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: