Some Thoughts on My LAST DAY

I left Singapore for KL on the 19th of May, and today my flight out of Phnom Penh will mark the end of all 6 weeks of my Travel Fellowship!

More on that soon, but firstly, since I haven’t done a proper blog post about Hanoi, here is the link to my audio from the week I spent there:

The past 2-3 weeks in particular have given me a lot to compare and contrast. Moving from the rather quiet and less-populated Vientiane straight into the crowded Old Quarter district in Hanoi (especially given my less than optimal physical condition at the time) was overwhelming and jarring. Then, as I spent more time in Hanoi I grew used to the structure of sound and space there. In the 10-minute walk to find some good iced coffee I’d emerge covered in grime: sweat from the heat, added sweat from the stress of avoiding being hit by a motorbike, mud from the lack of walkable sidewalks, and the occasional aircon vent water droplet. The sounds of all the cars, motorbikes, and food vendors sharing the same small space is contrasted by the residential alleys, which are starkly quieter, and for me created a false sense of distance. As I moved on to Phnom Penh, I found that its layout lies somewhere between Hanoi and Vientiane in terms of sound. The sidewalks are semi-walkable and the roads are wider than Hanoi’s, but there is still more of a sense of traffic than in Vientiane. The average street is quiet enough to walk down in the day or even on a weekend night, but the crowded sounds of markets or nightlife can still be sought out in a few places in the city.

In looking to compare the alternative music scenes among these 5 cities, I’ve found that each place is quite distinct, both in how much and what kind of live music is available. For example, the proportion of how much of the audience or artist pool is expat versus local varies a lot: In KL there seemed to be very few expats on the alternative scene, in Phnom Penh there is a majority-expat audience, and in Hanoi there seemed to be a push for more local involvement in the scene (although many Vietnamese bands end up moving to HCMC). There are also places where ‘big’ or ‘successful’ musicians make sure to stop through (eg. Bangkok and Singapore), and places which they do not (eg. Vientiane and Phnom Penh). This affects smaller venues, I feel, by changing the average level of ‘professionalism’ for music scenes. For this reason, although I was the most impressed by the alternative artists I heard playing in Bangkok and Hanoi, I myself had the most fun as a musician in Vientiane and Phnom Penh. In the past week, I have found that Phnom Penh boasts multiple small shows or open mic/jam sessions every day of the week, which seems much higher per-capita than other cities I have spent time in. For the last night of my Travel Fellowship, I decided to go to one last small concert at a bar (okay not my last last, but symbolically the last of this trip), alone as always. I was surprised to find that on my way to the venue and at the show I ran into several musicians I had met just this week. I think, in part, since I have been moving every week or so this summer, I have started to feel the lack of any type of community around me, and so seeing that I had entered one even just a slight bit during my time in Cambodia was a really nice realisation for my last night.

In the past couple of days, as I’ve published my song from Hanoi and finished writing my song here in Phnom Penh, I’ve been trying to grapple with my denial that this Travel Fellowship is ending, and to synthesise some things I’ve learned. Since this was a very personal trip for me, although I feel I have learned a lot about this region and these cities in particular, I’ve decided just to write about the things which feel most personal: playing music and doing things alone.

I started teaching myself guitar a year and a half ago, and almost a year ago got my first guitar (or more accurately, took it from my uncle’s attic in California). Since the whole thing is relatively new to me, I often feel very intimidated in professional music settings, but this summer has encouraged me to not compare myself to others as much. I have improved my guitar skills along the way, but the focus has been more experimental, and I have never felt pressured to improve. Probably more importantly, I have also improved my performing skills. I’ve learned that performers are always better when they’re having fun and enjoying the music themselves. Although I have never really planned on pursuing music as a career, the feeling of this is applicable to many other aspects of life for me.

The other impactful self-improvement mission this Travel Fellowship has given me is learning how to be alone. Although I’ve met up with some friends here and there, and of course have made friends in hostels, I haven’t been traveling with anyone for the full 6 weeks, and I definitely felt the impact of that length of time. I think the elements of loneliness, which I felt most strongly actually just during the first two weeks or so, are often compounded by spending time in large cities. After all, there are so many people surrounding you, and those people are often sharing their experiences with family and friends, which highlights how you do not have anyone around to share this with. So part of this trip has been overcoming loneliness, but then another part has been realising I do not have to be constantly making friends in order to have a good time. This means being outgoing enough to invite strangers to visit music venues with me or come to my gigs, but also being okay going to these things by myself or spending a night in if i need it.

This summer has definitely been the most unique journey of my life. And while I am sad to see it end, I am very glad to know that it has stirred many things for me which will continue being a part of my life for years to come.

Pain and Intentionality

Walking about 6 hours a day for the past two weeks has brought me a lot of pain. Today is a good example: I trekked 5km on a continuous upslope, and then 12km on a very steep, rocky descent to the town I’m currently staying in. The albergue I’m in for the night is a converted chapel, taken care of by a Spanish family, where there are no bedsheets on the mattress and 20 people sleep in the same room. I took the iciest shower of my entire life because there wasn’t any hot water, and limping down the stairs to the main garden is fairly painful, given that my knees are pretty sore from the downslope this afternoon. The following stagger across the garden due to sore ankles, sore knees, and squashed toes only serves to remind me of the suffering of the day. It’s a variation of my everyday existence for the past two weeks.

Not going to lie, picking my way downwards through the rocks today, painstakingly planning my steps so that I wouldn’t twist an ankle, was pretty discouraging. I couldn’t walk at my usual pace, the sun was only getting hotter, and I knew I would only arrive at the hostel after 3pm: a grand total of 8 hours on the road. My knees were killing me, and so was the fact that there were a bunch of young, energetic kids basically sprinting past me on their way down.

What has gotten me through many days, despite this pain, isn’t necessarily a suddent revelation or certainty about my purpose on this pilgrimage to motivate me forward. Many times, it’s forgetting the pain, becoming numb to it. After a certain point, I get used to it. Accepting the negative parts of the pilgrimage and not dwelling on them allows me to look up from the ground and appreciate the more beautiful parts of it: the endless mountains, the wide blue sky, the metre-high weeds rustling in the wind, an eagle gliding overhead, even the tiniest ladybird creeping over the leaves. Six hours gives me a lot of time to feel pain, yes, but also time to look up and see more clearly. It’s a strange mix of appreciation, impatience, wonder, tiredness, and clarity that I noticed in myself as I walked over the past few days.

One of the things which helped me to look up more and notice beauty in my surroundings has been photography. I didn’t realise how powerful the act of taking a photo could be: it made me actively look for aesthetic qualities rather than just walking and seeing, opening my mind to notice more about where I am, making me more present to my surroundings. It affected the way I saw and remembered things, and how intentional I was about engaging with the environment. Walking gave me more time to appreciate every single part of the journey, much more than any other form of transport could, and photography enhanced this appreciation for and observation of what is around me. While it may not take away the pain, it allowed me to realise that what I saw as negative aspects of the journey were parts of the bigger picture which also included incredibly positive moments, which went more easily unnoticed.

On reflection this is also very easily applied to my life and the convenient focus and dwelling on negativity that is present. While pain isn’t always good, I realised that sacrifice and finishing a goal sometimes does take blood, sweat and tears. Dwelling on them doesn’t help me, especially when there are many other positives that I could be looking up at. If I’m intentional about it.

The Land of Corbusier

We are reaching the end of our travel fellowship, with only a few days left in this golden city called Amritsar. It has been an amazing journey thus far, and this country has offered us experiences and histories far beyond our expectations. Travelling to Chennai, Auroville, Delhi, Chandigarh and now Amritsar, each and every city never failed to amaze us with their people and their city.

Before arriving to this city, I’m glad to say that we have surveyed through almost every corner of Chandigarh with our oogley eyes that feasted on the works by the famous French architect, Le Corbusier. This stop at Chandigarh has been the most awaited part of the trip for me for it is indeed an architecture paradise for a building nerd like me. Imagine a city with every piece of land designed by a single genius mind of an architect, with its roads and landscape specifically laid and chosen in each sector to align to this grand idea of a living utopia. The whole city was designed and built for the people after the partition when violence and unrest were at its peak. And so, Corbusier aligned his urban vision of efficiency and with India’s hope for peace and harmony. The open hand symbol that is observed everywhere in Chandigarh represents just that, conveying a message of peace and reconciliation with the unity of mankind. A similar concept to the utopian vision in Auroville, but obviously constructed and visualized so differently.

