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Public Art, Public Engagement

Published in the January 2013 issue of Paper Magazine

Graffiti is not new to those of us living in Karachi. We have long grown accustomed to words and phrases sprayed and stencilled across every available surface in our city. Most of the time, graffiti tends to be political, commercial or even romantic! Different neighborhoods’ in the city scream allegiance to various political parties; the reputations of gangs and girls and built and broken across our boundary walls. Our public service messages, and even a handy reminder of what number to call for an ambulance, find themselves stenciled across the city. Recently, many Islamic parties have taken to broadcasting their ideologies and aversions on the walls of their mosques. And then there’s a myriad of commercial messages – pest control solutions, tutoring centers – you name it, someone’s sprayed it.

But every once in a while, something different catches our eye. Something that isn’t just vandalism or defacement, but is perhaps aesthetically pleasing or intelligent. That may rise above the charge of graffiti and may actually be called street art. It can make us stop and smile, or maybe even start to think. It can engage us.

“Public art is public engagement,” shared Sabeen Mahmud of The Second Floor fame. It has a far greater reach than other forms of art, which are often confined to galleries and museums, and are the purview of a select, elite few. By contrast, street art can spread its message and aesthetics to a far greater audience. It invites public consumption.

Sabeen has done much to promote street art in the city. She had donated a wall of T2F for the creation of street art, and has encouraged and promoted Pakistani street artists, including Rang de Karachi, and the celebrated artist and graffiti activist, Asim Butt.

“Street art can start a dialogue,” Sabeen said. “One individual and group can spray-paint something, someone else can respond, and so it goes on.” The process itself also invites interaction. Street artists have shared stories of how, while they were stenciling and spray painting their message, members of the public stopped to talk, to ask about their work, and share their opinions and points of view.

Recently, students of a third year class at the Indus Valley School were asked to explore non-violent modes of resistance. Inspired by the street artist Banksy and by the subversive street art seen in Eygpt and Tunisia during the Arab Spring, many students turned to street art. Ayesha Omer, their lecturer, and an unabashed proponent of street art guided them in this.

“Street Art can be creative, fun intelligent and bad-ass,” Ayesha said in an interview. “It’s about standing up to the man and using a public space to broadcast a public message.”

Ayesha’s students armed themselves with stencils and spray cans, and hit the streets. One group tackled public urination – they drew a cartoon figure urinating, with a stern tag line following, “Maya Dekh Rehi Hai” (Maya [Khan] is watching.” Another group protested against the senseless target killings taking place across the country by spray-painting a poignant verse by the celebrated poet, Faraz.

Like many before them, the IVS students took to spray painting as a way of venting, in a society where their voices may not otherwise find an avenue for expression.

“Street art can be an way for voicing frustration,’ shared Taimur Suri, art historian, and lecturer at Indus Valley. In his upcoming book on the visual culture of Pakistan, Suri devotes a chapter to exploring street art and graffiti in Pakistan in all its manifestations. In an interview, Suri outlined the commercial aspect of street art, a form of low-cost, high-impact of street art, as well as the more subversive streams of the medium, including the ultimatums issued by Islamic parties, broadcast across city walls. He also identified a uniquely “Defence” manifestation of graffiti, a type of extracurricular activity for the elite youth.

A former student of Taimur Suri, the celebrated artist Asim Butt, will be remembered as one of the most prominent graffiti activists in Pakistan. In 2007, Butt took to the streets to protest against Musharraf’s military rule. He spray-painted an “eject” symbol across walls, trees and the streets of the city to symbolize a rejection of the dictatorship. The symbol quickly became synonymous with the pro-democracy movement, and was replicated in scores across the country.

Asim Butt also used street art as a form of social commentary. In 2003, he created 2 large murals in the city of Karachi about the US’s military operations in Iraq, and about glue-sniffing street children in Karachi.

