Sunday, February 17, 2008

MAD FOR THE ROAD - Clare People

Mad for the Road
From Urine-drinking to battling rabies, travel writer Mancháan Magan has lots of incredible stories to tell, writes Christine Breen.

‘I just want to express myself,’ saying Manchán Magan sitting across from me in Kiltumper on a perfectly blue autumn morning. We’re discussing writing in general and in particular his new book on India in the series of Manchán’s Travels published by Brandon in September. It is the morning after the night before when 15 members of the Clare People Book Club interviewed Manchán for a couple of hours. As one member said, ‘I could listen to him all night!’ I think he looks a little weary but he assures me he slept well. ‘Must be the wide walls of this old cottage. It feels like a cave.’ I tell him that’s exactly what we refer to it as, and many a visitor has slept well and long there. He is only the second writer the book group has had the good fortune of interviewing. I admit to him in the morning that I had been anxious, that often out group can be very vocal in their opinion and that rarely have we all agreed on a book. ‘Well I think they let me off easy then,’ he says with a self-deprecating smile that is part waife and part sage. He admitted that being interviewed by the group was intense but also stimulating. ‘It was invigorating,’ he says. ‘You usually know after half an hour what the interviewer is about. What angle they are coming in at. So this was fresh and latent with different energies, each from a different part. Like mind candy. They didn’t just ask me about my whacky past.’
It’s his whacky past or his whacky way of looking at the world that does grab everyone’s attention, especially interviewers. But we were a full hour into the interview the night before when somebody finally asked him, ‘How do you feel about urine-drinking now?’ It’s inevitable that this subject will come up as Manchán has made no secret of having used this ancient form of self-healing and he answers unabashedly.
‘I’m glad I’m open enough to it,’ he says. ‘it’s called ‘shivambu kalpa’ in India and has been a principle of ayurvedic medicine for 2,000 years.’ That’s the thing that is most striking about Manchán. It’s his way of looking at the world and his knowledge of it. I am reminded of Mark Twain’s An Innocent Abroad. He’s game for anything. He wants to experience as much of the world as possible and he is unafraid of it. If you’re happy to live inside your own head for weeks, even months at a time, and if you believe as he and the Hindus do that reality is an illusion, then there is no reason to be afraid.
The other striking thing about Manchán is his curious mix of ego and non-ego. As he says himself, he’s a bit of a go-between. He lives in the world but at times one does wonder is he of the world – I mean the world we ordinary folks live in. He’s built himself two houses – the original one, made of straw bale and plaster, needing to be replaced as it was cracking, as they do – and he now lives in the second one, with a grass roof and plenty of light surrounded by the 36,000 trees he has planted on his 10-acre stronghold in the midlands. You could spend an hour just talking about building construction and the environment. He nearly suffered a life-threatening disease, schistosomiasis, which he got from the blood flukes (nasty worms) and another time needed to find a quick remedy for rabies having been bitten for a rabid dog. You could spend another hour just on healthy traveling, healing and urine therapy. He’s written several books, done 30 television documentaries, and he’s not yet 40. Although he is happy enough to talk about himself and admits to being somewhat self-obsessed, he says he isn’t all that comfortable in social situations. Or, more accurately, he will retreat into his grassed roof abode in Westmeath and re-gather his energy. One thinks of a cheetah, admired for its exuberant agility but respectful of its need for rest after burning too much energy. The image of the cheetah has been likened to that of gifted children, and I imagine that was what Manchán was, or rather, still is.
No doubt about it, he has boundless energy. ‘Will there be another book?’ (I should have presumed the answer.) ‘Just finished the one on Africa, in fact,’ he says.’It’s the next book in the series, the third.’ It’s been 10 years since he was in India but even longer since he was in Africa. He explains that he kept diaries and they were the source of his material, as well as his memory. He believes he needed that much time and distance in order to write what he felt. ‘It’s a condensation of everything that happened to me. I wanted to write impressionistically. There are so many concepts that overwhelmed me at the time. SO many ideas in my head. It’s like finding a myth or a fable to express it, which is what I’ve done with the character of Tara in this last book.
And, I wanted to write, in a way, for the mainstream. Something that was easy to read. I wanted something on every page to engage with. I didn’t want to just write about what I saw in India, I wanted to get my feelings about it across.’
With so many ideas in his head, his projects are many, with his radio show ‘The big Adventure’ continuing on Monday nights, and presently filming the next series of ‘No Bearla’ which airs in January. He is currently writing a love story in Irish, but on the horizon he would very much like to take a group of teenagers to Africa and witness the experience of it through their eyes, believing that we adults are a bit too deadened to be trustworthy interpreters. He wants to work with young people because of their fresh, unadulterated take on things and is currently doing writing workshops with a group in the midlands.
There is no end in sight for this lad who is mad for the road as we say in these parts, but he’s staying put . . . for the moment.’
© C Breen/Clare People.