Vipassana – 10 days of monastic living

“A Vipassana retreat is a mental gym and the meditation sessions are like lifting weights”

Meditation. Yes. Believe it or not, I was in need of some. Here’s how it happened…

I took the bus to Dolores, a pueblito 5km from Capilla de Monte. Curiously, nearby Cerro Uritorco is famous for an extremely high number of UFO sightings and a rumoured subterranean community dwell under the mountain. Loco 🙂

"Change my perception...change my world" - coincidence at the bus station on my way to Dolores

“Change my perception…change my world” – coincidence at the bus station on my way to find ‘my marbles’ in Dolores

I was on my way to my first Vipassana course. After two years of curiosity and much whisper on the grapevine, an opportune moment had finally opened it’s petals like a lotus flower.

What is Vipassana?

It’s a type of secular Meditation taught at centres across the globe. Vi-passana means ‘seeing things as they really are’ in Pali, a language spoken at the time of the Buddha in India 2,500 years ago.

This technique of mind purification was taught by a wonderful evangelical Myanmese man named S.N. Goenka during his lifetime. 

And what does it do?

Through practice, Vipassana cultivates mindfulness: the ability to observe each moment with awakened, sharpened senses. The technique also teaches Equanimity, the art of observing rather than following addictive feelings of craving and aversion that can drive us all potty. Another fundamental to Vipassana is the Law of Impermanence and ‘Anitcha’ meaning ‘always changing’ which teaches the futility of clinging (on to things, thoughts, ideas) a self-destructive habit that inevitably leads to misery.

So far so good, si?!

gautama buddha

A man called Gautama became ‘the Buddha’ meaning ‘the Enlightened One’ when he unlocked the secret of life through meditation.


Witty and charming S.N. Goenka (1924-2013) was a wealthy businessman from a rich family before changing his path and touring the world teaching Vipassana meditation to anyone willing to commit to the discipline of 10-day course. Compassionately, he also took the course into prisons.

Sensory blindness

Why Vipassana?

Somehow, I was stuck in a rushing rut.  Apparently, there’s a name for this ingrained habit, it’s called ‘hurry sickness’ when you feel a constant urge to rush even when there’s no reason to.

It was time to confront this imaginary treadmill! The quality of my day to day experience had been suffering for too long – yes, despite those amazing Patagonian peaks!! My sense of intuition had become murky and I was thirsting for some kind of mental deep clean.


Lessons in the Art of Living

This was what I signed up to. As students we were asked to ‘surrender’ to a (no.1) disciplined routine of 11 hours of meditation daily rising starting at 4.30am and finishing each day at 9.30pm. 

To (no.2) Noble Silence. In order for the ‘chattering mind’ to settle, no communication is allowed for the duration – yes – this means no speaking, eye contact, physical contact, no conversation, no interaction. So-called ‘noble’ because everyone commits to this for communal benefit.


On arrival at the centre I was reminded of another condition of Vipassana: (no.3) the segregation of men and women. And never the twain shall meet as a result of a rope dividing the site into two separate gender zones.

After registration we (no.4) relinquished our mobile phones, car keys, valuables and any writing or reading material.

With all distractions are removed, preparing to scrub down to begin the “mental surgery” (Goenka’s words!) we changed into (no.5) modest loose clothing covering our legs and shoulders and prepared for an early night!


Oh Dahlias!

We’re all in this together!

I was content. No speaking for 10 days was a welcome change in gear to constant social interaction. Paz! Peace.

The tightly woven routine meant that there was little room to ruminate, to fret over decision making. Like a lassoed wild pony my mind gradually began to relax into submission.

I was within a small isolated world where 100 of us, students and serving staff, were committed to the same squeaky-clean standard. There was a nest-like comfort in that. Camaraderie and kinship were high. Valio la pena! This is worth it!


Just like all those negative thinking habits the ‘leaves’ fell from ‘the tree’ (my miiiiiiiiind!)

La Rutina

Each day we were roused out of our slumber by a gong (grrrr!).

By 4.25am I was outside wrapped in my meditation blanket gazing up at the starry sky and taking in some deep breaths of fresh autumnal air.

