A Beautiful Bicycle Ride Around Bodensee Lake (300 Words)

Bodensee is a massive, natural lake with shores in three different countries. Here, you can bike through Switzerland, Austria and Germany all in one day. (And you can see Lichtenstein too!)

My sister, brother-in-law and I thought it would be a good idea to go here during a long holiday weekend. Apparently, lots of other people had the same idea.

We took a train from Zurich to Konstanz then biked to a ferry and crossed the lake to Meersburg.

The views include lakeside villages, the Alps, vineyards, forests, apple orchards and roadside gardens. 

Sometimes it felt like we were part of a peloton but mostly it was wide open roads.

It took us at least an hour to find a room for the night and we ended up booking the last two rooms for €160 at a hotel that resembled an old farmhouse called Dorfkrug between the towns of Langenargen and Krossbronn.

This is German territory so naturally there was a bier garten out back. We enjoyed traditional Bavarian dinner and breakfast here as well. 

We stopped in Lindau, Germany for a coffee break and a quick walk around the tiny island. A famous German storybook from my brother-in-law's childhood about a music box maker named Augustin was set here. 

 fairytale tower in Lindau

fairytale tower in Lindau

My brother-in-law departed for a faster and more challenging ride through the hills while my sister and I continued to Bregens, Austria where we had lunch and caught a train to Munich.

In total, we traveled about 60 KM from Konstanz to Bregens which is about 25% of the 256 km of bike paths around the lake. The weather was perfection!

I'd love to come back someday and bike around the whole lake. So glad I got to spend some quality, family time in such a beautiful setting!

Much Love,

10 Simple, Free or Low-Cost Things to Do For More Authentic & Adventurous Travel (125 Words)

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

 Holi is celebrated in Nepal and India in March

Holi is celebrated in Nepal and India in March

 Local produce in Cairns, Australia

Local produce in Cairns, Australia

 Local fruit shake with a new friend in Nusa Penida 

Local fruit shake with a new friend in Nusa Penida 

 Riding the local Circle Train in Yangon, Myanmar

Riding the local Circle Train in Yangon, Myanmar

 Street Art + Yoga in Singapore

Street Art + Yoga in Singapore

What's something you enjoy doing to enhance your travel experience? 

Much Love,

Review of Foreign Volunteering and Meditation at Thabarwa Center in Thanlyin near Yangon, Myanmar (325 Words)

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). 

Much Love,

Life in Suburban Kathmandu, Nepal

I had an adventure on a public bus from Changu Narayan to Kathmandu. It was blaring Nepali (or Hindi?) techno music and people were stuffed inside like sardines and kids were even riding on the roof. 

I got off at the last stop and got a taxi to take me the rest of the way to my home stay location. It was literally in the shadow of Swayumbhunath, the Monkey Temple that I had visited once before. The house was four stories high with marble floors and steps. My room was located on the third floor but wasn't ready yet so I had lunch and tea and the fourth floor balcony and was warmly welcomed by a small army of pugs.

It's a pretty full house. The house is owned by Janak and his wife Pushpa and they have a daughter. There are at least half a dozen village boys that live on the second floor in order to go to school in town. During the day, the first floor functions as a daycare for another six or so special needs kids and two older ladies manage that group. Two sisters named Sonita and Anita from a village do all the cooking and cleaning. Then there are three bedrooms devoted to volunteers like myself and there were three others when I arrived. 

Then there are the dogs. Based on the workaway profile, I thought they would all be strays, but it turns out they were quite the opposite. My job was to walk them in the mornings and evenings. 

Rambo is a big, strong, somewhat intimidating German Shepard but his bark is bigger than his bite. I always had to keep him from eating other dogs poop on the road. Goldie and Whitie are two Retrievers named after their coat colors. Amy was a Boxer with way too much energy who took me for walks for the first two days but then was adopted by another family. Cherry is a cocker spaniel who had puppies a couple days after I arrived. There were three pugs: Puggy, the youngest, Abby, Puggy's mother and Sweetie, who was very pregnant (or maybe PUGnant - dog pun!). Then lastly there was a black German Shepard puppy who was yet to be named. Oh and Cinderella the street dog who just kind of hung around outside the house. 

