Team Cracker Barrel: The Ultimate Abo Experience with Cody Lundin

Photos by Dean Bradshaw www.deanbradshaw.com

Smooth, fist-sized stones work very well as a toilet paper substitute.  I would know because I had to wipe my ass with stones for nine days.  Avoid the jagged stones or learn the hard way.  If you use rocks smaller than your fist you may get poo on your hand.  Take off your underwear and pants completely before pooping in the desert.  You may accidentally get crap on your clothes and that’s just embarrassing.  Not that I would know.  I’m just sayin’.

This was one of my first lessons in my primitive living skills course.  My instructors:  Mark Dorsten, Director of Field Operations & Logistics at Aboriginal Living Skills School, and Cody Lundin, Founder & Main Instructor of Aboriginal Living Skills School, and star of the Discovery Channel TV show, Dual Survival.  The other tribe members:  10 men.  I was the only woman.  Most of them were from the South.  Several of them had a military background or a military mentality at the very least.  I was raised by a single father in the Marine Corp so I felt right at home.  What I wasn’t prepared for was all the farting.

In late September 2013 my husband, Dean, and I drove to Prescott, Arizona to partake in a primitive living skills course called The Ultimate Abo.  No cell phones; no electronic devices allowed.  We spent the first six days making all of the things we would need to survive the last three days of the course.  We made bow drill sets, which we would used to make our own fire.  We used hot embers to make bowls; cottonwood to carve spoons; notched willow branches and parachute cord to construct our packframes.  We cut, dried, and tied cattail together to make mattress pads.  We spent an entire day weaving several feet of jute which we would later use as straps for our packframe, and for some of us, a canteen strap as well.  We cleaned and carved gourds to make our own canteen complete with cork.  We learned how to process the inner fibers of branches to make cordage which would serve multiple purposes including the making of a dead-fall trap.  We were expected to hunt, gather, and forage for our own food on the last three days.  We ate cattail, dandelion greens, parasitic oak; and went clamming and grass hopper hunting.  With the help of another tribe member, I caught and ate a mouse!

One of the most important things I learned was how to properly hold and use a knife.  It’s incredible how much pleasure one can derive from making things using only a knife and some branches.  My biggest victory was making fire.  I was just about to give up because everyone else in my group had successfully made fire with their bow drill sets and tinder bundles.  I struggled.  I found it near impossible to use my bow drill set, because I wasn’t strong enough to get my spindle spinning…or so I thought.  It wasn’t until the fifth day when one of the other tribe members noticed that my cordage was tied rather tight on my bow.  He adjusted the tension and I gave it another go.  Booyah!  I was creating smoke in less than a minute and soon after that I had a fat ember in my tinder bundle.  I carefully and steadily blew until I had a flame.  I was so overwhelmed with happiness that I started to shake and cry, and as a result I blew out my flame.  Quickly, I regained my focus and produced another flame.  I had made fire.

This was my favorite trip of the year.  It helped me achieve my goals of being more self-sufficient and independent.  The camaraderie of our tribe, even if only for 9 days, was so nourishing.  We were a team.  We depended on each other to work and function as one unit.  We had to share in all of the responsibilities from fetching water to cooking meals to gathering firewood.  We all had different strengths and weaknesses so every one of us was a valuable asset to the group.  This experience brought my husband and I closer together, because it brought out the very best in us.

At night, around the campfire we didn’t talk about personal stories, hopes, dreams, or goals.  We talked about food.  The Southerners of our group started talking about Cracker Barrel and it didn’t stop until well after the trip was over.  If we had turned it into a drinking game and took a swig every time someone said the name Cracker Barrel we would all be dead from alcohol poisoning.  But thankfully, we did not.  And on the evening of the ninth day, our tribe went to the local Cracker Barrel and ordered every breakfast item, buttery biscuits, and Chicken n’ Dumplins.

Sign up for the course here:  http://www.codylundin.com

Learn about Cody’s show:  http://dsc.discovery.com/tv-shows/dual-survival

Watch the first two seasons on Netflix:  http://movies.netflix.com/WiMovie/Dual_Survival/70211488?locale=en-US&noredir=true

Vegans beware.  Dead mouse photo included.

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Mountain Gorillas in Uganda

Millipedes, mushrooms, and mountain gorillas, oh my!

Meet the Habinyanja Mountain Gorilla family.  They live in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in south-western Uganda.  They’re majestic creatures who are surprisingly docile.

On November 23, 2011 my husband and I went with a Ugandan gorilla tracking group to see the gorillas in the wild.  Our group included Park Ranger Steve, several porters (who carried your backpack and other items, if you wanted help), a few Ugandan soldiers, and some fellow tourists.  The tourists in our group were from Finland and they brought their own English-speaking translator.

