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A tour of Bhutan and Nepal: Happiness, Hinduism and the Himalayas

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Yet what did we know about stupas? Maybe we needed the kind of tour provided by professionals after all.

Speaking of stupas, I had never seen one until the morning after we arrived in Kathmandu. Delirious from lack of sleep, we met our fellow tourists in the lobby of the Hyatt Regency, boarded the first of the buses that would take us to and fro for the duration of the trip, and set off for Swayambhunath, a temple complex built atop a hill reached by hundreds of steps. At the very top is the stupa itself, white, with a 13-tiered golden spire.

Stupas are hemispherical structures, focal points for worship and meditation. As our excellent tour guide, Sanjay Nepal, explained, they are typically painted with four sets of eyes pointing in four directions to symbolize the Buddha’s all-seeingness. My own set of eyes did not know what to look at first: the prayer flags fluttering in the sky, the prayer wheels being spun by the devout, the monks on their cellphones or the monks at their devotions?

And then there were the monkeys. Monkeys, monkeys, everywhere — in the trees, on the sleeping Buddha statue, climbing the enormous stupa.

By the end of the day, I would learn that the downside of being on a tour was not, in our case, our fellow tourgoers (who, though mostly older than we were by an average of 12 years, were an energetic, friendly bunch). Rather, it was exactly what the upside of the tour was supposed to be: the schedule, which included meal times and number of sites visited per day. You went where and when the tour took you, even if you would have preferred a good, long après-lunch nap.

The hashish shops are long since closed. But still, I felt as if I was in an altered state when I saw the little girl, known as the Kumari, who is worshipped as the incarnation of the Hindu goddess Taleju. She lives in the 18th-century brick palace of Kumari Ghar; visitors may enter the courtyard and take snapshots of the richly carved reliefs, but may not photograph the goddess herself, should she appear — as she did — at the window of her royal cage, her little-girl eyes huge with ritual makeup.

Kathmandu is home to some 4 1/2 million residents, if you include the towns that it has gobbled up. The city is all but choked, not only by motor vehicles, but also with garbage, pollution, pedestrians, cattle, oxen and stray dogs; and it is still rebuilding, in great plumes of grit and dust, from the 2015 earthquake that killed nearly 9,000 people and injured an additional 22,000.

The city is also home to many religious traditions that have long rubbed up against one another, resulting not just in the parade of stupas that we would see, but also in an almost overwhelming profusion of gods, spirits, demons, carvings, masks, mendicants, monks, music, prayer, ritual and meditative practices.

I would need a lifetime of study to understand the various manifestations of Hinduism, Buddhism, animism, tantric tradition and their offshoots. I can say, in extreme oversimplification, that most Hindu practice revolves around individual deity worship. Buddhism, which came out of the same ancient Indian religious culture as Hinduism, centres on its four Noble Truths, which articulate, among other things, that all suffering comes from craving.

Is one path more peaceful than the other? I would not know. I do know that in Nepal, they are often all mixed up, or coexist, with one another, or share the neighbourhood, as they do in Patan Durbar Square — a different Durbar Square from the one we’d already visited, this one in the Kathmandu Valley city of Lalitpur, the ancient seat of the Malla dynasty. Though now subsumed by the greater Kathmandu sprawl, Patan’s Durbar Square is cleaner and more hippie-free than its counterpart to the north.

Up a hill and over and around stood many temples devoted to numerous expressions of numerous deities. By now it was late afternoon on Day 1 of the tour, and my brain was exploding — or, rather, imploding. It was a lot to take in, particularly since it was well past bedtime in New Jersey. Not to mention that, because I enjoy low blood pressure, I tend to keel over when I am tired or hungry. At an elevation of 4,593 feet, Kathmandu would have been challenging for me even without the overstimulation. As if he could see into my soul, Sanjay sent us back to the bus via rickshaw.

As the tour continued and I wandered through temple complexes, past statues of deities and among robed monks, I began to have a new appreciation of how being rooted in spiritual tradition might be a key to something akin to serenity, to life fully lived.

