Island Life

It’s a cold, windy Saturday night. Darkness arrives early and completely. Life unfolds slowly and quietly. We’re slipping into early retirement, we joke. Those of us with no pets, children or partners. There’s time to research nutrition and if eggs are that bad for us. Hours and be wasted doing this.

Of course, there are interesting observations to be made. The locals are short, speak with a quirky twang and being mostly farmers, are not very educated or worldly. The houses which were constructed from stone and cement decades or even centuries ago are like cottages for gnomes.

People drive like they’re drunk. Perhaps they are. There’s the ocean nearby, with craggy rocks, and sandy beaches. Hundreds of tangerine groves, which should smell sweet and citrusy are tainted by the pungent farm animal smells.

There are winding country roads and stone fences. One could be forgiven for thinking they were traipsing about the Irish seaside. But then the palm trees would give it away. But it’s not quite Hawaii either.

At times it could be a Third World country, with stray mangy dogs snooping around. Hunched over old women foraging for herbs on the side of the road. Swerve around a bend or two and there are palatial hotels and the busiest airport in the world.

Confusing? Disorienting? Full of contradictions? Above all, hard to make sense of.

Country Mouse

 

It’s been a while since I’ve had the time and mental bandwidth to sit down here and hash things out. Not only that, I haven’t had the time or space to weave the narrative together of the changes I’ve made in the past few months. There have been transitions, from a megacity to a village on an island, from an easy and relaxed work situation to a demanding and stressful one. The river of time and change keeps flowing whether we like it or not. For now, I’ll let these pictures speak for me. I’ll be back when things make more sense. 

A New Year

A puppy who joined me for meditation on New Year’s Day

Heraclitus reportedly said that, “No [wo]man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and [s]he’s not the same [wo]man.” And so it is with this in mind as I stroll around Phnom Penh, that charming and peacefully chaotic city that I spent two months in several years ago. I had an urge to come back, and on the urging of my friends, I came back. I had almost two months of happy memories that compelled me. Not necessarily happy in the hedonistic, saccharine sense, but in the sense of accomplishment, moving out of my comfort zone, and doing what feels right.

I threw myself into a new situation, followed my heart by working with an organization I had long admired, led my a man I would consider one of my heroes. The students were great, the experience was challenging but incredibly rewarding, and personally, I got to meet fascinating people (including my hero), and travel to some amazing places (Holla Angkor Wat!).

Everything worked out so well and all my boxes were ticked. And so I wanted to come back and experience it again. Alas, as we read in the opening lines to this post, things don’t work that way. I booked my ticket a few weeks ago then contacted the organisation I worked with before. They didn’t reply for a week, which was unusual, but when they did, they said they were so sorry but they didn’t need me as a volunteer at the moment. They had grown so big and become so popular that they were now only taking people for long periods of time. I understand it’s better for the organization (and probably the volunteer) to stay for a longer period of time, but I was a little miffed and disappointed.

I thought I would find another organisation to work with but now that I’m here, I don’t feel like it. I don’t need to do that anymore. I will resume my idealist, do-goodery-save-the-world shtick when I’m sixty, like the other single, divorced ladies I met who last time who had property in New York and LA and could afford to now devote themselves to causes they cared about.

And how about Phnom Penh? I was disappointed to see my quaint little neighborhood, while still teeming with unruly trees and flowers and the chaos of motorcycles and tuk-tuks, had developed in the wrong ways. Now there are endless construction projects from Chinese companies building McCondos for the privileged. The incredible masseur who diagnosed all my old injuries with his mere touch has disappeared and in his place is a longterm expat hairdresser. While I went in to see if my guy was still there, two Korean guys came in with little English, read the menu and insisted they wanted Brazilian and bikini waxes respectively. The hairdresser told them to come back soon and there would be a guy to do it. No, no, they insisted, they wanted a woman. I wonder what exactly they think they’re in for.

