Monday, April 28, 2014

Memories are made of these!

Looking at the world through rose-tinted glasses, or remembering the “good old days” through a sepia lens is a common enough form of selective memory.

But it is equally easy to let negative incidents cloud or affect one's overall memory of a trip. (This comes naturally to me, because as someone I met over the weekend said—Singaporeans are the best whingers in the world—topping even the British!)

So, as I revisit this neglected blog after close to a year, and reflect upon my original intentions for setting it up— I decided to stick to my initial premise— to appreciate the little moments of every trip and simply celebrate how lucky I am to have gone on each trip. After all, what’s the sense in spending time dwelling on the bad stuff? 

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Self discovery

Travel is supposed to broaden one's mind. I think it also allows you to delve deeper into what's already existing as well.

Here are some of the insights I gleaned about my travelling-self.

1. My way or the high way
I’m a pretty impatient person on a regular day--and when it comes to travelling, that part is super heightened because-- So little time, so much to do!! I need to make sure that I’m doing things in the most efficient way to maximise the trip (this doesn't necessarily mean squeezing in all the sights-- it just means no waiting around!). Else behold the wrath of passive-aggressive, grumpy travelling Rachel! For instance, if I’m the best navigator in the group, I'm going to take full custody of the map and you are just gotta follow my pace. No time to waste telling you which subway line to take or why we are walking north-easterly in this tiny alleyway.  If you don’t like it, either learn to read a map or go your own way.

2.I’m a travel snob
I have a love and hate affair with being a tourist, and I abhor anything that is remotely touristy. (I just have this delusional idea that I’m an extremely well-travelled world citizen) Of course, the irony is not (entirely) lost on me. Everything I know about a place before I go is read off the internet, most likely written by a tourist, so what makes me think I’d be the first to discover XXX? For instance, when it comes to eating, I have this highly irrational barometer called “are there any angmohs in the joint”. And if they are, this would instantly bring my enjoyment of the place down by 30%, because the place is not longer "undiscovered". (Obviously this only applies to Asian countries) Double the irony there because I usually read reviews written by ANG MOHS! Note to self: learn the local language and read some local blogs!

3. I’m a food snob
I go either really cheap or the other end of the spectrum. I love street food and love to eat where locals do, even if its dirty, dodgy or by the road. On the other hand, I don’t believe in scrimping (within reason) since I’ve already travelled so far, I don’t mind spending on expensive meals in the best restaurants (of course, not having much money, I do things like eat at those places during lunches). I just turn up my nose at mid-range, chain restaurants or those in touristy areas—as I have a mental schema that those would be not value for money or not authentic. Mostly I’m right on the money, but I stand correctly on occasion, since standards differ across country. For example, even the restaurants opposite the Duomo in Florence had such beautiful and affordable food, whereas the kaiseki place smack in the middle of Gion I knew was a mistake the minute I stepped foot in (which self-respecting kaiseki place has proper seats instead of those uncomfortable tatami mats? (p/s: Yoshinoya in Japan is dirt cheap, chain but the best fastfood ever)

4. I’m getting old!
I get tired and grumpy on any flights over 4 hours these days, have to take pre-emptive motion sickness pills, and need days to recover from travel. When can I ever afford business class?! 

5. Same same but different

Getting tired of the touristy sights interspersed with shopping and eating. I’m not sure whether this is me being jaded or the world is getting smaller—it really is all Uniqlo and Starbucks and McDs and busloads of tourists whether in bamboo forests or snowy mountains or Gothic churches. Buying souvenirs seems passe now since everyone travels so frequently that no one really cares about receiving gifts from foreign lands that they would be visiting in the next month, or can buy from taobao. Even uploading photos and checking in on FB (which was not big until the last few years) feels like a social obligation (As someone said…“whats the point of travelling if no one knew you were away?”). Yet, I feel inertia to go on REAL adventures to Cuba or North Korea or New Caledonia or Bhutan, and lack the courage to pick up snowboarding or horseriding or diving... 

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Eat, eat and be merry

23-25 August 2013

Penang, Malaysia

If only all weekends could be so jam-packed with activity and bursting with fun (bursting outta my pants in any case)!

Impromptu trip with brunch kakis!

We had been talking the longest time about our sophomore trip together but never really got down to it. One night, EC asked over WA groupchat if we wanted Penang food buffet. I went off to bed. Next thing I knew, I woke up to like 200 messages confirming that air tickets had been booked! Talk about efficient!!

