Don’t speak, don’t move – 10 days of Vipassana Meditation

Just returned from my meditation retreat at a Vipassana Meditation Centre near Auckland. Now I know that 10 days can be very long, especially when you have to meditate 10 hours per day, but it was definitely worth it! The direct experience of the changes within your body and mind even in one and a half weeks is absolutely amazing.

Vipassana is one of India‘s most ancient meditation techniques and means “seeing things as they really are”. The so-called process of self-purification by self-observation was rediscovered by Gotama the Buddha more than 2,500 years ago. With continued practice it eliminates the causes of unhappiness and breaks the old habit of reacting in an unbalanced way.

We, a group of around 50 students, made our first steps into meditation by observing the natural breath to concentrate the mind. With a sharpened awareness we proceeded to observe the permanently changing sensations within the body, trying to reach the unconscious mind. It is incredible how much more prickling, tingling, pulsing sensations you can feel on a small area like the upper lip if you concentrate hard enough. After six days, I reached a stage called ‘free flow’ that can be compared to a shiver you could sweep up and down from the top of your head to the toes, a unique feeling. The pain in my back and knees was really bad during the first days. It felt like doing extreme sport instead of just sitting cross-legged, but with the time it got better, as the body got used to it.

All students had to observe Noble Silence, which meant that any form of communication including eye-contact and physical gestures was forbidden. However, we could speak with the teachers if necessary. Not talking for 10 days and not being able to share my experiences with anyone seemed quite harsh to me in the beginning. However, in the long run it proved to be so useful, because only in this way I could entirely concentrate on myself, having the impression that I was working in isolation.

As there was no dinner after 12 pm – only fruit and milk or tea at 5 pm – my biggest fear was that I would run around hungry, but it proved wrong. The delicious food was enough and made up for all the pain and strain, even for getting up at 4 am. The bell was our worst enemy or best friend, depending on when it would ring or what it would announce. Further rules and regulations included a segregation of males and females, no contact with the ‘outer world’, a ban of reading, writing and physical exercise.

What was quite hard to deal with was the boredom at times. We could only take short walks in the forest inside the course site, so my mind went crazy being my only companion. Every bird and possum seen and every sound heard made me so happy! In the morning of the last day we were finally allowed to speak with each other and face the real world, which was quite intense after so much silence.

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Northland revisited

While Kate was taking time off for a meditation retreat I decided to take the van, go fishing, and visit some places we had not covered on our first tour around the part of the North Island which is north of Auckland.

It turned out there were plenty of fish in the sea – literally speaking – and loads of good opportunities to make a catch. It was also a lot of fun to venture to some peninsulas or along the rocky shoreline, set up camp with the van and trek or climb to the ultimate fishing spot.

There are several nature reserves good for hiking. In particular I liked the walk close to Rawhiti and Mahinepua Bay, both of which also have great beaches. As the NZ holidays were coming to an end, things became much quieter, even if in general people in NZ are anyway just incredibly easy-going, helpful and non-intrusive. Sometimes I would stop at a quiet place at the roadside to make camp, and people stop – not to tell you to go away, but to ask if you needed any help. Try this in Europe.

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Welcome to the Land of the Kiwi!

More than two weeks have passed since we landed in Auckland. Meanwhile, our luggage has made its way from Singapore as well. During the first days we were busy working at a German couple’s home and garden in exchange for food and shelter, enjoyed for the first time in months having some muesli, yoghurt and cheese for breakfast and visited the ‘City of Sails’ itself with thousands of sailing and motor yachts filling its marinas.

Finally, we headed north with our newly bought campervan and were stunned by spectacular sceneries – green mountain ranges, colourful native birds, volcanoes, turquoise lakes and bays, limestone coasts and sandy beaches. The long and numerous beaches are suited to all aquatic sports imaginable, from snorkelling, diving, surfing to fishing. You simply are spoiled with choice, but for those used to Asian waters, the ocean here is freezing!

Northland also shelters the most impressive remnants of the ancient kauri forests that once covered the country’s north. The giant trees were logged in the 19th century for houses and ships’ masts. The remaining trees are quite a sight and one of the nation’s treasures. Tane Mahuta, meaning Lord of the Forest, is the largest known living kauri with a trunk girth of nearly 14m! The excellent Kauri Museum in Matakohe tells the story of these impressive trees – and those whose lives they influenced: farmers, sawyers and gum diggers.

In the following days we took a ride to Ninety Mile Beach, walked on sand dunes and made it to the northernmost tip of New Zealand, Cape Reinga, watching the Tasman Sea and the Pacific Ocean collide. According to Maori legend, this is where the spirits of the dead depart to their ancestral homeland.

Remote gravel roads led us to the dramatic and mountainous Coromandel Peninsula that offered an easy access to splendidly isolated spots. We’ll continue south along the Pacific Coast Highway to the Bay of Plenty.

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Last and lazy days in Indonesia

After two months it’s time to say goodbye to Indonesia. Our journey took us from the busy metropole Jakarta to funeral ceremonies on Sulawesi, to an island paradise on the Togians, to a cigarette factory and a sulfur mine, temples and volcanoes, sea cows and dolphins, and finally to a party on a beach.

We spent one week exploring Lombok and rented a motorbike to go to Kuta, surfers’ paradise. Moving on to Sumbawa proved difficult with slow and cumbersome public transport, and we once more regretted not having our own wheels.

Maluk in Sumbawa was another surfers’ dream, and that’s it. As travelling became too time-consuming to move further eastwards and explore more of Sumbawa and Flores, we decided to move back west instead. We passed some nicely quiet days on Gili Meno before celebrating New Year’s on Gili Trawangan together with many others.

As so often in places where transport was time-consuming and difficult, we were rewarded by meeting friendly locals and having some nice adventures, whereas in very touristy places near Bali we experienced only hassle and shameless crooks. This is certainly a consequence of so many visitors carelessly spraying their cash.

But overall we very much enjoyed Indonesia – especially the less frequented areas without mass tourism. The country is incredibly large, very spread out and has much to offer. We did not have enough time to visit Sumatra, Molucco and other regions, so we definitely have to come back!

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Among the sulfur miners of Kawah Ijen

It began with the alarm at two a.m. We were the first to tackle the ascent from Pos Paltuding to Kawah Ijen, active volcano crater and source of raw sulfur in east Java.

Already the day before we had observed the miners carrying their baskets, connected with a wooden stick across their shoulders and loaded with at least 60, but up to 100 kg of the yellow substance. They carry this unbelievably heavy and uncomfortable load two to three times per day. This means one long hour of hiking first up the crater and then down through the forest to earn three to five euros per load.

In the early hours we already met a couple of them marching uphill with their empty baskets. When we had made it up the forest path and through the sulfur-heavy air still before sunrise, we were rewarded by an incredible view of the smoking crater spilling its yellow treasure. The workers stood in the middle of the smoke, breaking the sulfur with iron bars and loading it into the baskets with their bare hands.

Most amazing were the blue flames of burning sulfur at the point where the substance emerges in liquid form from the earth and solidifies. These flames are hardly visible in daylight and complete a stunning and unforgettable scenery of yellow rock, the crater lake, the noise and smell of the acidic smoke and the moonlit crater walls.

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