Tuesday, September 30, 2008

New Friends

When you stay in a place for more than a few days you start to get to know the locals. A friendly smile turns into a conversation and next thing you know you are trekking through jungle paths in search of a waterfall. Meet Bharat, the youngest son of a family who owns the chai and samosa stand just down the street. Such a sweet character ... touching the heads of every cow, acknowledging the statue of Krishna and saying hello to all the neighborhood families. It was Bharat that took us on a backcountry walking tour on Sunday. As we headed up the mountain, he was concerned about our timing since we started out a little late in the afternoon ... apparently it was the time the elephants came out and there was a possibility we could encounter a stampede. 'Oh Great! I hope we don't meet any tigers', I joked. He laughed and assured us they were high in the alpine. As we neared the waterfall, we entered a small Ashram where one lone Baba lived. He called down from his perch wanting to know where we were going. Bharat told him we were going to visit the waterfall. Baba warned against this pointing to paw prints on the ground. A tiger had indeed been roaming these parts and dusk was the time to cool down for a drink at the waterfall. Baba said to come back another day earlier in the morning and he would show us all the hidden caves around the area. We turned back and headed home. The waterfall awaits us for another day ...

The Streets of Rishikesh at Night

Last night as Bob and I were walking home on the quiet streets I shed a tear. I think it all just started to hit me … where we really were, how many people lived on the streets, what they had to endure … on the other side of the world in such a strange and mysterious place. As we stopped to buy a chocolate at a small confection stand I heard the sweet sounds of a wooden flute echoing through the streets. Turning to catch a glimpse, a dark figure was hunched over the curb, legs crossed with only a stump remaining below his left knee. His prosthetic leg sat unattached beside him while three cows and a baby calf listened intently to his lonely song. Was his prosthetic limb and flute his only possessions? I was sure he would spend the night like many others on the streets of Rishikesh. Sleeping on top of a vegetable cart, under a Chai stand or on the Ghats by the side of the Ganga River, perhaps within a small alcove curled in a ball. Some covered with blankets, others completely exposed. Did you have your dinner? Where is your family? Scrawny dogs and their puppies wake up to explore the remains of the day while the cows and mammoth bulls curl up on the pavement in their usual spots. To the Babas, cripples, mothers, fathers and children of the streets … I send my love to you.

How to make a lassie

Rishikesh is an aspiring Yogi’s dream:
~ More Ashrams than hotels
~ Pure vegetarian and Ayurvedic food
~ A ban on Alcohol
~ Hindu prayers and songs flowing through the streets
~ Yoga instructors galore of all styles and disciplines
~ All kinds of travelers and pilgrims interested in a similar path

My yoga experience at the Ashram was lacking and I was just not feeling satisfied. I decided to look elsewhere and discovered a myriad of options. That day Bob and I moved from the Ashram to a family run Guest House down the road. After three days of treatments I stopped my Panchakarma to focus exclusively on Yoga. Dr. Maurya recommended I meet Sarinder Singh at the Raj Palace Hotel. My first class was like coming home. It all felt so right, so comfortable. I immediately connected with Sarinder’s kind and loving energy. His attentiveness to each individual and knowledgeable adjustments instilled confidence. He gave me renewed hope of healing my left hip that has been in pain and tightly locked for the past year and a half. My entire practice has been redefined and injected with insightful alignment principles, relaxation techniques and a suite of new Asanas to open the hips, shoulders, spine and mind.
Occasionally during the class, Sarinder discusses the benefits of meditation and has used a few creative analogies:
~ If a seed is split in half it cannot grow. As a whole and under the proper conditions, the seed can grow into a beautiful flower with solid roots, a nice fragrance and beautiful petals. Similarly, acceptance is our blossoming. We can become more balanced, peaceful and whole through meditation, asana and pranayama. The flower is the centre of nature while the soul is the centre of our being.
~ Do you look at yourself in the mirror before you leave the house? This is a common habit to make sure our physical appearance is OK before we interact with the outside world. How do we check our mind? How do we look inside ourselves? Through meditation, we can look at our mind to observe inner selves, recognize our negative patterns and eventually through practice and patience purify our thoughts. Turn your mind to the inside.
~ How do you make a lassie? By mixing milk with curd. In order to make the curd, we must first boil the milk, add a little bit of curd and let it sit in stillness for a very long time. We can then enjoy a tasty lassie. Again, by observing of our thoughts, breathing consciously and relaxing the body we can quiet the mind. Access peace and true happiness.

