Kathmandu: Mad Max, Smog, and Cremations

I spent my first day in Nepal sightseeing in Kathmandu. Upon landing, I was immediately greeted by Prem, a friend of my father’s (because everyone’s parents casually have pals all over the world, right?)

At first glance, Kathmandu seemed to have this dream-like haze about it, which I quickly realized was just smog.

I was fortunate enough to have Prem guiding me around the city, because I don’t think I could have managed any other mode of transportation without the stress level of Winona Ryder in every scene of Stranger Things.

The roads are packed with vehicles, motorbikes, pedestrians, and a few cows, homemade tractors and metal carts mixed in just to spice things up a bit. There really aren’t lanes, traffic lights, or pedestrian crosswalks, and respecting the direction of traffic feels optional.

It’s kind of like the movie Mad Max, but with more vehicles. I don’t really remember what that movie was about, but there were cars and danger in it, so this analogy still works.

After a long day of checking out Kathmandu’s hot spots, including the Boudhanath Stupa (one of the largest Stupas in the world and also the coolest one I’ve ever seen), Prem took me to Pashupatinath, a sacred Hindu temple.

On our way there, he casually remarked, “Hopefully we can see a cremation today,” and proceeded to inform me that it takes three hours to fully burn a body. But only one hour if you do it the electric way.”

I wasn’t sure how to appropriately respond to this new information, so I awkwardly let out an, “okay, great!” as if I had ever seen a body cremated before.

This was my first time in a primarily Hindu country, and I was eager to learn more about the religion. I got familiar with Buddhism while traveling through Southeast Asia last summer, but my experience with South Asia and it’s customs is still new.

We proceeded to the temple where a few cremations were already well under way, and stopped to watch as Hindu priests prepared another funeral pyre, decorated with bright orange flowers.

I don’t know how to describe what it’s like to watch women wailing while a body burned, but I suppose tragically beautiful would be a good start. It smelled like sandalwood mixed with a scent I didn’t recognize, which made me a bit uneasy.

Nonetheless, I stood there and watched, because I had never seen anything like it. I left the temple with the goal of better understanding Hinduism and putting more of South Asia on my busket list.

Overall, I found the city fascinating in its own chaotic way. Kind of like a friend’s messy room. To an outsider, its hard to make sense of or find anything, but once you get to know it better, it’s quite charming.

Nonetheless, I think one day in Kathmandu was plenty for me. My sinuses and lungs would certainly agree.

 

Vienna, Bratislava and Budapest

Since I had a free week and no other plans, I took a lap around Austria, Slovakia and Hungary. It’s not too far from Kraków, which is currently home base because that’s where my suitcases live.

I spent my three days in Vienna wandering its spectacular palaces, museums and art galleries, taking breaks to sit in cafés decked with crystal chandeliers. And, as luck would have it, I happened to be there during the hottest day in the city’s history, which is an event I really could have sat out.

From Vienna, I wanted to go to Budapest. Bratislava happened to be on the way, only an hour away from Vienna by boat. So why not? 

I love boats. 

Bratislava absolutely surprised me. It was charming and small enough to visit in a few hours. Conveniently, Polish is very close to Slovakian, so I got along just fine with everyone and felt right at home. 

After lunch and a stroll in Bratislava, I hopped on a train to Budapest. 

Oh, Budapest. Where to begin? Language, history, good people, cool parties and group bathing. It had everything I love.

I spent a lot of time learning about Hungary’s rich history and the Hungarian people. The sovereign nation is fairly new, having been occupied by everyone from the Ottomans and the Turks, to the Austrians, to the Nazis and the Soviets. Their language fascinates me, because it’s not quite Slavic and not quite any sort of anything I comprehend. In fact, it sounds a lot like the how the Sims speak.

But really, if you’re into cool languages, European history, occupations and the war, Budapest is a solid place to go. 

That being said, their nightlife was on point too. 

I don’t usually go out much when I travel alone, but you can’t not go out in Budapest, and I was fortunate enough to find some new international buddies.

The entire population of my hostel consisted of my blonde self and 15 Spanish speaking guys, from all over Spain and Mexico. Fortunately, I happen to speak Spanish, so we got along swimmingly. 

