At least once

Singapore was a surprise from the very beginning. When my colleague asked whether I could go there to deliver client work, I jumped at this rare opportunity, only to realise that the date of the trip was falling right in the middle of the busiest time I’ve had at work this year. October run me down completely and the last thing I was looking forward to was being stuck in the tiny seat of the economy class for 15 hours. My excitement about this prospect was additionally dimmed by the terrible sinus infection I have been suffering from. I boarded the plane resigned to the idea that I would just deliver my work in Singapore and rest otherwise (after all, I’ve been to Singapore already and there was not that much to see anyways – I thought) during the half day before and after the delivery.

I was flying to Singapore through Dubai, to break the trip in the middle. At the time of booking it seemed like a good idea to have a short one hour stop over, but I did not take into the consideration that getting off the plane would take a lot of that precious time I had for the transfer, leaving me anxious that I might not make it in time to catch my next flight. As I left the plane, I approached the airport attendant who was standing in the jet bridge to ask about the gate for Singapore. Before the young man had a chance to reply, I heard a female voice. A friendly lady in a wheelchair was telling me to stick with her, as she was going to Singapore as well. Elaine, as I soon learnt was her name, told me that as a wheelchair user, she was going to be taken to our gate through a different route and that I should follow her. I wasn’t too sure about that, feeling somewhat like I was “cheating the system”, but before I had a chance to say anything, Elaine was already announcing to the gentleman who was escorting her that I was her grand daughter and was to travel with her to the plane. My adoptive grandma turned out to be an absolute delight to talk to and we stayed chatting until it was time to board the plane.

While most of the flight was pretty uneventful, the last hour of the journey turned out to be rather traumatising. Out of the blue, with no previous signs of turbulence, the plane suddenly begun to shake violently. People who were just standing up fell down on the floor or on fellow passangers, flight attendants hurriedly ordered everyone to take the nearest seat while they fastened their own seatbelts as well, their faces clearly worried. It was that which alarmed me the most. You know you’re in trouble when the crew members are just as scared as you are. I could feel my heart pounding wildly in my chest. In my head an alarm kept on ringing telling me in alternating sequence “this is it. This can’t be happening”. And then it all stoped. The plane regained its balance. Everyone began to look up again, seeking reassurance in others’ nervous smiles. We felt silly for getting so scared, and yet we silently knew that we got a glimpse into an experience that on this occassion was not meant for us, but one that we knew all too well is on everyone’s mind whenever they board the plane. The “what if”s. We will soon be telling our friends and families about this short incident as a little interesting anecdote, one of our many plane stories. But deep down we knew this time we got lucky and that knowledge, that split second before we regained our safety will forever stay with us. That knowledge of what goes on in your mind when you think you’re about to die. The knowledge that it’s not what they show in the movies. There is no life flashing back. It’s just pure fear that makes your heart want to break free from the rib cage to escape its own crazy pace, intertwined with the disbelief. It cannot be happening. Not really. Not now. Not to me. It’s like watching a movie where you have not fully registered yet that you’re the main star of. And then, when you feel it’s all too much, you are saved. No more falling. Everything slowly goes back to the way it was before. Everyone determined to pretend it was not what it was, that they did not feel what they felt. Forty minutes left till we land, I can do this – I kept on telling myself, my heart still struggling to regain its rhythm. Suddenly I could not wait to be in Singapore already.

Quick moves of the cabin luggage, withdrawal of local currency from the cash machine and swift passport control later I was breathing in the hot dampness of Singapore’s tropical air from the taxi. Arrival made easy. Just like everything else in Singapore.

And there it finally was. A place I visited seven years ago. A place that seemed completely unfamiliar. Has Singapore changed so much? Or have I?

The first time I had landed in Singapore I was on my way to Australia and I had decided to stop over in this tiny city-state for a day to break the long trip down under. It was middle of the summer and the hot humidity turned the world outside into a sauna. I remember seeking a temporary respite from the heat under the colourful arches of the South Bridge Road, drinking coconut water in the Chinatown and eating the famous Singapore chilli crab in the airconditioned restaurant. I remember the charming colourful buildings of Clarke Quay and the mocha tinted still water of the Singapore river. I also remember feeling ready to leave the next day.  Singapore was mildly interesting with its strange rules and a unique mix of the European and Asian culture, but it felt too familiar, too tame, while I craved an adventure, novelty, something different.

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Seven years later however, I found myself texting my husband to tell him I wanted to move here. Singapore no longer seemed dull. It seemed like a perfect place to live. The smallness of the island instead of constraining appeared convenient. I spent three days exploring the city and I was in love. What had seemed so boringly familiar was now tempting me with a promise of a comfortable life in this welcoming country where everyone spoke English and where within a 15 minute (cheap) taxi ride I could move from the office in the financial district to lush greenery of a botanical garden.

I suddenly remembered a photo I took all those years ago in a museum in Singapore.

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I came into an old movie showing in one of the museum rooms at the time. A man and a woman in black and white were singing on the screen. One particular line stuck out to me- “at least once in your life you must come to Singapore”. There was something meaningful in that statement at the time, but it was only few years later that the message fully hit me.

I needed to come to Singapore “at least once” to see not only the change in this place but the change in me. In 2010 I was a recent graduate, a single girl who was going on her first solo international trip and who couldn’t wait to see the world. In 2017, I was still just as hungry for the world, but I was an experienced consultant, a coach, a business psychologist happily married to the man I had a crush on all those years ago. A lot has happened in my life in those seven years, and Singapore developed and changed, so did I. And I found this change reassuring. Those years ago I found Singapore disappointing because it didn’t live up to my expectations of the “exotic” at the time. But since then I have traveled to so many places that I was less hungry for the idealised novelty and instead could actually see Singapore the way it was. I could wonder around with curiosity about the way people lived there. The country has inevitably changed since my last visit, but so have my perceptions of it. I was disappointed when I reflected on the pessimism with which I approached this trip, but I felt happy that despite the illness and exhaustion, my love for travel kicked in the moment I landed in Singapore. There were things I had to review around my energy and priorities, but my life was not standing in a place, I wasn’t stuck in my ways, I kept on moving and embracing the change. And I was happy with where life was taking me. I felt like the changes I’ve noticed in the city, reflected the changes in me. Like the city, I was still under construction, but I too, was blossoming, improving and growing. Perhaps “at least once in your life you must come to Singapore” not just to see this unique place, but to really see yourself.

