Reflections, Travel

The Outside is the Inside

Three. Four. The cars whizzed by; headlights looming from a distance, growing larger until the light filled my vision and I had no choice but to squint and turn away for an instant; before making their way off into the distance again. Hope waxed and waned at each approach and departure. On one hand, their presence offered some measure of comfort, some affirmation that we were not the only people crazy enough to be out in this weather. On the other hand, the cars I had been steadily counting all seemed to be speeding off in the opposite direction. It was as though we had missed the memo, like we were heading straight into an abyss that everyone else was rapidly trying to escape.

This was not the relaxing vacation I had in mind. I had finally emerged, after fifty long days, from the trenches of a hard-fought trial. For days on end I had worked off four hours of sleep – six on a good night – and even then was I ever really sleeping? The mind remained awake, buzzing over materials and arguments for the day ahead. Every cell of my being remained on edge, braced for impact. We had spent hours, days, months, going over every strategy and possible points of ambush, and here we stood ready to strike with our artillery of documents, painstakingly labelled and marked, incontrovertible proof that we were right where the enemy was wrong.

Now, with the horizon rapidly slipping into dark, I felt the same instinct prickling up the hairs at the back of my neck, the same disquiet beginning to unfurl in my stomach – all warning signs of what was to come ahead. They say one experiences four seasons in a day in Iceland. When we had left the hotel this morning it had been bright, sunny, and for a moment I felt relaxed, at peace with this vast landscape and unknown terrains. Now, barely an hour later, it was as though time moved at a difference pace in this land of ice and fire. My watch said it was almost noon; the scene outside the window said otherwise. The moon had already made its appearance at the side of the sky, marking its territory as it made its way up a steady arc. I was reminded of an article I once read about how suicide rates were the highest in countries with the least sunlight. A Finnish man was quoted saying that in the Great North they survive on two things alone: Alcohol and death metal.

The car drew to a stop. This was it. We unbuckled our seat belts and began pulling on our gear. I glanced down to pull on my gloves. Unthinkingly, I had been wringing my hands, and there were now marks on my palms where my fingernails had dug.

The first step out the car was a slippery one. It was as though we had arrived in a parallel world, where earth as we know it ceased to exist, where a great frost now covered the grass and the mud and all things warm and nurturing. The walk to the entrance of the park was a slow one, as I dug desperately into the icy ground with my hiking poles for balance. I looked out into the distance – it was hard to tell where the ice ended and began. It was an infinite expanse of nothingness. Water, where it dared run, had been frozen in their tracks. The tops of the trees stood motionless, their roots and trunks buried by the snow, defeated from the cold, perhaps waiting for the dawn of a brighter day. Never have I ever felt so at the mercy of the elements.

And so it was into this mighty abyss that we began our hike. Within the first five minutes damp started creeping into my shoes like an unknown intruder, first tiptoeing along the sides of my shoes before boldly making their way into my socks and making a permanent home. I looked ahead, to try to appreciate the beauty of the mountains, but all I could see was snow, snow, and more snow. I tried to mechanically focus on placing one foot in front of another, which soon became one kneecap in front of the other, as each step found me sinking deeper and deeper into the snow. It was like the ground ceased to exist beneath the layers of snow, the land was opening itself to swallow me whole, and I remained on the surface only by sheer constant movement alone. There was no choice in the matter, you either swim or sink.

And then the skies opened. First, a flutter of snow flakes, nestling in the creases of my jacket, and then without warning – faster and faster they came, with a fury. It was like the land was teaching us human intruders a lesson on trespass. The snow melted against my body heat, and moisture seeped into my clothes. I was cold, wet, still desperately plunging one foot ahead of another, knee deep into snow. There was no sign of anyone else around. I could see no end to this road. Unbidden, the article came to mind again. Suicide rates peak at the cold and dark months of the winter season. All at once the panic I had been desperately trying to suppress broke free like a compressed spring with a vengeance. I looked at my partner, memorializing his outline, and then I grabbed him and ran. I ran as fast as I could, kicking up the snow like a horse on the brink of madness, back to safety, back to the visitor’s centre, back to the last form of human civilisation.

The bells on the door clanged as I burst through the door and dumped my palms on the desk to prevent from collapsing. The woman behind the counter looked up at me, quizzically. “Can I help you, Miss?”

I was still heaving, out of breath. “I just wanted to know, how many people have died out there in these mountains?”

