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The Colors of India

In line at the Taj Mahal

There are so many things to say about India. Too much for one little blog post. But what struck me the most on a month long trek through India in 2010 was the incredible colors. Sure, the poverty and sheer number of people living amongst one another is unbelievable. The smells of spice and burning that strike you upon arrival are powerful. The sounds of beeping horns and busy streets are unavoidable. But once you spot a woman in a beautiful, bright pink sari fetching water from a well or carrying a bushel  of wood for the fire, you know you’ve hit the pulse of the country. The women of India are the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. And the fact that they don’t even realize how stunning they are in the amazing colors they wear is what makes it magical.

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A Stint in Singapore

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I swear there is a magnetic field that attracts me to sitting right on the wing during every flight I am ever on. EVER. There’s no getting around it. My view is always of that big, flat, grey monster. BUT when I had a layover in Singapore in 2010, I was lucky enough to get a view of the harbor upon landing. Wow.Ships in Singapore Harbor

As far as airports go, Singapore’s Changi Airport got it right. There is a butterfly sanctuary. There is a coy pond. There is free internet. What more can a girl ask for?

Flying into the city is stunning—a major skyline and more big-rigger ships than I’ve ever seen in a harbor. It’s a shame that I didn’t have a chance to make it into the city as I had to check in and transfer to my next flight but I have definitely added it to the tour de world list.

But let’s get back to the airport. It may be because at the time I was reading Walter Kirn’s novel Up in the Air (just watch the movie; it’s more interesting and it has Clooney) or because I have a chronic case of the travel bug but something has made me a serious airport cynic—a spider crawled over my leg as I sat on the floor in Bali’s Denpasar’s international terminal. Singapore’s joint is clean and gigantic with tons of couches to crash on and plenty of outlets to plug in to. This is important when all you want is the familiarity of your own computer. I shouldn’t compare the tropical small port of Bali to the huge crossing over point for millions of internationals in Singapore. But I’d definitely rather spend my five hour layover here, drinking Tiger beer and eating Wanton soup and watching white business men try to eat with chopsticks when they are so clearly pleading for a fork.

When I got to the transfer desk the guy informed me that chewing gum is illegal in Singapore and I stuck a piece of spearmint Extra into my mouth. I did not spit it out. Instead, I asked him if he was going to send me to jail.

And that was Singapore.DSCF6206

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Naughty Ping-Pongs in Bangkok

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This is a throw-back from 2009 but I was telling this story to a friend today and realized that it is totally blog worthy. So, when in Bangkok, go see a ping-pong show. The red light district (known locally as Patpong) is something that is more like a black hole (I seemed to fall head first) and while hanging out in Patpong it is mandatory that you are some kind of intoxicated—heavily at best (good thing I follow rules). So the plan was to go drink 10’s of beers and then work up the guts to go into a club to see a show. I say work up the guts but what i really mean is get to the point where you have accepted the fact that you will see things that you will never want to speak of again. Thai men and women walk the streets with lists–almost like little brochures–of attractions you will see if you enter their clubs. “free preview, free preview” they say. If the preview scares the hell out of me, what will the feature presentation be like?Naughty Ping-Ponga

 

So my friend and I follow this guy into a club he’s convinced us to enter. We climb a staircase and walk into a small, dark room with a stage in the middle, a spinning DJ and a small bar. OK seems like a normal strip club, no big deal. A woman approaches and forces us to buy a beer. 1) if you want “free preview” you must buy a beer 2) you are going to want to 30920 beers anyway so it’s cool. We get our beers and turn our attention to the stage. There are two thai women dancing around with no clothes on…again, think normal strip club. Then, one of the women lays down on the stage, puts a cigarette in her vag, lights it and begins to smoke it. The next woman lays down, legs spread eagle puts a ping-pong into her vag and shoots it across the room. So you’ve now figured out why they are called ping-pong shows?!

 

At this point, I am sucking down my beer and take a moment to scan the crowd to see if their expressions match mine. The audience is made up of other twenty-something white females like my friend and me (their faces are up to par with shock) and middle-aged white men who are attached to young Thai “escorts.” It’s completely bizarre.

