Juanito’s Trables 50-Yr-Backpacker – 1995 Vipassana in Le Boise Planté Pt17

I’ve left this post in draft for a few months now. My wife and I have moved from Canberra to the Gold Coast – where I grew up. We went to my Palm Beach Currumbin high school this morning to buy fruit and veggies at the Farmer’s Market there. It was where I went to year 11 and 12 in 88 & 89, where I met Christophe on my first day – my best friend featured in earlier blog posts – and hung out with Billy, the born-again Christian with an Egyptian background. I think he might have been born in Egypt perhaps, but his family had to flee when his dad read the bible, something frowned upon in the Egyptian Christian tradition he was from. There were arguments in the family and a knife was pulled by his brother, Billy’s uncle. The things people get upset about. Billy’s mum made awesome Egyptian sweets and other food, we were always treated to some nice things when we went over there. I first dislocated my shoulder at Billy’s house when we were playing handball with him, Christophe and I think our Lebanese friend Pascal. I once did a short scene in drama class with Pascal about racism. I managed to be racist against Pascal. Not the first time I was racist. I was a shit in that respect, and not just to Pascal. Hopefully I have learnt my lesson in that respect and certainly try and avoid passing on any lingering racist attitudes.

I was shocked the other day when my ageing aunt came out with some racist musings about how she was a ‘True Blue Aussie’ like Bryan Brown and that my cousin’s child, her grandchild was not, as his mum, her daughter-in-law is Filipino. I was shocked, but can’t say I didn’t hold such attitudes in the past. My love of history has led me to realise though that there are no ‘True Blue Aussies’ (which is a thinly veiled way of saying ‘pure white’ dare I say Ayran Aussies), and that we are  all  multi-cultural. Like my racist Aunt who had a mother who was Irish – who themselves were considered inferior by the English for centuries, and a great grandfather who was Chinese – a fact that only materialised when a few of our family did some DNA testing. Looking back I could see my great uncle Cyril looked a lot like a Chinese front the Guangzhou region. Sadly our family were so racist nobody ever admitted that we had that Chinese ancestry. Anyway, I own my own historical racism and I’m trying my best to rectify it. I realise now I don’t think any of us are born racist, we’re taught to be racist as we go. Not that I want to pick on Bryan Brown, but I’m guessing his connection to Australia doesn’t date back 60-80,000 years like the First Nation’s people who were dispossessed by the racist, and anything but benign British Empire.

Moving on though.

Planning for my 50th year backpacker trip continues. I bought an actual backpack at Pacific Fair a few weekends ago, it’s yellow, not blue like the original I had from 1995. I’ve booked a train trip from Vienna to Venice and paid for a train ticket between Salerno and Palermo, Sicily which we’re going to do in a day, around eight hours or sleeping, playing cards and watching the Italian and Sicilian landscape from the window. I know they’re both in Italy but I like the sound of keeping Sicily separately.

Back in 1995, I was still in France at the Vipassana meditation centre.

What more can I say about Vipassana Meditation?  It changed my life and led to deeper insight into the nature of my existence, and of all existence which is no mean feat. Vipassana in the ancient Pali language literally means ‘insight’, or close enough to use the word ‘literally’ literally (not sure where to put the quotation marks on that one – could have gone for the 2nd literally actually). I don’t meditate anymore. I’m sure I’d benefit from it. I feel the next sentence I write should contain the words ‘I should get back into meditating’. Let’s see.

It’s been many years since I last did a Vipassana meditation course. I did it in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney. I’ve also written of my 10-day course in Herefordshire, England, which I did at the start of my trip in 1995, in a previous 50-Yr-Backpacker blog post, and another time when I went to meditate with Kosio and my RMIT uni friend Evan Karayanidis, gets itself a chapter of my ‘book’ The Adventures of Kosio and Juanito (and Corinne). So you can get details from there if you like.

There are different Vipassana traditions though, the one I did was in the tradition of Goenka, which draws on Burmese traditions. The Vipassana centres around the world are set up in very much the same way. Men and women have separate sleeping, dining and exercise areas. The meditation hall is also divided between men and women. I’m not sure how they deal with people who don’t identify with either sexes or are fluent. I guess they have to pick the side they’re most comfortable with and keep with that for the 10 days. There’s a spot at the back where they could perhaps sit in the middle.

In France, in around October/ November (I’m still not completely sure) 1995, I had agreed to serve on courses rather than sit one. That is, I helped support the running of the courses, by cooking, cleaning etc, rather than sitting silently for 10 days. Serving on a course at some point was part of the meditation technique, putting others before oneself, selfless service. Selflessness does benefit oneself anyway so in some ways it’s a good way to be selfish and benefit others, which is better than selfishness that doesn’t better others I guess.

It was the first time I’d served on a course.

There were a few differences with service on a Vipassana course as opposed to sitting a course. For one, you could talk. You could also mingle with the opposite sex in the kitchen area – you still had separate facilities and sleeping quarters for females and the males, and you couldn’t have sex.

Instead of meditating all day, you meditate 3 hours a day during the whole group meditation sessions where everyone meditated in the meditation hall. You would think nothing much could go wrong with those few little differences, but I managed to get in trouble. More on that in a bit.

They were a cool bunch at the meditation centre. Most had been to India, where Goenka first expanded the Vipassana centres and which was the historical home of the Buddha. Having travelled to India most could also speak quite good English. Good, as my French was bordering on non-existent, but I did end up learning the French names for most vegetables, or des légumes.

There were a couple of guys I’d met at the English centre who showed up in France. Beth, this English tapestry expert and some Polish Woman with a very round, cute face. There were also about 7 French, mostly guys but there was maybe one woman, and a German guy, who complained that the French would always speak French rather than English, and perhaps 1 other person from some other country.

The first few days I was at the centre, before the start of the first course I was to serve on. We mostly did gardening and cleaning, which is also service. We’d meditate at least 3 times a day, in the morning, around midday and in the evening. We all helped prepare our meals. Unlike when you were doing a course as a server you got three meals a day. We had a decent breakfast and lunch that we all ate together and then we had a light evening meal which we often prepared ad hoc.

Des légumes were delivered to the centre, they were amazingly fresh and tasty, completely unlike the veggies we got in Australia. There was a small vegetable garden a bit away from the centre, which was still part of the centre’s property,  but out of bounds to those taking courses who were restricted to the meditation hall, their quarters and a small outdoor area where they could get a little bit of exercise a few times a time. The veggie patch was just a short walk up the road from the main centre, it still had a few courgettes, potatoes and tomatoes going from the summer which we collected and took back to add to dinner, which makes me think I probably arrived some time in October, as by the time November came about there was too much frost about for these type of things to survive.

As it was a fully vegetarian place there was also a large assortment of dry beans, lentils and chickpeas to add some protein to the meals. The milk, le lait, from la vache, was collected in big metal milk containers from a farm down the road. I drove the van down once with one of the French guys who I liked, as he was a very hippy type. I didn’t have a licence and didn’t really know how to drive too well, but I managed. I kept asking the French guy to remind me to drive on the right, rather than the left, as it didn’t come natural to me. We saw a huge owl on the way that night, it swooped down from the trees over the van.

A day or two after I arrived a meditation course started. Our chores were then focussed almost entirely on feeding the 60 or so students and cleaning up after them. So a lot of food prep and dishwashing. I made bread a few times for them and also a kind of mozzarella style cheese I learnt to make in Ireland which I prepared using lemons to curdle the milk and then adding salt and hanging in a cheese cloth overnight to get rid of some of the moisture. I only  did that once as the centre manager said it was too expensive.

As servers, we all had to watch a VHS video of Goenka explaining to us the importance of service and reminding us to also keep the 5 precepts of buddhism. Got to love VHS with its Ring-like magnetic lines running through it, kind of like a link to the Other Side.

Everyone helped prepare the breakfasts, lunch and a light supper. There was this English guy, who showed up to serve on the course who kind of took charge of the meal cooking. He obsessively tried to sort through lentils to find little rocks, which seemed, well, obsessive. The French guy who collected me from the village was the head boss. He did the food ordering and stuff. He used to be some maître d at a hotel. He was nice and well organised.

We had a bit of free time after lunch so we could just walk around and hang out a bit.

During the first course I served on I was pretty chilled and relaxed. I chatted a fair bit with Beth and the Polish girl as we peeled and chopped vegetables and the like. The meditation teacher was this American guy. He came up to me one day and said I had to stop talking so much and so loudly as it was disturbing the silent meditators. My voice does carry. He seemed stressed. He should meditate more I thought. I’ve been waiting 27 years to express that come back. Perhaps I should meditate more which may mean I wouldn’t hold on to such pettiness so strongly. I also remember a time some kid stole my clutch-pencil for me in class in like year 6 or 7. It was one of those pencils with a plastic casing and a ‘clutch’ to hold in a lead (really graphite) which you didn’t have to sharpen as you just pressed up more lead (graphite) and voila (another French word) you have some more lead. Anyway some little prick stole it and even though I don’t need or want my clutch pencil anymore – it was green by the way – I still wish all sorts of misfortune and unluckiness on the person who did it.

