Monday, April 30, 2012

A Brief Sojourn Through The Chinese Countryside

Or, Tramps Afield in Southern China.

My latest blog post has been written as a guest writer for a different blog, but I'll put a note on here for anyone of the usual readers who are interested in what I am up to these days.

The blog is a great new company called Carmel Organics.
** edit: There is something wrong with the document as posted to the blog, see the article here instead,

After a lovely time in China, and a very pleasant stop-over in Moscow I am now having a very interesting time in Isreal, updates to follow.


Sunday, February 12, 2012

A Great Investigation

Hello Dear Readers,

It has struck me with great interest to know what you all think about the upcoming Valentine's Day.

In fact, I have taken to questioning people randomly on the street to determine public opinion on the matter, as Kirsten, from the UK can reliably attest :-).

Initially I intended to do a series of interviews in the laid back-tourist town of Queenstown, New Zealand. Unfortunately my time there has been cut short and I would like to use this opportunity to ask you, dear readers, what you think of the entire situation. Don't be shy, share it out.

I am especially interested in this because interviews to date have indicated that, contrary to what marketers would have you believe, many people think that the day is over-commercialized and that having a day "assigned" to caring about people is silly.

What do you think? If you like the day, what is your idea of a great Valentine's Day?

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Dear Ladies, Gentlemen, Scholars,
I last wrote you upon my arrival at Symara Organic Farm. Symara was a taste of the romance of the Australian Outback. The Outback is a land of stories. There are few places in the world in which stories are written about the place itself, and the Outback is one of them. The stunning landscapes and sense of place are a good start to give a place this quality.
As usual, the people make or break the experience and they certainly made it at Symara. With generous, trusting hosts and some very interesting WWOOFers we got involved in a great project to build a grey water system for the showers and laundry. This particular type of system is called a “reed bed”. Reeds, as it happens, are remarkably good at cleaning grey water. They are able to reduce the biological oxygen demand as well as other nutrient loads and make the water useable in a pond or to water vegetables. Without such treatment the water can quickly breed bacteria, making it a hazard.
Visiting the market with Ray is certainly a signature Symara experience. It’s not very often that I wake up half an hour after midnight and start work at 1 am. Combining this with the experience of working the till at the market is a very odd experience indeed. Working the cash at a farmer’s market bears an erie resemblance to public speaking, with all the anxiety and lower mental function attached. If you thought adding and subtracting was easy, try doing it in a hurry when money is involved after not sleeping much.
This is Symara’s nursery. I enjoy agricultural landscapes with a sort of dynamic tension. On the one hand I find them very beautiful. On the other it is obvious what they displace. The problems they create. Short of abandoning the agrarian model, which I’m afraid it is too late to do, I suppose we will have to try to make it work as well as we can. There is lots of room for improvement.
After my time in Symara I joined a group of people for two weeks in Brisbane. We were all participants in a course about social justice in Brisbane. Our study material was quite broad, including topics like how refugees integrate into Brisbane, what it is like to hear voices in your head, collecting food from the garbage, and subverting hierarchical organizations. In this particular photo we have set up in downtown Brisbane in the Queen Street Mall to make a protest highlighting the excessively consumerized nature of the Christmas season. It involved singing a modified version of that “On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me...” Not that we were all serious :-). We also enjoyed many cups of coffee, good friends, food and late night conversations. In fact, one of my course buddies ‘adopted’ me for Christmas, inviting me to come down to the Gold Coast to hang out with them for Christmas eve and day. Thank you Laraghy family! Tune in next week to beautiful scenes Sandy Creek Organics, adventures with absinthe and A Most Curious Place (known to many as Crystal Waters.)

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Update From Oz

Hello All,

It is time for a fairly mundane update on my travels for all of you out there simply wondering where I am and what I’m up to :-).

I arrived in Australia in the beginning of September. My first major destination was an intentional community called Bellbunya.

(View from one of Bellbunya's garden)

There have not been many new intentional communities forming in South East Queensland in the past few years because the legal and financial climate has deteriorated a lot since the 1970s when many communities were started. It is hard to get permission to have more than one dwelling on a property, and land is much more expensive. Bellbunya is one of the few new ones, and they have an interesting financial structure to try do jump around the hoops and negotiate the big questions like what happens when someone wants to leave, and how to arrange for people without much money to have access. My time here was mostly to learn about the whole intentional communities situation, having never actually lived at one before.

And I got to take that learning theme to the next level by accompanying some lovely Bellbunya folks to a conference about intentional communities in Northern New South Wales. The conference was held at a fairly large intentional community, with something like two hundred people, called Bundagen.

(House made of mud bricks, Bundagen)

Bundagen is set up into little hamlets, and surrounded by amazing old forest. The community initially started in order to purchase and save the forest, with the realization that to actually protect it people must live there full time. And find a way to do so in co-operation with the forest. Since the initial colonization the forest has become a national park and also they have secured the nearby coastal region as a marine park. The beach is breathtakingly rugged, with roaring surf and an enormous, long, rocky beach.

At the conference we discussed a wide range of issues, like how to get along with people in the community. This seemed to be a top challenge for intentional communities in general. Even a representative from one which spent 12 years in legal battles trying to secure their space said that getting along internally was actually their primary challenge, not the legal battle. Yikes. It makes me wonder if we are really barking up the right tree with this intentional community thing. I heard stories about the beginnings of communities, their alternative school systems, history of the movement in Australia, continuity challenges (including an aging population) and more. I particularly liked the reflections on what an intentional community is supposed to be; I see the promise of an intentional community as creating a space for experimentation in living. A kind of bubble where radical things can happen. A sort of safe space.

Of course an intentional community can also be seen as people coming together simply to address the basic issues of life; affordable housing, decent food, sensible school system, and good work. None of these are very well organized in mainstream society, after all.

Next, I spent time at the radical and lovely Peter Maurin Farm, populated by a bunch of anarchist Christians who belong to the Catholic Worker Movement. When I saw their farm advertized in the WWOOF book as an anti-military, anarchist and Christian place Tolstoy came to mind. I just had to visit :-).

(Peter Maurin Farm house)

In the past, I’ve found the anti military activists to be most radical and I was not disappointed this time either. Shortly after my arrival I accompanied my new friends to an anti military demonstration outside Ennogera Military Base in Brisbane to protest the tenth year anniversary of Australia’s attack and occupation of Afghanistan. We sent solidarity messages to an Afghan youth organization, and held a vigil for dead Afghanis and Australians, closing the day by blockading the entrance to the base, ending in the arrest of 5 people. The event was blacked out by the mainstream media, and you will not hear about it just about anywhere but here.

(Andy getting arrested)

The media blackout occurs with all events involving the name Jim Dowling in Australia. Just ask the naive new reporter who tries to do a story involving Jim. For example, about that time he and some friends marched into the most secure military base in Australia, clipping their way through the fence to sit on the roof of one of the buildings inside. The the military got quite rude after noticing the citizen inspection team taking photos with their flash camera at night... The team was inspecting the base for illegal activity as it was reported that they were murdering people in Iraq. All collected evidence supports the initial suspicion. Actually, it’s bloody obvious. Just ask the person walking through puddles of innocent blood in Baghdad. Incidentally, this same person took a stroll into the base and showed up in court afterwards in the same bloody shoes. Bloody peace activists.

But before we all get depressed, let’s move on.

And indeed I did. Onwards to witness some other (loosely associated) Catholic Workers in a protest of the hoarding of wealth in Brisbane. One of the most visible hoardings is the collection of real estate. Specifically houses which a landlord owns, and being too rich anyways to bother renting them out, simply leaves them to rot while others sleep outside or work their ass off to pay exhorbitant rent. Rent, which is of course driven up to rather unreasonable levels by the practice of landlording and usery in the first place.

(example of hoarded wealth)

Fortunately there is a neat and obvious direct action way of protesting this situation, and it is as timely as it is simple: Occupy. Those of you aware of recent happenings in Madrid and Wall Street understand my allusion to timeliness. The particular house I witnessed the occupation of had been sitting empty for eight years. The squatters lived there for a month before being unceremoniously tattled upon by a real estate agent living next door. At last contact the squatters now live on the lawn of Post Office Square, in the middle of Brisbane.

(Tent village, Post Office Square, Brisbane)

My time in Brisbane was also an excellent opportunity to explore the community gardens, dumpster diving scene, some backyard urban agriculture and a food distribution agency called Food Connect.

Although Post Office Square is an excellent location, only the shortest walk to the finest bars and shopping in Brisbane, and the rent is quite affordable, I found the buildings to impinge excessively upon the sky.

So, I have moved to my most recent location near Stanthorpe, at 900m and a fair bit further inland than Brisbane. The landscape is much prettier, dominated by those poems written upon the sky: trees. I much prefer these to the concrete sky-caves of Post Office Square. Besides, the vegetables are much fresher at Symara Organic Farm.

