"This is why in Buddha's Method, we meditate." He continued along his broken-English thought stream from his mantra Happiness is Silence. Speaking to the Medicine Man is like reading the Tao: his language is simple, but if you search for depth, you'll find it.
"When I meditate, I know I am sitting in this chair. But in my mind," he moved his hand from his temple to his sternum, "I am in an empty room, not sitting on anything."
Eastern Tradition says the Mind is of the Heart, not the Brain.
"It is the Brain's way to have many troubles. But this is not true of the Mind." His fingers once again pressed towards his Heart. "The Mind and the Brain are different."
"If you taste a food and it's sour, your Brain reacts to the experience. Your Mind does not have this experience. After awhile, your Brain influences your Mind. The troubles of the Brain become a set and combine with the Mind. IN practicing Buddha's Method, we learn to -"
"Disolve the set." I interjected, finally understanding.
"I don't agree with what people say," he started, "Buddha's Method is a Science, not a religion." I had asked him to tell me more of Buddhism -- his favorite topic. When the Medicine Man talks Buddha, he is really teaching life.
"Like your God: When you experience His presence - in the room - that is not religion, that is Science. Buddha's Method is a process -- for all of life: happy, sad, sick, Time, Love.
"Let me say it this way. Your computer has a set process. Buddha's Method is to dissolve the set."
Nodding softly, I appreciated the effort. But it didn't become clearer until later...
"I do not like Taiwan's education. They destroy Creative Mind. They push only one answer until all are down one road. When students read a book, the teacher asks a question, but only accepts one answer. When I read, I see many answers!
"That's why I make sure my children play every day. My son plays with animals and insects. He feeds fish. And everyday, I ask him," the father turned to his 7 year old nearby, "Are you happy?" With a signature ear-to-ear grin, the boy shook his head in resolve.
"Happiness is most important in life," he stated in satisfaction.
"Buddha's Method is about happiness. The Psychology. It is basic Science. But people don't think so. As humans create more -- cars, TV, electric power, lights -- they think this is Happiness. But they forget; this is not real happiness. Happiness is Silence."
"I think today, people are afraid of Silence," I offered. "Yes" he stated, nodding softly.
There are many cultural differences between Taiwan and the United States. Some are funny, some are strange, some are expected. This however, is the most foreign concept to me I've yet to encounter. Having always been encouraged to be a "Free Thinker", the idea of "too much thinking," or in reality, "stifling thought" is - to me - absolutely absurd.
When Taiwanese culture has the upper hand on America, I give it to them. Community, for example, is a concept the United States has just about forgotten. But I want to form Community that encourages thought and contemplation and questioning and innovation and creativity. I want to push past the norm for something new. I want to live amongst those willing to analyze and over-analyze all aspects of life; question, doubt, and feel safe doing so.
As I've found out, these concepts are inversely foreign to the Taiwanese. Maybe it's their cultural desire to identify within the group that has indoctrinated in them the idea that out-of-bounds thinking is dangerous.
Within my time here, I've purposefully sought to learn what I can from this foreign culture. Through encountering this "proverb" I've learned just how valuable an open and questioning mind is to my survival.
What's your take? Is thinking dangerous? Is there such a thing as "thinking too much"? What would be the situation where stifling thought is beneficial?
In the recent weeks, I've felt like my mind has been ablaze. Suddenly, it seems, I'm realizing how different I'm looking at the world since I landed here in Taiwan just under 9 months ago. Without a doubt, I know living abroad has irreversibly changed me for the better - even if I can' t yet put to words exactly in what ways. Sometimes I doubt I'll ever be able.
In light of that, I have no option but to agree with the recent findings of two psychologists - as reported by Economist.com. Through their study of business students, the psychologists discovered that living abroad increases ones creative and problem solving abilities.
Now, I'm not claiming time abroad will catapult you into a Picasso or Hemingway - though both creators would wholly agree with the findings. But there is, according to this research, a direct connection to living in a foreign country, and stimulated creativity.
