After the morning prayer at the crack of dawn, I put on my stinky hiking boots and follow the cobblestone road to the river. It curves uphill around the monastery and then slightly downhill above a beautiful golf course and towards a bridge.
I jog downhill, taking in the scenic outlines of Dali's old town illuminated by the soft morning light. The sun is rising behind the hills on the east shore of Erhai Lake. I follow a trail that winds along the river until I reach the water and the rocks. I pick up a rock—a very small one the first day, then larger and larger the days after. I place it on a folded T-shirt on the top of my head and walk back, past the monastery, down the stairs to the practice space. When I throw the rock onto the ground I feel relived and accomplished already.
It is 7:30am.
Time for a stretch and some light punch throwing until the breakfast gong. And what am I doing in a Buddhist monastery? I came here to study kung fu (gong fu) a few days ago. You know, like Uma Thurman in Kill Bill. Ju-u-ust kidding.
There is no Bill. And I will not really be able to master kung fu in a week, unfortunately. However, I just wanted to give it a try, see if I like it, maybe continue with it when I go back to wherever I'm going back to. I've been keen on marshal arts since I was a teenager. I even trained karate for a year. That was before I twisted my ankle and got out of it, never to return, to a great extent discouraged by some high school friends. Those guys claimed that a six-pack does not look sexy on a woman. It has been 20 years since. Those guys now have double and triple chins and beer bellies. It's true. I saw the class reunion pictures and gulped in horror how old I really am.
For more information about the many sights and sounds of Dali, check out our Dali travel guide!
Anyway, back to the monastery. The plan is to spend a week or so here, so I make myself comfortable. I spread my sweaty T-shirt and slacks on one of the beds and my sleeping bag on another. My room on the second floor is wooden, basic and unkept. It has three wooden beds with dusty mattresses and wooden frames covered in wax from candles burned by previous occupants. It's dark inside with the only light coming through the glassless windows that face the corridor. The corridor windows, opposite my room, are covered with carved wooden shades overlooking the monastery's inside yard. Even on a bright day it's very dark. There's no electricity either or hot water. And no meat. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner is rice and vegetables. As a vegetarian, I'm loving it. After the daily struggle to order anything without meat in China, I eat with no fear and great appetite.
The days at the monastery are all the same, yet not quite. For one, the ache in my body increases every day. It's beyond sore. I actually wake up during the night from the pain to switch sides. And you have to switch sides, because it ain't a soft bed either.
On day two, Shing Ming (or Shimmi as the Israeli students call him) declares that I'm definitely made for kung fu rather than tai chi, which is the other learning option. His observation is made while couple of the other female students are "helping" me to do the splits while lying on my back. My legs are stretched up and out in the air. It is a, um, strange pose. Shimmi's observation has something to do either with my flexibility, or with the anger and pain in my eyes. I think it's the latter.
Shimmi is not a monk, although he has lived at the monastery for almost four years. He wants to become a kung fu master, which means he will have to stay here for another few years. Yup, it takes quite a few years to get there. On day three and a half, my pain starts to wear off. After the afternoon practice I'm almost pain free. Great! That means that after the week is over and I'm back to my usual non-workout routine, I'll have to go through the same excruciating pain one more time, this time for doing nothing.
When you follow the same daily routine, you start to notice the little things, the subtleties. Somehow I find myself appreciating the differences instead of despising the monotony. Can that be applied to a coffee-office-lunch-coffee-office-dinner routine? Marco is cheating today and not carrying a rock at all. Shing Shing, my mentor monk, is yapping away on his mobile on the way to the river.
How does he charge his phone and who is he calling that early, anyway? He looks happy. He stops his conversation to say good morning but more so to acknowledge the size of the rock on my head. Ohhhhh big one, he smiles appreciatively. And the day goes on.
Today is totally different than any other day at the monastery. To begin with, it is raining, so no one goes to the river for a rock. Instead, I do some sun salutations with Han under the shelter at the entrance of the monastery. The monks think it's cool. We trade some stretching tips.
The morale after breakfast is low and the practice session in lax. No one is in a mood to work out too hard. The sheltered space is smaller and it limits the number of jump kicks you can do in a row.
Instead, the guys are busy showing off and jumping as high as they can. The really impressive jumps are rewarded with "Whaa Seee!" delivered with the same tone of voice as the "What'z Uuuuup" greeting in the Heineken commercial.
