Southern hospitality… Turkish style.

I left Istanbul to head south and see more of Turkey. I flew to Denizli after negotiating public transport to the airport (I almost made it but then had a get a taxi for part of the way as I got lost!) to stay with a beautiful young woman I met in Rishikesh. Denizli is very different to Istanbul and although it is a large city, it feels regional as it is surrounded by mountains. My friend’s family live outside of the city in a large, modern apartment and although her parents don’t speak English, they were very friendly towards me. On the first night we went to a large family dinner in an outdoor restaurant which was arranged by my friend’s aunt after the Ramadan fasting. It was very cool being involved in this event with a Turkish family. There was a lot of interest in me especially by one young girl of 17. And also comments about my laughing…yet again. It is so interesting being the only non-Turkish, non-Muslim person again. Although, apparently I am now Muslim as a cousin of my friend told me to repeat her words and once I had done so she informed me that I was now a Muslim because I said the words (she didn’t speak English however my friend translated for her). So it appears that I am now Muslim…well at least until I move onto another country and adopt their religion (Catholicism in Croatia?).

Apparently my laughter was noticed by a number of people including the apartments’ security guard! There seems to be a common theme! My smiling and laughing was noticed in Istanbul as well and drew a lot of attention. I noticed in Istanbul that a lot of women, especially of a mature age, didn’t smile and looked downright miserable and when I mentioned this to my friend, she told me that this is the norm and that having someone around like me who was laughing a lot (and loudly as I do) is not common. She told me that she loved it and her mother and grandmother appeared to enjoy it as well laughing with (at?) me and made a comment that they would remember my visit because of my laughing! It was good to have a rest at my friend’s place as travelling definitely tires you out and her hospitality and warmth was awe inspiring and I will forever be grateful to her for looking after me so generously! Also the chance to wash my clothes in a washing machine after over 3 months of hand washing was pretty cool too. I stayed 3 nights and then got back into travelling mode again and headed off to Pamukkale for a couple of nights.

Pamukkale is a tourist town in a regional area not far from Denizli however due to Ramadan it was very quiet. The restaurants and tour agencies were desperate for my custom and very persistent. I went into one of the tour places to get a local map and this very fit, young, good looking Turkish man asked me to come out for dinner and drinks later. Like I said, they were a bit desperate! 😂😂😂. I decided against it and to not even start anything that I have no intention of finishing. I’ve already upset one Turkish man so I’m attempting not to leave a string of angry Turks as I think my behaviour confuses them. Happy, outgoing woman appears to mean an easy, loose woman in their eyes! That’s fine and I’m not changing but I’ll attempt to decrease the confusion for them by not taking up their offers of ‘dinner’!

Pamukkale is a fascinating place. The limestone mountain and pools are spectacular! Words are not enough to describe them and photos don’t do justice. I walked through the ruins too which were amazing. It was a lot of walking as the area where the Heiropolis city was is quite extensive. I’m not that interested in the details of history however walking through those ruins you could feel the history and I loved that. I swam in Cleopatra’s ancient thermal pool which was like a warm spa bath. The water came from the limestone however was clear and tasted sweet, but the pool was green. I noticed a remarkable improvement in my arm the next day which had still been painful. Maybe there is something to it? Maybe placebo? Who knows. I also sat in the limestone pools. I would highly recommend going to Pamukkale as it is absolutely beautiful however unless you want to paraglide and do a balloon ride, one full day is probably enough.

I caught a public bus to Denizli bus station which cost all of 4,5 Turkish lire ($1.08AUD) and found a bus going to Antalya 15 minutes later. I somehow managed to score a pretty nice hotel with a patio, lounge area and spa in the bedroom for around $40AUD a night which also had a private ‘beach’ and included a buffet breakfast. Compared to high class/cost hotels it probably was a little dated but I have stayed in very dodgy places while travelling and this place felt like heaven. I was only planning to stay for 3 nights however extended it to 5. I am very grateful to Ramadan as the usual cost is a lot higher but it was heavily discounted due to Ramadan and reverted back on 1 June which is when Ramadan finishes and I am checking out. I spent a lot of time on the ‘beach’ relaxing which was actually pretty nice except for the loud disco music which they played constantly (am I getting old?). One of the days, I decided to go on a 4WD mountain tour. It was pretty fun and involved multiple water fights between the vehicles and just having a bit of fun and some beautiful scenery.

When I was on the hotel ‘beach’ I was talking to a young Turkish woman from Istanbul who was having a few days break with her mum. We talked about men and women in Turkey and the way they act. When I mentioned how I’d noticed that women appeared to be unhappy she stated that everyone in Turkey is depressed. She said that the government has sold everything off, including telephone and electricity and public transport. I told her that Australia is the same. She said that there was an election in March but the current government has determined that it is invalid for no reason. I had already read that the Turkish government was concerned about losing the election and had the votes counted numerous times with the same outcome so it appears that democracy has been disregarded and this government has determined that as they lost the local election in Istanbul then that election outcome was invalid! They have set a date in June for another election which has attracted global, as well as local, criticism. I’m not necessarily an advocate for democracy as I don’t think everyone understands what they are voting for and are influenced incredibly by the media, however, Turkey is a democratic country and it appears that this fact has been ignored by the current government. Interesting days ahead for Turkey.

On my last day I decided to go by local bus to the ‘old town’ in Antalya which is about 5 kms west from my hotel. So off I go full of confidence that I won’t have a problem getting to my destination. I knew the bus number and basically where to get off. I had to purchase a temporary travel card but the machine wouldn’t accept paper money. It was ok as I ended up getting coins which worked but in the meantime missed my bus. Buy hey, this is the life of a traveller. However I did feel my anxiety rise. I then got on the bus and asked the driver to let me know when I get off. He appeared to indicate an affirmative response however when I asked again it was obvious that he didn’t speak English (which is perfectly fine) but was also not in the slightest bit interested in actually helping me. I didn’t realise how tired I was until I struggled not to burst into tears! Luckily a young woman told me that she would let me know when to get off the bus. So all good. Then when I walked down to the old town my camera wouldn’t work. The message stated that my battery was ‘exhausted’! (I know how it feels!). I have been having a few problems with the battery so decided that I needed to get a new one. I found a shopping centre and when I couldn’t find a store selling camera batteries there the info woman was very helpful and found an address of a camera shop for me to go to by taxi. I got to the place (the long way, which appears to be a common thing for taxi drivers to do with tourists) and they didn’t have the battery I needed, however the camera started working again! (go figure!). I started to feel that this was a bad day but had to pull myself up. Really? A few hiccups and I think it’s a bad day? Yes, the morning had its difficulties however there was a solution for each one and it didn’t impact on me except taking a bit of my time and about 23 liras (about $5.50AUD). So what? I think the big issue is that I am exhausted and a bit homesick and also a little lonely. I have been travelling for 3 1/2 months now and although some of the time has been restful, it has been pretty full on negotiating different countries and different languages and how am I getting there and where am I going to stay.

In some ways Turkey has been more challenging than India and Nepal as not many people speak English (which is perfectly fine as already stated) however, most Turkish people I have met so far have been incredibly helpful. I purposely chose non-English speaking countries to travel in so that I could experience different cultures and languages. Getting a general feel for people in different countries, and even different regions of different countries, and how to manage yourself, and communicate without taking it all too seriously can sometimes be tricky. People are a product of, not just their family upbringing, but also their culture and they act and react from that place. We all are. However at the end of the day we are all people with needs and frustrations. I think remembering that is essential to acceptance, appreciation and embracing difference especially when travelling.

I will be moving from Antalya today, which is a very liberal area where alcohol, short shorts, bikinis and loud disco music is totally acceptable and moving to Konya, which is well known for its conservatism. When I was looking for a hotel in Konya on one of the sites, one of the hotels was very clear that they won’t have alcohol on the property and that if a couple is booking, they need to show proof of marriage to be in the same room! I may have to work on toning it down there, not because I’m afraid of men’s responses, but because I do believe in being as culturally appropriate as possible. Anyway, we’ll see how this 6’1” loud, laughing, blonde, Aussie woman fares in, reportedly, the most conservative city in Turkey!

