From the beach of El Quisco to the Atacama Desert

Having spent a few days in Valparaiso, and with a couple of weeks teaching for the English Opens Doors program approaching, we decided to get some much needed coastal time under our belts. Over the entirety of our travels, the surprising thing is that we haven’t seen more of the sea-so we headed to the Chilean coast and  El Quisco. Most famous for being home to another one of Pablo Neruda’s haunts, Isla Negra, El Quisco proved to be the perfect tonic to the concrete jungle that is Valpo, a few stunning sunsets perfect to massage the soul and move us forward to our next volunteer placement. Aimless meandering up and down the stunning coastline certainly didn’t disappoint, and we even managed to happen across a Pablo Neruda artistic reserve on the cliff tops-the kind of place that you would never find if you were actively looking for it!  Walking around this hidden gem you find a number of sculptures hidden amongst the foliage, most impressive were the eerie stone faces that look over the shores, listening to the waves crashing on the rocks far below-it’s easy to understand how an artist would use this place as a source of inspiration: 

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Stunning scenery, great seafood, a perfect little cabana just 5 minutes walk from the beach-you couldn’t really ask for much more-apart for time! Alas that wasn’t something that we could afford ourselves, and in the blink of an eye our lazy couple of days were over, and we were headed back to Santiago once again-over the following two weeks we would be teaching assistants for the English Opens Doors Summer Camps. Nothing too taxing, we would be working with Chilean teachers delivering a number of activities for students who had enrolled in a free summer English language program- they’re run over the whole of Chile, so deep down we were both kind of hoping to be sent to Patagonia, alas that was not to be. For my first week I was placed in Los Angeles (Chile, not California!), and Jo in Concepcion-then for the second week we were both back in Santiago. With little spare time to explore the respective cities there’s not a lot I can tell you about the districts; as for the camps themselves-we got to work with some great people in an extremely positive and enthusiastic summer camp environment-so more great teaching experiences under our belts. The only negative being that we had to comprise a lip dub to Justin Bieber’s Sorry, which still haunts my dreams now…If I never hear that song again it will be too soon!

Having loitered in the central region of Chile for long enough, we now had some time to be tourists for a while, and from the recommendations of many, we were headed North to San Pedro, before making our way into Peru. San Pedro is the gateway from which to explore the Atacama Desert, something that neither Jo or I had considered before our trip to South America-but it is thought to be the oldest desert on earth, the oldest continuously dry region on the planet, (it has experienced extreme hyper aridity for at least 3 million years!) and is the home of the other worldly terrain of the Chilean Valle de la Luna. Not surprisingly at one point NASA tested their Mars landing equipment there and looked for signs of life in the earth of the desert-finding none …..You could say that this place is barren!
First we had to get there though, and it turned out to be ‘one of those journeys’. I feel like I haven’t had a proper travel moan for ages, this trip certainly gave me fodder for a paddy of epic proportions. It was simple enough in theory-there was a direct bus from Santiago to San Pedro. It was a night bus so we would get some form of faux chair/bed, hop on, fall asleep, arrive in San Pedro-easy! Alas that wasn’t to be the case in this instance. The chain of events that followed can’t really be explained properly as no one explained anything to us during the whole journey! What I can tell you is that our simple one bus journey evolved into a mammoth four bus marathon! First up our bus just stopped at one station and was there for what seemed like an age, there appeared to be some problem with the door-so we had to wait until a mechanic could come and fix it. Fast forward an hour and a half and we were set to recommence our journey, off we go again all happy and relieved that things were sorted. At some point during my broken slumber we shuddered to a halt and informed that we would now be changing buses, on some random street at an ungodly hour in the morning. Ok, so a grumble and a little bit of a moan, but the other bus was there so we quickly changed and got ourselves comfortable again….For about ten minutes, when the new bus pulled into another bus station and kicked us off! We were simply told that we would need to catch another bus to San Pedro-as our bus was now out of service! With our extremely limited Spanish, and the help of a fellow traveller, it looked like we would have to wait at this bus station for three hours for the next bus to San Pedro, or take another two buses which would get us there sooner-so we opted for the latter, adding an unwelcome 4 hours onto the total journey time. Eventually we made it-30 hours later-but for sure my patience with people when I’m tired and travelling is limited, and it hasn’t gotten any better over the last year and a half!

