“Is that man a German?” The old monk asked me, peering at my husband who was wandering outside the monastery.
“Um…..” my mind started to do that thing that writers’ minds often do when they are presented with semantics. I guess the logical engineer’s answer would be a solid “No, he’s not a German.” But I don’t have an engineer’s mind and instead the nuances of identity floated around in my head.
My husband was born to American parents, on US soil. He’s first generation on his mother’s side, who was born in Germany to an English mother and a German father. His first (and last) names are German, and he speaks German.
So my writer’s mind settled on the answer of “yes….sort of.”
The old monk smiled, his deep voice chuckling, and said “Very good, I would very much like to meet that German.”
But let me back up.
My husband and I had just sold all of our things, quit our jobs, and purchased one-way tickets to Asia. We were running away from our old boring lives, and towards everything that we loved: adventure, good food, exciting moments, and foreign lands. We weren’t so much searching for meaning to our lives, as we were looking for a way to feel alive.
We had been wandering around Hong Kong and Singapore for a few weeks and when we found a cheap flight to Malaysia, we hopped on a plane.
In our hostel, we met a fellow traveler who was ready to move on. He told us about the biggest temple in Malaysia and how amazing it was. He told us it was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen and we’d be stupid to miss it. My husband and I tend to be free spirits when we travel and we’re non-planners by nature. See, we believe travel changes you, not when you get to your final destination, but through the actual journey.
For us, it’s never about checking famous sites off our list, but rather, the people we meet and the experiences we share.
But, our fellow traveler, and his stories of the magnificent temple were compelling. We decided we’d head to the temple the next morning.
My husband flipped through a dog-eared guide book in the lobby and figured out where the temple was located. We asked at the front desk the best way for us to get there, and armed with hard to read directions and bus stops scribbled on a piece of paper, we were off in search of this magical temple.
3 hours later, in the relentless mid-afternoon Malaysian sun, there we were. Sun-burned, exhausted, and cranky. With no temple in sight. We had taken the busses we thought we needed to take. We had walked around for a few miles. We had passed a dozen temples. But not THE temple.
We had a choice to make.
Should we continue on, in search of this amazing spot? I mean, what makes a temple more amazing than another? The size? The artwork in construction? The opinions of others? I was cranky and beginning to feel like giving up. A temple is a temple is a temple, right? I decided to just go into the next temple that we found, look around, and call it a day. My husband was less willing to give up – after all we had spent a solid 3 hours searching for this place. As we discussed our options, we both got annoyed. I was starting to feel as if all I wanted was to just return to the hostel.
We both reluctantly compromised on just looking around the next temple we came across and calling it a day.
About half mile up the road, we spotted a small temple. It was quiet, and as we peered into the garden gates, looked as if just a few locals were quietly meditating or walking around. I looked at my husband and he nodded.
Since we weren’t particularly happy with one another, we gave each other a bit of space as we walked around. He admired the gardens, and the architecture, and I ducked inside to give myself a break from the hot sun.
This is when the old monk spotted me and asked me if my husband was a German.
When he told me he’d like to speak to my husband, I was puzzled as to why, but decided to go with it and went to fetch him.
“Um, so the monk inside, he wants to talk to you.” I told him.
“What? Why?” He asked me incredulously. “What did you say to him?”
“Nothing. Well, I said you were German.”
“What? Why?! I’m American! You lied to a monk?!” (Clearly, my husband has the mind of an engineer…)
“I don’t know, I got confused.”
“About me being American?!”
“Ugh, just come in and talk to him.”
“I don’t know….”
So my husband glared at me and walked into the monastery. I followed him, dying to see what happened next.
Turned out, the monk was a fan of German soccer and cream puffs. And after he talked about these things he loved, he asked us about our life. Our desires. What we liked about our trip and about Malaysia. We talked about the meaning of life. We talked about Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, and how people are mostly good. We talked about history, culture, art and being young and in love.
After about 45 minutes, the monk said he was tired and would like to retire to his room. Afterwards, one of his aids came up to us and asked us if we knew who he was. We didn’t. Turns out – he was a Gelong (fully ordained Tibetan monk) and the highest ranking Gelong in the country. His aid told us that his followers sometimes wait months for a 5-10 minute audience with him and explained we were incredibly fortunate to have spent so much time talking to him.
This. This is why you travel. Not to check things off a bucket list, but to experience life. If we had just gone on, determined to check another item off a checklist of “must see” places, we never would have had this deeply meaningful interaction. We’ve long forgotten why the original temple sounded so compelling, but will always hold this experience dear. Welcome to the magic of traveling with open arms.