Mono no aware 物の哀れ

When you live on the equator with no true distinct seasons, life can pass you by in a monotony of indistinguishable days. Nature’s ushers are nowhere in sight in the grand amphitheater of time. There are no first blooms of spring to herald the beginning of a new year; no burnt oranges and fading reds of the falling autumn leaves to mark the mellowing of the year; and no snow and cold for the Christmas trees and festive carols. Every day is a consistent beat of scorching rays and the blinding blues of summer, broken only by wet humid rain. The months creep past like unnoticed visitors – how are we in the end of June already?

This was the topic of conversation one evening while we were wandering the streets of Tokyo. The Japanese call it Mono no aware (物の哀れ) – a sensitivity to the ephemeral, the awareness of our impermanent state of being. That melancholic wistfulness at the transience that is life, love, and all things we feel; and a longer, deeper, sadness about this state being the reality of life.

It was Golden Week in Japan, a bumper crop of public holidays, the last of which was Children’s Day. Originally known as Boy’s Festival, families traditionally flew Koinobori – Japanese carp streamers – in honour of their sons. Legend has it that a Japanese carp (Koi) once swam upstream to become a dragon. The Koi became the chosen symbol because it was considered the most spirited fish – so full of energy and power that it could fight its way up swift-running streams and cascades. It was courage personified; strength and determination to overcome all obstacles, and the ability to attain high goals – all traits traditionally desired in boys.

After some querying with the locals, we hopped on a train out of Tokyo and found ourselves in Tatebayashi in search of these carp streamers. There is a Japanese proverb – 鯉の滝登り- literally translated to mean a Koi’s swim up a waterfall, and used to encapsulate the victorious triumph over seemingly impossible obstacles. The burst of dancing colours over the muted greens and blues of the countryside captured perfectly the essence of the spirited Koi’s energy and vigour, yet somewhere in the breeze there was a gentle sadness, almost wistful flutter about the streamers. Another Japanese proverb springs to mind; same fish, but an entirely different spin. 及ばぬ鯉の滝登り – translated to mean a Koi unable to swim up the waterfall – this is used for a situation in which no amount of passion, dedication, or sheer effort could help you attain your heart’s desire. Often used with a play on the character 恋 (also ‘koi’, and which means love), this proverb best describes the helplessness of unrequited love.

Travel, Yoga

When Life gives you Lululemons

It took me a really, really, really long time to get into yoga.

For years I always thought of it as a series of odd stretches and a whole lot of awkward breathing. Getting into and holding the positions made me feel silly, and for the most part of the trial classes I attended, I alternated between looking at the instructor upside down between my hands and legs, and trying to process by listening which limb I was supposed to be moving. Here I was, flailing like a drowning spider, and everyone around me seemed to be coming out of these classes with an afterglow and a ton of fitness inspiration inspo hashtags. Friends swore by the mental benefits yoga offered. Encouraged by their testimonies, I persisted in different studios and under different instructors, and I still found myself confounded, bored, and hardly ever breaking a proper sweat. It felt like a much more productive use of my time to use the allocated exercise block to hit the ground running or body-pump at the gym.

Sometime in late 2016, a colleague invited me to join a private group class. It was only then that I finally came around. The solution to my years of yoga doubt couldn’t have been more obvious or simple – I just needed a good instructor.

And boy, was she good. All it took was one hour and she had me slipping on my puddles of sweat and struggling to lift my aching body out of bed for a good 2 days after every class. Getting your body into the right alignment made a world of difference. Some tiny adjustment here and there – a squaring of the hip, a tucking in of the ribs – and I finally understood what I was supposed to be feeling. It reminded of the times I got fitted for my prescription glasses; when the optometrist clicks the correct glass into place in those giant owl-eyed metal frames, and the letters and numbers on the chart magically come into focus.

When done correctly, yoga can give you a better workout than most machines at the gym. And more importantly, it has become both a mental stimulant and tranquilliser. Several years ago I asked a friend who smoked cigarettes continually throughout his waking hours how the very same thing could possibly keep him sharp and alert during the day but yet enhance the intoxicating effects of alcohol at night. He claimed that smoking his cigarettes heightened his concentration, and that allowed him to both focus better, be it contemplating a difficult problem at work, or intensifying that alcoholic buzz. I never got into smoking myself, but I imagine my post-yoga high to be the closest thing to this feeling he described.

