that went straight out the bottom of the train. But the sink had a plug, so we devised an ingenious method of showering by filling up the sink with boiling water that we stole from the train attendant, and used an old mug to throw the water over ourselves. Brilliant. Totally had a shower every other day. The toilet, at the other end of the carriage, was a trap door to the ground, so you just had to press a pedal, and voila.
The train was old and rickety, and there are coal fires in every carriage, and therefore totally romantic(?). The best part was the view and the Russian matriarch of the train who commanded how and what we ate everyday. Let’s just say, for a vegetarian who loves good food, there was an awful lot of time spent daydreaming about fresh fruit and salads. The first day I brought strawberries and artichokes and vegan cookies from Moscow, and the matriarch shouted at me in Russian for smugly eating them in the corner. From day two, I ate omelets and potatoes swimming in oil every single day, twice a day. Apparently, the meat soup was delicious, although I think eating it for breakfast, lunch and dinner every day must have got tiresome. I couldn’t sleep very well either, because the train rocked like mad, and I was thoroughly tormented by the constantly changing time zones, so I never knew whether I was supposed to be asleep or awake.
I watched the remote and baron Russian countryside slide past while I contemplated life. We brought 15 books altogether (I told you we couldn’t pack) but didn’t mange to read much. The view was too distracting, in a poetically bland sort of way. I remember looking out the window at the beautiful Lake Baikal. It is the deepest lake in the world, and holds a fifth of the world’s fresh water. It was completely frozen, so totally white, as was the sky, so I couldn’t see where the lake ended and where the sky started.
I jumped off a boat on Gili Air (an island off Lombok, Indonesia) in the torrential rain and dragged my four wet bags-of-shame onto the shore. Yes, four, I know; two big bags, one little bag and one painting. I was so glad I brought over 30kg of stuff with me, including 15 or so long sleeved tops and jumpers (in a part of the world so hot that you can’t walk bare foot anywhere without burning your feet) and other miscellaneous life saving equipment such as a hair dryer. Don’t even get me started on the evil glares I got from the cool teenage backpackers that had one 10kg backpack with everything they needed. Oh no, hang on, there were only three bags… Wait, stop, wait, I yelled out to the boat from the beach, you have got one of my many bags!
The boat came back to deliver my bag, thankfully, after a lot of waving and flamboyant sign language. I squeezed into a tiny decorated carriage attached to a horse. The next thing I know, we were galloping down a dusty beach road. I was absolutely convinced that we would topple over as the carriage clearly wasn’t designed for people that can’t pack, and the enormous potholes didn’t help. So I proceeded to take a sharp intake of breath at every wobble, which apparently pissed off the horse and the driver. I was dropped off at some beach hut with a veranda and a hammock, negotiated a price, and settled down.
Gili Air doesn’t have anything with an engine, except boats. It is peaceful and small and the people were ever so friendly. Imagine white sand beaches, some of the best snorkeling in the world just a few meters from the beach, turquoise waters, gorgeous beach huts and fresh seafood beach restaurants. I did something called “reading a book for fun” – something that I have been too busy or tired to do for a long time. I swam with turtles, 12 of them in fact, and wondered at how majestic they are. I will remember that experience for the rest of my life. A local said to me one a dive one day “if you’re lucky, you might see a shark”. Or unlucky. I didn’t see any sharks, but I was utterly mesmerised by the schools of multicolored fish shimmering in the water as they moved together in perfect synchrony.
Life was getting a bit too easy so it was time for our next adventure: Mount Rijani on mainland Lombok, Indonesia’s second largest live volcano. The tour agency (a random dude in flip flops sitting in front of a faded poster) said it was a “family-friendly” and “easy” trek and that they would provide a “homestay” the first night and then a “Romeo and Juliet” tent at the top of the volcano for the second night. And this operator was so much cheaper than the others – what a find, I thought! So they carted me off to a “home stay”. I really don’t know why I still haven’t learnt my lesson but “home stay” appears to be international code for “shit hole”. I was almost sick when I saw how dirty the kitchen was. My room was filthy, lined with fluorescent lights so I could really examine the dirt. The walls were falling down and the “ensuite” was a room that stunk so bad of urine that I couldn’t breath and boasted a “combo sink and shower” which was basically a mangy tap on the crumbling wall. I paced up and down muttering to myself and then conceded by falling asleep.