Meditation supposedly helps you deal with such deep down attachments that are making you miserable. I bet the person doesn’t even remember taking the pencil – though I suspect the person knew exactly what the fuck they were doing.

Just focus on your breath. Watch it go in and out. Watch the rage rise and pass away. Rise and pass away. Fucking prick, in, let it go, out. You don’t actually say anything like that when you meditate, or at least the technique doesn’t teach you to do that. It teaches you to just observe.

Soon the first course had finished and a new one was due to begin in a couple of days. Us servers went back to doing gardening and the like. We all took a walk to a nearby village one day and had a look around. I had the best apple I’d ever tasted in my life on the way. It was on a tree hanging over the fence on the road we were walking on. It was so good that I tried to find the actual tree on Google maps years later. Just like in that movie Lion, where the guy tries to find the village where he was born using Google maps and then one day he finally finds it and goes and finds his mum who he was separated from when he was a young kid and fell asleep on a train. I think I actually did find that apple tree, I swear!

The first course had taken its toll, I realised it was time for me to go back to Australia and, as I had done at the start of the journey, I had miscalculated and had now run out of money. I did a calculation and it seemed after staying in Paris a few nights and buying that avocado, I probably didn’t have enough to even get back to London to get my flight back. I certainly wasn’t going to Barcelona to try and find Agatha, who had pretty much ghosted me, just as Corinne had.

I rang up my mum – who my wife and I live with at the moment as we’re trying to save money to buy a house, and well, she has 5 bedrooms and only uses one and we can use the whole top level, and she lives 800 metres from the beach so it’s a great set-up in its own right – crying and asking if she could lend me a little money so I could make it back, she said leave it with her and she’d see what she could do. I said I was ok for now, I would serve another course where I’d be fed, and have a bed and showers and all so it was all fine.

I think that day I walked into the forest that bordered the mediation centre and just sat under a tree for a few hours being one with nature.

Beth sat the next course so I didn’t have anyone to chat to in the kitchen really. She was a chatterbox as well to be fair, just my voice is deeper.

A Romanian woman called Elina came to serve on the next course. We did chat a little but I did the ‘right’ thing and didn’t gossip excessively with her. I did find out a little bit about her though. She said she was an actress. I joked and said, does that mean she was a waitress? She said no, she was a working actress. As we didn’t talk a lot towards the end of the course I asked for her address and started writing to her. I still write to her on occasions after nearly 27 years. I tried to catch up with her in Paris last time I was there a few years ago. But she was off filming. She does some weird stuff, which I like. She’s often semi-naked.

It turned out she really was a working actress. She was in Schinlder’s List and an episode of Seinfeld. However, she was discovered by a film director in the USA called Hal Hartley when she was a waitress, so I wasn’t far off the mark.

The American guy was replaced by a Swiss guy on the second course I served on. He was much more chilled and brought Swiss chocolate with him for the servers to eat. I ate too much one night and my body wasn’t used to it. Since I’d been obtaining from sexual activity it had all been pent up and the chocolate seemed a catalyst for my libido to go into overdrive. My Skin also got itchy. I tried going to have a shower to regain some balance, but afterwards I just had to have a wank and let it all out. There were a few stains on the sheet.

The second course also finished. As everything does. I’d managed to book myself a seat on a plane leaving from London in a few days so as soon as the course ended I said goodbye to Elina and hitched a ride with Beth, who was also heading back towards England, and some French girl who had done the two courses back to back, so she’d been meditating for like 20 something days in a row. We visited the French girl’s flat in Paris, it was just a little thing with a shared toilet in between her floor and the one below. She also lived with her mum, as my wife and I now do. We walked around Paris a bit and then Beth and I had to turn our attention to where we were staying for the night.

Beth said we could get a bed at Shakespeare bookshop. It turned out we couldn’t, we ended up getting a place at the California Hotel, or some name like that. We had contemplated sharing a room but I stipulated we definitely wanted separate beds. I don’t know if it was ever even remotely on the cards, but that was perhaps the last chance to have actual sex on my European tour and I was too Buddhist to even give it a go. Like I said though, not sure even if it was remotely ever on the cards!

The next day Beth and I hitchhiked from London to Paris. I won’t write about that again here, just click on the link above to check it out.

After Paris and London, the next leg of my journey was India.


Juanito’s Travoles 50-Yr-Backpucker – Dublin to Paris on a bus blogger de blog Pt16

13 December 2022

You know I should be ‘working’. But I turn 50 on Friday and I work for the government, so I’m instead I’ve got SBS world movies on and my rose gold coloured (not sure if that should be hyphenated to rose-gold-coloured – I don’t think they taught me that at school) MacBook Air in front of my shitty work laptop where I just move the mouse every so often to stay online (and answer the occasional query). I just walked up to Supabarn and bought a Three Mills bakery baguette, some turkey ham, some rocket and mixed lettuce, and made myself a sandwich with some cranberry sauce that’s been in the fridge since last Christmas (or perhaps the one before). I got regular pork ham for my son.

Back in 1995 (not literally this is not Back to the Future)

I wish I could write more about Tubbercurry, Sligo. It was the birthplace of my grandmother Bee, in 1899. We called her Bee. She was Bridget, which is also my Daughter’s middle name. After 27 years Tubbercurry is just another place, just a few memories. It’s also called Tobercurry. It’s confusing. One end of the town there’s a sign Tubbercurry and at the other end there’s Tobercurry. It could be an Irish thing. Not like one of those stupid Irish joke things. I’ve worked out they racist. More an Irish spelling thing.

On a side note, in recent years I found out I had a great, or great-great, grandfather from Guangzhou in China. No one told us when we were young. Also a racist thing. But my great-uncle Cyril did look very Chinese.

So Tubbercurry. I remember a poly-tunnel (a big plastic dome-shaped tunnel) where they grew their gherkins and tomatoes.  A pen for the pig who ate the whey that was leftover from the cheesemaking process. The homemade cheese with organically grown poly-tunnel gherkins, and little organic tomatoes on the homemade bread. Perhaps a cow. I don’t think a cow, I think they just bought in their milk. Cows are a hassle, you have to milk them everyday. At Inisglas Stuart used to get frustrated with them and kick them on occasions. Pigs are easier, they don’t care. They eat buckets of food scraps and wallow in the mud. They don’t care. They’re pigs. We took some acid at a ConFest hippy festival in Victoria in the 1990s and ended up sitting in a mud puddle like a pig. I can see the appeal.

There were also the rows of kale, spinach, onions, scallions, potatoes – you’re never far from a potato in Ireland – homemade cordials, digging, planting, harvesting. We’d go pick wild blackberries a couple of times, which formed the basis of those cordials and also homemade jams. Mostly the German organic gardeners’ son and I just shoved them in our mouths while we were out walking in the countryside, which is literally everywhere when you work on an organic farm. We had early morning starts, long days, fairly early to bed, nothing much in the way of TV, but there was a TV somewhere, I remember the kids on the farm asking about Home & Away, an Australian TV soap. It wasn’t a very exciting time. I didn’t mind because I was busy, and I liked the soil on my hands and connection with the earth. It was nice. But that was it. Nice. And kind of relaxing, uncomplicated, just honest manual labour to produce food for people to eat. Not whatever I do for the government, in my current job, which is much more abstract than pulling out a scallion, digging up a spud or picking a capsicum or eggplant in a poly-tunnel. Those are the memories I have of that time. Perhaps around 3 months of nice, relaxing, uncomplicated, life.

I’d saved a few hundred pounds during my time on the farm. I was still on the dole and getting around 40 pounds a week – or maybe a fortnight, in those days 40 pounds seemed to get a fair amount – from the government. Volkmar and Claudia paid me another 20 pounds a week for helping out.

Apart from the one trip to Dublin, I didn’t have any expenses. We had food, lodging, I just ended up buying a little bit of tobacco for entertainment once we smoked the whole tin Volkmar had shared with me, and a few stamps to write postcards and letters to family, Agatha in Dublin, and even one to Corrine in Switzerland.

I farewelled Sligo and headed to Dublin one last time. At the time it was one last time, I may make it back there again. I’m thinking 2025 could be good, a 30 year anniversary trip.

I booked a bus ticket from Dublin to Paris. It was going to take like the best part of two days and one night or something, but it was only around 25 pounds.

When I got to Dublin there was no-one to see in Dublin. Agatha had left to go back to Barcelona. I had her address there and I wrote that I may try and visit her after I went to France. It was late October I think, or perhaps even early November. The streets of Dublin were grey and drizzly like some atmospheric detective drama, which drizzly days in Dublin seem perfectly suited. There was even some thick fog hanging about the lampposts.

It was not a happy day. I didn’t have much time between arriving from Sligo and leaving on the bus. I just walked around a little to stretch my legs, and smoked a cigarette in my green Melbourne tram conductor’s coat, in the fog under a lamppost, just like and fuckin’ Irish spy. Standing under a lamppost, in the dark, the smoke drifting into the air mixing with the fog. I felt pretty tough at the time. Working on farms is a good work out. Even a skinny young man like me develops a few muscles and tone after a couple of months on a farm. Some broad shoulders and the start of a six pack. Maybe 2 cans’ worth.

