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TRUE GRIT

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Over and over and over I played the same 4 bars.

No, not my local Peacock’s Perch, Blue Mule, Barking Parrot, or the Copper Mug. I’m talking music and guitar practice.

I’ve been doing this for almost a week now.

da capo: The same 4 bars repeated over and over on the guitar from the beautiful song Angelina by Tommy Emmanuelle. The song’s intricate-contorted-finger movements and timing have pushed me beyond my level of comfort and ability. My bee-sting-callused fingertips keep squawking at me to give up.

This is good. This is great actually.

This is grit.

I’m working on grittiness. Beethoven was gritty. Edison was gritty. Martin Luther King Jr. was gritty. Lives filled with roadblocks and challenges.

With each passing year I admire and respect the grittiest souls amongst us more and more.  If you’re a gritty person (I’ll define you a bit more in a minute if you’re not sure), I am a drooling fan of yours.

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Along this line of thinking, I’m reading a popular book right now entitled, “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth. My mind likes to have both a non-fiction as well as a fiction book running simultaneously (my current fiction book is titled Shantaram)

Duckworth has climbed over Malcolm Gladwell’s back, building on his theme in Outliers, another favourite book of mine that popularized the 10,000-Hour Rule.

Gladwell recounts how the Beatles performed live in Germany over 1,200 times from 1960 to 1964 before attaining huge fame, amassing more than 10,000 hours of playing time.

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Bill Gates met the 10,000-Hour Rule when he gained access to a high school computer in 1968 at the age of 13, and spent 10,000 hours programming on it.

I’ve inhabited a relatively lazy life. 10,000 hours was craziness to me. It always seemed like too much work, too much effort. I smugly rationalized my attitude, tricking myself by believing, “Work Smart, not Hard”. 

Slipping into the time travel machine that is my mind, I recall in my early, mainly school-bound years, I was blessed/cursed with a mind that could get by on cruise mode.

One quick review of my Shakespearean Coles Notes and I could score 80% on the English Lit test, so why go bat-crap all-Jeopardy-perfect crazy for 90 or 100%. Hard work was for suckers, right? I felt a sense of righteous superiority.

I was a mini Donald Trump sans comb-over or whatever that thing is that sits on top of his head. Yup, scary.

Hell, even Miss Putns, my Grade 2 teacher at Glen Echo School, commented in my report card that, “Larry needs to work on his superiority attitude.

Grade 2!

Humility didn’t come any easier to me than grittiness.

Wikipedia defines grit as:

“perseverance and passion for long-term goals.” Those individuals who are deemed more successful and influential than their contemporary counterparts typically possess traits above and beyond that of normal ability. While ability is still critically important, these individuals also possess “zeal” and “persistence of motive and effort.” Grit is conceptualized as a stable trait that does not require immediate positive feedback. Individuals high in grit are able to maintain their determination and motivation over long periods despite experiences with failure and adversity. Their passion and commitment towards the long-term objective is the overriding factor that provides the stamina required to “stay the course” amid challenges and set-backs.

Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance … great alliteration for a book title, and I love the concept, the idea of passion. But the perseverance part has been my Waterloo.

I’ve embraced passion like sweet chocolate candy to my soul.

When I feel enthusiastic about something: music, renovation projects, gardening, exercise, party planning… I dive in with childlike zeal and fervour. I soar through the clouds in a glider on a sunny updraft. The endorphins drive me forward like a Tesla, no driver needed, the energy is organic and unforced.

And if the project or object of my zeal is short-term, well, I know I can pull off amazing stuff (oops, there’s that shitty righteous superiority rising to the surface once more!).

Passion I possess.

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Running Passion…

But if the undertaking grows long-winded or too tough, creeping too far out of my comfort zone, I’ve generally felt an inner weariness that infects my enthusiasm like a nasty virus. I feel my gusto and energy drain away back to the ocean in low ebb.

I’ve eaten all the pizza my appetite can handle, and I leave the less desirable crusts behind for the scavengers to finish up. Another unfinished, another incomplete project.

I’m a big boy now and I wear big boy pants.

I’ve seen enough evidence in my years to know that those who succeed in their worthwhile efforts are often not the smartest, the brightest, the most gifted. It’s more about the determination, the perseverance, the grit.

I know what I have to do. How about you?

Chewing away at my lack of perseverance and growing my grit is a project, a goal. I like goals. Always have.

My new attitude going forward is “Work Smart AND Work Hard”.

Those of you who have grit learned that lesson long before I did. Thank you for your patience waiting for me to catch up.

By the way? Those 4 bars of beautifully harmonic Angelina?

They sound FANTASTIC… now… only 106 more bars to go!

GRIT!

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Passion AND Grit…

 

 

 

 

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The Tao of Storytelling

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“Tell me one more DAMN story Mommy! PUH-LEEEASE!!”

I know you’d never talk to your mother this way, but I was a sugar-high wide awake ragamuffin and desperate, and of course… I’m joking. I would never have spoken to my Mom like that.

Even before we catapult into this world all wet and wobbly, our excited parents-to-be begin telling us mumbled stories across the shielding barrier of the womb.

And then, once we emerge all pink and gassy-smiley, storybooks become a staple of most of our childhoods. The Velveteen Rabbit. The Cat in the Hat. Winnie the Pooh. 50 Shades of Grey.

We’re born, we grow up, we grow old… on stories. All kinds of stories.

Every day we hear and see stories that penetrate our hard outer shell because in some way they reflect a hazy image on the pond’s surface that shines a spotlight on what we think we look like.

This week I was put to thinking about masterful storytellers when I heard that Canadian raconteur Stuart McLean had died.

Icons are hard to lose.

McLean’s The Vinyl Cafe has shuttered its doors forever just like Kathleen Kelly’s (Meg Ryan) bookstore in You’ve Got Mail.

Life is stories. We are stories.

My most read blog posts are ones where I recount a story. Stories like a little boy missing his deceased Mommy at Christmas, or a young couple finding romantic love over a fancy mixed drink that I “bartended” for them.

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Listen closely to yourself when you talk to your friends or co-workers.

It’s always a story. This happened, that happened, and this is the end result. Beginning, middle, end. Yup, a story.

I’ve encountered and admired a lot of storytellers in my lifetime.

Great storytelling is a wondrous art and a sacred beauty in the hands and voice of a skilled practitioner. Maybe you’re one of those talented people.

Of course stories come in different forms, served in different recipes and formats. There’s a smorgasbord of ways to convey a story.

Some stories are woven in books, some in campfire folklore, some in visual art, others in movies, and still more in harmonious music.

Stories are the background of our humanity. Each of us is touched by storytelling in ways that are unique to us.

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Steven Spielberg told us movie stories about Oskar Schindler and the Holocaust (Schindler’s List)… how can I ever erase the heartbreaking vision of a little red-coated girl (set against a stark black and white background) entering a concentration camp?

Harry Chapin told us musical stories about desperate love (A Better Place to Be) and misplaced fatherhood (Cats in the Cradle) …

I’ve long since retired, my son’s moved away
I called him up just the other day
I said, “I’d like to see you if you don’t mind.”
He said, “I’d love to, dad, if I could find the time
You see, my new job’s a hassle, and the kid’s got the flu
But it’s sure nice talking to you, dad
It’s been sure nice talking to you.”
And as I hung up the phone, it occurred to me
He’d grown up just like me
My boy was just like me

 

Peter Gzowski told us radio stories about Canada that made us feel a part of the whole country…

Galt is the setting for a quintessential Gzowski tale, one he told often, about a game of hockey that began in a park. After the puck flew over the boards, the boy who went to retrieve it found the grounds—the whole city, in fact—transformed by verglas, a French word describing fields of ice created by frozen sleet overlying snow. Soon every local boy, “40 of us, 50 of us,” were skating “across roads, across lawns, racing down hills like skiers, out into the country, soaring across farmers’ fields, free as birds.

