I’ve been back in The Netherlands for a few weeks now (and in fact leaving again in less than two weeks from now), and I find it has been surprisingly normal. I know I have been totally neglecting you with my blog posts and seeing as how I have recently discovered people actually read them, I almost feel bad about this. But I have plenty of ideas and still some unpublished blogs from way earlier that I will publish sometime soon.
Do you know that moment, when you walk off a plane and pass customs and you see all these people waiting for their loved ones? Every time I pass this area, I look around for a familiar face. I never expect them to be there, but it is an automaticity. I always look. And when I arrived back home from being away for 6,5 months, I didn’t even have to search for a familiar face, because they were at the front of the crowd, right there in my face, unmistakably, my friends.
Even though I didn’t want to expect somebody to be there sometime, I’m the kind of person that remembers… a lot. So I kept it locked away in my mind somewhere that one of my friends had asked for details on my return flight when I left, so I had my suspicions. But what I did not see coming, was the banner. They made a freaking banner. Mind. Blown.
After I got past the fact that it felt so weirdly normal to be with two of my best friends whilst not having seen them for so long, it was like I had never left. I also experienced this when another friend came to visit me in Jakarta. I was looking through the stream of people coming into the arrival hall at the airport and occasionally you will see someone and wonder ‘is this my friend?’ But it is never them, because when it is actually the person you are waiting for you will know it instantly and you don’t even have to ask yourself.
I felt like everybody expected me to have changed when I came back. Maybe they expected me to have become Buddhist, or maybe they would wonder if my native language skills have decreased a bit, or if I would now be this sophisticated, well traveled, young woman who feels like she has ‘seen the world’ (which, I have to admit, is a little true). And yeah, maybe I have changed in some ways. I have seen more, I have learned more, I have more knowledge and experiences, maybe some new ambitions or insights, but my personality has not changed. I’m still the same person as I was before I left. We’re just at a different point in time, at a different location, but it is weird how you find yourself wondering if you will still have something to talk about, and, oh my god, what will we talk about? But you never wondered about this before, so why start now?
And I found myself wondering why people would expect this. Maybe it is the fact that when you don’t see someone for a long time they always seem to look slightly different and they have many new things to tell, new topics to discuss and new insights to share. But you have read all of my stories and know a lot of what I have experienced. So when I see the people I have been away from for so long they ask me to tell them all about it, as they seem to think I have many stories to tell. And yeah, I could tell a few, but I notice I’m more interested in what they have to tell. After all, I already know how my stories end, but I have been kind of out of the loop where the lives of my friends are concerned.
Of course, as any returning traveler, there are some things that I miss, some things that I’m very happy to have again and some interesting moments, created by a new set of eyes.
Euros felt like foreign money, but I’d gotten used to it quite quickly. Speaking to people in my native language felt like I had mastered a foreign one and I was actually proud at the well structured sentences that left my mouth. Doing laundry and dishes again is not something I had missed, and could have done without for the rest of my life. Cooking all my favorite meals has been a joy and sharing a meal with my loved ones has been even better.
Walking into a Dutch supermarket felt like walking into a foreign one at first. Different products, prices, people… Maybe they renovated during my time away, they changed their assortment… But there were also some items I had missed and it felt really nice walking into a familiar supermarket and knowing exactly what to get and where to find everything.
Coming back to Groningen, I had expected them to have made huge progress on the mall-like building they were busy with when I left, but I found it in the exact same state as when I left, while two other buildings just seemed to pop up out of nowhere.
You know how they say ‘it is like riding a bicycle’? With this saying, one tries to say that you will never forget how to do it. And while this may be true, and I still knew how to ride a bicycle, muscles do weaken and make it harder for you to do so. The first time I got on a bicycle was completely embarrassing and made me realize I had neglected some of my muscles. It’s going much better now, thankfully.
When I went out to dinner to spend some quality-time with one of my besties, I saw the huge white walls and I kept looking up expecting gecko’s to appear out of nowhere. And I noticed that we have so much less bugs here. I guess it’s too cold for them, which brings me to my next point: the cold.
I got off the plane in flip flops and a thin sweater, as I didn’t have anything warmer. So when I arrived at my brothers house, I took a hot shower and dressed in many, many layers, drank a bunch of tea and went to bed cold anyway (and I had to get out in the middle of the night because the tea decided they couldn’t wait until morning to make an exit).
When I went back to my mothers house where all the crap I call my possessions is stored I got to open all the boxes that I had packed away seven months ago. Let me tell you, it was like shopping for free. I was so grateful for my collection of warm sweaters and my ginormous winter coat. I also gained a new appreciation for gloves. I forgot many of the clothes I had, which made me realize how unimportant stuff is. Clothes are replaceable, as are all the other items I stacked away.
So, I’m getting used to the cold again, I guess. And I liked dressing up again, putting on some make-up, trying on all my old clothes. And the past few weeks have been filled with fun dates and events. The jet lag was less severe than I expected, which was great. I was quite tired in the evenings, but all that did was ensure I would go to bed early and get up at a reasonable hour, and even after three weeks, I’m already back to my lazy old self that cannot get out of bed in the morning. I had so many people to see and most of them I have already seen, my schedule was crazy (also, because I picked up some work at the university, which sounds a lot more glamorous than it is). The next week I am completely free and I will spend it doing more of the things I love, seeing the people I love and packing my bags for the next adventure: working at a campsite in the south of France.
