Moved Locations

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Thank you all for your years of support, curiosity, and comments!

The status update on my travel book is still in progress, but almost finished! I hope to have  it published by spring and available on my new website. I have simplified my life and created a website with all of my creative writing, blogging, and wellness obsessing. I’ll still share my travel stories there, but with more of a personal development perspective—taking the lessons I learn while traveling and applying them.

I hope you’ll all join me over there🙂 See you soon!

I Need Your Help!

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First, I’d like to say a BIG thank you to all of you for following my adventures on this silly little blog. I can’t believe it’s been nearly four years since I first started it here in Cambodia.

During that time, I’ve done and seen more than I could’ve dreamed of as a kid. I would love to have thought of myself as the Ellie type from Up, but I had to be beaten by the adventure stick multiple times before I started seeking it myself. UpSince my worldview has changed significantly from the start of my journey (how could it not?), I’ve reached a point where I need to process what I’ve experienced before taking off again. No, I’m not leaving this blog! You can’t get rid of me that easily. Instead, I’m writing a book. It is the tell all of these snippets of stories I’ve been recording all of this time and I hope you’ll enjoy it.

To give myself a bit of a push, I’ve set up a crowd funding campaign to force myself out of my usual comfort zone and ask for support. Please watch the video and/or check out the full site and feel free to donate, share, comment, or ignore. I’ll be back with more of my wanderings through India soon! Again, thank you so much!

How to Choose a Yoga Program in India

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I was the last one sitting at the entrance to the airport. The mountains were just ahead and I took in the fresh air of the famed Himalayas. After enough time had passed for me to come to terms with the fact that I was actually in Dharamshala, an SUV pulled up and a lively Indian man with a wild grey beard waved at me. I knew him instantly: my yoga instructor.

He, along with an older woman and a young Indian man, got out of the car and half-greeted me, half-swept me into the car in a sort of manic state. The doors closed and it was immediately and intensely quiet—a whirlwind even for my standards.

After a moment, my teacher turned around and said, “If the other students ask why we picked you up, tell them you were sick. I’m not supposed to use the company car to get clients.” I wanted to laugh. I wanted to jump out of the moving car. I wanted to protest with, “Seriously?” Instead I just agreed and noted that this teacher, this guru, who I’d hoped would show me the answers to the universe had immediately asked me to lie. I turned on my usual defense mechanism to what life throws at me and told myself this was my first lesson.

And it was. One of many I learned during my month-long teacher training, from the mundane (constipation makes people cranky) to the existential (how to reshape the fear of death into a comfortable reality). That very first one was just a slap on the side of the head reminding me that expectations are a bitch. I’m idealistic, what can I say?

After traveling around India—and meeting enough yoga instructors to start wondering if everyone in the world had their certification—I learned a few things about yoga, India, and the magical yet very grounded-in-reality experience of a teacher training program. With so many different styles and locations to choose from, I found myself wishing I’d had some down-to-earth guidance on where to even begin my search (not that I regret the school I did end up applying to). These are my own observations from the two short months I spent traveling the country, but might be helpful in choosing destinations whether or not you’re looking for a yoga certification or simply to visit.

  1. If you want to be a beach bum, go to Goa.
via Flickr user ChrisGoldNY

via Flickr user ChrisGoldNY

I mean that in the best way. Goa is on the west coast and a beach paradise. There are some highly qualified studios there to gain your certification, but it’s known for being the more party-oriented section of India. If you’re looking to go through your program there, just know the ever present temptation to indulge in what my instructor seriously referred to as “the junkie corner” should factor in to your decision. Fun things like drinking and dancing into the night exist in greater quantity on the beach than in, say, the mountains of Dharamshala. Speaking of.

  1. For the introvert, head to the Himalayas.
via Flickr user hargitay

via Flickr user hargitay

Personally, I couldn’t handle a training program with 30+ students, so the smaller sizes offered in the mountain setting seemed much more suited for my taste. There are programs offered all over the mountain, from Dharamshala to Bhagsu, with a wide range of styles to choose from. The amount of wildlife exploring, hiking, and camping make it a well-rounded location, but the winter is extremely cold and limits the comfort of said activities.

