Jakarta, Indonesia

I take a scenic eight-hour train ride from Yogyakarta to Jakarta. In Jakarta my friend Karthik will be picking me up from the train station. It’s a fortunate coincidence to meet up with Karthik, a friend from back home in San Francisco, who is here on vacation to visit his folks in Jakarta. I realize that it’s been many months since I’ve been in someone’s home; I’ve been staying only in hostels and guesthouses at this point. I’m happy to be able to take it easy and hang out with a friend from back home.

My train arrives in Jakarta at 5pm, which means it’s traffic hour in Jakarta. The city is bustling. This is Southeast Asia’s most dense city, with ten million people living here. I’m bamboozled by all the tall majestic buildings.

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We arrive at Karthik’s parent’s home, which is an apartment on the 39th floor.  My room overlooks the skyline of Jakarta.

What. A. View.

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I enjoy homely pleasures that I haven’t in months. Having homemade Indian food. Sitting in a living room with a tv (I forgot about tv!). Going to the gym and running on a treadmill. Not needing to worry about logistics, how to get around Jakarta, what to see, since Karthik could manage all of that. Being taken care of in this way makes it feel like a vacation from my backpacking routine.

Tankguban Parahu

The next morning Karthik and I go to see Tankguban Parahu, an active volcano. We have the luxury of a driver – no need to worry about catching up buses like I usually do, that would otherwise make this 2 1/2 hour journey longer.

We begin a hike that is supposed to take about an hour. Volcanoes are an abundant natural treat to enjoy while in Indonesia.

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Karthik and I to follow a trail around the crater, and we end up getting lost. For  a few hours. Luckily we find some locals who don’t speak English, but fortunately Karthik speaks Indonesian. The locals give us directions back to our starting point, and we hurry to make our way back. We are told to turn left when we see a big rock with writing on it. We encountered the rock below, and we debated if it was big enough to be the rock the locals were describing; but we figured it must be this rock. It wasn’t as big as we hoped, but it was big enough.

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Eventually we arrive back to our starting point, and our driver is happy to see us return. He was worried about us, since we were only supposed to be gone for an hour rather than several hours.

A reward is to be had after this long hike: natural hot springs, a 15-minute drive from here. I notice something weird and gummy on my leg, and throw it out the car window after flicking it a few times. I realize I’ve gotten my first leech bite!

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Later on, I relax in the hot springs, enjoying the soapy mineral water, the heat soothing my muscles.

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The next day, Karthik and I tour a few nearby attractions.

My favorite one happens to be the 3rd biggest mosque in the world, Istiqlal Mosque. Interesting facts about the mosque:

  • This mosque can hold 120,000 people
  • The mosque’s architect is Christian (there was a design contest, and he won it)
  • The mosque used to only have two visitors per day before 2010; after President Obama visited in 2010, the mosque now has 20 visitors per day. An astoundingly low number for such a magnificent building of its size

The mosque has a traditional yet modern look. The interior achieves a modern look with the use of polished steel.

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Most beautiful is the colorful dome from the inside. IMG_2967 IMG_2977

After having a few more adventures with Karthik over 3 days in Jakarta, and enjoying the hospitality from his family, my time in Indonesia has come to an end. I hope to return one day, there is so much to explore in Indonesia!

My next destination will be flying to Siem Reap, Cambodia. A much-awaited moment for me, to finally see my girlfriend Cherry after four months of being apart! From there we will travel through various areas in Cambodia and Vietnam, countries that I had visited earlier on in my trip. A perfect ending before heading back home to California.

