Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Cow shopping, boy monks and tomorrow's gifts

I hadn’t planned on adopting a class of Tibetan boy monks whilst in Nepal. I was walking down a street in the centre of the lakeside town of Pokhara with a belly full of dal bhat, when I spotted a sign to a Tibetan refugee settlement and felt compelled to follow it…past two hairy goats and a couple of old men smoking pipes. I came to the gates of a Buddhist temple and got chatting with a teenager wearing maroon robes. He told me his name was Tenzin. I told him I wanted to help the Tibetan people and asked if he knew of any places where I could volunteer.

“What kind of helping could you do?” he enquired.
“Um, I suppose I could teach English or something,” I replied. He told me to sit inside the temple gates and wait for him to return. Ten minutes later he popped his head around the corner: “Angie, please come”. He led me up two flights of stairs to a dark room in the corner of the building. It had a tiny window without glass and a rug on the floor where, it was clear, many grubby feet had trodden. I tried to avoid the grains of cooked rice that were stuck in the strands of carpet as I sat myself down.

Tenzin smiled as he told me about his home back in Mustang and how his 70-year-old mother now lives in a hut in the mountains alone and feels the cold most of the year. After the chat had finished he said: “Not much longer, maybe another five minutes, and then your students will arrive”.
“What students?” I asked, completely surprised.
“Boy monks. You will now be their English teacher,” he declared.

Minutes later a thin boy with a shaven head appeared in the dark doorway, “Namaste,” he beamed at me. Then another boy arrived, and another, until I had ten smiling faces sitting on the sticky rug before me in the fading afternoon light.

“This is Angie from Australia. She is your new English teacher,” Tenzin said to the boys.

The next hour was spent cross-legged in front of a grotty white board, with boy monks so keen to spell the words ‘dog’, ‘horse’, ‘pig’ and ‘chicken’ that they shuffled closer and closer to me until I could feel their breath on my body as they shouted the letters enthusiastically into the air.

“And tomorrow, you come same time?” Tenzin said as I wrapped up the farm animal lesson. With ten eager faces looking intensely at me for an answer, I said “Sure”.

And just like that – I’d become a teacher of boy monks at a Tibetan refugee settlement in Nepal.

The next day, after spending an hour preparing my morning lesson, my cell phone rang. It was Tenzin: “Today, we don’t need a teacher. Please come on Monday”. Two days later my phone rang: “Actually, my boss monk says no women are allowed in the temple. I am sincerely sorry. Thank you for your kindness, Angie. Please come to Mustang with me some day”.

And just like that, I was no longer a teacher of boy monks at a Tibetan refugee settlement in Nepal.

I usually make big plans for myself when I travel. I have things on my ‘to do’ list. Places to see. People to connect with. I map out my itinerary. I spend hours on Trip Advisor reading reviews about restaurants that I may or may not ever dine in (I have been known to use luminous yellow highlighters on printed pages of Lonely Planet guides). To be honest, it’s not just when I travel. I’ve spent most of my adult life creating daily, monthly, yearly schedules for myself. I’m a person who likes to control ‘what tomorrow will bring’. So it was completely out of character for me to fly to Nepal for three months without a plan. But the voice of God/ Lord Buddha/ my Higher Self commanded me to go forth.

What became clear to me, within a few weeks, was that once I let go of my fear of ‘the unknown’ and actually embraced uncertainty – fun things started to happen. Because the beauty of having no plans is that you can say ‘yes’ to almost anything….

Like going to Chitwan to buy a cow…
Like riding on the back of a motorbike to meet a secret shaman in the hills…
Like jamming with a gypsy jazz man from Paris in a bar in Pokhara…
Like teaching Tibetan boy monks how to spell ‘chicken’….

After saying ‘yes’ often the plan would fall through: “Angie, my uncle is now coming with me to buy the cow and if you come too he might tell my family that I brought a white woman with me and that would cause suspicion so today we will not go shopping for a cow together”.

Or sometimes it would morph into a completely different plan: “Angie, the concert where you were going to sing tonight is cancelled so I will take you to a rich man’s wedding instead and you can dance with many friendly Nepali people”.

Last week I lost my regular source of income. Soon, the seaside apartment I’ve called home will no longer have my name on the lease. The ankle injury that I’d hoped would be almost healed continues to cause me problems and pain. Things that I’d counted on for stability in my life have now come undone. My three months of living without a plan has blown out to six months and there seems no end in sight to the uncertainty…and that scares me.

But when I feel the fear rising, I remind myself that a life-unplanned means that tomorrow can bring me whatever tomorrow wants to bring…I’m free to say ‘yes’ to almost anything, right? So if you need a hand to go cow shopping, give me a call.

“The foolish cling to what they have
And fear change
Their lives are going nowhere.

The clever learn to accept uncertainty
And ride through change
Capable of starting anew anywhere.

