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Asia, Culture

What is Cultural Immersion? I Don’t Think It’s This…

“When I’m in a new place, I don’t want to go to the tourist places; I don’t want to go to museums. I want to see real things.”
Thus began my tour of Nanxun, a water village 1.5 hours outside Shanghai. Our guide, Stacy, began her introduction loudly, Midwestern inflection un-dampened by seven years in China.
Here we go, I thought. I would not be sleeping as I had hoped, for all 18 participants would be introducing themselves next. I’m not sure I had ever been on a real group tour like this before, but that weekend I had the distinct pleasure two days in a row.
Will I do it again? Quite unlikely. Am I glad I went, if only for the wealth of new writing material to come of it? Oh yes.
As our bus hiccupped out of Shanghai, the platitudes rolled on. Introducing her partner, Mike, Stacy continued, “Of course, because Mike is Chinese, he’s good with numbers and dates and things.” 
Chinese towns, people and art, on this tour, were only authentic if over 80 years old.
Those who know me are aware of my crusade against terms like “real” and “authentic.” Last year, after months around tourists bemoaning the loss of “real” Tibetan-Nepali-Indian-etc culture, criticizing restaurants, cafes and people who were not “authentic” and congratulating those who were, I lost my taste for such judgments. After reading a large amount of literature on these discourses, I am convinced that “is it real?” “is it traditional?” and “is it authentic?” are the wrong questions to ask.
Our first stop in Nanxun, naturally, was for toilets. We pulled up outside a large, nondescript hotel where around 40 staff reluctantly moved through their “morning exercises”—something resembling the bastard son of the Macarena and the electric slide. They looked especially mortified to have an American, camera-laden audience, and I couldn’t find the spirit to take any pictures. After all, we all know the miserable feeling of dragging through forced routines.
Indeed, much of the day felt disturbingly reminiscent of an elementary school field trip I and my two aunts didn’t want to be on. We were the disruptive kids at the back of the bus.

As we marched single file through the house of a certain Mr. Wang (a retired blacksmith well over 80 years) to see his traditional Chinese oven, all I could think was, “What is the point of this?” 
I, like Stacy, enjoy seeing into people’s lives and homes. I tend to be nosy and curious and have few boundaries when I travel. I have participated in many home-stays and exchanges. But I hope I would never be so entitled as to walk into a stranger’s home, practically without conversation, take a few pictures, and leave.
What did we all learn that day in Mr. Weng’s home? I, for one, have no idea.
Stacy has branded her tours as off-the-beaten-track cultural immersion experiences. Certainly, I saw parts of Nanxun and Shanghai that I may not have stumbled on alone, but is it even possible to immerse ourselves in another culture in any meaningful way in just 8 hours? 
I wonder.
We spent a hefty chunk of the afternoon in a retirement home with three charming Chinese women. Why? Because, “these old folks have so much wisdom to share.” Our interview, however, proved far too short to extract much of any depth. And though I did learn that I should not dry my face immediately after washing it and that “There is more food now” than in the Mao years, that was about it.
One spry and flexible 90-something retiree led us through her morning Qi Gong routine. Later, I had the dubious honor of hearing “Jingle Bells” played on traditional Chinese instruments. Still, each stop on our itinerary, our “conversations” with local people, and our glossy overviews of entire schools of religious thought struck me as more shallow than anything else.

Museums and retirees are equally “real.” Back alleys are not intrinsically superior to touristy main ways. Cultural immersion does not emerge automatically with the right combination of orchestrated meetings and exposure to dirt. Cultural immersion does not literally mean walking in and out of a local person’s kitchen. It is far more elusive. It requires more depth.

