Island prose

Monkey nuts dangle dry

out of season.

Bursting swollen seeds

like deflated balloons.

A wandering boy,

with a wandering eye

wonders what the foreign girl is doing

on a island

among hundreds of solitary islands

perched on a tree

alone

with the lapping waves and setting sun.

“Just answers” replies the breeze.

The world is run on good deeds

and a trust

that you can be

boat-less and stranded

in good faith,

in vulnerability;

defenseless and unprepared.

Who would know if I died out here?

Not a soul. Not a soul.

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Tips for the solo chick traveller

Six tips to be exact…

  • Assuming you intend to stay in a hostel (because who wants a hotel, they’re boring) check out the photos and reviews before you book. Many have limited amenities so make a point to book a hostel with a lounge or shared common room; it’s the best place to meet people. Otherwise you might be left chillin’ out in your temporary bedroom all alone. And that would be sad.
  • Join a small-scale event. Going to Malaysia for the Rock Your Eco Business event gave me a point of orientation. It allowed me to meet cool, like-minded individuals who by the end were offering me their sofa. Although I travelled by myself, I had a network to pull from so I didn’t ever feel alone (for instance, if coming to Singapore in Jan, join me at Entrepreneur Xfactor, as referenced in my last blog).
  • Trust your intuition. When travelling, meeting new people is part of the journey. You have to learn to trust people. Most people are not crazy or murderous. I meet the most incredible people on the road, more so than when I go about my daily life. Travelling can make you realise how open and accepting the world really is. That being said, I do pay heed to predators. But like most women, I have a built-in ‘creep radar’. If you get the feeling the body language or chemistry is wrong, trust your gut. Always follow your instinct – it’s the only thing that really guides you during solo travels.
  • Load up on your cultural sensitivities. Kind of a no brainer, right? But I’m gonna say it anyway because it includes everything from strange foods to household customs to cultural expectations. The main challenge for solo females wanting to roam the world is down to the occasional [insert: antiquated / traditional / (or even) / backwards / unreasonable] expectations of women. Most of it is harmless, but it’s something to be aware of. Recently I found myself being inadvertently cross examined for marriage (total awkward moment) because I dropped the proverbial ball and over stepped some cross-cultural boundary (I obviously sent the wrong signal to this poor chap). In my defense I don’t think there was anything I could have said or done to mitigate it, but it was an uncomfortable reminder that cultural misinterpretation happens. And it can be pretty sucky when it does. So. In conclusion, it’s always a good idea to read a few articles/blogs/trip adviser reviews about the area you plan to visit beforehand for a bit of context (as if you wouldn’t) and be on your merry way.
  • Female dorm rooms. I happened to hangout with couple of male travellers on my last trip, but a good way to make quick friends is to stay in a female dorm. Mixed dorms work too, but many solo females opt for single sex rooms, so it’s a good place to join forces.
  • Pack light. It should be obvious, but packing light is an art form. For a week in Malaysia I took an average to small size rucksack which included my towel, laptop, clothes and basic biodegradable toiletries. Remove packaging (and recycle) to make room. Only pack what’s essential. Minimize the shoes (I usually bring one pair of flip-flops, one pair of comfortable walking shoes). You’ll be surprised how little you need to survive and it makes it whole lot easier when you’re on the move. It also allows room for bringing back the odd souvenir.

Go for it! Don’t hold back; enjoy life and your freedom, fellow globe trotters!

Part 2) My not so solo travels

When I arrived in Malaysia I was determined to meet people, but knew it would be difficult fitting social activities around the long hours of the Rock Your Eco Business event. But as I found myself in bed tossing and turning each night (probably because my body refused to sleep knowing it was residing in lively downtown Kuala Lumpur) I decided to venture out. On Friday night, after walking a couple hundred meters and having cars blasting their horns and flashing their lights at me every other step and being grabbed by an old, scruffy looking man, I decided that maybe KL wasn’t a good place for a foreign girl to be wondering around alone at night. Annoying on multiple unjust levels.

