Sunday, August 9, 2009

India - Varanasi, Taj Mahal & the Mountains

Me marveling at the Taj Mahal

Well after a long 10 hour bus ride back to the Nepal, India border, I met up with people who were heading in the same direction and we got a jeep to the closest major city. We were all exhausted but decided to push on and get a train ticket to the much anticipated Varanasi. Me and the three other girls got our tickets and feasted on amazing curry and naan while waiting, but I guess we enjoyed it a little too much since we suddenly realized we had 5 min to find the train and board, so we missed our beautiful express overnight train. The only option was to take the next local train. Its hard for me to describe in words what it felt like to walk on a local Indian train full of shady looking characters, at 11pm, after 12 hours of travel, with no AC, barely enough space to sit, mosquito's everywhere, and fearful of theft and bodily harm at all times. The train ride lasted over 10 hours and was one of those classic Indian nightmares, but we tried to laugh it off. We arrive 5 hours late the next morning in Varanasi. The city is famous for being a holy city where its a blessing to die there. Hindus come from all over the world to have their remains burned on the burning ghats, and their ashes spread in the Ganges River. The town was bustling and we were so exhausted we just wanted to get to a clean room to shower... Taking a shower in India is like nothing you've ever felt; the feeling of filth is just so profound that taking a shower is like washing away all the pain and discomfort from your personal world. And after getting dropped off at a non-descript location and being guided by an eager scout from another hotel who followed us annoyingly through the tiny alleyways, we finally reached the guesthouse that my new friend Liz had found for us. It was a beautiful room on the water. The heat was very intense, but strong breezes made the it bearable. So I spent a few days in Varanasi watching the burning ceremonies, trying to be considerate but also just shocked at the way that death was so common for these people; no one was crying or making a scene. It was all so ordinary and part of the day. And I tend to like that. The fresh curd sold on the street was amazing, and the fresh samosas frying in the hot sun was probably the best Id ever had in my life. But after a few days, the heat and constant power outages were just too much to bear, and so I pressed on, alone this time, to the much anticipated Agra, home to the Taj Mahal. I had heard that Agra itself is a terrible place, so I planned to see the Taj and on the same day head out to Delhi.

The Taj Mahal truly is spectacular. Called the ultimate monument of love, the Taj is a mausoleum built by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his favorite wife, Mumtaz Maha. In its center is a casket to represent her remains. The white marble floors and walls are so striking and beautiful. There's something so airy and clean about marble under your feet... I lazed about and enjoyed watching India tourists snapping away on their cameras and asking me to pose with them! But the heat was intolerable and after two hours I had enough! I headed to Delhi on a two hour deluxe train and was back at a nice hotel in the backpacker area, Pahar Ganj, where I finally had reliable internet and electricity! It was great to get a good nights sleep and figure out my last month of the trip.

I next headed to Amritsar, in Punjab, the holy place for Sikhs. The city was amazing, very clean and organized. The Sikhs traditionally wear turbans and do not cut their hair, so I got very used to seeing them. The cities center is The Golden Temple complex, the most holy site for the Sikhs and it was strikingly beautiful, especially at night. I remember my first glimpse of it, thinking that I was looking at a fairy tale. The temple is literally gilded from top to bottom and surrounded by water, with a single entry bridge on one side representing the uniformity of the world. As part of their customs, they offer FREE accommodations to anyone, FREE 24hour ashrum style eating, and reduced prices on everything from sodas to internet. It was such an amazing feeling eating side by side with faithful pilgrims, eating whatever we were given. But as is the case in India in the summer, I could not stay too long from the heat. I met some great people in Amritsar who I stay in touch with till this day.

Next I headed to Dharmsala, the permanent residence of the Dalai Lama, to meet up with Ana who assured me it would be cool and calm. It was great to see her again, and then Karin and Graham also arrived there at the same time. We then met up with Ariel, and the five of us just had an amazing two weeks there, enjoying the cool mountain temperatures, hiking, and mostly eating really good food. We settled in Baghsu, an expat area outside of Dharmsala that is very comfortable and beautiful and cheap! Two weeks flew by and all of us were nearing the end of our trip. Ana had to leave to make her flight home, Karin and Graham were off to Spain, Ariel was signed up for Vipassana meditation in Kashmir, and I was confused as ever not knowing how to spend my last 2 weeks. I had my heart set on going to rishikesh, the yoga capital of the world, but I ran into people I had met in Nepal, who just came from Rishikesh and said it was so unbearably hot they couldn't stay more than a few days. I was distraught and suddenly had a terrible stomach issue that put me out for two days.

