(Note: This blog article was first published on an online internal magazine of the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) where I work as an information officer.)
Let me first tell you how I came across yoga. It all began when a friend gave me a free pass to a week of yoga classes in Manila four years ago. I had always been curious about meditation and mindfulness ever since I started my journalism career. Being a journalist meant working on unpredictable days and constantly living at the receiving end of negative news. And so feeling my way towards some sense of balance was something I found essential. To my heart’s glee, I accepted my friend’s gift and headed to the yoga studio the next morning.
I started doing yoga with almost zero flexibility. I could not reach my toes nor hold the downward facing dog pose for longer than a minute. An hour and a half of yoga gave me a sore body for a week.
And yet, from that moment, I began to love it. It was calming and I felt refreshed and energized. I began to look forward to my next practice. The trial became a weekly pursuit. Two to three hours of my week would be spent in a yoga studio. And this interest in yoga grew to a committed daily habit. It had become a routine like a morning shower, something I felt uncomfortable to live without.
After deciding to quit journalism and take a long break last year, I found an opportunity to immerse in the yoga life in Mcleodganj, a hill station in Dharamshala in the Himalayan part of India, where the Tibetan spiritual leader Dalai Lama and his government-in-exile reside.
It was a month-long yoga teacher training course. Our days started with meditation and chanting at 5 in the morning, followed by six hours of lecture and practice. My classmates and I practically breathed yoga every day, following a strict vegetarian diet which included fruits and simple Indian dishes- chapatti, lentils, and curry with vegetables. There, we were guided through every pose and taught the physical and spiritual benefits that come with it. I learned more about yoga by practicing how to teach it.
I was surprised to find myself in tears by the end of our yoga training. It could be because of the realization that something so beautiful was about to end. And probably, it could also be because I felt truly happy within.
“What has yoga done to you?” A friend once asked in a get-together a few months after coming back from my travels. The question came so sudden that I was not able to provide an answer in full. And so, I am explaining it here.
Yoga and a healthy body
Yoga can be like any other forms of exercise. It is a physical activity that helps you sweat calories off. When done regularly, it can bring you to your ideal weight and help bring down blood pressure, boost the immune system, among other health benefits. But more so, since yoga brings your attention to your body, you begin to be mindful of the food you eat.
Every day, I practice a yoga sequence called Surya Namaskar (Sun Salutation). Apart from being a good fitness routine, it has become my way of expressing gratitude to the sun and bringing prana (energy) of the sun to my body. You would notice renewed vigor after practicing this. It is a sequence composed of 12 yoga poses, beginning and ending in a standing pose with palms together at the heart center.
Yoga and the mind
The practice of yoga is grounding. Every movement corresponds to one breath. It brings your awareness to your body right at the present moment. Often, I begin my practice with a series of breathing exercises to center my mind. And calm naturally follows. This comforting stillness allows me to listen to my body.
After a yoga practice, I can easily find the focus to do the important things and weed out distractions. I find my mind less cluttered with unnecessary thoughts. Most days are lived with joy and enthusiasm, wherever I am and whatever I do.
Yoga and spirituality
Many yoga practitioners are repulsed by the fact that yoga has become a billion-dollar industry. You’d have to deal with expensive yoga studio memberships, sexy yoga clothes, and celebrities doing fancy yoga poses on social media.
But essentially, yoga is an ancient practice that can be traced back to 10, 000 years ago in northern India. Yoga masters believe that our body is our channel to the divine and so yoga poses help keep our body, mind, and spirit aligned.
While “chakras” are not mentioned in most western yoga classes, they are at the core of every yogic practice. According to yoga texts, the body has seven chakras or energy centers that are responsible for the energy flow in the body. This might take a while to discuss in detail. But to put it in a nutshell, yoga poses are designed to unblock these chakras, allowing the smooth flow of energies. It explains why most people feel bursting with energy immediately after a yoga practice.
Yoga has changed the way I view life. While I am made aware of my posture and body alignment in my practice, the essence of yoga is the experience of expansion within. I get to be more connected to my inner self. When I feel grounded, balanced and still, I see life as it is – vibrant and ever-changing.
I picture a tree when I imagine a silent mind. Still and grounded. It is simply right there, inviting sunshine and rain, allowing itself to grow and bear fruits, letting its leaves to fall and wither, allowing flowers to blossom and seeds to be planted, giving others a shade, a place to rest.
