Calum McSwiggan

Posts Tagged ‘thailand’

The Year of The Tiger

In Eat, Gay, Love on July 19, 2013 at 12:33 pm

Tiger Temple, Kanchanaburi

‘We ditch the whole scene and end up dreaming instead of sleeping.’

– Taylor Swift

The mosquitoes buzzed noisily in the moonlight as I crept through the forest and began to climb the temple steps. Birthdays have always been like New Year to me, I’ve never wanted to be asleep when the clock strikes midnight, and with everyone else already in bed, I sat myself down in the temple and readied myself to embrace the change of a new year, and the beginning of new beginnings.

A single birthday card sat in my lap as I looked at my watch, breathed in the cool night air, and thought about how quickly the years were starting to pass. I was terrified to age another year, I still felt like a teenager, and yet already my twenties were escaping me.

What seemed like only days ago I’d just turned twenty and was celebrating the last day of my magazine internship; it seemed like only yesterday when my long-term boyfriend had gotten down on one knee and proposed on my twenty-first birthday; and it seemed like only moments ago that I’d quietly escaped my twenty-second birthday by packing my broken heart into a bag and leaving it all behind.

On that birthday I could have never imagined the things that would have happened in the year that followed. How packing those bags would lead me here, atop a Buddhist Temple in Thailand, having done all the things I’d done. It was only when I started adding things up that I truly realised exactly how much had happened.

I’d minced my way through Morocco, had a Vietnamese child find my dildo, fell for a stranger in Ibiza, and was bitten by a tiger in Thailand. I’d crushed on a Spanish student, was stood up on a date in Rome, had a sensational night in Frankfurt, and chased a boy to Berlin. I’d been left for dead on the Indian motorway, seen bandits tear apart cars, I’d written love letters to Juliet, and drank in Swiss and Austrian bars. I’d gotten into a fight in Budapest, watched a hurricane tear through New York, accidentally took a train to Russia, and had a boy stop my heart.

It had undoubtedly been the most incredible year of my life, and I was terrified that everything would be downhill now that it was all behind me. I sighed as the clock struck midnight and I opened my lonesome birthday card. A little disheartened, and totally unconvinced that this next year could live up to such high expectations, I pushed it back into its envelope and sat in silence. Totally unaware of the life-changing greeting that would await me the following morning, I climbed back down the steps and went to sleep.

The goat awoke me by kicking open the door with her hoof and bleating noisily. It was the most bizarre Happy Birthday I’d ever gotten, but as I threw on my clothes and followed her out of the room, I remembered that I’d been given the morning off work to spend time with the monks.

Birthdays are seen as a time for renewal and cleansing, and as the goat lead me down the path and towards the temple gates, I prepared myself to give my offering of pizza and menthol cigarettes. I figured that they were probably sick of rice and flowers, and my estimate paid off. My gesture was well received, and in exchange I was blessed with a year’s good luck and had the tattoo above my heart imbued with eternal protection. It was a welcomed birthday gift, but nothing compared to what was still to come.

I left the monks as the tourists began pouring in the gates, and went and found Universe in his usual resting spot above the temple. It was as I was bottle feeding him and gently stroking his fur that my favourite monk approached me and took me aside. He reached out and clutched the turtle pendant that hung around my neck, holding it close to his eyes, and asking what it was. I explained that it was a good luck charm that had been given to me by my students on the very first leg of my adventure, and had seen me through right until this very moment. He smiled and disappeared for a moment before returning with a small folded square of fabric.

This will bring new luck, he said, pushing it into my hands and watching intently as I unfolded it and revealed the Buddhist symbols and the tiger mirage inked into its surface. I admired the patterns, and just as I went to thank him, a small white object dropped out onto the floor. I bent down to pick it up, and as I held it up to the light, I realised it was the baby tooth of one of the tigers.

He tapped my turtle pendant again and told me that the year of the turtle had passed, and now it was time for the year of the tiger. I thought about what he said for a moment, and instantly knew that he was right. Like that turtle, for a year, I had kept myself protected in a shell, nursing my failures and my heartbreak, and searching for a new life, but now was the time to finally let my guard down and strike.

Wearing my new-found treasure proudly around my neck, I returned from the temple just in time for lunch. I pushed open the door to the common room and was met with smiling faces and a cake lit with twenty three candles. It was something I never expected to see in the heart of a Buddhist temple tucked away in the forest, and as my friends expressed their jealousy over my tooth, I blew out the candles and made a wish. I didn’t know it then, but that wish was about to kick start the most exciting change in my life. The Year of The Tiger had begun.

The Tiger & The Thai Girl

In Eat, Love on July 10, 2013 at 12:42 pm

Tiger Temple

‘How people treat you is their karma, how you react is yours.’

