luxe reflux

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“I know that I travel in large part in search of hardship — both my own, which I want to feel, and others’, which I need to see. Travel in that sense guides us toward a better balance of wisdom and compassion — of seeing the world clearly, and yet feeling it truly.” – Pico Iyer

I have a love-hate relationship with luxury.

I couldn’t help smiling when I stepped into our villa at Alila Soori. From the calming smell of lemongrass, the crisp clean cloud-like duvets, the twin-sized bath-tub, the marbled blue lap pool that fringed the living room, the sprawling day beds right down to the mahogany boxes that had little compartments for each of the toiletries, the sense of perfection that permeated the environment assured its occupants that they were royalty. We even had a personal butler who was on call 24/7, ready at all times to deliver bicycles, swimming floats or ferry us from our room to the restaurant with a buggy.

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Yet despite how much I enjoyed soaking in that bubble of comfort, I couldn’t help feeling a pervasive sense of unease at the artificiality of this perfect world that was created by the rich for the wealthy. Because the moment you step outside of the villa’s perimeters, the stark contrast of the living conditions of the surrounding villages is all the more glaring. Dirt roads, broken shutters, faded walls, drains that threaten to overflow – nothing of that crisp cleanliness that exists just a wall away. But there is so, so much beauty and life in the lushness of those perfectly filed padi fields, the expressions of the stone temple guardians and the laughter of the kids as they chase after the school-bus.

And as I gazed over the edge of that infinity pool, I couldn’t help but wonder if, once upon a time, the padi fields had extended to where I was to seamlessly merge with the black sand beaches. Or if, like my dad says, it must be torturous for those who work at the villa to straddle the juxtapositions of these two worlds. I don’t know how that must feel, but I do know that it is only too easy to be consumed by the lust for luxury once you’ve gotten a taste of it. It was evident by the dissatisfaction we felt at our next villa, which by normal standards would have been wow, but paled in comparison to Alila.

At the end of the day, I guess the question goes back to why you travel. Luxury is justified if the intention is relaxation. But, if like Pico Iyer says, we travel to lose and find ourselves again, then perhaps there is a necessity to break out of that bubble and get a little dirty, a little alive.

 

 

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Stop elephant abuse!

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I’m no expert on elephants, but I can confidently say that they were not born to paint.

While most of the other visitors at the Maesa Elephant Camp in Chiang Mai gasped in amazement at the beautiful works of art these gentle creatures had created, I could not help but feel an overwhelming sense of uneasiness. If it takes humans many hours of practice just to produce a simple painting, imagine how much “training” these elephants had to go through! A simple search online confirmed my suspicions that the elephant training camps in Chiang Mai are far from nurturing habitats for talented elephants.

Elephant painting. If you look closely you will notice that the trainer will use the hook on it or pull its ear to direct the brushstrokes.

National Geographic recently produced a documentary on how these elephants have to go through the process of phajaan, or “crush training”, where baby elephants that are barely 4 months old are removed from their mothers, squeezed into tiny cages, and beaten into submission. In addition, they are also deprived of food and 40% usually end up dying from the ordeal. Reports from tourists on the Lonely Planet forums also reveal that the mahouts ill-treat the elephants by jabbing them in their sensitive inner ear or cutting them with the hook on elephant rides. I saw for myself the hook that these trainers use, and I can assure you that no human will find it acceptable as a tool for “education”.

Mahouts with their elephants. Look at their instruments of torture.

Hence, I strongly appeal to you not to support this tourist venture. If you really do have a soft spot for elephants, consider visiting the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai instead. You will not get to ride the elephants or see them painting, blowing the harmonica or playing soccer there, but you will be able to see them interacting freely with other elephants and you can even volunteer to bathe or feed them.

Just like we wouldn’t want to be forced to walk with our hands or paint with our toes, let’s try to keep it natural for these animals too.

i ♥ volcanoes

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I am so in love with volcanoes. They are so majestic- seemingly silent but actually raging inside with such power and energy. They leave scorch marks in their wake and yet cradle colourful bodies of water. Their grounds are fertile and lush and their shapes unexpected and unpredictable.

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View of Mount Kintamani (Bali) from our restaurant. It had been completely obstructed by clouds when we first got there but this gorgeous view was slowly unveiled over the course of our meal.

