Highway to Adventure: The Adventure Travel Film Festival 2017

The Adventure Travel Film Festival, which took place from 11-13 August 2017, had been on my to do list for a few years now and I finally managed to pay it a visit. It is a film festival showing mostly independently produced outdoor, adventure sports and travel documentaries combined with camping just a tube and a bus ride away from Central London at Mill Hill School. The annual event, which also has sister festivals in Scotland  (September) and Australia (February), is run by adventurers and filmmakers Austin Vince and Lois Pryce and apart from the extensive film programme offers talks by well-known explorers, workshops (first aid on the road, medicinal plants, bushcraft, spoon whittling) and even motorbike trial lessons.

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I managed to make it to two of the three festival days, but even though the films were repeated at different times it was really difficult to choose between them as they all sounded really enticing. Some of them also had filmmaker Q&As at the end, like Liemba (a journey on Africa’s oldest steamship), whose director Julie Clavier came over from Paris to present her film. The first film I caught was called Man with a Pram and featured Swedish adventurer and now family man Mikael Strandberg who set out on a two-month walking journey from Manchester to London together with his two-year old daughter Dana and assistant Georgia Villalobos. Alternating between staying with friends and acquaintances and wild camping along the way, the three encounter an intriguing cast of characters, old and young, friendly and odd, on their journey to figuring out what the English are really like as a nation. Definitely one to watch if you think travelling with children is (nearly) impossible, just put them in a pram, pack some nappies and off you go!

This was followed by a triple bill of shorter films: Kapp to Cape, a three-month high-speed cycle journey from Norway to South Africa by British Iranian Reza Pakravan; Two Bedouins, A Camel & An Irishman follows Leon McCarron and his local guide Musallem Faraj into the Sinai desert where they explore the fascinating landscape and learn about the traditional way of life of the nomads; In The Eyes of God Latvian extreme kayaker Tomass Marnics and a handful of his friends tackle the most dangerous rivers in remote Kyrgyzstan.

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Unlike at most other festivals I’ve been to, the venue provided all the food (and I’m assuming they don’t allow outside vendors), so if you’re planning on attending the whole festival, I highly recommend booking your meal plan in advance (this covered cooked breakfasts on Saturday and Sunday as well as dinners on Friday and Saturday night). As I wasn’t staying the whole weekend, I brought my own snacks and supplemented them with coffees and sandwiches from the indoor café (plus there was a BBQ, which included veggie kebabs and veggie sausages, for extra food options). Talking of practical things, there was a shower and toilet block not too far from the camping areas as well as portaloos and indoor toilets in the venues and plenty of drinking water available. I also picked some lovely blackberries right behind my tent, which made for a delicious foraged snack.

After dinner, it was time to attend a talk and the one by native Sri Lankan Dylan Wickrama was very inspiring. He decided to tackle the Pan American Highway on his motorbike and build his own raft to cover the Darién Gap (where no road exists) between Central and South America, resulting in a 30-day solo boat journey (bike on board), which made for a profound experience, including meeting a pod of inquisitive dolphins. It was a beautiful story illustrated by videos and photos from the trip.

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As the weather was quite windy and cloudy on Friday night, the Starlight Screening, which would have normally happened outside, was moved to the sports hall with hundreds of chairs set up for us. The whole festival was efficiently run by the organisers and dozens of friendly volunteers like Kathy and James, who checked me in on Friday afternoon. The feature on Friday night was called DugOut and was a film by and about Ben Sadd and James Trundle, who ventured into the Amazon enlisting a local man to help them fell a tree, turn it into a dugout canoe and then take it downstream for a river adventure. The film is a beautifully made testament to what can be achieved when you have an idea, follow through with it and are open to learning from the locals thereby discovering a whole new world and skills which our Western societies have largely lost.

After a lovely bluegrass live set by The Jolenes (including festival director and ace banjo player Lois Pryce) by the campfire on Friday evening and a peaceful night in the happy tent, the first sessions of the day started at 10am (sadly clashing with the morning yoga class). I picked the How to Make a Film of Your Adventure by festival director Austin Vince talk, who explained in an hour and a half the rules, pitfalls and ideas around making a TV-worthy travel and adventure documentary. So do remember to work with a shot list, vary your sequences (bits of story) and transitions (bits to link the parts of the story, i.e. maps, local flora and fauna, day counters with commentary and/or music), include children, older people and animals and aim to show interesting places, artefacts and experiences plus try and shoot only what you need.

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I also watched Paddle For The North, a Yukon canoeing adventure which, to my delight, included two puppies, Taiga (a golden retriever) and Zephyr (a wire-haired pointer), who made the already intriguing film even more fun to watch. I somehow managed to see a lot of water-based films during the weekend, another one was Rowed Trip describing Canadians Julie and Colin Angus’ seven months rowing and cycling trip from John O’Groats in Scotland all the way to Aleppo in Syria in 2008, particularly poignant to see given the current political situation.

The final event I attended was a talk by explorer Benedict Allen who, together with BBC Security Correspondent Frank Gardener in his wheelchair (he was shot by terrorists), embarked on a quest to see Birds of Paradise in Papua New Guinea. It was another good example of how having a dream and following through with it is what adventure is all about. And this is what this festival is really good at. Inspiring people to turn their dreams into an adventure, learn from the experts and just go for it. But don’t worry, you don’t have to be an adventurous type to enjoy the event. In fact, the festival was definitely on the quieter side and is suitable for families, more laid-back folks (many of them into motorbikes) and anyone with an interest in travelling and filmmaking.

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Disclaimer: Life is a Festival was provided with a weekend pass for the 2017 festival in exchange for a personal review of the event and mentions on social media. Opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily the same as the official views of the event organisers. All photography used in this blog post was taken by Life is a Festival.

