A Week With Friends in Sweden


A couple of years ago instead of taking the more traditional solitary retreat in a house in the country, I spent two weeks paddling a kayak around Stockholm’s archipelago. It was the first time I had used a kayak and the first time I had been out in any sort of boat alone for more than a few hours. Although it was not an ideal way to have a solitary, if you conceive of a solitary retreat as an intense meditation retreat, I enjoyed that time very much. I enjoyed being alone in nature in an area I have come to love greatly. I have sailed a fair bit around the archipelago, but I think that I like kayaking even more than sailing as a way of exploring the region. When Dhirananda asked me if I would be interested in a kayaking trip with a few friends amongst the islands last summer, I didn’t need long to make up my mind. Dhirananda was happy for several people to go, so I invited two other friends, Gunaketu and Prabhakara to join us for a week last July.

We left England on a sunny afternoon, but due to various delays it wasn’t until midnight that we finally arrived at Dhirananda’s flat just outside Stockholm. Part of our luggage had been left behind by the airline and would arrive the following day, but we didn’t have time to wait for it, as Priyadarsin and Satyaraja were to accompany us for the first two days and we needed to get started the next day.

We set off the following morning, from an island connected to the mainland, but some distance from the city. Paddling in warm sunshine we passed close to several small islands before crossing a mile or so of open water. In the archipelago the biggest danger to canoes is the high speed motor boats. In July there are many boats of all sizes sailing and motoring around the inner part of the archipelago — it is very popular with Stockholmers. I heard once an American journalist describe Stockholm’s archipelago as one of the world’s best kept secrets. Very few non-Swedish tourists come to the area, and although in recent years some effort as been made to promote tourism, with more accommodation and information about the region, few find their way there. Nowadays one can even stay in a bed-and-breakfast, hire canoes, and go on organised canoe trips. Apart from a few youth hostels and hotels however there is little accommodation for the itinerant tourist. It is possible to rent a cottage or stay in a tent if you want to visit the area. It is strange that not many people camp on the islands as there are exceptionally good ferries plying between the city and many of the larger islands and under Swedish law you can put up a tent anywhere out of sight of a house on anyones land or in any part of the forest for one night. But the best way of appreciating and getting to know the archipelago is by boat. For this though, I guess you need to be confident that you can look after yourself on the water, and in a region where there are not so many of the usual facilities one is used to in Europe. Even finding drinking water can be problematic as all the local supplies have to be pumped out of the ground. We had to take several days supply of drinking water with us and plan our route to take in shops where we could refill our water bottles.

We got off to a good start; it remained sunny the whole day and warm enough to swim, though the water was rather cold. On that first evening there was a spectacular sunset, and as the light faded we lit a fire and sat around discussing various things about the Order, the Swedish Sangha, and how people we knew were getting on. During the night the weather changed; torrential rain fell for several hours. Most of our tents were designed for such weather, but Priyadarsin’s tent leaked and he awoke in the early morning to find he was afloat in an inch or more of water. When the rest of us emerged from our sleeping bags and tents, Priyadarsin had already been up for several hours and had managed to meditate for much of this time — maybe the rain had stopped by the time he got up. The second day we escorted Priyadarsin and Satyaraja back to where we had started from, and then drove to Stockholm to collect the missing luggage. That evening we decided to spend the night at Dhirananda’s flat as it looked as if there was more rain on the way and it was also the evening of the World Cup final.

Over the next few days the sun shone on and off, and we made good progress out to the middle of the archipelago. Dhirananda had paddled around this particular part before, and I had sailed there a few years previously. In a kayak one can find many beautiful spots well away from other people who usually stay on the islands in places where they can moor their motor cruisers or sailing yachts. A kayak can go into the narrow and shallow channels that are too small for any other type of boat. The rocks that make up the islands are very old and well smoothed by the elements. Usually it is not difficult to find a flat rock large enough to pitch a tent close by the water. The Baltic is not very salty so one can wash oneself, clothes and cooking utensils without everything becoming encrusted in salt. In the first few days we paddled around in the relative shelter of small islands and reefs. We saw a good deal of wild life, mainly birds — including the large sea-eagle. There were also small deer and on several occasions we saw mink confidently hopping across the rocks usually in pursuit of food like small ducklings.

After a few days I realised that I was not only enjoying the exercise of paddling, but I was being deeply affected by the peace and tranquillity of the archipelago. In some ways Stockholm’s archipelago is not that spectacular. Some people I know have found it unimpressive and even described it as boring. It is after all quite flat. The sea is, of course, flat, and the islands do not usually rise very high out of the water. As one goes further out there are few or no trees only bare smooth rounded granite rock. Some of the islands seem as if they float or flow up out of the water. Gradually as you get to know the area, the sea, the weather, the sunsets, nature, something grows on you, and many people feel a great love for this part of Sweden. It was having an effect on me, and I think the others as well, casting a sort of spell over us. With the simple outdoor life and little to bother about, our minds quietened down and I, at least, felt as if I were opening up to the world of nature — opening up to a feeling that I am just a small part of life — belonging to something much bigger.

Each morning we managed to sit together outside to chant the refuges and precepts and meditate for an hour. Then we had breakfast and cleared up and repacked the kayaks, and once again set off on our tour. The four of us who spent that week together were all used to camping and living out of doors. There was little discussion about who should do what when it came to erecting tents, preparing meals and clearing up; things just seemed to happen. We all took responsibility both for ourselves and for one another, and we all were very easy-going people. Often when we were resting in the afternoons or evenings we talked about our different countries — we all came from a different place: a New Zealander, a Norwegian, a Swede and a Brit. I think the younger Order members enjoyed listening to Dhirananda and I telling stories about the early years of the FWBO in Stockholm, when he and I lived together and worked to set up the Buddhist Centre.

After a few days the wind blew up and we hurried on to meet a Mitra at his summer house some distance away. It was whilst struggling to cross two or three miles of fairly open water that Dhirananda capsized. One moment he was paddling along about 50 yards from me and the next his kayak was upside down and he was swimming in the sea by the side of it. The others, in the two-man kayak, quickly turned round and reached him and after emptying his kayak and forming a raft he was able to climb up out of the sea and get back into his kayak, and we completed the crossing. I have to confess feeling a little apprehensive when we started crossing the sea in such wind and waves. But the episode of rescuing Dhirananda made us all more confident.

After a week of living together and covering many miles around some of the islands (there are said to be 24000 islands and skerries making up Stockholm’s archipelago) we had to head home. Part of my interest in participating in this trip was to do with my love for Stockholm’s archipelago and kayaking, but I also wanted to share this love with my friends. For some time now I have been thinking about the importance of doing things with ones friends, having a significant shared experience, where it is not that necessary to arrange a formal meeting for a talk. In fact before going to Sweden in the summer I was rather tired of talking to so many people. As a Public preceptor, a member of the Men’s Ordination Team and President to several Centres, I seem to spend a good deal of my time in verbal communication. I wanted a break, but I also wanted to see how much one can develop communication with ones friends in a more casual way, maybe not talking very much, but instead living closely together, being around each other day after day, depending on others and enjoying the delight of being in each other’s company. As short as the trip was, it was nonetheless a great success. We all participated in an adventure that we will remember for a long time, and will recall with pleasure and a warm feeling of friendship.

Sona is now a member of Breath Works mindfulness strategies for living well, pain management and stress reduction, based in Manchester.

Originally published in Madhyamavani: Spring 1999 (Birmingham: Madhyamaloka, 1999).