Mi cubiercama became the perfect meditation blanket and stopped me taking myself too seriously :-)

Mi cubrecama became the perfect meditation blanket plus fleecey pandas are always a good thing

The gong sounded again at 4.30am and it was time to assume crossed-legged position in ‘la sala’, a hall with a snug grid formation of other students, eyes closed, sat upright, breathing slowly….sometimes to the point of snoring. One memorable morning, one of the chaps was shaken gently awake after…. the fine veil between meditation and sleep had merged.

By 6.30am stomachs were growling and the gong (yay!) sounded for breakfast. There was time until 8am to have ‘un descanso’ = back to bed for some extra sleep.


Not for the faint hearted. Should I stay or should I go?!

Silent days & hard work

(…is the name of a Vipassana blog post by Amelie, ‘un estudiante antiguo’ and one of many lovely people I met on the course. Her title was too good not to recycle.)

From 8am the marathon of meditation really began with hourly sessions for the rest of the day and the 9 days to follow.

Our sanity was saved with 10-minute comfort breaks in between. A walk around the garden to gaze at the origami petals of Dahlias or flop back and find entertainment in passing clouds high above became engrossing as my noisy brain quietened.

TIME! to study the perfectly folded petals of these Dahlias and feel the marvel that they deserve. What a luxury :-)

TIME! to study the perfectly folded petals of these Dahlias and feel the marvel that they deserve. What a luxury

Has Anyone seen my Marbles?

I’d signed up to my first Vipassana with very little meditation experience so arrived with some trepidation…..what if I lost my marbles, threw a wobbly and embarrassed myself?!


To my relief, this didn’t happen 🙂 All gratitude to La Professor Alicia, a very smiley patient person leading the camp and my favourite time of day: recorded lectures from Mr. Goenka himself every evening. These offered the same comfort as bedtime stories. Through his wise delivery laden with witty anecdotes we were coaxed into the technique:

1. Of observing my natural breath & rising happy thoughts (craving) and unhappy thoughts (aversion). We did this for 3 days.

2…progressing to observing the small sensation of air passing through my nostrils.

Over a further 3 days I learnt the deep concentration to channel focus, like a magnifying glass, on this sensation and greet those rising thoughts of craving and aversion with equanimity. It felt like tightrope walking with a blindfold in fog – tricky! 

old anatomy 1

3…and finally progressing to observing sensations across the body through a mental scan “from the crown of the head to the tips of the toes”.

Super-high concentration required! but eventually I could feel my pulse quietly beating away in the skin of my cheeks…tension in the little muscles at my temples and in my throat…those miniature movements within my very own body, wow.

4.By day 5 we were also practising a stage of the training called ‘Strong Determination’. This was defined by sitting in the same position motionless for 1 hour 3x times a day. As inevitable pain arose we focused our new-found mind mastery skills (loud cough) in observing and (theoretically) lessening the unpleasant sensation. Hmmmmm…

More Yumi insight

I think comic artist Yumi Sakugawa knows a thing or two about Vipassana (

—-Sl-o-w-l-y—–does it

Just when I was wanted to kick-out at this asylum lifestyle with internal bursts of tantrum, Goenka’s witty telepathic explanations set me back on ‘el camino’/ the path. Morale was restored! The technique felt manageable, enjoyable through the personal discovery, challenging – oh yes! – but I felt progress —-s-l-o-w-l-y—- unfurling just like the unfolding petals of those Dahlias.

I enjoyed moments of clarity as the ability to observe became easier. I began to find an albeit slippery grip on the elusive sense of Equanimity as my desire to escape into daydream or ruminate and replay former ‘negativities’ rose up again and again and again.

The quote at the start of this story is pretty accurate expression of my Vipassana experience. This mental re-training was and continues to be HARD WORK!

Imagine herding cats….

yumi sakugawa meditation 1

….more Yumi insight….

Valio la Pena!

To conclude: after 10 days of incubation, my senses were significantly more sensitive and that was a novelty. I’d learnt some basics in ‘ Art of Living’. Thank you Mr. Goenka!

