For all the photos from our Fiordland adventure, click here: http://flic.kr/s/aHsjE9X98T.
The New Zealand Campervan Chronicles Part 5: Supertramp – Milford Sound Alpine Views, Queenstown, and Jaw-Dropping Hanging Glaciers
Jeff had the guts to take a dip!
As we drove to Milford Sound, we knew we were entering the most popular part of New Zealand, and for good reason. The soaring alpine heights and majestic glacial views make this region an eye popping delight. The only downside is that the increased popularity leads to overcrowded campsites and reduced opportunities for freedom camping but it is an acceptable sacrifice for the region’s beauty. We were moving quickly through the east side of the island trying to catch the good weather on the west, where it is known to rain 110% of the time. The drive to Milford was somewhat cloudy, but the weather started to break as we approached the heart of Fiordland. To cap off the day, we climbed the rugged Marian Lake Track, which led us to the edge of a glacial lake nestled in a hanging valley. Jeff washed off the heat of the climb with a dip in the chilling pure blue waters!
Full rainbows at the Milford waterfalls!
Next day was PACKED as we boulder hopped and waded up the riverbed to see the 270 meter high Humboldt Falls. The base was a cascading stream of splintering waterfalls that almost made us forget about the tiresome journey to get there! Then off to the Gertrude Valley Track where we found ourselves in a valley surrounded on all sides by majestic alpine peaks. A slightly misjudged clamber up the base of a waterfall to refill our chilly bin had us fearing getting caught in a landslide, so we scrambled down and headed off through the engineering feat of the Homer tunnel and into the famous Milford Sound. The sound is actually a “fjord” or inlet created by the retreat of a giant glacier millennia ago. We hopped on a Southern Discovery cruise of the sound and were awed by the sheer granite rising up out of the sea and the force of the waterfalls that pounded down from the high cliffs. The ship took us right into the falls making for a wet and fun experience as we tried to snap photos while being buffeted with glacial mist!
The foreshore walk the next morning was a perfect time to snap a few great photos of Mitre Peak rising out of the 400 meter deep waters as the sun glistened off the water.
We saved the best for last with the Key Summit track and its stupendous alpine views of Lakes Marian, Gunn, and McKellar and the three valleys they rest in. We decided to continue after the Key Summit along the Routeburn Great Walk for another few hours to the Earland Waterfall that splash right down on the walking path. The time of the day to do this one is in the late afternoon when the waning sun projects a double rainbow through the water wafting up from the waterfalls base. As we emerged from the sound, the night’s stay at Henry Creek had a surprise in store for us, when we went to brush our teeth – Jeff had left his trusty companion for the past year and a half, his toiletry bag, all the way back at the Milford Sound Lodge. Out of all the places to forget it, this one happened to be 200 km away down a windy, hilly, dead-end road. Lucky for us, a one way road means everyone going there, must come back, and we were lucky enough to find a sweet couple, who agreed to retrieve the bag and drop it off for us in Te Anau, while we embarked on our greatest day hike yet.
As if the 8 hour Routeburn jaunt wasn’t enough, we decided to tackle the Kepler Great Walk with a 12 hour return trip starting down at Te Anau Lake all the way to the highest point of the track, the peak of Mount Luxmore. A leisurely stroll through the beech forest led to a grueling 2 hour switch back packed ascend, which found us practicing walking meditation as we stepped and breathed in rhythm while pushing the limits of our physical endurance. Much like a Zen sesshin, pushing yourself to your limit, whether it be physical or mental can be an effective way to force the ego-mind to wear itself out, leaving only the fertile field of the present moment for the senses to graze upon. After finishing the walk and cooking up a king’s breakfast of eggs, shoulder bacon, and toast the next morning, we got a call from the local i-Site, that the couple dropped off our toiletry bag. Excitedly, we picked it up and left Fiordland complete again!
For all the photos from our Fiordland adventure, click here: http://flic.kr/s/aHsjE9X98T.
Basket of dreams on Queenstown Hill
Next stop was the crazy duo of Queenstown and Wanaka. Known as the “adventure capital” of the world, we found Queenstown’s manufactured adrenaline highs (bungee jumping, jet boating, hang gliding, etc.) to be overcommercialized and overpriced. The city has a beautiful location surrounded by the Remarkables Mountain Range on the edge of a clear blue lake. In the end we opted for some “natural highs” by climbing Queenstown Hill to get 360 degree views of the area. Wanaka is like a laid back version of Queenstown with a similar setting of mountains and lake. The environment was chill enough, however, to enjoy hangout time reading by the lake and some truly spectacular hikes, including the Rocky Mountain Loop Track overlooking Lake Wanaka and the surrounding environs. The most memorable was the Rob Roy Glacial Valley Track in Mount Aspiring National Park. The three hour roundtrip hike takes you to a magical valley, where the Rob Roy glacier perches atop the mountains. Meanwhile, the alpine parrots – keas – keep you company while they swoop down to feed on the brilliantly yellow wild flowers spanning the valley or on any tidbits that tourists inappropriately give them. Oh, and did we mention that there are maybe five waterfalls pouring down the crevices of the mountains – truly a magical place. For all the pictures from this leg, click here: http://flic.kr/s/aHsjEaeMMf.
Fox Glacier Snout
After Rob Roy, we were primed and ready for more glacier fun as we headed north through the Haast Pass to the sandfly-ridden west coast, where the Fox and Franz Josef glaciers awaited. These remnants of the ice age past, continue to retreat up the amazing valleys they created and into their origins in the high mountain peaks. Walking to the snouts of each glacier, we found them impressive reminders of what the world once was but less atmospheric than the wondrous setting of Rob Roy.
As we finish off this post at Lake Kaniere outside of Hokitika, we are huddled inside of our van taking shelter from the hoard of blood thirsty sand flies that ravage tourists’ skin each dawn and dusk (and during the day in the really bad spots!). Still, they couldn’t take away from Hokitika’s charming driftwood beaches, abundance of pounami jade stones, and damn good mac ‘n cheese!
The New Zealand Campervan Chronicles Part 4: Into the Wild! Fur Seals, Penguins, Glowing Lakes, and the Glory of Mount Cook
Arriving on the South Island
Ahhh, the south Island of New Zealand! For many it is THE destination of the country, with the North Island only getting a cursory few stops on the way down. Having had such an amazing time on the North Island, we were eager to see how the south would compare. It didn’t start favorably, as the ferry ride over Cook Strait was cloud ridden (though still pretty) and the rain started to fall once the driving started. We didn’t get far that first day, but were pleasantly surprised about our ability to freedom camp along the eastern coast in a little car park with a pleasant lakeside viewing platform.
The next morning our wildlife encounters began as we drove through the downpour to Ohau point, a known breeding grounds for the New Zealand fur seals. The little fellas could care less about the pouring rain, and as we watched amid the drenching we saw them frolicking about, both adults and cubs alike. What a wondrous introduction to New Zealand wildlife.
Strange formations at Castle Hill
From there, having to make some tough choices about where to go with the weather remaining relatively foul, we headed up a bit to Arthur’s Pass to see the city of stone that is Castle Hill. Featured in the “Narnia” films, this limestone outcropping features a variety of bizarre shapes and found us climbing and laughing at the various oblong shapes created! From there we bypassed the large city of Christchurch due to time and weather and along the way to Mount Cook stopped for a quick hike at the Rakaia Gorge.
