Feb 21, 2015

To Hell and Back (Cycling Part 2)

Let me start off by saying that I am all right. I’m typing right now from Thailand, where I’m safe, healthy, and restoring my spirit. Here is the abridged version of my misadventures cycling through Laos over three weeks:

*Ban Keun to Vang Vieng

or, Getting Hit On By a Communist Policeman

After escaping the Land of the Lotus Eaters, I cycle 81km to Ban Keun, to a guesthouse without plumbing. When I hit the road the next morning, my legs seize up in the hills – I hadn't given myself enough time to rest. Fast forward to me pushing my bike uphill through Hmong villages, water buffalo herds, and piglets wallowing in mud holes.

At some point I realize I don't have enough energy to scale the hills, pushing or not pushing the bike. I consider flagging down one of the rare vehicles that pass by, when lo! A truck passes me, turns around, and stops. The pudgy driver, dressed in a tan-colored communist police uniform, asks me where I'm going. "Vang Vieng," I say. He offers to drive me to the bus station, and I accept without hesitation.

My rescuer introduces himself as Mister Vannasa. We try to communicate despite his limited English; however, it doesn't take long for him to break out the "You very beautiful" line. Our conversation includes how he has kids but no wife, and how old I am compared to him (26 v. 40), etc. etc. until I've become uncomfortable.

We reach the bus station, but the bus has left already. Vannasa insists he drive me to the next town, an hour away, to catch another. He stops at a street-side shop for "water" and returns with two cans of BeerLao. I pretend to drink out of politeness, but he keeps cheers-ing my can over and over, encouraging me to drink more. I foolishly drink my can despite the fact I don't like beer. Vannasa's eyes become red and his English has deteriorated by the time we reach the bus station.


I say thanks, so long, gotta buy my ticket and find a bathroom––and he stops me. "No toilet," he says, pointing to the chairs under a metal awning that serves as a bus station. He starts driving us back down the road in search of a public bathroom.

It's at this point he puts his arm over my leg to hold and squeeze my hand!! Time to duck and roll!

I pull my hands away and clasp them together, my heart pounding with the fear that this is a nightmare coming true. We stop at a gas station bathroom, where I freak out in the stall [a recurring theme on this Laos trip], terrified he'll drive away with my bike and bags (and passport!) still in the truck.

Thankfully, he does not. He drives me back to the bus station, unloads my bike for me, and I purchase my ticket to Vang Vieng. When I sit down, I realize for the first time my head is swimming from the beer. It certainly helps calm my anxiety on the ride through the mountains to Vang Vieng as I clutch the seat in the back of a songthaew for several hours.


*Vang Vieng & Luang Prabang

or, The Only Good Parts

Up the Song River in Vang Vieng I happen upon an organic farm that specializes in fresh goat cheese. I stay there a few nights, volunteering in the morning to help with the goats in exchange for fresh mulberry tea and starfruit. In the process I meet some wonderful people; we clean out the pens by day and play ukulele around a bonfire by night. One evening I watch the sun set behind the blue round-top mountains until the ripe, full face of the moon shines bright in the dark sky.


Knowing that the road is steepest through the mountains after Vang Vieng, I elect to take the minibus to Luang Prabang instead of cycling. I arrive and all of a sudden, I'm in France! The price jumps 5x for everything, there are baguettes and boutiques everywhere, and foreigners outnumber locals. There are even entrance fees to visit the temples! I feel culture shock, and a sense of inferiority to the rich middle-aged French holidayers.

I find the Daohai Temple by chance outside the main city. The meditation hall is closed, but I end up talking to some of the teenage novice monks and we become fast friends. They keep asking me to recite "namo tassa bhagavato arahato sammasambudhassa" and laughing – apparently I have a funny accent when I chant in Pali? On the other hand they can speak bits of French, Japanese, Chinese, Italian, Spanish, and Hindi, all on top of their knowledge of Laotian, Thai, and Pali.

Over lunch at a quaint French restaurant, I'm invited to eat with a couple from Seoul who are human rights activists, one who writes and another who paints for their campaigns. Incredible people! We share a beer as they tell me about their painting exhibitions and campaigns to bring awareness to a ship that sunk with over 100 students onboard (apparently ignored by the South Korean government because the kids were from low-income families).

Later we climb Mt. Phou Si, overlooking all of Luang Prabang where the Mekong and Ou River meet. The sunsets on the Mekong here are gorgeous.


*Luang Prabang to Nong Khiaw

or, Where Things Get Shitty

This is where I'm lucky to be alive, despite my foolhardiness. I was "testing" God to provide miracles for me, and they were granted in ways I could have never expected. Here's the short version: I leave Luang Prabang by bike. The hills aren't as steep, and I enjoy flying downhill. I very narrowly miss a pothole that would have really sent me "flying." I stop for lunch and order a fish (that, looking back, was not properly cooked).

I ride northward until I become weary, but the villages I pass don't have guesthouses. The next major town is too far away to reach by nightfall. I put my thumb out for a lift, but no one stops. I point to a parked songthaew in a village, but the owner won't drive me. I ask an older man for help and he can't understand what I was asking. When I walk away from him I'm sobbing, afraid of where I will sleep that night and what I'm going to do. Do I have to bike the next 60 km in the dark until I reach the next major town?

At a gas station I ask to be driven to Nong Khiaw. The guy wants 400,000 KIP to drive me ($50 USD). That's astronomical in Lao prices! I don't have that much on me (who would?). He becomes indifferent and won't negotiate. I move on.

At the next village, I find a guy who speaks English and ask to spend the night. He says he has to ask the village leader to host me. So I take my bike down a sandy, sharply downhill pit to the leader's house. The two guys sit on chairs on the porch, a gate between us, looking me over like a dealership purchase. How could my fate ever be in the hands of some random 30-year-old Hmong village leader?

He says no: his home isn't a guesthouse, and if I want to spend the night indoors I'd better go find one up the road. I was dismissed. I then had to struggle to get my bike back up out of the sand pit, angry and exhausted. The afternoon light starts to fade...

At the next gas station, God grants my miracle: Diek, the 15 year old girl working the pumps. She knows no English, and we communicate by hand signals only. I mime going to sleep, and she takes me to the back of the gas station, where there's a tiny square room with one double bed and a dresser. She points to the bed and holds up three fingers – there would be three of us sharing the bed (her, her sister Mo, and me) and is that okay? I nod enthusiastically: yes, that would great.


I have feverish dreams, and waking up in the night, I feel sick: the uncooked fish has come back to haunt me. I get up to go to the bathroom and all the blood leaves my head and I collapse, thinking, don't lose consciousness, don't lose consciousness! Diek wakes up and rouses me, and for a moment I didn't know where I am or how I've gotten there, like I've been sleepwalking. Then I get up like a shot and proceed to throw up in the gas station squat toilet stall. Diek pats my back the whole time, gets me bottled water and packaged foods to eat, and generally takes care of me that long, long night.

The next morning Diek makes a cardboard sign for me that reads "Nong Khiaw" in Lao script. She affixes it to a bamboo pole for me to hold. I sit at the edge of the gas station drive, unable to stand because I feel so sick, holding the sign out as every single car, truck, and van passes me by. I have no way of getting back to the world I know, and I feel stranded and alone. I'm afraid of being so sick in a place with no medical facilities; I'm afraid of death and its shadow, which I feel falls over the whole of Laos; an indifferent, immediate, edge-of-sight death.

Another miracle: a minivan stops on its scheduled route to Nong Khiaw and picks me up for 2.5x the normal price (I am desperate and don't care to haggle). I hug and thank Diek, who refuses to take the money I offer for all the trouble.

The pot holes to Nong Khiaw occasionally have road between them. It's so bumpy that the person next to me in the minivan hits his head hard enough to start bleeding. Between this and my illness, it's an understatement to say it was a difficult ride.

*Nong Khiaw to Muang Khua to Oudomxay

or, There is No Compassion in These Parts

Once in Nong Khiaw I'm ushered to a guesthouse on stilts over the Ou River, which I fear will fall down the embankment at any moment. I am, however, too weak to go out and find somewhere else to stay. After several hours I force myself outside to eat. At a restaurant, I can't stomach the noodle soup I've ordered, and tell the cook I need a ride to the hospital. As I'm doubled over in pain, she shirks me off to another woman, who shirks me off to a man, who waves me off like a pest. I shuffle down the road until I find a pharmacy. I ask the woman behind the counter to drive me to the hospital and she refuses. She points down the road and says, "Walk!"

I go back to my guesthouse room, miserable, and fight out the sickness and pain by myself. In my head I cancel all my trip plans, feel intensely homesick, and think nothing could be better than getting out of here. I calculate it will take me 3 days in any direction to get out of the country and that doesn't feel nearly fast enough. It's with a terrible horror I realize I am stuck deep inside a place I don't want to be, and it feels far too familiar to my feelings of childhood.