Me with Karin, Graham Ana and Ariel at a camp site outside Dharmsala after a rainstorm

In the wake of all of that, something really unexpected happened. I had signed up over a month before to do the 10 day silent meditation called Vipassana, and they responded that there was a long waiting list and I wouldn't get in, but then I got an email that I did indeed get a confirmed spot in the class. I had signed up so many times and got wait listed so I kind of gave up, so I was really torn. The course started less than a week after I got the email, and it would take me three days alone to get up to Kashmir. I hesitated and debated... I was intimidated about it since I could barely meditate for 10 minutes let alone all day, but something in me didn't want to let the chance pass me by. The other issue was that the course literally ended on the same day that I had a flight home from Delhi. Crazy, I know. So I would have to fly from there on the last day of the course, to Delhi, and then go home. It was all so confusing, but suddenly I found myself booking the first in a series of bus trips to get up there. And there I was on the bus the next day, throwing myself into the unknown, with a lingering cough disrupting me all the way. I made it on the overnight bus to Manali, the main city in Himeshal Predesh, and then as soon as I arrived I looked for the next two day bus to Leh, in Kashmir. I luckily found a scout who ensured me it was the only bus leaving that day, and got a seat on it, cheaper than any of the other passengers, (in india it pays to be last minute). The two day bus journey was a amazing, cold, painful, wonderful experience. The bus rimmed the edges of cliffs as we climbed. We had to pass 17,000 feet peak in order to reach Leh, and the cold was worth the amazing views. I finally made it to Leh the day before the course started. I was trying to reach Ariel who was also doing the same course, but his phone was not working. So the next day I got a taxi to the vipassana center and the rest is history.

My reflection in the solar heating element used at to heat our food at the Vipassana meditation site, where I spent 10 days, literally "reflecting"; or learning how to stop reflecting and just seeing life for what it is now.

I wont go into details about what I experienced at the center. All I can say is that it was the best thing I could have done, and the perfect time, and considering all the circumstances leading up to it, I have to just assume that it was meant to be. The most profound lesson I can communicate to anyone is that trust in knowing that you already have, right now, all the tools you will ever need to be happy, complete, successful. And no one, no thing, and no experience can create something for you that isn't already there. And Vipassana is just a method that forces you to realize it, not just talk about it, but actually experience that and know it. I cant imagine ANYONE not benefiting from it if they take it seriously.

Then in a flurry of activity I made my connecting flight to Delhi and there I was on the way home. The meditation helped to be able to handle whatever I felt or thought about and it made the transition home very easy and natural. I cant possibly sum it all in a sentence, and even if I could, I would never want to. Its still going on, the traveling, learning, exploring and living. I only wish everyone would have the luxury of time and love and support that I did to be able to do this and still have people welcoming me home. We will see where this new journey will take me!

Monday, June 8, 2009

Nepal - Annapurna Circuit 20-Day Trek & Kathmandu Valley

Day 6 - The three of us at the top of a long climb en route to the village of Braga, at 3,450 meters

After Rajasthan we were en route to the border of India and Nepal. The border town was dirty and danky, as is expected, but it was a painless 15 minute process to cross the border. We decided to stop first in Lumbini, the Buddha's birthplace. Upon crossing the border, I felt like Nepal was a more relaxed and less "in-your-face" counrty than India, but also was lacking something that I couldnt quite place... Anyways, Lumbini was a rather run-down uncomfortable town so the beautiful Buddhist temples did little to change my impression. I was anxious to get to Pokhara, the second largest city in Nepal, and have a nice place to stay and some good food. We finally got to Pokhara and spent a few days resting up for the trek and getting all the supplies we need. I needed to get so much stuff: a sleeping bad, hiking boots, gloves, hat, fleece pants, fleece top, hat, sunglasses... it was a huge shopping spree that I reluctantly forced myself to do. The bargaining for all that was such a headache, we were all so anxious to get out of the city and into the mountains. Aftering getting our trekking permit we started off on this adventure, with our 6 to 8 kilo bags on our backs. We knew we would have to carry whatever we had on us, so we were very selective; only the basics. I had no time to realize what we were about to do...

Day 5 - The Tibetan tablets are found at amazing viewpoints showing the dedication of the believers who carried them to such high elevations.

Annapurna was an amazing experience in all respects. Theres no way to describe the freedom and exhiliration of carrying all your belongings on your back and heading on foot day by day to unknown destinations surrounded with incredible natural beauty and enough guesthouses to be comfortable at night. The overall trip would take 20 days, we would walk 211 km, and climb from about 800 meters to 5,416 meters and down. The summit of the trek was called Throng La Pass at 5,416 meters, which we reached at Day 11.

The landscape changed from lush green fields and rice terraces, to barren rocky mountain ranges, all the while the view of the ice covered Himilayas looming in the background. The air was so clean and clear that despite the difficulty breathing from 3500 meters and up, I have never felt so healthy and fresh in my life. The food all the while was mostly Nepali Daal Bhat, which consists of lentils, vegetable curry, and rice. It was hearty and delicious and I never tired of it. There was also lots of Tibetan food since the Tibetan influence was extremely strong during the entire trek. Buddhist prayer wheels and Tibetan flags were found even at the most remote locations. We stayed in a different town every night of the trek except for two, Manang and Muktinath. We needed days to acclimitize to the altitude. Each town had its own special feel and I easily could have lingered at most of them for a few days...

Day 11 - At the Throng La Pass at 5,416 meters, after a 6 hour, 1200 meter climb!

So this is the details of the 20 Day trek, including the distance we walked, and the elevation at each village. It was an amazing experience! Ana, Jesse and I left Pokhara on foot on April 9th and I returned by myself to Pokhara on April 28th...

