I’d spent my Christmas pilgrimaging my way up into the hills of Mandalay in the back of a taxi on the phone to my nearest and dearest, wishing them a Merry Laurieless Christmas, paying little attention to my surroundings and giving zero real thought to the next bizarre little adventure I was about to embark on.
VIPASSANA DAY 0
As I opened up the taxi door, swivelled my body left and put my two feet on the white stone path, I felt the rush of excitement fill my veins from the ground up; my first steps on the next part of my adventure, the next chapter.
I was at Dhamma Mandala meditation centre, high up on Yetakhon Hill overlooking Mandalay. The setting sun was lighting up the oatmeal-coloured backdrop and the shabby tropical garden I found myself in.
The air was notably cooler than what I’d been used to and a gentle breeze was rustling through the leaves.
There were so many people – much more than I’d expected.
Locals, dressed in longhis and shawls, thick knitted cardigans, big bright fleece tops and crochet beanie hats, were happily dawdling around and jabbering together with such slow paced familiarly it was as though they were in their own garden at home.
The newcomers were whizzing around frantically with their backpacks and blankets, signing forms and looking lost.
Once settled, they grouped together on wooden benches, their bronzed shoulders draped in bohemian scarves tickled by hair that’s on its way to being dreadlocked and wearing those cliché baggy elephant trousers in every colour of the rainbow.
I was ushered into the dining hall, gently pushed down onto a plastic stool and handed a form to fill in. I love filling in forms. And as the pen hit the paper, more and more, my reality was sinking in.
I’d completely forgotten that it was, in actual fact, December 25th and that back in the real world I would be dressed up in something sparkly and drinking something sparkling.
Instead, I just stared around wide-eyed at my pretty little prison and wondered what on earth was going to unfold over the next ten days.
As I continued to scribble out my answers, I noticed a lady was hovering around the end of my table. She must have been in her late fifties, had long fiery gingery hair, a slim pale face with enviably high cheekbones and a pretty collection of face freckles.
Her name was Carmen and she was Irish – I knew those skin tones and colourings had to be Irish. She was friendly and warm and had a shimmering of zaniness about her, something a little bit Vivenne Westwoodesque, and it drew me in.
We nattered away before I was ushered back out of the dining hall, given my blankets and shown to my room by a really small, petite lady named Kim, who I later nicknamed Lil Kim for obvious reasons. She was also taking part in the retreat but as an old student who had done a vipassana course before, she was helping out getting us new students settled.
I walked up the four steps leading into a little pale grey chalet where I was greeted by new room mate for the next ten days; Cathy, soon to be known as Chatty Cathy.
Her energy was palpable. She was talking at speed – excited, and anxious and nervous and openly cynical about the whole thing, and also making her arachnophobic tendencies loud and clear as we stood in a room full of eight-legged guests.
She told me she was from Shanghai and so to distract her from the hoard of crawling creatures dangling above our heads, I dove into the little treasure trove of useless facts I have stored in my cranium somewhere and started telling her how Shanghai and Liverpool are sister cities.
Her face lit up, the energy relaxed a little and within those first few moments, not long before chalet A4 would fall silently still, Chatty Cathy and I became Shanghai Sisters.
AROUND THE CAMPFIRE
As the last drops of daylight faded away and the small round orange lanterns that decorated the trees began to glow, fairy lights began to twinkle and the stars came out to play, we gathered around outside the Dhamma Meditation Hall
I was mingling with the mediators and it felt almost like we were sitting around a campfire telling our tales of tragedy and triumph.
There’s something so honest and pure about the conversations you have at this type of place that I just can’t get enough of. It’s almost like there’s a ban on bullshit and everybody has something honest and interesting to say.
People aren’t there to give you pleasantries or mindless chatter. They’re not there to sugarcoat our existence, give you fake smiles and robotic replies or small talk. They’re there to face reality square on in the face, they’re there to search for the truth from within and they’re all about doing good stuff to be a better them.
There was one girl from China and when I asked why she was there, she told me that because of China’s One Child Policy, her mother had always wanted a boy and so she’d been brought up feeling resented and unwanted.
I remembered learning about that law in school when I was eleven years old and I distinctly remember thinking how cruel and controlling it was, but I didn’t have the awareness or insight back then to consider the tidal wave of psychological damage that must have crashed down on the biggest nation in the world.
And here it was stood in front of me, all the pain of China’s One-Child-children caged inside a long-suffering human mind that wanted to break free.
I could see the hurt in her eyes, my own welled up and my heart broke, but after a few moments I began to smile. I realised she was in exactly the right place, we all were, and our make-believe campfire was surrounded by Heroes.
My very last spoken words of 2018 were not as powerfully philosophical or melodramatically reflective as I’d hoped; it was just me and Chatty Cathy talking about a Crypto currency conference in Albania when the first bell chimed loudly and all of our babbling came to an abrupt halt.
We were summoned to the bottom of the steps leading into the hall, where we waited patiently and silently under the starry skies until our names were called from a list.
When it was my turn, I shrugged off my sandals, slowly tiptoed into the hall barefoot and sat myself down on the marine blue meditation cushion labelled number 55.
The room was filling up with bodies, cosily layered up in shawls and blankets. I looked upon them with envy, dithering in a thin black jumpsuit and one of my most favourite yet impractical items – a sage green vintage cardigan, decorated with beautiful hand sewn beaded flowers, so sheer that it’s almost invisible.
For a few minutes while the lights were still on, I sat there cross-legged rubbing my thighs for warmth and zooming into every detail of the delicately deteriorating hall. I took a thousand photographs with my mind and wondered what it is with Burma and the colour turquoise.
Then the lights went out.
I took a deep breath, closed my eyes and whispered out a Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night.