Thursday, 3 June 2010

Uncomfortable Bedfellows (or Frogs, Scorpions, Vipassana)

I am currently in Siem Reap (the nearest town to the famous temples at Angkor). For the last few days we have had a daily tropical thunderstorm. I’ve spent today wandering in and out from my guesthouse in search of food, shopping, relishing the cloud-cover which has cooled the air to a mere thirtyish degrees. It’s such a joy not to be covered in perspiration for once, feet splashing through muddy, sandy puddles.
The story of the last couple of weeks might explain why I am so enjoying the sort of grey that would have me plunging into a depression in London (and yes, I know the London version is chillier, but still)...
My crossing overland from Thailand into Cambodia was fairly uneventful, if extremely hot. When my minibus from Bangkok got to the Thai border, I was told to walk over to Cambodia, as I was no longer part of the Thai tourist machine, my destination being slightly unusual. “Only two minutes walk” said the Thai, busy collecting inflated visa fees from my minibus companions. Well, it was nearer five minutes away, but it was gone eleven o’clock, searingly hot and the rucksack on my back weighs between 24 and 26 kg, depending on the day, while my daypack, looped over my shoulders at my front, weighs somewhere around 10 kg (for American readers, who don’t use the same metric scale as the rest of the world, it’s 2.2 lbs to the kg – you do the maths!). All I can say is that it’s a very good thing I am strong, between contact impro and kalari and whatever else I may be up to.
So I got to the Cambodian border extremely wet (sweat again, I’m afraid, a persistent theme of this trip), which made filling out my visa form a bit challenging as the ink kept smudging. The Cambodian officials didn’t seem to mind, more intent on charging me 1000 Thai Baht for my visa. It’s supposed to be $20 (US) and 1000 Thai Baht is nearer £20 (UK), so a considerable inflation. But I was really too hot and sweaty to argue and it was a considerable improvement to what the tourists on the Thai-organised side were paying (1500 Thai Baht). At least I was only paying one set of bribes to the Cambodians rather than two (one to the Cambodians and one to the Thais). Apparently the crossing at Poipet is known for this.
As I said, I was really too hot to care and just grateful when a taxi driver came up to propose a share taxi to Battambang. Would he take me straight to my hotel? Yes, he would. Piling my rucksack onto his scooter with me behind, he drove me to the car, the back seat stuffed with a Cambodian family. I got the front seat and the unfortunate family got to share the back with my rucksack. On the other hand, I strongly suspect that what I was paying was subsidising the journey for everyone. The driver turned out to be someone completely different (not English-speaking). But the car was air-conditioned and really quite a pleasant, if slightly squashed journey.
After the ruthless efficiency with which so many Thais relieved me of my money (I met a few nice ones but in general they really seemed to despise foreigners – at least in the areas I visited, which I know are particularly touristy), the warmth of the Cambodians was very sweet. My welcome at the Royal in Battambang was completely charming and I got a huge and very nice room, complete with TV and wifi, towels, soap and loo paper (which I’ve almost completely got out of the habit of using). You certainly get more for your money when it comes to hotels in Cambodia (though food is more expensive – if often nicer, especially anything Western. The French weren’t here for nothing). The French influence was very clear to me in Battambang, in the now rather dilapidated river walkways, paved with the sorts of tiles you find in southern Europe and the lovely landscaped public spaces that make France such a pleasant country to wander about. All this with Khmer decoration, ornate nagadevis (serpent gods) and churnings of the ocean of milk everywhere (more on that in the Angkor chapter). It reminded me a little of dusty childhood days in southern France and Spain, in the days before it was all spruced up and Eurozoned. I was very charmed.
I only had a day and a half in Battambang before heading to my Vipassana course on the outskirts of town. “In case you want to come out” said Mr. Bat, my tuktuk driver, scribbling his number down on a scrap of paper as he dropped me off.
These courses in Vipassana meditation, as taught by Goenka, are run all over the world. I had looked up a few in India but either the date or the location wasn’t quite right. The Cambodian dates, on the other hand, fit reasonably neatly and the geography worked too. I could have done this course in Europe or North America. I was to remind myself of this fact many times over the coming ten days.
