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..., wanderlust

A Rainy Day in Tainan 

Today, for the first time in such a long while, my heart fluttered at the first sight of a stranger. A glimpse of her pretty side profile and the tips of her eyelashes through the slits in the curtain of her soft hair was more than enough to bewitch me into momentary paralysis. I revelled in the air of admiration cloaked by a layer of anonymity.

The bridge of her small nose.

The heart shape of her lips.

The smooth arc of her jawline.

I couldn’t think properly, the kind of mental block that usually happens to me when I’m mesmerised by something or someone before my eyes and my mind is wholly fixated, consumed, beholden to it. I had nothing left to offer, except pure admiration and fascination. I had desperately wanted to speak, to communicate, to strike up some silly small talk no matter how incredibly disabled my Mandarin has become without the aid of some occasional English. I promised myself that I would overcome that invisible barrier that had been standing between me and all the could-have-been relationships and friends.

As I awkwardly sat on a bench nearby, I ended up speaking to her through the conversation that took place between her and my parents, who were much more proficient at Mandarin than me. They asked, to my surprise, all the questions I would’ve asked. I learnt that she’s from Taipei and she came to Tainan for a weekend trip with her pals. She isn’t a schoolgirl like I had initially made her out to be due to her small stature and conservative dress sense. She has been working for quite some time and is slightly older than me. She’s been to Singapore even. My parents went on asking her if she liked Singaporean food. I took every window of opportunity when she’s slightly distracted to steal a glance, at the same time trying my best to feign an air of indifference just in case she caught on to my obvious interest in her.

Ask her for her number, I silently urged my parents in futility. So that when she comes again we can bring her around. I knew that they wouldn’t. Why would they? It would have been really awkward anyway. After all, she’s just a passerby whom we happened to meet by chance at a bus stop in Tainan.

But, wouldn’t chance make this sudden, random, unexpected intersection of our two realities so much more meaningful and significant? What exactly is the statistical probability that of all the other places, times and people I feel a special feeling towards a particular someone? Sure, I have also by chance come across hundred of thousands of other people, far too many faces than I could have ever vaguely remember, but those were just passersby on the streets of my life, whose footsteps and impressions will eventually be washed away by the an occasional rain, or be buried under millions of other track marks in a perpetual cycle of appearance and erasure.

The surge of passion and everything by far still indescribable to me is something of a rarity. I don’t often feel this way, especially with strangers. It’s not like I’m extremely picky or have a very strict criteria for the people I decide to let into my life. I don’t quite know. But when it happens, the little benign sparks morph into an uncontrollable burning flame that resist immediate taming and I find myself plunging, falling, spiralling deeper and deeper into something in between the lines of love and obsession.

As I am writing this, I am on the same bus as her.

She presses the bell signalling that she’s about to alight and my heart breaks a little. Greedily, as if I could hold her back with just the power of my stare, I fixate entire being and attention onto her and just bask in the warmth of her presence, and fantasies that I know too well would haunt me with regret moments later.

The bus pulls to a halt.

The doors open and the faint smell of rain drifts in.

She gently threaded down the steps in the most graceful fashion and alights, brushing aside the bit of stay hair that has just came loose.
In that moment I turned shyly and slightly to catch one final glimpse of her and her beauty.

With a pane of glass wedged between the two realities of ours that only tangentially intersected, I smiled and waved her goodbye.

And she smiled an infinitely gorgeous smile whose warmth, I swear, could last me all the winters I will ever live through.

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dear diary..., wanderlust

Adieu, Bangkok

I can’t believe that my four days in the Land of Smiles is finally coming to an end. This thought sunk in me as I lie on the bed in my hotel room, staring into the whiteness of the ceiling. As I do so, memories of these few days seem to stain my vision like how watercolour does on loose paper. They were somewhat vague and fleeting like the diluted blotches but sometimes were filled with the kind of vivacity and clarity of a single focused moment. As I lied down there and let my mind float upon the rapids of an intense flashback, I can’t help but feel a sincere and profound resonance with the statement: “Time flies when you’re having fun”. These four days have been nothing but exciting, eventful and enriching.