(Symara Organic Farm house)

This is actually the first time I have been on a real, producing, market garden since leaving Everdale about two years ago. It is a good change. I have been looking for quite some time to be in a situation where there is a semi decent work situation. By that, I mean one which fulfils the three basic requirements of good work: overcome the ego by working together with others in a common task, use and develop the faculties, and secure a decent material existence. As simple as these criteria may seem, they are actually rather difficult to achieve in this day and age. Market gardens seem to come closer than most places. There’s something about actually being involved in the outside economy that is encouraging. I suppose knowing that someone cares about your work enough to pay some decent money for it is nice.

The couple running Symara are quite involved in the food system here, creating a rural local food system as well as supplying to a interesting organization and “farmer’s market” in Brisbane. So it’s a good place to learn for a while about a section of the food system in Australia.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Blog Post Generic

The following is fictional
I last wrote about my time in Koh Samui, Thailand. That was about three months ago. Since then, I’ve been back for more meditation at a monastery in Thailand. It was inspiring. The best thing that Thailand has to offer. In between, I drank. I partied like I have never before, in the best place to party in the world. Entire islands dedicated to drum and base, rave style parties. We danced all night on the beach and watched the sun come up. Swam in a green, glowing ocean. It was -just us-. The young people. The partiers. We owned the island. We ran the island. All night long. We fought off monkeys and found isolated beaches to play rugby on with coconuts. We drank until we puked and meditated the next day, then bounced cities to the other side of the country to find another island where the alcohol was even cheaper. Climbed palm trees to get coconuts and didn’t care about the wounds we got from it, even when we were sober again. We scored MDMA from people who couldn’t speak English. We took cocaine for the first time. We closed bars, went home with the managers and scored with girls we hardly new. Slept on the ceramic floor in brand new apartments that seemed abandoned, and dragged ourselves over to straw huts by the beach in the morning. We rode in the back of trucks. Worshipped the sun. Danced in the rain on the road and at concerts where we were the only people. Ran on the beach through the waves, and the rain and the sunset. Got seasick. Got homesick. Got over it and looked for another adventure. Met hundreds people we’d never talk to again and and handful friends who would remain with us forever. We looked for Nirvana. Found, love, companionship. Despair. We flew by the seat of our pants, not knowing if we were going to make it, not knowing where we would sleep or eat. And loved it. We dreamed. Wore flowers in our hair. Chasing along the edge of the cliff, we were alive. Life was fun, a blast. An adventure, a celebration of spirit. And just the beginning. We went to the other side of the world to find a new way of living. To rediscover the old ways and build some sort of hybrid, or something completely, utterly, new. To see stars we’d never seen before.To run and jump and play with animals we’d never met before. To swim in the ocean that we’d never see again. Love, James

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Just Let Go Part 1

Part 1
The Island of Coconut Trees
By James Douglas, July 1, 2011.

Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Make yourselves comfortable and prepare for a true tale of a spiritual journey in a far off land...

Imagine yourselves in a cosy little bungalow, on the tropical island of Koh Samui, Thialand. The name itself, meaning The Island of Coconut Trees, suggests a cute little paradise. Or at least a paradise after the Hollywood definition...

I live here in a palm leaf and banana hut on the sandy cove known as Lamai Beach.

Lamai Beach, view from my hut

After a long and wearisome journey from the northern provinces I am pleased to settle into such a quaint little hide-away. Upon exploration I have found that there appears to be an entire village here almost entirely composed of bars. The people here appear to subsist mostly off of beer. Surely Gulliver himself has not come across such a strange place as this. Even the street signs proclaimed the strangeness of the experience.

Yes, it was an odd day indeed. I think Alice would agree.

But what followed, friends, was even more strange and wonderful.

The reason I came to Koh Samui is not for the more commonly persued Sex, Sun and Sea, but rather to explore the rich philosophy of the Buddhist monkhood. These monks are said to hold the secrets of Happiness, to have a deep knowledge of the nature of life and indeed of nature itself. They are willing to share their centuries old knowledge with those from far away lands who come to seek it.

Those of us assembled here to recieve the teaching on Koh Samui meet in Utopia Hotel (a little bit SW down the road from the Laguna Resort, different from the Utopia Resort). The owner of the Utopia Hotel is actually the person who has donated land for the Retreat Center, and she will be bringing us bread for breakfast every morning :-). We are guided into the mountain by a helper of the monks. The group of us are taken far back into the jungle, among the palm, cashew, and banana plants. None of us have ever been here before nor will we likely ever return.

