Sliding door moments.

You know, those moments that could go either way, in a split second. And then the way moments do go define what happens next and shapes your life. Life is full of them really, and I’ve always thought that it’s better to regret things that you’ve done, rather than things you haven’t done. I hate ‘what if’s’, I find them harder to deal with than the ‘oh fuck, why did I do that’s’. And I’ve got a few of them, believe me. But, they’re all life lessons. Even if they don’t always stop me sometimes making the same ‘oh fuck’ mistakes. Sigh. Anyway, I digress.

So yes, the sliding door moments. The blink-and-you’d-miss them moments, or the make-a-decision moments, or the right-place-right-time moments.

I’ve had a few of those too. I don’t mainly think about what would have happened if things had gone a different way, but this weekend I did. Because I realised that what I was doing was partly down to a sliding door moment. Mainly because the person I was doing it with was met in one of those moments.

Back in 2013 I met Vicki in a dingy hostel dorm in India, which in itself is a one-in-a-few moments because there aren’t that many hostels in India, it’s more guest houses where you don’t always get to mingle with other guests. So there I was, sat on my £1.20 a night damp bed with a barely-there mattress and a pillow you’d never want to take the case off, when Vicki swept in with with a tiny backpack, a northern accent and a massive smile. Over the next couple of days we went hiking, climbing about in waterfalls and ate forgotten birthday curry, and she told me about her plans to cycle the Manali to Leh highway. On her own, with no real plans as such and no bike as yet. I was amazed, inspired and in total fucking awe. That was some serious shit. Part of me wanted to do it with her, and part of me was glad I didn’t have the time, and part of me didn’t think I could anyway. That was what other people did, not me.

We kept in touch, and when I had moved onto China I was pleased to hear she had made it OK and had a sweet little adventure. I was blown away by her pictures and the stories of the ride. And so, a seed was sown. That was the moment that gave me the inspiration to bike round Tasmania. And after doing that, that’s when I knew I could do something like London to Paris earlier this year. And then, that’s when I knew I could cycle to Brighton with Vicki last weekend (we don’t just go to the pub for a catch up like most people, we go climb mountains or ride miles before hitting the pub).

If I had gone out for dinner back in Mcleodganj 10 minutes earlier, would we have met in the same way? Would we have hiked to the waterfall, or laughed at Richard Gere’s picture? If I hadn’t have met Vicki, would I have biked round Tasmania? I don’t know. Maybe, maybe not. But she helped showed me that adventure was out there, if you just get out there and do it. And ordinary people can do the stuff that I used to think only explorers and adventurers did. Well after all, they are just normal people too.

So I’m 100% glad this sliding door moment went this way. And I’m glad I can call Vicki a mate, glad I have a fellow adventure seeker to do crazy shit with and be inspired. She’s moving to NZ for a while at the end of the year, so maybe I’ll just have to head out there next year so we can go climb a mountain or two.

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Old memories.

I’m sitting here tonight wanting to write a post about the end of an era – the sale of my childhood home. I kind of know what I want to write, and how I want to start it, yet the rest of words aren’t there quite yet in my head. So I’ll have to save that one for another time.

Instead, I’m listening to the album 21 by Adele. I know most of the songs off by heart, because I listened to this CD (yep, back in the shiny disc days) over and over again in my car driving to and from work when I was going through my separation (that and Katy Perry, but I’m after chilled out music right now). I’m thinking whether the songs are tainted now with those memories. Because well let’s face it, it was a pretty shitty time for me back then. Came to the conclusion that no they’re not now, but it’s taken a while. 4 years to be exact. I look back on it now like it was someone else’s life. Feels like a whole different lifetime ago, and I was a different person, just ask anyone that knew me back then. I don’t tend to try to look back too much, I’m a bit of a live in the moment kinda gal. I hate planning too far in advance and just tend to go with the flow, maxing out life where I can. But my ‘previous life’ seems to pop up loads, I can’t bloody escape it. I remember going to Peru in 2012, meeting lots of new people and my recent divorce would pop up in conversation, and I remember wanting to escape it. Thinking that it was just because it was so new, and such a big thing in my life back then and one day I could almost pretend it never happened. But I can’t. Now I’ve realised it’s likely to always crop up, for one reason or another. Whether meeting new people or chatting to old friends. And that pisses me off a bit. However. It’s made me who I am now. I can’t complain. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be the person I am now without going through all that.

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Because you see, now I absolutely love the person who I am. I’m back to being me, true to myself and happy inside and out. In control of my life and my destiny. And having no idea what the future holds.

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This weekend just gone was a bit of a whirlwind tour of London, Lincolnshire and Yorkshire. Loads of travelling and catching up with loads of mates and family. Squeezing in as many people as possible for a hello, cup of tea and good old chin wag. Reminiscing about old memories and catching up on life right now.

I have SO much to smile about right now it’s unreal. So many good things happening, so many awesome people in my life. So many exciting opportunities and possibilities there for the taking. Life is awesome.

Sorry, I have no idea on the point of this post, or the direction it’s taken.

I’m not sure what I’m trying to say, or whether anything is making any sense really. I’m very tired, I’ve not stopped for days and have driven so many hundreds of miles I don’t really know whether I’m coming or going. I guess mainly it’s that I’ve had a few days of revisiting old memories. It’s been great to see lots of lovely familiar faces. A visit to Lincoln always stirs up old memories, it always will. So much happened there.

But it’s also a reminder that everything changes – Note: Take That reference 😉 – and nothing stays still. As much as you might not want things to change, they will. It’s inevitable. No point in fighting it. Change is good. Change is exciting. But, it can also be scary. Frightening. Sad. A massive mixture of emotions. Just gotta roll with it. It’s how you deal with it that matters. All about how to think about stuff.

If you know anything about Buddhism, then a massive part of it is around impermanence. Worth reading up on if that’s your bag. I learnt about Buddhism, suffering, attachment, impermanence etc. when I did a 10 day silent retreat at a Buddhist meditation centre in India. Absolutely fascinating stuff, and helps with all kinds of shit in every day life for me. The point being that everything, and I mean everything, is not permanent. Is changing, every single second. Even that solid oak table. And if everything is changing, then nothing is permanent, and so how can you be attached to something that is changing all the time?

It’s all about how you look at things, and how you choose to react to them. What you let go, how to forgive and the difference between attachment and love.

