The opposing figures of Emperor Napoléon and Empress Eugenie look down from the dining room of Villa Eugenie, today known as the Hôtel du Palais in Biarritz.
Napoleon built the palace in 1858 as a summer home for his wife so she could be close to her native Spain. The arrival of European royalty to this sleepy coastal border town transformed it into a glamorous vacation destination for the moneyed elite.
Converted into a casino, and then a hotel, Hotel du Palais is a bastion of lavish consumption where luxury meets history, and where decorum is strictly adhered to as two young Americans ahead of me discovered when they asked to be seated for dinner.
“Non,” the hostess sniffed, denying them entry.
Going jeans and jacketless in the salle au manger is strictly forbidden in the presence of the emperor.
I manage to slide in with a navy Marchesa Notte gown.
Against the flickering glow of (albeit faux) candlelight, piano music fills the air with nostalgia. It feels like you’re traveling through time. I half expect the royal couple to come waltzing in at midnight.
Dinner arrives beneath a silver cloche.
After dinner it’s time to retreat to the room, many of which are named after the politicians, celebrities and royalty that once welcomed them. Our room, overlooking the Bay of Biscay, was next to the Winston Churchill room.
In the morning a sumptuous selection of breads, meats, regional fromage, patisseries, tarts, and fruits fill the breakfast table.
Then it’s time for some fun in the sun, a jumping board into a heated salt water pool awaits. A private walkway with showers and change rooms gives direct access to the Grande Plage, where rolling waves attract world class surfers from around the globe.
Taking a dip into the waters of the Atlantic is brisk, but refreshing, and a lazy walk along the craggy rocks of the Basque coast is romantic bliss.
When the clouds take over, it’s time to go to the indoor pool and jacuzzi.
I take advantage of the well appointed gym and hammam facilities to get re-energized and maximize relaxation. Everyday a new perfume fills the steam room with a refreshing scent, eucalyptus on Mondays, mint on Tuesdays.
At the intersection of the old world and new, this place strikes a luxurious balance.
When I first arrived at Aurovalley ashram, it was late in the evening after a blurry-eyed train ride and a cab through crowded towns of rioting men. I arrived at the ashram gate and was greeted by silence. A bearded Indian man came carrying a torch. Long white locks crowned his head and he was dressed in a white cotton gown. He didn’t say much, no talk of registering for my stay, who he was or who I was for that matter, he simply motioned me to sit down where we quizzically sat in silence. I eventually guessed correctly that he was Swami Brahmdev, master of the ashram. He gave me a nod and brought me a plate of chapatti with lentils and tea. The swami is a man of few words when it comes to pleasantries, but as I learned, a man with passionate insights on life and living conscientiously.
The next day I wandered about the ashram, discovering the marble meditation hall, pathways, nooks and crannies. I meandered into a large circular shaped building that looked brand new. It was known as the world temple, two floors of guest rooms meant to receive families, travelers, pilgrims, lost souls, and vagabonds from around the world. Here, all wayward walks of life would meet at a crossroads, in the middle of the Indian jungle.
From a doorway, Swami Brahmdev appeared, stepping lightly toward the world temple’s courtyard. He gave me a quick glance and motioned me to follow him.
The courtyard was a large circular lawn of grass with a singular tree planted in the center, reaching for the sky. The swami stopped at the foot of the tree and asked, “What do you see here?”
I paused for a moment. Was this a trick question?
“A tree,” I said.
“It is nothing.”
I sized the tree up and down. “I’m pretty sure it’s a tree. I can see it, feel it. It’s there.”
“Ah, but what was it a hundred years ago? What were you 50 years ago?”
Umm. A seedling? A cell in the abyss?
“Nothing,” I offered.
“Exactly. When you come to understand that, this place will become yours.” Swami Brahmdev motioned all around him. “You will be at home.”
He left and I stood there blankly staring at the tree, entertaining his words.
What if I was nothing? All my worries, ego… meaningless in the grand scheme of things. Perhaps I could abandon a life of frivolity, accept peace and find solace here. Nah, that’s not going to happen. Though what if I did, what would I do then?
