After a short flight from Delhi, the group arrived in a whole new world.
Blasted with heat and humidity Thailand welcomed us warmly. Bangkok was very different than our past destinations. Trash cans were commonly found and, if lucky, there might just be some toilet paper provided in the bathrooms.
We arrived just in time for dinner. After quickly dropping our bags off at the guest house, the group walked a short ways to a nice restaurant right on the bay side.
Warm smiles surrounded the table, and everyone was finally able to take a deep breath and relax for what seamed like the first time in 2 and a half months. Fruit drinks, fish, and Thai food of all sorts were brought out, and were gone in a matter of minuets. Vacation had officially begun.
Our guest house is located in an area of Bangkok that is not too touristy, and this is nice as many of the people are locals. It provided an opportunity for us to get to know the Thai culture as it is, rather than from the tourists perspective.
There are a lot of 7/11 stores all throughout Thailand. I bet you could find one every 100 yards, and as you could assume that was a large part of our diet and budget. You would assume that being a 7/11 there would be an assortment of English goodies. Not the case. Thai snacks were everywhere, and often you wouldn’t even know quite what you were buying due to the language scenario. So much fun!
Our first day in the big city was full of temples and heat. I think one of the hardest things that our group faced in Bangkok was the amount of tourism that surrounded us. Its something we haven’t faced for quite some time. Although we weren’t opposed to not sticking out when we walked down the street.
That night we loaded up and went to experience the big leagues in downtown Bangkok, at Siam Pargon mall. Predictably we all headed straight to the food court. Let me tell you, this wasn’t any food court… overwhelmed with an absurd amount of food options we stuffed ourselves full. Afterward we all waddled to the top floor for a quick session of Thai karaoke, which turned into all of us singing at the top of our lunges for two hours. That was great.
Our remarkable journey through Asia ended with six days in Thailand’s Southern Islands.
Each day we traveled by small wooden boat from one small island to another. They had fun tropical names like Chicken Island and Phi Phi Island.
We had a truly memorable time swimming, snorkeling, kayaking, and rock jumping in their clear blue-green waters.
We also had some wacky adventures! For example, we camped on a beach under the guidance of our captain Lee, who wore jewelry made of bone. He brought along his 10-year-old son, who twirled fireballs on chains for us. Both chains snapped during the performance. Haha!
We also saw some really nice fish and even sharks while snorkeling. The fun and relaxed days were a great conclusion to the busy and, at times, challenging trip. However, the tropics were not without their dangers: for instance, JR got so sunburned that all of her skin actually sloughed off in one big pile of dead cells. Despite this setback, we all had a great time in the warm waters of southern Thailand that will not be easily forgotten.
We arrived at Tushita, the place where we would spend 10 days learning about and practicing Buddhism, panting and sweating from the climb up the pine tree covered mountain. The woman organizing check-in quickly announced us as “the 16 Americans” everyone was waiting on, bringing added attention to our already conspicuous group. For the first few hours, everyone was allowed to talk as we were introduced to the program and had dinner.
As we integrated ourselves into the larger group of about 80 people, I noticed that we American students did stand out in a couple of ways. The first, and most obvious, difference between us and the rest of the people was our age. Being the youngest people there meant that we were at very different stages of our lives than everyone else. Many of the other people had careers and other major commitments in their lives.
We were also set apart in our reasoning for going to Tushita. Whereas most of us had gone because it was a (optional) part of the Youth International program, many other people were there in search of something larger. I met a woman who was thinking about quitting her job, a man trying to get over his opiate addiction, and practicing Buddhists looking to develop their spirituality. Meeting people who were there because of crises in their lives made me grateful for the opportunity to have this experience while I’m still young. It made me realize how important it is to have time to think about myself at this point in my life.
The 10 days at Tushita were ideal for this type of self-reflection. For the first 7 days, we meditated and took classes on Buddhist philosophy. For the last 2 full days, all we did was meditate. Between classes and meditation sessions, there wasn’t much else to do but think, read or write. Because there was nothing to do, we were forced to be with our own thoughts and feelings, and to get to know ourselves in a way we never had before.
After the morning meditation on the last day, Arnato, the meditation guide, told us the silence was over. The room erupted with the noise of people who had sat side by side for days without saying anything to each other. I saw Heater and tried to talk, but no words came out. Later in the day, after the shock of everyone talking all at once wore off, many of us shared our thoughts on the whole experience with each other. It was great to be able to hear from other students in our group because of how different the time was for each individual.
Tushita meditation retreat. Taking the vow of silence for 10 days, studying Buddhism and meditation. While there I was able to shut out all of the distractions of everyday life and come face-to-face with myself. I feel like I found a part of myself at Tushita that I have been seeking for quite some time. Clarity and peace. I gained so many new perspectives on life through this experience.
The silence is here, in the depths of my mind. Forcing me to resurface the things I thought I had left behind.
When all is well, I smile with my eyes. The most genuine part of the face all knowing when it lies.
Things haven’t been bad and I doubt that they will, but there are definitely times when I wish things weren’t so still.
I’m a slave to my mind, my mind is the master. But I’m now in control so it’s not such a disaster.
After the silence was broken, we joined Tibetan families in McLeod Ganj for our solo and final home stay. I was nervous, but beyond excited to stay with a family alone and learn more about their culture and hear stories of their journeys from Tibet to India.
My favorite part of the home stay week was joining conversation groups at Tibet World, talking with Tibetans who are learning and trying to improve their English.
Overall, the past 2 and a half weeks in Dharamsala have been very moving for me.