That is not to say we should give up hope of having meaningful, culturally immersive experiences when we are short on time. 
But let’s not place the things we see into two categories: real and unreal.
When we have the opportunity to engage with another culture, let’s really engage. Ask questions. Look and see and taste and listen.
Let’s decide for ourselves what is real.
What is cultural immersion? That is a big question to answer, and maybe later I will try to go into it (though I’m not sure I have a satisfactory answer to give), but I am fairly certain it is not this.
~

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Asia, Culture

Shanghai Snippets

In Shanghai, everything is new. Or it wants to be new. Or it will be new just as soon as the old is knocked down and rebuilt. Retirees participate in state-sponsored activities in the park: old men manipulate Chinese yo-yo’s with surprising prowess, women join enthusiastically in chaotic dance fitness classes, and a single lane fills with the discordant cacophony of 20 different sound systems. I like it. More than I had expected. I take a stupid number of pictures of funny signs and storefronts, animal parts that no one wants to see, and gates and doors. My aunts take charge of photographing the family, and other things people will want to look at. Nonetheless, I want to share a few of those photos I took. These are the snippets and bits that caught my eye. I hope you will enjoy…
Dancing in the park with maracas, what else?

Fish heads– for sale or to discard? I’m not certain.

Fresh pomegranate juice just outside the metro station.

The Bund at night.

Street food (pre cooking). For all of the street food fun, check out
http://twohungryvagabonds.com/2014/10/25/cheap-eats-in-shanghai/

“Open Lock. Make Key. Fix Lock.”
An apt description of services offered.

“Alley Curd,” purveyor of (the apparently
very trendy) juice served in IV drips.
Gates and doors.

 ~
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Asia, Culture

Suzhou Snippets

In it’s 2500-year history, the city of Suzhou has developed and refined many times over. It is known for its light, elegant, delicate cuisine and women. Marco Polo, when he visited in the late 13th century, declared it the “Venice of China.” Admittedly, every water town in China seems to bear this moniker, but I think Suzhou is the original.

Suzhou strikes me as particularly ugly upon arrival. Massive, congested highways and bland, expressionless buildings. Never judge a city by its facades, of course. Tucked into pockets, Suzhou’s gardens and old walking streets are magical.

At this time of the year, people come from all over China to eat hairy crab, a prized delicacy harvested from the lake nearby.

If 1 billion people like something, I figure, it can’t be bad…

You have to pull away the organs– heart, liver, etc.– in order to get to the edible parts. “No, that is not good to eat,” the woman helping us said, seemingly each time I pointed at a segment of my remaining crab.

I am lucky to have a lot of “roe” (which I think is actually liver) in my crab. This is the best part… Finally, the crab is tasty, but very scarce, and a whole lot of work to get to. Something to try that I probably wouldn’t choose to order a second time, not least because of the cost– one 200 gram crab costs about 30 dollars!

On our tour of Old Suzhou, our “guider,” Billy, leads us through gardens where rocks, trees and water have been arranged in perfect harmony. Everything symbolizes long life, prosperity and abundance.

The sky darkens as our boat steers down one of the main canals. Red lanterns come to life, and streams of tourists pour along the cobblestone banks.

While on the boat, “fighting noisily and playing on board are forbidden.”

The laborious process of silk making emerged from this bastion of Chinese culture. Silk, you may be interested to know, is not vegan. In order to extract the silk fibers, manufacturers must boil the silk worms’ cocoons, killing the aspiring moths in the process.

Beauty

Is neither tradition nor change,
But somewhere in between.

~

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Asia

Paradise in Pictures

A typical day on Koh Rong:

Wake up to this.
Run through the jungle…
To this, the “other side” of the island, also known as Long Beach.
Run back to this and paint these:

 

Spend the night bar-tending or enjoying an open no-mic night.

And a few shots from Angkor Wat…

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Asia

Escape to Paradise


The universe provides. Yes, she really does, and I will explain the recent series of events that have bolstered my belief in that statement.  Three days ago I woke up at the Golden Fisth Guesthouse in Siem Reap, the developing Cambodian town twelve kilometers from Angkor Wat.  The temple ruins were as spectacular as I had hoped, with the murmurs of history humming beneath every stone, and I had spent two days biking back and forth to visit them.  I had also spent an enjoyable couple of evenings at the Angkor What? Bar with some new friends. In short, now I was ready to leave.
I packed my bag (a process that has shortened from thirty minutes to ten), checked out, and spent a while deciding where I wanted to go next.  The boat to Battambang, a pretty colonial town a few hours downriver and one of my potential stops, had already left. Not wanting to waste a day, I bought a ticket to Sihanoukville instead and spent a decently comfortable night’s sleep on the ten hour bus to the coast.  In the interim, I began to hear rumors that Sihanoukville—praised for its pristine beaches and calm atmosphere—had been ruined by an excess of parties, neon paint, construction, loud music and loud tourists… exactly what I was not looking for.
I arrived at 7am and set out on foot for town, as per usual, stubbornly ignoring the tuk tuk drivers’ warnings that it was eight kilometers away. Eight means four, generally, which is manageable.  I must have taken a wrong turn somewhere along the way, because after well over an hour I arrived not at the beach, but at the port.  It is a large, dirty collection of warehouses, smog, street food I don’t want any part in, construction, and minimal signage.  Frustrated and unwilling to retrace my steps, I formed a plan B.  Maybe I shouldn’t be stopping in Sihanoukville at all, I thought.  Maybe this means I should be continuing straight to the islands, said to be some of Southeast Asia’s finest.
I found my way to the passenger ferry area where a few tourists from the Czech Republic were waiting.
            “Where are you guys going?” I asked.
            “Koh Rong.”
            “Is it a nice place?
            “We hope so!” They laughed.
            “Alright, works for me!”  Tickets were twenty dollars and the boat left four hours later.  I bought my ticket, found breakfast (hunted down breakfast, really), and played cards and chatted until 2pm—departure time.  In the interim, I flipped through my friends’ Lonely Planet and realized the island was a bit beyond my budget.  Oops! Perfect timing for Dave to step on the scene. The dreadlocked Aussie appeared around 1pm wearing angry birds shorts and carrying bags of supplies to the docks.  I guessed that he must work on the island.  He owns two guesthouses, in fact, one about to open, and that is how by the end of the two hour boat ride I had work decorating the soon-to-be Vagabonds Bar in exchange for room and board.  And that is how, less than twenty-four hours after leaving Siem Reap I found myself behind the bar of Island Boys Guesthouse mixing drinks and drinking in my fully affordable  new island life.
So if you don’t hear from me over the next week, it is because I am temporarily lost in paradise with a lot to get done.  You can call it luck, fate or providence, but I am exactly where I was meant to end up, and I credit the universe.
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Everything is Possible; Nothing is Free


The hub of my front tire was bent at a worrisome angle. The brakes screeched so loudly they forgot to perform their intended function.  The bell did not ring and my feet did not reach the ground, but paying 10,000 kp, or $1.25 per day, I couldn’t complain about my rented bicycle.  It carried from the northwestern tip of Don Dep four kilometers along a wide dusty path to the southern side of the island, across a bridge to Don Khone, around, and back—about 25 kilometers in total—and never once muttered about the heat of the midday sun, which is more than I could say.  Don Det and Don Khone are two of the largest of the four thousand[i]islands that break up the Mekong River at the south of Laos.  I stayed on Don Det for four nights instead of my expected two, lolled into oblivion by the heady lotuses of palm trees, green water, good company and late-night bonfires.
Both Don Det and Don Khone are incredibly flat, and my bicycle and I managed to navigate them easily enough. I stopped to see the Phapheng Falls—the massive series of cascades and rapids that thwarted 19thcentury French efforts to chart a water route from Vietnam to China.  I still haven’t seen the Phapheng Falls because when asked to pay a 25,000 kip entrance fee (approximately $3 and by all accords an inconsequential sum) I had a minor breakdown and went on my way instead.  Let me explain… I am more than happy to give my money to fledgling tourism industries, support the countries I am visiting within my means, and in normal circumstances I would never forgo a stunning natural sight over three measly dollars.  However, at that particular moment, something inside me snapped, perhaps triggered by the cold and offhanded attitude of the ticket taker: I wanted my humanity back! I was tired of being a wallet on legs, and I could not bear, at that moment, to pay for one more thing.
A few hours later, repenting somewhat and feeling rather silly, I thought about doubling back, but the distance left to travel and the thought of the ticket taker’s face deterred me and I continued on without another thought for the waterfall.  I am not the only foreigner to lose patience with the aggressive profiteering in Southeast Asia, and I think I conducted myself relatively well.  In my two weeks in Laos, I witnessed shameful shouting matches between backpackers and tuk tuk drivers over a couple of dollars’ misunderstanding; I watched haggling turn ugly over the last quarter, and I saw smiles turn to anger in countless market interactions.
In most of Asia, where haggling is accepted and even expected, the problem lies not in the bargaining itself, but in its tenor.  Backpackers especially complain that the locals try to cheat them and see in them only potential profit; locals complain that backpackers, who measure their poverty by a different scale, are stingy, want everything “cheap cheap” and ask rudely.  Both sides give reasonable cause for the other’s accusations.
Everyone wants to be treated like a person. No one wants to feel like a tray of samosas or a wallet on legs, or a scheming villain.  In my opinion, for tourism to truly succeed someplace, a country’s motivation for drawing visitors cannot be solely monetary.  Obviously tourism is an industry and its purpose is to generate income, but when the desire exists to share one’s culture with outsiders, welcome them into it and benefit from their presence not only in a financial sense, transaction takes the leap to interaction.  In this best case scenario, we break the too-common boom-bust cycle of the tourism industry and see the birth of a new sustainable development model, with tourists returning regularly to places that are welcoming— neither “untouched” nor “ruined,” but real, warm, and human.