Garrison Keillor told folksy stories on NPR about Lake Wobegon and its residents in his Prairie Home Companion:

I checked in at the desk and a man at a nearby table said, “So how are you doing tonight?” and that seemed to be an invitation. So I sat down. Two other men and two women at the table. A cheerful group, as people tend to be in winter once they’re warm and in off the road. “How was the drive?” he said. “Almost rear-ended a snowplow,” I said. Other than that, I had listened to the Beatles’ “Because” eight times, which I never cared for because of the dumb lyric, but now I do. A woman at the table didn’t know the song, so I sang her a little of it. “Because the world is round, it turns me on. Love is old, love is new. Love is all, love is you.”

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Garrison Keillor

Stuart McLean told us heartwarming stories about Sleeping Crickets and Dave and Morley (Vinyl Cafe).

Dave, the bumbling protagonist, promises wife Morley that he will take care of their Christmas turkey. Come Christmastime, however, Dave realizes that he’s forgotten to buy a bird. He rushes to a grocery store in the middle of the night to find that they only have one unappetizing, frozen, Grade B turkey left. Dave takes it home and defrosts it with an electric blanket and hairdryer.

“As the turkey defrosted it became clear what Grade B meant,”  the story goes. “The skin on the right drumstick was ripped. Dave’s turkey looked like it had made a break from the slaughterhouse and dragged itself a block or two before it was captured and beaten to death.”

But Dave’s not out of the clear yet.  After Morley and the kids leave the house to work at the soup kitchen for a few hours, Dave discovers that he can’t figure out how to turn on the stove.  In an escapade that involves a hairdryer, a hotel, and a bottle of scotch, Dave somehow manages to deliver on his promise.

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Stuart in his Vinyl Cafe

Stories.

Multitudes of stories, a few key themes … but a million unique ways of expressing something that crawls inside of us and shakes us like a mini-earthquake until we laugh, or cry, or nod in recognition. Stuart McLean did all three in every one of his stories.

In years past, my old friend John would sit in our living room, cockeyed grin aglow, and recount tales of his experiences, ordinary daily life stories… told in a way that made us laugh and shake our heads. A consummate storyteller.

When John was bravely succumbing to cancer a couple of years ago, when his tales drew slowly silent, I was inspired to write a small-scale story about him that I set to music and occasionally sing to folks (including at Open Mic last night) in his memory … and the memory of his stories…

One John sang sweet about his Annie
When we grow old we sing our Swan Song
One western John we called him Duke
But this verse and melody
are what I’m gonna call for you a John Song  

We drank beer in the Overlander in the midst of a western town
William’s Lake both dusty and brown
where your probation days
melted into music nights
played your Ovation guitar after the sun lost its light

CHORUS:
There was always a saga
a tale on your tongue
and a breeze that blew wind in your sail
a crooked grin on your face
a laugh in your strum
a weathered cowboy hat that lies waiting
for its story at old Pier 21  

The years slipped by and we lived our lives
we drifted in circles afar
I smiled when I saw a pic
of you and Jane overlooking Barnhartvale
with Jesse your new son

One day you were a Kamloops politico
Then I heard you settled onto Vancouver Isle
spent some time on the Indian reservation
and wrote your songs
in southern Nashville style

Bridge:
Your days may seem long now
the years somehow short
Aint forever always shorter than we plan  

CHORUS:
There was always a saga
a tale on your tongue
and a breeze that blew wind in your sail
a crooked grin on your face
a laugh in your strum
a weathered cowboy hat that lies waiting
for its story at old Pier 21  

Life is stories. We are stories.

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Goa… Goa… Gone…

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As the sub-continent days pass, we move steadily southward, and our journey nears its end, we shed layers of clothing bit-by-bit like strippers in a sticky barroom.

The flight from Mumbai International Airport – a bright, modern facility with a nice selection of latte shops (see where my priorities lie?) – to Goa is only 2 hours with an added 3 hour delay… due south.

Mumbai was warm.

Goa is hot. And humid. And tropical. And lush. And Christian looking.