 

 

Between the old and new

Arriving at the Beijing South Railway station I wasn’t sure whether our taxi driver hadn’t accidently drove us to the airport. The grand, modern building with the security screening at the entrance and large screens displaying times of departures and arrivals, resembled more the international ports of embarkation rather than local train station.

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Inside its clean and spacious interior, passengers were completing last minute shopping, ensuring the abundance of edible goods for their long journeys.  Colourful screens tempted the more reluctant buyers with the mouth-watering pictures of food in the ads, while the YouKu channel showed Durian Mousse Cheesecake recipe. The food and travel in vital symbiosis.

Minutes before departure, outside our gate to the platform, a queue began to form. Patient travelers standing neatly one by one, awaited the arrival of a petite woman who soon appeared by the sliding door. Her red lips announcing to the headset microphone that one should get their passport ready. In China, whether you’re booking a train ticket or paying an entrance fee to the Forbidden city, your passport will be required.

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The neat interior of the train soon began to clash with the chaos brought by its passengers. The seats in our carriage were soon filled with families busily arranging their luggage in the overhead compartments. The commotion was accompanied by a series of distressing sounds. To the shock of many foreign tourists, many Chinese people still have a habit of making a snorting sound to clear out their nose and sinuses of excess phlegm, which is then often spat out. To someone unaccustomed to such practice, the noise associated with it appears rather reprehensible, although those engaging in the activity would surely point out that according to the Chinese medicine retention of mucus harms the health of our body. And so we spent the next five hours surrounded by the sound of snoring, snorting and random exclamations coming from a loud video game played by the little boy with a passion for kicking seats.

In my desperate attempts to block out the clamour, I increased the volume on my headphones and directed my attention towards the window. Behind the rows of neat trees planted in perfect lines, I could notice fields and occasional farmers. Their bent over silhouettes clad in the iconic rice hats, its conical shape protecting them from the sun. Within a matter of minutes, the farmers would give way to the concrete forest of the city’s skyscrapers. These giants growing out of nowhere, making you feel lost in the jungle of sameness. There was something sad in the contrast of the high speed train and the changing landscape.

As we sped across the cityscape and countryside I couldn’t help but feel that there’s a discord between China the country and its people. The large building sites, colossal housing projects and perfect rows of trees planted in equal intervals provided the sense of controlled progress, yet it seemed to be a progress that people were not yet prepared for. In most of the places I’ve traveled to, the development seemed more aligned – cities would grow organically, expand more by the movement of people than the municipal lines. Here, the growth seemed imposed. Everything seemed like a big project that was well planned and executed, but that was failed to be communicated to the people.  The Chinese Communist Party seems to know what to do to bring China not up to speed with other countries, but to exceed them. But it seems like they don’t always remember to bring people on board, leaving the Chinese lost in this unknown reality, stuck between attempts to adjust and their longing for tradition. If this was anywhere else, I would wonder which side will win in this battle between future and the past. But China has a unique ability to accept the dualities, to bring the yin and yang together and carve for itself a pocket of calm right in the middle of the taijitu sign. Maybe that’s the key to success in today’s world.

 

 

The Forbidden City

The morning sun finally brought me some respite from the jet-lag. At 6 am my body finally decided it was ready to go to sleep and I managed to rest for a few hours. Usually four hours of sleep would get me just about to a zombie level of alertness, but as the excitement of visiting China kicked in, I was ready to explore the city.

I like my first encounters with a city to be on foot. I enjoy strolling around the streets, just absorbing the place I’m in. Slowly. Allowing its energy to take over. Beijing was going to be no different.

After leaving the hotel, I decided to follow the street in front of it (secretly hoping it would eventually lead me to a place where I could give in to my caffeine addiction). The streets of Beijing felt a bit dusty in the heat of the day. The wide roads seemed surprisingly empty, with occasional cyclists cheerfully pedaling through the shade cast by refreshing green of the trees. We passed a family hailing a cab outside of the entrance to a restaurant decorated in incomprehensible yet beautiful regular features of the Chinese characters. Here and there an elderly person slowly shuffled their feet down the uneven pavement. Listless vendors, hiding from the sun, were selling beautifully wrapped steamed snacks and tea eggs floating in the dark sauce. That morning Beijing’s sleepy energy seemed to be matching mine.

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After a considerable stroll in the unbearable heat, my husband and I decided to stop by a modern looking noodle bar. In the absence of cafes, we hoped this place filled with Chinese youth would perhaps have an English menu or someone who could help us translate our need for caffeine into some semi-clear communication. Coming to China we knew language may be an issue, but we probably underestimated just how difficult it might be to find an English speaker on the streets of Beijing.

Inside the clean space sparsely filled with tall white and blond wood furniture, a woman at the counter pointed at the digital menu next to two cute, chubby figurines of a Maneki-neko, happily waving at the visitors. This lucky charm has become widely associated with China and is often known as the Chinese waving cat, even though the talisman is actually of Japanese origin and symbolises  the “beckoning cat” which according to some folktales has brough good fortune to an impoverished vendor who gave it shelter. The figurines’ position is often important, with the raised left paw often found in restaurants and bars due to the belief that it brings luck in business.

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We picked two most breakfast like items from the menu on the screen and sat outside, breathing in Beijing’s slow busyness and the faint remains of smog. Our espressos arrived, followed shortly by the golden crusted deep fried mung bean dough and a sesame rice one. The crunchy coating was hot. Its bluntness revealing the fading taste of oil it was friend in. After just one bite however, it turned out to be the mere canvas for the thick dark paste inside. Its sweetness nicely contrasting with the absence of  flavour on the little crusty pocket surrounding it.

