Thursday, May 30, 2013

Pleasantville. AKA Nara.

We left the relative chaos of Kathmandu, Nepal, and found ourselves surrounded by the complete and utter serenity of Nara, Japan. From one world, into another, very different one. Arriving to the jarring cleanliness and orderliness of Osaka's airport made us realize the level of dirt and disorderliness we had grown accustomed to. And the trains: so punctual, so fast! They arrived and departed precisely when the schedule said! There was a schedule! And the price was fixed as stated on the fare list! "Yeti, I don't think we're in Kathmandu anymore..."

Everything is so clean and well-put-together. The people are groomed and trimmed, the streets are impeccably clean, all the little trees are pruned into order and refinement. There hardly seems a need for anti-littering laws -- who would think of littering?! And quiet. No shouting, no honking, and even the cars are quieter. Probably electric.

I know Canada has a reputation of being polite, but seriously, Canadians, we need to up our game. The Japanese make us look like roughnecks. All the bowing and arigato gozaimasu's and giving and receiving things with two hands, wow. People are really passionate about their jobs and customer service, and it shows.

The whole experience is just so nice, and pleasant.

The deer of Nara.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013


After spending a lovely week in the countryside near Kathmandu, it was back to the bustling capital for a couple of nights before leaving for Japan. On our last full day we went to nearby Bhaktapur for the afternoon. I say nearby, since it's only about 17 km away, but like Sankhu, it takes over an hour to get there. We walked to Ratna Park, the southern bus "terminal" -- which is really just a rutted, muddy parking lot of competing bus "companies," honking and driving in every direction, the "ticket boys" shouting (presumably) the route name or destinations. We were approached by several of these entrepreneurial young lads, and when we said "Bhaktapur," they very nearly fought with each other to get us onto their bus, shouting and gesturing (and shoving) us, indicating that the other boys were lying, and that their buses weren't going to Bhaktapur, and so on. It was confusing, mayhem even, and once we were shoved onto a bus, we still weren't certain if it was the right one, but the other passengers and (very young) driver confirmed it. And sure enough, we arrived after about an hour of our bus hurtling down the streets, ticket boys hanging out the open door shouting the route auctioneer-style, signalling to the driver to stop for new passengers through a very sophisticated system of whistles and thumps, and only once getting pulled over by an undoubtedly corrupt cop for some unknown infraction, and the fares being collected in advance to pay the bribe.

But it was worth all the mayhem to get to Bhaktapur: a crumbling, sagging medieval village, still operating much the same way as it would have centuries ago. In the squares, wheat is still being threshed by hand (only now using an electric fan to help separate the wheat from the chaff), laundry washed communally around a central tap, and vendors selling their colourful vegetables from the fields surrounding the village. Late afternoon sun streamed through cobblestone alleyways, turning the red-brown brick to fiery orange, and filling the streets with a soft haze. Streets curve and wind up steep slopes, opening suddenly onto large squares of temples and multi-tiered pagodas, while other alleys narrow and narrow, funneling through hidden courtyards, making you wonder if you'll end up in someone's house before you find your way back to a main street.

After I asked if I could take her photo, she started chanting "rupeeeee, rupeeeeeee."
Clearly I am not the first person to ask.

Monday, May 27, 2013

In a cottage in Nepal

For our final week in Nepal, we rented a cottage on the edge of the Newar village of Sankhu, a small village about 17 km north-east of Kathmandu. In the countryside, overlooking a lovely valley of terraced rice fields, it was the perfect place to relax after trekking and yoga training. We spent our days reading, doing Sudokus, preparing blog posts (no wifi here!), doing yoga, walking in the rice fields, and cooking. It was the first time on the entire trip that we had a kitchen, and it was very exciting being able to cook for ourselves again! We walked into town almost daily to get fresh veggies and supplies, and always seemed to be the talk of the town, since not many tourists come to this small village. Locals would smile and heartily return our namastes and then try to get their shy children to say it back. I love Nepal! The people are so friendly. Walking along the cobblestones through this charming, tumbledown village to so many warm hellos and smiles was a joy.

The cottage is owned by a man in the Netherlands, but he employs a local man, Suraj, to take care of things, and he would bring us fresh eggs daily, and sometimes tomatoes and fresh ghee. He came over one afternoon and showed us how to prepare dal baht, and we had a fun afternoon preparing and cooking it together. It made more than the three of us could eat, so I prepared a big platter and brought it over to the elderly neighbours, who we see out in the fields every day, bent to their task.

