Sound of Silence

No, we are not here to philosophically muse about the Sound of Silence, nor wallow in nostalgia in the namesake Simon and Garfunkel song. But for a start, let the music be our master and draw us in with the lines: “And the vision that was planted in my brain / Still remains / Within the sound of silence.”

Gavin Francis in search of silence

Gavin Francis in search of silence

We are here to contemplate landscapes of silence with doctor, author, traveler Gavin Francis. The Edinburgh born Scotsman who finds the dark streets of his native land a little more quiet than that of India or Bhutan, if not for all our barking street mongrels. Francis spent about six months in India, time he admits not enough not only to see the country but to experience its silence.

He yearns to go over pathless seas like the ancient pilgrims did on leather boats, unsure where the shifting shores lie. To go on roads that are unaware of their beginnings and ends, for they know not the turns a traveler might take. His first foray into the world of silent spaces led him to the Laplands and to the lost islands that float between Scotland and Greenland. Silence called out to him from further North and seduced the doctor into a writer. Thus his first book True North came into being.

The universe conspired next and turned him into a traveler in search of a silence that is born of the land and drop from the sky. He walked under constellations and city lights across hemispheres North and South, searching for places where there are no markers of the passage of time. This pilgrim of silence found his alters in strange lands, each promised a certain degree of silence but never an everlasting one. Till silence whispered again subtly from the frozen South (on a lighter note the religious subtext is not at all intentional and no puns are intended).

Deep South, Antarctica called and Francis rushed into the very abyss of silence, which can only be comprehended, if lived, not read or visited. For Gavin Francis’ experience in Antarctica read the blog-post: A Love Letter to Antarctica. Remote and cold he recounts his experiences with penguins, ice, silence and months of nights, followed by months of daylight – he had finally lost all the markers that denote the passage of time. To watch him recount his experiments with silence watch the video below.


We met Gavin Francis at Usha presents Mountains Echoes 2014, the Bhutan Literary Festival. It was exciting and nice to listen to his adventures, almost like an old Victorian travel yarn; but it all sounded so cold. We only wished we had met him earlier, to gift him one of our Electric Kettles, at least he would have got his coffee warm and nice. After all, “How much better is silence; the coffee cup, the table. How much better to sit by myself like the solitary sea-bird that opens its wings on the stake. Let me sit here for ever with bare things, this coffee cup…”  (Virginia Woolf)

USHA ELECTRIC KETTLE 3217 for that Warm Cup

USHA ELECTRIC KETTLE 3217 for that Warm Cup

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The Spirit of Coffee

Our story begins in the mountain kingdom of Bhutan where people believe that, their is a Coffee Spirit! An occult being of element and air which can only be appeased by coffee! People take this custom seriously, religiously offering cups of coffee after coffee in various ritualistic forms to this airy being. Such beings that once walked the past, seems to have evolved with time – either just inside our heads or in themselves is debatable!

USHA Coffee Machines, to help you keep the magic alive

USHA Coffee Machines to help you keep the magic alive

Animism has been evolving over time as part of our culture and one cannot throw it away as utter mambo-jumbo because their very roots literally lie in nature itself. Arising from the trees, the elements and the world around us animism has a very conservative aspect to it. The slogan ‘Save the Trees’ could as well be an animist one. It puts forth a love and respect for nature in a ritualistic form rather than a scientific one – the belief that we can save ourselves by saving and appeasing the world around us, sounds like a very 21st century concern, yet it did exist when Shamans spoke to the stars and trees, and the trees spoke back.

LOTR Trees

The Living Trees from LOTR

Deep in our primal selves the sub-conscious still retains and respects the values of animism – the Box Office, talking walking trees from the Lord of the Rings Trilogy are a proof to that. Tolkien once wrote “…The first men to talk of ‘trees and stars’ saw things very differently. To them, the world was alive with mythological beings… To them the whole of creation was ‘myth-woven and elf-patterned’. And mark these words from yet another popular Television series The Game of Thrones “But there are some who still keep to the Old Way, worshiping the faceless gods of the Children of the Forest and the First Men.” The point being that animism has survived in various forms, hiding quietly beneath surfaces in our words and deeds. What is the plural for Magpies? A tidings of Magpies. Another point well made, shall we say?