Other artists in the city have also used street art as a form of social commentary. More recently, we have started seeing “Burkilyn”, a woman in a Marilyn Monroe pose, with her skirt flying up, yet dressed in a full burka. The acronyms that political parties use have also been poked fun off on the streets of our city, and the Pakistani map has been redesigned as a Tyrannosaurus Rex.

The art work can be subversive or silly, it can form a wider social commentary or it can be a tongue-in-cheek statement. But what separates it from the other stenciling that we see across the city is that it suggests a form of public engagement and dialogue. It brings citizens – not just political parties and commercial enterprises – out of their homes and onto the streets to engage with their fellow citizens. It also adds some vibrancy and wit to our otherwise bleak urban landscape.

“Street art can introduce colour and intelligence into a city, without having to change the infrastructure,” Sabeen Mahmud shared. It can be a way of beautifying our city and making it a morelively place to be.

All the colour, humour and life that street art injects still hasn’t lifted it to the status of art form. It is mostly still regarded as vandalism or the destruction of public or private property. Street art also has a notoriously short self-life. Asim Butt’s murals have long been covered up, Other pieces have been covered by new layers of graffiti, or have been white-washed. But this in itself creates a new canvas, allowing the cycle to continue.

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Trade bricks pave the peace road: Policy decisions backed by the business community signal a much needed economic engagement between Pakistan and India

The News
September 5, 2012

If, in the context of Indo-Pak relations, some years are to be remembered for wars and for terrorist attacks, surely 2012 will be remembered for trade diplomacy. This year has seen significant and unprecedented developments in bilateral trade and investment between the two countries. And, with several months still remaining, there remains much to be hopeful for.

India has overturned a long-standing ban on foreign investment from Pakistan in all sectors except space, defense, and atomic energy. This decision represents a significant step in improving relations between the two nuclear-powered neighbours. Bilateral investment binds the long-term economic interests of countries to each other, and is a strong deterrent against war.

In July, Mian Muhammad Mansha, the Chairman of Muslim Commercial Bank (MCB) made headlines across Pakistan and India by submitting a proposal to open up at least three branches of MCB in Delhi, Mumbai, and Amritsar. The acceptance of this proposal is historic in the context of Indo-Pak trade relations, and will greatly facilitate bilateral trade and investment between the two countries. Experts have long argued that opening up Pakistani banks in India and vice versa is imperative to trade.

“I have always been a strong proponent of trade with India, which offers a bigger opportunity than China,” says Mansha, Pakistan’s most eminent businessman and an outspoken advocate of increased trade between Pakistan and India. India and Pakistan, he argues, are natural trading partners with many synergies.

Mian Mansha was a speaker at Dividends, the Second Aman ki Asha Indo-Pak Economic Conference in Lahore in May 2012, and hosted many top businessmen from both countries at his farm house in Raiwind.

Dividends itself was a watershed event in the context of Indo-Pak trade relations. The conference was held in collaboration with Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), and the Pakistan Business Council (PBC) representing powerful business interests in the two countries.The most prominent members of the business community, academics and leaders of thought in Pakistan and India came together at the conference to discuss modes of increasing trade and investment. The Chief Guest of the conference, then Prime Minister, Syed Yusuf Raza Gilani, strongly endorsed Aman ki Asha, and said that he could state with confidence that both his, and the government of Manmohan Singh, were sincerely committed to the normalization of trade relations between India and Pakistan.

In April, LifeStyle Pakistan took Delhi by storm, with over 600 businessmen from Pakistan traveling to India to participate in the hugely successful expo, held over two days in Pragati Maidan. The Pakistani delegation comprised the Commerce Minister, Makhdoom Amin Fahim, Secretary Commerce Zafar Mahmood, Trade Development Authority of Pakistan (TDAP) CEO Tariq Puri, and prominent businessmen, including Mian Muhammad Mansha and Bashir Ali Mohammad.

