Finding Ground Above Clouds

“Drink chhaang, nectar of the Gods. Then eat shutki”.

I didn’t know which one made me more reluctant: the pungent smell of the fermented millet drink travelling to my nostrils, or the sundried little fishes, their round eyes fixed on me morbidly. As I directed their heads towards my mouth, my bitter face anticipated the bad circus about to perform on my taste buds: my look was unmistakable. As I victoriously finished my glass, chasing each sip with a fish, each bite with the ‘wine’, Manik refilled my cup instantly.

“Oh no thanks, Manik,” I implored, battling with a piece of fish scale stuck between my teeth.

“Mountain tradition! Glass always full. Drink!” he insisted, as his chubby cheeks blushed from the consumption of the home brew while passing around the shutki.

Manik is a 5-foot tall Nepali. His petite stature didn’t seem to be of the average Himalayan guide. However his leathered skin, yellowed eyes and chapped lips confirmed a heavy exposure of sun and cold, prop to a mountain life.

Two days earlier, we had booked a three-day trek around Kathmandu, the capital and gateway to tourism in Nepal. Located at the foothills of the Himalayas, Nepal has been an admired destination for trekkers and climbers since the 1950′s, and has been on my list for a long very time. This was the perfect way to start our 2-month backpacking adventure through South Asia.

“I’ll set you up with our best guide”, affirmed the tour agent while finalizing our booking. “He his a very experienced trekker and has great knowledge of the area. You’ll like him for sure.”

Day 1: 16km to Chisapani (2340m)

It was an early morning in November when Manik picked us up from my hostel. The taxi dropped us at the entrance of the Shivapuri National Park, on the northern fringe of the Kathmandu Valley in Sundarijal. Chicken roamed near a set of steep stone steps built into the mountain. Goats followed our ascent, feeding occasionally on woody plants along the trail. We trekked through sprawling forests of pines, oaks, wild cherry and rhododendrons. The forest gave way to rural villages where we caught a glimpse of villagers going about their day.

The scenery enhanced with every step we took. We traversed alpine meadows, hiked through yak pastures and crossed glacial moraines. Soon we reached the clouds, piercing through thick fog and crisp air. When the trail narrowed in the jungle, we observed the prayer flags hanging from the trees, floating through the mountain mist. As we gained elevation and started to hike the mountainside footpath, we feasted on the views plunging into a dramatic landscape of maize fields and rice terraces.

When we arrived in Chisapani, we entered a candlelit teahouse where a group of guides and porters chatted around a table.

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Manik invited us on the rooftop terrace, where he happily served us hot tea from a silver tray.

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The night was cold as winds swirled through the cracks of the stone walls. The teahouse was without electricity, hence dark, cold and drowned in quietness. I curled into a ball, tucked in with wool blankets. Memories filled the emptiness as I drifted into sleep.

Day 2: 15km to Nagarkot (2195m)

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It was 5am when we awoke to a profound silence. It felt like we were in a different world, dazed in a haze of peacefulness. A heavy fog slowly entered the windows like a mountain ghost.

We started our daily trek well rested and fed. However, the slanted trail reminded me of my unshapeness. My legs endeavored with difficulty to succeed.

 “I carry bag,” suggested Manik, his round-shaped head nodding with a persuasive smile.

 “Oh, no, but thanks,” I refused with a frazzled smile.

He insisted: “Me porter before. Carry big bags for weeks, bigger than you, bigger than me”. He expansed his lean body, exaggerating the size of a tourist’s bag. His goofiness amused me. Yet, I resisted his offer, and sweated my decision every step I made.

“How was it to be a porter?” I asked while scrambling across a river.

“Very hard. Family poor. Before porter, me work in corn fields. Mountain life very difficult.”

Manik told me about the time he lived in the city, working as a rickshaw driver. Unluckily, he almost lost a leg in a traffic accident. He returned to the mountains to recover, and then became a porter.

“Me no English,” he pursued, wind ruffling his raven-black hair. “Carry tourist bags for days, weeks, months in mountains. Hard work. People mean sometimes. No shoes. Me not look strong, but very strong.” He flexed his biceps with a giggle, his feet sliding down into his oversized and overused sneakers.

“Porter for 15 years,” he continued. “Work hard. Learn English talking to tourists like you. Guide now. Hope to trek Everest. Good money Everest,” he explained as he pointed to the horizon.

“You have a family?”

“Yes mam,” he affirmed, pride sparkling in his chocolate brown eyes. “Three boys. Me guide now. Now can pay for education. Hope best future for my boys.”

The trek became effortless as I sank into Manik’s life stories. How could he seem so content, healthy in and out, living a life that is so far from what I can possibly relate to? I empathized. I was inspired by his optimism and heartened by his genuine care.

