Category Archives: Life

Game over

I can’t bear to continue watching Game of Thrones. In the months between the end of Season 5 and the beginning of Season 6, I might very well change my mind, but as Oliver Griffin comments in The Independenthttp://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/game-of-thrones-season-5-finale-seriously-what-is-the-point-any-more-10325106.html – what is the point?

Top image: http://bit.ly/1JXDrDo

GRR Martin (grr indeed) is a sadist. I am exhausted with tears unshed for the honourable characters (beginning with Ned Stark) who met gruesome ends. And horrible Joffrey had too easy a death. Some painful vomiting before conking out is no worse than a severe bout of food poisoning. I’ve been there. I felt like dying the last time I hurled my guts out. My spasms left me doubled up in agony for several hours. Joffrey was gone in minutes. Now, is that fair?

Image: http://dorkshelf.com/2014/05/12/game-of-thrones-episode-4-6-recap/

Jaime & Tyrion

I have no sympathy for Cersei. She can dry out in the dungeon for all I care. But I was hanging on for Jon Snow. And dear Sam. I’m still rooting for Tyrion, the Lannister who drew the short straw, and Jaime has become a bit of alright. Drogon the dragon? Absolute darling!

In Westeros, decency is such a rare commodity that the slightest display of kindness stands out. Of course, in the GoT world of psychopaths and sociopaths, this is a weakness likely to earn, not a reward, but an unpleasant death.

I got more satisfaction watching Jurassic World. It was rather predictable but the raptors were cute, and the human who deserved to be eaten got his just desserts, or rather the dinosaur did.

Image: http://www.dailydot.com/geek/jurassic-world-chris-pratt-raptors/

raptor

Okay, so it’s unreal but I try not to watch art movies because the story lines cut too close to the bone. If I want like-real tragedy and misery, I just catch the news. Life is hard enough. Give us justice and something to live for. GoT is full of fabulous characters and the story is riveting, but is it too much to ask for Ramsay to be castrated (slowly) and then given a lobotomy? For Sansa to find true love?

Gimme hope, GRR Martin, Gimme hope … (with apologies to Eddy Grant).

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Back to bare necessities

Last month, regular shoppers at the Salvation Army Family Thrift Store might have noticed an influx of non-matching picture-pretty tableware. I must have donated several basket-loads of bowls, plates, cups, platters etc collected over my 30+ years of producing recipe pages for the magazines I worked for.

crockery 2

It took 18 months into retirement before I was ready to part from what had been part of my working life. While some pieces were unused, other attractive old crocks brought back memories of photography sessions, of the cooks, and even of the food so artfully placed in them. Reminders of busy days and a different phase.

Top image: http://bit.ly/1KrRPlL

But it’s time to let go, and once I am recharged, I will go through the garden shed and hall cupboards where more props are stacked. More stuff will go to a friend who has a food blog and can use my carefully curated pieces from enamel to china to placemats. What I want is a good home for these much-loved items.

crockery 3

Minimalism has never been attractive to me. But there is just too much of everything. The clothes and shoes, all in good condition, were gladly received by neighbourbood helpers and will be put to good use in the Philippines and Myanmar. In the searing tropical heat, I just need to dress for comfort.

Now that I finally have time to explore my book collection, I am reading the books – some sent eons ago by book distributors for possible review. It’s read-and give away.  Each time, I can easily fill 3 of the National Library’s donation shelves. Eighty per cent of the last batch disappeared in 10 minutes.

I hope to only end up with an excess of beads and dogs. But the clearing will keep me busy for a long time yet as it’s hardly left a dent. Here are parts of a poem that can be a hoarder’s mantra. Titled The Cycle of Letting Go by Ryan Nicodemus, half of The Minimalists (http://www.theminimalists.com/), it captures the trap of possessions and the freedom from cutting loose.

I want it.
I own it.
I don’t use it.

It owns me.
It steals time from me.

I desire little.

I keep a little.
I am happier with little.

I miss little.

Beads and pieces in the slow lane

Retirement has been both unsettling and wonderful. I stopped work at the end of 2013 and in the blink of an eye, it’s almost mid 2015! At first, I felt displaced. After 40 years of dashing to and from work, and being switched on even on public holidays, it felt discomfiting not having an office to head to. My days were no longer organized into blocks of time.

But hey, after the first few months, I couldn’t believe the joy and freedom of not having my life sucked dry by deadlines, meetings, appraisals and the politicking inherent in any organization with power-hungry individuals. Trying not to fall in step with the brown-nosers and sociopaths had been exhausting. As much as I enjoyed my editorial work, I realized what I missed most was a regular paycheck and bonuses.

Top image: http://scoutfitters.org/trip/sunset-hike-to-mugu-peak-915/

Once I got into the rhythm of the perpetual weekend, I fell into a beading-and-reading frenzy, rediscovered radio and caught up with friends over lunch, tea and dinner. Bored? Never!

