30 Day Travel Series: Commitment to Freedom

I don't know if they would drink vodka out of a tea kettle, like we sometimes do, but I am pretty sure that they would think it was hilarious and fun to see people wearing their Christmas Sweater bests and committing to their freedom on the dance floor

I love to listen to monks chant. It fascinates me. I will travel far and wide to go and hear chanting. That is why I was really excited when I found out that 15 miles from where we were holding a workshop in Vietnam there was a Pagoda that did a special chanting ritual on Wednesday mornings.

On Wednesday, Julian and I had got up early, rented a motor scooter, and rode 15 miles up a mountain in central Vietnam to an absolutely beautiful Pagoda. I sat on the steps and listened to them chant; I debated on whether or not I should take a picture.

They just kept chanting on and on. It was dead silent out there aside from their voices. I wondered how long they had lived there at the Pagoda. A lot of them were around my age. What were they doing there? How did they end up there?

Julian tapped my shoulder. With an exasperated look, he asked, “What could they possibly be chanting about for this long?” I laughed and whispered, “Compassion, love, compassion, peace, compassion for themselves, compassion for the world, for the people, animals and nature.” Silence fell again.

Julian took a seat next to me. Four or five minutes later Julian scooched over and whispered, “Well, geeeeez don’t do it on my behalf. Go party.”

I laughed.

It felt like another world. I stared at one of the younger monks yellow robe as he chanted. It felt as far away from home as possible. I wondered what it would be like for him to come to one of our insane annual Christmas parties at our party pad we called 456. Every year my friends spend weeks decorating every inch of the house, building things like sixteen-foot nutcrackers, just so one night people can dance their hearts out in a land filled with Christmas cheer. I wondered if he would think my sister and I were crazy because we love to travel, go out and stay up all night running around foreign towns, making friends and jumping in the ocean at sunrise. I wondered if he would think the hours that Julian and I spend talking to each other in weird voices and acting like different characters just to make ourselves laugh were a total waste of time.

And what does he do? Just chant all day long. Does he ever just want to throw the robe off and run around like crazy, jump up and down and go skinny dipping? I feel like I would.

The chant ended and we walked down the hill to the bookstore that was set up for tourists who visited the Pagoda. As we entered, a man, about my age, greeted us. He was really friendly. He told me about the head teacher at the Pagoda, asked about Julian and me, asked if we were married or if we had kids. He told me it was okay to wait a while to have babies. He had heard that a lot of people are waiting until their mid-thirties. I told him that was my plan. I appreciated his support.

His name was Mont Tak. I asked him when he moved there, how long he lived there and how he found out about the pagoda. He was carrying around an old sandwich.

There was a pause in our conversation. I didn’t want to leave the bookstore because I wanted to know more, but we had looked at everything two times over so we started to head towards the door. Mont Tak held up the sandwich in his hand and asked, “I will give this meal to the fish now, would you like to go?”

We talked by the pond and he told us that he read the book of Dharma and decided that moving to the pagoda seemed like the right thing to do. He was fourteen when he moved there and he thinks he might live there forever. He said it seemed like a great way to spend his life. He said he hoped to travel the world too.

The fish had devoured the sandwich. Mont Tak invited us for a walk and showed us where the eunuchs were buried. At the top of the hill he asked, “Would you like to have some tea with me in my room?”

Julian looked so funny sitting on the ground of Mon Tak’s room in his cut off jean shorts and athletic socks. Mont Tak was holding his hand. He could tell how sweet Julian was and just wanted to make sure Julian felt comfortable so he grabbed Julian’s hand and held tight. Or maybe that was just me projecting on Mont Tak but, either way, he was holding Julian’s hand and it was cute.

We talked about life at the pagoda. Other monks stopped by his room, had a cup of tea with us, told us a little about themselves, how long they lived there, the books they read, the instruments they played. Stuff like that.

Mont Tak’s room looked like my dorm room freshman year without the generic college decorations. It was just simple. He kept orchids and had a really beautiful collection of teacups. I wished my room was a little more like his room. He said he liked meeting foreigners and hearing about their lives and sharing his.

The bell rang for lunch and he asked if we would like to come have lunch with him. As we walked toward the dining hall we passed by the other monks’ rooms. They were hanging out on the floor, talking, playing games. Some had pianos in their rooms, others had computers.

We ate tofu, rice and some greens. It was really good. I made mine spicy. Mont Tak introduced us to everyone we saw and called over two novice monks, Long and Hanh, to practice their English with us. The novices had very interesting hair styles. They explained to us that their hair styles differed depending on how close they were to becoming a full-fledged monk. Some had bald heads with long straight bangs in front. All I knew was that there are thousands of hipsters in Brooklyn and San Francisco that would be super jealous of the boldness of the novices’ hairdos. We showed them Julian’s tail, they laughed.

As we said our goodbyes and walked down the front steps to our motorbike it felt like a completely different place. It felt like somewhere so much closer to home; it felt like I could come back there, wait for the chants to be over and then just say what’s up to Mont Tak, Long and Hanh. And thinking about it now, I don’t know if they would drink vodka out of a tea kettle like we do sometimes at the Christmas party, but I am pretty sure that they would think it was hilarious and fun to see people wearing their Christmas Sweater bests and committing to their freedom the way we do on the 456 dance floor.

(Re-posted from MPP blog)

This is one of 30 untold stories of launching a global project (with my boyfriend, Julian) about love, story telling and connecting change makers.

Read all 30 days here: http://www.smithmag.net/community/people.php/HBOX

Throughout Vietnam, South Africa, and Uganda, we engaged with 650 everyday people working to make the world a better place to share their stories. Inevitably, there were parts of our adventures we couldn’t tell while on the road, because we were a start up trying to prove our merits as a serious social change project or because of nervous families monitoring our journey. But the truth is while we worked passionately to bring our dream project to life we also had an adventure of a lifetime. Here are the stories behind the stories of the Million Person Project: http://www.millionpersonproject.org.


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