Saturday, 15 May 2010

Out of the Deep and Into Silence

The last image I have of Koh Pang Ngang is of sitting on the deck of the boat, ready to leave for Koh Tao, and seeing Anna striding along the pier to the next boat along. She is a small, determined figure in her black skirt and blue halterneck, long blonde hair tied up, striding in her flip-flops with her small rucksack on her back, purposely off to claim her destiny. Her destiny at that moment involved a trip to Bangkok and the Finnish embassy and then a visa run (common to long-term Thai stayers) to Malaysia before a return to Koh Pang Ngang, her home for now. I called out to her. She paused a moment, scanning my boat for the voice, and then spotted me and waved. Somehow the image was very poignant. It felt that she had shared essential markers of this trip of mine – and who knows when our respective odysseys will bring us to another meeting point? It made me realise how grateful I was to have had her company along the last month. It was good to have someone around who had also come from six months in India, similar but different to mine, and so with many common references and adjustments. It made the easing into the Thai backpacker scene (which I never quite felt I’ve done) much less traumatic. So thank you Anna – for company, for laughter, for help and for lovely massage practice.
I tried very hard not to be disappointed with Koh Tao. I was there over Christmas and new year 2000/01 and had utterly fallen in love with it then. It has changed a lot in that time, largely over the last four years or so, I am told. It is still very beautiful, but gone are the simple beach huts and easy, laid-back restaurants. The most astonishing quantity of building has gone on, right down to the beachfront, all squarely aimed at the package tourist rather than the backpacker brigade. Prices have consequently pretty much doubled. I barely recognised my old bay, which seemed much smaller than I remembered. I later realised this was because the beach has about halved in size, with all the dive resorts now built virtually down to the water.
But I did quite well on my accommodation. I think I found the last cheapish bungalow right over the sea at a little resort with some of the best food I’ve had since my arrival in Thailand and also some of the cheapest. My bungalow looked right over the bay and seemed to be pretty much the last one left on the beach. Here it is, with my usual colourful array of laundry:

The dive shop was small, German-run and friendly in a very old-laddish way. The overheard conversations of Koh Pang Ngang beginning “As a tantric man, I can…” (this is a verbatim quote) were supplanted by the porno mags scattered around the dive shop office. There weren’t many women around, so I went from artist to tomboy for ten days, hanging out with the divers and boxers. My dive instructor was a cocky Mancunian (but really excellent underwater – and Jackson, if ever you read this, that’s not flattery) and my fellow advanced course attendee was a Brummie Muay Thai boxer. The school’s divemaster in training was a Swiss guy who apparently used to play for his national handball team – so testosterone all round.
(That’s Philip, divemaster from Zurich on the left, and Adam, Brummie Muay Thai boxer on the right.)
I have to say that they were very nice to me, however, including me on their outings and teasing me only as much as I could just about handle.
Not having dived in nine years, I was a little apprehensive about launching straight into my advanced. Jackson, my instructor, assured me he would give me a briefing of the basics and then we would start with a “peak performance buoyancy” dive, which would apparently sort me out. This is basically diving a mini obstacle course (I’m afraid I can’t do headstand underwater, but I’m very accurate going through hoops or under legs, no tanks knocking into boys’ fragile bits) to practise optimum buoyancy (which you control with your breathing as well as your kit) so that you don’t waste lots of energy/air and don’t shoot up or down unexpectedly (not a great thing to do when diving). Despite the confident talk, I could tell Jackson expected some trouble from me – and also that he was quite pleasantly surprised. I did pick it back up pretty quickly and, as ever, it’s not the water but the kit that flummoxed me for a while. Despite my left ear deciding to make its presence felt (which basically just meant I had to go down and back up again slowly), my diving got progressively more confident and – dare I say it – skilful.
Yes, the water really is that clear.
Being an “advanced” diver means you can go to 30 metres, at which point we were tested for nitrogen narcosis. Well, I can still subtract from ten at that depth, though I do confess to feeling a wee bit light-headed, in an “I’m slightly tiddly but perfectly able to control myself if I concentrate” sort of way. However, the deeper you go, the more air you use, because it gets compressed in the tank with the pressure increase. The good thing is that my oxygen consumption is VERY low (because I have such a small brain, the lads kept reminding me), and so my deep dive was an extremely respectable 64 minutes long.
We did a night dive as one of our options. As I was jumping off the boat into the water, all petrol black, I had serious reservations. However, once we were in, I really loved it, and apart from watching the fish and coral doing their thing, I particularly enjoyed watching my breath. It’s a very tangible pranayama: if I inhale deeply, I float up a metre; when I exhale fully, I go down again. After the course ended, I did a few so-called “fun-dives” (can’t you tell PADI is written by Americans?). By that point, we were going through small caves every now and then. Since my stingray encounter (the mark is still on my heel) I’m very wary of touching anything – not easy to avoid when going through narrow caves. But what’s a girl to do when surrounded by gung-ho lads? Deflate her BCD, make herself negatively buoyant and swim, that’s what. And really, it’s fine – but I don’t particularly want to be the first one through, in case an angry trigger fish is waiting on the other side (our diving instructor described one as “a swimming brick”. He should know; he was knocked unconscious by one not so long ago).
Here’s Buddha rock (so named for obvious reasons) from the boat shortly before night fell for our night dive:
I particularly liked our dive boat, manned by Charlie from Burma (not his real name but it sounds like that) who must be one of the most sweetly smiling men on the planet and the Captain. The Captain is covered with mysterious faint tattoos and has three fingers of one hand missing. He’s also a very accomplished diver, unusual in a Thai, who, like Indians, rarely swim. But he came down with us on my last dive and added immensely to the fun – not that any of us understand him or he us. He would also rigorously inspect our kit as we prepared to leave the boat and clip me across the ear when I forgot to turn on my air (I told you I had issues with kit). Here’s the Reef Rider dive boat from the small boat that takes us to it:
I had a couple of beachy days on Koh Tao, but my favourite beach of years ago has been made impassable without walking half-way across the island (up and down some extremely steep hills in extremely hot sun) because all the new resorts have cut off access to it. Jackson and Adam (my advanced dive course buddy) had ambitions to conquer the island by canoe, so I hitched a lift with them one day. Thanks to their paddling, I got to see my old Shark Bay again, but it certainly wasn’t the daily pilgrimage I made it nine years ago. However, I did get to look across the water to my old beach at Koh Pang Ngang, and realised that the island I had seen every day in the distance during my stay there was Koh Tao.
And now here I am in Bangkok, just in time for the explosions of violence not so far away from the Khao San Road area. A friend from my journalism course who is now news editor for a northern radio station interviewed me by phone last night, so I was able to tell him that I’d seen strictly nothing and most of the tourists here seem pretty oblivious to what’s going on. But I haven’t been going out and about in Bangkok. It’s perfectly quiet where I am, but the Skytrain metro system was shut down across the city today.
I am grateful that the most tangible effect the neighbouring violence has had on me relates merely to my rucksack woes. My lower zip, which has been causing problems since November in Dharamsala, then repaired in Rishikesh (I did email Berghaus to say I expected better than this, only a month after purchasing my new rucksack from them, but they never deigned to reply), completely bust the morning I was packing to go to Koh Tao. I sewed the entire zip us with such panicked haste and long lengths of dental floss (very sturdy) that I didn’t even notice the blood pouring from my finger as I raced to get everything packed in time. The dental floss was holding well, but I didn’t reckon its chances with a month of Cambodian travel in the rainy season. After much debating and Facebook advice, I decided to try and get a new rucksack. Unfortunately, the only ones available around the Khao San Road are the cheap knock-offs which I am reliably informed will explode after a week (and probably less when filled with my 26kg of stuff). “You must be able to get a proper rucksack in Bangkok!” a friend said to me. Well yes, but the shopping malls are all in that area occupied by the protestors, currently experiencing sporadic gunfire and so unsurprisingly shut. So I got a Thai lady and an Indian tailor (all the tailors around here seem to be Indian) to reinforce my dental floss job, and now I have a professionally sewn-up rucksack. Unfortunately, it means I have to completely unpack it at each stop in order to get proper access to my things, but I’m sure I’ll manage.
