Body & Mind : My Last Week in Sri Lanka

So I'm still at the same beach house in Ambalangoda but this last week is all about relaxation and introspection. Two other girls are participating in this week's activities as well; one from Austria and one from Germany. The only things officially on the agenda are a daily morning massage, a short yoga class in the afternoon and then maybe meditation on Friday with a monk at a local temple. I supplemented the mind part on my own by devouring several books during my abundant free time. (I also still helped out with the turtles, too.) 

Full/Blue Moon

Full/Blue Moon

BODY // MASSAGE

My morning ayervedic massages were performed by a small, smiley Sri Lankan lady name Udena. First there is the topless head, scalp and shoulder massage. (Beth, you would slip into a blissful coma and possibly die of complete, tactile nirvana.) I sit in a chair and she pours some herbal, ayervedic oil on my head then works it into my hair and scalp with a sequence of scratches and strokes. Then she braids my oily and slightly thicker hair. For some reason, I find head/scalp massage the most relaxing - it affects the entire rest of my body. After that, I lay down on the padded table for the foot massage. It's very thorough and relaxing with a bit of reflexology-ish pressure point stimulation. (Dad, you would fall asleep and instantly have dreams of walking weightlessly on cotton candy clouds.)

The first time, I thought she was only going to do my head and feet, but she transitioned on to rub down all the parts in between. Arms, hands, thighs, legs and then stomach and chest. It was a bit awkward for me because I've never had a boob-and-tummy massage before but its not bad. Then I flip over and she does the back of my arms & legs, my glutes and finally my back. My muscles are temporarily the consistency of banana pudding and it takes all of my willpower to convince my coarse motor skills to start functioning again. 

At this point I'm covered head to toe in ayervedic massage oil. I looked at the bottle but it's all in Singhale so I can't read a word of it. I asked Udena what was in it and she said simply "herbs." So my last resort was to try to identify it by smell, which is my third failed attempt at deciphering what the oil is made from or what's in it. I can say it smells rich, savory, herb-y and earthy, almost like a mossy forest floor after the rain mixed with wood, mushrooms and maybe some nuts. It honestly smells and feels like I'm being tenderized and marinated in preparation for a large Thanksgiving-style feast. It's not a bad smell but I don't love it either. 

If I could, I would fold her up and put her in my pocket so I can continue to experience her magical massage powers throughout my travels and share them with others. But, I just don't think the rest of the world is ready for the massage equivalent of self-actualization. 

MIND // BOOK CLUB

Walden | Henry David Thoreau, 1854

I finally finished Walden after starting it months ago. This is because 1) I read it very sporadically, and only during my travels, 2) its 373 pages of tiny type and 3) I frequently had to make note of and look up definitions to tons of antiquated and/or SAT-level vocabulary words. 

Basically, it's his adventure in self-reliance and self-reflection while living at a house he built on Walden Pond. There's a ton of satire, great poetic descriptions and narration, philosophy, advice, observations and even some rather prophetic predictions. I'll read it again or possible several more times and more quickly now that I have several words defined in the margins. 

Paper Towns | John Green, 2008

 A roommate of mine left this book so I picked it up and decided to give it a try. I finished it in under 48 hours, not because I found it particularly enthralling but because it's an easy read and I have a lot of free time. 

I was expecting it to be your typical vapid YA novel describing the same old tired high school stereotypes but I was surprised to find I could actually relate to it. Girl is fed up with conventional life (in Florida of all places) and decides to leave everything behind in search of something more substantial. 

A good part of the plot is built around poetry by Walt Whitman: Song of Myself and Leaves of Grass. I coincidentally just finished reading Walden by Henry David Thoreau. Both men were writers and part of the Transcendentalist movement in America during the nineteenth century. So, a lot of the underlying philosophy overlaps between those two books, despite them being written over 150 years apart. 

I also like the message of trying to see people for who they really are, not what you expect them to be. The irony is, in high school when I would have been the ideal target for this book, I was definitely more of a Q but now several years later, I've definitely transitioned to being more of a Margo. 

TRAVEL TIP #3: BOARDING PASSES MAKE GREAT BOOKMARKS!

The Fault in our Stars | John Green, 2012

There was a small, makeshift library of left-behind books in the corner of the common area. Since I had just finished Paper Towns, a friend suggested I read another book by John Greene called The Fault in our Stars. It's about a couple of star-crossed teenagers with various forms and stages of cancer. Kind of a modern, more maladies version of Romeo and Juiet, sans suicide.

It's a great insight into what it feels like to have a terminal illness and makes you appreciate your own health for sure. I wasn't a fan of the ending, but I think it's referencing the inceptional, fictional book-within-a-book An Imperial Affliction which just ends leaving several questions unanswered. I plan on watching the movie at some point next week in Malaysia when I have more reliable internet. 

