Post 6 - Reconnecting

It’s been an indecent stretch of time since my last post, and I’ve had a few of you check in to see if I’m still alive and kicking.

The short answer is YES! Otherwise I wouldn’t have written this post. I’ve even included a pic of me and my dog Satch, to prove the point!

A picture of me and my dog Satch. I’ll leave it to you to guess who is whom.

A picture of me and my dog Satch. I’ll leave it to you to guess who is whom.

Nonetheless, I have been delayed and distracted by items forcing themselves onto my plate. Since my last falconry blog, I’ve had four hospital stays (one of them within the past week), two bouts of surgery, being zapped by radiation over Christmas, and then potentially being recalled again as I write this.

Indeed, I’m at another point where I seriously need to re-evaluate where my health is going, vs what my mind and emotions want my body to do. What my ego (and other people) think I should be doing, vs where my core spirit needs to be.

During my latest hospital stay, the lead oncologist read my reports, without ever having met me before. When he saw me, he was honest and said he expected me to be dead. Instead he found me fresh faced, with a strong voice, able to move around (albeit like an old man), and mentally alert.

My reports, however, indicate that my spleen and left kidney are damaged to the point of being unrecognisable, my liver is mostly tumour, I have multiple tumour locations in my rib cage and spine (with associated fractures), and it has also spread to my lungs and has swollen my lymph nodes.

I’ve been through several rounds of contemplating departing this body, since I was diagnosed back in May 2017. Each time peeling away another layer from the onion.

However this time, I’ve been experiencing terror around being trapped, difficulty breathing (both in reality and in the dream world), and claustrophobia. It’s something I’ve never, or very rarely experienced in the past – despite designing and building tunnels for a living!

Nevertheless, I feel this is something that I need to face up to, regardless of what may or may not happen. When I eventually pass away, I do not want to be in a state of fear or panic. Especially in the dreamworld – if I’m unable to pull an emergency cord, and escape from an induced coma.

I need to shed what expectations both I, and others have of me for surviving.

-          Of the happy life I that I wanted to lead once recovered. Having a wife, kids, home, being financially supported in a worthwhile vocation.

-          Of the various people and spectacular parts of the planet I want to visit or perhaps even live in.

-          The desire to help the needy, and live a life of service – no matter what shape or size this comes in. Especially with all the lessons and wisdom I’ve picked up during y life and this illness.

This is not to disparage all the openhearted souls who have helped me along this path. All of these notions have been lovingly laced into my own existence by loved ones, well-wishers, and healers. Fantastic souls who want me to be rid of this condition, and see me at the top of my health.

They (you) have brought me immense strength during some of my darkest hours, and deserve immense gratitude.

I’ve been desperately wanting, and looking forward to doing all of the above. I think it’s one of the main planks of my strength, and has sustained my warrior spirit for so long. Having a strong sense of purpose is an incredible tool to possess – no matter what anyone’s life situation is.

As you can tell, the truth of the matter is that I still have a very strong drive to live. A drive that has its own untamed fire, which can’t be switched off by flicking a switch. Despite what I’ve written, it feels good to be alive. I’ve become so attuned and grateful for the minor fragments of beauty and joy that fill each day, that I don’t want to give any of it up.

Yet now I feel as though it may have been taken a bit far. It’s hard for me to tell.

They say you need to run as fast as you can to stay exactly where you are. I think I am, but in the case of the disease progression, the Doctors tell me I’m slowly falling behind. When I see their reports, I can’t disagree.

If you’ve ever seen an episode of “The Gladiators”, you might recall the “Travellator” apparatus. This is a sloped escalator that the contender has to run up, but the escalator is moving in the opposite direction to the intended direction of travel. It feels as though I have 95% of the power to stay exactly where I am, but I’m slowly drifting backwards. A good effort, which is providing more time, but doesn’t get me to the top.

That’s how I’m starting feel with this process. A warrior can only wield their spear for so long.

So, is this will to live now a gift, or a hindrance? What does my spirit really want to do? Stay, or go?

I feel as though I have more work to do around this question, and indeed work left to do in this existence.

In terms of shedding my attachment to this world (which is different to giving up the fight), I would need to;

-          unweave my outlook I mentioned above, and take a more detached view. To view the situation with more of a sense of equanimity,

-          have the discipline not to be seduced by its promises or rewards of “survival”. At least for the internal reflection phase.

-          possess the strength of character not to hold on or be attached to any disappointment if I have to let go of this dream.

Don’t get me wrong, if a miracle cure or spontaneous healing lands on my lap then I’ll take it!

By that, I’m not talking about juicing thousands of pounds worth of cannabis, eating apricot kernels, or shoving a newly discovered tropical berry up my backside.

Yet further unwinding is what I must do for my next stage of healing (which isn’t physical). This is regardless of what the next chapter of my fate may, or may not hold. Dispelling the sense of fear and terror that’s been building up is something that must be done.

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Whilst wading through these shadows, I’ve had a few trails of golden breadcrumbs to keep me curious. They are in the form of mini-projects that almost seem designed to boost my purpose for being here. I’ve split them down into 3 items below.

Item 1

As you can imagine, I’ve picked up a fair amount of knowledge around the subject and wish to pass it on for others to use. Hence I’ve been in the recording studio. I’ve had 4 audio instructional files recorded and edited professionally, in order for others to build up their own practice. I hope my voice doesn’t put you all to sleep!

Furthermore, I’ve also created a template spreadsheet based on my own personal copy. This is so others can also log their progress, and to also provide encouragement. Every little helps to keep us all on the straight and narrow!

However, the jewel in the crown is a detailed guide that covers the theory around the topic of using one’s voice for acoustic healing. This is especially useful when learning about the subject, or carrying out the practice from the view of someone who could be physically impaired. Someone who wants a quick “pick me up” guide to get them going, and then who can go back and brush up on the theory, as they feel called to do so.

Should the worst happen sooner than expected, the intention is to have as much as my knowledge preserved, in order for others to build upon it. This is a high priority item for me, as it’s the preservation of my legacy. However as you can imagine, I’ve had to prioritise my medical care and recovery over this, which has slowed me down.

Finally my chanting teacher, Richard Down, has kindly conducted a number of video interviews with me. This in order to combine these into a neat set for others to pick up, and to binds the information together. We have over 2 hours of footage that we are trying to sculpt down to 3 minutes, so the game is on!

Item 2

The Ecuador Documentary has always been on the cards, and we now have an Editor (Cynthia Chen) on board. My task is collating archive footage to mix it up a little bit. These are essentially old videos from when I was young and cool 😊.

We have a good team on board, and I have high confidence that the scheme will be a success. It’s set up so that if I pass away before production, my family can take over my review role, and there are enough staff on the filmmaker’s side to ensure completion.

As an update, the rest of the team are organising a trip to Ecuador in March, which will add another location and a deeper dimension to what we already have.

Item 3

Articles in the media. I have two potential pieces (to be written by others), which have to be pitched to the publications. These have different likelihoods of success, so I don’t want to reveal anything ahead of time. Despite this, it means I can put minimal input into them, if my energy levels do not allow.

Post 5 - Flying with Falcons / Bezos & Amazon - Closer to the Truth?

Part 1 - Flying with Falcons

If you could have tea and cake with anyone not alive today, who would it be? Only one restriction, they can’t be someone you’ve met before.

This was a questions I batted round our woodland lodge in Center Parcs, as one of our evenings drew to a close. I was being treated to a lovely break by the staff of my Cancer Hospice, Dorothy House.

Some replies ranged from Nina Simone, Winston Churchill, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and Jane Austin. I thought Jane Austin was a clever one from my nurse Catrina. This was because she said it’d not only be interesting to meet the great author, but to have an opportunity to speak to someone from a different century. A chance to really understand the attitudes of the period.

Being simple, I chose Roald Dahl. If he was the tinderbox that lit my passion for reading and writing, then the guilty spark was struck by my 2nd Year teacher Miss Hodgkins. She did a marvellous job of reading us his stories, and possessed an uncanny knack for creating different voices. It must be said that her Centipede, from James and the Giant Peach, probably has no rival in Heaven or on Earth.

Not only that, Mr Dahl had an extraordinary life. From a fascinating childhood, working in East Africa, serving as an RAF fighter pilot in the Mediterranean during World War 2, to writing macabre stories for adults, and then finally children’s books.

If presented with such an opportunity, I’d be eating my cake, and drinking my tea slower than a hipster abusing free Wi-Fi from a coffee shop.

Just in case you were wondering, I have actually written about falcons in this post. I’m just enjoying setting the scene first, as life isn’t just about falcons.

Center Parcs

It was my first ever time at Center Parcs. For those of you not in the know, it consists of lodges in a heavily wooded area, with daily activities, restaurants, and nature walks in abundance. Cars are strictly banned outside of arrival and departure times. Hence there is a slower pace of life, unbridled by traffic fumes and noise. You will rise awake to the sound of birdsong, and inhale crisp forest air into your lungs.

However, due to the constant presence of humans, the wildlife can be boisterous at times. One of our lodges was menaced by raft of ducks, who were tapping on the glass doors to demand food.

Dorothy House is a Hospice that looks after terminally ill patients. I sometimes think of it as a night club from a parallel universe. One where everyone except the most hammered people are refused entry by the doormen. A lot of people receiving their care suffer from cancer, but there are others who are suffering who are also in need of genuine help. Jokes aside, they are an efficient, hardworking and very compassionate group of humans. They do excellent work, and we’re very lucky to have them.

They run an annual trip to Center Parcs to give the patients a holiday in a very supportive environment. For some, this may be their last, or one of their last such trips. There is a high ratio of nurses and healthcare workers to each patient, and the patients do not have to worry about the logistics of their situation.

This also gives the patients’ families and carers an opportunity to have a break and rejuvenate themselves. The strain put on carers is often overlooked, but they require support too.

The care and support they provided was exemplary. As a result, I felt very loved and carried throughout the whole week.

The Unusual Suspects and Echoes of the Empire

Our group of patients was a pleasant, and varied mix.

I shared a lodge with Bill, who is retired. He had an interesting and eclectic career in the mechanical trade, mining in Zambia, and did a stint in the British Army (Royal Engineers) to name but a few. Despite his many years of life experience, he was excellent at navigating his phone and tech devices. A great example that one can never stop learning.

Claudette is a kind and gentle soul, and originally from the warmer island of Jamaica. Despite living and working in the country for over two decades, she still has a delightful Caribbean lilt to her voice. This is accompanied by her lovely smile. She told me about an excellent café in Bradford on Avon, that makes possibly the best jam, cream and scones – and what order I should eat them in. I’ve since forgotten the name of the café, but am looking forward to giving some a try.

Peter is a retired mechanical engineer. Like me, he gained his degree from the University of Bristol. He’s spent a long career in industry, and in academia at the University of Bath. He’s also recently authored a university level hydraulics textbook, which he showed me a copy of on the internet. We were both speed demons on our mobility scooters, usually racing ahead of the others like rebels without a cause. If you were thrust into a post-apocalyptic Australian wasteland (Mad Max style), then you’d be lucky to ride with Peter.

Taj is a woman of many talents. She was a secondary school English teacher, and had a successful career in Epidemiology before that. She is a fine example of an excellent mentor, and still has students who keep in touch with her. I would have loved to have had a teacher like her at school. Except I already did, in the form of another fantastic English teacher called Mr Marston. Taj has the same ethnic background as me, with her ancestors also originating from Punjab in Northern India. Her three children are roughly ten years younger than me, and she has a lovely Weimaraner (German Pointer) to keep her company.

Rob is a cracking fellow, profoundly upbeat and the life and soul of any party. I think everyone who crosses his path is glad to have met him. He’s a couple of years older than me, and has five young children and a wife. He used to have a more hands on career as a tradesman in a timber engineering products firm, and on different construction sites. I could easily picture having a good laugh at work with him, whilst getting the job well done.

I only met the second Rob briefly, as I was making a beeline for a mid-afternoon nap when I met him. He was a friendly gentleman, but unfortunately didn’t get a chance to speak with him more profoundly, as he only did a day trip. He did mention he shares a strong interest in protecting trees and the natural world, which means he has a place in my good books.

Dolly is a warm hearted and easy going Australian, with children a decade older than myself. I was fortunate to meet her charming husband Ian who drove her down, who is also Australian. After living all over the country, their last home down under was in Sydney. However, the UK is home to them now. She was my wonderful partner in crime for the falconry and owl experiences, which I’ll be discussing shortly.

One thing that touched me about this group, is that it felt like a snapshot in time. Almost like an echo from old Britain’s Commonwealth or Empire. The faces of migration have changed in recent years, with cohorts arriving from Eastern Europe, The Middle East, parts of Africa, and elsewhere.

Yet the composition of our group has been woven together more intimately in history. The nationalities represented served alongside each other in both World Wars. In World War 2, this ranged from North Africa (including pivotal battles such as El Alamein), the Mediterranean, Western Europe, and Asia.

Post war migration from The Commonwealth arrived from these countries. The history of the British Empire is complex, and events and attitudes (during and post Empire) haven’t run as smoothly as most would have liked them to. In fact, that’s a polite and massive understatement. However, I don’t want to touch this topic with a twenty foot bargepole. At least not in this article.

Despite all of this, I was left deep in thought by seeing how much evolution and integration had occurred over the past 70 years. Seeing how different our lives are now, compared with the people at that time such as my parents and their generation. What would we be like if we’d met in the 1920s, 40s, or 60s?

I was left delighted by the genuine warmth and goodwill shown by everyone to one another, including from every single staff member. This was regardless of who we were, or what challenges we were all facing.

Falconing

As alluded to in the title of this post, we got around to participating in some bird of prey experiences. Dolly and I went completely bonkers, and booked two. One was a falconry experience on the Thursday morning, and the other was an owl experience during the afternoon. These were very short in duration (only an hour each).

This contrasts with the half day falconry experiences I’ve previously been on. I’ve also been on an actual foraging and falconry weekend course, where we camped wild, and had the opportunity to hunt real prey with a Harris Hawk. More details about this later.

I guess this was fair enough, due to the lower energy and mobility levels I have now, compared with times past.

The falconry session was excellent, and Dolly and I really enjoyed it. The sky was virtually clear, with the sunlight dappling through a protective circle of noble Beech trees.

