Sunday, March 30, 2008

Breaking Through Cultural Barriers (finally!)

My first month in Southeast Asia was spent pretty much in a daze of "what am I doing?" I wondered on probably an hourly basis why I had chosen to come so far from those I love, from my cushy life, from everything familiar. Nothing felt safe, nowhere felt comfortable.

I once read that the reason time feels like it passes so much slower when we go away is because everything around us is new. When everything is unknown, there is so much more to see, hear, smell, touch, grasp, learn. We become like children, taking everything in with curiosity and often a much more open mind than we might normally have at home. Traveling, I suffer from a term I learned yesterday: FOMO, or Fear Of Missing Out. With so much to explore, to experience, there is always more -- a museum you don't have time for, a restaurant you couldn't to, a yoga teacher who was off the week you happened to be in town -- and I tend to focus on what I haven't managed to pack in rather than what I have. I'm working on it...

When I first arrived on Koh Pan Ngan, I felt trapped in a tourist vortex. Of course it didn't help that that week happened to be the Full Moon Party, which truly brings out some nasty specimens, but regardless, what I really wanted was contact with the locals, to find out how the Thais live, eat, sleep, relate to each other. I blamed language barriers, I blamed tourists, I blamed my attitude, I blamed the Thais. But there was no one to blame and nothing to be done; I wasn't able to break through those invisible walls between us.

My desire to eat healthy and the attention I pay to what I put in my body add an extra challenge when I travel. As a result, I usually find one, maybe two restaurants that serve local, healthy food, places I feel I can trust where I then have most of my meals. Though I probably end up missing out on all sorts of culinary adventures, the benefits of frequenting one place regularly offers other benefits. For one, I am able to establish enough of a rapport that I can safely ask for "no dairy, no wheat, no sugar" (etc). Secondly, instead of trying only one or two things on the menu before moving on to the next place, I can instead explore a wider variety of options in that one place.

Three days ago, I discovered yet another upside, a most wonderful, unexpected bonus, one that I wouldn't have dared hope for. I have written about Big Mountain restaurant before. It is the where J, K and I spent many a meal, if you recall, talking, laughing, crying, eating. From the post-yoga breakfast -- brown rice pudding (cooked in fresh coconut milk) -- to the green curry or the magical galangal root soup dinners, I have made my way up and down their menu much like I have made my way up and down the mountain on my little scooter to reach them.

Jim only starts preparing a dish after it's been ordered; everything is made from scratch. What this means in practice is that on busy nights, you can wait an hour for your meal, longer if it's busy. Sometimes, one person will have finished their food before their diner companions receive theirs. Add to that the sixteen-year-old waiters' teenage hormonal 'tude, the fact that they are often "finish" of some of the most popular items on the menu for days at a time, as well as their constantly changing business hours; and you've got one hell of an eccentric way to run a restaurant. I find it mostly charming although the time we arrived to find them all napping in the middle of the floor was a bit strange.
"Close. Open sik o-kok" one of them said to me as if he'd never met me before.

By now, I know to arrive an hour before I get hungry, and they know "no sugar, no honey, no milk." (although last night, I had to explain to Don, one of the sixteen-years olds, that yoghurt is like milk. He blamed me, giggling like a girl at my insanity.)

Jim and Baum are siblings. Baum manages the restaurant. He also likes to make up stories to see how much people will believe. Jim has shared some of her top secret recipes with me; she has let me into her kitchen to see how she and her helpers prepare everything from chilli paste (by hand, with a mortar and pestle) to the amazing rice pudding, to her famous vegan tofu burgers. From time to time, she will send me out a sample of whatever it is she's preparing -- bean patties, pumpkin soup, vegan taro root ice cream. When she has time, which is rare, she will stop by my table and sit down for a chat.

When I returned to Koh Pan Ngan last week after having been away for three weeks, Big Mountain was my first stop. Jim let out a shriek when she saw me and we hugged like old friends.

From the day I came back, I have pretty much fallen into the same routine I had when I was here with J: yoga, breakfast and writing at Big Mountain, followed by a quick dip in the ocean or any errands that need running. If there is time, I'll usually take in another yoga class after which I make my way back to Big Mountain for dinner. Usually I meet people there whom I have gotten to know -- the yoga community is pretty small and most people are extremely friendly and outgoing.

"See you tonight," they say to me at Big Mountain when I settle my breakfast bill.
"See you in morning," is their way of saying good night.

When I came back, I had asked Jim if I could go with her to the market. I was curious to see what she buys and where. But we hadn't mentioned it again, and I wanted to make sure she hadn't forgotten about it.

"When is good for me to come to the market with you?" I asked, trying not to sound pushy.
"I go to Surat Thani (the town on the mainland where she and Baum are from) for few days," she told me, "my family all come together."
"Wow," I said, selfishly dreading her absence and my lack of food. "How long?"
"I go maybe second until six. Maybe five day or four day. Holiday." Her face brightened at the thought of being out of the kitchen for more than the hour or two she usually spends at the market picking up groceries.

