The good son tour of Beijing

September 23, 2012

Our hotel was right next to Wang Fu Jing, Beijing’s premier shopping district

The lobby at the Raffles

Mama reading the day’s news, specifically the anti-Japanese propaganda

My favourite part of Beijing, Beihai Park

Mama at the Forbidden City

Roast duck at Quanjude

1 hour BC (before cramps)

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Viagante

March 6, 2012

I have always thought that if one wants to be a traveller, he also has to try to become the best person he can be. Not only is he an ambassador for the country or place he is from, he also represents his culture, his race, his religion & traditions. A good traveller is strong & fearless; respectful & accomodating; observant, communicative & erudite.

But it is not enough to just be able to make foreign friends, engage in socially responsible travelling, and believe that you have impacted the lives of the less fortunate by the grace of your visit, the money that you spend.

It is not good enough to be all that in a foreign land.

The journey of a million miles begins at home.

Take action.  Be active in grassroots politics, take part in your community projects, vote for your government, pay your taxes, protest when there’s injustice, influence others wisely, teach your children compassion, respect your elders, and above all, live passionately.

It is only with all that you can begin your first step to travel the world, that you are not just a tourist passing through. In whatever you would choose to be, your identity will be strong and you will retain the core of a person who lives correctly.

Jakarta

January 29, 2012

Last week a private extension to a business trip allowed me to rediscover Jakarta’s charms from my last visit 10 years ago.  As a city like any other city in the world it has its fair share of frustrations and angst. My visit coincided with labor unrest which threatened to derail some of my plans. Even with a driver we’d arrive late for meetings 30 kms away when we left for it 2 hours prior.

But as my work was done I started to explore on the Jakarta Busway, a dedicated throughfare not unlike the one in Curitiba(Brazil), with elevated platforms making embarkation & disembarkation flush with the bus door.  Buses would wedge through traffic like a slippery knife, probably the best MRT this city could have without the foresight of having built a subway system. Interestingly,  a conductor makes sure only around 10 people could get on a bus at anyone time, even with the bus half-filled, which I suppose it is to enable more people at the next stations to get on as well.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I saw a petite schoolgirl at an alley noodle stall waiting for her order. Patrons would eat on a hastily built narrow table propped up against the wall, and would pile on the various chilli condiments to their noodles.  The teenagers manning the stall looked as if they had spent the night rempiting through the streets of Jakarta, and were in daylight responsible members of society. I did not spot anything anywhere around the stall resembling fresh running water.  I thought, if this girl can eat these, I must too test my bowels of steel.    

It turned out to be an excellent breakfast.

I would meet random people on the streets, when borrowing a lighter or asking for directions open up friendly smiles & curious inquisition.   As always, perhaps also because encounters are so fleeting, you tend to meet the nicest of people in your travels.

In researching for my end-of-year vacation, I shortlist and dream of Phnom Penh, Hanoi and Vientiane.  I think of the exotic foods I would have, the enriching encounters, and the images that’ll burn in my memory, but when I recount my travels friends point out that I seem to take unneccessary risks – that in my mind the dark and mysterious alley is always the more potentially interesting path to take.   I am reminded of the base reason in why I do it, and it condenses to just one word – discovery. From the way one travels, and how he reacts to each encounter, is a reflection of how his world view is formed.  Discovery may not necessary be always about looking for new things, but perhaps the ability to look at things and places and people in a new way.

Recently I have also been thinking about morality, and by extension, about values and principles. I have been prompted by the Daphne Iking case making the rounds in the papers and a book I have been reading; Robert Musil’s post modernist classic, a man without qualities.  It is a slow and ponderous book, depicting lives in pre-world war 1 vienna. The protaganist is the man without qualities, a hard thinking intellectual who is however ambivalent towards morals and laissez faire in his relationships. I then wonder about myself – can a person be at once morally upright and yet careless with it?

Suppose at one extreme we all know instinctively that all murder are morally wrong, but on the other the fruitarians would scream “meat is murder!” (some would wait for fruits to fall from trees).  Somewhere in between these 2 extremes are where lines are blurred where things are morally acceptable. I have friends who stay in loveless marriages because they should “never stop trying”, I also have friends have tried enough, who stopped and then tried to salvage what is left of their lives, in the hope that they will lead better, more fulfilling lives in the future. Who is to judge them? Why impose our views on their decisions? Is there a right or wrong? And ultimately whose values, principles or morals were broken?

But sometimes it is the process in which one takes towards a certain end is where one is judged.  Do you rectify a wrong with another wrong to make it right? If your neighbour’s wife is in that loveless marriage, is it right for you to covert her? Is Daphne Iking malicious, or simply confused?  She may yet only be accused of that greater crime- of not taking a stand, of not being firm.  In life there is a certain way one should see and do things, and yet there are no certainties. Daphne, when faced with a perplexing choice, should have just taken a stand, that risk, and chosen early. In not doing so, it is only the innocent who suffers.

And then, making a choice at that fork in the road is relatively easy, but to stay on that road with conviction requires strength of will.

Perhaps the alternate title of this post could also be; the real voyage of discovery is seeing it from within. Credit to Proust.

Lime in a Cat

Not often you get to meet the proprietor of an establishment that you like, who sits you down, buys you a beer and relates a-dream-turned-reality, whose stories inspires and you’d come away motivated, daring you to fulfill yours. While she talked, I would start taking notice at the little things – the motif on the napkins, the way my welcome drink (lime juice of course) was presented, conscious of how space was distributed around the room, and wondering if she had a hand in all of this.  Engaging as the conversation was, it helped that she was a young thirtysomething, and pretty. 