Pakistan Commerce Minister, Makhdoom Amin Fahim and his Indian counterpart, Anand Sharma, inaugurated the first integrated check-post between Pakistan and India at the Wagah–Attari border. The check-post aims to facilitate trade between the two countries and allow for quicker custom clearance.

Last November, Pakistan agreed to grant India Most Favoured Nation status, which ended restrictions required for most products to move via a third country. Pakistan has committed to end the negative list of 1,209 items by the end of 2012.

All these policy decisions, conferences and logistical events signal greater economic engagement between Pakistan and India, ushering in an era of trade diplomacy. Its ambassadors are the businessmen and women of both countries, who argue that trade must not be held hostage to political issues.

Indeed, the warming relations between the two countries suggest that improved bilateral trade and investment and the mutuality of economic interest will help pave the road to peace.Here’s hoping that the governments stay the course.

Laleh Habib, former Coordinator, Aman ki Asha, has a Masters Degree in Politics and Communication from the London School of Economics.

http://www.thenews.com.pk/Todays-News-14-130185-Trade-bricks-pave-the-peace-roadPolicy-decisions-backed-by-the-business-community-signal-a-much-needed-economic-engagement-between-Pakistan-and-India

The Unlikely Yogi

Hello,

Tuesday was my last day as Project Coordinator, Aman ki Asha. While I hope that my association with the initiative continues, I imagine that for at least some time, my writing for the project will suffer.

I have embarked upon a new project, and have started another blog to charter this journey.

Should you be interested in reading about a different kind of peace initiative, please visit: http://unlikelyyogi.tumblr.com/

A Special Kind of Love

The News

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar is an extraordinarily busy man. In the two and a half days the Indian lifestyle guru spent in Pakistan, he visited three cities, spoke at two major events and inaugurated two Art of Living Centres. He also met with various religious figures and politicians, scores of devotees and left an indelible mark on many.

And yet, as he settled down for his exclusive interview with the Jang/Geo team, Sri Sri looked as though he had just emerged from a deep reverie or recently returned from an extended vacation. His clothes looked immaculately clean and freshly starched; his eyes sparkled and a slight smile played upon his lips. I was reminded of how once an Art of Living teacher described the Art of Living “sudarshan kriya” that Sri Sri developed as a form of “energy management”. Surely, there is method to his madness.

What was perhaps most striking about meeting Sri Sri was his simplicity. Barefoot and simply clad, the man whom his devotees affectionately call “Guru-ji” radiates affability and humour. Yet, his achievements are staggering: Sri Sri has been described as the fifth most powerful person in India. A Nobel Peace Prize nominee, he founded the Art of Living Foundation in 1981, when he was just 25 years old. Now, the organisation boasts over almost 30 million followers, and has ashrams across the world.

Sri Sri travels to as many as 40 countries in a year, spreading his message of peace, unity, and the power of meditation. His philosophy and the techniques of ‘sudarshan kirya’ have found root in all corners of the world, cutting across religious, cultural and national boundaries. Breath is non-denominational, Sri Sri asserts, and the philosophy of love is common to all religions.

Having last visited in Pakistan in 2004, Sri Sri spoke of how happy he was to return. He talked about the natural affinity between Pakistanis and Indians, and the similarities in culture, music and food. “After all, between junta (the populace) of the two countries, there is no peace, no hatred, there’s a special kind of love.”

His trip to Pakistan, Sri Sri emphasised, was aimed at promoting peace between Pakistan and India. The approach? Improve trade relations between the two countries, promote cultural exchanges and start a religious dialogue, Sri Sri explained. “If we come together, we can become a major economic power.”

Sri Sri strongly praised Aman ki Asha, the Indo-Pak peace initiative jointly launched by the Times of India and the Jang Group of Pakistan, adding that he only wished it had been started sooner. He emphasised the importance of such initiatives to further people-to-people contacts.

