We Are Not Alone


Imagine all the people, living life in peace.” John Lennon
IT was her handbag which captured my attention. A beautiful travel tale of tapestry which whispered of a faraway land. I commented on her bag and she glanced at me from under inky black eyes. Her accent was baklava sweet, dripping in Middle Eastern exoticism, of sultry deserts and sticky desserts, piquant shisha pipes and ancient mosques wailing the Muslim call to prayer. “I am from Iran,” she said, smiling, “do you know Iran?” I have never walked in her homeland, but I know her region. Yet another destination. Like loneliness. Since publishing my blog on loneliness last week I have made an effort to walk my talk and try to connect more with my fellow humans, on a day-to-day level. I have been showered with so much love about my blog post, I couldn’t ignore the deluge. And what a torrent it was. I have been overwhelmed by phone calls, messages, emails and comments from friends and strangers from around the world. So today, I thought I’d share some of those responses, to remind you, that we are not alone.

One of my most deliciously surprising messages came in the form of an email, from the Netherlands.
“I stumbled upon your blog, “Only the lonely” and it touched me.
It feels vulnerable, and showing vulnerability is also strength,” the male reader said.
“Although from a slightly different angle, I can relate with your story.
I flew back from Brisbane(!) 2 month ago to the Netherlands after seven months of traveling alone.
“Yes, travelling you meet all kinds of awesome people down the road, but – also yes – it’s easy to miss the deeper connections.
Moreover, I felt a kind of alienated coming home.
“In my case, because I have had so many new and weird experiences to the extent, I have difficulty connecting to “normal” people.”

One of dear friends, who lives in the UK, sent me a message from the midst of their freezing summer.
“Your blog brought a tear to me…people don’t understand loneliness. I can howl for England on my down days,” she wrote.
It seems I made quite a few people cry (sorry), but I’m told in the nicest way.
Closer to home, a friend messaged me with the words “You made me cry with that post this morning. Beautifully written, and a good reminder to us all to be kind to each other,” she said.
Another wrote: “I cried and then smiled as I read your beautiful words and realised how terribly I am disconnected as well.”
And yet another wrote: “Oh, just having a teary in to my coffee. All those lonely days out in the regions coming back to haunt me through your always stunning words.”

Believe me when I say I never expected my two-day cry-fest, which ended in me penning a blog to try and write my way out of it, punch my way out of that painful paper bag, would have such an impact.
Another friend commented “I think we need more honesty to counteract all the bullshit because life is hard and shitty sometimes. By sharing your truth, you give other people permission to be honest…community is how humans have evolved and survived. It’s crazy (and arrogant) to think we don’t need it anymore.”
And this from another “I stopped walking to work months ago now, from the car park 20 mins away….. I have just felt worse and worse and retreated into my shell – over the last few weeks I have slowly started again! It has been great to see the happy Irishman I have gotten to know, and his wife – we always smile and chat quickly, today was in the morning and afternoon! It is always the small things that make us connected.”

Connections. Every person spoke about connections. And so many, many people admitted to being lonely. The issue is so big, that in the UK, they’ve even appointed the first ever Minister for Loneliness. And it got me thinking, is loneliness a First World problem? To some extent, yes, as we tend to have less community or “tribe” than those in Third World countries, but it would be too simplistic to suggest that those in developing nations don’t also struggle with loneliness. When I think back to my travels of the past two years, I think of the Ubuntu women in Kenya, who were ostracised by their communities and husbands, after they gave birth to disabled children; and the survivors of sex trafficking in Nepal, whose parents sold them into the sex trade so that their families could survive. On the other hand, I think about Bhutan, a place I travelled last year to see if it really was, as it claimed, the happiest place on the planet. In my interview with Gross National Happiness Director Sonam Tsoki Tenzin, she spoke about “authentic happiness”, a collective for the whole country and its people.
“I don’t feel sorry for people in the west because you are better educated and have a better lifestyle. But maybe you haven’t used it in the best of your interests,” she says.
“You’ve made it very easy to get things done, but have forgotten to get along with people.”

