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Angkor Wat, Angkor Wonder

Tuesday, October 9th, 2012

From Bangkok, I took the 10 hour trip by train and taxi to Siem Reap, the city located outside Angkor Wat, the most beautiful and largest temple complex in the world.  Siem Reap is a city that was literally built for tourists, comprised of hotels and guest houses, restaurants and bars, markets and food carts, and souvenir shops and art galleries.  The only reason to visit Siem Reap is because you are visiting Angkor Wat, and what can I say…I loved Angkor Wat.  I dig this sort of stuff, ancient ruins, especially if I can rent a bicycle and ride around all day. 

The temples of Angkor Wat were influential at various times during the rule of the Khmer Empire, from the 9th-13th centuries, when the Khmers ruled the majority of SE Asia, before being overthrown by the Kingdom of Siam.  The temples were important not only for their religious significance, but also for being central to daily Khmer life.  Angkor Wat was initially built as a Hindu temple dedicated to the creator, Vishnu, and eventually became a holy place for Buddhists, as well.  The influence of both these religions is displayed in the intricate carvings found throughout several of the temples, as well as many shrines dedicated to Vishnu, Shiva, and Buddha.

Day one was spent with a guide visiting the three most famous temples of the complex: Angkor Wat, the largest and most important of the temples, and the national symbol of Cambodia with its three distinct towers;  Ta Prohm which was abandoned in the 15th century, allowing for the jungle to encroach and is well known for the number of huge trees growing out of it, as well as the fact the it was featured in the film Tomb Raider starring Angelina Jolie; and Bayon, located at the center of Angkor Thom, featuring 37 towers, each carved with four faces of Buddha, or it’s been said four faces of King Jayavarman VII who identified himself with Buddha and the bodhisattva of compassion.  This was one of my favorites.  I loved the calm and kindness which the faces emanated, and the intricate carvings on the temple walls which depicted daily Khmer life.

Day two, Cora (a woman I hung with from Portland, OR) and I rented bicycles and rode through the complex.  We started at Phnom Bakhong, a small temple with very steep stairs and a temple dedicated to Buddha at the top.  It is also the oldest known temple in this group, which is apparent in the way the sandstone has corroded.  Then, we returned to Angkor Thom, the last capital of the Khmer Empire, to explore the several temples there aside from Bayon.  Among these is Baphuon, which is one of the largest temples, and was a section of the royal palace.  Initially dedicated to Shiva, it eventually becoming a Buddhist temple, at which time a 27 foot high 210 foot long reclining Buddha was added to the west wall.  It takes a discernable eye to see the Buddha, but it is possible.  Here you will also find the Palace of Phimeanakas and the Terrace of Elephants, which was used for public ceremonies.  We finished the day at Preah Khan, just north of Angkor Thom.  It was central to Khmer religious life as it was a large Buddhist temple surrounded by several Hindu temples.  Today, like several of Angkor’s structures, it is in a state of major disrepair.  Several foreign countries and organizations are doing restoration work on many of the temples, yet the World Monument Fund, who is in charge of Preah Khan, has only done some minor repairs in wanting to stay true to nature and history, thus they have left much of the temple walls in the piles of rubble to which they have fallen.  They say that there would be too much guess work in rebuilding it.  This is in contrast to say the French who have been working on the restoration of Baphuon, or the Indians who have been working on Ta Prohm, and have had to use complex analysis to make sense of it all.

Day three I hired a motorbike to travel a bit further to the Roluos Temple group, the first capital of the Khmer Empire.  It was wonderful to ride through the Cambodian countryside and small villages surrounded by canals and rice paddies.  The most interesting of these three temples is Bakong, the very first temple to be built.  There is evidence to support that Bakong remained an important temple even as the capital moved to Angkor Thom.  It was constructed as three levels, each one a bit smaller, like a pyramid.  At each corner there is an elephant sculpture for protection, most of which no longer have tusks or ears, and for some no faces.  Like so many of the Angkor temples, this structure is surrounded by jungle and a moat, allowing for a beautiful natural setting.  Also on the property is a modern day Buddhist temple, with an active monk population.

So, if you have the opportunity to visit Angkor Wat, it is well worth it, even if you make the trip for just a few days from Thailand.  It is rich in history and natural beauty, and we are all lucky that the Khmer Rouge did not destroy and loot it all when they were in power (side note: there are several pieces missing believed to have been destroyed by the KR, or to have been stolen by local people to sell or trade just to be able to have food to feed their families).

Link here for pictures of Angkor Wat.

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Posted in history, Spiritual, travel | 2 Comments »

Ancient & Tropical Sri Lanka

Sunday, September 2nd, 2012

India must have won my heart.  While I would return there in a heartbeat, Sri Lanka, eh…probably not.  Not to say that I didn’t enjoy my visit, or that the country is not interesting or beautiful.  It is, yet in my perception it just didn’t have the soul of India.  Now granted, I was in India for 4 months and Sri Lanka for a rushed 9 days, but still, for those who have travelled a lot, when you get somewhere you just know.  Regardless of those feelings, I did have a great time, saw noteworthy sites and met many people.

I started to write this blog while I was sitting in a beachside café in Uppuveli, taking in the second to last day of my stay and a bit of peace for a short time (next stop is Bangkok, which I do not expect to be tranquil in the least).  I’m really glad I made the long bus ride to Uppuveli, the beach there is beautiful, tropical, serene, and romantic (if only my man were with me).  Through my eyes, Uppuveli is much nicer than Negombo Beach, where I spent my first two nights a short distance from the airport, but a good place to get my bearings and figure out “a plan.”  The northeast area of Sri Lanka, where Uppuveli is located outside the city of Trincomalle, was hit hard by the tsunami, as well as being one of the last places the civil war ended only a few years ago.  They seem to be recovering well though.  There are lots of tourists, both Sri Lankan and Western, on the picturesque white sand beaches.   The village is poor and simple, there are lots of concrete structures that appear to have been bombed out, but the people are happy and grateful and always smiling.  Perhaps this is because they are on the other side of things, life is getting better.  I heard from a few locals of my generation of how hard life used to be, and how it has been improving in the last several years.

