Lumbini, Buddha’s birthplace, its ironies and my misadventures

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.

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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Maya Devi Temple, the main highlight of my tour. It is believed to be the place where Buddha was born. Siddharta, born a prince, is said to have been born beneath a sal tree. The temple was named after Siddharta’s queen mother Maya Devi.

 

Broke backpacker’s volunteer experience in Vietnam

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.

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The students of Cool English with my Vietnamese co-teacher
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Hanging out in Hanoi Old Quarter

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.

10 reasons India is a paradise for budget travelers

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.

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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.

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Trekking across the wide expanse of barren landscapes and deserts in the Markha Valley of the Himalayas in Ladakh was indeed a profound experience.

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.

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The view from Dharamkot, a hippie village just above Mcleod Ganj in Dharamshala

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.

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At the top of Leh Palace, a former royal palace overlooking the Ladakhi city of Leh.
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On one of the busy streets in Pahar Ganj in New Delhi

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. 

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These Tibetan prayer flags looking old and faded adorn the Leh Palace, a 17th century royal palace overlooking the high-desert city in the Himalayas.

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.

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A Rajastani singer performs outside the Hadimba temple in Manali

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The streets in Changspa, a tourist district in Leh, has its own charm.

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.

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Taj Mahal: Nothing can beat this architectural masterpiece
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Masroor Rock Cut Temple in Kangra is a Shiva temple complex touted as the Pyramid of the Himalayas.

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.)

 

A month of yoga in Mcleod Ganj, also known as Little Tibet

On the day I arrived in Mcleod Ganj in Dharamsala in India in June, I instantly felt home. It has a hodgepodge of everything I wanted- the scenic mountain ranges, the fusion of the cultures of Tibet and India, Buddhism, Hinduism, yoga, and a wide variety of vegetarian food.

I found myself giddily stalking maroon-clad Buddhist monks at Mcleod Ganj’s Main Square with my SLR camera on one hand on my first day. They are everywhere. You can see some sitting in coffee shops tinkering with their phones, some buying goods from the stalls along the main street, others you can see chatting with the locals.

“Tashi delek,” I greeted a monk walking on the street to practice the first Tibetan words I had learned. Looking surprised, the monk smiled at me and returned the greeting.

“This is not India,” an Indian tourist from New Delhi told me and my yoga classmate over coffee.

My picture of India before I left Manila was far different from the image of Mcleod Ganj. I was bombarded with warnings from friends and relatives about India before I took the flight from Manila to New Delhi. “Be careful. Don’t walk alone in the night. It’s dirty and polluted, worse than Manila.” These warnings could be the reason I decided to sleep away my time at the Indira Gandhi International Airport just to avoid New Delhi in my first month in this country.

But India means a lot of things to be judged in two to three sentences. You can find the best and worst things in this huge country with an exploding population that is the world’s second biggest.

 

Mcleod Ganj, a hilltop suburb in Dharamsala in the Himachal Pradesh state of India, draws  tourists from all over the world, either because of the stunning views of the mountains or because of the Dalai Lama who has been residing there with the Tibetan government in exile since his daring escape in the 1959, or both. It is called Little Tibet because of the large population of Tibetan refugees living there. In fact, there seems to be more Tibetans than Indians here.

 

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The lush greenery along the trail to Triund Hill in Dharamsala
From my room at a guesthouse, about 10-minute walk from the Main Square, was a striking view of the lush Himalayan ranges with the snow-capped Dhauladhar mountains peeking through the clouds. Every day, I will see this, I told myself before the start of the month-long yoga course.

 

It was a good decision to practice yoga in this place. Back in April, I was scouting for 200-hour Yoga Teaching Courses in India, Nepal and Thailand. Why did I choose India? The answer was obvious. Where else do you want to learn yoga but in its birthplace.

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The view from the guest house where I stayed in Mcleod Ganj
I chose the teaching course instead of a month-long retreat because I thought then teaching was the best way to learn.

I found online Chandra Yoga International , a yoga school accredited by Yoga Alliance, which offers 200-hour Yoga TTC in Dharamsala on dates ideal to me.

Starting with an hour session of controlled breathing and meditation at 6:00 a.m., our usual day was packed with two to four hours of asana (postures). We took one day of rest a week. “You are breathing yoga,” a teacher told us one time.

