Ubud, Bali, Indonesia

Several people that have visited before me told me that I would love Ubud. Turns out they were right. 

It took almost two hours to get there from the coast by taxi, mainly because my driver got lost a few times. My homestay was a bit hard to find, even for me. After turning off the main road and up a steep, gravel hill, I had to load myself up with my rucksack and backpack and walk a few more hundred meters down a narrow, paved path with a giant concrete wall on one side and a small moat on the other. After passing several other structures, I arrived at the entrance of Nirwa Homestay. It's was like a forgotten temple that has been reclaimed by nature. Tropical trees and plants fill every nook and cranny of the multi tiered home. I had a private room on the second floor with a balcony and a killer view of the nearby rice paddies and semi-wild jungle. My bed was big and comfy and had mosquito nets neatly tucked into each corner of the purple linens. There's also other wooden furniture scattered throughout the room as well as my own bathroom complete with toilet paper and a toilet that flushes it. You can hear a bit of the main city noise in the distance but mostly you just hear the birds chirping and the breeze passing by. Yeah, this will do. 

"But wait, what is this Homestay you speak of?" you may be wondering. Basically traditional family houses are built in walled compounds with several structures, including its own temple, inside. Some of these have been converted into affordable accommodation for travelers, and is a more unique, authentic way to stay in and around Bali. I totally recommend it! 

Anyways, after settling in, I headed out to explore the area. Very near to my Homestay I found the Cantika Spa. It too was full of greenery and I became just a little bit calmer the second I stepped into the courtyard. I found their menu of treatment options and saw that I was in desperate need of a massage, manicure and pedicure, in that order. The receptionist called a beautiful, young Balinese girl with jet black hair that is even longer than mine, who spoke pretty good English and escorted me to my treatment room. She left the room again briefly so I could take off everything except the pair of disposable, mesh underwear she handed me. I laid face down and proceeded to experience one of the best massages of my life. Balinese massage is deep tissue and kind of a blend of shiatsu/acupressure and Thai stretching. For such a petite person, she seemed to have superhuman hand strength and for once I didn't have to request more pressure. I'm a bit of a massagochist (masochistic massage preference) and firmly believe (pun intended) that massages should hurt a bit if your masseuse or masseur is properly penetrating your muscles and releasing tension. 

This was truly a head to toe massage, including scalp and face. I was blissfully relaxed when it was time for me to shower off with surpringly good products and hot water. I tied my wet hair up, redressed and went outside for my nail treatments. I sat in a comfy, reclining chair while my masseuse tended to my hands and another girl tended to my feet. I chose a bright Barbie-pink shade of polish for my toenails and clear for the fingernails as usual. I was served some delicious ginger tea in a wine glass with a decorative palm frond origamied into a bird sticking out of it. As I looked out over my incredible, virid view, I felt like a pampered jungle princess. Or maybe a naive village virgin that was getting primed and perfected in order to be sacrificed to some ancient Balinese gods. Either way, it was awesome and I tried to savor every second of it. And I'm still trying to wrap my head around how this only cost me 341,000 IDR (including 10% service charge) which is less than $25 USD. How is everything so cheap here??? 

Staying both on the eastern edge of town and true to my sustainable travel philosophy, I didn't feel the need to rent a motorbike, as many tourists do here, and opted to walk instead. This of course prompted every local guy lurking on the sidewalks to shout "Taxi? Taxi! Taxi, yes?" at me as if it was the local greeting. This became quite annoying and I briefly thought about the millions of dollars I could make by designing, printing and selling "no taxi" t-shirts in Bali. 

I feel like I've become quite the hedonist whilst in Ubud. I've suppressed my materialistic impulses for the most part since I started traveling in June but I kinda went nuts here. I guess it's the combination of the dirt cheap prices and being alone with absolutely zero responsibility, resulting in endless amounts of free time that I fill with shopping, eating and excursions. Not to mention I've completely blown my original budget for Bali but I don't know if/when I'll be back. 

I booked two out of town trips from the combination laundry/travel shop downhill from my Homestay. The first was a four hour cycle tour, which actually started at a tea/coffee plantation where they employed the old try-then-buy technique and had us sample 10 different tea and coffee varieties, and then directed us to the shop in hopes of selling us some stuff. 

During this detour, we also had the opportunity to sample Indonesia's famous Kopi Luwak coffee, which I was already familiar with only because I've seen Anger Management starring Jack Nicholson and Adam Sandler. If you haven't heard of it, Kopi Luwak is pretty much the most expensive coffee in the world. This is because it is made from beans that have been eaten, partially digested and pooped out by little mammals called civets. The manufactures would have you believe that they employ people to scavenge the forest floor to collect this special scat left from free range civets. But it's all lies! Only after I had bought some mangosteen tea and coconut coffee did I see the little creatures locked up in tiny cages with nothing but a branch and a water bowl. If you just look into their eyes for a second, you can see how sad and spiritually broken they are. I had to leave before my anger and disgust reached a tipping point, causing me to go all PETA on their asses and free the little civets. I know I haven't completely planned out my time here, but I definitely don't want to spend any of it in an Indonesian jail. 

Moral of the story is: DON'T BUY KOPI LUWAK COFFEE. 

But I digress. Back to the bikes! 

Next we were driven to a little restaurant overlooking the volcanic Mt. Batur and fed a morning snack of fried banana and fresh papaya. My group consisted of me, a Canadian family (typical mother, father & tall, lanky, teenage son) and our small yet smiley Indonesian guide, John. The fat-tired, blue mountain bikes were lined up in rows outside and we each chose one based on height and seat preference. 

Honestly my hands and forearms got the most workout because 90% of the ride was downhill and I had to keep pumping the brakes to stay at John's pace. We followed a mostly paved path amongst mandarin orange groves, around traditional home compounds, through a small but bustling city and even off-roaded down a rocky dirt path straight through a tiered rice paddy field. We shared the road with cars, trucks and a mini motorcycle gang of stone-faced rural school children in their khaki-colored school uniforms. Seriously, some of these kids driving looked like they hadn't even reached double digit birthdays yet. Altogether we did 35 km (21.7 m) through the Bali countryside and enjoyed a freshly prepared lunch of Nasi Goreng, noodles, veggies and tempeh/tofu for me, but chicken for everyone else. 

The next morning I woke up at 1:30 AM in order to be ready to get picked up at 2 AM for my sunrise hike up the Mount Batur Volcano. After being the inaugural passenger, my driver picked up several other patrons from France, Austria and Brazil until our van was full. When we arrived at our destination over an hour later, we found the parking lot packed with other tourists and locals alike. Apparently the hikes are most popular on the weekend, Saturday and Sunday mornings, so I would recommend going on a weekday to avoid the crowds. 

We were divided into smaller groups and assigned guides, although this seemed superfluous since there were so many people that we could basically herd ourselves up the single trail to the summit. It was like we were all at a massive concert and having to climb up a rocky, gravely, sandy path towards the really, really cheap seats at the top of the amphitheater. Or maybe we were walking up someone's really steep, badly maintained driveway. I was wearing proper hiking boots and still found it tough to grip the ever shifting volcanic rock beneath my feet. I have no idea how people in crappy tennis shoes or even socks & sandals were able to trek successfully. Once you got towards the tippy top, it became solid sand and felt like hiking up a giant dune near the beach. Since I'm used to living at sea level, I had a bit of trouble breathing with the altitude, but I really believe yoga teacher training strengthened both my mind and body so I am better able to tackle the challenges I take on. 

I reached the top just as some fiery colors were appearing on the horizon and did in fact get to see the sun rise from the summit, albeit slightly obscured by hoards of other tourist silhouettes and selfie sticks. 

I was glad that 1) there was no precipitous, in contrast to my failed sunrise hike in Sri Lanka and 2) I had a Brazilian buddy to share the experience with. She was older and slightly slower than me but we both made it to the top and shared a mug of hot tea to celebrate. I ate my rather disappointing pre-provided, styrofoam packed breakfast which consisted of an impossible to peel hard boiled egg, two slices of white bread with mystery spread, a green banana and a mandarin orange. I also brought a chocolate my treat that I had resolved only to eat if I reached the top. Determined to leave no trace, I put the peels and wrappers and everything back in my bag, whereas many people just left their rubbish wherever they dropped it, which made me smad (sad & mad.) 

The descent was just as challenging, if not more so, than the ascent. Gravity is a cruel bully that persistently tried to pull me down so she could sadistically laugh at me. I only had one close call where I lost my footing on loose rocks but was able to catch myself and stop short so that only one butt cheek touched the ground, kind of like I was sliding into home plate after a successful run around all the other bases. 

