ps. Due to my tablet and keyboard dying in Thailand, and power cuts in Nepal meaning that my phone was never fully charged, I had to handwrite a lot of my blog posts and I’m typing them up now that I’m back in Australia.
Back in my early teens, I used to be a huge Buffy The Vampire Slayer fan, and in one of the books (I watched the show and read the books and comics) – Oz: Into The Wild, for anyone interested – Oz, a werewolf, travels to Tibet to learn from some werewolf-monks how to control his lycanthropy.
In the same way that some people get inspired by watching Eat, Pray, Love, I loved the imagery in that novel so much that from that day I always had this idea that it’d be lovely to go to some kind of mountain retreat, far from civilisation and just surrounded by nature.
It occurred to me, as I booked my ticket to Nepal, that this would probably be the perfect place to actually make that happen – and with a little bit of Googling I found a place that seemed to tick all the boxes – the imaginatively named Nepal Yoga Retreat.
If you’ve ever been to Nepal, you know that finding yourself at Tribhuvan International Airport, without a map, free wifi, or working phone, and needing to get to a really remote part of Nepal that none of the taxi drivers seem to know the existence or location of, is bound to make you stress a little.
Luckily, the guy at the taxi desk was willing to call up the retreat for me, who told me that they’d sent someone to pick me up. I hadn’t chosen the ‘airport pick up’ option on the booking form, but man, I was glad they’d completely disregarded what I’d [not] asked for because I don’t think there’s any way I would have figured out how to get there otherwise.
This was my first taste of what Nepal was like. The guys who came to pick me up didn’t even know my name, I’d just walked around calling out ‘Nepal Yoga Retreat’ into the throng of drivers surrounding the airport, and these guys had said that that was them, then they’d passed me onto some other guys, and everyone seemed a bit confused about who I was and where they were meant to take me, but very sure that it was going to cost 20 USD.
I kept worrying that they were just some randoms who were going to kidnap me and hold me for a ransom, especially because they kind of just nodded to all my questions instead of actually answering them.
But that’s actually just Nepal. They were a little unsure about the route to the Retreat, stopped to ask for directions a few times on the way, and when we got there they weren’t even sure that it was the place and had to get out and ask the staff there if this was the right yoga retreat. It was.
Despite the confusion getting there, however, the place was absolutely gorgeous, and so far beyond my expectations. It was nestled amongst rolling hills, the Himalayas looming majestically in the distance, a behemoth that was shadowed in a chimerical fog.
We were surrounded by a patchwork of rice paddies, pine thickets and temples, criss-crossed with lazily flowing rivers and dirt roads. There were no towns nearby, although there was a lot of great hiking. It made me feel a little like I was in a Wes Anderson movie.
I had a huge, lovely twin room to myself, with a double bed and my own bathroom. Here it would get warm during the day, but would be absolutely freezing at night. They had thick, heavy blankets on the beds, and it always felt insanely cosy curling up underneath them at night.
All of Nepal is subjected to power cuts, so for the most part we used candles, and slept soon after it was dark. I gave up on charging my phone and was content to be disconnected from the rest of the world for a while.
Our days would start with hot tea and neti, this cleansing ritual in which you pour warm salty water up one nostril (you bend over and hold your head on an angle doing this) and let it come out the other. I was pretty skeptical – and less than eager – when I first heard about it but it was actually kind of fun to do, and it did clear out your sinuses.
Then we’d have sunrise yoga, meditation, and breathing exercises, before we’d settle down to breakfast. Breakfast was served in the garden, waited upon by the staff, and they’d keep bringing you additional helpings until you couldn’t eat anymore – and they made special gluten free pancakes for me!
You’d have ‘free time’ until lunch, during which you could read from their little collection of books – I grabbed Hermann Hesse’s very trippy little novel Journey to The East -. write, have a steam bath, get a massage, go for a hike or volunteer at the eco-farm nearby.
Lunch was always fabulous, with the meal starting with a soup and the main course consisting of some kind of rice dish and various vegetarian accompaniments.
Did I mention we had a steady supply of tea throughout the day as well? You’d be given a thermos flask upon arrival and they’d refill it constantly with different teas – I don’t think I had more than about a glass of water the whole time I was there because I just drank tea instead. It was really good tea.
You’d have more free time after lunch, and then as the sun began to sink ever lower across the horizon we’d do sunset yoga, some more meditation and breathing exercises, followed by a candlelit dinner and then bed.
Which of course is all amazing on it’s own, but the best part was the people. I especially liked talking to Tatiana, an older woman who’s lived in so many different countries over her life and who’s now working in the Emirates in behavioural therapy for children, a job that she really loves, and who divides her time up outside of work between many other countries (she doesn’t even live in the Emirates, she gets flown in by her clients).
