Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Midnight Meditation

Tonight is the full moon, but I am not down in the jungle listening to loud rave music. Instead, I am sitting in my loft with a few of my friends and we have been practicing martial arts for the past few hours.  Currently, the only sound to be heard is my keys intermittently tapping away at the keyboard. Before, Giuseppe played some beautiful guitar for us.  The whole night Thomas has been spouting martial knowledge, trying to offer some insight into the practice to a new student.

Dave has arrived from his travels to study for a few weeks. An interesting character, he is a white guy from Africa with a British passport. Regardless of where he is from, because background is no judge of character, I like the guy. He has been involved in sustainable living and eco-friendly construction, and we have had many conversations about the possibilities here. Hopefully, we can convince the owner of the establishment the value of the investment. I think we will; each conversation I have with Sam I am more convinced he is committed to renovating his place. Either way, that’s the future, and I am still trying to live in the present.

It’s past midnight and I’m quite tired. Currently, I’m sitting on the floor, as straight as I possibly can, with my laptop in front of me. I had been practicing seated meditation for a long time and then decided to write. However, when I took my normal position, crouched over the computer, my body didn’t feel right. Now, cross-legged and upright, I feel much better sitting and typing.

I am reminded of my first night training session with Thomas. I had been quite tired and he urged me to stay awake and do a few more hours of seated meditation. I had breakthroughs in my practice as of result of pushing myself far beyond my comfort level. Tonight, I’ve been trying to impart my experience practicing, as much as possible, to our new student, Dave. For the first time, I led the group through the exercise set. It was amazing to hear myself explaining the exercises I had only learned a couple months ago. I hadn’t realized just how much I’d learned.

That night, seemingly so long ago, I was so tired that I couldn’t sit up straight for more than five or ten minutes at a time. Now, I am almost just as tired and, despite having been sitting up straight for at least a half hour, I feel like I could continue on indefinitely. Even thinking about it makes me tired, and I just had to take a second to relax and re-center on my practice.

Now the new student has gone to bed and Giuseppe is passing out on the couch. Only Thomas and I are sitting awake. I hope to get another bit of advice before I go to sleep, while I have my computer ready and handy.

Now, it is about two weeks after I had written the preceding entry. I didn’t post it sooner because it got lost in the shuffle. Life here is simultaneously busy and relaxed. Sure, I fill my days up with activities, but the entire time it is at my own pace. If I feel the need to lie in a hammock and kill an afternoon with a book, that is my prerogative, and I will do so. At the same time, there are so many things to learn and so many interesting people to talk to. Traveling alone, I was devouring books. Time spent in transit and throughout the quite hours of the day was usually passed with a paperback. These days, I find myself reading much less. Of course, I am still in the midst of a novel, but it’s taking a few weeks to read instead of a few days.

Like I’ve said in my recent posts, life is very good for me. I like to say money isn’t important unless you don’t have any. I’ve got enough to be comfortable right now so I have no worries, as well as no complaints. Realistically, I know that the holiday can only last for so long. So, I have been non-hurriedly and patiently been setting myself up to generate an income while I remain here to pursue my goals of getting in shape, learning kung fu and how to play the guitar. Along the way, I’m getting a bit of a broader perspective on the world and the experience of a lifetime. Truth be told, I’m getting more out of this experience than I would have ever dreamed.

Friday, June 24, 2011

No Complaints Here

I am sitting in an internet cafe, busily reading articles and checking my email, when the radio station I am listening to cuts out. Unfortunately, even the best and the fastest internet connections aren't always consistent. To me, it's no big deal. Now, instead of some tunes, I'm listening to the Russian guy next to me talk loudly into his computer. He, like so many others in the internet cafes, is talking to someone on Skype. The connectivity that we have with others across the globe is amazing. Think about what it was like traveling around the corners of the globe just twenty years ago: many places wouldn't even have a phone. Now, cell phone service is becoming ubiquitous and an cafe with Wifi is never far away. However, in America I had a smart phone with the internet in my pocket at all times. It's good to be a little bit disconnected.

Aside my musings on the impact of telecommunications on my life, there is a lot to talk about. Ideas are beginning to take shape and crystallize into action. Since I have moved up the mountain to the Lodge, I have been having conversations regarding improving and expanding their business. I still plan on going to see immigration with Sam, the owner of the business, for a work permit and a year's visa. If all goes as planned, I will be staying in Thailand from a year from July 1st. Shortly thereafter, the 4th of July I will probably make me miss home. I wonder if I will feel any pangs of regret due to my decision. I seriously doubt it.

Here I am living the kind of life that I could only dream about in the US. Sure, I haven't worked for six months, but that is not what I mean. The "mai pen lai" attitude of the Thais, very similar to the "Don't Worry, Be Happy" attitude of the Caribbean, suits me perfectly. I do admit to getting a little itchy to be productive, but so far I've been able to channel these energies into cleaning up around the old Lodge, playing guitar, and of course, learning some martial arts. In addition to that, I've recently picked up a DVD player and have been enjoying one of my oldest time-wasting vices; watching movies. The guys around the school usually want to rent kung fu movies, and I've found myself watching the martial arts techniques more closely than I had before.

All thing considered, I am beginning to settle into my life here. Knowing that I plan on staying for a year, I have been able to set things in motion. There will be plenty of work for me to do once I'm legal, so I'll save those details for later. Besides the employment, I've found a tattoo studio I like, made a few friends in town, and even been offered to play drums at a bar a few times a week. About a month ago I heard stories about foreigners getting arrested for playing music without a work permit, but after July 1st, I shouldn't have to worry about that.

Now, I'm going to head across the street for a glass of Jameson on the rocks. I'll chat with the people who work over there for a bit, and then head upstairs to the tattoo parlor. After that, its back up the hill for some dinner and a movie. Life is good. No complaints here.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Swaying in the Wind

The sound of the thin rain pattering on the tin roof accompanied the cool breeze as it came down the mountain slope. We quickly retrieved our things from the edge of the pagoda, where they were exposed, and placed them securely on the other side. Thomas had taken the group of students for a hike in the surrounding country, and luckily the rain had come while we were resting at the shelter.

Actually, resting isn’t quite the right word. As we stop, we regain our power through seated meditation and the ancient chi gathering exercises of Qi Gong. Thomas is there guiding us through our practice with constructive criticisms, often in the form of old Chinese proverbs. As I continue my practice, I continually gain new insights from a few of the same simple words. Often, I will only understand advice at a deeper level much later, when I am practicing alone.

The rain quickly picks up to a deluge, but we are safe in the small pagoda. The simple bamboo, tin and thatch structure is more than enough to keep us from the elements. We had brought several bottles of water and were quite content to practice until the storm passes. While it is not quite yet the rainy season, many layers of clouds are often scene in the sky, moving along with the current of the coming monsoon season. It is not long before the rain subsides to a drizzle, and then stops completely. Feeling loose and energized, we hike back down to the restaurant for our dinner.

Having been in Asia since early April, I now find myself using more spice in my meals. Occasionally the food is a little foreign to me, and not so delicious, but the large majority is in fact palatable and quite satisfying. Our hosts here are very open to suggestion, and we are more than happy with the diet that they provide. Many meals leave me sweating and blowing my nose. While I have to admit to the occasional western meal when I’m down in town, there is something to be said for the family style sharing of our meals at the lodge.

I spoke with Giuseppe, another student here who is quite skilled at guitar, about bringing a pair of the instruments up to the isolated pagoda for some practice. I haven’t been practicing as much as I would have liked to, but the hand positions on the guitar are becoming more natural each time I play. I have a good deal of experience playing the drums, and the rhythmic strumming had been coming quite easily. The precision in plucking out a melody is still proving quite the challenge.

