Travelling responsibly: stories from the bus

As a resident in Munich, Germany, with family in Scotland, I used to take the plane 1 to 2 times in the year to get to my parents' place because it was much quicker and cheaper than other forms of transport. However, it is generally recognised that air travel produces much more carbon dioxide than by travelling the same distances by train or bus (in most instances). Incidentally – at some point it you might want to listen to my song: Cheap Flight, a sort of black-comic look at the issues of flying, escapism, taking flying for granted, waking up and finding gratitude.

At the time, I had already completed a Masters course in human ecology which was all about the (mainly) non-biological interactions between humans and their environment in the context of understanding the causes of environmental destruction and possible solutions.

The course was a life-changer for me because it made me look personally at the question: “what is a creative, fulfilling life which replaces that inner void people have, which consumerism (the greatest cause of environmental destruction) so greatly depends on to prevail.

I became significantly more aware of many issues including global warming and the relative pollution-effects of different forms of travel. Nevertheless I still couldn't bring myself to do the more expensive, uncomfortable and time-consuming option, in this case – bus. In the late 90s the cost of a return train ticket from Munich to London was prohibitively expensive. I was the mindset: “it would mean too much hardship and almost everyone takes the plane anyway. I can't change anything." This was of course partly an excuse not to get out of my comfort zone.

It wasn't until I started to practice Buddhism where I was taught to start focusing on the power of a change starting with the individual, that my behaviour was transformed. I found a deep passion and resolve growing within me to start taking 100% responsibility for my own actions. I wasn't following any rules, the feeling just awakened and resonated with the Buddhist teachings. I decided to stop flying full stop. At first I was pretty dogmatic about it and could no longer see air travel as justifiable! With time I understand completely that the reasons for travelling by air range from ignorance and selfishness to humanitarian and productive.

But I thought to myself – I can't face living like a hypocrite. The alternatives can't be as torturous as what the people in poorer nations have put up with on a daily basis. So many Africans have to walk miles just to collect water and from a position of comfort, people in rich countries take things like flying for granted. I can't complain about global warming to people and look them straight in the face right now. I am just another pawn in the pollution process.

So I booked my 1st trip with Eurolines overnight to London and there changed to rail up to Edinburgh on a cheap advance ticket. Pricewise it came to about 2 to 3 times as much as a flight and would take about a day, but I was determined to prove whether my life was heading in the direction of real poverty and suffering or not because of my new lifestyle choice.

On that 1st occasion I arrived at my parents' pretty exhausted through lack of sleep so I tried to use the power of my mind to somehow find more rest the next time. Also, I was determined to meet interesting people. During my next trip to the UK I ended up sitting next to a kindred spirit with whom I became best friends. We had reams to talk about – she was also a musician who grew up near to Munich and was living in the quite alternative, ecological town of Stroud in England. There is a lot of interest there in self-sufficiency, nonmonetary exchange of goods and services, local organic food etc. I stayed with my new friend on the return stretch to Germany and even later played some gigs with her! I also managed to get enough sleep both times and needed no recovery the next day!

On another journey I met an architect who busks in Munich (like I used to do). We also became great friends and jammed at the back of the bus, taking care not to disturb anyone. He happened to miss his return journey by a day which meant that we were “by chance" on the same bus coming back. We took advantage of a 2nd opportunity to entertain other passengers and ourselves!

The usual bus driver on the stretch from Munich to Brussels was Belgian and only spoke French to passengers. I always greeted him in his own tongue, so when there was an enforced detour due to a traffic accident on the motorway near Munich, he asked me of all people to sit at the front and do a spot of map reading to help him find his way through unknown territory! On the return journey on a different, sub-contracted bus with completely different drivers, the GPS system broke down near Brussels. I was singled out for no apparent reason and asked to help map read to get into the City!

I even made repeated trips from Munich to Grenada in southern Spain (bus or bus and train) which took over one and a half days in each direction! The most memorable experience was where I met a French Algerian who warmly introduced himself at a bus station near the border with Portugal. We got on and headed straight for the back which, in case you are wondering, is an attempt to get a lying down possibility for sleeping! Another Algerian from Holland joined us, and the 2 countrymen started chatting enthusiastically. My new friend exclaimed how they were like brothers and had been sent together by Allah!