Each new city we travel to has been a reminder of the diversity of language, culture, climate, and religion that exists within India, and Dharamsala is absolutely no exception.
The Tibetan refugee community and government-in-exile has found a home here in the foothills of the Himalayas, and our group has thoroughly enjoyed spending a week here, after the Tushita meditation retreat, learning about Tibetan culture and the continued struggle of the Tibetan people for freedom from the oppressive Chinese occupation of their homeland.
We visited the Tibetan Museum in front of the home of the Dalai Lama. We also heard from the woman in charge of the nonprofit supporting survivors of torture, and a prominent former Tibetan freedom fighter who shared his perspective on the importance and future of the Tibetan freedom struggle.
Most of all, it has been an honor and a pleasure to live alongside my Tibetan host family for these past five days, and I am leaving Dharamsala with an entirely different understanding of what it means to be Tibetan today. In my opinion, it is so incredibly important that the international community work alongside the refugee population here and in Tibet to protect Tibetan culture from those that would seek to eradicate it.
We learned that there have been 149 acts of self-immolation in Tibet since 2008, often by nonviolent monks and nuns, as a form of protest for a free Tibet (as China has prevented peaceful protests and strengthened their communist “reeducation” programs in Tibetan schools after protests during the Beijing Olympics).
My stay here in Dharamsala has left me with a real desire to go home and educate my community about the situation with the hopes of supporting the brave and resilient Tibetans I’ve met these past two weeks, who continue to fight to free their homeland, even when the international community has time and time again ignored the violence happening in Tibet.
I’ve learned the most about what it means to be Tibetan here in Dharamsala from my adorable and whip-smart 10-year-old sister, Tenzin Pema. Pema talks even more than I do, switching with ease between Tibetan with her grandmother to flawless English with me, even translating funny YouTube videos from Hindi to English so I can understand them.
Tibetan children are taught Buddhist values of love, kindness, and compassion for all from a young age, and I have spent this week in awe of the mature and thoughtful conversations I’ve had with Pema about Buddhism and the Tibetan struggle for freedom as a result. A few days ago, I asked Pema what she thought about China’s role in the freedom struggle, and she said, “It’s so easy to hate all the Chinese for what their country has done, but I know that’s not right. They’re not all bad, just like all the Muslims aren’t terrorists. We have to separate those bad people from the rest of the Chinese.” I think all of us at home could stand to learn something from Pema’s wise words.
I also really enjoyed having an opportunity to speak with other community members at daily conversation hours at two local NGOs, Tibet World and LHA. Both of these organizations hold daily conversation hours for Dharamsala residents learning English, to practice their skills in an informal setting, and I looked forward to this hour each day! I spoke with two monks from Tibet one day who educated me about the vows all monks must take to live and study in a monastery; respect all life, no intentional deception, no drinking alcohol, and most importantly, no honey bunnies! Though they did specify that while monks are required to be celibate, they are permitted to have honey in their tea now and then. My favorite conversation partner, a monk living in Dharamsala and learning English and Chinese, told me that he felt I must have been born Tibetan in a past life! What a compliment.
I know we are all leaving Dharamsala in awe of the continued resilience of the Tibetan refugee community and the kindness and love they embody in all spheres of their lives, even in the face of such strife.
We all arrived ambitiously at the Jhadol school around sunset, some feeling nervous, some excited, and some unsure of what the next week would entail. We were kindly greeted with chai and met with our new teaching assistants and new friends. As we paired off in classes, we brainstormed ideas for the school. We quickly learned the communication would not be as easy and we had experienced in the past.
We spent two nights at the school and then were sent to a village a few steps away to meet our new families for the week. Madi and I were paired up with a cute mother and daughter, who happened to be our age.
As we settled into our beds outside on the porch, they started the fire for dinner. The vegetables were cooked first, followed by fresh chapatti. This would happen the same way every night.
Communicating was sadly very hard, but our host sister Mongi said a million words. We began to sing back and fourth to each other completely clueless of what each other was saying. After long days at the school, we would always return to a happy namaste from Mongi and we would attempt to help her with chores and chapatti, but she soon realized we would never eat in time if we were in charge.
Instead we turned into the village entertainment, while she flipped the chapati, by singing the same songs over and over. We shared many laughs especially when the hot pepper contest took place. We may have woken up the entire village with our laughing and screaming from the extremely hot peppers. For the first time, I felt a very strong connection with my new family.
We all joined together for a dance party at the school with all of the girls and our families. We danced the night away as smiles flooded the room. The next morning we said goodbye to our little family, they told us to stay and not go back to America. I could have stayed longer at that little home. As we watched all of the girls wave goodbye to us through the bus windows, smiles filled our faces.
This week in Jhadol was amazing for all of us and truly an incredible experience. The relationships made between the families and the girls at the school are unforgettable. We all learned so much from each other just by interacting and enjoying each others company.
When we arrived at the school, we were met by dozens of excited Aadavasi girls and eager student teachers, the RBKS board of directors, and a steaming pot of Indian chai.
We would all spend the next two nights together in a big room, cots sprawled from end to end and a dangling white rope that zigzagged overhead, holding up our mosquito nets.
We spent those first days visiting the local Jhadol market where we each found a new food or snack and presented it to the group, providing samples of each new treat, of course. We also paired off and met with our student teachers to begin planning our lessons for the week.
On our first day in the classroom, many of us were intimidated by the prospect of planning our own lessons and leading our classes. When Heath and I walked into the school’s 7th grade class, 20 pairs of young eyes darted in our direction.
