Friday, September 7, 2012

on being back in Australia - instinctive familiarity

It's over 2 months now that I've returned to Australia. I've gone through waves of emotion - from tears welling up being greeted off planes by friends and parents, excitement at seeing my nephews, brothers and cousins, joy of seeing old friends and catching up on the years between hugs, moments of missing the travel, depression at forgetting all that I learnt about myself and why I returned, and thankful to good friends who have reminded me, welling in the depths of 'what am I going to do?' and not getting sucked back into the old life, guiltily eating my way through meal after meal of glorious food without much consideration for 'portion control', delighting in having good coffee seemingly materialise all day every day, happily re-acquainting myself with beautiful coastal walks and at the core of it all, struggling to stay centered but somehow moving through it.

I've been jotting down the odd observation about being back in a place after nearly 5 years way; some are as simple as remembering names of bus passes, or deeper thoughts about the nature of seemingly excessive lifestyles. But I've not yet blogged about it.

And it's time.

The beautiful coastal walk between Bondi and Coogee - Sydney really is beautiful
So here they are... starting with some impressions in the first days:

  • smell of charred bbq-ing meat carried in warm coastal winds. Something just so uniquely Australian. Thank you Yamba in Northern NSW
  • immediate sense of familiarity on seeing things and using words, like travel tens (the bus tickets in Sydney, though they are called something different now) , seeing signs like train boards, that I've not once thought of in the 5 years I've been away, yet are immediately familiar to me on seeing them again, watching the characters that board daytime Sydney buses:)
  • just instinctively knowing where I am - which bus to catch, which road to take, what shops are where.
  • how everything seems excessive and overwhelming in its luxuriousness. Yet not overwhelming in the way bolivia or nepal was in a dirty basic way, but in Brisbane, where I first felt it, the big big houses on small small blocks of land and how much money people spend on coffee and taxis. somehow people spend lots of energy here on things that I don't think matter much. Or that I felt didn't matter when I first arrived back but I've now already been sucked back in a bit.
  • the cost of public transport - i mean, $5 to go a couple of train stations?
  • a perfectly poached egg on toasted sourdough served with fermented black garlic and a side of prosciutto wrapped rocket, roasted tomato and a wedge of avocado. breakfast in hole in wall cafe. only in Australia.

some things I didn't expect...

  • being thrown back into childhood memories, like hungry jack stops with my cousin to grab a vegetarian burger and onion rings when we drove from Sydney to Canberra
  • loving seeing places with new eyes - bowled over at how ridiculously stunningly beautiful Sydney is when you fly in, that actually, i wouldn't mind going and hanging out in Canberra a bit, seeing the museums, sights, riding a bike through the parks where I used to walk through with my grandparents
  • discovering that everything is walkable. for instance in Brisbane, I have been walking places that before I drove. Or in Sydney discovering that to walk from Potts Point to Bondi Beach actually only takes about 1.5 hours - and you get to do a mini forest walk in Bellevue Hill.
  • being nearly quite sure that suburban life isn't for me. The feeling I had just walking through my old neighbourhood on a Sunday - past footpath exchanges on the best way to get property valued, the sound of a car stereo accompanying a spring clean, kids scooting around practicing wheelies. Not that any of this is bad, but feeling that I couldn't, didn't see myself in it.
  • how cool it is to scooter around Sydney. So quick! So easy! So fun! So cheap! You were so right Ceri:)

what I'm getting stuck in...

  • stalling / forgetting about all that i wanted to do. somehow just not bothering to look at the list I made of things to wanted to achieve when I got back
  • getting my story straight about what I want to do. Options are good, but this many vague ones? Need to get cracking on crystalising some...

but what have I actually done whilst being back?

