Author Archives: mattandvidinasia

First Visit to China

After a little over 6 months in Hong Kong, what China has laid claim to in the form of a Special Administrative Region (SAR), we figured it was actually time to visit the “mainland”. After securing our Chinese visas, we booked our flights on China Southern flying from Shenzhen (just across the Chinese border from Hong Kong) to Guilin, one of the most naturally beautiful places in China. By taking the bus to Shenzhen and then flying to Guilin, we could save a lot of money on the flights. It’s like the Toronto equivalent of driving to Buffalo to fly to the US.

We ignored the fact that China Southern was voted #6 on the list of the world’s 10 worst airlines in 2010 (joining 2 other Chinese Airlines on the list – China Eastern & Air China)….How bad could it be?

http://www.businessinsider.com/worst-airlines-in-the-world-2010-12?op=1

We left on Thursday (Friday and Monday are Easter holidays in Hong Kong) to catch the 5:00 pm bus to Shenzhen, thinking that would clearly be enough time to make it for our 8:35 pm flight. After delays leaving Hong Kong and long lines at the border, we were left rushing to make our flight. We literally arrived at the airport at 8:10 pm and starting running to our gate. We made it to security (next to the gate) at 8:15 pm only to find out that our flight had been cancelled. The incoming flight had been diverted and did not land as expected in Shenzhen.

After an hours long wait in line to talk with the airline, we were informed that we would be booked on the next available flight…sounds reasonable. Only one problem, the next available flight was on Saturday night (2 days later) and our return tickets were booked for Monday morning. No other options from the airline: fly standby the next day, book us on another airline, pay for hotel/transportation costs to airport…nothing. Spend one day in Guilin or cancel the whole thing. Thank you China Southern…

We turned around and took the bus back to Hong Kong. It was a very disappointing first visit to China, not to mention a complete waste of the first entry on our double entry visa.

Note: I am back in Hong Kong posting this. Otherwise, you may never read this as it would probably be quickly scrubbed by the internet filters on the mainland!

Business Trip to Manila

I went to Manila on a short 2-day business trip  at the end of March. Vidya did not come, hence there are no photos to post.

This is pretty much the end of interesting stuff about the trip as most time was spent in the office, except:

1) The Sun Life Philippines office is a very nice building where the employees have a lot of Sun Life spirit. In order to wear jeans on casual Fridays, everyone must wear a Sun Life shirt or jacket, and almost everyone does it!

2) The Makati area in Manila is very well developed and modern; out of all of the places I have been in Asia so far, it reminded me the most of Toronto!

That is all from Manila!

Japan Ski Trip 2013

After feeling pretty sad about not being able to participate in the 5th annual Orford ski trip, I started planning a smaller Asian ski trip. After considering Northern China and South Korea, Japan ultimately won out. We centered on Myoko Kogen, a small town about 4 hours northwest of Tokyo and only about an hour from Nagano (site of the 1998 Winter Olympics).

We were attracted by the crazy amount of snow that falls in Myoko Kogen area – 13 meters in an average year (last year they had over 26 meters)! We were certainly not dissapointed when we arrived:

Road into Myoko Kogen

We skied for the first two days (out of 3) at Myoko Akakura. They had just received a meter of snow over the previous couple of days. The temperature was slightly above zero and sunny. Outside of ski-school, there were maybe only a couple of hundred people on the entire hill on the quiet weekday. We didn’t wait in a single lift line at all!

Myoko Kogen

Myoko Kogen

The third day we switched it up and skied over at Myoko Suginohara. The conditions were a little worse than the previous two days (more people – it was Saturday – although it was still deserted by Blue Mountain standards, a little colder and a ton of fog), but it was still a great time:Myoko Kogen

We followed the perfect ski routine for all three days:  Wake-up and breakfast at the hotel, hit the slopes by 9, ski until 4, back to the hotel for the private onsen (hot-tub – maybe the only great thing that Orford was missing), supper at the hotel, drinks at Skater bar (the only real bar in town that had a small skate-park inside).