We decided that our first class should be an arts and crafts lesson, so that we could get a better sense of the girls’ English level. We made friendship bracelets and fortune tellers and capped off our morning with some hackey sack outside.
Our next several lessons centered around strengthening the students’ English through oral presentations and encouraging the girls’ to continue learning and to never forget how brave and amazing we know they are.
As the first members of their family to ever receive a formal education, the girls will inevitably face obstacles and challenges that threaten their ability to complete their schooling.
We spent our afternoons at the school painting in the girls’ dormitories with student volunteers. Many times, the girls were so eager to help that we ended up just watching as they laughed and worked to decorate their rooms’ once-plain walls.
On our last night in the village, our host families and the girls living at the school joined us in the room where we slept the first few nights for a dance party. I did not know what to expect, but nothing could have prepared me for the absolute rager I was about to attend. We all spent hours jumping and dancing to modern and traditional Indian tunes, forming circles with the girls and following along as they led us in choreographed numbers and random hip sways and fist pumps.
The night ended with final goodbyes to the girls and the student teachers that we’d gotten to know over the past week. “I will miss you” and “Goodbye” and “Come back to India” all echoed throughout the school’s long hallway. If you had told me the first day that saying goodbye to those girls would be so hard, I never would have believed you, but as the girls from Class 7 faded into the darkness that surrounded the school, I found myself shedding more than one tear. I hope to see them again some day.
Rajhasthan, the land of kings. Many small kingdoms and palaces spread across the desert terrain of the state. Udaipur, which resembles Venice with its vast lakes and waterways, will always have a special place in my heart.
After the village home stay we returned to the bustling city, excited to be back in the presence of the Royal Palace as well as the amazing food.
I walked around the bazaar near the palace and met a man selling incense. The sweet perfume of the shop lured me inside, and I sat on a bed of cushions while being handed chai in a small teacup. The man introduced himself as Shivaq, then proceeded to proudly inform me that all the oils and perfumes are hand crafted by him and his father (who owns the shop). Shivaqs English was soft spoken and clear to understand, which made conversation easy. His eyes were genuine, explaining to me the process of making and manufacturing the oils from India to Europe. It isn’t always the easiest to know someone’s intentions while traveling, but people continue to surprise me in the best ways.
The Golden Temple in Armritsar, India was an experience I’ll never forget. I’m the type of person who doesn’t like change or situations that make me uncomfortable. So, staying in a place that is the center of equality for the Sikh religion, housing and feeding hundreds of people everyday, overwhelmed every part of me. I was quick to resent the situation all together, then took a step back and realized how silly I was for acting as such. I was being given a bed, food, and the ability to connect with other people, judgment free.
Although some people tend to stare and ask to take one too many selfies, I made comfort out of the discomfort and was able to learn and enjoy my time spent at he Temple. Learning firsthand about the Sikh faith while at a central religious monument was intriguing. Not only are you interested about them, but they’re genuinely interested in you as well.
While in Jaisalmer, we took a walk up to the ancient fort/ palace on top of the hill. It was built in 1156 a.d, back when Jaisalmer was not just a city but a kingdom. It reminds you how huge and diverse India is. Even the single state of Rajasthan had many different kingdoms inside of it.
The desert fort is huge and made of sandstone, featuring curved walls, towers, balconies, and even hotels. This is actually a pretty big problem, because the waste water from all these businesses is eroding the ancient foundation. Therefore, we tried not to order too much food there.
We took the audio tour of the fort and palace, which was very informative. One interesting part was the armory featured guns that were made to be used while riding a camel. Another piece that stuck with me is the story of the Sakas and Jauhars. The fort was almost overwhelmed in battle, but the handful of times that it was, the remaining occupants chose death over defeat. The Jauhars were when the women would don ceremonial dress, and to the beat of a drum, step into a roaring fire. Then, the Sakas would ride out to the enemy, killing as many as they could before they were finally cut down.
A red sun rose as the group loaded up into the convoy. As the jeeps skated across the desert, I looked out the window with a furious excitement. Our group may now be gritted veterans in the eyes of a backpacker, but to the camel safari leaders (whom I called The Desert Sages) we were simple city slickers.
We hopped out of the convoy and the Sages laid blankets on the ground and brought forth biscuits, bananas, toast, boiled eggs and chai tea. This would be our usual breakfast. As the sun continued to rise we continued to eat and talk and look at our new four legged rides. We had to wait for some time as we needed one more camel before our new adventure could begin.
After some glamour pictures and the petting of camels, like from a wild west movie, a young boy and an old Sage appeared from the horizon bringing our final camel. It was the youngest and smallest of the camel pack or herd, I’m unsure of the nomenclature, and it’s name was Hati. However I called it Cilantro, since it was mine. Everyone laughed and pointed and enjoyed the fact that I had the smallest camel. Soon however they would know his true strength. I’m getting ahead myself.
We climbed aboard a saddle that was 95% cushions and blankets and 5% saddle. Yet even with all that cush you got a real pain in the tush. Some of us in the group have ridden horses before, but we soon realized a camel ain’t a horse.
We were guided in groups of three, one camel pulled by a walking Sage, with two in tow. After trodding and plodding and clawing our way across the desert sands, I had to peel my leg off the saddle because I could not move it by itself. As I threw my leg over Cilantro I walked under the shady tree which is where we were to eat lunch. I sat in the fine sand and watched as everyone bowleggedly walked to the shade. “Ow, oohh, gee wiz” were the conversations that transpired under the tree as we escaped the hottest part of the day.
