My Totally Unplugged Vacation: No Smartphone. No Talking. No Booze.
Having grown up in a half-Thai family, I was familiar with the basic concepts of Buddhism and had been practicing meditation since I was small, yet it wasn’t until I was in my 30s and living in Boston that I first heard of the Vipassana method. A friend mentioned she was attending a retreat. It got me curious.
The free courses offered by Vipassana centers around the world include lodging, food, and instruction in the Vipassana meditation method, popularized by S.N. Goenka, a Burmese teacher. Though secular in practice, it’s based on the original technique taught by Gautama Buddha. All the centers are in rural areas and their courses generally fill up months in advance. Wait lists are long.
Rather than focusing on repeated mantras or breathing, like many other meditation techniques, Vipassana trains the mind to see things “as they really are” and to break free from the cycle of stress, anger, and dissatisfaction in which so many of us find ourselves trapped. It does this through progressively attuned observance of sensations throughout the body, while simultaneously conditioning the mind not to react to those sensations. Training takes place over the course of ten days, all of which are spent in “Noble Silence.” There is absolutely no speaking, or even eye contact, with other participants. On top of that, cellphones and any other devices (even pens and pencils are considered “devices” in the Vipassana universe) are locked away before the course begins. Surprisingly, I didn’t miss my cellphone at all, but I admit that the journalist in me couldn’t handle ten days of not writing, so after a few days I dug some empty Kleenex boxes out of a recycling bin and took notes on the backs of them using a stray eyeliner pencil I found in my purse.
The other rules include no intoxicants, no stealing, and “no killing.” A true practitioner of Buddhism is a strict vegetarian, after all.
I'd never done anything remotely approaching 100 hours of silent meditation, completely cut off from the outside world. As you can imagine, I found the prospect daunting. It’s made clear in the course description that Vipassana is not “a rest cure,” nor “a holiday,” but rather something more akin to a mental boot camp.
But I was at a crossroads in my life, having recently lost my job and then, shortly after, ended a long-term relationship and moved out of the apartment we had shared. It’s never easy to drop out of the world for ten days, but finding myself unemployed, unattached, and essentially homeless, it seemed like as good a time as any to give it a try.
When I arrived at the center, located in a remote part of Western Massachusetts, I was surprised to find not a rustic cabin resembling an abandoned kids’ summer camp, but a brand-new facility where I was assigned to a sparse, but comfortable room with a private bathroom.
I relinquished my phone and chatted with the other students before we were plunged into Noble Silence. There were 80 of us, half women and half men, though we were separated at the check-in point. There were several young Thai women and older Indian women, your expected crunchy hippie types, a twitchy woman who appeared to be on the verge of some sort of mental breakdown, a few bubbly young girls from France, and a female surgeon who stopped meditating halfway through the course. She called her husband to complain the second the noble silence was broken.
I was assigned a space in the group meditation hall and we settled in for the course introduction. I immediately noticed a potent patchouli odor coming from somewhere in front of me. It was irritating because we’d been specifically instructed not to bring “any perfumes or strongly scented toiletries.” Also, patchouli is revolting.
In a brief video, Mr. Goenka welcomed us to the course and explained the schedule and its purpose. A rotund, elderly man, he told us the story of how he went from a wealthy but miserable businessman in Burma to a devotee of Vipassana meditation in a peculiar, slightly Transylvanian drawl.
The next day we were awakened at 4am by the sound of a gong and then, as preparation before starting true Vipassana meditation, we focused on careful observation of our breath. By the end of the day, after ten hours of meditation, I was surprised to realize that I spend most of my time not living in the present, but thinking of the past or the future. It was also clear that trying to clear your mind of all thoughts is like trying to wrestle a greased pig into a coin purse.
By the second evening, my senses were so heightened that I could tell that the patchouli smell was coming from the curly-haired girl one row up and one row to the right. Despite that sensory assault, I was feeling quite calm until videotaped Goenka returned with an announcement: “There is no dinner here.”
