Out of the woods

There are probably typos in this very very long recount of trekking in the woods and not knowing whether we could get out in time.

Hatgal & Jan Khai, Mongolia, 23 July, 2019

I couldn’t find the owner to start a fire in the hut, so I practiced this week’s dance routine. I would have enjoyed the practice even more if not for the flimsy, squeaky wooden floor and my unsettling imagination of the 10000 things that could happen to me during the night. After layering a blanket, both my bed’s and the other bed’s quilts on top of my sleeping bag and carefully hiding my knife under the pillow on my dominant side, I slipped into the sleeping bad fully clothed with my windbreakers, like a worm tunneling into the soil. I journaled a bit, and listened to my new favorite podcast, Philosophize This till the episode on Gramsci’s Cultural Hegemony finished (which sounded more sociological than philosophical btw). It was nearly 1. Oops. Thank God I could afford to sleep late for now.

(Ohh did I mention that a lady from the other tent came to knock on my door, looking for things to keep her and her husband warm? It was no joke seeing someone’s face suddenly on the glass in the middle of nowhere when I couldn’t lock the cabin door properly.)

In the night I woke up again, this time due to heat and not coldness. It was the better, almost luxurious kind of waking up though, since I just needed to take off my jackets, instead of looking for 4 layers of daal out of nowhere, or binge-eating chocolate and trying to start a fire with tampons (they were surprisingly inflammable) at 3am like my friend Zina did at East Tsaatan. I didn’t have any tampon anyways.

The hut at which I sayed for one night in Hatgal

I was hesitant to eat the chocolate bar for breakfast the next morning. It was getting too decadent too soon even for me, and I once ate 1/3 pint of matcha Hagen-Daz ice cream for breakfast (which I bought with the money I earned, thank you). But the minute I slung my three bags that weighed 20kg in total, I (very aggressively) bit into the chocolate bar. I finished another podcast on Dewey while packing and waiting for Jitka to get ready. The husband of the lady who visited me last night swung by, trying to start a conversation past ‘where are you from’ based on gestures alone and then very kindly offering us to hitchhike back to UB. The kind of offers that never happened when I actually needed one. Sighs. Grateful for his repeated offer, we bid him goodbye.

Spotting some cars near the zipline that we thought was affiliated with the cabins, we decided to take a look before departing after some deliberation. It surely didn’t hurt to try out free stuff, especially free ziplining. And since we would trek with 20kg of luggage each for the next few hours, why not do something light-hearted for ourselves before setting out? It was obvious that Jitka was really excited about the small zipline from the start. I was much less unimpressed because the height was not too thrilling for a zipline, but who knew the view was sorta magnificent 50m above the ground. Sometimes a bird’s view transformed the entire reality. The person-in-charge then asked me for 5000 Tugrik. I should have known that there simply was no such thing as free ziplining in the world. But it really could have been worse – this price was shruggable.

We started descending along something that barely resembled a human path through the pine trees. The idea was to trek down the other side of a hill to return to the main road, even though it was probably wiser to take the route from which we had come up the previous night. But we were adventurers. We refused to tread the same path (when physical exhaustion hadn’t exhausted our dignity). Soon we paid for our pride when we had to climb some fences of a ger camp to get back to the main road. Thankfully there was no dog chasing us or angry owner aiming at us for trespassing.

By the time we reached the main road, I had already finished the chocolate bar. I had wanted to stock up on food for the trek, but the minimarts, which were everywhere 500m back, disappeared. Judging how touristy the place had been overall, I assumed that there would be enough restaurants along the paved road next to the shore, which according to Lonely Planet would have finished construction by 2018. At this point of my travel I simply didn’t want to feed myself cold food any more, even if it was chocolate.

As the river looked more and more like a lake, all other stores disappeared along with the minimarts, except for the wooden huts and ger camps. I hadn’t seen this many wooden huts elsewhere in Mongolia. Single-floored with huge and colorful triangular tin roofs that were almost one floor tall, they were constructed with only pinewood, which was easily available from the nearby pine forests. Had the interior been cleaner and more elaborately decorated, they could have come straight out of some Switzerland stock photography.

The paved road turned almost backwards meandering into the hills when we were stopped by Ashihai Resort, which practically monopolized the little peninsula at which we had planned to take a break. We had trekked off and met the main road again, and we were convinced that either the road would reappear in a short while, or there must be some trekking path along the shore through Ashihai Resort. After all, people came here for the lake and not the mountains. The little path in between Ashihai Resort and a ger camp was too muddy to pass, so we decided to pass through Ashihai Resort instead. It just felt like that there must be a path through the resort as established as this, which might involve some more fence-climbing but after the earlier fence-climbing we simply couldn’t care less. The gate was shut. Jitka climbed the fences to get inside first. I didn’t feel like I should as well, so I waited for the yaks to leave and then squeezed through the small opening between the gate and the fences, when a guard finally emerged out of the house, asking us for 1000 Tugrik to pass by. It was a very small sum, but one unjustified – there was no reason why any resort could just fence up a trekking path, a frustration I was no stranger to. But I decided that it was too early for this kind of bullying and told him we were looking for lunch at the resort, which was true anyway, so he could let us off.

For the next five minutes on the way to the restaurant, Jitka was complaining about a hole on her backpack she made while climbing the fences, which annoyed me because the hole was so small that I could hardly spot it even when I tried to. Wasn’t it normal for a backpack to have cracks? And if a hole this small was worth such rambling, I probably needed to kill myself five times over for all the decisions I’ve made during this trip. I tried my best to console her, which wasn’t working since her self-blame seemed to come from the very depths of her soul. Then I had to convince myself that different people had different coping mechanisms, and that it was probably better for everyone if verbalizing helped resolve one’s emotional afflictions, than just bottling it up and letting it ferment inside. Even so, a part of me was frustrated at her fixation on trivial things, but the other part of me was even more frustrated that I didn’t have the capacity to accommodate and forgive her fuss, which explained why I would often be so harsh on myself when I couldn’t let go of small mistakes.

[ok at this point Idek why I spent so much time describing the non-essential parts of this trek. There really isn’t any reason why. Please bear with me]

We passed by a coffee shop and then the lovely restaurant by the water. You would expect more people to speak English in a picturesque place with many foreign tourists, but initially I couldn’t find anyone to give me any useful information on whether external guests could dine here. We decided to take a short break on the rocky beach anyways. The water closest to the shore had the familiar hue between light turquoise and aquamarine that I had seen in Komodo, and similarly it turned to midnight blue as the water got deeper. The long and narrow beach, consisting entirely of white rocks the size of adult hands and occasional bleached driftwood, resembled the white sand beaches that encircled Komodo Islands, too. Did all places start to look similar when you travelled more? At least I was glad that I hadn’t travelled enough to know the answer to this question.

A gorgeous view of the lake, finally, from the little peninsula inside Ashihai Resort. We aimed to reach the other peninsula in the picture by that evening.

I took the first picture of the lake after I had reached Hatgal. We ate Jitka’s lifesaving biscuits. It was very tempting to laze the afternoon away on the benches but the wind was freezing even after I put on my extra pair of pants and jacket. Jitka believed that the meals were only served to guests who stayed there and went to get a cup of coffee, but I decided to give it another try. After some communication assisted by Google, a very nice waiter who had offered me free hot water earlier told me that chicken was available for 15000 Tugrik, or 40RMB, 8SGD. It was the second most expensive meal I had had in Mongolia, and I didn’t get to pick the restaurant when I had the most expensive one. I’d love to pay for it though, since a few peeks of what other guests were having assured me that the food would be decent, and they accepted credit card payment, which saved me from a cash crisis. To be clear, it wasn’t so much the fact that the meal exceeded my budget that made me hesitate. I had earned enough part-time to afford it without my parents’ money (and seriously, even though it was more expensive than average, it was still just 8SGD!!!). Rather I was held back because I saw Travel Fellowship as a promise that I didn’t want to break. In my proposal I promised to authentically experience the life of ordinary Mongolians, from 21st-century herders, ger district residents to city dwellers. Yes, ‘authentic experience’ was a buzz phrase in tourism. But to me ‘authentic experience’ had always been more than just the fun part, or a simplified, lighthearted version of the hard labor, e.g. milking one cow, doing some archery and riding horses, activities of a typical touristy herder family homestay. I had taken great pains in screening and handpicking each host. Now that I couldn’t volunteer at a herding farm, the least I could do in this very touristy part of the country was to avoid spending like a tourist. It was not just emotional sunk cost, or an issue of integrity. I personally thought there was nothing wrong with doing touristy things in touristy places. Just not on this trip. I just wanted to quietly experience the landscape, with my feet, eyes and heart.

The honey mustard chicken with kimchi I had at Ashihai Resort. Fine-dining woohoo!

I gulped down some hot water before departing. I liked the feeling of a warm stomach especially on days like this. The downside was bloatedness and food coma, but I guessed I would have to walk them off. Even with Google Translate, I didn’t have much faith in the directions given by the kind waiter. Nonetheless we asked him which way to go, the woods way or the beach. He said both, so I chose the beach path. As long as we could see the peninsula at which we planned to stay along the way, we wouldn’t get lost too soon right? We couldn’t walk fast initially because the rocks made the trek bumpy. Jitka headed inland a bit, so we could walk on the mostly dry grassland parallel to the beach.

A few hundred meters later we met some fellow backpackers for the first time – a couple, the girl from Netherlands and the guy from Argentina. Just like Jitka, the girl had some wounds from falling off the horse while dodging tree branches. Once again I was really grateful that my Tsaatan horse ride was very smooth. The couple had camped some distance from the resort. The guy asked me whether the three bags were all I got, since despite the heaviness they didn’t look big enough for backpackers. He then expressed serious concern about me carrying three bags through the hills forward, and Jitka reassured him that I was doing ‘very well’ on the way here. Hills then let hills be. I was cheerful. I loved trees and hills, and since Jitka had plans to climb mountains the next day that I couldn’t join because I had to write, I could really use some trekking today.

It quickly became clear that the hills they mentioned were really the hills, and the kind of hills that could kill you when you carried 20kg. Soon after walking back to the beach, we had to climb up a steeper slope when the beach became submerged, but I was confident that the slightly difficult but walkable white beach would re-emerge out of water. The hill dipped and rose, so did we, scrambling through several really steep slopes. Unlike earlier paths on the plain, the trail was minimal, but I didn’t give it much thought till much later. The day was bright without being too sunny, and the water occasionally visible through the pine trees was as lovely as it could be. Along with wildflowers, dozens of different kinds of mushroom poked through the thick carpet of pine needles, the kind of scenery I had only read about. We were walking fast enough that the flies and mosquitoes couldn’t catch up with us, though we still couldn’t go back down to the more direct beach path because it was still just cliffs along the shore.

