Category Archives: Culture

Living with monks in Nepal

This month Meg and I signed up for a two week volunteer program teaching English to ‘baby monks’ in a Tibetan monastery. It turned out to be completely different to how I’d imagined, and also one of the best things I’ve done in my trip.

Pema Ts’al Sakya Monastic Institute is a school and monastery that houses boys as young as four, who are sent there for their education. They are all from Tibetan refugee families who have left Tibet because of Chinese occupation. In the monastery they receive a high quality education that their parents would not have been able to afford, and they study Tibetan Buddism and language (both of which are under threat because Chinese language and culture is now dominant in Tibet). Not all of the students are monks, only those who choose to be. The boys don’t pay anything as the monastery and students are sponsored.

The boys were so far from the subdued, disciplined monks we anticipated. There were cheeky, sweet and full of personality – just normal schoolboys. There were ninety altogether – sixty in the six school grades and thirty studying their philosophy college degree. The volunteers were also some of the best people. They came from USA, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Spain, England and were intelligent, genuine, talkative. There were lots of heated debates over the dinner tables.

The food was nice but repetitive. Tibetan bread for breakfast with potatoes, beans, peas or (if we were lucky) peanut butter and jam. Always dahl bat for lunch (rice, veg curry and lentil soup) – occasionally with a piece of fruit, bowl of yoghurt or a boiled egg. Dinner was very plain, steamed bread with miso soup/bean and egg soup/dahl, or fried rice or noodles with a tiny hint of carrot and onion. We went to Pokhara on the weekends to get our fill of fresh fruit and veg, sometimes meat, and of course coffee (and beer)!

There was no reliable wifi at the monastery and we only used it one morning of the whole time we were there. It was far nicer to be cut off from the world and engage in the life of the monastery. By the end I felt out of the loop with everything happening in Sydney and for that matter the world. It was so hard to leave and if we hadn’t already booked our flights to Myanmar we would have stayed an extra two weeks. As it was we only had three days spare so we stayed as long as we could – in total 2.5 weeks.

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This building is where us volunteers and the college monks slept

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Messing round before bedtime

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Swimming in the river behind the monastery

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One of my favourites in the classroom

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The youngest monk dressing up as me

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The 10 best free activities in Berlin

Note: this article doesn’t really cover the obvious tourist attractions, which most people already know about. I’ve covered some lesser-known, interesting and authentic Berlin experiences that are f-r-e-e!

Living in Berlin for the past two months on a tight budget, I’ve investigated pretty much every possible option for saving money while still experiencing the city. Luckily, Berlin is full of people like me (such as travellers, students and those doing never-ending unpaid internships) and the powers that be have taken pity on us.

Aside from the well-known free attractions like Brandenburger Tor, East Side Gallery on the Berlin Wall and Unter den Linden, there’s many essential Berlin things to see and do that are completely free. It’s especially easy to save money if you’re in Berlin for more than a few days, because you’ll be able to plan your schedule around the times when certain attractions have free entry.

In no particular order, the ten best free activities I’ve discovered are:

1. Memorials
Situated mainly around Brandenburger Tor and Tiergarten are touching memorials to groups who were persecuted by the Nazis. There’s the endlessly photographed Holocaust memorial, the homosexual memorial and a memorial to Sinti and Gypsy people. There’s a memorial for the book burnings, and you’ll also notice the gold plaques in front of apartments throughout the city to recognise the former homes of Jews who were killed by Nazis. Each memorial is designed in a beautiful, meaningful way and all are free.

2. Parklife
‘Gartens’ are a very popular leisure activity for Berliners in spring and summer. As soon as the sun comes out the parks are full, even during business hours (I’ve come to the conclusion that not many Berliners keep normal working hours). In the absence of beaches, people bring blankets and swimmers to the park. Tiergarten is the largest and most impressive, but each has its own atmosphere and typical crowd. For example, Görtlitzer Park turns into an outdoor party every weekend for the hipsters of Kreuzberg.

3. Museums
The best known museums and galleries such as the Pergamon are expensive, and if you want to do a few of them, definitely buy the three-day pass for €24. With most of the popular museums charging €10 each, you can save about €30 by visiting two each day for three days. Keep in mind that most are closed Mondays and some are closed Tuesdays, and plan your time around the locations, some of which are quite spread out.

By the way: I can recommend the Pergamon, Alte and Neue Nationalgaleries, Museum Berggruen, Museum für Fotografie and Sammlung Schaff-Gerstenberg Museum. I found the Alte Museum overpriced and a little boring.

