A Little Story… And the Case for Planning a Trip to Nepal

[caption id="attachment_11246" align="alignright" width="503"]japanese-dancer An interpretive dancer sways to the music and delights the audience in the dim lighting of the Honen-in temple in Kyoto, Japan.[/caption]

The first strings of a melody slid into the corners of the room as the musician strummed her guitar. The nearby interpretive dancer stood frozen in place, eyes cast upward as she waited for her cue. The tiny grandma behind me bobbed from side-to-side over my shoulder, attempting to see past my tall frame. I slouched deeper into my folding chair.

Minutes earlier, a volunteer at the Honen-in temple in Kyoto had stopped my aimless meander. With alacrity, he ushered into a room and said only: “Yes, yes, good.” I took it on faith that I’d like wherever they were leading me. Each new temple I visited presented an exercise in futility as I accepted a colorful pamphlet from the cheerful worker. Few were ever in English. I would walk away studying that page as you would a piece of delicate art, running my fingers across the lines of kanji—Japanese characters. Like those workers, the Japanese seemed nonplussed by my blank stares when they spoke Japanese to me. People directed me around the country with effusive Japanese and enthusiastic gesturing reminiscent of an episode of “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” I rarely knew what was happening. Instead, I learned to revel in the floating sense of discovery as each new experience unfolded.

In the temple, the song picked up speed. The singer began a cheerful tune and my brain snapped to attention. I understood the words. How unexpected. She was singing in neither Japanese nor English. In that heartbeat, my awareness jolted me six years back in time to the side of a mountain in Nepal. Surya, my infuriatingly optimistic guide in the Himalayas, chanted the chorus of a Nepali folk song. He was prodding me to echo his lyrical voice, as I had every day since we started our trek. As the weakest link in our hiking trio, I was slower than the rest. My Nepali was the best in the group, however, so Surya taught me Nepali songs as we trekked. The maze of lyrics and translations kept my mind from dwelling on the long days of 4,000-step staircases through dense, old-growth forests.

[caption id="" align="alignleft" width="350"]Hiking in the Himalayas to Poon Hill Bringing up the rear on day two of our trek, which included five hours of staircases.[/caption]

The easiest to learn was a folk song about a bird, Resham Firiri. It has a lilting chorus and it’s contagiously popular across Nepal. Other trekking guides would hear me coming in the distance as my voice bounced through the tall trees and the rough forest floor. As the source of the off-key—but enthusiastic!—rendition of their country’s beloved folk song, the guides rewarded me with boyish smiles. As our groups slid past each other on the narrow trail, their voices lifted in song for the chorus, making sure it reached me. Then they slipped further away, continuing down the trail away from us, carrying the tune to other ears.

In the temple, the Japanese singer and dancer progressed through the song’s verses. Past memories floated around me like the seeds of a plucked dandelion catching the breeze. We erupted into applause at the song’s end and the singer spoke for several minutes. From the vibe in the room, I imagine that she was talking about the earthquake and her song as a tribute to the people of Nepal. Throughout Japan, collection plates at temples and street corners noted that donations for the day would go to relief efforts. So, in my mind at least, she was speaking to that. Then she launched into her next song, the incomprehensible lyrics were in Japanese this time. I was free to sink back into the flow of Japan.

As I write this now, the bouncy words of the chorus dance through the room, whispering memories of the past. That song linked two seeming disparate moments. Forged together now is a mountainside in Nepal and a dim room in a Japanese temple three thousand miles away. My Nepali guide’s child-like voice sings in tandem with the crisp female vocalist lit by the soft temple lights. I breathe in musty wet forest as I remember a petite woman in red as she sways and twists and flows around the room. Somehow, impossibly, time and space blended these two moments. They crystallized, forever linked for me.

Last year, I shared the bubbling laughter and connectedness I felt on a dala-dala in Tanzania. The women that day banded together to help me find my way, and cheered me on as I skipped into my hostel. Three years ago, I hung from my taxi window in a roundabout in Yangon, Myanmar. A love of travel swamped me—a love for the flood of scents that rush across you, the random, delightful experiences you never plan but find only by chance.

The world has rallied together to support Nepal. Our collective focus turned toward this small Himalayan nation, mourning the losses to people and history alike. And in the temple that day, I breathed in the drifting incense and realized yet again the reason I travel: for the connections. I travel for the ability to pull together a deep and nuanced story of the world and our shared role on this planet. Chimamanda Adichie shared a powerful TED Talk about the dangers of the single story. She spoke to the dangers of media and stereotypes that give us only one way to view places and people flickering across our news stream. Last month, Nepal featured briefly on our collective radar. Mention the country and our first thoughts flit toward images of vast devastation. Thoughts swirl around the amount of human life affected by the earthquake in the Kathmandu Valley. Those images motivated the world to donate to extensive recovery and relief efforts needed across Nepal.

This moment in Japan reminded me that this is but one story of Nepal.

Little Nepali girl Cloudy day trekking Old man resting in a tree on our trek

Boudhanath Stupa in Kathmandu Pharping, Nepal

Let’s not forget that Nepal has many stories. Many pieces of the country’s culture, people, and history went unsaid as we watched the earthquake disaster unfold. It’s easy to leave the country on that note. It is, however, short-sighted.

As Nepal rebuilds, it’s these other stories of a warm culture and a welcoming tourism industry that we need to continue telling. Through these other stories we form nuanced understandings of this complex nation. Alongside the rebuilding efforts, businesses are looking for ways to move ahead. A Nepali-run adventure travel company reached out to me for advice. In the wake of such a powerful narrative about Nepal’s destruction, they wondered how they can help the world remember that they depend on tourism dollars for their livelihoods. They are not downplaying the severity of the disaster relief—this work is imperative to their recovery. But Nepal is a small country, and tourism impacts even the remote villages. I spent two months volunteering and traveling through rural Nepal in 2009. My tour guides were quick to paint for me a snapshot of their daily lives. They shared stories about the love of their life living in a small village beyond the trekking path. They described for me unparalleled dal baht they longed for at their parents’ remote farm. To a person, they had journeyed from the country’s tiny villages into the bigger cities to make money so they could support their families back home.

I often write about grassroots tourism. I wrote about it for NatGeo. I launched an entire site dedicated to supporting the concept. Local-level travel has the power to impact the world. Spending tourism dollars directly within a local economy allows those people to use those funds to eat, live, and lift themselves out of poverty. Donations provide the deeply needed short-term relief, but the country’s long-term recovery strategy relies on rebuilding their tourism industry.

Nepal

So why should you plan that trip to Nepal? Now, as ever, the transfer of dollars from the developed to the developing world through economic support and tourism has the greatest long-term impact. And maybe not right now, but in the coming months, and likely by the next trekking season, they’ll be ready for you. The Kathmandu Valley has a long, long path to recovery. It will take years. But much of the rest of the country is still working. The airports are running. Trekking guides are eager to help tourists tackle Annapurna Circuit. As the Nepalis in the Kathmandu Valley shovel rubble, they are also rebuilding their homes, rebuilding their hotels, and rebuilding their businesses. In the wake of the earthquake, those who want to rebuild their livelihoods in tourism are left wondering how they ask the world to come visit.

The Nepal tragedy already begins to fade from the media. As we move into summer and long for the cool breezes of fall to assuage the unrelenting heat, think about Nepal. The country is more than the latest victim of a natural disaster. Nepal is a beautiful, vibrant country with Nepali people eager to show you another story of their home.

Below are some of my favorite photos from my two months traveling through Nepal in 2009.

indian man drinks chai

A Little Musing… On the Art of Cultural Immersion

Moments and anecdotes from my travels flutter into my memory at the most random of moments. I’ve talked about this feeling in the past on A Little Adrift, in my post on “How Four Years Traveling the World Changed Me,” the most seemingly odd smell or sound triggers the memory of a conversation had over dish of Thai curry, or a bag of pumpkin seeds shared in the bed a bumpy pickup truck, some without a common language, but with shared smiles. Memories bubble to the surface every day, and I think now, looking back,  it’s the small moments that I recall most often that would have surprised the Shannon of four years ago.

[caption id="" align="alignright" width="300"]indian chai tea An Indian man enjoys a chai tea on the street-side in Udaipur, India[/caption]

Before I left to travel, I had grand plans for the major wonders of the world I would see, and the adventurous activities I would do. I would dive the Great Barrier Reef, see the Himalayas, teach English in a monastery, stand in awe of the Taj Mahal … I filled the list with things to do, things I am so grateful to have now already done and seen some of the awe-inspiring things in this world, but I had little concept at the time that the sites and activities were the backdrop to my travels. Living on the road for four and a half years meant four years of eating three meals a day, talking, reading, doing laundry, travel days, and thousands of hours of shared conversations.

If you had asked me in 2008 what the term “cultural immersion” meant, I would have likely honed in on the fact that I planned to travel through countries and would thus meet locals, ask questions, and learn more about each culture’s nuances and peculiarities. The reality of traveling comes down to much more than that, in many ways, my emphasis on doing things has now changed a bit. If you are open to learning you can’t escape cultural immersion, it’s in every facet of the culture and the way people interact with me, even in the most touristy of places.

Now, I travel to learn more, to observe, and experience the story of a new place, and many times this is easiest when I slip off the tourist trail, grab the local bus in the wrong direction and simply allow the travel experience to take over. But that’s only one aspect of it. It’s a bit of a romantic notion for me to say that my most enriching experiences happen in rural areas on buses in the middle of nowhere, because although I learn a lot during those parts of my travels, it’s often the times in cities that add context.

Antigua, Guatemala is one of my favorite little cities, and I wrote a post about why I love that little town, and as I thought about immersing, it called to mind my conversations over chai and the hilarity that ensued in the most touristy, backpackery part of Kathmandu.

Though I would deeply love to know every language on earth, I barely know three. English is not always widely spoken in the rural areas of the world—in fact not a single restaurant owner or shop in my tiny volunteer town in Nepal spoke English. Fantastic for immersion, not so fantastic for answering questions about what I was seeing around me each day. And so, it’s both the immersive and the “touristy” experiences—the interplay of the two—that form my most memorable moments in travel.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="654"]san pancho mexico Snapshots from my last two weeks living in my tiny Mexican town.[/caption]

I thought a lot about cultural immersion and traveling recently because I settled into a tiny expat town in Mexico this past week. And I surprised myself with the decision to stay here. I came to Mexico partly to polish off my Spanish—it’s been years in the making and I am ready to just dedicate the time and effort to feeling more fluent.

