Hanoi, Vietnam week 1: Noodles, egg coffee, buns, and more!

February 21, 2018
by Christina

This post could have also been titled “Dan being interrupted while eating to take photos”.

After a brief hiatus back in the US, we got back on the road and headed to Hanoi, Vietnam. We flew Korean Air and had a brief layover in Incheon airport, which is easily one of the fanciest airports I’ve ever set foot in. Sadly though, there was no Fendi store in close proximity to the Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Prada stores, or we would have had a Kreayshawn song right there (note that K. makes liberal use of the b-word in that song, in case you’re at work or something).

While Incheon and Korean Air did not disappoint, I am sad to say that I caught another cold on the plane. Can’t a girl just catch a break instead? Where is the manager, I would like to complain. You can’t do this to me, I am an American citizen! (It works like that, right?)

Vietnam is one of the flew places where our phone service, Google Fi, does not function, so we did a little more research in advance than usual in terms of lodging and how to get away from the airport. The Noi Bai International Airport which services Hanoi is about an hour bus ride from downtown Hanoi. There is always the taxi option, but the local buses are cheap (9000 VND or about 40 cents) and ours was pretty nice. We took the circulator bus to Terminal 1 where we walked down the stairs and caught the Number 17. The 7 also works, but the 17 had a closer stop to our hostel.

Walking through Old Quarter to our hostel was a fascinating first look at the city. We passed all kinds of amazing street food, and vendors selling everything from home supplies to fish and fruits. There’s a lot of motorcycle traffic, and crossing streets involves just walking slowly so that they flow around you.

We went and checked into Chien Hostel where we had our reservation. The reviews and location were quite good, but I was a little scared about booking into a 20 bed dorm, possibly the largest we’ve stayed in. What sold me on it was the small weight room and AstroTurf-ed room where I could do yoga and lift… only it turned out they remodeled last year and that stuff is no more… womp womp.

However, the view of St. Joseph’s Cathedral from the cafe and roof deck is pretty phenomenal, and the free breakfast turned out to be the best we’ve had, hands down. It includes eggs, noodles or fried rice, tomatoes, cucumber, watermelon, toast with real butter, chocolate and jam for the toast, and coffee and tea with cream and sugar. And it’s basically unlimited buffet style, you just have to turn in your breakfast coupon from check in to get a plate. Also, free beer twice a day for a half an hour. Yeah! This is actually pretty common at hostels in the area. And I did find a spot on the roof deck to squeeze in my yoga mat.

After about six weeks on other people’s schedules, and coming down with my third respiratory illness in a month, I just wanted to hunker down at the hostel to catch up on projects (including catching up on the blog, yo!) and rest.

But when you’re tired and sick, what’s good for you? Chicken noodle soup. And beef noodle soup. And fried noodles, and dumplings, and bao, and bubble tea, and… You see where this is going, right?

It’s only been a week, but so far Hanoi is probably my favorite culinary experience, with the street food in Mexico City coming in very tight contention (oh, those tacos… phew). There are restaurants everywhere in the Old Quarter of Hanoi, and most of them just set up stools on the street for customers. It’s actually difficult and sometimes impossible to walk on the sidewalk since it tends to be occupied by restaurant patrons and motorcycle parking.

Our first meal was just a few doors down on the corner at Com Viet Nam. There we had bun cha which is grilled pork and rice noodles served with a dipping sauce/broth and greens. The grilled meat was delicious.

The next day we went looking for bun dao mom tom as described in this excellent article on food in Hanoi. We wouldn’t have found the place without the article, it was down a narrow twisty little alley that I wouldn’t have thought to look down for food. But we found the place, and when we asked the price we were told 130,000 VND for two servings. However, when we sandbagged (I was actually just confused), the price was dropped down to 80k and we took a seat.

This dish consists of a plate of veggies, meats, fried tofu (omg, this was the best), and clumps of rice noodles that get dipped in sauce. It’s one of my favorite foods here so far.

Another Vietnamese treat is “egg coffee” which is a Vietnamese coffee topped with a sort of carmel-flavored egg meringue. We found some for 30k, with prices varying upwards to as much as twice this. The Cafe Nang was really pretty and kind of out of the way (they’ve got another on-street location as well), and the coffee was tasty, but not mind blowing. Not sure if this is a commentary on the cafe, or egg coffee in general. I will have to do more data collection to come to a conclusion.

Of course we had a bunch of pho, both pho bo (beef noodle soup) and pho ga (chicken noodle soup), which has been tasty, but nothing that’s really knocked my socks off. There was the mein luon xao (eel noodle soup), which was clear noodles topped with fried eel bits that was interesting as well. And something else that’s popular here is lemon tea and sunflower seeds. We partook of this last one near the cathedral and did some people watching.

Circle K is the popular line of convenience stores here in Hanoi, with multiple in easy walking distance of our hostel. And you can get a lot of distinctly Vietnamese stuff at Circle K, like banh bao, soft bread buns filled with things like meat, cheese or taro. I was only familiar (and crazy about) the Chinese version, so this was a very thrilling discovery for me.

At a corner restaurant that I think was called Thanh Vit, I got something called pho xao which was amazing. It’s fried noodle served with beef and some kind of green vegetable. I really enjoyed this dish, making it one of my top three.

The final meal in my top three this past week was nom bo, which translates as “beef salad”. It’s a bed of cucumbers cut into thin strips top with beef slices (some in jerky-like form), basil, peanuts, and a sauce that you may be familiar with if you’ve had a Vietnamese vermicelli bowl before, a sweet garlic-y vinaigrette. The side of rice paper rolls were delicious as well, though I didn’t get the name for them.

We also happened to arrive during Vietnamese lunar new year, or Tet, which meant that Hanoi was largely shut down as people went home for what is essentially a week-long holiday. It’s also kind of like showing up to the US during Christmas and New Year combined. Something that makes a lot of economic sense, but was a surprise to us when we first encountered it, is that during Tet pricing gets increased. With so many employees going home for the holiday, restaurants and cafes raise their prices to compensate those working over the holiday. Meals that are usually 30k rise to 40k or 50k depending.

