From the @whatisKirbydoing Instagram: October 19, 2018 at 07:17AM

Thankful to have an awesome guide and good weather for a short #motorbike tour in central #Vietnam. Be sure to check out the blog this coming Monday for more about the journey. #HoiAn #Hue #Journey #Respect #Countryside #City #SEAsia #COS #RPCV #BlackMan #BlackMen #Travel
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The Story of War

What a story tells often depends on who is telling it. In the 1960s and 1970s, a war was being fought in Vietnam. There were disagreements about which groups and ideologies would rule the country. I’d always known this event as the Vietnam War.

In Ho Chi Minh City, there’s a museum documenting the event. At the War Remnants Museum (and around Vietnam), the event is known as the War of American Aggression. War era aircraft and artillery are on display at the museum. This is in addition to other artifacts, pictures, and stories. One display shows the service medals of a U.S. soldier, who donated them to the museum and apologized for his role in the war. Two exhibits stood out to me. One featured the photographs from various photojournalists who documented the war, and captured the day-to-day essence of the happenings on the ground. The other exhibit featured the effects of Agent Orange on the Vietnamese people during and long after the war.

Here are two of the pictures I snapped on my visit to the museum. The first is named “Mother”, and was made from bomb fragments. The second is of one of an aircraft in the courtyard of the museum.

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.

From the @whatisKirbydoing Instagram: October 16, 2018 at 05:07AM

Currently in Dalat, a city in the hills of #Vietnam. I’ve heard it referred to as the #CityOfFlowers. They export many flowers to neighbouring countries. The city is quite lovely, and the flowers are simply beautiful. #COS #COSTrip #SEAsia #Asia #Fun #Nature #Beauty #MakeYourOwnScreensaver #Love #Appreciation

Monday in a Picture – Koh Rong Sanloem

I had never associated Cambodia with islands and beaches. In southeast Asia, I had heard phenomenal things about the island beaches in Thailand and the Philippines. I forget who made the suggestion, but someone offered that I could find a piece of island beach paradise in Cambodia on Koh Rong or Koh Rong Sanloem.

I chose to head to Koh Rong Sanloem, the smaller of the two. I’m not sure how many people live on the island, but there is a village community on the northern tip of the island called M’Pai Bay. The community mostly consists of Khmer families, guesthouses, basic shops, and restaurants. The island doesn’t have any cars, but motorbikes are present. The motorbikes aren’t used nearly as much as they are on mainland Cambodia. Moving around the island is typically done on foot (If it’s close enough and there’s a path) or by boat. The interior of the island is dense jungle. I attempted to walk through the jungle on a path to another beach. While I made it to the other beach, it was a bit more of a hike than I was prepared for. The beach, pictured above, was definitely worth it. Of course, I got lost on the way back. Thankfully I found my way before sunset. For reference (if you ever want to go), I took this picture at Clearwater Bay on Koh Rong Sanloem.

One of the biggest attractions of the island, aside from its clear water and beautiful beaches, is the bio-luminescent plankton that can be seen just off the shore at night. In waist deep water, I could briefly see the shimmering light of plankton. As I walked in deeper and disturbed the water even more, I saw more plankton. Moving my hands underwater provided quite a show. It felt like I had figured out to do magic. It felt like I was a deity showing off my powers. This easily kept me entertained for the better part of 40 minutes. For those who may be wondering, it wasn’t possible for me to take pictures of this happening. It is truly something that you must experience in person.

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.

Monday in a Picture – Mondulkiri Project

Shortly after arriving in Cambodia, I was in a hostel in Phnom Penh talking with PCV who is currently serving here. We talked about our experiences in Peace Corps and life. I asked the Cambodia PCV for recommendations on things to do while here. He spoke very highly of the Mondulkiri Project in northeast Cambodia. The project has an elephant sanctuary for rescued elephants, and offers jungle trekking in addition to visits to the sanctuary to feed and bathe the elephants.

