Pashupatinath & Boudhanath, Kathmandu, Nepal

This actually happened a few weeks ago when I was still in Nepal. Better late than never, I guess!

Pashupatinath is the oldest and most well known Hindu temple in Kathmandu, Nepal, situated on the banks of the Bagmati River. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site, which means you will get charged 1,000 rupees ($9.50 USD) to visit. Only Hindus are allowed to enter the actual main temple but you can walk around and enjoy the sights and take pictures. You can get a really good panoramic view of Kathmandu here as well. 

Myself and three others from my home stay visited here and were immediately approached by a youngish Nepal tour guide. We saw temples devoted to Shiva, Hanuman the Monkey God and several cremations happening along the river. 

The Hindus have a much more pragmatic view of death; it's just another part of life. There are specific rituals start differently depending on the age, gender and caste of the person who died but everyone ends up as ash in the river. Our guide said it can take two or three hours for a body to burn completely. 

We met a group of Sadus hanging out around the temple who speak English and will ask for money in exchange for blessings or photos. I'm not sure if they were legit or not but our guide assured us that they use the money to buy food for themselves and the poorer communities in the area so I obliged. On the other hand, I was really annoyed by the vendors that kept approaching me and trying to sell me crap that I didn't want or need. 

Our guide also took us to a nearby elderly complex where Mother Teresa used to work. The old ladies and gents were lined up for their lunch and had colorful laundry drying all around courtyard. In the center of the courtyard was a temple with a bell that one old woman rang incessantly for several minutes. 

Our guide showing off his Shiva Trident tattoo 

Our guide showing off his Shiva Trident tattoo 

At the conclusion of our tour, we tipped our guide and headed in the direction of our next destination. A black temple dog with white paws that we called Puppy escorted us as far as he could but had to leave us and turn back when we got to main road because that turf apparently belonged to other dogs. 

We walked a long time before arriving at Boudhanath. I didn't realize I had already been there during my first day long tour of a color-coated Kathmandu but didn't mind visiting again. The stupa was still covered in scaffolding so I didn't even bother trying to get a good picture of it, but there are plenty to be found of the beautiful Boudhanath online.

View from the top of the Tibetan Buddhist Temple near Boudhanath

View from the top of the Tibetan Buddhist Temple near Boudhanath

We did enjoy exploring the Tibetan Buddhist temple situated next to it as well as our vegetarian, rooftop lunch. Then we walked. We walked a lot. It was a long way back to Thamil and I ended up taking a cab the rest of the way back to the home stay from there due to both mental and physical exhaustion. 

Spices for sale near Boudhanath

Spices for sale near Boudhanath

Elephant statue guarding the stupa

Elephant statue guarding the stupa

Body & Mind : My Last Week in Sri Lanka

So I'm still at the same beach house in Ambalangoda but this last week is all about relaxation and introspection. Two other girls are participating in this week's activities as well; one from Austria and one from Germany. The only things officially on the agenda are a daily morning massage, a short yoga class in the afternoon and then maybe meditation on Friday with a monk at a local temple. I supplemented the mind part on my own by devouring several books during my abundant free time. (I also still helped out with the turtles, too.) 

Full/Blue Moon

Full/Blue Moon

BODY // MASSAGE

My morning ayervedic massages were performed by a small, smiley Sri Lankan lady name Udena. First there is the topless head, scalp and shoulder massage. (Beth, you would slip into a blissful coma and possibly die of complete, tactile nirvana.) I sit in a chair and she pours some herbal, ayervedic oil on my head then works it into my hair and scalp with a sequence of scratches and strokes. Then she braids my oily and slightly thicker hair. For some reason, I find head/scalp massage the most relaxing - it affects the entire rest of my body. After that, I lay down on the padded table for the foot massage. It's very thorough and relaxing with a bit of reflexology-ish pressure point stimulation. (Dad, you would fall asleep and instantly have dreams of walking weightlessly on cotton candy clouds.)

The first time, I thought she was only going to do my head and feet, but she transitioned on to rub down all the parts in between. Arms, hands, thighs, legs and then stomach and chest. It was a bit awkward for me because I've never had a boob-and-tummy massage before but its not bad. Then I flip over and she does the back of my arms & legs, my glutes and finally my back. My muscles are temporarily the consistency of banana pudding and it takes all of my willpower to convince my coarse motor skills to start functioning again. 