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Having eaten and people watched to a satisfactory level, it was time to make a move. We walked back to our hotel and asked the receptionist about a cab to Tiananmen Square. We had only one day in Beijing before heading to Shanghai and it wouldn’t be until two weeks later that we would be visiting this city again for three days on the way back home. If there was one thing I really wanted to see in Beijing was the place that saw the history being made.

It was here that the People’s Republic of China was proclaimed in 1949. It was also here that 40 years later that same Republic got hundreds of its people massacred. What is now known as the Tiananmen Square Massacre in the West (and refered to as the “June 4th Incident” in China) took place in 1989 in order to forcibly suppres the protests of Chinese students who, ironically, called for democracy and freedom of speech. The peaceful protesters were silenced with tanks and assault rifles. Their youthful hope crushed by ruthless reality. The “Gate of Heavenly Peace” brought nothing but sorrow to its people.

I wanted to stand where it all happened. I expected to feel the pain of history the way you do when you stand in front of the pile of human hair in Auschwitz and the devastating reality hits you with full force. But it wasn’t like that at all.

First, I wasn’t even sure whether we have reached Tiananmen square until I saw the iconic face of Mao watchfully trumphing over the gate to the Forbidden City. The square looks inconspicuous thanks to the two lively arteries cutting through it. The cars speeding up and down, passing the square in a seemingly complete oblivion to the bloodshed that took place there less than 30 years ago. China is a funny creature. It’s like a pedestrian who witnesses an acident, but looks the other way round to stay away from the trouble. You can judge his social interia, but it’s probably a learnt helpessness that has taught him to look down and carry on. A self preservation instinct. China is good at not seeing what it doesn’t want to see. This selective memory being especially evident in hundreds of selfies and group photos taken with Mao. His round, rosy cheeks – totally instagramable. Only the old woman in elaborate ethnic clothes not taking out her camera.

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Under the watchful eye of the chairman, crowds of Chinese tourists enter the crimson walls of the Forbidden City. This Imperial Palace served as the home and political arena of the emperors from the Ming Dynasty to the end of Qing Dynasty which came to an end in 1912. It was that year that after long period of unrest, a decision was made for the child emperor Puyi to abdicate, bringing the Imperial China to its end. The unorganised warlord factionalism that soon followed, made the country vulnerable and opened a way fo the Japanese who invaded China in the 1930s, creating a puppet state governed by emperor Puyi. It was a difficult and hopeless time for the Chinese, who were treated appalingly by the invaders. The cruelty of those times, from the hands of the Japanese as well as the home-grown warlords, probably can shed some more light as to the ease with which Mao’s communist slogans swiped the nation off its feet. In 1945 the Chinese just regained their independence. What they didn’t know was that bit by bit they would lose it again.

In 1949 the conflict between the Chinese Communist Party and the nationalist regime of Chiang Kai-Shek and his Kuomintang is officially ended with Mao Zedong’s proclamation of the People’s Republic of China. He does that at the Tiananmen, by the entrance to the Forbidden City –  a former home and political centre of the imperial China.

Beijing means the “Northern Capital”, a name which accentuates the difference between Nanjing, i.e. “South Capital”, which was China’s former ruling city. This same place however used to be known as Shuntian, and called Beiping (meaning “Northern Peace”) beforehand. Just as the area evolved, so did its names – allowing the city multiple rebirths. New name, new life. There’s something hopefull in this fluidity, a certain magic to Chinese language’s ability to change the reality.

Learning about the Chinese language was like discovering different China. What on surface seems rough and sounds a little sharp, turns out to be full of beauty and subtle meanings. I have always enjoyed pondering the ways in which language shapes our minds and culture. For example, in Chinese, there is no concept of plural noun the way it exists in the European languages. The difference between plural and singular is not as clear from the noun itself, but rather infered from the context of the sentence. Furthermore, with the Chinese being a tonal language, the correct meaning of the word is deduced from the pitch, or the tone, used to pronounce it. Interestingly, when Beijing is uttered with a different tone, it turns into “background”. I find something poetic about this difference. Perhaps this duality holds the key to understanding the nature of this place.

The “Forbidden” part of the Forbidden City, refers to the fact that nobody was allowed to enter or leave the palace without the emperor’s permission. The name in Chinese refers to the North Star which in traditional Chinese astrology was the heavenly abode of the Celestial Emperor. The “Forbidden City” was to reflect that the palace complex was the residence of terrestrial counterpart. When its construction began in 1406, the layout was  to mirror the palaces in Nanjing, the former capital. Morever, the building plans were made in accordance with the  feng shui, a Chinese philosophical system of harmony with the surrounding environment.

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The sense of harmony prevails around the place complex. The gates with lyrical names like “Manifest Virtue”, lead us through a  series of wide squares adorned with sculptures in front of simple yet beautifuly decorated buildings covered with traditional, elaborately carved rooftops over colorful ceilings. Everything full of meaning, placed in a well thought out manner. Intimidating in its grandeure, yet humble in its simplicity.

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After few hours of walking unhurriedly around surprisingly spacious palace grounds and having sufficiently enjoyed the shade of its garden, it was time to leave the Forbidden City.  We got out on the side of the Jingshan Park, and decided to walk around the area, curious as to where our feet would take us. We followed the grey pavement alongside the grey road to grey alleyways enwraped in grey walls of the surrounding buildings. Few tea breaks and many kilometers later, we found ourselves lost in the jungle of Chinese hutongs. From the land of skyscrappers and wide multiways, we were suddenly transported to the monochrome world of narrow alleyways. The uniform ash-coloured brick walls were guarding the privacy of their inhabitants. Only the occassionally parked motorcycle or a bike, alongside drying clothes fluttering gently in the soft wind revealed the place is not abandoned.

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There was something diferent about this place. Like encountering a secret you were not meant to be privy to. The hutong neighbourhood was so different to the tall blocks of houses dotting the Beijing skyline. It felt like a timetravel. It was only later that I realized how lucky we were coming across this area.