The lady paused, looking confused. “Sorry Miss, do you mean in this park?” At this, she exchanged a look at my partner, who was resolutely staring at the ceiling, his hands in his back pockets. “Um… I don’t think there’s ever been any deaths, madam.” She seemed amused, and tried unsuccessfully to suppress a chuckle. “In fact, this is probably one of the easiest hikes in Iceland.” She glanced at my partner again, who let out an exasperated sigh. At that instant, the door chimed again, and a string of people entered. A family, with young kids in tow. I blinked once, twice, noticing the huge smiles on their faces. I suddenly became aware of the feeling of warmth seeping through my shoes. The smell of hot chocolate was wafting from the next room, a café with inviting wood panelling and the warm glow of a fire. I looked out again, noticing for the first time the ice glinting like crystal under a stray ray of light, and the peace of the silence that rose from the trees. The moon was beginning to rise just as the sun was drawing its final breath, and in those few precious moments, both entities of power shared a common stage. I drew a long breath, felt the slowing of my heart rate, and unclenched my fists.

Reflections, Travel

The Meaning of Travel in the Age of Instagram

I cannot recall when it happened – the turning point or a defining moment. Change crept up slowly, like a degenerative disease. As a kid growing up in the 90s, well before the age of smartphones and social media, I could easily sit for hours in a bookstore, poring through an entire series while my mother did her shopping. A cousin remembers how my mother used to chirrup triumphantly how low-maintenance a kid I was, by being able to dump me at a bookstore for no charge while she ran her errands. If her parenting methods unwittingly contributed to the demise of the brick-and-mortar bookstores that are few and far between today, I do apologize.

These days, I can hardly last two stops on a subway ride without checking my phone. A walk from the train station to a destination is precious screen time for a post on Instagram. An elevator ride down two storeys is time to hit a couple of ‘like’ buttons. We (or me at least) are constantly engaged – or disengaged, depending on how you see it. We are rarely present in a moment. It’s like going through life in little fishbowls on our heads without even realising they are on.

All that, weirdly enough, changes when I travel. I am switched on. I am aware of my surroundings. I am constantly observing, absorbing, digesting. The same number of hours in a day tick by, but the way they are lived? Completely different.

From the moment my plane landed in Iran, I felt something imperceptibly shift in the air. The women, who moments ago had been lounging insouciantly in their seats, were now busying themselves with a task at hand – rummaging through their handbags, pulling out an array of scarves, and then carefully wrapping it about their heads, neatly tucking in strands of loose hair. As I watched (presumably fascinated and mouth agape), and as they spotted me watching, several broke out in long-suffering smiles. One even chuckled resignedly and said “Welcome to Iran!” I too rummaged in my own bag and gingerly pulled out my own chosen hijab, a sombre-coloured scarf carefully selected after much research online on what fabric and colour would be most appropriate. With the echoes of concerned friends’ warnings sounding in my head, “Wear it properly or they’ll throw you in jail!” I secured the venerable garment around my head with much solemnity and fastened it tightly under my chin after meticulously ensuring that all offending strands of hair had been safely swaddled away. The women nodded at my efforts, seemed amused even, and we all exchanged conspiratorial smiles. In those wordless moments much was conveyed – the frustrations, the resignation, and the humour one could draw from a difficult situation.

In a day job where much of my time is spent labouring over the written word – drafting, reviewing, amending, and generally obsessing over how anything in an email or letter can be used against you in court – moments like the one I experienced in Iran, reveal just how foolish of an exercise lawyering can be. Words can often be unnecessary, and usually, downright insincere. It is humbling to witness how so much more can actually be conveyed between two people without saying much. In times like this, I am convinced of the existence of an other language, one that transcends linguistics and dictionaries, and which emanates directly from the human soul.

Six years ago I found myself in Rio de Janeiro, famed of course for Carnival, samba, and all-night-long parties. I was not in fact, bikini-clad and dancing up a storm on Copacabana Beach, but had instead arrived for a week long of religious festivities, all to be conducted under the watchful eye and outstretched arms of Christ the Redeemer (the statue).