With the entire built environment not exceeding three storeys, the concept behind this garden city is conserved and so very much preserved even in these modern times. We had the privilege of speaking with some of the architects working here as well. They shared their insights and spoke about the challenges faced while practicing their profession in this city. It was amazing to hear their stories and imagining their city change and progress as much as it can through their testimonies shared. The greatest story shared was by Mr S.D. Sharma, one of the oldest architect in Chandigarh who has worked with the first teams of planners when Chandigarh was in its works, which meant that he had worked alongside Le Corbusier himself! And also with Pierre Jennenret and even Albert Mayer. Amidst all these foreign names that sound grand and familiar to those reading and studying about architecture and urban planning, what impressed me the most was not his entire resume on the people he has worked with but it was his humble heart and attitude when he talked about these people and his city. He was deeply in love with Chandigarh and worshipped Corbusier for his ideas and concepts that conceived this city to what it is today. Even as this city faces modern urbanisation issues, he remains optimistic and idealistic about Corbusier’s dream about this living utopia. His passion for his profession and city was contagious and soon, all three of us were in awe of his own works and stories told.

Indeed, this city is different from the other cities of India. Some may find it boring and too static, but talking to the locals and residents here might change your perspective. The convenience of every self sustaining sector and the efficiency of roads and traffic here is uncomparable to the liveability of other cities in India. Even after travelling to other parts of their country, they always seem to come back to this small city that they’ll always call home. Utopia might always seem to be an idealistic dream that is unattainable but perhaps Chandigarh has already become the epitome of the perfect city that the people here have always dreamt of.


Planes and Trains (and food poisoning)

In the past few months, whenever I share my summer plans, people have loved to warn me about the dangers of overland travel: the sketchy border crossings, higher crime rates, potential for visa complications, etc. All things considered, as I reached Phnom Penh (my final city) yesterday, they probably have some merit. Entering Thailand via train left me in a station with no wifi, water, food, or aircon for five hours. At the border with Laos, there were literally more goats than immigration officers and I had to pay an extra 15 USD for my visa due to currency issues. And most recently, I spent a 34-hour train ride from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh on the top bunk of a *triple-decker* bunk bed (in the space, unfortunately, for a very modest two-level bunk bed), which better yet was in a train carriage room for 6, which I shared with at least 5 members of 3 generations of a family.

While some of these experiences seem like unnecessary trouble compared to relatively affordable budget flights around Southeast Asia, I actually have the most regrets about the one journey where I chose air travel: Vientiane to Hanoi. I chose to fly for visa reasons and because the alternative was a 24+ hour bus ride (prior to this summer, I had been on several less-than-luxury overnight busses, none longer than 12-ish hours and many which I was not keen to relive). But of course, when I got food poisoning from a free pastry on Lao Airlines I regretted my choice to break the commitment to overland travel. [a side note: I was pranked because I’m vegetarian and nobody warned me there would be meat in said pastry, 0 out of 10 on the TripAdvisor that is actually just a list of things I have personal vendettas against, and as a result I think I will continue being vegetarian for the rest of my life. You’re welcome, environment].

The applied reality of this situation was that I got sick on the street in the middle of the Old Quarter my first night in Hanoi, naturally minutes after meeting up with a friend from YNC who was the first familiar face I had seen in weeks.  After a few days of recovery in my hostel, I compiled some takeaways:

  1. Never trust a free pastry. (something here about no such thing as a free lunch?)
  2. We should all go meatless. (something here about other Travel Fellowships?)
  3. IN ALL SERIOUSNESS, overland travel is a great way to experience going between places.

As I reached my final city, Phnom Penh, yesterday I actually grew nostalgic for all of the overland travel of my summer. I left YNC on the 10th of May for an expedition with the student org GOYAC traveling from Singapore to Krabi, Thailand by bus and train. Only a couple of days afterwards, I started this Travel Fellowship, which has taken me on busses and trains from Singapore to KL, KL to Bangkok, Bangkok to Vientiane, Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, and finally Ho Chi Minh to Phnom Penh. This summer, if nothing else, has made me an advocate for the overland route. It’s more cost-effective, environmentally-friendly choice with good views and memorable (if not always enjoyable) stories. However, for me the most important aspect has actually become the feeling of physically knowing how much space I am traversing. I feel like this is a bit too much of an abstract concept for me to intelligently describe, but it has to do with scale and probably perspective. Although 34 hours was definitely pushing it, I’ve grown to like long train rides because I like feeling far away from something — and at some point feeling far away from everything — before getting to know a new place.

Walking Alone, Together

One of the first things that I realised while walking during the past week was that I’m not alone. It was one of the fears I had, that this whole month, I would be essentially alone and far from face-to-face interactions with anyone. It’s been the complete opposite of that. Physically, I’ve definitely been surrounded – I spent my first night in a pilgrim albergue (a very cheap hostel for pilgrims) on a bunk bed which was pushed against one occupied by an Italian man. As a woman travelling alone, I was more than slightly apprehensive engaging with a middle-aged man who was literally sleeping next to me, but I realised, later on, that a lot of the fear I had was unfounded. I eventually bumped into the man further along the trail, at a pit stop, and spent the next few days chatting with him when we’d stop in the same hostel or meet each other walking along the way. I’d see the same group of people every morning at breakfast, at rest stops, in the afternoons cooking together or washing laundry as we walked the same distances every day. It was reassuring to be around them, whether on the Camino or in the hostels, knowing that others were with me on this journey.

It wasn’t just physical space that was filled with people; everyone has been extremely friendly on this trip. Countless people that I wouldn’t otherwise talk to would stop to take a break with me, and then in the evening I would talk to them them at mass, or the next day, share a room with them in a hostel, hug each other in the grocery store. A single “Buen Camino!” (standard pilgrim greeting) could extend into hours of conversation as we walked. People I’d talked to for less than ten minutes would invite me to eat their home-cooked food, others opened up about deeply personal events they’d come on the Camino to leave behind. It was a strange bond that I’d never experienced: shared in pain and long distances, and very often, much closer and more genuine than I could have ever imagined.

These friendships transcended lanaguage as well – I met an Italian dad (he was sleeping above me in one of the hostels) and we spent an hour talking over Google Translate, learning about each other, talking about why we came on the Camino, laughing and joking together. I can’t describe in one blogpost the number of amazing, perhaps even God-sent, encounters that I had and continue to have while I walk. It dawned on me, eventually, that walking the Camino is like joining this gigantic, kind, generous and joyful community that travels toward the same goal, over 800km.

It made me wonder why these first-time encounters were so poignant when I’d already been meeting new people all the time, back at home. I realised that, while a part of it was how open I was to these conversations and letting myself be known to others, it was a strange effect of this walk. Perhaps it was the reassurance that I would never meet them again. Perhaps it was the communal experience of walking that brought us together, or the mutually recognised willingness to be open to receiving and giving. Perhaps it was the fact that we had more time to engage and less baggage preventing us from being open and meeting new people, and investing in these new relationships. With all of us far from the comforts and securities of home life, it seemed easier to trust and find commonalities with each other.

While I might not be best friends or get along naturally with all of these pilgrims, I realised quickly that the degree of natural compatibility did not restrict the goodness that could be shown to each other, or the friendships made despite these differences. I think it’s helped me to let go of some of my jadedness and recognise again the precious uniqueness that’s easy to miss if I don’t take the time to know someone new. This week has reminded me to look forward to these new encounters and to seek new relationships with the people around me that come into my life unexpectedly. It doesn’t sound like a huge epiphany to me, but I think it’s something I needed a reminder of. So much goodness and great adventures can be found in the people around me, and being on the Camino with a simpler lifestyle eased the obstacles that would usually hinder these genuine interactions: perceived barriers imposed by age, occupation, language, beliefs, physical distance, and material goods and their tendency to distract me. While many of us are alone, we still walk together, I’ve realised the value in approaching others in simplicity and as my genuine self, even if it becomes more difficult upon returning to a “normal” world, without the simplicity of the Camino.

