Wednesday, September 24, 2014

A Totally New Year: India, Nepal & After

We spent New Years Day exploring Kathmandu and the surrounding area- concentrating much of our time in the area called Boudha where one of the largest Buddhist stupas in the world exists.  The city was flowing in prayer flags. Tourists, monks & locals overwhelmed the center of the square- walking the stupa in prayer.  T.J. and I ate lunch on a rooftop and enjoyed birds-eye views of the magnificent structure.  Om Mani Padme Hum played everywhere, bringing a meditative quiet to the whole afternoon.  While T.J. took photos elsewhere, I enjoyed solitude on the stupa - wanting to give the new year space to come into existence while sitting with the one that had just past.

Our last tourist stop was a monkey temple over looking the entire city of Kathmandu. It was from our perch you could see the vast population below and really understand the density of the area.  There of course, were monkeys and they were of course, most adorable and curious. 

After freshening up, we met our fellow travelers-turned-friends for one final dinner.  We shared Tibetan bread and tried a fermented beer drink that tasted like hot yeasty bread - not bad but not good either.  It was just weird. There were of course, momos. What I remember most about the meal is just how good it felt to be with them all one more time and how perfect it felt to spend our last night with these people who we did not know existed three weeks prior, but now felt strange thinking that we wouldn't see them again anytime soon.   Our evening ended with hugs and promises to visit and to stay in touch. It was like summer camp.  
The smallest vendor

The next day, after indulging in a decadent day of hotel spa services and one more drink in the Kunti bar, we prepared to head to the airport to board a plane home to LA.  In the car, T.J. and I both noticed the same chant playing that we'd heard the previous day in Boudha. Om Mani Padme Hum- Nepal was guiding us out as softly as we entered.

Back in LA 
T.J.'s adventure stance
The trip home is a blur. Between jet lag and too many thoughts to fully piece together, it took days to come back to earth.  The disparity between our home and where we had been felt painfully obvious.

Driving felt weird. Los Angeles felt foreign. Brushing my teeth and showering was different. The lens in which I'd been viewing life had been altered in some way.  In between visits with friends, I began to feel our narrative come together and was able to finally start comprehending the vast impact our trip had on me.  We found themes and through lines.  Every night I went to bed dreaming about mustard fields and prayer flags.  Even now, those are the places my mind wanders to when I need relief.   It became commonplace to enter our home and hear the chant we'd heard in Nepal. The trip had changed me. It changed us.

The contrast between these two neighboring countries was amazing.  India, well, India made you work for it. It was unapologetic - You either coped or you didn't. Move in rhythm with the rest of the country or get hit by a rickshaw or stopped behind a cow. India didn't care.  Nepal had a more gentle hand. Nepal gave you space, guided you softly while still providing reminders of the wonder around you. Perhaps it was the mix of Hindu & Buddhist influences, the sweeping landscapes or more likely, the fact that Nepal depends on the tourism industry for much of the country's income.  In the end, like two vastly different best friends, I loved them both for entirely separate reasons and neither more than the other.

Back at home, T.J. got busy with grad school applications and I dove head-first into work.  Within a few weeks, I noticed my prized string that had hung around my neck since Lumbini had fallen off.   We were moving on with day to day life.  What we didn't know was that India was still working on us. We just didn't realize the full extent.   

While putting the final trinkets away from our trip, I moved the unopened prayer flags into our office.  As I set them on the shelf, I looked around and had vision of them hanging above a crib.  I mentioned this to T.J. and we laughed about how great it would be to tell our someday child about our adventures. For he or she to know that we had thought of them prior to even knowing they existed.  It turns out our someday baby would be sooner than we anticipated.

The universe had been giving us signs for weeks - the purchase of the red elephant in Pokhara, the banter about storks and stowaways, my obsession with bringing back multiple pairs of comfie pants for my someday pregnancy, the vision of prayer flags over a crib.  In the moments between exploring the world, pushing our limits and learning to give in, we were giving life to our family.

India taught me the beauty found in breathing in instead of resisting the things I don't understand. It taught me to let go of control and simply ride the experience.  In Nepal, I learned to be more still.  It energized my spirit and helped clear my vision.  The trip taught my husband and I how to be scared together and figure things out as a team when neither of us knew the answer.  The lessons have carried us through 9 months of intense change - physically and emotionally. Pregnancy really has been an extension of that trip - giving myself over to the moment, keeping humor as my guiding principle & never quite knowing if what I just ate will make me sick. 