Much later, once I'm feeling human again, I take the first availabe boat out of Nong Khiaw, going north towards the Vietnam border. The boat is a narrow assemblage of wood nailed together slap-shod. They put my bike in the back near the motor and manage to melt my left handlebar during the five hour journey.

I get off at Muang Khua where I spend the night at a guesthouse with unsavory young Americans (drunk, possibly high, having loud sex, and sobbing). Since I'm awake anyway, I read offline about Hanoi (where I'm headed) and how it's one of the most dangerous cities in Southeast Asia with organized pick-pocket crimes and a plethora of scam artists. Well, great: another place I'll be stressed out and helpless in. I feel compelled by momentum to keep going, though I fear I'm jumping from the pan into the fire.

At 6:30 a.m., a half hour before I'm to take the bus to the border crossing, I realize my Vietnamese visa isn't valid for another 9 days. Another NINE DAYS. There's no way I'm staying in Laos that long! I have to go back... I cycle to the next town to catch the bus to Oudomxay... except I go 3km down the wrong road. When I ask some locals for help (using Laotian phrases), they laugh in my face. I turn around, reach town again, and go another 3km in the opposite direction (9km total) before I reach the station just as they're loading to leave.

As for this bus ride? The seats are hard as wooden boards and I'm sharing my row with a chicken.

In Oudomxay I have to cycle another 6 km to get to the opposite bus station to go south, back to the capital of Vientiane. I stop at a restaurant to get some lunch, and, for all intents and purposes, feel psychologically kidnapped for the next 24 hours.

*Oudomxay to Vientiane to.....

or, I Lose My Sense of Spirit Completely

As I’m eating at this restaurant, the cook and her family are celebrating something at the next table. The cook holds up a glass and offers it to me, indicating I sit with them. I am struck by this welcoming, after so many days of indifference from locals. I join them and partake in a glass of the wine cooler. I make friendly conversation with the cook’s sister, Mrs. Diamond Tooth, who speaks some English. She invites me back to her home to stay the night. I accept, having apparently learned nothing from my prior experiences in Laos that nothing good could come of it.

They open wine cooler after wine cooler until there are a dozen empty bottles on the table. They bring out two large bottles of BeerLao and I start pretending to drink instead of keeping pace. The karaoke is cranked up and my ears hurt.

Mrs. Diamond Tooth treats her daughter with disgust and her toddler with indifference. The cook’s kids are completely ignored. The three older children run around near the busy street making animal-like shrieks to communicate and finding joy in violently smashing the butterflies that cross their path. I’ve missed the last bus out of Oudomxay and feel stuck with them.

After every bottle of alcohol is empty, I go home with them, where they have ten more bottles of beer they start breaking into! At least I’m away from the karaoke, I think. Then they produce their very own personal stereo system and proceed to blast my eardrums out of my head. The kids continue to run around without any supervision, until the two moms get hungry at 9 p.m. and force them come out to a restaurant despite the fact everyone (including me) is exhausted.

I excuse myself to the bathroom and have a mental breakdown in the squat toilet stall. The only emotion I can feel is fear...

The next morning I tell Mrs. Diamond Tooth I need to take the earliest bus possible. Her brother drives us to the station and I get the 15+ hour “VIP Bus” (no chickens or hard seats) headed to Vientiane. Everyone is handed a plastic bag to throw up in at the start of the ride, as we take cliff-edge turns through the mountains. I come to learn VIP stands for Vomit-Inducing-(Hair)Pin turns. Mercifully, I don’t have motion sickness.

Except for a few stops to pee in the bushes, the hours pass in a numb haze. I keep thinking of my students, teachers, and friends in Japan whom I love so much and how much I miss them and how happy I would be to see them again. Focusing on their love is how I kept my spirit going, when it was an ember about to be snuffed out. My heart feels hard.

An excerpt from my journal at this time:
I feel a powerlessness & terror I've not experienced since childhood when our grandfather would terrorize us with lashings, imprisonment, and derogatory lectures that debased our selfworth as human beings. That poison is not fully flushed out of my system. It's more than getting over the pain - so too there is the fear - the absolute terror - and the anger. Going through the hell of Laos has reminded me of the hell I went through from childhood to young adulthood. The terror, the longing to escape, the isolation and inability to reach out, the lack of compassion from those around me with the ability to change or make a difference to the situation, the shitty food with no chance of alternatives, the bad skin and broken sleeping, the constant threat that anything and everything I have can be forcibly taken from me, that my will means absolutely nothing to anyone, that no one has mercy for me, feeling far away to God as if Buddha's back is turned from me in my mind. Utter selfishness is allowed to reign unchecked... There is no way out and you're in too deep... Laos scraped away my spirit [like a] candle whose wax has been scraped away from the wick.

