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.

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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.

 

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Words of Wisdom

Note to Self

“What advice would you give your 20-year-old self?”

I’ve heard several responses to this recently popularised question, varying of course, by the differing years that have lapsed between the answer and one’s own youth.

In the short decade that has passed in my own, I’ve learned that this is my life. You may not be able to control everything that happens in it and to it, but what you can control is how you accept things as they come, and what you do next. At the end of the road, you have nobody but yourself to blame if you’re unhappy in life.

The most unhappy people I’ve met thus far are the ones who blame everyone and everything else around them for things that go wrong, without having ever paused to see the change they can bring within themselves. People can be bitter. And some will make it their mission to spread that brand of bitterness to anyone who would allow it. So guard against that, and stay focused on who you are, and what you can do.

This has always been a favourite prayer of mine, and one I’ve held close in times bad and uncertain:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

Courage to change the things I can,

And wisdom to know the difference.

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I believe that the best gift you can give yourself… is the gift of time. There are (many many) luxuries that money can buy, and then there is the luxury of time. How often do us city rats get the chance to sit, sip, and wait for nature to take its course?

It was somewhat jarring (albeit it being painfully obvious) to realise today that the sun sets in its splendour of amber hues daily; yet in a lifetime most of us could probably count the number of memorable sunsets we have witnessed. What does this say about the neglect we have towards nature, and the pace at which we’ve put our lives to?

Travel, Words of Wisdom

The Gift of Time

the best gift you can give yourself… is the gift of time

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Travel

New Year’s Eve

Why do we like sunsets? Like all things, all days and all years – good or bad – will come to an end.

I’m a fan of closure, just as I am a fan of a brand new start. A sunrise will only come after a sunset. And a brand new day is only made beautiful by its inevitable end. Ends and beginnings, who is to say which came first, when there cannot be one without the other.

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