Po Nagar Cham Towers and the Long Son Pagoda

Ha Van Hotel has turned out to be pretty awesome. From reception we get a scooter for the day and head over the bridge for some tourist pics. The Po Nagar Cham Towers are old Hindu temples which you can wonder around quite peacefully. You only need to wear long sleeves and pants if you want to enter the towers but they are small and impressive enough from outside.

After this we go straight to the Long Son Pagoda. Following a map, it is pretty easy to spot the giant white Buddha from a distance. It’s a great photo opportunity but be careful of the guy at the bell – I think he had a great time shoving us inside the giant bell (momentary panic that we are about to have all our camera gear stolen) and taking our picture and demanding $10AUD!

After this we head back to a small street market where we find the best seafood in the world ever. No seriously! Oysters BBQ’d on charcoal with herbs, peanuts and a spicy green chilli sauce are so good I have to order more!

We miss the sunshine but spend the afternoon on rented beach chairs in front of the Salining Club before returning to our street for a bottle of rose at La Parisiene (how this amazing French rose can cost less than $10 in Asia is a mystery). I start talking about the idea of cycling this whole country from south to north but Matt seems to think it would be easier on a motorbike. Of course cycling wouldn’t be easy but I don’t do anything just because it’s easy!

We wonder around for dinner stopping at Crazy Kim’s for a 241 Mojito. It is good to read about Kim Le who started the Hands Off the Kids charity and educates victimes of paedophilia from her spa/gym/bar. We finally settle on Truc Linh 2 but the busy staff seem a little flustered and we pay way too much for warm Chardonnay.

On the way back we stop at the Red Apple Club and meet Clair who is cycling from China to Melbourne. She is pretty awesome and seems like just the right motivation I need to get on a bike. We leave the backpacker hotspot and stop at Booze Cruise for a drink but Matt isn’t really making sense anymore so it’s time to go.

Our last day in Nha Trang we spend at the Long Thanh Art Gallery. Thanh is Vietnam’s most prominent photographer and specialises in black and white photography, really capturing the essence of his country in lifestyle photos. It is a small gallery so you really have to read the map well and look for the house number or it is easy to miss. We go to the National Oceanographic Museum but it is kind of boring and I feel bad for the tiny enclosures the two seals live in.

We are taking the night train up to Hoi An and I have taken some cold and flu tablets from the local pharmacy as I was feeling a bit ill and they have completely knocked me about so I am really enjoying being rocked to sleep by the rhythmic motion of the train. I fall asleep quickly and wake up in time to enjoy some of the passion countryside. Next stop: Hoi An.

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Burning Soles in Saigon

Arrival

We arrive into Ho Chi Minh City just after 8pm. Although my super organised counterpart has brought all the necessary visa forms (complete with separate allocations of the required $45 in US currency attached by paperclip), we still join the massive throng of people standing wearily at a small window. Minimal communication, the paperclipped money is thrown back at us and our passports taken, we stand and wait for our names to be called. There is no point complaining; this is Asia. Chaos, a backwards system and eventually we find our bags waiting on the floor of the airport between two belts. It is past 9pm when we finally get to the night market around the corner form our hotel, but we sit facing towards the flow of people as we order some seafood noodles and soup. The delicious food comes quickly but as we start to eat, a loud crash and the scream from a flamboyant transvestite alert us to a crash only metres away. People look, a small crowd gathers, but after minutes the scene dissipates and the flow of the night market continues. We go for a slightly precarious walk to the roundabout (a moat of screeching motorcycles, rickshaws and taxis protects the island) and get a few night photos of the equestrian mounted Tran Nguyen Han, but sleep is tugging at our sleeves so we head back to the hotel. It is already early morning back in Sydney anyway.

A day in Ho Chi Minh

Waking up at 7am, we venture to the rooftop pool and gym before breakfast. The gym is small at the Grand Silverland; only a treadmill and a weights setup and if you don’t turn on the air conditioning on, stiflingly hot. The pool looks out over the city and is beautifully cool without too much chlorine. We head out after breakfast on a walking tour that we are follwing from the Lonely Planet Vietnam guide. It takes us on a loop around past some museums and statues and down near the river. We stop at a gorgeous little cafe on a corner called Kita where I find the best iced coffee I have ever had (Sydney continues to disappoint and yet Asia gets it perfect every time!) before we continue towards the Saigon river where a man stands sketching a boat with focused dedication. Our cameras require a bit of respite as we pass a small Pho cafe off the beaten track. Mostly locals are eating there, but we find a seat next to an English girl who explains that Pho comes in only chicken or beef, but is probably all made with the same meat broth. I guess we could call me a flexible pescatarian when travelling so I order the chicken and try my best to eat around it. When a few pieces find their way into my mouth I am reminded of why I don’t eat it (so chewy!) The herbaceous noodle soup is full of flavour (is that the taste of meat broth?), but I add lime, basil, mint and chilli and even reach across to finish off some of Matt’s. It tastes so good I’m sad it’s over but I am looking forward to eating again! Matt has rubbed his eyes with his fingers after touching the chillis and is quietly suffering as we continue our walk.