The scene was very peaceful. To be honest, I was content enough just to be there – birds of prey or not! The rest of the group stood attentive and asked intelligent questions, whilst Dolly and I were comfortably sat on chairs provided. Gaynor, our kindly accompanying nurse, took photos of us during key moments.

Selfie with an owl. I can’t remember which one.

Selfie with an owl. I can’t remember which one.

The falconer brought out a selection of different birds. These were an owl called Bilbo (great name for an owl), a male Kestrel, a Saker Falcon, and a Turkey Vulture. Each was encouraged to fly towards our gloves around the circle. They were allowed to remain perched on our gloves for a few moments, so we could admire up close.

The Turkey Vulture was a heavy bugger, but also a hilarious character. He frequently ignored the falconer, looking for random scraps on the floor. Once he completed the circle, he even wondered off back to the aviary on his own!

There is something very thrilling being around a bird of prey. At least to me. They are beautiful to behold, and possess such strength and power. Yet they can also be very light and delicate at the same time.

My favourite was the Saker Falcon. Humans have been hunting with these birds for thousands of years. We were told that the relationship with this falcon was where the art falconry was founded (although I suspect Golden Eagles may contest this). The falcon remained tethered to the falconer, but he did transport it from person to person, in order for us to handle it.

A Saker Falcon sitting on my glove.

A Saker Falcon sitting on my glove.

This wasn’t done out of spite towards the bird. The falcon in question is used regularly for live hunts. It therefore has a strong prey instinct that is matched only by its prowess. There were a number of plump pigeons lazing in the tree branches above, perhaps not comprehending what danger was lurking beneath them. I have no doubt about what havoc the falcon could have wrought, if it was high enough up to dive down upon them. It is a serious bird of prey, and needs to be handled with respect.

A special moment occurred with this falcon. During its group gyration, it shed one of its primary wing feathers. Primary wing feathers are situated near the front of the bird’s wing, and are narrower on the leading edge than the trailing edge. On secondary wing feathers, this effect is less pronounced. Tail feathers are evenly balanced. This makes them better suited for braking during landing, or to help quickly change direction of flight.

Seeing as the feather would have ended up being trodden into the forest floor, I was allowed to keep it. I was very happy with my acquisition. I now had a falcon feather to add to my collection of eagle feathers (which all happen to be gifts). A feather from a falcon that probably symbolises the first hunting bond between human and bird.

After receiving the feather, I felt a bit guilty, and thought I should have given it to Dolly instead. In spite of that, as she finished her turn handling it, the falcon ruffled its wings and dropped another one right in front of her!

Owl Experience

The owl experience later was somewhat underwhelming after the falconry. If the participants of the falconry experience could be described as Royal Marine Commandos, then the punters at the owl experience were more like Dad’s Army. Suffering from dysentery.

Owl.jpg

I’m being a bit harsh here. However, there was a seeming lack of courtesy to not talk over the instructor, and not being able to follow some of the basic instructions (such as being able to form a circle when asked). There were some children present, which probably contributed to this. However, they are blameless at that age – we were all kids once, and I’m guessing I could have been much worse!

I’m actually glad the children were present. It’s an amazing opportunity to see such animals so close, and from an early age. Who knows how that will spark their curiosity, or steer their paths later in life. The closer that future generations are to the wilderness will hopefully mean they will value it more, and be more willing to protect it. A very important take away in the tech saturated world of today’s kids.

My nephew Oliver was mad about birds of prey, owls in particular. I’ve taken him to a half day experience for his birthday in 2016. For his 11th birthday, I was organising for him to shadow a falconer a day. This is so he could get a more accurate and intimate encounter with the birds, with activities ranging from cleaning out the aviaries, to learning how to fly, handle, feed, and weigh the birds (so they can be maintained at hunting / flying weight). Well I was – I now know he’s gone off falcons now, and is into kayaking and sailing instead!

Hunting with Hawks

My own ultimate falconry experience however, was not experienced within the confines of a Center Parcs resort, oh no.

It was actually back in 2011, when I was living some of my most riotous days in London. I’d enrolled in a foraging and falconry course during that spring. This involved camping in a forest for the weekend, whilst we were taught how to identify edible plants, nuts, fruits, and roots. That part of the course was an eyeopener alone. I’ve never viewed the natural world in that way before, and could barely identify any species of tree (unless it was an apple tree with apples on it).

Foraging & Falconry course with Lily, a Harris Hawk. Taken in May 2011

Foraging & Falconry course with Lily, a Harris Hawk. Taken in May 2011

Over time, and more courses, the forest turned from being an amorphous mass of green, to being more like a home, and a supermarket. A supermarket, because I know was beginning to appreciate what was in it, and what I could use it for. A home, because it became less foreign, and more inviting place because of this knowledge.

An old expression is that the more you know about the forest, the less you need to carry to live, survive, and enjoy being in it.

The other part of the course was hunting for live prey with Harris Hawks. I apologise to those of you whom are vegans or against hunting. Note that this was done to put food in the pot, as well as the obvious learning experience. If you don’t feel comfortable reading on, please feel free to skip to the next section. However I don’t think my description is too traumatic, and I haven’t included any gory details. If comparing this to a film rating, think of it as a PG or 12. I’d consider the 1972 children’s novel / animated film Watership Down to be more psychologically scarring.

For the rest of you, our prey was a colony of rabbits.

As far as I’m aware, female birds of prey are larger and more aggressive, so they are best suited for the hunt. That’s not to say the males are inept (they’ve evolved over millennia just fine). However, if you want to pack your biggest punch, you need a lady on your arm. That’s a falconry joke I just made up, as you launch the birds from a falconry glove on your hand (or arm). Get it? No? Ok…

Our avian huntress was called Lily. She was a bit of a gambit, as it was also her first time on a real hunt. Harris Hawks are native to the Americas, thriving from South Western USA down to Chile. They tend to hunt in groups, whilst other birds of prey hunt alone, or sometimes in pairs. Harris Hawks are intelligent and easier to train and handle than other birds of prey. This makes them relatively popular with falconers.

After getting to grips with the basics of handling and flying Lily, we drew for the ferret.

Hostile looking man with a shifty looking ferret down his trousers.

Hostile looking man with a shifty looking ferret down his trousers.

The purpose of the ferret is to ferret out rabbits. A ferret is a weasel-like animal that weird men sometimes put down their trousers for a laugh, or for money. Hence I don’t trust them.

I once worked with a belligerent architect who also looked like a ferret. He also used some sneaky weasel tactics to get what he wanted. Maybe my trust issues come from that dude. I’ll discuss it in my next therapy session.

I can’t remember what this particular arsehole ferret was called, and I can’t say I trusted him.

Let’s call him Roger. It sounds like a name an untrustworthy ferret would have. It also has vulgar connotations for something else I won’t describe here. If you’re unfamiliar with the shadier parts of the English vocabularly, I’d recommend googling “roger British slang” or “getting rogered British slang” to see what it means. It will make the rest of this post far more entertaining.

When Roger scuttles into a rabbit warren, the idea is to scare of one or more of the rabbits so they make a run for it into the open. Once this happens, the idea is to launch the hawk and allow its instinct and experience to take over.

If the hairs on Roger’s back are standing up, then that indicates the presence of rabbits. It’s important to pay attention to this, as some warrens turn out to be abandoned.

When launching the hawk, it’s best to stand uphill of the warren for a few reasons.

-          One, to ensure that the rabbits don’t see you and change their mind about leaving the hole.

-          Two, it gives the hawk additional height to swoop down onto the prey.

-          Three, it prevents the rabbit from thwarting the effect of Two, by preventing it from running back uphill.

General view of the hunting area. The rabbit warrens we were working were on the left hand side near the trees. The second warren and drainage ditch are off camera, on the opposite side of the valley.

General view of the hunting area. The rabbit warrens we were working were on the left hand side near the trees. The second warren and drainage ditch are off camera, on the opposite side of the valley.

After Roger slithered into the dirtiest hole he could find, we waited. It seemed to take longer than I was expecting. Had something gone wrong? Would we have to grab a shovel and dig this little troublemaker out?

A few moments later, a grey figure shot out of a different hole. In a flash, the hawk was released. A breath later, the rabbit was firmly within its talons. Appearing like lightening the falconer was on the bird, and got her to release the rabbit alive. Despite having the daylights scared out of it, the rabbit was seemingly well, and scurried off.

The reason for the release was that the rabbit was too young. This is not only an ethical consideration, but also good hunting practice. A juvenile rabbit will not have had a chance to breed and reproduce for more prey, so hunting them would deplete the stock. In addition, there is far less meat than on an adult. Therefore additional hunting effort, and consequently more lives need to be taken for the same amount of food.

Soon after the rabbit ran away, a second rabbit bolted out. I was holding Lily this time, but in a split second I decided not to launch her. Nevertheless, she tried to rocket off my glove. I had to hold extremely tightly to her jesses (leather tethers around her talons), as I could feel her raw power trying to break free. I held her for the same reason as the first one – the rabbit was too small.

Blurry photo of Lily in flight, chasing after the third rabbit. The instructor in the black t-shirt is trying to flush the rabbit out from the drainage ditch.

Blurry photo of Lily in flight, chasing after the third rabbit. The instructor in the black t-shirt is trying to flush the rabbit out from the drainage ditch.

Third time, we got lucky. Roger, being the devious bastard that he is, managed to flush out a fully grown adult. It zipped down the field, and towards a drainage ditch lined with vegetation. Lily meant business as she shot into the air and after her quarry. The power, grace and beauty of the predator in flight was jaw dropping.

Despite getting to the relative safety of the vegetation, Lily owned and menaced the skies above. There was another warren nearby, sheltered by trees on the opposite side. The Promised Land of a hunted rabbit. After receiving some “encouragement” from an instructor, the rabbit darted from its cover, and bounded up the hillside towards the other warren. Not one to take any crap from a rabbit, the hawk made a fearless dive towards it…

Regardless of the impressive swoop, Lily narrowly missed her quarry, and the rabbit hopped off towards safety. End result; Rabbits 3, Harris Hawk + Ferret 0.

We weren’t able to catch any rabbits with the hawk that day (I blame Roger), but it was nevertheless an awe inspiring experience.

After Center Parcs, and reminiscing about this hunting experience (and other falconry encounters), I’ve been looking into different centres where I can get involved. I’ve seen one location that looks after both a Golden and a Bald Eagle. These birds have immense spiritual and historical significance, and hence I’m in two minds about them not being free. I’m also a lot weaker in my arms than the days when I was athletic enough to do handstand push ups. Hence, I don’t honestly expect to handle one – let alone fly or hunt them! Yet I’d love to spend time with one close up.

We’ll see what happens…

Part 2 - Bezos & Amazon - Closer to the Truth?

Unfortunately I’ll to pluck you out of this feathery paradise, to discuss a man who has been in the news recently. He and his firm continue to crop up in conversation, and I feel compelled to write about it.

His name is Jeff Bezos. You may know him better as the founder and CEO of Amazon. He’s been a multi-billionaire since 1999. He’s currently the world’s richest person, with approximately $150 billion of wealth, correct as of July 2018.

The Muppets’ Christmas Carol, an adaptation of Charles Dickens’s novel. A mean and miserly businessman called Scrooge is visited by the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future. This is in order to warn him and change his ways to being more generous and kind hearted towards his workers and the rest he comes into contact with. He eventually heeds the message, and everyone lives happily ever after.

The Muppets’ Christmas Carol, an adaptation of Charles Dickens’s novel. A mean and miserly businessman called Scrooge is visited by the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future. This is in order to warn him and change his ways to being more generous and kind hearted towards his workers and the rest he comes into contact with. He eventually heeds the message, and everyone lives happily ever after.

In spite of his unparalleled wealth, I noticed that he didn’t make the America’s Top 50 Philanthropists List in 2016. Nor did he make America’s Top 20 Philanthropists List in 2017. He also hasn’t signed Warren Buffet’s and Bill Gates’s Giving Pledge, in which the world’s most wealthiest pledge to donate more than half their fortunes away to good causes. If he did sign up and donate half his wealth, he’d still have $75 billion left over to play with.

It’s October 2018, so we’ll have to wait a few months to see if the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future will pay him a visit.

I genuinely hope the future will see a genuine shift in his and Amazon’s behaviour. If he does, I’ll honestly be the first to sing his praises. The world needs as many warm-hearted influential people as it can get. Better to have him feel included, and welcomed as part of the team, instead of the apparent status quo.

In the meantime, I’ll try to present the referenced information as clearly as I can, so you can form your own opinion.

The Seduction of Amazon

Almost everyone loves getting a package from Amazon. Including me. One of my office highlights was when Norm, Chris, or Ezra (old friends at my old job) would roll round to my desk in SF with a parcel.

It was like father Christmas arriving. Except if you placed enough bank notes into his big white beard, he wouldn’t bother to check if you’ve been naughty or nice.

I admit it’s a great service. As well as useful items, you can buy all sorts of nonsense that the most diseased imaginations can conjure up, and have it arrive at your door within a day or two. You even get “free” postage and online films if you’re a Prime member. I’ll be honest and admit I was a satisfied customer.

This is all well and good.

Except that many would argue it really isn’t. Their claim is that there appears to be a chain of exploitation, from warehouse workers, delivery drivers, office staff, and industrial manipulation of international tax codes. That’s if you believe whistle-blowers, national tax authorities, and government officials over the press releases of Amazon.

Is Amazon Paying Enough Tax?

As everyone finds tax affairs absolutely riveting, let’s lead with this first. My view is looking at cold hard numbers. Cases brought by tax authorities can be more objective and clearer cut, than ongoing reports of mistreatment.

The Financial Times (FT), does an excellent job of providing clear and detailed information on the matter. Some of you may not be aware of its existence, but it is regarded as one of the top (if not the top) newspapers for quality financial news. It’s staple reading for many in the financial services industry. Many newspapers focus on juicy nonsense topics of the day, which makes me regard them as a method of control. However, the FT can actually help an astute reader predict what the world is likely to look like in a few months or even years down the line.

I’ve used this as my main source for the tax based information and economic data, as they appear to have the most profound and balanced analysis. I’m a subscriber, which means I can get behind the paywall. Nonetheless, you can still view a limited number of articles for free if you register your email address (or email me directly, as I can send 10 free articles a month to friends). Otherwise, you’ll have to read this blog, and take my word for it.

