Monday, December 24, 2007

Happy Holidays

Best wishes for a happy and safe holiday season!
I left North America a long time ago. Looking back today, I feel that the sense of the specialness of the Christmas season has slowly dimmed over the intervening years .

But upon reflection, what has really dimmed is the concept of the commercial shopping mall Christmas. I find today that the holiday as an excuse/occasion to express that which should be said every day is as alive as ever:

I wish peace, good will and safety to you all
I wish for days filled with happiness and not clouded by fears,
I wish for safety and health and an absence of fear and decay,
I wish for harmony among all and no clash of swords or ideas,
I wish for unity, understanding and acceptance for all.

I wish you all the best in life for all the days that follow.

The Yoga of Devotion

Bhakti Yoga for the Kali Yuga
Sri Ramakrishna, in his teachings, tells us that Bhakti Yoga, or the yoga of devotion, is the path of discovery best suited to the Kali Yuga, or the Iron Age. That meditation on and devotion to the purity and goodness of God (in the universal rather than the sectarian sense) through chanting, song or other arts, is the surest way to self-realization amid the distractions and pitfalls of the modern world.

Swami Mukundananda
During my time at the ashram near Bangalore, I met Swami Mukundanda, a Bhakti Yogi who is apparently of considerable fame in India. One morning, sitting on crag atop the dramatic mound of Durga Hill, Swami-ji put his arm around me and said "Yuri, this path [the path of yoga asana, or physical practice] is not for you, you are a Bhakti in your heart."

Now this does not mean that I am about to drop the practice of asana, but it did start me pondering where the practice of devotion is in my life.

I have written previously about my feeling sitting in my parents' church as a child, feeling at one with a community while singing hymns with abandon. Those, of course, were battle hymns of the evangelizing Christian machine:

Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to War
With the cross of Jesus, marching on before

The other morning, sitting at the Bhajan at Upa House, here in Tiruvanamallai, I felt again that feeling of community - singing and chanting with abandon and ananda (bliss). But this time it was not crusade anthems, but chants of devotion to the concept of a pure God and his many incarnations in the form of the great prophets of history - and in each of us seated in that room, swaying, eyes closed, hand-in-hand:

Saraswati, Ma Lakshmi, Durga Devi, Ramana

Being truly in that moment, singing without a hint of self-consciousness, smiling a smile that expressed a true state of BEING.

Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare
Hare Ram, Hare Ram, Ram Ram, Hare Hare

Ironically, these were moments that embody what I am looking for on this trip, and were moments that, while not being indicative of the general tenor of my mind thus far in my life, have been repeated often in my experiences - generally when I am in song, but also in the company of family and truly close friends, of the people that I love and in the places that I love.

So I am not looking for something new herein India or at this point in my life, but am trying to foster a feeling I know well and have it flourish in every living moment; to have it burst forth self-illuminated and self-sustained instead of being dependent on another person or another place - or even on a song springing from my lips.

So I am a Bhakti!
I need to don white robes, join an ashram of the Bhakti persuasion and chant morn til eve! Well, not exactly. But I do need to find the rhythm that I know is in me, but never seems to translate into smooth moves on a dance floor, a tuneful rendition in song or any more than trepidatious tap tapping on a drum.

Four Paths of Yoga
In the bigger picture, there are four paths of yoga that all lead to enlightenment - or self realization. Bhakti is one amoung these four, and I am at different points on all:
  • Bhakti - the path of devotion: I know I have a love of song and find joy and moments of pure self-realization in the ecstasy of song. So, I need to sing, dance and make music with abandon to bring that ananda to my heart and to help ignite it in the hearts of those around me;
  • Karma - the path of service: I hope that giving my love, friendship and support to those I know and cherish and those I encounter in the travels and travails of daily life counts as selfless service to others. Beyond this, the charities - individual and institutional - that I choose to support are my karma yoga;
  • Jnana - the path of knowledge: This path I have followed most days thus far in my life, studying literature and inquiring to learn from the people I encounter. I will continue on this path, with perhaps slight adjustments in focus;
  • Raja - the path of physical and mental control: I set out on this trip 6 months ago to foster my practice of this path, and feel no need to judge the level of "success" I have met with thus far - that will be seen in the course of my lief rather than the days or mere months that pass. I have taken steps...

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Vipassana Meditation

Dateline: Tiruvannamalai.
Having just finished a feast of fresh cooked parota, dosa and idly with chutney, I stepped out to the wet and muddy curbside of downtown Tiruvannamalai, accepted a steaming hot cup of chai from the wallah, and sighed in satisfaction.

The noise of the passing trucks, motor scooters, ox carts and buses could not touch me - they were all external factors that could not influence my internal contentment at the moment.

Looking around at the crowd of Indians and travelers from all corners of the world - this being a primarily Indian-patronized local eatery that is slowly being appropriated by tourists - I spied a set of bright eyes that held my attention and made me think twice.

Yes, its Pricilla!

Now I expect to meet friends in Bangkok. Exotic though it may be in itself, that is just something that happens whenever I arrive in old Siam. But in tiny Tiruvannamalai, in the shadow of mighty Mt Arunachalla and the embrace of Sri Bhagavan Ramana's spiritual legacy?!?!? Wow.

Spiritual Energy
And this mountain and this town is a place of incredible energy and focus. I am staying at a local ashram called Athiti, which is, for lack of a better term, "the real deal" - a place established for spiritual edification rather than profit, and expecting payment in the form of meditation time in addition to a cash donation of your choosing.

I spend a few hours a day meditating in the ashram hall, and the rest exploring the mountain and the other ashrams of the town. The other day I sat in contemplation for a few hours in a cave on the mountain where Sri Ramana lived and meditated for six years. It was a truly profound experience...

Meditation is something very new to me, and, like yoga, is something that is not yet a part of the fabric of my life. I hope that it will be eventually, and to that end I recently completed a Vipassana meditation retreat.

Vipassana meditation teaches the impermanence of all sensations and thoughts, in the process trying to free the mind of its dependence on external stimuli as its basis for happiness or misery. But I will not even try to paraphrase the philosophy of this ancient practice, so check out the homepage if you are interested:

10 Days of Noble Silence
The retreat was, with no exception, the hardest thing I have ever done in my life, but not for the reasons I expected. It turns out that it is relatively easy to spend 10 days in noble silence, with no eye contact, no reading, no writing, no music or any other diversions. What is excruciating, however, is sitting for even just one hour without moving the body or even allowing the mind to wander.

The former I managed, if only for a few sessions - believe me, even if you reposition yourself 25 times to find the perfect, comfortable pose, you start to ache and pain after about 5 minutes and the body starts to scream in pain after about 30 more.

The latter is the bigger problem. The mind is exceedingly difficult to work with, especially if it has spent 33 years accustomed to being amused, distracted and otherwise entertained by whatever catches its fancy - TV, tunes, advertisements, people, clothing, cars, stereos, alcohol, food, etc. Even after 10 days of strict attention, I think I may be able to concentrate fully on 6 to 8 breathes in sequence if I am lucky...which is VERY frustrating.

Silver Bullet
That being said, this was a very positive experience, and one I learned a lot from. But it was not a silver bullet that solved all of my problems - as I knew it would not and could not be, but nonetheless hoped it to be.

Did I "love" it?
I don't think loving Vipassana meditation is possible until you have worked through a lot of physical and emotional pain. Goenka, the virtual teacher via recorded videos, keeps saying in the lectures that we are doing a "deep surgical operation," and I am very aware that I did not go so deep during this retreat - I am not being negative here, but am realizing that I went as deep as I was ready to / capable of going at the time.

What am I left with?
Well, the same thing I knew before in one way: That my mind is a mine field of distraction and aversion to self and environment, and that something has to be done to set my house in order.