 

So we give it about 15 minutes and decide it’s time to leave. Right around this time, we notice that there are 3 women (who work for the club) who are coming to sit near us and almost enclose us in the little corner we were placed in. They hand over the bill. Mind you, we have already paid for the beers to watch the “free preview.” The bill is for 1350 baht which is the equivalent to almost USD$100. I look at my friend and her face says what I am thinking…shit shit shit…we have been scammed in Thailand. However, because I am witty and drunk at the moment, I decide to be quite ballsy and see where it will get me. “No”, I say to the woman, “we are not paying that.” (pretty plain and simple, I must say). This is when she stands up over me, yells a few things in Thai and says, “This is my club, YOU pay what I charge!” Sounds like a small Thai argument, right? But remember, we are little white girls in the red light district of Bangkok surrounded by Thai women shooting foreign objects out of their vaginas. At the time, we were scared and there was NO way we were paying the money so we did the next best thing…we ran.

 

Pushing past the women, pushing past the bouncers at the door who had no idea what going on, we ran down the smelly staircase to the smelly street and ran through the street vendors and the men with the ping-pong brochures. Were we being chased? Yes. But its a good things that there are hundreds of people in Patpong at any given night and it was an easy escape.

 

Now, after taking a few deep breaths and getting our shit together, what did my friend and I choose to do? The smart option would be to go home. The option we chose was to go into another club. This one had just as many twenty-something white girls like us, and just as many middle-aged white men (one whom I caught finger-banging the Thai prostitute who was sitting on his lap). This club, with more women on stage doing tricks that I could never fathom and more beer finding its way into my hand was what ended my night in Patpong and my curiosity of the notorious ping-pong shows in Bangkok. Sadly, I will never look at a ping-pong the same way again.

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Making Sense of Macau

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I had never heard of Macau until I went there. A few years ago I was traveling Asia with my friend, Angela, and she had suggested Macau which was supposed to be the “Vegas of the East.” Sold.Macau Wynn

Lisboa CasinoWe had been staying in Hong Kong for a couple days and planned to take the hour and a half ferry over to Macau for the night. When we got settled into our hotel room we naturally decided to go for a walk and check it all out.

Turns out, it’s the biggest confluence of culture I’ve really ever seen on a little island.

It is indeed like an Asian Vegas. 33 casinos in total, there is a Wynn, MGM Grand, Venetian, and Sands, which are all as glamorous and overflowing with money as those in the states. There are also many independent casinos like the Grand Lisboa—which have an addition that most US casinos don’t make as obvious—call girls.  Who are out in the open waiting to be, well, called up. We had tickets to see the Cirque du Soleil show Zaia later that night at the Venetian and the casino is interestingly an exact replica of the one in Vegas, almost surreal. Across the street from the Venetian is another casino called City of Dreams where the Hard Rock hotel is located. Here, we almost got kicked out after I took a snapshot of a jeweled Michael Jackson glove they had in an elaborate case. Oops.Michael Jackson Glove

In addition to the Asian Vegas aspect, Macau is also strangely European. Once owned by Portugal, it was the only European colony in China…and the Portuguese certainly left their influence. During our walk around the island we had really no direction and started heading towards Senado Square and this is where is turned into WOW.  Maybe it was because I was quite possibly suffering from sunstroke, or perhaps it was because I felt like I was walking through a culture vault from casinos to Buddhist temples to Asian sweet shops, but once we got here I definitely knew I wasn’t in Kansas anymore…I was in Europe! With a beautiful fountain in the middle of the square and gorgeous pastel painted buildings with canopies on every corner, Senado Square is one of the prettiest places I’ve ever been. Like fairytale pretty. From here we walked to the St. Paul’s Cathedral ruins—built in 1602, destroyed by fire in 1835—where you climb the stairs and look out over the city. When I got to the top I noticed that there was a group assembling at the bottom of the stairs that were about to perform a traditional Chinese Lion dance. Can you feel my confusion here?!DSCF3431

DSCF3439 St. Paul's RuinsOverall, Macau is awesome and totally worth a trip off Honk Kong for a night or two. You get to feel like you are in three places at once and have a bit of  a head-trip wandering through the streets of this “Monte Carlo of the Orient.”