Day 1 – Besisahar to Ngadi -13km walk, Elevation: 890m

Day 2 – To Chamche – 20 km walk, Elevation: 1385m

Day 3 – To Dharapani – 6 km walk, Elevation: 1900m

Day 4 – To Chame – 26 km walk, Elevation: 2710m

Day 5 – To Upper Pisang – 14.5 km walk, Elevation: 3310m

Day 6 – To Braga – 17.5 km walk, Elevation: 3450m

Day 7 – To Manang – 2 km walk, Elevation: 3540m

Day 8 – Stay Manang– Climb 200m and back for acclimatization

Day 9 – To Letdar – 10 km walk, Elevation: 4200m

Day 10 – To Throng Phedi – 5 km walk, Elevation: 4450m

Day 11 – SUMMIT AT 5400 Meters Throng La Pass, ending at the Holy City of Muktinath – Total of 16 km walk, 1,000 meter climb and 1,200 meter decent, ending at Elevation: 3800m

Day 12 – Stay Muktinath–Elevation: 3800 m

Day 13 – To Kagbeni – 10 km walk, Elevation: 2800m

Day 14 – To Marpha – 15 km walk, Elevation: 2670m

Day 15 – To Lete – 17 km walk, Elevation: 2535m

Day 16 – To Tatopani – 20 km walk, Elevation: 1200m

Day 17 – Stay Tatopani, Elevation 1200 m

Day 18 – To Ghorapani – 12km, Elevation: 2870m

Day 19 – To Tikhedhunga – 7 km walk, Elevation 1500m

Day 20 – To Nayhpal – 7km walk, Elevation: 900m, Bus to Pokhara

April 28th, return to Pokhara after trekking 211 km and climbing up to 5400m and back!

On Day 17, Ana and Jesse decided to go back on a jeep to Pokhara but I decided I wanted to extend the trek; I had not seen enough of Nepal and I wanted to take my time. Some great people we met along the way were also continuing the trek so I joined them!

When I got back to Pokhara solo I took a few days to just relax, get some food I had not been able to for so long, and just rest. It was hard at times to force myself to do much of anything without someone else there, but I ended up paragliding over the Pokhara Lake which was amazing, and signing up for a rafting trip along the Seti river, which took me south and ended at the Royal Chitwan National Park. I met Dorothy & Isa from Germany and Frank from China (clearly that was not his real name!) on the overnight rafting trip. There was a terrible rainstorm the night we camped by the river and luckily all but my tent was consumed by the wind! Then the four of us went together to Chitwan National Park to go elephant riding and jungle walking... When we arrived we found out we could wash with the elephants, so we jumped into the river and on the back of the elephant as they splashed us with water from their trunks... I felt like I was 7 years old. At Chitwan we also met Ariel, a great guy from Israel who joined in the festivities with us.

Dorothy, Me & Frank getting splashed by the Elephants at Chitwan National Park

After a few days it was time to finally see Nepal's capital, Kathmandu. Hoping that the common occurrence of strikes and road blocks would not deter me plans, I headed to Kathmandu on a 10 hour bus. On the bus was Laura and Abbey from London who I had met in Delhi, and I ended up staying with them in Kathmandu. The capital was still very undeveloped with 16 hours or more of electric shutdowns per day. The city was a sprawling tourist pit, but 10 min walk in any direction and I was lost in tiny alley ways and bustling markets selling everything from spices to lamb heads. I feasted on the "Buff", Lamb, momos sold on the street with spicy sauce.

After a few days I set off to explore the Kathmandu Valley with the promise of mountain views and serenity. I went to the ancient Newar town of Bhaktapur, with impressive temples, architecture and markets. Then another bus ride took me to Nagarkot, at 2200m, a peaceful village with great views. There I met a young American girl and her guide who were really cool and I spent the evening on a rooftop with them, playing cards and discussing life. She also introduced me to Beddies, Indian cigarettes that were the first type of cigarettes that I actually enjoyed the smell... I was sure to get some when I returned to India! The best part was that the next day they were trekking to a famous temple, Changu Narayan Temple, which is a Vishnu temple and one of the oldest in the Valley, and I tagged along. After a 4 hour trek, the temple was a beautiful sight! That temple is still in my mind as one of the most intricate and spectacular temples Id seen yet. Then, another fortunate event, they offered me a taxi ride to my next destination. I was heading to Boudha, a well developed Tibetan village nearby, where Dorothy had mentioned she would be! I got dropped off a 1/4 mile before the towns main gate because the road was blocked for some reason, and as it turned out, it was because of a huge procession in honor of Buddha's Birthday, which now Ill never forget is May 9th! Imagine randomly showing up at a Buddhist haven on Buddha's birthday...what are the chances!!

Me in front of the Boudha Stupa on Buddha's Birthday surrounded by worshipers from all over Nepal!

The town was swarmed with Tibetan locals, monks and tourists! The huge stupa at the center of the town was surrounded by worshipers who circled the stupa while spinning the prayer wheels which lined its lower rim. I felt like I walked into a dream. The town was very modern and well developed since it was a ENSCO World Heritage site. Then yet again, luckily, I spotted Dorothy in the crowds and I was able to stay with her and meet some friends she had made there. My time in Boudha was truly a special experience that I will never forget.