  1. A River Runs Through: Rishikesh
Rishikesh

via Flickr user Sumit-Gupta

Calling Rishikesh “The World Capital of Yoga” is common in the international yoga community as the city is densely packed with yoga studios from the ancient belief that its location holds significance in reaching enlightenment. On a more practical level, it’s a much bigger city than Dharamshala and is located right on the sacred Ganges river. This is the place to meet tons of other yogis and enjoy the activities the river has to offer (both metaphysical and . . . well, rafting).

  1. Mysore and aching back. Just kidding.
via Flickr user Philofoto

via Flickr user Philofoto

Ashtanga is the most practiced form of yoga in the city of Mysore and has made quite a name for itself there and worldwide. With its structured and demanding practice, it has helped many people reach an agile physical state and peaceful mental state. However, it is quite a rigorous practice (as a Hatha girl myself, I think of it as yoga boot camp) but for the colorful range of people in this world, there is a type of yoga to suit everyone’s needs. To be qualified as an official Ashtanga yoga instructor you must study here.

Most importantly, though, India might not be the place for you. The yoga studios and programs there have just as many pros and cons as any other ones in the world. Being certified in India doesn’t make you any more or less qualified (excluding the Ashtanga requirements) or enlightened. It’s better to know yourself and choose what’s right for you.

To help you start your search for the style you’d like to learn about more deeply, Yoga Journal has some helpful articles to get you started.

Beginning in India

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Beginning in India

I keep thinking about the plastic chair I sat in every morning at my little desk in India. For five weeks, I’d sit down on that flimsy chair to eat my porridge, watching the sun come up over the mountains. I’d turn off my music and put away my journal and breathe. Looking out over that view, I’d have one of those moments that quietly taps you in your heart and says, “Life is fleeting. Appreciate this.” And so I did.

I tried to do that with all of India as I took mental and emotional snapshots of these moments, trying to feel as well as see. This was sometimes difficult as India has a way of bombarding your senses. You think you’re looking at some girl’s beautiful sari and the next second a car is honking at you on your right while a cow passes you on your left. If you blink, you’ll miss it—or just get run over.

But somehow it’s slow, too. The thali guy on the corner, when asked about opening, says come back maybe noon, maybe two, just later. He smiles when we settle on “afternoon” as an exact time for the thali to be ready. I smile, too, but for different reasons.

India makes me happier than I’ve been in years, maybe even my entire life. Some of it is definitely the place, and some is simply who I am now. To go to India, you have to be unafraid. Which means you have to shed a lot of things before thinking about booking a flight, and be prepared to shed the rest of it once you get there.

For me, I ended the relationship I thought with all my heart would be my last. I did this for many reasons, but mostly it was for something else. Traveling. Not just the seeing-the-sights-and-taking-a-cruise kind, but the all-in, sell-your-stuff-and-one-way-ticket-yourself-to-the-moon kind. I was in love with it.

But the tricky thing about this lover is that it never let me get too close. It was so cunning. It left seductive notes—stringing me along—telling me to meet it by the Bosphorus or at a bar in Phnom Penh. When I’d get there, though, all that would be left was the half empty mug of beer it was drinking and the name of a town twelve hours away scribbled on a napkin. “Follow me,” it would say.

I knew this affair well because I’d been flirting with it for years. Sending messages back and forth of places we’d like to go together and things we’d like to see. I’d fantasize, but always cut it short thinking that I’d quit that life, that never ending chase. That next adventure fix. But I knew that if I were to really commit, give up everything and be with it, it would give me so much more in return.

I ignored its calls and deleted its messages.

When I’d get really comfortable in this American life, really sinking into the dog-walking routine and the washing dishes routine and the day-in, day-out perfection of it all like clockwork, I’d get a message. It was never more than a few sentences, always saying something like, “Remember that time you wandered into a protest in Turkey?” or “How’s America? Bored yet?”

