Summer Adventures 2011
I came to Sri Lanka with a desire to see and learn about the culture of the country and be able to shed my identity as just another tourist. Since Sri Lanka is a former British colony, rugby is pretty popular. I decided that the best way to do that would be to connect with local rugby players, to get to meet people with whom I’d have something in common. I just happened to get way more than I bargained for!
From the first morning in Sri Lanka, I started asking around. “Do you play rugby?”, “Do you know anyone who plays rugby?”, etc. On my first train ride to Kandy for the Perahera festival, I found out that there was apparently a mens game the following day, but my informant didn’t have many other details. I went on with my travels, keeping my goal of finding rugby in the forefront of my interactions. When I was looking for a hotel in town, I asked the man at one of the first I visited if he had any connection to rugby. He had a slightly confused look on his face, wondering why I might be interested, but after I shared that I actually was a rugby player and actually did coach in the US, then we started chatting. Not only did he help me figure out when the game was, but he actually took me to the game and got me VIP access to watch!
And from the pavillion, we watched the action (please ignore my screaming!):
And some more:
And an amazing try scored by Kandy:
It felt great to be back in the rugby world, having been sidelined since I broke my finger, then traveling, I had taken too many months off.
After the game, I met their South African coach and he invited me to a practice a few days later. I was excited for the opportunity to watch and learn, but after a phone conversation beforehand, I realized he was expecting a bit more than an observer… he invited me to guest-coach! I figured I’d just be running a short activity. However, when I showed up two days later, he asked what I was planning to do. “Excuse me?” I asked. I quickly realized, he was putting the entire practice in my hands. We discussed things a few minutes, then he left to sit on the bleachers and it was up to me. Their coach had simply told the men that they had a “surprise” that evening, not that I was coaching. Needless to say, when I came out in front of the crowd, they were rather confused.
After some good wrestling warm ups, contact drills, and even a brief introduction to American football, we made it through the 2 hours. The guys were hard-working and respectful, and made it a lot of fun.
After my coaching debut, I still came back and watched another practice and started training with the guys during the day to help me prepare for my upcoming season. My whole rugby experience from start to finish was a unique way to have a cultural exchange, and was the source of a few who became my Sri Lankan friends. I will definitely stay in touch with the team, and hope to have more opportunities to meet and work together in the future!
I’ve managed to find myself in a place where seeing elephants is no big deal. I’ve found myself in conversations with my new Sri Lankan friends where the topic of conversation is “that time he got kicked in the head by an elephant” or discussing what one must do when being charged by a wild elephant. It’s in moments like these that I really get a reality check that I’m in a foreign country.
There have been at least three occasions where I’ve turned a corner and an elephant has been there. Thankfully, these were all in or around a temple and obviously trained, so I wasn’t thinking of needing to evade stampeding elephant feet. However, I’d never been so up close to one before this trip.
In the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy, they house elephants there as it’s the base for the Perahera festival. The temple itself has a casket that contains a tooth from when Buddha was cremated, and is considered a big Buddhist relic. As I’ve come to understand it, elephants are holy to Buddhists, hence having them at one of the more important Buddhist pilgrimage sites.
When I visited the temple, people were paying 100 rupees (the equivalent of a dollar), to be blessed by the elephant.
I saw many a kid approach the elephant, and run away in tears, but most people just let themselves be led around before tapping their head on the elephant’s body. As for me, I watched from the sidelines.
After a while, the elephant was led away, and I followed thinking how silly it was to share the street with the ginormous creature.
As the Perahera parade was dwindling down, I also caught glimpses of elephants being led down the street in one lane, cars driving back on the other. (the elephants are in the left lane, wearing the red and gold cloth)
I even saw elephants being hauled in trucks.
My Sri Lankan friends definitely laugh at my excitement over elephants, but it’s not every day you see an elephant strutting down the streets of DC!
