Tag Archives: Buddhism

An Adventure to Nepal – Guest Post!

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It is not everyday that we meet someone who traveled to Nepal. And even more interesting, is talking to someone who took a National Geographic trip to Nepal! I want to introduce Dalton George, who is dating one of my favorite new friends in Greenville, Alissa. Ironically Alissa is also from Michigan and we bound over our love for Michigan (despite our Spartan and Wolverine rivalry :)). To show how small our world is, Dalton is also from my hometown, but we never met each other there! When I first met Dalton in Greenville, he mentioned that he was traveling to Nepal and I couldn’t wait to hear about his trip! He was kind enough to share details about his experience, answering my questions below.

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Pokhara (PC: Dalton George)


What inspired you to go on the trip to Nepal?

I am not so sure I was inspired to go to Nepal specifically, I was more inspired to just travel in general. If anything, the decision to go specifically to Nepal was more out of coincidence than anything else. I will explain.

So last June I finished up my Master’s Degree program at Drexel University in Philadelphia, and had a few months in between that and my next professional endeavor. Knowing this, and knowing how busy life can get, I made traveling somewhere new an imperative in my life during my “down time.” The logic here was simple: you never know when you will have the opportunity to do something amazing with the people you love most, so seize the day! My mother had already told me she was going “stir crazy” and needed to travel somewhere new, and had asked me if I was interested in taking a trip with her and my sister. So the decision to travel somewhere was easy: I had motivation to do so and people to go with. Time to make it happen.

Coincidence selected Nepal. My mother and I were unsure of where we wanted to go, but we were certain that we wanted to go on a National Geographic tour. To decide on our destination, we flipped open a NatGeo adventure catalogue, and we each picked out our 3 favorite trips that were advertised. Our selections overlapped at Nepal, and therefore we decided Nepal was our destination.

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Trishuli River (PC: Dalton George)

I cannot speak to why my mother selected Nepal out of that catalogue, but I can tell you why I did: lack of knowledge. Seriously, that is why. Ok ok, and I really wanted to see some cool mountains (and my God, were those some cool mountains!). I remember looking at that NatGeo catalogue, reading over the Nepal description, and thinking, “oh my gosh, I literally know NOTHING about Nepal, or Tibet for that matter.” The trip description advertised some exciting opportunities, including a Rhino wildlife safari, Paragliding, and mountain hiking. But the main reason I selected Nepal out of that catalogue was ignorance, and a desire to reverse it. And again, yes, to see some awesome mountains.

Describe National Geographic trips to those who may not know about them.

National Geographic offers curated tours of popular “and some not so popular” destinations across the whole world. The trip usually functions as a two week tour of a region, or in our case, most of a country. You travel with a small tour group, usually 12-20 people, and together you all have an adventure! This was my first trip that functioned this way, and I can honestly say I really enjoyed it. It made Nepal accessible to someone like me, someone who does not speak the language, or as I have previously mentioned, have any clue about any aspect of what the country is all about. The tour group is led by a guide a local from that region or country. Ours was a Nepalese man who was currently living in the country’s capital city (Kathmandu) and had been leading NatGeo tours for 12+ years. His English was excellent, and he was an endless encyclopedia of knowledge about his home country, its religions, and the Tibetan region as a whole. Seriously, we did our best to stump him with questions, almost to no avail. I sort of cheated, half-sarcastically asking him to name all of the gods in the Hindu religion. He could not, seeing as there are over 33 million total…

I would recommend NatGeo trips to anyone. Your group follows a general itinerary, but there is ample time to pick and choose activities that appeal to your preferences. For us in Nepal, we jumped at every chance to do any hiking, as my sister and I enjoy that activity immensely, and decided not to participate in others like the much heralded “Everest Plane Flight” (it was too expensive). This ability to pick and choose gives the NatGeo trips a great balance between structure and freedom, and you are never pressured into doing anything you don’t want to do.

