DIARY OF A RETREAT VIRGIN

January 22, 2015

DIARY OF A RETREAT VIRGIN

 

 


Day zero – Friday 'Zen at 615mph'

Today I embark on a journey. Sure, a pretty meaty flight of about nine hours in total (I always round down things that I like) but it's the potential journey beyond that I'm most curious about.

 

A few weeks ago, I signed up to a yoga retreat. Not something I ever saw myself doing. Though, now I'm here, all I can think of is how I can get to the next one, and generally build some of *this* into my life, next year, next week – every day. Just asked about the next retreats the guys have planned and already begun building my 2015 diary around them!

I adore flying so the flight to Sri Lanka's no biggie - time in the air is time well spent in my eyes. 600miles per hour whilst being utterly relaxed is a delicious contradiction. And I have to fess up (and probably stand alone on this point) but I have a secret fondness for crappy airplane meals. Not much is wrong with the world when you team something with a Bloody Mary.
 

Having worked my tits off for other people for ten years so far, always living or commuting into central London, I'm one of those people guilty of not ever really doing anything good for my mind or body. I reward myself with alcohol or a box set marathon. This week I set myself the challenge to change that.

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"I love the sound of the waves. When you arrive, they cleanse.

As you leave, they replenish. During the week, they keep the momentum going"

Karla, after three days of The Sea as company

 

 

Day one – Saturday 'Pavement goats' 

I land at Colombo about 4:30pm local time and wander through customs with a lot less tension than usual – is it too early to be claiming I feel different?! (I've picked up a litre of bourbon during the short transfer at Dubai, so not so scarily different just yet). On that note, Karla thoughtfully messaged us all the duty-free entry limits so I'm relaxed on two fronts: a) I don't have to hand over any recent purchases, and b) - rather relievedly - I know there's going to be a balanced vibe and haven't accidentally signed up for a week surrounded by militant detoxers. Perfect start.

Our charming driver is waiting patiently at the airport and I see another three names with mine on his printed sign - luckily we've all arrived within the same hour so there's not much waiting to be done and we jump into our air conditioned minibus and hit the road, chattering excitedly and playing animal bingo out of the window (in case you were wondering, three pavement goats beats one road cow).

Traffic is 'entertaining' but safe, and there's loads to absorb as we travel through vibrant urban areas to deep, luscious tropical countryside, peppered with pop-up shops and tuk-tuks at the roadside. We arrive nearing 7:30pm, two and a bit hours of driving later, not that it felt as long, and we are warmly welcomed by the others, and handed a dreamy chilled mango smoothie, our bags whisked upstairs by the staff - for some reason I hadn't even considered the fact there'd be staff. Being me and being Northern, this might take a touch of getting used to! 

Evening meal is stunning – plate after gorgeous plate of local delicacies, built around coconuts, limes, fresh fish and prawns, fruit juices. Gurgle… Can't believe I was sat at my desk just over a day ago. Surreal.

 


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Day Two - Sunday  ‘Let the earth support every part of you'

Day begins with an invigorating yoga session on the grass with Natasha. Looking up at the palm trees, waves crashing, delicate breeze. Bliss, already and we haven’t started! Having done a handful of classes over the years (with varying degrees of success on my part), I find Tash's soothing but crisp voice is utterly made for this… She guides us through a 1-hour-30 class that gently builds, folds in a few new moves for me, and leaves me thinking it was just the right amount of challenge for the first session. Optional lavender oil is cupped near my inhaling breath…. and I don't know if it’s normal or more Natasha’s use of “The ground is here for you; relax into it fully and the earth will support every part of you" that triggered something, but I suddenly feel overwhelmed and emotional as we begin the final savasana of the session. (Afterwards Tash tells me this was possibly related to the hip-opener moves we had performed. Man, there is so much to learn about my own body).

 

The temperature is just starting to build and really give it some as we wrap up, and — still kitted up — I say my thankyou's and gather my things into a pile, then walk the short distance clean into the waves – stepping and stepping until the bubbling surf is chest height. The current here is lively and it's not hard to let yourself be swept up, thrown and twirled sideways. Left and right there are maybe three other people on this entire stretch of beach so only the sky can hear and see me giggling like a fool as I let the surf do just that - spinning me around and over a good few times until I realise breakfast is probably starting. I am literally going to end every morning session this same way. 