The restaurant overlooks the main road by the beach on the Western part of Koh Pan Ngan. It is built high enough up the mountain, however, that the views reach over the road, past the treetops and out into the expanse of the ocean. The roof is made of bamboo, and like most places, it is completely open to the elements: there are no walls, windows or doors other than the one on the small room by the loos that Jim, her husband and their one-year-old son, Pow, share. (of course the loo has a door as well, but the ceiling opens up to the kitchen so there isn't much privacy to be had there regardless.)
"You come with me," Jim said suddenly, "you come to my family."
And in the best accidental imitation of my grandmother I have ever done, I pulled back, put my hands on my heart and responded with a very nervous "NO!"
"I can't." I told her
"Why? You come second to six. We go to beautiful house of my friend, waterfall. You sit, eat with my family."
"I write my book. I can't leave for five days." I was already smacking myself for chickening out.

I started working on my novel around one thousand two hundred and twenty-seven days ago. In all of that time, I have used it as an excuse to get out of many an obligation -- commitments I have made and later regretted, activities I've feared partaking in, acquaintances I can't be bothered to deepen my friendship with. Often, as I see it, the options have been between being able to partake in "life" or "hiding behind my novel" and usually I have either chosen to partake in life and then spent my time feeling guilty about not writing, or I have decided it best to stay home and write, regretting the opportunity I have passed up on. Sometimes it feels like there is no way to win; other times, I love what I'm working on so much that I can't imagine ever wanting to do anything else. On Koh Pan Ngan, on this journey, I am trying to focus on what it is that I truly want, to ask myself what I want to be doing at all times and to do it.

As I have started to ease into my travels and gain more of a sense of humour and perspective, I have also started to realize how rarely I actually do what I want to do, follow my own desires, make decisions based on me rather than everyone else. This deficiency spans from what I order at restaurants ("I should have the steamed salmon and broccoli, but what I'd like to have is the burger and fries") to how often I exercise, to how I spend my evenings.

I've noticed that this is a pattern I create and recreate. Even here, on an island in Thailand island where I knew no one a week ago, I have managed to pack my schedule: there is tea with M, dinner with T, yoga with TB, and then dinner again, possibly with C from Agama yoga, or maybe D from Pyramid yoga ... Even here I find myself reaching a breaking point over-compromising myself, forgetting to make time for me - to write, to take a stroll or a dip in the ocean, to breathe and retreat and do what I came here for... As a result, I almost missed out on the one opportunity I've been craving more than tea or breakfast with another foreign tourist: spending time with a Thai family, in their home, sitting barefoot in their circle on the floor, sharing their food, holding their children, learning their customs.

I can't believe I even hesitated.

On April second, I will be taking the boat to Surat Thani with Jim, Baum, Jim's husband whose name I've forgotten again, and little Pow with whom I already clap and sing -- although I needn't bother trying so hard: like his uncle, Baum, Pow cracks
up any time he catches sight of me. It's kind of nice.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Shabbath Shalom from Cochin

Traveling has made me feel at times that the world is too huge to grasp, that the difference between me and others is vast and insurmountable. At other times, it has done the opposite: my heart has been warmed by similarities and little showers of kindness from local strangers, fellow travelers and new friends.

Standing around the Shabbath table of the KR family in Cochin, India, listening to Mr. KR recite the blessings and sing the songs I have sung all my life on Friday nights with only a slight variation to the familar melodies, I found myself whispering along with him, culling the words from a part of myself I so rarely access these days. He blessed the Sabbath and the wine and then invited me to sit around the table with him and his family. They went back and forth between Malayalam and English in much the same way as the community I come from switches between English, Spanish and French or German, snacking on spicy, fenugreek-infused finger-food.
"Did you hear, Sarah's husband died. The funeral was today."
"Sarah, Sarah, remember, she used to live three doors down from your cousin."
A middle-aged couple, M and A, from Israel, whom I had met at the synagogue, had brought news of old friends and Mr. KR, sitting on my left, was getting louder and more agitated as they told him about this person and that -- who had died, who had married, who had how many grandchildren. Though I couldn't understand most of the conversation, it had the exact timbre of my grandmother and her friends when they get together. Though Mr KR kept apologizing, he needn't have.

I had decided to come to Cochin spontaneously and had hurried to the synagogue upon arrival so as not to miss the Friday night service. When the services had not been held due to a lack of people (only four men -- not enough to have a minyan, an official service -- and three women including myself), I had contented myself with sitting in the women's area, taking in the atmosphere while trying not to succumb to my usual discomfort with religious institutions. I guess that's part of it for me, however -- be it in Antwerp or Cochin, London or New York. The two other women prayed quietly, each speaking the words at her own pace.

Though I was three years old when we left El Salvador and too young to remember the synagogue, sitting in Cochin, I thought this was what it must have been like: simple, with rows of seats facing the Torah scrolls hidden behind the typical deep blue velvet curtain with the ten commandments embroidered on the front. The synagogue in El Salvador had served as a social gathering place as much as a religious institution. This seemed to be the case in Cochin as well. In the men's area, two octogenarians talked animatedly in hushed tones.

I don't know what I expected to find at the synagogue, whether I was looking for comfort, a sprirtual epiphany or somewhere to anchor myself for a moment. As the other women prayed, I opened the book they had handed me and spoke the only words I really remember:
"Shma Israel Adonai Eloheinu ... Baruch Shem Kevod ..."
They were as void of significance as ever, but the familiarity of the words felt like plush pillows against my back after having sat on wooden benches for a while. I didn't continue. Instead, I took in the room, its effect similar to the words I had just mouthed.

Described in the guidebooks with superlative flamboyance and awe, the Pardesi synagogue in Jewtown is simple and as restrained and meticulous as its few members. In the centre of the men's area is a white podium surrounded by banisters on three sides where they supposedly read from the Torah scrolls. Dangling from the ceiling are tens of typically Keralan glass balls that served as lampshades at one time; and I counted no less than twelve chandeliers, each one different, some with candles, some with lightbulbs, none in use. Instead, harsh fluorescent lights coat everything in the room with a flat, white veneer.

The same was true of the KR house. Spacious and filled with photographs of children and grandchildren, the fluorescent lights gave the large room the impersonal feel of a restaurant or a museum.

When I had first approached him, Mr. KR had been extremely abrupt:
"I have no time for you. I'm ging to America. I'm very busy."
But then he had invited me to his home for kiddush (Sabbath blessings) after prayers. I realized when I returned a few days later how many people like me must appear on a daily basis to ask questions and make requests from these people. When I returned to their house two days later to write down a recipe from Mrs KR (writing is not permitted on Shabbath, so I convinced her to give me ten minutes of her time on Sunday morning -- not an easy feat!), there were no less than thirty tourists, waiting in front of the synagogue for a chance to speak to whomever they could about the Jews of Cochin. Mr. KR barrelled through the crowd without paying anyone any heed.
"I'm busy now," he kept saying to no one and everyone, "I have no time for you, I'm going to America."

I felt a rush of secret pride: unlike everyone else, I knew that he was going for Passover and his daughter's wedding, and that they would only be returning at the end of May. My trip to India had been a last-minute decision as I had originally been planning to save it for the final leg of my trip in May -- exactly the dates Mr and Mrs KR would have been away. I have to keep reminding myself of these serendipitous gifts during the difficult moments when I feel lonely, or question what I'm doing and why I'm on this journey -- as I wonder where to go next and fear that I'm not going in the right direction.

When D and I decided to get married, no one in my family mentioned the fact that he isn't Jewish. On the contrary, they have been encouraging and supportive of our relationship and the joy he has brought to my life. They love D, regardless of his cultural and religious background. Interestingly, it is mostly religious Jews -- those who choose to segregate themselves from other cultures, to isolate themselves in their little Jewish micrososms in order, they say, to preserve and protect their Judaism -- who have been the harshest and most judgmental. There have been those who have tried to point out the positive:
"Well at least he looks Jewish"
"[D's last name] -- it sounds Jewish" (D's last name sounds as Jewish as Goldberg sounds Muslim)
A few times, however, people have been quite rude. M and A, the middle-aged Israeli couple who had come back to the KR house with me were visiting Kerala for a couple of weeks. Originally born in Cochin, both had emigrated to Israel in the nineteen-fifties at age three and seven respectively. Though A still speaks Malayalam and has a slight accent in Hebrew, M sounds completely Israeli and only has a basic understanding of the language.

On their last visit to Cochin, they had journeyed to the school where M's father had been a teacher sixty years before. One of the people they had met there had started to cry when M had told him who she was.
"When you left, our luck left with you," the man had told her as he'd pressed her hand strongly in both of his, "since the Jews left, our lives are not the same."
M and A had related the anecdote with pride, but it had made me very uncomfortable; as if the Jews were looked upon not as individuals, but more like some sort of charm, a mascot with a bald head or a golden foot that one could rub for luck.

When A asked about my partner's background, I admitted that D is not Jewish. "But we're getting married in Israel," I told him, as if that would make up for the obvious flaw.
"That's terrible!" he said.
"Why is it terrible?" I didn't want to argue in a stranger's house, but I couldn't acquiesce without mounting a basic defense, "I have met a wonderful man who treats me well, who loves me. How can that be terrible?"
A shrugged obviously as aware as I was of his surroundings. "There's always conversion."
We left it at that. I found out later that A had worked for the Jewish Agency all his life -- an institution set up to bring Jews back to the "Homeland". He and M have five children, all of whom are extremely religious, all of whom have refused, on principle, to leave Israel.

The next night, wanting to learn more about the Cochin Jewish community, I arrived at M and A's hotel (by Shabbath-desecrating taxi) in time to bless the new week. Over the most flavourful, aromatic South Indian pea masala and root vegetable "cutlet", we talked about the Jews of Cochin and their long history. Unlike Mr and Mrs KR, who are light-skinned and almost European looking, A and M look Indian.
"The Jews of India are unique." A explained, "Nothing was wrong with our life here, there were no pogroms, no anti-semitism. We did well, we got along with our neighbours, we had money. But when the State of Israel was declared, we left with little more than the shirts on our backs in order to go support the Jewish State."

The irony of the situation was extremely poignant. For the first time in a month, I had been able to get past an uncomfortable situation and get to know the person. The simple facility of common language had made it so that we could explain our points of view instead of waving the other person away.

For the past month, I have gone from place to place -- Hong Kong, Koh Pan Ngan, Bangkok, Cochin -- enjoying many exchanges with local people but enduring too many of them. My inability to converse, to ask questions, to understand directly from the person in front of me what they are trying to say has been one of my most fundamental challenges. I have wanted, more than anything, to penetrate that simple barrier, to be able to say more than "how much?", "good day" and "thank you".

As a result of this basic shortcoming, whenever any kind of conflict has arisen, the outcome has been quick and severe: a wave of the hand, a disgusted look, a few bitter, incomprehensible words, and that's it, we're done. Sitting across from M and A, I realized that I probably had less in common with these orthodox right-wing uber-Zionists than I would have with so many of the people I have been unable to communicate with in the past few weeks. Like the masseuse on Koh Pan Ngan who giggled and squeezed my hand when I returned for a second treatment, or the Indian yoga teacher who kept commanding me to "Exile" (exhale) and demonstrated the postures rather than talking me through them. But it was these people that I was getting to know, with them that I was pushing past those first impressions rather than moving on.

By the end of the meal, A and M had invited D and I to stay with them:
"Why drive all the way back to Tel Aviv or Haifa from the Dead Sea? No, no, when you go down to plan your wedding, come stay with us."
When M added that she would show me how she cooks typical Indian Jewish food, I couldn't refuse.

The basis of my culture is exactly that: an open house, a welcoming attitude, a human connection. If I ever see Mr and Mrs KR again, they will most probably treat me like a stranger. Nevertheless, for one evening, they opened their home to me, welcomed me in for Shabbath, shared their food and their stories. On a similar note, A and M didn't think twice about asking me to stay in their home even though I'm a "smolanit" (left-winger), a Chilonit (secular, non-practising Jew), and I'm marrying a goy.

Jews come from everywhere. We have customs that vary to different degrees, but our culture is what binds is, makes us all part of the Jewish people, whether we practice or not. For me, it is about a basic humanity, an acceptance and understanding which is the essence of my culture; and that is something that D not only grasps but possesses, by the bucketload -- whether he's circumcised or not, baptised, christened or dunked in cow dung.

A note about the food:
As I write this, sitting on my little 9 quid a night balcony, listening to the sounds of birds, trucks, goats, children and a man who retches about once every twenty minutes, the smells wafting up make it extremely difficult to concentrate. Sweet chillies, mace, turmeric -- the scents are as mesmerizing as the dishes themselves.

The other night, the lady of the guesthouse where I'm staying shared a few of her recipes with me. She also explained basic curry-making secrets like the need to fry masala spices in oil before adding them to food, and how that is best accomplished by using a heavy pot with a round bottom (similar to a wok but without the handle) in order to minimize the amount of oil needed.
"When the oil rises, the spices are cooked and you can add them to the dish" she repeated again and again, "so you don't get an upset stomach."
That night she happened to be going to the supermarket and insisted I come along. As we walked through the spice isle, she pointed out the different ones and how she used them.

Until now, I have been very careful to keep my purchases to a minimum, both for budgetary reasons as well as the need to keep the weight of my backpack down. Needless to say, I have probably added at least five pounds of cumin, black cardamom and various masala mixes to my load and can pretty much guarantee that upon my return, the first Shabbath dinner will be a curry -- either chickpea and vegetable or fish.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Another Day, Another Airport

The rocking of the train, the humming of the plane engines; sometimes I think the traveling is my favorite part - when you have already left but have not yet arrived, when you are still free to comtemplate where you are coming from, where you are going, what you've left behind, where you're heading.

Those few minutes or hours when none of it is real yet or anymore, when only you connect the dots in preparation for what is to come, with memories of what has transpired, or not at all.

At JFK airport in New York, I would go to the same spot every time -- a specific chair in a specific cafe. I have no idea what the place is called, but I'm pretty sure I could navigate my way there blindfolded. When I lived in New York, it was part of my travel ritual: check in, go through security as calmly as possible, head directly to my fabricated oasis amidst the chaos for a cup of overbrewed, poor quality chammomile tea. Somehow my chair was never occupied when I got there. I would order my tea from the same aggravated waittress, sit for as long as I could, watching the world swirl around me -- take off, land, transfer -- and write about nothing, about sitting in that same chair. "Here I am again" I would start.

Here I am again. In another airport, heading for yet another completely new experience. Mother India as they call her. It makes me wonder what they would call Israel: the cousin with problems nobody wants to talk about?

I am flying in to Kochin where I will be staying at an organic farm, learning the art of vegetarian and Ayurvedic cooking, tea growing and other regional customs. That is the only plan I have made so far for the next five weeks as the one thing I've been taught again and again on this trip is that everything is constantly changing -- from my moods to my options, nothing stays the same for long.

For the past 6 days, I have been hiding out in an ivory tower, regrouping behind fortified walls of luxury and massages, practicing yoga, making up for the meals I missed the week before. I did no sightseeing in Bangkok as I will be meeting D here in five weeks and we plan to do all of that then.

What was interesting, was how naturally I found me way on public transportation. I am a city girl after all and navigating a subway system seems ingrained in me, even in places I have never been before. In that way, Hong Kong, Bangkok, London, New York -- as long as the line you're on is the right color, you'll get there eventually.