Also, traveling alone has taught me how to pick up women. I met two girls my age during a walking tour, Meitao and Arenike. Meitao was Chinese and Arenike was Nigerian, but they were both from London. Together, the three of us were literally the poster women for diversity in Budapest, and turned a few heads when we went out that night. Mostly due to confusion, though. 

One of the coolest things about Budapest was ruin pubs, which are unique to the city. They’re essentially abandoned buildings and warehouses, filled with broken furniture and confusing art (think owl heads on naked women’s bodies.) Let’s just say that when a bar has 26 rooms, leaving before 6 am is not an option. Fun was certainly had. 

I spent my entire last day at the infamous Hungarian baths, bathing in the city’s thermal pool with a herd of Hungarians and tourists alike. It was a cool immersion into Hungarian bath cultural, and a glorious way to spend a 100 degree day. 

Overall, my spontaneous weeklong trip was loads of fun, from eating Sachertorte in Vienna, to leaving the pubs at daybreak with new friends in Budapest.

Now back to Poland we go! 

  

Selfies in Vienna

  

On Traveling Alone

I’ve come across many people who are in absolute awe that I, as a young, fairly small, blonde female, travel alone. “How very brave!” they say. Or, “aren’t you afraid?” they ask. I don’t really get it. I don’t think traveling alone is particularly brave, and I don’t really see why I should be afraid. 

I want to go places. Sometimes there is no one else to go with. So I go solo.

 That’s all there is to it. 

I don’t find traveling alone daunting or because I am very comfortable with myself. Also, I find it easy to connect with others along the way, and my language capabilities combined with my solid sense of direction make me feel very safe in new cities.

I traveled Italy alone for ten days, I sign up for races alone, I take myself out to eat. I happen to think that spending time alone, really just means that you’re spending time with yourself. 

Besides, if you can’t keep yourself company, what makes you think you’re good company to anyone else?

It’s not always easy, to be honest; I’m not superwoman. Sometimes I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing and sometimes I get anxious when I have to take selfies for lack of a cameraman, or when I’m eating alone. But then, I either get over it or I find a solution. 

See, even when you’re traveling solo, you don’t have to be alone all the time. I have always met people along the way. Even the other day, here in Vienna, I spent the morning with a friend from Chicago who happened to be vacationing here with her parents.

Then in the evening, I met up with an Austrian girl, Lena, whom I met on couchsurfing.com and asked out to dinner. It’s fun to reach out to locals, and also have someone to eat with. Lena was super sweet, and entertained all my questions about Vienna and being Austrian, and we chatted about our travels and tales of creepy men. 

I’m not saying one is better than the other; I have enjoyed both traveling solo and traveling with friends and family. But, the beauty of traveling alone is that you get to set your own pace, do whatever you want and meet cool people while you’re doing it.

Now, please, go do something alone. 

Thanks, Lena!

Off Again

One foot out the door. One foot at the train station. On foot on the train. One foot in Vienna.

Okay, so I got restless. I got restless and I grabbed my Nikon and threw a few dresses in a backpack, since that’s really all I wear, and I bought a one way ticket to Vienna. 

I took a night train, an old stuffy Polish sleeper train, which reminded me of communism. Even I don’t know what that means, but it just had this old fashioned communistic vibe. 

My sleeping bunk neighbor was Bernadetta, a lovely polish violinist, who lived in Salzburg, the city of Mozart. She was the most animated woman I’ve ever met, and literally seemed as though she might explode from joy at ever word I said. She made a wonderful start to my stay in Austria, that’s for sure. 

On a friend’s recommendation I tried checking out Couchsurfing.com, a super cool travel portal where you can find locals in other cities that you can crash with for free. 

Unfortunately, all of the cool people I wanted to stay with were either out of town, or already had guests. Which is fair, considering my request was ridiculously last minute, I was literally asking people if I could stay over tomorrow. However, upon making my trip public, meaning other hosts on the site saw that I was visiting Vienna, my inbox was flooded with invitations from many kind men, of all ages, very willing to offer me a bed. Things got really weird, really fast. 

Needless to say, I declined and decided against couch surfing Vienna.

