My landlord just warned me to make sure I get to the market tomorrow in case we flood and can't leave the building. Always something going on on the road...
Earlier this year, I wrote about my experiences with being overweight while traveling in Asia. I thought about calling this piece, "What I learned from being a mid-sized traveler," but despite the progress I've made, I still feel like I have so far to go. While the experience can be frustrating and sometimes disheartening, I have learned to keep pressing forward. I've gotten fewer comments in Asia this year than I did last year, but I think that's what's made every one that comes my way even more ear-worming.
I know that those who make comments have never walked a day in my shoes. I know that many of people who do go out of their way to reference my weight just come from a different perspective culturally. But their words can still reinforce the loudest critic I know: myself.
I've made a lot of strides towards body positivity. But I'm not there yet. My current transformation is as much mental as it is physical.
I was recently reminded of this on a trip to Halong Bay with my friends Jake and Leah, who were visiting from Los Angeles. The few days we spent there were, by far, some of the highlights of the past two years of my travels. The bay was stunningly gorgeous (1), and I was there with some of my favorite people in the world (2). I got to see the stars in the middle of nowhere, which is one of my favorite things to do, surrounded by the water and the most stunning rock formations I’ve ever seen. It was a minor shot of awe.
But it also felt a little bit like adult summer camp. We kayaked, and swam in the sea, and laid in hammocks. There was a lot of drinking, and a lot of jumping off boats and cliffs. There were about 20 people on board, so it was fascinating to watch how people interacted for the next three days together.
I'd be lying if I said Day 1 wasn't mildly terrifying. I've never been one to shy away from getting into a bathing suit--I love the water, and this is what my body looks like, and anyone who doesn't like it can deal--but there was something about kayaking while wearing one that was kind of freaking me out. I think the idea of doing something so physical while being more exposed than usual (cuz let's be real, I do get a little bit of anxiety from biking or hiking in groups, hating myself a little for being last) just sent me over the edge. And Leah and I were the only two girls who had opted out of cover-ups.
I impressed myself when we managed to stay in the middle of the pack the entire time. We weren't the fastest, but we weren't dead last. I'll openly admit now that I probably cared too much if we were. While I did get to observe the beauty that were the Bay's rocks, I can't help but feel I tainted it slightly from being so self conscious.
When we returned to the boat, our guide let us know we could dive from the roof of the boat into the water. I had jumped from higher distances in Chiang Mai, but this jump freaked me out a little because you had to climb over the fence onto a small inclined part of the roof. My first attempt, I slipped on my wet feet and squatted on my butt to avoid falling in. I was already nervous, not so much because of the height, but because of the slipperiness, and the fact that we had spotted a jellyfish in the water not a minute earlier. One guy leaned over to try to pull me up, and mortified, I waved him off.
I took a deep breath, and pulled myself up from my squat with the help of the fence, and jumped in.
It was awesome.
I floated for a moment, before Leah, Jake and I decided to do another jump together. I was nervous after my slip, but with a little encouragement from my wonderful friends, I took the next leap. Another successful jump.
As the sun set, our tour guide called for final jumps. This one, we would get on film.
Usually this is the kind of thing that I would bury deep, untag on facebook, and pretend it never happened. But for the sake of honesty, this was the result:
Needless to say, I was mortified (3). One of the Australians called from up top, "are you okay?!" while I held my chest and struggled to catch my breath. The impact of the water had been painful, and I knew I’d be sore the next day. Of course the one jump we actually got on camera was the one I epically belly flopped. Of course I was the one to fail. After a day of body consciousness, I couldn't help but equate this failure to my size.
I pulled myself out of the water, chest still throbbing, and wanted to crawl into a hole.
But then, something kind of amazing happened.
There was a group of fit Dutch and Australian boys that had been diving off the boat all afternoon. Rowdy, cocky, and a bit drunk, these guys seemed completely fearless.
Just after my spectacular flop, they decided they wanted to get a little more dangerous for their last gos. They grouped together to stand at one end of the boat, get a running start, hop the fence over the slippery edge and jump into the water.
So the first guy starts. And this kid--he gets an epic sprinting start, everyone is cheering him on loudly, it's gearing up to be awesome--when he hesitates on the jump and knocks straight into the fence. He hits a piece of the boat into the water, but worse (4), his side is completely bruised and his knees are bleeding.
After checking to make sure he was okay, I felt a lot of tension leave my body. Not exactly in a schadenfreude (5) way, but in a, wow, so I'm not the only one who can fail epically in front of a big group of people way. Some people are clumsy. Sometimes we fuck up. It isn't determined by our size, and it definitely doesn't define our worth.
The rest of the trip was wonderful--the group of 20 gelled nicely, and Leah, Jake, and I spent time with some of the people we met in Hoi An. No one even seemed to remember my belly flop. And if they did, they didn't care, or let it affect the way they interacted with me.
When things are going well--like last year, during my adventures in India that reminded me that things can be amazing regardless of what I look like--it is easy to dismiss my body. It is harder to do so when something goes wrong, especially when it is something physical, but I'm getting better at treating myself with kindness. Sometimes things happen, and as I learned last year, it is better to laugh at yourself than be overcome by self-depreciation. To echo Sarah Kay's Useless Bay, "This. Is Not. A metaphor." Let a fall be a fall, and not a divine sign that I am a failure in life.
As for my Dutch friend--he was a great sport, and handled the teasing he got from the whole tour group for the rest of the trip like a champ (6).
He owned it. I'm learning to own it.
Sometimes you just gotta.
1. I wasn't aware that Halong Bay was one of the natural wonders of the world until a recent pub trivia. The more you know.
2. Leah, thanks for being my most consistent travel buddy, and Jake, I couldn't have asked for a better new one.
3. You can laugh. Don't feel bad. This was a very Monica thing for me to have done.
4. Those of you familiar with the Joey Wetmore dizzy bat incident of 2012 will understand the drastic change in mood.
5. German word, meaning deriving pleasure from another person's misfortune.
6. Thanks, S., for agreeing to being in this post :) You can see his battle scars beginning to form--as of the beginning of November (a month after the fence incident) he let me know that his ribs are still bruised...
Okay, so I'm not one to rant. At least not to a broad audience. I like to focus on positivity and growth.