– Wayne Dyer

My shovel dropped to the ground with a clang and I broke into a run as the tiger growled ferociously and came bounding through the open gateway. Leaping onto the stone platform and blocking our exit, he bared his enormous claws and teeth, let out a snarl of ferocity, and readied himself to pounce.

I froze perfectly still, looking at the Thai girl by my side, and wondering how on earth I had wound up in such a ridiculous situation. Face to face with an enraged adult tiger that could kill me in a single swipe, I began to regret that decision to stay an extra week.

I had intended to leave the temple a week before my flight so that I could tour the islands and lay half naked on the beach, but one morning, as I dug a pond in the blistering heat, that all began to change.

I winced with pain each time I drove the spade into the sun hardened ground, swearing and complaining loudly, and just not getting the job done. My hands were sprouting with purple bruises from where Bubbles, the six month old bear, had attacked me, and even holding the shovel was agony. I peeled off my shirt in the heat, wrapped it around my blisters for protection, and watched the tiny Thai girl ploughing through the earth with gusto.

She was my favourite because she embraced any job with a refreshing positivity; whether ankle deep in a slurry of tiger diarrhoea and chicken carcasses, or cutting through overgrowth populated with deadly snakes and insects, she’d wear the same smile and remind me that all of this brought very good karma.

She wasn’t strictly Buddhist, her opinions and beliefs were as wide and diverse as my own, but like most Thai people, she believed that karma was a currency as real as pounds or dollars. It was almost as if it were a real tangible thing that could be weighed and measured, good karma was valued more than any amount of money, and bad karma was like a crippling unpaid deficit.

Everything she did was good natured, she’d escorted a poisonous centipede to a safe distance after I’d tried to cleave it in half; she’d spent hours of her time with the tigers that had left deep lacerations in her back; and she’d even held her tongue and silently spent time in prison for a crime she didn’t commit.

I admired her so much that I wanted to change my behaviours. I had already given up on obeying The Precepts after managing to drink alcohol, gamble, and kill all within my first week, but the path of karma made sense. I could break the rules as long as I was doing what I believed to be fundamentally right. I made an effort to stop bitching and whining about every little thing, and to show The Universe that I was serious, I gave up my secret island hopping adventure and opted to stay for the final week.

So there we were, me, the tiger, and the Thai girl, in this impossible situation. The steel gate lay in pieces, strewn across the yard from where the tiger had destroyed it in his fury, and now he was eyeing us as if to say you’re next. My heart thumped, my hands trembled, and I desperately waited for instruction.

Oh silly tiger! she cried out lovingly, pointing at the destroyed gate and shaking her head like a displeased mother. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, this snarling beast had his six inch teeth prepped and ready to tear us apart, but this five foot Thai girl was entirely unfazed. To her, this was just an ordinary day of work. Just like having a baby tiger nibble on your ears, or listening to the sound of an adult tiger’s heartbeat, these things amazed and astonished us temporary volunteers, but the long term staff weren’t fazed in the slightest.

Don’t worry, she said as the tiger growled fiercely, slinked off his platform, and began to circle us. He’s just being silly. Petrified, I watched as she leaned her head to one side, smiled, and reached down to stroke his back. He jolted suddenly and just as I thought she was going to lose her arm, he retracted his claws and playfully nuzzled into her side.

Had she been aggressive or defensive, I’m pretty sure that both of us would have been floored and ripped apart. It was her loving attitude that allowed her to see past his snarling maw and ultimately save our lives. Unbelievably, she was right, the tiger was just being silly.

I may not have been showered with riches and virgins for my hard work and good deeds, but I knew that The Universe was looking out for me. I’d made the right decision in staying that extra week, and the fact that I was able to walk out of the gates with all of my limbs firmly attached was more than repayment enough.

Atop The Forest Temple

In Eat, Love on July 4, 2013 at 1:08 pm

Tiger Temple Thailand

‘If we taught all eight year olds to meditate, we would eliminate all violence from the world within one generation’ 

– Dalai Lama

We lay on the floor in the stifling afternoon heat, listening to the peaceful silence in the forest canopy, and awaiting the dreaded sound of the chorus of chanting monks. We groaned in unison as their peaceful verse began, stripping out of our filthy work clothes and throwing on our meditation robes with displeasure.

It wasn’t that we didn’t want to go to meditation, it was just that we were exhausted from a day of hard labour. Learning Buddhist Meditation was one of the top items on my bucket list for 2013, I’d even had my robes hand tailored in the heart of New Delhi for the occasion, but now that I was here, my gusto was rapidly waning.

