The Karen Files

Monks, Leeches, and Jane Eyre

Hello friends! This will likely be my last post before I head back to the States. Also, I was incorrect when I said that my flight would come in on Wednesday, it is coming in on Thursday. So mark your calenders accordingly!

I know I quickly complained about my stay at Byron Bay on my last post – but the trip wasn’t a total washout.  It did rain while I was there. A lot. Every day. There were bucketfuls and bucketfuls of rain pouring down from the sky at all hours of the day and night. There were a few short breaks between downpours, but the sky always looked like it was threatening to open up again at any second. And to prove my point as to how horrible the weather was – I actually bought an umbrella. On my last week in Australia. Up until then, I had gone through my entire three month vacation without ever needing one. Now my only options were to buy an umbrella, be constantly soaked, or stay inside until I head home.

The hostel I stayed at this time while in Byron Bay was called “the Arts Factory Lodge”. It was such a cool and funky place – despite it’s downfall that it housed a backpack thief. It did have the problem of being loud at night because of all the drunk 18 or so year olds, but I had gotten used to this by now.

When I booked my stay here, it had seemed like it was more accommodating to people who were looking for a nice little retreat away from the party scene as they offered yoga classes and didgeridoo lessons and had a spa out back. They also had fire-twirling lessons and horseback riding through the beach. Maybe this was just the busier season for spring-breaker types. Though I guess I can’t really blame them for partying right outside my window until four in the morning. With all the rain we’ve been getting, it’s not like there are many other places to go!

I did really like this place. They had cool off-beat paintings all over their walls, the bathrooms were filthy but I’d seen way worse, the pool was clean and had a jacuzzi in the middle of it. But I do think that if I was there with someone I knew I would have enjoyed my time there even more.

My absolute favorite part about my Arts Factory stay was when a group of Tibetan refugee monks were visiting for two weeks (starting the day that I came!). Every day they had different programs you could go to for free (donations gladly accepted).


They had meditation each day in the morning, you could listen to talks by the monks and ask them questions about what their way of life is like, they had special ceremonies and speeches given by the monks, and for the young and young at heart each day also had an arts and crafts hour where you could make things like compassion flowers or prayer flags.

The first monk event that I went to was the “happy hour talk” where you could ask the monk questions. I just went to observe, because I didn’t think I knew enough about  monks and the Buddhist religion to ask intelligent questions. I decided to follow the “better to be silent and have people suspect that you are a fool, than to speak and remove all doubts” rule.

Each program was set up in a little room with seats and one or more monks and a translator would join us. The monk would speak in his language (I think it’s Tibetan? I don’t remember the language that they speak in Tibet) and the translator would relay to us in English what was just said.

I learned a lot during the hour. Did you know that girls could be monks? I had always thought that they were all males, and I believe when I’ve seen images of monks they have always been male. The female monks don’t live in monasteries, they live in nunneries instead, and they do have to shave their heads as well. They don’t do the chanting that the male monks do, but they do things like yoga instead – which the men do not do (another thing I never realized). Other than those few differences they do the same things as the male monks, such as trying to help mankind and always striving towards enlightenment.

I also learned that the middle children in Tibetan families are generally the ones chosen to be monks. It is the middle children that the parents send off to monasteries and nunneries.  It is thought of as a great honor for the children, but I’m sure it must be difficult for them because they can’t do the things that other children do. Their whole life they are busy training to be a monk – or monkette. Ok, the females are not called monkettes, but that does remind me of a joke that the translator made during one of the talks. “What do you call a girl monk?” “A Chick-Monk!”

But I digress. Back to my story. The children who are chosen to be monks are not forced to remain in that position against their will. If they ever – at any point of their life – decide that they don’t want to continue to be a monk, they are free to leave with no stigma against those who decide to leave. Instead, they are more respected because they had tried something that a lot of people never do. A case in point – the translator told us that at one time in his life, he too was a monk… but then he discovered girls, or rather, they discovered him. At that point he decided it was just not right for him anymore.

We also learned that one of the monks we were speaking to had not seen his family since he fled Tibet to India about 25 years ago. He recently learned that his mother had died, and he was very sad because he had wanted to see her before she died – but it didn’t work out that way. We learned that he does not regret not having a family of his own, (i.e. a wife and children) because he never knew what that would have been like in the first place, so he can’t miss something that he has never known. He said that because this question was asked of him so often, he must assume that it is something that is wonderful and should be missed, but because he doesn’t know it, he doesn’t miss it.