And now for something completely different…. Istanbul!

A new country, a new culture, and a new communication style…yet to be learnt. And a new sales pitch! In India it is silk, in Nepal it is paintings and in Istanbul it is carpets! The first day here and I’m walking to the Blue Mosque. I don’t even get into the bazaar and there is a young Turk herding me off to his uncle’s carpet shop. I sat in this beautiful outdoor area drinking Turkish coffee and tea for about an hour, and talking world politics with this lovely interesting man (the uncle). His business is a family business which started when his grandfather walked around selling carpets from off his shoulder. His father set up the current business years ago and he has been running it since. He did not even attempt to sell me anything, hugged me goodbye and asked that I come back for another coffee/tea soon. So I move on and try again. I made it into the mosque with only being seriously carpet touted once more. The mosque is beautiful! The architecture and tiling is exquisite.

After leaving the mosque I start looking around and got accosted by yet another salesman who assures me that he is not selling carpets but rather spices (the other specialty of Istanbul). When I convince him that I’m not buying, he then offers me a massage and tells me that he is very good at sex! Although I was obviously tempted I declined. He continued being persistent until I managed to shake him off. Not long after I met a well dressed man who was very smooth and was not selling anything (except maybe himself). I ended up letting Smooth Turkish Guy (STG) show me around which ended up being lunch and then tram and ferry rides and finishing up with dinner. During our travels we also dropped into his brother’s shop (yes, a carpet shop). STG’s brother was incredibly interesting and also an incredible salesman without the intended buyer even knowing. I almost bought something small but then realised I was being manipulated. I pointed this out to him (I told him that he was a manipulative bastard!) and he thought it was hysterical! He loves the game and is very good at it and made a comment that I was the only person who has left his shop without buying anything! He may have been joking, however, it made me realise how strong I have become and how I can walk away without feeling any guilt or concern.

I loved where STG and I went for dinner! It was outside of the touristy area where the locals eat real Turkish food. There is a long street of restaurants with tables outside and it was overflowing with hundreds of people. It is Ramadan so Muslim people do not eat or drink from sunrise (around 5.30am) until sunset (around 8.30pm) and from what I could see, have a feast afterwards. I was probably the only non-Turkish, non-Muslim there. I loved it! I loved the food and the noise and the obvious celebration and appreciation of food. Sadly STG was starting to seriously piss me off as his conversation skills were incredibly limited and confined to one aspect of human interaction. It didn’t really do it for me as I appreciate interesting conversation and actually getting to know someone. He wanted to hang out the next day, however I was of two minds about it but decided to give it another go. I may have been using him a little for the experience with him not gaining much but my wonderful company but hey, that’s life sunshine. I also recognised that his lack of conversational skills may be a language issue so I thought I’d see how it goes.

So off I go to meet with him and he drove me to a recently completed new mosque (official inauguration was on 3 May) on the Asian side of Istanbul, Camilca Mosque, which the current prime minister commissioned (with the help of tax payers money) and is now the biggest mosque in Turkey. Although it was impressive it felt like someone trying to prove something and make a name for themselves…like a guy driving down the street in the biggest, loudest, fastest car they could find but using someone else’s money to buy it. I have been told by a number of Turkish people that the current government is corrupt (seems to be a common theme globally!) which doesn’t surprise me especially after seeing this exorbitant use of the people’s money! I much preferred the Blue Mosque! We drove back to the European side of Istanbul and had lunch in a very cool rooftop restaurant overlooking the ocean on one side, the Hagia Sophia museum on another side and the Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmed Mosque) on another side. It almost felt surreal eating lunch between these amazing buildings. I totally loved it! I then went into the Basilica Cistern which was cold and wet but pretty cool while STG waited outside. We arranged to have dinner and then meet with his brother later that night.

I walked the same way to STG’s brother’s shop twice a day for the 2 days as I was in a hotel not far from the Blue Mosque. It is a tourist area however it is a wonderful place to stay in. There is something almost romantic in wandering around its cobbled streets. I think it’s a must to stay around there even if it is just for a couple of days. There were a few people, well men, who said hello every time I walked past wanting my patronage however being friendly as well. On the way home after dinner at the end of the second day, a restaurant owner who said hello every time I passed and called me ‘golden lady’ offered me apple tea. It was actually nice! And we talked for a while. He seemed like a lovely guy who just wanted to talk. I then had a guy who owns a restaurant and travel agent stop me and offer me a beer so I stopped and had a beer with him and we chatted. I arrived back at my hotel at around midnight. I know that the men here love women. I know that their agenda is to get to know women. But they have been friendly towards me and harmless so this has allowed me to enjoy spending time with them hearing more about the country I am in and their experiences.

It’s funny how easily we adapt to our surroundings. I had been in the hotel in the old city for 3 nights and had been going out for lunch and dinner with STG and became accustomed to the very different traffic conditions (although the traffic is a bit chaotic it is nothing compared to India and Nepal!) and had totally adapted to my surroundings within the 3 days. I moved to an Airbnb that by Indian and Nepalese standards is pretty good but my immediate reaction is that I want to move back to the old city! In the city I could walk everywhere and see everything but the Airbnb is out of the city and I needed to get trams to go anywhere. STG offered to pick and drop me if I need to go anywhere and also found me a cheap hotel in the city however I decided to sit this one out and re-establish my independent travelling ability as in 3 days I had also become a bit dependent on STG to take me places and when I was dropped off (yes, by STG!) I actually felt a bit lost and isolated. I ended up staying in bed most of the first day at the Airbnb because I was tired and still had a bloody cold which I got in Nepal! I felt cosy and comforted especially as the mother was giving me lemon tea to drink and was mothering me (although totally unable to speak English) and even gave me dinner.

The next day she took me out for the day. She is 63 years old and is currently fasting – no food or water all day – and she is a powerhouse! It was pretty hot and she needed rests but there is no way I could go that long without water, especially in the heat! Anyway she took me to the Eyup Sultan Mosque and Pierre Loti Hill by bus which are outside the city. We then got a bus and ferry to Uskudar and then a ferry and bus to Taksim Square. These are places that were not on my agenda to see so it was wonderful to be introduced to new places. We had dinner in Taksim Square, after exactly 8.24pm! When we were about to head home we came upon thousands of Turkish people celebrating winning some soccer game in the streets. They really love their football! We left after 10pm however I have no doubt that the celebration went through the night. It was a lovely day. I find it amazing that although we didn’t speak the same language we still managed to communicate and enjoy each other’s company. I experienced this in Costa Rica with a friend of my son’s mother and we actually became friends. Language is important however there are other ways to understand each other. I ended up loving the Airbnb and getting around was pretty easy.

I didn’t go into the city for the first 2 days at the Airbnb. On the third day I caught the tram to the Grand Bazaar which was pretty amazing and then walked to Sultanahmet to STG’s brother’s shop. STG and I had a falling out over a difference in expectation, however I am still friends with his brother. It has been an interesting experience and maybe I should have played it differently but hanging out with STG did allow me to have more connection with the locals which is always a bonus when travelling. Anyway, no loss as I was leaving Istanbul in 2 days time. I spent the last day in Istanbul with a young English man I met at the monastery in Nepal! It is such a small world catching up with people on the other side of the world where you met them who also live on the other side of the world to you! It was a great day of catch up and exploring Karakoy together.

My philosophy while I’m travelling is ‘while in Rome’ so most things in my lifestyle change dependant on what country I am in. I went totally off coffee in India and Nepal and am now drinking a couple of cups of Turkish coffee a day (yes, the type you can stand your spoon up in!). I even had a Hammam, a Turkish Bath which was strange lying on a marble slab in a sauna-type situation and then having someone wash you! I really love the experience and diversity of eating the local food and meeting local people. And the diversity of religions. I was involved in Hinduism in India, Buddhism in Nepal and now a touch of Islam. I feel that India and Nepal were the ‘pray’ part of my journey, and Turkey has become the ‘eat’ part (not ‘love’ as anticipated by STG!). I have gone to great restaurants as well as experiencing lots of local food. Bread goes with everything here and I have enjoyed it with gusto! However I have a number of countries to visit yet so this assessment may change.