Not that I need too much Spanish here. The town is tiny—one main road that leads straight to the beach. And as I said, it’s full of expats. It’s so small in fact, that there is only one coffee shop in town. Yes, one. That was very nearly a deal-breaker, but it makes a kick-ass Americano and I was appeased on that front.

But for some reason I felt guilty when I first chose to stay here, I felt that I should “go more local” and set up shop in a more “Mexican” town. As if that would make me more of a traveler maybe? I am here though, and I want to stay. I have friends in this town, fellow travel bloggers Steve and Victoria from Bridges and Balloons, and an instant community of locals and expats alike because in a town this small the divide between the two is almost negligible. There is also a wonderful community center here, EntreAmigos, which runs classes for all the nearby children, creates art from the town’s recyclables, and is just outside my doorstep—I started volunteering there yesterday and will continue tutoring and doing after-school English lessons over the next several months.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="654"]palm trees and sky Palm trees and blue skies on the quiet streets[/caption]

Cultural immersion can mean so many things, and there are those who think you have to abandon the mainstream tourism path to experience travel, but there are moments and opportunities everywhere to dive into the culture. I’m still learning this. And some places, albeit, are easier than others, but I am happy here … and after just two weeks the shop owners give me a wider smile when I walk in the door—the hello of recognition, that beginning sign of belonging somewhere, even if it’s just for a few months.

More reports will be coming in the months to follow on food (expect many taco photos in your future … and mine), volunteering, life here, and—as always—I will continue to play catch-up with all the stories and memories over the past four years that haven’t yet made it onto this site. A friend from Florida asked me last month why I have never shared on my blog some of the anecdotes I tell over the dinner table when I am back home with friends, and his question struck me as true. Sometimes in search of a good travel story, I forget to share some of the random moments on the road, some of my personal journey. Working on that, and other things, and simply enjoying my new little Mexican town I am calling home for the next few months!

nepal chai story

A Little Travel Memory … Oh, The Things That Happen Over Chai

Legs crossed and boiling hot chai in hand, I sat on the floor in the back of Sunil’s shop swapping stories and chatter. Sunil’s shop was popular, and not just with the backpacker crowd haunting the cramped streets of Thamel, Kathmandu, his friends regularly popped into the shop.

And as is the case with any good chai time, hilarity ensues with a cup of chai in hand. See, chai time is one of those rituals you just don’t mess with in India and Nepal; every shop owner in these areas has own their local chai wallah who knows just the right blend of sugar and steeped spices. Then, as you shop and meet locals on your wanderings, friendships form in the oddest of places so you pause your day to share a chai tea and stories.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="654"]Switching up Glasses! Bijay and I did a modeling session in each other’s glasses. :)[/caption]

That’s how I initially met Sunil, an incredibly friendly Nepali man with a shop in the heart of the touristy section of Thamel, Kathmandu. Sunil’s shop stood out from the pack because it didn’t peddle the same exact cookie cutter souvenirs as the other shops (in fact, close friends, you just might recognize some of those scarves in the photo!).

So, back to this goofy photo … see, that’s not Sunil in the photo, it’s his friend Bijay. I can’t even begin to remember precisely how Bijay and I discovered we have the same exact glasses prescription (and as blind as I am, it’s rare to have the same prescription), but we did.

So we switched glasses. Um, of course!

Let’s be honest here, his eyeglasses were a whole lot cooler than mine, and sillier, so, naturally, I convinced Bijay set his chai aside and vogue it up with me. I’m still shocked he agreed!

We goofed around on the streets of Kathmandu for several minutes, both of us using the shop’s colorful batik scarves to thoroughly entertain everyone, including those close enough to hear the guffaws as Bijay warmed up to the impromptu photo shoot.

A few minutes later we switched our glasses back, pranced into Sunil’s shop (our abs aching from the strain of laughing so hard) and resumed chai drinking position, legs crossed Indian style on the floor and lukewarm cups of sweet chai clasped in hand.

A Little Volunteering…Continued Mentoring Years Later

Posing with our V-Day BootyTwo weeks ago I was playing around on Facebook as a way to procrastinate the real work I should have been doing when a chat window popped up – from a sweet young woman I met at the orphanage in Cambodia where I volunteered more than a year and a half ago.

Many of the older girls at the orphanage asked for my email and Facebook details at the time and we have very sporadically kept in touch, talking every month or so, mostly just quick hellos and messages from them imploring me to come back for a visit.

But the tone of this chat was different right off the bat. She seemed sad. And that’s saying a whole lot because the girls from the FLOW orphanage are eternally sunshiney and happy during our conversations, upbeat and enthusiastic about their studies and their life goals.

She had left the orphanage about a year ago to start her second year of college and take on a full time job. That meant this was her first year out of the control and protection of the orphanage environment and she was confused and overwhelmed, having a hard time balancing the need to make money and feed herself and her fierce desire for an education.

