Destination One: Khola Village The energy is high and smiles are all around. The day starts by meeting the team and retreat’s participants at a gorgeous, little garden in Rishikesh. I am joined by Nancy, Mary and Brie. They’re all from the United States, living only a few houses apart at home. Through word of mouth, Mary heard of Nancy’s ventures to India in October. And how she was planning to return again in March. Now, all sharing coffee and breakfast here together, I give the gals their colourful journals to use throughout the trek we are about to embark on in a moment’s time. “It’s about finding your nature in nature,” I assure them, “Let Her be your teacher. What happens on the outside is a reflection of something within.” Getting comfortable, we then pile into our bus that will begin to feel like our mobile home over the next week. It is owned by our cheerful and overly welcoming driver, Girish Negi. With The Beatles blearing, we make our way to Khola village. Not only is it this quaint, peaceful spot about 130 kilometres outside of Rishikesh with a view that can capture anyone’s heart, it is also the home of Mukesh’s aunt, the very woman who will be hosting us for the evening. Along the way, we make a stop to see where the Akananda river meets the sacred Ganges. While Mukesh tells us the story of how the Ganges didn’t originally want to “come down from heaven” to join the Akananda, we witness how the calmness of the Akananda and the roaring Ganges unite to make a playful mixture of something in-between the two. Something tells me this trip is all about mending worlds, meeting in the middle. Then, upon arrival to Khola, we are very quickly welcomed by everyone living in the village. We immerse ourselves fully. Skaprwan, a 19-year-old female, waves me over to introduce me to her family, best friend, and even pet buffalo. Moving in, Nancy, Mary and Brie, laugh at the fact that their luggage nearly takes up the entirely of their room. And not because the room is small. But more to do with the fact that Nancy has brought an entire pharmacy in one suitcase… It is here, we all stop to take note of how incredible it is that their room sits right above where the family’s buffalo sleeps. Then, feeling settled and acquainted, we all sit back to observe how the locals experience life. We watch Mukesh’s family make roti, a native form of bread used while eating with your hands, scooping up the varied curries and dahls offered in Indian meals. “Food is heart,” says Anil, our team chef, as he then prepares us our first dinner of the trek. In the meantime, we also watch the neighbours till their land using the help of their animals. After a still and peaceful night’s rest, we rise with the morning’s sun. Accidently pouring tea into Mary’s coffee in the morning, Nancy jokes how she has discovered a new mixture. “It’s coftea!” she exclaims. Then, rising from our seats at the table to do our morning yoga – meaning “union” – we make our way to this location for our daily practice. (Time to devote to our mind-body connection.) Over breakfast, we watch one woman doing her own form of yoga. She carries massive piles of hay on her back to care for the family’s buffalo. We all comment on her dedication and strength. Feeling integrated in more ways than one, we thank the family for taking us all in as a part of their own. We’re already home. But get back on the bus to carry on with the adventure regardless. It’s a story of a story of a story… Destination Two : Dangiya Village The second we get off the bus we are greeted by Piyuse and his friends. Little do we know at the time, these young yet friendly faces (along with Mules!) are going to help us carry our belongings up a mountain where we will be spending two nights in the place they call home Dangiya Village Along the way, what keeps our minds off of India’s late March heat is watching Piyuse and his friends pick the red flowers from the trees. “Even if you’re dying inside you have to keep smiling,” says a panting (yet smiling) Nancy. Then comes along a glowing Piyuse. “Beautiful!” he exclaims, as he encourages us to eat what he was just picked. With a slightly bitter taste, leaving the tongue feeling coated in tannings like when drinking black tea or red wine, I later learn from Anil how this flower, Brunash, is good for the heart. It is often juiced, he says. Making our way to the top, this is where we learn we will be spending the next two nights, joined by the most welcoming people, including Piyuse’s family. After setting up our tents, Brie and I are quick to explore more of the landscape by going on an afternoon hike. Telling her I completely trust her lead, this 13-year-old little lady from the States brings me to a point on the mountain I would have never thought to explore on my own. “Do you think it will be too hard to get up there?” she asks, pointing