Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Singles Day

Another nightmare. I dream of being in an examination hall, attempting to answer a question I had given my own students. I break into a sweat as I realize that no words are coming to the tip of my pen and my allotted time is running out. I wake up.

So here I am again, putting my thoughts into words and thankfully finding that yes, I still can write. And then I regret not having written sooner.

Life continues. Over 9000 (hah!) days of me living on this earth. It's settled into a steady, predictable routine. Safe and comfortable. Oh how I hate and love it so much. There's a yearning for more, but a desire for the same. Which one wins is up to you, I guess.

Another year almost up. I'm getting older. People look at me and ask if I'm married (no I'm not), if I am attached (no, unfortunately). In the past work got in the way of relationships. Now it's just my own insecurities. Which is not to say I'm not attracted to anyone at the moment. Oh far from it, for the hormones rage and desire compels me once again to a girl woefully unsuited for me, but one who I can't quite let go. I've let too many go already, I say to myself. But then what is the harm in letting one more?

I've set some goals for next year. Time to go back to school. Time to forge new relationships. Time to get rid of old habits.

I'll be travelling again. I haven't in a long time. That's what happens when you settle down. Yet my youthful wanderlust seems to have faded (although I did suspect that would happen). My life in my quaint little city seems satisfactory. No need to rise beyond and travel to different lands.

And yet, I still have those dreams. Of being in a different place, of living a different life. I can't quite go there. I can't really live it. But oh, I can dream. And after that, I will write of it.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Quarter-Cent: A Belated Update

I thought this blog forgotten until Google reminded me my domain was due for auto-renewal. Set it and forget it, as they ironically advertise such services. But I'm happy to be reminded. I'm happy I still have a place for my thoughts. Blogs aren't obsolete you know?

25 years. I'm supposed to be young and feel young, but I feel old when I see all the children from my youth who have since grown up. I feel old when I realize how much my thoughts, beliefs (and ulitmately, religion) has changed since I grappled with my first abstract concept. I feel old when kids start calling me "Uncle".

Still there's a lot to be thankful for. There's a lot of hope left in me. I'm not disillusioned entirely, as I cynically predicted a long time ago. I haven't sunk into depression over existential issues. My life in fact, has become oddly simplified and all the more happier because of it.

Being a working adult does that. You're forced to put the bread on the table and stop wondering about the meaning of the bread or table. People start to become more important than ideas, and you realize that they always have been. They reciprocate your affection in a way that philosophy rarely ever does.

And yet some vestiges of my younger self remain. I solemnly swore to make my mark upon this world, and that oath still remains - not forgotten and not realized. But you can afford to dream when you are young and half asleep. As one gets older and the day brighter your opportunities grow dimmer.

How have I lived my life until now? Have I made my mark? Have I been meaningful? Being raised a Christian you're constantly reminded to be a "witness". Your attitudes, behavior (and some would say even thoughts) are a reflection unto others. We realize that many Christians fail at this point - at being a "good" Christian. Some keep trying, others give up entirely. I am somewhat close to being the latter even if I still feel uncomfortable when people are surprised to find out I am a Christian. Does that mean I have failed as a Christian? One wonders, even if we are told salvation is between you and God and God looks at the heart and not outward appearances.

One thing I am glad I still do is count my blessings. I am thankful for my family, even if our relationship is being tested as we mature and grow older and go our seperate ways. I am thankful for my "job" - one which I actually look forward to doing everyday. I am thankful my dog is still alive and well, even in her well advanced age.

When I was young I listed my hobbies as reading and writing. Back then you could not list something more generic than that. But I continued to pursue them and sadly in this day and age they are now eccentric and exotic and I am frequently met with awe and admiration when people find out I am decent at both. And for that, I am thankful as well.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Europe: A Journey (Chapter 2)

 Chapter 2

It’s Messy Here (Rome, May 12 - 16)

The JetAir flight, like it’s low budget siblings which I have experienced is strict, formal and utilitarian. I witness a passenger  grumpily dispensing of a plastic bag full of items upon being informed he is slightly over the carry on limit. 

The sky is sunny as we travel from France to Italy. I whip out Jane Eyre, which immediately starts a brief conversation with another traveler from America. I’m from Malaysia (does she know where is that?). I’m travelling, to just like you. What else is there to say?

The flight lands and I notice we are in a slightly different place. The clean sleek Paris airport gives way to an almost Malaysian experience. It’s warmer here and dirtier. As someone later tells us, Rome is more messy. Messy compared to where, I wonder?