I don't personally support dog (or cat) breeding of any kind, especially when there are so many neglected on the streets, but at least I know the dogs here are well taken care of.

I think they had a generator because not once do I remember experiencing a power cut. The Internet was great and I had my room all to myself for most of the time. French toast was served daily for breakfast and Dal bhat with rice and veggies for lunch and dinner. The main food staples in Nepal seem to be bread, eggs, rice, potatoes and lentils (main ingredient in dal bhat.) And there was always a hot thermos of tea waiting in the kitchen. (I think more Westerners should adopt this practice instead of using single serve k-cups on demand.) 

I really enjoyed my stay and felt like part of the family. It felt so much more authentic and personal. Pushpa even whipped out the steam machine and some cumin tea when I started getting the sniffles. That definitely wouldn't happen at a hotel. 

Time just flew by and my week there was soon over. I am definitely staying again should I ever return to Kathmandu. 

Rural Life in Changu Narayan, Nepal

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. 

 Cooking on the wood stove

Cooking on the wood stove

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. 

 Lunch time or First Dahl Baat

Lunch time or First Dahl Baat

 On the menu: dal bhat, rice and potatoes

On the menu: dal bhat, rice and potatoes

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. 

 One of many trickle wells in the area.

One of many trickle wells in the area.

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. 

 Hoping the tree doesn't fall on the house

Hoping the tree doesn't fall on the house

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: 

5 Tools for Traveling More Sustainably

Airports - and travel in general - are notorious for mindless indulgence. You're easily preoccupied with making sure you get where you need to go, tempted by the endless offerings of duty free items and "disposable" grab and go products and very possibly sleep deprived if you're taking a flight from Charlotte to New York to London to Kuwait to Delhi to Jaipur, for example. 

Not to mention, there is more than enough rubbish littering the landscape in the otherwise beautiful countries through which I like to travel. I'm only recommending investment in these products because I use them myself and it will drastically reduce your consumption of 'disposable' products later.  

  1. Bamboo utensils - This nifty set contains a fork, spoon, knife and chopsticks carved from oh-so-sustainable bamboo. I spare countless plastic utensils in airports and on planes a one way ticket to the trashcan. 
  2. Collapsible silicone cup - You should see some of the looks I get from flight attendants when I whip this little baby out. They range from surprise to amazement but they are usually always impressed and willing to fill it up with my choice of bubbly beverage (usually ginger ale). On particularly long flights like Sydney to LA, I've seen people breeze through up to 8 plastic cups without a care. 
  3. Compact, reusable Enviro bags - I try not to shop too much but I will inevitably have to buy something so each time I reuse this bag, it's one more battle won against my arch nemesis: the ubiquitous plastic bag. Any reusable bag made from canvas, cloth or recycled materials will do! 
  4. Water bottle - As long as you have a reliable source, any reusable water bottle will save you so much money on pre-bottled water and reduces waste. I'm particularly conscious of plastic bottles because it's what I see littering the streets, land and ocean most often. If your water source is questionable, I highly recommend a Lifestraw water bottle with built in filter. I've used it to drink tap water in Bali, Cambodia, Sri Lanka and Vietnam.
  5. Glass straw - I don't always use straws but when I do, I prefer one that doesn't get thrown away after one use. Note: To make the most impact with this one, let whoever is preparing your cocktail or chopping the top off of your fresh coconut that you have a straw or better yet, show them. Straws are just handed out like candy at a confectioners convention. 

Here's what I bought from Amazon:

The reusable, foldable shopping bag I bought in Singapore, but you can buy them online.  Any reusable bag will work. 

Of course you don't have to be on your way to an exotic location to use these tools - they're great for everyday use! 

Trekking the Annapurna Circuit, Himalayas, Nepal

Let me just preface this by saying that I had no idea what I would be getting myself into with this whole trekking thing. I have lived at sea level for the past decade and in no way trained for this experience. But it's Nepal and trekking is pretty much the top tourist magnet here. Turns out, it's totally worth the hype. 

