Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The end (of only the beginning)

My last few weeks of traveling have been a mixture of experiences and emotions. As my trip is winding down...I frequently ask myself if I am actually ready to go home. I am exhausted and homesick, but am I ready to go back to reality just yet???

I continued traveling up the west coast of India with a few girls I met in the ashram. Interestingly, we were all towards the end of our travels....so we shared similar feelings of excitement and apprehension. Each of us in different stages in our lives and each of us returning to a home that would not be the same as we had left it.
After a few relaxing days in the cliff side town of Varkala, three of us decided to head up to another village called Gokarna. I was responsible for getting the train tickets lined up. The sales clerk told me the train left at 6pm and that the tickets would be ready for pickup in a few hours. After I picked up the tickets I gathered the girls together and we got to the train station. As we viewed the board and compared it to our tickets, we realized the train didn't leave until 10pm. For some reason I didn't even think about looking at the actual ticket and just went by what the sales clerk told me. Needless to say, I felt a little bad that I made everyone arrive 5 hours before the actual train was departing. To smooth over the situation, I convinced everyone to walk over to the small dhaba (local restaurant) to sip chai tea and hang out a bit. Gemma, a nutritionist from the UK, had finished a 10 day detox program in Thailand before entering the yoga ashram. She is very conscious of her diet and once a week does a "raw" day to help keep up with her detox. We all decided to do the raw day together on the train journey.
The train was about 15 hours long and we did our best to sleep through the hustle and bustle of people getting on and off. The next morning I woke up to oily skin, greasy hair, and a hungry stomach. "Chai Chai Chai....Marsala Chai Chia Chai!" yelled the tea guy as he walked up and down the aisles of the train. I presumed that spicy chai tea was not on the "raw" diet so I watched him pass as my stomach gave a rumble. We had a few mandarins with us so I just munched on some of those...feeling unsatisfied. The morning turned to afternoon as we still sat in the bus watching the coast pass us by. The mandarins were gone and nothing raw had passed us in the train stations. Finally, Gemma cracked. She looked at me with hungry eyes and said "this probably wasn't the best day to do the raw diet. I say we eat the next thing that someone comes on to sell." Obviously, I agreed with her and we waited for a few more moments until a man with piping hot tea and a basket full of goodies came by. He was selling fried lentil cakes and savory donuts. Pretty much as far away from raw that you could get. We inhaled 4 each.
We had to transfer trains a few hours away from our destination, but didn't have tickets yet. When we bought the tickets we realized there was no seat number. Apparently, they were the "no reservation" tickets which meant it was a free for all and first come first serve. I felt a little dismal by this as we all had huge backpacks and yoga mats strung around our bodies. The likelihood of us getting seats together with all of our luggage was slim. When the train arrived we ran with the masses to the free for all section. Indians were squeezing through the doors and windows and trying to get a spot. Somehow, we managed to get in a cabin together and threw our luggage on the top rack. More and more people kept cramming on and before long we were squished together like a pack of sardines. Some of the Indians climbed up into the luggage racks to lay down. There was no space left unattended. A young Indian man...perhaps in his 20s...was sitting next to me. He kept smiling at us and trying to make light conversation. "What is your good name mam?" "What lovely country is missing such a beautiful girl?"...all the same old questions that the Indian men ask over and over and over again. I went with the dialogue for a bit, but was not in the mood to entertain the conversation for long. I grabbed my Ipod and tried to tune out for the remainder of the trip. The man motioned to me for something, but I didn't understand him. I took out my headphone to hear him better. He smiled and grabbed the headphone out of my hand and put it in his so ear that we were both listening to the ipod through one ear each. I was a little taken back by his abruptness, but I just sat back and tried not to let it get to me. Moment by moment, the man inched his way closer to me. Finally, he was resting his arm into my side. It was as if he was trying to get as much of his body to touch my body as possible. We were all crammed together, but everyone else kept their limbs to themselves and tried their best to not touch. This guy was getting more and more peculiar by the moment and I wasn't really sure what was happening. I thought it was all strange, but I didn't want to overreact. As he leaned more and more into me and smiling and finally placed his hand on my knee. I started to fidget and shrugged him off of me. However, he slowly made his way back to touching my legs and hips. I pushed him off again and then grabbed my ipod away...giving him a "dude that is not cool" look. A Muslim woman wearing a burka was sitting across from us and stared at me like I was this loose western woman provoking the whole scene. I started to feel very uncomfortable. Gemma and Robyn started noticing it as well and we all decided to stand at the doorway the remainder of the trip. It is unfortunate...and I am not generalizing ALL Indian men, but a lot of them have this image of western woman as being easy and provocative. Intimacy and love is very hush hush and kept behind closed doors in this culture. Sometimes certain men will overcompensate their feelings on foreign woman. Because of this, the scene I am describing now is very common while traveling in India. They will stare at you, pester you, and sometimes even grab you on the streets. The young man got up and walked to me at the doorway and leaned in to whisper "You are getting off in Gokarna yes? May I come stay with you...we could have fun?" and then gave me a sleazy smile. I just rolled my eyes and ignored him.
Finally, after a long train journey and the creepy man, we made it to our destination. Gokarna was a lovely coastal village. There are 4 beaches around it in which you hike 30 minutes in between to each. I really enjoyed the village and if I ever come back to India, I hope to spend more time there. It was only a quick stop though, our final destination was the infamous Goa.
In the 60s and 70s, Goa was this thriving party area where people would practice free love, experiment with drugs, and live like aimless hippies for months at a time. Nearly 40 years later, the beaches kind of have a "has been" feel to it, but nonetheless....you can still have a good time. A few years ago, the government enforced a noise ordinance in Goa. To get around this, they now throw "Silent" rave parties almost every night. This is where you have your own headphones while you have an option of listening to several music channels. People drink and get crazy while jamming out to their own music. It is quite entertaining to walk into a bar with no loud music and see 100s of people dancing to their own beat. When I first saw this, I stood there laughing at all the ridiculous people. But it wasn't long before I got my own headphones...and as we put it..."Entered the Bubble". We would stand around talking to one another and then be like..."Ok, I am going back into the bubble...talk to you in a few"...and then put on the headphones to jam out. One night a few of us were at the silent rave and sitting at a table. There was another table about 15 feet from us with a tall long haired guy at it. He was sitting alone and looking around. I was in a goofy mood and yelled "Hey...how are you doing over there?" He replied with some sort of gibberish like "Heyyyy...goshprack blafff nerffffda". I thought this was sort of funny and figured he was just having some fun, so we started speaking gibberish back to him. He seemed to be getting a kick out of it as well and we went back and forth a few times. Finally I yelled..."Dude...just come sit over here with us." He got the biggest smile on his face and stood up to come join us. As he started walking over, we immediately realized the guys functionality was not working AT ALL. He stumbled over to our area in an awkward way and tried to get to the empty seat. In doing this, he tripped a bit and nearly fell head first into the seat of the chair. Somehow he caught himself right before his head hit and then he stopped. For that split second something must have triggered in his mind like "abort mission...abort mission" because all of a sudden he sprinted full speed back to the table he came from. He crashed straight into the table and flew over onto this other person nearly breaking his own neck. He then got up and fell back again and then somehow made it back to his chair. He looked around quizzically as if he had no idea what had just taken place. Basically kids....say no to drugs! If I had a video montage of my trip, this moment would have been in the top 3 of craziest scenes ever. We all looked around at each other in astonishment and couldn't believe what had just happened. I felt horrible because it was my egging that almost led to his abrupt death from a wooden table. But at the same time I couldn't stop laughing. I cried I laughed so hard....it was my official crazy Goan Drug story. For the rest of the night we joked with each other about it, but at the same time hoped that the dude on acid made it home alright.
I decided since I was in India, that it would be fun to get some henna designs on my arms. Henna is a short term dye that woman decorate their skin with. It usually lasts about 2-4 weeks.
So I was walking through the streets of Goa and asked this local Indian woman where I could go to get some henna done. I figured there would be a salon somewhere close by. She insisted that she could do my henna for a good price. I was a little weary about it, but I figured she was Indian...and probably every Indian woman can do henna, right? She looked around cautiously and told me to watch out for police. She did not have a license and we would have to go back to her house for her to do it. "Ohhhh Boy" I thought...."here we go." You may ask yourself why I didn't just ignore the woman and go find a proper salon. The truth is, at this point I wasn't so concerned with the henna as I was intrigued by going into the local neighborhood and having a chance to peak inside someones home. So I followed this woman through the shacks and shambles of the poor class in Goa. We came upon a mud hut that was partially covered with a blue tarp. This was her home. Inside was a bed and a small gas burner surrounded by dirty kitchenware. She flicked on a light and excitedly pointed to the miniature ceiling fan that she had installed with dodgy wiring. I think she was stealing electricity from the house next door because the thin wires were coming from that direction. She grabbed a small tube of henna and we went to sit outside. Some locals burning their trash were staring in our direction. Chickens and pigs horded around us as she began the process. During the henna, she talked about how her family abandoned her and she was too poor to take care of herself. She went on and on about how the police won't let her work and she has a hard time paying for food. Minute by minute I was wondering why I had gotten myself in this situation. She seemed to be more interested in telling me about her family problems then working on the henna. Half the time she was looking at me while she was squeezing the dye onto my arm. The lines were not straight and I was puzzled as to if this was actually how proper henna was done. She insisted that her designs were good and the style was very traditional. I felt removed from the situation as if I was just watching it from a distance. Trying to take in the surroundings and conversation of the woman. However, the longer and longer she painted, the more I knew that it was a disaster. Finally I snapped out of it and made her stop, but the damage was done. I wasn't sure if she was taking the piss out of me or if she was just a sandwich short of a picnic. But literally, it looked as if a 3 year old got a hold of a permanent marker and went to town on my arms. She wanted to do the other side of my arm, but I finally told her that it was enough. I payed her some rupees and went home to see how much I could scrub off. The dye had already soaked in...so the hideous henna job was going to be on me for awhile. Ohhhh India....never a dull moment :)
I am now in Mumbai (Bombay) spending my last few days here before I fly out. The city is surrounded with architecture from the Raj empire...streets are filled with small shops selling anything from watches to clothes to spices. Uptown university kids talk in perfect English about world politics or the latest Bollywood flick. Old men trade stories around Beedi stands (handmade cigarettes) or chai stalls. Holy cows roam through the parks as old woman sweep the dirt off....the dirt. Professional men walk briskly to work, but always take the time to pray at a passing Hindu monument. As my last few days wind down I am trying my hardest to really pay attention to everything happening around me. I must admit, India was pretty intense when I first arrived, but somehow...each day I grew more and more fond of it. With the bizarre organized chaos, religious devotion, and food that tantalizes each taste bud....how can you not succumb to it eventually?
It's true what they all say. If you visit India for 2 weeks, you probably won't like it, but stay longer then that and you will slowly fall in love. I am looking forward to coming back here someday and visiting the areas I wasn't able to get to this time around.

Ahhhhhh at last, we come to the end of the journey...
One of my favorite quotes that I say to myself is..."and this, too, shall pass". It originates from a Jewish wisdom folktale involving King Solomon.
This sentence is true in all situations...whether the circumstance be good or bad. It can make a day seem brighter or remind you to not become too proud. It has allowed me to get through some painful bus journeys and to also be humbled when I feel invincible.
And throughout this journey I had always known....that this too shall pass....and it would come to an end someday. It has been an unforgettable adventure and I wish I had the energy to continue on....but I feel inside that it is time to head home.
This will be my last blog for this trip. However, I hope that it will not be my last blog ever...as I plan to have plenty more travels in my future.

Fourteen months is a long time to be on the road. Originally I had set out to move slowly through countries as I immersed myself into the cultures. Somehow along the way though, I never slowed down....just kept on moving...searching for the next adventure. I visited many countries, met some amazing people, and opened my eyes to new things. I now know that there is other food out there besides Mexican and I am no longer limited to using just a western style toilet.
For some reason, I thought that I would go travel the world....figure out life and find all the answers. I visioned myself returning home someday with a peaceful aura around me and confident about the person I had become. Well, the exact opposite seemed to happen. I am more lost then I was before I left. It's like the saying goes...."The more you learn, the less you know."

My mind has been exposed to so many things over the past year....
Issues that I was certain I had a grasp on and a strong opinion about have changed. The way I perceive my own culture and my own country has changed (in both negative and positive ways). The history and governments of other countries has given me a new light in how this world we live in is getting more and more tangled up. Humanity....oh humanity....I feel we are at a tipping point and I just pray that it tips in a better direction. I always thought I had a decent grasp on life, but I realize that I a nowhere close. I have more compassion, but at the same time am more cynical. My patience has strengthened, but I have no problem being tough. I've opened my mind to religions, but wonder if faith is worth all the sacrifice.
And when I keep thinking about all these trivial issues....my head begins to hurt.

If there are two things that I can take from this journey...they are that this world is ever changing. History is the present and the present is the future and everything changes minute by minute. It is something that I am learning to accept....as challenging as it may be.
And lastly....as confused as I am about myself and the world that I live in, I do know this...that I can handle most situations on my own and that I will survive.

For those of you who labored through my blog....(Mom and Dad), Thanks!
I hope you have enjoyed listening to my rambles, experiences, and perspectives of the world I traveled through.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Ashram life

India is a land of religious and spiritual devotion. With Hinduism, Muslim, Buddhism, Sikhism, Jainism, Zoroastrianism, Christianity, and a handful of other religions I have never heard of....you can't go far without coming face to face with it. It is in the people, the buildings, the streets, rivers, animals, music, movies, art, and tourists. Even the people who aren't as devout as others (such as my tour guide DJ), religion is still a part of their foundation of life.

I for one, did not come to India on some crazy spiritual life quest. However, many people travel here for this reason specifically....to find a religious or spiritual path different from the mainstream West. Some are just on a 2 week holiday where they cram as much spirituality in as they can, while others nestle into a few years of the Indian lifestyle. You don't have to travel far to find a deep philosophical conversation or a temple to kneel in.
As my long journey is coming to an end and my traveling patience is getting shorter and shorter, I decided to enroll myself into a yoga ashram to tone things down a bit. I had no prior plans to do this and no idea what to expect. But since 1,000s travel to this country on a spiritual basis, I figured what better time then now to give it a whirl.

For the past 2 weeks I enrolled myself into the Sivananda Yoga Ashram in South India

The first day was totally confusing for me as I wandered around trying to get into grips about the place I just entered. There were a few programs going on at the same time so about 300 people were living in the ashram. I met some other people and set up my space in the woman's dorm room. At around 5:45pm I heard a bell ring. This was to signify that it was almost dinner time. I walked to the dining hall and stood in line. When we entered the hall I saw rows and rows of reed mats with metal plates and cups lined down them. You had to sit on the floor cross-legged and eat with your hands (right hand preferably) in silence. The meal was a watery vegetable soup and 2 fermented rice biscuits. Of course, the fat girl in me was like..."Dear God, I am going to starve for the next 2 weeks." I sat in silence and picked through the food....staring at all the people around me.

After dinner, we all had to attend what is called the Satsang. This includes mediation and devotional chanting. This night was unique though, because they had built this fire pit surrounded by offerings to the Hindu gods. We meditated for only a few minutes and then everyone started chanting these Sanskrit Hindi songs and swaying back and forth. Some people were shaking the tambourine or playing bongo drums and really getting into it. After about 30 minutes of chanting people took offerings and threw them in the fire. After that, they kneeled on the ground in a praying position towards the fire and did some weird ritual head bobs and hand gestures. It was one of those moments in my life where I thought to myself..."If only my family could see me now." I was in the back of the crowd taking it all in and waiting for the Swami to say the world was going to end and then bring out a bowl of punch for all of us to drink. I was seriously feeling uncomfortable and didn't know what to do. I tried to keep an open mind....but it was hard for me to simply follow everyone else....especially since I didn't know who or what we were making the offerings to. Obviously, they were giving offerings to the Hindu gods and since I was not Hindu I did not feel the need to bow and pray to them. I was feeling a bit overwhelmed...so when I knelt I just thanked mother nature and prayed for the health and safety of my family. You have to pay a minimum of 3 days when you enter, so I knew I would stay for that amount of time at least. Hopefully the orientation the next morning would ease my discomforts.

The following day I went to the orientation. Our teacher, whose "spiritual" name was Janaki, introduced the ashram lifestyle and rules to us.
The main rules were no alcohol/tobacco/drugs, strict vegetarian diet, no fornication, dress conservatively, lights out at 10pm, and the most important.....attend all classes each day.
The routine was rigorous and included 4 hours of yoga, 4 hours of meditation/chanting, 1 hour of karma yoga (a job you are assigned within the ashram), 2 meals, and a 1 hour lecture. The day started at 6am and ended at 10pm. Attendance to all of these were mandatory in order to remain in the ashram so it made for a long and busy day. After she went over all the details, she relaxed her shoulders, lightened her tone and smiled. She said " I know a lot of you are out of your comfort zone right now. For some, this is your first time to India and your first time in an ashram. An Ashram is a retreat. You are retreating from your normal life back home...from work, family, and society. This time is for you....it is your time to learn and gain knowledge from your teachers and peers spiritually, mentally, and physically. It is up to you how much you want to gain. Some things we will do will be very different then you are used to. I just ask one thing from you....allow yourself to be here these next 2 weeks. Open your mind and take this opportunity for yourself. It may not all make sense to you right now, but someday you may look back and understand it in a different light or experience. Mastering Yoga is not something you can do in just 2 weeks....but what you gain here will help with your foundations."
I immediately felt better. She tapped into all the weird emotions I was having and her ease and openness relieved me. She seemed quite normal and not some radical cult leader. But then my skepticism clicked in again and I figured that David Koresh was probably a really captivating person and eased people into his beliefs as well. Then Ted Bundy and his charming personality flashed in my mind and I began to fidget again.
Open mindedness versus skepticism battles broke out in my head, but finally I relaxed and decided to be open to learning. I reiterated to myself that it was my choice to be here. It didn't mean I had to start praying to Hindu gods or go spend 5 years meditating in a cave somewhere.....It just meant that I should take this time to learn something new. Regardless of anything else though, it was only for 2 weeks.
After orientation it was time for Brunch. I was STARVING!!!! I figured out that brunch is the larger meal of the day and I was excited to see vegetables and more vegetables on top of rice. I frantically shoveled the food into my mouth with my right hand like a wild animal. Others were doing the same around me since the dinner was so light the night before. Before long I could hardly move because I had eaten so much. I wasn't sure how much to eat because I didn't want to "wither" away in the next 2 weeks. Heaven forbid I don't get enough food! It took a few days for me to get used to the diet and how much food I needed to be eating. Given the circumstances though, the food was actually pretty good. Since we were here to study yoga, the diet was that of a true yogi. This meant that it was a strict vegetarian meal with no spices, garlic, or onion. Yogis do not eat anything that will cause stimulation to the body....therefore they don't eat spicy food, drink caffeine, or do drugs. It helps with meditation and brings you closer to "self awareness". It wasn't the most flavorful meals, but I enjoyed most of the dishes. However, over the course of the 2 weeks I had a carb overload. Carbs and a mixture of gaseous vegetables did not do well for my digestive system and bowel movements. I am not sure if my body just went into shock from all the healthiness, but I was clogged up for the first week, then rushing to the bathroom the second week. Over time, I am sure my body would have gotten used to the diet and balanced itself back out. But for the 2 weeks it was not cooperating with me.

When I arrived to the ashram, I thought yoga was just a bunch of vegetarian health nuts holding ridiculously hard postures on a foam mat. I learned quickly though, that the postures were only a small piece to the larger puzzle. Yoga means Union. Not the union between mind a body (which one would assume)...but the union between one's individual consciousness and the Universal Consciousness. The yoga postures are just one method used to reach a state of union with the divine. In the beginning of the course, we were taught the 5 points of Yoga. They are Proper Exercise, Proper Breathing, Proper Relaxation, Proper Diet, and Meditation. After the 5 principles....there are then 4 paths within yoga to help reach self awareness. Sivananda (1887-1963) was one of the most influential Yoga masters of the 20Th century and is the inspiration behind the Sivananda Yoga Centers around the world. He advocated that integrating all 4 paths was the best way to achieve the Universal Consciousness. Our lectures were teaching us the foundations of the 4 paths.

One of the paths is Karma Yoga. This is the path of action or selfless service. It is doing something with no reward or monetary gain. Mother Theresa is probably the best example to use for this path. To live in the ashram you get assigned a karma yoga (job) to help keep things up and to learn selfless acts of duty. Some of the jobs are better then others. For instance, working in the boutique seems much more appealing then cleaning the dorm bathrooms. I must have good karma though because I landed the "coolest" job in the ashram...working at the Health Hut. The Health Hut is the ashram hang out and a place students go to for fruit juices and healthy snacks if the included meal didn't fill them up. A group of us were assigned the night shift. The first night of work, my so called "cool" karma yoga turned out to not be so cool. Our boss was this crazy Venezuelan lady who would start yelling in Spanish when she was stressed out. She had the tough love approach and would blatantly tell us how bad we were doing, but then at the end of the night laugh, hug, and smile at us as if everything were wonderful in the world. For about 1 minute she showed us around the kitchen and said everything was easy and that we should have no problems. A few of us asked if we should learn how to make drinks and figure out where things were. But she replied "Shanti Shanti Shanti" (Peace, peace, peace) and that it was all easy and we would figure it out as we worked. So basically, we had no training and didn't know where anything was located. At 6:30pm, I peaked outside to see a line heading out the door. Apparently, I wasn't the only one worried about withering away with the ashram food and people came flocking to the health hut each night for more snacks.
You would think...being in an ashram where we are studying yoga and meditation and searching for the ultimate goal of world peace that people would be pretty easy going, right? Well if it is one thing I have learned....it is that you should NEVER come between a hungry ashram student and a banana milkshake. The first night was a disaster! As we foresaw, no one knew how to prepare anything or where any utensils were located. We had a pile of tickets growing and growing, people yelling at us for taking too long, and about 6 of us running around like chickens with our heads cut off. "I need 3 chai teas, 2 fruit salads one without papaya, 4 plain toasts, a banana milkshake"....and so on and so on. There were 15 orders of toast waiting and it took us about 30 minutes to realize that bread was not even in stock that night. People hastily returned their lukewarm teas and chunky milkshakes. The whole "shanti, shanti, shanti" concept went down the drain when the first ticket came through the window. It was probably the most unsuccessful work day of my entire life. I knew it would be the worst of it because the next day we would have a better understanding of the logistics of the kitchen. Until then though, I decided not to tell anyone in my dorm that I worked in the Health Hut kitchen.....it was that embarrassing.

At 6am the next morning I headed to Satsang to meditate and chant. The Satsang classes were the most difficult sessions for me to get through. Sitting cross legged for 30 minutes while silently meditating and then chanting Hindu Sanskrit for another 1.5 hours was not my cup of tea. On this particular morning, I decided my 1 goal for this session was to sit cross-legged and hold my position without moving. We spent most of our days sitting on the ground and it took a toll on the body. My back and legs were constantly aching as my body took revenge on my 27 years of bad posture. As we went into silent meditation, my mind was far from detaching from my ego and I had one goal only....don't move for 30 minutes. I closed my eyes and focused energy on my third eye and said "OM" over and over in my head. I tried to visualize myself sitting in a perfect meditation posture for days and days ....not moving a muscle. The first few minutes went by quickly, but then my right foot started to go numb. I managed to remain still for a few more minutes, but my spine started to ache again and my left foot felt like pins and needles. One of the bug bites on my arm started to itch but I resisted to scratch it as I continued to focus on my mission. I could feel the sweat building up on my upper lip and my left foot finally went numb as well. For a moment, I wondered if people ever lost the ability to walk from remaining in the meditation pose for so long. Surely this was not good for the blood circulation. .......Geez...how long has it been already??? 25 minutes maybe? I sure hope so!
Ok...FOCUS FOCUS FOCUS.....no pain no gain. Om Om Om Om. With all these thoughts and aches running through my body, I began to get angry and anxious. The meditation isn't over until the Swami says "Om"...so I started visualizing him leaning over into the microphone and humming "OM' in his low strong voice. Come on.....when are you going to say it. Say "OM"....say "OM".....hurry...please....say "OMMMMMM"...OM...OM...OM....come on you can do it...OMMM...Say flipping OMMMMMMMMMMMM!!!
Just when I was about to give up, I heard the click of the microphone and his voice drawled out a long "OMMMMM". I instantly opened my eyes and had to manually grab my legs with my hands to unravel them since they were both numb and plopped them out in front of me. I achieved my goal, but completely defeated the purpose of the meditation process. I wasn't any closer to self awareness. After this egotistical experience (I was pretty proud of myself for not moving) I decided....it was time to reach into my inner self and stop playing these silly games to help pass the time. It was probably better to just shift my body a bit and focus more on detaching from my consciousness. Over the course of the 2 weeks, I never was able to fully detach myself from my ego and get away from my thoughts. A few times I felt really close to it, but wasn't sure if it was me just falling closer to sleep or not. Meditation is not something that comes easily I have a long ways to go. People practice for years and lifetimes to achieve self awareness. It was my first time to ever try it and I definitely built a good foundation for future practice....if it is something that I decide to incorporate into my life.

My fellow peers were people of all ages and from every part of the world. Holland, Norway, Israel, Iran, UK, Australia, Hungary, South Africa, Japan, China, Mexico, and Brazil....just to name a few. With such diversity, it made for really interesting discussions. A lot of the times my head would hurt because we would take the conversation to non tangible levels. As I mentioned earlier, yoga is not just an exercise, but a lifestyle change. The lecture would start with the basic principles of yoga and then turn into these full blown question and answer debates. I really enjoyed hearing different philosophies and ideas and comparing them to my inner thoughts. We discussed God, reincarnation, collective consciousness, devotion (how it works with any religion), diet, environment, positive thinking, tolerance versus acceptance, and all sorts of other mind numbing topics.

Not all was glamorous and fun at the ashram though. 4 hours of yoga and 4 hours of meditation and devotion each day started to take a toll on each of us both mentally and physically.
Sometimes negativity or inner problems can surface in environments like this because it really is a full-on intense process. The staff had warned us at the beginning of the program that things can come up. They even offered counseling throughout the day. A few people had break downs or ended up leaving because they couldn't handle the ashram environment for various reasons. My biggest struggle was being around extreme people and learning an extreme way of life. I strongly evaluated my own lifestyle in comparison with what we were being taught. I think it was just a lot of extremities in such a short amount of time. At first, I told myself that by entering the ashram I was taking a baby step to learning more about this particular lifestyle. But this was far more then a baby step. Some days it took a lot of effort for me to think positive and keep my energy going. The chanting was becoming more and more difficult for me to participate in. I think being devotional is a personal thing and chanting was not my specific channel of choice. It works for some people.....like the "happy-go-lucky" staff for instance, but I couldn't get into it. Towards the end of the 2 weeks I simply attended the devotional chantings only because it was mandatory.
One day, my friend Kristin and I were complaining to each other about the Satsangs and how we were losing our motivation about them. This girl who had arrived a week late and had only been in the ashram for 1 day overheard us and said "You realize it is just your ego talking to you right now and challenging you to not accept the chanting." Even if she was right...(any negative excuse is blamed on the ego) she hadn't been there for the full two weeks. I looked at Kristin and said "I give her 4 more days with the chanting sessions before she cracks."
Fortunately, every Friday was a free day. You were able to leave the ashram as long as you were back before 10pm. The staff offered field trips to tourist destinations in the area. I decided to sign up for them so I could see some parts of South India as well. The field trips were hilarious. There were about 50-60 students on them and you could tell we were super excited to be out of the ashram. We guzzled down coffee and ate chocolates and sweets. Some people snuck off to smoke cigarettes and have a cocktail (I chose not to drink for the entire 2 weeks). We snuggled into the comfortable bus seats and enjoyed not sitting cross legged on the hard floor. We talked about movies, music, and fun travel stories instead of chanting or meditating. It was a much needed break. It wasn't until our day off that I realized just how intense the program was.

The yoga asanas (postures) were progressive classes in which they teach us the 12 basic yoga postures. There are 84,000 postures in Sivinanda Yoga in which only 84 of them are mostly used. The 12 that we learned are the most important and the basic foundations into the other postures. The classes were challenging, but good and I feel that I now have the confidence I need to attend other yoga courses. I truly hope that I continue with yoga postures throughout my life. In just two weeks I was far more flexible and holding positions that I never visualized myself doing before. Under my layer of travel chub...I can feel that my strength has improved vastly.