Day 1:

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Even before we touched down in Suvarnabhumi International Airport, Bangkok had already greeted us with flashing lights, roads packed to the brim and a symphony of vehicle honks that’s a little too loud for comfort. As dusk swept across the entire city, the hustle and bustle only grew more prominent as lights from various sources flood the streets — street lamps, car floodlights, storefronts and neon lights. It was as though the city flipped to its other side, exposing an alternative version of itself and its own true beauty.

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Without any hesitation, we hopped onto a tuktuk to take us to our dinner location. The tuktuk is a common mode of transport in Bangkok that consists of a motorcycle front and a metallic hind that carries about 3-4 passengers. It is the modern cousin of the cycle rickshaw.

 
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Our driver drove with wild agility and impatience. In that moment we were drowned in excitement and fear and the loud puttering of engines, and choking on concentrated car exhaust. The entire ride was a blur. In the chaos and confusion of that moment, there arose in me a strange feeling of sedation, of zen. It was like bubble embracing me in its exclusive space insulated from the hustle and bustle of my surroundings. It had a meditative quality especially when all around me, the roads were a sea of monochromatic red. I stared straight ahead at the tuktuk driver’s head and let a million random thoughts run through my mind like how a kite runner in Kabul runs after his kite with childlike innocence and vigour.

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Nightlife in Bangkok is basically synonymous with a trip to the Night Markets. We made our way to one nearest to our hotel and dinner place — Pratunam Market. Captured here is a moment of intense concentration by a street artist amidst all the distractions, lights, passerby and secondary opinions.

Day 2:

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We heeded the advice of one of the locals and took a boat trip down one of the tributaries of the Chao Phaya river. Thanks to him we managed to escape being scammed on our tuktuk ride to the jetty. Thanks to him we discovered a less touristy and more locally authentic side to Bangkok and those making a living along the river that runs through Bangkok city. Thanks to him, we learnt how important it is to make an effort to assimilate into the culture of the host country and that one of the best ways to do so is to try to speak in their native tongue. If you look like a Thai (asian features) and speak Thai (even if minimal), you pay so much less than the average tourist, at least for tuktuk rides.

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“Why not get a nice cool beer for the uncle?” asked the lady who approached us in her wooden boat chocked full with all kinds of things to sell — from country flags, to tidbits and beverages to oriental fans. Here, we witnessed the sense of community present between the families and people who live along the same river. The informal economy that has boomed because of the river and its surrounding religious monuments has benefitted those living nearby. Many, like the lady in the picture, set up their own floating markets and take advantage of the influx of tourists into their ‘backyard’ to earn a few extra dollars.

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When you are immersed in a society of friendly and compassionate souls, you can’t help but feel the same. Happiness and joy become irresistible and inevitable.

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A little gentrified area near the Grand Palace.

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Taken along Yaowarat Road, Chinatown. The buildings exude an old charm that is reminiscent of those I’ve seen in Hong Kong, an aged but timeless look. A tuktuk in an ostentatious shade of pink whizzes past, its engines roaring as if to flaunt its own presence, consequently disrupting the serenity and solemnity of the scene.

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Where are the bus stops in Bangkok? Wherever the bus stops.

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Enjoyed a cone of matcha-cum-charcoal flavoured ice cream in the blistering heat.

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Reunited with my college suite mate at a relatively new night market — Talad NEON. It is right smack in downtown Bangkok and it is everything you would love to see, eat and do after a long day at work.

IRRESISTIBLE.

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After several hours of walking around, we decided to just chill at one of the many bars at Talad NEON. The bars in Bangkok are commonly double-decked and beautifully decorated with fairy lights and themed graffiti. Needless to say we headed straight for the upper deck, got 2 cocktails for about S$4 each and a Chang beer. We talked the night away and learnt a lot from my suite mate about expat life here in Bangkok and what she does to integrate herself as much as possible in this society. This photo features me and my non-existent glass of margarita because I finished it too quick. It’s delicious.