Just after 3 a.m., the bus pulls into Vientiane’s Northern Bus Station. After barely two hours of sleep, I am exhausted. I just stand there on the concrete block, unsure of what to do next. Are there any guesthouses open at this hour? Where exactly am I? I ask a tuk-tuk driver to point out where the bus station is on a map — it’s 10 km outside the city center. I have a bike, I have a will, I have a way: by 4 a.m. I’m biking my way down the dark street.

I arrive in the city an hour later, just in time to watch the monks morning procession to collect offerings. Nothing is open and I abandon the idea of getting any more sleep. I decide I’ll go to the Thai Consulate and get a 30-day visa. I bike around until 8am, get in line at the Consulate, wait and wait and go through the paperwork and wait and turn in the paperwork –– I can barely stand at this point I'm so tired –– and at the last moment they reject the application because “you can’t wear glasses in your visa photo.”

What the hell!! They want more cash to take a new photo, plus I have to get back in line again, and just SCREW THIS! I knew I’d get 15 days visa-free entry if I went over the border right at this very moment. What was I waiting for??

I hire a tuk-tuk and he drives me to the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge as it begins to rain. I exit through Laos immigration, thinking, This nightmare is finally ending. I bike across the bridge, my energy levels desperately low, and proceed to wipe out over the wet train tracks that cross the Thai side of the bridge. The bike’s weight lands on my right leg, where it scrapes the skin and later swells up hard as a rock. I don't cry, or wait, or give myself any pity; I yell at myself, “I’ve come through hell and I won’t be stopped by a little scrape on my leg!!” I scare myself, like the voice isn't mine — it's like a drill sergeant, forcing myself to pedal with my painful leg the remaining length of the bridge.

*Nong Khai!

or, One MORE Thing...

I reach Thai Immigration and they stamp my passport for 30-days (hallelujah!) without so much as a bureaucratic sneeze in my direction. I enter my beloved Nong Khai with such joy: Fresh air! Familiarity! Food variety! I pedal quickly to Mut Mee Guesthouse, to safety, to rest.

When I arrive at the garden guesthouse, several people who I’d met the month before are still there and greet me by name. I'm ashamed to be seen by them, knowing I look terrible after all I’d been through. My body is so tired now that every muscle movement is painful. I limp to the front desk and the owner gives me antibacterial medicine for my leg and a room to stay. Unable to think or function any further, I collapse in bed.

...And that night there is a cyclone!!!!

It was the most violent storm I’ve ever witnessed: the lightening flashed the sky red and blue, and thick tree branches were ripped from their trunks. The pressure buildup was so intense that houses in the next town over imploded, and my left eardrum (damaged some 13 years ago) rang deafeningly loud for hours. Closer to sunrise, the storm abated.

It felt like I'd passed through the last threshold out of hell, and then the earth trembled.

I am so thankful to be alive.




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Feb 9, 2015

Escape from the Lotus Eaters (Cycling Part 1)

Taking a break along the Nam Ngum River.

The third time I woke, time had inched its way to 4:30 am; close enough. I quickly packed up the last of my toiletries and stepped outside the thatched hut into the pitch-black darkness of the Laotian forest. Using a head-torch, I mounted Oliver onto the rack of my bike.

I heard a crinkling sound like a stream of water poured over dry leaves. Were there animals around? What kinds of predators lived in these forests? Tigers didn’t live far off from these remote areas of Laos. It was far worse: the sound was coming from a festering mound of termites beside the hut! The sight made my skin crawl.

I tied down Oliver as quickly as I could and began the arduous journey back to the road. I felt like Odysseus trying to get back to sea after being swept away to the land of the Lotus Eaters.

The hut I stayed overnight in, and the others like it in the forest, are an off-the-beaten-path tourist destination for those who want to get closer to nature. At least, that’s what I had thought; when I got there I learned visitors’ real intentions were to smoke lots and lots of weed.

As the sole non-smoker in the dining hut at dinner, I couldn’t sit anywhere without being surrounded by fumes. Conversations centered around how guests had kept their stashes hidden from national authorities, and how one could make certain creations with a PCV pipe that could potentially blow up… I felt like a bystander in a Breaking Bad episode.

People doing weed around me wasn’t what put me on edge, it was the entire scenario. Let’s paint the picture: I’m in the middle of a forest in a remote area of Lao, far away from anyone who speaks English (or could hear me scream for that matter), sleeping in a tiny wooden hut with a single hook latch, by myself, with several very high guys around. No electricity, the one source of running water is a good walk from my hut passed mens' lodgings, and the phone SIM card I bought isn’t working.