Truthfully, I was. That’s not to say America isn’t completely entertaining and perfect for some people. But not me. Not now. Travel had a way of knowing my weakest moments and reminding me that it was there. Ready whenever I was.

So one night as I was lying in bed, with my head pounding and feeling like the world was pressing down on me, I threw the sheets off in exasperated surrender, opened my computer and bought a one-way ticket to India. There were no tears, no big booming Eat Pray Love voice, just me finally coming to terms with my reality. I’m in love with travel.

You’d think that wouldn’t be something I’d deny or run away from, but it’s hard. You have to explain things to people like how you don’t have much stuff to begin with and that you’ll Skype your family so it won’t be so bad. Or worse still, that you don’t want to get married anytime soon. And that’s the easy part. You have to convince yourself next that you’re not scared—that moving to a place you’ve never been where people wear different clothes and speak foreign languages doesn’t frighten you. That you don’t know if you’ll be home for Christmas or how you’ll deal with missing another one of your nephew’s birthdays.

You have to convince yourself that you’re not giving up a normal life for a risky one, but that you’re living your normal. I told a man the other day that I didn’t like being in places where every switch in the room worked properly and where there wasn’t something that smelled weird. I’m pretty sure that’s not the majority of people’s normal, but I’m OK with that.

So I chose to join my love in India. Partly because I’d been heading down this yoga path for so long that it seemed time to meet the source, but also because I’d always felt a connection to it. The colors, the food, the chaos. All of it. So when I went through the process of clearing out my closet and my mind to prepare for my trip, I didn’t feel like I was chasing travel anymore. It had finally settled in next to me.

I leaned back in my chair, hoping the flexing plastic wouldn’t give out, and felt everything slow down. That Himalayan sunrise was perfect, every single day. When I sat there, just breathing, I knew I didn’t have to rush forward to catch up with anything. I could finally, simply, appreciate the moment.

The Liebster Award

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The-Liebster-Award

Alright, alright. I’ll admit I’ve gotten a bit wrapped up in my personal life the past three months to spend a minute making it public, but my nomination for the Liebster Award kicked my butt back in gear. So, fortunately for you, I’ll graciously accept my award in this post and be back to filling you in on where we left off in India and how I became the editor of a magazine in Cambodia (Wait, what?! All in due time, my friends).

I’m usually not a joiner when it comes to social media, but for some reason I started an instagram and twitter account while traveling. I was a bit half-hearted about it, so I was quite surprised when a week ago I saw a notification on twitter that I’d been nominated by A Gypsy Breeze for this thing called the Liebster Award. I’d been feeling a bit down about my writing that particular day since I’d spent it reviewing deodorant and hair ties for a freelance gig—I could feel my Hemingway books judging me and I started to wonder if I’d ever write anything worthy—so it was a much needed affirmation.

The award isn’t exactly the same as being on the The New York Times Best Seller list, but I’m grateful for the recognition. Thank you A Gypsy Breeze! As part of the nomination (it’s a chain letter of sorts) I get to answer 11 questions, nominate 5 other bloggers with under 1,000 followers, and give them their own 11 questions. Here goes:

  1. If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be and why?

Everyday CambodiaI haven’t seen nearly enough yet to choose. Right now, I couldn’t imagine living anywhere other than where I am: Phnom Penh, Cambodia. I literally wake up every day and have no idea what will happen—constant chaos. Also, the people are always smiling, the beer is cheap, and I like wondering if the power lines dangling down in the middle of the street would kill me or not if I accidentally touched them. It’s a place that forces you to be present and I appreciate that.

  1. Do you prefer solo travel, group travel, or traveling with a close friend?

I love traveling alone. I’m a bit of a loner by nature, but I think traveling solo generally opens you up to more spontaneity anyway. I’m forced to interact with strangers on a bus since I’m not already chatting it up with a travel buddy, while other times I can just observe and slip into anonymity. I never worry as a woman either, I’ve learned how to be safe and to accept that the risks I take are just part of the territory.

Observing life in Cambodia

  1. What’s the most outrageously adventurous thing you’ve done traveling?

Not going home. I had a return flight back to the states on November 23, 2014 and I didn’t show up. I had run back to the states twice before because life was safe and easy there, but this time I pushed myself past that and landed in the unknown. I don’t have a plan now and I’m just taking every day as it comes.

  1. The scariest/ sketchiest situation you’ve been in while abroad.

I just answered this one on twitter! Anyone who follows my blog, or talked to my mom during this time, knows that the never ending boat trip during my au pair job in Turkey was the sketchiest situation I’ve ever been in. No way escaping from a family dictating my every breath gave me infinite empathy for people feeling trapped in any physical or mental aspect of life.

  1. A place you’ve visited where you were the most uncomfortable or out of your comfort zone.

Pampas BoliviaThe marshlands of Bolivia when I was 17 left me with bug bites covering every square inch of my body, a horrifying story of termites exploding out of the floor of our cabana, and a fear of red ants that I still can’t shake. I love the outdoors now, but it was an acquired taste.

  1. The one item you fear losing above all else while traveling. Have you ever lost it?

My computer. It has years worth of writing and is an extension of me. It crashed the first time I was in Cambodia, which was the last straw in my decision to return to the states. I make sure to back it up regularly on an external hard drive, but I’d be devastated if I had to replace it entirely.

  1. What was your reason for traveling? The final straw that made you get up and go.

Sunrise Taj MahalTraveling has always been a part of me. I was blessed to be born into a traveling family (my aunt and uncle have lived on a sailboat in the Mediterranean since I was a kid) so I never thought I’d do anything other than explore the earth.

  1. What types of travel stories or blog posts are your favorite to read?

I really enjoy stories about growth. I think reading about new hotels and the Best Places to Travel in 2015 is fun, but I like when people get into trouble and have to figure out how to get from Thailand to Vietnam on $13 with dengue fever or something equally ridiculous.

Lakeside Phnom Penh Cambodia

  1. Do you have a guilty pleasure while traveling? Something you justify spending money on even when you don’t have it?

Dessert. I love having something sweet at the end of a meal or an ice cream in the afternoon, so even though it’s an extra expense it makes me happy.

  1. The most useless item (in hindsight) that you’ve taken with you while traveling.

I brought my hair straightener with me to India because I didn’t want to look like a dirty traveler all the time. I didn’t think about the fact that I hate straightening my hair, even in the states, so using it twice a year didn’t justify lugging it around. I chucked it, and other items, in Delhi and made room for elephant embroidered pillowcases and cashmere scarves.

Women of Kochi

  1. What is your number one tip for blogging on the move?

Take notes as much as you can. Even if you don’t have time to sit down and write out a full post, make sure you’re writing down the name of the crazy lady you sat next to on the 12-hour bus ride to Istanbul or the restaurant you ate at every day in Daramshala. At the time, you think you’ll never forget, but you do. Unless you’re like my friend Elyse. She literally remembers everything. It’s creepy.

I’m nominating these four bloggers (this is a huge reminder for me to get more involved in the blogging community!) for their awesome perspectives on travel and life:

My Eye on the World

Wandering Words

GogoRoo

Squirrels on the Hill

After answering these 11 questions, pass this award and new questions along to 5 other budding bloggers to give them some accolades!

  1. Why do you travel?
  2. What was an experience that made you grow the most?
  3. Do you ever prefer guided travel (i.e. cruises, tours) to more fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants?
  4. What is the most awkward situation you’ve ever been in while traveling?
  5. Where is your favorite place to tell people they HAVE to visit?
  6. What is the best food you’ve had abroad?
  7. What is the worst food you’ve had abroad (if you haven’t blocked it out of your mind entirely)?
  8. Who is the most interesting person you’ve met while traveling?
  9. Where is your next trip planned?
  10. How do you deal with being homesick while away?
  11. What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received about traveling?

Your Guide to the Best Thali in India

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When visiting India—because you should—if you somehow make it out without eating thali, you didn’t truly visit India. It’s this cultural exploration on a plate that summarizes the country in flavors.

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Kerala thali on traditional banana leaf plate.

Each region has its own take on it, including anything from fish and curried vegetables to dal and chapati, which makes it all the more important to try it at every stop along your journey. I, perhaps, went a little overboard, coining the term Thali Tuesday to make sure I had my fill of it. I don’t regret a single bite. IMG_0569After becoming a thali connoisseur, I found my favorite style was from the north in the small city of McLeod Ganj and I became a detective trying to find my favorite of my favorite. I narrowed it down and found the two best thalis in town.

To begin, there are two categories (names courtesy of Sophi Beecher): hole-in-the-wall thali and fancy thali. Let us not be frightened tourists about this, though. They both serve different purposes.

Hole-in-the-wall thali is exactly what you envision avoiding at all costs. Some guy stands at the front of his poorly lit stall behind questionable vats of bubbling curries pulling dough with his bare hands—the same ones he uses to accept your money.

He throws used plates into a non-descript barrel and pulls clean ones out of . . . somewhere else? Some of the rice gets touched by the other eaters’ bare hands as they pass the overflowing plate to the new guy squished in the back. IMG_0498

Sophie enjoying her thali.

Sophie enjoying her thali.

The first few times passing by these stalls I was filled with memories of emergency bathroom situations and popping cipro like it’s candy. But then something happened.

It was just the chipati smell I caught first. Fresh, toasted brown bread wafting into the street. Maybe because it’s fresh it’s OK to eat.

But I was still unsure, so another day without thali went by.

Then I started to pick out the subtle spices. Coriander and turmeric. Cumin and ginger. My mouth watered uncontrollably. The pots are definitely steaming—hot is good.

And there are so many people stuffed in there. They all look so happy eating their thali, not like they’re wondering how many hours they have before they need to worry.

Screw it, I’m going in.

And it was as though the heavens opened up and gold lentils rained down into my mouth. From that moment on, I became an addict.

Hole-in-the-wall thali is for: Locals and adventurous travelers. Quick fare for anyone from businessmen to students to monks. Everyone piles in.

Best thali stall: Unmarked, found on Bhagsu Road just past the main square on your left.

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Look for this guy and the white tiled exterior. He knows thali, man.

IMG_0532 It’s 50 rupees for the whole shebang—rice, two veg, dal, and chapati. His hours are sporadic, so if he’s open don’t miss it. I went twice a week for a month and lived gloriously to tell the tale.

Fancy thali is a different beast entirely. This is the one that gets photo shoots and celebrity status. It has those cute silver bowls separating each of the dishes, making a visual feast as well. And if you’re really unsure, because sometimes hole-in-the-wall can be separated too, check the price. If it’s more than 100 rupees, you’ve found fancy thali.

The basic difference is the presentation and variety. Fancy thali can have many different bowls—curried vegetables, spicy paneer, dal, chickpeas, pickles, salads, and always a dessert. There’s the standard bread and rice and sometimes the ever so peppery and crispy papadams, something like a round chip but better.

It’s also generally found in a slightly more upscale or western restaurant. If you’re not on a shoestring budget, or even if you are, you should splurge and get fancy thali, too.

Fancy thali is for: Wealthier locals and tourists.

Best thali restaurant: Moonpeak. Located on Temple Road near the Buddhist temple. IMG_0688IMG_0571It’s 150 rupees of pure vegetarian heaven. Enjoy!

Celebrating My 25th Birthday With the Dalai Lama

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The last major milestone birthday I had was my 21st. That included binge drinking, a princess tiara, and an inappropriately shaped sucker that made it into far too many pictures. Needless to say it wasn’t one of my finer moments, but everyone goes through it, right?

Fast forward four years and I’m waking up at 5 am, by choice, to make it to a lecture by His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama himself. No hang over. No plans for raving. Just a quiet morning watching the sunrise over the foothills of the Himalayas while making porridge and drinking tea. Did I mention I was in India?

Those four pivotal years of self-reflection and awareness spit me out and landed me on a journey through India. It started with a one-month intensive yoga teacher training course in Dharamshala—the official settling point for Tibetan refugees and home of the Dalai Lama. Talk about life change.