I did also go to one of the meditation hours to see what it was like. I am not very good at keeping my mind blank or focusing on only one subject however. My mind is constantly racing with thought after thought. The focus of our meditation hour was being happy. The first thing they had us do for 10 minutes was just repeat to ourselves in our head “life is good” over and over again. They said that the way to train your mind to be happy is to not allow the bad thoughts to overtake the good. If you are thinking “life is good” and suddenly a thought comes in “oh but my backpack was stolen and the rain is terrible and where is my flower headband anyway?” you need to just push those bad thoughts to the side and continue thinking “life is good”. They said that if you start to think that all bad things happen for a reason, such as to teach you a lesson of some kind, then you will stop feeling sorry for yourself or your situation and will just be happy to be alive and happy for all the good things that you do have. It was a really beautiful philosophy and a way of thinking that I probably needed at this time in my trip. A kind of “stop feeling sorry for yourself” And after the meditation I just happened to look down and realized I was wearing my “Life is Good” tee-shirt. If that’s not a sign, I don’t know what is!

The last monk event that I went to was a cleansing ceremony. I love to see religious ceremonies from different cultures like the Aboriginal one I was part of on the Heading Bush tour.  Although I guess it isn’t exactly a religious ceremony, a woman I was talking to at one of the meetings told me that Buddhism is not really a religion, but more of a way of life.

At the ceremony all of the monks were all there along with the translator and they started it out by telling us that for the ceremony to be effective, we had to believe it will be effective. They said that even though Buddhists believe that you should never have blind faith and you should only believe what has been proven to you, for this ceremony to work you have to actually think that it will work to let your brain accept that it will work. They really believe in the power of the mind to heal.

Then they told us to imagine that they are not old monks in robes, but they are actually the beautiful healing goddess, and that we should picture them as the goddess as best as we could. They pointed out a bowl in the front of the room which had two figures in it, a man and a woman. They said that those figures represent everything that might be wrong with us, or any problems that we might be having. They next passed around pieces of dough – one for each of us. They said that the dough pieces were to be rubbed all over ourselves, and we were to imagine that all of our problems were getting stuck on the dough. As we rubbed, the problems would be removed from us and put into the dough. Then a monk walked up to each of us with the bowl and we placed the dough into it. Next, another monk came by with a bit of water which he poured into our hands cupped hands. We were supposed to taste the water and then use it to rub all over ourselves. The water was meant to represent the purifying of ourselves. Now that our problems were removed an on the dough, the water would purify our newly clean selves. They then came by again with a pitcher of water and the bowl. They poured the water from the pitcher over our heads and into the bowl so that any remaining doubts or issues could be washed away into the bowl. The lead monk then said that if we had any remaining doubts as to whether our problems would be gone, he would wave the peacock feather in his hand as he chanted some words, and that would blow the last of the problems away. After the chant, one of the monks removed the bowl from the room. They said that now that the bowl was gone, our problems would all be gone with that bowl, and we would never see them again. When the monk returned, the bowl was empty of all our problems.

Finally, the lead monk had each of us come up to him one at a time. He poured more water was poured into our cupped hands which we had to drink, and he handed us a packet of little herb powder pills. He said that if you ever need a reminder of the things that were said in this ceremony, you could just to dissolve a pill in water and drink it, and you can be back on track with knowing that the problems you might have are only skin deep. I am assuming that the herbs in the pills have the same flavor as the water that we drank from the pitcher (which had a distinctively herbal taste) so that when you drink it, it would bring back the memory of the ceremony. That is just science! I have often experienced times when I smell something that I associate with a particular place or person, the memories always flood in.

The monk also gave us a piece of red string which would serve to remind us of the ceremony. We each brought the string over to another monk who would tie it around our wrist using a special “monk knot” that will never come out. Actually, that was the translator kidding with us. It was just a regular knot.

I really enjoyed the monk ceremony, even more than I did the Aboriginal one. I had the distinct feeling from the Aboriginal one that the guy who was doing the ceremony didn’t really want to do it, and that he was doing it just for the money that I’m sure he was getting paid by Heading Bush. Also, I didn’t say this before but that Aboriginal man seemed a little too fond of all the ladies in my opinion. He was constantly talking about how beautiful they are and hugging them as much as he could. The monks on the other hand really seemed to take it seriously, and were doing it for just donations. It was lovely.

