Volunteering at New Life, Part III

In Part II, I wrote about farming, and the daily routine.

Weekends at New Life Foundation provided an opportunity to break from the daily routine.

Shopping Trips

The foundation is a 30-minute ride from the city. During the week we stay on campus, busy with our daily routine. On the weekends a shopping trip is organized, where we can ride into the city in song tao’s (red pickup trucks with benches in the back, see below) to go into town and get personal necessities.

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(image courtesy of American Expat in Chiang Mai)

Once in town, I would take this opportunity to enjoy junk food – McDonald’s fries and Coke, followed by going to a cafe and having a pastry with a mocha – little things I didn’t have access to during the weekdays, so it really felt like a treat…something I never had the impulse to do back home.

The city is a contrast from the quiet, secluded environment at New Life: shopping malls, sounds of motor vehicles, pollution, ads and billboards promoting materialism. I know some people from New Life didn’t go on these weekend shopping trips just because they didn’t want to leave the serene environment at New Life. They were happy to stay home.

Hiking

A hiking trip was organized one weekend.  A “moderate” hike according to our local guide ended up being a very difficult hike, requiring machetes to create a path through the dense foliage, and several hikers getting bitten by leeches. Usually it was the same two people getting bitten repeatedly. In Southeast Asia it’s always better to be over-prepared; good-to-know information is usually not shared beforehand.

The hiking crew.

Ankur New Life Crew

The hike started innocently through beautiful rice fields.

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A local panicked when Elbert walked on this rickety bridge – he told him the bridge is “for looking only”. Elbert also appears to be quite careless in this shot, like he’s texting while crossing a dilapidated bridge. lol

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Beware of leeches!

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Grubs. Our local guides would take these back to the village to sell.

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Sabrina looks like she’s just chilling here, but she’s actually holding on to the tree to keep from sliding down!

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Visiting the Local Temples

Just when I thought I couldn’t possibly be surprised by any more magnificent temples, I was. In Chiang Rai, there are two temples worth seeing: the Black Temple and the White temple. Despite the simple names, they were quite epic!

The Black Temple is very animalistic. And black. It’s not actually a temple, but a museum of various art collections. I imagined Vikings would feel at home here.

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Inside one of the buildings. Lots of buffalo skulls, and sharp chairs with fur.

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Chair

This building stood out as it was a completely different style than the buildings around it.

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The White Temple is quite eccentric, and still under construction for perhaps another decade.

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This part felt inspired by Dali. I think it represents hands reaching up from hell.IMG_2272

The creator seems to have something for superheroes and celebrity figures. Once you walked inside the temple, in front of you is a golden Buddha statue; behind you is a wall painting, with figures like Michael Jackson, Superman, Batman. The painting colors are dark and reddish, which represent darkness, hell. This is  contrasted with heaven, symbolized by the golden Buddha statue in the front of the temple.

Yes, that’s Neo.

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(image from Man on the Lam)

Batman’s head hanging from a tree.

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In case you need to use the bathroom, it’s in this building.

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Dance Mandala

There were many new techniques of spirituality I was being exposed to during my time at New Life, and Dance Mandala has stood out in my mind the most.

In the Forest Hall, a few dozen of us gathered for a night of unstructured dance, called Dance Mandala. We were advised to close our eyes and just move to the music, however we felt like. Various songs would be played, electronic beats, bass, and each person expressed how that felt through dance. Again, the beauty here is vulnerability. I wasn’t concerned about whether I was going to be made fun of or not –  I explored dance through movement. It is a very different experience to be able to dance individually, yet with a group of of fifty people or so, everyone immersed in their own bubble.  I felt gratitude for being in an environment where I could move without being judged; dance purely for the sake of dancing.

You Don’t Need Alcohol to Have Fun

One big thing to point out is that I had fun, we all had fun, without alcohol or drugs. I didn’t even realize this at the time, but I’m grateful for having an environment where I could escape the usual social conventions of drinking to have fun.

I will end this post with a cool video one of the volunteers made (all shot and edited on her iPhone). It gives you a good glimpse into the environment and people at New Life (while being silly).

(video made by Gabriela)

Next Post: My Last Day at New Life Foundation

Volunteering at New Life Foundation, Part II

In Part I, I wrote about why I chose to volunteer at New Life.

Part II: Farming & The Daily Routine

Each day at New Life is filled with meaningful activities that keep me occupied throughout the day. It feels nice to have a daily schedule again, a temporary relief from the chore of the constantly planning moment to moment when on the move.

