What does one pack to move across the world for a year? How can you possibly cram your whole life into a single backpack? Well firstly, for such a journey, I suggest bringing 2 backpacks.
1 large (check in) and 1 medium (carry on)!
I wake up at 5am which isn’t ideal, but I’m feeling INFINITELY better so an early rise is a small price to pay. I just slept for the better part of 24 hours, so I should be okay. Maybe I just unintentionally beat the jet lag with all that sleeping?
I kill some time hanging out in my room before I go downstairs for breakfast. I haven’t eaten in 24 hours either, so I try to low key stuff my face with the free cereal, fruit, tea, and toast that is available. I ask to extend my stay one more night, but they’re fully booked.
This is a blessing in disguise, because it’s a little pricey at this hostel anyway. I found one a few subway stops from here, about 10€ cheaper, and booked myself in for tomorrow night when I was unsure of how I’d be feeling today. Guess I’ll have to go online and book another room for tonight then tote all my stuff over there. Now is as good a time as any I suppose.
I pack my things silently while the two boys who thought I was weird for always sleeping…slept. Who’s laughing now? It’s going to look even weirder when I’ve seemingly disappeared, but I don’t care. Byeeeee.
I try to act cool and like I know what I’m doing as I navigate the metro system. It’s super straight forward, and I’m only going two stops without having to transfer, so it’s easy to look confident; I am.
Finding my new hostel is a little challenging, only because it’s behind a big sketchy iron barred door that I have to buzz into. I walk by it 3 times. This was not advertised online. At least I know I’ll be safe as fuck?
As per the usual struggle, I had to check out at 11, but can’t check in until 2. So I leave my bag at the front desk and head out to explore the area.
Barcelona is beautiful. Every damn building has 100 small balconies, and old classic European architecture. Every so often there’s a cool modern building amidst the historic ones, which makes for a cool mix. I guess I’m in a pretty central area, because there are tourists EVERYWHERE. Like proper tourists. Big DSL cameras around their necks, maps out shamelessly, Bermuda shorts type tourists. I swear.
I’m a bit of a stereotypical tourist myself, and wander into a burger place for lunch. I don’t know how to explain how it happened. It looked cheap, it was organic, and it looked trendy and cool. I swear it wasn’t a McDonalds or anything! But also not tapas or something actually… Spanish. I shall try to justify it by saying I have tons of time to explore Spanish cuisine in my indefinite time here. It WAS a damn good burger. #NoRegrets
I still have some time to kill before check in, so I continue on an aimless stroll. Someone strikes up a conversation with me about the weather. Usually I’d ignore him or smile and run away (strangers on the street are weird), but I have no friends so whatever. Turns out he’s staying at my hostel and just arrived this morning. He’s been to Barcelona before though, and leads me on a walk through the city to one of the Gaudi buildings and to a chill park. It’s a beautiful day to be strolling around. 25 degrees and sunny. Who could complain? My company is kinda weird…but like I said…no friends.
I’m still not finished this TEFL course, and obviously as someone looking for employment, that is priority numero uno.
I insist on going back to the hostel so I can spend some time hammering through this online class. It turns out I have a stage 5 clinger on my hands. Not only does he try to make me stay out longer, he follows me back to my hostel, all the way through my checkout process, and to MY ROOM. I almost never book all female dorms, but it’s all they had available, and I have never been happier. Had I been stuck in a dorm with this dude I’d have died. He’s nice, but he’s a lot. Never speak to strangers on the street. Why haven’t I learned? New goal is to never run into him again.
Once in the safety of my dorm, I open up my laptop and get to work on my course. Almost every other woman in here is on their laptops too. No one speaks. I’m kinda disappointed that this isn’t a social hostel, but at the same time, I need a space like this where I can focus.
The interior of the hostel doesn’t look half as bad as the exterior, but it’s definitely a significant down grade from my last accom. Cheaper though, and therefore worth it.
A couple hours go by and I meet up with a friend from my last hostel. We go out to an Irish Pub (these are literally found in every city in the entire world, I swear), and then to a club. Clubs in Europe are not like clubs back home. I look at clubs and Toronto and would rather die than enter 99% of them. It draws a certain kind of crowd, and it’s rarely the cool kind. In Europe however, clubbing is standard and everyone goes. Here, bars close around 2/2:30, but clubs are open until the sun rises. We walk absolutely everywhere to get around, who can afford a cab? Certainly not me. So I’m getting to know the city a little better, which is nice. I kinda know where I am now. Sometimes.
If you’re reading this as preliminary research to decide if Vipassana is for you, you’re already steps ahead of where I was when preparing. You go Glen Co Co! You’ve come to the right place. The Vipassana course is hard to put into words, but I will do my very best. These are the tales of my personal visit but of course, everyone is going to have a different experience.
This is what I had heard about Vipassana (all from different sources) before deciding I had to experience it for myself.
“You only get two vegan meals a day”
“You aren’t allowed to speak or look at anyone for 10 days”
“You meditate for like, 11 hours a day”
“You aren’t allowed to have any contact with the outside world”
“They basically let you in with nothing but the clothes on your back”
Only some of this is accurate.
Day 0 – Arrival
I leave at 9am from my home in Toronto to make the 6 hour drive to Montebello, Quebec; a small town situated between Ottawa and Montreal. This is where I will be staying for the next 10 days to attend a Vipassana course. Honestly, I feel like I’m walking into this totally blind. Aside from the bits and pieces of ostentatious statements mentioned above, I don’t know very much about what I’m getting myself into. What I do know is that it’s going to be hard, but I haven’t quite figured out why. But hey, That’s what makes this an adventure!
