A peek into the highlights of visiting Copenhagen, Denmark with my sister.
Yesterday I attended my first meetup.com group event: a morning tour of Craggy Gardens in the Appalachian mountains of North Carolina. If you're not familiar with this site, I recommend checking it out to find and connect with people that share your interests.
It took an hour and a half for me to get to the Craggy Pinnacle trailhead, but was totally worth it. You have to travel along the Blue Ridge Parkway, which is one of the most scenic, slow & winding roads I've ever traversed. I happened to have my phone set up to get some video footage of this journey and couldn't believe I saw a baby bear cub climb a guard rail and sprint across the pavement in front of me as fast as his bear legs could carry him, let alone that I got it on video.
I also like long drives because I get more uninterrupted time to listen to audiobooks. In this case, I listened to Jung by Anthony Stevens which explains in four hours the basic life and philosophy of Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, which was fascinating.
I arrived a bit early and admired the vast, blue rolling landscape swirling with mist. It dawned on my why this area is referred to as the Smoky Mountains.
Altogether there were about 15 in the group (all older than me) led by Jennifer (my age), who just finished a Phd related to botany and biology. She dropped some serious knowledge on us about the natural and cultural history of the area and identified & discussed lots of native (and non-native) flora.
The trail itself was a really easy hike. I saw lots of families with small children and/or dogs doing the 1.4 mile roundtrip trek. Tip: Use the restrooms at the visitor's center BEFORE you hike.
Y'all don't even know how excited I am for the annual autumn foliage since I was stuck in a Fall-less Florida for the past decade. I fully intend to visit the mountains as often as I can and immerse myself in the natural beauty. I swear some of the leaves had changed just during the few hours between when I drove and drove back down. It's cool to get reacquainted with the general vicinity of where I grew up.
If you haven't been up Asheville, NC, the Blue Ridge Parkway or explored the myriad trails therein, I highly recommend it, especially now!
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:
Use discount code MIRAMBLINGS
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Copenhagen (København) is the capital of Denmark.
Currency: Danish Kroner (DKK)
Fun fact: Danish Monarchy is the oldest in Europe.
Like Amsterdam, you'll see as many if not more bikes than people.
Get to know the city on a Free Walking Tour: Grand Tour of Copenhagen
Hi = Hello
Hi hi = Goodbye
Tak = Thanks
Skol = Cheers
Hygge = cozy
Canal tours are crowded and touristy, around 80 DKK.
Nyhavn = New Harbor: Just walk through and take a picture; everything is touristy and overpriced.
Smørrebrød = traditional open-faced Danish sandwich. (A bit tough to find vegetarian options but they exist).
Louisiana Museum of Modern Art
About an hour outside city by train; take DSB (Danish State Train) from Central Station to Humlebœk station, then a 10 minute walk (follow signs.)
115 kr / $17
So worth it. You can literally spend a whole day here. Much more than a museum. Art inside and out. Beautiful sculpture park and nature paths. You can see Sweden across the water.
Kastellet = castle, free star-shaped park right next to Østerport train station. Great for sunrise and sunset.
Little Mermaid statue (Den Lille Havfrue) located on the harbor near the eastern point of the star. See this early morning or late afternoon to avoid peak tourist time. (Widely considered the most famous/disappointing monument in Denmark. )
FREE entry, FREE lockers, FREE wifi
First floor pre-history, history of Denmark & Vikings
Second floor Stories from Denmark 1700s-2000s
Also try the Free walking Tour: Christianshaven
Includes Christiania: Alternative, experimental micro country with a green light district, skate park, street art
Copenhagen Street Food (Paper Island)
Enjoy a variety of food, music and events while mingling with locals!
Open every day 12:00 - 21:00
Electric bicycle rentals, high-tech but heavy
25 kr per hour
Copenhagen has very friendly people and so much unexpected history. It makes me want to see more of Denmark!
Fairytale village in Southern Switzerland in the shadow of the Matterhorn. Super expensive ski resort; some people still on the slopes in mid-May.Hiking & Mountain Biking popular in summer.
No cars allowed - only small electric vehicles.
Special train from Visp to Zermatt: 36 Francs each way or discounted to 27 Francs with Eurail pass. Beautiful scenery!
More like military barracks. Bottom bunks too low to sit up straight so mind your head. Wifi was ok. Check-in only 16:00 - 21:00. Breakfast = additional 8 Francs/person 7:30 - 9:30.
