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Can travel heal a broken heart?

February 6, 2014
China

He flashed that smile; his green eyes twinkled under the fairy lights on Orchard Road that Christmas evening. I traced the dent on his cheek and muttered, “Dimples. That’s what it’s called in English.” “Grübchen,” he replied in German, and we walked hand-in-hand under glittering lanterns and trees covered in artificial snow.

Fast forward to a few weeks later and I found myself on that stretch of road again. The fairy lights are gone. So is the guy with the grübchen. What’s left is a dent in my heart, and a strong desire to kick myself for what just happened. Had I followed the first item in my rulebook—thou shall not fall in love with a long-term backpacker—I would’ve saved myself from this heartbreak.

But it happened, and ended as quickly as it came. It didn’t start in ways that you would imagine. No, not after hours of conversations during bus rides in Cambodia or some cinematic love-at-first-sight encounters in southern Thailand. He was not the first backpacker who had shown interest in me either. There were a couple of guys before him but I was too quick to dismiss them, sticking to my belief that developing feelings for someone doing a round-the-world trip is as good as effortlessly digging my heart’s grave. People always leave anyway.

We met in my city, which made it all the more heart-wrenching when it ended. He was travelling around Asia then, I happily surviving in my world with occasional encounters with backpackers. He flew to my city twice after our first meeting—which is considered two trips too many to a small island-state. We had initially thought we could make it work despite being in two different continents but the map is not something we can bend and adjust in our favour.

Though it happened in a span of months, it still felt long enough to have me crushed by the end of it; heartbreaking enough to leave me contemplating packing my bags and fleeing this city tainted with memories of—and with—him. I can’t sit long enough in Starbucks without being reminded of our conversations on geography and the NBA; I can’t play a quiz app on my phone because I know I wouldn’t score perfectly without him by my side. Every corner of my city feels like it’s stamped with that grübchen-filled smile. I cannot simply look away; I wanted to run away.

I have to admit, I’m the type who turn to airports for sanctuary. My knee-jerk reaction to any looming source of stress is to book a flight some place new and unheard-of, hoping that the ‘foreignness’ of it would leave me in awe, and push the stress away. Travel keeps my sanity when everything feels overbearing, the very reason my overseas writing assignments and personal trips are scattered all over the calendar to give me enough breathing spaces. It’s relatively easy to do so: Stressed? Book a flight. Come back. Work. Stressed again? Repeat. My magazine job is a 9-to-5 with specific deadlines, and as long as I don’t check my emails during trips, I will be fine. I wanted to apply the same approach to mend my heart, to go some place where there will be no reminders of him. My job and career, however, is not something I can just pack in my bag and bring with me, and of course, a broken heart has no offline button, no airplane mode, no deadlines to beat. Emotions have no sense of place and time; the soul-crushing pain is within me, and I’m afraid movement of any kind may not necessarily equate to moving on. The grown-up thing to do is to face the memories, no matter how sad, and not to crumble with the pain. And that’s exactly what I plan to do.

Can travel heal a broken heart? I hope it does. And I’m going beyond hoping; I’m off to find out.

On Valentine’s Day—yeah, that commercial excuse of a special holiday that makes single people feel miserable for being alone!— I’m going to the place where the guy with the grübchen and I had planned (didn’t go beyond planning though) to meet up months ago when he was still on the road. I’m visiting some temples in Java, the place that signifies the time when both our hearts are still whole and full of eagerness, the place (other than my city) where my being alone would probably be at it’s hardest. I hope that the gods would somehow present their divine intervention to heal my heart. I’ll still be back in my city to work but I made sure that a trip (for a few days, at least) is a monthly endeavour: an overseas writing assignment in March, a company trip in April, a writing trip in May, a holiday in June. I’m not sure if it would be travel or time that would eventually help, but I could only hope that somewhere between getting lost and finding my stories, I also get my heart back to its painless state. And find my way back to love, in time.

Asia

So I Went Alone: The Beauty of Solo Travelling

December 1, 2011
chiang Mai

“You’re someone who loves being with people, travelling with friends” was how one colleague describes me. And my latest trip – a three-day solo trip in Chiang Mai  – defies this belief and pretty much every fear I have of travelling alone.

Writers and bloggers the world over have romanticised the idea of solo travelling since time immemorial. It connects you to your deep self, it’s a good check of your map-reading skills, they would say. You know the motherhood statements that those narratives give birth to. I used to read those testaments with complete detachment – loathing the overly dramatic tones even – until I found myself in the middle of Wualai Road in Chiang Mai, walking along a sea of people scouring the Saturday market for tribal goods and found myself all alone. Ah, the freedom is overwhelming.