After a few days though, I had to return to Kathmandu city and get ready to go back to India, before my Visa ran out. With a heavy heart I booked my bus ride back to the Indian border, but in a way I was anxious to get back to what felt was my home away from home. As peaceful and serene as Nepal was, I never felt a part of it the way I did in India, and I was excited to go back.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

India Mar to Apr - Rajasthan

Ana at the top of the monkey temple in Jaiper

So after a short train ride, we arrived in Mumbai and were all impressed with the organization of the city. Luckily, my friend Ananth who lives there picked us up from the crazy Victoria Mumbai train station, (yes the one that was bombed), and brought us to the hotel. It was awesome having a warm welcome. We enjoyed having western food choices but all three of us were not feeling that well. I think it was the intoxicating heat that made walking around the city really tough. But we managed to see a bit of the city, some cricket fields, and actually, the city was very clean with lots of trees and parks. But after two days of feeling in the dumps, we were ready to move again.

Another great train ride and we arrived in our first place in the state of Rajasthan, the capital, Jaiper. We learned quickly that the major towns in Rajasthan each had a theme color. For Jaiper, it was Pink. This was finally the India we had always imagined. The main attraction was the Pink City, or Old City area which was literally bound by pink walls, and was a bustling marketplace with everything from spices to car batteries. Most of the signs were in Hindi, and it was nice to be in a place that did NOT cater to tourists. But once again, I was not feeling that well. Luckily, before leaving, I was able to see the Monkey Temple which was an awesome temple built into a small mountain, and was COVERED with monkeys. It was a strange mix of excitement and fear as the cute, but persistent, monkeys tried to grab at anything we were holding that looked like food. Luckily, we escaped the temple bite free and full of monkey giggles….

Then we were off to Pushkar, the quaint, fairytale, Brahman city surrounding Pushkar Lake, (which was nearly dried out when we were there). No alcohol, meat or eggs are allowed in this religious Hindu pilgrimage town. The 400 milky-colored Hindu temples set the color of this town to creamy white. But the thing that stood out the most to me was the pervasive and unrelenting smell of cow dung everywhere we went. I was accustomed to dodging cow poop while I walked anywhere in India and seeing cows all over the streets but Pushkar, with its tiny, busy, dirt roads full of street stalls, people and motorbikes, the cow population went over the line. And were there are cows, there is lots of cow dung. Somehow though, the fairytale claim of this town shined through with the help of our awesome family run guesthouse. It was spotless with a lot of charm and cost the equivalent of $3 a night! The views from its rooftop restaurant of the city were great. It was here where I decided that my belly issues had gone on long enough and I reluctantly took an antibiotic pill that my doctor prescribed…. Within hours I felt completely different, and now, months later, have never had bad stomach issues again. Sometimes antibiotics are a good thing!

Next stop Bundi, the small “Brahmin- blue” town. (Literally most of the buildings were painted cool blue, the same that Hindu deities are often colored). Most of the guest houses were in the “haveli” style, which means that the rooms are surrounded by an open courtyard usually where tables are set up for eating. The town is clearly not a tourist-haven as there are literally no restaurants. Everyone eats at guesthouses, which are usually small family run businesses. As a result, we had home-cooked curries by the owners mother, that took over 2 hours to get after ordering but were well worth the wait. The aubergine curry (eggplant) was life-changing! We saw the incredible Bundi Palace which had several different owners through history, evident in the many styles of art found throught the palace. It also afforded great views of the city. There were certain damp, dark enclaves of the palace that were home to hundreds of bats, which were surprisingly cute as they slept upside down!

Me trying on a sari in the marketplace of Udaipur. I don't know how they do work in sari's!

Another bus ride and we were in Udaipur, often called Rajasthans romantic city. It’s situated around a lake and is a nice mix of busy and comfortable. The hotel was probably my favorite part. Poonam Haveli, was the nicest hotel Ive been in, in India. It was new, spotless and spacious. We had an amazing time just walking around the touristy but classic city complete with delicious choco balls, (non-descript, golf ball sized- chocolate confections that rivaled any chocolate cake!) This is where I bought my silver bangles and some other jewelry for steals and just enjoyed walking around and relaxing...

The group of us on the desert safari from Jaisalmer with our protective scarves!

From there we took a bus to Jodhpur, and on an impulse in the uncomfortable bus, we decided to just continue to Jaisalmer, the famous fort city of Rajasthan. What a good choice. We stayed outside the fort, but walked there each day. The fort was like a medeval old city but was bustling with life and afforded amazing views of the city from any rooftop restaurant within it. Its from here that we took an overnight desert safari which is how we met Colm from Ireland, and Abbey and Laura from Britain. The group of us took a jeep ride to the start of the desert, then 2 hour camel ride, then stop for lunch then another camel ride to the dunes. Although we just sat around during the hot parts of the day, we had a great time on the dunes that night, watching the fire and eating an amazing meal even though we could barely see our plates. I had brough some famous "Bang Cookies" from the bang shop in Jaisalmer and had quite the experience staring at the camp fire and laughing uncontrollably. When we got back to Jaisalmer we found a better hotel with amazing food and fast internet. The next day I was walking around the fort and stumbled upon a group of young women dressed in ornate sari's and holding trays of poojah offerings... through some form of communication, they informed me that it was a holiday and I follwed the girls to the main square in the fort, all the while gazing at their colorful saris. It was a magical India experience of music, dance and sari's. The Maharaja of Jaisalmer came to commeserate the celebration and I caught a glimpse of hin on his noble steed.

That was it for Rajasthan... I could have easily spent a week more in each city, but trekking in Nepal was calling, so we took a train to Delhi then to Gorakpur and then to the border of Nepal...

