Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Dear Darjeerling

The air around me is cold and clean and ever so refreshing!

(*inhales deep breath*)

I am also wearing a ridiculous amount of layered up clothing to keep warm, which I apparently wasn't really prepared for. I have no thermometer but am pretty sure that through the night it must get as low as single digits up here. It is so surprisingly cold. I keep remembering the disgusting, uncomfortable, sweltering, heat of Calcutta and the rest of India when it's on the tip of my tongue to complain (complaining to you Garry, doesn't count ;).

I have been up in the Himalaya's, in Darjeerling, for almost a week and it really has been a breath of fresh air. I've done almost nothing and that feels great too. I was debating whether to do a trek from here, but got sick the first day here and that made up my mind not to. So I have spent my days wandering about, drinking the most amazing tea and exploring the hillside.

There is a little steam engine that runs through the mountains and I took a 2 hour "Joy Ride" to Goom, the highest hill station in India. It chugged ever so slowly through town after town, and a famous place called the Batasia Loop. We got to stop and hop out a few times. It was an odd mixture of touristy and kitsch, and authentic and interesting. The weather changes so quickly here that we passed through beaming sunshine and then eventually, when we got to Goom there was a thick fog that added a really misty, ghost like quality to the atmosphere in the small, old train station.

Another afternoon I visited the Himalayan Zoological Park (fancy name for a zoo), the Natural History Museum and the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute. It all made me feel like a bit of a kid again, which I fully relished in. The zoo was fun, although mildly disturbing to see all the cats pacing back and forth in their enclosures. The cages were plush and huge, but they were still cages. I took mild comfort in reading that the two tigers had been rescued from a circus. Most of the animals were native to the mountains so it was interesting to learn about red pandas, the asian black bear and all the different cat species. There was an 'exotic aquarium' set up too, which was hilarious! I think the fish tanks in my grade school classrooms could've done a better job at "exotic".

Another highlight was visiting Happy Valley Tea Plantation. This is where Harrod's in England get their organic packaged tea. I just wandered into the plantation and was guided through the factory and told how the whole process works. I was allowed to wander the hills where the women were picking and it was such an interesting process to watch. I've never really thought about how any of my tea actually gets from Point A to Point B, my cup. The women in the hills were gossiping a mile a minute as they plucked away, and even stopeed to chat with me as I walked by. At the end of t I sat in a little cafe and drank the freshest tea picked earlier that week. The kicker was this plantation doent sell to just anyone, its exclusively produced for Harrod's, and also the employees are allowed to have it as part of their contract. But this little lady that runs the tea garden in the hills gets it from the employees and sells it under the table to tourists or who ever else is interested in it. Its al really hush hush, she wont even let yuo bring a camera in and the tea is hidden under the seats. Black Market tea, I loved it! It was totally overpriced but I bought some anyways. "Super Fine Tippy Golden Flower Orange Pekoe One", thats what I got. Top of the line stuff, in our tasting, the tea was so fresh sheonly had to brew it for 5 seconds and it was amazing. Ahhhh, the underbelly of Darjeerling!

Yesterday was my last day here and it was probably the best of all. I wandered down the side of the mountain in search of a small monastery. It looked deserted when I found it but I ended up running into a monk that takes care of the place. He unlocked it and sat talking with me for ages, pining away the afternoon. he explained all the paintings on the wall, the powders used to make it; the history of Buddhism, how the monastery ended up there and so much more. He was old but nimble as anything, and a sense of humour that had me giggling more often than not! It was such an incredible and unexpected way to spend my afternoon and it reminded me how lucky I am to be here and why I have such a passion for travelling. He sent me on my way through a sneaky mountain back route to get to a Tibetan Refugee centre and I was off.

This morning it is torrentially raining and I am all geared up with al my stuff and about to make the journey to Nepal. A jeep taxi down the mountain for about four hours is the first step and thats about all I know so far, keeping my fingers crossed I will make it to Kathmandu sometime tomorrow.

And so, then next phase of my travels begin.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Streets of Kolkata

Where to begin?

The main reason I haven't written in ages was because of Vipasanna. This was a 10 day meditation course I took in Chennai (you can do them anywhere in the world, but the practice originated in India).

After 10 days of silence you'd think I'd be bubbling over with things to say, but it was such an extraordinary and personal experience that I'm not sure any words I write would really convey the experience very well. I can say it was one of the hardest things Ive ever done (test yourself and try to keep quiet for 10 minutes, never mind 10 days!). But it was also really rewarding, I'm so pleased I actually made it through till the end (not everyone did).

