Monday, May 23, 2016

Rio!

Rio scared me.
From what little I knew of the city, it seemed like the polar opposite of what I grew up with. In Minnesota we don't shake our big booties on the beach, we don't kiss strangers on both cheeks upon meeting, and our ideas of carnival are slightly different.
Left: Rio's Carnaval                                     Right: St. Paul's Winter Carnival
Thanks despicabledee.blogspot.com for the photo

But wow. What a city! The geography for a major city is unparalleled. Venice has its canals and Stockholm its archipelago, but Rio has ocean and mountains and lakes and beaches and jungles all butting up to each other like dancers at a saucy nightclub.

It was rainy my first few days here so I hit some museums and rented a bicycle from my hostel to bike around and introduce myself to the city.

You've probably heard of the two famous beaches, maybe the most famous in the world -- Copacabana and Ipanema. Copacabana is almost 3 miles long and Ipanema a little shorter.
Copacabana beach

Ipanema Beach

They inspire song, most famously by Antonio Carlos (Tom) Jobim. Here's me and him hanging out waiting for the Girl from Ipanema to walk by. Dark and tan and young and lovely...

Then I biked to this beautiful botanical garden.

After three days the weather finally cleared up enough. I had seen hang gliding and paragliding advertised at several places in Chile and Argentina. But I knew if I was going to do this I wanted to do it over Rio. It turned out to be an excellent choice. Here is a shot of the runway I ran down with my pilot/guide Roberto to launch over the city.

Despite the deer in the headlights look, this was all very professionally run and I felt completely safe. That's Roberto in the helmet clipping me in and checking for safety.

Hell yeah.
The flight lasted about 10 minutes and was great. We landed smoothly down on a beach after soaring with the birds.

Another famous landmark in Rio is the big Jesus statue up on one of the hills that you've likely seen in photos. We like to call him Unsportsmanlike Jesus in reference to the Touchdown Jesus that graces the University of Notre Dame. Jesus makes more sense to many of us when compared to a referee in American Football. Touchdown Jesus has his hands up in the air like he's signaling a touchdown. Unsportsmanlike Jesus has them spread out to the side like he's an NFL referee signaling an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. Here Jesus is being worshiped by throngs of citizens who praise him by taking selfies with pouty faces that they think make them look sexy when they share them with friends online.

On the right of this photo you can barely see Unsportsmanlike Jesus on top of the mountain in the background. This photo was taken from Sugar Loaf, one of the other popular Rio mountains that you can visit. I hiked up Corcovado to see Unsportsmanlike Jesus, but rode a tram up Sugar Loaf.

Sugar Loaf is a wonderful spot in a charming neighborhood. I spent the day around here yesterday first walking around the neighborhood, then going for a swim at a little beach, then hanging out up on Sugar Loaf for a few hours admiring all the amazing views and waiting to watch the sun set.



What's Next
Tomorrow I bid farewell to Rio and I leave with a love for this city that I did not expect to achieve. It really is a special place. Perhaps I will actually come back for Carnaval some year.

Next week I'll be in Costa Rica and then it's back to Peru. Plan is to work my up Peru, then hit the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador, then spend maybe 2 months or more in Colombia. I've been traveling now for 6 months and am getting ready to chill out in one place for a month or more again.

And I had an interview for a job in Antarctica, so that's a possibility for October through February. 



Friday, May 20, 2016

Chapada Diamantina National Park, Brazil

The hamlet of Vale do Capao, Brazil sits cradled inside a western arm of Chapada Diamantina National Park. 2,000 people live there, most of them hippies and environmentalists and tour guides for the park. 

The park was created in 1985 when an American fought to save this gorgeous land from resource development. It has many trails, but few signs so guides are necessary to find some of the most incredible waterfalls and caves and swimming holes.

One of the business owners in Vale do Capao is Sylvia. Sylvia lived in Mankato, MN from 1975-85 and said she had yet to meet a Minnesotan visiting her lovely hostel. She helped arrange my hikes and tours, based on the fact that it is the low water season so some of the waterfalls are less impressive than others.