We add an extra kilometre on the walk to see the Jade Emperor Pagoda. Out the front you can buy small fish, turtles, flowers or incense to offer up for prayers inside the temple. Just to the right of the main temple an enormous turtle is kept in a caged pool where tourists hand feed it bits of bread. A larger pool is home to the overflowing mass of baby turtles. Smoking incense curls up in billowing waves from sandpots all over the courtyard which is shaded by cascading willow trees. Tourists march through unceremoniously, taking photos and listening intently as a guide explains the history in their native language. An Indian couple try to offer a drink to the many armed deity inside (could be Durga), but their guide roughly takes the bottle from them and insists that he must do it on their behalf. The dark inner temple is overcrowded with candles, wooden carvings that loom out overhead and more incense. The large Jade Emperor statue at the back is surrounded by Mandalas and smaller statues of Buddha. I stop to say a small prayer, however I am jossled back out of the way by another tourist taking a photo so I take a photo too. Some locals sit quietly in the courtyard; it is still a sanctuary despite the tourism. Sometimes nothing can take away from the inherent peace that surrounds a temple. Like the burning incense; the fire of faith lingers past the flash of photography.

On the walk back we head past the Notre Dame Cathedral, taking pictures of the Communist political posters around the city. We stop at the War Remnants museum and take some pictures of the tanks and planes outside. Inside is a guillotine, a barbed wire cage in which prisoners were kept and many gruesome pictures and stories from that shocking time. I like the pictures in the museum from all around the world, showing various cities protesting the US involvement in the Vietnam war. We are about to go upstairs to see the Agent Orange room when a thundering boom of voices starts to rise. The room full of people turns to see where the sound is coming from and with a burst of colour and sound, a door opens and a mass of school children all in lime green pour out of a small room and spread across the floor, crowding the stairs all the way up. We instead venture back outside to look at the enormous bombs. It is a sobering thought that they can kill whole villages and towns of people without discrimination. Our feet are tired so we head back to the hotel for a swim and a change before dinner.

The Bar Hop

At night, the city takes on a new vibrancy and energy uplifted by the rainbow of neon lights. We pass through the Ben Thanh night market where we are the night before. It is past 7pm but they are only just setting up for the evening. Fake designer handbags appear out of boxes and bottles of mysterious alcohol with Scorpions and snakes eerily preserved within. Surely such liquids must possess the power to cure anything from freckles to colourblindness.

At the roundabout we continue down the road noting a Jazz Club on our left. For dinner, we follow the advice of the good book (Lonely Planet) and go to the Temple Club. Just upstairs is a chaotic, loud Vietnamese BBQ clouded by the smoke of sizzling meat and seafood. Luckily we are offered a high table at the Temple Club even though we have no reservation and start with a beer and a caipirinha. We look around at the 1930’s decor, remembering our first date at Uncle Ming’s bar in Sydney which had much the same feel. The menu is long and we are spoilt for choice, jumping back and forth through the pages until we finally decide on deep fried squid and prawn vermicelli rolls wrapped in mustard leaves (usually include pork but the waitress can accommodate). I try to play ninja chopsticks as we wait but my battle buddy is secretly afraid so he doesn’t take up the challenge… The squid arrives first and is very crunchy, accompanied by a thick aeoli sauce but the mustard leaf rolls are beyond divine. Matt is experiencing festivities in his mouth while I try to pick up as much spicy saté sauce as I can with the little green spring roll.

For mains Matt has ordered a plate of pork which he devours in seconds and I attempt to eat the sweet beans atop my Vietnamese steamed fish. Beans and chopsticks- at last the ninja is defeated. Despite the lightness of the food we are full and decide to venture back into the night for further libations. The highly rated Qing wine bar is mysteriously closed. Whether it is for renovations, the holidays or forever we can’t tell so we head down to the rooftop garden bar above the Rex only to be greatly disappointed by the overpriced drinks and corny music. The place is full of dining families and lacks atmosphere. Paying for a view is overrated and our next attempt to find the elusive Cue bar fails so we head down to a place we found online called Voodoo… Matt doesn’t even slow down as the sign outside saying “crazy girls” clearly means working girls. We find the Kita cafe again and I order a Margarita while Matt is befriended by a tiny Vietnamese boy on a yellow tricycle who poses for a photo, chats endlessly in Vietnamese and is fascinated by Matt’s phone. Regardless of the language barrier, this child grows quickly attached, happy to continue his monologue as he pats Matt’s knee. When we stand to leave he takes the bill straight to the counter for us and the whole family waves goodbye. Around the corner, the historic Majestic hotel bar is already closed so we go straight to the nightclub Apocalypse Now. Intense dance music and flashing lights makes me wonder for a moment if I have epilepsy. I’m sure I don’t but we aren’t really feeling this crowd. Perhaps it is the manic dancing from elderly tourists or the scantily clad girls scanning the crowd but we get bored and continue on. By now my soles are burning (should have worn my runners today and not thongs). We head back to the Jazz club as I prophesy the irony of ending up at the very first bar we spotted after all that walking. The atmosphere is just what we have been after at the Jazz club and I am more impressed by the drinks than the music- they are skilled an enthusiastic but Matt says the drummer is missing “feel”. I do have faith in the bartender but the bar closes far too soon as the waitress tries to sell the sax player’s cd. We walk back with aching blackened feet and lay down with relief feeling we did our best to cover as much of Ho Chi Minh as we could.

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Jade Emperor Pagoda

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Ben Thanh Night Market

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War Remnants Museum

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Walking Tour, Ho Chih Minh Market

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One of those mysterious laws of the universe where my camera and I struggle with aperture, ISO, shutter speeds etc… and then the iPhone takes a perfect shot

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Jade Emperor Pagoda

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Waving from the rooftop pool of the Grand Silverland to some Vietnamese school girls on a balcony across the road

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our first Photo Date

Day 217 to Day 222 – Mountaineering and Snow Camping

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Day 217 – the road to Jindabyne

I leave the house in my base layer thermals, knowing that the further I drive, the colder I will get. I have an equal mix of fear, excitement and curiosity. Leaving the south coast, the road winds and turns up into the mountains. Deep green trees hang over the road, embracing the road and minimal sunlight creeps down. Eventually the road flattens out and fields stretch out to the horizon. I see a wind farm far to the left. I realise I have never seen one before and the windmills have an eerie silence to the moving blades. Their presence is just a stark reminder of how sick our planet is and whilst they also symbolise progress, there is something alien about them in that beautiful landscape.

When I finally get to the Austrlian School of Mountaineering campsite, a considerable amount of layers have been stacked on and I go about stuffing small chocolate bars in all my pockets. I meet my tent buddy, Marina, who is closest to my age in the group. We go up to an Italian restaurant and I order an enormous bowl of pasta which stares at me like a challenge. Somehow my boy brain kicks in and I feel like I have to finish this whole plate of food in front of these ladies just to prove something. I get about three forkfuls away from succeeding when my stomach starts kicking me from the inside, yelling “You did not eat that with mindful conscious awareness!!! If you had, you would have realised you were full twenty minutes ago!!!” I still take a glance at the dessert menu… Well I know I will need the carbs. In the morning we pack up the camp and trek into the national park. We barely sleep in the tent as 100km/hr winds whip at our tents. It isn’t even snowing here. Apparently a weather warning has been issued and we may not get to go. I lie down and look inside, to the self that knows what the hell I am doing here. There is just a silent acknowledgement. Anywhere you are is exactly where you are supposed to be. And apparently that is a Women’s Mountaineering course, Liz? Yes, Liz. It is.

 

Day 218 – the long trek in

We leave the comfortable resort area with sleds connected to our harnesses and our packs full of gear and sleeping bags. The wind and snow whacks us fiercely and at least one lady in our group has said she can’t wait for this week to be over. I have a full balaclava over my face but my breath just fogs up my goggles and I can barely see anyway. We come to the snow river and a guy in front breaks straight through the ice, his snowshoe stuck. One of the guides drops straight down and with no gloves is trying to dig through the hard snow. We all move quickly in the more successful footprints to get to the other side. As soon as we are moving downhill again, I finally have the chance to look around me and just gasp in wonder. I have never been surrounded by so much white. It’s just breathtaking. It feels magical, like Narnia. Just as quickly the path turns uphill and I am sending hate mail to myself again. I have changed sleds and the one I haul now is a little bit lighter, but my snow shoes just scramble about in the soft snow up this steep slope. I finally figure out that if I just kick aggressively with the toe of my shoe, I can compact the snow and climb up. We hit camp and it is mid afternoon. We only have about an hour and a half of daylight to set up our tents in the howling wind and build a snow wall. I am shovelling snow with Marina, thinking how beautiful and fluffy it seems. When I touch it, I realise how cold and sharp it feels. About an hour later, still shovelling out a snow wall, my thought process has changed. I hate the snow, I think, as I finally sit down in my tent and try to shake the white off my boots. My toes and fingers feel warm from all the movement but they are stiff and numb within minutes. Why the hell am I here, I think? I need a hot drink. I need to pee. There are some anorexic looking tree trunks behind which some of the ladies have already done the same. I groan and pull myself back up. I grab a cup and head for the meal tent. Our guides, Gemma and Tash, have managed to throw up their own tent and the meal tent and have already started boiling water for dinner. They do have a lot more experience and efficiency in these situations. Both of them have just recently done a trip to Greenland for the sole purpose of climbing mountains and paragliding off the summits. I am in awe of these women as we sit around and laugh ourselves into warmth. At the end of the day, when I turn inwards and ask myself why I am here, the answer is simply, “you are here.” The plain and simple fact is that I am here and I can’t leave. I can either embrace this experience or struggle against it. I will see women doing both and, as ever, I choose the light. I choose to embrace.

 

Day 219 – Blue Lake

When I emerge from the tent in the morning and stare out at the perfect whiteness surrounding me, I am completely breathless. I have never seen such amazing beauty. I can’t even begin to describe the touch of sunshine dancing through the leaves and this is only the view from the toilet! And by toilet, I mean the section of snow that is slightly downhill and out of sight of camp.

We have one day of good weather so we head out to Blue Lake. The trek to Blue Lake is probably double the trek we did yesterday and mostly uphill but this time we have no sleds and our packs carry only climbing equipment. Gemma stops to wait for some of the others and while we take a sip of water she asks me, “So this is your first trip to the snow?”

“Yes.”

“And you decide to come snow camping and mountaineering?”

“Yes.”

“Cutting it sick, living extreme.”

I guess this whole Bliss project has pushed me to do some pretty amazing and life changing things this year…

Blue Lake usually has an array of ice walls on which to practice crampon and ice axe techniques but when we arrive, the ice walls are small and a cornice peaks over the main section. It was this same spot where a guide unfortunately lost his life when the cornice collapsed and avalanched on him. We buckle up the crampons, which are basically just spikes that fit to the outside of the climbing boots. They have two front teeth that can be used to climb vertical ice walls. My socks have bundled up and I can feel the top of my right mountain boot bruising my shin. It is already painful but I just ignore the pain and carry on. Adjusting the socks would be a mission at this stage. It would mean undoing the crampons, then the gaiters, undoing two sets of laces and then having to do it all up again. Still, I manage a quick shuffle of socks and it makes no difference. Once the bruise is there, the pain is just going to keep thudding away with every step. Aren’t I so glad this happened on the second day and not the first!

