Faux Winter at Yosemite National Park

I’d have to say that I was severely disappointed by my first trip to this world-renowned national park. Yes, of course the landscape was awe-inspiring and magnificent and all that, but that is highly expected from a place designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The problem was, going there in mid-February, I also expected zero degree temperature, snow-capped peaks, icy road conditions, or even warning signs to carry snow chain on the road. At least that would have given you the feel of going up on a mountain in the peak of winter. Instead, we were met with temperature averaging between the high 60s and low 70s. On the day we hiked up the trail towards Lower Yosemite Falls, it was so hot I nearly couldn’t resist stripping down to my sport bras. As for the snow and ice, they existed only in your imagination.

I’ve always considered myself quite an expert at making myself believe whatever my mind wants me to believe, regardless of whether it’s real or not. I jokingly call it inward reality distortion field. But even with this expertise of mine, it was impossible to convince myself that we were actually in the midst of winter up on a mountain range that is supposed to have an alpine climate. It doesn’t help at all that whenever you google “winter in Yosemite”, you’re bound to see pictures of a completely white landscape, people skiing and hiking on snow-covered grounds. Damn you, global warming. And to think that some people (like the Republicans, for example) are still vehemently denying that it’s real….

Disappointment aside, snow or no snow, how can one not be awed and humbled by this place? It’s almost as if the various landscapes are competing with one another. Everywhere you turn, you’ll see something new that dwarfs the other view that you just left behind.

Welcome to Yosemite National Park. We pulled over to admire this view shortly after entering the national park area.

Welcome to Yosemite National Park. We pulled over to admire this view shortly after entering the national park area. The harsh afternoon sun did not do the picture justice. But even the best photography equipments and skills could never sum up the total beauty of Yosemite.

Pine trees basking in the warm afternoon sun. It's almost as if we're living in a picture storybook.

Pine trees basking in the warm afternoon sun. The valley is full of one jaw-dropping view after another.

How interesting! A quaint little church in the middle of the forest. Catholic mass is said every Sunday at 10am in case anyone's interested to know.

A quaint little church in the middle of the forest. Catholic mass is said every Sunday at 10am in case anyone’s interested to know.

I could almost believe that I was a part of a picture storybook.

With a view like this, it’s almost as if I was part of a picture storybook.

Believe it or not, despite the National Geographic worthy views, the highlight of the trip (at least for me) was meeting Joan, our AirB&B host. She lived in Mariposa, about an hour’s drive south of the national park along Highway 140. We ran out of camping ground to book inside the valley, partly because I planned this trip in a rather last-minute fashion and because not all camping grounds were open in winter. But now that we’ve seen Joan’s place, I don’t think we would ever want to stay anywhere else the next time we visit the national park.

Joan lived in the kind of house that I’ve always dreamed of owning but would never want to because it would be too much of a hassle just to maintain it. Talk about being contradictory, huh? Her 5-acre property consisted of a beautiful 3-bedroom house complete with a wrap-around porch that overlooked the mountains and a grassy backyard big enough for her horse (yes, horse) to roam around. Oh, did I mention that she had an outdoor jacuzzi pool too?

From top left & counter clockwise: Joan's house seen from the driveway, the wrap-around porch, view from the porch, and just 2 of the numerous animals she keeps.

From top left counter-clockwise: Joan’s house as seen from the driveway, the wrap-around porch, view from the porch, and just 2 of the numerous beautiful animals she kept.

The interior is a combination of country style and Victorian style. Despite being neither an architect nor an interior designed, Joan designed and decorated everything by herself. She casually called it her 'knack'.

The interior is a combination of country style and Victorian style. Despite being neither an architect nor an interior designer, Joan designed and decorated everything by herself. She casually called it her ‘knack’ (I rolled my eyes upon hearing it).

Joan herself was like a long-lost grandmother. Warm, welcoming, completely no-fuss and no-nonsense. She answered your questions straight to the point, no beating about the bush and no long-winded stories. She didn’t linger around and was not imposing at all, but at the same time was always there for us. She even let us use her driveway for me to repeatedly practice backing up the car and turning around. Honestly AirB&B just gets better and better with each booking. Just when I thought I couldn’t possibly get a better host and place to stay than the last one, they managed to top it and give me a better one.

On our last night in Yosemite, we were caught in a massive jam coming out of the national park. It was nearing the end of a long weekend and I suppose every visitor planned to leave at the same time as us. It took us more than an hour just to exit the parking lot, let alone get out of the valley. But it gave us a glimpse of what would await us in the summer if we chose to return then. It won’t be just the heat that we’d be battling, but the crowd and the traffic too.

Looking down from Colombus Rock, the halfway point of Lower Yosemite Falls trail that we hiked that day.

Looking down from Colombus Rock, the halfway point of Lower Yosemite Falls trail. That’s the famous Half Dome, the imposing peak you see at 11 o’clock. There’s a trail going up there that is only open in the summer.

Bliss and tranquility. Right at the backyard of the fancy Ahwanee Hotel.

Bliss and tranquility. Right at the backyard of the fancy Ahwanee Hotel.

At the first hint of civilisation on our way home, my phone alerted me to a warm-hearted message from Joan. Already she was welcoming us back again for our next visit to the Yosemite. And she ended her note by saying that after all those practices, hopefully I would be the one driving the car there next time. I sighed at the thought of it.

As much as it is a necessity when you live in America, the thing about driving is that it also poses a certain degree of agony for me. I am a control freak; I like to plan everything; and I always think things through ahead of time. And right before I execute my plan, I double and triple-check everything to make sure I don’t end up with something unanticipated. For that reason, I am uncomfortable with the unknown, I don’t like surprises, and I don’t usually play things by ear either. I’m boring, I know.

The problem with driving is that you can never anticipate in advance exactly what’s gonna happen on the road; how the cars, the cyclists, and the pedestrians are going to move. At least not as far in advance as I would have liked it to be. For example, I know that if I see a pedestrian standing on the edge of the crosswalk, he will likely start crossing soon. That is anticipated. But I won’t know beforehand at which crosswalk I’m going to encounter a pedestrian and at which crosswalk I’m not. It’s true that when you drive you must always be on the lookout for pedestrians. But I would feel much more comfortable if I could know beforehand at which junction I’m going to encounter a pedestrian and at which junction I’m not. Obviously I would also feel much more comfortable if I could know beforehand at which particular part of my trip I’m going to encounter a car cutting into my lane or coming out of a parking area without signing.

It always drives me crazy not being able to anticipate what’s going to happen and plan my reaction beforehand. And to make matters worse, it is also against my nature to make decisions based on instincts. Simply because I find instincts inexplicable and that it will be difficult if I have to rationalise or justify my decision later on. I’ve been behind the wheel for one and a half months now and I realise that the capacity to rely on instincts and react to things as they come along are the two major survival skills when it comes to driving. I’d very much hope that these are just reasonable concerns which will go away after lots of practice.

We are now in mid-March and pretty soon I would have been living here for 3 whole months. I wish I could say something cliché like “how time flies”, but I couldn’t. Because I don’t feel as if time flies at all. And neither do I feel as if time crawls or drags on with no respite. I think time simply moves at the speed that I expect it to move. We have ticked off the boxes for new car and new apartment, and I’m now working hard to tick off my own box for driver’s license. Just a few more boxes to go before life can closely resemble what we used to have back home. Speaking of resemblance to home, despite the fact that we are still officially in winter, I was out and about running errands in shorts, sleeveless shirt, and (gasp) flip-flops today. Yes, it was that warm. I guess moving to California means that I won’t need to overhaul my wardrobe, huh? I don’t know if I should be happy or disappointed about it.

 

Point Reyes, Turning 34 and Whatnot

I was watching The Affair the other day out of curiosity just because the show won the Golden Globe for best drama series this year. The male protagonist, an aspiring writer, was spending the summer in his rich father-in-law’s mansion near The Hamptons so that he could write his book in peace. But of course he got into all sorts of trouble there and ended up doing a lot of things except writing. One evening, his father-in-law who happened to be a New York Times bestseller author called him just as he finished swimming. After a round of beating-about-the-bush asking how the writing went, he finally said, “I saw you out there swimming and it reminded me of what I used to do when I wanted to avoid the pages. I didn’t swim, but I’d play tennis. Four hours a day, and I’d come home afterwards always too tired to write.”

Well, I wouldn’t swim. And neither would I play tennis. But I would go around the house doing all sorts of unnecessary activities, wiping surfaces that need no wiping, checking messages on my cell phone, reading the news over and over, even doing laundry and washing the dishes. All just so that I could have some excuses not to write. So now you know why it took me more than 3 weeks after coming back from Point Reyes to start writing this. I’d like to think that the post is simply fashionably late, but deep down I fear that this love-hate relationship that I have with writing is truly incurable.

When I found out for sure that we would be relocating to the Bay area, the first thing I did was check the dates for all the bank holidays in 2015 and make a list of places that we could visit over the long weekends. Point Reyes was easily the first one on my list simply because it’s less than 2 hours’ drive away from where we live, we could drive part of the famous Pacific Highway 1 on the way there, it’s all about nature and landscape, and most importantly there are plenty of hiking opportunities there. The second one on my list is of course Yosemite National Park. Duh, it’s no brainer.

So on one fine Saturday as the protesters marched the streets of San Francisco in remembrance of Martin Luther King, we drove our rental Toyota westward from Mountain View to La Honda via Highway 84, then connecting to Highway 1 somewhere near San Gregorio. We were greeted by this jaw-dropping, traffic-stopping view right at the turning from Highway 84 to Highway 1. The driver of the car behind us had to honk loudly to remind us to get going.

Right after we turned right from Highway 84 into Highway 1, we were welcomed by this incredible view as if trying to prove its status as the most scenic highway in America

The view that is worth stopping the traffic for.

We made a short pitstop afterwards at Pillar Point in Half Moon Bay but failed to locate Mavericks, the famous giant surf wave which has made its appearances in several movies (I did my research later and found out that we have to drive further north towards a cliff beyond Pillar Point to catch the waves). We continued onto Highway 1 towards San Francisco, passing the gorgeous beach at Pacifica and then the Golden Gate bridge into Sausalito and Marin County, making short stops at Muir Beach lookout and Stinson Beach before ending the day at Point Reyes Station.

At Half Moon Bay. The old man secured the most coveted spot.

Driving across the Golden Gate bridge

Driving across the Golden Gate bridge.

Muir beach lookout

Muir beach lookout.

The next day was a foggy day which we spent hiking in the woods and along the coast line. It was a rather interesting experience as I’ve never hiked in the fog before. The woods was wet and humid but surprisingly not cold at all. Some people were even walking around in shorts and sleeveless shirts. After while, we too started shedding our layers one by one. The fog descended lower as we climbed higher and at one point in our hike, we could only see 10-15 meters ahead of us. But we quickly learnt how drastically the weather at this peninsula could change at the snap of a finger.

Foggy day in the woods

We started off in the morning with a foggy walk in the woods.

Tall trees jutting into the fog

Tall trees jutting into the fog.

The weather improved significantly as we headed to the tule elk reserve area, giving us a clear glimpse of the Tomales Bay

The weather improved significantly in the afternoon as we headed to the tule elk reserve area, giving us a clear glimpse of the Tomales Bay.

As we walked across the reserve, the wind was slowly blowing the fog inland from the Pacific ocean. It was just a matter of time before the blue sky got covered in fog again.

As we walked across the reserve, the wind gradually blew the fog inland from the Pacific Ocean (on the right). It was just a matter of time before we were shrouded in fog again.

Yep, it's "Silent Hill" all over again.

And yes, here we are back to the scene of “Silent Hill” again.

We were pleasantly surprised to be treated to this ghostly and surreal appearance of the elks, amidst the heavy fog.

This was no doubt the highlight of the day. Amidst the fog, the elks made a sudden appearance just as we were leaving the reserve. The whole scene was rather ghostly and surreal. I wish we had a proper tele lens.

Monday couldn’t have been more different than the previous day, at least in terms of the weather. We went to check out Point Reyes Lighthouse, from where the gray whales can be seen migrating across the ocean between January and April. We stood on the viewing platform for a good 15 to 20 minutes, risking sunburn thanks to the gloriously clear blue sky, and spotted several spouts coming out of the sea accompanied by collective gasps from the excited crowd of whale-watchers. Some even came equipped with picnic baskets, clearly ready to sit there the whole day just to catch sight of the mammals. We’re definitely coming back there again in April as according to the park ranger, the whales should be swimming closer to the shore then. Note to self: buy a pair of binoculars before your next visit to Point Reyes.

This is the 10-mile beach. The weather was a stark contrast to the day before.

This is the 10-mile beach. The weather was a stark contrast to the day before.

Exactly 308 steps (excluding the ramp which was pretty steep) brought us to the lighthouse. The climb wasn't exactly vertigo-inducing, but it was quite a cardio nonetheless.

Exactly 308 steps (excluding the ramp which was pretty steep) brought us down to the lighthouse. The climb back up wasn’t exactly vertigo-inducing, but it was quite a cardio nonetheless. Especially under the hot sun.

We moved on to Chimney Rock next where there was a huge colony of elephant seals down at Drakes Bay. People stood around the viewing platform taking turns to look into the park ranger’s telescope to view the magnified version of the animals. Just as they did at the whale-watching station, the crowds couldn’t stop gasping and oohing and aahing at every single thing that happened down at the colony. Noisy, smelly, blubbery creatures are not exactly my cup of tea. I couldn’t understand why people were so fixated by the sea lions at Pier 39 and the same goes for this one.

Drakes Bay. The greyish and blackish dots you see on the beach are elephant seals. There must have been hundreds of them down there.

Drakes Bay as seen from the viewing platform. The greyish and blackish dots you see on the beach are elephant seals. There must have been hundreds of them down there.

We left the elephant seal colony behind and started hiking along the coast line.

We left the elephant seal colony behind and started hiking along the coast line. That’s an old boat house that you see down there.

There was clearly a sign warning people against entering the cliff area due to the danger of rockslide. I guess some pictures are literally to die for.

There was clearly a sign warning people against entering the cliff area due to the danger of rock slide. And yet people still go off the trail many times. I guess some pictures are literally to die for.

The ruggedness of the landscape in Point Reyes reminded me of Tasmania and New Zealand. Just by looking at the vista, I wouldn’t be able to guess that we were in California. Clearly there are still many more interesting nooks and crannies that we didn’t have the chance to explore in just 2 short days. We are definitely coming back here again in the spring when the days are longer, not just for the whales but also for the flowers that would have bloomed by then and decorated the walking trails.

So there goes our very first long weekend here in the land of the free and the home of the brave. Not long after, my 34th birthday came and went too. I’ve stopped celebrating birthdays a long time ago and every year that day will just be the same as any other day, if not a reminder that I’m getting older and actually moving closer towards death. Yes, technically speaking one could die anytime and not necessarily just due to old age. But in this developed world, barring any unforeseen accidents or critical illnesses, chances are you would die of old age. People often say that age is just a number but I think that’s a lie. Age actually signifies how much time you have left to do whatever you want in life. And birthdays often have a knack of reminding you of that so-called bucket list, a list of things that you’ve always wanted to do but haven’t. This year was no different. The question crept into my head one night as I was brushing my teeth without any warning whatsoever: So when are you going to realize that dream of yours to trek the Inca trail to Machu Picchu?

This item has been in my aforementioned list for years and I’ve kept telling myself that I’d do it when I finally moved to the States (yep, even moving to the States was also one of the items in that list and it wasn’t a coincidence that I ended up here). The reason being proximity to Peru, which means shorter travel time and cheaper plane tickets. So here I am now, closer than ever before to Machu Picchu and yet I can still throw you a million and one excuses why I haven’t even started making any plans. Who am I gonna go with (as if traveling alone was ever an issue before), how am I gonna carry such a huge pack while climbing for 4 days (time to eat more chicken breasts, do more bench presses and push-ups), how am I gonna shit outdoor (jeez, just pull down your pants and squat I guess), and blah blah blah. Coincidentally, a good friend of mine has also started pestering me to go to Patagonia and hike the Torres del Paine National Park with him at the end of 2016. It’s a multi-day hike, and possibly even more gruelling than the Inca trail. For weeks he just couldn’t stop taunting me with pictures of snow-capped peaks and lakes so turquoise that it almost looked fake. He even sent me a list of training regime for people who are preparing to trek that particular trail. Luckily I’m not superstitious, or I would have taken all these coincidences as a sign.

In any case, I’m not very good at multi-tasking. So for now I’m just going to focus on a few things that are already on my plate such as securing an apartment, passing my behind-the-wheel drive test, deciding when to visit my dear friend in Turks and Caicos, and contemplating if I should return to the Moulin this summer (but first I need to tackle some variables that could make traveling overseas tricky in the next couple of months, but that’s a story for another time). Yes, these are excuses too, I know. But at least they are more valid than being afraid of sleeping and shitting out in the wild.

 

For more pictures, please visit my Flickr.

When the cat is away, the mouse goes to San Francisco… armed with a point and shoot camera

It’s been a while since I last wrote just for the sake of writing, and not for the sake of expressing and articulating my inner thoughts. I used to enjoy mindless writing, like documenting my favourite recipes or recounting tales of adventure that took place while traveling. But over the past couple of years, I’ve become such a serious thinker that writing evolved into a process where I formulate my thoughts, feelings, and emotions, and in the end come to terms with who and what I really am. Through writing, I’ve seen a lot of the good and ugly sides of me and it often forces me to face the reality. So you can understand why I haven’t been writing as often as I used to anymore. It is not because I haven’t been traveling, but simply because it is sometimes too painful to do. Seeing the words written before my eyes is like seeing the content of my heart being spilled out. Just as one would with a Pandora box, no sooner had the words materialised than I wished I could take them back.

When I found out that I would be moving to a new place halfway across the world, I told myself that I should learn to write for the sake of writing again. It’s surely going to take some conscious effort and some getting used to since I still tend to overthink and overanalyse things (if not more as I get older), but there’s no better time to change than when you’re starting a new life, isn’t it?

I started my trip to San Francisco with a pre-dawn drive from Mountain View as we had to pay the US Customs & Border Protection office a visit to correct our I-94 forms. Us being Singaporeans, we thought we should be kiasu and arrive 15 minutes before their opening hours, which we did. Not only was there no queue at all, half an hour later after we had completed our business, we were still the only ones there. The exact same thing also happened last Sunday when we decided to make use of a Google discount to watch The Hobbit at the movie theatre. Since we couldn’t book the tickets online, we decided to come an hour before the show to secure tickets. Not only was the box office not open yet, we ended up in a huge theatre with just 5 or 6 other moviegoers. Seriously, the kiasu habit is hard to kill.

