TRANSFORMING SUFFERING

Turning a sad story of two miscarriages into a constructive, loving story

Our website openendedtravel mainly shows the beauty of the life we are living. We traveled extensively. We are currently living our life in Ethiopia. We have a gorgeous daughter. The three of us live in harmony. But we all get our share of suffering – and so do we.

Having experienced two miscarriages in the past year has led to a variety of emotions in our family: sadness, anger, disappointment and a certain feeling of emptiness. I have found that the pain I have experienced is one of an ‘existential nature’. It can be so deep, so severe. It seems to come directly from my tiniest toe. I have come to realize that this topic is quite taboo, and for a long time I tuned out. Afraid to share our pain, and weary to receive other people’s pity which I wouldn’t consider helpful. I was surprised to see that online there are tons of similar sad stories. Although there is a certain level of comfort to be found in sharing experiences, I didn’t find many handholds on how to deal with my suffering in a constructive way.

Therefore I decided to write this story. To provide a more positive outlook on dealing with a miscarriage, and sharing my experience on how one can actively transform suffering. Because the beauty is, we truly can. We cannot choose what happens to us, but we can choose how to respond to it. In this margin of choice lies a sense of freedom.

Only since I got introduced to Mindfulness, Yoga, Buddhism, and more specifically to the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh, a whole new world opened up for me: that suffering is ok, that we all suffer, that if we learn to deal with our suffering skillfully we will suffer less, and that it is even possible to transform it.

So how did I go about it? Here I list key elements that were helpful to me under these circumstances, in the order that seems most logic. Please note that by no means this is a ‘check-list’ or a ‘so-many-steps to happiness’. These components are simply helping me to transform my own suffering.

Be aware

All of my transformations start with this, the awareness of what is going on inside me: what I’m thinking, what I’m feeling. Being aware of the pain. Being aware of thoughts such us: ‘why me?’, ‘why is this necessary?’, ‘the baby should be growing’.

Allowing it to be

Once I’m aware of what is going on, next I can try to allow it to be there. It is ok to have these thoughts. It is ok to feel sad. Not giving it too much energy, or being swept away by it, nor pushing it aside, and pretending all is well. Also, not adding another layer to this, with a thought such as: ‘I shouldn’t feel like this’.

Honestly, I found this quite difficult, the pain was so severe at times, that it felt like I would explode if I would fully allow it. So I started drinking coffee, simply to numb the pain a bit. Short-term this was helpful, but in the long-run I still had to deal with the pain. I guess what I’m saying is: allowing our pain to be, to the extent that we can handle it.

Suffering comes from resistance

This might be a hard one to digest, but I realized that my suffering is self-inflicted. Surely, it is a sad story. But from the perspective of nature, nothing went wrong. A baby tried growing in my belly, it wasn’t capable to survive, so nature decided to break it off. From this perspective, nothing happened. These are my thoughts, my expectations and my wishes which are causing my pain: I didn’t want this to happen. By continuously fighting reality, suffering arises.

The upside in this, is the fact that if I’m causing my suffering, I can also end it. Easier said than done, I totally know. But this realization is giving me a huge sense of relief. (A great book on this topic comes from Katy Byron, ‘Loving what is’).

Understanding deeply

When I’m aware, when I’m able to allow, I can start understanding myself. What is my story that makes me suffer? Where is my resistance to reality coming from? Well: the fact that we have a wish to expand our family. The fact that I’m attached to an image of myself in the future. The fact that I don’t want to undergo another medical intervention. Seeing this, understanding that this train of thought is causing my suffering, can help me to take care of it and transform it.

No mud no lotus

In the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh the example is given that only from compost, the most beautiful flower can grow. If we regard my suffering as being the compost, and I garden it skillfully, it can be transformed into a flower. So by seeing my suffering, and understanding it, in my experience it can naturally dissolve over time. It seems to melt. It becomes softer. It takes time for the flower to grow, but adding some water and regular care, it can even blossom.

The positive side I can see in this experience, is that I can relate to the suffering of the world more easily. I also feel a stronger connection with my husband, my daughter and my close friends and family. And although it might sound out of place, I’m actually grateful for the opportunity to experience life to the fullest, including the suffering it has to offer.

So I guess, yes- we can bloom when we’re in a dark place. (In the powerful book ‘Option B’ Sheryl Sandberg writes about the potential of personal growth when facing hardship).

