Friday, April 30, 2010

Things are heating up in Nepal

I am still in Nepal, but hope to get out today. The weather prohibited our flight from getting in, so after another long day at the airport, I hadn't gotten anywhere. India Airlines took good care of us, and put us up in a posh hotel, and fed us from gourmet buffets. Flights the next day were all canceled, but we knew it ahead so were able to hang out at the hotel instead of another long day at the airport. It was a strange couple of days, didn't quite know where I was. The hotel was this little island of sleepy seductive luxury that could have been anywhere. I watched many bad American movies, rested on a real mattress with fluffy pillows, had a hot shower and electricity at my disposal. The only downside is I am still fighting a nasty cold that keeps me up a lot of the night coughing.

Outside the hotel, big things were underfoot. Over 120,000 people have come into Kathmandu to participate in the Maoist protests and strikes which are an effort to overthrow the current government. They plan for it to be a peaceful protest and conversation, but the army and police force are preparing for conflict.

If we can't get out today, I most likely will spend some days here at the airport, as all transportation is going to be shut down. I have met some beautiful other travelers that were stranded with me. I have never gotten flustered or angry, as many of my fellow travelers did in all the chaos when the flights were canceled. Progress on mastering and managing the internal seas of my thoughts and emotions.

I am preparing mentally for India. It is on average 110 degrees in Varanasi and I will try to get through that part and up to the North where it is cooler as fast as I can. While being braced for the intensity of the place, I am also working to remember to seek out beauty and wonder. To expect this, along with the other realities of the place. I am traveling with only a small 10 pound back pack and small shoulder bag, which will help a lot. (I left my big pack in KTM and will get it on my way to China. The way the flights work, I had to come back through KTM to go to Beijing.) One of my goals on this trip was to learn to travel lighter, and so I am glad to be able to try this.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Khandbari: Part 2

My timing to visit Khandbari and the school was ill-timed. With the beginning of the term rerouting our intended schedule at the beginning, and a strike at the end which closed the school. A strike was ordered by the Maoist group on all private boarding schools to protest the increase in fees in some schools by as much as 30%. For fear of property damage or other attacks, all schools in the country had to close. The morning that was planned to be my last day, only some unsure students showed up only to be sent home. I missed saying goodbye to the students.

The plane I was due to take was canceled, and Giriraj had to pull some strings to get me on an earlier flight (for which I was very grateful). That plane made it out, and I was very glad to get back to KTM.

The town of Khandbari was remote in a different way than the places I trekked. The people reacted to my size much more in a negative way that was very wearing on me. Giriraj liked to take me for walks through the town, to show me the sights, and I got the feeling he was happy to be seen with an American. He would stop to talk to anyone we met he knew, and they would stare and giggle and talk about how fat I was, while I was expected to stand there and wait. This might be 10 different people in 20 minutes. When this happened over and over, it got old to say the least. I avoided going for these walks when I could. I really don't think he realized how rude and uncomfortable this was for me. I used affirmations and worked to use it as an opportunity to really monitor my own thoughts and what I was attracting. I spent a lot of time in my room when I was too tired to deal with it. I had dealt with staring all across Asia, but it was different in Khandbari. It had a mean edge. I was still recovering from a bad cold, which added to the overall challenges.

When I had walked with the grandmother, who was this tiny beautiful woman, we made a funny pair. The people that came out laughed and noticed, but it was in this lovely lighthearted way. We all knew it was funny, but there was no judgment in it. When I walked with Giriraj, it was very different. It made me appreciate how Niraj and Krishna had been protective of me and respected me even in towns that reacted with more judgment.

I am traveling in countries with small people, and am working to find a better way to keep my heart open and not let that negative energy in when it happens. It is a lesson that will serve me well anytime I am in an environment that doesn't appreciate me for whatever reason. To ground in my higher self instead of in those around me. To more quickly see when my own ego is picking up the cry of my projected judgments and using them against me so I can make a different choice in my own mind. I am working on confidence, strength and humor, and disregarding external people and energies that do not jive with that.

