*The Enchanted Maze Gardens are located near Albert's Seat in Rosebud. It's a fun day out, but not cheap. We paid $77 (Aus) for the four of us. There is plenty to do and a cafe on site, though bringing a picnic is the best idea.
*The Enchanted Maze Gardens are located near Albert's Seat in Rosebud. It's a fun day out, but not cheap. We paid $77 (Aus) for the four of us. There is plenty to do and a cafe on site, though bringing a picnic is the best idea.
THE sound of children playing was Zenchai's wake-up call. Usually painfully slow to get dressed after rising, Zenchai, like Superman going into a telephone box, would bounce out of bed, rip off his pyjamas and throw on his play gear. Then he unzipped the tent and was off.
Often we wouldn't see him for hours - though we could nearly always hear him. The kids in the campground would ride their bikes and scooters endlessly, in and out of puddles, around the toilet area where the ground was flat and along the trail path. There was no concern for traffic. Children of all ages playing freely in the streets - isn't that what childhood should be like? The cars drove slowly and carefully and the kids learned to stop and allow them to pass.
Mostly, visiting families would arrive on the weekends and leave before the work week started again. That felt strange to us. One minute the campsite was deserted and then crammed and then deserted again.
Zenchai continually had to readjust. He made some good friends and had great fun doing what young boys and children do. There was hardly any need for parental policing - just lots of kids playing happily together. Kobra, as she does, just fitted in where she could and wanted to and smiled at everyone. She loved having all the children around.
We had a community and met some great people - all so friendly and welcoming. We shared food, time, stories, experiences and played cricket, using a chair as our wickets. The children joined in, too. It was great fun.
This camping experience really grew on us. My cousin came down from Melbourne and we hung out with her children. We took some family bike rides along the beach front after dinner together. We found another fine playground with ramps and Zenchai got to practice new stunts.
It was only when the rain came and was prolonged that life became really challenging. Our dining area, with chairs, drying clothes, table and fridge, would get damp and cramped. If the rain persisted it would be hard to clean dishes or clothes or even venture far. Shoes got muddy and getting in and out of the tent proved a struggle.
One night towards the end of our stay the winds, joined by heavy rain, reached 110kmh. I thought the tent was going to take off. But it stood firm - and the gazebo, too.
Dealing with adverse conditions is all a part of the adventure and experience, I suppose. The days, which seemed long to begin with when we weren't so sure what we were doing, soon flew by at a rate of knots.
November, December and soon it will be Christmas again. Where has the year gone?
Then they enquire how old our offspring are. "Six and one," I say. And suddenly the alarm drops from their voices.
Of course, in many countries children don't begin school until seven. But school often hasn't really been a realistic option for us while travelling and, let's face it, it's not the ONLY way one can learn or become educated. Even Albert Einstein said, "education is what remains when one has forgotten everything he or she has learned in school."
We tried school for a while when in Piracanga, Brazil, but Zenchai really didn't like it, although he seems to have forgotten how much.
Occasionally, he talks about it fondly and, when I probe deeper, it turns out that what he really liked was the freedom (it was a Free School) and playing daily with the one or two kids he had formed relationships with.
But every day was a struggle for me to take him to school. He fought it - and hard. Eventually, we listened to him. Suffice to say he had some unpleasant experiences there, though I should add there were some good ones, too.
However, though he is now six and hasn't really had any schooling, Zenchai is bright - very bright, the smart Alec variety.
The point is that whether he is formally instructed or not, he is learning, because, in the right environment, that's what children do. And Zenchai is doing it at his pace, mostly through play, and choosing what it is he is interested in rather than following a curriculum that someone else has deemed either necessary or appropriate.
Rightly or wrongly, that's the path we are taking for now. Not everyone will believe in or support our choices - and we may, of course, change our minds/attitudes - but currently I am happy with how Zenchai is developing and progressing.
Of course, he is hugely challenging, incredibly chatty and fiercely demanding at times also. But I could replace challenging with strong-willed and chatty with expressive and demanding with having the spirit to make his desires a reality. He has a strong personality, but is also highly sensitive. He is very much a free soul.
So when I am asked about reading, writing and counting etc, I don't feel any more concerned with Zenchai's progress than I was when he was learning to walk and talk, which all occurred completely naturally. The same happened with running, cycling, swimming, bodyboarding and kayaking. All we did was provide the suitable environment and tools, which gave Zenchai, when he was ready, the motivation. Through practice and enthusiasm, he got better. And I believe the same will occur with reading, writing, drawing, counting and pretty much everything else.
I notice how he studies the pages of his books even now and looks at the words, trying to work out the sounds. He does it all by himself, privately, and that's fine by us. And if he needs help, he usually asks and we assist.
Zenchai is a good observer. He can, like many young children, handle a computer effortlessly and knows how it operates. He knows all about cars, because it's his passion and he absorbs every word that he hears or reads about them.
I know from my own experience that what I learned best was what I was most interested in and that still remains the case. What was forced upon me I quickly tried to avoid or give up or ended up forgetting.
I became a journalist through desire, passion and enthusiasm. What I learned for my specialised subject, boxing, was done off my own back and not in school. The key, I believe, is fostering that passion.
So we are trying to encourage Zenchai to learn through his interests, which are mainly cars and vehicles, but he is also into pirates, dinosaurs, building, music, magic, singing, books/stories, sometimes sports and many other things. By watching Zenchai play with cars, for instance, I have observed him learn to read (badges, number plates, signs, logos), draw (he loves details), build (he converts almost anything, including himself, into a car), count and write, all fuelled by his own fascination and with no urging or deliberate guidance from us, his parents.
There is no reason why this cannot continue as he gets older, so long as Jamie and I are prepared to support him where needed (and, for the record, neither of us is particularly interested in cars).
The questions that are always asked are about sociability and education when they get older. But being 'homeschooled' doesn't mean Zenchai won't have contact with other children or can't, if he chooses, go on to university one day. And, as said earlier, one day we or he may decide to opt for something more structured and institutionalised.
We seek out playgroups and other families with children wherever we go and, more importantly, Zenchai is in a world where he learns to interact with people of all age groups rather than predominantly his own and spends most of his days in real life situations rather than classrooms.
It amounts to a different type of education. Our model is really more life-learning. But it's a tough undertaking for any parent. Believe me, I have many days when Zenchai is too much for me/us to handle and I think it would be so much easier and convenient to pack him off to school, which would give me all the time I wanted to myself. But the reality is that in those moments we are not quite getting something right and he is reminding us of it.
But neither Jamie nor I, at this moment, really feel a school system is for Zenchai or, more accurately, we haven't found a school model here that we think is suitable for him. So we have chosen an alternative road.
As I am reminded frequently by the homeschooling/life learning/unschooling community, homeschooling is not the experiment. It's how for generations children were raised. School, actually, is the experiment.
However, learning from 'home' means we are with our children practically all the time, which is testing (really testing) for our family dynamic. We also have to place a lot of trust in Zenchai, because he guides us to what he enjoys and wants to learn about.
Thankfully, we've never been too fussed about comparing Zenchai to other children his age. We try to think of him as an individual and unique (which is what all children are) and there is too much stress created by continually being informed your child may be lagging behind or lacking in some way, physically or mentally. I certainly never liked being compared when I was younger. Zenchai excels at being himself and my job is to accept him as he is (which, I admit during challenging moments, isn't always easy).
All I know is that whenever I ask Zenchai if he would like to go to school, his answer is an emphatic 'NO'. To go against that would be disrespecting his choice (as I did for several months in Brazil), just as it would if I kept him out of school should one day he decide again to try.
Some people believe children shouldn't have that choice - that it is too great a decision for them. But I'm not one of them. I believe, even if I don't always succeed in practising what I preach, that to raise respectful people we should treat them respectfully.
I DISCOVERED Crossfit, a high-intensity core strength and conditioning training programme, nearly a year ago. I wish I'd found it sooner.
Despite having been sporty my entire life, nothing has hit the mark for me quite like Crossfit and now I'm a certified Level 1 instructor I want to share the passion I have for sport/staying fit/strong with others.
It's not for everyone, of course. One reason is because it's seriously hard. Workouts are comprised of weight-lifting, gymnastics and metabolic conditioning (running, cycling, rowing etc). Often sessions include a combination of the three modalities.
The workouts aren't usually too long and they don't need to be. Anaerobic workouts have been proven to have as good as if not a greater effect on aerobic capacity than aerobic training. There's also less wear and tear and little, if any, loss of strength.
I train between five and six times a week. Most of my workouts range between eight-20 minutes in duration, though some are longer, up to 45 minutes. I'm in the gym about an hour, because I warm up thoroughly and then warm down and stretch afterwards. However, some of my warm-ups now are comparable with the workouts I used to do.
