Filling the GAP

Less than a mile or two from where I’m living now is a rails-to-trails path called the Greater Allegheny Passage. It’s an old railroad line that now serves as a bike path stretching 150 miles from Pittsburgh, PA to Cumberland, MD. It connects with a further trail named the C&O Towpath that goes a further 250 miles to Washington DC. Ever since my folks moved out to this area, I’ve enjoyed walking on this trail. The nearby section follows the Casselman river, and is lined with trees and filled with scenic vistas. For years I’ve thought “One of these days, I’d love to bike the entire GAP trail. Finally this summer, I pulled out that “round tuit” and biked the GAP.

I am not a great cyclist. You won’t find me training for the Tour de France anytime in this lifetime. I’ve ridden off and on over the years, but never with any prolonged intensity. The idea of riding 150 miles, even over several days, was something I did not take lightly, and so I did put in hundreds of miles in training this summer, and picked a date in the fall when the weather would hopefully be decent and the leaves would just be starting to turn.

Logistics alone were a challenge. Getting a ride from bike companies from one end to the other was prohibitively expensive for a single traveler. There is a train, but it gets into downtown Pittsburgh at 11PM. No buses available either. So I drove to Cumberland, rented a car one way back to Pittsburgh with my bike aboard, and caught a bus from the airport that took passengers and their bikes to the trail. Whew. Thankfully, I only had a few miles to go for the first day.

The northern terminus of the trail begins at Point State Park, nestled in the confluence of the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers which create the Ohio river. The trail follows south along the Monongahela through the city through parks and trendy commercial areas, tucked away out of Pittsburgh traffic.

My first stop was Homestead, less than 10 miles from the start. My aim was to keep things relatively simple, so I stayed in a hotel. After putting in over 170 miles of driving, I kept the biking mileage light, and my hotel appeared on the trail before I knew it.

Continuing south the next day, the trail went along roads and followed train tracks past steel mills and other industrial areas. While the factories aren’t exactly scenic, their sheer numbers do give an indication of how Pittsburgh was built. There’s a reason their football team is called the Steelers.

Further along, the trail goes behind Kennywood amusement park. This park began in 1898 and has been giving Pittsburgh residents vertiginous thrills for over 120 years. My grade school days were mostly spent in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, and in days long past, towards the end of the school year they would pack us youngsters in buses and let us run amok all over the park. We would spend the day going on all the roller coasters and other rides that our youthful bodies could manage. Kennywood was the essence of summer vacation for us, as much as Otter pops, sparklers, and freshly cut grass.

Moving along from old memories, I followed the trail over old metal bridges into McKeesport, where the Youghiogheny (pronounced yock/i/gainey) river meets the Monongahela. The trail then goes southeast along the “yough” river to Boston. Boston, Pennsylvania, that is. Unlike the big Boston, little Boston is a sweet little town with parks, baseball fields, a welcoming visitor station and an old railroad car on display. There are old mills from earlier times that are no longer running, and one can imagine what the town was like in its heyday.

The trail continues through a wooded path along the river. My stop after 50 miles was in Connellsville, after riding along the river and through sleepy small towns that time forgot. Connellsville was the site of a camp for British General Edward Braddock during the French and Indian war. Included in his troops at the time was the young George Washington. Things didn’t go well for General Braddock, but George Washington fared a little better, I think.

The next morning I headed further through Ohiopyle State Park, a haven for kayakers, river rafters, bikers and other outdoor enthusiasts. The welcoming town has a plethora of restaurants, shops and inns catering to visitors, and the waterfalls in the park are a must-see.

I stopped after nearly 40 miles to rest up for the final day. From Pittsburgh to Connellsville, the trail is pretty flat, but then it picks up steadily in elevation gain past that. While the grade isn’t more than 2%, a bit past Ohiopyle one really starts to notice it. So on the last day, I climbed steadily for 30 miles, past forests and farmlands, over viaducts and bridges upwards toward the Eastern Continental Divide at an elevation of 2,392 feet. By the time I made it I was questioning my sanity in doing this trip, but then the elevation and my mind state changed course. After the divide, there is an elevation drop of over 1500 feet in the course of 23 miles. Not roller coaster worthy, but still fun to do on a bike. I enjoyed riding through the well-lit Big Savage Tunnel, past the Mason-Dixon Line, and all the way into Cumberland. There may have been a few moments in which I did an impersonation of the Geico pig, but there were no witnesses to confirm or deny that event.