Istanbul is a beautiful city – there is definitely something about it and I understand why so many people love it. The mosques that I visited were divine and have a sense of peace about them. Every time I walked past the Hagia Sophia museum it took my breath away. There is something about it which appeals to me even more than the mosques. The city is warm and inviting and the public transport, once you know where you’re going, is great. I found the people to be friendly (sometimes too friendly!) and loved interacting with them.

I read an article on the first morning I was in Istanbul saying that the way to act in Turkey as a woman is to tone down, not meet men’s eyes and not hug anyone. I failed on all accounts on the first day! Me? Tone down? Not a hope in hell! I was walking with a big smile on my face feeling wonderful about everything and had comments made and smiles back from other people. And when I talked to people I was exuberant as that was how I felt. Obviously one needs to be aware of safety however I refuse to always have my head down looking grumpy unless I absolutely have to (as in India when even a look sideways invites a full on sales pitch! And possibly the Grand Bazaar!). I also took a risk (again) but the experiences I had would not have been had if I had stuck to the tourist route on my own. I am loving this life, I am loving travelling and I am loving meeting people from the countries I visit and hearing their stories and even hanging out with them and I refuse to live in fear of what might happen (while doing what I can to maintain my safely). STG kept saying ‘life is too short’ and although he was meaning one thing (the only thing which seems to matter to some men…it must be a common line as it is not the first time I have been told that by a man). I think life is too short to be fearful, to not embrace experience with open arms and to not do things ‘just in case’. So be safe, but also be courageous people!

A different world….

Someone told me that there is no poverty in Nepal.

I met a guide in Bhaktapur who has become a friend. He has a wife and 2 young sons. He is a tour guide in Bhaktapur Durbar Square for 500 rupees (just under $5USD), however, it gets more and more difficult to make a living as people can now guide themselves with downloadable tourist apps. He drives tourists when he has a chance however he uses someone else’s car as cars are very expensive in Nepal and out of 3000 rupees paid by the tourist, he would get 500. He started learning art where tourists can buy Buddhist hand painted prints but the market has been flooded with copies which are much cheaper so the tourists are buying less paintings. Farming was traditionally the backbone of the local economy in Bhaktapur however it is being automated and there are less and less jobs. It leaves Nepalese people, like my friend, in a very untenable situation financially. However, before 2015, they were doing ok.

When my friend showed me his home near Bhaktapur Durbar Square, when I last visited, I thought he was still living there with his family and that only his room had been affected, however, this is not the case. I returned to Bhaktapur for a couple of nights after coming back from Pokhara rather than going to Kathmandu. I spent time with my friend and he told me that the house in the city was his grandparents home which his family, his parents, his brother and his family, his uncles and his unmarried brother lived in. When the earthquake hit in 2015, the whole house became dangerous to live in. For about 9 months after the quake, he and his family (including his new born baby boy) lived in a tent and have been renting a room outside the city ever since. The room in which him, his wife and his 2 children live is smaller than the guesthouse room I stayed in (which he found for me in the old city), with a little kitchen off the side and a shared bathroom area in the open. Yet they invited me for dinner and shared their food with me. His extended family also rent rooms near him. They do not have the money to demolish their family home and rebuild so they stay where they are. He says that they are lucky as other families are still living in tents because they can’t afford anything better.

There is free public education however my friend said that it is such low quality that children leave without knowing anything. He was in private education when he was very young, but his mother became unwell and they had to pay for the medical bills (you got it, no free healthcare!) so they had to withdraw him and his brothers and send them to public schools. He now sees himself as uneducated and having no future prospects so he wants his children to have better. He does everything he can to send his 2 boys to a private school so that they have a better opportunity. With the destruction of his family home and the impact of the quake on tourism, it has been a struggle. This year has been the worst with him having to pay for medical treatment. He is behind in the school fees but it is his priority, above everything else, to keep these boys in private education. He tries to find work with tourists and borrows money from where he can to survive putting himself more into debt.

I was having breakfast the morning after having dinner with my friend and met a Canadian journalist and a Greek architect who were involved, indirectly, in an educational project for children who can not afford to be educated in private schools. The Greek guy took me to the school and I met a couple of the people involved in the project and visited a few of the classrooms where the kids were doing their lessons. I was told that the reason public schools are so bad is that the classes have around 60 children in them and the quality of teaching is not great (not surprisingly!). The private schools are businesses and are about profit (which is also not surprising) however to ensure that they have a good reputation for education and therefore have more parents sending their children to their school and to justify increasing fees, the children are sometimes physically and emotionally abused to obtain good results. A lot of families cannot afford the fees but still send their children to these private schools, while living impoverished lifestyles, in the hope that their children will have a better life. This school nurtures the children to follow their passion while preparing them for the higher grades and is free. There were about 15 kids in each of the classes I went into and the classes go to and include grade 6. The school then negotiates with the private high schools to give poorer families a discount of around 30% and then they pay 50% so the parents only have to pay 20% of the school fees. This project has been going since 2000 where they paid for children in private schools and then in 2005 they started their own school. They have contributors from all over the world and while I was there some French young volunteers were working on a building project. The Nepalese guy who is the founder told us that he wasn’t educated and that this impacted on his life dramatically which was the impetus behind this project.

Reportedly 25% of Nepalese people live under the poverty line (by Nepalese standards… probably much higher by western standards) and earn 50cUS a day. The main contributors to poverty are illiteracy, low economic growth and the death of farming therefore limited jobs. Nepal is a lot more expensive to live in than India and there is no indication that there is food in the temples for those who are struggling like in India. Unemployment rates are reportedly very low, however, people, like my friend, who manage to make a little money, are deemed as employed – the hidden unemployed. There is no government unemployment benefits, although, the government has been talking about implementing one for years – well, of sorts – giving 120 day jobless payment for families where none of them have worked for 12 months! (Go figure). So my friend would not be eligible anyway. However this has not happened. Interestingly I did not see a lot of beggars in Nepal especially compared to India.

Nepal is not the only country which has these issues. The top 10 poorest countries are still in Africa. I was aware of poverty when I was in Africa, however, we hung out with families where one of the family members where living overseas making money to send home and I did not get to really know anyone who was living in such poverty but there were definitely clear indicators. I know that my friend is not the worst off in the world or even in Nepal however when you actually get to know someone and like them it does slap you in the face. I need to reconsider my views around begging as poverty is much bigger than having enough food to eat. The problem is that begging can be a business as well which makes it difficult to determine need from enterprise. For example, I was told about a professional beggar in India whose husband had a fairly good paying job and her begging supplemented their income.

However, poverty is real and we westerners cannot even fathom what it would be like. It breaks my heart especially considering how much decadence and waste there is in this world. How many rich people get richer off the backs of the poor who get poorer. How many people have so much money which they couldn’t spend in 100 lifetimes never mind one but won’t take their eye off a cent of it. How governments do not look after their people but manage to look after themselves while making empty promises of support. How even NGOs can take advantage of these situations and misappropriate donations, whether intentionally or not, where the execs get paid megabucks and there is little or no benefit to the people who need it. How rich countries continue to have a ‘look after our own’ attitude and ignore the plight of the majority of the world and even perceive them as enemies. I suppose I could even say, how people, like me, are in a position to travel the world, live in beautiful houses, never have to think about where the next meal is coming from and still, at times, deem ourselves as ‘broke’ or even ‘poor’. Surely there is something that can change the status quo for these people and support a more equitable world? My thinking is that a decent education for children is the way to go to pull families out of poverty and the universe, once again, has put people in my life to encourage my thinking around my future. But in saying that, I also have concerns around how western capitalism has pushed its economic and educational determinants onto other countries and profit from this when these countries were probably better off living traditional lifestyles without western influence. This is an ethical dilemma for me.