I love the intensity and the competition of Crossfit. And I have developed a tremendous admiration for gymnasts and weight-lifters.
Everyone in the gym is strongly encouraged to have goals. They can be target weights to lift or skills to learn, like the muscle-up, which involves pulling yourself up on the Olympic rings and then performing a tricep dip at the top. That's one I'm still working on.
Often at the end of a training session, I focus on skills. Having never been particularly gymnastic, I love trying to learn moves that have always seemed impossible. But more important is mastering the basics of lifting, pressing and squatting.
At Crossfit everyone usually trains together and there's a lot of help from fellow athletes in terms of motivation and advice. That's far more enjoyable and encouraging than the endless hours I used to spend in globo gyms where you barely even acknowledge others training around you and routines were just that - routine.
I was surprised, though, when Jamie accepted my invitation to try Crossfit. Jamie is a long-time yoga teacher. Though many yoga poses are extremely tough, she admits to not liking intensive work, the type that comes with pushing oneself to the limit and perhaps a hard grunt and groan in the process.
We joke with each other that she never sweats - even in Thailand (though this has now been disproved). And I often recount the time we once worked out at a YMCA gym in Toledo, Ohio and how she got grumpy whenever I tried to push her to force out more reps.
Now she's at Crossfit Chiang Mai and her name is posted up on the scoreboard each day with her time (for the workout) or weight (for how much she has lifted) or both (if it's that type of workout day). Usually, I go in the morning (as I'm an early bird) and Jamie in the afternoon, so one of us can take care of the children.
I'm proud of her for stepping out of the comfort zone and trying something that is tough and demands hard work. In fact, I admire anyone who sticks with Crossfit. It's so easy to seek something less challenging. Crossfit's definition is "Constantly varied functional movement at high intensity".
You get reminded frequently that intensity produces results (and power) and week in and week out you are asked to perform strict push-ups, pull-ups, chin-ups, (everyone's favourite) burpees, air squats and then throw in back squats, overhead squats, front squats, push presses, power cleans, snatches, deadlifts, kettlebell swings etc and then some 100m sprints or 5km runs or 1km shuttles. It is "constantly varied" and these are all movements which you use or may end up using on a daily basis. Going to the toilet, after all, involves a squat. Lifting something heavy off the ground would require a deadlift and overhead a press etc.
Weight-lifting will strengthen bones and gymnastics aid body control, flexibility and balance. Crossfit workouts target also co-ordination, agility, speed, strength, cardio respiratory endurance, power and stamina.
Don't fear that you will have to lift or push the same as everyone else and be left feeling humiliated or inadequate. The gyms are not at all packed with supermen and superwomen to make you look and feel inferior. Remember that intensity is relative and so workouts are tailored or scaled for safety and to ensure everyone works to a capacity that produces results.
All the talk of Crossfit in our home has, obviously, got Zenchai interested, too. He sees that I go to the gym almost every day. So on a visit to Singapore recently he had his first session. I took him to Reebok Crossfit Enduro run by Juria Maree, a top coach from South Africa.
She normally takes a kids Crossfit class every Saturday, but wasn't around the weekend we were there to conduct a class. But she arranged for another coach to come in and hand Zenchai his initiation.
I booked Zenchai in for 9am. Together we marched down there from our hotel. I tried not to say much - in case he got cold feet. But he was fired up (once he woke up). He is so proud of the fact he has a great squat and can stay in that position almost endlessly (like most children can).
When we arrived at the gym, coach Ubin Khoo introduced himself and took over. He explained clearly to Zenchai what they were going to do and, most importantly, he made it sound like fun.
Ubin had to think on his feet, however. Zenchai's concentration and enthusiasm waned a few times and Ubin had to reignite his interest. He did so by having Zenchai design a course using various gym props and then driving around it on an ab roller. Ubin then challenged Zenchai to do laps and go round even quicker. Then he added medicine balls and Zenchai had to push them out of the way as he drove the roller and then they had a game of skittles using cones. Improvisation whilst maintaining safety and fun was the key. Zenchai, being a car-lover, revelled in it. He turned himself into a vehicle.
After 30 minutes Zenchai was sweating and so, too, was Ubin. Zenchai felt proud of himself and Ubin was satisfied he had found a way to get Zenchai to lift the medicine balls, which was his target.
I am not sure when or even if Zenchai will go again. There's no Crossfit for kids in Chiang Mai yet. But we're trying to teach him, by example, about the importance of exercise and a healthy diet. Children need to regularly go outdoors and play and let their imagination run riot.
