On the wing
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I glanced at my watch. Its hands read 10.40pm. Eleven hours to go, according to the announcement from the cockpit. I’d boarded the Boeing 777 at Heathrow’s terminal four after running the gauntlet of checking-in, immigration control, x-ray baggage scanners, having to take off my shoes and jostle with impatient passengers, identify and grab what belonged to me from the moving, black conveyer belt…plus, in my case, my trusted walking stick. Now the drone of the two powerful engines resonated a constant frequency. They’d been that way ever since they’d lifted us to the correct cruising height above the clouds and eastwards into a night sky devoid of moonlight. As the cabin crew began preparing to cater for the 270 of us (I’d asked what the total passenger number was at the departure gate), I sipped whisky diluted with ice from a plastic cup. For some strange reason, my wife’s parting words came to mind… ‘Don’t forget your nearly eighty now. No climbing mountains, parasailing, deep-sea diving and silly things like that…promise’? I’d agreed. The eleven hours seemed to be influenced by Einstein – each one of them dragging, as if in some time warp. Whoever said that long-haul flights to tropical destinations were exciting, must have been an insomniac. Although my stiffened body was telling me that I’d definitely not slept during the flight, I must have dozed off – because the change in engine note and the sudden lurch as the aircraft slowed and pointed its nose towards Earth, alerted me. There’d been the usual scramble to open overhead lockers, remove bags and cases and stand crowded in the aisles as soon as the plane came to a stop. Now, those same people were made to wait until the doors were opened. The signal to disembark was given and the crush began. I’ve never understood this ritual but it happens every time. Ah well, that life, I suppose. Bangkok’s new airport is certainly cavernous, yet its size does not detract from its architecture, internal decoration and abundance of orchid arrangements. Slowly, I trundled a baggage trolley along the main walkway crowded with thousands of others, noting how so many were hurrying and sweating, despite the efficient air-conditioning. By mid afternoon, I was lounging under a brightly coloured parasol alongside the swimming pool of hotel a mere 2 miles (oops…sorry but metric is not natural for me) from the airport. I’d decided months earlier, that there was no need to spend an hour or more in a taxi as it tried to negotiate a path through the inevitable, chaotic traffic and on into the city, because I’d visited many of Bangkok’s spectacular attractions in the past. This trip to Thailand was to enable me to experience sea kayaking off the coastline of Krabi, so I’d thought I’d break the journey, spend one night nearby and take the short internal flight to Krabi the next morning. My plan was working well. Two days spent shaking off jet lag, relaxing, enjoying the facilities of a carefully sited, boutique hotel consisting of 8 individual chalets – and exchanging tales of holiday destinations with most of the other guests, as well as arranging with the hotel’s owner for my day kayaking, I was ‘ready to roll’. “What’s your name?” I asked the young man who was to be my driver, my guide and my partner in the kayak. “Please to call me Tip. My Thai name is very imposs for you to say” he answered. “Tip it is then,” I agreed, climbed into the car and he began the drive towards the Andaman Sea. Formalities completed at the hire company’s base and now wearing certified life jackets, we stepped carefully into our designated kayak, sat with just as much care (me at the front) and we paddled away. The base manager had, quite rightly, questioned me as to my proficiency and when I told him that, as a young man, I’d trained and qualified as a canoeist on England’s rivers and lakes, he’d beamed widely and translated the info to Tip. Soon, we were a team, our double-bladed paddles working in perfect harmony, Tip following my slow methodical strokes with ease. We chatted a little and despite the language barrier, I was surprised at his overall knowledge and understanding of English. He was indeed a great guide. Leaving the large sea-water lagoon behind, Tip indicated that we were to turn left. I obliged and within minutes, the whole vista changed. Having now to negotiate narrow channels lined with myriads of arching mangrove roots, I slowed the pace and eventually stopped paddling altogether. Tip did the same. The silence was not expected – certainly not by me. Nothing was moving. The water surface was more like melted Demerara sugar, the air still and the forest of roots devoid of wildlife. Well, that was my initial observation, anyway. Resting my forearms on the paddle, which I’d laid across the kayak, I began to ‘tune-in’ to our new surroundings. Tip whispered – I swivelled to face him and he pointed to a spot where the roots met the water. With hardly a ripple, a 10 foot long monitor lizard glided effortlessly between