Building Mud Houses & Swimming With Plankton

For the last week and a half, I’ve been living in a handmade mud house in the jungle on the beautiful island of Koh Lanta. It’s funny how when you know you’re going somewhere, you imagine what the journey will be like in your head. But when it’s really happening, it’s nothing like what you thought it was going to be. 

I’m not sure what I was expecting out of the island life, but it’s been a very enlightening experience. Living at Asalanta is kind of like luxury camping. I sleep to the sounds of animals howling, and insects crawling. I’ve been startled by wild scorpions, monkeys and bats. And I’ve had the pleasure of observing how Mother Nature provides us with everything we need to fulfill our basic needs of survival — including shelter. All of the structures at Asalanta have been built by community members or volunteers. The ingredients we use to make these homes come from the earth. While it takes a few weeks — or even months — to build an entire house, I’ve had the opportunity to make a lot of mud bricks (maybe over 100). To create these we simply dig a pit in the ground, remove the clay, add water, straw — maybe sand — lay the brick, and let it dry for a few days. It’s pretty easy and, surprisingly, quite relaxing. The toughest part is bearing the heat; it’s between 90 and 100 degrees here everyday. 

What has surprised me the most though is how simple it is to build a house. It doesn’t take much, and everything you need can be found in nature. It really puts into perspective how absurd it is that people pay thousands or even millions to buy a home.

It’s been nice to step outside my comfort zone and do activities that previously would have appeared to be too physically challenging for me. But hey, you really can surprise yourself!

I even used a machete to knock down a wall which was pretty cool. Here’s a pic:

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#JungleWoman #DontMachWithMe

Outside of the volunteer work — which we only have five days a week for three hours a day — I’ve been able to explore the island. Koh Lanta is known as one of the less-trafficked islands with a more relaxed vibe. It’s also pretty big with lots of hidden spots to explore. It’s still possible to find a beach with only a handful of people on it, as opposed to the more popular Thai islands like Koh Phi Phi. The sunsets here are pretty incredible,  too.

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I’ve also had a few adventurous nights, one where I went snorkeling with bioluminescent plankton. My friends and I were just hanging out on the beach, contemplating a night swim, when a herd of people appeared behind us. They quickly stripped off their clothes, and ran into the ocean. They lost a bet, and had to go skinny dipping. The upside? There were lots of plankton, and they had snorkeling gear. 

We couldn’t just sit there and not join in on the fun, so we obliged without thinking too much about it. Swimming with the plankton at night was one of the coolest things I’ve done in Thailand so far. Every movement we made in the water created small bulbs of green and blue light right in front of us. As one of my friends said, it’s like swimming through underwater constellations. It was pretty magical. 

One Month of Travel: Random Thoughts & Lessons Learned

I’ve officially been on the road now for one month, even though it feels like much longer. Throughout my travels, I’ve been writing little lessons and thoughts I’ve had along the way in my journal that I think would be fun to share with you all — and look back on someday. I’ll try and do this every month if I remember. Here they are:

1. It really is amazing how little you need to get by. I only have my backpack, which isn’t that big, and there are clothes in it I still haven’t worn. In fact, I’ve left some behind in different cities on purpose to make room for new ones. I did a big spring cleaning before I left, but I think an even bigger one is in order for when I get back.

2. First impressions are meaningless. It’s true to never judge a book by its cover. Everyone I’ve met has surprised me in the best way.

3. Age doesn’t matter. It’s actually refreshing to hang out with people older and younger than you. I’ve made friends with people who are 19 and 59. There’s always something to learn from every friend you make.

4. I still don’t know how to handle my natural curls. They’re so nappy. And dry. I wear my hair up everyday. Help.

5. I’m not a kid person. This doesn’t mean I don’t want to have some of my own one day, but teaching is most definitely not in my future. I’ve accepted this fate.

6. It’s a waste of time to worry about things that happened and aren’t in your control. If your motorbike breaks down, you deal with it. If you’re scammed, you accept it. If you lose something, you don’t dwell. If you get on the wrong bus, there’s always another one going where you need to be.