Sri Sri shared how he was greeted with scepticism over two decades ago when he spoke of unity and peace while visiting divided Germany. Some people may be inclined to view his position about the Indo-Pak relations similarly, he added, but peace between the two countries is imminently attainable. “Look at France and Germany,” he exhorted. “After 400 years of conflict, they have come together.”

“It’s a long journey,” Sri Sri smiled. “It won’t be achieved pal bhar (immediately) but we need to take the first step.”

After all, that’s how a million mile journey begins.

— Laleh Habib

The Heart to Heart Story

The News
February 10, 2012

http://amankiasha.com/detail_news.asp?id=648

A year ago, when Aman ki Asha and Rotary International launched the Heart to Heart initiative aiming to send underprivileged children from Pakistan to undergo heart surgery in India, completely free of cost, perhaps none of those involved fully comprehended the scope and the depth of this project.

Almost immediately after the launch, we were inundated with hundreds of applications from all corners of Pakistan. Scores of people, from different walks of life, with one shared hope: to save their children’s lives.

It was then that I started to realise the dire need that exists in our society. The dearth of facilities that results from far too many precious resources being funnelled away from the avenues that sustain us the most, towards military and defence budgets. Towards maintaining a constant state of cold war, waged not only against our stated enemy, but against ourselves.

Heart to Heart is the antithesis of this cold war. It is a way of reaching out to people on the most simple and essential level, beyond rhetoric, beyond the baggage of history and real politik. It takes us back to what is common to all peoples, our unalienable right to health and the future of our children.

In the past year, we have seen much success. Children who could scarce afford the treatment they needed were saved by the kindness of strangers from across the border, through the generous funds of Rotarians and the tireless effort of Indian doctors. This programme has not only healed hearts, it has also mended fences. It has given hope when sometimes there was none – the hope of a family reunited, the future of a child, and of a day when neighbours reach out and help one another when they are most needed.

Sadly, there have been some tragedies, too. On behalf of Aman ki Asha and the Rotary Club, we extend our heartfelt condolences to the families of those children who could not benefit from this programme, or perhaps were unable to get to it in time. The very nature of some illnesses was beyond out best efforts and intentions. There are no words in such situations.

But we continue to do what we can, where we can. In the past year, over 60 children have successfully received heart surgeries in India. They included five-year old Akash who travelled from Lahore to Delhi to undergo heart surgery and return with a fresh chance at life. There was two-and-a-half year old Abdul Rehman, whom doctors affectionately dubbed ‘the miracle child’. Abdul Rehman received a heart surgery to treat a complex congenital heart condition in Durgapur, India. Weakened by ailment, he slipped into a coma after the surgery. He remained in a deep coma for over a month. But the medical team led by Dr. Satyajit Bose refused to give up. Abdul Rehman awakened in his hospital bed last month. He had left Pakistan almost two months ago, pale and weak. He has recently returned healthy, healed and hopeful.

Inspired by Abdul Rehman’s story, and by the miracles that unfold when we co-operate, Aman ki Asha and Rotary

International are continuing to expand upon this initiative. We will send 140 more children to India for heart surgery over the next year. We have invited Dr. Bose to come to Pakistan in March this year, and organise a free clinic where children can be tested for various congenital heart defects. We are coordinating the reciprocal exchange of doctors and of health workers from Pakistan and India so we
can learn from one another, work together and grow together.

We wish to sincerely thank all of our doctors and our donors who have helped make so many dreams a reality. We look forward to continuing to work together to a help build a world of peace and health for the people of the sub-continent and for our children.

– Laleh Habib
Project Coordinator, Aman ki Asha, Pakistan
Email: laleh.habib@janggroup.com.pk

Touching Hearts, Changing Minds

The News
December 8, 2011

Peace is not simply the absence of conflict between two countries, but strong ties between their people, economies, and establishments. To develop peaceful ties between Pakistan and India, what’s needed is not only an uninterrupted dialogue between the two governments, but also people-to-people confidence building measures.

