Sunday, December 15, 2013

Confessions of a Stapedotomee*

A car door slams beside me and I blanch as if a grenade has exploded. A bus roars past with an engine designed to power a jumbo jet at take off. A wall clock whispers tick, tick, tick in the silence of the mid-winter afternoon. My world has suddenly become louder, a torrent of sounds, the nuances of which I’d forgotten... I’ve had a stapedotomy.   
Two and a half years ago a hospital doctor informed me that I would gradually lose my hearing because I had a condition known as otosclerosis. His tone was deadpan and he did not look up from the report he was completing when he gave the diagnosis. There was nobody else in the consulting room, just me and the “bearer of bad news”. Something about a hearing aid was mentioned on that morning but I wasn’t listening, I was numb. 
At home I undertook a swift search of the Internet to educate myself about this “otosclerosis” thing. In layperson’s language the said sclerosis refers to the ossification (thickening) of the stapes bone (often called the stirrup in school biology lessons) in my middle ear. The thicker the stapes, the less it is able to transmit sound. And from what I could gather Time would see to it that my stapes duly thickened.
Measuring between 0.25 and 0.33cm, the stapes is the smallest bone in the body. It is miniscule and yet it was going to assume a lead role in screwing up my life. Signs of the sabotage were already apparent. Friends confessed secrets and sins to me in whispers and I could only nod wisely and reply “Hmmmmm” because I’d heard nothing. Timid students gathered up the courage to make a once-in-a-lifetime contribution in seminars. Wary of asking them to turn up the volume and repeat their ordeal, I resorted to a range of neutral expressions I’d crammed into an arsenal stocked for such occasions, “Valid point. Would anyone like to expand on that?” In truth, it was a strategy designed to allay suspicion that I was losing my hearing.
Being diagnosed with otosclerosis undermined the illusion of “it can’t happen to me”, making me feel generally more vulnerable. In coming to terms with what had happened, I indulged in tragicomic fantasies. Spring mornings were doomed to become silent as birdsong gradually faded from my life. I would be squashed by a juggernaut that everyone except me, the unfortunate heroine, had heard coming. How I rued the times I’d grumbled about noise. Well, now I was on a one-way journey to permanent silence, or so it seemed.
That was when otosclerosis’ best friend came ringing at my door. Tinnitus arrived and it had no intention of leaving. On that first evening, unaware of the new guest’s arrival, I fumed at the neighbours’ lack of consideration. Why had they (people in their forties) suddenly decided to have a rave party? On the following evening someone’s central heating gurgled and bubbled through the night. With the realisation that the sounds were inside my own head, gloom descended on my house. Tinnitus, often described as “white noise” was my lot and it was even going to deny me the silence that I’d presumed was my destiny. If it is true that hearing is the last of the senses to be lost to a dying person, it was highly possible that the last few moments of my life could be “coloured” by rave music...
On a routine visit to my GP the following year, he enquired whether I was aware that surgery could restore the damage caused by otosclerosis. This was the first time I heard the blessed word “stapedectomy”; a procedure in which the stapes is removed and a prosthesis is put in its place. An appointment with an ENT consultant confirmed that my left ear (the worst) was a good candidate for surgery whereas the right which, so far, was minimally affected by the condition, would be monitored. Leap frog the nail-biting months on the waiting list, the pre-op assessment and one year later I walked into the ENT ward with my backpack, hoping that I’d walk out with much-improved hearing.
Those hopes tangoed with fear as the time of surgery approached. I sat on my bed fretting over the terrifying words of warning I’d read in the ENT-UK leaflet which the hospital had given me. In its description of the complications that could arise from a stapedectomy the words “total hearing loss” and “serious implications to certain employments” jumped out at me. They reverberated around my head and were competing with the tinnitus for attention when the surgeon walked in, distracting me from the doomsday scenario. He patiently explained all the risks in a kindly tone that I suspect priests adopt when talking to a condemned prisoner. He told me I was going to have a stapedotomy (only part of the stapes is removed) and that a tiny prosthesis would be inserted in its place. “What’s it made of?” "Teflon", he smiled. Teflon? It was perhaps not a good time to mention rumours I’d heard about Teflon being carcinogenic. When asked if I still wanted to go ahead, I sighed, “Well, I’ve come this far...”
Thanks to the miracle of general anaesthesia I have no memory of the surgery and there was little subsequent pain. As I settled into sleep that night I noticed that for the first time in a couple of years I had no tinnitus. The following morning the surgeon arrived early, tapped me on the head with his tuning fork, asked where I heard the sound, and I presumed I’d given the right answer because he looked satisfied, as did the half dozen or so student-doctors who shuffled along behind him. After a few words of caution about how to care for my otosclerosis-free ear, he departed my cubicle. Shortly afterwards, I returned home, eager to test out my newly acquired hearing.
That first test took place a week later. The packing had to be removed from the ear canal for me to enjoy the benefits of stereo sound.  But there was an imbalance. My brain had not yet grasped the miracle of the stapedotomy and, until it lowered the volume, I was obliged to use cotton wool to moderate sound.
For the first few weeks the rules are no flying, no scuba diving, no straining, no water in the ear, no sneezing ... and then I sneezed. Immediately, an electric saw whined and screeched into action and there was no “Off” switch. Tinnitus had returned with a vengeance. When I complained, the ever-confident surgeon assured me that the tinnitus would eventually fade. Try not to sneeze again, he counselled, “And if you do, keep your mouth open.” As usual, he was right. Three weeks later the tinnitus has abated somewhat and my nerves have settled.
But the recovery is going to take longer than I'd anticipated. Five weeks after surgery there is still some inflammation and sensitivity, and the rules remain in force. Is it worth it? Undoubtedly, yes. The clearest indication of progress so far is the volume on my radio. I have turned it down from 24 to 19. Had it not been for the stapedotomy and the extraordinary skills of the surgeon, eventually I would have lost my hearing, and every time words I could not hear were directed at me I was reminded of that, of how isolating deafness could be.

*Stapedotomee: one who has undergone a surgical procedure known as a stapedotomy. TRUE/FALSE? 

