Posted by: Carolyn ODonnell | March 16, 2013

Malaysia: Sleeping and meditating

Raising the red lanterns: Hainan temple in Muntri St, Georgetown

Raising the red lanterns: Hainan temple in Muntri Street, Georgetown

After six months in India I was exhausted and in need of respite in a quiet, clean, not overly crowded place.
Penang was calling, the food, my friends and the stuff I had left there. For various reasons I ended up staying in someone’s unused office near a rather noisy mosque and then had the trials of Chinese New Year to face, but when I stepped off the ferry in George Town, Penang seemed an oasis of heavenly quiet and calm with drivers who stopped when you were crossing the street, or at least slowed down a little to avoid splattering you over the road.
The train from Bangkok is quite good, especially if you get a lower berth. Because it crosses borders, the ticket is a bit tricky to purchase abroad unless you use an agent. But in the country itself it is quite easy. I’m not especially large, but I find a lower berth quite spacious and because they make up the bed for you with a little foam mattress it is quite comfy for a train. Quite comfy for a cheap guesthouse too. The man in seat 61 likes trains of all kinds and has advice on train travel in Thailand. But it is super simple to get a ticket at Hua Lamphong, the rail terminus in Bangkok.
The train offers beverages of dubious quality, but some French people brought a small electric jug with them so they could make their own coffee.
The first couple of weeks I was back I slept a lot, caught up with some work and felt like a zombie. I tried to shake off a cough that started on December 27, but it tenaciously hung in there, dry at night and irritating my throat during the day. Constantly clearing my throat was driving me mad and probably everyone around me too.
At the beginning of February I went to see a Chinese Western doctor. I told him I’d been in India and I probably needed to be tested for parasites. He’d spent five years in India so he knew what I meant, but he didn’t think I needed to be tested for wriggly wormy things.
After talking for a while about the subcontinent, he gave me cough syrup, antibiotics and anti histamines. He said the anti-histamines might make me drowsy, but no such luck. I’d been staying up late Skyping friends in Britain and new friends in India would start texting me at 10 or 11pm their time which was well after midnight. This was far too much encouragement to develop strange nocturnal habits. Anyway, the doctor thought I was probably allergic to something and as I was leaving he said to drop in any time for a chat.
I took the medication, started to feel better, then packed myself up to go on a Vipassana meditation course – ten days of no talking, 4am starts and vegetables. Plus ten hours of meditation a day, no phone, no internet, no alcohol.
The night before I went I was feeling great ambivalence; I knew the course would be good for me but those 4am starts were putting me off. I did ten days in a Thai monastery once, so I knew what to expect. In the midst of this I was emailing one of the travel editors at the Huffington Post and he said I should write about the experience. I wasn’t intending to, but it turned out the teacher, SN Goenka, is quite pleased if students use whatever skills they have to further the Vipassana cause, so here is the result:

Wat Ram Poeng in Thailand: With lotus flowers for Budhha's birthday. White is not my colour

Wat Ram Poeng in Thailand: With lotus flowers for Budhha’s birthday. White is not my colour

This was followed by Part Two, a diary of surviving not only the Vipassana, but the dormitory living that went with it. Phlegm, honking, dentures, I was tested in many, many ways. However Vipassana is all about maintaining your equanimity. I had a gut pain that lasted for nine days, my legs throbbed and my cough returned, but my equanimity took on new life, like raw dough rising in warm sun, or sea monkeys dropped in water.

Ten hours of meditation a day is not on the cards in the normal world. Two hours a day is what we are supposed to do. I aim for an hour and am quite pleased mostly with that.
My friends at Areca books also published a new volume on Penang’s early history under the East India Company, and I interviewed the book’s author, Marcus Langdon, when I wasn’t coughing. You can read the interview (and order the book) here:

This looks like I am trying to sell a gaudy display home, but it is actually a Chinese opera set used in one of the many performances that take place around Penang

This looks like I am trying to sell a gaudy display home, but it is actually a Chinese opera set used in one of the many performances that take place around Penang

Meanwhile dear friends in Bangkok had a vacant slot – no, not a dopey friend but some space in their guest bedroom. They are so popular they need to put all their visitors on a spreadsheet, so I booked a train ticket from Malaysia to the Big Mango on the pleasing Thai train service.
Just before I left my friend Ang Huah took me to the Buddhist free clinic for another bash at getting rid of this cough. It would be nearly three months old soon, and while that ls a nice milestone for a puppy or a pot plant, it’s less exhilarating for an ailment. For an RM2 donation I saw the doctor and she gave me pills and a tonic to “get rid of my phlegm”. Then I could come back and see her about my increasingly weird sleeping patterns: I just feel tired all the time.
The night before I got on the train I had a creative vision when I went to bed, which was rather pleasant, but it kept me awake for about 2 hours. I wish I could have creative visions at a sensible time, say 2pm in the afternoon, which would perk me up a bit during the hot part of the day.
Still, writing down the details of my writing of my creative vision would keep me busy during an afternoon of rail travel, and as Oscar Wilde wrote, it’s good to have something sensational to read on the train.

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