Sunday, December 20, 2009

vipassana - prelude

Vipassana means to see things as they really are. It is an ancient meditation technique having its roots in the Buddhist traditions. It is a way of self-transformation through self-observation. It focuses on the deep interconnection between mind and body, which can be experienced directly by disciplined attention to the physical sensations that form the life of the body, and that continuously interconnect and condition the life of the mind. It is this observation-based, self-exploratory journey to the common root of mind and body that dissolves mental impurity, resulting in a balanced mind full of love and compassion.

Vipassana is taught at a 10-day residential course and there is a certain discipline one must commit during the course. This includes to abstain from killing, stealing, sexual activity, speaking falsely, and intoxicants. Also, all students must observe Noble Silence from the beginning of the course until the morning of the last full day. Noble Silence means silence of body, speech, and mind. Any form of communication with fellow student, whether by gestures, sign language, written notes, etc., is prohibited.

In addition, no outside communications is allowed before the course ends. The playing of musical instruments, radios, etc. is not permitted. No reading or writing materials should be brought to the course. Students should not distract themselves by taking notes. The restriction on reading and writing is to emphasize the strictly practical nature of this meditation.

I first heard about Vipassana a few years ago and it sounded really intense. So I did not pay much attention and forgot about it really fast. I anyways always had difficulties meditating for even a minute let alone 10 days... However after coming to Ubud, I kept hearing it more and more... Mostly with very positive comments attached to it. I did my own research around it and the more I found about it, the better it sounded. Then one day, I visited the official website and applied for a Vipassana in Thailand during the christmas-new year period. (Special thanks go to my friend Anders, his openness in sharing his experiences was probably among the biggest influences for me to take this step) It turned out that all 4 centers in Thailand were fully booked, however then almost miraculously I found a spot in Java, Indonesia. This happened in early November and since I got accepted I am looking forward for this experience.

Our daily lives do not encourage us to feel. Without further discouragement from the environment, it is anyways difficult to feel and to stand with whatever is going on. Hiding your feelings, pretending nothing's happened and going on like “business as usual” are more socially accepted than saying “hey, that hurt like hell, so I just need to take time to heal myself”. We don't want to appear vulnerable, we don't want to show our weaknesses, frustrations or anger. Slowly our “human” side gets to be buried under a lot of debris. They never disappear by themselves, they are stored somewhere and keep piling up. Waiting for the opportunity to be expressed....We just lose contact with them and forget they exist. Once in a while, we may see the tip of the iceberg

There's a lot that can distract us from feeling. Keeping busy is a perfect way to keep out focus outside and pretend that our insides also comply with it. Spending a lot of time on computer games, drinking or have any hobby that we give an obsessive amount of time and energy... Then of course is over-working. What is a more socially acceptable way of ignoring our own feelings and our significant ones than staying 12 hours a day in the office? Anything that keeps our attention on the outside, be it a computer screeen, movies, excessive eating, having a very busy social schedule to avoid taking a moment to focus inside to see what's going on there. It is painful.

We don't need to have major dramas or childhood traumas for that pain. Facing the very simple fact that we ignored ourselves all this time and suppressed our feelings is painful. To observe what's going on, to hear what we have to say, what we really want, to see ourselves for who we really are... Sometimes even recognizing our strengths, out talents is a challenge. Because we see what we are capable of, but simply do nothing about it.

During the Vipassana, I will sit for 10 hours a day just focusing on the breath. Observing how the breath comes in and goes out is a gateway to stepping into deeper emotions; the true self. And there is no escape, no TV to numb the brain, no computer to distract the attention, no music to sway the feelings away, no talking to tune into how others' feel. Knowing that my mind is quite skilled in distracting me in whatever ways possible, I know this will not be easy. There will be a lot that I will see and feel for the first time; for what they really are. And there won't be anything to distract me this time. Hell, there's not even yoga so I can only focus on how my poor hamstrings are hurting...

6am Monday morning, I will be taking the bus to Bogor and arriving there 27 hours later if there are no delays (I was told that the roads flood a lot during the rainy season, so even a 10-hour delay would not be unheard of). Then Tuesday afternoon, I will check-in to the ashram and stay with myself until 2nd January morning. Yeah, I kind of like myself, but don't know if the love between us is strong enough to keep us together for 11 days :)

Vipassana looks scary to me in many ways, but what feels better than being scared of something and doing it anyway? The journey may be rough but I know the end result will be only good for me.

Stay tuned for the post-Vipassana observations :) 
Happy new year everyone

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

yoga break, or break from yoga

Last week, the Yoga Barn and the Little K had been closed for 4 days for renovations. The entire Ubud seems to be preparing for the Christmas holiday crowd; cafes, guest houses, spas are in a hurried renovation/repair effort nowadays. Bricks and sand are laid alongside the roads, there's a constant noise of hammering, cutting, unloading, … If you can somehow disregard the high manual, labor-intensive and low tech nature of the construction work, unfortunately Ubud very much resembles Dubai nowadays.

However my problem was beyond the construction disturbance. This renovation meant that there would be no yoga classes for 4 days... First I thought I would take off to some island for the duration, but none of the places I wanted to visit would be sufficiently covered within that time. Just before I was about to turn this into a major drama, a very innovative idea came to mind; why don't I stay in Ubud and explore the town like a tourist? There were a few workshops that I wanted to attend but their schedules crashed with yoga, or wanted to walk around aimlessly in the afternoon hours, sit in a cafe without trying to rush to the next class after 45 minutes. I would still do a home practice in the mornings, but the rest of the day would be totally empty.

