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I don’t know if I like the word “rebellion” or if World Travel resonates with me that way. But the words that follow do hum and buzz with my nomad soul.

travel is rebellion

In Singapore (where I live), I am slapped with many labels and shoulder several roles: the responsible mother, the objective journalist, the good Catholic girl, perhaps role model, “media personality” etc. But I was never fully aware of these till I took a year off to backpack around the world.

When I left the familiar to venture into the unknown, I felt for the first time in my life that all the invisible labels and roles that defined me in Singapore were suddenly stripped away.

This did not happen immediately, of course. It took a while. But there comes a moment when you realise nobody recognises you in these foreign lands and you stop putting on makeup, you stop putting on a show.

Overnight train: Yangon to Bagan, Myanmar

18hr overnight train from Yangon to Bagan, Myanmar

At some point, I started walking at my own pace, without being pushed along against my will or dragged back. I started paying attention to what made me smile, the sound of my own laughter, what made me frightened, what upset or annoyed me, what mattered to me.

I remember being alone in Bali and strolling along an unfamiliar road in Seminyak (looking for coffee!). It was late afternoon, and I chanced upon an obscure patch of grass. It was quiet and serene, and nothing much was happening, except for a couple of ducks quacking after a tropical rain. I stood there for a good 20mins, doing nothing, just soaking it all in.

Solo in Seminyak, 2013

Solo in Seminyak, Bali 2013

I can’t even label this experience. It cannot be pigeon-holed into any category of “nature” or “urban landscape”; it’s even hard to bring up in conversation because it’s so insignificant. It’s simply my little moment. And even if it holds no meaning to anyone else, it left a lasting impression on me. It’s now a part of me.

You only realise how little you know yourself and how much you are running on defined roles when you’re torn away from all that’s familiar, and you have nothing to grasp at or fall back on.

I’m not saying roles and labels are bad or wrong. I’m just saying they don’t define who I am. And it’s important to have such an experience of liberation from them – even if you do go back to assuming them out of necessity – because at least you know what it feels like, smells like, looks like, in that sacred space free from them.

I love backpacking and traveling solo!

I love traveling solo!

To me, many short trips do not equal a long continuous one. I realise that people who travel frequently do not necessarily understand this experience that long-term world travellers understand. It’s because short vacations often don’t allow you to fully shed these labels and roles, especially if you are traveling with loved ones.

You need to fall off the grid completely for a time. But if you can’t afford that luxury, then do a solo trip, or choose to get off social media completely.

One thing I’m learning: You can’t expect to experience something different – something life changing or liberating – if you keep doing the same thing, over and over again. You need to do something different.

And if travel is rebellion in its purest form, then I’d say rebel at least once in your life. You never know till you take that leap of faith!

Do it now

#NoRegrets

This is one of the most powerful questions ever put to me.

When I was attending a leadership course 11 years ago, this question was fired at me like bullets over a period of 6 months. “What are you committed to create?”

And by “committed”, they mean do whatever it takes.

So when I show up at a place, what am I committed to create here? Be it at a meeting at work, at home with my children, or a gathering of friends, am I committed to create fun? honesty and openness? peace and reconciliation? love and affection?

Friends are the family we choose

Friends are the family we choose

It’s a very empowering question.

If I’m not conscious of this, there is a chance I will let my mood dictate what I end up creating. And that can sometimes be destructive and hurtful to people around me.

Gandhi once said this, and wisely so..

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This is what I hear him saying: What do you want to see in this world? Commit to creating it. BE it.

This speaks to me, too, in the context of my work as a freelance travel writer, where things are often so uncertain. I always tell people that while I love my work, there are moments I don’t see beyond 6 months… and that’s very often!

It’s easy to sit back and accept that as part and parcel of a freelancer’s life. But I’ve learnt that being a freelance writer doesn’t mean you just write. You have to go out there and make connections, meet people, market yourself, and create opportunities and possibilities. You have to be a play-maker.

And that is creation. Making possible something that was not there before.

The freelance writer's life... more than just writing!

The freelance writer’s life… more than just writing!

Writing is also an act of creation. When I sit in front of my laptop, with a blank screen, what am I committed to create on this page? What can I bring into the world that was not there before? Is it awareness I am creating? or controversy or reconciliation through my words? What do my words make possible?

The sad thing is that I’m not always conscious of this power I have within me to make a difference. And it’s a power that swings both ways. Like a double-edged sword.

Imagine if you’re conscious of this at every moment… How would your world look different?

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“Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it. 
Impossible is not a fact. 
It’s an opinion. 
Impossible is not a declaration. 
It’s a dare. 
Impossible is potential. 
Impossible is temporary. 
Impossible is nothing.”

– Muhammad Ali –

 

Surabaya is not an instinctive choice for me when I think of a quick getaway in Indonesia. Ranked ahead would be Bali, Yogyakarta and Medan.

But truth be told, I love the island of Java.

My last trip to Central Java led me to the UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Borobodur and Prambanan in Yogyakarta, and the very haunted Lawang Sewu in Semarang, and I vowed to go back.

Borobudur, Central Java

Borobudur, Central Java

Aside from its own charms, Surabaya is also the gateway to Mount Bromo (active volcano) and Malang, a town in the highlands blessed with cooler temperatures – a popular hideaway for Europeans back in the days of Dutch colonisation.

I blogged about Mount Bromo here, and I’ll tell you more about Malang in a bit. Stay with me!

What’s more, Surabaya recently opened a swanky new international airport terminal. Just months old, it’s clean and modern, with amenities and retail that will satisfy any First World traveller. Think Starbucks Coffee.

Surabaya's swanky new international airport terminal

Surabaya’s swanky new international airport terminal

Here are 10 reasons why you should consider Surabaya when you plan your next trip…

 

1. House of Sampoerna

Located in “old Surabaya”, this ‘Cigarette Museum’ is housed in a Dutch colonial-styled building constructed in 1862. Few know that this was once an orphanage run by the Dutch before a certain gentleman named Liem Seeng Tee, the founder of Sampoerna, bought it over in 1932 to convert it into a cigarette production facility.

Within its grand compound today, you’ll also find a cafe, art gallery and gift shop.

