Between March and April, we had a 2 weeks holiday in Malaysia with my brother Johann, and both of us were keen on taking loads of pictures. My brother had a new camera, a set of lenses and a new passion. I was happy to have my own photographer to model for my Instagram feed.
Unfortunately, neither of us have training in modelling, nor in photography, which resulted in some hilariously failed pictures.
1- When there was a water drop on the GoPro
We loved taking plenty of pictures with the GoPro; unfortunately the housing has a micro-scratch attracting a droplet of water that usually ended up covering my face.
2- All the times we wanted to look like models but ended up playing it stupid
I realised that I got more engagement on my Instagram posts if I was in the picture. I also realised that I have no idea how to pose seriously.
3- When my brother was too white
4- When the camera wasn’t in focus
We took plenty of lovely pictures of us together, the kind of picture my mom would do everything to get hold on… if only we weren’t that blurry.
5- When the weather failed us
That actually happened almost every day, but sometimes it was more upsetting.
6- When Johann destroyed the street art
7- When we weren’t in the frame
8- When we forgot which way gravity goes
9- When I forgot about my knee injury and tried to do a yoga pose
Yoga poses always look good right? Ah yeah but with an injured knee it’s not that easy to stand in tree pose, or any pose for the matter.
10- When we forgot to take our goggles off
We totally failed as beach bums. Out of 5 days at the beach we lay down our towels and ourselves on the top only once, and we both got sunburnt. The other days, we went swimming a couple of lengths in the sea, overheated, and went back to rest in our AC dorm.
We learn from our mistakes right? These fails are not that bad, most of them remind me how much fun we had and I would actually consider them as pretty good pictures! Eventually, we got quite a few very good pictures that would make my mum proud!
I have arrived in New Zealand! As I already visited quite a bit of North Island on my last visit 2 years ago, and I wanted to meet my two new baby cousins, I planned to go straight to Taranaki to visit my family.
Unfortunately, I was landing late in Auckland so a short stay there was kind of unavoidable. I also hoped to get some administrative thingies done in the city. I found a hostel conveniently located with a spa pool on the roof and enjoyed my couple of days in the biggest city of the country.
Public transportation may be efficient and available in New Zealand, it is pretty expensive. On a tight budget of 40 dollars a day, I “couldn’t” afford to take buses too often.I’m saying “couldn’t” like this because obviously my bank account states that I can totally buy these bus tickets, but my budget-backpacker mind states otherwise. So if I can find a way round these expensive bus rides, I’ll pick that!
From Auckland Airport to City Centre
As advised in the Hitchwiki website, Instead of paying the nearly 20 dollars ride to the city centre, I walked from the airport to the nearest gas station to try to find a ride to the city centre. Luckily, before I even asked anyone, an employee had given me directions to a cheaper way to the city, and a woman waiting for her husband offered my a ride! Moreover, she offered my to stay at her place in Tauranga if I ever wanted to visit. Sweet!
From Auckland to Taranaki
Here we go! I definitely didn’t want to pay the 50 dollar bus ride from Auckland to Taranaki and spend 6 hours on a boring bus. But getting out of Auckland sounded like quite huge challenge!
At 8:45, I walked out of my hostel onto Queen Street, and walked all the way to the end of Hobson street leading to the highway. I was still on crutches for support, after my knee injury I still had some trouble walking with the heavy load of my backpack. Somehow, I had entered New Zealand with a light backpack (13kg!) but when I departed from my hostel it felt like someone had put bricks in it.
Ride 1: Out of Auckland
(waiting time: 1 hour)
The spot I had was not good. In between the two last traffic lights before the highway, most cars would be speeding too fast to read my tiny watercolour-painted “Taranaki” sign. Although there were some convenient parking spots, nobody seemed to be able to stop for me.
I was beneath a hostel’s windows, and one of the staff members, a German called Matthew, came to offer me some encouragement and a cup of coffee, and also offered to pray for my knee. Thank you Matthew!
I tried going at the last traffic light, but people who stopped didn’t want to offer me a ride, and those in the back of the line couldn’t see me, especially that there were a lot of buses. So I reverted to my previous spot in the middle of the lane.
After about an hour, a lady pulled aside but told me she couldn’t offer me a ride. As I was thinking to take a bus to get out of the city, I asked her if she could give me some advice about public transportation. After looking up something on her phone, she told me “actually, I know a very good spot where you should be, I’d love to drive you but I have a meeting and don’t have enough time”. Then she called her friend she was supposed to meet, rescheduled and drove me to the spot quite a bit further south on the highway!
She was a single mom and screenwriter who loved travelling in Europe, and had had a difficult divorce which restrained her son to the country, so she couldn’t travel with him until he reached the age of 16. She would be welcome home whenever she can come to France!
Ride 2: Slightly out of Auckland to Bombay
(waiting time: 0 minutes)
I had barely got out of the car and walked to the highway entrance that a man called me over and offered me a ride out to Bombay, which is south of Auckland and apparently quite a good spot to get a ride!
This gardener was going on his last tree delivery of the day, and said he saw me with the backpack and the crutches and even though he wasn’t going far, he wanted to help me out!
Ride 3: From Bombay to Hamilton
(waiting time: approx. 20 minutes)
I remember this spot from hitching a ride from here 2 years ago, and I remember it as being quite a good spot! This time, I got less lucky: not much traffic was going on the highway. I refused a ride from a friendly guy going in further south but wasn’t sure about a good pick-up spot. Still, I didn’t have to wait too long until a Maori going to Hamilton called me over to offer me a ride.
He had recently lost his wife to cancer, and had taken up golf as a distraction and was driving to Hamilton to pick up some gear he had bought second hand online. He told me about his traditional Maori Ta Moko tattoos, representing his family on his right side and his wife’s family on the left side, with his son he lost to war on the shoulder. We had pleasant conversations during the ride, it was interesting to hear about the Maori traditions from a Maori himself!
I was afraid of getting stuck in another city, but if he dropped me before getting into Hamilton I would probably be able to get a ride further south. It turned out this friendly man knew the roads better than I did and dropped me on what he said was what used to be the main road from Auckland to New Plymouth. I felt less hopeful when I was left on the side of a road with nearly no traffic at all.
Ride 4: From Ngaruawahia to Whatawhata road
(waiting time: approx 40 minutes)
Now there’s some fun Maori names coming in! For my readers who aren’t familiar with Maori, the “ng” is pronounced like a nasal “N”, the “wh” is pronounced “F” and the “R”s are rolled. Here we go 🙂
Once my driver had gone off after offering some safety advice and wishing me a safe trip, a Maori lady pulled over to offer me some advice about where to stand and wished me a safe journey.
There was very little traffic, and as it was almost noon I had my lunch cooked the evening before. with my sigh tucked under my handbag’s strap. Before I could even start to feel desperate about the lack of traffic, an old couple pulled over. They were driving to Raglan, on the West coast, but could drop me on the main crossing going towards New Plymouth.
Ride 5: From Whatawhata road to New Plymouth… or maybe not!
(waiting time: 0 minutes)
I crossed the road and dropped my backpack. As soon as I stuck my thumb out, a car stopped!
This man was driving straight to New Plymouth, and was offering me to ride all the way with him. How lucky! He was originally from the Middle East but had lived in NZ and Aus for the last 10 years, and was now visiting family.
However, after an hour or so, the car started feeling quite wobbly. We stopped a couple of times to check the wheels, but then the car totally stopped. Damn it! My driver was going to wait for his friend to help him out, and I would try to get another ride!
Ride 6: From the Middle of Nowhere to the Middle of Nowhere, further South
(waiting time: 10 minutes)
I was in a bad spot: just after a hill and a curve, where cars would speed past me. Luckily, there was a farm entrance with some space to pull over, and I was able to stand safely at a distance from the road.
Before I could start to worry too much about my bad spot, a camping-car stopped over, and an enthusiastic old man pulled my backpack in his vehicle. He was employed to drive the car from Auckland to South Island. He expressed his strong opinions loudly on controversial subjects, and it was a fun ride!
Ride 7: From the Middle of Nowhere further South to New Plymouth!
(waiting time: 10 minutes)
I barely had enough time to take a couple of selfies before a black van stopped for me. A young Taranaki native on a sales trip to his home town welcomed me on the ride all the way to New Plymouth!
We had nice conversations about various subjects, and enjoyed the magnificent landscape surrounding us. Finally, I was reaching Taranaki!
We got in town before 5pm, so Auntie Donna was still at her workplace. By luck, we found ourselves driving straight past it so I could surprise her!
I had a very fun day and a smooth trip from Auckland to New Plymouth! All of this thanks to the kindness of strangers who helped me along the way.
If you want to do the same trip, or any other hitch-hiking trip, bear in mind that although New Zealand is a safe country, there are still some nutcases out there! I always picked up the number plate of the car and most of the time texted it straight away to my aunt with the destination and a description of the car and/or the driver. Before getting in a car, I always asked the driver’s destination, discussed the dropping point, and evaluated my trust in the stranger in the short conversation we had. I was always paying attention to the situation and was regularly tracking our ride on my GPS. Had I felt unsafe, I would not have gotten into the car, or I would have asked the driver to stop. Fortunately, I didn’t encounter this kind of situation. Safe travels!
The first time I heard about Vipassana, an intense 100 hours silent meditation retreat, I thought WHY THE HELL would you do that to yourself?! People must be crazy! Sit on your arse 10 hours a day during 10 days, WHY???
Then as I discovered meditation at the ashram and heard about near-sci-fi meditation stories from my friends, I told myself that I too wanted to get out of my body and meet the blue light and have sky rocketing meditations! Which is a great set of bad motivations to do meditation.