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No standing still. Don’t stand still. Embrace change.

India roundup.

Yes, I know this is a bit late. It’s nearly a month since I left India, and how time has flown. So sorry. I’ll try to keep up more. It’s only because China blocked my blog. Honest.

Well. What can I say about India. The India tourism people use the tagline Incredible India. Do I agree? Hell YES.

Incredible.

I had the most amazing month there. When I first got to India everyone said a month wasn’t very long to spend there. But at that time it seemed a really, really long time to me. Well, now I know what they meant. It isn’t a long time. It’s a very short time. I didn’t really touch the surface, let alone scratch it. You could spend years exploring India. I guess it depends what you want to do there. I spent a month doing a mixture of seeing different sights, meeting different people and experiencing a whole range of different things. I think you’d class it as slow travel, as I only actually stayed in 4 different places. But, I didn’t want to be dashing from one place to another. I found I liked to stay in a place for a while to experience it; get a feel for it.

So, it’s safe to say I really enjoyed my time in India. There was something about the place that captured my heart and soul. It was a truly fascinating experience, and now, looking back, it seemed to go so quick. I had a huge range of experiences; done things that I never would have dreamt I would do, and experienced things I never would have if I had stayed in the UK and carried on my life as I was. I’ve seen and learnt so much, if I was to try and write down everything I wouldn’t know where to start. So, I’ll make an attempt to do a bit of an India roundup on some of the highlights and ‘special’ moments. There were lots, and I’ve probably forgotten some that will probably come back to me when I hear, see or smell something years from now.

  • Seeing the Taj Mahal. It’s probably the most beautiful building I have ever seen. I will never forget that first glimpse of it through the gatehouse building, it was like it wasn’t real. I’d seen so many pictures but to see it in real life was just something else.

  • Spending ten days in silence. Thinking back, I’m not quite sure how I managed this. But I did, and I will always remember the thought of it being harder than the actual doing of it. But it was one of the best 10 days of my life. I learnt so much, I got a glimpse of what goes on inside my head and took a break from life for a short while to just stop and look around for a bit.

  • Learning about Buddhism. I knew nothing about this religion before coming to India. Surprising really, as it’s probaby the only religion that is close to how I want to live my life, and some of my core values and morals. So to spend time learning about it was fascinating, and made me realise I’d not done any learning for a while. It was good to get my brain in gear for a bit.

  • The food. Oh, the food. Curry for breakfast, lunch and dinner if I wanted. It was goooood. I got to try all sorts of stuff; proper home cooked Indian food, hot curry in Delhi, traditional tibetan momos cooked all ways, porridge with banana and honey, paneer in everything, meals on wheels on the train and more types of Indian bread than you could shake a stick at. Throughout my whole month, there wasn’t even one thing that I tried that I didn’t like. And I never got Delhi belly. Win.

  • Staying with a local family. I got to experience real Indian life. Real Indian food, TV, conversation, toilets, showers. I learnt about their religion and beliefs, traditional family life and how to make a mean dahl.

  • Hiking in the foothills of the Himalayas. The mountains in the places I visited (apart from Delhi) were all himalayan ranges, and I made efforts to go walking and hiking as much as I could. My best memory was the walk Vicki, Anne and I took in Mcleodganj. Not only did I meet two amazing, interesting people who I hope I will see again someday, but we got to see a beautiful waterfall after a little steep walk up a mountain. I couldn’t think of a better way to spend a day, although the monsoon rain we got caught in just before we reached Dharamkot could have done one.

  • Heat and humidity. Ok, yes, I know part of the reason I came travelling is for a bit of sunshine. But, not 35+ degree heat. And not humidity. I didn’t realise how humid it would be in Delhi, and I really didn’t like it. Thank god for air conditioning! It’s making me appreciate the weather in England. Those few days in the summer that are a bit hot and stuffy, they’re nothing like here. I’ll certainly think before moaning in future.

  • Monsoon rain. Yep, I visited India in the monsoon season. I had to; it’s the only time it fitted in with the rest of my plans. But, it wasn’t so bad. It’s not like it rained non-stop – it was only ever a couple of hours at a time. And it was quite pretty when I was at the retreat centre as I wasn’t going anywhere anyway. And with monsoon season comes some amazing thunderstorms and so much lightening. Like a free firework display, love it. Getting caught in it after the hike to the waterfall wasn’t cool though, we got absolutely drenched. Like drowned rats. Hats off to my Berghaus jacket though – I was dry on my top half underneath, which, considering the rest of me, was a small victory.

  • Being stared at. This is not normal for me and I found it very strange. Sometimes it got a bit wearing. Sometimes I felt like I had two heads. Sometimes I had to check I a) hadn’t got something on my face or b) wasn’t exposing myself unintentionally.

  • People wanting their picture taken with me. This happened A LOT at the Taj Mahal. Sometimes people would just sit down on the bench next to me and start snapping away. Mostly they would ask though. Some people wanted pictures shaking hands, some just stood or sat next to me. Or they’d shove their children towards me. I felt like a celebrity, but I am still bewildered about why they would want their picture with me. A red-faced sweaty tourist? I ended up sitting next to one guy who had his picture took with me on the train on the way back from the Taj Mahal, and we chatted for a couple of hours. I asked him why, his english wasn’t great but he said something along the lines of that they don’t see a lot of Westerners, and of those that were there, I was beautiful, and so worthy of a picture. Not sure if this is actually true or whether he was just trying to be sweet. Either way, I’m still not sure I get it.

  • Scammers. All the scammers. Oh, there’s loads. Especially in Delhi. You have to constantly be on your guard, and think about people’s motivations, and remember that to a lot of people you are just a walking wallet. This is a shame really, but it’s just the way it is here. Luckily I didn’t get scammed; I had read up beforehand and generally have a feel for what’s right and what’s a bit dodgy.

  • Missing my onward flight to China. Yeah. This was a bummer. I’d underspent in India, which was great I thought, more money to go towards China where I’d booked a tour and so overspent already. But no, that underspend (and more) went on booking a new ticket to China because I managed to read my ticket wrong. I’ll not make that mistake again. Hopefully.