We hiked to Riffelalp, the first third of the the trek to the summit of Gornergrat. Incredible views of the Matterhorn during the hike.
I used a walking stick named Sven until my sister spotted a stray ski pole that was probably only recently revealed once enough snow melted.
Cable cars & gondolas take you to the top of Gornegrat (observatory & shopping) or Klein Matterhorn (Glacier Paradise) for a hefty price.
Dinner at Cafe Du Pont; oldest restaurant in Zermatt. Fondue with herbs and Kirsch Schnapps served hot and bubbling in a red pot along with bread and potatoes.
The proper way to eat this traditional Swiss meal is to cut up the potatoes on your plate & dip pieces of bread into the pot; some cheese drips off the bread & covers the potatoes. Alternate bites of bread and potatoes.
Paired with salad and a local Vallais white wine called Hieda. (Many vineyards in the area.)
The following morning the valley was foggy and cold. Like waking up in the middle of a cloud.
Fun fact: The Matterhorn is the inspiration for the shape of the famous Swiss Toblerone chocolates & the peak featured on its packaging.
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.
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!
Lauterbrunnen: Part of Bernese Oberlands. Weather a bit chilly, but beautiful in May.
A valley in the midst of majestic mountains and 72 waterfalls. See some of Switzerland's most famous peaks: the Eiger, Monch & Jungfrau.
Walking, Hiking, Biking, Sightseeing, Skiing
Arrive by train at Interlaken OST. Buy ticket to Lauterbrunnen. (Not included in Eurail but discount ticket = 11.40 CHF)
Walk south from Lauterbrunnen on the road closest to the waterfalls. About 45 minutes walk to Trümmelbach and then another 30 to Stechelberg (plus picture-taking time.)
I walked one way then took the bus (4.40 CHF) back. Can also bring/rent bikes.
Stop at Trümmelbach & ride the lift deep into the mountain to see 10 hidden glacial waterfalls gushing around you. Cost: 11 CHF
Pack a picnic lunch to save some money!
Mürrin: the least expensive stop on the cable car at 22 CHF round trip. You'll get a good view of the Eiger, Monch & Jungfrau.
(For comparison, 102 CHF will get you even higher to Schilthorn where the James Bond film On Her Majesty's Secret Service was filmed and 184 CHF gets you to Jungfraujoch.)
Thanks to my sister and her native Swiss husband for the recommendation!
Arrive bus or plane (HEH)
Mandatory entry fee: 12,500 kyat / $11 USD
Inle Lake is large: 44.9 sq mi (116 km2).
Small, clean, quiet town. Many hotels/guest houses (best for pairs or groups) but only one hostel (best for single travelers)
Capsule beds (my favorite!) $12/night, free breakfast, free snacks, great staff, free bicycles, air con, NO wifi yet
Must see: Inle Lake Boat Tour
Local market, monastery, floating gardens, stilt villages, local life, canoeing, bridge; also stops at shops: lotus fabric weaving, cheroot cigar making, silver smith. Organized through the hostel & cost 15,000 kyat/$12 USD including sunrise, breakfast, lunch for 12 hours. (Do a shorter, cheaper tour by just hiring your own boat for the day.)
Can trek for a couple days from Kalaw in the mountains. Explore Inle area by bike or foot.
Bamboo Delight Cooking Class
20,000 kyat / $17
Meet/shop at local market (busiest on Fridays). Choose traditional dishes from a list of options; they accommodate diet restrictions like vegetarian & peanut allergy. Very well organized, staff is always smiling! Food was so fresh and tasty! Surprise goody bags with spices at the end. Part of proceeds support education for local children.
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?
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).
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.
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:
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
- 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.
- 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!
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.
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.
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.
GHOREPANI - TADAPANI
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.
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.
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.
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.
I took a 3 hour bus ride from Siem Reap to Battambang, Cambodia. I happened to sit next to a really cool chick from Australia and we ended up hanging out later during our stay in this town. When our bus arrived at the station, it was mobbed by tuk-tuk drivers, one of which secured eye contact with me through the window before I even stood up. He pounced on me and my bag as soon as I disembarked, introduced himself as Pete and spoke good English so I accepted his offer to drive me to my hostel for 50¢. Once there he attempted to up-sell me on a trip later to the Bamboo Train and the Bat Caves; the two things on every tourist's checklist here. I obliged since I was planning on seeing them anyways and he agreed to come back and pick me up at 1400.