DAY 1 / KATHMANDU - POKHARA

The first leg of the trip involved a six hour bus ride from Khatmandu to Pohkara.  Fellow trekkers Julienne from Canada, Deepak from Singapore and Julienne's Nepalese guide, Babu were on the bus as well. These busses go back and forth every day taking tourists to realize their dreams of seeing some Himalayan mountain tops. The busses are all labeled "TOURIST" in huge letters on the front windshield but if the bus is not full upon departure, it picks up and drops off locals in between. In addition to these, we had three longer stops, one for a toilet break (think holes in the ground, not your cushy rest stops in the US), one stop for breakfast and one for lunch. 

 Lakeside Sunset in Pokhara

Lakeside Sunset in Pokhara

After arriving in Pokhara, a driver took us and all our luggage to our hotel called Third Pole. Pokhara is a lovely, lakeside town that is just as touristy as Kathmandu but much cleaner, calmer and quieter. Julienne and I walked and talked around the lake before meeting back at the hotel where Kumar, my and Deepak's guide was waiting. We all then walked along the lake again and after passing on a few restaurants for various reasons, we ended up at a Tibetan restaurant, starving and ready to eat the table and chairs. The service was probably the slowest I've ever had in my life and the whole experience took over two hours. The Tibetan bread was amazing but everything else was meh. 

DAY 2 / POKHARA - NAYAPOL

The following morning, Deepak and I combined a few things into my rucksack and met adorable, young porter named Subus. Now that our six person group was complete, we left Pokhara via van around 9:30 AM. 

It was a rather perilous road trip up the mountain. The roads are in desperate need of repair in many places. Our guides said the India trade embargo is one reason the roads are not being maintained. The air is very hazy and often obscures the view. No doubt air pollution from the cities in Nepal, China and India sadly drifts and settles here. 

NAYAPOL - TIKHEDUNGA

The car dropped us off in a small village called Nayapol. We walked on a rocky road for about an hour and a half before stopping at a roadside cafe for lunch. Apparently it takes a minimum of 1 hour to get your food. I'm assuming they cook everything from scratch. I thoroughly enjoyed my ginger tea and veg momo; steamed dumplings stuffed with basil, onion, carrot and mystery greens with a pink dipping sauce of tomato/garlic/spices. (Mo mo and dahl bhat are the two most common dishes on the trek, and in Nepal in general.) 

We walked another 45 min-hour and arrived at guest house around 4 PM. Since donkeys are the main mode of transportation up here, you have to constantly be on the lookout for piles of donkey crap on the steps and the trails. And you'll probably stop more than once to let a caravan of them pass by. 

I am eternally grateful to our adorable young porter for carrying my bag. I think this is the tipping point that is going to make me pack lighter from now on. 

The first guest house is simple but has clean looking linens, beds and hot showers. There were no outlets in the rooms so I have to charge my phone in the kitchen. So glad I didn't bring my GoPro and a bunch of other gadgets that would need charging. I decided to find a place to meditate before dinner. 

This really is luxury trekking. I enjoyed a hot shower (even too hot at times before I figured out the knobs) and a delicious dinner. I had Dahl bhat with rice, sautéed spinach and potatoes with hot ginger tea to drink. Afterwards, our guides surprised us with an artistically arranged plate of apple and orange slices surrounding a pile of pomegranate seeds in the middle. The food and fruit was deliciously austere. Julienne, Deepak and I conversed a bit more before bet and I think the two of us have persuaded him to commit to vegetarianism again. 

I picked up my phone from the power strip in the kitchen and went to my room, 105. I did my anti-rheumatic yoga series and some reading before snuggling up inside my sleeping bag for the night. 