But nothing quite excited my own lifelong quest for being in proximity to the divine like the Pashupatinath Temple complex, Nepal’s holiest Hindu shrine, where I witnessed my first cremation. My first seven or eight cremations, actually. Because here, along the banks of the Bagmati River — turgid and brown before the onset of the monsoons — is where the devout send their dead to the next world in accordance with the teachings of the Vedas.

The Pashupatinath Temple is a pagoda-style building with copper and gold roofs, dating to the 15th century and surrounded by the additional temples, ashrams and shrines that make up the complex. The whole of it is populated by priests, caretakers, scholars, mendicants, seekers, tourists, knick-knack-and-jewelry sellers, and children, beggars and others so impoverished that you feel guilty about your entire, cushy life.

Still, even surrounded by poverty, I had a hard time dealing with the dearth — at least in public places — of modern, clean toilets. Hotels were fine. Open-air temple complexes, not so much.

Speaking of plumbing, Bhaktapur, a small city some 8 miles east of Kathmandu and the centre of a third of the once-independent city-states in the Kathmandu Valley, was until a few years ago something of an open-air toilet, or so Sanjay said.

Now it is so pristine that you feel as if you have wandered onto a movie set. For the past 2,000 years or so, it has been home to the Newars, master craftsmen who in the medieval era built a splendid city of warm brickwork, back alleys, temples and squares, including the Nyatapola Temple, with five pagoda stories at the top of a steep flight of stairs flanked by statues of elephants, lions and griffins.

A few days later, a short flight took us over Mount Everest and into another world, starting with our approach to the airport, set in a valley surrounded by hills that practically touched the wings of the airplane as we made our descent. By now I was feeling friendly enough with my fellow tour members to make jokes about being “stupa-fied.” I was also punch-drunk from a combination of non-stop touring and high altitude.

An almost untouched swath of forest, mountains, waterways and fertile agricultural lowlands, with a population of fewer than 1 million residents who are governed by a constitutional monarchy, Bhutan is Edenic, and possibly even the world’s happiest country, as it claims to be. But I also wondered if it was not also somewhat, well, rigid.

Take Bhutan’s “national dress” — colourful robes or skirts that certain classes of artisans and professionals must wear to work. Or the ubiquitous billboard-size photographs of the photogenic royal family. Or road signs urging hard work and sobriety.

I did not observe a single person yelling, cursing, road-raging or even frowning. Except me, especially when, during our first night in the capital city of Thimphu, a passel of dogs had a howling contest under my window.

Perhaps they were trying to communicate with the nearby and recently completed Great Buddha Dordenma. At 169 feet tall, it is massive, and as shiny as real gold — because it is real gold, or rather, gold plate. Inside its base, there are some 125,000 additional, much smaller gilded Buddha statues.

No one seemed bothered by the apparent contradiction of a golden statue in a poorly educated and developing country. But herein is the strange wonder of Bhutan: Being there, even with a guide whose job it is to show you an idealized version of the place, is like being immersed in a fairy tale. You want to believe it, too, even while knowing that gross national happiness was introduced as a government goal as recently as 2008.

And why not? Until the 1960s, the country did not have cities (even now the largest city, Thimphu, has fewer than 100,000 people), but was made up of villages, forested uplands and rural, sometimes seminomadic, settlements.

What the country did have were dzongs. These majestic and usually whitewashed fortress-monasteries, typically built along rivers, today are home to both monks and government officials, and are considered to be the physical manifestation of Buddhist principles.

The most beautiful one we saw was in Punakha, where, on a spit of land between the Pho Chu and Mo Chu Rivers, the looming 17th-century dzong was surrounded by blooming jacaranda trees. Constructed of compacted earth, stone and timber with fanciful trimming, the building gives way to courtyards, doors, a large stupa and fanciful statuary, painting and friezes.

We also walked through farming villages and flooded fields to Chimi Lhakhang, a temple and monastery devoted to Drukpa Kunley, the “divine madman” said to have introduced Buddhism to Bhutan in 1499, and famous for the mystical powers of his penis. Thus, as we ascended to the divine madman’s temple, we were surrounded by shops selling phallus curios of varying sizes, including standing statues.