When was the last time your mind was peaceful and quiet? No phone app to thumb through, no social media to peruse, no book to read, no pen and paper to put your thoughts in order, no human being next to you to talk to. It might sound like being in a 19th century prison camp.
But it was a 10-day meditation retreat called Vipassana which I attended right after I quit my job. My friends jested it seemed like being in jail for 10 days. But being trapped was the last thing that would ever happen to you there. My goal then was to set my mind free, away from the noise, pollution, distractions in and out of myself.
Yes, it was a challenge of sort, a new experience. I had been meaning to try Vipassana for years but I simply could not have the time. Once the time and opportunity came, I had to seize it.
There in Dasmarinas, Cavite, about 50 kilometers south of Manila, is Sico farm, the meditation place surrounded by full grown mango trees. There were two dozens of people who came before me. After briefing us of what to transpire in the next 10 days, the volunteers of Vipassana led us to our residence halls. Men and women were segregated. But we were gathered all together at meditation hall for the daily meditation sessions.
We had our first vegetarian meal that evening. We can still talk to each other as the Noble Silence will start after the first evening session. So everyone was chattering in a rush fully knowing that the next days will be completely silent.
What was silence in 10 days like?
I have been drawn into the practice of quieting the mind since the time I attended a trauma seminar for journalists organized by an organization teaching meditation called Brahma Kumaris 7 years ago. But sitting still for an hour with my eyes closed in an attempt to declutter my mind has always been difficult. My mind would stay still for 5 minutes but after that it will wander off to what I should be doing after an hour, to what happened yesterday, to what I want to have for dinner, etc, etc. Quieting the mind is easier said than done.
In Vipassana, our schedule was rigid. We started to hear the sound of the bell, our wakeup call at 4 a.m. Then, we started meditating at 4:30 a.m. You can choose to meditate in the meditation hall or in your bed. But it proved wise for me to choose the former because in some occasions I ended up happily snoring in my bed instead of focusing on my breaths.
There were hours when we were required to sit in the meditation hall for the group meditation. The group meditation was guided by the recorded voice of the Vipassana pioneer S.N. Goenka in the beginning and end.
In one day, we sat in silence for 11 hours. But during the rest and breaks, any form of communication, be it a gesture, eye contact, or notes, is not allowed.
I broke the rule when I accidentally used the mug of my seatmate in the table (with her name plastered on it rightfully calling for attention) out of, well, ironically, unmindfulness. I giggled unable to control myself and showed her my blunder. She didn’t laugh. (But she laughed so hard while we were talking about it after the Noble Silence was lifted and the retreat was over.)
During the breaks, I can’t help but talk to myself in my head. I had so many stories in my mind while I lay under a mango tree. To be honest, it fascinated me that I wasn’t bored at all. And, I wasn’t scared of possibly going insane. But in those breaks, I allowed my mind to wander because sitting cross-legged with your eyes closed and your mind focused for hours could be hard work.
The first three days were difficult. I simply could not focus. But after some time, meditation for hours became easy and refreshing.
Vipassana, which means seeing things as they really are, teaches one of India’s ancient meditation techniques said to be rediscovered by Siddharta Gautama. While anchored on Buddhism, Vipassana has a non-sectarian approach so people from different religions may try practicing it. Vipassana trains the mind to be equanimous. Such a big word.
Equanimity is the “evenness of the mind,” the capacity for mental composure despite adversities. I have loved this word the first time I heard it. It was like a balm to my agitated mind.
After days of watching my breaths, the sensations in my body from my head to my feet, “their rising and passing away,” it dawned on me, why meditation can bring me equanimity and why monks are among the happiest people on earth.
Vipassana certainly taught me what it means to be alive.
Did I become a new person after the retreat?
My friends asked me this over dinner after the retreat. “Of course not. How can 10 days change me in an instant?” My friends thought they will see a new me, someone totally zen.
But what happened was I gained an ancient knowledge and practice which I strive to continue to incorporate into my daily life.
After 10 days of Vipassana, I felt victorious. It was the same feeling I had after my trek in Mt. Apo. But the real challenge is putting it into daily practice.
Note: Vipassana courses are run on a voluntary donation basis. Those running it accept donation only from old students. There is no charge for the teaching, the food or the board and lodging. But students who benefited from the experience may donate, according to his or her volition and means.
I got news that Vipassana Philippines no longer holds its courses at Sico Farm in Dasmarinas, Cavite as it is preparing for its transfer to a 3-hectare property in Tiaong, Quezon. For more, information about Vipassana, you may visit their website at http://www.phala.dhamma.org.
Lumbini was in my list of must-see places in Nepal. I visited it out of curiosity of what Buddha’s birthplace was like. While I am not a religious person, Buddhism, among all the religions in the world, resonates with me the most. And, Lumbini is one of the top holy sites among the Buddhists. It is their Mecca.
Taking two to three days from my 45-day stay in Nepal and coming to Lumbini, thus, seemed like an obligation.
But Lumbini, which is located in the Terai plains of southern Nepal close to the Indian border, turned out to be underwhelming, not to mention the long and dusty bus ride from Kathmandu and the subtle harassment I got from the tour guide I hired for one day.
My experiences in Lumbini were punctuated by ironies and ugliness. At first I thought writing about it would be all-zen. A magazine editor had even asked me to write about it before my supposed trip. But it would be too hypocrite of me not to tell exactly what happened and what was on my mind while I was there.
I left Kathmandu for Lumbini a day after a three-day international conference on investigative journalism which I attended because it happened to be held just where I was in that month. I was still recovering from cough and colds so I was not in my top shape. I arrived at the bus station in Kathmandu 5 minutes after the AC bus en route to Lumbini had left. I had no choice but to take the non-AC bus to Bhairawa. In Bhairawa, I had to find another bus going to Lumbini. All in all, the travel took 11 hours because these ordinary buses stopped frequently to pick up passengers.
While in discomfort and sweating inside a full bus that was like a sardine can, I consoled myself: “Everything will be better in Lumbini.” To get through the day, I tried to think of impermanence, a Buddhist thought. Everything, without exception, is “transient, evanescent, inconstant.”
I arrived in Lumbini at half past 6 in the evening. On the bus, I was half-worried that it might be too dark to find a guesthouse to stay for the night. I didn’t book my accommodation beforehand because I thought it might be less costly to simply scout for a cheaper room, which turned out to be a right decision. I found a room for 5 US dollars.
But still it was a risk to come in the night. (Tip: Make sure to get the AC bus at the Kathmandu bus station at 7 a.m. because the travel would surely take six to seven hours. You will arrive in Lumbini by 2 or 3 in the afternoon.)
The caretaker of the first guesthouse which I had checked asked me how much I was willing to pay for a private room and quickly I replied: “500 rupees.” He initially said 700 rupees but he eventually agreed to my price. The room was clean and had basic amenities- shower, fan, and a queen-size bed, all that I needed.
Lumbini has been identified as the birthplace of the Buddha way back in 248 BCE. A pillar of the Indian Emperor Ashoka, who visited Lumbini in 248 BCE, stands erect there with an inscription commemorating the birth of Siddhartha Gautama, whom the world knows as the Buddha, or the enlightened one. The exact place where Buddha was born has always been a subject of debate. Some claim he was born in India. But Buddhists for more than 2, 000 years believe that the enlightened one was born in Lumbini, a town located in the present-day Nepal.
When I came to Lumbini, I was disheartened to see poverty everywhere. I saw several children with gaunt eyes, tiny bodies and bloated bellies. While I was eating outside a restaurant, one child carrying a tiny baby, probably 1 to 2 months old, was begging for alms. “Should I give her money?” a Caucasian woman sought our help in her decision whether to give or not. A Japanese tourist replied: “It’s up to you.”
After an hour another girl came with the same baby asking the other tourists for money.
My misadventure started when I met an unusually friendly owner of a restaurant near the guesthouse where I was staying. When he found out that I was Filipino, his face brightened up and in an instant he became chatty. He even Skyped his former Filipino officemates in Dubai so they could talk to me. So he somehow earned my trust. He offered me a tour guide to go around with me the next day. I asked how much and he said I shouldn’t bother and it would be up to me. (Note: This was a mistake. Hiring a guide turned out to be more costly than just hiring cycle rickshaws and figuring out where to go on your own. )
I met the tour guide the next day. He was supposed to drive me around with his motorbike. But an hour after visiting the gleaming white Peace Pagoda, his motorbike began to malfunction. It wouldn’t start. We had to take a rickshaw and then bus from where we were.