7 months pregnant 
As I sit finishing this, I think about our son who will be born any day now. Will we ever be able to fully explain the gravity of our trip? Will it make sense when we tell him that although I didn't know why at the time, that I'm convinced that he was the one that pulled us on that journey?  Will he understand that his spirit was in every one of those memories for us and although we weren't aware he existed yet, that we felt him long before we knew who or what he was?  

I hope that some part of him will revel in knowing that he's not only made of me and his dad, but also the adventure which created him.  

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Rhinos & Momos: India & Nepal Part 5

We saw rhinos doing it.

Rhinos. There are two. Look closely. 

Chitwan National Park was already hitting high marks in our memory books. Our early morning canoe ride had an unexpected surprise. Rhinos.  This was absolutely fascinating to everyone- including our guide.  

Elephants- our favorite. 
Chitwan was 360 square miles of preserved ground.  From vast mustard seed fields to vividly painted elephants, the air felt clean and the landscape was vast.  Our pace had slowed.  Later that afternoon, we went on a safari with our group through the the park - rumor had it that one jeep had spotted the illusive Bengal tiger, but our folks just managed to spot some storks which sparked a brief moment of banter involving bringing home a Nepalese baby through customs and me advising those storks to keep flying.

We also found a lot of silliness- like... a LOT.  Over the last few days, our entire travel group had really begun to gel.  Very quickly, I was falling head over heals in love with these people who were strangers just a week earlier. That's what hours on end in buses will do. Nepal also just felt easier. 

From Chitwan we traveled by public transport to Pokhara, a trekking town 30 miles from the Annapurna range. The views were breath taking.  The air was clean. That night, our whole group went out for dinner and I encountered my first of many momos.  Momos are a Nepalese dumpling stuffed with veggies or meat and served with a soup-type sauce for dipping. They were amazing. Dinner turned to large pours of red wine for me and Long Island ice-teas for a few of our friends. Hangovers felt looming, but the wine felt better.  Caution had been thrown to the wind. 

World Peace Pagoda 
The next day, after a trip to the World Peace Pagoda and more tremendous views, T.J. and I took the opportunity to do some much desired shopping. We found prayer flags to remind us of Lumbini, beautiful woolen blankets, a handmade elephant quilt, and I began my search for the perfect pairs of pants which continued through the remainder of our trip.  We found trinkets for everyone.  In one particular store, The Women Skill Development Organization, T.J. fell in love with a handmade stuffed elephant. We decided to bring one home for a friend and at the last minute decided to purchase a red one for our some-day kiddo. 

The following morning, we traveled by bus to Kathmandu.  The largest city in Nepal.  After getting settled into our hotel rooms. we went out for one last family dinner and night on the town.  Kathmandu had a similar city vibe to India, but still felt far less intimidating due to the strong tourist nature.  After a great meal, we headed to a hookah bar for more drinks. A few from our group would head out the next day.  The bar was dark, we sat on pillows with our shoes off, drank rum and smoked too many cigarettes. There was an acoustic guitarist playing everything from Radiohead to Tom Petty and he was good.  I almost wish he had a cd, although I know now, that it wouldn't have sounded as good anywhere else. It was a perfect vision of a group of strangers that had joined paths briefly and would part again soon. He played Stand By Me and the hair on my arms stood on end. This was one of those moments that would stay with me for the rest of my life. There are very few times I've been aware of those moments.  One was on my wedding day and this was another. We were all present in the truest sense of the word and it was grand.  

New Years Eve morning, T.J. and I, along with a few group members boarded a small airplane for a vision of Mt. Everest.  It was our homage to T.J.'s grandpa, Ralph, who nearly 50 years before had been in Kathmandu managing construction of communications towers under Sir Edmund Hillary. We had to see her. After flying so close to her, I can't quite fathom what would posses someone to climb that mountain. Nonetheless, it was absolutely amazing.  We had seen Everest upclose and personal. Bucket List item- checked. 

T.J. celebrates our arrival to Hotel Shanker 
In honor of the new year and the ending of our trip, we opted to upgrade and spend our last few days at Hotel Shanker- an old palace turned luxury hotel.   Much of our trip had been budget-friendly. We had modest accommodations that often included cold or lukewarm water and questionable mattresses. The Hotel Shanker felt anything but modest. We both reveled in taking the hottest shower we could stand.  I believe I even shaved my legs for the first time in two weeks. TMI? Well, you're the one reading this. Talk about indulgent.  