Finally after a several days of eating and resting, I was feeling well enough to get a gymnastic ring work out in, something I hadn’t done since Santiago in December when yoga took over my life. Generally I feel like I don’t get stared at here in Hanoi, white people are pretty common place in Old Quarter where we’ve been spending most of our time. But that changed when I got the rings out. And I love how excited everyone gets over the rings, kids and adults alike. Most of them are just curious and goofing around, but every now and then someone busts out a muscle up or a back lever, as was the case during that work out. The DOMS was already strong with me on the way back to Chien…

Last week in India: Taj Mahal and Varanasi

February 15, 2018
by Christina

After departing Rishikesh, Dan and I traveled by bus to Agra through Delhi, arriving several hours late at around 1 am. Short story: don’t take Amar Indigo bus line.

A little short on options to get to our hostel, some of our fellow passengers who were Indian helped us argue our fare with the tuk tuk driver. Then something happened that struck me as distinctly India: our driver, who had tried to justify charging us extra for being white, refused to leave as at the hostel until he had roused the manager and made sure that we were safe for the night. Though he would have happily over charged us, he was not satisfied just dropping us off without assuring our safety.

The next day we slept in and took a walk around town. We weren’t planning to go to visit the Taj Mahal until the next day, but when we ended up at the entrance we changed our minds and bought our tickets on the fly.

With our entrance fee of 1000 rupees, we were given shoe covers and a bottle of water, but not allowed to bring in any bottled water of our own. Then it was through the metal detector and one of the most thorough bag inspections we have ever undergone, and we were in.

Walking through the main gate and seeing the Taj Mahal was both glorious and surreal.  Initially we just sat on a bench and admired it from a distance. After a good long ogle, we wandered the gardens, taking pictures and then went for the tour inside the building itself. This is where the shoe covers come in, you either have to cover or remove your shoes to tour the building. The shoe covers reminded me of working in lab.

Photographs inside the Taj Mahal are not permitted, and you shuffle through the main chamber shoulder to shoulder with the other tourists. The tombs that you see are actually replicas, with the real tombs in a room below the main floor. From what I understand, it is not acceptable in Islam to decorate someone’s tomb, which is why the embellished main floor ones are only replicas.

There are several buildings and a museum to see on the grounds, but just walking the gardens and around the Taj Mahal were the best parts for me. And it turned out we got really lucky that we changed our minds and went early. The weather was clear and sunny, and we got some lovely views, and the next day turned out to be very grey and cloudy.

A weird aside, but despite being in one of the world’s largest tourist attractions, people wanted pictures of us. We took a lot of selfies with Indian tourists.

Our first night in Agra we stayed at Spiritual Yoga Homestay, where I saw a whiteboard advertising yoga and meditation classes. When I asked about it, the owner Ashmit said that he had to find a volunteer to teach the class. Well, I was right there! He didn’t have to find me at all! So I taught my very first yoga class on the roof of our hostel in Agra, to two whole students who had never done yoga before. A first for all of us!

After two nights in Agra we hopped an overnight bus to the city of Varanasi. This is one of the holiest cities in India. It is special because if your body is cremated on the banks of the Ganga in Varanasi, your soul is released from the cycle of death and rebirth and goes to heaven. The city has more than 80 ghats, which are the steps used to enter the Ganga to perform ritual washing and bathing.

We went to the Manikarnika Ghat to see the cremations, and got lead there by a man who said he was priest. He handed us off to a guide who wanted us to donate thousands of rupees to pay for wood for people who could not afford cremations. Uncomfortable with this, the guide seemed to get angry with us and we bowed out rather gracelessly. You don’t need a guide to see the cremations, and Dan was convinced it was a straight up scam.

The guide was rather knowledgeable and told us some interesting things regarding the cremations before things went sour. For example, if the family member that has passed is the mother, her husband shaves his head, but if it is the father that dies, then the eldest son does this. They also burn bodies 24/7 there, going through hundreds every day.

We were also told we were not allowed to take pictures of the pyres. But as we sat on the steps watching the flames, we saw a female tourist with a large digital SLR wandering amongst the funeral pyres, where we wouldn’t even have gone walking, snapping away. We asked someone nearby about this, and evidently if you pay (probably a lot of money) you are allowed to take photographs, and that the money goes towards paying for wood for the pyres and other maintenance of the area. The cynic in me had a few thoughts on that, but since I had no horse in that race I kept them to myself.

We walked along the banks of the Ganges admiring the ghats, and attended an Aarti fire ceremony at the Dashashwamedh Ghat, but there are similar fire ceremonies all along the river.

The next day we had a bit of an usual adventure. Due to scheduling conflict we had not gotten our second round of Japanese Encephalitis vaccination in Delhi, and when we went looking in Varanasi we were turned away from a hospital because they “couldn’t help us” and that we wouldn’t be able to find that vaccine.

The owner of our guest house, Jana, said he knew a doctor who owned a hospital and took us over. Once there he took us to the front of the long cue and we were seen immediately. The doctor was confused by our story, saying the vaccine we wanted was very common and we should be able to get it anywhere. So who knows. But we got our vaccine with only a slight (not explicit) up charge for the help in getting it, 1600 per vaccine instead of the 1500 we paid in Delhi.

The doctor was also surprised at my lack of yelping in pain, I guess? He questioned me if it hurt in a puzzled fashion. Nah man, I cut off my hair so I don’t feel pain anymore, just like a man! Ha. Who knows?

Then it was time for me to head back to Delhi. I had another conference to attend, this time in San Francisco, and since my folks live in the Bay Area, I’d booked a two week trip back to the US. Dan, who didn’t have much to do at the conference, stayed on a few more days in Varanasi.

