A peek into the highlights of visiting Copenhagen, Denmark with my sister.
I had intentionally avoided all things election on Tuesday because I didn't want the stress. So when I awoke Wednesday morning, instead of feeling like I got TKO'd after a long, bloody boxing match, I felt like I got sucker-punched at a bar. I literally couldn't focus or function properly as I sat stunned first on the beach - surprisingly the sun did actually still rise - and then in my hotel room in South Beach that morning.
I had to check out that morning so I watched Hillary's concession speech as I packed, a few tears materialized my thoughts into emotions from time to time. Then I sat stunned in the lobby for a while, scrolling through my Facebook news feed and reading trending articles. I wasn't hungry but I ate a small lunch anyways before finally leaving the hotel.
I had planned to go distract myself and admire the street art in Wynwood when it dawned on me in the car that Trump duped us all. His entire campaign was clickbait and whether you opposed or supported him, you were talking about him. He changed the rules and we all made him an unstoppable clickbait juggernaut. This insight was HUGE.
I parked, walked into Panther Coffee, ordered an iced chai latte with macadamia milk (which I didn't know was a thing until now) and frantically tried to get all my thoughts and insights into my laptop before they evaporated out of my brain.
I may have gone overboard but I really wanted this to get published. I submitted it to the general query on Thought Catalog and to 9 different staff writers directly. I'm so happy I got the attention of at least one of them who slightly edited and posted my piece here:
Four hours later I returned to my rental car, which had a $23 parking ticket tucked under the wiper blade and I didn't get paid to write this but I don't even care. It was totally worth it to have my voice heard and my thoughts read, if only by a few people.
So the silver lining of this election is that it inspired me to put 110% of my effort into writing and finally publishing something. Personally I've been writing for a long time but have been hesitant to share it publicly, except on Yelp. I want to keep this momentum going and keep writing. It is very cathartic and nice to know others feel the same way. And inevitably I know there will eventually be trolls and haters but I'll cross that bridge - er wall - when I come to it.
Namaste, friends! I hope you enjoy my review of the Mahaparinirvan Express (Buddhist Circuit Train) tour that I thoroughly enjoyed in March 2016.
This is a train-based tour that takes you through significant Buddhist places and landmarks throughout Northern India and Nepal. It's a pilgrimage of sorts, but more historical than spiritual I think. They operate several 8-day tours between September and March. The train departs from the Delhi Safdar Jung station and includes the following destinations:
Gaya • Bodhgaya • Rajgir • Nalanda • Gaya • Varanasi • Sarnath • Varanasi • Gorakhpur • Kushinagar • Lumbini • Gorakhpur • Gonda • Sravasti • Gonda • Agra (Taj Mahal) • Delhi.
You have three accommodation options:
AC First Coupe: private berth with four beds and a door for just two people
AC First Class: same private berth but I guess you might have roommates
AC 2nd Tier: recessed berths with four beds and curtains; also beds along the aisle
It's like a hostel on wheels. I was fine with AC 2nd tier because pretty much all you do on the train is eat and sleep. I had a wonderful roommate named Jyotsna who is a retired English teacher so we communicated quite easily.
Luckily our train car was relatively empty and the bunks above us and across the aisle were vacant. The aircon worked well, perhaps too well, but I love snuggling up in blankets when its a little chilly.
The bunks are a bit short. I'm 5'9" (175 cm) and my feet just barely hang over the edge. The sheets were always clean and comfortable and the food was good, albeit a bit on the spicy side. They always offer your choice of a meaty meal or vegetarian meal. You will also spend a few nights in hotels. I recommend bringing earplugs and a sleep mask and digestive supplements/aids if you're not used to Indian food.
We were greeted with marigold garlands and traditional, live music. The train departed a bit later than planned. I was one of only a handful of Westerners on this trip: three Americans, one Brit, one German and one Mexican. Everyone else is Indian or Asian (Hong Kong, China, Japan, Korea).
Since you will be touring many historically holy sites that require you to be barefoot, I recommend wearing flip flops or sandals that you can easily slip on and off. You should also dress comfortably conservative; in other words, covered knees and shoulders.
Our guide, Ram, accompanied us and gave us insight (in English) at each location. Our first stop was Bodhgaya, where Prince Siddartha attained enlightenment while sitting under the Bodhi tree. (You are not allowed to bring a phone inside and have to check it at the entrance but I assure you it will be there when you get back.) I bought mala beads made of bodhi nuts here and wore them for the rest of the tour. Next we stopped in Rajgir, where the new Buddha (translation: teacher) delivered his first sermon. There are breathtaking views if you hike up to the top of the hill.
The next day, we visited Sarnath before traveling to Varanasi, the most holy city in India situated on the Ganges river. We had some free time, which I spent mostly in a tuk tuk with two other ladies on the tour before we all piled into a boat to see a traditional fire ceremony at sunset (along with about a bazillion other boats).
Although you do spend many hours (mostly sleeping) on the train, you will still spend plenty of time on a tour bus, too. (I tried to make the most of it by meditating or attempting to meditate while in transit.) This includes crossing the border to Lumbini, Nepal (Budddha's birthplace in 623 BC) so it's helpful to have a visa for Nepal before you start the trip, but you can also acquire it pretty easily at said border. A 30-day multiple entry visa for Nepal is $40 USD.
The fourth major stop on the tour was Kushinagar, where the Buddha attained enlightenment (or where his body died). There was an odd shaped structure housing a giant, reclining Buddha statue here. We also visited Gorakhpur and had dinner on the train.
A word of caution. Of course the most touristy areas are flooded with beggars and vendors. It's really not a good idea to give the beggars money, especially the children because you never know if they're being coerced or exploited. So exercising the Buddhist values of compassion and kindness, I and a few other travelers did buy and give them fruit sometimes. The vendors sell all kinds of trinkets and they expect you to haggle. If you buy even a small item from one vendor, the others will immediately pounce on you and try to convince you to buy their things as well.
Our last stop was the most famous landmark in India: the Taj Mahal, located in Agra. Our train was stuck waiting on the tracks so we didn't get a ton of time here but it was more than enough to take an obligatory Taj selfie (or several).
I'll never forget this insightful tour, the sights & sounds, the people I experienced this with and the melodic chanting I heard so often that will always bring back pleasant memories of my time exploring and experiencing the roots of Buddhism in Northern India: Buddham... Saranam... Gacchami...
Here's a quick video trailer I made with my film from the tour:
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I can't believe it's been three years since my first volunteer trip to Kenya, Africa. I'm feeling nostalgic so here are a few of my favorite pictures and excerpts from the original tumblr that I managed during our trip. I can't wait to return here and explore other parts of this beautiful culture and continent.
Day 1: Yep, it’s 4 AM in the morning and I haven’t been able to sleep all night. Partially because I am so excited/anxious and partially because there’s a few things I still need to wrap up before I leave. I am unfortunately quite the “packrastinator.” My whole life it’s been nearly impossible for me to pack more than a day in advance. I wonder if my fellow WFM team members are nestled, all snug in their beds, while visions of the Serengeti dance in their heads...
Day 3: Today...We got to visit a village benefitting from the One Acre Fund micro loans. They were so friendly and we were all touched by their hospitality. We learned about their work and culture and also participated in harvesting millet and planting trees...