Friday, November 1, 2013

Spirits in the Night: Halloween 2013 in Crumlin Road Gaol

“If there are any spirits here, make yourselves known.”
Preternatural confidence deepens the tone of my voice in the darkness of the hanging cell in C wing of Crumlin Road Gaol in Belfast. I’m confident because of the 29 people standing around me and none of them are spirits, as far as I am aware. We are all participants in the “Paranormal Tour” of the prison, which first opened its gates back in 1846.
 The ancient Celtic festival of Halloween or Samhain, as it was known in the past, is approaching. The Celts believed that at this time of the year the veil separating the worlds of the living and the dead is lifted and spirits are free to wander among us. Last year, in honour of the occasion I went to one of the most ancient graveyards in Ireland, Friar’s Bush in Belfast. This year my quest for ghosts has taken me to one of the oldest prisons in the land, to Crumlin Road Gaol.
Unexplained sightings and eerie sounds have been reported within the walls of this prison over its 150 -year history. An American psychic medium and a small party of other ghost hunters have conducted an investigation into these happenings. The video of their findings is being played in the gate lodge of the Gaol, where we are waiting to start our tour and it “primes” us for what lies ahead.
The psychic gets up close to the camera, close enough for me to be mesmerised by the eerie light in his eyes, and urges us to listen carefully to an audio recording for “a distant scream” in C wing, where the hanging cell is.” Another recording has captured the sound of a chain being thrown or dragged, and in B wing a child’s voice is heard. Children, the psychic points out, were incarcerated here in the early years of the prison’s history.
I shift my attention from the screen and scan “ghost hunters” in the gate lodge. Many of those here are couples, but there are also a few families with teenage children. Apparently there’s a lower age limit, which is encouraging because I haven’t come here in search of family fun. I’m in the mood for the macabre; after all, it is Halloween.
Our guide is Neil and he projects his voice much as a town crier might have done in the 18th century. We follow his command to stay close and quickly rally round him when he pauses in the exercise yard. If anyone is going to faint, throw up or suffer a heart attack he requests that they make themselves known to him immediately. Neil also warns that this tour is not for epileptics, pregnant women or people of a “nervous disposition.” The latter probably rules me out, but I say nothing.
Whether we are “believers”, sceptics or “in-betweens” we are urged to set aside all of these mindsets and embark on the paranormal tour with an open attitude. Having given us something to reflect on, our guide leads us onward and downward, into the darkness of the tunnel connecting the prison with the courthouse across the road.
Somewhere in the tunnel we come to a halt. The light from Neil’s torch shimmers in the blackness and our group of thirty appears more compact down here; we are huddled together and there are no stragglers. All of us listen intently as Neil tells us the first of a number of highly convincing stories indicating that the gaol is indeed haunted. Names, dates and places add to the historical credibility of the tale, creating atmosphere in a way that hyperbole might not have. When he is finished we take photos of the blackness, confident that our cameras will capture the spectres that human eyes are incapable of detecting.
It is in the boiler room while Neil is relating another of his stories that some of the group insist there is a distant wailing. Others think it is crying and still others hear sighs and thuds. The mood of the group tenses. My hearing has let me down once again and I feel cheated by the silence. But just then the hair on the back of my skull bristles. Unsettled, I smooth it down while checking to see who is behind me; nobody is there in the dark. I shuffle closer to the group and yet again the same patch of hair stands on end.

From that moment onward I stay very close to a sturdy farmer from Ballymena who is on the tour with his wife and two equally sturdy sons.
Our next stop is outside the padded cell. The door is ajar; Neil doesn’t enter and neither does anyone else. One night the big brawny inmate of the adjacent cell  – this door is closed - was woken from his slumbers by “something” pressing down on him. What happened after that is conjecture as no sense could be made of the man’s ravings about that night. He ended his days in a psychiatric hospital.  
Our group files into the hanging cell. Neil explains that Crumlin Road Gaol has witnessed 17 state-sanctioned executions (although doesn’t say how many non-state-sanctioned executions took place here). After another story he asks for a volunteer to summon the spirits. Emboldened by the proximity of the Ballymena family I raise my voice, projecting it into the darkness. Silence. Maybe the spirit doesn’t like women. One of the Ballymena teenagers barks in a thick country accent, “If there are any spirits here, show yourselves.” It sounds like a command, tempting fate, I fear. An icy current of air enters the cell. A number of the others feel it and suggest that it’s time to be moving on. I’m not convinced. The air is chilly tonight, although it could just be that little bit chillier around head height...
Before Neil leaves to collect his next group I ask him how many people will have participated in the tours by the time the final one takes place on Halloween night. No less than 25,000, he tells me, roughly the same number of prisoners who were incarcerated here before the gaol was closed down in 1996. The Halloween Crumlin Road Gaol tours have been an unprecedented success.
          Ten minutes later, now in the queue for the Gaol of Horrors tour, I find myself back in the bosom of the Ballymena farming family, which allays my fears about small groups only being allowed in. No safety in numbers on this tour, but at least my group is formidable in size if not in number. At the last minute a couple join us, just as a two metre tall ghoul in a cape steps out of the shadows and, with a sly smile, ushers us through a door and slams it behind us. In the darkness we’re disorientated; we shuffle forward, led by the Ballymena farmer.
          The next twenty minutes are a blur of blackness filled with sparks, flashing lights, deafening screams, roars, mirthless laughter, bloodied figures, ghosts, toothless hags, a headless man and other apparitions. We navigate the horrors as a unit, ranks tightly closed. Never have I bonded so rapidly with strangers. All of us clutch on to someone, irrespective of whether we know them or not, and as our fear intensifies, so does our grip. “Yer pullin’ the shirt off my back.” I release my grasp.  Ordinarily, I would have been embarrassed, but not tonight. Tonight I am grateful to the Ballymena farmer for ... being there.
          We pause, spellbound by the site of a coffin containing a shrunken corpse. Strobe lights give the scene a nightmarish quality. A woman dressed in white robes with long grey hair emerges from a side door and croons to the corpse while caressing it. Suddenly, as if becoming aware of our presence for the first time, she turns and advances on our little group, “GOOOOOOOOOO” she shrieks into our faces. Her teeth are yellow and her eyes gleam in their sockets. A small voice quivers, “I think she wants us to go”. It’s the Ballymena farmer. Now I’m caught in the grip of terror while exploding with laughter; it feels bizarre and yet beautifully liberating. We close ranks again and hastily shuffle off into the gloom.
Outside in the fresh night air I’m still chortling as I walk down the Crumlin Road past the Mater Hospital. A few passersby glance at me but I don’t care because it’s been a long long time since I’ve laughed this hard and I’m savouring it.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Graveyard Chronicles: Cemetery Suicide Tour or Tasting the Forbidden Fruit