Image: http://bit.ly/1GTGMB5

blog rush hour

But too much jollity led to total neglect of my blog. My reasoning: Blogs are nothing more than personal diaries. Non jetsetting bloggers like myself who don’t post photos of their gorgeous selves, are probably floating in darkest cyberspace. Really, who cares what we’re up to?

While it’s a convenient argument, I realize that writing helps me organize my thoughts for functional sharing. Of course, I would rather be flotsam but I need the discipline.  Even if some bloggers only occasionally encounter life forms in the blue void, and hardly anyone likes or follows us, we should still be guided by the blogger’s code of conduct – http://radar.oreilly.com/2007/04/draft-bloggers-code-of-conduct.html

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This all sounds very altruistic but the truth is, I’m popping up for a gulp of air simply because of RSI. Yes, intensive beading has led to repetitive strain injury. It is not the needle hand that’s hurting, but the holding hand (my left). Whatever you do for hours – move the mouse, play the guitar, craftwork – remember to stop and flick/flex fingers, stretch arms and get the blood circulating. Keeping your hand in the same position for long periods will result in tendonitis, swelling, inflammation etc. Very unpleasant.

While I rest my hand, let me encourage you to indulge in creative activity. An obsession with (in my case) bead weaving has left me with no time to be lonely, depressed, or inclined to engage in risky pursuits. Other benefits:

From start to end

When I make one earring, I will push myself to finish the other side, usually on the same day. If it’s something more complicated like a necklace or dreamcatcher, I might take days or weeks, but with so much time already invested, the discipline to complete what I’ve begun is a sure thing.

earrings_sherbet Apr 2015necklace_earth Apr 2015Dream Catcher_Doug_11.9.14

A good workman

The crafty too must look after our tools and have materials at the ready. You’ll soon lose the mood to do anything if you’re running around searching for bits and bobs.

blog bead box 1

Constant learning

There’s always something new to learn, or technique to perfect. And with every step, patience is required. When I attended pottery classes, some students just wanted to throw pots and get them fired. The working of the clay bored them, but sloppy kneading and not slapping out air pockets might result in pots cracking in the kiln. The same persistence applies whether you’re trying tubular peyote stitching or breadmaking.

Stop and check

Even now I sometimes find myself speeding along to finish, and then discovering an unwelcome thread, or something awry when I’m all knotted and done. It means snipping off the offending section and fixing the mistake. Or living with it – and being forever irritated. If everyone did this at work, i.e. spot-check and backtrack, more errors would be caught before they snowball into something too difficult to fix.

Awareness

When you get interested in something, you will suddenly notice everything connected with it. Or even indirectly connected. Beading has made me more observant and appreciative of colours of fabrics, the ocean, sunrise, sunset, nature, tableware, art… It’s opened my eyes to the beauty around me and to the far superior skills of other crafters.

blog quilt

Sharing

After you make a whole lot of stuff, you’ll either want to sell, or make gifts of them. The trouble is not knowing whether the recipients are too polite to tell you to keep your handiwork. Hence, it would be best to set up a table at an event and sell my beadwork for money which can go to an animal shelter. But an introvert like me is not likely to face the public, so someone else will have to actualize my do-good idea.

bracelets_ocean 2014

Planning

It might sound odd, but having a hobby keeps me in touch with my mortality. It means prepping for the eventuality that I’ll leave behind a pile of beads from stones and quartzes to glass, acrylic and delica plus findings, tools, wire, threads and so on. What is my son to do with these? To cart them all to the Salvation Army would be a waste, so I shall have to find a worthy donee. It certainly bears thinking about.

blog bead boardblog Miyuki 2

Happy fatigue

The world stands still when you’re immersed in something. It’s like meditating. I’ve spent happy hours beading into the pre-dawn while catching up on cable TV shows. I concur with British writer, Jeanette Winterson who eloquently explains why having an interest outside yourself is good for the soul:

When you love something like reading – or drawing or music or nature – it surrounds you with a sense of connection to something great. If you are lucky enough to know this, then your search for meaning involves whatever that Something is. It’s an alchemical blend of affinity and focus that takes us to a place within that feels as close as we ever get to “home.” It’s like pulling into our own train station after a long trip – joy, relief, a pleasant exhaustion.

blog cottage

MOMENTS – A Time for Everything

Here’s something for Hwee Hwee’s long-lost friends who have found her through my blog. It makes me feel not so bad about being such a slob and not posting anything for the last few months.

 

Over on sunny Singapore, all we have to watch for is the super dry season which has thankfully just ended, and the Monsoons, so it’s hard to imagine changing seasons. I have still not figured out how to get basil and mint to survive, and the pests have ravaged my limau perut (kaffir lime) plant yet again. How nice to think of Hwee Hwee gazing at a poplar forest and at majestic eagles flying wild and free.