Happy Campers Despite The Rain: Cambridge Folk Festival 2017

Of the three years I’ve been to Cambridge Folk Festival, the 52nd edition, from 27-31 July 2017, was the least euphoric for me (for lack of coming up with a better adjective for it). The weather was not great on most days and really sucked on Saturday night plus there wasn’t really any act that I was dying to see live this time. On top of that, on the last festival night, I managed to pick a bus to the campsite with a driver how wasn’t in the mood to do the roundabout thing, which I’d been looking forward to practically for a year. Having said all that, I still had a great time because of the fantastic new music I discovered, the always friendly vibe, the yummy food and last but most definitely not least the fun team I worked with (third year in a row).

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Of the acts I did catch I was most impressed by a few of the bands I had not seen before like the excellent She Drew the Gun from Liverpool, Amythyst Kiah from Tennessee, the Indigo Girls with guest band member Lucy Wainwright, Juanita Stein, Worry DollsMoxie and Daoirí Farrell (both from Ireland), 2017 Grammy winner Fantastic Negrito (see second pic below), The Orchestra of Syrian Musicians, Blue Rose Code and Scottish band Admiral Fallow (see pic below), the last set of the festival for me and the perfect end to this year’s event.

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Acts I didn’t care much for were Jake Bugg (really doesn’t compare at all to, say, the Passenger performance in 2015, but still attracted lots of screaming selfie-taking teenagers) and, a bit unexpectedly, Shirley Collins, whose main stage performance was rather uninspiring and who seemed to favour sticking with just music from the past and dissing musicians creating new ‘folk’ music. Surely traditional music was also new at some point and it’s exciting to witness the emergence of new folk songs, the best of which are bound to be classics one day while keeping the best of traditional folk music alive as well.

We also got some fantastic surprise sets at the Clapham’s Common After Hours Stage (my favourite way to relax after a long festival day) with appearences by Jon Boden (yes, really!) and lots of other great performers until about 1.30am most nights. The campsite was still fairly quiet overall and I had a few good nights’ sleep.

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Instead of doing a run-down of my festival weekend I thought this time around I’ll answer a few questions people tend to ask me about going to festivals. Here we go…

What is it like working at a festival?

I do a mix of attending festivals with a press pass, volunteering and, like at Cambridge, working as part of the festival team. Each of them have their advantages and disadvantages. With a press pass you tend to have easier access and can see any acts you want, but it can also be a bit boring as it takes more effort to interact with people if you’re there by yourself. As a volunteer you have a ready-made group of pals you work and hang out with, which is great fun and a lot more sociable and you still get to see a lot of acts as you generally get given a festival pass. I try and volunteer only at festivals that ask for no more than 4 hours per day, as I think any longer shifts are basically work and should be paid accordingly. At Cambridge we do about 6-8 hours of paid work a day and as you’re staff it comes with a bit more responsibility than simply being a volunteer. But it’s so great to work with other people who are motivated and to make sure, together as a team, the audience is having a fun and is having a safe festival experience. As we are usually the first to notice if anything doesn’t go according to plan (accidents, logistical issues, lost children, the lot), we really get to see how much work and coordination it takes to make such a large event happen and how good teamwork positively contributes to it.

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Isn’t camping sort of roughing it and not very enjoyable?

I first started festival camping in 2012 when I made the crucial mistake of buying a super light tent with only one skin. It makes me cringe thinking back to that summer when my little tent got flooded by rain and after a wet and uncomfortable night I headed into the nearest town desperate to buy a sturdier model. Since then I’ve had the best of times with my ‘happy tent’ (see pic below), a 3-man dome tent, which is just perfect for one person actually. It fits my self-inflatable sleeping mat and sleeping bag on one side and my handluggage-sized trolley and other bits and pieces on the other side. I only go to festivals with reasonable shower and toilet facilities, so do read the FAQs of the festival(s) you’re planning to go to. I also always travel by public transport, so it’s essential to keep everything to a minimum while still bringing enough change of clothes, wellies etc. to keep you comfy no matter what the weather gods throw at you. Although there tend to be very few thefts and festival security patrolling the camp sites at most festivals I’ve been to, it’s also wise to not leave any valuables in the tent if you can avoid it. Some festivals offer lockers or you might be able to ask a neighbour in a Campervan to keep things for you if needed. Campers tend to be friendly, helpful folks, so don’t be shy to ask for help and offer it yourself if you see anyone struggling with putting up their tent (we’ve all been there).

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Don’t you get lonely attending a festival by yourself?

I love solo travel and that also applies to festivals. Most of my friends are not quite as excited about festivals as I am and I’m not quite as excited about drinking, smoking and just hanging out when there are the most amazing bands on the line-up. So I just tend to have more fun on my own. Yes, the first night when you don’t know anyone yet, can be a bit lonely, but it’s a great opportunity to get out of your comfort zone and talk to new people or learn to sit with that feeling of loneliness, which is also a good experience from time to time. I always bring books to read and a journal to write in and there is so much on all the time that I hardly ever have any spare time anyway. Like already mentioned above, volunteering or working at a festival is a great way of meeting new and most of all trustworthy people, who can keep you a seat or look after your bag while you’re off to the loo, all of which is a bit more difficult when you’re on your own.

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What do you recommend bringing to a festival?

I hate being cold even more than being too warm. So I always pack a blanket, a hot water bottle (onsite ambulance stations or coffee vans sometimes let you fill those if you ask nicely or you can bring a travel kettle if there are plugs around the site), a water bottle as festivals always have taps for drinking water (saves the environment and quite a bit of cash, which you could spend on artist merch instead), band aids, dry shampoo, plastic bags (you can never have enough of those, especially when the weather is bad) and for those weekends when it gets really sunny don’t forget your sun protection and a hat.

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How do I get to be in the front row for a particular set?

Every festival is different, but at Cambridge you basically have the largest stage (stage 1), the slightly smaller stage 2 and the Club Tent (talks/Q&As, folk clubs and more traditional music during the day, fairly up-tempo acts at night) plus The Den (up and coming acts, just outside the main festival area). For both stages 1 and 2 I recommend getting to the front at the end of the set just before the one you want to see. If you get there only by the start time of your preferred artist, that is usually too late, so you do need to plan ahead. Having said that, Cambridge is always fairly relaxed and you won’t have to worry much about it being too crowded and claustrophobic. The tents are open on two sides (stage 1) or three sides (stage 2) and this might be an English thing, but there are often gaps in the middle as most people tend to stand around the edges, so if you say ‘excuse me’ a lot in a friendly way while threading your way through the crowd, you might get further to the front even if it looks busy from outside the tent. People are also generally willing to let children stand in the front. During the Indigo Girls set on Friday night, there was a girl even sleeping in between other people’s legs right behind the front row, so it’s definitely no problem with little ones.

My partner doesn’t care much for music, what else is there to do?

Cambridge has lots of alternative activities on all day and most of them take place by the Duck Pond, a bit outside the main arena. The Hub offers workshops for children and young people (craft, dance, music), the Flower Garden does too (talks, storytelling, music workshops) and there is a healing area as well with Tai Chi, yoga (sadly missed both sessions this time), positive thinking, drawing and willow art. There is also a café there where you can refuel in between workshops. Plus you have a lot of fun stalls to explore in the main arena offering jewellery (like this very well designed one below), fancy dress, instruments, CDs and more.

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What do you eat at festivals as a vegetarian or vegan?

It is actually at festivals where quite a few pop-up stalls with inventive veggie and vegan food started out and there is no problem whatsoever at most UK festivals to eat meat-free all weekend (but do confirm this on the website of the festival you are planning on attending). At Cambridge I had a choice of curries, salads, smoothies, Indian street food, burritos, cakes, wood oven pizza and more and a veggie version of the ‘full English’ is pretty standard, too, nowadays. As a staff member, I was lucky to also get to eat at Red Radish backstage once a day, who had the yummiest veggie and vegan dishes every day, such as delicious curry with melons and vegan Bolognese pasta.

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While my first ever Cambridge Folk Festival in 2015 was still the best one so far for me, 2017 was definitely very enjoyable again. And the fact that Rhiannon Giddens (video snippet of her 2015 set) will be taking over from Jon Boden next year as a guest festival curator (besides Bev Burton who took over the main festival programmer job from Eddie Barcan this year) is already a great reason to attend next year, too!

Stage 1 Friday CFF 2017

P.S. This year there was an all-female line-up for stage 1, which should be a great example for other festivals to up their female musicians percentage. I personally think it would work even better if it wasn’t all condensed into one day and just spread throughout the weekend, but what’s important is that Bev and the team have obviously given it a thought and are helping to make positive change happen. Excellent!

Where Tradition Meets Pop Culture: Hyper Japan Festival July 2017

If the aim of Hyper Japan, which took place from 14-16 July 2017 in London, is to get you excited about Japanese culture and about visiting Japan, it definitely did a top job! I’ve been to Japan twice, once as part of a twin town exchange staying with host families and exploring cities like Tokyo, Kyoto and Nara and then nearly a decade later visiting my friends again during a round the world trip. It’s a fascinating country with stunning scenery, super friendly people, lots of cultural events and festivals to explore and the most yummy food you can imagine.

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So I was very intrigued what Hyper Japan would be like. Most of the people I met had been a few times and I could easily see why. There was just so much on offer. They had a large live music stage, Hyper Live, where I saw some Japanese bands like electronic music outfit REOL (really loved their energy and sound, even though I normally never listen to this kind of music) and Fuku Mariwo (see pic above, who plays the traditional nagauta string instrument, but has a modern sound and also had a fantastic dancer with her). After the concerts, you could line up for a ‘meet and greet’ with your favourite artist and get CDs and other merchandise signed.

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There was also another spot where acts performed on the lower ground floor, including Tokyo Rickshaw (see pic below), a J-pop boy band outfit, who had the crowd clapping along in no time. It was really interesting getting an insight into the Japanese popular music scene and the band was a big hit with the mostly younger London festival goers. Lots of them were dressed in elaborate cosplay outfits (see pic above, a world I know nothing about, but which was fantastic to experience) and the atmosphere was generally lively, friendly and fun. I had a quick look around the gaming and anime centre as well, where you could try out lots of new games and consoles with your friends.

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A big part of Hyper Japan are the numerous stalls offering handmade or branded ‘kawaii’ (cute) products, which is a huge thing in Japan. Not having been exposed to so many pastel-coloured fluffy toys, buttons, bags, outfits and accessories of all types since my last trip there, it was great to browse the stalls and speak to some of the vendors, including Hideyuki Izumi (see pic below) who creates elaborate hand-painted resin necklaces and rings. Many of the stall holders are on Etsy and really loved their creativity and enthusiasm. There were also lots of stalls for traditional and pop-culture clothes and a Japanese pottery shop. Although I did quite well not buying a lot early on, resistance was pretty much futile once I saw a ceramic bowl with a rabbit motive and matching chopsticks and also ended up purchasing some unicorn festival earrings (a work-related expense, really!), animal stickers and other kawaii stationery.

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It was definitely time to take a shopping break and I headed to the Hyper Theatre just in time for a fascinating talk with Japanese anime creators. Most of the people in the room knew all about the different series and films and were thrilled to be able to ask Michihiko Suwa (Detective Conan producer) and Atsushi Maekawa (screenwriter of Dragon Ball Z, Fresh Pretty Cure etc.) questions on their career and their latest releases. Afterwards I had a chat with the two interpreters, Chie Kutsuwada and Inko (see pic below), who are actually both manga artists and illustrators themselves, fantastic!

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This session was followed by a talk by travel experts from Tokyo, Wakayama and the islands of Okinawa. While I’ve been to Tokyo during my past trips (but was surprised to learn the mega city also boasts beaches and forest trails), I had not heard much about the beauty of Wakayama prefecture before, which is centrally located near Osaka and Nara and offers lots of outdoor activities, onsen (hot springs) and opportunities to stay overnight at various Buddhist shinto temples. Sadly, it is also where an annual dolphin hunt still takes place in Taiji every September (as highlighted in The Cove documentary), which I’m sure even lots of Japanese people are not aware of, so do check out The Dolphin Project. Okinawa is a group of beautiful islands with lots of historic sights and stunning beaches in the Pacific Ocean which I’d love to explore in future. On the ground floor level were also stalls from different travel providers to help you put together the perfect trip to Japan or plan a language holiday.

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This was followed by a visit to the Sake Experience, which I got to try for free, but would have been well worth the £15 as you get to try 24 (!) sake from different regions of Japan and learn lots about them from the producers. We were moving around the nine stalls in small groups and in mine (see pic below) were a Glaswegian woman, an English guy living in Japan as well as two Nepalese girls. We had so much fun trying the very different flavours and talking with the sake experts. Most of the traditional ones were a bit too strong for me, but I absolutely adored all the sparkling sake (think Prosecco) and there was even a ‘jelly sake’ to try. We got to rate them all afterwards and vote for our favourites at the end of the tour. It was just as well there was so much delicious and authentic Japanese food on offer in the food court to balance out the sake experience, and these included cooked savoury dishes, sushi, desserts and ice cream and veggie options were available, too.

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Somehow the day went by in no time and I could totally see why people would spend the whole weekend here. The 3-day programme is really varied and there were lots of tables and chairs to sit in the courtyards if you needed a break from all the shopping and excitement plus the location (Tobacco Dock, near Shadwell Station in East London) is easily accessible. There were also some great Japanese craft workshops on offer (which could have probably done with a brighter and less tucked away space) and documentary screenings, both of which I would have loved to have done as well, but simply had no time for.

I was very impressed with my first visit to Hyper Japan and am hoping to also make it to the winter edition, which will take place from 24-26 November 2017.

Disclaimer: Life is a Festival was provided with a press pass for the 2017 festival in exchange for a personal review of the event and mentions on social media. Opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily the same as the official views of the event organisers. All photography used in this blog post was taken by Life is a Festival.

The Transformative Power of Yoga: World Yoga Festival 2017

When I got off the train at Pangbourne, near Reading, on my way to World Yoga Festival, I noticed some graffiti on the wall opposite the station. It read “Buy More. Work Harder. Live Less.” A great reminder why it’s sometimes good to stop and think and take time out to reconsider what is important to us in life. World Yoga Festival, which took place from 6-9 July in the beautiful natural setting of Beale Park by the river Thames was the perfect place to do this. In fact, it was like a positivity boot camp.

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The festival only started last year, but it felt like it’s been around for decades. Ram and Sonali Banerjee and their team have created something very special, which in itself reflects the power of yoga as a philosophy, that oneness is not just a theoretical, hard to grasp concept, but that by doing the right actions, big and small, and working actively towards positive goals with others we can achieve something incredibly beautiful. World Yoga Festival brings together renowned masters from different yogic disciplines and embraces all eight aspects of yoga. It is yoga in practice.

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I don’t think I’ve ever been at an event where there was so much spiritual knowledge gathered in one place. I had never heard of most of the speakers and teachers before last weekend and I’ve still not been to India. But World Yoga Festival is probably the closest you can come in the UK to get a taste of spiritual India while also having a real outdoor retreat with a swimming lake, lounging in the chai tent at sundown, eating the most scrumptious vegetarian and vegan food and getting lots of healthy exercise. There were a number of gurus (removers of the darkness of ignorance) and swamis (spiritual teachers) present and every speaker I listened to (pictured above is Swami Satvananda Saraswati), had something helpful to add to our own practice, no matter where each of us currently was on our path of learning.

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In fact, the variety of festival attendees was quite astonishing. I met people from various countries, holistic practitioners, yoga teachers, lawyers, engineers, people making the most of their retirement by travelling and learning, seasoned yogis, musicians, groups of friends on a weekend away, families with little ones and older children, enjoying nature together and the craft workshops and classes on offer especially for them. All the volunteers were really into yoga and super friendly and we exchanged lots of tips about other yoga events.

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It was also really easy getting to know new people before and after classes and over some of the yummy vegetarian and vegan food, which included salads, crepes, risotto and pasta, Mexican and lots of delicious Indian food, which was my favourite (South Indian masala dosa, savoury Indian pancakes, curries and dhal). In addition, there were stalls with yoga clothing, mediation cushions, a non-alcoholic cocktail bar, fresh juices, coffee and yogi tea.

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By the lake you could learn to drum or play the didgeridoo, have a massage or simply lounge in the beautiful Earth tent, which was strewn with large cushions and little lights, which glowed beautifully in the dark. Even the toilets were amazing. I don’t often post pictures of something as basic as this, but it just underlines again how much care went into every detail of the festival. There were hardly any shower queues and it all made me feel like I’m at a holistic retreat rather than a camping festival. So nice.

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The main draw and best part of the festival, however, was of course learning from the wonderful masters and teachers, many of them from the birthplace of yoga, India. As at most festivals, there was a packed schedule divided across four stages (Space, the largest, where all the evening concerts and some ceremonies took place, Air, Fire and Water). The tents were spacious and each had a differently coloured floor with white walls and ceilings. It was a little overwhelming at first to choose between so many excellent sounding classes, workshops, gong baths (see pic further down), meditations and talks, plus a Bharatanatyam dance workshop by Ananya Chatterjee, which all seemed unmissable and to also get enough time to relax (or rather let all the teachings sink in!). So I just tried a few different ones each day.

