Dublin Part 1

It is 5:30am on July 18th in Dublin when my eyes abruptly widen in my lofty Airbnb bedroom. I am consistently checking the time on my phone to make sure that the day hasn’t drifted past me too quickly. Currently, there is a battle going on between my adrenaline and my jet lag, and so far, my adrenaline is winning (thank god). I am smack dab in the middle of City Centre with hundreds of buildings surrounding me and am walking distance to nearly everything in Dublin including bars, shops, pubs, restaurants, theaters, churches and so on. My sweet Airbnb host, Michael, offers me some delicious breakfast before I head out for my first days’ festivities. I politely decline, as I have absolutely no appetite. I am too excited and nervous for all that will happen in the next few hours. Well, perhaps I should just cut to the chase. I am meeting the beautiful and talented Fionnuala Gill today at 10:30am. My mind is racing with questions that I’d like to ask her. I’ve told myself at least fifty times this week that I simply just need to be myself. However, there have been a few moments where I pause and tell myself that I have to just let whatever happens, happen.  I realize that Fionnuala’s voice, charm and spirit move me very deeply, and this fact alone will lead our conversation from introductory to ‘real talk’ within seconds.

I walk the two miles from Railway Street to Kilkenny Design on Nassau Street. Dublin is in the midst of a heat wave, so I walk slowly in order to avoid working up a sweat. There are people crowded all around me. I soon find myself rushing to get into a quiet space so that I have time to calm my nerves. I walk into the cafe and start looking at the delicious pastries on display. I am standing behind a pillar when I notice a woman walking up the stairs. “I think that’s Fionnuala,” I silently tell myself. I tiptoe my way towards her. I take one more deep breath. Our eyes lock.

“Maddie?” Fionnuala says in her charming Irish accent.

                  I pry my eyes wide open.

“Hi, Fionnuala,” I reply in my high-pitched Maddie voice.

                Her firm and long hug instantly calm me down.

“How are you?” Fionnuala asks.

“I’m doing great. How are you?” I asked.

As we make our way into the café line to order tea, I nonchalantly glance over at her a couple of times to make sure she is real. I know this sounds absurd, but I truly felt like I was in a dream. I have been anticipating this moment for quite some time, and now, the moment has finally arrived. I knowingly blink a few times to test my reality and yet, each time I open my eyes, nothing has changed. There she is, standing next to me. My adrenaline begins to dissipate and I feel as though I can breathe again. Fionnuala has a calming aura about her that I’m sure is infectious to everyone she meets. I feel a sense of relief pass over me.

We sit across the table from each other, sip our tea, talk and laugh our way through the beauty of each others company. One thing I noticed about Fionnuala is that whenever she laughed, she would gently and happily throw her head back. It was really beautiful to watch and certainly refreshing. A classy act, indeed. She has an infectious laugh that was giggle-inducing. Whenever she laughed, I couldn’t help but smile and laugh myself. There were times during our conversation where there was no verbal communication. During those times, I would glance down at my tea and pray that another question would pop up in my mind to ask her. My bumbling awkwardness presented itself quite plainly at times, but I think that Fionnuala understood that meeting her was a big deal for me. In other words, she was very patient with me. Whenever I looked up from my tea, Fionnuala would be looking at me and smiling, silently telling me that everything was okay. It was only after our meeting that I realized this. Another sweet quality that I noticed about Fionnuala was that she was very prim and proper. I think her favorite words are “delighted” and “lovely.” So sweet.

Fionnuala asked me how I found out about her music. I told her that my best friend from school sent me the video to the song “Sleepsong,” which is a beautiful lullaby from the Norwegian band “Secret Garden,” which Fionnuala was also a part of. She tells me about her life as a singer, a traveler and a mindfulness teacher. She tells me about her Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and how it affects her today. She tells me about her childhood and what it was like growing up. Fionnuala has had many unforgettable experiences during her singing career. The most prominent and rewarding experience for her was being able to sing for His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama. She sang for the Dalai Lama back in 2011 during his visit to Ireland. She emphasized to me that she was overcome with emotion in his presence and I certainly don’t blame her for feeling this way. Just having Fionnuala talk about this experience overwhelmed me(!). She mentioned that the Dalai Lama blessed her by putting his hands over her hands and bowing down to her. We laughed together and my heart nearly melted when she told me this.

I consider Fionnuala to be a hidden gem. If you sample her music/mindfulness work, I hope that you appreciate it to the core of your being. Her song “Deus Meus,” is one of the most beautifully constructed melodies that I have ever heard. The song is sung in Gaelic and Fionnuala was in a church in New York City when it was recorded. She told me that this was a “once in a lifetime” setting and that it could not be replicated on an album. She was nervous before performing, but she trusted herself like never before and this recording was the result. Her voice alone is phenomenal and very soothing. See video below.

When we hugged each other goodbye, I held onto her for slightly longer than I did when we greeted each other.  It was very difficult for me to say goodbye. This was a beautiful and sacred moment in my life — a dream come true. One of the last things she said to me before parting ways was, “Let’s keep in touch, Maddie.” Both Fionnuala and I decided that this was definitely not going to be the last time we see each other. I walked away with a nearly bursting heart and when I walked outside into the beaming sunshine, I turned around and blew a kiss at the Kilkenny Design flags and whispered “thank you.” 

