Monday, December 31, 2012

Day 7

Happy New Year!!!!! I cannot believe 2012 is at its end, but new beginnings are soon to come!!! My resolution for this year was to be strong and have courage, and I am so happy and thankful to say I am feeling stronger and more courageous than ever! (I had to get a vaccination today for Thailand and I took it as a final test of my new bravery). And while I'm here I want to say hi to my friends and family who are the absolute best in the universe- thank you for loving me in my lowest of lows and highest of highs this year!
Anyway, cheers to 2013!! May the new year be full of joy, adventure, harmony, passion, health, and love!

"You finally fell in love," said Salo.
"Only an Earthling year ago," said Constant. "It took us that long to realize that a purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved."
Kurt Vonnegut in The Sirens of Titan (I just finished this insane and beautiful book).

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Day 6

Shalom friends and family from Kibbutz Lotan!! Here I am in the desert of Israel and I still can't believe it, how did I get so lucky! On Christmas day I got back on a plane, only 2 weeks after I had gotten home from Nepal, and I flew across the world to Israel. I'll admit I was a little nervous, I was leaving behind the people I had been longing to see for so many months, and I had certainly never been on a 15 hour flight by myself before. (Luckily my nerves soothed as I ate greasy airport pizza). It all turned out to be good and enjoyable - I slept, I ate, the usual - and finally landing in Israel was insane. One of my closest friends who I've grown up with made Aliyah to Israel this year and just became a soldier. He was given to day off to meet me and help get around Tel Aviv (Hi Elan! I hope you're reading this!) He ran up to me in the airport in his uniform and all and it was the most surreal and happy moment. (Elan I am so proud of you and more grateful for your friendship than you could know!) But truly, I am so thankful he was there to help because the next morning I had to catch a bus toward Eilat at 6:30 AM and I guarantee I never would have made it if he has not been there. When j got on the bus the tickets were sold out (naturally) so the driver said I would have to stand. I figured standing for 5 hours on a bus would not be so bad, what's 5 hours in the span of your entire life anyway? And hey it all worked out because someone didn't show up and I got to sit! And now, once again, here I am in the middle of a mystifying desert, surrounded by mountains, just feet away from the Jordan border.
Man oh man is the kibbutz groovy. I'm living in a mud dome and spend my days wandering the date plantations and watching the goats and cows. We learned how to make adobe mud bricks and today we began building a mud bench with trash-stuffed tires as the foundation. We've also been working in the garden and with the compost (today I learned how to clean a composting toilet!) I planted a little experiment of sunflower and red corn seeds to learn about germination and I've been trying to pick up some Hebrew (most people here are Israeli). The only words I've learned so far are "mangold" (chard), "balagan" (crazy mess), and "botz" (mud). Aside from the language barrier, I love the kibbutz. Of course everything is still new and weird and awkward but the desert sunset makes it all worth it. I know I'm right where I'm supposed to be! (And to my community, as always, when you are thinking of me, I'm thinking of you too).

Thursday, December 20, 2012

NuGo Celebrity!!!

I am extremely loyal to my favorite protein bars, Nugo Organics vegan double dark chocolate, so of course I brought a pack of them to Nepal with me. I managed to save a few for our final trek through the Himalayas and I took a photo of the wrapper with the mountains in the background thinking, "hey I'm going to send this in and be a NuGo celebrity!" Lo and behold, my five minutes of protein bar fame have arrived.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Langtang trek photos

view into Tibet from the summit of Tsergo Ri

Phurba eating potatoes that we cooked in a yak dung fire

Day 88

" I must reveal to you that I am not one of the divine who march into the desert and return gravid with wisdom. I've traveled many cookfires and spread angel bait round every sleeping place. But more often that the getting of wisdom, I've gotten episodes of giardiasis, e. coli, and amebic dysentary. Ai! Such is the fate of a middle class mystic with delicate intestines."  - Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes

I woke up on the first morning of the trek in an icy tent at the base of Langtang National Park, feeling more sick than I have this entire trip. I had been tossing and turning all night, nauseous with sharp stomach pains, and once I crawled out of the tent I could hardly stand up straight.  My tummy was so bloated that I looked three months pregnant, and any thought of food was repulsing. My dear giardia bacteria was back and stronger than ever. I cried not out of pain, but at the prospect of my fate on the trek. I struggled to walk, let alone carry a heavy pack into high altitudes. I was so angry at my body for feeling so weak at a time I so badly needed and wanted my strength, and at the beginning of a journey I had so long been looking forward to. I knew it was going to be an extremely difficult day. Once my tears dried I distributed some of my pack's weight to my friends, and set off for the trail at an infinitely slower pace than the rest of the group. It was frustrating but so is life. The most challenging part of that first day was that my mind was so preoccupied with the constant churning of my stomach that I couldn't appreciate my surroundings. The following few days I stayed slow, chewed a ton of pepto bismol, and kept a strict diet of plain rice. The morning I finally woke up with a non-bloated stomach was revolutionary and from then on I only began to feel stronger and stronger. The Himalayas didn't know what they had comin!
The first four days were long and full of high elevation gains. We criss-crossed and followed a glacial river (which we oftened bathed in even though the water felt like needles) and ascended the valley, passing the tree line. The environment became stark, the brown hills constrasted the bright blue, cloudless sky, when suddenly a big snow-capped mountain emerged at the end of the valley. We walked towards that first majestic peak, the trail lined with yaks, wild horses, and small tea houses run by the few Tamang people who live in the valley. As we went farther, more snowy Himalayan mountains came into view. We made it to Kyenjin Gompa, our first camp at around 13,000 ft, on Thanksgiving. We celebrated with meat from a baby yak that had died unexpectedly in a village we had passed (R.I.P. baby yak). It was delicious!! Our Sherpas surprised us to much joy and excitement with a beautiful, dutch oven-made apple pie, and after our feast I led everyone in going around and saying what we're thankful for. In that moment I was sending all of my love and bliss to my friends and family at home, but was feeling so unbelievably grateful to be in the middle of big white mountains under the brightly glowing stars of the universe. After spending one rest day at Kyenjin Gompa, a few of us set off to summit a near by peak, Tsergo Ri, which stands taller than any mountain in the lower 48 of the U.S. at 16,000 ft. The climb was close to five hours of slow, cold walking. The peak felt forever out of reach. The oxygen was noticeably getting thinner and thinner and our feet became slow and heavy. Each step required its own round of breath, a full inhale and exhale before I could move my next foot forward. The last stretch was over huge boulders, and the wind was so violent and my brain was so loopy from the altitude that I felt as though I was in danger of blowing over. I felt more and more nauseous and leaned against a huge rock to try and catch my breath in this seemingly no-oxygen zone. I thought I was on the verge of throwing up when I took a couple of steps up and all of a sudden revealed to me was a long range of huge snow covered mountains. It was the most unbelievable sight and I started crying at the insane otherwordly beauty. I somehow made it to the top and was again overwhelmed by pure bliss at the sight of those enormous peaks (but after a minute I had to stop crying my tears of happiness because it was just too hard to breathe). My brain spinning with endorphins, I was full of excitement. I made it to the top of a 16,000 ft mountain!!!! I am so strong!!! Even with giardia!! It was truly an awesome moment, in the sense of the word that it was actually "awe" inspiring. Our navigation Sherpa, Phurba Dorjee, led us in a puja to bless new prayer flags which we hung at the summit (Phurba grew up as a monk, educated in a monastery, so he often taught us puja's and prayers). It was an unbelievable experience. Reaching the summit of Tsergo Ri was the hardest I have ever physically pushed myself, but I am so thankful to my body and my mind for maintaining the strength and willpower and courage I needed to make it to the top! I feel ready to climb every mountain in the world!! Mt. Whitney here I come!! (haha) Anyway, we relaxed the next day (my leg muscles have never felt so incapable of walking) and the following day we left for high camp at Langshisa Karka, where the trail extends beyond any teahouses or occupied settlements. We set up our tents by a few abandoned yak herder huts (which we slept in the second night for warmth). It was unreal to be the only people in the vast valley, surrounded by dozens of roaming yaks and cradled by strong, cold winds. I never could have imagined in my life that I would experience such powerfully surreal beauty. At night we would hang out with the Sherpa staff, Phurba, Pemba, and Dendi, around a fire and teach them English tongue twisters, like "She sells sea shells by the sea shore," and obscure words like, "sludge," "treacherous," and "biodegradable." This was always a lot of fun, and they would constantly compete to see who could say "onomatopoeia" the fastest. However, the first night took an oddly haunting turn when one of our Thami porters began to feel really intense heart pains. A Tamang porter (who is also a shaman) explained that he had taken wood from beside a river which was meant as an offering to the water spirits, or nagas. He was possessed!! The shaman said the spirits were angry, and we ought to be weary when around the river. All night, the shaman performed puja's to protect us from the spirits, but we definitely began to feel a little spooked when we went to sleep (we started attributing our giardia and diahreeha to the spirits' discontent in our presence).
Nonetheless, high camp was beautiful, and I felt a twinge of sadness when we began the descent and I turned my back on that big snowy mountain we had followed for so long. Finally acclimated, my lungs felt strong and at ease as we headed back through the valley. We made it to our base at Syabru Besi on Saturday, a few days quicker than it had taken us to get up. Sunday morning we woke up at 5:30 am and packed up our tents for the last time in the dark. After breakfast we gathered our twenty porters and Sherpas to give them our infinite thanks. I feel so grateful to have had the opportunity and ability to communicate and get to know them. This was undoubtedly the most valuable portion of the trip to know Nepali. So many of them were around our age yet have led such drastically different lives trekking through the Himalayas. Two of our porters were 14-15 year old Tamang girls, one of whom is married. Despite their young, tiny bodies, they were strong enough to carry weight equal to the boys. I thought  they were really awesome and admired them a lot. Saying goodbye to all of our staff was hard and signified the end of our trek and my nearing departure from Nepal. And though the thought of leaving is hard to swallow, the Himalayas were the perfect note to end on.
Now we're back in Bhaktapur for the last few nights, and waking up in this familiar city where we began our trip three months ago feels odd and uncanny. Driving in the Kathmandu valley, I was surprised at how comfortable the surrounding chaos felt. It's wild that my time here is wrapping up so quickly, but I'm giving myself a lot of space and energy to reflect on all of the insane experiences that I've had in the last three months. I can't wait to share all of my joy and love with everyone at home in a few short days, but until then I'm going to enjoy every remaining moment I have in this insanely beautiful country!!!

Friday, November 16, 2012

Day 71

This week I had my final Tibetan Medicine lesson with my mentor, Dr. Tenzin Kunga, at his clinic in Chettrapati. It's unbelievable how quickly these past five weeks have gone by! My decision to study Tibetan Medicine a month and a half ago sort of came on a whim. I could have chosen something like yoga or photography, two subjects I already love, but for some reason I chose to spend five weeks with a Traditional Tibetan medicine doctor/astrologer, studying a subject about which I knew absolutely nothing. I've never even really been interested in medicine (in the Western definition of the word) so I was actually surprised at myself to feel so groovy about this new, quite random topic. So I went with it, feeling good that I had chosen a subject which I would never otherwise have the opportunity to learn about. And hey, I have the rest of my life to practice yoga and photography! All was great in the beginning. Dr. Kunga is kind, intelligent, has a great sense of humor, and a set of twins who are both named Tenzin. But about mid-way through, I started to grow tired of the furiously fast note-taking require for me to understand and remember the endless amount of information spewing out of Dr. Kunga's mouth. I second guessed my decision, wondering if I would have been happier studying something I already knew and understood. But I knew this doubt was pointless and wouldn't help anything, so I didn't let it linger for very long. Instead, I carried on taking copious notes but not really caring all that much, thinking about how it had little to no relevance to my life at home. Now that I've made myself sound unappreciative, in my defense, I really did enjoy learning from Dr. Kunga. I never dreaded going to my lessons, but I guess there was some sort of tension growing in me because for about five hours a week I would delve into this ancient medical tradition, but the second I left, all of the information fled my mind and I wouldn't think about it again until I was back in his office. Anyway, after our last meeting, I compiled all of my notes to present to my group, and it was through that organization that I realized the vast amount of information I feel so grateful to have learned. And now, I will present to you a sort of condensed summary of Tradition Tibetan Medicine as it has been taught to me over the past several weeks by Dr. Tenzin Kunga.
The first kind of wild thing about Tibetan Medicine is that there is no one universally agreed upon founder. Some believe that it is the direct word of the Buddha's mouth, however Dr. Kunga, among many other modern-day Tibetan physicians, argues that medicine existed before the Buddha's birth. Thus, the more commonly held opinion about Tibetan Medicine's origins is that it is the product of many cultural influences, including the practices of Indian Ayurveda and the medicinal concepts of China, Mongolia, and Persia. Traditional Tibetan doctors study a single text, which has never been translated in its entirety out of Tibetan. It is called "Gyud-shi" or "The Four Tantras," tan meaning body, and tra meaning protect. The Four Tantras explain the theory of the five elements, the philosophy upon which both Tibetan Medicine and Tibetan Buddhism are based. This theory states that everything that exists in the infinite external universe has it's counterpart in every living being's own internal universe. So in terms of medicine, the body, the disease, and the remedy are all composed of these five elements, which are earth, water, fire, air, and space. Thus, the Tantras explain that all life is innately interconnected because we all have the common origin of the five elements. Each of the elements performs its own specific function in the body, and these elements must maintain their proper balance in the body or disorder will arise. For example, the fire element provides digestive heat, but if this element begins to overpower the other elements too much, illness will manifest. Along with the five elements, Tibetan Medicine says that there are three principle energies which control all bodily processes. Every individual is predominantly composed of one energy based on both psychological and physical qualities. Doctors claim this connection to a particular energy to be very important in diagnosis practices, for they believe that symptoms for one individual could be more or less serious than they would be for a person of a person of a different energy, but with the same symptoms.  