Wednesday, December 22, 2010

More than just a trip, more than just a holiday

Taking seven months off to travel was more than just a holiday. The experience itself was great and yes it was artistically refreshing. When we take holidays of a week to a month, we are having a break from our normal life, but afterward, we return to that normal life. But taking a longer break, means an opportunity to re-evaluate life, and to make some fundamental changes.

I think that I have already mentioned that I am not going back to commercial work, I am going to focus on my personal work. But this trip enabled me to see why this is important, to let me know what my priorities are. Work, in exchange for money, enables a person to live in society. But somehow, life nowadays is about earning more and more money to buy things we do not really need. But what is important is our relationships, the people around us. And if I can have enough money to live, then my priority is not to accumulate more material things, but to nurture relationships, to build bridges. This understanding is what gives me the clarity to reject commercial job offers and focus on work and activities that will help me understand living better and share experiences with friends. Since I came back, the only shoot I have done was publicity photographs for my friend Juliet, not because it was a commercial job, but because it is an opportunity to share an experience with her.

On my journey, I naturally walked a lot and became fitter. I also started doing crunches regularly during the trip and added push ups when I was in London. I did all this because my diabetes was becoming harder to control. My medication was increasing but my blood sugar levels were not good for my age. With the exercise I started on my journey, it has helped my blood sugar levels a lot.

In the last six weeks of my journey, I was in London helping my father who just had a stroke then. I was not able to exercise as much as I did during my journey, but I was told of doctors who are recommending low carbohydrate diets to help keep diabetes in check. I tried exercising as much as I could in London, and I also tried the low carbohydrate diet. Together, I continued to be able to keep my diabetes in check.

Back in Singapore, I bought a good bicycle and I cycle several times a week alternating with strength training days of crunches and push ups. And with some advice from my doctor, I have increased my carbohydrate intake a little so as not to loose muscle. But I am now actively taking care of my health.

I think a lot of us living the city work life know that we should make changes to our lives for our own good. But with the work and the stress, it is hard to make a life style change. We do not have the energy to make that exercise or diet change. And with so many things on our minds, we do not 'see' the need for that change. And this is why the long journey was more than a holiday for me. With the time and energy given to me on the journey, I was able to make major life style changes which I hope will keep me healthier for the remainder of my life. And the time to think about life has also given me the understanding to commit to the changes I have made.

In the coming year, I wish all my friends the opportunity, time and space to re look at what is important in their lives and find the energy to make long lasting adjustments in their lives that will make their lives better.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Overland Once a day

My friend Wansheng asked me to take a self portrait once a day on my trip. I did this except for my week back in Singapore and for one day in Stockholm. I used the music Dare you to Move by Switchfoot because it is just a great song. I filled out the music with some video from the trip.

CHANGED: I had to change the music to 'Sunlight' by Kyte as they blocked the playing of 'Dare you to move' in Singapore. But this music is good too as I played it a lot when I was traveling.

For you Wansheng.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Making Harvest while the sun shines

The most important lesson I learned on this journey is that to seize as many opportunities as possible as they arise. So often, when an opportunity has passed us by, it has passed us by forever. And so even in this time of challenge for my family, I have continued to make the best of the time available to me. The good thing is that my father has been recovering at a remarkable rate and my brother is able to spend some time with my parents to. I generally have to be around during meal times to buy food or help my father get to a nearby restaurant now that he is able to walk. So the best time for me to do something has been the afternoons, when my parents are resting. I have been able to visit a Sally Mann exhibition at the Photographer's Gallery, Wolfgang Tillmans at the Serpentine, and Exposed at the Tate Modern. On some evenings my brother comes over to eat with my parents which has allowed me to see some performances like A Disappearing Number by Theatre Complicite and Vertical Road by Akram Khan tonight.

I did plan to visit my sister's vineyard for a grape harvest. So last weekend I headed to Bothy Vineyard with my cameras hoping to take some photographs. It was quite an operation. Saturday was a glorious day for harvesting as the sun was up. And there were about twenty volunteers, three kids including my two nieces and two dogs. My brother-in-law had planned to harvest over two days but was worried about rain on Sunday. With such willing volunteers and one brother-in-law, me, we harvested three and a half tons of grapes! I am not a wine drinker, but the fresh grape juice was delicious! After most of the volunteers left, I helped Richard with the last 3rd pressing. Back breaking work. I must admit, I was not displeased when I woke up to rain on Sunday and the picking was postponed. I spent Sunday resting and reading. Fortunately for Sian my sister and Richard, they managed to get some volunteers to pick red grapes on Monday which would not have survived until the following weekend.

