Reflections from Pokhara
I sit here in Pokhara, Nepal writing this after arriving back to this wonderful country almost three weeks ago. Once again, my plan has changed. After an incredible month and a half here and another inspiring month and a half in India, rather than making my way back to the US, I decided to return to Nepal to live for a while. Completely unexpected, completely unplanned.
I’ve learned that things happen, circumstances change, priorities shift, and hence, plans change. This is what life is all about; this is a good thing. It is perhaps wise to have a plan but even wiser to be open to this plan changing course. The best things that have happened to me have been when I’ve let things fall into place, when I’ve followed my heart, and when I’ve let go of the idea of how I thought things would happen and instead, just let them happen. For this very reason, I find myself here in Nepal.
Once again I am reflecting upon what I have learned in the last four months since I first returned to London after India. I followed my heart back to the country that taught me so much about life, love, and happiness, and in doing so stumbled across a place that has expanded my horizons yet again. I am rereading my reflections from Mumbai after my first three months travelling and remembering how I felt at that time, something I never want to forget. The first part of my trip was about learning to let go of the past and to remember the things about life that make me a happy person. Part two was about continuing this adventure with my renewed happiness and wonder of the world. In a completely different head space from when I first left London, I left the second time with my heart filled with joy, rather than despair, and with my eyes set on the future, rather than the past. The second time around, I left London having made some big decisions about my future and ready to experience more of the world with a big weight lifted off my shoulders.
I biked, I swam, I climbed, I jumped, I danced, I rowed, I walked, I sat, and I meditated. I jumped off a cliff and flew through the sky, I rafted through raging waters, I ziplined down the highest, steepest, and fastest zipline in the world. I met more amazing people from all over the world, I travelled on local buses and experienced new cultures. I made new friends and found new love. I have seen the most incredible things, visited ancient sites, participated in sacred rituals, been blessed by a saint, and am learning the path to enlightenment.
These last four months gave me a chance to think about what I want for my life. How do I want things to be? How do I want to live? How do I see myself and my world? The most important thing I’ve learned in these last 8 months is to follow my heart, and this is something I will always continue to do. Ultimately, we chose our own destiny. We have the ability to decide what we want and how we want to live. We can make happen what we want. I’ve learned that I want to continue to be as happy as I’ve been these last months. This seems obvious, but sometimes we lose sight of our own happiness. Life gets in the way and happiness fades away. My own happiness is my first priority and I have realised that I must do whatever it is that will keep this intact. After all, what is the point in anything else if none of it makes us happy? And without happiness within ourselves, we will never be able to give this to others.
I’ve learned that I need nature. I need oceans and mountains, trees and lakes, sun and sand. I need to be able to be outside and to experience the world around me. I need to be able to swim, surf, bike, hike, ski, and be active. I’ve learned that I am happier when I am relaxed, and this is how I want to be.
I’ve learned that happiness lies in unexpected things. Unexpected moments, unexpected people, and unexpected places. I’ve changed my vision for what I thought my life would or should be like, and instead have learned to go with what feels right. This is what my life should be about.
I’ve learned that life is what you make it. We have an opportunity to literally go anywhere, see anything, do whatever we want. So why wait? Why not do what makes us happy right now? Go to places that open our eyes, see things that amaze us, do things that teach us. I have learned that being open to the world and the people and things around us is the most important thing. I said before, with eyes wide open I left London to see the world. My eyes are now more open than they have ever been. I have met people when I’ve needed to meet them, I’ve been brought together with others in the right moment, I’ve found myself in unexpected places that felt so right, and in situations that seemed meant to be. It is with open eyes and an open mind that we find our place in this world. We make our own decisions and chose our own way, but when we are open to the world around us and able to use our mind and senses to lead us, everything fits together.
Ellora, Maharashtra, India
We took a little road trip from Shirdi to Ellora, a World Heritage Site well known for its monumental temple caves. The “caves” are actually structures excavated from the vertical face of the Charanandri Hills. The temple structures and large sculptures were all carved out of the rock between the 5th and 10th centuries. There are 34 caves in total separated into three sections: Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain. This is amazing to me and represents the religious harmony during this period of Indian history.