I worried about whether I would enjoy spending 48 hours straight with this group, since we had never travelled together (day trip to LEGOLAND doesn't count) and I was neurotic that way. Plus we are more of activity friends rather than the pour-out-feelings-share-innermost-secret soul mates.

Turns out I need not have worried. Food lubricates the social muscle and tongue. And in between, there's always Wi-Fi and camwhoring to fill in any awkward silences! This was definitely the best trip to Penang in recent memory due to the sheer silliness of overeating and hat-buying and 70s-style posing.

Awed silences from the tourist crowds due to the sheer professionalism of our posing. The hats helped.

There was no itinerary or agenda. Well, the only agenda was to eat 15 meals a day and café-hop in between, and we did that in spades.

One of 7 plates of penang fried kway tiao we had over 3d2n. The best one was a no-name roadside stall rather than the famous ones in Chinatown.

So pretty much like a regular weekend in Singapore then.

All in a weekend's work

Gotta be proud of my neighboring/countrymen's elastic stomachs and elastic waistbands.

In between, we did the touristy thing and followed the day-trippers snapping photos.

Masses just jostling to take photo of the bicycle-riding boys

Not quite Banksy

We stayed at a very nice boutique hotel, the Coffee Atelier, which was very apt because we first bonded over coffee breaks at work. Converted from a old coffee roaster, it was one of the first boutique hotels in Georgetown. Now owned by a Swedish artist and his HongKong wife, we really enjoyed the hospitality of the Filipino-maid-promoted-to-innkeeper! Very resourceful and entertaining individual indeed. Definitely a high potential employee.

I term this genre as Haunted Brothel Chic. Kinky!

 Can't wait for the next trip!

Monday, September 9, 2013

The Blue Sky of Chennai, and other Indian Adventures

28-31 July 2013

Chennai, India

Familiarity breeds contempt. Or in this case, it breeds complacency. This was my third trip to Chennai, and my second solo trip there.

As a result, I neglected to bring the face masks and the glasses and the sense of heightened alertness. I didn't check the hotel booking or transport arrangement, easily assuming that it would have been all sorted for me. Unfortunately, the hotel got the timing wrong and there wasn't a car to pick me up. Credit to me-- I didn't panic or get neurotic. Instead I got angry, shouted at some people and made my own arrangements. My only safety precaution was to turn on my Tracker app so that I could be tracked, big difference that would have made in a rapist situation.

On the plus side, being more  comfortable with the place also meant I relaxed a little and started to enjoy the city a little more, laugh a little more at its idiosyncrasies, even brush my teeth using tap-water (living dangerously, I know!).

Some things which cracked me up along the way (literally, as I explored Chennai via taxicab)

Pizza Hut Delivery
The Indian obsession with qualifications
Scores of old-fashioned taxi cabs reminded me of photos of 60s Singapore

Roads doubling up as public toilets. Men, back facing the main roads, taking a leek at polite intervals from each other.
Even saw a guy rolling up his dhoti ready to take a dump. I didn't linger to watch his progress.

Other discoveries:

1. Chindian food! Never thought to pair black pepper chicken with plain noodles but it goes together so well!

2. Beautiful beach setting 5 minutes from the city centre, and its not even tarted up for tourists. Where is the Sentosa development board when you need them?

Monday, August 12, 2013

Perceptions and Prejudice

19-20 June 2013

Chennai, India

I suppose I'm the sort of girl that tends to attracts strange and unwanted attention. Or is not able to fend for herself. So when it was known that I would be travelling to India on my own, my boss called the HR director of the India business to let him know that he would be personally responsible for my safety.

All sorts of advice from colleagues ensued--

"Don't take the aisle seat on a plane. Some sick Indian man would take the opportunity to squeeze past you and rub his crotch in your face."

"Don't take a taxi. Make sure its our staff wearing uniform who is driving you"

"Don't go to India. Just don't."

A lot of these comments were said loudly, in English, in the open plan office. I wonder what our colleagues from India must have thought of all this.

When we were growing up, our elders (teachers, parents etc) always painted the Baboo Singh or the Apu Neh Neh as the Boogeyman.

"If you are naughty, the Kekling will catch you, cut off your tongue and make you a beggar"

No wonder we all grew up being wary of other races.

That this trip happened just after the Delhi bus rape and a number of high profile assaults on tourists in other parts of India probably made it worse.

The only person who sang another tune was P's G, who told me to extend the trip over the weekend and visit some of the tourist spots with my colleagues. But then again, he is the same guy whose personal mission in life is to visit all the sovereign states in the world, war-torn or otherwise (He has been to Afghanistan and Chad), so he kinda has a different world view. Plus, he's an Aussie.

