Sometimes things are not easy. Sometimes things don’t go as planned. Sometimes you are not prepared. I left Bangladesh with a little sadness in my heart. My 2 weeks spent there had been fantastic and… More
So I finally moved out of Myanmar too. I stayed a little less than a month but it felt longer. And not because I didn’t like it but rather the opposite. Myanmar felt good, I made a home for a little while in Yangon and I was really having a good time. People are nice, food is good and cheap. The land of men in skirt (it’s actually called longyi) where men (them again!) chew all day long betel nut and get their teeth burned out by limestone (an utterly disgusting habit), where blood red spit is everywhere, where they drive on the right and the steering wheel is on the right also (second hand cars from Japan) made me feel welcome. Not a single moment of insecurity, not a moment where I felt I was in danger. But as we know all good things come to an end and it was time for me to move on. I was on the stage where it’s either you settle down and find a job, or you leave. And I left.
To close my adventure with a bit of a heartbeat I realized when I was half way to the airport that I left my passport back at the hostel where I spent my last night. Luckily I left well in advance so I had the time to make a U turn, go back to the hostel and make it to the airport to catch my flight. But jeez my heart raced!!!!
So now in Dhaka Bangladesh I think about my days back in Yangon and for the first time I am nostalgic. Dhaka is very different from Yangon, it’s a crazy city and people look at me as if I was an alien. Buy it’s fun, my CS host is extremely nice and I’m sure that by the time I will get use to this new dimension it will be time to take my next flight.
So even my time in Myanmar has come to an end. Tomorrow I will be on a plane direction Dhaka, Bangladesh. I have to admit that I had a very good time here. Myanmar is a very nice country, I expected to like it and I haven’t been disappointed. My time in Yangon has been a revelation. I spent my days at Adrian’s, a Filipino guy that have been living here for the last years. He lives with a Filipino girl accidentally named Adrienne. During the time I spent at Adrian’s and Adrienne’s I took part in a surprise birthday party (for Adrienne) a house warming party and to the FAB party, LGBT community party in Yangon that takes place one a month, last Saturday.
So Adrian has taken all the pain to take me around, show me the city, take me to the cool places in town (Gekko, Rangoon Tea House, Penthouse, Sharky’s) and then convinced me to go to FAB (never been a big fan of disco parties). But I’m SO GLAD I gave in and went to FAB party. The place was packed with LGBT people and friends. The crowd is very mixed and people are there just to have fun. In a way it made me think of my early years when I used to go dancing with my friends on Saturday nights. I haven’t done that for ages, until yesterday. All the people met during my stay were there and it made me feel happy, people were having a blast and so was I. And I didn’t even drink! There were boys and girls (and all that’s in between) of all shapes and sizes and I was not even the grandpa of the party!
Yangon and the people met here managed to give me even if for a while the sense of home, comfort zone limited in space and time that I needed. Now I’m ready to move on. The time has come for me to move to another place, time to meet other people, time to live another adventure.
(DISCLAIMER. The following words are just a reflection of my experience and feelings regarding vipassana. I don’t mean to pass in any way a judgment on vipassana and people who practice it)
I did it. Well, not really. I started it and I left after a few days. It was just not for me.
I entered the gate a little nervously as I felt like an aspiring monk entering the gates of the monastery. But I was sure of what I was doing. I really wanted to experience this thing of which everyone who done it before spoke wonders. Registration was quick and uneventful (although they took our passports, as per law, and told us to leave all our important things, money, phone, credit cards in the locker and it felt a little like a kidnapping) and we were showed to our rooms. First deception. In the webpage it was indicated that we would have a double room but instead I was given a bed in a dorm with other 30 beds. OK, no big deal, I slept so many times in a dorm, I’m not here on holiday so it’s OK (kinda…)
At 6pm we were served dinner and after that we were to go to Dhamma hall for presentation and there again another strange thing happened. We were given our seats and we’re supposed to stick to them for the entire time. No free sitting … Strange, but again, no big deal.
Presentation over we did some meditation and I realized that my back was suffering. I thought to myself that it was normal, it would get used to it. Time to bed.
The morning after we wake up at 4 am, time for some toiletry and then meditation from 4.30 to 6.30. My back was soar so I was shifting position every 5 minutes, no much concentration was possible but again I thought it will pass. At six comes the next surprise. An excruciating chanting in Sanskrit (or whatever the language is…) from a seemingly dying man. Here an example.