  • Toilets. Hmm lots of different toilet experiences. No Delhi belly, not that kind of experience. Ok, so 1) squat toilets, some good, some bad. Tip: don’t go to a squat toilet in bare feet while drunk. Yep, I pissed on my feet. And god knows what I might have stood in. I blame the Kingfisher Strong beer that night. Good job for taps in toilets in India. And always carry toilet paper with you. Handy for all sorts. 2) I stood in a cow pat in my flip flops once. Tip: always look at what’s on the ground in front of you; those cows get everywhere. 3) Once I had to make an emergency toilet stop in the woods half way through a run. Large Asian plant leaves make good toilet paper. Luckily it wasn’t a poisonous one. 4) When somewhere says don’t put toilet paper down the toilet, you really shouldn’t. Not me, but someone at the retreat did. It blocks the toilet. Not pleasant.

  • Having some downtime in Manali. I spent a week not doing a lot. In a way I felt I should be, but in another way it was nice to have a bit of a break. I needed it. I read a lot, went on walks, ran, ate and slept. I’ve not done that for ages, and after all the hectic planning of the last few months, the teaching in Zambia I needed a bit of downtime. Like a holiday. Ok, I know I’m technically ‘on holiday’ but travelling isn’t quite a holiday. Certainly not in India. It’s busy, can be stressful, you have to figure out where to be and when and how and everything is new. Constantly looking at maps and trying to find out how to do stuff.

  • The scenery. It’s just been amazing. Mountains, forests, rivers and lots of trees. I do like a good landscape, a mountain here and there and green stuff. I grew up in the countryside so although I love cities, I think I love natural stuff more. And India has had loads of it. Ok, so some of it gets ruined by the amount of litter or electric cables or water pipes but that’s just what it’s like here.

  • Meeting all kinds of different people. I’ve met loads of people. All sorts, from all different backgrounds, all doing different things and on different journeys. Everyone has a story to tell, and some people I’ve met so far have just fascinating ones. I’ve made some new friends, I’ve shared meals and drinks with people that I’ll never see again and don’t even know their name. I’m amazed by the kindness of people, and grateful for the help I’ve been given, and pleased I’ve had a chance to help people myself. The traveller community is a diverse, multi cultural melting pot and now I’m part of it.

  • Travelling in different ways. I’ve been on trains in sleeper class and chair class, local buses, private buses, mini buses, my feet, rick shaws and more. All while carrying around everything I have in just a backpack. Which is still heavy. I’m getting used to chucking it on and off though, and am a dab hand at getting in a rickshaw without taking it off (there’s a bit of skillful negotiation needed to get the bag and my body through the gap between the roof, the curtain and the chassis). The buses are just scary but fun, the roads are crowded and busy, the trains are efficient and serve good food and my feet still keep on taking me places.

Like I said, I’m sure there’s loads more but that’s off the top of my head. India was incredible, and I’m pretty sure I’ll be back someday. It’s a huge country and there’s so much more to see and explore. And it’s so cheap. Where else can you get a bed for the night for £1.25? Or a meal out for £2.00?

I’m getting used to travelling without having anything booked or arranged. This isn’t normal for me; usually when I only have a couple of days or weeks I want to make the most of it and so usually have most things booked and planned, but I’ve quite enjoyed the freedom of no real plans and just seeing what will happen. I’ve enjoyed spending time in a place and just experiencing it for a bit, not going from sight to sight. I suspect other places in India have more of this, but where I went that wasn’t the case, it was all about the experiences.

And experience it I did.

Runs around the world #8

Mcleodganj, Himachal Pradesh, India

My last run in India was in Mcleodganj (pronounced mac-cloud-gange), the place I was in before heading back to Delhi. My favourite place so far; it’s a small place in Northern India where the government of Tibet, led by the Dalai Lama, is in exile. A friendly place, the town is centered around two bustling main streets where indians, tibetans, travellers from all around the world, buddhist monks and nuns in maroon robes, cows, dogs and cats all mix delightfully together.

Although in India, there’s a heavy Tibetan influence with an abundance of prayer flags, maroon robes, temples and stupas both in and around the town, as well as the main streets being packed with tibetan restaurants serving the best momos (dumplings) around.

This was my favourite run here so far. OK, granted, it was mainly because when walking the day before I found a flat route. Well, I say flat, there were still some slight gradients as it’s up in the mountains, but, compared to the other runs I did in India it was as flat as a pancake. And oh, how a flat route made such a nice change. It’s what I’m used to. Lincolnshire is flat. I was nearly bursting with excitement to go running as soon as I found that route, I couldn’t wait until the next morning when I would go. I felt like a kid at Christmas. I wonder if I have a running problem?

Anyway, so, flat also meant I could run a bit longer, as it wasn’t so tough on my legs and lungs. So, I set of with the view of just running as much as I could, no set plan, time or distance. It was a there-and-back route. Not strictly my favourite, and I know some people hate that (Steve :P) but at least I’m not going to get lost. So, I just ran there and back and there and back again, as much as I could until my legs didn’t want to go any more. Because, I’m losing fitness. I’m losing the ability to think (and choose) “I’ll go for a ten mile run today” as I don’t know whether I can. I’m having to fit runs in as and when time, location and conditions allow, and can’t be too choosy. I don’t know whether I can run 10 miles any more; probably not, I haven’t done it for 2 months now.

So I was chuffed to run 5 miles. It was nice to know I still could do a (kind of) long run. Well, longer than 3 miles anyway. I was happy with that. Like I said, I can’t be too choosy so I’ve got to take them where I can.

It was an mixed run. It was great to get out there, and the scenery was just amazing again. In early morning sunshine I ran down the road out of town, the forest covered mountains on both sides of me, sometimes passing monks on their morning walks. I could see the Dalai Lama’s house and the town in the distance, perched on top of one of the mountains like a toy town the further away I got. It was hot though, and I was slow. I’ve slowed down, I can see by my times, which I guess is probably only natural given that I’m running a lot less and shorter distances. But it frustrates me. I know I can, enjoy, and used to run faster, dammit. Halfway in I needed the toilet. Running does this sometimes. Runners will know what I mean. I couldn’t wait, it was giving me a stomach ache and I wasn’t about to abandon the first flat run I’d had in a month. So, I had no choice but to go in the woods. Luckily there are lots of big rocks and leaves. And not many people around. What is it they say? All part of the experience. Not one I’d be wanting to repeat if I can help it though. My legs sure felt the last mile, and it was an effort to keep going as long as I did, but my stubbornness and need for rounded numbers meant I wanted to hit that 5 mile mark as a minimum.