Our NYE dates
For the New Year celebrations, we met the remaining tour group members at an expat bar towards the center of the town for dancing and drinks.  Locals mixed with the tourists. People were dancing on tables. It felt very comfortable yet so foreign.  People, no matter where you are in the world, love New Years Eve.  I'm not sure if it's the excuse to have drinks and hug strangers or if there's something sweeter to relishing the beginning of something new.  Maybe both. I think for me it's both.

One Long Exhale: India & Nepal Part 4

We woke up early on Christmas morning and traveled by private vehicles from Varanasi, India to the border of Nepal.  Travel and border crossing took the majority of the day and due to my lingering chest cold, we called it an early night after sharing Christmas dinner with our fellow travelers.  

The next day, we boarded a bus for the short trip to Lumbini- the birthplace of Siddhartha Gautama who would later become known to the world as Buddha.  More than anything, this had been my most anticipated stop on our journey and a large reason we picked our specific tour.  After our visit to Sarnath, I was mildly hesitant- nervous that this too would be lackluster and uneventful.  As we drove, we saw the countryside of Nepal was similar to India- stunning yellow mustard fields and farmland stretched for miles.  New feelings of peace quickly blended with my already present anticipation as we approached the sacred grounds.
Endless Prayer Flags- Endless Prayers
As we walked near the grounds, prayer flags scattered through the trees amplifying the intensity of the sacred nature of the area.  They waved gently in the wind while we walked- brushing our arms with remnant air of others' prayers. I found my way into a small temple outside of the grounds and without much thought, took my shoes off and went in for a moment of quiet chanting.  As I was finishing, a monk entered. After exchanging pleasantries and talking for a few minutes, he looked at me with twinkle in his eye "I like you." "I like you, too" I replied with a smile and giggle.  He then tied a white piece of string around my neck, offered a blessing of health and love. I was on my way. I would wear that string until it fell off long after we returned home from our travels and to this day, this was my single most favorite interaction of our whole trip.

Monks & Motorbikes 

T.J. met me outside and we walked to the Gardens of Lumbini to see the exact spot that Buddha was believed to be born.  The entire area must be walked barefoot- no shoes are allowed within the walls. I'm convinced the act of walking barefoot in this area helped further ground visitors to the profound energy of such a beautiful place.  You could feel it in every cell and it was unlike any sensation I have ever experienced.  It was a peaceful living energy that washed over everything. Nothing seemed more appropriate than to meditate and pray. In those moments, we were still for the first time in over a week. Although I'd found time to pray during our trip, this was the first time where it felt truly out of thanks instead of necessity.  

India had been a beautiful assault to every part of my senses- challenging me, forcing me to jump head first out of my comfort zone and into a new culture and let go. The excitement was both invigorating and exhausting.  The visit to Lumbini was the beginning of one long meditative exhale that would last the duration of our trip.

Next Post: Chitwan, Girl- Go 'head Chitwan 

Thursday, September 11, 2014

A New Definition of Dirty & Christmas Non-Christian India Part 3

Me & T.J at the Taj Mahal
Maybe it was the burning smell that we encountered our first few days in New Delhi.  Maybe it was the nerves.  Maybe I was just looking for an excuse to talk to my travel companions.  Maybe it was all of these or none of these reasons, but India made me want to smoke.  The taste of the smoke on my lips and the quiet calm felt by every exhale was comforting during our travel times.  Within 48 hours, I had decided that I would be a smoker the remainder of our trip.

Apparently my body didn't love this idea.  After spending two days in Agra- home of the Taj Mahal and the most lively Pizza Hut I've ever encountered, I woke up to an uneasy feeling of sick in my chest. Our travel plans originally included an overnight train from Agra to Varanasi.  This quickly turned into a 6 am train due to fog.  As we boarded the train, we saw our home for the next several hours: open space compartments with benches that turned into cots. Each compartment slept 6.  I decided to take a deep breath and lay may head down on my backpack while strapping my day pack to my chest.  This would do.  I could feel the chest cold inching its way into my body slowly wearing down my ability to care about anything other than sleep.   The train started moving and I quickly fell into a deep sleep- hardly conscious to anything that was happening around me and confident that I'd wake up more than half way to Varanasi.   India had other plans.  