Unlike at quite a few other yoga festivals, there was a huge emphasis on knowledge and learning. So rather than lots of physical yoga, even the asana-based classes in the water tent were often more on anatomy (e.g. by Sri Louise from the USA) or positive thinking (Neil Patel talking about yoga and cancer).

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My favourite teacher at the festival was 98-year young Tao Porchon Lynch (see pic above – the world’s oldest yoga teacher and ballroom dancer, who grew up in India, marched with Gandhi and Martin Luther King, was a resistance fighter during WWII, a top model before that term even existed, Hollywood actress, business woman etc.). I went to her first session on Friday morning and decided to go to the two other ones, too as I’ve learned from other festivals that it’s often good to stick with someone you can really relate to. Her personality, kindness, gentle sense of humour, fierce strength (shoulder stand with lotus) and resilience (three hip replacements, broken wrist etc. never stopped her) was just beautiful to witness. The first time that weekend when tears came to my eyes was when we did sun salutations with her to tango music. And she just kept reminding us that a positive mindset is everything, that she always feels every day is going to be the best day ever and nothing is impossible. How lovely that she felt grateful to be there with us this weekend just like we felt lucky to witness her boundless energy. What a role model!

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Iyengar teacher Zubin Zarthoshtimanesh’s daily 2-hour early morning and afternoon classes in the large Space tent were also a huge draw. He went into lots of detail about the poses he taught and speaking to attendees afterwards, it was a very valuable learning experience, which I’m sad to have missed (as were Dr. Bali‘s sessions, another nonagenerian yogi!). I did catch a beginners’ Iyengar class with Uday Bhosale and Mary Niker, however, who were great at assisting us with different asanas and despite the hard work, the hour and a half went by quicker than I thought. The longer session concept of the festival with various classes building on the previous ones, was a good system, so you actually felt you progressed throughout the weekend. Alternatively, you could sample lots of different styles and talks and then continue learning more about specific ones after the festival.

I also attended various talks on non-duality and yoga philosophy, which began with festival director Ram Banerjee’s sunset talk on Friday night, followed by a Ganga Arati ceremony by the lake. Throughout the weekend I listened to a number of gurus and philosophers discussing complex concepts, usually with a lot of humour, but also lots of space for serious questions. It felt very good being able to sit or lie in a sun-flooded tent with others who were all keen to soak up knowledge, respectful of the speaker, the space and each other and take it all in. This year’s masters and teachers included some of the above mentioned as well as Swami Ambikananda, Guru Dharam, Swami Brahmavidananda Saraswati and others.

The live music in the evenings was a great mix of traditional Indian musical instruments and singing blended with a more Western sound and I very much enjoyed Manish Vyas‘ quieter devotional music as well as Soumik Datta’s (see pic below) Saturday night set, which turned into a real drum and base dance party with an Indian twist at the end of the night. There were also some great outdoor lunchtime sets by Sam Garrett and Brett Randall. And how lucky (or well-planned) that Guru Purnima (homage to the gurus, i.e. our spiritual teachers) happened to be on Sunday, which was of course marked with a ceremony in the Space tent. To top everything off there was also a full moon on Saturday night, a truly auspicious weekend for a yoga festival!

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Writing this in my home in London and looking through other festival goers’ social media posts with lots of smiles and the sun shining on us all weekend long (we did have a lot of influential people praying for good weather!), I still feel buoyed by the vibrant and playful energy of World Yoga Festival. This is why this blog exists. Go out there wherever you are and find these special gatherings, be open to learning new things and you will see that the world is an amazing place!

My main take-aways from the festival weekend:

  • Meditate regularly (so please ask me next time you see me if I’m doing this as I really, really want to make it a habit, but find it even harder than my regular yoga practice)
  • Deepen my knowledge of yoga philosophy and my personal yoga practice
  • We can all achieve more than we think, if we believe in it and are open to learn (I improved my bridge, tree and dancer poses through simple but effective tips from Tao and Uday)
  • Travel to India (I’ve been wanting to go for years, but the more I learn about yoga philosophy, the more this is becoming an actual plan)
  • Remember to be more like Tao whose motto is ‘Nothing is Impossible’ as in ‘Everything is Possible’
  • Finally, return to World Yoga Festival, because it was just fantastic in every way!

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Disclaimer: Life is a Festival was provided with a weekend pass for the 2017 festival in exchange for a personal review of the event and mentions on social media. Opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily the same as the official views of the event organisers. All photography used in this blog post was taken by Life is a Festival.

 

Americana Anniversary: Maverick Festival 2017

Maverick Festival, which took place from 30 June until 2 July 2017, at Easton Farm Park in beautiful Suffolk, East Anglia, was celebrating its tenth anniversary this summer and I’ve been lucky to have been to four of those in 2013, 2014, 2015 as well as this latest edition. It’s quite a special little festival and here are my top 10 reasons why I’m always enjoying it so much:

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1. Quality Line-Up: Most people who come to Maverick book their tickets without even knowing who’s on the line-up for that particular year, they just expect quality music, and the festival rarely disappoints. Paul Spencer and his team know the Americana scene well and always book a great variety of reliably excellent acts from the USA, Canada, and even as far afield as Australia as well as the best of what the ever-growing Americana scene in this country has to offer. It was great to see Police Dog Hogan, Case Hardin, Don Gallardo (see pic below), Erin Rae, Dean Owens, Hannah Rose Platt, Hannah Aldridge and Annie Keating again, make sure you give them a listen.

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2. New Discoveries: I love when I turn up at a stage not having heard of a particular musician before and then being blown away by their music and enthusiasm for their craft. This year’s favourite new finds included The Roamin Jasmine (New Orleans), Royal Jelly Jive (San Francisco), The Danberrys (Nashville) and Amy McCarley (Alabama). Two others who I regretted to have missed, but got thumbs up from various other attendees, were Tom Attah (UK) and Lachlan Bryan and the Wildes (Australia). Virtuoso US mandolin player Sierra Hull (see pic below) was also excellent, as were US duo American Young.

