Monday, 28 May 2012

England! (May 8 - 21, 2012)

My flight from Kathmandu to London was just perfect! Everything was on time and the Delhi airport was really nice (despite was some people had led me to believe!). Walking through Heathrow I heard some English ladies complaining about the state of the bathrooms in the airport and I thought "ladies, you should have seen the bathrooms where I just came from!" I bought a map at the info desk and had the man explain the oyster pass to me (used for buses and the underground), then I was off to my hostel, Palmer's Swiss Cottage (which was SO NICE! As it should be, for the price you pay, lol).

I spent the next three days in London and crammed in as much as humanly possible. On the Thursday I started at Kensington Gardens and spent a good hour just wandering through the park (so quiet after Thamel!). In the Italian Gardens I found a statue of Jenner (creator of the smallpox vaccine), which made me giddy with excitement. Next I saw the Albert Memorial and Royal Albert Hall (aaaaahhhhh!!!!). I walked to the Natural History Museum after that; I had read about it in a Short History of Nearly Everything so it was exciting to actually be there (the dinosaurs were my favourite, as they always are). I walked by Buckingham Palace which, sorry London, was boring. I probably should have timed it so I could have been there for the changing of the guards, but oh well. Then it was Westminster Abbey and the Parliament Houses, which were beautiful and probably one of my favourite things. I resolved that I would come back to a church service at Westminster Abbey so I didn't have to pay the $32 admission (yes, I know! $32 to see the inside of a church?!). There were roadblocks all around the Parliament Houses, which I later learned was because the Queen was there, lol. Not too far away was Trafalgar Square and the National Gallery. Normally I'm not all about art museums, but I was told I needed to come here. I got to see Van Gogh's "Sunflowers," but mostly art is lost on me, lol. My last stop was Piccadilly Circus, which was not a circus at all! (did you already know that?). And that was the end of day one. Are you exhausted just reading about it? I was SO tired!

 Natural History Museum

 Westminster Abbey

The first line of my journal entry for day two reads "Oooooh, I am so out of shape!" And this was because after another 11 hour day of walking I was essentially a cripple. I took the tube from the hostel to St. Paul's Cathedral in the morning, again noting the crazy admission fee they wanted me to pay. Instead I snuck in with a high school group, ha ha! The cathedral was so gorgeous, not $30 gorgeous, but still very nice :) From here I crossed the Millenium Bridge to the Tate Modern, which I enjoyed. Of course, I didn't understand anything, and there was a lot of "I could have thrown some towels in a heap too," but mostly I really like modern art museums for exactly that reason. After the Tate Modern I followed the River Thames to Southwark Cathedral and then the Borough Market. The Markets turned out to be my favourite thing in London. The Borough Market is a large food market that's open Thur-Sat, and they even had a gluten-free vendor, so that day I had brambley apple cake! I crossed over the Tower Bridge to the Tower of London, but again, didn't go inside (this one was $40 admission. Very pretty from the outside though!). I took the tube to the British Library but got kicked out for napping on the benches (what kind of a library doesn't allow napping?!). Down the street was the Wellcome Collection (a museum), which has permanent exhibits about medicine, genomes and the human body. Favourites included fur and sheep from Dolly (the world's first successfully cloned animal, a sheep), and a bookshelf full of binders containing all the code from the human genome (I almost peed myself with excitement). The special exhibit they had on in May was about the brain, and that was neat too. I was all excited to see the slice of Albert Einstein's brain... until I got there and realized it was on loan from the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia, which I have been to! I spent the rest of the night wandering on Oxford street and through Regent's Park (and by "wandering" I really mean "getting lost"). By the time I got back to the hostel I passed out.
 St. Paul's Cathedral

Day 3 of London started out not so great, because I woke up with massively swollen lymph nodes. Nepal attacks again!!!!! As a result, I didn't get as much done as I would have liked. I started out with the British Museum (but only floor one, because I couldn't find the stairs to the second floor and was too exhausted to look, LOL). The Egyptian exhibit was the best, especially seeing the Rosetta Stone. I went to Covent Gardens and the Jubilee market next, then found the Waterloo station to buy my ticket for tomorrow. I took the tube to the London Bridge, back to the Borough Market for a Victoria Sandwich cake (white cake with strawberry filling). Next was the Science Museum, which was not my cup of tea (despite the name!), too much Industrial Revolution and not enough bookshelves with the human genome. I walked along Hyde Park and Green Park before admitting I was exhausted, heading back to the hostel and watching Headhunters at the Cineplex down the street (GREAT movie, btw).
 Victoria Sandwich Cake

On May 12th I took the train to Alton to meet my friend Kay. If you head back in my blog posts you can find the ~3 weeks Kay and I spent together as volunteers in Pokhara! I was looking for cheap flights home and found two super cheap ones on Air Transat out of London and Barcelona. When I told Kay she said "well you have to come to England then!" And so, fastforward a few months and now I'm staying at her place in Hampshire for a week (sometimes life is funny). Her daughter Sarah came over on the Sunday for dinner and we all had a great time. Well, that is until I was struck by the fever and chills! Nepal was back full force. The next day Kay drove me to the NHS hospital in Winchester, and so begins my love affair with England. I mean, I was already hooked with the Jenner statue and gluten-free cakes, but the healthcare system just sealed the deal. Not only did I not have to pay for my visit, but I discovered that ALL prescriptions are one price... every time... for everyone... not matter what it is. AND! I was in and out of the ER in less than 3 hours. They didn't even ask for my health card. England, I love you. After picking up my second round of antibiotics we headed to Winchester Cathedral and generally wandered through some charity shops for the rest of the day.

The next day we started off at Stonehenge and had the most beautiful weather! I was very lucky that I managed to get student admission for most attractions this week, even though the picture on my student card is clearly super old, lol. Anyway, I mention the admission because I remember at Stonehenge they claimed that your entry fee goes towards "maintenance" of the sight. Oh come on! How exactly are you maintaining the stones? Yeah, that's what I thought. Regardless, I can now say that I've seen it! Next we drove to Bath, possibly one of the loveliest cities I've ever seen. We of course went to the Roman Baths which have a really cool history. We even got to drink the bath water! (I think I'll stick with my tap water). We got super lost trying to get out of the city, but on the upshot it means I got to see more of Bath :)

 Roman Baths, Bath

Later in the week we did Jane Austen's house, which has been turned into a neat little museum. I didn't know that she died of a rare form of tuberculosis! That was my favourite part. Well, that and the black cat with polydactylism (extra digits) that we found in the garden. We also did a trip to Brighton to visit Kay's other daughter, Emma. In Brighton we went to the Pavillion, a former residence of the Prince of Wales. I wish we could have taken pictures of the inside, because it was so cool! For brunch Emma took us to this vegetarian buffet called Iydea. There were lots of vegan and gluten-free choices too, so it was perfect. We finished off the day wandering around the town and eventually out to the pier, where Kay had her ice cream cone stolen by the biggest seagull I have ever seen. If you ever go to Brighton, you must go to the pier! There are all sorts of neat food shops built along it, and there's even a carnival (yes, on the pier, including rides). And of course, what trip to England would be complete without a castle?! That day Kay and I also spent a few hours at Arundel castle. It was built in the 11th century, but most of it had to be rebuilt in the 18th and 19th centuries. It was a truly spectacular building, and the grounds surrounding it were gorgeous too (I wonder how much they pay their gardeners?). Notable experiences include embarrassing myself by having such squeaky shoes in the deadly quiet cathedral and the gluten-free flapjack I had at the cafe (gluten-free everything clearly abounds in England). 
 Brighton Pier

 Arundel Castle

On my last day in Hampshire with Kay we drove to Portsmouth, a seaside city where the Solent joins the English Channel. There we went up Spinnaker tower, where I was still unable to walk on their glass floor (fear of heights, not quite conquered). We also walked along the historic dockyards and saw the HMS Warrior and HMS Victory (which I am told are quite famous, lol). We ended the day with a nice dinner at this restaurant called The Swan with some of Kay's old work colleagues. I had a tuna nicoise salad, which was amazing. The next morning Kay drove me back to the train station and I left for London again! After dumping my stuff at the hostel I walked through Green Park, along Piccadilly and to the Jubilee market (crafts on the weekend!). Afterwards I headed to Leicester Square and saw "The Lucky One" at the theatre. I had just finished reading the book about a week ago, so it was interesting to see the movie. I had a gluten-free, vegan flapjack at Beatroot and then headed back to the hostel after shopping along Oxford street. I got tripped by a blind man and found a family of goats chilling out in a park along the way (it actually happened). 
Spinnaker Tower

For my last day in London I started off by going to a church service at Westminster Abbey (I said I would!). Surprisingly it was only 30 minutes and I did get to see the inside of the church. After this I went back to the British Museum to do the second floor, lol. Now let me rave about my lunch. I had googled this vegan buffet in Soho called Vantra, so that was a must-do for my last day. This place was awesome! Not only was it gluten-free, but there were even lots of raw stuff, like sprouts and sprouted bread. I finished it off with a raw chocolate cake with pistachio crust and almond cream. The last place I went to were the Camden Markets, which were so great. They sell just about everything and there is a massive food section. I happened upon a stall advertising "gluten-free vegan cookies," and I knew I had found heaven (London was so worth the 10 pounds I gained). Such a great final day! 