I could settle in moments and pay (and enjoy!) attention where that attention had once been swamped with mental junk. Hurrah!

Once the rule of Noble Silence was lifted it was strange to notice that only short conversations were possible before a headache and sore throat began from heightened sensitivity.

And…..I’d experienced a glimpse of something subtle but brilliant. To get there had been hard work undoubtedly but now, with the understanding that through self-mastery another experience of life is lying there parallel, I sincerely look forward to my next Vipassana undertaking, some time later in 2016 to top up!

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A Glacier and a Rest

Call me a pansy but after weeks of hitchhiking, camping and many damp days in lush green Chile I was hankering for some cosy R&R by the time I reached El Calafate.


My little pop-up dwelling on the banks of Lago Rivadavia

Emotional Digestion

The introvert in me yearned for a warm quiet room with blankets, hot tea and a window from which to gaze. To daydream, …reflect, …read. A term I’ve coined is emotional digestion.

For me, travelling longer term is only possible when I heed the call of this restorative time. Dashing from one place to another –sin una pausa- is my idea of hell.


Glacier Perito Moreno, looking like a dead ringer for a wedge of polystyrene

A Glacier puts TIME into perspective

However, I met lovely people as soon as I arrived. The next day the sun shone brightly and an invitation was there to join Lalo, Fernando and Stingy Nomads Alya and Campbell and see the anticipated Perito Moreno glacier.

Together we made a pilgrimage to this icy landscape in the mountains 80 kms north of El Calafate.


Here’s a sense of where El Calafate is in relation to the rest of the country

Who was Perito Moreno anyway?

Francisco ‘Perito’ Moreno was an Argentine explorer and scientist of the Patagonian landscape. Perito means ‘specialist’ or ‘expert’. This beast of a glacier, named in his honour is one of only three glaciers in Patagonia that is not retreating.

Perito Moreno

Francisco ‘Perito’ Moreno (1852-1919)

Forever in flux this startling entity creaks, gushes and sheds ice but grows slowly too. Wooden terraces on one side allow you to see the glacier from above or lower down near laguna level where it attaches to the earth on the shore.

I found a quiet place to sit and begin my comprehension of this Thing yearning for the company of a geologist to make it all: Make Sense!


Vital Statistics

The glacier measures 3 miles (5 km) wide and 19 miles (30km) in length. It covers 97 mi² (250 km²).

The ice measures 60 m high on average although at it’s greatest it reaches 700 m. Apparently only 10% is visible with the remaining 90% bobbing away under all of that turquoise water.


“Glacier Perito Moreno is one of 48 glaciers that comprise the Southern Patagonian Ice Field. With an area of 6,800 mi² (16,800 km²) it is the second largest contiguous ice field in the world, stretching across the southern Andes, measuring almost 220 miles (355 km) long and 30 miles (48 km) wide. Along with the Northern Patagonian Ice Field, these present day ice fields are remnants of the last Ice Age (18,000-17,500 years ago), when all of southern Chile and Argentina was covered in a thick sheet of ice (an area estimated to be about 480,000 km² or just under 300,000 mi²)” (Source here)


A quick sketch in my notebook trying to make sense of time and how a glacier slowly comes into existence

My Understanding

Over thousands of years the glacier has grown through accumulation, rather like an icicle. Falling rain and snow in the valley between two mountain peaks land, freeze and compress in conditions that are continuously cold. As a result, according to the Guarda Parque, all of this compacted ice slowly grows into being the awesome ever-changing glacial mass that it is today.


A Glacial Guru

The invitation to sit and muse over these huge stretches of time came at a perfect moment. There before me was a gargantuan metaphor offering a lesson of life in the slow lane. It’s not the first time I’ve looked to the landscape around me for life coaching. My guru.

A memory was also sparked back to the wise words of young Sam, a tall tanned Californian and hitchhiking buddy on the roadside of Villa Castillo, Chile.

“The rush…?

