Wednesday, February 24, 2010

cabbages and condoms

This is the last entry about Thailand - better late than never. 

I've read about Cabbages & Condoms in the Lonely Planet guide and wanted to give it a try for good Thai food.  The place and the food was well above my expectations. It was quite pricey for Bangkok standards but well worth a visit for a dinner. I was especially impressed with the decorations and the ambiance and would like to share some photos.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

bangkok - by night

The highlight of the Bangkok experience actually came the day I returned from Vipassana. There was another fárang; Benny in our meditation group, who also needed to be back in Bangkok only for a day to pick up his passport from the Indian embassy. We shared the same hostel room. After 12 days of no contact with the outside world, I was hungry for some online time. Benny however was craving for some Falafel, followed by an Indie movie. What are the chances of staying in the same room with someone else who craves Middle Eastern food and even knows places to get good food? If anything, this was some good coincidence. We checked some movie theater schedules while discussing some Bangkok experiences, when at some point the subject came to the red light districts of the city and what they offer. Benny said that everyone in his country who visited Bangkok rumors about the “ping pong shows” (I later figured that it is a generic name given to the shows where trained girls shoot things like ping-pong balls, bananas, arrows etc out of their vaginas.) His previous attempts to find a club with such a show have failed. As crazy as it sounded at some point I found myself agreeing and thanks to the internet we identified the red light districts (there are 3 in this city) and noted down names of few clubs. It was surprising for me to find a lot of information on the internet on the clubs, the shows, ratings, scams etc, I thought all that sort of information would be more word of mouth or somehow publicly less available. I was worrying about the impact of a ping pong show on my recently cleaned Karma just hours after finishing a Vipassana course. One thing for sure however, was that it would be more interesting than some Indie movie.

After9pm, we headed out for Soi Cowboy behind Sukhumvit and started looking for the Long Gun club. A few people commented that it was one of the few scam-free clubs with reasonable drink prices. The whole Soi Cowboy was a shock to me. Too much light, noise, crowd, prostitutes, … Having more experience, Benny was pointing out which one was a real woman and which one was a “lady boy”. There was no way for me to tell the difference. I couldn't even stare for that long

We went in the club and were seated. There was already a striptease show on the stage. The girls looked bored and were more interested in watching themselves in the mirrors around the stage. It was very uncomfortable for me and for a long time I couldn't even look at the show on the stage, so I started scanning the audience. Realizing that I was the only non-Thai woman along the audience did not help me feel more comfortable at all. I tried to chat a little with Benny so that I would justify not looking at the girls but except politely responding to my questions, Benny didn't seem very eager to divert his attention from the stage. Seriously, why was I there? What on earth got into me so that I was in the middle of the most anti-feminist actions? Why was I watching women undressing and even worse, other men paying to see them do that? And all that just 12 hours after finishing a Vipassana course??? I asked Benny if we could leave and he answered “no way, I didn't come in here to see a regular strip tease, I will not go before I see the ping pong show” Ok then, all I could hope was that the show would start soon.

Around 10:30, the stage was prepared for the show and the waitresses started distributing balloons. Two girls appeared on the stage, totally naked. The show started with girls blowing whistles from their vagina. Then they were shooting little arrows at the balloons. I explained at great length to Benny how core muscles as well as mula bandha helps the girls to that... He seemed genuinely interested so I went on and on.. It was a very good way to keep distracted from the show. While I was babbling, the show ended with girls simultaneously shooting out bananas... Horray, it meant that we could leave now!
In memoirs of strippers or escort girls, I read that there would sometimes be women coming to such clubs with their colleagues or male friends and making fun of the strippers... I can't understand that... I cannot ever criticize them on the way they choose to earn money. I can't even know if it's their choice. It was just too much for me to be there, to be a part. I have to admit that I was curious about the red-light district action of Bangkok, but the whole experience was more of a discomfort for me and I was quite relieved when we were out of the club. Benny seems to have rationalized the whole thing by saying that sex shows and prostitution is a normal thing in the Thai culture and it's the Westerners who have a negative stigma to it... It's just too much for me to buy in.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