For instance, this is the highest waterfall in Brazil. It tumbles 1,400' over this ledge down to the valley floor below. But it holds no water right now as the river is only flowing after rain. It has barely rained in the past 3 months.



 Chapada Diamantina National Park used to be full of diamond mines. But the diamonds they could excavate were of lower and lower quality and not worthy of an international market. The park is still full of caves, however. This is Alice, Jiselle & Justin who joined me on a cave tour one day. Alice is from London. She's here visiting Jiselle who is from London but now living in Rio. Justin is from Lithuania.


This next picture is a lie. I used photo filters to gain the same image that I had seen on all the posters. 
 It is a cave where at certain times of the day (and the year) the sun shines in to the crystal clear water. There is no swimming in this pool because any disturbance would stir up the long-settled sediment and ruin the view. In reality, the extra blue glow in the pool was barely visible. But through the process I learned how they make marketing photos.


This is me falling backwards off a cliff and nearly dying.
Kidding, of course. I'm floating in clear water that is actually 50' deep. This is another pool with a beam of light shooting into it (see glow to the right of the frame). We were able to snorkel in this one which was super cool.

A small sampling of beautiful flowers I've seen along the way...


What's Next
I'm writing this from Rio de Janeiro and it's a phenomenal city. I wasn't sure what I would think of it, but I'm very impressed. More to share later.

Next week I'm excited to shoot up to Costa Rica to meet two college buddies, John & Mitch. It'll be great to hang out with longtime friends. 


Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Photo Dump: Amazon + Salvador, Brazil

I spent a few more days in the Amazon in Tres Fronteras region -- the border where Peru, Colombia and Brazil all come together along the Amazon river. 

It's not that easy to see animals in the wild, even though there are many. I opted to take a day tour, but part of it felt like a petting zoo. It was a little sad, but still fun to get to interact with some animals.

At Monkey Island
 No, I didn't get pooped on, but a lady next to me did.

Sloths!
The real one on the right was quite cute and cuddly. I didn't get quite as intimate with the one on the left, but I'm sure he/she is a wonderful creature, also.

Here's one of Pablo Escobar's old cocaine planes. Colombia has done a fantastic job of cleaning up the drug criminals. They're not totally wiped out, but are much more passive and no longer active in any of the main cities.

A typical eatery in the region. Lots of fried food around here.

Rush hour on the Amazon river.

This bird welcomed our group to Puerto Narino, Colombia. It is a super cool little village on the Amazon that's pedestrians only. Very charming. Wish I spent more time there. This bird escorted our group for about 1/4 mile as we walked into town from the boat. It would fly ahead 100' then wait for us. Then fly ahead again.

Then I flew to Salvador, Brazil. Salvador is considered the African heart and soul of Brazil. It is where more than 4 million slaves were brought. For comparison, the United States received 500,000 slaves.

It is a city of almost 3 million people on a peninsula jutting south into the Atlantic ocean.

Here's a shot of one of the beach areas. My hostel for $11/night was 2 blocks away from the beach here.

The Pelourinho neighborhood is the classic central part of the city, full of gorgeous colonial architecture and cobblestone streets.

This is the plaza where they auctioned off more than 4 million slaves...

Lots of music at night and pretty much all the seating for the many bars is right out on the streets.

Ridiculous waste of money by the Catholic church -- gold leaf covers 99% of the interior of this church and was applied by slaves. Felt much more evil than god-like to me.

View of Salvador from across the bay during rain and fog.

There are many old forts around the city and the nearby coastline. They were built by the Portugeuse who settled here in the 16th century. In about 1825 the Brazilians revolted and took control of their country. This is the first lighthouse built in South America.

What's Next
Tomorrow morning I leave for a week in Chapada Diamantina National Park. It is about a 6 or 7 hour bus ride from here and is supposed to be full of amazing hikes -- canyons, caves, waterfalls. I should have more good pics and stories to share when I get back.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Don't Think, Just Be: My Ayahuasca Experience

I get into the van outside the Dawn on the Amazon Cafe and can't believe my eyes. Of the 8 people in our group I am the only man. Behind me sits a sixtyish hippie woman and the rest are all super cute chicas bonitas in their 20s and 30s. Blonde, brunette, Israeli, Asian. Hot, hot, hot, hot. I felt like the luckiest guy in Peru. 