The three principle energies are as follows: rLung, or wind, refers to the subtle energy of the body, and it is the nature of the air element. Tripa, or bile, is the nature of the fire element and is connected with bodily heat (digestion). And lastly, Bedken, or phlegm, refers to the mucus of the body and is the nature of the water and earth elements. In order to determine my predominant element, Dr. Kunga gave me a test of personal questions about my physical body as well as my psychological health. After completing the evaluation as accurately as I could, I found out that I am predominantly bedken (phlegm) and my secondary energy is tripa (bile). Knowing these energies would allow me, in Tibetan culture, to choose the compatible foods, drinks, behaviors, and lifestyle, and maintain my bodily balance. However, strong bodily balances do occur (Dr. Kunga says this is a result of human ignorance), thus I learned the three diagnostic procedures of Tibetan Medicine: Visual examination (most importantly urine and tongue analysis), radial pulse examination, and interrogation. Of course, the most bizarrely fascinating technique to learn about was urine analysis, because as Dr. Kunga says, "Urine is like a mirror that reflects the features of a disorder." For those who are curious, healthy urine should be clear light yellow, have steam of moderate intensity/duration, have medium sized bubbles when stirred, and light sediment. Unhealthy urine is simply the opposite. And everyone ought to watch out for "death urine" and "evil spirit urine," which is blood-like, has thick sediment, and a rotten leather like smell. As far as treating such disorders, I learned three therapeutic techniques: diet, behavior, and medicine. The diet aspect goes into immense detail about which tastes are compatible with each energy. For example, sour taste is based in the fire/earth elements and can help generate body heat (metabolism). However, an excess of this taste will cause the fire energy to overpower the body and can cause vertigo and other disorders. Behavioral therapies emphasize a preventative lifestyle, based on the Four Immeasurables of Tibetan Buddhism, which are loving-kindness, compassion, appreciative joy, and equinimity. And lastly, the medicinal aspect of therapy is vastly different from the pill-for-any-problem culture of the West. There is a long list of types of medicine, including medicinal butter, ash, powder, gems, and herbs. And in fact, as common and popular as surgery is in the U.S., it is a rarity in Tibetan Medicine, an absolute last resort.
Of course, as I learned all of these concepts of health and healing so different from anything I've experience in my own medical history, I found myself asking in my head "How do people actually believe this?" The ancient nature of the texts leaves out any trace of scientific words which I am so use to not understanding (for some reason my lack of understanding makes medicinal science feel more valid). Rather, descriptions feel more vague, claiming that the smell of death urine is like "rotten leather." Further, something really interesting that Dr. Kunga discussed with me was the avoidance of raw food. He believes that raw salads and such decrease bodily heat and will cause a cold disorder. I found this so wild because in the U.S. there's a whole food movement to raw food! Chemically, I know nothing about nutrition or digestion or anything like that, but this was undoubtedly a moment where I asked myself, "who is right?" Working with a structure of medical practices that I often found so hard to believe led me to a whole line of questioning of the medical field. Why are we so positive that Western medical practices are the best? Cultural conditioning I guess! Anyway, I feel so grateful to have had the opportunity to learn about the body and health through the Tibetan lens. Though, I think the most interesting part of the whole experience was working with a man who is so passionate about the ancient traditions of a homeland he's never seen, and fears that he never will. Dr. Kunga was born and grew up in Dharamsala, India, where His Holiness the Dalai Lama and thousands of Tibetans seek refuge from exile. In India, he studied Tibetan Medicine and began his practice, and five years ago he opened his clinic in Kathmandu. Everyday he wears a pin of the Tibetan flag, and the desktop background on his computer is a photoshopped image he made of the faces of all the martyrs who have sacrificed themselves for Tibet. He comments that all of the sacred texts on Tibetan Medicine had to be smuggled over the border at the time of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Thus, not only are the Tibetan people in exile, but also the practice of Tibetan Medicine.
In other medical news, I found out a couple days ago that I have giyardia! (A water-born bacterial infection). It's really no big deal, I got antibiotics so I'm feeling great and groovy! Now after five weeks in Kathmandu, I prepare to say goodbye to my homestay family, Rajeshwor, Munu, and Suwes Shrestha, who have been so unbelievably welcoming and loving. And Munu (my mother) found out last night that she has been accepted into the U.S. Visa lottery and has an interview in January, so maybe I'll see them soon in the U.S.! Though the wild woman in me is yearning to heed the call of the mountains, I am so infinitely grateful to have spent so much time in this city, where I learned to fend for myself and find joy in the chaos! Now lech lecha, to the Himalayas!!!!!!

