Category Archives: travel

Istanbul:

“In Istanbul it’s the “vvvvoooooot” – sirens of the boats, the “chck” from the chimney, waves of the Bosphorus hitting the quays along with the seagulls and old-fashioned little boats – “putu putu putu” kind of thing.

These are the things that immediately, if I close my eyes and you give it to me in another corner of the world, make Istanbul suddenly appear in my mind’s eye.”

– Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul

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turning point, when?

“But if your desire to travel and see the world tops everything else, then it’s time to take that next step. There will always be a reason not to do it. There will never be that perfect time. There will always be an excuse. If you’re waiting for every single thing if your life to fall into place, you’ll be waiting forever, and before long, it will be too late.

With all the questions you ask yourself and all the things you consider, it really only comes down to one big question. It’s something I wrote in the very first article for this RTW Wednesday column: If you decide to bypass the trip and go on the path that you are on, would you regret your decision 5, 10, 20 years down the road?”

Should You Go on a RTW Trip?

love travel writing.

Fiona Caulfield’s handcrafted travel guides can be found at Books Actually, The Arts House level 2, or http://www.lovetravelguides.com/.

I just came home from a talk at The Arts House (volunteering for Singapore Writers’ Fest) about travel writing and I cannot believe the heights of inspiration it brought me to.

Fiona Caulfield—marketer, traveller, writer, entrepreneur—spoke about her brainchild, Love Travel Guides, and the future of travel writing. Sounds mildly interesting? Until you hear her speak. She’s a brilliant salesperson and coming from her background, it’s little surprise—brand consultancy, co-founder of a marketing agency, Board member of DDB, Senior Partner at Ogilvy, among others. The minute she ended her talk, she had me zipping upstairs to Books Actually, after grabbing her namecard, to snap up a copy of Love Bengaluru at 55SGD without batting an eyelash. I’m known to be an indecisive buyer and I’m spectacularly broke this month; that’s how good she is.

Through the compelling story of Love travel guides and (not so important in this context) market insights, she ignited in me, once again, the hunger to be free, to find myself, and to pursue the extraordinary.

Sitting three rows from where she stood, I was jealous of her. Because I saw a woman who has had many extraordinary adventures in her career, her leisure (including conquering Mt Kilimanjaro, and reaching the base camp of Everest), and now has found a passion that truly satiated her. She has found something that no one could pay her to stop doing, and that’s after all the colourful opportunities in her career that most of us won’t even see in our whole lifetimes. Her books, precious, exquisite, handmade, that she cared so much for to painstakingly craft up to the point they were placed on shelves, from research to compilation, experiencing to writing, and finally printing to pasting price tags.

I like her values. How she keeps to what is real, adamant not to betray the purity of her vision. That falling in love with a place is really the same as falling in love with someone. When we fall in love, we don’t care that he’s at least 6 foot 1 or that he’s an investment banker, or all the qualities you would look for in a personals ad. When we fall in love, we fall in love with the way he holds our hand, the way he surreptitiously smells our hair, how he rubs his eyes fresh from a night’s rest. Likewise, we fall in love with the obscure details of a place—hashish on the roof of a quaint hostel overlooking an endless sea of rooftops, trembling from the trepidation and the freezing cold of the night; cold, freshly-squeezed oranges under the scorching heat of the Moroccan sun. And she’s determined not to lose sight of that intimacy, in her writing style, her content and even her packaging.

For her research, true to her unconventional style, she adopts techniques she names ‘kidnapping content’ and ‘travel sensing’. She’d have a native imagine being kidnapped away for 10 years, what are the 3 things he would do the moment he returned? In travel sensing, she emphasizes looking, smelling, listening, touching and tasting. If a place wasn’t impressive enough on these 5 counts to etch a place in her memory, it didn’t warrant a place in her book.