I arrived in Sri Lanka on August 12, and after a quick night in Colombo, I was on an early morning train destined for Kandy. I boarded the rickety, old train (which was awesome), and squished up against my fellow passengers. Since I was arriving for the last night of the parades, which is coincidentally the most popular, transportation was quite cozy. 4 hours of standing later, I arrived in Kandy.
I had heard of the Esala Perahera festival from my research on Sri Lanka, and I was curious to see what this 2-week Buddhist holiday had to offer. That night, I joined my friends I met on the train to squirm our way through the crowds to try to get a glimpse of the elephants, fire dancers and drummers. The streets were jammed with Sri Lankans and a few foreigners, but most people planned ahead and bought seats close to the road. But as I’m sure you can imagine, I did not plan ahead, so I got to join the mass of people craning their necks on their tippy toes, which was still a cultural experience. I got a glimpse of some of the action too.
The elephants were dressed with lights:
And the Temple of the Tooth, where the relic of Buddha’s tooth is houses, was lit up on the main lake in Kandy:
After a while, we lost steam and called it a night, but thankfully, the next day was the ending procession and I was able to get a much better glimpse of the action.
The most jaw-dropping was the dancers who were being pulled by ropes that were attached through metal hooks in their backs. I had never seen anything like it.
Here’s about a minute and a half of the parade, including these dancers:
I was grateful for the opportunity to see the festival. It was fascinating and elaborate, and an awesome glimpse into real Sri Lankan Buddhist culture.
For more information on the Esala Perahera festival, you can read about it on wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Esala_Perahera
After a few days of post-meditation decompression in Delhi, I was joined by Katelyn for my last chunk of time in India. We were jet-set for Leh, the capitol of Ladakh, a town that sits at a lofty 11,500 feet in the Himalayas. Our plane cruised in over beautiful landscapes with jagged mountains, and we landed on a small airstrip surrounded by sand dunes and soaring ridges. I was eager to see a new place, but Katelyn and I were both immediately sidelined by symptoms of altitude sickness. I was amazed how much my body needed to adjust to less oxygen, huffing and puffing after just a few stairs.
Needless to say, we took the local advice and rested, which allowed us to walk up the street without nausea or headaches. We eventually hiked up peaks near the town to a monastery and a palace, gathering new traveling companions in the process and enjoying the view!
I also took a day trip to the beautifully pristine Pangong Lake (katelyn was unfortunately ill), but since the lake is perched at around 15,000 ft, I almost passed out bending up and down to pick up and skip rocks!
On the days in between, we explored Leh and interacted with both other foreigners and locals alike. My last excursion was perhaps the most impressive. Katelyn and I joined forces with 2 other Americans (the only others I met in India) and a French woman, and we hired a jeep for a 3 day excursion to Nubra Valley. This trip was an adventure from start to finish. Not long after leaving Leh, we had to cross Khardom-la, a pass at around 18,000ft. It boasts being the highest motor-able pass in the world (if it’s not the highest, it’s one of them). I was immediately shocked with my surroundings: billowing prayer flags, crumbling brown boulders, immense, snow-covered mountain peaks, and of course, a relapse to altitude sickness symptoms.
As we crossed the pass, we admired the scenery en route to Turtuk village, a part of Baltistan in north India that was opened to tourists just last year. The road was rugged- just one single lane road with two lane traffic, chiseled into the mountain face, and occasional rickety bridges over the roaring Nubra River. As our tires crackled over the rocks of the edge of the guardrail-less cliff at times to yield to oncoming traffic, I had to work hard to stay calm. Thankfully, we had a fantastic driver who heeded our requests for attention and safety, so we were grateful.
There are few words that can adequately describe the natural beauty and immensity of the landscape there, so I will try to use visual media:
After a few hours of driving, we came upon our first village, our jeep being brought to a halt by a different type of road block:
A bunch of kids swarmed our car, rambling in Balti, attempting words in English, motioning for us to give them chocolate, and smiling into our cameras.