 

In late winter, I see vineyards dotted with small faraway figures – workers trimming the vines, cutting back the long shoots of the previous year to allow new shoots to grow and bud.  Long ago, when visiting another part of France, I have observed farmers pushing along a wheelbarrow in which they burn the vines as they are cut.  The lonely figures and wisps of smoke arising from the neat row of vines make a melancholic landscape.  I think burning the cut vines might be the way done for vines grown on land where it is too steep for tractors to pass and where grape is harvested by hand.

 

In the vineyard beside our house, it is usually the old farmer Mons Grialou who does the cutting, single-handedly and at his own steady pace.  After the branches are cut, the wife and daughter, and sometimes neighbours and friends, depending on who are available, arrive to pull the cut branches from their supporting wires and leave them between the rows of vine plants.  Then Mons Grialou comes again with a tractor to grind the cut branches into compost for the vineyard.  An easier and greener way of disposing of the cut branches than burning, I think.

 

Since we use woodstoves for heating in winter, we always ask the Grialous to leave us a row or two of cut vines.  Once dried, they make excellent starter-sticks for the next winter’s stoves.  Many people also use them for barbecue fires – they are supposed to impart a special flavour to the grilled food.

 

I have lived in the midst of the vineyards for so long now that I sometimes take them for granted – I hardly make a special effort to go for walks in the vineyards – something I would have found so romantic to do 10 years ago.  But what I love is the job of picking vine sticks.  It is one job that I never grumble about.  On bright, sunny winter afternoons, I would dress myself warmly and trudge down towards the vines armed with a pair of strong pruning shears.  I work slowly down the row, cutting off the crooked awkward parts of the pulled-out vines.  The peacefulness of the vineyard never fails to amaze me.  Sometimes I pause and shade my eyes to look at the poplar forest in the distance; sometimes I admire how the evening light changes the colours of the hills around.  Often I hear cries of eagles and when I look up – there they would be, circling above me.

 

When all the awkward corners are trimmed, it is time to gather the sticks.  In this, my boys like to help.  We gather them and lay them straight then their father comes and ties each bunch up tightly.  He has this habit of saying – put your finger on the knot and don’t move, whatever happens!  After the nineteenth time, the boys roll their eyes and sigh with exasperation.  Depending on how much we have gathered, we either truck the bunches back with wheelbarrows or the father will bring out his old-fashioned sputtering farm trailer.  The latter is always more fun because the boys get to ride in it.  Finally, the vine sticks are cut into good lengths that will fit properly into the woodstoves, and stored in the woodshed for winter.  The sight of cut wood and vine sticks gives me a great sense of fulfilment – like I have made proper provision for something important.

 

You might say – so much work just to get some starter sticks.  Yes, you are right, but all this is the natural progression of things.  Winter is for pruning, turning and preparing the soil of the vegetable patch, repairing things around the house; spring is for sowing, weeding and tending the new plants; summer is for harvesting; autumn for raking fallen leaves and storing the harvest properly to last through winter.  Each season brings its own activity – you cannot push or rush it, and I have to learnt not to grouse or grumble against it.  What you can do is to make full use of each season and most importantly, to enjoy each fully.

 

There is a time for everything,

and a season for every activity under heaven:

 

a time to be born and a time to die,

a time to plant and a time to uproot,

a time to kill and a time to heal,

a time to tear down and a time to build,Gathering vine sticks

a time to weep and a time to laugh,

a time to mourn and a time to dance,

a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,

a time to embrace and a time to refrain,

a time to search and a time to give up,

a time to keep and a time to throw away,

a time to tear and a time to mend,

a time to be silent and a time to speak,

a time to love and a time to hate,

a time for war and a time for peace.

 

REFLECTIONS – Older and Wiser

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Ageing is nothing to look forward to. The best part of it is a gradual release of responsibilities as you no longer have to prove anything beyond being able to walk and eat independently. In fact, ageing can be downright depressing as all the hormones that kept you racing and mating with the other rats slide to a low and you worry more about losing your mind and mobility than losing your hair.

Would it be better to die in early middle-age like many humans did a few centuries ago? Of course not, because we’re discovering more ways to stay fit and enjoy the extra years. With longer life expectancies though come problems for caregivers ie family, so we should be thinking of how to make it easy on them – considerations most of us shove aside because they’re so unpleasant to discuss.

Hwee Hwee Laurence ponders the topic –

Spring is here.  The daffodils, peach and plum trees are in bloom and we have spotted geese and cranes flying north.