I reckon she’d hit upon a market gap. The seasoned traveller who’s now matured from a jaunty post-collegiate diet of Lonely Planets, who’s now cash-rich and time-poor, prioritizing self-indulgence over budget. He’s not interested in mediocre crap, doesn’t have the humour for spectacular ones either. He’s interested in something worth his time; exclusive, remote and strange enough stories to entertain his dinner guests with, experiences that impress upon others his status and capability, subtly. And they do not have to be expensive and posh either; he can find those anywhere at home.

She has this incredible ability to paint pictures with her words, speaking—poetic way of stringing words together. Although she claims that her ideas are extraordinary, her writing only accidental, I highly suspect otherwise. Minutes after starting, she already threw out a gem: “When I left India, it felt like the world had gone back to black and white and someone had turned down the volume.” Something along those lines, I didn’t think to jot that down. Over the 2 hours, she threw out still more sentences that got me smiling before I even noticed I reacted.

Fiona Caulfield has got me thinking about my life and my plan for it, finding myself and my priorities, what I want to achieve and what I want on my epitaph. At this delicate stage where my life could go off a thousand different permutations, what are the things that matter to me and where do I want to reach, 10, 20, 30 years from now? Who am I, really, and what makes me me?

Agh, I apologize for the length. I didn’t have time to write a short one.

morocco: what the guidebooks won’t tell you.

Few Singaporeans venture out to Morocco, apparently (I’ll support this claim later), so here’s whatever tips and random facts I can remember for the adventurous globe-trekker.

1. Chefchauoen may be lauded for its charming, old-world obscurity in many travel guides. Such literature rank it the cleanest, safest and friendliest city in Morocco. For the most part, I won’t differ. I fell in love with its picturesque blueness the moment I stepped foot there but don’t be deceived into assuming that it will sell the cheapest goods. Because it doesn’t. Many and I were ripped off for a smelly leather bag that we could have gotten for 120 dirhams (S$21.8) in Fez rather than 275 (S$50). 

2. The old men there are extremely cute and so harmless you actually believe them. Ok, not that they are dangerous. But the adorable old man who lured us to the leather shop where we got fleeced was a pink-cheeked, toothless old man who constantly looked high on hookah (we saw him twice) and repeatedly went “okie dokie!” complete with the thumbs up. He’s reeeally cute. I forgive him for the smelly leather bag.

3. They argue with girls thus. “I give you BIMBO PRICE!” (hahaha!) And goes on to state a price insignificantly lower than the starting price, with all the conviction of a reasonable businessman.

4. Airport authorities/ALL customs authorities have never heard of Singaporeans/Singapore. As far as they are concerned, we are illegal immigrants who need visas everywhere, even to gain entry to a country we have stayed for 2 weeks, 10 days earlier, as proven plainly by the entry and exit stamps in our passports. Some of them are nice about it and some of them are downright discourteous. 

5. Get used to calls of “KONICHEE-WAAHHH!!!” from store assistants 2 shops away as you saunter down the souks, feeling like rich Japanese tourists. “JAPAN? JAPAN? Come in, my friend. See, (Err, let me ask Kenneth/Zhihao their exact script again.)” EVERYONE does that, they start young. And they all use the exact same lines. If you’re interested in buying, please clarify that you are from China/Singapore so that they stop harassing you or quote exorbitant prices.

6. Travel guides seem to paint horrifying outcomes of tourists walking around in sleeveless tees or even so much as let their hair down. But I wore tank tops pretty much throughout my time in Morocco and nothing unpleasant happened. Moroccans are not nearly that conservative and judgmental of foreigners. And the guides have said that their customs are mostly retained for culture’s sake and not so much religious fervor. Educated Moroccans are worldly and accustomed to the habits of tourists. I don’t think their sensibilities are that easily offended. 

7. The touts are persistent but not nearly as scary as they seem. But do not get friendly. Reject politely and seriously.

8. Don’t believe everything you’re told and always act like you know your way around. Because they are master manipulators and exploit any weakness you show. That’s just the way they survive in their circumstances. Be vigilant but do not completely guard against their friendliness as well. Moroccans are instinctively warm and hospitable people when they’re not obsessively trying to sell you something. 