Back home in Australia, the World Kindness Movement shared my blog, which sparked another stream of conversations among strangers I had never met. I don’t have the answer to loneliness, but I believe it lays somewhere in remembering to be compassionate to yourself and others. Say hello to the exotic woman with the pretty handbag; wave if someone gives you a break in traffic; apologise if you are wrong. It costs nothing to be kind, but the impact you may have on just one person, could make all the difference to their day. Let’s keep this conversation going. In the words of John Lennon, imagine…

Why you don’t have to climb every mountain


“Mountaintops inspire leaders, but valleys mature them,” Winston Churchill
THEY look insipid, like a long line of stinking black house ants just before the rains come, trailing their way to the top. I’m standing at the base of Uluru watching a congo line of tourists snake their way up Australia’s most iconic rock, a monument we’ve been warned against climbing, again and again. It’s not just about death – 35 people have died trying to climb Uluru – but deity. The local Anangu Aborigines believe this is a sacred site, to be respected, and yet the visitors still scramble skywards. Under the hot August sun my face burns with shame at my fellow tourists.

In a recent piece for Fairfax Traveller, travel writing colleague and close friend Louise Southerden, who blogs under No Impact Girl, talks about why travellers are drawn to mountains and skyscrapers.
“Ever since we roamed the grasslands of Africa, we’ve looked to elevated locations for safety, for advance warning of predators – or invaders. Visit any castle or fortress from Bhutan to Balmoral (in Scotland), not to mention China’s Great Wall, and you’ll get a visceral sense of this strategic advantage,” Louise argues.
“Sometimes getting high is about escaping the cloying heat of the lowlands. Think tea plantations in the hills of Sri Lanka, the temple-dotted Himalayan foothills of northern India, the snow-caked peaks of Equatorial Ecuador (although Ecuador’s highest peak, the 6263-metre Chimborazo, has long lured climbers for another reason: it’s the world’s highest mountain when measured from the centre of the Earth, not from sea level).
“Altitude gain can also help us face our fears, give us a thrill (and sometimes vertigo) and let us see where we are and where we’re going, and not just cartographically.”

Ironically, I am in Bhutan, being cradled in the bosom of the Himalayas, when I read her powerfully-penned piece. I send her a private message, it’s in the valleys, I argue, that I discover my truth, in life’s troughs, not its peaks. Down in the nitty gritty. Louise, who is also opposed to climbing Uluru and other sacred sites, urges me to trek on and to scratch out my truth on the page. And so here I am. And I am not alone in this valley. Back in Bhutan, the Happiest Country on Earth, they consider the surrounding Himalayas so sacred, that despite having one of the world’s highest mountains, no climbing is allowed, unlike neighbouring Nepal and its alluring Everest. Three quarters of Bhutan’s land mass is mountain, yet its entire population lives in tiny slivers of valley. My nights in Bhutan are spent alone, staring at those mighty mountains, feeling like they’re wrapped around me like a comforting cloak.

On a visit to Nepal in April this year, I turn my back on Everest Base Camp and head in the opposite direction, towards the valley. I interview women who have been stolen from the mountains and sold into the sex trade, but have escaped and are now trained to become paralegals, and save other women in the same dire situation. So desperate was the sex trafficking in this country, that at one point, no teenage girls lived on Nepal’s mountains. The women, from SASANE, a project sponsored by G Adventures, are imploring the world to look into Nepal’s valleys, not its mountains. And these brave women are inspiration indeed.

Months later, my physio, who is an avid climber, and I discuss the death of New Zealand’s experienced mountaineer Rob Hall at Everest in 1996. I argue it’s ego that killed Hall – who had already summited the mountain five times previously – when he stayed up on Everest long after the deadline to leave had passed. My physio reckons Hall risked, and lost everything, because it was one of the first paid expeditions with tourists.

I ask another travel writing mate and avid climber, Andrew Bain, who blogs under Adventure Before Avarice his views on climbing.
“It’s a running joke, even among my hiking mates, that I’m one of those people compelled to stand on top of anything pointy – a peak bagger – and yet I often despair at the lack of respect we bring to mountains in the name of ‘conquering’ them,” Andrew says.
“Massive crowds filter through the Khumbu Valley to tick Everest Base Camp off a bucket list, for no reason other than the fact that it has Everest in the name. In so many cases, it’s not about the beauty of the place, or what it means, it’s simply a word to boast about, a tick on a list.
“Mountains are places that remind me that the world is greater than us – that we can’t conquer the planet as we believe – so to approach them is to respect them, whether we’re standing on top of them being uplifted by them, or simply looking at them from afar.
“I may be compelled to climb them, but I still take immense heart and hope looking at a mountain such as Machhapuchhare and knowing that there are still peaks that are beyond us, if not physically, at least spiritually or respectfully.”

And this is my point. I have a massive respect for those who climb, who forge new frontiers and discover new lands. But do it for the right reasons. Man can’t conquer mountains. Mother Everest continues to remind us of this. Trek but don’t trample. It’s not the Eiffel Tower I want to climb when I’m in Paris, jostling with thousands of other tourists wanting to tick it off their bucket list. For me, the joy comes from sitting in the shadows of this mighty metal sculpture, speaking with the old Parisian gent who ventures there every day with his coffee. That, to me, is the real Paris. I want to float down life’s rivers, part of the landscape, not perch atop it. Let me dive into the world’s oceans and lay on her sandy beaches, feet firmly in the sand. For to me, it’s in these rivets where the truth really lives. And so, on this hot August day, I wander around the base of Uluru, snatching quiet moments among her craggy crevices, listening to her tales, soaking up her soul and begging her forgiveness.

From October 26, 2019, no further climbing will be allowed on Uluru following a land-mark decision by the Traditional Owners of the land and the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park Board.

Is this the Happiest Country on Earth?


ON the 10th anniversary of the unhappiest day of my life, I am flying to Bhutan – the Happiest Country on the Planet. It’s been 10 years to the day since my marriage suddenly shattered and I was left to carve out a new life, with a splintered compass. I have spent the past decade travelling the world, for my work and my wellbeing, part story-teller, part marathon runner from myself. And I am exhausted, fuelled only by the irony of this date and the promise of the destination ahead.

The Bhutanese baby is roaring like the engine of the plane on which I am travelling, and the acrid stench of stale cigarettes, cloying to the clothing of my fellow passengers, burns my nostrils. The soothing sounds of the sitar music being piped through the cabin do little to salve my mental malaise. I am enroute to Bhutan, the Kingdom of Happiness. My current happiness level: 5/10. Yet I remain optimistic, even when we stop at the remote Indian airport of Guwahati, more bare paddock than runway, which is shrouded in mist and mystery. Some passengers disembark. Those of us who are flying to Bhutan’s Paro International Airport are instructed to stay on, and identify our cabin baggage. I am the only white person on the plane.

Drukair, Royal Bhutan’s Airline, ducks and weaves around the mighty Himalayan ranges, before gliding to a halt in what has to be one of the most visually spectacular and technically difficult landings in the world. My tour guide, Chimmi, 51, happens to be Bhutan’s first female tour guide, appointed in 1997. Now, around 400 women are guides in a country which boasts around 3000 tour guides. My driver is called Karma. I take both as a good sign. The 1.5 hour drive to Thimphu, the Bhutanese capital is gnarly, all twists and turns, flanked by gushing river on one side, and looming mountains on the other. I scribble furious car-sick inducing notes, as Chimmi attempts to explains the concept of Bhutanese happiness.
“We don’t have any enemies, we have nothing to take. We live in a very poor country surrounded by mountains. We are the Hidden Kingdom,” she says.
“Until the 1960s there were no cars in the country and until the 1980s no planes. We were isolated and cut off from the rest of the world. We didn’t have TV and internet until 1999.
“Before 2004, the village I lived in had no electricity. It was such a beautiful life.”

Chimmi believes it is isolation which made it easy for Bhutan to be the first country to conceive of the idea of Gross National Happiness (GNH), which was introduced by the country’s beloved King in the 1970s.
“GNH is a very basic idea to provide basic necessities such as education, a transparent government, a pristine environment and to preserve culture and tradition,” she says.
“It is something very simple, very basic, and if people focus on that it can be achieved.”
I check into charming, colonial-style Hotel Druk in the centre of the capital. Even my WiFi password is “happy”.