Eight hours and a dozen swollen bug bites later, we reached the second summit of our trek, Nagarkot. My legs were inflamed, my face was red as a beet and the sweat dripped off my forehead endlessly.

“How I’d go for a glass of wine right now!” I exclaimed between two breaths.

“Me find wine for you!”

I looked at Manik trotting down the dirt hill, fading with the dusk.

As the moon rose up and settled in the sky, we gathered around a low table and sat on wooden drums outside a vendor’s hut. With the company of a fellow guide, Manik cracked the re-used water bottle and poured the chhaang in four glasses. Then came the shutki. The family that lived in the hut watched us with curiosity from the inside.

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He asked about our journey. I asked about his dreams. We conversed about life while the moon crossed the starry sky.

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Day 3: 15km to Thamel

We watched the sun rise over the Himalayas, snowcapped Mount Everest slowly piercing through the blushed clouds. As I contemplated the hues of the sky, I thought about Manik, and how he led me to a new way of seeing things. Just like my taste buds, he allowed me to be aware of the things I failed to appreciate. And while tourists snapped photographs of the morning spectacle, I stared in the distance, pondering the why and the how, and gazed upon a life of beauty and misery.
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We returned to the buzzing backpacking town of Thamel, where tourists and locals congested the tight alleys. I soon missed the stillness of the mountains, where my thoughts reflected far and beyond the open space.

I gave Manik my brand new trekking shoes. They perfectly fit his feet. He wrapped a white silk scarf around my neck, a khata, symbolizing compassion and purity.

We parted in different directions. And as I stood amongst the moving crowd, I closed my eyes. Suddenly, I was back in the mountains, walking on the rugged trails through the Himalayan mist, along with Manik.

“You want chhaang?” he’d ask.

I’d smile, indulging in reminiscences and the lessons I’ve gained: “Absolutely, I’d love some chhaang.”

A Sri Lankan Holiday

After a breakfast with unlimited Carlsberg in a 45min plane ride to Colombo, we arrived to our final destination. ”Welcome to Sri Lanka” smiles the immigration agent while stamping our free Visa in our passport. ”Have a great stay”.

Colombo is the capital of the country. The day before our arrival, 400mm of rain flooded the city. It is pretty unusual at that time of the year, since the monsoon is normally finished. But a sudden sun reappeared the next day, and evaporated all the mess away. We steped outside on a warm and dry ground, ready to vacation in the 4th and last country of our itinerary.

Due to a very confused and complicated understanding of our Indian Visa, we had to stay in Colombo on our first day and go figure this very frustrating situation at the Indian Embassy (in Nepal, we had to go through the same process and lost a full day of our trip waiting at the Indian Embassy for a ”transit visa” needed to re-enter when we already paid for a full multiple visa back in Canada to avoid this situation. So our question this time was: do we really need to go through this again?). After a long tuk-tuk ride, got dropped at the wrong place and waited an hour outside the Embassy under the heat of an angry sun until the end of their lunch break, after climbing the ladder of Indian bureaucracy, going from official to official, after repeating ourselves more than enough, we finally got a blury answer from a senior official with broken english: ”Ok”. ”So… are you sure we’re good?” ”’Yes, ok”. His hesitation and unclarity, but positive answer was enough for us. We wiped our sweat and tuk-tuk to a hotel.

The next morning, we caught a bus down to our hotel booked in Mirissa. To save some Sri Lankan Rupees, we opted for an non-AC local bus (that’s right, one more of these). lluminated Hindu God figurines are displayed in the front while garlands around the ceiling lights are wobbling through the fast and furious ride. Music playing some ”good” and loud Sri Lankan boom boom accompanies the crazy coloured carpet holding the top interior of the vehicule. After a disagreement over fare and an argument about basic courtesy with a greedy ticket collector, we managed, after a very unconfortable last 3 hours of our 4 hour ride, to get to Mirissa.

Paradise Beach Club is a great paradise for budget travellers like us ( prices are high in Sri Lanka, so to try to rebuild the economy affected by the recently ended civil war, the prices for foreigners are boosted up to 70% compared to the locals’ ). For a very attractive rate, you have a bungalow, half-board plan (2 buffet meals a day), access to the pool and are situated right on the beach. Mirissa is a quiet crescent beach with turquoise waters and playful waves. It is not as developped as its Northern neighbours, but offers the calm and tranquility we need for the last days of our trip. 10 days of purely doing nothing more than relaxing.

To spice up our lazy routine, we rented a motorbike for a few days. Cruise along the sea road and explore the other beaches and towns. We rode up to Hikkaduwa where we scuba dove 50ft under the Indian Ocean. We rode down to Polehna where we photographed the stilt fisherman doing their work. I even took a brief motorbike lesson that I immediately failed by driving the bike in the ditch first try. ”Fun times”.