The fear of being alone at the beginning of my journey was great, and one of the things I asked in my prayers was to not be alone. Personally, I think that they were answered, and so far I have been reassured of company and support whether or not I can see people walking ahead of me. I’m truly grateful for all the friends I’ve made and all the kindness I have been blessed to receive, and can only think that I have been accompanied by my God through the wonderful people that I have met. It’s been an incredibly peaceful first week, and I look forward to the next few legs of my journey  and the people I’m going to meet.

A ‘Real’ Professional Musician in a Quiet City

As I come to the end of my time in Hanoi, I have finally remembered to post some reflections from the previous city: Vientiane, Laos.

Vientiane, for me, was a very stark contrast to both Bangkok, which I visited directly before, and Hanoi, which I went to directly after. In both population and layout, Vientiane is much smaller and much quieter. In most popular areas and neighbourhoods, there were no skyscrapers to find shade next to. I could use a bicycle without fear of getting run over. And I could walk down the middle of the road at night when the streets went completely empty. In terms of gathering audio for my project, this quietness was also a bit of a new challenge: there were no signature MRT announcements or overcrowded public spaces to listen to. As a result, along with the more slow-paced sounds of fruit vendors, food markets, lone motorbikes, and birds, I ended up incorporating lines from some conversations I had in my time there. My song written and recorded in Vientiane can be found here:

All in all, I probably spent significantly less time on this song than the others because I spent a lot more time playing music and having (gasp!) actual social interactions with people at the music venues and the hostel. Given the size of Vientiane, its nightlife is not exactly comparable to the other capital cities I’m visiting, so when I told people I was playing at a nearby bar, they usually had few other options but to join. Although my original plan was to play two gigs which I had booked beforehand, I ended up playing five nights in a row – which turned out to be both a challenging experiment and a really fun decision.

It was the first time I had ever been tasked with putting together two full 30-minute sets of (mostly) memorised songs, and furthermore doing so by myself, working with only one guitar and voice. It took much longer than I had expected to choose songs I knew well enough and decide upon an even mix and incorporation of both originals and different covers. However, I also realised that it gets a lot easier once some effort has been put in at the start. I now feel a lot more equipped to perform for long amounts of time, and I think one of my biggest takeaways from the week was that it’s really important to engage with the audience — if for no other reason than to avoid getting bored of playing the same hour of music on repeat.

These were the first solo, paid gigs I had ever played. And although doing five in a row was probably overkill, it helped me work through the uncertainties I had surrounding performing alone and not being a ‘real’ professional musician.  Musically, my summer is unorthodox. I’m touring with no real ambitions to perform, and writing an album with no real following. But nonetheless — as odd and barely-technically-accurate as it sounds to myself when I explain it to hostel-goers — I am, by definition, a ‘real’ traveling musician this summer. And that’s a pretty fun thing to be.

Packing Light

Pack light. Less is more. You don’t need much – just the essentials.

This was my mantra as I packed, two days ago, for the Camino de Santiago – a walking pilgrimage spanning 800 kilometres through northern Spain. It’s important to pack lightly because I’ll be walking over 20km per day, for 28 days straight, in order to reach Santiago, the endpoint of this pikgrimage. More baggage makes for a more painful walk – which is why I’m writing this on the notes app on my phone instead of my laptop.

This necessary austerity forced me to reconsider what I was planning to bring on the trip and evaluate which items would be most essential on my journey. Especially the bigger items – my laptop, which would make updating the travel fellowship blog much easier, and my camera. Writing my packing list alone required hours of research, reading other pilgrims’ advice and thinking through the scenarios in which I would actually be using these items. Through the process, I realised that I sometimes didn’t put as much thought into the baggage I’d taken along with me the past semester: commitments, time management, priorities that I let gradually creep into my backpack and weigh me down more than benefit me.

