Pilgrimage goes belly up in Reading!
Will Gethin writes in from the road…Day 3
As I mentioned in my first blog from the road, written while resting in Reading on Wednesday, day four of this pilgrimage – we were hit by some heinous challenges the day we reached the city…
Starting out from Maidenhead on Tuesday, Leon and I left Bethan having a yoga session with our amazing overnight host and yogini Davinda, and set out for Reading, through beautiful open fields and woodlands, stopping in at St John’s Convent near Twyford on the way, where the nuns benevolently fed us hungry pilgrims sandwiches and super kindly donated us a bottle of suncream.
Meeting up with Bethan eight miles in en route, we walked the final eight miles to Reading mainly along the A roads to save time, for we were running late for our first interfaith discussion at a Sikh temple, and a series of meetings that followed, culminating with a film screening of Road to Peace with Reading Climate Action Network. My feet were blistering badly, and I stopped to tape up my feet on the way with sticky tape in the hope of alleviating the pain and yet by the time we reached Reading my feet were very sore.
Arriving late at the Sikh Gurdwara, the place was virtually deserted and we had missed our meeting, but we were offered food – a delicious vegetable curry and dal, followed by rice pudding, which we ate alone in a large communal dining hall. Taking our plates up to the kitchen to be washed, the long bearded chef with twinkling eyes swiftly beckoned us through to an industrial washing up room with three large basins and plied us with industrial sized pots and pans from the kitchen. “You must do seva,” he said, which means selfless service, and we were thankful for the chance to pay our penance and offer an exchange of labour in return for the generous meal we had been granted!
Walking to ACRE (Alliance for Cohesion & Racial Equality) for our next meeting, my feet reached the end of their tether and I could barely walk, so Jerry from ACRE kindly came to collect us and a lady here kindly gave me a bucket of water to sooth my feet in while a discussion ensued over an early sandwich supper.
The meeting was an interesting one, and we were impressed by ACRE’s efforts to foster diversity and equality and how they worked to create harmony and awareness of their community.
“There are obvious cultural differences between faiths and countries,” Leon reflected afterwards, “and the most striking thing that the ACRE meeting highlighted for me is how we have to try as best we can not to judge groups or religions on the actions of the minority. Of course this should go both ways too. After all, we are all people – humans, with the same basic needs and desires – food, shelter, love, kindness from the community and a sense of belonging. We are all one unit – much like a band of pilgrims. If one person suffers, or struggles, we all struggle. If one person has a great experience, that is shared with the group and spurs them on. We all need each other and we need to be compassionate to each other’s needs and at the same time feel comfortable enough to share our own individual needs.”
Next we visited the mosque at Reading Islamic Centre where it was an honour to watch the group of Muslim worshippers pray, prostrating themselves facing east to Mecca, their prayer time precisely timed in tandem with other Muslims worldwide.
Chatting afterwards about faith and pilgrimage with Haji Benares, Chairman of the mosque, and also the imam (spiritual leader), when we mentioned we had traveled almost 60 miles in the last three days, the imam shared an interesting snippet relating to Muslim pilgrimage. “Renowned Islamic scholars have said that if you walk as far as 57 miles in three days you can reduce your prayer times to just two times a day instead of four,” he said.
Continuing on to our screening at South Street Arts Centre hosted by Reading Climate Action Group, it was here that our pilgrimage hit a major blow, putting my blistered feet farrago in the shade. As the film was about to begin – Bethan, who had been sick quite suddenly as we left the mosque, was now hit with a wave of nausea and spent the evening throwing up violently in the dressing room sink. After two hours of incessant vomiting and intermittent passing out and delirium, Leon called an ambulance and Bethan was transported to A&E around 9.30pm, not to be released till 3am.
Bethan was diagnosed as having acute gastroenteritis and sadly we all agreed that it was best to send her home to rest and recuperate at her parents’ house in Wales for a few days before re-joining us. The good news is that she will now re-join us this evening (Tuesday 23rd) in Bradford on Avon for a free public film screening of Road to Peace hosted by the Ton Boon Trust, a Buddhist meditation centre and charity.
And so the next day we three pilgrims despondently split, going our separate ways. Leon dropped Bethan to the station to get the train back to her family, and soldiered on a solo-walking pilgrim, and I stayed on in Reading to give my feet a rest and catch up on blogging and admin.
While not walking I was determined to keep up the “moneyless” quest and I needed to find food, shelter and somewhere with Wi-Fi to work from. Michael Thomas, a big hearted local musician who worked at the South Street Arts Centre and who had kindly volunteered to put up all three of us overnight at his house when Bethan got ill (one of the star angels so far on this trip!), recommended that I head down to the Global Cafe, a social enterprise and showcase for intercultural arts and activism with a world music cafe at its hub. “I think you’ll find the people there sympathetic to your peace pilgrimage cause,” he said, “be a good place to ask for food and someone there might put you up.”