According to Bramdev, the soul has one purpose, to manifest the light, to heed the divine within us. Conscientiousness leads to light, ignorance leads to darkness. There are 360 degrees of paths around us leading in different directions, by being mindful of our soul, the divine within us will light the path we are meant to take. Many people are taught how to survive life, but many lose sight on how to live. From mindfulness, you acknowledge the divine within you, your soul, and develop clarity to grow and live. Love and hate are manifestations of you, Bramdev would say, so choose your path and relationships wisely.
Being conscientious is practiced through meditation, yoga, prasad, satsang, and other activities: a daily exercise of the mind, body and soul. I certainly became more aware of myself, who I am and what makes me happy throughout my stay at the ashram.
It’s calming to know that somewhere in the mind or physical world, a tree stands tall that beckons us to follow the light.
Not that I am in the habit of noticing perfectly formed breasts, but Grethe from Norway had an exceptional set of baubles that were staring right at me. Sitting in the hot tub of the au naturel beach at Couples Sans Souci Ochos Rios, I try to look the other way or politely practice indifference whilst sitting across from the Norse goddess and her slightly erect husband. We talk about the weather and share travel tips. While it’s interesting to play the emperor has no clothes on the nude beach, not everyone here is an emperor. To be clear, people around here look like a cross sampling of your local Walmart, naked. I feel self-conscious and timidly wrap a towel around myself whilst walking about, though I confess, letting it all hang out here in the open and getting even tan lines is liberating.
I am by no means a nudist, but what am I doing here you ask? By accident, really. It was a last minute Thanksgiving weekend trip based on the least expensive flight to the Caribbean and the best-rated resort we could find on Trivago.
When we were told that there was an au naturel beach, my boyfriend thought that meant it was a wild coast untouched by man. He was wrong. The nude beach is dusted with pale golden sand, but unlike the resort’s main (clothed) beach, once you enter the water it becomes rocky. We entered the pool area, grabbed some drinks and headed for the jacuzzi. I don’t know whether being naked makes people friendly or people who are open to being naked are just friendly. Either way, people on this beach were really, really friendly. There was lots of small talk, and everything seemed normal, except for the occasional screaming of penis and the fact that we were all, umm… au naturel. A majority of the couples here are on the older side, in their 50s. My boyfriend got the distinct feeling that some of the couples were a little too friendly with each other. I google searched it and found that Couples resorts are popular among swingers. However, the behavior of folks around the resort was appropriate. The most public displays of affection I saw were kissing and we were never propositioned with anything scandalous.
In terms of value, Couples Sans Souci is great. It’s an adults-only all-inclusive with two beaches, three pools, three jacuzzi’s, three restaurants, complementary tours around Ocho Rios and water activities galore, including free snorkelling and scuba diving. The must-do tour is the day climb up Dunn’s River Falls.
The food is decent for an all-inclusive. Their formal restaurant Casanova serves the best food à la carte and requires reservations. Their beach side grill serves great Jamaican cuisine, including my personal favs jerk chicken and beef patties. On Fridays they have a social night where couples dine together outdoors under the stars.
The rooms are okay and the grounds are pretty.
They have a beautiful spa area where you can get a massage in an open air room that overlooks the ocean. We got a massage, scrub and manicure …he opted out of the manicure though 🙁
Service can be a bit lacking. Most of the staff are nice, but service is slow and sometimes pushy. The beach and pool areas often run out of towels. Our 7:30am breakfast-in-bed arrived at 8:30am and was missing some of the items I ordered. I left bracelets in my room that went missing. The bathroom amenities are very basic — if your hair is like mine and needs conditioner, bring some, because they do not have any!
While Couples doesn’t offer luxury on par with the Ritz or Viceroy, it’s still a very nice resort and great bang for your buck. I’d give it a solid four stars. But hey, maybe I’m being prissy. Trivago gives it five stars and customer satisfaction is 90%. Will Smith visited the resort a couple of weeks back to use the gym, and in its heyday it was visited by the likes of Usher, Whoopi Goldberg and Roger Moore.