The next morning I got up early, caught my train to Gatwick, almost got put on another flight to Montreal because of overbooking, but ultimately ended up in Pearson only 45 minutes late. Mom and Khalid were there to meet me. After lots of hugging I re-took possession of my engagement ring and we headed to Whitby where there was lots of family waiting! 

This trip has truly been incredible, and I'm so thankful to everyone who sent me updates about their life and words of encouragement. Being home has been amazing, though I don't know where to start when people ask how the trip was! I am so, so glad that I took this 6 months for me and did something I've been wanting to do ever since Cambodia. To add to that, I am so, so glad to be home! Highlights of my week back include seeing my new apartment in Guelph for the first time, church on Sunday, Transformers bedtime stories, snuggling with my kitties and spending time with people that I love. 

I took 2177 photos and read 52 books, saw 6 countries and made lots of friends. There may be posts to come in the future, but let me end this one off with the quote that is written on the first page of my journal:

"In twenty years from now, you will be more disappointed by the things you didn't do than by the things you did do. So sail away from the safe harbor, catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover - Mark Twain"

Love from Canada, 

Monday, 7 May 2012

Nepal, the final round (April 27 - May 7, 2012)

Alright friends, it's your last blog post from Nepal! Strap it on, I think this one might be a whopper ("strap it on" is a phrase I have picked up from my latest Stephen King book).

We left off at diarrhea, right? Excellent place to start. I had booked Mariah and myself in for a totally stupid idea on April 27th, so the night before I loaded up on Immodium because there was NO way I was going to literally crap my pants. Unfortunately when I showed up at 5:45am that morning to pick Mariah up she was already crapping her pants. She stole my water bottle and went back to bed. Her friend, Annika, and I continued on to The Last Resort. The Last Resort is an adventure company on the border of Nepal and Tibet that sets up canyoning (repelling down waterfalls), white water rafting, high ropes and... most importantly... bungee jumping/canyon swinging. The suspension bridge that you jump off is 160m above the ground, which makes it the highest canyon swing in the world. IN THE WORLD, people! There's a 6-7 second free fall before you swing across the gorge. Needless to say, I have been scared out of my mind for the past two weeks because, as most of you know, I have a crippling fear of heights (I'm pretty sure there's a video on my facebook of me a few years ago at the CN Tower, that should give you an idea). I mean, I don't even like step ladders! What the titters was I thinking? Anyways, you have to cross the suspension bridge to get to the resort, which I'm convinced is the lithmus test to make sure all participants can actually manage to get themselves across the bridge. I managed this only by staring straight ahead. Everyone around me was saying "oh hey, it's not that high, this isn't so bad." Speak for yourselves crazy people! Our safety briefing did nothing to calm my nerves (in hindsight the safety briefing was kind of irrelevant, because you forget absolutely everything as soon as you step out onto the platform). I have to say though, the scariest part of the whole thing was definitely getting weighed infront of everyone... and they call your weight out... AND they write it on your hand in permanent marker! (okay, if I survive this I'm definitely not eating anymore Snickers bars. Okay, well maybe just not as many Snickers bars. Except right after I get back from this, because that totally does not count).

Despite the Snickers bars I was still in the lightest group, so on to the bridge we went! I told the canyon swinger ahead of me "hey! Don't get any blood on my harness, okay?" And we all had a laugh (I was inwardly crying, and half-serious). At some point or another I will get around to uploading the video to youtube so you can all see it for yourself (it's too big for facebook, in a MB sort of way), but here's the run down. "This was the WORST idea ever! The WORST! Oh christ on a cracker. SHIT! Why am I here, the worst, this is the worst!" Ma'am, please step under the railing (at the centre of the bridge there is a cut-out on one side, so you duck under the railing and out onto the open platform that you jump from). "Is my harness tight enough?! Oh shit, oh shit!" Okay now, just under the railing here. [Vicki ducks under the railing] "OH MY GOD, OH GOD NO!!!! Okay, no, wait a second, just wait a second. I'm okay. It's fine. I'm not looking down. [looks down]. OH GOOOOD!!!!!! [grabs the handrail] Ma'am, just step forward here... at this point I scrunch up my face in terror (I remember this only because it was captured on the video) and try not to think about the fact that I am about to fall all the way down there. And then I am falling, and screaming, oh goodness the screaming. About halfway down I realize my eyes are shut and I think "Vicki, you paid $100 for this, you open your eyes RIGHT NOW woman!" And I did, and I screamed some more, but then you are swinging and then it's fun :) (and then you have to climb back up the canyon and it's not so fun, lol). All in all it was a hilarious day and I met some really great people. I'm certainly glad that I did it, but I have no desire to do it again... ever ever! I have sweaty palms just thinking about it... The best part was watching the video, especially how it looks like I am trying to "run" as I free fall (because yeah Vicki, that's definitely going to help you not die). Bodies are funny things.

The next week-ish was a horror show of illness. At one point, shivering uncontrollably with a 105F fever, I realized that if I had not canceled Jordan I would have been in the sweltering Dubai airport, beginning my 23 hour layover. Now, I don't believe in fate, but oh sweet mother thank goodness things turned out as they did, lol. My lymph nodes swelled up to tender softballs and I had a perma-headache for days on end (hello Tylenol). I caved and ended up taking antibiotics and, wouldn't you know it, it fixed it! I woke up the next morning and for the first time in weeks did not feel like dying! Deciding to take advantage of the good turn I went to Bhaktapur that morning. Bhaktapur contains the third (and arguably, best) Durbar Square in Nepal (remember the other two that I went to?). It really was awesome to be there so early in the morning. Even though I didn't beat the ticket collectors (damn!) I did get to see all the Nepali women and men blessing the statues on their way to work. There were almost no other tourists around, it was quiet and I really couldn't have asked for a better morning.

The last few days in Kathmandu have been spent eating with friends and lots of reflection and reading (I especially wanted to reflect with Mariah and Henry at Cabin in the Woods, but the cinema was having technical difficulties, so I guess my crappy horror movie fix will have to wait for Canada :). Mariah left two days ago, and we gave her a proper sending off! The best bit was that as we were saying goodbye there was a beggar boy looking very forlorn and asking her for money. Upon seeing that we were taking pictures though he leaned in and gave us the biggest smile, lol. I think perhaps it's my favourite picture from Nepal.

And so this brings me to my last day in Nepal! The Nepal of Rickshaw? Taxi? Tiger balm? Yes, excuse me, hello, miss, hello? The fruit vendors and the homeless boys that sleep with the homeless dogs. The spitting and the guttural bodily noises. The great sticky gobs of phlegm on the roads and the pigeon poop that covers the temples. The children asking for "one rupee" and the man always trying to sell me that tiny fiddle (who the titters buys those things?!). The cacophony of noise, the almost getting run over by impatient motorbikes (hey lady, I did honk at you), the pollution, the brazen children peeing in the streets and the sacred cows that take their sacred time crossing the road. There's also the internet cafe guy who knows my favourite computer and the kids playing badmitton in the streets on strike days. The women in brightly coloured saris and the Nepali boy at my guesthouse who sits outside my room at night and quietly recites his English homework. There are the old men that buy pastries for the stray dogs, the waking up to the sound of bells and the smell of incense, the multi-faith temples and the fact that two male friends can walk hand in hand and it's not strange. I like the wobbly thing the Nepalese do with their heads that looks like "no" but really means "okay," I like that fruit juice is made with fruit, that you do your laundry by hand, and I even like showering with buckets (and you know what? I've had 2 hot showers over the past 5 months and I'm okay with that).

It's hard to believe that in Nepal I have volunteered in an orphanage, gone on an elephant back safari, taken a 10-day meditation course, shaved my head and found time to jump off a bridge. I feel so lucky to have spent 3 months in Pokhara at Himalayan Children's Care Home, even though it feels like a million years ago. I learned from volunteering that I am not exceptional and that the kids teach you far more than you teach them. Most volunteers have the impression that they're going to ride in on their 'white' horse (I note the metaphor) and save these poor desolate children, and what a rude shock you are in for. These 'poor' children are some of the most bright, happy and illuminating children you will meet. And you? Well, you are inadequate, illequipped and have been somewhat selfish in your imaginings... and the best part is that all of that doesn't really matter if you're prepared to smile and love unreservedly, because that is enough. So you see, it all works itself out in the end. I'm so grateful to the kids for all they gave me, and also to the staff and volunteers that I shared pieces of this experience with. Brittany (my first roommate!) for always being positive and for her genuine emotion with the kids; Alyssa for the refreshing no-crap approach to life and for great laughs; Rachel for hours of conversation and mutual morality; Kat for always, always making me feel like I belonged in my own skin; Nora for her bright personality, never-ending stories and only-child understanding :); Nicole for her pure heart and unexpected vulgarity; and Mariah for her embodiment of everything that means friendship. Thanks to Olivia for buying us all M&Ms on Losar, Dave for the BEST story I have ever head, Eladio for always knowing where the best places to eat were, Mena and Alaina for saying nice things about my bald head, Tom for sending me that great list about London, Tashi for letting Nicole and I steal his laptop to watch Vampire Diaries (team Stefan!), John for telling me that rank story about his gyno rotation in med school, Peter for being a genuinely nice guy and for showing me where that great temple was... and especially to all of you that stopped the bus from leaving without me on that first trip to Pokhara! (there are lots more people and lots more stories, but you get the idea :)

I don't think there's any perfect place to find yourself. Whether I'm eating gelato in Lisbon, culturing bacteria in Guelph, or getting harassed to buy tiger balm in Kathmandu, I'm still me. "Wherever you go, there you are," right? The best part about traveling for me has not been to discover the world, but to discover my own world. Removing yourself from your daily routine affords you the opportunity to see what things remain the same. Maybe I wake up in a foul mood... one I may, back home, have attributed to a co-worker, or a deadline, etc. But nope, here I am, in Nepal, with none of those things. So hey, maybe my crappy mood this particular morning is all on me? And that, that is what I think the value of traveling is. To realize that your problems follow you because you create your own problems, which also means that you always have the option to be happy and optimistic, because you are totally in control (even when you're not).