But then the more I thought about it, the more I thought of how it could help me in my life. First of all, if I could sit through 100 hours of meditation I might be able to sit through a 45 minutes lecture at uni while staying focused. Last time I was there there was a monkey running loose on my brain wrecking havoc and there was no way I could understand what was going on in class.
I had also set myself out here for a year to try to find myself, so sitting 100 hours with this person sounded like a huge potential progression in my quest.
As I regularly practised Amrita I am meditation during my stay in Amritapuri, India, I realised how it helped me focus and quiet my mind (and some times encounter cool things in my brain).
So I looked it up, did loads of research, and finally decided to sign up. I planned to attend the course in India, but suddenly taking 10 days out of my 2 months there seemed like too much and didn’t fit in my schedule. Vipassana retreats are held in centres all around the world, and all follow the same strict schedule. I made the choice to attend the course in Nepal, and decided on the Pokhara centre, located above a lake with a view on the Annapurna mountain range. I was very happy with my choice! It was a small and nice centre, with only about 15 students of each gender as opposed to most centres which host several dozens of students.
So, was it hard?
To be honest, I had mentally prepared myself to be so beaten down by the hardships of sitting 10 hours a day that it came out easier than I had imagined. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying it was easy, far from that.
But I seriously imagined it would be The Hardest Thing I’ve Ever Done (like many students reported) and that every single cell of my body would be screaming FUCK THAT SHIT and trying to run away that when I realised I wanted to stay and enjoyed the teaching I was quite surprised at myself. “You?!” *suspicious introspective looks* and I went through it. It was not an easy ride. There was pain. There was Explosive Diarrhea. There was no hot water. There were freezing nights. There was the 4am wake up gong. But I made it. Without ever trying to run away!
To compare the experience with my exam study sessions, or other very stressful moments of my life (like managing an international open source project, uni projects, my teaching job and some technical writing gigs and still having to organise my birthday party), this one was “easier”. In other moments where I was under pressure, the stakes were high: my education, my job, a good salary. And there was no way I could escape with a nope card.
These days I’m talking about, I had so much to do and yet couldn’t focus on anything, was lacking tons of sleep and still had to bear important responsibilities. I dreaded every single waking moment, trying to procrastinate my way through it and making everything more urgent and just wanted to crawl in my bed and hide until it was over. But there was no way of escaping these moments, I had not only to go through them, but also be serious enough to get good results. There moments were HARD.
Here, it was different. I had signed up for this, after thoroughly studying the deal and the outcomes. And even though at that point I did want to stick through it and had signed a paper saying I will stay for the entire duration of the course and given up my passport, I still knew that there was an escape door if I REALLY wanted/needed to escape.
But hey, when the teacher says you’re learning the technique that the Buddha used to become enlightened and that you could get rid of human misery, that sounds like a cool thing to stick to right?
There were many moments where I wanted the meditation session to be over, where I wanted to run away from my meditation cushion or just give in to my thoughts. Sometimes I did walk up and go for a walk outside. But I always came back.
What about the pain? Did it hurt?
But at some point you understand that it is exactly the point of this meditation technique.
“now can you show me where it hurts? […] now I’ve got this feeling once again [….] and I’ve become comfortably numb” this song got me through the meditation retreat
The first 3 days were the worse pain-wise: the exercise was to observe our breath through narrowed sensory patches, and with nothing else to do of course it was easier to think about every part of the body that hurt. Observing the breath is BORING.
Eyes closed, during meditation, you could hear the entire class shifting, moving around, scratching, stretching and trying to find a more comfortable position. At breaks, everyone would be stretching, pacing the path and walking up and down stairs to get our joints moving. You could almost smell the pain in the air.
Once we were taught the Vipassana technique itself, which is basically body scans from head to toe, my mind was very happy for half a day! A task! Something to do! Something less boring than Observing The Breath!
Unfortunately the excitement of discovery didn’t last and I soon got list into my thoughts once again, but there was something cool to come back to.
The point of these body scans is to analyse sensations on every single part of the body, and to observe them with equanimity. “This too will change”. Annicheee. Annicheee. Annicheee. (inside joke for fellow meditators). So pleasant feelings shall not be craved, and unpleasant sensations should not be considered with hatred and rejection. Every sensation experienced is impermanent.
Of course, in the beginning, you only feel pain. Pain. Pain. Pain.
You feel it, then you get to analyse it. Where it is exactly located, how far does it extend, and let me see how long it lasts?
Yup, I’m a tough one.
I had a series of sharp points in my upper back, exclusively on the right side, that I was working on during every single vipassana session. If there’s any Chinese Medicine guru or otherwise knowledgeable person out there who knows what it could mean let me know!
At some point I was prodding the “gross sensations” from my back with an imaginary meditation finger and was nearly playing whack-a-mole, chasing the pain across my back!
I also had the really cool experience of having my period and being able to fully follow the coming and going of a cramp, starting from upper left, moving sharply to the right then back to the centre again. Sweet.