to the peak. “Only one way to find out,” I respond. Making our way back to the campsite thereafter, we share a delicious meal together as a team. This fuels us for our evening dance around the fire where we are joined by members of the entire village. “DANCING THERAPY!” yells Anil, as he shows me how to move to the Indian music. Changing tunes… “Did you know Elton Jon is married to a man?” asks Nancy to Mukesh as Tiny Dancer plays in the background. “I’m going to marry Elton Jon!” jokes Mukesh, who by this point, has his shorts rolled up like a sailor. The laughter makes us feel like we are drunk on life. This is when Bob Dylan’s Forever Young lyrics are changed to Forever Rum! It’s a story of a story of a story… Here’s to taking it all in… Flowers and all. Day Two We wake to a view. Coffee. And morning yoga. Bliss. Then after sharing a delicious breakfast of broccoli, local rice, and fruit prepared by Anil, the group heads on a hike with Narendra. Narendra is our hiking guide constantly making sure we are safe in all landscapes. I decide to stay back to spend the day with Shyari and Jamuna, the mother and sister to little Piyuse. These two women absolutely captivated me yesterday. Jamuna, 16, carried one of our massive bags on her back up to the campsite from Daunda, the village below. By the time she arrived, she hadn’t even broken a sweat. Meanwhile, Shyari, Jamuna’s mom, spent the day caring for the family’s buffalo by endlessly cutting grass and raking a manure-hay mixture (by hand). Today, I am joining Shyari in the fields to gather grass for the buffalo. We walk with big wicker baskets on our backs. Before we even start to weed, she bends over, looks me in the eyes and says… “Thank you.” “No. No.” I say back, “Thank YOU.” We start to pick. As we do, she instructs me using more her actions than words on what to weed and what to leave planted. We share a few laughs. But mainly, moments of silent meditation. When we are through, she makes me a cup of delicious chai. I learn the milk is from her own animals. She also offers me something called jaggery. This is a form of a homemade sugary sweet, tasting a lot like cotton candy. Then, Anil, Jamuna, and another friendly fellow lead me to the forest. I watch Anil do as the locals do. He climbs a Silver Oak tree to cut some of the branches down. This is to feed more of the animals. Once he is done, Jamuna takes the lead. With an axe in hand, she starts cutting the branches into smaller pieces. She’s making a massive bundle to later carry on her back to bring to her home. She gives me the axe to have a go at cutting. I am absolutely awful at first. But with her instruction, I begin to drop into the flow. I catch myself thinking how I could devote my whole life to this type of work. I don’t think I have ever been happier than I am right now… When Piyuse arrives, we exchange words. He asks for English names of all of my closest friends. I ask for local names of all of the plants around me. “Consider this your Himalayan office !” Mukesh later jokes. After the group returns from their hike, some downtime all reading over tunes together, more grass cutting… we all find ourselves spontaneously invited and sharing tea with another local family in the village. It is here, as I obsess over a one-month baby buffalo, Mary is handed the baby of one of the women in the village. “That was the highlight of my trip,” she later shares, tears in eyes and all. “Just that level of trust,” she adds. On our way home, what we observe is a grandmother in a tree cutting branches like Anil has done earlier in the day. We can’t believe what these people (and especially women!) are all capable of doing. After a delicious meal of dhal and curry, we celebrate with another evening fire. With an arm around my shoulder, a blissful Mukesh shares with me how the last time he was here, in the village, only some of the people came out to join in on the fun. Tonight, however, as we all move around the fire to different songs from all over the world, he says he’s stunned with the turnout of the people we are sharing life with now. “It’s really happening,” he says. “It really, really is,” I assure him. It’s a story of a story of a story… Here’s to taking it to new heights. ( And to the fact that Piyuse and Jamuna’s family had a baby buffalo born on this day ) Day Three On this day, I wake up with my head outside my tent. Not because I feel nauseous or need air. But because in my sleep, I distinctly remember thinking to myself… You best not miss capturing that sunrise, Jessica! This is Nanda Devi, sitting at 7,847 metres high, says Mukesh, starring at the photo. He adds how it’s one of the highest peak of the Himalayas. “I wanted to wake you up this morning to get this shot but figured I should let you sleep!” he exclaims. “Good thing we communicate in silence,” is my reply. Packing