In the weeks leading up to this, as I told my friends and family about my little excursion, I was met with so many kind words of… straight up discouragement. To be fair, I talk A LOT, so I can’t blame anyone for being a little doubtful of my ability to remain silent for 10 days.
It is daunting, I’ll admit.
A couple hours into the drive I stop for some breakfast and cruise through my phone while I eat. I decide to open up the confirmation e-mail, and because of who I am as a person, I am late to discover the CHECK-LIST. It’s accessible by clicking a link plainly presented to anyone who bothered to open the e-mail and do so much as skim it. What I’m missing in my pack: Bedding, indoor shoes, shower sandals, and an alarm clock (Other things like your own meditation pillows and rain gear are also suggested, but ain’t nobody got time/money/space in their bag for that). Okay, well I guess I have no choice but to hit a Walmart unless I want to sleep on a sheet-less, blanket-less bed.
$87 and 30 minutes later, I am appropriately prepped to arrive.
Immediately as I pull up to the summer camp-like property, I am hit with the inevitable “what have I done” rush of emotion. I say my last goodbyes to my iPhone and shut it down. I’m officially off the grid. Goodbye, sweet social media.
At check-in they ask me if I have anything to leave in the safe and I let them know that I left all my valuables in my car, but offer up my keys. The lady shrugs and says I can keep them with me if I like. These idiots let me keep my car keys?! I can escape whenever I want!Muahaha! So much for “nothing but the clothes on your back”.
I am surprised to see lots of pairs here – couples and friends (there are even two pregnant ladies) all mingling together in the dining hall. This seems like more of a solo experience to me.
I go to set up my dorm room (which I will be sharing with 5 other women) and get to use my fancy new Walmart bedding. I realize that I neglected to purchase a battery along with my alarm clock. Rookie move. I ask management if they have one for me, but the man I speak to suggests I wait 24-48 to decide if I really need it….Ok?
I go back to the dining hall and drink multiple cups of tea while people watching, trying to wrap my head around the fact that I’m actually doing this. I don’t socialize much because I’ve already mentally prepared myself for silence, which I ignorantly assumed would start the moment I walked through the front door. Clearly not.
There are approximately 150 students attending this session, and together we listen to a tape which lays out all the requirements for attending the course: to abstain from killing, stealing, lying, sexual misconduct, and all intoxicants. Seems manageable. Immediately after, we are separated by gender and then blocked from so much as seeing the men for the rest of the course. The centre uses curtain partitions for the dining hall, separate meditation halls, entirely different buildings for living quarters, and we even have our own separated walking areas with tall wooden fences outside.
We dive in and have our first meditation session on this very night. Our names are called and we are invited to choose a blue floor cushion as our permanent seat in the meditation hall. I sit at the back. Our session starts with an audio recording of a man chanting. No words will EVER do this justice, but it sounds so funny that I can’t help but wonder if it’s some weird joke or test. Rude of me, because no.
It’s not. It’s S.N. Goenka, the world’s late but most recent major Vipassana teacher, initiating the session with some old sanskrit songs. It’s not soothing chanting music, not really melodic in any way, but it’s tradition.
I won’t lie, I’ve joined this program with a little skepticism. They call it science, but is this secretly a cult? I’ve gotta keep my eyes open for signs. I’ve been raised without any religion, and I like it that way. Even the idea of chanting is pretty foreign to me. We don’t have to chant though, just listen.
The session only lasts about an hour, and by 9pm we are told to “take rest” and retire for the night. I fall asleep almost instantly.
Day 1 – Breathe
I wake up late, obviously. I don’t have a damn alarm clock. Technically our day starts at 4am, but I am pleased to discover the meditation hours between 4 and 6:30am are not mandatory. I do however, need to be awake by 6:30 if I plan to eat breakfast, and considering I’ll only have the opportunity to eat twice a day, I better stuff my face while I can.
Still having no concept of the time I wander out of my room into the hallway, and see a line up of women leading into the dining hall. Perfect, there’s still time to eat. Breakfast is set up buffet style, but don’t picture a fancy hotel buffet with tons of options… it’s oatmeal, cereal (with gluten free options of course), fruit, and toast with peanut butter, tahini, butter, and two choices of jam available as spreads. I have some oatmeal and make toast with peanut butter. All meals will in fact be vegan, and only served twice a day, so that was no exaggeration. There is also a snack period at 5pm where we are able to drink tea and eat some fruit.
After breakfast I have some spare time before the 8am meditation session. What does one do with free time when you have nothing? I can’t read, write, creep social media, or start a Netflix series. What else in life is there? I end up taking a nap out of boredom and confusion. I wake up to the gong which is rung three times to call us downstairs to meditate. After sitting with my legs crossed for quite some time, making adjustments and trying different amounts of pillows for cushioning and support to no avail, I conclude that I will never get comfortable, ever. Today we are just focusing on the awareness of our breath. Anapanasati. For an hour I sit, trying to focus my mind on nothing but being conscious of which nostril the air is blowing through, and how shallow or deep my natural breathing may be.
I am easily distracted, though. A girl sitting in front of me has a pretty gnarly rat tail going on, and it’s not the first one I’ve seen here. She’s got a bob hairstyle, with one longggggg dreaded tail hanging down below her left ear. I don’t get it, but to each their own.