Having finally arrived during the dark of night, we managed to get a taxi (a random 4X4) to take us out to our ‘desert base’ and soon we settled into our tent excited about what San Pedro had to offer; yes, that’s right, we were going to be braving some camping in the desert. The Atacama is also home to the imaginatively named Very Large Telescope (VLT), for the very reason that there is nowhere better on the planet to look at the midnight skies. Unfortunately my camera isn’t up to the job of demonstrating the displays of stars that we were treated to each night, so you’ll have to take my word for it-it was spectacular, and as we were camping outside of the town where there is zero light pollution-we were treated to a wondrous show each night. 

When we actually managed to get into San Pedro the next day we discovered the town itself to be quite the tourist haven, with dusty ‘Mad Max’ type streets and adobe buildings-you really feel as if you are experiencing a time gone by-all be it truth be told I think that nowadays it purely exists as a tourist destination. That doesn’t take anything away from being there though, it really is a funky little town. 

Like everyone else arriving in San Pedro, you walk around a few tourist shops, have some food, and then set about organising your activities for the next couple of days-there are loads of tour agencies doing various excursions, from sand boarding and quad biking, to nightly stargazing walks. Our focus was on a visit to the unique Valle de la Luna, and to go and visit the nearby geysers. After exploring a few  options with the local travel companies you soon work out that they’re all very similar and you just need to negotiate yourself the best deal. Having gotten what we thought was a great deal, the next day we were on our way to explore the moon like landscape that the desert presents-quite simply it was absolutely gorgeous, a myriad of colours and surreal rock formations melting and pouring into each other-it was a little like being in a lava lamp: 

The entire day was breath-taking, the only downside being that our tour guide quite simply didn’t speak any English-it ended up being quite comical and forced us to try to use what little Spanish we had acquired to decipher the general gist of his tour. After a full day in the desert, the evening held nothing more than a beer or two and early to bed in the sweltering pod of heat that was our tent-but not for long, for at 4.00AM we would be getting picked up for the following days visit to the geysers. Now, for what happened next I blame on tiredness, although others may point to stupidity, I’ll leave it up to you to decide. As is the very nature of the Atacama, it’s hot….Really hot. So, 4 AM one morning getting ready to go and visit some geysers, where we have been told there are hot springs, Jo and I promptly dressed some nice lightweight shorts and t-shirts. It didn’t really occur to us that we would be going to 5,300m above sea level at the crack of dawn, and at that time, at that height, it may be just a little bit Chile (pun intended!!). It didn’t really sink in until we were surrounded by people on our minibus dressed for winter, looking at us as if we were crazy fools-and as such we arrived at the geysers to the amusement of many….Little freezing gringo couple-how funny! Anyway, aside from that the geysers were, again, spectacular, other worldly, wonderful….I run out of original superlatives so forgive me for repeating myself! The amusing thing is that unlike the UK there is  no real health and safety, merely the casual observation:

if you see a hole in the ground, try not to stand on it….

Arid desert, bubbling volcanic pools and hot springs, but still San Pedro wasn’t quite finished-to complete our stay we grabbed some mountain bikes to go and explore Pukara de Quitor, a pre-Columbian stone fortress overlooking the San Pedro river. With Machu Picchu looming in our futures it was a great introduction to the wonders that lay ahead. The ruins date back to the 12th century, and were built initially as a defence against internal threats from neighbouring villages and communities-upon the Spanish invasion they took on a more significant role in the defence from  these foreign invaders. It was to no avail though, as signified by two huge stone heads, carved into the rock in memory of the Pukará de Quitor leaders beheaded by the Spanish when they sacked the town in 1540. A few hours walk in the sweltering heat would stand us in good stead for future excursions, and obviously provided some more camera fodder!