Five low but steep hills later, things started to worsen. The little bit of narrow plateau we had been trekking on disappeared into the slopes and every step forward was either high knee up or the kind of down steps that hurt your knees. I wouldn’t have minded it all very soon, but we were barely inching forward, and the peninsula that we aimed to reach seemed as far as fifty minutes before. Trekking 10km withint 2 hours was a hilariously underestimate that I still didn’t want to admit yet. The road must be smoother in a little while. I repeated to myself.

Crap. Suddenly my throat started to throb. It must have been the strong lake wind. Crap. I didn’t want to fall sick again, having barely recovered from the last cold. Talk about Murphy’s Law – I finished my last Strepsils the night before to lighten the load.

When I had been trekking in the Tsaatans’ Village without the load, I felt like I could walk forever even it was all mountains. With some load, I could still walk all day with small regular breaks and a slower pace. But I just couldn’t charge forward at the same speed with the load. Remembering the Israeli couple’s recount of army life, I told myself this was just a taste of BMT for me. Back in Singapore I refused to use weights in the gym. Why would I weigh down myself physically too as if there were not enough suffering from day to day? Carrying the unwanted load rejuvenated my respect for all the guys who have gone through NS. Seriously, salute to all the servicemen and servicewomen out there. But I shall always hate the military at the thought of this kind of weight training.

The yellow bag carried my laptop and Jitka’s tablet inside. As the bout of sickness felt nearer, my now very dirty waterproof bag had become my crutch. While she had worried so much about the scratches on her Huawei tablet to ask me to keep it inside the yellow bag in the first place, Jitka didn’t seem to mind me repurposing the yellow bag as a trekking crutch, maybe because she forgot which bag carried her tablet.

I was panting. My meaty lunch was quickly being digested. I was approaching my limit and if I still couldn’t take a break I swore I would just give up and call the rescue hotline. Jitka reluctantly agreed, rushing me the whole time while waiting. With just one backpack, albeit a heavy one, she seemed to have better stamina. ‘There were bears in the forest in this region and they woke up in the evening, so we should really get out of the forest before the evening.’ She explained. I really hoped that by evening it meant by sunset, because evening as defined in other parts of the world was in just another two to three hours. I knew that she had read about it in Lonely Planet – the same chapter also warned about the wolves  and poisonous vipers. But they all sounded very distant the night before, and it turned too real too soon. I was utterly unprepared, having forgot how to react to bear attacks and hoping that the scares were just part of her paranoia. Surveying the landscape, I envisioned myself climbing trees or jumping off the short cliffs during a bear attack, neither of which sounded very viable. Forget about the bear attacks – I had enough to worry about right now.

Despite the risk of falling sick again, I took off my pants and the first layer of my windbreaker so I could walk a bit faster. I became the one asking to stop, and I asked more and more often. For the first time I felt I really might die in this beautiful forest. But no, lots of people camped in places just like this and we had a tent. Plus we weren’t even that far away from Hatgal. Never had I thought that my forestphillic self would want to walk out of any woods so desperately.

After checking Google Maps a few times to realize that we really were barely moving along the coast, Jitka suggested that we either started going back to Hatgal, or crossed the hills to walk along the main road again. I was all for continuing along the coast because the main road would be much more boring, but I didn’t want to give up so easily, so the only option was to climb up to the peak and scout for a route down the other side. Unfortunately for us, the road that had been along the shore was now all the way on the other side of the hills, a good three kilometers away. The worst part, though, was summiting a hill when you didn’t know the height. The pine treetops completely covered the peak, and with each subsequent step, the peak just felt higher, even though it was no more than 200 meters higher than where we were now from Google Maps. Eager to reach the top for some reassurance, we trekked along the steepest slopes, which was just plainly unsustainable. There was no foothold, and we soon resorted to our hands.

I asked for a break again, now starting to panic, when Jitka again rushed me. Exhausted, I was about to talk her out of the plan when we suddenly realized that we were standing on some plateau that resembled a path at least for now. We didn’t know whether the path would lead us all the way to Jan Khai, but desperate enough, we immediately scrapped the plan of climbing up and decided to follow the trail as far as it extended. Soon it became clear that this was an established trekking path, with turquoise-colored circles painted onto the barks of trees by the side every ten meters. Desperate people like us sure were optimistic. Everything was much more manageable when we were on a flat surface.

We took only two or three breaks in the next hour and half, and every time we checked Google Maps, we were making visible progress. A ger camp was only 20 minutes away where we took the last break. Immediately we felt much more assured, knowing that we had a shelter and food for the night even if we wouldn’t reach Jan Khai tonight. And when there were houses, there would be roads. The road that had abandoned us earlier wasn’t too far.

Past the swamp that wet my shoes right in front of the ger camp, the trail turned sharply inwards. We were walking on a dirt track, and just a few hundreds of meters down the trail we were finally back on the road. Happy as we were, all at once I was unspeakably more tired than before (because I could finally afford to feel exhausted), so we decided to try our luck and hitchhike for the last and easiest five kilometers. It was my first time to hitchhike, and we didn’t wait long till a couple generously welcomed our dirty selves and gigantic bags into their car, slowly circumvented all the potholes and drove us to the destination even though they clearly didn’t know where it was.

