Lisbon in February

 

I have just returned to Ireland after a few days in Lisbon. Lisbon strikes me as an aspirational city with a deep past. The old town siting alongside new spacious hotels and conference centers has a gentle prosperous buzz and a strong sense of an old identity that make for a winning combination.

I was there for a work conference and my impressions are gleaned from a few busy days in the city. In my limited free time I visited two art galleries and explored the Alfama district where I listened to some Fado music in one of the many restaurants in the beautiful warren of streets that constitutes the old town. I really only felt I scratched the service of what this wonderful city has to offer.

Arriving early from Dublin, I went to the Museu Nacional De Arte Antiga after finding the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian closed. It was stunning. I was delighted to find many works by many artists I was unfamiliar with. Although I have a limited knowledge of visual art, I love to stroll around galleries. I am happy to allow the paintings seep into my consciousness and do not want feel a need to broaden (or perhaps burden!) my appreciation with more detailed historical knowledge or technical understanding. I am happy more or less to stand and stare; awed and enriched by the majesty, beauty, vision and technical scope of the art.

I love this mode of journey into the past. It is a chance to dive beneath the secular, scientific surface of our society and encounter an older way of seeing humanity and the world, often with strong religious elements.

Here are some of the wonderfull pictures I saw.

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The museum itself is on the Northern bank of the river, to the East of the Alfama district and housed in the former palace of the count of Alvor. The collection dates from 1833 when much property was taken from Catholic monasteries after the church backed the losing side in the wars of succession between absolutist and liberal forces in the 1820’s and 30’s.

On my final day in Lisbon I went to the Museo Coleccao Berardi, an uber cool modern art galery. I am always suspicious of modern art with its inflated sense of importance and bombasticity but the Museo Coleccao  surpassed my expectations. I had a thouroughly enjoyable wander through the gallery. And I must admit that it changed by percetion of modern art. I felt many of the pictures documented the fragmentation of modern life with its attendend confusion, commercialism and colour brilliantly. Here are some of my choice stand-out pieces.

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My final night in Lisbon was spent in search of Fado music in the Alfamo district.  My initial hot tip from a local, Tasca do Jaime, was closed so I had a very enjoyable walk down throught he old district of Alfamo in search of fado. Eventually I found some at the “restaurant de fado”, where the waitresses took turns to sing alongside guitar players. I found the performance captivating. The music is heartfelt and visceral and, while constrained by the commercial, tourist setting, retains much of its power, spirit and beauty.

Here are some recordings:

 

A history of the railway in Ireland

I love trains. I think they are beautiful. They seem to both rumble and ghost across the countryside. Travel is both luxurious and communal.

They echo with the spirit of an earlier time; a time when rail was the only way to get people and goods around,  a time when travel was sacred and special and new, a time when people moved less and lived at home more. I’m not romanticising it and believe me, Id take the excitement and possibility of travel today over the highly questionable romance of a circumscribed provincial life any day and yet and yet…

I get on a train and a part of me tells me this is the way travel ought to be and I cant help but sink slightly into the romance of the past.

And the railroads are a romance. They hail from the great romantic age itself when composers wrote symphonies for nature, novelists gave us great epic tales of love, adventure and exploration and artists gave us extravagant views of the self and the possibilities of art, romance and nationalism to lift us out of the ordinary and the mundane. Art as an answer.

And perhaps in a way, railways were a question. The landscape opened up, industry and capitalism were made possible. The horizon of the individual ( or at least the middle class individual) broadened considerably. What was humanity to make of this new world ?The artists were pushed into the secular, material world of possibility and opportunity like everyone else. Thus Berlioz was entranced by the spectacle of Shakespearean theatre and Mendelssohn wrote a symphony inspired by the Scottish highlands.

To my mind railways retain more than a hint of this romantic age which of course remains embedded in out culture under both the wonder and disillusion of the twentieth and early twenty-first century.

And the train can take you a little of the way there.

The railway in Ireland has a chequered history. Where once trains served countless small towns and even villages now only a skeletal service remains. In the end we have to admit that since the foundation of the state the railways have been very much neglected. We, or at least the government fell in love with cars and roads.