Chiang Mai, 31/01/10

I had not imagined myself writing this, really, waxing poetic about the joys of travelling alone, until I’m trapped in the middle of daily deadlines and found myself wishing that I were still relaxing and sipping hearty banana shakes in Thailand. For someone whose day job involves double-checking that all things are in place (grammatical and otherwise), it was a bit difficult for me to be as spontaneous as I hope I would be. Some of you out there may echo my sentiments: with only several days of granted leave a year, a depleting savings account and responsibilities that range from the emotional to the financial, we get tangled in our daily checklists. Every single day is a quagmire of must-dos and most likely, travel plans are the first to become collateral damage when ‘needs’ battle ‘wants’ (or as I used to say, when our wallet is at war with our wanderlust).

My weekend trip last month was my first attempt at going solo, and in a way, a small inch closer to spontaneity. I’ve stepped into the plane with only two things confirmed: I have booked a guest house (so my mum and dad would not worry where I would spend my nights) and I’m going white water rafting on my second day. Where would I eat, where would I go after dinner, who would I be with most importantly, deserve some big question marks in my head, which I had totally ignored.

Armed with semi-free tickets from a lucky draw (which got finalised less than 24 hours before my trip!), I told my parents and friends I’m going to Thailand alone. My parents and sisters are the most supportive surprisingly, with one of my sisters even telling me to also go to Koh Samui or Pattaya after Chiang Mai, and my mum is not as worried as I’d predicted. But my friends’ reactions range from surprised and worried (Why are you going alone? Is it safe?) to condescending (What is there to see in Chiang Mai?! Why there?) to that of awe (Can you do that? Are you gonna be okay alone?) At times, my petty concerns surfaced: What if something happens to me? What if I get sick during this brief period? What if I get lost? And the most superficial of worries: Who’s going to take my pictures?! (That’s why camera timers and tripods are invented, go use ‘em!) The trick is to get past the overthinking: pack your bags, hop on the plane and just wait for things to happen. Trust me, it’s all going to be okay.


Chiang MaiSo I went, I survived – albeit with a few bruises and whole body aching after falling from the raft  – and I’m here to tell the tales. There’s only one harsh truth about going solo: the first day is the most difficult, it’s like the backpacking rite of passage. The transition from your socially fine life at home and the lone backpacker mode before you is always hard. The moment I landed, I realised I’m really alone. The first meal is the most lonesome, since I am not used to eating lunch all by myself. But being free from the familiar is one the best things that happened to me this year. There is always something liberating about standing in the middle of a crowded street, looking for your next meal while grappling for the right words to say, as the people around you are speaking something alien to your ears. There’s no hassle of eating quickly, since I had no travel mate to worry about. The absence of an itinerary is also overwhelming; I can scoop the glass noodles of my pad thai with no ticking clock and printed schedule to always look at.

Back in the guest house, Wi-Fi has been my salvation, and not in terms of connecting with friends and telling them I’m okay, but because I realised I had not packed any maps or guidebook with me. I found a note on my phone saying that I should go to places called Love at First Bite and Mike’s Burgers (I forgot to list down the addresses!), both of which I haven’t had the chance to visit because I ended up ordering roti egg outside the Saturday market (It is love at first bite, too!) and having beef noodles and banana shakes with a fellow backpacker (concidentally named Mike) in a small corner of the walled city.

For some of you who have done an RTW backpacking trip alone for months or year, my concerns may sound petty, amateurish perhaps. But it’s a big step for someone like me who’s so used to being organised. And I loved every single minute of it. I was able to stop and stare at the nice views, and look at the souvenirs without someone nudging me to walk on. No one’s asking me to check my watch because we’ll be late for the next thing on our itinerary. I’m on my own time, reaching for my own targets (or lack thereof).

The truth is when you go out there, you are not alone, especially if you go anywhere near or along the Banana Pancake trail. Backpackers are everywhere and you just have to overcome the initial shyness and go talk to them! After all, the beauty of travelling is not on how we followed our itinerary by heart, but it’s the people we met, the stories that get swapped, the tips we take from those brief encounters with backpackers, who, after long days on the road, are reluctantly heading home. It’s those surreal moments when we are not defined by our jobs, by the gadgets we flaunt, by the clothes we wear, by the way we carry ourselves. It’s just you and the world, and the backpackers doing the same as you: exploring, leaving  the routine and the monotony of safe lives for a taste of the unknown across the border, or in my case, within a three-hour flight radius. Solo backpacking teaches you how to rely on yourself more, but more importantly, it connects you to strangers, to the places you only see in magazines and travel blogs, and you know, nothing can replace experience.

So before you roll your eyes (like I did, and I apologise) at those who continue to wax poetic about how they trudge along life’s offbeat paths alone, I suggest you go grab your backpack and step into the wide wide highways leading to your next great adventure. And if you can – actually you must, at least once – do it all alone.

Some of you have done an RTW for months or even years, but there’s always the ‘first time’. Where’s the first country you’ve been to alone? How was it? I’m so excited to hear your stories of “When I was in_____ alone, I_________… Hit the comment boxes and share your ‘travel firsts’! 

Cheers,

Nelly

from my sunshine spot north of the equator, wondering where and when my next solo trip would be

This is a contribution from Nelly Hernandez. Photos used from jrbubaker and Woody Shakti under creative commons license.


Travel Blog

Travel Rant: Bali for beginners

September 16, 2011
Ubud Market

One guidebook calls Bali’s tourism industry a ‘duopoly’, with the chaos of Kuta typically juxtaposed against the idyllic vibe of Ubud. When I went to the island recently, I have seen these both sides and in as much as I want to remember Bali as a postcard friendly paradise, I think I would have to agree with Mr Daffy’s attitude in The Beach: You know why he wouldn’t ever go to Indonesia? Boycotted because of Bali. He went there only once… and wouldn’t ever go back’ (Garland, 1996).

For those who see Bali as an Eden on Earth with swaying palm trees and friendly locals in the backdrop, take heart: unless you are staying in five-star hotels luxury travellers are raving about, let me warn you that Bali is beautiful, but it is a bit overrated. Maybe I went during the wrong season, or bad luck strikes me more than other tourists (which has something to do with me looking like a Balinese, which I will talk about later), but I’m sharing my experiences to forewarn you of the things that might ruin your vacation in the so-called island of the Gods.

Sweet Bali High

But first, the good stuff. Balinese are friendly people, and I’m not talking about hotel staff, taxi drivers and market vendors who are, in a way, financially motivated to be so. I went to a walking tour in the heart of Ubud and I can say that the farmers, the ordinary people going about their lives in the villages are sincerely friendly. They offered food to a stranger like me, gave their warmest smiles and most of them wish I had a good day during my stay in Bali.

Ubud

These are the locals – not tainted by any monetary gains whatsoever – who make me believe that Bali is indeed a paradise, but probably back in its heyday.

Bali Boo: Rippin’ Off my Rupiah

My eco-tour lasted for half a day, and after my stroll to the green fields, hidden waterfalls and local villages, I needed to come back to the tourist zone. But the more I move out of the fields, and closer I get to the tourist drag, the more I feel disconnected from the real Bali. I think all the travel hype about the island is well, just a hype, and the brochures are just glossies full of fluff.

Partly, it has something to do with me being Southeast Asian and looking like someone from Jakarta or even a Balinese (according to the locals). At first, I thought I would easily blend in and no one would suspect I’m a traveller. But, it became a disadvantage on my side. And this sort of ‘discriminatory treatment’ I have felt strongly in the restaurants. I went to a pizza place in Jalan Pengosekan in Ubud and the moment I got in, I requested for the menu and the staff asked me to go to the counter and order. I have nothing against ordering if that’s the SOP, but five minutes later, two Westerners/Caucasians came into the restaurant and one of the staff eagerly came to their table, handed them the menu and even had a chat about the bestsellers! In Kuta, meanwhile, my friends and I ordered some snacks in a restaurant and the waiter, after taking our orders, asked: “Are you tourists?” (I thought to myself, “I’m a traveller, not a tourist”) Upon learning that we are indeed non-locals, the waiter did not sound convinced and he even uttered, “Are you sure?” and I detected a condescending note in there. Maybe it’s a case of bad service or bad English sentence construction, but I cannot forgive the sarcasm.

Fruit stalls - Ubud Market

Bad service aside, it’s the perpetually painful ripping off that made me disappointed with Bali. All memories I have of Ubud Market are vendors trying to rip off tourists. Take the case of the red wooden bangle: When I went to Ubud Market, I spotted a red wooden bangle and in three different stores, vendors are trying to sell it to me for 60,000 rupiah. I declined and when I went to Kuta, a vendor is selling it for 30,000 rupiah. I asked if there’s a chance she can lower the price and the vendor replied, “Fixed price, 30,000”. I thanked her for her time and started walking away. She tried to run after me and said: Okay, I can give it to you for 10,000 rupiah”. I appreciated the effort, but no thanks. 60,000 rupiah reduced to 10,000 rupiah is just insane.

And of course, what kind of travel rant will this be without the quintessential taxi story? Sadly, I have had my share. Taxis in Kuta overcharge, that’s a given. But what’s worse than charging 50,000 rupiah for a ‘parking fee’? My friends and I took a cab from Kuta to Ngurah Rai International Airport and we insisted on using the metre. Upon reaching the Departure Gate, the taxi driver exorbitantly charged us 63,000 rupiah, including, the 50,000 parking fee. We had an argument about it, insisting that the toll he paid is only 5,000! He only gave in and accepted the correct amount when an airport officer intervened.

If you chance upon this post and are heading to Bali, pardon my bitterness and heed my advice: drop all your expectations the moment you land at Ngurah Rai. And if you have been to the Bali, and had a totally different experience from what I have had, good for you. Hit the comment box for your equally violent reactions, if you may.

Thanks to Nick Botter & Alpha for the photos. Under creative commons license at the time of posting.

Have you been to Bali? How was your experience?

 

This is a contribution from Nelly Hernandez

Challenges

The Burger Prince in Singapore

April 3, 2011
giantburger

Chicken rice, kaya toast and prawn mee are shoo-ins in any must-try Singapore food list. But let me add one more: a giant burger.

Fresh from our food trip in Malaysia, Jerick and I rode a Delima bus from Melaka Sentral Station and headed for Singapore. We went straight to Chinatown, had chicken rice and prawn mee at Maxwell Food Centre and decided to say hello to the Merlion the next day. We met two backpackers: Dennis, a German traveller roaming Southeast Asia; and Apple, a fellow Filipino traveller. Yes, we saw the Merlion, but we had a detour:  a Giant Burger Challenge. No biggie, you would say? See for yourself:

From the outdoor theatre of the Esplanade (the best spot for stunning views of the Merlion and Marina Bay Sands, the hotel with a surfboard-like rooftop resting on three towers), we walked for about five minutes to reach New York New York restaurant located at City Link Mall, adjacent to the City Hall MRT station. And that’s where Dennis, egged on by Jerick, Apple and I, summoned all the hunger in him to take down the Giant Burger.

The challenge is to wolf down an 8-inch-wide, 4-inch-thick burger with tonnes of fries. Sounds easy? The restaurant’s Honour Board shows that 10 extraordinarily hungry individuals have done it before, but here’s a caveat: you have to do it in an hour. Eat it within 60 minutes and it’s on the house; if your intestines couldn’t handle it, the restaurant will charge you S$40! With a ticking clock beside the huge plate (it’s distractingly pink, by the way) and fries the size of our fingers, this challenge is really for the hungry souls.

Our dear friend Dennis started off good. Too good, really. He quickly finished a quarter of the burger, then half of it. He took gulps of water in between bites and he felt full really fast. But the fries became his Waterloo: he couldn’t eat ’em all.

He tried all the ways to make the fries more appetizing: added salt, put lots of pepper and even showered them with catsup. But starch was not easy to take in. We requested for cotton candy to provide a contrast to the salty combo, and the cotton candy even became our makeshift pom-poms as we cheered him on. Sixteen minutes left in the clock and a quarter of the giant remaining, Dennis decided to give up. (Oh, and it  didn’t help that a song called Impossible was played during the challenge!)

The timer hit zero seconds and with Dennis’s wallet weeping, he handed over the S$40 dollars to the manager, who by the way, offered some insider info on how to successfully overcome the challenge  (holler in the comment box you want to know his tips!). Dennis considered it an an epic failure on his part and he refused to be called the burger king yet (hence, we’ll use prince for now). But he promised to do it again, when he returns to the Lion City in the future.

Sure, Singapore may be the land of chicken rice, chilli crab and kaya toast and it’s not famous for its burgers. But travelling is all about finding surprising tidbits of places you go to, right? Ditch your desires to take a burger challenge in other parts of the globe. This Singapore Giant Burger Challenge is really one for the books.

 

 

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