The spa around the road where I went almost everyday for pampering has been turned into a wedding dress shop. The funky little pizza place has been replaced by a techno-playing bar and flashpackers while the indie venue where local and expat bands played and where there was salsa dancing on Wednesdays is still there, it’s just that it’s been closed and chained behind an iron fence for months, waiting for someone to buy it and turn it into another guesthouse.

Indeed, it’s not the same place and I am not the same woman. That is both good and bad. In those almost four years since that time I’ve had a few different jobs in addition to my current gig. I’ve travelled to all the continents except the big white one. I’ve developed emotionally and I’ve definitely matured. I’ve struggled to learn a new language and I’ve loved and had my heart broken, survived it as well as the demise of friendships, a large amount of money being stolen, the death of acquaintances. Life is long. It’s a marathon, not a sprint, but the turtle and the hare both need to keep moving forward, regardless of how fast they do so. I have sat on my laurels when I shouldn’t have. And of course, with all this time on my hands, there’s plenty of time for self-flagellation. I’m trying not to go there.

Where will I go? I’m not sure yet, but I don’t think I’ll be staying here.

 

 

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.

Jakarta-ing

Although I have been to Indonesia twice before (to Bali specifically), I had never been to Java, the most populated island in the world (145 million humans and counting). So I jumped at the chance to visit a friend living in Jakarta (the biggest city in Indonesia) to get a new perspective of this Muslim nation outside of the Bali/Hindu bubble I had previously experienced.

Jakarta is home to some ten million inhabitants and even more motorcycles. The public transportation system is undeveloped, which is both surprising and unsurprising for a large, developing Asian city. This means that there’s crazy traffic congestion and ‘slow chaos’ as my friend described it. Luckily taxis and Ubers are plentiful and cheap (but beware the dudes who zoom by stealing phones and handbags from unsuspecting tourists).

Jakarta is also a city of contrasts – extreme wealth juxtaposed with extreme poverty; slums next to high rises. The kind of place where white, expat privilege gets you far. Where there is still a colonial legacy (Dutch) and where someone with a middle-class income can have a cook, maid, driver and live in a beautiful, safe environment complete with swimming pool.

It’s an interesting time to visit the city before the western capitalist behemoth takes over completely and the little guys – the small, family-run traditional shops, markets and restaurants are washed away in a tsunami of giant malls and McDonald’s. But for now, one can still buy a bowl of chicken curry from the street for less than a dollar. And it will be interesting to see how the culture evolves – currently a very corrupt Muslim country, sex, alcohol, and drugs are plentiful for a local or expat with money. Ridiculous rules come and go (a woman applying to the military must undergo a ‘virginity test’). For a country with thousands of islands and languages, without a tenuous national identify, Jakarta itself is probably like a foreign country to those living in the often impoverished countryside. While I can’t speak about the boonies from my own limited experience, perhaps one unifying factor is the warmth and friendliness of Indonesia’s people. Below are a few photos from my visit to Jakarta, if you’d like to see.

The view at sunset from the 29th floor of a central Jakarta highrise apartment.

The view at sunset from the 29th floor of a central Jakarta highrise apartment.

A visit to Jakarta's mosque during Ramadan. The large structure is reportedly the largest mosque in Asia.

A visit to Jakarta’s mosque during Ramadan. The large structure is reportedly the largest mosque in Asia.

Some locals rowing from their make-shift housing to the mainland. Jakarta's port has played an important role in the city's development - from small colonial Dutch settlement to Asian megacity.

Some locals rowing from their make-shift housing to the mainland. Jakarta’s port has played an important role in the city’s development – from small colonial Dutch settlement to Asian megacity.

Street food is a big part of life in Jakarta. Delicious and super cheap, buying local food from vendors is the ultimate tourist experience. It also provides an interesting window on life in the city - just across the road is a glittering megamall selling Louis Vuitton.

Street food is a big part of life in Jakarta. Delicious and super cheap, buying local food from vendors is the ultimate tourist experience. It also provides an interesting window on life in the city – just across the road is a glittering megamall selling Louis Vuitton.