  • spent time with my family - a week in Yamba a couple of days after I got back
  • caught up with primary and high school friends in Brisbane, going to coffee in trendy suburbs that I'd never been to before!
  • being endlessly spoiled by friends with delicious meals while we trip down memory lane and more recent histories
  • stayed nearly a month in Sydney in the thick of Bondi Beach - cat sitting for friends in their beautiful apartment
  • worked the last 3 weeks in a Jewish bakery across the street. How amazing in challah?! (though, how many pounds have I packed on since starting?!)
  • a wonderful week in Albury with my friends and ... loving the slower, more open pace!
  • getting casted for a documentary about being first generation Australian
  • finalising an article for publishing in a motorbike magazine
  • knocking back a job offer to do what I did before (I nearly got sucked back in but luckily was rescued;)
  • sorting out some of my 14 000 pics from travels into photo books

and so, what's next?

I'm moving to the country!!! oh YES. after talking about this for the, well, last 4 years, I'm doing it! I'm being welcomed into my brother's house in Glen Innes in northern NSW and I'm gonna live there:) actually, just writing that makes me feel happy:) I want to ride a motorbike again - the scooter has been fun here in Sydney, but I want to change gears:) I'll help my brother with his solar business, perhaps work in a cafe or what I'm more keen to do - something in waste, water or community support. Some of my friends are doubtful - you'll last 2 weeks they say, but I have a feeling. I'm gonna like it.

Meanwhile, I'm feeling good about having blogged again, and I'm going to try to keep perspective on things. It's hard. I'm easily distracted and not particularly reflective on my own. But i'm very lucky to have friends and family around me who are loving, supportive and keep on track.
Thanks everyone:)

Sydney standard - Opera Bar.
Who knew this is in the middle of the Eastern Suburbs in Sydney?
I LOVE these spiders. I'm a compulsive spider web climber...
This is Akira - one of the cats I am sitting.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Serendipity found? the dirty truth

serendipity in a campsite playground in northern Chile
I've been 'chasing serendipity' (or my own tail), if indeed such a thing can be done, around the world these last 5 years... And now that i've finally back on home soil (well the plane has just crossed the coastline near port headland) i want to share some of the reflections and learnings from my travels - before i am happily embraced back into the folds of friends and family and it gradually becomes a whispy memory.

I guess firstly - on chasing serendipity - can you really 'chase' and catch, the unexpected? Certainly you don't need to run off to a far flung land with a backpack and 3 changes of clothes to find joy, but the kinds of people, experiences and discoveries that transmit this joy are not quite the same as what i was encountering in the tall shiny buildings and urban 'upwardly mobile' set of before.

So I chose to break away ... and as much as there were many moments on my travels that all i desired was to return to the familiarity of it, it wasn't (isn't) for me. Perhaps it was because of good karma, or it just fell into place, but i was fortunate that 2 years ago all the conditions arose that enabled me, with only responsibility to myself, to embark on such a journey.

And what a journey... Of course there's all the sensory indulgences and serendipity of moving at the feet of majestic snow capped sky hugging mountain ranges of the himalaya and andes, being stunned by textures and subtle gradients of luminous white of antarctic icebergs, encountering colourful clouds of fluttering butterflies in the jungle or a red lake of pink flamingos in the high planes of bolivia, curling your tongue over fresh roasted nibs in freshly made smooth ecuadorian chocolate, feeling your heart lift at the strains of ave maria being sung at easter concerts in chile or likewise on a jumpy crowded bus ride in nepal to laugh at some bollywood lyrics ... I've waxed on and off using superlative adjectives about all of these on my blog posts already :)

So ... what i'm going to share now is the the dirty truth of what i've learnt about myself over the last 19 months.

Oops. Momentary serendipitous distraction... The steward has brought chocolate icecream to eat while we pass over ayres rock!

Ok. The kinds of things that i'm still coming to terms with and that will need continual intention and effort to realise. Here goes...