I stood outside my hostel for a number of minutes, contemplating my options.  A queasy stench lingered in the air from the accumulated trash, exhaust fumes and smog. Every now and then I would see a large, well fed rat shimmy by, skirting three foot potholes. The hostel was located outside China town, a busy market place with vendors and lanterns on every corner.

I remained there until a man approached to ask about the bus system. We spoke of his life in Malaysia as an African expat and his interest in sports and fitness until I found myself agreeing to grab something to eat, at his expense, because I had ran out of local currency. I was mildly aware my family members would be panicked if they knew I was befriending strangers in an unfamiliar city, but I feel I know intuitively when someone is dangerous or ulterior. Perhaps one day my optimism will work to my detriment, but so far it’s served me well. So I went, ate pork fat (the result of ordering something in another language) and spoke about public perception of Africans and his love for his family. A pretty random way to spend an evening. Then I went back to the hostel, to my room without windows.

The following evening after day two Rock Your Business, I sat in the hostel’s bamboo lounge to check my emails. I found myself watching a young man from behind; his form caught my attention. It seemed graceful, almost Japanese-like; he was bent over the wooden breakfast bar, his leg out-stretched in a slide split against an adjacent desk. A bandana was tied around his head in a karate kid fashion.

Later this same boy (who turned out to be an American from Minnesota), bounced excitedly into the lounge to announce he found a kickass heavy metal band and would anyone like to go. How could I turn that down? I followed him out. We followed a road that opened suddenly into an artist corner with portraits and paintings flanking the dirty concrete street. And there, echoing through the narrow pathway, was a thrashing death metal band with youthful figures leaping and pouncing on each other in a chaotic circle, yelling undecipherable lyrics in a lethal mosh pit. Above their heads was a chalk board sign with the words ‘Doppler Bar’ with black marker pen drawings along the walls. Full of local Malay teenagers, angsty about something… or maybe nothing. Water bottles and soda cans were interspersed through the venue; there wasn’t a beer insight. It’s decidedly more hardcore to get punched in the face whilst sober than drunk.

(bit of a crap pic, but it’s all I got)

After the spectacle my new companion and I headed to the Reggae bar. We ordered some drinks and people watched. Foreigners and women with short, tight dresses were dotted around. We puffed on shisha for a number of hours, talking about anthropology, nature and philosophy. We had a good laugh speculating about the state of things, then when the DJ queued Gangnum Style, we hit the dance floor. I continued to dance with locals and foreigners alike until 1.30am arrived and I remembered I had a business pitch to do in the morning.

Sunday was the final day of RYB event, and we all went out for drinks. After working so hard for the last three days it was nice to get to know each other over a few apple ciders.

I had initially planned to leave on the Monday, but as I had a new travel buddy, a meeting lined up with my new business partners, and drinks planned with the Green Man, I decided to remain in Malaysia for a couple more days.

Peter from Minnesota (who incidentally lived in Japan and speaks Japanese, which may explain the resemblance of his disposition) and I decided to go to an artist commune. It was an hour’s walk. Again, hung-over and dehydrated, I hiked the urban terrain. The sun was up high in the sky, draining me with every step; mocking me. Along the way we crossed Little India; colours, arches and (because it would be Deepwali the next day) flowers and fireworks were on display. It was another world and totally unexpected. I stood admiring the bright and confident Indian attire. I love the way it’s not afraid to be bold and beautiful, with intricate patterns, shimmering saris, ornate jewellery and henna decorated skin. Stumbling upon the scene Peter and I practically broke out in glee and resolved to spend day there because after hiking an hour in the sun, we found the artist retreat closed.

People in Malaysia are so splendidly friendly and open. Twice Peter and I were invited to visit people’s houses to eat for Deepwali within moments of meeting them. Men walked the streets holding hands, ironically as they checked out women. Everything felt communal and slow paced. When we stopped to ask a man on a motor scooter for directions at a traffic light, he remained at a complete halt, even when the lights were green, to patiently answer our question as if he had nowhere to go and he wasn’t in the middle of traffic. It’s as if there’s no stress or rush in Malaysia; a bit of a shock after living in London. I’m up-tight and impatient in comparison; I will make a point to learn from the Malay.