Ellora is absolutely stunning; these intricate temples and carvings blew my mind. To think everything was carved out of the mountain by hand by hundreds of people over 600 years ago. It was like the ancient ruins of Hampi but even more incredible as they are built into the face of the mountain.
Definitely one of the best places in India I have been; truly incredible. I will always remember this trip as it is one of the most magnificent things I’ve ever seen, and it was the last place I visited on this trip to India. Of course, I will be back.
Shirdi, Maharashtra, India
The universe conspired in an interesting way to bring me to Shirdi, home and resting place of Sai Baba, the Indian guru and yogi. After seeing his picture in Nepal and wondering who this person was, my friend Asiieil also had his picture up in our room at the meditation center in Chennai. For some reason I was drawn to him and after speaking with Asiieil I decided I’d make the 21 hour journey from Bangalore to Shirdi via bus to visit the Shirdi Sai Baba Temple.
Sai Baba didn’t claim a religion, he alternated sleeping in a Hindu temple and a Muslim mosque. Many miracles have been attributed to him and his hoardes of devotees make their way to this special temple to recieve his blessing. Shirdi is a small town, it’s only real substance being the temple, otherwise filled with hotels, guesthouses, and restaurants catering to the primarily domestic tourists coming to visit the temple. Over 40,000 people come to the temple every day, and the queue to recieve a darshan can sometimes take several hours.
We visited the temple each day, the first evening we were lucky enough to witness the nightly bhajan - a mantra devoted to Sai Baba..Sometimes we would sit in the open hall within the temple and meditate. The energy in this temple is profound, it is clear that his vibrations are still present here, and I am glad I was pulled to this place and now share a special connection with Sai Baba.
Bangalore, Karnataka, India
After meditation I left Chennai for a few days in Bangalore to visit some special friends I made in India last year. Two girls I met at Vipassana decided to come with me and we all stayed at my friend’s apartment in Bangalore. It was a pretty intense experience going from complete silence and a long period of total introspection to the chaos of everyday life in India. The challenge of negotiating the train from Bangalore to Chennai and all of the chaos around was sensory overload.
We made it and spent a couple days just completely relaxing and doing nearly nothing; sitting in the apartment, listening to music, talking, eating, and drinking. On the third day we did the most important thing we came to Bangalore for – we went to see Amma, the Hugging Saint, to receive her blessing. We went in the morning to receive a token and finally met her around 10pm. The energy around her and at this place was remarkable, definitely something special.
On my final day in Bangalore I was once again was on the back of a Royal Enfield motorcycle, being taken on an awesome tour of the city. It was a beautiful day, the air whipping past my face, weaving down roads and through alleys, speeding down the motorway and around gardens. Bangalore is very cosmopolitan, it is the most modern place in India I’ve been but still with immense history, of course. The climate is perfect, the people are laid back, and the city is clean and sprawling.
I barely took any pictures during my time in Bangalore but have so many mental snapshots of the wonderful time I spent in this awesome city with beautiful people.
Vipassana, Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India
I completed a 10 day Vipassana course at the Dhamma Setu Mediation Center in Chennai. Vipassana is the oldest meditation technique in India and was discovered by Buddha, later leading to his enlightenment. The meditation course has strict rules to abide by: one must observe noble silence for the entire 10 days; this means no communication with anyone, no eye contact, no writing, no reading, etc. The instructors are available for questions if you have uncertainties about the technique or are having any troubles, but otherwise you are solely with yourself for 10 days. The accommodation is basic, and two simple but healthy vegetarian meals are provided a day. The morning bell rings at 4:00am and the first meditation starts at 4:30. Throughout the day there are 10 and ½ hours of meditation with short periods of rest in between.
It was a huge challenge, both physically and mentally. Sitting in the same position for over 10 hours per day was often painful, and keeping focus and concentration for this period of time was often difficult as well. I definitely think I increased my pain threshold, as well experiencing a feeling of increased patience and tolerance. The technique teaches you to objectively observe sensations in your body – both good and bad – and often by doing this the pain would dissolve or move somewhere else. It was an amazing feeling to be able to shift the energy in my body by using my mind. I never felt that things were too difficult or that I couldn’t handle the silence or the isolation; if anything I enjoyed and appreciated the time within myself, where I know that many others struggled with this.