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And so it was that we prepared to leave Chile for Peru,  with a feeling of a fair amount of unfinished business-as with Argentina, we have barely scratched the surface!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Scurrying into El Hormiguero…(The anthill)

From our first week in the bustling metropolis that is Santiago, we were ready to get ourselves back to volunteering in somewhat more sedate surroundings-and the El Hormiguero in El Monte proved to be just that! Another placement that we had found through the HelpX website, with the simple yet tantalising description:

In the midway between Santiago and the surf-paradise Pichilemu, we have our creative centre “El Hormiguero” (the anthill).

We are exploring in eco-building, natural pools, aquaponics crops, arts, music and any interesting expression of new lifestyles.

With our eagerness to find alternative lifestyles, building methods and my much coveted ‘life skill acquisition’, on the face of things this place looked like it could tick all of the boxes-and so we had three weeks or so to find out-El Monte here we come!

So then….where to start? Well as always, the adventure begins with a journey, in this case a mere 1 hour bus into the unknown. We managed to get on the right bus, we just had a little hiccup with getting off in the wrong spot-probably a twenty minute or so walk from where we should have been. In theory no problem, but with your backpacks on and the midday heat beating down on your head, that twenty minutes takes on a whole new significance! Still, nothing that couldn’t be fixed with an empanada and fresh juice stop-and so our first introduction to the charm and friendliness of El Monte washed over us. Yes that’s right, you wouldn’t expect a vendor of empanadas and fresh juice to be a significant meeting, but the man in the square of El Monte was an absolute ray of sunshine and he would continue to shine for our entire time at the anthill! At this point it’s worth pointing out that El Monte is not exactly a destination for tourists, or for want of a better word, Gringos! As such we kinda stick out like a sore thumb, but that only served to encourage kindness and warmth from pretty much everyone we met over the following three weeks or so.
I digress, back to our journey…once we had located the main square, we had basic walking directions that would take us to the anthill and so we hit the road for another twenty minutes or so until we saw the palm trees-the significant landmark that would signify our arrival at our destination. You see, the anthill, aside from the description as given above, is a palm tree farm!

Well baked, slightly sweaty and reddened in the face, we negotiated our way to the entrance to find our hosts for the build up until Christmas, and for sure what we found was both intriguing and bewildering. Soon enough we were offered a beer and set about getting to know Vicente and Martina, some German guys that were already there volunteering, and also the various animals that we would find ourselves growing to know and love. Alpacas, emus, a donkey, a peacock, two peahens, chickens, ducks, dogs and cats-to say there was some variety is an understatement! And all of this in the setting of a traditional adobe farm, albeit it with some wonderfully quirky design features. Impossible to describe effectively with words, a montage seems most fitting to give you an impression of the location:

As I’m sure you can see, this place was quite special, and it would only get more magical. It turned out that our period of volunteering coincided with Martina and Vicente’s wedding, which they were going to be having at the farm! So it was up to us all to landscape and decorate the grounds in readiness for 400 guests to celebrate their union-and what a fantastic few weeks it turned out to be. Initially we had to clear the palm tree forest of all debris as that was where the ceremony and meal was to be-and this was the worst job of all! It may surprise you to know that palm tree leaves are pretty damn sharp, and all of us suffered greatly with significant punctures and lacerations caused by these pesky leaves! Fortunately for us we were there at the tail end of this job, the German guys had been pretty much focussed on the forest for their entire stay, and it was really starting to take its toll on their enthusiasm!
Still, once the forest was cleared there was more varied work to do, and luckily for us it was the period of time where you could really see the transformation taking place.
After a few days of us being there, we were also lucky enough to welcome the arrival of a couple from Leeds, Rob and Charlie, a couple who happen to have extremely similar ideals and plans as ourselves-albeit they are a little further down the line than us. This proved to be amazing, we shared so much, and I would say that they have became close friends. They were both extremely knowledgeable about various alternative farming methods and construction ideas, and it was fantastic to just sit and talk about hopes and plans (not dreams, plans!).