First on the list was Threads of Life, a non-profit organization dedicated to preserve the disappearing batik and textile weaving methods of Indonesia. Tuesday mornings, they offer an introductory course to the Indonesian textiles. Most of my friends who visited Flores was raving out about the textiles there so I wanted to get some insight into the patterns and techniques.

On the day of the course, I headed out well in advance with my camera and started shooting photos as soon as I entered. The venue was smaller than I expected and by the time I finished my photos, which was 20 minutes after the announced starting time of the workshop, I was still the only one waiting. The rest of the participants who registered just didn't show up. They asked me if I would like to have an individual workshop but the idea didn't really appeal so I said I may join to one of the future sessions. So much for jumping into other activities when there's no yoga... I spent the rest of the day just walking around, exploring some streets However the combination of the heat and the humidity did not help my newly-discovered enthusiasm for exploration; with sweat dripping off my face I ended up back in my room for a long afternoon nap.

The next day was no different. Starting energetically to walk around and soon enough ending up in my room exhausted by the heat. Either being the wandering tourist wasn't in my blood or I chose the very wrong season to do it, don't know. However the next day, I had a tour scheduled with my neighbors and a friend. Most organized tours from Ubud to southern parts of Bali require at least two people to book at the same time. I wanted to do a sunset tour for Uluwatu (more info here). for a very long time, and just when I found one person to join me, my new neighbors were also interested. So instead of going with an agency tour, we customized our own tour with a driver and a car with a much lower cost per person.

The early parts of the tour weren't really fun, we visited some villages near Ubud that were famous for paintings and silver work. One of the girls was about to return home so she was in the mood for Christmas shopping so we spent some time in the galleries, looking at “art” and possibly purchasing some.

I read in one of the guidebooks that Balinese did not have a word for art in the language; painting, batik, wood carving and the like was something they did everyday as a part of their life, not as some conceptual activity. However as Western people came and started to show an increased interest, art became more important in the society. Now it definitely has a commercial importance too. The first art gallery we visited in Peliatan was huge. It was made to resemble a Balinese home, but had more than 15 rooms, none smaller than 30 m2 and full of paintings of all sorts. There were oil paintings of rice fields, next to very abstract paintings, all same style but in different colors; made to fit the mood of your living room whether it was earth tones or bright red. The guides were all traditionally dressed, fluent in at least 3-4 languages and of course highly motivated to sell. The place felt more like a conveyor-belt production site than an art gallery so I managed to escape the guide tailing me and sat in the outside garden. The silver galleries in Celuk were no different; outrageously expensive and surprisingly lacking creativity in their designs. I really what made bus-loads of tourists come to these places to buy things that are already available in their home countries with possibly lower prices?

When we finally arrived to Kuta for some beach time around noon, I was relieved. After spending 3 hours in good old Kuta, we headed out to Dreamland beach. Dreamland is a myth among advanced surfers and the view is supposed to the amazing. However it seemed to have a private owner now and we needed to pass through a big luxury golf-course and residence construction and pay to enter the beach. The waves were strong, almost too strong for swimming and the cliffs surrounding the bay looked impressive. The beach itself was busy, mostly with colorful stands of sarongs and t shirts but the good news was that hawkers didn't go around harassing tourists to buy stuff. Yet, Dreamland doesn't appear to hold its old fame nowadays. 

Close to sunset, we headed out to Uluwatu. Due to our miscalculation of the distance, we arrived just at sunset. By the time we got tickets, put on sarongs to enter the temple and found our way inside the temple the sun was already down. The light is still amazing, the view of the temple high on the cliffs is impressive but I missed the sunset. I try to take some quick shots while struggling to keep the monkeys away. They are notoriously interested in gadgets, sunglasses and of course food.

In photographic terms, that wasn't my most lucky day and adjusting to “idle time” mode wasn't easy. Still it was fun to be doing something different. Had it not been for this involuntary break, it might have taken me several more weeks to see Uluwatu.

Sunday, December 13, 2009


Last week, the owner of my homestay told me that they will be holding a temple ceremony on Tuesday and invited me to join them. It was big! Balinese are generally very open and friendly towards foreigners but being invited to a family-ceremony definitely made me feel a little bit more as a part. I lived in Dubai 3.5 years and did not have a single local friend throughout this time. My closest encounter with an Emirati was when the branch manager of HSBC invited me to his office for a major screw-up with my check book. We shook hands and had a polite social conversation for maybe 3 minutes. It gave me such a thrill though as it happened sometime after already spending 18 months in Dubai without getting to know a single Emirati, let alone touching one. No neighbors, no colleagues, no random encounter... I know it sounds exaggerated but it's unfortunately true.

So two months into my stay in Bali, I already have several Indonesian friends. My Bahasa Indonesian is non-existent beyond good morning and thank-you (which is such a shame!) and I get to be invited to an Odalan (temple ceremony) which is a key event for Indonesian families.

In order to join a temple ceremony, the women need to wear a complete Balinese dress, which consists of Kebaya, Sarong and a Kamen. As always, I left the dress-hunting to the last minute and ended up paying the tourist prices for my outfit. I was amazed though that the tailor managed to sew my Kebaya in less than 6 hours and it turned out to be exactly as I wanted it.