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3. Friendly Vibe & Hanging Out With Musicians: While headliners like two-time Grammy winning guitarist Albert Lee (great set with BJ Cole on pedal steel!) and Steve Earle’s son Justin Townes Earle were no doubt a particular attraction to some festival goers, another reason why I love this event is how relaxed and friendly the atmosphere is. It’s one of those festivals where you can just wander between the different stages and food stalls all day, sit under a tree and read a book, share a table with other music lovers or have a chat at the merch area with one of the bands playing. Despite the unrushed pace, it never gets boring because there is great music playing everywhere from late morning until about midnight every night.

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4. Idyllic Location & Great Site Layout: When I first walked through the gates of Maverick Festival a couple of years ago, I fell immediately in love with the beautiful setting of the event. Unlike other festivals held on a big field with nearly no other natural features, Easton Farm Park boasts some beautiful historic farm buildings, meadows and lots of trees and it all just looks like you’re entering a set for a Western movie – including our equivalent of mustangs, the beautiful and rare Suffolk Punch horses (pictured below). As it’s a rather boutique festival, you can easily pop back to your tent for an extra jumper or during this good weather extra sun cream as the camp ground is only a five-minute walk from the music stages. And as the music finishes quite early (around 11.30pm) there isn’t too much noise late at night (apart from the odd folky session around a fire, which actually makes for a nice lullaby). While there aren’t very many showers (I counted only a handful), there are two buildings with proper toilets and lots of additional portaloos strewn around the site.

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5. Dog-Friendly Event: The one thing I’m often missing at other outdoor festivals is the lovely presence of dogs who are often not allowed on site for all sorts of reasons. Not so at Maverick. Everywhere you go you’ll meet smiling pooches likes this happy pair below, Moss and Sky, and I loved hearing about their (rescue) stories. You can find more pictures on my Cuddle a Dog a Day Instagram account. If you have a friendly dog who doesn’t mind crowds, it’s a great festival to take it to, as a lot of the music can actually be enjoyed from outside most of the venues, so pooches can be in the shade and away from most of the noise, but you can still have a good time. Win, win.

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6. Still Kicking Against All Odds: A fascinating addition to this year’s festival was a short, and retrospectively very funny, documentary entitled ‘The Peasants Are Revolting’ charting the journey from idea to festival and the difficulties faced by festival founder Paul Spencer before being able to run Maverick for the first time in 2008. He initially encountered a lot of resistance from a number of villagers who feared there would be a noisy ‘rave’ (anti banjo protests? goats vs sheep standoff? rowdy cowboy hat throwing competitions?) threatening their otherwise peaceful lives and that their quaint Suffolk village would be overrun by all sorts of undesirable individuals. As you can see from the pictures in this post, there was clearly a lot of cause for concern ;-). Luckily, the festival founders persisted and I am now even more grateful for the festival than before I knew about all these (pretty major) teething problems. The screening was followed by a live Q&A with Paul and Tim Dowling with lots more anecdotes from the beginnings of a festival which is most definitely here to stay!

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7. Learning By Doing: I didn’t get around to any of the workshops this year, but there were a bluegrass as well as a banjo session plus a workshop on cigar box guitars and diddley bow. If you felt inspired enough to stick with your new chosen instrument, there were some music stalls with a choice of instruments to take home, including one with beautifully hand-decorated guitars and the pretty cool looking cigar box guitars (below).

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8. Plentiful Food & Drink: As with many smaller festivals, there aren’t quite as many food choices as at larger events. But I was pleased to see that the veggie options had increased since I last visited and there were also quite a few vegan dishes on offer. I had Thai street food, pizza from a wood-fired oven and a squash and feta cheese pie with mash. There were also plenty of desserts, like waffles and ice cream, and a few stalls serving cappuccinos. Plus Easton Farm Park’s café did a decent if not very exciting veggie breakfast in the mornings. Drinks (variety of beer, local cider) were not cheap, but a few freebie cocktails in cans given out by a new sponsor made up for it.

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9. Fun For All Ages: As Maverick is such a safe and friendly environment, families will have no problem finding activities to entertain the little ones. I spoke to a few whose kids were already keen to return, which is no wonder given the many cute animals to pet and feed (goats, horses, llamas, pigs, rabbits, guinea pigs, chickens) as well as an adventure playground, which even includes a mini-zipline. Nashville-based duo Chasing Summer also added to the kids entertainment by doing a lovely live show and art workshop on a new outdoor stage in the orchard, which was enthusiastically received by the children.

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10. Additional Gigs By Touring Musicians: Yes, post festival blues is a terrible thing and hits me every single time for a day or two after getting back home. Luckily, there is a silver lining as most of the overseas musicians booked for Maverick tend to also be on tour in the UK and other European countries while they are over here. So do look for their tour schedules and additional gigs the week before or after the festival. You might even end up on a train together, like I did with Royal Jelly Jive, who were on the way to their next gig in Belgium. A great way to extend the festival for another few hours.

You might not have heard of Americana as a genre of music before and be reluctant to book a weekend of bands you’ve never heard of. Don’t worry! Give a few of them a listen on Yotube before you visit and enjoy the fact that after attending Maverick you’ll be the one in the know giving your friends, who may well still be stuck in mainstream music land, the best recommendations for ‘the next big act’ like a pro!

Disclaimer: Life is a Festival was provided with a weekend pass for the 2017 festival in exchange for a personal review of the event and mentions on social media. Opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily the same as the official views of the event organisers. All photography used in this blog post was taken by Life is a Festival.

Glastonbury for Dogs: Dogfest 2017

While a certain huge live music event was taking place elsewhere in the UK, I headed to Dogfest for a day, which was promoted as ‘the ultimate summer festival for dogs’ and that’s exactly what it felt like! I’m not sure if I could have enjoyed myself even more if I had been a pooch, but I certainly had an amazing day. What started out in a field behind Channel 4’s Supervet Prof. Noel Fitzpatrick’s Surrey practice (pictured below with his border terrier Keira) is now a huge event happening on two consecutive weekends, Dogfest North in Cheshire on 17 and 18 June and Dogfest South on 24 and 25 June 2017, which I attended, at Knebworth House near Stevenage, about half an hour north of London.

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Getting to the Festival (hitchhiking with dog lovers included!)

As the directions to get to the festival site looked pretty straightforward online, I hopped on a train and then the 44 bus from Stevenage bus station, asking the driver to drop me off at Manor Farm, the nearest stop along a country road. So far so good. It looked like a 10-15 minute walk, at most, and I quite enjoyed the idea of it, yet alas, despite GPS on the phone, I ended up following a road that took me further and further away from the venue, so confusing. I ended up trying to wave down other festival goers from the side of the road and was super lucky lovely dog owners John and Katherine let me hitch a ride with them and Jack Russell Dodger (see pic below) in the backseat. It still took us and seemingly quite a few of the other dog enthusiasts a number of wrong turns until we were finally on the right track, but when we eventually arrived, it was like getting off at the kind of playground any dog-loving adult would enjoy: dozens and dozens of dogs of all shapes and sizes with their owners in tow were making their way to the main entrance. I could barely contain myself, it made me so happy to see all the wagging tails and excited pooches pulling at their leads.

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Venue

The festival was spread out on a field behind Knebworth House, which was much larger than I expected, with many interesting stalls lined up around the edges of it. There were all sorts of accessories and nutrition for dogs on offer (including some useful looking dog cooling coats for hot weather), as well as holidays with dogs and health checks and grooming (weight management, ticks, canine massage etc.) and various stalls by dog and wildlife charities (even one for cats). I also spoke to Pete of Cold Feet Huskies, who had brought some of his dogs along and races them around the UK and further afield. I could have easily spent a couple more hours just taking a look at all of these. The food options were also quite varied (burgers, burritos, English fare, falafels, ice cream, proper coffee) including some good veggie choices.

Dog Activities

There were lots of great activities for the dogs to try including my favourite, the diving pool! There was a long queue all day for pooches to go for a swim in the tempting looking clean water as it was a pretty hot day. Some of the dogs were not quite sure if they really felt like giving it a go, but others couldn’t wait to jump into the waves, splashing the assembled audience with water left, right and centre. It was so much fun to watch and no doubt even more fun for the dogs who took apart. Other activities included learning to do agility with your dog, dog competitions, a ‘school for dogs’, hay races and a ‘temptation alley’.

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Dog Welfare

I was a little bit concerned about this before attending the event, but as far as I could see anything humanly possible had been done to make sure the dogs were all right. There was a first aid and show vet on site plus containers with fresh water spread around the field (which some of the smaller breeds quickly identified as ideal paddling pools), some tented areas with hay bales for owners to sit on and one particularly nice tent with tables, chairs and a bar at one end, so you could enjoy a nice glass of cool wine and your dog could rest in the shade right opposite the ‘super stage’ where Noel Fitzpatrick did his talks and live music performances were on all day. I was generally very impressed with how well the hundreds of dogs got on with each other. Hardly any barking (apart from excited yaps!) could be heard all day and the event clearly attracted responsible dog owners and well-adjusted pooches. If you have a puppy, attending Dogfest could be a good opportunity to socialise it in a friendly environment, all the puppies I met and petted looked very happy indeed, including little Anakin, the Chihuahua (pictured below).

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The Great Dog Walk

At 3pm hundreds of dog owners and their pooches gathered for the great dog walk in aid of The Humanimal Trust across the grounds of Knebworth House, either for a 2km or 4km stroll, and Noel Fitzpatrick brought his little border terrier Keira along for a short talk before it started. Once it was all go, the many happy smiley dogs dragging their owners across the field were a real sight to behold. Walkies on a giant scale!

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Unconditional Love

Having seen ‘The Supervet’ Prof. Noel Fitzpatrick only on TV before, it was great to hear him speak live about his own career and the lives of animals and people him and his team were able to make a difference to. Some of the dogs from the TV programme, who had meanwhile fully recovered, were also present, which was lovely to see. He also talked enthusiastically about his charity, the above mentioned The Humanimal Trust, which aims to “reduce, refine and replace animal experiments with reciprocity – which means that we only sponsor research that helps animals with naturally occurring disease, not through the use of experimental models.” It’s a ground-breaking idea to help humans AND animals, so both species win, not one at the expense of the other. Noel spoke about the huge amount of unconditional love being present in this field on this day and how our love for our pets can really make a difference to our own and other people’s lives.

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Pawmazing Day

All in all, it was a great day out for dogs and humans alike. My advice if you’re coming by car and are bringing your dog would be to either get there very early or in the afternoon in order to avoid the at times longish queues to get into the car park right beside the main entrance. If the weather is very hot, it might even be better to take a train and a cab (it cost only £6 for a single taxi trip from Stevenage rail station, which I should have opted for on the way there, too). And don’t worry if you haven’t got a dog, I don’t either as I travel too much and I still had an absolutely fabulous time. In fact, everyone was so friendly, I got chatting with quite a few dog owners and heard so many inspiring stories of rescues finding a forever home and friendships between dogs and humans, it was actually quite emotional. One of them was Blarney (see pic below) who was adopted from Ireland. It’s also a great opportunity for those looking at getting a dog to find out which breed or type of dog would be suitable for them, ideally of course a rescue dog, as there are so many of them waiting to be adopted in shelters around the country.