When I reached the car again, it wasn't even 9 AM. I just wanted to go home and have a proper breakfast and take a nap. But instead our driver stopped at a coffee/tea shop exactly like the one I had to go to before the cycling, complete with caged civets, and I begrudgingly sat and sampled the same coffees and teas and breezed through the shop and back to the van. I finally got back to the Homestay around 11 and the host graciously still offered to make me a green pancake. And I was eternally grateful. I napped for the next few hours and decided to expend as little energy as possible to find lunch and later dinner. 

The next few days consisted of shopping/haggling in the local market, an traditional Indonesian cooking lesson that yielded a six course lunch, and a trip to the sacred monkey forest which was just like the jungle book, sans King Louie the orangutan. Only small monkeys that all looked like they had 19th century aristocratic facial hair lived in and around an old temple and climbed tourists to steal their bananas, which were all bought at small stalls throughout the park for monkey-feeding anyways. 

I also kept up with my yoga, doing my own 1-2 hour practice in the mornings on my balcony before breakfast. With the exception of the last morning when I decided to attend a local class labeled "Ashtanga" but it turned out to be "vinyasa flow" for naive tourists that have never done yoga before. I was thoroughly disappointed and considered leaving without paying the 100,000 rupees but I didn't because I'm too nice. 

I got one more full body massage and a hair treatment at my favorite Cantika spa and indulged in Nasi Campur and homemade rice wine for my last meal in town. Bali, and Ubud specifically are fast approaching the top of my favorite travels list and I've vowed to return one day. 

The next morning, my Homestay host drove me over two hours to my next destination, Balian Beach on the west coast. 

My super cute homestay  

My super cute homestay  

Sacred Monkey temple/forest  

Sacred Monkey temple/forest  

The elementary motorcycle gang  

The elementary motorcycle gang  

Disco Buddha!  

Disco Buddha!  

Loving the architecture/family compounds  

Loving the architecture/family compounds  

Cooking class where I learned to prepare an Indo feast!  

Cooking class where I learned to prepare an Indo feast!  

Canggu, Bali, Indonesia

The first place I went after landing at Denpasar Airport was Canggu in North Kuta. It's kind of on the outskirts so it's not as touristy as the main city but the streets are still packed with scooters and surfboards. I stayed at the Brekele Berawa Beach House which was just a few hundred meters from the ocean. I met Jochen, as well as some new and exclusively blonde, German friends, here. They surfed way more (not to mention way better) than I did but I attempted to catch a few waves myself and did actually stand up on occasion. 

Some highlights here include starlit scooter rides on the way back from dinners and/or drinks, whizzing through lush, green, tiered rice paddies on a cobblestoned causeway, sipping coconut water straight from the source at sunset, and developing a taste for roadside fried banana. Bali has been so much fun - even when things don't go according to plan. Like when every single ATM was out of order or money or both so we were cashless for about a day and when the whole area experienced a power outage on our way to dinner one night, forcing us to dine in the dark. (Well there were small tea light candles and we kinda cheated by using our smartphones as an additional light source.) 

The sand is dark, thick and covers  your feet in clumps like wet, moldy sugar. The water was a bit cold but by no means unbearable. The weather was great; not too hot and I don't remember any rain. I even attempted to do some asanas on the sand while Jochen surfed, which makes maintaining your balance all but impossible. So I gave up and rolled out my mat later at the beach house.

We also took a trip in town to Kuta which entailed nonstop scooter swerving and maneuvering. It was like we were wheeled contestants on that show Wipe Out and had to get from point A to Point B while avoiding a whole hot mess of obstacles like cars, trucks, pedestrians, dogs, sidewalks, street signs and several other scooters. We did make it there and back surprisingly unscathed and I was finally able to mail my yoga books home. 

After three days here, it was time for me to ramble on to Ubud. 


Kerala, India

Our last day off was spent in the neighboring district of Kerala, India. We left the ashram at 5 AM and got to see the sun rise on the road. We drove through the famous Kerala forest where it's rumored you can see elephants and leopards but we only saw deer and birds. The greenery surrounding us for several miles on each side was lush and lovely. 

We arrived at Lincy's beautiful home for a special breakfast that included her famous curried eggs. (She helped prepare the Onam meal for us at the Ashram the previous week.) After some food and some hospitality, we headed off to the Banasura Sagar Dam. Surrounded by the water and the mountains, we practiced some yoga poses and discovered a family swing park in the nearby woods. We could fit two at a time on the swings and at one point a guy plopped his kid on my and Amanda's laps for photos. It was so cute/awkward because the kid clearly was not as excited about this encounter as his dad. 

Then we had perfect timing when arriving at a tea plantation as the ladies who pick the tea were coming in to process their bags full of leaves. They were so friendly and most of them balanced the loads on their heads. Its a great reminder of how much work in a land far, far away goes into your morning cup of tea. 

After that we stopped at stupid lake, which paled in comparison to the dam, and I was starting to get 'hangry' so our next mission was lunch. We stopped at a local restaurant and had a bit spicier food than we were used to at the ashram. All six of us were stuffed for about $20 USD. Then I indulged in Cardamom flavored ice cream that came served in a little clay pot. 

The day lingered on as we visited a dilapidated old Jain temple and did a bit of shopping before finally returning to the ashram around 7 PM. So went our 14-hour day off. 

Mysore, India & Namdroling Monastery/Golden Temple

I spent two Mondays off in Mysore city and they were both fantastic. Compared to what I've seen on TV and other peoples' own tales of India Travel, it seems like Diet India - cleaner, less crowded and slightly less chaotic, than your typical tourist city like Mumbai or Delhi. 

I enjoyed some relaxing massages at a spa called Windflower and visited some local sites like the temples, the cow and the palace. We also had an interesting experience traipsing through a traditional Indian market, complete with seller-stalkers that followed us all the way to our cab, trying to sell us trinkets. 

Mysore is a famous spot for all the Ashtanga yogis, so there were tons of cute yoga-themed shops and other ahsrams/teacher training facilities. We stocked up on snacks, essential oils and supplements at Dhatu, a mini, Mysore version of Whole Foods Market. 

I could go on, but I think the pictures can say more than I can type. 

During our second trip, we drove to the Namdroling [Tibetan Buddhist] Monastery aka the Golden Temple in Bylakuppe. The sights and sounds here were incredible - one of the most inspiring places I've ever been. We arrived during one of their prayer times, so we heard the chanting of hundreds of monks ranging from like 8 - 80 years old. The deep voices were accompanies by deep gongs and the sound traveled through your ears and straight to your soul. It was almost mesmerizing. Not to mention the temples were ornately decorated with ginormous, golden Buddha statues, a rainbow of colors & murals and intricate carvings. I am officially adding Tibet to my travel list! 

Yoga Boot Camp Week 3

The teacher training definitely got kicked up a notch this week so I'm upgrading it from summer camp to boot camp. 

Monday was our second day off and our second day spent in town in Mysore. (But more about that in a separate post.) 

Tuesday was back to our regularly scheduled yoga program starting with 6 AM meditation. After that, I had to sit off to the corner of the class by myself in what felt like yoga time-out, doing my own, gentler practice since my shoulder/bicep still wasn't fully healed. It was so frustrating seeing everyone else do asanas that I know I can do but just not at that particular moment with my almost-healed injury. 

That afternoon, I taught my first official class. Our total group of 15 was split into five smaller groups and we each take turns teaching our sub-groups in the afternoon. We were instructed to pick a team name and I suggested The Chakras, which sounds like a hipster band name, and everyone else liked as well. I even drew us a quick team logo: a five pedaled lotus. I volunteered to teach first mostly because it would be easier on my injury and give it maximum healing time. Our teachers observed our classes with emphasis on Sanskrit names & pronunciation, time management and posture corrections. I envisioned they would be standing there all serious with a clipboard and a pen, taking notes and staring at us intently but they just kind of wandered in and out of each class, sometimes doing their own asanas and just listening with a few glances here and there. 

So there was definitely room for improvement but overall I felt pretty good about my popping my yoga teaching cherry. I need to learn the Sanskrit asana names better and and I think I need to slow down and be a bit more confident. But I got a lot of positive feedback from the rest of the chakras during the recap discussion. Honestly I was a bit nervous before I started but once I finished, it wasn't so intimidating any more. 

Wednesday was ok but Thursday I hit a metaphorical wall. Not sure why but I woke up in a bad mood and everything hurt and the morning practice just seemed to be a collection of all my least liked postures. Extra sun salutations, extra core, extra hip flexer openers. By the end of the class my blood was boiling and I know my negative energy was palpable. At one point I unconsciously yet very audibly slapped my thighs out of pure frustration, stuck somewhere between standing prayer position and forward fold. (A friend told later me she noticed during class and started laughing. Then I started laughing so I'm glad I was at least entertaining to others during my mini tantrum.) 