It was totally fine with me. I know shit happens on the road. But what pissed me off big time was this tour guide’s subtle sexual advances. There were several times he put his arm around my shoulder despite my disapproval. I told him, still politely, that, it is inappropriate to touch a woman. “But we are friends,” the guide reasoned out.
His advances, no matter how subtle, made me uncomfortable throughout the day. Worst, after I paid him 1, 500 NR (15 USD) , he stroked my back in a sensual way.
I stood up and shouted “I told you not to touch me!” I walked away. But I felt I didn’t do enough to punish him for his acts. It was clearly a harassment. While in my room, I was boiling over. I should have expressed utter disgust, curses and all, to prove a point. I shouldn’t have allowed it to pass.
But I actually allowed it to pass. I felt I had to leave Lumbini as soon as possible.
(My advice to solo female travelers: team up with fellow travelers if you are in South Asia. And for your safety, look for a female tour guide instead. You can also go around around Lumbini on your own. And if anything like this happens to you too, tell the guy to F*ck off!)
My misadventures actually didn’t end with that. Perhaps due to the rough day, I found it difficult to sleep on my last night in Lumbini. I did manage to sleep eventually, so soundly that I missed my 7 a.m. bus to Pokhara. I had to take a non-AC ordinary bus, which again crawled on the road to pick up as many passengers as possible.
So if you’d ask me if I got my zen while I was in Buddha’s hometown? My answer is definitely not.
I went back to Pokhara where the approaching winter cooled the air. And the sight of the Annapurna Himalaya cheered me up again. I went back to my yoga mat the next day. And, all things had gone well.
In a way, Lumbini gave me a taste of ironies and some lessons learned.
I am inclined to write more on Instagram than on this website mainly because it is easier to write short prose than lengthy ones. That is obvious. There are also days when my short attention span only allows me to write a few sentences.
And so Instagram has been the best receptacle for my snapshots and short notes in 2016. A friend actually suggested I compile the best of my 2016 Instagram photos. “Brilliant! So easy to copy-paste,” I jested. I am lazy like that.
Here’s what my 2016 is like.
1. Manila, Philippines– Japanese Emperor Akihito and wife Empress Michiko were in Manila for a five-day state visit. The Philippines had strictly followed the protocols laid down by the Japanese government. After all, it was the Emperor who was on the Philippine soil, the most revered figure in Japan. During the reception hosted by the Japanese embassy in Manila, the Filipino VIPs among them were a previous president, current officials and high-profile business leaders were told to turn off their mobiles phones, not to extend their hands to the Japanese royalties, and don’t talk too much. We, on the other hand, the low-born members of the media were cordoned off in one corner. (January 26, 2016)
2. Hawaii and California, USA– In February, together with 14 other journalists from Asean nations, I came to the United States for the first time for a two-week study tour. Among the highlights of the tour were the meeting of US President Barack Obama with 10 Asean leaders in California and our interviews with military officials at Pacific Command Headquarters in Hawaii.
We were rushing to catch our flight from Palm Springs to San Francisco, California right after the Asean summit, when I bumped into the then Philippines’ Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert Del Rosario. Instead of giving me further details about the meeting of Obama with the Asean leaders, Del Rosario, just like a grandpa, offered to give me a treat. “Can I buy you an ice cream?” Do I really look like a kid? Haha. (February 17, 2016)
3. Tikling Island, Matnog, Sorsogon– The story of the lost and found phone. I was enchanted. Its clear turquoise blue water was so radiant that I rushed to jump into it. I dropped and lost my phone in my excitement. This photo was taken by our dear friend Peewee after returning to the island to search for my missing phone. After scanning the area and asking the people, we gave up and thought it was gone. We couldn’t do anything but simply to enjoy the beach. But No! Three days later, a woman who works as a treasurer in a village in Matnog called my friend Jaymee saying she found my phone. (March 29, 2016)
4. After following Rodrigo Duterte on the campaign trail for more than three months, it took a while to sink in that he is the new President of the Philippines. The 2016 elections was the most divisive elections in recent years. After I’ve posted a status that the Filipinos should give him a chance but with a healthy mix of optimism and skepticism, I got an angry public comment from a senior reporter, lecturing me and questioning me what have I done. Oh well, I did my best. (May 11, 2016)