“No hard hats required on this tour ladies and gentlemen but – for health and safety reasons– I am obliged to warn you about the danger of … falling acorns – a pause here is filled by hearty laughter from a small crowd gathered around the speaker- so, having fulfilled my obligations according to the law, let’s begin our tour.”
It is early September and I am in Southampton Old Cemetery. The warm still air nurtures a faint smell of manure and bees hum indolently at a nearby thicket where wild honeysuckle blossoms have broken the surface of a sea of deep green foliage. Half a dozen swallows are skimming the long grass behind me and, beyond them, woodpigeons coo from a copse of oak trees. It’s an idyllic Sunday afternoon, dreamlike in its tranquility, perfect for a cemetery tour. Around twenty of us are here, a number of whom have come equipped with cameras and notebooks. My good friend and colleague, Aidan, is among them. 
Our guide is Bob, an expert on wildflowers and butterflies, and he rhymes off a selection of the examples we can expect to see this afternoon: Ribwort Plantain, Corn Copper, Cranesbill, Thyme leaf, Yarrow, Rough Hawk’s Beard, Smooth Hawk, Bittersweet, Fat Hen, Robin’s Pincushion, Harebell, Holly Blue, Gatekeeper, Meadow Brown, Small Copper, and Speckled Wood. The earthiness of these words, surely common parlance in another era, resonates with me. Hearing them I sense nostalgia for that era, for an era I have never known.
Having completed his introductory talk, our guide sets off in the direction of an extensive patch of long grass, where he halts. Once the group has shuffled around him, Bob explains that mowing in the cemetery is scheduled in deference to the various times at which the wild flowers come into bloom. This is the first of a number of stops we make on our tour and the cameras come out to snap Corncopper, Cranesbill and Flowering Nutmeg, also known as Himalayan Honeysuckle,. Bob picks a sample of each and passes them to the group to inspect. When Cranesbill comes to me I realise that I’ve seen these deep lilac petals before, glanced at them momentarily; I’ve never really looked long enough to appreciate the intricacy of their beauty. A few steps further on Bob picks a Hare Bell, a common wildflower, and hands it to me. I cradle the blossom in my palm and silently wonder at my own blindness.

Further on, the pink-lilac blossom which catches our eye is Fat Hen and Bob points out that it belongs to a unique class of wild flower, one which needs no insects for its reproduction, it is wind-pollinated. Someone behind me remarks that not much pollination is happening this afternoon, since no breeze at all is stirring. An older lady replies that in these conditions we may have a better chance of seeing more butterflies.
Indeed we do, Bob guides us over to a particularly overgrown patch where the tall stems of grass obscure many of the gravestones, but not the blossoms of a myriad of wildflowers thriving therein: pink, blue, yellow and white give sparkle to the parched extension of wheat grass. In the centre there is a purple hillock of ling, which, we are told, is also known as Lucky Heather. A lady in front of me is the first to spot a duo of Holly Blues cavorting over the ling. Shouts go up “Holly Blues”; a handful of dawdlers quicken their pace and hasten over towards us, cameras poised. Several people exchange the scraps of information they have about Holly Blues with Bob’s deeper knowledge of the species. Later we see Meadow Browns, Small Coppers, Speckled Woods and Gatekeepers; with each sighting the excitement increases, as does the number of snapshots taken.
While the butterflies are clearly the stars of our afternoon in the graveyard, several of the trees that Bob pauses by are worthy of the attention of our cameras, particularly the more exotic ones. A long slender pod of an Indian Bean tree, from the southern regions of the U.S., is snapped open but the fruit is not yet mature. Under the Atlas Cedar, from the mountains of Algeria and Morocco, I reflect on the life that this tree might have led had it been rooted in its native terrain. Monkeys? Snakes? Eagles? But the most spectacular tree in the cemetery turns out to be a native species: the Weeping Beech. Instead of reaching upwards, its branches cascade dramatically to the ground, creating an earthy-scented penumbra which we all crowd into. In here, Bob reveals that careful grafting techniques are the secret of the tree’s unusual beauty.

Like most graveyards, this one is populated by yew trees. Bob halts by one to explain that yews can live up to 500 years, or more. This one, he explains, has possibly been here for three centuries. All parts of the tree are poisonous and cuttings have to be disposed of carefully. Fearful that another Health and Safety announcement is on its way, I commence browsing absentmindedly through the afternoon’s photos on my camera.
Aidan hands me a couple of small red berries, “Try them, they’re yew tree berries; apparently they’re delicious.” I nibble tentatively at one, removing enough of the bright red flesh to expose the chocolate brown pip (not unlike rabbit poo in its appearance). No worm peeps out; reassured, I nibble more boldly at the berry and it is astonishingly sweet and tasty. Unconcerned about worms now, I enthusiastically pop another into my mouth to check that the previous one wasn’t a fluke. It wasn’t. Both berries are equally mouth-watering. I’m tempted to pick a few more to snack on along the way when our guide shouts, “Don’t forget to spit out the pips, folks. Let’s go.” Reluctantly I move on, puzzled as to why this delicious fruit has not been harvested and marketed.
Bob reaches one of several patches of vivid yellow flowers and waits for us to catch up. He eyes the group, “I think we’re missing a few. Surely there were more people than this when we started out?” An elderly gentleman with a bouquet in the breast pocket of his shirt - created from the myriad of wildflowers our guide has picked - ventures that the slow coaches are probably still lingering by the yew. Bob rolls his eyes in mock admonition and proceeds to point out that we are looking at Rough Hawk, a species which only flowers where there is limestone. “In this particular area, there is no limestone, so how do we explain that?” Silence, and then the gentleman with the bouquet pipes up, “The graves are made from limestone”. “Well done, sir.” We all smile and, since a degree of camaraderie seems to have sprung up among us, applause breaks out at the swiftness of the answer.
Two and a half hours have slipped by while we’ve been on the cemetery tour. Our final stop is by a walnut tree, where Bob cracks open a nut but it is not yet ripe. My appetite has been opened by the yew berries, so I suggest to Aidan that we go and get something to eat. The last we see of Bob, he is handing a Michaelmas daisy to the elderly gentleman to complete his bouquet. 