At this point I'm covered head to toe in ayervedic massage oil. I looked at the bottle but it's all in Singhale so I can't read a word of it. I asked Udena what was in it and she said simply "herbs." So my last resort was to try to identify it by smell, which is my third failed attempt at deciphering what the oil is made from or what's in it. I can say it smells rich, savory, herb-y and earthy, almost like a mossy forest floor after the rain mixed with wood, mushrooms and maybe some nuts. It honestly smells and feels like I'm being tenderized and marinated in preparation for a large Thanksgiving-style feast. It's not a bad smell but I don't love it either. 

If I could, I would fold her up and put her in my pocket so I can continue to experience her magical massage powers throughout my travels and share them with others. But, I just don't think the rest of the world is ready for the massage equivalent of self-actualization. 

MIND // BOOK CLUB

Walden | Henry David Thoreau, 1854

I finally finished Walden after starting it months ago. This is because 1) I read it very sporadically, and only during my travels, 2) its 373 pages of tiny type and 3) I frequently had to make note of and look up definitions to tons of antiquated and/or SAT-level vocabulary words. 

Basically, it's his adventure in self-reliance and self-reflection while living at a house he built on Walden Pond. There's a ton of satire, great poetic descriptions and narration, philosophy, advice, observations and even some rather prophetic predictions. I'll read it again or possible several more times and more quickly now that I have several words defined in the margins. 

Paper Towns | John Green, 2008

 A roommate of mine left this book so I picked it up and decided to give it a try. I finished it in under 48 hours, not because I found it particularly enthralling but because it's an easy read and I have a lot of free time. 

I was expecting it to be your typical vapid YA novel describing the same old tired high school stereotypes but I was surprised to find I could actually relate to it. Girl is fed up with conventional life (in Florida of all places) and decides to leave everything behind in search of something more substantial. 

A good part of the plot is built around poetry by Walt Whitman: Song of Myself and Leaves of Grass. I coincidentally just finished reading Walden by Henry David Thoreau. Both men were writers and part of the Transcendentalist movement in America during the nineteenth century. So, a lot of the underlying philosophy overlaps between those two books, despite them being written over 150 years apart. 

I also like the message of trying to see people for who they really are, not what you expect them to be. The irony is, in high school when I would have been the ideal target for this book, I was definitely more of a Q but now several years later, I've definitely transitioned to being more of a Margo. 

TRAVEL TIP #3: BOARDING PASSES MAKE GREAT BOOKMARKS!

The Fault in our Stars | John Green, 2012

There was a small, makeshift library of left-behind books in the corner of the common area. Since I had just finished Paper Towns, a friend suggested I read another book by John Greene called The Fault in our Stars. It's about a couple of star-crossed teenagers with various forms and stages of cancer. Kind of a modern, more maladies version of Romeo and Juiet, sans suicide.

It's a great insight into what it feels like to have a terminal illness and makes you appreciate your own health for sure. I wasn't a fan of the ending, but I think it's referencing the inceptional, fictional book-within-a-book An Imperial Affliction which just ends leaving several questions unanswered. I plan on watching the movie at some point next week in Malaysia when I have more reliable internet. 

I Wonder Why | Thubten Chodron, 1999

Curious to learn more about Buddhism and meditation in anticipation of visiting the temple later that week, I read I Wonder Why, a free publication that I picked up earlier at a temple in Singapore. It concisely and simply answers the questions asked most often about these aforementioned topics. It was written by a Californian turned Buddhist nun who started meditation and visited Nepal in 1975 and was fully ordained in 1986 in Taiwan. Very interesting and makes it easier to comprehend some of the more complex topics, especially since she has the Western perspective and wasn't just born into the culture. 

BODY // YOGA

After the peak heat and humidity of the day had waned slightly, our Yoga teacher Sasantha would arrive around 5 PM via motorbike. He wore white Kundalini-style yoga clothes was trained in and teaches Hatha style.

Along with Om chanting, he would open and close our practice with Ayubowen (Wishing you a long life; Singhale) instead of Namaste. I tried to go in with an open mind, but I felt like this class was way too basic, maybe on par for toddlers or geriatric clients. There were a handful of poses that I recognized but there was also a lot of filler like glorified stretching of feet, hands and fingers and laying down in savasana for several minutes in the middle of the practice, which I have never done before, and really felt like it interrupted the whole flow. But he did mix in a noticeable amount of meditation, which I liked. 

The worst part was the insects. I put on citronella oil but the mosquitos and flies still buzzed around us. I can't think of a worse hell than trying to meditate amongst mosquitos. I'm still grateful for his time and effort and was a nice, relaxing, not-too-sweaty way to end the day. 