Finally, we arrive at the Retreat Center for the Development of Light Hermitage. It is up on the mountain where a few monks live in the forest, with only the bare essentials of life (Website: ). We are greeted by friendly helpers and what they have in store for us is laid out:

For the next six or seven days we will:
Wake up at 4:30 am
Eat only two meals per day (before 12 noon)
Not speak
Sleep on plywood with a thin plastic mat and wooden “pillow”.
Eat only vegetarian food, and no intoxicating drugs
Intend to refrain from all killing, including scorpions, snakes and mosquitoes
Meditate for about four and a half hours per day

And, hopefully, love it :-).

On the evening of the 20th we were given an introductory talk, then the silence began, continuing until the afternoon of the 6th day. It seems that the schedule changes a bit with every retreat, but for days 2, 3, 4, and 5 we basically have the schedule as laid out on the website. For day 6 they change the schedule and take us in the back of a truck to a meditation garden on a different part of the island in the afternoon. We return to normal society after lunch on the 27th.

One of the things I was concerned about was sitting for a long time. Most westerners, especially men, have difficulty sitting on the floor for extended periods of time. However, since this meditation retreat is meant for westerners coming for the first time to a retreat, they have dealt with this issue admirably. We sit for no more than 30 minutes at a time, alternating walking and sitting meditation. In the beginning there is a talk about postures which I found very useful.

This retreat is shorter than a normal Vipassana retreat (usually 10 days). It seems that in order to practice insight meditation one first has to practice concentration meditation. So, the focus of this retreat is concentration meditation, with only some introduction to insight meditation.

Before I move on to describing more of what we went through during a retreat, I’ll just add a few details about being prepared, for those who find this page with the intention of going on the retreat:
-I suggest to bring a long sleeve shirt, mosquito repellant and a flashlight separate from your cellphone because they like it if you give in your cellphone, computer and any other fancy electronics to the safe before the retreat begins. No photographs are allowed during the retreat except for at the very end when there is a group photo. Hence I have no photos of the beautiful meditation hall to show you :-).
-“Fishermen pants” (loose fitting simple pants with an odd little string to hold them up, good for sitting for long periods) seem to sell for about 1500 bhat in Lamai Beach. This is a total rip-off. The meditation center sells some tshirts and fishermen pants; 120 bhat for a tshirt and 150 bhat for fishermen pants.
-You are asked for a donation at the end of the retreat. It’s given in an anonymous envelope (well, you can put your name if you want). The idea is that you pay for someone else, as someone has paid for you. Honestly I’m not sure how much it costs them to conduct the retreat and they don’t say anything about it so this logic is a bit sketchy. Whatever.

Sorry I can't manage to write this whole post like a story :-).

Thursday, June 16, 2011

You don't have to go home...

...but you can't stay here.

Which is fortunate, because as discussed I haven't much of a home, really :-).

I'm kicked out of Nepal, but I suppose that's fine. It's time to move on anyways. I have been in Nepal for 10 months. So it's time to say goodbye to...

All the beautiful plants I never understood.

The Nepali villages, where kids harass you for money and chocolate, which is annoying at first. But once you realize they just want to interact with you and that's all they know how to do, ask for stuff or say hello, it's OK. Goodbye to the Nepali boy who asked me for chocolate, and when I asked him back said, simply, "No, I haven't any chocolate," as if he would share it for sure if he did. The village full of both subsistence farmers and gangsters. The gangsters who carry swords and like Puslar motorcycles the best because they look fierce. The gangsters who would steal your last penny and not know what to do with it after they have it, who used to wear Britney Spears tshirts or maybe still do. The tax office which you have to bribe if you want to pay some tax. The bus which you have to ride on the roof of, but it's OK because that's the most comfortable place anyways.

Goats! Always so cute and tolerant of being tied up all the time. You could chew through your rope in a minute if you bothered, but you never really seem to bother.

To the newly planted apple trees. I'm proud of you and I think you're safe now that the rain is coming :-). And the comfrey too.

To the Annapurna Sanctuary. You're not as famous as Everest but I think you're more beautiful and I suspect so do Korean people. You're more accessible, more sacred and more dangerous, for better or for worse. This photo is my third an final visit :-).

To all the great people I met whose homes I stayed at, who gave me advice. Who taught me what I came to learn and also what I didn't.

"Thou hast made me known to a friend whom I knew not. Thou hast given me seats in homes not my own. Thou hast brought the distant near, and made a brother of the stranger.

I am uneasy at heart when I have to leave my accustomed shelter; I forget that there abides the old in the new, and that there also thou abidest..."- Tagore