8 Rules, 7 Days as a Buddhist Nun

1. I undertake the precept to refrain from destroying living creatures.

…Easier said than done when you’re in the middle of a swampy area outside of Bangkok. Mosquitoes seem to be more aggressive around Wat Prayong International Meditation Center, as if they know that the monks and Westerners living there have to morally abstain from swatting them dead.

2. I undertake the precept to refrain from taking that which is not given.

A.k.a. “thou shalt not steal”, but in a broader sense: Down to a cube of sugar for your tea, by following this precept you commit to asking permission for everything. Though this felt like going back to elementary school, the lesson was a good reminder of two things. 1) Life is slower when you have to wait for permission to have things you want. 2) You’re more grateful when you get what you want after waiting for it. 3) Within reason, I still prefer taking what I want and dealing with any consequences afterward.

3. I undertake the precept to refrain from any erotic behavior.

Surround yourself with spiritually-focused people, live alone in a hut, meditate for at least 4 hours a day and you’ll find that any carnal urges you may typically have in “normal” life will have suddenly disappeared. It’s just not the right atmosphere…though perhaps the fact that orange isn’t the sexiest color helped with the successful implementation of this precept, ahem.

4. I undertake the precept to refrain from incorrect speech.

I took this to mean “no swearing, gossiping, or uttering any otherwise negative commentary”. Admittedly, the occasional expletive slipped out — mostly in conjunction with a bite of particularly spicy food — but really, once you’re conscious of it, it’s fairly easy to avoid cursing and/or complaining. (Added benefit: heightens awareness of Westerners’ tendency to complain about everything, even when nothing is seriously wrong).

5. I undertake the precept to refrain from intoxicating liquors and drugs which lead to carelessness.

Easy as pie, when you’re living on temple grounds and chillaxing with monks in your spare time. Not like you’re about to take a walk down to the corner store and pick up a handle of vodka for a party in the temple — again, it just wouldn’t fit. One interesting note: monks are allowed to smoke cigarettes, which though peculiar-looking, does comply with the part about drugs “leading to carelessness”.

6. I undertake the precept to refrain from eating at wrong times.

Here’s where it gets interesting. For 20 hours each day, I did not consume any solid food. It was my first time fasting (besides a one-day trial run a few months ago), and it was fantastic.

Eating at the “right time” means that you are allowed to eat once in the morning (typically at 8:00 a.m. after the monks had finished eating their fill) and once more around 11 (again after the monks, who took their portions in their alms bowls and ate elsewhere). That’s it. No bite of solid food is allowed to pass your lips after the clock strikes 12:00. What is allowed is anything liquid — juice, tea, coffee, soy milk, fresh coconut water, etc.

What makes it easier is that it’s so bloody hot and humid that you really only feel like over-hydrating yourself anyway. Besides, when your daily schedule consists of the following (below), the energy you expend isn’t enough to make you ravenous. I kept “active” by doing yoga twice a day and doing some basic dance stretches in many of the free periods.

Daily Schedule:

4.00h The bell rings
4.30h Morning chanting with the monks and meditation.
6.00h to 7.30h Working meditation (sweeping and keeping the area clean…)
7.30h Breakfast and washing your dishes after meal
After breakfast practice walking and sitting meditation on your own
11.00h mindfully taking the main meal
Rest
14.00h – 15.00h Meditation with the monks at the hall
15.00h – 16.00h Practice on your own
17.00h – 18.00h Evening chanting with the monks at the hall
20.00h – 21.00h Chanting and meditation with the monks at the hall
Rest

That being said, when we could eat, we ate really, really well. All the food is provided by community donations, collected by the monks on their morning alms rounds. It was very strange eating some of the food for breakfast (especially because your stomach wonders why after 20 hours of starving it, you suddenly are putting a smorgasbord of Thai food into it).

The fasting did help the meditation for the simple fact that it’s easier to concentrate when your body isn’t focusing on digestion. After a point, there is no feeling of hunger and you can relax into focusing your mind.

