Friday, March 30, 2012


We spent seven nights in lovely Bhutan! Our quest to visit Bhutan began after hearing little tidbits about this fascinating country which led us to watch the movie Travelers & Magicians filmed in Bhutan. As well we were intrigued by the Bhutan government commitment to recognize GNH - Gross National Happiness as an important indicator for the country, rather than just the standard GDP - Gross Domestic Product. And finally we wanted to explore Buddhism within Bhutan. Traveling to Bhutan is a little different than traveling to other countries. There is a daily tariff per person ($250.00 usd when we went) but it does include accommodation, meals, guide, in country transport etc. If the group is less than three people there is an extra per person charge. To see the current charges and travel requirements see:

A little backgrounder; Bhutan is a country of 700,000 people nestled among mountains and it borders northern India (among others). The government has both a king/monarchy, and elected representatives as well as a monastic component. Within the beautifully adorned regional dzongs there is a section for the the government officials, monastics, a temple and a square (for events etc). Dzong architecture (from Tibetan རྫོང་, Wylie rDzong, sometimes written, Jong) is a distinctive type of fortress architecture found in the present and former Buddhist kingdoms of the Himalayas: Bhutan and Tibet. The architecture is massive in style with towering exterior walls surrounding a complex of courtyards, temples, administrative offices, and monks' accommodation. Source: Punakha Dzong is pictured below.

GNH - Gross National Happiness was first formulated in 1974, by former king Jigme Singye Wangchuck and is even reflected within the constitutionof Bhutan. "The Royal Government of Bhutan in 2005 made the decision to develop GNH indicators in order to move the concept of GNH from the point of academic discourse to a measurable one. The indicators aim to check whether programmes and policies are consistent with the values of GNH. The government intends to create conditions for situations to be better-assessed and for policy-makers to be better-informed in taking appropriate measures for actual implementation of GNH policy & programmes." source: I think this is an extremely important pursuit and measurement that I hope other countries will adopt. I just read in the New York Times about the United Nations' Happiness Project which "the United Nations will implement Resolution 65/309, adopted unanimously by the General Assembly in July 2011, placing “happiness” on the global agenda." There is a lot we can do individually and collectively to cultivate happiness. Check out one of my favorite articles on cultivating happiness The How's of Happiness.

During the trip it was a little difficult to find vegan food as butter and cheese are used extensively, however vegetarian options were fairly easy. The cafe about half way up the trek to the Tiger's Nest Monastery was actually all vegetarian. I also learned that as part of the country's Buddhist foundation animals are apparently not allowed to be slaughtered within Bhutan, and instead meat is imported. (It should be noted that many other individual Buddhists and Buddhist communities are entirely vegetarian or vegan. For example Thich Nhat Hanh is vegan. We will be attending a retreat at his center in France in June, 2012.) J and I are long time vegetarians, and have been vegan for the last couple of years. For us this also aligns with one of the five main Buddhist precepts; to abstain from harming living beings. I have been pondering this more as I read the local papers citing bird flu outbreak in Nepal, swine flu in India, and anthrax among cows in Bhutan. Combining these issues with ecoli, salmonella, antibiotic resistant MRSA, cardiovascular disease, environmental concerns etc, perhaps by following the precept of not harming living creatures, I am also not harming myself.

During our one week trip we focussed on exploring dzongs, temples, walks, the botanical garden, visiting an arts school, a museum of traditional rural life, viewing the scenery and finally a trek up to the Taktsang Monastery (also known as Tiger's Nest). The temple complex was first built in 1692 and was renovated after a fire in 1998. The trek was certainly a highlight of the trip and I thought I would not make it. Several people only made it part way, or took one of the horses as far up as the animals can go, or opted to not attempt it all. The monastery sits on top of a mountain 3100 meters in the sky. Once you reach about 3000 meters you have to descend a steep stone stair case and then go up another one on the other side to reach the monastery, which is almost impossibly perched cliffside.

I learned a few interesting tidbits about Bhutan on the trip. Several buildings, mainly in rural areas, display phallus paintings or carvings on the exterior. Phallus paintings in Bhutan are esoteric symbols, which have their origins in the Chimi Lhakhang monastery near Punakha, the former capital of Bhutan. The village monastery was built in honour of Lama Drukpa Kunley who lived in the 15-16th century and who was popularly known as the "Mad Saint" or “Divine Madman” for his unorthodox ways of teaching, which amounted to being bizarre and shocking. These explicit paintings, though embarrassing to many urbanites now (this folk culture is now informally discouraged in urban centres[1]), can be seen painted on the walls of houses and buildings throughout Bhutan, particularly in villages, and are credited as Kunley's creations.[2][3] Traditionally symbols of an erect penis in Bhutan have been intended to drive away the evil eye and malicious gossip.[4] source: To read more about this phenomenon and see some photos of the art see this article: Wanderlust: Penis worship in Bhutan.