I am fortunate for this year, its experiences, the opportunity to reassess what is important in my life and what is possible with what I have.

Monday, September 20, 2010

A little statistical overview and some acknowledgements

Here is a little summary of the trip. Nothing is exactly accurate, especially since the distances are between cities and the routes were probably longer.

I traveled for 160 days. This does not include a nine day break to get my tummy checked up in Singapore.

I covered approximately 25,900km by rail, bus or ferry. I used air travel for an additional 4360km.

I visited seventeen countries and stayed in thirty-four cities.

Although I had to eat instant noodles and sandwiches sometimes, my best meals were at
Da Dong Peking Duck Restaurant, Beijing
Cafe Pushkin, Moscow
Austria Restaurant, Berlin
Pod Aniolami Restaurant, Krakow
Le Crabe Restaurant, Riga

There were other good restaurants, but one way or another those five were the most memorable. And for non Singaporeans reading this blog, food is the most important past time to Singaporeans.

As a lot of people may know, I am a coffee addict. The best espresso is still in Italy. It is hard to really pick the best but at a pinch I would say that it was in a stand up espresso bar near the Duomo in Milan.

There was more physical activity then I was expecting on this trip. I climbed a 2500m mountain next to Lake Hogsvol in Mongolia and I cycled 45km in a day in Kolka in Latvia.

I must thank the hospitality of the people who were my hosts on this trip,

The Rin family in Shanghai,
Mario in Milan
Marian in Bern and Grindlewald
and Piritta in Helsinki

A special thanks to Olga and Michele on whose boat I rented a room for two weeks in Arles.

I also had nice friends showing me the secrets of their cities,
Ai Ling in Penang
Qin Pei in Beijing
Irina in Moscow
Gianluca in Rome
and Dimitra in Berlin

And a special thanks to my guide and driver in Mongolia, Odnoo and Nagi.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Journey's end - a little early, a little short

Visiting Estonia was the last major objective of my overland trip. All that was left for me was to return to London without taking an airplane. I could have taken a ferry to Stockholm, and then a train to Copenhagen and then to the Danish port of Ejsberg and a ferry to Harwich. However, as I had made Finnish friends in Tuscany, I decided to go to Helsinki and then go onto to Stockholm. This part of the journey was more a technical necessity for me.

However, in life things happen. I was attending an outdoor party when my father called me and asked me to return earlier than my planned date of the 22 September. When I asked him why? He answered that he had suffered a minor stroke. As my brother is in London and my sister was visiting from Oxford, I amended my plans to get to London as quickly as possible overland on the 17 September. However, after talking to my brother, it was clear that I was needed even earlier because my brother still has work commitments and my sister has a family and vineyard to look after in Oxford. I took a flight from Stockholm and arrived in London on the 15 September. After five and a half months, my journey ended.

Well, technically I took flights when I had my tummy upset, I had a short connecting flight in Mongolia to get me to my trans Siberian train on time and I flew from Stockholm to London. To be pedantic, I did not do an overland trip from Singapore to London. But I did have the trip of my lifetime. I visited Luang Prabang, Mongolia, Poland and the Baltic States for the first time. I saw the fireworks of the National days of Vietnam and Switzerland. I experienced the wet and wild celebrations of the Thai and Laotian New year. I attended the World Expo in Shanghai and the photographic festival in Arles. I attended a one day workshop with my hero Paolo Roversi and did a one week workshop with another hero Arno Minkkinen. My project was voted project of the week by the instructors. There were times in Laos and Singapore, with my sensitive stomach that I wanted to throw in the towel, but then I would missed so many things. I think the nourishment from this trip will last me a lifetime.

In an early post on this blog I gave the reasons why I am able to undertake this epic journey. Epic for me anyway. One of the reasons is that my parents were still healthy. The choice of the 1 April was arbitrary. But if I had started a month later I would have had to give up a the Baltic states. If I had decided to play it safe after the food poisoning and postpone the trip to 2011, it would not have happened. The opportunity would be past. This is something I would regret in my life.

A friend gave me a hand made card with the words Carpe Diem as a good luck charm for the trip. Those words are as apt as they can be. I had a window of opportunity and I took it. And the overview of life that I have got from this journey, as well as the illness of my father is that life is for the living. One can be completely reckless and squander away money, dying in poverty. But one can also be a Scrooge, hording wealth for the sake of wealth, and not appreciating the range of experiences life can offer. I realise that I simply have to use the resources available to me to lead the fullest life I can. And to some people, they will not comprehend what I am doing or how I am doing it. Well, every person is an individual and I do not know how other people manage to live their lives, in the frozen Mongolia winter, or racing up the slopes of Swiss mountains, or be continuously creative like some of my photographic idols. All I know is that 'other' people can offer their point of view of how I should live my life. But I have to make my own path, and I have to be brave enough to be myself. The only thing to fear is fear itself.

