Chapter One: Breathe

* Excerpt from Man, Dog, Bike. Now available on Amazon!

The most profound experience that ever happened to me was in a dorm room of a hostel in Dublin, December 1999. But to explain its significance, I need first to go back.

All my life I’d been diagnosed as asthmatic, and from the dawn of my existence had been in and out of hospital with bouts varying from mild to life threatening. Apparently I flatlined when I was three years old.

But I was never saddened by my condition, as I’d never known life without it. As a kid, I’d run around playing cricket, footy, climbing trees, get subsequently wheezy, have a puff of my inhaler and get straight back out there amongst all the sights, sounds, and smells that constituted boyhood.

It was a similar story throughout my teen years. But around the age of eighteen, just as I finished high school, and, ironically enough, when young people are thrust into the pressures of adult life, the asthma medications that had served me until this point appeared to no longer work.

Standing in front of the mirror, I’d look myself square in the eye and puff and puff with all my might. But no relief would come. I assumed I’d become immune to the old medications, and I sought the advice of countless doctors and specialists who, for the most part, would scratch their heads and prescribe the same old stuff over and over.

Five or more very difficult years passed during which I continued to feel, quite literally, permanently unable to breathe, or at least unable to catch my breath fully as I could when I was younger.

In June 1999, I decided I was going overseas, independently, for the first time. Seven years earlier I’d visited Irish relatives in America with Dad and my older brother Stephen, but this trip was to have no guardian or restrictions.

My main objective was to reach the motherland of Malta and the fatherland of Ireland, where I had numerous relatives whose names were like folklore to us first-generation Australians down in Oz. The trip also included a chocolate-box tour of mainland Europe. But with the unwanted extra of permanent breathlessness, I less so relished sites such as the Eiffel Tower, St Mark’s Square in Venice, and the Alps of Switzerland, as I gazed at them with strained eyes and accelerated heartbeat.

I reached Ireland by December that year, and having caught an asthmatic’s nightmare—the flu—my breathing was at such a record low that I considered cancelling the rest of my trip and flying back to Australia. But barely having the strength to make the phone call, as opposed to that to endure the long haul flight, I settled into a dorm room in a hostel in Dublin.

With countless anonymous backpackers checking in and out, my makeshift ward was far from private, and taking my inhaler up to 30 times a day—which, although it would “work” by way of making my hands go shaky, but never would it relieve my breathing—I spent most of the daylight hours in bed. This was the first time in my adult life when I actually fretted for my parents. But as much as I was here, they were in Melbourne.

I’d been there for almost a week, successfully avoiding social contact, when an unsought voice made its way into my ear. ‘What’s wrong with you? You look terrible.’

‘Nothing. I’m fine.’ I said, wishing this man would catch the soonest bus to the universe’s outermost corner.

‘You’re not fine. I would know.’

‘How would you know?’

To this day his name eludes me. He was Indian, about middle-aged, and he was proud to tell me that he was a general practitioner in London.

‘Do you have asthma?’ he asked.

‘I do, but—’

‘—And have you taken your Ventolin today?’

‘Yes, but it doesn’t seem to—’

‘—Son, if we meet in 50 years, I want to hear you tell me that you take your inhaler two puffs in the morning and two puffs in the evening.’

‘I do, I’ve probably taken it over twenty times today, but it doesn’t—’

‘—Son, you have oversensitive airways. The inhalers relax them so as to facilitate natural breathing. This is why it’s so important you take two puffs in the morning and two puffs in the evening.’

‘I’ve been taking them all my life! But for the last five years I seem to have become immune to—’

‘—Son, another remedy is to wear an undershirt at all times, to avoid sudden changes of temperature getting into your chest.’

‘I sometimes do, but—’

‘—But more important is that you take two puffs in the morning and two puffs in the evening. In fact, it’s getting dark, you should take it right now!’ he said, gesturing towards the dorm bathroom.

I felt the ‘v’ of my forehead increase from lowercase to capital. ‘I’m not taking those stupid inhalers, mate! All they do is make my hands shake—’

‘—Son, come on! Take it right now. No more backchat!’

