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Friday, September 30, 2011

Vipassana 2

After the first half of the week, my facial muscles had weakened… for not having smiled for so long. My legs were wobbly, for not having walked or moved much. On the moments when I spoke with the teacher (who was always willing to answer any questions and help us when we needed), I found my voice to sound so different. It was like it wasn’t me who was speaking… It was a voice from somebody or some place else. Actually, it was as if I could hear my voice the way people outside can hear me (like when you hear your own voice being recorded). The strangest sound… Anyhow, the good physical developments were that my back was becoming stronger, my backside was forming callus (making it easier to sit on a hard floor) and my eyes were getting brighter. I became lighter and lighter in my heart, as I was disposing myself of any emotional garbage I’d been carrying around with me. At one stage I felt to be travelling and every time I’d walk into the meditation hall, it was like I was going to work; heading into my own self once again, to discover what needed to be attended to, what I needed to fix or to soothe. The teacher described this type of meditation as one of the deepest forms there is. It’s like open heart surgery, where we, ourselves, are the surgeons… and by setting to work, we would repair anything that had become damaged at some stage in our life, due to our way of dealing with external factors (without ‘advertising’, for more information look it up on dhamma.org …haha)

The days passed by, time became a strange concept, yet, as the end came closer, I felt each meditation session to become a little bit more precious; because it meant the time that was left to practise the technique, before stepping back into society, was running out. I felt I needed to develop the skills as much as I could, so I’d ‘easily’ apply them in my daily life.

The final day suddenly arrived. And when it came to speaking, smiling, making eye contact and mingling… I didn’t really feel any explosion or huge relief. I just felt so lucky to have had the experience. I felt so liberated for having realized that I can do something so intense, without crumbling in self-pity or misery. I took my time before opening myself up to others… half an hour to be exact… then I needed to come to life. But I didn’t know what I wanted my ‘first words’ to be… or who to speak them to. So I kept quiet until I bumped into Anna, and I screeched some quiet noises of joy and said, ‘I’m speechless! It’s so amazing” We hugged and that was that… The silence had been broken.

The final afternoon felt like graduation… There was such a strange feeling in the air. I still had to ease myself back into the ‘normality’ of communication. It was tricky. I really noticed that my brain hadn’t been used for anything else other than observation of breath. Having a conversation that didn’t sound scattered and dazed, was a little hard and thinking of practical life, like travel arrangements, money, work, internet, emails… was almost impossible. It was such a force and everything felt so fake, unnecessary and a massive hassle. But that was something I was, of course, forced to come to terms with very quickly, because we were due to leave the site, the morning after the silence had ended. I knew couldn’t start rejecting the Indian world (or any other part of it, for that matter). I had one brief moment of panic when I realized I had no choice; the ‘game of life’ was waiting to be played and I needed to partake. And when the panic subsided, I was excited.

On the last day, sharing experiences with the girls on the course, and becoming quite close in such a short space of time, was the best way to close the chapter. They were such lovely people. And for the fact that we’d all been through such a huge experience, through such a life-changing transformation almost, there was an instant connection. Apart from Anna, I felt particularly close to Alila from South-Africa and Claire from Australia. There were other great girls too of course who stood out for the peace and ease they practised during their own ‘open heart surgery’. But these 3 girls stood tall and strong in their own personal journey through vipassana and I was strangely proud of their determination.

Wednesday morning we took a rickshaw together, back to the nearest town. We hopped on a train, headed south to Trivandrum and still were very much in our own bubble of ‘positivity and wonderment’. We were talking and learning from each other up until the moment came for our individual paths to head in different directions. Except for me and Anna; we went back to the guest house where we’d been staying before we went on the course. I needed a day or 2 to ease myself into the land of the living and to arrange my next step.

At the moment, I’m still in the guesthouse. And tonight I’m heading to Chennai. Yes, I booked an overnight bus, leaving from Trivandrum at 8pm to arrive in Chennai at 11am tomorrow morning. I’m going to visit Jayanthi! I met her on the English teaching course last year and stayed with her and her family for a month in March during my first Indian chapter. And now it’s time to catch-up again. I can’t wait. Yesterday, when I was buying the ticket and I felt strangely light, independent and free. A great way to temporarily move on from Kerala. The end of October will see me back here again, but for now, it’s time to go and to see how the 10 days of silence effects me, in one of India's biggest cities... Yay (I think...)!

Vipassana 1

10 days later. Silence has ended and I’m back on the planet. During the whole process I literally felt to have left. There are too many words I’d love to share about the time I spent in the Indian bush where I didn’t speak to a soul, yet still was in the company of approximately 30 individuals. This blog isn’t big enough... So just one short word to describe the experience: it was DEEP. And now I find it difficult to determine how deep I should go, when sharing my experience. Maybe it’s best to just go with the flow, and see whatever comes out…

The course started on the 17th and ended on the 28th. The location was nothing to write home about. Or maybe for that simple fact, it actually IS something to write home about: a few old buildings in the middle of nowhere with very little cleanliness and whole lot of bush. The centre wasn’t near a village, it was secluded and the only sounds we heard, was nature. There wasn’t a peep coming from human life form, not from the outside world or from our own personal inside worlds.

On the first day, we were allowed to talk, up until the first meditation sitting at 8pm. Before silence, we were allowed to mingle. I met some great girls; 12 in total, 7 western and 5 Indian. The rest were men. Once the silence started, partitions were put in place. The men had their own dorm building, their own walk way, their own half of camp, half of dining hall and half of meditation hall, and we had ours.

Then the rules were given: we were to hand over all our valuables, laptops, phones, music devices… and anything else that could have been a distraction. We had to take a vow to finish the course, no matter how hard it would get. As well, we were instructed to not only avoid talking, but to avoid eye contact, physical contact and any kind of body language amongst the students. If we had any problems we had a server to help us. For the 12 females, it was Anna (the girl I’d come to the course with). She volunteered throughout the 10 days, and looked after us on site… a ‘mother’ on hand! What a brilliant job she did. The rules didn’t freak me out too much and I didn’t feel imprisoned or isolated. BUT I realized I had to call upon some serious positive thinking to get myself through the week, without cracking.