But I couldn't stop it. I think all the pressure and stress and emotion slowly accumulates all week until it reaches a tipping points and spills out onto the mat. Everyone I talked to seemed to have at least one day a week like that. 

After that, I was back on the upswing and definitely had more energy and a more positive attitude towards my practice. Sunday night was a full moon so we had a chanting session outside complete with percussion. We went thru several rounds of the usual Sanskrit selections then we mixed it up with people taking turns leading the group to sing their countries' own indigenous moon-related songs. Represented in the international mash up was Norwegian, French and English. But Team English was pretty weak sauce with Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. The first American Moon song that came to my mind was Bad Moon On the Rise by Creedance Clearwater Revival but I didn't know all the words and would hate to insult Mr. Fogerty with my own inferior rendition. 

I found the lectures on Chakras this week particularly interesting. Basically, they are 7 points of Prana energy concentration located kinda sorta along your spine. Each one is associated with different adjectives and affects different parts of the anatomy. Whether you believe the theory or not, focusing on these points definitely helps with focus and meditation. 

But hands down, the highlight of this week was our Onam Festival celebration at the Ashram. Onam is celebrated in August in Kerala, South India in honor of King Mahabali. For us, that meant dressing up for a special brunch feast on a banana leaf, singing, dancing, a gorgeous flower carpet and games like draw the bindi on the forehead (an Indian version of pin the tail on the donkey). It was so much fun! 

One of my favorite aspects of being here is the shared sense of community. 

Its like a cycle - not necessarily with everyone paying back their kindness debt to the one from whom they received it, but more often paying it forward. Maybe the kindness passes through a few other people first before it comes back to you. Hey, that kinda sounds like Karma.

Everyone just wants to help everyone else out. Steph asked her mother in law to bring me some specific meds from Australia that we couldn't get in India. Rama gave me some Ayurvedic lip balm. Clem gave me an amazing shiatsu treatment when my shoulder was sore. Amanda did a Reike energy reading for me. Chand shared his contraband stash of chocolate. I picked up Joi's body scrub in town for her from the spa in Mysore. I shared my ibuprofen with Chand and Caroline. Caroline and Steph gave me natural oil for my dry hair. I am going to attempt to draw a mandala tattoo for Amanda. Joi introduced me to the awesomeness of essential oils. Oh and I'm working on a new logo for the ashram. 

Everyone shares everything and sincerely wants to contribute. I can kind of see the appeal of hippie communes in the 60s. But all it takes is one person taking advantage of the system to ruin it. 


Yoga Summer Camp Week 2

I know my last post made it seem like this place is all sunshine, soft breezes and butterflies, and there is plenty of these things, but it's also quite challenging. Not just physically but mentally and emotionally as well. 

Several people have collapsed on their mats and cried, and some wait til they get behind the closed doors of their rooms before they let it out. Something is sore at any given time and several people take naps during the mid day free time to be able to make it through the afternoon. 

We are fully engaged from before the sun comes up until well after the sun goes down. And we are confined to the ashram 6 days a week, with only one day off when we can rest here or take a taxi elsewhere. 

And meditation is hard. You know the myriad of modern distractions the world has to offer, so it's very challenging to block literally everything else out and just be quiet and alone. And you're constantly thinking "Am I doing this right? I bet everyone else is blissfully meditant except me who's swatting at flies and Mosquitos and constantly adjusting her legs because they're going numb." Probably not, but I don't know because my eyes are closed and I don't have telepathic powers like my favorite childhood superhero, Jean Gray. 

It's mostly summer camp with a dash of school mixed in because we take notes and have to study for exams. Our first test is on anatomy, which I really enjoy learning more about. Since I double-majored in marketing and Communication, there wasn't much time left for science so I only took the basic required Biology and Chemistry in college. 

On Friday I had a breakthrough. I was able to go up into headstand with straight legs, as opposed to bending the knees in close to the stomach first for more leverage. I was so excited to discover I had acquired "almost abs" and subsequently the strength to pull my legs up vertically. With more practice, this newfound skill will help further both my forearm and hand stands. (I was on an asana accomplishment high and actually went back to the studio later that afternoon for more core work. And if you read my last post, you know that previously core exercises drove me into a silent rage.) 

Only later in the day did I realize that the night before I had been focusing on my Manipura chakra as I drifted off to sleep. This is the third (from the bottom) of seven concentrated energy (prana) areas believed to be in the body. The Manipura is associated with vision, feet and digestion, all things I have issues with, so I figured it couldn't hurt to try to get some good vibes going there. It's situated in the spine behind the navel, the chakra closest to my lower abs, which is where I found that extra strength today. Now obviously I'm not saying this is causation because I've also been pushing my practice forward for 5 months but I think it's a bit more than coincidence. 

Chanting that night was also more enjoyable and a handful of folks even got up and started dancing. I was content to stay seated on the floor clapping but I may feel the urge to move around more during one of the later chanting sessions. 

This weekend was like a rollercoaster in the dark; several unforeseen highs and lows. As high as I was from my newfound ability on Friday, I crashed a bit on Sunday when I woke up with pain concentrated in my right bicep. It only hurt when I contracted it, so I figured I'd modify any of the asanas that required me bending at the elbow, namely sun salutations. So instead of chaturanga and cobra, I just held plank instead for two extra counts (Because, you know, I love ab work so much now.) 

I could do pretty much everything else with straight arms. I didn't feel much pain during the morning session but afterwards, the pain steadily snowballed all day until it reached critical mass during the last afternoon session and by then it had spread to my shoulder as well. I almost reached a breaking point on my mat, due more to the frustration of not being able to perform up to my usual self-imposed standards rather than the pain itself. I shut my eyes tight during the relaxation but one stubborn read managed to squeeze out of the corner of my right eye and roll down my cheek. I had been trying to avoid having to take any meds and just work through the inevitable muscle soreness but I had to take an ibuprofen before dinner. 

Oh and by the way, we also had our (unnecessarily stressful) anatomy test that afternoon as well. It was in the wall-less, open dining hall which is usually so relaxing, letting the perfect amount of breeze roll through unobstructed, except today of all days when we experienced what I'm fairly certain qualifies as our first monsoon. In the middle of the exam, we had to scramble to move ourselves and the tables and chairs to drier, more central parts of the hall. And the temperature dropped so much that my fingers started going numb as I wrote down my answers. All angles of this were just miserable, including the exam itself. Then even after the rain is gone, you have to worry about mud and puddle traps that spring up across the ashram grounds like liquid land mines waiting to explode all over your clean(ish) clothes. 

Anyways, Sunday night after dinner (with dessert - a weird dessert with inedible pieces of wood in it - but it still counts!) we headed to the smaller studio next to the dining hall for a talent show. Long story short, the talent show on our schedule was planned for the last night of teacher training in September but I guess they wanted to do one for the last night of the two week yoga immersion that was happening simultaneously as well. I had recorded some funny thoughts here and there in my phone but felt nowhere near ready when I was asked to participate prematurely in this one. I decided to just go with what I already had and asked to perform somewhere in the middle or end. 

It was a nice mix of talents from the group. One girl sang a beautiful, traditional Norwegian song, one girl

Read her favorite poem in her perfect British accent, a few others read poems and the most adorable German couple sang a few songs with their eukalele, shaker and small cymbals. Then it was my turn. I had a few key words scrawled on my hand and hoped for the best. I had about 10 jokes and an impression and was relieved/delighted that I had to pause so many times to wait for everyone to stop laughing. It was nice to hear especially since everything else we do at the ashram tends to be more on the serious side. Afterwards, so many people came up and complimented/congratulated me. I sincerely appreciated it and the attention made my heart flutter but I'm really bad at receiving compliments so I usually follow it up with something self-deprecating like "This is just what goes on in my head. That's why I'm so bad at meditating." 

(A lot of people said they wished someone had recorded it and/or that I needed to do it again and record it. So if there is indeed a subsequent performance, the video will end up on my blog.) 

But speaking of meditation, one quick anecdote. On our first day of class, Krishna had promised chocolate cake to anyone who could count up to 108 breaths then count backwards back to zero (so 216 breaths total) during morning meditation. "Challenge accepted" I thought to myself. Because I'll do almost anything for cake. 