Feeling like a child being sent to his room, I snatched my inhaler from my backpack and stomped into the bathroom. I flicked on the light, belligerently; the only trace of compensation being that the door was heavy enough that I could grumble without him being able to hear me.

‘Stupid inhaler.’

I turned towards the mirror and looked myself square in the eye.

‘I should just change my flight and go home.’

I exhaled until my lungs were almost empty.

‘One more taste of this evil shit and I’ll vomit.’

I put the inhaler to my mouth, pressed and inhaled mightily.

What happened next was the closest thing to a miracle I’d ever experienced.

As though an invisible corset had been unfastened, or a padlock on my ribcage suddenly unlocked, I felt a massive pressure fall away from my chest where from one neighbouring second to the next, I could breathe! I could breathe! My god, I could breathe!

Propelled into a state of natural ecstasy, it was as though I’d swapped bodies, or had reverted to the blissful state of childhood. I stood there for some seconds, gazing with disbelief into the mirror, breathing deeply, freely, and relishing each full inhalation like a smoker does with a cigarette.

In disbelief, I walked back into the dorm room where my Indian friend was waiting.

‘Well?’ he asked.

‘It worked!’

‘Of course it bloody worked!’

‘Yeah, but… it hasn’t worked for like five years, and, like, I mean, it really worked!’

‘Son, if we meet in 50 years, I want to hear you tell me that you take your inhaler two puffs in the morning and two puffs in the evening.’

‘I’ll do that. I really will!’

I went to bed soon after, and as though an unconscious curse had been miraculously lifted, I remember waking through the night—in my squeaky top bunk bed—in such a state of bliss that it brought tears to my eyes. I woke the next morning feeling more rested and energised than I could remember ever, and just as the doctor ordered, I took my morning puffs.

I walked all around Dublin that day in what was, I guess, the closest state of enlightenment I’d ever known.

As though a veil, or constriction, had been removed from my senses, I could see, hear, taste, smell, and most of all feel with a heightened awareness that, for the first time in my life, made me realise I wasn’t a separate entity floating aimlessly in a callous universe, but an intrinsic part of some sort of singular collective consciousness that forms the universe and all life in it. Be it the collective squawking of the seagulls reeling above, sounding, to me, as pure as dripping glass, or the icy sea breeze blowing off the Irish Sea feeling like a life-giving coverlet brushing against my face, or the white rays of the winter sun feeling as though they were stirring me on a cellular level, every sensory experience seemed so amplified that it rendered me in awe of all life and the very concept of it.

Where there was once great heaviness, there was now tingling lightness, and as though doing away with an age of pain and blockage, I wandered until dusk through the streets of Dublin, and up and down the length of the River Liffey, coughing up an indescribable amount of rubbish from my lungs. Each fragment discarded making way for even more glorious capacity to breathe.

It was no mystery that my new condition was bequeathed via the portal of good breathing, but how the breathing had unlocked was an utter mystery. I mean, all I’d done, as I’d been doing hourly for however many years previously, was take a whack from my inhaler, and—bang!—I was fast-tracked to comparative enlightenment. The spiritually inclined would later suggest that through some sort of trick of the mind occurring inadvertently by the doctor having taken control, I’d had a massive release from my heart chakra. Whatever that meant.

I left Dublin the next day on the ferry, and as the only soul standing on its stern side; I watched the small windblown city, with its famous Poolbeg chimneys, diminishing in the distance. It had truly been the scene of a miracle.

I arrived in London the next day, to be told vivaciously by my friends how well they thought I looked. I told them the story, sparing the details, to which with faces that suggested they had no personal experience with such matters, they made a sincere effort to show interest. My victory was a personal one, though cherished nonetheless.

I lived in London for the next twelve months, existing day and night in a continual state of bliss.

Saturday mornings were a particular treasure—where I’d lie on my bed in Tooting, relishing the ability to breathe as though with every breath I was having a sort of healing-conditioner massaged through my soul.

With my head, my body, and most importantly, my heart, now completely clear, it was as though I’d become who I really was: my true untainted self according to spiritual hypothesis, which at the time I knew little about.