So I was alone when I had the tuk tuk ride from hell.

After negotiating a price for my tuk tuk, it turned out the person who I had been speaking with was just a friend of the driver, and he got out. Thus leaving me alone with a driver who spoke no English. And who was going the wrong way. I tried to show him where I needed to go on my phone, and he kept driving the wrong way. Actually, he did know a few words in English, he kept saying “No problem, no problem!” as I freaked out and tried to get him to turn around. With less than ten minutes to my bus departure for Delhi and still not on the right track, I bailed. I took my bags and got out when we hit a traffic jam, and I walked to the nearest major road that was a straight shot to the bus stop. Only 8 km away.

And then I got lucky.

“Tuk tuk madam?”  (Yeah, madam, always madam. Not miss, not ma’am.)

“I need to go the Meghana hospital.” (The adjacent landmark to the bus stop.)

“Oh, Safar Express? Aren’t you running a little late?”

I could have thrown my arms around him. He drove like a mad man while I texted Dan, asking him to call the bus to wait because I couldn’t make calls on my phone. My savior got me there only three minutes late, but the bus was still there. He tried to charge me 1000 rupees for what should have been a 100 rupee fare, and I gave him 300 and got on the bus, which pulled away before I could even approach my compartment. Then I got chastised repeatedly by one of the bus staff to “Call your husband! He is very worried about you!” I can’t say I’ve never been happier to be on a bus (I’ve got some stories about the Peter Pan bus back at Wellesley), but this makes the Top 3.

Back in Delhi I went to see Hershi and her family, who were our AirBnB hosts during our first nights in Delhi. They not only let me use the apartment during the day for free, they treated me to dinner before I left for the airport that night. Many thanks to them for their kindness and hospitality!

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After that it was about a day of transit to get to San Francisco, and I treated myself to a Airline Lounge pass during my long layover in Narita Airport. I’d never been in an airline lounge before, but if you are paying for a pass, you have to go to the lounge associated with your airline, you can’t just go to any which one. I took a nice shower (unlimited hot water!!!), availed myself of the beer machine, and helped myself to a bunch of sushi.

I flew ANA, All Nippon Airways, and I was really happy with it. JAL and Korean Air are currently tied for my favorite airline, ANA is very close second. We also got a look at Mount Fuji flying into Tokyo.

Sadly, I picked up the flu on the plane. I managed to attend all my duties at the conference anyway, but it was kind of rough. Dan joined me a few days later, and at the end of the festivities we headed across the bay to stay with my parents. We got in a belated Christmas celebration and an early birthday celebration for my mom, and rested up while watching the Olympics.

We also made a trip to the local fire station to get my father’s wedding band clipped off his finger. We tried to remove it at home using dental floss trick, but we were unsuccessful. The fire station was short walk and they have a little tool that’s just a small circular saw with a guard to cut the ring. Then they used pliers to open it up a bit.

Then we were off again. Next stop: Hanoi, Vietnam!

Yoga teacher training at Rishikesh Yog Peeth

February 14, 2018
by Christina

This post is part adventure log, part review of my time spent Rishikesh Yog Peeth (RYP) for my 200 Hour Yoga Teacher Training (YTT). You can find the review-specific section at the bottom. I learned a lot about yoga at RYP, but it was the people that made my stay really special. I’d like to dedicate this monster of a post to my classmates and teachers. Much love to you guys ❤ ❤ ❤

Back in September I got the idea that I should do a yoga teacher training (YTT) while we are on travel. Taking a YTT was an idea that I had been kicking around for a while, but back in DC I never really had the time. Or rather, I never took the plunge to sacrifice the many weekends necessary in order to squeeze it into my schedule. But looking at our travel schedule I figured I could do a 4 week training in India, which being the home of yoga itself, seemed ideal.

Rishikesh Yog Peeth had a lot of good reviews, was a reasonable price ($1550 USD, for tuition, housing, and food) and the training time frame fit our existing travel plans, so I signed up and put down my deposit.

Once in Delhi I had to figure out how to get to Rishikesh. The school offered a private taxi pick up service for $70 USD which I considered for a moment based on the convenience of it. But looking over the bus schedules and prices, I saw I could get a ticket for less than 1000 Rupees, or about $16 USD. So I went to the Kashmiri Gate bus station (which is adjacent to the Kashmiri gate metro stop) and got a ticket from Uttar Pradesh Roadways for 840 rupees with a 9 am Sunday departure. And that’s a fancy ticket, there were lots of cheaper options).

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The bus ride was just under 7 hours, with a bathroom stop and a few drop offs before getting to the Rishikesh bus station. Once in Rishikesh I caught a rickshaw from the the bus station to the Ram Jula bridge for 200 rupees (white person price, real price is 30, fair is 50) and wandered across the bridge staring at the cows and monkeys that freely shared it with all the pedestrians and motorbikes, with the incredibly green Ganges flowing beneath.

It was then I discovered that where Google Maps put Krishna Cottage on the map was wrong. It was about 4:15 pm, and the opening ceremony for my class was at 5 pm, so I will admit I struggled a little bit with a freak out. However, I was fairly confident I was in the right general area, so I went to the second of two locations that Google showed me and found someone who knew where the cottage actually was. (I have since submitted an edit with Google Maps which was accepted.)

So I managed to check in about a half hour before the ceremony. I plopped my bag down in my shockingly enormous room with my own private bathroom (so excite!), and did what any rational traveler would do: I ate a pomegranate.

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Krishna Cottage itself is several stories of rooms, painted green with patterned railings, surrounding a central courtyard. I am embarrassed to say that the only photo I took of my room was a failed attempt to photograph the back of my head when I got a haircut several days later; both the haircut and the photo are a bit of a mess.

My room and the cottage in general are a lot of tile and marble, and it’s actually pretty cold. While Dan and I intentionally came to India in January to avoid the heat, I didn’t realize how far we’d gone. While it reaches 24 C or 74 F at midday, the night time lows are not far above freezing, and the architecture is designed for the heat, not the cold.

