Friday, January 21, 2011

In the Land of the Lotus Eaters



In the afternoon, they came unto a land
In which it seemed always afternoon.
All around the coast the languid air did swoon,
Breathing like one that hath a weary dream.

-Lord Alfred Tennyson
"The Lotus Eaters"

When I open my eyes I am staring at a bowl filled with water and floating flower petals arranged in patterns. There's a subtle perfume of chamomile in the air and I am lying face-down on a massage table, my head nesting on one of those lifesaver shaped contraptions. There is a woman massaging coffee grinds and virgin-press coconut oil into my body.

Barely four hours earlier I was finishing up an eight hour bus ride from Banaue to Manila, during all of which I sat upright with a red, moon-shaped, squishy pillow wrapped around my neck in attempt to prop my head up while I slept. The bus arrived in Manila at 4:00am. I quickly made my way to an internet cafe, groggily attempting to make new travel plans given the bad weather which spoiled a weeks worth of trekking and foiled my attempts to swim with whale sharks.

My first option was to board a plane bound for Palawan, a scuba diver's haven of an island. It is southward enough in this archipelago to reasonably deliver on the good weather. But it also means two hours of waiting for the airplane, then the ride itself, and then the transport to another town where the scuba magic happens. And of course there's scuba-diving itself; a fascinating pastime, but one that involves schlepping around a tank on your back and breathing through an apparatus that makes me feel like Darth Vader. And one I've already enjoyed on this trip just three weeks earlier.

In the past 7 days I had either flown or bused on 4 of them. So I chose option two. Very unlike me, but I couldn't help it. It was just a small blurb in my guidebook. It had me at "massage" and "rose petal body wraps." That's right--option two was a health spa resort. Sure, I'm a backpacker. But I'm a working backpacker, and I deserve this, I tell myself.

Based near Lipa, an hour and a half from Manila by car, it's called The Farm but don't think old MacDonald. Set on 48 acres, it is focused on health and wellness; yes, it's a little on the new age side. But if you're open-minded enough, you would agree that it is so in all the right ways. The soap, shampoo, and all spa treatments are prepared on-site with materials grown in their garden. A medical center is present for those intending to detox. Colonic treatments are also available. The restaurant serves only vegan food, 70% of which is grown on-site. The accommodations vary from comfortably rustic to outright luxurious, all with private bathrooms and air conditioning. Included with the room rates are a three course breakfast, free yoga classes, guided power-walks, and other love-boat meets new age activities.

When I read about The Farm online, I am weak, tired, dehydrated, and sitting in a hot internet cafe in Manila. They are having a promotion of about $100 a night for their most modest accommodation, and I take it as a sign.

I was definitely skeptical during the drive in, which passed through Lipa, a stunningly un-stunning town of commerce and industry, third-world style. We eventually enter a portal to another universe and arrive at an isolated 48 acre compound with massive trees and unbelievable landscape gardening. When we park, I half expect Tatoo and Mr. Roarke from Fantasy Island to greet me with some eerily foreshadowing comment.

But with a little suspension of disbelief, I give in. And, by day two, I have enjoyed a full-body coffee scrub treatment, a full-body mud-mask treatment, with 45 minute massages in each. I have attended four and a half hours of yoga at their stunning, open-air covered zendo, overlooking their splendid property.


And I'm stunned by the food. I am a carnivore in the truest sense of the word, always ordering steaks still kicking. But for a variety of reasons, I've eaten vegetarian items at various points in my life. I'm open-minded enough to do it when needed, but also close-minded enough to suck in my protein the easy, dead-animal way when left to my own devices. And vegan, in my experience, nine times out of ten feels like someone is pulling a rope right through me. It may be healthy to have so much fiber, but I don't find it pleasant.

Well, usually. The Farm's restaurant, ALIVE stunned me with their coconut milk-based sauces, their dehydrated rehydrated red peppers, their sesame crackers, and their herbal tea made with greens from their garden. All this and a clean colon to boot.

During my stay, no detail is forgotten. With 25 accommodations, they have a staff of over 100. My first night there, I am one of three guests, and within a second of me taking a sip of water from my glass, it is refilled. Additional guests arrive the next day, and the rate slows down to two seconds. At the spa, there is staff to schedule me, to administer my treatment, to turn on the water for the shower, to prepare the tea after my treatment is complete. A bit of a change from the last three weeks of schlepping my pack like a snail laboring under its shell.