The mood during the one-hour ride to the Gaia Tree jungle retreat center is bright. Everyone is chatting and laughing and I'm enjoying talking with the cute Canadian who is sitting next to the aging hippie. There are no external signs of the internal torment that some of them are living with.

Iquitos, Peru is on the Amazon river near the borders of Colombia and Brazil and is the epicenter of the burgeoning ayahuasca movement. Ayahuasca is an ancient plant medicine which local shamans have been using for generations. It is used for personal healing as well as psychedelic visions. I am here mostly out of curiosity, partly as an opportunity for personal growth. If I have any demons in my past or pain buried deep inside me, which I do not think that I do, this will bring it to the surface and help me deal with it. For example, I tend to be shy around attractive women and lack the self-confidence that I see in many other guys -- is this the result of some scarring that occurred being the first kid in school to wear glasses and braces? Wearing a headgear (for the braces on my teeth) to school did not endear me with the cute girls or the cool kid club.

Gaia Tree Retreat Center
My home for the next 7 nights is this tambo, a little 10'x10' hut in the middle of the jungle about 100 yards and thousands of trees from my closest neighbor. There is a mosquito net over the bed and a few termites parading around inside.

Each night from dusk around 6 to ceremony at 9 I lay in my tambo just listening to the jungle sounds. Amazing. Whistles and croaks and chirps and querks and rustling and whooshing. All of the frogs, birds, insects, monkeys and whoknowswhatelses are invisible in the dark.

Five minutes walking from my hut brings me back to the central building where we will all spend most of our down time. Downstairs is where we will eat two vegetarian meals per day and upstairs has hammocks for lounging. We won't sleep much at night so these hammocks will get a lot of use. 

Main building - exterior

Main building - interior


And here is the malorca where our ceremonies take place, 5 in 7 nights. They begin at 9pm and last until nearly dawn.

The morning after a ceremony

The Participants
Four of the eight participants have some serious healing to do. They share stories of parental torment and personal struggles that blow my mind. Now I feel like the luckiest guy in Peru but for totally different reasons. I feel blessed because my father didn't beat me and I was never raped, never suicidal, I wasn't slaughtering chickens in a factory at age 12 and my parents never tried to sell me to a wealthy neighbor when I was 13.

It is some heavy, heavy shit. How can people be so cruel?

Our lovely cook in this kitchen.


The Ceremonies
Ayahuasca is a vine that grows plentifully in the jungle around here. Local (mostly indigenous) shamans chop it up with another plant and boil the concoction down for 12-20 hours. Out comes a liquid blacker than motor oil and nearly as thick. It is the worst tasting thing I've ever put in my mouth. We all struggle to keep it down as it is dispensed out of re-purposed 2-liter bottles of Coke.

Over the seven nights here we will partake in five ceremonies. The ceremonies begin at 9pm and we all sit around the inner perimeter of the malorca, a circular building about 50' in diameter. We have mattresses and pillows and a puke bucket close at hand. Everyone pukes. It is part of the process. Unless you're a shitter, that is. Not everyone purges only from their mouth. There is also a lot of crying, burping and blowing of noses.

The ceremony is run by two shamans -- a husband and wife team. They are barely over 5' tall and fairly thick, but not fat. Each of them displays several silver teeth. They are from a local tribe and have been a part of these ceremonies since they were children. They learned to be shamans from their fathers who learned from their fathers and hey prove to be people of deep love and compassion as they guide the healing process with the bedside manner of Mother Theresa.

I chose to sit in the first position to the right of the shamans, meaning I would imbibe first. I was served maybe 5 ounces, three gulps worth. I shudder now just thinking about the flavor. 

About fifteen minutes later I felt a bit of a head buzz and five minutes more and I was puking. The shamans began singing and my vision started to turn into mosaics, but only just a little bit. My body started buzzing like I was on a marijuana high. Then Don Segundo, the husband shaman, moved over to sit in front of me and sing. He would be followed around the room by his wife Belmira, spending 10-30 minutes in front of each of us, depending on what we needed. Their singing right in front of me made everything more intense, but my first experience was fairly mellow.

The woman to my right was gently moaning and the one to my left was humming a little song, kind of annoying as it was out of tune with the singing of the shamans. 

The first night ceremony must have ended around 2am. That's when the shamans left the building. At the crack of dawn I was still buzzing and enjoying the full-body tingle while listening to the sounds of the forest. I was able to sleep for just a couple hours and we all spent the night right where we started it -- on our mattresses in the ceremony building.

My Most Interesting Ceremony
The second night was the most eventful for me. I was given a little bit more to drink and it had a greater effect. After puking it was if someone pulled back the curtain on the universe and showed me a truth. The vision was white on white, a flowing world of energy and joy. There were energy globules morphing into energy tubes and connectors and beings. There were little energy beings from all over existence that had congregated, like the cantina in Star Wars. Each was flowing in and out and morphing at will. Then the vision would change into a face wearing headphones that reminded me of the old Napster logo if it's headphones were pumping out universal joy.

It felt like the only things that truly exist in the universe are (1) energy and (2) joy/love. Everything else is just human-made bullshit. I felt like the shamans were servants of love whose job was to help humans pull themselves out of their self-created misery into the true essence of being and love. 

Then I started thinking about it. I started analyzing what was going on. Why was I feeling these things? What does it all mean?

But as soon as I started thinking, the vision changed. It changed to more of an outer space feel with nodes and connectors like the start of a Dr. Who episode or something. At the same moment my right leg began spasming. Whenever I stopped thinking the vision changed back to the energy and love, but I repeated this cycle several times. Each time I started analyzing the vision, as I am wont to do, I got the leg spasming and the vision change. I realized I could stop my leg from spasming, which felt good that I was still in control. In fact, I was always in control. We all were. We were never 100% out of it. Often we had to go outside to use the outhouse and sometimes people would need some help from one of the facilitators, but we were always aware that we were having a trip.

After a few of these cycles through thinking, spasming, and energy/love a voice said to me: Don't think. Just be.

Just be the energy. Just be the love. This message ties in closely with the meditation and mindfulness I've been working on the past few years. All of our grief and stress comes from fretting about something in our past or worrying about the future. We create so much anxiety for ourselves by worrying about things that are completely out of our control. Anything that already happened is over with. And we agonize so much about things that may or may not happen in the future. If we can just learn to live in the moment, to be, we can remove so much bullshit anxiety from our lives. Our minds are the cause of 100% of our strife. There is nobody else to blame because we control our response to any external stimuli.

Don't think. Just be.

Meanwhile, the Russian supermodel next to me seemed to be going through an exorcism. The shamans had been working with her for a long time and her body was writhing and lifting off the ground, bolting up, laying down. It was like demons were being pulled out of her in a '70s horror film. It was crazy. And it went on until 5am.

The Healing
The most amazing part of the week was the healing that I witnessed, at least in the short term. Time will tell how well these people were healed, but the stories they shared about their experiences were compelling. And I could see it. One woman felt Mother Ayahuasca working on her physical body every night and healing her ailments. One woman came here because she was suicidal a week prior and after witnessing her own death one night in an out-of-body experience realized that she no longer wanted to die. One woman began the week with a negative, mean spirit that really turned me off, but after a couple days was transformed to happiness and positivity. 

The love shared amongst the participants was also amazing. Each day after a ceremony we sat in a circle and shared our experience. There were tears and hugs and people shared things about their personal trauma that they had never shared with even their closest friends. 

Take Aways
  1. I am so fortunate to not have such trauma in my life. I feel like Mother Ayahuasca gave me a clean bill of emotional health, which feels good to confirm.
  2. The essence of everything is energy and love. Unfortunately, humans are awfully good at piling a lot of bullshit on top of it.
  3. Don't think. Just be.
    1. Continue to learn to quiet my mind to all the anxieties it wants to bring up.
    2. We are each in 100% control of our reactions to any external stimuli. Hence, there is never anyone or anything to blame for how we feel.