Sunday, March 22, 2009

India, Kerala Feb 14 to Mar 13

Me and Ana in front of the gorgeous lake outside the Sivananda Ashrum outside Trivandrum.

So from Malaysia I flew into Trichirepalli in south central India (Im butchering the spelling) and I waited about 5 hours at the tiny airport to get a connecting flight to the main airport on the south west coast of India, Trivandrum. From there I would take a short train ride to meet up with Ana and Jesse in Varkala Beach. While waiting in the airport I finally opened up my India guide book for the first time and read up on Indian history; I even took notes. Then got on my connecting flight and within two hours of arriving at Trivandrum airport, I already saw that India was not the third world disaster that everyone leads you to believe. There was some pushing in the airport, but things were easy to follow and people were helpful. I got to the Trivandrum train station and immediately met some British girls who said they loved India and this was their 2nd trip here. Europeans are amazing; they travel everywhere and have none of the hang ups about places like India the way some Americans seem to. The trains were easy to follow, comfortable and extremely cheap, although it pays to use the, "breathe through the mouth" method when using the Indian style squat toilets. So after a 30 min train ride and 2 min auto-rickshaw ride, I arrived at Varkala Beach and before I even started looking for the meetup point, I spotted Ana running up to me. The beach was beautiful with smooth sand and a cliff parallel to the beach, which is lined with shops and restaurants. I had an enormous grilled fish for about $4, which is a lot by Indian standards, and got a good nights rest. The next day Ana and I went to the Sivananda Yoga Center for a week long ashrum stay. The ride on the Indian bus to get there was so much fun; bouncing around, driving through bustling towns. It seemed that the driver used the horn more than the steering wheel so people and animals moved out of the way. We got to the Ashrum safe that evening and as soon as we got there, as I would realize is the norm in India, the electricity went out. So using my handy flashlight, one of the ashrum workers guided us to the kitchen to sneak in a late dinner, which was all small portions of a few vegetarian curries and big puffy rice with little to no spice and DELICIOUS. We blissfully ate in the darkness. Welcome to Keralan food. (I thought I was suppose to lose 50 pounds in Indian not develop a taste for a new cuisine!) We got two dorm beds in a charming, basic dorm style set up with a bunch of other girls of all ages from all over the world. I felt comfortable instantly even though I had walked through the place in darkness. For the next 7 days this was our strict schedule: 6am - 7:30am Satsung (Meditation and chanting), Tea time (awesome masala chai!) 8 - 10am Yoga Asana Class (30 min breathing and 90 min postures), 10-11am brunch (mild curries, fresh veggies, boiled water with herbs- all of us sat on the floor, ate with our hands and had to wash our own plates when done) 11 -12pm Karma Yoga (we were each given a duty to do while at the ashrum to help in the running of the place- my job was to clean the toilets of my dorm) 12- 2pm Coaching class if you wanted extra help or had questions or free time, tea time, 2pm - 4 Lecture by Swami (teacher) about how to reach enlightenment, 4pm- 6pm Yoga asana class again, 6pm dinner, 8pm Evening Satsung (meditation and chanting). I cant tell you how liberating it was to not have any freedom! I didn't have to think about anything; I just did it, and it felt great to be in a strict environment where I was guaranteed good food, good exercise positive, liberating advice on life. Smoking, drinking, meat eating and PDA were forbidden on the ashrum grounds. Anyone could leave and walk to town and do anything you wanted but the ashrum was an ultimate detox for body and mind. I had two major realizations during my stay; First is that Hinduism is not necessarily a polytheistic religion, but more a way of life centered on openness. Muhammad, Jesus, and Moses were all mentioned in the daily chants as if you can follow the yoga teachings under any religious belief system, and that many Hindu's don't take the multiple Gods as literal, but more manifestations of the one "God" or "Life Force". The second and more important realization was that prayer or mediation is suppose to be about NOT thinking; NOT letting useless mind chatter control life. And its true; when you remove the mind chatter you remove judgments, separation-ism, jealousy, anger and dwelling on things you cant change so that you can let in peace, contentment and love. But undoing 26 years of hardcore mind chatter is no easy task and definitely a skill that will take more than a week to master!! But I'm at least learning!
The facility was very clean and being a part of the running of the place really made it homey. Did I mention the dorm room, meals, classes and lectures were all inclusive for $6 a night!? Amazing. Oh and as an added bonus we were there during the opening of another Sivananda ashram in Trivandrum, where we would meet the Maharajah of Kerala State. It was a big to-do with saris, flower petals and musical performances. Then we saw the 5 foot, 100 pound Maharaja walk through to officially open the new center! It was a cool experience.

We stayed at the ashram for about 6 days and I didn't want to leave, but we had to press on. The lessons learned are very much still with me.

Jesse & I along the cliff in Varkala. The beautiful and untouched beach goes on for miles.

It was great to chill out for 2 days in easy, breezy Varkala Beach. Next on the agenda was the Keralan backwaters in Allepey. Backwaters are apparently rivers created by pockets of land close to the ocean and are a beautiful site. We opted to do a home stay at a families guest house along the backwaters. We had delicious home cooked meals, (at Western level comforts), and got 2 walking tours of the backwaters and canoe rides. I never realized how much coconut is used in the south Indian dishes. They live and die by the coconut, and use all parts of it. Most cushions are made of dried coconut fibers. It was beautiful and interesting, but the heat was rising with each passing day along with the humidity, so we were happy to head north after 2 nights.

The gorgeous, serene rock formations of Hampi - through rose colored glasses.

Then we had an overnight sleeper train to Bangalore, and that's when the first India- illness occurred for me. It happened in the middle of the night on the train to Bangalore. It was interesting seeing how my body felt, and after a pretty interesting train ride and a day of staring aimlessly at the TV in the hotel in Bangalore and eating crackers, I felt much better. I think the intoxicating heat was the true source of my illness; its something my body simply had to get used to. Bangalore was crowded and interesting city, surprisingly developed and organized with all the comforts of home, plus lots of heat and traffic, but nothing Im not used to from driving in NY, it was just with rickshaws instead of taxis! (Imagine how much more space we would have o the streets of NY if cabs were the size of rickshaws!) The next day was another sleeper train to Hampi and this time it was an AC sleeper and I slept like a baby. Hampi, the remote city of huge rock formations and hundreds of ruins and temples was very interesting, very hot, with lots of druggy tourists and beautiful scenery. Ill let the pics do the talking for Hampi. But again the heat and humidity demands beach! So after two days we were off to Goa.

There are probably 20 or more beaches along the coast in Goa so we decided to spend a few days in the less developed south beach of Patnem, and a few days in the very developed north beach, Arambol. Patnem was very charming and peaceful. I easily could have stayed there reading and daydreaming for a month, although it was a bit expensive for India, (bungalow on the beach for 800 rupees, $16 a night, dinners around $4). Arambol was much more developed with an eclectic crowd, but very cool to check out for a few days. Thats when we started seeing cows in the middle of the crowded beaches. (Little did we know that as we traveled north we would find cows in the strangest places.) So with a heavy heart, we had to say goodbye to the beautiful, beachy, easy, comfortable state of Kerala, and get our teeth into "real" India.

We had our AC sleep train booked for Mumbia on March 13, and we were ready to see what all the hype was about this developing city. (Just want to add here that the train system in India is amazing. Its extremely extensive; we have had minimal need for taking buses. Although sometimes confusing to book online, the trains are on time, on target, with designated seats that everyone seems to follow, comfortable to sleep on, you dont ever feel threatened about someone stealing, the people are friendly and helpful, and most of all its incredibly cheap! About $1 per 50 miles for an airconditioned car!) I dont want to ginx it, but again, I think a lot of people would be surprised with what India is like today. India will be a major player in the issues of economics and the environment in the years to come in a way that it never was before. Mumbai is a great place to gauge the speed of change in India...

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Krabi, Thailand Feb 4 to Feb 13

At a lookout point on Railay Beach in Thailand giving a sense of the striking combination of beach, cliffs, and trees. (And my camera doesn't do it justice.)

Well it has been so long since I last wrote that I hardly know where to begin. So, I guess I left off that I was flying to Malaysia having no idea where I would go from there. Yes, with a heavy heart I abruptly left Cambodia to meet up with Ana and Jesse, (A & J), in Malaysia. Air Asia flights are so incredibly cheap that it is cheaper to fly to Malaysia and then to Bangkok, than to fly there directly from Cambodia. (If you look at a map it seems ridiculous, but that's money honey.) So it was an emotional journey to meet up with A&J at the McDonald's in Malaysia's Kuala Lumpur airport. As familiar as always despite 3 years of living on opposite sides of the globe, there stood my childhood friend that I know and love. I had that one night to figure out what I would do from that point on since the next day they had a flight to Trichy, India, and I had a flight to nowhere. And I didnt want to stay in Malaysia because it was monsoon season there. I needed A & J's 10 months of world travel experience to help me figure out what to do. I knew somehow that I just couldn't go directly to India; that I needed a beautiful, peaceful, easy, mindless week to myself. And so they recommended I go to Railay Beach in Krabi, Thailand, which Jesse ensured me is the most beautiful beach in the world; a seemingly ridiculous claim, but I only had a few hours to book a flight so I went for it. I literally booked the flight to Krabi before I looked on a map to see where it was in Thailand. Since A & J had spent so much time in Krabi they were able to draw me a map of exactly where to go and how to get there.

Going to Thailand was exactly what I needed; I have been thinking for so long about every move I make for years and planning and organizing; I cant tell you how liberating it was to just take the advice of people I trust and not care what happens and NOT THINK.

Railay Beach. No matter where you go you cant escape the sunshine, towering cliffs and crystal clear water.

