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We got stopped by the police the moment we crossed into Bayern…

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….but made a narrow escape with the sheer power of conversational wit (according to Julia).
Our car also screeched to a halt in the dark, deserted high street, because we were waylaid by a hedgehog.

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We waded through dangerous waters…

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…And then got stalked by a Mexican hiding in the shadows.

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We had to survive in the wilds with nothing but a Swiss Army knife.

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But through it all, we cooked ate drank talked sang walked; like we owned the whole world.

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Because, you know – menschen leben tanzen welt.

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What we saw of Switzerland was undoubtedly beautiful but came across as a little opaque – tastefully coloured patchwork of gleaming, impeccable, impenetrable surfaces, be it the facades of the Altstadt, the Alpine slopes or the aquamarine lakes and streams that
alternate between gushing from one precipice to another, or placidly gliding in the scorching sun. Everywhere one is constantly surrounded by relaxed, happy faces – no distracted gazes, no clockwork grey suits in sight. One climbs up the stairs to the viewing platform at Jungfraujoch, past the promotional posters of China’s Huangshan, and gets the sensation of walking into a virtual reality vestibule.

But then it is so beautiful outside the glass walls that it is easy to block the awareness out for a while – one looks down between the shoes, through the holes of the latticed floor of the viewing platform 3.5 km above sea level, vision diving headlong down the steep drop onto the snowy depths pockmarked with angry-looking holes and protruding rocks. One gazes beyond the cord barrier at the cold and barren glacier, arrested mid-journey as it tried to snake between the valleys into the unknown faraway somewhere. Dazzled by the magnificence of such rugged, dangerous beauty – one forgets.

Then the next moment one’s view is disrupted by a train of tourists parading past, packed snugly into quilted jackets – and one wonders, where and what is Switzerland amidst this perfection that was manifestly manufactured for tourists?

Two weeks ago we took the cable car up to Schauinsland, a patch of mountain on the edge of the Black Forest, not too far from Freiburg. Having gone once in the morning, we went again in the evening to catch the sunset. It happened to be the day of the Nachtfahrt – the one day in summer that the cable car operated until midnight. Up, up, up we went, gliding with the occasional creak, hovering just above the sloping path that had been stripped of juniper, leaving a bald strip of bare grass. It was a gorgeous day; the view was breathtaking…countryside shrinking, inching further and further away, until it seemed to dissolve into the glowing, liquid sky.

For the second time that day, we made our way into the cafe at the peak and found our seats near the edge of the viewing deck. It was cold now; we tucked ourselves into the fleece blankets provided by the cafe and settled in with our tea and chocolate. There we sat, quietly watching the world transform.  The light faded, the sky darkened from blue to a deeper blue; the sky darkened still, until there was nothing but a streak of orange marking the horizon…then it finally let go, yielding to the reign of the stars with the twinkling lights of the city.

To think that so many people were within sight! Every one dot of light was likely illuminating hundreds of people pottering about, winding down, drying the dishes, preparing to go to sleep. Yet I couldn’t see their faces, I didn’t know their names, their lives…but then even up close, here we were, trapped in our own impenetrable silence. One felt desperately lonely and overwhelmed with company at the same time. They were them and I was me and he was him, alone in our respective existences, which means as far as each is concerned none of us existed at all…

It’s hard to feel present in moments like these. I often find myself trying to memorise the scene. I stare very hard at the tip of a tree or the silhouette of the skyline or an indeterminate patch of green hoping to imprint them forever in my memory, but it is always surreal, always detached, always as if I am living somebody else’s reality and it’s not really me sat there, hair fluttering in the cold breeze. After some time gone by I find myself equally able to believe that it hadn’t been me, it was just a photograph or somebody else’s story. What did it matter anyway – now that it is past, as good as a video still in my brain, did it really matter that I had been there at all?

On the occasions when I am able to stop being feeling like a spectator to my inner consciousness, I marvel unrestrainedly at all that vastness, feeling deeply, fundamentally content. I think about Calvin telling Hobbes how our problems seem so small in the face of an infinite number of stars. But as George Eliot sort of said, as much as we indulge in wishful abstractions and romantic philosophies from a distance, whether physical or mental, it is daily life that we are confronted with, that consumes us, that we respond to…and daily life and our temperaments put together are hardly ever romantic or elegant or high-minded.

The moon was exceptionally bright that night. It outshone everything and everyone. As we rode the cable car down, we saw nothing but our own shadow cast on the opaque wall of the forest. It was just the two of us, another passenger and his bicycle in the carriage. We didn’t know his name, but there we were, him and him and me, still, talking, our disembodied voices trapped in the infinite darkness but freed from silence. It felt almost intimate, like we could each be what we really were, tell our secrets to one another and never see each other again.

