Yay for rain!

It’s been weeks since my last haiku; it may as well be months and months for how busy we’ve been and how far away Wyoming is feeling.

Circumstance has gifted me with a quiet day today. We are in Big Sur, California. It’s our one full day here and it is positively sodden outside. It’s been pouring since well before I woke up, and the rain continues now into the afternoon, dripping down through the branches of the redwoods all around us and pattering on the rooftop while the puddles outside grow increasingly broad and deep.

Raindrops on Redwood leaves (needles?)

Raindrops on Redwood leaves (needles?)

It might seem like a shame – I’d been really excited to see the beautiful coastline that the area is so famous for. Not to mention that it appears the wet weather has been following us around since we arrived in Seattle a couple of weeks ago. But actually I’m just as pleased to have a “day off” from typical travel.

We’re staying at a little cabin at the Big Sur Campground. Everything is rustic wood and light and warm inside, making it a delightful place to hole up in against the gloomy weather. The place even comes with a “wood stove” with a gas-powered fire, which has been glowing warmly in the corner pretty much since we arrived last night.

Wood stove = heaven

Wood stove = heaven

There’s no wi-fi (I’ll post this when ever we return to connectivity), no cell signal, and aside from the other cabins in the campground, the only things in sight are redwoods, ferns and a swollen, rushing stream. I’m loving it and wishing we were staying in this peaceful retreat for a week, rather than a day.

Our cabin amid some young Redwoods

Our cabin amid some young Redwoods

But (aside from everything in Big Sur being crazy expensive) we’ve recently discovered that we won’t be able to extend the rental period for our leased car – something that we’d been assured was not only possible but easy when we picked up the car back in Connecticut. So our travel plans have now been reduced by two weeks and it’s important that we keep moving if we’re going to make it back to return the car on time.

So I’ll enjoy this time in Big Sur for what it is – a day of comfort and quiet indoors – and maybe we’ll get to come back some day for the beaches and the hiking and the views and all that other good stuff. After all the moving and activity of the past three weeks, being more or less forced to do be quiet and do nothing is exactly the blessing that I need. 🙂


Rain and redwoods – recorded this morning; the sound of rain pattering on our roof and the metal tank outside our cabin. 🙂

Here and now plus a bit of BA graffiti

Taking a break from the China catch up for some current events…

It’s our last weekend in Buenos Aires. We’re leaving the city on Friday, for our final destination in Argentina: Ushuaia. I’m really excited for our little foray into Patagonia, and in the mean time I am enjoying the heck out of what’s left of our time in Buenos Aires. We’re having a lovely weekend here with gorgeous spring-like weather and I’m soaking in as much sun and warmth as I can before we plunge into winter: the current temperature in Ushuaia is 3 degrees Celcius, 37 degrees Farenheit. The sun is rising around 10 in the morning these days and there’s a 60% chance of snow tonight. Brr! 🙂

I’m also trying to savor as much as I can in general. We still have a lot of travel ahead of us, but the truth of the matter is that the end of our big trip is starting to loom on the horizon. It’s still months off, but when you’ve been traveling for over a year and a half, a few months (or what ever it will end up being – dates are NOT set in stone) will naturally feel like a significantly smaller portion of time.

At the moment, our utterly amorphous future is a fun place for my mind to wander. Happily, some of the earlier pressures of feeling like I have to “figure it all out” have eased. I’m actually doing a decent job these days of trusting that the future will work out. As a result, daydreaming about what might be is a fun exercise only and in the mean time I’m actually enjoying and showing up for the present in the way I often desire, but seldom manage to. I’m not entirely sure what’s shifted but I’m sure the yoga helps, I imagine the finite timing of the rest of the trip is a factor as well, and I’ll put the rest down to grace. For which I am grateful.

I might write more about all three of those things later on, but in the mean time I want to share about the graffiti tour we went on in Buenos Aires yesterday.

(In fact if my photo card reader wasn’t playing up, I’d share a post-appropriate a picture here that we took of some simple but philosophical graffiti in Salta that said “Usted está aqui y ahora”. In English “You are here and now.” Good to remember. :-))

BA street art!

I’ve been a casual fan of graffiti ever since I wrote an article on it for the sadly now defunct magazine Inside Switzerland. It’s impossible not to notice the graffiti in Argentina in general and specifically in Buenos Aires. It’s a strong and significant part of the country’s art scene as well as it’s political discourse. Plenty has been written on the subject by people much more informed than me. Here are just a few articles if you want a bit more background:




Some of the main points of note about graffiti here – it’s not illegal unless the owner of the property that’s painted on files a written complaint. Graffiti tends towards either the political or the lighthearted – it does not carry a heavy association with crime or vandalism here as it does in some other countries. Politicians actually hire people to paint their names or campaign slogans on buildings or walls. This of course isn’t real graffiti, and many artists focus a lot of their efforts on spreading political commentary of their own on the streets. But a lot of street art is truly art for art’s sake alone. Whimsical and colorful creations can be seen all over the place, and some of the pieces have actually been commissioned by neighborhoods who want to brighten their little corner of BA.

We took a tour yesterday with Graffiti Mundo, a small company that does a lot to support street artists in BA (they’ve just this week opened at a gallery in London and are currently working on a documentary and book). It was a lovely, sunny day to be exploring nooks and crannies of the city, many of them unknown to us. We finished up at the gallery run by the artists (with a handy bar attached), where we got to watch one of the members of the collective bs.as.stncl working on a new piece that is motivated by the current political/financial situation in Argentina – the same thing the protest during our first week here was about. It’s a picture of a mousetrap with US dollars as bait. I’m hoping we’ll see it up on a few walls before we leave the city. 🙂

Here are some pics, from the tour and from other days wandering around BA:

Maradona is everywhere of course. Here he is in La Boca.

La Boca

Graffiti about La Boca in La Boca

Tags in San Telmo

“No Bailarás” – “No dancing”. San Telmo

Murals in Palermo

“La ciudad es de todos” – “The city belongs to everyone”

One of my favorites. 🙂 In San Telmo

Murals in San Telmo

A mural about the forced disappearances during the military junta in the 1970s and 80s

Street art by rundontwalk

Stencil detail

Penguin! 😀

Our tour took us to see a different kind of street art. The artist Marino Santa María has transformed his street with brightly colored tile murals on his and his neighbor’s homes. The artist just happened to be hanging out when we showed up – this is him with our lovely tour guide Cecilia. Barracas.

Street art by bs.as.stncl

New interpretations of Argentinian figures: a gaucho with a double guitar, a rare photo of Che Guevara and a strung out Maradona feature in this piece. I love the detail of the gaucho’s shadow on the sidewalk below.

Elephant stencils

I love this whimsical piece, with grates transformed into boxy bicycle wheels.

A memorial to a friend. Palermo.

Mural. Palermo.

Back at Graffiti Mundo’s studio/bar

An insanely intricate bit of stencil work!

What you wish for

Some times things get lost during travel. I’m not talking big stuff. I mean material, insignificant-in-the-grand-scheme-of-things stuff. The loss of the thing itself is usually not that big of a deal at all. The whole mental and emotional process around that loss however can turn into something much larger.


Of course it is naïve to think that a trip of the nature and scale we have undertaken will all be smooth sailing and happy moments. Spending all day every day with a single individual, differences are bound to come up. Roman and I knew this going into our big adventure. Days on the road and in the environment that is my restless mind vary. Lots of days are great, but some days I may tend to focus on and worry about the differences that come up.

Like today. Roman is two years younger than I am. It’s not such a big difference, really, but one of my reoccurring worries is that I am analog while he is digital. Except of course, being “analog”, I don’t even really know what that means. 🙂

He is Mr. Tech. I am… not anti-tech, but being tech-savy or tech-focused is not really how I’m wired, no pun intended. When we met, I didn’t own a cell phone or even have internet in my apartment.

Now, six years later, I’ve been able to download entertainment of my choosing for long plane rides, update my facebook status from a moving train in India, find my way around a new city with an electronic map in the palm of my hand, all thanks to him and the amazing technology he’s introduced into my life.

I am grateful, constantly grateful. But there are days where doubts creep in. In the travel of my imagination, in the (probably highly romanticized) travel of my pre-tech past, things were more immediate and adventurous and vibrant, less organized and informed and intellectual. When I get sucked into the dangerous choreography of expectations, I get worried that I’m not traveling the way one is supposed to, that somehow (and in part because of all that technology) I am missing out on some element or experience of what I hoped/expected traveling the world would be like.

These doubts were sneaking around my mind today when we went to go explore Cholon, Saigon’s crowded, chaotic China town. We’d arrived at the warren-like Bihn Tay market and spent a bit of time poking around the narrow paths between the overflowing stalls and avoiding one of the day’s many rain showers.

Somehow we were both a bit on edge when we left. We had an idea of the pagodas in the neighborhood that we wanted to visit after the market.

Here is a good place to point out another difference between us (one which at least doesn’t make me sound so old! 😉 ). I tend to be less patient (eager and enthusiastic is how I like to paint it on my good days); Roman tends to have the patience of a saint.

We left the market and I had a vague feeling of what direction the pagodas were in. Roman kept stopping to check both the electric Lonely Planet and Google Maps app on his iPhone. He commented on how much he loved traveling with all that information in the palm of his hand.

Logically I could see the advantage and had to agree; inside though my heart was rebelling and all I could think was, I don’t want my eyes glued on a miniscule screen when this wonderful world is all around me. I want to be wandering around and getting lost and making unexpected discoveries until I’m full up! The last thing I want right now is to be fiddling around with an iPhone!

The difficulty here is the following. I DO see how many times the phone and technology has come in extremely useful! It’s great that we have a whole library in the phone and don’t have to tote around heavy paper books. It’s wonderful that if we get lost or suddenly get a craving for sushi, we can hop online, locate ourselves on the map, and find our way back to the hotel or to the closest Japanese restaurant with the highest rating on Trip Advisor.

I could list twenty more examples of why the technology is great. If this were a battle, it would be clear that my stubborn, old-school, analog-style heart and spirit are on the losing side (a fact that makes me feel childish, which I suppose should help with any issues I have about being older than Roman but actually mostly just makes me feel worse).

All this to come to the following point. As we were trying to make our way to visit the pagodas in Cholon, I was wondering what exploring a city might be like without an iPhone.

