Thursday, June 30


We almost booked a trek in the Himalayas with an expensive trekking outfitter, when someone pointed out the much more affordable option of independently hiring a guide. Raj, our guide and guesthouse operator, is the star of this show. 

He is a young, short Nepalese man who was born in India because of a love story. His parents, who came from devout Budhist families, fell in love and escaped to India to avoid arranged marriages. He has 'Maila' tattooed on his right forearm, a name his mother calls him. In Tibetan tradition it means 'second son.' He, however, is the oldest son in his family, but his mother calls him Maila to remember the baby she lost before his birth. 

With excellent stories told in impressive English, he has led us and entertained us through the hills of Markah Valley. We've taken advantage of arriving ahead of season in Leh to do this popular trek before the summer rush and also before the Indian government follows through with its promise to build roads to the remote towns tucked into the valley. 

We were making good time on our first day and it seemed our cautiously short acclimatization day underestimated our fitness. Even with a late start, we past our destination early in the afternoon and continued to the peaceful Swiss style village of Rumbrak. We walked under the shade of willows with many birds looking on as the path twisted and crossed the winding river many times. We arrived at Rumbak just as the yak herders and shepherds were returning with their flocks. 

Rumbak is set back into the cozy base of a snow-capped mountain. Here we found a traditional style homestay made from local materials. The kitchen, the heart of the home, was huge and cozy with small low tables and blanket seating. An ornate wood burning stove also sat close to the floor, generating heat for us and the residents which included a small bundled up baby. We stayed upstairs in a room with a view that looked out to the mountains and down to the animals. There were two baby yaks in the pen right below us. Warm chai, butter salt tea, and roasted barley were served while we waited for our dinner. After our snacks and some lazy yoga we had a meal of timomo, a traditional food of vegetable soup and steamed bread. Licking our lips we crawled into piles of blankets while waiting for the sound of neighing donkeys to be replaced with sleep. 

On our second day we discovered that acclimatizing was no joke as we huffed and puffed ourselves little by little over our first mountain pass (4950m). A flurry of snow blew down keeping us cool on the slow grunge up. Stopping for air every 10m, we enjoyed seeing yaks, ibex and marmots scrounging nutrients from harsh arid mountains. At the summit, just as the clouds lifted, we had lunch (packed for us by the homestay) and enjoyed looking back on the valley we conquered and the snow capped Himalyan giants glowing down on us. The views from the pass were predictably breath taking in a most literal way.

With blue skies we made a speedy descent and again progressed right past our destination, after stopping at a parachute tent for chai. At magic hour we arrived in a photogenic river town. Green grass patched with salt follows the river through town. Adorable miniature goats bleat playfully from within their ridiculous thick wool coats. At the farside of town we found another charming homestay where we were greeted with 'Joolays' (the multipurpose Ladhaki greeting and manner word) and with a brilliant rainbow. Inside the hospitality continued with hot Maggi soup and chai. 

The next day we waited until after lunch a short day hike. Without packs we eventually got hungry and started seeking chai. We had heard, incorrectly, that there was a town nearby with chai shops. To our dismay, a dull 5 km walk along a new road got us to a town that had no chai and was not nearby at all. There was only one old lady so old she couldn't even make chai. We returned with grumbling stomachs only to discover that our river crossing was blocked. The rickety cable car was jammed on the far side. So we waited. It was another trekker who eventually crossed over and liberated the cart. At this point we were far behind schedule and even with haste we did not make it back until nightfall. Back at the home we ate generous servings and met a British med student and his guide who joined us for the rest of the hike. 

Our hiking days continue in this spirit. We make good time with our light packs, relying on the unyielding hospitality of traditional family-owned homestays to take us in and feed us scrumptious warm food. Raj continues to distract us from the toil of our pitiful sea-level lungs and minor blisters with stories of his service to Indian army and insights on Ladakhi Buddhism. 

On the topic of Buddhism, I must describe the traditions that colour our walks. Every town, no matter how small, has a set of stupas or chortens (towers standing two to five meters tall). Originally used similar to headstones, they now act as shrines to saints and reminders of the five elements: earth, wind, fire, air and ether. Some are new, but many date back to the 14th century when a Tibetan saint brought a traditional order of Buddhism to Ladakh, following the previous less popular Tantric order. 

