A tribute to the Road

I remember having a conversation with a friend many years ago, who reminded me how blessed we are for winning the birth-lottery in Southeast Asia. On the world map, if we were born inches away from Singapore in a country like Laos or Cambodia, our lives would have been completely different. I have been tremendously blessed.

As I turn 30 this year, it is timely to look back at the past decade of traveling the world, and the freemasonry of the road.

It all started in 2006. The males lucked out that year when it was announced that National Service was to be cut down to a 22-month stint. Between the end of our obligation and the start of college, what started out as a plan to do the Angkor Wat marathon turned out to be a two month sojourn around our backyard in beautiful Southeast Asia. My first backpacking experience, the travel bug bit, and I never looked back since.

[Sending well wishes to Andy and Joses!]

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River at Kampot, Cambodia

In the winter of 2007, I had one of the richest study-abroad educational experiences in Salvador de Bahia under the guidance of Professor Luciano. This was also my first encounter with Capoeira, which is now a big part of my life.

[Sending well wishes to Prof Luciano, Michelle and all!]

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My host family in Salvador de Bahia

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NYE – Wear white if you’re spending New Years in Brazil

Travels changed course in 2008 after I picked up Spanish during the summer in Middlebury – one of the best summers of my life in beautiful Vermont! This guy probably sums up the 7 semanas de locura, period.

[Sending well wishes to Harley, Katherine, Andres, Andres and all!]

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#mostepic character Harley

During thanksgiving break of 2008 I took the chance to visit the crazy Masters-program students in Madrid/Barcelona, and finally got to put my Spanish to real use in Spain. I also got to see Gaudi and Calatrava’s work which I studied in Archi-101. It was breathtaking.

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La Sagrada Familia, Barcelona

Winter of 2008 took me on a journey to learn about microfinance in Peru. We visited a rural village called Casa Blanca near Ica and finally understood the gaps and opportunities of microfinance in the field. I spent some time after that backpacking around inner Peru from Cusco to Lago Titikaka (where I also experienced the worst case of altitude sickness at Puno – 4000m. It is the feeling of having your head in your stomach, absolutely horrible).

[Sending well wishes to Allyson and Rhiannon!]

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Uros people of Lago Titikaka

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Indescribable. It still feels like I was just there.

Winter of 2009 was a big window of opportunity to head down south again. We embarked on a month-long trip down to the end of the world – Ushuaia in Tierria del Fuego (trips to the Antarctica begin from here!). From there we worked out way northwards through Patagonia and western Argentina, witnessing some of the most amazing piece of nature’s artwork.

[Sending well wishes to Joyce and Jonathan who survived the longest of bus rides ever with me]

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Torres Del Paine, Pantagonia Chile

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36 hour bus rides across Mountain Passes like these

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Rio de Janeiro – She is as crazy as it sounds

2010 was senior year, and that also meant the real world was calling. Before the final exam period, we took a week off to spend spring break in Puerto Rico, and it sure was rico! (too much rum)

[Sending well wishes to the Illini crew!]

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the Caribbean sea!

After graduation, Dan and I stuffed all my belongings into my humble Eclipse, drove halfway across the country to Palo Alto. We survived 40-degree camping (we gave up after one night), tornado-warnings out in the Dakotas, Badlands National Park and 2 nights in Vegas.  Stanford plans changed course eventually, but the 2500-mile road trip itself was worth everything!

[Sending well wishes to Dan, and Vegas]

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There is no other reason to drive to South Dakota

The transition back to Singapore was rough, and I had the travel bug to thank for tiding me through the bulk of those years.

In March of 2011 I found the most ridiculous flight tickets on Air Asia X – SGD$500RT from KL to Paris. Jumped on that flight, and spent two weeks from Paris to Granada and managed to visit Liz in Morocco for a few days. First time setting foot on the African continent!

[Sending well wishes to Hee Jeong, Liz!]

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Don’t go to Paris alone.

That same year, Andy and I had the idea of during a re-trip together, and we spent some bromance time out in beautiful Yogyakarta.

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2012 was a pretty ridiculous year – almost like travel on crack. It was a combination of needing to escape the corporate life and plenty of cheap budget air tickets coupled with multiple long weekends. There was also the big trip to Mongolia which I took in-between jobs. It remains one of my top travel experiences till date, with the best story of a motorbike break-down and being helped out by the nomads in the middle of nowhere.