After an afternoon of more spare time, naps and intermittent meditating (or for now, just breathing awareness) we sit down to watch the nightly discourse.
This is where we actually see Goenka for the first time, as opposed to just hearing his voice on the recordings. He gives a mini lecture about the importance of Vipassana and uses some anecdotal stories to explain the benefits. He’s an interesting character, because while he has a natural command for respect, I simultaneously want to pinch his cheeks.
He uses a ton of word repetition on both the recordings and videos.
“You must work diligently…diligently”.
“For best results you must work continuously, persistently, ardently, diligently”. The evening discourses start at 7pm after a mandatory meditation session, and end around 8:30. Another half hour of meditation follows, and then we are sent to bed.
Day 2 – Focus
Goenka has said that days 2 and 6 are the hardest. It’s Day 2 and I’m chillin’.
Breakfast is exactly the same as yesterday. I’m not a huge fan of oatmeal but I have accepted that it’s probably going to be the featured menu item every morning for the next 8 days, so I learn to be content with peanut butter toast and a banana.
I’ve found myself thinking in French and I don’t really understand why. Yes, I’m in Quebec, and all instructions are presented in both English and French, but with minimal speech surrounding me in general, I don’t understand why I’m not thinking in my mother tongue. I’ve lost my French skill over the last few years, so the time I spend formulating sentences and trying to remember how to conjugate verbs is probably well spent.
It’s a beautiful day so I go for a walk in the woods after lunch. Neurotically, 6 times around the small trail loop.
It’s only day 2, and people have already begun to show signs of mental instability. There is one woman who’s absolutely insane about the food. As mentioned before, all meals here are vegan. Lunch is a vegetable stew, brown rice, and a little make your own salad bar (which is rad, by the way). I watch her as she approaches the kitchen to knock on the door and make some inquiry…just as she has for the past 3 meals. What questions can you possibly have about chickpeas and lettuce? What is your diet? Why, as a grown woman, have you not learned to manage this on your own?
Even crazier than this lady, is a young woman about my age who I catch crouched down in the forest eating pine needles right off the branch. Two vegan meals sounds scary but I mean…. I’m not resort-to-pine-needles hungry.
During my walk in the forest I start doing some math. Okay, so it’s day 2 which means I’ve been here 2/10 days which is 1/5 of the total days. I just have to do this 4 more times and bang! It’ll be over before I know it. Day 2. It’s lunch time so only 2 more mandatory sessions to go. Plus 3 each day. So that’s 8 days x 3 + 2… which is only 26 more sessions. 26 hours is basically just one day. I can totally do this.
I didn’t realize there was meditation fashion. I’m in yoga pants…yet some of the women here have come all gypsy chic. They look like god damn Mary Kate and Ashley.
Exclusive: Real images captured of the women in the course below
I do my best to do less napping and spend more time meditating. We are frequently given the option to meditate in the hall or in our rooms if we prefer. This has been a common nap time for me. Are other people actually meditating? Or are we all just sleeping? If I’m here I’m obviously going to give it my best shot, which will have to mean more focus on the meditation technique. Today, instead of focusing solely on our breathing, we are now focusing all of our attention on one section of our faces – the bridge of the nose down to the top of the upper lip. Everything in that triangular area we are to pay attention to. Again with the breathing and the nostrils, but anything else that we might feel, like hot, cold, itching, etc. I do my best to focus, but often I find my mind wandering away. Or, as the french say, mon esprit s’échappe.
Day 3 – No Stealing
I’m always waking up late, but I don’t care enough to track anyone down for an alarm clock battery. Whatev. 4am is an absurd time to wake up anyway. They do ring the gong at 4am and again at 4:20, but I am too heavy of a sleeper for that to even reach my subconscious.
Another woman has shown signs of crazy: It’s sunny and 20 degrees outside, I’m in a t-shirt, and she has come outside in a damn parka. Fur hood, the whole deal. Maybe she’s trying to emulate some kind of detoxing sweat lodge situation. Who knows.
On my way in from my daily post-lunch walk, one of the assistant teachers pulls me aside to tell me that my shirt is too “skimpy” and might be distracting to others. (You’re not allowed to talk to the other participants, but communication with teachers and assistants is permitted.) Mm mm, you didn’t just do that. I point out the fact that is has sleeves which is within the regulations, but it’s a loose fitting top and one sleeve had slid down off my shoulder, which apparently is a very distracting part of my body. I want to call her on it, but instead I just express my surprise and put my sweater back on. Can I just say, it’s 2016. Not only should my shoulder not be considered distracting to men, it certainly shouldn’t be considered distracting to any of the other 74 women here. Let’s just remember that2,500 years ago when Buddha was teaching Vipassana, he was wearing nothing but a loin cloth. When I visit any sort of temple or religious monument that requires conservative dress I am absolutely on board. Even being agnostic I can certainly respect the religious practices of others (within reason), but when I come to something like this, which makes such a point of stating and restating how secular it is, it’s hard for me to accept a t-shirt being dubbed too “skimpy”. I hate that word at the best of times.
It’s also an inconvenience to me because it means I’m now down to 2 wearable shirts…
I’m starting to question the whole thing a little. Not because of the shirt, and not my decision to come here, but just the validity of the whole practice. So many people love it though, so I will continue to work diligently…diligently.