The day vipassana was taught, we were also told to meditate with “Strong Determination”. That meant that we shouldn’t move AT ALL during the full hour of the sitting. I made it through a few of those, wiggled my toes through others and mostly pretended that adjusting my spine was not moving. Well it does give you another perspective on pain!
When I first decided to sign up for vipassana, I was terrified of the physical pain. I had a scoliosis with unbearable lower back pain for the past 4 years at uni, and figured out that if I had to sit in class for more than 24 hours a week I would suffer a lot and need physiotherapy to get through the pain, but if I sat down less and on a yoga ball or air cushion, while doing more standing and moving activities with extra sports I could almost have a normal life.
So sitting for 100 hours in 10 days basically scared the shit out of me. Until I realised on day zero that sometimes, at uni, I did have 8 hours of class a day AND would be on my arse another big amount of hours before project deadlines and other moment like that. Yes, I could do it! And I’m definitely more comfortable sitting cross legged than in a chair!
The impressive thing here is that I had NO lower back pain. Only a slight hint that always comes along with my period, but nothing like the I-just-want-to-roll-in-foetus-position-and-die kind of pain I was used to and feared. Yay!
Other meditators shared similar experiences: one girl had a knee issue that causes her knees to swell up if she keeps them bended for an extending period of time. She didn’t have any swelling! One more also had a form of chronic back pain but no occurrence during the retreat.
“Observe your diarrhoea with equanimity”
Vipassana wasn’t as hard as I expected, so logically I had to be extra-challenged. What about diarrhoea?
I had the first symptoms on day 5, and by the end of the day I felt like there was a witch brewing some very bubbly toxic potion in my belly. It felt horrible, I needed to go to the bathroom at least every hour and was so tired I kept nodding off in meditation.
I asked the server (meditation helpers) if there was any way to see a doctor if it doesn’t get better. She told me to talk to the course teacher, who in turn advised me to watch my diarrhoea with impermanence. I nearly cried.
A hand written note from my father in my pharmacy comforted me a bit. After getting some anti acidity pills and going through an entire strip of immodium pills my digestive issues almost became manageable.
Bean soup for breakfast was probably not the best idea, and from then I decided to eat mostly plain rice and I wouldn’t even be excited by the meal breaks anymore. 4 more days to go…
One evening, at tea, I managed to (un-purposefully) trick the server: she saw my orange and apples and asked if my stomach was better and why I wasn’t eating my fruit. I had eaten my orange but peeled it in a nearly perfect way to reconstruct the empty fruit! Haha.
The monkey in my mind
One day, there were monkeys jumping all around the centre, they even woke us up by running on out roof!
These monkeys outside were appealing to my monkey inside. The same day, the teacher had requested us to deepen the focus of our practice by not looking around and admiring the landscape anymore. These monkeys were a challenge.
On the first three days, I felt like a toddler petting a cat. Pat pat pat. Oh, it’s gone, come back here! Pat pat pat. Oh, it’s gone, come back here!
That was also a fact to notice with impermanence: “oh, the mind has wandered off!”, without any resentment, we had to come back to our breathing.
On day 4, when we were taught the Vipassana technique, I had a few wonderful sessions. With the novelty of the practice I was entirely focused on my body scans, and entered what I called The Flow. My mind didn’t wander off and I could actually feel the sensation exactly where I focused, an amazing sensation!
But then I got sick and unfocused, but I did get back in The Flow in a few focused sessions, when we had gotten even deeper in the practice.
My brain got better at multitasking, or rather pretending to be doing a proper body scan while thinking about something else. Then I got all confused and realised I hadn’t even paid attention to the sensations. Hmm.
Endless conversations with myself
So in all these mind wandering sessions, what did I think about? First of all I learnt that I would never run out of conversation subjects with myself! I’m such a cool company to me!
I thought about massive veggie burgers and nachos, about my mum’s cooking, and how to veganise some recipes. You might have realised that I’m not much of a fashion follower but I kept having ideas for designing beautiful dresses and skirts. I thought about the trekking equipment I’ll need to pack, I thought about the girls I have kissed and I thought a lot about the MASSIVE party I’ll throw once I come back home (actually I spent hours and hours planning out that one, from the food to the guests and the photography exhibition). I thought about the stuff I have at home I want to get rid of.
I had an amazing scenario rolling out when I felt sharp pain in my chest and pictured myself being flown out into Mumbai to get an emergency operation and my parents struggling to get a visa to come and see me.
One other day I had the idea for the book I’m going to write (because apparently this was a thing I wanted to do right away) and the whole story just started writing itself in my mind and I couldn’t shut it off!
As the teacher said it was all either craving or aversion, future or past. That’s how we can label our thought patterns.
They did evolve over the week though and when I had enough of one subject my mind just switched on to the other.
My mind is such a chatterbox that this silent retreat didn’t feel silent at all! I was talking all the time, though only to myself.