But guys. We need to talk. Over the last few years I've stayed in more communal living spaces than I can count on two hands, and have met people from all around the world who are just trying to live their lives and do their thing.
I've also met some people who warrant losing complete faith in humanity.
Now, I realize that staying in a dorm sacrifices a lot of personal comforts for the sake of frugalness, and there is no accounting for personal human nature, but I do believe we're all doing the best we can to not be shitty humans.
So please, for your dorm mates, your own sake, and mine, here are seven things you should avoid when you're living in a hostel.
1. Peeing on the floor. I'm putting this at number one because it happens more often than you'd think. Seriously, I understand that you're drunk and feeling debaucherous, but you're in a group space. People's stuff is all over the floor. Find the toilet. Or a bush. Or, god, even a house plant is preferable. Once, I was in a hostel in Thailand when I was awoken to--I kid you not--the smell of shit. I sat up abruptly and found a man, ass hanging out, standing over my bed. I managed a, "Dude, what the fuck!" just as he started peeing, and thankfully before he managed to a) do much damage, or worse, b) take an actual shit. I sat awake for the next two hours, during which time, I wish I was making this up, I caught him trying to return to my corner three times. THIS IS NOT THE TOILET. At this point the whole room was awake, and someone yelled, "WE CAN SEE YOU." Your drunkness is not an invisibility cloak.
2. Not wearing headphones. This is seriously one of my biggest pet peeves. I don't want to hear people yelling at each other on your Italian sitcom, nor your angry Swedish rap. Not when I'm trying to work and definitely not past the hour of 11 o'clock. Invest in a pair of headphones. And with that...
3. Talking on the phone while people are sleeping. Especially answering calls at 3 am not wearing headphones. I'm surprised I have to say this. I sleep like I'm dead, usually, but I also stay up really late. The number of inconsiderate people I've seen wake up an entire room of 18 is astounding.
4. Turning the light on when people are sleeping, especially after 2 in the morning. Again, I feel like this one should speak for itself. One time at a hostel in Canada, a girl turned the lights on at 4 am because she had just ordered pizza and didn't want to eat in the dark. There are 12 sleeping people, and you're not even drunk, so really what's your excuse here? Go sit in the hallway.
5. Drastically messing with the room temperature without consulting anyone. I'm generally freezing, so I always make sure to have a sweater on hand in case my dorm mates are fans of the ice box. I've heard horror stories of dorm mates shutting the AC off completely in the middle of the night, only to have everyone wake up a few hours later drenched in sweat. For the most part, we are in tropical weather--take one for the team, or at least chat around to see how people feel about bumping the thermostat up a few degrees. Most hostels will often appease you if you ask for a heavier or second blanket.
6. Banging in your bunk bed, or in a bathroom with limited options. Look, I'm not trying to cockblock, but if you're in the one bathroom that 16 people are supposed to share, not only can we probably all hear you, but someone probably has to pee. Get more creative in your space options. In terms of the room--look, I get it, sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do, but at least try to limit the secondhand awkward. And on that note...
7. Airing your dirty laundry in communal spaces. While this probably goes as much literally as it does figuratively (cuz, come on, traveler funk is real. Please take a shower. And do your laundry.), I'm talking about having very public, intimate arguments where everyone can hear you. One time I woke up in a hostel in Chiang Mai, where I had been staying in an all girls room, to see a dude in the bed over. One of the harder partying English girls had brought him home from a club. Live and let live, I had already been asleep and whatever they did didn't wake me up. BUT. The next morning, as everyone was shuffling around to start their days, the group suddenly became privy to a half hour of her reaming out her bedmate. I honestly can't tell you why the guy didn't get up and walk out. "Do you even remember my name?!" and, "God, my vag fucking hurts because of you." Cool story bro, but can you save it for somewhere a little more private? I do not want to hear the exact details of your disappointing screw, thanks.
I love hostel living, and it would be even more awesome without the above infractions. In short, use your best judgment, and try not to be an asshole. kthxbye.
What's your hostel horror story? Share in the comments below!
I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: traveling is not always easy. It’s a lot of fun, but when things go wrong (which, if you have a track record like mine, they are bound to), sometimes they’re ten times more difficult to get out of, and often a lot more mentally straining.
I’m lucky to have been able to develop a community that I loved on Koh Phanang, thanks to my time at The Nomad House. Without them, August would have been a lot more difficult than it already was. So here’s what happened…
Part 1. Motorbike Mishap
When I left Koh Phanang the first time, I remember sitting in the back of a pick-up truck taxi, looking at the place and thinking, “I feel like I’m never going to see this place again.”
I started my fifth go-around in August. I was traveling briefly with a friend, and intended to be on the island for two days. He stayed for four. I stayed for two months.
This time around, I saw Koh Phanang in a different way. I wasn’t working, just stayed as a guest, which meant I could have my own motorbike and tag along on the free day tours. One of the owners, Yuki, had been on an extended holiday during my first few visits, and this time he and his brother Bobby were both around to show us a good time. It was on one of these wonderful day trips that our fearless leaders took us to one of the most beautiful view points I had encountered on the island. To get there, we scaled a treacherous dirt and rock road–I was nervous, but had confidence in my ability, so I waved off offers of help. Though Yuki and Bobby were very insistent that I could leave my bike at the bottom and go up with one of them, I was adamant I was fine.
And I was rewarded when I made it up with no problem. I was proud of myself. On the way back down, I took it slow. I was ten feet from the bottom of a half kilometer hill. In my excitement, I looked up to the group and exclaimed, “I made it without incident!” And no sooner had the words left my mouth than my front wheel shifted and I tipped over. (Yuki maintains that I was going too fast, but I think if I had been entirely focused on the road it would have been a non-issue. I realize my stubbornness is something I could work on.)
In true Monica fashion, I fell and got back up no problem. I was unscathed, save a small cut on the palm of my hand. My bike, however, was scratched in several places, and I hadn’t rented from Nomad House because I am unwise (1). When I returned the bike a month later, the damage totaled to more than 15,000 Thai baht (440 USD).
Part 2. People are Gross.
A few days later, as Full Moon drew closer, I asked Yuki if they needed any help during the busy weeks. I came back on as staff for Full Moon.