Check out the rest of the pictures on Facebook: Myoko 2013

Weekend to Macau

We originally had very high expectations for Macau, thinking it would be comparable to Las Vegas. Before our trip, friends who had visited lowered our expectations to a reasonable level. There are some big hotels and casinos, but isn’t that much more. We were able to explore the old town – the Portuguese settlement which was pretty cool. My standard jumping shot is taken outside of Ruins of St. Paul’s:

Ruins of St Paul's

Vid and I also took a more normal shot:

20130126_183317

One of the highlights was the pretty fabulous Bakkwa (flat, salted-dried meat) available on the streets. Name the meat (chicken, pork, beef, lamb….), it is available in a flat sheet:

Rakkwa

The hotel itself was very impressive; apparently the Venetian Macau is larger than the Venetian in Las Vegas and is the larger hotel in Asia. Our room, at over 1700 square feet, certainly reflected this:

Venetian Hotel

You couldn’t even tell the difference between the Canals in Vegas and Macau:

The Canals

The rest of the pictures are on Facebook:

Macau 2013

Tashi delek (hello), Dalai Lama!

I heard that the Dalai Lama would give a public talk to a group of Mongolian Buddhists (with English translations) in his home town of McLeod Ganj.  Kanda, the village I stayed in, is only one state south of here. And I didn’t want to miss the rare opportunity to see the Nobel peace prize winner known for his legendary clear sightedness and compassion.

McLeod Ganj is nicknamed ‘Little Lhasa’ because this is the headquarters of the Central Tibetan Administration in exile.  It had been the residence of the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatsho, since he fled Tibet in 1959 to avoid persecution by the Chinese communist government.  Today, it is a political asylum for many Tibetan refugees and also a place to preserve Tibetan language and culture.

A photo Tenzin Wangdak shared with me

A photo Tenzin Wangdak shared with me

Since the Dalai Lama arrived here, McLeod Ganj has undoubtedly become a rite of passage for backpackers in India.  There are the new age Western spiritual seekers. And then the nature lovers who enjoy trekking the high Himalayas.  And finally, the adventure seekers who risk their lives riding Enfield motorcycles further up north to the stunning and desolate mountain regions of Spiti and Ladakh.  And of course, the long-haired hippies are a staple feature of touristy India.  For all, it’s a welcome respite from the big cities which can be overwhelming.

The small town is at an elevation of 1800 meters above sea level.  It’s cooler up here and the streets are narrow and hilly.  They are lined with tourist touts, but it’s surprisingly quiet, and has a definite spiritual feel to it.  Maybe it’s all the red-robed monks walking around quietly.

The distance between Kanda and McLeod Ganj is about 500 km.  But for the public transport bound it is a 43-hour uneventful journey.  The journey consists of a half-day car ride, an overnight train ride, followed by an another overnight bus ride.  The rides themselves are comfortable if it weren’t for the awkwardly timed long layovers.  Especially, those moments when you are forced to figure out the logistics of peeing at an Indian train station with a ten-pound backpack strapped to your back at 3 am   It really got me questioning the value of my own life.

Relieved, in more ways than one, I finally arrived in McLeod Ganj at 5 in the morning.  When the sun rose, I was immediately greeted with delicious parathas (Indian flat-bread) and spectacular views of the Dhaluadhars mountain range from my window!  The value of my life has become more apparent.

View from my hotel in McLeod Ganj

View from my hotel in McLeod Ganj

But it quickly dawned on me that I had a big problem.  I hadn’t done my research to know that the town practically shutdowns in the winter. The Buddhist philosophy classes, guided-meditation retreats, and yoga centers shift to the warmer south of the 60’s hippie haven of Goa and Kerala.  Even the hard-core long-haired hippies have gone south.  What was I doing here?

When Paulo Coelho wrote, “when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it,” I’m pretty sure he was thinking of me.  Travellers like me who lack the practicality to plan a trip.  But somehow things always work out in the end.

One evening, I was lucky enough to meet Adam, a sweet and exceptionally open-minded American who is studying Buddhist philosophy on peace building and conflict resolution.  An important tenet of Buddhism, like other Indian religions such as Hinduism and Jainism, is its practice of Ahimsa – compassion and non-violence towards all living things.  Born in Israel, Adam’s year-long scholarship to various Buddhist countries to understand this subject is more personal than just academic.