Saturday, April 16, 2016

Listen to This

In the past week I was on two separate 20-hour bus rides in Argentina. I actually enjoy these rides because the buses are quite nice, like first class in an airplane, and I get to fill my curious brain with lots of intelligent podcasts. Here are a couple episodes of Radiolab I particularly enjoyed and think you will, too:

Thursday, April 14, 2016

My Experience at 10-Day Vipassana Silent Meditation Retreat

The Compound

If you could see through the fence and into the courtyard you would think you were gazing upon rec time at a loony bin circa 1953. The nearly 2-acre compound holds 5 buildings and is filled with towering pine trees. It is a pleasant setting. 

Inside the yard a few dozen adult humans wander about. They wear loose-fitting clothing and walk slowly, heads down, not making eye contact with each other. Men and women are segregated, separated by a demilitarized zone 3 meters wide.  Over there a woman wearing a shawl on her body and a scarf on her head appears to be caressing a tree. Over here, a disheveled man is simply staring at a stump.

But this is not a mental ward. It is a 10-day vipassana silent meditation retreat.


Goals

Why go on a 10-day silent meditation retreat? Here are the overarching reasons that I've been meditating for the past 3 years. My hope was that 10 days of intensive meditation would hasten my journey down the path to being a better human. Specifically, I want to:
  1. Show more love and compassion to people (and animals, too)
  2. Become less frustrated with people or situations
  3. Thoughtfully respond to external stimuli, not simply react
In the past three years I've seen good progress in these areas and meditating for 10 days and 10 hours per day would more than double my lifetime total of meditation time.

Arrival and Initial Impressions

I arrived at the facility the afternoon of Day 0 to get signed in and to turn over all non-essential items. No electronics, no journal for writing. No alcohol, drugs or cigarettes. I took only clothing, toiletries and a sleeping bag.

Participants were asked to arrive between 2 and 4pm on Day 0. After registration we just sat around in the shade waiting to get started. There wasn’t much conversation as the participants seemed to be mentally steeling themselves for 10 days of Noble Silence.

At 5:30 stragglers were still arriving and I was already bored and restless. It was going to be a long 10 days.

Meditation

I’ll never get used to a 4am wakeup call, let alone a 2-hour meditation beginning at 4:30am. Even the roosters weren't awake yet.

And I hadn’t sat cross-legged for longer than twenty minutes since participating in the YMCA’s Indian Guides program with my dad in the 1970s. About fifteen minutes in my right foot fell asleep and a few minutes later the pain in my left knee was unbearable. I constantly wriggled and shifted in order to maintain some level of comfort. Later I would learn that discomfort is a critical part of the process.

Seventy meditators sit in a hall, women on the left side and men on the right. Each has an elaborate system of pillows, blankets, shawls and stools that indicates they’ve done this before. I am sitting on the very pillow I rested my head on last night.

Some people have little stools upon which they place a fitted pillow. They kneel, their feet under the stool and sit on it, wrapping the entire throne in a blanket. Others use multiple pillows and blankets and wraps to build a nest upon which they will perch for the next hour or two. A scarf hangs over many of their heads, mimicking a monk’s hood. They sit, rigid as a Buddha statue, while I shake in physical pain and mental strain.

At the front of the room on a small dias sits Isabella, our teacher. All in the room, including me, want to be more like her. She is calm and compassionate and loving. She smiles a lot and is an excellent listener. She is wise and has the glowing face of someone who has found the key to the meaning of life and is desperately trying to give it to you. Why do you refuse it?

On a chair in the back of the room sits a 70-year old gentleman who has done this before. He is solemn now but after the course he reveals his bright smile and cheerful voice. About every fifteen minutes he emits a sound that is too soft to be a cough, more nasally than a throat clear, but still forceful and determined like a grunting calf. After a few days of this I decide that he’s probably In a state of meditational bliss and feels as if he’s being pleasured by a young Audrey Hepburn. 

Of the 35 men here, I am the only one without facial hair. I stand out like a razor salesman at a shaggy beard convention. 

Vipassana Meditation Technique

The purpose of vipassana meditation, to my understanding, is to reach enlightenment by understanding all sensations as neither positive nor negative. It was developed by Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, 2500 years ago and his contribution to the world is that he realized that we are the master of our own emotions. When we become angry, for example, it is we who make ourselves angry and cannot be blamed on anyone else. By learning to control our reaction to external stimuli we are masters of our own happiness.

The first three days (thirty hours of meditating) we focused on the inside of our nostrils and the spot just below the nostrils and above the upper lip. With each normal breath we focused our attention to feel how the incoming breath is colder than the outgoing. Sometimes your breath only goes through one nostril or the other. I could feel the stubble on my upper lip as my gentle breath passed over it. I could feel my nose hairs sway in the breeze of each breath.

After honing our attention for thirty hours we turned our new sensitivity to full body scans. The next seven days were spent slowly scanning our body with our mind and honestly feeling whatever we felt, with no regard for good or bad feelings. You know how you can feel your heart beat? And you can feel your pulse in your neck? That same pulse is in every artery, vessel & capillary in your body, just to a lesser degree. By honing our observation skills we can feel it and we can feel every part of our body with our mind. Advanced practitioners can also feel the inside of their bodies.

This was a revelation to me. I learned to focus my attention on my ear, for instance, and could feel it tingling and vibrating. It was pretty cool to get myself into a full-body tingling experience -- like smoking legal Colorado weed but without the brain fog.

Why do this?
The idea is that by closely examining our own body we will come across different sensations like the pain in my knee of the aching in my lower back. And by simply observing these sensations with a neutral mind we will re-wire our brain to also not react negatively to challenging or offensive words hurled at us, for example. The absence of negativity in our minds leaves us left only with joy and love. This is why the Dalai Lama and other seasoned practitioners are always smiling and so gracious to everyone they encounter.

For the past ten years or so, science has been studying Buddhist monks and its findings support what the Buddha discovered 25 centuries ago. From the BBC:

"Meditation research, particularly in the last 10 years or so, has shown to be very promising because it points to an ability of the brain to change and optimise in a way we didn't know previously was possible."
When one relaxes into a state of oneness, the neural networks in experienced practitioners change as they lower the psychological wall between themselves and their environments, Dr Josipovic says.

Daily Schedule

4am  Wakeup
4:30-6:30  Meditate
6:30-8:00  Breakfast and break
8:00-9:00  Meditate
9:00-11:00 Meditate
11:00-1:00 Lunch and break
1:00-2:30 Meditate
2:30-3:30 Meditate
3:30-5:00 Meditate
5:00-6:00 Snack
6:00-7:00 Meditate
7:00-8:30 Lecture
8:30-9:00 Meditate
9:05 Goodnight, Kirk

Where you see multiple meditation sessions back-to-back, they were broken up by a 5 or 10 minute break. It was all run very efficiently. Volunteers worked in the kitchen and served us two meals per day, breakfast and lunch. The afternoon snack was only one apple or one banana. I got a little hungry at times, but actually skipped breakfast on days 3-8. Hunger is another of those sensations that we often don't just sit with. We think we need to overfill our stomach the minute it gurgles. I basically ate one meal a day, a full plate of rice/beans/salad/pasta, and was satiated.


My Experience

The first six days went surprisingly well for me. I thought that by day three I might be running for the exit (there was a tiny brewery just down the street), but I started off strong. The days actually went by fairly quickly because they were broken up into 60-, 90- and 120-minute segments.

Day seven is where I began to crack. Ten hours a day of focusing the mind is quite difficult and my mind was now all over the place and I didn't care to reign it in anymore. Day eight was similar and day nine I mostly mailed it in. On day ten we finally got to speak so there was much less meditating and a lot of sharing with the other participants. We stayed over the night of day ten and had to get up at 4am again on day eleven, so, in actuality, it was a twelve day experience.


Boring. Difficult. Emotional. Inspirational. Informational.