Tomorrow morning at 6:30am I'll (hopefully) be in a taxi and on my way to the Kathmandu airport. I have a 3 hour stopover in Delhi and then it's on to London for two weeks. I don't have a clue what the internet situation will be there, so bear with me! Thanks again for reading, we're almost there ;)

Love from Nepal (for the last time),

Saturday, 28 April 2012

Nepal (April 13-26, 2012) An empty office, a zoo and a hospital!

Hello from Kathmandu...

...and not from the retreat! If you've been loitering facebook you may have noticed that I didn't end up volunteering at the Vipassana retreat. I packed up my bags on the morning of the 13th, checked out of my hostel, walked to the office and it was closed for Nepali New Year! I stood and stared at the locked door for a good 5 minutes trying to decide what to do next. In the end I just walked back to my hostel and explained that I would need my room back, lol. I emailed the Vipassana people, but I never heard back from them (which is just as well I suppose because my banking situation and my intestines then proceeded to fall apart).

After checking back into the hostel I went to email Mom to let her know what had happened and I had an email from her saying that my bank had called to say my debit card was compromised. Now, if you've been following along you will remember that my Visa card was compromised a few weeks back and I've not been able to use it since. Back to the phone booth for Vicki! I was able to get in touch with Scotiabank, who assured me that there had been no bizarre activity on my card and that they didn't know what I was talking about. This made sense after some confusing emails back and forth with Mom where I realized it was CIBC that had called. Back to the phone booth! The confusion had been that Mom had tried to wire me money from my CIBC account to my Scotia account and CIBC had flipped their lids. In all my great wisdom, I explained this to the CIBC lady:
CIBC lady: "So your Mom wired you money from her CIBC account?"
Vicki: "No, from my account."
CIBC lady: "How did she access your CIBC account?"
Vicki: "I gave her the password."
[in hindsight I should not have said this]
CIBC lady: reprimands Vicki
Vicki: ...
CIBC lady: "Why didn't you just do the transfer yourself?"
Vicki: "Because I haven't wanted to access my CIBC accounts or online banking from Nepal in case they are compromised."
CIBC lady: "Well, that's not a problem, you are protected from internet fraud. Simply download our software protection program before you access your online banking."
Vicki: "I am using public computers. I can't download anything."
CIBC lady: "Oh."
Vicki: "THAT'S RIGHT!"

I didn't say this last bit, but I wanted to. In any case, my CIBC accounts are now of little use to me and I am down to a single debit card, lol. It was at this point that I realized I was not going to be able to withdraw enough money daily to make it through Jordan, and I would have had no way to book an emergency flight or pay for a large hospital bill in Jordan (here at least I have friends and know where the nearest Western Union is, lol). After a few days of deliberation I decided to cancel the Jordan leg and book a flight straight to London (and by "book" I really mean "get my Mom to book" as the airline only accepts Visa cards, lol). So now I am in Kathmandu until May 8th and go straight to London to stay with a fellow volunteer I met in Pokhara

The next day I spent the day at the Patan Zoo, which was actually pretty awesome, considering I'm in Nepal. My favourites were the massive griffons and the sloth bears. To the first, I always thought that griffons were fairytale creatures, so it was exciting for me to discover that they actually exist (and are huge and ferocious looking). And sloth bears had become celebrities among the other volunteers and I. Before we went to Chitwan, we had read that these were the most feared creatures in the jungle, that they had large claws and always attack the genitals and the eyes. We didn't see any in Chitwan (mercifully), so it was super exciting to see them at the zoo (and yes, their claws are impressively long... though I did not see them used on any genitalia that particular day). After leaving the sloth bear exhibit I watched the zoo keepers bring out an elephant to wander through the park. The Nepali mothers dress up their children and take pictures of them with the elephants ("because the elephant is their God" the zoo keeper whispered to me, lol). By the end of the day I had a pretty bad fever and after returning to Kathmandu passed out with dreams of sloth bear attacks (not really). It was time for my small intestine to strike!

Vicki wakes up. Oh man, I have to pee! What time is it? Only 5:30am?! I'm totally going back to sleep after this [Vicki is peeing]. Oh dear lord, what is happening?! [Vicki discovers that her intestines have just decided to loose themselves]. Well that was bizarre, I hope that doesn't happen again. Oh man, I have to fart. It wasn't a fart!!! It was NOT a fart!! Was it the bananas? I didn't notice any mould on them... was I really checking though? Oh no it is happening again! Repeat for 48 hours, lol (I think that was just enough detail!). On the third night I had the most debilitating bloating of life (small intestine is waging war), I expanded 5 inches in diameter, and that is no small feat! I lay (laid?) there feeling like a bloated balloon until midnight when I decided "enough of this, I am going to the hospital!" I did a quick check of my Lonely Planet Guide and found two hospitals in the Kathmadu Valley... there was the Patan Hospital and the Bir Hospital, the latter of which carried the description "Where terminally ill Nepalis come to die. Not recommended." Patan it is! I left the guesthouse and walked down to one of the other guesthouses with 24-hour desk service. Unfortunately the staff were incredibly high and unable to interpret "please call me a taxi!" Luckily there were a few taxis loitering around Thamel, so I was on my way. I would like to contest that taxi rides in Asia are more terrifying at night when there is no traffic around (this may run counter to intuition). At one point the spedometer hit 130 and I was acutely aware that neither one of us were wearing a seat belt... are there ever even seat belts to wear?! (Dear God, please keep the Nepali dogs and cows on the side of the road). Luckily we both made it alive!

I will note here that the description for the Patan Hospital in the guide was "Arguably the best hospital in the Kathmandu Valley." Mighty sneaky word play on the part of the authors. The reception area is connected to triage, where seas of stretchers are filled with groaning Nepali people. I was the only Western person there, and maybe the first they'd seen give that I was instantly THE most interesting thing to watch (what is this bald white lady doing here? I don't know, let's stare. Good idea.). Your brief consultation with the doctor takes place in the triage centre, so everyone knows what everyone else has. I believe most Nepali people there don't speak much English, but even they would have gathered that I had diarrhea and bloating given my strange waddle, lol. I was told to go to counter 13 and 20 and then left to fend for myself. The rest of the hospital was pitch black, so I wandered the dark corridors trying to find these rooms (made more difficult because all the numbers were written in Nepali, lol). Eventually I went back to triage and made one of the nurses take me to them. The pharmacy was first where they gave me rehydration salts, the laboratory I could have found if I had simply followed my nose. I will not relate the details of my stool sample, but I will say that it is a small miracle they didn't find anything there and if I ever decide to donate to the hospital I will suggest that they invest in a sink and soap, because how can you not have that?! The nurse then told me that the sample wouldn't be run for another 9 hours, but I could stay in the hospital and wait? That would have meant sleeping in the dark corridors filled with Nepali men, so I opted to taxi back and eat cookies all through the night (because if my intestines aren't going to function and I have to be bloated, I might as well take the opportunity to ingest delicious calories that won't be absorbed, am I right?).

The next morning I taxied back to the hospital (which is much more inviting in the daytime) and waited in the triage area for the nurse to tell me they didn't find anything, but would I like some medication for the bloating? At that point a motorcycle accident swept through the doors and I was quickly forgotten (which is just as well, because the amount of blood was about to add "nausea" to my list of symptoms). Back to Kathmandu! I wish I could add something interesting to the next week, but I basically sat on the toilet and ate cookies. Oh! I did move to a new hotel, because it seemed imperative that I move to a room with its own toilet (I'm sure the people sharing my bathroom were getting suspicious as to why the door was always locked and why when they could access it the floor was littered with plastic cookie box liners). I'm now staying at a place called Hotel Radiant and it's great, I even have a TV! (though it works only when the power is on, and if you've been to Nepal you know that that is rarely, lol). I even got to watch an episode of Dexter the other night (and if I leave the door open I can even see the TV from the toilet.WIN!). The owner of the hotel is this old Nepali man with the fattest dog I have ever seen (poor thing has cataracts and barks at anything that moves). The staff members are really nice and all my favourite restaurants are within 2 minutes walking distance!

A few days ago I went to watch Battleship in the cinema (throw some popcorn in there to mix up my cookie diet, eh), it was so deliciously terrible! The best part was that I found 2 other cinemas on the way to the right cinema, and I believe that's a talent. The other day someone in a cafe asked me if I knew anywhere good to see a movie; not only could I tell him where all 4 were, I could even name all the movies currently playing and the showtimes... by cinema. I am a walking Nepal encyclopedia. On the 25th a fellow volunteer got back from the Vipassana retreat, it's been so nice to share experiences! I signed Mariah and I up for the canyon swing at Last Resort, which took place yesterday, but I will dedicate a separate post to that! Stay tuned for my embarrassing footage... 