It truly was a once in a lifetime experience. Meaning, I would not do it again.
I am back from a 10-day silent retreat, and I have witnessed many beautiful things. Everybody stopping on their way to the next activity to watch the sunrise together; pausing on a path with several other people to watch some kind of huge (huge!) grasshopper crossing over on our way to lunch; people silently working together to finish an almost empty pan of food; ten girls looking frightened to death when a snake was spotted right on the main path, but nobody breaking the promise of silence to scream; listening to everybody’s bones crack in unison during the right yoga move; everybody drinking hot chocolate together while watching monkeys play around five meters away from us.
There is a great unity in a group like this and that is something that is not easily recreated elsewhere. The silence causes magical moments, and in this blog I will share my experience with this 10-day retreat. Let’s start with a rundown:
Registration day: Did I sign up for a prison experiment?
Day 1: Pain
Day 2: Ready to leave
Day 3: Frustration
Day 4: Mr. Miyagi.
Day 5: Lying organizers
Day 6: Life at the zoo
Day 7: Buddha says no
Day 8: Pure bliss
Day 9: Magic
Day 10: Hair everywhere
Day 11: Finally
But for those of you, for whom this is a bit too cryptic; let me go into a bit more detail. All of these parts are almost literally copied from the notebook I was carrying with me, in which I wrote about my thoughts and experiences. And I’ve cut a few parts out, because this post is already extremely long, but some anecdotes will end up in a second blog post soon.
Everybody got a chore. And they said it is not about the work. It is about doing your task mindfully. Well, I’m just all about efficiency, so I just got the job done and took a nap. The thing is, my task was sweeping the walkway around my dorm. And after doing that after lunch on day one and two, I noticed it was already rather clean. So I was happy that it wouldn’t be a lot of work. However, on day three I changed my schedule to do it in in the morning instead and an old gray-haired lady was doing my task. She is very sweet, she smiles all the time. And the funny thing was, that every time we had some free moments, she was in the dorm and exchanged her clothes for a sarong. And even after writing her a very illegal note saying that she was supposed to sweep the inside and I was to do the outside, she kept on doing my chore.
I’m not one for doing double work, and seeing as how miraculously someone else was sweeping the inside as well, I used my free time to lie down for some lying meditation (read: napping).
Registration day: Did I sign up for a prison experiment?
I just want to quickly explain the program of this retreat. We would get up at 4.00, start with a morning reading at 4.30, proceed to meditate for half an hour, go to yoga, another reading and meditation session and then at 8.00 there was breakfast. At that point, we would have 2 hours of free time. At 10.00 there were more talks and meditation sessions, including a walking one, and at 12.30 there was lunch. Another 2 hours of freedom, and then more talks, meditation (sitting and walking) and an hour of chanting and loving kindness meditation, before drinking hot chocolate at 18.00 and making use of the 40 degrees Celsius hot springs that were located at the retreat. The last activities were more sitting meditation, half an hour of group walking (walking in circles around the ponds, in the dark, in a row) and another half hour of meditation. At 21.00 we could go to bed.
We all got a straw mat, a wooden pillow (block is more like it. Screw that, I took a pillow that was leftover in the meditation hall on day 3), a blanket, a lantern and a mosquito net.
One of the monks explained the uncomfortable beds and “pillows” to us in a way that actually made sense: “When the bell rings and it is time to get up… You will want to get up. Because your bed is so uncomfortable.”
I should try this at home. But I won’t.
The mosquito net really provided a safe haven. I don’t mind insects as much anymore, but I really don’t want to think about them crawling onto me in the middle of the night. And with the mosquito net, I was guaranteed that the two spiders that were taking up residence in my room would stay away from my resting body.
Everything here takes a lot of effort at first. To take a shower by throwing buckets of water on yourself is not as efficient as standing under a stream, washing all the clothes by hand takes a lot of time… But the thing is, it’s not like we have anything better to do, so it really doesn’t matter.
Day 1: Pain
During the first chanting class we had, it quickly became clear that our teacher was an aspiring comedian. Although, he should get some new material, because he repeated the same jokes several times during the retreat.
“When I go to Bangkok, I use the train. But I don’t use the toilet on the train. It is very, very dirty.” He stayed quiet for a beat before adding: “Ah Dukkha.” (I’m sorry, this joke is funny to those with some knowledge of the Buddhist terms, and it won’t be funny otherwise, even if I explain).
“Some of you may be here to quit smoking. You don’t have to. You just have to smoke Buddha’s cigarette.” He breathed in deeply, and breathed out again. “You can smoke all you want.”
I recently realized it’s not necessarily the insects/reptiles/rodents themselves that freak me out, but it’s the speed with which they move. Before you know it, they are right there on top of you. And yes, they are probably more afraid of me than I am of them, but what if that causes them to use that speed and hide under the clothes that you are wearing? Brrr!
The meditation part basically consisted of a 16-step plan to get to the ultimate blissful feeling, called nibbana (nirvana in Sanskrit). And not the ‘smells like teenspirit’-kind. Some would progress to a later part of this plan, some would stay at the first two fases, but mostly we would just have to practice. This starts with mindfulness. Being aware of your thoughts, of your movements, and mostly, of your breath.
This all turned out to be a lot harder than it sounds.
Day 2: Ready to leave Okay, let’s categorize those thoughts and let them go. I can do this. Pain. My friends. Mom. Pain. Homesickness. My brothers’ house. Pain. Scenario. Pirateship (…?) Pain. Pain. Pain. Is there a way to sit that I haven’t tried yet? I don’t think so… Oh, the person over there is stretching, I’m not the only one that’s suffering and not meditating! Shoot, I was supposed to categorize… … … Pain. Ah, mosquito! Aarghh
As you can read from the excerpt of my thoughts, I was in pain. After sitting on the floor for a whole day, there were many body parts that hurt. My mind won, and I decided to leave. So I went to the woman who is our ‘dorm leader’, whose name is Susan, just like one of my best friends, which made her awesome right away. She lives in Boston and comes to visit this place for a few months every now and then. I felt a connection to her when she showed us around on the registration day, and I thought she would understand me better than the hardcore Asian Buddhists walking around there as well.
The solution turned out to be really simple. She would just get me a chair. And yeah, that works… And then she put into words one of my flaws. One that I have noticed before, but never in a manner this concrete.
“You need to ask for what you need,” she said. “I bet you wouldn’t have any trouble asking for a chair for somebody else.”
And she was right. I would have gotten a chair for somebody else in my position, but for myself, I would apparently rather quit than ask to be an exception.
The early days of this retreat reminded me of hazing. A lot. Sitting in a hall, silently, for hours each day. The whole camp part where you eat in a dining hall, do your own dishes, walk around all day like you just got out of bed… The waking up in the middle of the night to the sound of bells. The not speaking, yet having a bond amongst the participants. The only difference is that everybody was very diligent in their chores, causing everything to be way cleaner than your average student dorm.
Day 3: Frustration How is it that gecko’s and spiders and other creatures can walk on the walls… Do they have sticky feet?
Since the moment I arrived, my mind has been telling me to just leave. It’s okay, you tried. Maybe this is not for you. To learn to meditate you should be alone, not surrounded by all these people… You know you will watch everything, so you will never be able to focus. Don’t you want to sleep in a comfortable bed and take an actual shower? And how about a nice fresh mango juice or… SHUT UP!
This was all my brain could think about sometimes and frankly, if anything, I feel proud to have overcome that. I knew that if I made it halfway I would stay, so I just told myself to stay with it until the end of day 5. My mind was not amused. It kept pushing. What also didn’t help was the fact that I was feeling very homesick. I was already a bit homesick before coming to the retreat, and the feeling intensified. All I could envision was getting on and off that ‘final’ plane, seeing my friends and family, handing out the souvenirs and even riding my freaking bicycle. I haven’t been homesick until about a month ago, not really. But as the day is coming closer, it is yet another thing to look forward to and to become exited about. And I am. Which is very unmindful of me.
One of the chants has the following sentence in it:
‘The past has left us, the future has not arrived,’ meaning we should focus on the here and now. But that’s easier said than done.
So, I had a hard time focusing today and I was looking forward to chanting, because that always takes my mind of off things. Whatever those things may be. But this time the funny monk wasn’t there. It was a woman who is doing the same chants, but in a very slow rhythm.
While chanting, I felt kind of down. No reason, just one of the many downs in a series of ups and downs. And as we were close to finishing I heard sniffles and broken sobs coming from my right. I looked over and saw a girl crying. Apparently she was having a tough moment. So I silently (duh) offered her my hand and smiled, but then I looked away to give her her privacy in a moment of weakness. And that is how we sat out the last ten minutes during which we heard the words of the loving kindness meditation and then took a moment to spread it mindfully by ourselves. When we let go, I gave her a smile and we went our separate ways.
Day 4: Talking to mr. Miyagi. I know a bear that you won’t know, yogi, yogi, I know a bear that you won’t know, yogi, yogi bear Yogi yogi bear! Yogi yogi bear! I know a bear that you won’t know, yogi, yogi bear
Yogi’s got a girlfriend bear, Suzie, Suzie Yogi’s got a girlfriend bear, Suzie, Suzie bear Suzie Suzie bear! Suzie Suzie bear! Yogi’s got a girlfriend bear, Suzie, Suzie bear
(The rest of this song is censored by the author and I don’t recommend you clicking this link if you are sensitive in any way)
Do you think this is random?
So did I. The strangest things pop into your mind when you are thinking – eh… not thinking. Something left over from my student life. I guess the link was to yoga, but who knows. Speaking of which, I silently wept like a baby during yoga this morning. No reason. I guess I was just letting go of some tension and stress. It was a weird experience though.
It’s funny how people feel more and more relaxed. They randomly leave meditation sessions, notes are being passed around; they go outside of the guidelines sometimes. They become themselves, more and more. They let go.