With all these background noise, I definitely got a little worried. I actually googled 'safety and crime rates in India'. That was how worried I was.

I packed glasses and face masks and long sleeves and long pants. I planned for my hair to be in a severe slicked back pony tail at all times. I would repel potential attackers by my formidable auntie-ness.

Paranoia followed me at my first stop.....

At the airport

I worried when I couldn't see the hotel driver at the arrivals hall.

I avoided all eye contact and walked straight ahead, until I had no choice but to ask the security guard.

He didn't speak English. Dammit!

A guy who looked like a tout started talking to me and asking me if I needed help. I was suspicious of his intentions (if only I apply the same common sense to all men problems).

In the end, he did help me find the right driver. I don't remember if I thanked him, I just wanted to be cocooned in the safety of the hotel car.

Preparing for the next day' meeting

I forgot to bring some candy for a facilitation exercise so I had to find somewhere to buy sweets. Also, I got angry at myself for being stuck in the hotel room and not exploring Amazing India, yet again. This was not the intrepid and seasoned backpacker that I pictured myself as (most likely because it isn't true anymore, if ever). So i bravely decided to venture onto the street. Such bravery!

Raintree on St Mary's Road. Its an Eco-Hotel!

The hotel was supposedly situated in a fairly upmarket residential area, but the streets were unpaved and neat piles of litter stood waiting for the garbage collector.

The newspaper agent/sweet shop was a 5 minute walk on the same street as the hotel and I was the only non-Indian on it. All eyes were following my every move as side-stepped traffic and garbage and people.

The shop was not the 7-11 that I imagined it to be. It was literally one of the now-extinct Mamak shops that my mother had bought fresh coconut milk from when I was growing up. You can't find such shops in Singapore anymore.

This one was little more than a tiny shop crammed with sachets of shampoo, cigarettes, papers and telephone cards. The shopkeeper in his dhoti peered at me curiously. Sweets were sold individually in big plastic containers, much like that ones that hold our Chinese New Year love letters.

"How much is one?"

I thought he said 100 rupees and was immediately indignant that he was just trying to fleece this obviously non-local customer. Turns out it was my deafness and each sweet was only 1 rupee. I bought 50 out of embarrassment.

At the Hotel again

Back at the hotel, my room door lock suddnely didn't work. The staff took 1 hour to fix it. I wondered if I should put a chair against the door at night to prevent would-be rapists from breaking in. While waiting, I chatted with the hotel staff, a young management trainee (are there any other kind of jobs for graduates these days?), about what he wanted to do with his career and life and why he was in Chennai. He was unfailingly polite and too apologetic, although he didn't offer me an upgrade. Between the scrapping and bowing and the "Madams" and "Ma'ams", I now I know what its like to be treated like a memsahib!

Before I knew it, I was on my way to catch the dreaded internal flight to Bengalore (I couldn't check in online and reached the airport just before the flight, so I had already resigned myself to the fate of middle row seat). I was almost ready to conclude that India was safer than I thought and that my paranoia had been unfounded.

And then. I caught sight of the pilot of the flight.....

Two words. Top. Gun.

Indian version lah! But still.

My friends call it poetic justice.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Home, truely

9 August


This is not strictly a travel post but it is about a country, so I'm just going to stick it in here anyway.

If you told me ten years ago that I would ever love my country, I would never have believed it. No one who knew me then could ever have pegged me as a patriot or even think to have that conversation with me. I'm sure I exuded "I despise my country" vibes. Even the dentist who extracted my wisdom teeth  said "You don't look like the sort of girl who has deep roots"..

Speak not to me of the irony that I had consciously made the decision at 18 to bond myself to the country for the formative years of my career-- that I can only attribute to momentary folly and flight impulse going in overdrive.  Then, the thought of spending my college days in Singapore filled me with dread (you cannot blame me, I went through one of the uni orientation programmes), that I had to find an escape route by whatever means that I would. I considered myself above the hoi polloi-- the arrogance of youth! Living the consequences of my decision perhaps coloured my view of the world, of my country, in all aspects of my life.

In the past few years (coinciding with a change in career direction, impending middle age, and permanent brain damage caused by alcohol poisoning), I started to see Singapore as being "not so bad anymore".