It is also at this time the Mons (Buddhist missionaries) established many of the villages we are exploring, often with beautiful gompas (monasteries). When peaking into the colorfully adorned gompas we saw snap shots of daily prayers, ritual dance practices, enormous golden statues, and small sculptures made of butter. It is respectful to pass on the left of stupas, just as it is necessary to travel clockwise around gompas. 

Also along the trail, crowding rooftops and summits, are the iconic colorful prayer flags that have found their way into giftshops worldwide. Bought in strings of 5 to 50 flags they hang solitarily here and there and in remarkable density at high altitude stupas. The hope is that the wind will carry the prayers, which are written on them, to God. We hung a set for all of you back home. 

Following the Mons centuries later, Lieutenant Joseph Cunningham was one of the British sent to explore Ladakh in the 1850s. His descriptions are still published and considered relevant, although a topographical survey that followed made more accurate measures of altitude. Cunningham was only accurate within 60m, as he used the time to boil water to determine the height of passes. Hunters and adventurers followed these surveys, but by 1962 the Indo-China war put the region of Ladakh, including Leh and Markah Valley off limits to travelers until 1974. Since then, not much has changed and many places still require special permits but the promise of new roads is always closer and will likely change much of the culture and trekking routes. 

Wednesday, June 29

Full Indian

Jen and I have created a phrase, 'Full Indian' to describe when travelers adopt behaviors that are typically Indian. This includes simple things such as drinking chai with the Indian amount of milk and sugar. However, it is more than just wearing clothes bought in India, it is wearing a full selwar suit, dupatta, and all the typical accessories of bangles and Bindi dots. Likewise, eating spicy Indian food is not 'Full Indian,' unless you eat it at an establishment or home for locals and you eat it with your hand. Taking bucket showers, throwing rubbish out the window, and blowing snot rockets without Kleenex is also 'Full Indian.' And then, something I didn't expect to adopt, but now find liberating, is replacing toilet paper with water. After four months in India I have started to accept a new norm. I am even temporarily horrified when I see a tourist with bare shoulders and I am surprised by fixes prices. 

Sunday, June 26

Mountain Monsoons

When I arrived in Leh, I was ill with altitude sickness, so it came as no surprise when Raj, the man at our guesthouse who nursed me better, suggested a trial hike before committing to be our Himalayan trekking guide days later. 

On out sample hike he took us over a mountain to the neighboring village of Saboo. With packed lunches we set out to test our resistance to the altitude. We were fine and enjoyed a lovely picnic, but on the way we witnessed the damage of the monsoon of 2010. 

Leh and the surrounding area is technically a desert and according to Lonely Planet, it receives less than 11cm of precipitation a year. Last year, however, in 22 minutes more rain came than had fallen accumulatively over the past decade. Major flooding followed with many casualties, but by the next day the ground was again bone dry. 

The news casters quoted fatalities around 300, but our guide emphasized to us that in reality closer to 1400 people died, if you accounted for the deaths in the surrounding villages and those who were not Indian residents of Leh, such as the many Nepalese immigrants and hill people. 

In Saboo a large empty riverbed runs through the middle of the town. Raj had not been there since the flood and when he illustrated a before picture to us we joined him in speechless dismay. Trees, homes, fields and roads had been wiped out and in their place was sediment and rocks in a newly formed canyon. Days later, on our 10 day trek of Markah valley, Raj continues to point out the destruction the unexpected monsoon has caused. This serves as a constant reminder of how difficult it is to live at altitude where the weather has such an incredible influence on daily living. 

Saturday, June 25

The Rhotang Pass

The road from the Manali to Leh in the far north of India should take over 22 hours on a good day, but is closed for most of the year. Only a few tents and one horse towns (or rather one yak towns) break up the long journey. Instead, brave drivers stop at pass markers to let their altitude sickened passengers relieve themselves next to stupas tangled in prayer flags while they tie yet another flag before barrelling on through tunnels of snow to the next pass. 

The conditions of the road are always brutal, so it is difficult to determine when it is safe to pass. This topic is incessantly debated by travel agencies, locals and travelers at the beginning of June each year. We too joined in on the fuss hoping to get an early start on our own Himalayan adventure. 