The resort offers complementary shuttles to and from Montego Bay airport and Ocho Rios. We flew into Kingston at night and the resort quoted us an outrageous sum to drive us over. We opted to patron On Time Taxi, which offers reasonable rates and impeccable reliability. Our driver Sharon arrived at the airport at 2:30am in a marked car with my name written on a sign. She waited an hour for our delayed flight and long slog through customs. It’s a 2 to 2.5 hour drive no matter what Google tells you. We hired Sharon for our return journey and she arrived two hours early to drive us back to Kingston. In case you want to hire her, her direct number is +1 876-356-3930. She’s lovely.
There are three Ritz Reserves in the world, with plans to build another three in the future. Puerto Rico is the most convenient destination for couples seeking a quick weekend escape from the northeastern chill.
Each morning I open the doors of our king bedroom suite to hear the ocean in the early morning hours.
We’re conveniently situated on the ground floor, which allows us to walk straight onto the West beach and saunter off to breakfast at Mi Casa. This Ritz Reserve signature restaurant offers up an exquisitely elaborate table of fresh fruits, yoghurts, meats, cheeses, pastries and breads everyday.
After breakfast we head to the palm tree-lined beach and grab a set of private loungers outside our room, along with plenty of complementary towels, bottles of water on ice and suntan lotion for two.
The waters can get rough on Dorado Beach, but a manmade rock shelf keeps them at bay. The sand is soft and sienna but there are warnings of sea urchins. The resort provides snorkelling gear to explore the coral. We manage to spot plenty of angel fish and a lone barracuda.
Any stay at Dorado Beach should be paired with a visit to their in-house spa, Spa Botànico, which offers an irresistible menu of alluring temptations against a wildly beautiful backdrop to maximize relaxation. Among the options, a soothing massage in an open-air tree house on a gently swaying hammock.
Rich scents of lavender, lemongrass and local botanicals surround me as I enter the lobby of their luscious 5-acre spa, a prelude to all the flora and fauna my body will be soaking in within minutes. An attendant serves me tea and leads me to the dressing room. Before my spa services, she encourages me to take a steam, dip into the hot and cold pools, douse myself with buckets of hot and cold water, and rest in the relaxation room. I don’t need to be asked twice.
When it’s time for my appointment, my masseur leads me through fields of pineapple and into a sunlit massage room. Soft music envelops me as he pampers my body with jasmine and rosemary oils and maneuvers my muscle tissue and aching bones in ways that make me swoon. Definitely a highlight of this resort.
During the afternoons I may take a hotel bike out and explore some of the 1,400-acre Ritz Reserve property formerly owned by the Rockefeller family. The Rockefeller Nature Trail winds its way through a peaceful beach and tropical rain forest filled with exotic trees and creatures.
Beyond lies a gated community of homes, residences, a golf course, a water park, and a plantation.
But most of my afternoons were spent hanging out by one of the poolside cabanas and wading through the shallow waters.
The main pool features massaging water jets and a bed of bubbles, but to my surprise, no jacuzzis or hot pools!
Not to fear.
Each suite features a soaking tub where you can bathe in hot water while plugging in your iPhone to play music over the Bose-powered sound system. I spent every evening decorating the bath with perfumed salts and listening to smooth jazz. If bathing is not your thing, you can take a shower indoors or opt for the outdoor rain shower, which is particularly soothing when the coqui (small local frogs) chirp and make beautiful music at night.
