My 2011 Year in Review

(slightly delayed in posting)
 

Jan – My final month of forest-dwelling in Costa Rica

In the middle of the forest, searching for the elusive Lost Boys. Last days of Monkey Business.

What a great team!

And my final trip to Nicaragua – a special trip with my dear friend Rebecca.

Yup, that pretty much sums it up. Only thing missing are the tostones.

Wait…

There they are! Mmm... delicious, double-fried plantains and fried, salty cheese!

Feb – I finally Come Home!!! Party down, sleep, unrestricted internet video access, make everyone eat Chile Town Hot Sauce, Overjoyed that almonds are in blossom for me, and commit to an indefinate moratorium on romance.

So happy to finally be home!

March – Go to India with Mama. Rediscover yoga and myself. Spend a lot of time in silence and sitting on the floor which is WAY harder than it used to be when I had a higher cartilage-to-bone ratio in my body. Indians think I’m Indian.  Tibetans think I’m Tibetan.

At a monkey temple

April – Travel to the Dalai Lama’s home in exile, McLeod Ganj. Immediately feel at home and know I must return. Begin my immersion into yoga teacher training. Make beautiful new friends.

With friends at Norbulingka, the summer palace of the Dalai Lama. http://www.norbulingka.org

Class time break. This is what happens between extended periods of sitting in a "tall, upright, cross-legged position": everyone collapses.

May – Graduate as a certified Yoga Instructor of Ashtanga, Hatha, Vinyasa, Meditation, Pranayama, and Chanting.

We did it!!! Thank you, Himalaya Yoga Valley!

Return to Chico. Stay with Candi and Alex. Find a home to live in, Create Persimmon Yoga & Therapeutic Massage.  Find a place to do massage, find a place to do yoga.  Start doing massage. Start teaching yoga.  Paint a persimmon.

My persimmon now hanging in my massage office.

June – Start Yoga for Cyclists off with a bang. A near-full class filled with enthused, committed students – except for that one quiet guy that Candi sent. I don’t think he liked my class. I probably won’t see him ever again.

Start a Mtn biking obsession that I feed nearly every day at 5:30am with my new BFF Alex.

Mountain Biking in Upper Bidwell Park at dawn. Photo by Alex Waite.

Realize I could benefit from some dating practice even though I’m perfectly happy being single, so sign up for Match.com as a streamlined way to get some dating experience. Gregory writes me a spectacular profile. Go on some dates and am relieved to realise that I’m not the awkward one.  Am generally completely stoked on life.

July – Gradually cancel all my other yoga classes due to poor attendance with the exception of Yoga for Cyclists. Never see another face from that first class again except for that quiet guy who surprises me by coming back week after week.

Go to Wanderlust Yoga Music & Nature Fest in Tahoe with a friend from yoga school in India and LOVE it.

Awesome Wanderlust Yoga Hippie Goodness

Aug – Quiet guy from yoga is frequently my only student and begins to talk more before and after class. I decide he seems like a nice guy. I decide I’ll say yes when he asks me out. Ten minutes later, he asks me out and I say yes. His name is Russ.  I show my mom his picture on the Chico Elks Lodge website (sadly it’s not up anymore) and my mom says “Wow! I wasn’t expecting him to be so handsome!”  Umm… WTF?

Join the Chico State Acrobatics Club!

Almost TOO much fun!

Sept – All romantic efforts to entice me by crafting the perfectly funny-yet-casual-yet serious email go to waste in my Match.com inbox. After a near 8-year run, I’m off the market.  He got me!

Happiness

Oct – Perform Acrobatics in the Chikoko fashion show!!!

Acro team at the Chikoko Fashion Show. I'm upside-down on the left.

Nov – Rediscover cold. (Seriously, it’s been a LONG time since I’ve experienced a high below 80F.)  The arrival of persimmons consoles me.

Pretty clever of me, eh?

Celebrate my 5 year anniversary of heart surgery with a Very Veggie Thanksgiving dinner with some of my favorite people and food to feed me for a solid week!

100% Veggie Goodness!

Dec – Meet my weekly goal for massage!

Go to Hawaii for the first time for a very special Christmas with Russ and his family.

Hawaiian Christmas!

Decide that snorkeling is for me.

I MET this turtle!

And that I need more spelunking in my life.

Totally unprepared for lava tube spelunking adventure but did that stop us? Pleeease.

Bonus: Check “Find Rainbow Eucalyptus” off my Bucket List.

Rainbow Eucalyptus: a serious contender for the most exciting part of this trip.

In summary, I’d say 2011 has been a year of rediscovery and new beginnings. It’s been a full year that has seen me in four countries.  My overarching objective for the year has been to find and create balance in all aspects of my life and I feel I’ve done a pretty good job of it!  Certainly the best yet.  I end the year full with love and a sense of satisfaction for all that I’ve accomplished and experienced in these 12 months.

I look forward to what awaits me in 2012.

Back in the Saddle, Again!

I know I have been neglecting you.  I’ve received your imploring letters, your quiet bottles of trapped tears, your angry voice-mails.  I know your ire is simply a symptom of your deep sense of abandonment, your heartache at the abeyance in updates from my swashbuckling life.  Rest assured; I’m still here.

Where is “here”, you ask?

My beloved Chico, California!

Isn’t that just downright charming? (The only acceptable answer here is Yes.)