Does that mean I’ll never use couchsurfing? Absolutely not. My experience was a last minute thrown together effort and in no way exemplifies the website. I would love to give it another try and find some cool locals to hang out with! In fact, I got a reply from a really cool lady today to crash with her, but I had already arranged accommodations by the time I saw her response. Maybe next time I ought to send requests at least a week in advance, yeah? 

Anyways. That’s that and here I am. In Vienna. I’ve already been to Vienna, once, when I was a child. But I thought it would be lovely to go back. And it is. This is lovely. 

Home sweet home for the night?

Sevilla and Bull

Here I am in Seville, marveling at the Moor influenced architecture, hopping from one tapas bar to the next and touring the city by horse drawn carriage, with a glass of white wine in my hand.

My adventure seems to be never ending, which is a good thing, of course, because the idea of leaving Spain is quite daunting. I’m at the point where I prefer speaking Spanish over English, eating dinner any time before 10 p.m. seems odd and “vale,” the Spanish equivalent of “okay,” has become an integrated part of my vocabulary. I’m making the most of the time I have left in the land of red wine and siestas and exploring the rest of this spectacular country.

Sevilla is a special kind of city; it beats with passion, and breathes fire.

The former because it pulses with the sensual movements of flamenco, the strum of a Spanish guitar and the valor of a bullfighter. The latter, because it’s hot.

Real hot.

Today was about 106 degrees. That’s 41 degrees for any of my friends who don’t live in the five countries in this world that use Fahrenheit.

Regardless, my companions and I visited Plaza de Toro today, the oldest bullfighting ring in the world, where I discovered  the fascinating world of bullfighting.

Although controversial, bullfighting is an art form, as well as a magnificent display of Spanish culture.

Hemingway, my main man, once said, “Bullfighting is the only art in which the artist is in danger of death and in which the degree of brilliance in the performance is left to the fighter’s honour.”

You see, a bullfighter enters the ring fully knowing that they may die that day. They put their lives in the hand of fate and say a quick prayer, which I assume goes a little like, “Dear God, please just not a major artery today.”

All jokes aside, fear is a fascinating topic. Are these bullfighters fearless, or are they fully afraid? 

To be fully afraid and to go in the direction of your fear is a very brave thing to do. I believe that being fearless is easy; when we acknowledge our fears and charge towards them like a matador against a bull, that’s the moment we discover our true courage.

Maybe we should all be a little more like bullfighters.  

Colors of Sevilla, beautifully reflected in the ring
 

Not Ours to Keep

I’ve made a lot of close friends on the Camino, which called for some hard goodbyes. It all seemed rather unfair, to be blessed with wonderful new friends, yet have to part with them after only a few weeks, fulling knowing some of us may never see each other again. But, truth is, that’s life and there is a lesson in that.

People will pass through our lives. Some linger for a moment like a neighbor dropping in for tea, some weave in and out like race cars through traffic, and some are always there quietly in the background like music in a cafe. The form their presence takes does not matter. The important thing is that they are in our lives in the precise moment they are suppose to be.

I’ve spent the last three weeks of the Camino being an adopted daughter to a retired Swiss man, who never had a child of his own, and confiding in a new big sister, an Australian yogi who sold all her things to travel the world. These were just two, among the many incredible people, who touched my life during the Camino, and for whom I will forever be grateful for.

There are certain things that simply aren’t ours to decide. Our mothers and fathers will pass on one day, our brothers and sisters may move away and our friends may become distant, engrossed in the direction of their own lives.

The people we love are here in this moment; they are not ours to keep. With that said, the best we can do is love the shit out of them right now.

Barcelona, Mexico, Australia, Germany, Switzerland and USA!

Day 12: My Spanish Mother 

My roommate in Barcelona is from Ponferrada, in the north of Spain, so when I told her that I was going to do the Camino, she made it clear that a stop at her parents’ house was mandatory. 
I arrived Wednesday morning, hungry, tired, soaked by the rain and with a few ugly infections on my toes. 

Within an hour, Laura’s mother, Rosa, had me fed and showered. She did all my laundry, anointed all my wounds and put me down for a nap. I was home. 

Mothers are basically the best kind of people because they will love you unconditionally from the moment you step into their lives, regardless if they’re actually your mother or not. 