the tangle, its tongue flicking, sensing what lay ahead. I wasn’t expecting that! Moving again, I began to think how much I was enjoying this, shrugging off the aches my aged bum’s muscles were protesting about and ignoring the growing stiffness in my biceps. Tip said, “After one more kilometre, we turn to the right side and go into mountain.” Mountain? my mind puzzled, what mountain? There are 50 foot high mangrove trees as far as the eye can see in all directions. Still, I couldn’t argue, could I? I didn’t! When Tip indicated the turn, I steered into an ever-narrowing channel of dark water between the trees, many of which were arching over our heads and blocking the sunlight. It was like negotiating Hampton Court maze with the same feelings of doubt as to finding the exit. Without warning, the ‘maze’ came to an abrupt end. Ahead now, was a vertical wall of limestone hundreds of feet high. Tip had been right, it was a mountain, albeit a tiny one. When he pointed to our left, I could just, in the gloom, make-out the shape of a black hole less than the average man’s height and perhaps 8 foot wide. He made a ‘shooing’ gesture with one hand. I obeyed and dipped my paddle into the water. No Orlando theme park could mimic this journey. The only sound was the feint ‘slap-slap’ of our kayak’s bow as we edged forward, the only light, that spilling into the tunnel from where we had entered. This was turning out to be a real adventure. “How much further?” I asked, in a quiet voice, straining to see what lay ahead. “Maybe ten more minute, Mister Brian,” Tip replied, his tone reflecting some concern. “Are you OK?” he asked. I said I was fine and paddled forward. Reminiscing in my mind about the time I canoed through an old British Waterways canal tunnel, the same ‘pin-prick’ of circular light appeared ahead. I guess Tip’s estimate was to be proved right. It was! There was no way I could have conjured-up the sight that lay before me as we slipped from the confines of the tunnel and into the bright sunlight. A lake. One about the size of a soccer pitch. A lake of almost black, absolutely still, water. A lake totally enclosed within precipitous faces of limestone towering hundreds of feet into the air, trees and shrubs of indeterminate age, clinging to crevices in the sheer rock. The ambience was almost that of total silence. Tip didn’t speak and neither did I. Perhaps the very nature of this place was affecting us in the same way? The whole area looked pre-historic. I half expected to see a Pterodactyl come sweeping over the cliff tops and dive, its talons snatching me from the kayak as a tasty morsel for its awaiting young. Tip and I remained still and let the more realistic calmness of this wonder of natural evolution envelop us as we rested. “We go now?” Tip eventually asked, breaking the reverie. “Yeah, OK,” I replied but asking a question before grasping my paddle. “How many times have you been to this place, Tip?” “Ha!” he exclaimed. “Nearly everyday in tourist season. I like it. Always same-same. It is, how you say… peace?” “Peaceful. Yes and beautiful too,” I added. The journey back to base was uneventful and made without hardly a word spoken. Unlike the flight from UK, the past four hours seemed to have condensed into mere minutes. After climbing out of the kayak, Tip led me to a small local restaurant, where an absolutely delicious array of Thai food was placed on the table almost as we sat to it. ‘Jungle telegraph’ or just perfect timing? It mattered not. We chatted as I drank an accompanying glass of cool beer. Then it was time to go. “Many people like to visit local market,” Tip announced as we walked towards the car. “You like to see?” I readily agreed and with a broad smile, he drove us away, no doubt hoping that I would make a few purchases, which would result in some commission for him. If I did and it did, then so be it, I’d no problem with that. Inland some 3 or 4 miles (there I go again) the road went from level ground to a gradual climb until we reached the market. Not really a market, I soon discovered, more like a collection of stalls manned by smiling locals, each using their well-honed skills at bartering with tourists, of which, I guessed, some fifty had arrived before me. ‘Must be popular’, I was thinking. Tip stayed fairly close as I wandered from stall to stall, only stopping once to examine and buy a number of hand-crafted silk skirts, anticipating the look of pleasure my wife would display when I handed them over. Once wrapped, Tip insisted that he carry them for me. What else could I do but agree? Leaving the stalls behind, I sauntered along quite a broad path that meandered between the local flora. Tall Palm trees rustled their fronds in the light breeze, vying for space against trunks of Teak, Jackwood and clinging vines. Turning a bend, I came to the bottom of a flight of wide, steeply rising, stone steps, noticing immediately that local people were both ascending and descending but not coming from or going to the collection of stalls, instead taking the path in the opposite direction. Tip appeared from behind me holding my purchases. “What’s up there?” I asked. “Temple” he replied. “Very important temple for whole area,” he added. “You want to see?” Before I answered, I took another good, long look at the flight of steps, wondering if could manage to climb them and now regretting the decision not to bring my stick. “How many steps, Tip?” I asked. “Ah!