The opening ceremony was held in the yoga hall where all our classes would be held: Yoga Hall 3. It’s the highest part of newest addition to the building with lots of windows. So it was bitterly cold at 7 am for our morning asana practice, but pleasantly warm in the afternoon sun.

During the opening ceremony a statuette of Saraswati (the Hindu goddess of knowledge, music, and art) was seated on a low table surrounded by bowls of water filled with rose petals, and wreaths of orange flowers adorned the wall behind her. The ceremony involved much chanting, anointing of our teachers, and each student twirling a lit candelabra before the altar. At the conclusion, we had a red string tied around our right wrists and were given a small sweet to eat.

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I had been incredibly curious about my classmates, and we got to know each other progressively over the first week. There was a large range of ages represented, from early twenties to fifties, and many different nationalities, including French, Australian, Indian, American, Italian, Irish, Egyptian, Hungarian, Vietnamese, Japanese and Korean. Some were serial retreat goers, some brand new to yoga looking to deepen their practice, and some interested in teaching. A fair number were like me, extended travelers who either quit their jobs or took a break from school, though others were planning to go home and incorporate teaching yoga into their existing routines.

Six days of the week our day started with herbal tea at 6:30 am, followed by nasal cleansing (neti pot) in the courtyard, which one of my classmates has colorfully dubbed “the snot garden”. I’ve been using a neti pot to battle my frequent sinus drama for over a decade, but not many of my classmates had used one before, so that first Monday morning (Christmas Day no less) listening to my classmates coughing on saline solution in the cold predawn light was a little surreal and comical for a starting point.

After our nasal cleansing, at 7 am we started our first class, which including chanting, breathing exercises and asana for two hours. At 9 am we had an hour break for breakfast, followed by philosophy class from 10-11 am, then Anatomy & Physiology from 11:30 am-12:30 pm, and an hour for lunch starting 1 pm. There was an hour of “Library Time” following lunch, which in theory allowed us to walk to the library at the other building and check out books for our writing assignment. However, with no assignment yet distributed the first week, and our 3 pm class not beginning until Week 2, we were more or less free until 4:30 pm for our final class of the day, two more hours of physical practice, followed by dinner at 7 pm.

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The food should get special note. Included with my tuition were three vegetarian meals per day. While my relationship with the food evolved over the month, my first week I was absolutely bonkers about the food. I ate way way way too much the first week. I had pictured maybe losing a bit of weight doing four hours of yoga a day and eating vegetarian food, and at that first dinner on Monday night I thought that I had been incredibly wrong. The fresh cut fruit and porridge that was served with every breakfast stayed a favorite of mine, and I think everyone stayed a fan of the chapati (flat bread) the whole month.

Something I had been very concerned about was getting food sickness in India and missing my training, so I had been very careful with what I ate before arriving in Rishikesh, though I had forgot and brushed my teeth with the tap water several times. But I got to Rishikesh with no problems. Then on day four of training, I got sick anyway. Not violently, but by the afternoon all I could manage to do was lie in bed with my fever watching YouTube and napping. I did, however, haul my sorry butt upstairs to class wrapped in the fluffiest blanket from my bed. I sat and watched class then went to sleep immediately after with no dinner. I got about 10 hours of sleep that night and woke up a little weak, but over the hump. Good job immune system!

On the weekends the staff treated us to outings in the general area. Our first outing was to see a sunset ceremony down by the Ganga, a short walk from Krishna Cottage. It was beautiful with the green water and the brilliant red sunset, but it was also a lot like church, which especially in a foreign language, can get kind of boring. Most of us bailed before the end.

While our first official day of class was on Christmas Day, and it slid past without much mention, New Year’s Eve did not go by unnoticed. Balloons were hung across the courtyard and a DJ booth complete with spinning lights and enormous speaker was set up. A feast was prepared with a wider variety of dishes than normal, and the tables and chairs were set up in the courtyard around a fire pit. After dinner, the students hung out standing and dancing around the fire. The DJ had a baffling obsession with Despacito, Tonight (the unedited version! yikes, so much f-words!), and I know you want me, and he played each of these upwards of five times, sometimes several times in a row.

When the DJ finally played some Indian music, the staff got out to dance and got super into it, which was a delight. However, I wasn’t the only one who had gotten sick that week, with a cold going around as well, plus with the early start the next morning, most of the students were back in their rooms a little after 9 pm. But the staff. The staff were up, blasting that music until well after midnight, and most of my classmates didn’t get a good night’s sleep. I definitely busted out my trust ol’ earplugs.

Week two marked a shift in our schedule, as now our teaching methods class started from 3 to 4 pm, and our writing assignment had been distributed, making us all a bit busier. More and more people began getting sick, either with food poisoning or with the cold. I felt like I might be getting the cold and began using my neti pot three times a day in an effort to escape it. Certainly the cold weather and lack of indoor heating didn’t help the situation, and by midweek, I believe at least half of the class actively had the cold.

During the second week, a bit of a polite mutiny also began. While officially 100% class attendance is mandatory, a lot of people began skipping class to rest, either just from physical exhaustion or from sickness. There was also an increase in grumbling about the state of the facilities. While there was supposed to be hot water for several hours each in the morning and evening, some people didn’t have any, or had trouble with their power going out, or only one of the lights in their rooms working. You also had to purchase your own toilet paper if you wanted it, and when one of my classmates complained about not having the bucket and dipper common to most of the bathrooms, she was told by the management that she had to provide her own.

The initial appeal of the food began wearing off, and folks began to start eating out at the cafes nearby. I was a bit of a home body, but even still I ended up working on my writing assignment at the cafes nearby, where I mostly just drank chai and lassis, though down the street many of my classmates went out for coffee. While I didn’t have any real motive for avoiding coffee (except the expense), I ended up going seventeen days before having a cup.