There are seven women in our group. Marina, the two guides and myself make up the younger generation. The rest of the women have huge climbs planned in the Himalayas and are on this mountaineering course to prepare. One lady, Sue, has been training and despite her age, confidently scales up the small ice sections in her crampons. One of the other ladies is more tentative and doesn’t seem to have faith in the equipment. Gemma tells us to be aggressive, to really kick the crampons into the ice. Aggressive? I can do that. I attack the ice like it deserves it and scale up way higher than I should, but confidently climb back down, trying not to let anyone see that I may have just freaked myself out. Balaclavas are good for the poker face. I try to strut away and Tash points out that my crampon loop has come undone. Dammit.

We get to another slope and learn self-arrest, which is basically just using the ice axe to stop yourself when you start sliding. We learn from four different slides: feet first, head first, on back, on stomach. It only takes five seconds before my inner child takes over. Sliding down a hill and then digging an axe into ice to flip over and stop is supposed to be a survival technique but it doesn’t mean it has to be morbid! We whoop and slide down the slope until it gets to the point where we need to leave. As we walk away, the wind whips around misty flows of snow down the mountains toward us. The whirling eddies dance in silence and we stop to watch these snowy spirals. I remember seeing sand moving this way in Mexico. It felt like the wind was whispering to me, guiding me and pointing me in the right direction.

A white cloud descends upon Blue Lake and envelopes us completely. We need to get back to camp and build our ice walls higher. Apparently those 100km/hr winds are coming back tonight. Whilst we are protected on the slope, we need to secure our guy ropes with ice axes and hammers and ice stakes. I have to admit, after a day of playing with axes, crampons and other sharp objects I am feeling like a bit of a warrior. I finally remember the bruise on my shin, which caused me to limp all the way back from Blue Lake. I sit down to take off my boot and see what I can do about it. The great thing is that making an ice pack to get the swelling down is easy! Unfortunately, no bandage or band-aid will help. I just need to deal with this pain. I wonder at pain and what purpose it serves. It is there to tell us when our bodies have been damaged. And once that damage has been healed, we are usually stronger when we come out on the other side. I have just spent the day trekking through snow, climbing ice and tumbling down a slope. This bruise is nothing. It is simply a part of the temporary discomfort. And I am even grateful for it, for reminding me that my body is temporary and that I can try as hard as I can to protect it, but sometimes it will still suffer and I forgive it for that too.

 

Day 220 – Lizard in a Blizzard

All night the wind howls around our tents and we have to get up twice to shovel the snow away from the tent. This means sitting up, putting on the inner boots, the outer boots, tying up two sets of frozen laces with ten frozen fingers, wrapping my ankles in gaiters which are frozen and covered in snow and then putting on my outer shell. Ten minutes later, we emerge from the tent and start shovelling. If we don’t do this, there is a chance the snow will suffocate us. There is a point in tying my laces where I am tempted to think that this is not a great experience but then I look at myself. Here you are, Liz, camping in the snow, getting up in a blizzard to shovel snow and using a plastic freezer bag for a toilet. If ever you have had the chance to face your own resilience, your own strength, this is it. The smile could not be wiped from my face, no matter how hard the snow tries.

We spend the day pitching and climbing up the slope near camp. The weather won’t let us climb Kozsiousko. We learn how to make the anchors with the snow stakes and belay each other up. It is hard work, digging, belaying, remembering the appropriate calls. I am about to start climbing when my partner calls out from the top of the hill. Her words are lost to the winds but Tash and I turn to each other, “Did she just say ‘hold on’?” That is not something you want to hear. We spend the whole afternoon climbing and when I finally get to the top of the hill and bury my snow stake, I take a moment to hang off my anchor and turn around. Wow. I spent the whole time looking straight ahead at the snow or up to the top or intently at my knots or down at my partner, but when I finally turn around to see what is around and below me, I finally understand what all that hard work was for. To see the expanse of snow covered peaks, the frozen river below, distant trees and the dramatic silence of this view… this is what climbing is all about. This is where I find the divine. When I can stare out into a place so completely untouched by humans, the earth in all its naked glory, and really see into its soul. That is where I see my own divine self. That is where I find my own soul.

 

Day 221 – the silence of the ice cave

The weather means we have a day of vaguely practicing knots and plodding around camp. The spindrift has nearly buried my door through the night, but it is much easier to shovel than the thicker snow from last night. One of the tents at the other camp has not fared well in the blizzard so the other group has had to build an ice cave. When Tash says we need water, I am frozen stiff, so I volunteer to go with her down to the creek and get some. I know the movement is the only thing that will warm me up and after Marina and I made a failed attempt this morning at our own snow cave, I am curious to see this one. We crawl in and up into the sleeping platform which is elevated from the entrance to allow the cool air to fall down and out. The roof is dome shaped so that as the ice melts, it drips down to the sides. It is bright blue inside and deathly silent. It is also incredibly warm. I finally understand the concept of an igloo. Tash and I sit and wonder at this creation that took the other group all afternoon to build. I take the precious few moments of stillness and meditation. Silent. Just so silent. We peer out the door and see the sun setting. We need to get to the creek before it gets dark. We carry on and trudge down the hill, each footprint falling knee deep into the soft snow. The creek has frozen over so Tash starts to dig. I am about to pass her a water bladder when she pushes her foot deeper into the hole and collapses a pile of snow into it. I offer to switch places and getting down into this small crevasse, start digging away. Some of the grassy creek bed gets dislodged into the water but eventually I can hear the trickle of water. We have a small plastic cup to scoop the water out and into the water bladders that Tash holds open. I chat away as I work, one cupful at a time, trying not to include too many bits of plant matter into our drinking water. I can see how this could be seen as doing it rough, but I am loving every moment of this. I feel so connected to the earth. Having lived on a farm in a drought when I was little, I know the value of water. I can’t stand to see people waste water, leaving taps on while they chat or wash their hands, or people who have 15 minute showers because they just “don’t care”. Once you have had to shower out of a bucket, you can see how little water it takes to actually get clean. I know that some countries have more water than others but when I know that there are places in this world where children have to walk kilometres, carrying buckets of water, risk getting raped or killed and end up dying of thirst anyway, the value of water is simply priceless. You can live without food for a few weeks, but water? Water is life. And here I am, half buried in a hole, getting water out from under a frozen creek and I have never been happier. This is what it feels like to live, to deserve to live. This is what it is like to push past the discomfort and just do it anyway and realise that when you turn around and see what it was all for, that you can see deep into yourself. And when I look inwards, I like what I see.

