Terracotta Gardens, the Ethics of Travel and My Damn Curiosity…

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(journal excerpt-March 21, 2012)

Still smoky and hazy here with no chance of rain but yesterday was a lot better (you could actually see parts of blue sky and Jupiter at night).   Did you know you can actually see planets right now with the naked eye? Pretty cool! Anyway, we didn’t really know what to do with ourselves today.  See, we don’t really travel like a lot of people travel, for good or evil.  We pretty much refuse to do tours or organized events of most any kind.  We hate taking taxis, tuk tuks, rickshaws or whatever because we don’t enjoy the hassle of negotiating or getting ripped off and we prefer to walk everywhere because we get to see more.  If we can’t walk, we usually take public transit.  So to many people, it probably seems like we miss out on a lot.  It does seem like a lot of Chiang Mai’s charm depends on tours and day trips that take you OUT of Chiang Mai.  Some that we have seen cater to the extreme outdoorsy sports type (umm, not us!) Bungy jumping, zip lining etc., or animal encounters (elephant rides, snake farms, tiger “sanctuaries”, monkey training camps, and zoos, which we don’t support or ethnic peoples/tribal encounters. 

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Now, as much as I have great interest in ethnic hill tribes, particularly their handicrafts, I just can’t bring myself to go on one of these touristed out, prefabricated, inauthentic tours.  First of all, and I’m sure I’ll get some disagreement here, it feels a bit exploitive to me.  (If you are Canadian, and you are not sure what I mean, imagine if we started giving tours of reservations?  There are a lot of parallels to be made here).  The experience of loading up into a van of tourists and ferrying out to a remote village with a hundred other people to take photos of long-necked women in tribal clothing all seems a bit much to me, really.  While I am aware that there remains many an unexplored and untouched pocket of indigenous tribal living (the Amazon for example), I don’t believe it is here and I have also read several stories of said local tribes and how they no longer actually dress in their traditional clothing, or where the long neck rings etc., but continue it on as a matter of display for the tourist dollar.  And who can blame them?IMG_2535

The fact remains that in many countries, including my own, indigenous peoples remained exploited for the sake of the tourist dollar to be made by the majority race of that country but all are largely forgotten by both local and federal governments and rely more on NGO intervention.  A prime example of this can be seen in my own country in the mass exploitation and expropriation of First Nations imagery and culture at the Winter Olympics of 2010 in Vancouver, at which First Nations athletes were largely absent and oh, did I mention that the land was stolen in the first place?  Anyway, I digress.  I can feel my readership dwindling as we speak! Point being, we have found that our most rewarding experiences come, when we travel, in the unexpected moments.  When we walk, for hours at a time, we never really know where we’ll end up or what we’ll see.  Sometimes we meet unexpected and interesting people.  We stumble upon a shop or building or an art gallery etc. 

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Such as been our experience in Chiang Mai so far.  We spent yesterday walking around the small lanes within the old city and came across an ancient looking walled area and an imposing terracotta gate (above).  Not ancient after all, but a huge outdoor garden shop that sold terracotta replica statues from all over Asia.  Massive  Dieffenbachia wound up coconut palms and the whole place was jungly, damp and shady with the most amazing smell you only get from tropical plants and humidity. 

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Terracotta statues and reliefs were everywhere, some of them broken and moss-covered, so the whole place had the air of some Indiana Jones temple.  Butterflies and birds everywhere.  Oh, and a loooooooooooong snake (mild freak out here!)  Later, I mentioned the snake to the woman owner, not having any idea if it was even poisonous or not and two small boys where playing near where we saw it: “Oh yeah, you mean the snake in the coconut tree?” she said, like it was old news.  Anyway, the whole place was just beautiful, the photos here do not do it justice. 

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Usually we walk around for 3 or 4 hours or so, since it is always in midday heat, that is as much as we can usually do before we stop for a drink somewhere.  Yesterday also demonstrated a fine example of my insatiable curiosity in action.  We had just left some place or another where I was just finishing getting on M’s last nerve with my incessant “why’s” and he said that he was starting to get the feeling of what it would be like to have a five-year old.  But I guess mostly I just think out loud: “Why do you think such and such happens…” “Why do you suppose that people blah blah blah…” I understand.  I annoy myself sometimes!  Anyway, I decided to pick up a bright red crazy looking seed pod I found on the ground.  This is not unusual for me.  I am always picking up some kind of twig or flower or something I can stick in my notebook or keep as a souvenir.  And yes, I know I cannot bring seed pods into my country but it wasn’t the seed! Just the pod!! Anyway:

 “Put that down, what if it’s poisonous or something!”

