A Grief Remembered

“After the first death, there is no other.” –Dylan Thomas

It was Pokhara that broke me.

I was overwhelmed by Kathmandu and struggled to process my experiences in Bhaktapur. So, after I applied for a meditation course in Lumbini and they told me they were full, I hopped on a bus last November and headed to Pokhara, a small city on a big lake nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas.

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I found a little place tucked onto a hillside and near Phewa Lake. I finally had a kitchen. There was a hammock. The view was phenomenal. I was going to be there for two weeks, alone except for a couple evenings sharing drinks with my Airbnb host and a visit from a friend I met in Kathmandu.

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It was just what I needed, I thought, after all the hustle and bustle of India and a frenetic week in Kathmandu. In the first few days, I congratulated myself on finding the best and most beautiful place to write. Because that’s what I was there to do.

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It was about the fourth day that I faltered.

“What am I doing here?” I asked myself. “I’m writing blog posts, but why can’t I write fiction? I’m journaling each morning, but why do I still feel so heavy?”

I don’t know what it was, but it was then that I dug up a shard of memory: Paul. Continue reading “A Grief Remembered”

Five Asian Escapes for Writers, Artists, and Quiet Types

As a writer and introvert, one of my greatest quests over this year of travel is to find quiet places to get away to where I can write, read, and be—without breaking the bank. Here are five places I found during my time in Asia that gave me the space I needed to write, seek silence, and find inspiration.

Jirye Art Village (Andong, South Korea)

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I stayed at Jirye Art Village outside of Andong, South Korea, for over a week last summer, and it was just the quiet getaway I needed after weeks in the bustling metropolis of Seoul.

The Jirye Art Village is comprised of a series of historical buildings that were rescued from demolition by Korean poet Kim Won-gil. The buildings, built circa 1660, belonged to his family, and in 1990, when they were threatened by a dam being built nearby, Kim managed to get permission to move 10 buildings 200 meters up the mountains to their current position.

The poet envisioned turning the buildings into an artist’s colony, but in recent years, the property has become more of a place for visitors, including retreatants, artists, and travelers. Continue reading “Five Asian Escapes for Writers, Artists, and Quiet Types”

The Story I Can’t Tell

There is a story I want to tell, but no matter how many times I try, I can’t get it right.

 

There is a writer. They go to Bhaktapur, Nepal. It’s October. A young girl approaches them as they enter the city. Says “hello.” Starts chatting. Asks if she can show the writer around to practice her English.

The writer is a white American. The young girl—a teenager, really, though she looks like she could be in middle school—is Newari, an ethnic minority in Nepal.

Let’s call the girl Matina. Let’s say she shows the writer around. There are buildings that are hundreds of years old. There are intricate wood carvings on the doors, in the eaves, above the windows, making windows themselves. This is what people come to Bhaktapur to see.

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Let’s say the writer takes her to a café, but mostly because the writer is hungry and hasn’t had coffee. Let’s say they watch Nepali music videos on the writer’s cell phone. Let’s say Matina loves Nepali singers, but her favorite band is One Direction.

What if even in that moment, the writer realizes the complexity of what’s happening? Wonders when Matina might make an ask. Wonders if her parents put her up to snagging tourists off the streets and showing them around, telling them things like how much she likes chemistry. Wonders about the economics that would lead a family to do a thing like that. Wonders if Matina will be able to finish school. Wonders how many other foreigners have taken her to this café.

Still, the writer goes along. Eventually, Matina invites them to her home. The writer meets Matina’s parents. Matina shows the writer her homework—pages and pages, reciting chemistry facts and asking if she got the answers right on her English test. Her mom asks the writer to buy the family groceries.

The writer has been ripped off before with a similar ask—once in Delhi and once in Kathmandu—but they buy the groceries anyway—rice, oil, milk. Matina’s mom invites them back to the house to drink Fanta, their one splurge. Matina cleans off a metal cup with cloudy water from an old 7Up bottle and pours the soda in.

Matina calls the writer “sister” and “friend.” The writer thinks it might all be an act but is tempted to think that Matina might be lonely, too. Maybe in that way, they’re the same. When asked about her best friend, Matina says she had one before, but not now.

It is tempting for the writer to think in terms of these well-worn narratives. Because it easy, and there are clean lines to follow. Lines that could make the writer feel more comfortable.

But they’re not comfortable. And when Matina takes them back to the bus stop, and tells the writer to come back to visit, and asks them to send her post cards, and makes sure they get on the right bus to Kathmandu, the writer can’t help but thinking. And thinking. And thinking.