Another reason why I would recommend NatGeo is in the way they set up their tours so that almost all money spent by you and your tour group during the trip is going in the hands of local people. And I don’t simply mean the well off business owners of city hotels. I mean small villages, and in our case, Tibetan refugees. At least on this trip this was the case, I suppose I cannot speak to other trips in other areas of the world. Places that your tour group eats, sleeps, and spends your time (and money) are almost exclusively places run by local people. In this way, NatGeo places a premium on supporting local, sometimes even vulnerable, communities in the places that they send their tour groups. Don’t confuse this with any sort of charity activity, these are businesses like any other, the difference is your money is not going to some rich development company who set up shop on the coast of Jamaica, but into the hands of local business owners who have a much more personal stake in the future of their country. As a tourist, this gave me the feel-goods, and is a business practice in the tourism industry I had not given much thought to until I saw it in action.

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Kathmandu (PC: Dalton George)

What were your favorite landmarks and excursions?

The Himalayas – these need no explanation I’m sure. One of the few times in my life that I can honestly say I had no words to describe the shear awesomeness of a thing I saw…I imagine the majesty of looking up at these mountains is only matched by the view from atop one of them.

The Himalayan Foothills – Like a way, way cooler version of Appalachia. With glacial rivers cutting pathways through the steep, forested foothills of heaven’s cradle, the beautiful scenery provided makes the arduous journey through the bumpy mountain roads of Nepal enjoyable. Well, mostly.

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Farmland in the Himalayan Foothills (PC: Dalton George)

Buddhanath Buddhist Stupa – This 5th century Buddhist religious monument/temple serves as a pilgrimage destination for Tibetan Buddhists around the world. Awe inspiring in its Architecture, one of those moments where you ask yourself “how did people over 1000 years ago build something like this???”

Swayambhunath Buddhist Stupa – Another Buddhist religious monument similar to Buddhanath, but this temple has a very sizable population of Rhesis Macaques roaming the grounds. These “holy monkeys” live at the temple year round, entertaining tourists and stealing from the offering tables all day every day. Additionally, the views from this Stupa of the capital city of Kathmandu are amazing. Absolutely worth your time.

 

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Monkey Temple (PC: Dalton George)

Pashupatinah Temple – A very famous Hindu temple located in Kathmandu. I learned so much about the Hindu religion whilst visiting this ancient temple, both in a cognitive and emotional way. This place hit me harder than most of the places I visited in Nepal. It’s a very spiritual and emotional place. If you are a westerner, be prepared. Oh, and stay out of the way of the roving bands of holy cows that are walking everywhere.

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Chitwan National Park – Rhinos. In the wild. From 100 feet away. And Tigers. TIGERS. We didn’t see one, but the footprints were enough for me to get back into the safari jeep. The farming village of Chitwan is also a lovely place filled with lovelier people. I would go back there in a heartbeat.

How were the people?

From the streets of Kathmandu, to the small farming villages in the Himalayan foothills, the people of Nepal were never shy to share a smile and a “Namaste” with foreign visitors. Never during my twelve days in the country did I feel unwelcome or experience any unfriendliness, and I always felt safe. The Nepali are a very spiritual, peaceful people whose society is heavily influenced by both Hinduism and Tibetan Buddhism. This latter influence is especially important in understanding their attitudes towards community and people from all levels of society. Without going into extensive detail (because I will surely not get something right!) I can say that Tibetan Buddhist influence has instilled a fundamental sense of living for the community that defines the culture of the Nepali people. They are not (as of yet) a materialistic people, their sense of self is not tied to ownership of land or things. They seemed much more concerned about building spirituality, and social connectedness than wealth and status. Oh, and they very much like to have a good time when the working day is done 😉.

How was the food?

Delicious, unique, and CHEAP. Nepalese cuisine is kind of mix between Chinese, Indian, and Tibetan (no, not Panda Express Chinese, actual Chinese). Lots of lentils, lots of meat curries, lots of fried breads, lots of fantastic uses of spices on veggies, and fantastic teas (Masala Milk Chai in particular). If you choose to, you can have this Dal Bhat style of meal breakfast lunch and dinner: it’s a Nepalese staple, and its amazing. All of the ingredients for most everything you eat are locally sourced from the fertile foothills of the Himalayas, so everything is very fresh.

What reflections or learnings did you have about yourself, life, and/or the world?

