Nyepi: The Balinese New Year

I stayed true to my island hopping ways by venturing over to Bali, Indonesia, after Thailand where my plan was to relax, do yoga, and surf for a few days before going to the Gili Islands. But if there’s anything I’ve learned from traveling, it’s that nothing goes as you thought it would. When I first outlined my travels in the U.S., I had everything planned through the middle of March. In retrospect — while it was good to have a road map to follow, especially for the first couple weeks — I probably planned too far in advance. Who goes straight from Thailand to Indonesia? I didn’t even touch Laos, Cambodia or Vietnam.

Anyway, what I failed to do before booking my flight to Bali was to check and see if there were any holidays or festivals going on. Turns out, I arrived in Bali just in time to celebrate the Balinese New Year known as Nyepi. To celebrate the holiday, the Balinese have a day of silence where the entire island forgoes electricity and Internet. You’re also not allowed to leave your house. Everything shuts downs. And according to tradition, you should sit in silence all day. The idea is that once a year the Balinese dedicate one day to self-reflection. You’re supposed to ask yourself questions like, “Am I where I’m supposed to be?” “Am I happy?” and, “What can I do better this year?” It’s also a time for cleansing. Since Bali’s economy heavily relies on tourism, resorts are typically lenient with these rules — but you still can’t leave your resort or you will be fined by the Indonesian police who patrol the streets.

I stayed at Serenity Eco Guest House which is run by a local Balinese woman — and draws a yoga-friendly crowd — so we were encouraged to celebrate Nyepi the local way. Fortunately, I had a couple days to prepare, and a few parades to watch before sitting in silence for an entire day.

My first taste of the holiday happened while I was walking down the beach to meet two friends who I met in Thailand, Eliza and Daisy. As I walked down the beach to meet them at their hostel, I spotted large floats and people dressed in white and checkered robes. This was quite surprising since Bali is a pretty touristy place now. I wasn’t expecting to see anything cultural or authentic while I was there. I asked a local what was going on and he told me it was a festival for Malesti, which is the term to describe all of the celebrations before Nyepi. I wasn’t exactly sure what was going on, but I was told to come back later to watch a man stab himself. Surely, I thought some sort of miscommunication occurred.

Once I met up with Daisy and Eliza, I told them about what happened. We had a drink and quickly made our way back to the celebration. Once we arrived a few more Westerners found it as well, so we sat by them and watched the sacrifice begin. At first, everyone formed a circle and danced like they were in a conga line to the beat of the drum. Then a couple of women entered the center of the circle, laid down fruit and leaves to a shrine that they would ultimately float in the ocean — which they believed would be absorbed by the gods. It was really interesting to observe because the men and women were so emotionally enthralled in what was going on that they’d pass out. I asked a local why and she explained it was because some people would become possessed by the gods during the ceremony. When this happened, their friends and family would have to usher them to the ocean to be cleansed, and freed of the demons that temporarily took over their bodies.

After about forty minutes of this, a duck and pig entered the scene. We knew something big was about to happen since the music became louder and the drums beat faster. And sure enough in one second, both of their heads fell to the ground. Blood splattered everywhere. Their dead bodies became another part of the shrine.

Then it was time for the alleged human sacrifice. One man picked another man from the crowd, and handed him two Balinese swords. The music turned louder once again as the man danced in the middle of the circle with both swords in his hands. He turned the back of his palms towards the ocean and stabbed both swords into the sides of his neck.

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He later ended up bleeding to death.

Just kidding. 🙂 The swords were made out of bamboo. And even though bamboo can be really sharp, these weren’t sharp enough to puncture the skin. This was a relief because we honestly weren’t sure if we were going to witness a human death or not. It was quite terrifying.

The next two days were filled with yoga classes, surfing, witnessing another Malesti parade, and then the day of silence. I spent it doing yoga, meditating and reading. That night I laid under the stars with some friends from the guest house. I truly have never seen stars so bright before in my life. It looked like a cluster of galaxies painted in the sky. I’m happy I got to experience Nyepi in Bali. Despite all the ways in which cultures celebrate the new year, I think it says a lot that we all celebrate it. It’s one thing — of many — that connects us all around the world.

Here are some more pics from the celebration:

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A little Balinese boy

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Women contributing their offerings

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Eliza and I

When People Ask: ‘Are You Traveling Alone?’

“Are you with a gap year program or something? Oh, you’re backpacking alone? Isn’t it hard traveling on your own like this?”

“I bet it can get really lonely at times.”

“Your parents let you travel alone? Wow. I would never let my daughter do what you’re doing.”

“You couldn’t find any of your friends to come with you? No boyfriend from back home to join you?”

“What happened back at home?”

“Don’t you ever wish you had someone to share this experience this with though? Aren’t there times when you’re watching the sunset and you wish you had someone next to you?”

“Oh, so you’re on some ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ journey?”

These quotes are from conversations I’ve had with people in airports, bus stations, train stations and cafes. They’re reactions from both men and women of all different ages and from various backgrounds. 