So I woke up to the ripe old age of 25. I opened my blinds to let the creeping sun in, turned on some music, and tried to light the two-burner gas stove. I hadn’t quite figured out how to angle the starter yet and gas poured out while I pumped the sparks repeatedly. Singed arm hairs and special effects sized flames resulted. I set the small saucepan on the burner and placed my water bottle under its handle since it had a tendency to topple over—too much watery rice and cursing spilled out before I started MacGyvering most of my provided kitchen supplies.

porridge

I cut up my banana and walnuts while the oats and cinnamon boiled. Sprinkling in some Himalayan salt, I smirked at my unbelievable location. I had to keep reminding myself I was actually there. The sun rose over the intimidating mountains, so immediate and steep, that it literally seemed to be breaking through the atmosphere with palpable relief. I just ate my oatmeal, watching.

sunrise

After attempting to wash my bowl, I realized the water supply had cut out for the morning. My plan to shower dissolved so I went to work trying to fashion a hair-do that downplayed my grime. Leave it to me to be the dirty kid at a Dalai Lama lecture. I grabbed my lecture pass—that we stood in line for two hours the day before to get—and my mug. Apparently they passed out Tibetan butter tea and I’d heard so many mixed reviews that I had to bring a cup to try it for myself (disclaimer: it’s exactly how it sounds).

Sophie, my Australian teacher training friend, met me outside her room and we started the walk toward the temple. We climbed the four sets of stairs from our guest house to the road and let our breath catch up with the altitude before heading down the muddy street. The metal shop doors were mostly closed, though some hopeful shop keepers were setting out their selections of multi-colored prayer beads and turquoise Tibetan antiques.

We crossed the main square, along with other lecture goers, monks, and cows, and wound our way down the cobble stone road to the temple entrance. Women making momos—the traditional and wildly popular Tibetan dumpling—marked the gate entrance and we stepped past them into the final stretch.

Passing monks and a few signs directing us to go left instead of up the ramp, we made it to security. The last thing I expected at such a sacred event was small, Tibetan women aggressively rummage through my handbag and patting me down to the brink of bruises, and I came out of it feeling thoroughly violated and slightly amused.

We collected ourselves and found a seat directly in front of where the Dalai Lama would enter, quietly congratulating ourselves for our reward for promptness. As his appearance time approached, the place filled with westerners, local Tibetans, and monks. A Tibetan woman sat down almost in my lap to get a good view, took out her white prayer scarf, and handed me a corner to hold. She smiled at me in the most innocent way. I was convinced she was a child in an old woman’s body.

She joined the other voices in singing the welcome chant and I noticed how out of place I felt. This collective sound, with its eerie yet beautiful monotony, was echoing through the outdoor arena so reverently I could almost feel the first prayers forming on the flags. They’re said to be carried away by the wind, deeply hoping for a way to return home. I noticed all of the Tibetans, the men with their woolen caps and women with their aprons, patiently waiting for their peaceful leader.

Overcome by their sincerity, I felt silly in the front row. For a moment, I thought about getting up and offering my place to a Tibetan. Looking around, though, no one seemed to mind me being there. I was met with smiles and gentle head bows as I scanned through the crowd for a sign to leave. In a foreign land they’d made their home while their people still suffered under Chinese rule, they seemed happy to be exactly where they were.

Call it Buddhist teaching or the human ability to adapt, whatever it was, I was part of it that morning. As the Dalai Lama finally walked through, shaking hands with some and smiling at others, I felt honored to be not just in his presence, but the presence of his people. Politics and beliefs aside, I couldn’t have asked for a more joyous morning to welcome the next chapter of my life.

McGuyver

More MacGyvering.

McGuyver top

Fashioning a pull out of a bottle top and foil. Possible DIY India blog in my future?

kitchen at Kailash

The ledge above the sink was the sweet spot for getting wifi so I usually perched my phone there to receive emergency messages from friends and family. Let’s be real, mostly memes.

bedroom at Kailash

My yogic discipline had me keeping my room tidy all 30 days I stayed there. Proud of me, mom?