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 :)