The bus left close to midnight, I got on and then we headed to some port where the bus was put on a ferry and then the ferry went over to Holyhead in the UK. We didn’t have to stay on the bus on the ferry and I got out and had a cigarette on deck as I watched Ireland drift away and the UK approach. It was a good feeling to have arrived and left Ireland by sea. It’d been around six months. Some of the best and most interesting of my life.

We got back on the bus and down through Birmingham (I don’t know if that was the place, Google maps suggests it as a route from Dublin to Paris so perhaps), sleeping a little, looking out the window a little.

We arrived in London in the morning and had to wait to swap buses. The sun was warm. We had about 2 hours to wait.

I needed to go for a pee but had no pounds to pay for the turnstile to get in.

‘I don’t have any pounds’, I said to the cleaning guy.

‘Just jump over’, he said in what may have been a Jamaican accent.

And in that way, due to the kindness of strangers, I was able to pee. I’d been on the bus around 12 hours, though Google Maps reckons you can do the trip in around 8 hours and 28 minutes, I guess you stop a few places along the way. It was at least the best part of the night and most of the morning. After the pee, and a bit of standing around at the bus stop, we set off again for France.

The bus went down to Dover, then the bus got on a train and across the Chunnel. We were on a bus on a train under the English Channel to Calais.

I’m sure we passed the Somme at some point.

In the late afternoon, we reached Paris. I was knackered. Some guy was at the train station spruiking a hotel. There were three American girls there. He convinced them to go with him to the hotel. I was super tired, and I had some notion I might as well follow the girls, so I just went. We stopped for pizza along the way.

It wasn’t cheap. The hotel, not the pizza. $100 for a night or two. A quarter of my savings. I always seem to get a bit ripped off on the first days in a new country – but nothing compared to the sapphire scam of Thailand a few months earlier. It was in Francs though so I didn’t work out that immediately. It was a decent hotel though, nice clean sheets. Actually super nice, white and crisp sheets, with nice fluffy pillows. I had a shower. It felt like I was washing away months of country soil. It was fucking amazing. I used all the little soaps and shampoos and the soft towels, then got into a nice fluffy bathrobe. I masturbated, then slept like a baby.

The next morning I woke up and watched Scooby-doo in French, masturbated, and then decided I’d head into the centre of Paris on the train. I laid in bed a few minutes – the sheets felt so good – before heading down to breakfast.

I met someone at breakfast who’d bought a cheap airfare from Dublin for around 40 pounds. About 15 pounds more than I’d spent on my bus ticket, though I would have saved 15-16 hours travel time, and perhaps gotten a cheaper place to stay. But I liked my clean crisp white sheets and fluffy white towels, and little soaps and little containers of shampoo and conditioner. And being able to watch Scooby-doo in French. It was more value for money than a rip off. Plus they had croissants and things for breaky so I could fill up for most of the day.

It was a struggle buying a train ticket. I had zero French. My French teacher in year 8 had said I was so bad at French that I should have to go back to year 7. They didn’t even teach French in year 7. I think she was just a cow and it was more of a reflection on her that I didn’t know jack shit French.

After struggling to try and find the words related to tickets – it was like pulling marshmallow shaped unicorns out of the air – the young ticket woman asked, ‘where you want to go?’ she was low-level grumpy but not overly impolite, just sounding tired of foreigners who go to France and can’t speak any French. And hell, she knew English and I knew not French, so I got to appreciate that fact.

‘The Louvre’, I said, shrugging my shoulders struggling to figure out where I should be going in Paris, but somehow everyone knows the Louvre, even uncultured guys who grew up on the Gold Coast with shitty French teachers.

She gave me a ticket which lasted a few days so I could get on and off a few times while I was in Paris. It may have been a 10-trip ticket. The dude clipped a little hole in it every time I entered the station. Apart from the long trips back and forth from the hotel, I mostly walked around though.

I went into the centre of Paris and found a cafe close to a metro station. It wasn’t near the Louvre exactly, I just got off at some random spot. It had a nice little roundabout with a few restaurants, bars and cafes about.

I had a coffee with cream. I didn’t realise I’d ordered one with cream. I asked the waiter why the coffee cost more than the price they’d written on their blackboard. I didn’t realise that the cream would cost me a few extra francs. The water was nice, it wasn’t his fault I couldn’t speak French. The coffee was nice though.

I found my way to the Louvre. It had some cool stairs that kind of floated down in a spiral. They probably still have them there. I didn’t visit the Louvre last time I was in Paris, I went to the Musée d’Orsay instead.  I saw the Mona Lisa and some Egyptian stuff. Just like today there were signs pointing to the little painting by Leonardo, La Joconde in French, so you could make a v-line for it and get a photo with it. La Joconde wasn’t as impressive as the other Italian Renaissance paintings in the room. It’s just very little. And really, it’s only kind of super famous because some dudes stole it. I’m no Italian Renaissance expert, but it’s more of a nice little portrait than something you go ‘wow’ over. The Egyptian stuff was in the basement. That was pretty cool. I also saw the Venus de Milo. The armless beauty. Even before the internet I knew that was super famous. How did we figure such things out before the internet, perhaps in books, TV shows and popular culture absorption.

For lunch I found a supermarket, where I wouldn’t have to speak to anyone. I got some bread and an avocado, and an Asterix & Obelix jar of Nutella, which had a collectable glass which held the Nutella as a gift for my niece and nephew. The avocado was like $5. My money was quickly evaporating.  It was starting to dawn on me that I would never get to Barcelona with the money I had. I got some Gauloise blonde cigarettes (they were much cheaper than the avocado) from a bar and something to drink from a little shop, some orange juice and water, and then some nice nuts from a nice lady from the nut shop, and I went down to the Seine to have a little picnic. It was glorious. Being in Paris with an avocado, French nuts and a very strong cigarette.

The guy from the hotel taught me to say ‘ou se trouve‘ which, ‘where is [insert place]’. I asked some paramilitary ou se trouve le toilette when I was in some fancy looking building. They laughed and one of them pointed me in the right direction. There were paramilitaries all over the city. There had been some bombings by an Algerian group in the months earlier. I wasn’t able to find a rubbish bin as they’d sealed them all to stop people putting bombs in them. And on the way not he bus when we got to France the police got all the African looking people off the bus for interrogation. I never saw so many police and paramilitary in a city. They had serious weapons too. Proper machine guns and all. But still they laughed when I asked them in bad French how to get to the toilet.

Later in the afternoon I walked around some more. I decided while in Paris I should  catch a movie. I asked some guys who were walking along chatting to each other ou se trouve le cinéma, they interrupted their conversation and with a roll of the eyes one of them broke off and showed me the way to  the nearest cinemas. It was a bit out of the way so the guy was super nice to help me out. Actually all the French were nice to me. The cinema was some arty one and showing some English language independent film. I was the only one to laugh at any of the jokes. I think everyone else was French, and maybe the jokes weren’t that funny. But I thought they were. It was a nice film.

I spent one more night at the hotel, it was all I could afford. I visited the Eiffel Tower the next day. I asked someone ou se trouve le Eiffel Tower, and they rolled their eyes and pointed to the big pointy steel thing pointing up into the sky. In those days you could walk right under it. Nowadays it’s fenced off like some zombie enclosure. I didn’t go up the tower. It cost too much. Sitting underneath it was enough. I’d contacted the Vipassana meditation centre at Le Boise Planté and they said I could come down and help serve other doing courses the next day. I’d also written to them when I was in Ireland, so they were kind of expecting me. It was in the direction of Auxerre, about 2 hours south of Paris.

I just walked around Paris some more, I didn’t go to any more museums or anything. I just soaked up the Parisian atmosphere, the seine, the cigarettes and so forth. In the evening I went back to the hotel asking another person, ou se trouve le métro. I guess that was a bit like asking, where is the railway system?

I had just enough money to get on the bus down to the meditation centre, but that was about it. How to get back to London, to Australia? That was another story for another day. I wasn’t even sure exactly how much money I had left at the time. Working out the francs took a little bit to sink in. I think I may have had $50-60 left. Merde.

I wasn’t going to have to think about that for a month or so though while I was at the meditation centre. At that point I wasn’t sure how long I’d stay. A month in France sounded nice. A nice round number.

I worked out what bus I needed to get from Paris to Le Boise Planté, paid some more of my precious francs and then headed off. I left the rest of my Gauloise Blondes on the bus on the seat just before I got off. You couldn’t smoke at meditation centres. They didn’t even have coffee.

While waiting for a lift from the bus stop to the meditation centre I struck up a conversation with an old guy. He spoke no English and me no French. I tried a few words in German. I don’t know what he was saying but he had a good old chat. Perhaps about a cat, or village life, maybe some story about the days of nazi occupation, or perhaps something about a nice courgette he once had. The French did have very nice vegetables as I would find out during my stay at the meditation centre.

The guy from the meditation centre picked me up in a minibus after I’d been chatting for half an hour or so with the old man from the village.

It was dark. We drove to Dhamma Mahi. We didn’t talk a lot.

They found me a bed in the servers quarters. They gave me something to drink and eat and then I joined in the evening meditation and went to bed. The sheets were much more rustic than the fancy hotel ones.

I was back in the sanga, the buddhist community, my family.

