Sunday, December 24, 2006

Juice Fasting: Don't Eat It

I have just recently finished my juice fasting program at the Sivananda Ashram in Kerala, India. It's really amazing the difference that I have noticed in my mind (relaxed and focused) and my body (I lost 10 lbs). Juice fasting isn't as pure as the original water fasting, but it has the same benefits, while allowing you to have the energy to get out of bed and still enjoy life. Do a Google search for "juice fasting" and you will find 865,000 results. It's certainly not a new concept.

The program I participated in merges the practice of yoga asanas, ayurvedic massage, clysmatics (gravity colonics), flower essences and alternative medicine, such as Kinesiology and Parasite zapping. Surprisingly enough, I rarely felt hungry (although that didn't stop me from discussing the Godmother sandwich, In n Out, pizza, Indian food and Mexican food with my fasting mates).

Each day we drank quite a bit of juice and then for dinner we had a fresh vegetable broth. All of our fruits and vegetables were locally grown, in season and picked ripe, for optimum benefits. We also took Bentonite Clay (absorbs its weight in toxins) and Psyllium Husk (for bulk) 3 times a day.

Example Menu: Orange Juice for Breakfast, Pineapple-Lemon Juice for Brunch, Carrot-Tomato Juice for Lunch, Mixed Vegetable Broth with Lemon for Dinner, each meal is followed with herbal supplements.

The key to fasting is to get as far away from temptation as possible. The Ashram was a perfect retreat for avoiding temptation. They keep you busy with chanting, prayers, classes, workshops and waiting in line for the Internet. There was a feast on Christmas day, however, it was vegetarian, so I don't feel like I missed too much.

Running the fasting program is Parameshwara (aka Frank) and Susannah, his assistant from Quebec. They are very nice people who have been involved with fasting for many years. Parameshwara is 76 years old and seems to be in great health. Susannah is a gorgeous older woman who reminds me of Jane Goodall. If only we could all age so well. Five times a day, before each juice, we would sing (Om Namah Sivaya) and say a prayer (thanking nature for our juice).

The last four days of the program are for breaking the fast, which means you start to eat whole foods, like fruit and vegetables. This is when the program seems the hardest because you feel like you can start eating anything and indulge. However, the stomach has shrunk and you will get sick if you overdo it. I feel extremely full every time I eat now!

Suggestions when fasting: Bring a great book to read (for distraction), relax, relax, relax (stress makes you hungry), make sure you get massages as a reward for your sacrifice

Photography by me.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Sivananda Ashram: Just Like Home

My first five or six days staying in the Sivananda Ashram (outside of Trivandrum, India) were a bit rough. I had a lot of trouble acclimating myself to the new environment and way of life and found myself withdrawing. The chanting, prayers, yoga sessions and juicing times are all scheduled. There were a lot of bugs. I wasn't a big fan of my room (request the Kailash building if you go). And I was in the fasting program, making it even tougher.

However, once I got used to the routine and learned how to relax a bit I came to realize it's a lot like going home. At home there usually aren't too many really exciting things going on, but that is the beauty of it. At home there are sometimes struggles over use of the bathroom and the Internet. At home you decorate for the holidays and have the occasional visit from Santa. At home you eat together in the evening, and at home there is always someone there for you when you need them. The same holds true for the Sivananda Ashram in Kerala.

I have met so many wonderful people at the Ashram from countries all over the world, including Switzerland, Japan, Ireland, England, India, Canada and China. I have also had the chance to immerse myself in the Hindu religious practices, which are incredibly beautiful. One of the best things about the Ashram is that they are open to people of all religions and races, and it's probably the only place I've ever been to where I didn't feel judged by a single person.

There are Pujas (prayers) performed regularly in different places. One night we hiked up the mountain and witnessed the local villagers Puja at a sacred location. The sunset was incredible and the candle lit ceremony was very intriguing. However, watching the local children's interactions was my favorite part. When you are in a small town they love to stare at foreigners because they are so rarely seen, and when they smile and wave at you with their shy innocence it makes you want to take them home.

On Christmas we had the weekly talent show, where visitors can do whatever they like on stage. A large group of people chose to perform "Silent Night" in nine different languages, including Spanish, French, Dutch, English, Japanese and one of the seventy native languages of Ethiopia. After each was sung individually the entire audience joined in and we all sang in our native languages at the same time. Perhaps it sounds cheesy, but I found it quite moving.

Should you choose to visit an Ashram, wherever it may be located, be prepared for rooms with minimal accommodations and people with very big hearts.

Suggested Chant: Om Namah Narayanaya (said to promote world peace)

Ashram Pickup Line: You Have Great Energy (haha)

Photography by me.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Singapore: Destination Airport

Yesterday I had an eight hour layover in the green city of Singapore. The city/country has been trying to attract more visitors and loosen it's rules, a bit. When you leave the airport terminal and go to the tourist booth you will receive a free bus pass for the day, a free shower at the spa inside the airport and other discounts. There are numerous free high-speed internet kiosks inside coffee shops and at terminal intersections.

Not to mention the Oasis at gate E8, which supplies numerous large plasma screen TVs to view every popular cable channel. There are chairs that lie flat for sleeping and massage chairs that lean back as well. Did I mention this is all free? When wandering around the "E" gates there are also numerous foot massaging machines, newspapers and beautiful plants. On site at the airport is a golf course, botanical gardens, a hotel you can rent in six hour increments and a rooftop pool (see above) complete with tiki bar (it's 90 degrees year round).

Changi Airport Awards and Accolades

If you have time to leave the airport (5 hour layover or more) then I suggest visiting Raffles to do the obligatory tourist thing. Enjoy a Singapore Sling at the bar that invented it inside. If you speak to the greeter outside he may be nice enough to show you the pictures he has with hotel guests Bill Clinton, Michael Jackson and Diana Ross.

Photography by me.

Wednesday, December 6, 2006

India: Close to Home

If you've always wanted to go to India, but hesitate when you think about the day and a half of travel required to get there, then please, read on. Take a yoga class taught by Vytas Baskauskas, where you will get a good workout and possibly learn a few things about the ancient spiritual practice.

Another option is to visit the Self-Realization Meditation Gardens in Encinitas (25 miles North of San Diego). Established in 1937 the Self-Realization Temple has an amazing, immaculate garden complete with an impressive koi pond. To top it off, it overlooks the Pacific Ocean (Swami's famous surf spot) from its home on the cliff. Entrance is free, although the hours open to the public are limited. Don't forget to visit the gift shop a block away for unique gifts.

Vytas' Class Schedule:
Power Yoga (Santa Monica)
Tu-Th 4:30 - 6:00PM
Sa 1:00 - 2:30PM
Su 2:15 - 3:45PM

Monday, November 27, 2006

Around the World: Quick as a Google Search

I use Google Analytics to track the visits to my travel blog. Recently I noticed that there are quite a few visitors from all over the country and around the world. The speed of the Internet has become commonplace. But, I still think it's amazing how easily we can share with our friends and family who live far away now that we have it. Special thanks to my friends in Belfast, Bombay and Basel who make me look more worldly than I really am.

Updated 12/10/06 with new map.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Florida Everglades: See you Later Alligator

I spent New Year's in Miami last year and paid a visit to Everglades National Park. December is the best month to visit because the weather is agreeable. The drive is about an hour and a half if you take the Tamiami Trail. The path inside the park is 15 miles long, so most people choose to take the tram. I suggest doing it right and renting a bicycle ($15/hour).

The first encounter with the alligators is scary. However, after seeing a few of them you will realize they are mostly harmless. Keep a tall stature and the alligators will be afraid of you. And, by all means, do not attempt to pet the alligators!

The trip highlight was the baby alligator I noticed along the trail. He was tiny, vulnerable and incredibly cute.

Another highlight was the airboat ride. Airboats are very different than other boats. It feels really strange to glide over the tall saw grass. The downside to airboat rides is the extremely touristy nature. I have a very patriotic shots of an alligator sleeping under an American flag by a totem pole (see above). I couldn't see anything chaining the gators to the pole, so I began to wonder if they were stuffed.

Perhaps the most important reason to visit the Everglades is to learn about its ecosystem. Although the park has legal boundaries, it is still greatly affected by the surrounding neighborhoods and businesses. Visiting is a great reminder of how fragile our planet is and that we need to take action to promote a more sustainable lifestyle.

Suggested Destination Reading: Tourist Season, Sick Puppy or Skinny Dip (Carl Hiaasen, Miami Herald Staff Writer)

Photography by me and Paul Johnson.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

India: Snakes off the Plane?

I recently heard that approximately 50,000 people die each year in India due to snake bites. I will be staying at an Ashram across from a nature preserve. Wish me luck!

Suggested Puzzle: Snakes on a Sudoku

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Peru: Hot on the Inca Trail

In the summer of 2005, I felt a need to leave the country and do something physically challenging. So, after hounding everyone I could, I finally convinced my college roommate to join me in Peru to hike the Inca trail. The trip was for one week and we spent 4 days on the trail hiking and camping at very high altitudes.

When we arrived in Peru we spent one night in Lima. Lima is a busy city on the arid coast and is not very pretty. However, there is some great shopping to be had at the bigger Alpaca 111 stores and local markets. I would focus my energy on bead necklaces and 100% baby alpaca or vicuna fabric items, the alpaca beanies are invaluable for the hike. Be wary of inexpensive alpaca fabrics across the country, as they are typically 95% brushed polyester.

On the second day we flew to Cusco, a quiet town, which is at about 3,800 meters. This is where I became very sick the first day from the altitude. However, my friend didn't feel the effects of the altitude at all. My suggestion is to be prepared for the worst and plan on staying in Cusco for more than one day to adjust.

Cusco Recommendations: Inka Grill (dinner), Hotel Monasterio (accommodations and food), Explorandes Tour Guides, plenty of coca tea!

Sign up for the local tours as a package. This includes guided tours where you can learn about much of the regions history. A visit to Sacsaywaman will supply you with a good laugh when you hear how it is pronounced. I won't ruin the surprise.

The third day is when we took Peru Rail down to the start of the Inca Trail. Beginning the trail is very exciting because you don't really know what to expect. The porters carry your large bags and all of the accommodations on their backs and consistently beat you to every stop, wearing nothing but recycled rubber sandals on their feet. You almost can't believe it without seeing it with your own eyes.

The trail is a journey of its own. Each day the terrain becomes more lush and the mountain views more breathtaking. Peru has some of the largest hummingbirds you will ever see and there are wild orchids along the way if you look carefully.

Camping and hiking on the trail was so much fun. We saw so many stars, including the Southern Cross, it was absolutely incredible. The night we stayed at the highest altitude (near Dead Woman's Pass) was below freezing and a little brutal, but totally worth it to get to the top the next day. Just make sure you have a great sleeping bag and warm clothes and you'll be fine (REI is my favorite place for gear). Don't forget to give coca leaves to the mountain gods in a ceremony at the top. This will ensure your safe passage on the rest of the trip.

Preparation is key to enjoying the hike. Make sure you are very active and lift weights to gain strength. Take care of your knees. The steep declines along the way are tough to take, so buy a walking stick from one of the locals if it's offered. I paid an equivalent of only $2 for a hand-carved walking stick and it was very helpful!

Prior to reaching Machu Picchu you will come across Wiñay Wayna, which I found to be even cooler than Machu Picchu. I had seen numerous pictures of Machu Picchu, but Wiñay Wayna was totally unexpected. If it's lush and green when you get there, look out for the waterfall on the far side. After Wiñay Wayna you will make your way to the Sun Gate, where you will get the first view of Machu Picchu, renewing your energy for the day.

It's all downhill from the Sun Gate, where you will beam with excitement. Strategically placed llamas will greet you when you arrive and you will feel very territorial after seeing the day hikers that don't appreciate the 4 days and nights you just spent getting in touch with nature. Take pictures, do a quick tour and then get yourself down to Aguas Calientes to enjoy $20 massages, the local hot springs and a much needed Pisco Sour at the local bar.

Our last day was wasted due to a Peru Rail strike. But, we learned that the locals can pack tightly into the last train and still enjoy themselves singing, everything from Guantanamera to the Beatles.

Photography by me (except the awesome cow picture taken by a fellow hiker).

Seattle: The Emerald City Rains Supreme

Seattle is the most beautiful city I've seen in the U.S. I absolutely love the artistic culture and the natural beauty. It's a city completely surrounded by water, the Puget Sound and Lake Union. My favorite Seattle neighborhood is Belltown.

In Belltown, it's not just about location. While you are within walking distance of all the major sites (Space Needle, EMP, Public Market, Pioneer Square) you'll do just fine staying within the neighborhood. Belltown is home to one of the most inexpensive and incredibly chic hotels, as well as numerous clubs, famous music venues and gastronomically delightful restaurants.

Belltown recommendations: The Ace Hotel, Crocodile Cafe (music), Cyclops Cafe (breakfast), Flying Fish (dinner)

On the tourist scene, make sure to visit the top of the Space Needle on a clear day for the the best views. There is an all access pass that will get you into Frank Gehry's interactive Experience Music Project and other nearby attractions for a discounted price. For a different perspective, enjoy a relaxing view of the city while having a picnic at Gas Works Park. The old gas pipes are no longer functional, they now serve as intriguing industrial artwork. Just make sure you get good directions to the park as it's easy to get lost on the way there.

If you're looking for some unique shopping, take a stroll down 1st Avenue. There are numerous shops housing clothing from independent Seattle designers. The shops will lead you to Pike Place Market, where you can watch the famous fish acrobatics, grab lunch and stock up on incredibly fresh fruit (my favorite: the 'Holy Shit' peaches). Across the street from the market is the 1st Starbucks, in all of its original glory. If you're lucky you might even catch a coffee and cheese tasting, the perfect way to refuel after all that shopping.

Even if you don't like baseball, Safeco field is a site to see. I suggest buying tickets for seats between 1st and 2nd base, where the view of the city is quite lovely. It gets chilly, so dress warm and pick up a latte from the many Starbucks inside. Who knew you could find soy milk at a ball park?

Last, but not least, if you find yourself in the drizzle, don't worry yourself with an umbrella, it screams tourist. Find the nearest coffee shop and read a good book or converse with good friends. One of the most indulgent pleasures Seattle has to offer is a quiet, gloomy day.

Photography by me.

1/1/2008: Now that I live here, Ballard is my favorite neighborhood.