For the entire 28 days, we stuck to our vegetarian diet, an Indian Thali made up of dhal, mixed vegetables in curry sauce, rice, chapati, salad, on a metal plate. Drinking coffee was not encouraged. But I felt like a school kid breaking a rule. My newfound friends, my Italian, Russian, and British classmates, would often break this soft rule on coffee during our afternoon breaks, while munching our favorite pastries.

 

In the first two weeks I saw my body improve. It was more flexible and stronger. My mind was calmer than ever, too. Yoga, after all, is the alignment of the mind, body and spirit, as we draw our attention inward and allow our body and heart to open up.

The second part of the course was devoted to our practicums- teaching a 30-minute asana class for beginners, an hour-long class, and a 30-minute meditation class. These made me a bit anxious, because in my mind I knew I was not a yoga teacher yet. But I told myself. “This is a new experience, let’s have fun.” And I did, thanks to my wonderful classmates and teachers.

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During our afternoon Asana workshop with our teacher Taryn
The people I met in Mcleod Ganj were the jewels in this course. For a month, we considered each other family. I could feel the class pulsating with love because every one has put his/her heart and soul in the practicums.

 

Will I teach yoga? Perhaps. I can start with my friends first. The best thing in this is not the Certificate after the course but the lifestyle that it has taught me.

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My Yoga TTC classmates and teachers, all 30 of us in one frame.
How to go to Mcleod Ganj in Dharamsala:

I took a Manila-New Delhi flight via Kuala Lumpur with AirAsia. Arriving shortly before midnight on June 12, I decided to sleep in one of the paid lounges at the Indira Gandhi International Airport and wait for my flight the next day to Gaggal Airport in Dharamsala. From the airport, I shared a cab with a female Indian traveler I met upon landing.

Where to stay in Mcleod Ganj:

You can easily find private rooms with attached bathrooms for 400 INR a day. I stayed in Sharma Cottage, which was paid by the Chandra Yoga International as part of the YTTC package.

On finding the Dalai Lama

Before I left Manila for India two months ago, I made a wish: to see the Dalai Lama in the flesh.

Since I would be staying in Mcleod Ganj in Dharamsala to practice yoga for a month, this possibility was not too remote.

The 14th Dalai Lama has been residing in Dharamshala along with the Tibetan government in exile after his escape from the Chinese authorities in Tibet in 1959. Mcleod Ganj has been his home. And the Dalai Lama temple was just within walking distance from where I was staying.

I became a fan of the Dalai Lama after having watched “Kundun,” the film about his life from the time that he was found by the search teams in the northeast of Tibet up to his dramatic escape to India. Only then did I learn that the line of succession of the Dalai Lama is determined by reincarnation according to Tibetan beliefs. Thus the 14th Dalai Lama now is a reincarnation of the previous spritual leaders. According to some Tibetan texts,  the Dalai Lama is the reincarnation of the Bodhisattva of Compassion. 

If you had been following the animation series Avatar, you’d immediately realize that the Dalai Lama’s story is similar to that of the cartoon’s hero Aang, the last airbender. How amazing is that? And similarly, the 14th Dalai Lama conceded that he may be the last. But it would be up to the Tibetan people to determine the fate of the institution, he said in several interviews.

I was in Mcleod Ganj when the Dalai Lama turned 81. The celebration at the Dalai Lama temple was festive, complete with cultural performances. It would have been perfect time to see the Dalai Lama, but the celebrant was not there. We were told that he was in the southern part of India then.

My month-long yoga course ended and I had even extended my stay in Mcleod Ganj for 10 more days to do more Ashtanga with another yoga studio. But in those days, I had no sighting of the Dalai Lama. I left the Mcleod abandoning that wish. Maybe he would eventually visit the Philippines? I cheered myself.

I continued my journey, finding myself in the high-desert region of the Himalayas. Guess what? The Dalai Lama came to Leh in Ladakh. After my epic seven-day trek in Markha Valley, I heard that he would be holding a public teaching in Thiksey Monastery, a Tibetan monastery on top of a hill at the Thiksey village in Leh. I woke up earlier that day on a mission to see the Dalai Lama. I walked down to the bus station from Changspa Road and immediately found one shared taxi going to Thiksey.

The ground below the monastery was already filled with thousands of Ladakhis by the time I arrived. I searched for the stage and found my way to the media spot at the aisle, just within striking distance of the Dalai Lama. I had covered the historic state visit of Pope Francis to the Philippines in 2015. But the reaction of the people and the security around the two religious leaders weren’t the same. The people before the Dalai Lama were more contemplative, not in a mad rush to get near or touch him. A local policeman allowed me to take photos near the stage even if I don’t have a press ID. I was lucky, a Korean journalist following the Dalai Lama told me later.

So there he was sitting on a wide golden chair. He was speaking in Tibetan which was being translated in Ladakhi language over a loud speaker. I couldn’t understand a thing. But I was sure his three-hour long speech was sprinkled with anecdotes and jokes because he often laughed and smiled. The Dalai Lama was so full of life.

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Oh I was completely mesmerized! It came to me later that there was a designated area for foreigners and his talk there was being translated to English. In the last part of his speech, he said: “Discrimination is the source of harm.” The translator said you immediately gain friends by being kind and warm-hearted.

Other photos at Thiksey Monastery:

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I had actually thought of approaching him and shooting him one political question after the event. But the journalists covering him said it wasn’t possible. I have to write his office a letter request first. I actually did that before I left the Philippines but unfortunately, probably because of his busy schedule, I got no reply.  Nevertheless, still seeing the Dalai Lama here in India was such a beautiful experience.

Adventures in the Himalayas: A seven-day trek in Markha Valley in Ladakh

Judging from my window at a guesthouse in Leh, a city in the high-desert Ladakh of India, I could sense that the Himalayan mountains would test not just one’s physical strength but also one’s character.

I set out on a seven-day trek in the Himalayas taking on the Markha Valley route even if I knew that it would be difficult, or maybe too much for me. I had done a full day of trekking up to the Triund Hill in Dharamshala last month. And as a result, I was limping the next few days.

Two days after I reached Leh, I found a group departing for Markha Valley with a trekking guide on August 3. The overall cost for the seven days was the cheapest among all the offers of travel agencies along Changspa Road. So I said yes.

On our first day, I met my groupmates- four tall gentlemen from the Netherlands, Israel, France, and Australia. I warned them I would be the slowest, being the only petite Southeast Asian woman and being fully aware of my physical capabilities. And of course, I did not disappoint them. The fastest amongst us was always more than a few miles from me.

But then, trekking in the Himalayas is not a race.

It could be like yoga. “Mind your own practice,” as what every yoga teacher would tell his or her students. So this whole trek in the Himalayas is more spiritual for me.

The first day was gentle, more like a warm-up for the strenuous days ahead. Although we walked under the intense heat of the desert sun, we easily reached our homestay in Rumbak in three hours. For five nights, we stayed with Ladakhi families. We spent our last night in a tent in Nimaling, a vast green pasture land in the valley, enduring the biting cold and the occasional rain.

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Two trekkers in our group taking a rest before the grueling long walk in the high Himalayan deserts

The toughest days were the second and the last days. Crossing the Ganda La pass seemed easy because the trail gradually rises and falls. But with an altitude of more than 4, 970 meters

, every step was heavy. My heart and lungs were working doubly hard to get oxygen. I had to stop every few steps. “Small steps and deep breaths,” Uri, our Israeli groupmate, advised me. I had to find my rhythm with this thin air.

A long walk in the desert
A long walk in the desert

After crossing the pass, we had to walk for eight more hours to reach Skyu, a village where we can find a homestay. “Nina, have you walked this long in your life?” our Aussie groupmate asked me. We were on our 11th hour in the trek that day. Ireplied

, during our in Mount Apo in 2014. But it was easier because we were mostly in mossy forests and the shades of trees and the cool air were giving us comfort. He told me his longest and toughest walk was in Mt Mayon way back in the 1990s.P1110568

Both of my feet were covered with blisters after that long walk. I hadn’t thought about blisters before this trek. Good thing, our Dutch groupmate was prepared for them. He has plastic pack complete of first aid supplies. “It is nice to unload the weight,” he said as he handed me over his first-aid kit. My Dutch groupmate Erick is such an angel, a sunshine in our group. He often slowed down so I would not be alone in the trek. He often cracked jokes to make our mood lighter.

My feet at one point had turned into a monster and I couldn’t walk any faster.  I had to walk in my sandals. And it made the condition of my feet worse.