That evening Suraj invited us to his home for dinner, which was a humbling experience. His simple family home was his father’s and his grandfather’s and is still shared by his extended family. While we sat on the porch drinking coffee that is saved for guests, goats nibbled into the potato sacks, while the children ran around playing with each other and watching us with interest. We sat together in his tiny, earthen-floor kitchen, while his wife made chapatti and a potato curry over the small, indoor fire-pit. The low ceiling above us was thick with black smoke and soot from 70 years of cooking fires. His young daughter charmed us with her cuteness, and we fell into a game of her saying sounds for me to repeat, which sent her into fits of giggles. The whole evening was very special, and again made me wonder why we isolate ourselves in such massive houses in North America, where there are more rooms than people.

Once when we were outside tossing a Frisbee (around puddles, bits of garbage, and a rooster head), a young boy ran over to join us, then ran off and dragged his sister over to join, followed shortly by another sister or a cousin. It alternatively devolved into a game of monkey in the middle between the three of them, and chase the stray disc and tackle each other. Whenever Mark or I would catch it, they would shout “auntie [or uncle], come onnn!” which then became “sister [or brother], come onnn!” as they clapped their hands and gestured wildly for the disc. We said goodbye after a bit, so we could make dinner, but they ran back to our cottage later hollering for us to come out and play.

A cat comes around the cottage every day, who we took to calling Mr. Mollassey for some reason, and he is quite a meowly sort! Most of the time he would just cry for a while, then settle down and sleep outside the door, or wander in and sleep on the rug. But he could be a bit crotchety, and we had to shoo him away one afternoon after he nipped at both of us. But the cat came back the very next day, and continued to sleep on the rug.

Riding the local bus back to Kathmandu at the end of the week, it was so crowded that I ended up with a toddler on my lap for half the trip. At first he seemed quite unsure, eyes welling up and lip quivering, but he settled down and ended up falling asleep. I wish all buses were always that crowded.

Mr. Mollassey.

Most of the time he would sit on the rug.

Dal Baht Power, 24 Hour

The best food to fuel strenuous stairclimbs and steep descents, is, without a doubt, dal baht. Proud of their national dish, porters and restaurant owners alike will repeat the refrain “dal baht power, 24 hour,” because it really does seem to last that long (especially with a second helping).

Served on a large, stainless steel platter, dal baht consists of a mound of white rice, surrounded by a few different kinds of curry, which vary slightly from village to village, but almost always includes a potato/onion/spinach curry, another cooked/curried vegetable, a spicy pickled condiment, a few slices of cucumber, and a papadum. And of course, a bottomless bowl of dal. In fact, most of the components are bottomless.

As if you need any other reason to choose dal baht, the Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP) encourages trekkers to choose the same dish when ordering (rather than one person ordering a burger, and someone else ordering a pizza), because fuel is precious in the mountains. If it’s wood, it has to be cut down and carried to the village (and there isn’t much in the way of reforestation programs in Nepal), and if it’s gas, it has to be hauled up by humans or mules, often from great distances.

Furthermore, compared to some other dishes on the menu, all of the ingredients for dal baht are grown locally, possibly from the very village you’re in.

So there you have it: dal baht – a deliciously eco-friendly decision.

Nepalese, masterful (if not a bit cruel...) stair builders.
Down, down, down we go...

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Namaste, Nepal!

Thankfully Mark enjoyed his trek so much that he was willing to re-do a portion of it so we could trek together. After a couple of days in Kathmandu, we took to the foothills north of Pokhara, and were off for 5 days of trekking! Starting and ending our loop in Nayapul, we went counter-clockwise through Ghandruk, Tadapani, Ghorephani, and Tikkedhunga.

Mark, fresh off of 23 days of trekking through these mountains, acted as both my guide and porter, lucky me! He carried a big pack with our combined stuff (which he said weighed less than his pack, so really, I was helping), and I carried a small pack with the really important things, like snacks.

But still, barely weighted down, the often ceaseless steps (3,280 in one particular stretch!), steep ascents and abrupt descents were grueling and exhausting. A month of doing yoga 4.5 hours a day did not prepare me well for all this cardio. But of course all the effort was worth it to get beyond roads and honking cars and zipping motos and fully into nature. And after a month in dry, hot, dusty Rishikesh, my lungs were so happy to have fresh, crisp, sweet-forest-smelling mountain air.