The mean clouds now paint the sky in black and grey. Thundershowers have been covering the land since yesterday. The sun is missed, but the rain feels fresh and clean. We were spectators of a sky lightning show last night. Loud and shaky thunder and bright lights. A lighting struck the palm tree 12m in front of our eyes. The powerful show of light and sound left my heart shaking with fear and excitement. The power has been off for a little while. Not really sure how long it would last. Last night dinner was candle light. It is actually not too bad. I take the occasion to write, read and drink a glass (or few) of wine.

It has been 2 months of tramping the Indian Subcontinent, trekking Nepal, visiting Tibet and now vacationing in Sri Lanka. A short travel filled with discoveries, adventures and interesting encounters. I have seen the real colours of a country, the reality of its people. I learnt great things about life, perhaps some about mine. I haven’t quite found what I was looking for, whatever it is, but I am surely, a travel at a time, getting closer to it. Now, I can’t wait to be on the road again and plan my next trip. Itchy feet.

 

The End of the Road

 

There I stood, feet soaking in the confluence of 3 seas, at the land’s end of the country, at the tip of my indian journey.

Kanyakumari is a small simple village located at the South tip of India. It is situated at the junction of the Indian Ocean, Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea. They say that for most people travelling to the tip, is the end of a self-discovery journey, a feeling of accomplishment. 


We tramped the Sub Continent from the North border, down to the end. We travelled hundreds of kilometers through the Indian roads learning about people, their culture and their every day life. We got taught the colonial influences on the cities and its people. We’ve seen poverty, richness, and the difference between the castes. Weunderstood that for some there is hope, but for most, there is none. We’ve seen hundreds of homeless, orphans, beggars, disabled pan-handlers (I saw a leper man with nothing else than bones sticking out his stubs). We saw chaos, overcrowdedness, disorder and injustice. We’ve seen a world that needs to be saved.

But despite that dark cloud that floats over India, there is, somehow, the goods. Like the beautiful beaches lined by palm trees on each coasts. Like the amazing constructions of historic and contemporary temple architecture. Like the love for the diverse religions. Like all the delicious food cooked with fresh ingredients. Like the pride of the citizens for their national sport: cricket. Like all the timid smiles on each faces.

So here I am, at the tip of the country, facing the 3 seas. This is the end of a journey of reflection and understanding, of admiration and compassion. Thank you India for making this trip the most highlighted of all.

 

Now it is vacation time. Follow me on my next blog in Sri Lanka.

Under a Keralan Sun

 

It is peaceful, calm and relaxing. Cruising down the backwaters of Kerala is a soft treat deserved while travelling through India. Onboard a traditional houseboat designed like a rice barge, we step in the tender moments of serenity and quietness.
The backwaters of Kerala are a very popular attraction in India. With its 900km network of waterways that snake through the coast to the inland, the state adopted a very unique way to travel the canals with the use of houseboats. The trip consists of a cruise through the quiet canals with delicious authentic Keralan food cooked by the captain, and 1 or 2 nights aboard, sleeping on the water.With this burgeoning business, Kerala now counts 700 houseboats on its backwaters. Mostly visitors from the South of the country and Westerners are found partying on the 10 bedroom boats, or simply cruising for romance on a single bedroom. Our cruise is a 22 hour trip around Alleppey. We slowly cruise along lines of palm trees, rice fields and villages. We glimpse at a man shaving his beard, a lady washing a load of clothes, a woman finger brushing her teeth, kids splashing each other and a man washing his cow. Everybody shares the waters of the canals for personal hygiene, fun and care. The little houses and their villagers that used to be happily isolated, are now betrayed by our voyeurism. The clouds cover the skies and empty themselves of multiple little molecules of H2O. Heavy rain cleans the air and refresh the atmosphere. Drops are falling vigorously, like a thunderous anger. The sound of the falling rain fills my ears, the freshness of the air cleans my lungs and caresses my nostrils. There’s no where else I want to be…

After the houseboat, we jump on a local bus and make our way 4 hours down South. High cliffs surround the sea, the waves are strong and aggressive, and the sand is black. This is Black Sand Beach in Varkala, a quieter alternative to the Varkala’s main beach bustle. Hotels and restaurants mushroom here every year and make this destination an attractive option if you’re looking for good food, relaxation and breathtaking views. Restaurants line up along the cliffs and each of them offer a wide selection of fresh fish. Presented on a table at the front, the choice is there and in big quantity. And so cheap! Altough the wine is pretty pricy, the fresh cocktails are a good alternative and a mojito always pairs well with fish.