 Stairs are just a daily part of life for the locals

Stairs are just a daily part of life for the locals

DAY 3 / TIKHEDUNGA - GHOREPANI

Day three was the most intense part of the trek. It was a 5.5 hour uphill battle against steep inclines and stone steps. I was part of a group of six - me, two other Trekkers, two Nepali guides and a porter - but the only person I was competing with was myself. I knew the only way to get through it was to go nonstop so for four hours from roughly 8 AM to exactly noon, so that's what I did. (I did have to pause briefly a few times to make way for a few caravans of transport donkeys to pass but I kept my feet moving.)  I had no idea how many steps there were ahead of or behind me and I had no sense of time. I was just completely focused on the next step. My unofficial mantra was "one more step." Because no matter where you are on the trail, there's always one more step. I felt incredibly present and so focused. We stopped for a lunch break at noon but after refueling on fried rice, I finished the remaining 1.5 hours the same way. 

My journey became a live tortoise and the hare parody. I kept trudging along at my glacial pace while my guide Kumar would hike up ahead of me, plop down on a rock, sometimes making a phone call or two or having a snack. I would walk by, gain a bit of ground and then he would catch up and overtake me again. Slow and steady finishes the race. I'm not guaranteeing you'll win, but you'll at least make it to the end. And that was my only goal: finishing. Also, by taking slow and mindful steps, I'm sure there was less impact/wear & tear on my joints so that should help prevent some future physical pain and suffering. 

A few thoughts wandered into my mind but I just acknowledged them and let them briskly pass by, like the German-speaking groups that whizzed past me with walking poles and large packs that were surely born and raised in the Alps. 

And even they are no big deal compared to the local Nepali people that hike up and down these steps like it's their job - because in most cases, it is. I passed a group of kids (or rather they passed me) that were practically sprinting down the stairs towards school in their uniforms. Which means they commute up and down these steps five days a week for probably at least a decade. And then there's the adults who carry heavy loads on their backs that are tethered around their foreheads while wearing flip flops. Not to mention how exponentially more work it is to build the steps in the first place than just to traverse them. These passing thoughts helped keep me motivated. After all, thousands of other people have completed this trek before me and thousands more will do it after I'm done. 

Our guides claim that we climbed over 3,000 steps toward the summit. Uneven, randomly spaced steps that were just flat rocks hammered into the dirt. But the only number that mattered to me was one. One more step. This little droplet of enlightenment really makes me excited to make trekking more of a regular habit. 

DAY 4 / GHOREPANI - POON HILL

I woke up early 4 AM to trek up to the summit of Poon Hill to watch the sun rise over Annapurna. You guessed it, more stairs. This time in the pre-dawn darkness and extremely packed with people. (The sunrise trek is somewhat of a bottleneck on the trail; this is the only time I encountered so many people at once during the trek.) 

Not to mention poor Julienne was sick and vomiting most of the morning but she's a rock star and still managed to reach the summit and trek to Tadapani later. The mighty mountains looked just as I had expected; jagged snow-capped peaks rising out of the mist. I saw a splash of color from the sunrise but it was mostly obscured by clouds. 

 VICTORY! Babu, Julienne, me, Deepak and Kumar

VICTORY! Babu, Julienne, me, Deepak and Kumar

GHOREPANI - TADAPANI 

 A typical Trek Brek: (Tibetan) Bread, eggs, potatoes, tea. 

A typical Trek Brek: (Tibetan) Bread, eggs, potatoes, tea. 

After breakfast, even more stairs led us into an enchanted-looking, fairytale forest. So many beautiful trees exploding with colorful blossoms, especially pink rhododendron. I got many more great views of those frosted peaks. I also finally gave in and got a walking stick, or rather, Kumar found one for me. It was such a relief and really helped me get up and down those steps and steep inclines. 

I saw a European family of four with an older porter carrying three full rucksacks lashed together on his back. Supposedly there are regulations that are supposed to limit the loads that porters carry, but I don't think they are really enforced. Just feels wrong to make one person bear that much weight, especially when most of it is probably crap you don't need in the first place. The family didn't seem all too concerned and trotted along between breaks to take pictures, hardly acknowledging their poor porter. 

