Bangladesh – summing it up 

October 16 – 9.01am. Gate 1X at Dhaka international airport.  My flight is in 2 hours. 

My adventure in Bangladesh ends here,  where it started 2 weeks ago.  Just 15 days have passed but I feel I’ve been here much longer.  In these 2 weeks so many things have happened,  so many wonderful people have crossed my path.  I still cannot believe at what I’ve faced during my stay in Dhaka and surrounding.  Dhaka,  a city that I didn’t even know it existed, has stolen my heart.  And not for the city itself.  As I said time and time again,  Dhaka is not a beautiful city.  It’s not even a friendly city. 

 

Everything is a mess,  it’s dirty,  is tourist unfriendly,  it’s chaotic,  it’s hot but Bengalis  are the most amazing people I met in my life.  To them the guest is the king,  the guest deserves all their attention,  the guest has to be attended in every possible way.  The guest doesn’t have to miss of nothing.  

During my stay in Bangladesh I’ve felt like a movie star.  Never in my life I had so many pictures taken.  Strangers in the street,  at the restaurant,  in the park stopped me to take a selfie with me.  I have been stared at and scrutinized to the point of being uncomfortable.  But I felt like home everywhere I went. The Bengalis heart is bigger than anyone’s heart.  I’ve been helped by total strangers,  I’ve been given food and drink for free,  just for being a guest.  I’ve been asked time and again where I’m from and what do I do in Bangladesh (just visiting???  As if they could not believe that someone wanted just visit their country). 

Bangladesh,  where men go hand in hand on the street,  where the ads are still hand painted on the walls,  where having drinks means drinking tea at the closer “tong”, where there is no official bus stop and traffic lights are non existent, where Barcelona is know for Camp Nou (Sagrada Familia… What’s that?), where people eat with their hands,  has a special place my heart. 

But many of the people that have accompanied me these days have a dream to leave the country.  Usually to Canada or Germany.  I discovered that there is a big community of Bengalis in Italy.  Youth don’t like their country,  they wanna flee,  they believe that everything is corrupted and that there is no future for them here.  Government doesn’t make things easy for anybody.  This is a jungle (especially in the traffic)  and everybody tries to survive as best as they can.  

Once again I didn’t travel to the “best” parts of the country.  I haven’t been to Cox’s bazar,  the longest beach in the world,  I haven’t been to the islands or haven’t seen any waterfall.  But this place will always be special to me.  

Thank you Joy,  Shoshee,  Rossi,  Rasel,  Pryom,  Adnan,  Shammi,  Mukul,  Shariful, Dola,  Ishti and everybody else for making this trip memorable.  You will always have a friend in my.  I will never forget you. 

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Vipassana (or the wanderous mind)

(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:

http://www.joti.dhamma.org/

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

Tha Bar Wa

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). 

But life has a different rhythm,  people help each other,  nobody goes to bed with hunger.  And our help is very much appreciated. 

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…. 

Smile, you’re in Mandalay! 

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. 

I thought than in Italy we have far too many churches,  Christs and Virgin Marys but here there are faaaar more pagodas and Buddhas!!! 

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.   

Summing it up : Malaysia 

Now that I’ve left Malaysia I see how much more westernized it is comparing to the other SE Asia countries.  

I’ve spent around 40 days in the land where number 4 is forbidden (4 and death have the same sound in Chinese),  where English is phonetic (teksi,  polis,  julai… Etc) and the currency has the name of a cartoon character (Ringgit). 

I was not meant to spend all that time there but I decided to extend my stay and take a massage course.  Kuala Lumpur is very cheap comparing to every other big cities I’ve been.  Food is extremely cheap and being multicultural by nature you can find every type of food.  I got stuck with Indian,  and with roti canai in particular (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roti_canai).

The population is composed by Malay,  Chinese and Indian for the majority.  Only a small percentage is made of foreigners (and there are many).  In Malaysia is difficult to meet people (as explained in my previous post)  but I still managed to meet a few very cool characters.  In particular my CS hosts.  The islands are beautiful places and in general pretty well preserved.  Tourism has not corrupted all yet.  

Every nationality is well integrated in Malaysian lifestyle but each of them keep their own specifics.  Chinese feel Chinese,   Indian feel Indian (as opposed to Malay)  but neither of them would like to live in their original country. It’s funny how they insist on the fact that they are this or that although their passport is Malay. 

I volunteered for 2 weeks in Oriental Heritage House and even if nothing went wrong I didn’t enjoy the experience (but the house is amazing!!! https://m.facebook.com/orientalheritagehouse/). I didn’t really learn anything and the communication with the management is very poor.  Also it is in a very quiet area but this means that you’re far from the city center and the public transport is very bad – as in Kuala Lumpur in general.  So,  since I was busy only in the mornings I decided to fulfill a dream that I had for long time and take massage classes in the afternoon. 

After a research in internet I decided to go to Wellness art training centre (https://m.facebook.com/well.ness.3158) in the very center of the city,  a few steps away from the famous towers.  It all started on a bit bumpy way.  I had discovered that my CC had been cloned so my bank blocked it.  Therefore I could not pay the entire price in one go and the management insisted that I had to pay before starting the class.  I told them I could not and if it was a problem I would just cancel the course.  They told me it was OK but the didn’t stop to send me WA messages asking me how I was and when I could pay.  So at one moment I told them that their attitude was very annoying because I felt they didn’t trust me.  And I understood that they don’t know me so why should they trust me but also told them that in Europe you can pay in two or three times and it was not an issue.  And the management replied that in Malaysia things are different.  And so I realized that even in the small things we have to be careful.  We all think in different ways and we should understand that something that is absolutely common for us it might not be for some other culture. 