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Yogyakarta, Java

After a two-hour flight from Lombok, I set foot in Yogyakarta, Java. Half of Indonesia’s population lives on this island (143 million people), making it one of the most populated places in the world, and I can feel it. I begin my stay at EDU hostel, which is unlike any other hostel I’ve stayed at. My initial reaction is that it feels more like a hotel than a hostel – a huge lobby, multiple levels, elevators, new beds, free breakfast, and it was only 50,000 rupiah a night ($5 USD). edu-hostel4   Screenshot 2014-04-11 10.42.55 Screenshot 2014-04-11 10.43.41IMG_2658 IMG_2657 Aside from being big, modern, and clean, EDU hostel is different than others I’ve stayed at. One is that many local Indonesians stay at this hostel as they vacation in Yogyakarta from other parts of Indonesia. This perhaps results in the hostel having a policy of gender-segregated rooms. Lastly, the hostel has motivational posters everywhere, giving it a unique charm. IMG_2655 IMG_2659The hostel uses the opportunity to connect their English-speaking patrons with the local school children. Upon check-in, the receptionist asks me to come by around 5pm in the lobby to interact with local school children and help them practice their English. Later at 5pm I arrive to find around 30 young Indonesian children, around 7-10 years old. They ask me basic questions like “what’s your name?” and “how old are you?”  Later on they  have me speak some words in Indonesian, and giggle at my mis-pronunciation.

I reflect on how this is a unique opportunity for these children get to meet travelers from all over the world through this program; how when they would grow up, they would perhaps feel more connected to different countries when hearing about events on the news, remembering the faces of volunteers from the respective countries.IMG_2873

Borobodur

I begin an all-day tour to see the two most popular temples in Indonesia. In the SUV with me are a couple from Spain, on a one-year backpacking trip, and two local Indonesian women on vacation for a few days. Our first stop is Borobodur, the world’s largest Buddhist temple. This temple has nine levels, 504 buddha statues, with 72 iconic Buddha statues on top (wait until you see it in the photos below!). Built in the 9th century, there was a period where this temple was abandoned for a few centuries, to be re-discovered by the British around the 1800s, who cleared away the jungle that shrouded such a magnificent monument. It’s odd to me how epic monuments like this end up abandoned, only to be re-discovered by Western archaeologists. Angkor Wat and Machu Picchu are two other sites that also were re-discovered by Western archaeologists in this way.IMG_2677 IMG_2676IMG_2720IMG_2699The iconic Buddha statues. Each statue is seated inside a stupa; this one is uncovered for us to see.IMG_3038IMG_2696 As I wander through the temple, I’m approached by a local boy who asks if I want to talk. He explains that he is on a field trip with his classmates, and they are learning to speak English. We have a basic conversation in English, where he asks where I am from, my age, how long I am staying in Yogyakarta. One of his classmates comes along and has a similar conversation with me. And then everyone’s favorite part: photos! IMG_2708 IMG_2707 IMG_2710 After the photoshoot, I continue wandering around the large temple grounds. I wish I could sit and meditate here for an hour, but since I’m with a tour group, we only get to spend two hours at this site.

Prambanan

Prambanan is the largest Hindu temple in Indonesia, and one of the largest in Southeast Asia. This site is dedicated to three Hindu gods: Brahma (the creator), Vishnu (the sustainer), and Shiva (the destroyer). As I walk around, I feel like I’m in a smaller version of Angkor Wat, the architecture and style of the buildings being very similar. While the main temples have been restored, there were many shrines around the area that are just a pile of rubble, awaiting restoration. IMG_2813 IMG_2793 IMG_2811Me rocking a shirt designed in the local Batik-style art. The sarong is not my idea of being fashionable, instead its required by the temple as a form of respect. IMG_2801 IMG_2789154-feet of epic ancient architecture towering above me.IMG_3067The temple walls are crafted in this level of detail.IMG_2777

The Ramayana Play

One evening I come to see the Ramayana play at Prambanan; a perfect spot to re-tell the Hindu epic. It’s way too long to summarize, but here are some video clips for your pleasure.

In the scene below, Sri Lanka is set on fire by Hanuman.

Yogyakarta is perhaps the most spiritual and artistic part of Java. Having one of the greatest Hindu and Buddhist temples in the world near one another makes this a place definitely worth visiting. And if you speak English, there are many people eager to practice speaking with you!