I was finally to accomplish this task with the help of some wooden prayer beads I bought in town for just 100 rupees. It's a long string of 108 normal beads then one extra with a tassel at the end. (Ages ago it was the inspiration for the Catholic rosary.) giving my hands something to do actually helps my mind focus more. So I told Krishna in class earlier that week that I had met his challenge and to my pure joy and amazement he actually followed through and I enjoyed a dense and delicious slice of chocolate cake after dinner on Sunday. (And even shared it with a few friends in my immediate vicinity even though I could have inhaled it all myself.) 

I had some trouble falling asleep that night, probably a combination of the positive reception of my performance and that fact that tomorrow was our second day off, which I was looking forward to spending at the Golden Temple and in town back in Mysore. 

Finally, a decent sun set!  

Finally, a decent sun set!  

Our expert chant leaders  

Our expert chant leaders  

Class time

Class time

Source: http://

Welcome to Yogi Summer Camp

When you're a kid, going away to a special spot surrounded by nature its called summer camp. When you do it as an adult, it's called a retreat. I'm somewhere in between here at Ayur- Yoga Eco Ashram located about an hour outside of Mysore in Southern India. (You know you're getting close when there are more cows than cars on the road.) 

It took 5 terrifying hours to get here from the Bangalore airport in the middle of the night but once I arrived, and had a nap, I realized I am in my own personal paradise. 

The Ashram is spread out over several acres on a grassy slope that leads down to a river. The dining hall is at the top of the hill above a small studio and about 20 cabins. The main  octagon-shaped studio looks like a giant gazebo and is situated down closest to the water with panoramic windows and a red, concrete floor. The rest of the land belongs to nature and is a mixture of organic fruits and vegetables, trees and flowers. (They grow a lot of our food here as well.) There are colorful clumps of flowers dispersed like confetti across the grass. Butterflies come in just as many colors as and mingle erratically with the flora. Seriously, I don't remember the last time I saw so many free flying butterflies. They're everywhere. 

Although it's August and the rainy season, the weather is still pretty incredible. It's often cloudy and rains intermittently throughout the day, which causes the horizon to disappear into a haze in all directions. Sometimes if the clouds dissipate enough, you can see the silhouettes of the hills in the distance and heaps of palm trees in front of them. And once in a while, we'll be treated an incredible view of the night sky when the clouds feel like giving the stars a little time to shine. The temperature hovers around a perfect 80 during the day and drops just enough to need a light hoodie or sweatshirt at night. 

Our cabins are the perfect size and level of comfort. There are singles and doubles and they are adorably constructed, almost fairy-take like. The beds are ful- sized, as opposed to twin-sized, and the pillows, sheets and mattresses are all clean & comfortable. We have a large cabinet to share as well as a desk and a nightstand. The bathroom has a toilet capable of flushing toilet paper and the shower has hot water, supplied by a solar powered heater! There is a small porch out front where you can read, admire the view or hang your wet, bucket-washed clothes to dry. 

So here's a typical day at yogi summer camp. 

Someone walks around with a wake up bell at 5:30. I'm already up because I always wake up at 5. I'm usually braiding my hair by the time the bell gets to my cabin. 

Meditation led by Swami Prabodh starts in the gazebo at 6 AM, for which we all wear white clothes. It's kind of cultish but kind of cool at the same time. I didn't have room for any whites in my rucksack so I was happy to scavenge some from a bag of clothes left behind by previous students. I got an embroidered tunic and linen drawstring pants with two little wooden balls on the ends of the strings that fit very comfortably. 

Mediation lasts 30 minutes. Everything is still pretty dimly lit at dawn when we start and by the time we're done, the sun is up and the sky is bright. I'm still struggling to find the perfect position that doesn't make one of my legs go numb. It looks easy from the outside but being alone with yourself and your thoughts is one of the hardest things to do. 

At 6:30 we have the option to walk up to the dining hall and have a "hot drink." It not quite tea - just hot water with some natural flavoring a like lemon or ginger. After a few minutes it's time to head back to the cabin and change for morning yoga practice led by Vinod which starts at 7 AM and lasts two hours. Vinod is like a compact-sized, shaved-bald basketball player with lean muscles and the most animated personality. An incredible & admirable teacher. 

Every day is different but one things remains constant: sun salutations. I hate the way we are taught to do them here - seems choppier and more awkward than the vinyasa flow that I learned back home. I can't help but get angrier with each repetition. I think our record so far has been 20 in a row, which is more like 40 because you do the same sequence on each leg. Thankfully they're always at the beginning so after we get them over with, I am on a steady incline towards bliss at the end of the practice. (Unless we do core work, then I'm a bit angry again, lol.)

During practice and meditation, there is no music. Just the birds and crickets trying to out-chirp one another. 

After class everyone makes their way back to the dining hall for Breakfast. I think the dining hall is intentionally uphill, as far away as possible from the studio to give us more exercise. We have to earn those meals! We grab our round, metal trays and progress down the line to fill up the four sections buffet style. The general formula is: raw veggies that they define as a salad, a protein dish containing lentils or chickpeas or beans, chapati, some kind of other veggie dish and your choice of milk tea or ginger lemon tea. 

Oh and quiet time is from 10 PM til 10 AM so we are silent until after breakfast, which is actually pretty nice. When you're not distracted by other people, you notice so much else. For instance, there are so many birds and butterflies fluttering around that it feels like I'm in a vintage Disney movie. 

Ten thirty marks the beginning of our first class, Yoga Sutras, with Swami. P. He's like a brown, balding, gray-bearded yoda/smigel that tends to talk in circles. We sit, constantly shifting and fidgeting, on mats and cushions on the floor and he sits perfectly cross-legged facing us at the front of the room and delivers esoteric lectures on subjects like consciousness, detachment and the correct meaning of I. Sometimes it's hard to stay awake so I maintain my own consciousness by massaging my feet. Then students are allowed to ask questions and he sorta-but-not-really answers them and lastly we have to chant the 51 Samadhi Pada  yoga sutras in Sanskrit at the end. (Basically the same themes and ideas from the movie Avatar.) 

Free time starts after class, about noon. You can either do some extra asana practice, read, take a walk or take a nap. At 1:30 lunch is served which is fruit and fruit juice. Everything tastes so fresh and so clean (clean) and the selection is different everyday. My favorites have been pomegranate, papaya, mango, this rice/rice flake/banana mixture and drinking coconut water straight from local coconuts with a straw. 

Our next and more technical class Yoga Anatomy & Physiology (and a bit of history) starts at 2:30 led by Krishna. He's tall and sinewy with a short black ponytail, glasses and shorter grating beard. His toes are well separated and his voice slow and soothing - pretty much the ideal image of a yoga guru. This is where we learn how yoga affects, interacts with and often improves the systems of the body. It's very interesting and practical advice and information. 

Our last class of the day is a teaching workshop at 4:30, again led by Vinod, where we examine a few asanas (poses) at a time in more depth. We discuss the common corrections you need to help students make, injuries that can prevent someone from doing them and their overall affect on the body. It typically ends with us splitting into pairs and teaching each other.

Then it's finally dinner time at seven o'clock and we all trudge back up to the dining hall for the fourth and final time that day. The selection is similar to breakfast and some random days it includes a small dessert. Dessert days are my favorite days of course. The food has ranged from ok to incredible but my tummy hasn't felt this good in a long time, so that's the best part. 

Some nights there are activities after dinner like watching a video or chanting with instruments. The videos have been an interesting supplement to our daily schedule but I still can't say I enjoy the chanting. 

By this time it's getting late, and by late I mean 9 PM so I try to squeeze in a quick hot shower and some reading before bed. I am beyond grateful for this incredible experience. 


Malaysia - An Unexpected Journey

(Posting from my phone. Will post more pics once I have better internet.) 

Surprise! Change of plans! Instead of spending a fifth week in Sri Lanka, which would have entailed an all day trip to Colombo and over $100 for a 5 day visa extension, I defected to Malaysia. It was either there or Maldives based on geographic proximity, but Malaysia was much more affordable, mostly because I had enough starpoints to book 7 nights at the Aloft in Kuala Lumpur. 

Anyways, it was kind of a blast from the past when my ex-boyfriend, Donavan, met me at the airport. It was nice to see a familiar face - for both of us I think. We took a teksi to my hotel so I could check in and drop off my bags. Then we had a quick dinner at the food court in the mall next door before going our separate ways since I had arrived pretty late in the evening.

My first impression of Kuala Lumpur (or KL) was that it was pretty similar to Singapore. To use an expression commonly used here: same same but different. Lots of skyscrapers and malls and tangled streets full of vehicles. But after a while I noticed a lot more culture and diversity. It's my first visit to a Muslim country but it wasn't complete culture shock because it's pretty modern and there are still a lot of Asians and Indians in addition to the Malay. 

