“The Only Truth Is the Ever-New Impermanent Nature.”, a quote that accompanied me the past week.
Now it’s your turn to guess where I’ve spent my last week…
I was staying at Thabarwa Nature Center in Ho Chi Minh City, a Vipassana meditation center. I had found the place on Workaway, like the school I volunteered at in Cambodia. For those who don’t know, Workaway is a platform to find a place to work and receive food, accommodation and local culture in exchange. And this time, it was a total joy.
I tought English, but it wasn’t at all like last time. I only tought 1-2 hours a day, was free to choose how I wanted to teach my class, the students were all adults (mostly middle-aged or older), and at the beginning of my week I just had a single student. The number gradually rose and yesterday it was four. Teaching those people was the best evidence that so often age doesn’t matter – just in case I had still been in doubt. After teaching a 60-year-old woman “Itsy Bitsy Spider” while drawing little images to explain the lyrics there’s no way of questioning it.
And the people living in the center were so caring, it was such a pleasure to be with them. Even though I didn’t understand their words when they were talking at the kitchen table, sometimes I could guess what the conversation was about. For example when Binh’s daughter didn’t want to eat the greens, trying very hard to find excuses… 😉 Binh was the man I contacted on Workaway and he was very supportive all the time. Although I felt lonely in some moments, this was a beautiful place to be in. After every single meal that wasn’t just fruit for breakfast, I was so damn full. The food was too delicious. In the first couple of days I learned to enjoy dragon fruits which I had thought I didn’t like. Weirdly, big ones are sweeter than small ones… Here – not imported and picked when still unripe – they’re really yummy. And their color is amazing!
I also learned more about Vipassana meditation, a Buddhist meditation that is not tied to religion, though. The meditation is about awareness and mindfulness. It’s about understanding the nature of things, mostly of our thoughts and feelings. Teachers of Vipassana meditation believe that every thought and every feeling is impermanent; they come and go. And when we sit down to meditate we close our physical eyes and open our inner eye instead. We watch our mind, we observe what we think and how we feel. We don’t reject any of our thoughts and feelings, neither do we attach to them. The word Theravada monks use to describe that state of mind is Equanimity. But the practice doesn’t end as soon as you open your eyes and get up. You practice mindfulness in every moment. Alone or when you’re with others. Quiet or in conversation. Still or in movement. Sitting, lying, standing.
It was very interesting to learn about this kind of meditation, also because meditation is such a fuzzy word. People talk about meditation, but everone has their own idea or imaginations about it, and there are so many different ways to practice it. When someone says he is meditating every day, you have no idea what that person is actually doing.
And I agree with most of the aspects that Vipassana (or Theravada) meditation is about. I resonate with the idea of neither attaching nor rejecting your feelings. Too often and too easily we try to hold on to a feeling we label as nice and beautiful – and try to suppress our so-called negative emotions. We want to feel happiness and joy, but we hate feeling impatient or sad or lazy. I think it’s a very healthy – and, if that word is appropriate, effective – way to deal with the ocean of our mind. Because it is, really, an ocean. Our emotions are like waves, and every feeling will pass at some point. Trying not to feel it or push it away won’t help and maybe even cause it to linger longer. I have experienced it; when you just observe your feeling with an imaginary internal camera, as Binh’s wife explained to me – meaning, you allow yourself to feel, and just watch what’s happening to your emotion, your body, your mind – the feeling will pass. “The only truth is the ever-new impermanent nature.”
Where do I start? How do I sort my thoughts? What do I want to tell you and what do I want to keep to myself? How can I say this or that, how do I explain myself?
All these thoughts and a couple more have been keeping me from writing another article. I was confused, and I still am about a few things. I didn’t really want to write for all of you to read it – I’d have to know how to express things, I’d have to have things sorted in my mind, I’d have to figure out which thoughts to share and how to put them in an order. I wasn’t ready for that. I don’t know if I am now, but I want to try. The longer I wait, the messier it gets.