7. I’d rather have time to do what I love than money.

8. The Western culture over-complicates a lot of things.

9. I can build a house out of mud, wood chips, and water.

10. Sunsets halfway across the world show you how connected we are by this one big star. When the sun sets for me, it rises for you. We’re all looking at the same sun every day.

Overcoming Irrational Fears & Cliff Jumping

My last night in Chiang Mai, I decided to check out a jazz club a friend recommended to me. I got there around 8 pm thinking I’d have time to grab some street food before the music started, but the place was already packed. I sat in one of the last seats available. I thought I was waiting for jazz music to play, but it ended up being open mic night where local musicians — mostly expats — could perform.

One of the hardest — but sometimes most enjoyable — parts of traveling alone, is being alone. I like my alone time. It’s nice to do whatever I want to do whenever I want to do it. I also think when you travel alone, you’re more likely to meet new people rather than sticking with the same crew. But there are times when I wish I was traveling with someone. And as I sat there alone sipping on a beer, that was one of those times. But it didn’t take long before a Scottish girl and English guy asked me to join them. They had also met that night. We invited a few more people to join us at a table, and they were actually Americans from San Francisco: Amanda, Bryon and Omead.

The next day I went with the Americans to the Chaing Mai Canyon after the Scottish girl went on and on about how we had to go there the night before. I was taking the overnight bus to Bangkok that night, so I had the whole day to spare, The canyon is about 45 minutes outside of the city, and its infamous for cliff jumping. I’m all for being adventurous, but extreme sports that involve free falling and heights typically aren’t my thing. I’ve never really wanted to go skydiving before. And the last time I almost went cliff jumping was in Hawaii where I opted for the 6-foot jump after bailing on the bigger one. I went into this canyon pretty set on not jumping, and simply immersing myself in the water from the proper entrance point.

But of course after seeing a lot of people jump, I started to think “How bad can it really be?” Jumpers would effortlessly run to the edge of the cliff, take a leap, free fall for a couple seconds, hit the water, bob back up, smile and swim to the ladder to do it again. To give you some context, there were two different options for jumping: the smaller one was around 25 feet, and the bigger one around 40. Obviously the bigger one came with a greater risk. More people were walking away from that one with a bruise or two. I finally caved and decided I was going to give the smaller one a try.

The guys, who had already become jumping professionals, accompanied me and another girl, Tessa, for support. I thought it wouldn’t be so bad while I was up there, but I made the mistake of looking down. Of course, that’s the one thing you shouldn’t do. What you should do is just run and jump without thinking too much about it. Tessa, made the same mistake. So for about 20 minutes we stood and sat at the edge contemplating our jump.

This turned into a bigger conversation about irrational fears of the unknown. At first we spent a few minutes asking people to do it so we could watch them. We thought maybe we could learn something about the strategy behind jumping before taking the plunge ourselves. Then we spent a few minutes talking to the guys trying to figure out why we were so scared.

Doing something you’ve never done before is scary. It doesn’t matter if it’s a new job, new relationship, moving to a new city, or simply buying your groceries at a new store, the unknown is always a little uncomfortable and scary. But like the other feelings humans experience, fear is just an emotion. That’s it. Yet it holds so much more power than the rest of them. But it doesn’t have to.

After piecing together the logic behind what was stopping me from taking that jump, I got up and told myself I was going to do it — even though I was still wrapped in a blanket of terror. What finally got me over the edge were Omead’s wise words. He said, “You came to Thailand to do some crazy shit, so do some crazy shit.” And that’s all I really needed to hear. I ran without thinking about it, without blinking an eye, and jumped. A few seconds later my body hit the water, and I bobbed up with a big smile on my face like all my predecessors.

I know it’s such a cliche story, but it’s really true that the build up of the jump is always worse than the real thing. I couldn’t help but think back, and relate the jump to my current situation. I was terrified to quit my job and travel alone. But here I am, and I can’t imagine being anywhere else right now. The more you overcome your fears, the stronger of a person you’ll become.

