One of my favorite experiences was taking part in the morning alms of the monks at a temple within walking distance of our hotel.
The four of us had to meet our guide in the hotel lobby at 6am to journey over to the temple. Joe (which must be a nickname because he certainly didn't look like "Joe" was his given name,) greeted us with a huge smile and seemed slightly nervous at first as we started our morning together. I think this may have been because we spoke so fast (as Americans tend to do) and English was definitely not his first language. We all had to really work to understand each other but it was worth it and all of us had smiles on our faces the whole time. I think Joe really appreciated how interested we were and especially appreciated Adam's questions, because he had done his research beforehand (as always!)
We reached the temple and Joe first took us to give offerings to the monks. We waited a little ways down the road from the temple and were instructed to take off our shoes. As two monks in bright orange robes with silver bowls approached us, we were instructed to all crouch on the ground out of respect, with our hands together in prayer. The monks said a blessing over us and then we each made three offerings of food and water. This is an opportunity for you to make merit. In Buddhism, this represents that the more you give, and give without seeking anything in return, the wealthier you become. The monks collected the offerings from us in their bowls and continued their journey toward the temple. We followed closely after them, along with some animal friends we made. There seemed to be lots of stray dogs and cats hanging out around the grounds of the temple!
As we strolled back to the temple, Joe explained that basically all Thai men become a monk at some point in their life, be it for a week, a month, a year or permanently. Joe himself had been a monk for one month in his younger days. It was interesting because at that very time, one of our handlers at work, Sam, was on leave for a month to become a monk. He came back with his head and eyebrows shaved. The one think he made sure to mention was that he missed women and that he definitely did not think a lifetime of the monk lifestyle was for him! I think it's really beautiful though, that at one time or another in this culture that you get to experience such a completely different lifestyle.
It was nice having this experience with friends because there were definitely times of awkwardness! When we entered one of the areas of the temple, there was an older monk who was seated amongst various ornamentation, statues and incense. Of course, I was the first to be asked to show him respect and because of the language barrier with Joe and I, at first I just looked like a total fish out of water. I kneeled and sort of bobbed up and down like one of those toy ducks that dip their beaks into a glass of water. He had to actually stop and show me the kneeling bow that I was to do in front of the monk. Of course, by that time when Chelsey, Seth and Adam followed after me, they were pros!
We entered another area of the temple where there were lines of strings hanging from the ceiling and monks sitting in several areas eating the offerings they received that morning (monks can only eat until noon and then they fast the rest of the day.) If the strings touched the top of your head it is considered good luck. We did not get close enough to this area of the temple for that to happen, as there are only certain areas that tourists are welcome.
We then walked a little further to another section of the grounds where there was a small room with three Buddha statues, a large urn of blessed water and a cabinet with about 20-30 small drawers in it. Joe had us take a canister of sticks from him, kneel and shake the canister until one of the sticks fell out, but it was important that you only make ONE stick fall out. The stick had a number written on it and that corresponded to a drawer which had a paper in it that would tell you a fortune. If the fortune was good, you kept the paper. If the fortune was bad, you put it back in the drawer so you didn't take the bad vibes with you (this is obviously a translation of mine.)
First we had Seth, the birthday boy, go. He shook the canister, out popped on of the sticks and Joe proceeded to look over the paper which was written in Thai so he had to translate. Seth had a great fortune! He should expect luck, wealth and power in his future! Next, Chelsey shook the canister. Joe's face did not look promising and he just said, "We put this one back. Not good." We all laughed, not really wanting to know the details of the bad fortune. I went next and produced a different stick but the same crestfallen reaction from Joe. "Not good. This goes back in the drawer." Okay, well, it doesn't look like the ladies had much luck with this activity. Last, Adam gets his fortune and, as one of our favorite moments of the trip he mistakes Joe saying, "You will be a great leader," with "You will have a big litter." Seth, Chelsey and I all heard Joe say the first and correct interpretation so we were puzzled when Adam responded, "Of children?! Great!" Joe just nodded, not quite knowing how to respond and handed Adam the paper. The three of us were laughing because we couldn't understand why Adam seemed just pleased as punch to be a great "leader of children." We realized the mistake in deciphering Joe's accent that Adam thought he meant he would have a litter of children one day. I guess you had to be there. It was hilarious.
We continued around the grounds of the temple for a little while longer, soaking in the peace and serenity of the morning. The sun was just glistened off of every ornate corner of the temple and it was a very spiritual and soul-soothing morning. I'm so glad I got to share this experience with three such great people and I know we will all hold it very near and dear to our hearts. I didn't really know anything at all about Buddhism before moving to Asia and I have a lot of respect and awe of this religion. There is something so grounded, giving and peaceful about it that made me feel extremely centered and grateful to have had this whole experience, from the day I landed in Singapore. Though this was the toughest year of my life, it has been filled with the biggest life lessons. Had I not taken this journey, I'd be a completely different person and I'm grateful that I did.
And you should have seen the look of shock and awe on the monks face when he witnessed this little Irish Catholic redheaded white girl awkwardly kneel and sway back and forth trying to show him respect and gratitude. If nothing else, I hope he had something to laugh about later with the other monks.