 

This afternoon was a relaxing restorative yoga sessions. Very little moving, which I thought could be a challenege, but I could definitely get used to this. 


I feel so energised I honestly think that if I could I do this every morning I'd live to be 200.
 


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Day Three - Monday   'Postcard perfect'

It's bizarre that a similar morning routine can make me feel so different. The yoga sessions was just as relaxing as the day before, but this time with a little more rhythm, it definitely got me hot. The waves are incredibly entertaining. No two are the same, you get bikini snatchers, spinners, body slammers, fluffy little numbers and the odd terrifying I'm-not-going-to-make-it-out-of-this-alive ones.

A couple of us nip down on to the beach and attempt to rake words into the sand before the waves swallow our best and worst typography. I think we manage to nab a few decent photos - some, of the ones I saw literally look straight out of an image library.

 

Back to the small palm-roofed hut at the bottom of the garden for the many included treats ­– a massage treatment. There’s a huge range of styles to choose from, and as much variation in who performs the massage too. Inspired by the morning’s massage, we decide to end the afternoon with ice-cold local Lion beers in the local clubhouse while others get a massage by the local potbellied man who throws you around and tickles your feet like a cat. I pass on that one!
 

Two of the guys are keen on renting tuk tuks and racing them; their other halves are ‘less interested’ to say the least! When it comes to tuk tuks, bartering is expected apparently, though that feels so odd as it's you end up feeling chuffed that you’ve bartered away an extra 60p or so. I tend to go a bit Monty Python ‘Life of Brian’ and go up instead of down, haha. Any optional tips are requested to be left in an envelope when we leave ­– going to them pretty much all I have left in cash on Sat morning — we've been so spoiled and welcomed and pampered so far.

 
A group of us end the night with a blast on old-school boardgame Pictionary. Girls v boys and the boys lose, heinously. I've never experienced more 1s thrown in any game – ever! Those dice are at the bottom of the pool. (Both 3s if you were curious).

 

Excitable child alert: Tomorrow I'm hoping to take a plunge in the infinity pool, explore the local area, and bust some yoga moves. Wide-eyed and grinning. A million miles from my desk job right now…..!!

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Day Four – Tuesday 'Souls travel in packs'
 

I’ve been up since 5am when I heard the call to prayer at the local mosque and was too curious to go back to sleep. Just lay there, listening. I love being this close to the sea. A day accompanied by the sound of rolling waves actually slows and regulates my heartbeat.

 

A few of us shower and take our seat for breakfast, laid out beautifully on a glass table by the pool. We're handed an in-coconut cocktail while we're waiting for a few more of the guests to join — there's no stress to join but we're all sat within a few minutes, discussing the dynamic morning class and talking about options for the afternoon. Breakfast again was a real treat. Today, I chose eggs benedict, on top of the daily incredible fruit selection - papaya, pineapple, watermelon, mango, and again the amazing coconut, red onion, lime and chilli Swizzle as we've named it. We asked the uber-friendly chef here last night to teach us how to make it in our Sri Lankan cookery class later today. Can. Not. Wait.


After lunch a small group of us take a worryingly cheap tuk tuk to the local temple and markets, what we thought might be thirty minutes walk, but in fact would have been hours, resulting in us getting lost / blistered / scared by meandering cows / run over. The driver instructs us to remove our shoes on the grounds all around the huge temple. Inside, there are rather garish paintings from wall to wall, and a fairly gory-looking Buddha in one corner. Being the simpleton I am, I get distracted by the fact there are roosters and ducks milling around the temple. The now rather-therapeutic barefoot treatment continues as we follow the driver down the tarmac and pebble hill. We all turn a corner and, without discussion, all take one look up and turn around. There’s an Indian Elephant chained to a post in a small clearing. Two monks look on and encourage us to get closer. We’re told that it’s lucky to hold an elephant in the corner of the shrine but, to us, this just seems cruel. We back away, pick our way uphill back to the tuk tuk and hit the highway.