At first we heard it wouldn't it open until July and we were beginning to consider back-tracking to Delhi to take the pricey alternative of a flight. Then the road from the East opened, but it requires travel through the politically unstable Kashmir region, where tourist sometimes go missing. When we remembered our goal was to hike in Leh we approached an agency with the intention of making a trek over the fearsome passes. Then, to our surprise we started hearing rumors of non-commercial vehicles making it. Here our most ridiculous idea yet started to unfold. We had a motorcycle company recommended to us that took groups on 7 day journeys to Leh. The road is one of the world's most dangerous, but views are reportedly (and I can now confirm) spectacular! Don't worry Moms, we quickly abandoned this when Jen realized she was terrified of motorcycles. 

Between Manali and Leh there are several Himalyan mountain ranges that along with the mountains of Bhutan, Nepal, and Tibet make up the famous and ferociously jagged Himalayas, a relatively young range. In the south they are dramatically painted year round with snow and glacier, but to the north they have a mean rugged dryness that has you imagining them tearing up recently through the Earth's crust. 

It was, finally, in the very first commercial vehicle, at 2 am June 4 that we set out for Leh. Despite the Gravol and altitude sickness pills, I wasn't keeping food down, but the sights were so powerful, strikingly beautiful, that I often forgot my discomfort. At 5 am I arose from a short nights sleep on the Jeep to discover we were driving on the edge of a barrier free road with a drop of more distance than I can estimate. From there we crept along fresh and old snow on a road that was literally carved through a glacier to our first pass with views that go beyond description.

At nine o'clock that evening we made record time arriving exhausted in Leh, where we were hunted by Raj and his brother, touts who later became our friends. They swept us into their guesthouse and invited us to a second story room. I almost cried in resistance to going upstairs, I couldn't see any reason for more elevation gain. 

Friday, June 24


There is tremendous diversity in Indian culture and appearance across this large subcontinent, but the villagers from the northern hills are particularly distinct.

The woman sitting next to me on the bus may not be a woman at all. I think she started out human, but she is at present at least one quarter gnome. Her facial features are big and expressive leaving only a little room on her face for warts to protrude. Her ears are particularly large and I will venture to call them floppy, although it may be the row of brass piercings along the top ridge of her ears which make them fold over. Her teeth, slightly yellow, are surprising still in tact despite her advanced age. When she smiles her teeth come out to stare in an uneven row.

She is dressed as a gnome should with a warm cotton blouse under a wool dress that falls below the knees. Her hair is tied back and covered by a brown scarf. She has some ornate jewelry that appears to be a mismatch of pieces collected over a couple generations. To top off the woodland appearance, she is inexplicably short and carries an expression as though she knows a secret. Perhaps there is magic in the foothills of the Himalayas. 

Thursday, June 23


Chai, India's beverage of choice, is a milk tea they serve with two spoonfuls of sugar per cup, whether you like it or not. It is made from goat, cow, camel, yak or buffalo milk mixed with a combination of two of more spices. Surprisingly, my best cup to date was served by someone known in Setrawa as the 'angry lady' and consisted of buffalo milk. 

There is a complicated and cozy (gezellig for all you dutchies) culture around chai in India. Any visit to a home, no matter how brief and how hot, includes chai. Any purchase over a couple hundred rupees is followed by chai. Any visitor to our school is served chai (bought at the chai shop and carried over in a plastic bag). And every bus stop, train station, street corner or other place of loitering has chai available from a shop, stand or one man with a big pot.

The real art of street side chai is crafting up a cup or bowl as chai comes in a bag or soft plastic shot glasses, which the steaming hot beverage threatens to melt or at least burn you as you hold it. Traditionally, it is drunken in small mugs, disposable clay cups, or, as in my Indian home, tin bowls (ideal for fast cooling). Jen and I made a 10rs investment (22 cents) on two chai cups. They are metal and have handles which has greatly enhanced our chai drinking experience.

Wednesday, June 22

Anything is Possible

At 2500m elevation there exists a town that services all your Himalayan adventuring needs. We stayed at the  charming Apple View Guesthouse tucked back on a cliff in Old Manali. Our room had two big windows with views of the snow capped mountains and the turquoise alpine river. From the roof we did yoga with a 360• view of the valley that hugged us. We spent our days walking in town, in parks, and up mountains and waterfalls, all the while eating delicious food such as Yak cheese and hot chocolate which was made from a melted pure dark chocolate. The temperature here is pleasantly cooler, but at the cost of rain threatening to sneak attack. 