Aman ki Asha, a peace initiative, launched by the Times of India and the Jang Group of Pakistan on January 1, 2010, has a three-pronged approach towards promoting peace: providing a platform for open and honest discussion on all issues, advocating economic collaboration as the most important driver for peace, and promoting people to people contacts in healthcare, sports, trade, and so on. This is backed by an intensive media campaign that seeks to lobby both governments to make the requisite legislative changes to facilitate peace.

A significant difference between Aman ki Asha and other people-to-people initiatives is that Aman ki Asha is powered by the two largest media houses of India and Pakistan. The media, a significant player in the public and political domain, is the fourth estate, a champion of causes, a platform where opinions can be voiced in the pubic sphere. The media can galvanise public opinion and lobby governments. In South Asia, it has the power to reach 1.6 billion people, and to sustain a narrative amenable to peace.

The media has been the platform for many successful Indo-Pak collaborations focusing on music and entertainment. Aman ki Asha’s scope is more expansive and includes economics, policy, and people-to-people contacts.

This platform has brought together senior members of the armed forces and intelligence agencies to discuss possibilities for collaborative counterterrorism measures and intelligence sharing. Our last strategic seminar brought together the former Director General of RAW, Mr. A. S. Dulat, and the former head of the ISI, Gen. Javed Ashraf Qazi, along with Gen. Mahmood Durrani, the former National Security Advisor, and the former head of IB. At a previous strategic seminar, the former foreign minister, Mr. Khursid Mahmood Kasuri, revealed how a solution with regards to Kashmir had already been struck – it was simply a matter of getting the three parties to sign.

In April this year, we invited the ambassadors of France and Germany to make a presentation on how their countries have overcome the baggage of history and now exist as part of a borderless EU. For centuries, there existed deep enmity between the people and the governments of France and Germany. They regarded each other as the ‘inherited enemy.’ The German ambassador shared how his father had been a soldier during World War II, while French ambassador was a prisoner of war. Yet, within a generation, their countries have moved beyond that state of hostilities and ‘made war impossible’ as the ambassador put it.

Perhaps the greatest deterrence against war is war itself. The devastation that World War II unleashed was the biggest impetus for peace. However the road to peace between these countries has been paved by various people-to-people confidence building measures, including the twinning of cities, the creation of joint history books, and various student exchanges.

The Indo-Pak example is different. We are not inherited enemies. We are inherited neighbours, joint inheritors of the Gandhara, Indus Valley and other ancient civilizations. Whenever Indians and Pakistanis come together, there is fraternity, friendliness and a celebration of shared values, culture and tastes. The enmity is between our establishments, not amongst ourselves.

This disconnect is evident at every Aman ki Asha event. The single greatest hurdle is always a bureaucratic and political one — obtaining visas. Every time people come together, there is camaraderie and goodwill. At the last Aman ki Asha event, all members of the Pakistani delegation traced their roots back to India, while all the Indians traced their roots back to Pakistan.

This was at one of a series of cross-border CEO forums organised by Aman ki Asha, taking forward a joint declaration drafted at the end of a major economic conference in Delhi in May 2010. Six committees with Pakistani and Indian chapters were created in the sectors with the greatest potential for collaboration, to work towards promoting bilateral trade and investment and formulate policy recommendations that will facilitate increased trade.

Earlier this year, members of Aman ki Asha Committees, influential business leaders in their own right, met with the Commerce secretary of Pakistan, Mr. Zafar Mehmood, and put forward a series of policy recommendations to facilitate trade between the two countries.

We are now starting to see some of the fruits of greater economic collaboration as the two countries begin to work towards increasing bilateral trade and investment. The positive list is being replaced by a negative list, there is talk of increasing levels of trade from 2.7 billion to 6 billion, starting up banks, etc. Increased trade and investment will drive the peace process; CEO forums and Indo-Pak business meets lend impetus to Aman ki Asha.