 

Day 222 – the long trek home

I knew it. I just knew it. I knew I would be the one carting the shit out. Kozsiousko is a national park so we have to take out everything. I mean everything! Including a dry bag full of the waste of nine women from the past five days. It is strapped to a sled along with the rubbish and attached by rope to the harness around my waist. I put my pack on. I think it weighs about 20kg. I think the sled is about 30kg. There is no movement for a few scrambling steps as I try to pull away. I have to give a few pelvic thrusts just to get the thing moving. Eventually I build some momentum as we go downhill, but a sudden uphill incline seems almost impossible as I flounder and fall over backwards, like a flailing turtle in the snow. We traverse a slope with a second person holding the back of the sled so that it doesn’t slide down into the frozen river, dragging us with it. The sled in front of me keeps toppling over and I can feel everyone’s frustration building. The walk back over the river is a little bit easier now that snow has been falling for the past few days. The final kilometre is a steep uphill climb with the packs and we have to stop every few steps. I have transferred the sled to Marina’s harness but I still pull it along beside her. I keep pushing on, knowing this is the final hard slog before rest. The sun has shone for us all day and the snow sparkles. The whispering winds swirl around us and up the hill, guiding us back up to Charlotte’s Pass. Our first glimpse of civilisation; skiers and snowboarders fly past as we shuffle along in snowshoes. The final awkward shuffle downhill is excruciatingly long but when we finally get there, I stand still for a moment with my pack on my shoulders, just feeling its weight, knowing that I did that. I dragged that sled, I carried this pack and I did all of that hard work. I did it all and I did it for me. That sense of achievement bubbles over into laughter as we pack up and gather in the snow cats, driving us back down to Perisher. I am overflowing with giddy excitement and take a longing look at the snow as we change to a bus that will take us back down to Jindabyne. I was worried I would be too tired to drive all the way back to Sydney tonight but this excitement is like a natural high I have never felt before. I feel invigorated and alive; my eyes are wide open and I can already tell I won’t be sleeping for a while. We unpack back at Jindabyne and then say our final goodbyes. In such a short time it was possible for 9 women to bond, to share, to help, to surprise, entertain and possibly infuriate each other. I will miss the snow but I can’t wait to get back into the comfort of my own car, to get home and have a long, hot shower, to wear fresh clothes that aren’t waterproof and to just lay down on my soft bed. I have met my own strength and resilience and I have lived in utter discomfort, loving every second of it. Now, when I get home and go to bed, I am seriously looking forward to deserving it.

 

Day 146 – the Rocks are vivid right now

First day back at work… And it is AWESOME. I am lucky enough to work with some of the most beautiful people in the world at Embrace, Miranda. It is a spiritual, new age store that is kind of like walking into another dimension when you step inside. The kind of place that always smells amazing from the scented candles and incense, where the energy seems to resonate at a higher level, where you are surrounded by crystals, where children (and grown-ups) can believe in magic, where hugs are free and the laughter flows freely. I only had time for a ten minute meditation in the morning, but it feels like enough because I am already beyond excited to see a couple of my friends and I am singing the whole way to work. My short shift flies through and tonight I am meeting some girlfriends at the Rocks for some chocolate.

We sit down to chat and for the first time, I am with people who have no idea about the break up. They ask casually how wedding plans are going and I have to explain that they are not going. At all. Or ever will be. They gasp (loudly) at the news and then offer consolations, but I am already leaving the table. No, I am not going for a cry. We are at the Guylian cafe and there are more important matters to attend to- like choosing which cake I am going to eat. They all look so amazing, I know this decision is going to take a while. I know that eventually I will have to tell them what happened, but they are understanding and it helps to be stuffing your face with chocolate when you have to relive matters of the heart. Eventually the sugar and caffeine overload has us all leaning back into the cushioned seats, lazily licking spoons and trying not to feel guilty about the ten thousand calories we just ate.

Vivid Festival is on right now in Sydney so we wonder around Circular Quay taking photos of the light sculptures. The sandstone of the historical Rocks, usually so rustic and ancient, is splashed with neon lights and across the water, images are being projected onto the beautiful Opera House. Screams call us over past the angelic bicycles and enormous naughts and crosses where we find a wall that lights up from the sound of screaming people that stand in front of it. Young girls run over in groups to squeal at the wall, making the metal pieces flap up to reveal a row of lights and we are surprised at the small crowd that has gathered to watch. Like a Mexican wave, the crowd starts to scream together and the wall opens is nearly blinding. A single man walks over and roars so loudly he even gets a bit of applause. We wonder on to make shadows on the walls of the MCA (Museum of Contemporary Art), and then ponder the meaning of the blocks of melting ice. My friend Jenny walks away, shrugging; “it is probably some kind of statement about global warming”.