Why Chico?  Maria, you could have literally gone anywhere in the world to establish your rule.  Why did you choose Chico?

The simple answer is that I love Chico.  I love the eco-conscious community, the wealth of wonderful people that encourage and inspire me to cultivate love rather than human domination, all the damn bicycles, and the vast resource of sanity-assurance that is Bidwell Park.

Upper Bidwell Park with Big Chico Creek

I particularly like when those last two are combined.

For those unfamiliar with Bidwell, it’s the third largest municipal park in CA with over 3,600 acres of delicious, savory dirt.

Mmm… dirt.

This brings me to the whole reason I started writing today: Bicycles and Bidwell and the magic that happens when you combine the two.

Since returning to civilization, trading this:

While searching for monkeys I crashed through a nest of giant, black wasps that swarmed my face, followed quickly by me collapsing to the forest floor, uncontrollably sobbing “WHY AM I HERE?!?!” while my face swelled to the point of not being able to drink water because there was no more room left in my mouth. Fun.

For this:

I just took a nap and did me some yoga.

…I’ve developed a particular fondness (bordering on addiction) for mountain biking.  You may know that I had a healthy love for cycling before I decided to dedicate nearly two years of my life to stalking these munchkins:

Damn cute but demanding, I tell you! (Photo by Isabel Gottlieb)

But that was road biking.  Times have changed, Sister.  Now I get to roll in the dirt, climb up rocks, avert others, and weave through poisonous plant-matter.

Err

Okay, that sounds a lot like what I did in Costa Rica but this time I get to do it all on top of my sexy new bike:

Go on. You can stare. He likes it.

Plus I don’t have to do it for 14 hours a day!  Though, admittedly, I still get up when it’s dark out which just feels wrong but I swear it’s totally worth it.

Usually I go riding with my friend Alex but this morning she was too knackered to join me so I headed out in the dark all by my onesies.  I rode up the North Rim trail which is a gradual but super rocky climb.

Climbing North Rim Trail: Bumpity, bumpity, bumpity.

I tried my legs at it twice recently but both times were in 95F-ish weather with the sun leaving me with a new compassion for the plight of Shrinky Dinks.  I didn’t get very far.

In the still, coolness of dawn it was WAY more manageable and I was actually able to get all the way UP it to where the goodness really begins.

Riding along the top, I stopped to take in the expansive view and found myself awash with the familiar pleasure and calm of being alone in wilderness.  I looked up at the clear, blue sky with our waning gibbous moon still visible and felt such gratitude for the fact that I was able to do the simple act of looking up and seeing the sky.  I could see it and appreciate it for as loooong as I wanted.

You see, in CR, that was a luxury unknown to us Moneros.  When we looked up, this is what we saw:

And we didn’t even see the sky.  We just saw the monkey. Can you see the monkey?

Every so often the capuchins would take us to the edge of a pasture and we’d steal the opportunity to step out into the soothing openness and notice what a lovely day it probably was out there for the rest of ‘em.

Today, I reflected on how dramatically different my life is now.  I split the frame with my Costa Rica life on one side and this moment of my life on the other.

Such a contrast!

How grateful I am that I get to be here, riding my bike for the unadulterated pleasure of it!  How fortunate am I that I get to exercise; I get to indulge in hours of activity a day with the simple objective of keeping myself healthy.  What luxury I live in!

I get to enjoy the view.  I get to savor the magnification of every shift of my weight and sigh of breath as I step out a soloist from the human orchestra.  And the knowledge that at the bottom of this hill, snuggled up in their beds, is a collection of people I get to return to who so generously share their love and lives with me.  It makes my chest swell and throat tighten.

I am healthy.  My heart beats.

I have love.  I have support.

I have time.  Finally, I have precious time.

"Time Enough At Last", The Twilight Zone. If you haven't seen this classic episode, watch it on Netflix. Season 1, Episode 8.

Now, as long as I don’t break my glasses, this should be a sweet ride.

 

Stranger Danger

Just a quick note in reference to my last post about awkward conversations with strangers

It was totally stupid of me to tell Kunchok that I am not sharing a room with anyone.  Completely stupid.  But being the world’s worst liar the truth just comes tumbling out of my mouth before I really think about it.  And I didn’t have an outright creepy vibe from him – I thought he was just awkward.  Had I more reason to think he was potentially worrisome I probably would have been more apt to come up with some lie like “yes, I live with my husband… and father… who are very dangerous men.”

But I didn’t.

Today was my first session of “yoga school” (which so far is totally awesome and I’ll tell you more about later) which takes place on the top floor of my three-story apartment building.  When we emerged for our breakfast break, I climbed down the stairs, heading towards my room when I noticed Kunchok standing on the road directly above and in front of the building staring at me.  Christine, who lives right next to me, was walking in her room at that moment so I quickly, seamlessly followed right behind her so that he would have the impression that I don’t live alone, and not know where I actually live.

He stood out there perfectly still staring down towards us for about five minutes despite Christine opening the door to stare/glare back at him and shoo him away.  We could see him through a gap in the window.

After what felt like a creepily-long time, he finally walked away.

I stayed in Christine’s room for a bit longer and then eventually went to my room to eat my distinctly less-flavorful breakfast.

I alerted all of the staff at the school and the apartment so they know what’s going on.  Both the director of the school and the manager of the apartment saw him so they know what he looks like as well as Christine.  Fortunately I also know his name and where he works and now everyone else does too.  If he comes back again they are going to talk to him.