This area is also the best place for diving.  I didn’t go diving, but I did snorkel the reef at Pigeon Island National Park.  More and more I realize how spoiled we are in the Keys.  (Oh, tropical beaches and sultry ocean breezes, how could I have thought I didn’t love you anymore?)  The coral structure is very different then what I’ve experienced before, there was a lot of diversity in the variety of tropical fish, saw some small reef sharks, and it was very beautiful on many levels, but not quite the variety of the Keys, known for the large number of fish.

In between beaches, I spent four days exploring the cultural ruins of the ancient Sinhalese civilization, which dates back to the 4th century BC, but peaked in the 12th century.  The government is doing a fair bit of restoration to some of the sites, and some are preserved better than others, allowing for a good feel of what these ancient cities may have been like.   My travels took me to the city of Kandy, not an ancient city, but it is green and temperate with scenic views, set in the foothills of the tea country.  Sri Lanka is 70% Buddhist, and Kandy is home to the largest Buddhist temple in the country, the “Temple of the Tooth,” which houses a tooth of Buddha’s.  What I really enjoyed was the fairly new Museum of Buddhism, which takes us through Buddhism as it spread through 18 countries in Asia.  It offers a really interesting history and some gorgeous statues and artwork.

From Kandy I took the bus to Sigiriya, with a stop at the Dambulla Caves on the way.  These five caves, on the top of a hill, are adorned with numerous Buddha statues, and the walls and cave ceilings are painted with colorful murals depicting religious life.  I really enjoyed the scenic walk up a stairway that was built in between huge boulders and is lined with many beautiful trees, in addition to the amazing views of the surrounding area.  On to Sigiriya, a World Heritage Site, which is known for the palace built atop Sigiriya Rock.  The esplanade which leads to the rock is lined with a water garden, supposedly a very intricate system, but bone dry at the moment because Sri Lanka is experiencing a major water shortage.  Some areas have not had a drop of rain in eight months.  Here, too, the stairs up were built into the boulders and mountainside.  They have put in stairs for tourists to use because to climb the stairs that exist one would literally be scaling the rocks.  Not much is left of the palace, but there are some impressive cave paintings and they have done restoration on lion’s feet which flank the stairway up.  And, once again, the view is stunning.

Next stop, Polonnaruwa, the second largest of the ancient cities in Sri Lanka.  This site is incredibly well preserved considering how old it is.  Supposedly, this is due in part to the fact that it was hidden in the jungle until discovered by the British in the mid-nineteenth century.  Many walls, pillars, and statues survive, while all the roofs, which are believed to have been made of wood, are gone.  Polonnaruwa covers over four square kilometers, so I rented a bike and explored for about 6 hours.  Influenced by Buddhist and Hindu religions, there were temples, monasteries, and stupas.  There were signs of an advanced civilization with a hospital and town center lined with vendor stalls.  This is also the site of three of the most beautiful well preserved Buddha statues carved from stone, in addition to the countless statues which now stand headless throughout the site.  And it is from Polonnaruwa that I ended up in Uppuveli.

Some of the ways in which Sri Lanka has been an incredibly different experience to India: it is obviously more developed, which is most noticeable in the prices.  SL is way more expensive and Western in things like clothing and music, and as a tourist you do feel like you are being taken advantage of with the prices of entry fees and the like.  It was odd in that almost every tourist I met mentioned how much more expensive it was than they had expected, and how much it cost to see the historic sites;  The food is spicier, yes spicier, the seafood is incredible, and then there are the two traditional dishes of rice and curry, the heaping plate of rice accompanied by 6-12 vegetable dishes and sambol (the Sri Lankan version of chutney), and Kottu Roti which is their version of stir fry;  Then there are the people.  They are very friendly, super nice, and inquisitive, although with many of them once you get past “which country?” and “how long stay Sri Lanka?” they understand minimal bits and pieces.  It’s funny in that in India the children were incredibly curious and asking lots of questions where in SL the children seem to be a little more timid while the adults will engage you in conversation.   And let’s not forget the tourists.  I met many really terrific people from Australia, Germany, Greece, The Netherlands, and Israel.  They each had a part in making Sri Lanka a wonderful experience for me.  For more pictures of Sri Lanka, click here.

Now, on to Southeast Asia, and I am ready.  Super excited for Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Burma, and Thailand.  Til the next blog… sà-wàtdii kà.

 

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Posted in nature, Spiritual, travel | 6 Comments »

Up in the Mountains

Tuesday, August 21st, 2012

I’m back in McLeod Gang, the Tibetan enclave which is a suburb of Dharamsala, as well as the place where the Dalai Lama and thousands of Tibetan refugees reside.  I’m sitting on my hotel room balcony, watching the rain fall; it’s been raining for 24 hours straight.  Actually, it’s pretty much been raining since my arrival 6 days ago.  I was lucky to have a couple short breaks, and actually saw the sun for a few hours one afternoon, but it brings me back to Kundapura and the arrival of the monsoon.  It’s a shame because it really is beautiful up here in the mountains of Himachal Pradesh.  The view here in McLeod is lined with Tibetan prayer flags.  If only I could see them, naught for the fog.

Thankfully, when I was here almost a month ago, it was different.  There was some rain and fog, but the monsoon had not yet fully hit.  Like all of India, HP is short on its rainfall, having a 30% deficit this monsoon season.  Yet, that made for a drier visit for Dore and I, and allowed for us to be able to walk around, see sights such as the Tsuglagkhang Temple Complex (the main Buddhist Temple and home of the Dalai Lama) and embark on a stunning hike through lush forest loaded with rhododendron trees (unfortunately not flowering, but this is their native habitat) and more shades of green than I even knew existed, to a boulder strewn waterfall of crystal clear freezing cold water.

McLeod is an interesting place.  For the most part, you would not know you were in India, until the horns start honking, but you could be in Tibet or other parts of Asia.  There are always monks dressed in red and gold robes walking the streets and sitting in cafes , some sort of organized talk about the refugees or Buddhism to attend, and then the tourist aspect which adds a bit of Western flavor.  There is a huge Asian influence to the food here, and it is amazing.  There is a fantastic vegetarian Japanese restaurant which has delicious sushi, I’ve found a wonderful veggie Tibetan restaurant with hands down the best momos ever, and there is a superb Chinese restaurant which you know makes all its sauces from scratch.  I’ve been doing a lot of eating since the rain doesn’t allow for much else, or that’s my excuse anyway.

