I thought I was done with Cambodia but got a reply from the Vipassana center in Battambang that they still had space available in their early July 10-day course; which I immediately took. So after a few days in Bangkok with my friends from LA, I returned to Cambodia and headed to Battambang.
I had heard of the Vipassana meditation technique from friends that I met in India and wanted to try it for myself. Vipassana is a word in Pali (Indian language used in most Buddhist scriptures); which means to see things as they really are, in their true nature. This is a technique rediscovered by Sidartha Gautama, (aka. Buddha) around 2,500 years ago; which led him to his own enlightenment. This technique consists of purifying the mind through the work of meditation. As explained by the teacher S.N. Goenka, it is the science of mind and matter, the understanding of how the mind influences the body and in turn how the body influences the mind.
My understanding of what I learned in the course…
Every experience in life comes to us as sensations, our conscious mind perceives these sensations as good or bad; which we turn into a craving or an aversion. The craving turns into a clinging, which turns into an attachment; which is then able to cause suffering. The cravings and aversions become the impurities of the mind; which keep it from being balanced and at peace. In Vipassana you learn the basic principle of the law of nature; which is impermanence. The understanding that everything (cravings and aversions) will come and pass away. If you understand this law well then you begin to accept that nothing is forever. What you perceive as good or bad, as pleasant or unpleasant, as pleasure or pain will come and go. This practice is about working at the root level of the mind and its connections to the body through these sensations. It is about learning to treat and accept all of the sensations with the same importance, not giving preference to one vs. the other, not clinging or attaching to any of them. In Vipassana we learn to purify the mind by applying the two principles of impermanence and equanimity. We learn to be the master of our own mind by teaching it to focus with precision on the individual parts of our body (one at a time) and observing whatever sensations we feel, without reacting to them. Simply observing them, not giving them any importance and understanding that whatever they are, they will pass. Once we rid the mind of all impurities we can gain liberation and freedom from all suffering.
Of course it takes A LOT of practice for most of us to reach this point. As Buddhists explain it, it may take many lifetimes. Some of us like me have a “monkey mind”; which constantly goes from thought to thought and reacts to everything that is happening internally and externally. Needless to say this practice during ten days kicked my butt, but that just means that I truly need it.
With the continued practice of the technique, we begin to master our minds and become aware of all sensations without reacting with a craving or aversion. The mind becomes more pure and becomes free of negativities. Once this happens we can begin to generate emotions of love, compassion, goodwill; which is obviously good for you and good for others. These new good emotions will be reflected in your dealings and interactions with the external world. You will begin to live a life of harmony and peace; which will spread to others around you. It may take a ton of work and practice to purify your mind and body and clean them of all previous fabricated mental dispositions, known as Saṅkhāras in Pali.
The very strict daily routine…
We followed a very strict discipline of complete silence during the first nine of the ten days. We had meditation practice for about 10 hours a day in one-hour intervals and 5-minute brakes in between. We began our days at 4:00 am and ended at 9:30 pm. The hardest part for me was not being able to share any of my experiences with anyone and hear about anyone else’s challenges. But this is in fact part of the training, to learn to quiet your mind, it is important to avoid being influenced or stimulated by dialogue with others. The only opportunity for talk was with the teacher who was ready to answer any questions during one hour after lunch and 30 minutes after the last meditation. I pretty much saw her everyday after lunch. In one of my interviews with her, I asked about LOVE and how we could avoid the attachment and suffering that comes with loving. She told me that both of these happen because we often fail to love with compassion. In order to avoid suffering, we must love others with COMPASSION; which means to give without expecting anything in return. If you love with the pure intent of having the other’s well being and happiness as priority, then you are not expecting to get anything for yourself. But when you love with compassion, chances are that others will love you back. 🙂
The fun part of the day…
The easiest and best part was listening to the teachings of the Vipassana teacher S.N. Goenka (pre-recorded on video). Goenka is a Burmese-Indian teacher who learned the practice in its purest form from his teacher in Myanmar and decided to bring it back to India. Thanks to him and the people that have learned from him, this practice is now available to all people in many countries around the world. Vipassana understandably is connected to many Buddhist principles but it is not attached to any religion, a sect or a cult, and it can be practiced by anyone. As explained by Goenka, Vipassana is scientific in character, it is the understanding of the relation of mind and matter. Goenka says “The Buddha never taught a sectarian religion; he taught Dhamma – the way to liberation — which is universal”.
Finding a little entertainment wherever I could…
We could not talk, read or use any electronics so I had to find other ways to entertain myself during the little free time that we were given after breakfast, lunch and dinner. The local wildlife made up of rats, lizards, toads and all types of insects provided a lot of amusement on a daily basis.
