Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Travel: The Snowman Trek (Part 1 - Arriving in Bhutan)

So...I did the Snowman Trek last year along with my wife, Miriam. What possessed us to do this, I don't know. But we did it. I think it is now time to write about it and I shall be doing a series of articles over the next few months that outline some details of this wonderful part of the world, with some pictures where possible. We went with World Expeditions, a company that I would highly recommend.


Arriving in Bhutan

Flying into Paro is a gripping experience. After a short stop in Calcutta to pick up passengers, our flight from Bangkok continued over the Ganges delta. It wasn’t long before we saw the Himalaya rising up in the distance, and rugged foothills between the clouds beneath us. To the northwest the Everest massif rose majestically out of a sea of white stratus cloud. It looked like a glistening white island rising out of an off-white sea, framed by the deep blue sky. At least it looked that way if you were lucky enough to on the same side of the plane as I was, those on the other side could only take our word for it! Along with Everest (8848m) there were a number of other peaks in the group including Lohtse (8511m), which towers above the lesser mountains around it. Cho Oyu (8153m) which is on the Nepalese –Tibetan border may also have been visible.

Once I stopped trying to crane my neck to keep an eye on the world’s highest point, I noticed that the hills below were becoming increasingly high and very steep. The word precipitous came to mind. The trees were getting closer and appeared to be reaching up towards the plane as they clung to mountainsides. The valleys were all v-shaped, a sure sign that torrents of meltwater had relentlessly cascaded down them for tens of thousands of years from the high mountains to the north. I wondered what the mountains further to the north would be like, and whether I was going to be fit enough to get up and down the passes.

The plane banked sharply between mountains on either side and we began our descent into Paro. The trees were getting uncomfortably near at this time, almost close enough to reach and touch. Well, I’m sure they weren’t that close, but in an aircraft it is only natural not to see them as close as they were now, and the same could be said for the powerlines below. However, in no time at all we were rumbling along the concrete of the runway towards the arrivals building.

It is not a very long walk across the concrete between the Druk Air plane and the airport buildings, but it seems to take quite a while. This is because most people spend time looking at the mountains surrounding them and taking some pictures. Then they turn around and see what looks like a temple, or religious building of some sort, into which the other passengers are going. This is probably the most welcoming arrivals building anywhere in the world. It is constructed using traditional Bhutanese architectural features, as are most buildings in this country, and is brightly painted, as is the custom here.

Inside there are numerous murals on the walls, all depicting scenes of the Buddha and his experiences. It makes the queuing for passport checks and other formalities seem even shorter than it is. And it does not take long at all.

Once through, we took a minibus to our hotel, stopping on the way to take in views of the magnificent Paro Dzong and also to watch a local archery contest. The dzong imposes itself over the river beneath. It is the administrative centre of the town and its high, white walls remind the viewer that it was once also a fort. If we were here in May, we might have been able to see one of the many festivals held in Bhutan. But we were not. Above the dzong is the National Museum, itself and old fort that had been built to provide a high lookout to warn of approaching enemies.

On a previous visit I had had the opportunity to spend an hour or two looking around it. It is a splendid museum, containing many treasured artefacts, historical information, examples of Bhutan’s famous postage stamps, and examples of traditional dress, all within its circular walls, the different galleries being connected by low passageways that wind their way through the walls. From beside the museum there are wonderful views of the Paro Valley, also called the golden valley because of the lush crops that grow in the soil there.

The archery contest in Bhutan does not use a conventional target, but rather small wooden targets. Contestants are allowed to shout and try to put off their opponents as they aim at the targets. It is a very good-natured sport, and is the national sport of Bhutan. Most villages will have an archery contest. We spent some time here watching, and taking in the atmosphere, but the sun was biting and it was soon time to continue on to our hotel.

Sitting on the banks of the Paro River, the hotel consisted mainly of small hexagonal single-story buildings that contained six rooms, each with a small table and chairs on an outside verandah. The main building was double-storey and contained the lounge, bar and the restaurant.

We were allowed a couple of hours to collect our thoughts before lunch, and it was during this time that I discovered that I had left the keys that would allow me to unlock the steel mesh that encased my pack, at home. This was a good start to the journey! I managed to track down some pliers, courtesy of Sumit, our tour leader, and spent at least an hour painstakingly severing each strand of wire (and skewering my hands) before eventually gaining access to my luggage. The wire was written off, but that did not worry me too much. If anybody wanted to rifle through my smelly trekking clothes on my way out of Bhutan, then they would be most welcome.