Oh man, I could go on and on for this one. But in the interest of keeping it short and sweet, I guess the one most important thing I learned, or at least got a more concrete sense of, is that different lifestyles and cultures do not necessarily belong on a hierarchy. We label places like Nepal “the 3rd world” and conceptualize it as existing in a lesser state of prosperity (and therefore happiness) than a place like the United States, or some other “developed” Western country. When we look at the GDP of a place like Nepal, or here about how basic its infrastructure is, or shake our heads at its lack of political stability, we are only focusing on the surface and missing the bigger picture, the deeper understanding of what that place is really all about. Only by walking on through the streets and interacting with the people can we gain such an understanding. There are plenty of values and norms of Nepali society I would love to see incorporated into my American one. Love, peace, and community-oriented growth are cornerstones of the Nepali culture, and we as Americans have a lot to gain in understanding how these people see the world and understand their place in it as we journey through our own nation-wide identity crisis. I would highly recommend Nepal to anyone wishing to experience a place unlike any other, with a people unlike any other, before it (potentially) succumbs to the pressures to modernize in the ways dictated by the Western “developed world.”


Thank you, Dalton, for sharing your story! I am inspired to go on a National Geographic trip and to visit Nepal one day too!

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Adventures in Sri Lanka

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Can you believe that August is already coming to an end? Since my last post earlier this month, I had one of my most adventurous trips so far. I experienced Sri Lanka, the home country of one of my best friends and roommates from college. It was my first time visiting Southeast Asia, and I had an eye-opening cultural experience in Qatar for a layover on my way to Sri Lanka.

The main purpose of my eastbound journey was attend my friend, Chami’s wedding in Colombo, Sri Lanka, which was held in the Sri Lankan Buddhist tradition. My college roommates and I used to imagine going to Sri Lanka for this wedding, and it seemed surreal that it was actually happening when I arrived.

Little did I know that the wedding would also include an incredible itinerary, which I wanted to pass along to you in case you would like to visit Sri Lanka one day.

Before the majority of the wedding guests arrived, my friend, Stacey, and I stayed in a modern, hip hotel called Cinnamon Red in the center of Colombo. We tried traditional Sri Lankan food, including Hoppers, Pol Sambola, Kottu, and Curries at Kaema Sutra with the bride and groom. The cuisine was exciting to try because we had to use our hands rather than utensils and enjoyed flavors and spices unfamiliar to our taste buds. We shopped at the popular Odel mall and experienced glorious foot massages recommended by the groom. We also spent time relaxing at the Cinnamon Red rooftop infinity pool overlooking the Indian Ocean and even had the motivation to go to the rooftop gym because of the spectacular views! We enjoyed our first evening at the Bathiya and Santhush concert, which Chami described as the Backstreet Boys of Sri Lanka. Stacey and I were likely the only non-Sri Lankans there, which was definitely an out of body experience. I was reminded, though, that music is a unifying force and I very much felt like part of the crowd while at the concert.

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Over the weekend, we traveled to Negombo for lunch and a beach visit. The beach looked exactly like your desktop background, with palm trees swaying in the breeze, golden sand, and waves of the Indian Ocean crashing. While swimming in the ocean wasn’t safe at the time, I did dip my toes in the water and it was surprisingly warm. Stacey, Chami and I ended up crashing the groom’s bachelor party, which was an interesting way for us to see the party scene and try the local drinks. Balancing out my mantra, I had the fascinating experience of visiting my first Buddhist temple, Gangaramaya. I entered barefoot in all white clothing and was greeted by a friendly regular who offered to give me a tour and explain the history. A few words were lost in translation, but I was grateful to learn about the temple from the perspective of a local.

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I also did a solo trip to an astrologist, which was one of the best fortune telling experiences I’ve ever had in an exotic and tropical small town outside of Colombo. The astrologist reviewed my horoscope, my life trajectory, and my compatibility with my boyfriend. I was happy to learn that all insights affirmed what I have envisioned for my life and there were no surprises or deterrents. I hope that the astrologist is right! He also recommended that I wear a yellow sapphire on my left pointer finger to promote good things happening in my life – if you know of any good places to buy a reasonably priced yellow sapphire ring, please let me know!

Once the wedding guests arrived, we had an incredible guide and bus which quickly became called the “American bus.” We took a long trek to Minneriya, the famous safari park with dozens of elephants, birds, insects, and other safari animals scattered around marshes and green mountains in the distance. We experienced the safari by Jeep, which was such an adventurous way to explore, care free with our hair blowing in the wind and all smiles as we were all getting to know each other and preparing for the week ahead. We spent our evening at the Habarana Village, which was a series of bungalows in the middle of the wilderness, with a beautiful pool and marsh in the distance.