And another cool thing was the discourses in the evening. They played a recording of the teacher speaking about our daily practice with loads of funny stories and always cracking up jokes that would make us all laugh. We all looked forward to the evening discourse!
Wait, what are you guru doing on a tiny cloud?!
Sometimes, especially in the beginning, I caught myself in a dream-like state probably on the borderline between meditation and sleep. A little guru was sitting right there on my shoulder or never too far from my face giving me instructions on what to do in my meditation. Suddenly, I would realise and scream in outrage (in my head) “Heeeeey what are you doing here?! You’re not even real!”. Who knows, maybe he was!
Oh those vivid night dreams! I had a dream where we were on the bank of a river, and a wave was coming from the hill above. I grabbed the kid sitting next to me and pulled him to safety, and later on talked to the husband of the woman who was sitting next to me and died in the event but it wasn’t even sad.
I dreamt of meeting a person working on my Ricycle project back in India.
But most of all, the day dreams/memories were WEIRD. I have up to 5 memories of dreams I had had years ago coming up every hour. Dreams that I didn’t even knew I remembered. So many of them! And most of the times, I could connect these dreams to known locations that didn’t connect at the time of the dream.
The food and sleep and cold showers
How did I deal with not having a proper evening meal, waking up at 4am and not having a hot shower in 10 days?
Well I wouldn’t say it was enjoyable… But I realised that if we switched breakfast (bean soup, pasta or porridge) and tea (fruits with rice crispies), ironically, it almost made the meals seem normal.
The breakfast was filling and I often over-ate and felt bad about it. If you have the chance to try popcorn with porridge it’s surprisingly good. Lunch was dhal baat, the traditional Nepali meal which I grew very sick of when I couldn’t eat most of it. And as said above tea was a few pieces of fruits with rice crispies.
It took us a few days to adapt but I went along with it surprisingly well, as long as we had 2 small bananas at tea. With other fruits I would get hungry in the evening.
But still, that orchestra of empty stomachs crying for food in the morning!
Waking up at 4 was also surprisingly okay, except that I would have a super hard time focusing on the morning meditation. I always expected the chanting to start signaling the near end of the session but would always regret the feeling as soon as the chanting started. Let’s just say he’s not the best singer I’ve listened to.
I took a nap after breakfast, then another long nap after lunch. Meditate, Eat, Sleep, repeat!
If I didn’t follow that schedule I would definitely nod off during the meditation sessions.
And the showers… Let’s just not talk about it…
The feeling of having super powers
The cool thing about Vipassana is that you build the capability to feel sensations on every part of your body! I love scanning the outer rims of my ears, and each individual toe. Okay maybe it’s not the best super power ever but the teacher said that next level is scanning inside your body (I’m not there yet!) until you DISSOLVE YOUR BODY!
And then I say “I want to do that!” and it’s craving and I’ve lost the purpose of my practice. Damn.
Coming back to speaking on day 10 felt awkward and exciting. When I walked out of the hall and saw another girl, we looked at each other in the eyes and smiled and it was beautiful.
During 10 not only we weren’t allowed any kind of verbal communication, but all sorts of non-verbal communication were also prohibited. No signing, no eye contact, no physical contact. It was amazing to simply be able to smile to people again.
Talking gave me a buzz, and I felt it totally drained my energy and I felt I was almost about to faint. I could feel the noise in my ears. Luckily we still had a few meditation sessions to give our ears some rest.
And then on day 10 we came out into the real world and more, it was Holi! And then you can read about that and my first vipassana “proof” in my article about Pokhara.
Ah Nepal! High Mountain ranges snow, trekking… What a dream right? Well Nepal had a whole different set of plans for me!
I arrived into Nepal to realise, once I had crossed the border, that I had forgotten my ukulele on the bus in India. Shit. Detachment, one of the lessons taught by the Buddha, which almost sounded like an ironic reminder a couple of days before starting my vipassana meditation retreat.
My other gift from India was an upset stomach, I didn’t feel like eating too much food and felt like sleeping a lot, so that’s exactly what I did.
I successfully completed my 10 days of silent mediation retreat, sitting 10 hours a day in meditation, with no hot water to take a shower. What a challenge! As if it wasn’t already hard enough, I got hit hard on day 5 by diarrhea and a very upset stomach that felt like witchcraft was going on in there.
But I made it! Without even trying to escape!
As a reintroduction to the “real world”, the day we got out of meditation was Holi, the Hindu festival of colours! Of course we wanted to celebrate, and with my new vipassana friends we set out armed with bright colours powders and started painting each other’s faces. We took special care of my friend’s and my own blond hair that were perfect canvases for mixing colours.
The streets were loud and crowded, and it gave me a buzz to have so much contact with people after 10 days with none!
When I first entered a dancing crowd, I felt people moving around respecting other people’s body spaces as much as possible. But later on in the streets, I got a few butt and boob brushes that I couldn’t identify, and even a few butt grabs that were seriously unpleasant and disrespectful, and if I couldn’t identify a potential harasser I would hit him back. Damn.