Then it was on to the main event! The weather started to clear as we drove west towards Mt. Cook, the tallest peak in New Zealand. Our first stop was the phosphorescent glowing waters of Lake Tekapo. The lake is glacier fed and as the water flows from the glacier to the basin of the lake, it grinds the surrounding rock into “flour”. This flour serves to refract the light in the lake, making it glow almost like ectoplasm! The view is even grander after a drive up to the hilltop observatory outside of town, where you can compare the glacier fed lake to the more typical Lake Alexandria.
After Tekapo, we drove the long length of Lake Pukaki on our way to Mount Cook. Lake Pukaki shares the same lineage as Lake Tekap so the 55km drive was pure delight on our first crystal clear day on the south island as we drove the turquoise waters with Mt. Cook beckoning from the horizon. If that was the ice cream, the cherry on top was arriving in the Mount Cook National Park and doing the glorious Hooker Valley walk, which passes several swing bridges before breaking views of the stunning Mount Cook holding court over the valley. We slept at the Mount Cook camp with the wind buffeting Faith (the name of our van) and dreaming of our humbleness before the rocky towers that the Australian and Pacific tectonic plates have created in their millennia long embrace.
The Clay Cliffs outside of Twizel
The next day saw us overwhelmed with what to do next as the weather in Mount Cook was already souring. A quick peek at the Tasman glacier was followed by a visit to the Clay Cliffs of Omarama. The experience was almost ruined for Neda when she was climbing behind me and I dislodged a soccer ball sized stone that nearly took her out. But the cliffs, which rose like a giant striated clay organ into the sky, were a sight to behold. Still, afterwards we found ourselves a bit frazzled as we drove towards the town of Oamaru, wondering how to make our schedule work. Now let me tell you a true piece of wisdom from the road – if you ever feel in a funk, find some penguins! For us, a drive off the coast outside of Oamaru to Bushy Beach at dusk was just the ticket. It is at this time in the evening that the world’s most rare penguins, the yellow-eyed variety, waddle up out of the ocean to bring food to their waiting chicks. Neda spotted one of the sea birds while it was still in the waves and we watched as it let the tides bring it to shore and started its ritual walk up the beach. How special to witness this nature made domestic ritual! We bedded down that night at a DOC (Dept. of Conservation) campsite, feeling amped up and recharged for our trip down the east coast of the south island.
And it did not disappoint! In one of our best days of the whole trip, we hit all the high notes. A trip to Katiki point to start the day saw us surrounded by lounging fur seals and penguin chicks burrowed in their nesting holes off the hiking track. Wildlife was followed in quick succession by wild things as we bounded off to the famous Moeraki boulders, beach bound balls filigreed with quartz-like calcite crystals. If that wasn’t enough sexual allegory, our next stop was the peninsula at Shag Point, where a hidden tidal shelf holds mysteries of ages past. It is here that ancient dinosaur skeletons were discovered, having been entombed in spherical stone over the ages of sediment buildup. These “dinosaur eggs” were a delight to discover and explore.
The night reached its apex down in the car park off of Shag Point, where we freedom camped with sweet little spot right on the beach. We partook in some Raglan hospitality as we watched the seagulls butcher a slew of fish on the beach before digging into our own delicious meal of pan fried local salmon, seared zucchini, and bottle of a local sauvignon blanc, the NZ specialty. We were thinking of our friend Jane back in Austin, who introduced us to delicious sauvs and grilled fish off the balcony of the Roc!
The wandering continued down the coast to Dunedin where a quick visit to the city’s Otago museum showed us the Plesiosaur that had been discovered at the aforementioned Shag Point. Then it was off to some hikes on the barren and majestic Otago peninsula where we stood on the edge of 300 meter drops at lovers leap, meditated at the chasm loop and finished off the day descending the homemade passageway through the rock to the beautiful tunnel beach. The waves thundered around us and the scenery swept us away, only to find us freedom camping at a cozy little surf beach in the tiny village of Brighton. The morning was a fine one for yoga and meditation on the shadow lapped beach and the cold public showers felt like a premium sauna after 3 days of roughin’ it!
I know this post seems likes a whirlwind, but trust me the real wind didn’t begin until we got down into the “Roarin’ 40’s” of the Catlins. This southernmost region of NZ is among the windiest part of the planet and it’s normal to see near horizontal trees who have been bent but not broken by the ceaseless airflow of the region. Though we stopped for a scenic hike to Jack’s blowhole (where we saw a penguin narrowly escape the sea surging waters), the true purpose of the journey might be have been our favorite spot of the whole trip – Curio Bay. The near southernmost part of the island, Curio Bay is one of the most unique places on earth. It has a tidal shelf which at low tide reveals the remains of a 170 million year old petrified forest that was preserved there after a volcanic eruption.
The eerie naturalistic landscape of Curio Bay - a petrified forest preserved by volcanic ash and only visible as the tide lowers each evening. The not-so-discerning eye will also notice our yellow-eyed penguin friend making his nightly stroll up the shelf with his gullet full of fish, ready to feed his molting chick!
If that wasn’t enough, the shelf is also home to the friendliest group of yellow eyed penguins on the island. We watched slackjawed as one of these rare penguins came within 10 meters of us, called to his chick, and then waited as the partially molted chick emerged from his burrow to retrieve the fish his parent was holding in his gullet. We watched this amazing feeding process up close! It was at once intimate, wild, and humbling to be given this window into these creatures’ lives.
Jeff hangs 10...
This spot couldn’t get better right? Well it does. The adjacent Porpoise Bay, just a few minute walk away is home to a pod of the rare mini Hector dolphins, who feature a dorsal fin that resembles a Mickey Mouse ear. The Hector dolphins are somewhat unique not just due to their small size, but that they tend to live close to the shore, making for a good bet you can see them swimming there. For us the perfect solution came in Nick, the proprietor of the Catlin’s surf school. We took a surf lesson from him on a perfect windy day. Not only did Neda and I both get up and hang ten multiple times, we also got a show from the resident dolphins as they jumped around the waves while we surfed. It was endorphin overload to the max. Could anything top it? After all, it was the west coast of the South Island which receives all the hoopla…can’t wait to see what awaits!
To see all the amazing pics from Marlborough and Canterbury (the northern bit), click here.
To see all pics of Otago including the Moeraki boulders, Shag Point, and the Otago Peninsula, (the middle bit), click here.
To see all the pictures of the Catlins (the Southern bit) including Curio Bay and Jack's Blowhole, click here.
The New Zealand Campervan Chronicles Part 3: A Peak of Mount Egmont and a Visit to Middle Earth in Windy Wellington
Having broken in the van with our beach side escapades, we had yet one more beach to explore before heading to Taranaki region’s crown jewel, Mount Egmont. Unfortunately, our search for the low tide boulders at Tongaporutu beach was a wild goose chase, but we were rewarded of views of sea rocks in the remarkable likeness of an Asian elephant.
Enchanted Forest Track
Then off we headed to a windy freedom camping spot at Dawson’s Falls carpark high in Egmont National Park. Freedom camping used to be the norm in New Zealand, where campervans could park in public car parks and rest stops. However the burgeoning tourism here has led to some abuse of this lenient policy, and as a result choice freedom camping spots are a bit harder to come by, especially in the popular areas of the islands. The down side of this is not only the obvious factor of cost, but the fact that tourists tend to be huddled in characterless motorparks with little privacy. Freedom camping offers the opportunity to experience New Zealand the real kiwi way with just you and the bush. We got a good taste of that when we inadvertently observed a stoat (a pest introduced to kill rabbits, who now eats native birds) catching and killing a rabbit (which have becomes pests after being introduced for hunting by the European settlers). Our morning hike showed the weather ‘becoming fine’ as we tramped through a gnarled goblin forest and crossed wobbly swing bridges. The highlight was when shy Mount Egmont revealed herself through the fluffy clouds.