I also made it out to Laxman Jhula which is up the road about 20 minutes on foot, where there are a lot more shops, restaurants and cafes. I took in the sights, watching the monkeys frolic and steal food from tourists, people watching, and buying a few souvenirs for family.

Unfortunately I managed to injure a tendon in the back of my right hand, and one of my teachers sent me to the on-site Ayurvedic doctor to get it wrapped. I didn’t know anything about Ayurveda before arriving in Rishikesh, and so I found it fascinating to see a band new healing tradition. I didn’t get much explanation, but my hand was rubbed with heated herbs and oil wrapped in a cloth, then a paste of herbs was put over the injured area and wrapped to keep the herbs in place. I was told to keep the poultice in place for two hours, then to wash it with warm water.

Our outing for the second weekend was a trip to the Patna Waterfall. We were shuttled out to the trail head, and we hiked up to the retreat center where we had chai and snacks, and goofed around doing some acroyoga before going to visit the falls.

Week three represented yet another change in gears. While each of our morning and evening asana classes had been led by one of our instructors, on Monday we were split into groups and began teaching ourselves for the evening class. With 23 students, we were split into four groups. Mine was a group of six, so for a two hour class each person got a 20 minute segment slot to teach. This felt like the beginning of our metamorphosis into teachers, and I feel like it bonded us closer together as a group, with more interaction in as well as outside of class.

At this point, many of my classmates were sick of the food at school, and a lot of people were buying their meals out, so the crowd in the cafeteria got smaller. Most of the grumbling and mutiny of week two had either died down, or become the new normal. Some people begin to take a class off if they felt like they needed rest. The cold that had been going around finally started to taper as well, though one of my classmates ended up getting antibiotics to cope with it.

And it was still really cold. Quite a few students have purchased heaters for around $20 USD at the nearby electronics shop, but I held firm, refusing to spend so much money on something I will have to leave behind. Sadly though, my 5L water bottle that I’d been cuddling during lecture and putting in the foot of my bed sprang a leak (RIP Snuggles), and I spent a day or so a little cold as I drank down another 5L.

At the end of Week 3, we were assigned our teaching partners for our final assignments in Week 4. We had to teach two things with this partner: 1) a two hour asana class and 2) a 20 minute anatomical analysis of an assigned yoga posture. My assigned partner happened to also be my across the hall neighbor, and I believe she was also the first of my classmates that I met upon arrival. We got assigned an asana teaching slot first thing Monday morning.

My partner and I were planning our class at a local cafe with some other classmates when something jumped on our table from outside of my peripheral vision and I instinctively struck it backhand, sweeping it off the table before I even could recognize what it was. It turned out to be a monkey hunting wild sugar packets, and it was so fast it got two before I knocked it off the table. So I can now add to the list of weird things I have done “Hitting a monkey”.

Unfortunately by the end of Week 3 my body was having problems. I had developed a pain in my right knee from sitting cross legged for so many hours of the day, my left shoulder felt minorly injured, and an old injury in my neck had flared up. My teachers suggested a variety of things from a massage (yes please!) to more protein (why not?), and the internet suggested that maybe a vitamin C shortage could be to blame (I also bruised from my massage, another vitamin C deficiency symptom).

The thing about injury though, while it is a curse to one’s personal practice, it is a great boon to a teacher. Part of teaching is knowing how to suggested modifications to poses for students who may have old or ongoing injuries. And you will never know the modifications for an injury so well as the ones you have had to use yourself. So I behaved and modified my practice, sitting out of sun salutations and down dogs to baby my shoulder, and so on. It was hard not doing everything.

Then, on Saturday morning, we got a treat. One of my classmates had been very curious about cleansing practices beyond the neti pot cleansing, which are not normally taught during the 200 hour class. The one in particular he asked about is called “neti sutra” where sutra means thread. So, nose thread, getting an idea where this is going? Are you scared? I was. Thread is the traditional item, but the modern version uses a small rubber catheters for what is effectively nasal flossing.

Yes. Nasal flossing is a thing. I recommend skipping the next three paragraphs if you are squeamish.

It involves gently (this is important) pushing the catheter up your nostril. There’s no where to go but down into your throat, don’t worry, you won’t poke your brain out. However, making the bend is a challenge, so the angle of insertion needs to be more back than up, and a gentle twisting motion of the catheter can be used to get it started moving down the throat.

The next part is where it got tricky for me. It was surprisingly easy to put the catheter too far down my throat. To do it right, you need to push it just enough so that the end comes down behind your uvula, so that you can reach two fingers to the back of your throat and grab it. If you push the end too far, you end up grabbing it in the middle, and it’s nigh impossible to get out (it’s very slippery). Once you can grab the end between your index and middle finger, you pull it gently out of your mouth so that now you are holding the catheter at each end, one going into the nose and the other out the mouth. And you floss back and forth ever so gently before pulling it all the way out your mouth.

So… this involves a lot of gagging. And spitting. And in some cases vomiting. As I was struggling to get the catheter to the right place to grab it, I took a moment to observe my classmates. My curious classmate was having a rough go of it, but he was committed, I could tell. He wanted it, so despite the retching, he was not giving up. And he and I weren’t the only ones struggling. It was kind of pandemonium, and so what would I do in this situation? I broke down laughing hysterically. If anyone wasn’t awake yet at 7 am, I was their wake up call. That and all the retching sounds.

I am proud to say that I succeeded, and that I managed to floss both of my nostrils despite being frightened out of my mind. I won’t say it was pleasant, or that I will do it again (okay, maybe when a murderous sinus infection comes along I’ll get desperate enough to try again). But that fact that I was able to do it despite my terror gave me a lot of satisfaction.

And there’s even more intense yoga cleansing stuff if you’re curious.

Afterwards our teachers took us for a walk instead of our usual morning asana practice.