Fionnuala’s “Deus Meus” song inspired me to write a poem.

Poem “I Sailed Away.”

The soft music fills my heart
With a tenderness that is growing within me
It is invisible to the eye
But oh how I could cry

I listen and listen to the music.

The heart beats faster
The mind shifts gears
Wandering to a space where only I belong

So, here I sit
With a curiosity that reaches Mars
And a feeling that is quite large
Whispering to me that I am okay

I am suffering
But in the best way
I am here
Yet, I’m sailing away

Maddie and Fionnuala

Bangkok, Thailand – Part 3

As I walked off the plane in Bangkok, I knew this was going to be a different experience from Koh Samui and it was. After I said goodbye to my retreat friends at the airport, my private tour guide greeted me with a sign above his head with my name on it. It quickly became evident that Mr. Perez was a gentle soul. He really took the time to get to know me, and despite our differences, we became fast friends. 

We drove 45 minutes from the airport to the Pathumwan Princess Hotel, where I was booked for two nights. As Mr. Perez was driving, he started asking me questions as to my whereabouts. The first question he asked was, “what brings you to my beautiful country?” This was not a difficult question to answer, but of course, I made it harder for myself. I wanted to tell him the truth, but I also wanted to impress him with my knowledge. I told him I was here for a yoga retreat. Then, after a nervous hiccup, I told him I was here to learn more about his beautiful country. I believe my answers started a gentle bond between the two of us. As we were entering the city, I looked outside and saw nothing but buildings and grey skies. What sparked my interest most was the fact that, from the highway, I could clearly see rundown apartment complexes with linens hanging off peoples’ balconies. There were many times during our 45-minute drive where I wanted to stop and take everything in. I wondered what it would be like to live here and I kept searching for vivid details within the walls of the city I was about to endure. I was amazed by the amount of unused infrastructure that was surrounding me. 

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When I arrived at the hotel, the valet staff greeted me through soft smiles and hand gestures. They bowed down to me. This is a typical way to greet each other in Thailand. In return, I bowed down to them. At first, I was shy in doing so because I normally don’t bow down to people, but I felt compelled to do so in order to honor their culture. I walked upstairs to the reception desk. The staff greeted me with a ginger shot. Generally speaking, I don’t like ginger, but this was really good. It was a mini party in my mouth. They gave me keys to my room and I took the elevator up to the 15th floor.  When I entered the room, the gracefulness that I executed to the hotel staff had vanished. I sloppily threw my bags on the bed and rushed out to meet Nan, my roommate from Switzerland who is originally from Thailand.  I was already late in meeting her and I didn’t have a clue to where I was. As I was speed walking through the city just trying to find my bearings, I saw Tuk Tuk drivers passing me left and right. I decided that I no longer wanted to walk and so, I hailed a “cab.”

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My Tuk Tuk driver speeds through the city and I hold on for dear life. I kept telling myself that he was going to crash, even though I knew he wasn’t.  I was in Thailand for goodness sake. When I arrived at the mall where I was to meet Nan, my Wi-Fi connection decided to go out. I didn’t panic; although I was annoyed. After twenty five minutes of trying to find each other, we finally did. I wiped the panic look off my face and smiled as I greeted her with a hug. I could tell she was determined to do the same. I felt an instant connection with her, as if we’ve been spending time together on a weekly basis. She grabs my left arm and links it through her right arm (this is a very common thing to see in Thailand) and I immediately recall her doing that exact same thing in Switzerland. Again, it was as if we’ve never left each other. I smile to myself because I just knew that seeing each other again wasn’t going to be awkward. What a relief!

When we sat down for dinner, Nan started talking. In my opinion, her English was just as good, if not better, than it was when we were rooming together in Switzerland. After we ordered our food, we bombarded each other with questions — questions we have been meaning to ask each other for 5 years now. Her first question to me was, “Do you have the same boyfriend?” Oh what a typical Nan question! I told her I didn’t due to us going in different directions. She didn’t seem to understand what that meant, so I re-worded my answer. “We were not meant to be,” I said. She understood that much more clearly. After I stuffed my guts with delicious Pad-Thai, Nan and I walked down to the ice cream shop. Memories from five years ago took over, as I distinctly remember Nan just loving to force food down my throat. After dinner, Nan asked me “Are you still hungry?” I laughed out loud, trying not to make fun of her. In fact, I wasn’t. I was just getting used to a different culture. I said “sure,” thinking she would take that as a “yes,” and she did. After hours of shopping and eating, it was time for Nan to go home. After we parted ways, I decided that I wasn’t done exploring the city just yet. I ventured further downtown and went shopping at a local mall near my hotel. I must admit, shopping downtown can be addicting in Thailand. Everything is so cheap and I wanted to buy the entire mall! I had to keep in mind that I had a lot of luggage to schlep back to America with me. I didn’t want to break my back, and so, I ended up buying a few gifts for my friends back in America. 