[Sending well wishes to David, Angeli, Sebastian and our Motorbike story, Johanna, Kim, Kyla, Cori, Kelly, Isabelle, Melanie, Leandre and how we survived the Russian Mafia, Steffen and Hannah, and the British couple I met in Sirigiya and later ran into 8 months later in Lago Atitlan, Guatemala… ]

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Go to Mongolia if you have the chance

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A beautiful country with beautiful souls – Sri Lanka

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Dan’s first time in Asia

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On this particular trip to Krabi we almost got murdered by Russian Mafia

2013 was an interesting change! I met Lysia, and found a life partner to share my travels with. I dragged her along to see Mount Bromo in Surabaya, kite-surf in Phuket and explore one of my favourite travel destinations till date – Guatemala, also where we met a god-send, Shelby 🙂

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Antigua, Guatemala

Prior to our relocation to America, I also got to spend a week out in Myanmar with Ivan, again, one of the most authentic travel experiences I have had. First hitch-hiking experience!

[Sending well wishes to Ivan!]

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Bagan, Myanmar

2014 was a lot of America. We love Austin, TX!!! Of course we filled it with more roadtrips that we could ever imagine, including a 20-hour roundtrip from Texas to Alberquerque and back, just to catch the hot-air balloon festival. We wrapped up the year in Mexico – beyond the drugs and border violence, Mexico is truly one of the most beautiful countries in the world.

[Sending well wishes to Shelby, Nick, Ben, Tristan and the Capoeira Luanda Austin Crew!]

In 2015 I got admitted into the Kiva Fellows program and relocated to Tajikistan! Central Asia is mountains-on-crack, and I loved every single bit of it. I also managed to visit Kyrgyzstan (visa free!) during my time out there, and captured two of my favorite photos, ever.

[Sending well wishes to KF26, the best housemates ever Anna and Emily, Joe who survived the longest hitch-hike ever across Kyrgyzstan with me, Bren, Luna/Lea/Floria and the house cat, Sonya/Ciaran and the longest snow trek to Altyn-Arashan]

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The beauty of the most remote of bus-stops, Kyrgyzstan

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Road to Murghab, middle of nowhere

En-route back to the US from Tajikistan, we had a little tete-a-tete in Turkey – a country which I didn’t think much of to start with but then just blew my mind as I started to find out more about its long history…

[Sending well wishes to Josh and Myri!]

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Sufi mystics – humankind is fascinating

Prior to our relocation back to Singapore, our final sojourn was to the enigmatic Cuba. We have always heard a lot about this little island, frozen in time mainly due to political backlash; but we got to experience a very special piece of history – travelling to Cuba was like visiting living museum.

[Sending well wishes to Jayce and Kawa!]

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Vinales, Cuba

We started off 2016 with a trip back to a country where Lysia spent a significant of time at during her college days – Japan! Overall a very unique society with loads of strange peeves, including the concept of capsule hotels, which was very, very strange.

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Our recent trip to The Philippines this past week marks the conclusion of my last decade of seeing the world since the first backpacking trip through Southeast Asia back in 2006. We were rewarded with the most beautiful of waters, and wonderful Filipino hospitality.

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Coron, Palawan Islands

This year also marks my 30th year alive! What a blessing to be able to breathe and walk and BE ALIVE!

What have I learnt over this past decade?

  1. Hitchhiking is one of the best adventures in life, and a stranger is a friend you just haven’t met
  2. The more you travel, the more you will appreciate of the little things in life
  3. The more you explore, the richer you become

God knows where the next decade will take us all in life?  Whatever the route, thank you everyone for being part of my journey!

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Reflections: Cuba

37 countries later, I finally set foot on Cuban soil.

Cuba is a fascinating place where the Spanish guitar probably first fell in love with the African drum, creating the most interesting genres of music which we all dance to today.

It is also a place where the story of colonialism, neo-colonialism, revolution and progress unfolds in such dramatic fashion, and is still a work in progress.

Overall, a country with friendly Cubanos, passionate music, frozen-in-time street-scenes and in my opinion, an impending paradigm shift in how the country will progress towards the latter half of the 21st century.

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Logistics: If you are travelling from the US, the most convenient points of transit are Mexico or Canada (direct charter flights from the US are increasingly available, but still tremendously expensive). Bring Euros or Canadian dollars to exchange at a local cadega (money exchange). Speaking Spanish will be very helpful, although most tourist-related infrastructure in Havana will be able to communicate in some form of English.