         That evening I am reviewing the afternoon’s photos on my computer when Aidan knocks on my door. He looks stricken. A few minutes ago he phoned his brother, a keen naturalist, to tell him about the tour. He gasps, “When I mentioned we’d been eating yew berries there was a horrible silence. He was in shock; they’re poisonous, just three or four would be highly toxic to the point of causing death.”
Neither of us swallowed the pips. But neither of us had taken Bob’s second health and safety announcement seriously. We wondered about the “slow coaches” in our tour group, whether those lingering by the yew tree had been equally casual in their attitude to Bob’s warning… we hoped not.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Why can’t it be like this all the time?

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow*

 “Are we all clear about what we expect to get out of this?”
The accent is American and the tone starched, with just a hint of boardroom efficiency to sharpen it. Five pairs of eyes regard the speaker, who has snapped her iMac shut and is sliding it into her satchel.
“They’ll probably confiscate that. In any case, there’s no signal.”
The voice is deadpan
“But I’ll need it … to catch up with some work in the evenings. There are legal cases in London I have to prepare for.”
Incertitude has begun to crinkle the starchiness.
A softly spoken dark-haired woman suggests that to find a signal she should follow the nearby path over to a not-so-nearby field with cows in it, where she might be lucky. Crucially, she adds,
“But it depends on which way the wind is blowing.”
I’m sitting at a picnic table in warm late afternoon sunshine on the recently mown lawn of Gaia House Buddhist Retreat Centre. In a couple of hours the five day silent retreat that I’ve come here for will commence. The young American woman is quiet now, tapping her impeccably manicured nails on her brown leather satchel.
A couple of the other retreatants recommend that she forget work as it will undermine the potential to make this retreat into a life changing experience. She turns to me,
“Well, why are you here?”
Unable to think of a sufficiently profound reply that indicates how futile it is to have a results-based approach to a Buddhist retreat, I mumble ...
“Just to be here, that’s all.” 

A few seconds later the American swings the satchel over her shoulder and strides purposefully across the lawn in the direction of the field. As she recedes, one of my companions at the table wonders how she’ll fare on this, her first ever retreat. Earlier she had mentioned how stressed and angry she’d been for months, to the extent that even the most trifling annoyance could provoke an outburst. A retreat in Gaia House, she hoped, would be the antidote to the toll her fast-paced and relentlessly driven lifestyle was taking on her. I reflect that it was brave to commit to five days of silent meditation without having much, if any, prior knowledge or preparation. This young woman did not appear to be the “typical” retreatant, not even first-time retreatant.
         A few yards away from our picnic table I’m astonished to see a couple of rabbits, wild rabbits, snacking on the lawn. One of them hops into the shade of a nearby tree and proceeds to leisurely groom himself. I glance across at his mate, who has fallen into a sudden snooze. Peace, I suspect, undoubtedly comes dropping slow here.
Over the next five days Munchkin and his mate constantly claim their space on the lawn. They seem oblivious the mass of retreatants doing either Tai Chi, sun salutations or silently pacing back and forth, engrossed in their walking meditation. I’m intrigued by the rabbits’ apparent fearlessness, but I do notice they have “boundary issues”. Should one of us come any closer than five paces, they break into a bunny hop canter, putting a few metres between themselves and the interloper. If rabbits can look miffed, then on these occasions Munchkin and his mate look somewhat miffed.

         This is not my first time here and when I step into the meditation hall that afternoon a sensation of peace fills me that whispers, “You’re home now”, dispelling the residues of stress from my bus-plane-bus-train-taxi journey to Gaia House. It’s a feeling that remains with me throughout the ensuing five days of silent meditation. Its soothing presence is more powerful than any of the transient psychodramas or aches and pains arising from sitting cross-legged hour after hour, and I’m grateful for this. Previous retreat experiences have not been so benevolent.
In the silence I discover that the guardedness I brought in with me still retains its hold on my heart. On that first evening I eye my companions in the meditation hall with some degree of circumspection, wondering about their motives for being here. And then the woman on my left turns and smiles broadly at me as we rise from our cushions. My heart softens and opens to her and to the rest of my companions, to all eighty of them. At that moment a sense of connectedness takes root and flourishes over the coming days. It needs no introductions, polite exchanges of information or outpourings of the soul; none of this breaks the silence of Gaia House but communication is ongoing at some level, a much deeper level. There’s a shared sense of being among us which renders words unnecessary.
Inner peace and, if I’m honest, basically having nothing to do except meditate, opens my mind more fully to the beauty of the landscape around Gaia House. I meander through the gardens and woods, lingering over the scent of a flower, over the subtleties of colour as the evening fades into night, over the softness of the breeze as it moves through the forest and I surrender to the cacophony stirred up by the vastly extended family of crows nesting in the trees at the back of the centre. When a goldfinch alights on the rock formation in the centre of the pond just a couple of metres away from me, I remain motionless, indulging in the luxury of an unhurried encounter with Nature. As I sip my first cup of tea, prior to early morning meditation, a cuckoo calls in the distance; decades have passed since I last heard that sound. Not even the crows are awake this early and I can’t resist asking myself, “Why can’t it be like this all the time?” 

         In the final days I find myself glancing frequently toward the back of the meditation hall, to where the young American woman sits. Occasionally she’s not there, but more often than not she is. Right now she’s sitting with her head buried in her hands and her crumpled posture betrays her exhaustion. But she’s still with us and I haven’t seen her head over once to that far off field with her iMac. I wonder whether she’s pondering our teacher’s question, “What’s stopping me from being happy?” and where the answer, if she finds one, will take her.

