Friday, May 09, 2014

The Retreat

Where to even begin??
It's funny when you have expectations, but you have no idea what they are. You can't identify specifics or a way that you thought something was going to be or what it was going to look like. All you know it's that your ill defined nebulous expectations were not met.

I did a yoga retreat in Pokhara, Nepal. It sounds exciting - no? I've never done anything like this before, so certainly my expectations weren't formed by prior related experiences. I will start by saying the residence portion was better than any hut I stayed in while trekking (which is saying very little). It had electrical outlets, and lights, and walls that don't have gaping holes to the outside. These are all good things.

As soon as I got here the owner guy told me we are all one big family and I felt myself cringe. Why is the idea of some hippy-esque family so anxiety producing? Maybe I don't want to be part of one giant family with a bunch of youngsters looking to find themselves and thinking something called a "retreat" is the way to do it. Maybe I just want to keep to myself and not feel obligated to talk to each of my new family members. Why is there so much pressure to be social and friendly? What if I want to keep to myself? What if I think everyone is annoying?

I walked into my room the first night, that I was supposedly sharing with one other person to find three beds and two other people already there. Not a huge deal, but why not just say that you're in a room with three people? Why advertise two people per room? And apparently I lucked out because other rooms have four beds squished in. I happen to have two of the greatest roommates ever, so that's made it palatable. The attached bath? A squat toilet. There's just no escaping the squat toilet apparently. I thought I left those mysterious holes behind with trekking and roadside bus stops. Apparently not!

Immediately after my arrival it was chanting time. There are three meditation sessions per day, *in addition* to the chanting session, which is really singing. It sounded to me exactly like a drum circle in Golden Gate park, so I chose to stay in the room instead - which is right next door to the studio room so it sounded like I was in there anyway. It turns out that was the best timeslot of the day to take a nap.

No hot water in the entire establishment. After a really long day of yoga and meditation I'm going to go out on a limb and say a hot shower would be nice. Or even a warm one. Sigh.

I think I also have expectations around cleanliness which are laughable as it turns out. The yoga mats have not been washed in... a month? Two? Ever? Not exaggerating. And we bring them outside each day for morning outdoor yoga! Then we put them back in the yoga room damp with many little insect visitors and use them again a couple of hours later. The yoga room does not smell good and has not ever been vacuumed (it's carpeted) but I will say you get used to the smell pretty quickly.

Our room has also not been cleaned anytime recently. Certainly not in the five days I was there, nor the four days before that I have on good authority. No bathroom cleaning, no floor cleaning. Large mats of hair and who knows what else float around the floor. It's got one of those bright green faux grass colored low-knap outdoor carpets which hides everything quite well, thankfully. Except the enormous spider. It was bigger than a daddy long legs, with FAT legs and a big hourglass body. It was gross. I generally have no aversion to spiders and try to get them into a plastic container to throw back outside when I have them at home, but this was a whole different level of spider. I squealed like a school girl and did an icky spider dance. Then I tried to shoe it outside which didn't come close to working. I had imagined kind of guiding it across the room and out the door. It had other plans. It was FAST and ran right under another bed across the room. So, I left it there. Then it turned up later in the bathroom stranded by my cold psuedo shower attempt, so I went and asked the manager if he wouldn't mind taking it out. Thankfully they did not mind.

One of the more difficult aspects for me was the eating - the food itself was actually pretty good, but we were woken at 5:30, and had over an hour each of yoga and meditation and hiking amongst other activities before we were able to eat breakfast at 10:30. FIVE hours of focused awake time before breakfast?! I was ravenous by the time breakfast rolled around - I nearly gnawed my arm off a time or two. And yes, for those of you who know me well, you probably thought 5:30 was a typo above, but no, it was not. I got up at 5:30 am for 14 days straight on my trek and then 5 days for this yoga retreat! It is possible hell is freezing over.

While the food was good, the treatment of the food was not nearly as careful as it should have been. An unusually high number of people got bacterial stomach bugs there, they washed the dishes and raw fruits and veggies with the normal water, which is contaminated for western guts, so I stayed away from anything that wasn't cooked, compulsively dried wet utensils I was given, etc. I felt very lucky to leave without having gotten a stomach bug. My roommate was not so fortunate.

The other daily activity I abstained from? Group nasal cleansing. I mean, I have three neti pots (mostly because I have to buy new ones on the way to Burning Man when I forget mine) and have no issue with using them, but shared *communal* neti pots which aren't sterilized? and are filled with regular Nepali bacteria-full water? No. Thank. You. You've got to be kidding. I am surprised no one has come down with that brain eating amoeba yet.

The yoga was decent - I like my teacher at home much better, but this was fine. There wasn't much (any) emphasis on proper position and they seem to encourage people to push to get into complicated positions which fuels the fire of the young men whose egos are easily prodded. But, I just ignore their fighting and groaning and did what I could. No blocks or modifications or anything so I made my own sometimes.

The meditation was pretty tough for me. We did a number of techniques that I really enjoyed that involved sound - separating the three parts of the aum aka om and meditating on each for a while, or sight - candlelight meditation was also very good. The silent meditation is tough and felt pretty torturous after the first 10 minutes, as did maintaining the cross-legged posture for an hour. I would be having third party conversations with myself about the conversations I was having and it would spiral out from there.

All in all I am definitely glad I went - I became a lot more flexible, and learned some good meditation techniques, but I cannot even tell you how happy I was to leave and not have to be ruled from 5:30am - 9:00pm with a bell ringing my every next activity. I bee-lined to the store in Pokhara when I left and ran into two other folks who had left the day before who had armloads of candy and cookies. HA! You get to feeling pretty deprived after a while and all I wanted was chocolate. Chocolate and a special bag of gummis. mmmmm...

Thursday, May 01, 2014

Day 10 - Discomforts & Awe Inspiring Beauty

Ten days without the internet or any communication really.  A couple of times there has been some texting ability but I only look at my phone when I am setting the alarm for 6am. Otherwise I keep it in airplane mode since you have to pay a decent amount to charge devices and I'd rather not - especially since sometimes there is no power at all like tonight. 

Apparently they lost power three days ago. No reading for me! My nook is dead. It's funny the things you assume you will have each night - like an outlet. There have been two nights of ten so far where the rooms have an outlet. Some don't even have a light bulb.
Today I had thoughts of my friends and family and my kitties and my garden and house - for the first time in who knows how many days.  It's amazing how entrenched I have become in trekking. I have no idea what day it is or even really who I am.  Every day is reduced to a number of steps and a breathing rhythm. I have three different rhythms depending on how steep the trail is. And with the steps comes counting. One two three one two three. If I am not completely focused I'll definitely fall, these trails are covered in loose rock and gravel and sand and dust. Or more importantly I'll miss a breath and struggle for oxygen for the next 30 seconds which is hard to come by at high altitude, while climbing.  It's a more intense meditation than I've ever experienced before. No room for the mind to wander, or any entertaining of outside inquiries. 

Interestingly, I quickly moved from "oh no, how many more steps up??" to not seeing a set of steps as an entity that needed to be completed, but just part of the path to the next place. Steps up were not going to ever really be completed, because there are always more. So, instead of trying to see when I would be done or how many more, or what was around the corner, I stopped looking. I would look 10-20 feet ahead so I didn't fall off the mountain and could pace myself for the present conditions, but I stopped trying to see what torture awaited me and just went. It's amazing how much easier it is without your mind getting all freaked out or overwhelmed or depressed at the down when you just worked so hard getting up. I was thinking it would be nice to be able to work more like that, or live more like that, but that is going to be much, much more difficult. I hear people talking about living in the moment. I'm not sure how it's done with deadlines and meetings and appointments and too much to do with too little time to do it in. Maybe I'll practice in my months of sabbatical and see what I can bring with me back to the working world.