The first full day of meditation started on the 18th. We were woken up at 4.00am and in the meditation hall by 04.30, sitting like Buddha’s for 2 hours straight. “Ouch”, was all I would’ve said, had I been permitted to speak. But I wasn’t… So instead, after that first meditation sitting, I raised the bar of positive inner coaching a peg or 2 and practised acceptance of the situation I’d willingly placed myself in: sitting cross-legged on the floor in a meditation hall, with 30 other students, who were all willing to learn meditation by ONLY focusing on the breath, from 4.30 in the morning until 9.00pm at night (with necessary breaks of course), for the 10 days straight.

And, what can I say? Well, maintaining silence? I LOVED IT! Sitting on the floor? Agony and effortless all at once. Did I feel to go mental, for being in my own head and not having any form of escapism or distraction from my inside world? I thought the possibility was there, but I never let it happen. Everyday was amazing. I was doing so little, but doing SO MUCH all at once. The meditation technique (the Vipassana technique) was so deep, so complex, so real, so honest, so scientific, so non-religious, and incredibly revealing.

The first 3 days were a warm-up to the real practice of the meditation and after that we were properly developing skills to become more aware of our own physical body and what it tells us about how we live our lives. Everyday was not only amazing, but intense, exhausting, emotional, hard, liberating and grounding. I never once wanted to leave, I never once felt trapped. I never once wanted to talk or communicate. Except for 2 occasions. The first one was when I was greeted by the biggest spider I’ve ever seen in my life (so closely). It had 2 big bright beady eyes that were staring at me, in the toilet. Man oh man! Facing my biggest fear… so of course I desperately wanted to scream… and I did… INSIDE! The second occasion was when I caught the nun red-handed; she was sneaking out of the dorm at night, to nibble on forbidden biscuits! Then I desperately wanted to laugh and spread some gossip…!!!! But, I smiled INSIDE and kept a stern and serious facial expression…

Friday, September 16, 2011

After Onam comes... SILENCE

It was such a coincidence that the Dutch girl, Anna, who I was doing the truck ‘performance’ with, had been to many of these meditation courses before and she was going to one, only an hour from the ashram, this Saturday. It was the same course I actually wanted to do last year before leaving India, but time hadn’t permitted. Now, it felt to be the right time.

So, on Monday I applied for the course and Tuesday I got accepted. That’s when I knew I was leaving the ashram. Was it a rash decision? Not at all. I could’ve mulled over the decision for days, and not have made anything happen. But I made it easy on myself for once… Niamh, you want to leave, you’re free to be and go wherever you choose, and you choose to do a 10-day meditation course. So go for it.

Wednesday morning it was packing time. I said my goodbyes. In many ways I was sorry to leave the people. They all gave me so much and made the 10 intense days into an unforgettable time. Gemma from Australia, Heather from England, Eoin from Ireland, Meri van Spain, Denise from Canada, Anna from Holland, Elodie from France, Renate from Holland… I’m happy to have met them all :)

Where did I go? I went to Trivandrum (the nearest city to the ashram). I’m here now, staying in a private, secluded guesthouse. It’s absolutely gorgeous, old fashioned, so ‘granny like’, but clean, quiet… and even though it’s in the middle of the city, there’s green everywhere. How did I find out about this place? Anna had been here before and asked the owner if I could stay here until Saturday morning. And I was more than welcome.

So, we’re here now, the 2 of us. There’s only one other guest, a lady from England. On Saturday morning Anna, Denise (another girl from the ashram) and I are going to go the 10-day meditation course. I know it’s going to be tough. For those who know more about meditation, the name VIPASSANA might ring a few bells. What does it entail? Basically it’s a silent meditation retreat. We’ll be sitting on a cushion, for 10 hours a day (with breaks in between) in total silence… no communicating, no reading, no writing... (so it wouldn’t really matter if I went there alone, cause we’ll all be secluded in our own little heads, during those 10 days). A bit extreme, most will say, and many who have done it, say it’s the hardest thing they’ve done in their life. And not everyone completes the course; you’re able to leave any time you want. But, that’s not me. I’m going to start it and I’m going to finish it.

I’m delighted right now to have 3 days in between the ashram and the course. This gives me some time to rest. It’s a brief pause to write and to sit on this veranda and try prepare myself for what’s to come. But then again, I don’t think I can really prepare myself… maybe just clear my mind of all the writing I need to do. I think the only thing I can do, is go into the 10 days with an open mind… and total acceptance of the fact that I’ve chosen to do it.

For now, this will be my last update for the next 2 weeks. The course ends on the 28th. And I’m not too sure how much I’ll be willing to write, straight afterwards. Who knows… All I know is, my silence will be in many forms; all for the good of me… Be thinking of me!!!!! I’m sure you will all be going through my mind at some stage or another.

Celebrating Onam

Tuesday morning I woke up at 5.30, went to the compulsory morning meditation (which is something I really enjoyed doing). It was followed by an hour of chanting and singing… something I enjoyed doing, only to a certain extent. Either way, all was well. Afterwards, morning tea by the ‘tea tree’. Always the best part of the day. Time to talk with everybody, just before the first yoga class. And what was coming from my mouth, on that particular hot Tuesday morning, was that I was leaving. Yes... It was starting to happen. My time at the Sivananda Ashram in Neyyardam had surpassed its peak and there was no reason left for me to stay.

The ‘peak of the week’ was experienced on Saturday afternoon. It was the Onam holiday; the biggest annual festival that’s celebrated here in Kerala, every September. The hype that’s generated can be compared to Christmas back home. So it’s huge. The locals basically dress-up in traditional costumes. They either partake in parades or are the spectators. They dance, sing and be very merry… drinking too much and feasting for a days. The ashram was asked by the nearest town of Calicut to partake in the parade, which was held on Saturday afternoon. So there’d be a decorated truck to represent (and advertise) the ashram. And on this truck, they needed some of the guests to perform yoga practise. A few were approached, and I was one of the 3!!!