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Check out the cigarette pillars!

The House of Sampoerna is still a fully-functional production plant for Indonesia’s most prestigious cigarette, Dji Sam Soe. What’s fascinating is the staff still hand-rolls these cigarettes!

Check out how fast they roll…

 

* The museum, shop and art gallery are open Mondays to Sundays, 9am to 10pm.   

 

2. Cheng Ho Chinese Mosque

One of the first things I notice about Surabaya – even before I step out of the airport – is the presence of Chinese Muslims. The most obvious are the Chinese women in tudung (headscarf). In fact, 40% of Surabaya’s population is Chinese!

Few people know that China’s celebrated admiral, Cheng Ho, was a devout Chinese-Muslim, and it was he who brought Islam to Indonesia’s Chinese community. He is believed to have stopped over in Semarang (Central Java) between the years 1400 and 1416, and his religious teachings spread by word-of-mouth to Surabaya.

You’ll find a fully functional Muslim mosque in amazing Chinese architecture dedicated to him in Pandaan, en route to Malang.

Masjid Cheng Ho. Pandaan, East Java

Masjid Cheng Ho. Pandaan, East Java

Even if you’re not Muslim, you can enter Masjid Cheng Ho – provided you’re “decently dressed”. If you’re not properly covered up, sarongs can be rented here.

The main prayer hall on the 2nd floor, with impressive high ceiling

The main Prayer Hall

This man (below) is Ahmad Sukarman – I think he manages the mosque compound.

Mohd Sukarman explaining the significance of the drum

Ahmad Sukarman explaining the significance of the drum

He shares with me that this giant Oriental-looking drum (pictured above) serves as a call to prayer to the surrounding community – much like tolling church bells in Europe. Made of buffalo skin, it’s crafted not in China, but in Kutus in Central Java. Apparently, it is struck 5x day and played continuously for 5mins!

 

3. Candi Singosari 

As we rumble along the roads through little villages from Surabaya to Malang, I catch a momentary glimpse of a structure by the roadside that reminds me of ancient temples in Cambodia. Yes, that distinctive Hindu-Buddhist architecture! What was it? Where were we?

We turn back, and I scramble out to have a look.

This is Candi Singosari – a Hindu-Buddhist temple built in 1351. It’s definitely nowhere close to Angkor Wat, Borobudur or the temples of Bagan, but it’s the element of surprise that grabs you. It stands on an obscure plot of land, nestled between low-rise buildings, in an otherwise uninteresting village!

Candi Singosari, a Hindu-Buddhist temple built in 1351

Candi Singosari, a Hindu-Buddhist temple built in 1351

No cement used at all to "glue" the stones together

No cement at all to “glue” the stones

The guide tells me at the stones are stacked from bottom to top, with no cement used at all. The carvings, on the other hand, are done from top to bottom – a lovely little piece of trivia.

There was no pomp or pageantry arriving at Singosari, and just as quietly and uneventfully, we went on our way. But what an unexpected roadside gem!

 

4. Toko “OEN” Malang  

What I love about Malang is the remnants of Dutch influence – the churches, European architecture, even the food and restaurants! Toko “Oen” Malang’s menu even has its dishes listed in Dutch!

Toko "Oen" Malang's menu - items in Dutch!

Menu items in Dutch!

Toko “Oen” Malang is the oldest restaurant in Malang. Built in 1930 during the Dutch colonisation era, the interior exudes an old world charm that is so well-preserved that – upon stepping in – you immediately feel like you’ve travelled back in time. To me, it felt like a living museum!

In fact, this restaurant is so “true to its roots” that there is no air-conditioning or ceiling fans! It’s just high ceilings for natural ventilation and large glass panels for natural light. So be prepared to sweat buckets!

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The restaurant was founded by a Chinese businessman named Mr Oen (hence its name) and the menu itself is a little “split personality”. You’ll find Western fare, mixed with Chinese and Indonesian, so pretty much anything you fancy!

Verdict: A lovely place for a lunch break in Malang.

toko oen food pics

 

5. Tugu Monument

This iconic monument – which stands in front of the mayor’s office in the heart of Malang – commemorates the courage of the local people, who fought against the Dutch colonial masters in the 1940s, and helped bring independence to Indonesia.

It’s shaped like a sharpened bamboo, signifying the first weapons used against the invaders.

Tugu Monument, Malang

Tugu Monument, Malang

There isn’t much to do here except to stroll leisurely on the grounds, enjoying the historical buildings and large shady trees surrounding this lotus pond. In many ways, Java is known for its heroes. If there is any point in your journey to pause and remember how hard the Javanese fought for the freedom of their country, this would be it.

The heart of Malang - love these huge trees!

The heart of Malang – love these huge trees!

 

6. Coban Rondo Falls

I have a thing for waterfalls – and this is an easy one to get to. I was worried it would be a strenuous and slippery hike out to the falls, so I was all prepared with my Keen ‘amphibious’ sandals, waterproof daypack and bikini!

We arrived at Coban Rondo Falls after a long drive, where I’d dozed off. When I tumbled out of the van, I was pleasantly surprised to feel the cool evening air on my face. Malang is nestled in the highlands, and the temperatures are much more pleasant here – around 20 deg C (even below!).

The waterfall is just a 5-10 min walk from the carpark, and the path is well-paved. Excellent for elderly and children! But it does get slippery closer to the falls, so best to still wear non-slip shoes. And bring a jacket!

A paved path makes for easy access to the Falls

A paved path makes for easy access to the Falls

Coban Rondo Waterfall, Malang

Coban Rondo Waterfall, Malang

The Coban Rondo Waterfall… I can feel the spray from here!

For fans of Jagung Bakar (grilled corn), there are stalls lined just outside the falls! Not as good as the one at Jimbaran Bay, Bali – in my opinion – but if you miss it, this one also comes glazed with margarine and chilli. And they even shave the corn-on-the-cob for you, so it’s easily shareable!

"Jagung Bakar" at the Falls

“Jagung Bakar” at the Falls

 

7. Fresh Apples Anyone?   

Did you know that apple trees can be grown in Indonesia? I didn’t. But I guess the cool weather in Batu Malang makes it possible. The last time I picked an apple from a tree and ate it was in chilly Kashmir!