Strange things have started happening with alarming frequency, such as having a real admiration for the new Singapore skyline, putting my hand up for things like OSC and NDP tickets, having to choke down tears while reading inspirational propaganda stories about ordinary Singaporeans, and watery eyes watching Pink Do 2013 video with the Home theme song for the 20th time.. (although I'm sure some of the tears coincide with PMS)

LST asked last night, after we were done ogling men-in-uniform from the National Day parade, if I would stay in Singapore forever. She does not intend to come back for good, as she does not consider herself to have strong ties here. CST and I rmused that while this had been our sentiment when we first came home years ago, we now can see ourselves living here for the rest of our lives.

Reflecting on what has changed, I have to say that it isn't just growing patriotism or a result of Singapore becoming more livable (although a much better selection of good bars and restaurants has definitely helped!). There definitely is a strong dose of realism and practicality as well. One gets set in one's old ways and used to routines and people.

I don't know if I can say, hand on heart, that I love this country of mine. Life here was not as comfortable as I remember growing up. I go about daily life living the challenges and uncertainties and inconveniences that every Singaporean must live. I get irritated by the stupidity and obnoxiousness and concrete thinking of my fellow Singaporeans all the time. But like every dysfunctional home, you make the best of it and try to be invested in it.

Of course, should there be opportunities to work and live abroad, I would definitely be keen to explore give them a go (High Openness to New Experiences on my psychological profile) but now any such decision that I make in that department will no longer be due to push factors or angry feelings or resentment but because I truly would like to pursue that opportunity for its own merits.

Scenes of Singapore: Amber Road, Tiong Bahru Bomb Shelter, Marina Bay Skyline, View from MBS Sky 57, East Coast Park, Ah Meng's descendants, Sentosa aquarium, Beach bar on Sentosa

Thursday, August 8, 2013

You don't know how strong you are until......

22-27 July 2013

Bangkok, Thailand

This was a most opportune trip in many ways. But it was also very very heavy going.

The 11 days since my previous trip to Hua Hin had been very emotionally tumultuous  and work-wise had been nothing short of crazy-- and the 21st in particular had been particularly tumultuous.

That week, I had difficulty sleeping (I was now the first to arrive in the office when I would normally have been one of the stragglers-- taxi either!) and barely ate. Food has always been important to me, but now I could not finish half a plate. The plus side was that I lost enough weight in that week to be able to feel svelte again and part of my brain was pleased about that. But I was literally fearful that I would not be able to physically get through what promised to be an intensive week of stand-up facilitation, which I had been experiencing great anxiety about already even before the emotional drama.

Fortunately or unfortunately, I had my monthly tour to conduct at the museum on the 21st, which I worried I would not be able to deliver coherently. As it turned out, I was able to hold it together that hour, and was able to entertain the group, which included some trainee tour guides from some tourism academy. When I overheard them say that I had given a great tour, I realised that I would be alright in Bangkok after all.

Bangkok was tough, no question about it. The participants had a really great week with short training days, and plenty of time to shop in the City of Angels, but I was definitely put through my paces with 14 hour days, 10 of which invariably involved me standing in 3 inch heels (By Day 4, I was training people barefoot). Nights were then spent working on emails and trying to resolve some of the emotional upheavals, so sleep was sorely lacking. By now, my body was so exhausted that I did at least manage to fall asleep without much difficulty, although I would wake at 5 every morning to worry about the day's facilitation. For the first time ever, I made it to breakfast every single day of the trip (usually I average zero).

It was really difficult to stay switched on, keep my game face on, but I guess I did alright given the circumstances. I even managed to reach out and counsel a colleague going through a rough time at work.

For the first time in a long time, I felt proud of myself and of what I was capable of. And that's something not to be sniffed at.

Yes, sometime, work really can take your mind off things.
This was actually the first trip that I prioritized people over what I wanted to do. Typically when I travel alone or for business, I would make sure that I have enough time to do what I want ( if I plan anything at all) before I even think about meeting up with friends in those countries. But this time, I did actually plan ahead to meet with some ex-colleagues. Sadly, I had to cancel on one due to work, but I managed to meet with B at Siam Paragon (where I did my only shopping-- spicy peanuts for CK and some crackers for the folks).

Pretty amazing that only having known each other for a couple of weeks in the summer of 2011, we still had loads to talk about, and I even was able to pour out my angst to her (sorry B!).

The Saturday, I changed my flight to an earlier one so that I could see M sooner. This is turning into a SOP for each trip. What happened next is another story...

In anticipation of sadness and in need of moral support, I snuck baby into my luggage. She hasn't travelled since UK 1999. Here she is with a Thai aromatherapy pot.