Sequence of events

External Internal
We are walking away from the market in the direction, I feel confident, of the pagodas I am frustrated. I am wondering what exploring a city might be like without an iPhone.
For the third or fourth time, Roman stops on the sidewalk to double-check the map. I am frustrated. I am wondering what exploring a city might be like without an iPhone.
Roman asks me to check the name of the pagoda we want to go to on my iPhone. I am frustrated as I take the iPhone out of my bag and check my e-notes.
Peripheral vision notices a moped driving up to us on the sidewalk. This city is full of mopeds driving extremely close to us all the time, even on sidewalks. Moped is noted but I feel confident it won’t drive into us. Attention returns to frustrated note checking.
iPhone is suddenly taken from my hands. Mental process: Is this something a) weird, b) funny, c) coincidental and/or magical, d) non-threatening, e) threatening f) etc./other? Assessment: E – what ever is happening, this is not ok.
I yell “Hey!” and look up at the two young guys on the moped, one with my phone in his hand. Yup, these guys are robbing me.
They start to pull away. “Hey!!!!” I yell, this time louder and angrier. I wonder if there’s any chance I can get my phone back? If they see how upset I am maybe they will change their mind? Maybe I can somehow magically appeal to their humanity?
Their retreat is slower than expected. I start to run after them “HEEEEEEYYY!!!” $%@, can’t let them leave with my phone, phone being stolen = bad!
They start to speed up. I stop chasing them. I can probably grab the guy on the back. But what if they have a knife? What if they try to take my camera too? What if I get him, and he tries to hurt me? It’s not worth it. It’s just a phone.
Without a word, Roman hands me his things and takes off running after them down the street. Manly, heroic, sexy Roman. In shock and awe that he would do something like this for me. My hero.
Roman disappears, the crowd of Vietnamese people stare at me, I drop half my stuff. Huh? What just happened? How am I supposed to feel? These people are staring at me.
I spend a minute gathering dropped things, standing around, getting stared at. Ok, Roman my hero still hasn’t come back, could he have possibly caught up with the guys? What is going on???
I walk to the end of the street. A man who has seen what happened points down the road where Roman has apparently run. I see nothing but a crowd of Vietnamese people. Crap. What’s the right thing to do? Should I be upset? I have no idea where Roman is. What if he caught up with the guys? God I hope he’s ok.
I stand stupidly on the street corner for minutes that pass by way too slowly. What if he chased them down some dark, dank alleyway? What if they are fighting him? What if he is hurt? I have no way of finding him if he needs me! If he’s in trouble there is nothing I can do to help him! Oh my God I hope he’s ok! Ok, you are probably freaking out and he’s probably fine. Yeah, but what if he’s not????
After an eternity, another guy hanging out on the street waves at me and points down the road to where I got robbed. Roman is there, walking up the street. Oh thank God, oh thank God, oh thank God. Oh thank God.
I run to Roman and nearly start crying right there on the street. I want to grab Roman and hug him but we are in Asia and that is not kosher. I feel like a baby and a fool. I feel angry and relieved, like a big, awkward tourist, confused, shaken, numb and perfectly fine all at the same time.


Most of the rest of the day is spent hashing, rehashing, analyzing, reacting, working on getting over.

First the good stuff. These things I am able to realize almost right away and do not lose sight of.

It’s just an iPhone. Of all the expensive stuff we are carrying with us, if something had to get stolen, this is probably the “best” thing to lose. Better that than my camera and photos. Better that than my laptop with my photos, music, movies. Better than my wallet which would mean the hassle of canceling credit cards – and how to get new ones on the road? Better my phone than Roman’s (he is, after all, Mr. Tech). Really, this is quite manageable.

Of all the less-pleasant things that can happen during travel, this is also quite innocuous. No violence, no one hurt, nothing that can’t be replaced… Again, it’s just an iPhone.

The less fun stuff is all the “what ifs” and “what might this mean”, which of course I realize do not and cannot make the situation any better but you can’t help but go there anyway.

I was wearing that silly, flowy, boho top I got in Cambodia – does it make me look like a dumb tourist and an easy target? (The last thing I want to be is a dumb tourist!) In that split second my reptile brain made the call that safe is better than sorry but I bet I could have grabbed that guy’s shirt or knocked him off the bike and maybe if I had I would still have my phone. Am I a wimp? Am I a girly girl? Am I a timid dumb tourist? (The very last thing I want to be is a girly dumb tourist!) I want to be more adventurous and I worry that Roman is too logical and technical for me but when push comes to shove, I am the wimp that stayed put and he is the hero that ran after the guys – what does THAT say about me?

I am grateful I am not so gormless that I couldn’t figure out what was happening at the time, that I was able to react somehow and react with anger. At earlier points in my life, I probably would have been so wrapped up with not wanting to offend people that my first instinct would have been to convince myself that what ever was happening, they (the thiefs) were in the right and I was in the wrong and better not make a fuss. Still, while this is progress, it is not good enough and I am angry and (as usual) impatient with myself.

And so on and so forth; all of this going on inside of me as we stop for a drink to calm down, Roman tries to track down my phone with all his marvelous technology, we both slowly start to come out of the adrenaline of what just happened and start talking it over, we decide to continue with our pagoda tour as planned.

I light a big coil of incense at the first pagoda we visit, scribbling a quick prayer of forgiveness to the thiefs and of release for my phone on the pink paper before the whole get up is hoisted up to the ceiling by an efficient member of the temple staff. I hope it will do something for someone, if not for me, for the young men who have decided, for what ever reason or circumstance, to make a living stealing people’s phones off the street.