Hutongs, traditional alleys formed of square courtyard houses known as siheyuan, have been demolished en masse over the last few decades to make space for the “bigger and better” China. Walking past the vermilion entrance gates, hiding from the sun under sloping rooftops, I knew I was trespassing on the world that wasn’t mine to understand. The screen walls protecting the residents not only from curious gaze and evil spirits, but also from the world that despite rapid growth many Chinese did not seem to be ready for. Just like the thick walls between me and the real life of hutongs, there was an invisible barrier between tourists and people of Beijing. In the jungle of characters I wasn’t able to decipher, lost in translation, I had to resort to the parts of China I was welcome to see. Yes to a Peking duck, no to a political debate. For the first time in a while I felt forced to being a tourist rather than a traveler. But it was only my first day in China and I was determined to peek behind the walls. As soon as I finished that Peking duck that is.

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Lost in translation

From the moment of our very first encounter Beijing was not what I had expected. Embarking on our little Asian adventure, Beijing was one of the places I was less curious to see. I was dreaming of Tokyo, Seoul, perhaps Shanghai. Beijing was less glamorous and to be very honest, I was a little prejudicial towards China and its capital. To fully understand my feelings you need to know something about the weeks leading up to my trip.

Things have been very busy at work and on the private front the journey coincided with a move. Every day after work I would pick up a bunch of stuff I packed in the morning and hurry to the new place. Whenever I was not working, I was moving.  The only leisure I allowed myself was reading. And I had a lot of it to do before the flight. You see, to my great delight, the book club I’m a member of, chose for our June discussion Madeleine Thien’s “Do not say we have nothing”. If you have not read it (which you should do), this little literary gem is about the life in China under chairman Mao. The book depicts the brutality with which communism was “introduced” across the country. It exposes the insanity of some of the reforms introduced during the Great Leap Forward, a socio-economic campaign introduced by the Communist Party of China between 1958-1962. Amongst the violent persecutions of the landowners and any “counter-revolutionaries” or simply anyone deemed inconvenient to Mao and his supporters, the mainland Chinese were subjected to compulsory agricultural collectivization and failed reforms resulting in famine.

One of Mao Zedong’s most misguided initiatives in that time was the Great Sparrow Campaign. In 1958, the Chairman’s obsession with industrialization drove people to produce steel at the expense of attending to the crops. The lack of skilled farmers looking after the fields was made worse by the invasion of locust, which was a direct result of Mao’s order to eradicate the sparrows. People across the land went outside and continued making terrible racket with the pots and pans to scare the sparrows away from resting on the trees. Thousands of sparrows kept on falling dead from the sky, exhausted from continuous strain of flying. The famine that resulted from this insane reform, together with the brutality of the Cultural Revolution that followed few years later, lead to death of tens of millions of the Chinese people. This, among other books on Chinese history, such as “ Wild Swans” by Jung Chang, left me feeling bitter about the country I was about to visit.

As the plane was nearing the tarmac, I felt the familiar agitation I often experience when arriving at an unfamiliar place at night. During the day, novelty is always exciting. At night, that same excitement is replaced by a certain kind of foreboding. I expected great lights and a buzzing metropolis as I looked through the oval of the plastic windows. Somehow I had expected Beijing to be grander than it appeared at a first glance.

To my surprise however, the airport was much more impressive. Beijing welcomed us in a grand style. The Arrivals hall appeared modern and clean, leaving us feeling small under the well-lit spacious dome of its ceiling.  As we managed to travel light, we had no luggage to collect and after a short journey by an airport train to the arrival hall, we had our bags scanned and took an elevator to a taxi stand. Two petite women in uniforms asked us to follow their male colleague to the pre-paid taxi, while they continued their conversation with the airport guards. The skinny men in their beige uniforms looked more like teenage boys playing dress-up than serious government officials. If that was the face of the communism, perhaps the party wasn’t as scary as it had seemed?

The taxi ride proved to be more exciting than I had anticipated. The hot night air blowing into the speeding car zig-zaging its way through wide motorway through the open windows made all the former anxiety disappear. I felt strangely at peace racing through the night streets of Beijing, despite the driving skills of Chinese drivers being clearly on par with the deadly fluidity of movement that I’ve seen so far only in India and Pakistan. I was in a brand new world, lost in the jungle of skyscrapers adorned by characters I could not decipher which in their red and yellow neon lights seemed to warm up the night and decorate the sky.

As we arrived at the Holiday Inn Dongzhimen, we swiftly checked in and went for a midnight stroll around the area in search for food. Despite the late hour, the time difference between Beijing and London left us wide awake and famished. The streets outside the hotel were peaceful and except for an occasional cyclist cruising leisurely through the city, there weren’t many people around. We decided to eat at the little noodle place nearby, where a few fellow night owls were enjoying their meal. After a quick look at the menu, my husband went for the option he knew from home while I decided to try the traditional Beijing Noodles, which turned out to be a bowl of plain noodles with the celeriac, cucumber, cabbage and soy toppings served with a dark fermented paste. The meal was more blunt than most of the Chinese I tried before, but the variety of fresh vegetables created a light and refreshing taste when combined with the sauce. I also ordered plum juice which sweetness and heavy texture were strangely satisfying.

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Once our stomachs were happy, we returned to the hotel. I washed the long trip off and went to bed, sure that the exhaustion of the 15 hours on the plane will put me to sleep as soon as my head hits the pillow. I closed my eyes.Nothing.

When traveling to different time zones I have one rule – do not look at the clock. Over the years of travel I learnt that one of the best ways to avoid the jet lag is simply not to look at any devices that could remind you of the time at the place of embarkation. I would ensure a complete ignorance regarding the time difference between home and my destination, block out any information regarding the timing during the flight and make sure I didn’t see the time on my phone until it connected to the local provider and updated itself. Throughout the years my system seemed to have worked – jet lag remained a mythical problem that I blissfully remained immune to. Until I traveled to China.

