Decidedly urban couple who quit their jobs and successfully backpacked their way through Asia for a year. They met Buddha, drank baijiu and learned to master the squat toilet. Now appearing in a new life as ex-pats in Singapore.

Indonesia
Where is that damn spoon? 10 days of silent meditation.

Where is that damn spoon? 10 days of silent meditation.

After 10 days of silent meditation, I am now a lot more sympathetic to what Neo must have been going through when he discovered the Matrix.  That is to say, a shit ton of PAIN.

Seriously folks, we are not hippies.  We are not new age, crystal-and-gem-stone healing freaks. We’re not that deep either, we don’t often sit around questioning the meaning of life or debating our conscious existence. But for some reason when a local Malaysian girl told us how calm and focused she felt after her 10-day meditation course, we thought, without much hesitation or research, “Sounds great!  Sign us up!” A week later we were in Indonesia taking a vow of silence and sitting cross legged for 11 hours a day.

Dirty Hippies - Not on their way to Vipassana Retreat.

The first four days

The course was full of normal looking, non-dreadlocked, fairly clean looking individuals – which eased my worries about joining a cult. But on the first night when the gong sounded and the Buddhist chanting began, I was ready to hit the door running.  My mind is open to new ideas but it hesitates when asked to zen out to a piped in recording of a man who sounds like Dracula growling in Pali. Chanting, among other things like animal sacrifice and praying with snakes, was just too wacky for me. And after one minute of sitting on the floor, my toes were already numb. I was ready to leave without the course even properly beginning.

And the next day I discovered that our teacher wasn’t even at the retreat center, instead we would be listening to audio recordings that were paused every fifth sentence and translated into Bahasa Indonesia so the entire class could understand. At night we were shown a lecture given by the teacher in 1993 and filmed by a novice who just learned how to pan and zoom. What are we doing here!?

I really felt that we were being filmed for a hidden camera tv show. I was prepared that at any moment someone with a camera would jump out and laugh.

A dip in the Ganges of Damma

But we stayed. Our video guru had a positive message and all he asked us to do was sit still and observe our breathing. The kitchen didn’t appear to serve kool aid.

We woke up at 4:00 am and meditated the entire day, sometimes for 4 hours at a time – always sitting still, just breathing, breathing, breathing.

Your mind has a lot to say when you’re asked to concentrate on your breathing. You drift off into a day dream. You think about the past, you plan the future, you scratch your itches and adjust your back.  Try it right now, sit still for just one minute, feel your breath and don’t allow your mind to wander – it’s hard! But our guru continued to tell us, “have a calm and patient mind. You’re bound to be successful.”

So after the first two days, about 20 hours of meditation, my mind began to calm down. Suddenly I could sit still for 3 minutes and breathe. Then 4 minutes. Then, maybe, 4 minutes 20 seconds. But the pain! The sheer and total agony of sitting still is almost overwhelming.  Your back aches, your legs go numb, your feet and hands tingle from lack of blood. And this is where Buddhism kicks in.

I am in PAIN! This is not CALMING!

Vipassana (the short-short version)

Each night our taped guru taught us a tiny bit more about why we were putting our bodies through this torture – namely experiential learning. All religions are meant to act as a moral guide and Buddhists believe that meditation is the best way to learn how to affect positive change in yourself and others. You learn to understand and accept that your body is in pain and that the pain you’re feeling is temporary, you learn not to react. You train your mind not to scratch your itchy nose or adjust your sore back. By not reacting, the physical pain goes away. You begin to understand everything is temporary.

In training your mind not to react to your physical pain, you learn not to react to emotional pain. When someone makes you angry, you are able to step back and understand that the anger (pain) you’re feeling is temporary.  You can choose to react or your can choose not to react.

Eventually, there is no anger.

When there is no angry reaction you have the space to feel compassion towards others. You can positively impact a situation by responding with kindness and compassion. When you can do this, you help yourself and you help the other person.

The last few days

If you can agree with the basic tenets of Buddhism, meditating becomes a lot easier. And so does accepting the odd nature of the course.

You master breathing and learn to concentrate on your body – how does your head feel? Is there pain?  What about your shoulders? Can you feel your clothes or the wind blowing on your back? Suddenly every part of your body is humming in utter misery. You feel everything. My hip joints ached, blood was pumping vigourously through my fingers, a single hair was brushing against my face.  I wanted to move, stretch, itch – react!