The FT writes that Amazon has claimed it only made a profit of €10 million in the EU, based on revenues of €60 billion. I haven’t got my zeros mixed up there. They’re claiming that their business had an average profit margin of 0.02% over roughly a decade.

Amazon’s corporate structure within the EU. As discussed in the text, €4 billion of tax shielded royalties were shifted around it’s structure to to reduced it’s taxable profits from €4 billion to €10 million. This has resulted in legal cases from the IRS and EU, in order to bring this back into the tax net. Source: European Commission

Amazon’s corporate structure within the EU. As discussed in the text, €4 billion of tax shielded royalties were shifted around it’s structure to to reduced it’s taxable profits from €4 billion to €10 million. This has resulted in legal cases from the IRS and EU, in order to bring this back into the tax net. Source: European Commission

How did Amazon argue this? In 2004, Amazon set up its “Goldcrest” tax structure between the EU, US, and various subsidiary companies. This allowed them to juggle tax shielded royalty payments of €4 billion between a complex grouping of its subsidiary companies. This €4 billion was closer to their EU actual profits over the corresponding period. The EU investigators determined that Amazon improperly cut EU profits by inflating inter group royalties that were protected from taxes.

I’ve included a chart from the European Commission. I find this confusing to read, let alone fully understand what on Earth is going on regarding the internal flow of profits, payments, and tax protected royalties.

€2 billion was eventually repatriated back to the US where it was treated as profit and was taxed. However €2 billion remains at large. As far as I know, is being sought by both the US and EU tax authorities. I haven’t found any information to determine whether more funds have been creatively hid, or avoided via further schemes and loopholes.

On a side note, Amazon’s UK subsidiary had approximately £2 billion in revenue in 2017, reported a profit of £72 million, but only paid £1.7 million in UK tax. Note that its tax bill was reduced from £13.9 million to £1.7 million via share based awards.

The above is technically legal. Yet, is it morally acceptable that the world’s second most valuable firm (valued at $1 trillion) is paying virtually no corporation tax in some of its largest jurisdictions? Granted, they are providing jobs, but they are arguably squeezing out smaller competition, whom tend to pay closer to the UK Corporation Tax rate of 19%.

This is one of the reasons why I’m no longer an Amazon customer, at least until they clean up their act. I admit my actions are scarcely a drop on the ocean. You might even think, “what’s the point?” Nevertheless, I don’t want my money enriching a corporation that minimises what could have been spent on schools, hospitals, social care, etc. I still shop online for convenience - just not with Amazon.

All is not lost though. There is renewed momentum across the EU to curb this type of behaviour and introduce a Tech Tax. This would affect firms with annual revenues greater than €750 million globally, and €50 million within the EU. The idea is to place a 3% tax on revenues, until a global agreement can be reached. This revenue based approach is aimed at preventing firms from manipulating tax loopholes as they’ve currently been doing. Consequently, the 2017 UK tax take from Amazon could have potentially increased from £1.7 million to £60 million.

Thanks for hanging in there with the dry tax matters. Falcons, rabbits, and ferrets are definitely more interesting. Yet if we don’t understand the numbers, we can easily be taken advantage of (in all walks of life).

Is Amazon Cleaning Up Its Own “Mess”?

For this next question, I’d like to circle back to Jeff Bezos. Despite appearing to lack any serious charitable inclination vs his billionaire philanthropist peers, in September 2018 he announced he wanted to donate $2 billion to good causes, which is approximately 1% of his wealth. This would be directed towards alleviating homelessness, and establishing pre-schools for low income communities. This is a laudable goal to be pursuing, especially if it lifts people out of poverty.

Though confusingly, Amazon was fighting hard against a tax from the city of Seattle towards alleviating homelessness as recently as June 2018 - even postponing a planned office expansion, and threatening it altogether with cancellation. It’s a funny old world.

In an ideal world, donating charity is an honourable act. However, I can’t help viewing it in a different light.

Imagine if you’ve cooked an elaborate meal in a kitchen, but used every single pot and pan. You’ve also thoroughly trashed the floor and surfaces. After lots of people have complained to you for a long time, you then go ahead and clear up a few pans, but still leave most of your mess. Afterwards, you look around expecting everyone to like you, because you made a relatively small effort to pitch in.

It’s interesting to note that the US government (IRS) was seeking $1.5 billion in unpaid taxes from Amazon, which is creeping close to the charitable donation figure proposed by Bezos. This could purely be a coincidence.

Yet the mess I’m referring to is not only the aggressive tax avoidance issues, but also the worker exploitation in the US, UK, and other countries. By fostering poor working conditions and paying low wages in the first place, it could be argued he could do better by not contributing to these problems in the first place. The expressions “prevention is better than the cure”, and “charity begins at home” spring to mind.

Is Amazon Paying Its Workers Enough?

US Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has recently championed the cause against Bezos and other firms, by introducing a Senate Bill to prevent low pay and exploitation. It’s actually called the Stop BEZOS Act, which stands for “Stop Bad Employers by Zeroing Out Subsidies Act”.

Sanders has cited that thousands of Amazon workers (and those belonging to other large corporations) have been receiving government assistance known as Food Stamps, and/or other benefits such as Medicaid and public housing. This means that despite being in employment, their income is so low that the government is obliged to help them to literally put food on their tables.

If a firm is aggressively avoiding tax, but then expects the government to top up their worker’s income because they are paid so little, does that sound like a world we want to be living in? Bernie doesn’t seem to think so.

As recently as Tuesday 2nd October, Amazon has announced that it’s increasing its minimum hourly wage to $15 in the US, and £9.50 in the UK. This is excellent news, and welcome for workers. I hope it lifts many of them out of requiring Food Stamps, and improves their quality of life.

On balance, the GMB union in the UK has claimed that half of the pay rise will be offset by removing other worker bonuses. Amazon has confirmed this to be true. Whilst the UK workers will be better off overall, it kind of smacks of giving with one hand, and taking away with the other.

A Financial Analyst firm has suggested that the pay rises weren’t a stretch for them to achieve, as it would represent less than 1% of Amazon’s $235 billion revenue predicted for the year. So why wait till now to be generous? Are they fearing July 2018’s Prime day strikes being repeated over the coming Christmas period, as some have suggested?

It’s also interesting to note that the US and the UK have low levels of unemployment, which is already putting upward pressure on wages, and making it more difficult to retain and hire staff. Target and Costco, two of Amazon’s US competitors, were quicker announcing they would increase their hourly wage to $15, albeit these won’t come into effect until 2020.

For the US in particular, competition for attracting warehouse workers is becoming heated, as they and their rivals are usually concentrated at transportation hubs, and hence have a more localised labour pool to draw from.

Higher pay also takes the edge off workers trying to unionise. Especially those in its Whole Food’s organic chain, whom are resisting the shift in culture towards the norm at Amazon. Therefore, it looks like Amazon faces stiff pressure to raise wages from fundamental issues they are facing in their business, and not necessarily out of compassion for their employees.

Note that the same article states that the minimum wage increases were not extended to other Amazon workers in European countries, which have higher unemployment rates (and hence lower wage pressures).

Jeff Bezos’s press statement doesn’t refer to these topics, stating “We listened to our critics, thought hard about what we wanted to do, and decided we want to lead”. Bezos’s words suggest that the myriad of factors written above had little to no bearing on Amazon’s decision. Without being able to see into his hairless head, his true reasons may remain unknown.

Regardless of what the main source of motivation for this is, I concede it is a modest shuffle in the right direction. It should be welcomed as larger pay pay packets will genuinely help people.

At the risk of sounding like a bitter sod, my personal view is that there a lot more that can be improved upon. I hope this pay rise is followed by more decisive steps, and that these steps arise from a genuine shift in perspective and compassion towards those who are making Amazon’s business a success.

Yet before we get starry eyed about pay increases, remember that this is entirely separate to the issue of Amazon avoiding its moral tax obligations. To be crystal clear, this does not signal a change in its aggressive tax avoidance practices I referenced earlier. Nor does it seem to directly affect the potential worker exploitation issues raised in the next section.

Is Amazon Exploiting its Workers?

There appear to be numerous accusations of worker exploitation by Amazon, ranging from zero hours contracts (no contract employment for those in the US), poor health and safety, firing workers for attempting to unionise, overworking, etc. It should be noted that ambulances have been called to UK Amazon warehouses approximately 600 times over a period of 3 years.

I won’t bore you by describing these reports further in here, but I’ve listed the various topics with referenced links. Just in case you want to do some further reading, and to know I haven’t invented unsubstantiated stories in a fit of rage.

These cover the period 2013 to 2018. Note that perhaps there may be more article worthy incidents, however note that Amazon has also been accused of bribing its employees with gift vouchers to write positive statements on social media.

Accidents at Amazon - Guardian 2018 Article

Poor Working Conditions - Guardian 2018 Article and Guardian 2013 Article

Poor Working Conditions for White Collar Staff - New York Times 2015 Article and The Independent 2015 Article

Worker Exploitation, Low Pay, and Union Busting - Guardian 2018 Article

Great Power Comes with Great Responsibility

Despite the large weight of articles and information I’ve referenced, this may all be one big misunderstanding or occurring in isolated pockets. You never know, all these people making complaints could all be mistaken. This seems to be the general underlying message of many of Amazon’s responses, so it’s up to you read them and determine what you believe.

Yet given that these complaints have consistently been reported for years, across multiple nations, affecting such a wide range of issues, and continue to crop up, I can’t help think that there isn’t smoke without fire.

An important lesson to Peter Parker (Spider Man) from his uncle Ben. The quote has been variously attributed to Voltaire and former British Prime Minister Henry Lamb.

An important lesson to Peter Parker (Spider Man) from his uncle Ben. The quote has been variously attributed to Voltaire and former British Prime Minister Henry Lamb.

I also think those who wield great power also wield great responsibility. I heard that expression first from Spider Man’s deceased Uncle Ben. So much power and potential to do help humanity is concentrated in such few people, and one in particular (I’m referring to Bezos, not Spider Man). However instead of diving head first into this, it seems that avoiding tax, exploiting its workers, and pursuing a space travel hobby have been higher on the priority list Does it really have to be this way?

Though Amazon appears to be gradually taking steps in a more moral direction (albeit after being heavily pressured), it appears to have much further to go.

If it chooses to pursue this path, I sincerely wish them the best and support their endeavours. It will only serve to make the world a better place, and I shouldn’t complain about it. Yet from their track record, it’s not clear whether they will build on this, or whether they are simply being opportunistic.

We can only hope. In the meantime, I’ll avoid sending my cash in their direction.

As I mentioned before, this is just my understanding based on the sources of information I’ve referenced here. It’s up to you what opinion to form. If it happens to agree with mine, then it’s also up to you if you want to reward such behaviour.

My mate Dave once told me, every time we spend money, we cast a vote for the type of world we want to live in. The choice is in your hands…

Thank you for listening.

Post 4 - Seeing the Forest for the Trees

This post describes my childhood memories of the trees in my home, witnessing those (and many others) being destroyed, how I've dealth this all of this, and my exciting new project to plant a small forest in India.

*****

Trees, what to they mean to you? Do they fade into the background? Do you love them? Do you hate them? Do you see them as a resource to be harvested?

For a hippy like me, they’re obviously important. This is probably why a recent incident has seriously pissed me off, and why it took some sustained effort to rebalance myself.

One evening, I was playing around with the Google Earth app on my phone. I drifted towards looking at a previous house I used to live in. It was located in an area of Birmingham called Handsworth Wood. The district was carved out of the woodland of the same name. The house itself was built during the inter war period, my best guess being in the late 1920s or early 1930s.

The streets however, were studded with mature trees. I presume these were of combination of those planted during the house building phase, and those that were spared from the original woodland. As a result, the trees would have been at least 75 years when I lived there, though I suspect the survivors could easily have been over 100 years old.

A mature Horse Chestnut Tree 

A mature Horse Chestnut Tree 

My house was nestled on a road that was aptly called Wood Lane. I lived there when I was 6 years old, and then again from the ages of 13 to about 17. This was because my parents rented it out when we moved to a different house in the same area, and for various reasons, we decided to move back in.

In the front garden, there were a number of spectacular Horse Chestnut trees (scientific name Aesculus hippocastanum). These littered the ground with an insane amount of conkers (horse chestnuts) every Autumn. These weren’t enough to derange the average layperson, but perhaps enough to tip a few nutty squirrels over the edge.

The gifts from above ensured I had a bumper supply for conker fights at school. The size of my stash also meant I could experiment with hardening them, without any fear of running out. This was typically done with glue, vinegar, microwaving them, or any other fantastic scheme a 6 year old can conjure.

Arguably, the most underhand way to win a conker fight would be to play a version called “stampsies”. For those not in the know, a basic conker fight firstly involves preparing your conkers. This means making a hole all the way through your conker. This can be achieved by either by drilling a hole through it, or pushing a screw driver through. I always opted for the latter.

Conker game.jpg

Assuming you have all your fingers intact, the next step was to thread a shoelace through the hole. After laying down the gauntlet to another child, you would then take it in turns to hit each other’s conker, until one of yours either fell off, or got smashed.

In the “stampsies” variant, if your opponent dropped their conker, or if it somehow fell on the floor, it was your moral duty to stamp on it. The conkers don’t tend to fare well under these circumstances. Children can be very cruel.

Some children had a mean streak. Kind of like a layer of jam in a Victoria Sponge Cake, but nowhere near as nice. Such a child would choose to aim at their opponent’s exposed hand, instead of their conker. When flesh and conker collided, they would invariably drop their conker, clutch their hand, and then witness their conker being vigorously stamped on before they could react.

Such youngsters would probably be destined for a career as an Ottoman pirate, a corporate lawyer defending health claims for a Tobacco company, or a Tory Member of Parliament.

But I never resorted to those tactics, because I was a good boy. Honest.

Squirrel 2.jpg

During these times of plenty, squirrels would occasionally throw down half eaten remnants to the floor. I imagined they were throwing them at me for stealing their food, but in hindsight, perhaps they were just messy squirrels.

The back garden had even taller specimens, which towered towards the sky. I’m guessing they reached over 25m tall, and had very thick, wide trunks, between 1 and 1.5m wide. As teenagers, my friends and I would shoot each other with air pistols, darting behind the trunks for protection.

At other times, we would irresponsibly let off fireworks without my parents’ knowledge. The trees would act as silent witnesses. It was hard to tell if they approved or not.

Ultimately, the trees knew how to keep their mouths shut. I reckon they’d make good gangsters, provided they could shoot straight, and knew how to drive a getaway car.

The branches of these trees provided ample shelter to songbirds above, and cooling shade below. The front rooms of the house were exposed to occasional traffic, whilst the back rooms (including my bedroom), were bathed in birdsong. It felt like being in my own piece of the countryside.

We also had many a bonfire under the cover of the branches, and the vast amount of leaf litter would provide a home for hedgehogs.

Eventually, we had to move out of the house, and had an open house viewing for prospective buyers. I remember one of them mentioning she wanted to cut down the trees in the front. My dad wasn’t exactly impressed, and tried to talk her out of it. However, she sheepishly mentioned she wanted more light. Given the rugged level of interest at the open house, I’m not certain of who actually moved in.

I thought nothing of it for almost 17 years, until I decided to take a nostalgic look at the house from Google Earth. Commencing with a street view, I was shocked to see that the trees at the front had vanished.

Trees that were almost a century old were gone. This was just to provide an extra car parking space on a street with ample parking, and a two car driveway. Whilst I was unhappy about this, I could see some kind of logic behind the decision. They wanted another parking spot, and perhaps to bring more light into the house, despite the front garden being North facing.

However, when I turned my attention to the back garden, I was horrified to see the grand old trees had been mercilessly sliced down to their stumps. They were at least 20-30m from the house, so no threat was posed to the foundations (and never did during the 75 year history of the house). The garden was otherwise grass, apart from these trees, so there was plenty of room to build an extension, an outbuilding, or just to use it for leisure.

The distance of the trees would have made a negligible impact on the light coming into the house, as they were only on one side of the garden, and located a fair distance from the house. It seemed like a sheer act of stupidity, as they actually had to spend money on a tree surgeon to fell them.

Why the f*ck did they do this?

100 years of life destroyed, about 600 years collectively for all the trees that were killed. What took a century to create was destroyed in an afternoon.

I felt angry, upset and violated. I wanted to return the favour by petrol bombing their house, and watching it burn to the ground. I wanted to give them a taste of what it feels like, to be on the receiving end of a senseless and unnecessary act of destruction.

Of course I didn’t do that. Hurting people in fit of rage is wrong, and doesn’t solve anything. It also wouldn’t bring back a century of growth.

We can’t go round burning people’s houses down if they do something disagreeable. Nor should we hurt people unless it’s the last resort when we’re defending ourselves, or defending those who can’t be defended.

Nevertheless the anger was present and simmering, and for a time, I felt like doing it. My mind could reason with the predicament, and I have enough self control not to do anything stupid. Yet I noticed my mind and actions weren’t aligned with my emotional state. I had a therapy session already scheduled for the next day, that helped to calm things down.

One of the reasons it elicited such an extreme reaction, is that it brought up a number of similar issues in the past. One instance was a neighbour cutting down a solitary Monkey Puzzle tree (Araucaria araucana) in their front garden, again to make car parking a bit easier.

Weeping Willow (we didn't have a lake)

Weeping Willow (we didn't have a lake)

In a previous house I lived in, an elegant Weeping Willow (Salix spp) that stood guard at the front of the house, got the chop.

Another instance was when mature trees being felled to the rear of my house in Bath, despite them being subject to a Tree Preservation Order. This was so a property developer could squeeze two more houses onto the plot of land they were developing. Luckily, the whole site was saved from being flattened by our landlady. She literally stepped in front of the remaining trees, and refused to budge while she called the Council. The Council intervened, and stopped the felling. The developer didn’t get his extra houses. Yet despite this, the oldest and most majestic trees are now deader than fried chicken.

Other instances include Network Rail’s trackside tree felling program, which has already cut down thousands of trees (including on the railway near the Wood Lane house). This involves felling any tree within 60m of tracks that are over 10m tall. This issue is reportedly solvable if advanced braking technology is introduced to the train fleets. However, it appears that flattening ecosystems is more economical.

Police protecting tree fellers against protesters in Sheffield

Police protecting tree fellers against protesters in Sheffield

Yet another is Sheffield’s controversial and poorly worded road maintenance contract with the Contractor Amey. This was slated to remove 17’500 mature trees (about half of all the trees in the UK’s 6th greenest city) for no apparent benefit. It has been paused after considerable protests. Nevertheless, Sheffield City Council has had to pay Amey almost £700’000 in compensation for them not to fell the mature trees.

All this is in addition to the destruction suffered, and still faced by Tropical, Temperate, and Boreal forests all around the globe, which Is far more extensive.

As you can tell, there’s a lot of things I’m not happy about, and this episode was a trigger for these built up issues. By bringing this to the forefront, perhaps it’s also an opportunity to heal?

During the therapy session I had the next day, we did some exercises to acknowledge the anger, but also to dissipate it. I won’t go into detail, but acknowledgment is a key step, as repressing anger tends to create even bigger problems further down the road.

It doesn’t mean what happened was ok, and nothing should be done about it. Events like these can be catalysts for action.

We did some exercises to work with my subconscious. As with any issue that’s affected someone for some time, negative patterns and emotions can get embedded deep in there.

It’s simply not enough to say “I won’t get angry” to yourself. It’s more deeply entrenched in our emotions than our conscious mind can process or solve. It’s similar to someone telling you “don’t be sad” when you’ve just lost a loved one, or “don’t eat ice cream” when you have a craving. Your mind can issue the instruction, but your emotions can still push their own agenda.

I found these exercises effective, and they significantly helped to bring me back down to earth.

Another step was to write about it, which I’m doing now. The intention isn’t to seek therapy and sympathy from those of you kindly reading this. It’s to reconcile what happened on paper, and to help educate others.

*****

The final step, which was a nebulous idea at the time, has rapidly solidified. This is actually the exciting new project I alluded to in my last post.

It involves planting a large number of trees on my family’s ancestral farmland in Punjab, India. One of the most important things on my bucket list to plant a woodland (big or small) before I die. Whether that happens soon or whether I become an old man.

It’s so important to me, that I’ve even taken the step of writing this into my will.

Although I’m an engineer by training, my family are farmers as far back as we can trace. Which isn’t very far.

This is due to the absence of records. I say this because documentation in rural India, especially those on the fringes of the British Raj, were scant. To put this into context, my wonderful grandad (now deceased) had to guess his date of birth for his passport. For this reason alone, I doubt I’ll appear on any episodes of “Who Do You Think You Are”.

The compound to be planted with trees. The yellow lines are the extent of the perimeter wall. The plan is aligned with the compass directions, i.e. North is at the top of the plan, East is to the right of the plan, etc.

The compound to be planted with trees. The yellow lines are the extent of the perimeter wall. The plan is aligned with the compass directions, i.e. North is at the top of the plan, East is to the right of the plan, etc.

My father has been a market trader, factory owner, owner of a small construction firm, and now a landlord. He grew up working on a farm, and in his retirement is now remotely managing his crops, with occasional visits to India.

My dad is building an old people’s home (he calls it an Ashram) on a portion of his land for charity, honouring a promise he made to God and wrote into his diary during the 1960s. However, as the land was previously farmland, there isn’t a single tree in sight (save for the government owned trees that line the adjacent, rural access road).

This is typical for most of Punjab, as tree cover only makes up 7% of the total land area. This compares with 13% in the UK, 29% in France, and approximately 32% in the USA and Germany.

My father has indicated that he’d like to line the walled perimeter of the Ashram with them. According to Google Earth, this is approximately 340m.

Termites build their mounds on North to South line. The idea is to minimise the heat from the sun roasting their colony. This means that the thinnest part of the mounds (they are thin and long like sails) are the parts most exposed to the Sun during the hottest parts of the day. Unfortunately, the main building is constructed on an East – West line.

Termite Mound.jpg

Hence, I’ve advised that there should be a second line of trees within the compound, in order to shade the main buildings. This would reduce the amount of electricity required for cooling, as well as provide outdoor sitting areas that are sheltered from the scorching Punjabi sun.

We also intend to include a section of trees to the south of this taller treeline, which would serve as a modest orchard, supplying the compound with tropical fruit.

All this is to happen fairly quickly. My father will be there overseeing the project during the second half of September, with the expectation that most of the trees will be in the ground by the end of the month.

Studies have shown that reintroducing trees can locally raise the groundwater, or more accurately create a perched ground water table. This means a smaller, localised portion of groundwater that isn’t affected by the groundwater held deeper down. It should be noted that Punjab’s water table has been continually dropping due to unsustainable groundwater pumping. I have no idea what volume of trees would be required to make a measurable impact, but I’m more than happy to give it a go and find out.

We also intend to use trees that have been historically local to Punjab or Northern India. Although the state is extraordinarily fertile, sadly most of the forests have been obliterated. This was partly due to the quest to grow food for a hungry, post-independence nation, which is part of a pattern repeated over much of the country,

Another cause was due to historic pressures placed by the British East India Company in the 18th and 19th Centuries. Separate policies were designed to maximise tax revenue, and also to increase volumes of cash crops sold to Europe (in favour of subsistence crops which could be eaten). Consequently, holding uncultivated land, or natural forests was uneconomical. Hence forests were cleared, and more land was farmed so the increased rents could be paid.

When miscalculated, this could result in famine. For instance, during  the Great Bengal Famine of 1770, 10 million people died. To put this into context, 6 million deaths were attributed to the Nazis in their concentration camps. In the prelude to the famine, tax on agricultural produce was increased by the East India Company, from 10 to 50%. This meant that farmers had a smaller or virtually non-existent safety buffer during times of scarcity. Even at the peak of the famine, the British East India Company announced that land taxes were to be increased by an additional 10%. If you’d like to read more about this, please click here, and perhaps follow up the references.

Pre and post colonial pressures have been applied all over India to varying degrees, and consequently the environment has born the brunt of it. Perhaps these trees will bring some more birdsong into the compound?

I have to admit, this is my first ever go at landscape gardening, so I have no idea whether it will actually work. This won’t stop me from giving it a go, and I’m very fortunate that my dad is happy to help.

In true engineer style, I’ve made a spreadsheet of 17 native tree species that are either bear edible fruits, have medicinal properties, or both. I’ve also included a sheet that calculates the total number of trees based on the average spacing, number of rows, and lengths of each tree line. We’re looking at over 300 hundred trees, which feels like a satisfying amount. I was expecting my dad to tell me this would excessive, but he didn’t bat an eyelid and said he’d happy to plant 400 or 500!

My dad reckons he can source most of the species, but the proof in the pudding will be when he’s in the country, and speaking with the nursery owners. We don’t intend to plant all 17 species, but it’s nice to have a range of options, should some species be unavailable. Note that every single species selected has either edible or medicinal parts, or both.

I’ve whittled down the selection of shade trees to those that are evergreen and fast growing.

These are primarily Karanj (Pongamia pinnata), Bakul (Mimusops elengi), Neem (Azadirachta indica), and Arjuna (Terminalia arjuna) trees. Fortunately, they all possess solid medicinal properties, the Neem and Arjuna being particularly powerful. The trick is knowing what to do with them!

Mangoes on a Mango tree

Mangoes on a Mango tree

The orchard trees I’d like to have included are Mango (Mangifera indica), Galgal (Citrus pseudolimon) – a type of Indian lemon, Phalsa (Grewia asiatica) – produces blueberry like fruits, and Amla (Phyllanthus emblica) – features in Ayurveda, put is used in chutneys and is high in vitamin C.

I’m also hoping for a grove of Sandalwood (Santalum album) trees. These are not to be commercially harvested. It’s more for their spiritual value and scent if someone decides to unwind beneath their shade. My dad says he’s tried planting them without success (he blames the high temperature). It may be a case of waiting till the taller trees are established enough to provide some shade, and a cooler microclimate.

To edge this project closer to reality, I’ve checked the sketch of the compound he sent me against images from Google Earth. I’ve marked up a copy of this showing planting zones, with corresponding tree types. Important things to consider would be the size of the trees, growth rate, whether they are evergreen, and how close they can realistically get to the buildings and perimeter wall, and to prevent the root systems from causing damage. I’m expecting this will change once we have an idea of what trees we can actually get, but having a plan is better than no plan!

The worry I always have when thinking of planting a tree, is someone will just come along and cut it down. I think this fear is well justified, given the history!

Nevertheless, I’m comforted in the knowledge that the majority of trees should be relatively safe, as my family owns the property. Even if a percentage of the trees are lost, the main body of trees should keep going, reach maturity, and create their own local ecosystem.

So I’m super excited about having these 300 hundred trees planted. I wasn’t sure if I’d have the opportunity to do this with so many trees, and so quickly. I also didn’t expect this to be part of my healing journey with both my emotions, and my family’s ancestral land back in India.

I remember a Czech old flame of mine, telling me that her people have a tree related saying. This is loosely translated as a man doesn’t become a man, until he plants a tree. I checked back with her recently to confirm this sapling of knowledge. After she did some more research, it turns out it’s an expression from the Bible.

The full expression is along the lines of: “In order to be a man, one must build a house, plant a tree and father a son”. For all the single linguists (and Czech readers) it would be: “Muž má postavit dům, zasadit strom a zplodit syna“.

I haven’t built any houses, but I’ve helped design and build a few tunnels. I’m helping to plant a few hundred trees, so I have that base covered. As for fathering children, I don’t have any (that I know of). Does hanging out with my dog count?

Thanks for reading everyone, and please stay happy and healthy.

Harnaik

P.S. If you’re new to reading this, and would like to be part of my mailing list, please give me a shout on harnaik.mann@hotmail.com. I won’t sell on your information, or use it for marketing purposes. It’s only used for letting you know when I upload a new post, or documentary clips. If we haven’t spoken for many years, or even if we haven’t met, I’d love to hear from you – so don’t be afraid or feel awkward if you want to send me a message, or be added. Thanks again.

Post 3 - Astronomy & Ecuador Plans

Hello everyone. This post covers a new hobby of mine (no prizes for guessing what), as well as a lengthy update on Ecuador in the second part. I'd strongly recommend not skipping to the Ecuador part first, although you are ultimately the master of your own destiny...