These days, whenever I travel I always make it a point to look up yoga studios and to pop in for a class when I can. I have a strange habit of enjoying supermarkets, convenience stores, pharmacies, and bookstores wherever I go. I have found that these are often the best places to observe the local inhabitants going about their everyday errands and living out their daily lives. It’s almost like a National Geographic documentary on the behavioural patterns of the native wildlife in their natural habitat. I like seeing how their cereal and fruit differ from the ones back home, and how much meat and vegetables cost. I like knowing how different people all over the world medicate themselves and self-soothe (homeopathy? salves? drugs?). I love spending hours browsing in the shelves of blockbuster bookstores and small independent bookstores, even if the titles are all in a foreign language I can’t read. The Strand in New York City; Eslite in Taipei; Shakespeare and Company in Paris; City Lights in San Francisco; Daikanyama T-Site in Tokyo; Livraria Lello in Porto… everyone’s got their own Disneyland.

Visiting a yoga studio in a foreign land is a much more involved activity than popping into a grocery store. You can never get away with being a spectator, and there is always a risk of participating and looking stupid. I am excitable and loud by nature, and I always walk into a new studio feeling apprehensive, like a Bull surrounded by fragile gluten-free pieces of china. I always half expect everyone to be levitating visions of calm and enlightenment – people who have generally figured out the secret that is life and gotten their act together. I’ve now come to realise that most people are drawn to the mat not because they’ve gotten their lives lined up in orderly perfection, but rather because they’re desperately trying to do so. Yoga must be to the anxious mind what Christianity is for the despairing and the downtrodden.

In my short time as a yoga practitioner, I’ve practised in a village resort in Canggu (Bali), in the middle of the jungle in Malapascua Island (the Philippines), in a swanky neighbourhood in Sydney (Australia), and in a cozy studio on a small street in Seminyak (Bali) tucked away from the commercial madness it has now become. Desa Seni (Canggu, Bali) has been my favourite to date, with its sprawling grounds and hushed tones. The classes are held on open-air wooden villas with panoramic views of the surrounding greenery. It’s hard not to feel connected with nature in a setting like this, even for someone like me, who remains resistant to the spiritual element of the practice. It has been more than a year, and I still cannot bring myself to chant or even say namaste with a straight face. My cousin on the other hand, regularly plays the handpan drum in yoga sessions, and manages to get into the juju even without getting on the mat. We had trotted down to the yoga studio in Seminyak the morning after our cousin’s wedding and walked in to join a Vinyasa class. He boldly asked the instructor if he could play during her class and she unsurprisingly hesitated. The rest of the class grudgingly agreed and my cousin, completely unperturbed (as he has been his entire life), sat down and started to play. It took him only a minute or so before the entire class fell into a celestial haze by the ethereal sounds of the instrument. By the end of the class, the instructor had invited him back to Bali to play his handpan drum for her yoga retreat.

It is with no little irony that I found the class in Sydney the most ‘authentic’ as yoga classes come. The instructor had insisted on using only the Sanskrit names of the poses, and as a result I found myself twisting my neck to watch her while stuck in the most uncomfortable of poses, trying to figure out an Uttanasana from an Ardha Uttanasana. I did however end up purchasing some #activewear handcrafted from organic and ethically-sourced fabric – Anything to get me closer to that Adho Much Vrksasana right?


The Wild Wild Bush

The problem with all things man-made, is that there’s always something else similar. Every place, every city, every town – there was always bound to be something about it that would remind me of some other place. A beautiful gothic church in one European city would remind me of that other gorgeous cathedral in another. An incredible restaurant would inevitably draw comparisons to that other one in another cosmopolitan hub. Even the soothing greens of a park would bring to mind the other green(er) space in that other part of the world.

But there is absolutely nothing like being out in the African Bush. That experience is truly peerless, and unique in every way. Respect is commanded and awe is just about the only appropriate response.