Actually, regardless of the rain, I’ve made a few visits to the Tsuglagkhang Complex, just to be in the atmosphere.   When Dore and I visited last time, we were lucky to arrive towards the end of Sangha and witness the monks in prayer, chanting and playing their myriad of musical instruments: drums, horns, bells, cymbals.  This visit, I haven’t made it for that, but there seems to always be a gathering of monks, there are always devotees engaged in their personal prayer practice (which honestly seems like a form of exercise where they move from a standing position to a prostrated position and then back up again with a push up), and of course there are the prayer wheels.  I haven’t counted them.  Possibly a hundred of them surrounding the Tsuglagkhang Temple, adorned with the Tibetan mantra “Om Mani Padme Hum,” The Jewel in the Lotus.  I have spun many of them sending prayers out in several directions, although always spinning in a clockwise direction, even though I’m not sure why this is the rule.  For pictures of McLeod Gang, link here.

When Dore and I left last time, we headed next to Manali, a short distance as a crow flies, but a 9 hour bus ride through curving mountain roads.  This was a warm-up to the 18 hour bus ride from Manali to Leh.  We stayed in Old Manali; a town which seems to have been built for tourists, yet still has some charm, set next to a rushing river in the mountains.  Here, I mostly relaxed, practiced yoga, shopped, ate.  One day did a hike up to have a look at the beautiful view, and another day the 3km walk to Vashisht, another tourist enclave on the opposite bank of the Beas River.  I made a connection in Manali for when I return to study Ayurvedic massage.  It really is a beautiful relaxed place, one I would like to visit again.  Link here for more pictures of Old Manali.

Next destination Leh, which I have already shared a little about in my last blog, but which had another special aspect for me.  The Dalai Lama was not in McLeod Gang when we were there, he was touring Ladakh, and happened to be in Leh at the same time we were.  We were lodging at a homestay and the family was going to see the Dalai address his audience, which was open to the public.  I asked if I could tag along.  There were probably 10,000 people there to hear him speak.  It felt a little like being at a music festival; the excitement in the air, people camped out on blankets, the anticipation of what one might witness.  There were several sections partitioned off; some for monks and nuns, another for old age, and then one for foreigners directly next to the podium.  Here one had a perfect side view of the Dalai Lama, and English translation over a speaker about one sentence behind what his holiness was saying.

It was really amazing to see this great leader, who is known to be a very charismatic speaker, address an audience.  At times, serious and profound, at others light-hearted and comical.  And then, of course, compassionate.  He stopped the Ladakhi translator at one point to ask if someone would assist an elderly woman attempting to navigate through the crowd.  Always present, always aware.  Something special to have witnessed.  He spoke of compassion, to bring more of it into the world.  Of evil and why it exists.  He made a joke that if there’s a hell, there has to be people to go there.  He spoke of the self, that it exists not on its own, but as a part of something greater, without beginning or end.  And he spoke about Tibetan Buddhism, that some say it is not really Buddhism, he says that those people must not know Buddhism.  It was a very thought-provoking and meaningful morning for me.  For pictures of Leh and His Holiness, link here.

So, my main observation about my time in Himachal Pradesh and Ladakh is that the Tibetan influence on this part of India gives it a distinctive feel and flavor, unlike anywhere else I’ve been in India.  Being a white woman is no longer a spectacle, possibly because the Tibetans don’t care, or because there are many more Western tourists here.  Regardless, it feels really nice to not be on display anymore.  And the whole atmosphere is different.  Much more chill and laid back.  Smaller towns, higher altitudes, fresher air, cleaner water, cooler temperatures, pine laden mountains, yaks and sheep, apples and pears and apricots…oh, the apricots.  Just different.  There is something to be said for mountain living.  Not that I have ever done it.  I haven’t, but I am certainly intrigued after my most recent experiences.

Well, this will be my last blog from India.  I’ve been taking a Thai Massage class which commences today.  Tomorrow, I embark on the 12 hour bus ride to Delhi, and in three days, I will find myself in Sri Lanka.  After four months here, I am looking forward to the excitement and adventure of a new place.  I’m also looking forward to being where it is sunny and warm again, maybe relaxing on a beach for a few days.  And I’ll be easing myself into SE Asia, since Sri Lanka has lots of Buddhist and Southern Indian influence.

So, with a Namaste, Namaskar, Hadi Om, Julley (whatever your flavor isJ), I bid you farewell from India, and look forward to greeting you with Sai Ram or Ayubowen from Sri Lanka.

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Posted in Massage, nature, Spiritual, travel | 6 Comments »

Snow in August…Who Would’ve Thunk

Sunday, August 12th, 2012

If I’d been told that I was going to see snow in August, in humid tropical India, or arid desert India, I would have thought I was being lied to.  But here I am, in the city of Leh, in the state of Ladakh, looking at snow topped peaks of the Himalayas.  Those of you who are mountain people, who know altitude, you would have known.   Yet, this is something that I don’t have much experience with, this is all new to me.

So, I have just returned from one of the best times of my life, a 6 day trek in the Himalayan range.  I had never seen mountains like this in my life.  My experience is with the small mountains of the East Coast, the Smokies and the Blue Ridge.  I’ve never even been out to the Rockies.  Once, I’d hiked to the peak of Jabal Katarina in the Sinai, peaking around 3500 meters.   This time here in the Himalayas was a very special experience.

We trekked from Tso Kar to Tso Moriri (Tso meaning “lake” in Ladakhi), 4 days of serious walking, we figure somewhere around 45 miles.   The hiking was strenuous and arduous, the air thin and difficult to breathe.  I can say one of the most challenging feats I’ve ever undertaken, yet also one of the most rewarding, both physically and mentally.  It feels like an amazing triumph.  At one point when I could hardly catch my breath, Dore said to me, “Gail, it’s not supposed to be fun.  It is hard; everyone is breathing heavy, even our guide.  The reward is once we get to the top.”  And, this was so true.

We started at about 4500 meters above sea level, in mountains of red, gold and green.  Even though it is very arid here, the snow melt allows for lots of growth along the mountain sides and in the valleys.  When you come over a pass, it’s like seeing an oasis; a valley of green pasture studded with grazing Nomad herds of yak, sheep, and goat.   As we got higher, the mountains transformed in color and contour.  The smooth sandy hills of red and gold converted to more rocky mountains of purples and blues.  Our first pass, Horlan Kongka La, was 4950 meters and gave me lots of confidence for the following day, when we would climb our two highest passes.  The achievement of each pass is acknowledged by a shrine of Tibetan prayer flags, usually adorned with the horns of an animal, Tibetan carvings, or the words of another trekker written in sharpie pen on rock.  Our second, and most difficult pass, was Kyamayur La, 5450 meters, at a very steep angle.   When we crested our third and highest pass, Gama La, 5850 meters, we were greeted with snow flurries and blustery northeast winds.   This felt like a remarkable accomplishment.  In our final pass, Yalang Nyau La, 5440 meters, we followed a babbling brook for miles, lined with walls of slate, and the river itself, laden with huge chunks of quartz and other mineral and gem stones.  It is stunning.  Gama and Yalang Nyau were more gradual climbs, not as steep as Kyamayur, allowing us to enjoy a little more, and work slightly less.  Each pass was so beautiful, offering different views of the glacier peaked mountains, different vantage of the valleys, and depending on where the sun laid, very different shadows and colors.

Our team was led by a wonderful 19 year old man, Tsultim.  He was a fantastic guide.  He’s from Leh and has been spending his summer’s guiding since he was 14.  He is currently an art student in Jammu, a city further west, and spends almost every day of his summer leading treks.  He is knowledgeable, fun, and sweet.  We really enjoyed him, and him us.  Our cook was a Nepali man named Pudna.  He has been cooking on treks for 7 years.  He works the earlier season in Nepal, and then finishes the trekking season in India.  And our pony man, Paldin, who is from Karzok, the town we ended at at Tso Moriri.  Six ponies for the two of us and the crew.  They carry all the camping gear, food, and fuel (20 liters).  We camped near a water source every night, so water is boiled daily.  The food was really good, a combination of Indian and Nepali, and all vegetarian.  After a couple of days, we finally convinced Tsultim and Pudna to start eating with us, none of this client-staff stuff.  I can imagine that they have clients who expect this, but not us.  We wanted them to be a complete part of our experience, which included eating together.  It wasn’t until the second to last morning that I discovered they were eating a totally different breakfast than us.  We were being given a “Western” version, eggs, toast, and cereal.  They were having curried rice and potatoes, something both Dore & I preferred, so the final morning we all ate the same thing.  Now we know for future treks.

So, future treks…I would come back and do the Indian Himalayas again.  We covered a very small area of a very vast range.  I am grateful that this was my first trek, and not the Annapurna circuit in Nepal, which we had originally considered.  That trek is much higher in altitude, and much longer in days.  I felt that for my experience and physical ability, this was perfect.  I have been very interested in a trek in the state of Uttarakhand, also in the Himalayan Range, to the Valley of the Flowers.  It sounds stunning and amazing, and is a part of the country I did not venture to.  All in the return trip I am planning back to India.

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Shiva Festival

Sunday, July 22nd, 2012

At some point India had to become difficult.  Everyone I know who has ever been here has had their stories of some sort of challenge.  Dore & I had been cruising along, wondering if this was true, if it all really had to do with the people themselves, their personalities and outlooks on life, the way they handle themselves in any challenging situation.  Well, welcome to North India, to the Shiva festival, and thousands of male pilgrims on the same path as you.  Add in a rickshaw driver who won’t take you where you want to go, but will take your money; a bicycle rickshaw driver who takes you 20m, tells you he can go no further, and takes your money; and a long walk through narrow unknown old city streets, following and trusting a complete stranger, who gets you where you need to go, and will take your money.  For that moment, it had become difficult.

Little did we know that our journey to Varanasi and Rishikesh, two of the holiest cities along the Ganga River, would be coinciding with the Shiva Festival.  Had we known, would we have changed our plans?  Probably not, especially since we had no idea what it meant, but also because these are two spiritual cities that we really wanted to visit.  The challenge comes from the fact that we are a spectacle here in India; white women walking with our rucksacks on,  surrounded by hundreds of juvenile Indian boys; well, not really boys, young adults and men, but they act like children.  “Hello. How are you?” followed by something in Hindi which we can only perceive to be in some way sinister by the way they snigger.  Cell phones pointed at us without the sometimes polite “Photo please, Madam.”  This can become extremely tiring, annoying, and challenging.  Dore had finally let an “F…Off” come out, while I found myself holding up my hand to block my face from their cameras like some Hollywood starlet.  It’s not so much that I have a problem with being in their photos; it’s more the sheer disrespect of them not even asking, yet being incredibly blatant.  Starts to make one feel like a caged animal on exhibition, yet without the bars.  And while this uncomfortableness came to being in Varanasi, it came to its pinnacle in Rishikesh, and in some ways tainted the spirituality of these mystical cities.  Thankfully, we have had a full week in Rishi post-festival, and been able to get more of a feel for the place.

Once past the initial shock of being ripped off by not one, but two drivers in Varanasi, the city itself grew on us.  Dore more so than myself; being a very religious city, there are cows everywhere, and I found it arduous to constantly dodge piles of cow dung.  Yet, regardless, the soul of Varanasi is apparent in the overall ambiance.  The holiness of the city leaches into you.  In walking the Ghats (the stairs that lead down to the river) it is impossible to ignore that the Ganga is where people gather to pray, pay homage to departed souls (famous for the cremations which take place in public along the rivers edge), as well as cleanse their bodies and souls (dipping oneself in the Ganga is a baptism of sorts, washing away ones sins).  The evening puja ceremony is beautiful.  Even nonHindus can sense how special it is, watching 7 Hindu men cloaked in white perform their spiritual fire dance along the river’s edge, giving thanks for the day.  We spent two days there walking the Ghats and people watching, witnessing a funeral and puja ceremony, and experiencing sunrise and sunset on the river, the main attractions in Varanasi.  Having done all that, and because the city was so crowded due to the festival, we decided it was time to move on.  Our time in India is rapidly coming towards completion, and there is still much to see in the north; plus, we are looking forward to getting more yoga time in.