Apparently it's rude to point using your index finger, so you're supposed to use your thumb to indicate a direction. I failed miserably at this and hardly ever remembered to adjust my gesture until after the fact. But I'm sure most people just chalked it up to me being an ignorant tourist. They also seem to have something against using the letters C and X. Instead, K is substituted for words like Teksi, Ekspres and Sentral. 

I didn't cover my head with a hijab or anything, but I kept almost everything else covered to 1) adhere to conservative dress customs and 2) minimize sun exposure. 

Anyways, my number one priority was doing laundry because it had been a month since I did a proper wash with machines. D took me to a laundromat and then I satisfied priorities two and three: waffles and bubble tea, respectively. (I had a long term craving for my favorite breakfast food. Pancakes would also have been acceptable.) 

After dropping my clean clothes back at the hotel, we headed to a mall called Publika. I normally hate malls but this one was exceptionally artistic, hosting several galleries and crafty shops featuring Malaysian talent. I found some great silkscreen postcards that I couldn't not buy. There were also some public sculptures and murals throughout the space. And food. Anything you could possible want to eat of drink was within walking distance. We decided on a hipster-y looking place called Fahrenheit 600 where I devoured a bowl of veggie pasta. 

After a restful Monday spent gorging and lounging at the Aloft, I decided it was time to see the city. I bought a two day pass for the hop on, hop off bus and saw the touristy sights. I made it to the Museum (spelling), the National Palace, the (supposedly) world's largest bird park/aviary, the Culture Center, the National Visual Arts Center and Central Market. I could have probably gone to more stops if they had more busses and/or less traffic. 

I actually met one of the artists exhibiting at the Visual Arts, or rather, she met me. Sylvia Lee Goh is an older Asian lady that's been painting still life, figurative and landscapes for over 40 years. She has a surprisingly strong grip for her age. I know because she firmly led me around the room by my wrist to discuss her favorite pieces. She was very spry and we conversed easily in English. She also cares deeply about and is often influenced by environmental issues with regards to her work. There was also a lot more contemporary work in the other gallery on the first floor and an impressive collection of monochromatic photography from the early 20th century. 

The museum was more informative than anything, like s crash course in Malaysian history. It's chronologically divided into four sections: pre-historic, the Malay Kingdoms, Colonial and Modern Day. After the kingdoms came the Portuguese, the Dutch, the British and then an attempted seize at power by the Communists. 

Here are some more tidbits I picked up from the museum. 

Tin and rubber important during colonial era. Reason for transportation/infrastructure. 

1511 Portuguese conquer Melaka

1641 Dutch conquer Portuguese, Melaka 

Pangkor Treaty 1874 - British colonial administration

Emergency Period 1948-1960: Communist Resistance, Anti-British

1957 Independence (Federation of Malaya)

1963 Malaysia including Singapore

1965 Singapore Independence

1989 dissolution of communist party

FLAG designed 1949 (Contest)

Glorious Stripes (Jalur Gemilang) - Most definitely inspired by the American flag

14 red/white stripes represent nation's 13 states plus federal territory of Kuala Lumpur

Navy blue = unity of people

Crescent = Islam

14 pointed star represents states + KL

Yellow symbolizes Malaysian Royalty

Ethnic Groups: Malay, Chinese, Indian, Sabah, Sarawak (last two in Borneo) 

I was excited to find a local yoga studio called Yoga dynamics where I could take a few classes before arriving in India the following week. Even though it's less than two miles from my hotel, it would take 15-20 minutes to get there by teksi because of the labyrinth of roads and slow moving traffic. I participated in a few Hatha classes led by an American expat. It was the perfect level of practice that I needed and it was nice to be in a class again instead of just me and my lonely mat. 

I was surprised to find an abundance of street art on both sides of the the river near Central Market and a busy bus station. I suspect it was sponsored because I saw a few logos amongst the murals and tags. The art was pretty inaccessible though - I had to just walk along the street with barriers in between me and the 15-20 ft drop below and couldn't find a way down so that I would be at eye level. Even if I could get down there, parts of the concrete sidewalk/riverbank were completely gone in some places; either torn up by the construction equipment I noticed or washed away by a flood maybe? I was only able to get a few crazy snapshots from afar with my iPhone. I was glad I had already gotten my street art fix in Penang (see additional post.) 


I decided to lighten my load a bit and mail home a box of clothes that I didn't absolutely need. It weighed 2.3 kg (5.07 lbs) and cost RM 98 to send. The guy at the Pos said it would either take 16 weeks or 6 to 10 weeks to arrive in the U.S. Either way I think it will be a small miracle if the box makes it home at all. 

Exactly one week later, my journey came full circle and I was back at the airport where I started, retracing my previously blazed trail back to Colombo and then continuing on to Bangalore, India! 


Body & Mind : My Last Week in Sri Lanka

So I'm still at the same beach house in Ambalangoda but this last week is all about relaxation and introspection. Two other girls are participating in this week's activities as well; one from Austria and one from Germany. The only things officially on the agenda are a daily morning massage, a short yoga class in the afternoon and then maybe meditation on Friday with a monk at a local temple. I supplemented the mind part on my own by devouring several books during my abundant free time. (I also still helped out with the turtles, too.) 

Full/Blue Moon

Full/Blue Moon


My morning ayervedic massages were performed by a small, smiley Sri Lankan lady name Udena. First there is the topless head, scalp and shoulder massage. (Beth, you would slip into a blissful coma and possibly die of complete, tactile nirvana.) I sit in a chair and she pours some herbal, ayervedic oil on my head then works it into my hair and scalp with a sequence of scratches and strokes. Then she braids my oily and slightly thicker hair. For some reason, I find head/scalp massage the most relaxing - it affects the entire rest of my body. After that, I lay down on the padded table for the foot massage. It's very thorough and relaxing with a bit of reflexology-ish pressure point stimulation. (Dad, you would fall asleep and instantly have dreams of walking weightlessly on cotton candy clouds.)

The first time, I thought she was only going to do my head and feet, but she transitioned on to rub down all the parts in between. Arms, hands, thighs, legs and then stomach and chest. It was a bit awkward for me because I've never had a boob-and-tummy massage before but its not bad. Then I flip over and she does the back of my arms & legs, my glutes and finally my back. My muscles are temporarily the consistency of banana pudding and it takes all of my willpower to convince my coarse motor skills to start functioning again. 

At this point I'm covered head to toe in ayervedic massage oil. I looked at the bottle but it's all in Singhale so I can't read a word of it. I asked Udena what was in it and she said simply "herbs." So my last resort was to try to identify it by smell, which is my third failed attempt at deciphering what the oil is made from or what's in it. I can say it smells rich, savory, herb-y and earthy, almost like a mossy forest floor after the rain mixed with wood, mushrooms and maybe some nuts. It honestly smells and feels like I'm being tenderized and marinated in preparation for a large Thanksgiving-style feast. It's not a bad smell but I don't love it either. 

If I could, I would fold her up and put her in my pocket so I can continue to experience her magical massage powers throughout my travels and share them with others. But, I just don't think the rest of the world is ready for the massage equivalent of self-actualization. 


Walden | Henry David Thoreau, 1854

I finally finished Walden after starting it months ago. This is because 1) I read it very sporadically, and only during my travels, 2) its 373 pages of tiny type and 3) I frequently had to make note of and look up definitions to tons of antiquated and/or SAT-level vocabulary words. 

Basically, it's his adventure in self-reliance and self-reflection while living at a house he built on Walden Pond. There's a ton of satire, great poetic descriptions and narration, philosophy, advice, observations and even some rather prophetic predictions. I'll read it again or possible several more times and more quickly now that I have several words defined in the margins. 

Paper Towns | John Green, 2008

 A roommate of mine left this book so I picked it up and decided to give it a try. I finished it in under 48 hours, not because I found it particularly enthralling but because it's an easy read and I have a lot of free time. 

I was expecting it to be your typical vapid YA novel describing the same old tired high school stereotypes but I was surprised to find I could actually relate to it. Girl is fed up with conventional life (in Florida of all places) and decides to leave everything behind in search of something more substantial. 

A good part of the plot is built around poetry by Walt Whitman: Song of Myself and Leaves of Grass. I coincidentally just finished reading Walden by Henry David Thoreau. Both men were writers and part of the Transcendentalist movement in America during the nineteenth century. So, a lot of the underlying philosophy overlaps between those two books, despite them being written over 150 years apart. 

I also like the message of trying to see people for who they really are, not what you expect them to be. The irony is, in high school when I would have been the ideal target for this book, I was definitely more of a Q but now several years later, I've definitely transitioned to being more of a Margo. 