After lunch, and still feeling the effects of travelling for most of the past twenty-four hours, we embarked on an acclimatisation climb. This was to the Takstang (Tiger’s Nest) Monastery. It was to break us in gently I suppose, but it sits at 3100m above sea-level, and this meant a 500 metre climb from our starting point. Despite this daunting prospect, the monastery is well worth seeing. It clings to small ledge above a sheer drop and was originally built in the late 17th century at a place considered to be where the Guru Rinpoche flew up to a cave on the back of a tiger to battle a local demon. It is a site of considerable significance and is visited by people from all over Bhutan.

In 1998, the monastery was destroyed by fire. It has since been rebuilt, using a cable lift to transport materials up from the valley floor. This was still in progress on my previous visit and I had not been able to access the building, having to be content with admiring its golden roof from afar. However, it is now complete and, after the fatiguing two-hour climb, I was able to walk through the buildings and appreciate the views from this structure and the waterfall that cascades down from mountain above. All too soon, it was time to make our way back down to the waiting minibus.

The descent seemed long, and this was exacerbated by the realisation that it was getting dark, and the damp slippery mud that we had managed to avoid on the way up, being a bit more challenging to see on the way down. It was very gloomy indeed as we picked our way through a path covered with slippery tree roots in the forest at the base of the climb. The coaster bus was a welcome sight, and we were soon back in our hotel. We settled in for a quiet night of repacking and a light dinner, followed by a beer or two. We had an early night in anticipation of the next day’s walk.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Homelessness: They’re People and we should acknowledge that.

Only a couple of weeks ago I passed a young man sitting in a shop doorway. He had a sign in front of him, written on a piece of cardboard, asking for spare change. He was sitting cross-legged on a small blanket. Being in a hurry, I passed by, noticing that he had his gaze firmly fixed in his feet, or perhaps the ground in front of him.

As I walked further down the street, not more than twenty or thirty metres, it was like that last image had caught me like a bungee rope. I had very little money on me, but as I got closer to the street corner, the bungee rope reached its longest point and I stopped. A battle raged inside me, one side looking a the 85 cents in my hand and saying that giving a paltry amount as this would be a bit cheap and insulting, and the other saying that it would be better than giving nothing.

What really drew me back was the image of someone who could not look at the world, along with the fact that my 85 cents was better in his pocket than mine. It might be the difference between eating something or going hungry. I placed my money at his feet, but that was not enough. Just to throw money at someone does not acknowledge their existence as a person, it merely acknowledges a ‘problem’.

So, in addition to giving my fairly inadequate contribution, I said hello and got him to look me in the eye to make sure that he knew I was seeing him as a person, and not just a faceless member of the homeless. The more I thought about this, the more I believe this was far more important than the money I gave. He had been sitting on the ground unable to look people in the eye, probably somewhat ashamed of his predicament, while the world walked by. Mostly ignoring him or wishing he didn’t exist to jog their conscience.

As my wife says (she’s quite wise you know), some people are damaged, and it is the responsibility of society to look after such people. They may have mental problems, be traumatised, or in some way be unable to fit into the society the majority of us have created. And because we have created this society we have a responsibility to care for those we have left behind.

Such people are not, as some would like to day, a drain on society. They should not be ignored or hidden away as some would like, often municipal councils who see than as a blight on their vision of what their locality should look like. This is simply ignoring reality and hoping it will go away. It is a harsh view that does no justice to us as human beings. The idea that we apply a ‘survival of the fittest’ ethos in this case is a flawed and ultimately flexible idea that civilized societies should see for what it is – the arrogance of those privileged and well-off who have defined what the ‘fittest’ should be.

Now, I’m not talking about those who are commonly referred to as ‘dole-bludgers’. I’m talking about those who find themselves out on the street unable to find a home. I would be happy to pay an extra cent or two in the dollar tax to help homeless people. What is that to me? A few beers each week? It could kick in above a certain income threshold. This obsession with reducing tax ignores what it can be used for to benefit our society as a whole, and relies on the ‘market’ to decide where money goes. Well the ‘market’ would like the problem of homelessness to disappear and appears to view it as an inconvenience. It appears unable or unwilling to help solve the problem, suggesting it is a problem for government. Hence the need to use tax revenues.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Philosophy: Uncertainty and Change

Change. It’s a word that causes a lot of angst. Why? Because it brings uncertainty. Uncertainty is feared by many, and sometimes with good reason. There are some fundamentals in our lives that require a level of certainty so that we can function both as individuals and as a society. The need to know that we can feed ourselves, keep a roof over our heads, and stay reasonably safe are all important to being able to enjoy our lives.

