Two Weeks

I have been in my beloved Ubud for two weeks now. The time here seems to evaporate, like rain. I don’t know where it goes. I can only remember a series of moments. Sitting on the bright, round cushions in front of my room furiously trying to finish the amazing The Undoing Project, being immersed in the lives of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky and being amazed and questioning all my life choices (again). Then I’m just meters away listening to director Vikram Gandhi (who starred in this documentary that I wrote about a while ago) talk about his new film Barry, about the college years of one Barak Obama. He (Vikram, not Obama) spoke after we watched the film together. Of course I had to pinch myself that if I was in his presence. Some days later (how many, I really don’t remember) I saw another Obama film about his first date with Michelle. What an interesting, complex, high maintenance man I thought. Let it be known that I do crush on the former president, but just imagine living with someone with a law degree from Harvard who feels the need to question everything.

Since there’s not much to do at night, there have been more movies. And yoga. But not as much as last time. Yesterday while ‘practising’ under the guidance of a Jewish yoga goddess, I felt how my fitness level had decreased and how sad that made me. I struggled through, consciously trying not to let that second arrow (how could you get so unfit? why don’t you exercise more? you’ve become so lazy…). Another night, I found myself on a dark, rainy night slipping into a traditional health resort and ended up having an incredible massage, guided into a boiling hot sauna then gently urged into a freezing cold jacuzzi for ten minutes while listening to the music from a ceremony at a nearby temple and looking up at the blinking stars. I’ve been riding around on a bike, taking in all the green. I’ve been hanging out with my friend who has been kind enough to introduce me to her friends. We have been debriefing after her days of anthropological fieldwork, gossiping about the ridiculous fairies that wander around seeking enlightenment from raw food and dreadlocks. We’ve been walking in the mornings through rice fields, dodging stray dogs and eating breakfast together. In stark contrast to Cambodia where I spoke to maybe one person in five days, it feels really good to have a friend.

There are the characters from my previous visits – I know where to find them, they are so predictable in that way. At the same cafe, at the same studio, giving the same class at the same time, with the same people, in the same clothes. But, appearances can be deceiving, for they have come so far in the year since I’ve last seen them. New relationships, marriage, divorce, new businesses, new travels, new opportunities, life and death swirling around them as it should.

I ride my bike down the main road, past the locals dressed in their sarongs for their ceremonies. I bump over a dead snake and see a monkey sitting on a motorcycle. I dodge ugly mating toads. When it’s really hot, I crash the pool of the hotel next door and try to block out the obnoxious Australian accents. It’s hard to get annoyed here, though, amongst so much vitality. There’s literal jungle, blue skies, giant clouds, and an abundance of delicious flowers whose scent evokes the word paradise. Every afternoon it rains, but of course, even rain in Bali is beautiful – the way it falls over the temples, feeling of it on an overheated body is sensual. There’s not long to go now and there’s still a volcano to climb, yoga to learn, online study to be done, oh and a novel to write. Everyday is a battle between discipline and freedom. But this is a lifelong battle and I hope that I can at least, if not win, then make some progress.

There’s a crack in everything

With the appointment of Mr. Trump as the POTUS on Wednesday and now the death of the inimitable Leonard Cohen on Friday, it’s turning into a dark, dark week. There’s now a rational justification to pile on the grief bacon. And I have indeed been partaking in binge eating candy and chocolate in an attempt to numb and distract myself from the tragedy and disappointment.

One of my favourite Leonard Cohen lyrics, ‘There’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in,’ is a reminder to look for hope among the despair, to find the light no matter how dark these days feel. Now that the novelty of stuffing my face with sugar has worn off, I’ve opted for a healthier form of self-care: I’m focusing on beauty, nature, peace, gratitude and connection. Here are a few shots from the past few weeks that have given me pleasure, solace and distraction, in both taking them and in thinking about what they represent. May the light find its way in.

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When in French…

wheninfrenchLauren Collins’ memoir, When in French: Love in a Second Language is a stunning read. Treats await the reader on almost every page – whether it’s her flawless prose, her rendering of complex linguistic concepts and anecdotes, the honest and relatable portrayal of her relationship with her French husband Olivier, or my favourite, her sly and understated sense of humour with a knack for finding the irony in even the most ordinary situations.