The gorilla family is constantly on the move.  It can take up to 6 hours or longer to find them.  We hiked with intention through the lush, wet mountains passing by millipedes, neon mushrooms, and God knows what else; there wasn’t a moment to lose.  Park Ranger Steve was our Ugandan guide.  He was so short that I thought he might be a Batwa, but I didn’t ask him as that could’ve been taken as an insult.  The Batwa pygmies lived in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest until they were forced out in 2001.

(To read more about the Batwa pygmies of Uganda, go here):  http://theherbalninja.com/2012/08/01/my-short-encounter-with-the-pygmies-of-uganda/

Park Ranger Steve was an amazing guide with his happy disposition and welcoming attitude.  He communicated by two-way radio with another ranger who was close to the gorillas.  The two of them worked together to get our group to the gorilla family as quickly as possible.

45 minutes later we had found them!  We were extremely lucky as the last group had to hike for 6 hours and one of their members was so exhausted that they couldn’t finish the trek.  When I first saw the gorillas I felt as though I had entered into a dream world.  It was late morning and the sun was shining bright; the sky was baby blue, the gorillas were peacefully eating leaves and green branches, and there were butterflies everywhere!  Hundreds of colorful butterflies happily dancing from one flower to the next.  A creamy brown butterfly perched itself on my finger as I took pictures of the gorillas.  The butterfly stayed with me for several minutes as I stared at her in awe.  I was so happy that I wanted to cry!  But there was no time for crying, because our time with the gorillas was very limited.

We maintained a distance of 10 feet from the gorillas as to not provoke or expose them.  Gorillas are susceptible to human diseases, and you are not allowed to do the trek if you are even a little sick.  “In many cases, tourism is the only thing that keeps mountain gorillas alive.  Environmental pressure around the park is intense with agriculture encroaching on park borders.  If the gorillas weren’t worth millions in tourist dollars every year, the government might not protect them at all.” – Mike Pugh of vagabonding.com.  Each tourist pays a $500 permit to see the gorillas and there is a limited amount of permits issued each day.  Half of the world’s critically endangered mountain gorillas live in Bwindi.  Their population is estimated roughly at 300.

On a lighter note mountain gorillas fart and poop A LOT.  I was surrounded by butterflies; baby gorillas were tumbling in the grass, and then the silence was broken when somebody ripped a loud, shocking fart, and then another, and another.  It just kept going on!  Gorillas are super gassy and, of course, that made me giggle.  It was probably from all the green branches that they were constantly eating.

It was incredible to see the baby gorillas interact with their mothers – they looked so much like small humans playing with their moms.  The silverback was the biggest of them all and he pounded his chest like Tarzan (or rather, vice versa).  I was surprised to see that some of the gorillas stared back at me; we held each other’s gaze for several seconds before they looked away.  They were more interested in resting or eating than looking at me.  They’ve seen many humans before and I think that they just want to be left alone; they don’t want to have to worry about a possible threat.

This was a once in a lifetime opportunity for me and I am so thankful that I got to have this experience.  I sincerely hope that these beautiful creatures will remain protected.


 


Malaria is Like the Flu (kind of)

In November of 2011 my husband and I flew over to Uganda with Invisible Children.  It was my first trip to Africa.  I got the required Yellow Fever vaccination and inquired about anti-malaria medication.  I was told by several people who had gone over to Uganda many times before that the anti-malaria pills were not necessary and in fact, they could make you feel terribly sick.  I was assured that malaria medication would be cheap and readily available in Uganda should I receive a bite from an infected mosquito.  I’ve never been a huge fan of taking prescription drugs and I didn’t truly understand how prevalent the disease was and is.  The personal testimonies from our experienced colleagues were enough evidence for my husband and I to decide to opt out of taking the preventative drugs.

During our 23 hours of flying time from Los Angeles to London to Uganda I caught my husband’s cold, got a cold sore, and started my period.  Needless to say, I was not feeling my best.  I was so exhausted and dizzy when our plane landed in Entebbe, Uganda.

After 10 days with the Invisible Children crew in Northern Uganda, my husband and I hired a guide to drive us to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest to see the gorillas.  Buhoma is the community that borders the forest and offers village walks to tourists.  Part of the tour included visiting the local medicine man, Alfonse Bifumbo.

http://www.pauleijkemans.com/

Alfonse was born in the Congo, hence his French name, and moved to Uganda as a young man.  His father was a traditional African healer who had passed on all of his knowledge of plants to his son.  Alfonse has been using herbs to cure people of their ailments and illnesses for decades.  From impotence to malaria to evil curses, Alfonse has an herbal remedy.

I had never met a ‘medicine man’ before and was intrigued.  One of my biggest passions is studying herbs and preparing herbal concoctions.  I was still experiencing intermittent dizziness and brain fog when we arrived at Alfonse’s house.  I asked Alfonse if he could look at my tongue (like in Chinese medicine) and tell me about my health.  Instead, he looked into my eyes and noticed a greenish tint on my irises.  He said that I was getting malaria.  I wasn’t surprised – I had been bitten by a few mosquitos about a week ago.  He also said that my husband was fine and didn’t have malaria.  I didn’t discount Alfonse’s words, but I knew that I would need some concrete evidence.