Day 7: Thursday, our fantastic host/tourguide Ruby Ruth showed us around Maai Mahui and introduced us to CTC and the Malakai Moms that expertly craft and sew the lifeline products we sell in our stores. We learned all about CTC’s mission and multiple initiatives including Community, Environment, Education, Health and Economy. And the kids there were adorable, of course!
Day 8-9: Friday and Saturday were spent exploring the Ol Pejeta Conservancy near Mount Kenya. Truly a once in a lifetime experience where we got to see elephants, giraffes, zebras, cheetahs and even ultra endangered white and black rhinos…
We are all still in awe of Africa - everything we’ve seen and experienced, everyone we’ve met and the memories we’ve created.
Day 12: Tuesday, we laced up our shoes, put on our gloves and went to work transplanting trees… [and] painting the bakery floor bright blue…. and built a berm to help block the bakery from the evening wind, (Maai Mahiu can get very windy!)...
Day 14: I can’t believe this incredible journey has come to an end. And what a memorable end it was! … We took a bumpy road out to one of the Massai villages where we met and mingled with the kids and were so graciously invited into the home of one of the grandmothers. This was personally one of the most memorable a experiences of the trip.
Day 15: Friday morning, we all headed to the CTC bakery for a lovely breakfast… [and] got ... Cafe Ubuntu painted on the wall before having to head back to ... the Nairobi airport.
It was hard to say goodbye as we all felt like we had become a family the past two weeks. We all created lasting friendships, gained valuable insight and created amazing memories that we can’t wait to share with our teams, families and friends back home!
Love, Team Rafiki
If you've been to Africa, what are some of your favorite memories? If you haven't been yet, where would you like to go?
Bagan is located in Mid Myanmar, Mandalay region
Arrive by bus or flight (NYU Airport)
Must purchase mandatory 25,000 kyat (about $22 USD) ticket to enter the city. (Therefore, no entry cost at individual temples/pagodas/stupas.)
See ancient structures at sunrise, sunset. (Temp was 41ºC-43ºC or 105ºF-110ºF in April.)
(You will likely be approached by a local who will take you to a 'secret spot' to watch the sun but will also try to sell you paintings & stuff.)
Accomodation: Ostello Bello Hostel
Great wifi, free breakfast, air con, $15 8-bed dorm, great vibe
Rent bikes, buy bus tickets, free laundry available across the street
Rent an e-bike (electric scooter) to get around.
• 3,000 kyat/day small (more risk of breaking down)
• 6,000 kyat/day large (faster, longer battery)
I also saw some people on bicycles.
Over 2,200 stupas and pagodas in the area today. (Used to be over 10,000 built between the 11th and 13th centuries.)
Two parts: Old Bagan and New Bagan.
Popular: Sunrise Hot Air Balloons August-March (expensive $300+)
Must-See Ananda temple in Old Bagan
The region is known for lacquerware and sand paintings.
Here's my mental cultural checklist for each country I visit. I'm not super strict about it. I just try to let things happen naturally and I've rarely regretted it!
• Ride a public bus and/or train
• Eat something local from a street vendor (preferably cooked/avoid meat)
• Buy & try local fruits, veggies (preferably peelable)
• Learn to say Hello and Thank You in the local language
• Talk to at least one new person each day
• Visit at least one museum
• Visit at least one park/green space
• Look for local street murals and/or public art
• Drink a local beverage (non-alcoholic, usually tea)
• Participate in local events/festivals or volunteer for local organizations when possible
What's something you enjoy doing to enhance your travel experience?
I made many wrong decisions during my first visit to Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, Myanmar. I walked over 4 km from my hotel and arrived during the peak heat of the day while the temp was well over 100°F/38°C.
I had considered wearing my Longyi that morning but opted instead for shorts. This means I had to rent a communal Longyi at the Pagoda entrance to cover my knees. As is typical for temples, no one is allowed to wear shoes so I was walking - or rather running - around with bare feet.
The sun was scorching throughout the cloudless sky which caused the floor tiles to heat up like hot coals. Everyone was running from one patch of shade to the next, trying to relieve their suffering soles.
As I was navigating a maze of smaller stupas, I came upon an old monk who waved me over. He offered me a drink of water even though I had my own supply. He made some small talk and told me his name is Tegyi and he is 83 years old and he takes the bus to Shwedagon every day. I had a feeling he was going to ask for money, but technically monks have to. By definition they beg for everything, even food during daily alms rounds.
I respect the Sangha so I gave him a 5,000 kyat note. It was obviously much more than he was expecting. In return he offered me all three sets of his mala beads and his water and even his English-Burmese dictionary. I accepted the small, black wooden beads which I could tell were worn and had been used often; not just bought at a market that morning.
This seemed like a small win after my series of sweaty mistakes.
I thought I was pretty special until I saw a photo of the same monk with a German guy from my hostel on Facebook. (Although I'm certain he did not receive the same gift.)
I'm curious, do you think this monk was legit or was he just trying to profit off of tourists? If you've been to Shwedagon, have you met him as well?
The Sangha, or Buddhist leaders & teachers, are reliant on their community for everything, even their meals. Each day, groups of monks go out into the community to collect alms (food offerings) from lay people's homes. This tradition has been practiced for thousands of years.
The modern method is to load up monks, assistants and lots of plastic containers into the back of a truck and drive to nearby neighborhoods. A man walks ahead of the group with a loudspeaker announcing their presence.
The monks must walk barefoot and each carry special alms bowls to collect cooked rice. This is mostly symbolic now as the majority of offerings of raw produce, pre-packaged or pre-cooked foods is gathered by assistants (also barefoot) and loaded onto the truck. Many people also give cash offerings.
I'm not so used to walking barefoot on rocky and/or dirt roads. Apparently it was noticeable enough that one of the younger assistants giggled and told me "You walk like monkey." I had to laugh, too.
I kinda like this ritual because it keeps the community more connected. It's definitely an experience my mind - and my feet - won't soon forget!
Thabarwa Center (actually a whole village) was founded by Venerable Sayadaw Ashin Ottamasara hosts foreign volunteers who want to do good deeds and/or meditate. I did plenty of both.
Try to arrive Sunday/Wednesday morning; informational meetings held at noon these days.
It's April, so I was perpetually sweaty, dirty and a little stinky until that glorious cold shower in the evening before bed. But so is everyone else. Between 5-20 other volunteers each day I was there.
One of my typical days at Thabarwa.
4:30 Wake up
5:00-6:30 Yoga (in my room by myself but most others participate in morning meditation)
6:30 - 7:00 Breakfast (rice + stuff)
7:00 - 8:00 Alms Rounds with monks or sweeping/cleaning/work
8:00 - 11:00 Continue chores or socialize with other volunteers
11:00 Lunch (rice + different stuff)
12:00 - 16:00 Read in Library (the only place with air con) or meditation or do special projects
16:00 - 17:00 Walking with patients in wheelchairs
17:00 - 18:00 Walking meditation around stupas
18:00 Dinner (Vit-C drink mix for me since I'm observing 8 precepts but rice + stuff for everyone else)
19:00 Basic Buddhism class
20:00 Glorious cold shower followed by a load of sink laundry
21:30 Lights out, eye mask on, earplugs in
Just relax and go with the flow. You can do as much or as little volunteering and/or meditation as you want. Longer term volunteers can teach English to monks and nuns. I even did a couple graphic design projects for the center.