With each passing hour, my outlook gets better. Roman assures me I am not a dumb tourist or a wimpy girly girl. I can sort of agree. I decide that despite the incident, I still really like this city.

A little girl waves and smiles at me from her mother’s arms. I smile and wave back. We hide out from a massive downpour in another pagoda. It’s gaudy with fake crystal chandeliers, piped in music, statues and decorations in deep primary colours. The incense is so thick it starts to give me a headache after a while. I mostly love the place. We go out for pizza dinner. Vietnamese beer is tasty and it helps. I talk to my mother over a bad phone connection. The sound of her voice warms me despite the occasional static and delays. I am comforted.

At some point I remember the things I was thinking and feeling right before the phone was removed from my hand. I have to wonder. Maybe I was only getting what I asked for?

I don’t know how I’ll feel when I wake up tomorrow. I know for sure there will be moments I wish I still had my iPhone (already when we got back to the hotel, I was wishing I could go hide myself in the great eBook I’d been reading). But maybe there will be other moments, real-life moments when I might otherwise have been stuck with my face in my phone, that I’ll be happy to experience. I can only hope so anyhow. 🙂

And if not, hey, it’s just an iPhone. I can always buy another one.

Heartbreak and hope in Battambang

Apologies in advance – this is not a very neat or resolved post!

Cambodia was at times challenging for me. Laos was such a gentle welcome back to travel and life on the road in Asia after my trip home; the peaceful energy and kind people we encountered put me so at ease.

The atmosphere of Cambodia was intense by comparison. Roman and I both found it took more energy to process the experiences we had there and I definitely needed a while to find my emotional footing with the country. Once I did though, I found myself feeling more open and moved than I have yet on the trip (being really, truly present and emotionally connected has been one of the big challenges of this big trip), and for this, I’m grateful.

Battambang was the place my heart started to open to Cambodia. It had started to crack back in Kratie, opening to the dozens of smiles, waves and other greetings I received on my village walk, to the laughter and energy of the kids I met along the road. I’m not sure what let me be more present and open in Battambang, but the day we spent doing the bike tour my heart just felt so light, so present, so open.

It was easy to relax with Sum and Dollar – energetic, enthusiastic and genuine, they were easy to talk to and good company. Maybe the beauty of the places we visited just helped to take down my intellectual defences. Maybe the work I’ve been doing on myself, with Roman and on my own, to be kinder to myself, to worry less, to savor the “now” more is starting to pay off. Whatever the grace that allowed it, the day touring around Battambang was just magic and delight.

The biggest highlight for me was meeting a young girl at Wat Ek Phnom, a quiet, beautiful, ancient temple that Sum and Dollar took us to. They stayed at the entrance while Roman and I went to go explore.

Naid (not sure how her name is really spelled) started shadowing us, and eventually enticed me into the ruins where she enthusiastically pointed out fat geckos crouching suspiciously in cracks. She must have been about ten or so, skinny as a rail and full of life. She flitted around the massive stones of the falling-apart temple, chirping in musical, broken English like a sparrow, pointing out Gods and histories carved into the ancient rocks.

Roman and I have had a many discussion about the children we’ve encountered on our travels. The stance we’ve adopted is to never give begging kids money – we don’t want to support, encourage or condone the situations where adults (parents or otherwise) will choose to put kids on the street to sell cheap souvenirs or simply beg (something we saw frequently especially at Angkor). Holding to this position has meant keeping closed in many instances – looking away or dismissing the little hands and faces that have implored us to buy a bracelet or simply hand over a dollar.

(Tough sometimes yes but not always when you see the kids going from “crying” to laughing and horsing around the second they know they’re not going to get any money from you. Tougher is seeing the kids who aren’t begging, like the scrappy, barefooted children I saw digging through garbage for scraps outside the night market in Battambang.)

We weren’t sure if our lovely tour was coming free of charge, but I couldn’t help myself. I just fell in love with this precocious, precious little girl. When we were ready to leave, she did ask for money. We brought her back to the front with us to explain the situation to Dollar and ask his opinion. He agreed with us completely about not giving money to kids at the tourist spots and on the streets. He questioned Naid and for him it was clear that her story was true.

With Dollar’s translation, we were able to ask her questions about her life. The oldest of three siblings, her parents couldn’t afford to look after her and had sent her to stay with a relative and attend school in Battambang. She studied during the day but came to the temple every afternoon to show guests around and try to earn a bit of money for school and food (it’s a given that students have to bribe teachers on a regular basis in order to attend school in Cambodia). At the end we gave her double the very modest sum she had asked for and we left to our next destination.

She’s stayed with me though. That day I wanted to cry every time I thought of her, brave, bright and beautiful little soul. What will become of her? Who will look out for her if even her parents don’t have the resources to do so? I said prayer after prayer for her: “Please let her path through this life be safe. Please don’t let any of those awful things one reads about happen to her – rape, violence, prostitution. Please let her be protected. Please let her fulfill her dream of becoming a teacher.”

I shared some of my thoughts with Roman and he pointed out that I was looking at things from a very Western point of view – who was I to make any assumptions or value judgements about her life (something akin to the parable about the man trying to help the butterfly by cutting it out of its cocoon).

