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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dear diary...

Don’t Lose Yourself

You spend hours in front of a computer

till your eyes begin to water.

Cherry-picking words

that you think best flatter.


Nouns

/naʊns/

Do they make me sound hip enough?

Exotic places

Underground bands

Book titles so unheard of,

you’ve got them penned down on the back of your hand.


Adjectives

/ˈadʒɪktɪvs/

The bigger the word, the bigger the impression, right?

An eclectic taste in music

A Flexitarian foodie

A sapiosexual nerd who embraces all things geeky.


You take the bits and pieces of your life

and your self

Curate them

Examine them

Process them

Until they don’t look like you no more.


Arrange them in order,

like pieces of artefacts in a museum.

And you,

play the docent who walks them through.

Exhibition after exhibition,

room after room,

spinning stories that you know aren’t always true.

A haphazard patchwork of tales.

And like a chameleon,

your opinions turn from red to purple to blue


Sand down the rougher edges,

the distressed voices,

the disagreements.

Polish the panes till they glisten

with a glare

a little too bright

for those who stare.


When you get back home near midnight,

graceless,

and hollow;

after being touched all over,

scrutinised and

consumed,

and the ice of the marble flooring slowly bites away

at the antecedent warmth of

loveless cuddles,

you peer at the three strangers in the mirrors,

and wonder,

“Who the hell is this?”


 

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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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dear diary...

Romantic Grocery List

Since young, I have been confronted with societal ideals of the kind of men I should be dating, and resultantly, marrying. They were subtle back then, appearing in the form of male protagonists in superhero movies, television shows and comic books. Some of them weren’t even human in form, but the fact they they prevailed at the end of the day appeals to me. I had known, that I wanted a hero, someone who can save me from all my problems as much as cure the world of its diseases, someone who can tirelessly give me all the material and emotional comfort that I crave.

Then in my teens, and as the societally approved dating age range approached, discussions about our ideal “types” of guys began to surface frequently, often being a hot topic among close friends. My group of friends was no exception. One day, someone initiated the discussion and I found myself running through a grocery list of things I want and envision to be consumed in the next few weeks, except that this list wasn’t about vegetables and ready-made food, it was about a human being, one that I forsee myself being attached to.

He is to be tall, have a matching sense of humour, attractive (a lean physique, and nice facial features)… I had ran out of things to say. As embarrassment visibly spread across my cheeks, I scrambled for other traits previously spoken by my friends and made them seem like I had included them in my list as well. Ambitious, financially stable, chivalrous, responsible… Having averted a small crisis, I was contented with myself and did not put much thought afterwards about the traits that I had just listed about my “dream guy”.

In college, after dating a few people, I realised that my list was futile, useless. It consisted of mere conjectures, of fantasies, an idea of romantic connection inspired by the unrealistic expectations driven into our young innocent minds by TV dramas and Hollywood Rom-coms. It has never felt the ground of reality. In reality, when I am attracted to someone, when I’m in love with someone, I don’t actually tick off all the traits that I had listed on my “grocery list on romance”. I love them without a reason, I love them for everything they are and everything they are not. In reality, “a good sense of humour” is as ambiguous as hell — someone could be funny but in an abrasive way, someone else could be good at cracking intellectual jokes but anything beyond that his jokes induce more of a cringe than a guffaw, nonetheless they are all compartmentalised under the trait “good sense of humour”. Sometimes, you find yourself in love with a guy who is not fantastic looking but makes it up in his character and how he treats you when he’s with you. Sometimes, you may be attracted to someone who’s not doing so well financially and is in a phase of limbo in his life. In all, human attraction is way more complex and unpredictable than just simply a fully checked list of traits, or a block of code that you type into a program expecting a desired end outcome.

When you are attracted to someone, you abandon whatever criteria or yardsticks you previously held. You like them for being them, even if they don’t perfectly fit the mould that you’ve constructed for them. You will find yourself loving how your hands fit perfectly together, how his touch could warm you even in the coldest nights, how he would run to the McDonald’s a couple of bus stops away just to get you McSpicy when you’re a whiny mess complaining of hunger, you’ll appreciate his courage even if his peck on your lips or cheek was sloppy, you’ll find yourself wanting to share with him every intimate secret about yourself, you’ll find yourself letting your guard down for once in a long time, because there’s nothing and no one to guard yourself from anyway.

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