Whenever Goenka is finished his signature final chant, students are invited to respond with “sadu”. Which is pronounced more like SaaaaahhhhDoooooo. It’s creepy. Imagine a zombie walking around saying “neeeeeed brainnnnns”. It’s the same dark and creepy tone. But what bothers me most about the Sadu Zombies, is that they don’t know what they’re Saduing. (Apparently Sadu means “I agree” or “well said”.) The message board says something along the lines of “the traditional chanting is mostlywell wishes to all beings”. Keyword: mostly. I would like a full translation and dissection of the text please, before I start Saduing to anything.
Even though Vipassana is not a cult, the Sadu Zombies are definitely the people who would drink the punch if prompted. “Here, we will all drink this funky tea to take us down the path to enlightenment”, and next thing you know, BAM. Dead.
I’ll never Sadu.
Knowing that I would try to write a blog post about my experience upon my return, I’ve been trying to keep mental notes of my daily activities. It’s only Day 3 and these have already started to slip away, so Buddha knows what I’ll forget by Day 10. I have to get a pen.
The problem with this is that we’re not allowed to steal, and like I said, if I’m here I might as well be here, and abide by all their stipulations. After snack time at 5pm and our next mandatory meditation session at 6pm, I walk back to my room and voilà, a pen materializes outside the door of my room.
I’m not kidding. A pen is just sitting there, wedged behind the F which identifies my little living cubicle. A gift from Buddha himself. Now I need paper.
Oh right. They provided me with a map of the grounds when I arrived. This goes to show how strict they are about no pens, papers, books, etc. I realize I could have brought like 3 novels and no one would have ever known… but I suppose it would defeat the purpose.
I take my magical pen and start scribbling down jot notes on my map, feeling elated.
We’re now at the point in our meditation sessions where I’m not supposed to be focusing on anything but what I’m feeling on the space above my upper lip, which is mostly just the air from my breath. I haven’t reached enlightenment yet… but maybe tomorrow.
Day 4 – Vipassana Day
At breakfast I watch a woman’s toast catch fire. One of those big toasters with the rotating conveyor belt thing that drop the toast down to the bottom. Don’t know what they’re called. You know what I mean. Anyway, I silently died laughing while she silently panicked and tried to save it with a knife before realizing she needed to unplug the machine to avoid death. These are the pros to the 10 day noble silence.
The hours have started feeling excruciatingly long. However, on the plus side, my body doesn’t hurt so much anymore. I’ve adjusted to sitting cross-legged for long periods of time. A new life skill! The stress of the hours is still there.
After lunch I go for a walk outside. I live for my time outside, it’s got animals and moving things for me to look at. So much mental stimulation!! I then head to the meditation hall, even though it’s not mandatory, so that I can force myself to give it another solid go. I realize I’ve made a huge mistake when I sit there for an hour, get a quick break, and then have to go back for the mandatory meditation hour as well. Then, to make matters worse, I have to sit for a full TWO hour session to learn the official Vipassana technique. I’m kinda stoked because it means I’ll be truly meditating and not just aware of breathing out of my nose, but that’s 4 straight hours of sitting and I regret everything.
As mentioned before, Goenka loves to repeat stuff. Well, as we are learning Vipassana he repeats words so many times, which are then repeated in French, that I have a mental. fucking. breakdown. Imagine this though, seriously.
Start by surveying the top of your head. Pay attention to any sensations that you may be feeling. A sensation can be anyyyything; it can be a tingling sensation, a tickling sensation, a prickling sensation, a sensation of numbness, a sensation of itching, anything at all….
For some, it might be a sensation of heat, or of cold, or a sensation of softness, a sensation of moisture, perhaps a sensation of dryness. It can be anything at all.
Repeat in French.
Now begin to survey your face. Start with the forehead and move your way down. Remember, a sensation can be anyyyything ; it can be a tingling sensation, a tickling sensation, a prickling sensation, a sensation of numbness, a sensation of itching, anything at all….
For some, it might be a sensation of heat, or of cold, or a sensation of softness, a sensation of moisture, perhaps a sensation of dryness. It can be anything at all.
Repeat in French. Begin to survey your shoulders. Repeat. Begin to survey your left arm. your right arm. your chest. your upper back. your lower back. Repeat, repeat, repeat.
And for the record, he isn’t saying repeat, I am, because the trauma of reliving that situation is too much. At one point I remember him saying “for some, it might feel like ants crawling, and for others, perhaps like insects moving”. It was true pain, my friends. True pain.
I start weeping. Tears literally rolling down my face to a point where the neck of my shirt became wet. I do my best not to open my eyes and just focus on surveying all my damn sensations, but how can anyone focus when he talks so much?! We’re not supposed to, but I open my eyes to see if everyone else around me is dying on the inside as well. Looking for signs of tears, but everyone seems chill af. It’s just me. Crying my life away. I try to pull it together and tell myself I’m being unreasonable… but I swear if you played that tape for me today I’d burst into tears again. I don’t know how my course mates could stay so strong. I need to leave. Not the session, but this whole situation. I start fantasizing about ways to get my bags over to my car without anyone noticing. Escaping in the middle of the night. How the freedom of driving away in my car would feel.
Somehow, I survive the 2 hours.
I calm down by the next meditation session.
I wonder if it’s just my natural fast paced personality and lifestyle I live, or to do with my ADD, but I am honestly surprised that I was the only one whose ears were BLEEDING.
