Category Archives: Memories

So what brings you here?

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Having spent almost two hours watching people from the last row of surprisingly ‘banquet’ chairs in this hot desert, avoiding eye contacts which could get me stuck in conversations with complete strangers, I had no intention whatsoever to answer this question hitting me suddenly from the side.

‘More or less the same reasons which seem to bring everybody else here I guess’ were the few words I uttered minutes before stepping for the first time in my life into a meditation hall, from there right into the noble silence period which would last ten days.

Little did I know at this time that this question would come back to my curious and wondering mind at different times during my Vipassana meditation bootcamp.

When I wasn’t swimming in my own sea of thoughts during lunch time, I watched them, their distracted many-times-tired faces, their thousand-miles-away gazes, wondering what would make these moms leave their children and husbands behind for ten days. And what about these working single and newly married women of many nationalities, dropping mentally and physically out of their worlds, giving away voluntarily their phones, blackberries, i-phones, books, note books i.e. all forms of distraction. This discipline is certainly not for everyone!

At times when I felt blank, frustrated at my inability to feel any sensation on my body during meditation hours, I opened my eyes, looked around and wondered again. What shook these people’s lives so violently and drove them to stick to such a rigorous schedule of meditations with days starting at 4 am and ending at 9 pm, feeling repeatedly the pain of the back and the thighs, sharing rooms and bathrooms with strangers, starving for food for long hours between the two meals a day, constantly watching for rodents and snakes in all places.

Even when I could hear clearly their sighs around me, appearing much like my own deep breaths each time I was exhausted at the thoughts which were emerging, I wondered again. What made them so desperate then so determined to transform their lives, digging deep into their minds, descending deeper day after day into this unknown -not necessarily pleasant but most of the time scary- territory. It’s overwhelming spending time with your skull!

I wondered for a couple of minutes each time but never tried to figure them out. Instead, I calmly understood that their reasons must have been as strong as mine and did not ask. None of us did. Conversations on day 10 revolved around how we knew about the Vipassana meditation, never about what made each one of us go for it. There are times in life when some things are better left untold … and that was one of those times.

Praha – the city of red roofs

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In many books, she is referred to as the ‘City of a Hundred Spires’, ‘Golden City’, ‘Symphony in Stone’, ‘Mother of Cities’ and ‘Paris of the East’. On few online pages, some call her casually the city of red roofs -a name I prefer to use. Any panoramic photograph of Prague one takes from any corner of the city, captures a cluster of its signature red-tiled roofs. 

I am not sure how long exactly it took me to get this shot right with my new Canon EOS 400 back then;  all I remember is that I angered my mother and few other people on the city tour trying to obtain a proper focus of the gloomy horizon. We were there in August 2007 and still managed to experience steady rain and clouds for an entire week.

Skyline of red roofs, cathedral spires and Vltava river - Prague - August 2007

 I took this second photo from the stairs going down to the Lesser Quarter while heading to the castle – I think. I don’t recall we entered a castle but stood outside what looked like a castle for what felt like quite a stretch of time. I don’t pay attention much in tours, I remember in one country I had to cancel and claim a refund when I found out I’m alone on the tour. I made a big scene in order to get my money back, demanding to speak to a senior person, someone who understands psychology, yes I did that!  Finally I got someone who grasped my ‘I cannot take a one-to-one guide focusing all his attention on me FOR A FULL DAY and compromising -in such case crowding- my space’. I tag along with a group, connecting at times, retreating at others into my own thoughts, day dreams, photography, reading, etc. which I do at my own pace, mood and comfort. Hmmm did I just say too much now? 😛 

Back to Prague, the view is breathtaking from up there. What I liked most in addition to viewing and taking photos of the red roofscape was walking down the cobbled streets and admiring the coloured buildings on both sides. We walked much that day, so much that the first thing I did once the tour was over was without much guessing: lunching + local beering + surrendering to my mother and her million and one hmmm adorable comments.

Mekong Delta – the tour guide who could read the future

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An hour and a half away by bus from the hustle and bustle of Ho Chi Minh City, I booked this day trip to My Tho the previous evening after having realized once again how little did I read about this country before boarding my flight to Asia. One of the pluses of traveling alone is that you have more chances of being added to a tour even when you book late. ‘It should be enough to get me a feel of the Mekong’, I thought, ‘until my next visit’.

Originating from the Tibetan Plateau and running through a part of China, Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, the mighty Mekong is one of the largest rivers in the world, so large that it has two tides a day.