bangkok - by day

Many people have scared me off Bangkok, saying it was dirty, ugly, messy, full of crime, full of prostitution, nothing to do (unless of course you are a fárang visiting the city for what the prostitutes can offer). However Bali was calling! I needed to reapply for an Indonesian visa and as I was already in Thailand it made sense to apply there instead of going to Singapore (in case anyone needs that bit of information; if one applies to a social Indonesian visa through the Bali Mode agency in Singapore, it is issued within a day, costs 150$ and no paperwork is needed from the applicant. Applying from anywhere else in the world directly at the consulate for a social visa usually costs about 45$, takes 3 to 5 days and occasionally requires a little more hassle and documentation depending on the mood of the consulate staff that day). I wanted to apply myself instead of paying to an agency, so I planned a super-short stop in the city, squeezed between Chiang Mai and another Vipassana course in Kancanaburi.

The “first time in a new city” observations started kicking in when I was already in the bus terminal. It was relatively clean, quiet and organized.
As the taxi was heading towards my hostel, I expected to see extremes; for a city that stretches about 20 kilometers in each direction from the center and hosting some 7 million people, Bangkok appeared quite relaxed to me. My little adventure with the taxi driver confirmed that too.

I spent the first night in my hostel; it was my first real hostel experience where I would be sharing a bunk-bed dorm with 9 other travelers. The massage school in Chiang Mai was also dorm but it was free of charge and all of us were there for the same purpose, spending almost every awake moment together. There were only 6 of us that night and the number kept decreasing with each passing night.

Since I had very limited time in Bangkok, I decided to be touristy for a change. I went to visit the Bangkok Royal Palace and the temple on the grounds. I like the cities where there's efficient public transportation. Especially any type of metro cheers me up, be it underground or sky train. It makes me feel that I'm tuned to the fast pace of a real metropolitan. I like taking my time, walking everywhere in the uneven pavements of Ubud as much as I like switching between 8 different lines of metro in Tokyo to get to where I want to go. It's good that I don't have to choose; I don't have to be totally urban or totally rustic; both appeal to me in different periods of my life. And now I needed that city pace. I got the early symptoms in Chiang Mai, where I was visiting the huge supermarket behind the school everyday and gazing at the shelves with some longing of “choice”. Bangkok has it all from tuk-tuks to sky train; now that's what I would call an efficient transportation network.

The entire city of Bangkok appeared to be one big open-air market. The city constantly pulsed in street stalls, plastic stools gathered around a mobile satay station and night markets. Especially the people running those mobile eateries are jaw-droppingly skilled in chopping, cooking, serving in what's only centimeter squares of space. So efficient, so space-saving, so chaotic and so fun... In between palaces and temples, I spent my entire day eating fruits, drinking coconut water or orange juice from those stalls. Bangkok made me feel thankful that I am a vegan and there's a (relatively) limited variety of food that I can have in the streets. Otherwise, I would have easily gained a ton of weight even in two days.

The touristy experience was fun and made me photorgasmic after a long long time. Temples, street markets, riverside stalls, skyscrapers and whatnot. There's so much to shoot and one cannot possibly screw up. The repetitive patterns, the angles, the lines, the contrasts are just amazing... All photos turn out to be good in this city. Moreover people don't seem to be camera-phobic. I point my camera and smile, they smile back and let me shoot whatever I want to shoot. I was out on the street over 14 hours just absorbing and trying to digitally record what this city has to offer. 

One of the highlights of my first day in Bangkok was dinner. My last visit to Dubai was in late September and I haven't had any Middle Eastern food since then. Not that I'm complaining, I was ecstatic with all the Som Tam in Chiang Mai or the organic salads in Ubud. Still Tabbouleh held and will always hold a special place in my heart. I found the “Little Arabia” of the city, which lies around Soi 5 of Sukhumvit Road. There, the scene quickly changes from Asian to Arabian. Hotels with Arabic signs, Egyptian restaurants, shisha places, Arabic couples (of course the man in shorts and t-shirt, the wife in full abaya), oud shops, … After checking the menus of a few restaurants I decided on one and ordered tabbouleh and hummus. I can't say that I particularly missed the whole Arabic scene, but the tabbouleh tasted yummy, even though it was nowhere near the original.