After my nap, I learned we'd been stuck on the train tracks for more than 6 hours but were hardly half way into our journey. We'd stopped moving hours ago.  The fog was intense and travel times were going to be delayed indefinitely.  The train would inch forward and then pause. Inch forward and then pause.  It became clear that this would be a much longer trip than 12 hours.  As we moved through stations, I fell in and out of sleep waking only for minor snacks and sips of hot chai tea that stewards would bring through.  The hot chai soothed my very sick throat and I could hear T.J. struggle to avoid  judgement as he helped me rest.   I-told-you-so's would not make either situation better.

The energy in the train was restless.  Our group had not anticipated this delay and found it difficult to maintain the fearless composure that had kept everyone in light-hearted spirits the previous days.  The unexpected time meant that our conditions were grimey and all of us had very little to do other than be aware of how desperate we were for a shower or even a sit down commode.  The chest cold had made me achy and uncomfortable.  This was not helped by the rocky conditions of my "pillow" or the cramping my stomach had decided to provide - an indication as to what was to come.  

I stumbled my way into the squat potties and saw the punchline to the joke that India had laid the ground work for weeks before.  My tracking app had informed me that during our 3 week stay I would.. well, have my lady time.  Little did I know that fate had conspired to make this the most memorable period of my life.  Defeat began to overwhelm me.  I was sick.  I was tired. I was very dirty and now, now on top of all things, I was on my period.  Of all the conditions in all of the places,  of course, it would happen here.  Sweet life.  My eyes brimmed with tears and I prepared to initiate full meltdown mode.   My finger hovered over the metaphorical red world-ending button for a moment and then, the button vanished.  I gave in.  One deep cleansing breath and my sense of humor was revived.  I actually laughed to myself and congratulated India on the well-timed joke.  Once again, instead of resisting the struggle, I gave into the experience and just let it guide me.  

Back in our compartment, I told T.J. what happened.  We giggled. His pride at my near-but-not-wig-out reassured me that everything would be okay.  This was character building.   After sleeping off and on for 12 hours, T.J. and I started venturing into other compartments to visit with our fellow travelers.  There we found laughter, proper jackassery and a few delicious biscuits that the group had purchased at one of our delays.   The mood was shifting. In those moments we went from crummy conditions to some of the things that solidified our bond.  

We arrived in  the holy city of Varanasi early in the morning on  Christmas Eve- over 24 hours from the time we initially boarded the train in Agra.  After wiping down every single millimeter of our luggage and investing in the hotel laundry, we laid down to rest before our day of exploring this most ancient city.  
Order among chaos - the streets of Varanasi  

Varanasi is the oldest most continuously inhabited city in the world and sits on the banks of the holiest of all rivers in the Hindu culture- the Ganges.  We woke and set out on a journey to visit Sarnath, the place of Buddha's first sermon.  We walked up to the grounds and saw worn down statues surrounded by a fence - not nearly the impact I was expecting.  The disappointment was strong, but decidedly not worth focusing on.  We would be in Lumbini in a few days and I would have my time with Buddha later.

Later that evening, we were driven by cycle rickshaws down to the banks of the Ganges river and boarded a wooden boat.  There, Jai explained the significance of the city and the river in which we were on.  At sunset every evening, city inhabitants, spiritual Pilgrims and tourists gather at the banks for evening prayers.  In life and death, the Ganges is cleansing.  People believe that bathing in the river washes away all previous sins.  In death, it is believed that by spreading your ashes in the river, the cycle of reincarnation is broken.  That is why cremation ceremonies occur 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Our intentions 
We lit candles and released our wishes into the holy water.  As they were released, the sounds of chanting from the banks blended into the gentle wind that helped carry our guides along.  From the water you could see the lights from the cremation ceremonies further down.  The mood was serious- but not sad.  The circle of life felt clear as the bodies burned into the river that also provides so much sustenance for the countries it flows through.  In those moments, my mind drifted to visions of our families at home, celebrating Christmas Eve dinner and opening gifts in the cold Midwestern winters.  I locked the moment away and will never forget the feeling of wholeness that came from spending such a traditionally Christan holiday in such a different place.

India was ending. Tomorrow we would cross the border into Nepal.

Merry Christmas from Varanasi, India