 “It’s not poisonous, it’s soft, see! Touch it!”

 “I am not touching that”. 

Well no sooner had he said that than I realized that the “soft” covering of the seed pod was actually an infinitesimal number of prickly small needles that stuck in ALL over my hands and fingers (ever picked up a fuzzy caterpillar? Yeah, like that, but a million of ’em)  and we had to stop for 15 minutes or so while I pulled them out and M laughed his ass off at me, while he videotaped me, of course:

“So what did we learn today?” (on camera)

“Don’t pick up weird seed pods”

Anyway, like I said, nothing new for me, sometimes I break something in a store, sometimes a weiner dog snaps at me in Berlin because I have to pet it (M wants me to point out here that the owner DID tell me not to pet it, but um, he was speaking German, hello??)  or I get flea bites because I can’ t leave the stray cats alone or it results in me eating weird foods (crickets, durian etc.)  Wouldn’t change it though! It just sometimes backfires on me…

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Sharon Salzberg and my 28 day meditation-a-thon…

As for my daily sitting practice, I’m still plodding along although not yet daily.  My brain is just as scattered but I do get the odd moment of stillness.  What the biggest change has been so far, that I can only attribute to meditation are the moments of mindfulness that I’m having during my day, not during meditation. 

One big change is I’m finding myelf being more conscious of small moments and noticing them more and I’m trying to a more mindful eater as well.  I sually read when I eat which totally takes away from the conscious act of eating.  If I’m reading something, I’m not really even aware of what I’m eating which is strange for someone like me who likes food as much as I do!  So I’m going to try to focus on the act of eating more and have more moments of JUST eating.  I’m also finding (and this is so early stages so don’t get too excited!) that I’m having a slight amount of more consciousness in my reactions to things, which in particular is affecting my sometimes tendancy towards reactionary speech.  Again, early stages, but sometimes when I feel myself getting riled up about something or getting agitated with M which may lead to an bickering or an argument, I’ve been able to pull back, not say anything and notice how I’m feeling.  I’ve been able to say to myself: “Okay, this is obviously pissing you off-why is that, etc.” Usually it’s not about what we are talking about at all.  Sometimes I am grumpy for some totally other reason! Don’t get me wrong, sometimes it is because of something he has said (hah hah!) but I can sometimes choose my reaction if I remain conscious of the feelings I”m having.  Okay, that’s a lot of “sometimes” but I want to make clear that this is the very beginnings of a seed of something and I’m not claiming to have the answer to all or anything like that!

But anyway, it’s fantastic! It’s like free therapy! I find myself highlighting many passages in her book which I’m sure I’ll come back to later.  I don’t always have the time for a 20 minute sit but sometimes I’ll just take advantage of some moments during the day. 

Chiang Mai and Wandering…

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(journal excerpt-March 18, 2012)

This place is slowly warming up to me or vice versa as we’ve been spending each day wandering around a few of the seemingly hundreds of beautiful wats around the city.  One gets the sense of how old the city is compared to Bangkok and some of the wats have chedis which are over 700 years old.

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Walking around the city, you stumble across many examples of ruinous brickwork and ancient wooden structures.  Yesterday we went to a particularly beautiful wat that had very lovely grounds with paths and a forest throughout. 

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Signs of buddhist proverbs were fastened to trees along our walk and the butterflies were everywhere and a few even sat still long enough for me to take a couple photos!

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The heat during these hottest peak ours of the day has been insane (36c-37c) and now that we’re in the dry season, the humidity is low and it feels even notter.  The wat and it’s shade was a welcome break from this.  We drink litres of water a day and still cannot get fully hydrated.  Another downside to this season is the haze.  This is the time of year that farmers burn their crops off, not only here but in neighbouring Myanmar and Laos and the smoke wafts into the city.  Apparantly it was much worse before we arrived but today when I stepped out of the guesthouse  for breakfast, I could actually smell the burning and the air along the street is quite bad making my tired defective lungs whine a bit.  Given that we did so much walking in the heat the past few days, I think we’re going to take it a bit more easy today and do some writing indoors to take a break from the air. 