I videotaped Alfonse’s prediction.  You can watch it here:

A few days later our driver took us back to Kampala.  Our crappy van kicked up huge storms of dust for the 6 hour ride on the bumpy, pothole-ridden, dirt road.  Something was wrong; I usually looked out of the window and the people and the landscape.  I took pictures and had conversations with our driver, but all I wanted to do was just lay down on the backseat and go to sleep.  I had plenty of sleep the night before but I was still incredibly tired.  I slept for most of the 6 hour ride only to get up twice to eat a quick snack.

That evening after our driver had dropped us off in Kampala we reunited with our good friend, Steve, who suggested that I take a malaria blood test.  Testing facilities were not only abundant but also open until 10:00 PM.  The blood test only costed $2.00, so we went.  The lab technician was a young, stunning Ugandan woman with long, micro braids.  Her attitude was confident, comfortable, and bored.  I could see that her job did not challenge her in the least.  She moved through the motions mechanically and probably could’ve done it all with her eyes closed.  Alarm bells started going off in my head when she didn’t put on gloves before drawing my blood.  I asked her about this.  She took offense to my question and asked if I thought she was going to give me something.  I said, “No” but I was thinking “Maybe.”   I shared with her that it was standard practice in the United States to wear gloves for most procedures – especially when drawing blood. She said matter-of-factly that there wasn’t enough money to be equipped with all the necessary supplies.  We were off to a bad start.

10 minutes later she told me that I tested positive for malaria.  What?!?  I didn’t believe her.  In an instant the paranoia button in my brain had been switched to “On”.  I immediately thought that she was lying and that she marked my test positive to get me to buy the malaria pills from their pharmacy; I thought that she and the other employees at the testing center just wanted to scam me.  I wanted to look at my blood smear under the microscope, but she claimed that she had already disposed of it.  I wasn’t satisfied.  I asked to be retested because I wanted to see the parasites with my own eyes.  After much convincing and eventually pleading, she agreed.  At that moment I realized that she was not lying; she had no reason to lie.  She’d performed thousands of these tests before and malaria is as common in Africa as the flu is in the States (that’s what every Ugandan person told me anyway).  Now I was just genuinely interested in seeing what the parasites looked like.  My husband decided to get his blood tested, too.

I’ve taken people’s word for it; I’ve been gullible, naive, trusting, and I’ve been burned.  I’ve learned to be more skeptical and inquisitive, but that night in Kampala my healthy skepticism crossed over into paranoia.  Fortunately, the technician knew how to put my mind at ease.  She showed me a slide under the microscope with a blood sample from a man who had severe malaria.  The parasites were everywhere in his blood.  She then showed me my own blood smear and we had to look very carefully to find the parasites.  They were so small and so sparse that you really had to ‘play investigator’ in order to find them, but alas, they were there.  I was amazed; it was absolutely fascinating!  I wasn’t happy that I had malaria, but I was relieved to know that we had detected it during the early stages.  It’s when the disease goes undiagnosed does it become serious and possibly fatal.  My husband tested negative for malaria.  Alfonse, the medicine man, had been right.

The technician and I talked for awhile after the test had been completed.  She knew that I didn’t mean to offend her; she saw that I was just scared.  She shared with me that she’d gotten malaria 12 times so far.  She saw how interested I was in her ‘investigative work’ looking for the parasites under the microscope – I doubt that any of her local patients were as interested.  They were used to getting malaria; I was not.  Her attitude shifted and she suddenly became proud of her job.  She went on to share with me that she wanted to move to London to work because she made very little money in Uganda and she, too, wanted to have access to all the latest technology and medical supplies.  She felt like she wasn’t advancing in her current position at that testing center in Kampala.  She had seen my fear and I saw her’s.  What started with judgement and assumptions ended with understanding and compassion.

I purchased the malaria medication, Malanil, for $45.00 and finished taking it before I flew back home to the States.  To be on the safe side and put my mind at ease I got retested at my doctor’s office and the results came back negative.  It’s been 9 months since then.  I’ve taken herbs to detox and strengthen my liver, but I haven’t done an intense parasite cleanse yet.  I think now is the time and, of course, I’ll tell you all about it.

The moral of this story is to take the anti-malaria drugs before and during your stay in Africa.  Talk to your doctor about the specifics.  I will definitely do this next time.  I learned my lesson the hard way and I won’t make the same mistake twice.

My ‘Short’ Encounter with the Pygmies of Uganda

Uganda

Last year my husband and I spent Thanksgiving in Uganda (central Africa).  We made time to see a group of Batwa pygmies.  When I first met them I didn’t even notice how short they were.  They wore big smiles and had even bigger personalities.  They wore modern day clothing with some African flavor and they weren’t afraid of a little color.