*****

Do you remember how it felt when you last started a new hobby?

When you have a lot of free time like I do, it opens up a realm of hobbies and interests to explore. Given I’m blessed with fairly dark skies where I live, I’ve decided to stare up at the heavens – at least until it gives me a bad neck.

A less charitable view is that I’ve turned into one of those socially awkward astronomy nerds. One who spends too much time playing with his telescope when no one is looking. When I say my telescope, I mean my telescope. That’s not a euphemism for something else.

With some encouragement from my brother, I’ve splashed out on a telescope. I’ve never had one before in my life, and I can’t ever remember using one.

Therefore, I had to spend a bit of time on research. I’ve settled on a 130mm diameter telescope, with a 900mm focal length. With the lenses supplied, it means I can go up to x180 magnification. If I invested in another lens, I could go up to x260.

In plain English, this is a half decent telescope for a beginner.

It also came with a solid EQ2 mount. This means it’s as solidly built as a 1930s Ukrainian coal miner, and works by using ascension and declination. If you’ve ever seen the episode of the Simpsons, where Bart is punished by helping out Principle Skinner with astronomy, then these terms may be familiar. For those of you with a fuzzy memory, it’s the one where he discovers a comet that’s on course to destroy the town.

I didn’t know what the hell these terms meant at the time, but apparently they are the co-ordinates in the sky for different celestial objects. Therefore, if you have co-ordinates for a star system or passing comet, you can line up the telescope and find it in no time.

My brother did a great job of setting it up, whilst I did a great job of repeating encouraging slogans, and watching him do it. We pointed it at a house across the valley for some final calibration, and it was good to go.

For where I’m living, the night time viewing conditions are great, especially for an English city. I’m on the far fringe of Bath, which is a picturesque town sized city in the South West of England. On a moonless night, I can make out the arm of the Milky Way soaring above us. It looks closer to being a ghostly whisper, rather than the colourful band depicted in professional photography. Yet it is nonetheless visible, along with literally hundreds of stars.

On a few occasions I’ve observed Saturn and its rings. On the first occasion, its image was still and awe inspiring. I was expecting it to look huge and colourful, as per the photos we see in the National Geographic.

The second time, it was breezy, and the atmosphere was wobbling the image. I imagined it was being wobbled, in the same way that vibrations from a sound system and dancing at an illegal party would.

To find the Polaris (The North Star, follow an imaginary line from the "pan" of "The Big Dipper" i.e. Dubhe and the star below it in Ursa Major. The tail end of the "Little Dipper" will be Polaris. This will be closer to "True North", as the location of Magnetic North varies, and lies somewhere in Northern Canada. 

To find the Polaris (The North Star, follow an imaginary line from the "pan" of "The Big Dipper" i.e. Dubhe and the star below it in Ursa Major. The tail end of the "Little Dipper" will be Polaris. This will be closer to "True North", as the location of Magnetic North varies, and lies somewhere in Northern Canada. 

I haven’t set my telescope up next an illegal squat rave, but perhaps I should. That way, when the party really gets going, I can call the police in a nasal voice, and complain that their partying is wobbling my telescope images to an unacceptable level. That way, I can comfortably sit in the dark, whilst I ruin a party I haven’t been invited to.

The idea brings a small grin to my face. Partly because I’ve been to a few raves during my time. Partly because I never thought I’d be enough of a twat to call the police, and close one down. But I can be a vindictive little bastard when my telescope images are being distorted…

On another night, I managed to track down the Andromeda galaxy. There is also a constellation of the same name, which are adjacent to one another. The key difference is that the constellation’s three brightest stars range from 97 to 350 light years away, whilst the spiral galaxy is approximately 1’500’000 light years away. The light reaching us now was produced before our modern species of humans even existed.

I’ve provided a brief series of images (screenshots from The Night Sky app), that can help you track it down if you’re interested. An excellent star map from National Geographic can be purchased from here.

Once you've found Polaris, look out for the "bent W" on it's side, to the lower left of it. That will be Cassiopeia. If you follow a line from Polaris to the centre of the bent W, it should roughly line up with the Andromeda galaxy. Note that you won't be able to see Andromeda with the naked eye, unless you have a dark sky.

Once you've found Polaris, look out for the "bent W" on it's side, to the lower left of it. That will be Cassiopeia. If you follow a line from Polaris to the centre of the bent W, it should roughly line up with the Andromeda galaxy. Note that you won't be able to see Andromeda with the naked eye, unless you have a dark sky.

The Night Sky app is fantastic if you want to hold your phone up to the sky, and have the stars and constellations joined together. They’ll also help you identify the Pole Star, and other constellations.

These may be useful if you’ve lost your compass in the wild, or perhaps to help find your way into your date’s pants on a romantic night out. Depending on your priorities, both can be regarded as emergencies.  

Best not to suggest a night time walk in an isolated field on your first date though. Unless of course, you want them to think you’re an axe murderer.

I’ve also had some fun watching shooting stars from the Perseid meteor shower. Many were faint, sometimes to the point where I wasn’t sure if I was imagining them or not. However one was a huge orangey white fireball, which burned a bright arc across the sky. I had no idea anything like those could exist. It seemed to belong in Hollywood, as opposed to reality.

Close up of Andromeda and Cassiopeia. If it helps you to remember, the constellation of Andromeda looks like the top half of a person chained to a rock. Andromeda was the princess that was offered up to a sea monster in Ancient Greek Mythology. Cassiopeia was her mother. Andromeda was ultimately saved by Perseus, who cut off the head of Medusa, and showed it to the sea monster, thus turning it into stone. Perseus flew back in the nick of time on his winged horse, Pegasus. Note that all four constellations, Cassiopeia, Andromeda, Perseus, and Pegasus are adjacent to one another in the night sky

Close up of Andromeda and Cassiopeia. If it helps you to remember, the constellation of Andromeda looks like the top half of a person chained to a rock. Andromeda was the princess that was offered up to a sea monster in Ancient Greek Mythology. Cassiopeia was her mother. Andromeda was ultimately saved by Perseus, who cut off the head of Medusa, and showed it to the sea monster, thus turning it into stone. Perseus flew back in the nick of time on his winged horse, Pegasus. Note that all four constellations, Cassiopeia, Andromeda, Perseus, and Pegasus are adjacent to one another in the night sky

As time has progressed, I’m now able to identify roughly 12 constellations in the Northern night sky, without resorting to a star map. I’m hoping to increase this tally, as the changing of the seasons brings more constellations into play.

One final item to bore you with before I move on. The Kepler telescope is trailing the Earth, and is actively scanning the stars for planets. Although it’s literally on the verge of breaking down, it’s confirmed the presence of over 3000 planets, with thousands more requiring verification before they are confirmed.

I think this is stunning. The telescope only covers 0.25% of the night sky, primarily focusing on the constellations of Cygnus, Lyra and Draco. What’s even more humbling is that we can only see 0.000003% of the Milky Way, our own galaxy. This means we’ve discovered at least 3000 planets by looking at roughy 0.00000075% of our galaxy.

If you want to help to verify the unconfirmed planets, you can volunteer on the Planet Hunter website here, and give it a go from the comfort of your own home.

Whilst the work isn’t paid, glamourous, particularly exciting, nor likely to increase your chances of procreation, you might be lucky enough to help discover of planet of your own. Maybe it could be a version of our own planet, teeming with life of its own...

*****

Some of you may have guessed that my trip to Ecuador is no longer on the cards. Those of you who guessed that are correct.

When I wrote my work leaving letter in February, I set my intended travel date for late August. I was optimistic about achieving this, but it was always dependant on the improvement of my health.

At the time, my vitality was experiencing a powerful bounce. I became physically stronger, and I’d stopped taking all my painkillers and anti-nausea meds. I optimistically thought to myself “if this is what I’m like now, then imagine what I’ll be like in August”.

I wanted to enjoy the English springtime, which I hadn’t seen since 2013, soak up the summer, and cap it off with a trip to Ecuador. Sounds quite lovely, doesn’t it?

My first blog mentioned I was experiencing some rocky periods. Despite this, I still managed to stay on my feet. Later, I was tossed into another tempest as described in my second blog, yet I still had enough fight in me to ride out the storm.

As the waves began to settle, I became more calculating and grounded about my next move.

The Yachak (indigenous Shaman) who kindly offered to help me, nonetheless gave me an important condition. He said the rainforest plants are powerful, and have the ability to cure me. However, they also very physically demanding on the body, and if I’m in a weakened state, they easily have the power to kill me.

The key was to ensure my system was strong enough to handle these plants, as well as any restrictive diets that are necessary with this work.

To give you a more tangible flavour, a friend of mine recently shared his one of his visits to the Amazon. He told of his experience with a plant called “Yawarpanga”, which means blood leaf. When the veins of this plant are cut and squeezed, they exude a red liquid. The leaves are boiled with water and drunk, with copious amounts of other water and liquids being imbibed throughout the day. It has many medicinal benefits, however the price paid is heavy vomiting and potentially diarrhoea.

I’m not saying that this particular plant would have necessarily been given to me by the Yachak. However, I do want press home the point that the healing work would require me to battle harder than I am doing now, and would by no means be a walk in the park. A battle which I’m not convinced I could win.   

I’ve had to significantly increase my uptake of painkillers, including opioids, to the point where I’d struggle to function without them. It would be dangerous to take them simultaneously with the forest medicines, given that the biochemical interactions are largely unknown.

I’m also being patched up by my healing team with acupuncture, osteopath and reflexology sessions each week. I’m finding these sessions vital to keep me steady. I’m also almost 60lbs (28kg) lighter than when I was at the peak of my fitness (doing circus aerial & gymnastics), so I don’t have a big safety buffer to shield me.

I could be in a state where I’m just about fit enough to travel, and then not be authorised to fly back home, due to the actions of the medicines, or any tropical diseases. I could potentially spend my last days, weeks, or months away from family and friends in a foreign land, and away from additional comforts that would ease any suffering.

It would be like setting out on a journey to a desert oasis with my last drops of water. However, instead of finding a shaded, lush paradise, I would be confronted with dust and parched scrub.

Am I upset? Not really. Am I disappointed? To begin with, yes. However, I’ve made my peace.

Am I giving up? No way. Despite all of this, I feel very optimistic and content. My rational mind can’t make much sense of this, and there’s a palpable chance I could be proved wrong. My conventional medical options are exhausted, and I’ve had to leave the casino before my big roll of the dice.

Yet I still feel calm, and have a subdued sense of excitement. Perhaps it’s towards the possibility of a healthy future delivered by a miracle. Perhaps it’s because I derive happiness from each day, and can always find something to look forward to. Even if it’s just the meals I eat, getting a health treatment, or connecting with loved ones. Or perhaps it’s due to the various projects I have going, which give me a strong sense of purpose, and an avenue to channel my energy.

I dare not question it too much though – if I’ve been gifted with happiness, I probably shouldn’t try to look a gift horse in the mouth.

There is also still plenty on my plate to do. Instead of shooting my last arrows into the bush, I still have the opportunity to put them to good use.

I recently had my friend Jeremy over, who works for Yoga Journal. He interviewed me for an article, which we’re hoping to get published.

The film crew have been back to do another round of filming, and we’re getting some excellent footage in. I’ve managed to organise all the interviews for my San Francisco friends, co-workers, healers, and teachers. I have time to aid further to the process, behind the scenes. LA Metro have agreed to allow filming in the Crenshaw Line for my documentary, and my former boss will be giving it a good go on camera.

I’m continuing my blogging (I’m aiming to write more frequently), my video diaries, and want to get started on a book.

I look forward to having friends and family over, which never fails to bring a smile to my face. I don’t have the physical strength and mobility I had before. Yet life is good, and I’m really enjoying it.

I’ve had more time to read than I ever did, as well as picking up new skills and hobbies. We can never fully experience all the wonders the world has to offer, but I’ve been gifted with time. Why not explore some of the things I never thought I ever had the time to do?

I also have an exciting new project, which I intend to be write about in my next post.

Sorry if you’ve found this change of direction upsetting, but that’s just how it is. I’m sure many of you will have your own opinions on what you would or wouldn’t do in my situation, but I’m glad you’re not in the position to put theory into practice.

However, I feel comfortable with my decision, regardless of what might be in store for me around the corner.

Thanks for reading

Harnaik

P.S. If you'd like to be added to my mailing list, please give me a quick shout on harnaik.mann@hotmail.com. Thanks

Post 2a - Birthday Thanks

Below is my birthday thank you post I added to my Facebook wall after my birthday on the 14th of August. I appreciate not everyone has access to my Facebook page, so I wanted to share the message here as well.

*****

Thanks everyone for your birthday wishes.

The fun started the evening before, when I was watching the Perseid meteor shower with my dog Satch. We have fairly dark skies where I live, enough to faintly make out our arm of the Milky Way, and see hundreds of stars. I managed to see a few shooting stars, with a few more that were so faint, I wasn’t sure if I imagined them.

Location of the Perseid meteor shower, named after the constellation of Perseus. The cutoff disk in the top right of the image is the galaxy of Andromeda. If you read my next post (Astronomy & Ecuador), I've explained how to find these in the night sky (Northern Hemisphere only).

Location of the Perseid meteor shower, named after the constellation of Perseus. The cutoff disk in the top right of the image is the galaxy of Andromeda. If you read my next post (Astronomy & Ecuador), I've explained how to find these in the night sky (Northern Hemisphere only).

One of them though was HUGE. It resembled more of an orangey-white fireball in the sky than a shooting star. Satch seemed to be baffled about what was going on, and seemed to rather be inside than in my back garden, amongst the stars and the crickets.

Afterwards, I had some lemon cake and ice cream (the cake made by my friends Nicky and Fran). I saved a bite for my Satch, and let him lick the bowl. This made him happy.

The next morning, my mom and two sisters prepared a surprise for me. They’d fetched a tasty chocolate birthday cake and inflated a ridiculous amount of balloons. I made a wish, and was just about able to blow out all the candles. I had 6 candles on the cake, presumably each one representing 5.5 years of my life.

We then headed to a silent meditation retreat for a day, in the West Country near Frome (pronounced “froom”). In the spirit of the occasion, my phone was off all day. Hence it’s taken me longer to post this, and get back to everyone.