My mind has been spiraling around whether I want to go back home or not. When should I decide? Plane tickets get more expensive… I wanted to make a decision, yet I wasn’t sure about what to decide. I knew I had to wait until I was absolutely sure. Not knowing when that time would come, freaked me out. But at the same time I knew: Letting go of desperately wanting to make a decision was the only way.
I was sure I wanted to go home, the next moment I wasn’t. Then I was again but didn’t know when to go back. I was so afraid to make the wrong decision. How often are we afraid to make the wrong decision? Too often. But we cannot know what’s going to be the “right” decision. We won’t know the outcome of a choice until we make it. I tried my best to let go of “the right decision”, but still, I was afraid. Afraid of going back home, what would I do there? I wouldn’t know what to do with my time, my life, I’d be lost, I thought. But the thought of keeping on traveling felt terribly uncomfortable, made me uneasy. Just carrying on without a goal, without knowing anything… Ugh.
The only possible way to make a decision (for me, at least) is to rely on how I feel NOW. Because I can’t predict the future, I cannot know how I will feel tomorrow. And most of all, I don’t want my fears to drive my actions. I know that I’m afraid of booking my flight back home, I know that I’m afraid of what I’ll do, I know that I’m afraid that nothing will be as I expect it to be. But I don’t have to let those fears lead me.
But still… There are doubts, and worries, fears, imaginations of the future… What if I actually start to enjoy myself and don’t want to go back?
But how can I know? I can’t.
And then something happened. On my last night in Cambodia, I was about to go to bed, maybe listen to an audio book or write a bit. I had to get up early the next morning, after all, to get on the Bus to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). But that was just my plan, not my life’s. I met two women in my dorm, we chatted for a while and then we went to the night market and had great fun! (I might tell you more about it at some point, because it was just hilarious.) It was a shame we had to part the next day, but it felt so good to really be happy. Then, one day after I arrived in Saigon, a Vietnamese woman took me with her for the afternoon. We went to a coffee fair, the city center, had some yummy food and I saw a lot of different areas in Saigon. I had an amazing day, that must have been the first day where I was happy for pretty much the whole day. It felt so, so good.
But I didn’t feel like I wanted to travel on for ages. It was great, I was enjoying everything that happened that day – even the rather uncomfortable moments of feeling lonely. And that moment, I knew that this was it. If I still want to be home in a moment of plain happiness and joy here in Vietnam, then going home has to be the right decision. Meaning, the right decision for NOW. Because if I wait to make a decision for too long, I might as well wait forever. No doubt, it’s good to wait until you’re clear about a choice. But at some point you just have to jump. Not knowing what’s on the ground or what you will come across during your fall. Just jump because that’s what you feel like you deeply want and need – NOW.
What is all of the world’s beauty worth when you don’t have anyone to share it with?
After visiting Angkor Wat, I just didn’t know what I wanted to do next. I didn’t want to stay in Cambodia for too much longer, neither did I want to leave after such a short time. I also craved some nature. And to be honest, I was already tired of the same backpacker conversations over an over again, I didn’t want to do it any longer. So what next? I wasn’t enthusiastic about ANYTHING, neither Cambodia nor moving on to Ho Chi Minh City. And then I got recommended Kampot, a province and town in the south of Cambodia. She told me that if I wanted nature that was the place to go.
So here I am. In a beautiful eco guesthouse, with a big big garden full of plants and trees and blossoms, cute bungalows, a natural pool and dozens of different kinds of fascinatingly colorful butterflies. Because it’s still not high season yet, there are only two guests: me and another man who just arrived today. I have the dorm completely to myself. And that is exactly what I need right now. Recentering, calming down, thinking, relaxing, writing and being in nature pretty much on my own.
You might have noticed that I’ve been feeling quite lonely recently. And I guess that is quite normal when you go to travel on your own, especially if it’s the first time. I really don’t know if that’s all normal and will pass in one or two weeks but I’m going to share how I feel anyways.