The Batwa were evicted from the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest 10 years ago in 2001.  That was when their forest home became a national park to protect the 350 mountain gorillas living there.  Unfortunately, the Batwa were never compensated and they were faced with yet another problem:  They needed to make money.

As a way of earning an income they invite tourists to come watch them in a short performance.  They sing in their native language, Rukiga, and dance as they did when they lived in the forest.  They demonstrate how to make fire using sticks.  They display arts and crafts that they make by hand. Every day they make this temporary shop outside that showcases their handmade woven bowls, carved wooden gorillas, and gorilla drawings done by the children.  Gratuities are also happily accepted.

Dancing with them was a lot of fun and I can see this being the place where freaky deaky dancing originated.  But the best part was walking back to the village with them.  We were their last visitors that day and it was just starting to drizzle.  They packed up all of their wares, and started the trek back into the village.  Everything that they had they carried and the pregnant women were no exception.  Everyone helped.

One girl in particular gave me a lasting memory.  She took my hand and held it like we were old friends.  Her name was Sharon.  She was 12 years old.  She was small for her age and absolutely beautiful.  Her hair was short like a boy’s and her demeanor was gentle and unafraid.  We walked hand in hand all the way back to the village.  We were flanked by corn fields and bright green trees and so our path was narrow, but our hands never separated.  It was a ‘short’ experience but one of my favorites.

Look Within at Deer Park Monastery

“In, out.  Deep, slow.

Calm, ease.  Smile, release.

Present moment,

wonderful moment.”

I was standing outside with nuns, monks, and laypeople.  The majority of the monastics were Vietnamese.  We formed a circle and everyone started to sing, but because I didn’t know the song I listened to the words.  “In, out, deep, slow.”  My face turned bright red and I wondered if I had heard them right.  “Calm, ease, smile, release.”  I was so close to bursting into laughter, but instead I contorted my face into a bunch of weird expressions and somehow managed to not laugh out loud.  I didn’t mind the possibility of embarrassing myself – I just didn’t want to disrespect a bunch of nuns and monks in their home.

This is one of the many songs sung by the sangha (community) at Deer Park monastery.  All I could think about was sex!  I practice many of the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh, but I definitely have a sense of humor.  The students of Thich Nhat Hanh affectionately call him by his nickname, Thay.  Well, when Thay wrote this song, it was abundantly clear that he had never had sex before becoming a monk (at least I don’t think he ever had sex – I’ve never asked him personally though).  Don’t get me wrong – I love this song; it just makes me giggle.

I have a very deep respect for Thay and his teachings.  His words are so gentle and his messages are simple:  Be in the present moment; breathe; practice compassion and understanding; be aware – be mindful in all that you do.  Dwelling in the present moment and being mindful in all of your actions are his 2 main teachings.  These are very simple messages, but when put into action they can be very difficult to maintain.  How many of us can say that from the moment we wake up until the moment we go to sleep we are fully present in each and every moment?  Are we in the present moment while we’re brushing our teeth?  Are we in the present moment while we are eating our meal?  Are we in the present moment while we are having a conversation with a coworker or friend?  I’m usually not, but I’m working on it.  Some days are good and my awareness is heightened; I am able to deeply listen to others.  Other days I’m just irrational, scatter brained, or a multi-tasking machine.   My lifestyle continues to evolve as I find a rhythm that makes living in the present moment natural and familiar.

Let me just give you an example of what it is like to be in the present moment.  When I was staying at Deer Park I enjoyed eating my meals with the sangha.  The process is this:  You pay your respects before even entering the dining area, and what I mean by ‘paying your respects’ is that you place your hands together at your heart, and bow.  When you do this you are coming into the present moment, and you are showing your appreciation for the food that has been prepared for you.  Next, you offer respect by bowing before picking up your bowl and your spoon.  You serve yourself a portion of the vegetarian meal that has been prepared for you while keeping in mind that there are others waiting in line behind you.  You tend to have a bit more ‘portion control’ (the amount you serve yourself) when you’re in this type of situation.  You take your meal over to a table, but before you sit down you bow and show gratitude to the table and chair.  Once seated, you wait for everyone else to take their seats as well.  Meanwhile, your salivary glands become activated (which is great for aiding digestion) and your patience is tested.  Once everyone is seated a prayer is said aloud and everyone closes their eyes and listens while their palms are together at their hearts.  Then everyone opens their eyes and each person takes turns bowing to each other at their table as a way of showing respect for one another.  Finally, you say your own personal prayer in silence and bow towards your food.  This is your time to think of the people who prepared your food, the farmers who grew the food, the sun and the rain, and everyone else involved.  Now you can eat.

This entire process is done in complete silence.  This ritual isn’t as long as it seems and it’s actually quite enjoyable.  Personally, I love it.  You really come into the present moment.   Plus, the process helps facilitate proper digestion.  Digestion improves when we are relaxed, focused on eating, and enjoying our food.

