Silence

For months, I’ve been drafting this post. I’ve been writing, rewriting, deleting, copying, editing, pasting. Reading, re-reading. Starting again.

For months, the idea of writing about silence crossed my mind. I took notes, wrote down ideas, key words, reflections. For months, while trying to write about silence I ended up experiencing it in various forms, and realized that translating the silence I wanted to talk about into words would be harder, waaaay harder, than feeling it.

Silence (noun): Quietness, quiet, quietude, still, stillness, hush, tranquility, noiselessness, soundlessness, peacefulness, peace (and quite).

I first thought about it in early February. Thanks to my amazing Argentine family, I spent a few days in Aconcagua National Park, surrounded by impressive mountains and under the eyes of Americas’ highest peak. In three days, I hiked from 1,000m above sea level to 4,200m. I felt my heart speed, my breath fail, the lack of oxygen, my legs became heavier, my mind played tricks with me. I also felt the power of nature, of the wind blowing in my face, of the cold when the sun hid behind the mountains or when it set allowing the stars to shine. Silence there was given.

Then, in April I joined a ten-days meditation retreat also near mountains, miles and miles away from the Argentine-Chilean border, across the Atlantic, during my first ever visit to the Mother continent. There, amid 8-12 hours of daily meditation, noble silence was a rule. I felt my heart speed, my breath fail, gross sensations all over my body, my mind playing tricks. But just like in February, I also felt the power of nature, I watched the sun rise and set, I crossed paths with an enormous tortoise, I heard crickets, beetles, frogs, flies, sounds of life in various forms and sizes.

These two experiences were different and similar at the same time. They were both physically exhausting and mentally challenging.

Do I have the strength to take one more step? Will my body just collapse because I can’t breath? Are we there yet? I can’t feel my legs, my back hurts, this sitting position is extremely uncomfortable, I can’t hold it longer. Is the hour over, can I open my eyes yet?

Although the body was the first to complain, the mind was the real challenge. Because even when everything around is quiet, and still, and apparently calm, the mind can throw crazy parties in your head. That’s the real challenge when it comes to silence. The silence of the mind.

Mind, that thing that is always going from one idea to the other, covering distances as if they didn’t exist, putting together thoughts and memories, analyzing, judging, planning, strategizing. However, if it wasn’t for the power of the mind, I would have easily turned back, missing the astonishing view of the Aconcagua from Plaza Francia or the unexplainable feeling of sitting still for hours acknowledging the sensations in my body that I didn’t even know existed.

The months that followed these experiences were also filled with silence. Words not written nor spoken, ideas that populated my mind but never left the safe space of my own thoughts. They were months of reflection, of digesting the feelings, sensations, and thoughts that crossed and keep crossing my mind.

During these months, I acknowledged that  silence is not necessarily the absence of sound. That it is quietude, stillness, tranquility, calmness. That it can take many forms, sometimes peaceful, sometimes anguished. From trekking in the Aconguagua, joining a meditation retreat to life in general, one can experience silence in many difference ways.

Sometimes I get into, what my friends call and I agree, my “Turtle Mode”. It’s basically when I withdraw myself from social interactions like a turtle withdraws from its surroundings by getting into its shell. In my case, it can happen when I don’t feel like going out and meeting people or even in the middle of a party or social event when I make my way to a quiet corner and stand there watching others, enjoying myself and my own silence, inside my imaginary shell. It doesn’t mean I’m not having fun or enjoying myself, it only means I am having fun while enjoying my silence.

It took me years to understand that I need my turtle mode. That this is actually my body and mind saying to me that silence is, for me at least, a basic need.

More recently, I was spending time with a group of friends, we had a full schedule with plenty of group activities and lots of socializing. Instead of listening to my self I kept going, I followed the schedule, I introduced myself to new people, kept conversations going, until I noticed I was becoming grumpy and even harsh towards those closer to me. After giving some thought, I realized I didn’t get into my turtle mode not even for five minutes during that period. Not respecting my need for silence almost ruined some of the most important relationships I have built over the years.

I realized that in order to respect myself and others around me silence is crucial. I don’t need to be up in the mountains or in a meditation retreat. I need silence to be able to listen to myself, to my mind, to my heart.

Silence is one of the few certainties I have in life. You should try to experience it too, it could change yours.

Want to experience silence in a “structured” way?

  • Aconcagua trekking: get in touch with Inka, they have an amazing team and the best infrastructure to explore the region.
  • Meditation retreat: there are plenty of retreats worldwide. If you want to learn more about Vipassana meditation, have a look at the website and find the location and dates that work better for you.

Travel notes – Myanmar

Yangon is a city I explored mainly on foot. People don’t usually spend too much time here, but a very good friend is living here and I very much wanted to spend time with her.

While she was at work I wandered and got lost in the humid and hot Yangon, alternating with work days when I’d find a Café with internet and spend hours looking at the computer screen.

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Shwedagon Pagoda
Shwedagon Pagoda is a must see. It’s the most important temple in Myanmar. Entrance fee for foreigners is 8000 kyat – a bit less than US$8. If you ever go and find the “Saturday corner” – you’ll understand once there – let me know; I was super disappointed I could not find it even after going around it three times.

After visiting the Pagoda, it’s worth checking Vista Bar, where there’s an impressive view of the temple, and the lemongrass lemonade is quite delicious. 🙂

Kalaw to Inle Lake trekking is one of the main attractions for foreigners. I usually try to avoid touristy things but I’m happy I did the 3-days trekking through villages (45000 kyats per person in a group of 5+). There I learned a few words in Burmese, such as choré and laré, both meaning beautiful or full of beauty. I got to ask locals about their lives and answered their questions mainly about 1) my age and 2) my country, then if I’m traveling alone, why, if I’m married or not, and so on.