Dressed entirely in white, I’d accompany my fellow volunteers across the forest floor, and we’d complain and drag our feet as we climbed barefoot to the temple. Despite my dying enthusiasm, though, I still made an effort at each and every session.

Snatching up a meditation mat and dancing across the wooden floor in perfect silence, I’d sit and try to imitate the posture of the monks who sat above me on their sacred platform. Focusing my energies on the towering golden Buddha statue as the evening sun glinted over its surface, I’d shut my eyes and let in a whole new world of sound and bothersome thoughts.

Atop the forest temple, rested amongst the treetops, this was the perfect environment for serene meditation. The branches lulled lazily in the wind, and the peaceful chatter of the birds perfectly complimented the dulcet tones of The Abbot’s soft voice. If I listened carefully, I could hear the break of a twig as a deer pranced through the forest, the ferocious roar of a nearby lion, or the restless growl of a tiger pacing below. Everything was perfect, and yet still I hated every moment.

This was not the spiritual experience I had hoped for, I shuffled uncomfortably, folding and unfolding my hands, and trying to straighten my aching back. I tried everything to engage, focusing on my breathing, and trying to adopt perfect stillness. I refused to move an inch despite the sweat that trickled down my forehead, the insects that relentlessly plagued my open wounds, and the twisting knots in my stomach from the Indian poison that refused to leave my system. I tried to embrace the discomfort and bend the pain into something comforting, but my whole body was on fire, and every moment was a living hell.

The same verse was spoken over and over again, and despite my best efforts to learn, I never did understand any of it. I treated the whole thing as a game, counting each breath to try to eradicate each and every thought from my mind, and trying to see how long I could sit perfectly still for. The problem was, that sometimes meditation went on for hours, and one time I even found myself awaking suddenly after having fallen asleep for the entire session.

After weeks of frustration, I approached my favourite monk and asked him for guidance, and only barely overcoming the language barrier, he gave me some poignant advice. He advised me to embrace my inner peace and then share that with somebody I love, somebody I hate, and somebody I was indifferent to.

Finding somebody I loved was easy, I cycled through all of the important people in my life, students, friends, and lovers, and wished them all pure happiness. The same was true for indifference; I wished peace to strangers I’d passed in the street, tourists and taxi drivers, and any unknown face that popped into my mind. Finding somebody I hated, however, was far more difficult.

There’s not a lot of hatred inside of me, but there are a few names that strike a dark chord in my soul. I tried first focusing my energies on my ex and his new fiancé, and wishing them a happy life together, but that dark period of my life had passed, and it was so easy that it felt like that didn’t count. There was nobody I harboured negativity for, absolutely no one, that was until a new staff member arrived and gave me the perfect outlet for my hatred.

He’s a homophobic sexist prick, I said, throwing down the chicken carcass I was de-boning and sighing with exasperation. What happened to your Zen meditation regime? My friend said as she stopped cleaning the tiger cage to mock me. That twat doesn’t deserve my positive thoughts, I grumbled, tearing chunks from the chicken’s breast and letting the six week old tigers eat it from my fingertips. That’s the whole point, though, isn’t it?

She was right, and I knew it. I doubled my efforts and although it was truly agonising to sit and calmly wish this man happiness, my blood boiling as I pictured his face, it took so much of my attention that the rest of my mind fell quiet. The people who mean the most to me would then flutter in and out of my mind, and everyone regardless of love, hatred or indifference would receive the same kind wishes, until all of the negativity was exiled from my mind.

It became so routine that it all happened like clockwork and my mind began to feel lighter. The only person you hurt by harbouring negative thoughts is yourself, and only then did I realise the importance of truly letting go. Eventually those foreign words in the background began to make sense, contorting themselves into something I could understand. It was almost like I had fallen asleep, only this time I was aware of it, and with my eyes shut and my mind emptied, it was as if they were telling me a story.

Everything became as clear as that golden Buddha that burned with fiery brightness just beyond my eyelids, and as time dragged on, it felt like only a very short time had passed. When I finally opened my eyes, I found myself surrounded by darkness, the orange robes of the monks fluttering in the cool night breeze, and the golden Buddha extinguished by the blanket of the night sky. I quietly rose to my feet, followed the other volunteers back down the steps and across the forest as if nothing had happened at all, and then readied myself to complain again when the next session rolled around.

The Whole Universe

In Eat, Love on June 29, 2013 at 8:59 am

Tiger Markings

‘The goal of life is to make your heartbeat match the beat of the universe, to match your nature, with nature.”