I didn’t miss my phone or the Internet at all. Wearing baggy PJs all day was actually quite pleasant, and I had no problem sitting cross-legged on the floor for hours on end, but no dinner for ten days? A slight panic started to rise in my throat. Or maybe it was just the hunger setting in.
By the third day, it became clear that men are truly the gassier of the sexes. (Or they just make less effort to hold it in). But far more distracting was the construction work going on just outside the meditation hall—perhaps an additional test of our resolve?
On Day 4 I accidentally poured boiling water over my hand at tea time but somehow managed to maintain my silence. As I sat meditating afterwards, I realized that while I could still feel the burn, it no longer hurt—or rather, the pain didn’t bother me. This concrete demonstration of the power of the mind over the body and perception was a compelling epiphany.
As the days passed and hours of meditation piled up, I came to recognize the sounds of coughing, hammering, belching, and farting as mere vibrations, rippling through the air and my body, and understood how pointless it was to let them bother me. But at night my stomach grumbled, and when I heard some of the other women sneaking out to their cars after lights-out, I imagined they were shoving contraband Luna bars into their mouths.
On Day 6, empty spots around the room made it clear that during the night several people had “done a legger,” as the Irish say. Whether it was hunger, boredom, discomfort, or overwhelming urges to kill that had chased them off, I’ll never know. I was having occasional wistful thoughts of coffee and margaritas, but was determined to stick it out.
As Day 7 dawned, I felt strong and serene. While my mind would still occasionally wander like a naughty monkey, I could do mental TSA scans of my body from front-to-back, top-to-bottom, any which way. At a certain point, I even felt, as hokey ask it might sound, the confines of my body dissolve and hum with the energy of each of my cells, in rhythm with the energy pulsing in the air all around. If you’d asked me a week before if I’d ever felt my body’s energy at one with that of the universe, I’d have given you some serious side-eye.
As the end of the course drew near, I grew fearful of re-entering society after having made eye contact with only a robin in over a week, and with senses so heightened that I could detect the change in temperature in the air I inhaled—cooler as it went in one nostril, warmer as it went out. Would my head explode when I was surrounded by people, cars, traffic, the chaos of the city?
On the last day, we were released from silence and informed that it was “Metta Day,” a day of “loving kindness,” which the two girls from France celebrated by having a screaming fight in their room. Though my middle name is “Metta” (no, really—it is), I freely admit that I’ve often had trouble maintaining feelings of affection towards all living beings. But in the week after the course, I cuddled a cat (an animal that I not only detest but to which I am severely allergic) and was completely unfazed by an accidental run-in with a toxic ex.
But though this unearthly composure and beneficence would not last forever, I came away from the course with a heightened awareness and invaluable tools for the rest of my life—the ability, whenever I should wish to utilize it—to live each moment with truth and clarity, and the power to determine my own happiness.
Get to Know: Philipsburg, MT, One of the Coolest Small Towns in America 2017
Philipsburg, MT, is no. 7 on Budget Travel's list of the 10 Coolest Small Towns in America 2017. Anyone traveling from Glacier National Park to Yellowstone, as I did with my wife and kids last summer, will be grateful for the town of Philipsburg, a little mining town in Granite County, a short drive south of Interstate 90. Especially if you’re driving with kids, Philipsburg may be the town of your dreams: Stop here to learn how to pan for gems and chow down at "The World’s Greatest Candy Store." Any questions? The Sapphire Gallery will teach you how to turn a pile of dirt and rubble into a much smaller pile of beautiful raw sapphires: You purchase a bag of gravel mined from the nearby mountains, then swirl it around in a pan to align the gravel so that the raw sapphires (much denser than the surrounding debris) sink to the bottom center. Then you turn your sieve upside down and pick out the raw sapphires. Staff is on hand to help, and you can then take