Every year, during March, my elder son and I celebrate our birthdays and despite the fact that I am getting older each time, the arrival of spring always makes me feel young and I look forward to the newness of this part of the seasonal cycle.  This spring, however, I feel somewhat older.  Older because my husband and I have a new responsibility.  We are at a point where we have to take care of both our still-young children as well as our aging parents.

My father-in-law has recently been diagnosed with having a blocked vessel in the brain as well as the beginnings of Alzheimer’s.  Because he is quite a character (I shall not go into that), it took us some time before we realized that something was really wrong.  And because of his character, it has been difficult coming up with an appropriate solution that is best for his well-being.

I, being the ever-efficient and practical type, have been angry and frustrated by his stubbornness and seeming ungratefulness for what we are doing for him.  And then a good friend taught me this lesson.  She said that first, it is never pleasant or easy for a person to get old and come to a stage where he has to ask for help, and second, different people ask for help in different ways.

And it is true.  Our parents have not only brought us up, many of them (in Singapore) have also helped bring our children up.  It must be difficult for them for them to metamorphose from being care-givers to having to be cared for.  And just like children, aged people express themselves and do different things to get attention and help.

For young people, we must remember that when we look at an elderly person, we should see beyond the shell that he is and recognize that he has lived a (probably more) colourful and challenging life than us.  We should not to be dismissive of his needs, disdainful of his abilities or indifferent to his contributions.  And we should respect his wisdom and his rights.

For older people who are still autonomous and clear-minded (the ‘silver generation’) Marie Murray, a clinical psychologist and columnist of The Irish Times has this advice –  it is during this time that plans should be made to cater for future decline in physical and mental abilities.  These include learning email or internet skills so that there will be no deprivation of communication or information, planning maintenance-free homes or discussing with children about living arrangements, getting good legal advice about wills and decisions about whom to trust with power of attorney etc.

Planning for the future liberates the present, and this is most true for the silver generation who now has the time, financial, physical and mental abilities to live life up to the fullest.

REFLECTIONS – All I Want For Christmas Is A New Right Breast

Hwee Hwee Laurence has a wish –

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On 10 December 2013, Jean-Claude Mas, the founder of the company Poly Implant Prothèses (PIP) that made defective breast implants not conforming to medical standards, was judged in court in Marseille.  He was condemned to four years’ imprisonment, fined 75 000 Euros and not allowed to work anymore in medical-related fields.

I suspect I was one of the last people implanted with a PIP because just two months after having the mastectomy operation, I received a letter from the hospital informing me of this.  The ‘re-shock’ was almost too much to bear.  And of course, over the following months, the hullabaloo over this scandal was reported almost daily in the news and it certainly was not good for the morale especially when one was undergoing chemotherapy.

You might ask – why did I have an implant in the first place?  Am I so vain about keeping my breasts?  Or did my husband want me to have an implant?  The answers are ‘No’.  I never wanted an implant or any breast reconstruction.  My husband’s only aim was that I get well, and if he ever mentioned the possibility of an implant, it was because he was concerned that I might be psychologically ‘disturbed’ by my asymmetry.

I had an implant because every one of the doctors I met related to my cancer strongly advised that I should.  At that time, I had the impression that feminity is an important aspect for French women since at first,  nobody could believe that I really did not want an implant.  ‘You are still young!’ they said.

So why did I give in?  I did so because I did not know otherwise.  I had never had cancer or a mastectomy, never knew what it would be like to be flat on one side nor what it would feel like to have an implant.  In the end, shouldn’t doctors know best?  Which is why I wished that, because they knew better than me, they had fought harder to stop using PIP implants once problems started, not continued to do so until the last few months before ‘higher authorities’ decided against it.

I have been advised to remove, no – to change – the implant.  So far, I have not plucked up the resolve to go for another operation.  Also, I have been considering not having a new implant.  But then, I am now so used to having it that I am scared to have to readjust to being asymmetrical.

The one thing I have learnt from all this is – let’s not cry over spilt milk (or silicone – ha ha!).  I could have regretted listening to the doctors, but then without an implant I could have hated my lopsided body, too.  I can continue to rave and rant at Monsieur Mas but what good would that do to my health?  Better to just let go and get on with life.

My annual check-up is coming up soon and I will have to make a decision by then.  So maybe – a new right breast would be what I will be getting this Christmas.

REFLECTIONS – The dear departed

My husband is contemplating sitting with a friend who waits alone in Tan Tock Seng Hospital, keeping vigil by his wife’s bedside. She has slipped into unconsciousness and he knows this is all the earthly time he has left with her. She appeared to have beaten the cervical cancer which troubled her a few years ago, but fell ill recently. Her deterioration was so rapid that the medical staff prepared him for the worst.

As the year rolls to a close, my thoughts turn to the many dear ones I miss. Besides my mother and favourite aunt, there was the friend who passed on just two months ago. Fortunately, we managed to visit and spend an afternoon with him when he was still able to entertain visitors, albeit with his oxygen tank (he had emphysema).