But the real shit happened when a young man walking towards with his friends me grabbed my breast. Totally. In shock and angry, I turned around to stop him, but he pushed me violently to the ground and ran away. I felt sharp pain in my knee, and noticed that a concrete block had drawn a deep cut on my knee. I sat down for a few minutes, trying to figure out what had just happened, when I noticed a girl walking up to us nursing her breasts. “Did you also get that boob grab?” I ask her, and she nods. Yes. That man had ran off just to keep on attacking other women.
Suddenly I didn’t feel angry any more. I felt pity for that miserable person who didn’t know any better than grabbing women’s breasts on the streets, and I felt deep sadness for the girl who looked so hurt. Wherever she is I hope she is okay right now.
This is when I realised how powerful Vipassana had been. When, a few months ago, in India, someone had poked my butt in a crowd, I got so angry that I spend days and even weeks raging over the event. I felt desperate, angry, disrespected, hurt, and couldn’t get over the fact that this society often didn’t consider women as equal and I had been a victim.
But not this time. The attack had been far worse. Not a poke, a stranger had been holding my breast fully in his hand, on the street, without any invitation to do so. And then he pushed me to the ground and by the depth of the cut I knew it was badly damaged. But I didn’t feel angry. He can keep his own misery for himself, he will not make me miserable. I did feel sorrow for the other girl. And also for that poor guy. So miserable.
The women around helped me clean my wound, then my friend piggybacked me up the hill so I could reach our hotel. First mission: take a shower, second mission: clean and attend to the cut. Without putting holi colours in it if possible.
Experiencing the hospital in Pokhara
The following morning, when I tried to extract myself out of bed to go to the bathroom, I knew the situation was bad. I couldn’t bend my knee and could barely carry any weight on it. I decided to go to the hospital which was quite an interesting experience!
The landlady from our hotel insisted she come with me to the hospital: “If you go, you understand nothing. Difficult. If I come, easy.” Deal. So we take a taxi to reach Metro City hospital, where they unload me in a wheelchair. At that point, my knee was extremely painful, swollen, and I could barely bend it.
First thing I notice once in the wheelchair, is that the hospital is barely adapted to this form of transportation. There are doorways, small steps, steep inclines, which make the ride difficult and painful.
Once in a room, a women comes to me and introduces herself as doctor. She is not wearing a medical blouse nor a name tag. She says that if the pain is unbearable I can pay for emergency. When I ask her to explain what that means she says the doctor is not here, he will be available this afternoon and will have to see the wound and x-ray. But she can do a dressing and give me painkillers. I decide that I do not need this kind of service, so I am wheeled out of the room and my host goes to buy a “ticket” to see the doctor this afternoon. Then we buy some crutches. At least now I can walk around!
When we go back in the afternoon, I hobble to the doctors office. It is both a waiting room and office as the doctor sees the patient in front of everyone. If privacy is required, there is a bed hidden behind a curtain. My knee consultation is thus public. I am directed to the x-ray, then back to the doctor’s office.
At the x-ray, I feel really unsafe when the operator loosely covers my body with some protective wear, doubling it over my genitals and asking me to hold it close. I’m having my dose of radiation for a while I guess!
Good news: no broken bones! I get a new dressing, worse that what I would have done myself, then I get a knee brace. Now it is less painful to walk!
What to do with a wrecked leg in a tourist place
Everyday I looked with envy towards the sky, where multitudes of paragliders were hanging out enjoying the view on the Annapurna mountain range.
I spend hours at cafes and restaurants with my friends, enjoying a conversation with a cup of coffee and some warm sun.
Once my vipassana friends had gone, I didn’t have time to feel lonely: some magic appeared in the form of a small American dirt biker and her black Swedish friend.
“Hello Stranger! “
Sitting in a restaurant, waiting for my lunch, I observed a cool looking guy relaxing on the couch with his computer. Minutes later, with a cry of excitement, a girl runs in tapping her feet like and excited Japanese schoolgirl I am front of anything too Kawai.
I made up a scenario in my head where the girl had just rented her hiking equipment and was excited to join her friend for a hike. Not exactly right but it was a fun guess!
Before I even had my meal, the girl walked up to me: “Hey stranger! Would you like to join us?”. And suddenly I was part of the gang.
The two had big biking dreams, and planned to rent dirt bikes to ride up the mountains. During one week I had all the discussions of them making numerous plans, and eventually they did set off with an extended team on my last day in Pokhara!
The girl moved into my room, so the rent was really cheap. Three times cheaper than a bed in the dorm of most hostels! Plus we had our own private bathroom and space to make a mess, which is what I totally did.
During the week, various travellers momentarily joined us for a meal or more with the “Hello Stranger” technique. Pokhara was a friendly place and even striking up a conversation with a stranger on the street could lead you to hanging out together for the day!