Railay was indeed the most striking beauty in the form of a beach that I had ever seen in person. I literally just arrived at the airport and effortlessly via bus and longboat (Railay Beach is only accessible by boat) and I was escorted to Railay Beach in complete mindless bliss. I had no guidebook, no reservations and no preparation, yet I was in a comfortable bungalow in Railay Beach within 2 hours of arriving at Krabi airport. The complete sense of EASE that everything happens there is second only to its beauty, and coming from NJ/NY, that ease was appreciated every second. And the prices, although expensive for Thailand, were sooo cheap; room for $20 a night, meals for under $4, and again, some of the most beautiful beach views in the world. I will let the pictures do most of the talking since the beauty is so evident. As for my own personal experience, that is something just for me. All I will say is that striking natural beauty sometimes is enough to shake people out of the depths of their minds, and sometimes its not. In the ten days I spent in Thailand I did little more than read, eat, think and accept whatever happened each day. Well I did a bit more than that; I guess as a true New Jersian / New Yorker I cant help but keep busy. I got my Open Water certification for scuba diving which came with 5 dives on local islands, I did an island tour including the world famous Ko Pee Pee Beach, I did a bit of rock climbing to reach a gorgeous lagoon (and almost died in the process), and I rented a motor bike back on the main land in Ao Nang and explored the island for a few hours which was SUCH a liberating thrill although I was only comfortable driving straight; turning, stopping and starting the motorbike scared me to death. I made mostly left turns since when driving on the other side of the road left turns are easier! I survived one day of motorbiking, but that was enough. I could totally get into the motorbike thing. It was just what I needed.

Me on Ko Pee Pee Island... the longboats behind me are the main mode of transport between the different islands and the mainland. The visibility of the water there was incredible, at least 20 feet. Breathtaking. ( I took most photos myself so they are close ups!)

So I had a flight to Trichy, India and I was ready for whatever would come. I left Krabi on Feb 13th and got to Trichy by Feb 14th. ( I had an over night layover in Malaysia again, and this time I went into Kulua Lumpur for the evening. I cant form an opinion of a country based on one night, but I definitely want to see more of Malaysia some day).. but for now... its on to India! (Its weird writing this when Im already in India, but oh well! Im probably going to stay a few weeks behind!)

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Cambodia Part II Jan 27 to Feb 3

Well, yet again, I am writing past the event Im suppose to be blogging about!
( I think I'm repeating some descriptions but oh well!)
But I guess as a summary, Phenom Penh was a really interesting city. Being the capital it was much more crowded, and overall I felt that it was a "dirty", "hard" city... much different than the small town charm of Siem Reap. There were beggars everywhere trying to sell things, and many commercialized tourist areas that really didn't fit the tiny window of what I saw as "Cambodia". But we had some important interviews which revealed how bureaucratic non-profit work can be. Even if most of the politicians are on the same page with you, one person with a power kick can cause a lot of problems. It was a testament to the persistence of the non-profits out there. Right on! So we did the tourist sights as well, going to the kings palace and the Killing Fields and Prison from the Khmer Rouge. The palace was beautiful and rather strange; it was almost a self contained village. The Khmer Rouge was a communist government in power in Cambodia from 1975 to 1979 who attempted to create an agrarian, or "natural" society, by exterminating all intellectuals, capitalists and people with foreign connections. Nearly 1.5 million people were killed through forced labor, torture, or starvation. The killing fields are now just ditches where their bodies once were piled, and the prisons housed hundreds of beds with barbed wire handcuffs, most likely used for torture. It was an eerie thing to see, and to think it was nearly in our lifetime! Some of the members of the Khmer Rouge government are currently on trial. Heres more about it if your interested... But the Cambodian people have persevered, and in my opinion triumphed, in that they are so welcoming to foreigners and seem to be developing their country as it heals from their terrible past.

So we stayed a few days in Phenom Penh then returned to Siem Reap, and I was anxious!
Upon returning, I started to notice that my nagging cough was getting worse, and as soon as I would wake up and take my first breath outside of my hotel room, I would start to cough. The air is just constantly smoky and dusty. I have never experienced anything like that. Maria luckily had a "cough scarf" that I could wear around my mouth and it provided some protection, but it was a real pain! This made running outside impossible for me. But I tried to drink the problem away with tea, lime juice, and lots of water. When it was really bothering me, I would go to De La Paix, this extremely ritzy hotel, 5 min walk from mine that had AIR FILTERS via air conditioning that really helped. The posh lounge area and amazing cafe didnt hurt either! Needless to say, I got very well acquainted with the local pharmacist and De La Paix!

So we had to go to the site to do some surveying and check out the cracks that were forming near the embankment. I had a crash course on surveying. That was the first time I used a "level" and "rod" with a GPS in order to create an elevation map of the area. It was really interesting. A day or two later we were all suppose to go back to the site to continue working on the monitoring wells, but my cough was getting out of control so I stayed behind. I spent the afternoon online trying to make sense of the survey measurements I had taken the other day. I learned a lot about GPS and its amazing the way it works using units of degrees, minutes and seconds to measure distance relative to the equator and prime meridian to tell you exactly where you are anywhere in the world at any time! I have a newfound appreciation for it!

After finally giving up trying to communicate on Skype, I quite randomly booked a flight to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to meet up with Ana and finally get a handle on how and when I would get to India and where I would go in between. It was time to make decisions whether I liked it or not. As soon as I booked my flight for Feb 3rd from Siem Reap to Kuala Lumpur, I felt like there was so much more I wanted to do and see in Cambodia I knew it was time to go.

