Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Day 121

 To my community,

I landed this morning in Jaipur, India, an ancient desert city in the state of Rajasthan. In the Mumbai airport I spoke with an Indian woman about meditation and she told me about her practice with chakra spirituality, and then all of a sudden said that she knew I had been in India in a past life. I smiled such a big smile, this meant a lot to me and I took it as a good omen. That being said, I got out of the cab to walk around the Old City and I'm not sure I've ever felt so overwhelmed (and many of you know how much I hate to use that word). I wanted so badly to cry, I just followed these two women through the puzzling alleys so that I wouldn't feel alone. But then I found an internet cafe which is great because I can send you guys one last email before I embark on my last journey, and the reason I came to India.
For the next ten days I'll be participating in a Vipassana meditation course, which is a style of meditation that was used by the Buddha to reach enlightenment, yet is secular - completely non religious. During the course I won't be allowed to communicate with anyone other than the teachers, eat anything other than the two meals they serve, read books, write in my journal, practice yoga, listen to music, and so on. It's a strict schedule with strict rules, but it is all in the hopes that the participant will learn to sit with his or herself, observe the mind without any distractions, and cultivate all the lovingkindess within that's just waiting to be discovered. I know it will be a big challenge, but I also know it will reap the most beautiful rewards. And one of my goals for these ten days is to develop some sort of closure with this year, because I want to be able to fly home feeling at peace with all I've done and at peace with all that is to come. The past couple weeks I've grown so nervous to go home, more nervous than I ever thought I would be. I have no idea where I'll be next year, I have no idea what to expect, and it's hard to even picture myself back in school, especially after learning so many lessons this year just through human interaction and experience (rather than papers and finals). But I'm also nervous for this year to end. The world feels like my community, I feel a connection to even the people most different from me. So I think the transition will be a hard one, trying to reconcile and unite Los Angeles Emily with globe trekker warrior goddess Emily (but hey they live in the same body right?). And most importantly I don't want any of you to take my nervousness as I don't want to be with you, because I miss you all and think about you everyday and can't wait to see you. If it weren't for you guys (the greatest community in the universe) I don't think I would be going home! So maybe it'll be tough at first, but I'm reminding myself that this is only the beginning of my life's adventures, and I can't wait to share so many future adventures with you guys. Thank you for all of the endless love and support that you've given me this year, I am so grateful to each of you. And so this afternoon I'll begin the course!! If you want to read a little bit about what Vipassana really is (because it's hard for me to explain since I haven't actually done it yet), this link gives a really great explanation. It's a little long but I promise it's worth it-  http://www.dhamma.org/en/art.shtml

Wish me luck, I'll be thinking about you all and sending metta, lovingkindness. See you soon!!


Sunday, April 21, 2013

Day 118

About a week ago I said goodbye to the gibbons and took a ferry to a smaller Thai island called Koh Tao. Surrounded by thriving underwater wildlife and packed with countless scuba schools , Koh Tao is the ideal place to learn how to dive, and that's exactly what I did! The open water course is the first level of scuba diver certification and in four days it teaches all of the necessary knowledge about equipment, diving theory, and water skills that a diver could need. It's not too complicated of course, tons of people pass everyday without even the slightest problem. However, few people know this, but I've never felt like water is my element. Growing up I wasn't a very confident swimmer. I never even learned how to dive! And on top of this swimming history, I actually went scuba diving once on a family vacation to Hawaii when I was 13, and I was so nervous the whole time about the pressure in my ears and the breathing and so on that I used up all of my oxygen and had to float back to the shore on the water's surface while everybody else got to swim back and keep looking at sea turtles.
So going into the course with some uneasiness made the lessons that were simple for other people a little more of a struggle for me. Firstly, breathing through your mouth into a weird tube while underwater is very bizarre and takes a long time to get used to. Secondly, due to this unnatural breathing (and my nerves) my mind would get confused between breathing through my mouth and my nose and I would end up choking on water for a second. This got especially pesky when we learned a few skills involving flooding the mask full of water and clearing it underwater by blowing out through the nose. It sounds straight forward, but time and time again I got frazzled and inhaled water instead of oxygen. Feeling unsure and uncomfortable in the water (the first day we only practiced in a pool mind you) I was on the verge of tears. My instructor calmed me down, got me to breathe, and all of a sudden something in my mind clicked. The sport of scuba diving revolves completely around the breath, and as a yogi, the breath is my specialty! One of the greatest lessons yoga has taught me is to always breathe through challenge. If I'm in a difficult pose on the mat, I just have to breathe through it and I'll be alright! And when I'm underwater and faced with an obstacle like a mask full of water, all I have to do is keep breathing and it'll be over before I know it. And so it's the same with any challenge in life!! Thus, in a desperate attempt to stay calm, I focused my entire mind and being on my breath, and it worked! But, of course, I didn't turn into a star swimmer overnight with this new realization. On the boat the next afternoon, I was close to marching up to the instructor and saying, "You're crazy if you think I can do any of this!!" But I gave myself a chance, got in the water, and as soon as I saw the bright corals and shimmering fish, my nerves subsided and I felt the most overwhelming joy. It's a whole new world under there!! So we just swam and breathed and swam and breathed and I felt at peace. Everything moves so slowly under water that it's hard to feel stressed, even if you wanted to. Of course the time came to practice the mask clearing skills on the ocean floor. I freaked out my breathing for a quick second, but I slowed down, caught my breath, cleared the mask and was completely fine, back in tune with my breath, the pulse of life. Four insanely beautiful dives later I became a certified open water diver, and I was really sad when the course was finished. Swimming through huge corals with anemones flowing in the current and iridescent fish nipping at my ears, I felt like I was on another planet, and what a blessing that scuba diving allows you to explore this new universe!! And did you know that scientists know and understand more about the moon than the ocean? How wild! So I'm feeling grateful for the opportunities diving has given me to explore that mysterious world. And I'm also feeling so proud of myself!! There really was a minute there when I thought I wouldn't finish the course, so the fact that I stuck with it and faced some of my weird water fears reminds me that I'm a strong and courageous warrior goddess even when I struggle with a challenge a little. So cheers to diving and to this beautiful little island! And now on to the final stretch of this long and wondrous journey. I'm India bound!