The Farm is dangerous. During my third spa treatment, (the full-body rose petal wrap), I contemplate extending my stay until I leave to return home, instead of spending my last few days in Manila doing some necessary errands. The scent of roses permeates my nostrils as I recall an episode of my favorite television show from the 1990's, Northern Exposure.

Northern Exposure was a series based around the main character, Joel Fleischman, a Jewish New Yorker, recently-graduated from med school, who pays off educational grants given to him by serving as the physician in a small town in Alaska. His leading lady is Maggie O'Connell, a bush pilot who grew up in a rich suburb of Michigan. He is the fish out of water and she is the neophyte Alaskan and the two are constantly in tension throughout the series until one of the last seasons, shortly before he leaves the show, when they finally consummate their romantic connection.

By that point, Joel has had a dramatic reaction and converts into one of Alaska's many extreme naturalists, living in the bush for months at a time off of natural resources. He finds a map that leads to a mythical city, and the episode takes becomes an allegory of a Greek epic nature. He drags Maggie along in the quest, and they find a spa resort amidst the cold and snow. They are treated with rose petals and champagne, saunas and hot tubs. They gaze longingly at on another and almost abandon their plans to carry out their mythical mission.

Eventually they pull away from the land of the lotus eaters to continue their quest, and at the end of the rainbow, it appears that the mythical city is actually New York glimmering through the trees, much as it does in Central Park. Joel attempts to take Maggie with him, but she lets him go alone and returns to her newly-created home of Alaska. Later he sends her a postcard of Staten Island with only the words, "New York is a state of mind."

A long time ago I moved from New York City to Alaska, and only recently left the Great Land for a whole new world in New Orleans. For many reasons, the show has personal meaning for me. And, while I am having rose petals blended with fresh aloe slathered all over me, I wonder, will I be able to continue on my journey like Joel and Maggie did? And when I see the end, will I turn back to Alaska or move forward with my life? At the risk of sounding like a yellow belly, I will admit here and now, that in the last 6 months, this last question has been a recurring one despite my verbal denials I've made to the contrary.

But then something strange happened in my third yoga class. It was about 7:30am in the morning, and it was warm and sunny, with a slight breeze. One of the resident peacocks came our way. In fact, he sidled right next to me, about two feet from my yoga mat, and just stood there, watching me, looking straight at me. All I could do was stare right back, not being exactly sure why. The standoff lasted probably four or five minutes, before he moved on and left the zendo, leaving the other yoga students unmolested.

They are strange looking creatures, beautiful, despite their awkwardly-shaped body completely unsuitable for long distance flight. The funny thing about peacocks is that they can eat anything, poisonous plants, and most notably, poisonous snakes. For that reason, they symbolize everlasting life in Christianity. And, with their beautiful feathers resembling eyes, they stand for omniscient perception, or wisdom, in Hinduism. In Buddhism, with their ability to eat poisonous plants and snakes, they symbolize the power of the bodhisatvas, who can endure temptation and pain that accompanies pleasure and bring nirvana to others with their wisdom.

In the jungles of poisonous plants, strut the peacocks,
Though medicine gardens of beauty lie near.
The masses of peacocks do not find gardens pleasant,
But thrive on the essence of poisonous plants,
In similar fashion the brave bodhisattvas
Remain in the jungle of worlds' concern.
No matter how joyful this worlds pleasure garden,
These brave ones are never attracted to pleasures,
But thrive in the jungle of suffering and pain.

- "The Wheel of Sharp Weapons, Dharmaraksita, as passed to Dipankara Sri Jnana [Atisa, 982-1054] and excerpted from "Symbolism of Animals in Buddhism," by Venerable Jama Choskyi.

I am stubborn. My family and friends would agree. Luckily, I haven't ended up in too much trouble relying on my own instinct and judgment. But short of trusted professors, I have a hard time listening to others who tell me what to do--that much is true. It is my nature for I was born in the year of the snake.

After the peacock cameo appearance, I collect my resolve, my backpack, and my credit cards, made good with the Farm, and prepare myself to finish up my journey. And despite my use of the epic analogy, the Farm has not lead me astray; in fact, these farmers have cleared my pores, de-cramped my backpack-weary shoulders, and scoured my colon. But it is time for me to continue on and do what I need to do.

Like Joel, I already have a glimpse of my future. I have been tasked with some exciting projects for 2011 at my new job, and I have decided to train for an amateur boxing match which should occur before the years' end. There are low-income houses that need to hit the ground, financing structures I need to figure out, sit-ups to be completed, miles to run with my dog, and bags to be punched.

It is time for me to finish up my trip and go home to New Orleans.

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