As soon as you hit the outskirts of Siem Reap (Cambodia) the road switches to dirt, and the dirt is something like the color of new bricks. The roads are dusty, the cars and motorbikes and cows on the roads are dusty, the bushes and trees that line the roads are dusty. Everything is covered in red dust, everything is dry.
April is the hottest month of the year in Cambodia, and this April is particularly hot. For reference, highs are normally around 38 C (100 F) and are now reaching 42 C (106 F). Beyond that, it’s a particularly bad drought year, with a shorter-than-normal rainy season, thanks to El Niño – a complex weather pattern that…complicates things every so often, generally in the “hot and dry” direction.
Fifteen minutes from the sleepy downtown area, on one of these red dust dirt roads, is the oasis where I spent a week, meeting up with a friend made during the Bristol leg of our England trip this February. The week consisted of yoga, meditation, sleeping, reading, vegan food, swimming, journaling, daydreaming…and watching a lanky orange kitten stalk and murder a variety of lizards. The retreat had several large communal buildings, a small pool, a variety of huts, hammocks everywhere, a juice bar, traditional Khmer and Shiatsu masseuses, dozens of mango and palm trees, birds, and butterflies.
There was something like 28 people staying, and thus likely 28 different intentions for the week. Yogis set intentions, a clarified purpose towards which they are consciously orienting themselves. Some were there to relax, others wanted to try out a more serious commitment to yoga practice. Some wanted the digital detox, others to begin the process of getting back into shape. Regardless of our intention, we all got most of these things, and we all – I think it’s fair to say – learned a bit about ourselves from components of the retreat we didn’t expect would be learning experiences.
Each day the gong went off at 6:30am. Did I mention there is only one clock in the place, and everything else is run with a gong? 6 times as a 30 minute warning, 3 times as a 10 minute warning, once when we begin. We were in wide-leg child’s pose on mats by 7am, and practiced until 8:30, followed by 30 minutes of meditation. Meals were massive affairs, vegan buffets with way too much delicious food. This same pattern (gong, yoga, meditation) happened before dinner, as the sun was setting…and these bits framed the day. There were evening activities, and yoga options during the morning and early afternoon, but they were all optional – that first and last practice were the most important.
As someone who journals and writes primarily during times of emotional distress, I was expecting to jot down a few thoughts about the experience, tools to remember what it felt like. I haven’t written in months and months, distracted by life and work and enough emotional stability to leave the journal under a pile of other books. At the retreat, I found that I had things to say (well…write, rather), and I don’t always feel this way when I travel (recent trips to Thailand and England elicited almost no journaling and zero blog posts). In the six days, I read four books, and wrote a lot. I wrote about feelings elicited by those books, I wrote about the space created when your phone is turned off and stuck in the bottom of your bag, I wrote about what happens when can’t think about work because the job itself and all your work-paraphernalia is back in Hanoi. I filled pages. At the end, I felt like I’d gotten somewhere, processed something, but I didn’t have a conclusion, so there is no big reveal to make about my time at Hariharalaya. That said, I’ll share one of my observations.
Hanoi is…noise. Constant noise. I love it here and it is my home, but…my lord is it loud. Everyone yells, everyone honks, construction starts at 6:30am, dogs bark constantly and roosters don’t really seem to care whether it’s morning or afternoon – they crow ALL THE TIME. Living here means adjusting, and finding a peace within the cacophony. As I write this, it’s Sunday afternoon at 5pm. The light is warm, low, and indirect, and the heat of the day has passed. I’ve opened up every window in my apartment, and I’m sitting on my 4th floor balcony with a lime seltzer and a dog fast asleep on the cool tile floor under my chair. Normally I’d hear wind and birds and motorbikes in the distance, but today the background noise is children. There are 17 kids between the ages of 6 and 12 down in the street playing a game that consists of throwing their shoes at a plastic water bottle 3 or so meters away, and then screaming. I’m pretty sure screaming is integral to the game. The screaming seems to happen whether or not they “score” in this shoe/water bottle version of bocce ball, and there are 17 of them. I counted and contemplating prematurely joining the “old person that throws water on kids in the street below” club. Resisted…this time. More than annoyed (my default, I’ll admit) today I find myself impressed by just how much noise these little people four stories down are able to create. They’re standing next to each other, yelling loud enough for me to hear a discussion of rules and whether or not Tuan Anh’s foot was over the chalk line when he threw his shoes. In a city of constant noise, kids learn early that shouting is the status quo.
That week in Cambodia was a stark contrast. When you sleep in a bungalow without walls, with little more than a mosquito net and a fan…you wake up with the sun. There are alarm clocks that try to simulate this, slowly lighting your bedroom until you hypothetically drift into consciousness, but it’s…just different. Though the first gong sounded at 6:30, I was awake at five-something each day. Lizards rustled in the grass below my bungalow, a cow lowed every so often in the distance, my fan whirred above, but it was just so quiet. Walking barefoot along the path through the mango trees to the bathroom, toothbrush and toothpaste in hand, I’d hear the creak of the old dry wood that made up the already-sun-warmed steps of my little house, I’d hear songbirds in the mango trees, and nothing else. Nothing. The temperature was still comfortable at that time of day, and I’d cross paths with a few other people, smiling a silent “good morning”, and then we’d all convene a few minutes later in the yoga studio. Settling into a wide-leg child’s pose, forehead pressed to the mat, I’d listen to the whirring of fans overhead, the rustling of breeze through the palm trees, the birds. It was a start to the day wholly unlike my Hanoi mornings, which involve the aforementioned dog-gangs barking in the street, karaoke music, and what I’m pretty sure is a dude hitting a big piece of metal with a hammer just for the fun of it. and I’ve never seen such clear evidence of the impact that those first few minutes can have on the tone of a day.
I made big plans, noted over many pages of journal ramblings, to reconfigure my life around this realization. Sleep with curtains partially open, so the sun seeps into my morning like it did for that week. Reserve a half hour of time before I do anything for a bit of yoga/meditation, knowing that the phone and Facebook and emails will be there when I’m done…but that I’ll be in a different space. Eat healthier, exercise daily, trim out some of the dependence on technology. Some of this has happened, other bits are still…goals. Exercising 3-5 hours a day was a good kickstart, and I’ve been at the gym or yoga studio 4 times a week since I got back. Exercising reinforces the desire to eat well, and there have been more lentils, fresh fruit, and brown rice based meals. I need to buy an alarm clock, so my phone can be left on my desk, instead of next to my bed. The caffeine and gin/tonics – these things are back in regular circulation, but then my intention was more about the quiet and space to read, think, relax.
I feel calmer, though I don’t know how long that will last in the pandemonium that is Hanoi. I might just need to make this a semi-annual thing :)
Some photos, for…perusing.