Two Hours Chatting With a Monk

You can’t go thirty minutes on a street here without spotting a monk. Dressed in their orange and brown robes, they walk around everywhere — sometimes without shoes — to get to school or temple. They may look accessible, but that doesn’t mean you can tap one on the shoulder and ask him for directions. In fact, women aren’t allowed to touch monks at all or they will be considered impure (so no handshakes). Men could maybe strike up a casual conversation with a monk if they’ve met at a temple before, but women are advised against this.

Fortunately though, many temples have designated hours where both men and women can sit and chat with a monk: they’re called Monk Chats. These free conversations give monks an opportunity to practice their English while answering your questions about Buddhism and Monkhood.

Of course, I had to do one in Chiang Mai — where they most commonly occur. After spending my morning reading and writing at a cafe, I put a long skirt on, scarf to cover my shoulders and scurried over to Wat Chedi Luang. A group of about 15 monks sat at a few tables outside the Buddhism University talking to a few travelers. I approached Joe (his English nickname), who wasn’t talking to anyone, and asked if he was available to chat.

I thought it would be easier to breakdown our conversation in an interview-like format. His answers below aren’t word-for-word, but they’re a summary of what we discussed from the notes I wrote down shortly after.

How long have you been a monk for?

Joe: 5 years.

Why did you choose Monkhood?

Joe: The rules of Monkhood make life easier. These rules simplify life and provide us with less distractions. They reduce desire.

What are the easiest rules for you to follow?

Joe: No drinking, and not having a girlfriend. We have 207 rules from the Buddha to follow. Most of them are easy, but some don’t align with modern-day society. For example, the Buddha says you can’t wear shoes. But you’ll see a lot of us walking around with shoes. The Buddha also says we can’t have money, but most of us do because we need a home and food. We also aren’t supposed to use technology, but we do for our studies. It’s OK if the rules are broken sometimes. Monks are humans, and humans make mistakes.

What’s a regular day like for you?

Joe: We get up at 5 am and walk the streets to receive our food donations. What the people give us is all we have to eat that day. After walking we have prayer. We also spend a couple hours in the morning and evening meditating and studying. We don’t have dinner — only breakfast and lunch. In the evening we have prayer, and we go to sleep early.

I’ve noticed a lot of people in Thailand eat meat and they’re Buddhists. Do monks eat meat, too?

Joe: Yes, of course. This is another example of a rule that we don’t always follow. We love and respect all living beings, so we don’t kill the animals, but the food donations we receive are all we have to eat. Thai people love meat, so if they give us meat we eat it.

Do you have any advice on how to get better at meditation?

Joe: Meditation is hard, even for me. The best way to get better at meditating is to practice. But you have to want to get better at it, too. Even if it’s just for five or ten minutes a day, practicing will make you better and help you quiet the mind.

What is the purpose of meditation?

Joe: To clear the mind and be in the present. It can also help you in situations where there’s a lot of emotion. If someone hurts or upsets you, it can help you take a moment to breathe and sit with your emotions, rather to react and say something hurtful back.

Speaking of emotions, what’s the best way to handle a situation where someone does hurt you?

Joe: Let it go. Most of the time people hurt you, but it has nothing to do with you. It’s about them. It’s a reflection. The best thing you can do is feel compassion. On the other side, if you are the person who hurts someone, always apologize to that person.

What are your thoughts on the purpose of life?

Joe: Well, it’s different for everyone. But I think people need to remember everything is impermanent. Impermanence is an important part of Buddhism. Understanding everything changes helps us to let go of desires and attachments. Letting go helps us to be in the moment and be happy with what we have right now. People think having materials will make them happier, but they won’t. We need to be happy with what we have.

What do you like to do for fun?

Joe: Laugh.

What makes you laugh?

Joe: Talking with people.

Here’s a pic of me and Joe.

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We did share a few laughs together. A lot of our conversation also involved him asking me questions about my life in San Francisco, why I’m a vegetarian, and about my adventures in Thailand so far. 