I regret that I did not buy a single penis key fob. But I do not regret that, on our last day in Bhutan, I woke up in the gorgeous Zhiwa Ling Hotel in Paro, took my altitude-sickness pills, and, despite being worried about fainting, hiked the steep, winding trail to the famous Tiger’s Nest Monastery.

Tiger’s Nest is built into a cliff 3,000 feet above Paro and is more than 10,000 feet above sea level. And there before my eyes was every single member of our group of seniors, all of whom had arrived at the much-photographed wonder considerably before me.

I was happy to arrive with all my parts, including my brain, in functioning order, and couldn’t wait to return to our hotel so I could brag about my achievement on Facebook. So what if a bunch of oldsters and little kids had passed me, not to mention the locals who practically danced up the trail, some wearing little more on their feet than flip-flops? Even in flip-flops — or, in the case of some of the women, high heels — they seemed happy.

Whether Bhutan really is the world’s happiest nation is impossible for me to discern, despite my overall impression of a populace that at the very least smiles a lot. Evidence of happiness? Who knows?

All I knew was that I, a woman of a certain age who has had her share of trials and challenges, was standing at the doorway to Tiger’s Nest with a dizzying view of cliff, forest, valley and sky before me, and my true love of 30 years by my side.

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Travel & Escape

Why your hotel mattress feels like heaven (and how to bring that feeling home)

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(NC) Choosing the right mattress is a long-term investment in your health and well-being. To make a good choice for your home, take a cue from luxury hotel-room beds, which are designed to support the sound sleep of tens of thousands of guests, 365 nights a year.

“When we’re shopping for a mattress, we do lab testing, identify the best materials, bring in multiple mattress samples and have our associates test them,” explains David Rizzo, who works for Marriott International. “We ask for ratings on comfort level, firmness, body support and movement disruption. It takes 12 to 18 months just to research and select materials.”

Here, he shares his tips to pick the perfect mattress for your best sleep:

Understand your needs. People have different food and exercise preferences, as well as different sleep cycles. So, it’s no surprise that everyone has unique mattress preferences. Not sure whether a firm or a soft mattress is better? Rizzo says the best gauge is to ask yourself, “Do I wake up with aches and pains?” If the answer is no, you’re golden.

Foam versus spring. All mattresses have a core that is made up foam or innersprings or a combination of the two. Today’s foam-core mattresses contain memory foam — a material engineered by NASA to keep astronauts comfortable in their seats. It’s special because it retains or “remembers” its shape, yielding to pressure from the sleeper’s body, then bouncing back once the pressure is removed.

An innerspring mattress has an encased array of springs with individual coils that are connected by a single helical wire. This wire creates continuous movement across the coil that minimizes disruption if the mattress is disturbed, such as by a restless sleeper. According to Rizzo, the innerspring is “bouncier.”

Temperature preference. Consider how warm or cool you like to sleep, and factor in the construction of the mattress to find one with a temperature that suits you. The air space engineered into an innerspring mattress promotes ventilation, which some people find keeps them pleasantly cool. To accomplish the same purpose with a foam mattress (or the foam layer of an innerspring) it may be infused with metal, usually silver or copper, to help dissipate heat and humidity.

Need to test out the right mattress for your needs? Find the right fit during your next trip by booking your stay at marriott.com.

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Travel & Escape

How to make the most of summer travel

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(NC) One of the best parts of our short Canadian summers is the opportunity to enjoy them a little bit extra on long weekends. If you need ideas, check out these creative things to do whether you decide to stay in town or go away.

Do a dinner crawl. Pub crawls are fun for couples, friends and also families with older kids. For an exciting twist that stretches your dollars and lets you taste food from several spots before you get too full, try a dinner crawl. Eat apps at one restaurant, mains at another and dessert at another.