Shared accommodation and meals are basic but free. However, I recommend making at least a small donation before you depart like $5 (5,000 kyat) per day.
Free, filtered water throughout the center.
Cats and dogs everywhere.
Keep shoulders, knees & everything in between covered.
Things to bring: mosquito repellent, dietary/digestive supplement, hand fan, reusable water bottle, hat, handkerchief, nuts & dried fruit (sealed to keep out ants).
E-visa Tourist 28 days
Yangon International Airport (RGN); Present PRINTED COPY of approval letter @customs
Main city is walkable; also use public busses, train, pedi-cabs and taxis
Chan Myaye Guesthouse: So nice, I stayed there twice!
(in private room $20-$22 USD per night)
Dorm beds (fan only), singles with A/C en suite or shared bathroom
Great location, yummy breakfast included, sweet staff
So many stairs
Must-See: Shwedagon Pagoda
8,000 kyat entry, huge complex
No shoes, floor gets very hot mid-day
Keep shoulders, knees covered
4 entrances (north, south, east, west)
Contains Buddhist relics, possibly the oldest stupa in the world (2,600 years old)
Walk clockwise, Know your birth day of the week so you can stop at that section of the stupa
Sule Pagoda: Downtown near city hall, Ancient Buddhist stupa, site of 1988 Uprising
Kandawgi Lake - FREE, nice green space, playgrounds (east of Shwedagon)
Peoples Park - west of Shwedagon, green space with museum, 5,000 kyat entry
Botahtaung Pagoda - Near Yangon River 3,000 kyat entry
(The rest of the river is mostly industrial.)
Feel free to ask more specific questions or for advice in the comments.
Thingyan is a Theravada Buddhist water festival celebrated in Myanmar around mid-April right before their traditional new year. In modern times, it's a playful water war that is waged on both the city and village streets across the country which happened to last five days this year.
Many people ride around in the back of trucks to get doused by hose-weilding people on temporary roadside spraying stages called pandals. They are literally like human car washes. No where and no one is dry. Which is ok, because April is the hottest, driest month of the year here. This week the temp was over 100ºF/38ºC every day. (A similar festival called Songkran is celebrated in Laos and Thailand around the same time.)
I met a couple guys in my hostel at breakfast and we later set off in search of festivities. It took all of three seconds after leaving the hostel to start getting doused; locals especially love to get foreigners wet so we were moving targets. You'll start getting splashed early around 8:00 or 9:00. Then there's kind of a break during the peak heat, maybe noon til 15:00 but the water wars resume. A dry truce is supposed to happen around 18:00.
There was a stage and a huge crowd in front of the Town Hall near Sule Pagoda and it didn't take us long to get picked up by a truckload of locals. The truck was packed with people, water reserves and beer. We drove past a few splash stations and got soaked with firehoses. The force of the water knocked my hat off of my head and when I was finally able to look up, I saw that it had landed on the road and someone on a truck behind us had seen and retrieved it.
Well, I wasn't about to lose my favorite hat that has traveled the world with me since I bought it from a surf shop in Bali so I jumped off the back of our truck and ran to the truck behind us. (Best decision ever to wear my vibrams that day instead of flip flops.) I saw a dude on the truck wearing my hat and pointed to it emphatically because the music and crowds were so loud that he wouldn't be able to hear anything I said. He pointed at the hat then at me. I nodded and he took it off and tossed it down to me. Victoriously, I raced back to my own truck. No thing left behind!
A few kilometers out of the city center, we promptly got a flat tire. No worries, though, we just joined a splashing station on the side of the road and doused trucks and busses as they drove by. Yep, even the public busses are fair game during Thingyan.
The main event seemed to take place on the road near Inya Lake. There were at so many pandals set up with entertainment and/or water hoses that the streets were flooded. The guys and I followed Htet and Jesse - our gracious hosts for the day - through crowds of people dancing and moshing through a perpetual, manmade monsoon. Steve and I were armed with buckets and Walker ended up with a pretty sweet dolphin gun with accompanying backpack.
In the city, people gather on the streets and in any public water source, including fountains and pools. There is no shortage of street food and I enjoyed my fair share of fried things, fruits, grilled corn, fresh-pressed sugar cane juice and - wait, stop everything - ice cream.
After leaving the city, I'm glad I also got to experience some rural Thingyan celebrating after arriving at Thabarwa in Thanlyin. People, especially kids, are just as ready to soak you with water. Instead of trucks and stages, substitute motorbikes, village houses, small shops and buckets on the side of the road.
I have to admit at first, I thought this was an incredible waste of natural resources, but eventually realized it all evaporates and will come back during the rainy season. Did I mention how refreshing it is to be soaked with water when its ridiculously hot outside?
This actually happened a few weeks ago when I was still in Nepal. Better late than never, I guess!
Pashupatinath is the oldest and most well known Hindu temple in Kathmandu, Nepal, situated on the banks of the Bagmati River. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site, which means you will get charged 1,000 rupees ($9.50 USD) to visit. Only Hindus are allowed to enter the actual main temple but you can walk around and enjoy the sights and take pictures. You can get a really good panoramic view of Kathmandu here as well.
Myself and three others from my home stay visited here and were immediately approached by a youngish Nepal tour guide. We saw temples devoted to Shiva, Hanuman the Monkey God and several cremations happening along the river.
The Hindus have a much more pragmatic view of death; it's just another part of life. There are specific rituals start differently depending on the age, gender and caste of the person who died but everyone ends up as ash in the river. Our guide said it can take two or three hours for a body to burn completely.
We met a group of Sadus hanging out around the temple who speak English and will ask for money in exchange for blessings or photos. I'm not sure if they were legit or not but our guide assured us that they use the money to buy food for themselves and the poorer communities in the area so I obliged. On the other hand, I was really annoyed by the vendors that kept approaching me and trying to sell me crap that I didn't want or need.
Our guide also took us to a nearby elderly complex where Mother Teresa used to work. The old ladies and gents were lined up for their lunch and had colorful laundry drying all around courtyard. In the center of the courtyard was a temple with a bell that one old woman rang incessantly for several minutes.
At the conclusion of our tour, we tipped our guide and headed in the direction of our next destination. A black temple dog with white paws that we called Puppy escorted us as far as he could but had to leave us and turn back when we got to main road because that turf apparently belonged to other dogs.
We walked a long time before arriving at Boudhanath. I didn't realize I had already been there during my first day long tour of a color-coated Kathmandu but didn't mind visiting again. The stupa was still covered in scaffolding so I didn't even bother trying to get a good picture of it, but there are plenty to be found of the beautiful Boudhanath online.
We did enjoy exploring the Tibetan Buddhist temple situated next to it as well as our vegetarian, rooftop lunch. Then we walked. We walked a lot. It was a long way back to Thamil and I ended up taking a cab the rest of the way back to the home stay from there due to both mental and physical exhaustion.