At Selecta Batu, two types of apples are cultivated: Apple Malang (green – native here) and Apple Anna (red) which is a hybrid of the local green apple and the Rosanna apple from Australia. Apparently, the green ones are sweeter!

Apples grow in Malang!

Apples grow in Malang!

An apple picker, Malang. The branches can hold his weight?!

An apple picker, Malang. The branches can hold his weight?!

A city slicker like me only buys apples from the supermarket or fruit stall. I mean – seriously – how often do we get to pick an apple straight from a tree and eat it? This is as fresh as it gets!

 

 

8. Jawa Timur Park    

I have to admit I didn’t have very high expectations of this theme park. I mean, we have Universal Studios in Singapore after all. And I’ve been to crazy theme parks in the USA.

Jawa Timur Park 2: What's so secret about the Secret Zoo?

Jawa Timur Park: What’s so secret about the Secret Zoo?

Located approximately 32km west of Malang, Jawa Timur Park has become somewhat of a tourist icon in East Java. While Park 1 is all about roller coasters, theme park rides, and splashing fun at the water park, Park 2 is… a zoo.

Not just any zoo, but a Secret Zoo. My first thought was: How can it possibly outdo the Singapore Zoo? My second thought: So, what’s so secret about it?

But let me tell you that I came away from this experience totally enlightened. The Secret Zoo’s collection of animals is really something. I’ve never seen some of these creatures in all my years of visitng zoos!

Here’s a glimpse…

Quaint lil' creatures at the Secret Zoo

Quaint lil’ creatures at the Jawa Timur Secret Zoo, Malang

 

9. Food, Glorious Food!  

If there is one good reason why you should visit a place, it’s because it has GOOD FOOD – simple as that. And East Java will not disappoint. Whether it be Surabaya, Malang or Bromo, I found good food everywhere!

Now please ignore me as I drool.

Best restaurant in Malang: Resto Inggil

Possibly the best restaurant in Malang: Resto Inggil

"Lesehan style" lunch at Waroeng Bamboe. Communal eating on the floor!

“Lesehan style” lunch at Waroeng Bamboe – Communal eating on the floor!

When in Java, make sure you experience a “Lesehan style” meal. It’s where you sit around a long table – on the floor (or mat) – and share a communal meal. It’s casual and very Indonesian. I love it!

In Lesehan style!

In Lesehan style!

 

10. Batik Maduratna   

I’m not much of a shopper, but even I was tempted by this: Indonesian batik!

Basically, batik refers to a technique of manual wax-resist dyeing. And if you’re keen to shop for some, this is the place…

Located in Madura (just across the Suramadu Bridge from Surabaya), Batik Maduratna boasts the largest batik selection in the city! These traditional fabrics are designed and handmade here. In the day, there are also demonstration sessions by traditional artisans, so you can learn more about how batik is made.

Beautiful handmade Javanese batik

Beautiful handmade Javanese batik

Shopper's Paradise. Batik galore at Maduratna!

Shopper’s Paradise. Batik galore at Maduratna!

 

Mad About Mount Bromo 

Definitely another reason – and perhaps the most compelling one – to visit Surabaya is Mount Bromo. It’s just a 4hr drive from Surabaya city, and truly, it’s like stepping into another world.

So surreal she is that I’ve devoted a whole blog post just to her. You can read it here.

 

Getting There

AirAsia flies direct to Surabaya once a day.

Flights depart Singapore at 2.10pm (SIN time) and arrive in Surabaya at 3.20pm (IND time). Just in time to check in!

Do pre-book your inflight meals though, because you enjoy a discount that way. I’d recommend the Nasi Kuning Manado because it doesn’t hold back on the spice, and it’s authentically Indonesian.

Nasi Kuning Manado, only on AirAsia QZ flights

Nasi Kuning Manado, only on AirAsia QZ flights!

On my flight back to Singapore, I pre-order a simple Western breakfast because it’s a really early flight. You take off from Surabaya at 5.20am and arrive back in Singapore at 8.30am. This Chicken Sub sat snug in my tummy… and to my delight, AirAsia serves Old Town 3-in-1 White Coffee too. My fav!

My chicken sub breakfast

My Chicken Sub breakfast in the air!

*AirAsia flies direct to Surabaya once a day. To book your flight, click here.

 

Goodbye, Surabaya. Till we meet again!

Goodbye, Surabaya… Till we meet again!

 

 

“Many landscapes are beautiful. Meadows in spring, soft valleys, oak trees, bank of flowers (daisies especially). But they are not Sublime. ‘The ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful are frequently confounded… both are indiscriminately applied to things greatly differing and sometimes of natures directly opposite.

A landscape could arouse the Sublime only when it suggested power, power greater than that of humans and threatening to them. Sublime places embodied a defiance to our will. Burke illustrated the argument with an analogy about oxen and bulls: ‘An ox is a creature of vast strength; but he is an innocent creature, extremely serviceable, and not at all dangerous; for which reason the idea of an ox is by no means grand. A bull is strong too; but his strength is of another kind; often very destructive… the idea of a bull is therefore great, and it has frequently a place in sublime descriptions, and elevating comparisons.’

There are ox-life landscapes: innocent and ‘not at all dangerous’, pliable to the human will. Burke had spent his youth in one, at a Quaker boarding school in the village of Ballitore in County Kildare, 30 miles southwest of Dublin, a landscape of farms, orchards, hedges, rivers and gardens. Then there are bull-like landscapes. Burke enumerated their features: vast, empty, often dark and apparently infinite, because of the uniformity and succession of their elements.”

~ Alain de Botton (The Art of Travel)  

Tengger Caldera, East Java

Tengger Caldera, East Java

It’s 3am and 5 deg C outside. As I step out into the night, the chilly air licks my face with a thousand tongues. I pull on my beanie hastily and turn up the collar of my winter jacket. As I trudge out to the Jeep and my eyes gradually adjust to the darkness, I notice the explosion of stars above – like diamonds flung across the vast ebony sky.

Tenggerese villagers selling scarves & gloves

It’s almost surreal to be so near Mt Bromo. I had arrived here close to midnight, when all around me was already cloaked in darkness. I did not know where she stood, but I could sense her presence close by. She last erupted in 2011, and is still belching sulphur smoke today. In Nov 2010, her plume of ash – I hear – rose 2,300ft into the sky!

Encountering her unbridled power excites me. We pile into a Jeep – all bundled up – and rattle our way up to a lookout point to catch the sunrise. The Jeep packs 6 max, and prices range from S$30/pax (two locations) to S$50/pax (four locations). You can hike too, but it means you’ll have to wake up much earlier and battle the cold.

The Jeep drops us off a distance from the lookout point at Mt Penanjakan, and from there, we walk. It’s an easy stroll up the hill – the only “danger” being the motorcyclists buzzing around you like flies, hassling you to hop on. We come to a paved alley soon enough, with cosy little eateries on our left, and local Tenggerese villagers selling Jagung Bakar (grilled corn) on our right. Tempting on a cold night!

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We have time to spare, so we succumb to the temptation of a caffeine fix. Indonesian coffee is good, black. But be prepared when you order a black coffee, for it to come with sugar. In Singapore, we’d call it Kopi-O. A couple of the guys bring back a bag of warm Pisang Goreng (deep-fried banana) and voila! breakfast at 9,000ft.

"Pisang Goreng" with black Javanese coffee

“Pisang Goreng” & Javanese coffee

Singaporeans! Teachers & girls from Presbyterian High at Mt Penanjakan.

Singaporeans! From Presbyterian High, Mt Penanjakan.

The summit of Mt Penanjakan (9,088ft) is the place to catch a Mt Bromo sunrise. Be warned though that it’s usually very crowded. People converge from all over to claim a spot way before the sun makes her shy appearance.

The crowd gathered behind me as I perch on the railing

Crowd gathered behind me as I perch on a railing

For the best place to catch the sunrise, head towards the left of the viewing platform. My advice is to look out for the hardcore photographers who have already set up their tripods and cameras. They know best!

I love sunrises. It’s not just the kaleidoscope of colours in the sky, but the fact that it’s constantly changing – like an IMAX movie surrounding you in 360. For about an hour, I watch – spellbound – as the landscape covered in complete darkness is slowly revealed by nature’s light.

A spectacular sunrise at Mt Penanjakan (9,088ft)

A spectacular sunrise at Mt Penanjakan (9,088ft)

But from this vantage point – where I have a perfect view of the sunrise – I can’t see Mt Bromo. She lies somewhere to my right. And as the sun’s ray start to illuminate the volcanic landscape, I make a judgement call to give up my prime spot to go in search of her.

It helps to be small and on your own. I have no one to mind, so I dart through the crowd, climb through barriers, and trust instincts in searching for a spot. I find a good one beyond the railing, on a precarious ledge at the path’s end.

“Be careful,” a European gentleman warns me. “The slope is slippery.”

There are a few Caucasian travellers here along that sandy path, but not one ventures to the edge. I decide to take a risk because I really want a good shot of Mt Bromo, and honestly, I’m not sure when I’ll be back. And so, heart pounding, I claim my spot and settle down to soak her in. When I beheld her – like this – I swear I swore out loud.

My first glimpse of Mt Bromo, East Java

My first glimpse of Mt Bromo, East Java

It’s the symmetrical cone in the centre that grabs my attention, but it’s not Mt Bromo. That’s a dormant volcano called Mt Batok, whose hay days are sadly over. Mt Bromo (7,641ft) stands to its left, that ash-coloured shield volcano that has steam and sulphur streaming out of its crater. Now that is a living, breathing volcano!

Steam & sulphur streams out of Mt Bromo

Steam & sulphur streams out of Mt Bromo (left)

Mt Semeru stands majestic in the background, almost like a sentinel overlooking the desolate plain, guarding his wards. But what leaves me breathless is the knowledge that this majestic collection of volcanoes is actually within a bigger volcano… a much bigger one.

Just take a step back, physically zoom outwhat do you see?

The Tengger Caldera: The blown-off top of a massive ancient volcano

The Tengger Caldera: The blown-off top of a massive ancient volcano

This entire area you see is a giant ancient volcano whose top has been blown off! In Geography, I learnt that this is called a caldera, a collapsed crater. This Tengger caldera spans 10km in diameter and cradles four new volcanoes (above).

In 1982, this whole area was declared a national park: the Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park. In fact, it’s the only national park in Indonesia that has what is called a “Sand Sea” or Laut Pasir. It has been a protected area since 1919.

From up here, it looks almost unearthly. Like a moonscape, or Mars. And as I pack up to head down to explore the Sand Sea, a thin veil of mist creeps in over the sand.

We ride the Jeep down to the Sand Sea at 7,000ft and it’s a bumpy ride! I have to admit I wasn’t prepared for the expanse of this Sand Sea. When you’re actually on it, it feels like a desert. It reminds me of traveling on the Erg Chebbi sand dunes in Risanni – the gateway to the Sahara Desert from Morocco (I explored Erg Chebbi in Sep 2011).

Here’s a taste of my Jeep ride on the Sand Sea, towards Mt. Bromo:

We tumble out of the Jeep and set foot on the Sea of Sand. It’s volcano ash, spewed from Mt Bromo (and probably Mt Batok) over the decades. While there’s vegetation here, the landscape exudes a somewhat desolate feel.

On the Sand Sea, with a view of Mt Batok in the distance

On the Sand Sea, with Mt Batok in the distance

I do not think it impossible to hike across the Sand Sea. If you have the time, inclination, and level of fitness, it would actually be quite an adventure on foot. But if it rains – as it sometimes does – do take note that the sand turns to mud. Now that would be quite a different experience!

I opt to go the rest of the way on horseback. There is a camp not too far from where I’m sitting, where horses are on standby. These smallish, pony-like horses are bred by the indigenous Tenggerese people, who come from 30 villages in and around the national park.

This is "Vicky", the Tenggerese man whose horse I'm riding

This is “Vicky”, the Tenggerese man whose horse I’m riding

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It is believed that they are descendants of Majapahit princes, and still practise an ancient religion similar to the strand of Hinduism practised in Bali. This Hindu-Buddhist influence arrived in Java some time between the 8th and 10th century, and its architecture can be evidenced in UNESCO World Heritage Sites like Borobudur and Prambanan in Yogyakarta.

But here on the Sand Sea is a humble Hindu temple named Pura Luhur Poten (Poten Temple), apparently made with volcanic stones. It’s here that the Tenggerese villagers come to pray during important Hindu festivals, before scaling Mt Bromo to toss offerings into the fuming crater.

Pura Luhur Poten, a sacred Hindu temple on the Tengger Massif

Pura Luhur Poten, a sacred Hindu temple on the Sea of Sand (Tengger Caldera)

On horseback towards Mt Bromo

On horseback towards Mt Bromo

Indigenous Tenggerese villagers selling food & drinks

Tenggerese villagers selling food & drinks

The Tenggerese basically monopolise the tourism here at the Tengger Massif – they rent out horses, sell food and drinks, and hawk warm clothing to tourists caught off-guard by the freezing temperatures. But as they are the indigenous people of this region, I think it’s only fair that they are not robbed of a livelihood.

Vicky’s horse takes me to the foot of Mt Bromo. From here, I have to continue the rest of the way on foot. It’s a steep climb up to the crater of Mt Bromo. The good news, though, is that there are proper steps leading up to the summit.

Stairway to heaven... or a fiery hell?

Stairway to heaven… or a fiery hell?

The bad news is that the steps are steep and sandy (which make them slippery), so you pretty much need strong knees. But there are rest points along the way, each with a view lovelier than the last.

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But nothing prepared me for this.

The thing is, from the foot of Mt Bromo, you really can’t see the crater, so you have no inkling of how huge it is! And the constant puffs of sulphur smoke rising from her wide-opened mouth is a stark reminder to me of the activity that lay beneath the surface. Yes, this is an active volcano!

The gargantuan crater of Mt Bromo

The gargantuan crater of Mt Bromo

In her magnificent presence, I stand in awe. There is no need for words at this point. She is birthed from the death of an ancient volcano. And at one point or other, all these anak volcanoes were bubbling cauldrons: Destroying and creating. Then destroying and creating again.

Her name “Bromo” – after all – stems from the word “Brahma”, the Hindu Creator God. The Destroyer and the mighty Creator.

The poetic words of Burke – as quoted by Alain de Botton in The Art of Travel – drift into my consciousness. Surely, this is a bull landscape! An encounter with what he calls the Sublime.

 

*AirAsia flies direct to Surabaya once a day. Mt Bromo is a 4hr drive from Surabaya. 

 

Still, Be Thankful

It’s so easy to fall into discouragement. A little remark by someone. A flash recall of better times. A diminishing bank account. A foreboding feeling that your future – once filled with possibilities – is fast fading.

I am at a point where work and personal concerns have collided: An amalgamation of new fears and old regrets, of uncertain things made certain and certain things made uncertain, and of isolated events being drawn together from all directions to form a growing ball of negative energy.

In the words of Shakespeare, “When sorrows come, they come not in single spies but in battalions!”

It’s so easy – in a space like this – to think of returning to what is safe and familiar. To let go of my dreams, to throw my hands up in surrender, and just escape quietly through a back door.

But this morning, while queuing up to buy breakfast at a noisy hawker centre, I plugged in to YouTube to catch up on channels I subscribe to —  just to kill time — and heard this:

 

Just two days ago, I subscribed to Nick Vujicic‘s YouTube channel Attitude is Altitude after he announced at a press conference in Singapore that he was launching a series of 1,000 one-minute clips over the next 1,000 days. I didn’t think I would actually watch them.

Nick Vujicic at press conference 2 days ago, Singapore.

Nick Vujicic at a press conference to launch his book, “Stand Strong”

But I guess it’s true what they say. Nothing happens by chance.

“In life, we can get so caught up in what I wish I had, what I wish was different, and I forget to be thankful for what I have now. Because you’re never going to achieve your full potential in life – and a life without limits – until you actually realise what you have, and do your best with what you have.” – Nick Vujicic 

In that noisy hawker centre, the most unexpected of places, I was reminded to not focus on what I do not have – on what I deem is missing in my life – and to focus on what I do have, now.

And if the Law of Attraction really does exist in this life, then maybe that growing ball of negative energy will transform into a growing ball of positive energy. Because haven’t we heard that…

Louise-Roe-Thankful-Moody-Monday

Today, I am thankful for certain people placed in my life. The mere fact that they are in my life – right now – is reason enough to feel royally blessed. I would be a lot worse off without them!

I am thankful that I am able-bodied and healthy. So if I wanted get healthier and fitter, I can. It’s all a matter of deciding when to start, and then starting.

And I’m thankful that I’ve been gifted with a talent that I can use to make a living. So even if there are months that are drier than others, at least I am doing what I love. And isn’t that something others only dream of having?

So through the good and bad, the victories and disappointments, the successes and failures…

Be Thankful Option 01 PREVIEW

I have heard about him, read about him, and I respect him for bringing hope and inspiration to millions. His life is a testament to me that no matter how many lemons Fate throws you, you can make glasses after glasses of lemonade.

Nick Vujicic at this morning's press conference, Singapore

Nick Vujicic at this morning’s press conference, Singapore

But what I did not know about Nick Vujicic (pron. Vooy-cheech) is that he attempted suicide at the age of 10.

He was bullied from a young age, and suffered from loneliness and depression. He hated God then for making him the way he was and was terrified of what would happen to him if his parents weren’t there to take care of him.

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Being ‘different’ was already tough enough for this Serb growing up in Melbourne. It became tougher when his family moved to Los Angeles because not only was he the only kid in his school with no arms and no legs, and the only kid in a wheelchair, he also became the only kid in the school with an Australian accent!

“The most common bullying experience is being taunted or ridiculed for being ‘different’ in some way. I’m the poster child for this,” he says in his latest book, Stand Strong, on bullying.

“Most of us are familiar with childhood bullies who threaten to beat us up, make fun of us, or turn friends against us. Adults may experience bullying in the form of sexual harassment or as discrimination based on race, religion, sexual identity or disabilities. Bullies can be your boss, coworkers, teachers, coaches, boyfriends or girlfriends – anyone who abuses his power or position.” 