The next day, the group started walking at 4:30am. We stopped for lunch in a cloud forest and the amazing porters prepared us a rather extravagant meal. It was very impressive – they were so little but so strong, industrious and smiley. We had to eat really quickly though because we were surrounded by monkeys and scarred wild dogs that were edging closer and closer towards us as we ate. When we left the lunch spot, all the animals fought for the scraps and we heard the screams of the smallest dog.
I struggled to get to the top (to put it mildly) and I lost litres of water in sweat in the process. The only thing that encouraged me to put one foot in front of the other when my legs were shaking was the thought of the gorgeous spa that I would go to afterwards. When we got to the top, we couldn’t see more than a few metres in front of us because we were in a cloud. And then the sky opened like a waterfall. I sat on the floor in a ball, forehead on knees, feeling sorry for myself in a giant plastic bag and waited for the porters to set up the tents. By the time they had set up the tents, everything was wet through, and for the first time since arriving in the continent, it was really really cold. I went to bed at about 7pm because there wasn’t anything else to do, and I couldn’t see anything. When I say “bed”, I mean a dirty and tiny tent with holes and a “mattress” that was a piece of wet rubber about 2mm thick. I had a sleeping bag but I was still freezing cold, and spent the whole night shivering. The wild dogs attacked each other loudly outside our tent all night.
I pretended for hours that I wasn’t dying to go to the loo but I couldn’t wait any longer and had to go. It was 2am. I fell out of the tent and looked up. The stars were epic. I looked down. All I could see was the glint of the eyes of the wild dogs as I caught them with my torch looking at me. Definitely on my top three of most surreal weeing experiences, given that it was off the side of a live volcano in the middle of the night and I was surrounded by wild dogs. I ran back to the tent shaking, not with the cold this time, but with fear that I could have turned into dog dinner.
Sunrise made everything a whole lot better. It was out-of-this-world stunning to see the great expanse of the volcanoes and to watch how the colours and the environment changed so dramatically as the weather shifted so quickly from one extreme to another. I had been so trigger-happy with the monkeys the day before that my camera battery was dead. It was a blessing in disguise really as I was forced to be present in the glorious moment.
I bounced back down to the base of the mountain and got a taxi to the best spa hotel on the island. I drank cocktails and ate tapas on the beach. The next day, I discovered that I was in rather a lot of pain and couldn’t walk. It got worse the day after and then even worse the day after. Who knew that one walk up a volcano would completely cripple me for an entire week. One hundred percent worth it though…
Rice paddies, soft smiling faces, art galleries and organic shops galore… I arrived in Ubud, Bali. I bought a large canvas and paints and set up a studio in a beautiful apartment looking out to rice paddies and palm trees. There were hundreds of little birds making varying degrees of beautifully strange sounds.
I dive enthusiastically into the world-renowned mecca for yogis called the Yoga Barn, which hosts a multitude of classes ranging from run-of-the-mill yoga, to the most wacked-out pseudo-spiritual indulgences the town’s magic mushrooms can inspire.
First was “sound medicine”. Imagine a space full of musicians, singing and playing their tribal instruments as they bathe you in healing vibrations. We chanted for our ancestors, our future generations, our communities and for peace and love. My initial cynicism quickly melted into happiness, as it spread contagiously around the room. I was left with a smile for days.
Next I tried to have a fleeting 90 minute affair with Thai chi, but fell in love instead. The Thai chi master introduced us to the principles of energy flow through our body, and showed us how to harness the energy of an opponent. It was eye opening to see how strong and unassailable you can become through the simple act of centering yourself to the earth.
Next on the taster menu was “acro yoga”, where we indulged in a series of yogic menage-de-trois. The class opened with us going around the circle responding to the question “what inspires you”. Mostly lovely answers, with the notable exception of one slightly disoriented Korean woman, who responded verbatim with: “what, me? I’ve just had lunch so I’ve got the runs” (big toothy smile, wildly confused audience). Then we formed groups of three, and worked intimately with our partners to create beautiful stretches and triangular shapes. We helped (groped) each other into hitherto impossible contortions, such as “flying” one of the trio above our legs so that they felt light as a feather, and then drumming on their bum(?!?), as well as a three-legged symmetric stretch in a tripod shape. I partnered with a doctor, who was also a model, (I know, I know, the whole thing seems made-up), who was writing her thesis while she travelled all around the world.
I also tried a Tibetian bowl meditation – large copper bowls that make a sound so mellow it would probably tranquilise a horse, and floods your mind with calm in a strangely forceful stasis. I watched the birds play in the green and pink jungle plants as the sun went down.
All the community here really like to touch each other. They hug for long periods of time and they hold each other’s gaze lovingly. I originally thought it was some kind of creepy occult or orgiastic connection, but shortly realised that it is just that these people are so emotionally open and comfortable with themselves that rather than seeing the socially constructed physical boundaries the rest of us do, they unashamedly hug everyone, with a sincerely heartfelt love for their shared humanity that some of us would struggle to find for our nearest and dearest.
The food. Oh wow. Loads of mad healthy green veggie stuff. I was even drinking shots of wheatgrass. My life-long battle with the insect kingdom continued. I think the latest score was about 28,000-0 (insects-Sherin). I may have scored an own-goal by leaving a half-eaten bag of chocolate raisins in my handbag. Lesson to self; if you leave food out even for a second, your food will automatically turn into an ant’s nest. One night I found a cockroach on my arm and instead of flicking it off, I accidentally splatted it into my own arm. Yup, need to skill-up, I know. I have also found tiny invisible bugs sucking my blood (you can spot them because the suddenly turn bright red with your own blood) and have had to pull them out of my leg (I then sulked about this for approximately half a day in bittersweet revenge).
Last day in Ubud, so I decided to go to “Sunday dance” which I thought was a dance lesson. No. It was a free-for-all treetop dance floor in the jungle. It was 11am. It’s extremely hot and humid. A smiley plump and colourful Indian lady bobs around painting people’s faces and bodies. The music was loud and crisp – like dub-step but mixed with some spiritual-Indian beats. It was bass-heavy, which vibrated through the treetop floor. Everyone was bare foot. The centre point was the middle of the circle and everyone moved animalistically around it, like a whirlpool. The whole space was full of extremely good-looking Tarzan and Jane types. Not having long hair, being gorgeously tanned and having a tattoo of some sacred geometric shape made you weird. It was a magical assault on all senses.
The rules were: 1. No talking (you can share dances with people through eye contact and touch, but you cannot talk); 2. Move around the space (do not stay in one place or with the person you may have come with, lest your energy become stale); 3. Just do whatever feels right to you in the moment and let your inhibitions free. Freaking brilliant rules of life if you ask me.
The dancing became more and more tribal. There were people with drums that were sending people into an untamed frenzy. Some vibrated with their hands in prayer at their heart. Some threw their heads back and roared at the top of their lungs, literally. Some shook their bodies violently to the drum beat. Some prowled around the floor on their hands and knees like hunting cats.
My hair was bone dry when I arrived but within 15 minutes, it was wet right through and dripping. I don’t think I have ever sweated so much in my life. Everyone was dripping wet and the paint began to run, or stream, off people’s bodies. I felt self-conscious to begin with, of course, but gradually I started to let go. I shared some beautiful moments with a few zealous strangers, dancing into each other’s space and moving invisible energy around each other’s bodies. I danced with my eyes closed, I danced slowly, quickly, low on the floor, high on my tip toes. I explored the edge of the circle and the middle of the circle – I moved clockwise and anticlockwise. I felt like a snake exploring, meandering and negotiating a new environment. After a few hours of jungle dancing, the music slowed and everyone naturally moved closer to the ground. People started randomly free styling; singing, om-ing, stomping, you name it and there it was. Completely spontaneously harmonious.
I could hardly speak afterwards. It was beautiful how no one tried to hit on anyone else, no one slammed into anyone else (because no one was drunk or high – well, they may have ODed on the wheatgrass shots but that was as far as it went) and no one was self-conscious or showing off. And just to put the icing on an already awesome cake, when we finished, we were confronted by an epic vegetarian buffet and were handed a woven banana leaf basket to fill up as we saw fit.
I left my heart in Ubud and promised myself that I would return…
It was 8am, and I was paddling in the sea awaiting my lift. Today, I was going diving and I was excited. A flimsy looking boat whizzes in, I was thrown onboard and, within seconds, an aged Aussie hippie enthusiastically starts talking at me. He tells story after story – all horror stories related to diving, of course. First story involved seven Japanese women that dived off this very island when the current was too strong; five of them were found clinging to the rocks three days later and two of them were found dead (they also found another random eighth body who has still not been identified). Second story involved a massive triggerfish biting a chunk out of his side (with scar to prove it) and thrasher sharks surrounding him. Third story, well, more of a foreboding warning than a story, involved a description of one of the dive sites we were going to later that day… He leaned in and whispered in a hushed tone (please read in really strong Aussie accent): “this side is really dangerous, there is a strong down-current so just make sure you do exactly what the guide says and you’ll be OK.” Meanwhile, the boat crashed clumsily through towering choppy waves.