Two days prior to the actual ceremony day, the excitement started to kick in. The women were busy preparing food and the offerings; there were a lot of new faces in the garden probably neighbors or relatives living elsewhere coming to help for preparations. Men would be sitting by the porch and talking until the very late hours of the night. I was offered my first “ceremony food” on Sunday while I was heading out for yoga, I kindly asked to be forgiven as I couldn't eat before yoga, but on my way back, I made sure to pick up a plate and join in with some steamed rice and tofu. The tofu was wrapped in a banana leaf, then cooked with some spices and it turned out to be the most yummy tofu I ever had. The plate is simply a wide-woven bamboo basket and it is lined up with a banana leaf to avoid any spills. Once you're done eating, you just throw away the banana leaf and end up with a clean “plate” ready to be used again without any washing. Brilliant idea! Then the idea is to hold the plate with your left hand and eat with the right – without using any cutlery of course. I practiced for the first time with that rice-tofu plate and it felt ok. (This is a moment that I'm glad mom isn't fluent enough in English to read this blog as she would probably disown me for dipping my fingers into my food!)

On the day, the Odalan started already at 7:30am. From my room I heard the constant sound of the bell that is being rung by the Pemangku (holy priest). With the help of my host, I managed to wrap my sarong correctly and headed to the temple. Balinese homes are generally spread over a big garden, with separate buildings for each family, the kitchen, rice storage area, pit toilet, and a temple area. If the family is big, there can be more than 10 buildings in the compound. I'm using the word “building” in its loosest meaning as it can sometimes be simple a bamboo hut, an elevated wooden storage area or a brick room big enough to fit a family of six... In my homestay, the temple area is big and it's right by the entrance of the compound. It's generally locked and I've walked through it only once. For the ceremony however, it was elaborately and beautifully decorated, colorful and full of multiple, giant offerings. When I walked in, there were already 5-6 women sitting. I joined them and for over 30 minutes, we just watch the holy priest pray. Then all the women got up, pick up different things into their hands. Some had big trays with offerings, some had colorfully woven baskets; but the common elements were some water-container (a bowl with some water and a flower, a used plastic soy-sauce bottle, a young coconut, etc) and an incense stick. I also got up confidently and stood at the back of the queue, which by then already had 10 women. With an amused look on her face, my host handed me an incense and a brown bottle filled up with some liquid. Not knowing what we will do with them, I felt like baby swan trying to fit in with the duck family. First we walk around the temple. The women of the immediate family sing as we visit each temple structure. We all hold the water-containers in our right hand and either squirt some water from the bottle, or sprinkle from a bowl using a frangipani flower. Of course the bowl-frangipani combination looks much more elegant and ceremony-like compared to a brown plastic bottle, but I guess that's more suitable for rookies. I must have mentioned in the past, according to the Balinese tradition the water is believed to make things complete or perfect. Once we are done with all structures in the temple, then we walk out and do the same thing for all buildings in the compound including my room! Interestingly, we do not follow a line but do more like a zig-zag route. Our final stop is the entrance of the compound from the street. Then the women who have been carrying the trays and baskets drop the contents by the gate, for a really big offering. Then we go back into the temple grounds.

I notice that although it is highly structured, the ceremony is very informal. Women talk among themselves while the holy priest prays, the kids run around, playing hide and seek in the temple and visiting neighbors use this more as an opportunity to catch up with eachother. It is a social gathering. It seems that everyone does his/her part, whether it is decorating the temple, giving offerings, chanting, but once it is finished do not feel the need to cling onto the ceremony and make it a serious, solemn faced thing where you would be turned into a stone if you moved an inch. I was prepared to sit still, cross-legged for 2 hours, so this newly discovered sense of freedom during a religious ceremony made me feel good.

After another 30 minutes or so during which the two eldest women of the family performed some offering rituals by the holy priest, the crowd in the temple got bigger, and men also joined the sitting circle this time. The family makes One of my closer friends from the family invited me to sit with him in the “inner” circle, so that I can join the praying. The inner circle was around 10 people, mostly the immediate family, each two adjacent people sharing an offering of different flowers and an incense. The priest continued to pray from above the pedestal, while we held our hands above our heads, palms facing forward. My friend Ketut prompted me what to do when necessary, great! Then 5 women of the family formed a line in front of us and each one poured a little bit of holy water to our hands from a silver kettle, which were cupped near our laps. Each woman poured water 5 times, we drank the first 3 pours (well half of it spilled on my lap before I could manage to take my hands to my mouth!) and the last 2 pours were meant to be rubbed onto our heads. So after repeating this ritual 5 times, both my sarong and my head was soaking wet. Then we held our hands over the burning incense and rubbed hands on our faces, followed by a brief silent, individual praying time. Then Ketut told me that the ceremony is over for us The priest would leave in a few minutes but other families will continue to come into the temple grounds until evening to their own praying and offerings. Now, it was eating time for us! Feeling a little more confident with my hand-eating skills this time, I dig into rice and stewed jackfruit. Over lunch, Ketut explained to me that each family holds a temple ceremony every 210 days, which is one Balinese year. It is meant to offer protection and blessing. But my family recently built a rice storage area, so the ceremony is also meant to celebrate it and to offer protection. For that, they sacrificed a duck the day before and smoked it for a day and served to the guests.