5. Dharamsala, India– It was a beautiful experience to sit beside Tibetan monks throughout their Friday afternoon chanting inside the Dalai Lama Temple. An elderly nun asked us to sit beside her. She offered us a cup for the milk tea being given freely to all. A Tibetan man afterward gave us bread. We felt home. (July 15, 2016)
6. It was overwhelming to see the Dalai Lama in person and up close. This photo was taken while he was delivering his public teaching in Leh-Ladakh in India. (August 14, 2016)
7. Ladakh, India– Surreal. This is how I describe this photo I took during our seven-day trek in Markha Valley in the Himalayas. (August 20, 2016)
8. Pokhara, Nepal- I woke up earlier than usual to catch the sunrise in Sarangkot in Pokhara, from where I can see the full glory of the Annapurna Himalaya. But the snowcapped mountain peaks were hiding behind thick gray clouds. I was still happy to get this view. (September 20, 2016)
9. Pokhara, Nepal–If you prefer not to trek in the Himalayas in Nepal because you are too lazy like me, why not fly? I made sure to do paragliding before leaving Nepal. The experience was exhilirating (October 9, 2016)
10. Vang Vieng, Laos–I felt like Tarzan doing the rope swing in the famous Blue Lagoon of Vang Vieng in Laos. After cycling 7 kilometers to reach the lagoon and then rope swinging for three times, I explored the cave nearby leaving me totally exhausted. (November 5, 2016)
11. Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi–It has been exactly five months since I left Manila. I am back in Hanoi taking traveling slow. And I am loving the cool weather, the hostel where I am staying and the people around me. (November 13, 2016)
12. Hanoi, Vietnam — Funny things can really happen on the road. My friend Nina and I were on a bike to visit some Buddhist temples on the outskirts of Hanoi last Sunday when an angry Vietnamese on a motorbike called our attention at an intersection. He was shouting at the top of his lungs words we could not understand. We thought he was some crazy guy about to harass or even attack us. So Nina drove at a full speed to avoid him. (I was a backrider to Nina) But we realized our mistake a couple of minutes later when we noticed that we were the only ones riding a two-wheeler on the road, which was completely odd if you have seen how bikes dominate Hanoi traffic. So it was obvious. We shouldn’t be on the highway. We pulled over, completely at a loss how we should go back. Then a group of Vietnamese on the parallel street motioned us to go there instead. But how? There was a metal barrier separating the two roads. Voila! They helped us lift the bike over the fence. Wow, how kind of them to help us, I thought. But my gratitude dissipated in an instant when the locals started asking for money. One man showed us a 100, 000 dong bill. We said: “No, we don’t have money to give.” We thanked them and rode the bike in the opposite direction, too afraid of what they would do. We continued our journey laughing the incident off. Come to think of it, we had actually thought the angry bike rider was a bad guy and the locals who helped us were good Samaritans when it could be the other way around. (December 10, 2016)
It was not a confluence of unexpected events that made me miss my flight home. It’s nothing that dramatic. But on December 16, I decided not to take the flight back to Manila and end my supposed six-month sabbatical-style break. I booked a Cebu Pacific flight way back in October in anticipation of the skyrocketing airfare during the holidays.
Well, I chose to settle for a while in Vietnam and continue wandering in the next few months or probably years. I have no concrete plan to be honest. But at the very least, I have some vague idea of where I want to be in 2017. But if you have been on the road for quite a while, you know things can change anytime and you have to be open to all possibilities.
Looking back, 2016 was magical for me. I couldn’t believe I was able to take the plunge and leave everything behind to take things slow, breathe, explore, and know more about myself and the world we live in.
My journalism career was blossoming then. My office had been entrusting me with important coverages, one was the assignment to follow Rodrigo Duterte on the presidential campaign trail. Prior to that, I was picked by the US Embassy in Manila to cover the first ever meeting of US President Barack Obama with 10 Asean leaders in California. It was definitely a feat, but even then something was amiss.
Deep within me, I was constantly restless. My friends knew how much I wanted to travel and explore the world. And so after the results of the presidential elections were out, I was unstoppable. Despite opposition from my bosses, I tendered my resignation and flew to India.
For the life of me, I couldn’t imagine how I did it. I didn’t have much money. I left with 2, 500 US dollars and almost half of it went to to the yoga school in Dharamsala where I stayed for a month. But it was exactly the right time to do what I wanted. I have a supportive and loving family. And at that point in time, I had nothing to lose.
“The worst thing that can happen to me was to end up broke,” I told my best friend. “I can always go back home.” It was I who needed much convincing then that all would be well.
