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“Whatever the field of our expertise, most of us realize that the more data we acquire, the less, very often, we know. The universe is not a fixed sum, in which the amount you know subtracts from the amount you don’t… The more we know, the greater we find is our ignorance.” ~ Pico Iyer

I started following media reports of the disappearance of MH370 with puzzlement and horror. In the early days, every new piece of information seemed to open a new door of possibilities. And I was hooked. But of late, I’ve stopped following the developments because the more information I read, and the more speculations I hear, the more confused I feel.

Photo: International Business Times

Photo: International Business Times

So this piece of writing by one of my favourite travel writers, Pico Iyer, really spoke to me. Not just with regards to MH370, but also for the things I’m learning about human trafficking in the region. I have been learning and reading up and doing interviews with people in the field for a decade now, but it seems the more I know, the less I know. The more information I get, the more I realise just how ignorant I am!

“The universe is not a fixed sum, in which the amount you know subtracts from the amount you don’t… The more we know, the greater we find is our ignorance.” ~ Pico Iyer 

This article was shared with me by my dear friend Jasmine Choo. I took a while to get to reading it but I’m glad I did. It speaks to me on so many levels!

Here’s the full article by Pico Iyer. Published in The New Times on 20 March 2014.

—–

Pico Iyer

Pico Iyer

The Folly of Thinking We Know

The Painful Hunt for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370

– Pico Iyer (The New York Times, 20 March 2014)

 

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. — WE’VE most of us, surely, heard all the figures: Humanity now produces as much data in two days as it did in all of history till the year 2003 — and the amount of data is doubling every two years. In the time you take to read this piece, the human race will generate as much data as currently exists in the Library of Congress. For that matter — yes, your inbox and Facebook page would reflect this — 10 percent of all the pictures ever taken as of the end of 2011 were taken in 2011. Yet as we think about how an entire Boeing 777 has gone missing for almost two weeks now, we’re also painfully reminded of how much we can’t — and may never — know, even in the Knowledge Economy.

 

The Nobel Prize-winning economist and psychologist Daniel Kahneman has noted, after decades of research, that it’s our nature to overestimate how much we understand the world and to underestimate the role of chance. And it’s our folly to assume we know very much at all. There’s “a highly objectionable word,” he writes, “which should be removed from our vocabulary in discussions of major events,” and that word is “knew.”

 

I think of this as I watch one expert after another offer informed guesses about the fate of the missing plane, even as all we know about it so far is how provisional — and contradictory — our speculations have been. I also recall how the words that most convey authority and credibility whenever I listen to any pundit speak are “I don’t know.” Whatever the field of our expertise, most of us realize that the more data we acquire, the less, very often, we know. The universe is not a fixed sum, in which the amount you know subtracts from the amount you don’t.

 

As Gardiner G. Hubbard, the first president of the National Geographic Society, said in 1888, when his magazine set out to chart everything in the known universe, “The more we know, the greater we find is our ignorance.” And it can often seem as if nature — or something beyond our reckoning at least — intrudes every time we’re tempted to get above ourselves. Whenever we begin to assume we can command or comprehend quite a bit, some Icarian calamity pushes our face, tragically, in the limits of our knowledge.

 

It’s been humbling, as well as horrifying, to see the entire globe, in an age of unprecedented data accumulation, up in the air, more or less, but poignantly aware that, whatever we do learn, a grief beyond understanding is likely to be a part of it.

 

We imagine how those with loved ones on the plane must be trying to fill the absence, of knowledge as well as of their sons or wives, and how they may fear, even if at times they long for, certainty. We imagine the people on the aircraft, whose not-knowing might have been felt on the pulse, accelerating, as the vessel suddenly changed course. We translate the story into our own lives, and think about how the things we don’t know haunt and possess us as the things we do seldom can.

 

Even if we do learn more about the fate of the airliner, it’s unlikely that all of our questions will ever be answered. And the memory of how much we didn’t know — and how long we didn’t know it — ought to sober us as we prepare for the next sudden visitation of the inexplicable.

 

We’re all grateful that we know as much as we do these days, and enjoy lives that are safer, longer, healthier and better connected than those of any generation before ours. Yet each day that passes, Malaysia 370 keeps hovering like a terrible blank in our minds, more visible the longer it’s out of our view.

 
Pico Iyer is the author, most recently, of “The Man Within My Head” and a distinguished presidential fellow at Chapman University.
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“Aunty Pamela!” She often greets me with a grin, calling out to me even from a distance. My neighbour’s daughter has mild autism and is enrolled in a mainstream school. I often think she is more sociable than my twin boys.

One of my son’s classmates has autism too. R comes over to play with my twin boys because he only has a sister at home and they don’t play well together. I suspect R appreciates getting a 2-for-1 deal when he comes over!

And then, there is a little boy who lives in my block whom I suspect has autism. Before he enters the lift, his parents put on headphones for him to calm him down. He rides the lift, grunting, groaning and shouting, which scares the neighbours “trapped” in the lift with him. But the sad part is that his parents often look apologetic.

sn-autism

Autism is characterised – in varying degrees – by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and non-verbal communication, and repetitive behaviours. Because it falls on a continuum, it’s known scientifically as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Studies have shown that autism is about four times more common among boys than girls.

While I have interacted with children with autism, I have not – for some bizarre reason – entertained the thought that these children will someday grow up to be adults.

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Hosting The Living Room on 938LIVE (2008-2011)

Around 2009, when I did a radio interview with a father who was coping with a grown-up son with severe autism, my eyes were opened to a reality that broke my heart.

The father told me that they had only one child because his son’s condition was so severe that they had to take care of him 24/7 – there was no room for another dependent. In fact, his wife left her full-time job and had been taking care of him for almost two decades. The couple had not gone on a single vacation.

“People always tell us God only gives you what you can handle,” he said, his voice breaking. “That is so easy to say.”

He tells me that the curious thing about autistic children is that they often look normal. In fact, many of them are very good-looking. As such, people around them often do not know that they have a disorder. But as they grow up into teenagers and adults, their behaviours often frighten people because what they see is not what they expect.

Teenager with Autism (Photo: www.jsonline.com)

Teenager with Autism (Photo: http://www.jsonline.com)

I could feel the father’s pain when he recounted how his teenage son was scorned because he could not control his sexual urges in public. Nobody could understand that this good-looking teenager had a disorder. They thought he was poorly disciplined and they blamed the parents.

“It was easier when he was a child,” the father told me. “People were more forgiving.”

What he said next hit me like a brick wall.

“What will happen to my son when we die?” he asked. “Who will take care of him?”

I did not have an answer.

This very intense interview never left me all these years. So when I was invited for an event recently that celebrated a partnership between a business and the Autism Resource Centre (ARC) in Singapore, I knew it was something to celebrate!

When Starbucks first came to Singapore 17 years ago, it was cool to hang out there because the concept was novel and the espresso-based coffees and Frappuccinos were hip alternatives to our kopitiam coffee and 3-in-1s. The ambience was also trendy with the hiss of espresso machines, the shouting of baristas over the counter and piped-in jazz.

Coffee Masters at Starbucks Fullerton Waterboat House

Coffee Masters at Starbucks Fullerton Waterboat House

But over the years, with the arrival of Melbourne-styled artisan cafés in Singapore, Starbucks became the MacDonald’s of coffee. It was mass, commercial, and the coffee couldn’t match up to some. And hanging out at Starbucks started to become a little less cool.

As a coffee lover, I do agree they don’t serve the best coffee. Personally, I like La Ristrettos and Papa Palheta better. But I admit I have a soft spot for Starbucks because their heart is in the right place.

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This soft spot started in 2003 when I read the book Pour Your Heart Into It by Howard Schultz, the founder of Starbucks. I read it as a case study on leadership and read it again some years later because that book inspired me so much.

When you know the heart of a leader – what he stands for – you know where his company comes from when they do what they do. And through the years, I’ve seen Starbucks keep to these principles even though they have been criticized for many things.

Pour your heart into it

So when I was invited to the opening of Starbucks Singapore’s 100th store on 14 February 2014, I was thrilled; especially hearing that this will be Asia’s first Give Back Store.

To me, every Starbucks store is a Give Back Store – I know they have an annual event around Christmas where proceeds go to the Salvation Army, they promote fair-trade, recycle coffee grounds as fertilisers, and support local musicians by selling their CDs in stores and giving them a platform to perform.

So how is this 100th store different?

Sbux 100 logo

In a cosy round-table discussion with Jeff Hansberry (President, Starbucks China & Southeast Asia) and Denise Phua (President, Autism Resource Centre), I learnt that Starbucks Singapore has been partnering the Autism Resource Centre (ARC) for the past 10 years. They helped set up a café training facility at Pathlight School and have been training the students there for a decade. They’ve also accepted students from Pathlight for part-time work attachments.

With Denise Phua (ARC) and Jeff Hansberry (Starbucks)

With Denise Phua (ARC) and Jeff Hansberry (Starbucks)

But this 100th store takes the partnership a step further.

As a Give Back Store, Starbucks Fullerton Waterboat House hires youths with autism as full-time staff. This means they don’t just have a job, they have a career path with Starbucks. And at least 25 per cent of the full-time staff at this store will be from ARC.

Youths with Autism as full-time Starbucks staff

Youths with Autism as full-time Starbucks staff

What’s more, the artistic talent of kids with autism is celebrated here. On a feature wall in this pretty nautical-themed store, drawings by students from Pathlight School are proudly showcased. Such amazing attention to detail! I could not have drawn these in a thousand years!

Artwork by students of Pathlight School

Artwork by students of Pathlight School

One of the students, 17-year-old Glenn Phua, even had his artwork featured on a Starbucks tumbler. This special tumbler is sold exclusively at Starbucks Fullerton Waterboat House, and $5 from the sale of each tumbler goes back to funding the work of ARC. I’m told this collaboration is expected to strengthen in the coming years.

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Any business that gives back to the community and promotes inclusiveness is a business I’m inclined to support. In a world where there is so much bad news, good news should be celebrated and shared, not gunned down. We do that far too often and way too quickly!

So what if they don’t serve the best coffee? There is more to life than good coffee!

And coming from a die-hard coffee lover, you better believe it.

Marcus, who has autistism, makes me a Frap!

Marcus, who has autistism, makes me a Java Chip Frap!

My hope is that all businesses that have a heart for people with special needs not forget the teenagers and adults too. Give them opportunities. Be the support network their parents need. Include them. Because for most severe cases, it’s often when these children grow up – and their parents grow older – that coping becomes harder. We do live in a society that is unforgiving and slow to understand.

And as a parent, I can identity with the fears of these parents. If I had a child with special needs, how would I feel if I knew I wouldn’t be around for much longer and would soon leave him behind, alone? What sort of world would I want to create so that I can leave knowing he is taken care of?

Let that be the space from where our daily choices spring.

be-the-change-you-want-to-see-in-the-world

When she was found, she was perched on a wooden crate in a makeshift tent constructed from wooden sticks and canvas sheets. It was hard to tell from her seated position that she was disabled. There was no wheelchair or crutches in sight.
(Photo Credit: John Vink)

Oudong Province, Cambodia (Photo: John Vink)

These makeshift homes flanked the foot of Phnom Oudong (Oudong Mountain), located about an hour’s drive from Phnom Penh. Between 1618 and 1866, this was the site of the old capital of Cambodia, before it was moved to Phnom Penh under French colonisation. Today, tourists climb this mountain daily to visit the magnificent temples and stupas on its summit, and to soak in the panoramic views.

Phnom Oudong with its temples & stupas

Phnom Oudong in the distance, Cambodia

But this 11-year-old girl was not there for any of these reasons. In fact, she was there not even by choice, but circumstance. Her family – together with 300 other families – had been forcefully evicted from the Borei Keila district in Phnom Penh and dumped here.

Borei Keila forced eviction on 4 Jan 2012 (Source: KI-Media)

Borei Keila forced eviction on 4 Jan 2012
(Photo: KI-Media)

“In early 2003, a ‘land-sharing’ arrangement was proposed for Borei Keila, which allowed the well-connected construction company, Phanimex, to develop part of the area for commercial purposes while providing housing to the residents on the remaining land. Phanimex was obligated to build 10 apartment buildings on two hectares of land for the villagers in return for obtaining ownership of an additional 2.6 hectares for commercial development.

In April 2010, Phanimex unilaterally reneged on the agreement, however – with the approval of the government – and only constructed eight buildings. That left 300 Borei Keila families excluded from the original agreement – and still living in housing on the site. These were the homes that Phanimex representatives destroyed today.”

(Source: THE DIPLOMAT, 15 Jan 2012)

Borei Keila homes bulldozed to the ground (Photo Credit: Faine Greenwood)

Borei Keila homes bulldozed to the ground
(Photo: Faine Greenwood)

These forcefully evicted families were dispersed and relocated to three campsites outside Phnom Penh – Oudong being one of them.

While they waited for their little plots of promised land, they lived in flimsy self-constructed tents, cut off from their sources of income, and left to fend for themselves. And for a young girl with a disability, moving around the campsite alone was hard as the ground was uneven and unpaved.

This was how Eunice Olsen – a former Singaporean politician, actor, TV host and avid volunteer – found Srey Nuon back in 2012.

Travelling to Phnom Penh to do research for 3.50, a film she was making about human trafficking in Cambodia, Eunice was put in touch with a doctor at Sihanouk Hospital. It was through this doctor that she was directed to NGOs working with trafficked girls, as well as a home care team that did outreach to persons living with HIV.

Eunice Olsen in a scene from 3.50 the movie

Eunice Olsen in a scene from 3.50 the movie

Outside of research work for her film, Eunice tagged along with this home care team as they made their rounds. Over the span of a few days, she was brought to Borei Keila, and then to Oudong, where she first met Srey Nuon.

Srey Nuon’s family was one of those evicted.

“You know, poverty isn’t the problem,” Eunice said to me in one of our casual conversations. “People can still survive, and even be happy, when they’re poor. The problem is injustice.”

At Oudong, the social worker Eunice was trailing approached Srey Nuon to engage her in conversation because she was a “new case”. They had not seen her before and they wanted to find out more about her situation. The little girl could not speak a word of English.

Through the social worker, who translated their exchange from Khmer to English, Eunice learnt that the girl’s father would transport her everyday to the foot of Oudong Mountain on his scooter, and there, she would climb over a hundred steps – on her hands – to beg.

In the community’s eyes, Srey Nuon’s fate was to be a beggar.

When Eunice heard this, she asked almost instinctively, “Did she go to school before?”

The social worker translated her question to the girl, and came back with this reply, “Yes.”

“Did she like to go to school?” Eunice pursued.

The translated answer came back once again, “Yes.”

It was the girl’s non-hesitant answer to that pointed question that compelled Eunice Olsen to make a decision on the spot: She would put Srey Nuon back in school, and support her till she was 21.

On Lala's tuk tuk in Phnom Penh traffic

On Lala’s tuk tuk in Phnom Penh traffic

When I was in Phnom Penh last week with Eunice, we visited Srey Nuon at her school. It was a school for the disabled, run by a Catholic mission, and one of the first stops we made on our 4-day trip to Cambodia.

Together with Chhavelith from Sihanouk Hospital’s home care team, we rode out in Lala’s tuk tuk, veering off the main road after about an hour onto a dusty, bumpy path. The school was located at the outskirts of the city, tucked away in a corner of nowhere.

I know this bothered Eunice a little because she has always stood up for integration, even as a Parliamentarian. But I learnt that Srey Nuon did start out trying to integrate into a mainstream school, but because the school’s infrastructure and teachers were not equipped to provide adequately for someone like her, she wasn’t coping physically and intellectually.

And to be fair, this little school for the disabled was out of sight, but not out of mind.

As we spluttered through the open gate and climbed out of Lala’s tuk tuk, I breathed in the fresh air and soaked in the vibes of the place – as I often do in a new place. It felt light and safe, and there was no heaviness hanging over the place, like I sometimes feel when I step into Singapore schools.

The compound was small and quiet, a tad old but clean and well maintained. I could tell that the Catholic missionaries took pride in this place.

(Photo: Arte e Salute)

(Photo: Arte e Salute)

The supervisor, a gentle soft-spoken man, came out to meet us. He led us down a row of classrooms towards the canteen, and on the way, pointed out a computer lab for the students, complete with second-hand laptops donated by well-meaning donors and volunteers from the West.

It was “dessert time” and the children had spilled out from the classrooms into the airy canteen. Some were already huddled over bowls of soupy dessert – one bowl on each table to be shared.

The children were understandably curious about us. We were visibly different. But unreservedly, they greeted us “good afternoon!” in English and followed us around.

They were adorable! While similar in that they all had disabilities, they were also uniquely different: Some were running around with shrivelled arms, others were on wheelchairs and crutches, while others had no arms or legs. Even the cheerful young teacher who recognised Eunice and came out to greet us, had a stump for a right arm.

Eunice scanned the canteen for Srey Nuon but she was nowhere in sight. I felt my breath quicken because I had heard so much about her and I was finally going to meet her face-to-face. The supervisor informed us that she would be along in a bit because she had just finished swimming lessons, and was changing back into her uniform.

Just beside the canteen where we were was a small swimming pool, shallow and rectangle-shaped, and protectively fenced to prevent the children from falling in. I was lost in thought for a moment as I watched the clear blue water shimmer happily in the afternoon sun.

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I was heartened to learn that the students here did not just have swimming lessons, but also music and art lessons.

“Srey Nuon is also learning English,” the supervisor informed us.

Chhavelith beamed like a proud father. After all, he had been instrumental in making arrangements for Srey Nuon here in Phnom Penh while Eunice was back in Singapore.

P1090021Since that chance meeting at Oudong, Srey Nuon had moved back to the capital and was living with an aunt and her family. But more recently, she was boarding five days a week at the school, returning home only on weekends because her aunt had just given birth.

“I think this is a better arrangement,” Chhavelith had updated Eunice when we were discussing Srey Nuon’s progress back at the office. “She’ll have more care here.”

I knew Eunice trusted Chhavelith’s judgement, and the moment I set eyes on Srey Nuon a distance away, I understood why. My first thought was that she looked happy!

Her face lit up when she saw Eunice, who had bounded over to hug her. Even though she was on a wheelchair, she appeared strong and healthy and her eyes twinkled merrily.

She is now 13.

“Hello, good afternoon!” she said in English, much to our delight.

The rest of the conversation between her and Eunice was carried out with the help of Chhavelith’s translation. Eunice handed her some gifts from Singapore, and she updated Eunice on how she was doing in school. She said she enjoyed swimming and music very much.

“You must learn to play the piano, OK?” teased Eunice, herself a proficient pianist.

Keyboard Keys Close Up

A group of children had gathered around Srey Nuon, children of different shapes and sizes, all hanging on to their every word with interest and curiosity. Srey Nuon introduced Eunice to her best friend, who was standing quietly behind her wheelchair.

DSC_0334“That’s her best friend!” Eunice shot me a glance from her kneeled position on the floor, and I could see from her expression that her heart was melting. As was mine. That was the sweetest moment, to see two little girls connected in a special friendship this way.

For some reason, I remembered then that Srey Nuon had lost her mum. Some time back, Eunice had taken her to the hospital to visit her ailing mother. “I cried the whole day after that, when I thought about her sitting by her mother’s bedside,” Eunice had revealed.

A week after that hospital visit, Srey Nuon’s mum passed away.

How happy her mother would be, I thought, knowing that her daughter was safe and in good hands. And that she had the possibility of a future brighter than her own. She must be smiling from heaven.

(Photo: John Vink)

(Photo: John Vink)

I wonder. When Eunice first met that little beggar girl sitting on a wooden crate two years ago, would she have seen this in her mind’s eye? Her in a school uniform, beaming happily beside another little girl she called her best friend? Would Eunice have envisioned her speaking English and learning music and enjoying swimming?

“Did she like to go to school?” That question that Eunice asked so instinctively was perhaps the one most important question to have asked at that moment.

I don’t know what prompted her to ask it, but I do know as a journalist that it was a question that arose not from the intellect but from the heart. And oh, what a difference it has made!

This, to me, is what it means to find a need and fill it.

Eunice Olsen. Oudong, Cambodia (14 Jan 2014)

Eunice Olsen. Oudong, Cambodia (14 Jan 2014)

I don’t think Eunice realises the difference she has made to this child. A decision to support Srey Nuon till she is 21 is a huge commitment. And as a freelance writer, I understand how unpredictable work is for people like us who don’t hold 9-to-5 jobs.

But Eunice’s simple gesture – which she does not share publicly or boast about – taught me that despite not knowing how or from where your resources will come, you sometimes need to respond without counting the cost, because there is simply a need to be filled. Period.

It brings to mind – and to life – a verse that I have cherished since I was 16.

“I expect to pass through this world but once. 

Any good therefore that I can do,

or any kindness that I can show to any fellow creature,

let me do it now.

Let me not defer or neglect it,

for I shall not pass this way again.”

~ William Penn ~

Srey Nuon put a face to Cambodia’s forced evictions for me. I felt indignant by the injustice of it. But at the same time, I felt deeply touched because I had witnessed compassion and generosity given freely from one stranger to another.

I left Cambodia believing that there is goodness in this world. And somehow, that changes you.

* * *

THE STARFISH STORY

A young man is walking along the ocean and sees a beach on which thousands and thousands of starfish have washed ashore. Further along he sees an old man, walking slowly and stooping often, picking up one starfish after another and tossing each one gently into the ocean.

“Why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?” he asks.

“Because the sun is up and the tide is going out and if I don’t throw them further in they will die.”

“But, old man, don’t you realise there are miles and miles of beach and starfish all along it! You can’t possibly save them all, you can’t even save one-tenth of them. In fact, even if you work all day, your efforts won’t make any difference at all.”

The old man listened calmly and then bent down to pick up another starfish and threw it into the sea.

“It made a difference to that one.”

starfish_story

** No photos of Srey Nuon have been included in this article in order to protect her identity and safety – upon request by Eunice Olsen.

Fight the Good Fight

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“We must never stop dreaming. Dreams provide nourishment for the soul, just as a meal does for the body. Many times in our lives we see our dreams shattered and our desires frustrated, but we have to continue dreaming. If we don’t, our soul dies, and agape cannot reach it. 

The good fight is the one we fight because our heart asks it of us. In the heroic ages – at the time of the knights in armour – this was easy. There were lands to conquer and much to do. Today, though, the world has changed a lot, and the good fight has shifted from the battlefields to the fields within ourselves. 

The good fight is the one that’s fought in the name of our dreams. When we’re young and our dreams first explode inside us with all their force, we were very courageous, but we haven’t yet learned how to fight. With great effort, we learn how to fight, but by then we no longer have the courage to go into combat. So we turn against ourselves and do battle within. We become our own worst enemy. We say that our dreams were childish, or too difficult to realise, or the result of our not having known enough about life. We kill our dreams because we are afraid to fight the good fight.” 

~ Paulo Coelho (The Pilgrimage) 

The Road to Santiago

The Road to Santiago

Today marks the last day of 2013. When I look back on this one year, I remember it for two things: 

Firstly, for leaving my full-time journalism job of 7 years to follow my dream of being a writer. I have known since I was 13 that I was created to write. And while I did make a decision to do that in a mid-career shift, this path was somehow overshadowed when I pursued journalism into the realms of radio and television. Those were, no doubt, good years. But it was time to return to my first love.

If we don’t stand up and fight for our own dreams, who will fight for us?

There are battles we can step away from, and there are battles we need to step up to. And I think we need to pray for wisdom to choose them wisely. But once we’ve chosen, fight the good fight for them!

Secondly, 2013 was about closing chapters and writing new ones. It was a season of letting go, of decluttering, and recognising that I need to step away from things in my life that don’t serve to build me up but drag me down. I wouldn’t say it was easy at all, but necessary.

With the closing of a chapter meant the freeing-up of space in my life. I think in many ways I was ready for God to fill it with His idea of goodness. And I trusted that He would provide – in His time, and in His way.

And He did. I will remember 2013 as a year of new and unexpected friendships. I am still in the midst of spring-cleaning, taking stock of who are my Reason, Season & Lifetime friends. It’s a time of flux, but I believe I’ll emerge with a greater knowing of how to move forward, traveling lighter.

2013 was also a year of extensive travel for me. I barely stayed for a month before I was off again. In March, I embarked on my first solo trip, followed by another one in October, and I realised how much I love solo travel.

snapshot 2013

So for all the ups and downs, the pains and joys, the endings and beginnings, I am deeply grateful.

I am looking forward to 2014 because I’m recently reminded that my life must serve a purpose bigger than myself. I want some clarity on that in the new year.

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And for that reason, one of the items on my bucket list in 2014 is a pilgrimage to walk the Road to Santiago, a path trodden by millions of pilgrims for centuries. Insha’Allah – God willing.

Let’s see where that leads.

“The good fight is the one we fight because our heart asks it of us.” ~ Paulo Coelho

Call of the Camino


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These words by Mark Twain hit me like a brick wall. I don’t profess to know why I’m born. And it strikes me today that I may never know.

But I feel it shouldn’t stop me from searching. Because if my Maker made me for a reason, then I want to live out that purpose while I’m still here.

I woke up this morning wanting to re-watch a 42min video on the El Camino a Santiago – or the Road to Santiago – with Paulo Coelho, one of my most revered writers.

Screen Shot 2013-12-28 at 11.31.20 am

The  film traces his 700km walk across northern Spain, a journey that would change the course of his life forever. It was this pivotal journey that compelled him to start writing at the age of 38. And in many ways, it was the journey that revealed to him his life’s purpose.

Coelho has since sold more than 150 million books in over 150 countries worldwide, and his works have been translated into 80 languages.

From his own El Camino a Santiago experience, he wrote The Pilgrimage – a precursor to his international bestseller, The Alchemist.

A copy of this book has been sitting on my shelf for many years.

photo-13

Perhaps it’s time to finally read it. I’ve always believed that books find you at the right time.

I don’t know where this prompting will lead me. But I do know that in the current circumstances of my life, there is a quiet persistent yearning to know: Why I’m here, and what I’m meant to do in this fraction of eternity that I’m here.

And really, it shouldn’t surprise me that it would be authors who have set me on this path. 

Here is the video. If you decide to watch it, BE OPEN because you never know what questions it raises for you. And isn’t it always about asking the right questions?

“The boat is safer anchored at the port; but that’s not the aim of boats.” 
― Paulo Coelho, The Pilgrimage 

  

Sidetracked by Beauty

In Feb 2012, I was blown away when I saw the Colosseum covered in a blanket of snow. It was beautiful. I’d never seen Rome like this before – it was like seeing the city with new eyes.

(Photo: Elizabeth Minchilli)

(Photo Credit: Elizabeth Minchilli)

(Photo credit: globalwarming-arclein.blogspot.com)

The Roman Forum covered in snow. (Photo Credit: globalwarming-arclein.blogspot.com)

Last night, I saw photos coming out of Cairo and Jerusalem of snow-covered Middle-Eastern cities.

That’s what I love about Instagram, it’s like seeing the world and cities and neighbourhoods and people’s lives through their smartphones – like a Born into Brothels kinda thing.

(Photo Credit: Saleh Mousa)

(Photo Credit: Saleh Mousa)

The Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock are covered in snow in Jerusalem. (AP Photo/Dusan Vranic)

The Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock are covered in snow in Jerusalem. (AP Photo/Dusan Vranic)

But then, the weather scares me. It’s the first time it’s snowed in Egypt in 100 years. And even when I was traveling around the world in 2011, everyone I spoke to – on every continent – echoed the same thing: the climate is changing.

And we’re seeing the signs in more and more dramatic and spectacular ways. Paulo Coelho writes in The Alchemist about reading omens. Can we not read them?

While I am awed by the beauty of a snow-covered Cairo and Rome, I’m also reminded that I cannot overlook the graver message these images carry; and to ponder really the role we each have to play in this. If we do nothing, we are in fact doing something.

It’s so easy to be sidetracked by Beauty.

When I was traveling for 3 weeks in South Africa in 2011, Cape Town was having rugby fever. It was rugby season and the Springboks were playing the All Blacks. Everyone in Cape Town was wearing a Springbok jersey, and their verve was infectious!

My South African friend Nadem got me a jersey and I’ve kept it all these years. It’s still in pristine condition – see the price tag?

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Today, I dug it out again. Perhaps it’s because of all the rugby World Cup news of late, or perhaps, it’s because I heard on the radio this morning that Nelson Mandela’s body was making its way through the streets of Pretoria in South Africa, so that the ordinary man-in-the-street can say his final goodbyes.

Whatever it was, it made me remember the stories I’d heard in my travels in Cape Town.

In 1995, the newly democratic South Africa (after the fall of apartheid) made its Rugby World Cup debut after many years of anti-apartheid boycott. It hosted the games that year.

The rift then between the blacks and the coloured people of South Africa and the ruling class white elite was wide. There was still much anger and resentment in the country.

It was because of anti-apartheid sentiments that the Springboks missed the last two World Cup series (1987, 1991). But to everyone’s surprise, the underdogs made it to the finals and were set to play against the favourites – New Zealand’s All Blacks. 

In that final game, Nelson Mandela appeared before the mostly white crowd of 62,000 wearing a Springbok jersey to shake the players’ hands before kick-off.

That powerful image of a Black Afrikaan man sporting a garment that was so indelibly associated with the apartheid regime spoke a quiet but powerful message of reconciliation.

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The Springboks ended up defeating the All Blacks 15-12 in the World Cup Finals in 1995.

I feel compelled to remember this great story as we pay our last respects to this great man. My Springbok jersey will always remind me of the lessons I learnt in my short time in South Africa. Important ones, nonetheless. 

Rest in Peace, Mr Mandela.

Most people are surprised when they find out I’ve never set foot on Krabi – especially since I took a year off in 2011 to travel around the world. The truth is, I’m not convinced that Krabi has anything to offer that I can’t find at other beach destinations.

Good diving? Well, there are more hardcore scuba diving destinations like Manado, Layang Layang and Sipadan not too far away.

Thai food? Well, Bangkok and Chiang Mai have never disappointed.

Island hopping? How different can one island be from another?

It’s less commercialised than Phuket? Well, I’ve never been to Phuket either, and I’ve never felt compelled to go.

So the truth is, if AirAsia had not invited me to be on their inaugural flight to Krabi this past week, I would probably have been quite content not going at all.

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AirAsia's inaugural flight to Krabi, 25 Nov 2013

AirAsia’s inaugural flight to Krabi, 25 Nov 2013

But having gone to Krabi, I find myself telling friends that I want to go back, to spend more time there, and to bring my boys as well. Here’s my top reasons why.

1. Hong Island and Hong Lagoon

I did decide to do island-hopping in the end, because the idea of hopping from island to island in a Thai long-tail boat was novel to me. Plus, it makes for iconic Krabi photos.

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Instead of the popular 4-island tour, which is nearer to Ao Nang Beach, I opted to head northwest to the Hong Islands, a series of 12 islets in the Phang Nga province.

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Approaching Hong Island or Koh Hong, Krabi

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Pristine waters and white sandy beaches

Hong Island or Koh Hong (as the Thais call it) is home to a National Park, which conserves wildlife and plants on the island. As such, there are nature trails to explore and facilities like restrooms, a drinks stall and shaded lunch areas for visitors.

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Aside from swimming and snorkelling in the sheltered bay, you can laze or picnic on the white sandy beach or rent a kayak for 300 baht (S$12) and pedal around the island to the beautiful Hong Lagoon.

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The entrance to the lagoon is almost hidden from view from the open sea. A narrow slit of an entrance allows one boat to enter or exit at any one time.

A slit of an entrance, Hong Lagoon

A slit of an entrance, Hong Lagoon

But once inside, you see a mysterious emerald pool cocooned by lofty cliffs and magnificent rock formations. I saw people wading in the lagoon, and the water was only waist-deep!

The Hong Lagoon, Krabi

The Hong Lagoon, Krabi

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2. Koh Lading

This is my Gilligan’s Island on Krabi, complete with a coconut grove. It’s like a little spot of paradise on earth.

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The island itself is laid-back, rustic and devoid of amenities. But you can get a fresh coconut off the tree for 60 baht (slight more than S$2). If you dare climb the tree, it’s free!

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Koh Lading, Krabi

Koh Lading, Krabi

I found a spot on the beach, laid out my beach towel on the sand, ordered a fresh coconut and promptly dozed off to the gentle lapping of waves.

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Koh Lading is very different from Hong Island – it’s small and secluded. But what makes it noteworthy is that it’s famous for its swallow caves. Locals harvest these swallows’ nests for birds’ nest soup!

Koh Lading from a distance

Koh Lading from a distance

Our guide told us though that we can’t access these swallow caves because they are heavily protected and the locals may even be armed. I am not sure how true that is, but we weren’t about to take the risk!

But as we neared Koh Lading, I did spot a flock of swallows circling above our long-tail boat!

Swallows circling above as we neared Koh Lading. famous for its birds' nests.

Swallows circling above as we neared Koh Lading

3. Krabi Sunsets 

I’ve seen many spectacular sunsets on my world travels and in all honesty, I did not expect much from Krabi. After all, it’s hardly written about.

I did, however, read about expats booking a table at The Last Fisherman (on the far, far end of Ao Nang Beach) to catch the sunset. So that was our plan on the first night.

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But sunsets are really early in Krabi – around 6pm! And because we could not make it from our hotel to The Last Fisherman in time, we heeded our hotel GM’s advice to catch the sunset at Nopparat Thara Beach, just within walking distance of our hotel, the Mercure Krabi Deevana.

Mercure Krabi Deevana

Mercure Krabi Deevana

Nopparat Thara is a quiet stretch of beach, adjacent to the more bustling Ao Nang. Here, you will not find deck chairs with umbrellas nor beachfront shops. However, there is a row of seafood restaurants fringing the beach where you can catch the sunset.

And oh, what an awesome sunset it was!

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And in the end, we did make it to The Last Fisherman at the furthermost end of Ao Nang Beach. Although we didn’t end up eating there, we did claim a spot on the beach to catch Mother Nature’s spectacular daily show.

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Initially, the sunset did not impress me. But about an hour after the sun dipped below the mountains in the horizon, when the deep blues of the night sky slowly filled the canvas and the stars came out to play, the skies became insanely beautiful.

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4. Thai Food 

Krabi isn’t necessarily the best place to have Thai food – I’ve definitely had better in Chiang Mai and Bangkok!

But where beach destinations go, Southeast Asia explodes with options. In the mood for Indonesian food? Go Bali. Vietnamese food? Da Nang. Filipino food? Cebu. So when you’re in the mood for a beach vacation with spicy Thai food, I’d opt for Krabi – yes, it’s less commercialised than Phuket.

Here, you can get a decent Thai meal for as little as 35 to 60 baht (about S$2) at the roadside stalls.

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On the first night, we enjoyed a feast of seafood tom yam soup, Pad Thai noodles, deep-fried spring rolls, mango juice and Thai coconut at a restaurant by the beach, and the whole meal – including front-row seats to catch a spectacular sunset – cost us just S$18!

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There are also many traditional and modern Thai restaurants and eateries serving international fare (like Italian, Indian and Swedish cuisine) along the beachfront at Ao Nang.

We settled on a Chinese-Thai restaurant that claimed to the the oldest restaurant on the stretch, and enjoyed a wonderful dinner of Thai fusion food.

Dry-fried macaroni with chilli and basil leaves.

Macaroni stir-fried with chilli and basil leaves.

Salad prawn on a bed of deep-fried taro

Salad prawns on a bed of deep-fried taro

Red curry beef pizza

Red curry beef pizza

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For dessert or just a snack, there are countless roadside stalls selling banana pancakes for 35 baht. They’re really greasy but hugely popular with tourists. You can even have your pancakes slathered with Nutella, peanut better and other decadent fillings.

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If you’re worried about piling on the pounds, just adopt the philosophy that works for most of us: Holiday calories don’t count!

5. Daily Flights 

AirAsia now flies from Singapore to Krabi direct. Daily flights depart at 1.20pm (Singapore time), and arrive in Krabi around 2pm (Thai time), which is perfect timing for hotel check-in.

And it takes just an-hour-and-a-half! 

AirAsia supports the Thai women's volleyball team

AirAsia supports the Thai women’s volleyball team

A plus-point for all AirAsia flyers must surely be the onboard meals that are only available for flights in and out of Thailand. I’d recommend you try their Thai Basil Chicken Rice and Mango Sticky Rice. Both are to die for!

Thai basil chicken rice, only on Thailand-bound flights

Thai basil chicken rice, only on Thailand-bound flights

I am tempted to write in to the airline to request they serve these for all flights, especially their mango sticky rice! The one I had at Ao Nang Beach did not even come close to this!

Hands down, the best Mango Sticky Rice I've had!

Hands down, the best Mango Sticky Rice I’ve had!

I’d already wiped clean Pak Nasser’s Nasi Lemak before I started on this, so I was planning to skip the sticky rice altogether. But I took one mouthful and I knew I would finish all the coconut milk-infused rice. And I did – so someone please kill me. The mango is also very sweet and comes sealed in an airtight pack for freshness.

Appetiser for More

So, this 3-day Krabi trip ended up being an appetiser for me. I intend to go back to explore the natural hot springs, which is something you don’t think occurs in Thailand. But I will need time for that, to just soak in the jungle vibes and listen to the birds and crickets. Perhaps in low season, a wonderful time to travel in my books.

Natural hot springs in Krabi (Source: YourKrabi.com)

Natural hot springs in Krabi (Source: YourKrabi.com)

Another place I’d like to visit is this curious cave where visitors throw carved penises of all shapes and sizes as a prayer for fertility. It kind of reminds me of Bhutan, but it’s apparently not linked to any religion. It’s called Phra Nang Cave, and I’d imagine it would be blast to visit with friends!

Phra Nang Cave, Krabi (Source: mariusztravel.com)

Phra Nang Cave, Krabi (Source: mariusztravel.com)

To find out more about AirAsia’s daily flights to Krabi, click here.

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Travel isn’t about vacations or escapism for me. If it were, I’d forever be skirting the fringes of Life.

And I’m not the sort.

To me, travel is diving headlong into Life itself – full on and immersive. It’s about wanting to expand, to learn, to know, to understand, and to be a better person at the end of the day.

Mark Twain, himself an avid traveller, captured it so succinctly in this quote. It leapt at me when I read it, and I thought it might be nice to share it.

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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.