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! 

A Walk in the Woods

I've really been enjoying reading Walden lately, so here's my attempt at letting nature inspire my thoughts and writing, Thoreau-style. (Intentionally posting no pictures since there are none in my novel and I'm practicing being descriptive. But you can see some in my previous post about a weekend in Cape Tribulation.) 

At first I was striding along annoyed that humans are so helpless that we can't even walk through the woods unaided by a wooden Boardwalk. And then there's the irony of walking on a bunch of dead trees to admire the living ones. But then I slowed down and realized that without the crunching of leaves underfoot, I could walk as silently as a ninja. Of course everything hides when heaps of tourists are traipsing through, but once I became silent and still, the forest came alive around me. I saw birds both in the trees and on the ground. I admired small spiders in their elaborate webs and listened to an omnipresent symphony of insects. 

I heard leaves crunching and witnessed a pair of scrub fowls scratching at the leaf litter. I tried to get a closer look, but they must have sensed my presence and disappeared deeper into the undergrowth. I really liked the thick vines that contorted themselves into corkscrews and were intertwined amongst the mostly straight tree trunks. Tall trees, short trees, thick trunks, skinny trunks, young ferns frolicking around the legs of their parents. It's like I'm a tiny spectator and the trees are the legs of Giants, standing tall and socializing at some eternal and etherial social event, to which I am an uninvited guest. 

For the most part, I was alone. But whenever I did encounter other people, they would scurry past me as if trying to get the walk over with like it was their morning commute to the office and they were whizzing by in the carpool lane. "I have to get there before the coffee is all gone so I don't have to make the next pot." Hardly pausing to stop and admire the deep green magic around them that they have likely traveled hundreds or even thousands of miles to see. This is nature's job- to create and manage everything on earth. What's yours? To create a spreadsheet? Manage a budget? Sorry but you should feel a little insignificant from time to time. Nature never takes a holiday or even a day off.  

Gravity is the force against which everything in the forest must fight, but will succumb to sooner or later. This is evident from the felled trees and myriad fallen leaves and limbs that lie in so many layers along the forest floor. They'll eventually decompose into dirt and then help others defy gravity once again. Does a rotting tree trunk represent life or death? You might be inclined to say death since the life of the wood has come to an end. But in reality the decomposing log sustains more life than ever: moss, fungi, bacteria and a whole host of insects and maybe even small mammals and amphibians may use it for shelter. It's all a simple yet perfect cycle. 

I noticed small, red lily-trumpet shaped flowers strewn along one part of the path but could not find their origin. It was green as far as the eye could see in any direction. They must exist high up in the canopy as vibrant treats for birds and butterflies, beyond my humble visual range. 

The ancient forests faded onto an empty beach. The sand is fine and soft and the ocean was a gradient of green to turquoise to slate blue on the horizon with small yet constant white-capped waves rolling in to shore. The landscape was deserted as far as the eye could see in either direction due to the presence of saltwater crocodiles, which tourists should be well aware of due to the abundance of red and yellow warning signs. A small, mossy-looking mountain rose to the north while the forest continued to border the beach to the south. The sky was muffled with gray clouds which were fluffy mounds towards the horizon, but dissipated and blended into a smooth, gray blanket towards and over the trees. 

It felt strange and foreign to be walking along this beach in boots whereas at home I would be barefoot, feeling the sand beneath and between my toes. Walking towards the water, then turning around, you could see a sliver of mountains rising above the tree line into the gray, misty clouds. It's probably quite breathtaking on days when the sun and sky are friendlier. 

It took me 2 hours to meander down a 1.2 kilometer Boardwalk through a 100 million year old rainforest. I wondered how long it took people to build this long and winding bridge. However long it took, I'm certain it is a microscopic amount of time when compared to how long it has taken nature to build the forest around it. People are forever building barriers between themselves and nature. We build buildings and roads and buses and boats to aid in our own survival, often to the detriment of so many other species that rely on just water, sunlight and whatever makes up their meager diets. It's really pretty incredible when you stop to think about how helpless humanity has become and how that helplessness has compounded with each new technological marvel of the modern day. 


Athletes & Artists

So I seem to have developed a habit of automatically waking up at 5 AM. It happened again this morning so I headed down to the common area to use the free wifi. The night guy on duty asked if I had just woken up or just gotten back from partying, lol. I confirmed the former.

I ate a simple banana and granola bar breakfast in my room and left a little bit later to head to the Esplanade to watch the Ironman Cairns competition. The most ridiculous endurance athletes in the world compete in these races. I got to watch Sam Appleton cross the finish line in just under 4 hours to win the 70.3 race which consists of a 1.2 mile (1.9 km) swim, a 56 mile (90 km) ride, and a 13.1 mile (21.1 km) run. And that's just the half course!

A full Ironman is a whopping 2.4 mile (3.9 km) swim, 112 mile (180.25 km) cycle and a marathon distance 26.2 mile (42.4 km) run. I got a small taste of this when I took up sprint distance (.47 mile/750 m swim + 12 mile/20 km ride + 3.1 mile/5 km run) triathlons a few years ago in Miami. Of course my races would just be leisurely warm ups for most of the men and women I witnessed swimming, cycling and running today. 

The finish line was started to get crowded so I meandered off on a mission for lunch. The rain suddenly surged from sprinkling to soaking so I took shelter in the Cairns Regional Gallery of art which was only $5 ($3.40 USD) entry. The first floor held an eclectic collection of watercolor paintings. I looked at all of them but didn't love any of them. The second floor was more my style, titled Resolved: Journeys in Australian Design and displaying a collection of modern and minimalist design pieces. I particularly liked the colorful collection designed by Marc Harrison called Husque which incorporated crushed macadamia shells (which would otherwise just be discarded at harvest) into resin and shaped into beautiful bowls and dishes.

image source:  husque.com

image source: husque.com

The third and final floor featured works by an emerging Artist named Nickeema Williams. She did beautiful charcoal portraits of several family members in addition to a few color photographs that honestly reminded me of instagram. When I exited the museum (through the gift shop of course) the rain was back to sporadic sprinkles. 

I found a food court on the way back to Calypso and got to break in my reusable bamboo chopsticks on some Thai food that was just a tad too oily. Back at home base, I caught up on some writing and uploaded some pictures. I also looked up the definitions of 101 words that I didn't know and had underlined while reading the last three chapters of Walden. I wish I had been more acquainted with my homeboy HD Thoreau in high school because he uses a ton of vocabulary that you're likely to see on the SAT. 

Anyways, that night the hostel hosted a BBQ where for $5 AUD you could eat barbecued crocodile and kangaroo. I had less than zero interest in this so I splurged and binged on Indian food at a nearby restaurant instead. I had naan, a mango lassi, basmati rice and Subzi Malai Balar; translation: mixed veggies in a creamy cashew sauce. I waddled back to my room and had to unbutton my pants to make room for the food baby I had just conceived. 

Earlier in the day I told myself that I was going to do some yoga before bed tonight but if I attempt anything that involves inversion right now, I'm quite certain I'll see my dinner again. I need to at least find the energy to pack as tonight is my last night in my single room of solitude and I'll need to check out tomorrow as soon as I return from my early morning excursion. 

Sidenote: I found this particularly amusing. In case you forget how to use a toilet, these helpful illustrations are posted throughout many of the public restrooms:


A few more pictures from around Cairns: