reflections

Decolonising “City-ness”

The call to decolonize imaginations of city-ness arose from the limitations that hegemonic categorisations impose on planning and policy-making, especially for developing cities. Looking at developing cities through the lens of Western forms of governance, city life, culture and economic success obscures planners from the innovative albeit makeshift and informal solutions that developed cities have created to wrestle with their own problems. Given the importance of this issue, I reflect on what it means to decolonize the imagination of city-ness.

Similar to Robinson, I think that a huge part of decolonising the urban imagination is rethinking the categories that authorities use to frame, analyse and plan for cities, be it transcending formal/informal dichotomy or global/Third World Cities frameworks. Arguing from a Foucauldian point of view, these categories and Western-centric discourse on city-ness are forms of knowledge-power, instruments of power and domination. As long as the subject of power classifies itself and everything related to it to be the standard and pinnacle of existence, everything else apart from it is relegated to the category of the Other, or deemed irrelevant, just like how developing cities are deemed economically irrelevant when they do not fit the narrow criteria of a global city (Robinson 2002, p.534). No matter how hard developing cities work towards achieving the qualities of “global cities”, they are almost always destined to fall short precisely because there is no one-size-fit-all global logic as to what constitutes city-ness. Rethinking these categories allows authorities to better appreciate and learn from the innovations taking place in the various sectors of developing cities and encourage growth that does not occur at the expense of their own people. For example, instead of being blindsided by the informal nature of Bangkok’s informal ambulance service, authorities can learn from its enterprising nature and possibly find ways to support this system with greater professional training. After all, this system came into being precisely because of the inability of the supposedly more proper formal system in efficiently delivering its services. With regards to the nature of economic activities, a decolonised imagination of the urban economy could instead prioritise local economic needs over global economic trade. As Robinson mentioned, despite developing cities’ enormous contributions to the global economy through manufacturing of intermediate components and assembly lines for global brands, they are ultimately still excluded from the global city category (Robinson 2002, p.537-538) under the justification that only cities with high-level and high value-added functions are deserving of that title. To be unbounded by these categories helps developing cities develop their growth agenda according to their own needs rather than being subservient to the agendas of developed cities.

Decolonisation of the urban imagination is a two-way process. As much as it is imperative for authorities to decolonize their way of thinking about city-ness, I think that the people inhabiting the cities themselves need to caution against simply accepting these categories and instead challenge them. As post-colonial writer Nandy writes in The Intimate Enemy, while the colonial power may have physically disappeared from the shores of the colonies, the effects of colonialism are long-lasting especially when they are psychological. Thus, decolonising the urban imaginary requires individuals to avoid passively accepting existing narratives and standards of urbanism and city-ness. As to why the decolonisation process also involves inhabitants of cities, it is because the city is constituted and created by the very actions, the very act of living and inhabiting of the urban space by the inhabitants. The way they think about their own cities is, therefore, significant and can have a profound impact on how the city is imagine and consequently, shaped and constructed (Goldman 2015, p.62). The city-ness and essence of a city is, in my opinion, something that is organically formed, something that emanates from the inhabitants and their social, cultural and economic needs. Granted, in a hyper-connected and highly globalised era, inhabitants of cities are participants of systems nested within regional and global networks of interaction which are bound to influence their needs and ideas about city-ness. However, while influences of this sort are inevitable and unavoidable, I think that a decolonised notion of city-ness is one that is not entirely and uncritically based on narrow and overly generalised ideas. It is extremely heartening to learn that increasingly, people are responding and questioning the masterplans and mega-projects rolled out by their governments typified by “skyscrapers, government palaces (and) soccer stadiums” (Goldman, 63). It indicates that people are increasingly seizing their “right to the city” by being more participative, engaged and critical in the decision-making and planning process of their own cities.

In conclusion, to me, decolonising the imagination of city-ness means the transcending and abandoning of restrictive, Western-centric categories. It also demands and requires urban inhabitants to critically engage in the planning of their cities and constantly challenge universalising notions of city-ness as espoused by various sources such as the media and the global economic hierarchy.


References

Goldman, M. (2014). “Development and the City.” In Miraftab, F., & Kudva, N. (Eds.).Cities of the Global South Reader. Routledge: p.54-65.

