10 Days of Vipassana Meditation in Myanmar Part 1: Bootcamp for the Mind

Silhouettes drift silently under the thick jungle canopy, layered shadows blotting out what little light illuminates the cracked cement walkways. I’ve never seen a shadow upon a shadow, or to be accurate I’ve never noticed the difference. It’s the ultimate darkness. A silent apparition of dark faces, lean bodies and focused expressions turning a carpet of grey satin into velvet black. Moving from all corners, striding along paths that wend their way through a maze of lush plants and multi-hued flowers until they merge into a single mass, patiently waiting to remove worn leather sandals and enter the squat meditation hall that stretches the length of the courtyard. My feet carry my forward into the whole, one more cog in a machine cast of iron solitude and steel silence. 

Day 4 of meditation. Day 4 without speaking, gesturing and eye contact. Day 4 separated from women. Day 4 without phones, books and writing. Four entire rotations of the earth without smiles or laughter.

I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else in the world.

***

Yangon, Myanmar – Dhamma Joti Vipassana Center

Day 1

What the hell am I doing here? The thought runs through my mind for what must be the twentieth time today and it’s not even noon. Hands that are numb of feeling and seem to belong to someone else shovel food into my mouth with metronome precision, metal fork to metal plate to automaton mouth. An act of sustenance instead of satisfaction. I know what I’m doing here. Two of the many reasons are here; Lina somewhere in the building next to me and Jack a few seats beside me, two friends that I had met while in Thailand training in Muay Thai over a month ago. I can’t lie – I doubt I would make it without them. But yet, here we are. Our own islands. Men and women among a sea of faces, stranded and cast away in our own minds.

Last night we had entered this place as friends and left as individuals, wandering the halls of a deafeningly silent world as the loneliest of souls. 

Dhamma Joti Cafeteria, Vipassana Meditation Centre, Myanmar (Burma)
(Photo taken on Day 10, when phones were permitted)

What lay ahead was 4 AM wake ups in pre-dawn darkness, each day consisting of 11 hours of meditation interspersed with a handful of breaks and 19 hours of fasting. 10 days of vowing not to kill the super mosquitoes calling this haven of unresisting victims their home.

The rusted metal gate through which I had passed a night before is barred, as are the windows of my packed 20 bed dorm. I could leave at any point of my own accord. All I would have to do is break my silence and give my reasons to one of the two male teachers, wizened aged men with balding heads and bent backs that embody the ideals of Vipassana. It would be so easy. I could check out Yangon, eat all the Oreo ice cream I could find and go for a beer that is dripping with condensation. I could read and write until my eyes are bloodshot, mental satiation from the two activities most central to my identity. I could talk to any I wished, or at least any who would listen.

I could quit.

Metallic clanging of utensils against plates continue their rhythmic song of steel and sustenance. I leave the cafeteria, slowing my gait as I walk towards the rusted gate. I pause for the briefest of moments before tearing my gaze away towards the red brick steps leading up to my dormitory, plants lining both sides as if it were a path to something promised. I take a step forward.

Dhamma Joti Vipassana Meditation Centre, Myanmar (Burma)
(Photo taken on Day 10, when phones were permitted)

***

Day 2

It’s the first time I’ve felt happiness since I’ve been here. It feels more like a month. Thunder bellows overhead, dropping its first pellets of rain onto the dimly lit Dhamma Hall sheltering 100 people in silent meditation. My breathing adjusts to the laconic, rhythmic pattering without my knowing consent. I allow it to continue. A sudden wave of thunder, one strike after another rips through the air, the accompanying rain quickly building into a crescendo in the span of a few quickened heartbeats. A cacophony of sounds seem to envelop me and reverberate in the quiet, the maelstrom outside somehow perfecting the hall’s silence.

My instincts beckon for me to open my eyes and rush to the covered veranda surrounding the building to watch the tempest and confirm we’re in the eye of the storm, it’s power focused on the insignificant light blue cement building. Instead I squeeze my eyes shut.

It would not be the Vipassana way.

In fact, the storm raging mere meters away should be far from my mind, with thoughts of air passing through my body the only concern. I can’t resist. I’m 6 hours into 11 hours of daily meditation and my weak, artistic mind needs but a few moments of entertainment.

I compromise, watching it in my head instead. I picture the rain slamming into the corrugated metal roof, chips of red paint flaking at the onslaught. Relentless beads of moisture hammer the cement walkways, widening the existing cracks still further and doing much the same to the red bricks hemming in the sea of green plants and purple flowers. The greenery itself is even more vulnerable, leaves and stems torn off as watery droplets make contact, the ones that miss unleashing their power into the black soil beneath. Individual sounds can be discerned, each resonating differently as the rain slams into a multitude of surfaces. The dark clouds high overhead light up with incandescent power, briefly illuminating it’s self made darkness. The storm is frightening and beautiful. Destructive and life giving. The definition of change captured in one of nature’s most spectacular moments.