I miss deep conversations, deep relationships. I miss people that I can trust and that I know I can talk to. I miss people I can share all my enthusiasm with, people who appreciate it and get enthusiastic as well. I have the opportunity to see and experience all this beauty, all those fascinating things, but no one I REALLY want to share it with. This is something that has gotten very clear for me on this travel, even more than I was already aware of: I wish for a person I can share my passion and enthusiasm with, that is part of the beauty. Just seeing Angkor was nice and interesting but what I desired was someone to do it together with. And not just a random person I meet at my hostel but someone whom I can dive into the feeling of seeing the temples WITH EACH OTHER, figuratively hand in hand, not plainly side by side and each in their own bubble.
When I booked my plane ticket to South East Asia and prepared my trip, I was expecting to meet loads of like-minded people. People who are into alternative ways of living, who like in-depth conversations, who are open and spiritual. Not quite the reality, at least not where I am now. Before I left, I thought, wow, I will meet all these interesting people, make lots of good friends and be super inspired. I’m actually not inspired at all. Not inspired to see what’s around, not inspired to talk to most people, not inspired to take photographs. I learned, the kind of photographs I want to take at this time, is portraits of people. The deep kind of portrait in which you can read so much about the person portrayed, the photographer and their relationship. Here, I don’t know the people that well to take those kind of portraits, and I’m not interested in getting to know them. When I thought about traveling a couple months ago, I thought it would be exactly the other way around. Simply put: boring people at home, fascinating people somewhere else.
Traveling makes unexpected things happen. And my unexpected things are realizations about my reality. I’m here and I start to value things I had been valuing before, just not nearly as much. I’ve noticed how important good, healthy food is for me in order to be happy and energetic. I’ve discovered how much I need deep human connection to make me feel alive and enthusiastic and full of passion. Filtering liters of tap water by hand every day just to have drinking water, and having to pay $1,50 for water each day after my filter broke, makes me even more grateful for our clean German tap water.
I love learning all that and I don’t regret any choice I’ve made because I realize so many things. But right now, I feel like I’m not in the right place. I don’t know where exactly the right place for me now is, just that it’s not here. And I have a feeling that this place I’m looking for is near the people I love, and that this place does not necessarily have to be a geographical place but might as well be a space of mind, a group of people, healthy food. Here, there are beautiful landscapes to explore, yummy food etc. but that is not what I feel like I need in this period of my life. I feel like discovering human relationships, going deep in whatever sense, and here I have a lot of things to experience, but not in-depth at all.
I am not making a decision now, but realizing that what I have decided a while ago might have been right for me then but does not have to be now. And a tough lesson to learn is this: Changing your plans is not giving up. To stop doing something is not giving up. It is actually the exact opposite.
Alarm at 3:30am. Tuk Tuk pick up at 4:30am. It’s dark outside, the air is cool and breezy on the ride to the ticket office. Every day, hundreds of people get up really early and then all meet up at the Angkor Wat ticket office. From there everyone gets on the Tuk Tuk again and takes a ride to the actual temple area a little further away. When we arrive close to Angkor Wat, the main temple of Angkor, all those people wishing fora beautiful sunrise meet again. They stream towards Angkor and most of them halt in front of the two ponds that reflect Angkor Wat and the colors of sunrise in the sky above. It is indeed pretty but not too fascinating, as I think… It’s about what you expect it to be like.
A little later, as I walk through the temple, the light is just stunningly beautiful. Amazing carvings, statues, pillars are lit up by the golden morning sun. The only thing missing is someone to share it with. I’m on my own, without someone I love, and without someone to take portrait photographs of.
The second temple we visit, Bayon, is even more amazing than the first one. It’s not as busy and you can find a couple spots where you’re pretty much on your own. I’m encircled by huge smiling stone faces. I sit down and feel the acient energy. My favorite temple.
The fourth temple is very busy, which unfortunately steals the power of it. But it’s impressive how the enormous trees trail their roots around the old blocks of stone as if they wanted to claim the temple for themselves. People are allowed to climb parts of the ruins which are covered by deep green moss: Something that you wouldn’t experience in western countries.