After the trek, my next destination in Nepal was a home stay in a village outside Kathmandu called Changu Narayan that I found on Workaway. I wasn't given an address or phone number but I had pictures of the host and his house from the workaway website so the driver was able to get me where I needed to go by pulling over and letting me show said pictures to locals, who pointed us in the right direction. The only option was the long and windy way uphill and we drove until we ran of road and I had get out and walk the remaining few hundred meters with my bags.
I was surprised to find several other workawayers at the home when I arrived, and even more surprised that the majority were from the US. There was also a couple of gap year kids from England, a girl from China and a guy from France. Add to that the other four girls from the States, which brings the total number of guests to nine. A few people were ill, one guy so much so that I didn't see him emerge from his room until 3 days later.
The house had a lovely facade but was quite modest on the inside. My room on the second floor had two mattresses on the floor each with a blanket and pillow and a glass coffee table. Standing on the balcony outside, I got a pretty good view of the surrounding hills and Kathmandu city in the valley below.
I claimed the mattress closest to the window and was thrilled that there was enough space for me to roll out my yoga mat next to it in the morning. Across from me were two rooms, each with actual beds and mattresses and a bit more furniture. We had a rather large balcony and a semi-functional bathroom which became non-functional the next day.
The menu and meal schedule was the same each and every day. A hard-boiled egg and two chapati for breakfast around 7:30, then first dal bhat with rice and potatoes around 10:30 then second dal bhat with rice, potatoes and maybe eggplant or zucchini around 7 pm. I bought some bananas in town to supplement the standard fare.
I know it's rural Nepal and I'm not expecting to have all the comforts of home but I would at least like the toilet and shower that are advertised to work. The water pump was broken so the toilet could only flush after a bucket of water was poured down the bowl. And if you wanted to bathe, it was out of the same bucket. In both cases, you would have to take the bucket down to one of the community wells where water trickled out of a spout at a snail's pace. It could take at least 45 minutes to fill said bucket and you'd have to stand there to make sure no one moved your bucket off to the side so they could get water. I also filled my water bottle here and treated it with purification drops. Even though the water appeared fresh and clean and cold, I wasn't taking any chances.
But back to the bucket. After filling it up, you have to lug it back to the house and and use the water for flushing or bathing. So you can conclude that the toilet doesn't get flushed all that often since it's such a process - maybe once a day. And my room happened to be adjacent to the bathroom so the stench of everyone's accumulated waste gently wafts into your room all night.
Power cuts are pretty standard in Nepal but they were the worst here. We were lucky if we got 2-5 hours of power per day, but it was enough to charge my phone and I was glad there was occasional wifi.
Then came the work. Instead of the gardening or helping around the house or village like that was suggested on workaway, the host expected us to cut down huge mother flippin' trees. The first day, we walked precariously through a field to a site far away to fell a tree. We all had to pull the tree down via rope so that it didn't fall on a nearby house. Then there was only a single saw with handles on each side so we would take turns sawing off branches and sawing the tree into sections. Turns out, I really don't like cutting down perfectly good trees in their prime, physically or emotionally.
Then, they decided they wanted to cut down another tree, this time surrounded by a jumble of power lines. By this time the sun was getting close to setting so if we stayed much longer, the arduous walk home would be in the dark. Three of us decided not to take any more risks and walked home while it was still light.
The next day, we returned to the spot and it started raining soon after we arrived. And not just rain, there was thunder and lightning too and the temperature dropped while our host expected us to continue using the metal saw. I gave up on the saw because I was not about to become a lightning rod but we soon went inside a nearby house to wait for the storm to pass. The family there was very kind and made us tea and gave us cookies and fresh peas from the garden. Then, our host and another guy popped cigarettes into their mouths and just as they were about to light up, I asked if they could please wait and smoke outside later because I am allergic to the smoke. (Seriously, I get a painful, throaty cough when in the presence of cigarette smoke.) They lit up anyways so those burning cigarettes might as well have been a couple of middle fingers. I walked outside and sat by myself under a makeshift tool shed.
The reason we were cutting down trees in the first place was so that the host could turn it into lumber and build an addition on to his house to accommodate more people. But I think he could barely handle the amount of people he already had. I understand how after losing his previous guest house to the earthquake last year, he was kind of desperate for money so I think he was taking as many people as he could get but the more people you have, the harder it is to keep everyone happy. He and his wife were sleeping in the kitchen and two guests were in their bed. The kitchen leaked in several places when it rained. The second floor bathroom didn't work properly and the house was not cleaned regularly, which is extra troublesome when you have so many people getting sick.
I think there should have been a bit more concern for health and safety. The family here no doubt has good intentions and all the other guests were friendly but overall I did not enjoy this experience. And that's ok. Not every day of traveling is going to be sunshine and butterflies. It does make further appreciate things like eating a variety of meals and functional indoor plumbing.
These are just some snapshots of rural life in and around the fields near the house that I liked and wanted to share:
Lesson 1: Time and money are always inverse. In other words, to save money, it costs you time and to save time, it costs you money. It took me five flights and almost two days to get from home to Jaipur but it was my cheapest option at $400. I could have spent more and probably flown directly from New York to New Delhi but it would have at least doubled the cost. And this applies to pretty much everything in this world, not just travel.
Lesson 2: Teaching is hard. I already respected teachers and still think they are highly undervalued in the West. But this experience showed me first hand how hard it is to teach, especially with additional cultural and language barriers. I felt like I was finally getting into my own personal, educational groove of course when my teaching time was up. I'm definitely going to be better prepared the next time I attempt to teach.
Lesson 3: India is not as scary as many In the West think it is. Not only did I stay with a wonderful, welcoming Indian family, but all the children and staff at the school were amazing as well. Kat, a new friend from Australia, and I even walked from the house to and around the city unaccompanied. And we felt safe and confident the entire time. In fact, I even felt like a celebrity because lots of people wanted to take pictures with me. It's a shame we only ever hear about appalling crimes like rape and theft on the news. For every one of those, I bet there are a thousand more stories of sharing and kindness.
Lesson 4: Staying at a home beats staying in hotels any day. I had the most genuinely enjoyable experience staying with a lovely family in rural Jaipur. Their house was modest with only two bedrooms yet they gave up one for me - later to be shared with fellow volunteer Kat - and they all four slept in one big bed in the larger bedroom. I had to use a squat toilet and take cold showers and the power went out a few times but I also got to eat incredible homemade Indian meals and wear a sparkly, pink saree. We celebrated two birthdays and I did yoga on the roof while the sun rose and we shared countless stories and laughs. I'm also pretty sure I drank my weight in Chai.
Lesson 5: Pink city is so pretty. I got a personal, private tour of Jaipur and its famous pink architecture. India is full of vibrant colors and culture and this place was nonstop rainbow madness. In a good way. But I still don't think I could ever drive on these chaotic streets.
Lesson 6: How to talk trash. I've travelled to many Asian countries where rubbish is just a constant part of the landscape. At first it made me angry thinking how people can be so apathetic and just toss their trash on the ground and into waterways without a care. But then Kat helped change my perspective. We Westerners consume just as much if not more garbage than they do in places like India, Sri Lanka and Cambodia. We just have the luxury of waste management that comes around to whisk away our rubbish to designated, well-hidden areas. Out of sight, out of mind, right? These countries have neither the education not the infrastructure to discreetly dispose of garbage even if it was stored properly in bins. I'm not justifying it, just realizing how it happens. But we need to treat the disease, not just treat the symptoms. In other words, more effort should go into reducing the amount of trash - especially plastic - that is consumed in the first place; instead of just improving waste management.