  • my big ego. Before i left london, i used the tall poppy metaphor to my therapist to illustrate that i believed i was special. In fact, i said that i was so special that i had a field to myself. She poignantly observed that was quite a lonely existence. Well. Travel, through continually moving and meeting others as well as some serious introspection with the support of buddhist teachings has well and truly started humbled what i thought was me. I see now that at the core i am the same as others, i am dependent (and need) others around me, and that's ok. In my small field of existence i have special qualities that combine to what i perceive as unique, but 'I' am not unique. In fact, 'my' fabricated 'I' is slowly succumbing and just just starting to dissolve into the universe. Seeing the 'I' and 'mine' for the illusion they are is a lifetime challenge. In deep moments of contemplation, i think i see it as it is, but in practice the mind is so so devious and clever, with so many habits conditioned that my ego reigns supreme 99.999% of the time.
  • that as self sufficient and independent as i think i am, i need people. It's ok to receive help from someone, it doesn't mean that i'm not capable or not in control, rather i can gracefully accept the gift they are selfishlessly offering.
  • that being vulnerable or rather showing vulnerability is ok. Building up a wall to hide behind to control everything doesn't bring happiness. That it's ok to experience the negative; pain, fear, loneliness and then not to try and keep it hidden; but to show it. Not to become caught and attached to it, but to express it and let it go.
  • on feeling and expressing compassion - loving kindness, and empathy - as distinct from sympathy. I'm only just realising how to truly do this (hmm perhaps intricately wound up in the humbling of my ego) and it's hard, and needs continual awareness but through it i i am experiencing deeper connections with people i meet
  • that as joyful and rewarding it is to do things alone, to be able to feel the touch of some you love and who loves you and sharing these magical experiences is to be treasured. I know one has to love oneself, and in fact loving is in many ways an illusion as you can only love the image/perception you create of the person or relationship, but i'm still unenlightened enough to value/succumb to the illusion.
  • that i've lost many friendships through moving around so much and being lazy. Though you meet many people while travelling, these relationships are intense but transient, and because they are often circumstantial, ultimately shallow. That's not to say i've not met people that i've felt a deep and lasting connection with, but i know now how much i miss and value old friends - those who've i spent time with growing together. i guess it's easier to maintain more 'contact-full' friendships when you stay in one place, but no excuses. Oh and hugs. As great as skype is, there's no hugs.
  • that there's many ways to live. Travel, especially in developing countries opened my eyes to people in all walks of life, but the revelation i talk of here is closer to the reality of my privileged life. I am over educated (in mind but not in practical experience), have never been forced into a decision, have every option open to me, have always had enough money to do what i want and i've been surrounded by love and support my whole life. there i was chortling down the corporate career path - not because anyone told me to, or expected it of me, but because i might as well and was ok at it. Then i travel..not the rushed european long weekend, or the hanging out at beach house with others like me, nor a 1 week cultural sojourn to a himalayan village, but the looong term travel... Where you meet the seasonal workers who work 4 months to travel cheap the rest, or others who have given up corporate life for 3 months or 3 years, or families with kids trekking or cycling or backpacking for 1 year, people that go on 3 year meditation retreats, those woofing and volunteering, those that have uprooted their lives to run aid organisations and other businesses in remote places and others with no idea what they are doing in general. These guys give me real inspiration that i too can do something to make a difference.
  • that though i am learning a lot spiritually from many generous and passionate people, i'm not ready to take refuge in one particular tradition yet. I'm definitely dunking my legs in though and already have found many resonances within with teachings.

So... That's some of the truths of my travel revealed... sitting here in suburban Melbourne it's almost like a dream - but i know that I have evolved so much as a person. Yes I'm still asking big questions about what to do with my life - but at least now I'm truly happier inside (rather than just distractedly happier) with who I am.