We went to the site one more time, (I will miss the 40 min drive to site in the back of the pick up truck waving to locals... ) and we had to complete 4 monitoring wells, which are installed at 25 and 50 meters on either side of the dam to measure the amount of seepage through the embankment. It was an interesting process. We used an agar (a metal stick with a cylindrical cutting edge on one side) to create a 4" diameter hole in the ground around 20 feet deep, or until we hit groundwater. Then a 2" PVC pipe with slits ever 4 inches and wrapped in filter fabric, was inserted into the hole. Then sand is packed in the hole, around the PVC pipe to keep it in place. Then we mixed cement, gravel, water and sand to create cement. We used "man-power", meaning four of us holding a tarp with all the ingredients on it, one by one yanking at the tarp to forcefully mix the ingredients until it was homogeneous. Basically, it was a human cement mixer and thanks to the guys, it came out great! We poured the concrete around the top of each well to secure it and added a cap to the pipe. Now to measure the water level we just insert something in the PVC pipe and measure how much is "wet". It was cool to see this process... and fun to do some manual labor in the sun and forget about my cold!

So then I only had two days left and I knew that I had to see Angkor Wat, one of the Travel Wonders of the World, before leaving. Its only a ten minute drive from Siem Reap. People come from all over the world to see this historic Hindu- Buddhist temple. By the recommendation of Chai, I went to the Angkor Museum in Siem Reap to give me a background on the monument. Well, it was a really good thing I did. I even did the audio tour, which I usually write off as a rip off, but it was really helpful and kept my mind focused on what I was seeing. Cambodia truly did flip flop during history from Hindu to Buddhist, but is now predominantly Buddhist. I learned that the main three deities in Hinduism are Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver, and the most powerful, Shiva the Destroyer. These deities are portrayed in statues with very specific characteristics. The Buddha statues are a bit different, but to my eye they often look the same.
With a friend of Chai's as my private tuk tuk chauffeur, I went to Ta Prohm temple first, from the mid-12 century and it was built as a Buddhist temple. It was amazing and that is where one of the Tomb Raider films was shot. The way the trees grew into the ancient stone was a like a dramatic reflection of the fight between nature and civilization. Just next to Ta Prohm is Bayon, an amazing Buddhist temple with giant faces of Buddha with a peaceful expression, in all four directions. Next was the famous Angkor Wat... The entranceway was full or tourists to an uncomfortable degree, but I tried to block that out and soak it all in! As expected, every entranceway had two "Naga's" or Serpent deities on each side which is suppose to be protect the temple along with Lions with their mouths ajar showing their teeth. The temple had a statue of each of the three main deities and then a courtyard with four prasat or towers surrounding a fifth tower which is the tallest in the center. There is a large mot surrounding the entire complex, and it was said that the temple is suppose to be a replica of Mount Meru, home of the Gods in Hinduism. The structure was started in 1100 and took over 3 centuries to complete, starting as a Vishnu temple and later being converted to a Buddhist temple. The evidence of these changes and political strife are clear by the missing limbs of many of the statues. Despite all the crowds of people the shear size of the temple, (over 500 acres), still allowed me to find a peaceful spot to have a snack and stare off in the distance. There was definitely an energy about the place.

So the next day I was off for Malaysia, not knowing what country I would be in the following day. Not a bad way to live!

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Cambodia Part I (Jan 19 - Feb 3?)

The typical streets of Siem Reap, Cambodia

So, after three flights, (Dubai - Bangkok - Siem Reap), I made it to Siem Reap Cambodia, my first time in Asia! Just from the Bangkok airport I sensed that something was different; the people are more accommodating and nicer than in America or the middle east. I detected this almost immediately.
When I first got off the plane in Siem Reap I saw the lush vegetation all around and I shed a tear, thinking about how over 2 years ago I was introduced to this non-profit dam project in Cambodia and here I am... I feel so fortunate to be able to come and see it for myself.
Siem Reap is a charming quaint city. I was taken from the airport to the city center by a "tuk tuk", a metal framed carriage attached to a motor bike. It was a 20 minute drive that cost $2, and was a great intro to this charming place. (They accept American dollars here, but have their own currency, "Riel". 4,000 Riel = $1 US dollar.)
The main roads are paved, but a few blocks away all the roads are dirt and the air is perpetually dusty. I learned how dusty when I tried to go for a run one morning and was inhaling the dust!... its no wonder you see many locals with masks on their faces.
The city is developed enough for me to easily adjust, but there is a simplicity to the place that reminds you that you are hundereds of miles away from home, not to mention the constant warmth.
It was incredible watching the inauguration from a bar in Siem Reap, which was packed with Americans and travellers and locals, all packed in to see history unfold. I was a great experience.
We had some interviews in Phenom Penh which is the capital of the country. Phenom Penh has a completely different feel to it than Siem Reap. The quaintness is gone, and theres a general sense of coldness in this area. There are plenty of nice restaurants and hotels, but the people are harsher and there are many more pushy beggars... the Kings palace is here which is beautiful and full of Hindu / Buddhist temples. Its really hard to tell which temples are Hindu or Buddhist... Today we went to the killing fields from the Khmer Rouge regime only 20 years ago. Apparently from 1976 to 1980 the communist Khmer Rouge regime, head by Pol Pot, in an attempt to cleanse this country and create an agrarian society of farmers and laborers, he ordered the detention and execution of over 1.5 million intellectuals, politicians, monks, women and children. His regime killed over 20% of Cambodia's population and much of the cities were destroyed. It was a holocaust that took place during our lifetimes that no one seems to know about. The results of the genocide can be found in the hearts of the people here, many of whom lived through it. This is perhaps why Cambodia is a hot spot for non-profit organization intervention. I was already introduced to over 10 NGO's in the past few days. And there is still so much to do!