9. The famous big square in Marrakech is a hotbed for beggars and pickpockets. Watch for the kids. I nearly got pickpocketed unknowingly by a little boy who ran up to hug me. It was quite hilarious actually.

(This little kid randomly came up from my side and hugged me while I was standing by one of the stalls. I was alarmed because I knew the kids were sometimes exploited for petty crimes but was caught offguard and forgot how to react. I called out to Dick who had been standing nearby and he came to my other side and hugged me away from the kid, absurdly telling the kid “no! you cannot hug her because she’s my girlfriend” or something like that. For a moment, the kid stood rooted at the same spot some distance away then made a split second decision to run up and hug the both of us until his mother came and dragged him away angrily. Because of the mother’s indignant response, I started to think that maybe I had been overly suspicious; he could have been only mischievous. Until! Zhihao pointed out my 4/5 exposed purse that had been previously buried out of sight in my jeans pocket, which is, by the way, tight and any movement should have been easily felt.)

10. You can’t leave Morocco without a trip to the Sahara because how many people can actually say they’ve been to Sahara?! (Refer to my Sahara post.) 130 euros seems to be the best bargain around. We asked. 3D/2N, comfortable hotel, one night in the desert, 2h camel ride, breakfast/dinners provided and transport provided, naturally, tour around some valleys and whatever. But our guide was the sternest and most un-fun ever. So you may not want the services of Omar the desertprince (his email address) if you can get a comparable price elsewhere. (Or maybe it’s just cos we’re Chinos..) Oh ya, and he recommends the most exorbitant places for lunch. Correction, not recommend, he basically drops us there and leaves us with no choice. Bad food and ridiculous prices. 

11. Most Moroccan merchants prefer to be paid in Euros, by the way. It’s stronger, obviously, and more universal. But it’s better to pay by dirhams because you don’t wanna keep any. And, you don’t know what kind of ridiculous exchange rates they impose for the euro pricing.

12. Tangier scares me. According to Kenneth, nobody stays there for long. It’s just to transit for a bus ride to get the hell out. Some guidebooks say otherwise. Don’t believe them. I think there’s nothing much to see anyway. But it seems to offer one of the better exchange rates around. The official bank/money changer.

13. Touts sometimes walk beside you and chat you up, even if you ignore them. Then, when you reach your destination, they demand payment for bringing you there (though you made your way there yourself). Just tip them about 10 dirhams (about 1 euro), should be enough, rather than provoke trouble. 

14. When unsure about directions, ask the Moroccan ladies rather than the men who generally try to confuse you. The educated ladies speak English perfectly well and are always helpful. But avoid female touts in Marrakech who pester you for henna, they are as aggressive, if not more, than the men.

(MAY be continued..)

reminiscing the sahara.

Before I forget, I should get down to chronicling my first (hopefully not the last!) Euro-African vacation. But I’m too lazy, and not inspired. So I’ll just note down the Africa one first cos I am never going back to Sahara desert. Yep! It was beautiful, I tell you. The sand, the stillness, and the obscurity.

Except I puked twice on the way up (and then down to the desert, in case you’re wondering why it’s up the desert), sweated like a pig in that stuffy car, blistered under the scorching sun, attempted to rub my eyes raw because the wind kept blowing fine sand into them and basically felt like the smelliest and most disgusting hobo ever. And I would have paid 50 (sg!)bucks for a cold pao pao char to be delivered to me in the middle of the sand dunes. Heck, I’d even pay for the helicopter and the pilot. On the drive down the mountains, I had the biggest impulse to murder myself by jumping off the cliff because my head was being screwed all over by motion sickness.

