Location: Calgary, Canada
Just thought I'd leave a quick entry saying I made it back to Calgary safe and sound in June. Phew, I have to admit it was a relief to get back to some semblance of a steady life. Also, I was way more excited than I should be to rediscover makeup and hair products (4 months of product abstinence is a long time, even for me). To everyone who travelled with me vicariously through this site, thank you so much for your support - your messages (and even the fact that you checked the page at all) gave me more comfort that you'll know during the [admittedly few] moments of homesickness while I was away.
Next adventure: Real Life?
Location: Agra-Rajasthan-Goa-Mumbai, India
Even after leaving the country I still have mixed feelings about India. There is so much to this country, and to such great extents, that I don't know how to begin to describe it.
After meeting Sophie and Nick in Delhi, everything was one hectic, sweaty whirlwind of movement. Did the Taj Mahal (of course!)....I must admit I was skeptical that anything of beauty could exist in such a horrible city as Agra with its rickshaw drivers and vendors practically tearing my limbs off in an attempt to get my business. However, as I'm sure most visitors to the illustrious tomb must be, I was amazed - such perfection of design, from the expansive gardens to the intricate marble detailing. We watched the marble change colour under the setting sun...we were there quite a while, and it was worth every minute of it. Except maybe the stinky bit where everyone puts their shoes to enter the Taj, that was not so enjoyable.
Anyway, we were up and off early the next day to do the Agra Fort (almost as beautiful as the Taj, but more jumbled) and then on to Jaipur....and the rest of Rajasthan. We moved through Rajasthan at such pace that everything sort of seems to blur together for me - the Pink City of Jaipur, the laid-back hippie town of Pushkar, the quiet desert town of Bikaner with its rat temple (yes, we went, and yes, there were rats running over our feet, definitely a singular moment in my life), Jaisalmer, Jodhpur, Ranakpur, Udaipur...we saw forts and temples and castles but none as spectacular as the Taj and hence not worthy of mention here. Somewhere in between all of that, Nick left to go back to Australia, but not before an evil monkey caused him to sprain his ankle while carrying an offering of flowers to a hilltop temple. Perhaps shopping with me and Sophie wasn't such a bad idea after all.
In Jaisalmer we did a camel safari in the desert, complete with a night under the stars at the base of a sand dune. Unforgettable. Woke up to the sound of a camel snoring, a cold desert morning and a shimmering sunrise. Then we had to pack what minimal belongings we brought with us (toothbrush no, camera yes) and it was back on the road again.
After all that moving around and packing and repacking, we definitely needed some downtime, and there is no better remedy than a week in Goa. We stayed in a "hut" that was literally straw matting wrapped around some sticks in the sand, but it was 30 seconds from the beach and there was a hammock out front. What else does one need?
After a too-short week of beach-lounging and hammock-swinging in Goa, we spent a couple days in Mumbai (Bombay) for some last minute shopping and a taste of big city life in India, then it was back to Canada for Sophie and on to London for me.
Location: Chitwan National Park, Nepal
Ahh Nepal - between climbing over half the country, white water rafting down the other half, then mucking around in the jungle, I feel like I've done Nepal really well. And, as much as I was complaining about the old and the dirty, I think I actually love this country. The food hasn't been nearly as good as Thailand (I don't think I want to see dal bhat for at least another year), but the variety and diversity of life encompassed in this one small country does not cease to amaze me. I've seen Buddhist stupas side-by-side with Hindu shrines, even seen paintings of Hindu gods right beside a Buddha image in the same temple! The people are Newars, Gurung, Sherpas, Tibetans, Indians and many more, all living side by side in relative harmony, except of course for the Maoists. Even the land itself defines diversity - from the highest mountains on Earth to the jungles at practically sea level, with some important rivers in between...
Well, enough sounding like a guidebook. The white water rafting was great - easy enough for a first-timer, with a couple rapids thrown in for fun, even 'swimming' rapids, that a couple of us abandoned the rafts for. We camped overnight on a sandy bank in the curve of the Trisuli river. Hadn't showered in days and still enjoyed it!
After rafting we headed to Chitwan National Park, widely hyped with possibilities of seeing rhinos and the elusive Bengal tiger. As we checked in, we were warned to lock our doors and keep all belongings inside, as monkeys have been known to cause trouble. Three of us brave (stupid) souls decided we would take on the challenge of a Jungle Walk. From what we heard from the hotel manager and our tour guide, it was almost guaranteed that we would have to either run zig-zag or climb a tree to get away from a tiger or rhino or sloth bear or something like that. Exciting? Not quite, the most exciting thing we saw was a crocodile. I left Jamaica to come to Nepal to see a crocodile? Only slightly less thrilling was the tiger poo we attempted to 'track'. After the jungle walk, we all went on an elephant safari, where from the relative comfort of an elephant's back, we actually did see rhinos. Great, but definitely overhyped. We didn't even get anything stolen by the monkeys.