All-in all, the 2 week program was a positive experience. I would be lying if I said it was easy and always fun...because it wasn't. I had some good moments and bad moments and lots of frustration in between. I guess that is what happens when you challenge youself physically and mentally and start addressing the difficult questions about life. I am nowhere close to becoming a yogi and don't plan on being vegetarian (yet). But I learned a lot and hope to slowly incorporate some of those things into my life. As Janaki told me at the beginning....the things I learned in this program may effect me gradually througout my life rather then immediatly.

On our last day, a big group of us headed to the reception. We handed in our sheets and mosquito nets and they handed back to us our wallets, cellphones, and computers. After our balance was taken care of we were given a "check out" card. WE WERE FREEEEEE!!!!!!!!

There is this beautiful beach about 2 hours from the ashram called Varkala. It is a white sandy beach surrounded by gorgeous jagged cliffs. For the past few days a group of us have been enjoying the coastal winds and sounds of the waves. I have been drinking fresh fruit juices and eating grilled fish and vegetables (my first time to eat meat in 2 months!). Each morning I wake up to do my yoga session on the rooftop of the hotel. I feel great! I have about 2 more weeks left of my travels and plan on cruising up the west coast to Bombay where I fly out. Since it is winter back in Austin, I am going to soak up the sunny weather as much as possible.....

Before I head back I will try to write one more blog to end my travels and sum up my journey. I hope all is well with everyone this holiday season and I look forward to seeing some of you real soon.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Holy Cow.....India!

Ohhhhh India....such a crazy country it is. My friend once told me that you could be in love with India at one moment, and then despise it the next.....and this is all very true. For instance, the other day I was riding in a beat up bus that looked as if it had been blown up from the inside out. How it was even running was beyond my knowledge. Anyways, I was sitting next to the window listening to my ipod and being enamored by the scenery outside. India is truly an amazing country. The sites, sounds, and smells are mind-blowing and it will be really hard to describe the things I am seeing and experiencing here. So there I was, reflecting on life and the world and being amazed by the village streets...kinda having a dream like moment, ya know? When all of a sudden WHAM! something flies all over me. At first I thought that this rapture like bird must have taken a massive shit and somehow it landed through the window on to me. But moments later I saw the kids laughing outside and looked down again to see that I was covered in mud and sand. I reached my head out the window to see this little prick of a kid running down the street laughing because he just threw mud all over a white girl on a bus. Anger came over me but there was nothing I could do because the bus was still moving. All of a sudden I was in a huff and a puff as I shook the mud off of me. The enchantment of India instantly lost. The streets that I was moments ago enamored with...now looked disgusting to me. The smell of urine and trash was lingering even heavier and the horn of the bus was louder then anyone could imagine. Finally, I breathed in deeply a few times and gathered my thoughts together( Something that I would have to do many times in this country) . It wasn't that big of a deal really, but it was just another reminder to me that this is what India is all about.....the highs and the lows and everything in between. From one extreme to another your senses are so heightened that each night it is hard to turn your mind off, but at the same time you can hardly keep your eyes open with exhaustion.

The past few weeks have been a whirlwind and I have seen and experienced a lot.

Digvijay (DJ), our guide, is really cool and I have learned a lot about the Indian culture through him. He is 24 and comes from the Hindu "Warrior" caste which is the second highest caste level. He is well educated and comes from a respected family in which his father is a doctor. What your father does, your education level, and caste status all play a role in how you are viewed in the society of India. However, in the past 10 years, western views are slowly coming in and it is not as big of a deal to marry outside of your caste or venture from the traditional religious norms. Things are progressing more and more to the western culture, but there is still a major Hindu influence everywhere you look. DJ is a bit unusual and is not your token Indian....he says he is different for 3 reasons. For one, he does not like spicy food. This is actually pretty crazy since most of the food contains some deliciously spicy mixes and normally wouldn't come close to making an Indian sweat. As for me, I love spicy food, but the food here has given me a run for my money in the heat department. Second, he is scared of the Holy cows. As you know, Hindus believe the cow is sacred and they don't eat the meat or wear leather. The cows are King of the streets and wander around wherever they please. I have seen men embracing them as they pass by. However, when DJ was younger, he had a traumatic run in with a cow and the fear has never left him. When we see a cow on the street he steers clear from it. And lastly, he is not religious. This is very interesting considering that religion appears to be the livelihood for most everyone in this country. His family is Hindu and he respects the religion, but he views it more as a tradition rather then the purpose of all life. His family tells him he will be born an outcaste in his next life, but he is not worried since he doesn't believe in it. He enjoys the philosophical approach and learning about other beliefs besides Hinduism. With that said, I have really enjoyed talking to him and asking him questions about his country. He in return, enjoys learning about our countries as well. He has never been out of India, but hopes to travel abroad someday soon.

The tour I did took us from Delhi, down through the state of Rajasthan, then over to Kolkata. This is the main touristy part of India which includes lots of forts, temples, and of course... the Taj Mahal. I had never been to a fort before, so those were extremely interesting. Some of them were built in the 12th century and the shear size and strength of them are awe inspiring. There are pictures of some of them on my Picasa. I wished I could go back into time and see how the fort looked with elephants, peasants, and kings around. Obviously, the Taj Mahal was a site to see as well. It is one of the prettiest structures I have ever seen and so much history surrounds it. My friend, Emma, and I ate some apples off the street the day before we went to the Taj. We both ended up getting pretty sick from it. So we weren't able to enjoy it as much as we hoped. She was dashing to the bathrooms and I was breaking a sweat as I walked around. I finally left and layed in bed all day. I had stomach issues when I visited Machu Pichu in Peru and my friend Robin coined it Machu Poo-Poo.....let's just say....we now call this place.. Terd Mahal!

We saw many sites and visited several cities. But it was more India in itself that has been the experience for me. Every minute of every day is surrounded by things that I am not used to seeing. I knew it would be different over here and that was the biggest drawl for me. I will try to explain some of the daily sites and obstacles that I have faced.
So, let me begin by taking you on a short ride on a rickshaw (small taxi) through the city streets. The first thing you will notice is the horrific and catastrophic traffic. There is no apparent order here. The rickshaw driver will aggressively weave in and out of traffic on whatever side of the street he pleases. He will rarely use his breaks (only at the VERRRRRYYYY last minute before a collision), but instead lay on his horn. The horns are atrocious. I am convinced that India would be a very peaceful country if the horns were simply removed from it. My head hurts and ears are ringing daily from the horns beeping everywhere. As we are driving, we are coming within centimeters of other vehicles, people, animals, bicycles, or food carts. All of these things are competing for space on the road and it is almost maddening. But somehow...it all works. Once you can comprehend the traffic situation and accept the fact that your life is now in the hands of your crazy rickshaw driver, you start to take notice of the other things around you. One of the most intriguing things are the Holy cows. The Holy Cow is King of the road here in India. They are large, dirty and can walk wherever they please. Often there will be a major traffic jam because some cows have decided to congregate in the middle of the streets. The Indians don't seem too worried about it though, because they love and respect the cows dearly. DJ thinks it is hilarious that the tourists are so captivated by the Holy Cows....I explained to him though, that I only see cows in pastures....not painted with flower necklaces walking through the city streets as they please. Another common site are camels or elephants roaming down the streets. Some will have a cart behind them pulling food and goods. Add to this dogs, pigs, chickens, water buffalo, goats, and rats and you can begin to understand how the average street in India is nothing like that in Austin, TX.

There is litter and trash EVERYWHERE.
This is by far the dirtiest country I have ever been to. Rarely do I come across a public trash bin and I am constantly seeing the Indians throwing stuff on the ground. It is aggravating. Often we will drive past piles of rubbish being burned in the streets. When I walk around I see animals and people rummaging through the trash. DJ explained to me that there are plans to help alleviate the trash problem. The government and education system is trying to teach the younger generation about the environment and hoping to make an overall mental change. They have a long road ahead of them though. When I visited the Terd Mahal, I went outside one of the gates to the river. It was shocking to see how littered the river was only feet away from one of the prettiest buildings in the world. While I was standing there, several families came down and dumped large plastic bags of rubbish into the flowing river.....I couldn't believe it.
As you drive or walk down the streets, foul smells of trash and urine are entangled with the aroma of curries and fried breads. People use the bathroom anywhere they please. Mostly I see only men or boys and they urinate or shit in corners or on the sidewalks. If you see a wet spot anywhere, it is most likely urine. Some Indian men also chew on these things called Paan, which is a combination of betel leaf and certain types of nuts. They keep it in the side of their mouth and chew on it throughout the day spitting constantly. The paan turns their mouths blood red so when they talk to you it looks like their teeth are bleeding. You have to constantly watch that you don't get spit on.
In contrast to the dirty streets, roaming animals, polluted air, spitting men, and chaotic traffic are the beautiful Indian woman walking around in their stunningly colorful sarees. The traditional Indian woman do everything in their sarees....from working in the fields to scaffolding a building. Somehow they always seem fresh and clean and very well put together. The sarees are of all sorts of bright colors with gold sequence and interlacing designs throughout. Some wear shawls over their faces and a multiple amount of bangles along their arms. Henna is sometimes painted on their hands and forearms. Amongst all the dirt and grime of India....these woman stand out like beautiful paintings.
Poverty is another thing that I come across daily. According to Lonely Planet, an estimated 350 million Indians live below the poverty line. The major cause is illiteracy and a population growth rate that is substantially exceeding India's economic growth rate. I can't decide how to handle the poverty situation yet. Kids, mothers, the disabled, and lepers are on the sidewalks begging in most of the cities. Some of them even grab onto you and walk with you for blocks asking for money or milk. Even if I wanted to, it would not be wise for me to hand out money because a mob would surround me in an instant. One time a woman in our tour group gave a girl some candy as we waited in the train station. Next thing we knew we were surrounded by 10 kids and they didn't leave our sides until our train came an hour later. Most guidebooks and websites suggest not giving money to beggars. It promotes begging and keeps kids on the streets using it as a way to make a living. Sometimes it can be heartbreaking though. I asked DJ his thoughts on the poverty and how to handle the begging situations. He said he never gives money to beggars. There are opportunities for most of the beggars and they chose not to take them. Most of the kids could go to an orphanage and get an education, the woman could learn a skill in a woman's shelter and the disabled have charities they can get help from. But a lot of them end up back on the streets because they find it is easier to get quick cash through begging. I understand where DJ is coming from....it is a similar situation with the homeless in the US. But in the US, the government would take the kids away and put them foster homes. Here, it is the babies and small children that are starving that really break my heart.
On the flip side though, I have seen a few scams take place in front of my eyes. One time I saw a child ask a foreigner to buy him milk from this store. The woman brought him in thinking she was truly helping the child and giving him nourishment. She grabbed a small bottle of milk and then he instantly said no and insisted that she get the bigger bottle. She generously did so. She purchased the milk and left. A few moments later the child sold the bottle back to the store clerk and they both profited from it. I have also seen kids running around having fun, then the mother or "boss" coming up and scrutinizing them while pointing to foreigners. The kids then change their facial features to somber and helpless as they run to the foreigners asking for money. Clearly, they are just working for this woman and putting on an act. I am not trying to sound cold hearted about the beggars. It is clear that there is a poverty problem and it aches inside to dismiss mothers with crying babies and step over people with no limbs. I am trying to figure out a way that I can help with the problem besides giving money and food to beggars. Because unfortunately, some of the people are not as helpless as they seem. In Kolkata, I visited the "Mother house" where Mother Theresa is buried. She opened a missionary in 1953 and helped 1000s of poor and sick people in India. It was really neat to walk around the missionary and read about her ambitious story. I hope to use some of my energy someday to help humanity. Perhaps I can help with the illiteracy problem or promote more education.....I am not sure yet. But there are ways to help without giving money to beggars. I just need to figure that part out.

