Where have I been :: India recap

Hello there, it’s been awhile! Where the heck have I been in 2018?

Let’s start with January. During January I led 2 amazing groups of women through my Wholistic Balance Nutrition and Yoga workshops. They were truly awesome women who all experienced their own transformations during the 3 week duration of those workshops. I also led my seasonal guided 7 day detox online and offered a completely new detox e-book – with new recipes – called GLOW Winter Detox.

February was all about nurturing a part of myself that I really hadn’t in a long time – my love of travel. I went on a 4 week yoga cultural immersion tour of India with friend and fellow yogi Blair, our yoga teacher Seane Corn, and am amazing group of men and women. Below is my trip recap. If you don’t want to read the entire thing – know that it was the most amazing and intense travel experience of my life!

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Blair also lives in Denver, so she was my travel buddy and roomie for the entire trip. To get to India from Denver, we first flew to Munich, then from Munich to Delhi. It was 24 hours of travel, and we were confused about time as we lost a day in travel. We arrived at Delhi in the early hours of the morning – and it felt really surreal. There was smoke in the air, the air smelled like burnt rubber, we were tired and delirious, street dogs were wandering around, the car ride was scary, we had to go through security when we got to our hotel. We made it there fine and recovered  at our hotel in Delhi for a day to help deal with our exhaustion and  jet lag. Oh, and I got the stomach flu.

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Haridwar, India

On the first official day of our tour, we  traveled by bus for a few hours to get to Haridwar. Haridwar is an ancient city that sits on the River Ganga (aka Ganges) and an important Hindu pilgrimage site. Haridwar means “Gateway to the Gods.” We also happened to be there during a festival. The streets are so old, tiny and crowded that the bus dropped us off then we had a short walk to our hotel. I was super tired and weak (see “stomach flu”). My first impressions getting off the bus… sensory overload… horns honking, Bollywood music blaring, tons of people staring at us, people camped out everywhere for the festival, smell of smoke, my first site of the Ganga.

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Tuck tuck stand, Haridwar

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Ganga Aarti, Haridwar

That night in Haridwar we experienced our first Ganga Aarti ceremony. During this ceremony, people gather at the river ghats (steps) for a nightly prayer. The Ganga river is considered sacred and life-giving – and this ritual is meant to give thanks to the Ganga. Offerings are made in the form of fire and flowers (lamps and candles) and hymns are chanted, music is played. We went to several Aarti ceremonies, but this was my favorite as I had no idea what to expect! Also, I should add, it had rained that day, you are not allowed to wear shows on the ghat, so we were walking and standing on slimy marble. I was also left with an impression of how welcoming people in India were – we clearly were foreigners, yet they welcomed and included us in their rituals and ceremonies.

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Statue of Shiva, Haridwar

That night, the festival went on ALL NIGHT. I got very little sleep as there were party trucks (literally) blaring Bollywood music all night long. The next morning, even though I was pretty bleary eyed, we had an amazing morning yoga practice led by Seane right on a balcony overlooking the Ganga. We then headed by bus to Rishikesh – a small town in the foothills of the Himalayas that also sits on the Ganga. This is the area I was most excited to visit, and it didn’t disappoint.

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Rishikesh, India

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Rishikesh

Rishikesh is basically the center of yoga. It was made famous by the Beatles when they visited Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s ashram. There are several ashrams there as well as many yoga centers offering yoga retreats and teacher trainings. The air was cleaner, and it was much quieter. There were lots of little bazaars to buy pashimina scarves and beads. Also, I believe Rishikesh may have been the first place we encountered cows wandering the streets. And, monkeys!

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Rishikesh

We spent a few days in Rishikesh. Our time was spent practicing yoga with amazing classes led by Seane, visiting temples and walking the bazaars. One day we did an excursion to the Neelgadu waterfall for a swim, another we visited Vashistha meditation caves along the Ganga. We also went to a few Ganga Aarti ceremonies at sunset, the first at the Parmarth Niketan ashram, the second at the Triveni Ghat. During the Aarti at Parmarth Niketain, we offered little packets of flowers, incense and candles to the Ganga.

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Aarti offering, Rishikesh

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Aarti ceremony Parmarth Niketan, Rishikesh

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Meditation caves, Rishikesh

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Dipping my toes in the Ganga – the water was so clear and clean here!

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Aarti Ceremony, Triveni ghat, Rishikesh

After a few days in the town of Rishikesh, we headed about an hour into the Himalayas to the Sattva Retreat center. This retreat center was so quiet and peaceful – just what we needed after an intense week of travel and jet lag! At the retreat center we practiced yoga with local teacher Anand Mehrotra, had classes on Ayurveda and the history of yoga and had time to relax, meditate and get Ayurvedic spa treatments. I had my first Ayurvedic spa treatment here called Abhyanga – a massage with warm, scented oils. This place was peaceful.

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Sattva Retreat Center

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Sattva retreat center

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Sattva Retreat center

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Sattva Retreat center – loved the use of flowers everywhere!

After our stay at the retreat center, we headed back to the town of Rishikesh. Our group had been invited to stay the night at the Parmarth Niketan Ahsram and attend their Aarti ceremony again. First, we stopped for breakfast at the farm of the ashram – where we were greeted by singing school boys and girls of the ashram. After a short tour of the farm, we were serviced breakfast on the roof of one of their buildings – right on the Ganga. We also learned the art of using a scarf to keep dust out of your eyes and hair on the ride!

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Keeping it real on the drive to Rishikesh – the dust was no joke!

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Mustard field

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Morning on the Ganga

After almost a week in Rishikesh, we spent an entire day traveling to Vrindavan – first a flight to Delhi, then a 3 hour drive to the town, then a short walk to our guest house. It is thought that the Hindi deity Krishna spent his childhood days in Vrindavan, and there are many temples devoted to Krishna worship there. Pilgrims flock here from all over India – and in Hare Krishna community – all over the world.

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Sandipani Muni School, Vrindavan

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Learning embroidery at Sandipani Muni school

On our first morning in Vrindavan, after an early morning yoga practice with Seane we visited the Sandipani Muni Charity school. This school provides education for 1,500 needy children from kindergarten through elementary school. The school children are girls only (boys are allowed in kindergarten), they’ve selected girls because in the local culture boys are favored and girls get less food, schooling and opportunities in general. These girls really shined. We attended their opening day ceremony – joining them in singing and dancing. We also toured the school, and one of the yoga classes performed for us. You can get more information on donating to the school or sponsoring a student here. After visiting the school, we took one of the school buses to visit a cow shelter that houses abandoned cows, bulls, retired oxen and orphaned calves. I’m so happy this place exists. More information, and donating here.

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Cow sanctuary, Vrindavan

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I loved this gentle giant!

Later that afternoon, we went temple hopping around Vrindavan. (Honestly, looking back, I can’t believe we did all of this in one day – no wonder I was exhausted!) Like bar hopping, but temples with our enthusiastic guide Mike, a Hare Krishna devotee. This was one of the most surreal and unforgettable experiences I had on this trip. The first thing I should explain is that there are monkeys everywhere. Monkeys that apparently will grab the sunglasses off your face and steal them. And, maybe steal your shoes when you enter a temple (shoes are always taken off). Anyhow, I won’t write every detail but the afternoon went like this, walking from temple to temple, receiving flower garlands only to have monkeys rip them off you to eat the flowers, singing, chanting, dancing, walking in bare feet in kind of gross areas, walking around a temple 4 times for a reason I didn’t understand or don’t remember, having marigold flowers dabbed on my forehead. No photos of any of this – too scared a monkey would grab my phone out of my hand!

Ok, I just realized I got pretty far into this post without mentioning the food! A lot of our food was hotel food. Breakfast was usually a spread of tropical fruits (papaya, watermelon, banana, pineapple), toast, granola, and maybe oatmeal. Tea, chai or my favorite hot ginger tea. Lunch and dinner were the same for the most part – chapati or roti flatbreads (so good!), dahl, rice and usually an assortment of other vegetable dishes. In the north, all of the food was vegetarian, but I had to be careful of ghee, yogurt or cheese in some of the dishes. After dinner it was common to eat fennel seeds as a digestive.

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Typical meal in Northern India – I miss the flatbreads!

From Vrindavan, we bused back to Delhi, and hopped on another airplane to Varanasi. From the airport in Varanasi, we took another bus ride, then a boat ride to our hotel in Varanasi. Varanasi also sits along the bank of the Ganga River. The evening boat ride along the ghats in Varanasi under a clear sky was magical! Varanasi is thought to be one of the oldest living cities in the world. It is a very holy city for Hindus as many come to bath in and perform funeral rites on the Ganga. Oh, and we literally stayed in a palace here.

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Magical boat ride to our palace in Varanasi

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Sunrise on the Ganga, Varanasi

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I found Varanasi magical, but also really intense. On our first morning, we took a sunrise boat ride along the ghats that line the Ganga. We again offered little boats of flowers and candles to Mother Ganga. We also saw for the first time the Manikarnika ghat where public cremations are performed – like I said this place is intense. We then parked the boat there and got our first up close view of the fires (we would later get another full tour too)… then walked into the city. Streets were tiny – no cars – but plenty of people, cows, dogs, and honking motorbikes. There were alters everywhere. After wandering along the streets, I broke from the group and wandered home along the various ghats. We also attended our last Aarti ceremony of the trip. This one was huge, like hundreds of people, like being at a concert!

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Varanasi

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Snake Charmers, Varanasi

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Varanasi

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Varanasi

After Varanasi, we said goodbye to Seane and 20 people on the trip, and a group of 10 of us continued on to more adventures in Southern India. But before our group headed south, we had one major tourist attraction to visit – the Taj Mahal. We flew into Agra, and on our first afternoon visited the Agra Red Fort. This huge red sandstone complex was where the Mughals ruled and controlled their empire for centuries.

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Red Fort, Agra

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Gold and jewel stone detail, Red Fort, Agra

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Red Fort, Agra

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Holding the Taj Mahal in my hand at the Red Fort, Agra

The next morning, at sunrise, we headed to the Taj Mahal. I’m sure the Taj doesn’t need any explanation – but if you didn’t know – it was commissioned by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in 1632 to house the tomb of his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. I’m not big on visiting tourist traps, but this was really a must see. I’ll never forget the awe I felt after passing under the archway to view the immense white monument at sunrise.

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Enjoying some mint coolers (mint, lime, sugar) after a long day traveling to Kerala

After spending about an hour wandering around the grounds of the Taj Mahal, as well as the interior, we boarded a bus, drove back to Delhi, and got on an evening flight to Cochin, in the state of Kerala. Kerala was like being in a different country… different climate (tropical), different language and script (Malayalam). Cochin has a post-colonial look to it as it was an important trading post in the spice trade – at various times inhabited by the Portuguese, Dutch and British.

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Jewish Synagogue in Cochin

On our first day there, we biked to another hotel and had a memorable yoga class taught by their instructor, Jon Jon. We then wandered around old Cochin… We visited a Jewish Synagogue that dates to the 13th century, saw an amazing South Indian style murals at the Dutch Palace, and then wandered to a beach lined with a bazaar and Chinese fishing nets. As excited I was to get to a beach, I was super disappointed by the amount of trash here on the coast of the Arabian sea. The feel was a lot more relaxed in Southern India – less people, less noise (honking mostly), slower pace and much hotter!

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Cochin

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Spice store, Cochin

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Incense store, Cochin

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Malayalam movie poster

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Fishing boats on the beach, Cochin

While in Cochin, we also saw a performance of the Kathakali dancers. This is Kerala’s classical form of dance and performance that dates back 400 years. The performer’s wear over the top costumes, and paint their faces with pigments derived from local minerals. The performance is accompanied by live drumming and singing. It is hard to describe what the performance is like – it is less like dancing in the Western sense – but the store is told more in the eyes, facial expressions and Mudras (hand movements). One of the weirdest and coolest things I’ve ever seen!

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Kathakali dancer

From Cochin, we drove to Alleppey, then boarded our own house boat. That afternoon and evening was spend along the backwaters were we passed small villages and farms along the way. We made a quick stop at the village of Champakulam where we visited a church that was first established around 500 AD (though rebuilt throughout the years) and purchased wood carvings at a local studio. Back on the boat, dinner was cooked and serviced to us and was so delicious! South Indian food uses more rice, coconut/coconut milk and fresh vegetables. I don’t eat meat, but meat dishes were available at every restaurant we ate at in Kerala.

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Alleppey houseboat

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Sunset on the boat

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Breakfast on the boat (banana leaves with a rice cake inside)

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Kerala village

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Southern India Vibes

After spending a night on the boat, we headed to an Ayurvedic Spa and Resort in Kerala to spend our last two nights. When you get to the spa, you consult with an Ayurvedic doctor – who then makes recommendations for your diet, spa treatments and herbs.   Typically you do 2 spa treatments per day – while I was there I did the Abhyanga oil massage, and Shibodara oil treatment (warm oil poured onto forehead for a set peroiod of time) and an Ayurvedic facial treatment. These 2 days of rest and relaxation were the perfect way to end this amazing trip! Then, it was time to head home. Blair and I had an epic 30 plus hour trip to get from Kerala to Denver.

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Ready for 30 hours of travel to get home!

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