The Fault in our Stars | John Green, 2012

There was a small, makeshift library of left-behind books in the corner of the common area. Since I had just finished Paper Towns, a friend suggested I read another book by John Greene called The Fault in our Stars. It's about a couple of star-crossed teenagers with various forms and stages of cancer. Kind of a modern, more maladies version of Romeo and Juiet, sans suicide.

It's a great insight into what it feels like to have a terminal illness and makes you appreciate your own health for sure. I wasn't a fan of the ending, but I think it's referencing the inceptional, fictional book-within-a-book An Imperial Affliction which just ends leaving several questions unanswered. I plan on watching the movie at some point next week in Malaysia when I have more reliable internet. 

I Wonder Why | Thubten Chodron, 1999

Curious to learn more about Buddhism and meditation in anticipation of visiting the temple later that week, I read I Wonder Why, a free publication that I picked up earlier at a temple in Singapore. It concisely and simply answers the questions asked most often about these aforementioned topics. It was written by a Californian turned Buddhist nun who started meditation and visited Nepal in 1975 and was fully ordained in 1986 in Taiwan. Very interesting and makes it easier to comprehend some of the more complex topics, especially since she has the Western perspective and wasn't just born into the culture. 


After the peak heat and humidity of the day had waned slightly, our Yoga teacher Sasantha would arrive around 5 PM via motorbike. He wore white Kundalini-style yoga clothes was trained in and teaches Hatha style.

Along with Om chanting, he would open and close our practice with Ayubowen (Wishing you a long life; Singhale) instead of Namaste. I tried to go in with an open mind, but I felt like this class was way too basic, maybe on par for toddlers or geriatric clients. There were a handful of poses that I recognized but there was also a lot of filler like glorified stretching of feet, hands and fingers and laying down in savasana for several minutes in the middle of the practice, which I have never done before, and really felt like it interrupted the whole flow. But he did mix in a noticeable amount of meditation, which I liked. 

The worst part was the insects. I put on citronella oil but the mosquitos and flies still buzzed around us. I can't think of a worse hell than trying to meditate amongst mosquitos. I'm still grateful for his time and effort and was a nice, relaxing, not-too-sweaty way to end the day. 

I still continued to do my own Vinyasa practice almost every morning alone in the common area of the beach house. Last week, a few German girls took notice and asked if I could teach them. I ended up teaching two short classes (with simple moves that I was confident I could describe and direct) on two different mornings with up to four girls attending each class. 


On Friday afternoon, I and the two other girls participating in B&MW piled into a tuk tuk to make the journey to the nearby Shailathalaramaya Temple in Karandeniya, built on a hillside about two centuries ago. It's claim to fame is a 35 meter long reclining Buddha statue, the longest of its kind in Southeast Asia.

The temple was particularly packed with people due to it being a holiday related to the full moon called Uposatha Observance Day or Poya Day. (This would explain why both the Post Office and our favorite Ice Cream place were closed on Friday.) So, we were lucky to get an hour, or any time at all really, with a monk there named Somissara. He was an amiable, 24-year old monk that just radiated happiness. The only space left for our meditation was in their narrow little alms room, where lay persons brought all kinds of food offerings for the monks. 

He had great English and gave us his life story in a nutshell, including coming to live at the temple at age 7, how he started meditation and his more recent travels across Europe to teach meditation. He recommended starting with Metta (or Loving Kindness) meditation. The goal of this practice is to cultivate a strong wish for the happiness of all other people and animals. We were instructed to close our eyes for 10 minutes and repeat the mantra I wish for all to be well and happy. I edited this a bit to I wish for _______ to be healthy and happy and made it into a med-lib™ (meditation + mad-lib, get it?!), in which I would fill in the following blank with things like: my parents, my sister, my friends, all beings, etc. (Is it coincidence that when I grabbed my phone to take pictures of the temple directly after the meditation, I noticed a rather happy WhatsApp message from my mom?) 

The time went by pretty quickly and even though my eyes were closed, the darkness faintly seemed like I was moving backwards through a tunnel, passing under sporadic overhead lights. However, I couldn't hold the traditional cross-legged position for the entire time. One of my legs started to go numb so I shifted a few times. I raised this concern to Somissara afterwards, and he said it's normal and totally acceptable to shift your physical position when meditating.

Then he gave us a brief tour of the statue, the temple and the grounds. I really enjoyed and appreciated the time he spent with us and approached to shake his hand, but just as quickly recoiled because I suddenly remembered that we're not supposed to touch or take pictures of the monks out of respect for their holiness. 

Reminds me of my grandma's quilted creations

Reminds me of my grandma's quilted creations

The Moonstone Mine and My Shiny Souvenir

Unrelated to Body & Mind week, my last excursion was to a Moonstone Mine in Meetiyayoda. It was a typical tour-then-try-to-sell-something experience, but while white moonstones are found all over the world, blue moonstones are so rare that they (supposedly) are only found in this single village in Sri Lanka.

Traditionally, the moonstone is known as the Traveler's Stone and is supposed to be especially protective when one travels by night or upon the water when the moon is shining. The blue, or cat's eye, variety is believed to promote clarity, focus, awareness and balances energy. 

Upon hearing this, I decided I needed one immediately so even though I'm not typically a "ring person," I purchased a sterling silver ring set with a small blue moonstone for 10,000 rupee ($75 USD). I'm sure I probably overpaid a bit but it came with a certificate of authenticity and I'm directly supporting the Sri Lankan economy. 

Sifting for stones

Sifting for stones

My blue moonstone

My blue moonstone

The Cat Savior & Spectacular Sunsets

My last and completely unanticipated experience that I need to mention happened Friday night when a group of us were walking towards town for ice cream after dinner at the beach house. We are regularly escorted by Milo and some other street dogs, as we were on this trip, but they suddenly and uncharacteristically broke into a full sprint. I saw why as a small cat scrambled up a tree limb. The cat fell and in what seemed like a nanosecond, it was then in Milo's mouth, being shaken violently. 

What happened next was kind of a blur. I didn't really think - I just reacted and kicked the dog, not hard enough to really hurt it, just enough to startle her. She dropped the cat and I reflexively tried to grab the cat and move it away from the dog but instead felt claws puncturing my flesh. I flinched and spun around to see the cat safely behind me. I stood between Milo and the cat, yelling at Milo to go away, until the cat disappeared to safety. Thankfully the other dogs were gone and Milo eventually retreated as well. (I'm choosing to believe that the cat is totally fine now and eternally grateful for me saving it's life.) 

Only then did I stop to evaluate the damage done to my finger. I had a long, jagged scratch almost the entire length of the inside of my right ring finger - the one with my new moonstone ring on it - that was trickling blood and I was super thankful for another girl in my group that had a first aid kit with her and handed me an alcohol wipe and a band aid. I used them immediately then cleaned the wound more thoroughly and applied Neosporin when I got back to the house. 

Last but not least, I need to share pictures of some spectacular sunsets we got to admire this week! 

Bentota and/or Aluthgama, Sri Lanka

Since we only work in the morning on Fridays, three other girls and I decided to spend the afternoon in another town called Bentota. We piled into a tuk tuk and headed north. We weren’t 100% sure where the town was or what it looked like but our driver dropped us off on the side of the road between the beach and some buildings a few kilometers after we passed a sign that said Bentota on it. Some locals directed us west toward the ‘city center’ so we walked in that direction, and soon realized we were being followed. An older gentleman in a sarong, button down shirt and flip-flops offered to take us to the temple, which he said was just down the road. 

We were very cautious and hesitant. I thought about it as we walked and decided he was either going to murder us in the woods, or actually take us to the temple and ask for a tip afterwards. We gambled on the latter, and after walking about 30 minutes through the jungle, we did, indeed arrive at a temple, which may or may not be the Galapatha Raja Maha Vihare Buddhist temple. (I couldn’t find anything identifying it in English at the site so I Googled it later.) I could tell the structure was very old but the interior was immaculately maintained and boasted beautiful tile, several colorful murals from floor to ceiling and a ginormous Sleeping Buddha statue with intricately patterned & painted feet. Of course at the end of our tour, we were asked to leave a donation for the temple so we each put 100 rupees through the slot in the wooden box that is intended for that purpose. 