While we relaxed the Sages were hard at work. Collecting firewood, chopping vegetables, rolling dough, all for us. “Lunch!” They cried, and served us on tin trays. We asked when they ate and they told us we were their guests. So we eat until we’re full and then they eat. To have these men walk as we ride and then serve us food with such grandiose smiles was quite humbling. I’ll never complain about walking the dog again.
Another hop on the saddle and a desert skidattle later we are lying on a sandy dune watching the sun slowly fall into the horizon. A Sage brings us tea as twilight settles over the sand. The deep shades of orange in the day faded into every hue of blue. As daylight receded from the desert, the near full moon shone like a white sun drowning the desert in its cold mysticism.
The group convened under the moonlight and shared stories and quotes. Some were funny and some made you think. Made you ask yourself how you ended up in the desert in the land of kings. As we prepared for bed the Sages brought out thick comfy blankets and oddly clean white sheets and laid them in a long line. When everyone picked their spots we looked like the world’s worst batch of sardines. Mostly because of how much sand you’d get if you tried us. The final conversations of the night dimmed and died and everyone drifted off into a well deserved sleep. I thought the stars would be better, but the moon didn’t help so I turned in and slept. However I awoke to a moonless night and a black sky smothered in diamonds.
Day 2 of the safari we woke up to the sun rising over the desert and breakfast cooked over the campfire. After we finished our chai, we packed up and hopped back on the camels. Orkey (my camel) and I rode at the back of the herd. The sun was hot but there was a nice breeze rolling through the desert.
We stopped to have lunch at noon and set up camp under a tall tree. I cooled off in the shade for a couple of hours, some napped, others read a book. By 2:30 we packed up once again and got back on the camels ready to spend our last evening in the desert.
The air started to cool off as we walked through the flat lands of the desert. I put on some music to distract myself from the pain in my legs. Allie rode close by and we sang to pass the time. As the sun set lower into the horizon we came across the sand dunes. They stood taller than all of us and rolled through the desert as far as I could see.
Finally we set up sleeping camp for the last time and then sprinted to the giant sand dune that stood in front of us. We all stood at the top and admired the view but within 5 minutes the moment was gone and it turned into a free for all of wrestling and pushing each other down the hill. Sand got everywhere, in my mouth, nose, pants. Everyone was laughing. After a while of fooling around we collapsed from exhaustion in the dunes.
Chai was served and the sun set, blankets were set up around a campfire. The moon was bright and full, perfect for Halloween. Musicians and dancers came to the fire to preform for us. There was a tambourine player, a flute-like instrument played, called a pungi, and two dancers. Everyone enjoyed the music and we danced for a couple of songs.
After they had left we continued to keep the campfire lit. Carly told us some ghost stories, Blair painted faces for Halloween, and Mark and Bradford composed a song about camels that made everyone laugh hysterically. Once the fire went out we climbed into our sleeping bags and enjoyed the last night sleeping under the stars.
The next morning I was woken up to a cup of chai served to me. I give the desert service five stars. We went on with our morning routine of breakfast, packing up, and hopping back on the camels.
Since today was the last day I was given the reins, and instead of being lead by other camels I had Orkey all to myself. We did lots of trotting once we got back to the flat lands, Madi and Heater’s camels were attached to Orkey and we were in control. Trotting was lots of fun but after a while Orkey got sick of it and decided not to listen to me anymore.
We ended the safari at lunchtime and set up under a tree for the last time. We had another delicious meal, and I thought about how much I am going to miss the desert food. I said goodbye and gave a big hug to Orkey. He was a cool guy. Finally the jeeps came to pick us up and take us back to our hotel.
When we arrived in Kathmandu, I thought we were in another world. When we arrived in Delhi, I figured we were in another dimension! Imagine every scent you’ve ever smelled all at once. Children popped firecrackers in the streets and watched as sixteen turtles found their way. Bradford took us to a wonderful restaurant and we shared every Indian dish we could order. We woke up to our first full day in India and managed to see four different religions in action, in one day. We started at the Muslim mosque, a beautiful fort like structure made out of red stone. A tower lead us to a beautiful view view of old Delhi. Next was a Jain temple. We learned a lot about the religion and how it is practiced. A bird hospital inside the temple threw me for a loop. Next we arrived at Sikh gurudwara. Women helped us tie scarves on our heads as we washed off our feet and stepped into a music filled room. Walking clockwise around the worship area, we were given many smiles and lots of information. Inside the temple we watched as a feast was prepared by volunteers for anyone and everyone.
Such a neat experience! Later as we regrouped we headed out for the most impressive Hindu temple ever, Akshardham. This unique modern temple reminded me of Disney World, complete with boat ride and laser light show. The next day in Delhi we all broke off into small groups and explored different places we were interested in.
After a few days in Delhi, we caught a train to Agra. The train ride, in succinct terms, felt authentic.
Vendors prowled the length of the cars offering books, chai, samosas, and panni, among other treats and treasures. The seating was cozy, but not over crowed. It may sound silly, but traveling like a local made me feel as though I could hear India’s heart beat.
Agra was only a short stop on our journey in India, but an important one as it is home to the Taj Mahal. Let me start by saying that the Taj Mahal isn’t one of the 7 wonders of the world for no reason. It was breathtaking. The way the sun shone against the white marble of the mausoleum, is indescribable. Just being there can make the most stoic person’s heart ache. Emperor Shah Jahan had it built as a symbol of his love for his second wife, Mumtaz Mahal, after her death in 1631 and lies there with his love to this day.