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Nepal (April 3-12, 2012) leaving for my retreat tomorrow to volunteer!

Hey everyone!

I leave tomorrow to volunteer on the Vipassana retreat, so I won't see you again until April 25th :) Prepare for this drive-by shooting of a blog post!

On April 3rd Peter, Nora and I went to the Cinema to see Mirror Mirror. It's an adaptation of Snow White with Julia Roberts as the evil queen. It was really cute, and it definitely ended with a Bollywood dance number (which seemed extremely fitting for Nepal). That evening there was a torrential downpour and after soaking my shoes I decided I needed to buy sandals. I went to a little stall down the street from my guesthouse and got totally hustled by the shop owner's 9 year old son. He was ruthless, I'm pretty sure I got ripped off. But I love my sandals!

The next 9 days pass by in a blur of food, so let's give you the rundown of that. I have tried the fruit salad at at least 10 different places, cardamom chai tea, 2kg of grapes from a slightly seedy street lady, mint lemonade (i.e. lemonade with actual mint leaves ground in), Nepali tea with milk of questionable expiry (at the highest rooftop terrace in Thamel), rice pudding with dried fruit, delicious buttery palau, kashmiri palau (palau with fresh fruit!), epic banana splits, iced peach tea, battered deep fried tofu (that was an accident) and veggie platters from an Israeli restaurant, Italian restaurant and Thai restaurant (boiled vegetables get me excited). I won't tell you how many Cadbury chocolate bars I've had, because that's a secret (my pants know the answer). Two more volunteers, Mariah and Shane, have arrived in Kathmandu, so my dinner date group keeps growing. Mariah is going to participate in the Vipassana retreat, so we're going to have to try very hard not to communicate with one another! It's going to be nice to have a familiar face around (even if I can't look at it, lol).

April 5th and 6th were the only days I can say I actually did something touristy. On April 5th I woke up really early with a huge coughing fit (the perpetual Nepali sickness), so I decided to get out and go for a walk. I ended up running into Peter who said "here, I want to show you something!" We wandered down some back alleys past all the Nepali vendors selling their food and trinckets from blankets on the ground, got lost, then eventually came to this little opening in the wall that lead to a courtyard with the most beautiful temple! It turned out to be the Seto (White) Machhendranath temple, dedicated to the Hindu god, but because he is considered by Buddhists to be the incarnation of Avolkitsevara (the Bodhisattva of compassion), the temple is a great mix of both Hindu and Buddhist sculptures and carvings. The whole temple is encased in a giant brass cage, and the courtyard is filled with so many pigeons that you can actually feel the beat of their wings on your face. Everywhere there are ladies selling offerings of rice and colourful flowers and the smell of butter lamps fills the air (that and pigeon poop, if we're being honest). This so far has been my favourite temple and I've been back a number of times.

The next morning I got up early and left for Swayambhunath, also known as the monkey temple (can you guess why?!). There was a large Buddhist festival here this day, so the place was packed with thousands of Nepalis. Everywhere there will little groups of people huddled around Buddhist statues, praying and offering food and butter lamps to the gods (which is funny, because the only place the food actually goes is into the hands of waiting monkeys). After a slow and crowded climb to the top, I made my way clockwise around the Swayambhunath stupa. The legend goes that the Kathmandu Valley was once a lake, and the stupa grew out of the water as a large lotus flower. It's a very important site for Tibetan Buddhists. Against all odds I actually ran into Nora and Peter amid the sea of colourful saris and it was fun to spend the rest of the time exploring the small shrines around the stupa with them.

Boudhnath and Bhaktapur are still on the list of things I need to see, but they will have to wait until after the retreat! Wish me luck!

Love from Kathmandu,

Monday, 2 April 2012

March 27- April 2 (Thamel and some Durbar Squares!)

So, it's been two days since I got back from the Vipassana retreat and at this point I am alone in Kathmandu and basically spending my days eating and napping (I mean this is the most excited way possible, it is such a blessing to be able to do nothing. When I was in Pokhara I remember a fellow traveler saying to me "always remember how lucky you are, most people will never get the chance in their life to do nothing."). Mom emailed me to let me know that my Visa company thinks my card might have been compromised and that I have to call them (the only thing worse than waiting on hold for your bank is having to pay for every minute you're on hold). In any case, we discover that yes, someone has made a purchase of a whopping $1.00, and that it wasn't me. Card canceled! Not to worry though, my bank assures me that they can mail me a new card to my home address (ever helpful, lol). So I sit down, observe the sensation of descending panic (lol), and decide that I really don't need my Visa anyway. My Mom has been so kind as to book my hostels for Jordan using her credit card, and I do have a backup visa (that I will now only use to book a direct flight home, if it comes to that). Over the course of these three days I also manage to get my flydubai crisis sorted out, and I am rebooked to fly out of Kathmandu on May 1rst, complete with 23 hour layover in Dubai! (which I keep saying will give me time to try all the Baskin Robbins flavours in the airport). I tried to book a visa for Dubai, so I could leave the airport, but they rejected me (apparently Dubai has started a recent hate-on against all Canadians that are not businessmen? Who knows, whatever, they're not invited to my Birthday party).

The next few days are a bit of a blur, suddenly everyone seems to be in Kathmandu and I'm spending most of my days in White House Kitchen, Thakali Kitchen or OR2K having breakfast/lunch/dinner with friends. I am convinced that OR2K is the hub of Thamel, I run in to so many people there (OR2K is this great Israeli vegetarian restaurant).

On March 29th I decide to do something with my life... so I go to see a movie! During one of my visits to the flydubai office, Takendra (my bff there) tells me I should go to the Civil Mall to see Hunger Games, the only English movie playing there at the moment. And so here I am, in a VERY Western-looking mall, and I've paid 190 NPR for my ticket, 55 NPR for a medium popcorn and 70 NPR for my Fanta (that's $3.91 CAD). Ballin! And what's that, there's an intermission for me to go pee and get more popcorn? Even better! So yes, excellent movie experience in Kathmandu, I'll be back (by the way, for those of you wondering, the Second Second Assistant Director was John Nasraway... of course I stayed!). On the way back I take a detour to a cheap bookstore near the Central Immigration Office and pick up Eat Pray Love, The Alchemist, One Hundred and One Days and Outliers. I mean really, this day couldn't go better... but then it does. I go to the White House Kitchen for dinner and meet a guy named Walter. And what is Walter doing in Nepal? Building water sanitation systems. Bacteria chat ahoy! I also book a cheaper room down the street, buy some nice white T-shirts and a hot pink Pashmina. March 29th, raving success.

The next day I have breakfast at my now favourite place, Thakali Kitchen, where I get the Nepali set (all-you-can-eat rice, lentils, veg curry, spinach, spicy sides and curd; it's 130 NPR, which is $1.60 CAD). I so very much love dal bhat, I definitely picked the right country. I move down the street to Friendship Hostel, where I'm now paying 400 NPR/night ($4.90 CAD). After unpacking and doing some reading I head to OR2K for a salad (fresh greens with shredded beets, carrots, cucumber, radish and topped with cashews, peanuts and sesame seeds). Then I finally make it to the Garden of Dreams! The garden was built in the 1920s by Kaiser Shamser, because his palace needed a garden. For less than $2 you can spend all day in this green oasis, smack in the centre of Kathmandu. I sat here for awhile, feeling very much un-coupled (this is one of the few places in this city where you can openly cuddle/kiss/lie on top of each other, it is therefore more aptly named "Garden of Canoodling Couples"). It started to rain though, so I fled to the internet cafe, where I ran into a volunteer I met once in Pokhara, Jack. At first he doesn't recognize me with no hair (I love this, lol), and then we get chatting about his 52 hour flight back to New York in a week. "Yeah, I have a 23-hour layover in Dubai" I tell him. He asks me where I am flying to. Jordan. "Hey, I lived in Jordan for 5 months!" Of course you did. And of COURSE we need to meet tomorrow at OR2K so you can impart me with all your knowledge. March 30th, raving success! The next day I spend 5 hours with Jack and Nora in OR2K, and then buy the Jordan Lonely Planet guide that Jack finds for me in the bookstore across the street (I've only been trying to find one for the last 3 months). And then for some reason I decide to have a hot chocolate, chocolate covered strawberries, ice cream and 2 Snickers bars. And then I spend the most uncomfortable 2 hours in my room trying to will my stomach to digest all this crap, telling myself "how are those cravings going for you Vicki? Very Buddhist." Shut up brain. Still, March 31rst, raving success!

My next journal entry for April 1rst starts: "I achieved Enlightenment!" Happy April Fools (everyone knows it's impossible to do that with a candy store churning around in your large intestine, durr). Today I go to Patan with Nora and her friend Peter (from Ottawa!). Patan is a small city outside of Kathmandu, with one of the three Durbar Squares in Nepal (Durbar means "palace," so there are three Durbar Squares in Nepal that were built across from their respective palaces. Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur used to be kingdoms, not cities). The Patan Durbar Square was really beautiful, though it's so difficult to figure out which temple you are actually looking at! The first one we went in was covered in blood from a recent sacrifice. This leads me to ponder how barbaric Hinduism often seems to me, how time consuming and expensive it must be to appease these gods (and there are a lot of them!). Of course, I am so fortunate to be experiencing this new culture, but it's hard to remember that when you are overcome with the hot, wet, iron smell of blood. Oh my gosh, this is the worst introduction to Patan ever. Really, it's magnificent! After exploring the square we headed to Cafe Du Temple, a small rooftop cafe that overlooks Patan. This was really lovely :) The Patan Durbar Square is quite small, so it doesn't take long to wander through it, soon we were back in Kathmandu and I was in my guesthouse waging war with my large intestine (I'm betting it was the 200g of dried figs I ate...)