Friday, April 12, 2013

Day 109

For my day off today I went to Koh Yao Noi, a tiny little island just an hour or so boat ride from Phuket, and went rock climbing!! I had found this climbing shop when I went to the island for my first day off a few weeks ago, so I thought it would be a groovy idea to try and go if I got the chance. When I woke up this morning I wasn't necessarily expecting myself to follow through with the plan. For some reason I was expecting there to be all sorts of obstacles that would prevent me from ever getting there (or maybe that's what my subconscious was hoping), but of course it ended up being very easy and I made it there just after ten am, where I met my climbing guide, a Thai guy with dread locks name Dut. He sorted out all of our gear and prepared a blow up little speedy boat and we were off. "Well I guess I'm doin it!" I thought. Though I had a serious passion for bouldering for a few months last year (as some of you may remember), I haven't kept up the practice so I was utterly terrified. Not to mention I had never climbed outdoors before, so I couldn't even begin to imagine what it would be like or feel like. We pulled up to a little island with a huge red and brown bare rock wall, and I knew this must be it. I got off the boat and climbed up a rickety ladder to a ledge of land before the wall and gazed straight up, trying to visualize my body, my being, hanging off those rocks. Dut met me on the ledge and we sat to organize the carabeaners and cut a pineapple, to be had as a snack between climbing. We talked about the island, gibbons, his climbing history, and finally it was time to begin. He taught me how to belay so that he could climb and set up the rope, and then it was my turn. From the first step I knew it would be hard. I climbed, searching for the holds, touching all of the coral-like rock formations trying to feel for something dependable. Slowly but surely I made it up, with Dut guiding me when I couldn't figure out where to place my nervous limbs. Man it was just so hard! But all the greater the reward. As I bounced down the wall I turned my head to look out at the view from high up over the ocean, it was so unbelievably beautiful, and I felt so good!!!! We ate pineapple and hung out while I rested before trying a new route. My arms were already exhausted so I didn't make it all the way up but I still felt proud of my body and mind for making it as high as I did, certainly higher than I had ever climbed before! After climbing, Dut drove the boat to see some lagoons and rocks and we went swimming in the clear blue sea (the water felt so good after pulling my body up that wall!). So in the end it was a really great day. I am so insanely grateful that I made it to the climbing shop instead of chickening out. I think (and I hope) that I remember this day for a long long time.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Day 102

I'm exactly where I'm supposed to be.