After an afternoon of wandering around and eating delicious food, we opted to check out Ayurvedic treatment. We quickly befriended the shop owners and decided on the sinus cleanse because we both had lingering colds, most likely induced by the smog. Peter disappeared into a room for 25 minutes while I read about chakras. When he reemerged it was as if he returned from a relaxing week in the Bahamas. His cheeks were flushed a healthy pink, his skin had a clear glow; he was floating cloud-like. “I feel amazing” was all he managed, and he sketched in the testimonial book to illustrate just how amazing he felt. By this point I was super excited and headed into the dark treatment room. I laid under a steamer to open my pores and nasal glands. Then my head was tilted back and a few tiny drops of oil were poured into my nose and the therapist begin to massage the sinus areas around my eyes, and then performed a number of odd movements – jerking my arm here, twisting my neck there. I became loosened. When the treatment was over, however, my eyes were streaming and my throat was clogged with phlegm. I was encouraged to cough it up. I repeatedly hacked – deep from the back of my throat – bringing up mucus and phlegm in the most unladylike fashion. I was assured this was a good thing, but when I exited to meet Peter, I could feel my eyes running and nose dripping with snot. Something in me dislodged. Where Peter was transcendent, I was a leaky mess. He just looked at me and laughed and I damned myself for getting the short end of the experience.

My time in Malaysia was a lively and immensely fulfilling trip which ended with my taking the train back to Singapore, through miles of rainforest. As I waited at the train station, a lady (who could easily have been a drag queen but for the sake of the retelling I’ll refer to her as a lady), struck up conversation in the food court. She developed a fascination, picking apart my features. “Your forehead”, she said, “is like Filipino; your cheekbones like Malay; your nose like Italiana, where you from?” She clapped when I told her and whenever someone she knew came over (which seemed like every other person) she would point at me and they would proceed to animatedly scrutinise my appearance. Part of travelling, I realised, is getting used to staring and pointing.

My new friend then said she would give me something very nice; something of value. Her eyes glazed over and she said “No one will hurt you, nothing will harm you. You have safe travels. See, I give you charm. You have safe travels.”

Week one in Singapore

It’s officially my one week anniversary in Singapore. That’s one week of pulsating heat, networking, process mapping (a case study I’m working on) and wandering through this concrete jungle of a city.

This morning I tagged along to Gina’s meeting with Newton Circus, a sustainable business innovation company. As I sat in the meeting I fell silently in love, trying not to burst into a round of applause and blubber my excitement as they talked about finding innovative solutions for world issues such as climate change, poverty and women’s inequality. If my professional interests had a soul mate, Newton Circus would be it.  Expect an update on how I plan to seduce them in the not so distant future.

Speaking of seduction and sexiness, last night I featured as a film extra involving a lesbian speed dating scene. Hot, I know. It was tardy, disorganised as one might expect from a room full of underground artists.

I went because it was bound to be full of characters; characters I would more than likely want to be friends with. It didn’t disappoint. After miming a number of colourful scenes (amid floating designs of rainbow multi-textured vaginas which tangled in my hair) I ended up spending the late evening sitting on the curb drinking scotch out a plastic bottle talking about second and third generation Singaporeans, the 1980s Speak Mandarin Campaign, gay bars and the punk rock scene in Indonesia and Malaysia. I was invited to a spoken arts night, which I’m sure will rekindle my desire to be the dark, mysterious poet I’ve always fancied myself to be. I will be preparing a few lines for the occasion. I can’t wait – and now I’m completely sure I will love it here – now that I have found a bizarre, eclectic group of people to counter balance the people in suits.

In the time that I’ve been here, I’ve been trying to glean a deeper understanding of this place with an anthropological eye. I’ve been asking people, with reporter like interest, how they feel about Singapore. From locals to expats, artists to entrepreneurs, students to professionals, conformists to homosexuals, the answers are always distinct – because Singapore, of all the places I’ve ever visited, inspires strong opinions.  A lot of time it’s a love or hate proposition. But why? What is it about Singapore that makes people tick? Is it the extreme free market economy? The stringent government regulation? The melting pot of cultures and expertise? I need to dig beyond the surface and find out.