Besides, after a venture as a passenger in a suicidal tuktuk, a cab ride with a maniacal, pill popping cab driver, and the lines of never-ending traffic, I have to say that in Bangkok, the Sky Train really is the best option by far.

I am tired. I am homesick. And I am ready to move forward, discover what's next as this journey continues to reveal itself. I have to admit that my very foundations have been shaken. There is nothing to hold on to out here, no safe option, nothing familiar to take refuge in. I watch as memories create themselves, knowing what will stick in my mind as events are taking place. It's a strange feeling: to remember in the present, to constantly think "I'll never forget this moment" as it is happening.

There are so many ways to travel, I realize now. As I planned the trip, it was all about what I would see -- the famous sites, the places so beautifully described in the guide books and on countless Internet sites. Now that I have been here for a little while, however, I do not want to explore yet another temple.

I am a nomad at the very core of my being. I don't need to buy the t-shirt and I can virtually guarantee that the mug will break in my bag. I am not interested in bargaining yet another street vendor down. What I seek is more difficult to describe and sometimes I think I could just as well have sought the same things back home -- in fact I probably do.

Because it's not sites but rather experiences that I am after, the moments that will change me, even just a little bit, forever.

A conversation, a song, a piece of food given to me by the person who cooked it, a connection that will teach me something about my self that I may or may not have known deep down. Maybe some of those are hidden in the incense coils of temples or under the flies in the market stalls. Maybe I'll find some in the person seated next to me on the plane; at the check in desk of my next guest house. I don't know what I'm looking for, only that I am -- looking, searching for something. Of course there are glimpses of it, like lightning bolts sending electric shocks up and down my spine, prying my eyes wide open, making me want to sing at the top of my lungs, and dance.

Like I did on Koh Pan Ngan after my first massage a hundred years ago -- or four weeks. As J, K and I descended the stairs onto the beach, a sticky, silky trio, a group of young Thai men started playing what sounded like a sitar, shaking their maracas and singing at a table above us. I knotted my tie-dyed green sarong around my neck and started to dance, skipping lightly down the sand as I whirled around, holding hands with my new friends. We laughed and waved at the guys who sang louder in encouragement. Over the ocean, the sun was slowly setting, colouring the water a silvery shade of blue and making our bodies glow from the oil.

Monday, March 10, 2008

An Emotional Post About An Emotional Week

It was four in the morning. The fat, middle-aged woman sitting next to me was snoring loud enough that the sound hissed over the screeching of the train wheels. She broke wind again and turned over in her chair. The air-con was pouring buckets of freezing, stale air, directly onto me. Everyone around me seemed satisfied with the thin white blankets the train's conductor had provided at the beginning of the journey. I had played every single song I had ever taken solace in on my iPod before the batteries had died a few moments back.

I was exhausted but glad to be traveling North.

Even if I had been in my own bed, I would not have slept that night.

The silent retreat was not due to end for another four days, but I had escaped, and breathing in the outside world felt like the biggest gift I had ever received. The irony lacked humour at four o'clock in the morning. It was repulsive, sticky, like dirt on my skin that I desired, more than anything, to wash off: that a meditation retreat, ostensibly all about how to work with the breath to obtain a certain level of calm had done the opposite. For the past six days, I had felt my heart and lungs gradually shutting down, shriveling up like my fingers when I spend too long in the bath. Sitting on that train, surrounded by sleeping travelers, I reached my head for the ceiling, held my mouth wide open and gasped for the breath I hadn't been able to inhale for six days.

On the second night of the retreat, lying in my cement cell on my cement bed, in the few minutes I had managed to sleep, I had dreamt of a beautiful Thai woman, a stranger whom I recognized as an employee of the retreat. In my dream, the woman kept offering me a trip back to Surat Thani, the town where my boat from Koh Pan Ngan had docked, for two hundred Baht.
"Take it," she kept saying, "is good, only two hundred Baht."
I had already purchased my ticket and I told her so. Still, she would not let up. She repeated with her beautiful smile that I should take it, that the trip was cheap. My insistence that I didn't need it made no difference to her. She said the same thing over and over, as if she couldn't hear what I was saying, or it didn't matter.

I woke up understanding the meaning of my dream perfectly: this was not my place, it was not my trip, not the route I would be taking. They were trying to sell me a ticket for a journey that I didn't want. I was going somewhere else.

A couple of days before, I had shared a ride to the retreat with a Spanish woman and her Irish flatmate. The woman had already been complaining about having to give up smoking for ten days and how much she hated Thai food. More than a little smugly, I had commented to myself that there was no way she would last all ten days. She was weak, dependant on her nicotine and -- I mean, really, how can anyone hate Thai food???

As with everything else that has happened to me in the past month of traveling, my expectations were aboslutely shattered. In fact I was right; that woman did leave after day one. But so did I. On day six.

What is ten days in the space of a lifetime? With a bit of luck, not very much. And yet every day at Suan Mokh felt like seven years. I thought of the Biblical figure of Isaac, working seven years for his beloved Rachel and then ending up with Lea. That was how I felt at the end of every day.

On the second day, as I was tending to my daily assigned chore -- sweeping the leaves around the dining hall (Karate Kid anyone?) -- I watched as a man, his pack on his back, departed the retreat with conviction. I thought about how I would have felt ashamed to be walking out, to fail. I would probably have been staring at the ground, walking as quietly as possible, not starting straight ahead, my gait obvious and loud. But rather than judge him as I had the Spanish woman, my thought was "how courageous." I was surprised. After all, wasn't I here to gain important insight into my self and my meditation practice? Wasn't I searching for perfect health through this breathing practice and perseverance? Was I really that weak?

The first gong sounded at four in the morning every day. Four-thirty meditation was followed by yoga and then more mediation and a lecture by the abbott who spoke little discernable English. The rest of the day was a mixture of sitting meditation, walking meditation, standing meditation and lectures on breathing techniques as well as the philosophies behind them. Lights out was at 9:30, each of us locked in our individual cells, under our mosquito nets, trying to get comfortable on our wooden pillows.

I didn't mind the phyisical hardships -- the "showering" which consisted of dumping freezing cold water over my sarong-wrapped body, the fasting between one in the afternoon and eight in the morning, or even the silence. In fact, I was most thankful for the silence as it had brought with it a peace of mind in a way I had never experienced before -- I didn't need to be speaking or entertaining others. Instead I was free to focus on wherever it was that my thoughts and feelings led me. My inspiration flowed.

Though they request that participants not bring notebooks or journals with them, that people refrain from reading and writing, I had kept my journal which I wrote in constantly -- at first in secret, but pretty soon whenever a new "epiphany" appeared. And there were many. With no spoken words to distract me, the thoughts popped up with a frequency and clarity that would convince anyone interested in self-exploration to shut the hell up for a long, long while.

Truthfully, I loved the silence. I also loved the food -- mostly grown on the premises, the vegetarian curries and fresh salad leaves were some of the freshest, most delicious meals ever. I loved the people I would occasionally smile at, some of whom would smile back, provided they were having a good moment. Even the roller-coaster aspect of the days didn't bother me. Mostly, I loved what I was experiencing in my head, how much I was falling in love with my life, how real the characters of my novel seemed, how much insight and understanding I was gaining.

And yet on day six, I ran. I ran as if there were murderous crowds following me; as if wolves were nipping at my ankles. I ran. Because I didn't want to hear them anymore -- the people who could speak, the ones who did speak, constantly at us, telling me that the self is an illusion, that thoughts are futile, that art is a waste of time, that passion and joy only lead to unhappiness, that the ultimate goal is complete dissociation from everything I consider the best part of being human.

I think the final straw came when one of the laywomen explained to me about karma and how people who are abused have obviously done something to deserve it. I had come to her with questions about the lecture she had given on Loving Kindness and had admitted that it had been difficult for me to send any to my father because of how he had treated me and my brother as children. Without a trace of emotion or compassion, the woman had explained that nothing comes for no reason, that we always deserve what happens in our lives, that I had obviously done something to merit abuse.
"But I was a baby!" I said.
"Still, if your father do bad thing to you, you do bad thing first." she said.
I thought of what I lived through as a child, much of which I have been working to overcome for years, moments that had come rushing back to me often throughout the previous few days of silence. With a huge amount of self-restraint, I moved my chair back as calmly and quietly as I could and thanked her for her explanation.

One of the draws of Suan Mokh is the "British Monk". Everyone I have met who has experienced the retreat has told me that his lectures are unmissable. They've called him fascinating and hilarious. The monk is originally from the UK and the fact that his English is understandable differentiates him from almost everyone else who addressed us while I was there.

A self-professed reformed aesthete, he gave up both his Western name and way of life to become a monk. Every afternoon, carrying a closed black umbrella, he would trudge over to our meditation area in his orange robes and lecture about their philosophy of Buddhism as well as giving instructions on the proper techniques of breath manipulation. In addition to preaching abstention from worldly pleasures, he talked about his love of ale, how much coffee friends from around the world bring him, and how the notion of work never really appealed to him. He also enjoyed denigrating anything connected to thought, art or passion as regularly as possible, and with as much passion as his dispassion would allow him.

I had much the same reaction to these people as I did to the Rabbis who tried to make me into a better Jew: I needed to get as far away from them as possible. Not wanting to make any rash decisions, however, I let the idea of leaving settle for a couple of days. Throughout that time, every few minutes brought a new decision with it: I should stay and skip the lectures, focus on the meditation; I should go, my trip is only three months long; I should stay and finish what I started; I should go, make my way to Laos, take a cooking class. I watched the people around me with new interest. How were they feeling? What was going through their minds? Who was enjoying? Was anyone else looking like they were going to crack?

For the first part of the retreat, I had focused on my own thoughts. The emotional highs and lows I had been experiencing had been too much of a distraction to allow me to pay much attention to anyone else. But looking around me, I realized that by depriving us of sleep, food and stimulation, we were all slowly being turned into zombies. Many kept their gazes firmly on the floor; the smiles exchanged were diminishing by the minute, and the only sounds we heard other than those of the nature around us were the words of people who had probably taken refuge in their practice because they had not been able to find their place in regular society.

The world in Suan Mokh appeared to drain of color. It started to look more and more black and white to me, a charcoal sketch in shades of grey, a place where color is associated with pleasure, that dirty word. Though the grounds are stunning, it had started to feel as if I had stepped into the world that lies between life and death, where silence pervades so as not to disturb the balance. The shift was dramatic. Was I the only one experiencing it?