With the city looking so beautiful, the crowd is littered with photographers and tripods as they open their shutters to get beautiful images. I feel a little embarrassed that I have only my humble iPhone camera, but then again I would probably be more embarrassed carrying around my SLR and pretending to know what I am doing. Sydney has such a vibrant energy, it is perfectly embodied by these shining neon lights. I love this city for its ability to be all things at once. In between ancient sandstone beginnings, The Rocks, and its sparkling light show, Sydney is a beautiful place to discover again.

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Day 140 – everything changed in India

I am ready to leave the guesthouse at 4.30am, but when I get downstairs the gate is locked and the owner is not answering his phone. When the taxi arrives, I have no other choice but to climb the fence. Is it some kind of sign that I shouldn’t be leaving? I am more than excited to get home and see my family, but I also have a feeling that they will need to physically force me, kicking and screaming, through the airport and onto the plane. I wake up early to do pranayama but there is enough time in transit with nothing much else to do but to meditate. I practice a grounding meditation I did once at the start of this journey, over four months ago when I left Sydney. I imagine a thread of light extending form the crown of my head, down through my body, out my feet and deep into the earth, all the way to the core of the planet.

Before I board the third and final plane that will take me back to Sydney from Bangkok I start chatting to a couple of Swiss guys. One of them asks if my trip to India has changed me. As I nod with a smile, I go back to that moment in January when I sat at the airport in Sydney, waiting for a plane to take me to Bali. How different everything was back then. How different I was then.

“Yes, I have changed.”

“In what way have you changed?”

Unprepared for this conversation with a stranger, I blurt out the most honest answer that is available, “Everything. Everything has changed. I have changed entirely.”

When I left Sydney, I was erratic, half full of anxiety, entirely too full of negative thoughts, my hair was long and I was engaged. Now I feel relaxed, centred, excessively optimistic, my hair is short and I am single. Going to Mexico, I realised just how different my spiritual path was to the path that I was on with my fiancé. We had a great time, but I didn’t get to do all the things in Mexico that I wanted to do. I went back to Sumatra feeling once again way too dependent on my partner to keep me happy. I put unfair expectations on him and then when we were separated, I became despondent and by the time I got to Bali, I gave up my power to my shadow by drinking. I was still practicing every morning but with less energy and less prana. After one more week in Bali, trying to find balance I retreated to an ashram and after practising a day of silence for Nyepi, the Balinese Hindu new year, I went to the local salon in Candidasa and shaved off all my hair. By the time I left for India, I had to say a final goodbye to my fiancé, knowing that my spiritual journey had now led me away from our path together and onward on my own. A part of me had no idea what I was doing and I still remember that crippling fear I felt on that first morning in Delhi when I didn’t even want to leave the hotel. Then, meeting our teacher at Sadhana Mandir Trust, the man who shook my world up, yelling out his TLA’s (three letter acronyms) and demanding that I speak about myself in the third person. Three weeks later and I knew that everything in my life had led me to that point. Trekking up to Gaumukh was the single most life changing moment. As I ascended the final metres, I felt that descending force pulling me up and into the frost tipped mountains. Seeing that frozen glacier, I felt like I had entered the kingdom of heaven. They say that Ayers Rock, in the centre of Australia, is the solar plexus chakra of the world. Well then, the Gaumukh glacier must be the world’s crown chakra. It is a physical place where you can reach out and touch god. As I continued through India, praying at temples and visiting ancient forts, I felt the energy of the ancient land, its rich history culminating to create this world of myth. Meeting the children of I-India I was inspired by the people of this world who, despite having no water, no food, no family or no clean clothes; have undying faith in god, and radiate brightness and joy and dance through life anyway. Watching the Bollywood movie with my friends, I realised how different Australian culture was and how lucky I was to be born in a country where freedom of expression is upheld and even if we have no vegetarian burger available at McDonald’s, we at least consider an ‘honour’ killing a punishable crime.

I left Australia with false expectations, attachments and anxieties. I touched the ground of my ancestors. I enjoyed the luxuries and sensory pleasures of Bali. I entered India with fear, was blessed by the Ganges, my ego was burned to the ground, I was chased by a monkey, I walked straight above the clouds and into heaven, I rode an elephant and danced with the beautiful street children of Jaipur. I have become closer to myself than ever before and now feel that my purpose in this lifetime is to search for enlightenment.

What has changed? Besides my body, my mind, my soul, my path? What hasn’t changed as I fly around the world at high speed and high altitude? Well there is no sign of it slowing down. Whether I join a friend and drive/camp to Western Australia, go back to India, Africa, the Morocco or London. I can’t go back now. I have drawn a line in the sand and the only place to go is to keep moving forward. When everything is changing, you have to change everything.

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Day 135 – the bridge to the default world

My friend Rup has had a permanent, rock hard and bright orange cast put on her fractured foot so now that she can manage a slow hobble, she wants to take me shopping. As we wait for the café to open across the road, she passes me some nail polish, which I initially decline but then think, “why not?” I haven’t had nail polish since we were in Mexico back in February and then I ended up picking it all off because it was just too hard to maintain. As I wait for my pink nails to dry, I flip through a fashion magazine and am immediately swamped by an ambush of advertisements. I hate to say how effective they are as I can feel desires rising up. Books, makeup, clothes, food… These desires are struggling against my higher goal for enlightenment when I turn a page and see it. MAC Red. It is an iconic fashion statement and my absolute favourite lipstick. Seeing it now in print, it demands to know, how will I find balance between this default world and higher purpose? In my current state of spiky hair and unshaved legs, I am far from the fashion victim. I look at my hands, like two sides of a coin; one side covered in dark orange Henna, the other side, nails painted in hot pink. Why does the pink look so good to me? Is it really such deep set social conditioning that has taught me to appreciate this colour? Then again, the Henna is also a fashion statement, although the herbal dye also offers cooling properties for the hands.