Favouritest spot in London

If I had to subscribe to part of London, having lived here a good part of my life, I would say I’m a Camden girl through and through. It’s the one place that I continually come back to – from my youth, to my twenties and probably well into adulthood and old age and it will always have a place in my heart.

In a snap shot, here are nine things (not ten, but nine) that I love about Camden:

  1. No matter what you wear, what you say (or scream, or shout), how drunk or eccentric you are, you will never be the weirdest person in Camden. Never. There will always be someone more screwed up, more bizarre, more high. That’s just the way it goes.
  2. The music. Camden is home to a number of music venues, many of which are responsible for hosting badass bands- the likes of The Doors and Pink Floyd, not to mention it was the home of the late Amy Winehouse.
  3. The movement. Camden is one of those places where the feeling of controlled rebellion and anarchy caresses the streets. There are vegan cafes, locally owned coffee shops, punk rockers, hippies and hipsters on every corner. There’s perhaps an over indulgence of drug use among people who inhibit the area, but it’s non-threatening for those going about their way.
  4. The colour. In a city that’s significantly grey, with areas full of corporate execs in black suits, Camden is a spectrum of shades, textures with vibrant banners, flags and signs – a real feast for the eyes.
  5. Good walking. Camden is a pedestrian’s playground. You can walk, talk and enjoy the eclectic scene and not worry about getting run over.
  6. It’s one of the few places (maybe only) in London where I can overlook the onslaught of crowds. I’m not a fan of overly populated places, and Camden is absolutely ransacked – allegedly the most visited part of London on the weekends. But for some reason, perhaps down to the opiate affect of the rockabilly, indie environment, I fail to get riled by it.
  7. The shops. Camden, just like everywhere else, has a commercial element, but in the guise of foreign imports, vintage clothes, obscure trinkets, tattoo parlours and club thumping fluorescent gear. Want something random or just plain out-there? Camden’s the spot.
  8. The food. From stool vendors to the upscale, there’s a culinary choice for everyone bouncing from every continent. There’s the Blues Kitchen for music and fare, Gilgamesh if you want opulence, the likes of CoCo Bamboo for pure South American succulence and creamy cocktails, or the Cuban bar if you want to salsa dance for dessert, the list goes on.
  9. The people. At the end of it all the people make the place. If you have a high threshold for the strange and occasionally offensive, or even better, you’re a little turned on by it, then you’ll appreciate the grime and edge of Camden Town. Camden is where the peculiar feel at home and the mad come to rest.

Tunisia, North Africa… the country of Arabs, deserts and hustling market places

If you read the ‘about me and this blog’ section you will know I recently quit my job to move to Singapore in six weeks to take up traveling. But in the interim, I booked a short stint to Tunisia, North Africa.

For a flight that’s less than 3 hours from London, Tunisia feels like a world away from England. As soon as I stepped off the plane, I knew I was in foreign territory. The first thing that hit me was the cloudy scent of stale cigarettes intermingled with the humidity. Somehow the smell manages to stick to the stone and palm trees.

Walking out of the airport, a chatty porter grabs my bag. I was uncomfortable because I don’t know this guy from Adam, and he’s walking ahead of me with all the possessions I brought to North Africa. He walks, telling me it costs 15 Dinar for a sandwich in Tunisia “which is very expensive for the Tunis but not for you English”. It was bullshit of course, because as a tourist I could get one for 3 Dinar, so as Tunisian you’d get it for a lot cheaper. After walking literally ten meters he tells my male companion to “come into the light” and demands 20 Dinar which is equivalent to about £10. “No way, mate,” he tells him “you’re having a laugh.” But the porter is persistent and easily agitated. After five minutes of explaining we have no money to give him, he is very pissed off and my companion is flustered. This is typical we would find out. Everyone in Tunisia has a hustle for trying to squeeze as much money out of you as possible.