Outside of the compound, I heard trucks drive by and children scream from the back of their parents' cars; women laughed as they walked by -- I was hearing life and I craved it. It wasn't that I wanted anything fancy or luxurious to offset the basic living conditions at the retreat. What I wanted could not be bought. I wanted to feel alive, to smell great food, to taste it, to see the sites and listen to the chatter of people whom I couldn't understand. I wanted to see colors, for my senses to be awakened by all sorts of unexpected stimuli -- the stimuli I was being told were the origin of human misery.

Maybe the self is an illusion, maybe we are all addicted to external stimulation, maybe our desire for pleasure is what causes our unhappiness. I don't care. If I'm an illusion, I'll take it -- lock me up, make me certifiable. If pleasure and joy and love are my downfall, I'll hurl myself off that bridge without hesitation. If external stimulation, including the creation of art, are an addiction, then I'm guilty.

So I left. Day six brought with it a tailwind and energy that I had been missing until then. I had gotten what I needed and it was time to move on. My eyes opened wider than they had in six years. I smiled my first real, happy smile, packed my belongings and made my way to the road from which I was going to catch a ride to town with my head up and my steps firm.

Twelve hours later, I turned to wash my hands in the train's bathroom and caught sight of myself in the mirror. It was the first time I had seen myself in a week. I had lost weight and my shabby tank top was hanging off my shoulders. But my eyes were bright and I smiled. I felt like I had been given a choice and I had chosen: LIFE.

The first thing I did was call my mother to tell her I love her. And D. My wonderful, magical, bless-him-for-putting-up-with-my-madness future husband.

It's now been two days and I am finally starting to come down off the week that was. Yesterday, I was unable to do much of anything. But I did, for the first time since leaving London, have a glass of wine. I have cried a lot. Like today when I encountered D's first novel in a bookshop. I have laughed out loud walking down the street, and on the train to Bangkok, I spent a good hour singing as people slept around me. I wonder why it takes trips to the other end of the world and silent retreats for me to be grateful. But grateful I am. I am also on the other end of the world.

As I mentioned before, the food at Suan Mokh is outstanding. It is simple, but the ingredients are fresh, which makes all the difference. The day before I left, they served us these exquisite little veggie cakes. When I asked for the recipe, they told me I was too attached to food, that my attachment would bring me misery, that I should let it go. In the end, I think because they realized I was a lost cause as far as theirs was concerned, I managed to get it out of them:

Use fresh soy beans. Make milk out of them as you would any nut or bean*
Steam the soybean pulp leftover from the milk
Once the pulp is steamed, add finely chopped vegetables such as corn, carrots, green beans
Optionally, seaweed can also be added (I love it)
Mix together with salt, pepper, chilli paste and a pinch sugar if desired
Make into balls that you then fry (they use palm or soybean oil)
(Blot off the extra oil by placing the cooked balls between paper towels)

* soak the beans overnight. In the morning, throw away the soak water and then mix 1 part beans to one part water. Strain. In this case, don't throw away the leftover pulp as it is integral to the patties.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Out of Silence and Into Fish Ball Soup

There is so much to say about the silent meditation retreat but I've decided to wait and let myself digest before imparting the buckets of wisdom I encountered, tripped over, sank my teeth into during my six days there.

In the mean time, however, I would like to focus my attention on something much more amazing: fish ball soup.

When I left the retreat, the taxi took me to Chaiya, a small town about twenty minutes away where I was planning to catch the very next train to Bangkok. I arrived at the train station at 11:30 in the morning with two German women from the retreat, one of whom was as ecstatic as I was (although in a much more German way), the other who clearly would have preferred to have stayed behind. No matter, I was too wrapped up in what my own senses were experiencing to pay them much heed and in a bit of culture shock after the days spent in complete silence.

Like any self-respecting Westerner, I made my way directly to the only Internet cafe and plopped myself down to check my email, see how Obama is doing in the polls, and find out who's doing who in Hollywood. Happy for a little time without struggling to make conversation in broken English or attempt my irreparable German, I told the other two they could leave their bags with me. They were anxious to find some food as we passed the time until nine p.m., when our train was due to depart.

A few hours and three unsuccessful Skype attempts to D later, they returned glowing, with bellies full of pork and rice, Thai sweets and chocolate bars. It occurred to me that it was three in the afternoon, a full two hours after we would have finished our second and last meal of the day at the retreat. I thought it might be time to find lunch.

This was going to be my first real adventure into the Thai culinary world as until now, I have stayed within relatively safe boundaries, sticking to English speakers and places that people have recommended as being "healthy."

Thai cuisine is full of chillies, lemongrass, turmeric to name a few of the spices... and sugar. There is sugar in everything. In fact, the sweetness balances out the spice; and many of the spices are used for their strong anti-fungal properties -- a must in this kind of weather. But everything looks and tastes extremely fresh -- as if the plants are picked minutes before appearing on my plate, the pig is slaughtered only after a customer orders it. I wandered around the market examining the stalls closely, knowing I would not spend time here again and wanting to choose the most delicious thing I could find amidst strange-looking creatures and napping stall owners who probably would have been of little help even if they had been sitting upright. The market offered everything from raw meat submerged in big bowls of water surrounded by flies, to transparent plastic bags with greenish bulbs floating in yellow liquid, to dry-looking pastries, live crabs and mysterious parcels in banana leaves.