And I have never heard this many farts in my life. I feel like people just started doing whatever, because nobody can talk and thus nobody can say anything about it. And people will probably not remember them doing these things on day eleven.
For those of you who are wondering if I farted in public, the answer is no. And that is not something I intend to do. Besides, the food here does not cause any digestive problems whatsoever… I guess some people just aren’t just to healthy vegan food.
In the afternoon, I had a talk with one of the teachers. He was a very friendly man, and even though I knew his name, in my head I kept referring to him as Mr. Miyagi. I told him it wasn’t really happening for me, he said just keep trying. It was a very enlightening conversation.
Day 5: Lying organizers
I can’t believe everybody is still sitting on the floor. They must be in agony! Every now and then (actually quite often) somebody stands up, to stretch their legs. And usually if one starts, the rest will follow and they will stay standing for a little while. And I never fail to think: “Oh captain, my captain” when they do this (r.i.p. Robin Williams).
Today they tried to lift up some spirits by saying we are already halfway through the retreat. It is day five, of the ten days. They are lying. We are halfway when we go to bed tonight.
I’ve created a whole new way of counting days. It’s becoming quite elaborate. Right now, it is day 5, which means I still have day 6, 7, 8, 9 & 10 to go. And a little of day 11. That is 5 whole days, plus what’s left of today, plus the morning of the 11th. And it’s March 5th. On March 11th I will go to Surat Thani. The 17th I will fly home. That is in 11 days. Less than two weeks!
Time does not go by very fast, obviously. But I keep trying to remember… I’m in a monastery in Thailand, doing a meditation retreat. That is so awesome. I’m so grateful for my life and the opportunities I have. But I still want to leave and my mind won’t turn off. Meditating for 30 minutes each day would be fine, but this is overload. But if I leave I am pretty sure I will feel like a quitter. If I were to leave, it would have to wait until tomorrow anyway. I would leave straight after breakfast and spend a whole day eating in bed. And sleeping. And reading my messages.
Oh my god, I just saw some sort of river snake. Freaky.
There was more thinking today, more not-meditating, more fart noises coming from my fellow participants.
I expected some profound thing to happen here, to achieve some sort of emotional breakthrough. So far: just regular thinking and a bit of boredom.
But at the end of the afternoon, the words were spoken: “Just ask for concentration. It doesn’t have to be a prayer, you don’t have to ask God. Just ask someone.”
So I did. I asked for concentration and we all know the saying… So I received. And I sat for thirty minutes focusing on my breath and then I walked for the same amount of time and kept my focus. After that I stopped it and I couldn’t get it back, but still… progress!
Day 6: Life at the zoo
Often I find myself giving wildlife-documentary like commentary. “Here we see the females gathering at the watering hole. They appear to be washing themselves by throwing buckets of water over themselves. Humans are a very efficient kind of species. They don’t all bathe in the same water in order to preserve the hygienic state.”
Or: “Now let’s move on to the grass fields where the males and females are grazing calmly, coolly, while only occasionally stealing glances at the opposite sex, as they are otherwise strictly separated in this camp.”
I feel like a zoo animal too, sometimes. Eating, sleeping, walking, sitting, bathing… Keeping to a strict schedule, while not communicating can do that to you. It’s living life just like the elephants. I’m sure if people would come here to just walk around and observe us, they would get their money’s worth. I mean, people walk around with their eyes closed, they fart shamelessly and they randomly get into all sorts of yoga positions. Should make for interesting reality TV too.
I thought some more about the farting and it’s funny really. This is a silent meditation retreat. And they make noise! Although, yes, the silence does refer more to talking and no communication, so I guess unless by farting they are trying to say they have to go to the toilet, it’s okay.
And I’m sorry about all the fart talk, it just really fascinates me!
Another activity we do is walking meditation. Walking mindfully, paying close attention to your breath and your body while taking small steps. And also, the slowest steps I’ve ever taken in my life.
While looking around during the walking meditation, I saw a person lying flat on the floor, face down, in the grass, with their knees pulled under them. That’s not strange at all. People can be found in yoga poses at random moments, anywhere on the terrain.
It’s so hard. To meditate you have to let go of your thoughts, but they are all I have left to keep me entertained. I’m not ready to not-think all day long. So, a bit of thinking, a bit of secret writing and maybe 30 minutes of an actual attempt to meditate will get me through the day. After today, just four more days! And just three days until the last day. And 11 days until I go home!
Day 7: Buddha says no Mosquitoes are really just tiny vicious bloodsucking vampires. Kill it with fire! Buddha says no.
I have been so productive here. I planned my next few months, what to eat, how to spend my mornings, what to wear on certain occasions. Now what else can I think about?
I am actually breaking a very important rule (no creative writing or journaling) by writing all this stuff down, but sometimes you just have these thoughts that keep repeating themselves until they get written down. At least I do. And that seems counter productive, so I started writing this shit down on day 2 or 3. And, in fact, it is part of what kept me sane, I guess, which strengthens me in my secret (not so secret now) new career choice – to become a writer. And for all you cynics out there who are now scrunching up their eyebrows, while thinking “yeah, like writing a book and writing a travelblog are the same thing”, I have actually been writing stories (novels) since I was 13. I won’t proclaim they were any good back then (because they were not), but practice makes better (because I’m also not willing to say my current skills are perfect). And this alone tells me that it is truly my passion, but not being able to go without for 10 days is all the confirmation I need.
Also, by now, I’m getting anxious to check my phone. What if I receive a time-sensitive message that warrants my attention?
And then I realized that I have never received a time sensitive message on my personal email. Zip it, mind.
But at least I’ve managed to entertain myself today. Somehow I came up with stuff to think about, such as what kind of awesome things I can still do and when I can do them. Obviously, I came to no real conclusion, because Google was not involved. But it was fun to think and fantasize about anyway. I also thought of some titles for the stories I’m currently writing, which I always put off until the last moment. So yeah, time went… I wouldn’t say quickly, but at an acceptable pace.
Day 8: Pure bliss I wonder what would happen if you put a baby into a bucket of water (alright, maybe a tank or basin would be more humane) right after labor and then never take it out. Because they can survive it at first, this is common knowledge. Would it adjust to life in the water? Would it survive? Is this how mermaids are created?
During yoga, there is no greater joy than that whic
h you experience in the moment when the teacher says: “Now it’s time for 1 minute of Shavasana”
It’s pure bliss.
“Just relax. Breathe in, breathe out. Let go of all the tension.”
But seriously: Most. Relaxing. Moments. Ever.
One of the rules of Buddhism is to never take a life. And I try. I even step over ants to not mess up their migration process. But the only life I cannot seem to value yet is that of mosquitos. They are simply just out to get us. And most of the time, they even succeed!
“Tomorrow is day 9 and day 9 is a special day. Some even say it is their favorite day.”
Oh my God Buddha. They just announced we will only get one meal tomorrow. At 8.30 AM. One. One! ONE!!!
I’m already hungry for a large part of the day. And now this will be even longer?
I hate this. In the past two years I have done my fair share of research on food, and starving yourself and eating less than your body needs is not what I believe we should be doing. And I know what Christian Grey would have to say about this…
I want to leave, but it’s just two more days. Damn it all!
The rest of the special day basically means we won’t do anything but meditate, so all the other activities are canceled.
Day 9: Magic
It’s been an emotional three hours. I got up feeling good. I sat quietly with my thoughts during the first and second meditation session and because today was the special, all-silent day, the yoga class was as well. It was a bit hard sometimes, because you had to look up to see what our teacher was doing, but I already feel like I improved a lot during my eight sessions.
In the end we all bowed to the teacher, who was also a participant at the retreat, and then we all just started “shaking it out”, which basically meant that we were all dancing like crazy in silence in a small temple-like building in the middle of a forest monastery during sunrise.
It was such a special moment. And I felt how special it was, mostly because everything was silent and yet we were all so in sync. But unfortunately not everybody has this sixth sense for magical moments and someone kind of ruined the moment by saying “thank you” out loud to our teacher. The magic did remain and as I walked away from the building where we had yoga class, I realized I stopped seeing the beauty of it all. The group atmosphere was really special and the people seemed nice. And I felt like I was being too hard on myself. I had spent a lot of time frustrated, instead of just accepting that right now, maybe meditation wasn’t what I was supposed to learn. Sure, I will take many things I learned here and use them in daily life, but I don’t need to stop thinking in order to find peace. Because my mind is pretty damn interesting (to me ☺ ) and my thoughts have kept me from being extremely bored for 9 days already. So as I was contemplating this I was sitting in a mini-temple near the dining hall and I was more than shocked to see our yoga teacher and somebody else walk out with their bags and suitcases, ready to leave.
It’s just two more days. How can you not handle two more days?
Then another person walked out and I was even more shocked. Is it the food thing? The fact that today there will only be one meal? I could get that, but still…
And now another two people walked up the path to leave, one of whom was the crying girl. What. Is. Going. On?
Some part of me was feeling abandoned, which is crazy because I’d only talked to two of them before the silence and not even for a long time. But they (and the crying girl) were a few of the people I wanted to talk to after this was all over, because I wanted to know about their experience. Didn’t they want to stay and talk to me? I felt torn in two, because I really wanted to know why they were leaving, but I also didn’t want to break the silence. Yet, I did, when one of them passed me again and I asked why she was leaving.
Turned out, for her it was the talks that were being given. They got her angry and she couldn’t let go of that anger, and I can totally see why. The talks were on the dangerous side, probably insulting and upsetting many people. It was said that people who commit suicide do so out of selfishness, that rape and murder or other violence was your own fault and that these problems weren’t the real problems one should be focusing on (to put it bluntly). I’m assuming the others left for the same reason. They didn’t want to support notions like this any longer. As I walked her back to the dining hall, there was crying girl, together with a male friend. She came up to me, because there was nobody at the dining hall yet and she said:
“Thank you for holding my hand. It meant a lot.”
So I broke the silence again to tell her she was welcome. And we hugged. It was the most meaningful hug I have gotten in my entire life.
Then they all left and I waited for some much desired food. And I felt lighter. It is just two more days and I’ve accepted my part in this retreat. Just to see what happens, instead of trying to make it happen. And I can do this.