And so, I found myself, on Saturday afternoon (the 10th) on the back of a decorated lorry, with Anna (a Dutch girl) and Meri (a Spanish girl), doing yoga practise, with hundreds and hundreds of locals standing along the sidelines totally ‘gobsmacked’ to see 3 western girls in the annual Onam parade. At the point, I’d only been in the country for 9 days… and only 10 days out of China… But there I was, participating in the biggest festival, as a yoga demonstrator. I couldn’t believe what was happening. But I just went with it. No nerves, just ‘focus’ and concentration so as not to fall from the truck whilst standing in ‘forward bend’… and the many other poses.

What a day it turned out to be. And the ashram even got first prize in the parade… out of the 40 odd participants. How cool was that! So, no wonder that was ‘the peak of the week’. We were shattered afterwards though. It was such an extreme change in environments, going from a peaceful place, where we’d often forget to be in India, to being the centre of attention in such a festival, all within the space of an hour.

However... as shattered as we were, the daily schedule still continued the next day: 4 hours of yoga, meditation at 6am, afternoon lecture and karma duties to do… The atmosphere had changed. The majority of the guests were becoming restless. Everyone had been 'tempted' by life outside of the ashram and they were suddenly feeling the pull towards the Indian commotion. It was difficult to ignore the restlessness… when you’re apart of a group.

So, with the change, I too became restless. But was wary of not becoming influenced by others, when making a decision whether or not to move on. I ignored the tempting plans others were making. And wondered what did I really want to do. I knew my time in the ashram wasn’t going to last. I knew that there was only so much I could take, when it came to chanting songs of devotion to a guru, who I’m not a follower of. I’d learnt throughout the first full week that I can respect a guru, but I follow my own path, in everything I do… I’d learnt that this particular style of yoga (being Hatha yoga) was nice. But it wasn’t the style I wanted to 'cling' to. I’d learnt that mantra’s are nice and calming, but only to a certain extent. I’d learnt that my body was tired after the change from China to India, with all the travels in between and it wasn’t getting any rest. I’d learnt that I’d been in need of western contact, and this is what I’d received. I’d established them so far, that the connections would remain throughout the rest of my travels… or for however long intended.

This all started brewing on Sunday. And within 2 short days I figured that what I’d enjoyed most, I could work on. It was the meditation. I wanted to experience more of that. As well I’d realized, throughout the week, that I was almost unable to look back on China. So much had happened and every experience felt to be so delicate and precious and each encounter needed my 'processing time'. The setting in the ashram wasn't allowing my mind to do this and I found that the yoga was only adding to my experiences… I wasn’t properly stopping and taking a breather before charging off in the Indian world. So… by speaking with people and being reminded of what was on offer here in Kerala, I decided to apply for do a 10 day meditation course.

More to come :)

Monday, September 12, 2011

Searching for....

The strict schedule wasn’t, and still isn’t, permitting me to satisfy my writing urges and I’ve been ‘forced’ to reflect through SPEAKING. Yes… communication through speech is suddenly something I’m able to do here! It’s what I missed over the past 6 months, and now finally the time is here! So you won’t hear me complain…

From day 1 I’ve been meeting the nicest people from all over the world. Australia, South America, Canada, America, Spain, Germany, England, Holland, Thailand, Japan and Ireland... There’s around 40 or 50 people who are likeminded, open and willing to share their travel stories, their yoga experiences and their lives back home. It’s truly inspiring. I’ve been talking so much and it feels so nice. By speaking of my own experiences, I’ve been putting China more and more into perspective. People want to know my story too, just like I do theirs, and so I share. And after every conversation, I feel China is more a part of the whole adventure. It fits so neatly. As well, after every question I’m posed with, I learn a little bit more.

Many people here in the ashram have asked me what I’m searching for, why I’m travelling so much and what is it that’s brought me back to India. My answers have been varied. I’ve said to be searching for a home and that I’m hoping to stay in India. I’ve answered that I need to support myself and I can’t do that in the field of teaching back in Europe. I’ve said to feel more inspired in Eastern countries. But the one answer I never spoke out loud, but that’s sitting in my heart, is that I’m here for the sake of writing. (by the way, speaking of my heart like this, is probably a result of the hours of meditation I’ve been doing for the past week… haha… so you’ll have to forgive me ). Answering: ‘for the sake of writing’, could mean anything. It could mean to properly write the sequel to my first. It could mean to start publishing from here. It could mean that I need to experience the story first, that I’ll later write about. I can’t give the exact answer. Because I don’t have it. But I DO know it’s linked. I know that India is for the sake of writing.

I’ve not given this reason to most of the people I’m surrounded by. Only to the few who I’ve become closer to. In a way though, I feel the need to share this simple fact. But on the other hand, I feel to be a cheat if I say it, because I’ve nothing to show. Only a manuscript that’s literally weighing heavy in my backpack and taking up space on my hard drive… It’s like I’m making myself out to be somebody I’m not, when really, it’s all I want to be or maybe it’s what I already am…

I think I’m at a point now, where I desperately want to let the life of a writer take over my travels. I want teaching to be something I DO, temporarily, and always with pleasure. Because, I know, deep down, I’m not an English teacher. It’s a job that adds excitement and variation to my travels and it inspires my writing and provides me with funds to live.

But I’ve never before, in my life, said openly that I’m a writer who ‘teaches English’ along the way. I want to be able to say this. I know by doing so, it will make things happen for me. It’s as ‘they’ say: ‘the things we speak about passionately in life are also the things we bring out’. And I know this will sound corny, but I don’t care; I feel it in my heart that it’s what I am. And I guess I’m only questioning this so much, because of others questioning my life too – even if it’s just out of interest or friendliness on their behalf. Their questioning leads me to have more awareness of what I’m doing and then I see I should be more accepting of who I am and be proud and open about that, as I meet more and more people along my travels with whom I want to share my writing. It only makes sense, that if a writer is what I AM, then it’s what I NEED to share with others. It’s the whole purpose of putting that pen to paper.