Those words pretty much sum it up for me. Some of the lectures given over audio tape by the program founder S.N. Goenka were quite inspiring and very informational. Others made me feel as if he were a smooth salesman trying to sell me the best thing in the world - enlightenment and eternal happiness - but that it would cost me a lifetime of one hour meditating every morning and one hour meditating every evening. A stiff price.

I learned a lot and am thankful that I am in a place where I have ten days I can just throw at an experience like this. As of now I highly doubt I'll do another one of these, but who knows. There are centers in virtually every country of the world so perhaps in my travels I will try again.

Would I recommend it?
Only to someone who is serious about meditation. Talking with the other participants it seems the ones who got the most out of it, like anything I suppose, were those who were most committed going in. I was only semi-committed and I think that's why I petered out after a week.

Location of vipassana centers


What's Next?

Stay tuned in a couple weeks for a report from an eight day ayahuasca plant medicine experience in Peru...





Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Thoughts Before 10-Day Silent Meditation Retreat

Tomorrow I begin a 10-day vipassana silent meditation retreat outside of Cordoba, Argentina. I heard about this opportunity from a fellow traveler who I met in Chile. He told me about dhamma.org.

The Experience

  • Days begin at 4:30 am with a couple hours of meditation before breakfast
  • Each day has 11 or 12 hours of silent meditation that are broken into 60- and 90-minute sessions.
  • I will attempt to sit cross-legged meditation style on a pillow all this time. Chairs are available, if needed.
  • There are 2 simple vegetarian meals each day and tea
  • Each day, around mid-day, I will have the opportunity to speak privately to the teacher to ask questions
  • I can bring nothing except for comfortable clothes and a toothbrush, basically. No books, no writing utensils for journaling, no electronics. Nothing.
  • This is not a luxury spa retreat. Accomodations are spartan.
  • We are not even supposed to make eye contact with the other participants, though it sounds like this rule is regularly broken
  • Men and women are separated into different parts of the compound, I think
  • Each evening there is an educational lecture for 30 or 60 minutes
  • Volunteers who have previously attended one of these sessions will be preparing the food
  • There is no cost for the 10-day experience. However, they do accept donations.
  • There are dhamma.org retreat sites all over the world.

My Thoughts

Fear. My overwhelming feeling is fear. I'm afraid that I won't be able to stick out the full 10 days. I'm afraid that I'll quit. I don't want to fail at this. I don't want to quit. Mostly I'm afraid of how difficult it is for me to simply sit cross-legged for long periods of time. I've never really meditated in that position for more than 20 minutes. And when I do that my foot falls asleep around the 15-minute mark. 60 minutes? 90 minutes? I also don't want to use a chair because that feels like cheating. Sure, if I was much older or had a serious back condition or something, then I could use a chair. But I want to do this the right way which means overcoming the challenges. That's what it's all about.

Ignorance. Do I really need to bring an alarm clock? Won't there be bells or something that wake us up in the morning? Is it okay if I bring my full big backpack and just put it in a locker for ten days? I don't want to have to leave my backpack at a hostel in Cordoba for the duration. And pillow case? I'm really supposed to bring my own pillow case? How about I just button one of my shirts around the pillow instead. I'm a traveler, dammit, and don't want to have to go buy all this extra crap for this one experience.

Excitement. I'm actually excited for the food. Full-on vegetarian with no alcohol for ten days. My body could certainly use that and maybe I'll be introduced to some new foods that I will appreciate.

Hope. I hope that my body will get used to it. I hope that my mind will be able to overcome these physical obstacles. I've read enough reviews by people who say that the first few days can be absolutely grueling, but then you overcome those difficulties and get used to it. 

I'm also hopeful because I have such a different appreciation of time at this stage of my life. A year is nothing, so what's ten days? Last year when we had that red lunar eclipse I just sat and watched the moon for two hours. And I wasn't even stoned like everyone else in the Denver park where I was. I can look at spending 3 years (estimated) traveling around the world as just a blip. Perhaps one day I'll look back at ages 45-48 as just those 3 years when I was traveling around the world. Old memories. In the scheme of a lifetime it is hardly anything, but can be immensely valuable for personal growth.

So here goes nothin'... see ya on the other side...

Monday, March 28, 2016

Aconcogua & Mendoza, Argentina Photos

Aconcogua is the highest mountain outside of the Himalayas. I visited it the other day on a full-day bus tour from Mendoza, Argentina. It was a gorgeous drive up into the Andes. Aconcogua is near the Chile border and is about a 3-hour drive from Mendoza. The mountains there are so big and bold and contain zero trees (more because this is a desert than because of altitude).

Along the way we stopped at a little ski area called Penitentes. It's a small area that appears to have some nice hike-to terrain and a few runs dubbed "extremo". The base is at around 9500' and as you can see there are zero trees on the entire mountain.

It has a cute little base area in a dramatic setting.

The view from up on the ski runs.

Then we drove to Aconcogua National Park and took a short walk to a couple lookouts. That's Aconcogua far in the distance. It clouded over soon after this hike, so I'm glad I was able to see it.

Aconcogua is the highest peak in the Americas and the highest outside the Himalaya range at 22,841'. Climbing it is not technically difficult, but is obviously tough due to the altitude. Almost anyone can climb it with proper conditioning, but it still takes 3 weeks due to its location and altitude. I was psyched to be able to see it, if even just from afar.

A few more unrelated photos...

Here's the AirBnB place I'm staying for a week in Mendoza, Argentina. This is the courtyard/backyard of a modest home about a 15 minute walk from the center of town. The green on the trellis you see is actually grapevines with tasty grapes. The building is a little out-building that is about 11' x 9' and has been my room. It is cozy and comfortable and $10/night. I share the rest of the house with the 2 young women who live here. They are wonderful people.

Mendoza is an extremely green city, especially considering it is in the desert. The founders were smart enough to build an elaborate irrigation system throughout the city. Down both sides of virtually every city street runs a small canal mostly concealed under the sidewalk. From this water source grows a complete line of old trees that give shade to virtually the entire city. I haven't taken any photos of it, but you've all seen those beautiful streets that live under an archway of big ol' trees. It's like that everywhere. A very liveable city.

Mendoza is also the heart of Argentinan wine country. The Malbec grape thrives here after being cast-off from France. Malbec literally means "bad mouth" and the grape got that name in France because they struggled to make good wine from it. But the Malbec grape loves the terroir around Mendoza.

I went on a bicycle tour of some vineyards last week, which was a lot of fun. It seems to me that one could do a lot worse for him/herself than working at a vineyard. I love the idea of living close to the earth and, for me, I'd much rather be producing booze out of that relationship than just some healthy vegetables or whatever.

This is a truckload of grapes that were just picked and are beginning to be turned into wine. The three wineries we visited on the bike tour were all organic and I am impressed to see the number of organic wineries down here. Very cool. It was also fun to see all the bugs and spiders crawling around inside this pile of grapes. They must get removed sometime during the de-stemming process.

That's it for Mendoza.

What's Next

Lots of exciting stuff on deck for me, including...
  1. 10-day vipassana silent meditation retreat begins in 2 days. I'll write more about my feelings pre- and post- in other blog entries. Dhamma.org to learn more.
  2. I have applied for a job in Antarctica later this year. It would be a 4-5 month seasonal job working as a garbage man, basically. November - February or so. I think the experience of spending significant time in Antarctica would be amazing. Plus, the money would help me keep traveling longer.
  3. I'm looking for an Ayahuasca experience in Peru. If you can recommend a shaman, please let me know. If you haven't heard of
    Ayahuasca, it is an ancient plant medicine of the Amazon that is used to help people better understand themselves, overcome any anxieties or deeply held negative beliefs, and better see how they fit into the greater world. It is becoming quite popular for people who are striving to improve themselves as humans.
  4. I'm also thinking about volunteering in the Amazon for a few weeks. It would likely be based around conservation of the ecology or animals. I would live in the jungle and count frogs or plant trees or help injured monkeys. Something like that. We'll see.
  5. I also want to check out one of these eco village yoga communities. It feels a bit like a hippie commune sort of experience, but I think the experience has been updated quite a bit from that picture I just put in your head. This one outside of Lima, Peru looks interesting.