I listened to her, offered advice and encouragement – gave all of the support I could from the other side of the world to a woman who has experienced a life so far removed and different from my own.

Lucky with His PuppyThen days later an email arrived from Varanasi, India. Lucky was one of the most promising students I taught at the monastery in Nepal and I helped him prep for his University entrance exam while I was there. He got into the University and writes me regularly of his life, studies, and thoughts.

As I’m reading his email a different FLOW student chat messages me – she doesn’t understand the meaning of non-verbal communication, can I please explain. Twenty minutes later we’re still brainstorming fun situations that use non-verbal behavior.

Then another email. A different student needing advice.

The calls for mentoring rained down on me this past week.

Sometimes I feel so inept and useless. They are struggling with situations and rising up from situations I can’t even fathom. If I could afford to sponsor each and every one of them through college I would. But maybe that wouldn’t even be helpful.

So instead I give these kids the only thing I can, support and love. They’ve overcome so much; they dream of being doctors and lawyers, international translators, businessmen and politicians.

And I listen to their dreams and encourage. I am so thankful I chose to share a few weeks of my life and time with these students when I volunteered last year. They inspire me on a daily basis to look at life with a little bit more gratitude and thankfulness. Their passion and perseverance to achieve their goals is a monthly reminder to take stock of those things I take for granted and work a little harder to make a difference in my life and the world.

A Little Treat…Six Sweet Eats from Around the World

Everyone has those signature dishes they’ve tried in a new country – whether it’s a local delicacy or just bizarre street eat. But what about those fun snacks and new flavors on old favorites?

Delicious Snacks and Treats from Around the World

Some of these are sweets, some salty. But all are portable and can make a great treat on a long bus ride…interestingly, most of my favorites from my travels are centered in Asia!

NEPAL: Lapsi

Lapsi Candy from Nepal

Topping the list is this sweet jellied candy. I don’t even like chewy candies but this one has a mild flavor and it’s deceptively easy to just plough through a package in one sitting. The traditional/plain flavor is my favorite but it was fun to shake things up with the spicy lapsi every few days too!

INDIA: Fennel Seeds

Candy coated Fennel Seeds India

A small bowl of fennel seeds is served at the end of the meal in regions of India as a palate cleanser. These seeds are a mixed medley of plain fennel, sugar coated fennel and small bits of crystallized sugar – once you’re used to ending each meal like this it’s hard to leave the table without craving the strong licorice flavor! I even shipped some home to my dad since he’s a licorice fanatic.

BOSNIA: Turkish Delight

Turkish Delight!

The huge Turkish population in Bosnia means that this sweet treat is authentic (I haven’t yet made it to Turkey!) and different from what you can find in the US and the West. This soft jelly candy greatly differs: rose water with pistachios, sweet lemon, and sticky dates with a softly chewy walnut. Like an ice-cream shop in the states you pick out your selection of Turkish Delight from a selection upwards of 15 flavors in some cases! Though not my favorite candy, fun to when eat in the region.

CAMBODIA: Sesame Seed Squares

Sesame Seed Candies

The healthiest of the lot this treat packs in protein from the sesame seeds and is incredibly simple – a lacing of honey or sugar syrup binds the sesame seeds together. It’s a great way to tide over dropping blood sugar until you can find some food and is my go-to for a quick bus ride snack! They sell these treats all over South East Asia, India and Nepal had some less than inspired sesame seed sticks.

NEPAL: Dried Figs

Figs!

We are talking serious addiction and the best dried/pressed figs, hands down, I have ever had. Walk into any of the stores in Thamel, Kathmandu and they sell little baggies of these deliciously fresh dried figs.

ASIA: Mango Flavored Everything!

Mango flavored Corn FlakesUS and European based companies target the flavors of their products to the region – and outside of the US mango is really a whole lot more well-loved.

The most fun find was mango flavored Corn Flakes in Nepal- bought as an addition a movie night with new friends they were a huge hit…and so addicting the box was consumed in a few hours by just three of us!

Other mango treats found in the region include yogurt (if your in a lactose-accepting region of Asia) sodas, chips, cookies… just about anything that could take a mango flavor is on offer. Also a wealth of freshly dried ones as well!

What are your favorite quick snacks and treats from around the world?

A Little Reflection… Vipassana Meditation: Was it Worth It?

In the months and years since I took a ten-day Vipassana Meditation course in Nepal,  friends and readers have asked me to share my thoughts, now that I have distance from the experience. I jotted a few sparse notes during the course, and journaled on Day Eleven to chronicle my ten-days in a Vipassana course. Those entries shared the raw thoughts and feelings as I processed each day of meditation and course teachings. During the course, I was deep in the middle of the pain and difficulty. There was little room for reflection.

The Women's section of the Yard - What a View!

What is Vipassana Meditation?

I dubbed my time in Vipassana meditation as my ten day stint in “solitary confinement.” It’s how it felt at the time. And even in retrospect this intense mediation course as one of my wackier decisions. It’s one of the most structured and regimented forms of meditation. The rules are strict and the entire process is tightly control. This course was the hardest thing I have ever voluntarily chosen. More than six months later, I was endlessly thankful that I was able to complete it, that I had the support and stamina during the course finish. And now, seven years later I still look at that course as a formative foundation on how I approach life.