But perhaps the heart of the movement is another Aman ki Asha project, launched in March this year in collaboration with the Rotary Clubs of India and Pakistan, Heart to Heart, sending 200 underprivileged children from Pakistan to India to undergo heart surgery at no cost to them. The Rotary Club of India has sponsored the project as a goodwill gesture, an extraordinary people-to-people confidence building measure.

By touching hearts, we change minds. The results of the independent surveys prior carried out to the launch of Aman ki Asha and again on its first anniversary, have been positive beyond expectations. In Pakistan, the brand recall of Aman ki Asha was 92%, whereas prior peace campaigns levelled out at about 4%. Negative perceptions of each other had decreased and positive perceptions improved. Some 87% of Pakistanis and 75% of Indians felt that Aman ki Asha helped create greater awareness about the core issues between the two countries. The terror perception had dropped from 75% to 42%. Most significantly, two thirds of respondents believed that peace was attainable within their lifetime, up 35% from the previous year.

Aman ki Asha aims to move beyond the realm of talk and candlelight vigils and to strive towards substantive gains: business deals, collaborative partnerships, life saving surgeries. When we collaborate with one another, do business together, and heal each other, we will no longer want or be able to fight each other. By building confidence between the peoples of India and Pakistan and developing ties and connections on multiple levels, we hope to build a web so strong that it will make war impossible. Through these people-to-people contacts, and through the many other initiatives and exchanges taking place, we hope to contribute towards make the dream of lasting peace a reality.

 

The writer is coordinator Aman ki Asha. This article is based on her paper presented at a conference titled “India-Pakistan Peace Process”, organised by Friedrich Ebert Stiftung in Dubai, October 10 – 11, 2011.

Magical Ulpotha

My first night, I thought that perhaps I had made a mistake. This was not the place for me. It was too dark, too remote and far too basic. And, there were flying cockroaches and frogs wading in the toilet. As Veeran, the owner, took us on our tour, we followed in stunned silence, and just about the only words I was able to muster were ‘There are no doors?!’ as he showed us the bathing area, neatly enclosed by palm fronds.

The days and weeks prior to my departure had been unusually stressful. The universe, it appears, is not without a sense of irony. Through a series of unfortunate coincidences, it has a way of preparing you for holidays, for increasing anticipation and desperation, and for skewing your standard of comparison so drastically that no matter what holiday you take, it will be a welcome respite. Upon returning, fate invariably throws another curve ball, ensuring that stolen time will remain locked in the magical realms of memory, far away from the daily grind.

But could this really be the vacation I needed? Did I really have to travel all this way and spend this money to cohabit with bugs, which I can do on any given day in my office on Chundrigar Road? Surely no electricity and poor cell phone reception are also common fare, so was this trip necessary? Aisha had spoken of this place being magical and healing, but perhaps it was a matter of perspective? Perhaps, despite the apprehension of my family, I really wasn’t all that left of center?

After our first vegan, organic dinner, Maha and I climbed into our mud hut, giggling nervously and we drank the wine we’d smuggled in straight from the bottle, and surreptitiously smoked our last cigarettes. This could likely be a long week, I thought, as I feel asleep to the sounds of monsoon rain crashing down upon a living jungle.

Mornings in a jungle usually start shortly after sunrise. In any event, the buffalos in the rice paddy across from us thought it considerate to deliver our wakeup call with the gentle ringing of the bells around their necks. Breakfast of green tea and papaya and then off for two hours of yoga.

Therein was the difference. Geoff, our yoga instructor, seamlessly blended together philosophy and asana, and made his classes challenging and yet accessible for everyone, from seasoned yogis to first time practitioners. Perhaps the greatest challenge in his class, however, was remaining focused on one’s point of dhristi as floated through his practice. I could never imagined such a beautiful and effortless practice. Maybe one of these lifetimes J I pestered him endlessly with the million questions that I had been piling up over the year, which he, with his endless patience, addressed. And, he even taught me how to perform chakrasana!