I was always an active child who played sports, but so many children nowadays, especially with technology games so prevalent and addictive, aren't motivated to go outside and stretch their legs and work their lungs.
Of course, I can't make Zenchai interested in Crossfit or anything else for that matter. But if he sees his mother and father doing something and feeling better for it, I feel more confident he's going to recognise the value and invest (with time and effort) in his well-being.
Zenchai was going stir crazy on the aeroplane back to Thailand. We had a five-hour layover in Bangkok after our Air Asia flight had been cancelled. Tired, hungry and cooped up, Zenchai gave us a testing experience. Kobra slept most of the way. Aeroplanes just aren't designed for young children.
We stopped in Kuala Lumpur the first night as we couldn't get a connecting flight that day on to Singapore.
KL airport is a long way from the city centre. But we elected to use the train instead of taxi or bus or coach (as we'd done in the past). It's far cheaper, more efficient and comfortable. The trains are fast and slick, like in Germany. It made travelling a far more pleasant experience.
Kobra attracted a lot of attention from travellers, many of whom had their picture taken with her like she was some kind of celebrity. It bordered on the ridiculous.
Anyhow, by the time we arrived in KL city centre, checked-in to our hotel and dropped off our luggage, it was time to head out again. We had a family appointment - a play date for Zenchai with his second cousin at a playcentre in Bangsar Village shopping mall. He had been looking forward to it for ages. Z and his cousin ran around for hours. Money well spent. Zenchai also received a belated birthday gift - a Monster Truck book, which he loved. Afterwards we went for a Banana Leaf dinner after which it was time to head back to the hotel (by train) and then get up in the morning for our mid-day flight to Singapore.
Getting to KL airport was quicker than heading into the city when we arrived. On the train we met a nice English/French-Moroccan family with a young boy. Zenchai wasn't too sociable at first, but later warmed up a bit.
I had been to Singapore before, but it was the first time for Jamie and the kids. As we were about to land, the captain made an interesting announcement, warning against bringing into the country knuckle-dusters, swords, guns and numb chucks! What sort of people go to Singapore, I wondered?
Then, of course, he reminded everyone about the stiff penalty for drug-smuggling - mandatory death sentence. They may as well have added raw almond butter to the list (more on that later).
I had an exam to sit in Singapore, but squeezing in any last-minute revision wasn't easy with a family in tow. Hours after arriving and nursing a deltoid injury, I headed to Reebok Crossfit Enduro for a workout. Some 90 power cleans later my shoulders somehow felt better. Jamie and the kids amused themselves at a park nearby and then in the gym while they waited. Zenchai got creative with all the equipment.
All hungry, we went in search of food. We didn't find eating in Singapore very easy. It's all Chinese, mostly fried, high on meat and starchy carbs and laced with msg. We settled for some veggie soup. Zenchai had a juice and some rice. Then it was off to bed - late - after a long walk in the still-ultra humid conditions.
The next morning I had to wake up Zenchai from a deep sleep. He had a training appointment at 9am at Crossfit. We caught a train and walked the rest of the way. He did some running around and lifting. On the way home, he felt proud - and didn't stop talking about it.
We were all hungry by the time we met up with Jamie and Kobra. But then we made our worst purchase of the weekend. Seeking out durian, I bought a 2kgs one, noticing a sign that said $10 per kilo. I asked "how much?" and the reply came "$14". But it turned out to be "$40" and not "14". By then I had already eaten it. That's a whopping £20 for a durian!!
If it took Jamie and I hours to get over the shock, at least the kids weren't fussed. We decided to seek out a play centre. The hotel gave us directions - by train, bus and then on foot.
We found it - eventually. First, though, we stopped at an upscale restaurant called The Living Cafe that was right up Jamie's street - lots of delicious raw food desserts, but at near-jaw-dropping prices.
We each had a slice and then headed off into the heat on foot with only approximate directions. Of course, half a mile down the road Zenchai decided he needed the toilet (No. 2) and there was nowhere to go and no cab to be found to take us quickly where we wanted to go.
In spotless Singapore, we had to find some bushes and be as discreet as possible! Anyone with children knows these things happen.
Onwards we marched, sweat dripping and Jamie and I taking turns carrying Kobra. We passed a doggie day care resort only for Zenchai to remark that Kobra needed to go there for some brushing up - because her hair "was messy like a dog's".