Day 5 – Miso and Mushroom
I sleep like shit. So poorly in fact, that I sleep right through breakfast. FML.
It’s all this napping I’ve been doing. It has to end.
I’m still constantly toying with the idea of leaving, but knowing that I won’t actually do it. I didn’t drive 6 hours and commit to 10 days just to back out like some loser. Nah.
It rains. I have no rain gear. I can’t go outside. All the women, including myself, have this ridiculous habit of staring longingly out the window during meal times… even though the window only leads to a parking lot. When someone drives in everyone watches with genuine interest. We’re all taking advantage of ANY mental stimulation we can.
Yesterday’s miso and mushroom soup with a side of steamed kale, has become today’s miso and mushroom sauce on brown rice noodles mixed in with – whether you like it or not – steamed kale. With the same salad bar as always. I was stoked on the beets in the salad for the first few days but now I can barely look at them. Usually I’m not a picky eater! But all this repetition is driving me nuts (literally).
I don’t want anyone to get me wrong; Vipassana is a non-profit organization which relies solely on donations of their attendees, so obviously meals were not going to be lavish and they can’t afford to waste anything. I get it. I appreciate all of it, but still. I laugh.
Neurotic food lady has still approached the kitchen with an unnecessary question for every meal.
One of the pregnant ladies has gone missing. She quit. I can’t blame her though, I’m uncomfortable sitting for an hour, and I’m not 8 months pregnant.
Day 6 – Waiting Game
My days have been going like this:
Wake Up – look forward to meal time.
Meal Time – during meal time look forward to meditation session.
Meditation Session 1 – during meditation session look forward to meal time.
Meal Time – enjoy meal and look forward to free time.
Free Time – enjoy the outdoors. Shower. during free time look forward to meditation session.
Meditation Session 2 – during meditation session plan to meditate in free time
Free Time – sit on my bed and count how much time there is to go. look forward to snack
Snack Time – Enjoy some fruit and look forward to meditation session.
Meditation Session 3 – during meditation session look forward to discourse
Discourse – enjoy discourse but count down until day end meditation session
Day End Meditation Session – during meditation session get stoked on the fact that it’s almost bed time.
Bed Time – sleep and enjoy life.
I’m getting weird. My mind wanders and I think of things friends have said in the past that made me laugh, which become infinitely funnier in this context. I have to hold back laughter and sometimes sit there smiling to myself like a weirdo. I’m not the only one. One lady at snack time starts laughing and I sort of acknowledge it with a little smile in her direction without making eye contact. I look back a minute later and oh my god she isn’t laughing she’s fucking crying and having a mental breakdown as she peels her orange. My bad, ladyyyyyy! One thousand sorries. But of course, I can’t verbally apologize. So I just go about my business, drinking my tea and eating my banana, pretending I can’t hear the lady sobbing beside me.
At lunch I watch one girl start a rock family. She picks up stones from the small forest trail as she walks and then turns them into little inookshook guys to put on a big rock in the main yard. Like I said, a few signs of insanity popping up all over the place.
Day 6 is another rough day, just as Goenka predicted. I’ve never wanted to leave more than I do right now. For the first time, I think about it seriously. Though I know I’ll regret it, and I can just SEE my friends and family back home exchanging money; settling bets based on how long I’d last here. I’ve gotta trek on. I’ve also made it more than half way. Quitting now would be absurd. Only 4 days and 13 hours left to go. Feels like nothing more than a challenge right now.
Day 7 – Groundhog
I sleep through breakfast again. I don’t even understand how I don’t hear a 6:30am gong when I’m falling asleep at 9:30. All I do is rest all day anyway. What gives, body?
Not much to report today. All is the same. Sit. Meditate. Eat. Repeat. My teeth have never been so clean. I brush them at least 4 times a day out of boredom. But I really am trying to embrace it as much as possible. I try to focus my attention more in each meditation session. We’re now sweeping our entire bodies for sensations instead of every individual part. Thank Buddha.
On my daily walk i see the girl with the rock family standing still and just staring at a groundhog in the yard from a distance. Relax, you’re not Snow White. I do a few loops of the trail, and upon my return, I see the groundhog chillin’ with the damn rock family. On the same rock and everything. Meanwhile rock family girl has perched herself insanely close and adjacently to her new furry friend and just hangs out.
She has literally bonded with nature. I am dyyyying with laughter. Silently and internally, of course.
The discourses have gotten better. A bit more interesting; today he talks about religion vs. Vipassana and I swear, Goenka has the most eloquent way of tearing into every religion and calling them on their bullshit… without being offensive. It’s a beautiful thing. This confirms my faith that Vipassana is in fact, not a cult.
ALTHOUGH, I do have to call them on a little bit of bullshit too.
A) We have already discussed the issue of my shirt and general dress code
B) Goenka is consistently encouraging us not to blindly follow any rites or rituals… yet is consistently chanting at the beginning and end of every session, and expecting the Sadu Zombies to chant back at him in the end. It’s not mandatory but I mean… it’s a thing.
C) We aren’t allowed to point our feet anywhere in the direction of the teacher, who is almost always wearing white (you’re not Olivia Pope), and sits on an elevated couch/chair thingy.
D) I cannot stress enough the creepiness of the Sadu Zombies.
E) ok…maybe that’s it… but it still seems like a slightly ritualesque practice in spite of their claims.