I was calm. It was going to be my last adventure in Europe for a while.

Juanito’s Travels 50-Yr-Backpacker – Tubbercurry (tobercurry) Sligo, Derry Girls, Netflix, Bruges, and Sustainable Travel – 1995 (and 2022) BlogPt15

The organic farm in Tubbercurry (aka Tobercurry) Sligo was much better run than the biodynamic one in Inisglas, Wexford.

It was run by a German family, Volkmar, Claudia. I guess the German part is always a clue that efficiency may be on the cards. Besides, unlike Inisglas, these guys actually lived off the money they got from the farm so less time for poet yoghurt makers, like Stuart and ex-drug dealing chicken farmers on the run from the UK police.

Volkmar and Claudia had a very blonde boy and a girl. How this German family ended up in Tubbercurry, in the west of Ireland, I’m not sure. I think they said they saw an opportunity to buy a farm and went for it. I admire people like that, sometimes it seems we’re overwhelmed by choices to the point we are frozen with choice.

Which takes me to Derry Girls. It’s a TV series on Netflix if you haven’t heard of it. There are many choices of shows and movies to watch, most of which you really get the sense you’ve wasted part of the precious life you have after watching them, seems like we just have to fill our lives up with stuff, whatever that stuff is. I include myself in that and I find it difficult nowadays to just listen to a crow crow, or look at a flower, to be quiet and mindful of what is going on around me. But back to the tele, Derry Girls is set in Derry in Northern Ireland, which is also the setting for one of my previous blogs. I mean Northern Ireland, not Derry, which I have never visited.  It’s about these young Irish catholic women (Derry Girls, not my previous blog), and a wee English lad, growing up in the 1990s in Derry – or Londonderry as it’s also known as. I watched the show and cacked myself silly (cack is a way of saying poop). Which is pretty much irrelevant to this travel tale, except that after watching the show I decided I should try and visit Derry when my wife and I do our round-the-world trip in 2023 to celebrate my 50th birthday (hence the title of this blog if you hadn’t yet cottoned on).

I have already planned out our trip on a Google Sheet. After visiting South East Asia, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia (which has its own Google Sheet) we are flying off to Vienna, down through Italy, including Sicily, and then, according to the Sheet (which is the 2nd Sheet in the 3 Sheet series covering our whole trip, the third being Mexico/ Latin America), we were going go fly from Palermo to Athens and then across to Turkey via the Greek Islands. There are many Greek Islands, so I’ll be a bit more specific. We were going to go to the island of Tinos then across to Ikaria and Samos before heading to Turkey to visit the Ancient Roman site of Ephesus. Ephesus gets a shout out in the bible, as Paul or John or someone writes letters to a church there or something. I’m not a regular church goer but my father-in-law passed away in Mexico last weekend so we went to church and there they mentioned Ephesus. It was a sad weekend, but I’ve taken a few days off of work and thought I’d write another blog post rather than watching more Netflix.

Back to the 50th birthday year travel plans, the Greek Islands were set, until I saw the crazy antics of those young women on Derry Girls – Orla, Erin, Michelle, Clare and James. I consulted my wife about my thoughts on changing plans to include a quick trip to Derry. She said, ‘if we’re going to Derry we have to also go to Bruges’. Bruges is in Belgium and was also the name of a Netflix movie which had a few Irish lads in it. By the way neither Netflix, nor the Irish tourism board, give me any money for promoting Irish-related viewing on my blog. I don’t even put ads on my blog. It seems inauthentic to me. And as a young person who was in his 20s for most of the 1990s, and who once even attended a Nirvana concert at Fisherman’s Wharf in 1992 on the Gold Coast, and who smoked so much hash on the way to the concert that I ended up lying down in a mud puddle the whole time and barely remembering more than one song, I was, and am all about authenticity – which sounds like something Rick from the Young Ones might say, sans le hash. I think you should only write for yourself and write as though nobody is reading this. Which, in this case could quite literally be true. Let’s face it, I’m no Patrick Leigh Fermor – author of a travel trilogy, of actual books with pages in them, rather than a trilogy of Google Sheets, or blogs – accounting for his walking trip across Europe and onto Constantinople in the early 1930s. Come to think of it, there’s still a bit at the end of the third book where he goes to Greece that I haven’t read. Well, he does go on a bit to be honest.

So, after consulting my wife, I consulted the appropriate Google Sheet for Europe and tried to work out how I could swap the Greek Island section for a trip to Derry, Ireland and Bruges, Belgium. But the thing is, if I go over to that part of Europe, I feel obliged to go try and visit my friend Elina in Paris. Obliged is the wrong term, I mean, there’s no way I would visit Paris without at least seeing if she was free for a coffee, as she was the only dhamma vipassana buddy from the mid-90s I still kept in contact with. We’re both doing what vipassana people do though – even though I have strayed from the path a bit – and we are growing old, constantly changing, and sooner or later going to simply pass away. Yes, coffee in Paris, when we’re in our 70s or 80s, could be the go.

Elina is an actress whom I met in 1995 at a Vipassana meditation centre in France (spoiler alert for a later blog post). She lives in Paris. Last time I visited Paris (you can read my account of that trip here) she was off filming something with her husband so I was unable to catch up, but I feel I’d be rude if I didn’t at least try and visit her if I was going to Bruges. She makes very weird films which I’m occasionally in the mood for once I realise most stuff on Netflix is a load of shit. Elina and I had been penpals (were we actually sent real letters and cards to each other) for some time in the 90s and early 2000s, when she lived mostly in New York, and we’ve kept in touch on and off since then. To be honest, my efforts are more than hers – though she always writes back when I write to her. I’ll see a film Elina’s in on SBS television and then I’ll send her a message and then we chat again for a few days. It’s always lovely and, for me, brings me back to those days in Ireland and Europe in the 90s, just as Derry Girls has. I always thought of her like some sort of past life soulmate. Though I don’t think I ever expressed that to her.

So, a trip to Derry would have to involve both Bruges and Paris. It’d also mean we’d need to spend at least a night or two in Dublin, on the way to Derry, as most planes tend to fly from Palermo to Dublin rather than Derry. And even if we didn’t travel by plane I haven’t been to Dublin since 1995 so I couldn’t go all that way without a visit to Temple Bar and a pint of Guinness. In the movie Bruges yer man says, ‘I grew up in Dublin. I love Dublin’ and, ‘I’m still in fuckin’ Bruges’, and ‘Bruges is a shithole’. His words, not mine. But the things you do for love and a chance to visit Derry and Ireland again. The movie might actually be called In Bruges, but that’s not that important at the moment. The important thing is I had allocated 8-9 days on my Google Sheet to go from Palermo, Sicily, over to Athens and then across the above-mentioned Greek Islands, and then over to Selçuk, Turkey where we could visit the ancient city of Ephesus, the Roman Empire’s capital in Asia Minor, before heading up to Istanbul as our last European destination. They’re in Eurovision, so I’m going to say they’re European. Let’s park the debate on whether Australia can be considered part of Europe due to their inclusion in the song contest for now.

I’m committed to sustainability and wanted to limit our travels by air as much as possible, trying to instead use trains and boats. I know, until we have electric boats and 100% renewable energy powering the grid, it is a difficult calculation to make as to what form of transport wins out in terms of carbon emissions. Planes are definitely not the best though. And besides it’s much nicer spending time on a train than a plane. To get from Palermo to Paris by train takes the best part of 2 days, assuming you may want a stopover in somewhere like Milan on the way. Then we’d need at least 2 nights in Paris in the hope that Elina may be there to catch up for a coffee with my wife and I. To get from Paris to Bruges is not that bad, a couple of hours, easy enough. Then you need at least two nights in Bruges in order to ‘see things’.

So we’re up to 6 nights already. Then we could either spend another 2 days travelling from Bruges to Dublin across the UK – I did something similar back in 1995 from Dublin to Paris, which I’ll come to in a later blog – or you could fly from Bruges to Dublin, then spend the night there before taking a train and bus up to Derry where you’d also want to spend at least 2 nights, enough time at least to do some sort of Derry Girls tour of the place, before then flying back over to Selçuk, probably via Istanbul. What’s more is that all the accommodation in these places is like double the cost of those I’d found on the Greek Islands.

In many ways it’d just be easier just to do a Patrick Leigh Fermor and walk around for years not worrying about all these schedules or the impact on the environment. I’d be tempted but for the fact I can only take 3 months off of work at the moment, and my wife has no interest in walking around Europe for years, even if it did include Bruges.

So, in the end, we’re going back to Plan A. No Derry, no Bruges, no Paris and just  flying from Palermo to Athens and then flying from Athens to Ikaria – skipping Tinos as I get very seasick and I couldn’t work out the ferry schedules – and onto Samos then over to Selçuk.

Back in 1995, life was far less complicated. I got my Willing Workers on Organic Farms guide book (more of a pamphlet than a book) out, I looked up farms in Tubbercurry, Ireland, where my grandmother was born, I rang up a place and arranged a time to come, then I stayed there for around 3 months, more or less. There was no Netflix, I didn’t even watch TV. There was no internet, I wrote a letter, or postcard,  home to my mum and family on occasions or made the occasional phone call. There were no websites to calculate the time you’d spend travelling between places. I just worked picking, planting and pulling out weeds during the day and at night I’d look at the stars, sit around smoking a cigarette chatting to Volkmar, or go out looking for hedgehogs with the very blonde boy. On the weekends I’d explore the countryside, picking mushrooms with a very blond boy, who seemed to know what he was doing to avoid being poisoned, and riding around country roads in between hedges visiting graveyards, abandoned churches and other things you find in the countryside.