I stayed at a hostel called Here Be Dragons which I'm told is somewhat Game of Thrones themed - but I'm not a fan so I was indifferent. I had my own private room with bathroom and balcony for $10/night. The catch was, it was hot as hell. Even at night when the temp dips down into the 20's (ºC), my room was still sweltering and I still sweat even with both fans on and directed at me. I opened my balcony door (but kept the curtains shut) for some fresh air, but then that lets in all the mosquitoes, noise and cigarette smoke from outside. The food and service downstairs was good - but not enough to compensate for my sauna-like suite.
Anyways, I met a bloke from the UK while eating lunch at the hostel so he joined me for the Afternoon adventures. We first went to the bamboo train, which is literally an IKEA-level assembly of two axles, a flat bamboo platform and an engine that was maybe from an old lawnmower or something. It cost $5 for the two of us and we raced down an old track through the jungle. It reminded of being on a roller coaster, albeit with zero safety requirements, or maybe like Indiana Jones in the Temple of Doom, except with little to no impending doom. The ride lasted about 20 minutes before we were dropped off in a small village and immediately mobbed by little girls selling colorful, braided bracelets. This is the literal definition of a tourist trap, as we had no way out except the track on which we came, and our 'train' had already been taken off the track and disassembled.
There were also the usual clothing and beverage tents with women begging you to buy something as well. I bought two bracelets for a dollar from one girl and immediately a different one demanded that I buy bracelets from her as well. She even grabbed my finger and made me 'pinky promise.' I told her I didn't need anymore but she persisted because I think she was the only kid that didn't yet make a sale from this group of tourists. My friend eventually caved and bought a few bracelets off her and she stuck her tongue out at me "You no buy! He buy! He good! You bad!" So that happened.
After about 20 minutes, our transportation was re-assembled and we hightailed it back to where we started and where Pete was waiting to take us to the Caves. This was a ways out of town but worth the drive. First we met up with some other peeps from our hostel and hiked up the steep, paved road to one of the Killing Caves that Pol Pot's minions used to murder women and children in the 1970s. This was ironically located just behind a temple with a giant stone Buddha image presiding over it. It was creepy and some of the bones and skulls were still kept on display there. After that solemn sight, we headed back down the hill to wait for a colony of about 10 million bats to come streaming out of a different cave at sunset. I saw something like this in Thailand as well but it's still impressive to watch them as fly out in a continuous, undulating stream across the darkening sky.
The next day, I had a slow morning of yoga and breakfast followed by meeting up with my bus friend, Jayme for lunch. We then went to Seeing Hand which employs blind people to give massages. It was definitely not the best massage I've ever had but I was glad to pay and tip the girl who gave me mine. I assume working like this must be more fulfilling for her than begging on the streets, which I have seen so many other handicapped people do throughout the cities I've visited in Southeast Asia. On my way back to my hostel, I ran into a couple of the guys from my hostel and joined them for a sporadic tour around the city.
That night five of us piled into Pete's tuk-tuk and he drove us to the Phare Ponleu Selpak (The Brightness of the Arts) circus which cost $14 per ticket, but was worth every penny. The show was amazing - performed entirely by local music and performing arts students on par with an amateur Cirque du Soleil.. There were aerial displays, juggling, clowning, acrobatics, tumbling, balance and dance. I took a picture with them at the end and made an additional $10 donation because I know it will go directly to supporting this organization.
On my last full day in town, I rented a scooter and Jayme and I decided to try navigating the Cambodia countryside in search of a few Angkorian ruins. The first was Wat Ek Phnom which was north of the city and was comprised of a colorful, more modern Buddhist temple complete with a series of ceiling murals and the hodgepodge prayer flags that I love so much and a small pile of ancient ruins behind that. There was also a big old Buddha surrounded by a slew of other smaller Buddhas since this is Mahayana country. I think we actually spent longer drinking fresh coconuts outside the temple than actually exploring the temple itself. We hopped back on the bike and took a dusty road back to town for lunch and cash before heading south towards Wat Banan.
The road to these ruins was long and winding but we finally arrived around 16:00. We pulled into what seemed to be an abandoned Mahayana temple and meandered around for a few minutes before we were approached by a small group of Cambodian children. The oldest, an adorable girl in a pink Hello Kitty dress, directed us to the actual ruins which were hidden well off the main road. We found exponentially more locals visiting this site than your usual tourists.