Keralan people are such a nice kind. Very friendly, smiley and welcoming. Born and raised in the most ”social advanced state in India”, most of them went to school and learned to speak English. Marriage is by choice and is proven with the love found in the air: couples cover themselves of tender kisses and soft words. Their generosity is as contagious as their head-wobble (they have that strange habit of moving their head like a bobble head. Yes, No, Maybe… Who knows what they really mean).Kerala’s communism’s hammer and sickle brought a more equitable distribution of land and income. A focus on infrastructure, health and education brings a promising future for this successful and beautiful state.

After a last seafood dinner watching the sun go down in Kerala, we prepare ourselves for an other departure. This time, we will be travelling down South to the tip of the lands end of the Indian subcontinent: Kanyakumari, where the 3 seas meet.

A Goan Retreat

Our 15 hour train ride from Mumbai to Goa was great, but then it was late. We arrived to our destination very late at night, tired and looking desperately for a place to sleep. I open my travel Bible (Lonely Planet) and spot a place on the beach for pretty cheap. A rickshaw gives us a ride and stops, pointing us at the sand: ”Walk, walk”. We paid him the 150RPS, put on our packs and start to walk. The darkness hides the surroundings and the waves secretly sing along our sides. After 5 minutes of sandy massages under our tired feet, we arrive to our cocohut in Benaulim Beach, Goa.

A peacefull sound of morning transitions from my dreams to awakening. The melody of the waves washing on the shore makes my eyes open to a new day. I open the door of my hut and admire the scenic view that is sitting in front of me. Finally, the beach and its sea! The mode vacation is here. A time for relaxation, beaching, swimming, tanning, snacking on some fresh food from the sea, sipping on tropical drinks, or simply, doing nothing. After travelling for a month riding local buses, running after trains, being jammed in big city traffic and holding on to our life while crossing streets, it is nice to finally be able to let go of any possible stress, and rest.

Goa nests on the West side of India, along the Arabian Sea. The sandy beaches, cocohut culture and laidbackness of its residents make this state a perfect destination for everyone. A mix of Hinduism, Islam, Christianity and Catholism are found here, along with a Portuguese colonial architecture that reflects a rich history. Purple, orange, green apple, yellow and bright blue are among the colours of many of the houses. Lines of palm trees hug the beaches and the waters of the sea are warm and inviting for a good swim. In the mornings, fishermen arrive on the beach with their humungous net full of small fish, crabs and sea snakes (yes, 4 foot sea snakes). The women fill their baskets with the creatures and carry them on their head to where they will be driedand then sold at the market. My eyes are amazed by this morning work and this team effort, both males and females putting force and energy in every detail.

An other way to work towards this relaxation time, is to get involved in some yoga. I booked a place in a yoga retreat and dedicated my mornings and afternoons to meditation, yoga and really good food. At Ashiyana Yoga, in Mandrem Beach, they offer you accommodation in a Mango Tree House, 2 yoga classes a day and buffet twice a day (which was some of the best vegeterian food I’ve ever tasted). A retreat consisting in draining bad energy, rejuvanating mind and body and purifying soul.

After these relaxing days at the retreat, we make our way back down to Benaulim where we enjoy some drinks with some canadian tourists to celebrate Halloween. Our customes evolve question marks on the other guests, being the only one dressed up for this occasion.





After a couple days of chilling and simply doing nothing, we decide to migrate South and explore an other area. So we make our way to Palolem Beach where we spend  a few days enjoying the tropical sun. One morning, we meet with a fisherman and his son in their 21 foot wood outrigger. We cruise along some islands and explore the surroundings. When suddendly, our captain spots a dolphin and starts signing of joy and excitement! ”Mary had a little lamb, little lamb, little lamb”! There it is, this beautiful aquatic creature gently caressing the surface of the water. And an other one! And more! And a dozens! They are everywhere! 50, maybe a 100! ”You lucky my friends, you so lucky”! This is amazing! With a beating heart and shaking hands, we leave the fear in the boat and let our excitement jump in the water. I am so damned scared, but it is a great feeling. These wilddolphins are not very curious about us, they are more preoccupied by their search for breakfast. But the sensation of swimming if the middle of a large pod, in the open Arabian Sea under the light of the sunrise… wow, a 5$ well spent indeed!

We spend our last days in Goa watching the kids getting ready for their annual festival. Diwali is a hindu event celebrating the festival of lights, but everyone is welcomed to participate. People exchange gifts, sweet treats and light candles and fireworks to guide Lord Rama home from exile. The houses are cleaned and believers are dressed well, waiting for Lord Leksha (Goddess of Wealth), to come visit their house and hopefully brings good luck (money). Our last night in our hut in Panolem is noisy and very explosive. We yawn to the next day and pack our bags to Kerala.