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Our next day was action-packed. We spent the morning climbing over 1,200 steps to visit Sigiriya, an ancient Sri Lankan village which is now a World Heritage Site with amazing views of nature in the distance. We then traveled to the Kandy City Centre to visit the bride’s family’s mall. It was so fun to be able to explore the mall freely and try the most extravagant food court I’ve ever seen. Kandy was incredibly busy because of the famous Perahera Festival in honor of the Buddhist tooth relic. Our tour group walked through the streets where the parade was going to take place (we felt like part of the parade!) in order to visit the Tooth Relic Temple. We were amazed to see elephants outside the temple who were waiting to be dressed for the parade. We spent the evening watching the Perahera Festival from a balcony overlooking the street, and enjoyed traditional music and dance performances, and elephants dressed elegantly with lights and tapestries. I began to feel like a local watching the festival that is so sacred to the Sri Lankans and enjoying traditional Sri Lankan cuisine with the bride’s family. We had a very late evening before returning to Colombo to begin the wedding festivities.

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Chami’s wedding celebration was one that I will never forget. The day before the wedding, the close friends and family were invited to the Chami’s family’s home to watch the Buddhist wedding blessing and enjoy a homemade dinner. This likely became my favorite experience of the trip because I was able to truly understand and be part of the spiritual union of my two close friends. The monks were very friendly, helping the bride translate the blessing into English for many of the guests to understand. They asked us to all hold one string at the same time while they chanted, which was a strong symbol of unity and love that made me feel the power of the Buddhist philosophy. The monks placed string bracelets on all of us (which I am still wearing over a week later!) and encouraged us to try holy water. After the blessing we spent time on the family’s complex rooftop patio, again with beautiful views of Colombo and refreshing cocktails. For dinner, there were live chefs cooking Sri Lankan dishes to order. I had so much fun meeting the bride and groom’s family and friends and learning about the local life in Sri Lanka.

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On the wedding day, I had a blast with the American girls getting my hair and makeup done and having a designer help me put on my first sari. I had no idea what to expect and was so happy with the results. Wearing a sari was surprisingly comfortable (except for having to “disrobe” in the bathroom) and I felt like royalty. Speaking of royalty, the true royalty of the day was the bride and groom. Chami was dressed in gorgeous gold jewelry over her stunning white dress, and the groom wore a handsome gold suit in the Kandy tradition. The wedding was outside, with a beautiful flower-covered trellis, a choir, and adorable photos and signs greeting the guests. My friend Stacey and I had the exciting experience of carrying the wedding ceremony gifts down the aisle. We were surrounded by Kandy drummers and greeted with tropical drinks. The ceremony was delivered in Sinhala, so we couldn’t understand the literal meanings of the words, but we could see and feel the spiritual meanings of the blessings. The reception was out of this world as well. We had dinner options representing cuisines from around the world, the largest dessert room I have ever seen, a 30-person orchestra, and a DJ for entertainment. We had so much fun soaking in every moment, watching the gorgeous newly married couple, and dancing to a blend of Sri Lankan and American hits. It was a night that will go down in my personal history as one of the most unique, exciting and fun experiences I’ve ever had.

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On our last day, Stacey and I joined some of the other Americans at the Colombo bazaar, which was jam-packed with shops, signs, cars, and a beautiful red mosque. It was very interesting for me to visit a mosque for the first time and I was warmly welcomed by those in the mosque. I also purchased a few souvenirs, including elephant pants and teas to share with friends and family. I spent the rest of the day by the pool, watching the sunset, and enjoying one last oceanside meal before heading to the airport at midnight.

Combining these experiences, I am reminded of the importance of living and traveling with an open mind and an open heart. I experienced a part of the world that was incredibly foreign to me, but I was eager to learn, see, listen, taste, and feel. I was grateful to learn more about Chami’s heritage and to understand traditions like Buddhism that are so fascinating to me. I strongly suggest all of you to go out of your comfort zone in your travels and experience wonderful places like Sri Lanka.