Before starting my round-the-world trip, one of the few things on my agenda was a yoga teacher course. I figured I will have the time to spend one month in a yoga studio and that it will be a good opportunity to deepen my practice.
As the months went by, I was doing research and asking for good courses at every yoga studio I visited. I was almost completely flexible on timing and location, but wanted to find a set of good teachers in a genuine yogi environment. After dozens of options that did not match what I was looking for (from courses with great teachers held in posh business hotels in Ko-something in Thailand, sometimes at crazy prices, to remote locations in deep Sri Lanka where one had no idea what exactly will be taught), I gave up on the idea of becoming a yoga teacher this time around.
Months later, I was in Pokhara, Nepal with a couple of days to spare and nothing to do. I walked into a yoga studio, loved the teacher’s approach (one of the best I’ve ever had) and returned the next day for some more. At the end of that second class, the teacher asked me if I ever thought of doing a teacher course, she gave me the address of the school were she usually teaches and off I went. I cancelled my plans to visit Laos, got an Indian visa and booked my flight to Goa.
The one-month teacher course was intense – the days started at 7am and finished at 8pm with only a lunch break in between. Besides two daily asana classes, we listened to the theory of yoga, explored human anatomy and had lessons on “the art of teaching”. We also spent two hours every day in alignment classes focussing on only a couple of poses each day, learning how to get in and out of them properly, how to align them in every last detail, how to feel them energetically, how to adjust them for people with different health issues, how to use props and more. We closed every day with evening meditations that ranged from team-building techniques, to self-discovery methods, chakra meditations and analytical meditations on topics such as self-confidence or – this one seem to be coming back – see here – death.
All in all, the course was very technical and provided me with an in-depth understanding of basic yoga topics. As much as I appreciated this, I missed the slightly more esoteric approach and deeper discussions about our respective yoga practices. I missed being guided by experienced, wise teachers with decades of experience rather than by, although great and enthusiatic, still very young teachers who were only beginning to seriously discover the path themselves. Amidst tons of technical information I missed some wisdom that could help me grow my practice to the next level. But I guess that remains for me to discover for myself on the mat. Working on it with lots of enthusiasm and patience. Namaste!
(Note: most of the pics below are not mine but were taken by my yogi friends)
Finally an update! The last leg of my trip has taken me to Asia. After a cultural immersion in Iran and a close encounter with nature in the Himalayas it was time for some sprituality and personal growth.
Randomly enough, it was on the white sand beaches of Kenya that I first heard about Kopan Monastery. Yet another example of how travelling flexibly without an itinerary or a timetable leads only to good things.
Kopan is a buddhist temple tucked away in the hills outside Kathmandu, Nepal. I visited them to participate in a 10-day course entitled Discovering Buddhism, which the monastery has been offering since the mid-1970s when the first hippies descending onto Nepal.
When I applied, the course was still called “Introduction to buddhism and meditation” and so I expected to learn some basic meditation tricks and listen to some light, new age talk on reaching my full potential. Nothing like that! The course was a full-blown overview of the main buddhist teachings. The topics varied from more familiar stuff such as karma or importance of compassion to more fundamental and harder-to-grasp ideas of equanimity, non-duality, death and rebirth.
The Buddhists do not believe in god, rules or ready-made paths to spiritual growth. Rather, they teach that if any spiritual realisation is to be beneficial to an individual, it must spring from her or his own analysis and experience. This is why, after each lecture, the monks and nuns lead us in guided analitical meditations during which we focussed on the presented ideas and investigated how they resonate with us. We meditated on the value of our life, its purpose, how to increase compassion towards others, how to see all the people as equal and on other topics, including on the death process and how it can occur any minute now. Powerful stuff!
The impact of the meditations was strenghtened by the silence that we had to keep each day from dinner to after lunch the following day. By pinning a yellow ribbon on your chest you communicated to the other participants that you wanted to remain silent 24/7. To disconnect the brain from the outside world, all electronic devices had to be checked-in with the monks at the beginning of the course.
Before starting the course, the complete seclusion worried me a bit. In a world where endless chats (not to mention the ever-so-urgent work emails) have to be responded immediately, Facebook likes appreciated a dozen times a day to keep one’s self-image strong and news refreshed hourly to make sure we didn’t miss an impeachment, the idea of disconnecting is scary. What will become of me if one day Whatsapp does not buzz at least 20 times?? The same goes for in-person conversations. How often we speak and speak with not much to say just to keep our egos tamed and so that we do not have to face the silence or listen to the other person.