In part, of course, this was in accordance with the mood and economics of the time but in my view it also reflected a deeper association of railways with Britishness. The railways were built by the British and the Irish state choose to focus on roads. But we also need to consider what cars and roads do.

First and foremost, they empower the car owner. Other members of the community and/or family become dependent on these individuals. The wealthy and eventually even the comparatively wealthy were empowered. And for a long time of course, it was only men who owned cars. To this day they privatise and atomise travel.

In almost every sense cars are anti social while trains are social.

The first railway in Ireland opened in 1834 and linked Dublin and what is now Dun Laoighire ( then Kingstown) and by 1865 there were 2000 miles of track in the country linking all the major industrial, if not agricultural regions).

The roll out of rail, however, was much slower than in England. By 1845 for example there were 1,700 miles of track in England and still only 70 in Ireland.

This, of course, was the time of the potato famine and in the development of rail we see that the famine of the 1840’s was both a cause of and a result of British neglect of Ireland at this time. But that is another story.

However the following years saw a huge amount of railway construction in Ireland and this investment in rail continued right up to the end of British dominion in Ireland (1920) by which time there were over 3500 miles of rail in Ireland and the rail network stretched into remote areas such as Connemara, West Cork  and Donegal, often by way of generous government subsidy. Interestingly, most of the trains were passenger trains. This was in contrast with a predominance of goods trains in Britain. This was because Ireland had neither the mining or manufacturing that Britain had and its major industrial regions were all close to the sea.

It is hard to understand why the Irish government neglected these rural rail networks but neglect them they did and most of the rural lines were closed in the 1960’s.

The West Cork rail service serves as a good microcosm of the wider story. Built in the later years of the nineteenth century and early 20th century it connected all the major towns even as far as Schull. Schull feels very rural and isolated to me when I visit now and it is hard to imagine a rail link now and it is, of course, up to the imagination what a rail link would have meant to the area from a psychological, social and economic perspective.

When the lines did close in the 1960’s it was against the background of huge protest and indeed the last train had to leave under police escort. The history of the railway is commemorated at the Clonakilty model railway village. The main Bandon to Cork road is traversed by this beautifull viaduct also.

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It is a reminder of what once was and what might have been.

Not only did the authorities close the rail lines but they often dismantled the rail lines and sold the land back to local farmers. This meant that the lines could never be opened again. Where the tracks remain they are often being converted into greenways and provide a wonderful opportunity to cycle and walk in the countryside. Examples include Westport to Achill, Dungarvan to Waterford and Mullingar to Athlone. All these deserve their own posts and hopefully I’ll get to them soon !

They are beautiful examples of the creative and imaginative use of the old infrastructure. Here’s to more such projects in the future !

 

 

 

A cup of tea in Ireland

The cup of tea is an Irish institution. Of course all cultures have tea ceremonies. The Japanese have their elaborate, intricate ritual of precision and beauty that opens the participants into the timeless tranquility of the moment. The English, historically,  have their afternoon tea with its aristocratic associations and formality while American professionals go for “coffee”,  an art-form taken to new heights by the so-called hipster generation.

The Irish cup of tea is distinct,if not entirely different, and here, just for fun, I want to try and pin the ritual down, knowing in advance my generalisations will ultimately fail and any attempt to define and even describe it will be like trying to hold a handfull of milk. For the ritual itself is liquid, expanding into the space it is put and flowing freely and easily across the boundaries of our lives.

Ultimately it is intimate; at the heart of family life. It invites conversation of a generally innocuous kind; the weather, kind-hearted gossip about others and practical considerations will form the main topics of conversation. But amongst family and friends there is the potential for more serious matters to be raised and shared, if neccessary.  In offering tea you offer your attention, your listening, your small talk. Most of the time, people prefer to keep the conversation simple and innocous, avoiding contentious issues such as politics or religion but amongst friends there is space to venture into more personal matters but also no pressure.