…we’re only rushing against ourselves”


Orientation in Villa Castillo, Chile


Camionettas and combis turned Cocina cafe for hungry hitchhikers in Villa Castillo, Chile

Such simple words and I decided he was right. I understood for a short while that this sense of speed was illusory and addictive. The choice is always there to step-off that imaginary hamster wheel and reset your metronome to your own pace.

Well, that was what I planned to do anyway.





A ride out of Tres Lagos with Pedro

Six hours later in the day Pedro, a retiree from Neuquen offers me a much-coveted ride to El Calafate. I am wary of accepting lifts from single men of divorcee age but quiz him a series of questions and feel safe enough to accept.

The past six hours passed surprisingly quickly with a combination of snacking, thinking and finally, as always, bad pop and a Flight of the Conchords album that poses as my best friend. These songs still make me laugh out loud despite one thousand listens or more.

We speed out into the huge Patagonia landscape of dry golden pampa. Ruta 40 is a premium here: a lazily strewn ribbon reaching into the horizon….. Ciao Tres Lagos!

I sense that Pedro is a little deaf. He doesn’t seem to understand a word I’m saying despite my best rolled “Rrrrrrrrr”‘s! which is a little worrying with a 1.5 hour journey ahead. This is remote territory with nothing for mile”’lometres and I don’t want to be ejected from this ride and forced to wait on an extremely lonely roadside….. without wind shelter, dog or a bumblebee for morale. Perhaps a Guanacho might befriend me if I’m lucky.

I realise that I’ve committed myself, there’s no turning back now. I spin a tale about a makebelieve boyfriend waiting for me in El Calafate….and a sister….and friends to encourage extra safety.

When my anxiety wains I begin to notice the landscape. Wow! Barren, yes, but the earth is a sea of golden tufts of hair and as we pass the summit of a low brow, behold: a lake of creamy turquoise. I think of Dune.


Frank Herbert’s 1965 Sci-fi classic of desert planet Arrakis and the Fremen with glowing eyes of blue. Thank you for this image of the book.

We reach El Calafate quickly. I must be adapted to these epic long journeys now that this one felt brief. Pedro reminds me of my Grandad. He tells me about his adult children and explains the meanings of their Mapuche names: Nahuel (=puma, tiger), Malen (=maiden) and Antu (=sun). He enthuses about his dream motorhome. We both cheer when we reach El Calafate! After all he’s driven nearly 2000kms over 2 days and I too have had the uncertainty of ever leaving Tres Lagos.

Shops….people….stuff….green trees….alfajores….!

It seems I’m a domesticated animal after all 😀

The Goddess of the Road looks favourably upon me!

There was a bottleneck of Backpackers in Puerto Rio Tranquilo

I kept bumping into the same faces. Many of us, with our Chilean $ pesos running low were staying in the ultra-ultra-budget campsite in town. What you lose in basic services you gain in camaraderie: the cheap places are always the friendliest 🙂


The town’s popularity is the result of the beautiful Capilla de Marmol, the ‘chapel of marble’ caves out on a Laguna General Carrera. Whipped cream rock formations on transparently turquoise waters, you’d be forgiven for thinking you were in the Caribbean if it weren’t for the nippingly fresh wind.







How to get to Chile Chico?

I had only $10,000 (£10) left in my pocket and still 165 kilometres left to cover before Chile Chico and the prized border back to Argentina. Chilean Patagonia had haemorrhaged my savings. I was feeling anxious and a little stranded.

With so much competition, hitchhiking out of here felt almost impossible. The season was almost over and only a trickle of vehicles were passing through.

Nevertheless, I chose to wear my bright pink tight that day in the hope that I might stand out from the crowd of roadside thumbs.


The Pink Tights worked magic!

No sooner was I concocting rescue Plans B & C when two twin-like Aussies pulled up in a white Chevrolet. I loitered like a street dog drooling for a bone. As they bid their previous hiker ‘adieu’ and I blurted out,

“Van a Chile Chico? Hablan Ingles….? Hello! Where are you chaps headed? …..Do you have space for me…..pllll….ease?!”

I stuttered in disbelief  

…when I heard their affirmative response – really? Really? “Are you sure?!” Miracle workers! they agreed to have me aboard in that relaxedly Aussie drawl I love. We were on our way to Los Antiguos, the first town after the border crossing and I felt like I’d won a Golden Ticket to Willy Wonker’s Chocolate Factory!