7. I undertake the precept to refrain from dancing, singing, music, going to shows, wearing garlands, and beautifying myself with perfumes and cosmetics.

I underestimated how blegh following this precept would make me feel. No, it’s not like I had to get my fix of garland-wearing (this is modernized to mean jewelry of any sort), but as a dancer, being a good Buddhist nun was extremely difficult. No music for 7 days?! Where is my internal rhythm!?! Chanting with the monks was one thing to lose yourself in, but it was no substitute for a body-rocking house beat or my beloved salsa. Let’s just say it was a practical Buddhism lesson in non-attachment to things one loves…

8. I undertake the precept to refrain from lying on a high or luxurious sleeping place.

If you’ve ever been camping or Couchsurfing, this last precept should be a breeze. Take a thin mat, put it on the floor and sleep on it. Voilà, you’re following the eighth precept.

9. Ok, there’s no 9th precept…

Within seven days, the grand total of the amount of time I was able to keep my mind completely thought-free was about 3 seconds. That’s it. Even after four hours or more of daily meditation, my ability to stop thinking just didn’t seem to get any better. What did improve, however, was the speed with which I was able to focus and center my awareness and calm my body. Long conversations with a few English-speaking monks enlightened me to the fact that they too are “just people”; many become ordained and practice for a few months during the rainy season before resuming their normal lives. The orange robes separated us only to the extent that I couldn’t hug them to express my gratitude for their teachings, otherwise the monks were completely approachable, even enthusiastic about the Westerners visiting to learn or practice Thai Buddhism and meditation.

I could easily write another 1,000 words about my week as a Buddhist nun, but it would quickly turn into a diary entry of my innermost personal developments. To keep these philosophical treasures inside of myself for a while longer (I’m mulling over them…letting them marinate…), I’ll stop here. Sharing such an experience in a single blog post is a Sisyphean task, so I’ll let the lessons I learned in Thailand and Cambodia influence my life in Frankfurt and get back to you on the results…

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My Asian Mom

I squeezed past a middle-aged woman, making my way to my seat on my flight from Phnom Penh to Bangkok. Som toh, Khmer for “sorry” or “excuse me”, I said, and she quickly informed me that she was Thai and not, in fact Cambodian.

Damn. Strike one for still not being able to tell the two apart.

Strike two came when she told me that in fact, she was an American citizen now and not even Thai anymore.

Lucky for me, there was no strike three. By the end of the hour-long plane ride, she had invited me to stay with her in the hotel room she had booked — free of charge. Mind you, this woman could have been my mother; for all intents and purposes over the next three days, she was.

I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but I’m fairly Caucasian. I’ve never had an Asian mother (go figure), nor are any of my relatives from “The East”, unless we’re talking east coast USA. I had no idea what to expect from this small, fierce woman who had decided it was her personal mission to welcome me to Bangkok.

Through Ubon (for that was the name of my adoptive mother) I quickly learned the hierarchical state of things in Thailand. She would give stern orders to waiters and taxi drivers who scurried to carry out her every demand. Her 5-foot frame somehow commanded an astounding amount of respect from anyone behind a counter. And for some unfathomable reason, everyone in the tourism/hotel/service industry seemed to think she was actually my mother, despite the (obvious) discrepancies in appearance.

(Not the Emerald Buddha)

That’s not to say that I didn’t do my usual gingery thing and go wandering off on my own. I highly recommend the Grand Palace and its Emerald Buddha (which is disappointingly made of jade and not emerald). The optical assault of colors, patterns, mirrors, and the tinkling of bells made for a surreal atmosphere that almost made up for the fact that the palace grounds were overrun with large groups of Russian tourists. A 5-hour afternoon bike and boat excursion with Co van Kessel Bangkok Tours was also well worth the short flirtation with death by hellish traffic before reaching quieter, lush suburbs of Bangkok.