It’s jarring to see Catholic churches and cathedrals after almost 2 weeks of historic Hindu temples, palaces, and Muslim mosques.

There’s something for everyone in India.

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Goa still exhibits the cultural influence of the Portuguese, who first landed in the early 16th century as merchants and conquered it soon thereafter. The Portuguese oversaw Goa for about 450 years until it was finally re-taken by India in 1961.

Goa is India’s smallest state by area and the fourth smallest by population and is also India’s richest state with a GDP per capita two and a half times that of the country.

Slipping along the smooth 4-lane highway in an air-conditioned van from the airport to our resort near the beachfront, we enjoy sparkling beautiful hilly vistas filled with coconut palm trees, lush agricultural fields, new-to-us birds, and ocean views.

The population here is obviously less crowded and so the chaotic driving is, yeah, still chaotic, but relatively calm in comparison to crazed Delhi and Mumbai. You can almost breathe normally in this organized disorganization.

As the mango sun melts into the Arabian Sea, our first evening is spent on the enormous – accompanied by heart-thumpingly loud music and laser-trinket vendors – wide open beach where we have our first fresh seafood meal of the trip, taken under the crescent moon and stars.

Make mine Kingfish please.

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Sunset on the beach in Goa

The following night, smiling chef Pascoal, sweat beading on his brown forehead, prepares and shows us two curry dishes that both include fresh coconut.

The basis for all Indian food comes, as we’ve discovered in our three earlier cooking demonstrations in Jaipur, Udaipur and Bijapur, in the curry sauce. Hot oil, onions, ginger garlic paste, coriander, tomato, turmeric, cumin.

A few other spices come and go depending  on the locale and the tastes of the cook. But the basics remain the same.

The big difference in Goa is the pleasurable addition of coconut to the mix.

Earlier in the day we wandered through a forest-like spice plantation encountering a full kitchen cupboard of spices growing under, on top of, and over the ground.

The meandering trails we ambled in the sticky heat were lushly replete with vines of black pepper, striped orange roots that looked like ginger but were in reality turmeric, cinnamon bark trees, vanilla orchids, green cardamom, bitter-nut, and nutmeg. A wake of flavour.

Finally, the taxi to whisk us to the Goa airport for our long trek home belatedly arrives.

Quietly taking in the scenery en route allows us to daydream and reflect on the cornucopia of experience and sensation.

Reflect on the friendly faces we’ve seen everywhere; the enthusiastic children, some begging, but most merely enthusiastically aroused by an out-of-the-ordinary white face in their village.

Reflect on the many encounters in the streets and markets, the folded hands and Hindi namastes in greeting.

Reflect on the treasured Indian chai, the soothing drink found everywhere that takes on a slightly different tinge of flavour in each region, a bit more ginger here, a little more cardamom there.

Reflect on the haunting Muslim calls to prayers that ring out across towns and cities in the early morning dawn.

Reflect on the roads thronged with placid sacred cows, plodding majestic camels, motorcycles, tuk tuks, transport trucks, cars and more cars, horns in ceaseless use.

Reflect on the sight of rambunctious pink-bottomed macaque and Hanuman langur monkeys scampering along fence lines where round discuses of cow dung dry for later use as cooking fuel.

Reflecting on the inner knowledge that twice or three times a day curry dishes is just too much intense spicy flavour for our western palates.

India is a maelstrom in our minds.

Colours, textures, sounds reverberate in our heads.

The level of input and arousal is often too fast-paced, too great to assimilate in any reasonable way, like trying to breathe air under a gushing waterfall as it washes over you.

The Airbus A-320 lifts gracefully away from the Goa tarmac and the lengthy flights begin.

The emerald green forests, lush views of palm trees and sparkling ocean below are quietly soothing, like a warm milky cup of chai, fragrant steam wafting gently upwards to the clouds.

NAMASTE!

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Leaving On That Midnight Train to Mumbai…

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Our milky white-faced group within the walls of Amber Fort of Jaipur

 

It’s easy to lose your head in Mumbai (Bombay until 1995)… not to mention an arm or two.