Go on a mini getaway. You don’t need to go very far to enjoy a vacation – exploring a Canadian city over a summer weekend is great way to treat yourself to a holiday. Whether it’s checking out the museums in Toronto or the parks in Vancouver, there’s something for everyone. For upgraded benefits, special experiences and the best rates guaranteed, join Marriott Bonvoy and book direct on Marriott.com.

Host a potluck. Perfect whether you’re staying at home or going to your cottage, gather friends and family together for some food and fun. A potluck is an easy and affordable way to host a big get-together and lets everyone try something new and swap recipes. Make the festivities extra special with a fireworks potluck, too – ask everyone to bring some fireworks or sparklers and put on a light show. Just be sure to follow local regulations for consumer fireworks.

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Lottoland: Here’s why Canadians love it!

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Lotteries have been in existence for many centuries now and it’s an open secret that most people enjoy playing a good lottery.

Asides from gauging your own luck, the thrill of playing, the anticipation of the results and the big wins every now and then is something most people look forward to. Since 1982, the lottery has been in Canada, but now there is a way to play both the Lotto and other international lotteries from Canada, all from the comfort of your home.

With Lottoland, all you need to do is register and get access to numerous international lotteries right from their website. The easy-to-use interface has all the information you need, and great amount of care has been taken to ensure that the online experience is similar—and even better—than if players were to visit each location personally.

The Powerball and Mega Millions lotteries are hitting record highs with their prize money, in what the organizers claim to be the largest jackpot in the history of the world. However, the U.S. has gambling laws that are state controlled and buying your ticket through an online broker can be considered gambling.

“No one except the lottery or their licensed retailers can sell a lottery ticket. No one. Not even us. No one. No, not even that website. Or that one,” Powerball’s website says.

Therefore, to stand a chance to win the $1.5 billion-dollar lottery jackpot it means you have to purchase your lottery tickets directly from a licensed retailer such as Lottoland.

Since 2013, Lottoland has been operating in Canada, rapidly growing in popularity amongst Canadians. Due to its easy of use and instant access to lotteries that were previously considered inaccessible—as Canadians had to travel all the way to the U.S. to purchase tickets in the past—Lottoland has attracted lots of visitors.

Currently, there about 8-million players on Lottoland, a figure that points to the reliability of the website.

One of the core values of Lottoland is transparency and that’s why a quick search on the website would show you a list of all of their winners. Recently, a Lottoland customer was awarded a world-record fee of $137 million CND.

Also, due to the incredibly slim chances of winning the grand prize not everyone would take home mega-dollar winnings, but there are substantial winnings every day.

Securing your information online is usually one important factor when registering on any platform and as the site explains, “Lottoland works very hard to verify your information.”

The site has a multi-verification process that will ensure that you confirm your identity and age before giving you a pay-out. However, in the rare case that a player has immediate luck and wins a lottery before completing the verification process, Lottoland will hold on to the winnings until they complete your verification.

While this might seem like a tedious process, it is very important as these safety features would ensure that your information wasn’t stolen and ultimately your winning routed to another account.

Lottoland is licensed with the National Supervisory Bodies For Lotteries in several countries such as the United Kingdom, Italy, Sweden, Ireland and Australia—where it is called a wagering license. Typically, most gaming companies don’t establish insurance companies as it entails that their activities have to be transparent and the must be highly reputable in the industry.

Nonetheless, Lottoland has no issues meeting up to these standards as they have established themselves as the only gaming sector company who has its own insurance company—an added advantage for new and existing users.

Lotteries aren’t the only games Canadians enjoy playing and Lottoland recognizes this by providing players with other types of gaming. As an industry leader, video designers of online games often make them their first choice when it comes to publishing their works.

Online games such as slots, blackjack, video poker, baccarat, keno, scratchoffs, roulette and many others are always on offer at the Lottoland Casino. There’s also the option of playing with a live dealer and a total of over 100 games.

Lottoland has received numerous rave reviews from its growing list of satisfied customer and their responsive customer service agents are always available to answer any questions users may have, along with solving challenges they may have encountered.

More and more Canadians are trooping to Lottoland in droves due to the unique experience of going to a casino without having to leave the comfort of their homes.

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