When I hear Nick’s definition of bullying, it puts some things into perspective for me: Lately, there have been religious leaders in Singapore making discriminatory remarks against pockets of people in the community who are ‘different’. And when their actions were exposed, they tried to turn the tables around to accuse those they attacked for being the ones discriminating against them.

Seriously? When people who are ‘different’ – who have been marginalised or discriminated against all their lives – speak up, they are not discriminating against you. They are standing up for themselves against your bullying.

The media lapped up his every word and questions flowed freely.

The media lapped up his every word and questions flowed freely.

Nick Vujicic is an inspiration to me because despite what he has gone through, he exudes JOY.

And he is unapologetic about attributing it to God and His faith. And while this may seem a little out of place – in theory – in a secular press conference filled with journalists, it was not out of place at all. I did not get a sense of him speaking about God from a place of self-righteousness or a ‘holier than thou’ pulpit. He was coming from a space of love.

During this press conference, Nick announced three projects he’s working on:

1,000 Videos in 1,000 Days

About a month ago, Nick launched a project to put 1,000 messages of hope – each about a minute long – on YouTube, where anyone can access. These are broadcast through 36 YouTube channels in 36 different languages. At this point in time, there are about 30 clips up, and you can expect another 970 over the next three years. One every day. You can access these clips here.

Here’s a taste of it:

A Movie on His Life

Nick also revealed that a movie on his life is in the works, and is scheduled to be released in the United States in 2015. This movie is produced by 10 Elephants Pictures, a film production house he’s set up with some partners. “I’m not sure if I will be acting in it, or if they will use my body and CGI the actor’s head on!” he jokes. “But we do have a budget for a Class A actor and Class A director.” (A little narcissistic though?)

Love Without Limits 

Many people have been asking Nick Vujicic how he met his beautiful wife, Kanae. The couple were married in Feb 2012, and a year later, became parents to a healthy baby boy whom they named Kiyoshi. Nick announced today that his wife Kanae and him are writing a book about their love story.

Nick proposed to Kanae on a boat, and put the ring on her finger with his mouth!

Nick proposed to Kanae on a boat, and put the ring on her finger with his mouth!

The book is entitled Love Without Limits and will be released in the United States on Nov 18. “If you’re inspired by me, I’m even more inspired by her,” he says with pride. “What I’ve gone through is nothing compared to her. She has not shared her side of our story.”

Nick and Kanae with their one-year-old son, Kiyoshi

Nick and Kanae with their one-year-old son, Kiyoshi

I’m excited about what’s in store for Nick. He is the keynote speaker for the 2014 National Achievers Congress in Singapore this weekend, but his talk Success Without Limits has been sold out.

But you can grab a copy of his latest book, Stand Strong, at all major bookstores. Launched here on 15 April, it has claimed No. 1 spot on the Sunday Times Bestsellers List for the past three weeks, and counting…

Truth be told, I have not read a single book of his. But after meeting Nick today, I think I may start with this one.

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As a travel writer, I prefer to invest in travel products that go a long way. Also, I’m not a shopper. So when I do buy something, it’s usually because I need it. Or it’s a book. But if I’m prepared to spend a little more, it’s almost always because the product stands for something I believe in.

Like Ethnotek bags.

I found out about these travel bags through my best friend Ning (aka ‘Magic Babe’ Ning). We were planning a trip to Thailand at the time, and she thought it might be cool to check out this socially-responsible line of bags, recently brought in to Singapore by The Bag Creature.

Ning checking out Ethnotek's Raja packs

Ning checking out Ethnotek’s Raja packs

I accompanied her down, of course, and what I found out about Ethnotek really impressed me. The business itself originates from the U.S. but the founders – two young men who are also travellers – have committed to supporting the work of local artisans in remote villages around the world, so that their traditional weaving practices can be kept alive.

The communities whose weaving culture Ethnotek is currently supporting

The communities around the world whose weaving culture Ethnotek is currently supporting (Source: Ethnotekbags.com)

These intricate weaving techniques are amazingly tedious and time-consuming. And at the speed fabrics are being mass-manufactured in urban factories these days, traditional artisans are not only losing their jobs, but also their cultural heritage. There is no longer an impetus to pass on the craft to the next generation.

Check out this insightful video to get an idea of just how intricate the process is…

 

What the Ethnotek founders did was to travel to these remote villages in Vietnam, India, Indonesia, Guatemala etc. and seek out these artisans, and negotiate a fair price for their handiwork. Not only are these weavers paid fairly through direct transactions, their unique culture and traditional practices – as well as their livelihoods – are kept alive by a global stream of demand.

 

“The one thing that all of our weaves and artisans have in common is the fact that their craft is dying out. Every year, they experience less and less local demand for their fabrics due to low yield and long lead time. Traditional techniques are quickly being replaced by machines and factory labour in major cities, drastically reducing the amount of jobs and industry in the regions where it is needed most. By creating new demand for these traditional handcraft practices, we are in a sense forging an effort to keep them alive and well, and in the same villages from which they came.” 

– Founders of Ethnotek bags – 

I respect this. I believe in this. It’s responsible business.

And the way Ethnotek does this is by creating quality base bags that allow you to swap ethnic threads like you would swap smartphone covers or straps for Swatch watches. It works like this:

(Source: ethnotekbags.com)

(Source: Ethnotekbags.com)

The base bags come in various sizes and shapes. The bigger backpacks are called Raja Packs, and Ning was keen to get one of those for the trip, together with a Messenger bag for regular work on-the-go. Ethnotek also carries a line of pretty tote bags!

Ning's Ethnotek Raja Pack Vietnam 6 and Acaat Messenger Vietnam 5.

Ning’s Acaat Messenger Vietnam 5 + Raja Vietnam 6

Optional Threads for the Raja Packs.

Options for Raja Pack threads

The price for a Raja Pack ranges from S$225 to S$289, and you can also get replacement Threads at S$59 each. Different ethnic designs and weaves from around the world are showcased in these unique Threads; and truly, they are precious pieces of dying art!