First we came to some stairs and then once we climbed those, there were even more stairs. According to the internet, there are 360 uneven, stone steps leading to the best preserved ruins around Battambang. It has five towers, similar to Angkor Wat, but was believed to have been built later. I always wonder when it comes to these hill top temple, which came first: the temple itself or the stairs leading to it?
Anyways, after our trek up and down the stairway, Jayme and I had our second coconuts of the day and ended up chatting with a local Cambodian man named Kee. (Sadly I didn't get any pictures of him nor ask how to spell his name properly.) He had great English and even used colloquial American phrases like "No Sweat!" After identifying our accents, he said that he had helped the American and Australian armed forces prior to and during the fall of Saigon in 1975. He had several stories and gave us insight into their rocky relations with Vietnam and lamented the fact that they are not allowed free speech or to criticize the government of Cambodia. The thing that stuck with me most was when he said had he known then what he knows now, he would have left with the Americans 40 years ago. I can't say I blame him.
It was getting late so Jayme and I thanked Kee - who it turns out was the Hello Kitty girl's grandfather - and headed back to the scooter. The sun was setting so I tried to turn on the headlights - but to no avail. I clicked the light button near the left handle several times but nothing happened. Even some locals that I bought some petrol from to top up the tank could't get the lights working. Luckily, the blinkers still worked so I just left one flashing the whole time and used the limited light from other traffic and roadside shacks as much as I could to see the road. Eventually, I was able to draft behind a car that both blocked the majority of the bugs that had previously been bombarding my face and provided light and guidance for the rest of the way back to town. So now I know what its like to drive a scooter in the dark with no headlights, no roadsigns and no traffic laws.
BONUS! As small a town as it is, my sixth Street Art sense started tingling and I followed it to find some hidden in an alley. Enjoy!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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!
This was my second week working with the elephants at Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand. It started Sunday with my first banana tree harvest. The whole elephant schedule kind of revolves around these trees. We harvest them, feed them to elephants then compost them. At least a dozen volunteers ride in the back of trucks and to various banana tree orchards in the area. We always have a couple mahouts with us who chop down the trees with machetes and we carry them to the truck. It helps that they always blast Thai techno music from the truck to keep us pumped up.
The trunks are quite deceiving and its impossible to tell how dense or heavy it is until you hoist it up onto your shoulder. They're also usually quite juicy and tend to stain whatever you happen to be wearing so the veterans are dressed in shabby clothes covered in dark brown blemishes. The best adjectives to describe this activity are tedious, sweaty and dirty. Occupational hazards include mosquitos, fire ants, scorpions, thorns, hidden ankle traps (vines, holes and uneven ground) and stumbling over typhoon-aftermath-level debris.
For some reason I started thinking about fashion catalogs/magazine spreads and how ridiculous they are. For example, in the last Anthropologie catalog that was sent unsolicited to me before I left the states, the first page showed a woman in an immaculate white dress painting a canvas in the middle of the woods. This dress must have been enchanted because somehow there wasn't a speck of dirt or a drop of paint on it. It's just ridiculous how much companies spend to make models draped in their apparel appear as if they are doing things that no one actually does in real life. I'd much rather see real people doing real things so I started snapping pictures and announced to everyone that I was taking pictures for The Harvest Collection Fall 2015 Catalog (see previous post for the series). At first I got strange looks and some resistance but after a while everyone really got into it. I assembled the pictures that night into a catalog and made up satirical text to go with the pictures. I described our grungy, filthy, peasant-like ensembles as "vintage, distressed, antique and exclusive."
So just as my bruised and battered foot finally healed, my phone broke. The screen on my iPhone 5 had been a bit dodgy for a while; the LCD was a bit detached from the rest of the phone and horizontal lines had been flickering across my screen for at least a month. One morning I discovered that despite being charged all night, the screen on my phone was black. I tried to turn it on and a white apple appeared in the middle of the screen like it was about to boot but then the screen just went black again. I did this several times fueled by a blend panic and frustration, but the same thing always happened. I decided to take it to town and ask the Thai phone guy in the village that sold me my SIM card to take a look at it. After suspecting the battery or the LCD screen was the source of the problem he failed to fix it and then determined that it was some part of the motherboard called the IC power component. He said he was going to Bangkok over the weekend and would try to find this elusive replacement part so my fingers are crossed that when I go back to see him again in a few days, my phone will finally be fixed because I've been phone-less in a foreign country for over a week now. You really don't realize how much you take something for granted until it's gone.