Finally, we tracked down Fidgets Play Centre at Turf City, a huge shopping complex. Although it wasn't cheap, it was worth it. We hardly saw Zenchai, who in quick time was running around and playing with other kids. Kobra enjoyed it as well. Parents usually take a seat, grab a coffee, read a magazine and let the kids run wild. There are TV cameras to help you locate or observe your child. It was, for want of a better word, mayhem. But this was a Saturday afternoon.
The highlight for Zenchai was getting his face painted - as The Joker! The other children gathered round as Zenchai underwent his makeover. He said he really liked the woman painting him, because she reminded him of his grandmother in England.
"She spoke exactly like grandmere and was the same size," he said.
But for someone not wanting attention, Zenchai sure attracted a lot of glances, particularly on the train on the way back to our hotel and a shopping mall at Clementi Station, where we stopped for dinner. As soon as he returned to the hotel, he had me wipe off the paint.
The next morning for breakfast we set off to Little India, where Zenchai polished off a Masala Dosai. He'd missed them since leaving Kuala Lumpur. We found a place which offered quality food for excellent prices.
On the way back to our hotel on foot we passed a giant supermarket - the type that sold absolutely everything. If the durian was our purchasing disaster of the weekend, buying some clippers to cut Zenchai's hair was the greatest deal. For the equivalent of a few haircuts (£7.50), I came out of the store with a fine electrical appliance.
I left Jamie and the kids at a playground while I returned to the hotel to prepare for my test. I met up with them later and we headed off into the Arab quarter for some dinner. More disappointment: no falafel; moussaka that was plain and didn't have the advertised chick peas; ran out of pita bread; inflated prices etc.
The night wasn't over. We went to bed, but at 2.30am while everyone was fast asleep, I tiptoed around the room to get dressed and went around the corner from our hotel to watch England's exit on penalties (again) from the Euro 2012 against Italy.
It was around 5am when I returned to sleep. Singapore was still pretty busy. I took Zenchai out for some coconut water and flesh for breakfast and then strolled with the kids around the block while Jamie did the packing.
Little did I know I was wondering through a red light district. Prostitutes were all over the pavement and they swarmed over Kobra, pulling at her little cheeks and trying to take her away from me for a cuddle. Quickly, I got her out of there. Zenchai reacted angrily when they tried approaching him. Too much attention for the kids. It was time to head out of town.
Jamie had finished packing. We walked to the train station and then headed to the airport, let the children play for a while at the many excellent kids' facilities, got some food and checked in.
We flew to Bangkok airport, which was busy, and had time to kill. Although the clouds gathering outside looked stormy, I suggested we head into the sprawling city by train for some food. First we checked in and it was laughable to see the line of passengers at the next kiosk heading to Chennai, India - all with flat screen TVs!
It took about 40 minutes in and 40 minutes out by train. It was raining so hard that we couldn't really go anywhere. We purchased some food (but could find nowhere to eat it) and turned around. By then the trains were packed. That was our experience of Bangkok.
By the time we reached the airport again it was nearly time to board. We scoffed down our food and headed through security, which is where the raw almond butter (mentioned earlier) comes in.
We'd bought a nice, big jar in Kuala Lumpur, because we can't find it in Chiang Mai. But security in Singapore deemed it a liquid and said we couldn't bring it through.
We'd carried it in our hand luggage from Kuala Lumpur, so thought nothing of doing the same from Singapore to Chiang Mai.
I could see the fury on Jamie's face when the security man, doing his job, of course, wouldn't back down.
"Don't mess with my almond butter!" told the story of my wife's painful expression. But he took it from us and, without waiting for us to go out of sight, dropped it into a bin. Ouch!!
"Do you realise how expensive that is?" said Jamie.
That was the final straw to what was becoming an arduous journey. It was late when the plane touched down in Chiang Mai. Zenchai had shuffled in his seat like he'd dropped a jar of ants down his shorts. We were relieved to get off the plane.
Our car was in the car park. We located it (eventually), paid 1,000 baht (£20) and headed home.
As we drove, listening to Cat Stevens for about the 1,000th time, I remarked how great it was to live so close to the airport - about 10 minutes. Getting to the apartment was effortless, which is more than can be said for the rest of our adventure.
WE were told - before and after we arrived - that Chiang Mai was a walkable city. In parts it is, but on the whole it isn't. And when we first arrived, we had a paranoid feeling whenever we battled our way along crumbling or/and narrow sidewalks amidst the pollution and the noisy traffic. Was it us or is it just tourists and ex-pats who walk? Where were the locals?