So far I’ve seen volcanoes in Costa Rica, Japan, Peru, Guatemala and now, Indonesia. In Antigua (Guatemala) my friends and I had the fortune of climbing Volcan de Agua in our pjs and roasting marshmallows at the top. Definitely redefining pyjama party, if you ask me. I was quite disappointed that we didn’t get to see any lava because the volcano had erupted in May of the previous year. Thanks to our errant tour guide though, we definitely had our fair share of adventure on the trek up!

The pyjama team a.k.a Singapore's national dress code for volcano-climbing

Volcanic rock that crumbled underneath our feet

Okay, I don’t know if I’m being greedy but if I could see this I would definitely die happy. Until then I will aspire to see some lava action in Hawaii. Someday.

 

//edit

I just read a post on Volcano Boarding in Nicaragua and it looks amazing!!! Damn, another thing to add on the volcano lust list.

Anusarnsunthorn

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One of the reasons I love the underwater world so much is the absolute serenity of silence. No matter how the waves crash over you or how a school of fish swim past your feet, the sound of silence is constant and therapeutic for that half an hour or so. Yet as much as I love it, that feeling of breaking through the water’s surface and hearing the cacophony of the earth rush back into my ears is always welcoming and energizing. That sensation reminds me that I’m back in reality again.

For many of the students at Anusarnsunthorn School for the Deaf (Chiangmai), their reality is like life underwater, 20ft deep. The sound of silence, whilst overwhelming to us, is familiar to them. Yet their actions do not reflect the stagnancy of silence. Instead, these children are constantly engaged in a dizzying array of activities. Be it dancing, playing volleyball, creating artistic masterpieces or even performing in a band, there is rarely a moment in which they are not making meaningful use of their time. I would even say that the average student there is a lot more “all-rounded” than our students in Singapore.

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Percussion performance during cultural night

Some of the dances put up by the students (:

(Videos courtesy of Glen Liang)

I must admit that I went there thinking that we would be able to impact these children’s lives with our fancy math and science educational manipulatives and our fun silk-screen printing techniques. Yet I was humbled by how their techniques in art far surpass ours. Their patience and attention to detail is amazing, and I believe that the inner serenity they possess plays a part.

In retrospect, I realize that I did not meet a single student who perceived their inability to hear as a disability. This, I believe, is credit that is largely due to the teachers who never allowed them to feel inferior to “normal” students. As educators, we are more than likely to encounter students who are “imperfect”. Yet instead of  being quick to condemn or place our own limitations on them, with patience and faith, we can help those who can’t hear to see meaning in producing beautiful music.

Click here to look at more photos of my time at Anusarnsunthorn (:

Bike for TNT!

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I’m not someone who exercises a lot. I probably visit the gym less than 10 times a year. However, I’ve noticed that I somehow enjoy giving myself physical challenges every year. 2 years ago, I participated in the NUS Legs & Paddle competition with Weibiao, which was a 5km run + 3km kayak race. Last year, I went on the Inka Train, a 45km hike over the course of 4 days that eventually led us to Macchu Picchu. This year, on May 1st, I will be embarking on a 42-mile (67.6km) bike tour around the five boroughs of New York City (Manhattan, Queens, Staten Island, Brooklyn and the Bronx).

I’m pretty excited about it because, to be honest, I haven’t been to the Bronx or Staten Island even after 4 years of being in the city, and doing this will perhaps be the perfect way to commemorate by life here before I leave in June. However, I’m also excited because I’m taking this opportunity to raise funds for Traveller Not Tourist (TNT), the organization in Arequipa that I volunteered with last June. If you click on the “Traveller Not Tourist” tag on the right, you’ll be able to see some of the articles I wrote on my experience there.

Please, please support me in this venture by donating some money (any sum will be appreciated!) to this cause. The money will go towards school supplies for the Flora Tristan school that I taught at, and also the Casa Holgar orphanage that TNT is supporting. They have been actively trying to raise money in the past few months to build a new orphanage as they are being forced to move out of their existing building. If you’re interested, you can also take part on their “Buy a Brick” scheme (more details here)!

To donate, please click here.

Muchas gracias from me and everyone at TNT!