Foucault, M. (1978). The History of Sexuality. New York: Pantheon Books.

Nandy, A. (2005). The Intimate Enemy. Delhi: Oxford University Press, p.ix-xx.

Robinson, J. (2002). Global and world cities: a view from off the map. International journal of urban and regional research, 26(3), p.531-554

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wanderlust

Hong Kong — An Adventure

The chitter chatter of the crowd

engulfs me, a lonesome child

Wandering around finding a place to spend

two solitary hours without a Friend


Time seems to hurry by

When you’re preoccupied with anxiety

and some decent wifi

After an episode of planet earth and some idle time burnt,

i boarded the plane with an unsatisfied thirst


After 4 excruciating hours in the air

where sleep was an impossible affair

i landed and was reminded of who to meet

and hurried on as quickly as my legs could take me


Outside the gates

I scanned around

hoping that someone i know

would make a sound

Alas! a silhouette, a familiar sight

the boy who had waited an entire night


We exchanged greetings as if we haven’t met before

I thought to myself, “this is awkward, oh god”

We then scrambled around for some online discount

for a train ride that will take us to our hostel in town


Famished, we trudged down old Hanoi road

And gobbled up some good ol’ dumpling noodle

”Let’s stick to the plan” he and I made an oath

an oath we later came to loathe

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HKD40 Prawn dumpling noodle along Mody Road, Tsim Sha Tsui.


During our unending ascent up a narrow path

the day quickly surrendered to the dark

Alone and afraid, we walked on with caution

And finally saw what we’ve been after

there between the tree branches and vines

Our eyes laid upon a lovely sight

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View from Lion’s Rock. Not actually the peak but we climbed as high as we could given the spooky darkness and weak legs.

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To conclude the night of an exhausting hike

We slurped down some delicious mango shaved ice

then proceeded to wander the streets at night

and feast our eyes on more Christmas lights

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Mango shaved ice @ Hui Lau Shan, Tsim Sha Tsui.

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Basking in the Christmas cheer at the 1881 shopping arcade.

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Day two, we spent a full day in town

Mostly climbing up and down stairs

And looking around


First stop, we combed the streets for some dim sum,

Hong Kong’s specialty, trust me

they’re second to none

After some truffle siew mai and a platter for two

we were ready to conquer the afternoon

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Truffle Siew Mai @ Ding Dim 1968, Peel Street.

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HKD85 for a platter for two!

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Small but cosy and traditional interior.


Took some photos in front of murals,

street corners and interesting pillars

Then visited the boutiques at PMQ

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Murals along Hollywood Road.

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The Old Townhouses mural opposite Hollywood Road. It’s an insanely popular tourist and photo taking spot. Patience is needed to get a good spot and shot.

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Nothing screams Hong Kong louder than a good ol’ground-up shot of the residential blocks.


Central is a labyrinth, easy to get lost in, difficult to leave. It meanders round corners, climbs and then steeply declines. Paths magically appear, diverge, and come to an abrupt dead end. Every corner, every street is scene from the canvas of Hong Kong’s urban life: The visually stimulating riot of colours on the walls along Hollywood Road; the aroma of braised duck rice and pork buns along Peel Street tantalising the olfactory; the heartbreaking sight of the wizened and silver-haired ambling amongst an unsympathetic crowd.

I’ve learnt that sometimes not having a plan is better than having one, because central is a place of the unplanned. Of surprises and spontaneous discoveries, where part of the fun is charting one’s way through the maze, going where one’s heart leads to.


The third day rolls around

and we were awaken by the sounds

of impatient honking, footsteps shuffling

and incessant but distant drilling of the ground


Tsim Sha Tsui Cultural Centre was first on our list

we have gone there for neither Shakespeare nor Listz

But to frolick around in the building’s sharp corners

and be smothered all over by the morning breeze

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Tsim Sha Tsui Cultural Centre is a popular spot among photographers because of its distinct angles. The way its architecture filters light also creates an interesting effect that makes it well-loved by photography enthusiasts.

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The pier just beside Tsim Sha Tsui Cultural Centre.

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The winds were cold and strong but made bearable by the warm sun.