At the beginning I laughed but after 5 minutes I was going mad and wanted to scream ENOUGH!!! Thankgod I refrained myself. At 6.30 the whining was finally over and we had breakfast. A little break and some napping. At 8 we were back in Dhamma hall. More meditation and more shifting position, more chanting and it was time for lunch. At 11am. One hour break and at 1pm back to meditate. My back was already screaming in pain but I wanted to resist. It was my duty because I had been accepted and took some else’s place so I had to stay. Some more meditating, suffering, shifting and chanting later and it was tea break when according to the website we were to be served some fruit juice or a piece of fruit. But arrived to the dining hall all we found was a fluorescent carbonated soda that I would never even dream of drinking in real life. But that was the dinner, no more food until next day so I got my bottle and drank it to the last drop. Some more sitting, chanting, suffering later it was time for an explanation video in dining hall.
It was supposed to help us during our journey in vipassana but the audio was so bad I got only half of what was said. At 8.15 pm we were back to Dhamma hall and at 9.30pm we were in bed.
The following day was the same thing only I managed to have a low chair to help with my back problems. And it did help – my back – only now it was my neck that took all the pain. And the second half of the day I started to question myself and to wander if that was really what I wanted. But I decided to take some more time and see if it got better. But I was not able to concentrate and “work” properly. I started to see what in my opinion was wrong with the situation.
My back was getting a hard blow from all the dullness, the chanting didn’t mean anything to me (and I bet I didn’t for the majority of people in the room …), everyone was suffering from the sitting position as we were all trying to stretch as much as we could during the short breaks we had. No physical activity is allowed, nothing, nada, niet, rien, niente! So what about the old saying “mens sana in corpore sano“? According to vipassana even the physical activity is “bad” as it distracts you from meditation. So the only thing allowed is to sit, concentrate on your breathing and clear your mind. And think about nothing. And I asked myself : what’s this? What’s the good in this? What kind of living is this? What’s the good I can provide just sitting all day and thinking of nothing? If we were born to do NOTHING the whole day we would be clams so… Why am I here? I’m not condemning the entire meditation practice and as a matter of fact I actually enjoy it for a short period of time (one hour is enough for me) but 11 hours a day is a bit too much (again my opinion). I know I’m an action-holic and I like to DO, but I’m genuinely convinced that physical activity is the best practice to clear the mind and at the same time fix your body (as long as it is done in the right way). Stillness is not a natural state, everything moves, flows and evolves, nothing is immutable not even the rocks and sitting like a lotus flower the whole day cannot be positive. Getting good shouldn’t necessarily go through suffering (and sitting in that position is suffering for everyone). Listening to some incomprehensible chanting cannot have any good return on people if they dunno what it’s said.
I was expecting something else, I thought it was more like a free meditation place, with some guidance provided by the teachers. I was expecting some real teaching on Buddhism, I was expecting some guidance but the teachers just limited themselves to sit and tell you to breath deeper if you could not concentrate. It was all more like a military camp, a dogma place where you are told what to do and you do it no questions asked. That was really too much for me. I don’t work like that. So on the morning of the fourth day I made up my mind and decided to leave. I was not happy there and it didn’t make any sense for me to stay. I inform the teacher and what he did he just laughed at my face probably thinking that I was a weak mind and didn’t get the enlightenment, I was not a noble soul. I don’t care. Life is more than that, people are around us to help us, to provide us of the security we all crave, not to be ignored and not even looked at (because it was “noble silence” and no eye contact was allowed), they are not some pollution in our lives. They are not there to “distract us”, they are not, or should not be treated as ghosts walking around us, the breeze is a good thing, it give us a good feeling of fresh and relief. It’s not a nuisance that mingles with our own breath (contrary to what the webpage says no walking meditation was allowed either). Maybe I wasn’t doing it right, maybe I wasn’t doing it for the right reasons, maybe I’m not enlightened enough, maybe I’m not a noble soul, or maybe I’m just too stupid to understand the real meaning of all that. But I’m a very pragmatic person – some say I’m too pragmatic – and I don’t like to do things just because someone said so, I like to understand what I do, I like to feel I’m DOING something and if it’s good for me and beneficial for the society it’s even better. Vipassana is the contrary of what I believe in. I probably should have asked more questions before doing it but I don’t see this as a negative experience. Maybe I’ve been too ambitious, maybe I should have done the 4 days course but I’m still glad I did it. My goal to do vipassana was to get to know me better and I do now. I know what I want, what I’m good at and what I’m not good at. For me it is still a success. Know thy limits. If people can really get a benefit from vipassana I’m more than happy. It’s just not for me. Whatever works. That’s what matters.