Pretty lousy, isn’t it?  Clearly it’s not a fantastic idea for me to go walking around by myself after dark, nor to go exploring remote areas at any time of the day alone.  What a load of crap.  It’s one part about being a woman that will likely never change and is an undeniable source of inequality.  I like to think I can do anything a man can do (other than produce sperm) and want to enjoy all the same freedoms, but it’s just not realistic, and it is so disappointing.

Butterflies, Babies, and Awkward Conversations.

4 April 2011

Countless white butterflies are fluttering up the mountain outside my window right now.  They look sort of like big snowflakes moving in the wrong direction.  Or like sperm racing to get to the egg first, which is apparently at the top of the mountain.  A steady stream of them keeps flying past.  I wonder where they all came from and where they are going.

Uh-oh.  One of them is lost.  He’s going in the wrong direction!  Turn around, buddy!  You’ll never make it that way!  There’s nothing over there!

Oh… oh… sweet.  He found his way (at least past my window).

Yesterday I massaged Jittender, the therapist who does Thai massage.  It was a wonderful massage.  Our energies clicked and he was very happy with the work.  After the massage we both sat on his table and drank chai.  He was very complimentary and said that I massage from the heart.  I liked that.  When he found out that I am a biologist he starting calling me “doctor” and asked me to explain why there is pain in the pecs and what to do about too much uric acid in the body, wanting to compare my opinion with that of an actual doctor he’d seen.  I could explain the pecs easily enough but had nothing to offer for the uric acid dilemma.  Despite my explaining that I’m not a doctor, he insisted on calling me “doctor”.

From there I went straight over to Kamal’s to get my massage.  He was totally professional and did a lovely job.  Very strong and skillful.  He can clearly see with his hands.  It was very interesting to experience his style.  He did a lot of myofascial work using some completely different techniques than I was trained in which accomplish the same thing.  He didn’t know the term “myofascial” and I don’t think he knew the theory or mechanisms behind his techniques, just that they were effective.

As seems to be the case with everyone I’ve met so far, Kamal never received any formal training but picked up an amalgamation of techniques from various people who have come through at different times.  Having received a very high quality training myself at Chico Therapy Wellness Center, it is a bit disconcerting having people doing things like chiropractic adjustments after being shown a couple things by a chiropractor once, without being aware of possible damage that one could do.  What is also disconcerting is people who have not received any formal bodywork training then going on and dispensing training to others, as is very popular here.  It seems every massage therapist, no matter how long they’ve been practicing, also offers a massage training course.  Usually two hours a day for five days.

After the massage and the obligatory cup of chai, I climbed the steps out from his office up toward the road.  As I looked up the enter the street, a familiar face hovered right in the middle of my view, framed in the doorway, about to walk past.

Katyanna!  My friend/yoga instructor from Nicaragua!  I’d almost completely forgotten that I was going to see her here.  She just happened to be walking past the doorway at the exact moment I was stepping out of it.  Crazy.  Katyanna is the reason I became interested in India in the first place and the reason I ended up here, now, in this course.  She was my favorite yoga instructor in Central America.  She went through the same training and now she has returned to be an assistant instructor.  We went to a café and talked about yoga, Nica, India, etc for over an hour, even practicing our Spanish a little.  It was so crazy, the last time I saw her we were in Nica saying “Okay, see you in India” and there we were again.

I went to have dinner at the Tibet Kitchen again for the third day in a row to break my fast.  Yesterday a fast was held to pay respects to a 20-year old monk named Phuntsok Jarutsang who set himself on fire on March 16th to mark the third anniversary of the March 16, 2008 deadly crackdown by the Chinese on Tibetan peaceful protesters in Tibet.  I hope everyone who reads this will think about that for a moment; what the Chinese government has done, what it continues to do, how brave one must be to peacefully protest in China (knowing that doing so means relinquishing your right to live), how it must feel to believe that your best chance of bringing attention to the atrocities being committed against your people is to burn yourself alive… and to actually do it…

Phuntsok Jarutsang

The least I could do was not eat for eight hours.

When I did eat I had Sonam, my same waiter from the previous two days, help me pick out my next dish to try.  I think Sonam is in his twenties and escaped from Tibet four years ago with 82 other people.  He said it was very dangerous for them.  He’d just finished school three months ago where he studied English, Tibetan and Tibetan history and culture.  He explained that it is a school where all the new refugee children go.  His accent is very thick and his English isn’t super strong so it took a lot of time for us to converse.  There was a lot more I wanted to learn from him but his boss indicated that he needed to stop talking and get back to work.  I told him I’d be back the next day and he seemed pleased.

Tibet Kitchen

 

I’m happy to report that I seem to be acclimated to the 9,275ft elevation and that the buhjillion steps up to town are far more manageable now.  On my way up today, I was stopped by Kunchok, a young Tibetan man.  I really have to make no effort to meet local people here – they just start talking to me.  The dialog almost always goes like this:

Person: “Hello! Where are you from?”

Me: “Hello.  I’m from California.”

Person: “Oh.  How long you stay McLeod Ganj?”

Me: “One month”

Person: “When you get here?”

Me: “X days ago”

Person: “This your first time in India?  You like it?”

Same thing (almost) every time.