This pursuit of simplicity is therefore one of the reasons that led me to apply to walk the Camino de Santiago for my Travel Fellowship. Reflecting upon the past semester made me realise how little space and time I had away from distractions, clutter, and noise: almost like standing in an RC lift indefinitely, surrounded by colourful posters 24/7. I remember managing 15 different micro-goals at once, balancing a Tower of Babel of commitments and readings, constantly jumping from one task to the next. It left me with little time to fully absorb, reflect on, and understand a tumultuous first year of college, something that, in the past, I was more likely to do. My faith helped with that – as a Roman Catholic, reflection and prayer are two essential facets of my life that I forgot about in the flurry of my first year in college. While still having this inward desire to turn towards my faith, it was mostly overshadowed by things that were right in front of me; I was distracted very easily by the outward pulls of the world and forgot about the importance my spirituality previously held for me. The physical simplicity of the Camino de Santiago mirrors the inner simplicity I believe would help me – freeing me from the unnecessary to see, more clearly, the important.

These outward signs of inner changes are what I hope to foster during this pilgrimage. Having a clear sense of direction, with every physical step taking me towards the end goal. Enjoying this journey and making the best of it by lightening my load. Depending on the goodwill of volunteers managing the pilgrim hostels, finding a community of pilgrims that journeys with me to that goal despite our different nationalities, beliefs, backgrounds. Having faith in myself and in the route despite my doubts and fears. All these are relevant to the inward and outward journeys I hope to make over the next few weeks, and attempting to navigate on my spiritual journey both in the context of this pilgrimage and back at home, in Singapore.

Finally, while this is a deeply personal journey into myself, reflecting on the pilgrimage also makes me curious about how others experience it differently. What affects them, why they chose to walk it, and how it may impact their spirituality, if they even see it that way. One local I spoke to told me, “Every person has a different pilgrinage. Even though you’re all on the same route, you all experience a different pilgrimage.” Without understanding more the experience of other pilgrims, I will not be able to fully immerse myself in this pilgrimage and see how this Catholic tradition has been adopted and adapted by very diverse people.

These objectives, exploring the effect of the outside on the inside, developing my personal spirituality, and understanding how other pilgrims experience the Camino, are my main focus as I walk toward Santiago. I will document them in the Travel Fellowship blog, my own personal journal, and photographs, and collate them into a booklet of reflections at the end of this trip. A very personal and intimate book pondering the journey that I make during this month.

So, in summary, what does this pilgrimage do? In my journal entry from last night, I wrote, “It literally strips me of everything familiar, everything “normal”, sends me into the unknown Outside perhaps to turn inward instead.” Maybe I’m afraid of what things it will strip from my life, but I’m here, and I’m realising that my backpack needs to be light. I hope you’ll enjoy reading about my journey on The Way as much as I do writing about it!

Is there a better way to travel?

I’ve had my fair share of travel experiences in my life. And so has, I expect, most of the students in Yale-NUS. But how many of us have actually had meaningful travel experiences?

This travel fellowship in particular has been a dream – we’ve engaged in depth with locals of each city and village we’ve been to, gotten the names and stories of those we conversed with. We’ve tried local cuisines, travelled with locals instead of foreign tour groups, and made local friends that we’ll definitely be in touch with for a lifetime. Sure, we gave in a couple of times and did some touristy things like get bubble tea and fries. But for the most part, unlike any other trip I’ve been on, I can confidently say that this travelling experience has not just been touch-and-go, not a privileged student traversing “less developed” lands.

But again, how many of us can say the same? As a group, we questioned this multiple times. On our long bus rides, when we were struggling to express what we meant via gestures – the only way we knew how, when we were crossing the border into Cambodia, a land that is associated (in Singapore) almost exclusively with overseas “service learning” trips, and even now, as we pack our bags and ready to leave this chaotic but charming (in its own way) part of Southeast Asia.

There’s something very disturbing about the fact that this travel experience has felt so different from other travel experiences we’ve experienced thus far. Something that indeed makes me wonder, how did we go so wrong? How did travel become so glorified, self-indulgent, superficial? We could point fingers at tour groups, governments, advertising businesses, and sometimes even the locals who encourage these thoughtless travel experiences, but at the end of the day, it’s still a choice we make.