As far as I can tell, the trekking is organized in a way that local villagers benefit from the tourism in the region. They host groups for tea, lunch, and for the night. If you are rested enough to wake up early you can enjoy a beautiful sunrise and witness the whole village coming to life in the very early morning. First getting water for tea, then letting the cattle out and laying the chilies to dry outside; you can smell the wood burning in the cook stoves, see the kids running outside. By 7:30 the streets were busy and full of people.

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Chilies going to the sun
Again the landscape reminded of Brazil. This time it took me to the Serra da Mantiqueira and to my grandparent’s ranch where I spent part of my childhood.

The trekking ended on a small river where we took a boat towards Inle Lake. The lake is very scenic and I couldn’t resist and jumped in the water for a quick swim. So refreshing!

Finally in Nyaungshwe I struggled a bit to find accommodation because the place was FULL due to the festival in Taunggyi – one of the largest, if not “the” largest, festival in Myanmar. Luckily I was able to find a hostel (10000 kyats) AND transportation (8000 kyats) to check out the last day of the festival.

Myiktyina is Kachin’s capital, 20 hours by train (8500 kyats, upper class) from Mandalay and 2 maybe 3 hours by car from the China border. I was the only foreigner on the train to and from Myiktyina, a city without much tourist attractions, a huge Christian – mainly Baptist – community, and a serious drug addiction problem among the youth. Because of the proximity to China, business with that country is an important source of income to most of the local families, being the trade of teak and jade, among other natural resources, the main economic activity.

While in Myiktyina, I visited one of the IDP (internal displaced people) camps that receives people who flee conflict in their villages. There I talked to a woman who’s been living in the camp since 2011. When asked how she deals with the uncertainty of being or not able to go back to her village she replied that she prays to God, that He is the only one who knows what her future will be like.

A beautiful day trip from Myiktyina is the place where the Irrawaddy (or Ayeyarwady) River starts, at the confluence of the Maika and Malikha Rivers. If carrying a large camera beware of a 1000 kyats “photography fee”. The Irrawaddy is the country’s main river and has enormous cultural importance to the Kachin people. More about the challenges linked to it can be found here.

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Where the Irrawaddy River starts
First time I visited Mandalay it was only for an overnight, on my way to Myitkyina. On the way back I decided to spend more than only a few hours and was quite happy with my decision.

I rented a bicycle (3000 kyats/day) and rode about 25-30km, from Mandalay Hill to the world’s longest teak bridge, stopping at Zay Cho market – where I couldn’t resist the fabrics and got myself two longyis – and making my way to the bridge by the riverside road. The sunset from the bridge was beautiful, and there I had a pleasant chat with a smiley monk. On my ride back to the hotel I thanked my years riding my bike in the Boston area – known by its very aggressive drivers – as I was riding confidently enough to make myself seen by trucks, buses, cars, scooters, other bicycles, and pedestrians despite not having bike lights, riding on occasional sand banks, and crossing dark streets. (don’t worry mom, I’m still alive and have all my body parts with me)

After spending the day exploring Mandalay I boarded the night train to Bagan (1800 kyats, ordinary class only) where I arrived at 3:30 in the morning, right in time to get an amazing spot at the White Temple to watch the sunrise. I‘m still looking for words to describe Bagan. All I can say is that this place will leave you speechless. Don’t give up after going to the most famous and busy temples. Rent an e-bike (I paid 5000 kyats/day) and allow yourself to get lost among the thousands of temples and you’ll find places to appreciate a quiet sunset or sunrise.

Bagan was also the place where I had two “first time” experiences. It was the first place I missed having a travel partner to share impressions, talk about the different temples, discuss which direction to take at a crossroad, and decide the best location for next day’ sunrise. Not that I did not enjoy it, I did! But I couldn’t help but think it would be nice to have company.

Not as romantic as the former, I had my first food poisoning experience in Southeast Asia. Not sure if it was the beer, the local food I had for lunch and dinner, or what. I just know it was not pleasant at all to wake up every 2 hours and climb down from my bunker bed in the middle of the night. Thankfully there’s Imodium, but I wouldn’t say I fully recovered yet.

From Bagan to Yangon I took the morning bus – not before enjoying one last sunrise (e-bike was 1900 kyats just for the sunrise). The trip took around 8-9 hours and once again I was transported to the Brazilian Cerrado as I watched the landscape through the bus’ window. The bus was super comfortable (13000 kyats) and I slept a good part of the way, hoping my stomach would behave.

Back in Yangon it was time to head to Mawlamyine for a Burmese wedding my friend was invited to – and I tagged along. Mawlamyine is the 4th largest city in Myanmar, something I could never tell. My impression was of a quiet town by the river where George Orwell lived, and that serves as stopping point for travelers arriving or leaving Myanmar through the border with Thailand. From there my first idea was to head south to Dawei, but the food poisoning is still bothering me, so I decided to head back to Yangon and enjoy having a “house” to stay for a couple of nights before hopping on a plane back to Bangkok.


Skills acquired throughout my life – and current highly valued by me:

  • Regular trips to the Amazon region from 2006 to 2010 >> ability to survive heat and humidity and to explore Yangon on foot
  • House/dog/cat-sitting during my last year in Boston >> ability to pack light, fast, and organized. Less is more. 
  • Bicycle as main mean of transportation in Massachusetts, home of the worst/most aggressive drivers in the USA >> ability to ride extra confidently among trucks, buses, cars, motorbikes, bicycles, pedestrians, and dogs without falling or being hit. 
  • A childhood eating dirt and a variety of weird bugs >> ability to avoid food poisoning for 2 months while eating a lot of street food in SE Asia. 

For frequent updates on my whereabouts follow @literal.uncertainty on Instagram 😉