Saturday, December 22, 2007

I must be out of my f*#@ing mind!

I am currently in northern Thailand preparing to start my meditation retreat in two days time. That means I will be spending Christmas and New Year's in silent meditation. I am, to be quite honest, terrified of what the coming ten days of meditation could be like. I will be studying Vipsanna (otherwise known as Insight) meditation. The focus of this is to look inward, being mindful of your thoughts, emotions, and physical state. This is a very intense meditation, and when I went to sign up for the course yesterday a girl was crying and dropping out of the course (she had been there six days). What makes this so intense are the strict rules that I will be obliged to follow. A standard day will look like this:

Pray from 3:30 a.m. until 6:00 a.m.

Breakfast from 6:00 until 7:00 chewing each bite fifty times to be mindful of my food.

Pray from 7:00 until 12:00 followed by one more meal (the last of the day).

Meditate or walk in silence until 10:00 p.m. then go to bed.

No talking, reading, writing, or listening to music is allowed. We are asked also to try to refrain from making eye contact with other students.

So that is what is ahead of me. Perhaps I am crazy for doing this, perhaps not. I do know that this entire trip has been one long journey, not just around the world, but into myself as well. I visit new places every few days, always meeting new people and seeing new things. While it might sound like I am living in a constant state of change the only thing that I find to be changing is myself. New people and new places seem to be a constant, and it is my sense of self that is the variable. Ever changing. Yet, if this trip can truly be compared to a mathematical equation then this variable, this sense of self, is approaching a limit and in doing so an answer to the equation is beginning to emerge.

I happen to know that there are a few math majors out there reading this blog so please let me know if, as a biochem major who was only required to take two years of math, this metaphor makes any sense. I was always a bit of a dunce when it came to calculus. Man...I must have to much time on my hands to becoming up with this stuff! All jokes aside I hope that the metaphor made sense (at least to those of you with degrees in mathematics).

I will be checking back in in a couple of weeks. So until that time...

Merry Christmas to all and to all a good fortnight!

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Does life get any better than eating spicy curry at 8:00 a.m.???

I am in Thailand! Having spent my first week in Koh Tao I am just now finally seeing every ones usual first stop, Bangkok. To say that Thailand is nothing like I expected it to be would be a very gross understatement. I was certainly not expecting such an industrialized nation, and the fact that there is a 7-11 on every corner is still freaking me out! On the plus side food is super cheap now that I am off Koh Tao and I am walking around stuffing myself on noodles and curry every chance I get, which comes to approximately 8 chances a day so far. At this rate I will be back up to 195 in no time, though I don't think it will be an attractive 195!

Arriving in Thailand just over a week ago I flew immediately to Koh Samui on the very luxurious Bangkok Airways. From Koh Samui it is a mere 1.5 hour ferry ride to Koh Tao. Unfortunately, it was 10:00 p.m. by the time I arrived in Koh Samui, therefore necessitating waiting until morning to catch the ferry. After a ridiculously expensive cab ride (I was still figuring out how developed Thailand really is) and a desperate search for a hotel that was still open at 11:00, I finally found a little cabana and crashed for the night. The next day I left for Koh Tao excited to reach what the LP had called a "hidden jewel among Thailand's ever popular islands". Unfortunately for me this "hidden jewel" seemed to have been discovered by hoards of invading divers. The beaches, which I was told were either uncrowded or deserted, were crowded and loud. Hammocks? Forget about it. I searched, and searched, and searched and only found a hammock towards the end of my week. So did I hate Koh Tao? Surprisingly, the answer is a resounding NO! I swam in beautiful crystal clear turquoise water, rented a motor bike and cruised the island, and, of course, stuffed myself on delicious Thai food!! It was a pretty great week. Throw in some diving, beers, and books and you get the picture!

Now I have returned to the real world (if that's what you can really call this). As I was eating my curry this morning (mmmmmm...sorry I am going to have to come back and finish this in a bit, I need some more curry.) OK, I'm back, though I was just sending a few emails and, like before, am now feeling another curry craving coming on. Where was I? Oh yes, I'm in Bangkok now staying just a few blocks from the very famous Khoa San road. This is truly a crazy place. There is a Starbucks (yes I did indulge), McDonalds, Burger King, and last but not least a CRAAAAZZZYY number of tourists. This is unreal. Not backpackers. Tourists. The streets are lined with people selling knockoff clothing and DVD's. There is sex a plenty (which sadly draws a large number of tourists. It is pretty weird watching old creepy white guys walking down the street with their arms around young Thai girls) as lady boys strut their "stuff" and at night you can't walk ten feet without being invited to a ping pong show (If you don't know what those are I am going to let you do your own research on the topic).

The whole atmosphere is a bit much for me so I am headed north to view some of the ruins of northern Thailand before heading to Chang Mai to begin a meditation retreat. I have always wanted to practice meditation and am relishing the opportunity to finally seriously practice meditation. With that said I am also quite nervous as I will be spending a minimum of ten days in almost complete solitude, sleeping only a couple hours a night, eating very little, and spending all my time focusing my energy inward. I am scared to face August like this, though I have been waiting for this moment for a while now and it seems that the time has finally come. I will try to post another blog before I head into the monastery but if do not get around to it please send me lots of positive feelings over these next few weeks. I have a feeling I am going to need them.

paz y amor

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Farewell to Shangri La

Before I get started I want to quickly update people on August's physical state these days. After hiking the Annapurna Circuit I am feeling very healthy and fit. With that said, I have undergone quite the physical transformation in these last four months of travel. I am currently estimating my weight to be around 155 pounds (down from 195 in April) and as those of you who have been checking out photos know I was sporting quite the beard when I left Central America. I say WAS sporting quite the beard because a horrible tragedy befell my beard shortly after my arrival in Kathmandu. I had decided that it was time for a haircut (my hair was really really really nasty looking) and while I was at it a teensy weensy trim of the beard (I was tired of looking homeless). The haircut was great and I went into great detail trying to communicate to the barber (who spoke no English whatsoever) that all I wanted was for him to very gently tim my beautiful beard. Clearly he misunderstood this as he proceeded, with one swift chop of his scissors, to hack off all but about three weeks worth of growth. I was shocked beyond belief but it was too late. He finished, I paid, and then walked out with tears in my eyes, my dream of continually growing the best travel beard that has ever been grown dashed forever. The beard is making a comeback but it will be at least another month before it returns to its previous state of burliness. Please take a moment and help me mourn the loss of a close friend and damn good travel buddy. May God watch over my beard wherever it may be.

Since wrapping up the Annapurna Circuit my time in Nepal has flown by. I spent four days in Pokhara gorging myself on everything in sight and then took off for Lumbini, birth place of Buddha. The journey was long and when I finally arrived completely exhausted I found that Lumbini was, as one fellow traveler informed me it would be, Buddhist Disney Land. There were monks everywhere. It seemed like there were thousands filling every street, by which I mean both streets as Lumbini was not much more than two streets, four hotels, a handful of restaurants, a few shops, and about 30 temples. After finding accommodation in a shitbag hotel (and I say that with the utmost love and compassion) I ventured out for dinner. I walked into a very crowded local restaurant and was immediately invited by a young monk to join him for dinner. Now a lot of you must be thinking "wow! what an amazing opportunity to discuss Buddhism, Enlightenment, or Meditation with a friendly Nepali monk". But what did we discuss? His iPod (his brother sent it to him from New York), his Gameboy, Hollywood movies, and of course American pop music. Quite an entertaining meal to say the least.

From Lumbini I made my way to Chitwan National Park, which is a.) the largest National Park in Nepal, b.) a world heritage site, and c.) comprised mainly of jungle and grass land. Yeah, I didn't know Nepal had jungle either!! The area was truly breath taking and I started my first day there by taking part in the bathing of an elephant. When I say "bathing an elephant" what I really mean is being repeatedly thrown into a river by an elephant. I was sitting by the banks watching elephants come down for their morning baths (these are trained elephants that people take on tours through the park) when one of the trainers invited me to come join him on the elephant. Since I have not rode an elephant since I was like four years old I jumped at the opportunity. I kicked off my sandals and headed for the water. The trainer helped me climb up the back of the elephant which I quickly found is the most uncomfortable animal in the world to sit on. How these trainers do it everyday I will never know. The elephants backbone is about five centimeters in diameter. Just wide enough to (sorry I don't know any other way to say this so I am just going to go for it) spread open your butt cheeks and press and rub a very sensitive area in a rather insensitive manner. As soon as I was "comfortably" on we walked out to the middle of the river where, with one command from the trainer, the elephant started ferociously bucking from side to side and hurled me into the water. It was pretty hysterical and a lot of fun. The best part was climbing back onto the elephant. To do this I would grab both of its ears and put one foot on its trunk. Then (like I weighed nothing at all) it would simply lift me out of the water and onto its head. Definitely one of the funnest things I have done on this entire trip.

I passed the rest of my time in Chitwan hiking through the jungle searching for rhinos and tigers. This might seem like a lot of fun, but at the end of two days I was glad to be done with the hike. For one I had to have two guides with me, which in many ways was great because they were able to find a lot of animals and without them I would not have seen any rhinos, but was also a bit of a drag since I don't like hiking with guides. I was not fortunate enough to come across any tigers though I did see many tracks and a couple piles of tiger poo...

So Nepal is coming to an end. I feel quite sad to be leaving such a wonderful country. I was looking at a map the other day and was amazed to see the amount of the country that I had trekked across during my time on the Annapurna. Despite this, I feel like I saw very little of Nepal, and will definitely be heading back here very soon to further explore this wonderful country! As for now I am back in Kathmandu, which, hang on let me check...yup is still polluted, packing my bags and getting ready to head to Thailand. First stop Koh Tao where I am going to get back to the beach life; sipping drinks with tiny umbrellas, relaxing in the sand, and doing a bit of diving. Best of luck to all my friends back home in Seattle, who I hear are putting up with torrential downpours and even a bit of snow. I'll let you know how the beaches are!