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The question, “Are you traveling with anyone?’ has become as irritating to me as, “Where are you from?” I dread the responses that follow, “No, I’m traveling alone,” just as much as when I tell someone I’m from America.

Many people are surprised when I tell them I’m traveling alone — with the exception of the travelers I meet in hostels. I can’t help but wonder if my male counterparts receive the same reactions. I’m pretty sure they don’t.

Prior to leaving, yes I was scared to travel alone — but it had nothing to do with being a woman. I was scared because I doubted myself. I wasn’t sure if I had the skills to get myself from point A to point B alone in a foreign city where I didn’t speak the language. I doubted if I had the openness to truly experience humility while living in communities I haven’t been exposed to before. I questioned if I relied too much on friends and family in the past, that I’d fail to be independent in situations where being independent would matter the most.

In retrospect, I wonder if all that self-doubt stemmed from the stigmas that are attached to being a woman who is traveling on her own. Were those doubts my own fears, or did I feel them because subconsciously I felt like I was supposed to? 

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be a solo female traveler since I’ve been reading Gloria Steinam’s memoir, On The Road. In her book, she discusses her experiences living a nomadic life and how that helped her become the activist she is today. She points out how men historically have always had the freedom to travel, while the same can’t be said for women. In the past, women left their homes because they didn’t have a choice — or if they did — they were leaving unhealthy situations and seeking a better life. Today, it continues to be a challenge for many women to travel due to work schedules and family responsibilities. This is precisely why Steinam says, “Perhaps, the most revolutionary act for a woman will be a self-willed journey — and to be welcomed when she comes home.”

Traveling is a huge privilege for both men and women. And I’m more aware now that not everyone has this opportunity — especially women. However, when I tell people I’m traveling alone their responses are typically far from flattering. Not once has someone said, “I hope my daughter, wife, girlfriend, or mom does that one day.” I’m not looking to be told I’m brave or courageous, but anything is better than someone assuming I’m really lonely wishing I had someone by my side all the time, because that’s not the case at all.

The Not-So-Glamorous Side of Traveling

I write this as I sit alone in a bungalow in Gili Air, Indonesia, trying to dodge a cockroach bigger than the size of a golf ball. I won’t kill it because a) I feel bad and because b) it’s so big. I’m scared that the second I get close it will jump up on my face. So the only option is to ignore it, hide in my mosquito net, and hope it will find its way out soon. After paying a visit to me in the shower, and then hanging around my backpack while I tried to get dressed, it eventually did.

Last night, I didn’t get much sleep. The hostel I was at had bed bugs, and one girl in my room was making so much noise — not sure why — so I slept outside under a cabana thing. My toenails are creepily long. I desperately need a haircut because my ends are so dry. And to top it all off, my nightly activity will be to clean out my toiletry bag because shaving cream — that I ironically haven’t used since traveling — exploded in it. Oh, and then there was that dead lizard I spotted being carried out of my room by an army of ants. That was a nice surprise (not really), but actually quite considerate of the ants.

These are some of the problems you have to deal with when you travel for an extended period of time in a developing country. Life isn’t all butterflies and rainbows on the road. Yes, the sunsets, people, freedom and flexibility are great, but that doesn’t mean they don’t come with their own downfalls. Traveling like this requires a much bigger tolerance than I exhibited back home.

I wanted to write this post because I’ve been having a lot of conversations with fellow travelers about the unfortunate situations they’ve encountered while traveling. I’ve heard stories of car accidents, dengue fever, terrible scams, bed bugs, terrifying ferry rides, and more. But they’re still here. They still keep going because they want to and because the good times outweigh the bad times. It’s these stories that often lead to another conversation — about the sacrifices that are made to travel. The ones that are made to maintain this lifestyle. And the biggest one is giving up a ‘normal life’ — or at least what’s considered ‘normal’ by modern-day standards: settling down in one city, having a 9-5 job, you know the rest.

Compared to the people I’ve met traveling, I’m just a little guppy fish. I’ve only been traveling for about two months. People I’ve met have been traveling for several months, or even years after returning home to save more money and get back on the road again. I’ve also met people who through traveling realized that stability and a ‘normal life’ are what they prefer. This reminded me of what the monk told me in Chiang Mai: “With happiness comes suffering, the two are always attached.” Neither one can be experienced without the other. When you do something that you think will make you happier, there are still going to be unhappy times that come with it.

There’s no exception to being unemployed and traveling. I may not be feeling the stress of a job, but you can bet I’m stressed about money. I meet amazing people all the time, but I miss everyone from back home. I get to taste amazing food, but I’m always at risk for food poisoning or some weird bacterial infection. I see amazing stars at night, but I’m also getting eaten by mosquitoes and other weird bugs.

This doesn’t only apply to traveling though, it applies to everything in life. Nobody is perfect, and not one situation is perfect. I think it’s important to find happiness in the stresses you have no control over, and to remind yourself that with good times come bad times. The two are a package deal. It’s actually pretty simple.