For my own needs as a travel writer, I prefer a smaller day pack. When I check-in my luggage at the airport, I just want a compact knapsack that I can carry around, but one that’s also big enough to slip in my 13″ MacBook Air, in case I need to work while on transit. Furthermore, it has to double-up as a day pack when I’m out exploring new cities or hiking.

I picked the smaller Wayu Pack because it has a separate section for my laptop and is just nice, size-wise, for my “on assignment” needs. My Ethnotek Vietnam 6 Wayu Pack costs S$189 from The Bag Creature – online orders available.

My travel writer's default combo - with my Ethnotek Vietnam 6 Wayu Pack.

My travel writer’s default combo – with my Ethnotek Vietnam 6 Wayu Pack.

I also got an additional Vietnam 5 Thread (S$79) so that I can swap designs when I feel like it, and blue is my favourite colour. This Thread incorporates a hand-embroidered textile from the Tai Lü tribes of Vietnam. Each and every piece is unique and different from the next, and best of all, there are only four in existence!

Ethnotek Wayu Backpacks & Threads, supporting artisans in Vietnam

Ethnotek Wayu Backpacks & Threads, supporting traditional artisans and weavers in Vietnamese villages

Check out the intricate artwork of these artisans!

Check out the intricate handiwork!

These gorgeous bags aren’t cheap – I admit – but they are good quality, they promote fair trade, and help sustain the livelihood of villagers in indigenous communities.

I don’t normally promote travel products, but I’ve been so pleased with this travel bag and what it stands for that I’ve started following Ethnotek on Facebook and Instagram (@ethnotekbags). I guess it’s the satisfaction of being part of a community of world travellers that believes in fair trade and keeping cultures alive. Or as the founders call us – #etktribe 🙂

But above all, just as my 42-litre backpack reminded me of how much (or little) I really needed while on the road for 9 months, may your travel bag remind you too – in an unconventional sort of way – of what’s more important in life.

“Own only what you can always carry with you: know languages, know countries, know people. Let your memory be your travel bag.” – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn 

 

 

 

 

*WARNING* GRAPHIC DETAILS

Some call it female circumcision, others call it female genital cutting. In its most severe form, the clitoris, inner and outer labia of a girl’s vagina are cut (with a knife or razor) and then crudely sewed up, leaving just a small hole – the size of a matchstick head – for the urine and menstrual blood to pass through.

Photo: WorldPulse.com

Using a razor to cut (Photo: WorldPulse.com)

Although these forms of “cutting” may vary in severity depending on the cultural rituals of different communities, the term I would choose to use when I talk about this – and which is widely used – would be Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).

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Author Ngugi wa Thiong'o

Author Ngugi wa Thiong’o

My first brush with this vague concept of FGM happened when I was 15. In school, we read a Literature classic, written by African writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o, entitled The River Between.

Kenya is a world away from Singapore. And back in the 1980s, before the invention of the Internet, I knew close to nothing about its history, culture or rituals. This work of literature threw open my mind to realities beyond my own.

One of the themes in Ngugi’s book was circumcision. The word he used specifically was “female circumcision”. But juxtaposed with Waiyaki’s circumcision – which he looked forward to because it marked his final initiation into manhood – Muthoni’s circumcision was dreaded and eventually led to her death.

For her, it wasn’t just a nick in the flesh, as it was for the boys. For her (and other girls like her in Kenya, and Somalia, and Ethopia, and other African nations), the removal of the clitoris and labia led to bleeding, infection, chronic pain, cysts and often to death.

It’s hard not to question if the term “female circumcision” is misleading.

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Last night, I attended a film screening and panel discussion on a film called Desert Flower. Organised by the Singapore Committee for UN Women and SMU’s Shirin Fozdar Programme, this powerful film traces the extraordinary journey of Waris Dirie, a Somali desert nomad-turned-supermodel who is now a UN spokesperson campaigning against female genital mutilation.

At the age of 5, her mother brought her out into the desert to be cut by a traditional circumciser. It was a poignant scene in the film for me because the procedure was performed (on what – to me – looked liked a sacrificial rock altar) by a woman on a little girl. There were no men around. It was a ritual performed by women on women.

Why? Because only a “cut woman” is believed to be clean. In fact, it is supported by both women and men in countries that practise it – particularly by the women – who see it as a source of honour and authority, and an essential part of raising a daughter well.

Desert Flower has an R-rating. Here’s the trailer:

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) comprises all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.

Key facts

  • Female genital mutilation includes procedures that intentionally alter or cause injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.
  • The procedure has no health benefits for girls and women.
  • Procedures can cause severe bleeding and problems urinating, and later cysts, infections, infertility as well as complications in childbirth and increased risk of newborn deaths.
  • More than 125 million girls and women alive today have been cut in the 29 countries in Africa and Middle East where FGM is concentrated.
  • FGM is mostly carried out on young girls sometime between infancy and age 15.
  • FGM is a violation of the human rights of girls and women.

(Source: World Health Organisation, Updated Feb 2014) 

About 125 million women and girls in Africa and the Middle-East have undergone FGM. Among them, about 8 million have experienced the most severe form of mutilation (Type III), which is common in countries like Somalia, Ethiopia and Sudan.

But what I learnt from the panel discussion that followed the film screening last night was that FGM happens not just in Africa and the Middle-East but in First World countries as well. Asia is not spared. Even more shocking, FGM happens here in Singapore.

Panel Discussion after the screening of Desert Flower

Panel Discussion with anthropologist Dr Dhooleka Raj and Minnie from UN Women

Maybe because FGM is so foreign and far-removed from my daily circumstance, it’s hard for me to connect with it on a very personal level. But one thing that Minnie from UN Women said struck a personal chord: In the case of Waris Dirie, who was cut and sewn up till what was left was a hole the size of a matchstick head, this hole caused her monthly periods to last 3 weeks.

Minnie from UN Women reveals that FGM happens here in Singapore too.

Minnie from UN Women reveals that FGM happens here in Singapore too.

Honestly, I dread the monthly discomfort and inconvenience of my own period. I remember getting my first period at 13 and thinking to myself, “OMG, is this going to happen to me every month till the day I die?” It was a horrible feeling of helplessness.