On my second morning, I have a much-anticipated interview with GNH Director Sonam Tsoki Tenzin, in a bid to scratch the surface of Bhutan’s happiness. Tsoki sits behind a desk in front of a blank, white wall, and sniffles. She’s suffering from allergies on this unexpectedly hot day, yet she’s all smiles when I ask her about what makes Bhutan so happy.
“We are not talking about that feel-good when you go shopping or get a promotion. We are taking about authentic happiness. It is a collective happiness for the whole country and people and society,” she says.
“It is more about feeling satisfied and content. Happiness can be fleeting.
“Of course we have social problems but we are quite blessed to manage to survive without things such as terrorism. I know that Denmark, Sweden and Belgium score higher than us but that’s related to economic issues.
“Our quality of life and human relationships are better. It is not about money.”

Tsoki, who has a Masters in Management from the University of Canberra, says there are three agencies dedicated to happiness: The GNH Centre, which is hands on, running programs and workshops; the Government’s GNH Commission, committed to bigger projects; and the Centre for Bhutan Studies, which conducts a survey of Bhutan’s people every three years. Interestingly, the survey found that single women were happier than married women but men overall were happier than women. 91.2 per cent of Bhutanese reported they were overall “very happy”.
“I don’t feel sorry for people in the west because you are better educated and have a better lifestyle. But maybe you haven’t used it in the best of your interests,” she says.
“You’ve made it very easy to get things done, but have forgotten to get along with people.”

Tsoki, who works with Australian organisations such as Melbourne’s Small Giants which looks at “sustainable human prosperity”, says the GNH model can be applied anywhere.
“You don’t have a choice, you have to be one global community,” she says.
“Bhutan is not going to stay isolated. In the past 50 years it has had the highest speed of development anywhere in the world.
“We see a lot of things on Facebook and TV that we might want but do we really need it? We are still quite practical people. We have a good respect for our spiritual connection, and practice compassion.”
I end the interview by asking Tsoki, who is 41, whether she is, happy.
“Yes, I’m single, I’m very happy,” she laughs.

I visit the Memorial Chorten in Thimphu, a stupa built in memory of Bhutan’s third king and the Father of Modern Bhutan. I pause to chat to a trio of elderly women, all widowed, who, like their peers, come here daily for social connectivity. I am captivated by Phudra Dema, 80, who lives with her grandson and his wife.
“They take good care of me and give me everything I need. They try to keep me happy,” she says.
“The most important thing that keeps me happy is to meet with my friends and to chant mantra.
“We are the happiest country because the King is there to take care of the people. It is as if we are living in paradise.”
Phudra and her friends tell me they would like to adopt me, and that I look 30 years old. My happiness level is rising rapidly.

At Anim Dratshang nunnery at Drubthob Goemba, in Thimphu, I meet 15-year-old nun Yanchen, who will be required to spend as long as three years in silent meditation, at the end of her teachings.
“Happiness is not about being happy myself, but I want to make everyone happy by doing some good,” she says.
“It’s natural, I don’t find any negativity, I’m more focused on religion and our practice.
“I want to spend my whole life here and teach other young nuns.”

Back in Paro, Chimmi and I wander the local farmers markets like old friends, pausing to admire organic fruit and vegetables, while chattering about our lives, and happiness. We talk about how little money actually matters, it’s about connecting to the world in which we live which counts. A Bhutanese and Brisbane woman, from two different worlds, finding common ground in the seasons of our souls. We taste beer at the country’s newest craft brewery and have long, philosophical chats over lunch. There’s penis paintings on the walls of houses in Bhutan, said to ward off evil spirits and promote fertility. We giggle like school girls. We wander into Bhutan’s oldest temple, in Paro, which dates back to the 7th century. So revered is this timber building, it’s said that every Himalayan Buddhist must set foot inside it, at least once in their lifetime. The monk inside allows me to enter, a rarity for a foreigner, and I am permitted to pray for good karma to erase negative energy. I pray for the world to find love.

Later, on my last night and high in the hills at a forest lodge overlooking the Paro Valley, I stand outside on the terrace and inhale the cool cyprus air, searching the surrounding Himalayas for answers to that big life question of happiness. The mountains mock me, relentlessly shouting the same message back at me until they can no longer be ignored. Look at the privilege of travel and the gift of the pen we gave you, they gently implore. You already have happiness. And it’s more than enough.

The Global Goddess was a guest of Wendy Wu Tours – https://www.wendywutours.com.au and flew to Bhutan via Bangkok with Thai Airways – http://www.thaiairways.com and Royal Bhutan Airlines https://www.drukair.com.bt