 

One day of July in Beijing was both pleasantly surprising and surprisingly pleasant.

Back in Beijing after twelve years.

July 1st, 2019

It has been six months since I was home in winter. Winter here and pretty much in most parts of China is just…not worth it. You go through all the trials of winter – days and days of smog from day to night, disease, the kind of temperature that dares you to step out of home, without much solace except for dumplings and hot pots. The rare snow either melts within hours, with no intention to hide the bareness, barrenness and dog shit everywhere, or refreezes into mud-contaminated eyesore. But summer is different. Life gets affirmed in summer, albeit not as much as in spring. The holiday, the sunlight so bright that even asphalt appears faded, the sky looking a bit more like what it should look like, the singing of crickets, the fruits in every shade of color of the spectrum and the flicker of fireflies for those who wander far enough make all the mosquito bites and brutal heat waves worth it (until climate change ruins it for all of us). I am a summer person and this is the summer I was used to growing up. Even as the temperature gets more unbearable year by year, slowly killing the life and joy, the poplar trees and the intensity of sunlight alone outside the window as the plane landed easily evoke in me the special buzz of China’s summer.

Summer flourishes, and so do I, on the land that has birthed me and all my ancestors. I woke up to more summer wind, sunlight and shimmering poplar trees. The fact that I was sleeping in a stranger’s living room didn’t matter any more – I felt like the queen of this very exquisite world. The thick and malleable (I cannot seem to find a better word) fibers of the poplar leaves are the very fibers that hold up my back against every challenge life has in store for me. The overflowing juice, frozen between the shimmering emerald side that is facing the sun and the seawood-colored other side, replenishes my bloodline. The cooling breeze, the saving grace of summer before it too turns merciless, caresses my belly full of chilled watermelon and sets everything into motion when days are stretched and drowsy (Beijing was generous with its summer wind during the two days by the way; it was very much a gale, sweeping across poplar trees. It made a fine, chilly July morning that I found myself having crawled inside the sleeping bag after I fell asleep on the sleeping bag). All my stories regain their relevance in the greenness and the collective of rudeness, kindness, nonchalant everyday evil and rare altruism of its people. The choices that seem just slightly out of place in where I live are now fully justified by the familiar yet peculiar juxtapositions surrounding me. Again, I become acutely aware of just how much this repressed part of me needs its context. Now in the land that has grown it and moulded it, I watch it relax into a gentle and composed shape, like a dried and wrinkled woodear slowly expanding, dancing and finding its spirit in the water.

A Perspective of Utopia

Auroville: 4 – 9 June 2019

There’s this expectation for Auroville to be a utopia. Maybe it’s self-imposed – Google “Auroville”, and the first sentence you see in the list of results is this:  “Auroville is a universal city in the making in South India, dedicated to the ideal of human unity based on the vision of Sri Aurobindo and The Mother.”

Indeed, one of the main pages on Auroville’s website describes a dream, the envisioning of an ideal society (see https://www.auroville.org/contents/197). In 1968, when Auroville was founded, 5000 people from various countries and backgrounds gathered, left behind their old lives, assets and possessions, to pursue this Dream. Back then, Auroville was nothing but a name and a group of people who had similar hopes for a different way to live. The glistening, architectural symbol of Auroville, the Matrimandir, had yet to be built. It was just barren land.

When I think about how this township, just 51 years ago was a desolate landscape without any life, I think they must have got something right. Every tree we passed by and every red dirt road we cycled through was planted and carved out by Auroville’s pioneers. Every sustainable building we visited, every rustic handwritten signpost we looked out for exists because of the collective efforts of people who believed in an idea of a city they could not yet see.

Still, there are aspects of Auroville I can’t comprehend and am, if I’m being honest, quite skeptical of. I admire the seemingly carefree nature of most everyone I met there, and how peaceful everything is. Especially coming from Chennai, the contrast of the quality of life in these two places just a 3-hour car ride apart impressed upon me (actually, just cycling outside the immediate, invisible boundaries of Auroville and into a local village nearby had that same effect).

Despite all its ‘utopian’ aspects, the abstract, spiritual concepts that drive much of the Aurovillian vision lie beyond the periphery of my perception, and its incomprehensible bits tint my overall view of the township. The bookstore at the Visitors’ Centre there display volumes upon volumes of the works of Sri Aurobindo and The Mother that address topics from education to economy. The shelves also feature many thin, A5-sized books that, quite frankly, resemble cult manifestos. Integral Yoga, a yoga developed by Sri Aurobindo, is literally integral in every Aurovillian’s life – it is what education as envisioned by the Mother is centred on. There’s one thing all of these written works point to: the importance of attaining Divine Consciousness. As open-minded as I try to be, the more I tried to understand what the Divine Consciousness is, the more I came across materials that only heightened my skepticism for it.

This is one of the passages I came across:

“Both Sri Aurobindo and The Mother worked all their lives for the manifestation of a mode of consciousness beyond mind, which Sri Aurobindo named “Supermind” or “The Supramental”. The full expression of this consciousness on earth would result not only in a new species, as far beyond the human, as human race is beyond the animals, but also in a modification of the whole terrestrial creation, even more complete than the change brought about by the entrance on the world scene of the human race.” (https://www.auroville.org/contents/533)

The hard-to-grasp spirituality of Auroville aside though, it is a community that’s united despite the fact that its citizens come from 49 different nations across all social classes. It is a place that feels free, peaceful, and is where I really did feel like money isn’t the “supreme lord”. When we interviewed Raja, an Aurovillian who worked at our guesthouse, I had hoped he would shed some light on how maybe Divine Consciousness was what made Auroville succeed in its attempt at creating this new way of life.