You can't walk or drive down the street without seeing symbols of the Hindu religion. Hinduism isn't really something you can sum up in a matter of a small paragraph. For one, they don't have 1 God....but 36 million gods. Yes, that is correct. I did not have a typo there...36 MILLION!!!! You cannot convert to Hinduism but are simply born into the religion. And with that, you are born into a caste. The highest caste being the Brahmins (the priests and teachers), followed by the Ksatriyas (warriors and rulers), Vaisyas (Farmers, merchants, artisans), Subras (laborers), and lastly....the Untouchables (outcastes or polluted laborers). I honestly don't know much about it yet and don;t have the time to do much research....but since it seems to be amongst everything in this country....the people, animals, buildings, etc....it is hard to not pick up tid bits here and there.

One day in the city of Jaisalmer, we got a unique opportunity to have lunch prepared for us in the home of a Brahmin. His wife and sisters cooked up a traditional Indian meal as we sat cross-legged (which I always called "indian style" growing up and now the puzzle pieces all come together....because Indians do sit cross legged all the time!) on the floor of his home and ate and conversed. The man was in the middle of some sort of religious fast and this was the one meal he was allowed to eat for the day. He spent the entire lunch talking about the Hindu religion and explaining to us about the Brahmin caste. I gathered that he was not always a devout Hindu and that it was only a few years ago that he changed his lifestyle to practice his role in the religion. Now he plays the role of the priest and teacher and does fasting and pilgrimages. It was really interesting to eat the lunch and listen to his thoughts and religious views. Since people cannot be converted into Hindus, I asked him how his religion viewed all of the other people in the world...were we just considered outcasts with no hope? He smiled to me and replied "At the end of the day, it is better to put a smile on your neighbors face then to light a candle in the temple.".....I really liked that response.

Transportation from city to city has been interesting as well.
For instance, our 5 bus ride to Jodhpur was quite the experience. This was my first bus ride in India and 5 hours seemed simple enough to me....I had tackled far longer routes in my journey. Well, don't ever underestimate what India may bring....it doesn't matter how long the destination is, but instead, how many people they can fit on the bus! So....how many people do you think they can fit on a bus in India? From my experience....nearly 150...and this is no joke. When we got on the bus there were about 36 or so seats. Fortunately, we grabbed some and took our positions. Above the seats are these small cubbie holes about the length of a person. At first I thought this was a sleeper seat for longer journeys, but turns out it is just a way to maximize space. In an area where I pictured one person to be sleeping, they instead would cram an Indian family of 6-8 people in the cubbie. The aisle going down the seats was filling up with people. After more and more people climbed on, I thought surely they would stop soon, but no....the people kept coming on in masses. You would imagine a single file line of people down the aisle....maybe 15 or so. But just in our seat area alone, there had to have been 5 people standing on top of one another without and inch to spare. People were sitting on half our seats as well so the whole "seat" concept really doesn't make a difference. But it wasn't over yet. In the front cabin where the driver is at, they managed to squeeze 15 more people which was more then unbelievable. How the driver managed to even function is beyond me. And then there was the roof. Luggage and people sprawled out over every square inch of the roof....I swear it was sagging in from the top. At each bus stop the people in the aisle had to file out so that people in the back of the bus could get off....it was a long a drawn out nightmare of people on top of one another for 5 hours. We were soooo happy when that ride was over and I was not looking forward to the future bus journeys.
A few times we took over night trains. After the crowded bus journeys, I was really excited to take the train. Although, the trains are not so reliable when it comes to the time. We were booked on a 15 hour train ride from Varanasi to Kolkata. We arrived to the station at 4:30pm and the train was expected the leave at 6pm. To make a long story short....the train didn't arrive to the station until 5am......we sat in the station for nearly 12 hours. Since the train was late, it meant that all other trains took priority over it...delaying the ride even more. So the 15 hour ride turned into 24 hours. In total...it was a 36 hour ordeal! Apparently, the Indians plan for horrendous train delays. As we waited in the station I noticed families beginning to lay out blankets and getting comfortable. By 10pm that night the entire waiting area and all of the platfroms were covered with people sleeping. Families were cuddled up with one another and luggage was sprawled out all over. Men were walking around serving chai teas and selling fried breads. Holy cows were walking throughout the sleeping people and urinating as they pleased. I had to weave through all of them to go to the bathroom or get a drink. Steve, a guy on my tour, mentioned how hearty and durable to Indian people were. They can sleep on stark cold pavement and wait hours for trains....and it just seems normal to them.
One of our stops that I do feel like noting is the city of Varanasi. It is one of the holiest cities in India. It lies along the holy Gangas river and Indians make pilgrimages here to wash away a lifetime of sins or cremate their loved ones. If people are close to death, then they try their best to get to Varanasi as it is the most spiritual place to die. The river is lined with ghats or steps that people use for their daily use of showering, laundry, and cremating. We took a boat ride at sunrise and sunset. It was neat to see the city come awake and the people bathing themselves in the morning and then at night to see the cremation ceremonies. The river itself is extremely dirty and I can't imagine ever swimming in it. But Indians travel far distances to get a chance to bathe in it. According to Lonely Planet, about 60,000 people bathe in the river each day. However, along the same area there are 30 large sewers continuously discharging into the river. Samples from the river show the water has 1.5 million fecal coliform bacteria per 100ml of water. In water that is safe for bathing this figure should be less then 500!!!!
Ashes from the dead are put in the river and dead pregnant mothers, babas, and lepers are placed in the river without cremation. We saw men carrying a dead Holy cow and dropping it in the river....only meters away from people bathing. It was crazy....

So.....I am sure from my description you are wondering why the heck I am even traveling in a place like this. But I must admit....there is something very intriguing about a life lived so differently then back home. Most of the people I have come across are extremely friendly and kind hearted. And it is always interesting to take a peak into a culture/religion/world so different then your own. It makes me kind of wonder about things....
I think the West lives in such a structured and sanitized world that it is hard to imagine a life like this. I for one, have been psycho about using my hand sanitizer. I now have some awful rash and cracked dry skin on my hands from overuse of the stuff. I think it is some form of eczema. I probably would have been better off to just eat with dirty hands.
I guess the point I am trying to make is that we are so germophobic in the West and used to lines and rules and safety and hygiene....that places like India blow our minds away. But India has been around a lot longer then most civilizations today. If it weren't for the ongoing stress with Pakistan, it would be one of the wealthiest countries in the world. Yes, they have a lot of problems....pollution, population and poverty to name a few big ones. But the people here are living....surviving. And they aren't going anywhere soon. I would love to come back here in 20 years to see, if in fact, the changes that the government are working on do go into effect. DJ has high hopes for his country and I hope it does improve.

I know this blog is all over the place. Every time I sat down to write it, I was overwhelmed with thoughts and sites and everything I had experienced in India. I didn't even know where to start. I just tried to get the thoughts from my head onto the blog. As I re-read it now I can see the chaos going through my head as I was trying to get it out on paper. This is kind of how I feel in this country though, so instead of trying to revise it and make it orderly....I'll just leave it be.

I only have about a month left before I head home. India is a good country to end on....It will be nice to get home after this. I am pretty exhausted and as much as I hate to admit it....I am a little over traveling right now. I need to recharge my batteries, see some familiar faces, and be in the comforts of home. Instead of trying to see as much as I can, I have decided to chill out for the last month of my journey.
In a few days I will enter a spiritual ashram. People travel from all over the world to find spirituality and be enlightened in India. That was not my specific reason for traveling here, but I feel that now may be a good time to reflect on the past year of my life. What better way to do that then to do yoga and meditation for a few weeks. Not sure what is in store for me, but I am looking forward to it.