I am also left with a new tool to attack this problem with, and the task of leveraging it instead of running away into the arms of the sensual world, which is very tempting (it even tempted me a lot during the course, with distractions often taking the form of sugar in various manifestations: brownies, ice cream, crepes, etc.

However, I am not sure that I leave the course actually prepared or equipped to practice Vipassana meditation as a pure technique. I am practicing anapana sati (awareness of breathe) regularly since leaving the retreat, and hopefully this will prepare me to either: 1) begin introducing the full technique in my life; or 2) do another course and more firmly establish myself in the practice.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Mastery Over the Modification of the Mind

Speed Kills
I am not writing to say that I have found enlightenment, although I guess that it would not be far off the mark to say that I have found the secret - speed kills. We spend about 30% of our lives asleep (roughly guesstimating), and sleep is meant to be a time of perfect peace equivalent to samadhi (bliss or enlightenment) - a time for the body and mind to process the stimuli of the day and reattain equilibrium.

However, if one's mind never slows in the day, and through lifestyle we even become accustomed to our minds not slowing at night, how can we ever get even a moment of true peace in our lives? If our sleep state is restless with thoughts and ideas via half sleep and restless dreams, how can we expect our waking life to be one of peace?

At times I reach a point of desperation, and have actually uttered the oxymoronic: "I am desperate to find peace of mind."

Well, as I mentioned, I already know that the key is to slow down the mind. To that end, I have to increase my focus on meditation and calming my mind instead of constantly brutalizing and blaming my body, which is, after all, only displaying the symptoms of the stress and speed I carry all through the wakeful day and the restless night.

This is not a sudden swing in my ideas of direction or plans, but is a development or refinement of what I planned to do in India/Nepal from the start. This also in no way implies that I will focus any less on yoga or my body - yoga is a mediation, after all - but I do need to go more directly to the source of my stress, agitation and disquiet.

I have begun my mediation in a rudimentary and basic way via yoga, ana pana (focusing on the breathe) and pranayama (yogic breathing). I would say that I have not been so "successful" thus far, but that would be overly harsh - after all, if you are an infant and you crawl, you are not judged "unsuccessful" at walking!

So I will keep you updated as my journey progresses, and wish you all peace and balance in your mind, your body and your spirit :)

Friday, November 02, 2007

"Shocking Asia": Notes from the Ashram

Apologies for my long absence, which I can only assure you is due to lack of Internet/PC resources rather than reticence on my part.

I currently reside at the Swami Vivekananda Yoga Anusandhana Samsthana (SVYASA) campus, about 35Km outside of bustling Bangalore city - and a world away from anywhere I have ever been or thought I would be.

Shocking Asia
I recall one morning back in the halcyon late 90s - summer '98 maybe - when I got back to my drafty apartment in Samsong-dong, Seoul, to find my friend Julien stretched on the couch watching a 70's vintage documentary called "Shocking Asia". The video chronicled the "shocking" social, religious, cultural and (of course) sexual practices of North and South Asia.

I walked in on the "shocking" site of dozens of Indians lined up outside a temple drinking water and ritualistically regurgitating it into a trough on the ground. Hmmmm.

And here I was on Monday morning, in rural India, practicing Vaman Dhauti (better known to many as vomiting) with a group of fellow participants. Crazy, no? But Vaman Dhauti is but one of the six Shatkarmas, or internal cleansing practices, that are regularly practiced in yoga.

And here I was...

Sacrificing Normal
Shocking or not, I can only follow this path of thinking to the inevitable realization that whatever is "normal," I probably gave up any claim to it many years ago, when Korea somehow became "home" instead of "shocking" and "exotic."

I have recently realized, during a meditation on comfort where I was asked to find my safest and happiest refuge in the world, that my Dad's place in Economy - which I have only visited 3 or 4 times - is that place for me.

Which really leaves me with no home to return to (althuogh Economy is one I can visit, and hope that I have many more chances to see), no community to slot back into (as my abortive foray into the USA proved) and no concept of "normalcy" to hang my hat on.

The ultimate "globalized" citizen?

Finding Balance
And, more importantly, exaggerating the importance for me, personally, to find a balance within my heart, mind, body and soul - so that normal will be carried around in me and so that home will be me, myself and I.

Wherever I lay my hat I call my home...

4:30 am
At at this point of the search, that "home" includes this ashram, and rising at 4:30am for:
5:00 Meditation
5:30 Yoga asana/shatkarma
6:30 Bath/wash
7:30 Gita chanting/lesson
8:15 Breakfast
8:45 Karma yoga song
10:00 Lecture
11:00 Pranayama (yogic breathing)
12:00 Meditation
1:00 Lunch
2:30 Meeting with counselor
4:00 Yoga Asana
5:00 Communing with nature
6:15 Bhajan (emotional yoga)
6:45 Meditation
7:45 Dinner
10:00 Bed

Patience as a Reward
Its exhausting and rewarding, even though it has yet to provide me with a "yoga miracle" or similar cure to all that ails me. I still have the challenges I have lamented for months or years - but am cultivating some degree of patience that rests on what can only be faith, although it is hard to see through the mental clouds at times.

I will try to keep you updated when I get close enough to a PC and have time amid my other correspondence and commitments. Meanwhile, if you are interested in seeing the ashram, check out

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

"A Teardrop on the Face of Eternity"

The Taj Mahal
I am ecstatic to report that the beauty of the Taj Mahal has not been exaggerated in the least. The first site of the white onion-shaped dome sets a shiver of excitement running up your spine and, as you pass through the red stone arch of the southern gate, this heightens to giddiness.

At first you just see white marble through the gateway, but as you progress forward the entryway seems to open like an aperture, allowing more and more of the magnificent structure to fill your view. As you pass the lintel, so to speak, you take a deep breath and stop in your tracks, overwhelmed by the beauty of the massive dome, its marble pedestal ensuring a backdrop of blue sky and its needle-like corner towers leaning slightly outward to prevent them from savaging the shrine in the event of an earthquake.

As you walk up the garden paths towards the perfectly symmetrical wonder, flanked on the east and west by two identical red stone masterpieces in their own right - a mosque and a twin that housed visitors, it looms larger and larger in your sight. What seemed like subtle patterning resolves into beautiful Muslim script, quoting verses from the Koran and adding in an imperceptible manner to the overall beauty.

"It is so beautiful," you whisper repreatedly as a mantra meant for noone's ears in particular.

The thing about the Taj, as you clamber onto the pedestal and stand dwarfed in its presence, is that it retains a subtlety and an elegance even in its gargangtuan proportinos. It has a quiet dignity that I have rarely if ever seen matched save perhaps in nature. I spent several hours in the thrall of the mighty edifice , and was touched greatly by the experience.

India - A Few Quick Notes
Fear: In a prior post I wrote of my long standing fear of traveling in India, and I must say that I am pleasantly surprised - perhaps because I expected the worst. So many people along the road fed my fear and told me horror stories about Varanasi and Agra, both of which have turned out to be good experiences. The touts and wallahs here are the most aggressive and most desperate I have every experienced, but either they are willing to accept a firm "no", or I have practiced my "no" enough that it carries a weight of sincerity.

The Land is Choking: The beauty of the Taj finds its opposite in every other part of India (and Nepal) I have seen so far. The government here has seemingly made no efforts to educate the populace on environmental protection. There is trash EVERYWHERE. If someone opens a small bag of chewing tobacco or pulls the plastic off a large package, the refuse is automatically dumped on the street - several times Indians have laughed at me putting my garbage in my bag for later disposal, pantomiming the gesture of throwing the article out the bus window in order to educate me. Sacred rivers are clogged, street sides are littered, and eroding earthen banks often show layer upon layer of trash from years or decades past in a strange archeology of environmental abuse.