And I did, and bloody hell did it feel GOOD. In fact, not just good but Amazing. Fantastic. Euphoric. Brilliant. You get the idea. In fact, just writing about it is making me smile. You see, there’s no such thing as a Bad Run. Because, even if the run itself is hell on earth, that feeling you get when you finish outweighs it every time. Especially if it’s been tough. Those little endorphins being released are like little drops of magic.

Pure magic.

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Catch up.

I’ve been a bit slack at blogging lately, I’ve been a bit too busy. I’ve not written about Mcleodganj yet, my favourite place in India so far, or even Manali where I spent a week. So, with a day in Delhi to be spent in my nice air conditioned hotel room I’ll try and do a brief catch up.

Manali was beautiful, all green forest-covered mountains with turquoise rivers. It felt a bit like an alpine scene (although I’ve never been to the Alps, so no idea whether this is right or not) and there was a very hippy vibe going on. Not that I’m in any way hippy but it was very relaxed. I ended up staying there a week, and in a way it was a bit like a holiday. I didn’t do much apart from eat, sleep, read, went on a few walks, a couple of runs and just generally chilled out. I didn’t really speak to that many people because I was feeling a bit anti social and in need of a bit of down time after a hectic few weeks (Donna, I nearly wrote quiet time but that’s not what I would have meant ;)).

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Wow it seems so long ago now, and I’ve realised there’s not a lot to write about. There might have been at the time, but not so much now. I ate a lot of porridge and Mars Bars, and read a lot of books.

Mcleodganj was my favourite place in India. I stayed here for about 5 days after the Introduction to Buddhism course.  I’m not sure why it was my favourite place, it’s very similar to Manali in some ways, but it had a different vibe. I loved the Tibetan feel of the place (it’s home to the Dalai Lama and many Tibetan people, monks and nuns), and it’s not quite so hippy. It was a place of many fabulous places to eat and chill out – I used to go to Cafe Budan every morning for banana honey porridge and to use the wifi. They also made the BEST lemon curd tart ever. I could have stayed much longer. I wonder if it was because I saw lots of people I ‘knew’ there (from the course) afterwards, so it was a little bit like being at home. Maybe it was because I made a great couple of friends there (Vicki and Anne) and we spent a fab few days together hiking and eating lots. Maybe it was because I found somewhere to stay only cost me about £1.28 a night which, although it wasn’t the most luxurious of places, was a great little sociable place with a hot shower and clean toilet, or the fact I found a flat running route at last. Or, the large amount of places to eat momos (a Tibetan speciality dish of dumplings). Or, it was a place where I did a lot of things, learnt a lot and felt a bit productive. Whatever it was, I loved it there and have many fond memories, and I was surprised at how sad I felt to leave. If I had longer in India, I probably would have stayed longer, and perhaps done some volunteering, as there are lots of opportunities to help out with different things. The only nice thing about leaving and coming back to Delhi is that everything didn’t feel damp any more. You see, it’s monsoon season in India, and it rained a fair bit in Mcleod. Most days, at some point, the heavens opened. Never for prolonged periods of time but when it rained, boy did it rain, and there was always a lot of damp in the air, so nothing felt dry. So, getting into bed, putting on clothes; all damp. I just got used to it after a while. Didn’t really have any other choice. And put it this way, I’d still rather be there and damp than in Delhi and hot and sticky.

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SONY DSCOh, and I got my nose pierced here. Not sure why, just fancied it. I also bought an anklet and some baggy trousers. Maybe I am turning into a hippy after all, haha.

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An Introduction to Buddhism and meditation.

I’ve just spent 10 days in silence. Actual silence. No talking, no communicating with anyone. You might find this funny. Or wonder how I did it. You see, I like to talk. I like to chat. I like to ask questions. 10 days is a long time. A really long time. Nearly two weeks. Believe me, I thought all these things and I was a little bit scared about whether I was up to it. But hang on, let’s step back a bit. Because you’re probably wondering why and what for.

When I was in Manali a couple of weeks ago I stumbled upon the website for Tushita Meditation Centre, which advertises Introduction to Buddhism courses. It is just outside Mcleodganj, home to the exiled Tibetan government and Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of Tibet. I knew I was heading this way and it got me interested. I knew I had about two weeks left in India, and was looking at what to do with the time, the next course started in a few days and would fit right in with my dates. It would leave me enough extra time to explore Mcleodganj before heading back to Delhi.

I knew nothing about Buddhism or meditation. I’m slightly ashamed to admit although I had heard of the Dalai Lama I didn’t really know who he was or what he did. I certainly knew nothing about the Chinese occupation of Tibet and the reasons he was in India. I felt very uneducated – how did I get to 32 without knowing about these things? And why? So, I took the plunge and signed up. A few days later I found myself with around 54 other people starting a 10 day course that would be a mix of teachings about Buddhism and meditation sessions, ending with a 2 day meditation retreat. In silence. They stress that a lot. It would be a challenge, but wasn’t that why I came travelling? To learn, to experience new things and give myself a kick up the arse?

I’ve been thinking about what to write in this blog post for a couple of days now. And I’m still no clearer. There’s so much but so little. It was a very personal thing, lots of self reflecting and looking inside, and I’m not sure how much I want to share. But, I want to let you guys know what it was like.

Before all the in-depth stuff, here’s some basics:

  • The centre is in the middle of the woods on the side of a mountain. It’s very peaceful, quiet and out of the way. Mum, I kept an eye out for any pygmy activity. You’ll be pleased to know there wasn’t any. Just monkeys. Lots of them, including teeny tiny baby ones. They provided a lot of entertainment.
  • There was lots of food. This was good. If anyone from Zambia is reading this, you’ll be pleased to know there was peanut butter. But, it was not peanut butter as we know it. No, I think this was proper, home made peanut butter, so not so sweet. In fact, not sweet at all. I mixed it with honey to make it sweeter. Unfortunately this made it look like baby sick or dog doo but I didn’t care, because, damn, it tasted gooood. I think I’m having withdrawals now.
  • I couldn’t run for 10 days. No real exercise, apart from walking up and down some steps a lot. There was a lot of sitting in a meditation position. I have never had pins and needles so many times.
  • There was the most amazing thunderstorm on the second night. I was too tired to stay awake for it all, but caught a glimpse of loads of lightening flashing through a forest. Incredible.
  • I didn’t miss technology. No really, I didn’t. Well, not until the very end at least.
  • We all had jobs to do each day to help keep the centre clean and tidy. Mine was cleaning the windows of the gompa (meditation hall). This was good; I didn’t envy the people who had to clean the toilets that 55 people used all day.