Fortunately for me, I have time. I think back to my life in the western world and laugh. I was constantly trading my time for some money. The more time I traded, the more money I made. Now that I am planning on staying here for a year, I know that soon I must again trade some of my time for money. This time, however, I will do it on my own terms, and I will never sacrifice this wonderful standard of living that I have become accustomed to. I have been making inroads in the community, and while there may be no posting for an English teacher at the high school, I suspect that an opportunity will soon materialize.

I recommend to anyone coming to Thailand that they obtain as long of a visa as possible. People are often loath to leave and scheming out ways to extend their stay. Spending time traveling is better done without definite plans and timelines, and you never know when you might find a place where you would like to stay for a while.  You also never know when you will meet some people that you would like to spend some time with. Personally, I couldn’t ask for a better lifestyle in this quiet, yet popular, corner of the world.  The town is only a few kilometers away and filled with young people, and the peaceful community and atmosphere on the mountain is ideal for so many things.

That night, we had another training session on the terrace. The moon was almost full and it created a rainbow in the swiftly moving thin clouds as they passed by. The moon illuminated the ground well enough that we could see without any artificial lights, and our silhouettes made beautiful shadows in the twilight. There is an undeniable graceful quality to the internal martial arts. Don’t be fooled, however, there is a deadly and powerful martial art hidden in the slow, fluid movements of it’s practitioners.

A new student has recently arrived and the school is abuzz with talks of possibilities for the future. We are considering setting up an organic farm, raising the vegetables for our meals from the ground ourselves.  The water I hear falling now offers the potential for irrigation, as well hydroelectric power. It seems as if this retreat is going to gravitate towards more sustainable lifestyle, and we are all happy at the prospect. Not only will it help attract more eco-conscious students to our school, but it will set a rare example in this quickly developing country.

After the rest of the school went to sleep, I was left standing on my terrace alone. Totally relaxed, I let my body sway with the wind. I felt its energy as it jarred my body loose of any remaining tension. By the time the gust of wind had passed, I was standing straighter than I ever had in my life. It felt good. It felt really good.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Roar of the Crowd

I felt my pulse quicken as the crowd cheered louder. As I sat up straight, I looked from my ringside seat at the ongoing fight. As the fighter’s knee connected with his opponent’s midsection, the crowd let out a collective cheer. Each time the two fighters gripped arms exchanged knees and kicks the roar of the crowd intensified. The bell rings and the music stops; the two sixteen year-old boys return to their corners.

The young fighters are doused with water by their corner and rubbed down. Both look tired and yet intensely focused. I definitely get the impression that Muay Thai competition is most intense during the late teenage years. Earlier, I witnessed two bouts with fourteen year-olds fighters, both of which ended quickly. The first match was ended with a knockout roundhouse and the second ended with a spinning elbow to the face, the losing combatants hadn't even thrown a single punch.

As I glanced about the arena, I repeatedly noticed the eyes of a pretty girl making contact with mine. I sat back and smiled smugly, enjoying both the attention and the fight. Behind me, Thai men continued to cheer and shout and shake handfuls of bet money at their friends. I sipped my cocktail as I quickly reflected on the last few days of my life.

I had come into Chiang Mai, the big city in northern Thailand, three hours away from my home in Pai. I arrived just in time to see the opening of my aunt’s art exhibition, two days before. I surprised her by showing up unannounced. She always needs more guys in her salsa lesson, so of course I stuck around for a little bit of dancing after the show. I spent the entire night flirting with a tall, blonde Dutch girl. She had grown up in Thailand, and now that she had finished her studies in the west, she was back in Asia for the next year. We got along quite well, but for whatever reason I let her leave without getting any of her information. I wound up spending the rest of the night kicking myself for not following through, chatting with some interesting older expats, hearing recounts of their travels and their general outlook on life. While their insights didn’t offer anything I hadn’t heard before, I enjoyed conversing with some like-minded people.