I’m not even really sure how to begin describing it…
The Cambodian centre has some lovely gardens and a nice view of the hills in the distance. Men and women are strictly segregated in all Vipassana courses (no one seems to take into account the fact that amongst so many people, at least some are more than likely to be gay, but I’ve noticed this on a few retreat situations now). We met only in the dhamma hall, where the meditation took place, and then we had separate entrances, monks on the far left, sitting on raised platforms (I counted about 12 of them), then the men (about 40) and the women on the right (about 90).
I was shown to my “cell” (Goenka describes them as meditation cells and really this is a very apt description for the Cambodian version). It was in a row of four, directly opposite the toilet block and large communal well that served for showering (with a scoop) and laundry purposes (there were also shower cubicles for those of us who like to wash naked and not wrapped in cloth, as many of the old and not-so-old Cambodian ladies seem to prefer). My room consisted of four bare walls, a tiled floor, a few hooks and then a largish gap (good for air circulation and bug entry) before the metal roof began. To all intents and purposes, it looked like a clean shed. A single fluorescent strip light hung outside, conveniently shining through the gap between wall and roof to dimly light the four rooms in my row – when there was power that is, which was only before 6:30 and after 18:00.
Old students have to observe more restrictions than newbies like me, one of which is to abstain from sleeping in “high, luxurious or cosy beds” (I am quoting Goenka). I was wondering how Spartan the returning students’ beds would be, as mine consisted of a metal frame covered with some wooden boards and about 2 cm of foam mattress. In fairness, this was more comfortable than the equally thin mattress that covered some very sharp springs on my bed at Tushita (the centre in Dharamsala where I did my retreat last October). I later found out that the old students don’t get the mattress. I wondered whether this is the case in Europe and North America…
For some reason, my little row of four was inhabited entirely by Westerners. This later proved to be rather bemusing, as its proximity to the well and toilets meant it was particularly prone to the sort of wildlife most Westerners don’t have much experience of handling. Suffice to say, by day five, I was the only one left in that block.
In all, we were five Western women and one young Chinese woman starting the course. Even I am reasonably tall by Cambodian standards (there is a terrible history of food shortages in this country), so we Western and Chinese women, in our ordinary if modest clothes, were glaringly obvious Amazons about the place. The rest of the women’s quarters were taken up by about eighty-five Cambodian ladies, most of them between late middle and extremely old age. Nearly all of them dressed in white for the meditation hall, much as Indians do when they go to spend time in ashrams. Many had also shaved their heads. I found myself wondering whether it is a traditional rite of passage in Cambodia, as a woman reaches old age, to deepen her Buddhism with a meditation intensive. We had strict instructions to dress modestly at all times (no bare shoulders or shorts, no tight clothes, etc. etc.) but the Cambodian ladies generally wandered around the women’s quarters in the sarongs they washed themselves in, one old lady even strolling back to her room topless, in full view of any nosy man peering over the barrier (which they weren’t, in fairness). Being utterly immodest when it comes to nudity, I couldn’t care less and I generally find covering up a complete bore (sadly necessary when travelling) but I couldn’t help wondering what the reaction would have been had one of us Westerners wandered around in a similar state of (un)dress.
From the first evening, we had to observe noble silence. This includes not communicating through eye contact or gesture, as well as not speaking. We could take any problems to the management, but as the women managers spoke only Khmer, this was tricky. We also had to observe five precepts, identical to the ones I had been asked to observe at Tushita: no killing, no stealing, no lying, sexual abstinence and no intoxicants. “No killing, no stealing is easy to observe in this environment” said Goenka in video lecture 2 or 3 – by which point I had committed unwitting murder several times. No, I didn’t kill any mosquitoes, though I was sorely tempted on occasion, but I did manage to accidentally drown a greedy fly in my soup one night and time after time I went to scratch an itch somewhere only to find I had killed some small insect between my palm and the film of greasy sweat that constantly coated me (charming, I know, but I’m still observing the no lying thing).
By eight each morning, I was sitting down to my first hour of “sitting of strong determination” (i.e. you don’t move. I’m afraid I’m just not determined enough – nor can I find it in myself to care. I am so not heading for enlightenment any lifetime soon), having already meditated for two hours, done my laundry, had my breakfast, swept my room clear(ish) of the insect and reptile detritus of the night and had a nap.