Hope all is well with everyone and I will let you know how the spiritual ashram goes.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Sunkosi River and into India

The rafting trip was a really cool experience. It was a mixture of rafting, nature, culture, adventure, relaxation, teamwork, and campfire bonding.
The group consisted of 6 tourists and 6 crew members (2 of which were training). We had 2 rafts. One for all of our gear and the other for us. Then 2 safety kayakers.
I am always a little weary signing up for multi day group ventures. 10 days on a raft with people that suck would not be a fun scenario. Fortunately, the group came together well.
The first girl I met was a Canadian named Danica. We had a lot in common because she had also been traveling solo for a year and was on her last month. We instantly got along and exchanged travel experiences and compared emotional feelings such as getting through homesickness and the excitement of learning about new cultures. We had some good laughs right off the bat. Especially about how unattractive traveling can make you. If only men knew our potential beauty with a hair dryer, make-up, manicures, and form fitting cute clothes. But hairy legs, dirty clothes, and bug bitten out of shaped bodies were our lives right now. It was just humorous and refreshing to meet someone on the same wavelength as me.
Then there were 2 New Yorkers named Dan and Mike. Dan had been traveling and working abroad for 2 years. He has no intentions of going back to the States anytime soon. Mike just quit his job and bought a one-way ticket to meet up with Dan and live the traveler lifestyle as well. They were both really nice guys and it is always a pleasure to meet cool travelers from the US. Matt was this Aussie bloke that was on the last leg of his 16 month around the world trip. He had been all throughout the Middle East so it was interesting to here his stories and perspectives on those countries. He carries a guitar with him and wrote some cool songs during his travels. We spent almost every night listening to jam sessions around the camp fire. When Matt is not being a singer songwriter, he is a "wordsmith". He is very clever at combining 2 words in almost any case scenario. For instance, Brandy and Tang is a wonderful campfire drink that he coined "Brang". There was also the horrendous "wand" which is wind and sand combined and becomes very annoying when attempting to set up camp. Last, but surely not least was cute little Eimear. She was an Irish girl who had been working in the United Emirates for a year teaching English and was finishing up a 4 month trip through India and Nepal. She was one of those people who had he odd ability of retaining what she calls "useless information" such as song lyrics, movie quotes and any other corky thing you can imagine. I spent a lot of time laughing at her random blurbs about some movie made in the 1980s that none of us had ever even heard of. The group dynamic was pretty cool because we were all around the same age and all on long term travel trips.
We loaded up our rafts and got a safety briefing. We were all a little nervous since 2 people had died on the river a week ago. The rapids were rated up to 4-5+ so we were not sure what to expect. However, the first 3 days were pretty calm which gave us time to build our confidence up. Finally, we were off on the Sunkosi River and going out into the wild.
10 days sounds pretty intense for rafting, but most of the river was pretty calm with sporadic rapids here and there. Much of the time was spent floating down and enjoying the peacefulness. The river runs straight down the middle of Nepal and by the end of the trip we rafted almost 300 kilometers. All along the river we passed small villages and were able to catch a glimpse of the real Nepalis life. We were miles away from roads, tourist agencies, or guesthouses. Throughout the trip we passed villagers bathing themselves with river water, women washing clothes, kids swimming, and men fishing. The fisherman were hilarious because they would always be wearing small underwear. Some of them strapped a wooden box to their back with a battery inside and electrocuted the fish. Their friends would stand around with nets and collect the ones that floated up. One time we passed a crowd of people surrounding a pile of logs that were burning on the river bed. Our raft guide, Denish, explained that the villagers were cremating a dead body, as they do in the Hindu culture.
The river and the scenery were beautiful and I was looking around in awe trying to soak up the nature around me. Since we were on the water most of the time, I wasn't able to take a lot of pictures.
Each afternoon we would pull up to a white sandy beach to set up camp. It is pretty unique how many untouched beaches Nepal has with being a landlocked country. We joked at how we couldn't wait to go back home and be like...."yeah, some of the best beaches are in Nepal..." and then wait for people to be like....ummm there isn't an ocean anywhere?
A few days into the trip, we approached the 5+ rapid where the people had died. We pulled over to check out the rapid and see if it was something we could do or not. You could tell the crew was a bit nervous. One of them named Cita was having a hard time because it was her friend that died there. After 30 minutes of discussion, the guides decided it was too dangerous to go down. There were 3 major holes in the rapid and if the raft where to get stuck in one it could be extremely dangerous. We understood the circumstances and agreed to walk around. The rafts, however, needed to be guided by ropes through the rapids as they were far to heavy to carry around. When the crew attempted to get the first raft down, someone slipped and the current grabbed the raft. There were 2 people still in it as it headed straight for the rapid. Instantly, the crew went into action as the ran along the raft with safety ropes and watched as the 2 on board navigated around the holes. Luckily, they made it down safely and everyone cheered from the sidelines and sighed with relief. Everyone was super cautious with the next raft and it ended up getting lodged into a rock and stuck for a good while. We ended up having to unload a lot of things and carry them down to get the raft out of its position. All in all....it was an eventful rapid even though we didn't officially go down it.
After a few days we were getting a bit comfortable rafting and maybe even a little too confident. There was a 4+ rapid that we were up against and we were ready for something exciting. Matt was in front next to Danica and I was behind him. We hit this massive wave straight on and the raft went up almost vertical. Matt was almost swept away with the water, but we all managed to stay in the boat. As we rounded the wave we were all excited and cheering and even taunting the rapids to give us some more. Out of nowhere the raft nailed a rock and all of a sudden Matt went flying out of the boat. It all took us by surprise and I don't think I will ever forget the look on his face as he went soaring into the river. I started laughing hysterically and even almost peed my pants, but I knew that we needed to do a safety rescue to get him back in the boat. Danica and I had our paddles all over the place and as we lifted him back in we rammed his face right into the handle of the paddle. Still, we were laughing and Matt ended up dragging himself into the boat pretty much. All this happened in about 10 seconds and just goes to show that you never know what can happen. Fortunately,there were no major injuries during the trip.
I shared a tent with Danica and we spent a lot of time talking and hanging out. I noticed that she was running out of energy quickly and not feeling 100% during the trip. In talking, she confided with me that she was actually diagnosed with breast cancer before she left to travel. She is only 23 and it is an odd case since she is so young. Back home, she had a lot of crazy things going on in her life at that time with her family and past relationships.....then with the diagnosis on top of that, she felt a need to get away for a bit and spend a year abroad. My first reaction was why didn't she immediately start getting treated for it. She explained to me that it was in the first stages and even though her doctor didn't recommend traveling, she didn't think much would spread over a years time. Danica is taking medicine weekly to stabilize the cancer. Normally she rests a lot and takes naps to combat the side effects, but there wasn't too much time for that during the rafting trip. I couldn't believe it when she told me and it put all my travels and experiences in perspective. How differently you would look at things if you had cancer while traveling.....
Danica chose not to tell anyone in her family and only her doctor and a close friend back at home know about it. She has told a few people in traveling. She isn't scared to talk about it, but just doesn't want people to treat her differently for it. Traveling was a choice she made and she wanted to get away for a bit before dealing with the treatments and the other issues going on in her life. Once I knew the whole background, it made more sense to me why she needed to get away for awhile. I asked her if I could talk about it in my blog and she said it was ok. In fact, she enjoyed talking to someone about it and getting it off her chest. I find peoples stories and reasons for traveling so interesting and I wanted to emphasize the unique individuals I have come across on my journey. I only knew Danica for 10 days, but she has a wonderful soul and a compassionate energy. I hope all of her treatments go well and her future is filled with many more trips and experiences ahead.
The Sunkosi River trip happened at a perfect time for me. I had been having a wave of homesickness and it was really refreshing to be around people who were on similar trips as I was. Being surrounded by nature really does something for the soul and I was feeling nice and refreshed when it was over.
Our group parted ways and it was sad to say goodbye. Sharada, the woman at the tourist agency that I worked with, invited me to stay at her home for my last night in Kathmandu. It was really nice to be able to be invited into a locals home. She made an amazing dinner and we sat around her kitchen table talking about my trip and the Nepali culture. This will not be my last time to visit Nepal...there are so many other places I want to explore. And a little thing called the Mt Everest base camp that I need to hike someday :)

I am now 4 days into India...
India was the whole reason I started this trip. I had wanted to visit a place so different then anything I had ever known and India seemed to pop in my mind anytime I visualized that place. Since I couldn't take too much time off of work, it was my desire to visit this country the led me to save money and leave my life in ATX for awhile. Then, somehow...my trip turned into this wild and crazy round the world expedition, but here I am now.....in the place that started it all for me. My mind is mixed with so many emotions and I can't believe that I am finally here.
Eimear, the Irish chick who retained useless information, happened to be on the same flight as me into Delhi. Thank goodness for this because she had already spent 4 months traveling in India and knew how it all worked. For the first day and a half I walked behind Eimear as she whisked me through the streets and haggled for cabs and hotel rooms. She told me about the ins and outs and it really helped me to get my barrings straight. When we arrived our first night, it was right in the middle of the big Hindu festival called Diwali. I am not sure the whole background of this holiday, but it is translated into the "Festival of Lights". People drape lights all over their homes like we do for Christmas, and then they shoot fireworks all over the place throughout the night. It all sounds lovely, right? Well, fireworks combined with India equals WAR ZONE!!!!!!! The first few hours of being in Delhi consisted of me running and dodging fire crackers (more like fire missiles) flying down the streets. As we were checking into our guesthouse, the men at the reception stopped in the middle of our check-in and went into Hindu prayers for about 15 minutes while we sat there. I was like...what the heck is going on?.. we are in the middle of checking in and these guys stop to chant and light incense and hold hands. Eimear didn't seem the least bit surprised and gave me the "Welcome to India" look. After sorting out the cost of accomodation and waiting for them to finish their prayers we finally got situated into our rooms. We met some really cute Dutch and English boys who invited us out to dinner and to check out the Diwali festival. Once again, we were back in the streets and I felt like we were in the Desert Storm War with fireworks and dust surrounding me. Honestly, I was scared that one of us was going to get hurt. There was no police or safety people around and clearly no regulations on how to shoot off the fireworks. All I could think to myself was.."welcome to India Andrea...this is what you asked for....a place far different then you even know!"