Beyond his incredible fitness, he has a posture, a presence. He seems to be in a world of his own, where every move is perfect and every punch is powerful. It's actually very pleasing to watch. In the afternoon someone brings out a biceps spring. You know, a stick of steel that you grab by the ends and slowly bend and unbend it. Everybody gives it a go. Shimmi wants to know how many times I can bend it. I bend it twice, while he is edging away from me, ready to jump. I laugh at him, but he shows me a bruise on his chest where the spring hit when he accidentally let go one of the ends. There is a bigger spring, but I don't even try for that on. We go back to practice. Some time later, there's a commotion. Something's happening. I look in the direction that everyone is looking and my eyes fall on Mimbo. He slowly paces the courtyard, expressionless, soundless. His left eye is gone. There's a bright red blob that matches the color of his belt.
It's like a scene from those kung-fu movies. He doesn't say a word, he just paces. "He hit himself with the spring", someone says loudly.
"He hit himself with the spring!"
I don't want to believe it. A feeling of loss overwhelms me for something beautiful is broken. I look away in denial. It is not happening. I look again. It is happening indeed.
Then, I remember that I'm supposed to have first aid training and run for the first aid kit. Running back into the courtyard I yell: "Where is he? Where is he!!" Mimbo is by a large mirror leaning against the wall in the little corridor that leads to the kitchen, staring at his face, blood streaming down his chick and neck.
Shimmi is helping him to mop the blood with toilet paper. I yell at them to not worry about this now. "Shimmi," I say, "call a taxi, we are going to the hospital. Call a taxi NOW! Mimbo, sit DOWN!" Mimbo looks around not knowing where exactly to sit. I point to the ground. Someone brings a small stool and Mimbo sits on it leaning against the wall. He is calm. I look at his eye and a sense of relief pours down on me. His eye seems intact, not even bloody. He's split his eyelid and the blood is streaming from there. It's a severe wound. There is a large blob filled with yellow liquid. But his eye is intact. I open my first aid kit and frantically look for something to patch him with, yelling at Shimmi to stop mopping that blood and call a taxi. "Mimbo, you want to go to a hospital, right?" I ask. "Yes, I think so," he says softly. "Here, hold this," I hold a sterile patch to his eye with the tips of my left hand, while trying to get the sticky tape out of the first aid kid. I flash back to my firs taid instructor telling us that the last thing you want to be doing in an emergency is looking for the sticky tape's loose edge, so better have it folded. Note to self: fold the bloody edge for the next time. What else did he say? Reassure the victim. Make physical contact if necessary. I'm holding my fingers against Mimbo's forehead. Is that reassuring enough physical contact? I really want to give him a hug and tell him that he's gonna be alright but I think that will be awkward and less reassuring to him than to me. My hands are shaking and I wonder if he can feel that.
The taxi comes and a crowd of people head for the hospital: Shimmi, a couple of the local students, Dan, myself and Mimbo, of course. I'm surprised that no one protests against me going. They let me sit in the front. As we head down to Dali, I turn around to check on Mimbo and see one of the local guys handing out cigarettes.
"What are you doing?!", I raise my voice in outrage. He doesn't understand, so I show with hands that:
a) This is not allowed, and
b) I'll smack him.
Mimbo says that he'd like to have one, but I say that he cannot. Then I ask him what exactly he thinks will happen when he smokes a cigarette after he hasn't had one for a while. "You'll get sick", I end my tirade.
"But I smoke sometimes", he tries to reason. "Oh ya? When was your last cigarette?" "A-hu, yesterday... I smoke four to five a day" "What?! You smoke four to five a day?!" I give him a look, poisonous enough to alleviate the nicotine craving for a while. "Well, you cannot smoke now," I say firmly, following my first aid instructions. At the hospital, we all sit outside the doctor's office. The nurse calls the doctor on his mobile. He will be arriving shortly. We wait. And wait. And wait.
The door of the room across from us is open. There is a scale right next to the door. Mimbo gets up and gets on the scale, than sits back on the bench with a big exhale. "What?" I say jokingly, "need to go on a diet?" "Yes", he replies, "three more kilos." Now that really makes me smile. I know three kilos make a difference when you run. They probably make even bigger difference when you are flipping forward and jump kicking, but please. This guy is a solid muscle.