At the retreat, everyone was frightfully nice to me, as I presume my sister had briefed a few of them about my health challenges. Either that, or she had some major dirt on people, and decided she wasn’t going to take any prisoners.

It was a chilled out day listening to various talks, and napping during them if I felt tired. There were a few moments during the day where either the whole group, or different people would offer me various forms of healing. This was particularly wonderful, as almost everyone had never met me before.

As the day was drawing to a close, I decided to leave during the early evening. Another slice of cake before bedtime was my reward.

It’s really good to hear from everyone, and hope you all enjoyed your Tuesday.

Thanks

Harnaik

Post 2 - A Hop, Skip, and a Jump

Hello everyone. I’ve had another intense spell recently, which I gradually seem to be emerging from. This involved almost a week in hospital, a weekend festival, and a visit from an Amazonian shaman. All in the space of 10 days.

This post covers all of this, but is the length of a short story. I’ve split it into chapters, so you can tackle it in more than one bite.

My intention is not to make this into a sob story to gain sympathy. I've encountered a lot of interesting characters, and had some mind blowing experiences. I’ve learned a lot, and would love to share.

As a summary, I launched my blog when on my hospital bed where I was receiving emergency radiotherapy to dodge paralysis. That’s the “Hop” (Chapters 1 to 5).

I also went to a consciousness festival straight after being released. That’s the “Skip” (Chapters 6 to 11).

After that, I had an intense session with my Amazon trained shaman, where we were literally singing for my life. That’s the “Jump” (Chapters 12 to 16).

There were no gaps between any of these events.

Chapter 1

On the evening of Saturday 26th of May, I was relaxing in bed with my dog Satch. Nothing too crazy, just fiddling with my laptop until my cousins arrived. As this was going on, I started to experience sharp pains on the right side of my chest whenever I inhaled. As this didn’t get any easier, I swallowed two opioid painkillers and applied a cannabis salve liberally to my ribs.

I tried to test out my lung capacity by toning various vowel sounds. Each one sounded like it was from a cherished musical instrument that had been vandalised by a vindictive lover. Each attempt also hurt.

I was familiar with the sensation of pain. It was the type that was fine if one doesn’t breathe. However, given that breathing is a useful process for most people, the result was a dance between avoiding pain, and staying alive.

My cousins gladly arrived, and promptly applied an icepack to my ribs. Despite the painkillers, cannabis salve, and ice, my pain was only reduced from an 8 out of 10 to a 6 out of 10 (10 out of 10 being the worst pain imaginable).

At this point, I wasn’t sure if I had another Pulmonary Embolism (PE), and was worried about making it through the night in comfort. The opioids were the strongest tablets in my arsenal, and they didn’t make much of a dent. I couldn’t take any more for another 6 hours, which didn’t sound promising.

My cousins and I made the decision to call a paramedic. Bill (at least I think his name was Bill) arrived, and he was a true gentleman. He was also bloody good at his job. After giving me some intravenous painkillers, and doing a few tests, he recommended I get checked out at my local hospital, the Royal United Hospital (RUH) in Bath.

When the ambulance arrived, I was put into a wheelchair. My dog had planted himself in the middle of all the commotion, and then started to run around anxiously as they were taking me away.

The ambulance crew were again friendly and competent. They got me to the RUH fairly quickly. It was a Saturday evening, which meant I was expecting to jostle with the drunks for a bed. Luckily this wasn’t the case.

Chapter 2

I was put under the care of a fantastic senior French nurse called Vanessa. She was frightfully nice, and we ended up having a good chat, amongst the various test she did on me. It turned out she had lived in San Francisco as well.

I also had a good chance to catch up with my cousin Harkesh. It had been 5 years since we had last saw or spoken to one another. It must have been a shock seeing me in pain after all those years.

As for Harkesh, she’s competent, hardworking, and grounded. However, she’s also very bubbly and a good laugh. Exactly the person you want beside you in A&E.

We spent a few hours catching up on the past 5 years, until it was time for me to be transferred to another ward. The intention was to keep me in overnight, so I could get a CT scan done.

Harkesh went home to rest. It was the middle of the night by now, and there was no point her hanging around.

I was in the Acute Medical Assessment Ward until around lunchtime the next day. After getting my CT scan in the morning, I was visited by the doctors and consultant on duty. They had good news and bad news.

The good news was my previous embolism was stable, and they couldn’t actually detect a reason for my chest pain. The chest pain had subsided significantly, so the problem seemed to have solved itself.

The bad news was the CT scan detected at least 3 new tumours on my spine, growth of my kidney and sternum tumours, as well as the cancer spreading to my liver and ribs.

Of most concern was the tumour on my T3 vertebrate, which is essentially a bone in my spine at mid shoulder blade level. This was a good explanation for my 2 month old shoulder pain, which was proving tricky for my osteopath to fully dislodge.

If left unchecked, the tumour would grow, cutting off nerve function below the mid shoulder level. What this means in practical terms is loss of bladder and bowel function, loss of mobility below the chest, and loss of diaphragm action.

Given I’m on palliative care, I wouldn’t want to spend the rest of my days on a ventilator, and nor would it be offered. Hence if it got to that stage, the curtains would be finally drawn. Potentially a fat lady would also sing, but I’m not sure if that’s offered on the NHS.

The plan was to keep me in hospital, and give me several rounds of radiotherapy as soon as possible.

It was a lot to take in, but I felt serene and detached upon hearing the news. I had the mental attitude of this being some kind of engineering problem to be solved, and that we were discussing options and the best way forward.

After another hour or so, I had a short release of tears, and was transferred to the Medical Short Stay Ward.

Chapter 3

My morning medication. It's ll about perspective...

My morning medication. It's ll about perspective...

The Medical Short Stay Ward was familiar territory for me. I’d spent almost a week here in October 2017 recovering from my embolism, and also my inability to eat nor keep my food down.

As I was wheeled into my new bed, I smiled and said hello to several nurses who recognised me. I remember the nurses being kind and friendly from my last visit, and the ward itself was light and airy. I was in a good place.

After a while, I heard the relaxed, even tones of a Liverpool (Scouse) accent coming from the bed next to me. All of the Scousers I’ve met are lovely people. That’s not to say all are, those are just the people I’ve met. However, there is a stereotype of Scousers being criminals, and rough around the edges.

The Scouser looked like he was in his mid 40s, with closely cropped hair. Upon taking a closer look at him, he was in handcuffs, and chained to a burly looking prison guard. A second prison guard sat next to him on duty. Despite this scene, he came across as a decent bloke. He was kind to the various guards and nurses who attended to him, and they were kind in return.

I felt compassion for him because he was having trouble keeping his food down. As I mentioned earlier, this was the same issue I had a few months previously, sitting in the bed opposite from him. I can imagine some right wingers complain about the cost of him receiving treatment, with probably some even doubting whether he should be treated at all.

As far as I’m aware, our justice system does not include withdrawing medical treatment, nor inflicting serious episodes of vomiting or epilepsy as a punishment. I don’t want to speculate on what he may have done, but whatever he is in prison for, he has received the appropriate sentence as determined by our judicial system. He’s doing his time for what he did. And at the end of the day, he’s a human being.

After a few days, when he was able to keep some food down, I offered him and his guards some of my high grade Fortnum & Mason shortbread biscuits. I told him I’d been through the same thing previously, and wished him well. By virtue of being separated only by a curtain, he knew all about my medical situation and offered whatever help he could back. Although there was not realistically much he could do about my situation, I was genuinely grateful. If circumstances were different, and I still drank, I’d probably share a pint with him.

There was another gentleman on the ward who was causing some comedy. He looked how Jeremy Corbyn (leader of the second biggest politician part in the UK), would look like if he was sipping stolen cognac in pub cellar, whilst the said pub was being obliterated by heavy artillery shelling. Let’s call him JC.

One of the nurses told me they caught him rummaging around the ward kitchen looking for a bottle of whisky that wasn’t his.

Later that same evening, the smell of tobacco wafted towards me. I presumed was coming through my open window. I was wrong. JC had decided to light a cigarette while sitting in bed! You can’t do that these days, mate.

The next day I was surprised to see the ward doors locked, and only accessible via keycard. A nurse explained that this was because JC went outside for a cigarette, but ended getting lost for almost 2 hours, sparking a small crisis. They obviously didn’t want this happening again, so privileges were withdrawn.

Chapter 4                                                            

Back to my radiotherapy.

While I was meditating in bed, I was visited by an effervescent Oncology Clinical Nurse. I could never remember her name. This was despite me studying her name tag several times, each time promising myself that I’d remember. She had the best sense of humour of any medical staff I’ve come across. She again reiterated the situation with the tumours on my spine, and mapped the course ahead for my treatment.

Me in my hospital jim jams (pygamas)

Me in my hospital jim jams (pygamas)

When I suggested being discharged early, she pressed home how serious the situation was, by mandating that I lie flat until told otherwise. The fear was any further movement could damage the nerves in my spine, and jeopardise my mobility and control of bodily functions. I was allowed 30 degrees of grace to facilitate eating, but I was to do my business in a cardboard urinal. I forgot to ask her about the intricacies of taking a crap.

Fairly soon after that, I was wheeled down for an MRI of my whole spine. This was so they could gain a clearer idea of what was happening with my nerve tissue, and sharpen up their plan for treatment.

I lay motionless in the steel MRI tube. Some people have warned me about claustrophobia, but my years spent in tunnels must have chamfered the edge off. I knew the tube was self supporting, and in no danger of collapse.

As I closed my eyes and lay still for 40 minutes, my half dreams were visited by a black jaguar. It was prowling, probing and moving through different parts of my body with poise and purpose. I didn’t feel fear, just calm curiosity. I envisioned it taking bites and clawing at my tumours. Eventually, I witnessed it fade into the darkness behind my eyelids.

Chapter 5

The Radiology team at the RUH have a unique quality about them. I’m not sure how this is possible, but they all seemed to greet me as an old friend they were genuinely looking forward to seeing. I’m not sure how this is possible, but the warmth from them felt sincere. This was even after being treated by different people from different teams on different days.

My first encounter required getting my first ever tattoo. Nothing as dramatic as The Garden of Earthly Delights, by Hieronymus Bosch.

It was a plain black dot actually. Centred on my chest. I felt like a rebel without a cause.

This was to provide a reference point line up the radiotherapy equipment with the MRI and reference scans. It corresponded with the dots for my T3 tumour. I had a second black dot somewhere on my abdomen for the L2 / L4 tumours thought to be pinching my sciatic nerve. The radiologist made the dot intentionally small, so much so that he initially wasn’t sure if his colleagues would be able to find it. I haven’t been able to find it myself, but then again, I haven’t bothered to look particularly hard either.

When this was done, I was wheeled up to the treatment room in my bed. I exchanged warm greetings and bad jokes with the team, and had my photo taken. I decided to put on an expression that would make me look like an eagerly deranged dog walker. Yes, that would do nicely.

I’m still waiting for the team to send me the pic. If it’s arrived, please take a look at it. If it didn’t arrive, then you’ve just probably spent a moment looking for it, which you will never get back. The puppeteer works his magic.

I was due for 5 doses of radiation, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Monday Tuesday. I didn’t want to do the Tuesday dose as I was double booked with my shaman. I didn’t quite say this to the consultant and oncology nurse. It’s not something you really say in these kinds of situations. However, I did ask for the fractions (radiation doses) to be adjusted. Hence I had the total 90 Grays radiation spread over 4 sessions, instead of having to sit through 5.

Each time I received a dose, it was over and done with fairly quickly. I didn’t seem to have huge initial side effects. They were mainly confined to a dry throat and some tiredness. I was still eating like a horse in hospital, gobbling all the food put in front of me, as well as extra sandwiches and bowls of bran flakes during the day.

I tried to keep up with some of my chanting, meditation, and pranayama (breathwork) practices in hospital. Yet they were nowhere near the amount I was pulling off before hospitalisation. However, I thought to myself that the fact I was still adding some fuel to the fire of my practice, meant I was managing to keep the fire going. Fires can burst into infernos and then equally die back to embers. You can even nurse a tiny ember into a roaring blaze, if you are skilled and know what you’re doing.

The point is keeping the fire going, no matter how small. Relighting the fire, and rebuilding momentum is much easier than starting again from the cold. 

In my final round on the Monday, I was offered some music after some complimentary banter. I asked for some Opera. and a kind radiologist called Ben obliged with Caruso, sung by Pavarotti. A link to this with English subtitles is included here. Some of the lyrics relate poignantly to my situation, although I didn’t quite realise it at the time.

After the final dose, I was wheeled back into the waiting area, where my mom was hanging out. I rang the metal bell to signal an end of a course of my treatment, and I was greeted with smiles and a few claps from my fellow cancer patients in the waiting area.

I felt slightly awkward and undeserving, like I'd received an award I didn't earn. It wasn’t curative treatment, just a delaying tactic. And they had no idea I was on palliative care. I smiled politely, and thanked them, and my mom wheeled me towards the exit.

Chapter 6

Back to the previous Friday.

After collecting a big bag of drugs from the pharmacy, the porter wheeled me to my mom waiting outside in her car. We made the journey back home, in order to pack a few things before heading to Colourfest down in Dorset. The festival was a consciousness festival in the grounds of a stately home. This meant the focus was on healing and expression. In plain English, this meant meditation, yoga, various talks, live bands and workshops. No alcohol or drugs allowed.

Given I was on a platter of painkillers, it probably meant I was the most hammered person at the festival. A title I’ve spent a long time trying to achieve.

As it was in a stately home, we had beds to sleep in each night and a small kitchen to prepare things.

At home, things weren’t sailing plainly. It seemed to take an inordinate amount of time to pack items required for a two night stay. I was frustrated that simple directions weren’t being followed, and extra fuss being spent on items that didn’t matter. My frustration was added to by not being in a state to do everything myself. I’ve been to festivals in three countries, including Burning Man in the Nevada desert, where nothing, not even water, is provided. This should have been a cakewalk.

I was frustrated that despite having rooms, beds, plenty of time to plan and pack, being at Colourfest for only two nights, and spending the past week in hospital getting radiotherapy, I had to give direction to what I thought were basic tasks.