When you eat at Deer Park you eat mindfully (or at least you try to).  You appreciate each bite and chew until your food is no longer solid.  This doesn’t always happen, but this is what we strive for.  Apparently, Thay chews his food 60 times before he swallows.  I’ve never actually witnessed this and I don’t really care to.  I do not count how many times I chew my food.  I just chew until I’m done.  That’s it.

I will say that the food at Deer Park is phenomenal and it would be very easy to eat like a vegetarian if all of your meals tasted this good.  Some of the dishes include marinated tofu, oriental mushrooms, rice, soups, quinoa, beans, lentils, and a wide variety of fresh fruits and vegetables.  I have always looked forward to their meals.

Now that we’ve talked in depth about eating at Deer Park let me tell you why I even went to Deer Park in the first place.

In the summer of 2010 I was a full-time student studying several modalities of holistic health.  I was engaged to be married for the second time in my life to a man I no longer loved.  We were going through a very long break-up process.  I knew that I didn’t want to be with him since February of 2010 and we didn’t officially break-up until September of 2010.  It became ‘official’ when he and I were no longer living together.  The romance had died out several months before that and the passion never truly existed.  I had come to a place in my life where I was no longer willing to settle in my relationship.  I knew that he wasn’t the one.

One night I was out at a bar with a girl friend.  A guy came up to me and we started talking.  He told me about Deer Park because he had just returned from a week long retreat and this was his first day back in the ‘real world.’  He went to Deer Park as a way of coping with his heartache.  His girlfriend of 3 years had just dumped him because she was on a ‘spiritual journey and needed to be free.’  He said that his experience at Deer Park was life changing, yet as I write this I can’t help but think that he was out at a bar the first night he came back from his retreat.  Deer Park doesn’t make your problems go away.  I found that out first hand.  But it does provide you with an atmosphere that is conducive to healing, and it helps you to explore the root cause of your pain.  Deer Park is a distraction-free, nurturing environment that allows you to meditate, listen to your heart, and explore the depths of your true essence.

This is exactly what I wanted to do, so without thinking too much about it I went online and booked a week long stay.  I was a little nervous about going because the idea of looking deeply within myself could be painful and could conjure up uncomfortable feelings.  I knew I needed to do it though.  I was ready to cleanse on all levels.

My belief is that you should only do things when you are truly ready.  If you end up missing out on an opportunity, then fine.  Learn from it and move on.  I was so ready to experience life at Deer Park and because I was in that state of mind I believe that it made my experience what it was:  One of the most profound moments in my life.

Deer Park is a Buddhist monastery.  The monastics practice Engaged Buddhism.   The ‘Engaged’ part means that one is able to apply these practices to their everyday life.  You don’t have to be a monastic and you don’t have to be a Buddhist to come to Deer Park.  In fact, I’ve seen clergy members of different faiths practice the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh at Deer Park.  Many religious folks come to Deer Park not to be converted, but to enhance their own relationship with their God.  Engaged Buddhism is more like a lifestyle rather than a religion.  I don’t agree with all of the teachings, but I agree with most of them.

The monastics discourage you from bringing your cell phone and laptop to the monastery.  My time at Deer Park was technology-free and I was happy to take a break from Facebook and text messaging if only for a week.  Smoking and drinking alcohol are not allowed.  The nuns and monks do their best to provide a healthy and healing environment for their guests and for themselves.  The moment I drove through the entrance gate, I felt compelled to turn off the radio, roll down the windows, and breathe in the fresh mountain air.  I drove slowly and listened to the wind; I invited the sunshine to warm my skin, and I let myself be moved by the wonder and awe of my new surroundings.  I was ready.

I stayed in Clarity Hamlet, which is the part of the monastery where the laywomen and nuns reside.  The women typically work and eat separately from the men, except during Days of Mindfulness when anyone is invited to come and partake in daily activities at the monastery.  I participated in walking meditation, the Dharma talk & discussion, chanting, mindful eating, and ‘total relaxation’.  The men and women reside separately because the nuns and monks of Deer Park have committed to a life of celibacy, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have sexual urges.  They’re human beings after all – no better or worse than any of us.  They have desires and temptations just like everybody else, and so it is important for them to create an environment that helps them to succeed in their practice.

This was my biggest qualm about becoming a nun:  No more romantic love.  And yes, I seriously considered becoming a nun.  By the end of my first week at Deer Park I was contemplating life as a monastic.  My perception of Deer Park was still romanticized, and I had not seen all that truly existed there yet.  I wasn’t so hung up on the idea of being celibate as I was about giving up my freedom to fall in love with a man and possibly get married someday.  Some of the nuns had become monastics after they had children.  I wasn’t sure at that time if I wanted to have children of my own, but I knew that I wanted to keep that option open.