To my surprise, however, the experience of silence was soothing and very enjoyable. The first day I decided to stay completely quiet and stayed so for the whole 10 days. It was probably the most revealing experience of my whole trip. After a couple of days of nothing polluting your brain, the mind slows down and becomes calm. It feels like inhaling a lungful of fresh mountain air only that you are doing it with your mind. The ego stops its eternal grind. The comparison of everything with everything else ceases. The constant planning for the next step makes no more sense as there is nothing to plan. In this empty space, your head is fresh, your mind reset. Thoughts become clearer and conclusions sometimes painfully simple. Most of all, with only three to four ideas worth focussing on every day, the process of thinking regains its sharpness and pleasantness. The difference is huge.
The long silence revealed something else. Leaving the monastery after 10 days of silence I was very aware of every word I said. This strong awareness only lasted for a couple of days but that was enough to realise that each word, each sentence, each idea takes energy to be expressed and understood by the other person. Being aware of this, I repeatedly stopped myself from speaking because the words I was about to say were either not necessary, not kind, did not contribute meaningfully to the conversation or did not engage the person I was speaking to. During these few days I experienced very palpably that most of the words we say are redundant. This was a powerful insight that I am now working on strengthening and keeping with me as I slowly prepare to return home to a world where keeping words rare and kind will be more challenging.
But challenges are what keeps us going. And if I ever feel like I’m losing the battle, I can always return to the Himalayas to search for more silence.
I just came back from a 10-day trek in Nepal zig-zagging between the Dhaulagiri and Annapurna ranges. I chose an alternative, non-touristic path and so walked in total peace from village to village where I spent the nights with the locals and barely any tourists. I eventually reached the foot of the mountains yet stayed so very far from their unattainable peaks.
The Himalayas are a world apart in which the mountains are majestic queens towering over everything else. Their height and volume are humbling and awe-inspiring but also calming and soothing. Nature at its best.
Iran is a land of contradictions and shattered preconceptions.
There is nothing further from the idea of Iran I had before visiting than Iran itself. It is a country that is extremely easy to visit, filled with nice and cheap homestays, comfortable buses and tons of things to see. But its most incredible feature (and by far) are its people – kind, gentle, helpful and, in many ways, open. When the locals take care of you, you forget time and again that you are actually visiting the “axis of evil”.
Persian cities are beautiful beyond measure. The endless bazaars, colourful mosques and palaces, water gardens, scenic deserts and on and on. Even Tehran is beautiful in its own gloomy way. Because I write these lines (with some delay as per usual) on a Nepali wi-fi, I will not upload many photos with this post. There would be too many & I have already posted hundreds on Instagram (link), where you should really check them out.
But Iran is also full of contradictions. It is a country where alcohol is strictly prohibited, yet flows in rivers at home parties. No one seriously worries about getting in trouble for it. People worry just as little about offering MDMA to unknown foreigners at said parties. With its strict prohibition on drugs, Iran is the country with biggest drug addition problem in the world. Women are veiled to show humility, yet they proudly show off their noses covered in bandages indicating plastic operations. Gay people “do not exist” / are randomly executed every now and then, yet young people claim being gay to steer clear of army duty. The government also fully sponsors gender reassignment surgeries making Iran one of the countries where they are most common. It is a land of extremely nice people, who won’t think twice before running you over with their car. And while Iranians have lots of style they also love their plastic sandals. And so on and on… it’s a country of contradictions making it all the more interesting.
So go book your flights now! Iran should be right there at the top of your bucket list.
Where to stay:
Teheran – See you in Iran hostel, Kashan – Noghli house, Isfahan – Howzak house, Yazd – Hostel Oasis.
During three blood-drenched months in 1994, an average of five Rwandans were murdered every single minute. One night in April 1994, a carefully prepared genocide was unleashed. One in every 5 citizens succumbed to the frenzy, picked up a machete and started slaughtering.
A week later, Kigali was covered with decaying bodies and the dogs started to eat them. The only solution was to kill the animals – kill them and continue with the massacre undisturbed… During my two weeks in Rwanda I have still not seen a single dog.
Two weeks was also not enough to learn how to tell the (apparently very clear) physical difference between the Tutsis and the Hutus. “It’s like telling apart an American from a Spaniard”, they told me. It’s all about the size of the nose and who likes milk more. It would be ridiculous, if it was not the basis for the murder of a million people.
People have told me that in today’s Rwanda everybody lives together in peace without any serious problems. It is hard to see how they achieved this in only 20 years or how strong the cohesion actually is. All that everybody repeats is that the current president (who was just begged to accept a third term) is responsible for all the magic. This book got me a bit closer to understanding – highly recommended.