up, we say goodbye to our Dangiya family to head back down the mountain. At the base, we are sure to stop in to a local school. It’s here, we are all so impressed with the shy Brie. She shakes the hand of every student, introducing herself to each one by first name. We learn how the students, like us, are in celebration-mode. They have just finished their exams. We get back on the bus to head hours away to our final campsite of the trek in Chopta Village. Along the way, we share music. Laughter. And even, a moment to take a dip in a gorgeous running river. Feeling fresh, we arrive to a fresh setting with fresh people in fresh mountain air. Surya Campsite not only overlooks snow-capped mountains; it is also equipped with these amazing “glamping” style tents with toilets. The staff are some of the friendliest people I have ever met. Their food is amazing. And perhaps most importantly… Their dogs keep you safe at night, to welcome you with wagging tails in the morning . Settled in, we share a delicious dinner together. “This might be one of the best meals I have had in India,” I hear more than one of us say. Then, we… yet again… find ourselves dancing around a fire with not only locals. But with people from all over the world. (Including Canada! Which is kind of cool because I meet a woman whose name is also Jess. She lives in Toronto, born in BC. While I live in BC, born in Toronto.) It’s alllll a story of a story of a story… Here’s to letting it come full-circle. Destination Three: Chopta Village Day One Some of my favourite places on earth are hidden lakes nestled in the heart of mountain towns. Coming on this trek, I had no idea I would be introduced to another. After yet another delicious breakfast, we drive a short distance to Shari Village to hike to Deoria Lake. On the way up, both literally and figuratively, we stop in at this couple’s home to take a moment of silence at their temple. I watch myself pray for what I always pray for… Presence. Which! Isn’t at all hard to maintain in a setting such as this. Especially once arriving to the lake. It is here, the group gets an introductory lesson and session on “what is meditation and pranayama?” “Thoughts are like clouds passing in the sky,” I say, “Bliss is the blueness behind the clouds. We want to focus on the stillness. The non-moving. The blue sky.” But then, almost moments later, a massive sound of thunder prompts us to move. We take a meditative hike through the forest surrounded by Brunash trees. When we come out to a clearing, what we see is a sea of eagles flying in the sky. They’re known as the Golden Lamagaya. ( Earlier in the day, I was told by a man I met on the way to the lake “the bird guy” – that these birds have a three metre wing span. ) “Why are there so many of them?” Brie asks, “Did something die?” Yet, feeling nothing but alertly alive, we make our way around the corner to see a smiling Mukesh. He has led us to his friend’s house where we will be eating lunch this afternoon. We learn how Devindra Patwal lives on this peak. With this view. With his dogs. And his cows. One of them, yes, was sadly killed last night before by a wild animal. But, that doesn’t stop us from enjoying – TRULY – the best meal we jointly say we’ve had in India to date. We make our way down a small cliff to where Mr. Patwal keeps his cows at night. When we get inside, having ducked through a small doorway and into a cave-like setting, we see a green tent to our right. There is a photo of a mountain mounted above the tent; it’s bolted to the rafters. To the left lies a mirror. Its frame is speckled in beach-like shells. Here, Mukesh shares how Mr. Patwal sleeps in the same space as his own cows. “This is how the real people live” he says, “Simply.” Feeling humbled, we thank Mr. Patwal and head down the mountain, continuing our discourse on meditation, yoga, and even, the human chakra system. “That took my mind off the hike!” says Nancy, “I’m intrigued.” But what captivates our attention most when we get home is not talk of the “inside world.” We are brought back to the outdoors when a massive hail storm strikes, prompting us all to nestle in the cooking hut. We watch local men throw snowballs at each other. They’re all wearing t-shirts. Jitti, the head chef, then asks us all to help gather firewood. He makes us a fire in the centre of the room in the cooking quarters. We share dinner around the fire. Then, we exchange our highlights of the day. Without a doubt, we agree how never in our lives did we expect to share lunch in a setting like we did earlier… Blessed doesn’t even begin to cut it. It’s a story of a story of a story… Here’s to sharing all seasons and seasonings. Day Two It’s an “off day” today. Yet, I watch myself be most switched on. It is when I sense no obligation or pressure, I bask in the freedom of my soul. I jump out of bed at 6 