One of my regrets will always be not making it to Belfast where Sister Finbarr retired. She was the Irish Principal of the convent school (Katong Convent) I attended and I was too callow to realise how fond I was of her until long after she had left Singapore. I remember being summoned to her little office because she found my reading report (we were encouraged to maintain reading lists) unbelievably long.

Quaking, I would give her a synopsis of any book she picked from my list. After a couple of visits, we became quite pally as it dawned on her I was devouring my way through the children’s section of the National Library. Very astute, she must have noticed that I was too timid to make things up, so she would pat me on the head and send me on my way. Henceforth, for a painfully shy child, I felt quite chuffed to have her call me by name every time I was in her line of vision. But, more importantly, close proximity allowed a glimpse of the kindness and concern behind the steely blue eyes and stern demeanour.

Someone else I regret not making time for was my best friend in my first two years of school. Her name was Mary Ng and she was too good for this world, and probably too good for me. We drifted apart as we grew up and while I can’t remember why, I’m sure we would have stayed firm friends if I had made an effort. When we were 16, Mary died from something related to her asthma problem. Again, it took years for me to feel the loss.

However, not to end on a sad note, death while wrenching for the ones left behind, reminds us to be mindful of life. As the fellow with the scythe can haul any of us off at his convenience, I am going to try to keep contact with the people I’m fond of – a colossal task for someone about as sociable as a tarsier. Let me ponder whether I even want to join Facebook. Nope! But there’s always the phone and old-fashioned email.

TRAVEL – Around the world in 14 months

My friend Betty Lee returned in August this year after a backpacking jaunt from Singapore through Europe, the Americas,  Antarctica and Australia. We were schoolfriends but while I’ve been hammering at my keyboard from the time she left in June last year, she has gone up and down mountains, made many new friends, and swam topless in an Austrian lake. Woohoo!

Seriously though, she’s our poster girl for the oldies-but-goldies as she prepares to gallivant some more at 61. And she now weighs 45kg, the weight she was at 16. How I hate her!!  So, Betty, I asked, what made you go traipsing off into the great blue yonder without a camera?

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Dining somewhere on the French Riviera
  • How much preparation did you do before embarking on your round the world backpacking trip? Route planning, fitness, financial etc?

It took me one full year to do my sums and summon enough guts to resign from my banking job.  Reason for leaving – travel round the world while I still have it, physically and mentally.  From then on, there was no stopping me pursuing a dream of travelling far and wide on a budget.  As I’m fortunate to have invested prudently, financially and physically, there wasn’t much preparation.  It was more building the courage to let go of security in terms of a regular income and comfort zone.

  • What made you take off on such a daunting backpacking trip?

I am someone who enjoys setting milestones for myself and believe in doing things at least once.  After age 50, I told myself I’ve got to do the full marathon.  I trained myself and completed the Standard Chartered Marathon in December 2003 at age 51.  When I was nearing 60, a solo RTW trip was compelling.  It would be no mean feat as I’ve been an avid traveller throughout my working life, having saved hard for a well-earned vacation since age 21.  In 2010, I met a Brazilian Japanese lady in her 50’s in Paris. She bemoaned the fact that she had a couple more years to retirement.  I was puzzled and inquired on Brazil’s retirement age. She enlightened me that Brazilians retire after 40 years of service, regardless of start age.  I thought that was very logical, let’s say, graduates starting work at 25 retire at age 65, and so on.  I worked out that I’ve crossed the threshold and deserve my quality life.  That’s why I took the plunge at 59 and handed in my resignation.

  • Were there any worries?

Definitely – tons!! But the Vipassana Meditation course I took helped me to overcome obstacles e.g. make a firm decision and go with the flow.  It is pointless to be overly concerned over a matter that is beyond my control. Like all other travellers, topmost concerns were getting confirmed transportation and accommodation, knowing I had a bus ticket to reach the next destination and that there is a bed waiting for me.  As I was travelling “green”, my mode of transport was basically land and sea viz. buses, trains and ferries – no planes, unless deemed necessary.  Albeit, some budget airfares are much cheaper than land transport, but I saw more on the road than up there in the clouds. And of course, the currencies – which of my cards would work at local ATMs, how much should I withdraw so that I don’t have too much left over when I venture onward to another country.  In Europe, it was much easier but since I was travelling in the eastern bloc, I did face problems as the countries in the Balkans were not EURO-centric.  I was in Bulgaria for 3 weeks and had too much cash left.  As I didn’t want to miss my bus out to Croatia, I had no time to switch the Lev to EUR as the neighbouring countries of Bulgaria did not want the Lev, since it was the weakest currency.  After 4 months on the road, I was only able to convert Lev to Sterling pounds in London, suffering a loss of 30% in the foreign exchange.