I know that India is poor, but the government could do such a service to its people and its land by educating the populace about the inconvenient truth of environmental decay and even the economic potential to collect, sort and recycle the scraps of the masses.

Poverty: On the note of poverty, I must say that I have never seen poverty like this before in my travels. It hurts to think about people with no choice but to live in squalor in the piles of garbage, plumes of heavy black exhaust and din of constantly blaring horns from passing trucks - and to have no power to do anything. And more painfully, to have to refuse person after person the little bit of help I could give, because I could give all I had and still the need would be like an ocean around me.

Children that should be in school beg on the streets, because the concept of an investment in the future is outweighed by the possibility of a few rupees today.

Nepal is a poorer nation than India, but I did not see the level of poverty there that I see here every day. I can only guess that: 1) Nepal's more conservative and traditional culture means that age-old social structures serve as an adhoc safety net for the most disadvantaged; and 2) India's more rigid caste system prevents the fundamental changes necessary, as those most in need are likely considered undeserving or unqualified to receive betterment.

Life - A Few Quick Notes
I love traveling by train in the company of good people, as conversation flows freely and widely over life histories in broad strokes, and philosophies of life in depth that seems proportionate to the length of the journey.

The other night, during the 14 hours between Varanasi and Agra, my German, Canadian and American companions discussed these topics in great depth, and one mentioned how in her life she has felt the greatest happiness and contentment when she is busy and pressed for time. I had heard this before, and can identify with it readily - idle time allows thought to focus inward, which reveals fears and doubts that we would rather keep hidden under the patterns of daily life.

But in the context of this trip I heard this comment in a new way, not as a call to focus on my job or to find a hobby as a way to increase my quotient of happiness. This time I heard it as a call to face the quiet moments and accept the silence. This time I heard it and resolved to face the demons that arise in the pristine stillness of an unoccupied mind.

I don't have the tools or knowledge yet, but I have to agree that depending on a hobby, depending on a partner or depending on a routine leaves us vulnerable, as all of these things can be taken away - leaving us with nothing but the ideas and emotions hidden and ignored within.

Many of you know that this is one of my reasons for traveling in this region, and I will not and cannot report any "progress" facing myself. I am just going one day at a time...

Friday, September 28, 2007

And Monkeys Too...

He actually looked cute, hunched on hind legs and chewing contently on the potted plants of the Alka Hotel.

Me? Well, the plant looked nice, but I was much happier with my banana and honey pancake/crepe.

But then the close relationship between the mind of the monkey and man revealed itself, as our thought patterns merged and Mr. Monkey decided my pancake looked much more appetizing than the plant.

Can you blame him?

A single bound brought him to the table side, where grubby paws grabbed the edge, sending the plastic furniture askew. I leapt back, instinctively going on the defensive in the face of his audacity, and threw my flimsy tin knife at him as he clambered onto the table. Laughable really - think of a comic book scene where bullets bounce off Superman's chest.

It must have been less than a split second before monkey man, my pancake and my dignity were scaling the side of the building in a great escape.

The other guests, arrayed along the railing above, went on with their business...and the restaurant made me a new pancake :)


Bisected by the holiest river of Hinduism, the Ganges, Varanasi is a site of pilgrimage for devout Hindus and adventure-seeking tourists alike.

Life in a Warren of Alleys
The narrow alleys that wind around Vishwanath (the Golden Temple) are replete with life and industry. A non-Hindu cannot enter the temple, but there is plenty to distract you as the surrounding pathways team with small shops selling bangles, brass ware, silks, books, foods and the paraphernalia of worship.

Stopping to chat with a seller, one settles in for a cup of Massala chai and discussion that is half "getting to know you" and half "would you like to avail yourself of the various services that my family offer"!

The "Hard Sell"
All things considered, however, the hard sell is far less than I feared. I was pretty paranoid about India, and must remain wary, but am pleasantly surprised by the ease with which you can decline services in a good-natured away and leave with a smile on both sides. The guide book and fellow travelers had me expecting a den of vipers!

The Burning Ghat
Upon passing from this mortal coil, the Hindu must be cremated at Manikarnika Ghat (the "burning ghat") within 24 hours - fire is considered a sacred gateway to the spiritual world, and reunites the body with the five basic elements: fire, air, water, earth and spirit. Those who cannot get to Ganges in this period use a place of lesser holiness, and the ashes are then brought to be scattered in the Ganges.

Some 200 to 400 bodies are cremated at the "burning ghat" of Varanasi, each taking about 350Kg of wood - including sandalwood to help mask the scent - to burn cleanly. After this one piece of the body is set into the river and the ashes are placed in an earthenware pot which is later cracked open to disperse remains in the holy deluge.

Standing on the escarpment overlooking the pyres one is overcome by the smell of the pyres, which is not wholly free of the scent of seared flesh, the ashes that spiral upwards on the heat waves and the mid-boggling concept that is brought home by the ability to discern the outline of the human form in the inferno.

One interesting point is that cremation is not allowed for children (who are divine), pregnant women, those with skin conditions that could spread through the air, and sadhus (holy men) - the latter having their bodies weighted with stones and sent to the bottom instead.

The Bile
The only shadow on this day comes from a blessing I was given by an old lady who has come to the Ganges to wait to die, to ensure she will be cremated in the sacred waters. She collects donations/offerings in exchange for her blessing, and thus hopes to collect the fee for the wood needed for her pyre.

I cannot comment on the veracity of the setup, and am loathe to pass judgment on them. However, when I sincerely offered my donation, it was refused as too small and anger flared! This was such an echo of the false Sadhus in Nepal that I left with my blessing, my money and perhaps a burden of bad karma.

But in my mind if it is a heartfelt donation - whether 50 cents or $50 - it needs to be accepted in that same spirit of kindheartedness. They said it was not enough to help, and I say it helps more to receive it than to refuse!

However, all in all, Varanasi is a good place in my book (and there are a lot of cows).

Thursday, September 27, 2007


On the street, in the train station - this is a list I will have to begin to update as it grows!

First Impressions
There are cows everywhere here man! That being said, it is: hot, humid, sweaty, loud, dusty, aggressive, dirty, crowded, delicious, friendly in a way I have let to decipher and FULL OF COWS.

We arrived at the border crossing at Saunali to a crush of touts that should not have surprised me given ample warning, but amid the honking horns, yelling taxi drivers and dust choking the air it was impossible to tell which way was up. I hooked up with a Kiwi named Darren and grabbed a cab to Gorakhpur, the nearest stop on the Indian railroad system.

I am now in a team of two Germans and a Frenchman to continue on to Varanassi, a city on the Ganges that is an important pilgrimage site and a place where all Hindus hope to be cremated. This is a major tourist center, and is likely to be full on India - everyone trying to get a rupee.

I imagine there will be a few cows around also ;)

Engine Engine No. 9
Our 7 hour train ride in third class sleepers (bunks with three stakes on each side of a compartment) will not be long by Indian standards. I am looking forward to this as I seem likely to spend a lot of time on trains on this trip.

The Indian railroad is India's largest employer, with more than 6 million keeping the trains running, but not on time - our Kiwi friend is delayed 4 hours for his 17 hour run to Delhi (sounds like a US airport).

Where Will Those Trains Take Me?
A few days in Varanasi (as much as I can stand) and then on to Agra to see the Taj Mahal and Fatehpur Sikri (a fortified "ghost" city), which should total 5 to 6 days depending on whether I do night trains or not.

Then I will try to resist the pull of Rajathan and the allure of Goa as I boot south 34 hours to Bangalore to visit my friend Morgan. I hope to talk about a lot of what has been going on in my head on this trip, check out her school as a possible place for treatment and/study and maybe sign up for a Vipasana course in Bangalore or somewhere in Kerala.

I think I have said all this in other posts!