I'm not sure if I'm going to blog much more - but I am going to put some highlights together of photos and serendipitous moments from the travels, and I guess this will time nicely with a - 1 month after so watch this space! And, more than likely... I'll be off gallavanting somewhere else sometime soon! Perhaps it's even time to ride a motorbike around Australia? get to know my own country better for a change:)



Friday, June 29, 2012

Sitting in silence again

At 8am this monday i was one of 100 something meditators that were bundled out of minivans and into the thick of kathmandu rush hour. A shock..after 10 days of 9 hours sitting a day, no talking, (trying) to be equanamous to pain and not developing attachment to pleasant sensations, mentally struggling with competing desires, doing deep introspective work as well as getting lost in jumping jack thoughts - it was more challenging than the first course i sat in january, but at the same time a lot deeper and rewarding.

Perhaps this time around i had been already contemplating and discussing the buddhist fundamentals, but i really found that i could 'test' the concepts through practice; getting an experiential understanding to the intellectual, and finding my way at my own pace.

It's hard trying to write about it, but it was things like getting a broader grasp that all things, not just the 'tangible' are impermanent, the way our minds fabricate and propagate illusions, what really my intentions are behind my reactions and what i say and do, how 'i' - my devious ego pulls most of the puppet strings, and just the beginnings of how mind and matter feed each other and the separation of them.

The reality of my day to day sittings was wandering, distracted thoughts, at times succumbing to dozing off, moments of heightened awareness, tweaking of sitting position, being distracted and then marvelling at the capacity of some women to consistently burp every 20 sec for 10min, becoming attuned to sounds that indicated lunch was soon and chancing upon moments of clarity.

I spent alot of energy not properly meditating, but having an internal debate for the first 6 days as to whether i really wanted to spend the last days of my travels there instead of out enjoying life with new found friends.

The soothing balm for the intensity experienced were a number of conversations had after we were thrown into the rush hour chaos. With 3 other fellow meditators -caroline, david and kenta, over coffee and waffles we shared experiences and de-briefed eachother and then, later that night, pretty much all of the 20 or so travellers gathered for dinner and relaxed.

So what next? Am i to be a vipassana practitioner? As before i need to do more research into concepts i struggle with, but i can say that my practice has deepened and i am commited to continue the discovery.

Just as a side note ... The most wonderful moment of the course both times was when on the final day you see people's faces break into smiles and be expressive. A smile really does light up a person's face:)

About this tradition of Vipassana meditation...

Friday, June 15, 2012

Circling the stupa and falling for Boudha

I love it here. I love the kora rush hour, the sounds of horns, chanting and drums that ring throughout the streets from the 50 surrounding monasteries, the flowing burgundy and amber of the monks robes intermingling with the designs and colours of kurta and (tibetan clothing),  the glinting of the gold stupa in the afternoon sun, my favourite haunts of good food, good coffee, and beautiful gardens, that the holiness of this place is ingrained in nearly all who are there, the varied group of people that make morning prostrations, the type of travellers and students i've met here and just well being here.
4-6pm rush hour:)

At my hotel/Monastary

View from my room

Riding the rubbish truck!

I had intended to deepen my yoga practice in an ashram, but as it has turned out, staying nearly 2 weeks here has turned out to be a wonderful opportunity to indeed practice yoga, but also attend teachings in tibetan buddhism, visit rinpoches and lamas, be inspired by the students of tibetan language, buddhism, visit monasteries, observe the activities surrounding the most auspicious day on the Buddhist calendar here and generally get a taste of boudhanath.

The teachings and conversations of the buddhist lineages here has been fascinating - i'm not looking to take refuge or find a lama, but i'm curious, feel a resonance with many of the concepts and ideas, and have had some special deep emotional experiences.
The yoga has been a welcome change too - I found a wonderful teacher - Amrita, who teaches in the Sivananda school, and also doing some deeper work with her too. At first I had wanted to find the more active school of yoga, but this more meditative, holistic experience has been right for me now. I do belive that I may have to look closer at proper education... there are some fascinating ties with the Buddhism and many other readings I've been doing over the last year.