On April 2nd I made myself go somewhere new for breakfast, the Thamel Brasserie. The Thamel Bra?! No, apparently "Brasserie" is a French word for a nice restaurant? Anywhoodle, I had the Spanish omlette and banana porridge and delighted in the cheapness of this meal. And then, because the Universe was smiling on me, I actually caught Khalid on facebook! You don't realize, it's been so long since we chatted in real time. So that was an excellent start to the day! After lunch I went to the Durbar Square here in Kathmandu. I had been warned that it was not as nice as Patan, but I loved it! The steps to the Shiva temple by the entrance of the square are filled with Nepali women selling marigold necklaces that you can adorn the shrine statues with. Across from that there is a large carving of Kala (Black) Bhairab, an incarnation of Shiva (who likes to adorn himself with skulls and trample dead bodies). There is also a Seto (White) Bhairab, but his face is hidden behind a lattice fence, and the fence is only opened once a year. The Hanuman Dhoka (Hanuman museum) was gorgeous, filled with lots of intricate chowks (courtyards). Here I climbed nine stories and got a great view of Kathmandu as well! On the way out of the Hanuman Dhoka I spotted a carving of Vishnu as a man-lion, "disemboweling a demon" (so says the Lonely Planet guide). Again, can't we all just wear marigold necklaces and be friends? My favourite place in Kathmandu Durbar Square was the Kumari Bahal, House of the Living Goddess. Every few years in Nepal, a young girl (Kumari Devi) is selected as the reincarnation of the goddess Durga and lives in the Kumari Bahal until she reaches puberty (at which point she is given lots of money and becomes bad luck to marry). The Kumari Chowk, the inner courtyard, is absolutely gorgeous, every window and crevice has been intricately carved. I also happened to be in the square at the exact time and day that the chariot for the Seto Machhendranath festival was about to be launched into the streets! It's hard to describe this thing, so check out my pictures. With a blast of a cannon (that scared the crap out of me, and about a thousand pigeons), men begin pushing this chariot through the streets of Kathmandu (for the next four days? That's what I heard). After watching the chariot be launched, I was getting up to leave when I noticed that a small crowd was gathering around the Kumari Bahal. I joined the fray, and 30 minutes later they brought the Kumari Devi outside to carry to the Seto Machhendranath temple! It was really exciting, I suppose you don't get to see her all that often. I would have followed the procession, but I got distracted by a small sweets shop where I found burfi (these diamond shaped milk sweets I have been raving about since the Vipassana retreat where I got to try one). I bought a bunch and then sat on the temple steps and ate them (I shared the rest with the owner of The White Kitchen, and the young boys who live at my Guesthouse). I spent the evening on the rooftop terrace of this restaurant called Krua Thai, where I had Kloy Bouchee. Kloy Bouchee is banana rice pudding with coconut milk that tastes like heaven (and will probably send you there, given the fat content).

I'm about to meet up with Nora to go and see Mirror Mirror now at the cinema! Talk soon :)

Monday, 26 March 2012

March 4-26, 2012 (Holi, Budhanilkantha, Vipassana retreat and shaving my head)

Hello from Thamel!

I finished up in Pokhara and left on March 6th. The night before I made sure to eat all my favourite foods, including, pretty much, Mariah's entire bag of mini chocolate bars (I regret nothing). The bus ride from Pokhara to Kathmandu is not something I wish to relive, even in written format, so let's just skip right ahead to Holi on March 7th! This is the Hindu festival of colours, where everyone throws water and coloured powder at you :) I'd been looking forward to this festival for so long, and then it came and I realized it is no joke. Walking down the street is dangerous, seriously. The kids from 7 stories up throw water balloons at you like hand grenades, and every once in awhile someone runs up behind you and dumps an entire bucket of water on your head. I spent Holi with a massive group of volunteers, wandering through the streets of Kathmandu. It was so much fun, I fully plan on bringing this holiday to Canada (I'm thinking, go to the park, have a barbeque and have powder fights. I envision it being epic). The only blotch on the experience was walking back to the hostel when I got totally groped by a Nepali man. Um, thanks, but I don't think my left boob really needed any more colour. Oh well, I guess he had a good Holi. AND! This was the first day I had a hot hot shower in Nepal (which is fortunate, because it took me almost 40 minutes to get all the powder off). I had fruit salad and curd for dinner and finished my Jodi Picoult book. And so ended my Holi experience! If I'm honest, it was amazing, but no more amazing than having tea with a friend or watching Vampire Diaries on Tashi's laptop and eating too many chocolate bars (isn't that great?).

The next morning I was to leave for my second placement in Budhanilkantha at Support the Children Nepal. I checked my email that morning and was greeted by a message from flydubai saying that they had cancelled one of my flights (they did that with the last one too, if you're counting, lol). There wasn't any time to do anything about it though, so I loaded into a taxi with Rajesh and Bijen and we left for Budhanilkantha. Budhanilkantha is about 30 minutes outside of Kathmandu, up the Kathmandu Valley and by Shivapuri National Park. I met the kids that night and the two other volunteers Jenny (from Australia) and Elsa (from Switzerland). I spent the next week there, playing in the rice paddies with the kids and generally enjoying the quietness. Jenny and Elsa were great and we had a really good time together too. One of the boys, Bikash, gave me his volunteer journal to write in. There were notes from all the volunteers all the way back to 2007. Reading all of their notes was so special, it was clear that Bikash is a very bright and special kid. One of the things I was most struck by at this orphanage was how different the kids look from HCCH! Of course, the kids from HCCH are Tibetan, so that's the difference (because these kids were Nepali). Anyway, it was funny how shocking I found this. Most of the kids are boys, so the games generally involved trying to hurt one another, and I'm just not very good at those games. I mostly tried to convince them that they REALLY wanted to make flower necklaces (because that's totally more fun, right?). I also lived like a true Nepali for this week, only eating once in the morning and once in the evening! I'm not going to lie, it was hard. I stuffed my face way more than I should have... Other highlights of the week include the three Danish volunteers that came later and finishing a book called "The Happiness Project."All in all, the week in Budhanilkantha was amazing, such great scenery and such great kids (though this orphanage was a little more Lord of the Flies than Pokhara, lol). I headed back to Thamel for 2 days before my meditation retreat. In these two days I read "Eragon" and "The Secret Life of Bees" and spent a good few hours freaking out that I was going to go mad on the retreat. So let's get to that!

I first found out about the 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat in the back of the Lonely Planet guide. I left on March 14th, and from the 15th to the 24th you don't speak or communicate in any way with any of the participants. There is no reading, no writing, no phones, no music, no singing, nothing to distract you. You get up in the morning at 4:00am, meditate from 4:30-6:30am, 8:00-11:00am, 1:00-5:00pm, 6:00-7:00pm and 8:15-9:00pm. There's also a video discourse in the evening between 7-8. If anyone is interested in learning Vipassana, it's really essential that you take one of the 10-day courses, so don't seriously try and practice based only on my description :) Vipassana means "insight" and was a type of meditation taught by Buddha to release human beings from all suffering. The great thing about this practice is that it is totally secular and is experiential, that is you work on experiencing truth directly, it's not theoretical (works well for my scientific mind, lol). The first three days you practice Anapana meditation, which means observing respiration. By the third day you are spending all of your hours concentrating on a small patch of skin under you nostrils and above the upper lip. Observing any sensation that occurs there, tingling, itching, hot, cold, pressure, etc. During these three days you become painfully aware at how wild your thoughts are. You barely get through a breath and you're thinking "I wish that person would stop burping" or "I think I have to pee, should I pee now or later? What time is it?" or even "are Kermit the frog's pupils round... or do they have a line through them?" In any case, Anapana is used to concentrate the mind. As you focus on sensation at a smaller and smaller area, you increase the sensitivity of your mind and develop single-pointedness of concentration. On the fourth day you learn Vipassana, which means observing sensations on every surface of the body. You start at the top of your head and work down to your feet, and then rinse and repeat. The two most important parts of Vipassana are awareness/observation and equanimity/objectivity. You are to observe all sensations while remaining objective. If you are experiencing pain, you simply observe the pain and recognize that it is not permanent. In the same way, you don't dwell on pleasant sensations. Everything is awareness and equanimity. Do nothing, just observe. So what is the purpose of this? The theory is that our body generates sensations in response to sights, smells, tastes, sounds, touches and thoughts (which is true). And, the habit pattern of our mind is to evaluate these stimuli and then react. Someone hits you, the sensation you experience is unpleasant, you react with anger. Even anger is sensation, you feel heat in your head, maybe you are dizzy, etc. etc. So, by practising Vipassana, observing sensation without reacting to the sensation, you recondition your mind not to react to sensations blindly. When we react to sensation, we develop craving and aversion, which the Buddha taught (in addition to ignorance) was the cause of all suffering. You eat chocolate, you experience good sensations, you want more chocolate. When you can't have it, you are sad, you suffer (okay, that's a pretty superficial explanation, but it illustrates the point). Another example, I'm walking down the street today and someone bumps into me. It hurts, I evaluate this as an unpleasant sensation and start experiencing anger. Now, instead of continuing to feel angry, I simply observe these sensations with equanimity and eventually they pass away. I don't get drawn into a negative cycle of thinking about how rude this person was, how much I wanted to turn around and give him a dirty look, etc. etc.

In the discourse the instructor talks a lot about how we are the master of our own moments and everything is our responsibility. I am not angry or happy because of anyone's actions, it is all within your own control. In addition, it's beneficial to realize that getting angry at someone hurts yourself first and foremost. If someone has done something to you out of anger, there is no use responding with anger, because you too are now suffering. Anyone who is experiencing anger, fear, hatred, ego, etc. is suffering, so what is the point of bringing yourself into suffering with them? You end every Vipassana meditation with a few minutes of Metta, which means a meditation of loving kindness, where you wish only happiness and peace to all beings. The state you are trying to achieve is one where you are unconditionally happy and loving, and you share this without expecting anything in return. If I bake you a cake and you hate it, I don't get mad or upset (and if I do, it's only because of my ego... and if wanting to feel appreciated and elevated was the reason I baked the cake in the first place, then I didn't really bake it for YOU, did I? lol). I'm sure I have not done justice to the entirety of the technique, but this is how I understand it!

Those 10 days were very very difficult, especially the three hours a day where we practiced Addhittana (strong determination), where you try not to move at all for the whole hour. About halfway through I was feeling very upset with myself for not achieving what I wanted, but Vipassana would say "do nothing, just observe. You are making mistakes, that's okay, just accept it and try again in the next moment. Be happy." How wonderful :) Coming out of the course I feel very fortunate to have taken it and am trying very hard to incorporate the two hours of Vipassana meditation everyday that they recommend. I also signed up to volunteer on one of the courses, so stay tuned for that!

The past two days I have simply been trying to catch up, trying to remain more aware and objective, and eating lots of coconut tofu curry at OR2K with some other Vipassana meditators. Most of you are probably also aware that on the 8th day of the course I realized I had lice! It was difficult to observe the itching sensation without reacting with aversion, lol. Anyway, within 3 hours of returning to Kathmandu I went to a barber and had him cut all my hair off! Today I found yet another bug, they are crafty little devils, but even they cannot survive a totally shaved head :) At first I worried that people might not like it, but then, what does that matter? There is no point trying to build up your image in the minds of others, but there is a point in trying to be happy and live your own truth. And so, a bald (bold?) new Vicki goes confidently into the last two months of her trip. Stay tuned for my Kathmandu adventures and trying to figure out exactly how I am going to get to Jordan...

May all beings have true peace, true harmony, true happiness!


Sunday, 4 March 2012

Losar and the end of Pokhara! (Nepal, Feb 22- Mar 4, 2012)

We survived Losar!

Losar started on February 22nd this year and is the Tibetan New Year. The first day was definitely the most insane! The kids had pulau for breakfast, a sweet rice dish that has dried coconut, raisins and almonds mixed throughout. I cannot count the number of variations I have had of this dish since I left Canada, but this has certainly been the best! (no offense SunWelcome, yours is still pretty ballin). Most of the kids were all dressed up in traditional Tibetan dresses and it was probably the most fun to watch the girls try to skip and play in them :) For lunch there was curried buffalo meat, which was only the beginning of so much more buffalo to come. The staff set up Tashi's laptop outside and they played music all day. Nicole and I slipped away to Perky Beans for chocolate milkshakes and iced lemon tea (the glasses are almost 500mL, these things are massive). After all the New-Yeary festivities were over and the kids had gone to bed, Nicole and I set up shop downstairs and watched the movie One Day and then Vampire Diaries (Nicole bought all the seasons in Mahendra Pul, it's been totally awesome). Oh! She also bought these Cadbury Eclairs, of which I ate far too many. It's just better not to look at the ingredients/calories in times like this; did you know that most candy here has beef gelatin in the first few ingredients? I like that they're so specific. Beef.

Over the next few days the Losar activities died down, but we did have one stellar night where all the kids performed songs and dances outside before dinner. They were practicing for so many weeks leading up to this, so it was really special to watch them. The days passed by in a blur of traditional Tibetan food interspersed with frequent trips to SunWelcome with Mariah and Nicole. The girls at the orphanage made us wear our hair down ("Miss, you must make your hair nice for Losar!"), but I think we all avoided getting lice somehow, so all is well with the world :) We also got a new volunteer, Fabian from Germany, who is a total natural with the kids. I would like him much better if he wasn't 5% body fat yet able to eat like 500g of Toblerone bars everyday (I'm sorry Fabian, but I have to hold it against you, I'm sure you understand). Really though, all the volunteers here right now are so great, I knew it would be difficult to leave such a great group of people. Segue...

I ended up deciding to stay in Pokhara for another week! This means I'll probably take the bus to Kathmandu with Nicole on March 6th, and then I have to get to Bhaktapur somehow. The countdown is on to my meditation retreat (March 14th), and I booked my Tibet tour, so the last 3 months of this trip I feel are going to fuh-ly by! February 25th was Dave and Olivia's last night in Pokhara, so we celebrated at Bullet Bar. This night saw me having my first alcoholic beverage in Nepal (honestly, 300Rs per drink?! How do people afford this?), I met my first other "Victoria" and heard what will now be my favourite story ever (Dave's telling of being in Pamplona, Spain for the running of the bulls).

On February 26th I killed my first cockroach and bought sunscreen (riveting, no?). I also went to Varahi Mandir with Nora and Krishana's three daughters. Varahi Mandir is a Hindu temple on an island and is dedicated to Vishnu. We paddled the most monstrous pontoon boat you've ever seen to the island, interrupted only by a canoe of drunken Nepalis that decided it would be fun to run into us. The island itself is beautiful, there are lots of trees and flower bushes, and colourful prayer flags are strung everywhere. Mostly you try not to get pooed on my pigeons though ;) We paddled back and Nora and I had iced lemon tea at Perky Beans and a great talk about adoption. Honestly, it's amazing how many people I have run into here that have a connection with it in someway, even people with stories similar to mine. I then went in search of the Immigration Office because I needed to extend my visa (and had been putting it off). After being given half drunken directions from an American with a monkey (it actually happened), I began most uncertainly, not trusting the least in the map I had been given. The back roads were actually quite lovely though, and it was even fun getting lost (which I did). By some miracle I actually found the place, and though I briefly expected my passport and money to be stolen, everything came back fine and I am now legally in Nepal until April 24th! I had the Nepali set at SunWelcome for dinner, then ate my second dinner at the orphanage, then ate way too many of Nicole's Eclairs again. Then I sat in my room with the most outrageous stomach ache and finished my journal entry with: "Diet overhaul tomorrow! Love from the fat/bloated blueberry, Vicki." I have quite honestly never been so full in my life. I think they put crack in the white rice here, it's the only logical explanation.

I moved out of the orphanage and down the street to a guesthouse called Gurkha Lodge. The man showed me a number of rooms, and when I found one I liked and asked him how much per night he said 750 Rs. I thanked him and said I only wanted to pay 300 Rs. Then we stared at each other for awhile. Then he caved, telling me that I musn't tell the other guests, lol. So I've been living in this quaint little cottage-esque guesthouse that I absolutely love! There are gardens all around, so in the morning you are woken to the sound of birds and the smell of flowers (and then, unfailingly, the buffalos start up with their bizarre mooing sounds and the magic is broken, lol). Ah! Walking from the orphanage to the guesthouse in the dark though is always slightly creepy. I wear my headlamp, which casts only a dim light infront of me, and then eventually I start seeing pairs of green eyes appearing in the blackness ahead of me. You can't actually see what the creature is until you get closer, but it's like something out of a horror movie to see all these disembodied eyes staring at you! But, not to fear, there's usually a harem of dogs that accompanies me down the street (sometimes I read these blogs back to myself and think how bizarre this must all sound). I tried the other night to pay my protectors in orange slices, but they weren't impressed.

The kids went back to school after Losar, and the first day we got halfway walking there when all the kids broke out of line and started madly running about. I looked around, certain that there was a stray dog chasing them (this always makes them scatter like sheep), but it turned out that someone had just come running from their school to tell them that school was canceled. I remember back to when our school used to get canceled by snow days and couldn't help but smile along with them. I shook all of their hands, congratulating them, and then we walked back to the orphanage, lol.

The past few days have mostly been filled with eating, chatting with the other volunteers, and watching Vampire Diaries at night. Since my last update I've read a bunch more books, including The Secret Garden (Frances Burnett), Sister (Rosamund Lupton), Ishmael (Daniel Quinn), The Snow Leopard (Peter Mathiessen), The Prophet (Kahlil Gibran) and The Bhagavad Gita. Last night was supposed to be Nicole's last night, so Nora, her and I went to Cafe Concerto and had the most outrageous dessert dinner ever. There were banana splits, chocolate brownies, vanilla ice cream with Baileys milkshakes, fruit salad with honey and curd, nutella crepes and chocolate chip gelato all involved. Fortunately (for me), Nicole's Chitwan expedition had to be canceled because of today's strike, so we will have to repeat this last supper in another two days when her (and I) actually leave. It seems fitting that my second last day is a strike day, it means that all the streets are quiet and everyone here is relaxed and happy to have a brief holiday. This is the Pokhara I love.