Bidding Farewell to Thailand

After six weeks of traveling around the Land of Smiles, the time has come to part ways. Since I last wrote, I concluded my two weeks of volunteering at Asalanta in Koh Lanta where I was building the mud houses. It definitely taught me a lot about sustainability and community living. I also got inspired to start so many art projects using reusable materials. After Koh Lanta, I ended up in Koh Tao for a week. But that’s a different story for another time.

I thought as an appropriate way to say goodbye to this country, I could share with you what I think is worth visiting, what isn’t, and my overall thoughts on traveling in Thailand.

First, let’s start with a recap of my time in Thailand — by the numbers.

Days in Thailand: 47

Cities visited: 7 (Bangkok, Phichit, Chiang Mai, Pai, Koh Lanta, Koh Tao, Krabi)

Money spent: An estimated $1,200 (Roughly around $200 a week – this includes hostels AND buses, trains and ferries to get around. Oh, and my habit of getting weekly Thai massages. And a couple scams that happened along the way. This doesn’t include my flight there.)

Hostels stayed in: 5

Private bungalows: 4

Indulgent nights of luxury in a hotel: 1 (Hey, sometimes you just want air conditioning and a good shower — this doesn’t include my first two nights in Bangkok.)

Volunteer gigs: 2

Times I got sick: 0 (Everyone said I was going to get sick — hasn’t happened yet!)

Motorbike accidents: 2 (Fortunately, I walked away with just a few cuts and scratches.)

Times I felt unsafe: 0 (Everyone is so nice and helpful. Definitely one of the safer countries in Southeast Asia. I never heard about other travelers getting robbed or their things stolen here.)

Memories & friends I’ve made that will last a lifetime: Too many too count…

Laughs: Too many to count …

Tears: Maybe 2 or 3 good cries — usually when I had to say goodbye to a city or friend.

OK, I’ll stop with the cheesiness right there.

Where I wish I had more time: Northern Thailand

First off, I absolutely loved Chiang Mai and I would go back there in a heartbeat. It’s the cheapest ‘big city’ in Thailand. It also has a great mix of history and modern-day luxuries. You can walk the cobblestone streets and temple hop in the Old City, or get delicious food and hit up a wine bar in the New City. You can also easily get out of the city and explore the waterfalls and mountains. It has everything you could want. That’s the only city in Thailand I could realistically see myself living in. The Sunday night street market is also the best one I’ve visited. And monk chats — you could do one every week!

From Chiang Mai I went to Pai, but that was as far north as I got. From Pai you can do the Mae Hong Son loop which takes you to three cities in Northern Thailand. It’s a very popular route by motorbike. I really wish I would have done this, or at the very least seen one of the cities, but I didn’t have the time. I’ve only heard really great things about Northern Thailand. Those cities are the ones that still remain untouched by tourists. And now that the Myanmar (Burma) border is open, a lot of people are going over there, too. 

Where I wouldn’t spend more time: The touristy Thai islands

This doesn’t mean all of the islands though. There are probably around 100 islands total off the coast of Thailand, but for travelers and tourists you hear the same ones being talked about: Koh Phi Phi, Koh Samui, Koh Pah Ngan and Koh Tao. While those beaches are as beautiful as you’d imagine, they lack in authenticity. I went to Koh Tao which is supposed to be the least touristy tourist island, but all of it was still geared towards tourists. It was also expensive, and the locals weren’t as nice as other places in Thailand. But it was incredibly gorgeous and I did spend a week there. Would I go back? With the right people, yes.

I feel very lucky that I found Asalanta and got to live on Koh Lanta for two weeks. From what I’ve seen and heard, it really is one of the more authentic islands that isn’t full of tourist traps. The locals are very friendly, and its beaches aren’t lined with fancy resorts. Yes, they exist, but they’re not always in your face.

If you want to island hop in Thailand, I would suggest taking the time to research and explore the more remote ones that aren’t filled with tourists. The ones that still have some soul to them. It really depends on what you’re looking for though.

And this brings me to my next point. Every traveler I meet is looking for something cultural, they’re looking for an authentic experience. Despite Thailand’s recent boom in tourism, that experience still exists, but you’re not going to find it through a Google search. I honestly would recommend doing a HelpX experience and living with locals for a couple weeks. When I was at the school, that was the only time I felt like I was experiencing the real Thailand. I got to know local Thai people, and experience the culture. It also helps pay for food and accommodations, so it’s great for travelers on a budget.

My time in Thailand has been pretty incredible, and I can’t believe it’s over. But I still have about two more months of traveling (or maybe more if I get my tax return?!), so the adventure continues. 

Next stop: Bali.

Also, if you have any questions about traveling in Thailand ask me in the comments, and I can add answers in this post. <3

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 bullshit. It’s really 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’d rather have a job where I’m interacting with people all day than sitting behind a computer.

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

11. 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 everyday.

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