More on this in a second.

Mumbai is a huge metropolis on the western coast of India.

20.5 million souls surrounded by ubiquitous smoky haze and skies.

Honestly, all of India that we visited in late January was grey with a pall of smoke haze.

I had naively figured that when we decamped congested Delhi, the winds would gently sweep the atmosphere of smoke, and the skies outside of the city would be small-town clear and pristine.

Nope. Blurry haze followed and hung over us from Delhi to Agra, Jaipur to Udaipur, Mumbai to Goa.

Sorry, I lost my train of thought. Must be the smoke clouding my brain.

The metro system of Mumbai is efficient and well-used.

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But the young men of Mumbai, like young men all over the world, like to impress young ladies and friends with acts of derring-do. Apparently, this daring to impress includes hanging head and body limbs outside the wide open doors of rapidly moving metro cars.

Unfortunately, metal poles and other trains pass perilously close by to the metro cars. Despite signs inside the cars cautioning riders in Hindi and English to stay completely within the cars, young men continue to pay more attention to the young ladies than those prescient warning signs.

And, unfortunately, each day 10 accidental deaths occur on the Mumbai rapid transit system.

Every day.

Efficient at transporting. Efficient at killing.

……………

The overnight train from Udaipur to Mumbai is described as a first class, air conditioned, comfortable sleeping car arrangement. Sounds pretty good, right? Can’t wait.

Walking along the late-evening platform to the stationary train, baggage rolling along behind, there is a grimy sense that we’re traipsing alongside a 1918 version of a Russian cattle cart for the poorest of the revolutionary Bolsheviks. Old… worn… dirty… bars over the windows.

FIRST CLASS SLEEPER is written on the side of the train cars.

We clambered aboard and found our assigned seats as many other passengers squeezed by with heavy suitcases and bags, to locate their seats. We jammed our luggage beneath the bench seats as best we could.

Sitting down on two brown vinyl, straight-backed benches facing each other, a few tears in the fabric, 3 passengers per side, we looked around at the milieu that promised pretty high and delivered pretty low.

When were the walls and windows of this train last washed?

As the train quietly pulled away from the station right on time, each of us assessed the apparent sleeping arrangements. The benches we sat on were the lower bunks for 2, the seat backs folded up and made a mid-section set of bunks for 2 more and finally, another bench folded down from the ceiling making a 3rd set of bunks of the remaining two.

Rudimentary bathrooms with rickety metal doors were located at the end of the car, one washroom set up Indian-style (squat toilets) and the other a Western-style seated toilet. Caked in grime. Neither facility looked remotely appealing even before they had been used by 30 or 40 souls for the following 16 hours.

Spoiled westerners that we were, we gasped, shrugged and gamely tried to make the best of an uncomfortable situation.

Maureen and I volunteered for the top bunks since one of our British travelling companions was suffering intestinal discomfort – a middle bunk made more sense for her need to have easier access to a toilet. Two very pleasant young Indian passengers returning to Mumbai took the bottom bunks.

Each passenger was given a sealed plastic bag containing two white sheets and separately, a roughly-folded beige woollen blanket with tattered edges and seams.

After sleepily awaiting a visit from the train’s officious purser to check our tickets and passports, we threw our carry-on bags up to our bunks and climbed the metal rungs at the end of the bench bunks to the upper reaches.

Very little space remained between the bunks and the ceiling so we wiggled and wormed our way forward onto the platforms that would be our resting place for the night.

Sitting up wasn’t an option. Movement of any type was barely an option. Making a comfortable bed to rest was challenging with the limited space and a carry-on bag taking up much of the room available.

But manage we did.

My legs needed to remain bent for the night so that my feet didn’t impede passersby or prevent the door to the train car opening.

After finding a small nest of reasonable comfort, no desired bathroom break could be reasonably contemplated or envisioned for the reminder of the night given the work effort to find a way out of the straightjacket and then to return again.

Morning finally arrived. But we couldn’t escape our pods until the other younger members below decided to awake. Prisoners on a shelf.