I couldn’t sleep at night in my eagerness to leave as soon as possible.

The path through the lodging area and out the front gate (so no tigers inside, at least) is a series of steep stones, forking paths, and narrow sandy walkways… not cleared for someone with a heavy bike in mind. I’d already scraped chunks of skin off my fingers and one toe getting in — now I added more bruises to my look as the bike pedals kept crashing into my calves and the handlebars into my arms. It was so dark I could only see the patch of sand and rock lit just two feet or so in front of me. The moon was far down on the horizon, waxing a bright orange-yellow between the dried up trees’ silhouettes. It all added to the spooky Halloween vibe.

Every exhale crystalized and lingered around my face as I walked. Then, halfway (I hoped) on the pathway out, I saw two sets of glowing eyes staring straight at me! I stopped dead in my tracks. But what choice was there? I had to go forward. I refused to return whence I came — I was getting through! I pushed my laden bike forward, and the eyes blinked, disappeared, then reappeared in a new place. I will always remember those yellow-green eyes peering at me through the blackness of that forest.

Then it hit me: the cats! There were a liter of cats running around during dinner the night before — it must be them on a night hunt. When I came closer, my head-torch illuminated their shadowy fur and I found I was right. They scampered off into the brush. I heaved my bike up the stone outcrops they’d watched me from and trudged on.

Whenever I stopped I heard the biting-crunching march of the local termites and hurried faster. Terrible images of them devouring my bike from the wheels up—or me from the feet up—fed my gnawing fear.

Once I was out of the gate, the real trial began: finding my way 2.5 kilometers out to the main road, in the dark, dragging my bike through the sandy path where the wheels couldn’t catch enough ground to roll. Now I was really alone…I pushed on.

I hadn’t realized how uphill the way went until I was now going down it, the bike “kicking” my calves to keep up. The sun was beginning to turn its face to this side of the world. I stopped a moment to admire the stars when that terrible crunching noise returned. Where were they, where was it coming from? My torchlight flew around until I looked down at my feet and saw I was standing in the middle of a termite hoard—ahhh!! I flew down the rocks with my bike, praying and pleading I wouldn’t get my fist flat tire out here, oh please God no.

By very subtle degrees the sky became lighter, until the world was in deep shadows instead of pitch darkness. I kept asking myself, “Did I go this way before? Is this familiar?” Every sandpit felt the same, looked the same.

After a long time, I came to a crossroads by tiny village huts… I did not remember this at all. Did I take a wrong step somewhere? Was it really a straightforward path up to then, or had the night concealed the way from me? I put my bike on its kickstand and walked straight ahead, trying to figure out if I’d come that way before… I turned around and my bike was lost in the dark except for the single dot of its handlebar light, a little lost speck of white in the inky blackness.

One turn led to a village house, so that couldn't be it; I could either go straight, or turn right going up a hill (but I didn’t remember going down one on the way in…). I chose to go up the hill. I didn’t know it then, but that was not the route I was looking for.

When the lefthand side of the path became a fenced-in area for crops, I knew I'd taken a wrong turn, but I stubbornly kept going, thinking I could will the main road to appear until — two dogs came around the turn in the fence and started barking at me.

Dogs are not the cute, pampered pets we keep in the Western World; the dogs I’ve met in Asia are territorial, half-wild, and give chase. These two were medium-sized; big enough to bite a good chunk out of me — and I was intruding on their turf. They came closer and I began to turn my bike around to go back to the crossroads when — a car zoomed across the dimness behind them — I’d found the road! It was a way out!!

Dogs or no dogs, I was getting to that road. I gripped the handlebars, kept the bike between me and the dogs like Jenn and Harry taught me (bless them!!), and pushed the bike straight towards them. They snarled and came closer, but I walked past them shouting, “No!” after each bark to scare them off. They backed down, turned around in a circle, and came towards me again; this happened several times until my front tire hit the road and glided (no more sand, huzzah!) across the cement pavement. Once I was on the opposite side of the road, the dogs sulked back to the fence, their eyes still watching me.

The sun was coming up now: a dark red rim of light shown on the horizon, deepened by Laos’s red-sand dusted air. I put my sweater on against the cold breeze, pocketed my head-torch, and prayed thank you thank you thank you.

I cycled over 80 kilometers before nightfall….

Sunrise, Midday, and Sunset from Route 13

How was I to know I was headed for more trouble?


to be continued!