And now back to your regularly scheduled elephant programming…
This week I moved from working in the center with the most docile elephants to working in the new lands with the ones that are hands-off. It amazing how much elephants are like people; they all have their own personalities and socialize in groups and have their own individual preferences when it comes to other elephants and people. Boon Chuey and Dao Rueng are like the Plastics (Mean Girls Reference) of New Lands because they bully poor Duen Phen by trying to steal her food and exclude her from the swimming hole because she doesn't wear pink on wednesdays. Khan Kluey is the only male elephant and I call him the Hellephant because he decimated most of the trees in his enclosure and you can't come within trunk's reach of his habitat because he will try to grab you so he throws rocks (and sometimes tires) at us instead. His surrogate mom, Somboon, is much more chill and just wants to eat corn. Not the cucumbers or melon, though. Just corn.
We also discovered a pair of puppies in the bushes this week at New Lands. We strongly suspect that they were abandoned there intentionally by a local. They are both black and one has erect ears and a stumpy, docked tail while the other has floppy ears, a white patch on its chest and an intact tail. I named them Dingo and Domino, respectively, since at first we thought they were boys. But later we discovered they were actually girls and the mahouts started calling them Pancake and Cupcake. There are already over a dozen dogs roaming around the Center already so we couldn't transport them there so some of the volunteers pulled off all their ticks and gave them flea baths and even bought a bag of puppy food. Not sure how long they're going to be able to stay in New Lands so hopefully they'll end up at a local temple where they'll at least get fed by monks.
Towards the end of the week, I got to work with the elephants in the Mid Lands enclosure. This is where the center is trying to form a small herd with Aunties Kaew Petch, La Ong Dao, Momma Pun and Baby Pin. Pin is the cutest little thing ever and acts just like a toddler; almost as much food ends up on the ground as in her mouth and she just wants to run around and play all day. Pai Lin, Nam Phon and See Puak are also here but I didn't work much with them. All together, there are now 15 rescued elephants throughout the refuge.
On my last day, I decided to taste the food I had been preparing for and feeding to the elephants for the past two weeks. I had a small bit of a banana ball and it tasted like unsweetened bran cereal mixed with sand and ripe banana. Not terrible. I also tried a slice of banana tree trunk which was crunchy and water, not unlike iceberg lettuce. I could totally see Dr. Oz touting is as the next weight loss miracle or trendy restaurants making an exotic salad out of it and charging like fifty bucks for it.
I learned so much and thoroughly enjoyed my time working with these amazing animals. For my third and final week, I will be working with (translation: feeding and cleaning up poop) a vast variety of other rescued and currently rehabbing animals native to Thailand so stay tuned!
How to live and work in the jungle:
- Just accept the fact that you will never be completely dry or completely clean. Its so hot and humid that you will sweat while standing still and even after you shower you will still attract dirt and dust.
- Resources are limited so you share everything; housing, bathrooms, meals, etc. I share my room with two other girls and the occasional gecko, cockroach or spider. We also have a dog and a cat that like to sleep on our porch and good luck filling up your plate if you're one of the last ones to arrive at meal time.
- Animals are everywhere. We awake to the howling of gibbons and the crowing of roosters. We fall asleep to the sounds of dogs barking and elephants trumpeting. The camp is packed full of pachyderms, primates, bears, various domestic animals but the encounters you will have most often (whether you want to or not) are with ants and mosquitos.
- Expect to work. A lot. This is not a holiday. The animals get fed before and more often than you do. Whole orchards of banana trees are harvested four times a week. Your day outlasts than the sun and there is only one day off per week. This is not a vacation. That being said, it's still a unique, worthwhile and rewarding experience. Just don't expect to just take a few elephant selfies and then lounge by a pool all day sipping cocktails.
- Your wardrobe should be all quick-dry everything. It takes at least two days to dry cotton clothes and you will definitely want to master your sink-washing skills. There are two extremes in volunteer attire: those that wear as little clothing as possible (i..e. tank top, shorts, flip flops) and those that go for maximum coverage (boots, trousers, long sleeve shirt, hat). The former are much more succeptible to and often complain about bug bites and sunburn so I practice/highly recommend the latter.