As part of our culture, animism is so seamlessly and unconsciously weaved into our daily lives that it cannot be ignored, though often and always overlooked. Today’s Magic is tomorrow’s science, similarly yesterday’s superstition is today’s tradition, of which animism has become a part.

To learn more about the Coffee Spirit and other Himalayan animistic beliefs watch the session Wild Spirits: Animism in the Himalayas, where experts Sangay Wangchuk, Kunzang Choden in conversation with Manju Wakhley discuss the value systems, their merits and issues at Usha presents Mountain Echoes 2014

Living on the Edge

If you came here thinking of the screams and riffs of Aersomith’s most famous single and their Live Concert staple anthem – Livin’ on the Edge, you couldn’t be more wrong. But hold on because you are at the right place at ironic some level. Just as the legendary band put to melody issues ranging from racism to religion in the song, this too is about such social issues. It talks about communities in Bhutan who live off the map -without roads, electricity and other everyday things that we take for granted.

Tiger's Nest Monastery

Tiger’s Nest Monastery

A community neglected by media, their own suave urbanites, yet strangely not by the Bhutanese Royals, especially the Queen Mother (read/watch the session: The Travelling Eye). Remote and ‘so far from anywhere’ these communities live on the edge not just geographically (though that can be contested if one speaks of the Bhutanese terrain and settlements along or below the edges of mountains and cliffs like the famous Tiger’s Nest Monastery); and economically living off a harsh land and dangerous forest; but also culturally preserving an amalgamation of wisdom that would sound strange to a city dweller.

Marie Venø Thesbjerg, Passang Passu Tshering, Dr. Francoise Pommaret in conversation with Siok Sian Dorji, discusses these issues beautifully in this namesake session at the Usha presents Mountain Echoes Literary Festival 2014 at Thimphu Bhutan.

As an added bonus it is a pleasure to listen to Marie Venø Thesbjerg’s talk about yet another kind of ‘Living on the Edge’ – that of Buddhist Nuns; not only did she live among them but also made a documentary on them.


A Love Letter To Antarctica


Did you know that it is harder to evacuate someone from Antarctica than it is from the International Space Station!

As children some of us dreamed of travelling to lesser known parts of the world which held the promise of discovery. Gavin Francis who is a doctor by profession acting on one such childhood fantasy set off to Antarctica. As a doctor at the British Research Station he spent 14 months in a landscape dominated by ice, silence and Emperor Penguins.

He recounts his adventures in the book Empire Antarctica, which won him the Scottish Book Award. Obsessed by a traveller’s restless curiosity he explores the breathtaking sights of the icy continent from light phenomenons reminiscent of Odin’s Court to the life cycle of the majestic Emperor Penguins.

To explore the silent continent with the Scotsman watch the video below filmed at Usha presents Mountain Echoes 2014 – the Bhutan Literary Festival.

The Traveller’s Eye

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” 
― Marcel Proust

During the launch of the book ‘Travelling in, Travelling out’ at the Usha presents Mountain Echoes 2014 by HM Queen Mother Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuk, Namita Gokhale and Wendell Rodricks, the conversation steered towards the unexpectedness of journeys. How chance encounters with people, culture, cuisines and other serendipities on the road make our journeys more than a sum of its miles. As Ernest Hemingway once put it “It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.” 

The conversation also circled around the age old question: ‘Why do we travel? And ‘has the internet turned all of us into armchair travellers, taking away the essence of the journey from travel?’ All three speakers addressed these questions in their own ways. Namita Gokhale relished meeting people, both strangers and friends; HM the Queen Mother traveled to connect with her people; while Wendell Rodricks travelled for culture, relaxation and sports.

The discussion was peppered with personal anecdotes; how Wendell Rodricks unexpectedly met the granddaughter of Leo Tolstoy in Sweden! Or how the Queen Mother did most of her travelling on foot, once walking all the way from Thimphu to Arunachal Pradesh in India; to relate just two such anecdotes.

To explore what travelling means to various people, watch the video above and try to answer the question: Why do you travel? We would love to hear from you.