On our way out of the mountains, we couldn’t resist a stop at Waverly Beach for a famed sea arch that has since collapsed. Luckily, the trip was not in vain, because we saw the remains of petrified trees on the beach that one of Egmont’s eruptions preserved many years ago.
a flight of local brews with seafood stew
Our final stop before heading to the South Island was the capital city of Wellington, which is so windy that it puts Chicago to shame. A drive to the Mount Victoria view point saw Neda almost take flight as the wind gusts there can frequently reach near hurricane levels. We had a noteworthy experience at the Fork and Brewer downtown Wellington, where the Joe, the local bartender, gave us tips and tastes of a variety of local craft brews. He also reassured us that freedom camping on the Oriental Parade street facing Oriental Bay and just a 10 minute walk from downtown was not a big deal. We were concerned as the closest camping spot we found was 20 minutes outside of town, and the hostels didn’t have parking spaces. Sure enough, we pulled into Oriental Bay and found a host of campervans all sleeping for free for the night and using the public toilets across the street. In New Zealand, we call this set up ‘sweet as’ and to top it off, the guy at the front desk of the local gym gave us the ‘traveler discount’ of much needed free showers. We are loving the kiwi hospitality!
an extinct Moa at Te Papa
The morning saw an interested but convoluted visit to the renowned Te Papa Museum, where we learned about New Zealand culture and wildlife but found the rather scattered displays difficult to follow. The true highlight of the day for us was the drive around the bay to the Weta Cave, the home of the now famous special effects studio driven to world fame when it partnered with Peter Jackson in the creation of the Lord of the Rings films. The fascinating ‘Windows into Workshop’ tour would make my uncle Tony drool as we got a firsthand look at the work of the highly skilled sculptors, painters, smiths, and computer gurus who have brought to life not only Lord of the Rings but also the Narnia films, District 9, Avatar and many other films. So how could we top off such insight into the world of Middle Earth?
How about a visit to the famous Embassy Theater where the Hobbit had its world premier! The Embassy had specially equipped speakers to screen the premier to celebrities, and the 3D high frame experience there was a true immersion experience. We felt like we were visiting middle earth after having just visited middle earth! Our action packed time in Wellington left us breathless and eager for what lay beyond as we boarded the early morning ferry to the South Island, where the scenery would really heat up! Coming soon!
To see the pics from this region, click here:
For all you LOTR fanboys out there, I couldn't resist a few extra pics:)
The New Zealand Campervan Chronicles Part 2: Glowworms, Blacksand Freedom, and the Christening of Faith
Leaving Auckland a bit late due to the post celebratory sleeping, our campervan experience began in earnest. Our destination was the fabled Waitomo caves with their fascinating glowworms, but as we set out we realized we weren’t going to make it there in time. Thus, our first “freedom camping” experience was a hilarious stopover in a residential neighborhood outside of Hamilton. Just imagine us furtively looking out of our curtains as we slept under the street lights of a cul-de-sac. We made a beeline out of there at the crack of dawn and made a bunch of minor fixes to the van to prepare her for the journey. Our road trip began with a string of fresh local fruit and veggie shops on the road, and we could hardly move a few kilometers before we kept pulling over for succulent kiwis, bags of zucchini, broccolis the size of Neda’s head, and heaps of avocados (mm, guacamole galore, miss you Austin!).
Before we knew it, we were in Waitomo, though the hyper commercialized and uber expensive cave tours left us searching for the right way to tackle the area. Our answer came in the form of the godsend New Zealand Frenzy guidebook series by Scott Cook. The books focus on campervan travel throughout New Zealand, with a focus on DYI adventures and off the beaten path treasures. In Waitomo, Scott recommended Ruakuri Bushwalk twice – during the day the walk is a pleasant stroll through the area of the caves and the native bush, but at night it really shines! We were mesmerized by the thousands of little azure colored lights throughout the woods and along the limestone walls. The little critters have evolved this beautiful glow to attract small insects for them to feed on. As we walked in the dark, it became hard to distinguish where the glow of the worms ended and where the glitter of the stars began (the night sky is crystal clear here). How amazing that from this perspective the tiniest of worms were indistinguishable from the enormous gas giants burning far away from us. It was truly an experience of the finite merging with the infinite - the heart of the Soto Zen teaching.
Next, we decided to head out to the relatively isolated West Coast of the Central North Island with a couple of tramps (what kiwis call hikes) along the way. Our first stop was the Tawarau Falls off of Appletree Road. Turns out this road is an unpaved overgrown forest road that leads to a small hill parking lot from where the tramp to the waterfall begins. Let’s just say that the Estima’s low frame height didn’t agree with the road. Clinking and thumping noises accompanied our every turn as our anxiety grew that the car would fall apart as the trip had begun. With rain approaching and our fears of not being able to get out before dark, we skipped the trek and headed back to the main road. This time, the car really did tear some pieces off as we got back to the main road with plastic and metal dragging ominously on the ground. With the help of a few friendly locals, we were able to get the pieces off and got a piece of mind, that the only damage was to the unnecessary safety guards at the bottom of a car. We brought the pieces to a mechanic later, who assured us that they were Japanese add-ons not necessary and we can drive. As the noises reverberated in our ears and Jeff continued to push on the gas, hoping for minimal damage, the car earned her name. We called her Faith. The rest of the road was more peaceful as we wooed under the Mangapohue Natural Bridge and ahhed in the personal rainbow that Jeff created standing in the mist of the stunning Marokopa Falls.
Our night would end riding a locals only gravel road to the Kiritehere Beach, a beautiful black sanded cove backed by the pastoral farmlands and rolling hills common to the region. The only other camper there for the night was a local from Raglan, who offered us a beer and other Kiwi hospitality that made for some far out conversations! Lying in bed that night, listening to the waves rock us to sleep - does it get any better?
Through the tunnel
The isolated beach theme continued as Scott led us next to Waikawau Tunnel Beach. Accessible at low tide only, this beautiful spot can only be reached via an 80 meter long manmade tunnel (built so that shepards could get their sheep out for sea pickup) through the sandstone cliffs. Emerging through the gusting winds of the tunnel, the beach provided a brilliant walk along colorful bluffs, cute waterfalls surrounded by verdant moss, and fascinating forms that the rippling eddies created in the sand. To top it all off, we were completely alone.
That sweet remoteness would continue as we bedded down at our destination of the evening, Mokau beach. This sweet spot on Scott’s itinerary saw us literally opening our van door to the sparkling black sand beach littered with picturesque white driftwood. Being more than just beautiful, the wood provided for a warm fire in a nook carved out of a beach cliff. We felt like kings of the world, drinking beers, eating homemade guacamole and curried chickpeas in front of the warm fire gazing out at the never-ending ocean.
Sure, there were some bumps along the road but our first week of the campervan chronicles was a smashing success. Next, we would tackle Mount Egmont and see the birth place of the Hobbit in Windy Welly.
For the beautiful pics from this leg of the trip, click here.
Our mission was simple – find and acquire a campervan to tramp around New Zealand with while still partying with our travel friends Chris & Lauren for New Year’s on the beach. The challenge was in doing it all in two days! We flew into Auckland on a redeye from the Gold Coast, arriving at 1am. The airport shuttle into town rang in at $16/per person, the beginning of our New Zealand “sticker shock” having just come from Malaysia and India! Flying in on a redeye Sunday morning wouldn’t be such a big deal, if it wasn’t for the fact that the well-known Ellerslie Car Fair happens to run only on Sunday mornings! That means after checking into our hotel, Neda and I only grabbed a few hours of shuteye before catching the bus out to the fair to find our van.