My interest was piqued. I read more about the project, and knew that I wanted to go. The project is home to five elephants. At least one was formerly used for elephant rides in Angkor Wat. Another was used for hauling logs from the jungle. Another was abused by her caretaker. The project also employs Bunong people, who live in the local community where the jungles and forests are.

The 18 kilometer trek started at the tour guide’s homestead just before 9 am. The views from the trek were quite awesome. Apparently, it’s the end of rainy season so the mosquitoes were minimal, but jungle floor was very slippery. This was especially true on inclines and declines. I lost my footing a few times and was invited to promptly sit down on the jungle floor. The trek included swimming in a river at a waterfall right before lunch. During the after lunch trekking, the rain started. Although it started as a light drizzle, it progressed into heavier rain. The jungle floor became even more slippery. We finally reached our destination: the Jungle Lodge. They had hammocks with blankets set up for us. They also served dinner, which included bamboo soup (made in real bamboo), breakfast, and lunch the next day.

The second day was all about the elephants in the sanctuary. We went down to the sanctuary with many bananas. We were able to feed the elephants in the jungle sanctuary. Once the elephants saw that we had the bananas, the gentle giants approached and took the fruit from our respective hands. Some elephants allowed us to remain close while others walked away to munch on some young bamboo. In the afternoon, we were able to swim with and bathe the elephants in the river. After a full two days of activity, I was tired and sore. I’m super thankful for the hot shower and delicious food I had back in town. The above picture is of me admiring the view at the beginning of the trek, when I was still dirt-free.

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.

P.S. – Here go two more really cool pictures. The first is of a leaf that apparently ran out of chlorophyll. The second is of an elephant munching

S21 and the Killing Fields

Trigger Warning: The following post discusses the violence perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Some pictures are included at the end of the post.

I can’t remember when I first learned of the Khmer Rouge. I do remember several people telling me that I had to visit the genocide museum and the killing fields when I got to Cambodia. One guy suggested that visit the museum first to better understand the killing fields. I followed his advice.

Mixed into the capital city of Phnom Penh is what is now the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, also called S21. The site was originally a school until the Khmer Rouge turned it into one of their prisons in an effort to cleanse and rebuild Cambodia. All intellectuals and professionals were arrested. Even people with glasses were arrested. People who were suspected of not being loyal to the leader of the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot, were arrested. Anyone and everyone was at risk of being arrested. They were then interrogated and tortured. It was suspected that the prisoners had ties to, or were assisting, the CIA or the KGB. After it was determined that they had no more useful information, they were killed.

At the museum, there are artifacts from when the facility was used as a prison. Some metal beds still have the shackles used to restrain prisoners. Next to the bed is a munitions box that was given to be used as a toilet. There are also pictures in some of the rooms from when they discovered the prison. They are pretty graphic. At some buildings, they put up barbed wire fencing to prevent prisoners from jumping to commit suicide. The regime wanted to maintain total control. They also had the practice of killing entire families, including children. The rationale was that they didn’t want anyone from that family to come back seeking revenge.

When S21 ran out of space to bury prisoners, they began taking prisoners outside of the city to kill them and bury them in mass graves. Because bullets were so expensive, they stopped using them and killed with whatever tools they had. Executions were conducted on the edge of the mass grave so that the prisoner could fall in. The regime sprayed toxic chemicals on the recently deceased to mask the smell and to kill anyone who wasn’t dead yet. There’s a tree close to the centre of the killing fields known as the killing tree. It was used to smash babies until they died. Although the regime was ousted in 1979, there are still bones and bone fragments being unearthed due to rain and shifting soil.

At both sites, they have some of the skulls of the deceased on display. Some have cracks or bullet holes. Some are missing portions. They also have various torture devices on display at the genocide museum. They are both really somber places. One point that stuck with me is that Cambodia lost about a quarter of its population during the Khmer Rouge regime. From eight million people, that’s two million gone. And it’s not ancient history. This was 40 years ago. That’s extremely sobering. Another fact that blew my mind: S21 and the killing fields are part of a much larger network. In other words, there were prisons all over Cambodia and there still are mass grave sites all over the country. Not all of the mass graves have been uncovered because of unknown locations or inaccessibility.