Day 3:

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Boat Noodles @ Union Mall. Each bowl was barely S$1. Two of us ate 11 bowls in total but we still had space for more.

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In the evening we visited another night market — Ratchada Train Night Market. It was on a slightly bigger scale and had more bars, more shops, more food and certainly more people. Certain parts of it felt European and gave off a Christmas Market vibe, except it’s 33°C and everywhere you go you hear Thai pop blasting.

 

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We drank at a bar that directly faces a barber shop, so that provided some entertainment. 😛

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Frozen Blue Hawaiian and a slightly tipsy me.

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Our last full day in Bangkok and a very empty Rachathewi Station. My heart shed a little tear upon realising that fact.

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Thai spices and condiments.

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Looking around me in Chatuchak Weekend Market, the place was teeming with expats and tourists like me. The place had a really nice vibe and I would have stayed for even longer if not for the killer heat. Yes, we surrendered, we surrendered to the heat but not before we filled our hands with Thai handicrafts, new pairs of shorts and tops.

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Leaving with a reluctant heart. Final glance.

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Post-massage meal. Nero pasta with prawn and tomyum sauce. We went to a very Westernised cafe for dinner and even then I looked for a fusion between Thai and Western cuisine. It was a match made in heaven, I would have ordered another if not for the hole in my wallet.

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This was just next to the cafe’s cashier. What a beautiful thing to stare at while munching on some food. For a moment, the sight of this transported me to one of those humble small shops on a random quaint street in Paris or London.

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wanderlust

Salam Ramadan☪️

Tonight, my heart is so full — it may be my belly speaking after a wholesome dinner of Tom Yum soup noodles and a gigantic jug of Thai iced milk tea, but truly, I was thankful to have made a trip down to Geylang Serai Bazaar tonight. Today marks the third day of Ramadan, a period (usually a month) during which Muslims are encouraged to pray 5 times a day and fast from before the break of dawn till sunset.

It was hot and humid and our shirts were clinging uncomfortably onto the skin of our backs. There is a perpetual stream of sweat down the side of our faces, sweat pooling in the creases of our foreheads and upper lips. An occasional sweaty jostle by a passer-by.  Incessant hollering from the adolescent and high-spirited stall vendors. Despite the discomfort, the unbearable temperature and phobia-inducing crowd, we pushed on and whizzed our way through the throngs of people trying our best to avoid the smokers.

There were kebabs, pulled lamb meat burgers, Thai iced teas, chendol soft-serves, Takoyaki, fruit bowls, Turkish lanterns…I felt as if I had entered Narnia’s wardrobe and set foot on an alternative world, one that has been compressed into this tiny space that has been coincidentally festively decorated in the spirit of Ramadan.

It is times like this that I truly, truly am thankful for the cultural plurality in my homeland, Singapore.

 

 

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wanderlust

Hong Kong’16

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dear diary..., wanderlust

A Night’s Stay At Tsim Sha Tsui

Never a peaceful one
And don’t get me wrong
You will eventually fall
Into a restful sleep
After watching shadows dance across your ceiling lit in the warm glow of the street lamps
After feeling the walls and the ground shudder and reverberate with every super car that flies past
After you’ve listened to the same Ariana Grande song on repeat for the umpteenth time and suddenly a Justin Bieber song comes on and you roll your eyes
After you’ve recalled the past activities of the day
About how run down and decrepit the buildings look
Yet how lively the city still is
About how those people on the streets manage to make a living in such a cutthroat environment
About how we’ve mastered and superseded Mother Nature, building a metropolis atop hills and uneven topography
Converting what was harsh terrain into a space for leisure, sports, tourism and commerce

It’s a long, slow and sometimes frustrating endeavor to fall asleep

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