Once inside the city centre, where it seems a bit calmer than the roads around it, it feels safer to go on foot. But it appears most people have a scooter or drive or take a rickshaw or taxi or bicycle.
We started off using rickshaws, but found they charge a lot more than the many red trucks. For between 20-40 baht (50p-£1) per adult (they don't charge for children) you can pretty much get anywhere around town. You flag them down, tell them where you want to go and if your destination is en route you jump in the back. When you want to get out, you press a buzzer. Simple. Some friends of ours offered a tip: don't negotiate the fare - just pay 20 baht per adult (the going rate) when you get out.
Mostly, though, we walk from our apartment base to wherever we need to go (if within 25 minutes walking distance). Jamie and I will carry Kobra. And we often get some strange looks from the locals, especially if Zenchai is without his shirt. This the Thais seem to find highly amusing rather than offensive.
And when I look around, I don't really see any other kids - in spite of the heat - without their shirts. But Zenchai has always been that way - hot-blooded. I remember once arriving at Detroit airport one winter and Zenchai stripping down while it was snowing outside and people were entering the terminal with ski jackets, woolly hats and scarfs. People looked at us like we were abusing our kid, but Zenchai was genuinely feeling warm.
I am digressing, though. You can walk in Chiang Mai, but be prepared to arrive at your destination with a mouth tasting full of dust. And even in the back of the red trucks, you get a mouthful of exhaust each time the vehicle pulls away. Early into our stay here, Kobra came down with a rash which we thought was smog/pollution-related. Thankfully, it cleared up. Jamie's been complaining of a sore throat since she arrived.
If you are on a tight budget - as we are - renting a car isn't a legitimate option. More practical and economical would be buying one (and selling it when you leave), but seeing as we head off soon (for Malaysia), that's a consideration for our return visit, particularly if we opt to live further away from the town centre.
There are public transport vehicles which go further afield and for next to nothing, but we tried one such journey recently (to Mae Taeng) and we counted on the way back over 32 people inside and on the vehicle! It was seriously uncomfortable.
Right now, with all the pollution and traffic issues, we're a bit torn with regards to our feelings for Chiang Mai. We want to give Chiang Mai another stab when the air is cleaner. There is so much still to explore. But we are still unsure whether we want to be close to the city and all that comes with it or move further out, where it is more peaceful and, in terms of accommodation, your baht stretches much further.
But that's not a decision we need to think about at the moment. Our (near) month here has given us some valuable experience for what to do when we return and also for when we begin our next adventure - in Penang.
The 19th day was testing for me in so far as my mind began to lose focus and I started looking ahead to the finish with it being so near.
Only on this day did I lose my sense of being centred, though. On the whole, the last week was a coming together of all the elements I had experienced.
The ‘process’ had given me a clearer definition of my sense of happiness and fulfillment, the experience of being in a deeper and prolonged state of stillness and of living in the moment, without wanting or needing.
I didn’t realise how much pleasure could be had from doing so little and simply enjoying whatever experience came along.
When silence and emptiness becomes uncomfortable often the impulse is to get busy. Mine was to remain quiet and still.
There was something therapeutic about observing and being with nature, especially surrounded by forest. I was certainly very alert and switched on. All my senses seemed to be operating on what felt like a higher frequency. Often I couldn’t sleep as my mind was so active.
I noticed I had become gentler and kinder to myself. I felt mentally very strong, as if the whole experience had expanded my mind, nourished my soul and lifted my spirits.
The final two days were stormy (lashing rain and then a fierce, chilly wind) but inside I maintained calmness. I stayed in the tent mostly, warm under my blankets. What a contrast, I thought, to how I’d felt not too long ago in Piracanga, where outside it was sunny and gloriously beautiful, but in my head space the clouds were gloomy.
It confirmed to me that any situation or place is only as happy or beautiful as the thoughts you have about it. Even mosquitos buzzing around my head!
Everything is a projection of our thoughts. The mosquitos eventually became my playmates. I’d sit in my hammock, they’d try to make me their acupuncture cushion and I’d attempt to clap them. Not very Zen-like, I admit – only if you do it with anger. But I noticed my sight, timing and speed of hand improving quickly. I observed the different types of mosquito, how they moved and their patterns. I got to know them well.
Little could dampen my spirits, it seemed. I really started to comprehend more fully author Byron Katie when she says ¨Everything is perfect as it is.” The more you accept, the more perfect you see the world for what it is. So I looked to the present moment, which is where life is really happening – always!