I’d still write to Agatha, and she, from memory, wrote back a couple of times, though our letters were still tender and, for me, I was still hopeful that we might develop a romantic relationship through them. At one stage a young German woman who was riding around Ireland with her friends stayed on the farm for about a week. She was a nice woman and I had some attraction to her. She stayed in a separate part of the caravan with me and we’d watch the stars and search for hedgehogs together some night. I was still a horny young man, who hadn’t had sex since I was with Corrine the least year,  and I had thoughts of trying to get together with her, but I somehow still felt too connected to Agatha and felt it would be a betrayal to contemplate another woman. Instead I’d read a letter from Agatha and think of being with her.

I had some funny ideas back then. Looking back I didn’t owe anyone anything. And, as it turned out, my love for Agatha was, for reasons that are still mysterious to me, but which might have been as simple as she just wasn’t that into me, unrequited. Corrine was more straightforward, and even though I sent her a note or two when I was in Ireland, she was married.

So I spent the last warm days of Autumn hard at work on the farm, delivering fresh organic vegetables, like kale, even before it was fashionable, and herbs to hotels with Volkmar. There was one cool one that looked like a castle on a large estate with cute farm animals abounding. We also went to Sligo city on our regular stops. We’d stop for lunch every day on a nice table outside under a tree, to eat freshly made bread from Claudia, with home made cheese, gherkins and tomatoes from the green house and even some homemade chutneys and jam I think, as well as some pretty decent coffee.

It was largely an uneventful time there in Tubbercurry, but I was at peace. I was also, as I am now, committed to the idea of sustainability so I felt my farm labours meant something. I was also being rewarded for them I should say, getting 20 pounds a week extra and being able to save the whole of my dole check each fortnight. I had chosen to work on farms in Australia because I wanted to help mother Earth, or something like that. I mean sustainability has a much greater urgency and imperative now in the 2020s, bordering on desperation, but it’s nothing new, sustainability was big in the 70s, 80s, 90s, hell it dates back to Mayan civilisation, and cities like Palenque, in modern day Chiapas, Mexico which rose, flourished, and then declined and disappeared back into the jungle, due, in part to climate change, droughts, and unsustainable practices back in 226 BC to 799 AD.

Talking of decline, I tried to visit Agatha one more time in Dublin while I was in Sligo. I took the train across the wee country, I went to La Casa Chaparrita, but no-one was there. I tried calling into Agatha’s friend Bear place to find out where she was – at least I remember her name as Bear. Bear said I should have called ahead and that Agatha had visited some family north of Dublin where she’d work as some sort of nanny when she first came to Ireland. My grandmother had also worked as some sort of nanny when she emigrated to Australia when she was ten in the early 1900s. Agatha was on her way back to Barcelona soon. She let me stay at her house overnight. She was kind. I went back to Sligo the next day. I was sad.

The weather was starting to get colder and more miserable. When I got back to the train station closest to the farm in Tubbercurry it was drizzly. I had to wait an hour for Claudia to come and collect me. I must have looked like a sad wet puppy.

One day in Late September/ October I think, the warm weather just stopped. I said to Volkmar and Claudia that I’d move on in another week or two after finishing helping with the end of their summer and autumn cropping before the real cold set in. They thanked me and I made plans for my next journey. This time to France to stay at another Vipassana meditation centre, I thought I might even be able to make it down to Barcelona to try and visit Agatha one more time. But first things first.

Juanito’s Travels Cincuenta Años viaje – 1995 Vipassana Meditation in Herefordshire near Wales, UK BlogPt6

The first few days of meditation at the Vipassana Centre in Herefordshire didn’t have much impact.

It was like the demons of Bangkok and getting duped of all my money were just trying to rip my skin on their way out of my body while many more demons waited in queue. Rising and passing away.

For those who have never done a Vipassana meditation course, it’s not one of those relaxing visualisation things where you imagine butterflies and hummingbirds in green fields by clear streams. No, Vipassana is about working on your attachment. Attachment to both the things you like and the things you don’t like, recognising the impermanence of everything.

There was no escaping your demons here, you had to acknowledge them, face them, look them squarely in the eyes and let them pass away not through a fight with them, but by observing them, with equanimity (non-attachment). Things came into being for a while, you either like or dislike them and then, sooner or later, they passed away. But they were always changing and we were always forming attachments that made us miserable, at least if we didn’t accept that change.

$1,000,000 comes your way, maybe you’re super happy and spend it on stuff. Perhaps you invest a bunch so the interest it earns means the principal $1 million hangs on for centuries. But then you get attached to your million dollar lifestyle. And maybe you want $2 million, maybe you need to buy a BMW and the colour you want is out of stock and you crack the shits, or the leather interior wasn’t what you were imagining, or it’s going to take 3 months to deliver rather than 3 days.

Maybe you hire a butler and he overcooks the egg yolks for your eggs Florentine – is that the one where you put Hollandaise sauce over the eggs and have a little smoked salmon with it? – and you’re left with disgusting solid yellow lumps rather than delicious runny gooey golden yolks and you have to throw the hard egg yolks at your butler’s face because you’re not happy.

Anyway you can see how any sort of attachment can make you miserable.

The Buddha discovered the best thing was to simply observe with equanimity. Egg yolks are hard, well there’s people dying in the world so I’ll eat them today. Tomorrow I can have my gooey golden delicious runny yolks that runs around the plates so I can soak it up with some lightly toasted sourdough with olive oil.

Though tomorrow I could also bite into an egg and bacon roll at a cafe (since I don’t have a butler, because I fired the one who couldn’t cook the eggs properly, I mean that’s like a basic thing butlers should be able to do) and the yolks explode and go all over the sleeves of my jacket and over my hand and the waiter hasn’t even brought enough serviettes to deal with the situation. Which is exactly what happened just two weeks ago when I was in a cafe in Braddon in Canberra (in the year 2022 if you’re getting confused with this time travelling).

You get it, misery can be everywhere, even when you get exactly what you want.

How do you escape from suffering? The Buddha had some suggestions for this and a very simple technique of meditation which really helps. Don’t worry, I’m not trying to sell you meditation here. I’m just describing the Vipassana meditation technique and a bit of the philosophy and practice behind it.

First you have to be in the moment. In Vipassana this starts with observing one’s own breath. Inhaling in and out. Not controlling the breath but simply observing it. This is called mindfulness meditation and is a really useful technique in itself.

The 3-day meditation course I initially did back in 1995 in Herefordshire was just 3 days of mindfulness meditation. We didn’t progress to the Vipassana meditation part.

I sat for three days, observed my breath from around 4.30 am to 9 pm with breaks for breakfast, lunch and a light beverage and fruit for dinner, as well as some time to get up and stretch our legs. We sat for 3 days and then we finished. I said hi to a few people who had done the course, I got a few contact details in case I might hit them up for a place to stay, then I spent a few days volunteering at the centre helping in the garden and in the kitchen, waiting for the full 10-day Vipassana course to commence.

One of the meditation teachers offered to buy me a lolly in the nearby village in between the courses. In Australia offers of lollies are usually associated with paedophiles, but in the UK it apparently means an icy-pole, a zooper dooper type thing, an ice block. I hesitantly agreed, trusting that I’d meditated at least enough to avoid the karma of another poking up the arse (figuratively or literally) by a dodgy stranger. Whilst in the village I saw fruit trees for sale and I bought the centre a plum tree which I planted in their fruit orchard. I figured I didn’t have much money to donate but a fruit tree would keep giving for years to come. Perhaps someone’s eating one of its fruits right now, or whenever the plums ripen there.

They turned the heating off in some of the areas between courses so I almost froze to death trying to have a shower in the main block, but apart from that it was pretty pleasant. A bit of meditation, then a bit of work, then a bit more meditating. I got to chat with some of the fellow servers at lunch and around the place, and plant a few flowers and do some weeding. There were a few of us in our 20s there. A Polish woman, and one from France, and one from Germany, and a geeky bloke from England. There was a rather stern older lady from Austria or somewhere who made sure all us young folks were focussed on meditating and not other shenanigans – the centres, including the main meditation halls, are always divided between men and women’s sections to help with this as well, though the kitchen was a neutral area and we could chat with the opposite sex there. It was all very nice.

The 10-day course started about 3 days after the 3-day course. I think they’ve since dropped having those 3-day mindfulness courses as the Vipassana technique is the main focus and they suggest that takes at least 10-days to (begin to) master. Possibly people didn’t really come back for the 10-day courses after the 3-day course either and it was getting too confusing.