As I begin to plan my return back to the States, I am anxious to see how this new-found creativity will play out in my years. The experience I've gained in my time abroad will undoubtedly affect my entire life. This country, and its people, have inspired me to write and think differently than I ever have before, it's challenged my idea of status quo, and taught me more about my culture than I've learned in all my years living there.
I may not yet know how, exactly, this trip will affect me, but it's weeks like I'm having and articles like this one that only further confirm I made the right decision when I packed a suitcase and stepped onto that plane.
...Now if only I could create a route for the next chapter of my Journey.
Recently, the lady who cuts my hair asked me to find an English Name for her infant son, Rong-Zhi.
She said she didn't want a name that was too popular, or sounded old.
Since Taiwanese like to find names that sound similar to their Chinese name, I suggested Rain, and thought we would have a winner with that. She liked it because it's the same name as a famous South Korean singer and actor. But, her husband feared his mother-in-law wouldn't be able to pronounce it correctly. So we kept looking.
I pushed both "Romeo" and "Rufio" but those were a no-go.
We ended up settling on "Robbie". Seems a good, solid name, yea?
Around that time, a friend I made at the neighborhood tea stand (She's kind of the Taiwanese equivalent to a Starbucks Barista) asked me to help her find a new English name. She decided she didn't like "Polly" - the name her English teacher originally gave her.
She said she doesn't want anything too girly. I said I'll have to think about it.
I wonder if there's a business opportunity for me here? At any rate, do you have any suggestions or favorite names?
I hope I can do some good. I'm tired of meeting "Cherrys" and "Angels" ...
Adventures in the Back of the Bus - The Thailand Edition.
Thailand proved to be quite adventuresome when it came to bus rides. Here's a recap of my encounters:
The Mini-Bus: In Bangkok, I stopped by a travel agent who booked me a "bus" ride from the city to Koh Samet. Sitting, waiting, I watched large, luxury cruisers pull in and out of the station. This was going to be nice. Around the time promised, the agent stood up, and said "Your bus is here." Innocently, I walked up to the luxury bus which sat directly outside the office. Four hours of this, it'll be a great ride. But the travel agent tapped me on the shoulder. "This, airport. You, there," he pointed across the busy street. My gaze followed his finger and halted at the sight of a minivan - or as he called it "Your minibus."
The ride was long, but fine. I met some great people on that ride down. We quickly bonded over shared stories of Asian travel - and surivial.
Bangkok was hot. Too hot. So hot that I couldn't eat lunch, and instead bought the largest water bottle I could find, and attempted to drown myself in it. This was fine, because the water never actually went into my stomach. No, before it sloshed down my throat, it was catipulted out every pore. But that changed in the bus. The bus had AC. I started to absorb the water, and my bladder began to revolt against me.
Needless to say, I was quite thankful when we parked for a planned pitstop. Apparently, so was everyone else. When I left the curtain-door restroom, I passed a line of my busmates who crawled out from the minivan seats behind me.
Browsing the refrigerators of this 7-11-styled open-air mini-mart, I decided to settle on ice cream. They picked a cold beer, but I had no interest in putting any more liquid in me for awhile. As we were sitting around a teetering table, one of us glanced over at a pile of luggage sitting on the driveway.
"Guys... I think that's our stuff."
It was. Our bags had been dumped at a roll-up mini-mart at least another hour's drive from our destination. Our driver was gone.
"How long do we wait past the time he said he'd be back before we start looking for another ride?"
Minutes crept by. But just about the time we were deciding how we could split a cab 8 ways, our minivan pulled up, and out poured around 20 people. Apparently he decided not to tell us he was involved in a bit of a search and rescue mission.
After he loaded the van back up, we piled in and made it to our destination without a hitch. My new friends continued to the island. I said goodbye, and hopped into a taxi for my beach-side hotel.
The "Taxi": The next day, at check out, I decided to follow my friends lead and head over to Koh Samet Island. The conciere called me a taxi - which was cheaper than the ride the night before, so I was thankful. But what pulled up was a small truck, with a tarp over the roof and minimally padded seats lining the bed's walls. The driver lowered the tailgate, tossed my bag in, and directed me inside. I felt like a refugee.