The trip to Jaipur from Agra began with a packed tuk tuk ride to the bus station ( we took a short cut because you can’t have more then three people on a tuk tuk and we had five). Waiting in the bus station was long so we filled the time with hacky sack and conversations about our favorite TV shows. Hacky sack got shut down real quick by the guard. Finding and getting onto the bus was a little stressful, but we were able to do it. I squished between two other people and listened to music till we got to our homestay six hours later.
The next day we went to Amber Fort and had a wonderful tour guide walk us through it. Lunch was thali, a traditional dish of different curries, curd and chapatti. After lunch, we went to a paper factory and pottery factory, both fascinating in their own ways. After that we all left to our home stay houses and relaxed.
The following morning we woke up early and went to yoga class. I can only give my opinion on it, but most of the positions felt great. Then some of them felt like they hurt more then they benefited me. After breakfast Rishi-ji, our local director, took us on a tour of Jaipur. We saw lots of shops and marble statues. At lunch time we were allowed to go anywhere in the city for the rest of the day.
My home stay family was different then my Nepal families. They were nice and welcoming but also gave us more time alone and that was nice. Talking with our host brothers and sisters was fun to see how much we had in common and to see the differences. The food was delicious and plentiful.
After morning yoga and breakfast at Rekha-ji’s house (another one of our local directors) we embarked on a short drive in the vans to a nearby artist’s community in the city where traditional Jaipurite life had been preserved.
There we helped make quilts and dresses, watched incredible traditional dances, and saw first hand an entirely different side of city living than we had been experiencing with our home stay families.
Afterwards we were all dropped off at Central Park for a picnic. We were then free to do as we wish, until 5:30 when we all met back at Rekha-ji’s house to go watch the sunset on a fort looking over the city.
The following morning after yoga and breakfast, we all went to an observatory (Jantar Mantar) from the 1700’s, and saw what incredible instruments they had designed to learn as much about the sun, planets, seasons, and zodiacs as they could. We were then set free for lunch to enjoy the rest of the afternoon, and met back at 5:30 for a private performance from a family of famous musicians.
The next day, again after a very unique yoga class, we went to the JKK art museum and saw incredible photos and fossils. There was a famous band rehearsing there who combines traditional Indian music with western style guitar, keyboard, and drums. After the museum we had the rest of the day off to explore. Many of us decided to see a Bollywood movie, and then go back to the JKK to see the band’s concert for free. We were picked up at 10:00pm to make our way to the overnight train to Jaisalmer!
After leaving Monumental Paradise, we had two destinations in the city to stop at before we went to the village homestay. The first was Pashupatinath, a Hindu temple dedicated to the god Shiva. Shiva is associated with death, and bodies are cremated in the open on the banks of the Bagmati river (the holiest river in Nepal). We didn’t see any cremations, but we did see a body being prepared with flowers and oils. You have to be Hindu to actually enter the temple itself, but that didn’t stop a few of us from accidentally walking through the wrong doorway due to a confusing sign and promptly being told to leave.
Outside the temple, we walked through quiet shrines and monuments that represent the male anatomy, because Shiva is also the god of fertility. This, plus the bodies being cremated, made a fascinating contrast between life and death, as Will pointed out.
The area was populated mainly by tourists, monkeys, and men called the Renunciates. They’re called this because they’ve renounced property, and the opportunity to marry, in favor of a life of prayer, meditation and devotion to Shiva. They wear orange robes and face paint, and have long beards. The Pashupatinath Temple was awesome, but soon it was time for us to get back in the bus and continue on to the Boudhanath stupa.
The Boudhanath is one of the largest Buddhist stupas in the world. It’s a huge white dome strung with colorful prayer flags and painted with watchful Buddha eyes. We followed the custom of walking around the stupa clockwise while spinning the prayer wheels that surround its base. The sun beat down on our necks and the smell of incense filled the air. Pretty soon we all took refuge in the restaurants and coffee shops and had a much-needed lunch.
Mark, however, was taken on a bit of an emotional roller coaster by a local man. He stuck up a conversation with Mark at Boudhanath, and after talking for a while, took him outside the stupa area and down narrow alleyways to a beautiful prayer garden. He then presented him with a red necklace that he said had been given to him by the Dalai Lama! Mark, in his usual fashion, was so overcome with emotion that he could barely choke out a thank you to his new friend. However, this outpouring of gratitude quickly turned to disappointment when the man started to ask for money for his eye surgery. Dejected that what he thought was friendship was simply a ploy for money, he made his way back to the rest of the group with a great story to tell.
Overall, visiting the Hindu and Buddhist temples were a really cool showcase of the different religions in the area. After this exciting excursion we piled back into the bus and hit the road for the village.
As our bus rounded a final curve on its ascent up one of Nepal’s many, many mountains, we all looked out our windows to catch a glimpse of the magnificent rolling hills and village decorated with rice patties that lie below.
Tensions ran high on this two hour drive; although we all had some expectations for our first village homestay, our time at our last homestay taught us that nothing can prepare us for the situation’s reality until we are actually living it.
After a brief welcoming ceremony, in which our host mothers and other village members adorned us with traditional Tamang milk Tina and marigolds, we
all sat outside a community shop and drank tea and and received “Tamang names” from an 18 year old Manegaun native named Purna whose English ranked amongst some of the best in the community. When it came time for me to be renamed, it quickly became obvious to myself, Purna, and the rest of the group that there was no direct translation for my name (Blake) in Tamang. Eventually, we settled on “Sunderi” which means “beautiful”, because according to our friend Purna, “‘Blake’ sounds like ‘lake’ and nature is beautiful”. ” I could get used to this place” I thought jokingly to myself.
