I remember as a young boy the point where I realized I only went to the temple and prayed to god because that’s what I was brought up to do. I then realized that when I actually thought about it properly, I didn’t believe in the concept of god at all. I remember being a teenager and trying to work out what this whole life thing was about and looking to all manner of people I looked up to and respected for guidance and inspiration on how to spend this little snippet of life I have on earth. One of these people was the Dalai Lama. Clichéd I know but for a young lad from a small and very inward looking Asian community, the Dalai Lama was the entry point into my forays in philosophy and provided a great deal of sustenance for a young brain seeking answers.
One of the things that particularly stuck with me is, I’ve only just realized, a bastardisation of two of his ‘teachings’. A long time ago I remember coming across the Dalai Lama’s ‘instructions for life’, two (of around 17 or 18) of which were: “to spend some time alone each day” and “once a year, try to go someplace you’ve never been before”. What I seemed to decide to hear, and the ‘teaching’ that stuck with me ever since, was: “travel once a year alone to a place you’ve never been to before”, something that has unconsciously informed many of the places I’ve travelled to over the years. The fact that I slightly distorted what he originally said makes me chuckle: it’s not about who said a certain thing or even what they said, but about the meaning we have inferred upon it and what we then do with it. As I have said on this blog before, we are meaning making machines and meaning is what we make.
It had been a while since I’d indulged in this little thing of mine… the last few years, my adventures abroad have come on the back of retreats Debbie and I have taught in some stunning parts of the world, followed by a holidays together somewhere different to where we teach afterwards, usually deep in nature to give two nature junkies the fix we crave as a result of residing in the city in which we do. Trips have been had to Borneo, Galle in Sri Lanka, the breath-taking Pemba Island (off the coast of Tanzania and the most stunning coastal location I’ve ever been to in my life) and the Gili Islands in Indonesia.
A couple of weeks ago I headed off to Singapore to see my brother, sister-in-law and nephew who live there, and my mum who was already there. It was my mum’s 60th and my nephew’s first birthdays within a couple of days of each other and we surprised my mum with a trip to Bali, staying in an incredible villa on the north coast where we were blessed with the most incredible sunshine despite being the rainy season. When I knew I’d be heading east for this trip, and had a one week blank slate to fill before heading back to Singapore after Bali and then back to the UK, I knew I had to do something special and satiate a part of me that I hadn’t had a chance to indulge for a couple of years. I decided to fly to the Komodo National Park, home of course to the Komodo dragons and, as I discovered, to some of the best diving sites in the world. I wanted to do my diving qualification and, after some tapping on my keyboard and realizing it was the season to see Manta rays, something I’d wanted to see since I was young, the slate had been filled.
That week was utterly magical. I saw some of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen: alien worlds submerged beneath the surface of our everyday life, manta rays so huge but so incredibly elegant, being serviced by smaller cleaner fish at the mantas’ submarine beauty spas and getting so close to them I at one point thought my mask would be knocked off with one graceful swoop of a manta wing. I saw turtles, sharks, fish and coral of every imaginable type and colour. I met some wonderful people and swam with new formed friends at night in an ink black sea, illuminated by bright purple-blue phosphorescent algae as the Milky Way blazed across the night sky overhead. We desperately tried to ignore the fact that we’d seen baby sharks, sea snakes and beautiful but deadly lion fish in the same spot during the day. I passed my PADI diving qualification and had a very sweet connection with my diving instructor who I had to myself for the entire course as I was the only one that had booked on, diving each day and drinking Bintang Beer each night, pondering together the meaning of life.
I’m not saying that those experiences wouldn’t have been possible had I been with someone else but my trip, and my solo journeys prior to that, have brought with them a certain liberation that just isn’t possible when I’m with another person. One of the most profound things that came out of the Vipassana retreat I did many years ago now (for those that don’t know, Vipassana is ten consecutive days of meditating for ten hours each day starting at 4.30am, with no talking, no eye contact, no writing, music, phone, books, yoga or eating after midday. Yep, it makes jail sound easy) was an acute awareness of the roles I inhabit in my life and how rarely I get to be me: I am a son, a brother, a friend, a partner, a colleague, now an uncle… and what it was like to experience ten days of completely inhabiting my own bubble. That sounds more narcissistic than intended. In most of our day to day experience, we exist in connection with others and with each connection comes obligations, expectations, ties, and norms specific to that role. There are beautiful things to those aspects but likewise there are beautiful things to being alone and travelling solo allows you to be you, to be free of all of that. The roles move into the background and the ‘you’ moves into the foreground. That is to say, they don’t disappear completely but that they take a backseat to allow a certain spontaneity and freedom to take centre stage, as long as you allow it to happen.
Hmmmm… the interesting thing with these blog posts is that they often take on their own life when fingers contact the keyboard. I had wanted to write about something else which I’ll now save for a future post but I’m happy that this post has taken the direction that it has. It also explains my hiatus from posting things here for the past few weeks. Here’s a posey photo for you – my new favourite pose, taken in Bali…