Life on the road is never as easy as it seems. It isn’t all about scenic beautiful mountains, beaches, good food, coffee and beer, hostels and meeting fun and adventurous travelers. There were days anxiety kept me awake until 3 in the morning. I felt I was just drifting aimlessly and wasting precious days and months. There were times I wanted to go home.
But I had to be reminded of my reasons why I left in the first place and the things I have accomplished so far. The previous months had toughened me physically (because of yoga) and spiritually. My heart and mind have never been this open and clear. My travels, especially India, had changed me.
The change was pretty obvious, especially in my yoga practice. Compared to six months ago, my forward bend was deeper. My flexibility and core strength had improved astonishingly.
On the last day of 2016, I was smiling while doing the sun salutations and positive thoughts had begun to come in. I was happy and I was myself.
So for now, I will be in Vietnam. Hanoi has that unique Asian beauty, traditional but modern. There is chaos and order. While I get annoyed seeing sidewalks blocked by parked motorbikes and I feel like a scared kitten crossing the streets, I am happy to see that motorbikes are the kings of the road here. Whether you like it or not, riding a motorbike, either with your own or with GrabBike, is the cheapest and most convenient mode of transport in Vietnam. And so I am liking the city.
But after having found a furnished room in a neighborhood close to the scenic West Lake for a price not too far from the average monthly rental rate in Manila, I have to move again to take a teaching job in the province called Thai Binh. I have no idea what the province will be like. But you may call it an adventure and a learning experience. Wish me luck!
Happy New Year, everyone! May 2017 be full of love, magic and adventures and of wishes granted and dreams coming true.
It was long past lunch time when I arrived at the Hanoi International Airport. I had endured a 30-hour journey which included a dusty bus ride from Pokhara to Kathmandu in Nepal, a long wait at the Kathmandu airport, layover at the Kuala Lumpur Airport and a rather smooth flight to Hanoi. I felt a sudden pang of melancholy leaving South Asia behind.
So it was a relief to see two smiling Vietnamese girls standing at the exit gate of the airport and holding a card bearing my name. They were from a language center where I was supposed to volunteer as an English teacher and they came to pick me up.
“I’m sorry. My flight was delayed by an hour. I thought you’d leave,” I said. “Oh no, it’s alright. We thought you’d be late so we waited for you,” one of them said.
I was on my fourth month of long-term solo backpacking journey when I decided to go to Vietnam. Even before I set off on this journey which began in India, I knew Vietnam has one of the most lucrative job markets for teaching English abroad. I was already broke after four months of being on the road, so volunteering was the best option for me.
I was combing Workaway.info, a website where you can find volunteering gigs all over the world, when I found Cool English, a language center helping underprivileged students in Hanoi to learn English. I guess they charge a minimal fee.
There were dozens of English centers looking for volunteers but Cool English replied to my query within the day. And it was perfect. I would volunteer for the center for four to five hours from Monday to Friday in two weeks, and still I would have the time to do some writing. In exchange, the center will provide my accommodation, meals and tours around the city.
Nguyen Yen, the one running the center, asked me to teach on the day I arrived because their volunteer teacher left all of a sudden due to an emergency. “Sure!” was the only response I could give her. I thought I’d be a zombie teacher in front of the class. But surprisingly, I felt energized, probably by the enthusiasm of the students. There were a dozen of them and I could see from their eyes their eagerness to learn.
It was a good start of a two-week volunteering work, which had been nothing but rewarding and fun. In all honesty, it was me who was there as a learner. Helping them learn English had enriched my travel experience. Plus, I gained more friends in a country where I am a foreigner.
My students showed me around the city during the weekends. We had food trips, conversations over coffee and milk tea in Old Quarter. One of my students Pham Hoang drove me around the city on a motorbike one morning so I could visit Ho Chi Minh museum and the 946-year-old Temple of Literature, which hosts Vietnam’s first national university. One of my students Sieu Luoi who was staying with me in an apartment taught me how to cook some Vietnamese (and Korean) dishes.
Volunteering if done right is an excellent way to immerse oneself in another country’s culture. And to me, it was totally worth it.
PS. My volunteering experience was featured in Vietnamese newspaper Tuoi Tre in time for the celebration of the Vietnamese Teachers’ Day. Here is the link to the story.
My travel to India got a lot of people curious: How did I manage to stay in India for a long period. And, one had even asked me on Facebook: “Why India?”