The wise realise the value of uncertainty
Accepting all changes without changing
For them, having is the same as not having” - Chai Na Pol A

Sunday, June 21, 2015

The invincible summer within me

"In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.” - Albert Camus. 

On the eve of the longest night here in the Southern Hemisphere I hold onto this beautiful quote. I was told by my orthopaedic specialist on Friday that it could take up to six months for my ankle to heal due to the severity of bone bruising that occurred as a result of my accident in Nepal. 

Acceptance is something I've never been very good at. One of the reasons I wanted to spend a few months living in a foreign land was to work on letting go of fear... accepting whatever comes my way... trusting that I am strong enough... surrendering to the present moment. When I arrived in Nepal I booked myself into an Ayurveda retreat to cleanse my body. I went to a Buddhist centre to clear my mind. I began my mornings with meditation and yoga. And, as the weeks passed, I started feeling a deep sense of calm. I felt grounded...'at peace' with the earth. And I was confident I'd be leaving the rooftop of the world with some sort of Degree in Spirituality / Bachelor of Acceptance.

But what happens when the thing you rely on to keep you stable - to keep you centred and calm - starts to shake and crack under your feet? What happens when you can't rely on your own body to support you - to help you flee from danger?

The earthquake and my injury have taught me more about acceptance than any self help book or guru ever could. They have forced me to be still. To sit with myself - my thoughts, my demons. To breathe. To give myself credit for the little things I achieve on a daily basis (like getting my hot water bottle across the room by balancing it on my head whilst on crutches...win!). To open my heart to strangers. To be grateful for so many things.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Earthquakes, evacuations and my life on crutches

In January I posted this photo on my Facebook page which announced my plan to return to Nepal and spend three months with the mountains and mystics to "see what else the world has to offer me". I had no idea the answer would be a 7.9 earthquake, a fall down a staircase, a trip to a Nepali hospital, a leg in a plaster cast and an evacuation.

I arrived in Kathmandu on March 7 and followed my intuition two days later to the lakeside town of Pokhara which became my home for the rest of my stay. My travel guitar Lazarus kept me good company, as did several backpackers who became my soul brothers and sisters - sharing jam sessions, tear sessions, meditation sessions and much dal bhat.

Then the earthquake hit. And life changed for me...for my friends...for the people of Nepal. So much death. So much destruction. But the true horror has been the aftershocks. Since that initial quake on April 25 there have been over 100 earthquakes in Nepal that have measured a magnitude of 4 or over - causing panic, fear, anxiety and stress to those who have already experienced a lifetime's worth of panic, fear, anxiety and stress.

In the eight days that I lay in my guesthouse bed, unable to walk due to my injury, the earth moved constantly. It shook my bed. It rattled the walls. And each time there was an aftershock, I could hear people running out of the building and shouting....yet I could not run. 

I could not run. I could not walk. I could not wash. I could hardly get myself to the toilet. The helplessness I felt was overwhelming and yet, somehow, beauty and joy kept walking through my door. My Pokhara 'family' arrived with guitars to play soothing melodies in the morning; with books to read aloud to me in the evenings; with hugs when I was in pain; with descriptions of 'life outside' to keep me connected with the colour of the sun on the mountains, the stillness of the lake, the love being shared on the streets between people who were still so scared.

And when I was alone, between the tears, there were moments of calm with Lazarus - a guitar that had been living in a Kathmandu apartment before being lent to me as a travel companion, thanks to my dear friend Jesslee.

Leaving Nepal was one of the most difficult things I have ever done - both physically and emotionally. Trying to get myself out of a country in chaos - with a leg in a cast, on my own - was beyond traumatic. And then there was the guilt I felt for being in such a privileged position to be able to leave - and the regret of not being able-bodied enough to help with the relief effort.

It's going to take me a long time to process all that has happened. I'm sharing these thoughts, and the posts below, as a way of trying to make sense of it all. My parents have been caring for me in Sydney for the past few weeks as I've been unable to do much for myself. Trying to use crutches with a body that has experienced so much movement of the earth, so much instability of the ground - has been very challenging and resulted in several falls and blows to my confidence. I'm unsure how long it will be before I'll walk properly again or when I'll be strong enough to return to the Sunshine Coast and my apartment on a hill with a staircase.