But phew! the experience. I love the camels. Look at the camel.

cute camel from kenneth's cam

cute camel from kenneth's cam

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Look at that camel and tell me you don’t love it. It shits and pees and walks at the same time! Apparently, this cool hippie from New York told me while we were queuing to get on the plane back to Madrid that one-humped camels are called dromedary. But we’ll just call them camels here. I love it that camels look so peaceful. And I think it’s because no one’s home. How come the mean people haven’t thought to call bimbos camels? I mean I’m not being mean but they have the most clueless look I’ve ever seen. NOTHING goes on in that head of theirs. They just drink and squat and walk/shit/pee and stand up and be led around by their noses. I could stare at their faces all day. It’s really meditative; I’m not trying to be sarcastic. And as a result, they look like they’re perpetually doped. Argh! SO CUTE. Oh! And that chewing action going on forever with their mouths! Cutest things ever.

The desert. It’s nice. But a bit spoiled. Too many tourists and a bit…contrived. I get that we’re being fleeced you know. 130euros, the desert merchants have cash rolling in like camel shit down the sand. It’s not real anymore. I’m not complaining but I would have had a more satisfying experience if they hadn’t made that so explicit with the whole atmosphere. But the sunset was still good. I don’t think it’ll be the best I’ll ever see or have ever seen, for that matter. But I think everyone at the desert was sufficiently awed by the whole affair. The sun sinking slowly behind the waves of sand, so fluid. The stillness, how your voice dies in the air around you. Mostly the quietness I think. So I think the impact would have been greater if I could somehow feel more alone. It’s like in limbo, so detached from the world and far away from worldly sensations. You could just

Listen. To your heart.

Wow.

And look! Algeria is behind us (:

Algeria in the Backdrop

Algeria in the Backdrop

chao espana; c’est la vie.

Wish I could say that Spain and Morocco changed my life, even just a little. But it didn’t. Nevertheless, the streets of Espana were very pretty and they made me wish I could build a home there. Morocco was exotic and different and I loved the trinkets, winking in the dazzling sun as the dusty souks left their imprints layer after layer. 

From ‘gracias’ to ‘merci’, from ‘si’ to ‘oui’, and back. And now that I’m back, I’m lost. Suddenly, after 25 days, I will be looking forward to days with less agenda, less surprises, and less visual poetry. No more sunny blue skies and puffy white clouds without the sweltering heat. No more of that strange tongue that I’m not privy to, that somehow gives me that feeling of extravagance, that I’m less average. But I’m trading those in for long-time favourite food fare and comforting cultural assimilation and I don’t know if that’s a fair exchange. now.

I am left without a doubt that I am Singaporean through and through. That a life as a whimsical globe-trotter with the barest security can never be mine. Not only because I have too much to shoulder but also, when all is said and done, I can never find the courage to leave everything behind. Especially stability. How Singaporean. And right here, I am going to blame that on socialization.

When we checked into our hostel at Seville (Samay Hostels), I saw a recruitment notice. One of those that asked self-congratulatory questions like are you fun and friendly?, rhetorics like do you want to live in Seville and meet different people?, then join us at Samay Hostels! And I was excited; I spent the shower fantasizing about how I’d send in a CV and then pack my bags and live in Seville. Earn a pittance and blow it on inspiring jaunts across the world. I went that close before my dreams were dashed in a sobering conversation about work, responsibilities and family over dinner that night. Filial piety is a ball and chain on our wanderlusty feet.

Money isn’t everything. In my haughty self-righteousness, I want to denounce the virtue of money. But I cannot escape the fact that to be free, I need the lousy money. And because I need the lousy money to buy a quality retirement for my parents and my own escape route, I cannot shirk the responsibilities that will most probably chain me here. It’s not so bad, really. Just disillusionment; less idealism and more down-to-earthiness.

And so why have I decided to stay on for honours after a supposed grad trip? Maybe I really don’t know. I just need more time…to make it good. I have a plan, I think. Coupled with the recession, I think it makes for a sensible escapism. Which, if you strip it all down, might not be all bad. So, back to school I go.

Look at that, post-“grad” trip emoness. Maybe recounting will be happier, maybe tomorrow.

Spain and Morocco in a few hours. For all my wanderlust, I get cold feet before leaving. I think this happens every time. This apprehension; i wish my flight is tomorrow. But then it’s only about 24 days so I’ve got to relax.

Zara, MNG, Gaudi, here i come!

Hasta luego, readers!