It’s many choices we make. From the method of transportation, the food places we eat at, the attractions we mark as to-gos, the people we converse with, even down to the way we say hello, goodbye, and thank you.

But then again, does it matter? There is no easy answer to this question. We stumbled when we got to this question too. Does it matter that most of us just visit cities to take advantage of the strong Singapore (or American) dollar, to take nice photos – devoid of its meanings, its context, and its histories, to say that we’ve actually been there?

Perhaps the more important question to answer is how do we travel better? This trip has provided us with an insight into possible answers, including (but not limited to): supporting local enterprises, eateries, transport companies, staying in homestays instead of international hotel chains, engaging and getting to know locals whenever possible.* These are things we know to do, but rarely carry out. Not because they’re difficult, but because they’re inconvenient most of the time. And sometimes, I guess we all just want a break.

But as we found out from this trip, and as we hope other travel fellows have also learnt, when you travel with a specific desire to engage and learn, you come up with a much more enriching experience that will probably change your life.

*Of course, it’s not a checklist. Even doing all these things doesn’t make you a “better” traveller. The goal is not to “live like a local”, because the truth is, we’ll never be able to. The point is, I think, to acknowledge that we are foreign to the lands we travel to, and respectfully engage with as much heart as we can.

Beat the heat.

It has been over a week here in India, and somehow I still can’t get used to the heat. We started off in Chennai where the temperatures were supposedly more bearable at thirty eight degrees as compared to the high forties that Delhi has reached in the past couple of days. This country is currently facing its worst-ever heat wave and we’re in the middle of it. Yet, it is in this devastating heat that I’m reminded of the spirit and eco-friendly way of life in Auroville.

Before embarking on this travel fellowship, Auroville had remained a mystery to me. With little media coverage and limited written articles on this queer town, it seemed that only their official website ( proved to be the most informative source. I can’t say much for my travel partners, but I surely had my doubts on the idealism that Auroville takes pride in. After all, a place where equality and human harmony are prioritized and worshiped seemed too good to be true. Perhaps, this town is riding on some new religion or spiritual lifestyle that mandates its residents to live in a particular utopian-like manner, or so I thought.

It was only after visiting Auroville myself that my perspective of this little town started to change. What was most apparent to me there was never the religiosity of the place (despite the fact that the portrait of their founder, the mother, was hung everywhere we went), but it was the heart and passion of the people that spoke the loudest. From conversations with residents who grew up there, to meeting with volunteers and interns who were drawn to that place because of their ideals and work, Auroville was much more than what the mother envisioned it to be. Their emphasis on reforestation and sustainable living led Auroville to become the training ground and the prime example of successful efforts to combat climate change through ecological transformation and even veganism. The wide array of tasty vegetarian food choices is definitely something to be mentioned here, as vegan options were always available in the menus. Although it was a pity that we didn’t manage to visit the Sadhana Forest to understand a bit more about their transformation work to revive the wasteland on the outskirts of Auroville, staying in the heart of Auroville was already more than sufficient to see how every resident tried to lead a sustainable lifestyle and was appreciative of the conscious cooperative spirit that each Aurovillians had.


It seemed almost unfair that the world puts India in a box when there is so much diversity and creativity looming around in her cities. I was undeniably awed by Auroville and their way of living (albeit still a little skeptical about their spiritual beliefs and teachings of their founder – the mother and her spiritual partner, Sri Aurobindo), and I’m sure that India has much more to offer than this small town in the outskirts of Puducherry. As we move on to the next part of our travel fellowship and into the city of Chandigarh, I’m praying for strength to continue on in India’s crazy summer, along with a heart excited to see what the next city has to offer.