Now, Koh Phanang is an island that lives and breathes by the lunar cycle–the flow of people rises and falls in perfect unison with the tides. The crowd follows the fullness of the moon. And as we all know, the moon affects how crazy people act, too. Which means when Full Moon rolls around, the hostel is teeming with 145 drunk and depraved travelers. Things are bound to get out of hand.
One morning I’m doing dishes when a young English lad wanders down the stairs. “I need to tell you something. I’m telling you cuz I think you’ll think it’s funny, but I also think I need to pay a fine.”
Oh boy. “Did you throw up?” Uff. 1000 baht (30 USD) fine for vomiting. “Uh, no. I may have pissed on my friend’s bed last night.”
“While he was in it?!”
I dried my hands off. “Well, let’s see it then.”
To be honest, the whole thing was hilarious and he handled it well. He cleaned it up himself, and was just generally really stand-up about it. But it was an omen of worse things yet to come.
Much later that night, a couple of people were up until 4 in the morning cleaning up and hanging out after we had sent off the guests. I was sexiled from my hostel room, and Yuki had offered to let me crash on the extra bed in his room.
Except for when we walk in to finally pass out, we encounter this (warning for explicit language):
Yuki’s dog had gone to town. Seriously, the range of acrobatics required for his feces smear were of an Olympic caliber.
So we grabbed mops and went to work. Halfway through the epic clean up, two guests run across the courtyard. “Can you kick someone out?”
“What’s going on guys?” Poor Yuki just sounded defeated at this point.
“Some dude’s pissing on the floor.”
Not again. By the time we got into the 18-bed dorm, the vagrant in question (not the same one from that morning) had already crawled into his bed. So instead of waking up the other guests, we just mopped the floor and slipped back out. We got to bed around 5 that night, after well earned showers. In the morning, the chalkboard read STOP PISSING THE FLOORS.
Part 3. QUARANTINE.
A few days after Full Moon, disaster struck again. Itchy blisters had started cropping up on my skin–-an allergy? Some kind of rash? I had no idea. Bobby drove me to the hospital to get it checked out at midnight, but after a few hours of not-so-thorough testing, they gave me antibiotics and sent me on my way. The next night, things were looking much, much worse, and after hours of debate I got myself back to the ER. They scraped and prodded and poked.
Two hours later, the nurse came by with tests results. “We know what you have.”
Because I can never do anything like a normal human being, I had somehow managed to contract the chicken pox at the age of 24.
When I got back from the hospital that night, I had concerned messages from Bobby. “Are you dead?" and, "If I don’t hear from you soon, I’m coming to the hospital.”
I messaged back that I was fine, and was greeted with a FaceTime call. “So what is it?” He asked. And then his face dropped. “And–-shit-–did it look like this?” He flipped a camera to a spot on his leg.
“Let’s go back to the hospital.”
And that’s how Bobby and I ended up in quarantine for five days. We found ways to entertain ourselves–we watched a lot of movies, and sorted the hostel keys and chatted about life. We were also both good at just chilling and doing our own thing, which made us pretty good roommates (2).
Part 4. Coming out of it
Between the bike and the hospital, August had been an expensive month. It served as a reminder that I was one major accident or incident away from not being able to keep traveling. I had attended a lot of parties on the island–-Full Moon, Half Moon, Jungle Party, and I was down at Haad Rin beach more times than I can count-–but now I had experienced some of the hardships this island life could bring-–ones with real life repercussions.
Not one to shy away from discomfort, I know that these experiences brought me a lot of wonderful and important things–two relationships with two awesome people I wouldn’t have gotten to know otherwise, and a renewed sense of purpose and responsibility in my work that has pushed me to make sure the life I’m leading is sustainable. Spoiler alert: I know I’m not there yet, but it’s on the horizon and the only thing I can do is keep trucking.
On my last day in Koh Phanang, Bobby pushed me to climb up a waterfall. I went slowly, I took alternate paths, and I cut up my hands and feet, but I made it. Koh Phanang proved to be a worthy opponent, but I like to think I held my own.
Things will always stand in my way–-money, body, illness, other people–-but I’m learning to appreciate the obstacles in all of their stressful absurdity. Maybe that’s the middle way?
1. ALWAYS RENT FROM NOMAD HOUSE.
2. I still hate you Bobby.
3. I know this was supposed to be a three part series where I came to a final conclusion, but I think I’m still figuring it all out, and I’m okay with that.
My computer is broken again. I can use it for the most part, but for some reason the entire row Q-O has stopped working, and for those of you keeping score at home it contains 5 of the 6 vowels (counting y) which makes typing pretty impossible. But I promised a 3 part series, and instead of risking losing my momentum am bringing you the next installment straight from my iPhone.
When we last checked in, I was on my way to the biggest party island in Thailand immediately after a 10 day silent retreat where I was cut off from speech, modern technology, and other human beings. Needless to say, I was in for quite the rude awakening.
Thankfully Sally was still with me, and we were having a pretty similar sensory overload experience–and we hadn’t even gotten to Koh Phanang yet. Being on the highway felt like an attack of stimulus. Ghida, Alex, Saskia, Sally and I meandered looking for non-monastery food in the airport from where we needed to catch our buses to the ferry. Transport was suddenly a very real thing again, and with it the need to be a self-sufficient adult once more.
When we got to the island, our first stop was pizza and burgers. The meat didn’t sit well in my stomach after so many days of being vegetarian.
When we got back to Nomad, I was surprised when Nelly offered Sally and I jobs–stick around through full moon, help clean up, do dishes, make beds. I only had about 12 days left on my visa, and something about this felt right. I’d experienced 12 days of tightness, and now it was time for a more lax experience.
The first few days were overwhelming–I didn’t feel like drinking, and there were so many people. By the second day, I had once again given up on shoes. Every night, there was a different party. Pool party, floating bar, jungle party, half moon, full moon (1).
Some days, not unlike during the retreat, there were days when I wanted to quit. I wasn’t sleeping enough, or I was anxious, or thoughts would run through my head that I was unable to control. I was putting my body through vigorous mental and physical strain again, but in the completely opposite direction.
When these days happened, I would escape. Sally and I ran away to the grocery store, and I made mediocre guacamole with hard avocados and no cilantro. After Sally left the island, Frankie and I would escape to the beach, where I would ask her a million questions and remind myself what it was like to think creatively. I got in the ocean at every opportunity I had.
These days were my lifeblood–the very best way to recharge my batteries with amazing people doing things I loved (even when, in the case of the guac, the results were mediocre). I am so grateful to have met them. I knew that this juxtaposition was something I needed to experience, and I’m not sure I would have made it without them. I wasn’t sure why I needed to do this yet, but I could feel it in my bones.
My life on Koh Phanang was a vibrant mess of dishes, body paint, drinking, and poor decisions. Most days, I saw the sunrise from the opposite side of the evening than I had the ten days before. My clothes, before so carefully chosen to cover my body completely, “monastery appropriate,” (2) suddenly felt ridiculously inappropriate for my location.
I was drunk and I was reckless and sometimes I was both at the same time (sorry dad). I attempted to get over my fear of riding motorbikes. I played with balloons and made myself stay out at night even though there were nights where when I wanted to go home early. If I was going to do this, I was going to do it right–I wanted to experience everything Koh Phanang had to offer, sunrise to sunset (3). These ended up being some of the best, most fun nights.
Eventually I fell into a groove–found time to sleep, chatted with hostel guests, enjoyed myself. When Full Moon arrived, I was ready. The morning of, despite having not slept prior to my 8:30 am shift, people commented that I looked “refreshed” as I trudged around in my pajamas.
That night we were on it as a staff–surprisingly well-oiled, despite being overbooked to the point that there were no open staff rooms and 6 of us had been sleeping in scattered common room areas the last two days. At 2, after the last guest was in a taxi towards Haad Rin, we piled into another all together, my “bosses” (4) hanging out of the back of the cab. Full Moon Party was more colorful and expansive and crowded than I remembered. May’s was a little hazy.
I had lost my voice entirely from five nights of parties in a row, and I was running on very little sleep, but I was determined to redeem my full moon experience from the month before. Frankie and I made a pact to stick together, and we watched fire jumpers, and drank and danced and had a great time. Around 5, the sun was starting to come up. Frankie and I split up then, her to meet up with some of our other friends, and me to watch the sunrise. I plopped myself in the sand, soaking my skirt completely as the waves rolled in, and watched the light change behind the clouds. I had accomplished what I wanted to.
I caught a taxi home alone, feeling surprisingly centered.
On my last night on Koh Phanang, with my newly fixed computer, I wrote 20 pages. I hadn’t sat down and written since before the silent retreat–not anything substantial, anyway–and I had done it. I’d finally found my rhythm, even amidst the chaos around me. I could have fun and still do the things that I held close to my heart. I could find my voice here.
And honestly, if I could find it on Koh Phanang, I knew I could find it anywhere.
This was my Middle Way.
1. Photo by Nelly.
2. Which, let’s be real, after months of living at a Buddhist monastery, is definitely my comfort zone.
3. Or would it be the other way around?
4. Brad and Nelly, I still refuse to acknowledge you being my boss as a legitimate thing.
To understand the headspace I was in for this post, please check out the prologue here.
Growing up, I had a habit of dealing with stress by taking naps. If there was something I was worried or anxious about, I would sleep on it and usually feel better afterwards. In college, I even purposely chose lofted beds in order to snuggle up high above my friends in the case of feeling overwhelmed, or like I needed to withdraw for a while. This habit was affectionately dubbed “hermiting” by my family and friends.
While I still love a good nap, I eventually developed healthier coping mechanisms, one of which was the practice of meditation. My practice was one of the foundations of my decision to move across the world to live in Nepal, and most recently led me to Suan Mokkh International Hermitage in Chiaya, Thailand. I was on my way to be an actual hermit! At the beginning of June, about 90 participants surrendered ourselves to a Thai Buddhist monastery in order to practice vipassana and explore the path to enlightenment.
The rules were established early on: wake up at 4 am, meditate for 9 hours a day, take two meals (one at 8 am and the other at 12:30), Thai style showers and baths, which meant manual flushing and bucket bathing, lights out at 9:30, sleep on a wooden bed and pillow (1). No writing, reading, singing, dancing, and above all, absolutely no speaking.
On the first morning, we were awoken by a long bell at 4. My back was a bit stiff, and I’d only been able to use the wooden pillow for half the night before foregoing it entirely, but otherwise I was excited. It felt like the first day of school, when you have absolutely no idea what to expect, only this time there was no anxiety about whether or not you’d have anyone to sit with at lunch; people were mostly avoiding eye contact, aside from maybe a quick smile, which actually felt like it put everyone on the same page.
Some of you may be familiar with the yoga mantra, “Lean into the discomfort.” Well, there was no shortage of places to lean. My knees, ankles, and pelvis were constantly on fire. The red ants were relentless. The mosquitoes were worse. During “showers” (2), I was constantly worried about skin exposure, both because we weren’t allowed to be naked and because the mosquitoes would attack me, which made bath time rather unpleasant. I slept amongst spiders and snakes, and the hunger pangs were pretty awful the first few days. I would write in my head, and it took all my self-control to keep my itchy fingers from reaching for my pen.
But this was the challenge I had set for myself, and I knew I had to figure out ways to cope. Tiger balm. Globs of mosquito lotion. More Tiger Balm. Figuring out how to just be in nature. Enjoying the tasks I was set to do, like cleaning out the foot bath every morning after breakfast. More Tiger Balm.
Things started to gel together. On day 2, I stopped wearing shoes. On day 3, I was able to visualize myself underwater, and then later walking through a beautiful field of tall grass. I hit a huge speed bump on day 5, when a morning meditation put me in an odd headspace. Instead of being able to focus on meditation, thoughts would constantly flutter through my head–regrets, things I held guilt for, people I had hurt. I was lucky that this was during the stage of personal interviews, and at breakfast that morning I signed up to speak with one of the monks.
It was oddly relieving to be able to speak, and I was somewhat surprised when I heard my own voice, sounding the same way it always had. I asked Tan Medhi, who led our daily chanting meditations, how to handle thoughts of guilt or regret from popping into my head while I was trying to focus. Especially if you thought you had done irreparable damage.
He smiled at me and pulled out his water bottle. He poured a little water into the bottle’s top and swirled it around. “If I were to put salt in this cup,” he said, “And try to drink it, it would taste like salt. If I drink it and put new water in, mmm still salt. But more water, more water, it will go away after a while.” He smiled again. “But do not pour more salt into the cup.”
Huh. I got nervous then, feeling a little more vulnerable than I had planned to in the interview, quickly thanked him and left the sala. His message was clear; we cannot change the things we have done, nor can we escape their karmic repercussions. But we can eventually move on from them, so long as we learn from our mistakes and do not repeat them.
Filled with this new sentiment, that afternoon’s meditation was a little bit easier. I listened to the speakers, who constantly reminded us that a “cool, calm body,” and “cool, calm breath” were the fastest ways to a cool, calm mind. Mr. Supon was also frequently reminding us to look for our own Middle Ways–that we had to find the space that was not too tight, and not too loose in our practice. And that this space might be different for everyone.
On the morning of day 7, I happened to spy a caterpillar acting rather oddly. As it jerked its body around, I just knew it was going to cocoon. After that, I spent all of my walking meditations in the little sala waiting for it to happen. When I woke up on Day 8, my first instinct was to run and check it out. It had finally cocooned! I wondered how long the process to hatching was, and if I was going to get to see it.
People really seemed to get restless around day 9. Chatting could be heard throughout my dorm as people grew listless, and even Sally and I had been doing small bits of conversing when we were alone together. What started as casual check-ins and thumbs up around day 5 blew up into slightly more extended conversation as the days went on. We were so close to the finish line, and yet so, so far away. A board on the wall in the office indicated that 16 people had dropped out.
I’m not proud of this, but on Day 10, my friend Ghida (the coolest lady I’ve met lately, and a mother of three who was doing the retreat with her son) and I discussed leaving early–the 16 had jumped to 22, and we still had an entire day of meditation, wooden pillows, and 4 am wake-up ahead of us. We had gotten in early on the day before the first of the month, so technically we had already completed the 10 days… so what was left would just be extra, right?
We had a little crew on board–Ghida, her son, Sally, and I would leave just after lunch time–when we learned that there was no way we would make the last bus out. Our hopes of escape were dashed, and the evening would go on as planned.
And to be honest… Thank God it did. If I had missed that evening’s sharing session–the first time we would be allowed to address the group–I think I would have walked away from my vipassana experience with a much different attitude. As I listened to my peers discuss their similar trials and tribulations, I realized that we had all managed to become a community. We were all working towards the same goal, and that made it all feel really worth it.
The next morning when the gong rang, I got up and gathered my stuff, feeling restless, and anxious, and excited all at once. I packed, and threw out my trash–I’d gone through a stunning 3 bottles of Tiger Balm, 5 more of a generic brand, one bottle of Mosquito repellant, and 6 Mosquito Lotions. I checked on the cocoon, who was still exactly where he’d been since Day 8. I wished him good luck, unable to stop feeling like the fact that I didn’t get to see him emerge was a little symbolic.
I wish I’d had more time to get to know the amazing people I had spent the last 11 days with. I am proud to have been one of the 75 still remaining at the end, and grateful and humbled that our escape plan failed. I recognize that there is still a lot of room for improvement in my practice, but was still so proud. I could now cross off a major bucket-list item, completing a 10 day vipassana, and I left with an openness to perhaps try another, one day.
But now it was time to re-enter the real world. It was going to take a few days to process this…and what a better place to do so than at the absolutely peaceful, quiet, and relaxing island of Koh Phanang! (3) But that’s a story for next week.
1. This photo was taken by my friend Alex Lona Cohen. You can see the wooden pillow, and also the candle lantern we were each given. We also had mosquito nets and blankets, not pictured here.
2. Photo also by Alex Lona Cohen. We used buckets to bathe, and were not allowed to dip any body part into the center pools.
3. This is sarcasm.
It’s been a while since I’ve written, and that’s because there has been a LOT going on. And my computer broke.
But the good news is that my computer is now fixed (1), AND I have a three part post coming up this month! Before I get into it, let me get you all up to speed…
I left Nepal at the end of April, and traveled through the north of Thailand for the majority of the next month. At the end of May, I headed south to Koh Phanang for the world famous Full Moon Party.
Full Moon was a blast, but things got pretty wild. My friend Sally lost her phone, and I lost my keys and some money (probably when I insisted on getting into the ocean). I got separated from my friends somewhere near the end as the sun rose over a cloudy beach, and I was still broke. In fact, if I hadn’t run into my lovely friend Patty, who was kind enough to loan me 100 bhat (2), I’m not entirely sure how I would have gotten back to the hostel that morning.
So after five pretty crazy days, Sally and I were both ready to move on to somewhere a little more relaxed.
We’d hoped our luck would change on a new island, but things seemed to get steadily worse. First it was small things. I realized I had left my favorite shoes on Koh Phanang. She had to figure out registration for Uni, but had trouble getting her passwords without her stolen phone. I left my takeaway at a restaurant, she couldn’t play any music from her new phone. Small things.
And then things took a nose dive. I was battling food poisoning when my computer crashed, and Sally fell off of her motorbike and wound up at the hospital.
Everything was a mess, but we tried to maintain good spirits, and would often find ourselves laughing at the absurdity of the situation from our tiny one-person huts.
We eventually moved on to Koh Samui, another island, still hoping our luck would change, but weird things kept happening–Sally’s toothbrush snapped in half, we almost had our passports stolen (or I guess they just forgot to give them back in the hostel), our room was full of rowdy, smelly boys, and our plans to meet up with friends during their visa run was thwarted when it turned out to be almost an hour away, making us miss the meet up completely after two expensive cabs. Sally, listening to her inner voice, decided to check out another island while I stayed put to get myself sorted.
Alone and wandering aimlessly, I decided I needed to listen to my inner voice too, and it was telling me to do something drastic to change my luck. At 3:30, I made the spontaneous decision to take a 45 minute ferry to get my shoes back from Koh Phanang. Time to return to the source and change my luck back (3).
Except, oh wait. I seemed to have forgotten that that week, I was the embodiment of Murphy’s Law. The ferry I booked took me to a different pier than I thought it would, 30 minutes away from my destination as opposed to 10, and the longer drive in either direction caused me to miss the 5:30 ferry I’d pre-booked back. Which also happened to be the last ferry of the evening. I was now literally stranded on Koh Phanang, with my laptop, backpack, and passport an entire island away.