Traveling is changing plans. On Friday, I left the school. I just couldn’t bear it anymore, it all got too much. It was dirty, I was feeling lonely, bored, frustrated, I couldn’t really talk to anyone. I just wanted to cry and scream and throw things on the dusty floor. So I made a decision and told the teachers I’d leave. There wasn’t much of a reaction. The students were sad and disappointed. One of them even said I was betraying them because I had PROMISED to stay two weeks. He didn’t understand when I said that’s what I need right now, I should stay for them, he said. Yes, I did feel sorry and a little bad because they’re always happy about foreigners staying at their school. But I was mainly proud of myself. Proud to have made my own, authentic, true-to-myself decision – and as opposed to the previous couple of days, I was very happy to be on my own, because I could just do what I felt like doing.
I got a “taxi” to the hostel in Phnom Penh I had booked and it was really nice. Probably even nicer because of what I had experienced before. When I went to go eat something, it started raining so hard. I found shelter under an awning, and a friendly Cambodian offered me a chair to sit down. It was so interesting to see how the locals reacted to the rain. They moved their mopeds away from the road onto the sidewalk, they put on their plastic raincoats that covered their whole body, they arrived home, soaked, and they didn’t seem to care. They’re just used to it and they accept it – in contrast to people in Germany who always appear as if rain was this new and really annoying thing. After 45 minutes the rain had pretty much stopped. But the street was FLOODED. People were wading through the water that went up to their calves. That was another thing they didn’t really seem to worry about: how dirty that water was. There was a market close by, so the rain soup definitely contained remains of fish and other dead animals, maybe shit, pee, plastic, food leftovers, and I don’t even want to know what else. By that time I was starving. So I dared to walk through the urban brew to get to the restaurant. Yum. But to be honest, after those few days at the school, I didn’t care too much. After all, it was just my feet.
The same night I met Alex from London, whom I spent a lovely night talking to. I finally got to speak English again and, even better, got to do some deep talk – or as Alex taught me, DMC (Deep Meaningful Talk). Thanks, Alex, for letting be the English student after teaching it for a few days 😉
The next day, Alex and I went to see the Killing Fields (Choeung Ek) and the S-21 (Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum) which are both famous tourist sights close to/in Phnom Penh. They’re both remnants of the brutal Khmer history. The S-21 is a former high school that the ultra-communist Khmer Rouge, under the rule of Pol Pot, changed into a prison to torture people that didn’t fit into their ideology. When there were too many people to kill and bury, they brought people to a then-orchard which became the Killing Fields. The Khmer Rouge ruled from 1975-1979 and aoround 1.5 to 3 million people (approx. 25% of the Cambodian population) were killed in their genocide. It’s shocking how few we learn about other genocides, regimes, wars, etc. in school and media apart from World War II. I can’t say it was nice to visit the Killing Fields but it was definitely an experience I wouldn’t want to have missed. It’s very different from European monuments. When you enter Choeung Ek you’ll see a memorial straight ahead. It looks like classic Cambodian architecture, almost like a temple/ pagoda. But when you come closer you see hundreds of skulls. You can walk around the huge glass box that contains skulls and all kinds of human bones. They tell you how a person was killed by means of the different kinds of fracture or color of the skull. They would never do that in Europe. Maybe they wouldn’t even excavate all the dead bodies, skeletons and bones. Another thing that is very divergent from the European, or at least German, style of remembering cruel crimes is the balance of cold horror and fresh beauty, darkness and light, death and life. All those bones, the mass graves, historical displays, and on the other hand the calm pond, plants and trees, chickens walking around, and colorful bracelets visitors had hung on trees and the mass graves’ fences.
It’s not a place I wanted to take photographs at, but I remember it all quite clearly. Just like I remember one of the signs saying “Please Don’t Walk Through the Mass Grave.”
Leadership and Character Development Institute. That’s where I am at the moment, volunteering for two weeks. 80% of the students think that’s a “sort time”. I guess it is. At the moment, I’m quite glad that I’m not staying longer than that, though.
It’s so damn challenging. Let me introduce you to my surroundings and daily life: A hell lot of dogs, begging for food, following you around. When I went to the bathroom at night, they woke up from the torch light, barked and sniffed at me, wriggled around my legs and feet, so I could barely move. I didn’t want to step on one of them and have it bite me. No, thanks. Some people might think they’re cute, there are actually quite many puppies, but I don’t. They shit in the middle of the way, hopefully I won’t step into their poo, thankfully, I haven’t (yet).
We all shower with a plastic bowl, that we fill up with water. That itself isn’t too bad. Just the bathroom floor is so incredibly dirty and I can’t wear my flip flops because they all leave their shoes outside. Whatever. Even two seconds after showering I feel sticky again, because the air is so humid. I feel so dirty and sweaty and stinky, I don’t even want to know what’s on my skin this very second. I use deodorant in the morning, just to pretend I was smelling nice. I don’t even want to touch my own body.
Everyone else here uses the water other people have used to shower for washing their clothes. I did it once. And I will never do it again.
The students and the teachers get up around 4:30 to 5:30 am. Fortunately, I don’t have to do that, but once I’ve gotten used to the rhythm a little more, I might get up earlier.
For the ones who don’t know, I’m a vegetarian. Apparently, being a vegetarian in Cambodia is quite hard to manage (especially if you don’t want to eat egg and rice all day. And especially if you volunteer at an NGO school where they don’t have a lot of money to spend on food, so they don’t even have much fruit). On my first night, I ate plain rice. On my first morning, I ate rice with soy sauce. For today’s lunch, I cooked some veggies for myself because I was sick of having egg after having 4 (!) eggs yesterday. I guess, I’m making progress, yay!
The students are wonderful, though. They give me a big smile back when I smile at them. Some of them are very outgoing and confident and talk to me a lot. They’re so sweet. I’ve been asked a hundred times where I was from, how old I was (18? So young!), what my name was. Sometimes what my future plans are – couldn’t give them a satisfying answer, though. And other times how many countries I’ve visited – I had to count first, and even then I wasn’t sure if I hadn’t forgotten any European country. They were pretty shocked and fascinated about my answer. It’s so unfair, how I don’t know the number of countries I’ve been to while some of them haven’t even seen a lot of their home country.
They’re all very respectful, to each other and to the teachers, they’re (most of them) very ambitious, they study a lot outside of the regular classes. And some of them are just so funny. One 17-year-old girl, Srey Nat, said the other day: “My stomach is full but my mouth is still hungry.” That’s ma girl. When I took photos of them they were either shy, flattered and a little embarrassed or wanted me to take their picture with some friends. Unfortunately, I don’t have computer access at the moment, so you’ll have to wait to see the photos for two weeks. I can only share the photos I take with my phone at the moment.
The students think, I have a Cambodian face. I guess, there’s something to it, especially in a profile view. One student compared it to a ball – charming young man – and sweet girl Srey Nat to the full moon (after I told her what my name means).
One thing that is very frustrating here (apart from the teachers not always understanding me and vice-versa) is teaching the classes. Not because you have to be very patient with the students and let eleven students read the same story to you over and over again. Not because it’s so frickin’ loud in those classrooms because one is not well isolated from the other. But because the teachers here stick to their English teaching books a lot. Those books are pretty much the same as the ones I used to hate in school. And my partner teacher (who shows me how things work in class) wants me to do the same. But the worst thing is that he wants me to rush through it. They don’t have too much time for every set of tasks. The problem is, though, that even when I’m not rushing the students struggle to follow the content. So if I rush, I might as well tell them about German grammar. In German. There is so much the students can learn from a foreigner, so why do I have to work through every single task that they often don’t even understand? And I can see that they’re bored. And I’m bored too, and frustrated. The only thing I can do, is support them outside of class, talk to them and help them with their vocabulary and pronunciation.