Jungle Temple Entrance

Jungle Temple Entrance

Inside the Temple

Inside the Temple

After that, our guide (who never actually shared his name) led us to the lagoon, where we boarded a traditional flat canoe-type boat which he and one other man rowed for us with long, thin, wooden paddles. We asked the cost up front and he quoted us $1,000 rupees each (about $7.50 USD) which seemed a little steep, but we were kind of a captive audience because we didn’t know how else to get to the city. It ended up being a pretty nice ride that lasted close to an hour. We paddled around mangroves and along the shore of the lagoon, where I noticed the nicest houses I’ve seen yet in Sri Lanka. Our guide told us that many Europeans live here, so that explains the more lavish residences. We saw some snakes and some monitor lizards along the way before being dropped off at a vacant marketplace, which comes alive on Mondays only. 

Simple boats

Simple boats

We paid for the lagoon cruise and walked into what we assumed to be the city center since the street was lined with shops and the streets were full of people and various vehicles. This is where we and our guide parted ways, after he asked for a tip as I had expected. We gave him close to $1,000 rupees total, confident that he also got a cut of fee for the ‘cruise’ for which he had recruited us. He thanked us and claimed to have three children, for which he was going buy for for with said compensation. Who knows if this was true or not, but even though we got a bit taken advantage of as somewhat naive tourists, I think both parties benefitted from the "impromptour." We got see some sights that we had no idea were there and he made some money. Plus, it was super sustainable since we walked the whole time and the boat was people-powered. 

Row, row, row your boat

Row, row, row your boat

We were the only tourists around so everyone was hollering at us to come into their shops. We browsed a few before starting a new mission to find food. Another, younger local that looked to be around our age approached us and promised to take us to the best restaurant in town. We figured ‘what the heck’ and made sure to check the menu before deciding to actually eat at the restaurant, which had a pretty nice view overlooking the river. One girl has seafood and the rest of us reveled in the simple yet satisfying familiarity of our sandwiches and fries. 

The closest thing to a sunset I've been able to capture because clouds!!! 

The closest thing to a sunset I've been able to capture because clouds!!! 

We decided to save some money and take a train back to the beach house but had some trouble finding the station. It was getting dark and we gave up on hoofing it finally just found a tuk tuk to take us to the station for about 100 rupee. Turns out, we had missed our turn and walked too far. The train ticket was only $50 rupees each and I am very impressed with their thick, letterpress-style tickets! We were a bit confused, though, because we were at the Aluthgama station, when we were supposed to be in Bentota. When the train finally arrived about half an hour later, the first station we passed was Bentota, so we hypothesized that our driver had intentionally driven us too far in order to benefit his buddy that took us on our tour - but we can’t confirm this theory. 

Letterpress-ish train ticket 

Letterpress-ish train ticket 

We got back to the house in time for dinner then went out for ice cream downtown before calling it a night. 

Eco Update: Sri Lanka

The most common, and most fun, method of transportation around here is the auto rickshaw, also called a tuk tuk or a three wheeler. It’s kind of a hybrid between a golf cart and a motorcycle and transports a driver and up to three passengers. I’ve had several tuk tuk rides since arriving in Sri Lanka so I was curious to find out how efficient and eco-friendly they are (or aren’t.) 

Since they are so much smaller than standard vehicles, they get much better gas mileage; typically 35 km/liter (or 82 mpg) of petrol and their CO2 emissions are about a third less. Older models have two stroke engines, which cause a lot of particulate (soot) pollution. Newer models with four stroke engines more thoroughly burn the fuel and are more efficient. The Sri Lankan government actually banned two-stroke engines in 2007 to reduce air pollution so most of the tuk tuks here should be four stroke, but I’m sure the old ones still slip through the cracks. (Source)

So overall, I can confirm are much more efficient and also cost much less than traditional taxis. And did I mention, they’re just so much fun to zip around in? They effortlessly swerve right around busses, bikes, pedestrians, cows and whatever else happens to be on the road. 

Living in the beach house sans air con, hot water and basic appliances also saves a lot of energy. They also cook in bulk for the house and the food seems to be pretty local. Lots of rice and noodles and pineapple. Sri Lanka has the best pineapple I’ve ever tasted by the way; the perfect mix of tangy and sweet. I also avoid buying a bunch of plastic bottles and just keep refilling the same one with the filtered water that is provided for us. 

However, there is no recycling anywhere in the country. I seriously cringe and possibly even twitch every time I have to scrape food scraps onto plastic bottles in the bin because I am such a serial recycler at home. 

Skeptical turtle is skeptical 

Skeptical turtle is skeptical 

The turtle compounds are 100% natural and sustainable as far as I can tell because all we use is sea water, sand and coconut husks to clean the turtles and the same plus a few tools to clean the tanks. I confirmed with our coordinator, Isuru, that the fish we feed the turtles is caught by local Sri Lankan fisherman. (I even get to feed some leftover fish to a smart, little kitty that I named Latte since she has milk and coffee colored fur.) The only environmental concern I can discern is the paint we use to add to the hodgepodge murals on the walls. 

Latte is ready for some leftovers!

Latte is ready for some leftovers!

The garbage that accumulates on the surrounding beaches does the most immediate damage, so I bought some garbage bags in town and initiated a clean up effort. In around an hour, we filled five bags, mostly with plastic bottles, orphaned flip flops and pieces of styrofoam. Most people are just apathetic or ignorant or both here and there is trash everywhere. Each time I try to think about a solution for one problem here, it invariably leads to thinking about more problems and more possible solutions and can become an overwhelming and vicious cycle. 

The only thing I was caught off guard by was a boat tour on the Madu River that we did last week. The boats are old with really crappy engines that smell and spew fumes into the air and water. And I know they’re just perpetually running all day taking groups of tourists through the mangroves and to have their feet nibbled by fish. They also exploited a baby monkey and a baby crocodile for pictures (in hopes of tips), which I didn’t like. 

Bad boats. You are not eco-friendly! 

Bad boats. You are not eco-friendly! 

There is definitely lots of progress still to be made in Sri Lanka but I think I am staying pretty true to my sustainable traveling philosophy here.  

Kandy, Sri Lanka (Cultural Orientation)

I’ve had lots of great experiences but limited internet so this is going to be a long one! (But there are also lots of pictures!) 


I arrived at Colombo airport in Sri Lanka mid-morning on Sunday. I knew I would need cash for pretty much everything so I tried to use about three different ATMs, all of which denied me money and displayed messages saying that my card was ineligible or reported lost.stolen. After connecting with my Green Lion volunteer group, I used the free airport wifi to skype my bank, but was cut off mid-call due to the shoddy internet signal. (I actually ended up having to borrow money from a new friend until I could sort things out with my bank four days later. But I was thankful this was the worst I had to deal with because another girl was without her entire suitcase for several days due to the fault of the airline, so a lot of us pitched in toiletries and clothes for her to borrow until it arrived after several days. Travelers are the best!) 

Five of us and our luggage were piled into a van for the three hour journey to Kandy in the mountains. This ride started out a bit terrifying because although there are only two lanes painted on the road, there can be up to 5 or 6 lanes of busses, trucks, cars, motorbikes and tuk-tuks. Our driver was swerving all over the road and honking erratically, not unlike everyone else. After the first dozen or so near-misses, we relaxed and listened to Abba’s greatest hits. Which was blaring out of the speakers for nearly the entire trip. 

We surprisingly arrived all in one piece and after removing our shoes at the door of course, were sent to our respective rooms. I was the last of six to arrive in my room, which was tucked away in the corner of the third floor. 


Kandy, Sri Lanka

Kandy, Sri Lanka

I ended up really disliking my room, mostly because it was too small for the six bunks (three sets of two) that occupied it. Three German girls had been there for several weeks and their stuff was everywhere. Then what little space was left was taken by and English girl and Dutch girl who arrived just a bit earlier than me. I had to lean my rucksack against someone else’s bed frame and there was literally no more room on the floor so I had to keep my backpack my top bunk with me, which occupied a significant portion of my already tiny sleeping space. The mattresses were ultra thin and I could always feel the metal bars of the bunk frame beneath it. The pillow felt like I was sleeping on a soggy sack of flour and we were each given two thin, tattered bed sheets which never stayed tucked in. I always slept on top of them both because it was still too warm at night for any kind of coverings. 

My bed was against the wall and under the single oscillating fan which blew directly over my bed so I didn’t really benefit from it’s cooling effect. Of course there was no air conditioning so we often kept the window open at night, which consequently let in mosquitos and the stench of cigarette smoke. The bathroom was tiny and I was grateful for a flushing toilet, but the space was wide open so whenever anyone took a shower, everything inside got wet. We did have hot water sometimes, but I actually crave cold showers after accumulating a layer of dust and sweat everyday. I saw several other rooms with ceiling fans and a bit more space so I know every room wasn’t exactly like mind. There were only two outlets so it was a battle to get your phone charged. I was pretty proud of how I was able to Macgyer my converter to be able to power the fan, my phone and at least one other device. We were also allotted two hours of slowish internet per night, which I really appreciate considered there is no internet provided at my new house in Ambalangoda. But, it was tolerable for a week, and the food and the new friends I’ve met helped to make up for it. 