I only intended on spending one night there, but stayed an extra day because Rosa insisted. She took me shopping for hiking sandals, took me to a community theater production and showed me her city and a few other towns. Both evenings I was there, I would relax on the couch while Rosa held vigil over my wrecked feet, applying ointments and having me soak them, changing the water as soon as it got chilly.

We even picked up her girlfriends one evening and I went out for beverages and gossiping with three 50 year old Spanish women. If that doesn’t prove language proficiency, I don’t know what does. 

On top of that she took me to an evening talk at the local pharmacy about protecting your skin from the sun, because her friend was hosting it. I wasn’t quite sure why I was sitting in a roomful of Spaniards two or three times my age, listening to a woman speak about sunscreen in a little suburb in the north of Spain on a Thursday night, but somehow I was there and it was nice. 

Over dinner, delicious homegrown peppers and their own chicken, Laura’s parents adorably tried to convince me to stay the entire weekend, and it broke my heart to have to decline. As much as they had helped me, I think I had helped them, too. They were happy to have their home filled again with a daughter, and I could tell they didn’t want the feeling to go away. Part of me doesn’t want to leave, because it feels so nice to be taken care of again. But, alas, the show must go on. 

I am forever grateful for their kindness and hospitality, and I know another visit will be in order when I do the Camino again. 

Dinner with Tito and Rosa

Day 10: How Far We’ve Come

Days 5-8 were my rest days in León and they were full of some great conversations; the kind of conversations that happen a bottle of red wine in, when you and a stranger both let your guard down and you talk about your mothers and your fathers and your brothers, and men and mistakes and regrets and God. León not only rested my body, but also my soul. 

The 9th day of my camino was physically tough. Nadja and I left León late, because our bed was too comfortable, and we had to walk in the full sun for 37 kilometers, or about 23 miles. I thought I wouldn’t make it, but ibuprofen and a bottle of wine does wonders. Actually, I wouldn’t recommend that in real life, but here two ibuprofen and a bottle of wine is basically lunch.

Today was day 10, and frankly I’m still struggling with blisters. I have tried everything from double socks to Vaseline to wearing my Nikes. I even shipped my backpack to my destination today to lighten the weight on my feet. I’m tired of having to sew through my skin every night with a needle and thread to drain new blisters. Side note, it is as awful as it sounds. 

However, there is always a bright side: I now know how to say blister, needle and thread in Spanish. 

The only thing to do is keep on keeping on, which is what I will do, because as much pain as I am in, it’s worth it. Every day I learn something new. Every day something or some one inspires me. 

Also, I’ve earned a new reputation here, and I’ve learned that people somewhat admire me.

I am the girl that always smiles, no matter what. 

I rather like that. 

Blister approach number 17

On Getting into Cars with Strangers 

When telling the story of how I had to take a break because of my wounds, I brushed over how exactly I got myself from the small town of to the city of León. I’m coming back to it because, well, it’s quite funny if I say so myself. 

The nearest town that I limped my way to, was small and didn’t have transportation to the city, so I had to take a taxi to Sahagún, one town over. The “taxi” was really just some guy with a car who didn’t have much to do that morning and offered to drive me for 20€.
His name was Roberto, and he himself had done the Camino six times. He spoke to me reassuringly, telling me that I was going to be okay, complimenting me on my Spanish and saying that I radiated positive energy-probably the best compliment I had ever received. 

He dropped me off at the train station, but the next train wasn’t for another five hours. I couldn’t risk leaving my skin festering in gauze and tape for that long so I limped through town looking hoping to find a bus. 
A blonde wearing a neon yellow jacket limping through a small Spanish town at eight in the morning isn’t the most common sight, so within minutes I had a few people ask if I was alright. 
One of these people, was a man making dairy deliveries off a big Presidenté truck. He asked if I was doing okay, and I asked if he was going to León by chance. He wasn’t, but he was going to Mansilla de las Molas, which was only a short cab ride away from the city. 

That was good enough for me, so I hopped into the cab of his truck. 

Xavi, the driver, took me on two more deliveries that were on the way, but I didn’t mind. I was going to get to the city much earlier than a train would have gotten me there, anyways. 

I was dozing off the entire ride, but I knew better than to fall asleep. Xavi was getting touchy with me and I didn’t trust him. When we finally arrived in town and I spotted a taxi, he opened the back of his truck and I noticed that Xavi put my backpack in the end of the truck, meaning I would have to enter the cooler truck. He asked me to hop in, so that I could “see how cold it was inside.”