But if you can’t even afford that, there’s two other options. The first is to visit the free museums, like Berliner Dom, German-Russian Museum, Sachsenhausen Memorial and the Topography of Terror. Secondly, many have free entry one day a week or one day a month. Ephraim-Palais, Maerkishes Museum and Nikolai Church all offer free entry on the first Wednesday of the month. Get your free (!) brochure ‘Museums to Enjoy’ by Visit Berlin from a tourism office, which lists all the major museums along with a description, directions, opening hours and cost (as well as which days, if any, are free).

4. The Bundestag/Reichstag
The huge and beautiful parliament building in Tiergarten seems to be part functional and part tourist attraction, with its glass dome on top that looks out over the city. The building has an interesting history and you can take a free 90-minute guided tour in English. Or if you’re too lazy for that, you can just go up and look out of the pretty dome. But: for security reasons, you must book a time slot online, usually at least two weeks in advance. Give ’em your details, they’ll check you’re not a likely terrorist then send you a lovely invitation letter. Apply on the website here: http://www.bundestag.de/htdocs_e/visits/kupp.html

5. Berliner Philharmonie
Fancy some Beethoven with your currywurst? Lunchkonzerts are daily classical music concerts held in the foyer of the Berliner Philharmonie at Potsdamer Platz. They last about an hour and the performers are young but very talented. They begin at 1pm, arrive early if you want a good view. This little known freebie is worthwhile if you want to experience the venue in an authentic way, but don’t take it too seriously. You’ll need a lot of tolerance to put up with the crying babies behind you and the twelve years olds flirting and playing gameboys in front of you (this actually happened to me). Mothers must figure this to be a great time to expose their kids to some culture without disrupting people who have actually paid for music. But hey, it’s free!

6. The City Library
The Staatsbibliothek on Unter den Linden is the main library of Berlin. Because I’m a massive book nerd, it’s a beautiful building and there’s some interesting history from World War 2 associated with it, I wanted to visit. Alas, when I arrived I was turned away. Apparently without being a resident of Berlin and becoming a member, the only way you can enter is with their free 5pm guided tour, held Tuesdays – Fridays. And that tour is only offered in German. But I did it anyway, and while I mostly had no idea what was being said, I did get to see the impressive building, some very old manuscripts, and a staff-only storage area that made my nerdy little self and my nerdy fellow tour-ers very excited. Recommended if you’re into that sort of thing (especially if you can sprechen die Deutsch).

7 and 8. Sony Centre roof and film premieres
The Sony Centre at Potsdamer Platz looks like it should be in glitzy New York rather than dirty, ‘alternative’ Berlin. The building is famous for its roof, which is apparently some kind of architectural landmark. I’m no design expert but I know it’s fun to pose below the pretty lights. The Sony Centre is also known for its cinema, where major Hollywood films are premiered – Brad Pitt is there right now, in fact (WHY am I still sitting here?). You can wait around by the red carpet for free, and there’s a list of upcoming premieres at Berlin Sidewalk: http://berlinsidewalk.com/tag/sony-center/

9. Festivals
There’s always a celebration happening in Berlin, especially in spring and summer. Last month we had Carnival of Cultures and in June alone there’s the Gay Pride festival, Neukölln festival, Vintage festival and All Nations festival. Each one has free events like street parties, parades, performances and workshops. Search for upcoming events by date at http://www.visitberlin.de/en/experience/events/event-calendar

10. Nightlife
Last but definitely not least, the Berliners love their nightlife. It’s not a night out unless you’re crawling home as the sun comes up, counting on one hand how many hours of sleep you’re going to squeeze in before work. You can minimise your spending by using public transport (it’s so frequent that you’d be crazy to pay for a taxi), choosing from the great selection of venues that charge nothing or only €5 entry, and that teenage favourite tactic, pre-drinking. Spätkaufs are a Berlin institution – bottle shop and convenience store in one, ubiquitous throughout the city. Every good night starts with a beer run to the späti.

I’m the first to admit that I split the point about Sony Centre into 7 and 8 because I couldn’t think of a tenth addition. If anyone knows of any others, please comment below. I have three more weeks in Berlin and plan to see and do as much as possible while spending as little as possible!

Carnival of Cultures / Karneval der Kulturen

This weekend, 17th until 20th May Berlin hosted its annual Karneval der Kulturen in Kreuzberg. It’s a celebration of the cultural diversity of Berlin and is four days of street markets, food and music, as well as a huge parade, which took place yesterday. And when I say huge, I mean nine hours of trucks, music, costumes, dancing and above all, people. The parade begins at Hermannplatz and finishes just a couple of kilometres away at Yorckstrasse, and along the street that connects them are around 700,000 people dancing, eating and drinking.