It was inspiring because she hasn’t had an easy or simple life, but she’s been really brave and adventurous and struck out on her own. She was living the kind of life I want to live, not driven by career but by wanting to experience all that the world has to offer.
It was especially reassuring because people always tell me that I have these ideas now, but that when I grow up I’ll just want to settle down in a secure, well paying job – but here was this woman who had a grown up son and she was still living a really adventurous life, while at the same time achieving so much else.
My other favourite person was Lulu, our teacher. Lulu was also very international – she was part Swiss, part English, and had lived in other countries too, although I don’t remember exactly where.
A lot of yoga teachers are zealots who believe that yoga can solve everything and that yoga is the answer to all of life’s problems. A lot of them also like pushing that view onto everyone else they meet, and can be incredibly arrogant and patronising.
Lulu was none of those things. A yogi, she told us, was meant to have self discipline and determination and rigour, but they weren’t meant to impose on others, or to shove their views down anyone’s throats. Instead, they were meant to be flexible, and respectful.
For example (her example, not mine), she was a vegetarian, but if she went to a wedding in Nepal, where the people weren’t well off, she would just eat whatever was there. It was all about being humble, flexible and discrete, not flouting the fact that you were trying to be a good person.
I loved that. Lulu really lived her philosophy too, she never got angry, she was so tolerant and content, and she quoted Maya Angelou: “If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitutude.”
I thoroughly enjoyed our conversations. One that really stuck with me was when she told us about spending a year doing a free internship at the World Health Organisation and about how disillusioned she’d grown with pharmaceutical companies while there – she was particularly appalled at being told that they didn’t care about stopping the spread of AIDS in Africa, because there was no money to be earned there, but there were millions to be made providing gay couples in the western world with products that enhanced their sexual pleasure. How sad is that?
Unfortunately, after a few days, all the other guests left and nobody new arrived as the retreat was getting booked out by an American organisation in the next week. Lulu was sent elsewhere to teach new yoga teachers, and her replacement was an ex-championship winning boxer named Pushkar Raj Pant.
Pushkar was well meaning, but he was of the preachy variety of yoga teachers, and he didn’t really listen to anything I said so much as just talked at me. In our yoga classes he’d keep repeating everything he’d taught me the last time, really slowly, as if I was completely incapable. He spent more time lecturing me than doing actual yoga, and he thought that breathing exercises could solve my Crohn’s Disease (not surprisingly, they didn’t.
Now that I was the only one at the retreat and they were getting ready for their big batch of Americans, I felt more like I was intruding than like I was a guest. They evidently didn’t want to cook so many different things when there was only one guest and the staff to feed, so my food was always the same and a lot simpler. That was fair enough, but Pushkar just didn’t come for one of the classes, and then was late for a few others.
Instead of feeling carefree, like I had previously, the staff were too focussed on me, and one of them was asking me if I could send him to Australia to work so he could send more money to his family. I didn’t know what to say! I mean, I felt sorry for him but there wasn’t much I could do, and I certainly couldn’t buy him a plane ticket to Australia, help him with his visa or get him a job – I have very little money or political klout.
He then also wanted me to come meet his family and kept coming to sit with me while I was trying to read or write, and it made me really uncomfortable because he seemed to think (completely incorrectly) there was something romantic going on between us just because I’d been polite to him and smiled a lot. I don’t think he was trying to be creepy, it was probably a cultural thing, but regardless, it made me want to get the hell out of there.
So I did. I’d had my perfect getaway and now that things were becoming a little less Zen, I wanted to keep that memory untarnished and move on. They ended up charging me more than I had been told I was meant to pay anyway, so I didn’t feel bad about suddenly changing my mind and wanting to leave.
In the end, things did finish on a nice note. One of the staff, Debrash, was really sweet and offered to drive me to where I’d have to catch the bus to Kathmandu from – which was great because otherwise I’d have to do a lot of walking and catch a few different buses.
Debrash’s tiny little bike was at the end of it’s life, and couldn’t get above 30km/hr, so that we’d take every downhill on neutral, and would have to get off and run up the hills, pushing the bike – all of this with two people and a large rucksack.
We had no helmets either, which doesn’t sound bad for 30kph, but remember thatwe were precariously balanced on a very small bike and would get up to really high speeds on the downhills, on dirt roads dotted with huge potholes and rocks. It certainly was an exciting journey, especially given the way people drive in Nepal – we did a lot of tight swerving around oncoming traffic.
Debrash was lovely and saw me on to the bus and refused the money when I tried to tip him, although he did ask me if he could have my home address in Australia. For what purpose, I have no clue, but I let him have it.
On the whole, it was still such a special and wonderful experience, and I tend to think of the retreat post-Lulu-and-other-guests as a completely separate experience to the wonderful, warm and very fulfilling first part. if the place hasn’t been destroyed by the earthquake, I’d love to go back there someday – but only after vetting the teacher and making sure that there’ll be lots of other guests with me first.