Leo left me right smack in the middle of downtown SF after our business at the custom office as he had to drive back to Mountain View for work. On my own, as I have often traveled, I happily climbed the staircase from Filbert St all the way up to Telegraph Hill and was immediately rewarded with a prime real estate view of the bay area.

Bay bridge on a misty Wednesday morning

Bay bridge on a slightly misty Wednesday morning

The Golden Gate bridge from the other side of Telegraph Hill

The Golden Gate bridge from the other side of Telegraph Hill

As I sat down below the Coit Tower to eat a piece onigiri, I observed a group of old ladies in their exercise gears, doing some warm-up while chatting in Cantonese. The amazingly clear blue sky succeeded in persuading me to press on, so I walked all the way down and up again across the North Beach neighbourhood until I reached the infamous Lombard St, which was nothing but a narrow, twisty, one-way lane that goes downhill for about 2 minutes. Nothing special, really. But the view from the top of Lombard St was impressive. It was so high that you could clearly see all the notorious going up and downhill of San Francisco’s streets, including the Coit Tower. Upon seeing this, my first thought was that one would not need to perform squats at the gym anymore if one lived in this city. Let’s just say that my glut muscles were having a field day that day.

You can see all the way to Telegraph Hill and Coit Tower from the top of Lombard St

You can see all the way to Telegraph Hill and Coit Tower from the top of Lombard St

Just to give an idea of how steep the streets are

Just to give an idea of how steep the streets are

Cable car from the Powell Hyde line was going downhill towards the beach

Cable car from the Powell Hyde line was going downhill towards the beach

Lured by the promise of the sea against the clear blue sky, I decided to walk towards the waterfront. There wasn’t a single cloud at all and the sun was shining so brightly that some people were already walking in shorts and tank tops. I had to forcefully stuff my winter coat inside my backpack and walk around with a bulging back like Quasimodo.

Even the bird knows how to appreciate the view

Even the bird knows how to appreciate the view

I wasn't disappointed at all by the view. Trust a clear blue sky to make anything look a million times better anytime.

I wasn’t disappointed at all by the view. Trust a clear blue sky to make anything look a million times better anytime.

Ghirardelli Square

Pitstop at Ghirardelli Square

After a nice cuppa at Ghirardelli Square, I pressed on towards Pier 39 passing by a group of Indonesian tourists who were struggling with their selfie stick. I was very tempted to offer them my service to take their picture, but I decided to be anti-social that day. Besides, a bunch of lazy bums at Pier 39 were already waiting for me.

Explanation board by the side of the dock mentioned that the sea lions started arriving at this particular pier in the early 1990. Thanks to the abundant food supply and the bay’s protection against predators, they decided to make this place home.

No idea where the rest of the sea lions were. I believe there should be a lot more of them.

No idea where the rest of the sea lions were. I believe there should be a lot more of them.

What a bunch of lazy bums!

What a bunch of lazy bums!

While some people could spend hours sitting by the dock and just watching the sea lions do practically nothing, my interest in these animals soon wore off and I quickly moved on to my final destination before catching the 4pm Caltrain back to Mountain View.

Welcome to San Francisco's Chinatown, the biggest Chinatown outside of Asia

Welcome to San Francisco’s Chinatown, the biggest Chinatown outside of Asia

Honestly, in all my naivety I thought going into Chinatown would remind me a bit of home. Instead, I was assaulted by the sudden throngs of crowd, the messiness, and the distinct smell of market produce which was such a stark contrast from the rest of the city that I could have well been in a parallel universe. People around me were shouting in foreign languages, jostling one another, and moving haphazardly. I felt crippled not being able to understand what they were saying and what was going on, too intimidated to even enter a store. Luckily, I quickly realised that my future well-being depended on me completing the mission that brought me to Chinatown in the first place. I snapped back into reality and started scouring for Asian grocery stores where I could possibly buy some Indomie (hey, I’m still Indonesian after all). The Ranch 99 Market near my place, supposedly the biggest and most complete Asian supermarket chain in the country, didn’t even sell a single packet at all. I miserably needed the comfort of my favourite MSG-laden instant noodle.

Waverly Place, or "the street of the painted balconies". Couldn't see what is so special about this street, but they say this is where most of the temples congregate.

Waverly Place, or “the street of the painted balconies”. Can’t see what is so special about this street, but they say this is where most of the temples congregate.

My mission in Chinatown failed, though I did finally manage to buy some Indomie from a small and obscure Asian grocery store one night next to where I was meeting my uncle for dinner. But that day I realised how quickly my transition to living in California has been. Numerous friends have been messaging me since I arrived, asking how the adjustment and the settling down had been. I couldn’t give them any long story about how difficult and troublesome this and that are, simply because there hasn’t been any. Within the first week, I had figured out where the nearest farmers market, Whole Foods, Target, Walmart, and Asian supermarket are from my place and how to get there without a car. That’s all I need to get on with life, which has been exactly the same as before I moved here. I’m already back to 8 hours of sleep a day, reading Murakami’s book, hitting the gym, cooking my own meals, listening to French podcasts and Coursera lectures. However, as much as I enjoy this normalcy, I will be looking forward to the next couple of months when the provision from the relocation benefits ends and we have to fend for ourselves. I guess that’s when things will start to shake up.

 

For more pictures, please visit my Flickr.

Farewell, Fair Cruelty

If it were entirely up to me, I would have packed my bags and left quietly in the middle of the night. I just don’t do goodbyes very well. It is not the tears that I fear, for I’ve come to learn that the older I get the more incapable I am of any emotion. But rather, it’s the feeling of awkwardness and the hassle that I wish to avoid. The awkwardness of having to break the news to your family and friends and having to comfort them when they start becoming emotional, the hassle of having to sit through one farewell meal after another (even with people you are not that close to), repeating the same answers to the same set of questions over and over again. And when the time to say goodbye finally comes, the awkwardness of not knowing what to say to them. Goodbye, take care, see you again, do come to visit us. What else is there to say anyway?

There was a period of time several weeks ago when I was so inundated with requests for a farewell meal that I ended up going out everyday for 2 weeks straight, weekdays and weekends. I was coughing non-stop like a TB patient for weeks afterwards thanks to the excessive eating. But the biggest toll it took was clearly on my sanity. For the past one and a half months, in between meeting up with friends and entertaining family members who came to visit, I have become so deprived of my own personal time that all I ever wanted to do these days is just to retreat to my own little corner and read my book. I need my alone time so badly that even the prospect of packing up my stuff became something I look forward to. At least that way I’d get to spend some time on my own.