  • What was the most memorable destination/s and why? Did you encounter any sticky situations?

Tough question to answer as I found every country impressive.  That said, I can name a few:

*Pergamon (Turkey) – stayed in an old house at the foot of Pergamon.  It had a vine covered patio where breakfast was served.  I splurged on this guesthouse which cost me USD50 per night.  Pergamon was not on my original route in Turkey but a visit to the Pergamon Museum in Berlin before Turkey inspired me to take a detour to see this ancient city.

*Bulgaria, an impoverished country – it was like travelling back in time, riding on buses through villages and farms to reach another town.  Old fashioned farms with muscle and time – horsedrawn carts, ploughs and sheep, chickens, sooty children running out of ramshackle houses – I felt like I was caught in a time warp.  However, the boneshaker bus I was in had a wi-fi sign above the front windscreen!  An overnight stay in Rila Monastery up in the Rila mountains (south Bulgaria, near Greek border) was creepy but the smell of pine and sonorous chanting of monks are still in my mind.  From Rila I bussed down to the little wine town of Melnik – source of Churchill’s red wines.  In Melnik, the locals use old fashioned water pumps. I was about to trek to the mountain, but a fruit seller encouraged to taste the water.  With much reluctance, I cupped the water in my hands and drank it.  It was so refreshing that from then I drank from water fountains in the towns of Bulgaria.  It was potable and my stomach didn’t complain.  Bulgaria was not on my travel list but on the advice of a young German student whom I met in Bucharest (Romania), I made my way there.  And based on a book which I picked up in Cappadocia (Turkey), I followed the route that the author took.

*Cote d’Azur (France) experiencing a drive along the scenic cliffside roads hugging the French Riviera coast – I do understand why the rich and famous retire in the French Riviera!  It’s the ultimate in gracious living.

*Antarctica – what a continent, white and penguinned.  I was amazed by the various spectrums of white and how the daylight dances on the humongous icebergs, gorgeous shades of blue and white.  And the silence – silence broken only by wind or birds flapping in the sky.  It was a surreal feeling of being at the end of the world.

*Bolivia – the most indigenous country in South America.  I was drawn by the ethnic wear, in the markets, villages and towns.

*Iguazu Falls (Brazil/Argentina) – it’s on everyone’s itinerary and I almost missed it! Travelled 24 hours across Argentina from west to east and back again and I must admit I didn’t regret it.  It deserves being one of the New Seven Wonders of Nature.  The many falls were out of this world, simply mind-blowing.

*Purmamarca (North Argentina) – the most colourful mountain I’ve ever seen in my life.  I was travelling to Argentina from Chile, crossing the Andes. The bus had to drop a few passengers at a little village at the base of Purmamarca.  I just couldn’t believe my eyes – the mountain was bathed in vibrant shades of purple, lilac, maroon, orange, yellow, green, grey.  When I arrived at my destination, I bought a bus ticket back to this village the next day.  Stayed there for two nights and trekked 2-3 times a day, morning, mid-day and evening as the colours changed with the light of the day.  Unbelievably gorgeous and unplanned.

Finally, I must add that staying and spending time with relatives and friends in Lausanne (Switzerland), Hildesheim (Germany), Loreto (Italy), Vienna and Carinthian Lakes (South of the Alps) Ossiachersee & Woerthersee – only domestic tourists (Austria), Sandnes (Norway), Sunderland, Cambridge & London (England), Philadelphia, Atlanta & San Antonio (USA) and Juiz de Fora (Brazil), Sydney, Melbourne and Raleigh (Australia) were just as memorable.  My visits were relaxing as I was not constrained by time.  The Carinthian Lakes were memorable, not only because I didn’t come across any foreign visitors, but it was bliss swimming topless – I stood out like a sore thumb with my bikini top on, so I followed suit later on and, boy, it was liberating.

  • Why did you travel without a camera or phone? In an age when everyone else is instagramming and face booking their most mundane activity you have no photos to share of this once-in-a-lifetime journey…

Hey, hey, travelling without a camera is liberation in itself.  When everyone was snapping away, I was focused on enjoying that precious moment, the moment of seeing a rainbow appearing before my very eyes, or a setting sun which disappeared within a minute behind the horizon.  Why waste such precious moments. I’ve also noted that when I have a camera in hand, I become trigger happy – ouch.  Why have so many travel albums gathering dust?  As I personally find it so boring when people show me their travel albums (give me a break!), I don’t wish to bore them with mine.  And to top it all, I’m not one who flips through past travel albums to recollect the moment. Due to reasons mentioned, I stopped carrying a camera since 2002.