The time from 5pm onward moves relatively quickly. Snack, meditation session, discourse, half meditation session, sleep. No excessive and unnecessary free time in between. It’s efficient.
Two meals a day sounds scary, but today is the first time I have been hungry so far. I’m not even that hungry, but my tummy rumbles during the silent meditation, and to be fair, I did skip breakfast.
Day 8 – Course Boundary
I have no concept of what an hour feels like. Even after hours and hours of this, I sit meditating and being like, okay, he’s going to start chanting any minute. It must be at least 8:50. Anyyyy minute. And then 30 minutes later he does his closing chant. It hurts, guys.
I take a walk at a slow time when no one else seems to be outside. I do a couple loops on the trail to find out I am alone. HA. I take off my sweater even though all I’m wearing underneath is a tank top. As I’m out here alone, everyone is protected, I can’t “distract” anybody. Because of who I am, I find it necessary to step over the course boundary. There’s a huge forest back there, yet our trail is so short. I don’t go too far because the leaves are crunchy and I don’t want to be kicked out on Day 8. I have no idea how seriously they’d take this.
Lunch is pretty meh today, so I’m happy I made it up in time for breakfast. Lunch is tofu, steamed kale, and roasted sweet potatoes.
No sign of the pine needle eating girl lately.
I go outside again later in the evening, before our last daily session. It’s just me and two other girls outside. I watch one of them climb a tree. She goes pretty high. Respect.
My mind still wanders during meditation but I can now sit without pain which is a huge bonus.
Day 9 – The Light
I can see the light! I’ve basically completed the course. In 48 hours I’ll be cruising down the highway in my car. Homeward bound. Scream-singing along to my music, just because I can. There’s only 4 more mandatory sessions before we’re allowed to speak to each other. Oh yeah, perhaps I didn’t mention, Day 10 isn’t even really like a full day because after the morning session we are free to speak! After this I fully expect time to fly by. No more boredom, I can go talk someone’s ear off to pass the time instead.
The Vipassana has gone to a deeper level where we are now supposed to feel like we’re dissolving….
Yeah. That’s not a thing for me. I really try but just can’t make it happen, so I continue to do the full body sweeps and hope I’ll start dissolving soon.
I can’t eat another salad. I opt for toast instead. When it’s ready it goes flying out of the toaster (because we also have normal non-flame-igniting toasters), just like in the movies! I chuckle to myself. My standards for entertainment are extremely low here.
Okay I think I screwed up. I expected this day to move quickly because of the constant reminder that it was coming to a close soon. I was wrong. Time’s still draggin’.
I feel that the Vipassana technique has gone over my head. I was good for a while, but don’t feel on the ball with it anymore.
The time does eventually pass though, and I sleep well knowing it’s only a few more hours until I can open my big mouth again!
Day 10 – We Made It
I’m running out of room on my note-taking paper/map.
At this point I’ve got notes crammed into the roads and buildings on the map; really any free white space has now been used.
I return my pen to it’s original place of discovery. I stand by my no stealing, just borrowing.
I spend all morning dreaming of my impending freedom. The last session before free speech is EXTRA long, and with extended amounts of chanting. We now learn a final technique called “metta” which is another way to meditate and send your love and compassion out into the world like good vibes. This only takes 10 minutes, and comes after the meditation session.
When I am finally allowed to speak… I feel like I don’t know how. Like I have to convince myself to get out of my own head and join society again. Like I haven’t gathered my thoughts enough to put what I just experienced into words.
I don’t know how to make friends. I realize that I’ve taken a bit of a pessimistic approach to this whole thing, and am not sure how everyone else feels about it. Probably not best to start off a conversation with my best Goenka chanting impression…
Eventually, over lunch, we all start chatting and comparing experiences. Eruptions of laughter are frequent throughout the dining hall. After we’ve eaten we are allowed to mingle with the boys, but only in designated areas. One old man crossed the imaginary border to come chat with his wife, but is quickly ushered back over to the male side by one of the service people. I laugh. Out loud. Because I can.
It’s funny how you can live with and be around people for 24 hours and not actually know them. I chat with lots of girls my age and they’re all pretty cool.
I ask how long they think the trail is – for written record purposes – and one girl can tell me exactly. She measured…with her feet…and did some math. I believe she said it was 57 steps on one side, and 72 on the other. One step is approximately half a meter and blah blah blah I don’t know, but she reckons it’s 0.16km. zero. point. one. six… over and over again.
The fact that she took the time to count says everything about Vipassana. Forget everything you’ve just read, this describes it all.
All in all I can still acknowledge that it was REALLY REALLY REALLY HARD, but was a good experience, in it’s way. I feel really great having completed it, like I’ve really accomplished something. Looking back at 10 days now feels like nothing, but having kept some notes reminds me I won’t need to be returning any time soon.
I’ve already decided on some people I would recommend this to, and would potentially consider returning myself… but not for a few years or so at least.
To summarize, recommend, and debunk some common myths:
1.Read the damn checklist before you’re on the road and half way there. 2. It’s true that you’re only fed twice a day, but I promise you won’t die of starvation. 3.You can people watch (and you’ll see some weird shit), but making eye contact would just be weird anyway. 4.You have the opportunity to meditate for about 9 hours a day at most. Only 3 times daily is it actually required.
5.You get to keep your stuff, no one searches you. If you wanted to be a doofus and bring a phone, you totally could, but in my opinion, why would you?