The Mekong River - where everything floats: houses, boats, markets, etc.

My Tho lies on the left side of the river and is the first city you reach when heading down to its Delta. Though it was founded by Chinese refugees who fled Taiwan back in the 1680’s, the Chinese population is small today having been forced out by the Vietnamese government in the late 1970’s. This was a history bit.  

The thing with arranged tours is that you have to follow a set program, which was not bad on this trip -diversified and fast enough to eliminate the boredom factor. It included a stroll in the market, a visit to the coconut candy workshop and a bee farm, a sampan ride through mangrove swamps, another boat ride through side canals and finally a stop for a local lunch, all giving a glimpse of the typical Mekong Delta rural life.

The market in My Tho

Pick up point for the sampan ride all the way to where our boat is waiting in the river

Could there exist a fakER smile? ... thinking 'it's your only chance to prove to the world that you did it, c'mon, CHEEEEERS'

Now, I may not be the first to volunteer to carrying a python around my neck. As a matter of fact, not only was I the last, I went so far as to ask for extra time to make up my mind. With my ‘I am thinking about whether I go for it or not’, it seemed I unintentionally managed to baffle the guide, snake handler and around 7 of the group who looked at me as if they never experienced hesitation before!

I may neither be someone who’d give her full attention to the explanation of rice making in the Mekong Delta –regardless whether this area made of Vietnam one of the largest rice exporters in the world, the nation of rice omelette, rice porridge, rice wine, rice noodle soup, you name it.  

But I definitely am the first one to drop it all –bag, money, ID, books, map- and jump in less than a second from the rear end of the bus when the tour guide asks if someone is interested in palm reading on the way back to HCMC. My only concern was: ‘which hand do you need, the left or the right one?’

What he said:

– I already shifted my career path once and will do it one more time before I settle ( true)

– I will earn lots of respect with whatever I will be doing next career wise (crossing fingers)

– I like the art (true)

– I walk in nature when I am looking for answers (very true)

– I look strong to most but am like marshmallows inside (damn true)

– I will get married in my thirties, that’s when I will find love (crossing fingers)

– My finances will always be enough to afford myself a decent life (no millions for me damnit 😦 )

– He refused to answer the children question and did the same later with everyone else (shame I could’ve used some help on this subject which is pretty confusing to me)

– When pushed by the few around me to answer the question of the rich husband, he looked at me and said ‘this is not what makes you happy, you’re looking for a soul mate’

I felt tears forming up so quickly I had to stand up all of a sudden, dismiss them for later, just later and enforce the enthusiasm I had started showing right before that last question -an enthusiasm which as usual gets everyone on board, wherever I am so why would Asia be any different.

The guide was good, so good a guy next to me (read this well ‘A GUY’) was mumbling ‘we need to give him a good tip’. And so we did!

Wanderlust

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Though many know-it-all’s suspect I do it to withdraw from life’s uncertainties and escape irrational emotions, I beg to differ. I thought about it over and over again, because this is what I do –I think. So if I ever paused in the past, reflecting, yet mistakenly appearing like I accepted such an incorrect opinion, I take that ‘idle’ position back and make clear that:

I travel because I love it. Passionnément. I love the sense of confidence travel gives me, the emotional security, the taste of the mysterious and the unconventional, the fulfillment and inspiration which keep me going months afterwards, until my next trip.

I don’t use it to run away; quite the opposite, travel keeps me afloat in my agitated sea of dramas, where every now and then my relationships and plans -of all kinds- grow complicated, confusing, exasperating and dull, where at times I question everything I once wanted and fought for relentlessly. Each time I’m lost, travel helps me detach reasonably from people and things, break free and take on an almost miraculous perspective on life, embracing being lost instead of freaking out.

Pele Mele

Is it a shocker that I long for it when I have the time, opportunity and funds? Travel is the only constant in my life, the only thing which never failed me or my memories. Talking of which, I put together a collage of some photos from places I visited: Florence, Venice, Paris, Versailles, Montmartre, Damascus, Prague, Bahrain, Kuala Lumpur, Malacca and Istanbul (click once and then a second time to see details). Jordan, Bangkok and Pukhet did not make the collection unfortunately but are safely tucked on the shelf over here in pre-digital-era albums. I sadly realized tonight that I lost somewhere between my house/city moves the photos of Amsterdam, Rome, Capri, Naples and Doha … calling for another visit I guess?;)