That Sunday I elected to pass on the group outing to a nearby temple, because I wanted to do laundry (in a bucket, there is no laundry service at the school) and work on my assignments.

Our fourth and final week was yet again a horse of a different color. There was no more teaching methods class in the afternoon, and most of us had finished our writing assignments so that we were free to work on planning our teachings. Monday and Tuesday we had asana class per usual all together in the main room, but when it came time for our evaluation teachings, we were split between two rooms. My half of the class was moved to Yoga Hall 2, and Anatomy and Philosophy classes continued in our original hall as usual

When Wednesday morning came for me and my partner to teach, I was excited. We were a little too prolific and we had to cut our lesson short lest we run over and create a mutiny by making everyone late to breakfast. But everyone really seemed to enjoy it. My biggest critical feedback was that I was too high energy for the meditation at the end. Surprise surprise.

For three days, we taught each other in asana and anatomy, and our philosophy class continued as usual. But then on Thursday, our teacher told us that this was the last class he would lead, and for our final class on Friday, we would speak. None of us were quite sure what to do with that. Some folks prepared short philosophical anecdotes or quotes to share, but most of us just spoke about our experience over the month.

And when we sat down in a circle, I knew I was going to cry.

It was something I did not expect, but I had become very attached to my classmates and our little month long bubble. One of the classmates I felt closest with, who turned out to probably be the youngest in our class, was completely unsurprised. He had already attended two retreats in the past year, and he said it was par for the course. Look who’s the old hat, eh? I came in incredibly curious about who would be in my class, and I left with a bunch of friends.

And so when we sat down to share in our last philosophy class, I straight up blubbered. When it was my turn, I tried to convey something about expectations. I had an experience a few years ago which taught me that sometimes its the unexpected things in life that are the most rare and beautiful. The sort of things that you can’t plan or see coming. And the friendship and camaraderie that we had over the course of the month was one of those things for me. It was as unexpected as it was beautiful, and I am incredibly grateful for it.

At least, that’s what I tried to say. I hope I was even marginally intelligible through the sobbing and the tissues.

Then, suddenly, it was Saturday: Graduation Day! We had our very last herbal tea, neti pot and asana class first thing in the morning. After breakfast there was a little time to kill, and then there was the closing ceremony. It was much like the opening ceremony, the chanting, the flowers, the fire. Only now, instead of sneaking glances at the strangers that were my classmates and teachers, I was in a room where I knew everyone’s name.

After the closing ceremony came the graduation where we were draped in a chrysanthemum necklace (like a lei, but not) and awarded our certificates. We clapped and cheered for each other. Some people were demur and took their certificate with a handshake. Others were huggers (yours truly!) and one student lifted one of our teachers off the ground.

There was a group photo on the roof, then lunch, and then… that was it. Some people had already gone before lunch. Dan and I stayed Saturday night and went out for dinner with those that remained.

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The next day, Dan and I left first thing for Agra and our normal life as we know it.

 

Review of Rishikesh Yog Peeth

I enjoyed my time at RYP, but I don’t feel that I can whole-heartedly recommend it to others. There were wonderful things about it, and strange and frustrating things as well. My goal is not to dissuade anyone from attending RYP nor to give it a bad review, but to mention what I saw as the pros and cons so that any other potential students can make a more informed decision.

This course was designed for both beginners and advanced students. As such, it involved a lot of physical conditioning to strengthen those who had not been practicing daily. We had four hours of pranayama, chanting, and asana everyday. It began with very basic postures, and worked up towards more complicated poses progressively. While I did learn some very valuable things from these classes, I didn’t really learn many new postures (new to me). I’ve been doing yoga consistently (but not daily) for about five years, and while the conditioning deepened my practice and strengthened me, it didn’t expand upon my existing knowledge base of postures.

What I did learn a lot from were the Philosophy, Anatomy & Physiology, and Teaching Methods lectures. I didn’t have much knowledge in those arenas, and our two teachers who covered these subjects, Deepa and Vijeth, were very knowledgeable. However, I feel like the Anatomy class was a little rushed. Deepa was trying to squeeze a lot of information into a relatively short amount of time, but even still, it ended up being more of a survey class than anything else. Further study on the part of the student is needed in my opinion.

Some of my fellow students were unhappy that our asana teachers were not more highly certified or experienced. The complaint was that not enough cueing was given for the poses to really learn them properly. I personally had no complaints about the cueing, but I was doing postures that I was already familiar with, so it make senses that those who were newer to yoga would want more details than we were getting. Something that illustrated this was the day that Deepa substituted for one of our asana classes, and everyone who had been dissatisfied got all the cueing they had been craving. My impression is that our most experienced teachers were the ones teaching the lectures, while the newer (but still very able) teachers were teaching the asanas and learning on us as we learned from them. I didn’t have a problem with that, but I can understand why someone might want more than that.

I also found the amount of yoga itself rather taxing on my body, particularly combined with a large diet change (all vegetarian). I’m a pretty active person; before YTT, I was doing about 30 min of yoga a day, combined with body weight exercises, running, and longer yoga practices about five times a week. But it felt like every week something else was upset in my body. The first week it was pain and soreness in the muscles in my upper back from having to sit up straight on the floor. That got better during the second week, but then I aggravated a tendon in my hand. That went away, and then suddenly my neck, knee, and shoulder began to hurt. Yes, I’m in my thirties, not my twenties, but still! This point isn’t specific to RYP, but it is something to think about when considering a month-long training of this nature.

The issues I had with my body may have been exacerbated by the cold. While the absolute temperatures in Rishikesh in January are not much to look at, you have to keep in mind that this part of the world is usually very hot, and the buildings are designed accordingly. There is no insulation, and no indoor heating. You can expect tile floors, and lots of drafts: the walls and roof are mostly just protecting you from the monkeys. I think it is part of why so many of my classmates got a cold (and well over half of them got it).