So… the magic is slowly fading. Three more people left and I’m secretly talking to them to find out why. This time, they were just over it. So am I, but with one more day to go, I’m sticking it out. But, what I learned, is that our yoga teacher was reprimanded last night for talking too much during the sessions and they told her she couldn’t do certain poses anymore. But the words she was speaking formed valuable tips and wise lessons, and some people came up to her with questions. What is she supposed to do? Ignore their bodily suffering and not share her knowledge on how to make it better?
So I guess the silent session this morning was as much some sort of protest as anything else.
I’ve just gotten to that point where you drum tunes on your stomach for entertainment. It’s right up there after drawing in the sand, which I also happen to have done.
Day 10: Hair everywhere
My legs are getting scarily hairy. And I really need to shave my armpits. And pluck my eyebrows (they cannot even be considered a plural anymore). But I vowed to keep things natural while I’m here. I think it is quite an accomplishment that I’m washing my hair every other day.
Just two more days… And then I’m going to relax like crazy.
I’ve decided to start an actual diary, after writing like this all the time. Not the ‘Dear diary, today I did this and this and this and then I put it on Facebook’-kind, but rather the kind that can capture my thoughts the way I’m doing now. It feels good to write some of this stuff in my mind down, even if nobody will ever read it (like this blog that is becoming way, way too long). But I wouldn’t mind if it eventually turned into a best-selling autobiography either. Plus, it gives me an excuse to buy a beautiful new notebook.
I feel like I’m almost thought out. I’ve thought of anything and everything over the past eight days. Maybe now, I can finally free my mind of thoughts and start meditating. Maybe 10 days is exactly the right amount of time.
Nope. It never stops. And 10 days is too long.
In the evening, we had a sharing moment. Everybody who wanted to could go up to the front, and talk about their experiences. It was a very magical night and hearing everybody’s story was insanely interesting. After seeing them walk around for ten days, it was nice to hear their voice, and their story. It’s also nice to hear I wasn’t the only one who hasn’t really been able to meditate for long periods of time. The weirdest part was not being able to talk to them afterwards, because after this session we had to go back to the dorm in silence and we couldn’t talk until the morning after.
A lot of people here were already walking around mindfully, eating with their eyes closed, totally turned into themselves. I’m just not like that. I have a strong mind and it needs a whole lot of convincing before it can agree with a change like this. When I was little, I never rang doorbells and ran away ‘just for fun’. That didn’t seem fun to me. As a teenager, I never really succumbed to the whole beer-drinking-thing, and I have never smoked a cigarette. “You just have to do it a couple of times before it tastes good” was just never really convincing en
ough to me.
But then when I learned more about veganism, it made sense to me. The theory, the practice, the empathy. So I tried it, it did everything they said it would and now, two years later, I am still convinced. So yeah, maybe I won’t come out of this place a converted Buddhist. But I sure as hell will come out even stronger.
Day 11: Finally
The silence was lifted. And instead of talking to all the participants, I spent a lot of time talking to Susan, the woman from the dorm. We shared a lot of television shows and I asked her more about her life. I missed the group pictures because of our animated conversation, but oh well.
Afterwards I joined the tour of the grounds at the main monastery, but the monk who guided it was giving us all the information we learned in the past week again, so I left halfway through.
I can’t seem to figure out if the fact that I made it to the end makes me weak, or strong. I’ve wanted to quit since day 2, so I guess it’s strong that I stayed, but on the other hand, my mind kept telling me to quit. Should I have listened? As the end is here, I can say that I am happy I sat it out, because I got to see how everything developed. But if I would ever do anything similar to this again and feel the way I did, I would leave instantly. Because that has always been my M.O. If I’m somewhere and I don’t like it or am not having a good time, I will leave.
So what I got out of this experience? A great new story to tell, a few new resolutions, information on how to do yoga and meditation, a dedication on doing these things in daily life and a whole lot of mosquito bites.
I could have, trust me. They are available to ride in a lot of places. But even before I went on my trip, I had already researched a few places and found one of which it was clear they treated the animals well and that means, there would be no riding.
At first I thought I wouldn’t get to go here, because it was in the north of Thailand, and I wasn’t planning on going there. But plans change because there is something to be said for spontaneity and so I ended up going to the Elephant Nature Park after all.
The morning started with a pick up in Chiang Mai, and during the bus ride there we were shown a video where we learned some basic rules for interacting with the elephants, but we also saw some of the horrors they go through. A lot of elephants are still used for logging (dragging huge tree logs), but there are many elephants that are being used as touristic attractions as well, not to mention the circus shows that feature elephants, because they are insanely smart and can do tricks.
The thing is, no elephant in its right mind wants to do these things. It is unnatural for them and in order to get an elephant to do these things, their spirit has to be broken. Which basically means that they are being tied up very tightly and beaten until they will comply. Until their soul leaves them and there is just a shell of an animal left.
All elephants have an owner, and as long as the elephant still does what they have to for them, they will be of use. But as soon as they get older, or the abuse has been so bad that the elephant shows wounds or isn’t able to work in any other capacity anymore. That is the point where the elephant rescue center shows up to offer them money to take the animal, because they won’t sell them earlier, which means that all the animals in the center are pretty damaged – except for the baby elephants that are born there.
Nevertheless, their new life in the park allows them to heal, and the high prices charged to visit the elephants in this park and to hear their stories, allows the park to continue this work.
The day consists of feeding the animals, walking around to pet them, to take some pictures (of course), but mostly to watch them in their natural habitat, which has been recreated in this park. They mostly eat. Sometimes they play a little, or throw some mud on their backs to keep the sun off their skin. We also go to do something that was advertised as ‘river bathing with the elephants’. This basically meant you could throw buckets of water on them, so that wasn’t really what we had envisioned.
One of the highlights was the vegetarian (but basically vegan) lunch. I could eat everything that was being served and the buffet was huge. Needless to say, I was stuffed after lunchtime and almost felt like walking at the same pace as the huge elephants.
And after reading this story, what if I told you that here in Asia, they have slaughter houses where they kill elephants, in order to be able to eat their flesh. Maybe they sell elephant flesh in every restaurant*.
You would be horrified.
And I feel the need (I’m sorry) to point out the hypocrisy in that**. Because this is exactly what happens to so many cows, pigs, sheep and chickens every day. Each year there are 9.000.000.000 (LOOK at all those zeros!) animals killed for factory farming, in just the US.
By spending your money on meat, you are encouraging this industry to keep doing what they are doing. And if you’re all about death and despair, then, by all means, keep doing that.
But if you feel bad for abused elephants, or dogs, or cats, or kangaroos for that matter, please just ask yourself why them.
Tell me, what is the difference between these precious elephants, and a ‘regular’ farm animal? Because to me, they are all the same.
*The elephants are not killed to eat, this was hypothetical.
**If you eat meat.
So, my initial plan was to just visit Bangkok and the south of Thailand. But everyone I met along my travels, and I do mean everyone, told me to go to Chiang Mai and Pai, because these were supposedly the best places in the country. So, flexible me booked a few plane tickets and I decided to visit these towns. Coincidentally, I had been eyeing this elephant park that is really close to there, so it gave me the opportunity to go there as well. But I will post about that later.
The pictures you see here were taken in the town of Chiang Mai, and when I was in Pai I rented a motorbike and went around there, so the nature pictures are all from the area near Pai.
I will save you the story of how I ended up throwing up in the mini van, because that mountain road that takes you to Pai is really as bad as they say. It wasn’t pretty, but I guess it was worth it?
I know I haven’t been very verbal lately, in my posts. Lack of time and lack of inspiration are the causes, but at least the pictures are very beautiful :)
Oh, and all the roads depicted here… Yeah we rode on those, with our motorbikes. And let me tell you… That is the best feeling in the world.
When I decided to leave my hometown for over a year, without any certainty I would come back there for a long period of time, I was excited. I was so ready for an adventure on my own and I had been living towards the moment of leaving for a very long time.
The first stop was Jakarta, and I would be there for five months. So even though I was going abroad, I still sort of had a home.
And now I have travelled a bit through Indonesia and other parts of Southeast Asia (click here to see where I’ve been) and I came along two struggles that I keep running into (in daily life in Jakarta, as well as when I’m on the road).
Traveling alone vs. seeking out people to travel with.
I usually try to meet some people on couchsurfing to show me around their city, because I like meeting new people and I love it when they can show me all the great places. But I also like to be alone sometimes. But this is a constant dilemma. Because, at times, when I am looking at a great view and enjoying my trip, I would love to be able to share it with someone. But when I am constantly traveling with somebody, it can absorb a lot of my energy also. So for each destination and activity, I try to figure out if I want to do it alone, or if I would like to find a travel companion.
And then, while I am traveling alone, the question is not about finding somebody to travel with, but to socialize in general. For instance, while I am on a seven hour long bus ride, I prefer to be alone, just listen to music, read, sleep… whatever I want basically. These trips tend to take a toll on me even if I am alone, so if I have to talk through it, I will arrive even more exhausted.
But when I am sitting in a restaurant by myself, some company would be appreciated. But, what do you know, in the moments where I want company, it is nowhere to be found (or we have no way of communicating).
Trying to see everything vs. enjoying the moment and relax
Another two parts of me are constantly fighting each other. On the one hand, I really want to see as much as possible and do as much as possible. But I am the kind of person who sincerely enjoys spending a whole day reading a good book, or spending a whole day writing… And while traveling, I always feel guilty when I decide to have a day like this. I feel like I’m not making the most out of my trip and I could do more. I could meet new people, see new places, make new memories. And while most of the times this side of me wins the battle, sometimes I just need (half) a day to unwind, even on short trips. Because when I am at a magical place such as an island inside a lake inside a volcano, I just want to take my time to enjoy the place, and spend all day just staring at the view. And I might as well do this while having my kindle in my lap, reading, and occasionally glancing up with a satisfied sigh.
At first glance, this is just another tree. A very beautiful tree, one might even say.
Until you hear what it was used for.
This tree was used to smash in the heads of children, and after that they would be tossed in the mass grave beside it.