I consider myself pretty fortunate when it comes to my accommodation here. Instead of the majority, traditional dorm-style housing, I was placed in one of three bungalows with a porch and a lovely view of the mountains, the lake and the gibbon islands therein. Within this jungle cabin are three beds a slightly subpar bathroom and three beds. My roommates are awesome. Alex is from Germany and Amy is from England. Technically we're all in our late 20's/early 30's but we feel like the geriatrics of the group. We all have our own ailments, assortment of medications and our room is perfumed with Tiger Balm every evening. We're probably the first ones to go to bed at night. We even have our own retired crime-fighter nicknames: Limpy Gimp, Fairy Bug and Blister Girl.
I spent my first two days with elephants named Thong Dee and Rungthip before being promoted to team leader of the duo for the remained of the week. They are both 'retired' from the logging and tourist industry and are over 60 years old. Rungthip has arthritis in her front legs and Thong Dee has cataracts and is mostly blind, but she still enjoys her walk in the woods every day! I feed them and clean their enclosures multiple times per day. So what does an elephant eat? Several times a day, they are served banana balls, fruits, veggies and banana tree trunks. We make banana balls (see recipe below) 3-4 times per day for these two and cut up loads of fresh watermelon, pineapple and corn on the cob. The mahouts slice up banana tree trunks with a machete and the elephants break through all the outer layers and just eat the tender heart of the plant, kinda like artichokes. They make quite a mess of these, so that's mostly what we clean out of the enclosures in addition to poop of course. All of these leftover go straight to the compost piles strategically placed throughout the camp.
A Day's Activities at Elephant Care Camp:
06:00: (or earlier) wake up
06:30: First Shift; Gather baskets full of food and disperse to different enclosures
07:00: Make and serve banana balls
08:00: People breakfast (make your own)
09:00: Second Shift; Second serving of banana balls, Cut and prepare fruit
09:30: Vet visits and/or showers
10:30: Special Projects
12:00: People lunch (served)
13:00: Third Shift; Go for a walk, probably another shower, compost
15:00: Fourth Shift; Final serving of banana balls, compost, enrichment, transfer to different enclosure for the night
18:00: People dinner (Served) then free time and/or evening trips away from camp ** Check whiteboard to see your location/duties for the following day
Banana Ball Recipe:
- Several bunches of bananas
- 1 bowl bran powder
- 3 bowls elephant pellets
- Once peeled, mash bananas in a big metal bowl with your hands
- Add one small bowl bran and mix by hand until the consistency of sticky dough
- Gradually add three small bowls elephant pellets and hand mix
- Roll into balls twice the size of your fist then feed to elephants
There are several terms here that you learn on the job.
Mahout: a Thai man that takes care of and directs the elephant and gets to play with a machete. Each elephant has one that they more or less listen to obediently.
Enrichment: Basically hide and seek with snacks. We place pieces of fruit and veg strategically around their enclosures for physical and mental stimulation.
Composting: Scooping up elephant poop and banana tree carcasses and transporting them to compost piles via wheelbarrow
Everything gets reused or recycled here. The pigs and dogs eat our leftover food scraps and all plastic, metal and paper gets recycled. Everything else organic gets composted. We also have lots of filtered drinking water available so that hopefully cuts down on the amount of plastic bottles.
And I've yet to broach the subject to the carnivorous majority of volunteers here, but I find it hypocritical that everyone here is so gung ho about saving elephants and other wildlife, yet they complain that the meat dish at dinner is always the first to go. (There are usually three vegan/vegetarian dishes and one meat dish at every meal.) Why is the mass slaughter of cows, pigs and chickens ok (Thai people eat a hell of a lot of meat in light of being a Buddhist country) but killing and eating elephants or dogs is deplorable? (Well it is to us Westerners anyways.) I just don't see how you can consider yourself compassionate towards animals yet still consume their dead flesh on a daily basis...
Since I occasionally dabble in board sports and surfing is famous here in Bali, I decided to sign up for a week at surf camp towards the end of my time here. I found Rapture Surf Camp online and booked a room Friday-Thursday because that was literally the only time that was available according to their schedule.
I arrived via taxi from Sanur and was immediately impressed with the design and layout of the facility. It was an immaculately landscaped compound with a variety of rooms, crystal clear pool, kitchen/dining area and plenty of room to relax. I love how colorful, creative and open the spaces were and feel like it facilitated a great, positive energy that flowed throughout the whole camp. There was even a yoga studio loft that I definitely took advantage of in the mornings.