As it was a RTW trip with a 12kg backpack on my back, shopping was a no-no.  For example, I had to grit my teeth when walking through the colourful bazaars in Istanbul. I had to be practical as anything that adds weight to a backpack (maxed at 13kg, at least for mini me, 1.56m, 46kg) will make my walk to bus terminals and hostels a torture.  Thus, no souvenirs for myself or friends. Packing was also easier.  However, in my last stop in Bolivia and Peru, I did do all my shopping.

  • Now, with foresight, what advice do you have for someone contemplating a similar expedition? Carry cash, traveller’s cheques or card? How to purchase tickets, book accommodation, stay safe, decide where to go? What to carry in the backpack?

Cash for emergencies should be hidden away.  I brought 2 credit cards (one Master and one Visa, 2 bank cards (one with Cirrus and another with Plus as ATM machines in different continents or countries either operate with one or the other provider).

As I’m a light traveller, I packed a bare minimum and would advise others to do the same :  3 undies, 2 bras, 2 bikinis (double up as undies), 3 light tops, 2 long-sleeves, 2 pairs shorts, 1 pair jeans, 1 pair longs, 1 sundress (for dinners) and 1 hand towel (remember, I’m small), a pair of slippers (for toilets), a pair of Teva sandals (for trekking) and a pair of runners (for walking/trekking).

  • Has travelling solo changed you in any way, or what have you gained from the experience? Did it in any way affect your view of life? Or what did you bring back with you?

I’ve learnt to be humble and tolerant – I’ve come across young-adult travellers who are overconfident and think they’re know-alls. They talk down to travellers out of their age group.  I keep quiet and don’t let it bother me, just listen to their hot air.  Personally, I find travellers above 30’s quieter and more knowledgeable and definitely, more humble.

Go with the flow attitude, no hangups on what’s going to happen next – just do it – like wakeboarding sand dunes in Huacachina (Peru).  I didn’t know what I was in for when I booked a jeep ride in the sand dunes.  They were all young adults and I was the oldest.  We went across the sand dunes and stopped at some stages for wakeboarding.  Naturally, they started with low sand dune, eventually progressing to steep ones.  I realised that if I didn’t slide down, I would have to walk a long distance to reach the jeep which was at the bottom of the sand dune.  Thus, I closed my eyes and with heart in mouth, slid down a 25-storey high sand dune. No sound came out of my mouth but one of my jeepmates, a young lady half my age screamed from start to finish.

Less is more – as I’ve lived >400 days out of a backpack, I find that I can live with less – I’ve stopped shopping!

Don’t sweat the small stuff – live the present.

  • Where next?

Iberia (Spain, Portugal), Morocco, and possibly the dark continent of Africa – will keep you posted.

BOOKS – The write effort

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When Anthony Koh plunged into full-time freelance journalism, it was a leap of faith. He did not start off at a publishing house – the usual route for journalists in Singapore, and he had no real experience in chasing stories or identifying news points.

What he did have was gumption and an innate sense of how to attract readers. So, Anthony offered story ideas and miscellaneous musings willy-nilly until he got his first bite – from me. What he wrote about I cannot recall, but his persistence led to more writing assignments and his bohemian writer-for-hire lifestyle.

Now, Anthony has started his very own book business, catering specially to the writing community. It’s a very brave move in a country more focused on economic growth and material wealth. When he temped in a bookstore, he realised how a bookstore business can be suicidal because of rental.

“The idea of Booktique grew out of my frustration at the lack of books on writing at major bookstores, and that the limited stock is too general or too expensive. After I started ordering books for Booktique, I realised why. A local distributor told me this: our writers’ market is small, hence, bookstores resist stocking up books on writing.  This in turn deters distributors from ordering more titles from their overseas publishers.  This is where Booktique comes in.”

 The first Booktique fair is tomorrow at Caffe Parlet, 17 Eng Hoon Street, #01-04, 5pm-9pm. 

What started you writing? It’s a tough road not seen as a serious career unless you get established as a columnist or author (whose books actually sell).

I have loved writing since I was a child, but it was only in my early 20s that I took writing seriously. I contributed articles to The Straits Times and when one of them that I wrote about former TV actor, James Lye was published, I read it over and over again. The thrill of seeing my writing in print was beyond words. But that phase passed and I continued from one day job to another. It was only in 2007 that I quit to become a full-time freelance writer.

My friends said I was crazy; I had an established corporate career but I had neither a writing portfolio nor any connection to the publishing industry. I was not discouraged. I wrote many articles and one day, I sold one of them to NTUC Media. 

That was how my writing career started.  This is my sixth year and I’m really thankful for the regular assignments from various publications.

You started as an entertainment writer but moved into other genres. Why and what have you learnt from doing so?

Actually, I didn’t set out to become an entertainment writer. I have always wanted to write about issues close to my heart. For example, lessons about life. But it just happened that after I did an entertainment story, I received more assignments to interview celebrities.  Today, it has become my area of specialisation.