 

The wonderful in-house chef is such a character - in our traditional cookery class in the Sri Villa kitchens this evening, we get an insight behind the scenes and he and his jolly sous chef take us through several Sri Lankan dishes – exactly what we’ll be eating just a few short hours later. So insane to see that, with the same ingredient, the eight dishes that are created are so utterly diverse. And coconut milk is a regular feature in pretty much everything! All stunning. Literally putting weight ON…. Still, it’s incredibly difficult to turn extra food down when it’s so exceptional!

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Day Five – Wednesday ‘We’re aliiiiiiiive!’

Woke to this morning with a mosquito in my bed - or my gigantic cot as I decided it looked whilst half-asleep the other night. Somehow this one little armour plated badboy had crept through the huge four-poster bed net, to the safe space, where it now lies, looking pretty replete on its back – legs twitching occasionally. Think my pale Geordie blood has been a shock to its system! Hope that is a lesson to its many millions of brothers. Bring it on!

 

Today, in addition to the morning and sunset yoga and lead mediation, we decide to go Kayaking in the alligator and snake-filled mangroves. For what equates to less than £5 it’s rude not to! What a brilliant experience…. Real caveman-heckles-up sorta stuff. It really makes you feel alive (once you realise you’re not going to perish….!).

 

After the now-standard sweaty yoga and wave combo, I meet the guys down at the immaculately laid-out breakfast table. This morning, we’re invited to eat a typical Sri Lankan breakfast (which we’ll again be shown in the cookery class). 

 

We set out kayaking at about 1pm, having signs in Sri Lankan that we insist in agreeing would be on red paper not green if they meant something terrible. I was busy pointing out a swimming monitor lizard and the guys ahead had just casually watched their second croc saunter past when the couple in the kayak behind suddenly chirp out "Sarah! Move! Now, now!" I literally nearly stood up and got out in wild panic. They'd seen a colossal python, lounging in the tree next to us. At this point, we all hit the panic buttons and paddled like f*ckery to get out back onto the safety of the open main river. Elation kicks in when we all realise we're clear of imminent death, but kayaking solo back to base after the ‘fight or flight’ adrenalin surge?? Oh man, there is some digging deep going on!

 

After this, it has to be beer o'clock, surely?


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Day Six – Thursday  "Indyyyyyyy!!!!"

Yes, that’s an Indiana Jones reference. Temple of Doom was inspired by the temples at Kandy in the centre of the island. If only we were here a month, I would LOVE to visit them and live out one of my childhood fantasies of being Indiana (leather jacket and skipping rope in place of whip in my back garden was as near ask I ever got).

 

Anyway. Speaking of what the country’s famous for, getting the train is apparently number two in the top 20 things to do in Sri Lanka, so we head to Aluthgama for the express to Galle. I really fancy the real deal and would like to pay the pittance of 49 rupees to experience 3rd class for the hour-long journey – I'll happily sit with a box of chickens on my lap, anywhere to be honest, just as long as that's not on the roof…! The rest of the group convince me to splash out on the full 100 rupees to go 2nd class, so we’re off!

 

From the goats chilling in the station control room, to flickering views of tropical awesomeness from the train window, to the 2300-year-old Rock Shrine and other sights when we get there, Galle does not disappoint. I tick a few more childish boxes when I spot a man with both a monkey and a python on his lap open a basket and slap a cobra on the head. Very whack-a mole. Very brave! I’m sure he knows what he’s doing and it’s impressive in a way but again, I don’t engage with him or give him any money as I’m not down with the performing monkey on a string routine. Poor little critter. In lighter news, a spot of shopping goes on. Some now surprisingly amateur bartering even secures a number of locally-produced goods: Ceylon teas and handmade wooden peacock god masks to protect the homes of friends and family. Christmas gifts: sorted.

 

When we make it back it's pretty late so Natasha guides us through a short 'Yoga Nidra', which is apparently a yoga sleep. Lovely from what I remember of it before I then indeed fell asleep! 