But for Waris, it was not just a period that lasted 3 weeks instead of 3 days, but also the chronic pain involved as a result of the botch job done by the circumciser with a razor and needle.

What has been done? 

In December 2012, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution on the elimination of female genital mutilation.

In 2010, WHO published a “Global Strategy to Stop Healthcare Providers from Performing Female Genital Mutilation” in collaboration with other key UN agencies and international organizations.

Panorama_of_the_United_Nations_General_Assembly,_Oct_2012

But the truth is, laws are poorly enforced in many cases, and these measures are not without opposition. From the perspective of colonial and post-colonial history (in particular, the introduction of Christianity by Western missionaries), some anthropologists raise questions about the ethical implications of meddling with deeply-entrenched cultural rituals.

In fact, that was the premise of the book The River Between, written in 1965. When I read it in 1985, I too questioned the ethics of imposing Western religious beliefs on indigenous populations.

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But last night, in my first brush with the Desert Flower (‘Waris’ means ‘Desert Flower’), I heard a Somali woman speak up for herself and for other African girls who have undergone female genital mutilation. She is one of the first to ever speak up against FGM at the headquarters of the United Nations in New York City.

Now that was powerful.

It was powerful for me because Waris did not always believe it was a violation. It was her reality. And it was through a painful personal journey that led to her to the point of speaking up against it.

And for me, every time an African speaks up for Africans, or a Cambodian speaks up for Cambodians, I think we need to sit up and pay attention. Because hearing a cry for help from within makes all the difference.

The real Waris Dirie, a Somali supermodel and UN ambassador

The real Waris Dirie, a Somali supermodel and UN ambassador

I always believe change starts with awareness. And while I don’t know what a small group of people in Singapore can do, I do believe in the power of the Ripple Effect, and that one person’s awareness can start a chain reaction.

If you feel moved to find out more about Waris Dirie’s humanitarian work, do visit her website at desertflowerfoundation.org or the film’s website at desertflower-movie.com.

 

 

 

A Time to Rest

Sunday mornings are best spent quiet.

I grew up Catholic but never really observed the Sabbath. Till today, I don’t think I deliberately set aside time to rest on Sundays. In fact, I know little about its significance.

Apparently, the word “Sabbath” has its roots in Judaism. The Jews have a word, “Shabbat”, which in Hebrew refers to a day of rest and spiritual enrichment. The word comes from the root Shin-Beit-Tav, meaning to cease, to end or to rest.

In fact, Shabbat is the most important ritual observance in Judaism. It is the only ritual observance instituted in the Ten Commandments. (Source: Jewfaq.org).

IT-IS-TIME-TO-REST1

I am not religious. I won’t even venture to say I’m very spiritual these days. But from a very secular perspective, I respect that in the bigger scheme of things, there is a time for everything.

And one of these things – I believe – is rest.

Rest is even harder to do as a freelance writer because I don’t work 9-to-5. I don’t have “leave to clear” or a clear concept of “after-work hours”. Worse, I am a mother of twins. When does a mother go off-service?

But on this Sunday, I am reminded that we all need to allow ourselves to take a break from all the labouring. It’s not wrong. It’s not being lazy. And there shouldn’t be any guilt involved.

It may not end up being a Sunday – it may be a Wednesday or a Saturday – but one day a week. And unless we give ourselves permission through a conscious decision, we won’t.

I love this quote by one of my favourite inspirational writers, Maya Angelou:

Photo: dosomething.org

Photo: dosomething.org

“Every person needs to take one day away. A day in which one consciously separates the past from the future. Jobs, family, employers, and friends can exist one day without any one of us, and if our egos permit us to confess, they could exist eternally in our absence. Each person deserves a day away in which no problems are confronted, no solutions searched for. Each of us needs to withdraw from the cares which will not withdraw from us.”

― Maya Angelou, Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now

Counter-intuitive as it may be, it’s our ego that gets in the way sometimes. But an ex-colleague of mine, Samantha, told me something many moons ago. She said, “We’re not indispensable. The world will go on without us – and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.”

So let’s make rest a weekly discipline – as it was intended.

Let’s first allow ourselves. Then let’s discipline ourselves to practise it into a habit. We may not realise the wisdom of Ancient Wisdoms till we give it a shot.

 

 

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Cutting My Apron Strings

“There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure.” ~ Paulo Coelho 

I made a difficult decision a recently. After I made it, I couldn’t sleep. I was terrified for my future. And I would be lying if I said I am unafraid now.

But sometimes, in pursuing what we know we’re created to do, we hit a point where we need to make tough decisions in order to move forward. For me, it was letting go of my financial safety net.

Even when I left my full-time job as a TV producer to return to my first love – writing – I was still holding on tightly to my rice bowl as a freelance producer. I don’t hate my job. In fact, I get a certain adrenaline rush in being part of a team that makes ‘live’ programmes happen on a news channel.

My Mothership, whose tracker beam is strong.

My Mothership has a strong tractor beam!

But deep inside, I knew this held me back. I’ve had to say “no” to many travel assignments because I could not leave town once I had committed to X number of episodes, and my travel assignments usually come last minute. The result was that I was producing for TV more than I was travel writing, and there came a point where I questioned myself.

Is this why I left my full-time job? What happened to my intention to write full-time? To travel on a whim? Was I making time to build my business and my branding? To meet editors and find work? It was sobering to realise I had failed in every way because of my fears.

And so, I made a tough decision to cut my apron strings.

My calling: A writer who travels.

My calling: A writer who travels.

The day after I made that decision, I immediately landed a few travel assignments. They fell on my lap from nowhere and the timing was perfect. If I had made that decision just a day later, I would’ve had to say no to these opportunities.

I believe nothing happens by chance. When I let go, it cleared a space in my life for good things to happen. I just completed a travel assignment and will be leaving for another assignment next week, with two more lined up this month.

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Recent travel assignment to Thailand, March 2014.

But having said that, I don’t see very far into my future. Many things are still uncertain. But I figure as long as I am writing – and making a living from writing – I’m on the right track.

Let’s take this one day at a time. Let’s DARE.

“Let us plunge together down the dangerous path of surrender. It may be dangerous, but it is the only path worth following.” ~ Paulo Coelho