Here’s the thing though: something had been calling me back to Koh Phanang. I’d had a feeling I needed to return, and I followed my intuition. Back at Nomad House, the hostel I’d stayed in for Full Moon where a few of my friends were now helping out, I burst into tears at the sheer ridiculousness of the past few days. The managers must have felt bad, because they told me they knew a guy who could fix my computer. Huzzah! I booked myself in for the night, with the promise to return tomorrow with all of my things.
In the morning, things actually went smoothly. The ferry company honored my ticket from the night before, and I was pleasantly surprised that the laddies Sally and I had been so annoyed with had left my things completely untouched on Koh Samui.
Back on Koh Phanang, I passed off my computer to my friend Nelly, who assured me that all would be taken care of. I got to have a few days of relaxation and fun with friends while I waited things out.
Finally feeling settled, and like my luck was changing, I was now ready to mentally prepare for the 10 day Vipassana retreat I had been planning on attending for the last two months. My computer wasn’t going to be done for a few days, so I said goodbye to Koh Phanang with the promise of returning.
I sat on my fifth ferry in three days ready for my next adventure… but that’s a story for next week.
1. A HUGE shoutout to Nelly and Teddy at The Nomad House on Koh Phanang. Without you guys, I would have had to go home immediately. Thank you so much for all of your help.
2. Patty, you’re a star. Thank you again so much–I will pay you back one day!!
3. I’m still pretty smiley in this photo–things took a much darker turn when I realized we were at the wrong pier.
I’m sitting on the train with the joy of possibilities running through my body (though it may also be the coffee running through my rarely-caffeinated veins). I will miss Michigan, and all the people I love in that wonderful place.
But here, on this train, with only a vague outline of what’s to come, I feel like myself. I feel open and expansive. Today is Journey: Day 1 all over again, and who knows what will happen next?
“It is so hard to leave—until you leave. And then it is the easiest goddamned thing in the world.” - John Green.
DISCLAIMER: Before I left for Nepal, I had friends and family beg me not to leave the airport during my 14 hour layover in Dubai. Later, after experiencing three major earthquakes that left thousands dead, these same friends and family pleaded with me to come home. I’m really lucky to have a lot of people in my life that care about me. If you are one of them, you’re wonderful and I appreciate you.
But this post is not for you.
I feel like a lot people have misconstrued ideas about travel thanks to social media. We see epic photos and hear slivers of crazy stories, and come out on the other side with the idea that traveling is sunshine, rainbows, Mai-Tais and butterflies. But here’s the truth: there’s a lot going on behind the scenes that can’t be summed up in a photo. Here’s a more personal truth: I’m kind of a disaster. For those of you who know me, you know I’m prone to three things: falling, injury, and illness. This does not change just because I’m on the other side of the world.
So naturally, as my Nepali visa nears expiration and my 28 hour bus ride across the Indian border looms, I come down with a massive case of tonsillitis.
The bus ride is miserable. My tonsils have swollen to the point of closing my throat (1), and I’m traveling at the height of last summer’s concrete-melting heat wave. Worse, the monks have told me stories about the ride; it’s notorious for being dangerous and littered with bandits. I make the decision to take as little money with me from Pokhara to Mechinager as possible. I have on me 500 Nepali rupees, about the equivalent of five American dollars.
When I land at the bus park, I have only a crude map hand-drawn by my friend Dhaks to guide me to the customs check point. My first stop is the ATM. Card in once. Card in twice. Not wanting to strike out and get my card eaten at the border, I don’t try a third time. Instead, I scour my purse for any money I might have overlooked earlier. I find two ones and a five dollar bill.
A local notices me flummoxing about and takes pity on me. I explain my situation, and he leads me around to money changers in attempts to convince one of them to exchange less than their usual $50 minimum. We finally find someone who will take 6 of my 7 dollars (one is ripped), leaving me with a grand total of 1100 rupees, or about $11 dollars.
The local tells me I am very beautiful, and tries to convince me to come to his house, where he says his mother will nurse me back to health. Now would be a good time to mention that I still need to clear customs, tuk-tuk (2) across the border, bus to Siliguri, and negotiate a jeep to Darjeeling. Also, a reminder that I have tonsillitis, am in 100 degree weather, and am carrying my 30 pound backpack. I do not need this right now.
I promptly burst into tears.
“My friend is waiting for me in Darjeeling,” I gargle through my frog voice. “I need to meet him today or he will be very worried.” The nice man is startled by the crazy crying American and helps me purchase medicine (which ends up being useless–bye bye 45 rupees) and wrangle a tuk tuk.
Crossing the border is kind of a nightmare as I wait for things to be stamped, and it occurs to me on the ride that I should be more attentive to the amazing things I’m seeing, but I’m feeling too miserable to care. The tuk tuk driver is nice enough to stop me by an ATM, but this one won’t take my card either, so I decide to just get on the bus and wing it.
I tell the bus driver words that I’ve memorized from Dhaks: “I need a jeep from Siliguri to Darjeeling,” and I just pray I’ve been understood enough to get me where I’m going. The bus is jam packed, and I’m sitting right next to the engine, so my seat is unbearably hot, but woah, I’m in India and I definitely want to try to watch the road. The driver is kind, and drops me off exactly where I need to be. After the medicine, bus and tuk tuk, I have 500 rupees left.
The moment of truth comes at the jeeps. “How much to Darjeeling?” asks Mon the Muppet. “400 rupees.” Yes! Done! Thank you! I could kiss him, but I’ve hit my quota on marriage proposals for the week.
I’m seated in the back, alone, and sleep for three hours, going in and out as we scale up the 6,700 foot high city.
I’m still feeling pretty miserable as we climb in elevation. The driver indicates to me that we are now in Darjeeling proper, and that I should exit the jeep. Now’s the tricky part. A friend of mine had booked my hostel for me, but we failed to connect prior to my departure; I have no idea what the name of the hostel is or how to find it. Worse still, I need internet to let Kris know that I’ve arrived safely and where to find me, and I’m still broke. I expect to see several restaurants with wifi here, as there had been in Pokhara, but am shocked to find not a one.
An older man sees me floundering (this is a general theme of my travels), and asks if I need a hotel. I tell him I need an ATM more. He takes me to one, and—finally!!!—I have cash. At this point, I give up on my friend’s reservation and decide that wifi and bed are priority number 1. It takes a few tries, but finally I find a location that has wifi, though I won’t be able to use it until load-shedding (3) ends. I go to the pharmacy in the interim, where I buy antibiotics over the counter. Welcome to India.
The internet still isn’t up by the time I’m back in the hotel, and after trying and failing to use the hotel line, the nice hotel owner lets me use his cell phone to connect with Kris, who has apparently been worried that something horrible has happened to me. He rushes to the hostel, where upon Kris’s arrival, the hotel owner shakes his head grimly as though I have died. When Kris sees me, he makes this face:
Things start to look up once we’ve met up. I enjoy Darjeeling as much as I can for the two days we are there. We have high tea, explore a monastery currently under construction, and visit a temple. I haven’t eaten anything since I left Nepal because swallowing is painful and the meds make me queasy, but my spirits are higher than before. We have an overnight local train ahead of us, and some cool places on the agenda.
Our first stop is Varanasi, the Mecca of the Hindu tradition. It is right on the water by the Ganges River, and lined with colorful stairways called ghats filled with all kinds of shops, smells, and people. It’s overwhelming but incredible. I’m ecstatic when I wake up on the second day there with an actual appetite. We find a bakery that serves traditional German breakfast. We eat bread, and eggs, and juice, and I leave feeling energized for the first time in a week.
It’s mid-day, and the heat is high as we wander up and down the riverfront observing people and trying to dodge livestock moseying through the streets. I’m in the middle of regretting the breakfast sloshing around my stomach when I find myself face to face with one of India’s holiest creatures. The cow is large, horned, and apparently not very happy with me. It stares at me for a moment before ramming into me with its head faster than I can dive behind a motorcycle for protection. It then glances around and proceeds on its merry way, clearly unperturbed by anyone else’s presence. I have just been head butted by a cow. I am too stunned to process this immediately, and we continue walking.
The water front is divided into sections. Each ghat is unique–one is a palace, another a temple, another a school for meditation. Some house boats and others are adorned with art depicting different Hindu gods. Near the end of the line is Manikarnika, also known as the Burning Ghat. This is where bodies are cremated in the Hindu tradition. People make pilgramages here from all over the world to say goodbye to their relatives and bathe in the Ganges’ waters. In other words, this is the Holiest location in India’s Holiest city.
And this, friends, after days of punishing heat, miserable illness, and a minor altercation with a bovine, is when my antibiotic-ridden stomach finally decides to reject the contents of that morning’s breakfast, and I vomit all over the stairs.
I am retching, tucked away in a corner far enough from the public eye to avoid an international, inter-faith incident when a scantily-clad fisherman sits down next to me and awkwardly rubs my back. I firmly but politely shoo him away.
Kris glances at me, and he loses it when we make eye contact. He starts giggling. I look at him and then at the pile of bile I’ve just projected from my body. The last few days have been absurdly difficult. I start giggling too.
Sometimes you just have to laugh.
1. If you’re interested in just how bad my illness was, there is a photo at the end of this post. Be forewarned that it is pretty gross.
2. A bike taxi, like the one seen below.
3. In India and Nepal, power is often a limited resource. The government turns it off for large periods of time during the day. There were times in Nepal when we’d be without electricity for 12 hours or more.
4. The last photo above is the next morning, during a boat tour of the ghats. You can see a bit of Dasaswamedh in the back.
My blog from last week was picked up by Like a Local. If you’re looking for an authentic way to travel, this is a way to do it. There are locals in cities all over the world!
It was July, I had been working for 10 months, and I was itching to move on. I was unhappy and I think I had been taking it out on the wrong people for a long time. I thought I’d been pushed into things I didn’t want. I was working crazy hours. I wasn’t fulfilled.
Then one day, something snapped inside me. It was time to make a decision that was all my own, in what would become a journey of self-accountability. I looked at a friend of mine at lunch after a brief morning of research, and I said, “I think I’m going to go to Nepal.” She looked at me as though I’d just told her I was planning on buying a froyo, and she said, “That’s great! Go for it. Why not?”
And just like that, I made what felt like the first completely independent adult decision of my life. It took me six more months to be financially secure enough to make my next move. I started planning. I moved out of an apartment I loved with a friend I adore, and saved as much as possible. I had long conversations about 401Ks and security and how any decision I made could possibly be sustainable in the long term.
And then I left.
When I got to Nepal, I had a plan. I knew how long I was going to be there, and when I was going to come home.
But the problem with having plans is that things change. Conversations stick with you. Things feel unfinished. Earthquakes strike.
I met a family, two parents and two children, who were living a fascinating life. A business decision had left the breadwinners unable to work for a year, and in the spirit of seizing the opportunity, the family took off the year to travel. Their two children were homeschooled on the road as they visited at least 15 countries. My return ticket was looming, and I was debating whether or not I was going to be returning to the field I was working in. The mother, a career advisor, and I would have thoughtful conversations about being flexible in life during my daily walks around the temple. She was American, her husband was Dutch, their kids were raised in France, and now here they were in Nepal. I explained my conundrum to her, and she listened as I parsed things out.
“The important thing to remember,” she told me, “and please pardon my French, is that you always have your fuck it card. You can go back to what you were doing and see how it feels. But you always have a choice. You have the power to decide something isn’t working. It is always going to be in your hands to make the decision to leave.”
And suddenly I found myself skipping out on a return ticket to explore India with my friend Kris. This decision and all its repercussions, financial and otherwise, were mine and mine alone.
When I got home in July, the plan was to get a job, and I tried. But nothing sounded like it was for me. The right opportunity hadn’t come my way. I still had money saved, and my wanderlust wasn’t feeling satisfied. I didn’t want to force myself into something that was going to make me just as unhappy as I’d been before I left. I could wait things out in LA or blow through the money I had while I lived on my friend’s couch, or I could move on. I stayed calm. I waited for the right move. Then my great-aunt called. My great-uncle had passed. They wanted us to come visit. I’ve been trying to translate my great-grandmother’s memoirs for four years. An omen.(1)
In Spain, I worked in my cousin’s restaurant, and learned to iron, and badly plated desserts. I ate amazing food, and watched my cousins raise their kids. As someone who has always said I didn’t want children, I watched my cousin with hers, still living her life, running her business, and doing things she loved, and decided that maybe it was time to rethink my firm position in one direction. It probably still isn’t for me, but why set lines in stone, when you can draw them in sand? In openness, there is possibility. One of those possibilities is joy. We are not always in control of the circumstances in which we find ourselves, but we always, always, always have control of how we react.
I spent 22 years of my life trying to set boundaries and definitions; I wanted to explain things, and have them be explained to me. I wanted yeses and nos and plans. I wanted definitive ends to conversations, and to know exactly where things stood.
But plans change. Trains get missed, jobs I think I should get don’t always come my way, and people pass away. So I’m learning to keep going. Now I buy one-way tickets, and stopped saying “never” to having kids. I don’t know where the future will take me. I’m living life on a short-term plan. That will probably have to change someday–maybe even someday soon.
But for now, I have some short-term goals I’m feeling pretty good about. I have hundred-year-old memoirs to finish, a train to catch, and some new cities to explore. And I have learned to stop trying to force endings. People ask me what I’m doing, and the answers are a little bit free form. My plans are always changing, and sometimes I actually follow through. I can’t tell you where I’m going to be in three months time.
I do know that I have some income, a backpack, and some stories I want to tell.
People are scared of the (…) because there are a million possibilities that could be laying on the other side. But to me, the ellipses means that stories are still unfolding, conversations haven’t ended, and adventures are waiting to be seized. There’s something being planned on the other side, even if we can’t see it yet. The ellipses is a work in progress, and I think that’s pretty exciting.
1. In the sense of The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
Photo 1: My cousin and her daughter as we carved pumpkins for Jalloween.
Photo 2: An autorickshaw in Agra.
I have been heavy for as long as I can remember. A healthy appetite runs in my family, but I definitely ballooned at an especially astounding rate through my middle school years. When I was in high school, I was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis and I’ve been dealing with it ever since.
I eat healthy-ish and I try to incorporate physical activity into my daily routine, but I have never really been at a weight I feel comfortable with. My metabolism runs on the hypo-side of things, I’m always exhausted and always cold. I didn’t discover any exercise I enjoyed doing until college and the hours I worked after graduating were not conducive to working out.
Feeling like it was time to try something different, I quit my desk job to go pursue my dream: I wanted to travel the world, write, work on my yoga and meditation practices, and learn. Paired with my backpack and a crazy dream (No, I still haven’t read Eat, Pray, Love) I left for Nepal in February 2015.
Now let me get something straight: my time there was precious, amazing, worthwhile, and I wouldn’t change a minute of it. But there was one thing that put me out of my comfort zone more immediately than anything else I experienced while I was there.
I have never been told I was fat more often than during my time in Asia.
People would come up and rub my stomach. The little boy whose parents ran the hostel I stayed in for a week used to pat his belly and tell me, “Miss, you’re so fat!” Around the dinner table, I felt like I was scrutinized for the amount of food I put on my plate, though it was often substantially less than those around me. Later, at the monastery where I spent five months, students who were honestly some of the best kids I’ll ever meet had no qualms asking me, “Miss, why are you so fat?” I remember being approached by the older students whose surprise centered around the fact that I ate out of the small bowls and was still heavy. The school’s abbott mandated that I needed to walk around the school buildings as many as 40 times a day. I felt like my body was under constant scrutiny.
Now, I come from a Cuban family: bluntness is not unusual for me. And I know what I look like. But to be told so often that I was not normal was absolutely humiliating.
Feeling depressed and self-conscious, I turned to a friend of mine who was also living at the monastery. She was a little bit older, just married, and had spent the last year of her life on a traveling honeymoon with her wonderful husband. She was, in essence, living my dream. When I opened up to her, she shared her struggle with similar obstacles. I was shocked. Here she was, confident, happy, accomplished, and she and I bonded over some of our insecurities. I thought she was amazing.
This began a shift in attitude for me. I thought back to that sweet little boy in the hostel. Yes, he was quick to remind me of my size, but we also played cricket and colored, and I helped him with his homework. He even excitedly taught me how to eat with my hands in traditional Nepali style. My students at the monastery taught me prayers, and told me stories, and played jokes, and laughed. They knew I was fat, but it didn’t shape their interactions with me aside from the occasional verbal reminder. My life was moving forward, regardless of the fact that I needed to address the elephant (pardon the pun) in my own self-consciousness.
I didn’t magically get skinny, or stop wanting to have a healthier figure, but I learned something more important about my own body image. After I left the monastery, I took a bus to India by myself. I negotiated tuk-tuks and jeeps, battled outrageous tonsillitis, threw up in a Holy place. I met up with a friend, and he and I traveled thousands of miles across India on local trains. We went toe to toe with people trying to scam us, raced to make trains, got offers to be traded for livestock. We hiked, wandered, explored, and discovered. I had strange, round, amazing experiences full of ups and downs caused by more colorful conflict than I could have dreamt possible. My experiences were about so much more than the shape of my body.
I didn’t let my weight stop me from tasting amazing local cuisine, trying to scale mountains (this one is gonna take some time–I’m still pushing against my own limitations), sleeping outside during a sandstorm, riding a camel, or watching dung beetles roll my poop up into little balls. When I realized that the only person holding me back from anything was myself, the negativity I attached to the fat label dissipated and I had the best time of my life. People didn’t stop saying things, but I stopped caring if they did.
After living outside of the US for 8 months, I met up with a friend in New York who has always been a powerful force in my life. As I explained some of the agonizing I’d done over my image, he told me something I will never forget. “Bodies are the vessel through which we experience life. What a shame to hate yours.”
And he was right. I wouldn’t trade a single experience I’ve had, even if it meant never having to be told I’m fat again. My weight still fluctuates (though it does sit at a healthier point by virtue of getting to walk around all day) and my disease can still make me tired and cranky. People still stare.
But you know what? Let ‘em. Because the view from right here is pretty amazing.
Figuring out which pockets should carry what, what works and what doesn’t, what I can handle, what it can handle–they are all parts of figuring out where I’m going and what I’m doing. It has been my pillow, my closet, and my biggest pain in the ass.
I’m officially busting it back out at the end of next month, as I take off again. On the agenda: DC, Chicago, Toronto, Pokhara, and Bangkok.