Archive | November, 2013

Back in Blighty

29 Nov

So I landed in Heathrow yesterday evening after 15 months on the road.  I visited 19 different countries in the process. I have travelled around 15000 km by bicycle. Not that impressive compared to some other cycle tourists, or compared to my first 2 and a half months when I covered around 4500 km, but the more I rode the more I began to see my trip less as a cycle tour and more as travelling with a bicycle.

As you can see from the title of this blog, the original aim was to head to China. And maybe back! The return leg went out the window when I got the deadline of my brother’s wedding, meaning I wouldn’t have time to wait for the Central Asian passes to open in spring. I decided not to head to China after Vietnam for a few reasons; the hassle of the visa, not really wanting to take a teaching job, wanting to come home with some money left and a big one was to see family and friends, especially for Christmas. But I don’t have to make excuses, it was my trip and I could follow my whims as I liked!

My last week post-meditation was spent mainly in Bangkok appreciating worldly pleasures. Some people really hate Bangkok, I am in two minds. I enjoyed wandered the city soaking up my last experiences of Asia for a while. I gorged on street food and fruits that I will miss. I watched women doing their laundry down small streets while kids ran around playing and men sat around smoking and drinking beer. I rode around the polluted streets weaving in and around the traffic in search of markets. And I hung out on the infamous traveler spot of Khao San Road. Khao San is entirely for tourists; a hedonistic street of live music, clubs, shops, hotels and people selling scorpion kebabs. It is a bit too intense for me, but the surrounding roads with roadside drinking and a slightly more relaxed atmosphere are great to meet other people on the road and share experiences.

I also watched some of the demonstrations currently happening in Bangkok. They are protesting against the corruption in the ruling party and the continual control of self-exiled ex-prime minister of Thaksin Shinawatra. His brother is in power and the protesters are calling for his resignation. They were mainly peaceful, with marching to various places around the city, lots of speaches and lots of whistle blowing. They meant that after my last few hours of frantic packing and shopping I was struggling to find a taxi to the airport. When I eventually got one it was a nail biting half an hour of being stuck in traffic, weaving round back alleys until we finally got to the huge raised motorway that would lead to the airport. We got up there just in time for the last sunset of my trip. The clear sky was a glowing pink and orange hanging over the sprawling city. As we swooped along the curving roads in between the numerous skyscrapers I admit I got goosebumps as mixture of emotions filled me. Or maybe the air con was bit too cold.

Anyway I got to the airport with plenty of time to rummage through my bags, stuff as much into my bulging hand luggage as possible and get rid of a few kilos of luggage as I was over my limit. They let me take 5kg over the limit in the end after much negotiating and I didn’t have to leave anything valuable but it still pained me to part with my well used ceramic covered tin mug with it’s build up of tea and coffee stains in it. I had a 13 hours stopover in Sri Lanka which to my surprise meant I got accommodation at a nice hotel, free transfers and breakfast. That beats the hours on a hard cold floor trying to sleep that I was expecting. I got back last night to be greeted by my brother who provided me with sheppard’s pie, ale, red wine and blue cheese. All things I had been missing, perfect.

Today I had a lazy day of laundry, catching up on music, watching TV on a comfy sofa with a duvet on me, wandering round the chilly streets of St Margarets and supping on proper cups of tea. Ahead is a weekend of catching up with friends and having a good boogie. It feels great to be back after being away so long away. There will be another blog post coming soon, about my thoughts and experiences gained from travelling, when I have them ordered in my head that is. This one is just to say that I am home safe (I’ll probably be mugged tonight now) and that I look forward to seeing you soon if I know you.

Vipassana – My Experience

21 Nov

So I completed a 10 day Vipasanna meditation course the other day. I have been waiting a while to collect my thoughts about it properly, so here they are. It was certainly an experience; 10 days of silence and sitting for extended periods cross legged on the floor. With no books or music for distractions it certainly makes you quite introspective and gets your brain working in different ways to usual. Was it for me though. Well no, not really.

Here is what the daily timetable was like:

4:00 am Morning wake-up bell
4:30-6:30 am Meditate in the hall or in your room
6:30-8:00 am Breakfast break
8:00-9:00 am Group meditation in the hall
9:00-11:00 am Meditate in the hall or in your room according to the teacher’s instructions
11:00-12:00 noon Lunch break
12noon-1:00 pm Rest and interviews with the teacher
1:00-2:30 pm Meditate in the hall or in your room
2:30-3:30 pm Group meditation in the hall
3:30-5:00 pm Meditate in the hall or in your own room according to the teacher’s instructions
5:00-6:00 pm Tea break
6:00-7:00 pm Group meditation in the hall
7:00-8:15 pm Teacher’s Discourse in the hall
8:15-9:00 pm Group meditation in the hall
9:00-9:30 pm Question time in the hall
9:30 pm Retire to your own room–Lights out

I had heard lots of different accounts from other travelers, mainly in Nepal, of there experiences doing the course. Some were overwhelmingly positive others said it was the hardest thing they had done and dropped out. I was curious. Mainly as physical and mental test for myself and curious about the benefits of meditation. So I decided to see what is was all about, joined up to the 10 day course and even signed to say that I am wiling to give it a fair trial and put in the work. All with a healthy dose of skepticism though.