[i]An approximate measure which I suspect was chosen for its poetic appeal in collusion with the ministry of tourism.
~
Another beautiful waterfall in Laos, which I did pay to see. 🙂
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Asia, Nomadism

In Defense of Aimless Wandering

Somehow two months have managed to sneak by me since I last posted anything.

In that time I have tried every tropical fruit available in Sri Lanka, spent a night with my family on a houseboat in Kerala, celebrated Christmas Eve with a very drunken Keralan Santa Claus, celebrated New Year’s Eve with my big brother in Varkala, completed an intensive yoga teacher training in Goa, learned about energy healing, overstayed my Indian visa, traveled 40 hours by train from Goa to Calcutta to get an exit visa, sat on the stoop of a man named Asheef and listened to his life story, eaten every kind of street food, sampled scorpions in Bangkok, learned how to make curry paste, biked 70 kilometers to a waterfall in Laos, kayaked from one city to the next, explored a massive cave, avoided abduction by tuk tuk, gotten sick, gotten better, rushed, relaxed, walked, danced and wandered.

Whew! The longer I’ve put off catching up, the more daunting the task has become. Since I couldn’t hope to fill in all the gaps, I will call that caught and move on to a topic that has long occupied my thoughts, especially in the last couple weeks…

Ah, aimless wandering! Some would denigrate you, belittle and besmirch your name, but I would like to come to your defense. Each day, I wake up with no set plan, no idea where I will be tomorrow, and no worries. Each day stretches out before me in an infinite rainbow array of possibility, so bright that the future beyond resembles Sri Lankan hill country, where thick gray fog conceals green valleys of unknown depth.

In moments of doubt I worry that this traveler’s lifestyle I have chosen to adopt for a few months might be frivolous, or that others may judge it so. But then I remind myself: I spend each day from sunrise ‘til well after dark with my eyes, mind and heart wide open—how many people can truly say that? Each day is dedicated to the new, consecrated by the unknown and celebrated by the joy of movement.

If life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans (thanks, Jack), then maybe, just maybe, it is only without direction that we can truly live.

I suspect I may seem to be glorifying an ambitionless, idle existence, writing a slacker’s manifesto as it were. Not so. If plans are the sticky rice of life, then flexibility and spontaneity are the hot red curry that makes that rice not only edible, but beautiful.  I would make the distinction between life without destination and life without intention—the former can manifest in aimless wandering, while the latter results in meaningless grasping.

It is when we wander with purpose that we become frustrated, lost in the twists and curves of an unfamiliar city, unable to arrive at our destination.  But when aimless, without direction, wandering realizes its full potential, and we find suddenly, on arriving, where we were heading all along.  The best swimming holes, cafes, temples, parks and people are not to be found, let alone enjoyed, in a hurry.

To wander aimlessly takes courage, to defy society’s demands for plans and commitments; confidence, to stand by a pursuit that on the surface has minimal value; and perhaps a wisp of insanity and a shred of common sense, to know when to keep going, and when to stop, respectively.  In small doses it can cure most ills, and in large ones it is a lethal injection to normal life.  I defend it wholeheartedly but within reason.

To you, aimless wandering, without whom every journey would be routine.

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11 Things I Won’t Miss About Nepal

On the (almost) eve of my departure, I have prepared this short rant, lest you mistakenly believe that I liked everything about my home of the last 3.5 months. The things I will not miss about Nepal are:

1. The spitting. I don’t care if it’s culturally acceptable, hacking and spitting is still gross.
2. The dogs. I have never before felt absolute hatred for any dog, but when gangs are barking outside my window at four in the morning, I am far too sleep-deprived to feel anything else.
3. Specifically Lucky, SIT’s dog.
4. Being talked about in my presence. Yes, I mean you, homestay family. I might not understand everything you say, but I know when you’re talking about me!
5. The staring. It may be a cross-cultural phenomenon, doesn’t mean I have to like it. Besides, this is Nepal, I know I’m not that much of a novelty.
6. Load-shedding. Twice-daily power cuts on a rotating schedule. It certainly made me appreciate the luxury of constant electricity, but I won’t miss it.
7. Rice and potatoes. All the time.
8. The honking. Unneccessary.
9. The baby ladies (“please, my baby is hungry”) who borrow babies and will sell the milk you buy them back to the store and split the profits.
10. The pollution. Carbon emissions control?
11. Kathmandu’s Indian Embassy. Horrendous.

Next stop India!

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Asia, Culture

Existential Apple Juice

A section from my soon-to-be-turned-in research paper. A little slice of life in Kagbeni and some more thoughts on authenticity.  Next post will be on a new theme, I promise.


            In academic discourse on tourism and authenticity, we often mistakenly assume that either tourists or local peoples can authoritatively define what is authentic.  In reality, authenticity, of experience as much as objects, is a transient and ever-changing concept, different for everyone.  True authenticity depends on one’s state of mind and openness to experience.  It can be contained in a single apple, a single moment, or a single-minded willingness to engage authentically.
            Less than a week into my stay at the Red House Lodge, I already had a Nepali name (Kalpana), a host of familiar faces in town, and essentially a Nepali family.  One morning, upon returning “home” from a walk, Tenzin’s daughter and employees called to me from the picnic table on the flat roof where they were shredding apples to make juice.  Kalpana! Bosnus, Kalpana.” They made space for me and I sat down on the edge of the table, trying to avoid the sticky bits of apple scattered about.  I insisted on helping, as by then they must have expected, picking up a hand-held metal grater (the kind I had only used to grate cheese), and joined my effort to theirs. 
For more than an hour we worked in semi-silence, speaking to ask for more apples (apple, dinnus) or pass a bowl of browning mush to Ammis, who would squeeze it in handfuls to separate liquid from solid.  The only other sounds came from the rasping of small, green apples against metal, the occasional cry of hawks circling the crumbling medieval fort across the alley, and the drip drip drip of fresh-squeezed apple juice trickling into a plastic bucket.  It being an unusually still morning, the prayer flags adorning nearly every rooftop remained quiet and the strong Mustangi sun heated the air.  I changed into a T-shirt, the first and last time that my arms would see the sun in Mustang.  We paused sometimes to sample from the abundance of produce spilling from the deep wicker basket next to us, punctuating the music of shredding apples with the crunch of teeth on fruit.
Apples of every variety grow well in the region around Kagbeni.  Marpha (elevation 2670 meters), a four hour walk south of Kagbeni, boasts the moniker “apple capital of Mustang,” but I preferred the tart crispness of the apples heaped around the picnic table that morning, harvested from Tenzin’s orchard in Pangling, just across the Kali Gandaki River less than an hour from the Red House Lodge.  Though the climate and altitude of Lower Mustang are ideal for the cultivation of apples, it is only in the last few decades that an apple economy has developed there.  Landowners have converted much of their farmland or unused property into orchards, and nearly every restaurant and guest house carries out its own small-scale apple juice-, cider-, and brandy-making operations.  Small bags of dried apples and bottles of apple brandy satisfy the demand of Nepali and foreign tourists alike for edible souvenirs.
My skin warm and my hands coated with sticky brown apple remains, I smiled contentedly at the easy companionship of that moment, which transcended linguistic and cultural barriers.  Shoulder-to-shoulder with my Nepali didi (sister), I grated apple after apple, as quickly and as diligently as the rest, working towards the simple common goal of juice.  Moments like these cannot be manufactured, I remember thinking.  In their beauty, simplicity and spontaneity, such instances of connection and, yes, authenticity, are precious in their inimitability.  Isn’t that the conundrum of the tourism industry, which makes its millions by selling “real” experiences. 
Some research on tourism today is employing the Heideggerian concept of existential authenticity to solve that riddle.  According to Heidegger’s philosophy, inherent meaning and connection exist, and it is these qualities that make experience possible.  In terms of tourism, when one approaches the world with “existential authenticity […], a state of Being in which one is true to oneself,” a unique experience of the world, understood from an individual perspective, becomes possible, and the tourist may experience that inherent meaning.  In these terms, authenticity is not a fixed, objective quality, but rather a state of mind, rendering it nearly impossible to package and market.  Taking the Maori’s staged cultural demonstrations as an example (which emerged as a response to non-Maoris producing cultural shows for tourists), “staging pseudo-events for tourists can, in fact, be expressions of host authenticity in deciding how to present themselves to others.”[1]  Whether a tourist witnessing this show finds it authentic is not the question here; the tourist who is attuned to his or her “existential self” will experience it authentically regardless.
At six o’clock, the night before apple juice-making day, I ate dinner with the group of Ukranian trekkers in the rooftop dining room.  Candlelight cast faces and food into a dynamic interplay of shadow and warm glow, and we lingered over glasses of Tenzin’s mother’s homemade cider.  My dinner companions struck me at first as naïve and impressionable— every monastery, every person they met, and every interaction with local people awed or inspired them, it seemed.  They attempted to quiz their Nepali guide about himself through several layers of translation (from Russian to English to Nepali and back), saying, “we have been in Nepal trekking two weeks, but we don’t know any real Nepalis.”  Predictably, the attempt at conversation faltered, yet the more I reflect on this group of trekkers, the more I appreciate their unusual and sustained efforts at making connections.  Revisiting that evening through a Heideggerian lens, I wonder if their willingness to engage with everyone and everything they encountered and the sincerity of their desire to experience Nepal, uninformed and naïve though it may have been, might not have resulted in a truly authentic experience.
The philosophy behind existential authenticity may appear hopelessly complex, but its implications for tourism study and marketing are straightforward yet rich in possibility.  If we admit that there is no objective authentic culture, that neither outsiders nor locals can make such a judgment, and we focus instead on individual authentic experience, existing mainstays of tourism marketing may prove misguided.  The shopkeeper who insists that, “this bracelet is really Tibetan. Really” might realize that her neighbor who converses and connects with customers does more business.  The tour guide offering to show his group the “real Mustang,” and its most meaningful cultural treasures, might lose out to the one who allows visitors to determine for themselves what is meaningful and seek for themselves authentic engagement with a foreign culture.
Apple juice perhaps can be bottled, mass-marketed, and sold at a profit (though I believe it tastes best in small batches), but the existential authenticity contained in a moment of shredding apples at a warm picnic table cannot.  Experiences like those are invaluable, fleeting and individual; at best, a guide or tour might provide support for those tourists who wish to attain them.


[1]Steiner, Carol J. and Reisinger, Yvette. “Understanding Existential Authenticity.” Annals of Tourism Research, Vol. 33, No. 2. Pp. 299-318.
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Around Kagbeni

Now that I’ve left, I thought I’d share a few pictures from my time in Kagbeni…

View from the old fort, 16th century, across the street from the Red House Lodge where I stayed.

View of Kagbeni from above. Photo credit Tasha Kimmet.

Protector grandfather standing guard at the old gate to the village, now somewhere in the middle of town.

At the top of the Golden Hill– finally made it!!

Baby dzo (yak-cow)- my favorites.

Library at the Kag Chode Monastery.

Yac Donald’s Restaurant. A little bit of America in Mustang… I’m lovin’ it?

Traveling convenience store.

My Nepali didi-ji. You don’t need to share a language to be sisters.

Apple juice-making day!

Making friends with monks. Typical day in Kagbeni.

Apple juice and family time.

That’s all for now. See you on the other side of 40 pages of writing!

~
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