You could probably read guidebooks online or your Lonely Planet to get an idea of what to see/do in Cuba, so I will instead share with you 4 random things you probably should know, from my experience…

  1. Taxi particulares – these are the local taxis (basically any 1950s-looking car with a taxi sign up top) that you should definitely be taking because they cost about 10 times less than a “yellow taxi” which I presume caters to foreigners. The local taxis do, however, go on certain routes and so prior to hopping on, you will need to ask if the driver is going in your general direction. Each person needs to pay 10 local pesos (~0.50 euros at time of writing). If you get a chance to, peer under the hood of one of these old 1950s Chevrolets, you will be surprised to find a retrofitted Nissan or Toyota engine in there!

    My 1950s ride

  2. Local food stalls – the prices in Cuba, especially where tourist volumes are high, can vary significantly. I have paid as much as 15 convertible pesos, and as little as 1 convertible peso for the exact same meal. Speaking Spanish will help, because you can walk around and ask for directions to local eateries. Trust me, you will know right away when you are in a local eatery – there will hardly be any foreigners around. Make an attempt to stray a little off the beaten track/tourist hot spots in Old Havana, and you will be sure to find plenty  of local options around every corner.

    Distribution centres for subsidized food supplies

  3. Drink the coffee (from the local street stalls) – Cubans brew their coffee along with molasses, which produces a bitter-sweet concoction fit for kings. They cost about 1 local peso per tiny shot, so a full cup of coffee may set you back a whole 5 local pesos. You can also have the same drink in a restaurant at about 10 times the price at a local stall. Go figure.

    Cubans are pretty damn good at chillin’

     

  4. Go to Trinidad – period. One of the first things you will notice about Trinidad is the sound of horse hooves against the cobblestone streets and peddlers hawking bread and pastries from their bicycles. I have been to a few colonial towns (San Miguel de Allende in Mexico, Pelourinho in Bahia Brazil etc) and none have come across more real and pure as Trinidad. Although tourist infrastructure such as restaurants, bars and hotels have sprung up, most of Trinidad still remains in its tranquil form, with Cubanos living their lives as it seems to be half a century ago. Again, veer off the Main Square into the side streets and you will find the true Trinidad sitting there unblemished. Also, hike up the track past the bar-in-a-cave to the top of the cerro where the communication tower stands, chat up the security guard and he may just let you into the compound where you can get a 360-degree birds’ eye view of the entire valley. 

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Cuba moving forward… will be an interesting story to witness!

From what I have noticed, the socialist state does a pretty decent job in providing free education, healthcare and subsidized sundries for every Cubano. Roads are good, most people have a roof over their heads, and general happiness is still derived from family ties and social activities (dancing, music, sports etc.). However, the growing income disparity is becoming a sizable issue at the back of everyone’s mind. Although tourist-serving establishments/ jobs pay a higher tax to the state, the prices being charged are ~10times higher than the local equivalent, and this provides a select group of the population with higher purchasing power to enjoy modern luxury goods (think smartphones, new cars etc.). Imagine the monthly salary of a state-worker of 15 convertible pesos, which is the equivalent of a single meal at a nice restaurant.

To quote my taxi driver:

“… development for Cuba is good, but development will also bring in maliciousness, greed, and other related things that will eventually harm a big part of our society, like what it does with most capitalistic countries.”

The ability of the next government to help spread the fruits of growth and development to all the Cubanos will be critical to the survival of one of the world’s last remaining bastion of Socialism.

 

Valle de Vinales, worth a visit!

 

Backpacking Mexico on a shoestring

I recently discovered a new photo-journal platform called Exposure. There are some really amazing stories and pictures on the site which you should definitely check out. The folks did a great job in building a platform that allows users to tell stories more vividly. I really love the UI and flow of the product!

I tried to use it for the first time to tell the “story” of our journey through Mexico here, hope you enjoy it!

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One of the many beautiful colonial towns left behind by the Spanish Conquistadors.

 

Bona fide

I learnt a new word yesterday – bona fide; adj. genuine, real

Learning a new word makes me happy. As we grow older, out of the context of schools and formal education, learning seems to slow uncontrollably. I am sure we continue to learn about a ton of things such as “14 cats who think they are sushi” or “17 astute observations from bathroom walls”, but learning to enrich our minds – how much of that do we engage in on a daily basis?

The day you stop learning is the day you stop living – Albert Einstein 

So bona fide for me was a tiny victory yesterday, a bona fide win.