…these first ones seventy-five, then maybe twenty more same number,” he said, his voice kind of ‘apologetic’ but with a hint of a challenge in it too. Problem! Do I take fright at the thought of climbing perhaps 1400 steps? Steps, if the ones in front of me were anything to go by, would be just as steep and uneven? Or…do I let the ‘Devil take the hindmost’, shrug-off any thoughts of defeatism and show this young guy that even at my age, no challenge should be dismissed? Yeah, you’ve guessed it…I nodded, took a deep breath and placed my right foot on the first of them. By the time the last one came into view, sweat poured from my brow and was running into my eyes. My legs felt like the proverbial plate of jelly and I was puffing like an old steam train. “It’ll be a lot easier coming down”, I murmured to myself and clambered onwards and up. Tip’s dark brown eyes glistened – the only sign of fatigue I could see. Oh to be twenty something again! “Please you will sit, Mister Brian,” he pleaded, offering an outstretched hand to help me as he indicated a long stone bench just visible inside the entrance to what looked to be a large cave. I ignored the offer of physical aid but willingly accepted the chance to sit. My initial concept that we were to enter a cave, proved to be correct…but what a cave. Now, having adjusted my eyes to the gloom, I could see that its size was truly staggering. Years earlier, my wife and I had enjoyed a fantastic evening at the Royal Albert Hall…the ‘Last Night of the Proms’. With consummate ease, that wondrous Victorian building would look small if transited into this cave. Around its interior perimeter were countless statues of The Buddha in many poses. Most were of stone but others made from semi-precious metals and some even layered with wafers of gold leaf. Incense sticks by the hundred protruded from sand-filled urns – their spiralling smoke trails emitting a heady perfume and garlands of flowers were laying in profusion. About 30 feet in from the cave opening, was a dais some two feet above the floor level, the stone surface to its front polished by decades – or perhaps centuries – of visiting human feet. On it sat three monks, two wearing saffron robes, the one between them in a much darker coloured one. Each sat cross-legged like the Buddha statues nearby. There was a certain air of tranquility about the place and I couldn’t help but note, that Thais of both sexes waiting for an ‘audience’, were displaying extreme inner devotion and patience. I watched as individuals and small groups were, in turn, invited by who seemed to be the head monk – the older man who sat in the middle position – to approach the dais. In quiet voices, the devotees spoke to the monk – he totally still, focussed and listening intently until, what seemed to be a period of reflection by the holy man before he performed some ritual and, with his two juniors, chanted, in semi-monotones, their message of comfort or whatever had been asked of them. For the first time in many years, I felt a calmness wash over me. It triggered thoughts of an event that had tore at my family like a ravenous wolf. The effect of that dreadful time affected us all – and still does. Why, after so many years, those times of distress and anguish were flooding my mind, I couldn’t explain then – and I cannot to this day. Somehow, Tip must have sensed all was not well with me. It made him ask… “Mister Brian, are you sick or is it the tiredness from the steps?” It was my turn to display glistening eyes when I turned to him. “No, Tip, I’m not sick. It’s this temple and what’s going on. It has made me remember a very sad time in my life.” His face softened as he fixed his almond shaped eyes upon mine. “I too have suffered bad time when father and mother die in big accident,” he told me. “After that, I go into monastery and become monk for more than ten year. Now better, The Buddha understands and shows the way to feeling better.” That bit of news came as a surprise, I can tell you. Anyway, I did answer him. “Maybe, Tip, maybe. But, I’m not a Buddhist and not even a very good Christian.” “This head monk at temple, he very wise man. Many time he know what to do. All people say that he can do many good things and make people happy again. You can tell me what is this big sad thing you have and I can go explain to head monk. Maybe he has good answer to help you?” Surprise number two. However, his invitation ‘hit the spot’ and before I could have second thoughts, I rattled off the whole story. “I had a granddaughter,” I told him. “She was beautiful and very clever. She was only two years old, when, one day, her mother, my daughter, took her shopping into the