* W.B. Yeats, The Lake Isle of Innisfree

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Atyrau: a view from the bridge

Once upon a time people in Atyrau caught sturgeon from the Ural river with their hands. There were so many migrating fish in those days that nets weren’t needed; a quick eye and dexterous hands were enough. “That’s what my uncle tells me, that’s the way it was back then,” says Miras, one of my Kazakh students. We stare into the depths of the Ural, into waters that travel 2,500 kilometres, sweeping down from Russia and through this city. There is no movement, no sign of life at all, even though this is the principal route to the Caspian Sea and now is the time of migration for sturgeon.
            “These days, if you catch a sturgeon, you’d be a very rich man,” Miras remarks. That is highly unlikely. There has been an 80 per cent decline in the sturgeon population of the Caspian Sea. Sturgeon rarely make it to their spawning grounds because of over fishing. And now they are on the verge of extinction, one of many species that feature on the *IUCN  Red List. 
We are standing on the pedestrian bridge that links the European side of Atyrau with the Asian side; in crossing it, we’ve strolled from one continent to another. Padlocks, some of them large and heavy, have been fastened to numerous points of the wrought iron railings along the bridge. All have names inscribed on them, lovers hoping to forge their destinies together forever with this symbolic gesture. The destiny of this city has changed much since the times when sturgeon were abundant. Since then a dam has been built further upstream, in Russia, and now the river flowing beneath me, while still quite deep, is shrunken and withdrawn from its banks. Bulrushes, stranded years ago, struggle for a foothold in the sand; many are shrivelled and sickly looking.
Miras, who had wandered over to the other students, now rejoins me. “What can we do? We’ve tried diplomacy with the Russian dam builders, but we Kazakhs are not a powerful nation. We are always aware that we have the might of Russia to the north and China to the east to contend with. This is the way it is and this is the way it’s always been for us.” 
Like many other Kazakhs I talk to Miras is realistic about the geopolitical situation of his country, trapped as it is between two superpowers. But there’s also room for growing optimism, and from the footbridge I see evidence of this in contemporary Kazakhstan. Many of the new constructions sport multi-coloured roofs: maroon, green, brown, various shades of blue, and turquoise. It’s a kaleidoscope that stands in vivid and stylish contrast to the grim Soviet style architecture - the architecture of the past - in which the majority of Kazakhs live. I’m looking at the brighter newer Kazakhstan
Oil has brought wealth to this country and there is perhaps no other city in Kazakhstan where the link between oil and prosperity is more evident than here. Atyrau is the Kazakh city situated closest to the Tengiz oil field, one of the largest in the world. This is a city of oil company regional headquarters for Chinese, Italian, American, Indian, British and other foreign petrochemical concerns. Their offices are located in elegant, often palatial style, buildings scattered throughout the city and its surroundings. The names of these multi nationals are as well known to locals as any celebrity might be back home in Ireland

Strolling back from the bridge to the city centre, I see a large housing complex surrounded by walls and fences. The architecture, while modern and urbane, is unlike any I’ve seen so far in this city. “I wonder who lives there,” I remark to another of my students, “Foreigners, only the best for foreigners in our country.” I glance across at him and he’s not smiling. I look again and, sure enough, the American Village could be seen as the “good life” putting its two fingers up at the shabby Soviet style buildings across the road.
If Atyrau is a city of oil company regional headquarters, it is also a city of health clinics. Numerous private health clinics are located here. I’m told that oil workers receive free treatment, paid for by employers as part of their contract. Respiratory problems, skin conditions and more serious problems are not uncommon among employees. This is what my students are training for, a job in the oil industry and it’s just about their only option if they want to become professionals. They’re aware of the risk to their health and are willing to take it. When I complain about the stench of sulphur that grips the city on calm windless days, they tell me, “It’s like this for most of the summer, a combination of sulphur and 45º C heat.” 
The following weekend I ask for directions from a passerby, a woman from Azerbaijan, who turns out to be an executive in one of the oil companies. I tell her that my life here doesn’t seem real; I’ve never lived in a compound before, separated artificially from the wider community. She replies that nobody’s life in Atyrau is real, “We all know why we’re here, and it’s for the same reason, everyone is here because of the oil. People come to Atyrau to work and they travel home to another city or go away to another country when they want to enjoy themselves.” 
The sense of unreality intensifies when I encounter commonplace anomalies, like apples are more expensive than petrol and the 24/7 central heating, switched on even when the temperature outside soars. Winter clothes are all I have with me, as I didn’t anticipate Mediterranean weather in Kazakhstan. Wearing boots and trousers in 27ª C adds a dreamlike quality to my performance in the classroom. When I suggest opening a window, none of the 19 students seem enthusiastic, so I’m doomed to sweat on. One afternoon I don’t ask for permission, I slyly open the window. Guilt forces me to shut it again when Yerlan immediately pulls up his hood. Later that week, a representative of the oil company sponsoring the course visits. I marvel that despite the stifling temperature in the staffroom, she has not removed her coat or scarf. The Kazakh relationship to heat baffles me.
         On my way home I wonder whether the leaden sky, threatening heavy rain, will unburden itself. Life in the desert has desiccated my skin and yet I’m apprehensive at the thought of a downpour because I’ve been warned of the consequences. “Mud City, that’s Atyrau’s other name. Didn’t you know?” A Himalayan wagtail skitters across my path, leaving behind feather-like imprints in the dusty sand. I lift my gaze and look out toward the horizon. This is not Lawrence of Arabia-Omar Sharif style desert; it is a desolate and ravaged land, peopled by oil pumps and those who serve them. There’s no place for my romanticism here, in this, the bleakest of vistas.