Kumar and I arrived in Tadapani around 3 PM. I had to wait for Subus to arrive before I could take a hot, solar-powered shower. Then the temperature dropped and it was so, so cold that evening. The chill made me eat too much for dinner: Dahl bhat plus two ginger teas plus rice pudding plus fruit. I shivered myself to sleep, wearing two layers of clothes, socks, tucked inside my sleeping bag and under another blanket.

But what this guest house lacked in comfort, it made up for with consistent power and Internet. There was a big, loud German family that I passed on the trail that ended up staying the night here as well. Some of them even slept in a yellow tent outside instead of in the rooms. They could be annoying but I liked the fact that the kids were all interacting with each other, talking, playing cards, instead of being absorbed into electronic devices. They were even whittling away at their own walking sticks the next morning with legit hunting knives. What an awesome way to grow up. I hope they appreciate it. 

DAY 5 / TADAPANI - GHANDRUK 

Day five led us mostly down through a magical, mossy meadow. Sometimes I felt like I was in Middle Earth on a mission to take a ring to Mordor. Other times I felt like I was wandering through a pre-historic landscape and would surely discover dinosaurs around the corner at any given moment. 

We came upon a metropolis of karsts, or stacks of stones, that countless tourists had built and left using the smooth, flat stones in and around the river. They were everywhere in all shapes and sizes. Of course I had to stop and build a couple, myself. 

 My preciousssss (I kinda look like Smeagol/Gollum here with my karst)

My preciousssss (I kinda look like Smeagol/Gollum here with my karst)

Remember the amazing meal I had on the first trek day? I again ordered Mo Mo which this time only consisted of bitter greens and no other flavor except maybe some salt. I learned the hard way that while the menu is pretty much the same at all of the guesthouses along the way, the taste and quality is wildly inconsistent.After about an hour and a half more up and down hills with Stickly (as I named my walking stick) by my side, Kumar and I reached our destination for the day: Ghandruk. 

Our guesthouse in Ghandruk was by far the best place I've stayed in Nepal, period. The food was incredible and the rooms had all the luxuries: en suite toilets and showers and power outlets in the rooms and very few power cuts. It rained that evening which was a bummer at the time but helped to clear the air for spectacular view the following morning. 

 The amazing view from Ghandruk 

The amazing view from Ghandruk 

DAY 6 / GHANDRUK - NAYAPOL

While I was waiting for breakfast, a Tibetan refugee named Tenzing showed Deepak and I his arts and crafts for sale. He said that he has a wife and two children living in a refugee camp and so I was a bit guilted into buying a black onyx bracelet bearing a white Om symbol from him for 300 rupees (about $3 USD). Not to get too political, but it's pretty terrible how China annexed Tibet and is basically eradicating their amazing and unique culture. And even worse how most of the world doesn't seem to care because it doesn't affect the global economy. Sigh. 

The trek back from Ghandruk was almost all downhill. I passed countless villages and reveled in the sight of people going about their daily lives: herding goats, working the fields, hanging fresh laundry, cooking and weaving baskets. I greeted pretty much everyone with a friendly "Namaste" and often got the same response. 

Our group reached the last tourist checkpoint and crossed the bridge to a guest house for lunch. The clouds were closing in ominously around us and we knew the rain would start soon. We ate quickly, put rain covers on our packs and rain jackets on ourselves and double timed it towards Nyapol. We reached a covered shop just as big, fat raindrops were starting to fall. We waited a while for the storm to blow over but it was still a wet, slow ride down the mountain. The bags that had been tied to the roof on the way up, now had to be stored inside on laps since the rain refused to stop. We arrived back at the same hotel in Pokhara about two hours later. That night Deepak, Julienne and I gladly indulged with a pizza each for dinner at a super touristy spot called The Godfather. So worth it.

DAY 7 / POKHARA - KATHMANDU

We were packed, fed and back on the TOURIST bus by 7:30 AM. Again we stopped at several random spots to pick up locals and had short breaks for breakfast and lunch. Then we got stuck in a massive traffic jam on the mountain back to Kathmandu since there is only one road in and one road out. There was no AC on the bus but the fans worked sometimes. I'm pretty sure there was one truck broken down about half way up the mountain that both lanes had to take turns detouring around. This return trip totaled almost 9 hours, 3 hours longer than the previous trip. Once we were finally freed, I had to say some hasty goodbyes and catch a cab out to my next destination/adventure: a workaway homestay in a village called Changu Narayan. 