I see it all as clearly as if I were standing in the middle of the maelstrom itself. It is truth as literal as any that has ever been witnessed.

A grin spreads across my face. Likely 1 among 99 pillars of impassive stone, resolute in their concentration. I have no idea how much time has passed. My few moments of entertainment could have stretched into an hour for all I know or care. I have the thought that this is what people should do during a storm: shut up and listen. Let the senses we’re so lucky to possess take us away in a flight of fancy guided by nature, the greatest and most experienced entertainer on earth shaping reality and mind alike.

The long expected gong finally rings, dismissing us from our cross legged positions for a brief break. By this time the storm has subsided into lingering droplets that have missed the main show. I step outside, half expecting a world reshaped. Yet, it’s similiar to the one I had left, cleansed and resplendent in its lasting beauty.

***

Day 3

Sweat rolls down my chest, narrowly missing my already soaked shirt that once began life in a shade of white. I feel the individual beads of moisture as if they were the only sensations available, tickling my stomach before being soaked into the waistband of my Adidas track pants. 

The AC machines that dot the dim room remain silent, the absence of their constant hum from the previous two days made all the more apparent in the sweltering heat that sits in the air, seemingly thick enough to cut with a knife.

I can’t move. Or to be more accurate I shouldn’t move. We’re in the middle of a technique that was just taught to us today, and from what I can tell it’s working, helped no doubt by the discomfort borne of intense heat. My respiration is heavy, coming in short, sharp breaths. Moisture covers my forehead and drips down into my eyes, threatening to sting my eyes if I dare open them. It’s easy to keep them closed. I’m lost in a world where mind and body are in equilibrium, a place where it’s possible to analyze any thought or emotion objectively if concentration is maintained. I’ve had an insight with an issue that has plagued me for years. It seems so clear and obvious now that I’ve distanced myself from the tangled web of emotions that had distorted it.

The clarity of this single session carries into the rest of my day, and it’s only later in the evening I realize that my detailed vision of yesterday’s storm was possible only because of the environment. Mediation and strict silence had allowed me to focus on what I desired: seeing a tempest rage in my mind’s eye. It’s an empowering observation and one that could be useful in the future. I feel leveled up, like a video game boss. And more importantly I feel like I have a strong motive to stay.

(Some of you might be wondering what kind of meditation technique I’m referring to. I’m not qualified to explain, nor am I inclined to. Vipassana is a way of life for some, a tool for many or simply a waste of time for others. This is an account of my experience, but if you believe Vipassana can benefit you then I highly encourage you to do more research on the subject here.)

***

Day 5

My mind is strengthened. Jokes of being able to levitate aside, I feel changes from just a few days ago. Facebook and Instagram have been forgotten. Constant silence, while not always desired, has focused my thoughts on any subject that comes to mind. I’ve started to realize how much noise surrounds us like a blanket as we stroll through our lives. How it takes away from the moment. How we suppress undesirable emotions with distractions.

Vipassana is becoming a tool that I can use. 

It feels normal to avoid eye contact and smiling. Silence, while not totally comfortable is also not entirely uncomfortable. It feels odd on the few occasions that I hear people speak, like the construction workers chatting away while they build new dorms. Even if they were speaking English instead of Burmese it would still seem alien and out of place in a world built for solitude. Will I able to function as a sociable member of society after 5 more days of this? The thought is fleeting and unimportant in this moment. Jack and Lina are also still here. Their presence is reassuring, but no longer the most compelling reason for not quitting.

The grounds are seeming less like a prison and more like a garden. The rusted front gate is still there, imposing in its challenge. Yet, it opens as the handful of empty mats in the Dhamma Hall can attest to. The 20 bed dorm, full of gaseous Burmese men and a handful of foreigners including Jack and I is no longer the prison of boredom it once was. Lying on my half inch thick mattress that covers a solid wooden base has become a favorite past time and a refuge of a sort, thoughts wandering freely with the light that plays across my white mosquito net. Fasting for 19 hours no longer sends my stomach into unending rumbles of hunger. Instead it’s been replaced with a dull ache that I’m sure would disappear entirely over time. Filthy washrooms that seem to hold more spiders and reptiles than a National Geographic shoot are hardly ideal, yet easily tolerable. As for the mosquitos…well f*ck the mosquitos and the rules protecting their super species. 