It immediately struck me how relatively new we were to those kids, their home only being open to tourists for a year, and a good chunk of that being winter and thus tourist free. We conveyed our names and shared many smiles and stuck around in the car for a little while, but then continued on our way.
After that, we made it to Turtuk Village, again in awe of the surroundings. Here’s the view outside the guest house:
It was also a time when I really liked having an iPhone. I was able to teach some of them how to take photos, use the video camera, and make videos of themselves. It was incredible to watch their interest and curiosity, and they were just so stinkin’ cute.
I was impressed by their level of English, but I was eager for a quick lesson in Balti. Kids sometimes are the best teachers. “Kilimipichin” means “What is your name?” and “Achoo-ya termaso” means “thank you very much”:
The second morning, we walked around among nearby rivers and streams with just beautiful scenery (one of my traveling friends is off in the distance):
I eventually ventured into another half of the Turtuk. It was immediately obvious that this half was not benefiting from the luxuries of tourism, but it felt very natural. I walked around and found more adorable kids:
It was on this walk that I met Sultan, an elderly Balti woman who was immediately endearing. My weak attempts at Balti were enough for her to give many a single toothed-grin and a hearty laugh. Despite the fact that we couldn’t speak, we had a wonderful interaction. I took this photo leaving the village, Sultan is the older woman in the back corner:
We heard word that we were within the first 1000 tourists to this village and some of the first few Americans. I couldn’t help but wonder what it must be like for them to have this immediate connection to a new culture through tourism. I hadn’t expected to go somewhere so remote but I’m glad we did because I feel lucky I got to see what I saw and do what I did. This adventure is one that I will come back to and cherish for a lifetime.
The Vipassana technique is a 2500 year-old, non-religious technique of self-purification through meditation. I knew absolutely nothing about it before going, but quickly found myself intrigued and curious. The goal is to eradicate misery in your own life by learning to observe sensations in the body.
A lot of Buddhist ideology focuses on getting rid of misery through the elimination of craving, aversion and hatred in one’s life. What’s unique about Vipassana is that it does so by fusing this philosophy with irrefutable scientific facts about the human body and the laws of nature. Modern scientists have since validated these facts, it just took a millennium or two.
Because it is more scientifically based, it has no affiliation or requirement for religious belief. It is simply a method of training the mind to not crave or hate, through the law of impermanence, which basically means that any sensation, pleasant or unpleasant, will always dissipate. During meditation sessions, one tunes him or herself to the sensations present in the body. It might be something like an itch or a pain, or something like a subtle buzzing or tingling. For those that are unpleasant, you train yourself not to react with hatred. For the pleasant, you train yourself not to react with craving. Because the sensations are impermanent, not reacting forces one to accept the reality of the present moment and none other.
As you train your mind more and more with the subtle sensations, you begin to subconscious continue this trend of “living in the moment”, and no longer have the habit of developing misery subconsciously through reactions of craving and hatred.
It took me a little while to wrap my mind around the concept, but after watching our lectures and spending time tossing the ideas around in my head, I came to understand and be intrigued by the practice. Even after 10 days, I am nowhere near full understanding of the technique, but if anything, I’ve found that it never hurts to take time away from the stress and pace of daily life and focus on living in the present moment.
After my initial application, I finally received confirmation that I was accepted to the meditation class here in Delhi! And now that I’m actually in India, I will be studying Vipassana meditation. According to the organization, is one of India’s most ancient techniques, first taught more than 2500 years ago.
This course lasts 10 days, during which we have a strict code to follow for all participants. There are a few different rules, but the one that stuck out the most is no talking! Yep, 10 days of inner reflection, meditation, and non-interaction. Apparently there are some designated times we can discuss something briefly with a teacher, but otherwise we are not to communicate with fellow participants. We also have to get up every morning at 4am, and each day will be spent meditating between 8-10 hours a day. Yikes!