The next day I met up with this kid from Dubai, who spoke English like an American, whom I had met on the bus from Pai. He was playing pool with a male nurse from Oakland who had caught the travel bug a few years back. It is always interesting to meet people like myself: people who had tried their hand in the western working world only to reject it for a less conventional lifestyle of global travel. Most opt to work in their home countries for a few months at a time, saving money for their excursions. I have met very few people my age who have decided to generate an income whilst on the road, as I have done.

I do, however, meet a lot of younger people who are traveling on their parents’ dime. A large portion of the backpackers’ circuit is English and Europeans taking time to travel either just before or after attending university. Mohammed fell into this group, but being from the Middle East I found him infinitely more interesting than the average kid on their gap year. They are definitely major contributors to the party scene, and when it comes to the females of the bunch, the scenery as well. Like any other man, I think seeing girls in their late teens and early twenties all over the place is a good thing.

The three of us went out to a popular square in Chiang Mai, the location of a reggae bar, a hip-hip and dance club, and a large lounge and restaurant, as well as many small bars, food stands, and little souvenir shops. At the reggae bar, a Thai band plays popular reggae hits and it is always packed with a mix of Thais and westerners. The music is loud, but good, and the dance floor is always full. After a bit of enjoying the atmosphere, we stepped outside for some fresh air and audible conversation. Soon enough, we were listening to some high quality old school hip-hop across the square and loving it. Unfortunately, the vibe soon changed to that of a more European dance club, with lots of house influenced remixes of top 40 hits. We bar hoped and bounced around for a while, and eventually wound up at the after hours bar, which was another experience all together.

After a late night, a good sleep, then a lazy afternoon, the three of us ate dinner together. Mohammed wasn’t interested in the Muay Thai fight, but Nick, the American, and I decided to get VIP seats for 600 Baht, about 20 dollars American. It was money well spent. Before I finished my drink the waitress was politely asking if I was interested in having another. The bell sounded and the two fighters returned to the center of the ring. The fifth and final round convincingly won the match for the fighter in the blue corner. They had been trading rounds of advantage, and I’m not sure if the difference was training, determination, or skill, but in the end the winner was clear.

There was also a good fight between a Polish guy and a Thai guy, but it seemed to me like the Thai guy was holding back a bit. Sure, the Polish guy should he had an advantage. He was much taller and seemingly in better shape, but I was never quite convinced that the Thai fighter gave it his complete efforts. As I’m finding in my own practice, martial arts skills take a long time to develop, but once you have them, parts of them stay with you forever. After the match ended, the Polish guy was declared victorious. The more time I stay in Thailand, the more aware I am of the reality that most everything has its price, such as the simple glory of winning a "professional" fight. The foreign winner was bathed in attention as his friends and other westerners gathered around him to take pictures.

The crowd began to break up, and I decided to approach the girl across the ring who had been giving me the eyes. I showed the good places to go out in town, and convinced her to check out Pai with me the next day. The bus ride is always better with some company. Now that I am back home, I feel a bit exhausted by the journey. Night after night of late night partying has made the 6am martial arts practice easy to skip. Still, I’m glad to be back in this beautiful environment of healthy eating, daily learning and steady progression, as opposed to the high throttle, non stop action of the city.

I try and take photos of the view from my terrace but I can’t seem to do the landscape justice. The camera refuses to capture the layers of mountain peaks amidst the moving clouds. I beautiful greenery in the foreground comes through fine, but the majesty of the scene is lost without the low lying clouds and the mist of the mountain. The other day I saw the most brilliant rainbow of my life, shining like spotlights into the clouds, and yet the camera once again failed to do it justice. I hope that simply by reading these words you can try and imagine the true beauty of this country. Trust me, you can look at some amazing pictures, but it will never the be the same as being here. Not a day goes by that I don't appreciate the beautiful landscape that surrounds me.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Dragon Emerges from the Water

It was hard for me to get out of bed today. When I woke up, my alarm hadn't yet sounded. However, I saw the pale light stream through the window and heard the birds' songs and I knew that I couldn't sleep for much longer. Instead of teasing myself with a ten minute nap, I decided to get up. As I came out of the bathroom, my alarm clock was softly buzzing. I guess I had woken up at the perfect time. After a few more late nights of training, 6am seems to be getting earlier and earlier. Despite my tiredness, my internal clock was telling me that it is time for training.

