Loving and Leaving

I can’t quite believe that my one month in Luang Prabang, Laos, has trickled past so quickly. In a hazy blur of yoga, sunrises, sunsets, a birthday, lush countryside, new friends, some illness and homesickness, but most of all an overwhelming feeling of contentment and gleeful disbelief that my world right now allows me to work, travel and live like this.

There’s something very special about Luang Prabang, in a way that you can’t quite put your finger on. It is the kind of place that just keeps ticking along – you come, you settle in, then you leave, and it just keeps going without you, which is both sad and comforting at the same time. A month is too short a time to fully experience life there, at least in the way it needs to be experienced. The most captivating part of Luang Prabang life for me is that life feels easy. Nothing is too far away, you have culture, religion, outdoor adventure, nature, comfort and a bounty of good, cheap food on your doorstep.

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I was there for a month, teaching yoga daily for Luang Prabang Yoga, overlooking the Nam Khan River, through rain and shine, sunrise and sunset, to whoever passed through. I had some regulars – people staying in town for a while, expats, or returning visitors who went elsewhere and decided this was the place to be. I was teaching most classes at Utopia, which is just as it sounds – a chilled out, everybody welcome kind of place with good food, interesting people, cosy seating overlooking the river, a volleyball net and a yoga deck.

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One of my favourite evening activities was to visit one of the temples at around 6.30pm and join the monks and novices for their evening chanting and meditation. From 6.30 – 7pm they would chant Buddhist verses, then from 7 – 8pm they would meditate in silence. I would do my best, sometimes sneaking out a little earlier, because an hour and a half is a long time to sit without stretching out your legs. The feet are considered the lowest part of your body in all respects, so its very rude to stretch your legs forward and face the soles of your feet at Buddha. If you want to stretch, you have to awkwardly poke your legs to one side. One time I made the foolish mistake of wearing a wrap around skirt to meditation, and quickly realised that I couldn’t sit cross legged without baring my crotch to the Buddha, which is generally deemed inappropriate in Buddhist tradition.

At the end of the meditation sometimes the novices would turn to practice their English with any westerners in the temple. They were very inquisitive about our lives and how we can travel, and in exchange I asked questions trying to get a grasp on the day in the life of a monk or novice. It’s a lot of discipline for these tiny little boys, and one night in meditation I opened my eyes to just watch them sitting. Some of them are so small and their heads keep lolling forward, then they catch themselves and try to sit upright again, only to keep falling asleep every few minutes. It’s adorable and kind of sad and also very impressive all at the same time – as teenagers these kids have more discipline than many of us might learn in a lifetime. At their age I was running around half naked in a field, building tree houses and singing at the top of my lungs. The contrast is pretty eye opening.

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The food… People say that Laos food is nothing to write home about. I found some gems in Luang Prabang that made me rethink – my particular favourite breakfast at Delilah’s consisted of a little bamboo box of sticky rice, a Lao omelette with dill and vegetables, steamed vegetables and a pot of spicy eggplant dip which was the best in town. I would go there for brunch after teaching, use the Internet, and just watch people passing by. It was a weird little place, they would often be blasting the music at 9am, even if I was the only customer, but I took my food outside and they took a shine to me because I tried out my rudimentary Laos on them every day and they thought I was hilarious.

Some places in town make awesome Laap or Laab – made with either chicken, fish or tofu/mushroom, mixed in with fresh herbs and served with greens and sometimes sticky rice, it makes a refreshing lunch or dinner. Street side stalls have grilled bananas, fresh fruit, tiny pancakes, sandwiches, and fruit shakes. I discovered an alleyway in the night market offering a buffet selection of vegetarian food, where you grab a bowl, fill it with as much as you can pack in, get them to heat it up for you, chuck an egg on top and pay a tiny 15,000kip (less than 2usd). You can also choose to wash it down with a big beer Laos, at the average price of 10,000 kip. Cheap and cheerful.

A favourite was also the Sin Daad or Laos BBQ, with baskets of vegetables, noodles, raw meat or tofu, pots of broth and dipping sauce. You grill your own meat or tofu on the hot pot which is built into the table, pour the broth into the little most and fill it with vegetables and noodles, and then scoop it out bit by bit into your bowl and try to get it in your mouth with chopsticks. An awesome social way to eat, pretty cheap, and there are places around town that offer an all-you-can-eat situation, including icecream for dessert, and you can just stay there for several hours to see how many meals you can squeeze in for your kip.

It wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows in Luang Prabang for me, though. I got a nasty burn on my leg from riding on the back of my friends motorbike, which I was terrified was getting infected, especially when it started bleeding and looking quite worrying. Luckily a friend had some medical supplies and it has started to heal nicely. Apparently they call them “Laos burns”, because everyone gets a burn in the same place from bumping against the exhaust pipe on their bike.

I got a weird bite or something suspicious on the back of my other leg which became a curious texture and felt all squishy when I touched it, but I just kind of ignored it for a while (out of sight, out of mind) and it seems to have gone away. Phew.

I also had some nasty stomach issues which still haven’t quite been resolved – a sensitive stomach at the best of times can struggle in Asia, with all the hidden ingredients and language barrier when you ask for certain things to be excluded/ added to your meal. Laos has come a long way, but if you’re looking for gluten free dairy free vegan chia seed muffins, this is not the place. And maybe that’s a good thing.

In general, being sick when you’re away from home is pretty much the worst thing. Every tiny little inconvenience of living in Asia comes to the fore – you can’t find the medicine you need, you can’t drink from the tap, there’s a power cut and you lie there all feverish with no air con, nobody understands what you’re saying (to the point where you think perhaps you are delirious and rambling), the thought of noodle soup makes you turn green, and everything comforting and familiar is far away.

Nobody ever talks about the shitty hard part of living and working away from home. It’s like it’s a little bit unacceptable to admit to being unhappy while you’re living in sunshine paradise and working your dream job. It’s natural that there are ups and downs, and being sick makes you realise that your health is the single most important thing, coming before everything else. If you’re not well then you can’t enjoy everything that your surroundings offer.

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And THAT, my friends, is the time to go to Chiang Mai, a vegan/ vegetarian/organic/ gluten free/paleo Mecca for anyone with awkward dietary requirements. It was very sad for me to leave Luang Prabang, where life was easy, and faces had become familiar, but the time has come, and I’m looking forward to starting a Thai Massage training in Chiang Mai and having the resources around me to get my glow back.

I’m currently up in Pai, a chilled out ‘hippie town’ north of Chiang Mai, where I plan to spend several days doing just that – chilling out, doing yoga, catching up on some work and exploring the lush surroundings. Next week I start my course, where I will learn to massage bodies.

✌️

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Retreat Yourself

This month has been one of  transition, of challenge, of merrymaking, and of ants.

I will start strong and tell you all of my recent nightmare involving an army of ants, my sleeping body, and the eeriness of a full moon.

I recently moved into a new home, away from my sweet but small and noisy hut on the other side of the retreat. I had to farewell my pet gecko Fred – we had developed a strong relationship based on him pooping in the corner, and me pretending to ignore it. Now I live in a comparable mansion, which is perhaps one metre larger, with solid floors, walls that turn into windows, a door that shuts fully and completely, and more places to put things! I also have replaced Fred with a pet frog who waits for me on my light switch every night. A slimy suprise. Needless to say, I was the happiest girl when I moved in at the beginning of this week. I was pumped for a big, good sleep in my awesome bed with the full moon streaming in my open window, a gentle breeze tickling at my feet.

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I awoke at 3am, feeling itchy. Things were crawling upon me. I was sure I was dreaming and kept swatting at the irritation, until I was fully awake, then realized it is not normal to have things crawling on you in your sleep.