your favorite sapphires to be analyzed to determine which ones are candidates for heat-treating, which gives sapphires their shine and their color. We ended up with three good candidates, paid to have them heat treated, and they arrived in the mail a few weeks later, even more beautiful than we’d hoped. Even if we weren’t a little peckish after our sapphire activity, it’d be difficult to say “no” to The Sweet Palace, billed as “The World’s Greatest Candy Store” and located right next door to the Sapphire Gallery. As you walk in the door, you’re greeted by the unmistakable aroma of taffy, fudge, and other other delights all blending together in way that takes you back to your childhood, or the childhood of your dreams. Rows and rows of candy jars, ranging from well-known favorites to unusual regional treats, invite you to overindulge. We did. I handed each of my daughters a candy bag and instructed them to pick out no more than one pound each. I thought I was being a bit strict. But it occurred to me only later, as they spread their bounty on their hotel beds, that one pound of candy is, well, a pound of candy; oh well, we were on vacation, right? For dinner, we enjoyed Tommyknockers, across the street from our hotel. The burgers and lemonade were just what we needed after a day on the road, and I especially enjoyed a refreshingly light craft beer, brewed just down the street at Philipsburg Brewing Company. We bedded down in style at The Broadway Hotel, where each room is decorated in the style of a particular travel destination. Appropriately enough for us, we got a U.K.-themed room, which suited my family's literary taste (Dickens, Austen, Rowling) perfectly. In the morning, we joined other hotel guests in a hearty breakfast of home-baked quiches, pastry, and more. Even though we weren't traveling with a dog, we appreciated the hotel's pet-friendly policies, and we loved chatting with the staff about Philipsburg's mining history and very cool comeback in recent years.
Get to Know: Milford, PA, One of the Coolest Small Towns in America 2017
Milford, PA, is no. 8 on Budget Travel's list of the 10 Coolest Small Towns in America 2017. A village since 1796, Milford is something of a time capsule today, not least because its streets are lined with Victorian homes and regal mansions designed by some of the best known 19th century architects. About $5.5 million has been invested to enhance and refurbish its heritage, so the streets, with their well-kept trees and restored streetlights and sidewalks, are almost an attraction unto themselves. Milford’s historic district includes 655 buildings. Four hundred are officially “historically significant.” And then there’s the Hotel Fauchere, a nearly 130-year-old institution that was rejuvenated in the mid aughts. Since Milford, which is part of the Poconos, is only 85 miles east of New York City, it became a posh summer resort town for the cultural and political illuminati in the early to mid 1900s, so the Fauchere’s guestbook includes Mae West, JFK, and Andrew Carnegie, to name a few. Things quieted down after WWII, but got lively again after 9/11 when urbanites sought quiet respite, but despite this influx of cityfolk, the dining scene retains its old-school charm. The Hotel Fauchere’s Delmonico Room, named for the legendary Manhattan restaurant where the hotel’s founder worked as a master chef before arriving here, upholds its tradition of classy American fare, but the chefs here jazz up the dishes with modern creativity. The Jive Bar and Lounge, which is so old school it doesn’t even have a website, has music on the weekends and the iconic Milford Diner, set in a charming colonial building, is everything you’d expect of a classic breakfast grub go-to. The Waterwheel Cafe Bakery & Bar, a local favorite since 1989, offers wholesome dishes with international twists. The nature is something to behold, too, what with its setting 100 feet above the Delaware River, which is ideal for kayaking as well as hiking along its shores. The Knob, a noted natural attraction, is a 400-foot bluff at the end of the town’s main boulevard, affords views of the warren of streams flowing in and around the town, forming a web of waterfalls as they go. The town is actually billed as the birthplace of the American Conservation Movement, as Theodore Roosevelt appointed its founder’s son as the first head of the U.S. Forest Service. The way the natural beauty here is woven into a cityscape makes for a solid microcosm of America itself.
