“All I asked of my surroundings was that they should not disturb me.” — A Certain Smile by Françoise Sagan
As far as I can remember, I had what can only be described as a devotional love of cities. Its frantic pulse, its glamour (even when it took the form of decaying grandeur, as many places in South Asia do), its with–it–ness (I loved living in London for two decades), its force.
It was never ever boring. I loved the easy access in a good city – stepping out and being able to walk or get into a quick cab ride to reach a dear friend, a grand meal, a terrific movie. I liked knowing I was surrounded by people, while the cloak of familiarity of universal city life – whether it was Bangkok or Boston – made me feel reassured.
It was the lockdown that undid this.
I felt trapped. Living alone for all those months with my friends and family only visible on a screen took a terrible toll on my mental health. I decided I could continue sheltering only if I was with people I love, and so took the decision to travel to my mother’s home and be there until the global situation takes a better turn.
And if I had to be alone, I realised, I wanted to do it under a tree. I began to dream of nature. Literally. I had dreams of running in tall grass. Of sitting by the sea. Of climbing ancient rocks.
Between moving out of my apartment and making an unexpectedly epic journey (a story for another time) to my mother’s, I carved out two weeks to get my nature fill by going to a health resort on the hills outside the city.
I have never burst into tears so often just from sheer gratitude as I did during this stay.
It was the tail end of the monsoons, so everything was a vibrant, lush green. I asked for a garden–level room so the first thing I could do when I woke up was to walk barefoot on the grass.
The rains meant I wasn’t outside as much as I would have liked, which made the cleared moments even more precious. I’d sit on rocks and look down at the lake below, or the hills across. In the early mornings, the mist made them look as if they were floating on air.
My incredible doctor there helped me heal a long–term eye issue I’ve had. I saw a physiotherapist who gave me a simple equipment–free workout to help strengthen my injured back. I saw a Pranic healer who balanced my chakras. I had daily massages, and time at the infra–red sauna before and steam room after each session.
If all of this had taken place in a noisy, polluted city (as much of my Indian experience had) I don’t know if I would have felt the same benefits. The Mulshi hills, where the resort is located, is said to be energetically healing, and chunks of crystals from the hills can be found throughout the resort, part smooth and part dazzling.
I’m used to walking on flat parks or (I know, I know) treadmills. To walk in the open air, up and down steep paths felt, to a nature newbie, invigorating. Oh, now I get it!
Nature is loud, man. Every evening when I’d walk back to my room from the dining area, it would be dark and the cicadas (I’m assuming) could be almost deafening. But even so it never felt like noise pollution.
I went there with a typically ambitious plan (old producer habits die hard). Adorably, the plan was to go analogue. I printed out my manuscript along with editor notes so I could revise my book by hand. I went armed with pens, inks, paints and notebooks to draw.
While I did manage to write (a little), and drew some still life, I didn’t attempt to capture the vastness in front of me on paper. Partly because my eyesight is now pretty damaged and everything beyond an arm’s length is quite blurry, but also because I was enjoying the stillness of being.
In between the fairly full day of appointments with doctor/therapist/steam/meal/etc, all I wanted to do was put my feet on the grass and look at the trees and listen to the birds.
I felt more than restored and rejuvenated – I felt healed. I know the sauna and the healthy organic food helped mightily, but I think my morning walks and all the outside air made my skin positively glow.
But why, I wondered, is it that I treated this all–too–brief episode as a respite from Real Life?
What if Real Life was this? What if I glowed all the time because I lived in a place with clean air and daily morning dew under my feet? What if the sounds of my daily life were not dominated by car horns and construction hammering, but birds and (obscenely loud) cicadas? What if life were more analogue and slow?
I know I’m hardly original for awakening to this. But the desire for it feels very sincere – something I’d like to try for a significant chunk of time, not just two weeks once a year. Maybe it’s time to put my producer’s head back on and plot to make this happen. For real.
*This is not a sponsored post, and Atmantan, the resort, doesn’t know I’m writing this, but here’s a link to their website, because I know I’ll get asked about it! Below is their thank you on my last evening.
“If you will stay close to nature, to its simplicity, to the small things hardly noticeable, those things can unexpectedly become great and immeasurable.” — Rainer Maria Rilke
“Some of the windows of the hospital wing looked out on to a group of trees and some on to a brick wall, and those lucky enough to have the tree view, Ulrich found, recovered faster, spent less time in hospital, required fewer painkillers, had better evaluations from nurses and experienced fewer post-operative complications than those who only had the wall to look at. Contact with nature, even if only visual, clearly had a measurable effect on people’s wellbeing.” Michael McCarthy on the consolation of nature during Covid in this Guardian article: Nature got us through lockdown. Here’s how it can get us through the next one.
And if one were to live in a city, then it’s good to really lean into it and discover all its fascinating quirks which we miss on a daily basis. I’m very excited that the team behind one of my favourite podcasts, 99% Invisible, has brought out a book this week, titled The 99% Invisible City, exploring their trademark of hidden worlds that are actually around us.
If like me you’re too far from anything wild right now, you can watch live streaming videos of creatures in their habitat. Explore has a wide range of live cams on their YouTube channel. I love this from the tropical reef.
To get a really wide perspective, watch live videos of NASA astronauts working on the International Space Station with the earth behind them. It’s extraordinary!
Stay with me!