On an intellectual level I am sure he is right. On an emotional level though all I know is that something in me recognized and loves this little girl who I will probably never meet ever again, and for me that’s real and precious and part of the experience I have been seeking on this trip. I can’t make any more sense of it than that, but I’m so glad that I met her, and I’ll keep carrying those hopes and wishes for her around in my heart.

Photos from Wat Ek Phnom and our time with Naid

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The wat before the ruins

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Afternoon sun on the outer wall

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Naid invites me to come explore

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DSC 0915
Temple carvings

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Lovely Naid

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Pointing out some Sanskrit carvings

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Buddhist flags at the doorway

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Moon rise

Detox and Ayurveda in Chiang Mai

My first stop after India was to indulgent health resort just outside the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai.

I am finding that one of the challenges for me with this trip is the difficulty to feel fit. The way I work, my mental state can be pretty strongly affected by how healthy I am eating and how much exercise I get. India involved a lot of time travelling – long hours sitting on trains, many meals consisting of airplane food or pre-packaged snacks, lots of inclusive hotel breakfasts of white bread toast, and far too much cooling off and refueling with stops at Cafe Coffee Day! 🙂

All this meant that I was feeling pretty flubby by the end of our time in India, so two weeks that offered both detox and yoga sounded just perfect. (I wrote more about finding the resort in an earlier post)

The Spa Resort offers all sorts of different packages with different health focuses. My stay included a four day juice and fruit fast at the beginning of the two weeks, plus daily yoga, Thai massage and time in the sauna. There were people there who were doing more ambitious programs – seven day proper fasts or intense boot camps with full day programs of exercise, but I didn’t want to shock my body after 4 months of basically doing nothing. 😉

The juice fast was in some ways easier than I thought it would be. You’re drinking different things all day long (including amazing coconut water – the best I’ve ever tasted right out of the coconut) and you get a massive platter of fruit at lunch time which was really quite filling, so I never actually felt hungry or anything. But I’ve done similar fasts before and had expectations about feeling more clear and grounded mentally.

In fact, I found I was only feeling more and more restless in my heart and mind as the days passed. The daily yoga wasn’t feeling satisfying; while my body was performing the asanas, the rest of me felt totally disconnected from the practice. A lot of the self-criticism that I’d been participating in during the time in India intensified, so I was spending a lot of energy feeling little and shy and lonely and sorry for myself. When I wasn’t doing that, my brain was busy stressing over visions of the future it was spinning out of thin air and I found myself having all sorts of worries about me and Roman.

After my fast was over, I signed up to have an Ayurvedic consultation, and this session happily ended up being a turning point. I’d always been interested in Ayurveda from the little I’d learned about it in my yoga teacher training. A lot of what it prescribes seems like common sense. Still, I didn’t expect to feel so much better so soon after taking the consultant’s advice.

I won’t go into too much detail explaining, since I’m no expert, but she identified an imbalance and suggested a list of simple things to try to help counteract this imbalance. Based on the Ayurvedic perspective, all the raw fruit I’d been eating was actually only making the imbalance worse. I started eating cooked food right away, going to the steam room instead of the dry sauna, getting oil instead of dry massages.

Walking out of my first oil massage the next day, I felt like I was really seeing where I was for the first time. I’d been able to mentally assess before that the resort was lovely, but only that day did I begin to really realize it and see its beauty. Being more grounded in the present, instead of thrashing about in a tempest up in my head, it was like a blind fold had been lifted and suddenly I could see the world around me. The dance of the butterflies on the path before me. The feel of the breeze on my skin. The glow of the flowers outside the restaurant in the afternoon sunshine.

Feeling this difference, I realize that I spent a lot more time in my head than being present while in India. There were definite moments of wonder and connection in India, but I can see that I experienced a lot of it through my head and intellect only, while not connecting emotionally. I’m trying to figure out why this might be, and I can see how I still struggle now sometimes to keep grounded and present at times. I have some theories; maybe I’ll write more about them some other time.

Getting back to the Spa Resort for now though – thanks to that grace, the rest of my time there was just blissful. I felt much more connected to what I really wanted to do (before this, I’d been making decisions based on thoughts like “well, this seems sensible” or “the guidebook says xxx”, rather than what I felt like doing) and started feeling the bliss of yoga again and having fun with some of the lovely people I met at the resort.

It was really a lovely place to be – amazing location, grounds and food – and I’m so grateful for the time I had there.

I didn’t take so many pictures while I was at the resort, but here is the view from my upstairs balcony, just to give an idea of how beautiful this place was!

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Observing the weather

I had a good talk with Roman today. Have I mentioned lately that I am so lucky to have such an amazing boyfriend? 🙂 We’ve been having a relatively quiet few days in Delhi. It’s not like during our last visit to Delhi, when I think I was going a bit stir crazy and I know for sure I was in a pretty bad mental (and hormonal) space. But I have been feeling a bit restless lately, and it’s proving a good opportunity to take stock of my mental state and remember the original motivation behind this trip.

My friend Ritu is away on business, her mom has got a cold and Roman is seriously embroiled in a major IT project, trying to resuscitate Ritu’s failing laptop. So things have been a bit on the quiet side, and we’ve been choosing to take it easy. We’ve been sorting out all the logistics for the next bit of the trip, spending hours pouring over Lonely Planet and surfing through the internet and eventually making bookings. We’ve done some leisurely bits of tourism, I’ve finally gotten around to mending that needed doing. We’ve watched a couple of movies, I’ve been enjoying Ritu’s small library (reading Jack Kornfield for the first time – a buddhist who is recommending impartial and compassionate observation of the self as a good starting place for increasing inner peace. One metaphor in the book is seeing the true self as the sky, and our emotions and reactions as weather patterns that come and go across that sky. Seems like a pretty smart guy. 🙂 ).  The guys at the local Cafe Coffee Day practically know us by name at this point. And of course my love affair with food has continued. So it’s not like we’ve been doing nothing.