We arrived around 5pm, half way through the parade, to a U-Bahnhof along the main road of Gneisenau Strasse. My first impressions were of the noise and the crowds. Noise from DJs in the street and from the crowd, which appeared to be tourists plus every resident of Berlin and their dog. Berliners love their pets (which are usually giant dogs) and take them everywhere: the train, restaurants and street festivals.

We first found a drink of strawberry punch and then made our way slowly down the street, taking everything in and trying not to lose each other. We came across a crowd of people – a crowd within a crowd – who were using the street as a dance floor for a techno DJ who had set up outside a bar. He even had a smoke machine. People in a nearby building were dancing on their windowsills and throwing confetti. It was such a happy and laid-back atmosphere that it was impossible not to stop and dance.

After about half an hour the parade reached this part of the street and we found a great place to stand right beside it. The floats of the parade represented different nations and subcultures within Berlin. You could tell the floats hadn’t been expensive to put together and didn’t need to be. I’d love to see something like this in Sydney. It reminded me of our Mardi Gras, but this was less intense, more of a family-friendly, daytime event. I barely saw any police, but I also saw no violence or troublemakers. Everyone was represented – from Thailand to Nigeria to Colombia to Jamaica. We danced Gangnam Style with South Korea and eventually joined the parade behind a truck that had a DJ and strobe lights on board. It was just one of those days when you feel so ecstatic to live in Berlin, even for a short while.

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Dancers behind the Ghana float

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The South Korean float

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The Thai float

The Wrinkles of the City

Last week I had the anniversary of seven months since leaving Sydney. So far I’ve spent the 26th of each month at…

September – arrived in Kuala Lumpur from Sydney
October – Thailand
November – Cambodia
December – Laos
January – Thailand
February – China
March – China
April – Germany

I’m settling into my au pairing work in Berlin (although seriously reconsidering whether I ever want kids). The girls are sweet, the parents are fantastic hosts to me. Berlin is a very cool city and I’ve been enjoying the parks, museums and vintage stores (I went to a five-level charity store yesterday, the top level was entirely vintage clothing from the 50s to the 90s. I love that they can now charge high prices for 90s clothing. Ridiculous). I have my own bike which really completes the Berlin experience, the bike lanes here are fantastic and life is just better on a bicycle.

Yesterday I went searching for The Australia Store on said bicycle because I’m craving some vegemite. Didn’t find it, maybe it went out of business, can’t imagine why. The journey wasn’t a waste of time though for three reasons: I worked off my Belgium Chocolate ice cream, I found the five-level vintage store and I saw another two pieces of the Wrinkles exhibition.

The Wrinkles of the City exhibition is a series of street art pieces in Mitte (my suburb) at the moment, by French artist JR. They’re huge black and white photographs painted onto buildings, photographs of Berliners that represent the historical buildings of the city. The nice part about it is I keep unexpectedly coming across the different artworks.

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The last one isn’t part of the exhibition but I saw it while I was taking a photo of the hand and it’s real cute.

Hamburger Bahnhof Gallery

Today I went to the Hamburger Bahnhof, a museum of modern art inside a former railway station. I wanted to check out an exhibition of a German artist called Martin Kippenberger. He shared my birthday and would have turned 60 this year except for the fact that he died aged 44 due to ‘a life of excess’ (sounds exciting, must look up how he actually died).

I walked through the whole museum and really enjoyed it. The building as well as the art was impressive. Like any modern art museum it had its fair share of works that let’s just say I didn’t really understand (read “art wank”) but much of it was meaningful and thought provoking. Some pics below…

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Quote and art of Martin Kippenberger – ‘Berlin must be repainted’

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Quote and art of Dieter Roth

Diwali celebrations

‘Diwali is the most important and auspicious festival in India. It signifies the victory of good over evil, the return of King Rama and a celebration of Light, Love and Music to bring in the new year.’
 
So reads my invitation to last night’s Diwali celebration, hosted by Krishna, a Pai expat who lives a fifteen minute motorbike ride out of town on a rural property in a large wooden house on stilts, with a separate building housing prayer rooms. The yard has beautiful gardens and was decorated with balloons, lights, music from a local artists, sparklers, fireworks and a giant Indian elephant. Food, chai tea, fruit shakes and drinks were served by local businesses, who set up stalls under the house.
 
The evening started with everyone being invited to pat the elephant and feed it sugarcane stalks, and choose fireworks and sparkers from a big box and let them off (these two activities took place worryingly close to each other). Soundtrack by the Bebop Bad Boys and Gypsy Lily, a American hippie in her sixties wearing shiny gold pants, sequins and a shawl. There was then a jam session by the ‘Pai music family’ which included belly dancers and a Russian guy playing a didgeridoo (very well). Then people danced into the night to the sound of a DJ playing Indian trance and Bollywood music. Truly a night to remember, with most of the expats and more hippie-inclined locals attending to celebrate Indian new year with a blessing of the elephant, dancing and drinking.
 