Thank you so much! (:

A rainy day in Lanquin

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Just spent a wonderfully lazy day in Lanquin thanks to the ceaseless rain. I’m kinda glad we had to cancel our trip to the K’anba caves because it gave me the chance to just spend a day without any agenda. I’ve never known the rain to be such a tease; everytime it looked like the clouds were done relieving themselves, there would be a fresh shuddering of rain again. In a distance, the cattle grazed, unperturbed, on the rolling hills, the house dogs chewed at my shoes and the hostel bar continued to showcase its inexhaustible range of music. I admired this from the comforts of my hammock and loved how the rain made the land so pregnant and verdant- it’s super refreshing and cleansing. (Nic disagrees that there’s an after-rain smell.) Now, sitting outside our cabin, this postcard-perfect view is what retirement villas boast of. Rush of river, calls of crickets, freshness of foliage. Life is sweet when there’s absolutely nothing to do but admire it.

Antigua

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Hola de Antigua !

The multi-colored walls, cobble-stoned streets, horse-drawn carriages and vine-adorned gates make Antigua the quintessential colonial city, yet the ruins of cathedrals presumably destroyed by volcanic eruptions adds a certain sense of realism to the otherwise postcard-perfect facade. Even though this is our second day here, I feel like I haven’t really explored the city even though I am beginning to fall in love with it. Not sure if it’s the sweet smell of lavender in the air, the gorgeous cafes with awesome live music, or the friendliness of the locals, but I could definitely see myself spending a couple of months here.

We also went on a hoax of a tour around these ‘villages’ today that were not indigenous in any sense. Ciudad Viejo, the first city in Guatemala that the Spanish conquistadors first settled in, had the shell of a cupuola which is now used as a school. The macadamia nut farm had the best white chocolates and ingeniously green farming methods, but they were set up by a Canadian man and his Guatemalan wife. The ‘Mayan’ village was really a market which sold ‘traditional’ clothes an handicrafts by the local women. And finally, we also went to this house which manufactured jade jewelry and ornaments. I’m somewhat ashamed to admit that I bought something from each of the places we visited except Ciudad Viejo because we didn’t visit any shops there.

Still despite the gimmicky gringo trail that we blazed, I had a gorgeous time taking in the sights of the city. Like Arequipa, it’s also flanked by three volcanoes- Fuego, Agua and Acatenango that are all active. There was a hilarious moment when our guide stopped by the roadside for us to take a postcard shot of the volcanoes as we stood amidst a pile of trash. In that sobering moment there was the realization that beauty exists around and in spite of crap.

Gonna hit up a real volcano with hopefully some legit lava tomorrow! Wish me luck!

Photos when I can upload them!

How to Kopi?

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Image credits: mikeyeow.wordpress.com

Last weekend D got into a pretty heated dispute with a coffee shop uncle in Serangoon Central over how he should have ordered “kopi with milk and without sugar”. It might seem that that’s exactly how he should have ordered it – “Uncle! Kopi with milk and without sugar!” – but in Singapore coffee shop culture, there are specific names for these things which in my 22 years, I’ve never actually bothered to really take note of or remember.

According to Wiki, these are the different names for your kopi combo:

  • Kopi, coffee
  • Kopi-gau, coffee (strong brew – “gau” is “厚” in Hokkien)
  • Kopi-po, coffee (weak brew – “po” is “薄” in Hokkien)
  • Kopi-C, coffee with evaporated milk
  • Kopi-C-kosong, coffee with evaporated milk and no sugar (‘kosong” means empty in Malay)
  • Kopi-O, coffee with sugar only
  • Kopi-O-kosong, coffee without sugar or milk
  • Kopi-O-kosong-gau, a strong brew of coffee without sugar or milk
  • Kopi-bing or Kopi-ice, coffee with milk, sugar and ice
  • Kopi-xiu-dai, coffee with less sugar
  • Kopi-gah-dai, coffee with extra sweetened milk

What happened was that D wanted Kopi with regular milk but without sugar, but such a combination apparently does not exist, and the uncle made that extremely clear when he exclaimed in a really loud -and rude- voice: 这个我不会泡!你自己来泡啦!  And yet, D has been ordering this at coffee shops for all his life now. (Note that it’s also not Kopi-C-kosong in this case, because D wanted regular and not carnation milk.) D could not accept that he’d been using the wrong name for all these years, while the uncle, in all his kopi-making pride, could not be bothered to make the effort to try and understand what was wanted or explain why the term was erroneous. I, on the other hand, was completely lost in what all the different terms meant. I always order teh-O (tea with no milk, just sugar). And I’m quite willing to bet my iPhone that a good proportion of people in my generation can’t tell their xiu-dai from their kosong either. In a decade, these terms will probably die out or be replaced by lattes and fraps. How depressing.