After a few false starts, I settled on a little shack across from the market where a woman smiled at me as she scooped red goop into baggies -- the Thai really love putting everything possible into little, transparent plastic bags (kind of like zip-locks except without the ziplock part) which they then knot and fasten a rubberband around in such a way that makes it almost impossible for untrained fingers such as mine to pry them open.

I pointed at a bunch of noodles and said "rice"?
"No, no" the woman told me and proceded to explain in perfect Thai what I was pointing at. They looked like straight rice noodles to me and I decided to chance it. Nodding, I pointed back at them and said "soup?"
"Kah, kah," she said, yes yes.
"May Pong Churot" I told her, "no MSG" -- a girl must keep her priorities, after all.
"Ah, ah," her husband, or lover or son nodded vigorously. "May Pong Churot"
I wasn't sure whether that meant there was MSG in the soup or not, but he had pointed at a seat at the far end of the room and I thought the only polite thing to do was go sit down. However there was one more question to be answered:
"Paw" he said.
"Paw! Paw!" The woman pointed into a pot out of which I can only assume there were pork hoofs sticking out.
"NO, NO! NO Paw!" I said with a smile. "Tofu?"
"Aw, tofu" he pointed at an abandoned tray at the far side of his counter, "tofu."
Next to what looked like fried tofu were little round balls that looked slightly more appealing. Now that I think about it, this is possibly because they resembled Matzo balls. Because objectively, they were far from the Claudia Schiffer of the food world. On the contrary: these were small, beige, non-descript balls of who knows what.
I pointed at them, "tofu?"
"Aw, aw, fi-bah, fi-bah" The Thais seem to be able to pronounce every vowel and consonant in their own language but, for some reason, they don't in translation. No matter, we understand each other when we need to. Besides, with my three words asking them to remove ingredients, I really shouldn't talk!

After one more foolish request -- "May Nam Ta'an", no sugar -- which brought about some panic, I waived it away, "no matter, no matter" and returned to my seat to watch them put together my "sou".

The man threw the raw, stiff noodles into a net-like contraption that he dunked in the pot with the hoofs in it -- the pot had two parts to it -- I'm choosing to believe he used the other bit. He stood there for all of fourteen seconds after which he pulled the net and my now cooked noodles out and dumped them into a large soup bowl, to which he added some clear broth, soy beans and the fish balls.

In front of me were a myriad of sauces which a kind gentleman explained were vinegar, sugar, vinegar with sugar, chilli, and vinegar with chilli. I added a bit of red chilli to the broth which had, until then, been made up of shades of beige, and slurped some noodles into my mouth followed by a bit of the hot soup.

As soon as the food hit my lips, my hunger, which I had not really felt until then, resurfaced violently. Luckily the road around me was extremely loud and busy.

For the past six days, I have been eating two meals a day, the first at eight in the morning, the second at half past noon. While I highly recommend the Thai Buddhist monk diet if you want to lose weight, it does little for either expelling or satiety. At the retreat, I ingested some of the freshest, most delicious food I have ever had. It was all grown on the premises and organic which, according to the food blessing I chanted before eating, I was not supposed to enjoy in any way other than to keep me alive so I could "follow the spiritual (way of) life."

Before the retreat started, the coordinators had asked us to store our valuables in their vault so we wouldn't have to worry about any of it getting stolen. Along with my wallet and camera, I had handed in a small bag of homemade granola from Koh Pan Ngan. That bag had appeared in my dreams, in my meditations, in my thoughts at all sorts of random times -- not so much because I was wanting to eat it as much as it had become a symbol of the worst form of what the monks were telling me was the root of my despair: craving, enjoyment, pleasure. That small bag of granola was also the first thing I reached for after leaving; only a couple of bites so I could savour it for longer. I plan to eat the rest of it on the train tonight, in celebration of my cravings, my enjoyment, my freedom.

My soup here in Chaiya may not have been organic or as fresh as what I'd been eating at the retreat, but it was delicious, and the woman who had sat down a few tables away to enjoy her own soup looked over and smiled at my delight. What a change!

It was the fish balls, however, that won me over. They were small, maybe the diameter of a quarter, if that; doughy and chewy while remainnig firm and full of flavor. They were slightly salty with a very unobtrusive yet distinct fish taste. And they balanced out the liquid in the soup and the slippery noodles perfectly. At first I thought there were only three of them and was so excited to discover a hidden fourth under a clump of cheeky parsley that I actually laughed out loud.

When I finished the bowl, I asked for more, "just fish balls" I told them, ignoring the fact that they understood no English, "and maybe a little soup." Somehow, with more gestures, licking of my lips and rubbing of my belly, the said fish balls and broth appeared. The man kept looking at me and laughing. In the back, two women kept repeating "fareng, fareng", or "foreigner, foreigner." I din't care.

In Buddhism heaven and hell are not a place where you end up after you die; they exist in the here and now as a state of mind. This afternoon, for a few moments, I found a little piece of heaven. And it's located in a fish ball.