If you ever have the opportunity to go to these sites, definitely go (if it’s line with being kind to yourself).

Here are some pictures from both sites.

The munitions box. To be used by the prisoners as a toilet.

One of the remaining headstones from the cemetery before it became the killing fields.

The killing tree. There’s a mass grave to the right of the tree.

One of the skulls on display at S21.

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.

Monday in a Picture – Pasar Malam

Some weeks ago, I started looking for my next destination. After lots of internal dialogue and price checking, I settled on Cambodia. Phnom Penh, to be exact. One of the things that I’ve grown fond of is extended layovers. Especially in places where visas are free. On the way to Cambodia, I was so fortunate.

Flying from Chennai, I had to connect in Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia). When I booked the flight, I started looking for things to do in the city to take advantage of my fifteen hour layover. I found that Malaysia was known for having really good food. I also learned that Kuala Lumpur has a plethora of pasar malams, or night markets, filled with the aforementioned really good food. I had to go.

This blog post helped me figure things out. After landing, I went to the city centre to check out the Petronas Twin Towers and walk around. By early evening, I was ready to let my tastebuds explore. I made my way over to the Taman Connaught night market. It’s massive. Like seriously massive. Like “go with friends and pace yourself with a bite of this and a taste of that because you’ll be overwhelmed with deliciousness” massive. There was a lot of pork, with a smattering of poultry. There were all different kinds of fruit (available whole, in pieces, juiced, and sometimes smoothied). With some dishes, noodles or rice played a prominent role. In many dishes, eggs featured generously. While most stalls had menu boards or signs in English, some did not. It’s an excellent opportunity to see if your eyes can figure out what your tastebuds desire. There were also stalls selling clothing, cell phone accessories, and other things.

After two hours of walking through the stalls, I decided to call it quits. I had been gluttonous enough. I had eaten to my heart’s content. I was ready for a corner and a nap. If you ever have the opportunity to visit (and eat) at any of the night markets in Kuala Lumpur, do it! But pace yourself. For the market is mighty, and the stomach is small. The picture above is of one of the stalls serving salted egg things.

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.

P.S. – here’s a picture of me about to dig into something called salted egg chicken. It was pretty delicious.

Time Has Been Going For a Very Long…Time (alternative name: Kirby visits Hampi)

Months ago after I had decided to begin my close of service (COS) trip in India, several people echoed similar advice. “Don’t drink the water; take it easy on the food; prepare for high stimulation of all senses”. While I have kept those tidbits in mind, another suggestion continued to be mentioned by different people rather sporadically. “Be sure to visit Hampi.” Even after arriving in India, an array of people have suggested that I go to Hampi. Others were excited when I mentioned that I was planning to go. One traveler I met remarked that I had to go to Hampi because it was “like something out of the Flintstones”. I only vaguely understood the reference.

Last week, I made it to Hampi. As others warned me, it’s a stark contrast to the India that many tourists/travelers/backpackers see. It’s not the booming metropolis that it was centuries ago, but it’s known for being an ancient kingdom with numerous temples. It’s also much more quiet than the larger cities around India.

As I went out for a bike ride and hike one morning, I couldn’t help but to think of Petra, the ancient kingdom in Jordan. The ancient architecture. The massiveness. The history. The large rock formations gave me thoughts of the Grand Canyon. I’m not a history buff. Not even close. However, I can appreciate things of historical significance. It also amazes me how the story of these places passes down throughout generations.

If you ever find yourself in close or even close-ish proximity to Hampi, check it out. It’s also less expensive than visiting Petra. Of course, if you find yourself in close or close-ish proximity to Wadi Musa, check out Petra. The feel is different in the cities, as well. This may be because Petra is a massive, self-contained historical site whereas Hampi is a city with a vast array of historical sites spread throughout it. I should note that Hampi is still of importance to Hindus, as Virupaksha Temple still functions as a temple.