It would be easy to not like Collins – as an American who grew up in an upper middle-class family, she attended Princeton then got her foot in the door at The New Yorker, working her way up to a coveted and prestigious writing position that sent her on interesting assignments all over the world. Then, on a whim, she decides to become their London correspondent, easily gets herself a work visa and after only three weeks in her adopted home, meets the French man who will become her husband. They marry and eventually live in Geneva followed by Paris. It sounds like a fairytale. What makes her likeable, and her memoir relatable, however, is her brutal honesty: when she moves to Geneva, she makes it her mission to learn French, which, it turns out, is not so easy. She finds the city and the people conservative and backwards. Her and Olivier argue and face the usual relationship problems as she tries to pressure him into marriage. She refers to her in-laws as ‘Les Fockers.’ She is self-deprecating and often portrays herself as awkward, annoying and clumsy. She’s also gutsy and is not afraid to go there.

As she fumbles with the French language, we are on her side. Not only is her prose revealing and entertaining, but it is also educational. No need to ever again read a boring journal or newspaper article about the theories of Chomsky. Collins is quite the armchair anthropologist and has done a stellar job of including a range of linguistic theories that are so intricately and subtly woven into the narrative that you barely even notice you’re lapping up Linguistics 101.

I eagerly wanted to share some of her most outstanding nuggets and zingers here, but I think it best you do yourself a faveur and read this formidable book in its entirety. Here’s a little sneak-peak of what’s in store:

Schnapsidee – the way a German would describe a plan he’d hatched under the influence of alcohol. Pilkunnussija – Finnish for “comma fucker,” a grammar pedant. In Mundari [a language spoken by some ethnic groups in India and neighboring countries] ribuy-tibuy refers to the sight, sound, and motion of a fat person’s buttocks. Jayus, in Indonesian, denotes a joke told so poorly that people can’t help but laugh. Knullrufs is Swedish for postsex hair. Gumusservi means moonlight shining on the water in Turkish. Culaccino is the Italian word for the mark left on a table by a cold glass. Words like these are marvelous. We make lists of them, compile them into treasuries, trade them over any dinner table at which holders of more than one passport have convened. (The German, armed with Kummerspeck – “grief bacon” will always win the day.)’

Chur NZ

14231970_10153633433321853_3983663703483409390_oSome months ago (holy crap, like almost nine months ago) I declared that this would be the year of gratitude. With that in mind, I need to give a shout out to NZ for reigniting my appreciation and love of that magical place.

So, without further ado, I’d  first and foremost like to thank the incredibly stunning scenery – from gardens, to parks, to mountains, forests, beaches, buildings, streets, you name it, everyday my heart overflowed with how beautiful the nature is. Even in my father’s backyard there was much to be admired (and a backyard, what a concept!).

Next, I need to thank all the friends and family who went out of their way to meet with me and show me a good time, even when it was inconvenient for them. One aunt in particular knocked herself out by making an incredible apple pie from scratch just for me. All those home-cooked meals and catching up over coffee, going to movies, galleries and museums were wonderful ways to reconnect. Even while experiencing unsettling life events, I was honored that you made time for me among the chaos of everyday life.

Which brings me to my next point: Is there any way to emphasize just how amazing the food is? Big ups to the amazing supermarkets, restaurants and cafes that took a huge chunk of my bank account but in return nourished me with the most incredible pies, kebabs, risotto, lamb shanks, sushi, curry, soup, mussels, organic bacon and eggs, cheese, yogurt, muffins, cakes, chai lattes, hot chocolates, Kombucha, sandwiches and other culinary masterpieces. I won’t lie – I did feel incredibly overwhelmed loitering in the supermarket, having too many beautiful and delicious things to choose from. And also a combination of feeling deprived and having no willpower led to massive overspending. But #yolo.

And I can’t leave out the amazing cultural facilities. I visited myriad galleries, museums, libraries. New Zealand is a country that values these institutions and I was so impressed with the displays and exhibitions. Also, there was some stellar journalism found in newspapers and magazines. Honorable mention must go to NEXT, The Listener, North and South, The Sunday Start Times, The Otago Daily Times. Also, thumbing through copies of my alumni magazine for the past couple of years, I was blown away by how much interesting and cutting-edge innovation is happening in that small corner at the bottom of the world – so many accomplished and enterprising geniuses toiling away in the arenas of medicine, science, engineering, education, sociology, anthropology, literature, art, design etc. Truly phenomenal. Also: shopping. I had so much fun pillaging thrift stores. They are a great way to shop as well as to raise money for various charities. I wish more of that culture existed in Asia.