In general the conversation is light and the atmosphere sympathetic. For better or worse many things will be left unsaid. But there is space to raise issues too, if you need it.

Among friends the intimacy will be just as strong or stronger but even among work colleagues who don’t know each other so well, a little of the intimacy remains.

There is still the shared space, the sympathetic conversation and

 

the banalities that bind. Such simple, saying nothing conversation, needs to be mastered or at least practiced. It is a bit of an art form.

The tea itself is almost always black, fermented tea with milk. The blend that emerged as favourite blends Assam tea from India with Ceylon tea from Sri Lanka and is known as Irish breakfast tea. The Barry family in Cork were famous tea importers and while they traded in Cork from 1901 it wasn’t until the 1960’s that they cut out the English merchants and imported directly from Asia. They are a highly influential in politics and business to this tea and the Barrys brand carries the same comforting associations of home as Guinness stout or Tayto crisps for many.

The milk is crucial. Comforting. It can be strong or weak and everyone will have a preference. It is possible you will be judged as a particular type of person depending on how strong you like your tea! Builders tea, for example, is strong to the point of bitterness and has often been stewing so long that it has even cooled down a little. Any fussiness or fastidiousness about how one likes one’s tea will certainly be taken as an indication of either contrariness or conscientiousness.

The amount of milk added is also a highly personal matter and if making tea for someone else, you should allow them to add their own milk. People are very particular about thier tea !

Tea arrived in Ireland in the 1700’s. Initially confined to the aristocratic classes it became more widespread in the 1800’s as prices dropped and tea imports (often smuggled poor quality tea) increased. In fact, drinking tea was a rebellious and feminist activity. The aristocratic English viewed the Irish penchant for tea drinking, particularly among women as alarming and pamphlets distributed encouraging women to use both their time and their money more appropriately.

Who knew that tea drinking could have revolutionary connotations? This is perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Irish tea story I have come across. The wealthy believed tea was their prerogative and despised its spread among the masses.

“Must not every poor mans wife work in and out of doors and do all she can to help her husband. And do you think you can afford tea at thirteen pence a day. Put that out of your head entirely Nancy and give up the tea for good” urged a pamphlet of the day.

Helen O Connell has done extensive research on attitudes towards tea drinking in Ireland by the l chattering classes and believes it was a common enough preoccupation amongst them. It was believed that tea drinking could cause “addiction, illicit longing and revolutionary sympathies”.

The social nature of the ritual, its connotations of social betterment and even plain enjoyment seemed to perturb them greatly. While reading articles from the period and imagining conditions of the time a picture emerges in my mind of people enjoying tea in pretty poor housing and in the midst of cold weather taking a revolutionary and illicit comfort in a cup of smuggled tea. The hot warm tea and the social banter form a quiet statement of equality and sensible materialism.

Its not quite the Boston tea party but perhaps a million Irish tea partys somehow fanned the flames of the many social movements towards the end of the 19th century. It is easy to assume that the humble pot of tea helped serve as a symbol of equality and betterment and helped a nation on its way.

Is this why we hold the humble pot of tea with such reverence and affection to this day ? we are certainly the biggest tea drinkers in the world.

And on a lighter note, Mrs Doyle is pretty passionate about her tea

 

while Eamon Kelly tells a hilarious story of a poor tay boy (tea seller) from times past.

 

Note: This article was produced with the assistance of two cups of coffee, one peppermint tea and one black tea without milk or sugar.

Ko Chang ( andaman coast)

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I’m coming to the end of my trip/holiday now having spent four days on Ko Chang on the Andaman coast ( not to be confused with its more famous namesake in the east)

Getting there: Ranong has an airport but you can get buses to Ranong from Bangkok or Phuket. It is sometimes possible to get overnight buses which help you to catch an afternoon boat, saving the overnight in Ranong.

Long boats serve the island, twice a day and it is approximately a two and a half hour journey and very enjoyable also.

Ranong harbour itself is full of activity, commerce and associated rubbish. Turn a kind eye on this and it is not long before a heavenly visage of islands, sun and sea fill the eye and the mind, soothing our senses and our spirit.