A few of the strict rules:

  • You cannot speak or communicate (non-verbal communication like eye-contact is a no-no)
  • No reading or writing
  • Food is restricted after the mid-day meal
  • You must adhere to the meditation schedule of 10+ hours of meditation and an hour of discourse in the evening

vipassana meditation beginners

What is it Like on the Other Side of a Course?

The course kicked my ass. Raw feelings bubbled up throughout the intense ten days. I started the course cautious and fearful of what it would be like. Then I had anger and resentment during the middle. By the final day, I swelled with well-being and happiness.

And now?

Pride.

I feel proud that I was able to complete the course. This was one of the hardest obstacles in my life to complete. Growing up I was a dilettante. And while usually that’s one of the cornerstones of being a child—experimenting, learning, and discovering new interests—changing interests so frequently impacted my personal self-views. I have always considered myself a quitter.

Machapuchare and Begnas Lake

Back in the day, I loved synchronized swimming. I even won state and national awards. Then I quit that and moved onto tap dancing. Tap wasn’t as fun as jazz, which then gave way to pottery. Then there was that brief stint in ballet, then Irish dance, followed by several years of piano lessons. I dabbled in art, more styles of dance, and went back to competitive Irish dance in high school. All that took a backseat to theatre—the only thing I stuck with. Until I didn’t; I left my LA acting career to travel the world.

On day four, when I wanted to quit it was more than that. I needed to quit. I begged to quit. I spazzed out in my head with a need to abort the decision and save myself from finishing the course. I didn’t like the trainwreck of thoughts I faced each meditation session. I desperately wanted the opportunity to relieve myself from the pain. Teacher persuaded me to stay. He assured me that I was strong enough. That’s it. That I was strong enough to finish.

And in staying, I proved to myself that I was strong enough to honor my commitment.

This personal lesson is not the point of Vipassana; but it was one of the things I proved to myself on the trip thanks to the course. And it was one of the many things I took from that course. Six years later, the course teachings continue to shape my ideas about the world. I think about impermanence when I process my brothers death, or when I’m faced with debilitating life challenges. In the depth of my depression in 2014, when all seemed futile. It’s then that a niggling piece of my brain reminded me that I knew a technique to climb out of the hole and find help. It took a lot to come out of the depression, but Vipassana was surely a tool that allowed my brain to lift from that pain.

Many have wondered if I kept Vipassana as a part of my life. Do I still practice the technique, which requires two hours a day of silent meditation?

No, I don’t. I have perhaps ten times in the six years since I took my Vipassana course. I have friends who aim for 20 minutes a day in the weeks and months after their course. I learned a lot during those ten days, but ultimately I continued my round the world trip and somehow allowed the Vipassana to fall aside, with the practice not integrated into my life, but the teachings have remained a part of me forever.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="720"]Dhamma Hall Dhamma Hall on the grounds of our Vipassana center in Nepal, on Begnas Lake[/caption] [divider]

Should You Take a Vipassana?

advice for taking a vipassana course

The crux of the question for many is if they should take a Vipassana course. It’s highly personal. This is not a question I could ever decide for someone. I can’t tell you if it’s the right next step for you, but I can give you a few thoughts I’ve had since then.

I found benefit in the course because it gave me a lot of perspective I needed in my life. On a weekly basis I find my mind reframing situations with the lessons and teachings that you listen to each night. These lessons weave together Buddhism and Christianity to come aware with core truths all the major religions advocate. Goenka teaches these lessons via video tutorials each night. These lessons offered me clarification, peace, all of that happy spiritual-ness that I sought. It didn’t fix my issues, but it gave me a new perspective.

Vipassana is not a cure-all, nor a magical solution to life’s problems. It doesn’t solve anything when you come out on the other side of the ten days. Instead, Vipassana is a tool. It’s a training technique that gives you another way to shape your mind—and yourself—into a person better able to face the world. The ten days are only the introduction to the technique. From there, it’s up to you how much you get out of it. The program provides ideas and a framework for viewing suffering and pain. It was a way to see the world that I had never before considered. It reframed entire swathes of how I view my life.

And one thing my teacher told me has always stuck with me. He said, “Not everyone has heard of Vipassana, but it comes into your life when you need it. When you can most benefit from learning the teachings and technique.”

How to Prepare for Vipassana Meditation: 5 Pieces of Advice

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Additional Vipassana Resources

Other online stories:

Books About Vipassana:
These books all either cover Vipassana in depth, or they are the breezy travel reads that include the author’s experience in a course.

Find a Vipassana course:
The official Vipassana site has a directory of centers. Friends who took the course in a Western location report slightly higher levels of comfort. Each center is equipped differently; some offer each student a private room, others are shared rooms. My center in Nepal (Nepal Travel Guide here) offered shared rooms and rustic accommodations. Food is always simple and vegetarian, but will vary greatly depending on your location. Many centers near major centers are booked out months in advance; do your research and book your course early.