As part of the course you pledge to uphold a few simple rules, known as the 5 Precepts. The first are fairly straightforward to keep: to not steal, not lie or speak falsehoods (well, mostly the course is done in silence, so apart from the day at the end when we start chatting again, that’s achievable), not to kill, and to abstain from intoxicating substances (no drugs or alcohol). The last one is to abstain from sexual misconduct, which for the duration of the course means a vow of complete abstinence. I have never had sex with another person during a course, or even while helping out at a centre, that would be breaking the rules, but occasionally I get a bit desperate and need to masturbate. I’m not alone, I’m sure. During my first Vipassana course, that I’d done a year before, I was chatting to Evan and his girlfriend who I forget the name of. I think Evan resisted having a wank but his girlfriend was like, well you know at some stage I just put my hand down the front of my pants for a bit of a wank.

It’s something I could work on, but I can’t promise it’ll ever stop completely. I find 10 days a super effort to not ejaculate, if I’m not in a coma or something, and feel it may cause some medical issues if I hold it in too long.

I started the mindfulness meditation again for the first 3 and a half days. That’s 3 1/2 days from 4.30 am to 9 pm, some shorter sessions, some longer, just breaking for breakfast, lunch, a bit of lemon tea in the evening and a short talk from the Vipassana master Goenka, which was delivered via video. It’s probably digital now.

On day four the technique changes – rather dramatically led by Vipassana master Goenka, via video – from observation of the breath to the full-blown Vipassana technique, observing sensations through the whole body from head to toe, toe to head, up and down, down and up with equanimity (non-attachment).

Again, we do this technique from 4.30 to 9 pm, same sort of schedule.

Much easier said than done. A small itch becomes unbearable. Some heat in your ear searing. Your attention wanes, wanders, you go back to your breath to get some focus, then go back to observing the sensations over your body (these are physical sensations of your body by the way, nothing imaginary) and then I start thinking about that plum tree and when will it fruit, I should really have packed some more comfortable meditation clothes, and have I been doing this for an hour or 5 minutes, and when’s lunch? A lot of less mundane and more emotional stuff also comes up as well. For me it can be violent confrontations with my now deceased alcoholic father, or longing for a past lover in Switzerland. We have all this baggage from our years on Earth that we’re constantly replaying in our minds, not letting go of. Often making us miserable.

As I’d previously done a Vipassana course, and considered an ‘old student’ they gave me access to special solitary meditation booths. They were big enough to sit down comfortably but not to stretch your legs out too much. They were quiet, and despite the difficulties in remaining focussed and not letting my mind stray too far away, I was sometimes able to meditate for hours (or at least a full hour) on end.

At other times all the students meditated together in the dhamma hall. Men on one side and women on the other with the meditation teacher and those serving on the course at the front of the room. Those serving on the course meditate to the side up at the front.

Some of the non-spiritual highlights of the 10 days was that I saw a pheasant one day, a hare, some snowflakes, and a lot of birds in hedges as I walked around outside during the breaks. Occasionally a hawk would flutter in the sky looking down on some unsuspecting prey.

I ate my meals outside everyday, on a log overlooking the frosty fields in the morning and the wet and lush fields later in the day. Even though the course was 10 days of silence, I still didn’t want to hang around people eating in the hall during the meal breaks. I was often the only person out there looking at the lush green fields and hedges as I ate my porridge in the morning or my vegetarian curry stew for lunch, with a different pulse in it everyday. The food was pretty good actually.

It was day 10 of the course, we were released from our vows of silence around 10.30 and started to make the chatty readjustment to the real world.

It was over a fortnight now since I’d left London. I was ready to go back there, collect my passport and then head to Ireland to see if I could make a go of things.

The day went quickly, we still meditated a few times a day and there was also another evening talk by the guru Goenka. Most people enjoyed his evening video chats, and as the name Vipassana also means insight, so were Goenka’s discourses, just as insightful.

Goenka passed away in 2013.

Sometimes I think Vipassana meditation sounds super passive. But it’s not passive at all. Even though there’s really only 5 rules to commit to, and I regularly stray on the intoxicating substance one, these 5 rules can help you change the world.

If we all vowed to at least not kill other humans, even if we kill animals for meat and the like, we could avoid the misery and suffering of war and not have to spend billions on weapons to deter others. If we vow to avoid lying we could have open and transparent government and avoid having narcissistic psychos like Trump and Putin in power – though those pricks probably won’t follow the rules and abuse our good intentions, which you’re probably right about to a large extent. If we had vowed not to steal centuries ago we could have done away with colonisation, slavery and taking other people’s lands – and there’s still time to try and give compensation for the misdeeds of the past.

These simple things can allow us to live active and effective lives. I know many will want to argue about when it could be right to kill, or to take intoxicating substances, or even to lie. I know the world’s not perfect, but if you’re focussing on all the times these simple things won’t work, or aren’t practical, you’re not even trying and you might as well sit around like a potato rather than spreading love and joy in the world. Sure, we can have defence forces, but we should make every effort to address the reasons for war and to rid the world of the worst of weapons, especially nuclear weapons! We can also make laws, or individual purchasing choices to stop the privileged of the world exploiting the less privileged by making them work for 10 cents a day to make our clothes, or by hogging all of the COVID vaccines for westerners.

But all that aside. Back then in 1995, after 10-days and more meditating, I was ready to go and take control of my life again. To take action, and make plans, but also to protect myself from the ups and downs of life when things didn’t go my way.

It is like one of the slogans my dad had from alcoholic anonymous:

Lord grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

By the end of the 10 days I’d done enough to not be too fussed about sapphires, or plans going awry or anything. I just accepted, observed, then went back into the moment.

It was time to go to London to pick up my Irish passport and head over to Ireland.

Time to move on.

On the last morning, I thanked the meditation teacher for the lolly and got a lift to the train station, ready for the next adventure.

50-Year-Old Jovencito con mochilla, la Historia de Juanito’s Travels. Gotta get outta London BlogPt5

Have you ever had lettuce soup? I had it in Dublin. My friend Agatha Julia, from Barcelona, made it. I might get back to that at another time.


I was still in London. April may have started by then. It was certainly getting close to Easter.

I hadn’t slept in a bed for more than 3 hours since Bangkok, three or four nights ago now by my sleep deprived calculations. Last night I’d roughed it like a homeless person on the front lawn of my, well I was about to write friends but in the end they were just some people I knew in Australia who I thought might be home in London and whom I thought might have put me up for the night under a roof. In a bed. Not on the lawn in front of their flat on a freezing cold spring night in London.

Well, screw them. I now at least had $250 and my sister was going to put a further $500 AUD into my account some time today. You could pretty much halve that and get the value in British pounds. So maybe £375 give or take. That wasn’t going to get me far if I was going to stay in the UK.

It certainly wasn’t going to get me as far as Switzerland, where I imagine a hamburger cost $25 or something. It could possibly get me as far as Ireland though. I could find a job there. I had one contact I could try there whole lived on a farm in County Wexford.

I had just been back to the Irish embassy in London and was sitting again in Hyde Park, not far from Buckingham Palace. I’m pretty sure the Queen and Prince Phillip didn’t have to try and work out how to make £375 stretch 12 months, which was the original time I intended to spend in Ireland, or elsewhere in Europe. The whole being ripped off in Bangkok through a sapphire scam had kind of thrown a spanner in the works. Long term planning was off the cards at the moment. It was like I only had 32 cards anyway. Which might be enough for certain versions of euchre I think. Metaphors aside, and the reality of only having £375 meant I could only think of the immediate days ahead.

Before I finished this day though, I wanted a proper fucking bed, and a shower. I made my way to the backpacking area of Earls Court and used some of my £375 to get a room. A little room. But a room all to myself. Not in a dorm, I wasn’t sharing with other smelly hippies tonight.

It cost a bit extra. I was extremely low on cash. But fuck it, I’d spent the last night sleeping on a lawn in from of Newcastle Chick and British Guy’s flat – the same British Guy who’d fucking slept on my cozy floor, with my cozy extra bedding, eating my cozy rolled outs and vegetarian food in Fitzroy, Melbourne.

I’d spent the night before that sleeping on the floor of Heathrow Airport – for all of 3 hours after almost getting deported, and the night before that I managed just 3 hours sleep at a hotel in Bangkok after getting off a plane which engines had blown up, not once, but twice, up in the sky, where I could literally die.

So tonight I was going to have a room to my fucking self. I checked in, chucked my backpack on the ground, got out some fresh clothes, went and had a quick shower, pulling bits of grass and twigs from my hair due to my previous night of homelessness. I hadn’t had the opportunity for a shower for the last 3 days. What a simple indulgent pleasure to feel warm water running down your naked body. I hung my towel to dry outside the Earls Court window. I got out one of my Thai cigarettes and puffed out the window while I contemplated my next move. And reviewing what had gone wrong so far.

It’s all started to go pear shaped when I bought those fucking sapphires in Bangkok, so number 1 things was to get rid of them. They were bad luck. If I couldn’t sell them I’d just give them away. I was starting afresh so the sapphires had to go. Number 2, I had to get to Ireland, Ireland was the only place I couldn’t possibly survive for more than a few days at the moment. But my Irish passport was still in transit from Australia to the London Embassy so I needed to wait a few more days to collect it.