Anyway, on to India! Land of the Taj Mahal, butter chicken and about a zillion religions. Can't wait!
Location: Kathmandu to the Annapurnas, Nepal
I'm in Nepal! Kathmandu is nothing like anything that is familiar to me. The streets are narrow and hazardous with motorbikes, rickshaws, pedestrians and cows all fighting for the same space. Everything seems to be old and dirty, and surprisingly cool here after Thailand, although at 1300m ASL, I should have expected that. I was actually a little hesitant to venture out when I first got here, didn't realize how comfortable I was getting in Thailand.
Just got back from a 4 day trek through the Annapurna range. After climbing a couple steep mountains ('hills' they're called here, even though some of them are more than 2500m ASL, I guess you can be choosy when you have mountains like Everest at 8850m), I've come to the surprising conclusion that I like hiking. I blame the altitude for the delusion. I suppose the environment might have had something to do with it as well - walking through terraced rice paddies and corn fields, stopping to let a procession of donkeys pass, or to take a picture of the snow-capped mountains in the distance and wonder what the hell a Jamaican/Chinese/Canadian like me is doing in Nepal with a bunch of Aussies. Can't even begin to do justice to the scenery in words, so I'll just promise to post some pictures (eventually).
Location: Bangkok to Koh Phangan, Thailand
Doug made it to Thailand! Quite glad he managed to come on such a random whim. After the meditation retreat I don't think I'd have liked being on my own in Thailand for another 10 days. His first day here we did the sights in Bangkok - Wat Pho and the Grand Palace (with the Emerald Buddha), then wandered around Khao Sahn road for a bit. I preferred Wat Pho to the Grand Palace, which I'd already seen with the girls - the Grand Palace is a bit too showy, a bit too in-your-face with its splendor. Wat Pho was a bit more eclectic, a bit more of a mish-mash of styles since Ramas keep adding on to it, each with their own taste.
Then we headed off to Koh Phangan, which is honestly the most beautiful place I've ever seen on earth. It's even hard to think of somewhere in Jamaica that comes close in terms of beauty and serenity. Too bad it took us forever to get there - we flew from Bangkok to Surat Thani, took a bus from the airport to the sea port, ferry from the port to Thong Sala on the SW coast of Koh Phangan, songthaew taxi from Thong Sala to Hat Rin, longtail boat from Hat Rin to Hat Yuan, then hiked over some hill to get to the next set of bungalows since the place we stopped at was full. Phew! It was completely worth every second of it, though - there's just something magical about that island. The beach where we ended up staying was relatively secluded, and perfect with golden sand and turquoise water. Everyone, even the foreigners staying there, was just so relaxed and laid back, not rushed like Koh Phi Phi, with tourists trying to see every sight and buy every souvenir. I'll try and post some pics as soon as I find a decent internet connection, hopefully that's before I get back to Canada!
We managed to take in the Black Moon party while we were on the island - that was crazy! Hundreds of foreigners under the influence of some substance or another jumping around on a beach lit by black light to the sound of mind-numbing psytrance. Not as crazy as I've heard the Full Moon parties on the island are - those seem to involve miles of beach and thousands of foreigners. I think the experience would have left a better taste in my mind if we didn't end up at the pier for another 4 hours or so after we left the party, waiting for a boat to take us over to where our bungalows were, as there is no road between the two beaches.
On the way back to Bangkok, we ended up staying in Surat Thani for the night, before our flight the next day. Met a really fun bunch of people from France and Germany and ended up partying Thai-style at one of the clubs in Surat Thani (I think it might have been the only club in Surat Thani actually). Another surreal experience - seeing a Thai girl, backed by a Thai band, doing Diana King's "Shy Guy" with a plausible Jamaican accent. Weird!
Then, back to Bangkok to do some laundry and last-minute shopping before Doug flew back to Japan and I flew on to Nepal. Goodbye to Thailand! I will definitely be back sometime!
Location: Wat Mahathat, Bangkok, Thailand
The meditation retreat was indescribable. For six full days, I lived as a Buddhist nun - I wore white clothing, took no food after noon, maintained only minimal conversation (not so hard when everyone around you speaks only Thai), slept on the floor, and meditated for about 8 hours a day. It was the best thing I've done in Thailand so far. Meditation being such an individual experience however, I will not go into any detail of that aspect, and will instead attempt to describe what it was like to stay in the monastery.
Section Five, the Vipassana meditation section of Wat Mahathat, is like a break from reality in the middle of the hectic, overcrowded, touristy area of Ratanakosin in Bangkok. Staying at the monastery was the only time I felt like I was really experiencing what it is like to be Thai - there were no foreigners around, and we had only authentic Thai food; mostly rice and fish and chili, lots of fresh fruit. I love Thai food. I stayed in the female section of the monastery with the nuns, who shave their heads, and other female meditators. These other meditation trainees all seemed to be embarking on major transitions in their life, such as just graduating from school or moving to another town, and they were there to ... I am still not quite sure, no-one could explain it to me. Perhaps to collect their thoughts for the change, or to make merit with the gods for a smooth transition?