Back to the work, Martina and Vicente have a booming landscaping business work on projects throughout Santiago…reason that their business is booming? Well, they’re pretty damn creative, that’s why-and so we were tasked with the job of implementing their creative ideas, on their property, for their wedding…No pressure! Working with Rob and Charlie was brilliant, and in our time there we managed to build two beached areas, a water garden, some mighty fine gates, got involved with some adobe walling, and an immaculately decorated venue for the wedding-as well as Rob and Charlie getting to grips with a number of bridges, sprucing up a gypsy caravan, relocating the aquaponics and generally being open to our constant questioning!

In addition to all of the work at the farm, we were blessed with the wonder of El Monte, for here we would find warm and friendly folk who would fall over themselves to make us welcome. The daily Christmas market in the local plaza, and free capoeira lessons at the wonderful local community centre. Despite the fact that there was no common ground in terms of language-it turned out to be possibly one of the most friendly martial arts clubs I have ever been to, they even started having lessons in the town plaza for eveyone to watch. We loved it, and soon enough Rob and Charlie were hooked as well-a welcome distraction from the work at the farm for sure!

Twice a week we would get our capoeira on, and the rest of the week was dedicated to graft, and the occasional two litre bottle of El Gato wine!! The work was full on, after all there was an immovable deadline to meet-so it wasn’t as if we could leave it to the next volunteers if we didn’t finish-so finish we did…Culminating in a spectacular wedding!

It was a fantastic ending to our time in El Monte, after three and a half weeks we had made some special friendships and enjoyed a magical time at the farm…Now Christmas was upon us, and the grafitti laden streets of Valpairiso awaited!

Salta, La Rioja and the Talampaya Canyon

Having said our farewells to the our ‘family’ at Aldea Luna, and having the fortune to get a lift to the bus stop from Martin and Anabella, our travels resumed and we set about having a few days of tourism before our next volunteer appointment in San Rafael. The unexpected expense in Argentina being a significant factor in restricting just how much sightseeing we were going to get to do. Still, we had 5 days and so we planned to go to the picturesque town of Salta, then onto La Rioja and the Talampaya National Park.
We easily managed to get ourselves back to Jujuy bus station and then a mere two hour wait for the bus to Salta-the perfect amount of time to catch up on a little bit of internet action-and eating some meat empanadas after our month of enforced vegetarianism!

Unlike the adventures across Asia, the journeys here lack much in the way of drama or terror-we soon arrived unscathed and not in the least bit stressed in Salta, and made our way to our hostel. It was here that we were greeted by the most delightful host, with no English and our very broken beginner Spanish-it was rugby that united us! As soon as I had managed to establish the fact that I was Welsh, the smiles were unstoppable as we shared in England’s demise at the World Cup, and Argentina’s emergence as an upcoming rugby superpower-oh how they are benefitting from inclusion in the Rugby Championship. Anyway, I digress, as it was late we managed to organise food to be delivered to the hostel and we ate and crashed, before rising early to discover the quaint and eerily quiet streets of Salta…It took a while for us to realise that it was Sunday, and not until the following day to understand that Sundays really are rest days in Argentina. It actually turned out to be to our benefit, as we explored Argentinian street vistas uninterrupted for the first time.

One of the ‘attractions’ of the city that we had highlighted as a must visit was the MAAM Museum, which is the Museum of High Altitude Archaeology, and the home of the ‘Children of Llullaillaco’ in the Cryopreservation Laboratory. Basically these are mummified remains of Inca children that were sacrificed to the gods on the mountains of Lullaillaco 500 years ago, and as per the altitude and hence low temperatures they are the best preserved Inca mummies that have ever been discovered.
These remains are now actually kept frozen in the afore mentioned museum, and at any given time one of the mummies is on display. While it sounds pretty macabre and potentially bad taste, the exhibition is excellent-giving a real insight into the customs of the Inca’s and the background for these ‘sacrifices’. The children that were sacrificed were believed to have been the most intelligent and attractive, often from families of high standing in the communities. Even more surprising is the fact that the children were actually left on the mountain tops while they still alive, albeit sedated with coca leaves and a maize beer, and left to die in their sleep. Surrounding the bodies a number of artefacts and other offerings were found, rich collection Incan treasures laid out assumed to be part of the sacrifice to appease the mountain gods.
On our visit the youngest of the children to be found was on display, ‘El Nino’;

The boy
His age is around seven years. He sat on a grey tunic with legs bent and his face in-resting on his knees. A blanket of brown and red half covered his head and body. Like all men of the Inca elite he wore short hair and a trim white feathers, supported by a sling wool wrapped around the head.
He is dressed in a red garment; has in his feet leather moccasins light-coloured with brown wool appliqué; It has anklets animal skin with white fur on his right wrist and wears a silver bracelet.
His fists are clenched; The face is not visible and his eyelids are half closed.