– Joseph Campbell

The morning sun had just begun to rise as I sleepily wandered out into the tiger yard and watched the cubs come bounding out of their cage. Aged six to twelve months, they were still considered babies, and yet when fully stretched out they were easily taller than me. With their monstrous paws they could effortlessly floor you in a single well-timed pounce- I’d seen the damage those claws and teeth could do in the grievous wounds of my fellow volunteers- but fortunately, I hadn’t been injured just yet.

I had barely been working at the temple a week, and was still struggling with remember all ten of the cubs’ names. I watched them closely, matching their sizes, markings, and personalities to the names I had scattered in my mind. I spotted Jupiter first, wrestling in the water with Orion, and then noticed Apollo, Gemini, and Venus playfully rolling around atop the hill.

I found it so difficult to place them, when they moved they just looked like dazzling black and orange blurs, but each of them was different, and with time and patience their names continued to come. I knew Mercy by his shaggy matted fur as he rolled around in the dirt, panting goofily as he soaked up the sun; Solo crouched low as she began stalking her prey, creeping up slowly behind one of the volunteers, before Neptune bound into action and pulled her to the floor; and Galaxy was last out of his cage, looking around with those familiar sleepy eyes before slowly plodding out into the yard.

That was all of them, I thought, mentally adding up the number of the tigers I’d accounted for. I doubled back to ensure I hadn’t missed any, and just when I had myself convinced that that was all ten, the ground shook beneath me and the last tiger sank his teeth into my leg. He pulled me to the ground and tore at the flesh, refusing to let go until I gently smacked him away and watched the blood pour down my leg.

I’m a firm believer that everything happens for a reason, and aside from my secret desire to get bitten by a tiger to have a cool scar to show off, this bite was the start of something incredible. For every terrible thing that happens in life, I believe that The Universe has a plan, and that everything works out for the best. Getting bitten by a tiger was no different.

Who was that? I said, knowing I’d accounted for nine of the tigers but couldn’t seem to place the last one’s name. I climbed to my feet and  pointed at the tiger which now slinked away to the back of the yard magnificently as if nothing had happened at all. Universe, one of the staff told me, he never usually bites. I looked at the eight puncture marks from where his enormous teeth had sank into my flesh, and knew that this was no coincidence. The Universe was trying to tell me something, and what better way than taking a chunk out of my leg.

I wanted to get to know this tiger immediately, and he quickly became my favourite. I’d snatch up a dog lead every morning and pick him out of the bunch by the fascinating markings on his face, snapping him up and out of the yard and letting him walk me to the temple. He’d pull the same tricks every morning, walking peacefully until he saw something he wanted, and then dragging me around like a rag doll until he had it.

I was prepared every single day when we climbed the temple steps, anticipating the rush that would follow as soon as the sacred monk platform came into view. I have absolutely no idea what his fascination with it was, but stepping up was forbidden, and I’m pretty sure he just wanted to get me into trouble. With every ounce of strength I could muster, I’d wrap my arms around his heaving galumphing chest and try to drag him to his resting spot beside Mercy. He’d put up a fight for a few minutes, and then eventually settle down with his companion, and the two of them would look out over the forest and fantasize about killing the roaming wildlife.

Apart from his shenanigans and the fact that he took a bite out of my leg as a way of introducing himself, he was the calmest and most trustworthy tiger there was. You could place your head between his humongous paws, wrap your finger around one of his canines, or take a nap on his colossal hulking chest.

He’d let you do anything you wanted, provided you had good intentions, and he’d calmly stare at you with the fondness of a house cat, chuffing affectionately, removing all the hair from your arm with his enormous sandpaper tongue, and playfully swiping for that bottle of milk that he knows you have in your back pocket.

I loved spending time with him, a small part of me was beginning to understand the idea of karma, and I believed that everything I did for this tiger was a repayment to The Universe. Every religion has its deity, Buddhists have The Buddha image, Catholics have Jesus on the cross, and I had Universe, this wonderful living breathing creature.

As the weeks passed by, the wound on my leg began to heal and fade, disappointingly not leaving the impressive scar I’d secretly hoped would remind me of Universe forever. I looked down at him as he lay in my lap lazily, and I knew that the next time I saw him again after I left, he’d be twice the size and able to kill a man with a single swipe, but he’d still have those exact same markings on his face. I gently stroked them with my fingertips, and without having to think about it, I knew immediately that I was going to have them tattooed to my chest.

Getting bitten by Universe was the perfect metaphor for everything I believe in, and every time I look down and see my tattoo, I don’t feel like I just have the markings of a tiger imprinted on my chest, I feel like I have the whole universe engraved above my heart- a permanent reminder that everything does happen for a reason. A terrible break up lead to a new found freedom; a cancelled trip to America lead to a life changing decision; and getting my leg ripped apart by a tiger lead to a friendship that I’ll remember for the rest of my life.