“You’ll be completely safe so long as you stay within the vehicle.” These are scant words of comfort when one is mere metres from such unbridled power. Every attempt at photography I made with my arms stiffly pinned to my sides, for fear of having a limb overstep the confines of the vehicle. Each time an animal turned towards me, I avoided eye contact like a teenage girl at her first party. One of the giant cats that we are observing gets up on her powerful legs and stalks purposefully towards us. A lady in my jeep squeaks, and the ranger again seeks to reassure her of her safety. Much doubt continues to linger in my mind. These animals are, by their very definition, wild.  I wouldn’t dare predict with certainty what my own mother would have for dinner tomorrow, much less anticipate what this approaching lioness is about to do. Have we arrogant humans really become so self-assured in our powers of research, statistics, and analytics, that we profess to fully know the behaviour of these wild creatures? Granted, these game drives were conducted thrice a day, every day. Data is carefully collected, then studied and analysed, and finally distilled into a statistic. Such is the superior intelligence of the Homo sapiens. But what good is the extraordinary human brain and the laws of math and science when you can be ripped apart in seconds by these fearsome cats?

My eyes stray to the shotgun well within easy reach of the ranger, ready to be grabbed and fired within seconds. The sight of the cold metal was somewhat reassuring, yet made me feel ashamed. I felt almost like an unwelcome visitor, riding uninvited into the spaces of these noble animals. Imagine having a stranger stalk boldly into your home, observing you as you went about your daily feeding and mating habits. And then imagine the injustice that is you being shot in your own home, if you should so attack at an instance of feeling threatened.

Who knew so much beauty could be found in the absence of so much, and in the stark nakedness of the land, where the sunsets are completely raw in their stunning reds and golds. It is a humbling experience, observing these majestic creatures as they are, and as they were meant to be in this untamed environment. Every swish of an elephant’s tail, the angry wails from a rhinoceros, the curious head of a giraffe popping up between the trees, the crunching sounds from a leopard snacking on its newest kill and a hyena waiting patiently beneath the tree to pick up the scraps. It hit me hard then, that the circle of life is as inevitable as the next sunrise.

Diving, Travel

Strike a Pose

Looking back at my collections of travel photos, I often wonder if I should have taken more photos of myself in the surroundings, instead of capturing the surroundings as I saw them. Should I have gotten on the other side of the camera lens and posed for posterity? Should I have mastered the art of taking a selfie? Should I have invested in a tripod and a selfie stick?

As a general rule I never spend more than three attempts posing for a photo, because every minute spent trying to get that perfect shot (be it for The Gram or otherwise) is a moment wasted in the present. There is little photographic evidence of my presence in the places I’ve been to, but I’ve thankfully got my stories all stored up somewhere in my memory banks (at least while I’ve still got my mental faculties).

This photo is perhaps one of the rare few with myself in it, caught in a moment where I felt completely free – and for that reason this is one of my all-time favourites and sits in a frame in my bedroom. It was a time in my life where I had closed the page on a chapter that I was very glad to leave behind. This was taken on a little island in Southern Leyte (the Philippines), where we had hopped off our dive boat to spend our surface interval between dives. A private barbecue lunch was being prepared for us, and I was reading in the shade when I spotted the local children playing by the water. They were taking turns to climb the tree and swinging from the rope as far out into the water as they could. After some apprehension I went out to join them, and they were soon laughing (not with me, but at me, I suspect), as I crashed pathetically into the water, flip-flops flying into the air and me desperately running to save them before the waves had them for lunch. And yet it felt completely liberating to be flinging myself from shore to sea, like a child of the island. That was a delicious day of blues.


Love Lockdown

I’ve lost count of the number of these ‘love padlocks’ chained to bridges across cities in Europe. They always made quite a pretty picture, but I never really understood why many couples saw fit to commemorate their love by literally locking it in. Why would one choose to connote their love with the very thing that symbolises an involuntary shackling that could never open without a key? (Most of which end up gleefully hurled into the river) A lock traps people in, and keeps people out.

In many ways I always saw a great love akin to flying a kite. A force strong enough to fly you high and beautiful in the clouds, yet close enough to prevent you from getting lost in the wind. And at the end of the day, you find yourself being wound back home to safety, in the familiar hands you know.

I came across Butcher’s Bridge after having just landed in Ljubljana and discovering that the good people of the baggage handling universe had broken the locks off my suitcase. The idea of nicking some locks off the bridge did come to mind, but the thought of being responsible for some chain of massive heartbreak quickly threw that idea out the window.