I had signed up for a 21 day tour through the tourist areas of India. I was hesitant about doing it because I knew I was going to be spending far more money then I would if I were on my own. But a few months ago when I signed up for it, I was intimidated about traveling alone in India. I said goodbye to Eimear and went to meet up with my group. There were only 3 other people in the group. Emma, a girl from England and then Steve and Debra, a couple from Australia. They are all very nice and I think we will get along great.
After only 2 days on the tour, I realize that it was a good idea. India is very intense and there is so much going on around you at any given moment. I am glad that I can just follow a group around and enjoy getting used to my surroundings for a few weeks. It can get really exhausting and frustrating having to figure out directions, prices, transport, and everything else when you are alone for the first time in a new country. So....I am looking forward not having to worry about that crap for a bit and just enjoying the country.
Our first day, Digvijay, our guide, took us to a few places around Delhi. Our first stop was the largest Muslim Mosque in India. It was beautiful, but I was a bit put off at the entrance. There were all these men barking at us to pay rupees for every little thing. We had to pay to bring our camera in, pay to have them watch our shoes while we go inside, pay to wear the mandatory robe around our clothing and so on. I decided not to bring my camera in because it wasn't worth the $6 it would have cost and I didn't want to give them my money anyways. After the Mosque, we went to a Sikh temple. This was a completely different experience to the Muslim Mosque. We were asked to take our shoes off and put a scarf over our head, but no one asked for any money for it. Once we were inside, we were invited into the worshipping area and we were able to sit down a listen to the live music and watch the Sikhs praying on their knees. It was such a lovely and peaceful setting and I could have sat there for hours watching the people coming through to pray. I honestly don't know too much about Sikhism, but my guide describe it as a mixture of Muslim and Hinduism. Obviously, there is much more to it, but I won't try to explain it all in this blog. Besides the religious aspect, the Sikh community is well known for opening their doors to their own worshippers and outsiders as well. Behind the temple was loads of dormitories and apartments that they open to people for free or small donations. Also, there is a large dining hall where they serve meals for free or small donations. We were able to go into the kitchen and help the ladies bake bread and see the huge pots used for cooking for 100s of people. Mainly, it is other Sikhs that come to use these facilities. And you will never see a Sikh begging on the street for food or money as they are always taken care of at the temples. Apparently, they are a very wealthy religion and put the money back into its worshippers in this way.
The traditional Sikh men are very intimidating at first because they wear stark white linen clothing with blue turbans. Most of them have long facial beards. Across their shoulders they wear a knife much like you would if you had a sword. This is the traditional dress and both men and woman would wear the knife in the past for protection. Nowadays, the knife is simply worn for traditional reasons. When I would walk by these men I was scared to make eye contact, but when I did their faces lightened up and they gave me a head nod and gentle smile. Unfortunately, I connect men in turbans with war and terrorism, which is a terrible thing for me to think. Obviously, there were so many good people around the world practicing different religions and it was really neat for me to have a peak.
I realize that them welcoming outsiders in to view their religion is a way to gain followers and spread their word. Don't worry...I am not planning on converting into Sikhism. However, I was very impressed with the temple and facilities they provided. It was also nice to not have to pay to learn about and view these things as the previous Mosque had done. Pictures were allowed to be taken, but I felt that it would be disrespectful. It would be like someone walking into a Catholic church mass and snapping photos....so I just walked around admiring this religion that is so foreign to anything I have ever seen before.
We took a 17 hour train ride to a city in Rajasthan called Jaisalmer. This is the largest city closest to the Pakistan border and is smack dab in the middle of the desert. The town is actually a huge fortress that was built in the 12th century. Today, the fort is still in tact and one of the few forts in the world that is still inhabited. 1/3 of the city still lives and works within the fort. Our guesthouse is inside the fort and we are literally sleeping within the walls of this ancient city. It's sand colored and the light of the sun reflecting of the sandstone is a site to see. Tomorrow we will spend a few hours learning about the history of the fortress. I am so excited to finally be in India....I think the next few weeks will bring many interesting experiences. Well, that's it for now...hee hee....sorry for the long blog :)