I will continue on my journey and most likely forget the feelings I’m feeling now and enjoy the luxury in life that my place of birth affords me. But maybe I can also do something during my life journey which actually impacts positively on these people’s lives. Or is this supremacist thinking? I am no longer sure what the answer is or what can be done to make things better in this world.

The beautiful Himalayas of Nepal!

I headed up to Nagarkot, luckily by car with a driver who knew the roads. I had considered getting a scooter and going up however in retrospect there is absolutely no way! The roads are very narrow, very windy, incredibly rough and very very steep! Considering my episode in the hotel garage in Kathmandu, it was a good idea to get a driver. The hotel I had booked was not what I expected however it grew on me as it had a timber mountain quaintness about it. It did have the most amazing views however on both days it was foggy and a little cloudy so I didn’t get to see it’s famous sunrise, but it was beautiful anyway. It was also pretty relaxing as other than walking, there wasn’t anything else to do as it was pretty isolated and a fair distance from any town.

I was meeting my friends the next day but was unable to get a room in their swanky hotel so I had booked the closest one (and like a quarter of the price!) I could find on the map. It was close as the crow flies, however, to get there one either had to walk 2.4 kms along the road or climb down the side of a forested mountain on a fairly narrow rough path! So the first day I decided to see how the mountain climb would go. I made it to the posh hotel and made my way up to the sky bar however was stopped and asked if I was part of the Indian embassy conference (in my singlet top, fisherman pants and sneakers!). I said that of course I was, couldn’t they tell? Nevertheless they didn’t let me in but we had a good laugh. I enjoyed a beer on the terrace and chatted to the Nepalese people who worked there who were very accommodating regardless of me looking homeless.

I decided that I’d try the road back as the next night I would be having dinner with my friends and would need to walk back to my hotel in the dark. It was a moderately to incredibly steep road and took over 45 minutes. After I arrived back at my hotel, I met an English couple who I ended up having dinner with in an interesting very rough little cafe up the hill from the hotel. They told me that they had sold up everything and had been travelling the world for 5 years! She is 59 and he is 63. They return home every now and then and stay with her mother which has become their home base. They intend to continue travelling until they are unable to any longer. The whole concept definitely appeals to me however I don’t have a ‘home base’ so would have to keep my home so I could return to Australia down the track. Not saying that I’m doing it but it definitely appeals to me!

I climbed down the mountainside again the next afternoon with a pack pack containing a decent skirt, thongs (flip flops for the non Australians! Not undies!) and a wrap. I changed in the posh hotel’s toilets so I could look the part and had a beer on the terrace again while waiting for my friends who had not yet arrived. They eventually arrived and we had a rather huge dinner in the posh hotel’s dining room. I headed off up the mountainside at around 8pm with a torch after changing into my fisherman pants and sneakers. I was rather impressed with myself as I managed the steep climb in the dark and didn’t get lost or fall over and break anything! Anyway, it was great to catch up wth my friends. I arranged for my guide friend from Bhaktapur to come and get us and take us back to Kathmandu in the morning where we would say our goodbyes.

The next day I headed to Pokhara by bus. It was a luxury tourist bus which was $27 USD and basically falling apart in places however it had the most comfortable bus seats I have ever been in with loads of leg room! It was a 7 hour trip of listening to my music and watching the beautiful countryside which I thoroughly enjoyed as I really did need a bit of a rest. One thing that I have taken more notice of is the ‘naturally’ occurring phenomenon which is growing on the roadside in Kathmandu, on the road to Nagarkot, and on the way to Pokhara…. pot! It is everywhere! I’m not sure if anyone ‘owns’ it as such and how and who harvests it. Marijuana has been illegal in Nepal since 1973 when the government was hassled by the American government, however, it is renowned as being easy to access and it appears that there are crops growing wild all over Nepal (although I have since been told it is mostly male so isn’t much good). Anyways I arrive in Pokhara and it is not what I was expecting. It’s very big and pretty touristy (I expected that) and the fog is thick so it’s not possible to see the snow capped mountains.

I decided to take a walk and discovered bars all along the lakeside across from where I’m staying. In one of the bars I met this amazing English woman who told me that she previously had a house and a well paying job but she was miserable so she chucked it all in, sold the house, and decided to travel. She has been to India and now Nepal and is basically just going wherever the road takes her. I think she’s amazingly brave! Through circumstances out of her control she ended up in a village in the mountains in India with no other tourists and no English speaking locals. Although freaking her out initially, she had the most amazing time there. I have village envy! As we were talking a man at the table next to us was listening and joined in a little in our conversation. He was from Kashmir and lived in Pokhara. The next morning I was walking along the lake feeling like I didn’t particularly want to be there however I was determined that I would enjoy myself anyway as I’m not willing to waste my time being regretful or miserable. I ran into Kashmir guy and we ended up spending the day together walking, talking and chilling at this cool cafe by the lake away from the tourist section which was lovely.

Kashmir guy picked me up on his scooter the next day and we headed over to a secluded area on Begnas Lake which took almost an hour. I haven’t been a pillion for at least 10 years and also the first time without a helmet on a bike (in India and Nepal only the rider has to wear a helmet… not really sure that this makes any sense but there you go) so was feeling a little exposed. It’s funny that although logically I knew he was a much better rider than me and also much more experienced in this kind of riding, I still felt less safe than when I was riding myself. I suppose that’s the control freak in me. The area we went to in Begnas Lake is a lot quieter and has just a few guesthouses and local restaurants dotted over the mountainside overlooking the lake. It was a very beautiful place which is basically untouched. I would definitely come back if I am in Nepal again and spend more time there. We were sitting near the lake in a cafe of sorts and met some great people from Israel. It was wonderful being with a Muslim from Kashmir talking to Jews from Israel. It was pretty relaxing especially after indulging in some local beer etc. so we ended up staying the night and headed back to Pokhara the next morning with me riding and him being the pillion until he couldn’t take it anymore and told me to pull over! Ha! I’m sure I was doing a good job but I think it’s been even longer since he was a pillion and he is even a bigger control freak!

It is an interesting exercise putting yourself in a situation (once again) which may have gone terribly wrong. I obviously took a risk. Weighing up having an experience I wouldn’t have had otherwise and the possibility that I may be putting myself at risk is difficult to balance so I think one needs to listen to their gut. The day before, I had met a young Indian guy who lives in Nepal and he offered to take me places on his scooter however my gut was screaming NO! so I thanked him and moved on. When Kashmir guy suggested it I did consider the risks however my gut said it’s fine as long as I’m clear about my boundaries. Boundaries don’t always work for the other person however as long as you are honest about your agenda, they can consider if it fits in with theirs…doesn’t always pay off however thankfully (once again), with some negotiation, it worked out and I was fine. I also left his details with my English friend just in case!

After Kashmir guy dropped me back in Pokhara I ran into my English friend and we decided to go to the cool cafe I’d been to with Kashmir guy and stayed there most of the day relaxing, swimming and possibly drinking (the Sex By The Lake cocktails were definitely low alcohol so I don’t think you can legitimately call it drinking!). We ended up going out that night where a local band was playing and having a few local beers so it was a pretty chilled nice day. The next day we took a boat across the lake so that we could walk up the mountain to the stupa. The walk up the mountain was not easy especially for someone who is currently not that fit! However to give us credit, we did get an offer of a lift by some workmen driving up the very rough dirt road when we were about two-thirds of the way up but we said we’d be right. May have been regretful of that decision however we made it and it felt good.

It was beautiful and well worth the walk, but then I was mucking around showing a little girl how to pose for a photo, model style, and didn’t see a step which I went down landing heavily on my hand. I actually thought that I had broken something but, although It was very painful, it appears I only sprained my wrist…thankfully! We wandered down the road on the other side of the mountain and ended up going down a path the locals use to get to the main part of Pokhara and then caught 2 local buses back to the lake. That night was my last night in Pokhara so I had dinner with my English friend and Kashmir guy to say goodbye. The next morning I was off again in a tourist bus back to Kathmandu. The touristy part of Pokhara is not really my thing, however, being able to explore other places away from that area was great. I also enjoyed the company of Kashmir guy and my English friend, who is such an amazing person! I probably could have explored more, however, I was happy to be back on the road again.

