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),