He knew my plan was to head to Koh Samet, so when he slowed to a stop, he pulled up in front of a pre-destined travel agent, who instantly bombarded me with "Koh Samet Ferry! Buy from us! Koh Samet Ferry! Come here, Come! Where you go?" The driver came around the truck and stood between me and my option of walking away. I put my backpack on, thanked him for the ride, and approached the Ferry-shouters. Their price was fair, so I hopped on the back of the motorcycle-shuttle who drove me down to the docks, climbed aboard the waiting ferry, and made it out to the island with a full day ahead of me, and a new friend Roger with a restaurant promising to store my bags and feed me.
The Bus: On the island, I found another travel agent - my third at this point. She sold me a minibus ticket - I knew what that meant - from the mainland to Bangkok for the same price I paid to get across to the island the day before. What a score! But I played it cool, acted like it was merely an "acceptable" price; I'd learned a thing or two about The Land of Swindlers. Then she asked if I had a ferry ticket yet. I didn't. I half expected her to now double the price, with maybe only a slight "package discount." She didn't. The price she offered was only one fifth of my ferry ride the day before. Altogether, I was paying less than I did just for the minibus from Bangkok to the beach town!
I didn't have a motor-shuttle this time round, so I boarded the ferry everyone else was boarding, and flashed my ticket to a ship hand, "This one?" He shook his head yes. I sat down next to my South Korean friends from the minibus down. They were headed back to bangkok as well. It wasn't long until the captain came around and told me and a couple others that our yellow tickets were actually for the ferry no one was on yet, hidden up at the front of the pier.
I shrugged my shoulders, said goodbye to my friends, and marched my way towards "my ferry." On land, I found the mini-bus load-in, and searched for a bite to eat. I passed a restaurant and spotted another young, solitary traveler, and asked if the food was good. She was finishing her plate, but said it was, so I sat at an empty table to fill my stomach before the trek back.
By the time I finished, the rest of my new mini-bus mates had already piled in. Another giant waterbottle in hand, I set it, and my sunglasses, down to pick up my pack. Sadly, I never picked either up.
I loaded my gear, and crawled and clambered to the only available seat left... the back row. Though I had luggage on every side of me, I took advantage of the empty space, and stretched out a bit. Four hours of this? I could take it.
About 10 minutes down the road, however, we stopped. Did we break down? Another search and rescue? No, even better.
I glanced behind me. Lo and behold, there was the giant luxury bus, just like I'd seen going to the airport. To my excitement, the driver unloaded our gear, and loaded it into the bus. I said goodbye to the world of Thai Mini-Bussing for the last time, and said hello to traveling with style.
Since the luxury liner was already partially filled with other travelers, I decided not to go to the aft or top deck, but move forward. Good choice. I scored a seat in the very front, which allowed me to kick up my feet and sleep for the first leg of the trip.
Maybe a half hour down the road, we stopped at another mini-mart. There, I replaced my giant bottle with a new one, and sat down next to the traveler I kept bumping into. We talked while the driver stalled for time. I knew she wasn't in the premium seats like I was, so I invited her to sit next to me. She introduced herself as Camille, and said she was from Quebec. We passed the time sharing stories of her three months in Bangkok, Laos, and Vietnam; of my 8 months in Taiwan. All the while, our feet up, riding in style. The bus parked half a block from my hotel where we stored our bags then hit the streets for some last minute shopping.
Overall, I have to say my Thailand bus experiences were frankly, less than orthodox. Though, I may have feared for my life in the refugee truck, or thought I'd been stranded by the soccer-mom bus, each trip got me to my destination safely, and on time. I met terrific people along the way, and made some friendships and contacts that will continue long after we've left the Land of Smiles.
Nonetheless, it was quite comforting to be back in my big green bus, after I landed in Taipei and rode home.
Two days is simply not long enough to spend on the small paradise-like island of Koh Samet. White sands demand more attention than a short weekend can provide.
The Island's National Park has plenty for the explorer in you - that is, if you can pull yourself out of the water. Stepping into the wake is like having your mother set your bathwater to just the temperature your baby-bum required.