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Floating Market and Temple Tour

The next morning, Mr. Perez picks me up at 8:30 in the morning and drives me two hours north of the city. During the long car ride, I felt obligated to ask him questions. I kept my questions simple due to language barrier and after a few attempts I said, “um, excuse me, what’s that big blue and white building?” Mr. Perez answered that this was a factory and continued saying that I should probably keep silent the rest of the way. I was taken aback by his insulting reply and didn’t know how to respond. I did what I was told and remained silent the rest of the way. I had a notion that I was annoying him with my on-going questions and my initial thought to generate conversation was incorrect. As we were driving further away from the city and deeper into the country side, I noticed that there were a lot of open aired trucks with people plopped in the back seat, without any form of seat belt. Seat belts are a rarity in Thailand. In other words, if a driver notices a passenger without their seatbelt on, they simply won’t say anything.  Very strange for a girl who grew up with parents checking to see if she had her seatbelt on. Anyway, the last hour consisted of complete silence. I resisted the urge to fall asleep.

When we reached the first leg of the tour, I was finally able to get out of the car to stretch. The first stop was Thailand’s form of “plantations.” This is where they grew corn. It was more of a process than just simply planting seeds into the ground. The workers somehow remained functional in these sweltering conditions. I give them big props for working as hard as they do. They kindly allowed me to look around for twenty minutes before heading to the floating markets. I was doing my best to be considerate while taking photos. I didn’t want to come off as rude or disrespectful, but I wanted to capture the moment as best as possible. When it was time for us to leave, my tour guide announced that it would be “just one more hour” until we arrived to where the boats departed. Sigh. Accept. Move on.

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Once we arrived, I followed Mr. Perez to the boats. He threw me a life jacket and said “You must wear this.” I laughed out loud, put on my life jacket and hopped into the boat.

Off we went!

As the boat was speeding through the small canals, I noticed the sound of the air rushing past my ears and the wind in my face. I was stunned by the scenery and felt very grateful in this moment. My face went numb after some time and I realized “Shoot, I forgot to put on sunscreen.” With this scorching weather, I was bound to get severely burned. Luckily, our first stop had bonnets and hats for sale. I bought a straw hat. By all means, this was not a glamorous hat, but it did its job well. After my tour guide left me to shop alone, I felt enormous freedom. I walked the streets with a huge grin on my face. I was starving at this point as I hadn’t eaten all day, and was going to eat anything I could get my hands on. I walked to the food section of the market and decided I wanted noodles. I gave the lady 100 Baht and ordered myself a big bowl of noodles. I sat down on a blue chair that was two sizes too small for me to fit on and ate until I nearly felt sick. While walking back to the shops, all of a sudden, I felt someone grab my shoulder from behind. I pivoted to my left and saw a woman holding two small round bottles. She begged me to buy what she was selling. I raised my eyebrows and said “I’m sorry, I don’t have any money on me.” I turned around and kept walking. Less than 10 seconds later, she appeared again and quite frankly, scared the crap out of me.

“How much?” I asked.

“90 Baht” she replied. (Sigh)

In this moment, I realized that I was in a foreign country and didn’t foresee myself coming back to a country like this anytime soon. I had to seize the opportunity and take her up on her offer. It was cheap and I was helping someone in need. I bought two small bottles of Icy Hot and kept trotting along. After a few minutes of walking, yet another lady stopped me, trying to sell me the exact same thing. I chuckled carelessly and thought to myself “Are you kidding me?” I walked away as quickly as possible and ducked into a shop. For goodness sake, I couldn’t catch a break. I peaked out to make sure the coast was clear and surely enough, it was. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw someone holding something big and I turned around to get a clearer look and surely enough, it was a huge snake. Intrigued, I walked towards it. The man in charge approached me without any hint of hesitation and said “here you go beautiful.” He threw the snake on me. No, not placed, but threw it on my back. He was sly about it. His mischievous laugh made me nervous. He grabbed my phone and started taking photos of me and this massive beast of his. He repeatedly said “strike a pose.” I felt like I was in a photo shoot or something. It was quite nice. The snake’s eye touched my cheek and I froze in fear. It was jolly old fun, indeed.

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I met up with Mr. Perez and we headed to the temples. The temples were absolutely stunning. Mr. Perez told me that these temples were the ones his mother and father took him to as a child. When the car turned the corner, Mr. Perez pointed to the elementary school he went to. “Brings back a lot of memories” he whispered to himself. “Yeah, I bet” I replied. This reminded me of my own elementary school days. I began to sink deeply into my own thoughts about my days at Fallsmead Elementary School and after about two minutes, I snapped back to reality.

As touching as his personal stories were, Mr. Perez had been here many times and left me alone during the rest of the tour. I took my shoes off and walked into the “Reclining Buddhas” room. The Reclining Buddha represents the historical buddha during his last illness, about to enter the stage of parinirvana. The Reclining Buddha statues are not supposed to induce sadness towards people but rather, the reclining buddha should be taken as an object of encouragement that all beings have the potential to be awakened and release themselves from any type of suffering. The expression on the Buddhas faces’ portray compassion and symbolizes the meaning of rebirth. The symbolic meaning to this particular sculpture really touched my heart and caused me to view death in a different way. I have found that as I get older, the more I accept death as just another part of life. However, there have been many times where I think about death so deeply that it makes me want to cry. I’m not sure if the tears come from fear, realization, sadness or a combination of the three. I’ve become good at pushing away my dark thoughts when it comes to things like this. I stood there and took in all the earthly colors. I circled the Buddha slowly, capturing only the scenes I wanted to remember. When I walked outside, there were three beautiful stupas waiting to greet me. In Buddhism, a stupa is a mound-like structure that serves as a place of meditation. Their colors were vibrant and astonishing. I craned my neck to see the very top. After viewing all the temples, Mr. Perez pulls up in his black car and honks his horn. He picks me up at a traffic light and takes me to the last temple. The last temple was one of many golden temples, although I feel like this was the goldest temple of them all. It was extremely shinny and it even hurt my eyes to stare at it for too long. Just the thought of this tour being over made me sad. I don’t know when I’ll return to a foreign country again.