The daily timetable went like this:
4:00 wake-up bell
4:30 – 6:30 meditate
6:30 – 8:00 breakfast and break
8:00 – 9:00 meditate
9:00 – 11:00 meditate some more
11:00 – 13:00 lunch break
13:00 – 14:30 meditate
14:30 – 15:30 meditate again
15:30 – 17:00 meditate more
17:00 – 18:00 tea break
18:00 – 19:00 meditate
19:00 – 20:30 Goenka’s nightly video lecture
20:30 – 21:00 meditate
And then to bed. In fairness, we did usually get breaks of about fifteen minutes between sessions but after a while, I got a bit bored of breaks. You’re not allowed to read or write on Vipassana courses (on day one, I was told off for checking the timetable in the booklet I’d been given. I was told I could read the timetable on the noticeboard. I did wonder what the difference was between reading the timetable on a board or the booklet, but it seemed a waste of energy to argue. The booklet served instead as a vital fan for the rest of the course), all electronic equipment is banned, so once you’ve done your domestic chores, washed yourself, refilled your water bottle, been to the loo, there’s really not much to do but sleep. The only exercise allowed is walking, and once you’ve gone three times around the garden, illegally smelling the flowers, that palls a bit.
Actually, the discipline didn’t bother me. I was prepared for it and ready to accept it and exactly as it had been at Tushita, noble silence was broken two or three times by people coming to speak to me but I didn’t have difficulty observing it myself. Meditating ten hours a day was never going to be easy but what made the ten days especially tough were environmental factors. I was never in danger of leaving, but what kept me there was the same grim determination that got me through my first miserable term at boarding school when I was fourteen. I had chosen to do this and I was bloody well going to see it through. It occurred to me (in one of my many millions of thought distractions when I was supposed to be meditating) that I have had a strong Nietzchean streak in me since early childhood. “It will make me strong. It will make me strong,” was a mantra of mine when my nine-year old life was proving particularly unpleasant. And I was quite right, although I’d never heard of him at the time. “That which does not destroy us makes us stronger.”
Though I’ve often wondered whether being destroyed wouldn’t be a lot easier.
Usually, I like heat. I don’t even mind sweating when I am moving and active. The rivers that poured from me during my kalari training in Kerala weren’t overly unpleasant and I knew that once I washed them off and sat under a fan, I would feel fine.
The first two days of the course were stifling. I have a thermometer on my keyring, which houses the key which unlocks the little padlock with which I locked my cell when not in it. I probably broke every rule by consulting it regularly, charting the rise and fall of temperature (does it count as reading? Probably). By the end of the course, I had ascertained that anything up to 35 degrees was bearable. Anything above that got extremely unpleasant. Remember there was no power in the daytime – so no fans – which also meant nothing to discourage the flies from landing… The first two days, the temperature never dropped below 38 degrees (that’s around 100 Fahrenheit, oh American readers who like temperature scales based on a cow’s body temperature), even at night. The mild heat rash that had come to wish me well intensified so that my throat, face, chest were covered in it. It made the landing of any fly a complete misery. I was inflamed, itchy, red, never, never, never dry. After each meditation session, my trousers would be soaked where my arms had rested in my lap, the sweat running off them into the fabric. The heat rash was to stay with me until day eight. I became intimately familiar with the high, surprisingly sweet, faintly sickly smell of my static sweat. Equanimity, equanimity, equanimity… “Equanimous mind” says Goenka. No, I am so not heading for enlightenment any lifetime soon.
“The external is a manifestation of the internal” (according to Tantra) says my yoga philosophy teacher (thank you Carlos). I contemplated this a lot over those days and concluded that hell was emerging from me. Burning, melting in a greasy puddle, my very skin on fire with it. I wonder whether Dante ever tried Vipassana (in Cambodia)…
By the morning of day three, the striking Belgian woman next door to me had gone. I gazed at the neatly folded bedclothes in her empty room with fierce longing, wishing it was me, knowing it wouldn’t be for another week yet. I really don’t think I can adequately describe how grim the wet heat made it. It’s not that I’ve not known hotter – but that was in desert conditions, Sinai or California, where the air is so dry any sweat evaporates immediately – somehow more bearable, if redolent with different dangers. I was comforted to see even the monks furiously fanning themselves during meditation hours. Even the 4:30, pre-dawn sessions were unbearably hot, the pooling of the sweat in the grooves of my spine, its trickling down its knobbled length, eventually to drip, drip off my tailbone, far more unpleasantly engrossing than the patch under my nose on which I was instructed to focus.