Having the world in my hands this semester has been the greatest blessing, but such opportunity has also come with challenges. All decisions regarding where to go and what to do have been up to me, and that's a remarkable amount of freedom for a twenty year old. As awesome as it has been to get to plan my path, I've realized that such freedom has made it very hard at times to find contentedness in situations that aren't absolutely perfect (because after all everything was up to me, so if it wasn't perfect it was my mistake). So when I wasn't groovin with the European vibe, I thought, "Maybe I should have gone straight to Thailand," and then when Bangkok was kinda weird I thought, "Maybe I should have just stayed in Israel!" Perhaps the grass will always be greener on the other side, but Aretha Franklin told me otherwise. I was listening to the Soul Queen's rendition of "Let It Be" last night and heard her saying, "Emily, you gotta let it be! Stop second guessing your decisions because everything will work out exactly as its supposed to!" So I'm lettin it be. I thought back to the farm in Holland and the Kibbutz and Cambodia and all these places I've been and all I can feel is gratitude. Of course I've been challenged, isn't that what I wanted??
So here I am in a small Muslim village on the largest Thai island, Phuket, volunteering with the Gibbon Rehabilitation Project for four weeks. People keep asking if I'm studying zoology or if I'm just passionate about primates, and the answer to both is no. I wound up here because I've never worked with wild animals and probably never will later so hey I might as well try something new while I can! Coming in with this attitude, it was almost surprising to arrive a couple weeks ago and be surrounded by people ready to dedicate their lives to these animals. It would have been one thing if I had chosen a really cute and sweet animal, but gibbons are dangerously aggressive (they have huge canine teeth and long arms that can reach through the cage and grab you when you least expect it). So after getting my hair yanked a couple times, the thought that my first few days were nerve racking is an understatement. I looked at the other volunteers and wished I could feel as excited about the gibbons as they do. I had yet another moment of doubt, maybe I made a mistake coming here, maybe it wasn't too late to leave, but what else would I do? Anxious and confused, I eventually realized it would be crazy to leave my complete judgement on those first couple days. I decided to do a little yoga in hopes of calming down, coming back to my breath, and connecting with my body. As soon as I stepped on that old, dirt-stained, beautiful blue yoga mat I felt as if I had gone home. It's a bit bulky but my yoga mat has come with me everywhere, and though I haven't maintained a regular practice, I feel like yoga is as big of a part of my life as ever, for the lessons it has taught me follow wherever I go and in all I do. I am so thankful for my practice!!!! A cool breeze of relief brushed over me as I flowed through my sun salutations (it was really just the fan that I had aimed in my direction but you know what I'm sayin). Everything is going to be alright. In fact, it'll be better than alright because I'm on this beautiful island with dense rainforests and sloping mountains all surrounded by the most insanely bright blue ocean! So hey even if I'm not preparing to sacrifice my life to animal science or feel an intense and passionate love for the gibbons, I'm getting the chance to experience a stunning slice of the world and meet interesting people, all while being involved in a really cool project!
So this is what The Gibbon Rehabilitation Project is all about. For decades, poachers have gone into the rainforests of Phuket and hunted gibbons to sell them into the tourist trade. Photographers use baby gibbons as photo props, charging tourists high sums to take photos with the animals. Firstly, this is a huge problem because gibbons are on the brink of extinction on Phuket all because of the wildlife trade. Secondly, it's illegal to keep a gibbon because of their endangered status, so any owner can receive up to 5 years in prison and huge fines. And thirdly, this is all a problem because gibbons are wild animals!! In the tourist center of Phuket, baby gibbons are kept by their owners in bird cages, with collars and all. They're fed a diet of potato chips and diet coke, and some who are kept at bars and clubs are even taught how to smoke cigarettes and drink alcohol in hopes that they will attract more tourists. How crazy is that! And to get the baby gibbons in the first place, poachers shoot down the mothers and fathers, hoping that the baby will also fall from the canopy to the ground, completely defenseless. Which means that for every baby gibbon in the tourist trade there are at least two gibbons dead. So the greatest goal of the project is to release gibbons back to the wild and repopulate the rainforest of Phuket. But of course, it's much more complicated than it seems. The rehabilitation process is pretty slow going, it takes an average of ten years for a gibbon to be released. This is because we only release gibbons in family groups, rather than as individuals. If we released them one at a time, they wouldn't develop a sense of territory and they would end up just fighting with other gibbons, whereas when they're released as a family they will develop a strong bond with their territory and protect it. And creating these gibbon families is what takes the greatest amount of time. Gibbons mate for life, meaning they choose one monogamous partner, and they're very picky about who that partner is. So our rehabilitation site of 35 gibbons is essentially a dating service. We match up male and female gibbons over and over again until they're finally happy and they have a baby, and then they can be released to the wild!!! I went to the rainforest last week to feed a family that was released in November and wow it was so neat to see them swinging through the canopy of bright green trees, just like they were born to do!! But unfortunately, not all of the gibbons we care for will have the opportunity to be released. After so much abuse in the tourist industry on the island, many gibbons come to the project with really serious psychological or physical disabilities that will prevent them from ever being able to survive on their own. Tam is one of our gibbons that will never be released. She's really sweet, but when she came to the project she had to have a hand and a foot amputated because her owner had smashed them with a rock. On the remaining hand she only has two fingers because another gibbon that her owner kept had bitten off the other three fingers. Some other gibbons come to us with psychological problems like self harming disorders, anorexia, and bulemia, all because of the stress they endured in the tourist industry. (It's weird how human like they are! Its as if they have post traumatic stress disorder!). So these gibbons will stay with the project, where at least they can be given all the attention they need. And thankfully, these gibbons are the minority. We've released six families into the wild successfully and we have 35 gibbons in rehab who will be released as soon as they have a family. And to top it all off we just had our first second generation baby born in the wild this year! So though it can seem like a slow going process, the Gibbon Rehabilitation Project is doing good things! And remember, do not pay to take photos with wild animals!!! (The new animal activist in me coming out).
Anyway, thank you for sticking with me through this wacky journey of mine. I'm sure I must sound crazy and confusing at times (and maybe I actually am crazy and confused!), but all the endless support that you've all given me has kept me going! So, truly, thank you so much for sending all your love as I discover what this world is all about! I cant wait to share with you all I've learned!!!