Mr. Perez asked me what I was going to do when I got back to the hotel. I told him that I was probably just going to relax at the pool.

To Be Continued….

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Thailand – Part 2

Vikasa 

When I arrived at Vikasa, I said hello to the people I knew and introduced myself to the people I didn’t know. Carolina and Jeb, a married couple, were the hosts of this getaway trip. I originally met them through my brother Alex, who did Cross-fit with them a while ago. They were the first people I came into contact with when I arrived at the resort and they greeted me with a very warm welcome.

Our group was given the same itinerary for the upcoming week’s activities. Each day would consist of yoga, fitness and more yoga, along with breakfast, lunch and dinner. The classes were not mandatory, only suggested. In other words, if you didn’t want to do a morning yoga session one day and wanted to go to the beach with friends instead, then that is what you’d do. The retreat lasted for seven days. Two out of those seven days, we would all go to a temple tour and go island hopping together.

I really had to push myself the first day, as I haven’t experienced jet lag quite like this before. The morning after I arrived, I awoke and my eyes were heavy. My roommate Christine and I walked down to the yoga sala together for our very first session. For the most part, Carolina would be our yoga instructor and Jeb would pitch in every once in a while. It was pure adrenaline that got me through the first day.

I don’t consider myself to be an expert at yoga. I find it to be very challenging, both mentally and physically. I do it strictly for the peace of mind and to strengthen my core. In the many yoga sessions that I have participated in when in Los Angeles, I have noticed that I have the tendency to glance over at my neighbors to compare what they’re doing to my own practice. Although I recognize that this isn’t a healthy habit, I still catch myself doing it every so often. Before Carolina started the first session, she told us, in a very serious tone, to focus on our breath. She emphasized to us how important breath is in yoga. For example, when our arms became too tired to hold our body weight up any longer, coming back to our breath would distract us from our initial urge to fall. “Return to breath! Return to breath! Return to breath!” My muscles were tight the first day, probably due to sitting on an airplane for 24 hours. I felt as if I hadn’t stretched in years. I was somewhat anxious because I knew that I hadn’t been practicing yoga on a daily basis prior to this trip. I wondered if my body would be able to handle deep stretching like this for an entire week. I wondered if my mind would be able to shut down for the week. I had to keep reminding myself that this was not a competition, even if my mind wanted to believe otherwise. Each time I became distracted by how I thought others were doing “better” than I was, I would look down at my mat and tell myself “Return to your breath.” This helped me a lot. The fascinating thing about yoga is that it is based more on mindfulness than a typical workout. Yes, it has its workout perks, like strengthening the core and increasing mobility, but more often than not, it is about returning to your breath. Some have told me that yoga “isn’t for them.” I disagree. I believe that yoga can be for everyone. It doesn’t matter how flexible you are. It doesn’t even matter if you’re fit or not. The practice itself is a testament to your own personal growth. For me, I see it as a mindfulness practice with gentle exercise involved. A lot of people insist that they have to look the part; like the people in the magazines. In truth, you don’t. I left Vikasa realizing this and now I feel more beautiful inside. As the week wore on, my body gradually became more flexible and my mind became still. I felt less of a need to push myself in order to “look” a certain way to others. It became very clear to me that I didn’t need to please anybody except myself. After this realization occurred, I sailed through the rest of the week.

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Mini Mart/Moonstone

Directly across the street from the resort was a mini mart. The mini mart sold cold beverages, medicine, snacks and a few hats and t-shirts. When I was desperate for some cold A.C, I would walk across the street and sit on the little yellow chair next to the cash register. It was a nice escape from the heat. Next to the mini-mart was a bar called “Moonstone.” It looked to me as if Moonstone was built from houses that might have been damaged in extreme weather conditions. I could be very wrong, but that’s how it appeared to me. One night, I walked to the bar with some people from the group. Before I ordered my beverage, I walked to the bathroom alone, only to be greeted by a chicken. “A chicken” I say. I screamed and almost tripped over it. “What in the dickens is this thing doing here?” I said to myself. Luckily, my scream scared away the chicken and I could go to the bathroom peacefully. On my return, one of bar tenders stopped me and said, “Did you see the chicken? Well, I heard you scream so I assume you did.” I chuckled and replied “Yes!” That night, I drank my beer and chatted with my mates. The breeze seeped through the cracks of the wooden bar and landed on the back of my neck. It felt great. I ended up going to bed a little earlier that night, as I was exhausted from the days activities.

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Temples  

The temple tours were spectacular — a must see if you’re ever in Koh Samui. The architecture was stunning, and the temples were huge, standing approximately 100 feet above my head each time. I would have to crane my neck upwards, at a 45-degree angle in order to see the top. The first temple we saw was called, “Wat Phra Yai,” locally referred to as “The Big Buddha.” Built in 1972, this structure sits majestically off Samui’s north shore. In order to honor the culture of Thailand, shoes must be removed before climbing the hundreds of stairs to this masterpiece. As we entered the temples’ grounds, most of the group ran ahead to take pictures. Not me. I wanted the moments I had on these beautiful grounds to last. I wanted to take my time and not rush. Just below the staircase is where most of the monks do their morning chants. One of the girls in our group decided to participate in this practice. We all took pictures of her as she wrote down her blessings on a small sheet of paper and tossed it into a seaweed bowl (this was truly astounding to watch). Below the temple, beyond where the monks live, is where all the shopping happens. They have a few outdoor shops and food vendors. I bought a cute pair of elephant pants and it was worth every Baht. I was definitely in a spiritual mood and decided to do some mindfulness practice on my own. I simply felt the floor below me after each step I took. The marble floor was warm. It felt quite nice.

The next temple we went to was called “Wat Plai Laem.” Nestled alongside a lake, this 18-armed piece delights many travelers and locals who come here to pray. Directly across the street from these temples sits a school. My friends and I heard some chanting and at first, we didn’t know where the sounds were coming from. We followed the sounds. As the chanting grew louder, we noticed a group of about 100 students sitting on the floor with their arms wrapped around their body. The other half of the students had their arms in prayer position. We watched them for approximately 10 minutes. I can only imagine what these children’s lives are like – a harsh, yet skilled teacher to say the least. Right before I was about to walk away from the school’s grounds, a little boy approached the fence and waved to me from the other side. I smiled and waved back. I choked back a few tears as I walked away. “Wat Plai Laem” truly peaked my curiosity and so, I decided to scope out the area even further and I walked to the back of the temple. There was a beautiful lake just waiting to greet me, along with large turtles swarming the area. I got my picture taken and off I went. The temples were certainly worth the 25 minute van ride.

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Islands

On Thursday morning, we hopped into another van that took us to one of the most popular docks on the island. The van ride was bumpy and full of excitement. The part of the ride I remember most was looking outside and noticing how beautiful the palm trees were. They were perfectly aligned in an empty field of green grass, with stunning mountains in the background. I wasn’t use to seeing so much space and land, as I now live is Los Angeles. Anyway, I was delighted when we arrived to where the boats departed. At first, I couldn’t believe these were snorkeling tour boats, as they were so beautiful and vast, and different from similar trips I’ve taken back home. These boats are considered “speedboats” in Thailand. They don’t go nearly as fast as the speedboats in America, but the engine roared obnoxiously loud. There were six people in my boat and initially, we left the dock area slowly. Then, it became a competition. As the boat increased in speed, the engines’ noise grew louder and within minutes, another boat sped by us, creating waves that almost tipped our boat over. One of the girls screamed and I giggled. It was exhilarating.

When we arrived at the snorkeling spot, we all jumped into the water. The ocean was a beautiful turquoise blue that had me in awe! Most of the group snorkeled, but I decided to do things a little differently. I floated on my back, watching the beautiful clouds pass over me. Then, I flipped upright and watched the islands’ trees sway back and forth, listening to the sounds of nature as it appeared. When we were done our snorkeling festivities, we hopped back onto the boat and headed towards the island of “Koh Madsum,” just south of Koh Samui. Before getting off the boat, I noticed that there was a food stand from afar. Once we arrived, I immediately jumped off the boat and ran to the stand to grab and drink and a snack. I was starving, but didn’t want to admit that to anyone. I nonchalantly roamed around the island for a bit and noticed pigs in the distance. I was shocked! I quickly became intrigued and walked towards them. Surprisingly, they didn’t smell bad at all. I stood there for a while and watched them…just like a little boy watches his favorite cartoons on a Saturday morning. Once again, my inner child started to seep through the cracks. There were a bunch of baby pigs feeding on their mama. I knelt down to watched them.

After a long van ride home, I plopped down on my bed and took a 20 minute nap. The sun will surely make you tired, no matter what kind of day you had.

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Elephant Sanctuary 

The elephant sanctuary was phenomenal. The van picked us up in the wee hours of the morning and took us over to where the elephants lived. My roommate and I had planned this just two days into the retreat. Both of us decided that this was something we really wanted to do, more than anything else. It was worth the money! A couple of others from the retreat joined us on that cloudy afternoon. Once we arrived, we had to wait for other groups to join us in order to start the process. Yes, it was a process, and a tedious one at that. After waiting over an hour for the others to arrive, we were forced to watch a short documentary on how to treat the elephants. I could clearly see the sadness painted on the face of the woman speaking harsh realities about the elephants and how they were mistreated in the past. Furthermore, the documentary told us how to approach the elephants and where to stand. For example, you don’t want to stand where the elephants can’t see you, as a few of the elephants are blind in one eye. They went on to tell us the do’s and don’t’s of feeding and approaching an elephant. Once a couple of hours passed by, it was finally time to meet these beautiful creatures.

After waiting for what seemed like a lifetime, I think it’s appropriate to say we all just wanted to jump right in. However, that wasn’t an option. We had to approach the elephants slowly because they startle easily. I grabbed some pineapple from the bucket and started feeding them one-by-one. I wasn’t scared, but rather hesitant. I wanted to make sure I was doing everything I was told to do, properly. Prior to feeding them, one of the girls yelled from afar, “Oh my god, Maddie, just GO!” Well, jeez! Perhaps a little push is just what I needed. After I fed them a couple of times, I became more comfortable with them, just as they did with me. After 20 minutes passed by, our guide announced that it was time to “hop the fence,” (not literally). He opened the gate and we went through. The elephants followed us. We ventured further into the wilderness and as we approached a tree, we stopped. The remainder of the sanctuary consisted of our guide speaking more about the elephants and us getting to pet and feed them. It was sad leaving the sanctuary. I wanted to make sure that they were going to be well taken care of. It appeared to me that they were, but you never know in a foreign country. After our mini group arrived back to Vikasa, we were bombarded with questions by those who didn’t participate in the outing. They all pretty much asked the same question, like, “Oh my god, how was it?” — Yeah, something along those lines. Ha!

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Downtown

During the the middle of the week, Christine and I went downtown to go shopping. This was the first time I had been downtown since I arrived to Koh Samui. It was alarming and quite different from the resort life. Certain areas of downtown were more developed than other parts. It was interesting to see the transition from block to block. During the taxi ride, my eyes were glued to the surroundings. I saw dogs running across the street, which is a very normal thing to see in Thailand. I saw a lot of food vendors on the side of the street where locals sold their food. I saw the elderly knitting on the side of the road and selling their makings. I was acting like I was on a different planet, like Jupiter, for example. We hopped out of the taxi and it started pouring down rain. We didn’t have umbrellas handy, so we walked a quarter of a mile to a 7-11 to get ponchos. It started thundering and lighting as well, and the only thing that kept us dry were tents. We shopped in cute boutique stores alongside the road. The side walks were so small, they practically didn’t exist. It was lunch time and I was craving some real Thai food. Christine agreed that Thai food would be ideal right about now. After shopping for thirty minutes, we plopped down to get some delicious food. I was starving and inhaled my food within six minutes (a rough estimate). I patiently waited for Christine to finish. She looked at me and asked if I was rushing her. “No darling, take your time” I said. Oh, how I was embarrassed. After lunch, we enjoyed strolling around the area for a while. It stopped raining at this point. As we were walking, I saw a salon that caught my attention immediately. I stopped and Christine ran into the back of me. We both looked at each other and exchanged knowing glances. Yes, this means that we got our nails done in Thailand. I also got a Thai foot massage that felt incredible!

Thailand – Part 1

When I arrived at LAX airport, I was calm. Not much adrenaline pumped through my veins, as it normally would have for a vacation this exciting. I haven’t traveled nearly this far by myself before, but I knew what I wanted to get out of this trip. Besides, of course, the fun yoga retreat itself, I was yearning for more than just a trip to Thailand. I was yearning for continued self-discovery. Although I have found a lot of myself through the changes, challenges and experiences I have recently encountered, there were a few more pieces missing from the puzzle — pieces that were, perhaps, a little harder to find than I had anticipated.

The plane ride to Koh Samui was very long and boring; a 24-hour flight to be exact. Two layovers, one of which was in Doha, Qatar. The take off process was quite lengthy. It entailed a 20-minute delay due to the pilots making sure that everything was working properly. It also entailed even more of a delay due to the flight attendants announcing their safety manual in ten different languages (a rough estimate). As the plane lifted off the ground, that was it! There was no turning back. With my arms resting at my sides, I took a deep breath and tried to make myself as comfortable as possible in preparation for this long flight.

After the plane had taken off, I sat in silence for a few of hours and listened to Lara Fabian’s Camouflage album. In order to occupy my mind for a couple of hours, I looked out the window, trying to make shapes out of the clouds that rose so beautifully above me. The chill from the air conditioning beaming down on me, the infinite sky, and the beautiful music that was playing on my iPod, created sensations in my body that will never escape my mind. In other words, chills from head to toe coursed vigorously through my veins. Perhaps I even choked back a few tears. I was okay. I was happy. I felt a sense of relief that I can’t quite explain. I tried to fall asleep. I drifted in and out of consciousness for approximately two hours. I woke up, and well, I wasn’t in Thailand quite yet. For just a brief moment, I forgot where I was. I looked around me and saw that everyone was sleeping.

12 + hours later…

When we began our descent into Doha, I looked out the window to see how close we were to the ground. I have always had the unique ability to tell when an airplane is descending, even before the pilots alert the passengers. I wanted to see if I could spot any land. I wanted to see something that would jump out at me; something that would reveal itself and remind me that I was no longer in America. I didn’t see any landmarks due to the clouds covering the land, but that’s okay. When we finally landed, I walked outside and was hit by the most gruesome heat I’ve ever experienced. I’ve never experienced this much humidity before. I had exactly 1 hour to catch my next flight to Bangkok. I had not a clue to which part of the airport I was in, but luckily I was overcome with curiosity rather than anxiety. My younger self started to emerge into the light.