I didn’t mind not having dinner, I never felt hungry or even very tired. Meditation is easier when your body is lighter and meditating gives you energy. I spent most of the periods of rest laying in the grass under a tree or doing laps around the gardens. The grounds were beautiful – lots of different kinds of trees, butterflies, birds, grass, and flowers and a beautiful meditation Pagoda. For the most part I felt completely occupied, never bored.
Vipassana is like a surgery on the mind. You reach the deepest levels of your consciousness and work on purifying the mind through self-observation. It focuses on the deep interconnection between mind and body, which can be experienced directly by disciplined attention to the physical sensations that form the life of the body, and that continuously interconnect and condition the life of the mind.
The whole experience was really incredible. I enjoyed going into the deeper levels of my mind and into the subconscious. I came out of many long sessions feeling proud of the accomplishment of having such strong self-discipline. There were many moments where it would feel as if my arms and legs were not connected to my body – it was some sort of out of body experience. Crazy! I thought about so many things – death and reincarnation. The thought that the energy and karma one has gets transferred over from life to life. All of the thoughts I was having about everything were incredibly positive. I was thinking of people from the past that haven’t crossed my mind in years and years, people in my life now, my parents, friends, and others. I thought about my childhood, my life now and what I want for it in the future, and felt a complete feeling of happiness.
Now the challenge is continuing to practice meditation to see how far I can reach into the depths of my mind!
Pondicherry, Tamil Nadu, India
What an absolute delight Pondicherry is. A French colonial seaside town on the Bay of Bengal, Pondicherry is filled with historical buildings, a long stretch of rocky beach, small tree lined streets, gorgeous French cuisine, and beautiful churches. Of course this is also India, and Tamil Nadu no less, so only moments away are honking motorbikes whizzing past and rickshaws on every corner. But this place genuinely has a laid back Provencal village feel to it, which was the best way to spend my time before heading into the next ten days.
We stayed in the lovely historic French Quarter and spent our days eating wonderful food (I had one of the best steaks of my life here, as well as many of my favourite south Indian dosas), walking the beach promenade, getting lost among the shaded cobblestone streets, and wandering from one church to the next, and to a few temples in between. We even went to see a French band play in a courtyard; divine!
We were lucky enough to visit Pondicherry during Pongal, an annual Tamil festival to mark the harvest of new crops and to celebrate a new beginning. Beautiful colourful tikka designs lined the beach boardwalk and the doorstep of every Hindu house.
The days are lazy in Pondicherry; the ocean breeze cools off the hot south Indian air, and lounging around only seems fitting of the setting. This was the perfect place to finish off my last days with my beautiful friend Robin, a goodbye I’m not looking forward to saying tomorrow before I head off into ten days of silent meditation at Vipassana in Chennai.
Mysore, Karnataka, India
From an overnight sleeper bus from Hampi, we made it to Mysore. At first I was overwhelmed by the big city vibe after coming from relatively quiet and sleepy Hampi, but I was soon pleasantly surprised by the ancient city with over 600 years of magnificent legacy. Although the place is loud, chaotic, and frenzied like all large India cities, there is a charm to Mysore. The people are laid back and friendly, there are many trees, parks, and flowers blooming all around, the streets are meticulously cleaned, and the historic landmarks and grand palaces make for a beautiful place.
We didn’t stay long, but in the couple days we were in Mysore we toured the streets with vigor, seeing all of the historic sites, taking a bus up to Chamundi Hill to visit the sacred site of Sri Chamundeswari Temple, visiting a local handmade incense and oil factory, walking through the glorious halls of Maharaja’s Palace, India’s grandest royal building, and even spending a few hours at the Mysore Zoo.
They say you haven’t seen south India until you’ve been to Mysore, and I’m glad I did.
Hampi, Karnataka, India
Hampi is one of the most incredible places I’ve been to in all of India. The landscape is unreal and the history is fascinating. Long ago, Hampi was part of the Hindu epic of Ramayana, the realm of the monkey gods, which explains the unearthly landscape of tremendous boulders neatly stacked one on top of the other like gigantic legos and dotted around for miles on an otherwise pretty flat land. Later, in the 14th century, Hampi was one of the largest Hindu empires in Indian history.
A World Heritage Site, the city is home to many ancient ruins and countless crumbling temples. The place felt to me like a strange combination of the ancient ruins of Rome and the enormous temples of Angkor in Cambodia. Hampi is set apart by the unearthly landscape, deep reddish rock, sand and boulders, deep green palm groves, bright yellow banana plantations, and fluorescent paddy fields. We stayed in the original Hampi Bazaar area, a small village who’s tiny streets are crammed with little local restaurants and shops. We spent quite a few days here, exploring the ruins and temples, getting lost in the beauty of the place, and feasting on beautiful south Indian food. I climbed to the top of a hill and walked across the other side, even to find what looked like an undiscovered ruined temple where I didn’t see another person for hours.
We ventured across the river to the historic village of Anegundi, where we rented motorbikes and drove for hours through rice fields, across plains, and passed tremendous boulder formations and even more ancient temples. There is a huge reservoir surrounded by these giant boulders where I met up with a few friends I met in Nepal to bask in the sun and jump into the water from the massive rocks.
I felt completely fascinated by Hampi and will always remember this strange and beautiful place.
Anjuna, Goa, India
To round off the time in Goa, we ventured to the north and landed in Anjuna - the original hippy heaven and home to Goan trance. Much busier here with many markets, restaurants, and party places around every corner. Still beautiful though, with huge rocks and cliffs lining the beach rather than wide stretches of sand.
We only spent one night here but long enough to have one final fish curry rice, the Goan specialty!
Agonda, Goa, India
Happy New Year from Goa!
Although a relatively small state compared to the rest of those in India, Goa is still quite big and has countless beaches to visit. We moved to Agonda, even quieter and more chilled out than Palolem. It is amazing to see the different setups of each beach, the layout of the bungalows, the varying landscapes, how the roads reach the beaches, etc. Each place has its own unique style while having one thing in common - the beauty of the Arabian Sea reaching the coast of South India from the west.
Agonda was a perfect place to rest and recuperate my foot injury from Christmas. Our hut was again right on the sand with an attached chill out bar and restaurant facing the ocean. I only had to take a few steps to reach the sun, sand, food, or drinks. The waves in Agonda were huge, and thankfully by this time my foot was well enough to venture into the ocean. We had great fun being bashed around by the massive rolling waves barreling in.
We spent New Years Eve here which was perfect. We stayed at our place and indulged in fresh jumbo tiger prawns and long island iced teas. There were DJs playing along each beachfront bar and firework displays lining the entire coast. A New Years I will never forget.
I started 2013 in India, the country I love so much, surrounded by the beauty of nature and with someone very special to me; I have a feeling it’s going to be a great year.
Palolem, Goa, India
On Christmas Eve we moved to Palolem Beach, a two hour bus ride from Benaulim and the place I have been dreaming of going for such a long time. Located in the south of Goa, Palolem is a small beach with coco huts lining the shore, beach restaurants one after another, and flocks of young people from all around the world.
I still couldn’t get over the fact that I was on a beach, in 90 degree weather, jumping in the waves, and listening to Christmas music compete with psychedelic trance while eating Goan fish curry. What a trip. For the first time in my entire life I wasn’t in the snow in Michigan for Christmas, but rather on a beach in India; a completely surreal experience.
Christmas Day was perfect, I woke up and laid in the hammock on the porch of my beach hut, skyped with my family all the way from Detroit and Kauai, laid on the beach drinking Kingfisher beer, and swam in the Arabian Sea. The night was absolutely perfect too, there was a party on the beach, a live band playing all the greatest hits, huge fireworks overhead, and dancing barefoot in the sand all night long. The latter proved a problem at the end however, I ended up rolling my ankle and tearing a ligament in my ankle! A classic end to an otherwise perfect night.
Benaulim, Goa, India
My first stop in Goa was Benaulim Beach. After such a long journey from Kathmandu and no sleep for two days, we wanted to get to the closest beach to the train station before we completely crashed and burned.