Well, India appears daunting at first, especially for solo female travelers. The news about the medical student gang-raped on a bus in New Delhi has never left our memories. It shocked the world once upon a time and every time we hear a woman raped in India, we distance ourselves from this country.
When I set off for a backpacking trip in India, I carried a let-us-see attitude and an open mind so I can see how incredible India is, its beauty, warts and all.
After staying in its northern part for 79 days and having visited towns and cities like Dharamsala, Manali, Leh-Ladakh, Agra, and New Delhi, India would always be the top country I’d recommend to those who want a dose of adventures and new experiences.
Here is my own list of reasons why it is indeed heaven for budget travelers and adventurers out there.
1. The Philippine peso is stronger vs the Indian rupee.
Travelers get more value from their currencies here, including the Philippine peso. With the 1.4 PHP/INR exchange rate, you get 140 Indian rupees for your P100. I intended to stay in India for just a month solely for the 200-hour Yoga Teacher Training Course in Mcleod Ganj in Dharamsala. I planned on staying for another week after the yoga course. But in the end, I was able to stretch my budget and extend my stay for a month and three weeks more.
2. Everything is cheap-from the accommodation, food, bus tickets to clothing, trinkets, and even a visit to a beauty parlor.
A visit to the salon in India will cost you less than a hundred peso. To my surprise, in one corner at the Main Square of Mcleod Ganj, an eyebrow threading costs 20 Indian rupees (PHP14) and the underarm waxing 50 rupees (PHP35). The services were ridiculously cheap that I was scared of what the salon staff would do to me. But they turned out just fine. And still afterward, I marveled at how cheap they were. And I had to repeat before I leave the parlor “Seventy rupees, right?”
Others were incredibly cheap too, considering that Mcleod Ganj is a touristy area, mainly because of the scenic Himalayan ranges and the fact that the Dalai Lama resides there. It was the same case in other places like Manali and Leh-Ladakh (although prices in Ladakh were slightly higher ). A complete meal (chapati, mix vegetable, curd, dhal and rice) which you can share because it could be too much for one person will cost you 150 rupees (PHP106). There will be places where it could be 50 to 100 rupees.
Often I’d wish to buy fruits. Guess how much half a kilogram of mangoes in Mcleod Ganj is? 20 rupees. What a bargain!
Sometimes, I would splurge and feast on a sumptuous vegetable sushi, dessert and a cup of cappuccino and still the bill will range between 300 and 400 rupees.
The room where I stayed for 10 more days after the yoga course was 300 rupees (PHP213) a night. It is a room good for two people and with an attached bathroom.
While most public buses in India are rickety and old, you will still be amazed by how affordable their public transportation is. A 45-kilometer bumpy bus ride from Kangra to the Masroor Temple, which Indians claim to be the Pyramid of the Himalayas, costs 50 rupees per person. (I avoided taxis in my stay in India because drivers generally charge more). A tuktuk (rickshaw) is a cheaper option. They charge 30 to 70 rupees a ride.
3. Choose a mountain and you will have story to tell.
You can find so many amazing treks in India. I did at least three short treks in Himachal Pradesh and a 7-day trekking in the Markha Valley in Ladakh. The last one made it to the front page of the Philippine Daily Inquirer!
India boasts of having the huge part of the mystical and glorious Himalayan ranges, from the lush mountains rich of green deodars, high-altitude deserts in the Ladakh region to snowcapped mountain ranges. All look stunning and ethereal.
From where I stayed- whether in Mcleod Ganj, Manali or Leh, I was always treated to scenic views of the vast mountain ranges, forever tempting me to go on more treks.
4. Every place is different. Every town and village in India has a unique trait.
If you are a culture buff, you will enjoy India for its diverse cultures. While Hinduism is a predominant religion, you will revel in the healthy fusion of religions in India. Turban-wearing Sikhs, maroon-clad Buddhist monks, and Hindus’ holy people Sadhus could be a common sight in a usual five-minute walk on the street.
When I went to Leh, a high-desert city in Ladakh, a region in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, I felt I was in another country. The sceneries are out of this world, the culture, the language are so much different from other Indian states. And when I moved to Manali, a hilltop resort town in Himachal Prachesh, the weather and the sceneries likewise changed.