As I was walking through Hamad International Airport, I was reminded of what it was like to walk into the unknown, but I was not afraid. I had no clue where I was. I saw a lot of people wearing veils and headscarf’s. I saw people who were very buttoned up – prim and proper. The moment I walked off the plane, I turned my head to the right and was greeted by an adorable little girl and boy playing cars together on the floor. Memories of pure joy flooded my mind as I thought about traveling as a child. I miss traveling as a child and although I am traveling alone now, I still felt a little somber. Hamad International Airport was and is so beautiful! I knew now that I wasn’t in America. My heart and soul took in everything that was surrounding me. I was in a wee bit of a rush, so I couldn’t stare off into space for too long, but the little kid inside of me found a small amount of time to do so, anyway. For me, the secret to partial happiness is to carry around my inner child in times of need — to let whatever lies deep within me flow out of the river banks to show, not only the world, but also myself, that my appetite for life still exists.

At this point, I was tired. I boarded my next flight to Bangkok. I sat next to a mother and daughter who were absolutely adorable. They didn’t speak any English, so in order to communicate with each other, we simply greeted one another with smiles and hand gestures. When I needed to go to the restroom, I would stand up and smile, and she would let me out (always smiling back).

When I arrived in Koh Samui, I hopped into a taxi that would proceeded to the resort. I remember looking out the window and thinking to myself, “Where the hell am I?” Now, before I progress, I must say that the drivers on the island were reckless drivers. My taxi driver decides to pass on a one-way road, leaving the car coming in the other direction forced to swerve off the road. In other words, I almost died. Anyway, I had been by myself for 24 hours and now there were people coming up to me, random strangers introducing themselves to me. I hadn’t been exposed to this kind of friendliness in quite some time and I forgot how it felt. I felt like I was at sleep away soccer camp. What a great way to start the journey. 🙂

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“A Self Love Story” – Poem

There she sat
As frustrated as could be.
The blind caterpillar
That just could not see.

She walked into walls
With frustration gripping her every move.
Not able to grow tall
She felt very small.

A vacant look from someone
Meant a stab in the chest.
But, in reality it meant
She could not easily rest.

Is it me?
Or is it them?
I can’t see
I can’t see

She cared way too much
About what her mates might think.
That her true self
Began to shrink.

A few years passed by
With experience and all.
She whispered to herself
That she wasn’t going to dare fall.

“I’m going to set myself free.
And the most beautiful part is,
That anyone can see.
Because, finally, after all these years,
I’m okay with being me”

A simple cocoon she began to spin
Her caterpillar self was encased within
Until a different self emerged
Her heart leapt, her emotions surged

While others saw a different her
What she saw and what she knew
Was that she had followed her heart
All the way through

“The Girl Beneath Black Ice” – Poem

She wore her pink dress well
She just couldn’t see it.
Until she fell down a few times
She’d be forced to believe it.

And so, there she fell, miles under the sea
Down, down she went, only to believe she wouldn’t ever be free.
When one day, she hit rock bottom and her body became frozen
But by then, her mind was far from wide open.

In her heart, she yearned to set herself free
So upwards she swam, as forcefully as could be.
She knew she couldn’t beat around the bush
And so, she was forced to push

She pushed and she pushed

As time passed by, she started to believe she was worth it
She whispered to herself that she sure as hell wasn’t going to forfeit
She was going to win this game by at least a mile
When one day, she finally came to realize she was truly worthwhile

She wore her pink dress well
And now she sees it.
It took hitting rock bottom many times,
For her to finally believe it.

The Adventures Continue

The wonderful thing about Los Angeles is that it has its beaches, mountains and cities. I will never have an excuse as to why I am bored on my days off.

I recently went on a hike to the Hollywood sign. Everything about the Hollywood sign experience was thrilling, except for the fact that I got extremely sunburnt on my shoulders. I happened to meet some lovely friends along the way. So, here is how that hike went.

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I walked from the bottom of Griffith Park to the top, to the “Griffith Observatory.” I wanted to go the the Hollywood sign alone, but I was somewhat fearful to by myself. However, that didn’t stop me. I decided to go because that’s just the kind of girl I am. When I reached the top of the Griffith Observatory, I silently told myself that if I don’t do this now, I will regret it later. I know myself too well. I had made an executive decision to go by myself that day.  When I reached the sign for the “Hollywood sign,” my nerves quickly built. The sign read, “Want to see the Hollywood sign? Be prepared. Bring plenty of water. The sign is nearly 4 miles away. Take W Observatory Rd (behind you to the left) down the base of Mt Hollywood Drive. Follow the signs from there.” After reading this, I took a deep breath and quietly muttered “oh jeez.” I was not nearly prepared for this hike, as I had already drank half of my water bottle. I had a limited amount of sunscreen, but enough to get by. When I walked away from the sign, I glanced to my right and noticed a nice couple whom I quickly realized did not speak any English. They were pointing to the Hollywood sign and so I stopped dead in my tracks. I didn’t say a word and just watched them for a second or two. Then, as they were about to walk away, I stopped them and said “Excuse me. Hi there, are you looking to hike to the Hollywood sign?” I was desperately hoping they would say yes and was also hoping they spoke a little bit of English. The girl turned to me and said “Yes, we are. Are you?” I said yes, too. I then introduced myself and she introduced herself as Caroline. She also introduced her husband to me, Rodrigo. Right from the getgo, I could tell they were both outgoing and friendly. I knew next what I wanted to ask, and I hesitated for a moment, but then got the courage to ask if I could join them. The time between my question and their answer was slightly painful. To my surprise, Caroline said “Well of course. We would be lost without you.” I was in complete shock, yet still ecstatic. A huge grin spread across my face and onward we marched.

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When I meet new people for the first time, it can be a little bit uncomfortable in the beginning because I feel as if I am always trying to break an awkward silence. However, for some reason this was not the case. Caroline, Rodrigo and I just clicked. Perhaps this is because I am more outgoing and confident these days. I felt comfortable with them, just as they did with me. Of course my first question to them was, “where are you from?” They said they were both from Brazil and they were here for vacation. I was glad to hear this. We walked further away from the city and deeper into the mountains. There was an increase in altitude as well. Luckily, we chatted the entire way, which was a great distraction from how tired I actually was.

Caroline’s English was not that good, but it was good enough to where I could understand her and to where we could have an intelligent conversation. Whenever she thought she said something incorrectly in English, she would kindly ask me to correct her…and I did. I find great comfort in knowing that a transcendent connection between two people does not have to be created through noise, but rather can be generated and maintained in silence. Sometimes, Caroline and I would look at each other and just smile, without saying any words. Isn’t it a beautiful thing when a simple glance followed by a smile is enough? Well, I believe so.

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At a certain point during our hike, we hit a dead end. We could have either gone to the right or to the left. If we were to turn left, it would have taken us in front of the sign and if we were to turn right, it would have taken us farther up the mountain and to the back of the sign. My immediate thought was to go to the right. However, Caroline wanted to go to the left because she wanted to get pictures in front of the sign. I convinced her that we should go to the right first. I told her that she will have wanted to get the entire mountain and city view behind her. She admittedly agreed and onward we went. By then, I was getting pretty tired and I had no water left. Yes, how silly of me for drinking my entire bottle before I knew what I was getting myself into. I announced out loud that I was thirsty, which was not the best decision I’ve made thus far. As friendly as Caroline and her husband were, they sweetly offered me their water. I politely declined, per usual. I didn’t want to take their water and so I just suffered in silence. As bad as that sounds, I was okay. I was going to live. I told myself that I have suffered in silence before, when I was on my travel soccer team and so badly wanted to be benched due to pure exhaustion. Again, I was going to live.

There came a point during our hike where we hit a beautiful scenic view on the backside of the sign. We stopped to take pictures. She took one of me and I took one of her and Rodrigo. Up the mountain we trekked.

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We finally hit the back of the Hollywood sign (to where we could physically see it). Finally! I was relieved. I plopped my butt down and relaxed for a second. The thought of having to hike back in the 100 degree heat taunted me. I convinced myself that I wasn’t going to be able to do it – lies! As we approached the top, we took many pictures and I almost fell flat on my face. My shoes are not meant for hiking, only for running. Caroline silently chuckled (if this isn’t a sign that we clicked right away, then I don’t know what is).

We went from the back of the Hollywood sign to the front. During this time, Caroline had taken out a chewy bar and asked me if I wanted a piece. Even though my stomach was growling from hunger, I declined. She then asked me, “Are you sure?” This was absolute torture. I wanted that chewy bar so badly, but didn’t want to eat their food. I would have felt terrible. I hesitantly said, “Yes, I am sure. Thank you though.”

As we continued to walk and talk, I nonchalantly asked her what type of music she was into. She mentioned that she liked the type of music that’s from her country. Country music. She played me one of her favorite songs and I really liked it. It had a wonderful beat to it. I can’t recall the name of the song, but it was in a different language and it made me feel like I was in Europe again. We sang, danced and walked. All of a sudden, I had a boost of energy and I think they did too. When we turned the corner, the Hollywood sign appeared right in front of us. Unknowingly, Caroline and I both squealed with delight. Rodrigo was directly behind us shaking his head at our craziness.

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At this point, I was very dehydrated.  At the time of questioning whether or not I was going to make it back to planet earth, Caroline and I both saw a sign that said “Cold drinks this way.” I couldn’t believe my eyes. She too had no water left. We sprinted towards the drinks. I saw three good looking gentleman sitting in rocking chairs right outside of their small home. As we approached them, one of the guys said “Ladies, have at it. It’s $3.00 for the small bottles and $5.00 for the big bottles.”  I splurged on the $5.00 bottle because I wanted to make sure that I didn’t pass out on the way back. Water never tasted so good. We took many more pictures in front of the Hollywood sign. In that moment, I felt grateful because here I was, knocking this adventure off of my bucket list.

On our way back to the Griffith Observatory, we weren’t as chatty as we were in the beginning of the hike. We were all tired and wanted to be alone with our thoughts for a little bit. It felt like a much shorter trip on the way back, which was a blessing considering how tired we were. I broke the silence with a question I had been wanting to ask Caroline the entire time, but was somewhat hesitant because I didn’t want to come off as rude. She looked to be around my age, but I wasn’t so sure. And so, I asked. She’s only 3 years older than me. Not too bad. At what age does it become rude to ask someone their age? Any takers? Before I knew it, we were back at the Griffith Observatory. I did not want this day to end. When we said our goodbyes, Caroline surprised me with a big hug and yes, we exchanged our social media sites. I will never forget the first time I hiked to the Hollywood sign – a day to remember.

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