Wednesday, November 25, 2009

WAT's up with me and where have I been?

Hi friends! Haven't had or made the opportunity to sit in front of a computer for a few weeks (LOVE that), but have been writing the good old fashioned way - with a pen and paper (gasp) - so here are a few excerpts to serve as updates to what's happenin' in this crazy head, heart and life o' mine. At the moment I'm in Cambodia exploring the breathtaking temples of Angkor Wat  .....truly amazing.

Nov 20, 2009 - By the banks of the Bagmati

Yesterday I left Nepal and headed for Thailand. I am so sad to say goodbye to Nepal – a  beautiful country with truly amazing people. But, as Buddha was fond of saying, “This too shall pass.” As with everything – the good, the bad, what we like, what we don’t like, what we want, what we don’t want – the only constant is that everything changes  - so I'm doing my best to let go of the wonder that is Nepal and to embrace where I am right now - much the way a river flows through a canyon - no regrets, no clinging, just flowin'….

The idea that everything is in a constant state of flux was driven home with the strength of a pile driver a few days ago when I visited Pashupatinath – the holiest and oldest pilgrimage site for Hindus in Nepal. This complex is a series of temples and holy places built to honor Shiva that is situated on the banks of the Bagmati River in the middle of Kathmandu. The Bagmati flows into the Ganges and (according to ‘Diamond,’ a Nepali friend - and a real character -  I met at the temple) is considered by some to be an even more holy river than the Ganges because of what happens on its banks.

The scene on the banks of the Bagmati is like nothing I’ve ever witnessed. Upon my arrival there were 3 fires – each at a different stage in its life - burning brightly on platforms next to the water. A few people were tending to the fires while onlookers – both locals and tourists - watched with varied levels of interest. Meanwhile, women hawked necklaces and bracelets, tour groups passed through receiving information in various languages and monkeys scurried by stopping to eat the occasional scrap of food. On the opposite bank, but not more than a couple hundred yards downstream, a soccer game was in full swing. Occasional cheers and yells from the players were clearly audible from the fire platforms.

This scene was particularly unique because each fire was a cremation in progress and those tending the fires were family members dutifully letting go of their loved ones while also ensuring the soul a safe passage into the next life.  From just 10 feet away I watched 3 sons shave their heads to honor their father as his body returned to ash before their eyes. I witnessed a group of 15 women, dressed in traditional flowing garb (bright pinks, reds, oranges, purples and yellows), lovingly envelop and support a weeping woman as she watched the ritual begin. Her young husband’s body was laid on a platform perpendicular to the river, water lapping at his feet, while the white and orange cloth shrouding his being was removed so that sacred water could be poured into his mouth.

I did not plan to witness these intimate moments. I merely found myself exploring this special place when this was happening. And, in this culture, these are not intimate moments.  They happen in the open because death is Accepted and Expected as part of life. I felt odd about watching this happen – not because it disturbed me, but because I felt as if I was intruding on something sacred, special, sad, serious, personal. These feelings are definitely a result of my Western upbringing and I was told (by Diamond again) not to worry – that there was no disrespect in watching this…..It still felt odd for sure, but was amazing and touching, as well. I was moved to tears at a few points – especially watching that young woman weep. I could feel her sadness well into my soul.

The intensity of this experience has left me once again contemplating death, life, mortality (this has been a common theme the past year or 2) and leaves me wondering what different people we’d be and how differently we would LIVE if this is how death was handled everywhere – not feared, not kept secret, but embraced by the living. It is an inevitable part of being human so I wonder why we try to cheat it, ignore it, fear it at every turn? I know most people will just chalk up fear of death as part of human nature, but I can imagine a world where we didn’t shy away from talking about death – where we didn’t fear dying or what happens afterward- where we instead put that energy toward living kindly, sweetly, mindfully.