Around 7.30 a.m., I’d open my bedroom door, which opened onto the backyard, and wait, ritually, for the sun’s rays to creep around the brick wall corner. While listening to the sounds of Hindu music wafting from the shops of Upper Tooting Road, I’d sit on my floor and be filled with ecstasy by seemingly nothing—or equally—by something as inconsequential as watching an ant crawl up a wall. Along with meeting my doctor-friend in Dublin, it was perhaps here that my interest in going to India began.

There was no amount of money on Earth I could be offered to revert back to my pre-Dublin condition, which I referred to as the “cursed me”. As now, able to feel it in the very air around me, I resided in a permanent state of love; love for all life, love for all matter, and most importantly, love for myself. I would smirk at the thought of the old me as I would at the thought of a bumbling child, who, lost in the perpetual state of fear and tension that I was, would battle my emotions via my head as successfully as one dodges machinegun fire. I was hereby at the summit of health and happiness; for by whatever means people were trying to acquire it, I now had it. But all of this was about to be lost. I went back to Australia.

* Excerpt from Man, Dog, Bike. Now available on Amazon!

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The Ashram

* Excerpt from Man, Dog, Bike. Now available on Amazon!

Although I’d come to India with one eye on freedom, and the other on seeking answers that could shake me off emotionally, I’d become deeply adverse to the leagues of try-hard western spiritualists I’d observed along the way. They were a dime a dozen, yoga pant-wearing enthusiasts donning beads and wristbands as though the official decoration of the spiritual soldier. Most seemed unable to tell you quick enough just how “into it” they were. I’d been privy to conversations so toxically pretentious, I sometimes wondered if I should check myself into an infirmary.

Many such exchanges took place, but none stood out as much as with one American bloke, who overflowed with pride as he told a room of some thirty people—mostly girls—that he’d found his way back to god by drinking his own piss; his self-serving homily closing with a look as if expecting a round of applause.

These types, I felt, constituted the perfect circle of contradiction, in that they failed with flying colours to understand that genuine spirituality is defined by the degree the ego is dissolved, not fed. That if their transformation from jeans and t-shirts—to loose pants and sandals—was done in the name of impressing others, they were walking through the backdoor of the very house they’d tried to vacate.

Ange was by no means one of these, but was a dignified student in the Earth School. The others seemed to multiply when they got wet, and I knew any ashram would be rife with their kind, hence I wanted no part.

The next morning, nevertheless, Ange convinced me to go for an inspective wander at the ashram over the river.

Leading us away from the racket of the street, we walked up the long entrance ramp, where its vast flowery grounds unveiled themselves like a grand opening. The gardens were dotted with shady palms and tranquil seating areas, and the sound of nearby monkeys carried on the breeze.

Set high above the street, we gorged on the panoramic view of the Ganges. Ange turned to me with a broad smile. ‘Why don’t ye toss the bike idea and stay here fur a while.’

‘I’m tempted, it’s just… I’m not currently asylum seeking.’

‘Och, don’t be such a Jessie.’

‘Me? What about this lot of whitewashers? They look as if they’d be hard pressed to make a cup of tea between ‘em.’

‘Don’t be such an erse.’

‘I’m just not such a fan of these spiritual types, folk into their star signs and chakras, and those who claim to be so connected they can’t sleep during a full moon.’

‘Ah’m like that.’

‘Three words: al-co-hol.’

‘Look, why don’t we go down the office and ask a few questions?’

‘I’ll come for a walk with ya, but that’ll be me.’

We entered the rudimentary office. The fly screen door slowly closed behind us, screeching a melody so unpleasant it could make a dead man frown.

‘Good morning, sir,’ said the man, rising from his desk.

‘Good morning, what’s the minimum stay, please?’

‘Fourteen days, sir.’

I turned to Ange. ‘Nah, that’s a bit rich, I’m going to head into town and start looking for bikes.’

She shrugged her shoulders.

I headed for the door, but it was perhaps from not wishing to hear it a second time that I turned back around. ‘Excuse me, are there any peanuts in the cooking?’ I asked, myself being deadly allergic.

‘Actually, in fact, probably definitely yes or no,’ said the man, in an accent so thick that without a personal linguist on hand I’d have done better with Pythagoras’ theorem.

‘Sorry?’

‘Let me explain more clearly, sir,’ he said, inhaling as though about to launch into a more thorough explanation. But performing a head wobble composed of neither a nod meaning yes, nor a shake meaning no, he fell to complete silence.

The silence drew on, and I frowned and puckered, and puckered and frowned, until some years later he spoke. ‘Have I made myself clear, sir?’

‘Crystal,’ I said, turning back to Ange, ‘d’you know what?’

‘Whot?’

*****

Dear Manuel,

I’m in Rishikesh, and much to my surprise I’m staying at an ashram. I didn’t really know what they were previously, other than some sort of hippy refuge sought by westerners seeking budget enlightenment.

The word ashram means place of aspiring, so if a crack o’ dawn rise, two times yoga classes, two times meditation sessions, and three times eating the same food each day, defines aspiration, then an aspirant I am.

There are about a hundred inmates in stir. Each gets a small room, a bed with no mattress, and a pillow less comfortable than a chip of Ayers Rock. It’s a bit of a contrast to the motorbike plan, but here goes I s’pose.

*****

We were still standing in the office, when—ding!—the man rang a bell, prompting two other men to enter. Both were armed with keys and blankets, and they eyeballed us with a fraction too much intensity to call friendly.

‘Follow me,’ said one, as the other said the same to Ange.

‘Hang on,’ I said, ‘can’t we get a room together?’

‘Men and woman are separate in the ashram.’

He led me onto a balcony with a generous view of the river. ‘This isn’t so bad,’ I thought, taking it in as he fished the keys out of his pocket. He unlocked the door and we entered.

The room, however, if such cells were worthy of the title, was little more than a white concrete box with a hard wooden bed, a hole-in-the-floor dunny, and metal bars on the windows.

‘Any chance of an upgrade?’

‘Lunch is at twelve o’clock,’ he said, handing me a blanket and rulebook. ‘Don’t be late.’

It was 11:50 a.m., and feeling like a prisoner unsure of his crime, I sat on the hard bed. ‘Because this is far more fun than a motorbiking tour?’

I changed into loose white attire and made my way to the eating hall.

The hall was long and yellow; it had a grey tiled floor, and on the wall was a small music box playing a crackly Hindu mantra. There were as many westerners present as Indians, and all sat cross-legged on the floor, eating by hand from their metal trays.

I spotted Ange in the far corner. I walked over and sat next to her, as happy to see her as though we’d spent a lifetime apart.

‘Good’arvo, my name’s Dave. What are you in for?’

‘Illegal importation of Aussie zoomers.’

‘What’s a zoomer?’

‘Someone of an unstable disposition.’

Sitting opposite was an older western man. He was both handsome and ugly all in one, leading me to think he was French. ‘G’day, Pierre.’ I gestured by a raise of the eyebrows, to which he broke eye contact at record speed.

‘Wanker..’

‘He’s in silence, ya eeejit.’

‘Why? Frog got his tongue?’

‘Cat ya uncultured galoot! Anyway, shut it with yer Aussie piss-fartin’ aroond. We’re supposed tae be quiet and reflective.’

‘On what?’

‘Oan things.’

‘What things?’

‘Any and all things. Now shut it!’

‘D’you know what?’

‘Whot?’

‘You’d think they could have thought of a better name for it than sticky date pudding?’

‘Everybody silent!’ said one of the chefs, standing in the centre of the hall. All closed their eyes and fell pin-drop quiet.

As though psyching himself for the gig of his life, he closed his eyes and palmed his hands into prayer position. I kept one eye open, and several long seconds passed before he began singing some mantra. His voice, however, perhaps the very thing used to convert the ashram’s milk into curd, was about as in-tune as a cat being castrated with a can opener.

Trying not to think of Ange, I sat on the cusp of a total laughter breakdown, and I ran a scan of other-things-to-think-about-in-case-of-an-emergency. It would have been to my advantage to think about global warming, or the escalating concern of housing affordability for young Australians. But with the sound of Ange struggling to my left—and the chef wailing upwards as gracefully as a chicken, with a cape, trying to take flight—an avalanche gave way and I spurted aloud.