Next stop: Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta

Deserted on Gili Air

After spending a week in Ubud, I feel inclined to stay on an island, which I haven’t done yet during my trip. There are three islands to choose from: Gili Taranwagan (the party island), Gili Air (the relaxed island), and Gili Meno (the deserted island). I take a speedboat to a small island northeast of Bali called Gili Air, looking for some quiet time. IMG_2610As I get off the boat, there are a group of chilled-out locals who ask me if I have a place to stay.  I don’t, so I follow them. The first local takes me to a site where there all tents, for 60,000 rupiah a night ($6 USD). I press on, looking around. I ask for the 7Seas hostel, but the local doesn’t know what I’m talking about. Odd he wouldn’t know the only hostel on such a small island (sarcasm). I walk down the road for a few minutes, and I find the 7Seas hostel. It’s nice, but it seems like it’s too close to a loud bar, and I like quiet when I want to sleep. I walk around a bit more in the heat, with my big backpack on my back, my small backpack on front. I guess I can be grateful that my small backpack is now lighter since I no longer have my five-pound Macbook…

Eventually I find a simple bungalow, no A\C, for 100,000 rupiah a night ($10). IMG_2641 IMG_2611 Yes, that a hammock in the front. I lay in the hammock, taking a nap in the tropical heat. The area is quiet, and I’m alone here for the remainder of my stay here, except for the local woman who owns these bungalows.

I wake up, feeling too lazy to get up due to the heat. I struggle, not finding the energy to hop out of the hammock. I’m motivated by the idea of cooling off in the beach, so I slowly battle my way out…slowly. I’m rewarded with this view after a two-minute walk, rewarded with the refreshingly cool tropical water .IMG_2612 I learn that there are yoga classes on the island. In the evening I go try a class. The space is beautiful. It’s the perfect temperature for yoga in the evenings, warm enough so that your muscles can relax and stretch out.IMG_2613I begin my 2nd day on the island by waking up early to meditate, and then go watch the sunrise.

As I walk to the beach, I’m reminded to be grateful that there are no motorbikes on the island; freedom from noise pollution. Aside from walking and bicycling, the only other way of getting around the island is horse-drawn carriage.

Sunrise.

I then decide to walk around the entire island, having been told it only takes an 1 1/2 hours to complete the loop. During some parts I feel alone, like a castaway on a deserted island. At other times I pass small resorts, empty and quiet.P1030151 P1030152 Later in the day I enjoy sunset. To enjoy sunrise and sunset in a single day!

On my third day, I decide to give snorkeling a try. I’m apprehensive, since I’m not a great swimmer, and I can’t really tread water. I decide to suck it up by renting a life jacket along with my snorkel and fins, hoping I don’t look too dorky. Of my fellow snorkelers, no one else is wearing a life jacket, not even the kids. I’m glad I let go of my ego, it was worth it! Apparently the best snorkeling to be had in the region is right by the beach.P1030196 P1030213 P1030214 P1030224

The Not So Relaxing Part

While there is a lot of relaxation to be had on the island during my three-day stay, a lot of the time I also was…stressed. This “stress” is what makes backpacking different than vacationing – unless you take it real slow, there’s always the process of planning where to go, how much time to spend there, finding the best deals, finding a decent place to stay, etc.

Having less than two weeks left in Indonesia, I feel overwhelmed by the number of places I want to see. Could I squeeze it all in? I wanted to climb Mt. Rinjani, go to Komodo Island to see the komodo dragons, go to Sumatra and see the orangutans. And so I researched my options over the slow WiFi on the island, trying to pack my itinerary. There just wasn’t enough time to do more. I finally decided to relax and take it easy. There would always be more to see, and I reflected that I should be feeling gratitude for all the sights I had seen over the past three months. And so I made peace with missing an extra sight or two. My next move would be to fly to Yogyakarta, where I would see two of the most magnificent ancient temples in Indonesia.

Being with Myself

Socially, Gili Air ended up being a period of solitude for me, a contrast from Ubud. During my three days there, I was entirely by myself, not having spontaneous conversations with other travelers, not feeling compelled to. I liked the fact that I could be comfortable alone, have meals alone, adventure alone. I recall the time I was planning this backpacking trip, apprehensive about going solo, finding comfort in coordinating with my friend Dev to be my travel buddy. And here I am now, traveling solo, enjoying moments alone, deserted on Gili Air.

Welcome to Indonesia: Bali!