 

Did I do the right thing? Did I just make things worse? Will she become a tour guide, nurse, or singer like she dreams? What if my life had been like this? Where would I be? Why do I get to go back to an air-conditioned hotel with wifi when her home has dirt floors and no running water? Why do I keep talking to strangers? How did her house still stand in the earthquake? Did she lose anyone she knew? How do I tell this story? Can I? Continue reading “The Story I Can’t Tell”

What to Do, Kathmandu?

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Durbar Square, Kathmandu, Nepal

“What to do, Kathmandu?”

My guide smiled at me over our steaming bowls of vegetable soup. He’d shown me around Kathmandu’s famous Durbar Square and shrugged as if the question encompassed all we’d spoken about. His struggles to make ends meet. His conversion to Christianity. His attempts to be an honest guide in the midst of touts and scammers.

I smiled back and looked at the buildings around us. We were sitting in a rooftop café by the Square, looking at the intricately carved wooden structures and the remains of ancient buildings destroyed by the earthquake that shook the Kathmandu Valley in April 2015.

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Durbar Square, Kathmandu, Nepal

I wanted to know what Kathmandu would do. What anyone could do in the face of such odds. Continue reading “What to Do, Kathmandu?”

Singing Prayers to the Sky: A Weekend in Rishikesh

We began our tour of northern India by shuffling through the busy Delhi streets, looking up at the spires of mosques and breathing in the heavy scents of Old Delhi’s spice market. From there, we trundled up the mountains to what’s become a honeymooners’ getaway, and then toured temples in Mandi, Dharamsala, and Amritsar. By the time we got to Rishikesh (about ten days into our tour), my head and heart were swirling.

So many places. So many people.

An introvert at heart, I could feel myself shutting down. Some quiet time our last morning in Dharamsala and some rejuvenation at the Golden Temple in Amritsar boosted me enough to make it to Rishikesh in one spiritual/mental piece.

And once there, my first thought was “Rishikesh is heaven.”

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Rishikesh is considered by many to be the “yoga capital of the world,” and as such, it is unsurprisingly filled with yogis from all over the world and, thus, a considerable number of tourists (for better or worse).

Indeed, there was something special about doing morning yoga at a studio on the banks of the Ganga (Ganges) River, songs rising from nearby temples and worshippers as we practiced, bells ringing. Even the honking and engines somehow made a chorus. Of praise, perhaps. Of life. Continue reading “Singing Prayers to the Sky: A Weekend in Rishikesh”

Small, Sacred Things (or That Time I Could’ve Met the Dalai Lama but Didn’t)

I was sitting in front of the Golden Temple in Amritsar, the sun warm on my back, musicians playing and singing hymns before me, on the day I could’ve heard the Dalai Lama speak in Dharamsala.

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Musicians at the Golden Temple

Three days before, we’d arrived in Dharamsala, the home of the Dalai Lama and Tibetan-government-in-exile. While there, we found out that the Dalai Lama was actually in town (a rare occurrence with his packed, worldwide speaking schedule) and that we could sign up the next day to be present for his next public audience.

The only snag was that he would speaking two days later—when our tour was already going to be on the road for Amritsar, a city in northwest India, a half-day’s drive and train ride west of Dharamsala.

Two of my tourmates jumped ship to stay behind and hear the Dalai Lama speak, and I wondered if I should join them. I knew there were some risks that you should just take—especially on journeys like this. Continue reading “Small, Sacred Things (or That Time I Could’ve Met the Dalai Lama but Didn’t)”

Art and Soul in Dharamsala

Prayer flags trembling in the breeze. The firm, golden gaze of a seated Buddha. Artists’ hands at work, creating something holy. A single sign of imperfection, and hours—days—of labor would be cast aside.

These are the things I remember most from our visit to Dharamsala, India, the next holy site we visited on Intrepid Travel’s Mountains and Mystics tour.

When we arrived at the town that is home to the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile, I expected to be overwhelmed by the place’s holiness. Certainly, numerous pilgrims come from around the world to meditate or engage in in alternative therapies or to try to get a glimpse of the holy man himself. Others simply come to the temple that adjoins his house, offering supplications to Buddha alongside maroon-glad monks with shaved heads.

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And while we went to the Dalai Lama’s compound and enjoyed our fair share of Tibetan eats in the town around it (see recommendations below), it was the Norbulingka Institute that really caught my eye. Continue reading “Art and Soul in Dharamsala”