First off, my flight here from Bangkok was pretty terrible and I do not recommend Bangkok Airlines or the Siem Reap airport, but you don't really have a choice with the latter. My plane was sitting on the tarmac with no explanation for at least 30 minutes (the flight is only an hour) and the air con vents in my row weren't working so I spent the flight fanning myself in vain with a safety instruction card but I still got pretty sweaty. The airline is also incredibly wasteful; it's completely unnecessary to give people a moist towelette before takeoff and a crappy in-flight meal (with no vegetarian option I might add) for barely a one hour flight. I was also slightly disappointed to receive American dollars when I withdrew money from the ATM. I quickly learned that it's the standard currency here (at least for tourists and travelers) but you can get some 100 and 1000 Cambodian riel notes here and there as change (instead of US coins).
Admittedly I had very limited knowledge of Siem Reap and Cambodia for that matter when I first included it in my itinerary months ago. I thought Siem Reap was just a temple or two but it turns out there are 100 square kilometers of temples and other ancient ruins scattered around this area, which is unlike anything else I've ever seen. It's a UNESCO World Heritage site, brings in tourists by the busload and it's even part of their national flag. So the flag also kinda functions like a perpetual advertisement, reminding you of how awesome their ancient architecture is, and that you are missing out if you don't come see it! Brilliant.
Seriously, Rome and Athens ain't got nothin' on Siem Reap.
Angkor Wat: The Main One
The main attraction of the Siem Reap temples is Angkor Wat itself, which translates to Capital Temple and is according to Wikipedia is the largest religious monument in the world. It was originally constructed as a Hindu temple dedicated to Vishnu during the reign of King Suryavarman II in the early 12th century but it soon transitioned to a Buddhist temple before the turn of the 13th century.
It's surrounded by a large moat and is west-facing so the sunrises are supposed to be spectacular, but also super crowded with tourists, so I don't think it's worth getting up that early. As I walked up the first few steps toward the bridge, I was talked into renting a tour guide for $15 since I didn't do a ton of research in advance. He spoke decent English and gave me lots of great insight, but also walked me right through the mini market to the left of the temple where I was mobbed by merchants yelling at me to buy their stuff.
Here are some of my humble pictures but there are way better ones online.
Bayon: The One With The Faces
I really liked the rather serene faces, or maybe it was several variations of the same face at this temple. It was built by the Mahayana Buddhist King Jayavarman VII in the late 12th or early 13th century. The faces are thought to symbolize either the king himself or the bodhisattva of compassion.
Ta Prohm: The One With The Trees/Featured in Tomb Raider
This one is your Hollywood-induced picture perfect image of what all ancient temples in forests in movies look like - except it's real life. It was built by the same King Jayavarman VII from Bayon and was meant to be a forest monastery and university for Mahayana Buddhist monks. I love how much nature has started reclaiming the temple ruins. It really inspires your imagination and makes you feel like Indiana Jones or Laura Croft, maybe because parts of the 2001 Tomb Raider movie starring Angeline Jolie were filmed here and no doubt inspired her to adopt her now 14-year-old Cambodian son Maddox in 2002.
Tickets are pretty expensive and there's really no way to get around it because guards check your pass at every temple. A one day pass is $20, the three day, which I opted for, is $40 and a 7 day pass is $60 and you can only get them at this giant booth a few km south of Angkor Wat. Then there's the cost of transportation, either a bicycle, motorbike, tuk-tuk, car, mini-van or bus, except my bike was free to use from my hotel.
There's the small loop which is relatively close together and includes the most famous sites of Angkor Wat, Bayon and Ta Prohm and a few other sites that are stoptional. No matter what time you go, these spots are always covered with tourists like ants swarming a lollipop. This is the area that I spent two days and over 100 km bicycling. I probably could have done it in a day if I didn't get lost a few times and if I didn't have to bike 10 km each way to and from my hotel.
The big loop includes a bunch of other miscellaneous sites that are more spread out so I hired a tuk tuk driver for $20 for this. Not only do you see a few more temples, but you also see more authentic Cambodian culture and landscape. I loved buzzing by all the little villages and rice paddies. There are also a lot less tourists.
The forecast is always hot with 100% chance of sweating so I am glad I wore my lightweight, quick dry synthetic trekking top and pants from REI. You should cover up shoulders, torsos and knees both to protect yourself from the sun and to be respectful of the people and places you are visiting.
You will have local merchants and kids begging you to buy things at every single temple. Magnets, postcards, elephant pants, scarves, paintings, guidebooks, etc. The kids are the hardest to say no to, as they will always tell you that the money is for school, but they're most likely being exploited because they should actually be in school - not selling trinkets to tourists.
More Advice on Trip Advisor.
After two weeks at the temple in Fang, I took a minibus on Sunday back to Chiangmai, which consisted of a three hour journey and two military checkpoint stops.
I stayed in a capsule hostel on the edge of the city that cost $4 USD per night. It had great reviews on Hostelworld but I wasn't a huge fan. Especially when two French dudes stumbled in after midnight and woke up pretty much everyone in the dorm.
After at least a dozen different Mirandala (Miranda + mandala) sketches, I was finally satisfied enough with a design to have it permanently etched into my skin. It's more of an abstract lotus to represent this incredible journey during which I feel like I've started blossoming and it's located approximately where my heart chakra would be.
I went to the Master Tattoo shop and a cool dude named Aan took just over two hours to transfer the design in the traditional Thai style, using a piece of bamboo dipped in ink instead of a mechanical needle. It feels like exactly what it is, someone slowly and methodically stabbing you with a sharp stick. The pain was comparable to a modern tat and particularly hurt around the spine area and when he did the dots and the thicker lines. I'm super happy with how it turned out but it wasn't the cheap Thai prices you get accustomed to for everything else. It cost me 5,000 baht or about $140 USD, but with my limited knowledge of American ink, I think it still cost me less than it would have in the States. It you want to make bank in Thailand, be a tattoo artist.
That night I saw my first Muay Thai fight, which is basically Thai kick-boxing. The ring was a proper underground venue that had bars on all sides and smelled like cigarettes, sweat and tiger balm. I paid 600 baht for my VIP ringside ticket and happened to sit next to three Chinese guys.
There were 5 warm up fights, a main mens fight and a ladies' title fight between a Thai and a Canadian. The guys were all Thai, progressing from the lowest weight classes that barely broke 100 lbs up to about my weight. Yes, I was a bit shocked that I weigh more than I think all but two of the fighters but Thai people tend to be smaller and some of the first few kids couldn't have been over 18.
There was an intermission of sorts where two guys choreographically battled it out with swords, presumably because they both showed up wearing the same outfit: blue boxer briefs and a red bandana. I instantly thought of a Liu Kang vs. Liu Kang Mortal Kombat fight, sans the levitating bicycle kicks, and actually yelled "Finish Him!" at one point. After that was a comedic Blind Boxing match where three small guys and one fat guy walked around the ring punching each other while blindfolded.