If you asked me that day when I had just finished if I would do it again next year, you may have received an icy stare. But now that the body has recovered (or forgotten)… well, I might. But after nearly ten years of saying “someday”, I’m glad I found that round tuit.

Yeh Mera Pahale Baar Yahaan Pe Nahiin Hai, Or, This Is Not My First Time Here

I was recently encouraged to write an entry on some scams I’ve encountered in my travels in India. Having been there several times now, I’ve met with a few.

First of all, I don’t want to portray a negative image of India. While it has it’s problems, it has great people, beauty, history, and culture. If I didn’t love it so much, I would have stopped going after my first time there. I’ve been back twice, and it keeps drawing me back.

 I would like to point out that I have met multitudes of genuine, friendly, honest, and caring people in India. Many of them have taken this lone traveler under their wing, fed me, looked after me, and sometimes even invited me into their home. Like anywhere else, one encounters both honest and not-so-honest actions. But India does have a reputation for it’s share of touts, or people out to make a buck off of unsuspecting tourists.

Also bear in mind that even the poorest traveler to India has access to much more money than most of the people trying to get them to part with it. Scads. And many of these scams amount to the sum of only a few dollars. Yes, it’s a pain in the assets. When visiting for longer periods of time, it does get old sometimes, and makes one wary that everyone is out to make money from them. It also discourages many tourists from returning, which in the long run won’t be helpful for vendors. But one has to ask themselves if it’s really worth getting upset over. There are no easy answers. Caution, a big-picture view, patience, compassion, and a sense of humor go a long way.

So that being said, here is a short list of scams I’ve seen, and some I’ve even fallen for:

“Shoe! Shoe” – On my first trip to India I saw a woman in Delhi who was wearing a pair of sandals that appeared ready to disintegrate. She said she didn’t want money. Just a new pair of shoes. She then led me to a shop and pointed out a pair of shoes that cost 500 rupees, or $8 USD (twice the price as what they usually cost). I fell for it, and bought her the pair of shoes. Later I saw her walking around begging with the same raggedy shoes, and was told that she most likely split the proceeds with the vendor (who kept the shoes to sell again).

Taken for a ride – Quite a common thing is to be told by a rickshaw wallah that they will take you to a major attraction for a nice low price. And they will, eventually. On the way, they’ll take you to a rug shop, a carving shop, a sari shop, a jewelry shop…basically  the shops of all their friends, where they’ll earn a percentage of anything you buy. Even if you tell them you are not interested, they’ll say “Just to look”. Walk away and find another driver.

This also happens with hotels. The drivers will tell you that your hotel is full or was just closed down due to a fire, bankruptcy, bubonic plague, or whatever. Or they’ll pretend they can’t find your hotel. They will try to take you to a “much better hotel” run by their uncle. Don’t do it. They’ll overcharge you and get the profits.

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“The meter is broken” – Another rickshaw or taxi driver trick. You’re much better off using the meter, but I’ve rarely seen them used outside of southern India or in Kolkata for people who live there and know better. Usually drivers prefer to give you an inflated price, and sometimes even raise it while you’re riding along. If you’ve just arrived at an airport or train station in India, find the prepaid taxi stand. It’s your best bet. Or learn to either bargain aggressively or be overcharged.

“Change for the worse” – Torn currency is not accepted by most vendors, but if there’s an unsuspecting tourist, they will often unload it on them as change. Be alert.

“There’s no such thing as a free blessing” – If someone wearing orange or in costume (one guy in Rishikesh dresses up as Hanuman) comes up to you and wants to bless you, most likely he or she will want a monetary blessing in return, and tourists are expected to pay much more.

The great jewelry scam – in Rajasthan and other places, I hear it is common to get tourists to buy jewelry to take back to their country, in order to sell it back to “associates”  of the vendor. Sadly, the associates don’t exist, and the unsuspecting tourist has just bought a bunch of fake jewelry that they’re now stuck with.