Before practice begins, we usually sit around the table and exchange pleasantries. Peter, a British student, and I drink coffee while most of the rest of the group prefers tea. Peter likes to say that he is still a "farang," a westerner, in the morning. After his coffee, he will go right along with all the customs of the East. Until then, however, don't expect him to show you the "cool heart" displayed by the Thai culture. I, too, feel the need for coffee. Giuseppe, another student just arrived from Italy, and I stayed up even later than our martial arts practice playing the guitar. Well, he was playing while I was "practicing." Maybe after a few weeks of practice I will be able to call what I do with the guitar "playing," but the awkward beginning phase is a necessary step to proficiency.

Shortly after our practice has begun and I am already feeling fully awake and alert. The exercise set that we do is designed to open up the joints and get the blood moving freely throughout the entire body, and it works. By the end of our practice, the sun has pierced the clouds and the temperature is going up. We all come out of the sun together and find our breakfast waiting for us. Today, like most days, we are having rice porridge, or jok. I put some eggs and vegetables in my bowl and mixed them in. I am definitely developing a taste for the spiciness of Thai foods, as evidenced by my ever increasing use of a few spoonfuls of the ubiquitous chili-sauce. However, unlike Peter, I consciously limit the amount of actual chilies makes it from the sauce to my food. He makes sure he gets plenty of chilies.

After breakfast, it was time to meditate. Meditation, however, is not always what you expect it to be. Sure, we have seen movies where people sit under a waterfall, lost in meditation. In real life, meditation is usually a seemingly boring activity in some mundane place. Fortunately, there actually is a waterfall just up the road from us. Heading up there early in the morning, when it is still devoid of tourists and therefore peaceful, is well worth the trouble. There is also another waterfall nearby in the valley, but it is a little father away and requires quite the hike. Anyone who takes the time and makes the effort will be pleased with their decision; the caves behind the flowing sheets of water offer surreal sanctuaries to anyone looking to bring peace to their hectic minds.Often, despite the natural beauty surrounding me, I struggle focusing on sitting motionless for hours at a time. Thankfully, there are more ways to meditate than simply "seated meditation."

Thomas tells us that a solid, proper frame is essential to achieve true kung-fu power. The only way to get such a frame is by hundreds of hours of sitting and standing properly. After your muscles become exhausted, you are left with no choice but to support yourself with your skeletal structure. Once your weight is held up by your bones, it allows your muscles and your insides to go soft, and softness is essential when practicing internal martial arts. As a result of this, I have been spending a lot of time standing and sitting recently. There is no doubt, my weight is now distributed differently and I am rooted to the ground much better. As a reward for my efforts, I am taught another, more difficult way, to develop my strength further.

This morning, the entire class held clay pots in our hands, using only our thumbs and our forefingers to support the weight. We took these pots and held them out in front of us for what seemed like hours. In reality, only a few minutes had passed. After exhausting the muscles in my shoulder, I was forced to relax them. As soon as I did so, I felt the weight of the clay transfer from my sore arms down through my body, through my feet, and into the ground. Suddenly, the exercise was easy, and my body was balanced. I was unable to maintain that perfect distribution of weight for very long, and soon I was tired once again. It seemed as if the entire class was echoing my soreness, and we gratefully were told to place the pots back on the ground.

After the pot holding experience, I now find it much easier to stand for long period with my arms extended in front of me. Surely, what I consider long periods would be nothing to a martial arts master, but in comparison to the version of myself from three months ago, the length of time is exponentially greater. Additionally, the exercise has helped me with the awareness of my thumb and forefinger, which also became quite exhausted whilst holding the earthy pottery. The lessons learned, the new found awareness, will stay with me in my practice. I continue to unlock different levels of the same exercises every single day.