It was a late night because almost all of the fights lasted 4 or 5 rounds and there was only like one knock out. The Canadian "Cocoapuff" ended up winning the belt in the Ladies title fight and I rode in a tuk-tuk back to my "crap-sule" just after midnight. It's a bit out of character and my first live fight but I have to admit I really enjoyed it.
Midweek I transferred to new accommodation in the heart of the city, which turned out to be one of my most favorites throughout my whole trip. I was searching for yoga in Chiangmai and came across a 3 day package that included a morning and an evening group practice, my own little private bungalow and a daily green smoothie and bottle of local Kombucha. Only moments after arriving at Bluebird Eco Village, I was smitten and impulsively extended my stay to 5 days, encompassing all the time I had left in Chiangmai. (More on this in the next post about staying and eating sustainably in Chiangmai.)
Despite loving the location I was in, I got a bad case of the Traveler Blues (not to be confused with the harmonica-loving 90's band of the reverse name). I guess if you travel alone long enough, you are bound to get lonely. I tried everything to shake it. Checked social media, still not happy. Morning yoga class, still not happy. Meditation in my room, still not happy. Reading my book, still not happy - although admittedly it's a book about the Pol Pot regime so I wasn't really expecting that to cheer me up. Ate healthy food, still not happy. Ate not-healthy food, still not happy. Took a walk outside and visited some local museums, still not happy. Took a nap, still not happy. I finally snapped out of it when I met some really interesting people that later checked in to the village.
The Blues are the worst part but the best part of travel is meeting people that are way more interesting and inspiring than you are. I first met a chick from Canada who stared traveling the same time I did around June, except she is on a hiatus/sabbatical because unlike most of 'Merica, employers in our Northern Neighbor Nation actually believe people should have periods of enjoyable breaks from their jobs. Anyways, she brought her own bike and cycled/camped across Europe for three months before flying to Southeast Asia and peddling across Vietnam and Cambodia. She also came to some of the yoga classes.
Then I met a super cool, super talented kid from Colorado that was on a bit of a break as well... from dancing in Taylor Swift's 1989 World Tour. Wait, what? Yep. Wow. They all get a few days off between China and Australia so instead of going home, he decided to stay in the area. I'd already been in Chiangmai a few days and have extensive tour guide experience from my days working at the Admissions Office during University so I volunteered to show him around.
We ate dinner at one of my favorite Veg joints nearby then strolled around the main streets of the city. Then we headed back to the Muay Thai venue, because everyone just needs to experience this while in Thailand. I'm making it mandatory. There were a lot more KO's this time and the 'lady fights' were far better and more entertaining than the mens'. Again there was a Canadian chick, who I suspect may also work as a lumberjack back home based on her size and strength, but she lost on points to her smaller yet faster and more agile Thai opponent.
The next day we rented scooters and ventured out of the city towards Mae Rim to find some more "nature-y stuff." My scooter was much more bad-ass than the old beat up ones I had in Bali, and resembled a scooter version of the Bumblebee autobot, which I half-expected to transform at any moment. (But it didn't.)
We followed signs up winding, mountain roads to the Tard Mork waterfall. All green everything! And the mountain air was so fresh and so clean (clean).The scenery was amazing and we hiked far off the beaten path near the falls. Despite the ominous high grass with mystery burial mounds and hidden holes, a handful of thorns and two leech attacks, I still had a blast.
As we were riding back down the mountain towards the main road, we came upon rather festive occasion with loud, live music happening in the shadow of a large temple. We cautiously pulled in on our scooters and the group of questionably-sober, middle-aged Thai people beckoned for us to join them. They immediately offered us chairs and poured us some rum drinks, which we watered down because we still had a ways to go on our scooters. This was so much fun and my friend ended up in a dance battle with a little, old yet very spry Thai guy in a baggy blue suit. Another Thai guy that was missing most of his teeth was very seriously and intently explaining something to me in Thai, and I kept telling him I didn't understand but he would just nod and keep telling me and pointing in the opposite direction. I finally asked one of the ladies at the table to translate and it turns out he was trying to direct me to the bathrooms.
It was all a bit surreal - like we totally crashed this Thai party and everyone loved it and now everyone has a great story to share with all their friends and family. You're welcome (lol). They took a ton of pictures of and with us before we graciously made our exit. We stopped at a simple, roadside cafe for dinner and I forgot to ask if the veggies were spicy so of course they burned my face off when I tried to eat them. We rode the rest of the way back to the eco-village in the dark and even through a brief rain shower that bordered on refreshing.
Conveniently located next to the village was a temple which happened to host a "Monk Chat" on Saturday and Sunday evenings where they were clearly targeting tourists to come learn more about Thai culture and Buddhism. The two of us headed over and talked with a monk named Bin for probably close to an hour. It was really interesting and insightful and I think everyone left at least a little bit more enlightened.
I spent the night packing up my laundry - my incredible, intoxicatingly fresh, machine-washed and dried clothes - the first proper wash they've received in 6 weeks - before falling asleep a little bit too late. I woke up early to return my rented scooter and then it was time for me to take a red Thai open cab to the airport. There's one of those crappy parts of traveling again - having to say bittersweet goodbyes to awesome people (this includes the adorable owner of the village) that you meet. I definitely left part of myself in Thailand - beyond just the buckets of mid-day sweat and the bit of blood lost to the thorns and leeches. I totally could have hung around there for another day or two. Le sigh.
I spent my last few days on a quiet beach called Balangan on the south east coast. I whittled away the days reading, writing, yoga-ing and indulging in fried Warung foods.
I met the most inspiring Brazilian ex-pat who surfs regularly and teaches yoga everyday on the beach at sunset. His happiness was palpable and contagious and he saw each sunset as if it was his first and most favorite one ever - even though I'm pretty sure he's been here for years. The class wasn't even really a challenge for me and I did my own practice in the mornings anyways - I just went to soak up the positive energy and the fiery colors streaked across the sky. So if you're ever in the area, you'll find Max at 5 PM with a pile of yoga mats just past the Balangan beachfront Warungs, overlooking the beach.
Bali is now hovering towards the top of my travel list, but it's not without its own issues. As with Sri Lanka and India, stray dogs and burning piles of rubbish can be found everywhere. And the surge of tourism is a double-edged sword. With the additional dollars comes additional pollution and damage to the natural resources like the reefs, which I witnessed first hand. I would love to create a grassroots ad campaign to encourage long term strategy and sustainability for both locals and tourists to keep Bali beautiful.
And smoking seems to be the national sport as 99% of Indonesian men I met had a cigarette in his mouth at some point. According to Wikipedia, Indonesia is the fifth largest tobacco market in the world with almost 60 million smokers (34% of the population) throughout the nation of islands. It's a particular problem with children. You remember that viral YouTube video of a nicotine-addicted two year old chain smoking? Yeah, that was Indonesia.
Regardless, the past month here in Bali is now a blur of memories that feels like it's gone by as fast as a one-thumbed scroll up through my Instagram gallery. I arrived with next to no plan and ended up making everything up as I went along and have had so many unexpected excitening (exciting + enlightening) experiences. I learned a lot and have the bumps and bruises to prove it. I scootered and speedboated and surfed my way around this place in awe of the unique culture, architecture and the natural beauty all contained within its relatively small borders. I left part of myself on the beautiful island and you better believe I'll be back for it someday!
I spent two Mondays off in Mysore city and they were both fantastic. Compared to what I've seen on TV and other peoples' own tales of India Travel, it seems like Diet India - cleaner, less crowded and slightly less chaotic, than your typical tourist city like Mumbai or Delhi.
I enjoyed some relaxing massages at a spa called Windflower and visited some local sites like the temples, the cow and the palace. We also had an interesting experience traipsing through a traditional Indian market, complete with seller-stalkers that followed us all the way to our cab, trying to sell us trinkets.
Mysore is a famous spot for all the Ashtanga yogis, so there were tons of cute yoga-themed shops and other ahsrams/teacher training facilities. We stocked up on snacks, essential oils and supplements at Dhatu, a mini, Mysore version of Whole Foods Market.
I could go on, but I think the pictures can say more than I can type.
During our second trip, we drove to the Namdroling [Tibetan Buddhist] Monastery aka the Golden Temple in Bylakuppe. The sights and sounds here were incredible - one of the most inspiring places I've ever been. We arrived during one of their prayer times, so we heard the chanting of hundreds of monks ranging from like 8 - 80 years old. The deep voices were accompanies by deep gongs and the sound traveled through your ears and straight to your soul. It was almost mesmerizing. Not to mention the temples were ornately decorated with ginormous, golden Buddha statues, a rainbow of colors & murals and intricate carvings. I am officially adding Tibet to my travel list!
A group of six of us spent our last Monday off in and around Kerala. (More in a separate post.)
Then it was nonstop after that. Tuesday was my second time teaching my group but this time I had to demonstrate all levels of each asana: beginner, intermediate and advanced. This made time management a bit more challenging and I had to reduce the total number of postures in the sequence to make sure we finished in 90 minutes. The class went well and I got some great feedback including I seemed to have found my "yoga voice" and ideal flow and energy for the class.
The only change I needed to make at the end during yoga nidra when I was walking circles around the students, who were trying to simultaneously relax and follow my perpetually moving voice - two things that kind of counteract each other. I just have to remember to relax a bit more myself at the end and just sit comfortably in one spot.
I liked most of the morning classes that week except for the reverse day when we started with my favorite inversions and back bends and ended with standing/balancing asanas, instead of the usual sequence. This was intentional so that we would feel more grounded at the end with the blood and energy pumping towards our feet instead of towards our heads.
I also asked our main teacher, Vinod, to give me a mantra that I could use for future meditation and self-encouragement. Only a true guru can create a secret, individualized mantra for a student but Vinod agreed to help me pick an existing one. Only after some lengthy, insightful discussions about several other topics. He really seems to like to help/council students when they take the initiative to ask for it.
So I'm the end I did pick a mantra but I'm still keeping it to and for myself.
My First Reike
Fellow teacher-in-training, Amanda from Canada is a. Level 2 Reike practitioner so I asked if I could have a reading. She obliged. I didn't have to do much - just lay there with closed eyes and an open mind.
I tried to clear out all my thoughts. We were outside so I felt the soft breeze and the warmth of the sun on my skin and heard the birds chirping in all directions. The session lasted 10-15 minutes.
I felt tingly in some places at different times: hands, feet, tummy, head. Not sure if this was intangible energy concentration or just my body sensing her physical proximity to mine. (Kept this to myself until after she told me what she felt.) Was only touched when her hands were briefly around my ankles.
Afterwards she said that she felt blockage in my solar plexus, which corresponds with my Manipura chakra. Which relates to my core and my digestive system - which coincidentally both suck at doing what they're supposed to do. (However I feel like I've made significant progress in both areas during my time here at the ashram.)
Also that this blockage was probably preventing energy from making it all the way to my hands/feet in the extremities. Makes sense I guess.
The most active areas were from the waist up - especially in the temple area. She said she could feel energy easily flowing back and forth there. This corresponds with how overactive I feel that my mind is and how I rated myself on chakra activity during our lesson yesterday. I definitely feel most active in my Anahata, Vishuddi and Anja chakras and feel I have untapped potential in my Sahasrara. And I love all the asanas that correspond to these chakras.
Amanda asked me to let her know how I slept that night. So here goes. That night I had some pretty incredible sleep. It's the first night that I have gotten up to go to the toilet. Actually, I don't think I woke up at all until my alarm went off. (I don't remember the last time I slept thru an entire night uninterrupted.) I also tend to toss and turn and get tangled up in my sheets like a long-sleeved shirt in a washing machine. But I woke up comfortably and more or less in the same position i was in when I fell asleep.
I had vivid dreams about doing yoga at the ashram. Every other night, my dreams have been a non sensual mashup of past, present and future. (For example, last week I dreamed that people from my last two places of employment were offering me freelance jobs but I couldn't do both and had to choose between the two.) this makes me think that my energy and awareness is more focused on the present, as it should be.
Maybe I was just really tired from the accumulation of the physical, mental and emotional expenditure these past three weeks. Or maybe this was more than a coincidence and there's something legit to this Reike stuff.
Saturday night we had a second talent show, during which I recorded my slightly remixed stand up routine (due to popular demand) from the first show. It wasn't the unexpected, uproarious laughter from the first round, but still an overall success I guess. (Warning: Might not be as funny to outsiders. You kinda had to be there to get all the references.)
I'm also super excited that I was able to finish the new logo and logo variations for the ashram. It was great to get back on my computer and use Creative Suite again since I've been pretty much neglecting both of them for the past several months. I don't wanna get rusty!
The closing ceremony was on Monday but I had to leave a day early on Sunday because the time allotted by my stupid 30-day tourist e-visa was up. So they moved the traditional last day 108 Sun Salutation (Surya Namaskara) challenge to Sunday so I could participate. Yay.
Seriously though, it wasn't as bad as I thought it was going to be. If fact, I was definitely sweater but no more tired than I am after our normal morning classes featuring a variety of asanas.
So I got my RYS Yoga Alliance-certified teaching certificate at the end of Krish's class that day. Then I had to rush to export and transfer all the logo files then pack before my taxi came to pick me up at 4 PM. It was pouring rain as I headed up the now muddy path struggling to balance my rucksack, backpack, purse and umbrella and keep everything (including myself) as dry as possible. My driver was there waiting and helped me load everything into the rather small car and then I sprinted to the dining hall to return my cabin keys before heading off into the wet abyss towards Bangalore. After a quick cup of Chai and one last toilet pit stop, I sloshed into the car and we were on our way.
Supposedly under ideal conditions, it takes about 4 hours to get from the Ashram to the Bangalore Airport. But today was far from that. (Today's trip took over 6 hours one way.) The rains came down forcefully like we were driving through a perpetual car wash.
We finally made it to the airport 6 hours later just after 10:30 PM. I had an hour and a half to check my bag and clear customs before the stroke of midnight when my backpack turned back into a pumpkin, my passport into a butterfly and my Birkenstocks turned back into the cows from which they came. Either that or midnight was when my visa expired and I could end up detained and/or barred from any future entry to India.