So... i'm rushing as I'm leaving for a 10 day Vipassana Retreat this aftenroon - so I've got some pics from my iphone as my other camera trying it's best to get repaird.... and... some SOUNDS!

the monastery sounds are pretty awesome....

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Gushing rivers, mystical forests and wandering off a trail to Tibet

Up at nearly 5000m in Langtang

It's already been a week since I proudly walked into my hostel in Boudha after walking all the way back from my starting point 150kms in the Langtang area north of Kathmandu.  However, after nearly 30 days of continuously long days of up and down trekking, my body sort of cracked it, the friendly gastro bug i've been nursing has come alive, and now; literally the flight up to my room, or three turns around the stupa leaves me drained.

So a mixed week. BUT, i have managed to practice more yoga, visit Buddhist lamas and hear some teachings, as well as just sleep and relax; so that's all good to. There's much i hope to write about Boudha, where i am now, but before i lull you into the peaceful / rush hour of monastery drums, people doing puja (prayers) and the mst auspicious days in the tibetan buddhist calender; i'd better jot down my last trek.

I really did come here to trek..after finishing Annapurna i knew i needed to do more, and this time alone. I guess i wanted to see how far i'd push myself, how lonely i'd get, what rhythms i'd establish. And so i found out.

Turns out that....
  • i like getting up and hitting the trail by 6am,
  • that a slightly doughy apple pancake gives me more lasting energy than porridge,
  • that i can storm up 600m on a switchback uphill path after 8 hours of hiking if it's below 3000m no problems, but walking in the morning above 3000m zaps my energy,
  • that i rarely take my pack off when i stop, that i don't stop for lunch,
  • that dal bhat/fried rice/fried potatoes doubles up for dinner and lunch the next day,
  • that i sorely lack protein,
  • that i'm ok about turning back - but rarely do,
  • that i'll happily go off trail,
  • that miraculously i can get up with my body feeling good after collapsing in bed the night before and do another 9 h 2000m ascent day,
  • that i like walking alone, but miss the comradery of chatting at the end of the day,
  • that you really can easily go 10 days with little clothing providing you handwash like every single day,
  • that ponchos really are handy against rain, that sometimes even if you can't see more than 5m in front, you just stick your head down and continue up the path,
  • that herbal sunscreen doesn't cut it,
  • that leeches hide themselves in that wet rubbish that you stick in your pocket,
  • that biscuit wrappers are the most common forms of rubbish,
  • that great conversations and friendships come from unexpected times and places,
  • that it's helpful to have something good to read as from 7pm to 5am its dark and you're probably sitting alone in the dining hall or your room,
  • that solar hot showers are awesome,
  • that you're inspired and surprised by people everywhere.

A unique guide!

keeping cool
I started the trek with a 6 hour bumpy busride from kathmandu to shyaphru besi, where i decided to see some tamang villages before starting langtang. I met a schoolgirl on the bus, and following her entire extended family who had been caught in kathmandu during the protests, we walked to gatlang, where her sister lived and she went to school. Gatlang is a traditional Tamang village - and one of the moments that i wished i had a local guide.

Gatlang Village

It is traditional in the wooden houses, local kids slightly corrupted with tourism, in the intricate maze of paths winding in and out of wheat threshing front porches, and a sort of past age air about it. I was impatient though, and not looking for a 'cultural experience' so instead of a homestay i lodged and he next morning, climbed down to Chilime and up up up t Tatopani.

A game called...Carrom - played alot here

Tato means hot and pani, water, and indeed the town is built around some yellow mud hot springs.  Bt that's not why i stayed 2 nights... I had seen on my map a trail that led to the border with Tibet. I really, really wanted to just get there, step over and back. My 7minutes in tibet so to speak. For the 2 tries and 13 hours i spent trying to get there, i composed wonderful, witty and inspirational blog entries about those 7 minutes, but alas i did jot make it. There was close to 1000m elevation gain up to 4000m, i had to get there and back in 1 day, and i just didn't really want to climb the next switchback (and slip ans slide my way back down) yet again. The locals do the journey in 7-8 hours TO tobet, then 5 return so ehat i was attempting was a tall order. But it was still a beautiful, quiet walk, and following up steeply a gushing river would five me a taste of what was to come in Langrang. The next day was a series of 'epic' days...