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Jan 30, 2015

Goodbye Nong Khai ~

I’ve never been in tears to leave a place before; the week spent at Mut Mee Guesthouse in Nong Khai, Thailand has by far been the best travel experience I’ve ever had. This blog post is dedicated to my friends Jenn & Harry, who encouraged me to visit Nong Khai, start cycle touring, play ukulele, and a mass of other new interests – I can’t thank them enough.


The open-air garden at Mut Mee is special all by itself: it overlooks the Mekong River, with lounge chairs and shared tables underneath the thatched canopies. There's a restaurant, book shop, yoga/meditation studio, and bike rental all on-site. And it’s $6 USD per night for a beautiful single room. No, I didn’t forget a zero – that’s six dollars.

The people make the place though, and that’s why Mut Mee is truly special. The guesthouse is so genuine that it attracts like-minded individuals. Never in my travels have I stayed at a place with so many incredible people all gathered together, and returning guests at that! I aim to be one, too.


Nong Khai is a countryside town, so it doesn’t take long to walk from one place to another. Soon we were well-acquainted with the best places for coconut soup, generous dishes of fresh vegetables on rice, and Thai tea. We met other regulars at these places, and our friends grew. We talked about our travels, our insights, music, food, and yoga... we became a community.

As Jenn, Harry, and I we were discussing cycle touring at the iced chocolate cafe, a couple we befriended there said they had a bike they wanted to sell for a very reasonable price. It was in good condition, came with a few bells and whistles, and would I be interested?

I’m just agape at how the universe provides.

I bought the bike from them. Now I had no reason not to go cycle touring! A whole new world was opened up to me. Harry & Jenn gave me their unneeded bike bags and gear, demonstrated how to repair a flat tire, and even helped me clamp everything down so the bike was weighted evenly.

All these things coalesced at the perfect time, much the way the people at Mut Mee all came together at a specific place and time – separate threads that weave a pattern in an infinite tapestry; this is the spirit of the meaning behind “Mut Mee” in Thai. It’s like compounding miracles.

I know it will never happen again like this; that even when I return to Mut Mee, these people in this place belong to this time; it’s what makes every moment so valuable, and why it's important to appreciate it as it's happening.

Jenn, Harry, Ray, Diane, Ine, Andy, Tommy, Julian, Pao, Ben, Desi, TJ, Xavier, Duke, Fernando, Petra, Simeon, Amy, CJ, Connor, Catherine, “Grandad”, Pancho & Beatrix, the French couple, the Spanish-French couple, the bookshop lady, the coconut soup lady, the vegetarian restaurant lady, the iced chocolate guy, the back kitchen ladies… so much light and love - thank you from my heart!!


When it was time to leave, I looked out over the Mekong to Laos — a country beyond everything that I know. I felt like Sam following Frodo beyond the farthest step he'd ever taken from the Shire. And, like Sam, I’m not alone: after I checked out, Jenn & Harry cycled with me to the bridge that joins the border between the two countries.

Saying goodbye to them was hard – we’d been together  4 weeks (only two of which we spoke to one another, after the silent meditation retreat). After a big group hug, I crossed the bridge over the Mekong River and into Laos. I’ve heard from others what’s beyond this point, and now I go to experience it for myself. After passing immigration, I cycled 26 km to Vientiane and straight into the next adventure…


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NOTE: The internet is a luxurious commodity Lao’s small villages go without — I don’t know when I’ll be able to update again, but I’ll keep you posted as I can. In the meantime, imagine me the redheaded Mad Max of the dusty Laotion roads.


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Jan 23, 2015

Bangkok Body

After renouncing worldly ways at Wat Suan Mokkh, I jumped right back into it when I took the overnight train to Bangkok – Thailand's bustling metropolitan capital.
The Reclining Buddha of Wat Pho, Bangkok

During the 10-day meditation retreat, the teachings expounded on the structure of
effort --> nature/law/way --> wisdom (Sangha --> Dhamma --> Buddha). Everything is Dhamma, all connected to the Supreme Dhamma. In other words, everything has its own nature, all connected to the supreme law of nature. A physics law of centrifugal force, the nature of how a tree grows, the way our bodies age – whether we understand them or not, they are there, following their own "Dhamma."

So one question I asked myself at the retreat was: how much effort do I put in to understanding my own body? Most of the time, I don't – like most people, I view my body as what lugs my mind around from place to place. So I decided to spend the week in Bangkok focusing on my health, to learn the "Dhamma of my body." Why Bangkok? Because it has cheap, high quality medical care. If there's anywhere in Southeast Asia you want to visit a clinic, it's Thailand.