Tibetan singing bowls sound bath at Nirvana
A vipassana friend had told us about some free sound bath sessions at a hidden rooftop place called Nirvana. Luckily, we ran into it while we were roaming the streets and we joined one of the “chakra healing” sessions.
After vipassana and my new-found skills to scan the sensations over my whole body, it was an overwhelming sensation to be immersed in the vibrations of the singing bowls. I could feel the vibration concentrating on the right side of my body, one the same spots where I would feel the pain during the meditation sessions.
I joined nearly every day and was welcomed as family, and could feel my body releasing in different ways during every session. Aju, one of the practitioners, paid extra attention to my knee and even did some hot water therapy. I think it did help!
Sick of it!
“What a good time she spent!” you must be thinking. Truth is, I got sick again. Or maybe the bugs never went away. Most of the days I spent in Pokhara, I still had that bad diarrhea, and even worse, I had no appetite at all.
I had been dreaming of veggie burgers, of nachos, of fruits during vipassana, but I could barely eat more than one meal a day at that time. As a consequence I was extremely weak and had to spend a lot of time sleeping or resting my body.
My knee was still hurting a lot and with basically one main street that I had walked very slowly dozens of times, Pokhara had kind of lost its charm to me.
In the depths if my despair, I had my father and pharmacist back home helping me out with the medical issues, and I got my greatest friends on a Skype call where we barely managed to see each other but I was super happy to hear them all excited on their skiing weekend, and it gave me the motivation to book my plane back home in June!
The challenges of staying in a place that does not have the word “accessibility” on their menu.
It could have been worse, but Pokhara is definitely not a place I would call “accessible”. There are sidewalks (unlike most of India) but they are often broken and blocked by roadworks or motorbikes.
There is steps to access almost every shop and restaurant, and even my bathroom had a high step to enter!
In these moments, you learn to be grateful for small things. For one, I was blessing the inventor of western toilets. Seriously, how do you do when you can’t bend your leg?!
By the end of the week I spent there, the cut was closing nicely and I could walk slowly without crutches and was also able to fold my knee a bit. Slowly getting better!
Here it is. After living and travelling nearly 6 months in this crazy country, I’m on my way to cross the border into Nepal.
Before leaving India I was of course over-excited about going to this country I had been dreaming about for such a long time, discovering the lush greenery of Kerala and it’s backwaters, and my internship in humanitarian engineering.
But I was also feeling anxious. A feeling I never really had in my previous years of travel. Why for India then? When I told people back home that I was going to India for an internship, I got two kind of reactions : excited screams of “oh wow that’s so awesome lucky you I want the same that’s so cool!” (mostly from young people and travellers) , or the rather scary “India?! Are you sure?! You’re going to get sick/raped/eve-teased/murdered/stolen… Really, India?! Take care, be careful, never go out on your own…” (mostly from people one generation above and/or who haven’t travelled much). So in my mind I was definitely from the first category of people: I’m going on an adventure! In India! Yaaaaaaaay! But that sticky feeling of going to a dangerous place was still lingering in a corner of my head, and reinforced by the staff from uni telling me it was SO dangerous to walk outside on my own, so imagine travelling!
Well guess what? I’m alive. And I’m doing good! I have only been sick once, and it was not that bad. Someone did touch my bottom on a totally unappropriate way in a crowd, and I hated it. I got some boob/bottom brushes “not on purpose”. But that happened to me and to friends in western counties too. I haven’t been raped or murdered, I’ve fallen in many minor tourist traps but have never lost more that a few euros or hours. I lost a few things but it was entirely my fault, nobody tried to rob me.
Most of the times I did feel safe walking in the streets on my own. I totally felt safe taking night trains and buses. I did many trips solo and stayed on my own in hotels, with no one intruding into my room.
For my safety in India I had to be more careful than back home, and I had to cover my body with far more layers of fabric than I would have done in the scorching heat. Sometimes I invested more money in a better hotel or in a higher class in the train. One day I even payed the hotel and walked out before sleeping there because I didn’t feel comfortable staying there. Most of the times I visited a few different hotels before settling down in the one that felt safest and most comfortable for my budget.
I ate street food (that was very tasty) and in local restaurants, being careful about washing my hands but closing my eyes on the kitchen’s hygiene. As a vegetarian, I never ate meat and if I weren’t vegetarian I would have rather not tried. I drank local “drinking water” and sometimes filtered it myself to avoid releasing plastic bottles in the environment.
I travelled mostly plastic-free, which wasn’t as difficult as I expected and the most responsible way to travel in my opinion in a country that has nearly no waste management facilities.
Sometimes I paid expensive private transportation to avoid being outside on my own in the dark. Sometimes I even did walk on my own at night, but because of knew the place, the atmosphere and felt safe.
