Category Archives: south east asia

Singapore snapshot

Time for a rooftop swim? (Pic from nationalgeographic.com)

Time for a rooftop swim? Probably not. (Pic from nationalgeographic.com)

The New York Times lists Singapore as one of the must-go places of 2013, and so, as a lover of lists, I ensured that I found time to drop in and explore the ‘densely populated city-state’ that is gaining  recognition for its green credentials and leading the way in vertical farming.

Only I had about, oh, forty minutes to explore the place. What snapshots could I get of this city country?

We were arriving in from the south-east, up from Australia and my legs were starting to swell after eight hours of inactivity. I circled my feet as I looked down over a palm-fringed coastline and a port dotted in big boat traffic.

Singapore. A place that sounded exciting and progressive and buzzy, yet somewhat terrifying to someone like me who craves space and openness and a calm retreat.

The airport (and this was all the ground level, stopover sightseeing that I was going to get) had a retro-futuro ambience and an east-west blend of facilities.

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No way. Not today. These legs of mine need walking.

A well-fed, moustached businessman – some airport official – whizzed by me on a segway, into the belly of a grey-brown-orange colour palette. I skirted the sci-fi appeal of the travelators and got my legs marching, all the way to the toilets, where I joined a queue and waited in line for the seat toilets whilst others queue jumped to the squats.

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Happy to queue?

I wondered why I made the decision to wait. Familiarity? Previous travels in Asia and South America meant I was fully okay with whatever facilities were on offer, and who sits on public toilet seats in any case? ‘Maybe if I was  really desperate’, a middle-aged women said to her friend, and they giggled but stood firmly in line.

Ducking out of the way of a speeding buggy loaded up with suited types, I did another lap of the travelators, watched a film star from the 2005 indie hit movie, Waiting, get accosted by two fans, and went through an oh-so-stern-and-somewhat-confusing security scan. I counted down my last Singapore seconds to the soundtrack of an MTV assault.

There hadn’t been enough time to get out of the airport confines and touch and feel the ‘high-rise buildings, landscaped gardens and heritage-rich precincts’, and I didn’t get to experience the ‘harmonious blend of culture, cuisine, arts and architecture’ of Singapore. But whilst I was pretty damn disappointed with what I’d seen of the place (it was just, well, an airport, much like other airports) I was one journey step closer to London.

London, where I anticipated everything would run smoothly: flight landing on time, bags arriving – intact – after three country transfers, my mum waiting with an armful of cuddles.

Ah, if only.

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Filed under cities, singapore, south east asia, travel

When travel and terror collide

www.travelola.orgBack in October 2002, two bombs went off in the midst of Kuta nightlife, killing 202 people, many of whome were travellers enjoying a bit of social time in Bali. Ten years on, survivors have returned to Indonesia to remember those who died in the blast.

I’ve met a few people on my travels who document their journeys, but often, like me, their writing focuses on foreign intrigue, on misunderstandings, on the quirks of being out of your comfort zone. Some travel writing goes deep and addresses the big ones, but so much stuff out there seems to only skim the surface of cultures and countries that would more than likely require a lifetime to properly understand.

And now as my own written journey looks to leave South America once again, I can’t help but think how fortunate I was during my travels throughout Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Brazil. No muggings, no violence, no hold-ups. South America, many people warned me, was still a highly dangerous place to visit, particularly as a solo female traveller. For some reason, I was undeterred, and I refused to buy into the scaremongering.

And South America showed me her beautiful sides, her warmth, generosity and a little dash of chaos. People opened their doors to me, invited me to socials, looked after me when I was sick and alone. And they encouraged me to keep an open mind and heart. I did at times feel uneasy, there were a few moments of military interrogation that shook me up, and in some places there were guys in the street shadows bearing batons. But no dramas for me, thankfully.

But of course not everyone is so lucky, I appreciate that. When I heard about the recent kidnapping of two tourists on the Ecuador-Colombia border, I stopped in my tracks. One of the captured women was my age. The girls were doing the same Cuyabeno jungle tour that I had done back in October 2011. And they described wading through the same mud that I vividly recall.

It could easily have been me. Not that that’s the point, but rather it made me reflect on travelling and timing, on coincidence and luck. These girls did nothing different to what I would have done. It’s not as though they could have been more savvy about the situation, unless you suggest that they should never have visited Ecuador in the first place (and the idea of never leaving ones home comforts out of fear would surely only serve to narrow our views on the world, to close off to different cultures and people? No, please don’t go there.). The girls were released, evidently traumatised, but alive.

Ecuador with its varied terrain and climate and wildlife remains my favourite South American country to travel in. This news won’t discourage me from going back, but it might make me more aware, more alert. Not that that would necessarily make a difference, though. The girls, having been through such an ordeal, may well feel very differently. I’d be curious to know whether it has affected their entire perception of the country.

Because how can such an event not impact on your entire psyche? On your attitude? Different people, I guess, will find different coping mechanisms for traumatic travel stories, ones that hopefully won’t quash their zest for adventure.

Returning to Bali in 2012, one girl who has worked towards finding some solace in the aftermath of the bombings is Hanabeth Luke.

In January 2012 I temporarily put down my backpack in New South Wales, Australia where I met Hanabeth, – a surf chick tomboy mixed with a good dash of feminine quirk and a twist of British. During chats I discovered that she was writing a book, something to do with the upcoming ten year anniversary of the Bali attacks, but I didn’t pry. It seemed too sensitive a subject for strangers.

As time has passed I’ve learnt more, although I’ve undoubtedly learnt more about the spirit of Hanabeth than the event itself. Being in the now is where we’ve been at, in some way as important as remembering. But I will read her book, and I will try to understand what surviving the Bali bomb feels like, what losing a love actually means. Right now it is beyond my comprehension.

The people returning to the place of the 2002 Bali bombings have had ten years now to try to make sense of what happened, ten years to grieve and reach some level of acceptance. I can’t imagine the process ever stops, and that for different people there will be different ways of working through the pain. Writing one’s journey, for example.

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Filed under activity & sport, culture, dancing, ecuador, health, indonesia, random, solo travel, south america, south east asia, surf

Overcoming underwater fear

Image © Chris Ridley at chrisridley.co.uk

The day I arrived into the Perhentians, some beautiful little islands off the north east coast of Malaysia, I was terrified of even snorkelling. Half a decade earlier in Thailand I had a cut myself up on a bed of coral following a mad, panicked flailing session in some shallow waters, and it had seriously put me off. I had tried one more time in La Jolla in the US, but the unnaturalness of breathing underwater was too much.

I couldn’t do it and I definitely couldn’t enjoy it.

But as with everything I fear, I try to find a way to deal with it. I’d seen so many great programmes about snorkelling and diving, and so many of my friends loved it. Surely there must be a way for me to fall in love with it too?

So it was 2008, I was staying in a stilted hut in the Perhentians and my good friend Hugo decided to take on the challenge of teaching me to dive.

The theory was fairly straightforward, possibly because I was a bit of a swot and did my homework good and proper. For this part of the PADI course I felt in control. Thinking, reading and remembering. It was familiar.

After the exam, Hugo’s face was sombre. I panicked. No, no, I couldn’t have failed. I had felt confident on all the answers. ‘Just joking’, he said breaking into a smile. Git. I’d passed with flying colours. Well, nearly. One wrong answer. Dammit.

The practical side of things were a little more, erm, panicked.

Hugo distracted me with silly games at the bottom of the sea shallows. Later, he made me do James Bond entries into the water. And when I told him that there was no way I wanted to go to the 18 metres needed to qualify for my PADI Open Water Certificate, he humoured me.

He pointed out cleaner shrimp, took out his reg, let them polish his teeth. I put out my hand for a manicure. They were crazy and translucent and tickly cute (the shrimp that is, not Hugo). And then he showed me his altimeter that displayed a depth of 18 metres. Sneaky chap.

A guy getting his fingernails cleaned (Image © Mark Rosenstein at www.markrosenstein.com)

So, despite a hiccup and underwater panic on my first Open Water dive, I eased into diving just fine. I didn’t have to use the excuse of some dormant heart murmur any longer (yes, it had been a worry, but possibly more of an excuse). I even started to imagine working my way through the PADI qualifications, although maybe I just wanted to get my Dive Master for the completion party? I forget. Whatever, I actually learnt to enjoy diving and my breathing calmed so that I didn’t empty my air tank within twenty minutes or so. It was considerable progress.

Sharks, sting-rays, I saw the lot. And I managed to hold it together.

And now, here in Galapagos, many a shop sign screamed out daily dives. Would I dare to give it a go again now that it had been a few years without practise? Would I get by without a good friend holding my hand?

Time to re-employ my just-get-on-with-it philosophy. Push the button.

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Filed under activity & sport, diving, malaysia, snorkelling, south east asia

Tsunami tourist threat

Having been to South East Asia previously, I thought I’d have Indonesia pretty sussed. Incidentally, I was wrong. My trip was a far richer experience than I could have hoped for, full of bartering, tuna fish on demand and plenty of puking. Read more here (or via Articles tab).

Back in October 2010 I read that the west coast of Sumatra, Indonesia had been hit by yet another tsunami, and I had to think back to my 2008 trip where I witnessed firsthand the visible fear of a repeat event. According to Reuters and ReliefWeb there were over 400 deaths. Although fewer than the devastatingly high numbers of the 2004 and 2005 tsunamis and aftershocks, it continues a narrative of uncertainty for the locals. The sadness and trauma of losing family and friends in such a situation, and the mammoth task of rebuilding lives, once again, is unthinkable. 

The worst hit would appear to be the Mentawis – popular with global surfers searching for empty, isolated warm water breaks. The people on the Mentawis don’t typically benefit much from tourism as it is increasingly being monopolised by private liveaboard setups and surf camps, so it’s likely that the potential drop in travellers (as a result of this disaster) won’t be of primary concern.

However, it is of some concern that people may be deterred from visiting Sumatra altogether – its presence in the press and broadcast media being predominantly negative and foreboding. The Ring of Fire fault lines will continue to produce earthquakes of varying magnitudes, but the waiting game could be months, decades or more. Staying away for fear of getting caught up in such a disaster could indeed be wise, but when did playing it safe ever satisfy adventurous spirits?

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Filed under activity & sport, indonesia, south east asia, surf