I couldn’t stay in this backpackers in Earls Court, especially in my fancy single room, that I thoroughly deserved after my ordeal, waiting for my passport though, especially in a private room, so I had to find somewhere that wasn’t going to cost me anything. I ruled out further attempts to contact Newcastle Chick and British Guy. I ran through my other options. Then it popped into my head. A Vipassana Meditation centre! Vipassana centres were run on donations. While I really liked to pay I could always do that later when I had more money.

I could try and go to the Vipassana Meditation centre and wait in the UK until my Irish passport arrived. After that I had Irish woman’s address. Her name was Nora. I’d never met her but she did used to live down the road from Christophe’s mum’s place in Tugun and that was a close enough link at this stage. I’m not sure why I had the meditation centre’s address, I think I’d planned to do a course somewhere along the way, perhaps in India. But, they also had a centre in the UK, in Herefordshire.

So I finished my fag, grabbed my sapphires and went out the door to find a pay phone. On the way I saw a church. I’m catholic – well more a catholic buddhist are thinking hippy – and I suspect this one was one of those protestant types where Anglicans go. It didn’t matter anyway, a protestant in hand is worth two Catholic Buddhists in the bush. I found whatever protestants called priests and I handed him a bunch of sapphires and I said: ‘Look these sapphires are real, they are just not worth that much, maybe you could sell them and give it to poor people or something.’ Or words to that effect. The protestant priest guy looked at the gems, looked at me with the stunned look of someone who’s just been handed 5 sapphires, and before he could say much more than a muttered ‘thanks’ I’d made my way out of the church and into a pay phone booth.

I called the UK Vipassana Centre’s number.

‘Hello’, I said, ‘I would like to do a course, I really need to do a course as soon as possible’. It was a meditation emergency!

‘Well, we have a 3-day course starting the day after tomorrow, but we usually only use that as an introductory course. Old students like yourself, who have done a course before would be better off doing a full 10 day course. We have a 10-day course starting in a week’.

‘Can I do the 3-day course and then the next 10-day course and volunteer in between time?’ The more meditation I did the better I thought, plus I’d never volunteered at a centre and that was kind of like paying them while I couldn’t afford to donate anything else.

They agreed to that and gave me some basic details on how to get there from London and said they’d see me there the day after tomorrow. So at least I had the next few weeks sorted out. I went back to the backpackers. As I entered the building one of the backpackers staff asked me whether I was the one who’d hung his towel out the window. I said yes. They said I couldn’t do that anymore. I said fine, whatever. I went up to my room, took my towel in and just sat on the bed and read a book for a while before going out and finding some cheap vegetarian food to eat, which I can’t recall at all and then going to sleep. It was one of the top ten sleeps I’d ever had in my life. A new level of deepness.

The next day I rose and had breakfast. There was an abundance of toast, tea, coffee, and bits of fruit. It was like paradise. My journey had kind of begun, a born again journey to replace the one I’d started a week or so ago which I now wanted to relegate to history. I guess Nietzsche said whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I preferred Buddha to Nietzsche nowadays, he’d said the source of all our misery is attachment. It was time to detach. It reminds me of a quote from cartoonist Michael Leunig : Let it go. Let it out. Let it all unravel. Let it free and it can be a path on which to travel. Leunig had been there at my first Vipassana meditation course about a year earlier.

I felt stronger after my fill of toast, Jam, margarine, more toast, tea, a few cups of tea, fruit and the such. I went into London again and did some touristy things, walking a bit along the Thames, looking at a few pigeons on statues and things, then it was back to my very own room again and more delightful sleep, in a bed and not in the garden outside of some supposed ‘friends’ flat who were now ghosting me.

The very own room bit really invigorated me. I should have been budgeting more and going for a dorm room but the spiritual lift it gave me was worth every extra penny or pounds. And I was still hardly spending much on anything else as you could find a bit of vegetarian pizza pretty cheap.

The next day I made my way to Herefordshire to begin meditating again. I took the train, it felt like going off to Hogwarts before I knew what Hogwarts was. We passed Oxford and I got to chatting a little with a professor who asked whether I was a student. No, just an Aussie on the way to a Buddhist retreat in Herefordshire.

The little pockets of forest along the way looked like the type Robin Hood might frequent. I went to school with someone who claimed to be related to Robin Hood. They might have been told the story by some Thai gem dealer as it turns out that even if Robin Hood existed (which he didn’t) he wasn’t exactly the sort of person one could relate their lineage to. I’m related to the Surtees family, they have some claim to the Tees river up in Durham. Here I was, just a few days in the United Kingdom and I was already being sucked in by their class wars, trying to prove I had some connection to a river I’d never been to to make myself think I’m all posh and fancy. I say the French Revolution didn’t go far enough and should have jumped the channel. But not to be. We do have the Queen’s bodiless head on our Australian coins though. And to be honest, if someone offered me a free castle on the Tees River at this stage it would be hard to refuse it.

I got off somewhere and got off and took a bus to a place which seemed to have a lot of constants in its name, which was surrounded by juicy pink pigs in muddy paddocks, where I was picked up in the vipassana minibus by one of the meditation centre’s volunteers.

The meditation phase of my journey had begun. The rest could wait. I needed to be in the moment now. To realise the impermanence of things. Both good things and bad things.


50-Year-Old Backpacker Blog: A Juanito’s Travels Chronicle. BlogPt1

The Pre-Planning Phase.

The first time I went backpacking was 27 years ago.

I went to find a girl, a Swiss girl. Or to visit Ireland. It’s unclear now.

I met the Swiss girl in Victoria, Australia. Her name was Corinne.

The Swiss girl was married then. I am married now. To a Wonder Woman. I even bought her, my Wonder Woman wife, a Wonder Woman sweater at Six Flags theme park in Mexico City. It was after we got drenched on one of the water rides which she’d said we were going to get drenched on and which I thought we’d just get a bit wet. We had to get some warm clothes and the Wonder Woman top seemed like a good way to admit she was right!

My wife and I met around the Day of the Dead in Guadalajara, Mexico. You can read more about that here.

I met Corinne decades earlier. She wasn’t so much a Swiss girl as a Swiss woman. She was the first lover I’d had where it felt like I’d found that puzzle piece I’d be looking for for ages. It just fitted.

I bought a pair of Scarpa boots made in Italy for my first trip overseas. They were soft leather, though harsher than Corinne’s skin softened by Nivea. Corinne looked a bit boyish to begin with. I wasn’t even sure she was attractive. Until I saw her naked body under her boyish clothes a few days later.

“Excuse me, do you have the time?” She’d asked.

It was the 90s. There was a clock on the wall behind her at Hurstbridge railway station. At the end of one of the Melbourne lines. Past Greensborough.

I pointed to the clock behind her head, “5.15”. It was April. Or May. Not that long after Easter. It was already getting dark.

And thus began an adventure around Australia which I fictionalised a bit in my online novella: the Adventures of Kosio and Juanito. So enough of her, my Wonder Woman wife might turn her magic lasso and invisible plane to devastating effect if I harp on about a previous love too much.

Suffice to say, back then, this meeting of the Swiss woman contributed to my motivation for my first trip to Europe back then in the early 90s.

I’ve since been back to Europe with my daughter. I also spent a few days in IcelandParis and Germany without my daughter, or my then wife-to-be, who is not the mother of my daughter, and whom I’d left in Mexico after becoming engaged following a trip to Cuba and around Mexico.

For a few days between getting engaged in Mexico and travelling to Munich to pick my daughter up from a school excursion, I was just by myself, as I had been in the 90s. With a backpack, a return ticket to London, no plans and little money.

How could you plan back then? There wasn’t even any internet to speak of! I seriously can’t recall, I guess you got guidebooks and pamphlets and guidance from the travel agency. I used STA Travel back then to help book my plane tickets. I just looked them up, and, during the worst of COVID lockdowns, they went bankrupt.

I wished I’d forked out some money for the Lonely Planet guidebook back then in the 90s. It would have helped with events to come.

Back to now, 2022. Post-COVID(ish). Well I have COVID as I write this so it’s still going, we’re just mostly ignoring now that millions of us in wealthy countries have had two or three a few jabs.

While in the 90s you could do with a guidebook, now we have the wealth of the internet. Which I find a bit distracting but which occasionally is useful.

We have everything at our fingertips but not much it seems that’s really worth looking at. In many ways it’s taken the mystery out of travel.

Back in the 90s I ended up bumming around Ireland for 6 months staying and working on Organic farms and visiting Vipassana meditation centres in France and Herefordshire.

In 2022, I have a Google Sheets spreadsheet with an itinerary and rough costings for each day of my planned trip. Which, at the moment, is Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Italy, Greece and Turkey.

I’ve decided to name my posts the 50-Year-Old Backpacker, A Juanito’s Travels Chronicle for now because, I don’t know, I can’t come up with another idea and I’ve never done a regular blog before and I’m 49 at the moment and started writing for the internet back in 1997 so I still like to keep it simple.

And I told my son he should use full stops rather than keeping writing ‘and’ but he should do what I say and not what I do.

So, planning for a trip. Back to my first trip to Europe in 1994 or 1995, it was sometime in the early 90s I can’t be bothered getting my old passport out of the shoebox to check. Actually it must have been 1995 as my niece was born when I was over there and she just turned 27. Anyway, I was initially travelling to Europe to kind of chase a Swiss girl called Corinne I’d met on a train at Hurstbridge, an outer suburb of Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.