I recognize for me that happiness and healthfulness come when there is an absence of stress (the worrying, conflict type). I’d had 21 largely stress-free days and that in itself made this experience worthwhile. I accepted that my happiness is solely MY responsibility.
The sense of feeling ‘lost’ no longer resides in me. I don’t feel at all directionless even though beyond England for Christmas I haven’t a fixed destination for where I will be. But tomorrow I might. Or the day after. I trust in myself and life. As scientist Alan Kay once said, "The best way to predict the future is to invent it."
I’m happy to be in Piracanga, London or wherever. And now when I think of the last two years travelling with my family, I see it as the best time of my life.
However, while the ‘process’ was for me powerful on so many levels, physically, it was very weakening. I was not even close to the level of fitness at the end as when I started.
I did my best to accelerate my physical revival by working out daily, doing push-ups, chin-ups and squats. I swam, practiced yoga and walked. I was always mindful not to do too much. My routines were short, but intense.
I got progressively stronger, but my body was thin and often drained. I felt less thirsty than in the second week and drank less. Hunger was never a factor. I didn’t think of food. The fresh juices were more concentrated, perhaps explaining why I consumed less. But on some days I woke up having had nothing for what must have been 14 hours or more and felt fine. I now know I won’t ever starve.
I liked that I was able to enjoy living in a natural bodily rhythm. I didn’t drink because ít was time’. I realize how much my desires to eat and drink are mental rather than physical.
However, I have no desires to stop eating even though I feel sure that I could – at least in the short-term – and that drinking juices never gave me that heavy feeling you get when eating too much and the digestive system is overloaded.
I enjoy food – the preparing and sharing, the taste, smells and social interaction around it. I will seek to find a healthy balance. I realise the wrong foods can make you sick, too much food can leave you tired and not enough makes you weak.
Living on juices only, I peed more than ever in my life. This made sleeping problematic as on average I would be up five times every night. Often, though, I’d sleep in the mornings, by when my bladder was empty, and towards the end of the week my dreams became clearer and more vivid. Although I didn’t sleep well, I felt rested.
The ‘process’ felt like a long and short experience at the same time. It’s hard to explain fully, but I am sure we have all had that sensation. I came to really enjoy sitting in the forest house for hours in my hammock cross-legged. I never picked up a book or, surprisingly for me, tried to do any drawing. I spent time just watching.
This was a transformative journey I can’t imagine I will ever forget. I hope – and trust – it lives on in me. Little would I know how much the day after I finished my resolve would be thoroughly tested. More on that in a blog to follow.
I owe special thanks to my beautiful wife, Jamie, who not only lovingly takes care of my family, but supports me, shares my visions, gives me the freedom to be myself and opportunities to explore my potential. I love you.
Thank you, too, to Silvia, who supported me, welcomed me to her home and on to her land and provided me with the gift of this chance to grow, evolve and understand myself and humankind more fully.
*Anyone interested in doing the ‘process’with Silvia can contact her by email - email@example.com - to discuss it further. She speaks Portuguese, English, French and Spanish.
Not everyone would share in my joy, of course. But my good fortune is largely down to shaven-headedness being more fashionable now than I can ever remember. Thanks, Michael Jordan - or whoever was responsible.
And here at Piracanga the trend has taken off dramatically. Several weeks ago there was a course being run called Avatar. It was widely attended. It's an ancient teaching which covered a variety of subjects like manifesting, self-healing, increasing your vibration, reverse ageing etc.
During this course many of the participants, male and female, were invited to shave their heads, the reasoning being that our ego attaches itself to our appearance and it can be hugely liberating to make the break. Our hair also apparently stores lots of dead energy, which is good to release. There are other reasons, too, but I won't go into them here and now.
However, during the Avatar, as more people turned up looking like monks, two workers in the Piracanga kitchen decided to challenge each other to a game of chess, which had also been growing in popularity.
It wasn't going to be an ordinary game, though. They decided to have a wager where the winner got to shave the head of the loser.
And so, one bright morning, they set up the board and half the village turned out to watch the best-of-three encounter: Johnny, 17 and ginger-haired from Israel via Hamburg, against Alex, the tattooed perpetual smiler and punk rock fan from Brazil.
Johnny was super-confident and I'm partly to blame for that, having played them both one lunchtime. Johnny beat me and immediately after, I defeated Alex - in five moves!
Johnny, with his carefully manicured mop of hair, started to get anxious after he resigned (as he was in a losing position) in the first game. And then in the second he made some mistakes and the reality that he was about to be stroking his scalp began to set in.