During the day we had times when we could choose to meditate in the comfort of our own room. I always took these opportunities to give some rest to my body. I was guilty of laying down on my bed at times and staring at the wall until I fell asleep. I stared at the lizards that walked up and down the walls looking for insects. One day I saw a baby rat trying to get through a hole in the netting that (ironically) kept our living quarters free of rodents. The rat tried to get through the hole but it just wasn’t strong enough to push itself through it. Then I saw momma rat take the baby by the neck, and off they went into a pipe. Really amazing! I guess you had to be there…
The things we fixate on when we have nothing better to do…
We had three very good meals a day made up of different types of vegetable curries, salads, tofu, noddles, and rice. Sometimes we had cookies and we got to try some incredible local desserts too. In the first days I noticed that the girl sitting next to me in the dining hall always had a packet of Nescafe 3 in 1. This is a mixture of instant coffee, powder milk and sugar in a small packet. They offered Nescafe instant coffee with breakfast but we had to mix our own with milk and sugar. The milk provided was soy (which I don’t like) and sweetened condensed milk. I started coming early to the dining hall thinking that a few of these packets were available on a first come-first serve basis, but that had only been the case for one day.
I started developing a ridiculous craving for these to the point where I wanted to offer the girl a US$5 bill for one of her packets. I was so jealous that she had these. I even resented the fact that she had broken the rules and had brought her own food into the dining hall; which we were not supposed to do. One day she even spilled a little bit of the contents of one packet on my left arm and didn’t even try to apologize by making any signs! how dare she?! So silly the things that occupy your mind when you are trying to quiet it. After the course I chatted with the girl, who is now my friend Tiffany. We had a good laugh over my silly story.
Coming out of silence…
The last day of the course we were able to break out of silence after 10:00 am. Talking again was very overwhelming for me. As much as I wanted to talk to others, it just didn’t go very well. I wanted to say so much but my words just didn’t make much sense. I was just blabbering non-stop. I actually got a pretty bad headache shortly after and my hands were shaky, as if I had had tons of caffeine.
It was great having that last day to connect with the other (foreign) girls as we could all speak English. We also had quite a few things in common as most of us were travelling long term. The Cambodian women seemed sweet and nice but not many of them could speak English. A lot of the local women in the course were nuns, it was incredible to see how they could sit and meditate for two hours in a row without even flinching. I met a really great group of ladies including some expats Vicky, Marina, and Ruth and others that were traveling around like me, Ruby, Tiffany, Emma, Maria, and Lucia. After the course almost all of us were heading back to town in Battambang so we hired a couple of tuk-tuk’s to go together. We celebrated our “freedom” by having some of our favorite foods in a couple of great restaurants in town. The next day I left early in the morning to take my bus back to Bangkok so that I could catch a flight to Laos the following day.
The test after the course on detachment…
After learning about attachment and the suffering it causes, I got the opportunity to learn a big lesson on the subject. I was robbed, and in a big way! I went to the offices of the transport company where I had bought my bus ticket to Bangkok- Virak Buntham Travels & Tours. When I arrived they told me that the bus was full so they had to hire an independent taxi to take me to the border and from there I would catch a van to Bangkok. For fourteen months now I have been traveling with a couple of bags, a big one with all of my clothes and a smaller one with all of my most precious valuables. As you can imagine, I never separate myself from the small bag. Well… The one time that I got comfortable and agreed to put it in the trunk of the car, it got stolen! It seems the taxi driver took it out and gave it to someone on one of two stops that he made within one hour of having picked me up.
So how did this happen if I was in the taxi?!!!
When the taxi arrived to the bus office it already had a passenger in the front and three people in the back- two adults and one child. They made me sit in the middle. Prior to boarding the taxi I had been in the bus office working on my laptop. There was a man in there that kept talking to me and saw that I had many things in my bag including a laptop. When the taxi arrived, he came out with me and insisted that I put my small backpack in the trunk because there wasn’t any room in the back and if I carried it on my lap, it would make for a very uncomfortable journey. The bag weighed 8 kilos and it was bulky so I listened to him. I am still beating myself up over my stupidity! I had never left this bag out of my site before…not even for a second!
About 10 minutes after being picked up the taxi driver stopped at a nearby bus station to pick up one more passenger. He got out to open the trunk but the girl had no bags. I didn’t think anything of it at the time but this is where my bag could have been taken out. About ten minutes later he stopped again and waited a few minutes. This is when I got a bit suspicious and wondered why he had stopped again if we couldn’t possibly fit one more person in the back. We were already five people crammed together. A man on a motorcycle pulled next to the taxi. I could see the front of his bike and his face from the side window but I could not see his entire bike. The driver proceeded to get out and I noticed that he had a plastic bag with fruit between his legs; which he took with him. He opened the trunk again and handed the plastic bag to the motorcycle man. I looked right away and only saw that the man had received the plastic bag and nothing else. This is another place where my bag could have been taken out. My guess is the driver put it on the ground where I could not see it and the motorcycle man took it after we left. This is when I should have gotten out of the car but I thought that I was being too paranoid. I am often told by other travelers that I worry too much about these things. About half an hour later we stopped again but this time the woman and the child were getting off. This was my chance to get out of the car and get my bag from the trunk. I got out right after the two passengers, the driver had already opened the trunk and I immediately noticed that my bag was missing. I asked the driver repeatedly where my bag was but he pretended to not know what I was talking about. He kept telling me that we had to go to the border. I made it very clear to him that we were not going anywhere without my bags. He didn’t want to listen until I told him that I had my passport in there and I could not cross the border without it. My US passport was actually in a money-belt that I was wearing at the time (thank God!) but he didn’t need to know this. But it turns out that I was not lying as I remembered that my Colombian passport and my Colombian ID were inside the lost backpack.