In case you missed the photos on the @whatisKirbydoing instagram (due to technical difficulties), they are here!

By contrast, here are some photos from my visit to Petra in 2014.

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.

Monday in a Picture – Dosa

Recently, I’ve been checking out the south Indian state of Karnataka. Originally, I was planning to go directly from Goa to Hampi (in Karnataka). A lack of planning and information on my part led to that not happening. Commence an overnight bus to Bangalore, a day train to Mysore, and an overnight train to Hampi. Of course, I took time to explore each place. When talking to various folks, everyone kept saying that I must try a dosa.

I had no idea what a dosa was. Some explained it as being like a crepe. Others didn’t explain it, and just described it as delicious. I have found both of these things to be true. Dosas are usually eaten as breakfast, or as a late afternoon/evening snack. There are different types of dosas. There’s the plain dosa, which is served without any filling or special seasoning. Then, there’s the masala dosa which is filled with some potato or veggie mixture. It also usually has some kind of seasoning mixture sprinkled on it. There’s also an onion dosa, which has chopped onion added during cooking before the batter has become bread. The onion dosa doesn’t have a filling. In addition to these, I’ve also had a something called a special masala dosa, which had a potato filling with extra seasoning. It was also nicely folded into a triangle. All dosas are served with some kind of saucy puree. I’m sure that there are other types of dosa as well, but I haven’t tried those (yet).

While I’ve had my share of dosas over the past week, I have to say that my favorite was a masala dosa that I had in Mysore at Hotel Mylari. It was fluffy, like a pancake, and they didn’t skimp on the butter. It was simply delicious. I ordered two, one after the other, and was contemplating a third when I realized that I was being gluttonous. The picture above is of a masala dosa I had on V.V. Puram food street in Bangalore.

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.

Monday in a Picture – Vipassana

1st September 2018 – Quick Thoughts Before the Course

I have made it to the meditation centre. It’s located in a village in Goa. Upon arrival, I was directed to a space where lunch was being served. Lunch was a delicious veggie thali, with refills! The more and more I sit here waiting for registration, the more nervous I become. What have I signed myself up for? Why did I sign up? I’ve never done meditation. What even is meditation really? How will I make it these ten days? After lunch, I spoke with a man who introduced himself. He’s done the vipassana course twice already. He’s back for a third time. His only advice: “don’t quit/leave/give up”. This is the advice that I’ve heard echoed in blogs and other online forums about the course.

12th September 2018 – The Aftermath

So I just finished the ten day Vipassana meditation course. I had no prior experience meditating. I learned of ashrams earlier this year, and after talking to folks and reading various material, my interest was piqued. Why not try it? At best, I’m a better, changed person. At worst, I lose ten days of my life and whatever financial investment is involved. After searching the internets looking for places to do silent meditation courses in India, I came across this site.

I had no idea what Vipassana was. I briefly read some material, and started applying to do a course. The base course is ten days (you arrive on day 0, and leave on day 11 for a total of twelve days). I learned that the course was donation based. All I had to do was be accepted and actually show up. A course in Goa accepted me. I reluctantly showed up. Wild thoughts second guessing myself ran rampant. I kept reminding myself that if I can do Peace Corps, I can do anything.

When checking in, I had to submit my passport and other valuables for safe keeping. Everyone is also asked to submit their mobile phones, reading and writing material, religious items and any intoxicant. I everything was locked away for safe keeping and I was given a room number. No key. Just a room number. I go to the room. My roommate is already there. It’s a basic room. Two twin beds with sleeping pads and linen. A ceiling fan. A wash room (sectioned off by a curtain) with a sink, and separated squat toilet and shower.