I made it through with a few minutes to spare and binged on a vegetarian combo meal (really wasn't sure exactly what I was eating - except for the chocolate cake) since I had been food-deprived for almost 9 hours. I boarded my flight and we took off relatively on time: 1:05 AM. (Such weird and inconvenient flight times here.) then I was off to Singapore followed by my final destination, Bali!
Staying at the ashram for a month was an incredible and unforgettable experience but the real challenge is going to be perpetuating the principles and lifestyles that were so easy to maintain in isolation and with dedicated teachers. Once we're all scattered off on our own separate paths, it's up to us to keep the spirit of AyurYoga alive and hopefully help it flourish.
When you're a kid, going away to a special spot surrounded by nature its called summer camp. When you do it as an adult, it's called a retreat. I'm somewhere in between here at Ayur- Yoga Eco Ashram located about an hour outside of Mysore in Southern India. (You know you're getting close when there are more cows than cars on the road.)
It took 5 terrifying hours to get here from the Bangalore airport in the middle of the night but once I arrived, and had a nap, I realized I am in my own personal paradise.
The Ashram is spread out over several acres on a grassy slope that leads down to a river. The dining hall is at the top of the hill above a small studio and about 20 cabins. The main octagon-shaped studio looks like a giant gazebo and is situated down closest to the water with panoramic windows and a red, concrete floor. The rest of the land belongs to nature and is a mixture of organic fruits and vegetables, trees and flowers. (They grow a lot of our food here as well.) There are colorful clumps of flowers dispersed like confetti across the grass. Butterflies come in just as many colors as and mingle erratically with the flora. Seriously, I don't remember the last time I saw so many free flying butterflies. They're everywhere.
Although it's August and the rainy season, the weather is still pretty incredible. It's often cloudy and rains intermittently throughout the day, which causes the horizon to disappear into a haze in all directions. Sometimes if the clouds dissipate enough, you can see the silhouettes of the hills in the distance and heaps of palm trees in front of them. And once in a while, we'll be treated an incredible view of the night sky when the clouds feel like giving the stars a little time to shine. The temperature hovers around a perfect 80 during the day and drops just enough to need a light hoodie or sweatshirt at night.
Our cabins are the perfect size and level of comfort. There are singles and doubles and they are adorably constructed, almost fairy-take like. The beds are ful- sized, as opposed to twin-sized, and the pillows, sheets and mattresses are all clean & comfortable. We have a large cabinet to share as well as a desk and a nightstand. The bathroom has a toilet capable of flushing toilet paper and the shower has hot water, supplied by a solar powered heater! There is a small porch out front where you can read, admire the view or hang your wet, bucket-washed clothes to dry.
So here's a typical day at yogi summer camp.
Someone walks around with a wake up bell at 5:30. I'm already up because I always wake up at 5. I'm usually braiding my hair by the time the bell gets to my cabin.
Meditation led by Swami Prabodh starts in the gazebo at 6 AM, for which we all wear white clothes. It's kind of cultish but kind of cool at the same time. I didn't have room for any whites in my rucksack so I was happy to scavenge some from a bag of clothes left behind by previous students. I got an embroidered tunic and linen drawstring pants with two little wooden balls on the ends of the strings that fit very comfortably.
Mediation lasts 30 minutes. Everything is still pretty dimly lit at dawn when we start and by the time we're done, the sun is up and the sky is bright. I'm still struggling to find the perfect position that doesn't make one of my legs go numb. It looks easy from the outside but being alone with yourself and your thoughts is one of the hardest things to do.
At 6:30 we have the option to walk up to the dining hall and have a "hot drink." It not quite tea - just hot water with some natural flavoring a like lemon or ginger. After a few minutes it's time to head back to the cabin and change for morning yoga practice led by Vinod which starts at 7 AM and lasts two hours. Vinod is like a compact-sized, shaved-bald basketball player with lean muscles and the most animated personality. An incredible & admirable teacher.
Every day is different but one things remains constant: sun salutations. I hate the way we are taught to do them here - seems choppier and more awkward than the vinyasa flow that I learned back home. I can't help but get angrier with each repetition. I think our record so far has been 20 in a row, which is more like 40 because you do the same sequence on each leg. Thankfully they're always at the beginning so after we get them over with, I am on a steady incline towards bliss at the end of the practice. (Unless we do core work, then I'm a bit angry again, lol.)
During practice and meditation, there is no music. Just the birds and crickets trying to out-chirp one another.
After class everyone makes their way back to the dining hall for Breakfast. I think the dining hall is intentionally uphill, as far away as possible from the studio to give us more exercise. We have to earn those meals! We grab our round, metal trays and progress down the line to fill up the four sections buffet style. The general formula is: raw veggies that they define as a salad, a protein dish containing lentils or chickpeas or beans, chapati, some kind of other veggie dish and your choice of milk tea or ginger lemon tea.
Oh and quiet time is from 10 PM til 10 AM so we are silent until after breakfast, which is actually pretty nice. When you're not distracted by other people, you notice so much else. For instance, there are so many birds and butterflies fluttering around that it feels like I'm in a vintage Disney movie.
Ten thirty marks the beginning of our first class, Yoga Sutras, with Swami. P. He's like a brown, balding, gray-bearded yoda/smigel that tends to talk in circles. We sit, constantly shifting and fidgeting, on mats and cushions on the floor and he sits perfectly cross-legged facing us at the front of the room and delivers esoteric lectures on subjects like consciousness, detachment and the correct meaning of I. Sometimes it's hard to stay awake so I maintain my own consciousness by massaging my feet. Then students are allowed to ask questions and he sorta-but-not-really answers them and lastly we have to chant the 51 Samadhi Pada yoga sutras in Sanskrit at the end. (Basically the same themes and ideas from the movie Avatar.)
Free time starts after class, about noon. You can either do some extra asana practice, read, take a walk or take a nap. At 1:30 lunch is served which is fruit and fruit juice. Everything tastes so fresh and so clean (clean) and the selection is different everyday. My favorites have been pomegranate, papaya, mango, this rice/rice flake/banana mixture and drinking coconut water straight from local coconuts with a straw.
Our next and more technical class Yoga Anatomy & Physiology (and a bit of history) starts at 2:30 led by Krishna. He's tall and sinewy with a short black ponytail, glasses and shorter grating beard. His toes are well separated and his voice slow and soothing - pretty much the ideal image of a yoga guru. This is where we learn how yoga affects, interacts with and often improves the systems of the body. It's very interesting and practical advice and information.
Our last class of the day is a teaching workshop at 4:30, again led by Vinod, where we examine a few asanas (poses) at a time in more depth. We discuss the common corrections you need to help students make, injuries that can prevent someone from doing them and their overall affect on the body. It typically ends with us splitting into pairs and teaching each other.
Then it's finally dinner time at seven o'clock and we all trudge back up to the dining hall for the fourth and final time that day. The selection is similar to breakfast and some random days it includes a small dessert. Dessert days are my favorite days of course. The food has ranged from ok to incredible but my tummy hasn't felt this good in a long time, so that's the best part.
Some nights there are activities after dinner like watching a video or chanting with instruments. The videos have been an interesting supplement to our daily schedule but I still can't say I enjoy the chanting.
By this time it's getting late, and by late I mean 9 PM so I try to squeeze in a quick hot shower and some reading before bed. I am beyond grateful for this incredible experience.