While I mentioned the spa being a stand out at Dorado Beach, there is one other. The 10-course tasting menu at Mi Casa. Oh my god. Thank heaven for Spanish cuisine. Check out this menu:
Jamón Ibérico de bellota ‘Fermín’
Cured ham from the legendary, acorn-fed, black-footed Ibérico pigs of Spain with fresh tomato bread
Cono de queso cañarejal con lechoza
Cañarejal cheese and green papaya marmalade
Coquitos frescos ‘Ferran Adrià’
Coconut water and rum spheres with mint and lime
Croquetas de pollo
Traditional chicken and bechamel fritters
Bocadillo de lechón de Guavate con mojo de chayote y chicharrón volao
Steamed bun with Guavate-style pork belly and chayote mojo
Salpicón de cangrejo
Jumbo lump crabmeat with cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes, chayote mojo and brandy sauce
Ceviche de atún con coco y aguacate ‘Café Atlántico’
Tuna marinated in coconut dressing with jicama, cilantro and serrano peppers topped with crispy quinoa
Ensalada César organizada con aguacate y anchoas
Romaine salad, wrapped in jicama, with Parmesan cheese, avocado, anchovies and caesar dressing
Asopao de bogavante tradicional de Puerto Rico
Puerto Rican rice stew with Maine lobster, chayote and ‘alcaparrado,’ served with plantain chips
Carne guisada con funche de maíz, camarones y setas
Braised veal cheeks with shrimp, polenta and mushrooms
Flan con parcha
Spanish custard with Catalan cream and passion fruit
The waiter congratulated me on finishing everything. He said he usually taps out during Round 8. I may have a small frame, but I have a big appetite.
Bottom line, the Dorado Beach Ritz Carlton Reserve is a perfect weekend getaway to avoid the dreaded polar vortex. There are several direct flights to Puerto Rico that are inexpensive relative to the rest of the Caribbean and it’s only a 3.5-hr plane ride away from NYC.
“I got this!” I say, sitting in the co-pilot seat onboard Cape Air’s Cessna 402C, a 9-seater passenger plane. My pilot, Alejandro, laughs at me as I pretend to handle the steering wheel. Every now and then we dive through a cloud and our plane shivers like a leaf through the turbulence. It’s not for the faint of heart, but after every cloud, we arrive closer and closer to heaven, also known as the Caribbean island of Anguilla.
There are two ways to get to Anguilla, either by a small passenger plane service out of larger island hubs like Puerto Rico or by ferry from St. Maarten.
The farflung nature of Anguilla makes it secluded, more exclusive. It’s a haven for couples on honeymoon, celebrating anniversaries or just looking for a romantic getaway. Which brings me to where I’m headed, a romantic stay at the Viceroy Anguilla with my boyfriend.
Locals say the Viceroy is the best hotel resort on the island and it’s not difficult to see why. With a welcome drink in hand, I walk through the elegantly appointed lobby, across the carefully manicured walkways lined with palm trees and succulents, and into the Sunset Lounge, a gorgeous outdoor space with an infinity pool on a cliff that overlooks the Atlantic ocean. Many evenings were spent watching the sunset from here.
As I am led into our one bedroom suite, an intoxicating scent of laurel, lily and white cedar grabs my nose. On the living room table there is a plate of shredded coconut and madeleines. I munch away while admiring the decor, which features classic pieces by Kelly Wearstler.
But my favorite part of the suite by far is the heated plunge pool on the balcony. After a long day by the beach and the pool, it’s the perfect retreat that offers privacy at night and a stunning view of the moon and starlit ocean.
Situated on the north side of the island, we are told the waters are calmer than in the south. The coastline is decorated with limestone coves and coral reefs. Crystalline waters ebb and flow over powder white sand beaches that look the way you dreamed them to look. They’re definitely some of the best beaches in the Caribbean.
We did yoga in the morning.
A bike tour of the island.
And a snorkel tour, with complementary snorkelling equipment provided by the hotel. We stopped for lunch on a deserted island called, Sandy Island, for some delicious but over-priced lobster (they don’t tell you the prices on the menu for a reason).
There are local restaurants and hotels to explore and diversify your evening dinner plans, but we loved the convenience and quality of the Viceroy’s main restaurant, Cobà, and dined there every night.
The service was phenomenal. When heading out to one of the Viceroy’s two beach areas or three pools, an attendant immediately assisted us with towels, complementary sun tan lotion, and bottles of water in ice buckets.
Every few minutes an attendant would either ask if we needed something or briskly walk by to see how we were doing without being intrusive. I had the feeling that you could ask for anything and it would be granted. That feeling was tested when I needed to treat a sunburn. I asked for cream or aloe vera and within minutes I heard a knocking on the door.