Actually, the other day was like this when I got up in the morning but by afternoon it got windy and it blew away quite a lot of the haze.  For our break from the heat we stepped into a bar run by two expat Bits in their 70’s, both with young Thai wives.  One dudes wife was a year younger than one of his daughters and just had his baby.  Despite their questionable proclivities, they seem to be nice guys and we talked to one of them and rank and tried to learn about Thai property law and the ins and outs of all his prior properties and current building repairs!

The reason why I mention this is we also found the bar to have rooms for rent and we are losing our room where we are now, tomorrow.  We booked online and I mentioned we’d probably want to stay up to aweek or more but that we’d just reserve 3 nights for now, and low and behold it was booked out from under us.  So we have to move.  So the pirate bar may have a room for us or another place we looked into.  Ahh well! Can’t get too comfortable anywhere I suppose!

Photo post! Bangkok and Chiang Mai…

Some photos of what we’ve been up to lately…

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I ate this in Ho Chi Minh actually.  Lovely matcha green tea mochi.  This one had a cream filling and was soooo good! 

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We walk around a lot and look at houses and whatnot.  I particularly like old wooden traditional Thai houses…

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We have drinks sometimes…IMG_2385

And listen to music at cool cafes…IMG_2384

Hang with celebs…IMG_2387

And take photos…IMG_2398

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Chiang Mai

(journal excerpt-March 16, 2012)

Didn’t write more on the train-too difficult with the rocking and swaying.  Instead we drank a bunch of beer and listened to music and talked to the woman who came around selling stuff on the train.  We learned she only works on commission and only ten percent on a ridiculously marked up 140B beer (they are usually anywhere from 55-90 baht in a restaurant!) But of course, once we finished all the cans we bought off the train platform it seemed like a good idea to buy a couple of hers, especially since she was so annoyingly persistent.  Her son is 19 and her daughter only 9 and she lives in Nakhon Si Thammarat (in the south of Thailand) and very far from Chiang Mai.  She works the BKK-Chiang Mai line back and forth non stop for 6 months at a time and sleeps on the train from 11pm-5am.  She taught us some Thai words (now forgotten of course) and demanded I open my snacks so she could eat them (which of course I did) and then we eventually got shushed by some French lady at 9:45pm.  Shushed!!

I eventually tried to sleep around 1am but for me, its nearly impossible-I don’t know how people get into their beds and pass out as soon as they come around to set them up.  Sleeping pills? It’s the same people that sleep sitting upright on long distance bus trips over rough road.  How do they do it?? I can’t sleep sitting up in any vehicle and laying down in the train is not much better.  Still, I can’t fault rail travel in Thailand.  For a third world country, they have their shit together.  The staff are friendly, the train is clean (except for the bathroom, of course) and it’s not that uncomfortable of a bed either!

Anyway, we are now in Chiang Mai after that long trip and our guesthouse is mostly lovely apart from the fairly noisy location and the packs of stray dogs that roam around here at night, barking all the time.  We haven’t had too much time to look around here yet.  We were mostly exhausted after the train and the midday heat was also pretty intense so we just walked around a bit.  We’re within the walls of the old city which used to be surrounded by a massive wall but now only a few pieces and the huge brick gates remain.  Within the walled area of the city is most of the backpacker accommodation and restaurants etc and there seems to be an abundance of vegetarian restaurants here as well as yoga studios and meditation retreats and other conduits of well-being.  Had an awesome veggie burger and fruit smoothie last night (banana, coconut milk and mango-so good!) Otherwise, so far, Chiang Mai isn’t really what I expected (there go those expectations again!) I expected it to be a city more in a valley or something with mountains all around.  I’ve since learned that there are mountains around us.  The problem is the slash and burn method to farming around here has left the city in a thick dark haze.  It may be more scenic than what I’m seeing but so far it’s pretty urban with quite a lot of traffic.  I thought the area would be more…arty? I don’t know if that makes sense.  More local art and indigenous people selling things in street stalls etc.  However, I think all of that will be reserved for the weekend markets which I’m very much looking forward to and I’ve read a lot about.  I came here with the hopes of buying a particular type of bag made by the local hill tribes, cheaper than what I’ve seen in Bangkok, so hopefully I’ll catch a good bargain at the market!

