May 11, 2016
Together with Valerie, I am in South America since a couple of weeks. We will be staying here for some more months. This is the first post in a series of posts “on the road”.
We have spent about a week in Buenos Aires. First time I have been here and I like it. Though, one week has been enough for both of us and we are eager to travel on. The city corresponds to the notion I had of it. Everything is colorful, warm, and interesting. Buenos Aires is often mentioned as a comparable city to Berlin in South America. There is much to discover and I see why people get this idea, though Berlin still seems more versatile to me. Still, we had a very nice time in Buenos Aires and discovered a lot of stuff in Palermo, Palermo Viejo, and Palermo Hollywood (those are all different districts). Though, I still don’t get how the crazy crazy city bus system works. I guess this is due to the fact that there is no public bus transport system in place here, but rather an accumulation of independent, private bus companies driving around. There are a number of “How to take the bus in Buenos Aires” blog posts on the internet — most of these “tutorials” have ~10 steps and detail the process closely. The metro is much easier to use, though. Other things which stood out in Buenos Aires are that there is an enormous amount of parks and trees around (at least in the districts which we visited). In practically every street there were a huge number of large trees besides the road and after just every few blocks there was another park around the corner. I liked this greenish vibe a lot. Another interesting experience was the Hippodrome (horse racing).
We took a Lonely Planet with us, though I am not a particular fan of the series. However, the maps, information regarding cities which are worth a visit, and overall information can be really valuable. Especially maps have in the past often turned out to be very valuable. Thus, we took the guidebook with us. But this particular book contains the entire South America (13 countries). Thus it is thick and weighs a lot. After the first day I decided to get rid of the unnecessary parts. So out of one Lonely Planet there emerged three “new” editions :-). Since we plan to “only” visit Argentina, Bolivia, and Peru, we got rid of the unnecessary middle parts. I even made a new cover for one of the new editions out of cornflakes cardboard!
Furthermore, I am about to finish reading the “Becoming Steve Jobs” book. You may ask yourself: Why another Steve Jobs biography? I thought the same once I stumbled upon the book, but got quickly interested after reading the foreword. The authors basically describe, that they have the impression that he is often portrayed wrong in media. As longtime friends they feel it is necessary to correct this image. They write, that the war on how history will see Jobs has begun and that they feel they need to contribute their version. I am thinking about moving on to the spanish version of Jurassic Park next, I liked the book so much last year and this would be an opportunity to deepen my Spanish skills. On that front it is going bumpy, but improving constantly. We are thinking about joining a spanish school or a homestay — a possibility to live with a spanish speaking family and learn the language at the same time — for a week or so in Bolivia (maybe in Sucre).
After the stay in Buenos Aires we participated in a ten day silent meditation retreat (though separated, men and women were separated). This is a serious undertaking and we both took it that way. Two of my friends have done such retreats multiple times in the past in Central America and I was interested in the experience since quite some time. Basically the retreat is a meditation course and happens this way: you are on the area of the meditation center for ten full days (and two more for arriving and leaving). For the ten days you are asked to stay on strict “noble silence”. This means no talking to other participators and no interaction with anybody (including yourself). You do not write (i.e. talk to yourself), read, laugh, make gestures, or even exchange gazes with others. You are there the whole time and keep only to yourself. Totally alone. Even though there are other people around this does not make any difference. There is a short period of time when you arrive to talk to some people, but this is not sufficient to get to know anybody more deeply. The facilities are kept very basic and plain. There is no distraction in any way and attendees are asked not to wear distracting things and to e.g. not use perfumes. There is an outside area to walk, but there are no flowers or anything. Just some vegetation and some wooden blocks to sit on. So basically, you are stuck on a small area for ten days and have only yourself. You are asked to get up at 4:00 in the morning and attend a lot of meditation hours throughout the day. You go to bed between 9 and 10 pm. There is a strict meditation schedule, which you are asked to attend (and looked after if you don’t), but there are also some couple hour slots for free time. Though you are asked not to do more than sit around, walk, or shower. Breakfast and a lunch is prepared by voluntary servers, dinner is just some fruits and tee. You usually do not get to see many of the servers. Most things are indicated through three gongs (lunch is ready, waking up, etc.). You are also asked to not do any work or exercise during your time there — no washing, sport, yoga, etc.. The whole course though still works very well, since students who have attended such a course in the past and do now attend again, clean the bathrooms regularly in a clever, rotatory way. Everybody is there freely and all servers, the teacher, etc. are there freely and without payment. Everything works because of voluntary donations (of time or money). You are only allowed to give voluntary donations after you have completed a course. The course guides you through a specific type of meditation technique, which you will learn over the course of ten days by following spoken instructions by a teacher. All in all there were about 70-80 people participating (half men/half women).
Well, I have just completed this course two days ago (Val as well). Wow…ten days can be a really really long time and you can get quite lonely. Even though there are other people, you do not interact with anyone and are totally for yourself. There is no way to distract you, since you are even held back from cleaning stuff, preparing food, etc.. Since you are there for that long of a time, you do not need to plan anything, there is no “next week I need to …”, etc.. Val framed it best by saying that this allows the mind to wander to stuff about which you do not think in everyday life. So what basically happened for me was that this being lonely and being silent part in combination with so many meditation did a lot to me. I thought about a lot of past experiences and many things came to mind which I haven’t thought about for years. My dreams were very vivid and a lot of things came up during these days. A lot of time to think about stuff since there are no distractions at all. I honestly have to say that I am still not sure if it was an overall more positive or more negative experience for me. I am quite happy that I did it though. It was really hard for me and I had many ups and more downs. I am sure this was because the last eight, nine months were not a particularly happy or fulfilling time for me and indeed very stressful. This and the consequences which it yielded became very clear to me and this gnawed a lot at me. Ten days…much time to lose yourself in should-have-done’s, should-have-not-done’s, could-have-been’s, etc.. It was a very unique experience and I need some more time to let it sink in to be able to really assess it.
After the silence was ended some groups formed and started talking again. I couldn’t directly talk to a whole group of people again, even hearing a group chatting was too much for me. After some time I got more accustomed. It was an overwhelming, incredible experience to directly talk to a fellow meditator and look him in the eyes. One overlooks this in everyday life, since it is such an elementary part of one’s daily interaction. But after ten days looking someone in the eyes is an extraordinary experience. It was an incredible feeling and is very hard to describe. It felt very intimate to me.
The effect of meditating for so long was remarkable as well and amplified the effects I had already gotten in the past through meditation. The technique progressed over the ten days and a large part of it has to do with feeling body sensations. It is remarkable how fast the mind can adapt and how powerful it is. Ten days is definitely enough to feel the effects of meditation.
Although everyone kept to themselves all the time, I found that I still had formed certain impressions of the other attendees, based on behavior, looks, and some stereotypes. After the noble silence was ended it was interesting and amusing to discover how these images of people held up to reality.
The course we took was a Vipassana course, meditation centers of this organization are distributed all over the world and they all follow the same basic principles (free of cost, voluntary donations, structure, technique, etc.). There are shorter courses by other organizations though. But a ten day course, in my opinion, is one of the more serious undertakings. But there are much harder courses as well — a 45 day silent retreat for example, or retreats in Mexico which I heard about, where you also stay in total darkness for the time of a course. However, the course is finished now. We went back to Buenos Aires for one night, celebrated our re-discovered freedom, and are moving on directly to Bolivia now (I am actually writing this on a bumpy long distance bus). Argentina can get quite expensive and we hope for our money to last longer in Bolivia.