I Wonder Why | Thubten Chodron, 1999

Curious to learn more about Buddhism and meditation in anticipation of visiting the temple later that week, I read I Wonder Why, a free publication that I picked up earlier at a temple in Singapore. It concisely and simply answers the questions asked most often about these aforementioned topics. It was written by a Californian turned Buddhist nun who started meditation and visited Nepal in 1975 and was fully ordained in 1986 in Taiwan. Very interesting and makes it easier to comprehend some of the more complex topics, especially since she has the Western perspective and wasn't just born into the culture. 

BODY // YOGA

After the peak heat and humidity of the day had waned slightly, our Yoga teacher Sasantha would arrive around 5 PM via motorbike. He wore white Kundalini-style yoga clothes was trained in and teaches Hatha style.

Along with Om chanting, he would open and close our practice with Ayubowen (Wishing you a long life; Singhale) instead of Namaste. I tried to go in with an open mind, but I felt like this class was way too basic, maybe on par for toddlers or geriatric clients. There were a handful of poses that I recognized but there was also a lot of filler like glorified stretching of feet, hands and fingers and laying down in savasana for several minutes in the middle of the practice, which I have never done before, and really felt like it interrupted the whole flow. But he did mix in a noticeable amount of meditation, which I liked. 

The worst part was the insects. I put on citronella oil but the mosquitos and flies still buzzed around us. I can't think of a worse hell than trying to meditate amongst mosquitos. I'm still grateful for his time and effort and was a nice, relaxing, not-too-sweaty way to end the day. 

I still continued to do my own Vinyasa practice almost every morning alone in the common area of the beach house. Last week, a few German girls took notice and asked if I could teach them. I ended up teaching two short classes (with simple moves that I was confident I could describe and direct) on two different mornings with up to four girls attending each class. 

MIND // TRIP TO THE TEMPLE

On Friday afternoon, I and the two other girls participating in B&MW piled into a tuk tuk to make the journey to the nearby Shailathalaramaya Temple in Karandeniya, built on a hillside about two centuries ago. It's claim to fame is a 35 meter long reclining Buddha statue, the longest of its kind in Southeast Asia.

The temple was particularly packed with people due to it being a holiday related to the full moon called Uposatha Observance Day or Poya Day. (This would explain why both the Post Office and our favorite Ice Cream place were closed on Friday.) So, we were lucky to get an hour, or any time at all really, with a monk there named Somissara. He was an amiable, 24-year old monk that just radiated happiness. The only space left for our meditation was in their narrow little alms room, where lay persons brought all kinds of food offerings for the monks. 

He had great English and gave us his life story in a nutshell, including coming to live at the temple at age 7, how he started meditation and his more recent travels across Europe to teach meditation. He recommended starting with Metta (or Loving Kindness) meditation. The goal of this practice is to cultivate a strong wish for the happiness of all other people and animals. We were instructed to close our eyes for 10 minutes and repeat the mantra I wish for all to be well and happy. I edited this a bit to I wish for _______ to be healthy and happy and made it into a med-lib™ (meditation + mad-lib, get it?!), in which I would fill in the following blank with things like: my parents, my sister, my friends, all beings, etc. (Is it coincidence that when I grabbed my phone to take pictures of the temple directly after the meditation, I noticed a rather happy WhatsApp message from my mom?) 

The time went by pretty quickly and even though my eyes were closed, the darkness faintly seemed like I was moving backwards through a tunnel, passing under sporadic overhead lights. However, I couldn't hold the traditional cross-legged position for the entire time. One of my legs started to go numb so I shifted a few times. I raised this concern to Somissara afterwards, and he said it's normal and totally acceptable to shift your physical position when meditating.

Then he gave us a brief tour of the statue, the temple and the grounds. I really enjoyed and appreciated the time he spent with us and approached to shake his hand, but just as quickly recoiled because I suddenly remembered that we're not supposed to touch or take pictures of the monks out of respect for their holiness. 

Reminds me of my grandma's quilted creations

Reminds me of my grandma's quilted creations

The Moonstone Mine and My Shiny Souvenir

Unrelated to Body & Mind week, my last excursion was to a Moonstone Mine in Meetiyayoda. It was a typical tour-then-try-to-sell-something experience, but while white moonstones are found all over the world, blue moonstones are so rare that they (supposedly) are only found in this single village in Sri Lanka.

Traditionally, the moonstone is known as the Traveler's Stone and is supposed to be especially protective when one travels by night or upon the water when the moon is shining. The blue, or cat's eye, variety is believed to promote clarity, focus, awareness and balances energy. 