So firstly, the Silence. The big Silence. It is mentioned A.Lot on the website, and in the information and in the induction. And rightly so, it is a huge part of the course. It’s designed so you can get the most out of everything, have silence to focus and reflect on what you’re learning and your reactions and thoughts about it. How did I find it? Actually, easier than I thought. When everyone around you is also silent, it is easier. It was easier to not think about how long you had to be silent for though, as it just seemed so long, so I put that out of my mind. I didn’t break the silence, although other people did. Not majorly, just hushed whispers every now and then. But I’m surprised how much this unsettled me; I didn’t like it. It was really disruptive and it’s amazing how a mere whisper can seem like shouting when you’ve been in silence for a while. The only time it got to me was Day 9 at about lunchtime. It was nearly the end of the course, I was ready to talk to people and my brain had just about had enough of thinking. It had reflected all it could reflect, there was nothing but meditation sessions and long breaks and nothing to distract it. I had a bit of a moment where I was just desperate for a distraction; to stop me being aware of my own thoughts and inner monologue. But, it lasted about an hour and then went. But boy, was I pleased to start talking again the next day. I think I talked like a non-stop train as soon as we could. No, I don’t think, I know I did. Sorry to the guys at breakfast, I’m not sure they got a word in.

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Having to be silent meant I was much more aware of the thoughts in my head. Now, I knew that my brain was often full of things, but, well, let’s just say there’s lots and lots in there. Although, I can definitely tell it’s slowed down now. It doesn’t feel so full or manic, not so much stuff to process or all whizzing round at the same time. No lists of things to do or things to remember. And I think this course has definitely helped with that. It’s slowed my mind down. Organised it a bit. I remember, back in Lincoln at various points over the last 18 months or so, there were many times where I just wanted, no needed, to stop. This overwhelming urge to stop my mind for a bit, just a minute, so I can think clearly, take everything out and sort it all out into some kind of order and put it back in. To look at everything, see the bigger picture and figure out how to do it all. But every time I tried to do it, I couldn’t. My thoughts were so jumbled, that even if I tried, I could never manage it. Other thoughts would take over and I’d just never manage to unscramble it, my concentration would never last and there was always something to distract me. The ultimate procrastinator. Which was frustrating. Never being able to achieve it. Until now. I’ve had that break. Now is that time, that peace and quiet. I feel like I’ve finally stopped and put some thoughts in order. Unjumbled my jumbled mind. And how lovely that feels. I’ve started to think about one thing, and one thing only, at a time. Focus on that one thing. And I know now, that I can put some things to rest. Let them go out of my head once and for all, because they’re organised and sorted now in the right place, with a sense of clarity. Tis’ wonderful.

Meditating was interesting. Actually, really hard work. For all those people who think meditating is relaxing and just closing your eyes, zoning out and going to sleep, think again. We did two types: Stablising and Analysing. Stabilising is where you focus on one thing (the breath) and try to remove any other thoughts out of your mind, and just be completely in the moment. Hmph. Easier said than done. They are always there, these thoughts. It’s really hard to stop them just popping in. And they are so random, mine were a huge mix of things from childhood memories, to people, to things I will be doing, to future plans, to things I remember from dreams and anything in between. Analysing meditation is where you analyse certain questions and topics, guided by the meditation leader. This is more interesting as your subconscious is there to help you figure things out and think of things in a different way. I liked this, it helped with putting a few things to bed for me, once and for all. There was one meditation session that we did where the group chanted a mantra. It was one of the most beautiful things I had heard, and very powerful. I’ll not forget that moment in a hurry.

After one session I felt so completely peaceful and content, it was just blissful. I can’t quite describe it well, but I felt just so, well, happy and calm. Almost a bit like being drugged, or in a trance. I can’t remember exactly what the content of the meditation was (I didn’t write that down), but it doesn’t really matter. What I noted down was that I felt so relaxed and content. Content with my life, with myself, in my choices and who I am. Happy and more understanding of me, and how I live my life and how I will find solutions. Like everything is starting to make sense, and is less chaotic and more ordered.

Starting out on my travels I knew I wanted to spend my time helping people. Not just while travelling, but afterwards, when I have to work. I know I want a job that’s worthwhile, that’s helping, that’s making a difference. This course has really helped reaffirm this. I knew it, but before it almost seemed like empty words. Not saying I wouldn’t, but just not with that 100% knowing with my heart. And that’s what I know now. I feel it. Helping other people is what makes me happy, simple as. It always has, this has just confirmed it.

Has this been a spiritual experience for me? Yes, but not in a religious way as such. It’s been an experience that I’ve felt in my heart and mind, and has left me feeling more content, richer, with a deeper understanding of me and my thoughts. I feel so lucky that I took this opportunity, and I reckon that it’s going to give me a great basis for the rest of my travels in the things that I do and the experiences that I seek and have. I feel I’ve got more of a purpose, I’m not just floating. I don’t just want to visit places and sights to take a picture, to say I’ve been there and move on. That seems terribly self-indulgent. I want to learn about places, speak to people, experience a place and life there. I’m aware of my actions and motivations, and the consequences. Oh, there’s still loads I don’t know, or haven’t figured out, but that’s the fun. That’s what I’ll be doing. I’ll just be a bit better equipped, and on the right path.

There’s a great quote from HH. The Dalai Lama – “Don’t try to use what you’ve learnt from Buddhism to be a Buddhist, use it to become a better whatever-you-are”.

He also said that Buddhism is like training in altruism. I think this sums it up perfectly for me; I don’t want to become a Buddhist. But, through this course, I’ve learnt so much in so many ways, all of which will help me become a better person. One who can give back to other people. A kinder person, a more generous person. A person who will spend more time thinking of others. Because, the Buddhists are right, that is what makes someone truly happy.