The next time you hear from me I will probably be in Bhaktapur, with new kids, new volunteers, new sights and new food! Stay tuned :)


Monday, 20 February 2012

Nepal, Feb 13 - 21 (we're halfway there!)

Hello again!

Today is Feb 21rst, which means I am officially halfway through my 6 months! I was flipping back and reading my journal entries from the first few weeks and it seems like not that long ago. I still remember sitting in Pearson airport and not even believing that I would be gone for 6 months, that I had the whole journey ahead of me still! Lisbon, Dusseldorf and Istanbul seem like they were yesterday, and I can't believe it's been 6 weeks since Alyssa left, how can time have gone that fast? I thought today was important to do an update, because tomorrow is Losar, Tibetan New Year, and I'm just going to have so many pictures and stories from that alone!

So what have I done since I last talked to you? I bought a purple and pink yak wool blanket, which is the softest and most amazing thing ever. I wish I could send hundreds of them home! I also bought a new rain jacket and threw away my ten year old Columbia shell :( (yes, Mom, it is finally gone!). I skyped with my main man for Valentine's Day, though I ate all my chocolate before he came online (we were supposed to eat it together, but I have no will power). I love skyping, it means so much to be able to see and hear everyone. The rest of V-Day was excellent, we had spinach for lunch, which always makes me happy (I am acutely aware at how few green veggies I consume here, so whenever I get the opportunity I just stuff my face with them). Speaking of stuffing my face, I realized that I had no idea how much rice I was consuming... I mean, I knew it was a lot, but I was curious how many cups I actually ate per meal. So, I got out my calculator, did some number crunching and then actually made paper cubes to represent 1, 1.5 and 2 cups of rice. Then I took a bowl from the kitchen and put the cubes in them so I had a visual representation. Yeah, it sounds just as silly out loud as it did in my head, but there, now you know (I will not tell you how much rice I was eating, it is embarrassing).

News from Nepal includes the fact that most of the kids have lice now, so I simply run away when they try to jump on me. Even baby Tenzin has them! Do you think it will be a miracle if I escape without getting them? Also, pineapples have officially come into season and they are so delicious. Even the oranges are getting bigger and tastier. What a pleasure to be able to eat local, seasonal fruit (all the Australians think it's weird that I consider this a novelty!). I've still been getting the newspaper everyday, but most of what I read relates to the Greek bailout or the Iranian oil embargo.

Kay left to go back to England a few days ago, but I'm so excited to see her again in three months! I'll have to make sure to bring lots of chocolate with me. There are two new volunteers at the orphanage, Nicole from Melbourne and Mariah from Philadelphia. They are both great girls and I'm quite struck at how sad I am that I will have to leave them so soon! I don't know exactly when I will be leaving Pokhara, but I know that my time at HCCH is up as of Feb 24th. I think I am going to Bhaktapur, but then, you never really know what you're doing or where you're going until the 11th hour. I know I will greatly miss the kids and the staff here, all my favourite restaurants and people. I'll miss lying on the roof of the orphanage and looking at the stars (in between sit-ups, that is) and I'll certainly miss the laid back and relaxing atmosphere here. I think Dave and Olivia are heading to Bhaktapur around the same time, so maybe there will be a few friendly faces! I hope the new orphanage has lots of dishes and sweeping for me to do, I really enjoy those chores :)

Anyway, stay updated for Losar celebrations, and of course Holi (the festival of colours) which is coming up in early March. My 10 day meditation retreat is also less than 1 month away, so there will be lots to talk about.

Love and chocolate covered strawberries,
P.S. Did I tell you that I found the most amazing vegan dark chocolate here? Diabetes ahoy! 

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Giant worms in Nepal (Feb 4-12, 2012)

So, the title may be a little misleading, but for awhile there I was pretty sure I had a giant worm growing inside of me. After further inspection though, I think it was just some mouldy bananas that I ate (three days in a row). You'd think as a microbiologist I would know that when you can see the hyphae, the fungus is already all throughout the fruit. Lesson learned.

We got new volunteers on Feb 4th; two of them bailed after the first day because they "weren't feeling well," but I guess they were well enough to go biking around Lakeside ;) We never saw them again. If you see them in Australia, shame them! lol. The other three volunteers are Olivia, Dave and Sam. Olivia is lice picker extraordinaire (yes, she has independently confirmed that most of the kids have lice. I have managed to avoid it; what would I even do if I got it? Shave all my hair off? Who would pick out all my knits?!). Olivia is from Australia, as is Sam, who did an arts degree and is pretty much the kids' favourite person. He bought a bunch of drums and has been teaching them different rhythms, which they obviously love! We've even had a few drum circles with the staff, I have to concentrate really hard on keeping my beat. I read an article once about someone who got anthrax from a drum they bought in Africa (if the animal has anthrax and their skin is used to make a drum, you can infect yourself. Not to fear, I'm on the lookout for black buboes growing out of my skin). Anyway, Sam is a real sweetie and I'll be sad when he leaves in the next few days! Dave is from Montreal, he's been teaching the kids French phrases... they can now speak more French than I can (but can they say "I like chocolate cake with ice cream"? No, and that's the most important phrase to know!). Dave was telling us last night about his trip a few years ago to Southeast Asia and how he and his buddies bought scooters and drove from Ho Chi Minh to Hanoi. I love meeting people with such cool stories! I think after I'm done in Pokhara I will be heading to the orphanage in Bhaktapur that Dave came from. Speaking of which, I officially finish here on the 24th, so I'll be here in time for their Tibetan New Year (Losar) which starts on the 22nd. I'm trying not to think about the fact that I'll have to leave, I'm going to miss Pokhara and everything about Himalayan Children's Care Home (HCCH). I will miss Tashi singing in the shower in the morning, and how him and Chhewang have skipping competitions (even though they are both grown men). I'll miss Jyoti and Lama, who own HCCH, and their 14 month-old son Tenzin, who I am planning on stealing away to Canada. I want a baby Tenzin. Lama was a monk until he was 32 and then he married Jyoti and they started HCCH. Then there's Uncle, who has the best smile and who walks the kids to school and makes sure they keep in line during the day. He also likes to ring the gong really loudly when you're near and scare the pants off you. We have a new cook, and there are a lot of Aunties who mill about, and I'll miss helping them out with chores and sneaking across the floors they just mopped. But, I don't have to leave just yet!

Life has been lots of fun with Kay around, we both go to sleep early, we do the daily newspaper crosswords/sudokus together (except today's, because we accidentally made Losar chains out of today's paper) and we go to SunWelcome everyday for tea. Yesterday at SunWelcome we met a man from England who has been traveling around and living in his truck since June 2009! He's on to China and up through Pakistan next. It makes me feel like I have so much to accomplish, lol. Kay's introduced me to her favourite chocolate bar called "Twirl," which seems like something noteworthy that I must tell you.

I have booked the rest of my flights also! On April 24th I will be leaving Kathmandu for Amman (Jordan). I have two weeks in Jordan (will I just sit and stare at Petra the whole time?) and then I fly to London (England) on May 10th. I was going to head down to Spain and fly out of Barcelona, but I found another cheap flight to Toronto from London, so now I'm going to spend my last 11 days in England with Kay! She's going to take me to the pub she works at, Stonehenge, Bath and Oxford. This is arguably the best part about meeting so many great people, you have the best tour guides when you go traveling again :) Over the past few days I saw my first wedding procession in Nepal, and my first whole day of rain in Pokhara! It's funny that everything gets canceled when it rains (I doubt they can do that during the monsoon season though?). I also booked a 10 day meditation retreat in mid-March. I had read about it in the Lonely Planet guide, and another volunteer did it, so I decided to give it a go. You meditate for about 8 hours each day, there is no talking and you can't communicate with any of the other participants (not even eye contact). There's no yoga, reading, journaling, anything really. I have already been told by many people that know me that I don't become silence, and I think they are right. I think my biggest challenge will be not losing my sanity. I mean, 10 days in silence with nothing but your own thoughts is bound to make even the best of us mad, am I right?

Anyways, I think that's all to update you with for now! My fruit salad at SunWelcome has started coming with honey, cinnamon and ice cream on top... and this is why it is my favourite restaurant. I am now master of Sudoku puzzles (I still suck at crosswords) and I have read a few more books since I last talked to you: The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (Oliver Sacks), The Psalm Killer (Chris Petit), 1984 (George Orwell), Pride and Prejudice/Emma (Jane Austen). I couldn't believe I had never read 1984 before, it was fantastic. Jane Austen was pretty good, though I still prefer Stephen King if we're being honest with each other. Also, has anyone else read Emma? What a self-centered brat. I think Mr. Knightley could have done better, I'm just saying.

Oh, and I just heard that Whitney Houston died, as did Christopher Hitchens. When I went on to BBC today there was a top story about 5 killer whales suing Sea World (via PETA), so I'm taking it I didn't miss much in the news?

Tata from Pokhara!

Friday, 3 February 2012

Nepali Birthday and into February! (Jan 12-Feb 4, 2012)

Hello friends!