The second day, I started out even earlier and visited the Wat Pho temple. 46 meters of golden Buddha was literally lying in front of me. As much as I wanted to continue walking around and shooting photos, I had errands to run for the next steps of my trip. Before entering my first Vipassana, I left some loose ends which kept me worrying every now and then so I had to make sure that the following 20 days are arranged and confirmed before I step into the ashram again. That meant more city center, more urban resources and more shopping malls, ... 

2 days in Bangkok was as fast as the blink of an eye and felt more like a trailer than the movie itself. (This comes from a person who spent 3 almost months in Bali and yet didn't manage to see half of the island!) I was out on the street as long as my feet carried me, and slept just 4-5 hours a day, but still the time didn't feel enough for anything. I loved the city but my skin hated it. Already on day two I had terrible acne from the pollution. With all the exhaust fumes, neither were my lungs happy. Bangkok freshened me up and reminded me of the fast-pace life beyond the yoga mat. 

Sunday, February 07, 2010

the second vipasana

My first Vipassana experience I had in Bogor was much better than I expected. I was able to unveil a lot about myself, find out the reasons for some old fears, behavior patterns and some mental fixations. Around day 8 or so, I was already feeling weird that it would actually end so soon; when I was just getting used to the pace (or the lack of it!) and meditating. I met some other Vipassana mediators in Chiang Mai and I was telling them how the first course actually made me want more. Then I remembered that one of the meditators I met in Dhamma Java, who has been to more than 10 Vipassana courses recommended Dhamma Kancana in Thailand, saying it had the best food and facilities. I thought “Why not?”. I checked their website and found they have a course with compatible timing for my visa  and applied. I said if I get admitted it would mean that I actually needed to do another Vipassana. If not, it meant that I needed to visit Suzanne in Ray Ley.

10 days later I got the e-mail confirming my admission. I was so happy!  I made my travel and visa  arrangements accordingly and on 20th January morning boarded on the shuttle bus that would take us from Bangkok to the Dhamma Kancana meditation center. After a 6 hour trip we were there. It was spread over a larger plot of land over hilltop and had mixed accommodation of bungalows and rooms in the main building. The rooms were definitely more spacious, had their own toilets and surprise! Own showers with warm water. In addition to a fan, a dressing table and several hangers, there was even a daily laundry service. It was good news but I wondered how else I would keep myself busy if I won't be hand-washing my clothes every day? The answer was quick to come; here we would be washing our own dishes after each meal, I was relieved to hear that.

Dhamma Kancana appeared to be very resourceful and well settled. It felt as if everything was thought of so the students need not worry and just concentrate on their meditation. So that's what we did. There were about 45 female and 20 male students and we were very disciplined with our schedule and precepts

Dissolving of some mental debris already started on day 2. I was able to understand a lot about my relationship patterns and some of my blind spots. I believe things were already quite shaken up during the first Vipassana and now going into another intensive course while they were still loose and close to the surface was a reason that I was able to go deep. Vipassana believes that there is no unconscious; everything we go through is recorded at a conscious level however they may be suppressed for a variety of reasons.