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Ko Chang is a beautiful island, small and lush. There are beautiful beaches, some intact jungles and a relaxed, sleepy vibe that make this a very mellow holiday destination.

It is also free of any large developments. There are no hotels. People stay in little huts made of bamboo or wood, sometimes with concrete foundations. Most of the resorts have restaurants/bars attached serving very good Thai food. Most are located along the bay that features Ao Yai ( long beach)

It is also relatively inexpensive for the quality of experience.

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Here is where I stayed; crocodile rock resort, located at the end Ao Yai beach and bay. (Cost: 500baht per night which is about 12 Euro).

A lovely kuti located right on the edge of the ocean with what felt like my own private beach in front of me. (Hamock and all !) Staff were friendly and genuine and food was great.

I spent my time hiking, jogging, swimming, reading and reflecting.

This is Ao Kai To, where some intact jungle survives.

I had a good day long hike between getting there and the hike itself,  with plenty of rests for reading, relaxing, swimming and a nice lunch on Ao Kai To beach which opens out majestically at the end of the forest trail. It’s not so easy to get to it however. You have to walk to the north of the island, pass the resort called mamas villas, cross the beach and scramble over the rocks where a small sign welcomes you to a nature reserve. The opening ascent is steep and uninviting but it quickly levels out into a pleasant and relatively easy to follow trail.

Jogging was nice in the early morning but even before the heat arrived the humidity discouraged strenous exercise. Most of my running was on the narrow concrete paths and dirt trails that serve as roads here. They are too small for cars and only serve motorbikes.

Much of the island is given over to fruit and rubber plantations and most of my running was through these or along the beach.

Swimming in the gentle, warm waters of the bay was very enjoyable and refreshing also, especially in the hot afternoons although I did get sunburnt on one of my longer afternoon swims.

Heavenly really!

But I’m told, the true beach snobs go to the nearby Ko Phayam which has whiter sand. Hence more development also. Here was beautiful enough for me !

I met some nice folks here too. Tez was a Mongolian new yorker who I had met in Ranong, where I stayed a night before going to the island. He had learned some Mongolian throat singing and allowed me to record a little.

He introduced me to a few more travellers on the island as well and we had some good conversations.

It is a great place for reading and reflecting also and allowed me the chance to gather myself together at the end of my trip and think about the coming year.

But I would like to make clear this is not a party island. It is quiet and tranquil. I did go to a few bars and the music wasn’t great. Alot of dated raggae and bars were mostly quiet. Indeed electricity was sporadic and not always available. So if you want to party – go elsewhere !

My advice is bring a book and sink into the tranquility of the place. I had a great book but “sin sceal eile” ( thats another story!)

You can hear the sea sing, enjoy long walks on quiet beaches, eat well and live easy.

I totally recommend it. It is a paradise, reminding us of our home in nature.

 

Bangkok

It broke my heart a little to leave Yangon, Myanmar and its tumbledown tranquality behind. The mood is entirely different in Bangkok and it took me a while to adjust to the different spirit of life here.

In aboriginal culture it’s believed that after a journey it takes a while for the spirit to catch up with the body and that was definately my feeling today exploring Bangkok.

I was seeing beautiful places and amazing sights and yet, with no ostensible cause, feeling a bit disconnected and disengaged from them.

I started with a visit to Ko Ratanakosin. It’s the oldest part of the city and home to numerous temples, palaces, museums and markets. Far too many to explore in a single day. Here are a few pictures.

Next, I wandered over to the golden mount which affords some beautiful sights and a panoromic view of the city from the top.

The story of the vultures is interesting. Apparently it was customary leave bodies out for vultures prior to crematation. In the 19th centurt, during a particularly bad cholera outbreak, the bodies were piled high on the golden mount creating a gruesome spectacle as the vultures feasted. This attracted the attention of monks who were drawn to the spectacle as a bracing meditation on impermanence. Now that confounds our cultural expectation of what meditation is doesn’t it!

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Next I took some time to venture off the main path and explore some smaller and delightful alleys and markets as I wandered in the general direction of Wat Phra Kaew and the royal palace. Life and commerce spilling over eternally. The atmosphere was very positive and friendly and I started to feel more in tune with the place (coffee helped!).

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Wat Phra Kaew is the religious enclosure that forms part of the grand palace and is one of Bangkok’s biggest tourist magnets. Beautiful but very crowded. It was a real jostle to get into the ordination hall that houses the emerald Buddha – an important icon of Thai national identity. Originally made in Northern Thailand out of pure jade (and not emerald) in the 15th century. It was carried off to Laos in the 16th century before being returned to Chaing Mai, Northern Thailand by prince Setthathirath who united the thrown of Lao and Lang Zang, an ancient kingdom in Northern Thailand with Chaing Mai as capital. It was subsequently taken to Bangkok in the late 18th century by the forces of the then Siamese military after putting down an insurrection in the North. It has remained in Bangkok as Siam morphed into Thailand, artfully dodging colonisation in the 19th and 20th centuries, unlike its neighbours in the region. I will write more on history and politics later. But back to the emerald Buddha…

It sits there shimmering in the beautiful temple as devout Thai’s pray and tourists jostle in a formidable throng.  Photography is forbidden in the hall so I’ve no photo of the inside, but here is the exterior.

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The rest of Wat Phra Kaew is full of beautiful buildings but most are closed to the public. Very pretty.  Here are some photos.

The rest of the buildings in the royal palace are mostly off-limits to tourists but look lovely from the outside. Here are some photos. The palace is spacious and impressive.

It’s all very pretty but to be honest I just wasn’t feeling it. I don’t if it was the throng of tourists, the sweltering heat or tourist fatigue but I just didn’t feel much connection here.

Afterwards I crossed the road and entered a small shrine and simply sat down for a few minutes. I watched the people come in sit, pray and take photographs. It was lovely just to sit there, observe and be part of a more ordinary place and I left connected and balanced again. Here’s a photo.

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If I was feeling more in the mood , I could have gone to Wat Pho with its reclining Buddha, mother of pearl inlay and stone giants but I wasn’t.

A good lunch, a read of my book and it was time to move on. A night bus to Ranong, where I will stay for one night before a few days on the island of Ko Chang ( off the Andaman coast, not to be confused with its more famous Eastern namesake) lie ahead. Best, Alan

 

 

 

Metta meditation (lovingkindness/friendliness)

Sitting here in the beautiful Yangon evening and reflecting further on the time spent in the monastery.

Metta meditation loosely translates as lovingkindness meditation from the Pali, but there is no totally satisfactory translation as is often the case with these Pali terms. Another possible translation could be “friendliness meditation” and there is also a connotation with sunlight in the Pali meaning also.

I spent most of the first five days and also some time towards the end of the retreat doing this meditation in preference to the mindfulness practices.

It is considered a good balance with mindfulness practice and is similarly rooted in Buddhist scripture.

The idea is to cultivate a strong feeling of well wishing towards both ourselves and others. It is remarkably simple in concept. We simply repeat simple phrases in the mind such as – may I be happy, may I be healthy, may I be peaceful; or thinking of another person – may you be happy, healthy, peaceful etc. Being more general – may all be healthy, happy, peaceful etc.

We do our best to focus on the meaning of the words allowing concentration to develop naturally and, over time, this feeling of well wishing gets stronger although with ups and downs as mood, energy and concentration fluctuate.

It is considered a good balance with mindfullness practice; contributing to  calmness, concentration and a general friendliness towards ourselves and others which is so neccessary both in the practice and in life.

There is nothing extraordinary about this mindstate. Indeed it is the natural, ordinary impulse of the mind when fear, anxiety or confusion are absent from the mind.

This practice is especially helpful for dealing with anxiety as this well-wishing mind displaces worry and anxiety in the mind.

I use it with my daughter when putting her to bed at night when she tends to be a little anxious and always marvel at the power and simplicity of the practice. We simply take turns picking out people and wishing them peace, happiness, health, sometimes being a bit playful with the wishes – ” may grandpa pat be especially happy on saturday” for example! We finish by wishing well to all beings everywhere.