  • IUCN - International Union for the Conservation of Nature 

Wednesday, May 8, 2013


What do I know about Kazakhstan, I ask myself. Nothing, nothing at all.
I keep probing. There had to be something, and there was … a few vague scraps, the sum total of my knowledge of a country I was about to spend two months living and working in. Scrap Number One: Kazakhstan is a small Central Asian Republic. Two: its people are in the grip of Islamic fundamentalism. Three: Kazakhs are famous for their thigh fortifying dance. And Four: they love horses … to eat.
At that stage I hadn’t heard of Borat,* so I was puzzled when a number of friends laughed and clapped me on the back with a smirk, “You’re going to Borat land, ha ha!”  I lacked the courage to admit my ignorance, so I sneakily turned to my Google contacts and asked, “What is Borat?” Failing to get a satisfactory reply, it occurred to me to ask “Who is Borat?” From what I could make out, whoever this Borat person was, he’d clearly done something to upset the Kazakhs. Just as well I had no time then to pursue the matter because it could have made me feel uneasy about my decision to accept a post in Kazakhstan
Even before I arrived at my destination, I’d learned that “Scrap Number 1” was completely wrong. Kazakhstan is not some small republic, another puzzle piece in the map of Europe somewhere beyond Poland. It is a country the size of Western Europe that borders China to the east and Russia to the north. For hour after hour I stared at those borders on the passenger flight screen, watching the image of my Air Astana plane winging its way eastwards though the night. Further east, beyond Moscow, Istanbul and Iran we travelled, dwarfed all the while by the vast plains and mountains of Kazakhstan below.
In Astana, snow and ice blind me; the runway is a glacial sheet, blurring at the horizon with a luminous white sky. Ground control staff, dressed like astronauts, are buffeted by powerful gusts. One of the marshallers is blown sideways, as if he had stepped on to an invisible conveyer belt. He struggles on toward our aircraft, his yellow batons flailing in the wind. The temperature, I'm told, can plummet to -45º C. The North Pole or the capital of Kazakhstan, I wonder.  I clutch my winter coat tightly, aware that it is no defence against an assault this overwhelming.
A further flight south and westward takes me to my final destination, to the oil-rich city of Atyrau, not far from the northern coast of the Caspian Sea The climate is more benign here than in Astana and my Irish winter wardrobe turns out to be adequate, particularly given that it is spring now and I only have a ten minute walk from my new home to the college where I’ll be teaching. On Monday morning I leave at 8.15, in the company of the other four teachers who have been recruited for this project. We walk through, what seems to me, the bleakest of landscapes, of grey-brown sand-dust stretching far beyond where the eye can see, out to the steppes of Central Asia. I’m staring at Nothing, at Nothingness. There are no mountains, no trees, no paths to focus the line of vision. I’ve never been confronted by such emptiness before and it’s disquieting. 
When the wind blows it ushers in a storm from the vastness. On that first week I see what I believe is mist approaching from the distance, a dense mist. But it’s a wall of sand/dust advancing toward us. With my sunglasses protecting my eyes and covering my nose and mouth with my hands, I now understand why desert nomads swaddled their heads in metres of cloth. My students tend to use Palestinian style Keffiyehs and they urge me to buy one too.
The course I’m teaching on is an entirely new project, financed jointly by the Kazakh government and a Kazakh oil company. It is an endeavour to train more young people from the country to become professionals in the burgeoning oil industry. Students recruited for the course pay nothing for enrolment and live on site at no cost to themselves in specially built residences. Many of them want to be engineers and many of them are young women.
It turns out that the students, with their sense of humour, enthusiasm and kind heartedness, are the highlight of my time in Kazakhstan. On the first day, when I cannot get my tongue around her unpronounceable name – Aiymgul  - the young woman volunteers the English translation, “You can call me Moonflower, if you prefer”.  I’m impressed. A culture that names one of its daughters Moonflower must have a poetic soul.
When I explain to my class that this is my first experience of their country, they ask, “So what do you know about Kazakhstan?” I omit Scrap Number 1, because that is an error too embarrassing to divulge. Young women make up half of my class; they are beautifully dressed in the latest fashions, and with no headscarf to hint at their Muslim faith. Fundamentalism? I very much doubt it, so I bypass Scrap Number 2 and leapfrog on to the thigh fortifying dance routine. When the students have finished laughing at my mimics they shake their heads solemnly and point out that I am referring to Cossacks, not Kazakhs. 

The young men in my class also know how to dress to impress. Some of them arrive in suits, ties and waistcoats, and even a briefcase dangling from their hands. Admittedly, they do look slightly uncomfortable but it’s their way of honouring the importance of the occasion. The honour, however, is mine. I feel privileged to be among these people. They are endlessly courteous and grateful. On the Nauyrz feast day, the most important in the Kazakh calendar, they invite me into a traditional banquet. The spread is laid out across tables inside a yurt** and it is here that Scrap Number 4 is confirmed. A variety of meat is neatly presented on large platters and some of it is indeed horsemeat, a staple in the highly meat-oriented diet of Kazakhs. I’m thinking it’s ironic that I should be here, where equine flesh is prized as part of the local cuisine, while there is a national scandal raging back home about how traces of horsemeat have been detected in products sold by major supermarket chains. But I’m vegetarian, so I politely decline.  
         Toward the end of the course, some of the students invite me to a meal, a pizza, “100 per cent vegetarian,” they assure me. In the midst of the general banter at the table the dreaded “B” word is mentioned. And yes, I quickly realise it was in a question directed at me. I turn to Miras, Yesbol and the others; they’re staring at me expectantly. I take a deep breath and search for the words that will lead me into an anodyne response. “Borat? I’d never heard of him until I was about to leave home … and now I don’t like him. Kazak people are not like him, not at all.”
“It’s okay, you know. Don’t feel bad. Some of us laugh at him too, precisely because that buffoon does not resemble us. Anyway, in the end, Borat has been good for us. Tourism in Kazakhstan has increased as a result of the curiosity he has provoked in our country. So, here’s to Borat.”  
We all raise our Coca Cola glasses in a toast that says so much about the tolerance and good nature of the Kazakhs I’ve encountered during my stay in their homeland. Maybe they are the undiscovered treasure, the most valuable asset the country possesses, more valuable than oil even. For me they are priceless.

* Borat is the main character in a comedy film entitled, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. The portrayal of the fictional character of Borat, a Kazakh journalist, caused controversy, not only in Kazakhstan, but in a number of other countries too
** A traditional tent-like dwelling used by the nomadic peoples of Central Asia

Wednesday, February 20, 2013


A pair of bronzed butterscotch eyes fills my television screen. The Macaque monkey blinks slowly and draws me into her gaze. I’ve just taken a sip of tea and the cup remains suspended between my mouth and the table. I’m gazing into her soul, into wisdom that is indubitable. The camera recedes to reveal the exquisite symmetry of a face that mesmerises. Turning slowly, she surveys the vast landscape that rises in the distance to greet the Mountains of the Moon. She shifts slightly, accommodating herself on a cedar branch and yawns. This is her domain, her ancestral homeland; this is Africa.
         As a schoolgirl I was passionate about natural history programmes, and David Attenborough held my attention far longer than Blue Peter or Doctor Who ever could. However, the bleak warnings of habitat destruction and species extinction that inevitably came with the narrative depressed me beyond words, even more than my failure to elicit the attention of whatever spotty schoolboy I had fallen for. It was just too distressing to be dazzled by the antics of leopards, gorillas, elephants and lusty rhinos, only be told that their days were numbered thanks to the boundless greed and casual cruelty of my fellow human beings. Rather than be continually sickened, I buried my head in the sand and tuned into whatever soap opera was being broadcast on another channel.
        The recent screening of the BBC series Africa, has enticed me back into the world of natural history documentaries. The six part series took four years to make and has surpassed even the BBC’s own high standards and reputation for making award-winning wildlife broadcasts. David Attenborough’s narrative is impeccable and the camerawork, awe inspiring; they offer us new and unforgettable insights into the private worlds of creatures that the majority of us will never see in real life. The Africa team has brought us indelible images from the Sahara and Kalahari deserts, Cape, Congo and the Rift Valley, a myriad of images and sounds that humble us before the divine power of Nature. Africa takes us on a journey that is both emotional and spiritual.