He was quite a burly chap with tattoos and told me how hard life was in the Paris ghetto where he was based -full of drug addiction, violent crime and pseudo-friends that became traitors, backstabbers and endless money borrowers. He had run out of cash himself and was forced to travel to his family in Algeria and where he would work to keep his head above water. He was suffering from schizophrenia and as a result of his medication and the uncomfortable bus environment, he hadn't slept at all during the last 2 to 3 days and felt “highly-strung".He nonetheless showed great intelligence and mentioned that he had read a fair amount of Chinese philosophy. But then he revealed that he was a kung fu expert and made it clear of his anger towards the Moroccan bus driver, who was admittedly quite aggressive and authoritarian in his dealings with the passengers regarding small details like eating inside the bus, which he forbid. The Algerian had already shouted at him a couple of times. Now there is a history of conflict between Algeria and Morocco going back generations, and more recently to do with conflicting oil interests. So I started to get concerned when the Algerian said he wanted to kill the driver. I tried to distract him at 1st with other topics of conversation but it came to a head when we had the next break at a motorway cafe for 30 min. Because the Algerian was still in deep conversation over a coffee, he forgot about the time, and after 30 five-minute driver (understandably) can to us and retorted that we should get back on the vehicle with its waiting passengers immediately. He then hurried back himself.

My Algerian friend was now fuming and it looks serious when he repeated that he was going to kill the driver. I felt like it was one of these situations where the Algerian saw himself pressurised on all fronts, and thought he had nothing to lose by lashing out. So I said all at once, “What would Allah say? Alloa would surely tell you that if you can find the courage within you to search deeply for respect for your opponent, and perceive him as another human being with his own weaknesses and problems, you will have already won your battle." He looked at me blankly for a second, but then his stressed out expression gave way to a broad grin. “You are completely right. That is so wise". He relaxed immediately and explained his new interpretation of events to his other compatriot sitting next to him. He was now chatting cheerfully like a child with a new toy! I then went up to the bus driver and apologised that we caused a delay, saying that my friend was suffering from mental illness and lack of sleep. He, too, visibly quietened down and we continued on our journey. That was the matter closed. Relief. I felt a surge of hope fill me because I had proven to myself yet again that amazing turnarounds are possible when one maintains clarity and offers a few choice words with a positive intention, at the right moment.

I have had many more eventful trips but I am not going to tell you about them here except for one last fitting account. On most of my trips to Granada I had to change in Barcelona with several hours to spare. I would hop on a local bus to a coastal nature reserve which was a pleasant oasis, full of interesting birds, and in order to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city. The 2nd time I had been given €80 by a couple of Romanian girls at the bus station in Munich, to transport a large bag to a relative of theirs who would collect it at the station in Barcelona. Legally speaking, I probably shouldn't have done this, but they seemed sincerely nice and I was persuaded that they were trying to save money by not having to pay for official delivery or take it themselves. A man turned up at the other end as promised, and gave me the cash. I then proceeded to the nature reserve with my binoculars, telescope and tripod for birdwatching and unfortunately, also my guitar in a heavy hardcase, because there was no room in the lockers in town. It had been a couple of years since I had last been in the vicinity. I couldn't quite recall which bus stop to get out at because it was one of the series just off the motorway which all looked very similar. I overshot by 3 to 4 km. It was a searing hot day at the end of May and padded off with all my gear, wearing too many clothes, sweating profusely, trying to recollect the reserve entrance. On my way up the road I encountered a pimp sitting on the deck chair in the shade of a large tree next to his mountain bike, and his several prostitutes spaced out optimally along the hard shoulder. I asked all of them where the reserve might be. They all convivially gave me the wrong directions but after much tramping around and losing copious amounts of sweat, it paid off to follow my own intuition. I headed to the shade of the reserve information centre where I chatted with the warden. As I expected, the expansion of Barcelona airport right next to this important and beautiful wetland, was swallowing up areas needed for wildlife. It seemed like a slap in the face, not only because of my efforts to reduce my own carbon footprint by avoiding planes. So I donated €40 to help the conservationists fight their huge battle to preserve what little is left of healthy Spanish (Catalonian) wetlands. 5 min after leaving the hut I was rewarded by getting great views of a family of great spotted cuckoos – a delightful bird species which I have never seen before!

How I overcame fear of performing guitar

As a perfectionist by nature I used to dread playing guitar in front of a captive audience of concentrated people, especially alone. Nonetheless I did such concerts sporadically in a flamenco guitar duo for about 2-3 years. I used to be very happy about being in the background musically speaking: my colleague did most of the solos and I accompanied him.

If I made any mistakes it would send me into a black mood such that I often wanted to smash up my guitar into tiny pieces after the gig, despite the fact that our audiences loved the music! Enthusiastic listeners would approach us afterwards to express their thanks. Only with trepidation did I occasionally play solo and that was normally when I allowed people to persuade me because of some nonpaid event. It was always a huge relief when it was over, and only then when I didn't play any wrong notes. At the time I also suffered particularly from cold hands, which together with nerves made for a rather cramped performance, at least as far as I was concerned. Incidentally, this symptom has improved hugely, probably due to a change to vegan diet.