Last but not least, I had warm fuzzies for much of my trip because of the people. It was so nice to have people smile at me, make eye contact with me, open doors for me, apologize even when it wasn’t their fault, make small talk with me, let me go ahead of them in line, answer my questions patiently, offer helpful advice when there was nothing in it for them. In one instance I had to get my driver’s licence renewed. I failed the eye test (of course). No worries, the lady said. Pop next door to the optometrist and get him to fill out this form and bring it back. Then you should be alright. So I pop next door, wait five minutes for the optometrist, a lovely grandfatherly-like figure who makes jokes about how anal the driver licence place is, tests my eyes, fills out a form and charges me all of $5. It was just so ridiculously easy, and dare I say, pleasant. Even sales people in snooty high-end stores are kind and welcoming. Also, as I zipped up and down the country trying to catch up with as many people as possible, it became evident that social class is not a barrier to friendship. My friends and family span the whole spectrum from working class to the country’s tiny upper crust. And I can get along with all of them. Although social inequality is increasing, I still think that NZ is one of the few developed nations where social class is not (as much of) a barrier to relationships with others. Semi-related to this point is the lifestyle. People make an effort to spend time with their loved ones and, how weird is this, cook and eat dinner together most nights at home. Whaaa…? Thanks to an emphasis on work-life balance, people actually get to hang with their loved ones for weekday lunches, dinners, and general hang-out sessions. Easy to schedule in when almost nobody works past 5pm.

While NZ does have so many fabulous qualities, it’s not a utopia. So I’m going to take a quick look at some of the things that irk me. First, while print journalism is still decent (though John Pilger wouldn’t be impressed), TV journalism has gone down the dunny. The ‘news’ is dumbed-down gossip and targeted toward the interests and intellect of the average 12 year old. And people are like zombies, lapping it all up, as if it’s ‘truth’ and gives them an accurate picture of what is going on the world. This almost certainly is in part responsible for the provincialism and parochialism that plagues the country. Next, the crazy housing boom is a topic that is hot on everyone’s lips. Kiwis are obsessed with buying and owning a house. And everyone I exchanged more than ten words with, told me I also needed to buy one. My next gripe is public transportation. It is basically crap. Buses are few and far between and too expensive. Where are the subways, trams and affordable taxis? Which brings me to my final point: NZ, while you are gorgeous and amazing, you are also prohibitively expensive. $3.80 for a 500 ml bottle of water? Really? Obviously, I’m not the first person to point out how Kiwis are being ripped off left, right, and center with food, coffee, transportation and clothing costs. I’m all for slow, sustainable living and try not to participate too much in rampant consumerism but I do think some things are excessively expensive, even taking into account economies of scale. Despite the high cost of living, I spent time with two young families who moved back to NZ from Asia, leaving behind high powered jobs and fat salaries to own a house with a backyard and to bring their kids up in God’s own. Both families, just back for a  few months, were incredibly happy they had made that decision. All in all, while not perfect, I give Aotearoa, land of the long white cloud, an A.

Being Nobody, Going Nowhere

Buddha-Meditation-TreeI can’t pinpoint the exact moment I learnt about Vipassana meditation. It could’ve been from reading this hilarious travel memoir of India, or from watching the excellent and poignant documentary, The Dhamma Brothers, about the technique being taught to inmates on death row in the American south. There were also fellow travelers I met ‘on the road’ who had done it (it’s like number three on the travel To Do List after a diving course and learning Thai massage).

So as I find my interest in meditation deepening, I wanted to tick it off my list too. So I applied to the center in New Zealand, just outside of Auckland. Being the chicken that I am, I didn’t read too much about it for fear of psyching myself out at the last minute. All I knew what that you couldn’t talk, read or write for ten days, had to get up at 4am, and could only eat twice a day. Oh, and you couldn’t use the Internet. The not talking part I could get on board with – being an introvert, it’s basically like normal life for me. But the other rules, they would probably kill me. Spoiler: they did not.

Having low or no expectations sometimes pays off. In this case, there were some nice surprises: we got our own little cabin that had a heater (being a cold-blooded reptile, this mattered in winter). Although bathrooms were shared, they were clean and the showers hot (for the first five minutes at least). The other people seemed normal (and didn’t turn up in straight jackets as I had initially imagined). The setting was gorgeous, full of native flora and fauna. Men and women were completely separate, except for the meditation hall, so I didn’t need to worry about being victimized by the intrusive male gaze. Nobody checked my bags and found the contraband candy and pen and paper that I had smuggled it. Win.