Solo-Ginger day was followed by a mother-daughter day of intense shopping in the city — where you can buy literally everything and that in 50 different colors, styles, shapes, with googly eyes or polka dots — you name it, Bangkok has it. I escaped without a huge dent in my wallet, but learned an uncomfortable bit of cultural information. You see, whether in a hotel, a shop, or a restaurant, the Thai employees gave me the distinct feeling that they were serving us. Not just waiting on us or helping us, but serving, as in “thou art higher than I on the social ladder, oh noble one”.

I have no problem accepting generosity from warmhearted givers, or even being spoiled by people who care about me (or in Ubon’s case, by a complete stranger). It was, however, unsettling to be treated as if I were somehow better than they were. After consulting my Asian mom about this cultural difference, I realized Ubon was used to it. It was simply a question of money, again the issue of ‘have’ vs. ‘have-not’.

The discomfort was temporary, however, as I was looking forward to the tranquil atmosphere of Wat Prayong…the temple where I spent a week as a Buddhist nun. Keep an eye out for the next post on meditation, monks and “My Asian Dad”, for yes,  I managed to be adopted again…

Vicious Cycle

A bike ride through rural Cambodia led by Grasshopper Adventures’ Vicious Cycle Shop turned out to be 70 kilometers of rice paddies, naked children, hundreds of ducks, and sweaty (painful) fun…

The tuktuk ride back to Ramon’s place was well-deserved after returning to the crowded city streets. We were in a humid daze and had lost our butts to a state of numbness, but had gained perspective through glimpses of the rural Cambodian lifestyle.

30 km and we're not even halfway?! Time to stretch...

The next adventure.

Eurojob

Swanky, affordable apt in Frankfurt ✔
(I’m flat-sharing with a flight attendant, whom I met through the Yahoo! Group Frankfurt-n-Motion, a fabulous resource for expats in Frankfurt).

Life packed up neatly into three-piece suitcase set ✔

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Next up? Fly FRA — BKK, spend the cliché “One Night in Bangkok”, fly BKK — PNH the next day. Make it to Phnom Penh, Cambodia in one piece. Relax.

Or not.

I’m nervous to have to rely solely on English, as my knowledge of Khmer is limited to “Hello”, “My name is Ginger”, yes/no, and the numbers 1-5. Between today and when I touch down in Bangkok I’ll get my Thai to be at a similar level or better…please/thank you are high-priority to learn.

The shortlist of things I expect or want to encounter/experience/suffer through/survive/enjoy:

^^ probably my new best friend ^^

-pick exotic fruits from the source
-sweat. a lot.
-ride an elephant, no matter how bumpy the ride
-learn to meditate
-drive a moto
-get cheated
-smile at random people and get smiled back at!

 

 

The long list is, well, a lot longer, but I’ll be using Ginger in Germany (Again) briefly as Ginger in Cambodia/Thailand. Check back for updates, and while you’re at it, keep tabs on my new personal website, www.gingerkern.com, coming soon!

Voilà, ça y est.

„Eets no problem, eets no problem“  said Turgot with a huge smile. He was our covoiturage (ride-share) driver from the chaos of Spain into the relative sanity that is France. Headed to Bordeaux, we were apologizing for our terrible French skills, having had them scrambled from our recent escapades with the Spanish language. Little more than 10 minutes into our drive, he asked us if we’d like to stay with him instead of paying for a hostel we had already booked. Making a gut decision, heavily based on his happy-go-lucky vibe and the fact that all my past experiences with Cameroonians have been wonderful, we decided to take his offer!

That night we initiated him into CouchSurfing by cooking him dinner before making a round of “the blonde city” by night. Bordeaux’s train station has a beautiful front, but behind it is where the prostitutes work, waiting in parking lots in vans, often with the lights on to read by. He told us he wanted to show us both sides of the city, and that was exactly what we got. The place de la bourse and the accompanying reflection pool was the perfect spot to sit by the riverside and share a bottle of Cava.