Tantalizing glimpses of frozen mountain peaks rose up beyond cloud-filled valleys of green foothills (mountains in their own right!). Tiny villages of quaint and charming stone houses, strung along the terraced hillsides in clusters; blue roofs indicating tourism dollars (a guesthouse or restaurant) contrasting sharply against more traditional slate-stone roofs, or rusted corrugated metal roofs held down with rocks. Deep valleys plunge into depths unseen, but the distant whisper of rushing rivers and plummeting waterfalls echoed up to meet our ears. Pink carpeted trails of spent rhododendron blooms wound through beautiful, ancient forests dripping with moss and colourful prayer flags.

Children play and chase each other, stopping us to demand “sweets?” Naked, pudgy babies getting bathed and massaged in the sun. Locals and other trekkers greet us, namaste, as we pass with a smile. A ding, ding, ding, signaling a lumber-laden mule procession, causes us to pull over (mountain side) to let them pass. Rounding a corner, we are greeted by an enormous, horned, huffing, puffing buffalo, and we watch, mesmerized as it tackles the stone steps with such impossible grace.

Goats bleating and frolicking in fields and along the trail – one pair stood sentinel on a bridge we needed to cross, and when I stepped onto the bridge, one of them bit my knee! Thankfully their teeth aren’t very sharp, and we were able to shoo them along with our hiking poles. They’re lucky they’re so darn cute and endearing, even with their bitey tendencies (you’ve all seen this, right? Or this?).

As Mark mentioned, making friends along the trail is easy – when there’s only so many villages, with only so many guesthouses, chances are you’ll end up in the same place. And if you’re traveling in the same direction, you’ll likely keep running into each other. I even led my first yoga class (!!!) one afternoon to one such friend after she found out I’d just become certified.

It was incredible being on the main “road” that ran between villages – we were on the trail the entire time; no wasting time getting to and from the trailhead each day. Even in the biggest village, we were only ever a few steps from the main route.

Accommodation on the trail is unfathomably cheap. Cheaper than the food. A room with shared bath costs about 200 Nepalese rupees per night—about $2.50—for the both of us. But for these cheap rates, you are expected to have your meals at the hotel restaurant—in fact, if you don’t, you are charged an exorbitant surcharge. Dal Baht cost about 350 rupees, and western dishes would cost a little bit more, maybe up to 500 per dish. On Mark’s trek, in the higher and more remote villages (where supplies and fuel have to be hauled in farther), dal baht could cost up to 520, but the rooms might be even cheaper.

As it was the beginning of monsoon season, it would start raining daily at about 1 or 2 pm, and continue raining off and on for the rest of the day. Sometimes it would clear a little bit at sunset to expose an illuminated snippet of some massive rock face, looming impossibly high in the sky. Without their full majesty and grandeur laid bare against clear skies, they seemed even more frightfully massive.

Because of the rain (and also because we were lucky if we made it to 8:30 pm before falling asleep), we started our days early, and did our 4-6 hours of daily hiking before lunch. In Ghorepani, we woke up even earlier to ascend neighbouring Poon Hill for sunrise. And though the Annapurna range remained hidden, we were treated to a glorious and theatrical reveal of the Dhaulagiri range. Our small feast of delectable yak cheese made it a perfect morning before the punishing descent to Tikkedhunga (partly in the rain). On our final day we met up with the road again, and it was jarring coming back to the world of cars and crowds; Pokhara felt like a bustling metropolis after a few peaceful days on the trail!

Alright, let's do this!

Walking through Nayapul.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Together in Kathmandu!

It was a happy reunion with Mark at the airport in Kathmandu, after a month of doing drastically different things, and having very little contact with each other (not much in the way of internet services on the trail…). We talked non-stop for the next few days trying to get caught up.

We enjoyed a couple of leisurely days in Thamel, a clustered, colourful, captivating neighbourhood in Kathmandu, home to backpackers and trekkers, and stores catering completely to them: knock-off gear and supplies, and grocery stores with entire aisles devoted to chocolate, trail mix, and “Mountain Man” granola bars. They’ve targeted their audience well.

Ornate, decaying medieval architecture sagging against gravity; thick, carved, wooden doors, painted with logos for pop, beer, or paint companies, open to reveal closet-sized stores, jammed full of things for sale. Yak wool blankets, felted slippers, rice sack bags, knitted socks and hats, cashmere sweaters, Buddha sculptures, masks, singing bowls, and anything else you could ever want.