5. It is the best place to try to learn new things like yoga, reiki, ayurveda and meditation.
You can have the best yoga holiday in your life in India, where yoga began 5, 000 years ago. After the 28 days of yoga practice in McLeod Ganj, I learned more about myself more than the basic asana poses. (Read related story)I extended my stay in Mcleod Ganj after my classmates and I chanced upon this Ashtanga teacher Vjay. For the next 10 days, my French yoga classmate and I found ourselves Vjay’s morning classes. His classes could be literally back-breaking so just be gentle on yourself.
In suburbs of Dharamsala like Mcleod Ganj, Dharamkot, and Bhagsu, you can see a great deal of posters advertising courses practically about anything- Ayurveda massage, reiki (healing through energy), cooking lessons, and meditation. Choose whatever you feel will make you grow. More than the parties and selfies, I have chosen to devote a huge part of my travels to learning and gaining new experiences.
6. Traveling in India can recharge your spiritual batteries. One yoga classmate of mine voiced out what she noticed about Mcleod Ganj. “I can feel the spiritual vibe. There is so much positive energy,” she said. And I totally agreed with her. It could be because of the rich Buddhism culture that is present in Mcleod Ganj. It could be the mystical Himalayas, which many cultures have regarded as the “home of the Gods.” “Even the dogs are totally zen,” another yoga classmate jested. But I thought perhaps the dogs were always just sleepy during the day.
In India, I had a beautiful experience of seeing the Dalai Lama. It was a dream that has come true. Pardon me, but I couldn’t help to say: “I feel so blessed.” Read my previous blogpost.
7. You will have a gastronomic adventure in India.
If food makes you happy and it can make or break your travels, then India is for you. Its cuisine offers a wide variety of local and regional dishes. Eating Indian food is like having an explosion of tastes in the mouth. I am at a loss for words how to describe a tasty dish which is sour, spicy, sweet and salty, all at the same time. If you are vegetarian or vegan, then India is heaven for you. I did try to be one in my first two months in India. My favorite is Masala Paneer with butter nan, so flavorful! But often, I go for Thali, a combination of chapati, curd, mixed vegetables in curry sauce, lentil soup, and rice, which to me is a healthier option.
But for days when I wanted something different, I would get, vegetarian sushi, burger, pizza, pasta, humus and falafel and a lot more.
One caveat though in your food adventures in India is food safety. I have met a lot of westerners who got sick during their trip in India which has one of the poorest food safety records in the world. I got sick for one whole day after I ate two samosas in a food stall at a bus station in Kullu in Himachal Pradesh. Be sure to buy a bottle of mineral water instead of the tap water in restaurants.
8. You will enjoy India’s distinct culture, Bollywood in other words.
From the music, dances, movies, and TV shows, Bollywood is its own kind. I am surprised that India has preserved its culture despite the allure of globalization. A Bollywood movie would have 7 to 8 original songs and dances. So before I left India, I found myself humming popular romantic songs which have been repeatedly played in shops, restaurants and public buses.
9. India is photogenic from a lot of angles- Mountains, structures, people, clothing, festivities.
Before I left my country, I made a commitment to take a lot of good photos. And I found myself in the best place. The splash of colors everywhere is beautiful in photographs. It was such a good place to practice.
10. It is a paradise for history lovers.
Traveling in India is like traveling through its rich history. Well, India’s northwestern part was the heartland of the oldest civilization in the world that flourished along the Indus River. I got a taste of history in my trips to Taj Mahal in Agra, India gate, the ancient Qutb Minar, Masroor Temple which is touted as the Pyramid of the Himalayas in Kangra, and the 17th century Leh Palace overlooking the high-desert capital of Ladakh.
I didn’t have the opportunity to visit the other parts of India, but I am sure for travelers, most places in India will never fail to amaze.
The places I have visited in India like Mcleod Ganj, Manali and Ladakh are not as dangerous as it seemed for solo female travelers. But I myself took seriously the warnings I got before leaving for India. Don’t walk the streets at night, especially in big cities. So after sundown, I stayed in the guesthouses most of the time. Mcleod Ganj is an exception though. You can find its streets still filled with tourists even past 9 p.m.
But as in other places, the rule of thumb in traveling is to have fun and stay safe!
(On the visa: I obtained my visa valid for three months from the Indian embassy in Manila. A three-month tourist visa costs PHP2210. But if you intend to stay for less than a month, you may apply for a visa on arrival at any airport of entry in India.)