I love to hear of how things came into being, and in this case a 10ft long solid sandalwood table, characteristically grooved with chainsaw markings, comes complete with a story of the effort it took to get it where it was, a rooftop lounge (http://www.limelightlounge.com.my/) with a panaromic view of downtown Kuching, plus a glimpse of the namesake river.  The building it seems had been in her family possession, and left abandoned for many years, and efforts to get it occupied in various guises ran aground, until the idea of a hotel came up. And yet, it is also a background story on the bureaucratic circus hoops that she has to jump through to get the approvals & licences, a veritable minefield I am surely well accustomed to. 

The thing that I really like about Julie & her hotel is how well thought out it all is – it is staffed just right to maintain quality, as evidenced by their no.1 ranking on tripadvisor.com; it does not harbour any delusions of grandeur and over-reach to compete with the four. five-stars, and you can see it in its minimalistic decor and in its pricing; it is sure of itself as a product, that it is a boutique hotel with clean lines and modern touches, of strange bedroom layouts because of structural restrictions and creative ways to overcome that, which results in a kind of kooky charm; and that it is lime-themed, which works well garnishing windows & portals, its little cafe, its elevators, its laundry bags, its airport van, her mother’s pants (really!).  The icing is that they literally do own the lime plantation which supplies them the fresh fruits for the lime cocktails!  

The death knell to any entrepreneur is the lack of a solid plan at the start and the fortitude not to tinker about with half-baked ideas.  Julie has no such problem. Novice hotelier as she may be, she must possess high standards and maintain them, understand her niche and hold (or raise) its value, ultimately recoup her initial investment.

Couchsurfing

January 6, 2010

Beautiful concept, the idea of hosting a complete stranger in your home or city, and a ready pool of like-minded people which radically increases the possibility of making good meaningful connections & lasting friendships – brings up the feeling I had when I first set eyes upon an ummanned fruit store with unit prices hastily written on dusty placards in Kelantan (honor system? or laziness?), or the time I was in my grandmother’s house in Japan, waking up one summer morning to find freshly cut vegetables left on the front porch (neighbour’s harvest) – the intrinsic trust in the good of fellow human beings.

This idea is an extension of paying-it-forward, and also of reciprocity, that I may want to be a good host to somebody, to make someone a good dinner or to show someone my favorite spots in  my home city, my favorite city. Like in one’s life dream in wanting to leave his legacy on this earth, he gets a chance to positively affect somebody in some small way – a kind gesture, a cultural exchange, some deeper understanding… 

I remember in Macuto, Venezuela, a young girl who had never seen an asian before showed me her city and the best empanadas; Nobu the middle age TNT Skypak courier agent in Narita who treated me to all-u-can-eat Yakiniku, a place to crash for the night, and jazz records when I was stranded missing a flight; the tatooed young skinhead in the grayhound somewhere in Texas, convinced that he was a samurai warrior in his past life, mystified by my asian looks, expounded his confucianistic world view & compassion for mankind(!!); Yvonne, an english girl I met in NYC who later hosted me in Cornwall, fed me for 2 weeks, gave me money (50 quid!), traisped around St.Davids in Wales, and later schooled me in my transformation to manhood; Mauricio the village mechanic somewhere nowhere in the Litoral (between Rio and SP) who when my car broke down says no-senor-I-will-work-no-more-today-I-have-money-in-my-pockets-I-won’t-fix-your-car-but-you-are-welcomed-to-come-have-a-caipirinha-with-me and I stayed in his house and the next day my car was fixed; Dave the polish nut who lived upstairs from me in Boston with his 3 cats, always inviting me to his apartment to yak, cooked amazing beef stew,  and calls me names like chink or gook or jap without malice (if that was possible), who died of lung cancer from oversmoking. 

I want to pay it back.

Fascinating India

September 1, 2009

Spices

Spices

I could not get more stressed in any other place than in India, where all five senses would get assaulted and held constantly on high tension, 24 hours a day. Running the gamut on both extremes, an experience in India cannot be  described easily – nothing is simply good or bad, black or white, right or wrong. 

It is a poor country with an enormous upside.  It is a culinary tradition that produces stunning gastronomic creations. It is the pollution in the cities that is dustier, more pungent, more life threatening than any other country. It is a history that is at once proud and influential and peerless.  It is schizophrenic, psychopathic, psychedelic, kitsch and vibrant –  all rolled into one. It is a delicate balance of tradition and modernity, of inertia and momentum. 

India is at a crossroad. It produces world class scientists and world famous entrepreneurs, its blurgeoning middle class drives its economy and wields tremendous power in the world’s largest democracy, and those who I know, are a gregarious, passionate people. 

And yet, a vast majority might be left behind.  As the country splutters-stops-splutters, inching ever forward, signs are there for the love/hate afflictions that globalization brings to a country, still protected, but inevitably forced to open up, the mammoth task at hand is to better the lives of the hardcore poor, and present viable & real hope to the teeming millions.  I do not feel the energy of purposefulness I felt in Guangzhou walking around Delhi, in fact, many seem to be mindlessly & senselessly ambling about – not strange when you slog through the urban landscape working for a few rupees a day. I see the elevator boy who pushes buttons for a living; the man who stands between you and ticket counter, relaying pieces of paper; always, there is an “extra” man or woman in any establishment whose functions are so trivial it defies reasoning, only that “in India” it is life.