It is a little bit too much for me. Once again I dive into Rome’s metro and emerge near San Giovanni in Laterano, a historic cathedral. I enter it and I the silence envelopes me. It is peaceful; a respite from the crowd. I sit in silence and marvel once again at such a grand building almost devoid of people. 

Our hostel is much smaller and quieter, almost a homely feel. I meet another backpacker, a middle age American travelling by herself. She seems a little jaded, almost as if she is going through the motions of travel. I do press her on this and exchange pleasantries. Later I meet another elderly American couple devoted to Rick Steves. They do have a certain pedantry to them, a routine which I suppose find comforting. I watch amusedly as they discuss about Rick Steve’s recommendations for Rome.

Opposite our hostel (nestled in a quiet University neighborhood filled with students) lies one of the best pizzerias I’ve been to and a decent gelato place. Thus begin our staple Italian diet of pizzas and gelato. I encounter the Roman pizza, square instead of round and far far more delicious than anything I’ve ever tried back home (and cheaper, too!). We sit in a corner and dine on fine Italian bread and cheese - here then is one of the true pleasures of travel, the great food which you would probably not find anywhere else.

In Rome the first thing most people would do is head for the Coliseum. And so we did. Our Roma passes allowed us to bypass the ridiculously long line and enter the ruins (crumbling ruins). It is packed with tourists, it is also pregnant with history. I have a picture of myself taken with it as a backdrop. In Facebook, someone claims it is a Photoshop. 

Later, I find out my brother snuck a stone from the Coliseum back with him. He probably realized it would make a good souvenir. Nevermind that it was probably very, very illegal. Imagine if everyone took souvenirs with them throughout the millennia the stadium has stood. What would be left of it, I wonder?

We head to the Palatine Gardens, another stroll through ruins. The sun is bearing down on us and I fill up my bottle at one of the many fountain spouts in the city. It is claimed to be safe for drinking. But it tastes less than pleasant. Perhaps I have been spoiled by my diet of filtered water back home. Here in Europe, water comes from the tap along with all the associated flavors. 

The highlight of my visit would surely be the Borghese Villa. It is small museum; a villa which belong to a Cardinal who was also an avid collector of works of art. And what art! I line up patiently to enter - visitors are limited and as I file in I can only thank their good thinking. Instead of the packed sardine experience of the Vatican Museums, I was allowed a serene and unmolested stroll through the rooms. I had an entire room of Caravaggio paintings all to myself. I stood for what seemed like forever in front of a Bernini statue. With my nose almost touching the marble I wondered at the intricate detail of Pluto’s fingers digging into Proserpina’s thighs. It was almost a religious experience in itself. 

Coming in second on my list of great experiences in Rome would be the Lux in Lumina exhibition, which was being held at the Capitoline museums. Simply put, a collection of Vatican documents were being displayed in dimly lit rooms. What were so special about them? Well, seeing letters written by Michelangelo, Galileo and Copernicus brought me goosebumps. Here were the handwritings of the greatest of men, legends and almost myths. Here were their words, inscribed by their own hand. I felt incredibly cultured already.

I had (wisely) set aside time away from the city. Our stop here in Rome were the Aquaduct Parks. Nestled in a suburban residential area, we navigated our way through the flats occupied almost entirely by immigrants. This place did not see a lot of tourists. But what a gem it was - ancient aqueducts surrounded by lush yellow fields. It was a taste of what was to come (in Switzerland). We enjoyed the walk; the cold wind sweeping us was moderated by the harsh sun above.

Unfortunately not all experiences were pleasant. As I made my way to the Vatican Museum I realized what I was in for as I squeezed my way through the throng of package tourists (I realize I was one of them, but still) who crowded the corridors as they disinterestedly listened to the explanations of their tour guide about this or that artifact. I spent the next hour or two being jostled and shuffled down corridors, heading all the way to the packed Sistine Chapel, where tourists nonchalantly snapped their photos while being shouted at by guards (No Photo e No Video!).

The Vatican, a country within a country was much smaller than the movies and books made it out to be. St. Peter’s Basilica even seemed underwhelming. As we walked back to our hostel, I am reminded again (and again) about expectations and reality. Set it low and realisticly enough, and you will be bound to be pleasantly surprised instead of disappointed.