While you may have thought you understood the title of this post, the "Dragon Emerging from the Water" has nothing to do with waterfalls. Instead, we were told that by standing holding pots out in front of us for long period of time we could achieve the attributes of mighty dragon slipping out from beneath the depths. When we can still the waters of our minds, a powerful force then emerges. When we find the structure of our bones and the fluidity of of joints, we are able to move gracefully. Grace does not indicate a lack of power, but on the contrary, it often indicates the abundance of strength. When we enter the still waters of our own depths, we can then emerge as dragons.

Friday, June 3, 2011

In the Midst of Darkness, Lighting Strikes

I had expected it to rain, but it didn't. After dinner we did our exercises in the open air, exposed to the elements. In the distance, I could see the dark clouds, and the rain falling from them. Simultaneous, the dark sheets beneath the clouds created by the rain was moving, and yet remained the same. I pointed this out to another student and he just smiled, citing the yin and the yang. In additional to the martial applications of our training, we also learn about Taoism. Understanding that two seemingly contradictory things are simultaneously possible is a truly stress relieving revelation. I smiled back at my friend. Even though we consider the yin yang and our energy, or our chi, serious things, they are often referred to in a joking manner.

It's not that we don't take such things seriously. Learning to control the energy in your body takes a lot of focus and dedication. Yet, practice is not always a serious affair. I've heard that when you really are adept at Kung Fu, it is with you in everything that you do. Masters are always sitting straight and are mindful of their situation, no matter the circumstance. Along the same token, practicing Kung Fu is still a part of your life. Sometimes practice is a arduous, grueling affair, but more often it is an easy routine peppered with jokes and stories amongst friends. Amidst the conversation, gems of wisdom are offered and simplistic statements are understood with new meaning. The juxtaposition between ancient proverbs and sordid jokes is a seeming dichotomy of which I am glad to embrace both sides.

After dinner a few of the students were talking about going into town for the evening, but I wasn't all together interested. Truthfully, I would rather not spend my time meeting travelers who would be in and out of Pai within a few days. I didn't want to spend my energy towards a fling with a farang, a foreigner; not to mention that drinking in bars is always more expensive than drinking at home. The sound of my friends' bikes leaving quickly faded, and I was left at the table with Thomas, my teacher, and Chit, the Thai guy who works at the Lodge and teaches me his language. Soon thereafter, despite feigning interest in heading to town before, I found out that Thomas had no intentions of heading down the mountain. After all, the fridge here was stocked with beer.

At first we sat around the table, hanging out, watching the lighting strike behind the mountains ahead. After several seconds, the thunder would roll through the valley, warning all of us of impending rain. However, despite the nearby flashes of foreboding light, the storm's rains did not fall on us that night. I went back to the room to grab the charger for my laptop, bringing along an umbrella for good measure. On my way back to the lighted terrace, where we had been hanging out before, I was met in the darkness by a lesson in martial arts. I was about to see a different kind of lighting strike.

As I have said before, sometimes a breakthrough in understanding can come in moments that you least expect. A few weeks back, before my trip to Laos, a late night training session of drinking and practice had improved my posture greatly. While I can't attribute such an empirical measure of progress with this training, I assure you it was equally rewarding. Moving through the darkness, avoiding strikes and sweeps based on feeling and intuition showed me a side to martial arts that I had not yet experienced. However, among the students we say that training into the night with is simultaneously the most valuable and the most dangerous type of training.

Surprised by the quickness of my own motions, at first I was able to thwart all of my teachers attacks. However, I know that he always holds back, leaving openings in his defense to see if we catch them. If there was ever truly a fight, not merely a training exercise, with my teacher, I am sure that it would end quickly and painfully. I am fully aware that the light and mildly painful taps on my throat are notifications of his ability to deliver confrontation ending force, held back. Despite enjoying several scenarios in which I was the victor, I was soon reminded of the weakness of my Kung Fu in comparison to his.