We then split off with our roommates and made the brief five minute walks to our respective houses. When Madi and I arrived at our home stay, we were greeted by an outhouse, a sizeable home made of mud and bricks, a mustard field being tilled and seeded, five goats and a young woman in traditional Tamang clothing wearing a smile from ear to ear.
Although she didn’t speak much English, we communicate in smiles and “Thank yous” and got to know each other even in moments of silence and the occasional awkward stares. It turns out Purna is our host mom’s nephew, so several nights during our time there he would come over and talk about his life and his dreams; we shared our experiences in the United States and he shared his perspectives on the Manegaun village, whose borders enclose his world and, in turn, his view of it. We learned about Tamang weddings and funerals, and, after the death of a man in one of the neighboring homes, Madi and I would attend a traditional Tamang funeral, complete with a plate of yellow rice, a praying lama brought in from Kathmandu, and a wailing older woman, who we would later find out was the man’s older sister.
As the week wore on, Maddie and I found more and more ways to communicate with our host mom. After much confusion as to why she seemed to live alone, we learned that her husband, like many men in the village, had moved away to find work. He is in the Nepali army and is currently deployed in Sudan. Her son is living with his grandmother in a neighboring village where he attends school. We spent several nights going through pictures of her son and husband on her phone, their smiling faces matching hers as she looked into the bright light of her phone’s screen.
The three of us played cards and made tea and after several days Madi and I became in charge of helping prepare the ingredients for the bi-daily Dal Bhat. We inspected the spinach for insects and chopped it up using what looked like a pick axe. We used the same tools to peel potatoes and I used a large knife to chop dried buffalo meat into small pieces atop a stump of wood. We then brought all these ingredients to a small fire on the porch, because, as we would later learn, it is not permitted in Tamang culture to cook buffalo meat inside.
After using our right hands to scoop and flick the Dal Bhat into our mouths, we would end our nights gazing up at the multitude of stars that seemed to cover the village’s night sky like a dome. It amazed me to think that despite the town’s simplicity, I could look up every night to view one of the most magnificent sights I’ve ever seen.
After spending the first night in the village with our host families we woke up to a morning snack with tea and later dal bhat for breakfast. On the way out I said goodbye to my host mother and met the rest of the group at the local tea house and we began our daily walk to school.
The walk through the village lasts about 20 minutes, and on the first day we were welcomed by the school children with marigold necklaces and a tikka. The kids at this school are young, kindergarten through fifth grade and they are very eager to learn from us. The first half of the morning was spent in the classrooms teaching the children English, which at times was difficult because of the language barrier between ourselves and the students and teachers. Although we went into the classroom with set plans, many of us had to improvise to fill the hour and a half time frame we were given. Simon, Mark, Heater, and I were working with the youngest group of kids. We sang lots of songs and reviewed the English alphabet. A lot of the kids already had an understanding of the language which was very impressive to us. For the second half the students all went outside to play games with us such as Capture the Flag, Red Rover, and Butt Soccer. There were so many students that the games became chaotic, with lots of running, yelling, and laughter, but all of us had a great time.
After a delicious lunch from a tea house down the street, we went back to work on the school. Our projects consisted of painting a mural, building a bamboo fence, and making a flight of stairs out of a dirt walkway. As we began to work on the projects we realized we had limited resources and again had to do a little more improvising. As some began taking out the old fence, others began painting the brick wall for the mural, and I started moving bricks for the stairs with Allie and Blake. Once all the bricks were moved Simon, Bradford, and I began to dig and set the bricks into place. It was a tedious process because the bricks needed to fit perfectly and compact into the dirt. After two hours of working the school day was over, the kids did their routine goodbye ceremony and we left soon after them. The rest of the week followed a similar routine of teaching, learning, and construction.
On Saturday, the only day off in the school week, we met at the teahouse. Instead of going to the school we were taken to a local organic farm, which happened to be the homestay I was staying in with Triina and Allie. We were taken on a tour of the garden where rice, corn, potatoes, squash, and many more veggies are grown. We were also shown the organic compost pile, the local wine being made, and the goats, cows, bulls, and chickens. I was in awe of how much the farm produced using the simplest resources.
After visiting the garden we walked for about 45 minutes through the village to get to the Thrangu Tashi Yangtse Temple, a Buddhist temple. The massive temple shimmered gold and I felt like I was entering a castle. When we walked inside to the main hall I noticed that the ceilings were made up of colorful and detailed designs. As we all walked further down the hallway there was a place for us to leave our shoes and a flight of stairs. I dropped off my shoes and walked up. After turning the corner I saw an entrance to the temple, and the whole group staggered in. There was so much to look at inside, with so many colors and murals that filled the massive walls, statues everywhere, and a giant space filled with rows of cushions to meditate. The left and right walls had murals of many teachings and stories of Buddhism, and the front of the room had hundreds of Buddha statues lining the walls and two huge ones in front. All the Buddhas were gold. But, before the Buddhas were colorful statues of flowers and objects with intricate designs. The room screamed with color. There is no talking allowed inside the temple, but the only word I can use to describe it is “loud”. Not loud to my ears but loud to my eyes and to my brain. There was so much going on and so much to take in, although it was not overwhelming.
The group took time to sit down on the cushions and meditate. I sat down and could not close my eyes because I wanted to take it all in, all the colors and the murals. While I sat there looking around I realized I had so much to learn about the religion because there was so much I didn’t understand. When I left the temple I had a lot on my mind and a new itch to learn more about Buddhism.