But is it Safe?
A few people have written notes to caution me regarding the dangers of India. I don't think that these concerns are necessarily misplaced, but am trying to be careful. For the few hours I have been here so far, I have been in good company - I hope that this continues to be the case!

Friday, September 21, 2007

Quitting Kathmandu

Moving On
After two months in Kathmandu, it is time to move on.

I received my six-month Indian visa yesterday, and am beginning to move toward the sub-continent. On Sunday I will take a bus to Pokhara, in Western Nepal at the base of the Annapurnas.

After a few days in this reputedly relaxed and picturesque town, I will head south to India - just the thought makes my spine shiver. I will cross the border at Saunali, near Lord Buddha's birth place of Lumbini, and bear south to Varanassi - one of the holiest cities of Hinduism.

After lingering in Varanassi 3 or 4 days to soak up the flavor, I will head roughly west to Agra, and the jewel of India: the Taj Mahal. After the few days in the shadow of this monument to lost love, I will make the 42 hour dash south to Bangalore.

Why Bangalore?
No, I am not interviewing for a technology marketing position with an Indian software company. I will visit Morgan, a friend from Korea who is working on her MSC in Yoga at an institute about 30KM outside of the bustling technology hub - where peace and quiet is said to reign :)

I hope to spend some hours in discussion with Morgan to learn of her experiences and what she has learned, meet her fiance, and perhaps to join a 3 or 4 week therapeutic yoga session to try to set my lower back right and perhaps achieve some improvement on my as yet badly sprained left ankle.

I also want to check out the institute itself, as they offer degree programs in Yoga Therapy that I find intriguing. I always considered "back to school" as an option, and its possible that this is the right place - no commitments made, but I am definitely intrigued.

Fear and Excitement
I have to be quite frank: I am really pretty scared of going to India, and long have been.

I have never read a guidebook that is so explicit and repetitive about the dangers of being robbed, mugged, drugged, cheated, robbed, mugged, drugged, cheated, or even robbed!

I guess now I will learn one way or the other whether I have what it takes to face down India's touts, beggars, criminals and crowds. I can only imagine that Varanassi is nearly as bad as it gets, so I will start with a baptism by fire....

And really, this may be a good time to be moving on. The petrol shortage in Kathmandu is becoming more acute by the day, and could raise tensions significantly. Drivers are waiting anywhere from 10 to 20 hours to fill up their tanks at 60-70 rupees a liter - the only alternative being to pay 150-300 rupees a liter on the black market.Combine this frustration with the growing Maoist activism as the election approaches. Today the city center was virtually shut down by bus loads of activists unfurling massive red hammer & sickle flags and shouting slogans with raised fists - and me the ogling tourist with no camera to record the sight.

I don't know what will happen as elections approach, but have already seen tires burning, sat in the confused aftermath of public bombings, and seen the city fall silent at the insistence of the red-clad masses....maybe it is a good time to move on!

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The Trail I Tread...

The answer to that universal question: "Where am I headed? What is my path in Life" is so easy to answer in my case - I am headed to India, my path leads through Pokahara and on to Bangalor via Agra and the Taj.

I am not trying to make light of what is as serious and weighty a question for me as it is for anyone. To be honest, in my vanity and self-consciousness, I tend to think that these questions weigh heavier on myself than on many others.

However, I do think that the next stage of my search will play out between Nepal and India, where I am seriously considering spending an extended period of time. Right now I am contemplating spending anywhere from the next 6 months to the next 2 years here on the Indian sub-continent, exploring more of myself, the practice of yoga and the intrinsically linked experience of meditation.

To do this I am, I admit, digging heavily into my savings, which could be considered irresponsible from some angles. However, I tend to think that I have been blessed with having some disretionary funds, and that it would be foolish of me not to use them to improve my body, mind and spirit in any way possible. No?

"Please Bleed"
I am, contrary to prior reports, missing my music at times. This morning I so wanted to listen to Ben Harper's "Burn to Shine," particularly the track Please Bleed. On the weekend it was Stan Rogers that I had a hankering for, and before that I went through a phase of really needing ome Brand New Heavies - which really doesn't fit with the calming nature of yoga and meditation well, but is just plain groovy in any case :)

"Fight For Your Mind"
But the iPod has been sold, and I am left with just my own mind to learn to live with.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Economies of Travel

In manufacturing, the concept of "economies of scale" describes how (almost) any given product is easier and cheaper to produce in mass quantities than in small batches. The idea is pretty much accepted as axiomatic, and is only now being challenged from the marketing/advertising side as market fragmentation begins to mean that people are looking for less "mass consumption" products (check out Converse's "design your own sneaker" site as a good example).

But that's not the point, the point is economies of travel - the longer you stay in an area the cheaper it becomes. I went for an Ayurvedic massage today, and realized on the road back that my transit to and from the clinic cost be 150 rupees (about $2.20) vs the 600 rupees it has cost on every prior trip.

Why? Because instead of two 300 rupee taxi rides (there and back) I have now figured out how to do the journey in 3 minibuses and one short taxi ride, netting a similar time investment (maybe a half hour more) and a 450 rupee savings - there is one segment I am still working on, but that leg may fall from 120 to 12 rupees on my next excursion.

So that means my trip is costing a pittance, right?
I wish! Travel was SO much cheaper 10 years ago, when every bus, taxi, travel agent and restaurateur didn't shake their head apologetically and say "sorry, petrol prices." And sure, sometimes it is an excuse to jack the price up for the tourist, we all know that happens sometimes and accept that it will happen on occasion (hopefully not too often).

However, sometimes it is just the truth. I keep meaning to snap a pic of the petrol cues here. When a station gets a fuel shipment, the cars stretch seemingly to one horizon and motorcycles stand 4 to 6 abreast on a cue reaching toward the other. Yesterday I lost count at 76 cars waiting at one station near Sundhara (downtown KTM), and I didn't consider trying to count the motor bikes any more than I would consider counting the stars in the sky....

No, the trip is costing a fair bit. Daily costs at the moment average:

Accommodation: 300 rupees US$4.60
Food: 500 - 1000 rupees US$7.70 - 15.00
Transportation: 0 - 400 rupees US$0 - 6.00

Now US$20 - 26 may not seem like a lot, but this doesn't include yoga course costs when I am doing them, nor does it include incidentals. It really adds up when you have no job and when you add course fees!

A Sucker Born Every Minute
Nor does it include souvenirs, something I have traditionally spent next to nothing on in my travels. I have a few nice pieces from a trip to Bali in 2001, but these were not costly.

Yesterday I bit the bullet big time...

They say a sucker is born every minute, and maybe i was the sucker for my moment on that summer day back in '74. But yesterday I finally broke down and purchased a beautiful antique oil lamp from a shop near the Patan museum. The weighty, 20 cm cast-bronze figure is a nondescript man in court attire bowing slightly while joining his hand to signal "Namaste" - it is truly beautiful to see the flickering flame play on his features and his greeting, which is framed by the halo of his shadow on the wall behind.

Purchasing the Namaste man was spendy, but his price was dwarfed by a sublime gilt, cast-bronze Buddha that caught my eye as I negotiated the sale. My Buddha is 20 cm tall, sitting in padmasana, with one hand in his lap and one gently touching terra firma - invoking the earth mother's sanction as a demon challenges his right to sit on the ground beneath the bodhi tree at his moment of enlightenment. A classic pose. The gilt is rubbed off with age at places, and this scarring adds to the weight and gravity of his presence.

Antiques? We make Antiques here!
Now, amoung all of the "antiques" in the world, why did I agree to pay a hefty sum for these two, both of which are direct copies of pieces from the Patan royal palace, and were cast 50 - 70 years ago. Sure, the soot on the oil lamp and the worn gilt sheen of the Buddha look old enough, but I am more than aware of how easily a patina of age can be added to these items.

No, I had two reasons:

1) I had spent the better part of a week exploring every shop in every alley of several neighbourhoods, and had never seen anything that looked like these. No one is selling an oil-lamp anywhere near this physical weight nor in this posture and with this charisma. For its part, the Buddha is made unique by the fact that he does not sit on a lotus leaf, meaning his hand actually reaches down and touches the literal ground it sits on;

2) I was drawn to these pieces instinctively, enough so that I broke a 10 year habit of not purchasing this type of product and instead bargained long and hard for a transaction that I am very happy with.

The bottom line, however, is that I decided what these pieces were worth to ME - antique or not - and decided that I would be happy to exchange X dollars for them. This means that I cannot be upset even if tomorrow I find the same piece, looking the same age, with the same weight, in some tourist shop for half as much.....

Now all I need is a home to place these pieces in (you are invited to see them and have a cup of tea and a game of crib when I do).

But I guess the big news is that I am soon headed for India...more news on that as I learn more!

Sunday, September 09, 2007

"The Art of Living"

Today I made the long trek from Matathirta into the city to change some money, pick up some supplies and check my e-mail. Not a lot has happened in my world for the past week - which is a good thing.

I now live in in a quiet, rural area where my days include about 3 hours of yoga, and hour or so of meditation, and nightly singing/chanting with my instructors and local musicians. The slow pace of life suits these pursuits!

I am also, interestingly, on a vegetarian diet for the first time in my life. The past 6 days have been purely Nepali, and, despite my initial concerns, this has been great! I love the food everyday, and I am not missing meat or eggs. In fact, a glass of Yak milk this morning made me feel sick - which could be because it was Yak milk (!) or because my body has quickly acclimatized to the vegetarian diet.

"The Art of Living"
I am also reading a fair amount, and am now in the middle of a book is the first I think I have ever found that is speaking to me like I imagine the bible speaks to a true Christian or the Koran to a devoted Muslim.

I read sentence by sentence and think "Yes, that applies to my life and I want to implement that in my daily existence". It is called "The Art of Living: Vipassana Meditation" by William Hart.

So this provides a new direction, so to speak, and imbues my yoga practice with new meaning: I want to be flexible enough and focused enough to sit and concentrate for the time required to embark on the practice of this form of meditation. I knwo I can begin at anytime with the body and mind I have, but am doing yoga now and want to maintain my focus on this practice before attempting to build on a partial foundation.

[Addendum (Sept 13): Ok, I have have overstated the religiousity of the impact of this book on me - it strikes me in retrospect that this is sounds like exactly what Carolyn was so concerned about, making it sound like i am planning to join a cult. For those who know of Vipassana, you know this is not the case, for those who do not, I urge you to Google it. The bottom line is that I want to implement this practice in my life.]

Slow Going
And that is slow going. In my doubting moments I give into the frustration that my body seems to be a pure manifestation of: tight, inflexible hips and hamstrings that are yielding almost imperceptibly to the practices I am following; weak ankles that limit greatly what postures I can even begin to practice; a lower back that screams resistance to seated asanas and seems unlikely to yield, though I know it will if I continue mindful and patient practice.

But regardless of goals or directions I remain completely at peace with what I am doing. I am not doubting or debating the wisdom or appropriateness of what I have embarked on. I know I have repeated this numerous time on this page so far, but belabour the point because in my life I have been sure of few things to this degree.

I do, however, also spend time thinking about the future outside of my yoga practice - where to go after Nepal and what profession to return to or embark on. All I can say for now is that I have lots of ideas ranging from safe and boring to pipe dreams that seem unrealistic.

Stay tuned for further updates....

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Petition For an Absolute Retreat

Hours ago explosions rocked the streets of Kathmandu, with rumours circulating to the effect of three bombs that have killed several people. There are no details that I can find on the Internet as of yet, but I did spend hours in traffic today in wonder at the amount of military and police presence.

As my friend Bishwar said, "Why can't people just come together and work for peace and prosperity?"

So perhaps this is a good time to retreat from the chaos of the city into the quiet and comfort of rural Nepal, where horns and engines give way to bird song, and smog and concrete yield to rice fields and distant snow-covered mountains.

I am leaving tomorrow for Matathirta, a small village only about 10 kilometers outside of urban Kathmandu, but seemingly a world away. The village is famous for a temple dedicated to mothers, which I will visit to light a candle in memory of my own mother, and is home to the Ananda Yoga center - which is run by a friend and colleague of my current teacher.

During one month in this ashram, I will practice the foundation routines I have learned over the past month, and hopefully build on the gains in flexibility that I have already achieved. My goal is modest: to return ready to pick up where I left off with my lessons at the Divine Yoga Center in Patan. This entails allowing my ankle to heal fully and gaining a significantly greater range of motion in my hips and hamstrings.

There are several reasons why this will be, if anything, an even more demanding month than the one I have just completed:
  • The center is isolated and empty of other practitioners, which is a positive in that I will be able to focus and receive personal attention, but is intimidating as I have already reached a point where I am lonely for communion with friends and family (talking to my Dad and sister yesterday brought literal tears to my eyes);
  • The food at the center is all vegetarian Nepali. I like Nepali food, but I do not care for it every day (let alone several times a day), and have on more than one occasion reacted to the cuisine with embarrassing intestinal complaints (an integral part of travel I have been lucky to never encounter before Nepal);
  • The schedule is pretty tight and ambitious, starting at 5:30 a.m. and running through 8:00p.m. to encompass two yoga sessions, a walk in the nearby village, a yoga nidra (psychic sleep) session, a meditation session and a session of mantra chanting to close the day. Check out the schedule at:
  • The center is, to say the least, bare bones. Maybe I just got too used to hotels during my business travels, but even if that is not the case, these bare concrete rooms with metal bed stands and 2 inch thick mattresses are not inspiring: no closet, no shower (a faucet pouring cold waer in a shed serves this purpose), no carpet (just concrete), no mosquito netting (I will furnish my own) and no chair or desk to sit at - its even more bare than it sounds.

Will I last 1 month out there? Who is to say at this point - I crave the quiet and beauty while fearing the conditions. I do know that I will be on Internet very little in the coming weeks, and will be counting on e-mails to boost my spirit when I do log in.

Monday, August 27, 2007



About 6 weeks before leaving Portland I started taking a beginner yoga class in the school of Iyengar yoga (at this time I had no idea that I would be homeless, unemployed and hitting the open road within less than 2 months!).

As was to be expected, I was stiff and sore, making the asanas (positions) difficult to assume and more difficult to maintain. My teacher was patient, however, and often lent a push or a shove to manipulate my body into a spinal twist, a boat pose, an archer pose or - more dramatically - a shoulder stand.

I am sure that this course would have done me some good, but in retrospect am glad that I did not continue in that style of class - which i am fairly confident is typical of the North American style of teaching yoga. Asanas range from simple to complicated - with the former necessary as preparation for the latter and the latter being potentially dangerous if done without adequate preparation or knowledge (via the former).

I was not ready for shoulder stands!

Here in Nepal, my teacher, Thakur Krishna Uprety, takes a very different approach to yoga training - and it is not glamorous! To date I have focused on a group of asanas called the rheumatics, which target the joints and aim to build flexibility and strength in the flex points of the body that will support later, more complicated (and impressive) poses.

Much of my sessions are spent bending my toes and and feet back and forth, raising and lowering my legs and arms to trace circles in the air (wax on, wax off), rotating my head to various positions, etc, etc. These practices seem so simple and benign - but I already feel my entire body starting to slowly loosen up and yield greater ranges of motion. I am also able to add more interesting poses from time to time, and am growing to love the universal spinal twist (ahhh, refreshing) and the leg lock poses.

To date I can see nothing but promise in what I have embarked on, but am often frustrated and hard to console, feeling that my body is betraying my best intentions with its stiffness and susceptibility to injury - a pattern that has often been repeated in the past, and is a major factor behind my decision to be here.

Patience is the key - I have 33 years of virtual atrophy to overcome, and my joints, muscles, tendons and organs are not quick to forgive me. After 3 weeks I can touch my toes with ease for the first time in my life and can raise my leg quite high before the hamstring screams - I have also, however, pushed my ankle to the point of sprain and reached a stage of poses that my hamstrings simply will not allow me to embark on without further coaxing via the simple, unadorned, basics

I may extend my time in Nepal based on how slowly my body is yielding to this practice, and due to the fact that I am planning to start learning silver work this week. I have no idea yet if the man who has offered to teach me will prove an apt mentor, but hope that it will yield an exciting new aspect to my life here!

Books I

Books I have read over the past few weeks:

The Snow Leopard (Peter Matthiessen): One year after the death of his wife, the author heads into the Anapurna mountains of Nepal in search of the elusive snow leopard. Along the route he has occasion to explore Nepal's awesome mountain peaks, a people as yet little touched by the outside world (this was the 1960s), and his mind and heart - in the process discovering new insights into his personal Buddhist faith and his relationship to the modern western world.

The descriptions of the people and places he encounters are lush and vivid, and the book is full of interesting historical and philosophical insights into Nepali and Tibetan Buddhism. I could not put the book down!

The Yiddish Policeman's Union (Michael Chabon): In the years following WW2, negotiations to form the state of Israel have collapsed, and the Jewish nation is in need of a home. The US decides to lease a portion of Alaska to the Jews for 50 years - a period that will soon end, leaving the entire community in confusion and fear over what to do and where to go. In the midst of this turmoil, a down at the heels police officer stumbles on a murder that quickly mushrooms into a conspiracy of global import.

I loved Kavelier & Clay, by the same author, and enjoyed this book immensely as well - Chabon is a master at writing involving dialog. However, TYPU is not as involving as K&C, perhaps because the historical context of the former is so much further from reality than the latter.

Snow (Orhan Pamuk): Ka travels to a small town in Turkey to report on a rash of suicides among women of the town, which is being roiled by controversy over a ban on wearing headscarves in schools and the potential for an Islamic party to take the reins of power in an upcoming election - and to find a Turkish wife. Over the three days the author is stranded in the town due to snowstorms, he writes 19 poems of stunning genius, and becomes embroiled in a violent coup mounted to forestall religious encroachment on secular politics.

If you have read and loved Dostoevsky, you will love Snow. The lyric portrayal of the lives of everyday people in an authoritarian state is addictive, and the wide scope of characters give you the feeling that you have met and know the entire town (also like a Russian novel). Meanwhile the frank discussions of Athiesm vs Theism and secular vs religious politics is fascinating.

Seven Years in Tibet (Heinrich Harrer): Caught at the genesis of a Himalayan climb by the onset of WW2, the author is interned in India. Although he is kept in relative comfort and treated well, he dreams of freedom in the mountains to the north, and soon escapes to Tibet. After two years of hardship in the mountains of the nation in the sky, he reaches Lhasa (the capital) and builds a rich life, eventually rising to become personal tutor to the young Dalai Lama XIV. This is all, however, destroyed in the end by the Chinese invasion of 1955 and the wholesale destruction of Tibetan culture that followed.

I liked this book a lot as a travelogue and for its amazing insights into the history of a mysterious land. However, it is not a work of art - if you have read Papillon you will be familiar with the straightforward, unadorned narration of the facts of a journey that is rewarding for the subject matter alone if not for its lyrical style.

The Art of Happiness (The Dalai Lama XIV & Howard Cutler): I am not yet done this interesting project, which explores Buddhist philosophy of living through the perspective of a western-trained psychiatrist. It is all based on the basic premise that the entire purpose of life is to find happiness, and that we are usually the prime obstacles to our own journey to happiness.

This is my first venture into the ideas of the fourteenth Dalai Lama, and leaves me interested in reading his writings uninterpreted by a western author. Basically, this is presented as a self-help book, and suffers the same weakness I find in many such tomes: it points out very obviously true aspects of our society and minds, and provides prescriptions for what needs to be changed that seem equally straightforward - but leaves me saying "I knew I had to work on that...but HOW?"

Saturday, August 25, 2007

iPod Erasure: How the Music Died

I sit down today with a heavy heart to write an obituary of sorts, as I am in mourning for almost 5000 valiant songs that have been lifting my spirits, calming my mind and inspiring me as I flew around the world and settled here in Nepal.

Yesterday, I am sad to report, a woahfully underpowered and unreliable computer at an Internet cafe in Patan, Nepal, wiped clear my entire world of music.

May it rest in I have lost on eof my escapes to peace....

Friday, August 17, 2007

Two Sides of Three Weeks

Tonight, as I finished my personal yoga practice, I found myself in a state of pure, unadulterated peace of mind. The usual maelstrom of my mind was calmed and no thoughts chased themselves around in endless circles and repetitions - I seemed to be experiencing the present moment purely and intensely.

Within a minute - if not seconds - thoughts began to spring up unbidden, including the idea to write this blog entry. But I managed to hold on to that feeling of peace for a short, precious time, allowing the emerging ideas to pass through my consciousness without grasping them.

As I turned off the quiet path that leads to my yoga institute and joined the relentless flow of Patan's traffic, the revving motorcycle engines and piercing horns rapidly chipped away at my moment of contentment. Only a vague echo of it remains in my body, mind and spirit as I sit and type, leaving me reflecting on this experience in light of the last three weeks spent in Nepal vs the hopes and expectations I arrived with.

The two sides of my expectations for Nepal were formed on the one hand by a friend from Korea, who spent 3 months in Patan last year staying in the same room of the guesthouse I am at and studying yoga with the same teacher. In our discussions before my departure she spoke at great length her transcendent experience, and I saw clearly how it had literally changed her life - she is now studying yoga in India as part of a 2 year program. She spoke of the patience, wisdom and kindness of my teacher, Uprety-ji, and of the peace, calm and purpose for life that she found during her time here.

The other side of the coin was provided by a friend of a friend who is living and working in Kathmandu. Her letters to me spoke primarily of the noise, dirt, pollution and grinding poverty that does injury to the spirit to behold. It certainly contained no reference to inner peace or Epiphanies in the land of Everest.

My experience today contains the essence of both of these perspectives - and I guess it would have been naive to expect one without at least shades of the other. However, despite long days of loud noise (I write this to a medley of horns honking - always honking til you want to scream) and pollution, I still harbour a hope that the former will prevail and that I will leave with new knowledge of myself and my body.

The upshot, however, is that I am truely learning from this experience. The peace of mind I left my yoga session with today is a rare luxury in a brain that is incessantly working, churning over the minutiae of life. Any moment of peace is a blessing, and the idea that I am learning the practice of fostering this state is exciting and uplifting.

Physically, as most of you know, I left North America in fragile condition and was looking to yoga to give me - literally - a new vehicle for life. I have had some setbacks in this area, including the illness I described last week and ongoing intestinal challenges. Most crucially, however, my ankle has been compromised in such a way that is making practice a constant balancing act that I can only hope will not endanger my long-term goals.

Overall, I remain committed and confident of things to come. That's 3 weeks folks, I wonder what we will be saying after 3 months....

Wednesday, August 08, 2007


The fever broke at about 11pm, and he slept through the night in fits and starts, the candle-light shimmering on a thin layer of sweat coating his clammy skin. When the morning came he awoke with vague, frightened recollections of the night before and a sense of his own frailty...

It's like a line from Conrad or Greene, but its not adventurous or exciting when you are laying on the floor of your room - aching and shivering - hearing people walk by your door and lacking the energy to rise or call out. I eventually mustered the strength to crawl to the door and tumble into the common room as Daivindra-ji, my host, walked by on his way from evening offerings.