The night before the ceremony, I had a decision to make; whether to go there with my camera and be the fly on the wall or just be a part of the ceremony. Fly on the wall would get amazing photos at each step of the ceremony from the best angle. It wouldn't be anything like trying to get sneaky photos from behind the closed doors of public temples. This was a rare opportunity. Yet I wanted to be there, be a part and feel like a part too. It wasn't an easy decision, what if I regretted not taking photos later on? But eventually it felt right and it still does. So I took the camera from my room only after the ceremony and the lunch was over and the area was swept clean. The photos probably don't really reflect the joy and excitement of the ceremony but those are the feelings that I captured in me.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

monkey forest & surfing competition

When I first came to Bali about two months ago, I was unable to shoot photos. I was dragging my camera around and clicking randomly, but it didn't feel like I was really taking photos. The resulting pictures were not created by me. They were not composed well, they did not tell a story. More importantly they lacked soul. I felt my photos could easily be traded by photos taken by the point and shoot camera of your average eager tourist. I felt really bad but I just couldn't do it, something was missing. Looking back, I see that “inability” was a very direct reflection of losing my photo partner. We were good partners, supporting, complementing and when necessary criticizing each other's work. The breakup of that partnership impacted me and my work much deeper than I realized at that time, so that I became photographically-paralyzed.

I was however still pissed at the fact that I couldn't shoot so I dropped my camera completely, letting the heavy bag collect dust in the depths of a cabinet in my room for a very long period. One day I had enough, apparently a passive wait for a comeback wasn't the solution. I packed 3 lenses and a polarizer and aimed for the Monkey Forest (more info here) . I've been there once before and wanted to challenge myself with harsh patches of sunlight and very intense shadow areas under the trees. (Probably due to our proximity to the Equator line, the sunlight remains very direct for most of the day, it's very difficult to avoid overexposure or blotches of reflections with or without a polarizer) This time, finally I felt at ease with my camera, I walked around shooting photos with a very familiar “yes, I've done that before and it felt good” feeling. It was like a curse broken, the paralysis gone, me and the camera reuniting... Everyone would have their own views on what a good photo is, but I was happy with what I shoot. Moreover I enjoyed that feeling of contentment.

So while I walked around shooting photos in the Monkey forest, a Balienese guy approached me and started talking about lenses and the typical Canon vs Nikon chitchat. He turned out to be a pro photog living near Seminyak. He looked at what I've shot so far and said that he really liked them. Then he invited me to join him on a wedding photo shoot on 12th of December if I still happen to be around the island. Would I ever miss that? Not that I am very keen on shooting couples sheepishly smiling at each other under strong artifical light but the invitation and the way it came was very flattering. I noted down his name, number, the date of 12th December and kept shooting around with even a bigger smile on my face.

What is a bigger sign of “what you give is what you receive?” There I am confident for the fist time in weeks that I can shoot good photos again and less than an hour later a pro comes and says he wants to shoot with me.

Next day in the Yoga barn one of the instructors asked me “hey how are you?” casually and I blurt out the whole thing as thunderstorm. She looked at me as if was manic and mumbled “wow, thanks so much for sharing your positive energy with me”. I definitely admire how yoga instructors always have something constructive to say regardless of how absurd the situation is :)

A few weeks after that, I woke up to the beep of an sms at 6am in the morning. It was from Ino, my photog friend, informing me that there will be a surfing competition on the Kuta beach that night and there would also be a photography contest for the best shoot. My mind starts racing, the event is sometime in the evening, which means the shuttles will not be an option and I need to take a taxi both ways. It will cost me a small fortune and I don't even know where, when and how yet at the same time I don't want to miss the opportunity. I told Ino that I will somehow come, and then started a mean negotiation over text messages with the taxi drivers. It took about 4 hours, 3 different drivers and countless text messages but I finally got a price I can afford. Meanwhile I also managed to squeeze in 3 different yoga classes to that hectic day so feeling super flexible, ecstatic and victorious, I head out to Kuta at 4:30pm with all my camera equipment.

The beach was livelier than usual, with a lot of preparations for the competition. Somehow, I was under the impression that it was meant to be a sunset event, but upon registration for the photo contest I learn that the surfing competition is a celebration of the full moon. Damn, I rented the taxi for sunset hours only! I managed to negotiate with the driver for an additional hour and while waiting for the event to start, I shot some photos of the famous Kuta sunset.

I've been to Kuta many times before, but never during the sunset hours. Partially because the latest shuttle to Ubud leaves at 4:30 and partially because Kuta turns into one horrible, loud, drunk bar scene in the evenings. 
Like everything else in Bali, the competition started with a blessing ceremony.

After it got dark and the full moon rose in the sky, the competition kicked off. By that time, the beach was really crowded by surfers, There were different categories, male/female surf teachers followed by male/female surfers in groups of approximately 10. The photo competition was also going full on; although the best photo will be judged by the organizers days later, there was an unspoken “who has the best and the biggest equipment” comparison going on among most of us who were wearing a contestant badge. All I know is that I've never seen so many Canon L series (official site here) super telephoto lenses in one place before. At the verge of jealousy, I tried to find a good spot where I can hopefully compensate for the lack of such gigantic lenses.