I lost my temper when my mom had unpacked items I’d already packed, and I’d spilled a glass of orange juice on the floor trying to put them back where I originally put them. I shouted a few profanities, threw my painkillers on the floor (which I was going to take with the juice), and stormed upstairs, telling everyone to get their f*cking act together.

After having a shower to calm down, and washing my sandals of spilled orange juice, I went out to the car where they were waiting.

I lay in the back of the car on a futon, as sitting up for the whole car journey was too painful. This meant I couldn’t provide proper navigation, and had to leave it to my family.

We had a mix up in the navigation (which didn’t help my temper), but finally arrived at the festival gates. The organisers kindly let us park up next to cottage we were staying in, and the staff on duty were kind and helpful. They also kindly gave my carers (mom and brother) complimentary tickets.

I needed some time to cool off in my room. I was still pissed off with what had happened, and didn’t want to be around anyone. I’ve handled much worse, many times in the past without losing my temper. However, I must have been pushed close to the edge by my time spent in hospital.

As I was laying down on my bed, I looked at the program of events, still pissed off. Then I remembered I was still alive, still breathing, and still in the fight. Despite what had happened over the past week.

I regrouped with my family, and we went to an evening meditation session in the Healing Field. The route took us past the stately home, alongside huge landscaped trees, and various activity tents. The light was fading as we approached sunset.

We got the to meditation 15 minutes late, but settled down into a peripheral spot. It was easy to sit still and feel the solidness of the earth. I was surprised to feel the anger draining out of me, and into the ground below me. I can’t remember what came first, the supressed laughter, or the tears. I also felt a huge wave of gratitude for my family working so hard to be there for me, and making the festival happen. I also didn’t want some of their last memories of me being angry with them, or thinking that they’d failed me.

My smouldering anger felt insignificant as it was being extinguished. About 15 minutes later, small bells were rung as part of the ritual, which brought in another layer of ease and lightness.

Selfie taken after evening mediation on Friday evening

Selfie taken after evening mediation on Friday evening

I hugged my family, apologised, thanked them, and told them I loved them.

We walked over to the main festival area, and had a bite to eat. I bumped into a couple of friends I’d met on workshops, which lightened my spirit further.

After my mom headed to bed, my brother and I explored a bit further. I bought a piece of dark chocolate from a cacao stand for my mom, and a concentrated shot of cacao for myself. I made a prayer of gratitude, and drank half of it, which reminded me of how bitter and unpalatable unsweetened cacao can be.

I didn’t want to spill the other half, as it’s regarded as sacred medicine in parts of Latin America where it originates from. Instead, I sauntered over to a statuesque London Plane tree, while my brother visited a musical instrument tent. The tree was almost as wide as I was tall, and towered over me. Its branches hung low, and the canopy spread wide.

I remembered laying underneath this tree 8 years ago, when I was at Gaunts House. On this occasion, my sister was graduating from her yoga teacher training.

I did a short prayer, thanking the tree, the cacao, and the land, and asking to receive any healing or lessons I needed to continue my journey. I respectfully poured the cacao next to the roots, and lay my hands on the trunk. The bark at the base of the tree was covered in a dry moss, which was almost warm to the touch. It felt like the fur of a huge, silent beast. It possessed the simple, clean scent of the forest. I felt myself feeling energised by the contact.

After meeting up with my brother, we headed to bed to retire for the night.

Chapter 7

I had high aspirations to get up at 6am and do one of the morning meditations. Dawn warmed the curtains, and I could hear my mother and brother snore in unison. I decided to be comfortable and stay put.

I did get up after 7am with my mom, and I decided to meditate under the London Plane tree from the night before.

As we approached the tree, it appeared even more majestic in the early light. We settled down into comfortable spots, with my mom carrying a bolster for me to sit on. My mom did her prayers, while I set my timer for 21 minutes.

Tree hugger.jpg

I sat as still as a statue, feeling solidly connected to the earth. Each breath of the tree filtered air gradually became more relaxed. The morning birdsong eased me towards calm.

My timer overran, and I opened my eyes to see my mom looking around. I explained to her that the roots of the tree extend roughly to the same extent as the canopy. Sitting against the trunk meant we were almost encased at the heart of the tree.

I encouraged her to put her hands on it, and then once she did that, to give it a hug. My mom is now a tree hugging hippy, like her son.

Chapter 8

After breakfast, my mom wanted to head to a Satsang. A Satsang typically consists of one or more rounds of meditation, as well as a talk on spiritual subject e.g. how to manage challenges in life, difficult emotions, etc.

We got to the Satsang tent early, and found ourselves a spot. When the Satsang started, I thought it was a bit corny and cheesy. It felt hard to get involved. My mom, however loved it.

I saw her crying and smiling during one of the meditations. She then lay on her back to have a rest, and then started to snore quite loudly. I didn’t care. I just let her carry on. At least she didn’t fart, or shit herself.

In previous years, I would have been embarrassed just to have my mom at a festival, let alone snoring through a workshop. I think we were the only two brown people in there, and were sitting next to one another. I couldn’t pretend she was someone else’s mom, or that we weren’t together. However, I was glad my mom got some of the healing she needed. I’m glad we went.

I had another event I wanted to go to, so we left early. We booked some reflexology and massage sessions for ourselves in the adjacent tents. We were in the healing area, and when in Rome...

I mistook a gentleman called Coin for a proprietor at one of the tents. We exchanged some pleasantries, and he seemed like a nice guy, but I won’t mention too much about him now. He will feature later on in the story.

By this time, my energy began to ebb, and I needed to eat and take more painkillers. We met up with my brother, and had some lunch. My mom went to have some rest, while my brother and I went to a male only talk called The Power of Man. There was an equivalent event for the women in the adjacent tent.

The idea of the men’s talk, funnily enough, was to learn how to step into our masculine power in a balanced and healthy way. The aim was to have a second talk the following day, where the women and men would connect on an equal, and more balanced footing.

The talk started off with the FUCK YOU tree. We weren’t presented with an actual tree to literally, or metaphorically fuck, but the centre pole of the tent worked out nicely. The idea was to shout profanities and release anger at the “tree”, anger based on previous “harmful” interactions with women, that weren’t necessarily addressed or resolved at the time.

40 to 50 men started the task with various degrees of relish. I couldn’t feel that much anger. Maybe because I was tired, maybe because I’d done a lot of work to release anger and reflect on my previous relationships. I did utter the famous words, but there was no volume or passion in them. A lot of gentlemen did get into it though, and the volume was LOUD.

I didn’t know what the women in the adjacent tent were thinking, nor did I know how well was accepted in the various treatment tents (massage, reflexology, etc). A few moments later, the women erupted at their own FUCK YOU tree. Not a good idea to be a man in that tent.

We did various worthwhile exercises. The one that stuck out the most was where the men would wander around the room, until they naturally encountered another man. We had to ask each other a question, which would change every so often. One was based on what we were longing for, or felt we were missing from women. Another question was what we our fears were around women.

I’ve had a lot of time reflect on the past, and my illness has put a lot of things into perspective. What I would have answered when I have diagnosed, just didn’t ring true at the time. I was struggling to come up with anything.

I then bumped into a gentleman called Jonathan, who is approximately my age. After he answered, I briefly explained my health situation to him, and uttered the same reply I’ve provided above. I can’t quite remember what he said to me in response, but it did help me nail down a fear.

The fear is this; if I somehow meet my soulmate, or woman of my dreams during this journey, I’ll be deprived the chance of connecting or forming a relationship I would want vs if I was healthy.

I no longer have an athletic physique, have lost 70lbs of muscle, and can now fit both hands around each thigh. She would probably have to call me an ambulance for me, if we tried to make love! I would have the fear of not having children with her, nor growing old enough to see them being born or grow up. The fear of not being able to do thoughtful things for her, surprise her with treats, give during lovemaking, or travel the world with her.

I was grateful to Jonathan for his help, and went on my way. Feeling into this as I write this, it’s hard to feel terror or fear, however I do feel slightly uncomfortable about the prospect. Then I think, it’s hard enough for most of us to connect with such a person, so given my situation, it’s probably not anything to worry about too much.

Chapter 9

The workshop concluded, and my brother and I left the tent. I sat beneath a mature oak tree, while my brother parted to collect me some water. Jonathan joined me on the grass afterwards, and it turned out we had a lot in common. After exchanging contact details, we parted company.

My brother was replaced by my mom, and the idea was to go to another Satsang in the adjacent tent (the one where the women previously had their own workshop). This one was held by a Californian lady called Prajna. I very much like Prajna, and have been to one of her residential workshops in the past. I spotted a cohort of friends I’d made from the same workshop, to the left of the stage.

It started with a meditation, which I enjoyed to start with, but found progressively more difficult to focus. This was because I skimped on my pain medication by virtue of leaving it in my room, and assumed I’d be fine soldiering on. It turned out I wasn’t, but I decided to reinforce my failure nonetheless.

Various people were invited by Prajna to come to the front, and share any issues or problems they were having. The idea was to help them work through their problems, and by doing this, it would also help the audience. This is because many of us have or will experience similar problems to one another, albeit in varying contexts.

Mom & Prajna.jpg

After a few people had shared, my mom put her hand up and made it to the front. I was slightly apprehensive about what she was going to say, but had no intention of stopping her.

I won’t share exactly what she said, as what happens in Satsang, stays in Satsang. However, she did warm the heart of the crowd with what she shared, and explained a bit about my situation, and how she was handling it. Despite being close to tears, she did offer messages of strength to the crowd, and mentioned that she had been through similar circumstances to many of the speakers. Once she was finished, she gave a few strangers big hugs, and sat down beside me.

The last person to come to the front was Coin – the man I spoke to in the morning at one of the healing tents. It turned out his wife is in a similar situation with Brain Cancer. She was poised in a wheelchair a few metres behind where I was sat.

He asked whether it was right to be angry and still try to fight her disease, or whether he should come into a place of acceptance. He found he was doing the latter for over 5 years when his wife was more mobile. However, it had become more difficult as time progressed, and he was oscillating between the two.

I honestly couldn’t remember Prajna’s reply at this point. It sounds bad, but I was in considerable pain. I was trying to stand, stretch and move around to gain some relief. I had actually wanted to leave even before I knew my mom was going to take to the stage, but something told me it was important to hang on until the end.

I was impressed that he had the courage to come to the front, and even more astounded there was a couple in front of me who were going through very similar circumstances. She was even undergoing chemotherapy, which is a testament to her strength and courage that she made it to the festival, and Coin’s strength for supporting her.

Coin and I chatted afterwards. We discussed the topic of what the point of any of it was, and whether it was worth it. I said I truly didn’t know. However, I did say we can make something of what has happened to us. If we can spread our messages, and what we’ve learned, it can be a shield to the next people along the line. I for one, treat it as taking one for the team.

If it doesn’t seem like there is a point to it, or whether it means anything now, then make it mean something. Share your story with whoever will listen.

There will be times where we feel anger, sorrow, and despair. However, there are good moments as well. None of us have the fortune of being billionaires, having superpowers, movie star looks, and being universally liked – all rolled into one.

Yet we make the best of what we have, and can find a lot of happiness in there. This is despite any sorrow or suffering we do face. Every day may not be good, but there is good in every day.

I gave him the details of my blog, and email, then hobbled off back to my room in pain. The walking became more difficult towards the end, to the point where me leg felt like it was going to detach at the hip and knee. I each empty bench I passed looked extremely inviting. Though I knew if I sat down, there would be no getting back up again.

The last 20m were agony, but I kept on pressing ahead, finally collapsing onto my bed. I hit the pain as hard as I could by taking 4 different types of painkillers. I asked my mom and sister to get me some Puerto Rican food after they had eaten. I spent the next 25 minutes mantra chanting, using my time to heal my dry throat caused by the radiation. As cheesy as it sounds, perhaps you could call it singing for my life.

Chapter 10

The next day, I had a morning meditation planned with my sister, but I decided sleep was a more appetising proposition. I felt drained.

After breakfast, my mom and I headed to the healing area for our sessions. I hooked my mom up with some impromptu cranial work, while I waited for my reflexology session. The morning air was calm, as I gazed towards a pair of oak trees at the centre of the field. Funnily enough, I was sitting in the same chair Coin was, when I met him the previous day.

Most of the day was uneventful and relaxing. It consisted of eating good food and having various healing sessions. I spent a lot of time laying underneath majestic trees on my air mattress. The weather was fine, and I serenely watched cloud formations pass by while comfortably laying shaded on my back.

At lunch, I was sipping an alcohol free cocktail, and watched a group of singing pixies strolling towards a group of children. They were releasing bubbles of all different sizes, which reflected magnificently off the midday sun. The colours and moving shapes were so intensely beautiful, it almost felt like I was hallucinating.

As the children were frolicking, I caught the eye of one of the pixies – we had connected during the men’s workshop the previous day. I gave him a grin and a wave, and he resumed the bubble magic.

Later in the afternoon, we came across the only ice cream stand. The ice cream was made from fresh ingredients in front of the customer, being placed on an ice cold plate to form. The product is called “rolled ice cream”. Whilst this sounds wholesome and romantic, I didn’t regard this as the smartest idea from a business or customer satisfaction point of view. Each customer probably spent almost 10 minutes having their order batched up, in addition to their wait of over half an hour. If they were serving readymade organic ice cream made from high quality and ethical ingredients, they could have reduced this down to 1 or 2 minutes per customer.

The Sycamore tree I sat beneath, while watching my brother queue for mediocre ice cream.

The Sycamore tree I sat beneath, while watching my brother queue for mediocre ice cream.

As I watched my brother from the shade of a sycamore tree, I felt like asking him to call it off. I wanted ice cream, but didn’t want to make him suffer for it. However, the longer he waited, the more it seemed cruel to call him off and cement the waste of time. My brother persisted.

After around 45 minutes of being in the queue and waiting for the ice cream, my brother came back with the goods. I didn’t have the heart to tell him it tasted distinctly average.

Chapter 11

We were due to leave later in the afternoon, but we had a crystal bowl and gong bath pencilled in. This was given by a heart centred lady called Ammaprema. It was set up in the spacious library of the stately home. The bookshelves extended up to high ceilings, and were lined with old, weathered tomes.