I have the best intentions to practice meditation. I understand the benefits but don’t know why I am not making the time to sit in stillness with myself. I have found an early morning session at another Ashram where a Swami will guide you through meditation techniques. But alas I have yet to attend. What is holding me back? Why am I clinging to old mindsets and not exploring new possibilities? I will set my alarm for tomorrow morning and try to go. Stillness in action …

Now back to Yoga classes … Last Sunday evening, I had somewhat of a different experience with another teacher at a hotel just down the street. I ventured into the yoga room, curious to explore alternative teachers and styles. This young man had quite the opposite vibe and it didn’t help matters that I was the only student in a space that resembled a dingy cave with room for a maximum of three people. The routine started off fine but quickly digressed as we moved through the standing postures. The door was locked behind us, curtains drawn and the room became more and more claustrophobic with his monotone instructions piercing my eardrums. With each adjustment I felt his presence becoming closer and closer. At one point I had to set my boundaries and let him know that his adjustments were making me uncomfortable as they were beginning to infringe on the nether regions. You want to give the yoga teacher the benefit of the doubt but at the same time you have to listen to your inner voice. And this time it was shouting loud and clear. The class finally came to a close with bazaar yogic breathing techniques that I had once witnessed but never practiced myself. He told me that if I lifted my shirt he could see my belly motions better and therefore help more. I abruptly declined and managed to get myself through the practice as well as his final relaxation that resembled a 45-speed record set to 33. Needless to say I ran out at the end of the class and didn’t look back.

For the past 8 mornings I have found a really neat teacher that focuses on Iyengar techniques and Restorative Yoga. Suryans’ classes are a great compliment to Surinder’s evening set. The Iyengar approach slows things right down by deconstructing each pose to truly understand it and feel the alignment principles in action. We practice each pose multiple times and use a lot of props such as bolsters, blankets, blocks and straps to assist the body while in the pose. Tomorrow I am going to start a 10 day course with Suryans. They are installing ropes on the walls to also assist us in the postures. It should be fun to tie ourselves up and then release down completely into the poses. I am sure Downward dog will be an entirely new experience. I’ll keep you posted on the progress.

Imagine all the people

A couple of days ago we followed the river past a funeral of men where they were burning a body on a casket of sticks. Our destination was an old Ashram where the Beatles once stayed in the 1960’s. We finally found the deserted grounds with the gates locked. A caretaker approached us and we were informed that it would be 20 rupees to look inside. We paid the ‘baksheesh’ and entered the overgrown jungle of ancient walkways, dilapidated buildings, super-sized spiders in gigantic webs, vibrant butterflies and tropical birds. As we walked through the grounds I started to imagine what the Ashram would have been like in its time. Who were the great sages? Who stayed in the two-story stone huts? What epiphanies bestowed its visitors? What did the Beatles learn during their stay? How were they inspired? Why was it all let go? The mosquitoes started to attack in droves and we were forced to retreat. On the way out, we started talking with one of the guards who quickly became Bob’s ‘brother’ after he realized he was a Canadian ‘Indian’. I hope to come back another day for a full tour with all my safari gear in tow for some serious bush-whacking.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Panchakarma or Bust

Check your inhibitions at the door because every opening in your body is about to be invaded. The analogy goes like this; You bring your car for an oil change every 5000 km so the same should go for your body. Panchakarma is a deep internal and external cleanse that consists of a variety of ancient techniques, herbal remedies and dietary restrictions … some a little more pleasant than others.

Day 1: Bob and I arrive at 3am in Rishikesh, a town located in the foothills of the Himalayas on the banks of the Holy River Ganga, home to many great Sages, Saints and Rishis throughout history. After traveling through the mountain roads for the past four days, we are completely exhausted and ready to nestle down and get some good rest. All of Rishikesh is asleep except for a few men drinking chai and a couple of young rickshaw drivers. The bridge that takes us to the Parmarth Niketen Ashram is closed due to animals such as elephants crossing or so the bridge attendant informs us. We thank our driver for taking us this far and transfer our bags to the rickshaw where the two boys assure us they can take us the rest of the way via a road for two wheelers. The end of the road arrives and we still have not reached the gates of the Ashram. We set out on foot even though I am very wary of the street dogs barking and exactly how far we must walk carrying all of our luggage. And then it was like magic … Bob and I walking across the swiftly flowing Ganga on a suspended bridge, wind in our hair and the full moon shining in full force … led by the skinny rickshaw driver reluctantly showing us the way. We arrive at the Gates and enter the compound. Eerie figures of Krishna, Shiva and all the gang greet us in the moonlight. A concrete bench near the reception entrance looks like the perfect place to rest our bones. I close my eyes and listen to the sounds for a few hours. In the early morning, a very happy Western woman sporting a crisp, white sari greets us. She gets us tea and toast, as well as, a room to shower and rest before our room is ready. We wash the filth from the journey and sleep like babies. When we awake in the afternoon it is damn hot and so incredibly bright I can hardly see. I feel like a mole as I rub my eyes and head to the dining hall for lunch. The food is delicious and clean. We move into our permanent room and get settled. Bob visits the Ayurveda clinic to see Dr. Maurya who he has been communicating with before we arrived. He is delighted by his wealth of knowledge and hopeful that the Panchakarma will be the answer to his health problems he has been experiencing for the past number of years. It will involve dedication and a complete lifestyle change.

Day 2: Wake up at 6am for Pranayama (Yogic breathing techniques) and Asana class. We are being taught Hatha Yoga and I am trying to patiently absorb the teachings of this very gentle and slow style of Yoga. Hatha Yoga at this Asharam is a world apart from the Ashtanga style of southern India. It incorporates chanting and prayers before, during and after the Sun and Moon Salutations. I am secretly hoping that the pace will be picked up but know in my heart that I need to just accept the situation whole-heartedly.

After Yoga, a simple breakfast consisting of tea, toast and porridge with aromatic spices is served. I am then off to my Ayurvedic consultation. Apparently I am a Vatta-Pitta … meaning Air/Ether – Fire. With too much air and ether in my constitution. Reading about that specific combination was like hitting the nail on the head. VP people generally have poor circulation and love the sun but cannot handle it. We also love to eat but have trouble digesting large meals. We have wavy hair and when unbalanced fear will often alternate with anger as a response to stress. This can lead to bullying and domineering. A healthy, balanced VP weds the capacity for original thought and the expertise at application of theory. We like to ‘Get er done’. Lightness and intensity are common qualities with a need for intensive self-development. There are tendencies toward addiction as well as a desire for stability.

I decided to go for the Panchakarma for a few days. A program has been prescribed to purify my body and alleviate stress. The first treatments are Abhayanga, an intense oil massage, steam and a ‘basti’, a full-blown South Indian enema. I was first asked to take off all my clothes. Standing there in the buff, I felt so nervous and intimidated. Thank God my practitioners were female. After receiving a makeshift ‘loin cloth’, I laid down on a wooden table and proceeded to receive the best shake down oil massage of a lifetime … and I am talking tons of heated oil and some serious rubbing. Next I was off to the steam which involved sitting in an old cabinet like contraption with your head sticking out of the top hooked up to a pressure cooker and a canister of gas. It resembled something out of a Frankenstein movie but man you could sure feel the sweat starting to roll and the toxins releasing their nasty grip. And for the grand finale … was the ‘basti’. After traveling to Rishikesh and eating food in a variety of unsanitary conditions my plumbing had backed up for six entire days. I understood the rationale and was reluctantly willing to go through with the cure. As I watched them prepare the tools for the basti I could not help but cringe and wonder how the heck I allowed myself to get into this situation. After a few uncomfortable minutes the procedure was finished and I tore off to the toilet. The hounds had been released and I felt like a new person.

Day 3: Early morning Pranayama and Yoga. I am having trouble with certain breathing techniques due to my collapsed right nostril. But nevertheless I will persevere and perhaps with enough discipline begin to clarify the nasal passage. I tried to get into the ‘Advanced’ late morning yoga class but was shot down by Mataji who said it would be too intense in combination with the Panchakarma. Another lesson in patience and letting go of my expectations. Apparently I can’t always get what I want.