My good friend once told me I was being too nice by agreeing to all those farewell meal requests and that I should learn to just say no (or in her own words: fuck them). Frankly speaking, there are friends that I regularly spend time with and genuinely want to meet up with before I leave, and then there are also those that I could barely remember when we last spoke (Facebook doesn’t count), let alone met. I don’t know how to say this without alienating my own friends, but what’s the point of wanting to meet me if we’re not that close in the first place?

But at the end of the day, when the dust has settled I am of course very grateful for all the well-wishes that I’ve received (from close friends and not), the heartfelt messages, the recognition, the encouragement, and the affirmation. I am truly humbled by them. Nothing beats the feeling of knowing that you are loved and appreciated by the people you care about. I am thankful that some friends who used to live where I’m going to have also shared their experiences with me. And most importantly, I am extremely lucky to have good friends who will look after the one thing here that I’m going to miss the most, my beloved house. I will surely miss those mornings sitting on my tatami table writing, or those afternoons baking buttery biscuits in my kitchen.

Fifteen years is a very long time to remain in the same place, especially one as small and suffocating as Singapore. I’ve often said that I wouldn’t miss much from Singapore, but deep down inside I know I will miss a lot. Just the thought of having to manage life without the comfort of the security, convenience, and efficiency that Singapore brings is already enough to make me want to turn back. But living in Singapore is like living in a tiny little bubble where everything just works perfectly and is often too good to be true. The past couple of years have rendered me dull, lazy, unadventurous, unappreciative, disengaged, and complacent. It’s about time I get out of my comfort zone and go back to my roots. It’s about time I experience again how it feels to start from scratch, to actually put some effort to get the things that I want, and to be appreciative of what I used to have and can’t have anymore. To this day, I still recall fondly those bittersweet first few years when I just moved to Singapore. I recall how precious every obstacle I overcame and every milestone I achieved were. I need to feel that way again. I need to start living excitedly again.

They say a picture paints a thousand words. That’s just wonderful as I couldn’t possibly come up with that many words. These are just a handful of the people that I will truly miss. There are others not in this picture, but equally precious, who will always remain close to my heart. I apologise to anyone who feels offended by what I wrote and to those that I have indirectly snubbed in the past few weeks. Don’t worry, you’re not missing much by not meeting up with me. I’m not exactly fun to be with lately anyway.

1st January seems like an auspicious time to start a new life. We just spent our last few hours in Singapore eating junk food, drinking champagne, and playing Nintendo Wii. It’s nothing fancy, except for the champagne, but it’s definitely “us”. So here’s a toast to a great new year and an even greater new beginning. I hope yours will be as colorful as mine. Cheers!

Farewell1

All Good Things Must Come to An End

“So, what are you going to do after you get home?” This question was thrown at me by Anastasia, one of the workaways, during my last supper at the Moulin.

“I guess it’s about time I go back to work. I’ve taken a break for more than a year.” I gave her my standard answer. Whether I really wanted to go back to work or not was a different matter.

“Are you going to do the same kind of work again?”

I shrugged and said “I guess so.”

Honestly, I was rather taken aback by her question although it seemed like a perfectly reasonable thing to ask. The thought of doing something different never crossed my mind. Why should I? I was actually good at my profession; the work was never too difficult nor too stressful; and it paid well enough. But her next question really caught me off guard.

“Did you like your job?”

I was quiet for longer than I should. “Well… sort of, I guess.” I shrugged again.

Matt, who is a writer, then quipped, “That’s what they usually don’t teach you at school, isn’t it? To do what you love.” To which Anastasia then said, ” For me, it was never a question. Why would I even want to do something I don’t like in the first place?”

At this point, I should point out to you that Anastasia is still in her early 20s, speaks 4 different languages fluently, and is working as a translator while completing her Master in Translation. Heck, I would also say the same thing if I were her. Once upon a time, I too used to dream of being young, studying languages, and traveling the world.

Please don’t get me wrong. It’s not as if I hated my job. Although I couldn’t say that I was passionate about it either. For me, it was always just a job; a means to earn a living. Ever since I started working, I’ve always felt strangely uncomfortable at the idea of receiving money in exchange for work. For some reasons, the presence of money tends to cause a lack of sincerity and demean the value of the work itself. For example, everywhere I worked I’ve met people who refused to perform overtime despite tons of work overdue just because the company wasn’t paying overtime allowance. On one hand, I acknowledge that it’s not fair to force employees to work beyond their regular hours if they are not compensated. But on the other hand, I also believe that we should all be responsible for completing the jobs that we’ve been assigned to, with or without the money. All I’m saying is that once money is involved, it’s gonna be hard to say that you’re genuinely doing your job for the greater good of the company and not because you’re getting paid.

My friends often ask why don’t I write for a living. Or why don’t I bake for a living. Honestly, these are things that I enjoy doing and I don’t want to lose the satisfaction of doing it just for the fun of it and not because people pay me to. I don’t deny that money is a necessary part of life and that there are many people in this world who would do anything just to have a job so they can feed their family. Hence, I’m not judging or condemning those who work for money. I myself spent nearly a good 10 years of my adult life doing that and will continue to do so in the near future as and when it’s needed. One thing for sure though, it was the nonexistence of salary at the Moulin that made me discover the joy and satisfaction of working.

After a wonderful stint there last year, I thought I already knew what to expect when I returned the second time around. But I was very surprised to find out that a different kind of experience awaited me this time. The make-up of the Moulin remained largely the same, with several yogis who are regular long-term volunteers joined by a group of short-term volunteers such as those coming for workaways like myself. We work as a team to ensure that everyone that comes to the Moulin for a retreat is provided with a conducive environment for their spiritual journey. The works include chopping vegetables, washing dishes, scrubbing toilets, folding linens, changing bed sheets, sweeping dry leaves, gardening, and many other chores. Everyone does these for free, with just food and lodging as the “payment”.