But slowly you discover Sabbe sankhara anicca (everything is temporary) and you don’t need to move. Somehow the pain subsides. Somehow you become calm.

There is no pain.

Freedom!

On day 10 we were released from our vow of silence and, surprisingly, it was totally unwelcome. This course was deeply introspective and physically intense. After paying such close attention to your body, all of your senses are physically heightened. During meditation when someone coughed, I could feel the sound hit and reverberate on my ears. When silence ended hearing all the voices of fellow mediators was absolutely jarring. After having all this time to understand my own mind, I was not yet ready to share that watershed of emotion with other people, not even Vinnie.

It took a while before the room filled with voices.  And then the voices became a little louder as people realized that we all went through the same experience. And then suddenly the room was filled with laughter, “I thought I was the only one in agony!” “Me too!” “On the second day I asked our teacher what kind of cult is this!?” “Me too!’

What’s next?

Now that we’re not meditating 11 hours a day, we can easily say that the course was wonderful. It was certainly deeply impactful.

And we’re happy. Calm. More compassionate. Plus, we have six more months of traveling ahead of us!

So with our new found knowledge of the world, Vinnie and I are setting off in different directions for a while. I am on my way to Vietnam where I will indulge in french baguettes and volunteer at a local orphanage.

And keeping with our Matrix theme, Vinnie is heading back to China to chill with Buddhist monks and learn Kung Fu at a Shaolin monastery .I’ll join him in a few weeks.

I know Kung Fu!

 

 

How to do nothing

Have you ever wondered where J-wow and Snookie would vacation if they came to Asia?

Welcome to Kuta, Bali, the austro-european equivalent of the Jersey Shore, complete with fake breasts, fist-pumping nightclubs, and serious narcotics. It’s curious how this small peninsula of  trashtastic party beasts can exist in a country with a zero-tolerence policy and the death penalty.

Drugs. Is a bad decision to have such happiness

Drugs. Is a bad decision to have such happiness

We left immediately.  It took us two days to get as far away (mentally) from Kuta as possible and involved 3 buses, 2 ferries, one slightly crooked tour operator and was set to the soundtrack of Michael Bolton’s greatest hits on repeat. And man, was it worth every minute.

The Gili Ferry

Gili Air. No cars. Intermittent electricity. Great Food. $10 beachfront bungalows.

This is where we learned to sit back, look at the ocean and disconnect.  I lasted 3 days before I wanted to swim back to the bigger island and get a move on. Vinnie managed to hang on for a week plus.

In return for staying in one place for so long, I am now allowed to set the agenda for a week-long jungle trek through Sumatra complete with leeches and orangutans. Fair trade off, right?

Crispy but chilled.

Our private Bintang bungalow

Private beaches

Beachfront Berugas for each and every delicious meal

I'll have some of that!

Our night with the Sultan of Jogja

Ahhh! Salaam and good evening to you worthy friends, please come closer and listen to this incredulous tale of Indonesian intrigue, of mystery, of fleeting fame and yes, it’s all true.

So we booked it out of Jakarta on business class train to Yogyakarta (Jog-ja), the cultural capital of Java. Happily we didn’t have to ride on the roof of the train like some folks but 12 hours on a train is crappy, particularly when you expect the fellow passengers will try to steal your shoes.

Indonesians are just insanely inviting, but you never know if someone is talking to you because they’re crazy friendly or because they’re trying to direct you to their friend’s tourist-trap Batik shop. Walking down the street you hear a chorus of, “Hello, what are you doing? Where are you going?” and if you answer that question, “Where are you from…You’re from US!!!” and now you’re screwed.  Sit back, relax, chill out.  You will not be moving  for at least 30 minutes.

When an extremely gregarious local tourism dude asked us to attend a local parade, we judged him to be the friendly sort and not the buy-my-stuff kid of guy and quickly agreed. He promised us an authentic Indonesian dance show and a small dinner. What reason would we have to say no? Little did we know that we were going to be the main stars of the parade, except for the freaking Sultan of Yogyakarta himself, of course.