Bordeaux by day was aesthetically pleasing to be sure, but it didn’t seem like the city had much to offer besides photo opps and countless dégustations, which we decided to skip in favor of sipping a few local reds on our own time. Turgot surprised us by cooking a fantastic meal, and we spent more time frolicking in the water on the place.

Moving from one very hospitable host to another, we found ourselves in La Rochelle, the last stop on our journey together. (Michael will continue traveling until September, so if you’d like a slightly different perspective on a trip through Europe, take a minute to read his journey on Transnational Considerations).

You might remember Kyra, another Fulbrighter in Gießen? Her brother Alex took us in for a few wonderful days in the city that has been his hometown for the past eight years. A scathingly funny writer (author of The La Rochelle Times, a blog inspired by The Onion) I’m very grateful to have met Alex as he was not only a fabulous conversationalist, but as an expat who taught English for a year in France and never left, he also gave me hope for the future…

Bordeaux was the blonde city, La Rochelle was the white city. We didn’t run into any knights of Gondor, but the Knights Templar had left their own marks on the town. If I had to pick a favorite place from the trip, the decision would teeter between Valencia and La Rochelle. Coastal cities seem to have a hold on me…La Rochelle caught me with its ocean air, bike-friendly streets, fresh and inexpensive seafood and a quiet hum of people/sounds/smells that floated pleasantly in the background. The fact that Ryanair has a conveniently located airport there means I’ll be back someday soon. Perhaps my pictures can convince you to take a trip…

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I’ve come to terms with the realization that if Germany and Spain were somehow geographically and culturally merged (besides the utter havoc it would create…can you imagine a well-oiled, workaholic machine of a society working well with the concept of siesta?), it might just create my ideal living conditions. Take the two climates, average them, stick a beach in there somewhere and I’ll call it home without hesitation.

Then again, I always seem to breathe a huge sigh of relief when I’m back in France…hmm.

Eat. Dance. Love.

It’s far too easy to revel in Gaudí’s masterpieces or get sucked into the partying crowds of 20-something tourists who swarm Barcelona in the summer. Short and sweet: it’s a fantastic city with everything to offer. My thoughts on a few restaurants, clubs and tours you might try yourself (or avoid) if you’re in the area:

Eat.

Organic

Simple title, simple concept. The food, service, and ambiance could not have been better. Even the steeply priced pitcher of freshly made organic sangria was worth it. Our waiter happened to be the owner’s son, a gentleman and a charmer who spoke at least five languages and entertained us from the moment we walked in the door. Vegan buffet (all you can eat – the gazpacho stole the show), an indescribable zucchini and rice dish with a delicately tangy orange-squash sauce and fried tofu were perfect compliments to an unappealingly grey blob that turned out to be my favorite part of the meal, a surprisingly good eggplant puree. Added comical bonus? Seeing the elderly chef wearing an “organic is orgasmic” shirt.

Dance.

Opium Mar

“Clubbing for beginners” is the first thing that came to mind as I entered the venue. 20€ did not seem like an appropriate cover for the quality of the DJ and clientele. (We flashed the keys from the hostel we resigned to staying in after an unsuccessful attempt to find a CouchSurfing host in the high season and got in without paying). Keeping in mind that this was a club that made deals with hostels, I was expecting something uninspiring. The playlist consisted of chart hits from the past two years played in direct succession with little remixing. What’s worse, the 5€ shots and (hold your breath…) 15€ mojitos assured that the area directly outside of the club – right next to the beach – was littered with beer cans and handles of vodka from hundreds of pregamers. The outdoor lounge areas overlooking the beach were overcrowded, but redeemed themselves with their sense of sleek style. Looking at their lineup online it seems as though we happened to go on an inopportune day…Tiesto, Bob Sinclair and Kaskade make me want to give Opium a second go.