He stopped abruptly and made firm eye contact.

I tried to disguise my laugh as a cough, by intentionally continuing it and beating myself on the chest. Unconvinced, he held the stare, until after a few long seconds he turned away and recommenced.

‘I’m sorry,’ I said to her when he finished, ‘but it’s like needing a wee during hide-and-seek.’

‘Dear me…’ she sighed, ‘I think I ought tae be reprimanded fur bringin’ a fannyboz.’

Everybody started tucking into their food—a hotchpotch mix of clotted rice, lentils, and stuff that looked like a hybrid of the two.

‘This is pure mingin’,’ she said.

‘Is that Scottish for shithouse?’

‘Aye.’

‘Not a trace of Viagra in it.’

‘Maybe it’s the very thing that groond the French bloke tae silence?’

‘Maybe.’

The French bloke sneezed aloud, making me wonder if he’d just broken his vow.

* Excerpt from Man, Dog, Bike. Now available on Amazon!

Birthday truth bending

* Excerpt from Man, Dog, Bike. Now available on Amazon!

The majority of my birthdays escape my memory, but the one that’s burned into my brain most is when I turned 30 in Rishikesh, India.

It was September 28th, and the day was as hot and colourful as you’d expect from India. Myself and my Scottish friend Ange walked along the bustling roadside, during which a young local boy ran up to us with a cricket bat in hand. ‘Hello, mister! Your country?’

I told him.

‘Australia is number one! Shane Warne! Glenn McGrath!’ he shouted, giving us his best air-bat before running around a corner.

We reached the Ganges soon after, and with kids swimming and locals whack-washing their clothes, its banks were as lively as the images that had lured me here. The riverbank sand had a glittery metallic quality, and I walked ankle-deep into the water. ‘Shit! It’s freeeeezing!’

‘Aye, whot were ye expectin’?’

‘This is India, everything’s supposed to be balmy!’

‘Aye, but we’re near the Gangotri Glacier.’

Anytime I’d imagined the Ganges I’d envisioned an unsavoury picture of decomposing bodies and contaminated water, but with Rishikesh nestled in the Himalayan foothills, this section was as unspoiled as you could wish for.

‘I think I’ll go for a swim,’ I said, ‘but I dunno if I should take my pants off here?’

‘Why no’, huv ye got varicose veins?’

‘No, coz I’ve only got these translucent undies on.’

‘Och, ye’re in India the now, nobody cares!’

‘You coming in then?’

‘Noo, ah’m no’ strippin’ aff in front of these blokes over here.’

She was right, for the notion of privacy being utterly alien in India, as always we’d attracted a crowd. It was even common for western girls, daring to swim or suntan, to catch local lads wanking themselves in the reeds of the riverbanks.

I swam around until the holy water washed away enough old sins to make room for new ones. When I got out and dried off, the growing crowd circled in. ‘Hello, sir, will you be my friend?’

‘No.’

I sat on the bank, and Ange turned to me, her eyes seeming expressly occupied. ‘Can I ask ye something?’

‘I guess you just did.’

‘Don’t be daft. Why exactly did ye set oot oan this trip?’

I felt a familiar tension come over me as the inner breathing article loaded onto the front page of my head.

‘I’m not sure I want to bore you with it.’

‘Thanks,’ she said, ‘anyway, ah’ve been sittin’ here watchin’ the river, and thinkin’ aboot yer birthday, and I dreamt up a wee verse I wannae sing tae ye.’

She inhaled.

‘Ange?’

‘Aye?’

‘I’d prefer birthday bashes with a loaf of salami.’

‘Och, ah’m only jokin’, ya numpty! I knew it would get up yer kilt.’

‘Aye.’ I said.

‘Well, happy birthday and all. Ah’m gonnae heid up the hill fur arvo yoga, ya comin’?’

‘Nah, I’m going to hang down here. But I’m dead proud to hear you using the word arvo. I mean, why go to all the trouble to saying three syllables when you can achieve the same desired effect in two?’

‘Dave?’

‘Yeah?’

‘Ssshhh..’