Daivindra-ji and his family stayed with me for hours, making me drink hydrating salts, listening to my crazed ranting - of which I remember some with great embarrassment - and talking to me to help stave my panic. I lament the fear that his family had to experience with me, but am eternally thankful that they stayed with me.

Being so far from home, in such an alien place and so vulnerable is humbling and instructive.

I am fine now, still taking medicine "prescribed" by a German doctor, Uli, who by providence checked into the guest house on the same day my intestinal bug manifested itself. Uli has long experience practicing in India and Afghanistan, and is thus very familiar with the ailments of these climes.

I have resumed my yoga classes today, and am happy to report an invigorating and exhilarating session today that filled me with optimism for the coming weeks that counter-balances the fear and insecurities that filled me during the hours my fever peaked.

"Oh these little earthquakes. Doesn't take much to rip us into pieces..." Tori Amos

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Turmoil in the streets

Today Patan was an island, cut from Kathmandu and the world by burning tires, logs across streets and alleys, and crowds of Nepali activists ensuring that no car, motorcycle or bus used the streets. I wish I could post pictures, but I fear that the Internet service here would choke on the effort.

The protest seems to have passed in relative peace, with a minimum of stone throwing or any form of violence - the police and military were no more prevalent than on regular days. This demonstration paled in comparison to the one time I was caught in a clash of body-armoured riot police and stone throwing students in Seoul.

I do not know what sparked the protest in particular. Barricades were pasted with pictures of a young girl, but no one present would explain to me. I can only assume that it is related to the still simmering Maoist discontent (which I am trying to understand better, with little help from the surely gov't-controlled English press) and the upcoming elections.

There is no doubt that this type of event will not be isolated, as the coming November elections will be the first since the end of violence in the still unsettled civil war.

For now, however, I remain safe and sound in KTM....

Thamel, Kathmandu (or "Rejecting Friendship")

Anyone who has been to Nepal must have laughed their asses off upon reading my last post - I laugh at its naivete myself in light of my recent experiences.

On Saturday I ventured out of Patan, where I am staying and my courses are, and into Thamel - the tourist ghetto that serves as a rough analogue to Seoul's Itaewan or Bangkok's KhaoSan Road.

Almost immediately upon arriving I stepped accidentally into a puddle of noxious, thick, sludgy, oily, goopy water collected in a roadside puddle - which serves as an apt metaphor for the area of town I was stepping into. This place collects every non-redeeming feature of every tourist ghetto I have ever been in: noise, smog, dirt, beggars, con-men, touts, tour guides and taxi drivers. Amid the constant offers of hashish, pot and shrooms, I could still, however, recognize the blessing in disguise - the sex industry that thrives in so many other Asian destinations seems largely absent here.

How to reject these constant harping nags for "friendship"? One young man consistently argued that foreigners came to Nepal "for free" and gave nothing to the people. I foolishly tried to point out that I spent money everyday in the shops and on the streets, choosing which Nepalis I supported with my purchases out of the impossibility of supporting them all - aside from the fact that I had no interest in the chintzy jewelry he was hawking. As is so often the case, I ultimately had to resort to stonewalling him and suffering his resultant abuse in silence.

This is the difficulty at the core of modern travel that I struggle with on every trip and have never come to peace with either in conscience or practice: how do I send a non-verbal "not interested" message that will be heard by the con-men and hawkers while also remaining sensitive to the plight of the people of this nation (suggestions are welcome). Also, how do I do so while not missing the opportunities for true friendship offered by some - such as the provincial school teacher I chatted with on the steps of Trailokya Mohan Narayan Temple later that day?

I quickly left Thamel after a lunch of some of the strangest Korean food I have ever encountered, and dove out into the city, making my way along a walking tour of major temples and shrines south of Thamel and north of the magnificence of KTM Durbar square. On this route the noise, pollution and dirt abated not the least, but the constant harassment virtually ceased and I gave myself up to exploring the ancient pilgrimage sites that virtually litter the ancient city.

In one corner a modern building with a bathroom tile-coated niche left open in the foundation for a 2 foot tall Buddha statue from the 4th century, in the other corner a fabulous Newari style house from the Malla period (300 - 450 years ago) with magnificent carved pillars and windows - one of which named deshay madu in Nepali: "there is not another one like it".

Overall a fascinating, educational and exhausting day - but one that made me long for the friendliness and comfort of sweet Patan - loud and dusty though it be.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Accepting friendship

It's axiomatic that somene offers you a service or a kindness because they want something from you, right? Otherwise, why bother? What is the good in it for them?

A chilling idea for sure, turning karma on its head to say the least (or at least offering a purely market-based interpretation of it - trading kindnesses on a stock exchange of sorts).

But here in Nepal, after a scant 2.5 days, I see the lie in an axiom that I really think pervades life on too many occassions. How can I explain the friendliness of the Nepalese? Of course the shop keeper wants to sell his statues or mandalas and the innkeeper wants you to avail yourself of value-added services such as laundry or meals.

However, having travelled my share, I have never before run into such open and welcoming people.

The keepers of my guest house truely love to provide good service and seem to consider you a part of the family - indeed, I have participated in two important family celebrations in the past two days, which included sampling a powerful Nepali homebrew last night that knocked my socks off after a sip and cured me of any desire for more.

As with the friendship offered by my hosts, I truely believe that I am being offered genuine good will by the Nepalis that I meet in my daily explorations. And please do not think that it is naive optimism or innocense - I have run the gauntlets of Cairo's markets and Bangkok's KhaoSan Road, after all.

Here shopkeepers do not call to you as you pass and, with the exception of a few, beggers seem far between (although this is one of the porrest natins on earth) - it is a soft sell if any at all. This could be different outside of Patan, a community of skilled artisans, but I am in love with the people already.

I wander in courtyards to view family homes built 400 years ago and still occupied by the same family. From windows all around, smiling faces look out and greetings are exchanged with small bows:

Namaste. I greet the divine in you.

We have to accept kindness for what it is, and not contaminate it with thoughts of barter and trade of sentiments. This doesn't mean we should abandon care and caution, but that we should not be ruled unquestioningly by it.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Kathmandu, Nepal

Namaste. I hardly know where to begin.

Landing at the cusp of dark to find that my guest house has not, as I expected, sent a car to meet me. Thus, I began this trip in the traditional manner - trying to bleed as little as possible to the local taxi driver and also rebuff his thousand offers of help setting up tours and purchasing mobile phones and the like.

Finally arriving at my guest house, NewaChen ( and being taken into the embrace of a friendly and warm atmosphere that immediately put me at ease. Rasita, the beautiful, elegant and intelligent hostess of the traditional Newari home that has been transformed into an inn, dealt with the taxi driver in short order, showed me to my room, and invited me to join the following day's celebrations.

The grandfather of the obviously well-off family that owns the guesthouse was being honoured for having ascended to a divine stage of his life - having achieved 77 years, 7 months, 7 days and 7 hours, he is now considered more than mortal if not entirely divine. An entire day of ceremonies included priests chanting invocations, offerings being made to hindu dieties, and the elder himself bestowing blessings on all involved by placing the red tikka mark on their forehead. I was humbled to be also included in this ritual, and wore my tikka with pride.
The colors of the ceremony and the followin reception were incredible in heir variety and brilliance!

Today I am on my own. I have met with Thakur Krishna Uprety, who will be my yoga instructor, and left with no clear impression of him beyond kindness and patience and a desire to be relaxed and at peace with what we are embarking on. The proof of the pudding, however, is under the crust, and I will await our actual instruction beginning next week before making firm conclusions.