With time limited before our start date at our next volunteering project-we left Salta after a couple of nights and headed onto La Rioja, with a view to visiting the Talampaya National Park-another UNESCO World Heritage Site for us to add to our already impressive list-the only place on the Earth’s surface where you can see all stages of the Triassic geological era, which witnessed the emergence of the first dinosaurs.
Our first challenge was getting there, as on our arrival in the pleasant surroundings of La Rioja we discovered, to our dismay, that any organised trips to the canyon were going to be way over budget! The canyon being around 3 hours bus journey from La Rioja, the trips we found were coming in at over £100 each-quite significantly more than expected. Not to be put off, we eventually found a way to get there for about half that cost-local style!! Basically this involved us getting a local bus and getting them to drop us off on the main road through the desert near the entrance, and in comparison to some of the adventures we had in Asia-it all went like absolute clockwork….Although not without a fair amount of apprehension on my part obviously!

So having negotiated our way there, we soon found ourselves amongst the sheered red boulders that had fallen from the walls of the canyon around us, upon which were a gallery of 1, 000 year old rock paintings, made by the Ciénaga and Aguada peoples who inhabited the area. The pictures ‘apparently’ depict various animals although I was pretty certain that they were more indicative of alien invaders….Riding llamas obviously!! At one point during the tour you are brought round to the botanical garden of the area where you find a huge carob tree, which is thought to be more than one thousand years old, as well as twenty or so different native cacti, shrubs and trees.
All in all the area was absolutely spectacular, as you will see from our photo journal…

In what seemed like the blink of an eye, our time was up and we hit a night bus to Mendoza ready to begin our next HelpX placement in San Rafael….La Carmelita here we come!

Beautiful, and a bit barmy-Bagan

“If you are a real Myanmar, you must have been to Bagan.”

Having brought ourselves up to temperature in Yangon, we were set to explore the most symbolic of landscapes that Myanmar has to offer-the pagoda saturated plains of Bagan.
Bagan is an ancient city located in the Mandalay Region, from the 9th to 13th centuries it was the capital of the Kingdom of Pagan, and between the 11th and 13th centuries, over 10,000 Buddhist temples, pagodas and monasteries were constructed here. I would wager that when most people think of Myanmar (or Burma), then the vista of temples stretching out over Bagan’s plains would be the image that comes to the fore of their mind.
Today there are over 2000 temples remaining in the area, and not surprisingly is the main tourist hotspot for all those visiting Myanmar.

Having done a little research, we opted for the night train from Yangon to Bagan, the words of the Man in Seat 61 providing some comfort about the journey ahead:

Burma’s British-built railways are less developed than others in Southeast Asia, but you’ll find the trains are a wonderful way to get around and experience the country at ground level, avoiding unnecessary domestic flights and cramped buses. The journeys are as much an adventure as the country itself.

Now I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that anyone who would like to travel to Bagan from Yangon, take a bus! For sure the train was an experience of sorts, but not the type of experience you expect outside of a roller-coaster at a theme park! The reassurance that we got from it being British built, was quickly dispelled when we realised that since the British built the railways, there has been next to no maintenance on the tracks. I kid you not when I say that the train felt like it was actually airborne at some points, and fellow travellers even experienced one of the carriages disconnecting during their journey. We had even opted for 1st class sleeper-but there was no chance of getting any sleep on this journey. While it was a giggle, and while the light lasted we were treated to some gorgeous countryside-it was also hard work, and so I would approach the journey with some caution!

Remnants of the past, graffiti as we leave Yangon

Remnants of the past, graffiti as we leave Yangon

One of the few shots which I managed to catch out of the train window!