Perhaps the Dhamma of my own body is not so interesting to other people, so I'll paraphrase my journey into the useful points I discovered:

Neck/Shoulders

I carry stress in my shoulders, which causes a lot of tensing and neck pain (I'm sure if you're reading this hunched over an iPhone, you feel this, too). Swedish massages are very popular in the Occident for their relaxing nature. They're nice at the time, but as soon as I leave I feel my muscles tightening back up again.

Yoga and meditation have helped correct my posture, but I still had set-in muscle ache. Solution? A Thai massage. It's firm and painful and holy cannoli you feel blissed out by the end, like your body's made of jelly. At one point the masseuse asked me to turn over and I realized I couldn't! Her elbow under my shoulder blades had loosened such tight muscles that I couldn't get them to tense again just to move.

A well spent $24 USD for one hour.

Teeth

Do: visit a dentist in Bangkok.
Don't: walk into the first one off the street, without Googling their community reviews, and make an appointment on the spot (like I did).

The dentist pointed to every tooth with his metal cleaning pick and said it obviously had a cavity (even the teeth with fillings already) and he'd be happy to fill/re-fill them all in for me for –– wait, he had to get his calculator –– $264 USD. Um, no thanks. If I'm gonna spend serious money on my teeth, it's going to be a dental office where I can actually swallow the tap water.

As it was, I got my teeth cleaned and polished for $32 USD.

Henceforth I'll be adding more Vitamins A, D, and K2 to rebuild tooth enamel, and see if I can't prevent having to get any more fillings. [If you're interested, here's an article about how to rebuild tooth enamel.]

Foot Reflexology

Pressure is not pain, pressure is not pain... I had to keep repeating this to myself as the Thai-Chinese reflexologist (the "Foot Master" and no, I'm not making that up) squeezed the muscles in my feet with his strong, precise grip.

Reflexologists believe that areas and points of the feet are connected to different organs, and that by putting pressure on these areas it has a beneficial effect on a person's health. I felt tingling in my organs, but was I imagining the connection? I wasn't sure.

At one point I did feel pain, under the pinky toe of my right foot. I winced and reflexively pulled my leg away. The reflexologist was surprised and kept the pressure there extra light. Later I looked up what part of the body it corresponds to: the shoulders/neck. Hmmm. It seems stress and improper posture alignment in one area have a larger effect on the rest of our body than I realized.

$22 USD later, and I floated out of the shop with "happy feet" and a new subject to research. [Here's an article I'm reading on how to improve posture.]

Check-Up

I went to one of Bangkok's Westernized international hospitals for a cancer screening check-up. I have never had this type of check-up before, and I was very anxious. I'm young! I'm not sick! Why was I bothering to go in at all? I felt like I was imposing on the doctor's time while a lobby full of middle-aged patients waited for their turn. The nurses who took my vitals seemed surprised when I said I was only here for a check-up. I felt surprised too, thinking what am I doing here?

The answer came back just as strong: I don't want to be a "if only we'd caught it earlier, we could have saved your life" case. The check-up was uncomfortable, time-consuming, and expensive ($90 USD, all told). The results came in an email a few days later: all clear. Was it worth it?

Yes: I started a healthy yearly routine I must continue for the rest of my life. I'm 26 – there's no more delaying my responsibilities to my own body. My grandmother had (and survived) cancer; it runs in the family. I'm not "above" getting it just because I willfully don't want to. That's youth talking, not sense.

Sleep

Zzzzz.... On the meditation retreat, we all slept by 21:30 and woke with the 4:00 morning bell. I thought this would be the hardest part of the experience, but I soon learned that the mind can be trained to wake, alert and aware, even without an alarm. Even after the retreat, I'll wake up at either 5 or 6 am, wide awake and ready for the day. This has truly been an immeasurable gift; it's these morning hours I use to write on my fantasy novel.

What I learned from this experience is our addiction to the snooze button is more psychological than physical. Of course, sleeping on a wooden pillow at a monastery does decrease the desire to go back to bed, but for us mere mortals, I think a few minutes after the snooze button isn't so bad, either.

I've found the benefits of waking up early far outweigh the extra hours of sleep... There's something really special about the soft darkness before dawn, the light of sunrise coming in through the window, hearing the birds start to sing. After I've written 1,500 words I can start the day with a feeling of satisfaction – I've already accomplished something important before breakfast. I feel happy everyday... and that in itself is a small miracle :)



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Jan 16, 2015

Insights from Ten Days of Meditation

As the surrounding Thai countryside welcomed the new year with gunfire and fireworks, I laid my head down on a wooden pillow and tried to fall asleep before the 4 am wake-up bell rang. So began 2015, the first of ten nights at a vipassana meditation retreat.