I still continued to do my own Vinyasa practice almost every morning alone in the common area of the beach house. Last week, a few German girls took notice and asked if I could teach them. I ended up teaching two short classes (with simple moves that I was confident I could describe and direct) on two different mornings with up to four girls attending each class. 

MIND // TRIP TO THE TEMPLE

On Friday afternoon, I and the two other girls participating in B&MW piled into a tuk tuk to make the journey to the nearby Shailathalaramaya Temple in Karandeniya, built on a hillside about two centuries ago. It's claim to fame is a 35 meter long reclining Buddha statue, the longest of its kind in Southeast Asia.

The temple was particularly packed with people due to it being a holiday related to the full moon called Uposatha Observance Day or Poya Day. (This would explain why both the Post Office and our favorite Ice Cream place were closed on Friday.) So, we were lucky to get an hour, or any time at all really, with a monk there named Somissara. He was an amiable, 24-year old monk that just radiated happiness. The only space left for our meditation was in their narrow little alms room, where lay persons brought all kinds of food offerings for the monks. 

He had great English and gave us his life story in a nutshell, including coming to live at the temple at age 7, how he started meditation and his more recent travels across Europe to teach meditation. He recommended starting with Metta (or Loving Kindness) meditation. The goal of this practice is to cultivate a strong wish for the happiness of all other people and animals. We were instructed to close our eyes for 10 minutes and repeat the mantra I wish for all to be well and happy. I edited this a bit to I wish for _______ to be healthy and happy and made it into a med-lib™ (meditation + mad-lib, get it?!), in which I would fill in the following blank with things like: my parents, my sister, my friends, all beings, etc. (Is it coincidence that when I grabbed my phone to take pictures of the temple directly after the meditation, I noticed a rather happy WhatsApp message from my mom?) 

The time went by pretty quickly and even though my eyes were closed, the darkness faintly seemed like I was moving backwards through a tunnel, passing under sporadic overhead lights. However, I couldn't hold the traditional cross-legged position for the entire time. One of my legs started to go numb so I shifted a few times. I raised this concern to Somissara afterwards, and he said it's normal and totally acceptable to shift your physical position when meditating.

Then he gave us a brief tour of the statue, the temple and the grounds. I really enjoyed and appreciated the time he spent with us and approached to shake his hand, but just as quickly recoiled because I suddenly remembered that we're not supposed to touch or take pictures of the monks out of respect for their holiness. 

Reminds me of my grandma's quilted creations

Reminds me of my grandma's quilted creations

The Moonstone Mine and My Shiny Souvenir

Unrelated to Body & Mind week, my last excursion was to a Moonstone Mine in Meetiyayoda. It was a typical tour-then-try-to-sell-something experience, but while white moonstones are found all over the world, blue moonstones are so rare that they (supposedly) are only found in this single village in Sri Lanka.

Traditionally, the moonstone is known as the Traveler's Stone and is supposed to be especially protective when one travels by night or upon the water when the moon is shining. The blue, or cat's eye, variety is believed to promote clarity, focus, awareness and balances energy. 

Upon hearing this, I decided I needed one immediately so even though I'm not typically a "ring person," I purchased a sterling silver ring set with a small blue moonstone for 10,000 rupee ($75 USD). I'm sure I probably overpaid a bit but it came with a certificate of authenticity and I'm directly supporting the Sri Lankan economy. 

Sifting for stones

Sifting for stones

My blue moonstone

My blue moonstone

The Cat Savior & Spectacular Sunsets

My last and completely unanticipated experience that I need to mention happened Friday night when a group of us were walking towards town for ice cream after dinner at the beach house. We are regularly escorted by Milo and some other street dogs, as we were on this trip, but they suddenly and uncharacteristically broke into a full sprint. I saw why as a small cat scrambled up a tree limb. The cat fell and in what seemed like a nanosecond, it was then in Milo's mouth, being shaken violently. 

What happened next was kind of a blur. I didn't really think - I just reacted and kicked the dog, not hard enough to really hurt it, just enough to startle her. She dropped the cat and I reflexively tried to grab the cat and move it away from the dog but instead felt claws puncturing my flesh. I flinched and spun around to see the cat safely behind me. I stood between Milo and the cat, yelling at Milo to go away, until the cat disappeared to safety. Thankfully the other dogs were gone and Milo eventually retreated as well. (I'm choosing to believe that the cat is totally fine now and eternally grateful for me saving it's life.) 