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Runs around the world #7

Manali, Himachal Pradesh, India

So, my second run in India was in Manali, further up into the mountains in Himachal Pradesh. I’ve certainly not been running as much as I would like in India. But, in my defence, it’s been hard terrain everywhere so far. I know, I know, it’s a weak excuse, and perhaps you’re thinking I should have just got on with it. I do love running on all different surfaces and climates right? But really, it has been tough. Hot and so incredibly humid in Delhi, then foggy, hilly and full of people staring in Shimla. So what about Manali? Well, I’d already decided to run early in the morning to stop the stares, so that’s that issue taken care of (although there’s always a few people out who will stare; it’s inevitable). And the weather here in Manali has been much better than Shimla. No fog and not much rain. Nice and cool in the mornings, and then sunshine later on most days. So, should be good for running right? Well, yes. But.

Yep, you know there’s a but. Bloody hell is it hilly here. Well, it is in the middle of the mountains of course, I know that. The scenery here is just stunning, but hills make it hard to run, if that’s the only running you can do. Sure, hills are great as part of a training program, to be added in with long runs, flat runs and speed work. But hills all the time? Hard work, right? You bet. Because it’s not just little gradients. Lincolnshire people, they are like Steep Hill. First, imagine running up Steep Hill. Then, make Steep Hill about 3 times as long. So, run continuously up that. Then down. Then up again. Oh, and make it at 2000m altitude. Now, what do you reckon. Easy or hard, haha?

I’ve been here a week and will have done two runs. That doesn’t sound like a lot, and it isn’t. I’m disappointed in myself really. But, to be honest, I’m not quite sure where the days have gone, and why I haven’t run more. A couple of mornings I’ve enjoyed a lie in. I spent a couple of days on long, hilly scrambles walks up the mountains and so my legs were aching. I did yoga one morning instead. I do wish I’d done more running. But, you know what? I’m proud of what I have done. It’s no secret that hill running isn’t my favourite. So, getting to the top of the hill at the end of 3 miles, of which the latter half was uphill, lungs bursting and legs burning, was a great feeling, almost an achievement. Sure, it’s a short run, and sure, I’ve done hill sprints before but this was different. This was long, continuous steep gradients. A total elevation climb of 540ft. This was difficult and challenging and I did it!

I have to class this as one of my most scenic runs so far. Running past tree-covered mountains in the background and along the Beas River, the roar of the rapids in my ears.  Running through the Manali nature park, marvelling at it’s tall trees stretching as far as I could see to the sky, the rocks on the ground smattered with the morning sunshine. Running past people meditating and doing morning yoga, oblivious to my presence. Propelling myself up the hill, I glanced over my shoulder to see the mountains in the distance, hazy in the morning mist. I stopped to take a picture, all the while thinking, lucky me. Lucky, lucky me.

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The adventures of Shimla.

Settle down with a cup of tea, put your feet up and relax, this might be a long one. I spent a strange few days in a place called Shimla and there’s plenty to tell. Shimla was the British Summer Holiday capital back in the day of British rule, and is still a very popular holiday place for people all across India. Lincolnshire people, it’s kind of like an Indian version of Skegvegas, with pony rides, ice creams, stalls selling tourist tat etc. Oh, and rain and fog in monsoon season (i.e. now). Only this place has amazing views of the Himalayan ranges and no beach.

To get there I took two trains, totalling about 9 hours travelling time. This might sound horrific but it’s not so bad, India is such a big country to get around and I’m kind of used to lots of travelling time now. The second train was the Shimla Toy Train. It doesn’t cover a big distance but it takes ages because it winds through the mountains, over bridges and through loads of tunnels. 103 tunnels to be precise. It was much fun, if not a bit crowded, on tiny bench seats and I was squashed in with an Indian family. Not the comfiest, plus they had a screaming baby but, they shared their lunch with me, which was 1) a bonus and 2) delicious. And the baby stopped screaming after a while. They couldn’t speak much English, I don’t speak Hindi but we got by OK.

The journey was fine, peaceful and not too hot. But, about 20 minutes outside Shimla I saw a load of black smoke starting to billow out the engine and we ground to a halt. So, there we sat, in the middle of the forest for about an hour and a half, all the time it was getting darker and I had no way of letting the family I was staying with that I was going to be late. Because, for this bit of the trip, I had decided to do a bit of couchsurfing. Couchsurfing is an online travel community of people that open their homes to other travellers and let them stay. I’d registered back before Christmas as it seemed a cool thing to do, a way to meet real people and also to save a bit of cash. I’m not sure what made me have a look at Counchsurfing while I was in Delhi but I did, and I found a lady who lived with her husband and two daughters who were also involved with an NGO (non-governmen organisation) that helped with education and empowerment of women and villages. This sounded right up my street and interesting, especially after what I’d just done in Africa so I sent a request, it got accepted and off I went. I managed to find her place eventually in the dark with the help of a kindly guy at the train station who walked the 20 or so minutes with me (uphill, in the humid fog). I was expecting him to try to make me go to some other accommodation, or ask for money but he didn’t. I was surprised; in my experience so far it seems the majority of people in India only want to talk or be helpful because they want something. So that made a nice change.

Sandeepan (the lady I was due to stay with) had received unexpected house guests since accepting my request so when I got there she had arranged for me to stay with another couchsurfer, Aruna, who lived a few minutes away. So, after feeding me lovely food (very welcome after a day’s travelling) I went off to Aruna’s place, where I was instantly made me feel very welcome. Aruna is a retired teacher and lives with her husband smack bang in the middle of town. I ended up spending the next 4 nights at her house, where she made me the most delicious chai (and biscuits) and home cooked indian food. It’s not quite like we get in the Indian restaurants back home. I tried all sorts of things, all veg (in India, you are either Veg or Non-Veg), some with local vegetables only found in that region, some with more widely found across India. I spent one morning with her in the kitchen watching her cook, with her talking through everything she was doing. I learnt so much, and she made it all look so easy! When I get back to England I’m definitely going to try and have a go. One thing was evident; there is no wastage. Everything, and I mean everything, gets eaten or saved for another meal. Top tip for sweet lovers: mix sugar with any leftover rice for a quick easy sweet after your meal. It tastes very similar to rice pudding.

I learnt lots about Aruna, her family, her religion, India and Shimla. It was so interesting and so different to just staying in a hotel or guest house; for a few days I got to experience real Indian life, including proper food, squat toilets and a shower which was just a jug and a tub of warm water. Not sure there’s any price you can put on that.

I also helped out with some things for the NGO (Wahoe Commune). This is where it became a bit of an adventure. A mixture of my scepticism (well, as I mentioned, my experience in India had previously been that people just wanted things from you) and communication between two different cultures. At times, it felt a bit ‘hard-sell’ for the ngo. Like I should be contributing financially, which kind of goes against what couch surfing is all about, although it wasn’t specifically said so I think this may have been more my issue or interpretation.