While it is good to specialise in a particular genre, it is more practical to write widely as the magazine market in Singapore is small.  More importantly, I discovered that I don’t have to know everything about an unfamiliar subject to write about it.  In a way, I learnt more about how to research. Now, I write both lifestyle and current affairs stories. I’ve even done copywriting for a book!

You shared your reasons for starting Booktique. You really think there are enough wannabe writers who need a niche supplier? 

Booktique is Singapore’s first book retail company for writers. By that, I mean we sell books mostly on writing and writers and encourage reading of literary works. I would think that these needs have to be accessible even though writers remain a small group.

To me, accessibility also means affordability. That’s why I buy cheap and pass the savings to my customers. Books are cultural products; you can’t really price them with a business mindset. George Whitman, founder of Shakespeare and Company said: “Give what you can, take what you need.” This is the philosophy that I follow in running Booktique.

Right now, I’m constantly looking for unique venues to host our book fairs. The long term plan is to build a small but purposeful bookstore for writers. I strongly believe that writers should have more books to help them in their writing and to motivate them along their writing journey.

Singaporeans don’t seem to be readers like in the West or Japan where so many – in parks, in trains – have their noses buried in books. We don’t appear to have a reading culture because people are distracted by mass media, social media, shopping … and so our writing skills are lacking. Do you think the reading segment is unlikely to grow but it’s still worth providing for the small reading core?

On hindsight, I would think that those distractions you mentioned do more than just rob us of our time to read; they sink us deeper and deeper into our existing capitalistic society. Sure, we will read. However, if we only read to enrich our life but not our soul, the reading culture becomes questionable.  

Although bookstore businesses are gloomy worldwide, I find it worthwhile to provide an additional platform in the market for new writers and I mean writers, not the average readers. Besides enjoying a good book, they also read to learn.  For aspiring novelists, they would support a bookstore that genuinely supports them. In this aspect, Booktique sells the books of lesser known authors at our book fair and don’t take a cut from the sales of their books. Call me a maverick bookseller but it takes a writer to know the plight of another writer.

Have you made new friends/acquaintances since starting Booktique? Who are the customers – students, writers, office workers?

Yes I have met authors and like-minded people who are supportive of the local writing scene. The Writers Club has been especially helpful since I started Booktique. Thanks Jamie!

Booktique is set up for aspiring writers (young and old), students attending writing courses and professional writers.  As we also sell award-winning fiction and special edition classic literature, we hope to attract readers of literary novels and bibliophiles.  

Will you have a website for orders?

Booktique now has few selected titles in our online shop (booktique.weebly.com) but it is not fully operational. I think the whole point of a bookstore for writers is for people to mingle and be inspired by the books and each other. To a certain extent, Booktique aspires to be a bookstore like our Shakespeare & Company. Even the latter is launching an online store. So I’m not sure if I will follow suit once the bookstore is built.

COMMUNITY – Smells like Christmas

The Skyve Wine Bistro (Singapore) was dressed like a classroom for delinquents with padded benches and a (drinking) bar for hopeless cases. The Body Shop staff looked like they’d dug up their school uniforms (but with manicured nails, they too looked delinquent), and Linda the MC could have passed off for the School of Rock principal, both stern and comic in her glasses.

To make matters more confusing, the scents of cranberry and spices, carols and festive lights added to the feeling we’d walked into a Christmas tableau in mid-October, and Baby Jesus would soon make an appearance along with a lamb or two.

Yes, it is that time of the year when hoteliers and retailers compete for media attention to publicise their wares. And how I love the whole shebang!

It’s my favourite season when the shopping district turns into fairyland and we are done with appraisals (not yet, but soon-soon). In Singapore, the tropical heat wavers, surrendering to stormy weather but we know it will soon be over and January will shine bright and red in preparation for the Chinese New Year. So, let’s savour this time of fake snow and Asian boy Santas. As they say, it’s the feeling that counts.

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Of course, the thought counts most, so I do like how The Body Shop assuages the guilt of spending money on those who have everything they need. The Body Shop supports Community Fair Trade, buying from small farmers of the Third World – loofahs from Honduras; cocoa butter from Ghana; paper products from Nepal; soapstone oil burners from North India; and wooden massagers, accessories and cosmetics bags from South India.

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When we buy something from their Christmas range, our purchase contributes towards the School Project – £200,000 will go towards building five schools – one each in the countries mentioned. We take education for granted whereas going to school is an opportunity prized in many parts of the world.

What’s one school you might think when so many more are needed? I think every bit counts and in a snowballing effect, every child educated will in some way, return something to their homeland.

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Best of all, you get something pretty and practical, exclusive to the Christmas season and that will look really good under the tree. And if you wear make-up which I don’t, I hear their smoky eye palette and BB cream glide right on.

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