 Panoramic view from Poon Hill

Panoramic view from Poon Hill

I am very proud of this physical and mental accomplishment because for the past decade I have lived at almost zero elevation and have virtually no trekking experience. I completely credit my dedication to yoga and meditation with giving me the physical and mental strength to make it up this Himalayan Mountain. It's also the first time I feel like my sporadic meditation has had a noticeable effect on an otherwise unrelated aspect of my life. This of course makes me want to meditate more regularly. I actually did an hour's worth of sun salutations and other asanas (with emphasis on the hips) prior to and during the trek and I'm sure this helped me make it to the top. And every bit of effort was worth being able to see that spectacular sun rise over those famous, jagged, snow-capped peaks. 

Week Three Wildlife in Thailand

For my last week at the sanctuary I switched over from elephants to work with the rest of the wildlife. These can be divided into a few sub-groups: two types of Bears, Primates, which include macaques, gibbons,  dusky langurs and one Capuchin, Nocturnals comprised of several slow lorises, a binturong and leopard cats and other wildlife consists of deer, otter, birds, reptiles and some other miscellaneous creatures. There is also a slew of domestic animals that have been collected over the years: at least a dozen dogs, a handful of cats, pigs and piglets, a horse and too many chickens. I got to work with or for all of these animals at one point or another during this week. 

The center cares for dozens of bears, most of whom were rescued from various places that thought it was a good idea to keep them as pets. You can literally buy bear cubs - and many other animals stolen from the wild - at some night markets throughout Thailand. They arrive unsocialized and malnourished as they were often fed soda, candy and junk food in small, cramped cages. 

Sun Bears and mostly black with a few tan markings and are known for their dragon-lady like long claws that I'm pretty sure they use mostly for digging because I've had to avoid several holes when cleaning their enclosures. They seem pretty small, until they stand up, and then they look pretty intimidating. We feed them a variety of fruit and often hide pieces in trees and tires and scatter it around their habitats to keep them stimulated. (Obviously the bears are locked in their dens when we do this.) We also sometimes stuff bamboo with pieces of corn and cucumber like a type of puzzle. Its really cute to watch because they usually sit down and play with it for a while before they finally pry it open; either by pulling out the piece of corn that acts like a cork or just breaking the piece of bamboo wide open. They're almost all adults but there is one mamma bear and a 12 week old cub that are heart-meltingly adorable. There are some really fluffy Asiatic Black Bears scattered amongst the bear habitats as well. 

 Looks like a bear bong lol 

Looks like a bear bong lol 

The primates are probably the biggest challenge because they are smart and they are cheeky. I learned this the hard way. Generally, we put their fruit and veggie salads in baskets and they reach through the fences to retrieve it. As I was feeding a macaque named Dollar, he swiftly reached through the fence and grabbed my teal blue sunglasses right off my head and promptly dismembered them. I also got a bit too close to one of the gibbon enclosures during feeding time and a hairy go-go-gadget arm came out of nowhere and grabbed my hair, jerking my head back pretty fast. I'm glad it was french-braided at the time, otherwise, he might have pulled some hair out completely. 

 A gibbon, or as I prefer to call it, a Grabbin' 

A gibbon, or as I prefer to call it, a Grabbin' 

There are several breeds of macaque, generally categorized by tail-type. There are long-tailed, stump-tailed and pig tailed and they abound all over Thailand. You'll see them lurking around temples and terrorizing villages. I guess I can't really blame them because people have taken over much of their habitat. The gibbons swing from tree to tree using their disproportionately long arms and make the most interesting and after while annoying howling sounds. The noises alternate between police siren and R2D2 and it always sounds like they are watching an intense soccer game where their team is really close to scoring a goal but the ball doesn't actually make it into the net. 