Here is my daily schedule during the weekdays:

5:30am – Wake up
6-7am – Yoga or Tai Chi
7-8am – Have breakfast in silence
8-8:30am – Daily morning meeting
8:30-11:00am – Farming
11am-12pm – Break, shower
12-1pm – Lunch
1-3:30pm – More farming
4-6pm – Shower, yoga, meditation
6-7 pm- Dinner
7-9pm – Lecture, movie, group sharing
9-11pm – Reflect, write, prepare for bed

Every morning I eat breakfast in silence, reading a card with Thich Nhat Hanh’s “Five Contemplations for Mindful Eating”. Eventually, I remember this prayer:

“This food is a gift of the earth, the sun, the sky, numerous living beings, and much hard work.
Let us eat with gratitude and awareness so we may be worthy to receive it.

Let us recognize and transform our unskilled states of mind, especially our greed.

Let us eat in such a way that reduces the suffering of all living beings, sustains the planet, and reverses the process of global warming.

Clearly in this food, we see the universe supporting our existence.”

I love how the prayer encapsulates gratitude (recognize the amount of work it took to bring this food to you), mindfulness (be aware of your greed and desire to eat more than you need), and environmentalism (be aware of where your food comes from, and if it’s grown in a way that is good for the planet).

How Was the Farming Experience?

Oh yea, I came here to farm…

Organic farming is hard! The weather is warm and humid. I spend five hours a day farming banana trees. This requires hoeing away weeds and pulling them out by hand (no pesticides here), which is laborious. This is followed by digging a trench around the tree, and then filling that trench with manure. Using this method, I fertilized about eight banana trees a day. There were other chores available, like waste management (sorting recyclables out of the trash, composting), milking the two cows on the farm, or building & construction. It seems like farming is the least popular of these activities since it is the most laborious, toiling away in the soil. While I am curious to milk cows ( just a little), or do some construction, I realize that I am only volunteering here two weeks. So I wanted to get as much farming experience as I could.

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Digging a trench around a banana tree.

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A field of banana trees and my fellow teammates.

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Sometimes rain would interfere with our farming schedule; this meant free time during our scheduled shift.

After I finish farming for the day, I partake in activities like yoga or meditation before dinner. After dinner there is usually a lecture we can attend. The entire day is energizing, filled with personal growth and learning.

Do You Love Yourself?

One day I found this on the door to my room. Someone had been been assigned a random act of kindness that day. This person had left a mindful quote on everyone’s door.

Note on my door

I read the above quote, feeling it was destined for me, and reflected on it. During my Vipassana retreat, I did learn that there is a part of me that I did not love. I realize that I need to be compassionate to myself. This is a simple quote that can easily be overlooked, but I am in the right environment and state of mind to receive its blessing.

You Are Powerful Beyond Measure

There is a particularly special activity after dinner one evening in Forest Hall. I arrive to find a small group of eight people seated in a circle, Indian-style, on meditation cushions. The speaker reads the quote below. We then meditate for five minutes, reflecting on what the quote means to us. Afterwards, the floor is opened for us to provide our input, but there is no pressure to speak. The quote feels particularly significant to me, as Cherry had sent me this quote just days before.

Powerful Beyond MEasure

Being a special quote to me, I share my interpretation that evening. After a few moments of silence pass, I begin by speaking on how I had recently gone on a ten-day Vipassana retreat, and had learned about a side of myself, a side that I didn’t love. That I always wanted to be humble, but I now realized I was too humble; to the point that I was fearing my own light. I learned that I needed to focus on my brilliance, my talents, and allow my spirit to live up to its potential. I ended by expressing gratitude for having the courage to go backpacking, and to have found my way to this moment at New Life.

After I’m done speaking, others in the circle share their thoughts; some feel similar to how I did. One person describes how he had just graduated from college, and how he feels inadequate now, having done everything right, but not being able to get a job. Another person describes how she fears the darkness, not the light. Another person in the circle had just arrived at New Life this day; I could see in her face that she was uncomfortable, not ready to be vulnerable and open up to the group. It’s not easy to just open up and share your deepest feelings. And this is the beauty of New Life Foundation, to create this special environment where you can.

Through mindful eating, mindful farming, yoga, meditation, and activities like the above, my days were spent cultivating not only land, but a  healthy mind, body, and spirit.