Initially, the waves were not good enough for surfing and the event was at the verge of being boring. Then the sea started rising and the unexpected high waves soaked most of the audience. I got wet all the way until my waist but managed to lift my camera above my head to avoid the salt water spray. As disappointing as it was, I can say that splash was the highlight of the event, during the 1 hour I watched and tried to photograph the surfing; things were not just as exciting as I expected.


Photographically, it was a challenge too, despite the full moon, it was a dark night and the organizers used strong spotlights on surfers whenever they caught a wave. So the sudden contrast between dark and spotlight bright made the motion shoots a bit challenging for me (especially because I always shoot in manual mode, as opposed to most other photogs who prefer aperture-priority) Still it was a new experience and a new photography challenge for me, I was glad to be invited.

Just as I was leaving, Ino introduced me to the editor of some big magazine based in Kuta. We agreed that if any photo works come up in Ubud, he'll forward these to me. Highly unlikely though; when I got back to Ubud I looked at his business card in detail only to see that the theme of his magazine is surf :)

Saturday, December 05, 2009

nusa lembongan - part 2

Having explored a big and beautiful part of the island the day before, I felt like taking a more laid-back day. According to the map, the north tip of the island was covered with Mangrove forests. Besides the fact that they grow in the sea, I had no idea what Mangroves were. Someone told me that they were smelly and that was all I knew. With the experience of the heat and the direct sunlight from the previous day, I took off much earlier. South part of the island was mostly about nice beaches and luxurious resorts surrounding them. The west coast, where I stayed, had the port and most of the budget, backpacker accommodation. Towards the north however, it was all local fishing and seaweed villages. One side of the road is the sea, with a clear panorama of Bali and the other side is lined with trees. The road is very quiet, which is partially because it is very early and partially because it is another festive day and most locals are home preparing for the temple ceremonies.

15 minutes into the walking, I started seeing the mangroves in the sea and a little further up the mangroves got thicker. Right where the road ends, at the northern tip of the island there's a little cafe by the sea which was just opening up. I took a tea break there, enjoying the view and the silence. This was “seaside” type of silence; there's the occasional sound like a cat licking herself which is the small waves hitting the coast. All other sounds seemed to be absorbed by the ocean...

I take a different road back, which extends from the northern tip to the east coast of the island but this walk takes much shorter than I expected, so I am back in less than 2 hours. I took my fruit breakfast in the hotel by the ocean. My initial idea was to return today with the 3pm boat, however I wanted to have one more night of the fantastic sunset over the ocean so I decided to leave the next morning, which gives me an entire free afternoon. 

I headed for one of the posh hotels up in the hills towards the coconut beach and spent the day in the pool, which had an amazing view of the ocean and the port area. 

For the sunset, I went back to my hotel, which I think has one of the best sunset views in the entire island.

I hoped I had another day in the island, so that I could walk over to the Nusa Ceningan Island. Lembongan and Ceningan islands are connected via a foot bridge but I was told the bridge is about 90 minutes steep walk which I didn't have time for. Ceningan island is actually desolate and it's mostly the surfers going there since the waves are better.

The next morning, as we embark on the boat for the way back, I took my camera out to shoot some of the beaches from the sea. Noticing the camera, the passenger in front of me started a conversation about photography and travel in general. He's the owner of one of the posh hotels in the hills. He complimented about the beauty of Istanbul, while I try to convince him about the beauties of Bali. This is a very typical exchange among travelers who had been to the home countries of each other... I tell him that I was in Bali already for 2 months with a completely open return date and return location. At one point he looked at me and said “Wow, you must be the happiest woman on earth, traveling alone and doing what you like”. His comment had such an impact, probably much more than he intended and I replied “Yeah, I guess I am”. It was a brief encounter, but strong enough to put a smile on my face the entire day, really feeling
After all, do I need anything else to be happier?

My yoga learning for the day: Different parts of the body tend to mirror each other; tension in the jaw intensifies when tension in the lower back increases, or tension in the hips can be related to the pain in the shoulders/neck. This is more noticeable with the lower body parts; ankles, knees and outer hips are closely linked and when one part is injured, the other takes on more load to compensate for the reduced range of motion in the other, possibly increasing tension in the long run.

When there is tightness in the jaw-neck-shoulder area, it is helpful to focus on stretching the lower back with forward bends and the hips by either happy baby, half pigeon or your favorite hip-opener (Yeah, I'm aware that “favorite hip opener” is an oxymoron). It may not be the only solution, but may accelerate the tension release.

Monday, November 30, 2009

nusa lembongan - part 1

About three weeks ago, I decided to go to Nusa Lembongan, which is a small island just 30 minutes off Bali. The only calendar that binds me nowadays is the class schedule of Yoga Barn. I tried to find two days that I can miss the classes without feeling guilty. I can usually manage to miss a day and go for beach but two consecutive days was tricky for my current level of yoga obsession. I picked the day, decided on the boat, informed my homestay that I will check-out for 2 days and informed all my friends that I will go. That morning I woke up early, felt super-lazy for a boat trip but very energized for a yin yoga class hence decided to postpone my travel and head out for some stretching.

After all, isn't that the beauty of the independent traveling? Just as I may wake up one morning and decide it's time to go somewhere else, I may also open my eyes an decide I would like to see and breathe more of this place.