 Many, many macaques 

Many, many macaques 

I find the dusky langurs really creepy as their face markings kind of make them look like members of the Insane Clown Posse. They always come out of nowhere and clasp the cage at eye level with you, bearing their teeth and making little gurgly/clikcy sounds. A lot of them have chain link tunnels connected to their cages that are suspended high in the trees and they will try to poop or pee on you if the timing is right. 

 Creepy, clown-faced little monkey!

Creepy, clown-faced little monkey!

The nocturals were some of my favorites. The slow lorises are so cute, which is why there is such a huge issue with them being kept as pets. Despite their large, innocent-looking eyes, their teeth are poisonous and therefore often get yanked out without anesthetic to prevent their toxic bites. They are also night-dwellers so the daylight hurts their eyes and they are never feed correctly when kept as pets. These poor creatures get tortured then locked away in tiny cages just so someone can occasionally take them out and use them for their own amusement. Which brings me to my next point: photo props. Wherever the tourists go, the animal handlers follow, hoping to make a quick buck by exploiting their heavily drugged and/or sedated animal for pictures. DO NOT ENCOURAGE THIS INDUSTRY. Don't take pictures with wild animals when approached and don't go to tiger temples or anywhere else that promises safe interaction with an animal that would naturally want to rip your face off. 

One last quick anecdote about the slow loris. I helped my team leader with nocturnals on my very first day of wildlife and somehow one of their cages got left open. He had the keys but it was dumping rain so I'm not sure how happened. I didn't find out until the next day, at which point I felt horrible, but luckily the same leader found the slow loris that afternoon in a nearby tree because as their name suggests, they don't move very fast. I was so relieved. And I do a pretty amazing slow loris voice, according to my roommates. :P 

 Slow Loris

Slow Loris

There are a few orange and green iguanas that reminded me of Miami. They never eat all their food and they love to have water sprinkled on them with the hose. There is one crocodile that gets fed one chicken per week by the Thai staff. There are a few birds of prey and a few non-native parrot species including a Macaw named Blue that will shout Hello (and sometimes expletives) at you as you pass by his enclosure. There is Bernie, the brain-damaged (dropped on his head by people as a fledgling) Cassowary that eats a lot of fruit and looks like a rather pre-historic creature. He looks like a cross between a colorful ostrich and a velociraptor and has the capacity to kill you but doesn't really realize it. The otters are freakin adorable and sound like living squeaky toys but their enclosure always smells a bit like dead fish because thats what they eat. 

The pigs and chickens and deer can be a nuisance but are useful as the scavengers of the sanctuary because they eat all the leftovers from our dinner and scraps from food prep for the other animals and whatever the monkeys drop or intentionally toss out of their baskets. 

If you've ever worked in the food service industry, volunteering for wildlife is a breeze. Its literally like working in a restaurant for wildlife: you prepare food, serve food and wash dishes. There is also a fair amount of pool and enclosure cleaning to keep everyone happy and healthy. When comparing it to the elephants work, it's more tedious and there is more to do, both because less people volunteer with wildlife and because there are so many more animals that require smaller meals. Working with elephants is like a series of sprints with lots of breaks whereas working with the rest of the wildlife is more like a daily marathon. 

I also took on another special project utilizing my occupational skills. Apparently there was a falling out with a former designer and she sabotaged a nearly 40-page document detailing everything e new volunteer needs and wants to know. All the fonts were converted to outlines, rendering them inevitable, and the pictures were all unlinked, making the document useless for printing. I helped teach their assistant In-Design (the whole teach a man to fish vs give a man a fish principle) and helped rebuild the file as well. I was really grateful for this extra experience because I enjoyed getting to know Tommy the UK Sanctuary manager and Edwin, the sanctuary's Dutch Founder. 

I was a bit sad to leave but I think three weeks was the perfect amount of time for me here. I would love to come back for another visit and encourage anyone else that loves animals to volunteer here! 

 Furry bug, Limpy Gimp & Blister Girl

Furry bug, Limpy Gimp & Blister Girl