“First time in India?” – If you hear this from a rickshaw/taxi driver or a store owner, guard your wallet. It’s a good indication you’re about to get scammed.

“Ek selfie, please”Not a scam, at least for the most part. Usually the people who ask this consider it an honor, or at least a novelty, to have you in their pictures. Be prepared to be asked this on a regular basis. That being said, I have heard of young men asking women for selfies and then posting the pics on social media, stating that this was their “girlfriend”.

There are, I’m sure, many other scams. These are the one’s I’ve encountered, or in the case of the jewelry, heard about. If you are thinking of going to India, by all means, go. Just be aware. Many others have written about scams in India. One of my favorite sites for travelers is IndiaMike.com, which has a wealth of information.

So go. Travel responsibly, and remember not to sweat the small stuff.

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And until next time, be well and peaceful.

Alaska Inside Passage Cruise: The Good, the Bad, and the Amazing

Please don’t judge. For my final travel hurrah for a while, I went on a cruise. I can plead that it wasn’t my idea, but I did have a great time, regardless, and am thankful that my family members prompted me to visit such an amazing region.

I went with my son, daughter in law, and her parents on a week long cruise through the inside passage of Alaska, and enjoyed it immensely. The scenery was fantastic, and being on a cruise ship wasn’t as tough as I thought it would be. Gambling, formal events and drinking alcohol are not on my lists of ‘fun things to do’, so I had imagined I’d feel quite out of place (on the ship, not with family members). But being in nature, spending time with family, and learning about new places are quite enjoyable, and that’s definitely what happened.

I arrived separately in Vancouver, BC, and had time to explore the huge ship on my own before we set sail. A city in miniature; the ship had fifteen floors, several dining rooms, a gym, pools, hot tubs, a casino, a theater, and more, with a capacity to house 2600 passengers and 1100 crew members. One could get lost, and occasionally I did.

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Inside the ship

Setting sail introduced a peculiar sensation of gentle rocking which took some getting used to, but with acupressure wrist bands, nothing that produced sea-sickness. We stayed at sea for that evening and the next day, and after 24 hours the bands weren’t even necessary. So I was able to enjoy the delicious food, and comfortably spend time with family on board. While drinking and gambling were the agenda for some, there were plenty of other things for us to do on board. Our group attended trivia contests (winning twice) and enjoyed lectures from Libby Riddles (first woman to win the Iditarod) and Susan Marie Conrad, who kayaked solo for 1000 miles along the inside passage. I also enjoyed walking around the promenade deck, absorbing the scenery and the salty sea air.

Our first port was Ketchikan. Its name, derived from Kich-xaan, comes from the first Tlingit inhabitants. It’s located on Revillagigedo Island, and is only accessible by sea or air. The climate is temperate rainforest, although we had no rain during our visit. I started out early to see a bit of the town and was not disappointed. Taking the City Walk, I traipsed through historical areas of Creek St. (formerly the location of the city brothels, now a shopper’s haven) and the harbor, and then slogged uphill to the Totem Museum to view traditional carved totem poles from the native Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian cultures.

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Houses near Creek Street

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Walking back downhill I visited the peaceful city park and the salmon ladder next to waterfalls of Ketchikan Creek. Hundreds of salmon waited their turn at the bottom of the falls, summoning the energy to make successive leaps up to the top, and back to their spawning grounds.

Watch salmon jump up the waterfall

I would have loved to spend more time meandering, but we were scheduled for a kayaking trip. We boarded a bus to Clover Pass, north of the town, and were given gear and instruction, then loaded into kayaks. Setting off for a trip around the Eagle Islands, we saw tidal sea life, eagles, and a brief glimpse of a whale. The waters were calm, and the trip was enjoyable. All the kayaking practice I had in Desolation Sound was rewarded: my son and I were doubled, and we often found ourselves ahead of the group. A fast stroke pace gave us time to take lots of pictures while waiting.