Adam would later introduce me to an ordained Buddhist monk, Tenzin Wandak, with whom I enjoyed meeting with almost daily for lunch or tea.  He patiently answered our questions and shed insight into Tibetan Buddhist philosophy.  Tenzin escaped from Tibet to India to become an ordained monk at the age of 15.  The ordination procedure for Buddhist monks, know, as the ‘Going forth’, includes the daily practice of vows they have committed to take for the rest of their lives.  Vows include, abstaining from lying, harming or taking another life, stealing etc.

He also ended up accompanying us on a day-trek to mount Triund where I learnt the art of Buddhist rational debating!  The Buddha encouraged everyone to be critical and question their own religion, and only accept a teaching when it makes sense to them.  And this is how monks sharpen their critical skills and tested their ability to explain and debate various teachings.  At the end of a debate you yell, “Tsa! Tsa!” to show that you have won.  It’s so much fun!

I couldn’t have planned a better way to learn about Buddhism 🙂

Hiking mount Triund with Tenzin Wandak, Adam and Carol.

Hiking mount Triund with Tenzin Wandak, Adam and Carol. Adam and Tenzin had a Buddhist style intense debate on smoke, fire and dependent arising.

For more photos from McLeod see: http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10152324881175193.937597.726530192&type=1&l=2b349f7e17

Until we meet again, Kanda! (by vid)

(I wrote this a while back but just getting around to posting it now.)

It’s time for me to say goodbye to my host-family and friends in Kanda.  I didn’t expect to get so emotional but I did as I hugged Hema (my host-mom).  In her quiet way, he took care of me and made me feel so loved here. I’ve gained a new perspective and made some good friends along the way. Even though some of the people here live without the basic human necessities of life, they’ve freely shared with me their precious resources like food and warm clothing and refused to take any money that I offered in return.  They are a testament to the fact that it’s not the external things that makes one a good human being.  This village also debunks the myth that poverty breeds crime.  It’s so safe here that I’ve seen young school kids fearlessly hitchhike home on the back of cargo trucks, and there are no locks on any of the doors in their homes!

Enjoying chappatis and dal with the family kids (Anounshka 5, Shivam 8, Gautam 10)

Enjoying chapatis and dal with the family kids (Anounshka 5, Shivam 8, Gautam 10)

Without the home-stay and full cultural immersion I don’t this trip wouldn’t have been half as much fun.  I’ve thoroughly enjoyed eating delicious homemade chapatis and dal harvested from the fields.  My guilty pleasure was walking the dogs daily with the kids as I soaked in the beautiful sunsets over the hills.  And of course, having girly-girl-talks with Gunja and playing dress-up in saris was just the icing on the cake.  I’ve even gotten over my fear and had fun watching my little friends, Miss. Henrietta (spider) and Mr. Bond (scorpion), search for food crumbles in my room.  Unfortunately, their short lives came to a tragic end one evening when one of the kids thought it would be fun to squash them with his flip flops.  RIP Miss. Henrietta & Mr. Bond.

However, there is one thing I could not get used to – the dreadfully cold bucket showers!  I don’t know how anyone can get used to this in ten-degree weather.  My body rejected my every mind-over-body attempt in trying to fool myself into thinking I’m no pansy.  The shower always feels refreshing after, but the anticipation and the actual shower is the WORST.  They say people are the same everywhere. They’re not.  What are these people are made of?

A neighboring house

On my first week here I assigned myself a list of tasks to complete. I thought would aid me later in measuring my success. I’m such an obedient Western educated girl, aren’t I?  I’m happy to say that I leave feeling good about being able to give back.  I made good progress on documenting current project progress and figuring out what’s needed for new projects.  I’m in the process of setting up a PayPal account. Due to an (un)expected extra layer of Indian bureaucracy, it took three weeks to get the information I needed to start the process.  Finally, I was to convert some slideshows into a video to show potential volunteers the living conditions and what to expect (this ain’t no Ritz). But the slow internet access hasn’t let me too far in downloading a Flash application that I need to make the movie.  I’ll have to wrap that up when I’m back in HK with faster internet access.

The biggest success though wasn’t even on my original list.  Somehow my pleasure of taking photos and ramblings of my experience turned into a monetary help from friends back home!  How sweet is that?  🙂

Hema Verma (my host-family mom) - that's one hardworking woman!