So I’m gently being forced to speak my truth instead of only writing about my truth (which is what I’m doing right now). It’s in my heart. I feel that it was temporarily buried in my previous circumstances, and now it’s like I’m now ready to give extra life to it. I need to take it to another level. I want it to be tangible for everyone. And I know how I can share it with others… it’s only a matter of time before it happens.

But… back to my current situation. I need to accept where I am. I’m in an ashram. Maybe I’ll stay 1 more week… Initially I thought to stay a month. But it’s too controlled for me to stay that length. I feel comfortable for now and my yoga practise is getting better than I expected. Being here really is easing my curiosity in regards to other questions I’ve always had: How would it be to be a yoga teacher? Would I be able to make that happen in India? Would it be an amazing thing to be doing, as I travel? Well… let’s just say, that by being here, I’ve learnt that, yes I do love yoga and yes my yoga practice has improved immensely. But to take it to another level (to the level of teaching), I’d have to fully immerse myself in the yoga lifestyle. And I’m seeing that I’m not wonder woman. I can’t bring my yoga practise AND my writing BOTH to another level… simultaneously! What do I think I am?! Man oh man… I probably sound so greedy; to want so much more when I’m already surrounded by such amazing things and people and learning so about this journey and my entire life. But this compulsion almost, comes from seeing so many opportunities in the world. I’m learning that there’s a time and a place for everything. And yoga teaching will come, eventually, when the time is right. The place could very well be India. And concerning my book, I feel that time is of the essence. NOW feels to be the time and if this is my place (even if it’s only temporarily)… then soon enough things will come together… travel and writing… in whatever manner.

In the meantime, as I speak with others and connect less superficially and more in depth and figure out where to go next, I’ll continue to learn about physical yoga practise, breathing, relaxation, philosophy and the whole world of spiritual as well as symbolic India. I’m enjoying the communal living too, the silent eating, the meditations and the chanting each morning and night. From here, I’ll take so much of the yoga lifestyle with me, and I’ll incorporate it in my life, in whatever way I choose and I’ll slowly expand on what I know, as I travel.

Yoga life taking over

So. Here I am, ‘reporting’ from the ashram in Neyyardam. It’s Friday afternoon and I’m in the most beautiful place. It’s jungle-like. It’s ‘monsooning’ and between 25 and 30 degrees. Palm trees everywhere… At night there are lions roaring in the distance (and mosquitoes buzzing up close but not able to touch me, because I’m sleeping under a (pink) mosquito net). This whole setting is exactly as I remember it. But probably a little better… Because this time, I’m fresher. When I was here in July of last year, I was at the end of my trip. I’d been on-the-go for months and was, when comparing my level of energy to now, exhausted. I remember to have had the flu as well. Back then, I was heading slowly to Europe without any real plans. All I knew was that I was going to Rome, to take a chance on love (!!!). I had no real notion as to how to get back to India AFTER Rome. Although I knew I had to come back… It just took a little longer than the 2 months I’d hoped it would take… (14 in total) Something I’ve learnt is that it was only natural for me to find my way back to Ireland. Which is totally cool, by the way, because now I’m back in India, with a manuscript literally weighing in my backpack as well as taking up some space on my hard drive! Yay…. Life is good…

But, to stick to the point at hand; the difference between then and now is that I know I’ll not be heading to Europe any time soon. I’ll always be making plans… Because the DO need to be made, or else nothing gets done. Plans can always be altered, of course… But it’s just important not to cling to them, for ‘dear life’ and flexibility is the key to effortlessly travelling with some kind of ‘itinerary’ in hand to guide us forward.

Weeks ago, when I was in China thinking so much of getting to this little spot of magic, I thought that I’d be feeling flat, exhausted and in need of the ashram to ‘look after me’. By that I mean; I thought I wanted the daily schedule to take me over and I thought I wanted to be controlled by the rules and the routine by which we must all abide, whilst staying here. I thought that China would have taken more of a toll of my body and that by being controlled I’d have nothing to do but reflect on where I’ve just come from and work through whatever I needed to. But things never go as we expect them to… Because after the first few days I realized my body is a lot stronger than I gave it credit for and by leaving China, I’ve already worked through and dealt with so much. I’m seeing clearly that I know a lot more about what I really hope will happen, during my time here in India.

I say that now, a week after arriving. But during the first few days, I wasn’t so clear at all about how my body would cope and how my mind would process China. I didn’t know if I was capable of moving myself through this process of change, whilst being here in the ashram.

This is what was going on: I was still very much on-the-go… Well, my mind was on the go. It felt to take forever before I was able to calm myself down and to totally take to the schedule and accept that I was here to do yoga. Because there was so much else going on and I hardly any time to start ‘disposing’ of my stuff, when it came to journaling, blogging and emailing. The biggest problem was finding the time to actually reflect. Because the schedule was, and still is, fully booked with chanting sessions, meditations, yoga classes (4hours a day), helping out in the ashram and eating communally. The schedule takes up every waking hour, expect for 2 hours of free time to… shower in cold water (which I love by the way… reminds me of where I am), to wash our clothes by hand (also very therapeutic) and to, if we’re lucky and have internet connection, check maybe 1 or 2 emails…

The yoga life was taking me over and I was absorbed in everything and everybody around me… and inside I was going berserk for not writing as much as I felt I needed to. This lasted for the first 2 or 3 days. It may not sound like a lot, but believe me, in a place like this, it’s a LONG time… My mind was either telling me to leave the ashram and go somewhere where I’d have proper me-time, so as to write. And this urge got stronger every time I heard from other travellers that they were leaving - which happens daily here… as there’s a steady flow of western people. This, I guess, was only natural reaction, seeing as though I came here ‘in such a rush’… But I forced myself through that stage, I had to and I’ve since let the daily schedule control me… Most times, happily…

Mumbai - Neyyar dam

It’s Friday the 9th of September. So much has happened since arriving. On the morning of the 2nd I landed in Mumbai. I knew how to make my way from the airport to Mumbai Central Station. So I really hadn’t planned too much beforehand. The parts of the journey I’d anticipated most (certain connections), turned out to be so easy… The only struggle I had was carrying the backpack along with my 2 other bags (in total weighing around 28 kg’s). It was so cool though, to find that I fitted right back into the commotion of travelling through India, without any hesitation or doubt.

Within a few hours, I realized just how more capable I am of dealing with certain situations by applying the right approach and using the proper attitude towards the Indians on the street, compared to last year. I was instantly haggling with the drivers before hopping into the dinky rickshaws, I was asking the right people for directions and following the locals who were travelling in the same direction. I was ordering the tea I like best and I knew how to find safe drinking water at the station. I knew where to dispose of my luggage for a few hours (when I was waiting for my train connections) and I was even feeling so relaxed about the whole journey that I managed to get some sleep in the waiting hall - that was for ladies only – just before getting the 40 hour train to the southern state of Kerala.

The train left Mumbai on Friday afternoon. It was the longest train journey I’ve been on. But I didn’t mind. I was able to catch up on all that sleep I’d lost throughout the week gone by. There were more than 50 stops along that particular route… and every stop there seemed to be hundreds of passengers waiting to board this snake of train that was probably a few km’s long (that’s maybe an exaggeration…not too sure).

Anyhow, it wasn’t until I nearly reached Kerala, that I realized I was reversing the journey through India that I’d done last year. I was taking the exact same route, but backwards… as I headed to the yoga school (or the ashram, as most would call it). I found it quite strange to be starting my new Indian chapter in the exact way as I left off, last year. So I may not be back in India to start something new, but instead to continue something that I’d already started…

So I got to Neyyardam by Sunday afternoon (which is the village where the ashram is). I didn’t know for how long I’d stay. That question could only be answered, once I arrived and sussed out what I was in need of or… what I was ‘searching for’.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Beijing - Mumbai

A late update, from the 01st of September

Leaving Beijing without any sleep… AGAIN! I was way too excited to sleep on Wednesday night. So I was literally awake from 1am. Got up at 3am, headed to the airport at around 4.30 am… and flew from Beijing to Shanghai. In Shanghai airport though, sleep was starting to call. But the tricky thing was: I had to wait from around 11am until 10pm for the connecting flight to Mumbai. This was the longest day of my life. I think. I’d planned to get lots of writing done and usually I’d have happily kept myself busy. But my mind wasn’t incapable of writing anything… I was in a daze and getting more exhausted as the day dragged on. So I was trying to get comfortable in the waiting areas to just rest my eyes (that were slowly sinking into my sockets)… or just sat on my trolley, trying to curl-up… But these attempts proved impossible. Especially as I had 3 bags to guard. So I couldn’t do ANYTHING… I couldn’t read, because I’d fall asleep. I couldn’t write, because nothing made sense. I couldn’t even have a cup of tea… The only coffee shop served only coffees and juices… and there’s only so many hours I can sit in one café, stocking up and caffeine and frothed milk…

Anyhow, enough of the complaining… Because, as soon as it was time to check-in at 7pm (it really wasn’t a moment too soon either)… things started to happen. Everything changed from that moment onwards.

Standing in line, as I was waiting to drop my bags… I was looking at the sign above the desk: AIR INDIA. Yes! And what passengers would be accompanying me to Mumbai… INDIANS of course! Yes yes yes… This is the part of travelling I love the most: you stand at the check-in desk and the majority of passengers who board the flight are (obviously) from the country to which you’re flying. When I was flying to China, it was the same; I flew from London to Beijing and I could see the western people vanishing and the Chinese appearing. The ratio of western people to Chinese people was changing. And now, I was at that point again. I could see the Chinese people vanishing and the Indians appearing. And there was me, the only western girl alone, in China, amongst the chaos of the Indians, loving that I could see the transition. Amazing…

Such simple little things can sometimes be so cool….

Anyhow, I’ll continue to share just how these tiny little details brought me to feel so calm, excited and welcome, on the plane. A handful of Chinese, 2 or 3 westerners and hundreds of Indians. And it felt so warming. I felt at home on that flight and so… happy. It was amazing. I couldn’t get over just how bubbly the atmosphere was. Everyone was so jolly – they weren’t in hysterics of laughter or anything. They weren’t even smiling continuously, but… there was something I could sense… an openness and instant friendliness. Maybe I felt it so strongly, because it was something I’ve not really been exposed to for ‘so long’. Of course the Indians can, and will, stare. But already I’ve noticed that it’s warming and it’s with a smile. It’s NOT a stare that resembles a glare. It’s NOT for them to strongly believe I’m an alien who’s just landed from outer-space and has been misplaced in the world. But it’s real recognition…

An unforgettable plane journey; the amount of people I spoke to, the communication I was already experiencing… … I made friends even. People were helping me, giving me advice on my train journey and on what to see and where to go. I even got somebody’s number… In that sweet Indian accent he said: “Call me if you ever need any help… my family and friends are there”. Wouw… I was shocked at the ease. Before leaving China, of course, I’d remembered how much English is spoken by the majority of Indians but it properly came through on that plane journey.

Talking, speaking and being seen as somebody real. This was special. Taking in the atmosphere, I felt the colourful lives these people live. I felt their hospitality and appreciation for things that truly matter… I could feel life around me and I was so ready to embrace India more so than before. I knew that I wouldn’t feel any element of fear (which I had done, when I first arrived, in February of last year). I knew there was NO barrier I needed to work past, when dealing with the chaos this Indian life can present outsiders with. Nope. I’d already done that… This meant, and still means, that I’ll have so much more energy to pour into truly savouring their lifestyle… Suddenly I was coming to life again, as I flew from Shanghai to Mumbai… wouw… What an Air Line can do to a person… haha… My fascination for their reality continued when I hit ground in Mumbai…

A recording of Beijing

A belated update from the 30th of August onwards...

The first day in the big big city of Beijing, was chilled. Even with approximately 10 million people buzzing around us. Me and Helen hung out with Roger, had amazing food, did a small bit of shopping, some taxiing and lots of talking. I was exhausted though by 8pm and in bed by 9pm… Wouw! I’m showing my age here; the 1st full day to explore Beijing and I was in bed so early… Well, it was for a good reason: the following morning (Wednesday the 31st) I had a photo-shoot booked, at 9am. So I literally needed some beauty sleep. Ahum…

Yes! A professional photo shoot: It’s the typical cheesy Asian/Chinese thing to do, which only costs the equivalent of 40 euros (well, this was a special offer as it goes… how lucky was I that Helen managed to land me that deal, when booking it a week in advance). I’d been wanting to do a shooting like this for the past months. But never got round to doing it. However, when I realized I was leaving, I simply HAD to go for it. So Helen set it up for me, in Beijing, instead of Jinzhou. And what a morning it turned out to be!

For one, I’d had enough sleep and was feeling more on top of the world again, instead of just floating through the days. I was totally THERE on Wednesday morning. Having said that; this felt to be one of the most surreal experiences I’ve had in China. Wouw…

4 hours it took…Getting my make-up and hair done and posing posing and posing some more, in 3 different outfits, with different background settings. I’ve never had such a professional transformation done to my face, in all my life! It was truly bizarre. I hardly recognized myself at all.

The photographer was so cool. He didn’t speak English, which of course made the shooting a little bit trickier than it otherwise would’ve been. At first, Helen was there to translate. But after a short spell, it was mainly me and him; I was feeling more comfortable and he was getting used to just using actions and body language when trying to communicate how I should be moving and where I should be looking, so as to get the best shots. I’ve never worked with a photographer before so I had no idea what to expect. I’m no model, far from it… But, I was suddenly getting a glimpse of what is involved in working with a photographer. All those hours of watching America’s next top model were suddenly paying off!!!

I found just how vital it is, to have some sort of a connection with the person taking the pictures and not just with the camera alone - most people who know me, also know that I’m not camera shy at all… ;) (this helped alot I reckon). Still through, without any lines of proper communication or speech (which usually forms the basis for any level of connection, especially if you’re strangers), it could’ve been made almost impossible for me to relax into the "posing-mode" and for him to NOT get impatient or frustrated with me, if I wasn’t understanding what he wanted me to do… for the best possible pictures to be taken.

But, luckily, this guy used his own body language to communicate. And so did I and it got easier and easier as the morning went on. We finished ‘shooting’ out on the streets. We were walking the ‘great outdoors’ of Beijing and I had to stopp taking notice of the cars, the bikes, the pedestrians. It must have been a strange sight, to see a foreigner being photographed, on a zebra crossing, a building sight, in a flowerbed and against several random walls… I blocked out all the stares and the tooting horns. It all faded into the background and it was a most amazing experience. And what I found was: this was my last day in China… My last FULL DAY IN CHINA for the foreseeable future and I’m marking it in a way that I’ll truly never forget. Wouw… I never expected it to be so surreal and natural all at the same time. I learnt so much… And couldn’t (and still can’t) wait to see the outcome, once the photobook and the 150 photos on file, get sent to me in India…

Oh yes… because in the excitement of that morning, I nearly forgot; I was still on my way to India! How cool the days of that particular week were turning out to be.

Once I was done, I felt as though there was nothing more I desperately needed to do or see in Beijing. How silly, many might say! Especially as I'd seen harldy nothing so far. Well, as I was hanging out with Helen, I realized what I gave more importance to, at that moment in time, even if I was in 'far-away' Beijing. At that moment it was (and will always be) friendship. I didn’t want to be running around Beijing trying to see the sights and experience EVERYTHING… I just wanted to savour my time with Helen, who had become my rock and main system of support, over the past months. I didn’t want my last hours in her company to be fuelled by the desperation most tourists will have, when ticking-off the must-see places of the world. Nope.

So… after the shooting, we sat in a café for a short spell. And that alone was brilliant. I’d already established that my China experience was perfect in many different ways and that Beijing too was perfect. With this realization it was suddenly time to at least see… Tiananmen Square and the Palace (not even too sure of its exact name), but I DO know that it’s the most popular spot in Beijing, amongst many others. So we made something of an effort, without expecting it to be amazing. On hindsight I’m glad we made the effort. I now know that I wasn’t really missing out on too much.

But I did learn something: monuments and architecture, are famous for a particular reason. It's where both good and not so good things have happened throughout the history of time… It marks monumental people or moments for that nation. Those happenings/moments contribute, to a certain degree, to the way in which the majority of that particular nation can think, live and experience their own lives, on this very day… This small realization in turn, I guess, can explain a lot to an outsider who is suddenly up close and personal with a different country and society… It can explain what the values, beliefs, views and opinions of the majority within society (or in China in particular) are based on. So, a concrete square, a monument and a historical palace, for these reasons can become a place that holds something special. It was definitely an eye opener for me. And maybe I’ll appreciate such man-made gems, just as much as appreciate the ‘natural gems’ of the world… Hummm… interesting.

So, that was Wednesday… and just one last thing… sitting in the foodcourt in downtown Beijing, I was having my last ‘Chinese’ dish (that was actually Korean…), I went to the public toilet and – now this was a first for me, EVER – I saw that the toilets had NO DOORS whatsoever… they weren’t western style toilets either… but squatters (not that that fact of the matter bothers me). But the absence of doors, could’ve stopped me from answering to the call coming from nature. It didn’t though... And so, on my last day in China, and for the first time in my life, I did my business with strangers walking by… who were ‘of course’ quite amused to see that foreign girls also go the bathroom, just like they do!!! What a high note to conclude my China story with 

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Closing the door to Jinzhou

My last entry was somewhat of mess. It was a true reflection of how I was in that moment of writing. It was Thursday the 1st when I wrote it. It’s now… Sunday the 4th. The week has been so crazy. The only time my head was clear enough to write, was on Thursday – but really, after reading what I wrote I figured out that my head was nowhere near as clear as it could’ve, should’ve or would’ve been, had I slept and rested more throughout the previous days. Either way, no worries. This is what’s been happening since leaving the office last week Sunday.

I’d said my goodbyes to most of the teachers and once I stood outside the school, I was free. Emotional of course, but positive. I was then taken to dinner by the ‘foreign gang’ from work. Which was so nice. They’d arranged it for me, and really made an effort to give me good send-off. Afterwards we went for some drinks in a bar. Something I’ve not done in ages, but it’s what I needed. As well it was so good to ground myself in the company of the teachers who are and always will be an important part in my Jinzhou experience. So I was grateful for the way the evening planned out. The goodbyes again, affected me more than I imagined, just like the goodbyes I’d said to the kids throughout the day. And it was only by saying goodbye, did it really hit home, just how much others appreciated me being there… It was something I never really was aware of, not until I took a step back later that night; the entire day, started rolling through my mind.

This thinking, kept me from my sleep… 3 hours is all I managed to get. I was then up at the crack of dawn on that last day and needed to get so much done. But, if somebody had been watching my moves during the day, they’d never have guessed! Because I was literally floating, in a tired daze. I got absorbed in journaling, when really I should’ve been packing. I was meeting a few of the Chinese staff from work, to say goodbye, when really I should’ve been sorting some ‘business’… I was sitting in a coffee shop, by myself, writing poetry (!!!!!) when really I should’ve been getting a few last bits from the market. I was meeting the new boss from work, when really I should’ve been PACKING! Man oh man… it was so strange. I was floating and I didn't care less... I was enjoying my last day, being carefree… There wasn’t any stress involved at all. And to be honest, I don’t even think I’d have had the energy to stress myself out ;)

In the evening, I was working on my last painting… still not packed!!!! I then began to wonder if and when I was actually going to start moving things along… But suddenly I kicked myself into gear at around 7pm. And the packing commenced. A whirlwind took over my apartment for around about 2 hours (it was me, by the way) and then I hit a bump. But that was fine. I figured the last little bits could wait until the following morning. And the bump struck at the perfect time too; Helen came round for a chat and to pick-up some stuff I was passing on. So nice it was, to actually speak about what was happening…

By this stage, it was like I wanted and needed myself to be stressed and fearful and excited and emotional… at least if I was experiencing ‘normal’ feelings due to what was happening, I’d truly feel that something big was changing in my life. But, they never came. Instead I was calm and focused. I guess I wanted to flow with this ‘massive change’ MORE SO than I wanted to stress and panic myself over what I was doing and the risks that were involved and the affects the move could end up having on me. There proved no fear to be felt and instead a great deal of flow to be experienced. Sad emotions had all been disposed of, the night before. And Monday night was time for calm and settled feelings.

My last night of sleep, in the apartment that was so ‘beautiful’, but no longer mine, only lasted 3 hours….again! Whaa… the excitement was kicking in. And sleep didn’t feel too important. So, when the sun finally rose, I was happy and extremely eager to get the show on the road! Things needed to start moving. I needed action. And sure enough, in due time, action came knocking at my door. One of the managing staff from work arrived at my apartment at 8am, to take the keys. As cool as a cucumber I was packing my last bits and pieces, my backpack was still growing and becoming heavier by the minute… But that was just a minor weight to bear… My muscles would prove to be getting the workout they’d been missing over the past months ;)

Anyhow, I was so ready to move on, it was almost daunting. Usually I’d want a moment by myself, to properly absorb the space I’d been living in, the place I’d never again set foot in, before closing the door behind me. But I didn’t even need those moments… Nope! I figured I’ve most definitely had too many hours of being alone in that space, that a special goodbye wasn’t too much of the essence. And I realized that, no matter how luxurious it was… it was never really my home. It was just an… apartment after all. I'm sure there are gorgeous ones everywhere in the world… and anyhow, I was off to India to find my gorgeous hut instead!!!! Way better than a space in an apartment block situated in the north eastern part of China (oops, didn’t mean to slip in some bad notes about Jinzhou…) All in all, closing the door behind me, on Tuesday morning (the 30th), felt like the most natural thing in the world. I was simultaneously closing the door to Jinzhou too... or maybe leaving it on a small latch - I've learnt how important it is to NEVER burn any brigdes :)

The last taxi ride through Jinzhou as I made my way to the state… was … good good good! I was heading to Beijing! Helen and I set-off together, which is something we planned the week before. She wanted to visit a friend of hers, Roger, who also offered to put me up for 2 nights - giving me 2 days to explore Beijing. Helen would stay for 1 night and go back to Jinzhou on Wednesday afternoon.

The excitement started to hit home, once I was on the train on Tuesday morning… It was so cool to realize that there was no turning back. No matter what would threaten to stop me in my tracks, there really was nothing that would ever stop me in my tracks… how reassuring!

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

A late update; the 28th concluded

But, I was revealing the deeper truth behind my smile and I found that I DO have personal things to attend to, and yes, my weight may have dropped slightly. Even still, this admittance made me feel so exposed, especially because it was to a room full of parents who I’d only consider as being ‘familiar faces’, nothing more, nothing less… It was exposure I was unprepared for and I felt like such a failure; the fact that something from my past was now being ‘used’ as my key to become free from EF and as EFs’ key to become free from a bad reputation. We were both using something so personal and so real to help make a bad situation (that I’d created) a little better. But I guess it was the truth and by leaving I was consciously choosing to make things better, for myself, when taking my whole ‘journey’ into account. I was preventing ‘things’ from getting worse. I can now see that during those meetings, I actually WAS setting myself free from anything that could’ve harmed me and steered me away from my truth, had I continued to force myself to stay in an environment that wasn’t suiting me, not on a deeper level.

It was so hard to keep a hold of reality though, without getting too confused, too upset, too emotional and too lost in my past. And nobody had a clue just how painful it was. I, myself, didn’t even have a clue how painful it was, not until it came to the forth meeting of the day… the FORTH time to be ‘scrutinized’ and judged for my physical appearance. The FORTH time for me to say I had to leave and let everyone down in the process. I nearly burst into tears in front of 14 adults… just because of… EVERYTHING. Things felt to explode in my face.

I realize now, there was almost too much going on for me to have dealt fully with the situation on Sunday; there was the rising pain of the past, the approaching light of the new adventure and that present day I so desperately wanted to appreciate wholeheartedly, as it was my last.

So the emotions were inside, being stirred. But on the outside I continued to give what I could, to the parents, the kids and the colleagues. I was rising and falling all day long, and the exposure was almost overwhelming. There wasn’t enough of me to go round and I felt be placed in the spot light, for 15 whole hours. When I was rising, I could happily see what I’d contributed to the kids’ foreign experience and I knew I was moving on, towards better things. I knew in those moments that I was putting my own needs before everybody else’s. That was something I needed to keep close. Because, when I was falling, my head was spinning and the spot light was shining upon me for all the wrong reasons… I felt like a hypocrite, who was receiving too much importance, for ‘simply’ choosing to follow my heart. Such a contradiction; how can following the heart be so wrong??? Hummm… Just goes to show that I was emotionally all over the place…

By the end of the day, the head teacher was delighted with the response from the parents and the outcome of the meetings. She even thanked me for how well I’d handled it and how honest I was. The parents obviously felt I was genuine and therefore wished me well even though they would miss me. When I left the office on Sunday evening, for the last time, they even said that, if I ever wanted to come back, there would always a place for me. This really shocked me… But maybe the actions I took on that dreaded Sunday, had put right the wrong I felt to be doing, on behalf of the school. The whole event made me realize that being honest and open will always be only the way to move away from one place, without leaving behind any scars. It helps to move easily onwards to another place to rest assured that I did all I could to wipe the slate clean ‘everywhere’, before starting a fresh.

All in all, it was a painful day but I needed to experience it. And I now can close the chapter of teaching English in China and venture onwards. As for my personal issues and the weight loss; I trust and believe so strongly that, when I’m in a good place (in my mind as well as my surroundings), then everything will fall into accord… as it should. So happy and free I already feel. Life is good…

A late update - My last day of teaching in Jinzhou (28-08)

Sunday the 28th, my last day of teaching for EF; it turned out to be a day that shook me about in too many ways. It’s now Thursday the 1st of September, I’m sitting in Shanghai airport, and only getting a chance to properly reflect on what happened – I’ve been massively preoccupied with moving, ever since… So I’ll just play catch-up for now.

Looking back, the entire day was a daze… From 8am in the morning, straight through until 11pm. I had maybe a grand total of 30 minutes in between those long hours to be by myself, to shed some tears and to take stock of what was happening.

Why did it turn into such a big day? Well, on top of the normal hours of teaching, I, of course had to say goodbye to the kids at the end of every class – which brought up many unexpected emotions – AND I had to give unprepared teacher meetings in my breaks. After walking out of every class for the very last time, I had to walk into the next class that was filled with the parents of the kids I’d only just said goodbye to. They were eagerly waiting for an explanation from me, as to why I was leaving. I had no time to get myself in the ‘presentation zone’ before talking so openly with the parents and ‘breaking the disappointing news’ that I was letting down the kids and thus letting down the parents, by choosing to leave China.

So, basically, I was being told to confirm to the parents, in English, that what the ‘head teacher’ was telling them, in Chinese, was true: I was leaving China and returning to ‘Ireland’, for the sake of my health. The school was using my physical appearance as justification for my departure; in the hope that it would lessen the disappointment the parents would feel when realizing the school wasn’t providing their kids with the foreign English teacher that EF had ‘promised’ would be teaching them. My boss and the other ‘head teacher’ figured that by using this ‘excuse’ – and getting me to confirm it - my moving-on wouldn’t be too damaging for the reputation of the school.

Was this ‘excuse’ made up? And where did my boss and ‘head teacher’ suddenly get the notion from that it was ‘okay’ to be speaking of my health, just so the school wouldn’t loose business, as a result of my departure? Well, they got it from me! 5 or 6 weeks ago, I realized I’d lost a small amount of weight since first arriving in China. To me, it was a shock and it brought back many of my old issues. I used this realization as the sign that Jinzhou wasn’t right for me. The subconscious yet slight weight loss, told me that I wasn’t truly happy in the situation I’d been so desperate to place myself in. To me, this minor ‘loss’ was a result of trying to be somebody I’m obviously not entirely happy being, by pushing, forcing and proving myself and my abilities in and to the world (when deep down, this really isn’t needed. Not anymore. I know exactly who I am and what I want to be doing in this life and I don’t need to force or to push to be that person).

This painful dawning however, led me to break down and so I made the ‘rash’ (but wise) decision to break away from a place that was affecting my health, because of the force I’d been applying in order to be happy in Jinzhou. Some of you will understand, others may not… but I can’t go too much into it right now… not enough…huuummm…. space… in this post ;)

Either way… when I approached my boss with the news that I was definitely leaving, I touched the subject, stating that ‘when I’m unhappy in a place, I can be affected physically’ (or something along those lines). I had to be as superficial as possible, whilst trying to be honest and real at the same time – just to attain some degree of understanding from him. And on a personal level, it did come. But he also knew that my actions could potentially cost him business, so he chose to openly use the ‘evident truth’ of the kilos I’d shed and so, my reason for leaving became real; I had personal issues (that will always to some extent, be health related) and I needed to attend to them.

To stick to the matter at hand; my last day at EF. During every single meeting, I felt as though I was being punished for following my heart; my heart that was no longer in Jinzhou. I was paying my dues, for having exposed myself to my boss and for having told him of my unhappiness. My punishment was; standing in front of 10 to 14 parents, five times over, and telling them I was leaving, because I had personal issues to attend to. I had no choice but to expose the truth. As I sat there, I felt as though I was lying… Health problems! What a joke! I was living, I was breathing, I was teaching, walking, talking, eating and smiling. How could I sit there and say such lies???!!!!