The experienced captain (some Indonesian kid in swimmers) then turned the boat’s engine off. It was rocking so much that I was sure I would fall overboard if I stood up. Everyone proceeded to rush to get their diving gear on while I watched the waves turn from blue to white as they crashed against the nearby rocks. Somehow, I ended up sitting on the edge of this boat in all my diving gear listening to someone say “OK roll backwards”. Roll backwards, I repeated in my head, as I shook with fear throughout my whole body, what, into this perilous ocean, weighting about 100kgs with all my dive gear on?!? I looked around somewhat wildly to see if anyone else was freaking out. No one else was freaking out. They were already in the ocean floating around competently and gleefully. I rolled off backwards and as I popped back up to the surface in a crazed fluster, my friend said with a wry smile: “if it’s any consolation, you look like a bond girl”. I would have shown him my middle finger if I could have figured out how to lift my arm in amongst swallowing salt water and getting jumbled up in all the dials, tanks, tubes and other random life-saving equipment that was attached to my octopus-shaped body.
The guide made the pointing-down sign so we let the air out of our BCD (inflatable-life-jacket-type-thing) to allow ourselves to sink – as counterintuitive as the whole exercise might be. I was hyperventilating at this point. As we sank, I noticed the mushroom shaped air bubbles rising from my body; they were relentless. We sank about 20 metres, just above the coral, and I looked around. There are no words to describe the underwater world, as I am sure those of you that have seen it know well, but it suffices to say that it is profoundly moving. A giant manta ray swam over my head with its mouth wide open. It was two metres wide and it moved like an elegant (squashed) dancer. I was so utterly transfixed that I actually forgot how to breath. Suddenly, I felt a deep sense of peacefulness; I started to breath long deep yogic breaths. As soon as my mind was calm, my body adapted to its environment and began to move a little like a fish. We were under the water for a whole hour (although it felt like five minutes) and meandered around the ocean bed secretly peering into this private alien world.
Back on the boat and off to the next dive site – apparently we were doing a “drift dive”. Now I am thinking that the word “drift” means moving gently with the current, you know, how one might drift from one person to another at a party, but I thought wrong. We dropped down to the coral wall and became subject to the whim of the ocean. We moved about 3kms over the course of about 45 minutes and the only “swimming” we did was full strength into the current in an attempt to slow down. At first, I was bewildered as I couldn’t understand the concept of being completely unable to control the shape, direction or location of my body, so I resisted by trying really really hard to gain control against the powerful ocean’s current. Then, the same as before, I just decided to surrender and it was the most extraordinary sensation to just go with the flow (excuse the pun). There were thousands of multi-coloured fish surrounding us, including puffer fish, rainbow fish, trigger fish, angel fish, finding-nemo fish, unicorn fish and barracudas (one that was about the same size as me), all just whizzing past us, like some David Attenborough show in fast-forward. It was like being in space (but florescent coloured space) where there is no gravity. When we came up to the surface, our boat was miraculously there waiting for us. Best. Dive. Ever.
Off we went on our motorbike to discover more of this tiny paradise island. We stumbled across “Dream Beach” (written in chalk on a piece of wood) and my goodness was it dreamy. A beautiful cove of perfect white sand, huge crashing turquoise waves and a beautiful little boutique hotel and restaurant. We played on the beach, which was (obviously) deserted, and ate an outrageously delicious curry and plate of fresh pineapple and watermelon.
Next we stumbled across Devil’s Tear. A jagged peninsula of rock with the biggest waves I had ever seen. You could hear the roar of the crashing waves from so far away. We sat and watched the water dance in the sky and whip itself aggressively around the rocks.
Back on the motorbike, wind through (disgustingly matted) hair, and sand on salty skin, we set off to explore the connecting island. We rode over a rickety old bridge, just wide enough for one motorbike, and through lots of beautiful fishing villages where the locals smiled and waved at us. We watched the sun majestically set over another infinitely pool looking out to the sea. I had to pinch myself to just check that I was not dreaming…