First a little history about why we had this mission in the first place. While traveling in Cambodia we ran into a great couple, Chris & Lauren. Chris is a Kiwi and the couple had recently bought a campervan to travel around New Zealand’s two stunning islands before returning to sell the van and continuing with their travels. Their stories inspired us and logistically it seemed the best way to see NZ. To rely on public transportation leaves you missing the plethora of off-the-track destinations that make New Zealand so special and to rent a campervan for 2 months rings up between $5-8k. On the other hand, you can buy a decent minivan/full size van with a simple bed frame put in the back for around $3-4k. Then, at the end of your trip, there is a good chance you can sell the van at around the same cost or with a slight loss.
When we walked up to Ellerslie, the parking lot had a string of about 10 campervans to choose. The sellers were made up of either German backpackers or seedy looking locals. We had heard that rip-off artists abound at the fair and so were hoping to deal with backpackers, who seemed less likely to outright lie about the history of the car. After perusing the vehicles though we found that there are two classes of vans – those that have been fully modified to include a sink and a table and those that really just have a bed in the back. The modified ones all had price tags in the 5k+ range, which was beyond what Neda and I wanted to risk in this endeavor. But the non-modified vans were in pretty bad shape, so we took some phone numbers but left the fair by hitchhiking with some Czech backpackers who wanted to sell us their 1989 Toyota Hiace, which a mechanic had told us might struggle over the hills in the South Island.
Ringatoto Volcanic Island near Auckland
Back in Malaysia, I had used the precious internet time there (internet is costly and sparse in New Zealand!) to research campervans online. The best sites I found were Gumtree and the Backpacker Board. People had recommend trademe.co.nz, but I didn’t want to buy a car without looking at it first (its sort of like e-bay in that way). As soon as we got a NZ phone (I recommend Skinny for a cheap, good provider if you have a smartphone), we texted the people I had previously researched and found that most of the vans were available. So we woke up on New Year’s Eve, still jet-lagged with a mini car fair coming to our hotel parking lot! In the end, we turned down Germans with a Mitsubishi Spacegear and found the preferred model I had been looking for – the Toyota Estima. The Estima is a popular car in New Zealand and we see families riding around in them all the time (meaning high resale value to kiwis and tourists alike). It also has more power than some of the older models like the Hiace and is quite durable. Nigel (the seller) wanted $4,500 for the 1996 Estima with 222k km and a futon in the back that he had put in himself, as well as a customized little counter for storage and cooking sitting behind the futon. I offered him $3,500 pending a mechanical inspection and we had an agreement, but it was already getting late on New Year’s Eve so we agreed to put off the sale until the 3rd, since the 1st & 2nd are holidays in New Zealand.
BBQ'd Coromandel mussels!
Yay! Relieved that we had a solid prospect on our mini-home, we met up with Chris and Lauren, who were visiting New Zealand for a wedding and holidays. It’s always fun to meet up with those we have traveled with over our trip, and this was no exception. On New Year’s Eve we went to a friend of Chris’ house on the beach and partied the night away. New Zealand has lots of craft beers, which I heartily enjoyed while we cooked up Coromandel mussels, shot air guns, and BBQ'd the night away. Almost like being in America for the 4th of July, except it was New Year’s Eve! New Zealand is the first major country to usher in the New Year so while we were kissing and drinking champagne, it was only 6am on New Year’s Eve on the East Coast!
The sitting lion on Piha beach
New Year’s Day found us traveling with Chris’ friend Mike over to spectacular Piha beach, which has some crazy riptides. They are so bad that a baywatchesque reality TV show is filmed there where unsuspecting swimmers get pulled out of the raging rips by a darting raft filled with lifeguards. In the evening we spent some time with Chris’ fascinating parents (his dad was backpacking around the world back in the 1950’s as part of the British merchant marine!) who hosted us for a few days. This left us time to explore the volcanic Ringatoto island off the coast of Auckland (which is essentially a city built on top of volcanoes) and walk around the Auckland harbor, marveling at $18 hamburgers and $17 gyros as our sticker shock continued! Ringatoto had great views of the Skytower and it was interesting to see the unique kidney fern as well as the breeding grounds of the black back gulls.
When the holiday was over and 3rd rolled around, we had to finish the deal with the car. The seller picked me up and we went to one of the only mechanic shops I could find that was open. FYI, much of Auckland closes down between Christmas and the first two weeks of January as the locals take their summer holidays. Not a good time to visit! The pre-purchase inspection yielded some minor fixes needed on the car like windshield wipers and a new radiator cap, though nothing major for a Warranty of Fitness (WOF). The WOF is the main car inspection in New Zealand and is required every 6 months for cars older than 3 years. In the end the car seemed in pretty good shape so we decided to take the plunge and have been loving it ever since!
I have to admit that juggling the purchase of a vehicle, its registration and inspection, as well as insurance while still hanging out and partying with our friends was a challenge sometimes. But once we actually paid for the van and it changed hands, the excitement set in! We had a mobile home by which to explore this beautiful country! The next couple days also offered pure indulgence and relaxation as we hung out with a friend of Chris’ at his business partner’s mansion overlooking Ringatoto on the coast. We had but to walk down the back stairs to head to the beach and we hung out all night playing board games and sleeping in luxury. Not a bad way to preface a trip in a campervan! After Chris’ b-day smash at Ben’s bar we crashed with Ed for the night (thanks again buddy!) and set off the next day to see what the road awaited!
Dim Sum’s roots lay buried in Southern China where the ancient tradition of tea tasting was popular. As the silk road grew more crowded with travelers and people discovered that tea aided in digestion, it made sense to offer some snacks with the tea. Lucky for us, those snacks were so delicious and varied, that the tradition stuck and Dim Sum was born. Literally meaning, “touch the heart”, I think the Chinese may have had some inkling of how unhealthy these little delectable morsels were when they came up with the name – if you’re not moderate they literally will touch your heart!
But as we flew into Kuala Lumpur and got our first experiences of the city, we realized that the idea of dim sum really epitomizes the cultural smorgasbord found in the country. In addition to the indigenous Malay population, India and China have both been actively trading with the strategically located peninsula since around the 2nd century AD. By the 11th century Islam had spread across the country via trade and in the 16th century the Dutch established a strong presence, followed finally by the British in the 18th century.
But the highlight of the city came in a pair. The Petronas Towers rise 1,500 meters in the air and seem almost like giant minarets visible from anywhere in the city. The towers are the home of the country’s national oil company, but also incorporate Islamic geometric principles as they rise in the shape of an eight-sided star. Under the towers sits an enormous mall while in their shadow is a large park with a wave pool - a playground for kids. All in all, it’s a wonderfully designed space, perhaps best appreciated from above. To do so, we headed to the nearby Trader’s Skybar, with views straight to the towers and attached park. As day turned to night, we watched the towers light up like shimmering crystals protesting the darkness. The sight of this architecture, turned into mesmerizing, incandescent sculpture as the night fell, was a true highlight. Add to that our first beer in 6 weeks (we didn’t drink while in India) and the night was complete!
Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion
After Kuala Lumpur we headed to the Cameron Highlands for adventures with tea (see our post about that here), before heading to the island of Penang, in the northwestern part of the peninsula. Penang’s history started to get really interesting in 1786 when the Sultan of Kedah ceded Penang to the British East India Company in an attempt to gain protection against Siam (though it didn’t work). The British established Penang and other small territories along the coast of Malaysia (called the “Straits Settlements”) to use them as free trade ports. As such, an enormous mixture of people combined there, making a veritable dim sum cart of cultures. There were the indigenous Malays, the Chinese (who had come in droves when tin was discovered in Malaysia), the Klings (southern Indians), and of course the Europeans. In addition, a new culture known as Pernakan was created out of the marriages of Malays and Chinese.