The week after I had another lousy attempt, but knowing it was half-hearted I didn't even bother to make any arrangements. But this week I felt it was finally the time so packed my stuff in a tiny backpack and headed out to the shuttle that would take me to Sanur, where boats to Nusa Lembongan depart. A friend from Yoga Barn was in the same shuttle, she was heading out to Sanur for a day on the beach. I told her very enthusiastically about how all my previous attempts to go out of Bali have failed but now I was fully back in my traveler spirit and hitting the road. She looked at me in a strange way and said “aaand you think going to Lembongan is actually going out of Bali?” It was more a statement than a question and I couldn't really respond. There are three Nusa islands (Lembongan, Ceningan and Peninda) and all are heavily dependent on Bali for their food, electricity and internet. The distance is very short and the culture and pretty much the same. Oh well, great journeys start with small steps :)

I knew not to expect much from Sanur but when we arrived there we saw nothing but a big bunch of bored tourists, waiting for the next shuttle to go somewhere else. There was a sign that said “fast boat 50 meters” So I scanned the entire coast for something like a boat terminal, a dock or anything in those lines but it was uninterrupted sandy beach as long as I can see. I found a ticket agent and asked where's the terminal and he vaguely nodded towards the beach and said “here”. I was confused... From what I learned, there are three options to go to Nusa; a public boat which offers the thrill of traveling with chickens and bags of rice. You may also occasionally get some ocean spray on a wavy day as it is not covered. The Perama boat is also open-deck but is supposedly more stable and travels marginally faster. The best option was the speed boat; it took only 30 minutes and it was covered and had a reliable service. I didn't even need to consider the first two options as I couldn't risk my camera getting wet with a splash of ocean despite the speed boat ticket costing more than 3 times the public boat. I also somehow assumed that it would have a substantial size to be stable at high speeds. There was nothing on the coast where a boat would be able to approach. Sometime later, I saw a boat coming which answered my questions. The boat comes as close as it can to the coast and then the passengers would take off their shoes, roll of their pants and land in the water, which was somewhere between knee to thigh deep. My camera would be dry but not me – good enough. (I used to constantly complain that the sea transportation between some of the Greek islands was not good, I made a mental note never to do that again and kept waiting for my boat.)

Finally the boat arrived, it was of course much smaller than what I expected. A small, noisy motorboat with a capacity of maybe 15 passengers or so. I wondered if this was the most comfortable option, how the public boat would be... All luggage placed all passengers boarded and we headed for the island. 30 minutes later we were in Nusa Lembongan. Again we took off our slippers, made sure our bags were high up in our backs not to touch water and walked to the coast. We were immediately surrounded by locals asking “accommodation, accommodation”. One of them approached me and said “do you have a place to stay” and I told him that I don't. He pointed out to a very picturesque hill, with beautiful houses overlooking the port and said “I have a place there, 500,000 rupiah per night” I told him my budget was somewhere around 80,000 and he immediately lost interest in me and moved on to someone else. One of the staff from the boat said I should walk towards the north coast to find cheap accommodation. I took his advice and started walking. I asked two places; one was very nice and within my range but fully occupied, the other was ridiculously more expensive but still fully occupied. I was yet at the early phases of my search to lose hope so kept walking. A man on a motorbike approached me and said he knows 2 cheap places farther up and he can show them to me. I know that I have a princess attitude when it comes to transportation, but when it comes to accommodation, my standards are quite low. Yet both places he showed me were un-sleepable. After one hour of partially walking and partially being driven around on the back of a motorbike, I finally found a place right by the ocean and with a nice garden. Slightly above what I expected to pay but at least I would not worry about the rusted fan, which is probably left behind by the Japanese troops returning home after WWII falling over my head in the middle of the night.

I spent the rest of the afternoon by the beach, watching boats pass by, surfers trying to catch a wave and admiring the strong silhouette of Mount Agung in Bali. It felt somehow good to be so close to Bali, still be able to see it.

As in most volcanic islands, the sunset in Nusa Lembongan was amazing. Most people come to beach to see the sunset, either shooting photos, swimming or watching it over a glass of wine. I saw three sunsets in this islands and all were uniquely beautiful.

Lembongan is a very small island and does not have passenger vehicles. There are a few pickups used for carrying heavy stuff to the inner parts of the island. Some pickups have benches installed in the back and used for transporting surfers and their boards between beaches but they don't come into the village centers. The main mode of transport is either by small boats along the coastal line or by motorbikes. Anyway the island is so small, I was told that one can walk around it in a day. While having my evening tea by the ocean, I decided that I wanted to explore the island on foot the next day. After many years in Istanbul and the last 3.5 years in Dubai, every opportunity to use my feet to reach places feels great for me.

The next morning I woke up just a little before 7, which was much later than what I planned. The sun is already up, so no sunrise photos today. Still, I managed to catch a guy who was giving his rooster a morning bath. I learned that the next day was a big festival and some rooster fights would also be held to celebrate. So I think he was trying to give his rooster some sea relaxation on the day before.

I had my fruit breakfast by the ocean, then packed my camera, a banana and a sarong and hit the road. Today's route was exploring the beaches, which are mostly located on the south end of the island. I only had a tiny map that I took from the ticket agent. It is more than enough as there is only one paved road running through the island so one cannot really get lost here.