Get to Know: Glens Falls, NY, One of the Coolest Small Towns in America 2017
Glens Falls, NY, is no. 9 on Budget Travel's list of the 10 Coolest Small Towns in America 2017. If you take the long view, the Adirondack region is essentially a mosaic of heart-stoppingly gorgeous small towns, but Glens Falls, situated at the southern edge of Adirondack Park in the Hudson River’s “Big Bend” and first settled in 1763, stands out for a few reasons. A magazine in 1944 christened it “Hometown, USA,” and the name has stuck ever since. Some of the area’s largest firms have their headquarters here, yet it’s just a quick trip to nearby caves and waterfalls, which novelist James Finimore Cooper extoled in “The Last of the Mohicans.” Today you can visit the cave, named for the writer, where Hawkeye and his cohorts tried to escape. Glens Falls, it seems, proves nature and commerce can coexist. It’s easy for music, art and theater lovers as well as history buffs to stay entertained here. The Adirondack Theatre Festival performers from Broadway and regional theater for six weeks each summer; the Crandall Public Library and Folklife Center features a chronicle of the region’s rich cultural heritage; the Glens Falls Symphony performs throughout the city; and the Hyde Collection Art Museum, set in an historic house, displays works by Rembrandt, Picasso, da Vinci, and other iconic virtuosos, as well as antique furniture and decorative objects. All that and it's close to all the offerings of the Catskills.
Locals Know Best: Fargo, North Dakota
If you’re a student of American trivia, you might know that Fargo, North Dakota’s most populous town, which sits on the Red River Valley of the Great Plains, is named for William Fargo, the founder of the Wells Fargo Express Company. Or you might know that it was referred to as the “Gateway to the West” once the Northern Pacific Railroad was up and running through the area. Or that it was essentially rebuilt after a massive fire decimated 31 downtown blocks in 1893. But chances are everything you know about Fargo you owe to filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen, whose 1996 kooky crime drama (and present FX series of the same name) gave the town pop culture street cred. Today, Fargo is an energetic hub of creativity with a youthful vibe. In 2014, Forbes magazine ranked it number four among the fastest-growing small towns in the US. To get the lowdown the town, we checked in with Alicia Underlee Nelson, who curates Prairiestylefile.com, a site that focuses on what's unique and local in the upper Midwest and Canada's prairie provinces. She's also the author of “North Dakota Beer: A Heady History.” She grew up about 45 minutes away and just moved back after 12 years in Minneapolis. She’s seen the difference the relatively few years can make. ARTS & CRAFTS Fargo’s amazingly well-preserved downtown has undergone changes in the past few years, but none of them have impinged on its historic integrity. Where people once went there for basic shopping needs, it’s evolved into an arts and culture district. The Plains Museum is a major local art institution, what with its collection of 20th and 21st century works. But Alicia always tells people to hit the various galleries when they come to town. Gallery 4, which was established in the 1970s and is one of the oldest coops in town, and the sweeping Ecce Gallery have great openings each month, Alicia notes. Translation? Free party. Both feature regional artists and bill themselves as springboards for new talent. But art here is not constrained to the confines of four walls. Or passive viewing, for that matter. Anyone who has chalk or pastels or spray paint can make his mark on the public art wall, a blast of color tucked away in an alley. “Basically, there are very few rules,” Alicia says about it. There’s a longstanding local pride in time-honored crafts here, too. “North Dakota is not pretentious at all. We’re super-open and welcoming and friendly. There’s a strong tradition of craftsmanship here. A lot of people quilt and paint and make their own furniture. There’s a real appreciation for people who make art,” she says. But if classics crafts aren’t your thing, she’ll point you to Unglued, a shop where you can pick up any and all kinds of modern indie crafts from region. Case in point: upcycled bowties by local artist Ashley N. Dedan, who makes accessories with clothing scraps under the label Aendee. Alicia also recommends downtown institution Zandbroz, a mashup of a bookstore, a variety shop, and jewelry purveyor. Browsing around here might seem akin to poking around a museum of curios. Or you could pick up some local goodies at Sweet Dreams Confections. Go for the homemade fudge, gelato, and sodas, stay for the from-scratch soup and salad at the shop's cozy, chill coffee bar. READ: Locals Know Best: Savannah Maybe the Coen brothers, who are known for their wacky, if often dark, sense of humor, were drawn to Fargo for