“Invoke Shiva” had said one of my yoga teachers (thank you Anna) before I left London on my travels. We’re asked to desist from any form of religious ritual or prayer during the Vipassana course. The monks appeared to observe this scrupulously, though many of the Cambodians would bow to their mats, muttering prayers before each meditation session. But Shiva has been very good to me and doesn’t seem to mind my breaking the occasional rule. Whenever I’ve asked, the bag I couldn’t shut miraculously closes, just in time for me to get to my train, the hotel showerhead I’d thought was broken beyond repair becomes miraculously fixable. It’s happened time and time again. And on day three, yet again, he saved me.
“Oh Lord, help me get through this afternoon!” I begged silently, barely consciously, as I sat to begin yet another meditation marathon. The temperature had climbed to 40, I was wretched and miserable, the flies were driving me mad and I wanted to tear off the skin of my throat. I was bored to death with the patch under my nose and I was very near the end of my tether.
Well who says prayers aren’t answered? No sooner had mine escaped than the sky darkened and a great wind blew through the hall (very Cecil B. de Mille). Not only did the temperature drop but I was granted the considerable amusement (yes, I’m afraid I allowed myself to be distracted from my meditation. I’ll say it again: I’m so not headed for enlightenment any lifetime soon) of seeing the orange-clad monks and white-clad management-meditators rushing about the hall attempting to shut banging mosquito screens and fix flying curtains just as the skies opened with great claps of thunder. One of Shiva’s names is Rudra, which means “roarer”. I smiled to hear him roaring away above me as the rain hammered on the metal roof of the hall and lightning flashed through the windows. Who says god doesn’t have a sense of humour? For some reason, after the misery of the last few days, the whole episode was exquisitely funny to me, an echo of Shiva’s thunderous laughter all around me.
The elation at the next break was palpable. I emerged from the dhamma hall to find the young Chinese woman standing with her arms outstretched (very illegally) singing to the skies. From then on, the temperature was never quite so unbearable to me and although we never again had such a dramatic storm, it did rain at some point most days. On day eight, it even dropped to 30 (briefly) and I felt a decided chill as I emerged from my 17:30 shower, a purely sensual shudder running through me (again very illegal) at the thought of a decent night’s sleep and a dry awakening.
But there were other trials. By and large, the frogs just amused me. Once I figured out that the thing hopping about my room the first night was a disorientated, locked-in frog and not a cricket, I was more careful about shutting my door on twilight trips to the loo. The only time I allowed one to break my composure (and silence) was when it emerged from the handle-less mop I was using to clean some mud off my floor and it jumped out at me. The poor creature had already suffered two scoops of water being poured over it and was never designed to be a mop (so why it was hiding in one, I don’t know). A passing shaven-headed Cambodian lady picked up the mop and shook the frog into the grass. She clearly thought I was completely bonkers – but in fairness, I’d have done exactly the same thing, given two minutes to recover from my shock.
Scorpions, however, I confess to finding a little scary. On morning four, Laetitia, my neighbour from Marseille came up to ask/say I had a scorpion in my room. It doesn’t really translate into English, but in colloquial French, there is no vocabulary difference between the question and the statement. Only the intonation, the rising (or not) at the end of the sentence, indicates which it is. But it was 4:15 in the morning and I hadn’t spoken for days, so I had no idea whether she was asking me or telling me I had a scorpion in my room. She’d had one in hers the previous night, she told me, and had no hesitation in killing it.
However, confusion aside, I was grateful she’d broken silence or else I might not have realised what the thing hanging on to my yoga block was when I picked it up (much) later that morning. Through a convoluted series of events, the scorpion ended up on my bed and as I have no idea how to deal with such things, I went to get a manager. This was rather daunting, as the one who polices the cells was nowhere to be seen so I had to walk straight through to the front of the dhamma hall to shake the mat (no touching allowed in Vipassana courses) of the one meditating. She’s clearly a much more accomplished meditator than me because it took two shakes to get her attention. Then there was the problem that she spoke neither of the languages I do. Eventually I managed to get her to follow me out of the hall and with some insistence, got her to follow me to my room. In fairness, as soon as she saw the scorpion, she understood and with a gentle “Okaaaay” proceeded to scoop it up into one of the metal laundry bowls and deposit it in the grass, then checking my room thoroughly, pointing at my bags on the floor as though they were a great problem (and where was I supposed to put them?). From then on, all my bags were firmly zipped shut and my boots were shaken out and sealed in a knotted plastic bag.
By lunchtime, Laetitia had gone, but not from the course, only to a room with less virulent wildlife. Unfortunately for her, I later found out, one of her scorpions had hitched a lift on her rucksack and stung her as soon as she got to her new room, when her thigh brushed against her bag. We later discovered that a scorpion sting had hastened the departure of the Belgian woman. I wondered whether that was due to her habit of walking around barefoot, a habit shared by the one remaining woman on my little corridor, a rather surly French woman of apparently south Asian origin.
On day five at lunchtime, all the foreigners were called in to the assistant teacher (4 remaining women and about 6 men, though one of them was later to drop out too). The assistant teacher is basically appointed by Goenka to meditate with us and answer questions. All the teachings themselves are audio or video recordings of Goenka’s, first him in English, then the Khmer translator. I will call the teacher Fran├žois, because that is what he calls himself after living in France for decades, and I don’t know his Khmer name. Anyway, Fran├žois explained about the scorpions and basic precautions to take and even gave us special permission because of the extreme heat to meditate outside (strictly forbidden usually). Oh yes, and watch out for snakes.
At which point, the sulky French woman left, I’m not sure why.
And then there was one (on my corridor that is). I have often thought that a theme of this trip is autonomy, independence, svatantrya (in Sanskrit) to the point I’m thinking of having it tattooed onto me – and here was yet another illustration of it. I found it slightly spooky initially and then just enjoyed the fact that I no longer heard my neighbours rustling in their beds. But I did regularly check for scorpions and now too the tops of the walls in my room and when I went to the loo or shower for snakes. Endless entertainment.
I’ve done my share of communal living over the years, but old shaven-headed Cambodian ladies give it a whole other dimension. First there was the shoving for food. This seemed to be a generational rather than a cultural thing, as the three young Cambodian women on the course seemed to get the concept of queuing. But the great majority of old ladies just shoved and cut and barged – mostly in silence. Nor very mindfully Buddhist. This even happened in the washing up queue, where I had one woman pour her slops onto my foot. What do you do but laugh (in silence)? I’m certainly not going to fight toothless old ladies for watery rice porridge. A few days in, I had my schedule sorted: arrive only at the very beginning or the very end of meals. So after morning meditation, I would go and do my laundry, for which there was generally nearly as much shoving as for food, while everyone else was shoving for breakfast. I could wash and hang my clothes in blissful solitude and then go and get breakfast (usually my least favourite meal of the day, so no great hardship that much of it was gone), again in peaceful solitude.
Even more astonishing to me were the mornings. I doubt I am alone in considering 4:00am to be an early wake-up call. Well not the Cambodian grandmothers, apparently. Precious laundry time wasted! The banging of metal laundry bowls on cement, scoops of water dropping into them, brushes scrubbing furiously would all start every morning at 3:15 without fail at the washing well. Just outside my room. Noble silence – what silence?! I suppose I should just be grateful that they didn’t turn the light on (straight into my eyes) until the last day. But really on that last morning, they were very impressive. The whole place was scrubbed and laundered, breakfast eaten and everyone packed up by 7:00. It also meant that the rest of the time, when I – slugabed that I am – emerged with the four o’clock gong, I had the place to myself – perhaps with Sara, the lovely Austrian woman who might also be brushing her teeth then.
Here is the well in front of the toilets, after everyone had gone:
The Cambodian ladies were also very sweet on the afternoon of day 10, when silence was ended. In Thailand, I think, generally white people are considered frankly ugly. One child who was making friends with me had a grand old time pointing at my big nose and laughing. Cambodians seem to have a different aesthetic. As soon as they could speak, the lady who had been assigned a seat in front of mine (and through various permutations through the course had ended up beside me) was very keen to tell me how beautiful I am. She was especially taken with my nose and chin, all conveyed through sign-language and the kind interpretation of one of the young Cambodian women. A few shaven-headed old ladies agreed, wanting to know whether I was married (yes, they ask that here too), how old I was, flatteringly astonished to find out my age. There doesn’t seem to be any dentistry in Cambodia, or what there is of it seems to stop at tooth removal. None of these old ladies seemed to have any. No wonder watery rice porridge is so popular.
There doesn’t seem to be any medical care either. Sara’s boyfriend Paul left towards the end of the course because he was ill (and hates Vipassana). He was allowed to write her a note and all she knew was that he had been told to go to Phnom Penh to find a doctor because there are no real ones in Battambong. Poor Cambodia.
Towards day eight many holes had appeared in the men’s ranks. I later was told that a group of the very old men had been expelled for smoking behind the toilets and playing cards and chatting at night. Rock ‘n’ roll.
Laetitia, Sara, Paul and I all ended up back at the Royal after this, a very good place to come back to earth. I was totally disorientated and wobbly and did very little my first day out, and some gentle sightseeing with Laetitia on day two (to the temples we could see in the distance from the Vipassana course, ironically). Here we are on the bamboo train, due to be phased out soon:
And here are some uncomfortable cows on the train:
The day after that, I took the slow boat to Siem Reap, where I joined Sara and Paul at the Red Lodge. It was great to spend some time with them and be shown round a little before they flew to Kuala Lumpur the following morning and I started my 2-day temple extravaganza around Angkor. And tomorrow I’m on a bus (well, two buses) to Kampot to do some more dancing. But more on that next time. This is quite enough for one session…
I’m not sure what I make of the Vipassana. It was gruelling but I am glad I did it. I wanted some intense meditation and I got it. I even got a few intense meditative experiences. What with all the dissolving, I had a few days of diarrhoea once I got back to the world, but even that is beginning to resolidify as I reacclimatise. I had always wanted to have done the Vipassana, not to do it. I knew I would find it hard and I was quite right. How much of that is due to the practice and how much due to the conditions, I don’t know.
I still have the same reservations about Buddhism and still the same respect for many of its practices. The first noble truth of Buddhism is the reality of suffering. Compare that to the foundation of Vedanta, which is that everything is Brahman and that the nature of Brahman is saccidananda (pure being, pure consciousness, pure bliss). By nature, if only we can uncover it, we and everything in this universe are pure bliss. That is our essence. Or Kashmir Shaivism, where the world is an overflow of the bubbling joy of Shiva, the ultimate creative play of Shiva and Shakti, a huge divine orgasm, if you will. Enough on the suffering! And besides, suffering is sometimes useful. It pushes us to transformation, if we wield it well. And it’s not all suffering. Much of it is joy.
So on that determinedly cheerful note,
sending joy and love your way,
from a still very disorientated,
Lucy xx


  1. A mesmerising read Lucy. I really enjoyed reading about your experiences.


  2. Great post on your experience. I have to say reading about the conditions under which you had to practice in, makes my Vipassana experience seem like such a cake walk. Kudos to you Lucy for being such a trooper!

  3. Welcome back Lucy! Searing and endearing. x

  4. Frogs, scorpions and snakes... this sounds alarmingly much like my bungalow on Koh Pha Ngan :)

    Love and stillness xx

  5. reading your blog always makes me want to learn more about my own country and culture . . loved this one too :)

  6. Can't believe I missed out on this post.. particularly because I did Vipassana shortly after you did, almost had the same experiences, except for snakes (Chennai centre didn't have snakes or scorpions but frogs and cockroaches in plenty) But loved it! It's hard! I really like what it did to me. But, like you say, I like the foundation of Vedanta better than Buddhism. Because it is so much more open and embracing and loving. And frankly, I have no aversions towards suffering either... Thanks for the blog Luce.. :) Love you!