Having gone through several long juice fasts and one water fast, I am quite familiar with the detox symptoms. Despite eating 2 times a day (6:30 am and 11:00am are the meal times for old students, no dinner) I already started going through a deep detox on day 2. I will not write the nastier symptoms related to physical detox. One of the most interesting ones however was at a behavioral level. When one is purifying her body and mind, usually a cleaning of home, stuff etc accompanies it. One may find that he/she is deep-cleaning the home, throwing away the accumulated junk, sorting out invoices, getting rid of old clothing etc. This is even considered as a solid proof that one I really going through a detox. It happened to me too; yet as I didn't have any old clothes or paperwork to sort out, I dedicated all my free time and energy for cleaning. I was waiting everyone to finish their lunch so that I can go and clean the sinks. They did not allow me to do this every day, so on other days I was sweeping the corridors of my level. I was also sweeping my room at least 3 times a day. I wouldn't consider myself an obsessively clean person, however two experiences in meditation centers was fast turning me into one... All my adult life, I had maids or cleaners to do every bit of housework for me, I never cleaned sinks or mopped bathrooms. Here, I was unable to sleep if there was even a single hair on the floor. And it wasn't enough just to pick it up; I had to sweep the entire room to make sure it's clean... One day I noticed that the wall tiles on the showers were not clean and started scrubbing them. Noticing that the cleaner in the room doesn't work well. The next day I took some dishwashing detergent from the kitchen and scrubbed the tiles with it; much better results.
I thought the idea of an ashram or a Buddhist meditation was to liberate oneself from all fixations or worldy attachments; I was fast turning into an obsessive housewife... Something didn't make sense in this picture...

I had two very deep meditation sessions on day 5 and felt things that I've never felt before. There was no knee pain, no wish to fidget, no thought of any kind. I don't know how long it lasted but I knew that as a result of that experience, I was changed at a very deep level and felt very blissful. During the break, I went back to my room to take a quick rest. Lying on the bed, I looked at my hand and remember thinking “this is not my hand”. Weird? The hand looked quite familiar, then it must have been “my” which changed and became unrecognizable even for a minute? This sequence of thought took less than  second probably but realizing what just happened I freaked out. Yes, I knew I was changed but to that extent? Was I totally disintegrating, was I losing it? I got so scared and started crying. I didn't know what was happening and I was sure that I would not ask that to the teacher. What was I supposed to say? “For a moment  I didn't recognize my hand and then I realized that the hand was the same old organ but my sense of identity and possession appears to be totally screwed up, what can you say about that?” No way... I had to deal with this myself.

However I was scared, too much that I could not meditate at all for the following days. At one level I was telling myself that such experiences were normal, I was just getting rid of some unproductive mental patterns and one needs time to settle to the new ways of thinking. At the other level however I wasn't buying into any of that stuff and was constantly worrying where that would lead?

6th day onwards, things started going for worse. I started craving for stuff. During meditation sessions, I was constantly thinking how much I missed my car, my life in Dubai, my friends, talking in Turkish, the high heel shoes, ease of life etc etc... I spent almost all my meditation sessions trying to convince myself that I had enough of this Asian crap and now it was time to go back to Dubai to find a proper corporate job in order to pick up from where I left. Treat this whole thing like an extended holiday and go back to a life where I would count days for the weekend. Everyone else was doing it, what made me think that I was so special and can pluck myself out of the system? I was scared of the future, the lack of security, not knowing where I was heading and wanted to put an end to all this ambiguity. There was however still a weaker voice inside that told me to hang on, continue trying to meditate and not give up. Feeling very powerless and totally screwed up, I followed that voice.  I was crying in bed every night but stayed in the meditation center, continuing to clean the sinks and the floors.

After the first Vipassana, I was saying it wasn't enough, that there was still a lot that I could change and wanted to sit for another one. No one guaranteed that it would a pleasant experience; quite the contrary no deep cleaning job is ever enjoyable. I wanted this and had to deal with it myself. I just didn't know where to start; it was simply too much to deal with; I faced my demons; attachments, cravings,  possessiveness,  need to control, unproductive relationship patterns... At one level, I am very happy to have discovered all that. However I can't help feel that it was just too many stuff discovered at a very deep level in one go. I am not sure how to handle all that.

What do I do with my demons once I face them in daylight?  Especially when light doesn't make them any less scary and doesn't give the spells to banish them away forever?

It's been over a week since the Vipassana finished and I could only complete this entry line by line within that time. It was hard even to write it. I know things will eventually be alright and once this process of change is completed I will feel much better and stronger. It feels like some mental vaccination; a tolerable dose of the sickness is injected so that I will be immune to it for a very long time; It's causing me weakness and dizziness while I learn how to handle it.

And some photos from Dhamma Java in Indonesia:


Toilet cleaning squad (hopefully) on fast track to Karma cleaning: