Category: Travel Writing


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 –

 

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

 

 

Keep Your Eyes on the Mountain

When I left my Senior Producer job at Channel NewsAsia in February, I stepped out into a void. It wasn’t so much scary for me as it was liberating – because I knew what I wanted to do, and I knew I now had the freedom and space to create something from nothing. 

Looking back, I have taken several steps closer to what I see in my mind’s eye.

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I’m back to my first love – writing – and doing that about 50 per cent of the time. The other 50 per cent, I’ve spent producing for TV. I’ve also researched for and curated two small exhibitions for the National Heritage Board, as part of  Singapore Heritage Festival 2013.

I started the year making a resolution to see at least one new place every year.

In this past year alone, I’ve travelled to Tohoku, Chiang Mai, Melbourne, Yogyakarta, Semarang, Cebu, Cherating, Kota Tinggi, Myanmar, Bali… and in the next two months, I’ll be heading up to Japan to chase autumn leaves, to Krabi, and then maybe the Gili Islands. That makes 9.

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I’ve made two solo trips – to Melbourne and Ubud – both to attend writers festivals. And that has been the most powerful experience for me. I never thought I’d enjoy solo travel, but I realise I do!

Australian Festival of Travel Writing, Melbourne.

Australian Festival of Travel Writing, Melbourne.

Ubud Writers & Readers Festival 2013

Ubud Writers & Readers Festival, Bali.

Solo travel allows me to slow down and go at my own pace, to reflect on things and listen to my own voice. I am beginning to know what I like, what I dislike, what makes me scared, what excites me, and to not judge that. It has made me more open to meeting new friends and making genuine connections with people – something that is harder when you’re travelling with someone.

I intend to do more of that – much more- in the coming year.

With Estelle & Kurt, Seminyak.

With Estelle & Kurt, Seminyak.

“If you are never alone, you cannot know yourself.” ~ Paulo Coelho

Neil Gaiman said something to this effect in a commencement speech he gave: If your dreams are a mountain, you start the journey by walking towards that mountain from a distance. Anything that takes you closer to the mountain, say ‘Yes’. Anything that takes you in the opposite direction, say ‘No’. Keep walking with your eyes fixed on that mountain.

When you get nearer and nearer, what you might have said ‘Yes’ to before will start to become ‘No’ now, because you’re that much closer to that mountain, and you see it so much more clearly. The journey is fluid, the decisions are fluid, it’s always evolving. But always, always, you keep your eyes fixed on the mountain.

I don’t know if that makes sense to anyone else but me. But in my life – with all its meanders – it makes absolute sense.

So as I wind down this work year, and start saying ‘No’ to assignments, I look back on 2013 with gratitude. I’ve been blessed with friends who have come into my life from nowhere to be pilgrims on the journey with me – if only for awhile. I’ve been blessed (beyond measure) with the strong support of my family, without whom I cannot do any of this. My guardian angels.

But having said that, 2013 was also a year I embarked on a process of letting go: Decluttering my life of things I do not need – extra baggage – and moving on lighter. That has made the journey more bearable and more pleasant. And that is crucial because I’m in it for the long haul.

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My dream is to travel and to keep traveling – for a whole lifetime – and to tell stories along the way. Stories that matter. I’ve been a writer, print journalist, radio DJ, TV producer… but if you ask me to sum up what I do for a living? I’d tell you I’m a storyteller.

Right now, I may not see clearly what 2014 holds, or even see beyond 6 months, but that’s the life of a free spirit. And so I keep on walking, staying true to myself. It may be a relatively straight path there or it may be a bit winding (I’ve always enjoyed the scenic route!).

But isn’t that the beauty of creating your own path?

“Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.” ~ Martin Luther King Jr. 

I don’t always have the luxury of “vagabonding”, a term coined by travel writer Rolf Potts to describe the art of long-term world travel.

When I took to the road for 9 months in 2011, I didn’t do much planning at all. Partly because I lived out of a 42-litre backpack (so there was no room for guidebooks), and partly because I had no access to WIFI in many parts of the world. My itinerary was thus planned very much on-the-go, by chatting with locals.

I totally enjoy that approach to travel. To me, travel is not about making a list of tourist attractions you need to tick off one by one, or jostling with crowds to get that perfect shot to prove you’ve been there and done that. To me, that’s what tourists do, not travellers.

For the record, I did the tourist thing too: Jostling with crowds at Versailles, looking out for famous names on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, taking photos at the Rialto in Venice, Tigers Nest in Bhutan, Boudhanath Stupa in Kathmandu.

A snaking queue to enter Versailles.

A snaking queue to enter Versailles.

Jostling with tourists at the Rialto, Venice.

Jostling with tourists at the Rialto, Venice.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a bad thing. But I’ve realised – on hindsight – that when I was writing Adventures of 2 Girls (published by Marshall Cavendish), none of those visits to tourist attractions made the final cut. They were just not strong travel narratives.

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The stories that make for good travel writing are often not about “destinations” but “journeys”; not so much about “tourist attractions” but “unique experiences”. And because of that, travel writing requires just the right balance of planning and non-planning.

You want to know enough about a place to appreciate it, but not too much so that nothing surprises you. Research shapes one’s expectations. And injecting expectations and preconceived ideas into a travel experience can be a double-edged sword.

With Google, TripAdvisor, and online social media platforms proliferating the Internet, it’s so much easier these days to do extensive research, get peer reviews, and plan a detailed, hour-by-hour itinerary for our trips.

While I admit that isn’t my preferred style of travelling, I do see the value of it especially if time is of the essence.

I’ve done FAM trips where the schedule is so packed, we were herded from one place to another without enough time to walk around and explore, to take photos, chat with locals, or even have a proper pee break without breaking into a run!

But that is sometimes the life of a travel writer, and you don’t want to give up an opportunity to experience a new place just because you’re stubborn about your preferred style of travel. On such trips, it’s work. Period.

It’s counter-intuitive, but for such overseas assignments, I’ve learnt that prior research is even more important. Sure, you often have a tour guide and maybe even a translator, but such trips are often planned around convenience rather than common sense.

Take for example a city like Paris or Rome. Often, you see architecture from different centuries standing side by side – from the ruins of Ancient Rome to a cathedral built in the 1600s. Your planned itinerary stipulates that you visit them one after another because of their geographical proximity. But isn’t that more a matter of convenience than common sense?

Roman ruins in juxtaposition with old buildings

Roman ruins in juxtaposition with old buildings

Wouldn’t it make more sense to run all over the city to pursue consistent story threads – like Julius Caesar’s Ancient Rome, or the Paris of The Da Vinci Code – so that you really appreciate a city, with its superimposed, multi-layered dimensions of time?

We all know that’s often impractical.

So the next best thing is to be so familiar with the historical background of a place that you can do this time-mapping and time-layering in your mind. So that when you tumble out of the tour bus and stand before Borobudur or Prambanan, both UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Yogyakarta, you already know what to look out for and what to ask beyond the obvious.

Because at the end of the day, travel writing – at its best – is Literature.

And the best travel writers are storytellers. They bring together different elements – from past and present, from fact and fiction – and weave them together so that you are taken on a journey. And when you’re done reading, your mind has shifted, your ideas expanded, and you find yourself in a new space.

Travel writer Pico Iyer in Kyoto, Japan.

Travel writer Pico Iyer in Kyoto, Japan.

And this new space is often a new consciousness, a new awareness. And as Oliver Wendell Holmes puts it, “A mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions.”

Good travel writing does that to you.

As a writer, I am still struggling to find that fine balance between research and going with the flow; between following TripAdvisor and letting conversations with locals lead; between planning or throwing caution to the wind.

Perhaps it’s a balance that only we can define for ourselves? Being aware that a slight tweak this way or that can result in a very different experience.

Perhaps good travel writing needs to have that constant tension. We need to be reminded that our travel experiences are always shaped by broad strokes and fine; that it is never about ticking items off a pre-made list, but trusting our instincts at every turn how much to stay on the worn and well-travelled path, and how much to side-step off to the road less travelled.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

– Robert Frost

Paul Gavarni, Le Flâneur, 1842.

Paul Gavarni, Le Flâneur, 1842.

The term flâneur comes from the French noun flâneur—which has the basic meanings of “stroller”, “lounger”, “saunterer”, “loafer”—which itself comes from the French verb flâner, which means “to stroll”. Flânerie refers to the act of strolling, with all of its accompanying associations.

The flâneur was, first of all, a literary type from 19th century France, essential to any picture of the streets of Paris. It carried a set of rich associations: the man of  leisure, the idler, the urban explorer, the connoisseur of the street. (Source: Wikipedia)

I love the whole concept of the flâneur. I first learnt this word from my friend Simon Tay, author of City of Small Blessings, which won the Singapore Literature Prize in 2010.

With Nicholas Fang & Simon Tay, 2011.

With Nicholas Fang & Simon Tay, 2011.

Simon (right) and Nick Fang (left, a mutual friend) took me out for Teochew porridge prior to me leaving for my word travels in 2011. In our kopitiam conversations, he shared about his life-changing trip to South America, and he also challenged me to learn to be a flâneur in a foreign city.

In those nine months I was away, my BFF Ning (aka ‘Magic Babe’ Ning) and I were probably more swept up by the whirlwind adventure of each day than actually being flâneurs. Plus, we loved the outdoors much more than we did the cities.

But on our road trip through Normandy, Brittany and the Loire Valley, there were days where we’d stroll through the quaint streets of old French towns – stepping into tiny shops or peeking through window displays – and those were always the most memorable moments.

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Alleys of Mont St Michel, 2011

Recently, when I attended Rolf Potts‘ travel writing workshop at the Australian Festival of Travel Writing, the word flâneur came up again in class. My breath caught. I had not paid attention to that word in two years.

Rolf sent us on an exercise: to be a flâneur for an afternoon.

He said, “A flâneur is an observer and experiencer of things. Just go out walking, get lost, go with no agenda or expectation except to be open to experiences.”

It was all very exciting for me because for the first time in my life, I was commissioned and sent out to practise this old French art of flâneuring – something I’d known about for a while but never consciously tried out.

Our workshop was held at the beautiful University of Melbourne campus. That warm Wednesday afternoon, I set out with my notebook and pen with a light heart and a skip. I resolved not to wander too far but to explore the vast grounds of the university – just to observe, experience and to immerse myself in campus life.

Practising being a flâneur.

Practising being a flâneur.

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South Lawn, University of Melbourne

South Lawn, University of Melbourne

I eavesdropped on private conversations, observed people from afar, watched clouds roll by, and even kicked off my flip flops (or as the Australians call it, “thongs”!) and sprawled on the grassy lawn. It was carefree and liberating.

I realised that day that it was much easier to be a flâneur when you’re on your own. There are no conversations to distract you, no differences of opinions as to where to go or what to do, no need to watch out for another person… You travel light and free, and you go where you wish. Your heart is your only compass.

I understood then why Rolf Potts advocates solo travel, especially for travel writers.

My flâneuring led me to this little roundabout somewhere on campus. And as a Singaporean, the first thing that struck me about it was the chalk markings on the ground. They were colourful and large and scrawled boldly across the road.

Messages scrawled in chalk

Messages scrawled in chalk

You’d never find that in Singapore – messages scrawled in chalk in public spaces – they would be considered “vandalism”.

It piqued my interest and so I settled myself right here at this spot – at the side of a flight of stairs – and just observed students walking back and forth across these words.

At one point, two girls sauntered by. From my right peripheral vision, they breezed down the flight of steps, past me, stepping over the chalk on the road, and disappearing from my line of vision somewhere to the left. Their arms were linked casually, and they were chatting and laughing as best friends would.

At a certain angle, I noticed something unusual that brought a curious smile to my lips. The girl on the right – who had been hidden from view – appeared in full view. She was holding a long white stick and tapping it lightly on the road as she walked. She was blind.

But from the ease at which she was walking, the speed, the confidence, you could never tell she was visually impaired. Her companion wasn’t holding on to her elbow or guiding her slowly and cautiously as most sighted people would a blind person. She simply hooked her arm around the crook of her friend’s arm and strolled with her in the most casual of manners.

I did not expect to see this, but I’m glad I did. In that brief moment, I understood what deep trust between friends could mean to a person. The vision spoke to me about friendship, acceptance, and the inclusiveness of the education system.

Maybe that’s just the tip of the iceberg about being a flâneur? To be pleasantly surprised by the unexpected; to learn a little about life (the good and the bad) through plain observation and attention to detail.

But eye-opening as this experience was for me, I did face many difficulties being a flâneur.

It’s tough to walk with absolutely no agenda and no expectation. As a traveler, you’re always hoping and wishing you’ll come across something unusual, even spectacular, around the bend. But sometimes, what speaks to you isn’t necessarily spectacular or loud, but in the softest of whispers.

I found it hard not to whip out my phone or camera to snap photos. Why, beauty has to be captured for memory’s sake! But says who? My photos have never managed to do justice to a breathtaking sunset or sunrise, a mountain range, or waterfall…

Maybe it’s time I learnt to just throw my heart wide open and soak in the experience; allow it fill up my senses (like that John Denver song!) and just let it be. Let it be. I often wonder if I lose the fullness of a moment if I’m too busy framing photos or scribbling notes? Or worse still, uploading them on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook!

Rolf Potts mentioned an article in his workshop that made me laugh: How Twitter Killed Travel.

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Oh how true! How much more meaningful to be fully present in the Present, interacting with locals and engaging in activities, than to think about that next photo that will garner 100 ‘Likes’ on Instagram!

When it comes to being a flâneur, I admit I am a complete greenhorn. It’s harder than I thought. But it’s an art I intend to master. And like all journeys towards mastery, it begins with a first step.

That day was my first baby step.

In 2005, I was sent to Kerala on an overseas assignment for SilkAir’s inflight magazine.

It would be the first of many commissioned travel assignments. But that was my first trip to Mother India. I was paralysed by fear and inadequacy. After all, I’d been a freelance writer for just over two years and still a relative rookie in the industry.

But my editor Vera Lye – a classmate from school – saw something in me that I did not see in myself. She believed I could do it. And because I really did want to dip a tentative toe into a this new genre, I said Yes to the overseas assignment.

I found myself in Kochi at the peak of the Southwest monsoon. Because I was told I wouldn’t see anything, I was determined to experience everything. Undeterred by the rains, I sought out the beauty of the backwaters swollen with floodwaters, the old-world charm of Fort Cochin in a windbreaker, and even rolled up my sleeves to help haul in a catch at the Chinese fishing nets.

These were the first words I ever wrote for a paid travel story…

Opening paras of "Kochi: A Meeting of Worlds" by Pamela Ho for SilkAir's inflight magazine, 2005.

Opening paras of “Kochi: A Meeting of Worlds” by Pamela Ho for SilkAir’s inflight magazine, 2005.

… and my first taste of how I could actually combine my twin loves of travel and writing, and make money from it. ✈

Falling in love is often unexpected and unplanned. And just like falling in love with someone, I fell head over heels in love with travel writing.

And this was the genesis of it all – the start of a lifelong love affair.

Defining My Niche

Writing is a lifelong passion that has evolved from being a hobby to my bread and butter – with a generous sprinkling of icing sugar!

But while I’m first and foremost a writer, choosing to narrow the scope down to travel writing is something quite new for me.

As a journalist, I’ve covered a myriad of stories from my travels – some for print, some for radio – but the main difference is a conscious commitment to the art and ethics of travel writing.

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Interview with José Ramos-Horta, President of East Timor (2007-2012)

Interview with Elsia Grandcourt, Deputy CEO of the Seychelles Tourism Board

Interview with Elsia Grandcourt, Deputy CEO of the Seychelles Tourism Board

Interview with Janet Hsieh, host of TLC's "Fun Taiwan" in Horqin Desert, Inner Mongolia

Interview with Janet Hsieh, host of TLC’s “Fun Taiwan” in Horqin Desert, Inner Mongolia

Whether to call myself a “travel writer” is something I grappled with for a year. After I returned from a one-year sabbatical to travel the world and publish a book, I had a knowing that this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

But many questions arose for me: Is it too niche? Are there enough publications out there to buy my work? How will I fund my travels? Do I continue to write for other genres? What if I want to share my travel stories on other platforms like radio or online podcasts?

These were questions I did not have answers for. Even when I left my full-time job as a Senior Producer with Channel NewsAsia, and delved into this as a full-time freelancer, I still did not have a clarity as to what I was meant to do.

And perhaps, therein lies the problem.

I was asking the wrong questions. Perhaps, the question is not “what am I meant to do?” but “what do I really want to do?” I did not dare ask that. I didn’t feel like I had a right to.

But I’ve come to a space where I realise that being a travel writer is not about fitting into a pre-set mould, but doing what I’m really good at and passionate about. It’s a niche that I can define and carve out for myself, based on my own strengths, passions and experience.

I learnt this only when I put a pause on life, dropped everything, and headed to Melbourne to attend the Australian Festival of Travel Writing. It was a meeting of minds, a gathering of travel writers from around the world, and those aspiring to be travel writers who were hungry to learn.

Birds of a feather flock together – so the adage goes. But the flock isn’t quite as homogeneous, as I’d soon find out.

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One thing I realised – to my delight – is that while travel writing is just one genre of writing, there are many subsets within this genre!

The panel discussions over the weekend saw a most varied line-up of guidebook writers from Lonely Planet, authors of travel books (from fiction to French wines), academics who had written stories of migrant identity, journalists and foreign correspondents etc.

Travel writing encompasses commercial or service writing (e.g. paid reviews), academic writing (e.g. with sociological slant), news & journalism, culture & heritage, travel fiction, travelogues, travel memoirs, lifestyle etc. It was mind-blowing!

AFTW panel sessions

Counter-intuitive as it may sound, you need a niche festival like this to bring out the diversity within the genre. If it were a generic writers’ festival, all these differences would be lost because travel writing would be regarded as one genre.

At the Singapore Writer’s Festival last year, I sat on a travel writing panel too – as a featured speaker – with Pico Iyer. There was just one panel on travel writing, and that was us. I don’t think we represented the diverse nature of this genre at all.

On a travel writing panel with Pico Iyer - Singapore Writer's Festival 2012

On a travel writing panel with Pico Iyer – Singapore Writer’s Festival 2012

At the Australian Festival of Travel Writing, some panel discussions made me snooze, others made me sit up and listen with a pounding heart.

By the end of that weekend, I was more aware of what I naturally gravitated towards and what I did not really fancy doing.

For one, I will never be a guidebook writer.

It does not thrill me to be the first to find a cheap hostel with hot-water showers, or to recommend a list of “authentic” local eateries for backpackers to try. I am not interested to sell my soul to review a ski or spa package because someone paid me to. And much as I consider myself a die-hard foodie, I don’t think I’d want to focus solely on food and restaurants on my world travels.

I am a storyteller with a grounding in journalism. I want to tell real stories.

And while my wildly idealistic self was somewhat tamed by travel writers I admire (namely Rolf Potts, author of “Vagabonding: The Uncommon Guide to Long-Term World Travel”), I still believe this will remain the core of what I choose to do.

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Rolf Potts in Machu Picchu

I will probably still do commercial writing, go on media junkets, write food stories and resort reviews, and maybe even pitch for a gig with Lonely Planet, but they will be conscious decisions I make to make a living out of doing what I love.

In essence, I see myself as a travel journalist; as essentially a writer… who travels.

For now, that alone is clear. Enough.

During my week in Melbourne, I took away many other important lessons. I will write about them as they settle, then rise to the surface. Stay tuned. xo

I’m just about done packing. Leaving Singapore in a couple of hours for Melbourne to attend the Australian Festival of Travel Writing, which happens this weekend. But also, a workshop on Wednesday that’s the main reason I decided to go for this at all.

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You see, in the summer of 2011, I spent three months in Paris as part of my 9-month trip around the world. While my friend Ning was taking lessons at Le Cordon Bleu (world-renowned culinary school), what I really wanted to do was to attend the Paris Writing Workshop.

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It was the perfect way to spend the summer, I thought. Writing. But it was a month-long course and it cost a fortune. For a backpacker on a shoestring, it was just something I could not afford.

The workshop I really wanted to attend then was Rolf Potts‘ – travel writer, Yale lecturer, and author of Vagabonding: The Uncommon Guide to Long-term World Travel. In fact, I was in touch with him via email and Twitter even back then. But I never made it for the Paris Writing Workshop in 2011. I ended up attending French lessons at the Alliance Francaise in Paris.

Recently, I asked Rolf if he would be in Asia any time this year. And he replied saying it’s not in his radar, but he’s heading to Australia in March for a writing festival. Perhaps that’s the closest to Asia he will be.

And so, almost two years later, I’m finally attending his class.

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In fact, his workshop was the first thing I booked the morning I woke up after finding out about the AFTW 2013. I just whipped out my credit card and booked it on the spot, at A$150.

Then… I booked the weekend festival pass.

And then, finally, my air tickets to Melbourne.

I’ll be bunking in with my Instagram friend Diane (aka @deeleow) for the week. The generous girl has opened her apartment to me, albeit having met me only once. She may just have obliviously invited a serial killer into her home. But I guess I have a trustworthy face (not!).

And so I’m all set. Just to take a shower, throw in the last of the stuff into my luggage, and I’m off to the airport.

It’s exciting for me because learning new things is like a shot in the arm. Yes, I’ve been a journalist for many years. Yes, I’ve published a travel book. And yes, I’ve also been a panel speaker (travel writing) at the Singapore Writer’s Festival last year, but I’ve such a long way to go still.

I often feel like a baby in the established genre of travel writing, a small fish in a big pond. And I’m happy to stop churning things out for a change – stories, blog entries – and to receive, soak in, learn.

There are many similarities between traveling and learning. And one of my favourite quotes is this:

“A good traveller has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.” – Lao Tzu

I think a good learner is the same. He is always on a journey, and never intent on arriving.

See you in Melbourne! x

The Travel Writer’s Dilemma

Quite recently, I was approached by one of the founders of @MyTravelGram to join an international team of travel bloggers on a soon-to-be-launched travel website.

I have been an addict of @MyTravelGram on Instagram for months, and I’ve re-grammed many of their photos, become online friends with many of the followers from around the world, including a few of the founding members. Such passion!

Well, this founder of @MyTravelGram in Los Angeles started reading my blog and told me that he is as much a fan of my writing as I am of his travel photos sharing site! And he revealed that he’s starting a travel website with another passionate traveler in Australia, and thought I’d be a great addition to their team of travel bloggers.

You know what they say about “birds of a feather”. They flock together.

And having been with magazines, radio, TV news etc., I’ve experienced that for myself. Each group of professionals is unique and the collective vibes, so different. You see it best at mass meetings (we call them “townhalls” at MediaCorp) or even cosy team lunches. The things you talk about, laugh about, the similarities in personalities. Let me tell you, radio DJs and TV news producers are worlds apart!

Right after I came back from my 9-month world travels, I had a reunion with my Psychology Honours classmates, friends I spent a year with at the National University of Singapore. I was amused by the Psychology-tinged jokes and the shared language that springs from shared knowledge. Having left Psychology behind for Journalism, I realized how much I don’t realize these things till I’m out of the circle!

My point being, I love hanging around writers. We speak the same language because we all love words. Most of us are avid readers. And we share beautiful words, quotes and poems we come across with others because good writing makes our skin tingle.

I love hanging around travelers too, because there’s nothing more invigorating than listening to a passionate traveler share his or her vagabonding stories. It sparks my imagination, compels me to update my bucket list, and stimulates me to dream, dream, dream.

So to be part of a community of travel bloggers – albeit virtual, for now – is a dream.

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I do sometimes struggle with this though, I have to admit.

You see, I write for a living. I’m a published author and travel writer. And when I travel, I come back with a limited pool of content from a destination. How do I apportion the content to paid travel articles for newspapers and magazines, to my own blog, and then to an international travel blog?

Should I hog my stories to sell purely for money? After all, it’s my bread and butter. Or should I just share freely online and grow an international following? It’s a tough call because what is out there on the public realm can seldom be resold.

So yes, it is a dilemma I think all travel writers who blog struggle with.

But you know what? I don’t like to operate from a space of scarcity.

I think that if you give and share freely and generously, it generates much more good and positivity than if you are stingy about information. So I’ll just go with the flow and trust my instincts on this – because as a Journalist, I have something working for me.

The art of playing with story angles.

Well, I can’t reveal much more at this point because we’re not yet launched. All I can say is that it’s been wonderful seeing how it’s coming together, communicating with the founders – one in LA, the other in Sydney – via Kik.

The world has really become smaller! It’s amazing how I can chat with “virtual colleagues” and collaborators without even meeting them face-to-face. And from that, we can create something together.

And each day, I’m seeing our little team of travel bloggers from around the world growing. What an amazing bunch of people! I hope we’ll gather at some part of the world one day because I’d love to meet them personally.

It’s exciting times… exciting times… Stay tuned! x

I have a bad habit. I always ask people this question: What is your passion? What do you love doing?

And I’m surprised that many people tell me they don’t know. They don’t now what’s their passion. They don’t know what they are good at.

The truth is, I don’t believe them. I believe they know. Deep inside. I believe they say they don’t because they have discounted what they love and what they are good at because society doesn’t place a value on it. And so sadly, they judge it and they dismiss it as being trivial.

Yesterday, at the National Young Leader’s Day (Women’s Edition) event, I asked many of the teenage girls who came up to me that same question. Some said they haven’t found their passion yet, and some said things like, “I want to be a pilot and fly”… “I want to Tweet and be a social media reporter”… “I want to travel the world and write, like you!”

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And there are other people who love jumping off planes, exploring caves, making people laugh, caring for someone, climbing trees or hiking in nature who think, “Nah… these are not real talents or passions”, simply because in the world’s eye, they don’t count. In Singapore, we say it this way, “Not counted!”

But I insist on asking this question – I have always asked this question – “What would you be doing if you didn’t have to worry about money? How will your time be spent?”

Discounting, of course, the first two weeks to a month when you probably just want to laze by the beach and do nothing but sip a Mojito and read… People always try to get off the hook by saying they want to be a professional bum!

But there will come a time even that becomes boring and you get up and start looking for things that naturally excite you and make you happy. What would that something be?

I think it’s a very important question we each need to answer. It may take a fair amount of reflection or it may come instantaneously to you. But in that answer lies the clue to what we’re created to do.

Don’t judge it. It can be anything.

I stumbled upon this Alan Watts’ video by chance last night, when searching for something totally unrelated. I see this as Serendipity. Before you do anything else, watch this 3 minute video. It says EVERYTHING I’ve been trying to say.

Believe it or not, definitions of “success” and “happiness” do differ and vary around the world. I can tell you this because I’ve travelled continuously for 9 months, across “cultural borders” like Hawaii, Paris, Morocco, Madagascar, Tibet, Bhutan etc. It’s all arbitrary.

How we define “success” and “happiness” right now has probably been indoctrinated into us by our society, by our parents, and we need to suspend all judgement for a moment, and realize that.

Because there is a BIGGER PURPOSE to our lives, that over-rides conventional wisdom.

“If you say that money is the most important thing, you’ll spend your life completely wasting your time: You’ll be doing things you don’t like doing in order to go on living, that is, in order to go on doing things you don’t like doing — which is stupid!”

As mentioned in the Alan Watts’ video, don’t worry about the money. Because if you are passionate about something, you will become a master of it. And when you become a master of it, then you can start getting a decent fee for whatever it is.

I love this quote by the wise old Chinese philosopher, Confucius. It was first shared with me by my friend Zhang Tingjun, one of the founders of The Chain Reaction Project. Like me, she was a journalist with Channel NewsAsia, but she left to start a non-profit organisation that uses adventure as a vehicle for change.

I love this quote because it’s just so true. Those who have taken that leap of faith to pursue their passion will get it immediately, and they will ALL tell you the same thing.

So if it’s still conventional wisdom you subscribe to, how much more conventional than Confucius?

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