Oct/Nov 2019  •   Reviews & Interviews

Alice to Prague: The Charming True Story of an Outback Girl Who Finds Adventure

Review by Ann Skea

Alice to Prague: The Charming True Story of an Outback Girl Who Finds Adventure.
Tanya Heaslip.
Allen & Unwin. 2019. 342 pp.
ISBN 978 1 76052 976 5.

Alice to Prague and In Love with the World are very different books with different styles and perspectives and with different stories to tell. Yet, fundamentally, the theme of the books is the same. Both authors choose to leave a comfortably familiar and orderly life amongst family and friends. Both set off into strange territories to live amongst people who have totally different backgrounds, experiences and expectations. Both set out full of excitement, optimism and hopes and both, at times, suffer severe disorientation, panic, doubts and terrible loneliness.

As Tanya Heaslip and Mingyur Rinpoche tell their stories it is clear that their past experiences shape their ways of coping with change and each, in their own way, eventually finds happy equilibrium. In Mingyur Rinpoche's Buddhist terms, each dies to their old life and is reborn.

Tanya Heaslip grew up on an outback cattle station run by her parents near Alice Springs in the centre of Australia. From an early age she rode out with her younger siblings to help muster cattle and drive them long distances to cattle yards for transport or castration and branding. Tanya was schooled by the Correspondence School and the School of the Air, but she was also an avid reader, especially of English books about children growing up surrounded by cool, luxuriant green meadows, and stories of fairy-tale castles and magical trees swarming with fairies, pixies and goblins. She would day-dream of these things as she rode in the red dust and blazing sun at the tail of a mob of bellowing cattle, until a shout from the Head Stockman would rouse her:

Oi! Tanya! Whaddya think yer doin' girl? Head in the clouds agin? Move those bloody cattle along.

At the age of 12 she was sent to boarding school in Adelaide, and eventually she became a lawyer in Alice Springs, but her dreams of seeing the magical places she had read about as a child never left her. A backpacking trip around Europe, however, was a disappointment. She found no enchanted lands, no magic, just freeways, cars, fast-food outlets and pollution. However, a last-minute, un-planned flight to Berlin with her staunch friend, Mick, and the euphoria shared with thousands of Germans at the fall of the Berlin Wall, made her determined to go back, not to Western Europe but to former Communist countries like Czechoslovakia.

Four years later, with the help of a fellow lawyer who had lived and taught in the Czech Republic, her adventure finally began. She left home and flew to Prague. She was alone, she knew no-one there and did not speak the language, she knew nothing of the culture and she was not a teacher, but she had been hired as a "native speaker of English" to teach teenage students. Her first shock was

three hours of wrong queues, wrong box offices, and interrogation by passport and immigration officers I couldn't understand—and undoubtedly never would.

Next was the traffic, the derelict buildings, the identical grey concrete, prison-like blocks of apartments, and the horrific pollution in the town outside Prague where she would live and teach. Her new home would be a tiny bed-sit, with windows locked against the pollution, on the seventh floor of one of these horrible apartment blocks.

My pretence at confidence collapsed... In my heart I was twelve years old again, arriving at boarding school in Adelaide to start a new life behind high stone walls, leaving behind me all that I knew... That was 1975. This was 1994. Not much felt different.

The School, the pupils, and especially the few who spoke reasonable English and befriended her, saved her from despair. So, too, did the sudden inspiration, on seeing a guitar in the classroom, to break the ice by singing an Australian song. To her amazement the students joined in, having heard the song from Czech folk-singers who had put Czech words to it.

Homesickness, loneliness and the isolation of having no common language with other people was acute. This was allayed by a chance meeting with two Czech men returning to their homeland from Australia, to which they had fled as refugees during the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. They immediately befriended her and through them she met Karel, a charismatic older man who showed her a side of Prague which, with its fairy-tale castle, narrow cobbled streets, and its historical association with alchemy and magic, fulfilled all her childhood dreams. She fell in love with Prague and with Karel, but for many reasons there was to be no fairy-tale happy ending.