Twice we encountered unwanted downpours and fully experienced the Indian hospitality expression 'Anything is possible.' We had heard the phrase many times and mostly delighted in using it to order food not on the menu or to get things for the price we want. Back in Rishikesh we met one Indian who was high on the expression and perhaps something else. When we came to his shop he sung this song:

"I am Mr. Fantastic
Bombastic Monastic
Anything is possible
I am Mr. Fantastic"

Sure enough he procured for us two obscure items without hesitation, laundary soap and cold Mars bars.

Back in Manali, the rain attempted to sabotage our waterfall hike. Sure, we were already damp from the mist of the powerful falls, and sure we were both from rainy Vancouver, but India had us accustomed to dry warm weather and we wanted a place to dry off and wait out the rain. To our delight we noticed an inconspicuous shelter at the base of the falls. Covered in a blue tarp was a low stone walled hut selling chai. We sat in the owner's bed at the back of the shelter and snuggled up with two Israeli travelers next to the open fire which was heating our chai. When the rain stopped we continued our walk no worse for wear. 

On another evening in Manali, we invited some friends over to our scenic guesthouse for drinks and snacks on the roof. Once again the weather had other plans and dropped buckets of rain on the possibility of an outdoor party. When our tummies started to grumble late at night we were left to search for food. Wrapping ourselves in all the waterproof material we could find, we braved the elements. Fortunately, we only made it a little ways when Jen suggested that we follow the muffled sound of music. 

The music was coming from a makeshift tent in the corner of an unlit outdoor patio of a hotel. The tables were all leaned against the chairs, a sure sign they were closed, but when we opened the gate we quickly found a staff ready to make us food. There was one dry table under a tarp; however, when we pulled the chairs back we discovered they were wet. The Brazilian, Luis, casually mentioned to our group that it would be fantastic if we could find a cozy warm place with a washroom. Sure enough, when our host reappeared he offered us the presidential suite to keep warm. 

So we shed our shoes and a layer of wet clothes and crawled, all five of us, into the king size bed of the suite. We sat in a circle with the heavy red silk duvet trapping in our communal heat. In hope for a successful meal we all ordered shakshuka and laughed ourselves silly at our riduiculous appearance as we waited for our meal. Delicious tea came, followed by food, with no shortcuts. And so it is, in the middle of the night in pouring rain, in India you can walk into a closed establishment and get top service where anything is possible.  

Tuesday, June 21


The rattling of the window is persistent and forms two words in repetition 'pick up' as we chug-a-chug along. The window rattles out 'pick-up pick-up pick-up' like somebody is making a phone call and as they listen to the ring tone they will the receiver to answer by whispering under thief breath 'pickuppickuppickup.' Or perhaps the window is crying desperately to alert us of the approaching pick up truck which is going to challenge us for the road which has the width to carry only one. Himalayas here we come.

Sunday, June 19

I am the Egg Man!

Rishikesh is a happening religious place on the Ganges river. Despite the constant bustle about town, it remains a holy place that makes one feel grounded. It has the constant noises of a holy river town: the sound of water rushing and temple bells ringing. Then, because Indians like to visit their spiritual sites en masse, there are the normal Asian sounds of too many people in a space: honking tuktuks, shouting salesmen, and screaming babies. Unique to Rishikesh are the screams from hundreds of white water rafters ripping down the river. 

There is disagreement on wether the rafting is a good use of the holy Ganges River, but the perpetual shouts of delight enticed us enough to venture down the stream. The rapids were not too aggressive, but we had a thrilling time in a raft of ashram folk, shouting mantras as we past our residence, drinking chai at the cliff jumping point, and practicing non-attachment when we lost shoes to the river.

Also in Rishikesh, amongst the piles of ashrams which mechanically process western travelers, there is one special and magical retired ashram. Closed in 1997, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi Ashram has gained charm by replacing visitors with tangling forest undergrowth. The former residence of the ashram, including the Beatles, stayed in one of the small one story circular rooms. A spiral staircase in each leads to the roof where an egg shaped meditation chamber can comfortably hold five meditators.

Just before dusk, myself and four of my new friends, set out to photograph the Maharishi remains. We climbed over the high stone wall and dropped into an imaginary world. Inside the abandoned dining hall with graffiti adorned walls we danced our hearts out to 'Come Together' with the sun playing on our faces as it poured in through the mostly shattered window panes. After the ruckus dance party I convinced the party to switch moods for a group meditation.

After a week at Phool Chatti Ashram, a place of letting go, I instructed everyone to take a petal from the yellow five petaled flower growing outside Meditation Hut 1. Holding the petal, we each named something to hold on to. We then sat in a circle in the egg. For one minute we sat in silent meditation followed by meditating to 'Let it Be.' We filled the space with beautiful energy. Racing the setting sun, we set back over the stone wall feeling an incredible appreciation for the magic that created the White Album.

Friday, June 17


As I have travelled, I have made a list of the most delicious and memorable foods and drinks I have tasted. There is an unlimited variety of delicious Indian food that changes from region to region, making each new destination as thrilling for the mouth as for the eyes. Also, there is a tactile pleasure as all Indian food is eaten with one's right hand. The left hand is for other something else.

First up is lassi, essentially a yoghurt drink that is commonly sweetened with sugar and fruit to make sweet lassi or marijuana to make bhang lassi. It is opaque white and made from curd milk. The best lassi is tucked away in Jodhpur and serves women in a separate room. Makhaniya lassi, at 20 rupees a glass is irresistible. It's made of yoghurt, saffron, cardamom, sugar and butter. It's thick enough to need a spoon.

Yoghurt is also abundant and has the double function of calming down spicy food and preventing unpleasant infections with it's natural probiotics (complimenting the anti-malarial antibiotics I am on). Thank you holy cows. 

The Rajasthani staple, which is the region we volunteered in for 2 months, is dhal, subzi and chapatis. Dhal, subzi, and chipatis may be served in small separate dishes, but they are eaten altogether on a thali, a mixed-meal plate. Dhal comes in over sixty varieties and is a thick sauce type dish made of lentils or other pulses. Subzi is just vegetables cooked dry or more commonly in a sauce. Favorites in Setrawa are potatoes, peas, tomatoes, and onions. The chapatis, which I learnt to make from flour and water, accompany most meals. Flour and water are kneaded together with a touch of ghee (clarified butter). Balls of dough of a specific size are torn off, which every Indian women can precisely guess. The balls are then rolled out on round short legged wooden tables. Then, with a bit of ghee they are cooked on skillets over the stove or sometimes without a pan on a fire. This work, when done on a large scale is three person's work, but can also be managed by any Indian women while she prepares the dhal and subzi. 

In case you think it might be dull having chipatis every night, I should alert you of the variety that may be applied by changing the amount of ghee or the thickness. They can also be folded, inflated, deep-fried, or stuffed with spice. They are eaten by tearing into bite size pieces and mixed with the subzi and dhal, and on special occasions sugar. 

In the desert near Jaiselmir our guide produced for us a gourmet meal featuring dense buns which were baked in a hole with dried camel dung coals. It was actually exciting just to have three dimensional bread after weeks of flat chipates, having them cooked between dung and sand just made the experience extra memorable. 

Leaving Rajasthan for the southern state of Kerala, thalis are still abundant, some with chipates, but the most common bread are dosas. Dosas are nearly paper thin and much larger than chipates, often filling more of the thali than is convenient. They come plain or with a variety of fillings. Folded into thirds like a business style letter, the middle may contain mix veg, potatoes, meat, paneer (cottage cheese), spinach and/or masala (spices). 

One of our latest discoveries is momos. These Tibetan treats are roughly the size of golf balls and sold by the plate of ten. They are food wrapped in a thin dough. They can be fried or steamed. The variety is extensive with vegetable and mutton being the most common filling. In Manali we discovered one Tibetan kitchen that serves to-die-for steamed chocolate momos, which are filled with nutella and cookie crumble.