I was assigned to the Mountain Lion hut.  Each of the cabins has a name and they sleep up to 6 people.  They have their own toilet and shower.  It’s luxury camping essentially.  You are provided with a bed and you supply your own linens.  I came well equipped with all of my little creature comforts to make my stay as enjoyable as possible.  I brought sheets, a blanket, and a sleeping bag.  My vitamins, books, journal, and aromatherapy sprays made their temporary home on my nightstand. I had plenty of colorful clothes and lots of delicious smelling shampoos, conditioners, and soaps.  I had earplugs for the night, a hat and sunscreen for the day, and a headlamp for walking to the early morning meditation session when the sun was still sleeping.  I set myself up for a really cozy experience and that’s exactly what I had.

I replaced my late night snacks with late night reading and meditation.  The monastics discouraged anyone from bringing their own food, but nevertheless, some overlooked that request and munched on Butterfingers.  I very affectionately called this lady “The Butterfinger Pusher.”  She was staying in my hut for a couple of days with one of her girl friends.  She would frequently ask me if I wanted any candy, and I would politely decline.  I wanted to respect the rules of the monastery.  This was their home and we were their guests.

I had 3 roommates.  Two of them were only staying for the weekend while Loulou and I were staying a full week.  I found it very interesting to witness the stark contrast between 2 of my roommates. “The Butterfinger Pusher” worked as a psychologist in San Diego.  She smoked cigarettes in our bathroom and used her cell phone.  She called everyone either “Baby” or “Sweetie”, and she snored like a bear.  During working meditation she worked the hardest in the garden.  She yanked up weeds, raked, and shoveled like a madwoman.  I got tired from just watching her.  Her body was always moving.  She cried to the nuns and they held her hand.  Loulou, on the other hand, was quiet and practiced deep listening.  She was a massage therapist from New York.  She went on walks by herself, read outside in the sun, and smiled at everyone she passed by.  Her energy was calm and wise.  She and I had deep, meaningful conversations.  Her beloved husband had passed away a few years ago and she was still healing from her grief.  These women were two very different people with a common bond:  They both felt pain and they both wanted to let it go.

I spent my free time going on hikes by myself, taking pictures, reading outside, and journaling about my thoughts.  I also spent time with my new friend, Margreeth – A Dutch woman in her late 30’s who had made arrangements to stay at Deer Park for 6 months.  There was an instant connection between us and I looked forward to having tea and good conversation with her outside of her hut.

Margreeth and I talked about what girls often talk about:  Boys.  We also shared stories about personal growth, our goals, fashion, experiences at the monastery, and wine.  Margreeth hadn’t had any wine since she’d been there and although I didn’t drink wine during my stay at Deer Park, I definitely had a glass or two or three when I was back at home.  It makes me think of what was normal for me then is no longer normal for me now.  That was 2 years ago.  I’m no longer drinking alcohol – not to prove anything and not to live by the guidelines of Thich Nhat Hanh, but because I am intolerant to alcohol.  It makes me feel bad physically, and the effects have only gotten way worse as I get older.  Margreeth is back living in Holland where she still practices the art of mindfulness.  She now has a blog of her own (pretapitu.blogspot.nl) that focuses on her 2 passions:  Style and mindfulness.  She has remained an amazing friend who I will cherish forever.

I have been to Deer Park numerous times after that initial week long retreat, but it was during that first week when I really grew as an individual.  I not only learned how to be comfortable by myself, but I came to enjoy it.  The most amazing thing about the experience was that I did not feel an ounce of anger during those 7 days.  For me, that was a pretty big deal.  I was able to be compassionate and understanding the entire time.  For the first time in my life I really loved myself.

You can learn more about Deer Park by visiting their website:  deerparkmonastery.org

Better yet, go visit during one of their Days of Mindfulness (usually held on Thursdays and Sundays.  Check the website for their schedule.)

My First Walk in Maui

When my girl friend told me that she was going to Maui for vacation I was envious.  When she told me that she had a timeshare there and that I could come I was amazed!  I looked at my finances and realized that I would have to make some quick money to pay for the plane ticket.  I found a bunch of old things hiding under a layer of dust in my garage, shined them up, and sold them on Craigslist.  The spring cleaning was done; my old things were now being used by people who wanted them; I made a decent amount of coin, and I was going to Maui!

I booked a direct flight from San Diego to Kahului, and flew in on April 20th, 2012.   I arrived 7 hours before my girl friend, and so I decided to do a little backpacking before she arrived.  I had never liked traveling by myself in the past, but I had come to a point in my life where i enjoyed challenging myself to think differently.  Baby steps.  I filled up my water bottle, set my backpack upright on a chair, crouched down and wiggled my arms through the straps of my enormous backpack.  As I stood up I thought, “Shit.  This is fucking heavy.”  My mind immediately started freaking out.  “There is no way you can do this.  This is ridiculous!  What the hell were you thinking?  You’re not even in shape!  Take off the bag and get a cab!,” screamed the voice inside my head.