6.Mental stimulation is key and this generation doesn’t know how to entertain themselves without a smart phone. It was really hard. I wouldn’t know how to prepare you for this. But…
7.It’s a great physical, mental, and addiction detox!!
8. Just dive in and go for it, dude. Who knows, maybe you’ll fall in love with it. There are some people I know who’ve gone more than 10 times.
9. If you’re more curious about the technique…google S.N. Goenka on Youtube, where you can find clips of him chanting and some of his discourses as well. Even if you try to teach yourself the technique, it’ll never live up to how you would learn it at the meditation centre itself.
10. …If you’ve ever heard Macklemore’s “Vipassana” song, it will become so much clearer after you do the course. Isn’t that reason enough?
***All photos embedded in this post are all I could find on Google. Obvs. didn’t have my own camera.***
We have to wake up early in order to catch a bus to Hoi An at 8am. We eat a quick breakfast downstairs with lots of time to spare, but somehow paying for everything takes well over 10 minutes. Granted, we’re paying for the room, the bicycles, and our meals, but the problem lies within the staffs ability to find change. They run around to other stores and restaurants in the area looking to break a bill, and we’re standing at the desk just hoping they come back quickly. It’s now 8am. We’re late. Everything is settled except for 10,000 dong ($0.25). I’ve given them 500,000 and need 190,000 back, but they don’t have change and I don’t have 10,000 dong handy. Had it been the other way around, I would have been happy to just forget about the extra 10,000 dong and run for the bus, but I can’t justify leaving 190,000 ($10)!! Luckily Tamara finds 10,000 to lend me, I get my 200,000 dong bill, and we boot out the door. 8:05. I know that most (if not all) things in South East Asia run behind schedule, but on the off chance that this bus leaves on time, we’re screwed.
The bus station is an 8 minute walk away by Google Maps estimate, but we get there in 4. No bus is in sight, but I have confidence that means it hasn’t arrived yet. We show the desk staff our tickets and are asked to sit and wait. Beautiful, crisis averted.
A taxi comes and we are piled in with 4 other people and all of our backpacks. A regular sized taxi. 7 people (including the driver) and 6 backpacks. You do the math.
I get the most unfortunate seat…in the trunk with the majority of the backpacks. Super comfy. Although, Tamara’s spot, crammed into the backseat with three other strangers and one large backpack across all their laps, doesn’t look too appealing either.
It’s just a short drive, and we are taken right to the door of our bus.
The ride to Hoi An takes about 4 hours and our bus is another down grade from the previous ones we’ve taken. They seem to be getting worse every time! For a four hour trip, I don’t care. We make a half hour pit stop at a place where a mango costs 30,000 dong ($1.50). No thanks.
Upon arriving in Hoi An we get the usual hawkers trying to bring us in to their hotels. Everything seems more expensive here already! Dorm beds are going for $9 each, and shared rooms around $15. That’s way too much! We find some motorbike taxis who offer to take us all around Hoi An to different hostels and guesthouses that they know to be cheap. We have to pay them 40,000 dong each, but it’ll be cheaper in the long run than committing to a $15 dollar room now.
The first hotel they take us to is $15 dollars a night, but the owner is willing to lower it to $12 if we stay for two nights, and switch rooms on the second night. I’m not super keen on that plan. When we come back out to the motor taxi drivers they seem confused and annoyed that we aren’t staying. I then get annoyed because we’re literally paying them to take us around to find something cheap. They reluctantly let us back on their bikes and drive us to a second location. I’m not sure if this is by design, but my taxi driver almost kills us like 3 times. We do make it to the next hotel alive. This one seems much better. Rooms are $10 per night and still clean looking with wifi and everything. It’s a close walk to the downtown area, and bicycle rentals are only 20,000 dong ($1). We stay. The motorbike taxi drivers start asking us for 50,000 dong each instead of our agreed price of 40,000. I make sure to only pull out the exact amount so they can’t run off with our change. I hate garbage like this, and it’s why I would honesty rather walk the 3km into town and avoid any form of taxi all together.
We rent two bikes and take a quick 3km ride to the beach! How exciting, I haven’t been to a real beach in ages. Unless you include Ha Long Bay, but I think that only kinda counts. This beach is much better! A guard blows a whistle and waves me away as I bike by him, just metres from the sand. So close! I don’t know what he wants, but I assume he wants me off my bike. Tamara and I pull over and try to figure out where we can park our bikes without paying an arm and a leg to do so, when a woman beckons us over from her patio. She let’s us park our bikes in an alleyway next to her restaurant and says we can leave them there for free if we come in for a drink or some food afterward. Seems like a good deal to me! We thank her and head off to the waterfront. The sun is shining, some local kids are playing soccer to our left, and a million palm trees line the beach to our right. What a great place to spend the afternoon.
I’m a little disappointed that we can’t swim, and I suppose we could, but the waves are heavy today and the ocean looks unwelcoming. The shade of the palm trees provide me with enough cover to stay cool while I lay on my towel and breathe in the salty ocean air. I don’t fall asleep, but I am so zen that I might as well. For an hour I lay without really moving, feeling so calm. All of a sudden a group of 20 kids, who I’m guessing have never seen a beach before, come roaring onto the sand next to us, screaming, jumping, laughing and making an absolute scene. They take 15 minutes to take 400 photos of them doing classic beach poses like jumping in the air, holding hands and facing the sea, and a big group photo. They are having the time of their lives! Then they just leave. Good 15 minute beach day.