I turned on my torch and gasped murderously as a stream of bolshy ants paraded  up and down my exposed arm, infiltrating my clothing, delving into the depths of my bosom crevice. I leapt out of bed, getting all tangled in my mosquito net (which, I will say, has NO POWER against the wrath of ants), and placed my feet on the floor, instantly realizing that I was standing in a SEA of ants, they began to climb my legs, clinging to my feet as I fled the room.. The entire floor had become one big ant.

I returned in desperation, trying to spray them and get them out of my bed , also pouring half a bottle of insect repellent onto the floor – they seemed to enjoy the challenge of the liquid, and began to build rafts using eachothers bodies, all the while advancing on me with menace in their eyes. I went to sleep in another accommodation, and returned in the morning to find they had nest’led into my clothes, my bedsheets, and my soul. I put on my yoga pants and instantly regretted it, feeling a tingling, itchy sensation all up in my legs that would last for days. Fun fact – apparently ants do not bite – they PEE on you, and that is what stings.

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The retreat staff came to exterminate the ants who had infiltrated my home, spraying toxic stuff all around the outside, and hopefully this will ensure they never return. The girls did point out to me that ants like coconut oil, and I had a big old jar sitting on my bench. I had also covered my entire body in the stuff before sleeping that night, so they probably smelt me and came running.

I have never written the word ant this many times and it is beginning to look and sound strange, so I will stop talking about that now.

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I am learning the ways of Siem Reap, some life hacks, so that on my days off I maximize my time and minimize expenditure.

I have stayed in the same $12 guesthouse for the past couple of weeks, where they greet me with a smile and rent me a bicycle for my time there. I love riding my bicycle – the tuk tuk drivers don’t hassle me, I simply cruise past with a look of superiority and independence on my face. On my day off, I like to venture to a nearby luxury hotel, where they charge 10dollars to spend  the day by the pool, with access to the spa, sauna, hot showers, Jacuzzi and ginger tea! Or, if you’re like me and many of my Siem Reap acquaintances, you just glide in as if you belong, wearing your least hobo clothes and with a posture of dignity and tremendous wealth.

I spend a good 70% of my time off  immersed  in some type of water. I always feel quite dirty here – even when I shower I am instantly sweaty again, and my hair is comparable to a frizzy hedgehog. It is the humidity I suppose, and the fact that washing in cold water all week long hinders cleanliness.

Last week, however, was very cold indeed! A cold front came through from somewhere that experiences an actual winter, and we all shivered and huddled over our tea for several days, (it was like 19 degrees Celsius, but its all relative). I secretly loved being able to light the firepit in the yoga hall every morning, and put on another layer of clothing. At night, I pulled my blanket over my shoulders, which is a miracle in itself.

I am now adjusted to the 6am starts, sometimes 5.30am on a good day, and I have to ensure I am tucked up in bed by 10pm. I often take a daily nap in the late morning or early afternoon, but I can’t nap for too long because then I wake up all sweaty and disoriented. The only clothing I wear these days are yoga clothes, and some may say this is the best job in the world, because yoga pants are the most comfortable pants ever. I haven’t worn jeans in 3 months – I didn’t even bring any with me.

Highlights from this week were teaching outdoor yoga at a nearby temple, next to a lotus pond, and also teaching a partner yoga class. Nobody can get through this class without exploding into giggles – especially when men partner up with each other and I get them to make love hearts with their bodies and “breathe with each other”….

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Every week I seem to say something hilarious when I’m teaching – something that is NOT acceptable and people tend to laugh and fall over a little bit. For example, in a water themed class this week, we were rolling around in the ground in a “happy baby”pose (legs up in the air, on your back, rocking side to side), and I called out “have a little fun with your body….. it’s always available to you”……. Needless to say there were some stifled giggles.

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Our guests are from all walks of life – high season at the moment means there are around 30 people on each retreat, young people, old people, couples, boys, girls, beginners and people that have been practicing for 30 years. It is a challenge and a joy to create classes that suit all levels, and the feedback I get from people tells me that I am definitely in the right place.