I thoroughly enjoyed meditating, though 10 hours a day (ya, that works out to over 100 hours!) was a little excessive in my opinion. So many times during the day I had to force myself NOT to walk out and head back to reality. I will give a little taste of what my days consisted of though, brace yourself:


4:00 wake up
4:30 - 6:30 meditation
6:30 breakfast
8:00-11:00 meditation
11:00 lunch
1:00 - 5:00 meditation
5:00 dinner
6:00 - 7:00 meditation
7:00 - 8:30 teachings
8:30 - 9:00 meditation
9:30 lights out

It was tough stuff. And the weather was insanely hot, hitting 40 degrees everyday. Try sitting perfectly still through that. But what an experience. When I get home I'd love to bore anyone with details of it, but I just don't think blogging about it would do much justice.

Here is the website for anyone interested in reading up on it:


So, saying that....here is a bit of life AFTER Vipasanna.

The day we got out (sounds like I was in prison), my roommate Katie and I chugged around Chennai and managed to suss out a really posh restaurant, full of expats, antique furnishings, a picturesque garden, and a mouth watering menu. One of the main teachings of Vipasanna; the art of living, is to resist craving. So as rebellious students we ordered a really nice lunch complemented by 2 heavily coated chocolate laced desserts! Ooops.

Chennai is supposed to be a not-so-pleasant place to visit so I timed it to fly out of Chennai the day I finished Vipasanna. After the day with Katie I headed to the airport and made my way to Calcutta (now spelled Kolkata). As a rule of thumb, I pretty much never book ahead when I travel. I enjoy the challenge of sussing a place out when I get there. Also, with budget accommodation especially, its easier to choose after seeing a room, rather than reading about it. Its almost always fool proof, but Calcutta proved me completely and utterly wrong. What an entrance to that city I had!

I knew Calcutta was supposed to be a poor city but NOTHING prepared me for what I saw when I arrived. I hopped in a taxi, my flight was a late one already, plus it was delayed, so it wasn't until probably after midnight that I rolled into the city. I had a rough idea of where I wanted to go, where there was a cluster of hotels and guest houses. I picked one and showed it to the driver, who typically didn't speak much English. Getting into the heart of the city, it was as quiet as a ghost town but there were bodies everywhere. Crooked, misshaped, small ones, big ones, old ones and so many young ones, there were bodies sleeping on mats, on newspapers or just flat out on the concrete, or perched on store ledges. I think I was plummeted so quickly from the serenity of Vipasanna, to the harsh and real world of such poverty and it took me by such storm. I couldn't even comprehend it and just sat in the taxi with tears welling up in my eyes.

Then to make it all worse, the taxi driver got frazzled with me cause he couldn't find where I wanted to go and he kept trying to make me get out of the car. Turn after turn and all the streets looked the same and eventually I got out at a hotel that once I gathered all my bags I realized was locked and closed up. The cab had peeled off instantly and I can honestly say I was scared shitless. I had no idea what to do or who to turn to. Almost instantly, out of nowhere, a man came and offered me a hotel if I followed him. Normally this would seem dodgy, but I had no alternative and blindly followed him. He took me to Hotel Paradise (which more aptly should have been called Hotel Parasite), but I welcomed it with open arms and shacked up there.

The next day, Calcutta was not so bad. I think my imagination and my emotions got the best of me. There are homeless people EVERYWHERE, but so many are friendly and just part of the city. There is one family that I keep stopping to chat with. The mother is lovely and has not once asked me for anything but a chat. I had 2 juice boxes with me and gave one to her daughter, no more than 2 yrs old and now every time I pass her, strutting in her underwear and nothing else, she calls me "juice, juice!", waving and grinning from ear to ear! Too sweet.

I am only here for a few days. I went to Mother Teresa's Mission, and after seeing the sick and impoverished here, I have so much more respect for that woman. She did miraculous things. Her tomb is here, set up in the middle of a modest chapel in the mission. I sat there for a few minutes with no one around except a few quiet nuns. It was amazing and yet surprising it wasn't a little more....hmmm, monumental?

Calcutta was a very short stop but it definitely impacted me. I think the mountains will be a welcome change from the sweltering 40 degree heat and overpopulation. I welcome the change of scene, AND TEMPERATURE!

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Au Revoir Pondicherry, Bonjour Silence!

The last 5 days in India have consisted of a whole bunch of nothing. There isn't really a lot going on in Pondicherry if youre not an exchange student. It's on the ocean but with a polluted and rocky seaside, and no beach. When I arrived here, I found it a little frustrating because I knew I was stuck here for at least 5 days not having to be up in Chennai till the 10th. But after a bit of thought, all of a sudden I embraced the whole bunch of nothing and enjoyed every single day of it. So in Pondicherry I have had a lovely few days of doing nothing but eating and drinking and walking and reading, oh and sleeping, lots of that too.