A full plate of raw aloe vera from the actual plant was delivered. The superb service could be partially attributed to the fact that we arrived on the property four days after it had re-opened from a hurricane season hiatus. Rainy season begins in June and lasts until the end of November. We were concerned about the weather as the forecast predicted thunder showers nearly every day when we were going at the end of October. I’m glad we took a risk and went anyway because it turned out that the weather was perfect and when it did rain, it cleared out within 20 minutes. I’m told that this is typical in the eastern Caribbean at this time of year. It was heavenly. Not only was the weather gorgeous, but we got to take advantage of low season rates and a nearly empty resort.
If you’re looking for a quiet piece of heaven on earth, you’ve come to the right place. Five hours north of Delhi, India between the holy cities of Haridwar and Rishikesh, Aurovalley ashram is the perfect place along the Ganges River for the soul to find rest and inner peace. Because the ashram is in the jungle away from it all, it’s more conducive to meditation and mindfulness. There’s a beautiful new building called the world temple full of guest rooms outfitted with marble floors, queen size beds and rooms for families of four. I was placed in the old building where the water didn’t work and I took showers out of a bucket. I loved it…
5am: Wake Up
A waterfall of birdsong awakens me every dawn. It’s like nothing I’ve heard before: Hundreds of birds singing out to the rising sun. It makes my heart smile. It’s a serene way to start the day.
Group meditation begins in the marble halls of the ashram’s temple. Orange pillows are laid out for everyone to sit in silence. The goal is to focus on your breath, allow your mind to repeat mantras and be mindful of the present. A cool breeze flows in and out of the temple that allows me to feel at ease while listening to the heartbeat of nature. It’s monsoon season so it’s especially beautiful when it rains. You can see the jungle shiver, turn a deeper shade of green. Showers fall all around me, creating a vibrant music that is at once breathtaking and disarming.
Yoga begins in a beautiful white marble hall where everyone is led into a practice of body awakening stretches and asanas (postures). Yoga itself means union, and whereas in America there is a demand and focus on asanas, the actual practice of yoga is more holistic. Everything from your diet to your breath to your movements are part of the practice. No one wears tight gym clothes, sports bras or lululemon, loose fitting modest Indian dress is the daily uniform. We end every session with a mantra, “Shanti! Shanti! Shanti! Om.” Shanti means peace. Om is a mystical word in sanskrit that is said to be the first word spoken by the universe.
Prasad is the gift of food that is offered to the gods and with their blessing, distributed to us common folk. Prasad is taken in silence in the dining hall. For breakfast that usually consists of a plain lassi, banana or other seasonal fruit, and maybe an Indian-style porridge like daliya made of dry cracked wheat. Silence is encouraged to be mindful that when you eat, you are offering food to your body which houses and nourishes the divine within you. The idea is to honor your body like a temple and hunger will pass.
9am: Karma Yoga / Study Period
Karma yoga means helping out around the ashram. You’re expected to wash and dry your dishes after all meals. You can also do some chores, sweep the leaves or even help out with the ashram’s school that offers free education to children and vocational training to young women from neighboring villages. I enjoyed grabbing a book from the well-stocked library and reading up on the writings of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, the inspirations behind Aurovalley and the origin of the ashram’s namesake. Oh, and did I mention there is free wifi everywhere?
11:30am: Satsang; Q & A with Swami Brahmdev
This is considered the highlight of the ashram. The daily discussion with Swami Brahmdev happens in a white marble library filled with books by Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. Colorful pillows dot the floor and windows flood the circular hall with light. It’s amusing to postulate on the meaning of life, purpose of love, the soul and death with Swami Brahmdev; he’ll answer any question you have. Though his answers may sometimes leave you puzzled, they have a few common themes: live life conscientiously, know yourself and heed the divine light within you.
Two kinds of Indian vegetarian dishes are usually served with chipati, rice and seasonal fruit. If you don’t want to eat in silence, you can go out into the courtyard. I enjoyed socializing with the different people at the ashram. Many are young women “searching for themselves.” Yeah, ok, I fall into this category. This ashram is also popular among Russians and Columbians. Russians view it as a farm stay of sorts, a quiet, inexpensive and peaceful place to bring the family when it gets cold in Russia. Aurovalley has a sister ashram in Columbia and there are Columbians here at the ashram whom have never left.