Honestly, before I arrived, the only two things I knew about Sri Lanka were that it’s an island located off the southeast corner of India and it’s where M.I.A. was born. Now I know the majority of the people are Buddhist (there are statues and temples everywhere) and there was a civil war in the north between the Singhalese and the Tamil Tigers that really only ended recently in 2009. In general, the men tend to be skinny and the women tend to be thicker and curvier. They wear a mix of traditional dress and western-style attire, with traditional being shirts and long sarongs for the men, midriff-baring saris for the women and sandals or flip flops for both. Everyone’s been pretty friendly so far and the kids get especially excited and always shout “Hello! Hello!” when they see foreigners. There are also stray dogs and garbage all over the streets. 


Our cultural orientation started on Monday with some history and language lessons where we were taught a few phrases in Singhalese. Ayu Bowan is a common greeting and means I wish you a long life. You can also use this as a farewell phrase (kinda like Aloha means hello and goodbye.) We also learned some basic conversation starters: Mage Nama Miranda. Mage Rate United States, and pleasantries: Karunakarala means please and Isthuthi means thank you. The written Singhalese language is very lovely-looking but I can’t even begin to read a word of it. 

We rode a public bus around Kandy and ended up thoroughly enjoying a showcase of traditional Sri Lankan dance, costumes and performances. It opened with the blowing of the conch shell and drumming, which is a traditional welcome. This was followed by the Pooja dance, the Panteru Natum, the Cobra dance, the Mask dance and few others. The most impressive for me personally was the duo of plate spinners who balanced like 7 ceramic discs each and then the two guys at the end who ate fire and walked across hot coals that were then set on fire and walked across again. 

Tuesday was very touristy but informative. We visited a local Ayervedic (natural healing) spice garden where they grew and processed medicinal plants like aloe vera, cinnamon and ginger followed by a visit to the Kadugannawa Tea Factory Centre Garden where we had a tour and enjoyed a cup of Ceylon tea. Fun Fact: Sri Lanka is the second largest exporter of tea after India. Our last stop was Premadasa Gems & Jewelry where we watched a short video about traditional mining in Sri Lanka and then they attempted to sell us all kinds of shiny, sparkly things. This was pretty much the pattern all day: give the tourists a quick tour then encourage them to buy a bunch of stuff. Fun Fact: There are 28 different gems and precious stones found in Sri Lanka; almost everything except diamonds, rubies and emeralds. 

Wednesday we split into groups and had traditional cooking lessons in the homes of some very talented local ladies. Cooking is huge here, and women can typically spend half of each day just cooking. I got to assist in the kitchen and use a coconut grinder to help make our pumpkin curry, banana flower “slaw”, fried papadils (which ended up kind of like puffy potato chips) and rice. We even ate the traditional way with our right hands, sans utensils. Everything was so fresh and flavorful. This was my favorite meal in Kandy by far.

Later that day, we visited a Buddhist temple and chatted with a nun with a shaved head and everything who was originally from England but had come to this temple after converting in Burma. She had an open dialogue with us about Buddhism, answered several questions and misconceptions and then led us in a short meditation. That was really interesting because she had a unique perspective of being able to compare it to the traditional Western lifestyle instead of being born into it, as they are here. Some monks get recruited really young at like 7 or 8 years old. I’ve seen some this young in town and at other temples in the area. 

Thursday we visited the incredibly crowded Temple of the Tooth Relic, which was packed with tourists and devotees alike. Our guides encouraged us to buy flowers for offerings at one of the several carts outside the temple and it only cost 100 rupees (about 75¢ USD) so we obliged. It was more like a palace than a temple with ornate murals and sculptures everywhere. There was a horn player and two drummers at the front and a huge line that wrapped around the inside of the temple to actually see the tooth (of Buddha) so instead we just walked past the outside of the relic room. There were people everywhere offering prayers and fruit and flowers and tourists taking pictures and even groups of children on field trips in their adorable white uniforms and red ribbons. 

After that, we took tuk-tuks, which is kind of like a cross between and motorcycle and a golf cart, up the hill to a wood shop and a batik shop. Again, they gave a quick lecture and then escorted us to their ginormous gift shops in hopes of us buying souvenirs. I finally gave in at the Batik shop and bought a small print of several birds roosting on branches called The Tree of Life. 

Artisan at the woodworking shop

Artisan at the woodworking shop

Tree of Life Batik

Tree of Life Batik

It was a pretty short day so a couple other girls and I stayed in town to shop at the local markets. It can be overwhelming if you’re not used to crowded places with everyone promising you the best deal. “Special price for you. Student price. Volunteer price.” I ended up with an awesome pair of printed elephant pants and a matching purple t-shirt that were comfortable enough for traveling and conservative enough for temple visits. 

The Central Market

The Central Market

Friday was our last official orientation day and we started it with a public bus trip and a steep hike to the Bahirawakanda Temple which housed a giant Buddha statue that overlooked all of Kandy. We took tons of pictures of the statue and the great view of the city below before having tea and being blessed by a young monk who tied white string around each of our right wrists. Apparently you are supposed to make a wish when you receive the string and then when the makeshift bracelet falls off, your wish is supposed to come true.

We then went back down to the city and visited a large Hindu temple where people were praying and offering fruit platters. Once the offering has been blessed, you get a little dot on your forehead and you’re supposed to eat the fruit. I’ve visited several Hindu temples now and they’re always so bright and colorful with intricate carvings. This one even had a bunch of flashing neon images of gods and goddesses that reminded me a bit of a casino. At lunchtime, we headed to Balaji Dosai pure vegetarian restaurant where we all enjoyed a roti-like dish with a couple different curries on the side. Either the spice was toned down for us or I’m finally starting to increase my tolerance! 

That night, a group of about 20 of us packed up and loaded into three vans around 11 PM for a three hour drive to Adam’s Peak (or Sri Pada). The plan was to arrive around 2 AM and then hike to the top in time for sunrise. We figured we’d be able to get some rest on the way there - but boy were we wrong. The driver of my van at least was swerving around the hairpin turns of the mountain road like a maniac and blaring whiny-sounding Sri Lankan music. There were no seat belts and no handles or anything to hold onto inside so we all just kind of tumbled over the top of one another each time we took a hard turn. One girl in the back threw up a few times and another had her head out of the window on the verge of puking, herself. When we finally arrived, it was dark so we all got out our flashlights and started up the dirt and stone-staired trail. It started raining so I put my raincoat on over my backpack and opened my umbrella. A few stray dogs followed us, which was ok and even a bit reassuring until a couple of them started growling and snapping at each other. 

Sri Pada or Adam's Peak (More image here) 

Sri Pada or Adam's Peak (More image here

The rain only got worse and our one large group scattered into several smaller groups. I was struggling with the altitude since I’m used to living at sea level. I also started feeling a slight pain in my knee but I was determined to reach the top. The rain only got worse and flooded the trail. It got colder the higher we climbed. And the nonstop precipitation caused the steeper stone steps towards the top to turn into a gushing waterfall. I could feel my pants stuck to my legs and my feet sloshing around in the water inside my hiking boots. It literally felt like torture in the cold, wet darkness. I pressed on as much as I could until the pain in my knee was unbearable. This happened less than half a kilometer from the top, according to a couple who had already reached the peak and was on their way back down. A friend and I stopped at a police station on the way back down to see if they had any first aid supplies and happened to run into a different group of trekkers. One of them was a girl in her mid-twenties who happened to be training as a humanitarian aid worker and immediately wrapped up my knee and gave me some ibuprofen. The Sri Lankan police were very kind and offered us all hot tea, which was the motivation I needed to start hobbling back down the mountain. The sun came up at some point during the descent but the rain still never fully stopped. I was lucky I only found one leech as most other people were attacked several times. 

Back at the base, the vans and about half of the group were already waiting. Once there were enough people to fill up the first van, it took off and I was the only one left waiting for the rest of the group, who I assumed had reached the top. They returned pretty disappointed because although they went as far as they could, the actual peak was gated and locked since it was off season and they couldn’t even see the sunrise due to all the rain and mist. The ride back was even more miserable because we were all soaking wet and we had to sit idly for over an hour due to a downed powerline in the road. I really wish someone had given us a weather forecast and informed us it was off season before we left, but now I have a story to tell about that hike from hell I did that one time in Sri Lanka.