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A cup of hot chocolate later and we’re on our way

to see one of the city’s universities and what it has on display

Rising out of a landscape of red-bricked buildings, stands

a behemoth of a structure, a futuristic-looking titan

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Striking and extraordinary in appearance in relation to the dull bricked buildings, is Hong Kong Polytechnic University School of Design.

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The interior of the School of Design is another favourite spot for photographers due to the limitless possibilities that can be explored with the lines and angles.

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Found an empty and quiet spot behind the building where it is stripped bare of its gloss and paint, leaving only naked concrete.

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Next on our list is a place close to home

a couple of stops not far from Hung Hom

it is quite simply a tesselation of colours and blocks

Overseeing a couple of basketball courts

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Choi Hung Estate. (Choi Hung is Mandarin for rainbow).

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We had enough of tall buildings

neon lights and LCD screens

so we took off on a boat from star ferry pier

and found ourselves on Hong Kong’s outer tier

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One of Hong Kong’s outer islands — Cheung Chau Island.

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Having a trusty Hong Kong local bring us around 😀

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Cheung Chau island is neither here nor there

It’s not as dense as what one would call a city

but it’s also not rurally bare

We had fresh mango mochis

Saw toys we had since fourth grade

took one too many photos at boat quay

and inquired about our soulmates

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Fresh mango mochi. It’s easily found in one of those street shops. There are plenty of other flavours like peanut and sesame but mango is always best!

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It’s us against the wind.

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Trying to avoid temple aunty’s stare.

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An alley shot for good measure.


The following day we made our way

after a morning of shopping, to Quarry Bay

Inside the courtyard, looking up and around

We couldn’t believe the density of this compound

Rigid and enduring, though visually alluring,

we reckon the space here must be unbearably inhibiting

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The streets of Mong Kok.

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At Argyle Street looking for some pet shops.

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Mong Kok from the mid-levels. This here is Fat Yuen Market, selling anything from clothes and bags to electronic gadgets and soft toys.

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When in Goldfish Street, expect to see FISHIES.

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Quarry Bay. FYI Quarry Bay is the shooting location for music videos and movies like Ghost in the Shell.

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My attempt at being gangsta 😛

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Later that night back to central we went

for egg tarts and porridge

Some drinks over conversation

All before happy hour ends

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A must-try in Hong Kong. It can be found along Hongwood Road, Central.

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Had delicious porridge for dinner at a pretty decent price.

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When at Central, definitely check out Lan Kwai Fong, a place strewn with bars and pubs.

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Joyce and her Raspberyy Craft Beer!


Got up early the next day to cross the border

into Shenzhen, Hong Kong’s long lost brother

Things that day didn’t pan out well

all that we remembered was being pissed as hell

So we returned to Hong Kong

comforted ourselves with street food

then revisit Tsim Sha Tsui pier

to admire the moon

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Waiting for the train to Shenzhen.

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Street food to salvage a day of disappointment.

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On the penultimate day, we were supposed to go

to Hong Kong Disneyland but we only got close

We thought we had a chance but stopped at the entrance

because there were just too many kids and their parents

So we quickly came up with an alternative plan

with some movie and shopping and a little romance

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The final day rolled around

it was time to say goodbye

to this wonderful city

with a reluctant sigh

For our last meal in Hong Kong

we had pancakes and ham

then we walked all over Tsim Sha Tsui

for some fine instagrams

visited places we’ve missed on our itinerary

and revisited those that brought us more jolly

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Macs for breakfast just for the juicer pork sausage because we don’t have pork sausages in Singaporean Macs ):

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Found Tumblr cat somewhere along Cameron Road.

FIN.

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Just quotes

On the Fallibility of Human Memory

“When I get out of here, if I’m ever able to set this down, in any form, even in the form of one voice to another, it will be a reconstruction then too, at yet another remove. It’s impossible to say a thing exactly the way it was, because what you say can never be exact, you always have to leave something out, there are too many parts, sides, crosscurrents, nuances, too many gestures, which could mean this or that, too many flavours, in the air or on the tongue, half-colours, too many.” — Offred (The Handmaid’s Tale)

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Just quotes

On Living Life on One’s own Terms

“I admired my Mother in someways, although things between us were never easy. She expected too much from me, I felt. She expected me to vindicate her life for her, and the choices she’d made. I didn’t want to live my life on her terms. I didn’t want to be the model offspring, the incarnation of her ideas. We used to fight about that. I am not your justification for existence, I said to her once.” — Offred (The Handmaid’s Tale)

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dear diary..., wanderlust

Tropical City Girl Meets Iceland

Majority of my days have been spent on a sunny little island a couple of miles off the Equator. This means that every day I am embraced by the summery stickiness of tropical humidity, that occasionally my plans get weathered on by torrential rainfall, that white Christmases aren’t a thing. I live in a jungle of fragile trees and vines amidst a greater concrete landscape of steel and glass, of unbending structures and unnaturally sharp angles, a place where nature is conquered and owned, consumed and unappreciated.

On that little island, I feel big — individually as a human being, and as a collective species against the forces of nature. There is almost nothing blocking or hindering me from getting around and going about with my daily plans. As much as I moan about the horrendously stuffy weather, it is incredibly convenient on days when it doesn’t pour. We don’t religiously check the weather forecast while making plans and umbrellas, they are only really brought out during monsoon seasons when it is known to rain for extended periods at a time. If it rains, I know there will be sheltered spaces. Bus stops and subway stations are literally within reasonable distance between key locations, and adding on to that, there are multifarious other ways of getting from one point to another with destructive technology – Grab, Uber, etc. In replacement of uncharted wilderness and tentative roads carved out by lonesome wanderers, we have concrete tarmac, roads that lead you everywhere you desire to go, roads paved with planned conviction, with the confidence that nothing will stand in our way, our way of progress and accessibility.

Living under such conditions my whole life, I have never once questioned their influence on me, my relationship with nature and how much my behaviours and psychology have been shaped by these day-to-day, seemingly insignificant and mundane phenomena. That is, until I travelled across the continents to the land known mainly for its natural splendour and the infinite amount of possibilities nature could offer, Iceland.

It may have been the sheer size of things

Maybe it’s because of the mountains, the glaciers and the never-ending expanses of uncultivated vegetated wilderness. Maybe it’s the sheer size of nature and its sculptures that makes one feel incredibly and insignificantly minuscule. The grandeur and the expanse of Iceland’s natural formations easily dwarf anything human. A row of three-storey houses is nothing but a little heap of material at the foot of Vatnajokull, Iceland’s largest glacier. The churches built on the undulating slopes of mountains in the distant past look like little toy structures left standing there by a mysterious giant.

I remember seeing a huge block of ice in the ice cave that looked like sandstone with its countless layers of alternating white and blue, curiously interrupted by two thin layers of black. It turns out that the black layers were formed by extruded ash from previous volcanic eruptions, whose happenings have been accepted by Icelanders as the norm. What would have been a traumatising once-in-a-lifetime event for us humans, is just another eruption, just another release, just one the necessary occurrences in nature’s grand plan and geologic timescale. While the trauma may have continued through generations and put an abrupt end to many unsuspecting lives, it comes and goes and get buried under layers upon layers of ice. It doesn’t get forgotten, but gets subsumed in the greater scheme of things, until even the humans in the ice cave don’t even get to be reminded of the tragedy it had wrecked. Travelling from one destination to another, was enough for us to realise just how infinitesimally small we, as children of Nature, are. We traversed the valleys and frozen plains in a bus on a narrow winding road, surrounded by forests of bare, stumpy trees, vast expanses of nothingness and untouched virgin beauty. Had we no bus, this journey would be close to impossible in sub-zero temperatures and wickedly ferocious winds. It would remain a mere dream in our minds, a yearning unresolved.

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Frozen lakes during the morning twilight.

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Coursing down a narrow road, the only tarmac paved road amidst vast expanses of natural ground. Occasionally, we see other travellers driving along the same path and feel a little less alone.

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Twilight hours are extremely protracted during the winter. This is me soaking in every bit of ombré beauty.

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Weathered, exposed basalt rock columns found The Black Beach. Each column is wide enough for a person to stand comfortably on.

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It fills me with amazement every time my local guide identifies the mountains and volcanoes instantaneously. It is as if she was introducing a familiar friend of hers.

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Little heaps of artificiality at the base of the mountain.