Even in the darkness, I could tell our hotel was lot fancier than what we paid for. We were greeted by high arches, marble and chandelier reception. Sousse, our host city, is not a poor location. Again cigarette smoke saturated the air; everyone smoked indoors. It was a non-smokers nightmare. I wished someone warned me; I could feel my throat closing on me. My athlete travel partner and I woke up congested; it was all too much for us two health freaks.
Inside Tej Marhaba

On our first day in Tunisia, we hiked the local area. All the men have greased, slicked back and well groomed hair. Nearly everyone we passed had something to say and sell. They have pick up lines to make you stop and pay attention to whatever they’re pushing. “Hey brother, how much did you buy those shoes? Really, that much? We have those for 10 Dinar, come, you will see” or to quote the boy selling the prayer rugs “hey! what team do you support? Oh they’re fucking bullocks man! Manchester united! Where you staying? Oh that place is big shit hole! I mean it nothing but slut whores there, you will see!” or “hi lady, take a flower, it’s Jasmine, free souvenir. Seriously it’s free. Please now, one Dinar.”
Most of the time it was friendly and harmless banter, but it could get overwhelming. If you showed interest, it was difficult to untangle yourself from their grasp without a fight. After talking with visitors, it was clear many people couldn’t handle the Tunisian approach and were not enjoying their visit. But once we learned the ways of the region, we fell in sync with it and learned the Tunis are very accommodating people. Even when the streets are narrow and crowded, no one bumps into you. Not like London where you get shoved and hissed at. Now, when anyone moves to let me pass or opens a door for me I assume their an Arab.
The city is westernised while still remaining dominantly Islamic. Everyone it seemed spoke English, French, Dutch and Spanish. It was impressive. There were night clubs, restaurants, hooker bars (of course) and even a steakhouse  in the design of a wild west Saloon. It was ironic. There in the midst Islamic verse the west upheaval, stood a cultural depiction of the American Frontier, like a dine-in monument to conquest, snuff and gun-swinging Americana.
After wandering around for a couple of days, enjoying the pool, beach, and getting stung by a jelly fish that puts Florida’s sea stingers to shame (seriously, I thought I was going to suffer an exotic side effect that I could brag to my friends about) we decided to venture out to see more of Tunisia, so we signed up for a two-day Sahara trip.One of the first places we visited was El Djem the Roman amphitheatre (part of the Sahara trip – bloody good deal). Imagine, setting foot in a place built by the infamous Romans! At one point I was dragging my hand along the stone work, completely in awe of the people who gave us Latin (so I don’t know any Latin, but I know it’s the foundation of western beauties such as Italian and Española), the Senate (again, not always in to politics, but com’on, it’s the backbone of democracy) and gladiator fights to the death (plain violent but cool in an unsettling way). Exploring under the arena where the slaves and animals were kept, it was hard to imagine that architecture with that much finesse was designed for brutal entertainment. But I suppose it’s fitting – robust sandstone walls (you could see the shells embedded in them), deep, hard worn and created out of sweat, blood and ingenuity.
.
After El Djem it was back to winding through the dusty back roads of North Africa. During one of the pit stops, I found myself in a queue with a fellow Brit discussing the merits of a travel size kettle with equipped with PG tips. I felt slightly disgusted that I needed the luxury of English tea on the road (does that make me a lame traveller even if it’s a mild form of drug withdrawal? Caffeine addiction is real, people). Driving through the small villages we arrived in the desert area of Matamata, home of the oldest settlers of North Africa, the Berber. Or simply, cave dwellers. Seeing where the Berber live was a mixture of awe and contemplation. They live so simply in the caves, no TV (as least not in the one we visited) no neighbour for half a mile. Yet one of the young inhabitants had a football shirt on, and some of the caves were equipped with cars and there was a small Berber town located near by that the government set up for the poorest of the Berber. Truly an odd mix of ancient and modern.
   