I gave it my best shot the first few days. I followed the rules, got up and 4am, worked hard huffing in and out through my nose for ten hours a day and rewarded myself with hot shower before bed at 9pm. By the fourth day, when the meditation technique changes and becomes more complex, requiring more dedication and concentration, I was losing interest. I started to ignore the 4am incessant donging of the bell. I would give up midway through a session and open my eyes surreptitiously and scan the room. Why is everyone so still and quiet and in the zone? Why can’t I stay still for more than a few minutes at a time? Where does the teacher stay? Why does she just pop in and out like the bird in a cuckoo clock and never leave the little house attached to the meditation hall?

Then, when we went back to our cabin for hours of self-practice, alone, I would crawl into my sleeping bag and take a nap. I was bored. I was ruing the day that I handed in my iPad. I would’ve killed for a book, a distraction from myself and my spastic monkey mind. The only things to look forward to were eating, walking around the forested pathways and hopefully seeing the big fluffy wild rabbits that sometimes hung out, and showering. (Although once, I did indulge in a rapturous two minutes when I found a cotton tip in my bag and was ecstatic to clean out my ears for the first time in a few weeks.

So I was getting increasingly tired and grumpy listening to Mr. Goenka’s droning on and on. I was also becoming more sensitive to noise, smell etc. My body ached and I spent more time focusing on not farting in front of 60 silent meditators than actually meditating. I was conscious of disturbing my neighbors with all my squirming – of course, the Russian IT exec in front of me, the American classical musician on my left and the German princess/supermodel on my right were perfectly still all the time and obviously accessing some deep state and inner peace that was available to everyone except for me. However, my true nemesis was the woman who was sitting north east of me. She was one of those tall, eccentric, commanding ladies who take up too much space. I named her ‘Geisha’ after the ridiculous Japanese kimono thing she wore which rustled like someone was making balls of aluminium foil every time she moved. I spent good amounts of meditation time thinking about how I was going to murder her. So, without ever having spoken to her, I made her my enemy number 1. Every time I saw her in the food hall or walking to the bathroom with her oversized Japanese silk duffel bag, I gave her the stare of death.

I soldiered on, somewhat half-assedly. And lo and behold, my mind did become still and clear. I did experience ‘equanimity’. I did become ‘equanimous’ (that has to be read with Goenka’s thick, drawling Indian accent). I was able to step back from the ups and downs of my thoughts. To look up at the sky and watch the clouds come and go and realize that my mind was the sky and my thoughts were the clouds. I had moments of ‘choice-less awareness’ and experienced interesting meditation states. Not blissful per se, but otherworldly. I was not, however, one of those people running around, hugging trees with a maniacal look in my eyes. But alone in my little cabin, I felt present and a sense of what it is to be nobody and go nowhere.

So  finally at the end of the ten days, we were allowed to talk and to get out phones back. Two interesting points about this. First, I didn’t really want to start talking again and kind of liked the protective shield Noble Silence gave me. Second, I really, really didn’t want my phone back. At times during the ten days, I had worried about missing important work-related emails, and had catastrophized about something bad happening to a family member or friend, but I didn’t have any FOMO. So when I got my phone back and had an Internet connection, I was reluctant to plug back in. Of course, it was inevitable that I had to, but was relieved to find that there was nothing of importance awaiting me.

Also, another nice surprise: the other ladies were really, really nice. We all admitted we had made up stories about each other, including names (because we had talked so minimally before the course started, if at all). The people were normal! There was doctor, a nurse, a scientist, a film person, a Harley Davidson dealer, an art gallery director, a Dutch social worker, a Tahitian dance teacher and a gaggle of requisite characters straight from central casting (yoga teacher, German travelers, massage therapist). We all felt bonded by our shared experience.

As we were cleaning up in the final hours before heading back to civilization, one of my meditation hall neighbors apologized for moving so much and distracting me. “You were so still and quiet, I felt bad every time I moved,” she quipped. I found this rather ironic and told her that I should be the one apologizing to her. We laughed. As for Geisha, well she came and plopped herself down beside me on the last day at breakfast. We started talking and of course it turns out she is in fact not a bitch but super simpatico and funny. I felt like such a jerk, just for a minute though. I didn’t want to get too attached and disturb my equanimity.