A beautiful building. On each corner is a Garuda (a kind of bird) and a dragon. They are eternal enemies, and when they appear somewhere together, it means peace.
And this is what’s inside the building.
A courtyard that looks lovely and peaceful. But inside these buildings, people were tortured until they admitted to things they had no idea about.
Another tree. This one was used to put speakers on. For a party? No. To cover the sounds of people screaming while they were being brutally murdered.
This may just look like a traditional offering place, and it is. But if you look at the box behind it, you will see the bones that came up from the grounds years later. Bones of all the people that were murdered and buried at the Killing Fields in Cambodia. During the period when Pol Pot decided he wanted to rule the world with some kind of idea of the perfect species (sounds like someone else we know from the history books?) he killed many Cambodians. They were all tortured and questioned about possible affiliations with spies. Even if they were innocent, they would be killed, because “it is better to kill an innocent, than to let a guilty person live”.
As you can imagine it was quite a shocking day. The things that were done and the stories that were gathered at these memorial sites were unbelievable. Not only were innocent people tortured and killed, also babies and children. They didn’t want to take the risk of them seeking revenge later and made this clear with the saying “it’s better to pick out a weed by its roots”.
The one thing that really stuck with me the most was a quote from one of the survivors. A few people lived because they had skills that the Khmer Rouge needed. There was a mechanic, and a painter, and a few others… So they lived longer than the rest and because liberation came just in time, some of them are still alive today. And one of them said that because of their hobby, or their job, they stayed alive. And now he was reaching out to the world and telling his story, to prevent things like this from happening again, but also to encourage the youth to develop their skills, because one day…
Because they just want money, that’s why. And when they get money, they want more money.
So I don’t know if I really won’t do any tours anymore. They are a great opportunity to see some sides of a country, mostly of the nature. If the price is right, I may be tempted again in the future. But my current experience is not great. I did two tours in Tenerife more than a year ago and those were not great experiences either. I guess I thought Asia was different.
I booked a tour to the Mekong Delta. It was just for one day, and while I was waiting for the bus in the hostel, I already met somebody who was also doing the tour alone. In the bus somebody casually mentioned that it was the fanciest bus they had been in in Asia and yeah, the bus was comfortable. The seats were a bit small, but there was airco and the chairs reclined, so I guess that’s okay.
The first stop was at a place where there were three huge buddha statues. Great to take pictures with and the tour guide gave us a riddle. I didn’t realize we could win something, and by the time I did, somebody else already shot up to answer the question.
There were three buddha’s and they represented the past, the present and the future. The huge smiling chubby buddha was the present. The question was which one was the past and which one the future. Well, I would have guessed wrong, because the lying down buddha was the future and the standing buddha was the past.
We continued on the bus and ended up at a small harbor, where we got on a boat. We saw a bit of the waterfront there and eventually got off somewhere for lunch. There were many options to buy something extra but the basic lunch was included.
After this lunch we went to a place where they made coconut candy. Would be great if we could make some ourselves, but we could just watch the people do it and guess what, we could even buy it afterwards! I didn’t, but I was shortly tempted by a coconut that was turned into an amazing little statue of three monkeys. I decided I could make do with a picture of it. They had many more things made out of coconut, including an entire house.
We also tried some coconut whiskey and you could take a picture with a snake, which seemed very random and strengthened our belief that this trip was very touristic. After that we continued on by small boats, to the next stop.
What was interesting and a little annoying is that they basically asked for a tip everywhere, when actually, we already paid for the tour and shouldn’t have to pay extra during the tour. Everything was supposed to be included.
Which made it weird that when one guy offered the tour guide a tip in the end, he refused it.
The small boats were very cute and fun to go on, while sailing through a mangrove-like river. But it was a very short trip and when we got off, we sat down again to try some sort of tea. The day started to feel a bit like a tasting and when I asked the guy that sort of hung out with our small group if he had a good time, he said: “I just don’t understand why we are here…”
Me neither. I could have done with more sightseeing and less tasting of stuff.
But the people I was with made the day more fun. Besides the girl from my hostel, who was Israeli, by the way, I hung out with two girls from Germany and a guy from the USA, which was a nice group.
After we drank the tea the tour guide announced another opportunity to win a price. Well, I wasn’t gonna let this one pass me by, but when I heard the challenge, I was sure I would win them without any problem.
He said you could taste some fruit and if you could identify three of them, I would win some chopsticks made out of coconut. Great! Challenge accepted.
So, after being blindfolded and tasting five kinds of fruit, I won the price. I stupidly forgot what I was tasting when eating jackfruit… my mind went completely blank. And he had me try a fruit of which even he didn’t know the English name, so that one was hard too. But I easily identified the watermelon (duh), dragon fruit and the guava.
I shared my price with my daily friends and gave them all a pair of chopsticks. After this we walked back to the bus that had already driven to a new pick-up point and we headed back to Ho Chi Minh City.
So just to be clear, I do like what the tours can offer, but I feel like the authenticity is nowhere to be found and everything is just way too focused on tourists. That’s why I love meeting people through couchsurfing. It just gives you a chance to meet locals and hear about their daily life.
But one thing these tours definitely know how to do, is make sure you get some amazing pictures to capture the day.