Kunchok mixed it up by throwing a “You’re hair very different” in there as the follow up to “where are you from”.  He seemed fascinated with my appearance, clearly studying my attire as if I was some exotic creature, which I find funny since I’m wearing Tibetan and local clothes and my hair is simply up in a clip like I always have it.  Just ahead of me on the stairs was some hippy dude with super long dreadlocks, so I’m not sure what was so unusual about my hair.

The only thing I could think to say was “It’s, uh, messy” thinking how I hadn’t bothered to brush it.  FYI: curly hair and clips work together as masters of disguise.

We chatted briefly and he invited me for chai and told me to come visit him at the café he works at.  I declined the chai but assured him if I found myself near his café I’d stop in to say hi.

I continued my ascent and a bit further up I stopped to investigate the sound of children singing.  I peered through the gate of a preschool and kindergarten for Tibetan children.  Across the courtyard in a classroom I could see a group of tiny little round children in uniforms neatly arranged, singing and dancing a simple, choreographed dance.  THEY WERE SO CUTE!!!  I tried to take video of them but the contrast between the bright outside and the dark inside the classroom meant my camera didn’t pick up any of their adorable, stout little appendages moving around: feet stopping, arms swinging… I want one!

 

Grandma

I’ve officially decided Tibetan children are the most adorable children in the world.  Their faces are spherical!  They look like little variations of

"Cookie"

my grandma and my little cousin, Elaina, whose nickname given to her by her older brother is “Cookie” (cuz she’s round like a cookie).

I think I’m going to have to learn to speak Tibetan before I’ll be of much use to the kids.  Fortunately, though, there are a lot of opportunities to learn Tibetan and Hindi here.  There are many efforts going on to keep tibetan culture alive, so one can also easily find classes on how to cook Tibetan food, how to create the traditional Thanka paintings, not to mention all the lectures going on everyday.  So much to do!  You see why I have to come back?

While I won’t have time to get involved in pretty much any of that during this trip, but I do hope to make it to the Tibetan Children’s Village.  According to my Rough Guide it is “a huge complex providing education and training in traditional handicrafts for around two thoughsand students, many of whom are orphans or have been brought to safety by parent who have returned to Tibet.”  If you are interested in reading a little more about them or learning how you can help (such as by sponsoring a child for $40 a month) you can check out their website here.

Once I was in town, I made my way back to Jittender’s office where I received my first Thai massage.  It was RAD!  I think I need to learn how to do this.  Wow.  Really, really cool.  I’d love to offer this to my clients.  It’s so interactive.    For those of you who have not experienced it, you lay on a pad on the ground with loose-fitting clothes on while the therapist stretches and massages you.  Two thumbs, way up.

Afterward I went for lunch at Tibet Kitchen but was disappointed to see Sonam wasn’t there.  I picked a random thing on the menu “Veg Petsel Phing” with two yum-yum-yummy things of Tibetan bread called Tingmo.

Tingmo

The Petsel Phing turned out to basically be a spicy version of the thing I ate last night without the yummy paneer (cheese).  I thought to take a picture of it only half-way through my bowl…

Veg Petsel Phing (I think)

After lunch I walked around, found a nice view with my building in it…

If you follow the line of flags on the left edge of the photo, Sidharth House is the first building (orangey/pink) above it.

…bought my next papaya, and made my way home with one more awkward conversation with Kunchok to round things out.

Kunchok: “Hello again!”

Me: “Hello!  How are you doing?”

Kunchok:  “I’m just reading this magazine here.  It’s… really interesting… this magazine.”

Me: (Seeing that the magazine was a worn copy of Better Photography) “Oh, you like taking pictures?”

Kunchok: “No.”

Me: “Oh.”

Kunchok: “You want to read it?  It’s really good.”

Me:  “No, thank yo-“

Kunchok: “So you are going home then?”

Me: “Yes”

Kunchok: “You, uhh… share a room with someone? Or you by yourself?”

Me: “I am by myself.  Okay, nice chatting with you again!  I’m sure I’ll see you later.  Enjoy your day!”

I Know You’re Getting Sick of Me, BUT…

3 April 2011

I know what you’re thinking: Seriously? Another post?She can’t expect me to sit around and read a whole blog posting every day.I have things to do!

I completely understand.

But here’s the thing: in a few days my (12 hour a day) yoga course is going to start and my attentiveness to you is going to take a dramatic hit.Plus my days are going to become very routine so there probably won’t be a whole lot of new and exciting stuff for me to tell you about after the initial run-through.So enjoy my abundant posts while you can cuz they won’t last much longer.

It was another lovely morning, made especially so by my perfect post-yoga/meditation papaya on my sunny porch.Bliss.Seriously, my papaya makes me so happy.I am actually giddy that I get to eat more of it tomorrow on my porch.Haha.I can just see my father shaking his head in dismay at the hippy he somehow managed to raise.(I love you, Papa!)And tomorrow I get to combine it with a spoonful of almond butter that I just bought.Yes, just a spoonful.I have been looking for the “good kind” of peanut butter in all the shops here with no success.I FINALLY found the correct brand and jar shape (both important distinctions) but of almond butter.So thrilled was I to finally find some yummy nut butter that I didn’t do the currency conversion until after I paid way too much for a tiny-ass jar of it.So that little baby needs to last me.

I also managed to finally figure out how my shower works.Check out all these knobs:

My first attempt was utterly miserable.All these knobs!I couldn’t keep track of which one I’d turned and which direction meant what.My hypothesis was that I was meant to turn on the lower tap (hot and cold separately) and then turn on the above nozzle to send that water up through the shower head up above.This is what I did but I had zero success in moderating the temperature.The shower went from scalding hot to icy cold, lingering in the comfortable zone for about as long as it takes to say “moment”.It turns out my hypothesis was all wrong and I was making it a lot more complicated than it needed to be.I actually only need to use the two top nozzles and can leave the two faucets completely out of the picture.

The bathrooms here are pretty interesting.The sink just empties onto the floor above or next to or near a drain on the floor.And the shower is just part of the bathroom, no curtain or segregated area on the floor, just part of the room.So when you shower everything gets wet – the whole floor, the toilet, etc.My bathroom came equipped with a big squeegee so that I could herd all the shower water towards the floor drain after I’m done.

Moving on.

I worked on Kamal for almost two hours yesterday in his office.

In lieu of a faceplate he uses that pillow under his chest and then rests his face on his crossed arms.It made it more difficult to work his traps effectively but other than that I managed well enough.There was no heating so the lotion I used was SUPER cold and required a lot of warming up before each application, and every time my hands weren’t in direct contact with his skin, they became icy death wands.

After the massage we sat in his office which was the other side of the room…

\

…and drank chai while he showed me lots of photos on his laptop.He showed me pictures from two motorcycle tours he did (one 15 days and one 7 days) around north-eastern India, a fishing trip on this secluded river 4 hours away, an impromptu drinking road-trip he took with a bunch of his friends in the snow, etc.The scenery, especially from the motorbike tours, was stunning: from lush forests divided by massive waterfalls to high-altitude mountain deserts, bactrian (2 hump) camels and the highest village in the world, Kaza.In several photos Kamal can be seen pumping air into their tire.He explained that they’d gotten a flat only to discover that the spare also had a leak.So he had to stop and refill the tire every 10km for the whole day until they reached their destination.In every photo he has a huge smile on his face and he assured me it never faded.It blows me away that he could deal with all that and still remain thoroughly joyful.I can’t imagine anyone I know back home who could maintain such a great attitude through all that.Maybe Shane.

He offered to take me on a motorcycle tour but I have no extra time.I finally managed to pull myself away after seeing photos of him as a baby and of his father on his father’s wedding day, but not before agreeing to see a movie with him that evening.

I went back to the Tibet Kitchen to try another thing on the menu – this time it was a noodle soup I’ve heard talk of: thenthuk.  It needed salt.And I couldn’t figure out how to make the salt come out of the shaker and there was all this rice in it so it made all this noise every time I shook it.And I had to keep shaking it to try to get the salt to come out which wasn’t happening so I’m sure they think I’m a total salt FREAK.I don’t know why they can’t just have nice quiet shakers so one’s salt usage can remain a private matter.

After lunch I just went walking around with no plan and ended up making another new friend named Raf.He is from Kashmir, probably mid-twenties, and owns a jewelry shop that he recently bought off someone.We sat and talked in his shop for a while.He’s a very amusing and unusual character here.He tells me he hates it here- he doesn’t fit in, people don’t like him, they don’t respect him, they don’t have open minds.All that came as a very interesting perspective to me as I find it to be the exact opposite.Granted, he’s been here a lot longer than I have but I couldn’t help thinking that if I’d been there the same amount of time I would still not share his opinion.

He shared some of his life with me and he’s clearly had a rough lot.His parents divorced when he was young and his father remarried and began a new life with the new wife, showing more interest in his new children than in him.He went to live with his uncle and was happy there but then his uncle, too, started a family.When there were five children to feed, he didn’t feel right that he should be there as a sixth, creating more burden for his uncle, and so at 14 he left to go out on his own.While he says he has no regrets, his pain from these wounds is evident.He talks of Kashmir with both love and underlying bitterness.He offered to take me there to show me the beautiful state (assuring me that it’s not really dangerous right now) which I’d love to see but, again, that’s impossible with my schedule.Plus, he ended up trying to flirt with me so he doesn’t quite have the right idea.

He was amazed that in my two weeks in India no men have come up to me to ask for sex.Apparently all the western women complain that they constantly receive this type of harassment.He explained that with the internet now, all the men watch porn and genuinely think western women are like the ones they see in their videos.I like to think my successful avoidance of this is due to me effectively giving off the vibe “don’t even bother, I couldn’t be less interested, you don’t have a chance in hell”.More realistically it’s probably because my week of travel (which I still have to tell you about!) with my mother was always with the accompaniment of a local guide or our driver.It probably also helps that most people in this country seem to think I’m Indian (especially when I wear my saree).Several people have even come up to me, speaking in Hindi.

Raf then introduced me to a Thai-massage therapist who works next to his shop named Jittender. He has been doing Thai massage for about 10 years and seems like a lovely person so I am going to massage him today right before I get my massage from Kamal and then he’s going to massage me tomorrow!WHOOPIE!I LOVE trades!

After all this I continued on my way and finally made it to the temple where the Dalai Lama lives.Since it was late in the day at this point I decided to save it for later so I could fully appreciate everything.Instead of going back the way I came, I just sort of wandered off on this narrow alleyway where a bunch of monks were coming down.I walked amongst several buildings and houses, very much in monk territory.My alleyway gradually turned into a footpath and I guessed that the general direction I was going would get me back to a familiar area.

I ended up outside a nunnery.And I realized that I wasn’t exactly sure which town I was in anymore: McLeod Ganj or Dharamsala.And I didn’t have very much sunlight left.And I didn’t have my headlamp.

Lesson of the day: never leave home without my camera OR my headlamp.

And if I went back the circuitous, arduous way that I’d come I’d have just enough light to get me back.Stalled, I weighed my options: if I was looking at McLeod Ganj then I only needed to push a little further to find my way back.But if I managed to wander down into Dharamsala then going further would only mean I’d be walking back in the dark.

The solution came when a young Tibetan man came walking down the trail.He confirmed that this was McLeod Ganj and offered to lead me through the nunnery which conveniently opened up right at the top of my 318-step stairs.I was right!My helpful guide explained that he’d escaped from Tibet six years ago but his whole family is still back there living under Chinese occupation.

If any of you are unfamiliar with the political history of Tibet and their invasion by China I strongly encourage you to see the movie Tibet:Cry of the Snow Lion.It’s extremely powerful and important to understand who we are handing over power to by climbing into economic bed with China.In the year between seeing this documentary and moving to Costa Rica, I refused to purchase anything produced in China.Now that I’m back from Costa Rica, I again refuse to support their genocide-committing military with my dollars.

If you can’t tell, China really steams me up.

With an hour to kill, and feeling like I probably should eat something for dinner I strolled around waiting to be drawn somewhere.Nothing called to me so I just kept walking.I started down a new street and saw a young man making fresh chapattis (flat bread) in front of a very narrow shop space.He was making rice, dal (lentils), vegetables, and chapattis.Perfect!

I sat on this bench, facing the wall, and ate delicious dal with a steady stream of freshly-made chapattis while reading my book Mindfulness in Plain English.And it only cost 30 rupees (less than a dollar)!I guess that balances out the almond butter.

From there I went to meet Kamal for the movie, 3 Idiots, which he’s seen countless times and forever loves.The movie theater was homemade with wavering platforms which provided stadium seating.Kamal attached the projector to the ceiling himself.

The movie was cute and Kamal clearly loves it as he couldn’t help but sing along to all the songs.He empathetically couldn’t bear the suspense I was surely under and thus gave me the “inside scoop,” revealing many of the movie’s surprises to me in advance including the movie’s biggest plot twist that is meant to be revealed only at the end.Oh well.

It was slightly awkward at times when he’d be leaning way over towards me and I’d be leaning way over to maintain distance between us.When the movie was finally over after three hours, he also tried to insist I climb onto his motorcycle with him to ride the thirty feet to the stairs leading me home.I was very happy to say goodnight and walk myself home.All in all it was enjoyable but I have no desire to go see another movie as he proposed.I’d much rather read my book and go to bed at an early hour.

So as I said, today I will massage the Thai therapist, then receive my massage from Kamal. We’ll see what else I get around to.It’s been raining on and off and feels like a very mellow day.I skipped my yoga and meditation this morning and think I may just take it easy.

See you later!

Exploring Day Two in McLeod Ganj

2 April 2011

Okay, so I didn’t accomplish any of my objectives for yesterday.  I stepped out from my apartment to go explore the rich Tibetan resources of the area and as I fumbled with my lock on the door a woman stepped out of hers a few doors down, saw me, and rushed over to introduce herself. 

Nicole is from Alberta and will be on the course with me.  She is one of the most outgoing, bubbly people I’ve met.  She is very much her own person; full of life and warmth, the kind of person who could orchestrate masses.  She arrived the same day I did and in just one day had the scoop of the whole main portion of town.  She knew where all the best deals were, how to get the best rates, where to get the freshest fruit, etc.  She gave me a tour of town (where those two roads are that I hadn’t found the first day).  It turns out there are a buhjillion steps between Siddhart House (where I live) and the main town.  I heard talk that it was over 300 but I’m skeptical there are that many.  I’ll count and let you know.

This photo does no justice to the expanse and brutality of those steps

 We went to lunch at a restaurant recommended to us by Kamal and dined on the roof which has a beautiful view of the mountains.  Why didn’t I take a picture of this?  As we were deciding on a table to sit at, Nicole noticed a guy sitting alone, quietly at a table.  Without hesitating she chimed “Are these seats taken?  Want some company?”

So that’s how we met Sean. 

 

Sean is from Washington D.C. and has been traveling India since October.  He’s a very sweet-natured guy who, like me, found it hard to resist Nicole’s presence. 

 

After lunch the three of us climbed up more steep hills and steps to reach the Tushita Meditation Center .

 There we watched a video about the Buddhist nun, Venerable Robina Courtin, who will be leading the 10-day retreat that Sean has signed up for.  The nun is this very loud, brash Australian woman who is not at all what one would imagine when they think of “Buddhist nun” but many people have deeply connected with her.  Personally, I felt no draw to her and spent the second half-hour massaging Nicole whose been having back pain.

Before leaving I went up to their Library and found a wealth of books I want to read.  I could spend forever here, reading, learning, growing.  I found a book recommended by Brandon called Mindfulness in Plain English by Venerable Henepola Gunaratana. I already don’t want to put it down.  I’m only in the second chapter but I can’t wait to keep reading.  It’s explains Vipassana style meditation in very basic terms.  Basically it de-mystifies the whole meditation process, talking about what meditation is and isn’t, etc.  There are so many people that come to mind as people I think would benefit greatly from reading this book and that I STRONGLY recommend it to that I actually typed up the ENTIRE first chapter and was about to post it when I discovered that the whole book is online as a free pdf.  So dive in to that first chapter and see if you feel compelled to read more.