A Toast to a Travel Legend

“It’s an irritating reality that many places and events defy description. Angkor Wat and Machu Picchu, for instance, seem to demand silence, like a love affair you can never talk about. For a while after, you fumble for words, trying vainly to assemble a private narrative, an explanation, a comfortable way to frame where you’ve been and what’s happened. In the end, you’re just happy you were there — with your eyes open — and lived to see it.” – Anthony Bourdain (1956-2018)

I hardly ever get weepy about celebrity deaths. In many ways it made me feel like a hypocrite, mourning the loss of someone I never knew or even met. How can you actually lose someone you never had? Over the years I’ve come to realise that you don’t actually need to have known or met someone for them to have touched your life.

There was something oddly moving in the words Anthony Bourdain left behind, no doubt crystallised during his pursuit of travel; international culture; cuisine; and at the heart of it all, the human condition. In the same way, I feel almost funny looking back at the posed smiles and frozen tourist attractions in travel albums, because it’s mostly the moments I miss rather than the places and the sights seen. I think of Rome, and I have difficulty recalling the names of the many coin-bloated fountains or describing the immensity of The Colosseum. I instead recall the surprise stalks of roses at the foot of the Spanish steps, and the night we ate two dinners (amazing wood oven pizza and good ol’ bolognese) because us four starving students were so unequivocal in our dissatisfaction at the first one that we justified the expense on a second meal. I think of Athens, and I remember us hunched over our luggage bags, struggling to wheel them over cobbled streets because the stupid hostel got our bookings mixed up. I think of Santorini, and I remember that beach from another world. I think of the Lake District, and I remember us huddled in the tent for warmth, shivering in our shorts in the single digit weather because we ruined all our warm clothing after we fell in the mud. I think of New York, and I remember sitting in Bryant Park, reading and writing with the sprawl of green and glass before me. I think of Barcelona, and I can still smell the pigeon poop left splattered on my entire family after a particularly vicious flock of birds flew overhead during our walk in a park. I think of Venice, and I remember the incredible balcony which we sat and had our home-cooked dinner and talked and bared our hearts for hours. I think of Paris and I remember cheese, more cheese, wine, and the strums of the musician’s guitar outside the sacre-coeur. I think of Whistler and I remember being towed down a slope with a pulled hamstring, and learning how to identify the Big Dipper for the first time. I think of Montreal and I remember bagels and lying on that giant mossy hill where everything smelled sweet. I think of Miami, and I remember the giant frozen margaritas and the Pornstar posse we met at that nightclub. I think of Rio and I am filled with saudade for my Brazilian host mothers and the random acts of their kindness that will stay with me for life. I think of Sydney, and there I am again, sleeping out under the stars in a giant makeshift campsite with hundreds and thousands of others. I think of Hong Kong, and I remember many sleepless nights and somehow always ending up at Tsui Wah. I think of Sri Lanka, and I remember dangling my legs over the edge at World’s End. I think of Boston, and we are frantically trying to cook dinner in a thoroughly impractical apartment mysteriously filled with absurd animal art sculptures and Friends Box DVD sets, without a single pot in the kitchen. I think of Capri, and I am eating freshly-plucked blueberries along the Path of the Gods. I think of Norway, and I remember high-fiving my best friend at the top of Preikestolen and looking out at the fjords. I think London, and there is simply too much. I remember the different occasions, the different company, the different emotions, the different hopes and dreams that I had with each different visit.

It’s so cliched but all too true – I live not by days, months, or years, but by experiences, moments, memories, lessons.

“As you move through this life and this world you change things slightly, you leave marks behind, however small. And in return, life — and travel — leaves marks on you.” Anthony Bourdain (1956-2018)

Diving, Travel

Malapascua Magic

As they always say, the more painful the journey, the prettier the underwater sights promised.

This one had us on a bone-rattling car ride after a flight to Cebu City; up North to the port of Maya (I say port but it’s really a jetty – a drop-off point with a little pier leading up to tiny boats anchored to the shore with ropes). This is followed by a bumpy boat ride to the island of Malapascua. All things electronic were stuffed deep away from the splashing waves. The clothes on our backs weren’t given that luxury.

Everyone comes to this island for one thing – and it’s the same thing that drives the entire economy on this island of around 4000 people. There are no hospitals, a handful of schools, and a smattering of villages. Everything happens on one stretch of beach – and it is on this stretch that we gingerly disembark, awkwardly lifting our bags of dive equipment over the seawater and across the sand.