And the Global Cafe folks were amazing. I initially just asked for Wi-Fi and water and a place to work and Kat who worked there donated me her own muesli and bought me a piece of cake. I spent the day there working and by 6.30pm I was starving hungry and worrying about finding somewhere to stay. Calls to local Buddhist centres and a Quaker group asking for accommodation came to nothing and I felt uncomfortable asking The Global Cafe for more, but starting to feel survival anxiety and a growing sense of impending doom, I decided to bite my lip and give it a shot.
Approaching the bar, I introduced myself to a guy, Dan, who’d just started his shift and explained my moneyless peace pilgrimage quest.
“Ah man, how awesome – that sounds like Satish Kumar, what a legend!” he grinned. “I recently heard about the amazing 800 mile peace pilgrimage he did in a Radio 4 documentary, No Destination, what an incredible story.”
I informed Dan that I was currently working for Satish and Resurgence & Ecologist, spreading the word about the flagship green magazine in Bristol during its year as “European Green Capital” and my ticket to shelter was quickly secured.
“I am looking for somewhere to stay tonight,” I began tentatively…
“You can stay at mine,” Dan chipped in without a moment’s reflection, “it would be a real honour.”
And Dan’s hospitality could not have been better, I was quickly plied with a delicious platter of Ethiopian food and a large cup of mocha coffee and given extra food to take away as lunch for the following day by Will, the cafe’s manager. Back at his house later, Dan urged me to treat his home as my own and to help myself to whatever I needed. “Really its no trouble at all,” he assured me, “I’m delighted to help, stay as long as you need to.”
Walking out of Reading the following afternoon, I hoped my blistered feet would by now hold out, but after a three to four mile walk they were sore again, and I resorted to having to hitch hike up to Castle Hill Fort to re-join Leon on The Ridgeway, up near Wantage. I must have asked about 20 drivers for a lift to junction 14 on the M4 (two junctions west) at a service station near the motorway, and was close to giving up and walking on when a Nepali guy with a gold Laughing Buddha statute on his dashboard agreed to drive me one junction up. This was progress at least and these mini triumphs proved high points during challenging times!
Then dropped off on the main road, I hobbled painfully on in search of another garage to hitchhike from. At the next service station, I was moved on from the garage forecourt where the manager was reluctant to support my hitching and I hobbled about trying to thumb a ride on the road outside before resorting to seeking a lift from any diners at the adjacent McDonalds.
Here, I asked around for a lift getting no takers before a sympathetic McDonalds staff member kindly gave me a free coffee and supplied me with crayons and cardboard to make up a hitchhiking sign showing where I was headed. However, one final ask for a lift from a diner and I struck lucky! Tania from Reading, who was actually traveling back to Reading, agreed to go out of her way and drop me to Junction 14. Ultimately, she was to drive me the whole way to The Ridgeway, to the remote wilds of Castle Hill Fort.
“I believe we have to choose to be happy,” said Tania. “I adhere to the Mormon faith, and the Mormons have a saying, ‘Men are that they might have joy.’”
As we traveled the last winding roads approaching the fort, Tania and I discussed happiness and how it can be attained in modern life. “I believe we have to choose to be happy,” said Tania. “I adhere to the Mormon faith, and the Mormons have a saying, ‘Men are that they might have joy.’ Joy is there for the taking if you choose. I think happiness is a state of being, its something you find and develop. Its a choice.”
I agreed with Tania, and added that I felt happiness was also about acceptance. Accepting what you are and your personal limitations and being grateful for all the good things, rather than forever seeking outside ourselves for things we think will make us happier – the right partner, the right job, more money, etc. For as the Dalai Lama and many spiritual thinkers teach: peace and happiness come from within – as Tania said, it’s a state of being.
As we approached the fort, Leon was waiting, hoping I would arrive that night, though with his phone out of battery charge, we were out of contact. Ultimately, as the sun set, seeing the first car for a while flash past him at 9.00pm as he stood on the look out for my arrival at the crossroads, Leon sprinted after us down the track, arms flapping, pursuing us for a mile!
And so we two pilgrims were reunited, and set up camp and cooked dinner over a fire under the stars, on the land of an ancient iron fort.
I dreamt of finally beginning the immersive pilgrimage walk along the wilds of The Ridgeway at last, once the sun had risen to birth a new day….
Join us for screenings of our Dalai Lama film Road to Peace on Tuesday 23rd June at the Ton Boon Trust Buddhist Meditation Centre in Bradford on Avon and on Wednesday 24th June at the Westway Cinema in Frome.
Watch Road to Peace online or on DVD!
ABOUT WILL GETHIN:
Communications Manager for Road to Peace Films, Will is “the scribe” for the Road to Peace Pilgrimage. He is also the founder of Conscious Frontiers, a leading edge communications, speakers and events agency, recently nominated for Kindred Spirit magazine’s Ethical Business Award 2015, which aims to raise consciousness and help create a happier, healthier and more sustainable world.