its quirk factor, and there are indeed a few unusual places to visit. Alicia calls out Scheels, an outpost of a national sporting goods chain, but this locale features an indoor ferris wheel, shooting games, and--wait for it….. statues of US presidents. “You can go for a ferris wheel ride in the middle of winter. You wouldn’t think it if you were going in to buy basketball shorts, but you can. It’s a strange place,” she said, noting that you might spot a bride and groom getting their wedding photos taken there. It’s also the place to go for North Dakota State University gear. The team plays across the street in the Fargodome, but regardless of whether you’re a football fan, if you’re in town during a weekend game, make sure to hit the tailgate party. “It’s seriously one of the best parties in town. There’s a marching band and free games. Plenty of people don’t go to games, they just go to hang out.” NOW THEY’RE COOKING The creative vibe shines through in the restaurants here, too. Rhombus Guys Pizza might throw you for a loop if you go in expecting you basic average pie. Among their extensive veggie pie options is the tater tots hot dish pizza, which Alicia swears is better than a plate of perfectly fried tater tots. Its upstairs patio is another reason it’s worth visiting. Locals here are obsessed with their patios in the warmer months, which Alicia attributes to the winters being treacherous. Blackbird sits on the slightly less eccentric side, offering wood-fired pizzas that are locally minded down to the flour. (“The guy’s obsessed with dough,” Alicia says.) READ: Locals Know Best: Sacramento For something a bit more high-end, Mezzaluna comes highly recommended. But despite its fine dining appeal, the restaurant also offers excellent late-night happy hour regularly and a midnight brunch on occasion in the colder months. “They announce it online, and it’s worth stalking their website for when they announce it.” Speaking of late-night, no matter how fun it is to get caught up in the hype of trendy restaurants, diners remain a beloved here. Krolls Diner, an outpost of a small chain, is a retro dining car where you can kick back in a sparkly booth and order classic diner grub or German staples, like the beloved knoefla soup. The fact that its website is www.sitdownandeat.com should cue you in to the light humored attitude of this joint and its heavy food. German food is also the star at Wurst Bier Hall, which has tons of beers on tap and communal tables. When your sweet tooth gets the best of you, the best dessert in town are found at Sandy's Donuts, which has two locations in town. “Everyone says their own donut place is the best, but this really is,” Alicia declares. “Just get there early,” she advises. The flavors rotate all the time and include special creations for game days and holidays. There’s also an impressive lunch menu of salads and hot and cold sandwiches at the downtown location. And best of all, each meal comes with a free donut. WHAT’S BREWING In summer 2017, Alicia published her book "North Dakota Beer," so she is intimately acquainted with craft brewers in her hometown and beyond. For an understanding of what’s become a strong craft beer scene in North Dakota, you’ll want to pay a visit to Fargo Brewing Company, the first in town. Located about a 10 minute walk north of downtown, it remains a local favorite, drawing people not only for the excellent beer, but also for the food trucks, the chill industrial vibe, and frequent tasting events. Then later, in 2016, they opened Fargo Brewing Company Ale House in South Fargo where they serve food designed to pair with their brews as well as some quirky bites that only true suds lovers could dream up. Case in point: an ice cream sandwich with the cookie part made with spent grains from the brewery. Drekker Brewing, located right downtown, has a more polished appearance. Alicia recommends taking their grain-to-glass tour, not least because all the proceeds go to charity. The brewers’ interest in artistry extends far beyond beer. Local art adorns the walls in the taproom as well as their packaging. (One of Alicia’s favorite local artists, Punchgut, created the dynamic graffiti-style cans for the brewers.) They also host live music each weekend, game nights, and late-night craft fairs. Needless to say, it’s a lively hangout. And although they only have a small snacks menu, you can plan to stay for a while since they encourage ordering from outside restaurants. Kilstone Brewing is less flashy and more tucked away in a low-profile space in an industrial near the interstate highway. Once you’re inside, though, Alicia says it’s really accessible and, what’s more, "they rock bingo," she declares. Speaking of tucked away, if cocktails are more your speed, The Boiler Room is a chill hotspot that draws revelers for its craft cocktails and creative American fare. The basement locale, which you enter through a back alley, also offers cocktail classes.