Take care of myself

Growing a flower from compost takes energy. I couldn’t do any mental transformation without taking good care of myself. The basics, really: enough sleep, healthy food, sports, meditation, and hugs.

Trust instead of hope

Some people find comfort in believing there is hope. For me, at this stage, it doesn’t work. On the contrary, if I keep hoping to have another child, and it doesn’t work out eventually, I’ll need to deal with a new level of suffering later on. For me, hope is potentially setting me up for disaster. Rather, I try to have trust: trusting that whatever happens will be ok. Trusting that my body is doing the best it can. Trusting that whichever way it will turn out, my family will be in its most optimal set-up.

Count my blessings

Clichés are there for a reason: they are often true. I have found this advice ‘count your blessings’ always slightly annoying, because I felt I was already doing this. But being honest with myself, I realized I wasn’t doing this sufficiently. Taking the time to actively feel gratitude for what is there already, instead of focusing on what isn’t there, has made a huge difference for me. Being blessed with a strong connection to my loving husband, falling in love regularly with my beautiful daughter, being able to access the most amazing health care in the Netherlands, and also the small things: a bird in the garden, the smell of coffee, someone laughing in the street…

As Thich Nhat Hanh says it: ‘We have more than enough conditions to be happy.’

We won’t get everything we wish for

I think my generation was raised with the idea that ‘the sky is the limit’. Nothing is impossible. We can achieve everything. As a result I thought for a very, very long time I could have the exact career I had in mind, and that also in my personal life everything would go as I had planned for. Although it is so obvious this isn’t true, it took me a while, through trial and error, to see that this assumption is false. Experiencing these miscarriages is only re-enforcing this insight: we won’t get everything we want. A simple fact, which actually gives me a huge sense of relief. Because if this is true, I cannot possibly fail.

Don’t go back into the ‘rabbit hole’

Having written all this, knowing that reality is trickier than the way paper makes it sound, the last thing I try is: staying alert. The moment my mind gets some slack, it has the tendency to go back down the ‘rabbit hole’, where it’s nice and comfy among self-pity and unhappy thoughts. ‘Un-Slumping’ myself is not easily done (see: Dr. Seuss, Oh the places you’ll go!). In fact, it takes more energy to get my way back out there, than it takes to stay alert and not go down the rabbit hole in the first place. So staying alert is the glue that holds it all together.

 

And do I manage all this, all the time? Not quite. It’s work in progress – ups and downs, smiles and frowns.

(K)

Journey of creation

image

many have gone before us
but only you made us realize
this miracle

a transformation
opening our hearts
to this journey – to the fullest

accepting uncertainty
surrendering to all possibilities
life and death
sickness and health
pain and pleasure

trusting nature’s wisdom
trusting what is – and what will come
letting go of control
and the illusion of control

capable of loving you
beyond our imagination

united though separated
entwined – connected
we are on this journey together

(K)

SOME SABBATICAL STATISTICS

image
Countries visited: 18
Months traveled: 15
Nights spent in our tent: 49
Nights stayed with friends or couchsurfed: 58
Different beds we slept in: lost track
Target budget a day: 25 euro pp
Money spent on deet & sunscreen: lots
Most expensive country: US
Least expensive country: Phillippines
Currencies used: 14
Hours of television watched: 0
Books read: 85
Concerts attended: 3
Items lost: 7
Kgs left behind: not enough
Modes of transport used: 13
Km travelled: 85064
Km cycled: 1003
Hours of yoga: over 550
Meters of ducktape used: several
Oceans swam in: 3
Beers drank: 7 or so
Buddhist retreats attended: 5
Highest point: 5000m+
Lowest point: – 2 m (..snorkling)
Flights: 26 (10 international)
Trees planted: still looking for a sustainable way to balance our foot print
Phone calls received: none! it was so nice and quiet …
Notebooks used: 10
Postcards sent: 147
Cm hair growth: 21 (V)
Pictures made: 8145
Blog posts written: 11
Countries of origin of our blog visitors: 68
Months it took to shake off work stress: 6
Earrings bought: 13
Kids created: 1
Maternity clinics visited: 4
Times we got married: 2
Marriage location: Thailand & the Netherlands
Personal insights: we’ll tell you when we meet for a drink!