a.m. to be greeted outside by Buddy, the campsite’s guard dog at night, bundle of love by day. I signal to him that I am going for a stroll, exploring the surrounding landscape. Gullies and shepherd fields just below where our tents are located. Without hesitation, he’s quick to follow my lead. Moments into the exploration, making eye contact and wagging my invisible tail his way, we switch roles. I let Buddy lead me to where he thinks we should venture. He guides me to the most blissful landing. A perfect place to hold the morning yoga class. Making my way back to the tent, I encourage Brie, Nancy and Mary to “trust me on this one.” “I just found the perfect spot.” After setting the tone with a morning mantra, one about life being a journey and our “bodies are our vehicles,” we take a walk in silence to this magical setting. It is here, not giving the group much choice, I lead a breath work exercise followed by “catharsis.” This is where everyone is free to openly express by kicking, screaming, laughing, jibber jabbering away… “Remember it’s a journey, we need to travel light!” I exclaim, encouraging the girls to see this as a chance to “take out the garbage.” “Leave whatever you don’t want to carry around with you here.” “For someone who can’t stop talking,” says Nancy, “I am finding it hard to speak now !” “No one is judging!” I am sure to remind. Following the (mainly) laughter and giggles, we share some silence, followed by a dance. We continue our stroll back to the campsite, passing a gorgeous stream and what looks like an abandoned home along the way. We stop to snap some photos. Arriving home, we lay on our mats for Shivasana, the final, silent pose concluding a yoga class. We make our way to the cooking hut for breakfast. Soon after, enjoying time in the sun. We read. We wash laundry. I play the card game Uno with “the guys.” (“Indian style,” of course, as they seem to make up new rules every three minutes… Mukesh). Laughter. Laughter. More & more laughter. Then, we decide to explore more of the surrounding landscape. This time, the opposite direction from our morning venture. It is here, after about a kilometre climb upwards from the Surya campsite, we find what looks like the most naturally existing golf course I have ever seen. “It’s like a fairyland!” exclaims Nancy, “It’s too perfect.” At the top, Brie, Narendra and I take to some partner yoga. Then at the bottom, “That’s one of those moments you say I am happy I went,” says Nancy. When we get back to the site, we all share cups of chai. Feeling warm, Nancy says she is open to a reiki session. No matter what the day entails, performing reiki ends up being my most “still” of all the fleeting moments… We move our way to the dinner hall thereafter. We get cozy in the evening breeze by fueling up on good food and warm tea. Tomorrow’s agenda has a big hike to highest Lord Shiva temple in India. Tungnath Temple sits 3,680 metres about sea level, says Mukesh. From the temple, we will continue even higher to Chandrasila Peak. It’s a story of a story of a story… Here’s to finding magic all around us. Day Three Mary wakes up with the runs! Perhaps she’s worried about our climb. But little does she know, both her and Nancy are going to absolutely rock the journey that lies ahead of us. Mentioned in yesterday’s post, today’s the day we climb to the highest Lord Shiva temple in India, Tungnath Temple, sitting at 3,680 metres about sea level. From the temple, we will continue even higher to Chandrasila Peak. Although we didn’t necessarily run to the top (with all other forms of running subsiding!) we make it to the summit in exactly three hours… WAY TO GO LADIES ! “I’ve never not had someone make it to the top,” says Mukesh, with a sly grin (of course). At about halfway, yet feeling whole, I run into a fellow Canadian woman. She looks just like a girlfriend of mine from home that, for some reason, is on my mind the exact moment I meet Mercedes. In a matter of minutes, we uncover how we live the exact same province in Canada. We both share a passion for travel, outdoor adventure, and the human body. Then, sitting on the edge of a cliff as a form of a “rest,” I turn to my right to see a young Indian woman with the same colour shoes. She also has my haircut. I bet you her and I are super similar… I carry on my way and leave it up to time to tell. Now, about 200 metres from summit, I meet two India engineers about my age. They ask me where I am from. I tell them Canada. “You mean half India!” they exclaim. (And are pretty on point, I must say !) “Is Punjabi your country’s second language?” I tell them it’s French. They ask me to teach them sentences in French. Here, we learn how in both Hindi and French, you use a same-sounding word to address a friend versus someone of respect: “tu.” “And here we are all speaking English,” one of them says. “I