Photos will be coming up soon, I haven’t had a chance to upload any for a bit.  Later sweet pertaters!

One year for Japan

                                                             Source: dribbble.com via Alexandra on Pinterest

 

 

As you know, I’ve been talking about Japan a lot these days.  We waffle back and forth weekly in our decision to either go back home for a “stint” or move back to Japan and this week we’re leaning towards the “go back home for a stint” side of things…it will probably change back to the “move to Japan” side within the next few days.  But as some of you may know, Japan holds a special place in my heart.  Not only was it a place where I lived for almost two and a half years, it was where we were “wedded” at a city ward office in the suburbs of Tokyo.  Unceremoniously, a Japanese marriage need only consist of some paperwork filled out at a city office, I think you pay around 3$ for the paper copy of the certificate and they send you on your way.

M and I were elated when we got the paperwork done.  We were married! And we got married in Tokyo! Our naive excitement lead us to the nearest bakery where we picked up cakes and pastries and brought them back to the city ward office to thank them for helping us with all the confusing Japanese paperwork and helping us do something that made us so happy! We wanted to celebrate! This whole idea is hilarious to me now as I think about the look on their faces and how this must have been perceived to them.  It didn’t even occur to us at the time (again, the naiveté) that this gesture which seemed so innocuous to us, could in fact be perceived as bribery and they were, in fact, only doing their job.  They tried to refuse the pastries in typical Japanese horror/modesty and we insisted.  They eventually took them reluctantly and THEN we went on our merry married little way.  Man, that story makes me laugh now.  Anyway…

That same winter, we took our first vacation since arriving in Japan and went to Thailand.  We arrived on Xmas eve and were in Krabi for December 26, 2005, one year after the horrific earthquake and tsunami that hit that region of the country.  Evidence of damage was still very evident despite the fact that the tourist season buzzed along, pretty much as per normal.  A year and a half after this event we were back in Thailand, actually celebrating our marriage with our friends and family with a proper ceremony and party.

So both countries are pretty big parts of our lives and our history.  And I thought about Japan a lot yesterday.  I don’t really have anything particularly profound to say about this.  I just thought about Japan and felt sad and thought about going there and thought about what I could do to help if we did go there. I thought about how soon it will be hanami (cherry blossom viewing season) there and how if we go there, I’ll probably not get there in time for this.  I thought about how important hanami is for the Japanese as a time to reflect on the transience of life and fragility, and on renewal. 

As I develop various ideas in my head for a future website and online shop I think about ideas of how I can incorporate this want to help.  I have some ideas about this, but we’ll have to see how the whole website idea materializes within the next year or so…

In the meantime, I wrote my ex-boss a short email to let him know I was thinking about him and his family and his country that I love.  It’s not much, but it’s something…

Sharon Salzberg and the 28 day Meditation Challenge (getting your ass on the cushion!)

                                                                                                                                                Source: vi.sualize.us via Chandi on Pinterest

 
It’s now the weekend and we have no choice but to wait until Monday to work on M’s passport application which means we can’t go to Chiang Mai yet.  Further to that, we need M’s parents to send a scan of his birth certificate from the passport office back home and they won’t do that until there is a case number, which we can’t get until Monday!
We are definitely moving into Southeast Asia’s hot and dry season.  I can’t remember the last time it’s rained although I was woken up by thunder this morning.  It’s becoming quite difficult the past couple of days to just do our daily wandering around where we stay outside for the whole day.  Either that, or we’ve become slightly de-acclimitized from our time in Vietnam having air-con all the time.  Now we have fan only and no hot water in the most basic of rooms for 290B.  At night, there is a slight breeze so we must keep our curtain open till daylight or you can’t get any of it.  Since one must sleep completely ‘au naturel’, I only hope that while I’m asleep, someone doesn’t check in across the way, but I’m usually too hot to care: “Meh, they’ll be European-they’ve seen boobies before!”