Pondicherry (now officially called Puducherry, but Pondi has a much nicer ring to it) was a former French colony and apparently a real educational hub. There seems to be schools and hospitals on every corner. With the French influence here, there is also a surplus of cafe lattes, baguettes and croissants, part of the reason I kicked back and enjoyed my days of nothinginess. Ive been lazily eating French breakfasts every morning with a book, real coffee and an overdose of carbs. I also came across a very reasonably priced english book store cause I am chewing through books faster than pastries! And if thats not enough, I also scored a room with a phone and have spent hours on the phone to Canada with the long distance love of my life!!!! Pondicherry may actually turn out to be the highlight of India ;)

Aside from all that, there was a festival here (shocking, I know) when i arrived, celebrating the 100th year of Sri Aurobindo coming to Pondi. Aurobindo was a freedom fighter for India's independance and later an important philosopher. The festival itself was pretty lame. I walked about, got blessed by a beautiful elephant named Lakshmi for 10 rupees, took a tour of the principle ashram here and then went to go eat chocolate. Happy 100th.

So that was Pondicherry in a nutshell, uneventful yet enjoyable. Next stop, I head north back to Chennai. Thankfully its only a 4 hour local bus ride, no overnighters necessary. Apparently Chennai is not a place to linger so I have planned to go directly to my destination which is a 10 day meditation course in Vipassana. Ive heard lots about this practise in the last few months. It seems quite daunting but at the same time, Im so keen to learn about it. Ive added a link to a website that does a better expalantion that I could of what it is all about.


I learned a little about it at Ashiyana's, the yoga retreat I did in Goa, and am looking forward to exploring it a little further. Did I mention it is a SILENT MEDITATION for 10 days? So hopefully I dont come out on the flip side clinically insane from being in my own head for too long, left to my own devices. Fingers crossed.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Magical Hampi

We arrived in Hampi after dusk and woke up to the most beautiful surroundings. It feels a little bit like the ruined temples of Cambodia's Angkor Wat, but not as well preserved. This town is a World Heritage Site, but the people live in and amongst it all, which doesnt do much good for the preservation of the architecture but definately adds colour and flavour to things.

As it seems more often than not, I arrived on the eve of a festival (there is always someone celebrating something in India) and the place went off the next day. Pilgrims come from near and far and by the reaction of so many people here to us, it's not everyday they get to see white folk. The children mobbed us every step of the way and if we stopped for too long in one lace we would get swarmed by people around us just being nosy. On the main bazaar, where everyone was congregating for the parade, there was a small tent with a three-legged woman on a loudspeaker, assumably preching about religious antics. There was a steady stream of people coming out of the tent and when they came out, cameras posed, it seems we got more photos taken of us then the freak show inside. So bizarre!

So the first day here I just wandered around with the 3 Ozzie girls. The heat here is really intense, everything is done really slowly, and with lots of water. We saw as many of the ruins within walking distance as possible but just decided today was a chill day to enjoy the festival. There was a parade to leave at 4pm and as it got closer to the time it seemed there was a constant flow of people coming in and a frenzied feeling in the air. The crouds were insurmountable and with 4 girls, we got hassled so much trying to get around that we finally perched ourselves atop a hill to watch things with a little air to breathe. After ages in the hot sun we tried to get passed the crowd and it got a little scary so we had enough and went back to our sideof the river and chilled for the rest of the evening. It took everything out of you just getting around in the heat and the chaos.

Our second day was spent renting a rickshaw and getting driven about to a few further off temples, including Hanuman Temple (the Monkey Temple, cause Hanuman is the monkey god) which was an exhausting climb but paid off with incredible views of Hampi and the area. At sunset we went rock climbing up some boulders and had another amazing view of the place. It feels like Ive gone back in time being Hampi, there is a really magical and mystical sense around here....I think I could stay here for awhile, its seems separate from the craziness of India.

Marlee and I rented a bike the next day and got to see even more of the area and get a feel for how spread out it all is. We seemed to be on the same site seeing schedule as another family with a little boy who was obsessing over us. He'd wave like his arm was falling off everytime he saw us and was haing so much fun. The last temple we came out of he was itting mwith his whole extended family in the shade under a tree and they motioned an invite to come and join them. With no actual verbal communications we manged to sit and enjoy lunch wiith them miming and pointing and giggling. It was fantastic! The food was so lovely and basic and they took so much joy in sharing it with us that I was in heaven! The boy alone mustve posed for about 20 different pictures on our camera. Such lovely people.

I've hung around Hampi with the girls for as long as possible and now its time to move on, further east. I have another epic jouney planned to leave here:

15 minute walk by foot with pack in miday heat to the boat. cross river. hire rickshaw to Hospet, about 15 km. 2 hour train ride from Hospet to Guntakal. switch to overnight train to Chennai. rickshaw from train station to bus station. 4 hour bus from Chennai to Ponducherry, and then rickshaw to get to whatever accomodation i pick. That was exhausting to write nevermind do!!!!

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Yoga & Beyond

My last week in Goa was so lovely and quiet. I spent it at a yoga retreat called Ashiyana's, in a small little beach village called Mandrem. The beach was long and almost entirely deserted, it was so refreshing. My days consisted of 2 hours of yoga in the morning from 8 to 10, followed by an amazing breakfast. During the day I was still beach bumming and taking nice long walks with the sand in my toes. Id stroll back for yoga from 4 to 6, and then have a beautiful dinner. The food at this place was so clean and healthy and good for me ( I could even drink the filtered water STRAIGHT out of the tap)! After dinner there was chanting and meditation. I was asleep almost every night before 10pm. There was a a few nice things that went on, like the Saturday Nite Market in Arpora, where I healthily treated myself to a few lovely new peices. I also had a great Ayurvedic massage, ya know cause I was so stressed out an all, LOL. The place was recommended to me and I would easily recommend it to anyone looking for a rejuvenating and healthy boost for the body and soul.

My next stop was Hampi, in the next province of Karnataka. The journey itself was epic. The taxi to get from Mandrem to Mapusa (pronounced Mapsa) was 400 rupees and since I had being doing so well on the Goan local buses i knew i could handle. I had to be there at 6 to catch the overnight bus to Hampi so I left Ashiyana's by 4 giving plenty of time for the hour bus ride and then some. I navigated myslef to the main road away from the small village, being offered numerous taxi rides along the way. A few guys even tried to convince me the busses dont run Sundays but I know these guys and their cheeky ways so I trucked on. It was mid day scorthing heat, somewhere in the high 30s but i was determined. I got to the bus stop and managed to confirm with a locallady i was headed the right way for Mapusa. After half an hour (I guess they dont run as frequently it being Sunday) a rickety old bus pulls up with people hanging out of every door and window and the guy pretty much laughed at me and he hauled the one woman waiting at the aside of the road with me onto the bus and just shook his no. I was sooooooooooooooooo ANNOYED! Defeated and deflated I had to walk back tot he village, dripping in sweat and succomb to one of the snickering taxi drivers. Great start.

After lots of mucking about in Mapusa the bus finally filled with a handful of backpackers and only made its way to Panjim, further south to exchange busses and load us somehwere else. With absolutely no coherence, the Indian way, we eventually got on our way and made a few stops in random dark villages to pick up a few straglers until the bus was full. No joke, less than hour into the overnight journey, while most people had already passed out we broke down. I was sharing the tightest little double bunk with a lovely girl from Byron Bay (the 2nd person in my life that ACTUALLY comes from Byron!) and it wasnt until about 6 the next morning when we finally got up and mosied outside to start chatting with other passengers and figuringout what the hell was going on. Long story short, dead battery and no one around that spoke Hindi so we all were hot and tired and wondering when and how we would be rescued until after 10 in the morning when a new battery finally arrived. Almost 12 friggin' hours stuck on the side of a dusty dirt road with nothing other than a chai shop to tie us over. What a trip. Once the bus was fixed we got back on the road to continue the epic journey (though i should mention as soon as the bus started running, the driver and his lackie decided to sit and have their chai at the stall, we were all seething). Oh, and just to make the jouney even more fun, every toilet stop we hit, lacked actual toilets. In a 24 hour journey not ONE toilet, pop-a-squat was the only option. So many hours and so many stops later we slowly rolled into Hampi just as night was falling. The from there we banded together as a group, heckled with the rickshaw rivers as they swarmed us when we got off the bus and zipped through town to catch the last boat ferry over the river.
In complete darkness, we piled on the boat bags and all and FINALLY made it to a small little road full of guest houses, over 26 hours from my intial departure from relaxed and sleepy Ashyana's.

The best part of the journey was hooking up with my bed share partner from the bus, Marlee, and the 2 Ozzie girls she was travelling with. We banded together the way people do when they have shared a traumatic experience together! I ended spending my whole week in Hampi with the girls and it was so nice to have such good company. So even though the journey was exhausting and dirty and soooooooo long, I wouldnt have changed a thing, everything happens for a reason!