Friday, November 9, 2012

Day 64

As an officially Hindu state, and the only one in the world, Nepal is an intensely spiritual place. Kathmandu is speckled with countless temples, both small and grand, where Nepali's make daily offerings to each of the mystical gods and goddesses. While the city is attempting to rapidly modernize, building plans are revolved around the centuries old religious structures, leaving malls woven between Laxmi temples and Shiva lingams. On Sunday, we visited one of the most powerful places I have ever experienced, not because of any individual religious connection, but because of the undeniable interconnectedness of all life that penetrates this place. Pashupatinath is where cremations are held. Lying along a murky river which flows through Kathmandu are countless temples and cement ledges upon which the bodies of the dead are burned. Families dress in the purest white. Some wail and others are stoic as they carry the body of their loved one to the funeral pyre. I sat along the river, opposite the burning logs, brush, and flesh, and watched as families performed the final death rites and rituals. It was intense to say the least. I found myself crying in echo of the family members, for their relatives and for mine. At Pashupati, where even the royal family has been cremated for generations, death is made public. Whereas in the U.S., grief is private, and often suppressed or hidden, Nepali's, both Hindu's and Buddhist's recognize death as an inseperable part of life. Further, many travel to Pashupati as newlyweds or with a newborn infant to receive blessings from the Hindu swami's and baba's, or renounciates. Thus making this place of cremation just as well a symbol for beginnings. What an incredible intersection of spirituality!! And of course this is all in accordance with the Hindu belief in reincarnation, the life/death/life cycle that characterizes the entire infinite universe. And while many in the East spiritually believe that all beings are innately interconnected, I think we can all at least agree that we are unified by the experience of loss. Even if one has never endured the death of a loved one - it could be the loss of a spouse, a friend, a home, a job, even a shoe, we have all experienced how it feels to have something taken from us. By no means am I trying to say that the loss of a material item is equal to the loss of a grandfather, but maybe through this universal experience of loss we can learn compassion.
The only thing that was really a bummer about Pashupati was the mass of tourists with their huge multi-thousand dollar cameras taking pictures of the burning bodies. How inconsiderate! That's someone's family member! Damn tourists! (Ke garne, what to do. Maybe I should develop compassion for them too).

"Para mi solo recorrer los caminos que tienen corazon, cualquier camino que tenga corazon. Por ahi yo recorro, y la unica prueba que vale es atravesar todo su largo. Y por ahi yo recorro mirando, mirando sin aliento. (For me there is only the traveling on paths that have heart, on any path that may have heart. There I travel, and the only worthwhile challenge is to traverse it's full length and there I travel looking, looking breathlessly.)"
- Don Juan Matus