As we sip our coffees, getting ready for a day of shopping, I am prepared to use my filter. At Sadhana Mandir, our teacher taught us to test everything by asking first if it is a need or want. If it is a need is it useful/not useful? If it is useful, is it necessary/not necessary? If it is necessary is it real/not real? If it is real does it give happiness/bondage? He asked us to give examples and with conviction, I demanded to know why my MAC red lipstick doesn’t pass through the filter? He wouldn’t even give it a go! I remember thinking that of course I NEED my MAC red lippie, every woman needs a favourite lipstick. Of course it is useful! I use it to paint my lips red. Of course it is necessary for those days when it matches my outfit. Of course it is real; it exists when I am holding it in my hand. And it is a powerful assertion of freedom of expression, as it allows me to show the world that I am bold enough to step out in right red lipstick, regardless of what you think. I have the confidence to pull it off and I don’t care if you agree because I like how it makes me feel. To me, that passed through the filter with flying colours. Unfortunately, our teacher did not see it that way and he went on to say that the only thing that passed through the filter is the all-pervading higher state of consciousness that is the “I”, or Atman.

If nothing else makes it through the filter, then what is the point of going anywhere or doing anything? Obviously I am not ready for the life of a renunciate, so today I am going shopping. I appreciate the economical use of the filter and am able to pass through many shops these days without a purchase. Finally, Rup’s leg is tired and sore so we have some street food- gol guppa, which is like a pocket of puffed wheat, filled with potato and covered in cold, green, spicy water. You put the whole thing in your mouth in one go and it is like a cool kick in the mouth. We then have an ice gola, which is basically a snow cone but with Indian flavours. We struggle to eat the dripping bright ice as we bumble along in the rickshaw back to the guesthouse.

Later in the afternoon, after I arrive back from the dentist having paid only 2700Rs ($54) for a cleaning, an x-ray and two fillings, I stop at a street cart to buy fruit. In my few words of Hindi, I manage to ask how much all the fruit costs and buy a kilo of grapes, mandarins, mangos and bananas. I walk away pretty damn pleased with myself. I remember being in Indonesia for those first few months, completely unable to communicate and feeling so lost without someone beside me who could translate. Two years on and I am in a country I entered, knowing none of the language and can complete a simple market transaction purely from words I have picked up through osmosis. Obviously I fall into the category of traveller if I am going to the dentist in India- no good tourist would go to a dentist on holiday.

As I wash my grapes, Rup knocks on the door and tells me to get ready; we are going to a movie. I have five minutes. As we walk into the cinemas, Megha tells me to take off my Om scarf, “You look like a Sadhu Baba!” I may be entering back into the default world with painted nails and a movie but I can still be a yogi in this world. The movie is called Ishqzaade, which means ‘lovers’ and is a Romeo and Juliet-esque tale about a couple from opposing political families. The girl, Zoya, comes from a wealthy Muslim family and the boy, Padme, is from the rival Hindu family. I manage to follow along with the storyline besides understanding little beyond, ‘chalo!’, which means ‘come on, let’s go’. Apparently they are speaking in the language of Uttar Pradesh, which is where Rup and her sister Megha are from. Just before intermission, at the twist of the plot, the dramatic music and facial expressions have revealed all, but I ask Rup exactly what happened anyway, just to be sure. I’m amazed and astonished- the story has me entirely enthralled! We stop to get some popcorn and coke (obviously not the best choice after an afternoon at the dentist, but there is cheese flavoured popcorn!) and we get back in just in time for another song and dance routine of which there are surprisingly few in this film. My favourite part of the movie is when Padme wakes up and, seeing Zoya, quickly ducks down so he isn’t caught watching her. I think that she must be undressed, but then she is seen in the next room, doing her morning prayers. She gracefully bows down to the mat, then turning her head to each side, sees him watching her and smiles. It is a moment of pure intimacy. He may not see her naked, but her spiritual devotion is bared and open for him to see, revealing her true nature. She smiles shyly, as though accepting that he has now seen her, as she is before god. With the poetic ending, there is a final note that says many Ishqzaade, like Padme and Zoya die all the time merely for falling in love someone from a differing religion or caste.

I ask Megha and Rup about this and they confirm that India is famous for honour killings and that indeed, their own father has warned of killing them. I ask if he would go to jail for that and she says that most of the time people have friends in government who protect them. I can’t hide my shock and confusion, that such a spiritual land in this present day can allow people to be killed over different practices. It seems so primitive, so barbaric.

In the world there is no consistency, there are no rules for defining how people will act or react. One thing that is good here may be bad in another place or time. It is only thinking and conditioning which makes it so. I come from a country where an arranged marriage is seen as ancient, people are punishable for committing murder and thousands of people happily and respectfully choose atheism over spirituality. India is a world where slaughtering cows for food is seen as barbaric, where couples are punishable for denying their heritage and marrying outside of caste or religion and where people leave home and family to find enlightenment. There is no good, no bad. I can hold no judgement for practices outside of my own. It is a beautiful and diverse world and the more I learn about it, the more I love it. I can wear my pink nail polish and my mala beads. I can pray to god and to Shiva.