Khandbari was a strange experience. I felt a burden to the people tasked to greet me at the school, mostly because the timing wasn't good. They did their best to take care of me, but between infastructure issues (transport, power, water) and a slow start to the session, and then the strike, it was difficult. Maybe I will see it as a cakewalk after I go to India.

Tomorrow I head to India. I don't know what kind of access I will have to report out, but have 3 missions in 3 weeks. They are: Find the Guru Maharajji outside of Mathura and try to meet with him (he is this amazing man I saw in the movie "Enlighten Up"); Volunteer with the pilgrims at the Golden Temple in Amritsar (they serve meals to thousands of people a day, and it takes thousands of volunteers in the kitchens to make it happen); and I will go to where the Tibetans are in Northern India, in McCleod Ganj, to volunteer at a center for refugees. Peace!

Khandbari Surya Boarding School: Part 1

Khandbari, where I went to volunteer at a school, was a very difficult week, lots of personal learning, and with a few bright spots.

Just getting there was a challenge. Plane canceled the first day, then the second day I spent 6 hours at the airport only for the plane to be canceled because the gravel runway didn't dry out enough as hoped. Made it on the third day. I was greeted by the Assistant Principal, Giriraj, with a blossom garland, copious red tikki, and a white silk scarf. We had a bumpy hour and 15 minute ride to Khandbari in a packed jeep. I was housed in the town's best hotel, which is the most basic I have stayed in save Tadapani. Bed was clean, and there was a fan whenever there was power (about 9 hours a day), and the family that ran it was kind. Because of the water shortage, we could not use water to flush the shared toilet, and I just had one shower for the week.

I didn't know what helping at the school was going to look like. Giriraj and I agreed I would have some time observing how classes were conducted and later some time "peer teaching" with another teacher. The first day, I introduced myself at the morning assembly (pictured), then went to each class to do a 10 minute introduction. During this, the kids stared open-mouthed at me while I spoke, then when I left, errupted in nervous laughter. Then when I was too observe, I was instead taken to a class without a teacher, and told to teach a lesson. Turns out that it was the beginning of the new semester, and some teachers hadn't returned. This left several classrooms full of students, with no teacher. This caught me off guard the first time, but the next day I was ready with stories and discussion questions for the many times this happened again. The students were hungry to learn. I found these sessions enjoyable, and really was able to connect to the students. Even in classes where they couldn't get over my size, by then end, even the boys who were at first making derisive comments were begging me to return the next day. As I walked from one class to another, the kids would call out the windows "Rain! Namaste! Pani!" (my name in Nepali). That was fun to hear.

Though the school was run on time, everything else was on Nepali time. Giriraj would say he would meet me at a certain time, "and you must be ready!" and then he would arrive anywhere from 30 minutes to 3 hours late. Sometime with a reason given, sometimes in a big rush because now we were late. Meals had to be ordered in advance, with a time given when they should be ready, but would be served anytime between an hour early and 2 hours late, and I never was sure what I was getting. As my first meal there had made me sick, I was careful to order everything well cooked.

The highlights of the week: The grandmother of the hotel was a glowing woman with a peace that radiated though her smile. She is a devout practicing Hindu of a sect called "Om Shanti" which uses meditation, yoga, and thought techniques to clarify the soul. She would talk to me everyday, sometimes sharing flowers or sweetcakes from temple. Even though I didn't understand the words, her friendly intentions came through. She invited to take me to temple, and the walk there and back was the highlight of the week. Nice people came out of their houses to talk and walk with us as she is so well loved and respected. At another time, Giriraj interpreted as she and her teacher told me some of the beliefs of their faith, and she showed me her shrine and told me the story of her deified guru.