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Starfish on the rocks

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Breakfast

We had just enough time to get back to the ship before departing for the next port of call, and we arrived in the state capital of Juneau the next morning. This time we started off the day with a trip to a dog mushers’ camp. These camps provide food and exercise for the dogs during off season, and a learning experience for the visitors, and a chance to snuggle with puppies as well. We learned about the life of an Iditarod racer (not easy!) and about the dogs themselves. Most visitors to Alaska think of the sled dogs as being fluffy dogs like Malamutes or Siberian Huskies. These are a different breed; leaner, and while somewhat fluffy, not as much as one expects. They love to work. The teams would howl and bark whenever they weren’t pulling the wheeled “sleds” that pulled the tourists, and we learned that they had to be trained not to wear themselves out.

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Ready to go

 

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Alaskan Rainforest

 

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And they called it…puppy luuuuuv

I had heard that the Mendenhall Glacier was a “don’t miss” experience. While there are buses happy to take tourists there for a limited time and $40, one can take the public bus for $4 round trip, be dropped off 1.5 miles from the visitor center, and take as long as one wants to walk the trails and view the glacier. There are no trails that go directly to the glacier from the visitor center, so I opted for the trail to Nugget Falls that offered spectacular views and a lovely walk.

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Mendenhall Glacier

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Nugget Falls with Mendenhall in the background

Our last port of call was Skagway, an historic town with a year-round population of under 1200 people. Judging by the amount of stores in town, its main source of income appears to be tourism. There’s the historic Red Onion Saloon and the Skagway Museum, which tell the story of Skagway’s involvement with the Gold Rush era, and then there are more shops than you can shake a stick at. We walked around for a bit, but I found nothing that I, or anyone I know truly needed. So after lunch I found the Dewey Lake Trail, and hiked to Reid Falls and around Dewey Lake through a quiet forest. Heaven.

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Dewey Lake

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The harbor from above

Staying on the ship, we visited Glacier National Park and College Fjord, watching glaciers calve and marveling at the scenery.

Watching a glacier calve is a bittersweet experience; it’s an amazing scene to watch a mighty chunk of ice break off into the water, yet knowing that the glaciers are shrinking, it’s tough to watch that process occur before one’s very eyes.

Which leads to…the bad.

A minor annoyance were the sales pitches. To badly paraphrase Jane Austen, it is a truth universally acknowledged, that any passenger in possession of a cruise ticket must be in want of some jewelry. At least that’s how it seemed. There were several jewelry shops on board the ship, onboard announcements of jewelry sales, and presentations and advertisements of stores at ports of call. Apparently someone is buying it though, as I’m sure they wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t such a money generator for them.

More serious though, are the negative effects of cruise travel. I had heard of the environmental impact that cruise ships impart onto the places they visit. After returning home, I was hoping that I could find some information that would tell me that this wasn’t as bad as I had heard. If all of these 2600 passengers took plane flights to these places, wouldn’t it be worse environmentally than being together on a ship? Sort of like a floating bus? Sadly, no. By carbon emissions alone, a cruise passenger releases roughly twice as much carbon per mile as an air passenger (Data from this article). In addition, there are other issues with wastewater release, sulfur emissions, ship noise, and bilge water as well. While many cruise lines are working to lessen the damage which their ships cause, they’ve still got a long way to go.

The other issue I found was the working conditions for employees on board. Those in the service sectors are often hired from developing countries and paid less for long hours and minimal time off. While they may earn more than they would in their own country, and there is no shortage of applicants, it still appears to be a “sweat shop at sea” in many cases.

I realize that it’s rather hypocritical of me to spout these statistics after I’ve gone on the cruise. I’m sorry. Would I go on another one? No, probably not. One of the things taking the cruise has done is to create a greater interest in the environment of the places I visited. I am grateful that I had an opportunity to visit this beautiful landscape, and hope to do a better job of protecting it in the future. This region is amazing, and I hope it will remain so for generations to come.

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Sabbehi me piyehi manāpehi

I don’t always miss you.

Lost in dreamless sleep, I long for nothing and no one.

When I’m busy and focused,

I don’t notice that a part of me is elsewhere, miles and miles away.

When I’m aware

Of the sound of silence, my breath, or the birds in the trees

I’m not drifting, lost, a sail without wind on an endless sea.