I took some time to reflect today, and thought I’d share about some interesting stuff I learned recently:

1. A family that walks on fours – The real reasons are unknown, but this family in a remote Turkish village literally walks on fours. It is interesting to note CT scans revealed a slight brain damage – a particular part of the brain that is responsible for balance seems to be significantly smaller than normal. Viola! There’s actually a specific part of your brain that helps with sensory balance.

2. A Singaporean who walked through the gates of Harvard and currently writes for a living. As asserted in his introduction, most Singaporeans will question his decision to not “go into banking”, but reading his story gives me hope that one can still choose the unorthodox path in Singapore and pursue his passion of writing.

3. The advancement of photography has allowed us to appreciate what a photon of light actually looks like in this TED talk – Imaging at a Trillion frames a second. A photon? Yes, a photon. #mindblowing

4. Paul’s response to the people of Thessalonica in the book of Thessalonians when being confronted about their struggles – free yourself from being self-absorbed, and instead pray for others and the gospel. It ain’t all about you. Get outside of yourselves and appreciate the bigger picture beyond just you.

5. Hosting the World Cup – a very obvious visual change but what does it really mean for the locals? (o los pobres?) The unequal distribution of the benefits from the World Cup in Brazil. In Portuguese with Spanish subtitles.

 

In other news…

Summer is getting hot hot hot in Austin, Texas. The days are also longer which means you could do an 8pm run and it will be completely bright outside. Also, I continue to meet writers, artists, musicians of all sorts everyday, my preconceived “norm” of a 9-5 salaried job continues to shifts towards a one-life-live-it-do-what-you-love view. Short term target remains –> #RTWbefore30

Car2go

We recently discovered Car2Go, a new form of transportation that redefines urban mobility. It has probably been around for awhile now, launching in the German City of Ulm back in 2008. It’s here in Austin, which is fantastic given how incredibly easy it is to use and get you from A to B.

You sign up for an account and they verify your driving history with your driver’s license. Within 48 hours you get a response and if you’re approved, your personal access card comes into your mail within 3 days.

Once you have your access card, you’re good to go. There’s an App that shows you the cars that are closest to your location. Once you locate it, hit book and you have 30 minutes to get to the car.

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Once you’ve found the car, just tap your card on the dashboard scanner and the doors will be automatically unlocked for you. Viola, your very own car.

Charges are $0.40 per minute. That is all.

We’ve started to use it recently because it gets us around so easily and we don’t have to deal with parking – once you get to the location, you can park at any streetside parking for free. From where we live, it’s usually a 10 minute driving radius to wherever we want to get to – that’s just $4 with no parking fees. It’s a great concept for urban mobility. Car sharing, “public” transportation, and just great value to the users.

I wonder if there are major regulations which prevents the expansion of this service to more countries/cities globally?

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p.s. in case you were wondering how things like fuel top-up works, any user that tops up the tank (when it’s under 20%) gets incentivized with free driving minutes. Brilliant.

Sofar Sounds

Sofar Sounds started some time back in London and has grew to leave its footprint globally. In a nutshell, Sofar Sounds curates intimate gigs of emerging artists in living rooms all over the world. Definitely check out the website and get on their mailing list! We attended our first Sofar Sounds session back in Singapore last year, and had an amazing time being entertained by the very talented Charlie Lim and a 14-year old music genius. It was definitely a plus that the host had a beautiful living space.

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We were excited to find out about the Austin chapter of Sofar Sounds, and was fortunate enough to squeeze into the guestlist for January! So on a beautiful Saturday afternoon in a random South Austin neighborhood, we were introduced to four amazing groups:

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The Whiskey Folks are a group from Dallas and they played some sweet folk music to kick-off the afternoon of gigs!Image

Deer Vibes was a huge group from San Antonio – about 10 of them squeezed into the tiny corner of the living room, playing a range of instruments including the violin, the xylophone, trumpet, and some interesting vocals. 

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SXSW feature this year, the Sour Notes typically play their music with heavy electronics but had to turn it down a notch since they could only use the basic instrument set they brought along to the session. Nonetheless, they sounded amazing and we’re definitely checking them out at the Red 7 on February 5th.

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Wrapping up the afternoon was Lily Kershaw, a very talented singer in her early-twenties from Los Angeles. We were particularly excited to hear her because Lysia actually had one of songs in her iTunes. She definitely didn’t disappoint.

Image  Thanks again for a great afternoon of music Sofar Sounds!