Hustlers abound in Rome, looking to sell you trinkets and tours. Having been warned by guidebooks, I stay far away from them. Not all of them are that bad though. I pass by an Australian hawking tours in the Vatican. He asks me if I am interested. I walk pass, pretending not to listen. “Hey, you dropped something!” he says. I turn around. “Hah! Gotcha!” Good one, I tell him. 

We leave Rome for Florence, both with a slight sense of relief at being able to escape the hustle and (for me) a profound sense of disappointment. We did the sights of old Rome from the Pantheon to the Trevi Fountain but I felt that I let it down. Did I really see it? I toss a coin into the fountain, guaranteeing my eventual return.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Europe: A Journey (Chapter 1)

Chapter 1 

The Streets of Montmartre (Paris, May 8-12, 2012)

It is near midnight as I sit at the departure gate for my flight to Charles De Gaulle. Already I feel in a distant land - even though I am still in Malaysia the character around me has changed. I hear the French and see those waiting to return to their homeland. Are they happy, or sad? They greet each other and I try to pick out a few sentences with my woefully limited grasp of the languages I was supposed to learn before travelling. Bonjour, Ca Va. Au Revoir. That was about it. I sigh and slowly file into the plane.

The flight could be best described as mildly torturous. I had done 12 hour stints in chairs in my previous workplace, but this was even less pleasant. Even as an averagely tall person the seats were puny. Now I understood why people shelled out thousands more for Business class. It’s the stretching room. The sweet, sweet legspace. 

I pass by many lands on the way there, lands I could dream of walking on. I see scattered cities, lit in the night, arteries of light leading into its glowing heart. Once, I looked down and see what I thought was the ocean. I look at the map and realize that it is, in fact, a moonlit desert. 

Sleep was elusive with only the cold window to lean on. Finally though, we arrive and are greeted with a cold spring rain. The plane lands smoothly on the tarmac. I look around. It looks...normal. But here I am.

I expected some questioning at customs and passport patrol. None of that, thankfully. The officer takes one look at my passport, stares at me for a brief moment and stamps it. “Bonjour,” I said to him, reminding myself of my manners. It is early and the airport is still mostly empty. Making my way to the Tourist Information booth, I stand by and watch as the lone employee sets up for the day.

“Bonjour” I greet him and purchase a tourist pass (meticulously calculated by me to save some money. Considering the exchange rate, it helps to pinch every Euro). Then the came the train. Excitement, dread. Paris, here I come.

The train ride was anti-climactic of sorts. Your scenery on the way from the airport into the city will consist of generic graffiti sprayed onto dilapidated buildings. I could only imagine how uneasy those at the Tourism office must feel, considering those are the first things visitors to the city will see. Or maybe they just don’t care.

I pull into the station and get my first taste (and smell) of the Parisian metro. Damp air and urine are its hallmarks. I don’t mind, really. With my smartphone app I plan my route to my hostel, in Montmartre.

As I walked up the steps of Lamarck-Coulaincourt I realize that I had not seen the city itself - my journey had taken me from the outskirts into the tunnels. So with bated breath (from all those stairs!) I exit into the streets of Montmartre. 

It is...beautiful. The rain had stopped and only the damp morning air greeted me. I see the half open shops and vendors on the sidewalk. I turn around and a sense of deja vu (ha) fills me. Where have I seen this before? I look at the stairs that up and around the entrance Metro station. And ah, yes. I have seen it before. From a movie called Amelie. Just like the movies, then.