The other sickness was food poisoning. Some people got it twice. I got it eating only food from the school kitchen, though since it happened on day 4 so it could have been something I ate before class. But I was pretty careful, and even I didn’t escape it. I want to say that about a third of my classmates got some kind of digestive problem, and some of those also got the cold. This particular con is probably something that can happen in any country where the tap water is not potable. So keep in mind when considering going abroad for a YTT, you might miss a class or two because something you ate didn’t agree with you.

Furthermore, at RYP some of the management decisions were odd. You get a code of conduct to sign at check in. Rules like no smoking on premises, turn the electricity off when you leave your room. But then there was stuff like “Turn in two passport photos to the front desk within three days” that no one explained or mentioned ever again, and when I inquired about it finally in the third week, I got chastised for not having done it within the first three days. I think some of my classmates never bothered with it. There was also the “100% mandatory class attendance” and “no admittance to class if you arrive later” rules, which I’m pretty sure everyone broke one or the other over the course of the month, but everyone still graduated. Technically you are supposed to apply for an absence, but who is going to haul themselves to class to “apply” for an absence when they are vomiting? No one.

As to the facilities, everyone got their own room and private bathroom, which after all the hostel dorms I’ve stayed in, felt like the lap of luxury. I really liked my room and I was happy with the bathroom as well. Some of my classmates had trouble with getting hot water consistently. This didn’t effect me, but if it had it would have been hard, since without a heater or a spouse, I was very dependent on hot water bottles in bed and in lecture with me to keep me warm. There were certain things about the building that didn’t seem well maintained, broken light fixtures, and dirty walls badly in need of repainting. My bathroom came with a bucket and dipper, but one of my classmates was told she would have to buy her own, they weren’t provided. Also not provided? Toilet paper. Toilet paper is not a thing in India. No laundry services either, we all did our washing by hand in a bucket.

Overall I was happy with my experience. I liked Rishikesh, the food at RYP, and the course curriculum. My teachers were lovely, and I feel really lucky to have had such wonderful classmates. If I could change something I probably wouldn’t have gone in January, and I’d like to see the school be better maintained with more transparent and open channels of communication with the management.

India week 3: Dan in Amritsar

February 7, 2018
by Dan

I had some pretty grand plans to see more of India in my last week solo. Part of that plan was to visit Amritsar. But after reading about Punjabi food and the hospitality of the Sikhs, I decided to spend a full week there. To get there I from Udaipur I took an overnight bus to Delhi, where I had a day long layover followed by another overnight bus to Amritsar. It was pretty exhausting and I finally came down with some strange combination of food poisoning and a cold, plus exhaustion. It wasn’t ideal, but it got me to Amritsar.

During my layover in Delhi I tried to get a few important errands done.

The first was to finally book a train ticket for my trip to Rishikesh at the end of the week. I had tried before and it was a lot of back and forth, and ultimately was way too expensive so I gave up. At 6 am, fresh off my overnight bus, I went to the Foreign Tourist Bureau at the New Delhi Station. It took some wandering to find it, but when I did it was a total oasis. Quiet, clean, and uncrowded.

The woman working the counter was very calm and helpful even when confronted with antsy tourists that had missed trains and such. My situation was very simple and she helped me figure out the various classes of seats on the trains to travel from Amritsar to Rishikesh to meet Christina. I opted to travel in style with a Class 3A sleeper ticket. I kept getting warnings that the North Indian trains aren’t a good way to travel and are often late, but I was feeling very optimistic for the upcoming train journey.

After that I got conned into a tuk-tuk ride that involved lots of tourist shopping and having to explain that I did’t want to buy anything regardless of price. That was pretty miserable and ate up my morning. But from there I headed back to Nehru Place, which is a famous technology market. My laptop was starting die in various ways so I wanted to try to update it, and I was excited to get to fix it up in a famous tech hub.

Well my joy was quickly dashed. I will spare you the details, but I left the market quite furious at the technical incompetence on display at most of the stores (they pulled my hard drive without any grounding!!!). I did end up with a new battery that was a slightly better deal than what was available on the amazon.com, thanks to SMC International, the only people that I talked to that were able to help me.

From there I spent the rest of my day back at HOG hostel while I waited for my evening departure. I bought a visitor pass for 150 rupees and I was able to get out of the smog and relax before catching my bus.

Speaking of buses, these overnight buses were the absolute best bus rides I have ever taken. I bought sleeper class tickets and it was everything I had hoped for. You get your own little cubby situated above the seated passengers. Even with my bag in the cubby I felt like I had plenty of room. And even if it wasn’t an overnight bus, the cubby was more comfortable and private than a standard seat. I felt like a king.

Granted it was pretty bumpy and you sometimes slide into the wall when the bus dodges around some obstacle on the road, so I didn’t get the best sleep. It was still 100% better than a regular bus ticket and usually it was only a few hundred rupees more for the upgrade. I did have trouble with the cold on my first bus experience, but was given a blanket and pillow for the ride from Delhi to Amritsar which was very much appreciated.

I spent my couple days in Amritsar mostly just hanging out in the hostel trying to recover from my mystery sickness that I picked up in Delhi. It started out pretty mild, but everything I ate just killed me with stomach pain and it lasted for about three days. It was a big let down because one of the main reasons that I was excited for Amritsar was all of the Punjabi food, but fortunately I made a quick turn around.

The main tourist attraction in Amritsar is the Golden Temple (Sri Harmandir Sahib). It’s the holy place for the Sikh religion and it’s absolutely amazing. First, the entry to the temple is pedestrian only and super clean. It feels like you entered a totally different world. The Gurdwara (Sikh temple) itself is really beautiful an wonderful place also. What was most striking was the hospitality to visitors and care for the community that was on display there. They serve a free lunch to as many people that come by in the day and allow anyone to sleep inside the temple at night. It’s really wonderful.