My issues are small compared to those being suffered by the people of Nepal. There are thousands still sleeping outside in tents - too scared to lay their heads down inside their homes because the earth is still shaking. Then there are those who, even when the ground stops moving, won't have homes to return to. And the monsoon rain is on its way. My heart breaks.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Under these peaceful eyes

For 38 days these eyes looked down at me in Room 5 at Peace Eye Guesthouse in Pokhara. Each morning they greeted me - full of sunlight and optimism - as I set out for another day of adventure in Nepal. The night after the earthquake in my dark room unable to sleep, they glowed full of hall light above my door, offering warmth during the aftershocks. After my accident as I sat on the floor of my room with my leg in a cast and eyes full of tears, they spoke to me: 'Everything is going to be okay'. And in the days that followed, each time they blinked, someone wonderful would appear at my door. Like Vincent from Holland with his guitar to play for me. Like Seema from Cornwall with her gently hugs. Like Travis and Severine with cake and company. Like Devendra from my guesthouse with crutches for me and a smile ("I got them for local price not tourist price. Good for you, yes?"). Like Didi from the kitchen downstairs with bowls of banana porridge (when I cried with gratitude one morning she said simply, "You are my sister"). Like Jordan from California with news to report from the outside world. Like my ayurveda doctor with a bag full of herbal medicine and a calm hand to place on my forehead ("We will make sure you get home safely. I am busy now volunteering in the villages but I will make time to come and see you to check that you are okay. Don't worry yourself too much").

This morning, waking in my parent's apartment in Sydney, I looked up at the space above my bedroom door expecting to see those wise eyes but they were not there. I still can't quite believe all that has happened in the past two weeks...and that I had to leave Nepal. It upsets me greatly that I am unable to assist with relief efforts and I feel guilty that I could 'get out' when thousands remain trapped inside the tragedy that is the aftermath of the earthquake. To those who helped me during a very challenging time - thank you, thank you, thank you. To those I left behind, my eyes and limbs may no longer be in Nepal but my heart remains in the Himalayas.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

At the mercy of Mother Nature

"You are not alone. I am here. I will not leave you." 

He held my hand and looked firmly into my fearful eyes as the hospital rattled around us. Nurses and interns were running from the building and I was lying on an X-ray table with a large machine swaying above me threatening to drop on my fractured ankle. We were in the middle of a 6.7 earthquake - the second to hit Nepal in two days. He was a young Nepali doctor. I was an injured Aussie far from home. We'd known each other for less than five minutes and yet, true to his word, as the ground continued to shake and the hospital was evacuated he stayed by my side - helping me off the table and into a wheelchair to join the others outside the building. There I wept and wept and wept. 

Never have I felt so helpless. So unable to fend for myself. So at the mercy of Mother Nature. So blown away by a stranger's willingness to stand by my side. I am glad that aid is arriving in Nepal from far and wide...that the people of the world, by donating money to the relief effort, are saying to the people of Nepal:

"You are not alone. We are here. We will not leave you." 

Sunday, April 5, 2015


I'm captioning this pic #Pokhara because it was through the wonders of social media that I connected with filmmaker Jordan. After spending two days in bed, fighting a strong desire to vomit (no idea what bug I have but it has not been fun), it was nice to have some company on the rooftop of my guesthouse yesterday. I even managed to sing a song, kindly captured on camera by Jordan, which you can view below.

Be sure to check out more of Jordan's website here for more fun travel videos....he is all about documenting the smiles, not the fear!

Friday, March 13, 2015

Lazarus and the mountains

I asked my new travel buddy what he wanted to be called and he replied "Lazarus". Being in Nepal and all, I'd kinda imagined he'd choose something slightly more exotic, like Swami Harami or Baba Ganeshi but the only name that kept being said (in an almighty voice in my head) was Lazarus. We have become the best of friends and have been enjoying such things as: mountain views, momos, cloud watching and rooftop jams. Thanks to my darling friend Jesslee for letting me borrow her guitar from her Kathmandu apartment. Thanks also to the hostess on Buddha Airlines who said, as I boarded the plane to Pokhara, "Let me take your guitar and put it somewhere safe. Enjoy your flight". I wonder if anyone from Jetstar has ever uttered those words to a musician boarding a plane with an instrument.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Finding love on Emu Mountain

I shed a tear of Valentine's Day joy with two strangers on a rocky outcrop at 8.08am this morning. They were wearing sneakers. I was wearing sandals. I stumbled, quite literally, over a rock and into their marriage proposal at the top of Emu Mountain. We were the only human beings amongst the gum trees. “Um, did he just ask you to marry him?” I said to the young woman. “Yes, I’m so happy,” she answered softly as she held out a very sparkly diamond ring to show to me. A tear dropped down her cheek. A tear dropped down my cheek. We all stood there smiling. And then we smiled some more. And then I realised that maybe it was time for me to stumble back down Emu Mountain. I smiled the whole way home.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Happy birthday to me...

Today is my birthday. As my high school classmates push prams around playgrounds and plan their kitchen renovations - I contemplate the very different road I'm travelling down - one which, in five weeks, will lead me back to Nepal where I will base myself for a few months in answer to the call of the mountains and mystics. It will be a break from touring. A break from this quiet Sunny Coast life. A break from my current reality. I have no idea exactly what I'm going to do over there. Maybe I'll find a guru to worship. Maybe I'll write another book. Maybe I'll just sit around eating momos. Or maybe the road to Nepal will wind its way back to a pram in a playground in Australia. All I know is that 37 feels like a good age to see what else the world has to offer me...and what else I have to offer the world.