Home to home;

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It’s been 8 weeks and it’s time to go home.

Although if the saying “home is where the heart is” is true, then ‘home’ is a pretty amalgamous concept since I’ve certainly left my heart in several places around the world. Singapore, of course, will always be the primero. New York, too, for its infinite possibilities, and now, Arequipa, for its humbling ways and the lesson that simple contentment still exists in this capitalistic world.

I’m not sure if I’ve attained “traveller” (and not “tourist”) status, but I think that at the very least, I’ve become more environmentally- and culturally-sensitive. I’ve learnt to appreciate the luxury of a hot shower and of having money in my pocket. I’ve realized that that tourism can be detrimental to community psyche even if the people need or want it, and I’ve realized that I’m as much a bane to other tourists as they are to me. We all seek beauty and novelty, but we also seek solitude in that beauty. It’s the selfishness of travel and the conundrum of the tourism industry.

Am also still amazed by the multitude of people that we’ve met along the way, and of the lessons we’ve learnt from them- on life, filial piety, and definitely, definitely humility. Also very grateful for my best travel partner, who above all PMS-induced tantrums, tolerated my unbelievably smelly feet :X

And now in limbo from home to home- how blessed! (:

If I had all the time (and guts)…

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I would travel Southwestern Bolivia on a mule.

My mule (whom I would call ‘Muse’) and I would probably start off from the town of Uyuni. We’d trot slowly as the hordes of 4WDs zoom past us and we’d be alone to appreciate the emptiness of the salt flats. We would hear the rhythmic crunch of the salt under Muse’s hooves, and see where the volcanoes define the horizon’s edge. There is something strangely calming about being a tiny speck of a person (or animal) amidst that great expanse of blankness.

We would probably take a day, instead of 2 hours, to reach Isla Incahuasi, an island that sprouts hundreds of phallic-shaped cactuses. By then, all the tour groups would have left. I would then hike up to the top of the island and take in my surroundings. (Ideally by this time I should have learnt how to paint as well. Cameras are amazing, but they can’t capture the way cacti glow in the sunlight, or the way the sunsets here are a special kind of purplish-pink.) I would spend an hour or so painting the view before me; it shouldn’t be too hard since everything is white. Then I would pitch my tent on the salt flat (not sure if this is legal actually), and equipped with the warmest sleeping bag and wind-resistant tent, I would wait for the howling winds to sweep salt onto my tent. Come nightfall, I would stick my head out of the tent and watch the Milky Way stretch across the sky, accompanied by an infinite number of twinkling stars. And if I’m as lucky as I’ve been, I would wait eagerly for the shooting stars to streak across the sky, and wish each time for a life as good as this.

Isla Incahuasi

Muse and I would probably spend about a month making our way across the Altiplano and the Atacama Desert. We will pass by many volcanoes on the way, and if I’m feeling fit enough, I might be encouraged to climb one. We will laugh at all the tourists bouncing uncomfortably in their 4WDs (although we would not be so pleased with the clouds of dust they generate). We would trot past fantastical lava formations, past colourful volcanoes with multiple craters, and on lucky days, we will arrive at lagoons filled with flamingos. We will be amazed at how these haughty, fragile-looking creatures can survive in such a desolate and harsh environment and marvel at the way they strut across the frozen lagoon like models on a runway. Muse would also have a lot of time to graze as I attempt to paint these beautiful creatures in flight. On our journey, Muse would also make a lot of new friends with the wandering Andean foxes, llamas and vicuynas. They seem to be pretty friendly and curious creatures.

Flamingos flourishing in the smelly sulfuric lagoon.

Volcano of Seven Colours; The yellow parts mark where the sulphur from the different craters are.

Crazy geyser activity; The lava is only 700m below surface!

It would be an extremely difficult journey given the crazily cold climate and lack of food or water. And knowing me, we will definitely get lost at some point. But then again, being lost is a concept that can only exist when you have a specific destination and time-frame. And since I would have all the time in the world, the only thing I could really be lost in is the beauty of my surroundings.