It seems the Nepali folks have this last part down….There is still sadness with death, but it seems that there is not the same fear we have in the Western world. The ability to peacefully accept death as an inevitability must stem largely from something that struck me over and over again:  spirituality is inextricably linked to every part of everyday life for many people here. There is not just a work week and then Church on Sunday or Sabbath on Saturday…It seems that for the majority of Nepali people, there is no separation between the tasks of everyday and spiritual life and this is very apparent in each action…Prayer wheels are spun on the walk to work. Malas are prayed upon as shopkeepers wait for customers. “Namaste” (meaning the divine light in me honors the divine light in you) is said countless times a day as a greeting, in parting, to show gratitude, etc. Smiles and kind words are given freely between strangers. The people, the mountains, the rivers, the rocks, the children and even the cows and yaks hum with spiritual energy…. one can not help but be moved by it.  

Love, light and life.....

Nov 21, 2009 - Reflectin' on Trekkin'
Today, I find myself sitting on the 21st floor of an apartment building looking out on the smog-encased expanse that is the capital of Thailand. Even though yesterday I boarded a Bangkok-bound plane of my own volition, I still feel as if I’ve been abruptly and suddenly thrust into the buzz of this haven of hedonism. It’s even more surreal because this city is a far cry from where I was just yesterday (Kathmandu) and is the polar opposite of where and how I have spent the last 7 weeks (on a bit of an internal and external pilgrimage trekking in the Himalaya of Nepal).

Skyscrapers, paved expressways, a proliferation of 7-Elevens and Starbucks, the existence of traffic rules and an overall vibe of efficiency make it so Bangkok could easily pass for any Western city. (If I was dropped from the sky and landed here I’d swear I was in San Francisco, parts of NYC and even parts of Jersey – minus the fact that street signs written in both Thai and English, of course). Kathmandu, on the other hand, is chaotic, dirty, buzzing, void of any apparent organization, and horns are the only useful traffic signal (meaning “get out of the way or I’m going to run you over”)….Kat continually screams the reminder “You’re not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy” and this constant prodding can make it a challenging place to spend time…. While I don’t like cities much and I often skip them entirely on my travels, I at least prefer the honesty of Kathmandu to the western comfort of Bangkok....Don’t get me wrong, I was ready to leave Kat  (and so were my lungs) and am psyched to be heading to Cambodia tomorrow – specifically, Angkor Wat  - for some more spiritual stimulation and hopefully some cleaner air.

Folks who know me even a little bit know that I’d rather be in the mountains, desert, forest, (insert name of any other natural ecosystem here) than a city….So, leaving the Himalaya was tough for me….a good practice in non-attachment, yet still tough. The last 7 weeks in Nepal were magic – MAGIC on so many levels. I haven’t written much about the details of either of my treks because they aren’t really all that important and because I’m not sure how much they’d mean to folks, but here’s a brief re-cap for those of you who are interested…

1st Trek:  Everest region where I spent 19 blissful days walking through jungle, rhododendron, oak and pine forests. As we climbed higher lush greens quickly gave way to rock and ice, eventually thrusting us into the shadows of the highest peaks in the world..... Although the destinations were not all that important, we did go to Everest Base Camp, Kala Patthar (a point at ~5550 m), crossed a glacier to make it over Cho La (pass at ~5420 m) and then traversed through the Gokyo area littered with crystal turquoise lakes and even more spectacular views. Weather was fantastic most of the time…The mountain gods smiled upon me and allowed me to witness Sagamartha (Everest), Lhotse, Nuptse, Makalu, Manaslu, Cho Oyu, Ama Dablam, Pumori in all of their grandeur, unfettered by clouds, surrounded in a veil of blue sky, gracefully reaching for the heavens.

2nd trek:  Annapurna Circuit for 20 days or so (due to the 'Himalayan time warp' I lost track of date and time - yay!. The diversity of the environment, the landscapes and the people was astounding. Each village we walked through had a different feel, culture and heritage and each day we passed through a different life zone or 2 or 3. Once again the mountain gods looked kindly upon me here allowing me unfettered views of Dhalaguiri, Annapurna II and IV, and on and on….Looking back on this trek I feel as if I ate my through the circuit rather than walked through it – apple orchards, roof top pumpkin patches, endless corn and buckwheat fields, and pastures full of yaks made for fresh delicacies that could not be passed up – fresh apple juice, pie, crumble, streudel, and jam, pumpkin soup and curry, delectable corn and buckwheat bread, yummy yak get the point....

Most folks do this walk in a counter clockwise direction because this makes it a more gradual walk uphill and it allows for better acclimatization opportunities….We, of course, chose to circumambulate these massifs in the clockwise direction because 1. we wanted to follow the traditional path of the pilgrimage for Nepali people 2. we thought we might like an even greater physical challenge (as if hiking at 18000 feet with full packs wouldn’t be enough); 3. we wanted to go against the grain so we would not be traveling with the same hordes of people everyday and 4. we’re crazy. The responses we got from locals before heading out and even en route were funny and varied….A few people tried to talk us out of going this direction because it would be too difficult since it requires climbing from 3700 to 5400 and back down to 4500 m in one day. Even the guard at the first check post of our hike suggested we go the other way – This is especially significant because at that point we had already taken a 7 hour bus ride, a 2 ½ hour taxi ride on a super bumpy road and walked 45 minutes to get to this end of the trail….Deciding to change directions would have required an equivalent amount of time on foot and in vehicles, yet he was still trying to talk us out of it….

After about day 4 of the hike people stopped trying to talk us out of it and instead would say things like, “Ahh very strong” or “Very good – you do it that way.” We found out that it is considered good luck to complete the pilgrimage in the clockwise direction (and only about 10 people per month do it this way) so folks were pulling for us and were somewhat impressed (especially once we got over Throng La – the pass at 5416 m). Ends up that we were lucky: a few days after we came over the pass and began our descent a storm rolled in, dumping a few feet of snow on the pass forcing them to close it and causing many people to turn around. We had a beautiful day of hiking in the snow, but were low enough that the white flakes vanished upon kissing the earth.

On both of these adventures each day was a journey in and of itself….too much to explain in words at this point. In short, I was often overwhelmed with feelings of bliss, contentment, peace, awe, wonder and gratitude as I explored the landscape, myself, the friends I was with and the ones I made on the trail…Carrying everything I need on my back, walking all day, reading and writing and practicing yoga in my free time; being away from computers, phones; being able to interact with people without distraction; drinking tea and being consistently inspired…..  The simplicity of it all (my biggest decision everyday was what I should have for lunch) and the feeling of “enough-ness” that we often overlook in the day to day was amazing and reminds me  why I seek out experiences abroad and in nature….Will continue working on this when and if (kidding, mom) I return to “real life.”

love, light and simplicity.....


Nov 17, 2009 - Upon Leaving the Himalaya 

Magical monasteries, practicing yoga amidst the mountains, centuries old stones carved with the mantra over and over again– Om Mani Padme Hung!; water powered prayer wheels; bands of red, green, blue, white, yellow strewn from impossibly high perches; memorials built for people taken too early; raucous card games around warm fires; pre-dawn assaults on passes guided by the moon (and headlamp); waking to the sound of a sacred conch shell horn; drifting to dreaming lulled by a cascading waterfall; midnight skies of a billion stars; freezing cold hands; finding rare moments of sustained warmth without movement; bakeries at 16,000 feet; monks playing soccer; chataranga push ups side by side with a 4 year old right after my first glimpse of Everest; watching monks carry a body up a hill and then burn it; unforgettable interactions with people on my path; blessings from a lama; fresh squeezed apple juice; walking in the snow; a blessed coconut from a monk; watching sunrise from bed and enjoying the wonder of seeing the light change on enormous peaks;  small children smiling; shedding sacred sweat (a lot of it); soaking in soothing hot springs; witnessing death, celebrating life; hopes to return...soon. 

love, light and magic.....

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