You see, despite my attempts at explaining to him how The System works, my husband had clearly decided that knowledge is power and against my will proceeded to inform me about what time it would have been back home the second we arrived in Beijing. What I hadn’t known back then, was that I was about to experience my very first encounter with that legendary phenomenon. While my husband innocently drifted off to sleep, I remained awake for the rest of the night. No amount of twists and turns seemed to help, so at 5 am I finally gave up any hope for a nap and sat by the window to look my tormentor in the eye. When I saw Beijing bathing in the warm redness of the rising sun, I couldn’t help but feel a bit grateful to being privy to this magnificent show. The lone souls cycling through the city on the yellow rented bicycles made me less lonely. There was something poetic in their haste to start the day which I was so desperately hoping to end. I was still holding on to the past while China pedaled its way into the future.

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Getting unstuck

The noise and clutter of everyday life can often be overwhelming. Tired with the constant buzz of our lives we seek a respite from our daily troubles in travel.  From the moment the ticket is booked, everything becomes just a little bit easier, a little bit less numbing. Suddenly the project that was giving us such a hard time becomes less of an issue – after all, there’s now light at the end of the tunnel. Booking the tickets to China felt exactly like that.  My husband and I kept on talking about this trip for months. We planned we would go to China, visit Japan and stop over in South Korea. But it was May and our June trip still remained unbooked. I began to think it wouldn’t happen. And I desperately needed it to.

The truth is, I was feeling a bit stuck in life.  I felt overwhelmed, lost in the chaos that seemed to surround me, I knew I needed to find a way out of the rut I managed to get myself in, but I wasn’t sure what my options were. I got a coach. Read the books you’re meant to read. Talked to the people you’re meant to talk to. My mind was still stuck on repeat.

I like to think about myself as someone who gets excited about life and yet here I was  – completely devoid of enthusiasm. I wasn’t depressed. Far from it – I felt grateful for the life I have and the amazing people in it.  And yet I felt disillusioned. I wasn’t where I wanted to be in life and wasn’t feeling particularly hopeful about the future either. Until I got unstuck.

I’ve got my husband to thank. The state of inertia I seemed to inhabit in those days meant that had I been left to my own devices I would have given up on China. Luckily he seemed to intuitively know that trip was exactly what I needed.

Ignoring my sleepy “let’s wait till tomorrow” plea, my husband insisted on keeping me up till early morning hours, dispelling my sleep with grunts of despair on high prices of the flights and occasional excited “look at these flights” (soon to be followed by groans of disappointment).  By 2 am I was fully awake, watching my husband’s changing face expressions reflected in the blue light of the laptop. A decision had to be made. “Let’s book this one”, I pointed. Few clicks later, we were going to China.

My first reaction surprised me. Instead of the expected excitement I felt relief. Has my joy button been permanently broken? I decided to postpone the pondering till next day.

The next day the excitement I anticipated still wasn’t there, but I started noticing a shift. Suddenly the noise didn’t matter as much. There was a notion of impermanence to all those things that frustrated me into inaction. All of it would soon cease to exist. There would only be China.

The more I planned the trip, the more I felt unstuck. The ticket not only provided the promise of a break I needed to have, but more importantly, it brought movement back into my life. With it, other things begun to move too. We finally realized the place we wanted to move to was actually within our reach. The more I read and thought about our destination, the more options for life my mind would create. I didn’t HAVE TO be stuck. It was me who was trapping myself before. My reality was temporary. My world was only one of the worlds. And if I could visit those different worlds, I didn’t have to be stuck in mine. I didn’t buy just a ticket, I bought hope. I brought movement back into my stagnant reality and nothing was going to be the same anymore. It was time for a change.

 

Learning from the best – discussing travel, writing and self-care with Sarah Barrell

It was 6 pm and my usual Canary Wharf view has just become replaced by a magical white curtain of falling snow. I have just finished my Skype coaching session after a full day of working from home and looking at the weather outside I felt grateful for not having to leave the house. I had wanted to attend a Travel Writing Masterclass held that day by the National Geographic Traveller (UK), but have by that point reluctantly accepted that the tickets had long been sold out. I was about to cozy up on the sofa with a cup of tea and a good book when I heard the beeping sound of an incoming Facebook notification. I couldn’t believe my luck! Because of the snow one of the attendees has just cancelled  and there was one last ticket left for the NGT Masterclass I so badly wanted to attend! Without giving it much thought I booked the ticket and ran out of the house, zipping up and putting on make up as I hurried to Covent Garden. I didn’t notice the cold, didn’t mind the snowflakes crushing coldly into my face. The universe gave me an opportunity I couldn’t refuse.

After the inspiring evening with NGT’s writers and editors, I gathered up the courage to walk up to Sarah Barrell, their Associate Editor and Travel Writer. I had the pleasure of meeting Sarah once before, at the London School of Journalism where she was giving lecture on travel writing, yet the idea of bothering her with my questions still made me uneasy. Despite feeling shy, I decided to approach her. I thought someone who has traveled to so many countries and has built an incredibly successful career around her life’s passion would be a wonderful person to write about for my January travel inspiration series. To my great surprise and even greater pleasure, Sarah was kind enough to agree to do an interview for TravelPsyched!

I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

TravelPsyched: So, Sarah, you’re one of the most inspiring travel writers in this country and your articles have been published in all the leading newspapers and magazines, like The Times, The Guardian, Wanderlust, Marie Claire, or National Geographic Traveller (UK), and you also held a few editorial positions in some of these great papers. How did you get on this path and is this what you have always wanted to do in life?

Sarah Barrell: I think in some way – yes. I always loved writing and reading as a way to escape.  As a kid I picked adventure books, whether that was “The Famous Five”, “Swallows and Amazons” or more magical stuff. At school, I wasn’t that good at anything else – maths, science, whatever. So it was a self-fulfilling prophecy that I ended up studying English and publishing at university, and working on university magazines and radio stations. Travel writing didn’t really happen until I realised I was pretty much constantly travelling. From the age of 16 I had always had a job so was able to save a little bit of money, and used this to fund trips. Once I graduated from university I got into a cycle of doing any job I could in order to fund my travels because I’d become addicted. Getting a “proper” job became something that was on the horizon but never quite happening. Then, a radio editor said to me: “why don’t you just go travelling properly rather than going backwards and forwards?”