Elephants feature in most documentaries about African wildlife. I’d be disappointed if they didn’t and Africa doesn’t disappoint. We see nocturnal gatherings of forest elephants, never before filmed. Bull elephants – heads alone weighing as much as a car – charge each other in a fight for mating rights, while the females look on. Hidden microphones capture their rumblings and trumpeting in this remote place, known as the Elephants’ Village. 
On the savannah, the death of a baby elephant is agonising to watch. The mother refuses to abandon her calf, standing over her baby, nudging the little one with her trunk, emitting a deep throbbing sound that is a measure of the immensity of her suffering. It is only when her calf takes her final breath that the bereaved mother resumes her onward journey alone, across a parched land to join the remainder of the herd.  In the ten minute appendage, Eye to Eye, the film crew speaks of their distress at being powerless to intervene in the tragedy. Fortunately, the same episode brings us an antidote: scenes of a family of elephants traversing green pastures, accompanied by a baby elephant trumpeting joyfully as she chases egrets and races back and forth to her mother.
         Thanks to the ingenuity of the Africa team we have the privilege of eavesdropping on the social life of black rhino. Concealed microphones capture the huffing and puffing, squeaks and excited grunts of a gathering of black rhino on the darkest of nights at a waterhole in the Kalahari. New technology – a starlight camera – films the tender exchanges between these normally ill-tempered and solitary creatures. A young female greets a mother and her calf, affectionately nuzzling them before turning her attentions to an amorous male. Initially she flirts, but her interest wanes and a few minutes later she lies down and pretends to be asleep to get rid of her suitor. Up close she is perfect, beautiful beyond any limited conception beauty.
In Eye to Eye, the bad news is broken: poaching claims the lives of around 365 black rhinos every year. The species is under grave threat of extinction; what we have seen on our screens, the greatest gathering of black rhino anywhere on earth, may never happen again EVER. I swallow hard and try to focus on the next feature, an armoured ground cricket, a malevolent-looking creature resolutely marching onward as part of an army in search of breakfast: meat, fresh meat. Fortunately, this one is foiled in his attempt to tuck into a baby bird and his comrades in arms take advantage of the injuries inflicted on him by the hatchling’s mother to devour him. I’ve often suspected that demeanour can reveal a lot about character, and the physiognomy of this African ground cricket suggests something vile: cannibalism.
Eye to Eye offers an inside view of the trials and tribulations of the camera crew during the filming of the series. In one episode the team hired seventy-five guides and helpers to carry a ton of equipment through east African rainforest in their search for a female chimpanzee known to have a fondness for honey and a unique skill to access it. We see the lady in question effortlessly scale a tower-block-sized tree and fashion a tool from a branch which she uses to raid the hive. Delicately she dips her long fingers into the honey and licks them one at a time with obvious relish. Having demolished the hive, she smacks her lips and swings contentedly across to a nearby tree.
Many images from Africa will remain with me for a very long time. I still smile at the cleverness of the Drongo, a wily bird who outfoxes meerkats by imitating their warning cry. The meerkats panic, go to ground and Mr. Drongo swoops down to take his reward, their food. The heroism of a lizard who risks death to hunt flies crawling and buzzing around the blood-stained muzzles of sated sleeping lions has to be applauded. A solitary desert giraffe vanquishes a rival male in a violent contest for mating rights. To see these elegant and graceful creatures bashing each other relentlessly is gut wrenching and seems so out of character. But then, what do I know about giraffes? The camera crew waited 30 days in this scorched land to film this fight.
Close ups and ingenious filming techniques bring us right into the world of creatures whose lives are a continuous fight for survival. High up in the forests of the Rift Valley we peep into the nest of a crowned eagle tenderly feeding her hatchling morsels of fruit bat. The copper-gold eye of a frog fills our screen as he silently scales leaves and stems in the rainforests of the Congo in search of a mate. Down by the Indian Ocean we get a turtle’s eye view of the sprint undertaken by tens of thousands of hatchlings over sand dunes to reach the sea before they are picked off by kites and crows. If she reaches the sea, a baby green turtle, only 7cm long, will not touch land for many years hence, until she returns to this beach to lay her eggs. David Attenborough tells us she has a 1 in 1,000 chance of survival. As I said, Africa is an emotional journey.
There is room for mystery too. Not everything can be explained or needs to be explained. Giant Kingfish – the size of a man – abandon their normally solitary existence in the Indian Ocean to form a shoal and swim up the Mutentu River. Attenborough explains that once a year “they change from aggressive hunters into dedicated pilgrims. In response to an unknown cue these enormous fish begin to circle” far upstream; and they continue to circle for weeks, until they decide to return to their life in the salt water of the ocean. Nobody can explain this bizarre ritual.
It took courage to watch the final episode, The Future. What could the future hold for African wildlife in a world ruled by profit-motivated greed and the perception of animals as mere commodities? Out of respect for the efforts of the film makers I watched it. Yes, many species are on the verge of extinction but there is a powerful lobby devoted to their defence. Green turtle numbers are doubling thanks to the local people in an island off the east coast of Africa. A baby black rhino, born blind, nuzzles up to David Attenborough. There is hope that surgery will give the young rhino sight and then he will be gradually reintroduced to the wild.
Overall, Africa offers glimmers of hope but within a grim scenario. The delicately balanced ecosystem of the continent is up against the demands of a rapidly expanding human population. Footage of a rhino trotting uneasily across our screens, framed by a background of high rise buildings, conveys the horror of the unfolding tragedy more powerfully than the narrative could. But this is not the enduring image that I will hold on to from the Africa series.
On a deserted east African beach buffalo trot along the sand; forest elephants join them; a gorilla watches from the shade of a palm tree and a hippo rises and falls with gentle the surf of the Indian Ocean. This is the scene from Africa that I will retreat to each time I hear about ruthless poachers and habitat destruction. It is all I can do. 