But otherwise…

When night approaches quietly, and emptiness creeps in like something slithering,

When memories come crashing in like waves, leaving an ebb of regret,

When the rest of the day goes on,

Your face tugs at the sleeve of my mind

Over and over

Reminding me of all I’ve left behind,

And all that I could lose.

Harnham Buddhist Monastery (Or, “What I did for my summer vacation”

For the last few months I’ve been back at Harnham Monastery, nestled in the gently rolling hills of Northumberland, England. Sheep and cows graze upon green fields, and the sun plays hide and seek between the clouds (mostly hiding). The monastery is smaller in space than other monasteries, and the area around it is quiet (except for the cows and sheep).

I came here to support a friend, but I’ve been supported here in learning much about myself and Buddhist practice. While there were no great bolts of insight, I did see into a few things in a slightly clearer manner.

First was dealing with loneliness. A lot of time to myself initially left me seeking distraction to fill the time alone. Theres not much distraction available at a monastery: No music, no tv, no eating after noon. I started doing a lot of walking. While this helped some (and also helped me lose ten pounds in the process), being with the loneliness, feeling it in the body and offering compassion seemed to help the most. I’m still learning.

It wasn’t all loneliness, and interactions with others became another practice. It’s funny how even platonic relationships can throw a mirror in your face and show you where your rough edges are. Previously unnoticed aspects of yourself and habits are revealed. “Really? Have I been doing that all along?” It’s a process that never ends, I think. 

Also was the realization that there is no ideal time in the future when I’m going to “really get on with my practice”. The time is now, and the practice is happening right now, whether I “really get down to it” or not. At least that’s the feeling I have these days. To paraphrase John Lennon, practice is happening while you’re busy planning your practice.

Yes, there were other lessons as well. Some I’m still processing, some personal, and some that just don’t lend themselves to being blog topics. For as much time as I spent here, I suppose this blog entry is pretty short. Much of what goes on at monasteries doesn’t seem exciting in the standards of the world outside, but I assure you it was time well spent.

So enjoy some of the pictures below, and may your own lessons continue in a beneficial way.

Swan on Bolam Lake



Yup. It’s a hedgehog. Apparently their population is dwindling, so I’m glad I got to meet one up close.


Barley close up
Barley harvesting

Out with a Bang

Before and after the trip to Wat Pah Nanachat, I spent two full days out and about in Bangkok. My hotel was convenient for getting to and from the airport, but not so much for to and from the main part of the city. That being said, it was easy to find my way around Bangkok by way of the metro system.

Like metros in other cities, Bangkok’s system has handy maps at the stations, and arrows all over to help you on your way. The cars are clean and the lines take you to most of the major tourist and other stops. Other than rush hour, it’s pretty uncrowded. During rush hour is every bit fitting of the image one can conjure of a crowded subway car. But in a humorous way, since the riders are able to go with the flow.

During one ride, I watched more and more people climb on. Those of us that were standing close smiled at each other, and although we didn’t speak, conversed with our eyes, saying “this is crazy, na?”. At each stop, it seemed like there was no way any more people could fit in the car. And then five more people squeezed in. Again at the next stop, and the next one. I never saw anyone stay behind at the station, saying “oh, forget it”.

As we piled out like lemmings, I made my way to the Grand Palace. Instead of one building, it’s a combination of more, and has been home to the successive kings there. It’s also the home to Wat Phra Kaew, where the emerald Buddha is kept. Sitting upon a giant dais, the emerald Buddha is actually made from Jade, and is 75cm high. No pictures are allowed inside the temple, but there is plenty to photograph outside.

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The highlight for me that day was Wat Pho, the home of the reclining Buddha. Perhaps it was the absence of crowds, but even though I enjoyed the palace, I enjoyed Wat Pho even more. It was a peaceful, beautiful place one could get lost in, filled with all the ornamental gold and building finery you could imagine.

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As evening drew near, I was on my way to the exit when I heard chanting. I went in the temple to discover about two dozen monks chanting parittas, aka blessing chants. I sat down and enjoyed the atmosphere for a while before twilight approached.