My first target was the Mushroom beach but on the way I saw some roads that are not marked on the map and I followed them. It was a steep uphill path. It was around 9am but the sun was already too direct and heat was getting intense. The first road I follow takes me to a spot with this beautiful view of the island

Lembongan's main source of income is seaweed farming, and the intense smell is everywhere on the island because once the seaweed is collected, it is laid under the sunlight by the roads for drying. From this height, the farms were clearly visible. Again with the beautiful backdrop of the Mount Agung in Bali. I walked around a little more and failing to find a warung, got into one of the luxury holiday resorts for some water. It turned out to be a refreshing break by the pool, enjoying the same view with a bit of shade over my head. Walking a little further, I reached the Coconut Beach.

Some locals told me that there was a shortcut between Coconut and Mushroom beaches “you go uphill, you go downhill, 15 minutes, mushroom beach”. Failing to find the uphill path from the beach I had to go back to the main road, which extended my journey by at least an hour. The road was lined with trees, very quiet, only occasional motorbikes passing and a lot of birds chirping so couldn't really complain about walking a little longer.

I reached the Mushroom beach around 11:30. There are several resorts lined up across the entire beach. They offer the usual tourist attractions like the banana boat, snorkeling, diving trips so there's a constant noise of announcements, boats leaving, kids screaming on the banana. If one can ignore these, the beach is quite beautiful. It is also possible to see some interesting fish even 2-3 meters off the coast. I spend almost 3 hours on the Mushroom beach, most of it in a cafe located 7 meters above the sea level to enjoy the lunch in the shade and away from the noise. The beach looks much better from a distance.

When the heat became more bearable, I hit the road again for the Dream beach. Missing a turn somewhere, I end up in another beach, which I learn to be the Sunset beach. It's not marked in the maps so it felt like a bonus. Besides a cafe, there is nothing else so it is a perfect place to sit and listen to the waves crashing to the coast. It looks a bit too harsh for swimming.

As the beaches are located between high cliffs that end up in the ocean, they are not connected to each other by a road. Instead, the road is more like branches of a tree, I need to go back to a central point and take the next path for the next beach. Although the island is pretty small, this going backward thing doubles up the distances and with the camera in my back I am already tired. There's still the Dream beach in today's itinerary so I continue walking. Luckily, it's not very far and it's worth the last bit of effort to go there. The view is great and there's a cool cafe up in the hill where I can take a few minutes rest with a cold bottle of water. 

The journey back is mostly downhill and pretty straight so it takes much shorter. Including the swimming, eating and the hydration breaks, the walk takes about 8.5 hours.

I make it back with enough time to shower before sunset. I don't think I've sweated that much in a day ever before. Although I tried to avoid being on the road in the midday, I still end up with a funny t-shirt marked tan. What's worse is I have distinctively untanned crow feet around my eyes because I I didn't use any sunglasses and creased my eyes instead. That would require a lot of tanning sessions to get rid of. 

I will post a separate entry on day 3 later.

Friday, November 20, 2009

still on my mat

I haven't been posting for a long time, mainly because not a lot of action is going on. I'm going through a rather introverted and introspective stage. When I started this journey in August, I thought I would hop around Asia for a few months. I carried all the Lonely Planet guides for Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore with me. I planned tentative itineraries, according to which I would spend a total of 5 weeks in Indonesia, then 2 weeks in Malaysia followed by maybe 6 weeks of island hopping in Thailand. Well, it went pretty much as planned until October; I've been to Hong Kong, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Langkawi. I came to Bali and suddenly everything changed. I had set myself reminders for travel dates, out of Bali, out of Indonesia, arrive to Malaysia etc... I missed all these reminders and here I am still in Ubud. I thought I would be all over Asia, yet I am mostly in the Yoga Barn. I thought I would be hopping around the islands yet I spend most of my time on a yoga mat smaller than 2m2. What started as a journey in Asia is pretty much turning into a journey in me. I couldn't be happier about it... After all what is more interesting and satisfying than discovering one's self, layer by layer? And this satisfaction comes purely from inside. Everyday I am thankful to be here, to be doing what I am doing and for the simple pleasures I am lucky to notice here. And I know that when the right time comes I will move to my next destination, not because reminders snooze but because I want to be there.

Since the Yoga Barn and the accompanying Little K cafe are the places I spend most of my time, here are some photos.

The Yoga Barn:

The Little K & its surroundings:

Monday, November 09, 2009

blindfold yoga workshop

Ubud is slowly teaching me not to plan and to fully live in the present moment. Back in Dubai, I had my days planned for 3 months ahead minimum. I had an outlook calendar synchronized with my mobiles, beeping even for weekend activities and casual get togethers with friends. Here life is flowing o spontaneously and freely and I am beginning to like it.

I had planned to go to Nusa Lembongan on 4th of November for a few days. Then I learned that Bex, who happens to be one of my most transformative yoga instructors in Ubud was offering a blindfold yoga workshop on the 7th, just a few days before she was leaving for India. I couldn't miss it. In Colcatta, Bex is working with Deepa, a 4-year old blind girl and through Bex's positive energy, persistence, love and kindness, Deepa had showed amazing progress. Deepa is now 4 years old, born to a very poor mother in slums of Colcatta. Her mother had to give her away because she wouldn't be able to keep Deepa alive. So now, Deepa lives in an institution which is for severely handicapped or mentally-challenged children. When Bex started working with her last year, she was even unable to walk and talk. Now she can walk, dance and make some basic sounds. She doesn't understand any language, but can feel and respond to Bex. All that in a frame of a few months...