It's been awhile since the last update (I say that everytime), but I'm pretty much in a set routine here so there aren't too many new things to talk about. I had my Birthday here on January 24th! I started my celebration a day early though and ate a Snickers bar and 100g of Toblerone before lunch, which did not go over well with my stomach. Brittany ate the rest of the Toblerone to save me from myself. For my actual Birthday I splurged and bought grapes to have for breakfast. I also had snacks from my favourite store in Pokhara! It's called Fishtail Organic Garden and they're partnered with a local NGO that supports organic agriculture in Nepal. They have these amazing dried strawberries and pears that they cover with chocolate. I seriously eat them everyday. Brit and I also bought popcorn and watched Love Actually on her laptop. Then I borrowed her iPod and went for a nice long walk and rocked out to Glee songs. For dinner we went to Punjabi restaurant, this fantastic vegetarian place that has, honest, the best curries on earth. I had Palak Paneer, which is spinach and yak cheese. I also had a banana lassi, my first ever lassi! The Australians rave about them, and I really think they're on to something. I've been back to Punjabi too many times to count, though I try not to go too often (I'm pretty sure everything is loaded with ghee, and my arteries can only take so much).

So now I'm 25, but I don't feel any wiser. Maybe it will take a few months to kick in? Brit has officially left for India and I have a new roommate, Kay from England. She keeps me honest about my Snickers bars and is a great crossword companion. It feels strange that all the girls I started with are gone (Brit, Rachel and Alyssa), but there are still a few friendly faces milling about!

Sorry that there aren't any new and exciting stories to tell, but I can tell you about some of the everyday things that make my life happy here! I like passing the biscuit shop on the way to school with the kids, it smells like heaven every morning. I like that the kids all scatter like sheep when stray dogs try to play with them and I think Uncle (who walks the kids everywhere) has just the greatest smile ever. Now that Kay is here we do Newspaper puzzles after lunch while sitting outside in the sun (they give you a word and you have to try and see how many small words you can make from it... like you can make at least 50 words, four letters or more, from the word "BEVERAGES." I know!). Then we head down to Lakeside and have tea while doing Sudoku and crossword puzzles. I like hearing all the kids get up to the gong in the morning, there are a few seconds of silence and then the most awesome racket as 51 kids all race down the stairs. I like cleaning up after meals and even love the Nepali brooms here! I've met so many people here from all over the world, and it's so easy to strike up a conversation with just about anyone. The staff at SunWelcome (my favourite everyday place) know all my favourite meals and are always so friendly.

Anyway, we get some new volunteers today, so maybe I'll have more stories for you in a week or so :) I've extended my volunteering in Pokhara, so I'm here until Feb 23rd!

Talk soon, Canada

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Nepal (December 28th - January 11th, 2012)

Hello from Pokhara!

I've been trying to update my blog for a few days now, but the internet is against me. We've still been teaching, the kids are on holiday until the 22nd, so we have daily lessons until then. I started out with the second youngest group and now have moved up an age category! At first I was hesitant about teaching the older kids (they are always getting into trouble, which I knew nothing about at that age), but they are loads of fun. Mostly we play games that involve English somehow. Their favourite is 21 questions, where you stick a post-it note with a person/place/thing on their forehead and they have to guess what it is by asking yes/no questions. I learned pretty quickly on that separating them into teams prevented them from cheating in Tibetan. After lessons they usually have chores until lunch and then maybe chores after as well :) The orphanage runs like a well oiled machine, so it's nice to finally be into a schedule.

December 28th was the first day of the Pokhara street festival that runs every year until New Years Day to celebrate tourism in Pokhara. All the restaurants move their kitchens outside, as do the shop keepers, so it's lots of fun (mostly it was just nice that there was no traffic because they closed all the roads!). I found a new favourite restaurant to eat at, it's called SunWelcome and overlooks the Phewa Tal. I can also buy homemade peanut butter and there's lots of veggie stalls on the same road, so it's great. Every other day or so I pick up a kilo of carrots and green beans/peppers and soak them in iodine water to munch on. We were lucky to stumble upon a place that sells fresh hummus, so I've been having it most days. I had to stop eating dinner at the orphanage because they eat so late! The kids eat around 8pm and then go straight to bed, so we were eating at around 8:30pm and following close behind them. How is it possible to eat so close to sleeping?! Anyway, I've just taken to rabbiting with my veggies instead.

 (tofu curry with brown rice at SunWelcome)

December 31rst I climbed to Sarangkot, a set of villages that stretch up to the top of a hill overlooking the lake and the Himalayas. It's also where the paragliders take off from. I set out at around 7:45am in the morning, and luckily the directions from another volunteer were enough to get me started (after that I took to routinely asking the locals "Sarangkot?" whilst pointing up the hill). At various times I was joined in my climb by local villagers, who were all too happy to take my mandarins in exchange for their "tours." After about an hour of climbing I was joined by a little boy. "Sarangkot?" I said while pointing up the hill. "Yes, but miss, it's another hour and a half of climbing!" Silly boy, how could it possibly be that long? It was. I had calves of steel by the end. The view was 100% worth the climb though, and I even got to sit and watch the paragliders taking off. I caught a ride with one of the paragliding jeeps back down (ignoring the man that offered to "show me the short cut" back down for 500 Rs).

Happy New Year! I stayed in the orphanage alone over New Years and definitely slept through the countdown. But! I was awoken at 1am by the new orphanage puppy howling himself silly (I think he was indignant that no one included him in the celebrations). I played with him for a bit before passing out again. On New Years Day we took the kids down to Lakeside for the last day of the street festival. Their favourite part was the live comedy sketch, all in Nepali, apparently it was a riot? On our way back I stopped in to have veggie curry at a restaurant called La Pizzareia (the best place to have curry, right?), and ended up getting interviewed by National Geographic! They were doing a piece on why people travel, so I had a great evening just chatting with him about my reasons and pondering lots of questions I'd never thought of before. Excellent night! The next few days were just our usual orphanage-ing. I love when the kids read us books during our lessons. My favourite one is "The tale of the donkey-skin maiden." Yeah, it's also missing half the middle section, so when it picks up on page 12 it just doesn't make any sense. I also secretly read some of their Disney books when no one is looking. Oh! And another great thing, one of the other volunteers, Rachel, started joining me on the roof for my "hotel workouts." It's a total riot, and I think we're actually improving :) We do a lot of walking here, but mostly I just feel like I'm sitting on my butt; I'm glad I wrote down a ton of workout routines before I left! (I think I'm starting to put a dent in all that chocolate/gelato weight. All Europe's fault. Not only can my wallet not afford a massive Europe adventure, but I don't think my arteries would survive either).

On January 6th, I, Brittany, Rachel, Alyssa and two other volunteers at the other orphanage, Jess and Eladio, left to visit Chitwan. Chitwan is a flat jungle area that lies in the Terai area of Nepal. It's generally warmer there and people flock to Chitwan National Park to go on safaris. It was a five hour bus ride from Pokhara and after settling in at our hotel (Hotel Shiva's Dream) we walked around the city and saw the periphery of the park. The best part though was the Tharu Cultural Programme. The Tharu are a group of indigenous people that live in the Terai, and we got to see them perform traditional songs and dances. They also did stick dancing, which imitates the Tharu men training for battle (wouldn't you just hate to be in a stick battle? So would I). The next day we woke up to find everything covered in fog. Quite apart from spoiling the day, it made our morning canoe ride 100X more interesting. We couldn't really see where we were going, everything was silent except for the sounds coming from the jungle. We saw lots of birds and even two giant crocodiles (don't go in the water). After docking along the river we set off on our walk through the park. There were spotted deer, wild boar, monkeys and lots of birds. We'd been walking for a bit when there was a massive crash in the forest. Our guide stopped, gave a listen and then broke out into a run. At that point you don't know whether you're being chased or not, so we all took off running after him (I was remembering how before I left my family was joking that "you'll be fine, as long as you're not the slowest runner"). As we came through a small clearing in the trees we saw two rhinos bathing in the stream. So neat! I think I had to keep reminding myself what I was actually seeing. We didn't get to stay for long, seeing rhinos while you're on foot is not the safest, so we left before we disturbed them too much. Then we had to race to get out of the jungle in time. At around noon they let all of the elephants at the breeding centre into the jungle, and you don't want to be there when that happens, apparently. We made it out, got to see the elephant breeding centre and then headed back for lunch. After lunch, most of the volunteers headed out on a jeep safari while Rachel and I stayed behind to do a "bicycle tour." Though, I don't think you can really call it a tour if they don't give you a map? Also, the roads aren't so much roads, as stones with bits of road inbetween. My butt hasn't hurt so much since the spin classes at GoodLife! But, all in good fun. The next morning our schedule said "elephant bathing," which we took to mean watching the elephants get bathed in the stream. Well, that happens, but it happens with you ON the elephant. You get drenched, you have a riot, it was great. Everyone got to take a turn, and I think it was the best Birthday present Rachel could have asked for (even if Eladio did tell the handler to make the elephant dump Rachel in the river, which he did). Our last event was the elephant back safari which was also really neat. We got to go further into the jungle and even stumbled upon two rhinos close enough to touch (the elephants mask the smell of humans fairly effectively). Ah! I saw wild rhinos, while riding an elephant, in Nepal. I must repeat this phrase over and over to myself until I actually believe it happened.

Now we're back in Pokhara (brrrr) and life is back to normal. Hopefully I'll get a chance to update you soon!


On another note, I've plowed through a few books, including "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest," "Teach Yourself Kama Sutra" (hilarity, in case you were wondering), "Chicken Soup for the Unsinkable Soul," "The Glass Palace" and "Talking About Jane Austen in Baghdad." Anyone have any book suggestions?