On to Rishikesh, a city known for its yogic soul and sheer natural beauty, situated along the Ganga, enveloped by green mountains.   There are dozens of ashrams in Rishi, countless places to practice yoga, and where we made our home for 12 nights.  We found a room with a kitchen, and a flat mate for the first six nights, Adeline from Paris, who we traveled with on the train.  Within our first day, we ran into a woman we’d met at Sivananda, and she turned us onto a great yoga teacher who holds classes in a hotel right next to our guest house.

At last, we have found our guru.  His name is Sirander, and it is apparent that he loves to share his yogic knowledge and culture.  He is a teacher who deserves the guru label; a patient and peaceful soul who has an amazing ability to read his student’s needs.  He is able to lead each one of us individually, on both a physical and spiritual level, even as each of us is one of several students.  While the physical practice has been rewarding, challenging, and expansive, I feel like I have finally found the yoga I had come to India for: the Dharma talks, the spiritual explanations of this path and journey, yoga with a soul and the soul of yoga.  On more than one occasion, his Dharma talk went in the direction of something I had thought about earlier in the day or practice, and his explanations and analogies are simple to understand, as life should be.   I am incredibly grateful to have had the opportunity to practice with him for over a week, and have contemplated a return visit.

Ready to leave Rishikesh, yet sadly leaving this specific practice behind, I look forward to one last class with Sirander tomorrow morning before we head off to witness another powerful soul, the Dalai Lama.  Our next stop is Dharamsala, where the Dalai Lama has resided in exile since 1959, and if we are lucky, he will be addressing an audience while we are there.  Hadi Om.

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Posted in nature, Spiritual, travel, Yoga | 9 Comments »

Time at the Taj

Sunday, July 15th, 2012

You know it’s a small world when you jump in a rickshaw at the train station in Udaipur, mention the name Munchi Baba to the person with whom you’re traveling, and the driver pipes-in with “Munchi’s my brother.”  Just chance how things fall into place sometimes.   Welcome to Udaipur, one of the most picturesque cities in India, set on Lake Pichola in the Aravalli Hills, state of Rajasthan, Land of Kings.  This once royal city of the Mewars, sacked by the Mughals and the Marathas, and finally taken by the British in the 1800’s (although the Mewars were still allowed to rule independently), is now a major tourist destination highlighting the City Palace (largest in Rajasthan), the skilled craftsmanship of miniature painting, and the beautiful sunset over the hills.  Also, home of the best Mango Cobbler ever, the biggest bats I’ve ever seen, and one of the coolest cemeteries I’ve ever been to, straight out of an Escher painting.  Thanks to Billu, Munchi’s brother, for taking us to the Royal Cemetery (if you ever end up in Udaipur, a must go not mentioned in the guidebooks), for the best thali yet on this trip – Shivali Thali, for dropping us at an artist’s house to buy some pieces, and for showing us Saheliyon-ki-Bari, a garden built for the 48 women attendants who came as part of a dowry in the 1700’s.

About 80km away is the largest fort built by the Mewars, Kumbhalgarh.  This fort has the second longest wall in the world (the first being the Great Wall of China), boasts 38 temples within its limits, and gorgeous views of the surrounding area.  The interior of the living quarters are lined with elephant murals which still hold their colors and are beautiful to look at.   Just 12 km from there, as a crow flies, 50km by auto, is the largest Jain Temple complex in India, Ranakpur, built in the 1400’s.  Intricately carved from white marble, still in spectacular condition, this is one of the most impressive temples seen yet on the trip.  It would be easy to whittle away time within its peaceful open-air halls.  The temple boasts 1444 pillars, with one of them being slightly tilted because humans err; only god is perfect.  Click here for photos of Udaipur.  Link here for Dore’s blog on Udaipur.

Goodbye Udaipur, Hello Agra, home of the Taj Mahal, and one of the most spectacular sites one may ever see.  Pictures don’t do it justice.  The Taj is magical, captivating, and exquisite.  From the rooftop view at our guest house to being right up on it, it is by far one of the most amazing spectacles ever built by man; an estimated 22,000 laborers over 20 years, 1632-1653, to be precise.  The Taj is a memorial to Mumtaz Mahal, wife of Shah Jahan, and the burial place of them both.  Made of white marble, with intricate floral carvings, and inlaid with semiprecious stones (black jade from China, amber from Burma, malachite from Russia, blue lapis from Afghanistan, and rubies from Sri Lanka) in delicate floral mosaics and quotes from the Koran.  There is nowhere else like the Taj in the world.  The grounds are laden with ornamental gardens and fountains, a mosque, and other structures, in pure symmetry.  It is truly breath-taking.  The rest of the sites in Agra are dwarfed in comparison.  The Taj is the reason to visit Agra.

Interestingly, we have seen many more tourists since arriving north.  It could be because it is monsoon season in the south, although the monsoon has been following us north; or simply because the northern cities are more popular for their sites and spiritual culture than those in the south.  Still, many more tourists from the US and Canada, Europe, and Eastern Asia.  This does make for a slightly different flavor when traveling.  Not necessarily in a positive or negative way, just different.  We are treated more as one of them, then as individual travelers.  This does have its pros or cons, depending on the situation.   More on that in the coming blog.  Link here for Dore’s blog on Agra.

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Fire Temple, Big City, Breath-taking Beauty

Saturday, June 16th, 2012

I left off in Pondicherry, the town which could have kept us there for a long time, but we forced ourselves to escape. This is a big country and there is a lot to see. Highlights of the last couple days there…we did find a yoga instructor that we enjoyed practicing with, Satheesh, who taught in Ashtanga style, and because it is slow season in Pondi, we basically had private lessons with him. This was definitely to our advantage at $6/class, and because he was a very good instructor. Pondi is host to Goubert Market, which encompasses about 3 sq city blocks. It is loaded with fresh fruits and veggies, spices, grains, legumes, and pastas, flowers, fish, and meat. It is so colorful and beautiful just to walk around, lively and aromatic. If I lived there, I know where I would be doing my shopping. We left one day with a bag full of produce to make 2 types of mango salsa. One day a pink grapefruit-mango salsa, the next an avocado-mango salsa. There are fresh chip stalls in all the towns, and tapioca has become one of our favorites, perfect for salsa. Because of the French influence, the streets are small, the architecture Mediterranean influenced, and all in all, the French Quarter, a quaint town in a small city. Our favorite places were kasha ki aasha for fresh Indo-European food, salads and juices, and Villa Shanti, the home of the Mint Daiquiri.  Click here for more pictures of Pondi.  You’ll notice, I am a little market obsessed.  (More pictures of more places will follow, upload can be very slow here :).  Link here for Dore’s blog on Pondicherry.

Our next big destination was Bangalore, and we stopped in the small temple town of Tiruvannamalai on the way. The temple here is one in a series of the five elements dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva. This one is the fire temple, Arunachaleswar Temple, and they have 2000 liters of ghee burning daily in Shiva’s honor (for those who don’t know, ghee is clarified butter). This temple was another beautiful specimen of Indian temple architecture, totally different than the Meenakshi Temple in Madurai, and was really spectacular when seen from above. From the top of Mt. Arunachala, which is a famous pilgrimage site around the time of the full moon, there is an amazing view of the temple and surrounding area. Certainly not a hike for the meek, we hiked about 2 hours straight up over boulders, through tall grass, and each step was a challenge, but the view was our big reward. Gorgeous landscape. We had taken a night train from Madurai to Pondicherry, and it wasn’t until we left Pondi that we realized how different this part of the country was in comparison to the tropical, wet, humid state of Kerala. Here it is dry, arid, desert. This made for a different beautiful landscape. On the return from our hike, we stumbled upon Indian breakfast of idli, puris, sambar and chutney in what seemed like someone’s home, for less than $1 for both. Then, on the bus for the six hour ride to Bangalore. On the busses from the small towns to the big cities, it can be a challenge to get a seat; you’ve really got to push your way through, past the elderly and the young. There is nothing orderly about it, and can feel oddly wrong at times, but a seat is pretty important on a six hour ride.

We arrived in the big city of Bangalore, the IT capital of India (thus my new Samsung notebook I am currently writing to you from), and all in all, a very Western city, although as a woman you still have to cover knees and shoulders or you get stared at, which gets pretty old after a while. (There was more than one occasion in which Dore or I felt the Jersey rising up in us, just wanting to return the stares of these Indian men with a “F..K off” or “Have you got a problem?” Of course we didn’t, no matter how much we desired, because any sort of communication comes across as an invitation.) So, our main reason for going to Bangalore (and we have now sworn ourselves off of big Indian cities) was to connect with the niece of a family friend of Dore’s who runs a NGO here called CWC, The Concerned for Working Children. This organization has been around since the late seventies, empowering children to know their rights, on how to make choices for themselves, and assisting them in having a voice in governmental decisions. The state of Karnataka is big on local governments hosting “town hall” meetings for the whole community, and CWC has given children a voice in this process as well. It is a really amazing grass roots organization, they were nominated for the Noble Peace Prize this year, and they focus on working from the local level up. We are going to be spending next week volunteering at their school, which is in a beautiful location on the coast, Kundapura, assisting in yoga class and conversational English. The school has been compared to Montessori in its style of teaching. Should be very interesting and rewarding.

So, we made that connection, and then spent maybe two days too long in the city, but we did city stuff, ate sushi , drank cocktails, shopped, went to two English movies (Prometheus- sucked, The Avengers-fun (our choices were limited)), city park, botanical garden. All in all it was good, but we are so glad to be out of the loud, horn-honking, polluted madness of it all. We also both dealt with our first bouts of Delhi-belly. Was it the sushi or the filtered tap water, we will never know, but it had me down so badly that in the middle of a mango festival, I couldn’t even think of trying one of the several varieties of mangoes I haven’t yet tasted. Believe me, that made me very very sad. Thankfully, mangoes prevail here, and so will I.  Link here for Dore’s blog on Bangalore.

Now we are in Hampi, wishing we’d arrived earlier, and could stay longer, but the volunteering will take precedence to traveling this time. This is an amazingly beautiful place, and a World Heritage Site. The landscape is huge boulders formed by volcanoes and centuries of erosion. It is arid, yet there are lots of indigenous trees and plants, and the primary crops, that we’ve seen, are bananas and sugar cane. There is a beautiful river here, the Tungabhadra, so irrigation is not an issue. In the 16th century this was one of the major cities in India, about 500,000 people, and a huge center in international trade. Today it is small town, and we have decided to stay on the north side of the river in Virupapur Gaddi, which is sooo quiet (because it is out of town, and also because it is the off season), we love it. The ancient temple sites encompass about a 3 sq km area, too big to walk, yet small enough to bike. We rented bicycles and rode through it all. The government, along with Global Heritage Fund, is currently doing reparations on several of the sites, of which there are over 40. These include a series of temples, baths, royalty residence, elephant stables, and deity statues. I can easily say that all in all, Hampi is one of the most stunning places I’ve ever been. The overall terrain is breath-taking, with unbelievable mountain sunsets, and beautiful big skies. This is one of the secrets of India, for any of you who may travel here in the future, do not miss.  Link here for Dore’s blog on Hampi.

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From the Backwaters to the Bay of Bengal

Saturday, June 2nd, 2012

A couple weeks can pass here very easily.  So much has happened since my last post.  I will try to update simply, yet thoroughly.

From Varkala, we headed north to Amritapuri, the home of Amma’s ashram.  What an amazing woman and philanthropist Amma is.  She discovered that she had a spiritual connection with others at a very young age, and started seeing people to give them hugs, thus her nickname, “The Hugging Mama.”  She will literally sit for 20 hours a day for days at a time to see people, giving them hugs, consoling them.  Then, in addition to this, she gives of her time, energy, and money (all raised through donation) to help those in need.  She has rebuilt whole towns destroyed by tsunamis and earthquakes, and she gave to the Clinton/Bush fund after Hurricane Katrina.  She has built homes for orphans, has given school scholarships to thousands of children, built fully modern equipped hospitals, and has opened food kitchens around the world.  Unfortunately, she was not at the ashram when we visited, ironically, she is touring the US (see her if you can), but now that I know more about her, I hope to meet her one day.  Here we met Sammy from North London who traveled on with us for a couple of days.