But for sure it’s the people that make this voyage worthwhile. Sending a big hug to … our own friends & families – Netherlands; Frans – Budel; Aurelien & Adja, Aziz – Paris; Jason, Sergio, Daniel, Achmed – Plum Village France; Erik & Virna – Ostea; Penka & Tsveta & family – Sofia; Konstantin & Eva & Stela – Plovdiv; Kerem – Istanbul; Aysu & Fuat – Ankara; Busca Vida surf camp crew – Salvador de Bahia; Tao Tien friends – Extrema; Ilja & Johanna – Valle do Capao; Maria Laura – Buenos Aires; Ruud, Johannes, Matthieu – Patagonia; Gonzalo – Puerto Varas; Mindy, Maximiliano – Santiago; Ryo – San Pedro de Atacama; Tupiza tour crew – Salar de Uyuni; Pedro & family – Trinidad; Sergio – Cuzco; Uwe & Karen, Ivan & expedition – Choquequirao; Tony – Lima; Sjoerd & Marieke – Los Angeles; Van dwellers – Big Sur; Young Brother, Dave, Brian, Nolan – Deer Park Monastery; Lori & Karl – Carlsbad; Mac – Canmore; Jeores, Fiona & family – Cagayan d’Oro; Alan & family – Luzon; Tom & Wendy – Jakarta; Josh – Rinjani Lombok; Rik – Kuala Lumpur; Ja & James & John & Jack, Peter & Da & Uma, Gaston, Connor, Steve, Lee & Bianca – Chiang Mai; Jente, Warren & Madeline, Alison, Christina, Jonathan – Thai Plum Village; Anouk – Koh Samui.

<< And everyone we forgot here – you know who you are! >>

(K & V)

On food part II

 

With some delay, but as promised, part II of this blogpost is here! South East Asia was the last big section of our trip, and it merits a separate post because Asian cuisine is very colourful, varied and tasty. We had a great time eating streetfood and trying all kinds of weird and delicious stuff. It was by far the healthiest stretch of our trip, foodwise.

Although we only spent a couple of days in Malaysia we found some great places to eat, mostly on the street. Kuala Lumpur is not the most pedestrian-friendly city out there but some rewards await the traveller walking randomly through the busy intersections. We found some excellent Turkish kebab one night when we walked around hungrily. And to top it off, a gelato place that had just been opened and that just happened to serve my favorite ice cream flavours: salmon and wasabi.

Before that, in the Philippines we had to look a bit harder; the USA fast food chains we all know are working hard to impose commercial eating practices on otherwise perfectly fine natural-ingredient-eaters. We still found great fish, as you would expect in an island country, and quite a few vegetarian choices in the small restaurants (if you see a bunch of similar pots sitting on a table or a windowsill somewhere, you have found yourself a local restaurant!). When exploring some small islands by boat we ran into a Philippine family party, where a whole pig (see above) was roasted on a charcoal fire. They had filled it with lemongrass and tamarind leaves and it was very tasty. Eating whole animals is always somewhat daunting for ‘flexitarians’ like us but in many ways I find it fairer than eating fillets from the supermarket – shrink-wrapped, unrecognizable and ultimately more wasteful.

Visiting Indonesia brought back to me all those Indonesian dishes I enjoyed in the Netherlands back in the day. One of the least negative consequences (for us at least, not sure what the Indonesians got in return – milk?) of the fact that the Dutch colonized this beautiful country is the culinary exchange that ensued, which allowed us to spice up our pretty bland food culture in Holland. Most if not all Indonesian islands seem to have their own specialties, and we tried many warungs (family owned restaurants), some in a decent building and some makeshift tables on the street where people sit on a plaid to enjoy their food. Yes, everything is satay and nasi goreng, and bami goreng, but this is just the beginning. Try the weird stuff and you will not be disappointed. Having said this the dish that stands out in my memory was another classic: gado gado. It must have been the surroundings that made it taste so delicious.

Next up was Thailand, and this country’s food does not require any introduction. Except that this is the real thing, and costs a fraction of the prices your own local Thai charges. We stayed for 3 months, in and around Chiang Mai at first and in Bangkok and Koh Samui later, and we managed to eat some very different but equally great food. Also, I discovered a foodblog-treasure. If you like to eat Asian food, this is just the guide you need. In our little street in Chiang Mai near Wat Suan Dok temple we enjoyed many small dishes from the street vendors: edamame (steamed soy beans), fried fish, fresh fruit cooled with ice in the stalls, fried chicken and sticky rice. As for the spice: yes I had some “over the line!” experiences. Eat sticky rice. And drink warm tea if you can find it. Apparently the chili pepper is not even endemic to Thailand (the Portuguese introduced it) but they are certainly fervent supporters. For a next-level spice experience do try the tiny dark green ones they put in papaya salad…

Last but not least check out this noodle experience:  This guy is located outside Bangkok Samui Hospital and caters to the hospital staff. He manages to squeeze out at least 10 different dishes with much precision and speed, for only 40-50 baht (1 euro). I had been studying some of these stalls for a while and what struck me with this one was its perfect organisation. The cooking station has three partitions, so the noodle guy can cook noodles, vegetables, and meat all at the same time. These ingredients and the flavouring (not the stuff you can add yourself at the end) all meet up at the same time in the plastic bag used for takeaway or the bowl for immediate slurping. Everything is within easy reach; the ladles for boiling the noodles can be clipped in place while boiling the stuff inside, elastic bands are right where they should be. have a look at the guy’s outfit, too. Ingredients are refilled from coolers on the side, so more meals can be whipped up during a morning / afternoon noodle session. And of course the whole thing is attached to small motorbike to make it transportable!

Concluding, the informal and very accessible way of eating we enjoyed in South East Asia is definitely the thing I miss the most now that we are back in Holland. But then we do have some streetfood here, too – and I started rediscovering Dutch cuisine by cooking a lot again, on which more later….

(V)

ATTACHED TO STUFF

What is it about stuff, that makes us care so much when we lose it? You might think that because our home is just one backpack it would be hard to lose things. At least, that’s what I expected. But no – the list of lost items is continuously growing. A good example is when I left my camera battery and memory card full of pictures in the pocket of my jumper, which I then put in the laundry. Error.

Technically, I didn’t ‘lose’ it. I ruined it. I felt the loss of the pictures taken of the beautiful Bolivian landscapes. I told myself it didn’t matter, that these are only pictures. But still, I couldn’t help myself thinking about it. Worrying. Feeling stupid about my carelessness. But why? I mean, these really are only pictures, right?

If I am honest, I think I started to identify myself with these pictures – and with my stuff in general. When I lose stuff it somehow feels like I am losing a tiny part of myself. As if I change, become less, when I lose an item. I guess the universe is taking items from me to teach me to not be attached to stuff. Maybe that’s why we keep on losing things – it’s a hard lesson to learn!

For what we can still remember, the list of lost or broken items contains: head torch (Bordeaux, France); shirt (Cappadocia, Turkey); socks (Ankara, Turkey); flight bag (Extrema, Brazil); traveller’s water kettle (Buenos Aires, Argentina); sun glasses (Buenos Aires, Argentina); photo camera broke (Bariloche, Argentina); two blocked credit cards (Patagonia, Chile); supersonic ionic toothbrush (Cochabamba, Bolivia); tent (only lost it for three days luckily!) (Trinidad, Bolivia); Fairphone broke (Trinidad, Bolivia); spork broke (Big Sur, USA); IPad cover (found its way back to us after one week) (Luzon, Phillippines); (cord for glasses broke (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia); cap (Chiang Mai, Thailand); sun glasses (Chiang Mai, Thailand); another spork broke (Koh Samui, Thailand); …

The loss of the pictures was -luckily?- just a gentle reminder; both battery and memory card with pictures did survive the washing machine.

(K)

THIS SABBATICAL SURPRISED ME

There were many different reasons to take this sabbatical. To have a change of scene was one. Not to work was another. To satisfy my curiosity about the world – see how people live in other countries. Another important reason was to seize the opportunity: as we have no kids, house or mortgage, now was the time. And I simply wanted to relax. Take a step back. Unwind.

It is the unwinding that surprised me in many ways.

I had not expected that it would take me many months to get rid of the (work) stress I accumulated over the past years. This last year, whenever I thought I was relaxed, it seemed possible to reach a deeper state of relaxation that I did not even know existed. Either unconsciously (by sleeping, hiking, laughing, being out of the rat race and away from societal pressures) or consciously (through yoga, meditation, massage) I was able to undo these different layers of tension that apparently were more entrenched than I realized before embarking on this trip.

And it starts to make sense now that I think of it.