Sometimes I did some stupid things that might be considered as dangerous. Like following strangers on the street, talking to people, walking on my own in dark alleys…
But here’s the thing. I didn’t feel physically threatened like I did taking the metro in Paris in the evening. I didn’t feel afraid for my belongings like in the bazars in China. I didn’t feel that people from the tourist industry, even though pushy and annoying, we’re going to rip me off as much as in China. I wasn’t scared of violence like in the streets in Brazil.
India has taught me so much about how to be myself. I had to fight every day for my personal space, I learned how to say no, I don’t feel guilty anymore walking out of a hotel or restaurant if I don’t like it too much. I had to be assertive. No I don’t want a selfie with you, no I don’t want to visit your shop, this price you’re calling is way too much and please let me just walk on my own. I learnt how to negotiate prices and be happy with the deal. I’ve learnt how to accept decisions that were probably not my favourite choice but best in terms of safety, money or planning.
India has shown me tolerance. In many places there were Hindus, Christians and Muslims all in the same places, temples just besides each other and women wearing headscarvesor hijab, men wearing kippas and turbans, and nobody cared about each other’s religion, they just asked by curiosity. Whatever you need to buy, you can get a good price if you know how much you want to pay. As for hotels, you call your price and it’s probably going to work out.
India is hectic but somehow flows. There’s no way to find the bus schedule but if you walk to the station your bus is just there and leaving in 5 minutes. The trains are almost always late and a mess to book but you can comfortably and very cheaply travel across the country while keeping a low carbon footprint. There’s no traffic rules but few traffic jams. The thing is to surrender and go with the flow. You can’t have a plan, India has a plan for you.
Actually I loved travelling India, both solo and with friends and my mom. I loved most of the places and moments. But sometimes I felt so overwhelmed by the noise, crowd, air pollution and dirt that I just wanted to curl up and cry in a comfortable place and run into the first plane back home. In Gujarat, out of the main tourist tracks, I was met with joy and curiosity, welcomed into homes for chai, protected by women who didn’t speak the same language… I learnt how to ride a scooter and it became normal to me to ride with a passenger on dirt tracks and dodging cows. I felt almost like a local wearing my shawl as a headscarf, wearing a saree or eating with my hands…
That is if you forget the huge blinking signboard above my head screaming out “TOURIST!!! PLEASE COME TALK TO ME”. Because as a solo women, blonde with blue eyes, I can try to fit in or hide as much as I can I will still be noticed from a distance. And drawing in crowds of people asking for selfies, my country, and my “good name”.
India is restless, India is tiring. They have a different approach to time and comfort. Here it is totally normal to leave or arrive at the railway station at 4am. People don’t mind sleeping on the ground in the middle of a busy street, they don’t mind having bananas for lunch. India taught me how to be flexible. Living outside of my comfort zone for 6 months has made me redefine my own definition of comfort.
There is one thing though that made me hate India. They might say they respect women “mothers and sisters” and blah blah blah but as a person? My social status is always questioned and defined by a man. Are you married? Why not? What does your father do? I felt strong inequalities in places local men claimed the opposite. I felt ignored and left aside in professional relationships. I felt sexualised in an absolutely disgusting way by insistent staring. I felt my freedom was robbed away from me when I had to cover all of my body in the ashram to respect the dress code while men not following it were not even frowned upon. I felt my freedom was stolen when I was walking on magnificent beaches and couldn’t swim because I knew it would draw a crowd to me. I felt exhausted by having to tell men ALL THE TIME that no I did not want a romantic or sexual relationship even though I’m single. I felt disrespected when Indian men kept sending me messages on social media to try to meet me saying I’m sexy. I felt disrespected when the male workers building my prototype didn’t even LOOK at me, let alone say hello or talk about my design. I felt disrespected when lines of men stood in front of us, or hid in the bushes at the beach to stare at us. I felt disrespected by the people sneaking pictures of me or shoving a phone in my face saying “one picture?”.
This was the most difficult and tiring part of my time in India. I felt it was easier when travelling with other people, especially with a man.
But I also felt complicity with the local women. When I was totally let down in the workshop, the Tamil women called me to sit down and have chai with them, even though we couldn’t speak the same language. Women always helped me fix my clothing, one lady even stopped another one in the street to pin Audrey’s saree! In the Muslim neighbourhoods I felt very safe and welcome, women smiling at me and protecting me from intrusive men if needed. I felt safe when I was travelling and staying in the ladies only waiting rooms or train wagons. I felt a kind of sisterhood taking care of me.
India, you have challenged me and left me in awe. You have destroyed many of my beliefs, you have been hard on my emotions. But most of all you have built me.
To all the people who told me I shouldn’t go or travel on my own, thank you for your concern, I have been well. I had to pay more attention to my safety, but I never felt dangerously threatened.
To my family and friends and everyone who supported me, thank you! I’m so glad I came here and travelled this country to explore myself.
To all the women who want to travel to India, do it. It is not an easy country, but it’s amazing. Take care, don’t mind spending some money on your safety and learn how to say no. And enjoy!