That can’t have been the only motivating factor as I’d headed to Ireland, where I hold citizenship due to my grandmother Bee born in County Sligo, rather than Switzerland. But plans change. And for that trip in the 90s I didn’t plan much at all.

I’d been working on a farm in Nutfield, Victoria, not far from Hurstbridge. I had met Bev Brock, the partner of a famous Australian racing-car driver called Peter Brock. They weren’t married but Bev had taken on Peter’s surname.

Bev had offered me a job when, unemployed and on the dole, I decided to go out to do some volunteer work on an organic farm in East Gippsland through a scheme called Willing Workers on Organic Farms (WWOOF). This still exists, I just googled them and there’s a bunch of happy looking people in shirts picking chilli and talking to cows.

Bev was doing a weekend yoga retreat on the farm and we got to chatting and I said something like I wanted to help the planet by growing organic vegetables and she’d given me her number on a piece of paper on which she wrote Bev & Peter Brock. See, even back then some of us wanted to help the planet! Well back a long time before I was born many of us did too, it just seems like now it’s starting to get mainstream appeal as we’re on the precipice of turning the place into Venus where no life will live in the fiery inferno, nuked by UV radiation.

I didn’t know at the time Bev gave me the bit of paper that it was ‘the’ Peter Brock, the famous race-car driver, who, despite my general lack of interest in motorsports even I had heard of as he’d won the most prestigious endurance race in Australia at Mt Panorama Bathurst many times. A bit like Muhammad Ali, I’d never watched a boxing match in my life but all us kids in the 70s knew who he was. And we all knew who Peter Brock was.

I’d gone out WWOOFing, as they call it, following my first 10-day meditation course of Vipassana style meditation. There was another famous person who took that course with me called Michael Leunig, a cartoonist who drew ducks and teapots. He is also an Australian icon. As it was a silent retreat for most of the time (9 of the 10 days) I never chatted to him. I also didn’t recognise him, and being a bit shy I may not have really talked to him anyway. I probably said hi though, and I remember his curly hair and peaceful demeanour. I just like to mention that because I’m intrigued by famous people and where they pop up. I guess it’s not too uncommon to be drawn to fame, testament to this is the rise of Instagram and all those other attention seeking apps.

I’d finished the Vipassana meditation course out somewhere in country Victoria. I think it was at an old scout camp. It was around Easter. I remember as one day the servers on the course had given us all a few of those little chocolate Easter eggs wrapped in shiny foil. It was welcomed as they only gave you breakfast and then a lunch which they served around 11, in keeping with the monk and nun lifestyle of not eating after 12. They did give us a bit of fruit around 4ish but still I was starving. I can still remember the smell of the chocolate.

So I came back to a share house after the meditation course. I’d signed up for 3 months at a place in Fitzroy after my sister, who I’d been living with in Melbourne, ran out of space and asked me to move out. She had 2 kids by then and I’m not sure they wanted some hippy hanging about the place for too long. The shared house in Fitzroy seemed to have about 5-6 people in it. Some who lived there and others who were girlfriends or friends of the rent-paying occupants.  I’d rented the room off some woman who’d gone over to Europe or Asia or somewhere for 3 months.

I came back from the silent retreat all enlightened and all – actually not really, I’d found the course extremely tough and like in those pictures where the Buddha sits cross-legged and all tranquil like! My housemates were all sitting around the TV basking in its warm glow. I looked at their profiles on the couch, said ‘hi’, which was barely acknowledged and then went upstairs to my room. I dropped my bags down.

I’d picked up the number for WWOOF somewhere in Melbourne, maybe on a lamppost or at the organic, anarchistic, hippy organisation, Friends of the Earth food store and coop in Collingwood where I bought rolled oats and beans. I’d got the WWOOF people to send me the printed guidebook so I could contact host farms. It had arrived while I was at the retreat so I started flicking through the pages.  I found the yoga place in East Gippsland which looked interesting. I went out. I got on a public phone. I rang them up. They said I could go out the next day as they were going into Bairnsdale and they could take me out to the farm in Buchan. I went downstairs. I announced to the zombie TV people I was heading to a farm the next morning for a few days to which I got some grunts and what have you.

I went back up to my room. Since it was getting chilly I decided to try and start a little fire in the room’s fireplace. I quickly realised the vent was closed or something so the smoke didn’t go up the chimney, it just went into the room. I panicked and put the fire out before too much damage was done. But the chick’s clothes who’d I rented the room off got all smokey.

So I went out for a week to the yoga farm, planted cabbages and lettuces, tended to goats, picked corn, had cups of tea and went for bush walks in the days I had off. I got the number of Bev while I was there. I came back to Fitzroy to the same zombie glow of the house people, I rang Bev and then went out to the farm in Nutfield where she said I go live there and work on the place. I took the train back to Fitzroy, I announced I was moving out, I think I’d paid up till the end of the 3 months anyway. They grunted again. I never knowingly saw them again.

I’d like to say I’m sure they were nice people. But I’m not confident of that. They seemed like jerks anyway.

After moving out to the farm in Nutfield I’d noticed a few racing trophies and the like, not really in prominent positions but obvious enough for me to put 2 and 2 together. I realised I was working for ‘the’ Peter Brock, famous race-car driver and I rang my mum and said, ‘I think I’m working for ‘the’ Peter Brock’ out on a farm in Nutfield. To which she was maybe not that surprised.

The Brocks had a beautiful pink house on a hill overlooking a gully with a huge gum tree in front where they fed the cockatoos, galahs and a semi-tame kangaroo called Tilley bird seed in the mornings. They also fed the magpies and kookaburras a bit of minced meat which occasionally they’d forget and which we’d discover once it’d gone smelly.

The house was surrounded by ponds, one of which went inside and outside the house so fish could swim in. It was pretty amazing. Bev and Peter had their own part of the house where the kitchen and the inside outside pond were.

A few weeks after starting there I met Corrine, a Swiss architect who’d been studying English in Melbourne. She came to the farm and Bev and Peter welcomed her as well.  Bev showed her pictures of the house in architectural magazines and we had dinner together with the family. After spending a few days on the farm together I announced to Bev that Corinne and I were going to travel north. Winter was coming so there wasn’t much to do on the farm at that point anyway. So we travelled up and down the east coast of Australia as far as Airlie Beach. Somewhere along the way I’d discovered Corinne was married, and my newly found Buddhist values said she should go back to Switzerland to finish that before she started a new relationship with me. Besides I actually had a job – and one I was really passionate about – now so I thought I should go back to it.

You can read a fictionalised version of that in my online novel: The Adventure of Kosio & Juanito (& Corinne) – a novel of sorts about fishing, love and life.

It was an amazing time of my life. I regret pushing her away back to Switzerland. But that happens sometimes in life. I should have also probably called the novella the Adventures (with an ‘s’) of Kosio & Juanito (& Corinne) but I’ve since rectified that with the title of this website and I’m going to keep the original name as well as all the typos I’m sure it still has. It’s not Hemingway’s Fiesta, but it’s worth a read in my opinion.

I’m now married to a beautiful Mexican whom I met on my travels to Mexico, so perhaps I’m learning from my regrets and proving the adage there’s more fish in the ocean. Although I also married her like 20 years or so later (than my days in Nutfield with the Brocks) so perhaps you should also be patient both in fishing and love (both themes of my first ‘book’: http://www.juanitos-travels.com/?page_id=1615).

So back to Bev & Peter Brock’s farm in Melbourne. After pushing away Corinne and only having her Swiss Army knife as a memory – as we didn’t get any photos together due to her being married and not having phones capable of taking photos in that day – I went back to the farm in Nutfield and spent the rest of the year tending to goats, chickens and vegetables, planting thousands of gums, casuarinas, wattles and fruit trees, seeing snakes, wombats and foxes and walking around in nature.

I still had, and still have, Corinne’s Swiss Army knife which she’d sent me by mail from Sydney while she waited to go back to Switzerland. She liked painting and had sent me a water colour of the Sydney harbour bridge with a beautiful note and the knife. I kept the knife, and for years the water colour and note.

I regretted not spending more time with her.

Bev & Peter paid me $10 an hour cash in hand (take it up with the tax office – their accountant made me some sort of director of a trust or something), but since I ate with the family every night, had no bills or rent to pay, and also that $10 was worth more back then, I was able to save up a few thousand dollars by the end of the year. I used to keep it in some books at my sister’s house to avoid the prying eyes of the taxman and the dole office.

So, after saving enough for a ticket to London return I decided I would set off and see if maybe I could find her. I had my WOOFing guide after all which included a few farms in Switzerland.

Early in 1995 I had my ticket, which included stopovers in Bangkok and either Kathmandu or New Delhi. I sent a note to Corinne in Switzerland to say I was keen to see her again. She’d left her address with the Brock’s but not with me. Come to think of it I wasn’t sure if I’d sent the note before I left or perhaps when I was in Europe. It seems more like me to wait until I was closer by. Still I sent her something at some point.

I think the plan was to go to Switzerland, spend some time on farms and maybe see if I could catch up with her again in her town of Elgg, Switzerland.

That was the plan at least.