However, the Panchakarma treatment today was divine. So much so, I thought I had gone to heaven and joined the ranks of the Hindu Gods. Another full body rub down with herbal oils with not just one but two pairs of hands. Following that my forehead was placed underneath a clay pot resembling a pendulum. My eyes were covered and warm oil continuously poured across my head for 20 glorious minutes. My hair was full of oil and the loving hands of my practitioner, Mary smoothed my hair to keep the oil draining off the table. Talk about the ultimate relaxation and peace of mind. I was a very happy girl after that experience.

In the evenings, Hindu prayers are sung by resident leaders and their choir of ‘orphaned’ boys beside the Ganga River. This is called the ‘Special Divine Ganga Seva’ which is broadcasted to millions of people across India and other countries. A gathering of onlookers participates in the nightly ritual making it quite the spectacle. Banana leaf boats of flowers and incense are set down the river and offered to the Gods to wash away negative thoughts and sins.

‘Parmarth’ means ‘dedicated to the welfare of all’ and ‘Niketan’ means ‘an abode’. This includes both the spiritual welfare of the guests, seekers and pilgrims who come to stay as well as the physical welfare of the needy, impoverished people. In addition to the programs run by the Ashram they are also actively involved in a variety of programs and activities to care for the poor, sick, hungry, homeless and illiterate.

The Mountain Tamers

Imagine living in a place that is completely isolated from the rest of the world for 6 months every year. This is the case for many of the mountain communities in Ladakh. Once the roads close in October the locals know winter is upon them. This is considered a ‘State of Emergency’ in many other parts of the world. Extreme conditions make for resilient and humble people. Every task necessary for survival is tedious and cumbersome at best. Running water ceases to exist as the pipes freeze so trucks deliver water in huge canisters to various stops around town three times per week. Every household meets the truck with as many containers as they can muster and trudges the heavy, cold loads back to their homes. This water must first be boiled for drinking and cooking. Laundry becomes the most dreaded chore as it is all washed by hand and hung on the line where it freezes for three days and then eventually dries.
The electricity is forever on and off again. If there is a storm, families are likely to be without power for days at a time. Heat also becomes a major concern. Small pieces of wood are gathered and prepared before the season, as well as, cow manure dried out to use as another source of fuel. A cow pattie thrown on the fire typically burns for about twenty minutes. Now these fireplaces do not heat an entire home; they heat a single room for as long as they are maintained. This means that clothes must be layered and lots of blankets used for the long, cold nights.
As I spoke to Dolma about the winter experience, I could only imagine the difficulties her and her family face everyday. Life has no choice but to slow down with only the basics taken into consideration – food, clothing and shelter. There are no fresh vegetables available so food such as potatoes, rice and corn must be stockpiled. Often times, the basic necessities such as sugar and salt run out in the community. Families must ration themselves and prepare from the onset of winter.

But why do the roads close for 6 months of the year? Well if you have ever experienced a Ladakhi mountain road you may understand. Twisty, turvy, bumpy, lumpy, single-lane roads slither through the mountainscape. Some are edged with cliffs that drop death-defying lengths to glacial riverbeds far below. Others switchback time and again giving new meaning to turning a corner. Hand painted signs line the road and warn motorists of the dangers and hazards. Some noteworthy signs include (and you have to love the underlying connotations):
~ Better to be Mr. Late, than Late Mr.
~ After whiskey, driving rhiskey.
~ Don’t gossip. Let him drive.
~ Drive slow, live long.
~ If you married, divorce speed.

Compound these roads with ice and snow during the wintertime and you have a recipe for disaster. Pavement seems to be a relatively new phenomenon but is found few and far between. And there definitely are no snow removal mechanisms in these parts. During the warm season, work crews comprised of young boys and men set out to conquer and construct the mountain roads one rock at a time. Everything is constructed by hand using tools that look like they are from prehistoric times. Huge boulders are smashed down to big rocks, which in turn are beaten down to smaller stones, which eventually become gravel and finally sifted to sand. Fire blazes under makeshift containers as tar is churned and asphalt formed. The work crews look extremely exhausted; their faces and clothes blackened by the tar and intense heat of the sun. Yet there are still smiles on their faces as they squat by the side of the road smoking a beadie and watching the world drive on by. They call themselves ‘The Mountain Tamers’ and it is these brave men that provide access to the mountain communities for the 6 months of the year that travel is possible.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Yoga, Art & My New Friend Emma

I’ve known Emma since the day she was born, but until this trip I didn’t really know her at all. Emma is the 25-year-old daughter of my mom and dad’s dear university friend Nancy. Throughout more recent years, Nancy and I have been involved together in a variety of e-learning Web projects that brought us closer together and practically drove us nuts at the same time.