This pattern of events continued until sometime after I had started practising Buddhism. I was involved in a music school concert where I had to show myself off as an accomplished musician and composer of fine music, who could also teach your children to head in the same direction. I had diligently practised the one piece I was to play so as to be well prepared. I knew I could do it very well at home. On stage, however, it was again a great disappointment for me. I was angry that the room had to be cold – it had served to fuel my fear of failure! I came offstage feeling like a loser. However, a friend had told me about an open mic evening later which I hadn't been to before, and said she was going to recite poetry there. I was determined to have another shot at playing the piece, hopefully as well as I knew I was capable of, so I headed down there just in time to be fitted in on the list of performers. What I didn't know was that it was a competition – I ended up being chosen as winner! This was embarrassing because every other participant was an amateur, which I clearly explained. But they didn't mind a bit, including the group of drunken Spanish guys who had raucously sung “La Bamba" decidedly out of tune. “No, we are professionals, too" one of them shouted back jokingly!

This for me was another example of being rewarded for not having given up to obstacles but my negativity concerning the issue had not yet been resolved. I realised something was fundamentally incongruous. While I couldn't really enjoy performing because of the pressure of perfectionism, others obviously really appreciated my playing. Either I should give up music completely or at least only do it alone where I was “safe", or I must somehow get to the next level of freedom where I can enjoy it as much as everyone else.

I set myself the goal of feeling 100% free on stage. I bent my concentration fully towards that vision. 2 weeks after that decision I got a phone call from Willy Astor, a Bavarian cabaret celebrity and musician with a large following, who is often on German state television. He had once taken a flamenco guitar lesson with me and subsequently asked me to record with him on his new CD. I hadn't heard from him for about 2 years. He was wondering if I would like to play with his worldmusic band on German television at a summer concert in front of a local castle (Scloss Oberschleißheim – which is a kind of replica of Versailles). My initial reaction was to fearfully envisage the cameras and lights “homing in" on me as if waiting for a mistake to occur! I replied that I didn't know if I was available on that date and then we said goodbye. “That was close!", I was thinking to myself.

5 minutes later it became clear that this offer was a present from the universe to enable me to further address my fears and go for my target that I had set. I realised I would be an idiot for not taking it on. I called back, saying I had checked my diary and was actually free to play. The next few weeks became preoccupied with mental preparation for the event and I made sure to perform more difficult pieces than the straightforward accompaniment I was to do with Willy, at any available opportunity.

The gig went superbly! I was barely nervous during my time on stage and the band was a humorous, friendly bunch and great fun to work with. There were about 300 appreciative people in the audience. A few months later Willy invited me to join him again, this time in the Philharmonie – one of the most well-known venues in Munich. Now I didn't hesitate in accepting because I knew I was coming along leaps and bounds. Again, the gig was a great success with the crowd of around 1400. I then had the vision of playing much more demanding solo compositions of my own in front of thousands, with a spirit of freedom. That would be complete success! Within several months I was with the band again at Chiemsee Seebüne, a wonderful and prestigious stage on the shore of Lake Chiemsee between Salzburg and Munich. Everybody, including our 2000 strong audience were treated to a fantastic sunset reflecting on the water, and some atmospheric, sometimes comical musical ambience.

During that afternoon, another guitarist in the band who played quite a few solos, stated to Willy that I should play solo as well! I hadn't even mentioned a single word of my goal to anyone here! So for the 2 remaining concerts I was given a slot to do some improvisation-solo! The last gig was a jubilee celebration of Willy's colourful and heart-warming shows and was also televised, being located in Cirkus Krone, another of the major Munich venues. This all ran very smoothly and was a thoroughly enjoyable and fitting climax of my time with Willy's band.

These experiences were not remarkable in that I was able to join some celebrities on stage. Far more important was the inner journey I travelled, with its breakthroughs, in order to realise a dream. That vision reached complete fruition a few years later in an unusual and invisible manner. I had been gigging alone or in groups for some time and was well past the hurdle of my perfectionist demons (another major factor here was my path to becoming a singer). The brother of a close friend of mine had died in an accident and I was asked to play at the funeral in a church housing an assembly of over 1000 people. I was glad to be able to support the family in this way, although it was snowy midwinter which meant freezing conditions in the old building itself as well. I had to resort to using hand warmers as much as possible! Situated up on the organ platform with a choir, I performed 3 guitar compositions of my own, all of which could be said to be demanding pieces. And all of this in a relaxed manner with the spirit of goodwill. It only occured to me a week later that I had finally arrived at my goal!

Perhaps the most important lesson on this voyage of self-discovery was how striving to create happiness for others, puts you in a much more positive frame of mind, in comparison to striving exaggeratedly to do something without “mistakes" through fear of not being accepted!

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