Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel
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Crimson and saffron robed Tibetan monks shuffled into Shree Gaden Dhargay Ling Tibetan Monastery and sat cross-legged on brocade cushions stretched in a double row down the center of the hall. Adolescent monks-in-training slid giant drums down the polished parquet floor to their older counterparts, while others took up ancient-looking metal horns that telescoped out to take up half the width of the room. As the monks tuned up their instruments I sat in half-lotus position with my back against the wall, arms stretched out with wrists resting on my knees and thumbs touching forefingers, marveling at the dissonant din.

A split second later, on some silent cue, the cacophony ceased and the monks began throat-singing, a specialized form of chanting that allows them to produce multiple pitches simultaneously. The hair on the back of my neck stood up as their guttural chants, accented by synchronous drumming, ah-ooga horns, crashing cymbals and tinkling bells, swelled to fill the small room. From the tips of my toes to the crown of my head, my entire body vibrated.

Can’t see the above YouTube video of the lama puja at Shree Gaden Dhargay Ling (Dragyling) Monastery at the Tashiling Tibetan Refugee Settlement in Pokhara, Nepal? Click here.

During a previous visit to the monastery I had been invited to return for this lama puja, a Tibetan Buddhist ceremony of honor, worship and devotional attention that attempts to replicate the Buddha’s experience of Enlightenment (insight into reality). Many items of a symbolic nature sat upon the altar and were scattered around the monastery, including intricate yak butter sculptures that take months to carve. As water is a necessity of life, seven brass bowls of water were placed on the shrine directly in front of the Buddha to show respect and reverence for life. Because of their short life span, flowers symbolized impermanence and Samsara (the cycle of birth, death and rebirth), candles symbolized enlightenment and the sense of sight, while incense was used to show that Buddhist teachings can be spread across the world just like the fragrance of incense. To show gratitude and the interdependence of all things, fruit was offered. Bells indicated when to begin and end puja but also demonstrated the beliefs of cause and effect and karma. Read More

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By the time I came down from the mountaintop in Puma, the energy of my journey around Asia had shifted. With more clarity of mind than I’d had in a long time, I realized that in large part, I had been responsible for the frustrations of my recent travel in China. Having been in the U.S. to file taxes and settle a lawsuit two months prior to departing for China, I had fallen into victim mode, but four short days of living with the Gurungs and learning about their simple, nurturing culture had restored my serenity.

At the end of my home stay in the Gurung village I clambered aboard a rattletrap bus for the five hour ride to Pokhara and crammed my too-big butt into a seat made for narrow-hipped Nepalis. The pancake-thin layer of ticking in my seat cushion was soon compressed against the underlying metal and I squirmed, trying to find a comfortable position. Finally, I stuffed my sweatshirt under my tush, but neither the uncomfortable seat nor the waves of gritty brown dust billowing through stuck-open windows could destroy my contentment. Not even when the bus stopped dead in the suburbs of Pokhara, with traffic backed up for miles by a fatal motorcycle accident, did my mood waver.

Can’t view the above YouTube video about the top three sights in Pokhara, Nepal? Click here.

Initially my buttocks just ached, but when all feeling disappeared, I slung my backpack over my shoulder and hopped out the open door to the ragged street, walking a kilometer down the road to check out the extent of the snarl. Eardrum-splititng horns pierced the air as I zig-zagged through vehicles sprawled helter-skelter down the highway. I skittered out of the way of motorcycles that zipped through chinks in the clogged traffic and stepped gingerly over steaming piles of dung deposited by sacred cows that nonchalantly munched on brittle grass growing alongside an oil-slicked, garbage-strewn canal that paralleled the road. Read More

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Puma’s Mother Group is normally on hand to greet the few visitors who make it to this remote mountaintop but on the day I arrived they were performing traditional songs and dances of the Gurung caste in southern Nepal. Instead, on the morning of my departure the mothers trickled into Aama’s compound and climbed over the garden walls to pick flowers. Laden with blossoms, they gathered back on Aama’s porch and began stringing together marigolds, daisies, and bright red flowers into long chains. Focused on gathering my luggage in time to catch the four-wheel drive jeep down the mountain, I paid little heed to what they were doing, as I was by this time used to neighbors coming and going throughout the day.

I was about to say my goodbyes to Aama, Didi, and Prakash when the mothers gathered around me. One-by-one they expressed gratitude that I had chosen to visit Puma, garlanded me with flower leis and silk scarves, and bowed to me with a Namaste, the word traditionally used for hello and goodbye. Instead of a formal welcome, I got a grand send-off, which touched me to the core. I saved the scarves and dried a selection of the flowers; both will always remind me of the love and caring that I experienced in this rare mountaintop Shangri-La.

Aama ties silk scarf around my neck

Aama ties silk scarf around my neck

Another Mother Group member presents me with a flower lei

Another Mother Group member presents me with a flower lei

Puma's Mother Group gives me a warm sendoff

Puma\’s Mother Group gives me a warm sendoff

Giri Gurung, managing director of Nepal Tourism Travels & Adventures, organized a portion of my travels in and around Nepal, including my trips to Nagarkot, Changu Narayan, Chitwan National Park, and this amazing four-day home stay with his family in Puma. Nepal Tourism Travels & Adventures office is in Kathmandu, conveniently located in the Thamel backpacker district. Their website is www.nepaltourismtravels.com.np, and Giri’s email is [email protected] or [email protected]

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The idea of sustainability, first proposed in 1854 when Henry David Thoreau published Walden, has come to mean a way of living that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. In today’s developed countries, where the acquisition of material possessions is highly valued, achieving a sustainable lifestyle is quite impossible. But during my recent home stay in the tiny mountain community of Puma Nepal I witnessed an example of sustainable living that is as close to pure as can be expected in a developed world.

The 60 or 70 simple homes that make up the village are constructed primarily from locally available stone, clay and timber, as are the mortarless, hand-hewn paths that cascade down the mountainside. Artesian wells bubble up through the impervious rock and flow year round, providing residents with free water that can be brought into the homes via pipe or hose. Houses are generally unheated, despite being at high altitude. Instead, people retire early and snuggle under thick quilts in bone-chilling winter temperatures, rising before dawn to sparingly stoke outdoor clay ovens with firewood gathered from the surrounding forest.

Puma is inhabited solely by members of the Gurung caste, who have traditionally served in the military or farmed. On terraced mountain fields, each Gurung family plants rice, millet, potatoes, and a variety of leafy greens. Crops provide the bulk of their annual food needs and only a few staples like spices, cooking oil, and tea must be purchased. But abundant natural resources and fertile lands aside, the real secret to Puma’s success is its tradition of helping one another and practicing an age-old barter system.

Can’t see the above YouTube video about life in Puma, Nepal? Click here.

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This entry is part 2 of 4 in the series Passports with Purpose
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Doing good. Helping others. Giving back. All things that have been on my mind a great deal lately here in Nepal. Over the past two months I’ve visited with children who have been denied an education simply because they are from lower caste parentage. I’ve met families living in dire poverty, sleeping five to a bed in a mud-walled shack on the shores of a filthy, trash-choked stream. And I have spoken extensively with Tibetan refugees who are unemployable because China demands that Nepal not give them citizenship; literally people without a country, they live in limbo, awaiting their chance to emigrate to other countries where they become productive citizens. These appalling experiences drive home how lucky I am to have been born in the USA, where a good education is commonplace and a world of opportunity is available to those willing to work hard. Having received so much in my life, I am now driven by a need to give back, but I have long struggled to find the best way to do so.

Passports with Purpose 2010 Campaign

Passports with Purpose 2010 Campaign

Though there are myriad choices for charities and non-profit organizations with which I might have associated, it was hard to know which were the most effective. Especially with larger organizations, I worried that an inordinate portion of donations were used for administrative costs rather than benefiting the people who really needed it. Fortunately, this concern was resolved for me when some of my fellow travel bloggers, who have all seen more than their equitable share of poverty and suffering around the world, launched a non-profit initiative named Passports with Purpose three years ago. In its first year, PwP raised money online for Heifer International, an organization that donates cows to poor rural families around the world. Last year they raised $30,000 to build a school in rural Cambodia; the school opened early last month and now there are a few hundred kids learning to read and write who would not otherwise have received an education. Read More

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Just a short break from my wanderings around Asia to let you know about a little travel news worth passing on.

The Vacation Gals recently asked my opinion for the best tropical winter vacation destination and of course I couldn’t resist blathering on about Mexico, specifically Merida in the northeast corner of the Yucatan. Also making the list were Crete, Sicily, Hawaii, the Caribbean and Peru, suggested by some of the top travel experts in the world. If you’re dreaming of warm climates as winter approaches, it’s worth a few minutes to check out this article , which was deemed worthy enough to be picked up by USA Today.


HostelBookers – my preferred hostel booking site

HostelBookers.com, my preferred booking site for hostels all over the world, is currently running an Australian Road Trip competition where someone can win an Oz Experience bus pass. As the folks at HostelBookers say, Australia is a vast country and you would be forgiven for hopping on a plane to reach your destination. But if, like me, you love a road trip, Australia won’t disappoint! This vast and exciting country has a fantastic coastline that offers unrivaled surfing and geological wonders such as the Great Barrier Reef, the 12 Apostles and the Whitsunday Islands. And along the way you’ll find no lack of reasonably priced accommodations such as Syndey backpackers and Melbourne backpackers. For your chance to win, tell HostelBookers about your favorite road trip in the comments section at the bottom of this page. Entries must be under 100 words and the deadline is 5 p.m. on Monday, December 20, 2010. Three runners-up will win a copy of Rough Guides Ultimate Adventures and the winner can choose one of the following bus passes: 1) Matey Pass, Sydney to Melbourne, worth €397 (approximately $632 USD*), 2) Surf Pass, Sydney to Brisbane or Byron Bay, worth €325 (approximately $518 USD*), or 3) Victa Pass, Melbourne to Adelaide, worth €385 (approximately $613 USD*).

*All U.S. currency conversions based on rates as of 11/18/10.