Emma heard that I was traveling to India and called to ask if she could ‘tag along’ for two and a half weeks before her first year of Graduate school at University of Toronto. She had never visited a ‘developing’ country and had no idea what to expect. I agreed (a little hesitantly as this was my big solo mission) and our plans began to coincide. Emma and I were set to travel to Leh together and volunteer at DWLS. She decided to bring art supplies and teach art classes to the students while I headed up the yoga initiative. Somewhere along the way we met in the middle, discovered one another and re-discovered ourselves.

Emma is a bright, bubbly, beautiful girl … ‘with a bounce’. She is witty, funny and has her own set of anxieties such as consuming dairy products in India and packing absolutely everything in zip lock bags. I must say she handled India with an open mind, big heart and a sense of humour. Throughout our time together, we both had our ups and downs, our strong moments and weak. We held each other’s hands when we needed it most and conversely allowed one another the freedom to walk our own paths.

As volunteers in the school, Emma and I not only learned from one another but from the students as well. And even though I was teaching Yoga Asanas and Emma, drawing techniques … the students were teaching us to be truly in the moment and just be ourselves - to let go of expectations, keep things simple, live happily and not take everything too seriously. Many lessons were learned in patience, humility and compassion.

As my Nanny used to say, ‘In relationships, you have to give more than you receive and take more than you give.’ Somehow this mantra has taken on an entirely different light. Emma left to go home a couple of weeks ago. A tear rolled down my cheek as we said our final good byes before she departed to the chaos of Delhi. I know all of the people that she met and touched in Leh will miss her dearly … I also know now that I have a new little sister.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

DWLS Confidential

The Druk White Lotus School is a relatively new organization that opened ‘for business’ in the community of Sheh in 2000. It’s design and construction have become world renowned through the use of local materials, environmentally sustainable practices such as solar power and a variety of technological innovations … the ventilated latrines are just one example. In fact, media communications and support for this school stem from a variety of high profile sources. A documentary narrated by Brad Pitt was produced and aired on PBS, numerous articles published, awards such as the ‘Best Green Building in Asia’ garnered, and even celebrity support from the most famous Buddhists; Richard Gere and of course the Dalai Lama and his successors.

The school has completed its first two phases of construction. The design is centred on a ‘Mandala’ structure with all the other buildings radiating outwards from this focal point. The buildings are configured in such an intelligent way to catch the best sunlight in order to retain heat in the winter and keep the rooms cool in the summer. Construction is still underway with more plans in the works. This is a serious endeavor spearheaded by ‘His Holiness’ here in India, as well as, a non-profit organization based in the United Kingdom. Fundraising is key to its continued growth and success and its fair to say that the school is faced with new challenges everyday.

Currently there are over 400 students of which 123 live on campus in the residences. The children come from far and wide … some right from the community of Sheh, others take the bus from Leh and surrounding areas while others are from remote mountain communities. The new school year starts in November and a goal has been set to attract 60 new students to register. In order to meet this objective aggressive strategies must be implemented including radio and print campaigns that offer promotional incentives such as free uniforms and hot meals. Wendy from the UK along with Sarla, a genuine Ladakhi Princess that works with the school will also be venturing out on a three day trek into the remote mountain communities to create awareness and meet families first-hand. Talk about grassroots style. I was invited to go along on the trek but lo and behold my boy, Bob finally arrives in Leh on Monday and I want to be there to pick
him up in person and give him a big kiss.
Attracting students is a competitive business with all organizations under pressure to meet quotas in order to stay in the game and keep their doors open. International sponsorship is also an integral component to the business model. At DWLS there are only 10% of the students with sponsors. This year I solidified enough funding through my own personal fundraising and network to sponsor three more students at DWLS. A special thanks to Dad & Cindy, as well as, Hayley and Paul for their commitment to sponsor a child. The folks at DWLS were absolutely thrilled. They will be in touch soon with information on your student including photos and progress reports of their studies.