I greet my roommate. For the next ten days, we won’t allowed to communicate with each other. During the course, participants are asked to maintain complete silence. No talking. No gestures. No glances. This is especially true for other meditation students. You are allowed to talk to the meditation teacher. Students are also asked to observe other guidelines including no lying, no stealing, no physical contact, no intoxicants, and no sexual activity.

After a light dinner, we’re shown an introductory video in English and Hindi (the languages this course will be taught in). Afterwards, we are separated by gender and assigned a cushion in the meditation hall. Using separate entrances, men and women are seated on opposite sides of the hall. We sat in silence for a while before the assistant teacher played chanting over loud speakers. We went to bed around 2100.

The first day (and every day thereafter) started around 0400 with a morning wake up bell. Meditation started promptly in the hall at 0430, and lasted until 0630. Breakfast was served from 0630 until 0715. We were given a “break” until 0800 to rest and bathe. The first official sitting of the day was from 0800-0900. Afterwards we’d get a short break before continuing to practice meditation until 1100. Lunch (usually a delicious veggie thali) was served until 1145. After lunch, we had a break until 1300 when we would resume practice. The next official sitting was from 1430-1530, followed by another short break. Following this break, there was more practice until 1700. This is when a snack (of a popcorn/peanut mixture and fruit) was served until 1730. There was another break until 1800, which was the last official sitting of the day until 1900. At this time, we split into groups (for language purposes) groups for the day’s discourse via video from S.N Goenka. The discourses typically lasted about an hour, after which there was another short break. Lastly, we’d come back together to practice until 2100. I typically went to bed at this point, but lights out wasn’t until 2130 with the teacher staying behind to answer personal questions about meditation and practice.

The first three days of meditation were doing using a technique called Anapana, during which the mediator observes their own natural breath as it is. While it sounded straightforward and simple at first, I often found my mind wandering. Bring it back. It goes off again. This process was, and still is, continuous. On the fourth day, the technique of Vipassana is introduced. The technique asks the mediator to focus on their own body’s sensations experienced as they are.

It’s difficult for me to explain. The purpose of all of this, as explained by Goenka, is to free oneself from the cycle of misery in life. Misery comes from craving and abhortion. Something pleasurable in life, but can’t have it now? Most of us crave it. Something unpalatable in life, but can’t stop it now? Most of us abhor it. The technique is meant to relieve one of their own craving and abhortion, and ultimately their own misery. This is supposed to lead to enlightenment, which is what Bhudda reached after he did Vipassana 2500 years ago.

As honest as I’m willing to be in a public forum within my own integrity, it was extremely hard. My mind wandered to many places. My childhood. College. Younger adulthood. My teenage years. Other places I won’t discuss. I realized some of things leading to my own misery/unhappiness/displeasure/whatever. That craving. Whew! The craving. I’m a meat eater. All meals served were strictly vegetarian. I didn’t crave meat as much as I thought I would. One day, I thought about how nice it would be to have a piece of fried chicken. The thought dissipated rather quickly. During the post lunch break on several days, I laid in my bed and thought about how much better things would be if I just had my cell phone. Then I just wanted to listen to some music. I just wanted to read the newspaper. Mind you, I rarely (almost never) seek out newspapers. I just wanted to shake someone’s hand, pat someone’s back, or hug someone. This doesn’t even get into the physical pain of sitting on the ground cross legged trying to stay still for an hour. There were many times that I had to remind myself: progress, not perfection. I understand the technique. I found benefit in the practice. Even absent of benefit from the actual technique, I found tremendous value in being with myself, in silence for ten days. There were definitely things that had been suppressed. I’m trying, even as I write this, to not intellectualize this as I’ve find myself doing with many things. Intellectual thought and theory is great for some things. It’s totally useless in others. Practical things need practice. The plan is to do that.

If you’re interested in taking the course yourself (or learning more), you can search for centres and courses near you. The courses are donation based, so no financial contribution is required or expected. But there is work to be done.

The picture is of the empty meditation hall. It was about 0415, so I guess it can be considered the calm before the other calms.

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.