The mixture finds its apex in the delightful city of Georgetown on Penang. Old Chinese shop houses sit across Anglican churches (and a British fort) while Little India booms out music and the local Malays worship at the white-washed mosques. We stayed in a Chinese heritage house, formerly a shop house and family home all in one. It had a beautiful atrium in the middle - a necessity in Chinese Feng Shui, which believes that rain water must be able to enter the home as it symbolizes the coming of wealth. From there, we explored the city and island and its many gustatory delights. Each morning would find us participating in the ritual of dim sum, where a pot of loose leaf Chinese tea was served as women would cart around trays with little dishes of goodies you could choose. Some of our favorites were the deep fried pork rolls, the Chinese white bun stuffed with chicken, egg, and mushroom, and the crab and sesame seed topped dumplings! When we were sated on meat, the city also had a variety of economical vegetarian buffets, where you could fill up your plate with healthy greens and delightful tofu dishes for just a few dollars.
Pagoda of 10k Buddhas
After our big breakfasts, we would do some sightseeing before retreating back to our wonderful room for a respite from the smothering heat. The one day we rented a motorbike and braved the heat, however, we did manage to see many of the sites outside of Georgetown. This included Wat Chayamangkalaram, a massive Thai temple with a huge reclining Buddha inside, and Kek Lok Si Temple, the largest Buddhist temple in all of Malaysia. Kek Lok Si sports a massive statue of Kuan Yin (the bodhisattva of compassion) as well as the towering Pagoda of Ten Thousand Buddhas, which was designed in Chinese, Thai, and Burmese styles to represent the unity of the different types of Buddhism.
Perhaps most unique however, was Ban Kah Lan, or the snake temple, where many years ago monks had allowed the local venomous Wagler’s pit vipers to live on the grounds rather than kill them. Over time, this developed as the temple’s primary attraction and a visit sees the vipers not only on branches curving next to the altar, but resting on branches all over the trees behind the temple. Be warned that it’s good to visit during the day when the vipers are sleeping – a trip at night may be your last!
The Chinese architecture in Georgetown was impressive as well. The Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion showed the opulence enjoyed by one of China’s richest businessmen at the turn of the 20th century. Nearby, the Khoo Kongsi temple and other clan temples have intricate carvings and statues meant to honor the clans of the immigrants who had moved there.
We also happened to be in Penang over the Christmas holiday and the friendliness of the locals was matched by the friendliness of the local Couchsurfing Community. Brian and Magda, a wonderful couple from Canada and Poland respectively, decided to host a Christmas Eve potluck for couchsurfers in the area. The evening was full of fun and conversation as we had travelers from Hungary, India, Romania, Spain, and locals all mixing to share food and experiences. The next day we all met up again for an Indian Christmas dinner and drinks. All in all, we loved our time in Malaysia as we got to choose all the goodies we wanted from our dim sum cart - good people, good food, and great cultural variety. Now we are in New Zealand, but on the way here we had an 11 hour layover on the Gold Coast of Australia. So why not hit the beach? We threw our bags in a locker, changed into our swimsuits and a 10 minute bus ride later we were having a great time riding the waves in the beautiful azure green water.
Our updates for New Zealand will be sporadic at best as we cruise our Toyota Estima with a futon in the back around the two islands! We hope to wrap up the purchase of the van in a couple days and in the meantime had a great New Year's Eve out on a beach house of our friends Chris and Lauren, who we have re-united with for the next week or so! You might remember them from Cambodia and Vietnam!
Bodhidharma felt his eyelids drooping and his body tilting forward as sleep encroached yet again onto his meditation. He stiffened his back and resolved his will. “You must go beyond all words into the deepest truth there is. You must continue beyond selfhood and otherness into the realm where black and white fade away.”
For seven years he had sat in this cave, a stone’s throw from the Shaolin Temple which had refused him entry. He had decided that this spot was as good as any other for the contemplation needed. But this damned sleep kept interrupting his quest, calling him to lie down and take a rest. He caught himself slumping forward again, this time his forehead nearly knocked into the unyielding stone before he caught himself and returned upright.
“Something must be done!” he roared inwardly to himself and made his decision. He reached up and with each thumb and forefinger gripped the eyelids that had been failing him for the past seven years. As felt his bushy beard on his forearms and the soft flesh of his fingertips, he gave a merciless tug. The lids came off in his vice-like grip and he threw them to the ground, able to now continue with his meditation unhindered. Two years later, the Shaolin monks came to the cave to see if Bodhidharma still practiced there. They discovered no sign of the founder of the Zen lineage of Buddhism, except for two peculiar plants growing side by side on the ground near the wall of the cave. The leaves were a luscious green and their smooth curves were reminiscent of eyelids. These were the first tea plants.
Or so the legends tell us! Bodhidharma’s eyelids (the tea leaves) were to be the fuel for generations of Chan (Chinese Zen) monks' meditation - helping them to stay awake during their practice. In actuality, tea has been around in China since at least the 10th century B.C., though it would take thousands of years before its commercial cultivation would find its way to Malaysia, the next stop on our world tour.
After flying from Kolkata to Kuala Lumpur (we’ll blog about this city later, but FYI everything we'll do in Malaysia is on the eastern peninsula above, we didn't have time for the western part), Neda and I took the winding road up to the biggest hill station in the country – the Cameron Highlands. Developed in the 1930’s as a way for the British to escape the scorching lowland heat, an entrepreneur named J.A. Russell realized that it was also an ideal environment for growing tea. He bought a tract of land in the area and named his plantation Boh (Malaysian for “high”). Having missed the tea plantations in Darjeeling due to the cold weather there, Neda and I were excited to visit Boh and see the cultivation of one of our favorite beverages.
Our first day in Cameron, we met up with a Polish blueberry farmer turned off-season backpacker named Mat. He gave us some tips on a hike he had just done in the area and invited us to join him on a longer trek up to the tallest peak in the highlands, Gunung Brinchang. (Logistical Note: Mr. Yen in the Cameronian Inn gave Mat and us great tips on the hiking in the region and has drawn accurate and up to date maps as well). Our first trek, up to the top of Gunung Jasar, was presided over with blue skies and clear views of the village below as well as the cottage where Jim Thompson, the former CIA agent who helped revitalize the Thai silk business, was last seen before disappearing in these highlands one sunny day in 1967. The afternoon found us sampling the teas of the region while digging into homemade scones with strawberry jam and apple pie with a dollop of fresh cream. We felt quite aristocratic!
The next day we set off early with Mat for our trek up Gunung Brinchang. The trek started from the next town over so we began the journey by hitchhiking on the back of a pick-up truck into town. This time around the sky was already darkening and droplets of rain foreshadowed the hike to come! But rather than detract from the experience, the weather added to it. The climb through the lush jungle as the rain splattered on the leaves was as atmospheric as it gets. Despite the mud and wetness, we were in high spirits as we emerged at the top, with a view only of the settled mist of the clouds we had entered as we climbed. Down a ways from the peak we walked on the more sterile boardwalk of the “mossy forest,” a tourist attraction that cleanly takes tourists through the views we had just seen but without the muddy shoes. Still, it made for some nice photos!
The road down the mountain led to the part of the trip Neda and I were anticipating the most. The tea! As we hitchhiked for the 2nd time down to the tea plantation, we admired the sprawling hills lined with the ordered plantings of the bright green tea. Finally, we arrived at the Boh visitor center, where after our long morning, the Palas Supreme whole leaf tea tasted just sublime. Neda swore it gave her a euphoric buzz, which the folks at Boh had long ago marketed when they said their tea had “uuummmph”! A walk through the tea processing plant also showed us how tea is picked, rolled to release its juices, oxidized (to turn it from green to black), and then dried for packaging. We left the plantation and after a short walk, took one last trip as hitchhikers back to Tanah Rata, the town where we started.
It was a successful trip up to the highlands and we enjoyed Mat’s company so much that we decided to go together to Ipoh, a nearby city that one of the guys who picked us up while hitchhiking lived in. He invited us there to show us some of the local cuisine. For this part of the adventure we added another traveler to our group, Kim from Seattle. Here's a picture of Kim and us with some fresh squeezed cucumber juice that looks sort of like a witches brew. Anyway, off we went to Ipoh to see what awaited!
Well, it wasn’t exactly what we expected, that’s for sure. Our local contact never called us back, but that didn’t stop us from finding fun. First, we took a local bus out to the Malaysian Royal town of Kuala Kangsar, where we enjoyed the beautiful combination of British and Moorish architecture at Masjid Ubudiah (see right). That’s also where I got some delicious Nasi Lamak, a Malaysian dish of coconut rice with peanuts and a chicken leg in a sumptuous sauce. But once we arrived back in Ipoh, I was still hankering for the local dish of Ipoh sar hor fun (flat rice noodles cooked in chicken and prawn broth with chicken shreds, prawns and spring onions). It took us a bit out of the way to find it, but in doing so we stumbled upon a group of Indian Christians who were caroling in preparation for Christmas. Their Santa Claus had some sweet moves and a mean rhythm to accompany the tambourines and enthusiastically costumed kids. They even succeeded in getting Jeff into the action. You probably never expected to see a Buddhist-Jew dancing with an Indian Santa Claus while singing Christmas Carols, huh? See the video here!
After a year full of adventures galore, we are approaching the end of 2012. Neda and I are going to head off to a Couchsurfing potluck in Panang in a few minutes to hang out with travelers from all over the world to celebrate Christmas Eve under the sweltering Malaysian heat! We wish you and yours all the best this holiday season and thank you for following along on our blog. Your comments and e-mails have been wonderful gifts to us all year long! Merry Christmas and a belated Happy Hanukkah!
See all the pics of the Cameron Highlands, Ipoh, and Kuala Kangsar here!
Bodhgaya is widely considered the most important place in the world for Buddhism. It is here that Siddhartha Gautama sat down under a Bodhi Tree with the intention of not rising until he had seen the truth about existence. In the Zen tradition, it is said that he sat for 7 days and nights, steadfastly returning to the moment despite the distractions that his ego continuously produced. Then, as the sun rose on the 8th day, he had an experience of pure insight. He sat slack jawed as the nature of existence unfurled around him. For the first time, he saw clearly how everything in this world is beautifully impermanent, interconnected, and dependent on each other. Enlivened with his newfound experiential knowledge, a smile of gratitude curled his lips upwards and the new Buddha rose and began his walk to Sarnath, where he would find his previous companions and give his first teachings (see previous post).
When we arrived in Bodhgaya, we were excited about two things. Firstly, the opportunity to sit and meditate under the Bodhi tree as millions of Buddhist pilgrims have done before. Secondly, we were excited to explore the plethora of monasteries that have been built in Bodhgaya, particularly the Japanese Nippon-Ji Temple, since our own practice of Zen lies within a Japanese lineage. Upon arriving and finding a guesthouse, we headed to the Mahabodhi Temple Complex our first night. The Mahabodhi Temple is a beautiful tower-like stupa next to the Bodhi Tree that was first built by the Buddhist Emperor Ashoka in the 2nd century B.C.E. It was beautifully illuminated, rising sharply into the evening sky with its intricate carvings of Buddha and other symbolic figures. Behind it lay rooted the enormous Bodhi tree, a direct descendant of the original tree, whose massive leafy branches snaked out from the trunk in all directions. Under the green canopy of the tree sat pilgrims in meditation and prayer. Neda and I joined them and I instantly felt a powerful heart opening energy as we settled into the space. In just a few minutes, a group of Thai monks joined the group and their teacher began a teaching on the basics of mindfulness and the eightfold path. How wonderful to sit in this special place and listen to the dharma with other Buddhists!
Riko, Rika, and Neda
The next day, we headed off to find the Japanese Monastery, having seen a flyer at dinner the night before advertising that they were practicing the Rohatsu sesshin there. Rohatsu is one of the most important holidays in the Zen tradition, when monks and lay people meditate for 7 days and nights like the Buddha did in the lead-up to Dec. 8th, the day of awakening. We arrived at the temple on the morning of the 5th, and were enthusiastically greeted by Rika, a staff member for the Soto Zen Association of Japan. They still had space for us to join them and were ecstatic that we had some previous experience in the Soto lineage. Strange as it may sound, many of the Japanese young people who had joined for the sesshin had never practiced Zen before, leaving us more amongst the most knowledgeable people of the forms of Soto Zen! Rika, Roshi Ogasawla (the head teacher), and Osho Toha, a priest who had come to assist in the sesshin, welcomed us to stay at the temple for the next 3 nights while we practiced with them.
Toha Osho serving us during oryoki
Words can’t describe how warm their welcome was and how relieved Neda and I felt to find a connection to our own tradition in the tumultuous sea of emotions that had been stirred up while being in India. We joined them that very afternoon, sitting zazen, eating oryoki-style meals (formal meals eaten in the zendo), and even bathing Japanese style (sitting on little wooden benches to soap oneself before immersing in a warm tub) in the monastery's communal bathroom! There are 3 jewels customarily spoken of in Buddhism. The first is the Buddha himself, or the aspiration each being has of shedding delusion and finding awakening. The second is dharma, or living in accordance with truth in order to find awakening - this is where the teachings come into play. The final jewel is sangha, or the community of like-minded practitioners who support each other’s practice. For us arriving at Nippon-ji and finding such a welcoming sangha that we could seamlessly join was one of the highlights of our whole trip in India.
And it led to very deep meditation as well. As we sat on our cushions, I had a variety of insights which I will share in words here the best I can. While meditating for a long time, I found myself swaying between drowsiness and lethargy on the one hand and distracted thinking on the other. While this is perfectly normal, it occurred to me that both of these states are like bottlenecks on our ability to be open to the fullness of experience in a given moment. If one can manage to sit between these two states in open awareness, the flow of experience is so rich that it makes thinking and sleeping look like shadows of reality, only capturing very limited amounts of what consciousness is capable of. But how can we find this place in the middle? Only by returning to the moment, to the breath, over and over again with as much patience and self-kindness as we can muster.
I also often thought of the Buddha and the great effort he must have put forth to find his own awakening under the tree. On the final night of the sesshin, our group moved from the monastery and did the meditation under the same Bodhi tree where the Buddha sat. As is traditional in the Soto lineage, you can choose to meditate for the whole evening of the final night as homage to the Buddha’s great effort. Neda and I decided to give it a try despite the swarming mosquitoes and dropping temperatures (see the picture of me bundled up with a blanket a fellow pilgrim gave me while under the tree to the left). After all, it was nothing compared to what the Buddha endured, right? Somehow the Buddha had settled his mind to the point that he saw interconnectedness not just as an analytical concept, but as reality itself. From this reality, he saw that as humans our best response to the enormous suffering in the world is to act from compassion and love in all that we do. In doing so, we free ourselves and we free others from the heavy burdens we all carry often without being aware of it.