At night, walk the beach in the dim light of the stars. Stop by to meet fellow vacationers at one of the dozens of restaurant/bars, and you may find an empty lounge cushion on the sand with a view of the nightly beach-side fire show. Just outside the National Park's beach, on the main drag of Koh Samet, you'll find a small host of restaurants, guest houses, and massage shops - offering authentic Thai massage. (Note: If you're in Thailand, a Thai Massage is a must.)
Now, if you do find yourself on Koh Samet, be sure to stop in at the Red Ginger. Only open a month's time, the Red Ginger is the retirement project of Roger, a Canadian who left the world of broadcasting, and pursued traveling. Of all the places in the world he's been, he's now calling Koh Samet home. I met Roger on the ferry ride to the island, and he immediately invited me to his restaurant and home. We shot the warm island breeze over the entree he selected for me. Undoubtedly, Roger has a place on my list of favorite fellow travelers I found in this Land of Smiles. When you go, try the Chicken in Mushroom Sauce, you won't be disappointed.
After 8 months in urban Taiwan, the cluster and crowd of Bangkok grew stale fast. Koh Samet proved to be my true vacation spot on this trip. Before leaving, I knew I would one day return. The paradise of Samet Island is one that beckons you to sit and stay awhile. And on my next trip, that's just what I'll do.
If the best part of Thailand is the people I met, than the worst part is the people I encountered.
Thailand is a country of con-artists and swindlers. Before I arrived, I read up on the street scams aimed at travelers. In short, a conman, posed as a friendly face, guides foreigners to a jewelery store or tailor where they are forced (sometimes even threatened) into buying over-priced or worthless merchandise. Constantly, I was forced to turn people down, tell them no, refuse their requests. It came to a point where I trusted no one. If they looked like they had something to sell, or wanted to drive me "wherever I want" (yeah, right), I avoided them like the plague.
Even to a fault. They tended to point the opposite direction from where you're going and say "Oh, such and such is over there" just so that you'd pause and rethink your steps - this allowed them an opportunity to approach you and chat you up "Hey man, where you going? Where you from, my friend?" I learned their methods early on, and began waving them off and plodding along in my path. Well, more than once, they were actually pointing me in the right direction. After choosing not to listen to them, I ended up walking through the "Thai-only" entrance of a temple. Whoops. So much for respecting culture.
Along a Bangkok walkway, minding my own business, a bird lady shoved three baggies of what looked like trail mix between my back and my bag.
"You have, it's good! Thailand" and other broken-English phrases were spat in my direction. I thanked her for the munchies without breaking my pace.
"No! Look!" She grabbed a bag, opened it, and poured it into my hands. Corn kernels? Instantly, my feet were flogged by every Bangkok pigeon in a mile radius.
"Oh, I get it now." Before I could process that single thought, three more bags were poured into my hands. Braver Birds were on my arms and wrists. I tried to walk away. Another bird-lady dumped her corn nut baggy into my open, flat, spread-finger palms. I turned my hands over. I was done.
"one fifty! one fifty!" the first spat harshly. She counted her empty bags, and demanded near $20US. At this point, I was tired of this city's swindlers. I was angry. I matched her harsh tone, and pleaded American ignorance. Begrudgingly, I reached in my pocket and pulled out a few bucks ("fool me once, shame on me...") and dropped them into her hand - pocketing the rest while she grasped for more. I was done. Walking away, I could hear the bird ladies holler and squabble like the pigeons at their feet. That's okay, I wasn't about to turn back.
But that wasn't all. I bartered taxis and knick-knacks. I saw the price for food and drinks change faster than I could turn around. Two times at 7-11, I was over-charged for a Big Gulp because it had Thai Tea in it rather than soda. When I called them out on the price change, the cashier shook their head and insisted on their price.
I don't enjoy bartering. I don't enjoy feeling like I have to swindle a few bucks out of people, or that I can't trust a conversation with anyone.
It's funny how the best thing and the worst thing can be the same thing. It's funny how even though the people I met were the highlight of my trip, it was people who made me reconsider my decision to come to Thailand at all.