From there, we continued north to Alleppey (3 buses) where we toured the backwaters by canoe (kind of a mix between a canoe and a gondola, pole pushed, but wide enough that you can lounge out).  This whole town is built on the natural canals which cover the area.  Peoples lives depend on the canals for fishing and Kerala rice (which had just been harvested before we arrived), for transport by canoe or barge, for bathing and washing clothes, and for tourism.  As part of our day with our guide, we went to his home for both a traditional Indian breakfast of a rice-coconut cake and a rice-nut-fruit type of dry cereal, so yummy, and a traditional Indian vegetarian thali lunch, which definitely included the best pickled mango I have had thus far.  His two daughters entertained us with some Indian song and dance.  And we tried a locally brewed coconut beer, good but had a very strong fermentation flavor. The canoe tour took us through the backwaters, lined with coconut palms, mango trees, banana trees, and floating water plants.  It was very beautiful.

One of the great things about this type of travel is that a plan can be changed in just one thought.  We were on our way from Alleppey to Munnar, when we realized that we were on route towards Thattekad Bird Sanctuary, and the homestay of Ms Sudah.  With a quick call from the bus, we found out she had a room available, and within 30 minutes we were at our stop.  This is remotely beautiful spot in the Western Ghats of India, still very tropical, but also thick with hardwood forest and rubber plantations.  We saw dozens of species of water and forest birds, as well as monkeys and giant squirrels, the largest in the world.  We did not see, but did hear wild elephants one morning.  As part of the homestay, we were fed 2 amazing home cooked meals a day, and did learn how to make pickled lime/mango/and garlic.  I look forward to the day I can experiment with making these at home.  We also tried “Toddy,” the locally brewed palm beer, although while I say brewed, it literally comes straight from the tree and is ready to drink.  Much more palatable than the heavily fermented coconut brew.  Click here for Dore’s blog on Thattekad.  Click here for pictures from Thattekad.

From Thattekad to Kallar, about a two hour trip (3 buses), we are now 20km south of Munnar, in the thick of the cardamom hills, rich with cardamom and coffee plantations, and surrounded by tea plantations.  Wow, who knew how tea grew, I sure didn’t.  Tea bushes grow on an incline, short thick green bushes, and they are sculpted in a labyrinthine way.  Incredibly beautiful and much cooler here as we are up to about 8000 ft.  We did a 5 mile walk one day, through the winding roads, to a waterfall.  We saw women harvesting the tea, trimming them just like we would trim bushes back at home.  The beauty here, and in Munnar, where we spent the next night, is breathtaking.  Dore said it right, as it is something out of a fairytale, where you are literally standing in the thick of the clouds.  The city of Munnar is a tourist destination, and it is busy and lively, and is the place to buy homemade chocolate, so we did.  Click here for pictures of Kallar and Munnar.  Click here for Dore’s blog on Kallar and Munnar.

Next, we head east into the state of Tamilnadu, to the city of Madurai for one night.  This city was a bit of a culture shock after the beautiful country we had just spent a week in.  A dirty concrete jungle, yet midway on our trip to the east coat, and famous for the Meenakshi Temple, which is incredibly impressive.  It beautifully depicts Hindu culture and religion in colorful friezes and murals.  There are 7 temples on the property, several which only Hindus can enter.  One day in Madurai was plenty, and we anxiously made our way out of town to Pondicherry, the Indian-French enclave on the Bay of Bengal.  Link here for Dore’s blog on Madurai.

 

Pondi is a smaller city, we have rented bicycles and I don’t feel like I may be risking my life by riding here.  Oddly, several businesses are closed here now.  We were looking for an internet cafe yesterday, and when all the ones we’d read about were closed, we stumbled upon a really nice boutique hotel with a bar, and since nothing else had worked out for us yet that day, we ended up enjoying several fresh mint daiquiris, allowing for the heat of the day to cool down.  Pondi is just south of the international city of Auroville, so there seems to be a strong Western influence here, especially in the French/Italian/and Asian cuisine around town.  There is a “French Quarter” here, not like NOLA, but you can certainly feel the European influence with all the balconies and colorfully painted homes.

 

The current plan is to spend a few days here before we head slightly north and then west again.  I hope to be online with you all again soon.  With warm regards.

 

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It Takes a Village…

Sunday, May 20th, 2012

Most have heard the saying, “It Takes a Village,” and here in Varkala Beach, it is to haul in the days catch.  I was awoken yesterday morning by a melee of boisterous voices coming from the beach.  When I stepped out on my balcony, to have a look at what was going on, I saw about 20 men bringing in a huge fishing net, surrounded by a large group of onlookers.  Apparently, the way they fish here is for a man in a canoe to bring this huge net about 200 meters offshore. Then, the other men back onshore haul the net in to a call and response rhythm.  Once the net is onshore, with fish, calamari, and whatever else in tow, it is separated by size into large plastic colanders.  There is a broker who negotiates the price for the catch with the main fisherman, and then the others leave with some of the catch for themselves.  It was such an interesting process to watch, as there were also several women and young boys around, some seeming to help and others just there to be a part of it all.  I love how this is the morning activity for so many here, and happens most days of the week.

You can surmise from this story that I am no longer at the ashram.  About 5 days in, Dore really wanted to leave, and I was in agreement, so we finished the two week program and made our way to a lovely, simple resort called the Oasis on Odayam Beach in Varkala.  This is my first time vacationing on the Arabian Sea, and it feels so good to be by the ocean again.  Nice waves, just big enough to play in, but not dangerous, and it is off season here now, so it is very quiet and very inexpensive.  Our beachfront room is costing us 400rs or $8/night.  The seafood is deliciously fresh, lots of fish and prawn curry, and calamari tandoori.  The salads and juices are really fresh, and so far, knock on wood, been kind to our stomachs.  Thank you GSE (Grapefruit Seed Extract, excellent for everything).  We had planned to stay 3 or 4 days, yet the casual laid-back atmosphere, and other friends from the ashram being here, has extended our stay to almost a week.  After the 5:20 wake-up call at the ashram, it is lovely to wake-up naturally, do yoga everyday at one’s own will, read, walk the beach, relax.  Yet, we have decided to leave tomorrow, continuing to head north to the ashram of Amma “The Hugging Mama.”  A night or two there, and then to explore the backwaters of Alappuzha and Kottayam, before we head east through Munnar and Tamil Nadu to the east coast of India and, specifically, Pondicherry.

My last blog had left off just before our 30 hour train ride south. It was actually a very easy ride.  We splurged for the 2nd best accommodations, so we had a 4 person air conditioned compartment.  It was a really nice change, leaving the city of Mumbai to view the countryside.  Big mountains, rice paddies, tropical trees, lots of water, and cows.  The first couple we shared the compartment with were traveling from Mumbai to open their summer home in anticipation of their children and grandchildren coming to visit with them.  Apparently, several train stations in India are known for certain tasty delights.  When the train stopped at one station, this couple bought us upuma sandwiches, basically a potato patty on a bun with a spicy/salty seasoning, and this (wherever this was) was the place to get them.  Their stop was about 6 hours into the trip, when they were replaced by a mother and son who were heading south for her niece’s wedding.  They too were very friendly and generous, and they are from Renigiri, supposedly famous for it’s mangoes.  She gifted us a can of mango puree, which we actually finally got around to having today, sharing mango lassies with the other people staying at the guesthouse.  They departed about 6 hours before we arrived to our stop, and we had the space to ourselves at that point.  Playing cards, reading, watching the countryside pass.  Here, people come out to wave at the trains as they pass by, with big smiles on their faces.

Upon arrival in Trivandrum, we negotiated a taxi to the Ashram, and after about an hour of driving through dusty winding roads, we arrived to the Sivananda Vedanta Yoga Center in Neyyar Dam.  While checking in, we were informed of the many rules to be followed, and the busy mandatory schedule.  Since I’d read the website countless times, this was what I’d expected.  I was very excited, so looking forward to a dedicated yoga practice for a month, and the location was beautiful.  Our simple room was two beds, some shelves, and a desk.  They provided us with sheets, a pillow, and a mosquito net, which was definitely needed.  Our view was of papaya and mango trees, and tropical forest.  In the distance you could see a temple on top of the highest peak around.  We ended up hiking up their our last morning for an incredible view of the dam, lake, and mountains, and our morning meditation.  We had neighbors from Spain on both sides of us, one of the couples became our friends and are now at the beach with us.  There were lots of really nice people on the program, from all over the world, and many travelers to hear stories from and share tips with.  Yet, in the end, like many things in life, the ashram had it’s pros and cons.  The pros, in addition to the beautiful, peaceful location, and other participants, were the food (yummy vegetarian fare twice a day, as much as you wanted to eat.  Lots of coconut and fresh veggies) and some of the yoga teachers (there were a couple in particular, who really helped me to improve my yoga practice, 4 hours/day, especially headstand, shoulderstand, plow, and crow, all poses I’d been struggling with/working on for years).  The cons were some of the other yoga teachers who just were not good, and the director who completely lacked in spiritual leadership (it turned out it was a strictly Hindu program, but without explanation, they just expected people to blindly follow), as well as in educational ability (we had 1 1/2 hours of lecture each day, which just turned out to be incredibly boring.  The one thing I came away from the lectures with was that Siva created 840,000 yoga poses, of which 84,000 are meant to be practiced by people, the rest by plants and animals).  There were 2 days that the 8 limbs of yoga were touched upon, but not once the Yoga Sutras.  Honestly, in the end, I stopped going, as there was nothing expanding on what I’d already studied in Yoga teacher training and on my own.  Also, they had a way of treating everyone like untrustworthy children, which didn’t resonate with either of us, so we have moved on and are looking forward to experiencing other yoga in Mysore, Rishikesh, and other locations.

We had one day trip, for which we hired a taxi with 5 other women who were on the program.  We started at an elephant sanctuary and bathed a huge female elephant in the river.  It was so amazing.  What a beautiful docile creature.  She ate bananas from our hands.  To bath the elephants, they chop pieces off a coconut shell so you use the rough husk on their skin.  She seemed to love it, and it was very cool to connect with such an enormous creature in that way.  Then, we went to Ponmudi and climbed to the highest point in the state of Kerala.  From there, we were right near the border of the state Tamil Nadu.  The scenery was amazing tropical forest, so many layers of green, it was just gorgeous, and peaceful.  As we were on the peak, clouds rolled in to envelope us.  Next, we went to a beautiful waterfall and went swimming in our clothes in the pool below.  As women, it is disrespectful to show your bodies, if you do it may be mistaken by men as a come-on of some sort, so that is why swimming in our clothes.  The pool was so cool and refreshing, in a tropical forest.  Really great.  And then it started to pour.  Hello monsoon season.  We returned totally soaked to the taxi, and decided to just wring out our clothes, which were really already wet anyway, and then went to eat.  Delicous masala dosa, rice pancakes stuffed with potatoes and veggies, served with a couple different sauces.  And that was it for our free day from the ashram.

I want to say thanks to everyone for your comments and replies to my blog.  I’m sorry that I haven’t been able to answer each one of you individually, but I am grateful to hear from you.  Hopefully, at some point soon, the internet capabilities will be more consistent.  Until then, signing off…

 

 

 

 

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Connecting with Another on the Mat

Monday, March 5th, 2012

Yesterday was a great day.  I was given the opportunity to teach something new, a Partner Yoga class, and it was fun and creative and a pure pleasure to share.  I had never taken a partner yoga class before, and I had only explored a few poses in various classes and yoga teacher training.  One of my students, who is training to become a teacher herself, had approached me about practicing some partner poses with her.   From there, the idea was born.

In conversation, I had mentioned to Nancy Curran, owner of Yoga on the Beach, what we were practicing.  She needed a teacher for the themed first Sunday of the month yoga brunch class, and I was given the opportunity to, with Bonnie, create a partner yoga class to share with others.

We explored compassion together in twists, such as Half Lord of the Fishes.  In a blustery wind, we learned to trust one another, in the balancing poses Eagle and Tree.  We found strength in one another in Warrior poses, and we came to surrender in Child’s pose.  All in connection to another.  It was a really beautiful, heart-opening experience.  

 

I am grateful to all who joined us, and to Yoga on the Beach for the opportunity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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