Other plans to generate revenue include offering a variety of customizable tours of the campus. Naropa Palace is a must-see attraction that is linked to the school and Hemis Monastery. Naropa is home to a number of Buddhist Nuns that come from as far away as Nepal. The Nuns are indeed a sight to behold … not only do they have the voices of angels while reciting and singing their chants to a hypnotic beat in the temple but they also ‘Get er Done’ by constructing their dormitories, greenhouses and gardens. Talk about powerful women!

During the three week summer break in July the campus could also be rented to groups as a retreat centre. This is a truly powerful and spiritual place set within one of the most stunning mountain ranges in the world. Think trekking, yoga, meditation, art, writing, holistic healing, organic food … Now, that gets my creative juices flowing.

A trip to Saboo

“Saboo, Saboo, Saboo,” chimed Padma. “Yes, please come.” We all piled into the car for a Sunday drive to visit Padma’s mother who lives in Saboo and works in the fields tending to the acres of gardens for the guest house family. Saboo is a small village that lies on the outskirts of Leh. It was like stepping back into time. We parked the car and walked to the homestead down narrow passageways, past the bubbling creek and climbing over makeshift stonewalls. Padma’s mother was delighted to see us and greeted us with milk tea in the family’s rustic home built from clay blocks and small trees. She stoked the fire using a hand pump and proceeded to the garden to pick fresh pea pods to include in our lunch. I helped to prepare our simple meal, shucking the peas and molding round discs of dough with my thumbs for a traditional Ladakhi dish called ‘Skew’. I felt so content sitting on the dirt floor as part of the family contributing in my own small way. We communicated with our smiles and laughter, knowing in our hearts what we were saying to one another. Lunch tasted delicious and it was wonderful to see Padma so happy to be with her mother for an afternoon.

When I decided to sponsor Padma two years ago, it was a great relief to her mother. Working in the fields she makes just enough money to live day-to-day and struggled to pay for the annual school admission fees. Needless to say, she was extremely grateful that I took on the responsibility of providing $240 per year for Padma’s education. As we were leaving Saboo to return to Leh, Padma’s mother grabbed my hand and placed a silver ring with a small topaz stone in my palm. The ring was scratched and worn and likely one of her few possessions. I wear this ring proudly and think of Padma’s mother … I think of how giving just a little can profoundly touch the lives of so many and at the same time reciprocate in ways that fuels the soul and warms the heart.

Back to School

Yoga at the Druk White Lotus School has been a blast. It took a couple of days to get into the swing of things ... but now I am teaching yoga during the Phys Ed classes of the Junior 3 to Junior 5 and Middle School 6 students. It has been such a learning experience. A typical day goes something like this:

~ Rise to the crazy barking of the packs of dogs at approx. 5am
~ Toss and turn on my thin matress and lucid dream about weird and whacky things until 6:30am