I love giant boulders and cliffs and rocks.
They look like wise old men of the ages – masculine, arrogant, protective (one shielded Lizzie and I from sideways rain).

Wildflowers, trees, heather…pretty, but fragile.
Temporary. Young. Easily flattened with careless trodding about.

Young, like little children tentatively tracing little leafy shoots out in capricious crayon squiggles all over the landscape.

There’s a grand old rock we saw on the way back to Grindleford station – christened “Mother’s cap”, which I find slightly ironic. It’s a big, square thing, all angles and crevices. But then picture a stiff, stately old matriarch, which is not difficult if you grew up in an Asian society – and then it makes sense!

(22/06/2015)

Every time I go on a trip somewhere I look out (sometimes a bit too desperately) for that one stark trip-defining event. That moment I fell off my own luggage bag. That wall scrawled with the whisperings of a conscience weighed down by night-time sins. That stracciatella gelato. Kilimanjaro beer under a blanket of night sky. Legs hanging over a wooden jetty, writing a postcard, surrounded by mountains. Waiting in a cosy restaurant after closing, because the proprietor and his wife were a kind couple who weren’t about to let two homeless girls roam the streets of Salzburg on their own. Feeling my way up a hill in total darkness, feeling like an explorer of the wilderness, only to find out at the peak that I still had data connection.

These memories are important. They remind you, as you stare aimlessly at the computer screen and scribble laboriously in your work diary, days and days on end, that escape is possible. And necessary. Because, where else and how else would you get to feel all these wonderful feelings again?

S0 – Taiwan. Taiwan is a beautiful place. One tenth the size of Malaysia (I think), it’s like a good makeup compact – so many beautiful colours and textures squeezed into one tiny little area. Twenty minutes outside Taipei, and you’re looking at a sulphur spring shooting steam out of a dormant volcano. Although, technically, we didn’t see a thing – we only heard and smelled it, because it was a rainy day overhung with an opaque curtain of mist (which was also very beautiful in its own right). Two hours on, by high-speed rail, you’re off traipsing down tranquil earth pathways that snake through majestic valleys, overlooking the crystal blue running water of Liwu River. Then not too far off are two little towns nestled into the slopes of endless, rolling hills; one with a charming history of gold mining, and a display of grand, fortress-like abandoned factories to show for it.

In Taiwan, I felt safe and free. Nobody looks at you funny because your neckline hangs a little too low (oh, the number of times over here that I’ve wished I could hit someone in the face and tell him to watch some porn). In fact, nobody really looks at you at all. People stand in an orderly queue on the right side on the escalator, and get nagged at when they don’t queue for tickets. Night market proprietors don’t shoot you dirty looks when you decide not to buy anything. You don’t walk down a street anticipating that a motorcyclist might swoop by and take off with your handbag, or walk into a carpark wondering if you might ever encounter a rape and kidnap attempt. People are polite, don’t yell, don’t shove, don’t manhandle. And our taxi driver – what a sweet old man he was, buying us dessert to try  just because we asked what it was.

In all the places I’ve ever lived there’s always been an easily observable occupational divide. People who man MRT/tube/LRT ticket booths, construction workers, porters, taxi drivers are typically (or stereotypically?) somewhat downtrodden groups of society – all the groups that make headlines in talk about the state of the economy and politics. Foreigners. The elderly. The poor. And you usually tell right off the bat. Unhappy faces, less groomed, working class accents, etc (or so I think).  I’m not too sure how accurate this is (rose-tinted glasses perhaps) but Taiwan seemed different. The train lady could easily have been a bank officer. The noodle shop man could have been a fresh grad with a Masters degree.

Taiwan is a beautiful place. On our third day, we visited a beach (Seven Stars something). The sky was grey, as it was for the entire trip, and the waves spirited, continuously hurling against the pebble beach, splashing and breaking into angry white sea spray. There was a man parked on the void deck in the corner, strumming on his guitar, singing Mandarin oldies. And we stood there, my brother and the love of his life, my mother and father and I, wind tugging at our scarves, sharing a piping hot roast sweet potato. I remember looking around, taking it all in – the sky, the waves, the music, the crashing, the look of contentment on my parents’ faces – and thinking: yup, this is it. The trip-defining moment.

Landscapes

Imaginary

May

Minute after minute, and no stillness in between.

October 2017
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