‘Just two years ago, this was all jungle’. My dive guide waves carelessly at the throng of foreigners perched on the sand. His wife works at the restaurant on that same stretch of beach which we eat at every day. His brother is a fellow dive guide on our boat. Their sister manages the front desk at our resort. I wondered just how those thresher sharks would feel, knowing that the livelihood of so many humans depended on the sharks’ very existence; and the amount of money and effort spent by humans to observe these sharks casually going about their day.

It is a painful start to the day. Call time is 530am, so our alarms go off at 5am and we trudge down to the dive centre in the dark, shivering as we pull on our damp wetsuits in the cool dawn air. To say that the boat ride to the dive site was bumpy is somewhat of an understatement – the image of Jesus calming the storm in that biblical miracle kept coming to mind. Alas, this particular prayer was not answered and we all jumped in with a negative entry and descended quickly to 30 metres. It suddenly hits me just how far down we are; but before my mind can properly process the columns of seawater above me, a dark shadow looms in the distance and grows larger as the shark approaches – the unmistakeable outline of the thresher tail. Unbidden (and entirely unwelcome), the Jaws theme starts to play in my head. Once the initial nervousness fades, I can finally start to admire them. These creatures are majestic, and utterly unperturbed by us. They swim well within the clearing, which has been carefully marked out by the locals, using ropes to set out the boundaries which the divers shall not pass. Many minutes go by before another sighting. Everyone waits patiently. All around us are bubbles from the many other divers – we must outnumber the sharks 50:1. It is a constant exercise to fin away from the bubbles to prevent being lifted by them to the surface. Again, I found myself wondering what these thresher sharks thought of us humans, going through this entirely inconvenient process to view them in their natural habitat. Here we were, the alleged intelligent human apex predators, merely guests in this vast ocean and expanse of the dark unknown.

Back on shore, Happy Hours are happier and the sunsets more vivid than those back home. Divers piled on beanbags with sand between their toes, sharing their ‘battle stories’ of the day’s dives and photographs of the macro underworld. A mix of dated nostalgic hits and current chart toppers plays through the speakers. Time moved at a different pace here. Ever had that feeling where you had all the time in the world?


Tokyo: Pride, Perfection, Punctuality

My first time was in 1999. Japan was in its heyday, blazing from its success of exports and the poster child for all things booming post-war. It was the go-to third language to master because this was the market to cater to, the tourist dollar that we hankered after.

My first glimpse of the famous Shibuya crossing was everything that a eleven year old hoped it would be. So. Many. People. Zipping across like a million ants scurrying about in their nest. And all with purpose, with some destination they all just had to hurry to. It felt like I was bearing witness to the Big Picture, a greater ecosystem that my young self was not quite ready to enter into yet. My dad still recalls fondly how my brother (then five years old), tugged eagerly at his sleeve while gesturing excitedly out the windows of our hotel room at the “Giant TVs!” It was a blitz of lights, products, and buzz. It didn’t matter that none of us could actually read the strokes and scratches that the Japanese language looked to the undiscerning foreign eye. Here we were, in the thick of things – the excitement was palpable.

Fast forward 15 years later, and there I was back in Tokyo, looking at the same famed crossing with older eyes. Tokyo was by now, a slowed giant, but by no means weak. People still hustled and bustled. Things still worked perfectly. Things looked old but there was still a newness to everything. It was a strange dichotomy. So much had changed, but yet many of the same buildings looked exactly like how they were. This was something the Japanese did well. When something broke, they always found a way to fix things instead of throwing it out for something new. You would see the cracks that came with age, but there was a pride in the way something old or broken was carefully put back together, or reinforced to make stronger. A Japanese-American lawyer recounted to me the days that followed after the 2016 Fukushima disaster (during yet another visit to Tokyo in 2018). While the Americans scrambled desperately to book flights out (when they weren’t swarming the embassy daily for Iodine pills), the Japanese simply carried on, as they were. Life just simply doesn’t stop until it does…

In many ways, this city embodies good, healthy, qualities which would do us humans all some good. Punctuality – nowhere else in the world does a train arrive precisely at 10.32am on the dot; Pride in everything – no task is too small to be done with purpose and self-respect; Perfection in all details – every craft, every act of service; everything has been honed and perfected to the minutiae.