Suan Mokkh International Dhamma Hermitage

To write one post about all the experiences, epiphanies, and difficulties of those ten days is impossible — so, I'll share with you one of the major insights I had near the end of the course:

One monk showed us a mandala (image of the symbolic universe) with the realms of hell all the way around to the heavenly abode of those who solely practice loving-kindness. He explained that even those in this heavenly realm suffer from dukkha (defilement) because they love “too much.” The Buddhist ideal is to be neither sorrowful nor joyful, but instead completely at peace ‘in the center, following the Middle Way.’

This was a crisis for me!

Before this retreat I would have told you I didn’t have any anger or fear (save for the occasional furry spider, of which the hermitage had plenty). Through the ten days, I realized that everyday my mood would follow a cyclical pattern of alertness, joy, contentment, boredom, anger, and sleepiness; emotions that play out in the background all the time, but I was quiet enough inside and out to be aware of them. I found that I did have anger, and I was especially afraid of anger because…

Everything I do stems from this fear of potential physical or emotional pain.

For the monk to explain that even loving-kindness can bring a kind of suffering, I had an inner crisis: if even compassion can cause harm, must I throw it away in order to completely protect myself from all forms of pain and suffering? If practicing peace involves strict discipline cutting off all your attachments, where does compassion for others spring from?

These thoughts began to form on the evening of Day 8. Day 9 was the only day that practitioners couldn’t ask questions to the coordinators during meditation break; I had to wrestle with these questions alone. And I did wrestle with them. I felt myself pulling away from Buddhism, as if it had hurt me with its truth, and I was going to avoid even such a thing that had helped me find peace and guidance along the path of spiritual awakening for years... Where could I turn now?

Then, I thought of my Takashina babies — those wonderful, joyful, full-of-love-and-energy elementary students I had the blessing to teach and play with in Japan. Every time they come to mind, I smile from way down deep in my heart. Was there suffering in my loving them so much? Of course; when I had to say goodbye, or when one of them was hurt, or when I thought of them going through the rigorous Japanese academic testing system, my heart squeezed with ache. Does this inclusion of “suffering” change my feelings about them, or how I would have been around them? Never, ever in a million years!!

So, if living in this world means that to give up suffering you must give up joy, I accept both of them. I willingly suffer to increase love for others, and willingly love to decrease others' suffering.

In other words, I choose to live this life!!!

I chose my life!! I don’t have to renounce the whole world — what a revelation! I was trying to be the perfect bhikkuni (Thai Buddhist nun) by shaving my head, locking away nearly all of my belongings, and even brushing my teeth with my fingers at one point because I saw a video once of Zen monks living that way.

I went to an “extreme” to learn that perfection (even in the “Middle Way” between extremes) is not the way to peace. As another meditator at the retreat aptly put it, ‘Maybe there’s a middle way to the Middle Way.’

At times during the retreat I thought, ‘This is incredible! I want to stay here forever!’ Other times I felt so much fear at the prospect of further delving into the mind I wanted to quit before the ten days were up. (It’s not until Day 11, when the silence is finally broken, you learn you’re not crazy because everyone else felt the same way through their experience.)

When the silence was over, the people I’d been meditating, eating alongside, and doing chores with felt like old friends… though we hadn’t exchanged a word, only gentle smiles. It wasn’t until after ten days I learned their names, or even their nationalities. Instead of the customary, ‘Where are you from? Where are you going?’ we asked each other questions like, ‘What were some of your insights during the retreat? Did you find it as hard as I did?’ Sharing our experiences and insights with each other deepened the entire retreat experience. We were deeply present in our conversations, and it felt safe to be open to each other about anything and everything.

I learned that the smallest things I did had big effects on the people around me, from knocking on my neighbor’s door at 4 am to make sure she had woken for the morning bell, to volunteering to read a morning passage to the entire group of 160 people. And I was affected in return; the same neighbor came armed with a broom to help me shoo the spider living beside my doorway, and another girl approached me after the retreat to tell me my morning reading was so gently spoken and well done that when she meditates she hears my voice! (I’ll carry that compliment in my heart forever.)

At this very moment I’m in Bangkok, and every day I meet up with another friend from the retreat, and I can see the joy and light pouring out from their faces. How incredible to be a part of their lives!!

This is my present life: joyfully aware and content to put my effort into living open-eyed, open-hearted, and open-minded.


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Are you aware of this present moment? Take three deep breaths. Each new breath is a new beginning. <3


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