I am told the rainy season is late starting in Cambodia. Koh Tao had no monsoon this year and so the sea never cooled down. You have to take a boat to get to cooler water and all the coral near the shore is bleached white by the hot water that is killing it. The inside of Koh Tao looks more like dry Mediterranean scrub than the lush tropics it sits in. I saw a lot of conservation and recycling activity on the little island (approximately 3x7 km), at odds with the mass building of resource-consuming luxury resorts going on there (all that air conditioning and those seashore swimming pools). April is supposed to be the hottest month in Thailand, and it was very hot. All the Thais are remarking on the unusual heat, and the May cooling hasn’t happened. I notice it more here in Bangkok, where there are no sea breezes to dry the sweat I am permanently coated in. I don’t know if this is more small evidence of climate change, but I am grateful I cope well with the heat and wonder if my journey from Keralan heatwave to Thai heatwave will continue into a Cambodian one.
So tomorrow morning I take the bus to the Cambodian border and from there must figure out my way to Battambang. It seems slightly eccentric, even by my standards, that the first thing I will do when I get to this country I have never before visited is shut myself and my senses away for ten days. But that’sthe plan. Tuesday, I go into a 10-day Vispassana meditation retreat, where you meditate 10 hours a day, starting at four in the morning. We are expected to maintain “noble silence” which means not even making eye-contact with other people.
So you shall hear from me again after the end of May.
From Lucy, with love xx

Sunday, 2 May 2010

No Sex Please, We're (I'm) British


It rained solidly today. Up till now, storms have only lasted an hour or so, but today the rain fell from the morning when Anna began practising her abdominal massage on me (my fourth go now; it seems I have liver and solar plexus issues but really excellent kidneys and digestive tract) until late in the afternoon.
I love tropical rain. For the first time since the end of January, I experienced a temperature below 30 degrees (29, said my keyring thermometer). I’ve run out of books to read, which is an advantage when it comes to packing, but not so great on rainy days, especially as my plan to listen to everything on my iPod, systematically from A to Z, has come to nothing. My poor iPod died a death in Trivandrum and has never recovered. That’s probably another piece of excess baggage I should discard, but I don’t quite have the heart and part of me wonders whether the “iPod doctor” I saw advertised in Bangkok might help.
So I sat on my balcony in my raincoat and shorts and watched the coconut trees dance in the wind. Here I am in a break between storms, post-abdominal massage. I was quite surprised to see how brown I’ve got (so I shan’t be winning any Indian beauty contests any time soon – not that there was ever any danger of that):
But it’s not just the Indians who have a weird obsession with fair skin (the make-your-baby-white-cream I saw in an upmarket shop in Calcutta was perhaps the most disturbing example of this I came across). The Thais have it too and it’s quite a challenge to find a moisturiser, body lotion or deodorant that doesn’t promise to bleach you white. How strange (sad?) that the people in the world who are dark are working so hard to be fair and those who are fair are darkening up (I’m thinking of all those orange fake tans so popular in the UK).
But I’ll leave that discussion to the sociologists. Meanwhile, here’s the view from my balcony on a sunnier day:
And so from the shakti of storms to shakti of another kind. Sexual politics have been much in the foreground of my brain recently. There is a yoga school on this island which says it is “tantric”. And it probably is, in its way. At any rate, the blurb says “We teach genuine forms of Hatha, Kriya, and Kundalini Yoga meditation, and methods for the mastery of sexuality from Tantra Yoga”. It also says it is based in Kashmir Shaivism, which is something I have studied a little and attempted to practise in my own small way (no sex please, we’re British). So I went along to two lectures on the Spanda Karika, which is a text in the Kashmir Shaivite tradition I know a very little about and love very much.
Well let’s just say that the lectures didn’t seem to have a whole lot to do with text in question but seemed more a sort of general interpretation of Kashmir Shaivism (note the word “interpretation”). Spanda (literally “pulsation”) was reduced to “the divine tremor of the heart”. Lucy sat there on her cushion getting very cross. She got even crosser when every example used to describe the upsurge of inspiration we all experience through things that move us (art, dance, music, football, chocolate, you name it; if it inspires you, it counts) was brought down to sex. “When you move towards your lover…”
So let’s clarify a few things. First of all, those inner upsurges that Kashmir Shaivism teaches can be a route to god, if used correctly, are not a teaching of the Spanda Karika but of the Shiva Sutras (“udyamo bhairavah”, Shiva Sutra, 1-5, translated as “The inner upsurge of energy is the supreme,” by Carlos Pomeda, not me, because I’m not a Sanskritist). Which is fine, but if you’re going to go off on that tangent, please at least make it clear.
Second, the constant references to sex “because we are a tantric school” are really unhelpful for anyone who is not sexually active, either through choice or through circumstance. And even for people who are sexually active, I suspect many of them are not having the kind of sex that lends itself to a yoga practice. Or even want that kind of sex. And generally, to reduce everything to sex is limiting. And sex is only one of the many billions of things manifested as spanda or which give that inner inspiration. It can be tiddlywinks, if that floats your boat.
In traditional Tantra, as I’ve understood (feel free to argue with me), there was no lover in question. The Kashmir Shaivist teachers, good householders that they were, had their wives, or for the more left-handed devotees (whose predilections might also include living in cremation grounds and eating or meditating on corpses), the meditation practices required by anyone seriously embarking on the sexual path were so involved and tortuous, that really, if it’s the sex you were after, there were much easier (not to mention more pleasant) ways to get it (for a fuller description, anyone interested can read the relevant chapter in George Feuerstein’s Tantra, the Path of Ecstasy. And for descriptions of modern Indian tantrics, there are a couple of stories in William Dalrymple’s very beautiful Nine Lives, in search of the sacred in modern India).
But Tantra in the west has become synonymous with a new-age sexual therapy of sorts, which might be very useful as self-inquiry or self-development, but is not Tantra. Which isn’t to say that there weren’t/aren’t tantric sexual practices. But they’ve got nothing to do with nice orgasms.
In fairness, I don’t think this yoga school is about that either and I’m sure some of the people there are very genuine. Certainly there are also some who are just out to get their rocks off (more on that later).
But it does lead to some very particular views. Here’s a snippet of a phone conversation I couldn’t help overhearing in a restaurant the other day, as the speaker in question had one of those very piercing female American voices that is utterly unconcerned with how far it might carry.
“You can be great in bed but if you don’t know how to access higher levels of consciousness, there’s no point and I’m not interested.”
Which seems to me a hell of a demand to place on prospective lovers (lovers - plural - apparently de rigueur here, as opposed to lover - singular). Do they then all have to be students of this particular yoga school (which narrows the choice considerably, especially, as with most yoga schools, there are far more women than men)? And who’s to define “higher levels of consciousness”? But hey, what the hell do I know, I reminded myself as I choked on my omelette, I’m single.
A few days previously, I’d finished my solo dinner in the same restaurant when a young guy invited me to join him as I was leaving. I sometimes have to force myself to be sociable, and this was one of those occasions. Why do I invariably regret it when I do this?
He started by asking me what month I was in, which is a standard question around the yoga school and unsubtly defines your rank. I gave my standard answer which goes along the lines of “I’m not in any month. I’m just doing my own practice and sometimes I come to the lectures or meditations.”
What ensued was a very dull conversation which I will abridge out of compassion for anyone who has been kind enough to read this far. Without bothering to find out anything particular about me, this young Finn whom I had just met (in his 21st month, so really that’s the next best thing to enlightened) proceeded to comment on my “childlike personality” (really?), to equate shakti, and mine in particular (they aren’t “women” at this yoga school but “shaktis” – at which point I feel myself seized by the Bhadrakali incarnation of shakti and want to disembowel people)… But anyway, to equate shakti, and mine in particular with motherhood and children, assuming babysitting was a favourite pastime of mine (there’s probably a reason I’m the age I am, childless, and with no prospect of changing that state any time soon) – and then intimating that the other point of shakti was sex. He “could never live in a monastery” (who asked him?), he leered, the look in his eye clearly indicating that he quite fancied giving his sexual sadhana a go with me.
If there’s one thing that makes me especially queasy, it’s people parading their passes as spiritual advancement. From the little I know, one of the foundations of virtually any spiritual path is sathya, truth. So practise a little of it! It was definitely time to go. I pointed out that shakti means creative power, that the whole universe is a manifestation of shakti, said my goodbyes and left. Without hitting anybody.