Only then did I stop to evaluate the damage done to my finger. I had a long, jagged scratch almost the entire length of the inside of my right ring finger - the one with my new moonstone ring on it - that was trickling blood and I was super thankful for another girl in my group that had a first aid kit with her and handed me an alcohol wipe and a band aid. I used them immediately then cleaned the wound more thoroughly and applied Neosporin when I got back to the house. 

Last but not least, I need to share pictures of some spectacular sunsets we got to admire this week! 

Bentota and/or Aluthgama, Sri Lanka

Since we only work in the morning on Fridays, three other girls and I decided to spend the afternoon in another town called Bentota. We piled into a tuk tuk and headed north. We weren’t 100% sure where the town was or what it looked like but our driver dropped us off on the side of the road between the beach and some buildings a few kilometers after we passed a sign that said Bentota on it. Some locals directed us west toward the ‘city center’ so we walked in that direction, and soon realized we were being followed. An older gentleman in a sarong, button down shirt and flip-flops offered to take us to the temple, which he said was just down the road. 

We were very cautious and hesitant. I thought about it as we walked and decided he was either going to murder us in the woods, or actually take us to the temple and ask for a tip afterwards. We gambled on the latter, and after walking about 30 minutes through the jungle, we did, indeed arrive at a temple, which may or may not be the Galapatha Raja Maha Vihare Buddhist temple. (I couldn’t find anything identifying it in English at the site so I Googled it later.) I could tell the structure was very old but the interior was immaculately maintained and boasted beautiful tile, several colorful murals from floor to ceiling and a ginormous Sleeping Buddha statue with intricately patterned & painted feet. Of course at the end of our tour, we were asked to leave a donation for the temple so we each put 100 rupees through the slot in the wooden box that is intended for that purpose. 

Jungle Temple Entrance

Jungle Temple Entrance

Inside the Temple

Inside the Temple

After that, our guide (who never actually shared his name) led us to the lagoon, where we boarded a traditional flat canoe-type boat which he and one other man rowed for us with long, thin, wooden paddles. We asked the cost up front and he quoted us $1,000 rupees each (about $7.50 USD) which seemed a little steep, but we were kind of a captive audience because we didn’t know how else to get to the city. It ended up being a pretty nice ride that lasted close to an hour. We paddled around mangroves and along the shore of the lagoon, where I noticed the nicest houses I’ve seen yet in Sri Lanka. Our guide told us that many Europeans live here, so that explains the more lavish residences. We saw some snakes and some monitor lizards along the way before being dropped off at a vacant marketplace, which comes alive on Mondays only. 

Simple boats

Simple boats

We paid for the lagoon cruise and walked into what we assumed to be the city center since the street was lined with shops and the streets were full of people and various vehicles. This is where we and our guide parted ways, after he asked for a tip as I had expected. We gave him close to $1,000 rupees total, confident that he also got a cut of fee for the ‘cruise’ for which he had recruited us. He thanked us and claimed to have three children, for which he was going buy for for with said compensation. Who knows if this was true or not, but even though we got a bit taken advantage of as somewhat naive tourists, I think both parties benefitted from the "impromptour." We got see some sights that we had no idea were there and he made some money. Plus, it was super sustainable since we walked the whole time and the boat was people-powered. 

Row, row, row your boat

Row, row, row your boat

We were the only tourists around so everyone was hollering at us to come into their shops. We browsed a few before starting a new mission to find food. Another, younger local that looked to be around our age approached us and promised to take us to the best restaurant in town. We figured ‘what the heck’ and made sure to check the menu before deciding to actually eat at the restaurant, which had a pretty nice view overlooking the river. One girl has seafood and the rest of us reveled in the simple yet satisfying familiarity of our sandwiches and fries. 

The closest thing to a sunset I've been able to capture because clouds!!! 

The closest thing to a sunset I've been able to capture because clouds!!! 

We decided to save some money and take a train back to the beach house but had some trouble finding the station. It was getting dark and we gave up on hoofing it finally just found a tuk tuk to take us to the station for about 100 rupee. Turns out, we had missed our turn and walked too far. The train ticket was only $50 rupees each and I am very impressed with their thick, letterpress-style tickets! We were a bit confused, though, because we were at the Aluthgama station, when we were supposed to be in Bentota. When the train finally arrived about half an hour later, the first station we passed was Bentota, so we hypothesized that our driver had intentionally driven us too far in order to benefit his buddy that took us on our tour - but we can’t confirm this theory. 