The first thing I noticed on my first couple of days there was the difference in the energy and the dynamic of the entire team between last year and this year, just because of the presence of a few people whom I didn’t get to meet last year as they only arrived after I had left. One of them was Tim, one of the household managers, who was such a joy to work with. His outlook appearance may not necessarily spell approachable as he was quiet and spent most of the time listening to dharma talks on his headphones while working. But I soon discovered a gentle, sweet, and extremely appreciative heart underneath all that. By the time I was due to leave, I was crying like a baby saying goodbye to him. The second guy I was acquainted with this year was Matt, the other household manager. He’s a writer, and he always carried his notebook and pen everywhere he went. I’ve never met anyone who fascinated me so much. Everything about him awed me; his life experiences, the stories he told, the songs he wrote, or just the fact that he’s actually a published writer. I clung to every word he said. And I couldn’t help being swept away by curiosity every time I saw him sit on one of the wooden benches outside and began to write. Matt also got on really well with the workaways, most of whom were in their late teens or early twenties. And this brought me to the next group of people who was the differentiator in creating a whole new atmosphere at the Moulin this year.

On the day I arrived there, someone told me that there were 9 workaways at the moment including me. That means there were actually more workaways than the regular core team members. As a comparison, the previous year I had only ever seen 3 or 4 workaways other than myself. So it wasn’t a surprise when I heard someone mentioned that the week I arrived marked the highest number of workaways the Moulin has every hosted. That number started dwindling after my first week as those who have arrived earlier began to leave and after 2 weeks, it stabilised at around 4 workaways.

I have to say that I haven’t been surrounded by that many 19 and 20-year-olds since I myself was that age. Of course in the beginning I felt rather overwhelmed by the noise and the energy that these teenagers brought. It’s hard to keep up with them. But as I got to know them a little better and started being involved in their conversations, I realised how different my life as a 19-year-old was compared to theirs. While I was busy making sure I passed my exams with flying colors so I could graduate and land myself a decent job, these youngsters were busy doing volunteer works and spending their meal times debating over philosophy, and religion, and humanism. And boy did they have a lot to say on these topics! I met some who chose to defer going into college so they could travel the world and figure out what they really want in life. One of them was even planning to go to Israel and join a humanitarian group there. At the age of 19! For the longest time, I have always felt content with who I am and proud of how I’ve chosen to live my life out of the mainstream. But spending time with these youngsters did put a dent in my confidence. They have made me realise how shallow my youth was and how immature my views on life back then. I spent hours agonising over how I would turn out to be if I had been able to make my own choices free of society’s expectations and prejudices when I was their age. I think any Asians of my generation would be able to sympathise with me. Can you imagine how your parents would react if you told them you wanted to take a year off to travel after high school? Truth be told, with the kind of academic and career-oriented society that we’ve been conditioned to, it would be a rarity to find any Asian kids choosing to travel instead of going straight to college.

By pure chance, I chose to stay at Nicolas’ apartment through AirB&B while I was in Luxembourg. This was right before I was due to depart for the Moulin. On my last night, we spent hours chatting on the sofa. He told me how he had been spending years working the high-flyer life in the financial industry until one day he collapsed in the office. The doctor told him that he had overworked himself and continuing to do so would have an adverse effect on his health. He left his job and at the time of my stay in his apartment, he was in the midst of applying for a volunteer job in Burkina Faso. Coincidentally, I also found out that Nicolas’ mother lives in Perigueux which is just 20 kilometres’ away from Cubjac, and that he used to play at the Moulin when he was young (the Moulin was a Buddhist monastery at that time). The last bit there about his mother is actually irrelevant to what I’m trying to say, but it does baffle me how sometimes the world can be such a small place. What are the odds of me meeting a random stranger who happens to know about the Moulin right before I depart for the place?

And then there was Satyadevi, a Dutch lady whose parents came from Indonesia. Over breakfast on my last day at the Moulin, she told me a little bit of how she fell in love with traveling and how she’s now volunteering at the Mooji Sangha in Portugal. Towards the end, she said something I could never forget, “They should really make traveling compulsory. It’s the best education one could ever get.”

So what is the point of all these stories? I’m not saying that you should start dropping everything and living a new life. All I’m saying is that there is so much more to life than your average classrooms and office cubicles. And that there are ways to live your life out of the rat race should you feel strongly about it.

Unfortunately for me, the Moulin chapter of my life is likely to be closed as the place will be sold to a new owner by the end of summer. Rumour has it that it will remain as a retreat and meditation centre, and that there have been requests for the team to return and manage it again next year. But would the ambience and the dynamic of the place which I fell in love with in the first place remain the same in the hands of the new owner? After all, it is the people that make up the community and my stay there this year has taught me that meeting new people, even just a couple of them, meant different set of experiences and emotions. I may or may not get to meet those wonderful people at the Moulin again, but memories of us baking and cooking in the kitchen, meditating, doing yoga, drinking Leffes in a bar half an hour’s drive away, sitting around a bonfire singing to the Beatles, or even watching the World Cup are definitely here to stay with me. Yes, them along with a jar of cherry jam lovingly made by Eliza from the cherries I helped to pick before I left.

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Moulin de Chaves: Off the Beaten Track

Le Moulin de Chaves

Moulin de Chaves

Many of my friends thought that I had chosen to spend my vacation in a retreat center because I wanted to spend some time reflecting on my life, or because I was interested in learning to meditate, or perhaps just because I was looking for some peace and quiet. These are of course natural assumptions, although none of them is correct. Yes, I am always looking for some peace and quiet, but I don’t have to go to a retreat center just for that.

My decision to spend 3 weeks at the Moulin started just as an innocent attempt to explore a new way of traveling. After 5 years of traveling, I felt that I’ve reached a point where I’ve seen most of what I could possibly see considering the limiting circumstances I have. Lately, it has become more difficult to really be impressed with something, be it landscapes, churches, castles, medieval villages, or just plain old roman architectures. If I really want to see something new, something that will really take my breath away, the choices are either I get myself a driver’s license so I can visit places where having my own transport is a necessity, or I pluck up enough courage to travel to places where solo traveling for female may not be highly recommended. Living in Singapore, option number one is way too expensive and useless since we don’t have/need our own car here. Option number two is also out cos no matter how adventurous I am, I don’t think I could pluck up enough courage to backpack alone to South America or Africa. At least not yet. I am badly in need of a like-minded traveling companion and in Asia, that is a rare commodity. Almost everyone I know prefers the more traditional family life, either raising children or pursuing a career or both.

I came across Workaway and HelpX while searching for a middle ground between option number one and two. The idea of volunteering your work in exchange for food and accommodation sounded really interesting, especially because it would give me an opportunity to be part of a local community, interacting with the local people and fellow volunteers, learning their culture and language along the way. That’s exactly what I’m always looking for every time I travel.

Hence I ended up at the Moulin by pure chance because they received a long list of glowing reviews from fellow volunteers who had previously stayed there, and it just seemed ‘safer’ to choose such a place for my maiden workaway experience. But what happened next was totally unexpected. I’ve never been someone who is easily touched by something, be it a sad story or an act of kindness, and the older I get the more emotionless I’ve become (I didn’t even cry watching Les Misérables!). So I was completely taken aback when I found out how attached I’ve become and how much I’ve come to love the people who formed the team at the Moulin, just from spending 3 weeks with them. The genuine and sincere kindness that they showed everyone who came, be it as a volunteer or a guest attending a retreat, the way they accepted you as part of the community and treated you the same regardless of who or what you are, these were something that I wasn’t accustomed to and probably didn’t exist where I came from. I spent the better part of my adult life in a corporate world where people bitched about one another, where I had to constantly watch out for backstabbers, and where recognition for a job well done was few and far between. On the other hand, halfway across the world some people just couldn’t stop saying ‘thank you’ for every single task you completed for them, no matter how simple and effortless the task was. And it wasn’t just a mumbling, barely audible ‘thanks’ that people often say automatically without meaning it, but it was one where they looked you in the eyes while saying it so you’d know that they sincerely appreciated what you’ve done.

To say that I had a great time there is such an understatement. The property of the Moulin consists largely of a 4-storey main house, a meditation hall, a yurt, a koi pond, a green house, and a few individual cottages scattered among lush greeneries by the bank of Auvézère river in the South West of France. The entire ground is so huge that you could easily hide among the nature if you’re feeling a little anti-social and do not wish to be found. Three weeks was barely enough to explore and get acquainted with all the nooks and crannies of the place, and let’s not even talk about the neighbouring villages. Just the beauty of the surrounding area alone was enough to guarantee you a great time there. But of course there was more to it than meets the eye.

I was assigned to kitchen duty from day one, where I learned so much about preparing food and cooking for a large group (we cooked for nearly 70 people during one of the retreats); about all kinds of vegetables, bulbs, roots, and grains which I’ve never heard of and most likely didn’t exist in Asia; about what to cook for people with all sorts of funny diets like vegan and gluten-free; and how to whip up a nice supper from a refrigerator full of left-overs. Do you know that peanut butter (yes, I’m talking about Skippy peanut butter) can be turned into a delicious hearty vegetable stew? I learned to appreciate the meaning of ‘you are what you eat’ and acknowledged firsthand how much differently you would feel if you feed your body with the right kind of food. I’ve never eaten that well in my whole life before and it didn’t even include a single meat. I learned how fascinating it was to witness the Westerners struggle with something as simple as a rice cooker. They just couldn’t comprehend how a machine could be left on its own to cook a perfect rice. And despite my best effort to advise them not to, they kept stirring the rice while in the cooking process, which of course ended up ruining it! I also came to understand that all cooks must be control freaks. I meant it in a positive way cos after having experienced cooking with 5 different cooks there, I finally realized that being a control freak is necessary in order to produce the perfect result.

But what I learned most was about work ethics and how differently the Westerners view it from the Asians. When they said 5.5 hours of work a day, they really meant it literally, not a minute more or a minute less. Day offs were also treated respectfully, meaning you were not allowed to do any work at all on your day-off. If for some unforeseen circumstances your help was needed on your day-off, your work hours the next day would be deducted accordingly. In fact, if someone mistakenly asked any of them to complete a task on their day-off, he/she wouldn’t hesitate to point out that it was his/her day-off and therefore he/she not supposed to perform any work. On the other hand, being the Asian that I am, I found it normal to stay back beyond the required 5.5 hours if there was still work to be done, or to show up for work earlier than the stipulated time if I knew there was going to be a lot to complete. It amused me when I found that some people were bothered by the fact that they kept seeing me working in the kitchen after my official work time was over, or that I started work earlier than the stipulated time. During one of my day offs, the kitchen became short-staffed due to the arrival of a big retreat group and Gail, who managed the team, asked for a volunteer to lend an extra pair of hands in the kitchen. I put up my hand cos I didn’t see anyone else doing it. It was honestly not a big deal for me, day-off or not, but the appreciation and the recognition that they showered me afterwards made me feel as if I’ve saved them from a certain doom. Perhaps it might be too quick to generalize that all Asians tend behave that way since I was the only Asian there at that time, and hence I didn’t have enough samples to draw a conclusion from. However, the experience has made me realize how much I’ve come to undervalue work-life balance thanks to the working culture in Asia.

Of all the fabulous experience I enjoyed there, ultimately it all boiled down to the people;  i.e. the members of the community, the individuals that formed the team, the heart and soul of the Moulin without whom the place wouldn’t be what it is today. I couldn’t really find words worthy enough to explain how beautiful the energy that their relationship and interaction have generated, and how much it has impacted me (and surely my fellow workaways as well). The picture below was taken during my last supper there. Moving clockwise from the bottom left, we have: Ian the handyman and co-owner of the Moulin; Oded the cook; Australian Sebastian and German Sebastian who were both workaways; Wim the gardener and cook (who also happened to be my favorite person there); and Louise who’s also a workaway.

Last supper

I had planned to take more pictures with the rest of them on my last day, but as I said my goodbyes one by one the tears just wouldn’t stop streaming down my face. It was so surreal cos I couldn’t remember the last time I ever felt this emotional (gosh, maybe it was high school graduation 14 years ago!). The plan to take pictures went down the drain. Hence, missing from the above-mentioned picture are: Christine the household manager; Eliza and Nina from whom I’ve learned a lot about French cooking; Jenny the jack of all trades; Heather, Auriel, and Reed my fellow workaways who left earlier than me; Gerlof the mad chef who reminded me of Gordon Ramsey (I knew from the moment he arrived that he’s a real bona fide chef cos he carried his own set of kitchen knives); Lluis the dishwasher, the baker, fluent speaker of 5 languages, and the gentlest soul I’ve ever met; and Martin, Gail, and Caroline the rest of the co-owners whose pictures can be found in their website.