Once we left the temple we walked 45 minutes back into the village to meet with the principal from the school. He wanted to show us how to make a Nepali dish called “mixed pickle”. The recipe consists of cabbage and carrots mixed into a bowl with ginger, cucumber, radish, garlic, salt, ground sesame seeds, and peas. It was a delicious and simple snack!
Once we left the cooking class a couple of us walked to a field that is set on a hill overlooking the village. Lots of locals enjoy the field because it is in the main part of the village and the children like to play on the bamboo swing in the field. We all hung out there for a while. Triina joined the kids on the swing, while Maddie and I decided to go dance with some of the locals having a picnic in the field. They had a giant speaker attached to their car and one woman was dancing for everyone. Maddie and I jumped in and stared to dance with her.
Everyone was laughing at us because we had no clue how to do the Nepali dances. Soon enough they were clapping and taking pictures. More people from our group showed up to dance with us, Blake, JR, Triina, Mark, Tom, and Liv. Both groups laughed a lot and had a great time. Once we were done dancing we had to pose for some group pictures. We said our goodbyes and called it a night and all went home to some Dal Baht.
Alarms went off, breakfast was served, and off we went to load the bus, accompanied by Chandra and Gokul, our soon-to-be new best friends. After a 3 hour extremely bumpy bus ride on the edge of the mountain, we landed at our first lunch destination. We all ate lunch with an open mind, ready to take on the mountains and to soon find out what that would be like. After about 10 minutes of walking up many stairs in the very hot sun with a 20 pound bag, you could see the worried look on everyone’s face. Thankfully we had Gokul for the occasional joke that would really lighten the mood; his golden tooth smile was too contagious to avoid. About 4 hours and many stairs later, we reached our first destination for dinner. We waited a while, as is normal, and then all enjoyed dinner together. I could never forget waking up the next morning to see the sun beating on the white caps of the tallest mountains in the world.
We were still far away, but that gave us some motivation to get going that morning. Sore from a bag that didn’t fit at all, and made for an extra large man– which I am far from –I came up with a homemade hip padding made of my down jacket, pj pants, and a few towels. That would be a daily routine that saved my hips. Many long days of waking up, eating, walking, eating, walking, drinking lots of tea, and eating again sucked the life right out of most of us, but the views made up for most of the pain and exhaustion. Day 5 came along and we made the hike to Machapuchare Base Camp, where we would spend the day before getting up early to hike to the sunrise at Annapurna Base Camp. This
break was very needed, with many of us feeling the altitude and fighting some sickness as well. Alarms rang at 3 am and we made the final journey to ABC. I will never forget reaching the top in the complete darkness next to Gokul and him saying “Namaste, we did it,” continuing to laugh and joke like he always would. One by one, all 16 of us touched down at ABC, well over 13,000 ft up. Everyone was so relieved after all of the many ups and downs. It was all worth it to stand in awe surrounded by the largest mountains in the world. When all feeling was lost in our bodies from the freezing wind, we headed in for breakfast and tea or coffee. I stayed and relaxed on the top for a while to soak up all of the views, imagining what it would be like to even attempt summiting these extremely steep mountains.
We headed back down and spent the rest of the day resting up for the final stretch of the trek. Everyone was ready to be back in Pokhara for our “treat yo self” day, where I would get an amazing massage. When we reached our final spot, which happened to be the same place we had lunch the first day, everyone was in awe over what they had done, and that every single one of us made it the entire way. We said sad goodbyes to our treking pals and returned to Pokhara. Everyone walking like 80 year olds, we finally showered, and some of us connected with home or enjoyed a nice tea and crepe and then headed to bed feeling very proud and happy to say we completed the Annapurna Base Camp trek.
The trail of the Skywalkers. That is what this trek could be coined. For one cannot walk through the clouds, above a rainbow, over ranges and rivers and not think they could kiss the sky. I had all my expectations of the Himalayas thrown out the window from day one. Instead of a rocky, snowy, yeti-infested, winter wonderland, I was greeted with a dense jungle, populated by oxen, ponies, friendly smiles, and many “Namaste’s.” Every
day I was in awe at how green and fertile the land was. Had my body not been sounding the alarm via sheer pain in my legs, full body sweating, and the very occasional heavy breath, I may have been able to soak in a bit more of the countryside. However after walking for nine days I don’t believe one could ever experience all of what this trek offers. When you fall into the routine the days begin to pass in minutes. Wake up at 6:30, leave at 7, walk until noon, eat for an hour, walk four more, and you’re asleep by 9. So begins the next day and the next day, you get the idea. Yet once I reached the “summit” a.k.a. Annapurna Base Camp, I forgot all the leg pain and early mornings looking far away at our next destination. Because I was finally there.
The great end point of our mountain voyage. I stared at some of the highest peaks this world has to offer. I watched as the sun peaked over the mountain tops and flooded the valley with light and oh so wanted heat. I was surrounded by people from all over the world. Everyone was smiling and taking their victory photos. I screamed into the valley and heard it answer back. Oh boy what a day that was. While all our journeys varied, our destination was the same.
Some of the hilarious/ painful/ difficult/ uniquely Nepali experiences we’ve been through as a group (being knocked off the trail by a rogue donkey comes to mind, but more on that later…) are hard to fit into a blog post. My best advice is that any inquiring minds at home buy some hiking boots, a Costco- sized pack of Snickers bars (they are possibly the most valuable currency on the mountain- I’ve seen relationships strained and even ended over a single bar!), and book a flight to Pokhara so you can experience the highs and lows (literally…) that characterize a trek to Annapurna Base Camp. But I know that’s not a possibility for most, so I’ll do my best to capture the trek’s true essence.