Hope you enjoyed this. Cheers to a more simple life. <3 

No Mo’ Motos in Chiang Mai & Finding Circus School

I booked a bus ticket to Chiang Mai after leaving the elementary school.  I was eager to get a taste of the backpacker culture and meet other travelers.

It’s interesting how when you’re traveling people are more open and willing to connect with you. Nobody cares what you did at home. They’re just curious about where you come from, how long you’ve been traveling for, and why you’re “on the road,” as they call it. A lot of people at my hostel were at the beginning of their trips which makes sense. Like me, they waited till after the holidays to take off. I made friends with some Germans, Brits, Australians, a Kiwi, Canadians, and a couple Americans.

My first night I went out with a group to the night market which is basically a bunch of vendors set up on a few streets at night. Night markets can be very crowded, but they’re a great place to taste amazing street food and buy cheap clothes. After we walked around, we left the market and walked by a group of locals who were drinking beer and playing music outside their apartment. They invited us to join, and we ended up spending the rest of our night with them.

The next day I made the terrible mistake of renting a motorbike and trying to drive two hours outside the city with people from my hostel, Claudia and Evan. The plan was to go to a temple we heard about that was tucked away in a cave. Since Claudia had never driven a scooter before, and I have, we put her on the back of Evan’s and me on my own. Not sure what crazy pills I took that morning, but driving a motorbike on Thai streets is not for me.

First off, I’m driving on the left side of the road — something I’ve never done before. Second, the drivers here don’t pay attention to traffic lights. It also might be important to mention that I don’t have a driver’s license, hence my driving skills are overall a little rusty. After about 20 minutes on the highway, with many motorbikes and cars honking at me because I was barely pushing 40 mph, I decided to call it quits. I pulled over, turned around, went back to the city and returned my bike. Never. Again.

After another day of chilling in Chiang Mai, going on a lovely hike to Doi Suthep temple in the mountains — and avoiding motorbikes like the plague — some of my new hostel friends and I booked tickets to Pai. Pai, we heard, was a very small and chill town three hours north where backpackers are at risk of getting sucked into its alluring vortex. We were told it was worth a visit.

My friend Victoria, a New Zealander, had friends that went last year who stayed at a hostel called Pai Circus School. Good recommendations are a valuable commodity on the road, so we booked a couple nights there. For some reason it didn’t occur to me that it could actually be a real circus school though. I just thought it was some weird hostel name.

After arriving at the bus station in Pai, we asked someone for directions to the circus hostel. “Just follow the road and you’ll see the circus people,” he told us. Victoria and I asked him: “What do circus people look like?” The guy just said: “You’ll know.”

Within fifteen minutes of walking, we saw a crooked wooden sign pointing right that said “Pai Circus School.” And then a guy wearing red parachute pants and a joker hat. We knew he was coming from circus school, and that we were almost there. Sweaty and with our backpacks strapped on, we walked up a little hill where we finally reached our destination.

The lawn of Pai Circus School is as entertaining as you’d imagine it to be. People are randomly sprinkled around juggling, baton twirling, and hula hooping. There’s a pool where the non-circus people hang out. Some might say they’re too cool for school. There’s also an area for slack liners to refine their balance. The actual circus school only happens for a couple hours in the evening though. It’s pretty casual, and not a very structured event.

Participants have the option to choose their own toys from the toy box. Once you’ve decided what you’re going to work on, one of the instructors will teach you a few basic tricks. Then you have time to practice. I chose the sock poi with balls. I thought it was going to be easy, but it actually was very hard to twirl the sock balls around. At the end of my time there, I did manage to master a circle move that will help me out the next time I find myself at a rave though. It’s all about those life skills, am I right? 

Here’s Victoria and I practicing our tricks.

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I spent the rest of my time in Pai reading in a hammock, hanging out with new friends, and going out with them at night. I didn’t leave cirque du soleil-ready — nor did I leave with dreadlocks like my fellow classmates — but I did leave with a hair wrap that some guy gave me for 20 baht (less than $1). 