 

After returning down the mountain to McLeod Ganj, we browsed through various stores where Nicole insisted Sean try on a variety of brightly colored clothes rather than the calm, earthy tones he’s more comfortable with.  “You can’t leave India without at least one brightly colored item!”  Despite trying on a number of things he wisely withheld making an immediate decision and purchased nothing.

We parted ways and I went to go eat my first Tibetan meal.  I had absolutely no idea what anything on the menu was so I asked the server to decide for me.  I don’t remember what I ordered but they were like crispy, fried hot pockets filled with vegetables.  And they were delicious.  I also ordered Tibetan tea.  He warned me most foreigners don’t like it, finding it too strong, but I insisted I wanted to try it.  I quite liked it though it was indeed rich.  It tasted like hot, creamy, salty butter.  Yummy, but I could only drink half a cup.

Then I made my way home, stopping to buy a big Papaya for my breakfast, and stopping to talk with Kamal.  He was very understanding that I got carried away exploring town for my first time and ran out of time.  We agreed that I’d show up to massage him today at 11.

Before bed I met up with three more people from my course who have now arrived. Everyone seems very nice and I look forward to getting to know them better, though I find myself cherishing my alone time as well and not wanting to get swept away, spending every minute with the same people.  I just need to find the balance, and I’m confident that this is the place to find it.

The Warmest Welcome to McLeod Ganj

31 March 2011

11:17am McLeod Ganj

I am so content I hardly know what to do with myself.  I’m lying on my big bed in my orange “Sun” apartment (each apt has a name such as Taj Mahal, Jungle, Music).  My patio door is wide open and the curtains are drawn on my nearly floor-to-ceiling windows looking out on the Dhauladhar Range of the Himalayas.  I can see this towering, snow-covered peak between two smaller mountains.

The snow-covered peak as seen from my room

Birds are chirping, raptors are soaring, people are chatting, a carpenter hammers, children squabble, local music resonates across the steep mountainsides that we are all perched upon, and a distant rooster crows.  The sun shines through a perfectly gentle, cool breeze.

I’m not sure what to do with myself since it is the perfect time for anything – everything.  How best can I savour this?

The energy here is so good.  Serene.  The Dalai Lama is in his yellow house down the road.  I am in a safe place where I can nurture and grow myself.  This is the beginning of something wonderful.

1 April 2011

After I wrote the above into my journal I went out exploring.  My first stop was the internet café where (after using three of their computers and making a trip back to mine) I was finally able to post my first blog entry.  Then I continued on.

From my room I could hear all this lovely, live music being played – drums, trumpets, clarinets.  When the musicians took a break the silence was filled with recorded local music which poured through large speakers so everyone in McLeod Ganj could hear it.  I could see colorfully dressed people but couldn’t tell what exactly was going on over there.  When I arrived in town around 11am the celebration was in full swing and hours later it continued still.

My curiosity got the best of me and without officially deciding to I found myself navigating my way down one mountain ridge and up another following the sound of the music.  I believe that there are two pot-hole riddled roads in town here, but I haven’t discovered them yet.  I followed a maze of meandering, worn footpaths that are the normal routes of travel here. They are sure to satisfy my love for clambering.  Portions of the trails have steep grades, other areas narrow significantly with precipitous drops below, some parts you have to be careful to avoid brushing against what must be poisonous, thorny shrubs, and others still have a combination of all these factors.  I am amazed that people of all ages navigate these trails.  I saw a stooped over, very old man with a walking stick in each hand being guided by his grandson down a trail that nearly required three-point contact for me.  But this is their everyday route.

The view from my window: communal deck below and the tiny building in the center of the photo is where the festivities took place.

As I got closer to the celebration I decided I was just going to try to spy on them from a distance.  But that didn’t work very well.  The mountain and trees were arranged in such a way that I couldn’t get a clear view while still remaining incognito.  So I approached and sat on this perfect bench quite close where I could see what was happening.  Lots of people were leaving, dressed beautifully, all smiling at me.  Just after I sat down I noticed two young men pulling a third, older man up from the ground where he’d clearly just collapsed, sprawled out, too drunk to balance on his own feet:  the sign of what must be a fantastic afternoon party.

Seeing me watching them, laughing, one of the young men stopped to talk to me as he helped balance the inebriated man.  He told me it was a retirement party and that I must go join them.  I thanked him for the invitation but insisted I was happy just watching from there.

“No! You must go! GO!”

“Thank you, I appreciate the invitation”

“GO!  I’m telling you, GO!  Have fun!  Go!”

Then the drunk man got involved.  I don’t remember his words but he, too, was adamant that I get up and start walking over there right now to join the party.

I clearly had no choice so I went to join the party, feeling totally awkward (as I do).  The party was being held at a small Hindu temple perched on the ridge.  There was a covered area adjacent to the temple and in front of it was an open, flat area which had a short stone wall surrounding it.  In the corner of this area was a tent that hid the people who wanted to drink.  The musicians sat on the stone wall as did a few groups of people resting, chatting and watching the crowd of people dancing in front of the temple.  I sat on the wall to watch as well.  I received a lot of curious, amused looks from people as I was clearly a foreigner who’d stumbled in.  An old man came up to me, held out both his hands for mine, asked how I was, where I was from and welcomed me to the party.