Upon hearing this, I decided I needed one immediately so even though I'm not typically a "ring person," I purchased a sterling silver ring set with a small blue moonstone for 10,000 rupee ($75 USD). I'm sure I probably overpaid a bit but it came with a certificate of authenticity and I'm directly supporting the Sri Lankan economy. 

Sifting for stones

Sifting for stones

My blue moonstone

My blue moonstone

The Cat Savior & Spectacular Sunsets

My last and completely unanticipated experience that I need to mention happened Friday night when a group of us were walking towards town for ice cream after dinner at the beach house. We are regularly escorted by Milo and some other street dogs, as we were on this trip, but they suddenly and uncharacteristically broke into a full sprint. I saw why as a small cat scrambled up a tree limb. The cat fell and in what seemed like a nanosecond, it was then in Milo's mouth, being shaken violently. 

What happened next was kind of a blur. I didn't really think - I just reacted and kicked the dog, not hard enough to really hurt it, just enough to startle her. She dropped the cat and I reflexively tried to grab the cat and move it away from the dog but instead felt claws puncturing my flesh. I flinched and spun around to see the cat safely behind me. I stood between Milo and the cat, yelling at Milo to go away, until the cat disappeared to safety. Thankfully the other dogs were gone and Milo eventually retreated as well. (I'm choosing to believe that the cat is totally fine now and eternally grateful for me saving it's life.) 

Only then did I stop to evaluate the damage done to my finger. I had a long, jagged scratch almost the entire length of the inside of my right ring finger - the one with my new moonstone ring on it - that was trickling blood and I was super thankful for another girl in my group that had a first aid kit with her and handed me an alcohol wipe and a band aid. I used them immediately then cleaned the wound more thoroughly and applied Neosporin when I got back to the house. 

Last but not least, I need to share pictures of some spectacular sunsets we got to admire this week! 

Bentota and/or Aluthgama, Sri Lanka

Since we only work in the morning on Fridays, three other girls and I decided to spend the afternoon in another town called Bentota. We piled into a tuk tuk and headed north. We weren’t 100% sure where the town was or what it looked like but our driver dropped us off on the side of the road between the beach and some buildings a few kilometers after we passed a sign that said Bentota on it. Some locals directed us west toward the ‘city center’ so we walked in that direction, and soon realized we were being followed. An older gentleman in a sarong, button down shirt and flip-flops offered to take us to the temple, which he said was just down the road. 

We were very cautious and hesitant. I thought about it as we walked and decided he was either going to murder us in the woods, or actually take us to the temple and ask for a tip afterwards. We gambled on the latter, and after walking about 30 minutes through the jungle, we did, indeed arrive at a temple, which may or may not be the Galapatha Raja Maha Vihare Buddhist temple. (I couldn’t find anything identifying it in English at the site so I Googled it later.) I could tell the structure was very old but the interior was immaculately maintained and boasted beautiful tile, several colorful murals from floor to ceiling and a ginormous Sleeping Buddha statue with intricately patterned & painted feet. Of course at the end of our tour, we were asked to leave a donation for the temple so we each put 100 rupees through the slot in the wooden box that is intended for that purpose. 

Jungle Temple Entrance

Jungle Temple Entrance

Inside the Temple

Inside the Temple

After that, our guide (who never actually shared his name) led us to the lagoon, where we boarded a traditional flat canoe-type boat which he and one other man rowed for us with long, thin, wooden paddles. We asked the cost up front and he quoted us $1,000 rupees each (about $7.50 USD) which seemed a little steep, but we were kind of a captive audience because we didn’t know how else to get to the city. It ended up being a pretty nice ride that lasted close to an hour. We paddled around mangroves and along the shore of the lagoon, where I noticed the nicest houses I’ve seen yet in Sri Lanka. Our guide told us that many Europeans live here, so that explains the more lavish residences. We saw some snakes and some monitor lizards along the way before being dropped off at a vacant marketplace, which comes alive on Mondays only. 

Simple boats

Simple boats

We paid for the lagoon cruise and walked into what we assumed to be the city center since the street was lined with shops and the streets were full of people and various vehicles. This is where we and our guide parted ways, after he asked for a tip as I had expected. We gave him close to $1,000 rupees total, confident that he also got a cut of fee for the ‘cruise’ for which he had recruited us. He thanked us and claimed to have three children, for which he was going buy for for with said compensation. Who knows if this was true or not, but even though we got a bit taken advantage of as somewhat naive tourists, I think both parties benefitted from the "impromptour." We got see some sights that we had no idea were there and he made some money. Plus, it was super sustainable since we walked the whole time and the boat was people-powered. 