~ Get out of bed and take an Indian bucket bath to wake myself up
~ Go downstairs for breakfast in the kitchen - typically one piece of Ladakhi bread with Apricot jam. There has been a shortage of eggs recently as the road has been closed from Srinagar due to internal conflict
~ Padma and I walk hand in hand along the pathways to the bus stop downtown
~ The bus is a wild trip ... picking up little cuties left and right and just when you think you can't squeeze any more kids onto the bus a dozen more find their way aboard
~ The Hindi music blares as we bump down the streets en route to Sheh where the school is located approx. 45 minutes from Leh
~ We enter the school and the sun is scorching ... desert dry I am greeted by a multitude of smiles and 'Good Morning Madam'
~ Morning prayers in the prayer room led by a resident Monk who has the most friendly face ... the voices of the children sing the Tibetan prayers and I try to sit quietly in a cross legged position while my legs fall asleep
~ Outdoor prayers follow in the morning sun ... it resembles a military brigade somewhat ... it is so neat to watch the little ones with their palms together and their eyes closed
~ Classes begin ... I typically teach 2-3 40 minute yoga classes in the prayer room before lunch
~ You can imagine the dust and dirt on the floor from all the children wearing their shoes in this space for the past few months ... it was not so pleasant to be putting your nose into this carpet. I have managed to get it cleaned out ... much better now - whew!
~ The kids love the yoga - we laugh so much and now they are remembering some of the poses and their names. Some classes we start with a game like 'Over and Under', others we practice partner yoga or go on a jungle safari making all kinds of animal sounds together.
~ By 1pm I am famished. Finally lunch at the residence. The food keeps getting better and better. The first day I was a little concerned after biting into a deep fried egg. A typical lunch consists of dal, rice and a veggie ... I have yet to venture into the meat after seeing goat's carcas attracting a multitude of flies hanging in the various butcher's stalls.
~ After lunch I take a little time to visit Naropa Palace, a temple where Buddhist Nuns from the surrounding area and as far as Nepal reside. My first visit was incredible ... I have never heard such sweet, serene sounds with such a hypnotic beat ... I wanted to stay for days. I have been welcomed and sit behind the nuns for a short while as they chant the afternoon away ...
~ I then take a visit to the Nursery or the Kindegarten classes to say hi and observe the organized chaos. Sometimes we practice English and others we play games ... Duck, duck goose was a real hit!
~ And then it is time to go home - 3pm. I take the bus with the children ... the music plays and we are on our way.
~ By the time I reach home, I am absolutely exhausted. Working with kids takes a lot of energy but is so rewarding in so many ways. Hats off and my deepest respect to all the teachers in the world.

Life in Leh

Once I regained my strength, I took to the streets to explore all the nooks and crannies of this mountain town. I remembered the little short cuts through the ancient cobble stone paths, visited a few of my fave spots where you could get the best MoMo's (Ladakhi dumplings) and chai and met up with a few of the characters that I had met on my last visit. The hustle and bustle can be a little overwhelming ... big trucks spewing black exhaust, motorcycles weaving in and out of traffic, horns honking, Ladakhi women carrying incredibly large loads on their small yet sturdy frames, Kashmiri men urging you into their shops to sell their wares, children begging in the streets and the holy cow wandering the open sewers in search of discarded food morsels.

I visited a few of the surrounding monasteries and listened to the chants of the monks. The beauty of the deities within the temples were overwhelming ... a 20 foot carved sculpture of Buddha captivated my senses.

And back to Shanti Stupa; a temple that was built for the visit of the Dalai Lama located just on the edge of town. Up, up and up many steps. I felt quite the accomplishment making it to the top for the first time after numerous winded stops. The view is incredible ... a craggy mountain scape fills out the backdrop as monks silently circle the Stupa three times. I will try to come to this special place as often as I can ...

Arriving in Leh

Leh, Ladakh is a remote spiritual centre situated 10,000 feet high in the Himalayan Mountain range of Jammu Kashmir State. It's desert landscape is dusty and dry yet the town centre itself is an oasis alive with a spectrum of colour and people.

I arrived in a weary state on August 14th after traveling for over 48 hours from Toronto ... talk about sleep deprivation. Let's just say my body was in a state of shock. I caught a nasty little sore throat, cold, cough and fever. This could be attributed to many factors ... the long, arduous journey, the altitude and change in weather, the whirlwind tour of Ontario that involved many late evenings of excess and yes, debauchery visiting friends and family. Whatever the reason, I was flat on my back for a solid week and a half and felt miserable.

Now when you are visiting such an incredibly different place you want to be up and at em. You want to tackle the streets, visit the sites and climb the hills. I was forced to surrender to my situation and to simply lay low until I was feeling better. Just walking into town from my guest house took all of my energy ... and we are only talking a 10 minute rendez-vous. But alas the heavens were telling me to take rest and let go of my expectations.

Thank goodness I was staying at the Ashoka Guest House where I stayed two years ago and became very close with the family who owns the establishment. They looked after me keeping a watch on my temperature and concoting traditional Ladakhi remedies that I happily choked down. It was such a treat to see little Padma Dechen again ... the girl who I have been thinking about everyday since my last stay at the Guest House. In such a short time she had grown so much ... her baby teeth that were rotting were replaced with healthy adult teeth ... her hair had grown to her shoulders ... and her smile was still the same... enough to melt your heart. She was so shy at first but it didn't take too long to open up. She remembered Natalie and myself from our last encounter. It made me so happy to reconnect and be in a place that I once felt such peace and tranquility.