One of the few shots which I managed to catch out of the train window!

Railway side footy

Railway side footy

Notice the ladders on the palm trees, they fix these when the trees are young so as to make accessing their harvest easier when the tree has reached maturity!

Notice the ladders on the palm trees, they fix these when the trees are young so as to make accessing their harvest easier when the tree has reached maturity!

Shaken, rattled and rolled with the all too familiar bleary eyes, we thanked the travel gods upon our safe arrival at Bagan and looked forward to what should be another epic experience. The usual kerfuffle greeted us at the station, with the locals fully capitalising on your confusion and charging premium rates for your transportation. In addition to the taxi fee, you also get hit with a tourist tax on entry to the area, but there can be little complaint about paying to see such a magnificent spectacle.
The first thing that struck us as we ventured towards the town of Nyaung Oo was that the area was a lot more desolate than we had expected-with memories of the images of Bagan bringing up lush green pastures dotted with temples; the reality is that the trees are few and far between-especially noticeable with the temperatures once again hitting 46 degrees. It is worth noting that we arrived at the peak of the dry season though, and so perhaps the desert plains are transformed once the rainy season arrives.
On arrival we wasted little time and immediately hired one of the many electric motorbikes to get on with exploring. The heat was intense, the breeze on the bike offering little respite as it was more akin to being blasted in the face by a hairdryer! Still, we were in one of the most evocative landscapes in Asia-and so we had little cause for complaint.
There’s not really much that I can say about the plains of Bagan that cannot be communicated through the photos of the area, we spent 3 days bombing round these plains and exploring-quite superb!

Pretty comfortable on scooters nowadays!!

Pretty comfortable on scooters nowadays!!

Pretty much every direction had another picture perfect shot

Pretty much every direction had another picture perfect shot

Symmetry!

Symmetry!

Making the most of a shady spot!

Making the most of a shady spot!

Big Buddha....

Big Buddha….

Little Buddha

Little Buddha

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The intense heat definitely had its impact, we would be up and out of the hotel at 8.30AM, only to return for 11AM to hide from the sun before setting out once again to find various sunset spots. Even with our attempts at avoiding the high noon heat, the temperatures faced were still above 40 degrees each day, and with the fact that you need to remove your shoes at each temple-the soles of our feet were starting to show the impact of the blistering heat. After a while you settle into a certain style of ‘scuttle’ walk, much like someone walking over hot coals-I imagine that you could make quite a funny silent film watching people and their ungainly walks around the temples of Bagan!
After our three days of exploring it was time to move on to our next adventure, as with the experiences at Angkor and Ayutthaya, you definitely reach a certain saturation point when you see temple after temple after temple. Not that it stopped me from taking a whole load more photos….If you have the stomach for it, read on-otherwise I’ll hopefully see you again in my next post-The Road to Mandalay!

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Koh Samui and three days of silence….

Having left our little island paradise of Koh Jum, our next destination was the popular island destination of Koh Samui. Well known for it’s beautiful beaches and lively nightlife, our plan was something pretty different-we had booked onto a three day meditation retreat!
From Krabi a 3 hour bus journey across Southern Thailand to the port, where an hours’ ferry got us to our destination with no problems. An established route, we found ourselves in the midst of a heap of travellers making their way over to Koh Phangan for one of the famous Full Moon Parties…Quite a contrast the three days of silence that we had ahead!

We had a few days to hang out in Koh Samui before the retreat, so we headed to Lamai Beach where we had booked a hut to stay in and looked to getting a few drinks under our belts before the spiritual journey ahead! Lamai Beach was much quieter than we had expected, and it seemed as if the area was suffering from a drop in tourists from the UK due to recent widely publicised events-whether that is true or not is difficult to measure-but for sure it gave the beach a slightly odd atmosphere. The main street is absolutely jam packed with bars and souvenir shops, with a central market area that is populated with ‘go-go’ bars where you find girls and lady-boys dancing on poles behind little open bar areas. In the centre of all of these bars, quite bizarrely, is a Thai boxing ring…More about that shortly.
Mooching around the shops and you discover that they all sold the same things-for sure there is an opportunity for someone to offer some diversity to this area! Anyway, our major find was the street food market, which served a plethora of gorgeous food for around 60 baht for a main meal (around £1.20). We ate here every night, picking out a different stall to sample their offerings and not a bad meal was had-the more time we spend out in Asia the more we appreciate the wonders of street food, and wherever we go now we try to search out these vendors in preference to eating in restaurants.

Given the upcoming days in the retreat we made the obvious decision to have a night out on the cocktails, unfortunately we made the unobvious choice of the night prior to retreat to go out-first rule of meditation retreat rookies, don’t start with a stinking hangover!
Anyway, back to our last evening of freedom and having ate at the street food market we indulged in a few beers and found out that there was actually going to be some Thai boxing in the central market area that night-bargain! We settled in one of the bars surrounding the ring and sponsored one of the female fighters, which essentially makes up her purse for the evenings’ work. Around half way through the fight they halted proceedings and invited ladies of the audience to get up and get in the ring for some sort of contest, with an iota of encouragement Jo was up there and having a balloon tied to her ankle-basically the purpose of the contest was to be the last one in the ring with an inflated balloon on your ankle. What followed was funny, disappointing and a little disturbing…Jo’s balloon was ‘faulty’ and just went down of its own accord and soon she was out of the ring, what followed was a bizarre few minutes where a guy who had entered got quite far on in the competition-and lets just say that he got a little ‘over enthusiastic’, and was soon dealt with by a group of remaining ladies and a lady boy….it got a little heated to say the least! Still, fun was had and certainly the beers and cocktails seemed to have done the trick:

And WE'RE OFF!

And WE’RE OFF!

Disappointment with the 'faulty' balloon...There were murmurs that this may have been rigged!

Disappointment with the ‘faulty’ balloon…There were murmurs that this may have been rigged!

Still, I was all happy rocking the duck t-shiirt

Still, I was all happy rocking the duck t-shiirt

And a late night stroll on the beach and the injustice of earlier was forgotten!

And a late night stroll on the beach and the injustice of earlier was forgotten!

Awakening the following morning with what could only be described as a monster hangover, we readied ourselves for the Diphabhavan meditation retreat. Having limited experience of meditation in the past, and knowing that we were facing three days of silence, what was about to happen certainly had the butterflies excited in our already troubled stomachs!
Here’s the schedule that we were facing for the next few day, while not being allowed to speak at all:

04.30 Wake up
05.00 Morning Reading
05.15 Sitting meditation
05.45 Yoga / Exercise
07.00 Sitting meditation
07.30 Breakfast & Chores
09.30 Dhamma talk
10.30 Walking or standing meditation
11.00 Sitting meditation
11.30 Lunch & chores
14.00 Meditation instruction & Sitting meditation
15.00 Walking or standing meditation
15.30 Sitting meditation
16.00 Walking or standing meditation
16.30 Chanting & Loving Kindness meditation
17.30 Tea
19.30 Sitting meditation
20.00 Group walking meditation
20.30 Sitting meditation
21.00 Bedtime
21.30 LIGHTS OUT

Soooooooo…..Yeah, that was it-this was the challenge that we were facing. I had no idea how hard this would be, and it’s only really a ‘taster’ course-usually these retreats would be 7 or 10 days, so the quick fire few days should be a breeze right? No, not at all. On arrival you’re reminded of the rules of the retreat, and you sign up to these rules and pretty much commit to staying there for the duration-all electronic devices and reading materials are packed away, and at eight o clock on the first evening you begin ‘The Silence’, clearing the mind allowing for effective meditation.
Some of the rules:
-Men were to sit on the left hand side of the meditation hall and dining area, women on the right.
-Wherever possible try to avoid non verbal communication as well as verbal, so if you’re going to smile at someone-try to make sure that you’re already smiling before you make eye contact
-Respect all living creatures, do not kill any bugs
-No reading
-No writing
-You sleep on a mat on a wooden platform, with a wooden pillow (male and female dorms separate, obviously!)
-You must attend all sessions
-You do not leave the boundaries of the retreat
-No drinking, smoking, sexual activity or drugs
-No nudity in the wash area (something that I didn’t realise and broke this rule on the first day!)

So, feeling rather daunted by it all (and still REALLY hungover), Jo and I said our ‘goodbyes’ and entered ‘The Silence’!
The first evening and we had our introduction to meditation techniques and postures-it was actually surprising to discover how difficult it is to find a sitting position that you can stay n comfortably for half an hour…Try it, straight back, legs crossed, hands rested on your knees-remain in that position for 30 minutes without moving-it’s harder than you may think.
The meditation technique that we were being taught was that of breathing and walking meditations, or Vipassana. In it’s most basic and simple explanation, by focussing on your breathing or walking you clear your mind of all other thoughts, and achieve mindfulness and focus. Easier said than done I tell thee.
So first evening out of the way, and we retired to our wooden platforms for a night of broken sleep-looking forward to the chimes that awaken us at 4.30AM.
The first full day really hit home how tough it was going to be….It was a REALLY long day, and over the next couple of days, I think that I speak for both of us when I say we experienced quite significant feelings of loneliness. It’s really difficult to not to be able to engage with your partner, just a smile and to check on how they are feeling.
Still, our underlying competitiveness drove us through the day, neither of us wanting to give up! One highlight of our days was the Dharma talks from one of the monks there called Hubert. This guy was incredibly happy, and gave talks on the meditation techniques and their grounding in Buddhism. He had an infectious smile, and really did emanate calmness-for sure he was a fantastic advert for the benefits of meditation!
Pretty much until the last two sitting meditation sessions I didn’t ‘get it’. I didn’t feel that I was clearing my mind, and really it was just a case of ‘getting to the end’….However, following Hubert’s penultimate talk, something happened…I found myself in a mental space where there was no inner dialogue, there was only the sensation of air passing in and out through my nose. Nothing else, just this mindfulness/consciousness of my breathing. For me this was something of a breakthrough, and to some extent the ‘trial’ of the retreat was looking justified. Jo also found meditation success, both through the latter sessions of the breathing techniques, and also in the walking meditation-where you focus entirely on the sensations and mechanics of slow walking.

The final morning came and following a few more sessions of meditation the silence was finally broken. This was such a strange time, people didn’t really know what to do! You felt like you had some sort of connection with your dorm mates, however you hadn’t spoken to them for days so when the opportunity finally came-it took some time to get comfortable with being able to speak once again. At this point we were reunited with each other, and felt the relief of being able to converse once again. To share our common struggles, and to give each other a hug! Reunited with our technology, predictably I got my camera out to take a few snaps of the location for this ‘journey’:

The retreat was set at the top of a hill on Koh Samui, it pretty much dense forest

The retreat was set at the top of a hill on Koh Samui, it pretty much dense forest

The meditation hall, where we spent most time

The meditation hall, where we spent most time

The view from the meditation hall

The view from the meditation hall

More of the jungle around us

More of the jungle around us

Did I mention we were surrounded by jungle?

Did I mention we were surrounded by jungle?

The Buddha statue in one of the popular walking meditation areas

The Buddha statue in one of the popular walking meditation areas

This meditation was a real test, as it was populated with some quite aggressive mossies!

This meditation was a real test, as it was populated with some quite aggressive mossies!

Ahhh, there it is, my bed for the duration...Just looking at it makes me tired!

Ahhh, there it is, my bed for the duration…Just looking at it makes me tired!

The ladies had shower cubicles, the gents had a trough!

The ladies had shower cubicles, the gents had a trough!

Everyone happy to have finished-and if you look closely you'll see Hubert...Ahhhh, Hubert :-)

Everyone happy to have finished-and if you look closely you’ll see Hubert…Ahhhh, Hubert 🙂

One of the many 'friends' dotted around the place to keep you on your toes!!

One of the many ‘friends’ dotted around the place to keep you on your toes!!

There may be more to add to this post once I’ve given it even more thought and reread it a couple of times, but for now-that’s your lot! Now onwards to back-to-back night trains, a revisit to old faithful Terminal 21, and Chiang Mai….Oh what stories await!