Row, row, row your boat

Row, row, row your boat

We were the only tourists around so everyone was hollering at us to come into their shops. We browsed a few before starting a new mission to find food. Another, younger local that looked to be around our age approached us and promised to take us to the best restaurant in town. We figured ‘what the heck’ and made sure to check the menu before deciding to actually eat at the restaurant, which had a pretty nice view overlooking the river. One girl has seafood and the rest of us reveled in the simple yet satisfying familiarity of our sandwiches and fries. 

The closest thing to a sunset I've been able to capture because clouds!!! 

The closest thing to a sunset I've been able to capture because clouds!!! 

We decided to save some money and take a train back to the beach house but had some trouble finding the station. It was getting dark and we gave up on hoofing it finally just found a tuk tuk to take us to the station for about 100 rupee. Turns out, we had missed our turn and walked too far. The train ticket was only $50 rupees each and I am very impressed with their thick, letterpress-style tickets! We were a bit confused, though, because we were at the Aluthgama station, when we were supposed to be in Bentota. When the train finally arrived about half an hour later, the first station we passed was Bentota, so we hypothesized that our driver had intentionally driven us too far in order to benefit his buddy that took us on our tour - but we can’t confirm this theory. 

Letterpress-ish train ticket 

Letterpress-ish train ticket 

We got back to the house in time for dinner then went out for ice cream downtown before calling it a night. 

Viva Los Visas

The most time consuming and complicated part of this whole planning process are the visas. Every country has different costs and requirements and procedures and it's kind of like putting together a big puzzle. Again, a great resource for me was Visa HQ.com where you can easily find all the information you need and they can even take care of all of them for you, for a hefty fee. In my case, it would have pretty much doubled the cost of the visas themselves. However, I was able to take care of most of them myself, then left the really finicky one for India up to Visa HQ. (The following info only applies to US Citizens of course and currency is USD.) 

Australia
This one is easy. A tourist visa is $20 AUD and can be applied for online on the ETA website. With this visa, you can stay for up to 90 days at a time and re-entry is permitted within 365 days without needing a new one. I received one during my last trip in March, but I've renewed my passport since then and since my passport number changed, I had to apply for another one. But the turnaround is pretty quick, though and I had an approval email in my inbox in less than 24 hours. 

SIngapore
This one is even easier. No visa required for stays up to 90 days. All I have to do is book a flight! 

Sri Lanka
It's $30 for a double entry tourist e-visa up to 30 days, which is easily attainable online. I talked with my contact in the country since I'm going to be there slightly longer and she said I could easily get it extended there but it will cost between $60-$100 USD. 

India
This one was a particular pain for me since you have to apply for your visa within one month of arrival and I'll already be somewhere in Southeast Asia by then. I attempted to figure this all out on their website but it was super complicated so I just hired VisaHQ to take care of it. For a single entry tourist visa up to 30 days, the embassy fee was $60 and the service fee nearly doubled that cost at $49 but definitely worth it for the peace of mind. 

Indonesia
Also easy. You'll get a 30 day visa on arrival for $25. 

Thailand
Same as Indonesia, you can get a 30 day visa on arrival but I'm going to be there longer than that. My best option is to get the 60 day visa either through VisaHQ (for an additional $79) or at a Royal Thai Embassy or Consulate. Luckily, there is a Royal Thai Consulate in Miami, however with very limited hours, so I completed all the paperwork and actually got approved for a six month visa for $80 (plus about $20 for a prepaid Fedex envelope so they could mail me back my passport since I was moving and wasn't able to drive back to Miami to pick it up.) I was only originally planning to stay in the country for six weeks but I had to get a six month visa since the visa starts from the day you get it approved (which was not mentioned anywhere on the Consulate website that I could find.)  So I guess I have a Plan B and can change my plans if necessary and fly to Thailand at any time in the next few months - but this probably won't happen. 

Cambodia
Easy enough to apply for a visa online for $40, but you have to apply within three months of arrival so I'll have to wait until September. I'm not too worried since I have a three month window. 

VIetnam
Also easy enough to acquire online via myvietnamvisa.com, which is actually a third party that will get you a pre-approval letter for $19.99 so that you are guaranteed a 30 day visa on arrival, which costs another $45 at the airport. You also have to provide 2 passport photos and fill out a form. 

The easiest thing it to just outsource all this work and mail my passport to VisaHQ but it would have cost me an additional $325 in service fees. I'd rather spend that money on some delicious street food or on temple tours. The basic takeaway here is that you'll have the least hassle by just staying in places for less than 30 days, but I'm being a little bit stubborn. Overall, I feel like you are punished for planning in advance when it comes to Visas and it's a bit of a Catch 22 because they want you to have all your flights and things booked before applying, but there's no point in booking travel somewhere if you don't get approved for your visa. Que sera sera.