Raja’s story is incredible. He wasn’t born Aurovillian, but went to school there. He grew up in the local village near Auroville, and told us he never even knew about birth certificates until he had gotten a scholarship at a dance school in Mumbai – he doesn’t really know how old he is, or when his birthday is either. He told us his story in an animated voice, and weaved it with jokes like a natural comedian. Many of the things he experienced – being homeless and sleeping at a bus stop in Mumbai for example – I imagine were the opposite of pleasant or easy, but he had a sense of humour and recalled those memories with much laughter. He repeated several times, “We’re so lucky to have a place like Auroville.”

Auroville sponsored his education, and welcomed him into the community. After his own home by the ocean was destroyed by a tsunami, Auroville had a home for him. It was a simple hut, and nothing much, but Raja thought it was perfect. I clench up when he said he would find snakes, large ants and other pests inside his house, but he preferred a structure like this. “The house can breathe, no?” he would say. In comparison to the concrete apartment with air-conditioning his classmates in Mumbai rented for him, he, unlike most of us, found more joy living in a ‘breathable house’ that went along with nature. (He still lives in that house!)

He never directly talked about Divine Consciousness, but there was inherent in him a unique spirituality – he is a Healer. He never went to medical school because it was too expensive, but being a doctor was an ambition of his. Somewhere along the way, he discovered he could tell exactly which parts of the body were in ail, and with yoga and a healing massage he could heal people. At this point I become skeptical again, but I think of all he has said, and the incredible optimism he has for life.

I ask myself, maybe utopia is just all about perspective? Auroville certainly seems like Raja’s utopia, and even if I can’t see it being mine, it doesn’t change that it is his.

Maybe utopia isn’t something you can see, but exists in an idea you just have to believe in.

-Chelsea

14th July 2019: First Day in Мөрөн

Before posting all my reflections, here is:

How to take a hot shower when there is only cold water?

You sprinkle yourself thoroughly with the cold water dripping from the shower head, until your body temperature falls below the water’s temperature. Then the water is warm enough for the rest of the shower.

******

Don’t get me wrong, I am super grateful that there is warm water shower at my guesthouse in the first place. It just so happened that it was so chilling when I took the shower. It was drizzling, and my body had yet to adjust to the 10+ Celcius weather. I asked the Taiwanese fellow Workawayer to braid my hair (into the Katniss style yeah!) so that for the next two weeks I don’t need to shower again. Unlike in UB, I feel really fine not showering here.

I like to be reminded that every hot shower is a luxury.

On the road

I realized that out of the past 2 weeks of travelling I have spent 5 days on the road. Below is a very rough draft of what I have seen and thought of during these long hours of commuting. Also this is my first post, and I haven’t written anything legible in a while since school ended hhhhh. So please pardon the very very rubbish language – I tried my best but it was like writing my common app application essays: the more I read it, the stronger my urge to delete it all and start from scratch, yet to come up with something even lousier. There is just no way around a catastrophic first post. I’ll gradually pick up my flair though, don’t worry. And I will insert very suitable pictures for all my posts;)

There were long, square-angled natural channels that I mistook for artificial ditches right next to the road. The walls were nearly vertical.

I wonder when they will fill up, whether there are fishes ambitious enough to swim across the country. And if I fold all my secrets into an origami boat, will it sail to Мөрөн before I do?

I wonder whether these steppes are also home to the wildflowers I saw in Тэрэлж, eaten up by all the sheep and goats and cows and horses each spring before they could blossom, or there have never grown any in these vast swathes somehow.

I wonder what it was like to be a wolf with night vision, race against the wind and howl at the moon at night.

When I was still in SG, I wrote somewhere how I was looking forward to seeing an actual horizon unobstructed by buildings. The reality is that Mongolia isn’t a plain at all. There have been only valleys so far. But now that it is completely dark except for the dim moonlight, right outside the window is a ‘horizon’. Slightly higher than any actual horizon, it could have been a ridge of mountains in the distance, or a hill right next to us. The line isn’t smooth, but long enough that I cannot tell where the mountains or the hill meets the actual horizon.

******

The bus driver had lifted open the ceiling window at the first stop point. Initially it made the bus even warmer. By the second stop point, the air outside was cool enough that there was no need for aircon at all. Half past 11pm however, the temperature started to plummet. We were sitting close to the ceiling window, and the wind mixed with drizzle smashed my face, chest and legs through the single layer of windbreaker. Too shy and tired to ask the driver to close the window, or borrow an extra jacket from 大姐 (out of all time, seriously), I held up the heavy backpack in my lap to block the wind and crouched forward so that my back braved the wind. It was probably the most awkaward posture I had ever been in.

******

I was waken up at odd times throughout the night, first by the chill, then a few times by the blinding ceiling lights whenever the bus stopped, and finally waken up for the day by the TV blasting skits that very much resembled Chinese 小品 sometime past 6am. I wondered if anyone on the bus would want to watch skits at 6am. Anyways, I was near. Somehow the same river that flew down from Тэрэлж still meandered not far from us. This was one hell of a hardworking river. Narrow, shallow (the pools were practically two-dimensioned) and completely dried up at places, it was nevertheless a lifeline that connected the heartlands before roads did. I was not comfortable with calling it a river at first. But it really was, dying off and coming back to life over and over again.