At 1pm we are in the studio waiting for the workshop to start. Earlier, I caught glimpses of Bex preparing for it and it seems that she had put in a lot of personal effort to it with some photos, music selection, synchronization and the like. She tells us the ground rules while distributing the blindfolds. During the 2.5 hours, no talking and no removing the blindfolds. Even if we need to go to the bathroom, the blindfolds stay on and we will be led by Bex to the toilet. Hmm, I think I would rather hold it...

Of course the workshop also aimed to explore how we use other senses when we don't have sight, which of course provides a great deal of cues when doing asanas.

We do some meditation to start with, followed by some free dancing to warm up and then a bit of partner work. Well, even finding a partner can be difficult without seeing. Bex is very clear when she is explaining the poses, however at times all of us interpret it differently. Normally, I would peek over my shoulder and see what the person next to me is doing and adjust accordingly (which of course is a big no-no) and I have this urge to adjust my blindfold just a bit so that I can take a tiny look... Then I think, what the hell? What if I am doing the pose differently? What if I am not holding my partner exactly like everyone else? As long as we don't let each other fall, we should be ok. In fact, we would be bringing our own expression of the pose which is nothing but beautiful. Even that is a big insight for me.

Then we continue with some individual asanas on the mat. Before each surya namaskara, I would have to feel the top of the mat with my toes so I can align myself. I must have done thousands of suryas, it's interesting that I would still need visual cues to adjust here and there.

Then comes the balancing poses. Though practice, I became quite good at vrksanana, the tree pose. Being able to make good use an external drishti is key for me. The minute I start to gaze around, my tree collapses. How do you find drishti, when all you see is a black blindfold? Do you imagine that you're seeing the floor and pick a point to focus or do you just gaze into this blackness? Of course while trying to figure that out I constantly collapse. It seems like a miracle that blind people can walk on streets with only scanning what's ahead with a stick.

We do a long Yoga Nidra and then some singing in Sanskrit. Time ti time, Bex reads us what she has written about Deepa. It is impossible not to feel their mutual bond. Deepa has improved significantly through Bex's love and kindness and by trusting her unconditionally. Whereas Bex seems to be deeply moved by Deepa's courage and how she hangs onto life with what little she has. This is a bond that changes both parties forever... And also those of us who are lucky to learn about and feel it, although we may never “see” Bex and Deepa together.

At the end of the workshop, we are lead to a corner of the room and asked to kneel down and remove our blindfolds. Even though there is no direct light coming in, after 2.5 hours of complete darkness, the light is too intense when I open my eyes. Intense but in a way also relieving. I notice that we are kneeling down in front of some posters, with photos of Deepa and Bex's narrative about them. I clearly remember one; Deepa on a see-saw for the first time and the joy in her face when she's up in the air. Imagine not seeing, not being able to talk and being lifted up to the air on a narrow piece of wood... What can be quite frightening for some under the circumstances is a source of pure joy for Deepa. This is her courage, this is her strength. Our senses have already been very heightened because of the blindfold and the singing and I cannot help crying in front of that photo. We are often unhappy or not satisfied with our lives. When asked “how are you?”, most of us tend to answer “not bad” which seems to be the norm nowadays. We always have things to complain, we always have excuses, we are always too busy, too occupied with ourselves, always trying to grab a bit more and here is a 4-year old girl who cannot see and cannot speak, living in an institution, purely happy to be on a see-saw for the first time in her life.

Bex and Deepa have touched me in a place and in a way that was too deep. I can only be grateful that I had the opportunity to be touched by them.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

urban tribal concept store

Ubud has some very fine boutiques. Mostly selling custom-designed and handmade pieces of clothes, accessories, jewelery, bags and the like. While there's an element of simplicity, most of the merchandise sold in these boutiques reflect the rich culture and art of Bali through the pattern of the fabric or the fine handwork or the richness of the design. But once in a while something is so out of the ordinary, you cannot help noticing it.

I saw this shop door about two weeks ago. It's on my street. If we were in some major metropolitan city, this shop would have probably fit in any shopping district so well that I wouldn't have noticed it. But with its super hygienic white and glass facade , somewhat minimalistic design and most importantly the sign on the door “urban tribal concept store” this soon-to-open shop screams that it's out of place in Ubud. For starters, what does “urban tribal concept store” mean? What will they sell and how would the stuff they sell would look like?

Since I skipped some yoga classes this morning (I am trying to cut back!) I had time to go around looking for books and shoot a couple of photos. While I was trying to adjust the polarizer to avoid reflections on the shop window, this man comes and deliberately poses in front of me. Well he's not urban or tribal, but definitely fits the frame well. I tell him why I see this shop so out of place and he starts predicting based on his experience in Ubud. He thinks it will probably stock some big-sized jewelery, mostly piercing stuff. Judging by the location and the design, he also thinks the owner is Japanese. He said this street is so popular among Japanese, (they kept opening shops and restaurants that survived only 2-3 years) that they used to call it “Hello Kitty” street.

There's been no action inside the shop for the last 2 weeks, even the empty water bottles and plastic bags are where they are. I really hope it would open before I leave and I get a chance to see what will be the urban tribal concept merchandise that is sold there.

My yoga learning for the day: In poses where one needs to elongate the spine by lifting the neck (such as cat/cow, upward facing dog) try not to really lift the neck up, instead try to stretch it forward, as if you were doing these ancient Egyptian dances. Then only lift your eyes and look as high as you can. This would actually create more space in the neck area without possible neck strains.