I had toyed with the idea of working in radio for a while, and finally decided there wasn’t really any future in it. I didn’t want to be a DJ, and while I loved programmes such as “Excess Baggage”, opportunities for making radio documentaries and features were thin on the ground. So I went travelling for a couple of years, and when I came back I was lucky enough to find that one of my former university friends had started work at The Independent, originally as an intern, then as a freelance on the Arts Desk. The Independent on Sunday was just launching a standalone travel section headed up by a brilliant writer, called Jeremy Atiyah. I got work experience on the desk and ended up hanging around like a bad smell, making myself useful, doing some filing, writing bits and pieces, researching, fact checking, doing boring radio listings. All the stuff journalists (we’re talking mid-nineties), generally did to earn their stripes.

Eventually I got myself a job, and I learnt almost everything I now know about travel writing from that experience. I could write but it was a bit of an ambition over talent situation. I learnt everything, really,  by reading and editing other people’s copy. When I read something good, I looked at how was constructed and asked myself, how am I doing this differently? I was also lucky to have great advice from my editor, who went through my copy with a red pen. Brutal but invaluable. I learnt enormous amounts in the time on that desk and after a few years became Deputy Travel Editor, and Travel Editor when Jeremy Atiyah left. However… I didn’t really like being chained to the desk, and that’s what it ended up being, so I eventually left in early 2000 to go freelance, and more or less haven’t looked back.

T: Were there any specific personality characteristics that you’ve had or skills that you’ve learnt along the way that really enabled you to get where you are right now?

SB: You’ve got to be really thick-skinned, especially when people turn down your pitches or ignore you, because that’s just standard, unfortunately. But I think you need to understand how busy everyone is, it’s not something to be taken personally. You have to be extremely self-motivated to keep the ball rolling because nobody is going to be doing that for you. It’s a highly competitive area. You have to keep generating ideas, keep generating pitches. And more than anything, you need an insatiable hunger for the world. After doing this for almost twenty years you might think I’d get bored. But the more you do it, the more addictive it becomes and the more you realise there is to see out there. So: you need that drive that makes you want to do it more than anything else, as it’s really not a sensible way to earn a living [laughs].

T: You’ve been traveling for so many years and you’ve been to so many wonderful, and I’m sure beautiful, places. What’s the most inspiring place that you’ve visited?

SB: That’s a really hard question to answer. It’s the one I have to ask interviewees sometimes and it’s a pretty impossible question, for me at least. I’m a very fidgety person, as I think many travel writers are, and there’s usually nothing that’s inspired me as much as the last place I’ve visited. Especially if it’s somewhere new. You’re full of the smells, the flavours, the things you didn’t know about it, the things you’d wish to learn more about. And this for me is most inspirational. It’s finding myself charmed and curious and seduced by something. I mean, I have favourite places – I love Bali for its utter sensual overload, seductive colours, pungent smells. I love Italy and Greece because I lived and worked there. I love the buzz of New York, that never gets old. But I think if we’re talking about places that inspire me, it’s usually the last place I’ve been. It’s very rare that I would go somewhere and come away without having that travel bug reignited.

T: I think travelling can often be a wonderful way not just to reignite that hunger for travel, but also a way to develop yourself, to learn more about yourself when we find ourselves in new situations, among new people that often challenge us. What would be the most important lesson that you’ve learn during your travels?

SB: I think you have to be very open. I think the minute you start travelling with a preconceived idea of what you want to get out of the place, you’re going to end up having a disappointing experience. I think you have to have a sensible idea about where you’re going, to be safe and understand what the destination is basically about. But ultimately you need to be open about itineraries. I try to plan as little as I can, without wasting opportunities. I wouldn’t want to miss out on something important just because I hadn’t known about it. But in general, I don’t like to be pinned down too much. You have to be open, really want to talk to people and meet people. I think all those wonderful experiences, the stories, the leads, the quirky things you find out – for me, they almost always come from unexpected conversations.

What I’ve learnt more than anything is the innate kindness of people. It was always been something I took for granted as a teenager and twenty-something. I think I ran around the world like an overexcited puppy, expecting everyone to be the same and surprisingly I’ve never really been kicked back. I’ve been lucky I guess but I think if you approach someone with kindness, usually you get that response back. Obviously there’s been a few cases when that didn’t happen but I’ve never had a significantly bad experience. I’m always amazed how similar people are. It doesn’t matter whether you live in a hut in the Serengeti or a skyscraper in New York, the same things basically drive us, and I truly believe (despite the way the world can seem from a distance), that there’s an infinite kindness in humans.

T: You’ve talked about the infinite kindness and how you’ve never been kicked back, but what would be the greatest challenge you’ve had to overcome while traveling?

SB: I think sometimes travelling can be quite lonely. It can be hard when you’re travelling solo. Some days you just don’t feel like it, you’re tired, you’re jetlagged, having a down day, feeling a bit more introverted. To keep yourself motivated all the time can be quite challenging, and I think you need to learn to acknowledge and accept when you ‘re tired and low on energy. And just let that happen – don’t  beat yourself up too much about it. But also try to find a way to re-inspire yourself. That might be through reading some great travel writing or thinking: “where do I really want to go next?”, and trying to fire up that enthusiasm again. So I think being self-motivated is the toughest thing to master, and that comes down to something as practical as being able to fund your trips: making travel writing pay.  I mean, in all honesty, it doesn’t always work,. It’s a very rare person who can fund their way around the world exclusively by travel writing.

T: Do you have any tried and tested ways of looking after yourself to keep that energy up? Either while you’re travelling or between your travels?