It was lovely to do it in the retreat center with the cacophony of life breaking incessantly into the mind visually and especially aurally. Birds, cows, pigs, lizards, car horns, the endles drone of traffic; all ultimately the sounds of life doing its thing. It also desolves the sense of self by orienting us outwards, making us more aware of the smallness of the personal “I” in the greater scheme of things.

I’ll leave you with a few more pictures  and a recording of some chanting, all from the monastery. As ever, feel free to comment and share

 

 

Long hot afternoons and the disappearing self – report from a Buddhist monastery

I had the privilege of spending 18 days in a monastery on the outskirts of Yangon, Myanmar. ( Chanmyaymyaing retreat center, mingaladon township.)

It was wonderful to be part of the rhythm of life there. Every day was in the same rhythm. Up at 4, breakfast at 530, work from 630 to 730, lunch at 1030, juice drink at 5, chanting at 6 and return to room at 9. Apart from that we were encouraged to fill the day with meditation; standing, walking and sitting. No books, phones or entertainment. No conversation apart from meditation guidance. Even the meals were a time of mindful practice. We eat slowly and carefully, as a ritual.

Lunch was always a big ritual. Visitors and locals would often visit and stand prayerfully as monks, nuns and lay practitioners walked slowly into the dining area. Eating was in silence; mindful and calm.

The foreign meditators followed a slightly different schedule with a little less chanting then the Burmese. We also had our own meditation hall and were guided by Sister Viranani, an American nun who guided with skill and care. Indeed, although we were encouraged to meditate as much as possible, we all followed our own rhythm; walking and sitting according to our own rhythm. I took rests after lunch and juice and needed to sleep a little at those times in the early part of the retreat.

Chanting would drift up from the Burmese hall at 6 am and 3 pm. Every day had the same rhythm with the same glorious sunshine, hot afternoons and cool evenings. Over time, a different concept of time becomes apparent. Every day is more of a re-day then a new day. It brought to mind how in Irish we say athbhlian ( re-year) as oppose to blian nua ( new year). Our conception of time moving relentlessly forward with interesting things to look forward to is challenged. We just do the day again ! Rhythm and routine holding the practice together.

The other quality which holds everything together here is devotion. Here, of course, meditation is an aspect of religious practice. It isn’t primarily something you do to get a bit happier or more balanced. It’s goal and orientation is spiritual. To move beyond our attachments.

It’s not so easy ! The mind wants entertainment. In the midst of a long afternoon the following little poem came to me.

“Entranced by longing

The hot afternoon, immortal sits.”

And peace comes with the disappearing self. Sounds happen, thoughts happen, the breath happens. Mind and object. We relax deeply in such moments. No ownership of experience.

The evenings were beautiful although my mind was often quite tired at this stage. Watching the monks walk in the cool evenings was especially inspiring. Such peace and dedication in every step. If you will forgive me another little poem…

“Evening. A monks prayerful step.

The world we’re given is enough”

All of this of course will be hard for people to square with the news reports of attrocities in the north of the country. I suppose ultimately any religion can poison the spirit when it becomes dogmatic and/or tribal. Dharma (teaching, nature, truth) not dogma is the way.

The monastery sits right in the heart of life. It is in the middle of a farming village. Life there appeared simple. These people have nothing but their community and their monastery. It is their pride and joy. And the oppertunity to practice is offered freely to anyone although, of course, it is customary to offer donation.

It was a beautiful center with lovely comfortable rooms, very nice mediation areas and lovely trees and plants.  But it was next to a busy road ! Any illusion of outer tranquilty quickly dispelled by honking horns; not to mention the constant sounds of cows, pigs, chickens, cockerals and occasional construction work.  The villagers also love playing Burmese pop music through speakers on fairly frequent occasions. So aurally it was far from ideal ! But the Buddha never promised us a rose garden.

Some pictures…

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This was our meditation halls. Those are mosquito nets hanging.

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Shrine in meditation hall ( above)

Accomodation (above)

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