Much to my surprise, while most of India is Hindu, Goa has a huge population of Catholics. After Goa’s occupation by Portugal in the 1500s, the indigenous population underwent a large scale conversion to Christianity. The area is hugely influenced by Portuguese culture in it’s architecture, religious beliefs, and lifestyle. As the train neared the central station in Goa, we started to pass by houses decorated with Christmas lights, nativity scenes, and Christmas trees. Just as I was starting to miss home during the Christmas season that was up until this point non-existent, I was filled with joy to be surrounded by these things.
Benaulim is more of a domestic tourist spot, quieter and more relaxed than many of the other more Westernized beaches. It was a perfect place to start my tour of Goa. We stayed in a family guesthouse in the village and spent a couple days laying on the beach, bicycling around the town, and soaking up the scorching rays.
Kathmandu to Goa
Wow, ok. It’s been an eventful little while since I’ve been able to update. I saw out my last few days in Nepal back in Kathmandu, with a rooftop BBQ (yes, meat!), a screening of Life of Pi in 3D (with popcorn and all!), and saying goodbye to a country that I truly fell in love with over a month and a half.
After 34 straight hours of travelling, 3 taxis, 2 flights, 2 auto rickshaws, 1 suburban train, and a 13 hour train I made it to Goa.
We first arrived to Mumbai via Delhi and made our way straight to the central train station to try to get a ticket to Goa for the next morning. There were two problems with this: we went to the wrong train station, and we arrived after midnight. Deciding to stay the night in Mumbai, we got a cab to Colaba, by this time it was after 1am. We walked around for nearly an hour, saw several rats the size of small dogs, and couldn’t find a place to stay. We decided to go back to the train station and wait it out there, hoping we could book tickets for the early morning train. With no sleep at all, we waited for the ticket counter to open around 4am, only to be told that the train was completely booked and we’d only be able to buy an “unreserved seat”, meaning that we’d wait for the train, scramble to try to find the ticket coordinator for the train, and hope that someone didn’t show up so we could fill their space. A few hours later, no seats having come available, we just jumped on the general class of the train and ended up having to share a seat with six others for the 14 hour ride to Goa. Needless to say, it was a long, hard journey but we made it to Goa and for only 150 rupees!
What a relief it was to finally reach the tropical paradise of India.
I left the mountains for the jungle, the southern lowlands of Chitwan. The valley consists of Chitwan National Park that covers an area of over 930 square kilometers and is a World Heritage Site. You can’t set foot in the park without a guide as the dangers are apparent in the abundance of wild tigers, leopards, elephants, and rhinos.
We stayed at a little lodge along the river and spent our days laying in the sun, watching elephants being bathed in the river, walking along the narrow village roads, along sprawling fields of mustard, past horses, water buffalo, elephants, chickens, and baby goats.
Warm days and cold nights, mist covering the land as far as you can see in the early mornings and late evenings. A jungle paradise.
Kathmandu, Nepal - Part 2
I’ve been back in Kathmandu the last few days, lucky enough to be invited into my friend Robin’s family home in the old area of Baneshwor. It has been a wonderful experience to spend time with his family and catch a glimpse into local life. As I walk down the streets in this area, I am stared at by all as they wonder what I might possibly be doing here.
We walked to Nepal’s largest and most important Hindu temple, Pashupatinath, situated on the banks of the holy Bagmati River. The ancient complex dates back farther than the 7th century and hosts several temples, shrines, and ghats. This is the place many Hindus come to cremate their loved ones, in hopes of breaking the life and death cycle. Bodies are wrapped in shrouds and laid on the river bank, then cremated on large wooden pyres along the river. We came to this place at night which was a fascinating and intense experience to see the bodies burning along the river, smoke rising into blackness while families gathered round. Each night there is a ritual dance to praise the god Shiva; I was again lucky enough to witness this beautiful tradition.
November and December are marriage months - many Nepalis commence the start of their lives together at this time. As I walked around the streets of Kathmandu over the last few days, I was able to see several wedding processions with full marching band and families trailing behind a decorated car taking the groom to meet his bride. We sat on a rooftop cafe in Durbar Square watching the traditional processions, listening to the bands playing, looking at the people passing by the beautiful old square now filled with tables upon tables of local souvenirs.
Kathmandu is busy, loud, polluted, and often frustrating but nevertheless an overwhelmingly special place that I am thankful of being able to see the other side of.