Now, I may get into cars with strangers, but I’m not about to hop into the back of a freezer truck, which conveniently was soundproof and locked from the outside.

I stood my ground and asked him to retrieve my backpack for me, because I was too tired for this man’s bullshit. And, I really don’t have the time to be kidnapped.

Xavi finally gave up and, seemingly defeated, gave me my backpack and I scurried off on my merry way in the direction of León.

Sometimes you do what you have to do, to get where you need to go. But I really ought to stop getting into cars with strangers, yeah?

My “please dont kill me” smile

Day 4: Limits

Peter, Nadja and I began our day at three in the morning, so that we could walk in the light of the full moon. It was quiet and dark, and beautiful. We ran into a group that was doing the same, but was resting at the side of the road, and picked up Austin who was eager to keep walking. 

After 17 kilometers, around 6 in the morning once the sun had risen, I felt a sharp pain and knew the skin on my left pinky toe had finally given out. I hesitated to say anything, thinking that if I kept walking, the pain would magically go away. 

It didn’t, so I asked everyone to go on without me while I checked out my foot. Peter was the first to firmly say, “I’m staying here with you,” and Austin, who had only known me a few hours, and Nadja joined, as if it were silly of me to think they would have done otherwise. I sat down on my mat and rolled off my sock. The bandage I had on my toe has slid off to reveal that the skin on my entire pinky toe was missing, and completely raw. Peter and Nadja looked over, and said what we were all thinking, but I did not want to admit. 

I had to stop. 

I began fighting tears, because I was so determined to walk nonstop. That’s not what the Camino is about, though. People take days, or even a week off. They catch buses to the next town if they’re tired, or if it’s a particularly boring stretch between two towns. The Camino is something you do at your own pace, and taking breaks is normal. But, it was my pride that was giving me trouble. Somehow, not walking a few days felt like failing. 

Nadja sat next to me and told me a Nepalese story: 

There was an old man who had a horse on his farm, his only source of income. One day, the horse ran away through a whole in the fence. The villagers all said to him, “what bad luck!” 

The old man only replied, “Good luck, bad luck. Who can tell?”

One morning, five wild horse appeared in the yard, having entered through the whole in the fence. The villagers all said to the man, “What good luck!”

Once again, the old man replied, “Good luck, bad luck. Who can tell?”

That week his son was taming the new horses and fell off, breaking his leg. The villagers all said, “What bad luck!” 

And the man replied, “Good luck, bad luck. Who can tell?”

A month later a war broke out and the government took all the able-bodied young men from the village, leaving only the farmer’s son because of his broken leg. The villagers all said to the man, “What good luck!” 

And finally, the man once again replied: 

“Good luck, bad luck. Who can tell?”

Nadja reminded me that everything happens for a reason. I couldn’t hold back my tears anymore because I knew she was right. The best thing for me to do was to go to León, the next large city, to rest and heal. Aside from the pain I was in, I was at risk of getting an infection, and limping could lead to knee pain, as well. I didn’t need a rest day, but my body did. Seeing that the two were connected, I needed to put my pride aside and take care of myself. 

I wrapped my toe up in gauze and tape, put my boots back on and slowly began walking. Austin carried my backpack for me, without me even asking him to. Peter gave me his arm and held on to me as I limped along another half a mile into the next town from where I made my way to León, where I am resting now.

I learned that I am not superhuman, and that is okay. I have limits; limits that I have never before reached, and by that reasoning I thought they did not exist. But I hit my limit and it was an amazing and eye opening experience. 

I saw just how far I can push myself both physically and mentally. I walked for 17 kilometers, over 10 miles, with injuries I had already had and felt with every step. In retrospect, it was silly of me, but that’s something I’m working on: knowing that it’s okay to stop and say I have reached my limit.

Everything happens for a reason. What happened was unfortunate, but now I get to hang out next to a gorgeous monastery for a few days, drinking wine and writing. How very lucky I am, indeed. 

My wounds are healing nicely and I’ll be back in my boots in a few days.

I am not done. 

The sun rising , long after we had already begun our day.