I pressed the ‘OVERRIDE’ button inside my mind and started walking.  This was not the time to think; this was the time to do.  I walked up to the Hawaiian security officer near the exit and asked if he could point me in the direction of the beach.  I told him my plan of walking to Paia.  It was a 10 mile walk.  The most beautiful smile appeared on his face and he pointed me in the direction I needed to go.  He helped snap my water bottle onto my bag and I was off.

I don’t know how long it actually took me to get to the beach but once my feet touched the sand I felt like I had really arrived.  I just kind of reveled in the feeling.  After setting down my pack I dug out my Diana camera.  I walked along the shore for an hour or so and watched people kitesurfing; I admired the children and adults attempting to surf; I smiled at the people having picnics on the sand.  This was paradise!  The weather was 80 degrees and my skin loved the moisture in the air.  The ocean was a magical mixture of emerald green, electric blue, and turquoise.  I took my time; there was no rush, no place to be except right here.  At one point I found myself walking through someone’s backyard, but nobody cared.  The “NO TRESPASSING” signs weren’t for me.  I was greeted by every single car that passed by.

As I headed toward the main road I passed by some curious little bushes.  I stopped to smell their flowers when I noticed a metallic blue ladybug!  And then I saw a white one with little black spots.  I’d never seen these types of ladybugs before and they’re my absolute favorite bug, so you can imagine how excited I was.  They were everywhere!  I don’t think I ever would have noticed them if I hadn’t decided to walk.  That moment made it all worth it.

3.5 hours later I arrived in Paia.  It was better than I expected!  Just as I was entering the town I passed by 2 local Hawaiian guys about my age.  One of them looked up and greeted me with, “Sister.”  I was home.

My Filipino family lived in Oahu for many years when I was younger.  I lived in Honolulu for a year while I was in kindergarten.  That wasn’t a happy time in my life, and the experience somewhat scarred me.  This time was different.  I was all grown up, and it was time for a fresh start.

I had originally set out to find the Mantokuji Soto Zen Temple (mantokujimauitemple.org) in Paia.  Along the way I went by a Hawaiian shaved ice place so I decided to take a little pit stop.  The young girl behind the counter was super helpful and gave me directions to the temple, but her shaved ice tasted like crap.  The syrup was lame and artificial.  At the time, it didn’t bother me that much – I also didn’t have anything better to compare it to.  That’s no longer true.  But anyway, I was as happy as a clam.  Sunshine and friendly people were enough to make my day.

I headed out to find my temple.  I passed by some fellow backpackers but these guys had dreads, a layer of dirt covering them from head to toe, and a glazed over look in their eyes.  I would describe these characters to my new friend, Neil, a little bit later on.  I said they were like, “dirty hippies.”  He said to me in the nicest way possible, “They’re not real hippies.  They’re just dirty.”  One of them said to me, “Hey mama,” in a warm, accepting way.  I said “Hello” back and thought to myself, “Mama?”  It made me giggle.

The girl had given me the wrong directions, but that was a blessing in disguise.  I was at the Maui Dharma Center (www.mauidharma.org).  The Center was closed but the stupa was open and so was the garden area.  One of the Center workers was puttering around in the garden when I walked in with my backpack and snow cone in hand.  I claimed a nearby wooden bench and took a load off (literally) and basked in the sun’s rays.   I watched the gardener walk over to a tiny shrub in the shade and pull out not 1, but 2 tiny kittens!  He brought them over to me.  He told me that the mother was run over by a car recently and her kittens had no where to go, so they stayed at the Dharma Center.  The kittens climbed up onto my lap without hesitation or fear.  The white and apricot striped one rested in my shade while the black kitten climbed as high as he could on me, and then he fell asleep.  He just conked out right there on my lap.  I gently coaxed my camera out of my bag and started snapping photos of my newest friends.  I was having so much fun playing with the kitties that an hour passed by and I decided it was time to continue on my journey.

The Mantokuji Soto Zen Temple was very close and also very closed.  A cemetery neighbored the temple.  I didn’t feel like rolling around in the grass here, but I felt at peace.  This temple was very different from the last one – both were special in their own way.

After paying my respects I decided that it was time to go enjoy the beach.  I still had a couple of hours until my girl friend arrived.  In front of Johnny B’s burger shop was a middle-aged Hawaiian man with dark, leathery skin, long hair pulled back into a ponytail, and bright blue eyes.  He was helping someone when I walked by.  He stopped me and asked where I was heading.  I told him that I wanted to go to the beach (and from where I was it was about a mile to the nearest beach entrance).  He said, “Come with me.”  I normally don’t just follow a strange man somewhere when he tells me to, but my gut sensed that this guy was awesome.  “My name is Neil,” said the man who was the same age as my father.  “I’m Cat,” I said as I shook his hand.  Neil guided me past the restaurant and took me to a private beach entrance.  He unlocked it and we stepped into paradise.  I threw off my pack, flung off my Vibrams and plopped my bottom right into the sand.