I could do with the wake up at 4am, I could do with the chanting (with a big effort) I could even do without dinner (if you do nothing the whole day you don’t get that hungry) but I certainly couldn’t do with the sitting and suffering in silence for something that it’s no good for me. But again I don’t regret doing it. Things are just things and what matter is the lesson you can get from them, what matters is to get the good out of them and use it to have a better life and that’s what’ll I do. Now I know myself a little better and I’m gonna use this knowledge to have (or try to) a better life. Things are for a reason and no matter what happens they are good because they guide you to the place you are supposed to be.
If you want to know more:
THE COURSE TIMETABLE
The following timetable for the course has been designed to maintain the continuity of practice. For best results students are advised to follow it as closely as possible. (but you’re really not allowed to do differently…)
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
So. My week as volunteer as come to an end. Next Monday I will begin my vipassana. I’m a little worried that I won’t make it but I don’t wanna call it off even before starting it.
My week in Tha Bar Wa has been interesting. I’ve met nice people and seen things that I couldn’t even imagine. Volunteering always gives me back the faith in the human race. In a society where all that matters is money and appearance, it’s good for the heart to see that there are people ready to work for free, ready to give something in return for nothing if not in return for some personal satisfaction. During my time here I’ve been practicing massage on poor people, suffering from hard labour and stroke. It was good to give and get in return their gratitude. It made my day.
Of course not everything is nice and beautiful. Life here can sometimes be hard, hygiene is a different concept from what we think. People are very clean, they shower at least once a day everyday but then houses are barracks, trash is everywhere, animal have free entry wherever they feel like (there are plenty of stray dogs around here – and mostly are sick, there are 5 cows and they shit everywhere).
I had the chance to participate to the alms and see how people can give just for the sake of it. There is no shame. You give what you can. Being money or food. Or both. Someone gives an apple, someone a bag of rice, some a tube of toothpaste. Nothing is too little. You give according to your possibilities.
I also had the chance to see the other side of the mirror. Monks are not necessarily saints, they are people and for this reason they’re not perfect. Far from it I would say. And they are not necessarily nice persons, they don’t smile to you, you don’t feel your life is in good hands when you’re with them. They live their lives detached from everyone else. They don’t mingle. The first day I did the alms I was carrying the bowl for the money and the first thing that the “first” monk did after we finished the tour was to snap it out of my hands. And they are bit supposed to use money. I was a bit shocked. I would expect that from a priest, but from a monk….
But still. Even some of my coworkers have been here a long time and think they are “so spiritual” and feel the need to give you advice about meditation and detachment, it was a good experience. I like to see things with my own eyes and this time I’ve learnt so much. On many different levels. Now comes the hard part. Vipassana is said to be a magnificent experience although very hard. Another step to get to know me better I guess….
I really liked Yangon but it was time for me to move on. I booked a bus to Mandalay and I arrived at the Four rivers hostel where I had booked a bed. The place is nice and clean, rooms are spacious, breakfast is good. The bathrooms could do with some make up but it was a very good choice. On the afternoon of the first day there I just walked around a bit to have the feeling of the city. Mandalay is not Yangon.
Motorbikes are allowed there and the conversations among horns made me think of Hanoi. So after the relative peace and quiet of Yangon I felt a little attacked but the feeling soon melted away. People are very nice in Mandalay. The smile. All the time. They don’t see the white face as a walking wallet. Most of the time they just smile at you and then carry on with their own devices. The second day after a good and abundant breakfast on the roof terrace of the hostel I rented a bicycle to visit the city. Before the heat started (and it was already too late) I decided to visit Mandalay hill and the temple on top of it. I got at the foot of the hill easily as the city is plain (a part from the hill) and once I got there I wanted to get to the top by the stairway for pedestrians to reach the top. But there was a little “lost in translation ” situation and by the time I realized I was going up hill with the bike it was already too late to go back. So I made the best of the situation and just “hiked” dragging the bicycle. Once at the top I was ready for a heart attack…. But I just bought a bottle of ice cold water and I sat for 10 minutes just to get back my breath. I walked up some steps and I was in the temple. Su Taung Pyi Pagoda is an immense space all covered in gold and mirrors as Myanmar tradition wants. There are Buddha statues of different colors and forms, so many of them so that at some point I got dizzy.
They way back down was easy as I just let the brakes lose and in 5 minutes I was down. I went to the “biggest book in the world” the Kuthodaw Pagoda, and it was just breathtaking. Thinking of the fact that it was all handmade it’s just mind-blowing!
After that I toured around the walls and went for lunch at Nepali, a restaurant not far from the wall. The food was amazing and cheap and the service five star.