After the buzz of Nairobi, Kigali was a welcome change. It’s a beautiful city spread along countless hills. It is peaceful and safe, yet it offers quite a few fun places to go to. Among them, the Inema art center takes the top prize. If you visit, stay at Yambi hotel.
Beside its history, the gorillas were the other main reason for my visit to Rwanda. Hidden deep inside the Virunga forests in the north-west of the country, these giants look nothing like apes. They are truly much more like some secluded humans roaming around the jungle. What I will remember most is their complete indifference to our presence only steps away from them. They couldn’t care less about some little cousins coming to visit.
There are 880 mountain gorillas left on the planet.
The Virungas spread across the border into the Democratic Republic of Congo (see map). I visited the other side to climb the Nyiragongo vulcano – an active vulcano with the world’s largest lava lake at its summit. The experience of Earth splitting open before you to show its interior is incredible. I will remember for a long time the dark night sky coloured red by the lava and the silence broken only by the sound of fire, waves splashing against the rocks and explosions. The experience was unique also because I was alone on the edge of the vulcano – there were no other tourists on the day that I visited and the guards and porter slept some 50m lower. So I spent hours sitting by myself at the edge looking into the crater. What a night!
It is unfortunate that DRC is not more easily accessible. You not only need a visa, but also armed guards to accompany you from the border to the park and back. Goma – the city you cross on the way – is intense. Road blocks and check points, armed individuals walking left and right, UN peacekeepers and camps and constant talk about most recent rebel activities, all mixed with the pandemonium of the numerous businesses, children running around and the omnipresent motorbikes. Crazy!
The short trip to Rwanda and DRC was adventurous and fun, for sure. However, after 3 months spent in Africa, I am starting to seriously miss some old-school culture, museums, impressive architecture, classy coffee shops and the like. Hence, next stop: Iran.
How to possibly put Kibera into words? Everything in it is worlds away from my usual reality, yet after five weeks spent in this largest urban slum in Africa it feels like home – warm, rewarding and welcoming.
If I was writing this during my first week volunteering in the slum, the tone would have been different. It’d be one of shock, fear, guilt, disgust and, underlying it all, sadness. On my second day in Kibera, a group of high school students picked me up at the safer, gated area where the NGO I was about to start volunteering with is located. We walked down “to the tracks” and from there through a maze of endless alleys and passages that would be impossible to draw on a map. We walked for nearly an hour, but I barely remember anything. It felt like exploring a new universe in a feverish half dream, the pictures your eyes see being too much for the brain to process fully. Before you can follow up on a thought triggered by one scene or fully feel the emotion it caused, a new, still more unreal and disturbing picture pops up from around the corner. All I remember clearly from that first walk are the students’ huge smiles and the loud laughter everywhere. And the pure, unfiltered reality, so intense that it drains you.
Later, I walked around Kibera much more. As with everything else, I got used to it. Sights became less overwhelming and there was more time to properly observe. Some things were clear on the surface – Kibera is basically built on trash which accumulates everywhere. The shacks in which people live grow almost organically from it – walls are made of mud mixed with trash and covered with corrugated tin roofs. To understand some other challenges, you have to stay longer… An average of 4-5 people live in each house, which is basically a single room of about 15 square meters. You will also learn that shacks are not free – they are rented from slum landlords. Each typically owns dozens and has long ago moved out of the slum. There is no running water in Kibera – it has to be bought from the “guy who sells water” and it is not cheap. Electricity is stolen from the grid by stripping the protection from the main line and extending it to your house using a metal wire. If you’re unlucky (or if it rains too much) you get electrocuted. Showers and toilets are shared between dozens of houses andnot free either. Toilets are basically holes in the ground, cleaned by the children once they get full. Finally, there are issues you read about – 20% of the population is estimated to be HIV positive, corruption is wide-spread at all levels starting with schoolteachers and policemen, violence is always feared.
And then there are the students’ stories. Stories of violence, abandonment, hunger and every other imaginable and unimaginable challenge squeezed into barely just over a decade of life. They are told factually, without any self-pity or surrender. Too often I have hoped that they will keep talking so that I will not have to speak. I wouldn’t be able to.
At the end of that first walk through Kibera we stopped at one of the students’ home. The inside of the walls were draped in spotless white sheets which glowed with the neon ambiance lightening. The five of us squeezed on the two couches and got a pitcher of water from around the corner. When the door closed and lights were switched off there was complete darkness. It was movie time! We watched Zootopia on a DVD player that had its casing removed so that we could manually turn the disc every time it got stuck. The electricity went off a couple of times, but that didn’t stop us from restarting the movie each time and finally seeing the whole thing. And at times there were tears. How wouldn’t they be – the movie was hilarious!