Doors and archways lead to alleys which lead to open squares with flag-draped stupas, painted with half-closed eyes looking at you looking at them. Telephone and electrical wires arranged in precarious, crowded rat’s nests, in front of signs ironically advertising some technological gadget. Colourful piles of vegetables sit on bright blue tarps beside bulging sacks of grains, as brightly-painted bicycle rickshaws roll past.

At the south-end of Thamel is Durbar Square, an area of centuries-old temples, palaces and pigeon-filled squares. Where ancient tree roots entwine around carved archways and alcoves of small shrines, and windows of multi-leveled palaces are buttressed and framed with lavishly-carved screens and pillars. It is a thoroughly enchanting place to wander and let your eyes feast.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Portrait tees

It began with a parting gift for our beloved Surinder when he left for his conference; we wanted to give him a token of our love and appreciation, and decided to sign a t-shirt for him. I mentioned to a few people that I wanted to draw a little caricature of him on it, and then when I did, everyone liked it so much that they didn’t want to sign near it! So we all signed in a little cluster on the back. I didn’t mean to commandeer the shirt, but I was glad everyone liked the portrait, and especially that Surinder really liked it!

Then, at the end of the course, we wanted to have a gift for the amazing Panday Ji, so it was decreed that I would make another shirt. “Amberlea, we want to give Panday Ji a gift, so you need to make another shirt.” I was happy to oblige, and it was so great to see Panday Ji’s reaction. I thought he’d know it was coming, since we made a shirt for Surinder, but he looked completely surprised and blown away. That incredibly humble man doesn’t realize the impression and impact he had on all of us!

Then I made one with Mark’s face on it, to wear when I met him at the airport in Kathmandu. I had it draped over a chair in my room before I left, and one fellow student walked by and asked “Fidel?” Which is funny, because that’s what Indians would say to Mark as he passed “Hey! Fidel! Hashish?”

So, now I seem to be a maker of t-shirt portraits. Me thinks there might be an etsy shop in my future.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Annapurna Circuit + ABC


While Amberlea was off contorting her body and uniting with the Cosmic Power in Rishikesh, I hit the trails of Nepal. When initially faced with the decision of how to spend a month on my own, I weighed a number of options but am very glad I decided upon trekking. Being active and outdoors with a set purpose was very satisfying and whenever I got lonely, there were always other trekkers to talk with or join for a game of cards.

Of all the treks in Nepal, I decided on the Annapurna Circuit. I read a lot about the trek before reaching this decision. Many professional sources claimed it might be the best trek in the world while some individuals told the tale of how the trek is being deteriorated by road development. My manager at Macadamian had done numerous treks in Nepal and it was his endorsement of the Annapurna Circuit that sealed the deal. And when else would I have a month to take on such a challenge? The shorter treks could wait.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Rishikesh: beyond the ashram

Rishikesh from Ram Jhula

India unearths your limits and pushes you to them, and sometimes a little bit beyond. It’s challenging, overwhelming, and impossible to ignore. But there is beauty and magic, too, that’s difficult to put into words. So much colour. So many sounds. So many smells. So much of everything.

Though my days were long at the ashram, we had Sundays off and a couple of breaks in the day, and after meals (when it wasn’t too scorchingly hot), I would walk down to the river and through the bazaar, past the chai, vegetable, and jewellery sellers, among the babas, sadhus, yogis, and others at various stages on their path to enlightenment. Oh, and of course cows – that sort of goes without saying, since they’re nearly synonymous with India – high on their own sacredness, leaving fecal landmines willy nilly for us lowly spiritual aspirants to dodge.

Rishikesh is spread out along both sides of the Ganges, which, since it’s closer to the source, is much clearer, having not yet accumulated as much pollution as it will have by the time it reaches Varanasi. Also, it’s cold. Blissfully, frigidly so. And since the daily high was in the mid-forties – and there’s no AC anywhere, just fans to push the hot, dry air around – a dip in the Ganges is going to happen, fecal contaminants or not. The river rushes past the ghats at such speeds that holding on to a chain is necessary, while the sand from upstream gets swirled into your pockets and crevices (yes, women must go in fully clothed, this isn’t Koh Phangan). This isn’t a leisurely river swim by any stretch. It’s a desperate attempt to lower one’s core temperature to survive the inescapable heat for the following few hours.

The neighbourhood I lived in is called Swarg Ashram, near Ram Jhula, and it’s about a half hour walk from better known Laxman Jhula, which is full of restaurants, stores, and more ashrams. It’s a colourful, vibrant area to walk around, and go for a contraband dinner after days and days and days of dal and curries (though delicious, sometimes you just want pizza – though don’t expect to break all the rules and eat meat or have a beer – Rishikesh is a dry, vegetarian town).

A few other highlights include a visit to The Beatles’ Ashram (I didn’t have my camera with me when I went, which is probably best for everyone, since I’d still be there photographing all the incredible architecture and graffiti and decay), rafting, visiting Hindu and Sikh temples, hiking to waterfalls, chanting in caves, and meditating under trees.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Share, don't teach.

I have been struggling with this post, and how to effectively share what my month in Rishikesh was like. Intense, challenging, overwhelming, amazing are some adjectives, but I think the experience was even more profound than I can yet realize, and with time, the lessons learned will reveal themselves. But for now, prepare yourself for some first-class rambling!

Of course there’s the practical knowledge I learned: anatomy, physiology, Ayurveda, yogic philosophy, the details of the poses, and how the body moves within them. All of our teachers were incredibly knowledgeable and clearly cared deeply about what they do, and once we grew accustomed to the Indian accents and new Sanskrit terms, (and once I got over my souvenir Delhi Belly from Delhi...) things got easier to follow.

And then there’s the funny anecdotes, about how we struggled to wake up for our 5:30 am class, or how monkeys would sometimes sneak into the classroom and try to steal our notebooks, or how, some days, we really had to coerce our bodies into doing all three of our 1.5 hour classes of yoga, or how, tired of eating sattvic Indian food day in, day out for weeks, we broke the rules (“no outdoor food”) and went for pizza.

Then there’s the deeper lessons you don’t even realize you’re learning, like how hard you can push yourself and learn to do so much more than you ever thought, or how profoundly humbling a teacher’s passion for their subject can be, or how to be courageous and believe in yourself with all of your heart.

Through all of this, it always felt strange that we would all be going home to our western countries, where all of this ancient knowledge isn’t ingrained, and where we’ve appropriated a few tiny pieces of this bigger thing called Yoga, and have lost the connection with where it originated.

Before I get too esoteric, let me back up a bit and talk about the differences between Yoga in India, and yoga in the west. Indian Yoga is a life path, it isn’t something that you do for an hour, once a week, it’s something that you live, completely and whole-heartedly. The yoga we’re familiar with, the stretching and the bending, is really just one tiny component, more accurately called Asanas, which means postures or poses. But in India, there is so much beyond the poses, and the poses are a means to an end, not the end in and of itself.

There are many different paths of Yoga in India. For instance, Karma Yoga is the path of action, or doing good things; Bhakti Yoga is the path of devotion; Raja Yoga is the 8-fold path (and includes asanas); and Djana Yoga is the path of wisdom and knowledge. And even within Raja Yoga where the asanas are a stage to master, it’s more about how to master your seated posture to better facilitate meditation.

Yoga in India is not about toning or slimming, or even about lowering your blood pressure. These things may happen too, but it doesn’t matter. It’s about mastering your body, and through subsequent stages of controlling the breath and meditation, you get closer to knowing yourself. The word Yoga comes from the root “yuj” which means to join, and depending on your interpretation means various things, like uniting with yourself, uniting with the universe, or uniting with the great cosmic power, and so on. There’s a lot of room for interpretation, and things very quickly get very heavy. So how can we relate this to western realities where it’s not practical to spend our days trying to achieve enlightenment? (Pencil in some ‘Enlightenment time with the Cosmic Power’ before my 3:30, ok?)

Monday, May 20, 2013

A country apart, but worlds away

There is so much to update you on from the last month! I am now officially a certified yoga teacher, and Mark hiked the full Annapurna Circuit and Annapurna Base Camp (and he enjoyed himself so much he was willing to repeat a small loop of it so he could share it with me)!

However, since we’ve been together in Nepal, regular, sustained power outages and rural settings accessible only by foot have meant no internet time, but updates are coming, I promise! In the meantime, here’s a snapshot of what our months looked like. Almost exactly the same.


Not Rishikesh.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013


Remember that post I wrote about that terrible bus ride from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng, Laos? The Vomit Comet? Well, I just found out it was published in South East Asia Backpacker magazine! Woot! Check out page 46 here!