Our guide

That afternoon we met up with a group of other whities who agreed to the same proposal and our guide who arrived wearing his traditional clothes.  He also arrived with four bicycles, explained that the eight of us would ride the bikes to the beginning of the parade.

The eight of us – a German couple, the English girls and Vinnie and me – took a long time to process this information.   It wasn’t until we were ready to depart, half of us standing there waiting for our bikes, that we realized that we were meant to actually ride in pairs on the back of rickey, rusted peasant bicycles, on the wrong side of the street, through insane amounts of traffic.

We rode our bikes through this crowd

To make it even stranger, we weren’t led to the sidelines, instead we were directed to the entrance of the parade and given signs that we couldn’t understand.  I didn’t know if we were protesting, advocating, directing – what the hell are these signs and why are we holding them?

Suddenly everyone wanted to take our photo.

We're big in Indo

And at that point we were told that we would be riding these ricky-ass bicycles onto a stage where we would open the parade festivities.  Huh?

So we slowly, with great balance, rode through the streets, waving and smiling at everyone until we reached the red carpet.  The crowd was forcibly parted by the green beret guards and suddenly a bevy of photographers descended upon us. We stood with our bikes, and our signs as people started, clapped and the press took our picture.

Our photo-hogs

Once the flashing lights subsided we were led to a tent where we were sat one row behind the city’s Mayor and the Sultan.  Around us sat important looking men in their Batik shirts, and women with their heads covered.  The crowd pressed in from all sides, trying to get close to the Sultan and watch the events that were about to unfold. We sat there awe struck, wondering why the hell we had VIP seats to watch the Sultan’s address, the gorgeous dance troupes and some fancy signing ceremony.

Kris in the 2nd row at the main event

Once the dancers cleared out and the festival ended, we were paraded around the city and asked to pose for pictures with locals.  The Sultan’s personal guard circled in around us, leading us behind the sultan as he inspected the festival grounds.

Finally at the end of this confusing, exhausting day, we were invited for dinner at the Kraton.  A huge spread of food was laid out at the Sultan’s brothers house where all the dignitaries and us, the token whities, feasted on Ayam Goreng, fish curry, and fried tempeh.

Dinner at the Kraton

So what the was all of this!?

No clue what's going on

We still don’t know what the hell the festival was for.  Some people have told us that Mohammad’s birthday is coming up.  Other’s mentioned that it has something to do with crop production. The photo they used in the paper was to show solidarity with the recent earthquake victims.

We all know that mother nature has not been kind to Indonesia during the past decade. And with the occasional tribal scuffle in Kalimantan or the foreign-targeted bombing in Bali, tourists have chosen to spend their vacations elsewhere.

We’ve concluded that our friendly tourist bureau dude was told to provide some white faces to promote tourism during the festival. Instead of asking us to help, he just kind of threw us into the situation where we all played along.

Foot Eating Fish

Jakarta is a pretty confusing city. All our research (ahem, the 5 minutes we spent on the LP forums) points out that Jakarta has no city center, that it’s horribly dirty and to get out immediately.  One person even advised tourists to stay inside and escape the heat in the extensive malls.  It appears that all asians love their malls.

While we didn’t find Jakarta to be that awful, it wasn’t very clear what we should check out.  And it was HOT. So we followed the random internet dude’s advice and after wandering around the humid, rainy city jungle for a few hours, we hit up the mall.

I shouldn’t say mall, the vegas-stlye shopping mecca didn’t resemble any mall that I have ever seen. It stretched miles in each direction: floor upon floor, block after block, acre after acre of theaters, food courts, upscale clothing boutiques and kids mini golf amusement parks.  It put our vaunted Mall of America to shame.

We even found a fish pedicure salon. Ever since reading about this ‘beauty treatment’ in some travel magazine, I have been searching for these famous foot eating fish. In my quest for a pedicure-by-poission I forgot that I freaking HATE fish. They have no legs. They don’t blink. I hate their creepy metallic scales, their bulgy dead-looking eye balls, and I really hate their gaping mouths.  Why would I ever want them to eat my feet?

I convinced Vinnie to endure the pedicure with me, and this is what it looked like:

After seeing all of those fish, I just couldn’t manage to put my foot in the water:

It turns out that I don’t just hate fish, I am also scared of them. It’s good to know these things about yourself.