As I entered the hostel I was to stay I braced myself for that legendary Parisian rudeness. Surprisingly though, the reception was kind and helpful and directed me to a place where I could store my luggage as being rather early I could not check-in yet.
I had supposed to meet up with my brother who arrived the day before (a quirk of Air-Asia’s rebooking me on another flight). Being rather inpatient and not sure whether he was in or out, I was on my way within minutes. Guess what was one of my main destinations that day?
Well, Le Musee du Louvre. It’s practically the reason I’m in Paris. The art, the history, the monuments. All within one huge complex that would take days to explore entirely (I went there twice and only just scratched the surface). 
Bypassing the huge queue I made my way into the pyramid entrance, but not before having a baguette sandwich next to the pigeons. My museum pass conveniently allowed me to walk past the long long line (the Louvre has many entrances, some with no queue at all. Most people are content however to enter through the glass pyramid. Because reasons.)
I enter the pyramid and go down the escalator into a huge hall filled with people. Already I am lost in the size and sea of choices to go. North, East, South or West? I pick up a map and search for the good stuff. Near East, Renaissance. 
The Louvre was unusually cold that day, the structure perhaps built to trap cold (and heat?) in. I wonder through the sometimes crowded, sometimes deserted hallways. I spot a 1500 year old stele written in another language. I gaze at it in wonder. It is left there, unprotected. I could simply reach out and touch it but decide not to. No one is there. Just my conscience. 
Then I enter the room of paintings. It is like entering a dream. Paintings of all sizes line the hallway. I look left and right and realize already that this is too much. I am on the verge of being desensitized by their greatness. And so I go on.
The prize of course that everyone seeks for is the Mona Lisa. But as someone told me, you don’t go to the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa. You go there to see people seeing the Mona Lisa. I was reduced to standing from a far, looking at a painting almost insignificant and banal surrounded by a throng of admirers. Was it a replica or the real thing? The Mona Lisas were rotated around. Did they even show us the real thing? It’s the experience I guess, another thing to check off the bucket list. What really grabbed my attention though was the piece opposite of the Lisa, the Wedding at Cana. It is splashed across in grand scale with only a handful of viewers looking briefly at it. Surely this is the underrated piece of art here.
I walk out, senses still overloaded. I realize that I had only been there for less than two hours. Nowhere near enough to see all the Louvre has to offer. I resolve to come back again and go to the third museum for the day.
Did I say the third? The morning I arrived I had dropped my bags and decided to have an appetizer. The Musee Rodin. It was a quick entry with my pass and decent escapade. The gardens were lovely, the Thinker was alright. Already out of place in a world with little time to engage in such activities.
I leave the Louvre and have another snack at the Jardin Tuileries. The wind blows cold and I already feel somewhat comfortable doing what others are doing - sitting down and enjoying the gloomy day.
The Orangerie is small and understated, somewhat I suppose, like the pieces of art it holds (with perhaps the exception for the sprawling Lilies of Monet, but even then they seem tame compared to the Wedding at Cana). 
As expected, the abstract art piqued some of my interest but flew past me for the most. I figured I’d call it a day. Going to the toilet, I wonder where the handle for the faucet is. I look around and someone helpfully points out I need to step a button on the ground. Another thing that flew past me.
I settle back into my hostel and meet my brother who has already made a friend, a shaggy haired Spanish-African busker. I am tired, jet lag had been kept at bay for the day but not much longer. I sleep.
Clouds still shield the sun as I get up. I don’t mind, really. From Malaysia where heat is the order of the day, overcast skies are a respite. But in Europe, as I find out later on, you soon wish for the sun.
I learn the day before that while I was admiring the masterpieces at the Louvre my brother was driving one. He splashed out some cash to drive a Lamborghini around Paris. Different strokes for different folks, I suppose.
On the itinerary today were two more highlights, the Notre Dame and the Eiffel. We head first for the Gothic church. On the outside, from a distance the facade seems underwhelming. Go close though and the intricate details come into view. As you enter you are astonished at the size of the cathedral, seemingly being able to create space from nothing.
We walk through the cold church along with a soundtrack of choral chants from the morning prayers. It is strangely peaceful. If there is one thing I enjoy about the Cathedrals in Europe is that despite their Grandeur they are usually open to everyone most of the time. A far contrast perhaps from our megachurches with strict opening hours. A pity then, that such architectural magnifience draws more tourists than worshippers - a result of Europe’s secularism (so we are told).
I slowly begin to get the hang of Paris. The Metro systems, arcane at first, become easy to navigate (thanks in due part to a handy smartphone app). The multiculturalism allowing some comfort amid the crowd (unlike, say, in certain parts of Germany where I was met with stares). Once, while I was in the Metro, I noticed I was the whitest person in the entire carriage. Africans tend to cluster here, and I do wonder how uneasily native (white) Parisians view them. Somewhat perhaps, like how we view our immigrants in Kuala Lumpur.
I am walking out now from the Metro, up the steps and into the light. My pace is slow, I am unsure of my surroundings. Then I get my bearings, head up some more steps and am greeted with an iconic sight.
Probably the best way to approach the Eiffel Tower is through the Trocadero. There, the Tower stands grand and symmetrical as you walk along the wide expanse. It is breathtaking, and for a few moments Paris regains it’s fabled magic. 
We walk to the base and linger. We are too cheap to take the elevator, too lazy to take the stairs. So we watch and wait for the sun to set and realize that here the sun doesn’t set at 7 in the evening (like it always does in Malaysia!). It is nearly 9 at night when the sky darkens and the Tower is illuminated with light. Again, fleeting glimpses of beauty before we return home through the dank underbelly of the Metro.