And then, eventually, the six or seven hours of climbing and descending is done and I am back in another "hotel" assessing the level of discomfort I'll be experiencing for the night before I dive back into game of thrones.
Things to consider:
  • Is it REALLY fucking cold outside? Almost every night. Guess what? No heat. Anywhere. Each hotel has a wood burning stove in the dining area and that's it. 
  • Is there any mortar between the stones of the building? Not usually. Though the ugliest, always stay in a plastered or stuccoed building if there is one. Tonight is the first out of ten nights - living large! 
  • Can I visibly see the gaps from the room to the outside? Typically yes - with stones and no mortar of any sort every gap between each rock is a direct connection between the inside of your room and the outside. Often they hang sheets to give privacy between rooms since the gaps are so big between the boards. Tonight I fashioned a latch extension from a water bottle cap so my door would close. 
  • Is the squat toilet inside or in a separate building outside? How far must I go in the middle of the night? Important Note! If the room is too close to the squat toilet then I will hear the door banging all night and the room will smell of raw sewage. The room may smell of raw sewage anyway I found out.
  • Electrical outlet? Ha!
  • "Mattress" quality: the foam ranges from one to two inches thick and is in varying states of decomposition.  On a good night there's still a little give and my spine can't feel the wood planks directly.
One night in the second coldest place (about 25 degrees inside) my room was full of stove smoke for the entire night because of how the draft came through from the house next door. I awoke with frozen black lungs. Another night my "bed" platform was somehow attached to a ladder in the room next door that all of the porters and guides used to get up/downstairs so at 5am it felt like someone was hitting my bed with a sledge hammer for an entire hour.

I will say your standards sink woefully low pretty much immediately. One room I was in had hooks! Some places have some sort of shower, a pipe trickling water is pretty exciting and somewhat rare.  Some only offer a bucket they will fill with hot water but I assure you in sub freezing temps, no outdoor bucket shower is happening

Generally I have been freezing. Because of the extreme exertion I am pretty much drenched in sweat as soon as we climb the first 500 feet which is almost always within the first 30 minutes and then around 10am the wind kicks up and i freeze in my wet clothes. If I were a smarter person I would have brought more than one shirt. Sadly, I am not.

All this to say that there is a large amount of discomfort which in no way comes close to negating the INCREDIBLE scenery here. The mountain views are more beautiful in person than you could imagine, and the alpine forests... dense with bamboo and rhododendron trees and pines, all of which are gnarled with thick moss growing on their trunks. Definitely some of the most beautiful forests I have ever seen. It's really important to actually look up because you get so focused on looking at the massive stone steps you are going up or down that sometimes you can forget where you are. I of course have to remember to stop walking when I do look up, a lesson I have had to relearn more than once.

I do sometimes want to throttle the trekking company owner who mislead me left, right and center about this trek: the level of difficulty, the temperatures... easily twenty degrees colder than he told me. But it's been an amazing experience and I am really happy I have another three days before the crush of email and internet and communications will bear down on me. 


I've been waking up at 5.30 every morning.  Not willingly, but by the time I put on my hiking boots (since I so brilliantly and intentionally left my flip flops in Kathmandu), get myself out of the room which often involves extreme strength to undo the latch, and walk to wherever the squat toilet is, I can't easily fall back to sleep. If you know me well, you are probably wondering what happened to Sara right about now. You'll be even more surprised to see my bed time.

"Wake up" at 6 when my alarm goes off, snooze until 6.10, quickly dress and pack up my bag. 
Breakfast at 6.30, on the trail by 7. 

Sometimes tea around 9, sometimes not. 

Lunch anywhere from 10.45 to noon - always Dal Bhat, which is rice, lentil soup, a curry and often a green.  

Arrive at destination between 1 and 4. 

Unpack the few items in my duffel bag, take out sleeping bag and fluff. 
Grab nook and read game of thrones and nap. 

Put in dinner order around 5, eat at 6:30.
In bed reading at 7:30.
Asleep by 8:30.

Wake up often, lamenting how cold it is and how I have to pee and how far the squat toilet is.
Shower every other day,  laundry every 5 days.