I’ve tried to meditate before, but have either never committed enough effort or got frustrated trying. I definitely am intimidated and nervous for the 10 days ahead, but I know that if I do this course and really jump in, I have the best chance of learning how. I’ve always been fascinated about meditation from a cultural and historical standpoint, but I’ve also read more and more about the health benefits of meditation, and think it sounds like an incredibly healthy way to step out of the fast pace of real life and take time to breathe. Just google it and see how many articles and studies they’re doing! We’ll see how it goes, until then, wish me luck!
(By this time this is posted, I will already be in the course. It ends on July 31st, and I’ll check in after that)
On my layover from China to India, I got to have almost 6 hours in Kathmandu! One of my good friends from study abroad is working in the city, and I made it my personal mission to get out of the airport and find him, while getting a taste of a new city.
I quickly got a transit visa in the airport, got a taxi and was off. Just as we turned off the airport’s long driveway, and was immediately bombarded with all that was Kathmandu– chaotic, cacophonous, and awesome! The city was a buzz with people, vibrant colors splashed by in the form of beautiful saris, and traffic honked and swerved its way around. It was more antiquated than I anticipated, but I was instantly enamored and excited, and probably smiled the whole ride.
I was also overwhelmed by the general traffic flow. They drive on the left side of the road, but many of the side streets weren’t lined at all. What I began to realize is that most drivers, car and motorcycle, drove at each other head on, and maneuvered around each other when necessary. My stomach might have jumped a few times, but they know how to operate and navigate a vehicle!
I eventually made it to the hospital where my friend Geoff has an internship, and he treated me to some delicious Nepali food for lunch– a type of dumplings, a delicious veggie burger, and awesome spicy potatoes. I also got a chance to walk around the city a bit myself too, and just enjoy the buzz of everything around me. Unfortunately, my time was limited, and I had to say goodbye to Geoff quickly and jump in the cab.
Before I got back in the airport, I had one more mission to accomplish. I dear colleague of mine had requested that while in Kathmandu, I be sure to pay tribute to the famous Bob Seger song. I had this planned; however, due to technical difficulties and iPhone limitations, I had to compromise a bit. When you view the video below, please play the first 20 minutes of this video simultaneously: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wd3Mt8JBBBg
(sorry, but I refuse to sing out loud without background music!)
After my whirlwind adventure, I got on another plane bound for Delhi, and I got to fly over some beautiful Himalaya mountains along the way! Next stop, India!
Food is a great way to experience culture, but when you put yourself in the hands of others, you are often at the mercy of what they throw on top of your bowl of rice. On previous trips to China, I’ve eaten anything from cattle tendon to sea cucumber to pig brain, but this time I was hoping to spare my stomach and eat more selectively while still being culturally sensitive.
I have a lot of admiration for the use of food in my village, from their fresh produce and meat, to their natural no-waste policy. My first night in the village, my arrival was honored by killing a chicken for dinner. I was grateful for the gesture, but I venture to say that most people don’t see the chicken being carried away to be killed and then have it in your chopsticks just a short while later. There are no refrigerators, no grocery store packaging, just a chicken from the backyard that until being selected for dinner, had lived out its days frolicking around the village. There are no cramped cages, no inhumane slaughter, no chemicals, just chicken.
When the chicken was prepared, the whole chicken, and I mean the WHOLE chicken, was made into a soup. As the chicken’s comb crested the top of the broth like a shark fin, I silently hoped it would steer clear of my white rice. It’s also really easy to identify the chicken feet, a common snack that I’ve tried before, but again, once was enough for that cultural experience. At a later meal, they prepared a cow similarly. Everything from the meat, to the fat, to the tendons to the intestines were all prepared in various dishes. This is where my previous knowledge came in handy, as I knew early how to identify and avoid the intestines (they’re the ones in the small bowl in the middle with round circles).
I love meals in China because they are served family style. All dishes are prepared in the center of the table, and everyone sits around with their own bowl of rice and chopsticks and you eat bite by bite, selecting what you want from the middle and eating it with your rice. The mother of the table might honor you by picking things up with her chopsticks and putting them in your bowl, and that’s when you might end up with a chicken head (the piece reserved for the honored guest). That situation is how I once ended up eating Thousand Year Eggs, which are buried underground until the inside turns a translucent green. Again, once was enough with that dish.
It’s not that I’ve walked away from every food experience with a smile on my face, but there is value in trying something new for the cultural experience of it. It’s not that I would go out of my way to eat pig lung or cattle vertebrae cartilage again, but I’ve at least tried all these foods and was culturally respectful, while getting a chance to eat things most people won’t. Most of it is actually isn’t that bad– so long as you can get over thinking about what you’re eating or can let go of your own cultural biases.
I still came up with a few tips to keep your stomach intact if you lack a sense of culinary adventurousness. I generally follow these rules every meal of every day.
1) don’t eat when no one is watching: Your hosts want to feed you and will notice if your not actively eating, so make sure they see every time you take a bite so you get “credit” for it.
2) fill up on the dishes you like and comment on how good they are: chances are they’ll make those dishes again!
3) if you see a bowl of animal, try to spot a piece you could eat and pick it up when people are watching: this can avoid people thinking your not eating and putting a piece you don’t want on your rice
4) if you’re pretty sure you are going to have to eat something questionable, don’t ask what it is until after the meal (or maybe never): it’s always harder to eat something when you know what it is
5) if called out on not liking something, try “im not used to eating this type of dish” rather than saying it’s not delicious: people can be receptive to cultural differences, and this way you won’t offend anyone.
And if you’re still hungry, you can always go much on some fish skin
As my luck would have it, my six day visit coincided with one of the biggest holidays in Buddhism for the Dai people: The Door Closing Festival. The holiday marks the beginning of a 3-month period in which no one can get married or have other big events, and it also included some honoring of elders in the village.
I had never heard of the holiday before, but my host mom (Yina) and sister (Meimei) began preparing the offering that I learned we would later take to the temple. I woke at 6:30am on the morning of the holiday and accompanied my host sister to the temple with our offering. I was back at the house in an hour and immediately wrote what I had experienced that I’ll copy here:
“It’s 7:30am and I just got back from the temple for Guan men jie (door closing festival). Meimei woke me up an hour ago to go. I didn’t have express permission to use my camera, so I started to pay attention to details so I could recount it and also remember it. Sometimes I think it’s so crazy that I get to see these things, real examples of untainted culture.
When Meimei woke me up, we went to the temple, me carrying two glasses of hot water, and her carrying their offering table with a bowl of rice, a bowl of pork and pork fat, cucumbers, bananas, and some snacks from the store. We put the offering outside the temple then Yina brought me inside (all together there had to be more than 200 small tables with offerings). Yina gave me a ball of sticky rice in a banana leaf and she had me take off chunks of rice and stick them on other clumps of rice in little bowls around the temple– 3 in front of the Buddha, one on the side, and 5 outside. I also lit a prayer candle ouside and came back inside to light one in front of the Buddha.
I had been to the temple before but never for this holiday. There were tons of women and children sitting around talking with their offerings. I eventually, at Yina’s suggestion, went outside to sit with Meimei with some other women. It was hard to navigate through the people and offerings because it was so crowded. Men and women were divided outside, but all in a huge circle around the offerings. Some men went around lighting cigarettes and standing them up in the bunches of bananas, some others opened up the plastic wrapping on the snacks. We sat there for a while before a smaller circle of men within starting praying and people brought their hands together and chanted the prayers. We lit candles and put them in the sticky rice to stand them up, and raised up a little water to be poured on the floor around the offering tables. After some more prayer, I was told to start taking out the candles and then if almost on cue, people started getting up fast, putting out candles, and carrying their offerings into the side room of the temple. A monk perched himself on the side to take money offerings, and just like that, Meimei said it was time to go home. ”
I’m sure there’s more to the holiday then that, but that’s a bit of the time in the temple.