My time is almost finished in Nepal and I have had such a wonderful time. The people are so beautiful and generous and friendly. I loved the Indian people, however, you have to be aware of how you communicate with them as generally when they say ‘hello, where are you from’ they have an agenda to get you to to buy their service or their goods or part with your money in some other way. When the Nepalese started saying ‘namaste, where are you from’ I was very cautious however realised that generally they just wanted to say hello and to know where I was from! I feel that this is another country that I would come back to and explore the less touristy side.

‘Kathmandu, I think that’s where I’m really going to’

We got a taxi down to Kathmandu from the monastery and after I found a room I hung out with my new beautiful friend and her son. After a few beers we headed out to eat with some other friends we had met at the monastery. I don’t really think I drank a lot but suffered a hangover the next morning. Maybe a couple of months of not drinking impacted more than I realised! Anyway it was a great night and very interesting catching up with these guys in the ‘outside’ world even if I did break the fifth rule of Buddhism (that didn’t take long… although I have a confession to make. I had a beer with two crazy boys next door to the monastery just before leaving… I’m sure it doesn’t count though!)

My friends were heading in different directions the next day so I was on my own again. I wandered around the streets of Kathmandu and met an Indian guy who became my best friend and adopted son and showed me some temples. He told me that his wife and children lived near Delhi. He is 25 years old and his oldest child is 10 which means that he was 15 when he was born! His wife is 40 years old and was the wife of his brother who died so he needed to step up to the plate. I asked him how he felt about that and he said that he wasn’t happy at the time, however his wife and him understand each other now and he can’t do anything to change it anyway so he just accepts it. It’s not a bad attitude to have. Of course he had an agenda spending time with me. In Varanasi it was silk scarfs. In Kathmandu it is Buddhist paintings. He wanted to take me to his art school where I could buy a painting. I was very clear that I wouldn’t be buying anything however the hopeful remain hopeful until the end. I don’t think he could believe that I could resist the sales pitch when we got there. After almost 3 months of travelling I have become very proficient in saying ‘no thank you’ and not feeling any guilt! I did enjoy his company though and to hear his story and see photos of his wife and children.

Afterwards I was alone again and I felt it. It was weird being on my own as even though I’m travelling alone I have managed to have company a lot of the time especially in the monastery. I decided that I needed to change hotels as the one I was in was expensive (relative to India) but more so the room smelt of mould. So I ended up looking at a number of hotels in the vicinity and decided on one which was cheaper and had a nicer room. I ran into one of the crazy boys who had some problems getting out of the country – apparently they wouldn’t let him on the plane because there was a bite out of one of his passport pages! (A drunk friend bit it some time ago but it was never a problem before). We ended up having dinner together which was pretty cool. The next day I traipsed around the major tourist attractions with a young, beautiful American/Puerto Rico friend who I also met at the monastery. We hired a taxi driver for half the day and he took us around to the 3 major tourist sites and told us a bit about his life. He was an amazing man who had 4 children and 3 of them were at university, one in Sydney and one in Japan (I’m not sure about the others). He had worked for many years without a holiday to ensure that his children had a good education and could make a go of it in life. He is going to take his first holiday in 30 years and visit his daughter in Sydney in December. I was really excited for him.

The next couple of days I spent on my own but it was great. I did some more wandering and I thought a scooter would be a good idea so I can head farther afield. There was no clear advertising so I asked at travel agents/adventure tour places and this guy around the corner from my hotel said I could have his scooter for the day for free! I was a bit suspicious as I’ve always believed that you don’t get something for nothing but apparently I’m wrong. I collected the scooter and parked it in the hotel basement garage which had an incredibly steep driveway. Next morning I was ready to rock and roll. After getting help to start it as the battery was flat I attempted to ride up the driveway at full throttle however the scooter could not make it to the top! So there I was with the brakes on hard, with no way of getting up to the top. I had no option but to start screaming ‘help!’ and about 10 Nepalese men came running – I’m pretty sure that they thought I was being attacked – and pushed the scooter up the rest of the way. I was pretty shaken to be honest however once I settled down I thought it was incredibly funny and I rode off laughing while also being thankful that it didn’t end badly! Nepalese roads are definitely more chaotic and difficult to manage than Australian roads, however, I still don’t think that they are as bad as India. The Nepalese stop at lights and even sometimes stop at crossings which is unheard of in India! Negotiating very busy cross intersections is interesting as basically you just go when there is a small gap otherwise you would never get through. I think I mastered it pretty much.

I made it to both my destinations with no incidents – except for a rather large protest march in Patan Durbar Square as I was trying to leave which caused a major traffic jam and a huge storm with heavy rain in Bhaktapur Durbar Square – however I enjoyed the ride and managed not to end up under a truck! At Bhaktapur Durbar Square I agreed to have a guide as I liked the guy who approached me and it just felt right. It cost me $5 USD. Other than the history of the buildings (which sadly, I’m not that interested in unless it relates to now) he told me a lot about the damage done during the 2015 earthquake (which interested me much more) including the impact on his family. His uncle died in the quake and his second child had just been bought home from hospital after his birth and was being oiled when the quake hit. He was out and ran back to find his family trembling and crying under a bridge-like structure. It was a very frightening time for him and his family and they still haven’t been able to repair their home as the government gave very little (enough rupees to buy about 7 bags of cement) and they don’t have the money to do it themselves. He showed me where his room had been which was now unliveable. Regardless, he works at 3 jobs and sends his boys to school, which is expensive, to ensure that they have an education. I am amazed at how determined these people are to ensure that their children have a better standard of living than they have had. I loved hanging out with him and hearing his story.

As it was raining and I had no wet weather gear, my tour guide, and now friend, arranged to have a rain coat type of garment made up for me out of a roll of plastic. I looked like I was wearing a big see through garbage bag and it amused many on the road all the way back to Kathmandu. It made me laugh to see other people’s reactions to this white woman on a scooter in a plastic bag! It definitely gave them a laugh! On the ride back I ‘met’ lovely Nepalese people. On one bike, there was a mum and dad and young child of about 2 who responded to me waving at her by waving back and blowing kisses. It was very cute. When I asked another guy on a bike when we had stopped where Thamel was he led me home. I am amazed at how friendly and helpful Nepalese people are.

The next morning I got ready to leave Kathmandu for Nagarkot which is a quiet place in the mountains. My friend and her son from the monastery are meeting me there before they return home. I feel very lucky. I have once again, on this journey, experienced the company and the generosity of people, both tourists and locals. I continue to want to pinch myself to see that this is real as I am so amazed that I am travelling to these wonderful places. I am so grateful for everyone that I have met while in Nepal so far and I know some of those friendships will continue for years to come. I am becoming more confident in my travels and am enjoying every moment. My life is absofuckinglutely amazing and I feel very blessed.

It’s a monk’s life….

It’s really weird going from 6 weeks of courses about Tantric practice which focuses on pleasure and then after 3 days of travel hell (a word banned in Tantra!) being in a Tibetan Buddhist monastery for a 10 day intensive course on Buddhist practice which focuses on renunciation! Maybe it wasn’t the smartest idea however the timing worked out so well I could not but see it as a sign. I’ve always had an interest in Buddhism so why the hell (oops) not? They are both spiritual practices and have interesting perspectives on how to live life, be happy, and reach the ultimate spiritual high.

Some of the basic tenets are similar such as the belief in karma and reincarnation, however one major difference is that Hinduism (where Tantric schools originate from) believes in multiple gods – over 33 million – whereas Buddhism doesn’t believe there is a god. I actually never had that realisation before until it was mentioned in the first teaching session. I think I’m getting the karma thing and reincarnation sort of makes sense however it’s a little more difficult to get my head around than concepts of mindfulness and compassion! Attachment and the concept of impermanence and mistaken reality are also major tenets of Buddhism. The ‘deadly sins’ are killing, stealing, lying, sexual misconduct and alcohol (I felt that I could adhere to the first 4…well maybe the first 3! – sorta). It is a very intellectual philosophy and, apparently being more and more backed up by science, with some esoteric notions thrown in. Most of the logic makes sense to me on some level and will more than likely impact on my functioning in life, however I have no plans in becoming a Buddhist nun!