When I recounted this episode later, much incensed, I couldn’t resist pointing out that I’ve probably been doing yoga at least 15 years longer than this patronising git, not to mention that I’m probably 10 years older than him.
Apart from anything else, I get very upset at this reduction of shakti or spanda to sex because all the very beautiful links between modern physics and yoga (which have spawned such nonsense as the concept of “Quantum Yoga” asana – but let’s not get started on that) can be found in the heart of the Spanda Karika. But I’m really not qualified to go into that one; if you’re interested, read Fritjof Capra’s rather dense but very wonderful The Tao of Physics.
In case any Indians readers feel I have in the past unfairly characterised their country as generally incapable of seeing the point of a woman who is not attached to a man (married), you may be glad to know you are not alone in this. I was in the sea in the early days of my stay on Koh Pang Ngang, happily minding my own business, when a middle-aged (I’m being kind here) German guy walked towards me (the sea is very shallow, remember). Again, he didn’t bother to find out a thing about me but made a whole load of assumptions which had me struggling to remain polite. “You English, what do you do, you teach English like they all do? No? You teach what then, guitar? Cooking?”
We got to the point where he found out I’m alone. “Aren’t your family worried with you travelling alone?”
“As I haven’t lived with them for over twenty years, it seems an odd question to ask them.”
“Why do you travel alone? You had a bad experience?” Read, “with a man”.
Because, of course ladies, the only reason any of us would chose to do anything alone is because we haven’t found the right man yet. Because we are embittered, dried-up, frigid creatures. Just as women are only lesbian until they are “cured” by sex with a real man. How could we possibly not want one of them?
I was really struggling VERY hard to stay polite at this point. It’s one thing when someone from an uber-conservative Indian town can’t understand that you’re by yourself, but when a European financier who must encounter single women on a regular basis expounds such views, I seethe with outrage. But Lothario was too busy waxing lyrical about his Italian partner back in Europe to notice.
The next couple of times I saw him, he was in the company of a very pretty Thai lady. Pretty intimate company (and what did his Italian girlfriend back home have to say to that, I wonder?). Men like him provide no incentive for women like me to be anything other than single. But he would never get it if I told him, so why bother?
Of course, there are some lovely men in the world. I am friends with some of them and I love them dearly. But at the moment, the men I meet who show any remote interest in me simply inspire me to enter a nunnery, or at any rate, take a vow of chastity.
On a more reflective note, I observe that what offends me so much in the people I complain about is their tendency to judge. I’ve expended quite a lot of energy being mildly offended on this island. And yet, here am I, full of judgments, judgments of the people who annoy me, judgments of my surroundings, all the time: “in India, they do it like this”, “this was nicer in India”, etc. etc. Of course, it was also immeasurably filthier and more exhausting in India, but that’s beside the point. I remember the first time I came to Thailand being particularly irritated by a young woman who compared everything to India and found Thailand lacking. I’d never been to India at that time and I distinctly remember thinking “Well why don’t you go to India then? Why stay in Thailand just to moan about it?”
Quite.
And Thailand is very, very beautiful.
So healer, heal thyself. Or something of that sort. It’s certainly one for me to contemplate.
In this reflective vein, I have started taking self-portraits. It began in Varkala. So much of this travelling time is alone, it seemed odd not to mark it. Here is one in my bungalow a few nights back. It doesn’t look much like me to me – but clearly, sometimes, this is what I look like:
I am moving on soon. Monday sees me taking the boat to Koh Tao, the next island along, where I shall be doing some diving. It’s probably time to re-engage with some activity to get me out of my head.
The insects which have all emerged after the rains are now going mad about my laptop and head-torch, the only sources of light in this power cut I’m in the middle of. Before I inadvertently kill anymore of the suicidal creatures, I shall bid you farewell.
But to end on a less macabre note, here is a sunset at the beach I swim at most days. The old man you might just pick out steps carefully along the length of the bay with his walking stick. Every morning and every evening he exercises in this way, treading unevenly backwards and forwards along the length of the sand. He seems to be doing some sort of rehabilitative exercise, as he looks like he may have suffered a stroke. There’s something very beautiful about the way he picks his way methodically along.
With love from Lucy xx