Ruta 40 goes on and on and on….remote plains of pampa and family groups of Guanacos pose by the roadside

Road Tripping

What began as a ride across the border turned into two days of travel with Francesca and Anthony, sister and brother scientists from the Blue Mountains of Sydney. They shared their love of canyoning and mountaineering in remote places all over the world that left me yearning for more.


Francesca in Grotto Canyon, Apiring National Park, New Zealand

I heard about their father’s backpacking travels across India during the late sixties – a man I’d love to interview! what a dude.

From the unique ecology of New Zealand and the national parks of the United States….to the recent time they found a young woman gravely injured from her car crash in the Californian desert and rescued her back to safety.

Over humble meals of bread, tomato and cheese (‘Backpackers’ Delight’) we enthused about our favourite flavoursome foods from Asia.

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The words of Marie Curie (pioneering Polish-French physicist and chemist, 1867-1934). She was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize and, the first and only person to win it twice.

A conversation highlight was Frank’s animated description (in layman’s terms for me) of the wonder of Proteins, a subject at the heart of her phD research. Wonderful images grew and duplicated like cells in my imagination as she described their place in everything within our bodies, our organs, the systems that govern our physical function and outside of us, all around us, in everything! Marie Curie’s words came to mind.


From Los Antiguos to Perito Moreno to Bajo Caracoles to Tres Lagos….we covered 704kms together. That feeling of good fortune never wained thanks to their familial company and all the fabulous stories.

‘Dedo’ – Hitchhiking along Ruta 40

Pointing the finger / Pointing the ‘dedo’

In Spanish the thumb is also called a finger, hence to ‘thumb a ride’ is to ‘dedo’.

It may sound silly but hitchhiking is there amongst my childhood dreams. As a young whipper-snapper in sleepy town Suffolk I envisioned true travel as sharing the back of a pick-up with local farm workers in a far away land.

In Argentina ‘dedo’ was something I was ready to try.


La Peatonal Pasarella, the wooden foot bridge leaving El Bolson

Nevertheless, all the reasonable anxieties of una mochillera sola extrangera / single female backpacker kept nagging away,

  • What if my ride turns out to also be a charismatic psychopath?
  • Do I speak Spanish well enough to hold a long conversation?
  • What if I get robbed or lost in the middle of nowhere?


It wasn’t until I reached the hippie town of El Bolson, south of Bariloche and met Andre, that I was ready to get started.



Tent living is made all the better with a constant supply of tea 😀

Mi Maestro

We met in budget $60 (£3) camping across the river. I was the only extrangera within a camping community of South American bohemian travellers escaping the cities for summertime work, selling their ‘artesania’ or touring in bands.

Two days of relentless rain storm left all us seeking dry refuge in the rough wooden cabin that served as a kitchen. The innate desire to share —COMPARTIR!!— meant that food was busily prepared and bubbling away on the stove for everyone who was to join the congregation.

It was such a toasty night of macrame and drawing around the table, bottles of beer and wine passed like mate, from one to another along with songs and stories. We ate steaming hot comida under one dangling bright light bulb suspended above a long wooden table.


I don’t think the wooden walls of this little shack had ever felt such good cheer!

As well as the usual conversation comparing countries and languages we compared confusion at jazz music theory and listened to old cheerful tunes from the 1920s. Andre twanged a version of Durazno Sangrando, an Argentine classic by amazing Luis Spinetta. Common to the others but new to me was the strangely beautiful tale of a bleeding peach.

Leaving El Bolson

The next day, after lots of chat about the ‘what ifs and where fors’ Andre helped me find a good spot for a ride out of the town: by the gasolina station after the supermarket.

I was ready! and it was thanks to him and some encouragement, for giving me that —final—–gentle—–push——

Within 30 minutes Katia, a ceramicist from El Hoyo offered me a ride and I was on the road!


