Kung-fu thoughts

Trip Start Oct 08, 2007
Trip End Dec 16, 2008

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Flag of China  , Yunnan,
Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The day starts at 5:30 with a gong. I don't have to get up just yet. The melodic chanting, almost singing of a monk, gently brings me out of my dreams. After 9 months of travel I finally found the one place that doesn't need fixing. This monastery is perfect.  
After the morning prayer, just 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 extension construction site and then slightly downhill above a beautiful golf course and towards a bridge. Sometimes I run downhill, taking in the scenic outlines of Dali old town, illuminated by the soft morning light.  The sun is rising behind the hills on the east shore of Dali Lake. I follow a trail that winds along the river until I reach the water and the rocks. I pick one - 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 7:30. 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 few days ago. You know, like Uma Thurman in Kill Bill. Ju-u-ust kidding. There is no Bill. And I will not learn kung-fu in a week. 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 extend discouraged by some high school friends. Those guys claimed that 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 is true. I saw the class reunion pictures and gulped in horror how old I really am.
By a mere coincidence the book I bring to the monastery doesn't fit the place or the purpose, but fits the going-back-to-what-you-use-to-love theme. It is a detective novel and a good one too. Before my 14th birthday, there were two authors only on my reading list - Raymond Chandler and Douglas Adams. It was my dream to become a detective and solve tangled murder mysteries. It must have been more than a dream actually. My parents were concerned enough about my career plans to ask a friend of a friend, who was a police inspector to have a chat with me. I remember this talk till today. He asked me if I was really, really sure I wanted to be a detective. He said he will tell me what I needed to do. But he also said one more thing - you have to understand, he said, that if you become a detective, you'll spend the rest of your life dealing with the scam of the earth. You'll see the worst of human condition, things you may never have to know otherwise. Day after day. Think about it. I did. I decided I don't want that. Then I ended up in finance. See the irony?
Anyways, 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 3 wooden beds with dusty mattresses and wooden frames covered in wax from candles burned by previous occupants. It is dark insight. The only light comes through the glassless windows that face the corridor. The corridor windows, opposite my room, are covered with carved wood shades overlooking the monastery inside yard. Even on a bright day it is very dark. There's no electricity either. Neither is there a hot water. And no meat. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner is rice and vegetables. 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 it causes 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 am definitely a kung-fu (rather than tai chi, which is the other learning option). He's observation is made while couple of the other female students are "helping" me to do a split while lying on my back. My legs are stretched up and out in the air. It is a, hum, 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 4 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 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 caring 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, anyways. He looks happy. He stops his conversation to say good morning but more so to acknowledge the size of the rock on my head. Ohh big one, he smiles appreciatively. And the day goes on.


Photes by Yael Hakim and Dorien Faber

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