I’m sorry that my description for this ceremony wasn’t as detailed as it was for the Aboriginal one, but I didn’t take any notes this time, and I didn’t take any pictures because I thought it would be rude to have cameras flashing while the monks were talking. The Aboriginal one was outdoors so no flash was necessary.

Throughout the two weeks, the Monks were also creating a sand art mandala. They were pouring the sand by hand from little straws, and definitely needed to have a steady hand. At the end of the two weeks they planned to destroy the work of art by blowing the sand away – to show you that nothing is permanent in the world.


I was kind of sorry that I wasn’t going to be around longer now, I really wanted to listen to a few more of the talks that the monks were giving and to see the finished sand mandala. But, at least I did get the chance to see some of them. I was surprised that more people from my hostel didn’t show up to the talks – how often will you ever have the chance to see actual refugee monks from Tibet, monks who see the Dali Lama on a regular basis?

While at the Arts Factory, I decided to get a massage at the spa because it was cheap, I didn’t have to tip the masseuse, and my  shoulders had been killing me lately. When I booked the massage, I also got a free day trip into Nimbin for Sunday, which was perfect because I really wanted to go back to that market – it had so many great products!

I had my massage (at times I swear the woman was purposefully trying to hurt me… but that is another story) and while the massage helped my shoulders a little bit, she said that the muscles in my shoulders and upper back are terribly tight and extremely knotted up and that she couldn’t get them all out in just one session. She suggested that when I get back to the States I should consider having regular massages. Maybe in my dreams!

The next day was Sunday and I went into Nimbin. I was told when I signed up that the market would still go on even if it was raining, but when we got there our bus driver passed right by the town that the market was held in and did not stop. We were told that the market was closed due to rain (!!!!) Instead, we went to see this very… interesting guy who sincerely enjoyed talking about the chaos theory. We went in his house and saw that he had dolls filling every room (which he called his art):


And trash over flowing in his yard (he called it “junk art”). He also had a wall with pictures of all of the gods and religious characters known to man – besides Mohammed – he said he couldn’t find an image.


It was an entertaining trip, but I was still disappointed about the market. We ended the Nimbin tour by going for a walk through this guys woods. Because of all the rain we had been getting we were forced to walk through some partially submerged terrain.


When we got back onto dry land, a lot of us were horrified to see that we were covered with leeches. YES! DISGUSTING, SLIMY, BLOODSUCKING LEECHES! I had three just on my ankles. These leeches were tiny, little, thin leeches that you might easily mistake for a twig so people were still finding them for the next hours to come. On the bus ride home I kept thinking I felt something on my feet, but when I inspected them I would find nothing. Later that night, I looked down at my feet and saw that the area between my pinky toe and the next one was covered with blood. It seems that I had missed one, but it had since fallen off as it probably got it’s fill of me. Dang leeches.

When I got back into the hostel I remembered that I had left my book in the laundry room just a few hours ago (the Nimbin trip was only a few hours long). I went to go get it, and it was gone. Can you believe the nerve of these people? Not only is this hostel full of backpack thieves, it is also full of book thieves. It’s not like the book was expensive. I had gotten Jane Eyre for 50 cents at a second hand book shop. I was just really enjoying the book and was looking forward to seeing what would happen to Jane next… but now I can’t. Because it’s gone. Gone into the hands of some punk that is probably just going to rip the pages out and use them as cigarette papers anyway. Sigh.

So now I am back in Sydney. Back in the noisy, dirty city. But, in a few hours, I will be in the air, and in 30 short hours later I will be back in the States! This makes me happy. I miss everyone so much!



  1. awwww. You know they have Jane Eyre here in the states right? It’s not just a Australian import. ;)

    Make sure those leaches stay in AU! Bleck!

  2. wow wow wow!! i think i would have LOVED doing the monk thing….that sounds so relaxing and theraputic about life.
    i laughed loud when i read the chick monk joke. that was a good one.
    gross about the leeches.

    you probably won’t read this till your back, but YAY!!!! YOUR COMING HOME!!!! CAN”T WAIT!

  3. Yuck…leeches! You know people actually pay money to have leeches put on them.

    You should just about be home now. Can’t wait to see you again!

    Love and Hugs!

  4. MOM! Do you read what Karen actually writes? She’s not going to be home til THURSDAY :P

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