On the day I flew to Paris, I met a friendly American on the MRT on my way to Changi Airport. He chatted me up cos he saw me reading a guide-book about France, so we made small talks. I told him I was going on a vacation without elaborating much and he told me he was on his way to his meditation class. He started taking this class a while ago and really fell in love with the teaching and the group. My jaw dropped. In all my 14 years of riding MRT, no one has ever made a small talk with me. All of a sudden, on the day I was due to leave for France to volunteer at a retreat center, I met an ang moh who told me about his meditation experience. No matter how unsuperstitious I am, I couldn’t help raise an eyebrow at the coincidence. I did give meditation a try while staying at the Moulin as I had always intended to. While I truly appreciate the peaceful communal silence shared during the session, I have to say I still don’t get the whole point of doing it and what we’re supposed to achieve from it. But I blamed it on the lack of knowledge and practice. Nevertheless, meditation or not, I already got much more than I bargained for by coming to this wonderful place. One thing for sure, workaway is likely to be my new way of traveling now. And as for the Moulin, not trying to be cliché here, but during my 3-weeks’ stay there I’ve become the most grateful, appreciative, impartial, sincere, open-minded, and sociable person that I’ve ever been in a long time. Despite not coming here in search for peace and quiet in the first place, I might have actually found myself a personal little retreat spot. One which I would very much love to return to again next year.

Til we meet again

Til we meet again

I Survived a Saturday Afternoon in Paris

This is what you'll get if you attempt to brave the crowd outside the Louvre on a Saturday afternoon

A sea of people outside the Louvre on a Saturday afternoon

As my plane landed on the runway of Charles de Gaulle, it suddenly dawned on me that it had been 5 years since my last visit to this country. For a self-professed francophile, 5 years is an awfully long time to not be visiting a place that you have such a strong affinity to. I asked myself pointlessly why I hadn’t thought of returning here earlier.

So I landed in France with a mixed feeling. There I was, about to visit the country for the second time after all these years, and yet I had no idea what to expect. The only thing I recalled was that 5 years ago, there were only very few things about France that I didn’t like. The frequent strikes was number one while Paris was number two in that list. I couldn’t do much about number one, but I fully intended to give number two a second chance especially because my husband tagged along this time. Who knows, perhaps strolling Paris with another person by my side might change my opinion of it.

For purely a reason of convenience, we drove straight to St. Malo, Brittany, the moment we landed. Hence, it wasn’t until 4 days later that I was able to give Paris its second chance. I was hoping that after spending several days in a more laid-back region, we would be better ‘equipped’ to tackle Paris. On top of that, I wanted my husband who was visiting the country for the first time to see the other side of France, the one I’ve loved before and continued to love, before going down and dirty among the rude and the touristy. I spent our 5-hours’ drive from Pont-Aven to Paris reminding him over and over the reasons why I disliked Paris just to manage his expectations a little bit.

Well, Paris is definitely a different kind of France than the one you see in the provinces. I guess no amount of warning could ever prepare you for what would await at Jardin des Tuileries and Louvre, especially if you decided to visit on a Saturday afternoon of all times. If it weren’t for the unique architectures that could have only existed in Paris, I would have believed I were in another country. Our ears were assaulted by the sounds of American English, Mandarin, Korean, Japanese, Spanish, Italian, even bloody Indonesian (not us, by the way!). We had to jostle and fight our way across throngs of people toting large shopping bags with Prada, Gucci, Coach and the likes written on them. If our journey had been made into an anime, you would have seen an aerial view of the two of us standing in the middle of the garden while the scene zoomed out further and further until we’re just a dot on earth, a voice echoing “我々はどこ???” (please excuse my crude Japanese).

Yes, the Seine was still as murky; the bridges, the churches and the squares still as crowded; and the impressive Parisian architectures tainted by groups of tourists taking selfies in front of them. And as expected, I did struggle to fight the urge to go back to the hotel and hide under the blanket but to be fair, that afternoon I also observed some changes and improvements that could make me see the city in a better light. The most noticeable improvement was in the metro stations. The French cleaned up their metro stations real good in the past 5 years, particularly in the central districts. I no longer felt as if I was about to be mugged while standing on the dingy platforms anymore. The walls have been scrubbed clean, maps of metro network could now be found everywhere, clearer signs pointing to the exits and to the connections, there were even newer trains with connecting carriages and automatic doors so you wouldn’t have to struggle with the lever anymore every time you wanted to exit. But what impressed me the most was the announcements being made in English on several metro lines. That certainly didn’t exist 5 years ago.

There was a certain sense of comfort in hearing more English being spoken by the French, and that was another observation I made in this visit. I found more Parisians speaking in English to tourists who lost their way, but on the other hand, I also encountered cases when my asking a question in French was quickly replied to in English. That was kinda discouraging cos it seemed as if they knew instantly I wasn’t a native speaker and would rather converse in English to save the trouble of miscommunication. This never happened to me in the provinces, where the locals were always more than happy to entertain my terrible command of French. Nevertheless, when the going gets tough, it’s still better to have more English-speaking Parisians who look down on foreigners attempting to speak French than to have a bunch of Parisians who refuse to speak English at all.

And so my second visit to Paris wound down as we descended the staircases of La Tour Eiffel at 1 am on Sunday morning. The Champ de Mars was completely dark and deserted, but we saw a couple of policemen patrolling around (more security patrols, that’s another improvement I noticed) while we waited for the last light-up so that my photo-obsessed husband could take one last picture. I must acknowledge that Paris wasn’t as bad as I kept telling myself it would be (that’s the joy of setting a low expectation, it becomes easier to be satisfied with something). There were definitely some things about this place that I would never be able to change, such as the crowd, the attitude of the people, or the smell of piss that seemed to permeate the air everywhere. But at least the improved infrastructure has helped to make this place less intimidating than I remembered it to be. Though I won’t be spending anymore time around the likes of Louvre and Eiffel, twice is more than enough, thank you, I actually won’t mind revisiting the other, quieter arrondissements if I come back next time. Until then, I would be content with just a pat in the back for having survived a Saturday afternoon here 🙂

The last light up at 1am. All pictures courtesy of my husband. I'm sure by now you would understand if I didn't have a single desire to whip out my own camera.

The last light-up at 1 am. All pictures courtesy of my husband (I’m sure by now you would understand why I wouldn’t have a single desire to whip out my own camera when in Paris).