SB: Yes, I do. I’m not brilliant at always doing it but for me it’s finding the time to go outside. If I spend too much time indoors, whether it’s an airport, a hotel or an office, I can start feeling a bit trapped and frustrated. But I’ve learnt that it doesn’t take that much to pick me up again. Just going for a walk or a run or a swim; even better if I can do an outdoors yoga class. Yoga is that really works for me, although I don’t do enough of it! Outdoor swimming also really works for me, makes me feel better about myself. It’s also vitally important to get enough sleep (I don’t), and to not try and pack in too much in.

I have also started to travel with particular items. I never used to understand this habit in travelers, and found it a bit sad, this need for a sort of a security-blanket. But as I’ve got older, particularly when I travel by myself, I have come to realise the importance of having little things that make me feel at home wherever I am. For example, I always travel with a particular brand of tea, as tea often tastes rubbish in other countries, the water is different, the teabags are often not very good. I also travel with a particular type of throat spray. The air conditioning on planes can leave you with a sore throat, and I’ve got a spray that seems to banish that quickly. I always having little care package of books, DVDs, downloads and music that I love. More often than not, I go away with these things but I don’t use them as I’m too busy  but just having them there for that downtime or a delay, or when I’m in need of some mood enhancement is invaluable. I never, ever travel without a ton of downloaded music. Music really makes me feel better about myself, it’s a simple, quick fix.

T: Thank you. The final question, then is about the advice you would give someone who would like to make their life all about travel?

SB: You have to ask yourself why you want to do this? If it’s got anything with money or becoming famous in whatever way, don’t do it. I think if you want to do it because you find you can’t not do it, then you’re probably in the right place. It’s something you have to be a bit addicted to. If you have any other skills, my advice is to use them elsewhere, because it’s tough to stay alive as a travel writer. If you have the option to become a doctor or a lawyer, my suggestion would be to fulfill that, and then use your spare time and money to travel and write. Travel writing is a little like being in love. If you can’t not be, then you’re probably in the right job.

[[ends]]

You can find out more about Sarah on her page and blog: https://sarahbarrell.com/

The tracks to freedom

There comes a time in everyone’s life when we need to escape. We run for various reasons. For some it’s a rebellion, for others a chance to find themselves. We can run towards something or run away, even if we are not exactly sure what that something is.

Fourty years ago, 25-year-old girl decided it was her time to break free. She was running away from boredom, a series of unfinished repetitions her life was becoming and her “self-indulgent negativity“. This petite blond decided to leave everything she knew and move to Alice Springs with a dream in mind. She would walk 1,700 miles across Western Australian desert, accompanied solely by Diggity, her loyal dog, and a few camels.

Thus began the story of Robyn Davidson, author of one of the best traveling books of all times. In “Tracks”, Robyn not only describes her remarkable expedition from the centre of Australian outback to the Indian Ocean, but tackles her personal journey and a process of discovering the person she was meant to become.

Although many came across Robyn’s story thanks to the magnificent movie starring talented Mia Wasikowska, for anyone interested in a true journey within the book is a must. Throughout the pages Davidson vividly depicts not only the crude magnificence of Australia’s wilderness, but she also honestly portrays the strenuous and less poetic points on her life’s map.

Before she takes us on the desert together with Dookie, Bub, Zeleika and Goliath, Robyn has to learn how to train her camels. She must acquire all her skills and knowledge from scratch, in a world she hates, among people who often either try to use her or ridicule an idea of a woman trying to accomplish such an arduous trek alone. She has to endure the ever-present racism, chauvinism and drunken brutality that prevailed in Alice Spring in the seventies. But it’s a part of her journey and she must persist.

Setting out on this brave travel, Robyn was not planning to write a book. She did not plan to sell her story, she wasn’t doing it to prove anything to anyone. Her escape was her way of minimising, a means “to pare away what was unnecessary“, as she put it in “Tracks”. She instinctively felt she had to leave things behind to make space for the new. She didn’t always know where the tracks she was following would take her, but she hoped that the journey from desert to the ocean would change the landscape within her as well.

“So I had made a decision which carried with it things that I could not articulate at the time. I had made the choice instinctively, and only later had given it meaning. The trip had never been billed in my own mind as an adventure in the sense of something to be proved. And it struck me then that the most difficult thing had been the decision to act, the rest had been merely tenacity – and the fears were paper tigers. One really could act to change and control one’s life; and the procedure, the process, was its own reward”.

Robyn made a decision. A decision many questioned, scorned, failed to believe in. But despite everyone’s opinions, she patiently prepared and worked towards it.

What will you decide to act upon? What process will be your reward?

Wherever your decision takes you, I hope you find your tracks.

tracks

 

Museum unlike any other

Istanbul has always had a special place in my heart. It’s a city I return to over and over again, each time finding a new piece of magic. Traveling to locations you’ve visited before has a special attraction – you can once again experience our favourite food, see the sights that have mesmerized you  and look forward to these rendezvous with memory long in advance, prolonging their spell. You can also relax and and really absorb the place – the chances being that you’ve already ticked off all the “must see” tourist landmarks during your earlier visits.

It was on one of such meetings with Istanbul that I encountered the Museum of Innocence.

I cannot recall what came to my life first –  the museum or the book.But that foggy sequence is actually quite poetic in itself, because they were created by Orhan Pamuk hand in hand.

The Turkish writer, mostly known for My Name is Red and Snow,  decided to take fiction to a new level. While working on his novel of the same title, he created an actual place called the Museum of Innocence.

The Museum is home to more than a thousand real objects Pamuk has collected over the years that depict the life of Instanbulites between 1970s to the early 2000s – when the novel is set. Instead of providing a cultural context however, Pamuk included in his notable collection items specific to the lives of his book’s characters.

The “Museum of Innocence” follows a story of Kemal, a man from a wealthy family who despite his engagement to Sibel, a lovely girl from his social circles, starts an affair with young Füsun, a distant relative he unexpectedly meets when buying bag for his fiancee.

What begins as an sensuous escape from his everyday life soon turns into a maddening obsession. Kemal cannot accept losing his beloved and find consolation in surrounding himself with items that belonged to her. Drifting further and further away from reality, Kemal loses himself in the world of memories.

Pamuk’s actual museum features what would have been Kemal’s collection. “I began to set my sights on things like ashtrays, cups, and slippers (…)during my eight years of going to the Keskins’  for supper, I was able to squirrel away 4,213 of Füsun’s cigarette buts. Each one of these had touched her rosy lips…” admits Kemal in the book while we find each of his stolen treasures in the museum.

Although the book was not my favourite, I found it somewhat spellbinding thanks to Pamuk’s creative idea. I loved that I was reading fiction yet knowing everything on the pages I was holding in my hands existed in real life. I could go to Istanbul and see Füsun’s lost earring that features in the book in such a vivid way, I could visit the museum and experience my beloved city’s past. To me, that’s a whole new level of literary genius.

Next time you’re in Istanbul please make your way to Çukurcuma district. Wander around its narrow streets admiring old houses and quirky cafes. When you come across a reddish 19th century house on the corner, do step in and immerse yourself in Istanbul’s memories and Pamuk’s fiction. And when you’re there, ask yourself: how far would I go for something I’m passionate about?

museum-of-innocence

 

 

No ordinary life

“oh Mary!- how I crave to write book already

-one that’s big – interesting

-and one of the very first copies with my own hand dedicate:

to my beloved Marysienka“.

But this is still a dream only…”

This is what in 1934 Kazimierz Nowak wrote in a letter to his wife. At the time of writing it, this 37-year-old man was in Clanvilliam – 3 years into his trip across Africa. On a bike…

Kazimierz Nowak is one of the most inspiring travelers I’ve ever come across. Born in 1897 in Poland, young Kazimierz moves to Poznan after first World War to assume an office work. Soon after he marries Maria Gorcik, with whom he has two kids – Ela and Romuald. Despite his professional and family commitments, Kazimierz finds time to travel through the country on his bicycle, pursuing his passion for travel and photography.

Soon however, Poland is no longer enough. In 1925 Nowak decided to leave the country and support his family through the work of a foreign correspondent and photographer. In this capacity, he travels through Europe, all the way to Turkey. His second cycling trip through the continent takes his to Tripolis.

He is almost there now. He has reached his beloved Africa. The dream of little Kazimierz to see this enchanting continent is now almost true. Almost, because the war in Tunisia, health and money problems stop his from going further. But Kazimierz decides he will come back.

On the 4th November 1931, Kazimierz Nowak sets on the most extraordinary journey – he will cycle all the way across Africa –  from Algier to Cape Town. Alone.

Traveling through the savannas and deserts on his rickety bike, Kazimierz stops by the local villages, photographing the people he meets on his way, and capturing the breathtaking landscapes. He sleeps in a tent he brought with him, feeding with food he exchanges with the locals or received from the missionaries. The photos and articles he sends back home, make their way to the travel magazines in Poland, allowing Maria to support the family that Kazimierz misses painfully each day.

Despite the loneliness and hardships, Kazimierz persists in his voyage, reaching the most southern point of Africa in April 1934. Yet even that is not enough. To everyone’s astonishment, Nowak decides to go back to Europe the same way he came – on a bike. The British colonizers he meets on his way admire his bravery and offer him a first class ticket home, but Kazimierz prefers his 7-year-old bike.

Returning to Poland in December 1936, after 40 thousand kilometers and five years of travel, Kazimierz Nowak becomes one of the very first men to cycle through Africa -twice.

Although the surgery he had to undergo a year after his return exposed him to pneumonia, causing a premature death of this astonishing man, Kazimierz got the book he dreamed of – almost 70 years after he set off on his extraordinary journey.

Remembering the stories of Nowak’s adventure from his grandpa, young man, Lukasz Wierzbicki, collects and publishes Kazimierz’s letters to his wife. A book “Rowerem i Pieszo Przez Czarny Lad” makes its way to the bookstores in Poland and to the hearts of all travelers and dreamers. On the cover – picture of Nowak pushing his bike and the name of the author: Kazimierz Nowak. He got that big and interesting book after all. One with the first page reading: “to my beloved Marysienka“.

                            desert_in_africa

We all have Nowak’s spirit in ourselves. Kazimierz needed a financial crisis to give him the courage to purse his passions and a childhood dream. He needed family he loved so much to be the catalyst of his motivation. He set off on a journey that was difficult. Maybe even more mentally than physically. Many thought it was not possible – a man born in a Polish countryside cycling alone on a rusty bike across Africa? But Nowak proved that if we believe, we can achieve anything.

What will you choose to believe in?

The ideal place

Once upon a time there was a postman. Every day, Ferdinand Cheval, for that was his name, set out on his 18 mile country round, delivering the long-awaited letters.

One spring day of 1879, on his usual route in Hauterives, in south-eastern France, Ferdinand stumbled across an unusual stone. He stopped to pick it up. Holding the oddly shaped pebble in his hand, the 43-year old postman decided to take it home.

The next day, walking more slowly than usual, Cheval began to look for other unique pieces of sandstone.With every day, his walks became longer and longer, and his stone collection grander and grander.

Bringing home from his postal walks more and more treasures, Ferdinand soon had his entire garden filled with his findings. Yet he pursued this strange hobby of his for 33 years.

You see, our postman had a plan. Each day, after tiring work, he would get home and mixing the pebbles with lime, cement and water, he would build a palace that he saw few years earlier in his dream.

And this is how the Palais Ideal came to life. Born from patience and persistence of a postman who devoted half of his life to build a breathtaking palace in his own backyard with the stones collected on his way to work.

facade-est

Despite spending his entire life in France, Cheval’s style was influenced by ancient Egyptian and Hindu  architecture, medieval castles, mosques, mythology and various exotic animals that he knew only from magazines and postcards.

This little architectural marvel known as the Ideal Palace is a true tribute to the power of a dream. It is an ideal place to pause and reflect on our own perseverance.How determined are you to bring your dreams to life?

Why not go to Lyon, rent a car and drive to Hauterives to find out?