Around 140 people started the course, however, as would be expected there were a lot of dropouts. The diversity was wonderful. People from the age of 18 years old to over 70. People from all over the world from very different cultures, lifestyles and socioeconomic status. I met so many interesting and beautiful people who were there for different reasons. Some searching for life’s answers, others struggling with mental health issues and addiction looking for respite, and others just interested in learning more about the philosophical approach of Buddhism. I felt like I took something from the tantric course with me which made me arrive in Nepal with my heart open and full of love for the people around me…well most anyway. There were some people who challenged the whole concept of compassion and patience however, as Buddhism states, they are our best teachers! We had discussion groups for the first 5 days and in my group there was a lovely, intelligent, and incredibly insightful young Lebanese woman who was blown away by having the opportunity to interact peacefully with the 2 people from Israel in our group.

The whole experience was pretty intense. The schedule started at 6.45am for the first meditation session until around 8.30pm when the last meditation finishes with some teaching sessions, the discussion group and a couple of breaks (other than meals) in between. So much for having a rest! We were not supposed to play music or read anything other than spiritual books which I complied with. We were also not supposed to have internet access, although you could purchase internet at the cafe, however I chose not to. Not having the net was a challenge for the first few days however I got used to it after a while. We were also not supposed to kill, steal, lie, have sexual contact or use alcohol. I managed to adhere to these expectations as well – well…. except for the mosquito I killed in my room – supposedly it could have been my mother in another lifetime! Sorry ma.

Some people went for walks outside the monastery during the 10 days however I chose to stay within the grounds except when we visited the nunnery which was down the hill in the village. I think due to the intensity of the regime and not leaving the monastery for 8 days, walking out of those gates gave me a massive sense of freedom – part of me didn’t want to go back, however I managed to drag myself back in to finish what I started. Spending time in the nunnery and walking around the village gave me the respite I needed to face the next 2 1/2 days. While I was in the monastery I spent a lot of time during the breaks lying down on the floor in the Gompa (meditation hall) reading. As I was lying there on the 24 April the whole building shook. It appears that we had had an earthquake with a magnitude of around 4.7, however, it didn’t create a response from the monks and nuns as it is a common occurrence. It must have been frightening for those in Kathmandu as there was an earthquake 4 years ago almost to the day on 25 April 2015 which killed 9000 thousand people and demolished a lot of their city. Kathmandu is still recovering.

One requirement of the course was that everyday we uphold silence from after the last session at 8.30pm until after lunch the next day at around 12.30pm. The last 2 full days we had to maintain complete silence which was a little more difficult especially as we had got to know each other and wanted to chat. It was an interesting time of reflection for me. I looked at the way I think about, and react to others and recognised that those thoughts and feelings impact on my acceptance of others and my happiness. I think I already knew this however I noticed my intolerance becoming more intense as the week went on and I had no choice but to reflect on it! However, in my defence there were some people at this course who asked the most stupid questions (and sadly, always the same people including a tag team where the woman was at the front and her male partner was up the back). Even the nun (with the patience of a nun!) was getting annoyed. The problem of attachment was explained ad nauseam from day 1 however people still asked towards the end of the course ‘but attachment can be a good thing can’t it?’! Or on the last day the tag team wanted to know if Buddha was god because surely there needs to be a god (after numerous explanations about Buddhism not believing that there is a god)! The nun’s response was ‘you’ve been to these teachings for 10 days. If you need a god then you may need to go elsewhere’ (or words to that effect). During the silent days we didn’t have lessons or discussions and basically just meditated. We had around 5 hours sit down, cross legged, on cushions meditating and 3/4 walking meditation broken up over the day. I actually liked the walking meditation as it encouraged me to walk mindfully with my breathing and helped clear my head, but by the end of the second day I was well and truly over the sitting meditation! I actually didn’t have a problem with the silence surprisingly.

After the last couple of months experiences I feel even stronger in my view that people should be able to believe what they want to believe whether it is the ‘truth’ (whatever that means) or not. I have a friend with not the greatest eyesight and she saw a whale in the ocean. It wasn’t a whale, it was a boat, however the fact that from her perspective it was a whale gave her the thrill that seeing a whale gives you. So as far as I’m concerned, the joy she got from that should remain intact as if I hadn’t been there (yes, I did laugh at her and destroy her delusion), her ‘truth’ would have also remained intact. I think religion or spiritual belief is like that. If it is your truth and you get what you need from it to make this life more bearable, if not happy, why should anyone tell you to believe anything different? As stated before, no one has a monopoly on the truth despite them thinking that they do.

Although I was well and truly ready to leave the monastery, I left with new concepts to think about and some more reflections into my own life. Buddhism has a lot to offer and I respect the intellectualism of this philosophical approach, however, I’m not sure that from a religious perspective it is for me. I appreciated the experience and opportunity in relation to the discipline, the teachings and the people I met. After 10 days of intensity and restrictions it will be interesting to be in the ‘outside world’ and have a look around Kathmandu and Pokhara.

A Backpacker’s Journey

I am now in Nepal. My first real hiccup of the journey was having my flight cancelled (for the second time) from Delhi to Kathmandu. The airline is broke and is basically in receivership so it’s not that surprising however the flight from Delhi which I paid $100 for would now cost me over $500 so I decided to see what the train trip would be like. The train was full so I ended up having to negotiate a taxi and 3 buses. The first 2 buses were booked by a travel agent in Rishikesh however I had to wing the last bus from the Indian/Nepal border. So off I go in the taxi at 6.30pm to the bus station in Haridwar.. he initially goes to the train station and if it wasn’t for my questioning of what I do and how I do it, I wouldn’t have known it was not the bus station and would have been left a bit high and dry. But as it was, I picked up when he said train and when I questioned that he realised his mistake. So off we go to the actual bus station which was a dirt parking area with some snack shacks. The bus finally arrives (late of course!) and we pile in. While I was at the ‘bus stop’ I met a lovely young Danish couple who were also on their way to Kathmandu with the same itinerary. We were the only non-Indian people on the bus. I had the luxury of a sleeper which was 6’ by about 2’ by a 2’ roof sloping up to 3’ with a sliding door for privacy. It was basically a coffin! As I’m over 6’ and not a slight build it was rather cozy putting it mildly!

The bus arrived at our next destination, 14 hours later and 2 hours late, however, luckily, we had 1 1/2 hours to get to the next bus station and find the next bus. We got out of the bus at Lucknow and was literally swarmed by tuk tuk drivers. I was very tired as sleeping in a coffin is not easy and asked them to back off. I told them that they were like flies as I shooed them away while tackling my bag off one of them who had already decided that we were going with him. They thought it was very funny! One thing I love about Indian people in general is their great sense of humour. They make me laugh even though I was tired and grumpy. I ended up negotiating which tuk tuk could carry 3 passengers and 3 large backpacks and we were on our way. Once at the bus station (a real one this time) we attempted to find out where to catch the bus at the enquiry window. We were told a few times by different people in the enquiry window that there is no bus to Sonauli (which is on the border of India and Nepal). Both my new friends and I had bought our tickets independently so this was not possible. We persisted asking anyone who spoke any English until about half the bus terminal knew where we were going! I actually really believed that it would work out even if I was feeling a little stressed by it all and the lack of sleep and was considering what Plan B might be. Finally one of the very helpful Indian men talked to another enquiry window person and it was all worked out. We went to eat thinking that we had time but was hunted down soon after by another Indian man to let us know that our bus had arrived as it was actually earlier than we were told! Finally we were on our way again. This bus was a government public bus and once again we were the only non-Indian people on the bus (no chickens or goats though!).