My sister reserved a prime spot in front of the crystal singing bowls, and I lay my inflatable mattress on the solid timber floor. I was flanked by my brother and sister. Sofas were arranged around the perimeter, and my mom was nestled into one. She was wedged beside a friend she had made earlier on in the festival, dancing together to Punjabi music.

When the session began, I was quickly swept into the dream realm. Apparently I was snoring. Once it ramped down, we were invited to sing a song called “Hallelujah”. This is significantly different to the pop version that many are used to, but I would argue, much more brilliant. I was moved enough by it to shed some tears. These ran down my face, and left wet patches on my mattress. If I was laying with my head on the opposite end, it would have looked like I’d pissed myself.

Regardless of the potentially embarrassing incident, I felt lighter, happier, and more centred.

After the session ended, Ammaprema asked me if I wanted a short personal session with her instruments. I gladly accepted. I sat myself down on one of the sofas, and was subjected to various crystal bowls, chimes, a crystal harp, and other tools of sound.

I felt somewhat light headed, but also clear and even more rooted and centred. With my eyes closed, I had an image and a strong feeling of myself being a divine light. A flame burning fiercely, although silent and still.

It felt like the image that Krishna (and incarnation of Lord Vishnu in Hundu / Vedic scriptures) revealed to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita, when Arjuna asks the God to reveal himself in his full glory. My weak physical body felt separate, and almost inconsequential, like an old pair of clothes that could be tossed away in the laundry basket. The flame of my spirit however, felt strong.

I’m not egotistical enough to claim that I’m a living God. At least any more than any of us are. I just felt I had a glimpse in that moment of my pure spirit. Spirit which we all possess in each of us. I don’t really know beyond that. I’d just be regurgitating what I’ve read elsewhere to fill in the gaps. This is just what I can share about my experience, whether it was an unfiltered glimpse into another realm, or a load of nonsense conjured up by my mind.

I had a lovely chat and gave my thanks to Ammaprema, and headed to my final healing session. My family then packed up the car while I lay in bed, and we said goodbye to the festival.

Chapter 12

I woke up the next morning, hearing my dog Satch scrambling excitedly across the hallway. I made it to the stairs and called him up. We hadn’t seen each other for 9 days. As many of you know, this is almost an eternity if you love your dog, and your dog loves you.

Me and Satch shortly after being reunited. Our smiles are suspiciously similar...

Me and Satch shortly after being reunited. Our smiles are suspiciously similar...

Satch accepted a big hug, and a few kisses to the side of his head. He in return was whining excitedly, and trying to lick my face. He was so worked up, that his licks were catching me slightly with his teeth. I didn’t care though. It was good to have him back.

I had my final radiotherapy session at the RUH, which I mentioned towards the start of the blog post. This was the one with Pavarotti and the bell ringing. Once this was done, I went home and had a nap. I was expecting my Amazon trained shaman to arrive later in the evening. We had some serious work to do the next day…

 

 

 

Chapter 13

The shaman in question is a fellow called Richard Down. The word shaman makes me cringe slightly when I hear it. The reason being is that shaman is the name that nomadic people in Siberia have given to their medicine men / women. As far as I know, it has no traditional root or use in any language or culture outside of Siberia. Hence, I prefer the blanket terms Curandero or Curandera (female practitioner).

Richard has invested a considerable amount of time being trained by the Shipibo people in the Peruvian Amazon, within the Ucayali River basin.

It should be noted that while Richard has drunk various sacred plant medicine brews in the Amazon, he does not do so in the UK, nor does he make or offer this to people. You may be wondering “how does he heal then?”. This will be explained shortly.

On the subject of shamanism, a fair few of you might suspect I’m talking complete bullshit. Indeed, when talking about shamanism, the word “bullshit” usually isn’t far from the minds, or tongues of most westerners. As I explain more about the Shipibo tradition, you can decide for yourself.

As far as I know, there are three main levels, or types of Curandero in the Shipibo tradition. The first is an Onaya. They typically employ various plant medicines, including Ayahuasca (pronounced eye-a-was-ka). If used correctly, and with respect, it is purported to have phenomenal healing effects. The use of plant medicines is deeply intertwined with indigenous religious beliefs. Nevertheless, given that Ayahuasca is also a psychedelic, it means it has been made illegal in many countries around the world.

An Onaya, or Ayahuasca Curandero will typically serve the brew, sing healing songs called icaros, blow smoke from burning herbs, and perform cleansings. They may also utilise other healing plants which may or may not have sense altering effects.

Another type is a Yubut. They specialise in the removal of poison darts, or “virotes”, which can be sent by other “dark” Curanderos, or disagreeable spirits. I don’t wish to discuss too much of this here. Despite this sounding like fantasy, or complete nonsense to the western mind, it is taken seriously in traditional indigenous communities, and is considered to be skilled and advanced work.

The final type is the Muraya. They are considered to have achieved a high level of skill. The Muraya has undergone considerable and demanding training, including dieting with strong medicinal plants (which are easily capable of killing or driving them insane, if they are not administered correctly). The effect of this means that they can either work with or without using medicinal brews, or Ayahuasca to bring about healing. I’ve been told that true Murayas are hard to find, or don’t exist whatsoever. However, Richard is the closest thing I (or most people) will find to a Muraya, if he isn’t one already.

Richard’s principal tool is his singing voice. This is an important part of an Onaya’s arsenal. Yet given that a Muraya doesn’t necessarily rely on plant medicines, they have to be even more on top of their game when it comes to their vocal skill than an Onaya. Richard has a fantastic voice, and is skilled at using it.

Taking a pause from what I’ve just written, I wouldn’t be surprised if you are extremely sceptical about what I’ve written so far.

If I was introduced to this from a random blogger with cancer, I might be as well. However, note that I’m also an engineer, who’s designed literally billions of dollars worth of infrastructure over 10 years, and in three countries. Some of my work has won industry awards, and I’ve written published technical papers.

If I designed my tunnels based on what a dreadlocked, LSD munching hippy has told me, they no doubt would have collapsed and crushed people under steel and concrete.

I do however, believe in the power of vibration and frequency to heal (and also to hurt). Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sikhism have mantra chanting as one of their core practices, and other religions such have Christianity have choirs and other forms of singing as a central part.

There is an evolving branch of science called Cymatics. This involves placing sugar or sand on a vibrating plate, and then using a tone generator to run various frequencies through them. This causes the grains to align, and form geometric shapes. As the frequency run through the plate increases, the patterns become more complex.

If you’d like a visual example, please have a look at this youtube link by clicking here. I understand you can even purchase kits if you wanted to try this at home with your kids.

This second video shows another experiment that forces water into sine waves while it's still flowing, please click here to view. Note that our body is 45-65% water (based on age, gender, and other factors). If sound is having this effect on water, how could it be affecting our physical form?

On the flipside, there have been many different ways that sound has been weaponised. This article provides some further reading and examples, which I prefer not to delve into here. Please click here to view.

I acknowledge our scientific knowledge is limited on these matters. However, this doesn’t mean that these phenomena aren’t true. In the 16th Century, it was scientific FACT that the Sun was at the centre of the universe. Just ask Copernicus. How much more will we know in another 500 years?

Chapter 14

The day started with a good breakfast, and the intention to hold silence. We wanted to stay focused on the task at hand, by keeping idle talk to a minimum. The task would consist largely of blasting me with different healing songs (known as icaros), as well as periods of guided meditation, and having seated breaks in the shade of the front garden.

My sister had prepared the living room the night before by airing it out, burning incense, and playing relaxing music. She had also laid out various mats, bolsters, and cushions on the floor to make us comfortable.

Richard added his own layer of Shipibo Mantas (artwork based on Ayahuasca visions), tree resins, rattles, and other shamanic paraphernalia. He was wearing his full Shipibo outfit, lovingly made for him by the family of his Maestro. It was covered in various patterns that represent different plants he has taken and dieted with during his training. They are also said to help him call for the aid, and strength of these plants during his work.

This made me smile inside. He once told me that he never saw his Shipibo Maestro or entourage wear these clothes themselves. They insisted he put them on, but were all making jokes and laughing hysterically at him when he did.

Feeling dejected, he wanted to take them off, but they vehemently insisted that he wear them. Weeks of hard work had gone into making them. When he asked why none of them were wearing these clothes, their explanation was that he wasn’t as good a healer as any of them.

Therefore, he’d need all the help he could get!

As I looked at him in his full regalia, it was apparent I also needed all the help I could get.

Chapter 15

Due to my extreme fatigue, I’m writing this almost three weeks after the event. Hence I’m a little hazy on some of the details.

The process started with some verbal sharing. Expressing gratitude, and making clear our intentions for the day ahead.

Richard lit a coal, and placed some menthol crystals upon it. As they sublimed into vapour, they poured into my nostrils and filled my sinuses. My airways were swept open. I felt invigorated and charged by the scent.

The first icaro sung was a song of extraction. This was to broadly remove any remnants of what no longer serves me. My sister and I were encouraged to sing our own improvised wordless sounds, or Sonidos, to support Richard, and layer up the sounds. We had done this in a previous workshop with Richard, so we knew the drill.

Chakra Vowels.jpg

As Richard launched into the traditional Shipibo verses, I soon joined in with my Vedic mantras. These are essentially the base vowel sounds found in human language. Each sound, or mantra is said to correspond with a different part of the body via the chakra system. A brief overview is shown in the drawing to the left.

I wouldn’t recommend trying them on the bus during your morning commute, unless you’re comfortable attracting a few stares. For me at least, they make me feel better afterwards.

Then we were joined by my sister.

Our voices resonated, drifted apart, and meshed back together, in a seemingly random, yet coherent symphony. My throat was a dryer and hoarser due to the radiotherapy I had less than 24 hours prior. I felt like I was underperforming, but I did my best nonetheless.

After this round concluded, I felt calm but had to lie down on my back. My physical body was no longer a totem of strength.

A pause was taken for re-centring. I took the opportunity to sit out on the lawn, feeling the cool support from the earth beneath me. My sister made us hot drinks, and I foraged for some shortbread and macadamia nut biscuits.

The next round was the song of infusion. As I lay on the floor, Richard gently took hold of my feet, while my sister took hold of my head. I felt like a AA battery being slotted into a charger.

Another pinch of menthol was sublimed on a glowing coal. Richard’s instruction was to breathe out, then gently in if it became overpowering, and to keep the eyes firmly shut!

We commenced our second round of singing. Again, I noticed my voice being underpowered, but nevertheless joined our three person choir. After a short time, I fell asleep, snoring and subject to sporadic muscle twitches. Richard and my sister persisted. I dreamt vivid dreams that fled from memory, and woke up more refreshed.

It was a good time to stop for lunch and painkillers.

After this interlude, my sister had to leave, but Richard and I continued the work. This consisted of a guided meditation, whereby the mind allows thoughts to arise and dissolve. This is without manipulation, nor judgment. The intention is to keep on allowing the mind to empty until nothing remains. I again laid down for this meditation, but this made it decidedly more difficult.

Initially, I was in a state of being fully and calmly alert, easily able to describe my psyche when prompted. As time progressed, I drifted towards the frontier where the real world and the dream world graze one another.

Richard and I sitting on the grass to re-centre, during one of our breaks

Richard and I sitting on the grass to re-centre, during one of our breaks

Dreams started to seem like reality, as some of them involved me talking to Richard in familiar surroundings to my home. However, these were distorted by the magic mirror of my subconscious. I was struggling to grope my way through.

Even Richard said the experience felt trippy, and I was starting to pull him over the event horizon.

The exercise was followed by more song, which I slipped unconscious for. However, I was distinctly aware of vivid visions, which again have faded from my memory. We probably spent 3 hours after lunch on these exercises, but of course time melted beyond perception of this.

It was finally over. Richard and I spent some further time out on the grass to conclude the day’s proceedings. I felt a lot lighter, happier, and had a stronger sense of well being than when I started. I’m not entirely sure what we accomplished, but it felt like whatever it was, it was a step in the right direction

Chapter 16

During the next few days, I noticed powerful emotions in my dreams. I can’t recall all of them. However, during one of dreams I had that night, I remember experiencing extreme anger towards my brother. We’ve been getting on really well for many years, and he’s been a warrior in the battle to keep me going. He’s been very compassionate, loving, and has been bending over backwards to accommodate me.

The dream sprouted from a few instances in childhood where I was angry at him for taking something of mine while I was using it, and not giving it back. It’s funny how long we can hold onto things for.

Another one involved me again being angry and fighting against an injustice. I recall this one well, but the plot is so distorted that I don’t think it would be productive to mention the details.

A particularly striking one revolved around me being at my old place of work, which simultaneously had the feel of both a hospital and a school. I was trying to pick up some books or papers I’d dropped on the floor, but I was in crutches and couldn’t do it. A lady came to help me, and I started to sob violently. I woke up soon after, expecting to have shed tears. However, my face was dry.

A poignant one involved me entering an office at night, which had motel-like side bedrooms. I was rummaging through a child’s backpack left in one of the rooms. I opened a package full of goji berries and cashew nuts, which looked like it was gift wrapped. I handed the backpack in to a passing security guard, feeling blanketed by a heavy sense of shame and guilt. Again, I was on the verge of tears. Although the security guard had a bushy grey moustache, he was very concerned about me.

He reached into his pocket, and produced a coin. It felt very dense and heavy in my hand. He then said the words “gloop and drop”. He told me to “let your worries and sadness fall off you, like the rain would fall off the coin. The coin remains solid and unmoved”. I woke soon after at 2:22am, and saw Mars in the night sky, glistening red. It was a vivid and direct message, and I spent a few moments writing it down.

I can’t definitively say what the effect or purpose of the dreams were, but I believe they helped me shift some deeper, stuck emotions - like the defragmentation function on a computer. Emotions my conscious mind probably hasn’t been able to process.

I haven’t had dreams filled with such powerful emotion for many months, if not years. Let alone having a succession of many of them in a short period of time.

Epilogue

So that was an intense 10 days. Thank you for persevering with my prose.

I spent the following three weeks sleeping throughout most of my days and nights. I’m not sure how I did it, but I’m here and breathing. However, I don’t expect I could have done it without the massive support network I have, from my family, NHS staff, and different healers.

Thank you to everyone who’s been sending me lovely messages during this time. I haven’t responded to many of you, as I’ve been either going through the above, or inching my way through fatigue. However, I really do value each and every kind message I receive. Thank you.