Staying with Ladakhi families was the best way to immerse ourselves into the region’s culture. Sometimes despite the language barrier, the Ladakhis attempt to communicate to us. “Chaang, chaang?” our Ladakhi female host told us offering us a cup of the local wine, which was made of barley. We could not understand her until she showed us some grains of Barley. I took a sip and I felt warmth in my throat. “Good,” I said giving her the thumbs up sign.

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We stayed at the houses Ladakhi families who offered us meals and beds to sleep. Most Ladakhi houses are made of sun-dried mud bricks and stone walls.

The last and highest pass called Gongmaru La, which is 5130 meters above sea level. It was manageable to me compared to the first pass, probably after having acclimatized for six days. But still I had to take it slowly and move according to my pace. I reached the top after three hours. The Germans who arrived there moments before me were shouting. The victorious feeling had reached me. I asked their guide to take me one shot with me raising my hands up before the battery of my phone ran out. But our trekking guide appeared and told me as if reprimanding me. “I have been waiting for you for the last 30 minutes.” I told him sharply to go ahead and that I can do the trek alone.

I wasn’t fortunate to have a good guide on this trek. On our third day, this Ladakhi guide who had claimed he was close to finishing his Masters in Political Science, told me that I don’t have the “energy to acclimatize” and that the Markha Valley trek was too difficult for me. He could be right. But I never had people in the trek who told me right in my face that I cannot do it. In the past, I have been so lucky to be surrounded by energetic people in the Philippines who encouraged me to no end, who would push me and help me along the way.

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It was nice to see a group of mountain goats dashing above us

But of course, his words hadn’t dampened my spirits. I sang Indian mantras while enduring my blisters. I told myself this is the best time to practice equanimity, the virtue which we have been aiming in Vipassana meditation (This one deserves another blogpost).

I lost my cool, however, when I met our guide in the afternoon on our last day. My two other groupmates were resting in a tent, which had been serving as a teashop for trekkers taking some rest.

I haven’t sat for two minutes when our guide told us we should go and that we have been so delayed. He was about to tell me how long he had been waiting for me when I cut him. “You claim to be a Buddhist, but you lack compassion.” For me Buddhism is synonymous to compassion.

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These horses had to carry heavy loads up to the mountains.

My guide could have forgotten that I was supposed to enjoy the trip and that I should move according to the speed that is healthy to me.

I was overwhelmed with tears during the last stretch of the trek. I couldn’t remember a time I was really angry like that. It was also coupled by the feeling of exhaustion and my hurting feet.

Along the river, a Ladakhi woman greeted me “Julley” which in Ladakh means “hello” and “thank you.” I sobbed even harder because she looked like my mother in her youth.

A lot of people here say I look Ladakhi, Nepalese, Tibetan, and Indian. “Maybe this is really my home,” I had jokingly told the people who mistakenly thought I was a local.

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Images of the Ladakhis
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A shepherd with his herd of mountain sheeps spotted in a camp site in Nimaling

In the Himalayas, I experienced an emotional outburst which I immediately let go. But I should look at this trek in its entirety. From my viewpoint, I saw the goodness of the Ladakhi people, the beauty and wonders of nature which I have not seen in my life, the strength of my own spirit, and the

warming

kindness of fellow travelers I met along the way. These are enough reasons for me to love this place.

More pictures:

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I am all smiles and looking fresh in the picture!

 

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We passed by a lake just below the snow-capped Kang-Yatze.
We passed by a lake just below the snow-capped Kang-Yatze.

Some facts:

  1. The Markha Valley trek can be done in six to eight days, with or without a guide. We met couples who were only guided by maps, travelers’ footprints, and horse trails. The trail is somehow clearly defined, although I got lost a couple of times.
  2. The trek includes crossing at least two passes — Gongmaru La (5130 m) and Ganda La (4870m)
  3. The trail could be extremely cold and hot. It can rain too. Thus, I had a fleece jacket and a rain coat with me in my backpack.
  4. Leh, the capital of Ladakh in Jammu and Kashmir state of India, is home to many Tibetans as it borders Tibet to the east. It was an important trading route until the Chinese authorities closed the border to Tibet in the 1960s. Ladakh is predominantly Buddhist.
  5. I have reached Leh after an 18-hour bus ride from Manali in Himachal Pradesh (1900 INR). It was a long but amazing journey as you can see the scenic barren landscape of Ladakh. It can also be reached by private vehicle or by plane from New Delhi.