On the one hand, traveling can be quite intense and is not a solid recipe for relaxation if you ask me. On another, I wonder: did I ever in the past take a proper break? A break that lasted longer than a few months? A break in which I did not spend my time achieving something? (I remember several holidays that were so active that another holiday was needed.) And while studying and working; was I always ‘hamsterwheeling’? Was I doing one thing at a time or multi-tasking? And did I take mini-breaks on a daily basis? Well…

Knowing my answers to these questions, maybe I should not have been so surprised that unwinding can take many months. A lesson learned.

(K)

ON FOOD [part 1]

Of course when traveling, you have to eat. In fact, eating can be one of the most fun parts of traveling. Or sometimes, it is one of the challenges. Food may be scarce, the food you would like to have is not available, or your body is not up to receiving the particular food you have in front of your nose.

After spending five years in a country with only a handful of supermarkets – and relying on diet-improving activities such as keeping a vegetable garden and a weekly tofu distribution scheme – the superabundance of food we encountered in some countries (especially the USA and Canada) was striking. This does not necessarily mean that all this food is “good food”. Definitions of the latter differ, but a personal favorite of mine is the definition by the journalist Michael Pollan: “Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food”. Following this rule is easier to do in countries that are less modern, and where natural products are consumed as opposed to the highly processed ‘food’ you find in your average supermarket. The rule also disqualifies about 99% of the food you find in a present day 7/11, say, or a mini market at a gas station (these places are also known as food deserts. For a great explanation on the more technical food related terms such as this, have a look at this video from the American Public Broadcasting Service’s Sustainability Lexicon).

So as we realized, highly urbanized spaces tend to favor processed food, with the in-your-face presentation you find at supermarkets and convenience stores. Restaurants are an exception, as these tend to make it a point to serve real and natural food (fortunately: imagine all restaurants serving cup noodles with snickers bar for dessert…). Obviously, this comes at a cost and is not available to anyone. It is a sad reality that in cities, people with less resources tend to have less access to good food. We have seen this in many big cities, among them Buenos Aires, Los Angeles, Calgary. In the Asian countries we visited (Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand), the divide is not as clear as there is plentiful and fresh street food available at low prices. The Philippines is a mixed case, as good local street food is there but risks being pushed out of the market by the proliferation of fast food restaurants – even in unlikely places, courtesy of unrestricted market access for American companies. More on food in Asia in part II of this post.

Food is interesting for most travelers because it lies at the crossroads between nature and culture, both major aspects underlying the variety between countries. What is subsequently done with a particular ingredient and how (and when) it is consumed, is a matter of culture. The consumption of food ranges from a quick snack to elaborate religiously inspired procedures and rituals. Many ways of preserving a food (pickling, salting, drying, roasting) while originally meant to increase ‘shelf life’ and make transport easier, actually create all new and fascinating foods. During our trip we have been lucky to encounter many types of food and ways of food consumption. Here are some personal highlights of the first part of our trip:

  • Italian food almost needs no introduction. We loved the porchetta we ate in Ostea.
  • Some home cooked, healthy food was what we craved after traveling for a couple of months. We were served some great food at our host’s place in Sofia. The banitsa was awesome.
  • In Turkey, our Istanbul street was full of street vendors with the best cheap snacks and meals, as well as small restaurants we enjoyed a lot.
  • Street food in Brazil made us feel at home as there are plenty of West African influences. The black eyed pea-based dish acarajé for example was excellent (see photo). Also, the real açaí na tigela (açai in a bowl) was irresistible.
  • Argentina actually has a great though somewhat one-sided food culture, and even as aspiring vegetarians we had to taste the steak. Butcher shops abound in the streets of Buenos Aires.
  • What we enjoyed in Bolivia where the many great local markets. If you’re able to cook where you stay or even when just preparing a sandwich, they allow you to eat cheaply and healthy. And very great-grandmother proof too!
  • In Peru we went all-out with a great cooking class and a visit to Central Restaurant, a worldwide restaurant top 50 that serves many amazing dishes. Interestingly, its menu is organized according to the geography of Peru.
  • In the States and Canada, as mentioned we were forced to consume some ‘authentic’ food desert food, like peanut butter (which I swore never to eat again after subsisting on it for a year in Australia, way back in the day…). Fortunately this time it was only a temporary diet item.

Stay tuned for the next post on food, which will tell you more about our Asia food experience.

(V)