Next post: The Weekends at New Life Foundation

Volunteering at New Life Foundation, Part I

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Before I left in August, I had the goal of volunteering at some point during my trip. During my trip, I discovered there were many volunteering opportunities to teach English; but I felt like doing something with my hands. Eventually I chose farming – something about working with my hands, simple tools, and the earth, to cultivate life. There are a dozen farming opportunities to choose from; I chose New Life Foundation because of its focus on mindfulness, and the community. There are daily programs like yoga, tai chi, meditation. This seemed like it would be perfect after my ten-day retreat, to have an environment where I could continue my practice of mindfulness. Also, the community consists of volunteers and residents. Residents go through rehabilitation of disorders like alcoholism, stress, burnout, or depression. I didn’t know what to expect being in such a community, but I was open to the experience. I wanted to explore opportunities that I didn’t back at home. If you’re interested, read more about New Life Foundation and how it came about.

On November 16, 2013, I arrive at New Life Foundation to begin my two weeks of volunteering. I’m greeted by Catherine, who had arrived at the foundation two weeks earlier. She had quit her job in the UK to come volunteer at New Life Foundation for one year! My two weeks of volunteering felt meager in that moment. When I asked Catherine “why one year?”, she responded that for her, it felt like the right amount of time to commit to things. Respect.

After I check in, I’m pleasantly surprised by my room – clean, minimal, simple, modern. This will be my room for two weeks, which provides luxuries I haven’t experienced in a while. Privacy – no bunk beds, no dorm mates. My own bathroom. Sleeping in the same bed for an extended period. Fourteen sunsets and sunrises will greet me in the same location.

Room

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The foundation property is lush and green. Below is a rice field.

Green Field

There’s a beautiful lake in the middle.

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There is a path to Forest Hall, which passes a flock of ducks. These ducks lay about five-dozen eggs daily inside the rubber tires. The eggs are used for breakfast every morning.

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I became fond of one duck; I call him the Lone Walker. He differs from the other ducks in physical appearance and personality. The other ducks are white; he is black. The other ducks huddle together; he is content on his own. The other ducks would flurry away when approached; he just stood and stared. And so every time I would walk to the Forest Hall, I would always stop and stare at him, wondering what made him different from all the other ducks. And he would stare back at me, thinking his duck thoughts.

After having a delicious vegetarian dinner, I go to an Alcoholics Anonymous talk in the evening (all are welcome to attend). There’s an American speaker, now living in Bangkok, here to tell about his struggle with alcohol. The room is filled with about twenty people, all Westerners. The speaker tells us about his first drink as a kid in New York, to fit in with the other kids; as the years progressed, he had associated drinking with comfort, and so he was always drinking. Years later he was drinking on the job, trying to hide it from his employer, and trying to hide it from his wife. Ultimately alcoholism ended up ruining his marriage and relationship with his children. Later, a friend also fighting alcoholism referred him to Alcoholics Anonymous. He went, stuck with the program, and successfully quit. He has now been sober for 18 years!

Afterwards, others in the room share their stories. I learn about the people around me, their struggles because of alcoholism – bad childhoods, ruined families, failed attempts at quitting. As I hear story after story, I’m  taken out of my bubble, being exposed to the deeper sufferings of my fellow beings, normally hidden beneath the surface in daily interactions.

I think about my life back home, how socializing revolves quite a bit around alcohol. I think of how when I am out and socializing at a bar, I may be drinking socially, but someone around me could be addicted to this substance; it goes undetected in that environment. What may be fun and relaxing for some, may be quenching an addiction for others.

After the meeting ends, I reflect on how it created an environment of vulnerability. Everyone could freely share their own unique story of becoming addicted to alcohol, the resulting pain and suffering, without fear of criticism. Through the night my knowledge and appreciation grew for the AA program as I learned more about its structure and processes. It is designed to help people break alcohol addiction, and it works.

I end my first day at New Life feeling good about my decision to come here, already having experienced a deep and meaningful day. I look forward to my two weeks here!

Next Post: Farming and The Daily Routine at New Life Foundation

Retracing Footsteps in Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai is my favorite place in Thailand, and one of my favorite cities in Southeast Asia so far. There is just something about the atmosphere that gave the city a quaint and relaxed vibe. I’ll try to articulate some of the qualities I like about it.

  • It’s not too small, neither too big: you can walk from one end to the other in about 30 minutes. An easy place to bicycle around.
  • The central part is surrounded by a moat, which makes it more scenic
  • On every corner you will find a temple; it gives the city a spiritual vibe
  • There are many expats here, and as a result it seems that Couchsurfing events have many people that show up
  • Vegetarian food is easy to find (yay for me!)

My favorite temple I found is called Wat Chedi Luang, a wat that is visually stunning from all angles. I must have walked around it several times appreciating it’s beauty. It’s about 700 years old! IMG_2321

My girlfriend Cherry had volunteered at this wat about one year earlier. You can read about her experience on her blog. Cherry suggested I go visit the head teacher, Arjan Chareon (arjan means “teacher”), and also one of her favorite students, Netipong. I had to take this special opportunity!