town. My granddaughter had a heart attack, fell to the ground and her heart stopped beating. The ambulance rushed her to hospital but it was too late. She had virtually died. The doctors connected her to machines and then, like a miracle, her heart began to beat and she began to breathe again. We were all so thankful at the time. Then everything changed. The chief doctor told us that because her heart had stopped beating for such a long time, that her brain had been badly damaged and would never get better. For seventeen long years we watched as she withered away. Seventeen years of not being able to see, or hear or speak. Each of those years ripped part of our family’s humanity away from us. We could not even understand what suffering the poor girl was experiencing. It was if she was a vegetable. Then, when she reach nineteen years of age she died a second time…but this time, for ever. Her mother was grief stricken beyond words…the rest of us not able, for one moment, to feel the pain of a mother losing a daughter in such tragic circumstances. That’s what happened, Tip. That’s what I’m remembering now and I’m still sad, even after so many years.” To give the guy credit, he’d not once interrupted me. Just how much of my outpouring of grief he understood, I’d no idea. He sat still, holding his cheeks in the palms of his hands, his eyes closed, his body language expressionless. Without warning, he stood and faced me. “I go tell monk this about you,” he stated. “Please you wait here.” It wasn’t long before he returned and yet again, held out a hand. This time I took it and he guided me to a position directly in front of the centre monk. The old man gestured for me to sit, which I did, with Tip kneeling at my side. The old monk reached down, took my right hand, turned it palm upwards and then let go. Somehow I knew that I had to keep it like that during whatever was to happen. On his own, the monk began to chant, his unintelligible words wafting over me like a cloak. My eyes closed without my instruction to do so and I felt a drop of warm liquid hit the palm of my opened hand. After some minutes, I sensed the other two monks joining in with the chant but their voices were of very differing tones and pitches to that of the older man. The warm drops kept coming – regularly, like a metronome set to its slowest beat. This might sound a little crazy, but I was feeling as if I was in a trance and somewhere else in the Universe. My eyes refused to open as I soaked in the sounds and the atmosphere. When still in this deepest state of ‘nothingness’, I was roused by a squeezing of the hand which now held a tiny pool of fragrant oil. I automatically looked up to the old man – he was looking down at me and our eyes met. He pointed first, to the small golden vessel he was holding and from which the warm drops of sweet smelling liquid had come…and then down to my palm. At the very moment the last drop left the spout and, like some slow-motion replay, dropped downward to land with a gentle splash, the chanting ceased. ‘What to do now’? was my first thought. Then, the old monk indicated that I should ‘wash’ my hands in the liquid and place my palms on my own forehead. What else could I do but to obey? All three monks were looking straight at me and smiling. That I didn’t get. I didn’t feel like smiling. In fact, I didn’t know what to feel. Without taking his eyes off mine, the old monk addressed Tip, nodding slightly at me as he did so. What was going on? I thought…’am I the centre of some theatrical set-up’? When the old monk stopped speaking, Tip touched my bare forearm to gain attention. “The monk first wishes to know the name of your granddaughter, please?” “Samantha,” I replied, “her name was Samantha.” The monk and Tip exchanged many more words before Tip nodded his understanding, followed by his explanation to me of what the old man had said. “He instructing me to tell you these things,” Tip began. “You want to hear?” “Yes,” was all I could say. “He say that when you were with closed eyes and feeling drops into your hand, he see into your mind and into your heart. He say, he easily saw the little girl, Samantha. He want me to explain that when she die number two time, she change into bird. He say bird in your country is called Dove and every time you see one alone Dove, it is Samantha. She fly and visit all your family so you never be sad again because she still around. He say that she not want family to be sad anymore and when not anymore sad, she fly down to your side and make singing to you, then she be happy too. So when you see one single Dove and it is singing, it is the little girl. Is that understanding, Mister Brian? I felt numb and elated at the same time, as the words drilled into my head and remained firmly fixed. “Yes,” I answered. “I fully understand. Please tell the monk that he is indeed a very wise man and that his following of The Buddha will never be lost upon those he helps.” Now you know why this true story is entitled, ‘On the Wing’.
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