But it is not only the size of natural formations, but the pervasiveness of nature’s forces in peoples’ lives

Physical size aside, the few days spent in Iceland has allowed me a brief insight into how pervasive and integral nature and her forces are in the lives of Icelanders. In one way or another, the workings of nature has infiltrated into their daily lives, affecting how day-to-day decisions are made, the content of their conversations and even down to their diets.

Weather

There is a sense of helplessness and reverence the way Icelanders converse about the weather. In the tropics we simply forget about the weather and its essential role in our day-to-day lives because we take for granted that it’s always sunny and warm out. Icelanders, conversely, regard it with far higher priority, because their lives revolve around it. The first thing my guide says to us in the morning was always a comment about the weather and when we were blessed with pleasant weather — clear skies, milder winds, a prayer in hopes that it stays the same and doesn’t cave to its fickleness. Weather changes, even the slightest, manifest in what people decide to wear every day (definitely not shorts and slippers), the kind of tyres people drive on, what people are permitted to do (they don’t just leave for the beach with plans as skimpy as their outfits) and even in the Icelandic language. Icelandic is one of those languages with a very rich vocabulary for describing weather phenomena. I read somewhere that there are over 50 variations of the word “wind” in Icelandic [56 Words and Counting for Wind in Icelandic], many of them are well beyond the scope of the English language.

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Having a chatty walk towards the Diamond Beach with our guide.

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The golden hour when the sun sets between 3 and 4pm daily. Everything is lacquered in gold.

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Ice blocks strewn all over The Diamond Beach. When the sun rays hit them, they do indeed resemble shiny diamonds amidst dark sand.

Geography and food security

Being an island country situated in the Atlantic Ocean, Iceland is a solitary island with no adjacent landmass. Most of Iceland’s food comes from the surrounding waters, so their diet consists of mostly seafood, specifically, salmon, cod and trout. My experience with Icelandic food was bittersweet. I remember being so excited to finally dig into fresh and deliciously smoked salmon for every meal. But that excitement was short-lived because it was the ONLY kind of fish that was served to us, and after about 2 days and 6 meals, my tastebuds grew sick and rebellious of its taste, especially the intense saltiness of smoked salmon which Icelanders seem to really love.

While I was there, a friend of mine posted a curious and interesting question on his Instagram story: What kind of fish did Iceland and Britain fight over, setting a significant precedent for the establishment of maritime rights? There were only three kinds of fish that I knew in Iceland, and so I hazard a guess. It turned out that those wars were waged over cod, the fish that has been regularly gracing my dinner plate since I was a child, the fish I never once thought needed to be fought over. More importantly, this question came as a shock to me as I finally realised how crucial food security is to the national psyche of a nation [Cod Wars], especially one who is relatively disconnected and located inconveniently in high latitudes.

Living in Singapore with favourably warm waters all year round as well as diverse trade connections, the pertinent problem of domestic food insecurity is easily overlooked and mollified with regional and international food imports. Iceland’s geographical coordinates and climate, however, bear an incredibly restrictive limitation on the variety of food people receive, and it is a problem not solely confined to fish. Every meal I had for breakfast in my weeklong stay there, I ate the same things, just in different quantities. As a city girl, global brands and symbols immediately grab my attention. On my first day there, however, the absence of something was particularly noticeable — the glowing yellow rim of McDonald’s famous M logo. There was, indeed, not a single outlet in Iceland. Why? Geographical isolation, economic stagnation and the inability of the Icelandic krona to pick itself up after the 2009 global financial meltdown, making the import of crucial ingredients like onions horrendously expensive [Where In The World Are There No McDonald’s?].

The people of Iceland have, against the odds of nature stacked against them, attempted to circumvent or at least ameliorate the burden of food insecurity by harvesting what they possess in abundance — geothermal energy — to power greenhouses and keep them at favourably warm temperatures to hasten the growth of crops. I remember visiting a tomato farm and being awed by the science, the technology, the ingenuity and most of all, the resilience of Icelanders. The guide had said that the company imports bees to facilitate reproduction of tomato plants and the entire system is computerised to ensure favourable growth conditions for the crops, down to the most minute detail. In a place where nature is worshipped and revered, where people perceive themselves to be children of nature and not owners of her, solutions and ideas tend to take on an accommodating character, people are more willing to compromise and utilise what already exists for them, people are ready to work around problems.