But uncertainty and change also play a vital role in making our lives interesting. It brings stimulation to each day and forces us into instances where we need to make decisions. Imagine knowing what the outcome of every decision you make would be, or the outcome of every sporting contest before it happened, or even everyone you might meet during the day. While on the surface this may sound appealing, the interest in each day would rapidly decrease and be replaced by monotony; one long and tedious experience.

Uncertainty can provide more benefits than making life interesting. It helps us to grow as individuals. A moment of uncertainty can propel us into making a decision and potentially changing the course of our lives. This, at its core, is what uncertainty is all about. By forcing an individual to make a decision, uncertainty can assist a person in gaining some control of their life through taking responsibility for their future direction.

Unfortunately there are many who find decision-making, in one form or another, to be quite intimidating. The fear that the wrong decision might be made can lead to a paralysis and no decision being made. When this happens life can become stagnant in an area, and if it is a repeated outcome, life becomes stagnant in many areas. Without a decision opportunities are missed, and when this becomes a common occurrence, individuals can stop seeing those opportunities even when they are still there.

I understand that there are some people out there who find uncertainty so painful that, for instance, they find the idea of watching their favourite sporting team in real time action a form of torture. They would prefer to watch a recording only after the result is known, and they can thus shield themselves from watching a poor performance. Personally, I find watching a game where I already know the result to be quite boring. There is very little mystery left and no journey to take. There are only subdued emotions associated with such an activity. There is no angst when your team is behind, and no consequent relief and joy if it pulls off an unexpected win. There is very little drama to make it interesting. What is the point?

There have been studies that show that when people get put into a position of uncertainty, particularly in a decision is required quickly, they can panic and often make an unwise decision. This give ammunition to those who see such instances as stressful and problematic, and long for certainty. However, learning to deal with such uncertainty is surely beneficial to us all. Avoiding it merely ensures that the same stress occurs the next time.

If you find uncertainty unsettling, think about this. When you do not know an answer there can be purpose and enjoyment in finding it out. Once the answer is attained there might be a fleeting moment of joy or elation, but then what? Certainty has returned to add some more dullness to your life.

Uncertainty also provides a platform by which we can evolve both technically and spiritually. What is and is not possible has changed throughout history as people have questioned the ‘certainty’ that was prevalent at the time. There is no doubt that both socially and scientifically, some changes have been incredibly painful and have caused much anxiety and soul searching, however this how we learn as a society, make new rules and improve lives.

The unexpected occurrence is one of the other benefits of uncertainty. While planned fun can be enjoyable, it is rarely as enjoyable as an unexpected benefit or social occasion. Conversely, the bolt from the blue that brings bad news is another part of uncertainty. Such bad news brings into context the joy that comes from the positive experiences. Without the balancing negative, similar positives are not possible. In between lies certainty, where little changes and little evolution of thought or character takes place.

Individuals need to be comfortable with the fact that they will make bad decisions every now and then. This is just part of life. Such decisions should not be dwelled on, or allowed to become a large barrier to future decision making. And also, seemingly bad decisions or outcomes can have unseen benefits that only become clear later on. Getting turned down when asking a girl out may lead you to the love of your life, who you might never have met if you hadn’t suffered some setbacks earlier on. When uncertainty is met head on where small decisions are concerned, people are less likely to be intimidated by the bigger decisions that might come later in life.

Encouraging the younger members of society to take the consequences of their decisions and learn from them, without discouraging future decision-making is one of the challenges that society must overcome. The alternative is to wait for others to tell us what to do, and this is surely an inferior way to deal with uncertainty, as well as a lazy one that takes away the responsibility of the individual for their own life.