I was knackered - trying to get to Tibet

There it is...Tibet

I continued about 2hours from here steadily following the river and climbing - but in the end probably about 2 hours shy and lots of rocks to climb, i turned back
The days that i did long exhausting days at fast speeds (doing the equivalent of 2 days hiking in 1). Tatopani to landslide/hotspring, then the next day following the huge, steeply rising ( 2000m ascent ) gushing Langtang river to Kyanjin Gumpa at 3830m altitude. My small pleasure..i kept pace and even overtook local porters!! which for those of you who've been here know how amazing those people are. 

On the way up to Kyangin Gumpa - Langtang

The non trail i decided to follow up to Cherko Ri - ie. scrambling up a landslide

But well worth it! I would be going to the other side of the mountains next

The highlights of my 2 night stay in kyangin gumpa was the yummy food and spotless kitchen of Jaggat, the cook/brother of the lodge owner, and my morning off trail ascent of Cherko Ri (4984m). It was one of the most stunning panoramas /views if the tibetan and nepalese himalayan ranges, and after my scramble up the side of a landslide (i had completely missed the path) to be greeted with faded still colourful prayer flags and THAT view, was magical. Definitely the highlight view-wise of the trek. After Langtang i pulled another epic day to reach the sacred Hindu lakes of Gosainkund that sit at 4165m altitude.

Totally different landscape

Pilgrims on the way up to Gosainkund

They are beautiful and mystic and placid and out of a tolstein novel.. Sitting glittering like jewels amidst rocky, craggy mountains. But the serendipitous occasion happened the night before on the way up which was meeting a French/Japanese couple who on their same trek had decided to stop and volunteer for the month at the local school at Thulo Syaphru. I later noticed a trekking agency sign 'don't go gently' who had sponsored the health clinc, and have since found out that they also support the same school which has now sparked all sorts of ideas in my part.

But, unfortunately, i being still a bit selfish and gung ho about continuing, i left the next morning, passing about 300 hindu pilgrims that were coming down from a big festival at the lakes. Unfortunate as i had missed seeing a big festival, but good in that i would have somewhere to stay.

This night was my social night - i met a great group of trekkers coming the opposite direction - 3 nepali guys with a dutch girl. We had such a great evening as the fog and sunshine came over the lakes talking shit and hatching up plans to climb a 5000m peak the morning after. By this stage though, i was sort of exhausted, tired and wanting to he back. Yes, it happened-i got tired of trekking!!

Whether because i was lonely, or bodily exhausted, i'm not sure but i knew i was 2 or 3 long days away from 'home'. So the next morning; instead of scaling up yet another landslide, i watched on as a group of intrepid first time mountaineers scaled up a scary looking (as it turned out, perhaps wrong) peak to peer across the beautiful majestic ranges. They were little people on a BIG rock!!

Making Chapati in a lodge

Road BEFORE wet season. hm.

I went down though, out of the clear skies and into mist. It sort of stayed like that for the final 2 days of the hike, until i reached the final morning when i walked from across the mountains, and into the city of Kathmandu. Epic end (3 days of hiking into 1.5) to the hike but was i glad to be back!! Hot shower, 'new' clothes, and some non-standard lodge food and i was a happy girl!

Oh yes. I was happy. This was my final up hill bit finished! I was nearly to ...

My victory kitkat chunky!

Walking the road back to Boudha

I've pegged out my next set of treks, but theese are a ittle more ambitious and require a rested and fit body, so will have to wait until my next visit to nepal. Which will happen i do believe! sometime well when I have a bit of a bank balance again:)