After yoga, I bathed behind the palm fronds, under trees and beneath the peering eyes of curious monkeys. As it turns out, one does not really need doors if water pours from the branches of trees and if one can look up to see the blue sky or a full moon.

I scurried over for my first massage, completely unprepared for how I would feel walking out, two and a half hours later. PJ’s slowly worked his way through knots that appeared to have built up over lifetimes. His massage was deep, powerful, and often highly uncomfortable. An hour later, some of the knots were finally starting to soften. So he continued. And, at the end of two and a half hours, I slid out off the massage table, all the tension and some of the bones in my body had been dissolved in masses of sesame oil and then surrendered to the jungle.

But even that powerful, unanticipated massage could not have prepared me for Katrina’s ethereal touch. Maha had spoken of how intuitive Katrina had been, and how compassionate. So, I thought, perhaps it was worth a try. Initially, I was skeptical. And then I was overwhelmed. Somewhere between complacence and secretly craving a stronger hand, I found my throat tightening. Unable to breathe properly. And then suddenly, the tears started flowing. Three times, she stopped her massage to gently put her arm around me and stroke my hair while I composed myself. And after the massage was over, as I tried to sit up, I found myself weeping. Hysterical. I wasn’t sure why, or what she did, or how this was even possible. I keep asking her, and apologizing for the mess that I was, and she softly suggested that instead of letting my mind take over again, to allow body and spirit to integrate. There was no reason to apologize, she said. This is where healing begins.

My second day, I had an Ayurvedic consultation where I was informed that while I had earth, fire and air within my constitution current proportions were imbalanced (bad Libra!). Treatment, my doctor suggested, consisted of regular massages, herbal baths and sessions in the sauna. I was not going to get a second opinion! For my first treatment, body, face and hair were doused in scarlet oil and massaged vigorously. I was then wrapped in a sarong and led to the other end of the clinic where I climbed into a bathtub made of packed earth, filled with neem and various other herbs, leaves and branches. The final step in today’s treatment was a rise off – the first warm shower I’d had since arriving! Water was heated in a cauldron in the middle of the clinic and was then poured over my head with a ladle made of a coconut as I sat on a brick, feeling highly vulnerable and quite confused. My therapist brought some green bean paste which she then slathered all over my back and arms. ‘For my hair too?’ I asked. She gave me a look that translated in all languages to ‘village idiot’. ‘No,’ she said firmly. ‘You use shampoo for your hair!’ Oh well, ask a stupid question…

Perhaps it was the massages, or maybe the Ayurvedic treatments, the oils and ointments or the herbal baths. Perhaps it was the hiking expeditions, always being lead up the highest mountains by the crazy barefoot men. Or visiting Buddhist temples, watching as monks performed their daily incantations. Or perhaps there really is merit to moving away from civilization, to no electricity or cell phone reception. Perhaps it was the nights spent by the lake, where the darkness absorbed the horizon, and I could not tell the constellations from the myriad fireflies sparkling before my eyes. Perhaps we weren’t meant to live the way we do, with our artificially coloured foods and flashing screens and once we move towards a simpler life, we realise that this is exactly where we are meant to be. Perhaps it was the daily swims in the lake, where the fish gently nipped at my skin whenever I stood still. Perhaps it was just peaceful cohabitation with all of nature and wildlife. Even the bugs. Perhaps it was four hours of yoga day. What is more likely, I think, it that Ulpotha has a magical and highly charged healing energy. It blankets whoever will dare to enter, slowly working its way through all the detritus of a previous life, leaving one reenergized, renewed and completely healed.

My fifth night there corresponded with Pooya, the full moon celebration. From their stupa from across the lake, Buddhist monks chanted well into the night. Their incantations merged with the sounds of frogs croaking, of crickets chirruping to form the most magical cacophony I have ever heard, that filtered through my tightly tucked in mosquito net, and gently lulled me to sleep. Drifting off into darkness, I realised that this was just the place for me. And that I had to return, and often.