As for impressions of Nepal and Kathmandu so far, I also have little to share, this being my second day:

- NOISE! Cars and motorcycles constantly beeping horns at every minute of every day. Silence is certainly more valuable than gold in this bustling city, and my practice of meditation will indeed be challenged by these constant reminders of the world - as will my sleep!

- Beauty: I must include this because the beauty of the Nepali women is stunning, and has been remarked on by several other guests I have spoken to. It is not just the physical beauty ensconced in lush-coloured saris - it is the elegance and carriage that captivates and intrigues.

- Cold water: A cold shower is not a big problem, it is merely a part of travelling in this part of the world. And it certainly wakes you up!

- French: The other guests are all francophone, and speak little English. 10 years ago I spoke French in Paris with giddy glee at the knowledge of words and phrases rushing back to me - now Korean phrases and syntax litter garbled sentences that barely encapsulate intention, idea or emotion.

I will desist for now, but promise to try to update regularly and to post some pictures. I am woahfully unprepared for this trip in more ways than I expected (curse my nonchalance in approaching this endeavour!), so do not have a cable for my camera (amoung other things) - but I will endeavour to correct this situation as I get my bearings!

Best wishes to all and hoping to hear from you all on e-mail or facebook! A selection of photos of my trip so far - including Nova Scotia, London and Brussels - can be viewed (with no sign in) at:

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Without sunglasses it looked more "real"...

I haven't been in London for more than a year - last time it was winter and I had packed for Middle Eastern heat. Brrr....

I arrived today to beautiful sunshine that blazed through breakfast at a street cafe and a hot latte that spelled comfort in its swirl of warm coffee brown and steamed pure white milk. Then the rain crashed down, much as it had during my past month in Nova Scotia, and I decided, "so much the better for me to drift off and erase the red eye that departed Halifax the previous midnight."

My stomach - and regal Balda's insistent yowl - wakes me to ominous but dry skies and the pub around the corner is calling me to partake of a hand-pumped Extra Special Bitter and a spicy pork chop. The bitter is slightly flat under its natural carbonation, but so tasty I am willing to pass that as atmosphere (and give into my suspicion that that is the way it is supposed to be).

Winding my way to Regent's Canal I wonder at the bricks in the bricks in the road, the painted doors and the distinctly Britishness of the entire scene. I love London at this moment and begin my flight of fancy - planning my move and the life I will build here. An indulgence I allow myself.

The canal is easy to find, as I remember it from our wanderings last year. As I turn onto the tow path and catch site of the long narrow houseboat, Russia, moored where it was last year but now with a large "For Sale" sign painted on its side, I turn back to crane my neck and peer down the long tunnel that flows under Islington to let the long barges pass.

Something touches me heart and I almost gasp - then I take my sunglasses off and am struck by the fact that the removal of yellow-tinged glass makes it look strikingly more real, but no less poetically beautiful.

I pass under Caledonian Road, see the Seahorse and Kingfisher moored as if eternal (or carefully staged for each of my visits...?). I pass Maidenlane Bridge and see St. Pancras Lock in the distance, hearing the water spill over its sluice doors and seeing the squat lock keeper's cottage like a postcard.

Just the names are romantic - Maidenlane Bridge, Caledonian Road - and I leave you with the images they convey. Rough, moldering stones set in mortar mixed by our ancestors in times long past.

Just normal life I guess, to the millions that inhabit London every day, but the stuff that dreams are made of to the traveller that breathes the air and feels it rarefied and special. I have to remember the childlike excitement at adventure that flickers in all of us and gets tamed by familiarity - even familiarity with encountering the "new"....

Monday, April 30, 2007

A Sonata for a Good Man

What do you take with you after you see a truely remarkable film, or read a book that truely transports you into another life, another time or - to be more succinct - another perspective?

It adds - if only for the length of the film or the few hours or days when its impact lingers - to the richness of the experience that you have to draw on when evaluating your world, your life, your self.

It inspires...right? That's what art is created for, isn't it?

Don't you leave the theater wanting to write a symphony, save the third world, root out corruption, express your true love or regain your lost one, travel to see the untouched and seemingly unreachable - tap the very vein of excitement and adventure and richness of experience that our world has to offer, and that was beautifully captured and distilled to its essence on the silver screen.

So these movies and pages and tunes are a slice of the raw material for the lives that we live everyday. They prod us to aspire for greater things - or maybe they judge us...or mock us.

Maybe they show you that the dreams that you once had were just as big and just as inspiring, but that they are already slipping away. That you don't even recognize what they are any more.

Are you getting cynical, or is it just for today?

Are you a good man?

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Marcel in Oz

In my relationship in Korea we had one child, Marcel, who was both the apple of our eye and the bane of our existence - those who have harboured Siamese in their homes know there is the predelication towards violence.

Marcel would attack with a ferociousness only matched by our affection for him - and surely rooted in our inability to spend more of each day showering that affection on him.

And I am sure that all of his vigour and strength is being called on these days, as he now lives downunder, where wrestling kangaroos must surely make up a significant percentage of his day.

I don't know why, but today I am feeling the need to reach out to people. I am sitting at my desk loathe to work - although I will buckle down once the post button is hit - and wishing I could be in a warm cafe with a friend, a crib board and a hot cup of coffee.

Or that I could go home and have a warm, furry companion greet me at the door and settle on my lap as I read "The Wind-up Bird Chronicle," study my Korean or veg in front of my TV.

We are all essentially alone, I know, but we need to mitigate that condition by building bridges to those we brush up against in everyday life - virtually or in the flesh.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

“The brightest lights in the darkest night” (#2)

What are the brightest lights in this life that so often feels like the darkest night? When you have a partner beside you helping to navigate the treacherous trials and tribulations of this life it is truly like having a rod and a staff to comfort you. When you do not have a soulmate you have to look a little further afield to find this warmth and comfort.

one) My family: This does not imply that my family is all sweetness and light - they come with their own attendant trials and tribulations. Sometimes we really bring out the worst in each other, and that pains me because I want to be a positive part of their lives. I love my family and, more importantly, I respect them as strong and proud individuals.

two) Everything but the Girl, "Amplified Heart": Is this one of the greatest albums of all time? No. Is it even my favorite album of all time? Probably not. But it is what I listen to a lot these days. I think it is in many ways analogous to a blog - "Amplified Heart" and "Walking Wounded" are probably as intimate as reading the artists' diaries.

"To know yourself is to let yourself be loved"

three) Haruki Murakami: I have already given away at least half a dozen copies of "Norwegian Wood," with all but one recipient having subsequently gone out to purchase more and more of his works. I am now reading "The Wind-up Bird Chronicle" and can only recommend it as highly if not higher. These novels are portraits of haunting isolation, yes - but that is a fundamental condition of our modern existence, and to read it so beautifully rendered is both edifying and comforting.

"Is the narrative that you now possess really and truly your own?
Are your dreams really your own dreams?
Might not they be someone else's visions that could sooner or later turn into nightmares?
Huruki Murakami , "Underground"

four) My friends: Sadly none are within driving distance even if I were to go all through the night and the next day. I am difficult to get to know, I am aware of that, and it takes some patience to stay close to me, I am also aware of that. I love those of you who still see the value in knowing me and I hope I return the same value or more to you. I often feel as fundamentally alone as Murakami's protagonists, yet if I make the effort to reach out you are all there for me. I am scared to write names for fear of who I will forget: Scott, Colleen, Julien, Paul, Nicola, Chris and others that I apologize for not calling out.

"You just call out my name, and you know wherever I am,
I'll come see you again"

five) Unjena: You proved I could be so much more than I ever believed. If I had been a stronger man or you had had a little more faith we could have been here together building a universe unto ourselves. My own faith was so strong that it blinded me to the faultlines in our life, and that was one of the main reasons for our downfall. I am truly sorry.

""I believe in you, I believe in your mind
even though I know you've started over
even though you are making memories without me"