The other highlight was the Saturday morning market, a lively collage of colorful people and goods, haggling, animals coming and going. Check out the pictures of it on my photo site (click on the "photos" button at and then the link to see more of my pictures. The market photos are in the Khandbari folder).

I will write a bit more in the second entry.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Pigeon love at Swayambhunath: The untold story

In a small square filled with 30 miniture temples, a population scratches out a living, finds and loses love, grows young and old in an endless cycle of life and death. Swayambhunath, otherwise known as "Monkey Temple", is a thriving center of human spiritual activities, as well as commercial activities. Both Hindus and Buddhists make pilgramages here, climbing the long steep, steps up to the stupa and temples. You can hear the sound of the bells as Hindus are blessed near the Vishnu shrine, and the whirring of prayer wheels of all sorts of devotees gaining karmic merit by spinning the wheels around the stupa. Sellers of prayer beads, gods (statues), postcards, masks, and other goods hawk their wares at the edges. Incense and smoke waft through the air. But look closer. Another drama unfolds.

The male pigeons caught my eye. Atop the cluster of little temples not more than 4 feet tall, male pigeons surveyed their small kingdom for passing females. When one came into view on the ground below (just looking for food, minding her own business) he would swoop down, and begin his assertions. He would strut, cluck, purr, and occasionally try to cop a feel. If a female made it clear she wasn't into it, he shamelessly began his performance again for the next one. The amorous males would add hops, pirouettes, and tail feather fluffing to their act, cooing "Hey ladies, check this out!" The females were uniformly unimpressed.

Occasionally, a male would be performing out of his league, and another male would swoop in and the loser would skulk off to a rooftop to wait for another chance. I watched about 30 males, all in a twitter, competing for the affection of about 20 tired and hungry females who just were looking for food and trying to avoid eye contact as the males calooh-callayed about in front of them. It felt a discovery to see the stories unfold, and fun to be watching a different channel than what others were tuned to. (For the record, I did also enjoy the spirituality of the place, and gained some karmic merit before starting my pigeon observations.)

Today I had planned to go to the village school, but the flight was cancelled after a 4 hour wait due to runway conditions (too soggy for the low clearance landing gear). I will try again tomorrow. I didn't get bothered by the weariness of the day, and enjoyed watching the people (as they enjoyed watching me). An amazing lightening storm and rain drenched the city last night, which means the monsoons are starting. It is a perfect time for them to come for the farmers to prosper. I'm glad for it, even if it meant I was delayed today.


Friday, April 16, 2010

Confounding currency

Made a classic traveler's error. I had the exchange rate wrong, and spent more money than I realized. Luckily, most things were paid for in advance, so it didn't amount to more than $300 I was off. I made myself a table of what each of the bills was worth, and was off by half (thought 1000 was worth $7, but it is worth $14). The main error I made using this table, was in calculating my porter's tip. I wanted to give him $45 or $50 (which I had found out would be a very good tip) and instead I gave him almost $100, which is a VERY GOOD tip. More than he earned for the job. If someone was going to benefit from my math idiocy, I'm glad it was Krishna.

I am back in Kathmandu, and navigating much better. Amazing how much better I can get around on my own, when I first arrived my mind had trouble making any patterns from the perceived chaos. I love the feeling of adapting that happens, no matter what the norms are.

Today I am going to walk the 3 miles to the big Hindu/Buddhist temple and do a sketch of a Guardian Shiva I saw that is still my favorite. He is so peaceful looking. Because of a flight cancellation, I ended up with an extra day here. I am recovering from a cold, so it is good.

Tomorrow I head out to the village school, and don't know what to expect from that experience. I know there are 150 kids, and that I will be staying with Narayan's parents. I'll be helping the teachers and kids with English skills, but don't know what that really looks like. I'll keep you all posted once I know!

Monday, April 12, 2010

The journey Out has brought me In

One unexpected aspect of my journey so far is that is has given me time and space to practice a very specific set of lessons. Practicing things I have been working on this past year, related to the mental discipline of my thoughts.