If you ever find yourself in Chiang Mai, traveling up to Pai is definitely worth the three-hour ride on the narrow and winding mountain roads. 

That Time I Tried To Be a Teacher In Thailand

I cut my time short at the school in Phichit after having an honest moment with myself. Are you surprised?

Now hear me out. I planned my trip around a few volunteer opportunities that would expose me to possible different career paths. I still want to be a writer, but I know freelancing is hard and having something full-time with a steady income can be extremely helpful. That’s why I decided to revisit the idea of teaching. A long time ago (well, not that long) during my freshman year of college I wanted to be a high school Spanish teacher. The kids would call me Senorita Nicole, and we’d talk in espanol all day while making our favorite tapas and watching plot-thickening soap operas. I’d be living the dream. But it wasn’t until I lived in Spain for a semester, and worked at the university’s magazine, when I realized I wanted to be a journalist. Turns out teaching wasn’t — and still isn’t — for me.

When I first arrived at the school, I thought I’d be helping out with their English classes — easy enough. I knew I’d have the opportunity to teach one if I wanted to, but I assumed there would be some sort of training beforehand if I did that. I was very wrong. What happened is one of the teachers had to go to Bangkok for the week, so they thought it would be a good idea to give me her entire schedule. I ended up being the foreign substitute teacher in charge of the school’s English, math and art classes for the whole week. Yep.

Remember when you were in elementary school and had a substitute teacher? Did you behave? Probably not. One time in my elementary school when we had a substitute math teacher, one of my classmate’s made a slingshot out of a rubber band and paper clips. He shot one in my eye. I had to wear an eye patch for a week. That poor substitute teacher had to deal with that. I now feel her pain.

Fortunately, there were no slingshots involved in my classes, but it was very challenging to get the kids to pay attention. For English class my instructions were to “get them to have a conversation with me,” and one teacher suggested to review words that could be used while shopping. But once I started teaching them clothing items and store locations (entrance, exit, cash register, etc.), I could tell they were lost. So, we went back to basics and reviewed the pronunciation and spellings of colors. All I could do was improvise for each class because the levels varied.

Surprisingly, trying to teach the math class was a lot of fun. I kicked off the class by putting a few multiplication problems on the board, and having them solve the equations at their desks. After 15 minutes, we’d review them together. Then I played a game with them which they ended up calling “group one, group two.” I split the classroom into two groups and put a difficult multiplication on the board, like 354 x 431. The first group to get the answer received a point. They LOVED this game. So much that I ended up receiving suggestions for problems from the audience. One kid would write an impossible problem on a piece of paper — like 15,243,981 x 12,345 — walk up to the front of the classroom, tap me on the arm, point to the paper and then to the board. I wrote a couple of his tough ones on the board to entertain him — and scare the students. They’d actually try to figure them out though. We had a lot of fun.

I enjoyed teaching the art class, too. I did the same activity with all of the art classes which was “draw your family.” I now have 40 papers of Thai family drawings in my backpack. There were quite a few artists in these classes. I can’t throw them away!

Overall, it was a great experience, but by my fifth day I was dreading walking into a classroom and having to teach the kids. I loved playing with them, but having to be in front of a classroom and actually teach them was pretty terrifying.

On my last day at the school, I received an invite to go to another school and watch a sport’s competition with the other teachers. It was a soccer a match. We sat with the mayor of the town and ate lunch with him. We watched the game by his side in a special section of the stadium. Finally, I got a glimpse into how Hillary Clinton must feel when she is on a business trip and handling international affairs.

I’m not going to lie, I shed a few tears leaving the school. In a short time I learned and saw a lot. But part of being a happy adult is knowing what is — and what isn’t — for you. It’s OK to leave sometimes. That doesn’t mean you’re quitting. It doesn’t mean you’re giving up. It just means you’re surrendering to the next adventure that awaits you. And for me that ended up being circus school. I’ll stop there because circus school is worthy of a separate post. #CliffHanger