I walk to a school on the temple grounds, and I see a student; I ask him if he knows Arjan Chareon. He does. I ask him if I can meet him. He walks me to a meeting room where Arjan Chareon is in a meeting with other people. After his meeting, Arjan Chareon comes to meet with me.

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At this point, I’m wondering how the meeting will go. He seems like a busy guy, will he appreciate me coming in just to talk to him because my girlfriend had volunteered here one year earlier?

He ends up being warm and friendly, excited to have a connection with one of his past volunteers. I start by asking him if he remembers Cherry, who had volunteered here last year. He excitedly replied, “Oh yes, Cheri, she is the small girl!” (he pronounces her name as “sher-e”, and makes the gesture of a short person). I laugh, and I reply that I am her boyfriend, here on my own journey. For half an hour, we make small chit chat; I tell him about my ten day silent meditation retreat, and then needing to put the teachings into practice immediately after the retreat, when I  had all my valuables stolen in Bangkok. He talks about a special amulet he carries with him, and having almost lost it a few times; but it always ended up coming back to him. He admits he had been sad when he thought he has lost it. We all have our attachments.

He then takes me on a tour of the school, showing me the many awards won over the years – the most recent award of being recognized as the top school in the region. The princess herself came to present this award, a high honor.

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I then ask Arjan Chareon where Netipong is, and he tells me that is the boy who I had talked to when entering the school! What are the chances the first person I talked to entering the school is Cherry’s favorite student? I bid Arjan Chareon goodbye, and then I talk to Netipong for a bit. I ask him about his studies, what he wishes to do in the future. Netipong replies that he is almost done with his primary schooling, and wants to study English when he goes to university. I make more small talk with him, but he’s shy.  We end our conversation as he has to leave to continue his errands.

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Afterwards I walk to the temple, and go inside to meditate for a bit in front of a large golden Buddha statue, feeling grateful to have met Arjan Chareon and Netipong.

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I open my eyes after my brief meditation. It feels surreal that I am here, where Cherry had been one year earlier. Meeting people she had met when she had volunteered here last year, retracing her footsteps around Chiang Mai, now living the moments I had vicariously lived through Cherry a year earlier.

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I spend the remainder of my time exploring other parts of Chiang Mai.

An adventurous activity I’ve been wanting to try: ziplining. The whole experience went by fairly quickly, and it was well-run and very safe.

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Rather than just having us zip from tree to tree, they keep it interesting by adding some obstacles here and there, like in the video below.

Another adventure was getting a massage from the “Women’s Prison Massage”. You don’t actually go to a women’s prison to get a massage, but a nice massage facility. The women are prisoners who are given the opportunity to become a certified masseuse when they leave prison. It’s nice that they are actually offering these women a new skill that they can be useful after leaving prison, and I hope it does improve their lives.

I received a one-hour massage for 180 baht ($6). I highly recommend it – it was a professional and pleasant experience.

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And then every Sunday there was a huge night market, with lots of cheap goods and good food. I found the scene below quite charming, a police officer strumming a guitar, a woman singing, collecting donations for children in need. Little things like this gave Chiang Mai a certain friendly, welcoming charm.

Of all the cities and places I visited so far, I felt that Chiang Mai would be a spot I could see myself living in for a few months. Nice people, vegetarian restaurants, yoga studios, temples literally on every street corner, natural beauty nearby, cheap massages, $1 mango smoothies. Wait, why am I not living in Chiang Mai?

Next post:

Volunteering for two weeks at New Life Foundation, where I will be doing organic farming, but it turns out to be much more.

Anichcha – Leaving Bangkok Empty-Handed

After completing my ten-day Vipassana retreat, I arrive back to Bangkok. The silence and freedom I experienced the past ten days is being shocked back to reality  as the metropolitan city assaults my senses, especially the eyes and ears.. But a bigger shock was yet to come.

I celebrate my 31st birthday in Bangkok with Dev. We head to the Chinatown area of Bangkok to seek out the vegetarian food festival; almost every restaurant and street vendor goes full-on vegetarian during this period.

On the way, we visit a nearby golden wat.

Golden Buddha

We leave the wat and continue to the vegetarian festival. We are greeted by numerous yellow banners and flags as we arrive.

Vegetarian Festival in Chinatown

In the evening we succeed in finding Belgian beer; a treat after drinking watery-lagers for two months.

Good Beer!

An we end the night at a cool jazz bar with a live band. Dev and I were impressed with the performance.

The day after my birthday, I plan on leaving Bangkok to Chiang Rai, where I will be volunteering for two weeks.

On that day, I arrive to the Mo Chit bus station in Bangkok, which is huge – it’s as busy as an airport. I go to my VIP bus stop, waiting to board. While standing and reading, I have my large backpack and small backpack adjacent to my feet. One moment I look down, and I notice my small backpack is missing.

Panic immediately sets in. I rush back to retrace my steps, hoping I accidentally left my backpack somewhere. Simultaneously, the emotion of realizing what had really happened has arisen.

Someone stole my backpack from right under my nose!

And unfortunately, I had a lot of important things in there:

  • Macbook
  • U.S. Passport
  • Camera (the Canon S95, a high-end point&shoot)
  • iPod
  • Moneybelt with $100 in cash
  • Eyeglasses
  • A birthday card I had written for Cherry, right after ending my ten-days of silence.

I’m in panic mode, and I frantically gesture to the bus agent, explaining what had happened. He doesn’t speak English, but he understands what had happened. He calls for security. A nice man arrives, and he asks me what happened. We do a quick walk around the area to look for my bag. Not found. He tells me to get onto the bus, and in the morning, after my 12-hour bus ride, to call my bus agent and see if they find my bag.

I  momentarily debate whether I should stick around, hoping my bag will be found. Or if the thief is nice, they would at least drop my US passport and birthday card around the station, being of no value to them, but high value to me. I then realize that realistically, it’s all gone. I hop onto the bus, wondering how to fix this mess.

During my twelve-hour bus ride, I’m feeling shocked at my loss, while silently reminding myself of one of the teachings from the past ten days: anichcha (pronounced “uh-nee-chuh”). Anichcha means “impermanence, constant change”. This applies to good and bad events in life. Our teacher repeated this word a lot over the ten days, and I especially remembered hearing it at the beginning of a meditation session where we had to sit completely still for an hour straight, which results in physical pain. During the moments of pain, I would attempt to understand that everything is temporary; this suffering is temporary. And now, in this moment where I lost many of my valuables, I reminded myself that this suffering is temporary. Anichcha.

Luckily, I still have my iPhone and wallet with an ATM card. I send a quick email to my family, describing what had just happened. I power down my iPhone to save battery. My iPhone charger was also in my small backpack.

The next morning at 7am, I arrive in Chiang Rai. I power up my iPhone to read reassuring emails from my family and girlfriend. Cherry reminds me that theft happens everywhere, not just in Thailand – so I shouldn’t feel like I’m in a bad place. I feel better recognizing that fact.

I get off the bus and find help from employees at a tourist booth, who speak English very well. After explaining what happened, one of the employees takes me to a police station.

As I’m sitting at a office in the police station, the employee explains the events to the police officer. The police officer writes a report, detailing what I had lost. Without my passport, this police report would become an important document for me as I continued my travels around Thailand.

After making my police report, the tourist booth employees direct me to Chiang Mai, a 3-hour bus ride. There I would find the U.S. Embassy which would be able to help me get a new passport. So I take the next available bus, a 3-hour bus ride. I’m feeling grateful how smoothly everything is being resolved. This suffering is temporary, I remind myself. I’m grateful for the assistance I received in Chiang Rai from the tourist booth employees and the police.

It was an easy process to replace my U.S. passport – the police report, along with an expired passport I fortunately had brought with me, were able to prove my identity. I received my new U.S. passport in seven days. When I received my new passport, I held it with reverence – this document held my freedom to eventually return home. How a small booklet had so much power in my life.

As for the rest of my lost items, I luckily had purchased travel insurance through WorldNomads.com for my backpacking trip. Again, my police report was essential, and I was eventually fully reimbursed for my losses, except my Macbook, which I got $500 for. The travel insurance had handsomely paid off.

After this experience, here’s what I learned:

  • Always wear your money-belt, and keep your important documents in there.
  • Even more important than your passport, is an ATM card. Keep two with you, in separate places for redundancy. It’s hard to get around with no cash.
  • I should have kept my Macbook in my big backpack – no one ever seems to steal big backpacks, because no one wants your dirty laundry.
  • Have an expired passport with you, and a photocopy of your current passport.
  • Take a photo of your visa when entering the country – it would have made replacing my visa easier.
  • Wear your small backpack at all times – even having it on the ground right next to me wasn’t sufficient.
  • Travel insurance is a worthy investment!

I did follow most of these rules myself, but that one time I let my guard down, coincided with the time I also got robbed.

Overall, this episode was an experience of feeling vulnerable, and a test of my ability to keep calm. A memorable beginning of my 31st birthday: learning about anichcha.