Repeatedly, I've heard that if one wants to learn martial arts, one must be prepared to take a couple hits. Anyone who becomes angered, or even complains, should not be training. If they become angry, it is a sign that they will eventually use their knowledge to hurt or extort others. If they complain, it is perceived as a lack of gratitude and understanding for the lessons taught. After my foot, still in recovery from the motorbike incident, was stomped on in the twilight, all I could do was laugh. Even though it hurt in ways only accurately described with excessive profanity, I simply laughed.

After apologizing for the inadvertent forceful "salt" on my wound, Thomas encouraged me to make the most of it. He pointed out, correctly, that my heart rate had increased and that color had returned to my weary face. After a  long night of drinks and exercise had left me quite depleted, suddenly my mind was actively racing. I then turned my newly found focus to my practice and experienced a simple exercise on a much deeper level. The essence of internal martial arts seems to be in deriving all your power and movement from the ground, through your entire body and into your every strike, dodge, or parry. The shock of getting my foot stomped in the midst of the late night training just served to further nourish the plant which is my practice. That, at least, is what I told myself to suppress primal instinct to react to pain with anger. However, I still believe that today.

Later tonight, one of Thomas's previous student of three years arrives at our school. In my experience, the longer you have been training, and the better you understand martial arts, the harder the teacher will push you. I've heard stories of our new arrival repeatedly getting thrown against a concrete floor during his training, and I know that my teacher is anxious to record a few demonstrations on a dummy strong enough to take the abuse. Currently, I am glad that I am not at that level: but, with the amount of strength that I've gained since beginning my training, I wouldn't be surprised if, after a few years, I could also happily bounce back from being slammed into a similar, hard and unyielding surface. Once again, it would be nice if I could learn such a skill in a five minute montage, but, like the guitar, it takes many hours of practice. Time spent on such endeavors is to be cherished, not glossed over. It's the endless hours of slaving for a wage that I wouldn't mind forgetting. I am, as ever, ever grateful for my current situation in life, and wish everyone the same sentiment.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

RIding into the Sunset

I dog-eared the page in my book and closed it, then I looked out the window as dozens beautiful white butterflies chased each other around in circles. The moving contrast they made against the lush green background of trees and grass made me stop and stare in appreciation. There might have been five people in the smoky kitchen, but there was very little conversation. When people did speak, it was just as likely to be in a language I didn’t understand. Still, when I do talk to this diverse company I am usually interested on some tidbit of knowledge they convey, such as some their national history or the peculiarities of language.

I left the kitchen and walked barefoot to my motorbike. After putting on my helmet and sunglasses, I turned around and fired it up. As I pulled out, another one of my friends was arriving on his bicycle. I waved, but he didn’t recognize me beneath all my gear. I eased down the small road and over the seemingly permanent puddle. After I crossed what passes for a busy road around this town, I kept my speed quite low. Weaving around pedestrians, cars, and other bikes is quite a common task in the center of town, and its much better to do so driving slow. On my way through I passed many internet cafes, bars and restaurants, travel companies, and convenience stores.

I know I might be in a remote mountain valley in the north of Thailand, but this town is definitely a magnet for travelers. Its laid back atmosphere and friendly people has been steadily attracting people, and has led to a great deal of growth in the past few years. Now, the main streets have completely transformed to cater to foreigners spending money. Like everywhere else in Thailand, there are businesses surrounding temples; the old is surrounded by the new. You see the same thing amongst the people; people drive motorbikes in traditional hill tribe attire and workers use primitive tools while listening to iPods. While I definitely enjoy the environment in town, I am glad that the martial arts school has moved up the mountain.