The ride there was quite nice from Kanchanaburi. 190 km heading North West toward Myanmar. The last 30km from Thong Pha Phum were particularly scenic with a flowing road up through the knobbly limestone karst hills that have been prevalent in SE Asia. I arrived with an hour to kill before the course started and spent it getting my last doses of music, beer and a cigarettes. I was a bit nervous but mainly curious and slightly excited at what to expect.

The first three days were spent focusing on breathing. In the mediation hours we would sit and place all our attention on the area on the flow of air going into and out of the nose, gradually narrowing it down on the third days to a small space under the nostrils. We were guided at the start of each sitting by the voice of Goenka, the teacher from Myanmar who spread Vipassana since the 70’s. On the evening of the 3rd day I felt my first strange experience. I guess I would call it ‘hyper-sensitivity’ of my nose and it’s presence on my face. This was part if the process, focusing on a small area to increase the sharpness of our minds apparently.

By the morning of day 4 I was getting pretty bored and was glad to be getting to the actual technique of Vipasanna. This is basically using your mind to scan up and down your body to find sensations on the surface (until you progress further and go inside). You are supposed to register the sensations felt, be they gross ones such as pain or heat or subtle ones such as a tingling or vibrating. When you find them the whole idea is to remain equanimous and not respond to them.This is where one of my first major doubts arose.

Within a day or I was able to feel ‘subtle vibrations’ or tingling all over my body when scanning. Or could I? I couldn’t help getting the nagging feeling that I was just sensing them because I was looking so hard. Or was I actually creating them? These vibration are supposed to be the vibrations of atoms or of their arising and passing away (apparently the atom exists and ceases to exist 1022 times a second according to Goenka but I am struggling to verify this online). I was struggling to believe that this would be perceptible at all to the human mind. Anyway I decided to carry on practicing and see where it took me.

From day 6 I really started counting down the days, not out of struggle, although my knees were quite painful but out of boredom. Normally I am pretty happy being by myself but there was a real lack of things to do in terms of stimulation and it is strange the way my thoughts became more intensified as a result. Memory especially became stronger. Sometimes meditating I would bunk off in my mind recalling the plot of favourite films, thinking about things throughout my life, thinking into the future or having a silent disco listening to parts of songs I could remember. Talking afterwards it is weird how we seemed to look more at nature. I happily spent a few minutes a day watching ants going about their business diligently while another guy poked the big golden orb spiders dotted around the grounds and a highlight was when it rained heavily and s0me eel-like-snakes or snake-like-eels were lolling about on the path.

Day 8 I reached my goal. I sat for one hour cross legged (with the aid of a few cushions) for an hour of full concentration without moving. After that I have to admit that my concentration and will to keep going dropped off a bit. In the afternoon and evening my mind was weighing up the pros and cons of staying. Ironically it was partly ego, something the technique should reduce, that made me stay at the course. I had the decision between staying another couple of days which I assumed  would be fruitless or stay just so that I could say that I had completed it. It was Goenka’s discourse, his excellent videos of an hour long that explained the theory and practice and always seemed to preempt my questions,  that kept me there for the final 2 days. He was a down to earth man, quite disparaging to the blind faith of religious people, had a very friendly manner and had funny little stories to make his points clear. In the end I’m glad I did stick it out because day 10 was the most interesting.

After 10 am the ‘noble silence’ ended. I had had an unsuccessful hour of not attempting to meditate, I was just counting down to the hour. We left the hall as normal and made our way to the dining room. Everyone was still silent for a moment of so I thought I would break it with a slight cheer. And then we (the 6 of us foreign guys on the course, we were still separated by gender in the living areas) all broke into smiles and outpouring of chatting which lasted all day. Having all gone through the same physical experiences it was interesting to hear the differences and how we were taking it all. We also got to know each other very quickly, there seemed almost instantly to be a trust between each other and we were happy to talk about quite personal things straight away.