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A Little Discovery… 20 Neat Things I Learned By Traveling in Developing Countries

I landed in Italy after six months in developing countries, and it was a shock to the senses in some regards. I remember having culture shock when I landed in Bangkok all those months ago. I didn’t expect the reverse culture shock of landing back in the Western world. Having my bestie Jenn fly over for this leg of the trip gave me new perspectives about my months spent traveling in developing countries. For me, after five months of backpacking, I  had lost track of the delineation between my experiences and my life back home in the states.

Jenn, however, had no such confusion. She arrived with shiny-clean clothes and a backpack that smelled distinctly better than mine — what is that funk?! Jenn knew two things about herself when deciding to join a leg of the RTW trip: she definitely wanted to meet up somewhere, and she had no wish to travel in developing regions. Props to her for knowing herself well enough to not embark on something she couldn’t handle. My experiences in South and Southeast Asia are among my favorite, but there are many easier places to travel, and these places have equally beautiful sites and cultures.

Arriving in Milan, my cousin and I slogged off of the plane — we were sweaty, dirty, and I had a small sugar-ant infestation in my backpack. (Perhaps I should have left the half-eaten Snickers behind in Delhi?) Jenn took one look at me and started a list of all the crazy differences in my perspective and earlier travels compared to what we were about to face in Italy.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="700"]The streets of Yangon, Myanmar The streets of Yangon, Myanmar[/caption]

[divider_flat]Now, this list is not to be seen as a discouragement from travel in less developed countries — I had wonderful experience and it shifted my perspective in profound ways. Although I love Europe, I know that it was only by adding Asia to my travels that I could build a deep and nuanced consideration of our global community. I count many of my experiences as the most transformative on my journey.

And also to note, I understand that some of these point to deep fundamental issues facing developing countries, such as lack of government stability, poor transportation infrastructure, systemic education issues, and more. Consider reading up on why the developing world is developing before you travel there. It helps keep everything in perspective if you better understand root causes.

This is more of a brief look at some of the more endearing, hellacious, charming, and weird things I’ve contended throughout my months traveling in developing countries. Jenn and I compiled this list throughout the three weeks we traveled together. We made a note every time Jenn exclaimed, “Are you serious! That happens?!”

[caption id="" align="alignright" width="375"]Luang Prabang, Laos Luang Prabang, Laos[/caption]

1. Shots.
Lots and lots of shots are needed. They poked me relentlessly for weeks to administer them all in time. And shots don’t guarantee that you won’t get sick. You will get sick. The shots simply offer up that you probably won’t die from your sickness. There are only a few shots you need when traveling in other developed countries, but far more when you venture off the path a bit.

2. Drinking the local water results in illness.
It just does. Sadly, I did it anyway once or twice and I came to Italy sporting a rockin’ case of giardia. Plus, I almost died in Laos of dysentery. This is a very real consideration. Of note though, unlike the Western world, the medicine to fix my illness was just 80 cents in Nepal. What are we even doing with our healthcare system in the U.S.?

3. Squatting over a ceramic floor toilet is a luxury.
In the U.S., we basically have just one style of toilet, and even going to Europe is a shock when you see a squat toilet. Boy aren’t those the good days though. These squat toilets are actually better for you though. Of note though, ceramic squats are the good ones — sometimes they’re just a hole!

4. Life is lived outside.
The air takes on a different quality. In India especially, it’s a smell I will never forget. It’s a country scented with a beautifully fragrant mingling of urine, cow dung, exhaust, incense, and humanity. Sounds potentially gross, but makes me a bit nostalgic for that wacky place.

5. It’s a crowded place out there.
Space is a Western luxury, by and large. In the cities of South Asia, people swarm you, watch you, talk to you, and possibly pet you. In India, the women would stroke my hair and hand me babies, pretty much just because I am light-skinned.  Life is lived in close quarters so you will get up close and personal with each new country. But perhaps the best thing, eventually you become wholly accustomed to it and unfazed.

6. Pick your battles.
Every culture is different, and that’s not just in developing countries. Landing in Japan is like a slap in the face with different cultural practices. In developing countries though, that’s where to often find the starkest differences. You can’t freak out over it all. Some seemingly unpleasant things will be a fact of life. Pull on your humanity and remember to keep perspective when it seems like shit is hitting the fan.

[caption id="" align="alignright" width="375"]Boudhanath Stupa in Kathmandu Boudhanath Stupa in Kathmandu[/caption]

7. Chaos. Everywhere.
Sometimes it’s organized chaos. Often times it’s not. And while there are some notable exceptions to that, for a first-timer in a place like India, it feels like life is running at a frenetic pace.

8. Amenities, toiletries, and creature comforts are very basic.
Chalk this up to quirks. Somehow I found a jar of Skippy peanut butter in Dharamsala, but I spent three months searching for Q-tips. What you take as a baseline normal part of life might not be normal at all where you’re visiting. Usually they have a local work-around, though, so ask a bit about how to solve your dilemma if you can’t find something on the road.

9. They have public transport figured out.
So much of the world outside of the U.S. has taken public transportation as a key concern. Trains run through India, buses dart across Southeast Asia. And while transport can sometimes be amazingly on time, it also might never show up. Learn to go with the flow and don’t pick this as a battle because you won’t win. Just embrace the experience and go with the flow.