Some days, I would have to climb 1500-2000 feet in 5 miles, only to lose it again in the next 3 miles. I would struggle up a steep section, feel sure I was arriving at the top, and there would be more stairs, or a whole big hump of land left to do. My lazy self would start to despair, and the higher self would step in and say, "Rain, you're in the Himalayas for goodness sake! There is going to be big ups and downs. Remember, you are living your dream, and are able to do this!"

Every day I practiced dealing with the smaller section at hand, instead of the day's big task. This was like a living meditation, to be more in the present moment in a tangible way. I practiced being grateful for the steep sections, because they helped me gain more of the day's elevation that needed climbing. If a complaint went through my mind, I practiced immediately stating 3-4 things I loved about that moment: "My knee is hurting...and the view is incredible, and my stomach is good today, and my balance is good, and my legs are strong."

Not many big people like me make it this far, so my presence often caused a stir in the villages we passed through. The reactions were giggles, smirks, shock, open mouthed stares, or asking "how many kilos?" Most days I could see their perspective, what it might be like to see someone so different than everyone you know coming through town. Sometimes, after a long day, I had to say affirmations in my mind all the way through the town or until I got to my room to prevent feeling like a circus freak. Luckily, those harder days were much fewer than the other kind. Both gave me a chance to practice how I was showing up. I practiced staying open to people, and not taking their reaction personally or having it change what I did. Powerful and challenging lessons that will help me anywhere.

Niraj noted several times that he and Krishna appreciated that my attitude was always upbeat, even when I was sick or obviously struggling through a difficult section of the trail. They called me a "lucky" girl, because of my dimpled smile and positive disposition. (Dimples in Nepal are considered a mark of luck.)

These lessons will most likely continue (and may intensify) in India. I will strive to keep in the forefront of my mind that I am a lucky and blessed woman.

Trekking in the Himalayas

How to sum up 18 days of trekking in the Annapurna? Amazing, steep, challenging, peaceful...all those words get at a tiny part of the experience. The rugged white peaks appear and disappear in the haze, and when they appear, it takes away your breath.

Closer in, there was the murmur or human conversation, banging sounds of construction done by hand, children playing, the hollow sound of a ball being kicked. The air teeming with animal sounds, domestic and wild. There are water buffalo groaning, the clip clop and dinging of a donkey train passing, roosters and cookcoo birds, the pulsing of cicadas, the braying of sheep and goats. So much life happening, and almost none of it involves machines.

I chose to come on my own with a guide and a porter rather than with a group so I would have daily flexibility to do what I wanted based on how I felt. This enabled us to easily change the plan when I got sick the first day from something I ate, and again after a day we climbed 3,000 feet in 4 miles made me reevaluate trying to do the hard stretch into Annapurna base camp. I wasn't with a group, which meant I missed some of the comradarie, encouragement, and banter of the group experience. Being on my own meant a lot more time for internal processing, and time with my guide, Niraj, and porter, Krishna.

We found a daily rhythm that looked like this: Up at 6 or 6:30, pack up so Krishna could ready his load. We ate at 7 or 7:30. We were walking by 7:30 or 8. We walked 3-5 hours, taking breaks as needed depending on the difficulty of the terrain. Sometimes we stopped for lunch and then walked a couple hours more. We covered between 5 and 12 miles a day. I'd rest in the afternoon in my room, then we'd take a walk around the small town. Niraj and Krishna would play cards, and I'd write. Dinner was at 7, and we'd make our plan for the next day. To my room at 8 or 8:30 (unless there were other travelers to talk to). I'd stretch and meditate, read a little, with lights out at 9:30 or 10.

It got to feel like Niraj and Krishna were my angels. They made it possible for me to have this experience and took the journey with me. I highly recommend them to anyone wanting to trek in Nepal!