After a couple hours of lounging, Tam and I stop for a quick lunch at the place where we parked our bikes. I also need a new tooth brush, after accidentally dropping mine on the street in Hue, and coincidentally this restaurant also sells tooth brushes. What good fortune!
We bike back to town and head to the market. Hoi An is famous for it’s tailor shops, where you can have almost anything made for a very good price. There must be hundreds of tailors in the city, and a bunch of shoe makers, too! I don’t really need any clothes, but who can say no to a good pair of shoes? I keep my eyes open.
We find some fruit for a decent price! 8 large bananas cost us 20,000 dong, after a bit of haggling. Numerous women try to lure us into their spas with the promise of a $1 pedicure (that could never go well) or eyebrow waxing. I jokingly stop to show one lady that I don’t need my eyebrows waxed because they’re already fabulous, but she tells me they should be thinner. My mother would have a heart attack.
All the shoes here can be made custom in any leather, design and size. I find a cool pair of blue desert boots in a shop, and ask how much it would cost to make a pair to fit me. They quote me 1,500,000 dong ($75). I think a good rule of thumb when backpacking, is to never buy anything that’s over 1,000,000… in any currency.
I pretty much run away screaming, but politely. Not being able to stop myself, I check another shop, just for comparisons sake, and they tell me 900,000 for what looks to me like the same pair of boots. More acceptable, but still too much. I’m sure I could bargain a little, but even at 800,000 it’s a little steep. I don’t know. I can’t even wear the boots around Asia because it’s too hot. But…custom made shoes… The internal struggle is too much! I leave the shop and ponder the prices some more.
We go back to the hotel around 5pm, where we are told we can’t use the bicycles past 7pm. I guess we’ll be walking to dinner. What a weird rule.
I take a shower and decide it’s time to shampoo my hair. I’ve been trying to avoid any hair products as much as possible on this trip, to save money but also to try to balance out my natural oils. If there’s ever a time I can have dirty hair and get away with it, it’s now, when I’m backpacking in a hot country. I don’t know what kind of life my shampoo bottle has been living at the bottom of my bag, or if there’s a secret knife in my backpack, but the plastic bag I use (ironically, to avoid situations like this) looks like it’s been sliced open and the bottle lid is open. There’s shampoo on everything. Not really everything, but it’s on some clothes, my book, electronics bag, and my bug net. The shampoo is supposed to be made with natural honey, so that bug net is going to come in seriously handy now that everything has honey on it.
We do some errandy things, like research things we’d like to do around Hoi An, go to the post office (Tamara is a better friend than I am and she actually sends people post cards), and book our next overnight bus to Nha Trang. At the bus station, they also have a tour heading to Son My tomorrow morning. I’ve read that this is where there’s a museum dedicated to the My Lai massacre of 1968. I thought it would be cool to go in any case, and the tour is only $5 for a half day visit with a guide, so we take advantage of it. Even if it’s awful, I can handle $5.
After we’ve already paid for the ticket I find out that My Lai is further from Hoi An than My Son, and that the only way to get there is by private tour. That will definitely cost us more than $5, so we stick to the My Son tour, neither of us really sure what we should expect. It’ll keep us busy tomorrow morning at any rate, so that’s cool.
On our way to dinner I stop by another shoe store…just to compare prices. I find another pair of sweet desert boots, and that only cost 730,000 dong! That’s the cheapest so far, and only like $40 CAD. She measures my feet by placing a piece of paper on the floor and tracing each foot. I choose from a large selection of different materials, and agree to come back the next day for another fitting to make sure the shoes are comfortable. If they are, I get to take them home with me right away! If not, they’ll make some more adjustments. I’m excited, I’ve never had custom shoes before. I can justify it, because I’m going home in just over a month, and it’s like a practical Vietnamese souvenir. Every time I wear my new boots I will think of the time I traveled through Vietnam.
I think about how different the experience would be if I was in Italy getting a pair of custom made leather boots. It would be extravagant and they would cost a fortune. Here, my feet are traced like an elementary school art project and cost so little. I hope they turn out well!
Tamara and I walk to the ancient town for dinner. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and now requires a ticket to enter. I’ve read that tickets cost 90,000 dong, but now we’re told 120,000! It’s printed on the ticket and everything, so I know I’m not being ripped off, but apparently the prices have gone up recently. It’s pretty expensive just to walk around an old village, but we get included entry to five out of about seven attractions of our choosing, and is valid until we leave Hoi An.
Getting into the Old Town for dinner is definitely worth it. The trees lining the quiet streets are lit by the soft glow of hanging lanterns, and the river is illuminated by larger and crafted floating lotus flowers, and tiny river wishing candles. Independent vendors are set up near the bridge selling the small paper flowers with enough space inside for a candle, so that people may light the candle, make a wish, and send it floating down the river. What a beautiful way to make a wish! Small boats are also available for hire to take a romantic ride down the calm river.
We stroll along the streets and over the bridge to the other side of the river, where there seems to be a busy row of restaurants. We find one with well priced meals, lots to choose from, and only 4,000 dong ($0.18) beer! We luck out and arrive when someone is leaving a nice to table over looking the water and the other side of the ancient town.
We even get a small free cake dessert and cup of green tea.
We spend the rest of our night strolling around the streets and peering into tailor shops and cafés, which are plentiful in Hoi An. A close second to Sapa, I think this is one of my favourite places in Vietnam so far.