10. Nothing will faze you, which is really not such a bad way to live.
I found that a result of traveling in Nepal was a total desensitization to boisterous political demonstrations that might lead to mayhem. It’s not that I wanted it to happen, but that frenetic fear was gone. When you’re on the road, you’ll figure it out if it’s serious enough to call for it.

11. You’ll learn to be really comfortable talking about bodily functions.
Diarrheal illnesses are real. You will get one, it’s just a matter of time.

[caption id="" align="alignright" width="376"]Sunset over Bagan, Myanmar.. Sunset over Bagan, Myanmar. Remarkable.[/caption]

12. You’ll learn to be really comfortable talking about your travel companion’s bodily functions.
You will know as much about their bodily functions as you do your own. It’s just a fact of life on the road and an open topic for discussion. I’ve even broached the subject with random travelers because, hey, we’re all in this together.

13. Pop songs that normally make you sneer become the new favs.
Many songs that are a decade old have just hit it off in the places you’ll visit. And boy do they embrace them with enthusiasm. Once there’s a hit that seems to go over well, it plays incessantly. These songs though, they’re another layer of nostalgia because they invariably link themselves to places, events and smells. Summer of ’69 reminds me of tubing in Laos. And I can’t begin to tell you how many times I have listened to Shaggy in the past three days — were nearing a dozen!

14. It doesn’t make sense.
If you didn’t grow up there, then some of the quirks will just not make sense. But it will be interesting, if you allow yourself to be open to curiosity in each new place.

15. A lot of unexpected things are just a bit harder to do.
Finding the right train takes a while. Using dial-up speeds in an internet café could be a half-day project. Finding that book you want to read may take months of combing tourist book swap shops. But there’s time, so what’s the hurry?

16. Outside of the US, some places just don’t queue … they just don’t.
The idea of a neat line of people waiting until their turn — sometimes that doesn’t exist! In India, a few times I had someone throw an elbow to advance toward the vendor. Those it’s weird, I learned to gently shove, and give a good push right back at them.

17. Traffic and cars.
Nothing I read prepared me for sheer amount of traffic — and that’s saying something, I lived in L.A.! Lines in the road are often nonexistent, and your mode of transportation will think nothing of dodging through oncoming traffic. If it’s faster than waiting on the correct side of the road then it’s fair game. And helmets on motorcycles rarely exist. This is changing in many parts, but helmet laws are rare in a lot of places. Oh, and motorcyclists can accomplish great feats — I’ve seen some talking on a cell phone, eating a sandwich, and safely transport an entire family. They keep it interesting, that’s for sure.

[caption id="" align="alignright" width="375"]Streets of Bangkok, Thailand Streets of Bangkok, Thailand[/caption]

18. Oh, and really: It still doesn’t make sense.

19. Their idea of modesty is much different than ours.
Dress codes vary by country, and many are becoming more Western in style, but only a bit. Modest dress codes are in order in much of the developing parts of Asia. And it’s kinda nice. Once you embrace the modesty of the developing world it’s hard to go back. I love my Indian kurta with all of my heart. It was only after some distinctly strange looks in Milan that I shoved in deep into the recesses of my pack and pulled out other more fashionable items I had last used in Australia. They are a bit obsessed with fashion there, I guess. But even then, I pulled it out for long travel days.

20. The people are generally incredibly and overwhelmingly warm.
Most people in the world want you to visit their country and enjoy it. To explore and have a good experience. The kindness if very real and countless people offered me meals, conversations, and friendship.

[hr]

There is so much to love about these less-structured countries. Most people call them “developing,” but really that’s a term for the economists. These countries have developed cultures, food histories, and long histories that dates far back into history. I know that Jenn will never join me in many of these places, but I have a special place in my heart for the swath of countries I traveled on that part of my round the world trip.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="700"]Monks in Laos in the early morning. Monks in Laos in the early morning.[/caption]

[divider_flat]The best I advice I can offer to new travelers is this: Recognize that control and certainty don’t exist. Just surrender. As a Westerner, you have to abandon the preconceived notions. And definitely abandon the need to control every moment and circumstance. You could try to force everything into a sanitized version of what you expected. But what is the fun in that? It’s all better when you are just floating along with it, adrift in the well-meaning chaos.

Jenn’s list began to balloon out of control by the end into the most minutely hilarious additions, but really these are just some of the top reasons to dig in and love every moment of traveling in developing countries!  :-)

If you’re planning a trip, why not head over to my travel planning resources page for the nitty-gritties on everything you need to plan the trip. And my country guides offer a great overview of what you should know before you go, as well as how to travel responsibly in each new place.