Tanya's adjustment to Czech life was never easy. She learned to understand the legacies of fear and suspicion left by a harsh Communist regime and how it still affected the lives of the people. And she saw the effects of the more recent withdrawal of State support—the uncertainties and threats of joblessness that this caused. Most of all, she learned confidence and new ways of living and loving. She returned to Australia with new insight and new understanding of herself and the world but she has never stopped loving Prague and its people and has always been drawn back.

Whilst Tanya Heaslip's book is full of her own bright, changeable energies and emotions, Mingyur Rinpoche's book is more studied and serious, and it has a quite different purpose.

It begins dramatically with an escape story which reads like a convict's escape from prison. The escapee, however, is the Buddhist monk, Mingyur Rinpoche, making a secret but well-planned, night-time exit from his monastery in Bodh Gaya, where he is abbot, tulku (the reincarnation of a spiritual adept) and meditation teacher:

In the dark I tiptoed downstairs to the foyer... I waited for the watchman to pass. Once I calculated that he was farthest from the front door, I opened a window and stepped out onto the small marble porch. I closed the window, flew down six steps to the brick walkway and quickly moved behind the bushes...I waited in the bushes... and ran the hundred feet to the main gate...I unlocked the padlock, pushed back the gate, and stepped through.

None of the monks will know that their abbot has vanished until noon the next day when his close companion, Lama Soto, will go to his private rooms to rouse him from meditation. Only then would his long letter be discovered explaining that he had begun "the long retreat" which he had announced a year earlier.

Mingyur Rinpoche's plan was to lose the mask of Self: to remove the shell of privilege, security and respect to which, as a son of Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche (a revered Tibetan monk and meditation master) he had been born and trained and become accustomed,

His "ego-suicide" plan was to "explore the depths of who I really was out in the world, anonymous and alone." For four years, he will follow the ancient tradition of sadhus and become an itinerant yogi, owning nothing and begging for his food.

His first challenge is the Gaya railway station. He has never bought a ticket for anything, never been unescorted, never travelled with the poorest people. Crushed into the lowest class railway carriage, jammed against the door by people in dirty clothes and with repellent body odour, who totally ignore his Buddhist robes, he feels as if he is amongst aliens:

I didn't feel any connection with these people. Despite my years of practice that achieved spontaneous compassion, I had to reach back into memory for basic reminders... For a few minutes I repeated these reminders with genuine sincerity; then aversion again surfaced.

For the next few weeks in Varanasi, at the railway station and at the corpse-burning Ghats beside the river, then in Kushinagar, where the Buddha died in 487 BC, Mingyur Rinpoche struggled to accept all the new experiences to which he was exposed. Then when the small amount of money he had taken with him ran out, he exchanged his purple Buddhist robes for a saffron-coloured sadhu's dhoti and began begging for his food. Throughout this time, and later, his long years of training in meditation practices helped him to cope and not to give up and return to his monastery. And he explains these practices as he tells of his experiences, thoughts and emotions.

Anyone who has ever done any Yoga Nidra meditation will recognise many of these techniques: focusing on, visualising, and relaxing each body part from head to toe; paying attention to each breath; taking awareness of sound out into the surroundings, away from the self; becoming aware of constant impermanence—the continuous cycle of change—death and rebirth. Mingyur Rinpoche uses stories, anecdotes and reminiscences, as well as plain explanations to guide the reader through Buddhist meditation practices which he hopes will help us understand our own journeys.

For me, the most difficult part of this book was Mingyur Rinpoche's long and detailed report of his near-death experience when infection and dehydration literally fells him. He understands it all in terms of the Buddhist teachings which have been his whole life, and these are complex and difficult for a non-Buddhist to understand and follow.

Like Tanya Heaslip, Mingyur Rinpoche experienced the sudden death of an old life and the fears, doubts and difficulties of the disorientation and change which this involves. Each of them handles this differently. Tanya by looking outwards to her relationships with others to confirm her own identity: Mingyur Rinpoche by looking inwards to his own resources to find strength in his beliefs and practices. Both learn much about the world and about themselves; and both, eventually, find equilibrium.


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