But it’s enough of a relaxed pace to kick up some of my little neurosis. 🙂

There’s the immediate guilt at the thought that we are in India for goodness sake, we should be doing more, we should be doing everything! If I’m not sight-seeing, exploring away from the tourist spots, practicing yoga, taking cultural classes, volunteering with street kids, Tibetan refugees and conservation efforts, having insight-providing conversations, making new friends, trying new foods, deepening my relationship with Roman, keeping up with the folks back home, experiencing inner growth, writing postcards, relaxing fully and having  the time of my life, well then, I’m simply not doing enough! 😉

The saving grace is that while part of me really feels that way, another (saner) part of me can also see me feeling this way and making these demands of myself and just laugh. I have the perspective (and a wonderful boyfriend) to remind me that we are on vacation and there are no rules about what we should or should not be doing. To boot, we are just at the start of our extended holiday. We both worked extremely hard in the months and years leading up to this – some down time is not uncalled for. 🙂

Overcoming that though, there is still plenty of static going on in my brain.

When I left the US to come to Switzerland all those years ago, I had the opportunity to really live for myself. With no ties in Zürich in the beginning, I had no obligations towards anything aside from my job. Non-business hours were mine and mine alone. Back in the States, my love for and need to please the people in my life meant that I had overextended myself beyond my physical, energetic and emotional means. During the first few months in Zürich, I had the luxury of being able to do only what I really wanted to with my time. And with no distractions – no social engagements, no TV, no internet, no expectations – I had the space to find out how to listen to myself and discover what it was that I wanted, both in general and in the moment. I felt genuinely present in my life and in the moment for the majority of the time, and I loved it.

I was lucky enough to experience this at different points during my time in Zürich. But as I mentioned in my first post, towards the end I was feeling less and less ‘in my own life’ – less connected to myself and less present. For me, coming on this trip is, in part, about trying to be more present again.

So, I also have to laugh at myself, watching how my brain is fighting doing just that during these days of down time in Delhi.

Traveling and seeing new things, it’s easier to be present because I am simply taking in the new sights and experiences – my ego takes a back seat. But take away the entertainment of something new, and my brain steps in right away. I’ve been diving into books, podcasts, iPhone games (good when used for downtime, less good when used for escapism) as one means of avoiding the present.

I also find that I am daydreaming about what happens after the big trip is over. Which is somewhat ridiculous considering it’s only just started. I’m not too concerned about it as I’m not building up any expectations or spending any real energy on it – it’s just light-hearted daydreaming – but it’s still being anything but present in the here and now.

I’ve also been spending a lot (and I mean a lot) of energy on my favorite pass time – worrying about other people’s comfort and other people’s perception of me.

Are we over staying our welcome at my friends’ house? Am I getting on her mothers’ nerves? Are we being entertaining house guests? Are we polite enough? Are we being too polite? How should I act so that I can put the women working in the house at ease while not being too informal with them which might be awkward? Am I behaving too much like a tourist or too much like a tourist who is trying not to behave like a tourist when we are hanging out at the Cafe Coffee Day? What do the local people there think of us? What about the other tourists? Is it culturally awkward for me to be wearing a salwar kameez? Am I being culturally aware enough? Am I being poised enough? Am I pretty enough? Smart enough? Generous enough? Present enough???

And that is just the short list.

All of the nervous energy spent on those questions is very effective at keeping me from being present and just experiencing. Roman was talking about the difference between the need to control a situation when you feel like you are separate from it, feel like an outsider, versus the ability to just be present and experience a situation when you know that you are a part of it. Knowing that you are where you are meant to be in your life and that we are all part of the same thing, trusting that what is going on for the people around you is perfect as it is and their reaction is not your responsibility, trusting that you just have to be responsible for yourself and that where you are is just perfect too – a trust based on a degree of faith I suppose.

I understand these concepts on an intellectual level. When I was at the center of my life during those wonderful months in Switzerland, I was also living those concepts. But I guess I need some more practice to really ‘get it’ to the point that I can act from this knowing.

I am grateful that at this point in my life I have the ability to (mostly) see my thoughts and reactions for what they are. I am grateful I have the opportunity now to practice – to let go of fears and insecurities based on the beliefs that I am not good enough, that I am separate from the world and responsible for its reaction to me, rather than for my reaction to it. To see these how these thoughts and insecurities thrashing through my brain keep me from engaging in a genuine way with the present moment. And to try to disengage with those thoughts in my head and instead start genuinely engaging with the experiences and people right in front of me.