Letterpress-ish train ticket 

Letterpress-ish train ticket 

We got back to the house in time for dinner then went out for ice cream downtown before calling it a night. 

Mirambling Muses: Singapore

Well that week pretty much flew by. It was so nice to catch up with my sister and just let my guard down and relax for a bit. We didn't have anything really specific planned beforehand, so I just kind of made things up as I went along. 

The typical Singapore tourist comes here for perpetual shopping trips, fancy hotels and/or cosmetic surgery. Therefore, I didn't notice a ton of backpackers and probably wouldn't have stopped here had my amazing sister not been here with a free place to stay. However, there is a ton of budget-friendly culture, fun and excitement to be had if you know where to look.

Here are my highlights:

Red Dot Design Center

If you're a design geek like me, you have to visit the Red Dot Design Museum. It's a bright red building on the outskirts of Chinatown and it's full of all kinds of innovative and modern design including industrial, product, packaging and concept. There are lots of interactive iPad displays and you can touch and play with everything! There's some neat stuff in the shop as well. I picked up a couple letterpress postcards and seriously considered a recycled vinyl laptop sleeve. Learn more about Red Dot and their international Design Awards here

Chinatown

Of the designated traditional ethnic areas, Chinatown was the most fun. The streets are lined with lanterns small shops selling everything from silk robes to custom cut paper portraits and any & all kinds of Singapore and traditional Chinese souvenirs. And there is also no shortage of meal options. You'll find fresh produce (including the spiky, stinky-foot-smelling fruit, Durian) street food vendors and more traditional restaurants. I'm quite sure I need to start employing a food chaperone that is more familiar with these exotic foods, because I've made some regrettable decisions. The most memorable being a delicious-looking mountain of rainbow snow cone bliss, which turned out to be more like miscellaneous, dessert nachos. The base was beans, mystery jelly and pieces of mangosteen supporting an odd-tasting assortment of flavored ice and then topped with creamed corn. Taste, texture, everything, was just weird. 

The Buddha Tooth Relic Temple is a must-see with its colorful, ornate decor and literally hundreds of statues and I was quite surprised to see people square dancing (to modern, English pop music, no less) near the Chinatown Complex. 

Gardens by the Bay 

These giant greenhouse gardens are located in the shadow of the huge and hideous (IMO) Marina Bay Sands Hotel. There are actually two Gardens by the Bay, the Flower Dome and the Cloud Forest. Jamie and I opted to only do one as we were short on time and didn't want to pay double the cost. The cloud forest was a nice respite from the city summer heat and we walked past the waterfalls, up the ramps, around the top and back down to the educational area. The flora was immaculately maintained and they even used misters to simulate foggy clouds. At the end, there is a dark room full of colorful, projected info graphics that educate you about the environment and it's biggest threats and you end by watching a short doomsday video about climate change where they describe a dying earth over the next hundred years. Then they rewind and give you hope again saying all that can be avoided if we take action today. They're preaching to the choir with regards to me and my sister but I hope it had an impact on everyone else passing through. This time, I didn't mind exiting through the gift shop because they had a bunch of awesome & eco-friendly stuff. I found some beautiful post cards designed by Peranakan Inspirations as well as this awesome little travel backpack that folds up into a small pouch. 

And I can't forget the super trees! They are these hybrid plant/solar structures that stand about 16 stories tall and collect solar energy so they can light up at night so they're self-sustaining. And the look pretty cool too. 

Street Art

I found the biggest concentration of street art in the Malay/Muslim district on Haji Lane. While admiring the incredible colors & designs, I turned the corner and found a group of  girls with American accents doing inversions in front of one of the murals. Turns out, one of them is kind of a big deal and teaches all over Asia but is based in Sinapore. Marysia invited me to one of her classes at Pure Yoga and I enthusiastically accepted her offer. I actually ended up doing two classes in a row the following morning; first a moderate Hatha class followed by a class called Upside Down, which is the hardest class I’ve ever attempted. The main focus was handstands and arm balances. I got a ton of tips from both Marysia and a pretty petite yet bad ass yogi next to me named Sen. The poses seemed almost effortless for her and she had short black hair with blonde streaks and an asian/egyptian pair of eyes tattooed at the base of her neck that stared at me everytime we posed facing the left wall. I was so satisfied with and grateful for the classes and really feel like I made significant progress in my practice. 

 

Public transportation is plentiful and my sister and I took trains, busses, Uber and cabs. My biggest gripe is that stamps and letter boxes are nearly impossible to find here.