I passed through one of the only lights in town and picked up speed as I passed the hospital. Just outside of town the streets are much less crowded. As the buildings faded from concrete to bamboo with tin, the landscape began to open up as well. As the sun fell behind the mountains it filled the sky with a golden light. It would certainly rain later that night, but scattering of moving clouds made the sky all the more impressive. Not only were some illuminated by the fading sun, other clouds seemingly hung o top of a few mountain passes. I imagined the my home at the Lodge  in one of these clouds, seemingly surrounded by a small patch of thick fog.

I passed the Chinese village on my left and carefully went over the two speed bumps that caused my motorbike accident last week. The swelling is down and I’m once again walking without a limp, but not all of the cuts have healed and my training is still somewhat restrained. Never the less, everyone who rides a bike falls down sooner or later, and I’m glad my spill was relatively painless. At this point the road gets quite choppy. Steep inclines, sharp turns and potholes are common throughout the last third my journey home. Every day I ride the bike I get more control and feel more comfortable, I just need to make sure that I don’t let this familiarity lead to a crash... like it did last time.

By the time I arrived at the lodge there was still light in the sky, although the golden light had diffused back into blue. Still, watching the sunrise tomorrow, over the opposite side of the valley, will be just as spectacular, if not more. In the mornings there are generally more clouds, and as the sun pierces through them it makes for quite a scene. Although it comes up quite early in the morning, we are always up to meet it with our martial arts practice. My instructor tells us that the Chinese say that it is best to meet the sun with training, while the dew is still on the ground.  I’ve heard a lot of Chinese quotes since I’ve begun my training, and it seems to me like they have a witty way of saying its good to train at all times of the day. After all, when I arrived it was time for evening practice.

By the time we had finished, dinner was waiting for us. The Thai woman that usually cooks for us does an excellent job. Although usually vegetarian, I don’t find myself missing the meat in my diet, and the meals are always quite good. Not that I could tell you what dish I am eating, but rice, vegetables and tofu have got to be better than the fried food and greasy beef I’d become accustomed to in my American diet. Whether it’s the consistent exercise routine or the healthy food, I’m definitely getting healthier and I can feel it.

After dinner, we usually sit around and hang out. Several laptops sit out on the table as we look at our email, catch up with friends, or look into this subject or that. Occasionally a few of us will get up for some additional Tai Chi, and the lessons learned over a few beers are still lessons learned. In fact, sometimes you can understand concepts about your body better when you’re not concentrating as hard, as these informal sessions have helped me immensely. There isn’t a great deal of people at the school right now, but that’s fine with me. Although the school is definitely growing, when most of the students have a good base we get into some of the deeper stuff, which I immensely enjoy.

Anyway, now would be a perfect time for a montage. Months would pass by in minutes as the audience witnesses imagines of me training, getting stronger, more flexible and more fluid in every clip. However, real life doesn’t quite work like that, and I have to live through the hours and hours necessary to become proficient at such a thing.  While there are plenty of distractions 15 minutes down the hill in town, I know that spending a lot of time down there detracts from my practice. As a remedy, I bought a guitar to give myself another activity while I hang out at the lodge. Sure, I can only play one chord, and not too well, but its fun and have wanted to learn for a long time. Give me a few days, maybe i'll even learn a song.

Basically, when I was living in America, I had hardly any time to learn any new skills. I practically abandoned music and art after high school, focusing instead on a “plausible career.” While I still occasionally wrote in college, after I began working full time I stopped creatively expressing myself almost entirely. Most of my downtime was spent on mindless entertainment, such as drinking or playing video games. At that time, learning guitar or martial arts seemed like a cool idea that I just wouldn't have the time for.

Thankfully, the sun has certainly set on that part of my life. Now, I take time to appreciate the beauty of nature all around me, I take time to pursue creative expression, be it through music or words, and I am healthier than I have been in years. Although I enjoyed riding into this particular sunset, this time in my life is more like a sunrise. Eventually, I will continue my westward journey around the world. For the time being, however, I’m going to enjoy watching sun come up.