Dhamma Joti Male Dorm, Dhamma Joti Vipassana Meditation Centre, Myanmar (Burma)
(Photo taken on Day 10, when phones were permitted)

The design of this place is simple and ingenious. It’s impossible that Dhamma Joti would spend funds on anything unnecessary even if they weren’t a donation based organization. Discomfort breeds self awareness in the same way that lifting weights builds muscles. Mental flexibility is the product of long hours of meditation dissecting the roots of misery; a formidable challenge still, yet now one with a clear purpose.

I’m halfway there. I question whether my sanity will hold up, or even the possibility of me exiting this world as someone that my friends would not recognize. A walking, talking Vipassana billboard that spews forth the principles and precepts at every opportunity, a perpetual cause of rolled eyes and uncomfortable silences. Only the next 5 days will tell.

Stay tuned for ’10 Days of Vipassana Meditation in Myanmar Part 2.’

Muay Thai Training Part 2: Friends, Food and Fighting in Paradise

Pai, Thailand:

The morning light trickles in through gaps in the drapes and dances across the orange stained glass of my front door, synchronized to the crowing of the roosters behind my hut signaling another dawn. My pillow is matted with sweat from the thick heat seeping through the fissures between the wood siding of my hut, promising a sweltering morning training session. I reach for my phone only to pull my hand back as if given an electric shock. Facebook, Instagram and the rest of the world can wait. A yellow dappled gecko tentatively peeks its head above the crossbeam dividing my room from the toilet to say hello, a welcome visitor when compared to the cockroach that dropped onto my bed the previous night and the spiders crawling over my balcony. For a second my mind wanders to unproductive thoughts of poisonous bites and travel insurance. I find my center and breathe deeply through my nose for a three count, letting tendrils of warm jungle air ease through my body and slowly leak out between my barely open lips. Time seems to slow down with the rising and falling of my chest, closed eyes straining to pierce the haze of dreams gone by.

The cacophony of crowing roosters and buzzing insects fades into the background as I grasp at the images slipping through my mind’s grasp, as if my hands were clutching a handful of sand and each grain a minuscule part of the whole disappearing into a golden sea of time.

A few weeks ago I had a long talk with my Aussie friend Alex that I had met at a guesthouse in Chiang Mai. Alex is one of those few kindred spirits that I could talk to for hours about anything and everything. This particular conversation centered around first thoughts in the morning and what our natural routines were. I was ashamed to say that the first thing my waking mind grasped for in its semi-comatose state was a tiny black box with a bright screen, hopefully containing messages from the outside world. I had fallen into a pattern of checking social media and messaging platforms as my first waking actions instead of reflecting on the previous day and appreciating the extremely cool activities I had lined up for the next 24 hours. Much of that can be blamed on travel and the disconnect of being away from the familiar, but I know that it’s something me and many others struggle with back home. These devices have become part and parcel of our identity, our lives defined as much by our Facebook profiles as by the conversations we have in daily life.

Pai was having the intended effect I had in mind before coming here. Its mesmerizing scenery, relaxed vibes and rigorous training was slowing me down and distilling my thoughts, changing me one simple breath at a time.

***

I’m winded and gulping down air, sweat glistening off of every inch of my dark skin. Hamish throws a hard push kick that I parry and return with a roundhouse kick. It’s going better than the last time we had sparred three weeks ago. He had dropped me with that very same push kick to my liver, bringing me to my knees as the world grew dim in a cocoon of sharp pain. Later that evening we would cross paths at his hostel; I hadn’t recognized him and he introduced himself as ‘the guy that kicked your ass this morning’, with me laughing at his joke and pretending that I didn’t think he was an asshole. But all of that was in the past and now I finally had my chance to settle up. It turned out to be an even match, and even more importantly Hamish turned out to be a quality human that I spent time hanging out with.

Controlled and mutually agreed upon violence can make for fast friends.

One minute and a rushed gulp of water later and I was facing Daniel, a broad Korean-Dutch trainer that had a defense straight out of The Matrix. We make for quite the contrast, him barely breaking a sweat and me looking like I had just hiked through the impenetrable undergrowth surrounding the gym and fell into a jungle river on the way in. I throw a left kick to his lead leg, hoping to use it to get inside and land a left jab, overhand right combo. My gambit is over almost before it starts, Daniel knocking my pathetic kick to the side with a leg block and using the momentum to extend that same leg into my stomach. I’m rocked backwards as he advances, relentless and implacable as a force of nature, his fists and feet lashing out in combinations of lightning and thunder. I retaliate, but it’s like raising a fist to a hurricane. My shins are sore and my shoulders feel like they’re on fire from keeping my hands high. I’ve become a friend of frustration. An example of embarrassment. The minutes seem to drag by as I go into survival mode, waiting for the round to end with gloves glued to my head.