A bus journey from there we arrive at Douz, on the fringes of the Sahara to ride camels through the desert. I half expected a cringe worthy tourist trap like the time I was in Morocco and people (like myself) boarded a camel so you could snap a pic, flats and condos in the background and everything. In this instance we donned on tunics and head clothes and caravanned the desert over humpback in the beating sun. We were led by a group of men fully covered to their eyes, deep into the beautiful and lonely desert where each grain of sand conspired to make a magnificent three thousand mile mass of shear golden landscape. The Sahara is one of those places, like the grand canyon, whose beauty and vastness can not be conveyed with words. It’s no wonder it’s the place some of the best stories and adventures are derived from.At one point we stopped to rest. Then a bit of a huddle and aggression broke out and I panicked for one ignorant moment, thinking we were going to get robbed or hijacked in the middle of the Sahara by these cloaked men. Turned out they were arguing with one of the tourists who refused to pay for the cola shoved into to their kid’s hands, something like “you hand drinks to a couple children in the middle of the fucking desert, what do you think’s gonna happen? They don’t know any better. I don’t have any damned money! You can take my knickers, but I got no money!” Which was an amusing thing to hear among such traditional men, with nothing but sand dunes around us. After too much sun and the unforgettable trek, we checked into a four star hotel built into the tour package. It had a hot spring pool that honestly smelt like shit and sulphur, and looked even worse. We swam in it. It was lovely and hot enough to melt away the action of the day. And at night we watched a sand storm from our window.

 

Leaving ridiculously early the next morning (around 3.30am) we crossed Chott El Djerid, a colossal salt lake where we saw a the sunrise and, with my very own eyes, a mirage. The salt crystals in the sand glisten in the sun light to create the illusion of water. Apparently a million years or so ago, there was an ocean there which eventually retracted and left an expanse of salty land. When it rains and the water evaporates, salt is left on the surface. It was like watching an ocean that no longer exists. It reminded me of the stars – how many of the stars we see are just left over light rays making their way to earth even though the stars disappeared years ago

 

As if this wasn’t enough amazement, we jumped in a 4×4 and rode to the desert of Onk Jemel to… wait for it… visit the film set city built for ‘Star Wars: The phantom Menace.’ I almost pissed myself like a five year old filled with glee. I must have took a hundred cheesy shots next to every building.

 

I did say it was cheesy
But it was a pilgrimage

To end the tour (by which point I was complete with contentment) we took a horse and carriage through Chebika, a real deal Oasis at the foot of the Atlas mountains. We had a nutter of a (can you call him driver?) who insisted on racing the horse through every path (overtaking everything  in it’s site), almost tipping us over a few times, all the more encouraged by my screams. Needless to say we tipped him well and hugged him at the end. A mad and very cool dude.

   

Overall the Sahara excursion surpassed my expectations and our tour guide, Amri, was very knowledgeable and managed to satisfy even the likes of my curiosity with his explanations of the area. (Did you know olive oil is their number one export set up by Rome 2000 years ago? They still trade via Sicily which is only 84K away). I saw so much of Tunisia and completely fell in love with the architecture, people and land.

Back at the hotel we wasted no time mingling with the locals and tourists. We visited the local Medina (aka, crazy bloody market place filled with exotic wares), haggled with the shop owners, pet and fed random animals, joked and shared dinner with all sorts of people, and partied with a young couple from Newcastle in a nightclub full of Russians. There were a number of magical moments in between, too much to capture all here, but just know Tunisia captured my heart and imagination. It’s a place worth visiting.

 

 

 

Self proclaimed traveler

It seems as if anyone and their Ibiza buddy can call themselves a traveler as long as they’ve boarded a plane. I’m no road scholar (I have not seen nearly enough desolation or drank enough contaminated water to claim that) but I do wonder if there is some implicit code of conduct or rights of passage people need to pass before they can be dubbed a traveler. Do self-respecting adventures have to meet a minimum quota of countries before they can call themselves travelers? Do they have to know the best places within a mile radius? Know the history? Visited the most prominent of locations? Be more of a backpacker rather than a hotel hopper? A nomad, a drifter or a good old traditional tourist? Or is it a simple case of credibility? If that’s the case, what constitutes credibility?

I suppose the matter is as subjective as the magazine you chose to read (architecture, entertainment, culinary?) but for me, a traveler is someone who seeks to understand the nuances of the landscape they’re visiting – to seek with an open mind the history, plights, celebrations, the overall hum of culture that surrounds an area to internalise the fabric of the people who reside there; a sort of wistful combination of sociological, anthropologica, geographical and philosophical questioning that’s sought through the exchange of humour, stories, food and tour of the land. Traveling is very personal. There’s no right or wrong way, so long as you do it and chase that element of discovery.

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