It’s great to have this time in Delhi (even with the slight discomforts I am creating for myself), to remember some of the original motivation for this trip. Here’s hoping I’ll get better at this whole being present thing as we get deeper into our journeys! And that I’ll have the compassion and perspective not to beat myself up about it when I don’t get it perfect all the time. 🙂

Me and Miss Swiss; reflections from Delhi

The breeze coming through the open window is cooler after the thunderstorm – the first we’ve experienced in Delhi. Although the daylight had been coming to an end anyhow, the darkness grew thicker and faster than normal and a breeze began to rise, stirring up the leaves on the trees and the dust in the street; from a distance the thunder began to grumble. I could hear and smell these things through the window’s screens in our cozy room. Now the wind and rain and hail have come and gone. The city’s dust and heat are tamped down for now and the darkness outside feels peaceful as I’m writing.

Tomorrow will mark my seventh week in India. Our little tour in Uttarakhand is feeling ages away. I’ve been basking in the comforts of Delhi. On this, my third visit, the city – or at least parts of it and certain aspects of it, are starting to feel more familiar. We are again tucked away in the generous hospitality of my friend’s family home in south Delhi. And, the biggest comfort of all: this time my friend Ritu is here. During our last stay, she was away on business. It’s feeling like heaven to have time with her. Beyond being an incredible boyfriend, Roman is also a great travel companion: relaxed, fun, supportive; he is my prince. But boyfriends are not the same thing as girlfriends and the company of a dear friend is simply irreplaceable. So it’s just great to see her and to have time to catch up; it’s helping me to relax and get more grounded on this trip.

Even nearly two months in, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised to discover I’m still unravelling knots of past (and perhaps even more recent) stresses, still letting go of my corporate, ‘need-to-be-productive’ habits and easing into and discovering myself within this new lifestyle. Seems like there are layers of this stuff to move through and discard. For the most part, I’m able to maintain a sense of humor during the process, which is helpful. I was able to laugh at myself for the trip from Rishikesh to Ramnagar for example. The control freak (let’s call her Miss Swiss 😉 )in me was squirming like crazy at the prospect of such a loosely formulated journey.

The guy at the hotel in Rishikesh had been able to tell us in broken English that there were a couple of buses a day to Ramnagar from Haridwar, the next major town over from Rishikesh, but details such as when these buses might run, how long they’d take, etc. were not forthcoming. That was enough for Roman – I pretended it was enough for me too and watched little Miss Swiss inside me have a bit of a freak out. As a last ditch effort at organization, a.k.a. control, I started taking photos of the maps in the area so that we would have some sort of back up in case the whole direct bus thing ended up being just a myth.

We took a cab down to the bus station in Rishikesh and as luck would have it the man hanging outside of the first bus we came to was calling out ‘Hardwar! Haridwar’ (two equally recognized pronunciations for the place). We climbed right in – easy peasy – and the bus was off shortly there after. I was feeling pretty confident and started to relax, until I noticed that the bus was heading off on a completely different route than the bus that had brought us from Haridwar to Rishikesh a few days earlier. Last time we’d driven through small towns to get there. This time, we were seemingly driving through the middle of nowhere – skirting a river, moving across empty plains and wooded areas with not a person, dwelling or town in sight. What if we mis-heard the destination? What if we were on some sort of scam bus? What if we ended up in the middle of nowhere with no way back?? My inner control freak started spinning out of control. I did my best to bat back paranoia and enjoy the absolutely beautiful landscape that was rolling by outside the bus window and of course, eventually we arrived without incident at the center of Haridwar. Sit down Miss Swiss!

The bus station at Haridwar was awesomely obscure. I sat down with our luggage and diligently put Miss Swiss in the corner while Roman did the leg work of trying to find out what bus might get us to Ramnagar and at what time. Every single person he spoke to had a different answer for him. My map photos ended up coming in handy after all (score one for being paranoid! 😀 ) – the best information we received involved taking a bus to Kashipur and changing there for Ramnagar, and the map corroborated this logic. After waiting around for a couple of hours, we crammed our stuff and ourselves onto the most ergonomically awful seats ever invented and hunkered down for the six-hour ride, which, aside from resulting in two very numb derrieres, was very enjoyable between the incredibly loud Punjabi music the driver was playing and the striking scenery along the way. We were instructed to disembark in Kashipur; by this time night had fallen and so had Miss Swiss! Good thing too, because finding a bus in Kashipur was much dicier than in Haridwar.

Inquiries led to the discovery that there were no more scheduled buses at that time of the night. All we could do was stand along the side of the road leading to Ramnagar, wait for a bus to pass, and call out to the ticket collector to see if they happened to be heading in the right direction. This technique was explained to us (in even more broken English than the guy at the hotel) by a slightly tipsy, older gentleman who was apparently also waiting for a ride in to Ramnagar. Roman shared a cigarette with him and that was enough to cement a temporary friendship and even get me adopted as the guy’s new daughter! It took over an hour of standing by the side of the buggiest road I’ve ever encountered (this was one of the few in town with a proper lamp post, which attracted literally tens of thousands of harmless but very active bugs that kept landing and crawling all over us) until a bus arrived that would take us. With barely any space left, we perched on the metal mound housing the engine; I had to keep moving my knees so the bus driver had room enough to shift gears, and we barreled into the dark night (outside of town all street lights disappeared) for about an hour until we arrived in Ramnagar.

All in all, it was relatively straight forward – people were more or less happy to answer our questions – even when the answers were in Hindi or contradictory it was heartening to see how willing they were to help out complete strangers. And we didn’t end up having to spend a night sleeping in a bus depo or getting dropped off at a completely obscure, random destination in the middle of a desert, as Miss Swiss had been contemplating in the morning. In fact, we made it to Ramnagar in really good time, all things told. That being said, I was very happy to check into the very first hotel we found – and so was Miss Swiss! 😉

Wherever you go, there you are, even in India

Ok so all that stuff I was saying in the previous post about grace and openness and all that seams to be unravelling at the seems these past days. It’s not about India or anything that’s happening externally. Rather, I’m feeling totally uncomfortable in my own mind and anxious about just about everything we are doing, or not doing. I’m most likely too deep in it to have clear perspective but I have some theories. (Boys, please avert your eyes if you can’t handle women discussing their particular bodily functions.)

I’ve figured out some things about my body over the years, and I can imagine that all the sitting I’ve been doing for the past month plus all the yoga and jogging I haven’t been doing has helped contribute to one of the most unpleasant periods I’ve had in years. I can’t remember the last time I have felt so massivly PMS-y or had such bad cramps – I even had to stop walking today while we were out when they were just too much which never happens to me. I’m breaking out, sore and sensitive and just feeling generally blah.

On top of that I think I am missing the momentum and support of the group travel and I know I am having a hard time sitting still and accepting the generosity of our incredible hosts (As some of you may know, I sometimes am challenged by receiving… On another note, more on our incredible hosts once I get my self-gripe out of my system.). And I’m feeling the need to sink my teeth into the this travel thing and really start exploring (while simultaneously fearing that I might end up being a bashful and lame traveler, oy).

All this while Roman has arrived exhausted from so much work and wants nothing more than to just be for a while – to sleep, take it easy, ease into being in India and finish up on the last of the tech prep which he ran out of time for back home. So basically our instincts right now are to want totally opposite things while I am also overly sensitive, verging on crabby – please send the guy your sympathies! He’s managing to stay patient and sweet, and I to my credit can at least understand with my mind why it’s important for him to have down time and can grasp the fact that for once in my life there isn’t any time pressure. So even if the rest of me is feeling totally impatient, there is a small voice of logic fighting the good fight.

So, enough griping and here is where we are at now: we’ve been in Delhi for nearly a week. We are staying in the apartment upstairs from my friend’s parents in the south of the city. It’s a detatched apartment and we can come and go as we please, but are welcome in the big house at any time. Her parents are just lovely. Generous, interesting and articulate with their insights on their home country. Generous in all other ways as well – we’ve been taking full advantage of their WiFi and have been having all our meals there.

The food is just incredible. The family has three women working in the household. I’m still getting used to this – coming from a typical Western upbringing it feels kind of weird to have someone do everything for you rather than being able to help myself to something out of the fridge or clear my own dishes. At first it made me squirm with “privileged white girl” guilt but this is being tempered with trying to find out how to be a gracious guest by Indian standards (i.e., not wanting to offend our hosts and their staff by doing anything that might imply their hosting/serving abilities are poor) and trying to understand the situation in general by the values and culture of the people in it. I still don’t know how I feel about it, but I’m glad to have the chance to take a closer look.

These women are incredible cooks and every meal is a feast with numerous vegetable dishes, a different dal every day, home made yogurt, cut raw vegetables, piping hot freshly made chapatis, and often a meat dish at dinner. And then a different Indian sweet from a local pastry specialist every day. It’s really just incredible and I have been eating past being full at every sitting just being everything is so tasty. Some of the vegetables I’ve never even heard of before, let alone tasted. Of these my favorite is something I think was called bitter gourd – you can guess how it tastes. 🙂 There have been a bunch of paneer (a type of mild Indian cheese) based dishes that are also high on my list of favorites.  And all the dals (basically legume stews) have been outstanding. I haven’t been in the mood for much meat so I’ve mostly been sticking with the veggie dishes, but I did try a bite of and was pleasantly surprised by goat. Today for lunch we had a more simple dish which may become one of my comfort foods in India. It’s called parantha and it’s basically a stuffed, grilled chapati. Ours had fillings of lightly spiced cauliflower or potato, but they can be filled with other things too. As far as I could tell, once filled, the parantha is grilled in butter, which to me made it reminiscent of and just as comforting and satisfying as a grilled cheese sandwich .

So, with all this eating to be done and the various IT stuff Roman has been setting up for us, we haven’t been out that much in Delhi yet. We have explored the surrounding neighborhood some – it’s quiet and lush and lovely – plus the nearby shopping area and we went on a field trip to another shopping district to get ourselves set up with local phone numbers on our cell phones. We’ve become big fans of the auto rickshaw (also knowns as a Tuk Tuk in some parts of the world). Much more fun than a cab plus better ventilation (which can be a good or a bad thing, depending!). 🙂 Today we finally did something touristy, and went to the Red Fort, which was lovely – although I have to say I was more struck by the Red Fort in Agra.

Tomorrow we have another full day here to finish any last bits and pieces and maybe fit in another sight or two, and then the next day we are hopping on a plane to Dharamsala and we’ll head up to McLeod Ganj and see if we can’t find a hotel (booking ahead at the budget places doesn’t seem to be an option – booking online was impossible and the one place I was able to reach by phone told me they didn’t know if they had anything free but that I should stop by and see. The impression given was not that they were booked out, but that booking ahead was a foreign concept. 🙂 Wonder what we will find when we get there.). That was my favorite place of all the locations visited on the group trip – I’m looking forward to being back in the cool, green mountains (and hopefully out of my messy head and out of my own way).