Image courtesy of Worradmu /

Tuesday, January 8, 2013


The stiller the mind, the more palpable the dazzling torrent of life becomes *

It’s 6.45 on a Sunday morning, the last Sunday of December 2012, and the forces of Mara** are besieging me. This is the third day of the siege and despite deploying and redeploying my powers against them I have to admit that Mara remains unvanquished. I’ve been at this juncture before – it’s something akin to a war of attrition – and I know from previous experience that determination and dogged persistence on my part will see me through this. “This” is a week long silent retreat at a Buddhist Centre in the south west of England.
I’m one of around 80 participants on an Insight Meditation Retreat at Gaia House in South Devon. This is my opportunity to eschew the alienation that tends to beset me in the run up to New Year festivities and to use this time more fruitfully. I’ve come here to develop a closer acquaintance with the workings of my own mind and the thoughts that so easily hijack it. Four teachers are here to support me and my co retreatants in our endeavours. Daily, they guide us in meditation, helping us navigate the immensity of our minds and harness our concentration in the quest to calm the conditions therein. Every evening they offer us Dharma*** talks, teachings from the earliest times of the Buddha himself, 2,500 years ago, up to the more contemporary stars of Western Buddhism. The talks, and I don’t say this lightly, are inspiring, uplifting and incisive.
Even Mara quietens down for the Dharma talks; there’s hardly a whisper to be heard, which gives me a chance to focus my concentration solely on the speaker. Guided meditations are more challenging, particularly during the lengthy periods of silence. Most challenging of all are the early morning meditations, which start at 6.45. Caught between drowsiness and the distractions that Mara tempts me with, I despair of ever staying fully present for the 45 minutes that meditations last. Despair, of course, is another distraction. So is doubt, desire, defeatism, etc., etc. Just about any thought that lures me away from my concentration on the breath is a distraction sent by Mara. The first two days of this retreat certainly provide me with what I came here for: an insight into my own mind. It’s chaos in there.
On the third day the onslaught of distractions begins to slow down a little. The pauses give me an opportunity to reflect on Mara’s strategies. Top of the list is unsolicited comments about other retreatants. Some are pleasant: Her trousers are very pretty; you should get some of those when we go shopping in the January sales. Do you think there’s a line in Buddhist fashion? Others less so: Look at those socks. The colour screams at you and, besides, I don’t think he’s changed them since he arrived. The arrangement of my co retreatants’ cushions/ zafus repeatedly attracts Mara’s attention. There are about 80 meditation mats in the hall and by Day 4 all of us are forced into frequently changing our posture to ease muscle and joint pain. Meditators struggle to make themselves comfortable and, consequently, their array of cushions, stools and blankets becomes ever more sophisticated. That looks more like a throne and that one more like a nest than a meditation mat. A plump lady rests precariously on a tower block of cushions I give her another ten minutes and then it will all collapse under her, like a stack of cards.  
At mealtimes a docile line leading into the dining room forms. Standing here I realise that most of my life is lost to haste and impatience. Fifty or sixty people sit around me eating lunch unhurriedly and the only sound to be heard is the clink of cutlery on plates. For me it’s a welcome relief to be free from the obligation to engage in polite talk with strangers and to relish this delicious vegetarian food with no distraction. I’ve come to realise that at no point on this retreat have I needed to talk and now I realise I don’t even want to. This silence is full of insights. The voices that whisper to me from the darkest corners of my mind during my everyday life outside of here, scream at me now from centre stage. Ghosts I thought I’d left behind weep, still distressed by the unhappiness in my childhood. They plead compassion and kindness. I’m not alone in my suffering. Nearly everybody looks worn out, both physically and emotionally. Some, I understand, are terminally ill.
         At lunchtime I lie on my bed exhausted. It’s mystifying how sitting all day, apparently doing nothing, saps my energy so completely. Yet it does. I fall into a deep sleep and when I wake, I’ve missed the afternoon bell. I walk into the hall, but the others are already on their mats and absorbed in meditation. Unwilling to disturb them, I remain at the back and observe the scene. Row upon row of meditators faces the front, where a statue of the Buddha presides. Absolute silence prevails. Just as in a church, there is a broad aisle running down the centre and … Wouldn’t it be funny if the Blues Brothers suddenly turned up – as in the film - and did forward somersaults down the aisle. I bet that would put an end to the silence.
         Mara’s new tactic, humour, briefly lures me into the trap. But I also have tactics. With each breath I count backwards, 10 – breathe – 9 – breathe – 8 breathe – Then Mara quips, she just slipped off the pile of cushions. Did you see that? – 7 breathe – 6 breathe – and so I strengthen my concentration. Don’t forget to buy some detergent when you go to Lidl on Thursday. I turn to silent chanting, Om, Om, Om, OmThis is wonderful! Have you noticed that we haven’t seen a single Christmas tree or Santa Claus since we arrived here. OM, OM, OM, OM, OM. A little later, I don’t know how much later, I find that my attention has drifted wildly and I’m thinking about… the execution of Saddam Hussein. How did I get here? What route did I follow? I’m bewildered. Seven days is not enough. I need seven months at Gaia House.
            On Day 4 my mind slows down and starts to settle, like dust after a storm in the desert. When meditation ends and the hall empties I am surprised to discover I remain seated, enjoying the novel experience of calm and equanimity in my mind. This silence, inside and out, soothes my soul. Mara is still there, of course, but I’m more alert now and don’t fall into the trap as often. Neither do I sleep at lunchtime. I’ve grown fond of my companions on this journey and, although I have never spoken to them, I enjoy the warmth I sense when they are around me. It feels odd to be separated from them.
When departure day arrives, I feel I’m leaving a place of sanity, a refuge, and promise myself that I’ll be back. As the car pulls away from Gaia House, I look up at this remarkable place, the sort of stately home Jane Austen would have chosen for her novels, and wonder how long it will be before my equanimity fades. Probably just as long as it takes until I see a Christmas tree or a Santa Claus. 

*   Stephen Batchelor: Buddhism without Beliefs.
** In Buddhist texts Mara personifies the distractions and temptations that prevent human beings from practicing a spiritual life
***Buddhist teachings and ethics