Then, there is the unlimited and incredibly affordable street food at 3 to 20 rupees (5-40 cents). My favorites include traditional samosas, spicy katori, and mystery burgers. Everything is deep fried and full of spice, but it's hard to guess what will be in your samosa, katori (disc shaped breaded item), or burger (small enough to fit on a dinner roll). It's rarely meat and best when it's hot, and the best ones have a combination of potatoes and vegetables. Also off the street and for pennies, you can get fresh popcorn, fresh corn on the cob, mangos, and ice-cream, but often the ice-cream has an awful soapy taste to it. 

And although we do eat mostly Indian food, I must also give some praise to the western catering restaurants we visited. They often put over 90 items on their menus to accommodate everyone's cravings and do it with success. Beer batter fish and chips for the Brits, thin crust pizza for the Italians, shakahuka for the plethora of Israelis, and Turkish coffee for the other Middle Easterners. I have tried them all and was more satisfied than I could imagine being so far from the origin of the foods. India can be chaotic and taxing at times, but India is the world's expert on food. This was clear to me when I saw 14 month old Kushi properly season her chapati with sauce. 

Sunday, June 5

How to become Hippy

Bad news, friends. I may have crossed over the thin line separating concerned students from hippies. Already I am interested in reducing my impact on the planet and spreading love, but ashram life may have pushed me over. We followed a scheduled regiment of deep breathing, mantra chanting, karma yoga (chores), meditative walks, cleansing, and 3 hours of daily yoga beginning at 5:30am. I adopted the vegetarian diet, accepted the value of deep breathing, and did not scoff at aryuvedic alternative medicine, all the while wearing Birkenstocks. 

For years I had been resisting my transformation to hippy. One point of resistance I held was refusing the netty pot, a watering can for your nose. But, one morning I was congested and standing in a garden amongst a field of snot rocketing keeners. Me-too had filled my ashram netty pot with warm salted water. I felt a warm booger drip onto my top lip. I tested a little blow. Wet dribble sputtered out of my nose. Here it goes. I took a squat, tilted my head to the left, put the spout of the netty pot into my right nostril. I took a deep breath through my mouth and, with a push of courage poured the water from the little plot into my head. The wilting little flowers of peace, love, and tree hugging thirstily soaked up the water, cleansing my head of anti-hippy sentiments, but I was not cleanses of mucus. Instead I had the sensation that of being pounded by a wave while surfing. I coughed and spattered water all over leaving the unexpected taste of salt water in my throat. Of course, after a few days I improved and I am now a proud owner and faithful user of a nasal wateringcan. 


First the Beatles and then Elizabeh Gilbert (authour of 'Eat Prayer Love') have taken advantage of India's spiritual wealth through the use of an ashram. Now it is our turn. Jen and I decided to trade our backpacks for yoga mats and mantras.

(If you're reading this with the intention of traveling India, write down Phool Chatti Ashram. Set up for beginners, it presents Budhist style meditation and yoga in a comprehensive and approachable way. You likely won't find enlightenment through their week long courses, but there are victories to be had in touching your toes, opening your lungs, and concentrating the mind.)

We arrived after a whirlwind two day train-bus-bus-metro-bus-rickshaw-walk-jeep combo journey and quickly fell under the soothing spell of 'ashram life' and the gentle roar of the Ganges. Meals at the ashram were taken in silence and we came just in time for lunch. Given a plate, spoon, and cup for the week, we were wordlessly directed to join our two dozen fellow victims sitting in rows on the floor of the dimly lit dining hall. Two Indian men, appropriately named Happy and Me-too, continuously circulated the room scooping food on to our plates with only mild consideration to our hand waving objections that were suppose to indicate we were full. Channeling the persistence of the rumbling Ganges, they functioned as classic Indian mothers trying to fatten us up for an unknown purpose.

We were then given a tour and caught our first glance of our instructors. Lalita Gi is a 20 year resident of the ashram and, like all the permanent staff, she never stops smiling. She has a very Indian way of speaking, skipping words and using 'the' in extra places to compensate. She instructed us in tangent with Brandon, a wandering thirty-something year old with a forgotten home in Florida. They are both natural teachers and gracefully cracked open the mysteries of meditation and yoga while we cracked them from their serene way of living.

Aware that we were the last week of the season, our group was determined to be special. Daily silence is suppose to be held from evening until midday the next day, but our collective lively spirit was not always obedient. It didn't help that on our morning silent meditation walks we were once bombarded by a party of nearly naked and very drunk Indian men and another time two thirds of us got completely lost in the countryside. By the end of the week silence was broken regularly enough that Lalita Gi went so far as to say we were 'the sounding like the railway station.' That day, we had a sacred fire at a remote mountain temple, where we obediently recited our mantras hundreds of times in serene monotony. We were model students, until none other than the instructor, Brandon, made a joke of our concentrated monotony by shouting 'Shambo' at unexpected moments. We obviously exploded with laughter and celebrated our interconnectedness by continuing with more lively harmonized chanting.

Despite the interruptions and chatty behavior, the ashram remains a sacred and calming space to be with God and to be with oneself. It's hard to not feel at peace here. The small collection of all white ashram buildings are surrounded by both wild and manicured gardens at the base of the Himalayas. The shady edge of the fruit trees has overgrowing hemp, flowers, herbs, vegetables, and plants for aryuvedic treatments. The crumbling path that cuts through the garden to the roaring Ganges River, where we scampered to for a swim during every break, passes by a blooming lotus pond. Here I saw my first lotus flowers which I was starting to think were mythical. Although, I'm still not convinced that upside down cross-legged meditation position called 'full lotus' is a real possibility for me. I am inspired by the first Swarmi of Phool Chatti, who was buried, not cremated, in a tomb at the ashram temple, to sit eternally in full lotus position. 

The wealth of knowledge at the ashram was appreciated and I learnt a lot, but greater than my new yoga and meditation skills, I am taking away new friends and a wonderful sense of interconnectedness. This may sound obnoxiously flaky, but give me a break I've just spent my week trying things such as loveandkindness meditation and laughter yoga.

Thursday, June 2

Looking is Free

My purchases from India will suffice to remind me of the memories associated with buying them, but I want to share with you the neat and thrilling experience I had acquiring some things.

First, Jen and I bought Indian selwar suits. We were guided to a small shop stuffed with fabric on a side street off the market in Pitampura, Delhi. There, Raju greeted us with colonial British and guided our selections. Our enthusiasm grew as we picked through hundreds of fabrics. A master tailor measured us every which way. Then, in two plastic bags, our selected fabrics disappeared with the tailor and returned that evening in the form of four lovely perfectly fitting Indian suits. Of course we ended up having the ankles let out to accommodate our giant Canadian feet. Raju specially died duppatas to match for us and gifted us each a lovely pashmina. Operation-Become-an-Indian-Prinsess was complete.

Second: Amelia and Jen get (almost) scammed. Our lovely driver to Agra, Raj, tricked us into going to a marble shop. We received a personal demonstration of how semi-precious stones are inlaid into marble the traditional way. The craftsmen were very skillful and claimed to be descendants of the workers of the Taj Mahal. But, although it was an enjoyable and educational opportunity, the pressure to buy their work was enormous and completely inconvienent. We could hardly carry a marble table or even just the table top with us for four months. Fortunately we were able to talk them down to two marble elephants for 500 rupees. We quickly escaped with our trinkets to the car waiting outside.

Third, Jen and Amelia get scammed (and compensated). We're in Jaipur. The pink city that makes you want to embrace princess-hood and shop until you are pretty in pink. We don't want more weight in our packs, but we cave in when an honest man recommends the bengal shop his family uses. Tucked away from the main drag of humming shopkeepers, we attempt to get some wholesale priced bangles. Sitting on the floor in the back of a three roomed shop filled wall-to-wall floor-to-ceiling with bangles, the shopkeeper and his assistant forcefully spin bangle after bangle over our sheared hands. When we finally choose our favorites there is a modest mountain of jewelry piled between us. Excited about our selection and eager to get back to exploring in the warm sun, we mistakenly agree on an outrageous price. We share tea with the sellers and leave feeling warmed by their generosity. As the day goes on I feel increasingly like a victim of a scam. It comes as huge relief to me, when upon exiting the sun soaked mountainous Amber Palace, the bangle shop owner is waiting for us. He hurriedly and quietly explained a complex situation where he feels awful that he had been pressured into scamming us. He insists on sending us back to the shop (and meeting his family, which we politely declined) where we are to ask for justice. We obediently comply and Jen recites a few lines that he prepared for us. We leave two sets of bangles and 400 rupees richer, and hopefully a little wiser.