Archive for December, 2009

A Touch of Zen at Xmas

December 14th, 2009 No comments

I  recently had the good fortune to be able to attend a Buddhist Centre retreat in the idyllic setting of the Somerset Hills.  Like many people, I have long been interested in Zen Buddhism without knowing that much about its practice – but I did know that meditation (or za-zen, from which it derives its name) is absolutely central to it. 

The actual meditation proved very difficult. The idea of ‘mindfulness’, where you not so much empty your thoughts as become very focused on the here and now, is not one that comes easily to me.  

I found myself being continually distracted by the soft smoky runs of the boiler igniting  its regular puffs of disbelief in the background, and by the distant catcalls of children playing in the garden, while we sat inside, in postures of graduated discomfort and in complete silence.   Hard to avoid the ticking clock in one’s head that counts down the days, the hours and the minutes, both in the past and the future, but never quite reaches the present tense.

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When the Aztec tomb of the Emperor is finally opened

December 10th, 2009 No comments

I go to the British Museum to hear Leonardo López Luján talk about his work on the Aztec pyramids of the Plaza Mayor in Mexico City.  There is an almost palpable  air of expectation about the event — after several years of excavation, his team have reached the entrance to what may well be a royal tomb.  The glyphs on the doorway correspond to those for the reign of Ahuizotl, Moctezuma’s predecessor as Emperor of the Aztecs (or Mexica, as the British Museum keeps pedantically reminding us to call them).

Even the natural — and proper — caution of an archaeologist cannot prevent Leonardo from getting excited at the prospect.  And he’s had three years to do so — the monolithic lid to the tomb was first uncovered in October 2006 (by workmen clearing the wrong site by accident).  The reason it’s taken so long to excavate is that the water table is very high in what was once, after all, a  city built on a lake, like Venice. 

The tomb lid showed a representation of the nocturnal earth goddess Tlaltecuhtli carved into the pink andesite, with claws extended to receive the dead.  Ground-penetrating radar shows there are three chambers below the tomb lid.  Funerary offerings placed at the entrance to these chambers include gold offerings, the bones of an eagle and a dog, and the pelt of a spider monkey.

 The moment when the tomb is  finally opened may well be the first really momentous archaeological find of the 21st century: no tomb of an Aztec emperor has ever been found before.  And it will happen soon.

see Mexico City Dreams    The Traveller Magazine

More Afghan thoughts

December 2nd, 2009 No comments

If there is one story that is currently under-reported, it is the proxy war that is being fought in Afghanistan : not the one between America and Al-Qaeda, but the one between India and Pakistan. While Pakistan feels that the Pushtuns are ‘their guys’ against the Indian-backed Tajiks, Uzbeks and other tribes, there will never be a chance of settling the conflict.

One Labour minister I met several years ago at Kabul airport after his tour of inspection was openly wondering how it was that while large packets of aid still went to India, it could still afford to send equally large packets of aid to ‘its men’ in Afghanistan. One can’t help thinking that some judicious diplomacy might restore a sense of perspective. Sending 30,000 more American troops – and 500 more British ones – is only part of the answer.

Afghan thoughts

December 1st, 2009 No comments

[An expanded version of recent article for the Times]

Three years ago I was preparing to go to Afghanistan to make a Despatches Special for C4 with the intrepid Pakistani journalist Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy about what conditions for ordinary Afghans were like. We wanted to make it in the winter of 2006-07 because there was talk of a Spring offensive from the Taleban – which indeed came – and came – and has kept coming ever since.

The difference in the country between then and now is striking. 

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