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An island surrounded by the North Atlantic.

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Lunch on our second day: Rye bread with butter, a salad with balsamic vinegar dressing, baked potatoes and trout. A few meals later, we came to know this as the typical Icelandic meal.

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Chilling in the Blue Lagoon. Waters heated by the subterranean hotspot are adequately warm such that we don’t freeze despite being out in sub-zero temperatures.

Whatever we have invented, nature offers for free — geothermally cooked eggs and rye cake & geothermal energy

I remember the sourness of sulphuric smoke dancing in the air towards me. Far off in the distance, there are several holes dug into the soil and out of them wafted white smoke, presumably carrying with them the sulphuric smell. It was then that I experienced first-hand the generosity and limitless potential of nature. The Icelanders were lowering metal pots into the bubbling hot and moist soil and extracting several of them out. They were using the heat from the hotspot beneath the island to bake rye cake.

“Just pop it in and after 24 hours, you’re good to go!” It is the same procedure for cooking eggs, except with much shorter waiting time. Eggs cooked in this manner taste fantastic, because they have the added faint taste of sulphur that makes them less bland.

At that time, it seemed that whatever human need there is, nature has got a solution for it; we simply need to find ways to obtain it and harness it.

Geothermal energy isn’t solely used to cook food. That same energy can be used for a multitude of other purposes, like ensuring greenhouses work and stay warm, providing mineral-rich hot water for commercial hot springs and lagoons, heating up the homes of thousands of people over winter, and even generating electricity to power the country. Currently, 25% of Iceland’s electricity come from geothermal sources, with a large remainder generated by hydropower (yet another natural source) [National Energy Authority of Iceland].

The Northern Lights — Not everything is within our control

Iceland is a popular destination for tourists who want to check “Catch the Northern Lights” off their bucketlist. I am no exception. The Northern Lights is natural weather phenomena, and like all weather phenomena in Iceland, it is fickle, erratic and elusive.

The activity of the Northern Lights (also known as Aurora Borealis) is dependent on the clearness of the sky and levels of solar radiation.

My first attempt at hunting the lights was futile. Surroundings were dark enough but the guide had said that chances were lower that day due to the cloudiness of the sky. There was mild activity but because the sky was too cloudy, our eyes couldn’t pick up on it.

Thankfully, I managed to catch them on my second attempt. I remember driving to a a relatively lightless spot not far away from the hotel, waiting in biting cold and praying. Praying that the sun that day was bright enough, that the skies were clear enough, that it was dark enough for the lights to be seen, that this trip to Iceland wouldn’t end up in disappointment. I have heard so many stories of friends and friends of friends who had gone there several times only to return heartbroken and crestfallen.

I must have used up all of my lucky stars that night because we actually got to see the lights. As they danced and shimmered, I can’t help but admit to the triviality and insignificance of my existence amidst these magnificent forces. I am but a spectator, lucky enough to have chanced upon and witnessed such a magical performance, a dazzling concoction of coincidences.

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These were taken with desperation, trembling hands and a lot of trial and error with the manual function on my phone’s camera. In real life, the lights looked much less dimmer and fainter because the naked eye can only pick up so much light. With a camera, however, more light particles get picked up, thus the green looks far more concentrated and obvious.

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Human heads do NOT make good tripods.

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dear diary...

Just A Little More…

Why is it that all things have to be rushed?

The voices around us relentlessly indoctrinate and perpetuate:

Time is of the essence.

Time is our only non-renewable resource.

Time is a scarcity, unfortunately, that will only run out.

But some things, only time can tell;

some things require precisely the growth and maturation

that can only take place through time,

like wine,

and feelings fermenting.


Why is it that everything that has happened between us

is all but a means to an end?

Why is it that even if the shot has missed the bullseye

by just an inch,

the bow has to be broken, shattered, abandoned

and never to be picked up ever again?


Why is it that we could have climbed a million steps

to get to where we are today,

but a slip,

an innocent stumble

has the magnitude of an earthquake

revealing the vast chasm between us

crumbling the very delicate road we once tread?


Perhaps all is needed is

a little more time,

a little more patience,

a little more understanding,

a little more forgiveness.

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