Eventually, the clippers made the first tracks through the orange mass on his head and Johnny, reluctantly still, became transformed.
Footnote: Alex, by choice, shaved his head a few weeks later and Johnny's chess has improved dramatically. Alex is still smiling continually and Johnny has returned to Germany.
AFTER nearly two months in school, Zenchai is beginning to settle. He is being accepted more by the local children. He is growing in confidence. Just recently, I heard for the first time Zenchai exchanging words with another child in Portuguese.
There are signs he is picking up the language. I know he wants to (he talks about it frequently). He knows it will open doors for him. We practice phrases here and there and words we think will be important for him. He is still at the stage of absorbing vocabulary and then, so I am told, he will begin to speak.
I’m excited for him about that possibility. He still tries talking to the other children in English and they reply in Portuguese. Sometimes they tell him to not speak English and then Zenchai runs around chanting “No more English, no more English!” But it’s always amazing to see children communicate with each other even if they don’t share the same language.
Getting Zenchai to school is no longer such a great chore. He has stopped complaining. In fact, on some days he talks with enthusiasm about going. Just the other day he asked us to make sure he arrives on time.
We still try not to mention school until after he has fully woken up and had his (pancake) breakfast, just in case he is having a sensitive day. And we’ve found with this approach that he marches off to the school without much fuss.
Once there, though, I still sit with him for a few minutes until he is fully comfortable. And then, only when I sense he is fine, I let him know I am going and that I will collect him. He usually just says ‘goodbye’ or ‘see you later’.
Slowly, he’s volunteering more information about what he gets up to at school. We give him space and don’t pressure him to reveal anything unless he chooses. This is a crucial time, emotionally and spiritually, in his life – not just because of attending school for the first time and not knowing the native language, but also because we have another child on the way.
Zenchai, two months short of turning five, has started asking more questions about the impending arrival of his sibling, as though he’s seeking reassurances. We have noticed how much more Zenchai now plays for our attention and from other people he knows well.
He’s been transformed from the kid who would (when we were in big cities) bark at any stranger who tried to be friendly to the child who walks around the village shouting ‘Good morning’ and ‘Hello’ to those he recognises (and he knows nearly everyone here by name).
The teachers recognise what he is going through. I’ve found them to be very attentive and perceptive. They cared enough to invite Jamie and I to a meeting recently to discuss the changes going on within Zenchai, so that we could all together best provide him with the support and love he requires.
It’s been a wonderful place so far for being with children and I hope I still feel that way when the new baby is born and at the end of June, when we are scheduled to leave. There are children here of all ages. What Piracanga offers them is lots of freedom and security to play. It's also been excellent in so far as providing Zenchai with positive adult male role models besides myself (at least I hope I am positive). Many of the men here have happily taken Zenchai under their wing.
But it's been Zenchai's need for playing with other children that led us here. Just a few days ago in the late-afternoon I was playing beach volleyball for over an hour, while Jamie was home preparing dinner. I asked Zenchai before I left to play if he was okay with walking back home by himself and he said he was.
Whilst playing, though, I heard his excited voice and noticed him, completely naked, running around and climbing trees with some of the other village children. I left him to it. He kept going until it was dark.
Granting Zenchai that much freedom without concern has been a challenge. I’m learning more how to let go when necessary, to allow Zenchai to gain independence and confidence, while always being attentive for when he requires my love and security.
The free-schooling system requires adults to have great faith and trust in their young ones, to believe in their children's intuition and instincts and to let them grow and develop at a speed which feels comfortable and natural.
One morning I said goodbye to Zenchai at school and he was in the workshop area with another boy banging nails with a hammer into wood! (He is pictured above with what he called his surfboard).
The school is certainly becoming more fun for him. On Tuesdays the children start the day playing by the river. He takes part in food preparation classes each Wednesday and the teachers have been good enough to adapt all their recipes so they are vegan.
On Thursdays the older kids (aged seven and above) have surfing lessons. It’s all quite unconventional compared to the experience I had.
It’s so tempting to intervene (and be too controlling) in the lives of our young ones as they grow and discover. But for Zenchai to evolve fully, I try my best to resist – unless it’s to remind him of the boundaries we have pre-agreed or protect him from serious danger.
Mostly when I notice myself becoming anxious, however, I recognise that the need for intervention has more to do with concerns regarding myself (ie how the situation makes me look as a parent) than the well-being of my child or those around him.