I ended up helping out though, not necessarily financially but with my time, which I was happy to do. It all came about a bit strange though. I’ve found that Indians tend to say statements rather than questions, so I was told that I was to accompany Sandeepan’s husband later that day to some accommodation outside of Shimla that they were thinking of offering to their volunteers as somewhere to relax for a few days before or after their volunteering stints. To take pictures and also to let them know what I thought of it, presumably as an English person (and potential volunteer). With nothing else to do, and a unplanned stay, I figured why not? So, the first day I found myself in a car with 4 Indian men heading away from Shimla to a remote village. Erm, yeah, as I’m sure you can imagine, at this point I wondered what the hell I had managed to get myself into. Yep, images of those headlines of gang rape in India from the newspapers flashed into my head. But, I thought, I’d met this guy’s wife and kids and been to their home so it all had to be OK, right? <weak laugh> So, I get to the accommodation, to then be led to an empty accommodation block. This is not getting any better. Imagination going a bit overdrive. But, I took some pictures, we chatted about the room a bit. Then, we got brought chai (tea). Hmm. Is it drugged? I was cursing my overactive sceptical brain. Then, Guvinder tells me he wants to offer me some spiritual healing. Right now. Doesn’t quite tell me what’s involved but says we can have a short session to find out what my chakra is like (energy). He had been telling me about his journey with spiritualism on the way over. I cynically ask if he will charge. He says not for this, as I am helping him out. But, if I want a whole course, then yes, it will. Hmm. But, in the sense of adventure, I decide to go with the flow (noting an escape route of course, just in case). After that first session, we went back to that accommodation twice, both to take more photos (with banners and things) and also for another two sessions of healing.

Now, I’m not going to describe right now what was involved, as I apparently should have 40 days to process it, and not talk about what goes on in the healing until after those days are up. And, no matter what I think about it, I’m going to give the process that respect. But, let’s just say, sat in a room with views over the Himalaya’s, sometimes in my underwear (!) it’s one of the most bizarre yet interesting things I’ve experienced, and has certainly made me think.

One of the trips to the accommodation was done by public bus, the others by car, all of which were an experience. Tight, twisty mountain roads, filled with lorries, people, cows and everything in between. I will never forget coming back with the sun setting over the Himalayan ranges; it was so stunningly beautiful. Or the trip back on the bus; in a monsoon downpour, the bus was hurtling (and yes, that’s an accurate description) round the corners in heavy rain, people flailing all over the place, Indian music blasting out and incense sticks burning. Oh, and if people want to overtake here in India, they just beep their horn and go for it, even on blind corners. If they find something coming, they just stop. And the roads are so narrow, sometimes the buses are nearly touching when passing. Like, you couldn’t even get a fag packet between them. Those trips to the mountains were truly an experience I won’t forget.

So, apart from helping out, thinking I might get gang raped or die on the roads, what else did I do in Shimla?

Well, I had a good explore down all the roads and side streets and just a general wander around. I climbed to Jakoo Temple (monkey temple) at the top of one of the mountains where there were gorgeous views, a huge statue and lots of monkeys, who, if you weren’t careful, would steal your stuff. I had a stick to ward them off, luckily I had no need to swing it round like a light saber. Pity. I could have been Princess Leia.

After 4 nights I decided it was time to move on. I was debating whether to volunteer at one of the Wahoe community projects for a while but I really felt like I needed some time alone, to myself. My adventures in Shimla had got me thinking about all sorts of things and I needed some space. I feel sad that I had been so sceptical of everything, but I’m not sure how to fix that. Or whether I should? I need to keep myself safe, and can’t just go accepting every invitation or presuming everyone has good intentions, we know the world isn’t like that.

So, with a ton of memories I said goodbye to my generous hosts and hopped on a bus headed for Manali, even further into the mountains.

Shimla Toy Train

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ArunaSONY DSC

View from Jakoo TempleSONY DSC

Statue at Jakoo

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Sunset over the mountains

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Runs around the world #6

Shimla, Himachal Pradesh, India

My first run in India! There was no way I was running in Delhi. It was just too hot and humid. I know that sounds like a cop out but me and running in heat don’t mix that well. Add in humidity and I would have been a goner. I suspect I might have collapsed. So, I had a few days rest then when I got to the mountains where it was significantly cooler I headed out for a little run.

There’s a few things I’ve figured out about running in India. It’s not really widespread as a hobby that people do for fun. Certainly not out in the smaller areas for sure. So, my main tip is to go early in the morning. Mainly because a) it avoids getting stared at any more than normal (especially as a woman in running gear) as there’s not so many people about and b) it is cooler and less humid.

So this run was at 5:30am in a foggy Shimla. I admit, it was a bit of a wrench to set my alarm that early! But, I was desperate to run. I couldn’t remember how long it had been since I’d ran. A week? Just under, just over? It had felt like a while; Africa was the last place I ran and that seemed a lifetime ago.

In Shimla, I stayed just off a main road called The Mall, which is the main road in the centre, where all the shops and stuff are based. So, a long road that is a bit up and down. I’d walked up and down in the previous day on a bit of an explore so it seemed a sensible choice for a run. Run out for a mile or so, then run back. My new minimum distance I’ve set myself on my travels is now 2 miles, so I knew I had to run out at least a mile. It wasn’t too bad. It felt good to be running in a straight line, rather than a circle like Africa, but the little hills were quite tough, both on my legs and lungs. But, in the strange way that only people who push themselves through exercise will know, it feels GOOD. Shimla’s got an average altitude of around 2400m so that’s not too shabby to be running around in.

And the views of the mountains in the early morning mist were pretty special (what I could actually see through the mist), and I ran past a few monkeys scrabbling around for scraps, as well as a few bemused people out on an early morning walk. I ended up doing just over 3 miles in the end, which was good enough for me. Enough to keep me in the habit and keep the muscles and lungs working until I can get to somewhere where I can either go more regularly or pick up the miles again. Unfortunately I suspect that might be a while yet.

When I got back to where I was staying I decided to go back to bed. Now that’s something I’ve never been able to do before! Normally a run at that time is followed by a day at work or a busy day at the weekend. Luxury!

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Delhi. How you surprised me.

So, I arrived in Delhi. Or, rather, I was hit smack bang in the face by Delhi after around 18 hours travelling. It’s what people say. India, culture shock. Loud, noisy, smelly, dirty, bright, colourful and lots of people, animals and litter. Which, if you’re not used to it or haven’t been anywhere like it before, can be a bit of an assault on the senses. All of them.

And it’s exactly that. Like a punch in the face, you know you’re in Delhi.

It’s loud and noisy: scooters, rickshaws and cars are all beeping their horns. Constantly. Street sellers are shouting, people are shouting.

It’s smelly: all kinds of smells. Walking down a small part of one street I can smell spices, incense, food, sewage, animals and rotting food, all one after another.

It’s dirty: there is litter everywhere. Mud, crap you name it, it’s there. There are open urinals at a lot of the entrances to side streets, which, I’m sure you can imagine, has a certain smell in 35+ degree heat. Some of them are right next to food carts. Nice.

It’s bright and colourful: from the many millions of shops selling clothes, saris, scarves and fabric of all colours and patterns to the most wonderfully bright saris and clothes worn by the Indian women and the different colours of the buildings and rickshaws, there is colour galore here. How I’d love to visit during Holi where the streets and everything in them get covered in multi coloured powder.

There are lots of people and animals: everywhere. Day and night. Well, 16.75 million people do live here after all. So, imagine your home town as busy as it can be. Maybe the High Street. Got that picture? Good. Now imagine everyone walking in opposite directions, then changing, walking on the road, trying to get your attention, stopping or walking in front of you. Then add in a few cows. Some dogs. Maybe some small children. People sat on the ground. Then add in bikes, cars, rickshaws and scooters. Oh, and this High Street is sometimes only 10 feet wide. Yes, it’s a bit crazy.

But, you know what? I LOVE it. I really do. It’s so crazy, so busy and bustling, so hot and humid but it’s intriguing and alive. It’s real life. Real life that’s so completely different to my own, it’s wonderful to be able to be a part of it for a short while. To experience it myself, right here, right now. Not through TV, or a book, or someone else’s photos. But to live and breathe it. Smells and all.

I’ve been here two days, part of which was spent catching up on sleep. But I’ve seen so much already. I’ve wandered around the backstreets of Old Delhi, spent time with the chipmunks at the Red Fort, marvelled at the Bahá’í House of Worship (Lotus Temple), strolled down Rajpath with an ice cream after finding the India Gate, bought a scarf for 66p and enjoyed zipping around Delhi on the Metro. Every time I step outside the hotel there’s something new to see or experience. Here’s just a few examples:

  • A boy having a fight with a goat.
  • Live chickens in a cage for sale.
  • Quite a few cows (they are sacred here).
  • A man with a stuck on beard (why?).
  • The women only carriages on the Metro. Much less crowded that the mixed ones, and with air con. Bliss!
  • Many inappropriately named shops (for example: Doggy Style Hot Dog Shop or Shag En Beauty Shop)
  • Nearly being mowed down by a scooter. And rickshaw. And car. You get the idea.
  • I’ve been chatted to by many different people; all men. The majority of the time they’re trying to scam you, by trying to send you to different agencies, to get more money off you. They see a westerner, especially a woman and think money, unfortunately. A chap read my aura this afternoon. He was quite good, wrote things on paper then asked me questions and all the answers on the paper were right. He also said I am sincere and have a good heart but lack concentration and my head is full of butterflies, which I’d say does just about sum me up, especially right now. I told him from the very off I didn’t have any money, he said he wasn’t after money. Eventually, he was going to tell me the secret of how I could sort my ‘insane’ brain out, but I’d have to pay. Surprise surprise. Have to say, I was intrigued at what he would say but wasn’t prepared to pay for it. And I’m not sure I want to fix myself, I’m quite happy how I am, butterflies and all.
  • I was invited out for a drink by a chap who started chatting to me along the road. I politely declined, but it’s been a while since anyone has asked me out, haha. Incidentally, after telling him I wanted a quiet night and meal alone, a German guy called Mark joined me and I chatted to him all night. But, not quite the same. Mark was a traveller too, on his way to trek in Ladakh, and had a girlfriend.
  • Two guys who worked at the railway station tried their hardest to scam me when I went to get my train tickets. They stopped me before I could get to the building to say the Tourist Information Office (where you buy tickets and which there are signs for) has moved, and showed me on a map where to go and tried to get a rickshaw to take me. They were very good but I’d read about the scam before, and had been given directions from the chap at my hotel (which, by the way was great. Clean, great location, great staff – can’t fault it). They still stopped me from going any further so I decided to go back to the hotel, check with the staff again exactly where I needed to go. I went back, avoided the crowds outside and managed to get inside to where I needed to be. Not everyone was so lucky; a couple of girls at the hotel had just been ripped off by this scam. I can see why; they’re very convincing, especially when they work at the station.
  • I got stared at A LOT. All westerners do, especially women by the Indian men. It’s just how things are, and you get used to it. A lot of them will try to chat to you, shout out. You just have to perfect the art of walking along and ignoring.
  • Despite the above. I’ve never felt unsafe. Not even once. Not walking around at night by myself, or when walking through the tiny backstreets of Old Delhi and being the only westerner around.

I’m leaving tomorrow. I’ll be spending nearly 9 hours on two trains to go to a place called Shimla up in the mountains. I’ll be pleased to escape the Delhi heat and humidity.  You know that feeling when you open an oven that’s been cooking something for a while and you get hit in the face with that host blast of air? Well that’s kind of what it’s like here. It certainly was the first night I was here in my room, no air con and just a fan blowing very hot air around. I relented and went to pay the extra to have the air con. So, so pleased I did. It’s only an extra £2.70 a night, but, when the hotel room is only costing £6 a night it’s quite a bit extra. Bloody worth it for my sanity and sleep though.

So, it’s fair to say I’ve enjoyed Delhi, and will most likely be back here for a day again before I fly onto China at the end of the month. I’m looking forward to the mountains though, and train ride number 2: the Shimla Toy Train. Although a relatively short journey in km, it takes hours. It’s twisty, goes over bridges and through tunnels (103 of them), all in, as I understand it, pretty cool scenery. Let’s hope so, I do like a good landscape.

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Bahá’í House of Worship (Named The Lotus Temple, because it’s shaped like a lotus flower)SONY DSC

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