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Day 134 – I-India street schools and Women’s shelter homes

Today is my last day with I-India. They have promised to show me the last of the projects including the street schools and the women’s shelters. We get into the back of the jeep and drive through dusty lots where the makeshift huts begin to appear. They are mostly made of tarpaulin and canvas sheets laid over plank wooden and stick frames. At the centre of this desert community we pull up beside the school, which is a simple hut with no walls, covered in canvas. The children are sitting in the shade. Some have torn clothes and one child is sent out to go and put some pants on. They have little, but besides some dry scabs that are typical of children who play in hot dry weather, they are clean and healthy. I-India brings shower facilities every two days, as the nearest water is a few kilometres away. There is a group of goats bleating in the next hut as the children get up for some yoga. I go through some basic stretches, warrior two and finish with a balance. They laugh uncontrollably, especially when I ask them to stand on one leg. As we prepare to leave, Kavita from I-India asks them to recall any of the yoga I showed them. A few stand up and show us the tree, but I see one child absentmindedly pick up his foot and stretch it straight above his head. It seems these kids could show me a thing or two about yoga.

We move onto Vasihali, which is another street school. Similarly, it is built on the sand, amid the canvas and tarpaulin huts. This one, however, is a little bigger and has four walls, covered in blankets or gudris, and posters of the English alphabet. The room is crowded full of yelling children, chanting, “Welcome! Welcome! Welcome!” I enter and sit in the corner and slowly the children come over to talk to me. They speak endlessly, ignoring the fact that I can’t speak or understand Hindi. A boy named Sanjay comes and spells words for me. Curiously, they all have their names tattooed on their forearms in Hindi and in English. Just like the youngest girls all have the nose piercing, earrings and black kajal around the eyes to protect against the bad spirits. It is a strange sight to see a tiny child bejewelled with smoky eyes. Some children are completing a small test and there is much yelling as they hand their papers to the two teachers to mark. The teachers manage to keep control of the chaos and laugh at each other throughout it all. The children recite poems and songs and then the girls stand to show some traditional Banjari song and dance. It is beautiful to hear them singing together, their arms raised high and their hips shaking seductively.

I finish the day at the shelter home for women. There are two shelters in close proximity to each other and the first one that I enter is full of sleeping young girls. A couple of them wake up and we go through my basic Hindi. They sit around me and place sweets in my mouth. I can’t even tell what these sweets are; they are red and hard and taste distinctly Indian. One small girl, Devi, runs to her locker and comes back with pink blush on her fingers that she lovingly applies to my cheeks. “Pink colour,” she says, simply. I don’t think there is a single place on this planet where little girls are not taught to love the colour pink. As I am trying to get a good picture of these girls as they dash about the room, an elderly lady enters. Her name is Jaya. She speaks perfect English and sits on the floor with me to ask where I have come from. She asks what I have been doing in India and when I say that I came to study yoga at an ashram in Rishikesh, she is very excited. She is from Uttarakhand, which is nearby and tells me I have to go to Renagate when I come back to India. I make sure she writes it down for me but she writes it in Hindi so her note needs translation. She wants me to show her some yoga, not teach, more like perform, I move through the surya namaskars and she tells me that she can see I practice with sincerity. This is one of the most moving compliments I have ever received in my life.

After I eat, Jaya takes me to the other shelter. She asks if I want to have some mehindi, Henna, and I am surprised that I haven’t had this done already in my whole time in India. Excited I outstretch my left hand for Rajini, who is a talented artist. Kiran, who I met at Ladli last week, completes my right hand and then in a bustle, I am told I have to leave as the car is coming to take me back to the guesthouse. I don’t want to leave. I am so much enjoying the company of these girls. I try not to touch anything as the brown paste dries on my hands. In the car, Jaya tells me that she comes to the shelter every single day. She lives far away so she has to take two buses to get there. Such selfless service, such devotion to other people is rare in the west, but not in India. When people say karma yoga, the first person that comes to mind is usually Gandhi or Mother Teresa. Karma yoga is the act of service to each other as a means for serving god.

I have a list of things to do before I leave India, so I have had to regrettably cut short my time with I-India. I realise that the only discomfort I have felt when at Children’s Village, or at the shelters, is when I have been served like an honoured guest. In Australia, we only expect service like that when we are paying for it. We don’t really get the idea of selfless service. This cultural difference has become so apparent to me. Since the first time I saw the simple act of touching a respected person’s feet, I have seen that Indian culture is permeated with the essence of devotion to each other as embodiments of god. When one says ‘namaste’, it is not merely a greeting, but recognition of the divine light that resides within each being. I have felt that while visiting these children and young women that I have not been doing enough for them. In thinking of volunteer work, I wanted to be able to offer something of myself to them, but instead have felt like they have been the ones to enrich my lives, to feed me food, sweets and chai. They danced, sung and recited poetry for me and a part of me felt anxious at the idea of receiving so much and feeling like I gave so little. I guess that is part of my social conditioning to believe that I have to give back in order to receive. It is a difficult thing to break down those conditions and accept selfless love. To accept selfless love, in a way, is also to give selfless love.

If there is one thing I have seen with I-India is that it is an organisation built on selfless love and selfless service. From its birth with Mrs Abha’s rickshaw school-on-wheels, to the complex that is the Jhag Children’s Village, still in construction, this is a group of people who saw the needs of others and have devoted their lives to their service. Mr and Mrs Goswami have built their lives around karma yoga, around these women and children who radiate the divine luminosity of beings that are loved.

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