My friend and I had signed up for homestay accommodation, which meant that we would be staying with some generous church parishioners who were opening their homes to the millions of catholic pilgrims who were travelling from all across the world into Rio. Our hosts were two little old ladies, long-time friends who lived together with their little dog, both not speaking a word of English. It was challenging of course, with a week of miming and charades (try asking for toilet paper). This Lost in Translation debacle was made harder by the fact that Portuguese is not one of the languages with words pronounced like how they are spelt. But we adapted, as humans do, setting up a laptop on the dining table and having an internet browser opened permanently to Google Translate. What however would normally be tedium turned out to be a laugh every morning, with conversations made only possible with four grown adults crouched over a tiny laptop watching as one person typed in their native tongue, and all breathlessly waiting for the magic moment when the translation would appear in a BIG AHA! moment (this was punctuated with lots of fingers being pointed in the air at the eureka moment), and then to have the exact same protracted process repeated as the other pair sought to respond in their own language. A conversation, albeit clumsy, but no less genuine, made possible only by the wonders of The Internet. Thank you Google.

One evening, my friend and I returned to the apartment drenched, having only had thin jackets to shield us from a sudden downpour. No explanations were needed as we stood dripping on the carpets, while our Brazilian mothers towelled us off despite our protestations, all while tittering away in Portuguese in what I can only imagine to be the same maternal fussing that happens all across the world. The next evening, we returned home to a similar flurry of activity, only this time, our entry to the hallway was completely blocked. I had the sudden impression of the contents of a souvenir store being emptied on the carpets, before realising that before me, was enough paraphernalia to shield me from a season of typhoons. Umbrellas emblazoned with Rio’s best-known tourist sites, rain ponchos plastered with I [HEART] Rio – and in clear evidence that the ladies had veered off-course while shopping – notebooks, pens, key chains, magnets. No Googling or internet browser was needed this time. As they excitedly held up the items one at a time, doing a little infomercial style show-and-tell on how each item ought to be used, it was clear what they meant to say, and what they did otherwise to convey their thoughts and feelings. I opened my new notebook to find that alas, Google did work its way into this touching spectacle after all – scrawled in the first page of notebook, in a slightly uneven hand, “You will always have a home in Rio.

It is perhaps fitting that the only Portuguese word that I managed to take away from my time in Brazil was saudade. This is best explained as a profound, melancholic, longing for an absent something or someone, with the accompanying knowledge that the object of longing might never return. The best of my travels have left me with this. Travel is, being fully present while living. Travel is, connecting with a human being in a manner beyond words. Travel is, leaving a piece of my heart behind in every place I’ve been to, and taking away much more.



Crazy Rich Singaporeans

“Wealth and social status matter a lot in this city. Everyone in Singapore knows this.”

This Is What Inequality Looks Like, Teo You Yenn

Long before my home country became known for playing host to that infamous Trump-Kim summit, every self-introduction I made abroad was often followed up with “no we’re not in China”, “yes English is our first language”, “yes chewing gum is illegal”, “yes we still flog people for some crimes”. In one particularly unusual instance in a tiny student town in Ontario a bouncer had squinted suspiciously at my ID and demanded that I “speak some Singaporean” for proof of origin.

For a young nation that just celebrated its 53rd birthday this month, a well-loved and oft-used narrative is our country’s successful leap from third world to first world within a single generation. Fellow city rats that I meet abroad rave about the urban comforts and cosmopolitan luxuries that Singapore offers, without the high crime rates and dirt that often comes with dense living. Those far less attuned to a life of close proximity – country dwellers from farms or islanders from isolated archipelagoes – are often horrified when I describe how 5.8 million of us cramp in a space of 50km by 27km.

In these conversations on my travels, it always strikes me how nowhere else in the world are people so singularly defined by what they do for a living, the schools they went to, the districts in which they live, the logos on their car keys, the labels on their arm, the designers on their feet, and above all – the money that they make. While some measure of this exists in every developed society, in a city as small as ours, confined by narrow benchmarks self-imposed and self-perpetuating, the distinctions are inevitably made more stark; the greener green of the grass across the fence that much more apparent.

Yet the average visitor to Singapore would not bear witness to these harsh juxtapositions. Unlike most major cities, the ‘poor’ are kept off the streets (like skeletons carefully hidden away) and you’d be hard-pressed to spot the homeless on the spotless roads or the gleaming train stations (out of sight, out of mind?). It is our top 1% which is set to be proudly displayed on the world stage – in the upcoming blockbuster that is Crazy Rich Asians – fictional characters, but inspired by real-life Singaporeans who very much exist.


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)