To enter the temple you are required to cover your head. They have free bandannas that they offer to anyone. You are also required to take off your shoes at the shoe check at the front of the temple. You wash your hands and wade through a shallow pool to clean your feet before entering the temple. The inside of the temple is marble, and there are towers surrounding an artificial lake with the golden temple in the center. At all times there is music and prayer being recited over the sound system. Many Sikhs will be bathing in the waters and no one is boring and somber. Respectful, but it’s not the serious boring respect that most people put on in a holy place. Around the edges of the temple there are bowls of holy water, which is apparently just water from the lake, which has coy fish and people bathing in it.

The langar (Sikh community kitchen) where you can receive a free meal is awesome. You enter and are handed a plate, then sit down in an open spot on the floor and folks come around serving daal, mixed veggie, sweet rice porridge, and bread. I found the food both tasty and filling. They will keep refilling your plate until you ask them to stop, but it’s expected that you leave no food behind. Upon exiting you can see the volunteers preparing huge vats of food and enormous piles of peels vegetables, and many homeless folks are camped out in the garden nearby. That was I think the most wonderful area of of the whole temple.

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I went to the temple twice, and the first time I went with someone that I met at the hostel. Someone blonde. I thought I got a lot of requests for random pictures with people. Nope. There were countless people coming up to ask for photos with her. It was amazing and quite exhausting for her. And she took her own share of photos with the tall beautiful Sikh guards around the temple.

Which is another great part of the temple. The Sikhs are well known for being quite tall, and I think their dress is awesome. From the traditional devotee old Sikhs with ornate garb and large turbans, to the modern young men that look like Canadian basketball players. There are so many great beards, turbans, and swords.

The other big tourist place that I visited in Amritsar was the Hindu temple Param Pujya Mata Lal Devi Mandir which is a bit far away from the city center. It was described as a fun house of a temple, and to my surprise it turned out to be pretty accurate. There is a sprawling maze covered in mirrored rooms, which involved crawling through tunnels to reach the altar dedicated to the modern Hindu saint Lal Devi. I had a lot of fun, though I feel awkward entering Hindu temples because I have not gone in with a practicing Hindu that speaks good English, so I haven’t been able to figure out what I am supposed to do or not do.

My journey to this temple was during the Punjabi festival of Lohri, which is a festival celebrating the end of winter and it’s traditionally celebrated with flying kites during the day and then bonfires at night. The following day is Makar sakranti which is a kite flying day all over India. I was suffering heavily from stomach cramps and I took a rest in a park before the temple. A local guy came and started talking to me. He ultimately invited me to meet his family, drink tea, and fly kites on the roof of his home.

Indian kite flying is a whole ‘nother thing. People are very skilled at floating a kite. They stand in place, toss the kite in the air with barely any breeze, and the kite is flying in a couple seconds. All over the city kids are hanging out on the roof flying the kites and they basically battle them. When strings come in contact, the pilot will tug on the string and try to saw their opponents string to cut it down.

At the start of the day folks will have a stack of a dozen of simple kites and they slowly work through them. Everyone keeps count of the kites that they cut down and occasionally everyone on the roof will scramble to catch the string of a cut down kite as it passes by and then fly it for themselves. Plastic string is popular because it can cut down thread easily and everyone calls it Chinese string, which is banned because it will cut skin. With all the loose string flying around on these days, there were some instances of kids faces and necks being cut.

By day’s end there were kites all over the trees and everyone was tripping on kite string that wound up all over the streets. It was fascinating to experience all of this with a family. I got cut down within seconds every time I tried to fly a kite.

I also visited the Wagah Border, which is border between Pakistan and India, and it is officially closed at the end of each day with a ceremony. I was not intending to go but I was recommended many times and I happened to be at the golden temple and meet a young Indian traveler, Shushant at the langar. He invited me along with his friends to see the ceremony. I knew that he could barter a fair price for transit out there and help me understand what was going on, so I went for it.

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The ceremony (on the Indian side) is held in a large stadium that fills with both Indians and a decent number of foreign tourists. Before the show women and children are allowed down on the road to run around with flags and have a dance party. The occasional traveler would be crossing the border on foot, mostly going from India to Pakistan. I felt like I was in the crowd at a sporting match. An MC would hype up the crowd with cheers of something like ‘hail Hindustan’.

The official part of the ceremony consisted of a military guard marching back and forth energetically followed by a high kick and stomping the ground. Occasionally there would be some chest pounding exchanged between the guards of different sides at the border line. I didn’t understand anything, but at the end the flags of each country were taken down and the gates were closed, and then all of a sudden the entire crowd emptied out of the stadium.

Finally, a discussion of food. I think so far the food in Punjab has been my favorite. At least it strikes me as quite distinct compared to what I was eating in Rajasthan. The first characteristic of Punjabi food is ghee (clarified butter). It seems like everything here is made with ghee and then topped with butter for good measure. To be honest, I can’t tell all the differences between butter, ghee, curd, milk, yogurt, etc., but I know there is a lot of all of it in everything.

The best example of this is dairy product fascination is the lassi. Full disclosure, mango lassi is probably my all time favorite drink. Punjab claims home of the lassi, and it’s on an entirely different level from what I had previously experienced. The lassi here is like drinkable yogurt, and then its topped with half a stick of butter chunks (maybe butter and/or solid cream) that floats on the top. It is delicious and just feels wrong, and I love it.

I did not see any flavored lassi here, it was just sweet, salty or plain. I prefer the sweet lassi, but the salty lassi isn’t bad. There is sometimes some pepper added and with the chunks of butter it reminds me a lot of cottage cheese. Anyway, I already dearly miss the lassi from Amritsar, although I think mango lassi still gets the honor of all time favorite.

I finished up the week with my train ride from Amritsar to Rishikesh to meet up with Christina. I don’t know where I got this romanticized version of trains in India. But they are not that great. Bus travel is where it’s at. More options, less hassle, cheaper, and more comfortable. But I finally did Indian rail travel and completed my solo adventuring through India all in one piece.