A bell sounds for tea time by the dining hall. Indian chai is delicious. But since there’s a gap in the day’s activities, if you ever want to leave the ashram to visit Rishikesh or swim in the Ganges River, which is just down the road from the ashram, people usually do so around this time.
4pm: Individual study or practice / karma yoga
Some people live at the ashram and pay their way through service by managing the guest rooms. Others practice karma yoga by volunteering in the kitchen and serving food. I take this time to read up on the writings of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. This twosome founded Auroville, an altruistic UNESCO-endorsed experimental town in South India. They passed away decades ago, but their inspirational quotes and portraits live forever in the ashram. Swami Brahmdev is a follower of their teachings. He was a lawyer by training, but discovered his spiritual calling to serve the divine by building the Aurovalley ashram, providing free education to local communities and spreading the wisdom of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother.
5pm: Yoga asanas
Usually there’s a second yoga session in the day, but because I’m here during monsoon season, there is no teacher to teach a second class. In fact, the ashram is pretty empty. Perhaps only a dozen people in total. While it’s great to have fewer social distractions when you’re trying to do some soul searching, it would be helpful to have a more active yoga schedule.
6pm: Meditation / Kirtan
Swami Brahmdev is not big on kirtan/chanting, so really this is just another opportunity to meditate. I find my mind wanders. A lot. On a bad day I’ll have multiple thoughts screaming in my head and I’ll need to repeatedly clear my mind with difficulty. On other days I regress and sometimes I come to remember beautiful memories from my past. Somewhere in that calm, I find inner peace. It’s a joyful feeling. For a few glorious moments my insecurities, jealousies, negativity, concerns and burdens melt away. Something about being in the middle of nowhere, living in a room with no running water, being free from materialism, judgement, and other distractions – wearing no make up, hair dishevelled, clothes unkempt, and no one to impress – Somewhere in that simplicity, disruptive thoughts in my head disappear and I feel incredibly free and happy to be alive and well.
Another serving of two kinds of vegetables, usually lentils, chickpeas, maybe eggplant or okra, rice, chipati and whatever wasn’t finished at lunch. I love Indian food so even though some people may find the food to be lacking, I find it satisfying and nourishing.
8pm: Cultural Programmes; reading, videos, talks, singing, dancing
The teachers who usually lead dance and music classes are gone because it’s slow season. Our yoga teacher fills in with art activities, readings of the Mother and Sri Aurobindo, and videos of the ashram. This is another time when I feel that while it’s great to have fewer people around, it would be nice to have some of the cooler activities available. I’m also told that Swami Brahmdev usually travels abroad during monsoon season, so we’re lucky to at least have satsang with him this year.
Upon researching ashrams, I initially wanted to go to Phool Chatti, but it was closed during monsoon season. My next choices were Aurovalley and Anand Prakash. I couldn’t decide between the two so I went to both, four nights at Aurovalley and three nights at Anand Prakash. I’m glad I split it up this way so as to get a sense of their differences. If I had to choose one ashram though, I would choose Aurovalley. It’s just way more spacious, quiet and beautiful and the perfect place for the spirit to awaken.
A thin layer of smoke and ash cover my skin as the infernos of Varanasi relentlessly burn on throughout the day and night. For Hindus, there can be no holier place to die than in this ancient and dusty town where the Ganges River flows. The sacred waters are believed to cut the cycle of reincarnation and lead to a direct route to heaven. Cremation sites called ghats line the Ganges. Only men of the family are allowed to participate in the cremation, entering the afterlife is considered a happy time and it’s believed women are more likely to cry and ruin the mood so to speak. I took advantage of the fact that foreigners are exempted from this custom so long as they do not snap photos.
A procession of male family members sing and chant, carrying a body prepared for cremation. They place the body over a pyre according to which caste they belong to. Poor people are burned away from the river, the merchant and warrior castes are burned on steps close to the Ganges and Brahmins, the priest caste, are burned on a platform above everyone else. The chief mourner sprinkles water from the Ganges over the body, which is wrapped in a shroud. The men circle the body three times and ignite the pyre. The strength of the flames correspond to the wealth of the family as it requires more money to buy sandalwood, ghee and other flammable fare.