If I had to choose one Asian country to live in Malaysia would be one of the candidates but honestly I felt a bit lonely there.  People told me that Malaysia is cool,  fold is amazing and places are beautiful.  And it is true.  But still.  There’s something missing that I cannot quite spot.  I still enjoyed my stay in KL and I loved my massage classes.  

I’m still in touch with some of the people I met along the way and hopefully I will see them again some day. 

Dinner with Sandokan 

So after leaving Indonesia one day before my visa expires I land in Kuala Lumpur. The idea of being in Malaysia brings back memories of my childhood.  Sandokan the pirate says hello from the depths of my memories and it feels funny to be here. 

For those who don’t know who Sandokan is,  you can check this link. 

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sandokan

The first thing that attracts my attention is the multi cultural environment in KL. People are Asian,  Indian,  Chinese, Malay and everything in between. It’s fascinating to see these people from so different paths of life coming together as one same nation. 

I meet my host in KL sentral (it’s not a typo.  It’s sentral with S) and by train we reach his house.  We go for dinner in an Indian place open 24/7 like the majority of Indian restaurants and after he takes me for a night ride around town. Obviously the main attraction are the Petrona towers (or twin towers as the called them here) and like many other tourists we stop to take a picture – well more than one. 

The following day I’m on my own around the city as Joko – my host  – has to work.  I really like KL that although is a big city is still very “doable”. They have a free bus that takes you around town like an hop on – hop off thing and once in the center I get off and walk around.  It’s really hot but there is a good amount of shadow so it’s OK.  I visit the main attractions and have lunch in Little India. In the afternoon I meet my host and after dinner we’re off to bed. 

The following day I switch host.  Jr is a very nice man.  With a funny Indian face (although his family is 100% Malay) he greets me in his very cozy apartment on the outskirts of KL,  very close to Batu caves. We chill in his place for the afternoon and we go to yet another Indian place for dinner. The following day we meet with his friend Raizan and his couchsurfer and head to the caves. 

Batu caves are two caves a little hour outside KL.  They are at the top of his hill and you have to climb I don’t know how many steps to get to the top.  It was hard but slowly but surely I made it.  The main cave is pretty big.  I was told that there were bats inside but thankgod I didn’t see any.  My host and his friend stayed down as they had been up there plenty of times and they didn’t feel like climbing in that heat.  So it was just me and the other guest, a young man from Algeria that took at least 40 (thousand) selfies,  ten for each position… I couldn’t believe it!!! 

There is also the Dark Cave that apparently is populated by snakes and rare animals but we didn’t have time to visit as we wanted to go also a waterfall a little further down.

So after the caves and the “cover girl” photo shooting  we headed to the waterfall. Can’t really tell where that is but when we got there it was pretty busy as it was a holiday. We had to walk quite a walk to get to the less populated area of the waterfall but once we got there it was nice to jump into the fresh water and wash away all the sweat and dust of the climb. 

 

The following morning I was to take the bus to Malacca so my host suggested that I spent the night at Raizan’s as he lives closer to the bus (bas) station. 

Raizan’s is the most messy place I’ve ever seen in my life but I felt at home from the moment I put my feet inside.  

In the meantime a friend of Raizan’s arrived and the four of us (Raizan, his friend, Mustapha and I) went for dinner and then to the hot spring nearby.  The hot spring is a shallow pool of hot water that springs naturally near Raizan’s house.  The water is pretty hot and it was very nice to spend some time there.  

The following day I took a bus to Malacca. 

Summing it up – Indonesia 

And Indonesia also is done.  Strange country, three big islands (main ones) and three different realities. 

Bali is the “easiest” one.  Being the one more known and exploited buy tourism is the one more westernized.  Locals are very used to foreigners,  English is spoken almost everywhere and it’s easy to go around. But being so it’s not necessarily a good thing.  Prices are higher and once again the white person is a “walking wallet”. Every step you’re asked if you wanna a taxi (taksi sorry!) or a sarong or a selfie stick or if you want a drink or some food.  Well basically like any other Asia country where tourism it too well developed.
 

 

Comes Java and things tone down a little bit.  You’re still a walking wallet but it’s more discreet.  You are not attacked.  Just invited.  Over and over but it’s not too annoying. People in general are nice and help you.  Smile on their face but you can notice the difference from Bali. 

Last (in order of appearance)  is Sumatra by far my favorite. Unfortunately I only had a fee days to spend in this beautifully green land.  Here tourism and infrastructures for it are at a very basic level.  Tourists are but a few and locals are as nice as it can be. My hosts and his family have been fantastic.  People are very curious of the foreigner and are not annoying.  Don’t try to sell you anything and you are still you.  Just a foreign person in a beautiful foreign country. 

In my deep ignorance I always thought that Muslim countries are close and unfriendly but I haven’t seen anything of the kind during my wanderings  in Indonesia.  People are warm and friendly, curious about you’re country,  you’re habits, you’re life and the cold climate. 

Food is good and cheap and you are in trouble only if you desperately look for a beer.  Other than that life is humble but beautiful. 

I haven’t necessarily done all the typical things that visitors are supposed to do when they visit Indonesia.  Actually I’ve done very little but I don’t regret my trip at all.  I was looking for a true experience,  to meet locals,  mingle with them and live their lives and in a way I’ve succeeded.  I’ve learnt that this are far from what the TV and news papers tell you. I’ve learnt that we are more similar than we think and at the same time worlds apart.  And life is not really better in our uber developed society.  Here people have nothing or close to nothing but they’re more than happy to share it with you.  We should learn to do the same.