Historically, there are many values that Japanese people held dear to them, when life was still simple. The sentiment of ‘mottainai’ (what a waste) which I have mentioned before, exists because people used to treasure what they have. And in seeing what they treasure disappear, they say ‘mottainai’. While this isn’t a value for environmental protection per se, I believe it is at the heart of protecting the environment – treasuring our resources and feeling a sense of love for the environment around us, be it what we eat and where we thrive. In the farms we visited thus far, this sentiment was strong: we made sure that leftovers were kept for the next meal, and nothing edible was wasted during meal preparation. In the countryside, all the neighbours know each other, and they gift each other the food they make, and sometimes even come together to cook with the ingredients they each bring.

However, the farmers shared that this is changing, because the younger generations are unable to understand where the value comes from. Because of how available all our resources seem to us in the cities (convenience stores, supermarkets), we often forget how difficult it is and how much work goes behind the scenes to procure all these resources, and there is no need to think ‘mottainai’. Even though I previously thought that everyone finishes all their food when they eat at restaurants due to the presence of this value in Japanese culture, we found out that it isn’t true. While there are people who do ensure that they finish all their food for this reason, there is also an increasing number of people who don’t hold this value anymore.

We arrived in Tokyo with the perception that we wouldn’t be able to find these deep rooted, beautiful values, but rather be surrounded by modern, consumerist cultures. While that was true to some extent, there are people who care. I felt so alienated by the coldness of Tokyo after two whole weeks of being in the the warm countryside where strangers greet each other (I even smiled and greeted a stranger on the streets of Tokyo on reflex, and surprised both the other party and myself). But after visiting some farmers markets and organic stores, we realise that while small, there are people who care and still hold these deep values. It’s so important for these people to be here as they are the catalysts of change in these large and scary cities – I met farmers of vegetable and free range egg farms, distributors of organic food and companies supporting socio-environmental causes, such as a fairtrade company bringing in organic bananas to Japan (and with minimal packaging)! What warmed me the most wasn’t their amazing initiatives, but how they were so willing to share their knowledge, happiness, love and hard work. Even though I took their precious time away from work (I even talked to some of them for almost 10min!), most of them gifted me with something as thanks – although I should really be the one thanking them. I was gifted an egg from a free range egg farm, and a banana from the fairtrade company, which touched me so so much.

The banana and egg I received as gifts :’)

The kind employee sharing about ethical bananas – at an organic mini farmer’s market right outside Takashimaya Shinjuku!

I was also thinking about how modern Japanese culture has come to be and why Japan seems to use excessive packaging and cosmetically filter their food more than other countries do, and I realise that much of it is rooted in their culture of hospitality. It seems to have manifested itself in the consumerist market as all the issues we are identifying now – cosmetic filtering, excessive packaging, all serve as a way to show respect and hospitality even in the modern times. At department stores for instance, Japanese shops will always give generous servings of samples (exposing Coco’s guilty pleasure) as a show of hospitality to the customers. Knowing that these issues are rooted in such values confuses me, but I think it teaches me that understanding cultures goes beyond the surface, and requires deep understanding of why certain things are done. It’s easy for us to get mad at all the packaging we see, but if we understand the scenario charitably, we can actually learn a lot from it, and slowly unpack what we have to do to resolve the issue.

While it may appear that values such as mottainai have disappeared along with the times, I believe they’re still somewhere in people’s hearts and that these values can be ignited once more, especially with the hard work of all these people. A farmer shared with me that his regulars and the people he gets to know at events start to get aware of the issue and ask for ugly fruits and vegetables, so he brings them along to farmers markets. Although he doesn’t display them, he knows his regulars and informed customers will ask for them. While this isn’t at the level of community building yet, this connection and heart behind reducing waste is so touching to hear.

Farmer’s Market at the United Nations University (every Saturday!)

The farmer whom brings ugly food to his stall at the UNU Farmer’s Market

Being at such events (at really popular locations) also tells us that the movement is gaining traction, and organic food is becoming more and more mainstream in Tokyo. While it is currently still presented as a luxury and at slightly exorbitant prices, they are slowly becoming more available to the wider public.

Surprisingly affordable vegan food at UNU Farmer’s Market!

With the climate crisis approaching, increasing poverty and world hunger, and so many other problems that humans have created, I think there is some hope – that lies with passionate hearts, and connecting them to create powerful communities.

In this cold city, I found so much passion that really warms my heart.