Machapucchare in Pokhara, Nepal

A Little Confession… Tricky Adjustments as I Leave Asia to Travel Europe

Traveling in developing countries necessitates a distinct rhythm to life. It’s both the little moments and the big ons that create a consistency of experience. It eclipses the life I used to know and becomes the new norm. Traveling in developing countries is simply different compared to other travel destinations.  After landing in Bangkok, overwhelmed and in need of a friend, I adjusted quickly. I now carry spare toilet paper in every pocket of my clothes was just second nature. In Nepal, I planned my entire day around the four hours we would have electricity that day. And on the weekends, I needed to plan time to hand-wash all of my underthings. These are the little things that became a part of the routine. I confess that I resisted some of the changes at first, but it’s all become old-hat now.

rural laos

Day-to-day life these past six months has included so many cultural experiences, but also a lot of learning a self-sufficiency that we lack in the west. Laundry is a good example. I could always find affordable laundry service. A woman would take my pile of dirty clothes (minus the underwear — those you have to hand wash all throughout the country) in the morning. Then she would wash ‘em, dry ‘em, and return ’em in a neat stack at the end of the day. And these women, they weren’t using a washing machine. Every item of my clothing has been slapped onto rocks and beaten into the earth. The stains were scrubbed clean with stones. Every washing aged my clothes about one year. And this was the normal.

But then I arrived at my volunteer placement in Pharping, Nepal and I learned that my own two arms would now scrub and beat the dirt out of my clothing using a small detergent cake, a big blue bucket, and elbow grease. This isn’t a skill I knew previously. There is a process, and it if you want your clothes clean, you have to do more than push the clothes around in the water bucket. After my first time hand-washing all of my clothes, my knuckles were raw from the effort of rubbing clothes together.

leanring how to play carrom nepal

The cultural experiences are among my favorites. If I had zipped through India, Nepal, and Southeast Asia, I would have missed the smaller moments in life. Like learning how to play Carrom while hiking in Nepal, or sharing chai with the vendors in India.

Then there’s the bargaining. These past six months throughout Southeast Asia and South Asia have taught me that nearly everything in life is negotiable. I was able to pay my way into an expedited visa at the embassy in Kathmandu. No souvenir actually costs the advertised price. There is an art to bargaining that I have embraced and truly love about life. I’ve read that some travelers never acclimate to the bargaining climate — they reach a point where they just want everything ordered, with fair prices. But that’s merely falling back on previous patterns. It’s an easy complacency that keeps things humming along in the West. Here, everything is up for negotiation and it has made me train my brain to enter every situation with a different awareness.

Views of the Himalayas from Begnas Lake, Nepal.

Given time, I acclimated to the intense pace and controlled chaos of traveling through Asia these past months. Even more, I came to love so many parts of the experience. But I also looked forward to landing back in Europe — it’s been years since I was last there. I dreamed of the creamy sweetness of Italian gelato hitting my tongue. I looked forward to traveling with a friend from home. And I was optimistic about the use of washing machines — that would be a welcome change!

The transition jolted me more than I expected. I flew from Delhi to Helsinki for a long layover. It was the bright lights, gleaming glass and steel that caught me off-guard. It was all so sanitary and ordered and calm and quiet. And the icy-cold air conditioning blasted through the entire airport. And Helsinki airport offered WiFi throughout — what a treat!

Then there’s the fact that I haven’t been aggressively marketed to in nearly six months. Many of the advertisements were written to target locals, so I didn’t understand the text, nor the radio spots that jabbered between songs on the radio. But in Helsinki,  blindingly bright advertisements gleamed behind glossy glass, each one framed in sophisticated black.

[caption id="" align="alignright" width="300"] I actively resisted the urge to steal extra toilet paper from the airport bathrooms. And my cousin and I had a hilarious crisis moment at Helsinki customs with this tiny jar of Skippy peanut butter. Customs considered it a liquid. In one of our classiest moments to-date, my cousin and I used our travel spoons to shovel heaping spoonfuls of peanut butter into our mouths. The security guard chuckled, other passengers stared. Finally, the guard gently removed the rest of the jar from our fingers and told us to move along. I can only explain it by saying that I love peanut butter and feared never finding another jar.[/caption]

Color is an experience in South Asia. Indians and Nepalis love color, always more color. Color on the walls, color in the clothes, it’s everywhere and it’s all so happy and cheery. But in the airport, I remembered that the West tends toward a sleek modernism. It was an assault to the senses akin to the shock I experienced when I first landed in Mumbai all those months ago.

For my first week in Italy, I constantly exclaimed, “I forgot this existed!” And things like, “Woah, the train is on time — it’s here right now!” I oogled at the huge grocery stores and again. It was surreal to be surrounded by so people who look like me. I blended — I haven’t blended in six months.

Helsinki was just a layover in route to Milan, Italy, home of gelato and a meeting spot for my friend Jenn! My dearest friend from Florida/Los Angeles had emailed me several months ago for a rough outline of my itinerary. Then she took that information, matched her flight to mine, and arrived in Milan on the same day! She is joining this round the world trip for three weeks as we travel through Italy and Croatia! Jenn shares my love for hiking and has a complete 100 percent matching love for ice cream.

These coming three weeks with Jenn mark a change in my travel style. Although I have been backpacking on a budget all of these months, I entered Italy knowing that I would blow my budget out of the water for the ten days we were in Italy. I wanted to enjoy my time with my friend, and I also just wanted to indulge. Italy is one of my favorite places and so these coming weeks will prove to be the most expensive in my RTW trip budget.