Hema Verma (my host-family mom) – that’s one hardworking woman!

On my last day, Hema, my host-family mother packed a bag of goodies for me to take home.  It included a big bag of food for the road, a jar of homemade ghee (clarified butter), and a bag of loose leaf tea.  I forgot to tell her that I wasn’t returning home at that point.  But how could I refuse such delicious homemade food?  So with free food in my bag, I set off on a rightful pilgrimage to the Buddhist town of McLeod Ganj to see the Dalai Lama!

Kanda sunset

Setting off on my pilgrimage!

Me with my host-family in Kanda

Me with my host-family and two friends from the city of Dehra Dun. Left to right: Hema (mom), a family friend’s daughter, host-grandma, Jeetandra (eldest son), me, Gunja (youngest daughter), friend’s son, Saju (middle child).  Missing: Jeevan, Chandra and the kids.

Forest in Kanda

What natural beauty!

A huge thank you! (by Vid)

I’d like to start by sending a huge THANK YOU to everyone back in Canada, Germany and London for your exceptionally generous donations.  Without my asking, you have donated a total of $1700 CAD to improve the living conditions of some poor people in a remote part of the world whom you haven’t even met!  Your trust and compassion has really touched me and instilled a great deal of confidence in the generosity of human-kind.

Most of the donations will be used towards the construction of Ganga’s house (approximately $1200). The remaining amount will go towards the construction of the multi-purpose community center.  I know Jeevan is extremely grateful because I’ve seen him raise both of his hands in the air proclaiming to his mother that God must have sent me and my friends to help his village.  Unfortunately, I won’t be here long enough to see the construction, but Jeevan has promised to share photos when construction begins.  I plan to continue to support him with online/computer related stuff even after I leave Kanda.

Personally, the support I’ve received from you means more than I can express in this blog.  But I feel like I’ve been of some real tangible help (especially after realizing that perhaps I might have overestimated my physical strength in the field of construction) :p

Below is some information on what I’ve been working on so far.  I’m excited to say that I’ve added to my limited first-year civil engineering knowledge by trying to understand the construction of an earthquake proof building design, and figuring out the local resources required and associated costs.  This design was first introduced by a group of Structural Engineers from the UK and it has  since become a design model for buildings here.  This is one of the ways volunteers are able to help, by imparting valuable knowledge and skill sets that they would have otherwise not had access to.  As exciting as it is for me to figure out how many bags of cement and sand is needed to build things like toilets, I can understand if this is as exciting to you as grass-cutting is to me :p

But if you’re interested, feel free to read on…

Construction of R.O.S.E community center

Cause

This ongoing project is a multi-purpose building intended to help the people most need in Kanda.  It acts as an emergency shelter to families whose homes are unusable due to the seasonal flash floods and mud slides. It is also used as a free six-day public school for the children of poor family who cannot afford to send them to regular school.  It will be used by the community for a meeting place and as a cultural centre. The community center is the first of its kind in Kanda.

Estimated cost (excluding future plan)

The total estimated cost for building the lower level is Rs.177,375.

Resource and cost breakdown

Resource and cost breakdown to finish the main floor construction

Progress

Progress has been slow and steady and parts of the center are constructed as donations are received.  This is the reality here – this is always work to do, just not the money.  Things are built as donations are received

Two twin-tank composting toilets and a fair-price shop upstairs have been built with the aid of donations, volunteers and local skilled and unskilled labours.  The common meeting room and volunteer station in the basement level was a major achievement completed late last 2011. The construction of a wall has begun to build a school room.

Future Plan – Building Community Center – Upstairs (50′ x 20′ = 1000 sq feet)

The future plan for the community center is to build an addition to the upstairs once the basement level is completed.  The additions will include two public sitting-toilets (for disabled and old people who are unable to squat), and a free “nursing home” to care for the elderly.

Building a water management system

Cause

In order to provide safe drinking water to the locals, a water management system is needed at the community center. The project will bring fresh spring water, from a nearby hill, in a 700 meter long pipe to a water tank to be installed near the community center.  The water stored in the tank is then pumped into the taps by a small water pump.

Estimated cost

Total estimated cost is Rs. 236,000

Resource and cost breakdown