‘Immigrant Way’, a name that made me smile as I waited for another ride


El Hoyo, town abundant in raspberry, strawberry, blackberry farms


Dancing with Dario in Cordoba

Vacaciones de Navidad
Lunes, 28 Deciembre

Dario taught a swing dance classes in Parque las Tejas/ Tiles park. Despite now living in Buenos Aires, he’s sowing small seeds and nurturing a swing dance community in his home city of Cordoba. Some of those in the class are hip hop and house dance enthusiasts as well as Dai Zapata, an experienced Cordobes tap dancer.

As it was Dario’s last night we had to commemorate the occasion with a dance under the white bridge with the Christmas tree of lights in the distance.

Although barely audible we’re dancing to ‘Wham’ by The Hot Sugar Band.

Behind the Screams – My First Bite as a Scare Actor

In pursuit of another journey to South America working and saving has taken over my life and I haven’t danced since July! What horror! Am I losing my way?! Despite a daily morning stretch routine and lots of walking my body feels like a concertina, compressed and stiff.

Concertina 1

Appropriate floating hands Addams Family concertina tinkering.

Just when I begin to feel ever more disillusioned I meet Greta and she tells me all about ‘Scare Acting’ for a Halloween event called Primevil.

Opportunity knocks!

“You’re paid to run around at night writhing, convulsing and springing out on the roaming audience. It’s very physical” she tells me. Physical is what I yearn for – I need no more convincing.


A glimpse of Zone 64 at the start of our shift.


Collage Guineapigs

Primevil Zone64

Ghoulishly Good

Primevil takes place over 3 weeks in the middle of the Norfolk countryside. Groups of actors inhabit various themed spots in the woods and all are briefed to scare the living be-geezus out of the curious punters.

I apply and go through auditions, casting and training in advance of the official opening. A fabulous professional scare actress by the name of Rosie leads us through physical theatre games during one training session. Through our bodies we morph from human to zombie to rabid animal to amoeba flinching on the floor. It’s brilliant fun!


I’m assigned to Street Crew, a team who entertain those queueing up for the different attractions. It’s all improvisation, developing a character and seeing how he/she/it evolves through the night. This is wonderful! I’m being paid to explore street theatre with an open brief…few restrictions. Maintaining stamina during a 6 hour shift by: “bottomline: always staying in character” is taking me out of my comfort zone.


Peach the Clown

Air Hostess by day, evil Clown by night

Inspiration kicks in and I debut as Peach the Clown, a twerking ‘quirking’ hula hooping wanderer with a shrill voice. Feedback from those I pester is that I’m more funny than scary! Scaring doesn’t come naturally to me but Silly it would appear does. I partner up with ‘Cuddles’ my Clown sibling, or in real life: Kay, an air hostess.

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“Clowns aren’t creepy enough”

The following night I’m asked to dress as a Zombie. The management team have decided that Clowns are not sufficiently disturbing for queue scaring. I rummage through the dressing up boxes and emerge in a new incarnation: Bartholemew a lisping Cub Scout. Bartholemew’s character develops over the next few nights and I grow to love him.



I sing arpeggios and encourage the queue to join in (Singing badge). I carry a rubber severed arm and squeak that this is the remaining body part of my mother (who I’ve eaten for my Butchery badge).

I’m a demented Oliver Twist.

I marvel at the bobbles of bobble hats and offer people ‘crisps’ in the form of dirty Autumn leaves. I do ‘expressive dance’ whilst spasming occasionally all in aid of earning my Dance badge. Again – visitor feedback is that I’m sweet rather than scary and some ask if they can take me home, ha! I’m delighted!

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Multi-Tasking Mutants

As Primevil continues I work in other guises too: as an Undertaker…..a Cabaret singing Scarecrow along with Greta. We work from the ‘Forest of Fear’ leaping out from the trees ‘jump scaring’. I also adopt the angst of a doomed patient at zombie infested Zone 64 medical unit twitching and warning innocent visitors to “stay clooooooose”.

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All in all what better way to while away those October evenings (dancing in the conventional sense, aside)? My Primevil experience was invigorating and blew those cobwebs away.

Primevil Chris Makeup


Primevil Young Starling

Primevil Bride