Then a young man who I’d seen moving back and forth, cleaning this or that stopped to talk with me.  His name is Kamal and fortunately for me he speaks English very well.  He explained that the party was for his grandmother who had just retired after working for the government or a school (I’m not quite sure) her entire adult life.  She was the cutest old lady!!!  She was so sweet, gave me several big smiles from across the crowd and finally came over and gave me a big, warm hug.  I can’t BELIEVE I didn’t have my camera with me for all this.  I left my room saying ‘I’m just going to walk around town, I won’t see anything I can’t easily take a picture of any other day’.

I know.

I know.

So it turns out Kamal works in town as a massage therapist!  How fortuitous is that?!  So we agreed to do a massage trade sometime today.  He’s always interested in learning and being exposed to new styles and techniques and obviously so am I.  Win!

Kamal encouraged me to try some of the food that they were offering, explaining that it was very traditional food.  I was very happy to oblige so we joined a group of people gathered under the covered area next to the temple.  We all sat crossed-legged along the edge of the area where we were all brought plates and water.  Then a man came around and using his hands, served us a generous portion of fluffy white rice from this weaved basket.  Then people came with round after round of different dishes.  There must have been at least eight different courses.  I couldn’t believe they kept bringing more and different types of food.  It was all eaten with our hands and was SOOOOO delicious!!!  The last one that came out was Sweet Rice for dessert.  It was pinkish-orange in color, with cashews and tasted of sweet coconut milk.  It was soooooooooooooo good.  My mouth is salivating now just thinking about it.  I was filled to the brim!

After dinner I returned to the wall followed by my new friend, a sweet, sweet dog which I learned was one of Kamal’s dogs who he’d rescued from the streets.  I don’t remember her name, but we bonded.  I sat there for quite a while petting the dog, watching the beautiful children play, talking with Kamal, and watching all the thoroughly libation-liberated elder men dancing with each other, beaming with joy.

Kamal explained his relation to the various people, told me about the area and explained some of their social customs.  He explained that none of the men would dance if they weren’t drunk because they are all very shy and that normally it’s not acceptable to be drunk so early but that it was okay since this was such a special day.  (Sometimes we just have to accept run-on sentences).  The party started at 7am and wouldn’t end until very late.  Virtually everyone in the village would be there at some point during the day.  He pointed out some men who’d passed out under trees on the hillside, partially hidden by the shrubbery, explaining that they would wake up all alone at some point during the night and have to make their way home.  I asked why he hadn’t been drinking and he explained that he had responsibilities to help clean and prepare the food and that it wasn’t appropriate for the younger men to ever be drunk in front of their elders, out of respect for them.  He assured me, however, that once the old men went to bed the younger men would have their own party.

Kamal went to go do some more work and after a minute or so this sweet girl came over and sat next to me with a look like she’d been waiting for her opportunity to come talk to me.  Her name is Rani and she is a cousin of Kamal.  Her English is also very good!  She explained that she is in her first year at the university in Dharamsala studying art and that she plans to get her M.A. so that she can get a good job as a teacher.  She also explained to me who she was related to and how and asked about my brother and sisters, my parents and their brothers and sisters.  Then she suddenly sat up and said “Come with me to my house!”

I followed her down the other side of the ridge and we made our way to her family’s house stuck into the side of the steep mountain with a breaktaking view of the valley below.  Such mind-blowing surroundings.  Her two younger sisters joined us as did her older cousin (Kamal’s sister) in her parent’s room.  Her brother made a brief, embarrassed appearance too.

The first thing they did was dress me up in their mother’s traditional dress which is normally worn by women for the first time on their wedding day.  Like everything, it was full of colors, and sparkles.  The skirt was made with six meters of fabric, and a veil was put over my head.  They searched high and low for the silver head piece that goes along with it but finally we agreed that I’d just have to come back when they knew where it was and we’d stage a wedding for me.  Haha!  It was so much fun.

 

Traditional dress is similar to this

Rani was a wonderful host and kept leaving the room and coming back with tea and toast, happy to bring me anything and everything.  I am amazed at how completely open and warm Rani and her family are.  The whole community really.  This was my very first day and I felt like they were just embracing me, welcoming me into their lives without a hesitation.  I already have friends!

Rani seemed a little disappointed when I said I should be getting on my way.  I would have loved to stay longer but the sun wasn’t going to hang around for much longer and I didn’t want to try to find my way back through the maze in the dark.  Plus I’d had a mild altitude headache for a few hours.

We went back to the party where I briefly attempted to dance with them.  Their style of dance looks very, very simple: sort of a swaying from side to side, twirling in one direction, then the other, with the hands up above the head, slowly rotating at the wrists.  It looks simple.  My attempt was utterly awkward and anything but fluid and graceful.  We agreed to practice this next time.  I was disappointed to hear that Rani won’t be free again until the 8th because she has her exam on that day and will be studying until then.  But after that she will be free to practice dancing with me so I can be a more graceful bride.

Today, I began my day with a short yoga practice facing the mountains as the sun rose above the ridge directly across from my room.  I followed that with some meditation on my deck, bathed in the warm sunlight.  Now my plan is to see more of the town and explore the rich Tibetan resources here like the Tibet Museum, Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, and Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts to name a few.  I already don’t want to leave, feeling in some way that I am home.  I am interested to see how today develops.  It’s wide open.