She walked off, and as I strolled along the same cricket-kid from earlier ran up to me. ‘Steve Waugh!’ he shouted, giving me his best air-bat again before running around a corner. Curious, I followed, to find a group of some twelve kids playing street cricket.

With an old crate for a wicket, and a plank for a bat, their equipment was as elementary as you could imagine. Standing at the crease—having marked it in the dirt with his bare foot—was my little mate.

‘Sachin Tendulkar!’ I said, to which when the ball met with his bat it shot down the street and smacked into a cow.

It was still my birthday, so I figured I’d indulge in a self-bought present. I walked into a nearby clothes shop. The merchant smiled widely, and followed me around at a proximity close enough to be grating.

I browsed for a matter of time, until I spotted an item of interest. ‘How much for this orange shirt, please?’

‘One hundred rupees, sir.’

‘I’ll give you fifty.’

‘No, sir, one hundred.’

‘I’ll give you sixty.’

‘No, sir, one hundred rupees, last price.’

But the notion of fixed-prices being blatantly un-Indian, I was offended by his obstinacy.

Trounced, I resolved to leave, but it was then that one small question passing his lips would change our dynamic forever. ‘Your profession, sir?’

A little-imaginary-devil-with-little-fluttering-wings appeared at my left shoulder. ‘I’m a professional cricketer, recently drafted.’

It was hard to know if it was from excitement or nerves, but a muscle began to twitch in his temple. His brow grew damp, and having shot some command at his wife, she brought out a tray of chai in under a minute.

‘So tell me, sir,’ he said, dusting off a stool, ‘do you know Ricky Ponting?’

‘Yes. He is my cousin.’

‘Really?’

‘And I was best man at his wedding.’

He broke into girlish laughter, clapping his flippers like a delighted seal. ‘And tell me, sir, are you in India for the Test Series?’

‘Yes,’ I said, having precisely zero idea that the Australian team was currently in India.

He gathered his children for a group photo, and knowing that somewhere in hell Satan was dusting off another stool in preparation of my coming, I smiled for the camera.

Conversation turned back to business.

‘Please, sir, have this orange shirt, no money for you!’

‘Now now, I don’t want to be unfair, or least of all dishonest. I’ll give you fifty.’

‘Ok! Ok!’ he said, inserting the word between his shortening inhalations.

I was in his shop for half an hour, and I acquired a bundle of clothes at a heart-warming price. I could have let myself feel guilty, but figuring it was my birthday I was quick to grant myself pardon.

We parted with a reverent handshake, and as I exited his shop I noticed, a couple of doors along, the same group of kids still playing cricket. The little Tendulkar-batsman was again at the crease, and I acknowledged him with a faint nod.

My intention was to keep walking, but the merchant, moseying out of his shop, announced to the kids I was an Australian cricketer. My heart stopped as their faces lit. ‘Shane Warne! Jason Gillespie!’ they yelled as they exploded into mergers of child and pogo stick. I smiled dumbly, and although I’d hoped the moment would pass without consequence, one of the youngsters threw me the ball.

I stood with the ball in hand, but for the one, single, and inarguable fact that I bowl with the finesse of an orangutan, I was quick to chuck it back. ‘No, mate. I’ll bat.’

I stood at the crease with the bat in hand. Dozens of folk had gathered, and none were watching closer than the merchant, leaning against a wall with his arms folded.

I swallowed hard as the bowler took his run up. ‘Steve Waugh! Ricky Ponting!’ his teammates yelled as he unleashed like a muscle arm shotgun. My hit had to be a belter, for to be discovered as a fake could result in the burning of my effigy. The ball hurtled towards. My whole reputation was on the line, my whole career—perhaps my fear of clowns had returned, when—whack!—I belted it high.

Relieved, I stood back, and watching the ball soar through the air, it—plop!—landed in the Ganges.

‘Yyyaaayyy!’ the pogo-kids burst into a choir of approval, and guilty only of being in character, I lay the bat down and pointed their way.

‘Good luck at the game, sir!’ said the merchant, the twitch in his temple having resumed.

‘Thanks,’ I said, re-entering his shop for some subsequent bargains.

* Excerpt from Man, Dog, Bike. Now available on Amazon!