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Annapurna Base Trek

Ok - I have a quick update since my last blog. Apparently, the Muslim dude from Tajikistan is a legitimate person. He asked to be my friend on facebook and his profile page checked out. Either that...or he is one hell of a con artist :) So...with that said, perhaps I may have over reacted a tiny bit when I was with him. But given the circumstances and the dodgy characters around that area of town, I think it was pretty understandable for me to have my guard up. There is no doubt that the other men that approached me where touts of some sort.
I just really hope the Tajikistan guy never finds my blog.....because, well...that would be a bit awkward.
Let me first begin with saying that Nepal is awesome. I will be as bold to even say that I think it is my top favorite country....tied with Ecuador of course. This will not be the last time I visit, there is so much more that I need to explore.
My guide's name was Nyrma. It was really nice to have him along for the hike because there were certain parts where I did not see other people for awhile. However, turns out I paid a lot of money for an "English" speaking guide who admitted to me (well along on our trek) that in fact, he does not speak very much English and actually studied French. So....that was a bit frustrating for me since the whole reason I hired him was to teach me about the culture and chit-chat along the way. Nonetheless, it was good to have someone around. Plus, he carried my bag the entire way.
We started off our hike in a small town called Naya pol. As I mentioned in my last blog, there was a Hindu festival taking place. Goats were sacrificed and most of Nepal, besides the tourism jobs, were on a 3 week holiday. Within the first 15 minutes of walking we came upon a small crowd. I peaked through and saw that there was a headless goat laying on the dirt pathway. One man had a blow torch and was burning the hair off of it. It was a startling sight for me. I met a girl once in Laos who watched villagers butcher and take apart a cow in the middle of town. I asked her if it freaked her out and she responded nonchalantly with "You should be able to kill the animal that you eat." I agreed with her statement and admitted that my knowledge of meat was reduced to sanitary packages at supermarkets. Sure, during my travels I have visited open markets where I have seen meat hanging on hooks in 100 degree weather. I have also seen large pigs roasting over a fire while people peeled off the skin to eat. But the blow torching of a headless goat in a pile of dirt was a new site for me. I quickly made a mental note to stick to a vegetarian diet along the trek. It actually wasn't going to be difficult to eat vegetarian. The primary meal for the Nepalis was a dish called Dal Bhat. It consists of a heaping portion of rice with a side of fried potatoes, spinach, and some sort of chutney. Then there is a bowl of watery lentil soup that you pour over the rice. If you order this dish, you can have all of the dal bhat that you can eat. It is what the porters live off of and is actually quite tasty. Since meat is rarely eaten, the people get most of their protein from lentils. It is a good high energy meal. For curiosity though, I did try a piece of goat later in the trek. It was fatty and tough. I also had soup one night and commented on how good the sun dried tomatoes where....only to find out that I was eating dried yak meat. But for the most part, I stuck to a vegetarian diet.
The trekking routes weren't open to tourism until the late 1950s. The routes were basically "super highways" that the porters and villagers used for trading. Still today, these routes are filled with porters and pony caravans carrying supplies from village to village. Most of it now is catered to tourism, but it is neat to know that there is so much history in the steps that we were taking.
Later on in the day, we came across a Nepalis family coming down a steep hill. They were taking a break on the side of the path. I noticed a large basket tied to the back of one of the younger man. The older mother was tending to the basket. As I came around the family I looked and saw that in the basket was a grown man who appeared to be physically and mentally disabled. They cut out the front part of the basket for his legs to hang out. This family must have been heading into the city, perhaps to celebrate the Hindu festival....and they were carrying their grown son in a basket the entire way there. Physical or mental disabilities are a life changing struggle for families anywhere in the world. In America, though, we have resources and government help (handicap accessible areas, community programs and schools etc.) In the Himalayan villages, there are no such programs or help. How difficult it must be to live each day with those sort of problems. My admiration went out to the family carrying their son down the steep steps of the mountain.
The first few days of hiking, we crossed through the low level mountains in areas of lush green and rushing rivers. It was beautiful, however, the weather was a bit cloudy and I still had not seen any mountain peaks. It was 2 weeks before the height of the hiking season....and the rainy season had dragged a bit longer then usual. I was really hoping that this wouldn't ruin the mountain views I had ahead of me.
The next morning we woke up at 4:00am. There was a viewing at the top of this place called Poon Hill. It was supposed to be outstanding for sunrises. I strapped on my headlamp and we began the 1 hour walk up the steep hill. The whole way up, the sky was filled with clouds. I was really disappointed inside....was I really not going to see any mountains on my Himalayan trek? I spoke to the mountain, cloud, and sun gods as I hiked up. I just told them to give me a view....the tiniest view and I would be happy. When we arrived to the top it was still dark and you couldn't see much. After a few minutes, Nyrma pointed out into the valley and when I turned my head I saw my first mountain peak. It was a dark shadow against the slightly lighter sky. The clouds appeared to be rolling off the mountain like a wave in slow motion. I had the biggest smile on my face. It was day 3 and I was seeing my first glimpse of the almighty mountain range. I sat on a tree stump and watched for the next hour as the sun made its way up and the clouds slowly descended from the sky.....it turned out to be an extraordinary view. As the sun rose you could see the light hitting certain edges of the mountains and they appeared to be glowing. Hello Himalayas! (there are pics on Picasa of the views)
When we returned I ordered a yummy pancake with peanut butter on top. Half way through eating it I came across a fly that had gotten stuck in the batter. In fact, most of the meals I had, contained strands of hair or pesky little insects in them. We used to joke in Ecuador that it wasn't a genuine Ecuadorian meal unless you found a strand of hair in it. It is much the same here in Nepal. Everything is cooked to order in these small kitchens with gas cookers. The Nepalis woman have long dark manes of hair and some of the houses have no windows to block anything from coming in. The meals were good and hearty, but you always had to have an inspection before eating.
As we continued walking this day, I noticed that my breathing was getting harder and harder. We were now around 3000 meters (almost 10,000 feet). The previous days I was pretty impressed by my fitness level and how good I felt walking. But on this day, I was not as cocky....the altitude was making it a bit more difficult.
At this point I was walking with a Finnish and Australian guy. They both had guides as well. We stopped in a little down for a rest. There was this little baby monkey sitting on the chair. Unfortunately, the locals probably bought the monkey to use as a way to get the tourists attention. I went to pet the monkey and give it some love as I rested. When I sat down, it climbed into my lap and fell asleep....it was so sweet. There were a few kids in the town and I practiced my Nepalis phrases that I had studied. I asked them how they were and what their names were. They just giggled and laughed at me.
To help Nyrma practice his English, I tried to ask him questions as we walked. One day I asked him if he had a girlfriend. I thought it was a reasonable and normal thing to ask. He turned really red in the face and laughed and then told me that he had a wife...not a girlfriend. "Oh that is fantastic....do you have kids?" I replied. He laughed more and conversed with the other Nepalis guide that was near us. Then he looked at me and in broken English said "My wife told me not to never trust other women."....then he started walking faster and I was a bit confused at the sudden awkwardness. The Australian's guide spoke really good English and told the Aussie that my guide thought I was hitting on him. Which is not at all what my intention was and I didn't think that I gave the slightest hint to that idea. As it turns out, many of the Nepalis guides sleep with the foreign woman on the treks. This was news to me and I thought it quite hilarious that my guide thought that I was pursuing him.
Nyrma may have been good to his wife, but the Australian's guide on the other hand was what we would call a "player". He had local girlfriends in most of the small villages and a fiance back in Kathmandu. I guess those type of men live all over the world :)
For a few days the Australian guy hiked with me. Unbeknownst to me, there were hand signals and secret conversations between him and our guides about him trying to hook up with me on the hike. After several days of walking together, the Australian guy told me that our guides were surprised that we hadn't slept together yet. This statement took me by surprise and I just sat there staring at him and wondering why in the world he was saying this to me in the first place. He went further on about how he could tell that I wasn't interested in him, though. I still stayed quiet as I wasn't sure what type of response he wanted...he was right, I was not interested in him like that. A few moments later he went on to say "In fact....I am not interested in you either. You seem like a nice girl, but I probably wouldn't sleep with you. I'm sure you don't hear that very often from men, do you?" At this point I was really in shock by the ridiculousness of this Ham of a man. He went on...."But you see that Chinese girl over there? I could seduce her in 10 minutes I bet."
Uhhhhh was this guy serious? He was also right again. Most men don't tell me after knowing me for 2 days whether or not they would sleep with me. I don't think that is a very normal conversation to have. I just gave him a weird smile and walked to another table and sat down. What a class act this guy was...it was when I realized that you can get stuck on these treks with the most unusual people. Here I was trying to be "one with nature" in the Himalayan mountains and somehow it turned into Sex Trek 2009!
I had decided to keep walking and doing my thing. I was not going to converse with this guy unless he started the conversation. He was really beginning to annoy me. But for some reason he trotted along next to me and continued to talk as if the prior conversation was nothing awkward or weird for him. I gave him one word answers and tried to concentrate on my steps.
When we arrived to the town where we were staying the night, the lodge was full. It turned out that I was going to have to share a room with the Australian and another Finnish guy. I was pretty thankful there would be 3 of us in the room. This lodge was packed with people from all around the world. There was a Korean family, a Romanian couple, a Spanish man, 2 German girls, the Finnish, the Aussie, and me. We all sat around a big table for dinner and had fun playing cards and chatting with one another. The Australian wasn't annoying me as much now that we were in a big group and I had other people to talk with.
The next morning we were going to do the long walk to the Annapurna Base Camp. We needed to go up 1000 meters. This is the day that a lot of people got altitude sickness so we were going to be taking it nice and slow. Once again, the Australian began his walk with me. I tried to not let him annoy me this next day. He was definitely a true class act and someone I would never be interested in, but all in all he was harmless. In chatting with him, it helped me forget the steep mountains we were ascending. Throughout this day it wasn't the altitude that got to me, but I developed a killer cold instead. My throat got sore and I sneezed and coughed constantly. I think the constant change in temperature and rain and my lack of proper clothing led to my sickness. We arrived to the top of the base camp at 4320 meters (14,000 feet). Because of the weather, you could not see any of the glorious mountains. To make matters worse, the lodge was booked up again. Even the dining halls were booked. It turned out that we would have to sleep in a tent that night. To avoid sleeping in the same tent with the Australian, I got set up in a tent with 2 Korean girls and a Chinese girl. I tried to speak to them, but they were very shy and didn't say much in return. Throughout the night I could hear the wind howling and the mountains roaring. Several times I heard avalanches in the distance...it was if the mountains were alive. Mother nature will you humble you so quickly in these moments.
In the middle of the night I had a weird stomach pain and realized I needed to rush to the bathroom. As I hobbled out of the tent I looked up to see the cloudless sky and the Annapurna mountain sanctuary surrounding me. No one else was around and I could not believe the site. It was astonishing. After I went to the bathroom, I sat at a table for a few minutes and enjoyed the view. Little did I know, it would be the only time I would see the mountain range like that....the rest of my time there would be cloudy.
The next morning was a cloudy sunrise. At certain points you could see glimpses of the mountains but it was nothing like the site from the previous night. Since I was ahead of schedule, I decided to stay another night at the base camp. It would give me a chance to relax and improve my health. The Australian and other people that were hiking the same days as us moved on down the mountain. I walked up to the lookout point to have some time alone and watch the passing clouds. There was a monument lined with Buddhist prayer flags dedicated to all of the people who died in Annapurna. One of the most famous climbers in the world, the Russian Anatoli Boukreev, died in 1997 by an avalanche there. Many people have perished in these mountains. In fact, while I was trekking there was a Korean climbing expedition with 6 men. 2 of the men went missing a few days before I had arrived to the base camp. They were nowhere to be found and it was thought that they were killed by an avalanche as well. After days of missing, they were pronounced dead.
As I watched the mountains come in and out of view, an Austrian man walked by me with a cello case. He climbed this tall rock and set up his instrument. Finally, he began playing the cello. I just sat there staring at the massive mountain range covered in patchy clouds and listened to him play....it was one of those surreal moments in life where you aren't really sure what is real or not. I was alone in the middle of the Himalayas listening to a live session of the cello!
The weather didn't improve too much that day but it was nice to rest and I met some really interesting people. It was a shame to not see the whole mountain sanctuary during the day without clouds, but there was nothing much you could do about it.
Nyrma and I set off down the mountain. What took us almost 6 days to climb, would only take 3-4 days to get down.
There was a bit of drama with my guide because the agency had told me that it would take 12 days to do the entire trek. Well...turns out a blind turtle could have done it faster then 12 days. We would walk for a few hours and then Nyrma would try to get me to stop and stay the night somewhere when it was only 12pm. I told him how I wanted to keep walking until well into the afternoon. Also, he was not honest with me about distances to the next towns to discourage me from wanting to continue walking. If I hire a guide next time in Nepal, I will underestimate my walking time. If I take longer, then I will pay for those extra days. I didn't know anything about the trek an assumed that 12 days would be fine. But at some points I felt as if I were being held hostage on the mountain because Nyrma would not let me do what I wanted. I knew the distances were possible and that he was just trying to keep me on the trek for more days. Finally, I told him that I would be fine to take my own backpack and continue walking without him. With his lack of English and telling me white lies about distances etc, it was difficult at some points of the trek. But, I realized that he was only trying to make a living. And he was taking me on the number of days that his boss had paid him for. Finally, I told him I would pay him for the 12 days but to please get me down in 9. It was a lesson learned on my part and I don't falter him for trying to do his job. Overall he was a nice guide.
The trek was amazing and if I didn't have a tour booked for India in a few weeks then I would extend my visa and do another trek. There is so much more to see in Nepal. Someday I would love to come back and visit all of the small villages where the tourists don't come to. This way I could grasp the culture and the people better.
Now I am in the enchanting town of Pokhara. It is much more chilled out then Kathmandu. Tons of hippies flock here for meditation, yoga, and drugs. The weather hasn't been too good though, so I have spent most of my time reading and journaling. In a few days I will be going on a 9 day river rafting excursion. There will be 8 of us in the raft. Last week 2 people died on the river we will be going on. The company did not have safety kayakers and the raft went down the rapids anyways. The boat flipped and the guide and another person were killed. I was a little worried when I heard about the news, but the company I am using has safety kayakers and the best equipment. It is also a reputable company in Lonely Planet. As my stomach nerves were getting to me about the rafting, I went online and read the news. There was a devastating Typhoon that blew through the Philippines and a horrible earthquake in Sumatra Indonesia. 100s of people died instantly. People die everyday and you never know what could happen tomorrow. I started coming to grips with the rafting....everything will be ok and it will be an amazing experience to raft through Nepal miles away from any civilization.