After another long journey of 10 hours and 2 hours late (again) we arrived in Sonauli at 11pm. We had to walk about a kilometre with our luggage to the border. When we got there a Nepalese guy said that we needed to walk back a kilometre to get the Indian Immigration to exit stamp our passports so we walk back to find the office closed and no response to our banging on the doors. We walked back to the border again and they wanted to send us back to the Indian Immigration office and couldn’t understand that it was closed and would not let us pass without our Nepalese Visa which could only be distributed after getting the Indian Immigration stamp! By then I’d had enough! I have to say that my new found calm and confident composure was losing its grip! There are 2 border gates about 100 metres apart. One in India and one in Nepal. It was midnight and I was so tired due to travelling for almost 30 hours and little sleep for over 40 hours that I was very close to tears, however, instead I put my bag on the ground between the border gates and laid down in the dust telling them that I was sleeping there tonight! The Indian and Nepalese guys thought it was hysterical and I couldn’t help but laugh (at) myself even though I was tired and very frustrated! The Indian border guy finally decided to help us and we walked (yet again) to the Indian Immigration office. I don’t think he believed us that it was closed, however, there it was…closed. He hammered the doors until finally someone woke up and although very grumpy and telling us it was our fault for coming so late, stamped our bloody passports! Then off we go again to the Nepalese border to wake the Nepal Immigration guy who was very congenial and gave me my visa and stamp with very little effort. By then it was 2.30am! The other concern for me was that my Indian visa was about to expire and the Indian government is not friendly to tourists who do not leave India by the visa expiry date. As it was, my passport was exit stamped on the expiry date. Through this whole experience I am so grateful that I met the Danish couple as without them sharing this part of the journey I don’t know how I would have held it together on my own. Again, although the universe wasn’t overly helpful with the border crossing, it was definitely helpful with introducing me to these young people at this time.

My friends got a tuk tuk to the guest house that they had pre-booked and I was led to a guest house by a young Nepalese man who didn’t need to do a lot of convincing for me to follow him. The room was very average (putting it mildly) and I have no doubt I was charged much more than I should have been, however, I was so thankful to be in that rock hard bed! Everything had worked out well even if it looked like it wasn’t going to at times. To get to Kathmandu, all we had to do in the morning was to find the bus station as the guy from Nepal Immigration said that public buses to Kathmandu run every hour. Hallelujah! We are going to get there easily! So I get up in the morning and start to look for the bus stop. There was an area full of buses however as I walk around asking local and tourists about buses, they all tell me that ‘Nepal is on strike today so no buses’! This included private buses as well! I just couldn’t believe it! However I had some sleep (4 hours but enough to feel slightly refreshed) and felt basically philosophical about it (what more can one do?). I asked around and finally found a travel agent who had a bus leaving at 6pm arriving at Kathmandu at 5am…maybe? Depending on if Nepalese are as flexible around the notion of time as Indian people are. I was truly grateful even if it did mean another night of very little, if any, sleep!

I hung around the Nepalese border town which was dry, dusty, extremely hot and has more flies than I have seen in a very long time. There were no issues getting the bus and this time I was the only Anglo person which raised some interest. I sat at the back with a lovely Indian couple and their 2 1/2 year old child. It was pretty crowded and not overly comfortable and after another very long bus ride we arrived in Kathmandu at 6.30 the next morning. When we were getting closer to Kathmandu I was very aware of how alone I was and I did become a little anxious (also probably due to lack of sleep too) however I managed the anxiety by recognising that there is always an out even if it costs. I had booked into a Buddhist monastery course which started that day so I get to Kathmandu, have something to eat and then attempt to find a taxi to go to the monastery however no one seemed to know where I’m going and I didn’t have internet to show them. Finally a taxi driver who spoke English worked it out in relation to Kopan. What I didn’t know was that Kopan is a suburb of Kathmandu which is where he took me however he asked directions and we finally found the monastery. The taxi ride was interesting as the roads are absolutely atrocious and by far outdo Indian roads. The taxi drivers car was literally falling apart I dare say due to the conditions of the roads. Throughout the journey I thought that the taxi drivers horn was broken as he was not honking everything that moves, however, later realised that Nepalese drivers are more restrained than Indian drivers in the honking game. I arrived at the Kopan Tibetan Buddhist monastery at 8am and sat half asleep outside the administration office door waiting for the office to open at 9am. When registered I had a hot shower (first one in 3 days) and went to sleep until early afternoon. I had just travelled for 3 days with about 7 hours sleep and was totally exhausted. I feel so grateful to be here and am looking forward to 10 days of regaining my calmness after the last few days’ challenges.

What have I learnt from this experience? That it is very easy to be calm and feel at peace when everything is basically going well or even if there are small manageable hiccups – it’s a different story when things feel like they are totally falling apart. That being said, I still managed to laugh at myself and others while being very very pissed off and making inane threats of complaints to the government. Also that regardless of the hurdles, things can end up working out anyway – it’s just a longer (and more stressful) path but I managed to get out of India on time as to not overstay my visa and got to the Buddhist course on time as well. Again I was reminded that all you can do is do what you can to make it happen but just go with the flow when it doesn’t. I also believe that I am now a true blue, fully fledged, backpacker rather than a middle class jet setter carrying a backpack! The experience definitely challenged me however it was a good experience on a number of levels (on reflection, definitely not at the time!). However, would I do it again next time? Nah! I’ll be paying the $500 and getting the flight!

India…. Not goodbye, but au revoir.

So as I farewell Rishikesh I am feeling a little sentimental. I have spent 6 weeks here and it feels like a lifetime and this place almost feels like home. During this time I have completed 2 intensive 3 day courses and a 4 week course in tantric yoga, and, although I wanted to bail a number of times, I feel that I have a better understanding of myself and the energy and power that I have and have learnt a kick arse way of meditating (however, like many things tantric, it’s a secret). I have camped in the mountains with some amazing people absorbing the nature that I love so much. I have hired a scooter and rode to the highest peaks to temples on hair raising roads and been blessed. I have regularly swam in the auspicious magical Ganga. I have met, and heard the stories from, (and been photographed by!) some beautiful Indian people. I have hung out with other travellers and have also spent a lot of time in my own company. It has been 6 weeks of exploring this amazing spiritually charged place and myself within its context. I have had ups and downs, highs and lows, and times where I have not wanted to be here, however I feel a peaceful contentment in the knowledge that I completed what I came here to do and have seen and felt so much throughout the process.

The universe, as it does, is pushing its own agenda yet again! In the first few weeks in Rishikesh, I met a lovely woman with a beautiful soul who has since become a friend. She is involved in a project which is organising people to go into the villages in the mountains to help with organic planting and gardening, building infrastructure, supporting a viable economy, and teaching the children English and computer skills. The villages in the mountains are dying and young people are heading to the city with little or no education and getting very low paying jobs. I had lunch with her and the Indian guy who is heading up and financing this social enterprise and is passionate, yet very grounded, about maintaining India’s mountain villages which are struggling to survive. He explained what they are doing in more detail and although I am definitely interested in being involved, I still feel strongly that I need to continue this journey that I have embarked on. So if this is the way I need to go later, and the stars are so aligned, it will be here when I come back. I would love to do 6 to 12 months in some kind of humanitarian work in another country and the universe keeps putting it out there so maybe this is the direction for me to take down the track. I think giving, really giving, to a humanitarian cause has to be the most highest form of living that there is and I feel that the path I will take is becoming more clear.

One thing I have realised while I have been in Rishikesh is that with the recognition that I don’t need to continue in my current job and that I don’t even need that much incoming cash, the options that I have are huge! More than I have ever considered viable not that long ago. Obviously the lack of steady employment will impact on my life however I believe that the positives far outweigh the negatives and that living only to make money, which, when you leave this earth is of no use to you anyway, is not the way I want to live. Ironically, I am fully aware that my working life and my ability to save has actually allowed me to have these options. It would be wonderful to pay off my home, and to even afford to continue living as I have, however, not at the expense of my sanity and my health which has been impacted on negatively in the last few years. It took me to fall down badly for the seeds of recognition to be sown and for me to heal through a more enlightened understanding of what is important, to come to realise that life is too short to be unhappy and that I need to move towards a long term change of lifestyle. I’m not really sure where I’m going after this journey, however, I am more than sure that it won’t be on the trajectory that I thought was my only option before. Maybe I will go back to my job, however, I will need to clearly see what the benefit to me is (other than the pay!) and what it is I actually contribute to humanity as a whole before this is even a consideration.