Antilla Salsa Club

Live salsa music, no cover (one drink minimum), plenty of fans blowing from each corner, good lighting, friendly staff and decently good dancers made Antilla a nice, low-budget night of fun exercise. The dance floor was full but not overcrowded, and everyone on it was in a good mood. If you’re a salsero, it’s a good time guaranteed!

Love.

RunnerBean’s Gaudí tour lasted 2 ½ hours and could not have been better. Led in English by an effervescent redhead, we traipsed around various areas marked by the LSD-addict Gaudí, whose architectural genius gained him a devoted fan (me!) within seconds of seeing the first building on the tour. Being his ‘unfinished masterpiece’, Sagrada Familia was, of course, well worth looking at, but was not the most impressive of his works. (My lowly opinion, yes, but you’re the one reading my blog, aren’t you? ;-)) The concept of the free walking tour worked out well; those of you unfamiliar with the system will be happy to know that the amount you donate to your guide at the end of the tour is truly up to you. The guides will have worked extra hard to earn that money from you, making it an excellently informative time.

Park Guell free walking tour (website link to come when I’ve sorted through notes from the trip)

Much smaller than the RunnerBean tours, our tour guide spoke only Spanish to the three people on our guided walk and provided us with even more detailed background information about all of the levels and installments in Park Guell than the Gaudí tour had about his commissioned buildings. The 1 ½-hour tour worked on the same donation principle, and made our group feel slightly elitist with all the information we had access to compared to the hundreds of people around us. The only thing that could have been better? At times, I felt rushed to move onto the next area when I really wanted to get a shot of this or that at the perfect moment when the tourists in front of me finally decided to move an inch to the right…otherwise, it was another fun time learning new things in a surrealistic setting.

Old City Walking Tour

Another one offered by RunnerBean, we turned this into our own little adventure by missing the start of the actual tour and creating our own legitimately free tour of the old part of the city behind übertouristy La Rambla. Photographing graffiti-covered doors and ordering a caña from an in inconspicuous corner bar made for a relaxing afternoon away from the hubbub of La Rambla.

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A few last thoughts: Catalan is beautiful. I took too many pictures. I love the ocean. The end ^_^

Roadblock

Panic. Heart pumping, breath shallow, quick. The bag was gone. With it, a passport, credit and ATM cards, laptop, iPod, Eurail ticket.

I was gone two minutes, buying a snack in a cafe while we waited for a connection from Madrid to Valencia. My bag and Michael’s lay under our small table. A woman told us she had seen the man with the yellow tshirt bend over to tie his shoe and slip the strap of Michael’s small bag over his wrist before he quickly stood up and walked off with it and his own bag over his other shoulder. Michael had been sitting right there. Not eating, not listening to music, no distractions. He had simply been sitting with his back to the man at the table behind us. The bag was resting against the table instead of against his leg. I was just lucky that my bag had been out of his reach.

Lesson learned.

The next two days were surprisingly stress-free for me. Michael took care of getting a temporary replacement passport and cancelling his cards, and put his Spanish to good use while filing a police report. I would play bank for the following weeks, until the cards came. The whole thing went smoothly — Madrid was the best place for it to happen. Our trusty friend Don came to the rescue and hosted us for two extra nights.

I even got to see a friend and ex-coworker of mine who was also teaching English in Europe. Jordan, another Wisconsinite, took me to see the play Los Miserables, the Spanish version of the wonderful musical Les Miserables. The passion, strife, and intensity of the story was much better suited to the telenovella-like acting qualities that the Spanish actors imposed on the characters they played. Regardless of the slight language barrier, I had a fantastic time seeing a completely different version of a theatrical production I’ve known since childhood.

While regrouping from the roadblock, a night out in Madrid and an afternoon in Jordan’s pool made the whole thing seem like a vacation again. It was easy to stay optimistic with a couple good friends around to help us out, and before we knew it, we were on the road again to Valencia and Gandia beach…