After I returned from Wat Pah Nanachat, I took the metro again to the river taxi, and rode along the river to the northern end of town for less than 20 Baht. There is a tourist boat that costs 150 Baht to hop on and off all day, or one can take a few individual trips. I went up and back, so it wasn’t worth paying for the tourist fee.

img_1552img_1554img_1584At the north end of town is an old fashioned market with all forms of food, clothing, and various trinkets. It wasn’t too crowded, and I really enjoyed wandering around, taking pictures of all the things for sale.

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“Fish heads, fish heads, roly poly fish heads…”

img_1604Looking for another similar market, I ended up in two rather upscale malls. While the malls were unique, I found the market experience much more agreeable.

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Sculpture outside the mall. Ummm….what?

The next day I relaxed at the hotel before going to the airport a bit early. Having waited all day in Indian train stations, waiting here was a breeze. Clean, quiet, and with lots of stores and restaurants, I had no difficulty just hanging out. Once I got through security and customs, I was amazed and even a bit overwhelmed with the number of shops available.

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Available at the airport: your very own monk bank

And thus began my 24hour trip to get home. I arrived two days ago, and am still a little jet lagged. But I must say it feels good to be back. I’ll be staying in rural Pennsylvania with my folks for a while, then staying at a monastery in Canada for a few months (yes, I’m going to freeze my….off). While I enjoyed this trip for the most part, it’s been a bit long. Traveling can be fun, but long haul travel is an excellent opportunity for seeing the value in putting down roots.

And so I will trust in the universe to show me where to plant myself.

Bodhgaya: The Beautiful

Over 2500 years ago, Siddhartha Gautama came to Bodhgaya after several years of study under various teachers, and self practice with austerity. Realizing that the extreme austerity hadn’t brought him to the end of suffering, he recalled a time of peaceful meditation he had experienced as a child. He decided to return to that practice, and after meditating for some time under a local ficus tree, he experienced enlightenment. At that moment, he became the Buddha, meaning the awakened one.

Great Buddha Statue

While the original tree was destroyed, a cutting from it was planted in Sri Lanka. The large Bodhi Tree that stands today has grown from a cutting of that Sri Lankan tree, and spreads over peaceful grounds where visitors all over the world come to visit. There is a temple near the tree that was constructed in the 6th century, at the site of a previous temple that had been demolished. Various stupas surround the grounds, and offerings are placed around the complex. Monastics in various colors of robes sit and meditate, chant, circumambulate, and perform prostrations around the temple. While I was there, there were Buddhist monks from all over the world participating in chanting the original Buddhist teachings. It made for a lovely space to meditate in.


Chanting under the tree
Stupa near the temple

 
Outside the temple complex are international temples built in the style of the countries which built them. I visited a few, although the main draw for me was the main temple with the Bodhi tree. Some of the monasteries here are really amazing to see, and are quite ornate, complete with all the finery.

The Thai Temple:


Tibetan Temples:



Japanese Temple:

Thousands of people flock here to Bodhgaya, and especially at the main temple, the spirit of devotion is palpable. Bodhgaya is still probably my favorite of the Buddhist holy sites, and I’m quite content to just sit under the tree as well.

However, there is another side to Bodhgaya beyond the temple walls and the paved main streets. And that will be the subject of my next post.

Yoga Teacher Training Week Two, or, Monkey Mayhem

At the start of training I was a little self-conscious about being a beginner. That’s now gone. I’ve thrown the self consciousness into the Ganga-ji and embraced my beginner status. As a result, I’m learning more, and feel more motivated. And I’m also more likely to stay within the limits of this body and protect it from injuries. I’m still pushing myself, but am now more likely to say no when the body needs some slack.

We get a few hours of self study time in the middle of the day, and along with studying, we’ve been entertained by the resident monkeys. We’ve been warned not to feed them, but I think they’re quite used to humans and have lost their fear. This past week we were studying on our courtyard when the troupe arrived and started raiding the garbage can. It was all fun and games until they started coming towards us. My friend ran and a baby grabbed at her before she got away. Another came for me and I fended it off with a chair until they ran off. They’re not quite as cute as they used to be. 


The other highlight of the week was a trip to Vashistha cave. According to Hindu philosophy, Vashistha was the son of Brahman and one of the great Seven Sages. The cave is where he meditated, and is a short 25km away. So nearly 60 of us piled into jeeps and rode out to the cave. In smaller groups, we took turns meditating in the cave, and then we all went for an extended dip in the ice cold but clean Ganga. It was great to do here where the water is tuquoise and lovely, but I fear I don’t have the dedication to repeat today’s adventure farther downstream in Varanasi. Here it made for a lovely day, and a great outing with fellow classmates.

Return to Rishikesh 

I’m back in Rishikesh for a month of yoga teacher training, and have arrived a few days early to see (and hear!) Rishikesh in the midst of Diwali.

Diwali is celebrated over five days, with the third day being the main festival. Many homes have rangoli (colored sand decorations) on their doorsteps, and have colored lights strung up on their houses. On the third night, there are also candles put out both in homes and on the water.

I was able to watch some rangoli being made, and henna being applied during some celebrations at a local hostel. And there’s been no shortage of fireworks since I got here, going off all day long, but mostly at night. I rather feel sorry for the animals – it must be terrifying for them.

I’m studying at Shiva Yoga Peeth, which is nearly next door to the ashram I stayed in during my visit in August. Imagine my surprise then, when I checked in with some other women and they showed us our rooms – in that same ashram next door! Sadly, I don’t have a balcony like last time, but the actual rooms are nicer this time around. They’ve definitely spruced up the place!

If you’re interested in what the class entails, click here. I’m including some pictures of the ashram, and the general area, and will include more in later updates.

In the meantime, shanti, shanti, shanti.

Inside the Sant Seva ashram courtyard

My room. Pretty spacious for a room in an ashram.
The main yoga hall

Winding Roads and Dizzying Heights: Gangtok

From Darjeeling I took another very shared jeep to Gangtok with ten other passengers. Actually 11. In the row in front of me there was a cute, perhaps five year old girl who I think had recently learned the word “uncomfortable”. She said it a few times during the trip, with great relish, pronouncing every syllable. I must say it was well-applied. At least unlike her, I didn’t have to sit on anyone’s lap.

We climbed into Sikkhim on winding roads, stopping, starting, speeding up, slowing down, and breathing in diesel exhaust fumes all the while. One poor guy in the back row with me had to lean out the window to be sick. Note to readers: if you’re prone to getting carsick, this is NOT a ride you want to take without lots of Dramamine. I have to admit I was even starting to get a little claustrophobic, and was never so grateful as when I had to get out of the jeep to register as a foreigner at the border.

That being said, the ride was beautiful. A good portion of it was along a river and various bridges crossing over it. Sorry – I couldn’t get pictures. But the scenery was enjoyable.

Gangtok is the capital of Sikkim, and is a small city in the hills. The main thoroughfare is MG Marg, short for Mahatma Gandhi. It’s a pedestrian-only strip lined with shops, restaurants and sweet stalls, and is quite the busy but charming place. 


In Sikkhim, foreigners need at least two members to a group and a tour guide to travel to the outer areas, which gets expensive quickly. The solo traveler’s best bet is to allow lots of time and keep checking in with various travel agencies to find groups to join. Well, the time factor played against me, but I did manage to join a couple going to Tsomgo lake.

Tsomgo (pronounced Changmu) lake is 36km northeast of Gangtok and at an elevation of 3780 meters. The lake isn’t very large, but the surrounding mountains, views, and quiet make it worth seeing. Plus if Gangtok isn’t cool enough, it’s much cooler at the lake. It was 7 degrees C when we were there (that’s 45F for the U.S. Readers). 


As an added bonus there were yaks. One can even ride a yak, but I was content to see them and to touch their wooly locks as they passed by.


Back in town I wandered up to a park aptly named “The ridge”, in which one has great views of the mountains from either side. Further along, while looking for one monastery, I ended up at another one, but no less beautiful. High on a hill, with colorful murals and prayer flags, Serajhe Dopheling Gonpa sat in serenity. I sat in the meditation hall and watched my breath to the sound of deep toned Tibetan chanting. Not a bad way to spend the afternoon.