The whole point of the technique seems to be to free the individual from suffering. This is the real problem for me: the belief that everybody is suffering. I have discussed this with a few people on my trip and am happy to say that I am not. I may feel pain or get worried or stressed (rarely) but I know that these are normal and do not dwell on them. I have a lot more joy and happiness in my life though (and I realise that I am lucky to be able to say that, come from a financially powerful place, am not persecuted because of gender or sexuality etc). The technique seems to take the joy out of life for me. Where is the pleasure of dancing, watching a sunset or eating something really tasty in this technique? We are supposed to remain equanimous to them. No thanks, I enjoy the world and don’t want to train myself to become automaton with no emotions.

I have a few more disagreements but I won’t go into them here. I’m sure the technique does ‘work’ for some people. Some people want to have a world view that gives everything a purpose or meaning. Taking time out of your day to sit and meditate is definitely a way to de-stress or organise your thoughts, so I’m sure it has tangible benefits. I also think as an ontology is superior to any other religious tradition in terms of the effects on society and individuals and doesn’t create conflict. I still can’t buy into it though.

One thing that people often experience in Vipassana is a bringing up of old memories, regrets or mistakes you have made (Goenka defined them as Sankara’s). This is probably psychologically beneficial to acknowledge, not dwell on and to move on from. This did happen to me at the center, but I certainly experienced it more on the first 6 months of my trip when I was riding harder and living cheaper. It was thinking this that made me see the similarities between cycle touring and Vipassana. Cycle touring takes you out of your comfort zone, you have to focus on your breathing, you have to try and not think about physical pain or at least not bother about it and I guess living in a tent, eating fairly simple food and not speaking to people much created similar settings to the center. So it seems that you don’t have to do the technique to achieve the same results.

So maybe I am liberated already? If not I don’t want it, not the liberation he preaches anyway. I may meditate in the future, when waiting for a bus or if i ever get stressed for that I am glad I did the course. However I don’t think it will in some way purifying me nor do I accept the lens through which to view the world. Still it might have been worthwhile just to go without for a while. Living without worldly pleasures for a short while certainly makes you appreciate them. Listening to music the day the course ended was amazing, as was a variation in food and the beer at 7:30 in the morning when the course ended was one of the best I have tasted for a long time.

Here is one of the last songs I listened to before going in, it was stuck in my head the whole way through:

And this is an example of Goenka’s discourse that we got to see it the evenings. I love his calming face and Indian-Attenborough voice.

Lazy Laos, Tranquil Thailand

5 Nov

Hello. I have once again fallen behind on my blogging. Maybe because I haven’t been so adventurous the last couple of months. When I found out that I had a place on a Vipassana meditation course (more below…) it confirmed my decision I wouldn’t be heading to China but would head home before Christmas. With that in mind, I think I have been making the most of the hot days, hammocks and getting through some books before returning.

Anyway I didn’t ride all the way across Laos. I took an eventful bus from Sam Neua to Luang Prapang. I met a French guy at the bus stop, one of us said, ‘It’s probably not a very good idea getting a bus through the hills after a day of heavy rain in the monsoon is it?’ Either one of us was right; we had to stop about 6 times because of landslides. Some meant jumping out and chopping foliage up, one we were stuck at for almost 2 hours digging away the mud with bamboo and the last dodgy moment was caused by a fallen tree resting on a power line that we could just inch round.  But the scenery was great even with locals (I guess unaccustomed to much travel) throwing up into little plastic bags pretty continuously. But we reached Luang Prabang in the small hours eventually, only 6 hours late.

From Luang Prabang I rode south on a stunning road to Vang Vieng where I stayed 10 days enjoying the area and my guest house’s atmosphere equally. I tried ‘tubing’, floating down a river in  a tractor inner tube and being pulled in to stop at bars. This used to be a big draw for the town but last year was majorly restricted due to the many  injuries and fatalities of drunk tourists using rope swings and slides into the river whilst smashed. Still a nice afternoon out though. From there I rode to, which Vientiane has to be the smallest capital city I have been to. It has nice views at sunset over the river and some good food but not much else going for it.

I crossed the Friendship bridge back to Thailand to the city of Nong Kahi, where I stayed at an interesting guest house with a curious mix of clientele. There seemed to be a constant flow of interested characters and the bonus of lots of other cycle tourists. After relaxing there I hoped on a bus to Chiang Mai where I flickered between and Pai in the hills nearby. I took a massage course, rode around the area and chatted to monks. I stayed up there a few weeks before taking another bus to Kanchanaburi province, west of Bangkok. I stayed a few days by the river Kwai (yep, saw the bridge) and am now in Thong Pha Poom ready to depart tomorrow for the meditation.

I have been thinking about taking a meditation course for a while after speaking to a few people, mainly in Nepal who raved about it. It will be 10 days of silence and no eye contact. I don’t think these will bother me too much. It will be the sitting for 10-11 hours a day and the hunger that will be my weakness I imagine. But I can’t really guess how I will feel; I will let you know in a couple of weeks time when I return.