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Cuddle a Dog a Day

If you’d like to see a few more pictures and some videos of chocolate lab Dizzy diving into the pool, the dog and duck (herding) show as well as footage of the Great Dog Walk, do check out my Cuddle a Dog a Day Instagram account. I started it in April this year as my daily goal is to pet at least one dog a day (or any fluffy animal really) and it’s been a great way of documenting the cute dogs I meet (pictured below are Spanish rescue Killick and Pomerian Lola) and of connecting with other dog lovers from around the world. I follow back genuine dog/dog parent or other animal lovers’ accounts.

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Not all Dogs are so Lucky

Lastly, spare a thought and maybe a few pounds to abolish an altogether different event, the horrifying Yulin ‘festival’ in China, which is sadly happening again right now (despite millions of people signing petitions and protesting around the world) and involves the torture and slaughter of thousands of dogs and cats. No animal should ever have to suffer like this. Find out how you can help and maybe consider minimalising animal suffering in your own community by reducing or cutting out meat from your diet and learning about vegetarianism or veganism.

Disclaimer: Life is a Festival was provided with a complimentary ticket for the festival.

 

Meet the Festival Makers: Ram and Sonali Banerjee, directors of World Yoga Festival

World Yoga Festival, which will be taking place from 7-9 July 2017 just outside Reading, is the largest yoga festival in the UK and brings together a collection of expert teachers from around the world in traditional yoga and meditation plus offers live music and ample opportunities for learning and reflection. Unlike some other yoga festivals, this one focuses on going deeper in your yoga practice, no matter if you are a beginner or have been practising for years. The organisers‘ core aim is that once you leave the festival, you will go home with more understanding and carry it over into your everyday life.

This all sounded excellent to me, so I’m heading there for the first time in July and decided to interview the festival founders, Sonali and Ram Banerjee, to get a better idea about the upcoming event. Here is what I learned.

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Life is a Festival: In the West, yoga is quite often reduced to practising and perfecting asanas and, to some extent, pranayama. You focus on a more holistic approach. How did this come about and what impact do you think it has on participants and the communities they bring this learning back to after the festival?

Ram & Sonali: Yoga should always be on a holistic level. To gain acceptance in the west, the early practitioners were obliged to strip out the spirituality and thus turn it into fancy exercise. The eight limbs (or aspects) of yoga as described by Patanjali go from truthful living all the way to Enlightenment. We aim to bring all these aspects back together in one festival to be offered as a platter of delicious items. Each item genuine, authentic and of the highest quality possible. These tastes may be new and unknown but they are presented for you to try. No one can describe a taste to you. You have to sample for yourself and once you do, and like it, there is no turning back.

At the festival, every guest has unrestricted access to all classes, to all tastes. Are you brave enough to try something new? If you do, that knowledge will stay with you forever. When you return from the festival you will enthuse others with the wisdom gained and start them on their own path to discovery. They say ignorance has no beginning but has an end, while knowledge has a beginning but no end. Our mission at World Yoga Festival is to offer the classes on subjects familiar and unfamiliar to you. For you to sample and eradicate ignorance on subjects with knowledge. How you choose to use and develop that knowledge afterwards is entirely up to you. This is always about YOUR personal journey to liberation.

Life is a Festival: In order to build knowledge, participants are encouraged to follow a series of practical workshops and talks by renowned yoga masters during the course of the weekend, which is something I’ve missed at similar events. Is this something that has always been part of the festival and how can it help the individuals’ progress on their yoga path?

Ram & Sonali: Everyone is on their own yoga path. There is no right or wrong path but your path may be restricted to what you have come across. The festival aims to offer a wide variety of yoga subjects – all at the highest level. In order to catch a glimpse of the depth of each of these paths, it is necessary to spend a little time on them. Not only do we have longer classes (up to 2 hours) so that the master need not rush to covey the wisdom but a succession of classes throughout the festival allows masters to develop on a theme and be more elaborate with the content. This allows for deeper learning.

Life is a Festival: I heard that there will be a world record attempt happening at this year’s festival. Can you tell me a little more about what is planned or is it still top secret?

Ram & Sonali: We are very excited to announce that we will attempt to beat the world record for the largest Laughter Yoga class. According to the Guinness Book of Records, this stands at 1129 people attending a single class. This is a tough challenge but it will be fun to try and break the record. I think this will appeal to a lot of people. It would be incredible to be able to say “I was there!”

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Life is a Festival: Are there any general tips you have for first timers at your festival, be it in the practical sense as in what to bring or leave at home as well as on a more spiritual level in terms of mindset and expectations?

Ram & Sonali: If you have a yoga mat then please bring that. If you are not into asanas then just bring yourself in the mindset to learn something new. Leave any judgement at home since you cannot learn anything new if you judge it immediately on hearing. All judgement is based on what you already know, hence you cannot learn anything new. Better to accept ‘subject to future verification’ and see if it makes sense to you by (a) hearing everything with such dedication that you can paraphrase it back (b) discussing and asking questions so that all doubts are removed and (c) sitting and contemplating to see if it is true for you. Expect your mind and your heart to be opened without drugs or alcohol amongst like-minded individual whose only mission is to learn to love and love to learn!

Thanks to Ram and Sonali for getting me even more excited about the upcoming festival! The masters confirmed to be teaching at World Yoga Festival 2017 include Tao Porchon-Lynch (who turns 99 this summer!), Rupert Spira, Dr. Madan Bali, Zubin Zarthoshtimanesh, Swami Ambikananda, Swami Brahmavidananda Saraswati, Guru Dharam, Sheila Whittaker, Peter Russell, Swami Svatmananda, Swami Santatmananda and many others. There will be 12 hours of expert-led yoga each day, followed by entertainment and dancing in the evenings, delicious vegetarian world food, a healing area and also a dedicated family entertainment zone.

Namaste for now, see you at the festival!

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Disclaimer: All photography used in this blog post was provided by World Yoga Festival.