I also noticed the raised thresholds and lower doors in many buildings, or as I like to call them the tripping head smashers. After visiting an interesting museum, which was complete with a re-creation of a traditional rural house, I learned of the true purpose of this design. Apparently it is to keep the inhabitants safe from zombies, who would not be smart enough to both raise their feet and lower their heads in order to invade the house. So far I remain smarter than a zombie.

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Wednesday, March 14, 2012

You can take the girl out of social work but...

You can't take the social work out of the girl. It's true I actually miss working from time to time. It started with me sleep talking about the Alberta Works online policy manual and financial benefits codes. Poor J.

The next day I went to a local shop to get a sim card for data on my cell phone. After filling out the extensive paperwork which includes a photo, copy of passport, address, occupation, finger prints etc. The shop owner asked me about being a social worker. I explained that I worked for a long time in HIV he excitedly exclaimed that his sister is studying social work and specializing in HIV. We had a good conversation and he asked me for any recommended resources. I restrained myself and only provided one, the comprehensive Catie website. He also asked for my email, which I provided (after all he already has my finger prints), for his sister as he was sure she would like to talk to me. I hope she emails!

Other than that we spent some time wandering several kilometers through central Kathmandu. We visited many small and medium sized temples, looked at shops, lounged in the peaceful Garden of Dreams park and just took in the sights. We also went up to Swayambhunath temple, otherwise known as monkey temple, that overlooks Kathmandu. The temple winds up a large hill and is covered with Buddhas, stupas, and other Buddhist symbols and statues. There are, as the nickname suggests, monkeys. I accidentally scared one and he charged at me and growled. Dodgy little fellas.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Change of plans

There is a concept in Buddhism of Impermanence, essentially that everything changes and nothing stays the same. According to the Four Noble Truths we suffer when expect life to not be impermanent; when we are attached to things, ideas, craving/desire, and when we yearn for things to be different than they are. We are experiencing a bit of this right now. We had booked the Mount Everest base camp trek. However, on reviewing the length, elevation (over 5000 metres at base camp), weather, and level of difficulty I knew it would prove to be to arduous for me. I am sad that J does not get to complete the trek. (I did offer to stay behind in Kathmandu but it did not seem like the best idea).

So instead we turned our Everest trek into a seven day trek in the Annapurna foothills plus a sightseeing flight near Everest to get a glimpse. We completed the flight early this morning. The mountains are quite majestic, but Mount Everest does not seem so big among the many giants. In the photo it is, obviously, the tallest most pointed one.

The Annapurna trek is very scenic and will pass sections of rhododendron blooms. We trek for about four hours or so every day and stay in tea houses (small hotel/lodges) at night. A porter hauls our gear and a guide leads us. A highlight of the trek is the view from poon hill.

But first things first. We have decided we need a little break. (I know, I know, we are traveling for a year, isn't that break enough?) The chaotic, dusty, noisy, ramshackle streets of Thamel, (central Kathmandu) are fun, exciting and full of quaint shops and great places to eat, but they are also tiring. I have started wearing a breathing mask, as the locals do, when on long walks. It seems to help my lungs a bit. For our break we are moving to the Hyatt for a week. It's on the edge of Kathmandu on several park like acres. It is also near the many Buddhist temples and the great Boudhanath Stupa, which we want to spend more time exploring. Thamel remains a short taxi ride away should we miss the chaos. I admit I am looking forward to consistent electricity and wifi, a tub, real pillows, maybe on occasion an elevator (although I am grateful for the exercise on the four flights of stairs to our current room), a pool, outdoor space, and less noise (I assume the generator will not be outside our window as it is now).

After a week at the Hyatt we will head to Bhutan for a one week tour. All travelers to Bhutan must be on an escorted tour. Closer to our departure I will share more of our itinerary. After Bhutan we return to Kathmandu for 2 nights before embarking on our Annapurna trek and then back to Kathmandu for about 2 nights. Then we will head to Europe somewhere, around mid-April.

- All photos are shot by me using my iPhone 4s and edited using instagram.
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Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Chaos in the mountains

As we disembarked the plane we started the visa on arrival process. A word to the wise, ensure you have the correct visa amount in approved foreign currency such as USD, Canadian, Euros etc, as they do not accept Nepalese rupees, their own currency! Luckily after lessons learned from past trips, such as the stranding in India which resulted in J's parents having to wire us money, we keep an emergency reserve of USD on us. You need to have 2 passport size photos, which luckily there is a photo booth inside and the cost was 200 rupees about $2.50 Canadian (they only take rupees, which we were able to get from the onside money exchanger). However, there is no ATM in this visa area and you cannot proceed with out your visa. For a 90 day, multiple entry visa (we always go for multiple entry after the mishap in China. Who knew going from main land china to hong kong counted as an exit?), it costs $100.00 USD per person. Trekking permits are separate.

After clearing the visa process we took a taxi to our hotel. We drove along dusty streets, lined with ramshackle buildings, past dogs, cows, and kids frolicking along the edges. We noticed people playfully tossing homemade water balloons (made from tied plastic bags) at each other, while covered in fluorescent colors of dusty paint. Apparently it is a holiday here, we've become accustomed to never really knowing for sure whats going on as we travel. The current holiday is the Holi Festival. "The ancient Hindu festival of Holi falls on late February or on early March. Allegedly named after the mythical demoness Holika, it is a day when the feast of colours is celebrated. The festival is of a week. However it's only the last day that is observed by all with colours. Phagu is another name for Holi where Phagu means the sacred red powder and Pune is the full moon day, on which the festival ends. People can be seen wandering through the streets either on foot or on some vehicle, with a variety of colours smeared over them." source: From reading the local news apparently there is a crack down on men throwing balloons of dirty water at unsuspecting women. But it seems that everyone we have observed is actively participating, and thankfully I remain balloon and paint free.

Things here seem to pulsate, but yet nothing moves along very fast, except the motorcycles darting in and out. Restaurants are a leisurely process (as is the wifi). Electricity is intermittent and there is not always a generator backup. (We always travel with flashlights). The streets are quite dark, the blackness interrupted by small fires in the gutters. When the grinding of the hotel generator ceases you realize it is covering the noise of the barking dogs, honking horns, an occasional alarm, and the far off pounding of techno music.

Our hotel is quaint and comfortable. We have a clean room and clean linens, (inconsistent) wifi, satellite tv, locking cabinet, bathroom and a kitchenette (fridge, cupboard, and sink). With the intermittent electricity the fridge is less of an ice box and more of a bug vault, keeping any food items safe-ish from any unseen ants and the like.

We took a short walk to get orientated. Looking up to the top of a six story apartment building, it is interesting to see a flock of chickens on the roof. The streets are filled with travel agencies, trekking stores, restaurants and everything a traveller could need. We ventured over to a hippie hangout, a bookstore and vegetarian restaurant called Pilgrims, where we ate the yummy traditional Nepalese momo. It's like a steamed (or fried) dumpling filled with curried vegetables. The bookstore is amazing, packed with antique books, Buddhist books, travel books and everything else! Plus a lovely assortment of souvenirs (textiles, carvings, statues, jewelry,etc) and post cards. This establishment shall figure heavily in our stay in Kathmandu. I will have to restrain myself from purchasing copious amounts of Buddhist books and knick knacks. We also located a grocery store which seems specify all for trekkers. It's articles with camping foods, instant soups, all kinds of chocolate, nuts, beverages etc. I found some vegan dark chocolate as well. I noticed one poor traveller, with severely swollen red hands, which appears to be from frostbite. It's a good reminder for us to be very prepared before heading out on any hikes. (The temperature in the actual Kathmandu area is pleasant, around 18 degrees.)

We plan on being in Nepal for a while. It is quite inexpensive and there're is a variety of adventures to be had. We will be looking into trekking, wildlife preserves, temples, and perhaps some rafting.

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Thursday, March 1, 2012


We went down to the main kuta beach area today to visit the Bali Sea Turtle Society (BSTS) (BSTS facebook page). The centre finds the turtle eggs laid on the beach and transfers them to the protected turtle hatchery, that looks like a giant turtle. This gives the little guys a better chance of surviving until they hatch and can be released to the sea.

This is not the regular nesting season for turtles but a clutch of Olive Ridley turtles just hatched this week. This turtle grows to an average adult length of 70 cms.

As a way to build awareness, solicit conservation donations and generally entertain tourists, you can release your own turtle. J and I of course decided to release two turtles. I named mine Tony and J named his lazy. True to his name, Lazy was the last to make it to the water when we released all the turtles. A total of 79 baby turtles were safely released into the ocean.

These little ones face a dangerous journey to adulthood. This journey is compounded by human pollution and garbage. As I stroll the beach much of the garbage I see is plastic bags, cigarette butts and straws. Please reduce plastic use, recycle, don't litter and invest in reusable shopping bags and straws such as these lovely stainless steel straws.

“Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect.” ― Chief Seattle

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