As the night passed, I felt tremendous gratitude not just to the sangha at Nippon-Ji who we had joined for this sesshin, but also for our community at the Missouri Zen Center and Austin Zen Center who have shared and supported this practice with us. I also felt a singular gratitude towards my incredible wife as she sat bundled up under the tree, her face set in deep concentration. Through our travels we have often only been a sangha of two, but two is a powerful number.
In the end, the whole experience was like a spiritual booster shot. The warm smile of Osho Toha as he insisted on taking us to his favorite tent for black coffee and masala dosas, Rika’s invitation to come visit her in the mountains in Japan, and the camaraderie and friendship we found with Eric, Nari, Shin-shin, Shitoshi, Riko, and others who practiced with us. Since leaving Bodhgaya, we found our commitment to practice has been strengthened as we hold the three jewels close to our heart. Maybe we didn’t leave enlightened as the Buddha did, but certainly we felt lighter as we headed to our last stop in India, Kolkata.
To see the rest of the pics of Bodhgaya click here. To see some pics of our time in Kolkata, exploring the remains of British colonialism at the Victoria Monument and Marble Palace while enjoying the relative calm of India’s only planned city, click here.
As my 32nd birthday approaches, I have reflected that Buddhism has now played a role in a full half of my life. It started at age 16, when a stressful residential summer school course led me to look for ways to vent the calculus infused steam from my head. At that time, in a little bookstore in Northfield Mount Hermon Massachusetts, I found a little book called “Yoga for Busy People” that would launch my interest in the spiritual life. Yoga asana helped me to find a bit of peace and eventually led to my interest in meditation when I was introduced to the book “Autobiography of a Yogi” by Parmahansa Yogananda at a little metaphysical bookstore that opened on my street while I had been away at school for the summer (strange coincidence that was – perhaps the universe really does offer what you need when you need it).
Later that summer I worked in my Dad’s epoxy factory and started talking about my experiences with yoga. Hearing my interest in meditation, the lead chemist at my Dad’s company (and later close family friend) gave me a book that would forever change my life. It was titled, “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind” and was written by a Japanese Monk, Shunryu Suzuki, who had come to America and found many Western students interested in learning the practice of Zen Buddhism. I read the book and found Zen meditation truly engaging, but for the next 3 years my focus was on Kundalini meditation as I received mailings from Yogananda’s group SRF (Self-Realization Fellowship) that taught different forms of pranayama (moving energy through the body with breath) for the purposes of opening the mind’s eye to the broader components of the universe. The various meditation practices instantly resonated with me. My previous interest in business management withered as I felt my heart opening to the suffering of people around me. Suddenly I found myself searching for philosophy books in the library and founding a meditation club in my high school for others with interest.
Thai Temple - Sarnath
Yogic meditation is very colorful and the path is full of somewhat magical beliefs about the powers attained by yogis in the advanced stages of meditation. As a young person, it was all very exhilarating and at the age of 19, during my first summer after college, I headed out to the SRF monastery for 2 weeks to see if I might want to pursue the life of a monk. But there was a problem that my now philosophically minded viewpoint couldn’t overcome. Yogananda had died years before and to take him as my guru as SRF requested in order to move forward with the training, was a step I was unwilling to take. I hadn’t had any experiences that supported that Yogananda could guide me from the astral plane as the monks suggested. In fact, the whole thing just started to seem too strange and I left the monastery feeling discouraged because I wasn’t able to take the leap of faith required to continue with SRF.
But Zen Buddhism was my life preserver in those choppy seas of self doubt. At that point, I had read Suzuki’s book hundreds of times and regularly practiced Zen along with my yogic practices. I realized that Zen offered me the compassionate and mindfulness based path that SRF had, but without the need for ascribing to beliefs of which I had had no direct experience. In fact, the Buddha always demanded that his students take nothing on faith, but always test his own words in the world of their experiences. This empirical and pragmatic approach was just what a disillusioned yogi needed. Zen became my primary spiritual practice and has stayed so until this day.
Zen has been good to me. It brought me wonderful teachers and friends at the San Francisco, Missouri and Austin Zen Centers, and at the Great Sky Temple in Minnesota. It has led to a shared spiritual life with my wife, who immediately reverberated with a lifestyle of mindfulness and compassion when she meditated with me for the first time in St. Louis. It led to our adventure living in the Zen Center in Austin (AZC), Texas for a year, where we found a wonderful (living) teacher in the form of Seirin Barbara Kohn. At AZC, we learned the forms and traditions of Soto Zen and I took the jukai ceremony, sowing a ceremonial mini-robe (rokasu), taking the Buddhist precepts, and being given a Buddhist name by my teacher. Since leaving Austin on our world travel trip, we have left our community (sangha) behind and at times have struggled to maintain our practice with the diligence we had before.
The Buddha giving his first teaching
Within this context, we have been very excited about this part of our trip in India. In Varanasi, we explored a city of death, but just 10km outside of it lies an important place of Buddhist Pilgrimage – Sarnath. It is here that the Buddha first came after reaching enlightenment in Bodhgaya. He sought out 5 ascetics who he had practiced with previously to give his first talk, known in Pali as the Dhammacakkhapavathana Sutta. In a peaceful deer park amidst the chirping of birds and the grazing animals nearby, the Buddha told the ascetics of the 4 noble truths. Firstly, that suffering is a part of life. Secondly, that the cause of suffering is our false idea that we have a separate self that exists in isolation from the rest of the world. This fundamental delusion causes craving and attachment which leads to much suffering for ourselves and others. Thirdly, there is a way to see the nature of reality and our interconnection with it, thus ending suffering. Fourthly, this way incorporates ethics, mental training, and philosophy and is called the eight-fold path. The whole eight fold path is outside the bounds of this blog, but for more information it click the link above.
When the Buddha finished his speech, it is said that the 5 ascetics, who had already undergone thorough spiritual training of their own, instantly saw the truth and were enlightened. Thus, this place is considered the birthplace of sangha, or the monastic spiritual community. Though in a more liberal sense, sangha has come to mean the community of all like-minded spiritual seekers who wish to support each other in the practice of seeing the true nature of reality and the compassion such a seeing engenders.
Along with our new friend Eric from the previous post about Varanasi, we took an autorickshaw out to Sarnath and visited the Dhamekh Stupa, which is said to mark the location of the famous speech. We sat and meditated in the shade cast by the stupa as strings of devotees circumambulated around it while chanting in Thai, Burmese, Tibetan and other languages. Some women next to us brought their prayer boards, where they would sweep down in prostrations, extending their bodies out on the ground, before gracefully rising, lifting their hands in the air and repeating for hours at a time. The setting was peaceful and Neda and I felt the energy of the place was tangible as our minds were transported to 2,500 years ago when the Buddha brought forth a message that would influence our lives so deeply.
The area surrounding the stupa was once a great place of gathering for monks to come and study during the rainy season. Most of the ancient buildings of the libraries and monasteries here have been destroyed, their materials re-purposed for other buildings in Varanasi. But in the modern era, temples from the various nations practicing Buddhism have sprung up around Deer Park. We enjoyed the luxuriant decoration of the Thai Temple and chanted the service at the Japanese Nichiren temple to end the day. We also visited the archeological museum, which featured the Ashoka pillar topped with 4 snarling lions (facing in 4 directions to symbolize the teachings emanating out from Sarnath in all directions) that was placed at the site and has become the symbol of modern India. There is also a spectacular carving of the Buddha assuming the Dharmachakra Mudra, said to represent that first speech.