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Day Seven – Friday ’Not all marshmallows are created equal’
 

 

I'm sat typing this morning’s entry by the pool, the sound of humongous waves rolling and sighing literally 100 yards in front of us. I keep looking up to see if two local fisherman standing in the surf, holding full-size rods, have any luck among the frothy surf — basically wondering what kind of muscly mofo of a fish could enjoy darting about in waves like this. With the strong pull, seemingly sucking in every direction within the same minute, the waves are fun for a six-foot human to lark about in. To me, any fish that can thrive in that surf deserves to escape even the best fishermen – sorry, chaps. It’s our last night as a large group, and arrangements have been made for a final night beach barbeque after our final mediation session. I’m really going to miss this incredible place!!

 


Random Tip: don’t use newspaper to cover your face in the sun, unless you want to sprout horns

 

As the sun sets, the dinner table is once again laid for the group, complete with the usual immaculate place settings, napkin peacocks, flower blossoms, but this eve there’s one huge difference: we’re surrounded by darkness, pierced only by flaming torches, which we note upon closer inspection are made from coconuts (is there anything this fruit can’t become?). The food is again, impeccable – fresh squid, tiger prawns and sea bass on the barbeque, with no less than six side dishes and sauces including lemongass and garlic, and our fave coconut concoction…

 

Time is almost on our side and we have just finished the main meal (second plateful) and started toasting some curious Sri Lankan marshmallows on the beach bonfire when the heavens literally open and golf-ball-like raindrops begin to sploosh off everything, steadily increasing until we are all utterly drenched. One of the chaps is stood in his probably highly-flammable swim shorts next to our beach bonfire, we're all here in the pouring rain huddling around the flame under some snatched villa umbrellas. He's trying his damnedest to melt these marshmallows, sadly with very little success, but a lot of humour. This kind of rain is nothing but fun in this sort of heat. It makes sense to jump in the pool just one last time and toast to an incredible break from reality.

 

Last night of this amazing Retreat. The towel creation laid out on my bed says it all…

 

 

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Day Eight – Saturday ’Back to li-i-i-i-fe, back to reality’

 

 

Up at the crack of day (well, 6am), we gather downstairs for a brief farewell to the wonderful staff (and a spot of toast and jam to see us on the road). Filled in the visitor's book with heartfelt thanks to the Sri Villas team, packed what now feels like three times as much luggage into the same two bags, collect my yoga mat, strap and block, and step out into the morning sun.

 

A couple of hours up the coast road in our friendly booked minivan man and we land in Colombo town for breakfast number two – one last blast of the unique Sri Lankan egg hoppers, this time with a spicy beef curry to savour. Whatever I said about loving aeroplane food, forget it – the ride home would have to be some shade of a miracle to come this close.

 

With five or six hours left to soak up this stunning part of the world, we split into small groups and hit up some of Colombo via the medium of Sri Lanka’s most flirtatious tuk tuk drivers. Two marriage proposals and just 300 rupees later (that’s like £1.20) and we’ve squeezed in The Fort, ayurvedic massages in the old Dutch area of town, lunch, a stroll around the markets, and the highlight: another impressively colourful temple, Sri Jinaratana Bhikku Abhyasa (complete with thankfully taxidermied elephant in the corner this time).

 

As the hours are dwindling and I start to look at my watch more and more, something pops into my head that I’d not easked earlier in the week. I ‘fess up and ask exactly what ‘Namasté’ means – all this time, I’ve been repeating it and thinking it simply meant ‘thanks’. For the benefit of the other uninitiated new yogis out there, it turns out ‘Namasté’ means so much more (Karla even sent me the sweet little reminder below as I boarded). Meditating on this, and trying to take in the incredible week I’ve just been fortunate enough to take part in, it’s with this sentiment that I smile and draw this jam-packed but utterly blissful adventure to a close.

 

Time to put that airplane food to the test, sit with a new, improved posture on the now rather dull plane seat home, and beam from ear to ear as I plan my next Retreat. Thank you, guys!!!

 

 

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by Sarah McGill 

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