16 hours after pulling away from Udaipur, we descended from the sleep car into the humid heat of Mumbai.

Travelling is about accommodation and acceptance of the good and the less than good, and so accommodate we did.

…………..

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Mumbai as I said is a sizeable city on the west coast and, as a financial centre, consists of that confusing mixture of great wealth and sublime poverty. Beautiful modern skyscrapers co-exist with destitute families sleeping roughly on the sides of heavily trafficked roads through the city.

Our first morning journey in Mumbai was to the world’s largest outdoor laundry facility… Dhobi Ghat.

The flyover bridge of Mahalaxmi railway station gives us a bird’s eye view of the huge outdoor laundromat stretching far off into the distance.

Rows of open-air concrete wash pens are each fitted with their own flogging stone, filled with men and women handwashing the clothes.

Whole families live within the washing compound that lies next to the Mahalaxmi railway station. Long lines of sheets and men’s white shirts hang languorously in the sunshine between the wash pens.

The washers, locally known as Dhobis, work in the open to wash clothes from Mumbai’s hotels and hospitals, businesses and private citizens. Like the incredible organization of Mumbai’s lunch box deliveries, no laundry is lost or misdirected.

Descending the bridge stairs, we soon find ourselves ensconced in the labyrinth of washing pens where Dhobis stand in the fibre-stained waters, washing, rinsing, thrashing the clothes and bed linens on the stones like medieval torturers, then hanging them to dry from twists of rope in the open air.

Children and small cats appear in occult doorways, darkened rooms reveal men pressing clothes and sheets with large, red hot coal-filled irons.

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……………..

Travel tells us stories of history, some ancient, some recent.

Not always nice stories.

As we arrive at the massive India Gate, an Arc de Triomphe-like edifice on the Mumbai waterfront, Chandrajeet, our local guide, reminds us of the terrorist attacks that took place here only a few years back.

In November 2008, 10 members of Lashkar-e-Taiba, an Islamic militant organisation based in Pakistan, carried out a series of 12 coordinated shooting and bombing attacks lasting four days across Mumbai. The attacks, which drew widespread global condemnation, began on Wednesday, 26 November and lasted until Saturday, 29 November 2008, killing 164 people and wounding at least 308.

We wander across the clogged-with-traffic roadway to the Taj Hotel, where world leaders such as Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have stayed, and also where, 32 died during the terrorist attacks.

We pass through stringent security to enter the lush hotel. The inside is beyond description, lavishly rich and sumptuous, filled with enormous bouquets of flowers, floors and walls lined with marble and glass.

We glide up a wide, romantic staircase under stunning crystal chandeliers before spilling into the dignified-as-all-hell Sea Lounge for traditional Afternoon Tea.

The Sea Lounge is filled with old colonial charm and a live tuxedo-clad pianist, highlighted by a spectacular view of the Arabian Sea.

Rocky, one of our Australian travel companions and I – sampling far too many sweet treats –  try to quickly outguess each other as the pianist starts into another musical movie theme… My Fair Lady! The Sound of Music! Dr. Zhivago!

The high tea features an elaborate buffet spread of classic English delicacies as well as local Indian favourites smoothed down with a selection of fine teas. The artistry of the display is sumptuous to the eye well before it intoxicates the palate.

The complicated blend of deadly tragic events and sophisticated high-life magic settles over us in a puzzling, somewhat unsettling way.

………….

There is always a time gap in my travels where my mind assimilates and digests the monstrous volume of input. I always feel so overwhelmed and slow to absorb at the time.

Sights and sounds, scents, tastes, images and textures settle and mingle for days, weeks and months after we return.

This trip to India is no different.

Travel allows us to learn about other places, other cultures, other stories. Travel brings us understanding – not always agreement – but understanding of the people and their ways.

Travel teaches us something about ourselves, an exploration of the outerward journey but also the inner journey, sneakily revealing our strengths and weaknesses, the stuff we’re made of… the good, the bad, AND the ugly… who ME?

Namaste !

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