******

Q: What is the leading accidental cause of accidental death among dogs in Mongolia?

A: From holding their pee for too long.

Written in Мөрөн, 14th July 2019.

Illness and Delusion

During our last day in Amritsar, all of us fell violently ill. Below is an excerpt of what I typed into the notes of my phone. It details the severity of our situation throughout that night.

And who knew that crisis would strike at 3am. In a stroke of instinct, I arise from the bed, shivering from the vestiges of a fever. I feel warm blood start to return to my extremities, whereas the past three hours have been torturously cold, even under a quilt. In my five times in India, I have never once had food poisoning. But tonight was a test of mettle for all of us.

I find Chelsea curled up on the sofa area, complaining of numbness and cold. My fever had struck earlier in the night, and this was Chelsea’s turn. Draping a blanket over her, I tell her to think of her loved ones hugging her to warm her up. Tonight, I hid my panic to make sure that no further alarms were triggered. The situation, as I was aware, was tense, and Joy was the only one amongst us free from this ordeal.

However, waking up to each movement, sniffle, panic, and shiver is hardly comforting. And as I could sense it, Joy too, was already being stretched — trying to care for two sick adults is hardly a task for someone untrained and sleep deprived.

I type this note, just as I finish updating Annette. It’s 5.30am in Singapore. In my hasty texts I type:

“Hi Annette, myself and Chels are running a fever currently. We suspect it might be good poisoning. We’re monitoring our situation with Joy.

This is the most I can do now, and I’m staying awake to fight the stomach cramps that be. There is a burst of warmth with each sentence I type. And so I keep writing, until my stomach calls for the restroom again.

25th June 2019

Thirty-Eight More Kilometres

Today I begin the last thirty-eight kilometres of my walk. Thirty-eight! Just three more short days of nineteen, fifteen and five kilometres each (I never thought I would say that walking nineteen kilometres is short), and I’ll be at Santiago de Compostela: the cathedral holding the remains of St James, the Apostle. The past week, realising that the end was near, made me think about the results of this pilgrimage. What I’ve gained, what concrete, specific thing I can say that I’ve learned. How I’ve changed or gained a new perspective.

This question of results is something that has been frustrating me. I was running into a wall the past few days, wondering: “What have I learned? What impact does this have on my life?” I had expectations before the trip of some sort of big change or revelation that I can’t see right now, maybe when I get home and see a change. In the end, I realised it was getting me nowhere, and what made me stop asking this question was a 3.5 hour ascent over 10km, one of the more difficult sections of the Camino. I realised along the way that I had gotten much stronger over the past few weeks (for example, before this trip, I could barely climb Bukit Timah Hill without stopping every 30 seconds for a break). Walking 24km a day for twenty-something days gradually built up my mental and physical strength, making the climb a lot easier than I thought it would be. And it wasn’t until I reached a very challenging obstacle that I realised how much I’d changed.

So I stopped questioning why I came on this pilgrimage and instead just focused on walking. As difficult as it was to tell my mind to stop processing and questioning impatiently, I slowed it down and just enjoyed as much as I could. Slowly, clarity came to me on a lot of the questions I had been asking once I put them out of my head.

Other pilgrims sometimes had clearer answers to my questions. It was easier to see it in them – many people I talked to told me how they came to the Camino to find space to think, a deeper understanding of themselves, or healing from some past emotional trauma. I realised that the Camino provided distance, respite, and simplicity that was sometimes unavailable in our regular lives. This was a common thread of desire for peace wove through many of my conversations: peace that did not necessarily come from conventional, slightly more stable sources. Much of what we were looking for came from the journey itself; after all, if we just wanted to reach cathedral in Santiago, a train would take less than a day to arrive there. But people sweat and ache and hobble through 800km to Santiago, so the journey must be inherently valuable, somehow.

It made me wonder why this pilgrimage had this effect (or perceived effect) of instilling peace. Part of the reason, I think, is the freedom to appreciate the pilgrimage that comes with being directed on the path. It’s simple enough: we follow the clamshells to Santiago, and just enjoy the journey. Constantly walking – whether in farmland, forests, mountains, cities, or industrial parks – has introduced me to all these places very slowly, at my (very slow) walking human pace. One step at a time, I’ve experienced the full, blasting smell of millions of orchids, the unrelenting rain slowly soaking my backpack, the sun creeping over the earth in its heat, the crunching of soil and rock under my shoes, cities gradually build from residential areas to historical city centres, each valley and peak of the hills felt and smelled and seen by me as I climb through the forest. This intimacy with the environment and becoming acquainted with it at a very natural, human pace is an experience completely unlike watching the world flash by, outside a car or train window. As summarised very nicely by a fellow pilgrim, “Walking and thinking is such a human thing to do. Why do people think that doing the Camino is so strange?”

Walking doesn’t just bring me closer to my surroundings. It teaches me how to be by myself, with myself. I’ve spent most of the Camino completely alone, not talking to anybody, just walking and observing. Spending this much time alone gave me the rare opportunity to know my limits, my strengths, my weaknesses and my ability to grow without much outside influence. I realised that alone, I could hear myself, think better, begin to be more reflective and grew less afraid of what genuinely made me, me. Being removed from outside sources of comfort and familiarity, pushed me into exploring more deeply who I was without things I had previously attached to my identity.