So I will be here a while longer… What began as a 2 month internship has expanded into a 6 month role, learning all aspects of the retreat environment – teaching, administration, guest relations, and learning to live in a community in a bamboo shack, surrounded by nature, eating vegan food, and meeting people from all walks of life.

I’m writing from a riverside cafe in Siem Reap on my day off, soaking up the sun, and the caffeine which is contraband throughout the week. The good thing about limiting yourself to a coffee every 7 days is that IT REALLY HITS YOU  and you GET SHIT DONE.

On that note, I’m off to cruise on my bicycle, head held high, in search of a pool with free wifi and cool asian hats.

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Visit me for a 6 day integral yoga and meditation retreat at Hariharalaya

 

 

 

The Cleaning Fairy

Have you ever wondered how your rubbish bin comes to be miraculously empty every morning? How the coffee stains on your desk are just magic-ed away overnight?

IT’S ME GUYS!

I am the cleaning fairy.

My current selection of employment for my money-making summer includes a cafe and specialty foods shop, a catering company and a cleaning franchise. I have my finger in all pies, which guarantees regular income and versatility, which is fabulous for people who get bored easily like myself.

Cleaning is perhaps not the most glamorous of occupations, but it is top notch for those days when you don’t particularly want to talk to people or make an effort with your appearance. I scrape my hair back into a wee alfalfa, pop on my large blue cleaning shirt and black pants, fill my drink bottle, strap on my strap-on vacuum cleaner (yup, I do that), and I’m away!

In general, I find that unappealing situations in life can become far more appealing, when one is willing to laugh at oneself.

For example, when I am down on hands and knees in a kindergarten scraping play dough off the carpet with a piece of lego, with a hefty hoover bumping me on the back of the head, I like to think, “I wonder what I look like from behind right now?”

Or when I am vacuuming in a classroom and the vacuum cleaner lead gets tangled in a chair and the chair falls off the desk which creates a domino effect on all the other chairs in the room, and I rush around trying to put them all up again only to remember I am still wearing the vacuum cleaner, it has been following me, and I have created a labyrinth of vacuum lead which I must retrace or forever remain entangled in its sucky embrace. It would be a horrible end.

Or when I am bent over, hoovering under a desk intently, when the kindergarten parrot begins to sing a serenade, and wolf whistle until I straighten up and give him a reprimanding look, as if to say, “you cheeky parrot, you”. I’ll be honest with you, its the most attention I get these days, and I am beginning to look forward to our meetings. Love you Paz.

I think the worst is when there are ACTUAL HUMANS in the room when these things happen. In general it is just middle-aged women marking school papers, but every now and then the sexual physical education teacher turns up, and I just can’t look him in the eye when I’m wearing a vacuum cleaner backpack with straps around my waist, and a very Rosie-glow sheen in the face.

I have a lot of time to think, so sometimes I entertain fantasies of myself arriving at the school as a teacher, and Mr PE teacher is a cleaner, and the tables are TURNED, and I have the power, and I make him vacuum everywhere while I watch. I’ll show him physical education! Pah!

Sometimes I think I have too much time to think, which is when I start listening to podcasts, about a vast variety of things. Aliens, Murder, Gardening, Films, Politics (But not really cos I just don’t quite care enough), Food (which just makes me hungry and certainly consider taking an apple from the kindergarten fruit bowl), Travel, Things I Didn’t Know Which I Should, Things I Think I Know But Actually I’m Wrong, Superfoods and Why Are They Super (Indeed!)…. The list goes on.

It is a bit of a skill to take work that people may look down upon (quite literally, when I am under the desk), and turn it into an opportunity for humour, education, and a perspective on life from a different standpoint.

Next time you sharpen your pencil onto the floor, take a little moment to thank your cleaning fairies.

We know whats in your rubbish bin. Wink Wink.