suppose it’s the bridge,” I say, “Just like the breath.” “What brings you to India all alone?” they ask. I tell them it’s my love of writing, dance and travel. “You’re so passionate!” they exclaim. “Ah, but my studies of the Vedas are teaching one very valuable word...,” I tell them. “Dispassion.” With the Vedas being native to India, we all have a chuckle how a Canadian woman is now teaching them about these ancient scriptures… all while climbing to a Hindu temple. “Have you seen the movie The Moment?” one then asks. I tell them I haven’t. He goes on to explain how it’s a movie about Islam faith: “By far one of my favourites.” “I really think the world is becoming one melting pot of people just wanting to be happy. Regardless of country. Language. Religion,” I say. “It’s happening,” they say back. “It really, really is.” At the top, I spot both my Canadian friend and Indian doppelganger. Within minutes, I learn how my look-a-like is too a journalist. She plans to do her master’s degree in the very city I was born in Canada. Connecting, we swap emails and other contacts. “I’ll be seeing you soon,” we say. Then, in spotting the birds flying up above, it is in this precise moment I spot a man Nancy and I had nicknamed “the bird man” on our hike to the lake two days prior. This is now the second time I have reached a summit of a climb with this man who to me should be a “stranger.” We share views on our love for yoga and meditation. “Everything is a meditation,” he says. “Especially when coexisting with nature,” I say back, quoting one of my favourite authors : “Either meditate on love, or love meditatively.” In silence, we naturally part ways. As a group, we begin our decent. Nancy, a little too quickly. Taking a wee tumble on our way down, “AM I DIRTY?!” she exclaims ( whilst still on her back, edge of a cliff and all ) ! “Nancy! Find your footing,” we all insist. When she does, brushing the mud off her face, “I get the dirty award,” she says. Which might be by she’s stopped by a camera crew on the way down the mountain. They ask her about her experience. She tells them this is her second time climbing this mountain: “I am 54-years-old.” “And my husband is home watching the dog, which is how I am able to come.” Pulling the camera away from his face, “That’s a very cute comment about your dog,” he says. Making our way home to see the pups at Surya, we decide to spend the evening by sharing stories, playing music, and dancing all together. Later, by the fire, I find myself immersed with a group of instant-friends from Israel. Another friend from Brazil. It’s a story of a story of a story… Here’s to trusting – dirty or clean – we are all One. And the same. Day Four It’s 2 a.m. and I cannot sleep. Perhaps my mind is on because tomorrow we head back to the big city of Rishikesh. Boy do I ever prefer feeling connected by disconnecting… Making the most of my last hours in nature, I bring my sleeping bag to the porch of our tent. I lay on my back with my face to the starts. The night’s sky is as clear as I have ever witnessed. The silence is so profound I question if it’s all a dream. Within an hour… I see five shooting starts. By 4:30 a.m., I suddenly sense strongly to go back inside. Within moments I hear Buddy, our guard dog, going berserk. It is here I am reminded of how much the soul knows what to do… it’s just a matter of listening to the quiet voice from within. I finally fall asleep. By just after 6 a.m., Mukesh is at our tent greeting us with coffee. We’re to eat and hit the road back to Rishkesh by 8 a.m. That doesn’t stop us from having one last yoga session starring at the mountains before we depart. Aum. The way home is spent mainly in silence, listening to wordless music, allowing ourselves time to reflect. Digest. And return home… In our own ways. We share one last dinner in our Rishikesh garden. Tomorrow, we are to share one last lunch. Girish, our driver, has invited us all to his house. Then after, we are to drive Mary and Brie to the airport. Ironically, happening totally by happenstance, at the exact same time Mukesh and I are dropping Mary and Brie off, we will be simultaneously picking up my sister who is coming in from the States. The same country Brie, Mary and Nancy are all from... “We are like one tiny family,” Mukesh says to me, “With Nancy being like the head.” “Or head case!” I innocently joke. ( I can’t end this chapter without mentioning Nancy’s amazing skill at being 20-minutes late for every planned event. Her painfully adorable bichon frisee socks, matching the type of dog she has a home. And her endless attempts to convince me I am to marry her son, whom I have never met. “It’s happening!” says Mukesh. ) In the words of Narendra… “COME ON NANCY !” “CHALLO !” ( Meaning… let’s go !) It’s a story, of a story, of a story… Here’s to my global family. City and village alike.