I am aware that I am only 2 months into this journey and that so much could become apparent to me as I move on, however I am grateful to the soul of India and the people I have met for the kindness, support and opportunity to explore this beautiful country, and myself, and to continue to discover what is important to me. I will miss India, however, I have no doubt that I will be back. I feel very blessed to be on this journey and look forward to the next chapter in Nepal which I’m sure will be another amazing, enlightening adventure!

What I have learnt in India.

1. I am a very capable solo traveller (so far!).

2. Don’t sweat the small stuff! Life is too short and it impacts on your experiences.

3. Language is important and the way you talk/think about yourself is powerful in determining the way you, and others, perceive you and who you become.

4. Begging is a business in India and by giving money, we support a business which excludes children from education as they make more money on the streets and exposes babies to heat/cold as to make them look more pathetic.

5. No one (at least in Varanasi and Rishikesh) goes without food as there are ashrams and ghats which have food for the poor.

6. India is going through a major cultural change which is slowly changing the face of India.

7. Be careful who befriends you and be aware of agendas (as with everywhere) if you do hang out with the locals.

8. Allowing yourself to be open to new people and experiences, while being discerning, brings lovely people and wonderful experiences into your life.

9. Change can be incremental (generally) so be patient and don’t expect fireworks.

10. Nothing is definite in India no matter how far you book ahead!

11. Limitations are generally a choice. Options in life can open up when your perspective of what is important to you changes and you ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’.

11. I still have a lot to learn!

Hari OM. 💜

Life in Rishikesh….the yoga capital of the world

I have been in Rishikesh for 3 weeks now. When I arrived I hadn’t booked any accommodation which is the first time ever that I have left it to the universe to sort it out. I would normally find this very stressful however I just knew that I would find somewhere to stay, even though it was the last day of a huge yoga festival. I ended up in a very clean room with a hot shower across the road (unbeknownst to me) from where the course I was going to attend is situated. There are cheaper places however this place suits me even if it did cost the huge amount of $18 a night. Pretty amazing stuff this universe thing! There are dozens of Ashrams and yoga schools in Rishikesh and a number of yoga teacher schools, so if your life evolves around yoga, this is the place to be. After having to slow down due to possibly broken toe and a cold, I did find it challenging however it was a great time to reflect and give myself some space to get used to where I was. It’s amazing how little one really needs in life. I managed to score a kettle (it was a swap situation with another traveller) so have been drinking heaps of tulsi tea (different varieties) and have not had coffee for some time now. Otherwise I just have what I bought with me. My room has a big outside shared area overlooking the Ganges where I hang out a lot reading.

I’ve worked out my favourite close by eating places most of which were the basic local Indian eating places and generally I spend around 200 rupees ($4) on my daily meals unless I splurge and have a big salad at Ramano’s Garden Cafe for 150 rupees ($3), which is absolutely necessary as Indian food is not very green, although I do love it. However I’m very happy to spend this exorbitant amount as it goes to the kids in the orphanage there where they live and are educated. I went to the touristy places to begin with, however, other than the prices being twice as much (sometimes more) I much preferred the food in the Indian cafes. In Rishikesh meat and alcohol are illegal which works well for me at the moment. I was told that it wasn’t that long ago that eggs were illegal too, however, you can get them now but it is not a common item on any of the menus. So I have become an alcohol and coffee free lacto vegetarian at this stage of my journey. I can’t see it lasting in some other countries that I will be visiting however it suits me fine at the moment and I’m sure I’m benefiting from it as well.

India is an interesting place. I had a conversation with an Indian university teacher who was visiting Rishikesh for Holi. As a sideline, Holi was outrageous! It is the Hindu festival of colours and they colour everyone in their wake! These people know how to party! Anyway, back to the story, this guy told me a bit about Indian culture. It appears that the culture is caught between the old traditions and the new world. He told me that marriages are still arranged generally and that for a love marriage to be approved by the parents, the boy needs to show that he is capable of making good money. The caste system still operates in many places in India which impacts on love marriages. He is in love with a woman who is in a higher caste than him, however, they can get married (and he could be educated) as the region he comes from no longer accepts the caste system. If they were in another region which adhered to the caste system he would not be educated and if he married his lover, he (and she) could be killed for defying the system. India is going through a state of cultural change which must create some amazingly wide generational gaps. It has been interesting talking to different people and having a small glimpse of their lives. One of the funniest things I saw in Varanasi was a Naga Baba (holy man), naked and painted white on his mobile phone! The old and the new!

While in Rishikesh, I have been attending a Tantric course which has as been interesting as the name suggests. It has been a mixture of theory, Hatha Yoga and meditations. I am completing week 2 of the 4 week course after doing the 3 day intensive course. I have felt some benefits from the course and feel that I am becoming more aware of my chakras and energies. I am very aware of my age amongst a class of young people who appear to be much more in touch with their spirituality and sexuality than I have ever been. I generally feel like an observer rather than a participant. Once the first weekly course started my daily routine was pretty set. Hatha Yoga class 2 hours at 8am. Breakfast, wondering around, going for a swim in the Ganges or just hanging reading. Something to eat mid afternoon and the 3 hour class at 4pm. Sometimes something to eat after but not always. Days off every now and then to wonder a bit further afield. It’s amazing how life falls into a pattern no matter where you are if you are there long enough. I feel like this is my home now. One needs to be occupied by a yoga course or suchlike as there isn’t a lot to do in Rishikesh otherwise and the place is overrun by western tourists however I totally get why travellers settle here for much longer. Racing from one country/region to another is a totally different experience. Staying in one place for a while is settling and we adapt easily to the different lifestyle. I think travelling alone when you are young is absolutely necessary and very different to travelling when you are older. It is easier to connect with others when you’re young and it is something one looks for. It also broadens your life in an amazing way. When you’re older you enjoy discovering your own strength and company once you manage the feeling of loneliness. Whereas I felt isolated to begin with on this journey, I now recognise the benefits and beauty of having space and time to absorb and reflect on life and to reevaluate what is important.

What the world needs now….

In the last few days I’ve been reminded about the power of language and how we use it to describe ourselves. I’m atrocious at using words like ‘failure’, ‘idiot‘, ‘stupid’, ‘annoying’ etc etc etc to describe myself. The impact is that I think others will see me like that and then get upset when they do! We are perverse human beings at times! (Or is this just me?). In a world full of hate, self hate or depreciation is not the answer. As Martin Luther says, ‘Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that’ and it is this truth which will change the current world dynamics if it is applied by all. But it is relevant for not only the external world, but also the internal world. While we feel darkness and hate towards others we are perpetuating it in the external world. While we feel darkness and hate towards ourselves, the effect is similar. What can we do to change the world? Feel love (not ego love, but pure non-competitive love) for ourselves and then allow this love to radiate to everyone else, no matter what religion, nationality and belief system they are a part of. Can you even imagine what that would be like if everyone practiced this open, accepting and giving way of interacting with others? Violence towards others because of differences would not exist and one would never feel the need to enforce their beliefs onto another human being. We are all on a journey. We may be taking different paths on this journey however no one has a monopoly on which path is the correct one. Live and let live is what I say! We currently live in a world where our own self hate and need to be right overwhelms our ability to accept differences and feel love and empathy. Anyway, getting back to my initial point, I realise that I am self deprecating as it protects me in an odd way from being rejected and hurt. It stops me from being open to others as I have already determined that they will see me like I see me. This is something I am going to work through and will be part of my journey. Habits are hard to break (especially a habit formed over more than 50 years!) however it is never too late to reflect, realign and change.