For us, it was a wonderful experience to visit the site, made even more intimate by the presence of our friend Eric who practices in the Tibetan lineage. It really felt like we were making this pilgrimage together as a sangha of different traditions. But in the end, Sarnath would just be a taste of the community and spiritual focus that we would find in Bodhgaya, the place where the Buddha is said to have awakened to the truth. Read about that amazing experience in part 2 of this post!
See the pics of Sarnath and some of Bodhgaya here: http://flic.kr/s/aHsjD7kk1j
The next part of our trip took us on a 30 hour journey to the holiest of cities in India – Varanasi. Due to trains being booked out for weeks, we were forced to take a local bus to Dehradun, during which an Indian woman threw up all over the seat right in front of us! That “1 hour” bus took about 2.5 hours as it idled away in traffic with the ubiquitous cacophony of honks desensitizing us. From Dehradun, a sleeper bus took us to Lucknow, where we finally were able to get a train to Varanasi. It is interesting that without any advanced planning, we arrived to the city right on my 32nd birthday! As drinking is pretty shunned here, after the long journey, we settled for celebrating in a small restaurant overlooking Assi Ghat, on the Ganga while our eyelids drooped with the exhaustion of the day’s travel. Ghats are a series of wide-steps that lead down to the river where pilgrims can bathe, wash their clothes, and offer prayer to the holy river.
Beautiful offerings along the river
In the end, Varanasi was actually one of our favorite cities in India so far; it is hard to explain, but there really is a certain energy in the city. Firstly, it is one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world (dating back to 1200 B.C.) and is one of the seven holy cities for Hindiusm. As Dadi Aum, owner of Aum Café in Varanasi told us, the city is dedicated to the worship of Shiva, the embodiment of creative destruction, masculinity (represented by many linga statues dotting the riverbank), and the act of renouncing worldly attachments. In this way, it is considered a particularly auspicious place to die because washing in the sacred river prior to death (or just after it) is believed to cleanse one’s attachments to the world, purify one’s karma, and lead to either moksha (liberation from the cycle of birth and death), or at least a more favorable re-birth in the next life.
In practice, this makes Varanasi essentially the world’s largest hospice, only minus the palliative care. A steady stream of elderly people travel there to take their last breaths and those whose lives ended prematurely are brought to Varanasi by their families to be washed in the river before being cremated on the steps of certain “burning ghats”. We would sit at the Blue Lassi, an extraordinary place serving up freshly frothed yogurt mixed with pomegranate and shredded apple in little clay cups, and watch a procession of bodies pass us by on their way to the river via the circuitous streets of the old city. They were carried at shoulder height or higher on wooden stretchers, wrapped in shiny orange and silver sheets, the entire stretcher wreathed with orange flowers.
Pilgrims bathing and praying
Exploring this riverside scene the day after my birthday was one of the most profound and dramatic days of my life. We met Eric, a fellow Buddhist hailing from Colorado, who joined us on the walk along the ghats. It was a beautiful morning and the ghats’ peaceful atmosphere was punctuated by the sight of the pilgrims washing themselves and singing out morning prayers. Everything changed, however, when we reached the main burning ghat, where rituals for the dead and cremation are performed in public. The energy of the area immediately changed and overwhelmed us with sadness, curiosity and contemplation.
The buildings behind the ghat have a black hue from the constant stream of smoke arising from the square cremation pyres that rest on the river’s edge. Stacked wood rises several stories in the air, ready to be weighed and purchased by pilgrims wishing to cremate a loved one. The pyres sit burning on the river while within lie bodies in various states of incendiary transformation. In juxtaposition to the flame, we sat there frozen as we watched a family wash their son with the Ganga’s waters, removing bandages from bed sores, and then what appeared to be ghee (clarified butter) over his pale body. The two women involved seemed to be very stoic as they were preparing the body. After what felt like a very long time, they finally said their goodbyes and placed his body on a stack of wood and lit it. One of the women, we presume his mother, stumbled as she walked away from her burning son and nearly fainted, her face painted with a picture of utter grief that etched itself in our memories. I felt so many powerful emotions pooling together at that point - compassion for the pain laid out in front of us and an awareness of my own mortality nipping at my heels as I had just celebrated a birthday the day before.
While the body was burning, in the background we watched as people tied bodies to heavy rocks and floated them out to the middle of the river to sink. Apparently some types of death (pregnant women, children, etc…) don’t call for burning, but for this ritual. On the other side of the ghat, body after body streamed down from the streets (from the spot I previously mentioned near Blue Lassi) was washed in the river, and then put on the cremation pyres. The visceral experience of watching the bodies vanish in the fires cannot be put into words, nor could my feelings as I watched the dogs circling around looking for remains to pick on. We couldn’t stay there any longer as the nauseating feeling became too strong, so we continued to explore the streets of the old city, at a loss of words. It seemed that in two days the whole cycle of life was thrusting itself into my awareness – the trauma of birth and the pain of death.
Playing with baby goats along Ganga
But it didn’t just stop with the cremation ghats. Somehow it seemed the whole city was an embodiment of samsara (the cycle of birth and death). As we walked the streets, we saw a dead calf just laying in someone’s yard, while a chicken was picking on it. Dadi Aum told us that it’s not uncommon to see bulls lying dead in garbage heaps. They are not useful for their milk as females are, but the Hindu religion forbids their slaughter for meat. So instead they are just left to die, neglected and alone on the streets. We saw a litter of cute little puppies all huddled up together, some twitching and others still as they died from an unknown disease. But we also saw many mom doggies nursing their litters, baby lambs mewing out to us at every turn, and children playing innocently amidst the garbage littering the ghats (except for the kids who threw a piece of wood at Jeff’s head at night while walking back from the ghats – that wasn’t so innocent).
If there is one thing we value about our spirituality, it is that it has given us a context to deal with these visceral extremes. We know that to close down to the pain we saw around us or to ignore the specter of death only leads to destructive behavior for us and others. But to open to the sobs of the women at the ghats, to move into the pain and the realities of samsara instead of cowering away, brings an equanimity that the Buddha encouraged us all to strive for. The city seems to be whispering “look, here is death laid out in front of you with no intermediary. This will happen to you. You can fear this truth or open to it. The choices you make will ripple through your life.”
Laundry at the ghats of Ganga
When Dadi Aum heard the call of the city, she sold her house in America and moved to Varanasi, becoming a Shiva devotee. She has rescued a bull she found dying in a trash heap and has tried to bring some dignity to the many who come here to die without the family or friends to help them through the process. For these elderly folks, the journey to Varanasi is meant to be their last one, but with no resources to their name, they just wander the streets, emaciated, weak, and waiting to die. Dadi Aum aspires to open a hospice-shelter to help these poor souls die with dignity – clean, dressed, and ready to open to source. It’s her way of trying to bring compassion to a place steeped in death.
Perhaps it’s the secret of the city. If you can look past the veneer of cow dung littering the streets, men urinating around every corner, and 5 year olds carrying 2 year olds on their begging rounds, you can see the tremendous opportunity Varanasi offers a person who is working on the spiritual path. It offers the opportunity to tap into a current of human experience that is too often ignored by our Western society. It offers the opportunity to see the cycle of birth and death and find some peacefulness there instead of cold fear and rejection. For me, that was a birthday present that no material thing could match. This was indeed the most unusual birthday that will never be forgotten!
To see all the cool pics, click here http://flic.kr/s/aHsjD74dmW.