I found the distinction between monks and nuns and everyone else quite interesting. For example, I could not hand just anything to a monk, as I would hand you a pen. Food and other offerings had to be placed with both hands on a gold silk cloth, which had to be held with both hands by the receiving monk. Also, before and after any ceremony, such as ordination into the monastery or chanting before meditation, we had to prostrate before the monk leading the ceremony. All very different for me. I am still very glad I did this retreat - what I learnt about and through meditation I will take with me always.
Location: Koh Phi Phi to Bangkok, Thailand
It's been a while since the date of my last entry - that's because all I've been doing is laying on a gorgeous beach on Koh Phi Phi for a week or so, then trying to sort out visa stuff in Bangkok.
Koh Phi Phi is pretty much paradise. Our first night there we stayed at Phi Phi Hills, which probably wouldn't have been our first choice if we had a choice, considering there are about 1000 steps up to the bungalows, and we were in serious pain from that hike. The rest of the time we really were in paradise, Paradise Pearl Resort to be exact, on Long Beach. Beautiful, and only a sweaty half-hour trek in +40C through rocks and beaches to town. Loved it.
Now I'm back in Bangkok, which I actually don't mind, I quite like this city. I find it more 'real' - Chiang Mai (or at least the cooking class and the trek) and Koh Phi Phi were overrun with tourists and it all felt a bit like a play for us farang. Here in Bangkok I feel like that veil has been lifted and this is real life.
Tomorrow I check in to Wat Mahathat for a meditation retreat of sorts, until the 14th. Quite looking forward to not speaking with anyone but the meditation leaders, not eating after noon and wearing white robes only.
Location: Chiang Mai, Thailand
Hod's "Oh my Buddha" Boot Camp for Beauties
The trek was incredible! After a rough start yesterday with my almost fainting (I knew I shouldn't have eaten the 1000 lbs of rice they gave me for lunch!), we ended up hiking for about 3 hours total, more than half of it steeply uphill. I think I started enjoying it sometime into the 2nd hour, or maybe I was just delusional. Our tour guide, Hod, was great, except he kept making these random cow noises, especially when we were on a break. Our hike ended at a hill tribe village clustered around a cloudy mountain peak, where we stayed in a large bamboo hut covered with palm leaves - we slept on thin foam pads under mosquito nets and blankets. Fortunately, our group was small, so we could spread out as comfortably as we wanted - there were only 2 other girls with us, Paulina and Perla from Guadalajara, Mexico, great girls, loved them.
The next day started with a phenomenal sunrise, a good breakfast and an early start. We hiked for maybe an hour or so downhill, ending at a waterfall, where some of us were brave (or stupid!) enough to swim until another tour group showed up and took over. Another 'short' hike around and we were at an elephant camp, where we got to ride elephants! We lumbered around on elephant back for about an hour then, covered in elephant snot, jumped into white water rafting. The rafting was pretty mild, nothing too exciting, which was good for my first time white water rafting. This was followed by an hour or so floating down the river on a bamboo raft - so much more relaxing than the crazy trek uphill! All in all, quite doable (although I may not have been saying that on the 3 hour hike uphill), and probably really good preparation for Nepal, where I will be doing all of the above over the course of 12 days instead of two. I will, really.
P.S. Check Carrie and Natalie's blog at www.getjealous.com\carriequinn7 for their take on the trek and for more pictures and videos!
Location: Chiang Mai, Thailand
The girls and I are currently at the most beautiful place you could ever imagine - Jirung Spa Resort, in Chiang Mai, north Thailand. For about the same rate we paid for a rather boring typical hotel room in Bangkok (Davis Bangkok hotel), here at Jirung we get an entire suite to ourselves, complete with bedroom, kitchen, 1.5 bathrooms, living room and balcony, all overlooking a fabulously serene lake and surrounded by rich greenery and the sultry air that pervades all of Thailand. The hardwood floors have been polished to the point that they are almost difficult to walk on, the furniture is all hand-carved and someone has thoughtfully lit a candle under an aroma jar in the room, releasing a scent that relaxes every muscle once you walk into the room. I would like to move in here.
Today we had a fantastic Thai cooking class at the Chiang Mai Thai Cookery School. Han, our instructor, was perfectly fluent in English and had a wicked sense of humour. We made some typical Thai dishes, like Phad Thai, Green Thai curry, fish cakes (waay better than they sound) and a typical Thai dessert of water chestnuts in sugar syrup and coconut milk. I am now quite sure I was a professional Thai cook in a previous life, although I will admit that Han's instruction may have had a little to do with how well our food turned out.
After our cooking class we headed back to Jirung to experience Thai massage Jirung style. In the words of my cousin Natalie, "I think that was the best thing that ever happened to me." I don't even have a hint of a muscle knot remaining in my back or shoulders.
Probably good timing for such a good massage, as tomorrow we head out for a 2 day trek through the mountains of Thailand. Good luck to us!