One pyre in front of me is away from the river and burns low. I see the dead man’s face, he appears young and an acute sense of shock fills me as he’s consumed by the flames. Yet I cannot look away. The fire burns for three hours and members of his family take turns handling a long bamboo stick to rearrange his bones over the pyre.
Another man is burned closer to the river, I see the skin on his arm scorch and fray, ribboning in the fire. Family members watch to make sure his body is undisturbed. They shoe away cows, goats and other large animals that come too close, including questionably shady human folk.
Eyes on the ghat lock eyes on a dark man with wild hair dressed in a black loin cloth. Worshippers of the dark side of Shiva, the destroyer god, are said to consume human flesh and seek human skull bowls. Families crush skulls that do not burn to make sure they do not end up being used for black magic. The dark man enters the ghat, followed by a dozen dogs. He carries a mysterious black sack and sits quietly on the steps, watching half a dozen bodies burn. Families give him dirty looks but in the end he seems harmless. Another oddly dressed man goes to a steaming pyre and cooks a plate of vegetables and bread. Stray dogs mate and howl in the corner. This place is just weird.
Further down the river a large ghat catches my attention. A man approaches me and beckons me to follow. He explains how the ash-covered Manikarnika ghat is lined by dusty hospice homes, filled with the terminally ill whose dying wish is to be cremated in Varanasi. He leads me up a flight of stairs toward a glowing pile of coals. He points to a man lying on the ground who he says is responsible for making sure the embers never die. My guide takes ash from the fire and places it on my forehead as he makes motions to bless me. He explains that this ash comes from the eternal flame. Every pyre in Varanasi must be ignited by this fire. Legend has it that the coals lie on the spot where Parvati, goddess of war, dropped an earring. He asks for money and I hand him some rupees. There is a lot of begging in Varanasi.
Further down the river, washed up on the shore, some fellow travelers discover a dead baby, all purple, black and blue. A guide explains that people with pure souls are not cremated, including pregnant women, holy men and children under two years old. Instead they’re wrapped in a shroud and placed directly into the river. We leave the baby alone.
With all this talk of death there is great tribute to life. The Ganges gives life giving water throughout India and every sunset an elaborate Ganga aarti ceremony is performed to honor Mother Ganga. Loud clanging bells fill the air on Dashashwamedh ghat, which is flooded with light and crowds of people. A row of men perform a showy choreographed offering to the goddess. The best seats are on the river where several boats gather on the calm waters. I carry an offering of marigolds and candles made of ghee. I set my offering into the river and whisper a couple of words. A trail of candle light floats on top of the water, perhaps lighting the way for those souls awaiting the afterlife. The sun slips beneath the clouds and the serenity of dusk illuminates the sky. The unique beauty of it all leaves no doubt in my mind that Varanasi is a magical wonder.
Underneath the crisp air and crystal blue sky, an oppressive sun casts unforgiving rays that burn my face and shoulders. I cover myself with a light jacket or shawl for relief. The nights are chilly and the daily weather goes from clear and sunny to light rain and stormy at a moment’s notice, so if you’re headed this way, a light water proof jacket and sweater are a good idea. As we enter the center of old Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, Buddhist pilgrims walk in a clockwise circle around its holy epicenter, Jokhang Temple, the first Buddhist temple built in Tibet. This kora must be walked in odd number sequences, as even numbers are unlucky. Those who cannot recite scripture carry prayer wheels with scripture written on them that they twirl to have the prayers recited for them.
The elderly Tibetan ladies catch my eye, their ebullient faces weathered and red from the fierce Tibetan sun and their clothes brightly colored and stained by the dusty earth. Many elderly spend their golden years devoted to this endless circle.
The smell of incense fills the air as juniper smolders in large outdoor incense burners, and beside them, religious folk point their hands in prayer as they fall down, face and body flat to the cobbled floor. They complete these prostrations 1000 times in a row as a way cleanse their sins, purify their minds and build good karma for the next life.