If I was writing this two or three weeks later, this post would be different still from today’s. By that time, I was well into my volunteering with ROCK, an NGO that provides scholarships, academic support, counselling and a support network to at-risk youth in Kibera. They currently support about 40 high school students. You can read everything about them on the webpage (www.rockkenya.org) that the students and I have just recently updated.
Every afternoon when school is over, the students who are not in boarding schools, stop by the ROCK center to work on their homework and study for a couple of hours. It is also the time to speak about any issues to Dan, a Kibera-resident who founded ROCK more than a decade ago and who is today running its day-to-day activities. My primary role was to sit with the students and help them with any questions they had about the topic at hand. We did lots of trigonometry and flipping equations left and right. It reminded me how much I loved maths. I also managed to fake my way through lots of chemistry. But as time progressed, I realized that my help with specific points was not the most that I can give them.
In the following weeks, we focused on the more basic skills that they will be able to use even after I leave. We started using the donated laptops and iPad much more. We discovered Wikipedia and were surprised to learn that youtube also hides videos of experiments in chemistry and physics. We also learnt that books are not always right (No, democracy does not “necessarily lead to corruption”.). We learnt, with a bit of fear in our eyes, that even the teachers are sometimes wrong. And we learnt that there is sometimes no answer and that you should just move on.
We flipped dozens of triangles upside down to see if the answer was easier to get to from the new perspective.
I also tried to convey some of the attitude that those of us who were supported and nurtured in everything we ever did find so easily. We practiced speaking loudly and confidently even when you are not sure about what you are saying. We indulged in being wrong, not knowing, asking stupid questions. We now shake hands firmly.
This was just as big a lesson for me as it was for them. Maybe for the first time, I accepted with patience and without judgment that people can sometimes be slower, imprecise, uncertain or simply not yet capable of reaching some pieces of knowledge. Understanding their backgrounds and seeing their efforts, it was impossible for me to judge as quickly and mercilessly as I would back home.
Whenever the day’s work was done a bit earlier, the most interesting questions and comments started pouring on me. How is it possible that you do not have slums in Belgium? What can we possibly do to end corruption and become like Europe? How can Trump be president if no one likes him?
There were tougher discussions too and they mostly touched upon religion, which the students are soaked in. Some answers appear clear-cut to them and are readily recited. No discussion on those was ever needed or encouraged. It took me a good 15-minute chat to convince the last of them that the World did not start when the Bible was written. They saw my shock when they told me that the only people they can think of who are not Christian are the gays because “they have no soul and therefore cannot be religious”. It only took a couple of simple questions for them to realize how absurd and inhumane their proposal was. And it didn’t take any questions for them to realize that there must be something wrong with the view that they were told to hold on people who do not believe in God. All it took was for them to spend time with me.
I was surprised by and proud about how quickly they updated their views on all these topics. It seems that if a young mind is asked to think for itself, it invariable reaches a fair and gentle solution. It is the people feeding them this trash that are truly unpardonable.
So if I wrote this post a couple of weeks ago, it’d be full of positive feelings and hope. The students convey great energy and are full of drive, persistence and plans for the future in face of all the adversity. After a day of Nairobi craziness on all fronts, going to Kibera every afternoon was a most pleasant, cheerful, hopeful and fulfilling experience.
What struck me most was the students’ feeling of community and care for each other. Each acts like a loving parent to all others, supports and believes in them and fears for their wellbeing. It is right there, on the surface, expressed by daily acts of kindness. I have not seen a single fight, any jealousy or taking the little that they are given for themselves before sharing with others. I never thought I’d ever see teenagers so mature.
During my five weeks in Kibera I learnt more about the environment that the students live in. As time progressed, my initial optimism was coloured with a few strikes of realism. I am no longer certain that, if given a scholarship to attend high school and the right support, these kids, no matter how talented and determined, will necessarily be fine. The state seems so far from being able to offer any meaningful help to these children. And then there are all the personal stories, the deep scars of childhood, the lures of every day life – how much simpler would it be to drink and hope life’s over fast – the lack of opportunities and the goals that might simply be out of reach. It adds up!
But even as I worry about whether all the students I have worked with will have a bright future, I am convinced that giving them a chance is important, necessary and never in vain. And who knows… supporting these children either financially or by spending time with them might end up also giving us a chance to do something humane and meaningful with our lives.