Two weeks on and I’m still not a fighter, but I’m settling well into the realization. Guys like Daniel have studied Muay Thai for most of their lives, adapting their bodies to the daily grind of a warrior’s existence. They are masters of violence, combining timing, precision, strength, speed, conditioning and knowledge into a fluid dance that has become as instinctual as brewing a morning coffee.

They flow seamlessly from one strike to the next, while I’m busy wondering if my ability to create metaphors and personify inanimate objects will suffer from the last head kick I just absorbed.

I’m learning despite these hurdles. The butterflies at strapping on gloves and shin guards before a sparring session have been replaced by an iron resolve. I move with an economy of effort, hammering away thoughts with snapping limbs in serpentine strikes where before I was ponderously lashing out. Things are coming together like a well oiled machine, greased by sweat, tears and sometimes blood. If I were trying to become a professional Muay Thai fighter like Daniel then this would be an exercise in futility. As it is we’re both artists in our own right, me painting by numbers and he crafting a masterpiece. Yet, how else would we push our boundaries without these types of challenges?

This was a true test of my physical and emotional limitations: rolling out of bed and making my way to Charn Chai twice a day, six times a week to get my ass handed to me. Inane things that mattered at home have fallen by the wayside, like getting worked up about a caustic email from a colleague or being stuck in traffic for an extra fifteen minutes. Was it really just a year ago that I was sitting at home mapping out a future with a girlfriend that I knew deep down I had no business being with? It seems more like a lifetime ago, during a time when the expectations of family, friends and society provided the guidelines of how a man in his mid 30s should live.

It was a warped, parallel universe where I was shopping for a Chevrolet Corvette and other junk I didn’t need, attempting to fill an empty void with inanimate objects that could help glaze over an existence where I felt more spectator than participant. Maybe it was entertaining. Maybe it was lucrative. Maybe it was even fulfilling, in the same way that a McDonald’s double cheeseburger sates hunger after a night of drinking when tomorrow is just a fleeting thought. But that life was never fully mine.

This is something else entirely. I’m where I want to be, in my element learning a new skill set and crafting a leaner body, both of which are merely the cool side effects of the accelerated growth that can be generated by fighting and being humbled in paradise.

***

The mountains loom over Pai, clouds of mist rolling down the lush jungle and disappearing as if they were an ephemeral breath from the gods watching over the emerald land. It’s an early morning at my crew’s favorite restaurant. We’ve decided to skip morning training for thick coffee shakes, kombucha tea, plates piled high with eggs & veggies, and rich slices of chocolate & carrot cake. Food has come to define our existence as much as Muay Thai, and somehow we’ve managed to strike the perfect balance between the rigors of training and indulgence. Our favorite food stalls dot a kilometer long stretch of walking street, a culinary Eden of black bean buns, savory & sweet crepes, chive cakes, coconut balls, stuffed curry puffs, pad Thai, mango sticky rice, veggie rolls, avocado & tomato bruschetta, springs rolls, thin crust pizzas, barbecued skewers and steaming cups of chai masala.

Abs are definitely not made on Pai’s walking street.

It’s coming up on our time to leave. I could easily stay in Pai, its relaxed vibes, friendly locals and delicious food a trap that beckons to the mind, heart and stomach. I’ve made many friends here, with two of the closest ones having left earlier this week. My heart feels stuck in my throat at these goodbyes and I almost want to avoid them altogether hoping that it would make things easier. Sincerity and camaraderie have become unwavering features of our crew, brought on by the knowledge that our time together is precious and limited, and further tempered by the heat and hammer that is Charn Chai Muay Thai.

Boris and Gigi, wandering aficionados of violence are off for more training down south. Jess is heading to Vietnam for a quick stop before going home to continue her studies, and Marica can barely contain her excitement at getting to see her boyfriend back in Sweden in less than a week. Maik, Felix, Sam and Claudio are sticking around to hone their skills a while longer, as is Jordan, a professional fighter who has a match coming up in two weeks. Frida and Nettie, long time fixtures at the gym also have fights coming up. Meanwhile Jack, Lina and I are off to Myanmar for a ten day Vispassana silent meditation course free of technology, books and socializing – an experience that promises to work our minds just as we’ve worked our bodies. 

It’s been barely a month here, but this mere blink of an eye in my existence will shape my decisions in the years to come. Time moves forward inexorably like the sun marching across the azure skies, burning away any transitory fog of melancholy. We must march forward with it or be marooned in the past. Yet, I’ll forever miss my new friends and Pai all the same.

 

Muay Thai Training Part 1: I’m a Writer, not a Fighter

My foot nearly slips on my own puddle of sweat as I dodge Turbo’s body kick, only to have the Thai’s left hand snap my head back in a lightning quick jab that brings the comfort of sleep for but a fraction of a second. Part of me wants the rest, while a distant part of my mind reminds me that I really should have brought a towel for all of this sweat.