The following day I booked a tour to visit Inwa, Amapura and Sagaing. Three small towns a stone throw from Mandalay. Of course we saw Buddhas and pagodas galore. After Sagaing we stopped for lunch at this vegetarian place near the river. There was just us from the tour and the place is very cosy and quiet. It’s called Himalaya and the food was amazing!
After lunch we crossed the river to visit Amarapura and we got caught in the middle of a rainstorm and we travelled in a chariot dragged by a poor horse and got completely soaked!!! It was fun.
The day after I just packed my bag and waited in the hostel for my night bus back to Yangon to begin my week of volunteering at Tha Bar Wa meditation center.
The arrival in Myanmar was a piece of cake. I literally spent 5 minutes at the customs. Nobody asked me for a flight out of the country, thankgod because I didn’t have one.
After getting my luggage I got on a taxi to my hostel and once I got there I got a surprise! Horrible surprise. My hostel the “Everest Hotel ” has a so called dorm on the fifth floor. No elevator. It was sizzling hot and by the time I was up in my room I was already exhausted. The room was big enough just to accommodate only three beds. And I mean only three beds. NOTHING else. No AC, only a fan and a window on the corridor. Practically an oven. On top of that the other two beds were occupied by two guys eating fried chicken in bed… I don’t need to explain any further. I knew I couldn’t stay there even if I already paid so I checked for another hostel and I moved out.
I needed to change money – dollars into kyat and so I went to the bank. That was another adventure. People screaming as if they were at the market, no discretion, no order… apparently. So I got directed to the exchange “window” (no window of course, just a counter like in a bar) and have been explained from the teller that every note has a different exchange rate… OK…
Got my money after a good half hour waiting and paid the new hostel. This one is near Sule pagoda very near the center. It’s called Dengba hostel and there is no sign outside. I still managed to find it and it was just right what I needed. Clean, spacious, with windows and AC. For lunch I went to this Indian place called Vedge but I was disappointed. The portions are small and it is a bit pricey. Not even the service was good.
In the afternoon I went to take a walk and met this couple of siblings Vietnamese American and with there I went for dinner in 19th st where Aung a local guy met us. It was fun, the food was good and the beer cheap. The place is called Kaung Myat restaurant and it’s famous for the BBQ and for the beer of course.
The following day I went to visit the city. As usual I walked around even if the heat was unbearable. I went to Shwedagon pagoda the biggest pagoda in Yangon. The place is simply amazing! All cover in real gold and pearls. Locals enter for free, tourists of course have to pay 8000 kyat (around 5€) but it was worth it.
After that I visited Ngar Htat Gyi Pagoda and the reclining Buddha. It’s funny because in Myanmar there are millions of Buddha but they are all different. The reclining one is gigantic, majestic and a bit funny. I then went for lunch to this restaurant called Taj Indian Nepali where the food is excellent and copious and the service very friendly. I also got a refill of sauce for free!!! I arrived at the hostel in a bath of sweat so I showered and rest for a little while. For dinner I went out with Woon Si another local and we went back to 19th st but to KoSan bar this time. Again food delicious and cheap beer.
The day after I was ready to leave and move north to Mandalay. My bus was at 9.30am so I left the hostel at 7.30. Traffic can be pretty bad and the bus station is on the north, one / one and half hour away from the city. The ride was horrible. The bus was full to explode and everybody was pushing me and my backpack around. Beside the driver wasn’t very gentle on the brakes. I arrived at the bus station in an hour and I was finally able to get on an AC bus with every comfort including USB plug to charge your mobile or tablet. I was about to take the famous road to Mandalay.
So. My next move was to go to Myanmar. I checked the flights from either Siem Reap or Phnom Penh. The prices were ridiculous. So I thought that probably it would be much cheaper to fly from Bangkok. I wasn’t planning to go to Thailand again but I thought… what the heck! So as I figured flights from Bangkok were 3 times cheaper.
The trip was not bad, just VERY long even considerin the fact that we spent 2 hours at customs. My first host was Art, a theater director / actor and artist of many kinds. Unfortunately his English is pretty basic so the conversation wasn’t fluid bit he’s been super nice and took good care to make me feel at home.
My second host was Hall, a Thai guy who lives for four years in Sweden. Leo very kind and very careful to details, dedicated to make the guest feel very welcome. They both bought me food and took me out to dinner. I also had one random girl buying me juice at the food stall. This is why I loved Thailand so much last year. Thai people are very generous and helpful. That’s why even though I could have just spent one night in Bangkok I decided to stay four. That’s why every time I come to Bangkok I like it more.