In my itinerary I figured a break from the city would be nice, and me, my brother and a fellow traveler from New Zealand headed off on a side trip to the Chateau Vincennes in the outskirts of the city. The weather has taken a turn for the worse, but it was manageable. We made our way into the muddy grounds and skulked around. I took a quick peak into the interiors. Nothing to shout about. We snuck into the Chapelle to enjoy the view. 
The weather was better and we continued on to the Bois de Boulogne. There I parted ways, I had pulled a muscle and decided to call it quits for the day. Travel hazards. I head home, rest and ponder on the city.
Paris Syndrome is a so called culture shock that strikes tourists, most often the Japanese. The incongruities of the Asian tourist, accustomed to politeness and fed with images of an enchanted fairy land struggles to reconcile his perception of Paris against her reality. My images of the city, idealized though may be, were (thankfully) informed by some films that did not shy away from Paris’ darker side. I came prepared.
But despite the graffiti, the stink of urine in the Metro and Paris’ infamous level of customer service, it still held a certain charm for me. As I sit on the train that would take me to the Orly Airport, then on to Rome, I feel a small tinge of regret. Yes, I would be returning to this place in a month. Yet I had only scratched the surface. Such is travel.
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Sunday, February 2, 2014

Europe: A Journey (Prologue)


The journey began rather unusually. I was sitting in front of a computer, with nothing to do. I had volunteered as an intern to a political party’s office, which had just recently swept to power in the state. It was the honeymoon days, when idealism was something still realistic to believe in. 

I was alone in the office and browsing through the Internet, looking for interesting things to while the time away. Then I stumbled upon a picture. It was, for lack of a better word, beautiful. A green valley, carved by a glacier and covered by alpine green with waterfalls at its sides. It was Lauterbrunnen in Switzerland. 

Almost immediately then, Europe came back to me. For it had been away from my mind for quite some time.

I had just about reached the end of my teenage years, which were spent not really in school (I was homeschooled), but in college. At the tender age of 15 I began my diploma (not that starting early mattered much - I only finally got my degree when I was 21). It was a combination of the suggestion of parents and lack of purpose on my part that I chose to enter college to study for a business degree (a bittersweet decision). 

The Grand Tour began to form in my mind, after I first saw that image. It is named of course after a famous tradition, a rite of passage, that began hundreds of years ago and continues to this day (as I will find, largely among Caucasian Americans and Australians). To travel to a distant, exotic, yet civilized land.

I live in Malaysia, a peninsula that marks the tip of South East Asia (Singapore would be the full stop). Yet I had not really traveled my own lands, so to speak. In a classic case of green grass on the other side, while Europeans arrive by the plane loads to our beaches and cities, my eyes were elsewhere. 

Europe was a no brainer as a destination of choice for a teenager looking for a definitive rite of passage. The monuments, the history, the culture. Huge and subtle variations all within easy reach of one another. But there was one little problem.

A teenager usually does not have a lot of money. And my own pride dictated that there would be no parental funds involved. This was going to be my trip. From my own bootstraps. You could have hardly found a better motivator for someone to get off his behind and start looking for work.

And find work I did. I settled into a decent job in IT. It payed well. It was something I moderately enjoyed. It was slow but it was sure and I began to accumulate the money I needed to make it a reality. Oh, but what a ride it was.

Our budget carrier, AirAsia had the cheapest route to Europe - from Kuala Lumpur to Paris. I woke up early in the morning to purchase a ticket while it was on sale, and snagged it for a rather cheap RM1,500 (around $500) return. I was in the clear, or so I thought until an email arrived in my inbox less than three months before I was to take off, saying that unfortunately, the route was discontinued.

It gets better, of course. I get a call saying that I had been rebooked to a flight on Malaysia Airlines (getting pulled over by the police in the process!). So that was settled. Then began to long and ardous task of meticulously planning my route.

I am not the free and easy type. While I do believe in leaving some room for spontaneity, I had decided based on cost-effectiveness that the traditional Rail Pass wasn’t for me and decided to book point to point tickets which worked out to be cheaper but meant that by routes were fixed.

Then came the hostels. I had at least one of them cancel on me, but again, another smooth process.

And in the early days of May 2012, I left (along with my brother, a last minute addition to my journey) to another land for an adventure of sorts.