The next part of the story is actually very long so I will just try to summarize the main points. I did not let the taxi driver leave my side until I made him take me to all of the stops he had made and finally to the police. The bus company that hired him did not want to help me at all, they told me that the bag was the driver’s responsibility and they had nothing to do with it. They only tried to cooperate a little bit when I came back to their office with the police so they could watch the security tapes. The police wanted to see that I had in fact been to the bus office and to see proof of at least my laptop and that I boarded the taxi; which they got. Thankfully I had worked on my laptop and it was all recorded on the security footage- when I was using it, when I put it back in my bag, and when I put the bag in the trunk of the taxi. Without this proof I don’t think the police would have paid any attention to me. They made the driver stick around and interrogated him but he said he had no recollection of the bag and that he had not taken it. The tourism police was very helpful but after asking their questions and making their report they turned the case over to the penal (criminal) police. They took me back to the hotel where I had stayed the previous night and luckily two of my friends from Vipassana, Ruth and Tiffany, were still there. They decided to stay another day in Battambang to accompany me to the police station the following day. To my surprise the tourism police arrived at the hotel early in the morning to take me to the station. After asking yet the same questions all over again they took us to the criminal police so that they could begin their own investigation. They did not speak English at all but luckily my friend Ruth was there as she speaks Khmer, their language and she worked in human rights and has a lot of experience in dealing with the police. It was obvious to us from the beginning that these guys were not going to do much for me. From the very start they made it clear that my stuff would not be found and they showed no interest in investigating the driver much. Whenever they seemed to get bored of the case they would just step away into another room to lay in a hamac or just turn on the soap-opera on their iPad, right in front of us. I wanted to pull my hair out!
After nine hours of answering the same questions over and over again to different police officers and their chiefs, they came to the conclusion that the driver should offer some kind of compensation to me. This however would not be done without some kind of a service fee (aka bribe!). My friend Ruth told them in a very delicate manner that we did not pay bribes. It seems that while they negotiated a compensation for me with the driver, they also negotiated their cut. At around 5:00 pm an offer was made and I accepted it right away. It was only a little over a third of the value of my stolen goods but I figured I would not get anymore. I decided to take the money and run! We had to come back the next day (for the third time) to get the police reports translated into English so that I could use them to get a new passport at the Colombian Embassy. That was another long ordeal… The police said they could not translate the documents and we had to use an official translator. Ruth had to go home but Tiffany stayed with me one more day. She asked one of the officers at the tourist police to come with us and express the urgency of the matter to the translation office. He took us on the back of his motorcycle, both of us, as it’s customary here in Cambodia. Oh so safe!
The translator was not available for another day and it would take him three days to complete the work. We asked the police officer to help us find someone else and he took us to a Buddhist temple where they had a Buddhist school. One of the teachers agreed to translate the documents for us in three hours. Later that afternoon we returned to the temple to get the documents and had the pleasure of speaking to one of the monks there. He gave us a couple of books to read on a well known monk Maha Ghosananda; which have actually helped me quite a bit since this incident happened.
Anyway, I lost a lot but nothing that can’t be replaced. I had a ton of stuff in that bag, my macbook pro, my gopro, my canon DSLR, my external drive, credit cards, my Colombian passport and US$300 in cash. I also had some souvenirs, and a rain jacket. What hurts the most is having lost four months worth of pictures from my trip. Thank God for iCloud; where I was able to find the other photos from the first nine months of my travels.
The hardest part from this experience was not loosing the material things, but learning to forgive myself. I am always very hard on myself and have spent many sleepless nights since the incident thinking about all of the things that I did wrong. Why did I trust anyone??? Why did I put my bag in the trunk? Why did I not get out of the car at the first stop? Why, Why, Why?! But there is no point dwelling on the past that we cannot change.
And the best part about this incident was getting to know two amazing human beings Ruth and Tiffany who gave up some of their vacation time to be with me in a police station for hours and hours. They only cared about helping me, keeping me company, and making sure that I was ok. They are a perfect example of COMPASSION. I can never thank them enough for the support they provided me during those days. They are amazing people and I am happy to have them as my new friends.
Tiffany and I decided to stay together until she went back to Canada ten days later. We had a couple of relaxing days in Battambang and a few days of fun in Bangkok. I will never forget these girls and how much they did for me! And also a big shout out to Imdina, the officer from the Tourism Police that never gave up on my case and helped me through the very end. A good man!