That’s a weird thought to have while getting my ass kicked.

Charn Chai Muay Thai - Tire Dragging / Tire Runs

I force myself to focus and block a follow up straight right, left hook combo, back up and throw a push kick to Turbo’s midsection that manages to delay my impending doom. He breaks into a grin that’s notably missing a couple of teeth, then proceeds to pepper me with rapid strikes worthy of his nickname. This is a relationship built on power and the imposition of wills. Respect given and taken in a flowing exchange of controlled violence.

It’s Wednesday, which means it’s sparring day at Charn Chai Muay Thai. In a typical class we start off with three rounds of jump rope and push ups, followed by techniques, pads and heavy bag work. At this point I’m usually covered in a sheen of sweat, the ubiquitous mosquitoes that call Charn Chai’s open air gym home finding few safe places to land. But I digress; we’re not done yet. If we’re lucky we get to do dips and back extensions next. If we’re unlucky we get to push ourselves through an especially unique type of hell dragging tires in a circuit through muddy, lukewarm water home to insects and frogs.

Then it’s a finisher of roundhouse kicks through five trainers, lastly followed by core work and stretching. I’ve done the numbers. In one class we throw at least 140 right kicks, 140 left kicks, 120 knees, 100 push kicks and countless push ups & sit ups.

Two hours a day. Twice a day. Six times a week.

Charn Chai Muay Thai - Technique Work

This has become my existence over the last two weeks and there are very few places I would rather be. The first week was the toughest with fatigue quickly setting in and my 35 year old frame screaming at the lack of recovery time. I’ve had to shovel my pride to the side and skip a class or two. No one here at the gym would call me a fighter and my exes wouldn’t say I’m a lover. I’ve never been great at either of those, but what I can do is translate my experiences into words, a language in itself as much as those spoken by the fighters in their harsh guttural tones of power and graceful inflections of speed. 

The gym is the great equalizer. No one cares where you came from, with most classes more representative of globalization than a United Nations conference. There’s no judgement on body type or experience, with newbies and avid enthusiasts dropping in from anywhere from a single session to months at a time. Yet, even here an elite exists. 

Charn Chai Muay Thai - Pad Work

A core group whose aptitude in violence exceed those of the average, differences as apparent as a pride of lions placed next to a herd of gazelle. They live and breath Muay Thai. Maybe even dream it. It’s a sacrifice that us hobbyists don’t have the time to commit to or are simply unwilling to make.

This special breed of killer is precise and efficient in their movements, creating a symphony of violence with fists and elbows striking out in a series of unending percussive impacts, kicks and knees staccato thuds punctuating the air like beating drums. 

So, how did I end up here?

***
Chiang Mai

Flying into Chiang Mai was surreal, like I was crossing into a city cut from rolling mists and emeralds hills, the rubies and sapphires of colorful roofs saturating the landscape. In a way it it felt like a homecoming.

Let me explain.

I have a history with Thailand. It’s been 14 years since I’ve been here and that wasn’t even my first time around. My first trip here was in 2002, when I got ‘bitten by the travel bug’ on my first solo trip. I was a naive 20 year old kid that knew next to nothing and thought he knew everything, the innocence of ignorance both my strength and my shield.

It turned out to be a life changing experience despite my shortcomings, and one which led me back to Chiang Mai and eventually Pai. I know that Thailand gets a bad rep for being played out and packed with tourists. It seems that everyone I know has their stories of Full Moon parties, white sand beaches, Sangsom buckets and ping pong shows.

As I raced down the narrow Old City streets of Chiang Mai in a familiar yellow tuk tuk with colorful signs blurring by, I couldn’t help but put on my own rose colored glasses and take a nostalgic trip down memory lane, letting the chatter of vendors and scents of spicy foods wafting through open air restaurants assault my senses and take me back to a less complicated time.

Yet, I was dimly aware that sitting in the past wasn’t exactly the best use of one’s time when one was actually in the place one was reminiscing about. I needed to appreciate the present moment and the circumstances that had brought me here. The city’s energy and vibrancy may not have changed, but I was seeing it through eyes that have been educated in the halls of university and the school of life. Eyes matured by responsibilities, expectations, mortgages and steady paychecks.

However, first I had some unfinished business.

Chiang Mai - The Best Tattoo Studio

Jai Yen Yen. The literal translation to English is ‘cool cool your heart’. I’ve taken the meaning to be more along the lines of being mindful and finding your center. In 2003, a Thai I had met in Haad Yuan once said it to me after I had become visibly frustrated and irritated about an issue, likely something inconsequential given that I can’t even recall what it was about. I had opened up and delved into my history of getting bullied and growing up always having a chip on my shoulder.

A big fucking chip.

I decided then that I was going to get it tattooed on the middle finger of my right hand, the Thai script facing me in a constant reminder of the weakness in insecurity and frustration. I never had it inked back then, my broke ass being down to my last few hundred dollars that was barely enough to get me to South Korea and set up to work English teaching gigs that paid under the table. It was also one of those things that I couldn’t have done anywhere else. It had to be Thailand, even if it meant waiting 14 years. It might not carry the same meaning since I don’t need the reminder as much these days, but it’s value is of even greater significance. I’ve grown beyond the instinctual cave man that needed to look down at his hands to caution against making a mistake. This is a badge of pride. A symbol of slow growth and steady progress. And besides all of that it looks fucking badass.

***
Pai

Oh. So you’re wondering why I would train in Muay Thai if I’m all about a ‘cool cool heart’.

This little adventure isn’t just about learning a set of dangerous skills. This is about ditching those same responsibilities and expectations that had matured me over the years. This is about freeing myself of a steady paycheck that had started to look more like a set of handcuffs rather than a useful tool. And more than anything, this is a return to the childlike enjoyment of something pure. 

Pai lunch time

There is no agenda or schedule. No goals or metrics. There is me and an open air gym full of wiry gladiators to learn from on a daily basis. A martial routine as different as one could imagine from the sedentary office life I had left back in Calgary. My most critical task each day is to get through both classes then figure out what I should have for dinner – a responsibility that me and my teammates take quite seriously.

And so, I find myself here in paradise with new friends and harsh teachers. Training in a pursuit that brings equal amounts of pain and joy, and using my fists, elbows, knees and shins to express my will in a way in which words would never suffice.

 

Mongolia Part 2: In Search of Vast Empty Spaces and Questions

Terkhiin Tsagaan Lake, Mongolia

Khövsgöl Lake:

There’s no reasoning with a storm. I let the rain wash over me, wind whipping pellets of water into my face and scouring the sweat and dirt of the last few days. Bolts of lightning tear the sky asunder and slam into the earth, illuminating the cloudy afternoon and impenetrable sheets of rain for but a heartbeat before rattling the ground with their thunderous voices seconds later. Its sheer power is invigorating and intoxicating. Its audacity in pushing away the relentless, burning gaze of the sun is worthy of veneration.

Yet, it’s a worship that I cannot sustain for long as I step into my ger, alone with my thoughts and the fiery warmth of the wood stove. My travel mates had left incense burning before they left on their watery horse ride around the lake. Did they know that the incense would perfect the background needed to sort my discordant thoughts? Thunder shakes the ger in implacable rage as if the tempest is reminding me that it will not be so easily forgotten, throwing life giving elements of wind and water into the protective felt of my humble abode. I lie in my bed listening to the maelstrom’s language of violence, resting my eyes and letting thoughts flow unimpeded.

I see a storm. I see man. I am the torrential downpour attempting to tear my walls down. The walls are external; necessary for daily function, yet a construct nonetheless. The relentless wind and pounding water is a mind that never turns off, becoming more self aware and raging at the facade that prevents complete honesty with oneself at every second of every day. The booming thunder is a harsh reminding voice of lessons forgotten and old patterns resurfaced. The incandescent bolts themselves are flashes of hope that pierce the darkest despairs.

But a fierce storm can’t burn forever. One would seek perfection in a world that doesn’t exist in a world as varied as ours. Progress is slow and steady, an occasional tempest needed to wash away built up grime and revitalize the land. The rain subsides to a soft patter against the tight skin of my ger, the howl of the wind reduced to a soothing soprano of a lounge room singer, the thunder and lightning no longer thrashing sky, earth and mind.

***
Ulaanbaatar

Sometimes in my more vulnerable moments I reflect on how I’ve come to an exact moment in time and space, like when I’m sitting alone on cafe patio listening to the foreign yet familiar sounds of a weary city heading home and settling in for the night as the sun slides steadily towards the horizon, setting a pink fire to the clouds. It’s a mixed bag of contentment with the present, excitement for tomorrow and oddly, confusion about the past. It’s not like you can take a magnifying glass and look back along every point in your life and identify each moment that brought you to the present, although we certainly try by breaking things down into formative moments. Despite this imperfect ability to stare into the past we ask the questions anyways, like how we ended up where we are surrounded by the people we’re with.

I’m on my last few days in Mongolia and the previous evening I had met an amazing woman and had a stimulating conversation that carried into the early morning, ended only by the need to rest our weary tongues and her need to leave that day. A strange feeling, flushed with contentment yet bereft of time. Coupled in a linguistic dance that was somehow both hypnotizing and illuminating, we moved as if choreographed with spirituality, sciences and matters of the heart setting the beat. Accepting situations for what they are and letting go was a central theme that, ironically, we could not let go of.

And when at the end of the night our logical minds knew that we had reached the point our hearts were unable reconcile, I touched her lips to mine and we set fire to the logic that we had spent so much effort building.

If I had chosen option A, would I be at point B? Where would I be and who would I be speaking to if I hadn’t booked the cheapest one way flight to Mongolia for a random date in July? Did going for haircut earlier that day shift my timeline, allowing paths to cross? One could get lost in the decision trees of ‘what ifs’ that lead to certain points in time, a network of vastly divergent roads that stretch into the distant past that might briefly converge with the roads taken by others despite each centimeter being constructed on a choice taken or not taken.

By this point in the evening the sun has slid almost out of site with only the upper top of the fiery disc peeking over the city buildings. The sky above takes on an indigo hue broken up by a handful of lazy clouds and the night air envelops the city with a slight chill made all the more apparent by the day’s oppressive heat. My thoughts wander back to the last ten days I had spent in Central and Northern Mongolia, in search of vast empty spaces and questions.

***
Terkhiin Tsagaan Lake

Sweat rolls off of the tip of my nose despite the early morning breeze. My feet are elevated on a boulder, with my hands spread chest wide on another rock and my body suspended in the open air between, pumping out push ups to the view of yak herds grazing the verdant hills below and red beaks circling the skies high above. 

Terkhiin Tsagaan Lake stretches out before me, an unstoppable wall of mist rolling across the dark waters and gers that dot the coast. It’s hard to imagine any other gym in the world comparing to this one.

Terkhiin Tsagaan Lake, Mongolia

After four days in Northern Mongolia with my new group of Rachel, Jesus and Jenni, this moment of silence belongs to me alone. Structured thoughts are hammered away in repetitions of pain, diffused in heat and sweat. Problems of the flesh replacing problems of the mind, which are easily solved. Thoughts appear and are lost just as suddenly in ephemeral bursts of effort.

This is one of my favorite places in Mongolia. My place of solitude that I make excuses to visit so that I can stare pensively out at the emerald paradise. Rocky outcroppings dot the hills as if they were castles retreating inwards against the encroaching army of relentless vegetation. Its abundance stands in stark contrast to the scarcity of the Gobi Desert, both equally stunning in their own ways.

I lose track of time, pushing my body through squats and bent over rows using granite rocks that nearly slip from trembling fingers. It’s my first proper workout in over three weeks and I feel like a starving man lost at sea that has drifted into an island run by McDonald’s. I embody the rawness of the elements that surround me on all sides, a feral beast that has joined the ranks of the wild before me. This is my preferred therapy for all its mindless repetitiveness; a way to shut out the world of responsibilities and tasks. Somehow even in the middle of Mongolia those trappings exist for me here, albeit ones of my own design. Instead of typing away at my work computer I’m constantly scribbling down ideas for my website and shooting footage for video clips. It’s self created work that is a therapy unto itself, yet work nonetheless.

I’m finished. Covered in sweat, breathing hard to the serenity and calm surrounding me, waves lapping gently below punctuating the calm and somehow making the silence even more absolute. The wind surrounds me in cushions of the finest silk, breathing new life into my stiff limbs and muscles that seem to have atrophied in just three weeks.

Terkhiin Tsagaan Lake, later that night

It’s the middle of the night when hysterical laughter and cries break the night silence, waking me from my catatonic state. I roll over to try and shut it out, only to doze off for what feels like a few seconds before a piercing scream rings through the air, followed by a cacophony of harsh voices shouting in Mongolian. I pop up to find Rachel and Jesus already getting ready to head outside.

Jenni is missing.

I follow them into the pitch black abyss, our flashlights slicing through the black. We can see the silhouettes of a large group fighting a hundred meters away at the edge of the ger camp, voices pitched and grunts of a physical struggle apparent. I can hear the thumps of fists being thrown in anger and accompanying cries of pain, all punctuated by the single voice of a screeching banshee from the myths of Irish mythology that was responsible for waking us from our slumber. It’s impossible to guess how many people are involved in this fracas that has turned my quiet lakeside paradise into an unexpected and unwelcome hurricane of violence. It would appear that the Mongolian warrior culture is very much alive.

Rachel and Jesus head to the nearby beach to look for our wandering compatriot Jenni, while I opt to take a position outside of the ger to make sure no one gets in and in case Jenni wanders back. I think about finding my guide and good friend Bilgunn, but that would mean wandering through a sea of violence and leaving our ger unattended. Several other ger doors are tentatively opened with most being closed just as quickly. It would appear that those are the smart ones. The night darkness, unfamiliar words of violence and knowledge of being stuck in the middle of nowhere are profoundly unnerving.

Earlier in the morning my feeling of solitude in this vast, empty space felt like it was my best friend and now that same isolation had become my enemy.

This is possibly the first time in Mongolia that I’ve missed home. Yet, a part of me is aware that this could simply be an unrealistic expectation of the tranquility I’ve come to know imprinted on a country that has its own problems, just like anywhere else.

Jesus and Rachel show up with Jenni in tow after fifteen excruciatingly long minutes. We quickly move back into the ger and lock it, adrenaline draining out of us and the wood burning stove burning away any lingering remnants of fear. By this point our attitude towards the incessant shrieking has shifted from alarming to annoying, with our patience withering in step. In his usual charm Jesus jokes that maybe this was all an elaborate show for us tourists. Life imitating art indeed. The police finally arrive an hour later, the yells subsiding and one final piercing scream of defiance shut out by the closing of a police truck door, my quiet paradise returned to the equilibrium nature had intended before human interlopers had ever stepped foot on this land. Silence has never been so sweet.

***
Somewhere near the Uran Togoo Crater

It’s our second last dinner together and we’ve run the gauntlet of discussion points, from finding fulfillment in our careers to past loves and heartbreak. We move outside with our pink plastic cups filled with unpronounceable Mongolian vodka that has quickly become our drink of choice. The sun is setting a pink fire to the sky in its last breath before moving to the next life, with the vodka setting fire to our souls. An armada of clouds elongate from massive motherships into smaller drop ships, drifting away every few minutes I look up from my cup. I have the mundane realization that sunsets are free and there every day for the taking.

Sunset over Uran TogooThe ambiance creates the perfect environment for me to reflect on my time here. Almost a month has passed and I’ve met a multitude of new faces and exchanged innumerable stories. There are too many people to mention that have touched my heart these past few weeks. Summarizing in a paragraph wouldn’t do them justice, and besides they know who they are if they’re reading this. I’ve made friends, a handful that I will encounter on my travels over the next eight months and the majority I’m likely to never see again.

The discomfort is a familiar face, yet so is the appreciation that I could fit seamlessly into peoples lives, breaking bread and sharing drink, giving trust and accepting it as easily as if it were a currency within our limitless bank account of friendship.

This is the traveller’s way. The trade off is quality and quantity with like minded wanderers for brief, intense periods. They leave a yawning gap once gone, yet it’s one filled with memories of precious shared experiences.

As for Mongolia itself, it has been an active teacher in its limitless boundaries and unmatched beauty. This land belongs to the yaks, goats, eagles, vultures and gazelles that are more commonplace than humanity. Just having to watch for animal waste at every step in the middle of nowhere is proof enough. The elements have reduced me to my base properties and forced a harder, harsher look at my psyche, changing my reality and adjusting my perspective through a series of unending challenges that I would not experience at home.

I’ve come to appreciate the virtues of a simple nomadic life. Even they cannot master nature in this place, but they can adapt to the rigors, using the communal open space of earth and sky to create a paradise built on pillars of rustic simplicity and strong familial values. Vast distances create a warm hospitality and reliance on strangers, with assistance commonly offered without a second thought. Waste is limited and maximum function is gained from finite resources; slaughtering a goat is not a matter taken lightly, yet unlike most communities in the West Mongolians have a use for everything. Ostentation is limited to nationalistic prints dotting ger walls, with beds, kitchen, table, wood burning stove, closets and horse tack all fitting within their abodes. Their austere nature not a sign of poverty or wanting, and is instead a focus on resilience and modesty that they hold up as a badge of honor.

Time will not fundamentally change this for the nomadic family, for in its relentless power over the centuries it has already tried.

Ultimately I know that it’s not a life for me – I’m listening to Spotify as I write this and I intend on catching up on Game of Thrones as soon as I’m done. But as I sit here putting pen to paper and constructing a shell of a story through words that can never perfectly describe my experiences, I’m struck with the realization that at some point in the last few weeks I had stopped thinking of Canada as the final stop on my journey. My feet have become my home, taking me where my mind needs to be the most. There is no “getting back to reality.” This is the existence me and many others have chosen, and if we can figure out a way to do it forever than we will whether or not it’s socially acceptable to the masses. We are nomads in a manner all our own, shunning the comfortable for the exotic, the stable for the uncertain. And it’s with a heavy heart and bittersweet goodbye to Mongolia that I move on to my next adventure, leaving behind perfect sunsets, starry skies, vast empty spaces and true friendships.