Sounds follow me. From the endless highways of Iran to the highest Himalayan plateaus, from the mountain villages of Pakistan to the Buddhist temples of Taiwan, from the pointy pagodas of Burma to the rural churches of Kenya, from the desert of Somaliland to the crosses and crescents of Ethiopia. Sounds of footsteps: bare feet of young monks and nuns on the pavement in front of Shwedagon Paya. Sounds of the afternoon market, rising and kneeling before the mosque in Kashgar town. Sounds of jolly singing from colourful cathedrals in the Philippines.
Early 2014, Istanbul. I just moved into a big apartment with the most breathtaking rooftop in the city. In the morning, the gilded shadows are lurking on the roof slopes and stone walls of Beyoğlu. In the evening, as the night falls, the red ball of the sun sinks into the gray fog in the West, and at 8pm, like in the cinema with surround sound stereo, the call for prayer echoes across the city. Some mosques sound better, some sound like cats, but the whole choir of them makes up for a solemn soundtrack to our lazy sunsets on the roof. Everybody misses the night call for prayer here in Istanbul, because its sound is buried under the cacophony of nightclubs and live music bars. As for the morning call for prayer, most of my guests kept complaining about it, them not being early risers at all.
October 2013, Somaliland. The family that took me in for a week, shared their life and their stories, their joy and their sorrow. Mama wakes up every night for the prayer at 2am. She tries to teach me Arabic during long dark evenings by the fire, with the cat on her lap and a hookah in her mouth. ‘Remember this: Allahu aqbar,’ she says. ‘Whenever something bad happens, I pray, and everything is good with me and my children.’
November 2013, Sudan. One of the most fascinating things to watch, the Sufi dance in Omdurman, accompanied by drums, and voices, and words, and whirling, all taking place on a cemetery beside the mosque.
Early December, 2013, Aswan, Egypt. Lost and stranded in the new town, not to mention quite smelly and dusty after the 20-hour boat trip from Sudan, I was miraculously picked up by almost complete strangers. After so many years on the road, I am quite used to random acts of kindness from the people I’ve just met 5 minutes ago. But it is still quite rare that a family can accept under their roof two foreign girls and treat them like their own daughters. They say grace before dinner day after day and thank God for keeping an eye on us, careless travellers and vagabonds.
October 2012, Taipei. I was working in a hostel, located in a giant ugly skyscraper right by the central station. Taking elevator up and down every day was a journey full of wonders: the 4th floor had a lot of visitors and resembled a strip club, but was, according to my boss, just a gym. The floor below us every weekend would explode with the rhythmic sounds of bass guitars and singing. ‘Must be a band rehearsing,’ I hum. ’No, it’s an Indonesian church,’ my boss explains. I rush downstairs to confirm or deny. A few dozens on Indonesian people are crowded in the big room, singing songs to Jesus and serving food. They grab me and drag me to the table: ‘Eat, eat! Indonesian food! Every Saturday and Sunday we gather here! No matter if you are Christian or not, just eat!’ I heard those rhythms again two years later, in Kenya, on every Sunday morning, when the nearby church would fill up with speckled crowds of skinny men, big ladies with small children and yellow bananas.
The venue on the 4th floor turned out to be a gym, indeed. Just with neon lights and music.
August 2014, Ljubljana, Slovenia. Every half an hour the city is filled with the echo of bells, their ringing is clear like the air before the rain. And then it starts raining.
Autumn 2011, Philippines. Who knows why I checked myself into the programme? At that moment, three months in a Buddhist temple seemed like a brilliant idea. Waking up at 6am, we are the ones who create the harmony of many voices singing in some variety of badly learned Chinese. However sleepy I feel during these periods of morning chanting, I know that the main reason why we gather in the main shrine in the mornings is to listen to the sound of silence, and echoes of our own thoughts (as profound as they could be at 6am).
July 2012, Tibetan lands, Yunnan. I can sit on the porch of this temple for hours, watching people come and go, spinning the prayer wheels and listening to the quiet chanting inside. Old men carrying bags. Old women carrying baskets. Young women carrying children. Young men carrying young women.
February 2013, Burma. Taking a bus around 3am, freezing cold, feels like I am locked in a half-empty tin jar with a radio. The radio is playing one mantra over and over again, the damn phrase repeating at volume so beyond tuning out, it is rendering all attempts to sleep futile. A few hours later, I am back in Sagaing, where the golden cones of pagodas are scattered all around the jade-green hills, and the family that temporarily adopted me keeps tuning up the radio and feeding me noodles. In the evening, I climb the staircase to the nearby pagoda and get invited for a moment of silent contemplation outside on the balcony. The hills echo with the distant ringing of hundreds of bells, then the evening chanting, and then – absolute silence. Early morning in the nunnery, I wake up to the sound a young apprentice sweeping the yard with a bushy broom. She is humming a song to herself, and it sounds so close and familiar. I am about to recognise it. Oh right. Gangnam style.
Start of 2013, middle of the Andaman sea. I have a newly acquired ukulele, captain has a guitar, we play ‘How many roads’ and other classy hippie stuff. With the rest of the crew, we sit around the table on the top deck at dinner, and say: ‘I am grateful’ – listing all the things that each one of us was grateful for that day.
Whatever that religion was, it had a nice ring to it.