Couple of other updates – I lived through my first earthquake on Sunday morning. Pretty minor here in Pai, but it woke me up as my whole bungalow was trembling for about 15 seconds. I’m told the most damage was in Myanmar where some people were killed 😦
 
That afternoon we rented a motorbike and went to Wat Pra That (the temple with the steps of doom). We actually drove up to the top, but then scrambled 150 metres up a gravelly slope to where a gigantic Buddha is being constructed. It’s about 30 metres tall and overlooks the whole valley. At the moment it’s covered in dodgy scaffolding and about ten locals were laying concrete high up. We walked around to the back and actually went inside – it’s hollow with a shell of wood and metal. I’m sure it’s going to be beautiful when complete but who knows when that will be!

The trainers and language of Charn Chai

The staff at Charn Chai have become like family. They are cheeky, funny and caring. As a super language nerd, I love noticing the way they use English and to hear their accents, sentences and different levels of understanding. Having now spent a few weeks at the gym it’s lovely to have a rapport with them and understand their language and personalities.

The first few days of training was confusing, until I mastered the Thai accents of the trainers. Now, in pad work I can comprehend words like ‘switch’, ‘grab and throw’ and sometimes translate ‘left knee’ to ‘right knee’ so that I’m usually doing what they want me to. I’m also learning a (very little) bit of their language – e.g. I know that when Bee yells ‘Leo! Leo!’ he’s telling us to hurry up/do it faster and ‘boom-boom’ means they’re talking about sex AGAIN.

I’ve been trying to teach them the pronunciation of ‘Sasha’. Tree calls me ‘Sencha’ and Turbo calls me ‘Tar-cha’. Tree also sometimes calls me ‘Saenchai’ which is the name of one of the best Thai fighters at the moment – quite the compliment! Ae calls me ‘ladyman’ (as distinct from ladyboy, which he reserves for the guys) and Bee usually just calls out ‘you! Skipping!’ to tell me to go and skip when I’m standing around feeling tired and sore.

Bee is the founder of the gym and an ex-Muay Thai champion. He speaks English best of all the trainers as he’s travelled a lot in Australia and Holland – he helped establish the Parramatta Bulldog Gym. He’s rarely seen without his training prop, which is a thin piece of cane that he uses to hit us with – on the calves, thighs, arms, butt – when we’re slacking off, not doing something correctly or even as encouragement. It’s always a relief when he hits you then yells ‘Ahh! Good!’. After three weeks I still despise this cane, it can be really painful, especially when Bee’s in a bad mood!

Tree is the dancer. He’s short and bulky but when you punch him in the stomach (as he once asked me to do) it’s all muscle under there and your fist bounces right off. He loves to dance around on his toes with his arms in the air in the middle of our circle when we’re doing ab work. That’s when he’s not hitting us with the cane of course (he’s picked up Bee’s habit). He’s also the resident mosquito killer. If there’s a few mozzies around he’ll use the switch to smack them as they land on our legs. He once walked right up to me and slapped me on the forehead while we were doing sit-ups because there was a mozzie on my head. Common phrases include: ‘Not cry!’ when he hits you or you look exhausted, and ‘Champion! Australia v Thailand! Thailand winner!’ when he puts you on the floor in the ring during pad work or clinching.

Turbo is all muscle and goofy grin. He’s got a tooth missing from a past fight and is pretty quiet because his English isn’t as strong – quite funny to hear him say things like ‘have good nice day’ to everyone at the end of class. He’s also the flirt and keeps us entertained every Saturday night with his lady dramas. He’s always upsetting someone – usually his girlfriend.

Charlie is the youngest trainer, he has just had his 26th birthday. He’s quiet but cheeky, always sneaking up behind you and pinching the back of your legs. I’m often paired with him for pad work which is good because he gives you a hard workout every time – lots of sequences of 10 kicks or 30 punches for example.

Ae is Bee’s older brother and is a sweetheart. He’s married and his wife and daughter are usually around the gym. I can’t tell you how cute his daughter, Daan, is – she’s about two years old and has made all of us independent women feel very clucky. Her nickname is ‘Orang Utan’ because she’s such a little monkey. Charlie has a soft spot for her and likes to lift her up about two metres high and leave her clinging to a pole. She’s constantly being photographed and we all swear she could be a baby model.

There will be tears when I leave Pai!