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Seven Days in an Indian Ashram

The Ashram

In the beginning of 2010, I spent a month in India as a solo female traveler. For seven of those days, I locked myself up in an Ashram to breathe deeply and practice yoga. Here’s what I thought of the experience:

Backyard of the Ashram
Backyard of the Ashram

Day one: I arrived off the train from Delhi and already knew I would love it up there. There were actually green trees, rivers, and much less chaos. The drive to Rishikesh took about an hour and the whole way you are driving through tree lined streets up into the mountains. When I got out of the car at the ashram, I could really feel a positive energy. And I’m not trying to be a new age hippie-dippie but you could see and feel that everyone was peaceful and happy. I was given a handbook when I arrived with the rules…? No flesh foods, no sex, no alcohol, no cigarettes, no hallucinogens, no exposing too much skin, silence between 9pm and 9am. Good thing I gave up all my vices to come to India. My room was like a large dorm room that I am not allowed to decorate, standard and basic, it almost takes me back to college. Lunch was interesting—it’s served in a dining hall where you have to remove your shoes before you enter. Also, you sit on the floor at these little tiny tables that fit only your metal tray, metal spoon, and metal bowl; there are probably about 50 of them scattered around the room. Then you hand wash your own dishes and keep them until you check out. So I placed them nicely on the table next to my bed where they sat waiting for my next meal. At the ashram, there was sitting room and balconies, a courtyard and a rooftop terrace. And the yoga classes were amazing; 2 hours in the morning, 2 hours in the evening. Then chanting. Which I did not attend. I can only stretch my bohemian self so far (no pun intended).

Eating Room of the Ashram
Eating Room of the Ashram

Day two: My alarm went off at 5:15am and after throwing on clothes and brushing my teeth, (this was day 16 of brushing with a bottle of water instead of the tap!) I went upstairs to the morning yoga hall. I expected there to be a handful of people doing individual meditations but it was already packed by 5:30 for a 6:00 class, I was lucky to get a spot in the middle of the floor. So I laid down on my mat, did some breathing exercises, stretched and tried to clear my mind—which even before sunrise is impossible. In walks the guru and this yogi who is quite possibly, no positively is, the smallest, skinniest, oldest man I’ve ever seen in my life. And wrinkled. Very wrinkled. The guru introduced him and told us that he would be teaching class. He was 100 years old. He could also bend his skeletal little body in ways I’ve never seen done nor will ever attempt on my own. At the end of class—through the gurus translations—he talked to us about what he does to stay healthy. What I got from him is that raw food, sprouts, and 20 glasses of orange juice a day do the trick. Who knew? I also bathed in the Ganges River and found almonds, mandarins, and toilet paper at the market. Pure bliss.

Rishakesh
Rishakesh

Day three: I turned 24; however, and no one knew. I’m took the opportunity to think about all of the people in the world who never get to celebrate their birthday or don’t even know when their birthday is. I am fortunate in my life to usually be surrounded by those who I love who enjoy feeding me cake and giving me presents—which I gladly accept. So, this being said, I thought I could skip one year. I gained a roommate  (it really is like dorm style living here in the ashram). Her name was Yuki, from Japan, and she smiled a lot and spoke little to no English…and most importantly didn’t snore. Another dawn session of yoga and an afternoon session of the same. My entire body hurt, like actually aches from my toes to my nose. 4 hours a day, I’ve realized, is pretty strenuous but highly rewarding. I also snuck in a birthday present to myself; an Ayurvedic massage (I know, how American of me). In my book this translates to an Indian body massage using oil. Although I am certain that it was not 100% hygienic (what exactly in India is?), it was awesome and made for the perfect relaxing evening. And to cap it off, a hot shower!

Day four: So, I lied. There was one person who knew it was my birthday. She was the Indian girl/woman who worked at the front desk of the ashram. She called me out of my room and presented me with a rose, handmade with corn silks as a belated birthday present. It absolutely made my day and enforced me to appreciate even more the simple things in life. Quite Humbling. Speaking of humbling, I also took a one hour ride to see the Himalayas. It was the scariest ride of my life…in an ancient car with no seatbelts, climbing these tiny one way streets up the side of a mountain and the only way to hopefully secure that you don’t get hit by oncoming traffic—because these are two-way streets we’re driving here—is to beep your horn when you go around corners to let oncoming drivers know. But once we got to the lookout point it all made sense. There is a temple that I had to climb 1394 stairs to get to but it overlooks the hills, villages, and gives a peak of the Himalayan mountain range; breathtaking, stunning, spectacular, whatever you’d like to call it, although I prefer to think of it as humbling.

The Stairs

Distant Himalayas
Distant Himalayas

Day five: this day was Holi which is an Indian holiday that celebrates color, sound, and the welcoming of spring. What happens is children go around hosing people down with water and throw vibrantly colored powder in people’s faces, on their heads, all over their bodies, basically wherever the powder will stick (im told that some types of this powder is made with such strong chemicals that it can cause blindness). Men take this day as an opportunity to get drunk (which is mostly looked down upon in the Hindu religion) and roughly grope women. So, with that being said, we were encouraged to stay in the ashram for the day and not get mixed in with the madness. I talked to a couple girls who tried to go out to buy chips but couldn’t even make it into the markets because they were completely surrounded as soon as they got to the main street. Indians take their festivities to heart, apparently. Happy Holi.

Day six: a routine day that goes like this: yoga, back to sleep, lunch, exciting outing to the markets with an Australian born, Hong Kong ex-pat friend I made, reading, yoga, dinner, reading, sleep. While it had been relaxing, I was getting the itch to get out of there and back to the real world. Living in an ashram is a bit like a commune summer camp with a harmonic cultish twist to it. Does this make sense? Everyone is so damn peaceful, happy, and obsessed with genie pants/shawls/head wraps/beads/etc it makes me wonder what they are clearly lacing the food with. Have I mentioned the food? The food that is prepared here is all vegetarian, locally and organically grown and follows the sattavic diet which means no onion, no garlic, not too much spice, and nothing else to interfere with the meditative state of mind. So, for me, a girl who is in the ‘every possible thing on the planet is better with garlic’ camp it was a hard concept to swallow (no pun). I day dreamed about westernized food like it was nobody’s business—even things that I rarely ate at home anyway. It was beer and philly cheese steaks (Jim’s naturally), beer and ribs, beer and steak (which if you know me well enough you know that I never ever eat steak). Do you see the trend here? I felt like a man. But I found myself in the middle of yoga, my body contorted in seemingly unnatural positions, fixated on anything from cheese cubes to chicken sandwiches when I’m supposed to have a clear head or at the very least be thinking about rainbows and unicorns.

Ganges River in Rishakesh
Ganges River in Rishakesh

Monkey on the BridgeDay seven: I feel really lucky to be able to say that I stayed in an ashram in India and practiced yoga. It was relaxing, invigorating, and a breath of fresh air. But for me, a girl who loves big cities, chattering people and a constant buzz, one week was enough. I think that my body has thanked me immensely. Yoga is a practice that really can make you feel so strong from the core and your flexibility and posture can improve so much from it. In simple terms, it just makes you feel really healthy and really good. I would encourage anyone to begin practice, even if it’s just a couple stretches a day. As for living in an ashram, it was quite the unique experience. The ashrams in Rishikesh are positioned in the valley in a specific way so that the wind off the mountains sweeps down at night and cleans out the air. The ancient yogis thought this to be a good idea and they were so right. I will miss walking outside to head to the yoga hall at 5:30am and getting that first breath of the cleanest air you could imagine, when the sun is still down and the only thing you can hear is the wind. If you want to escape from the world, Rishikesh is the place to come. Or you can check yourself into Betty Ford. Either way.The Ganges

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