In the end, though, I feel like I learned some - about myself, and about culture around me. I've never been great at having to say no to people, but I think I learned how this weekend. The fact is, we can't get away from people in this life - be it con-artists or honest fellow travelers. The ability to tell apart the swindlers from the fellow drifters is a skill worth cultivating when navigating through life.
Sunday, I returned from Thailand. It was an incredible trip, I'm already planning my return. I feel as though the purpose of this visit was simply to inform me of all that I have yet to see.
I would love to pack my new backpack and set off for a month or more. There's so much to see, so much to do, and so many amazing people to meet.
On a bus ride, I met a girl from Quebec who has been backpacking alone for 3 months, simply because she yearned for adventure before entering University. Camille and I talked for hours, got off the bus, shopped, ate dinner, and talked more. Her trip came to an end today. Knowing this, I spent much time quizzing her on her experience and lessons learned and favorite moments. She spoke of trekking through Vietnam and Laos and Thailand; river rafting, bus trips, and hill tribes; temples, water fights and friendly faces; and most of all the confidence a journey like this brings. Before she finished speaking, I knew I would return to this region.
After a night in Bangkok, I was ready to leave the smoggy congestion of Urban Metropolis, and found myself on a bus trip to a small island called Koh Samet. Yet to be flogged by foreign tourists, Koh Samet is not more than a National Park situated on a quiet island.
The bus ride down proved to be another great meeting place for fellow travelers. Sitting next to me were a brother and sister from South Korea - whom I later met up with when back in Bangkok. The rest of the mini-bus was filled by two young ladies from London, a German fellow - who has been traveling in Asia for months - and two South Africans now teaching in Bangkok. That group bonded quickly, and I stumbled upon their beach bash and spent my second evening away from the city with my new global comrads.
While out with a group of local Thai, I met a young girl, a street vendor named Lookrnam. She was incredibly cute. She sold packages of gum. Though I don't chew gum, I bought several. She sold roses. I bought a few of those, too, and distributed each to my new Thai friend Oum - it was her birthday - and her friends. Every night, Lookrnom hits the congested, touristy streets of Bangkok to sell her knick-knacks. Despite her situation, she wore a bright smile that lightened the dark midnight streets. Thailand is dubbed "The Land of Smiles" and no one embodied this to me more than Lookrnam. After 20 minutes of losing at Rock, Paper, Scissors, Lookrnam stretched my hand out and tied on a braided string bracelet. She told me she wanted me to remember her. Having nothing to give in return, I pulled out my journal, tore out a sheet, and wrote her a note. Though her spoken English is more than adequate, Oum translated the written text to Thai. Lookrnam hugged me and thanked me with her signature smile. One last chance encounter, and the highlight of the trip: With a little planning and strategic schedule shuffling, I was able to see my dear Floridian friend, Cathy. Around the time I moved out of the State, and back to California, she moved to South Korea to teach English. Since my arrival to South East Asia, we've been tentatively scheming a plan to get together. But a few months ago, she up'd and moved to Thailand. This worked perfectly for our scheming and we enjoyed a great breakfast on two stools at a stand on a street corner. Cathy's perspective on Thai food is "The crappier the place looks, the better the food is." When we selected where we'd eat, the only comment I could muster was "I bet the food's fantastic."
Due to an early flight, our time together was brief. (And due to the fact that I forgot my watch was set an hour earlier to Taipei time, our visit was even briefer.) But it was a treat to see her, nonetheless.
The next few posts will be further expansion on my trip. But, as you know with me, people come first. This trip was too short. Thailand is a beautiful country, with too much to see and do. But by far, what I enjoy most about traveling is the people you meet along the way. They inspire and reaffirm you in your journey - just by watching them in theirs. Whether your time together is a bus ride covering a vast expanse of land or breakfast on the corner; whether you divulge in the adventures of life, or simply share a smile, their presense in your journey is invaluable.
I believe life is about a Journey, not a Destination.
I believe balance is essential.
I believe to Live with Excellence is the best way to live.
And I'm learning how to do that.
Want to join me along the road? I welcome your company, companionship and conversation.