"Mimbo, you'll have to lose your muscle weight," I say smiling. "Ah, no, I still have some fat," he says modestly, but I can see a little smile. "I really want a cigarette." Now he is whining like a little kid who has finished all on his plate and wants to get to the dessert already. The local guy shows him he'll be smacked if he does that and everybody looks kind of expectantly at me. I think I'm pushing my luck here. It's in a way very comical. On a physical level, these guys can squash me as a little annoying bug, yet they are asking for my permission to smoke: a birth right in this country. I give them the disappointed mother look and say: "You are grown ups. Suit yourself."
They settle for a fag right by the non-smoking sign in the hospital lobby. The doctor is yet to come. So, what happened to Mimbo in the end? I don't know for sure. The doctors patched him up and told him to come back in the morning. He could see, but his eye was bruised. That's all I know. I'm really kicking myself for not taking his email to check on him later. After the hospital we all have dinner. Mimbo decides to stay in Dali—cleaner and closer to the hospital.
Now, since we all are in town already, the guys don't want to go back to the monastery just yet. Shimmi says they want to "play." How do guys who live in a monastery "play" on their night out? We're about to discover how. Dan, the Englishman who uses his words sparsely, tells me that the Chinese guys were really getting off checking out the Chinese chicks while we were having dinner. I hadn't noticed, so subtle they were.
Anyways, after dinner the group splits, with the Chinese guys going one way and Shimmi, Dan and myself going to the pool hall. That's it. The extend of Shimmi's naughtiness was to play pool instead of praying. Ah, yea, we missed the night prayer, obviously.
Dan and I get a beer each. We want to split one (Chinese beer bottles are 600ml), but there are no glasses, so we have a bottle each. We finish our beers, meet up with the rest of the group and take a taxi back to the monastery.
The guys are giving out chewing gum to disguise the alcohol breath. I felt like I'm in high school and about to meet the principle. Next morning the first question everybody's asking is.... no, it isn't "How is Mimbo?", it's "How much can you drink?" Well, I assume Shimmi has spread the word that Mimbo is alright, so no one really needed to ask me about that, still.
We are all in the front yard under the shelter, hiding from the rain, stretching, and waiting for breakfast. Shimmi gazes at me trying to make a split and ask curiously: "How much can you drink?". Eight beers, I say. I don't know why I say eight. It is a gross overstatement of my drinking abilities, but it winds him up. "REALLY?! I can't drink much at all. I don't like it." "Better for you mate," I say with a "case closed" tone.
There are no more discussions on the subject but for the rest of the day the guys give me half-admiring, half-disappointed looks for being a drinker. There are universal values and universally revered skills that impress guys everywhere, even at a monastery. It appears that being able to drink someone under the table is one of them.
About the Author
Viktoria Orizarska is originally from Sofia, Bulgaria, but spent the last seven years of her careed as a credit analyst in New York and London. On October 2007, she quit her corporate life and set off on a trip around the world that would last over a year. She brought with her only a backpack, two cameras, a laptop, two T-shirts, two pairs of slacks, one sweater, one jacket and a towel. The adventure started in London, then took her to Israel, Tibet, Nepal, India, Singapore, New Zealand, Australia, Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, China, Venezula, Peru, Uruguay, Brazil, Chile, Argentina, New York and Copenhagen.
Her trip was cheap, partially because she was was budget backpacking, but mostly because she was traveling through some beautiful, but really poor countries. No longer wishing to be a helpless observer of poverty, she made one of her goals for the trip to raise enough money to send 100 girls to school by raising funds for Room to Read, a non-profit organization that builds schools and libraries, and provides long term scholarships to girls in Southeast Asia, India and Nepal.
Since its inception in 2000, Room to Read has impacted the lives of over 1.3 million children by combining fundraising efforts in the West and the commited involvement of the local communities. Over 3/4 of all illiterate adults in the world are female. When a family hits a rough financial patch, girls are the first one to drop out of school and be send to work, married off or even pushed into prostitution. It only takes $250 per year, to allow a girl to get back to school.
In a recent Fundraising Photo Auction in New York, Viktoria raised $8,500 for Room to Read. If you would like to contribute to Viktoria's fund, go here. To check out more of her photos and travel stories, go to her blog The World From Vicky's Point of View. Photos by Dorien Fabier.