                                                                                                                                                    Source: google.com via Christie on Pinterest

Anyway, ahem…a little over one week ago I responded to a Tweet by Kimberly Wilson of fabulous Tranquility du Jour fame, calling out for book club suggestions.  While travelling, I haven’t always been able to get my hands on her book club selections so I’m not always “present” but I love the idea of an online book club-great for people who travel and I love that it brings people from all over the world together for a common purpose!  Admittedly, I also like it because, believe it or not, I’m a bit of an introvert and public speaking (even if a book club circle) is nerve-wracking for me! (I’m aiming to conquer this within the next five years-Toastmasters or something…)  So I was thrilled when Kimberly Wilson chose my suggestion for Sharon Salzberg’s book “Real Happiness“, her 28-day meditation “training manual”.  A follower of Sharon Salzberg for a while, keeping tabs on her Twitter and website and whatnot, I have been travelling with this book on my Kindle for a while now and I have yet, despite several attempts, been able to get past the one week mark.  I thought that having this book as a club selection, I would be presented with a bit more accountability.  I began March 2nd and I am officially past the one week mark.  Yay me!
I don’t want to make it sound like meditation is a chore but I do believe it is definitely something you must practice to the point of habit in order to make it stick or see any results.  This book is not my first foray into meditation.  I’ve been interested in Buddhism since high school or so.  My early interest in alternative philosophies and religions at the age of 14 or 15 or so lead me to Wicca and occult type books (my mom had a Wiccan friend that lent me some books and my mom had a pretty wide library herself!)  It was from my Mom and Dad’s book collection that I then read Carlos Castenada and from there, because of my love of Beat literature, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, the Beatles, TM which finally lead me to seek out Buddhism.
By university, I was using most of my elective courses for philosophy and eastern religion, delving into Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam philosophy as well as a bit of art and architecture of Asia and the Middle East.  By this time I was also attending the odd day-long meditation retreat and lectures by prominent Buddhists (Tenzin Palmo!) and I then discovered Pema Chodron and devoured all her books.  So I have read a lot on the subject, but through the course of all of this, I have learned that it all amounts to nothing if your ass is not on that cushion! I have since had breakthrough moments on the cushion, usually in day long retreats where I’ve sat there long enough to finally ease the incessant chatter in my brain.  At home, before leaving for travel, I was, on occasion, getting up before work 30 minutes earlier for a pre-work sit.  But travelling has presented itself with a new list of challenges that has thus far, prevented me from getting a daily habit down. 

                                                                                                                                                     Source: kweeper.com via Mary on Pinterest

 
However, for me, I also realize that no excuse is good enough and it’s precisely these challenges that make a daily practice worthwhile and now a perfect time to really get into it! These excuses include such things as: not much alone time (M and I sharing one room in a hotel or guesthouse) so I’ve been meditating when he is sleeping in the morning or when he is having breakfast.  the heat (oooh! the HEAT! ) Such a lame excuse seeing as this whole thing started in Asia-land of oppressive heat, before the time of electric fans!, our ever-changing locale (all the better to overcome since peace comes from within, right?)
Anyway, so here goes nothing again! I will be doing my best to check in weekly to let you know all of my observations and any progress.  In the first week, my mind has been all over the place.  I probably got about four “sits” accomplished but my first couple were 15 minutes, not 20 as the book suggests.  After the first couple of times, I realized I needed at least 20 minutes to get those moments of stillness, so I upped it.  Such topics in my money mind this week have included:  my mom, friends, the plane journey I had to take that day, M, crafts, design ideas, my blog, breakfast, etc., etc., etc…
Practicality wise, I usually sit on the bed these days but I do find that a pillow just under my tailbone works best so my knees are lower than my spine.  Otherwise my back gets tired and I start to slouch.  Counting my breath has been extremely useful when I can’t otherwise  focus, as is labelling my thoughts as “thinking” when I need to pop the thought bubbles!
So I accept all of this as being totally normal progress and I look forward to more sitting this week with the hopes of even better results! I’m a work in progress! I would love to hear other ‘learning to meditate’ experiences with this book.  Head over to Kimberly Wilson’s website to check out her book club, there is always a great book recommended there each month, usually on the subject of yoga and well-being. 
Thanks for reading!