We began to joke by the end of the trek that our days followed an eerily similar schedule- sleep, walk, eat, walk, eat, sleep. And while this is true on a baseline level, each day brought new challenges and victories. If I had to classify the dominant experiences during the trek based on each of the five senses, it would go something like this:
Sound: Pink Floyd’s “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” (the entire album. A few times through) and a few 20 minute Grateful Dead jams are the best jungle- exploring music. I felt like a female Indiana Jones in the best way possible.
Our trekking guide, Gokul’s, golden laughter. It
truly rang out through the forest, across the long tables in the tea house dining halls, and from the top of those 3,000 stairs we all climbed up (and regretted not being more grateful for every single downhill before that).
Sight: Being greeted by a team of smiling, slightly out- of- breath friends and fellow trekkers as you reached Annapurna Base Camp at 4:30 AM for the sunrise.
The billowing strands of prayer flags that line the base camp, their inscriptions reminders of the sacred nature of the mountains we’d just spent days traversing.
Smell: The spicy musk of warm masala tea, served in a giant thermos and split 4 ways (if you’re lucky- this is the optimal rupee to tea ratio for the price!), enjoyed over a game of Egyptian Ratscrew or Bradford’s very own card game we’ve lovingly named “Mountain Court,” as no one is entirely sure what it’s actually called.
Touch: The cozy feeling of a much deserved sleeping bag cuddle puddle after a long day of trekking.
Hiking in wet (not moist, not partially dry) socks, and the blisters in places you never knew you could develop blisters!
Sweat. Mixed with the smell of damp clothing that never seemed to dry, no matter how many times you hung it out on the clothesline. Seems pretty self explanatory.
Taste: Carbohydrate overload! Gurung bread (a fried flatbread best served doused in honey), pasta, pizza (with yak cheese of course), bread, rice, more rice, maybe even a little more rice. Good for the trekker’s appetite and for the soul.
The celebratory, 250 rupee Snickers at the end of the trek- worth every last (Nepali) penny.
The nerves were still buzzing throughout the room as we sat down for our first dinner at our host’s house. My roommate, Liv, and I sat at the table with the grandfather and father, which was such an honor since the elders are treated with such respect. Our host mom put a plate of rice on the table and I instantly became very overwhelmed as I realized that it was just for me and not all seven of us. As the dahl and vegetables came out, the grandfather began to teach us the proper way to eat with our hands. After many failed attempts, he made a fist in my direction, since it’s very rude to point in the Nepali culture, and asked if I want a spoon. However, he speaks absolutely no English and “do you want a spoon” apparently sounds a lot like “fist pump” in Nepali. So I completely just went for it thinking it was some cool culture connection. The whole room broke out in laughter explaining the situation in which I inappropriately punched the fist of a Nepali grandfather. I don’t think I’ve ever been so embarrassed or culturally ignorant. My first reaction was to nervously laugh then profusely apologize… and then I couldn’t wait to tell the rest of my group.
The average morning of my home stay involves two ways of waking up: either by dogs and roosters deciding to get into a shouting match at four in the morning or by the beautiful music of the Dashain festival, accompanied by the cheerful welcome of ” Namaste!” by my host family with tea and coffee.
After coffee and tea breakfast is served and consists of delicious toast, eggs, crepes, doughnuts, and potatoes. Once the food is devoured we talk with our host family till we have to be at the local school.
When we first arrived at the school, just a stone’s throw away from my home stay family’s house, the principal and many students were waiting to honor us with a welcoming ceremony. They put a tika on our foreheads and gave us each a religious scarf. After some kind words, we broke off into three groups– teaching the younger children English, making small talk with the older students, and moving bricks. Throughout the week, our work at the school consisted of groups either painting, rebuilding the school, or playing with the handful of students who weren’t at home celebrating Dashain. Everyday we all had lunch at my home stay family’s house, and went home from school at 4:00 for more cultural exchanges with our families. An early bedtime is more than welcome at the end of each day.
After a hard day of work I come to my host family house and take a shower. Then I walk up to the roof and watch the sunset in the Himlayays. During the sunset friends from other host families come and converse about the day, laugh and share stories of past times. After everyone leaves dinner is served. Normally dinner is Dahl Bhat which is rice and a lentil puree, accompanied with some sort of meat and veggies. Everyone
sits together and talks about how their day went. I then proceeded to eat an extremely hot pepper and immediately regretted my decision. Then the exchange of music happens. Turns out my host brother really likes ACDC, Led Zeppelin and 2pac. The night ends with a goodnight from both parties and an eager but exhausted walk to our beds.
On our last day at the school, the students and administration held a fabulous goodbye ceremony. Tika, silk scarves, speeches and a whole lot of dancing was involved. The
Nepali students prepared dances and the Youth International team members performed ukulele songs and tradition Nepali dances. It was sad to say goodbye but the glamorous entertainment and the promising trek coming up made it bearable.
The next day, After a long and hot bus ride we arrived at a small shack, where we
met one of our white water rafting guides. We were led to a beach to which we devoured a tasty lunch. Then we got in our rafts and hit the rapids. I think we all added a few years to our lives because we laughed and smiled so much. The rapids hit hard and fast. After a while we pulled off to the side and jumped off a cliff into the cool and refreshing water.
We ended the rafting with a float down to the beach, where we took pictures with the guides and said goodbye.