Inside the temple, yak butter candles light centuries old murals of Buddha. Hidden in the corridors are relics entombed in gold from the 7th century and a famed golden statue of Buddha, once kept beyond the grasp of an army employed by a covetous Chinese Princess. On the rooftop, monks sit idly by, selling beads they’ve blessed to pilgrims and wandering tourists. A string of turquoise catches my eye, how much I ask?
“200 yuan,” says the monk, and with a curious look. “Where you from?”
“Janada,” I say in my best Tibetan. The monk smiles and tells me how he is learning English taught by a number of Canadians at a nearby academy. We talk for a moment and by the conversation’s end he tells me that he will sell me the blessed beads for half the price. He gestures to a group of Chinese tourists and sneers.
“For them, full price, for you, half price.”
I’m surprised, but not surprised. In 2012, two monks lit themselves on fire outside the monastery in protest of the Chinese government’s oppression of Tibet. Self-immolations all over Tibet occur almost monthly. Security checkpoints surround the temple banning all lighters, matches and flammable liquids. Tibetans are not allowed to be issued passports and their mobility around the country is limited. They do not like the Chinese and openly tell me as much.
It’s a strange conundrum for me as I am ethnically Chinese. In my home country I’m seen as Chinese and in my mother’s country I’m seen as western. I’ll always be different.
I spent five days in Lhasa to acclimate to the 3650m elevation. I saw the Potala Palace, home of the Dalai Lama, and his summer palace. I made momos, drank yak butter tea (tastes like clarified butter, gross), watched monks debate Buddhist philosophy at Sera Monastery and ate plenty of yak. Yak is a Tibetan ox that tastes very gamey, similar to goat. It’s a regional staple, but unfortunately yak makes me want to yak, so I had to lay off it for a while. Went on a bargaining binge for quality thangkas (Tibetan Buddhist art), and received a massage from a business run by the blind. Many of the workers there come from an NGO called Braille Without Borders. Their services are much more professional and relaxing than my Beijing experience.
On our final day we drive 5 hours to Namtso Lake where the sacred waters meet the sky at a height of 4500m. I take it easy, but the thin air gives me a slight headache. A fellow traveler hands me some ibuprofen, which alleviates the pain.
The two-day train to the roof top of the world from Beijing to Tibet is the highest railway in the world. It is fraught with dirty Asian toilets and cramped quarters, but if you can be without the comforts of home, the mountain landscapes after the first 24 hours are remarkable. The train passes through Xi’an, Lanzhou, Xining, and across the Qinghai plateau before arriving in Lhasa. Very slowly you can see the scenery change from muddy rivers and red hills to snowy mountains and blanketed plateaus.
As we ascend 4000 meters above sea level, my body begins to feel swollen and sore as the air pressure changes. Symptoms of altitude sickness include headaches, vomiting, dizziness, fatigue and loss of appetite. I feel the later two. I did not bring Diamox, a prescribed blood thinner to combat altitude sickness, so we’ll see how I fare on the way to Everest. Only two people in my tour group of twelve did not bring Diamox, a Columbian girl, Gina, and I. We’re told that at least one person each trip is seriously affected by the altitude and requires hospitalization. Gina and I are sharing herbal supplements that Tibetans say are effective in combating the altitude. Herbal meds don’t fail us now.
I brought 3 liters of water, fruit and snacks for the long haul trip, but the dining car offers decent Chinese food for your regular meals. We sleep in a 6-berth sleeper compartment, which is better than the folks who are sitting on passenger chairs through the entire 44-hr journey, so I can’t complain.
Fetching breakfast in Beijing can be somewhat intimidating when you don’t know the language, but when I saw the hustle and bustle of this street food cafe, I couldn’t resist.
People were munching on congee (Chinese savory porridge), eggs and buns on rough tables in the open air. With a little finger pointing, I managed to order dumplings (a whole steam basket for only 6 yuan/$1!), some sort of soy milk bowl and fried dough. The meal was satisfying, but eating like a Beijinger, priceless!
There were also some delicious fruit stalls nearby, you have to negotiate with them or else they’ll try to charge you double the going rate. I washed apples and peaches with water from my hotel room and so far so good.