We should therefore embrace uncertainty, from early on, and acknowledge the developmental benefits it provides. After all, without a level of uncertainty there would be little point in getting out of bed in the morning. Embrace uncertainty and life becomes the richer for it.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Philosophy: Why sport is important

The are intellectuals out there, at least those who remain unenlightened, that appear to regard sport as some sort of second-class activity that threatens their more cerebral pursuits in some way through its popularity. The idea that governments spend money on sporting events, people or codes is considered a waste, and is apparently somewhat offensive. After all, this is money that could go on more intellectual pursuits and the arts.
While nobody can deny that a healthy and enquiring mind is one of the most important parts of being an effective functioning human being, that on its own will only deliver a portion of your potential. The physical body within which the mind is carried is also a vital part of a person. So what is the physical body all about?
The human has not evolved to its current state to be sedentary. Sitting at a desk all day is not what the body is intended for. We need to move. We have bones which need to carry the weight otherwise they will become brittle through inactivity. We have muscles which will weaken and not support our body properly if we let them atrophy. Getting the blood pumping around oxygenates the brain and can help us to think more clearly. It also improves, in the long term, our blood pressure. Exercise also has beneficial impacts on cholesterol levels. This is by no means a comprehensive list but it demonstrates that there are physical benefits from playing sports, however it is true that you do not have to play sports to get these benefits, which you might also get from a daily walk or other form of exercise. Athletes are merely using the human body in a way that it was designed for. But, the physical benefits to muscles, bones, and the circulatory system are only part of the benefits of sporting activity.
In addition to physical benefits, there are intellectual benefits that come from sporting activity as well as experiences that can benefit the human spirit. When running or swimming, I certainly find myself entering a calm, and almost meditative, state which helps in dealing with the day-to-day stresses of modern life. It is a haven of peace where the space is mine, and mine alone. Participants in team sports find camaraderie and the sense of belonging, which might not be something easy to achieve, and learn a great deal of interpersonal skills and the opportunity to apply strategic thinking to a problem. It also allows a creative outlet and puts into action that side of the brain related to coordination and lateral thinking, thereby assisting our ability to solve complex problems.
Spectators of sports find much joy, and sometimes angst, in watching their favourite teams or individuals in their preferred sporting event. As with the arts, there are also aesthetic rewards to sport. The aesthetic pleasure of watching an effortless cover-drive at a cricket match is as pleasing to the cricket-lover as an exquisite painting is to an art connoisseur, or a classic poem to a lover of literature. Sport, as with the arts, can provide a huge emotional uplift where a day is otherwise proving to be mundane or disappointing.
But there is still more. Sport provides an outlet for competitive spirit, and most of us are competitive in some form or another, albeit sometimes reluctant to admit it. The more physically inclined look to sport to provide an outlet for this urge to compete, while intellectuals and academics may compete in the area of publications, and artists may compete for prestigious prizes or awards. No matter who we are, we all get a bit competitive, only some choose not to see the parallels with activities outside their own pursuits (and this applies to sporting people too), or are in denial that they are competitive at all. Competition also teaches the young about dealing with failure and overcoming adverse situations, something that they will need to do in their adult life. Some out there will have a philosophical outlook that this sort of competition is not healthy for one reason or another, but they are being competitive themselves by trying to convince others of their arguments.
There is no excuse for looking down in sport because it’s not your pursuit of choice. It provides many of the same benefits to its devotees as intellectual pursuits do, and is no less worthy. To those who might not have been fortunate enough to have been brought up in an environment conducive to educational excellence or intellectual development, it provides an essential outlet for competitive spirit and a good way to let off steam in what might be a depressing and frustrating environment. Those that think that paying someone to represent the country at sport is a waste of taxpayer’s money obviously have trouble thinking outside their own world view of what is important for our society as a whole.
Just as movie stars get paid millions of dollars to play a role in a film because they will attract huge numbers of people to the cinemas, sporting stars also get paid commensurate with their ability to draw people through the turnstiles. They give pleasure to many and get rewarded accordingly. This is simply a reflection of the number of people willing to see them perform, and the consequent financial spin-offs for those paying performers in the first place. For the same reasons, the money flowing into the arts and intellectual pursuits is not as great.
This does not deny their crucial role in society. The evolution of our philosophical approach to life, government, economics, and social development in general is of paramount importance, but it is the preserve of relatively few; those with the reputation and ability to argue their cases.
Intellectual pursuits do not provide the same package cognitive, spiritual and physical development as sports do. Sports have developed to fulfill this need and, hopefully, keep us from physical conflict. They are unashamed in their appeal to the masses and this is how it should be. For those unwilling to acknowledge the role sports play, it is perhaps, more of a reflection of their competitiveness relating to their own pursuit’s lack of attention and funding, and pure green-eyed jealous at it’s worst, brought on by the equivalent of throwing a tantrum and then going away to sulk..