While doing some research about where to go after Thailand, I learned quite a bit about Indonesia. Seventeen-thousand islands over a three-thousand mile span! How did I almost overlook such a huge country? Filled with natural sites such as numerous active volcanoes, Komodo dragons, orangutans. Indonesia is the world’s 4th most populated country with about 230 million people, 87% being Muslim (as of 2010).

I choose my first destination in Indonesia to be Bali, a place I’ve heard quite a bit about from friends: stunning views of rice terraces, tropical beaches, and a largely Hindu population. I was in for a treat. I go straight to Ubud, the most spiritual part of Bali. There’s not too many hostels here, but I find one called The Happy Mango Tree. Across the street is The Honeymoon Cottage, and there were many more romantic cottages and resorts throughout town. IMG_2601 On my first day I walk down Monkey Forest Road to visit the Monkey Forest Sanctuary. I have heard a lot about mischievous monkeys here, snatching food from people. As I pay for the ticket, I make note of a warning, that states, “Do not smile at the monkeys. Displaying teeth is a sign of aggression.” Fine, I won’t smile. As I walk inside, I enjoy the lush greenery, temples, and moss-covered statues.IMG_2388 IMG_2407I notice a lot of tourists smiling at the monkeys, or getting too close to take a photo; naturally the monkeys hiss. Luckily, I don’t see anyone getting bitten.IMG_2399 A temple inside Monkey Forest.IMG_2397 I like the juxtaposition of such a beautiful statue against a “no parking” sign.IMG_2410 I leave Monkey Forest and wander through the streets. After wandering around for a bit, I begin to get hungry. I try to find a restaurant recommended to me called Sari Organic. I fail. I’m about to give up, when one of the many moto-taxi drivers asks me where I’m from. This starts the usual conversation where I say I’m Indian, but raised in California. He then asks where I want to go, and I say Sari Organic. He says, “oh too far!” I’ve heard this line too many times before, so while I doubt him, I’m hungry. We haggle over the price, and in two minutes I’m on his motor-bike en route to Sari Organic. Along the way the scenery changes from busy streets to beautiful rice fields.IMG_2650I arrive, and I’m seated to enjoy this view with my meal. The environment immediately instills relaxation.IMG_2417My order arrives, fresh and delicious vegetarian food, some it grown in the fields that surround me. IMG_2416 The following day, as I walk around the streets of Ubud, I feel amazed at lush greenery, the giant lilies, the beautiful architecture of Balinese temples.IMG_2512 IMG_2513 In the Royal Palace I encounter the following shrine after a large religious ceremony. As I look closer I smell something afoul, and I’m amazed to see the head of a pig. Definitely way different the the Hinduism I know from India.IMG_2499 IMG_2497 I continue wandering around the streets (wandering is like a hobby now), and I find an interesting sign for Hubud. Curious, I decide to walk up the stairs and check it out.IMG_2600 The first person I run into is a Usability Researcher from San Diego. Whaaat?! As I speak to her I learn she has re-located from San Diego to Ubud, and does consulting from this co-working space, Hubud (seriously, click the link and tell me it doesn’t make you want to relocate to Bali for work).IMG_2592 I walk around the space, it feels like a co-working space one would find in San Francisco, except it’s set in a tropical climate, and there’s lots of bamboo. EPIC! And immediately, my mind begins to have dreams about living in Ubud, a place where I can work and play.IMG_2597 I continue my wandering, admiring the beauty, the art; below is a pattern of leaves and flower petals floating in a large fountain in front of a store.IMG_2590 I enjoyed dinner many times across the street from my hostel at Uma Pizza. I haven’t had such good pizza in months, and to top it off Uma’s pizza is baked in a wood-oven.IMG_2493 I find it endearing how chili sauce is dispensed through these baby bottles.IMG_2494 Later in the evening I stumble upon a Ramayana dance show. The audience is seated on simple fold-out chairs in a quad in front of a temple. As the show begins, I get super-excited realizing the chant is from Baraka, a must-see artistic film if you’ve never seen it. While the dance is based on the Ramayana, an Indian epic story I know, I hardly can follow it; the Balinese-style throws me off. It’s very enjoyable nonetheless.

Temple Tour Around Bali

One morning I wake up, and spontaneously decide I want to do the Sunset Temple tour around Bali. I haven’t booked anything in advance, but I find out one of my fellow backpackers from my hostel is going, and a van will be here shortly. When the van arrives, I ask the driver if there’s an empty seat; and there is one! I pay $20, and off I am on an eight-hour tour with seven other people. Below is the first temple we visit. IMG_2438 IMG_2446 Temple on the lake.IMG_2458 IMG_2460 IMG_2827 Lunch spot. With an EPIC view. IMG_2454 IMG_2867 Famous temple at the end of the day, where one can also enjoy sunset.IMG_2474 The sunset draws a huge crowd. I’m glad so many people love sunsets.IMG_2476

Hiking up Mt. Batur

A popular thing to do in Bali is watching sunrise from the top of one of the volcanoes. I book a tour with two fellow backpackers. Our van arrives at 2:30am at our hostel to pick us up.

We arrive at the base of the volcano at 4am to begin the hike. We begin the two-and-a-half hour ascent up the volcano, in the dark, our feet slipping on the loose rocks. One would think that such a popular trail would at least be free of loose rocks to make the ascent easier and safer.  I’m grateful for the cool air, a worthy tradeoff to having to do this in the dark.

We arrive at the top. At sunrise, we are rewarded with a magnificent view. IMG_2910

We have a breakfast of banana bread and volcano-steamed eggs. By 7:30am the sun is beginning to get intense, and so we begin our descent back down. IMG_2562 Descending down the volcano is harder, despite it being daylight now. Damn these crumbly rocks. I take it slow and easy not wanting to twist my ankle or risk any other injury.IMG_2568 After backpacking through Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand, just as I was beginning to think that I had seen it all, Bali surprised me. The culture, architecture, food, and natural beauty. After spending a week in Ubud, I prepare to head off to my next destination, a small island off the coast of Bali called Gili Air.

Farewell, New Life (Part IV)

In Part III I wrote about weekends at New Life Foundation.

Fourteen days have flown by. At 7am, I eat my last breakfast in silence. Afterwards I go back to my room and re-read the prepared speech I have written.

During the daily 8am morning meeting, sitting in a circle with about forty others, it is asked if anyone is leaving today. I raise my hand, and read the following speech:

I came here to New Life to volunteer for two weeks. I was attracted by the opportunity to work with my hands through organic farming. I’ve learned the hard work of hoeing weeds from soil, and fertilizing the plants.

I was attracted by the opportunity to meditate and do yoga; and I am grateful that I had access to these activities every day. I learned new forms of spiritual techniques, my favorite being Dance Mandala.

I was surprised that I could do so much in a day, and have so much energy throughout. Being able to do farm work during the day, and have the energy to do spiritual activities afterwards. I only slept about six hours a night, but I never felt tired. It was easy to wake up at 5:30 in the morning to meditate or practice yoga. I feel like this demonstrates the energy of this place.

Ultimately, I am surprised by the power of this community. I don’t think I’ve been anywhere before where people can be vulnerable and openly share their deepest feelings. Its so authentic. I’m grateful to New Life for creating this space. Before coming here, I did a 10-day silent Vipassana meditation retreat. After my ten days of silence, I realized there were parts of myself that I didn’t love. Being here at New Life with the community, I’ve began to nurture myself, by removing the feeling of being inadequate, and instead realizing that my playing small does not serve the world. We are all meant to shine.

I am grateful to have met all of you, and I wish you all a full and meaningful life. Every one of you is special; a unique walking story. Be the author of your life. Keep writing your awesome story.

Namaste.

As I read my written speech, my voice quivered ever-so-slightly during some parts, feeling a burst of gratitude for having come and volunteered at New Life Foundation. I would miss and cherish my time here with all the beautiful people I had met.

Below are photos from my last night at New Life. A tradition on one’s last night, a Thai lamp is lit and released to the sky. I expressed gratitude and made wishes before releasing the lamp to the universe, carrying my positive energy to the great night sky. After a few minutes, the lamp was camouflaged with surrounding stars.

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Next post: Leaving Thailand for Indonesia. Hello Bali!

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.