Over the next 2 hours I would come to find out that Neil hangs around Johnny B’s every day doing security type work but he doesn’t get paid with money.  They give him free food and he goes surfing whenever he wants.  He doesn’t own a car or a cell phone.  I’m not really sure where he sleeps.  He said that he falls asleep on the beach sometimes and that he loves it; he’s a real-life beach bum (and I mean that in a good way).  He’s living his dream.

He got his blue eyes from his Puerto Rican grandmother.  His grandfather came over by boat from the Philippines and worked on a sugar plantation in the early 1900’s.  His grandfather fell in love with a Puerto Rican woman at one of the plantation camps and married her.  Neil also traced his Hawaiian roots back several generations.

Life wasn’t always this laid back for Neil.  He’s no longer with the mother of his daughter.  He’s been to jail – for what and how long?  I didn’t ask.  For once I didn’t want to know.  But Neil recently found Jesus Christ; he was a born again Christian.  He claimed that he had a personal experience with Jesus Christ and that made him a true believer; I didn’t refute him.  He was deeply rooted in his new relationship with Jesus, and I was very comfortable in not claiming to know what may or may not exist “out there.”

This was the perfect time to light up a joint.  I don’t typically smoke but when there’s a special occasion – like a deep conversation about religion on the beach with a new friend in Maui – I like to  take a couple of tokes of some good herb.  I don’t know if “God” heard us, but literally 5 minutes later one of Neil’s friends showed up with some local grass and offered us a joint.  Talk about divine intervention.  We smoked, and laughed, and watched the sea turtles pop their heads out of the ocean from time to time.  I told Neil about the energy work that I do and he let me give him a Reiki session right there on the beach.  I placed my palm on top of his and we meditated.  It felt very surreal.

The sun was starting to set when my cell phone rang.  My girl friend called to let me know that she was on her way over to pick me up in her rental car.  My face was sunburnt, my body was covered in sand, and I was a happy girl.  It was a perfect day.

My first time at Lightning in a Bottle! 2012

When I think of Lightning in a Bottle the first image that pops into my head is of a guy wearing assless chaps with a Puff the Magic Dragon plushie on the end of his penis.

This was my very first festival.  My husband and I didn’t know how long we would want to be there so we decided to try it out for 1 day.  We chose Sunday because it was my birthday.

Lightning in a Bottle is a celebration of art, music, performance, sustainability and life. It takes place annually on May 24th-28th at the Oak Canyon Ranch in Silverado, CA.

“In current usage, the word “freak” is commonly used to refer to a person with something strikingly unusual about their  appearance or behavior.”  I pulled this from Wikipedia.

I was in a sea of freaks.  I was one of them.  There were a few people who wore “normal” clothes, but they looked like the real freaks. Normal is boring, but totally accepted.  Everyone was accepted – how you dressed didn’t really matter.  Lightning in a Bottle is about being who you are and expressing it any way you like.  It’s a festival of non-judgement.  You want to let your boobies go bare?  No judgement.  You want to take drugs all week?  No problem.  How about men dressing in drag?  Welcome!  This is a place where you can hula hoop, climb installations, listen to music, get your face painted, do acro yoga, hear different speakers, experience gong therapy, eat vegetarian fare, dance all day and all night, take a nap on the grass, row a boat, and connect with people.

gong therapyLet me suggest that you wait until after a festival to start any kind of colon cleanse.  I had to learn the hard way.  I took a bunch of herbs before we arrived at the festival and then I bought a large veggie juice from one of the vendors inside.  We were there for over 12 hours that day and I must’ve used the Port A Pottie at least 15 times.  Needless to say, my poor bum was in a lot of pain from all the wiping.  Thank God I brought a package of baby wipes.  There were a few times when all of the Port A Potties ran out of toilet paper and I thanked my lucky stars that the ones I chose always had a little teepee to spare.  I don’t want to get too graphic, but some of the Port A Potties were nasty – poo on the freakin toilet seat.  Someone had totally missed the hole and shat all over the seat.  Just gross.  I ended up holding it in until a “clean” Port A Pottie became available.  The whole colon cleansing incident played a huge part in my overall experience.  I was still able to have a good time – I just couldn’t eat anything unless I wanted to go back in line for the toilet.  You may say I was a “party pooper.”  haha!  I love making myself laugh.

Cat and DeanOverall, I’m glad I went.  I wasn’t high on any drugs (although I think this would have been a great place to do it) and I didn’t drink any alcohol.  I felt a bit of ‘sensory overload’ at times when I wanted to just be still and enjoy some quiet.  When I danced, I danced with all my heart and I loved it.  I felt free in my movements and I felt the music inside of me.

Would I go again?  Perhaps, but I want to experience so many other things, too.  I haven’t been to Coachella or Burning Man and both of those are on my list.

dancing