The Camino also brought be closer to other pilgrims. As I wrote about previously, it strips us to the plain and simple people we are. From janitors to lawyers to retirees to high schoolers, the Camino (cheesily enough) bring us all together. It breaks down many existing walls, scrapes out our differences, and dumps us unceremoniously in 40-bed dorm rooms. While this also brings an oftentimes uncomfortable level of shamelessness, I’ve made friends while scrubbing clothes, found reassurance in stairwells while stumbling through Spanish phrases, and been ambushed in a lift by large groups of Spanish high schoolers asking where I began the Camino. Getting to know people here is such a natural and genuine process that comes about through the act of walking and travelling together, freed from the normal barriers we put between ourselves. Human-ness is brought out during the Camino, boiled down to its most simple and essential level. We walk, we think, and we do it together. It humbles me to the barest version of myself, and I pray that the last thirty-eight kilometers will continue to teach me this simplicity and bring me peace.

Period. The End of a Sentence, and also a Human Experience. 

Periods and menstruation might strike most as a rather odd topic to write about. This is especially so because I am male, and therefore do not suffer from the worse of its effects — bleeding, painful cramps, and the like. I am thus not very well appraised of its first-hand effects. However, the travel fellowship has made me much more aware than about how periods and menstruation play into the daily lives of friends, and about he communities and societies that they inhabit. Indeed, much of this post was inspired by the experiences I’ve had while travelling with two ladies, both of whom were unabashed with regaling me with tales of their hardships. It is also inspired by the brilliant work we witnessed at EcoFemme — an NGO that not only produces and sells reusable sanitary pads to rural communities, but also addresses the stigma many of these women face in the face of traditional Indian society.

As perhaps hinted at before, travelling as a solo male is a prized convenience. I do not suffer from menstrual cramps as I try to walk kilometres on the streets, nor do I have to put up with bleeding as I navigate incredibly bumpy bike rides toward my accommodation. Each of my friends had suffered to an extent — longer or shorter, depending on the duration of their periods. These were real challenges that I neglected, before this trip, to think about. Yet, there was nothing much I could do to relieve their pain. Theirs was a private experience that I had no primary epistemic access to. I merely sympathised by continuing to chow down scoop after scoop of ice-cream, offering them a cup of tea or coffee, or perhaps the random hot towel ever awhile.

Missed scoops of ice-cream, or the pain of riding over pothole-ridden roads are hardly comparable to the stigma and discrimination that many rural Indian villagers face however. I write this after getting off a Skype call with my friend in Kerala, India. She complains about how she was unfairly chided by several village elders for going to the temple today — all because she was having her period. She goes on to tell me about the rather conservative, and even, misguided notion that periods are supposedly “dirty” and considered an illness by many of her village elders. Fortunately for her, she has a caring husband and mother-in-law who are not tolerant of such outdated notions. I recall their wedding rather fondly, about the time when she completed her polytechnic education.

However, her experience is a rarity. As the EcoFemme representative shares, periods are still hardly understood by many women in rural communities in India. Thus, many of their initiatives as an NGO revolve around volunteers travelling to such villages to educate the women about their bodies. These initiatives have a profound effect. Firstly, the women understand that menstruation is a perfectly natural phenomenon that is nothing to be ashamed of. Secondly, they are better able to manage their periods. My friend shares stories of women who stopped going to school because their clothes would keep getting soaked. Having a sanitary pad would alleviate many of these issues, and help them continue with their education. The EcoFemme representative also shares how many of these women live around large communities of men, and were constantly shamed for having their periods. They would have to leave the village to simply find a private spot to change before returning. And this would happen multiple times a day. This both baffled, and shocked me.

Fortunately, EcoFemme has an army of volunteers from various states around India who constantly do such outreach programmes. These are trained volunteers of course. They only have to come down to Auroville or Pondicherry to attend a short two-day course. They are then dispatched to the villages to educate the women.

Aside from education, EcoFemme’s initiative also revolves around the production and distribution of reusable sanitary pads. Each of them is stuffed with layers of cotton. This helps women in rural communities better manage their period, but also cuts on the large amount of waste that would be generated if disposable sanitary pads were issued. Logistics also become a lot easier when one merely has to wash, rather than continuously buy sanitary pads where they are scarcely available. Even if they were, they might serve as being too prohibitively expensive for the allowances that they are given.

I thought that their most remarkable innovation was in the red, foldable style pads, designed to look surreptitious on a clothing line so as not to bring them embarrassment when they hung them to dry. I thought that this was an ingenious blend of industrial design combined with cultural norms and sensitivities.

EcoFemme is only one of the many NGOs that operate out of Auroville. I decided to write about EcoFemme because of their amazing work, but also because I realise how relevant many of these experiences are for friends that I know and love. My hope is that, even in Singapore, that talking about something as natural as one’s period ceases to be a stigma. Rather, it should be discussed in the same comfort as one would discuss a visit to the restroom — for periods are just natural bodily functions.

Of the Solo Traveller

I write this note in the immediacy of the events that have bright me tremendous stress in New Delhi. However, because I do not want to drag a downtrodden morale further, I suspect that I might post this much later when the fellowship has come to a close.

I’m somewhat of a vicarious traveller. Most times, I jet off on a whim to far out places alone, content with a tin roof above my head and a little shrub to do my business in. In the imagination of most people, this is an unbearable condition to live in whilst overseas. Yet, this is the small modicum of comfort I expect when I travel. It has served me well.

Perhaps then, I least expected the capital, the city of New Delhi, to be the source of many of our problems during this Fellowship. Over the past two days in Auroville, I had witnessed Chelsea and Joy’s faces dip into a sort of saddened state. Perhaps, they were in physical pain, or were facing troubles of their own, or that they were perhaps already homesick. These were not things I had expected or anticipated. It would seem encouraging them to share and communicate their discomfort did not help too, for the two ladies were more content to be silent out of fear of imposition.

And so when we had reached our accommodation at New Delhi, physical and mental conditions had beset both Chelsea and Joy with so much discomfort that when the air-conditioning had broken down in the sweltering 42°c night, their spirits just went into free-fall.

I hadn’t had much of a problem with the heat, for I was already about to fall asleep. Things were much more dire in the other partition of the room however, for the low morale was now exacerbated by pitch darkness and stuffy heat. At this point, even I was a little disheartened at hearing their sighs. The power had only come back on after 15 minutes, only to go off again in another 15. Seeing their resignation at the whole situation, I suspected that perhaps, a stay at a proper hotel would be perhaps best for everyone. After all, the three nights in Delhi were meant to be buffer days for us to rest before the second half of the fellowship in Chandigarh.

We still spent the night however in that Airbnb however. It was the next morning that we decided to leave the early and head toward a swanky airport hotel. Even so, it’s often rude to tell a host that their place has been less than welcoming in India. I was prepared to tell a white lie for the host was indeed quite sweet and helpful in his services thus far, but Joy was against the idea of telling lies at all. I admit I was rather conflicted by this. I was incredibly used to telling white lies to get myself out of situations where cultural needs necessitated them. In some cultures, this was even perhaps the norm. 

I realise that I might sound quite pompous and arrogant at this point: “oh how dare you accuse the two ladies of expecting more”. I assure you that these are misconceptions. For when we reached the hotel, I felt incredibly bad that I had not anticipated the sensitivities of my two travel partners.

Indeed, as a solo traveller, I am usually so wrapped up in my own expectations and minimal needs of travel and make-do. However, I realise now, travelling with two ladies whose experiences, and thus needs, are different, must and should be taken into account. Such has made me much more aware of the privilege I carry as a (single) male traveller (infer what you wish of that).

Sometimes, when even riding a bike can be a discomfort for others, one learns that simple things such as hot towels and frequent rests go a long way. One should of course, do much better to communicate these concerns with their trip partners in a timely fashion.

Final thoughts…

21 days, 25 remarkable women 🙆‍♀️

Immensely grateful to have spent the last 3 weeks in Tokyo embarking on a travel project to learn about the lives of working Japanese women, with a special focus on women entrepreneurs! 😊😊😊

The places of interest were the working spaces of women from various backgrounds. The admission tickets were the generosity and kindness of these women who welcomed a curious traveller amidst mounting emails and endless to-do lists. The top attractions were to spend an hour or two listening to these women earnestly share about their beginnings, their struggles and their aspirations. And the souvenirs were their experiences that I’ve documented which will form the material of a short story I will write and hopefully, share with you soon.

In all solo travels, moments of solitude are inevitable but I’m thankful for these pockets of time to reflect more deeply upon the nuggets of experience shared. In that process, here are three thoughts that have lingered…

1. In the city of flashing lights and pulsating crowds, it was so easy to be swept up in it and apply that same rhythm to the interviews I conducted – test the hypothesis, note the parts that don’t fit and draw a conclusion. But I soon realised that in my haste to sieve out the dominant narrative across individuals, I had overlooked the multi-stranded narratives present in each individual. Instead of going into interviews with a notebook filled with methodical questions, I had to grow accustomed to working with blank spaces. Listening to understand and not to reply. Writing to chronicle and not to justify. Getting to know these women as individuals and not through labels.

2. The perennial chicken or egg problem – which comes first: success or happiness? When asked to rank how successful they think they are at present, most women gave themselves an above-average rating. For many, their success ranking followed an upward trend over the years. However, even at their lowest point, they had already experienced the happiness of discovering what they loved and what they could devote their future to. As Narumi Onishi, woman entrepreneur, quipped, “Entreprenuership is about doing something you love and pursuits fuelled by love and happiness, have their own special way of working out.” Perhaps happiness is less of a destination and more of a starting point.

3. As one fond of sentimentality, the goodbyes were the hardest. One moment we had made ourselves vulnerable to each other and the next moment, both of us were whisked onto the bustling streets not knowing if we would ever see each other again. Physically apart, however, I feel that we are now connected by our shared dreams. In dreams begin responsibility and in shared dreams, we experience camaraderie and uplift each other to do more for our communities. I used to think that we all had to grow our own trees but as Akiko Otsuki, a fighter of women’s rights for over 50 years, illuminated, “we are all part of one tree and our duty is to extend its foliage to provide shade and protection to help others thrive”.

This travel project was sustained by the warmth and kindness of many.🙂☘️ From high school friends, colleagues, acquaintances and even names they have only heard off, these people tirelessly delved into contact books and generously shared their networks.

This trip has left me touched and transformed and I hope to pass on the universal wisdom and kindness that was generously shared with me. I guess this is why they say that the best trips, never really end.✌🏻🙂