Everyone, both staff and fellow students/habitual surfers, were really friendly. My room was a four share dorm with air con but the space was huge. A typical hostel would have shoved twice as many bunks inside but instead we only had two bund beds, two squishy bean bag chairs, a corner nook filed with pillows and several drawers. We also had a private outdoor shower, sink and toilet. I felt most at home here compared to all the other places I've stayed during this trip.
And the owners' philosophy totally aligns with mine. They've taken in several stray cats and dogs that wander around the property and occasionally provide cuddles and this is the only place I've seen in Bali that makes such an effort to recycle. This is huge because there's not a great waste management infrastructure so most of the local trash gets burned or ends up on the ground or beach and will probably eventually make its way to the ocean. The only thing that disappointed me was that there was no source of filtered water for us. I had my life straw bottle so personally I could and did drink out of the taps, but people aren't typically that prepared so they end up created a pile of plastic water bottle waste.
The following day was an early one as the beginners left for Balangan Beach at 6 AM. A German girl named Sarah with a sweet Alice in Wonderland sleeve and I had a lesson with Andy, an Indo surfer/instructor and we both caught several waves with his advice/help. We surfed two sessions with break for fresh coconuts in between. The best part was, there was a guy taking photos on the beach and he got a pretty good one of me so I paid 50,000 for it to be burned old-school style on a CD.
We also ended up surfing Pedang pedang twice and Kuta once. Pedang pedang is a pain to get to as you have to squeeze yourself and your board through a narrow chasm while simultaneously traversing uneven stairs on your way down to the beach. The first day there was comparable to Balangan's beginner waves and the line up was packed but the second day was less crowded because the waves were head high and constantly pumping. I managed to surf a few, but mostly got smashed in the middle of sets when I was trying to paddle back out to the channel. Kuta was probably the most packed as it is one of the most touristy spots in Bali, but the waves were also pretty manageable here and there were lots of first time surfers flipping and flopping around in the whitewater.
I took a few excursions around the area as well, including a visit to the Uluwatu temple which is beautifully built high atop a coastal cliff, explored Bingin and Dream Land Beach via scooter and spent a few nights at the most popular surf bar on the beach: Single Fin. I made so many great memories with an amazing group of new international friends from Australia, England, the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Indonesia, Canada, the States and probably more places that I'm forgetting.
I had a few bruises here and there and my (foam) board bumped my head once when I got stuck in a "washing machine" and a douchey Russian dude mowed over my left foot with his board - but altogether I didn't sustain anything serious. I did, however, hear some gnarly stories about past students' surf injuries; the most recent being a dude who bailed off his board and somehow one of the fins sliced his eye and eyeball, which had to be stitched up. He was fortunate though - apparently it just missed the cornea so he won't be blind in that eye.
I learned so much about surfing in this week and I understand how and why it appeals to so many people. It's so much more than a quick thrill on a board. There is so much 'surf science' involved when you really know what you're doing: the tide, the wind, the currents, the type of board, the type of break, the type of swell, timing and your positioning. Oh, and there is also a whole slew of surf slang and etiquette.
Obviously I wasn't going to master all of this in a week so I relied on our surf guides and tried to mimic what the more experienced surfers were doing and where they were going. You really have to be connected with the sea - almost in a meditative state. You're completely focused - no stray thoughts of Facebook or what you're having for lunch or how much money you have in your bank account. You're just staring at the sea - waiting for the perfect wave. It's quite zen.
It's also builds strength, both mentally and physically. For me, the hardest part of surfing isn't standing up, it's the perpetual paddling. Paddling out, paddling in, padding towards the perfect position. My shoulders were sore as for the first couple days. Then I started to get used to it and zone out, knowing I had to just keep going no matter what. Surfing is both inspiring and humbling. A wave can lift you up and carry you on top of the world or it can smash you (and your board) to bits and completely disorient you.
This was the most expensive venture I've invested in during my time in Bali, heck, during my whole trip so far, but it was totally worth the splurge. I'd be lying if the thought didn't cross my mind to just stay and teach surf-specific yoga classes there and at the newer camp that they just opened. Sigh. It's a nice thought but for now I need to keep Mirambling on with the rest of my current journey. I will come back to Bali one day for sure, though!