The journey has ended, another journey has begun. This time it is with my father, it is a journey of recovery. A journey so that he can continue to live life to the full.

For my life, and the support to be me, I thank my parents. I know they worried for my safety but trusted that I would come back safe. I thank my parents for the blessings they have bestowed on me. Now is my turn to step up to the plate.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Estonia Experience

My first stop in Estonia was the resort town of Parnu. It was very telling that the hotel I was staying in looked empty, like I was the only guest. On the first evening I visited the beach and there was a brilliant sunset but the second day was cold and rainy. I mentioned this to the receptionist and she said that it was now Autumn. I tried to see as much as I could on this journey, and by doing so I had run out of summer. I still enjoyed my visit to Estonia is general, but I had literally lost the light.

Sareema is the largest island belonging to Estonia and it had one town called Kuressaare. This was another visit to the wilderness, but the sights of Kuressaare are separated by relatively large distances. Even though I had just recently managed to cycle 45km, I would have had to jump to 100km a day at least if I wanted to use the bicycle. So, I rented a car. I went down to the southern most point of the island to see a lighthouse. I also tried to visit some Soviet installations, but they looked a lot like holes in the ground. They were soviet batteries. I also visited cliffs, a fishing village and desolate coastlines on the north of the island. I could have been more adventurous on this island, but I did not have the time and I had a little cold. The remnants of which are making my throat itchy as I write this.

Tallinn's old town is rather larger than that of Vilnius or Riga. In fact, it has two parts. The higher part, where the present parliament is held, was traditionally occupied by the nobles. The lower where most of the tourist trade happens, belonged to the merchants. And the merchants, who were not only protecting themselves from invaders, also built a wall against the nobility in the old town whom they were very suspicious of.

Perhaps I was tired after five months of travel, perhaps the grey and wetness of autumn had got to me, or perhaps my feeling that my room in Tallinn was 'dirty' put me on edge, but my overall impression of Estonia was ok. I wish I could say more, but really I cannot.

So, one of my major aims of exploring the Baltic states came through with the end of my visit to Tallinn. All the capital cities and their old town are worth visiting. But I must say that Riga, with its audacious art nouveau buildings, makes it the most outstanding of the three Baltic capitals. For a more adventurous holiday, the national park around Cape Kolka in Latvia is also my favorite. It is worth visiting all three Baltic states, but if you only have time for one, Latvia would be my recommendation.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Lost and found in Latvia

I must admit, when I thought of the Baltic states I remembered Estonia and Lithuania. Estonia because of the composer Arvo Part and Lithuania, I am not sure why I remember it. I thought it was that Lithuania got into the world cup but I stand corrected by a reader. But Latvia? I thought it was the country ruled by Doctor Doom, the arch enemy of the Fantastic Four. Well Doctor Doom comes from the fictitious country of Latveria... see?!?!? And the closest thing that came to my mind about Riga, was the final Boss Ryga, in an interplanetary version of Street Fighter. Ok, you can see how lame my knowledge is and where I spent my time becoming so lame.

So I really did not know what to expect from Latvia. It rhymes with Bavaria, so should I expect something Germanic. Well, as it turns out, Riga, the captial, started as a German colony for the conversion of the local populace to Christianity. So there is a German link. And Riga was an important European port, with lots of rich merchants and a cosmopolitan population. The tradition carries on now with a surprsing number of Japanese restaurants in Riga.

What I can say now is that the old town of Riga is definitely more grand than Vilnius. They have refurbished some of the merchants' guilds in Riga, and boy are they showy. The churches are pretty nice too, large but not too overly ornate and complex inside the churches. I like that. I also found an unexpectedly good restaurant at a reasonable price called Le Crabe! Yes, I am looking after myself.

But Riga is not just the medieval old town. It has several outrageous Art Nouveau houses to the north of the old town. I have seen a lot ornate buildings in my time, but these buildings really left me gob smacked! And I kind of like that style, very sexy!

So after a good time with good food in Riga, I take a bus along the coast of Riga to Cape Kolka. Cape Kolka, or Kolkas Rags, is in between the Baltic sea to the west and the Gulf of Riga to the east. It does not have a high cliff at the point but it does really look like the end of the earth. And the clouds all around are always spectacular. It is still warm enough to take a swim in the sea when the sun is up. And it has relatively fewer tourists here than on the Curonian Spit in Lithuania. I think that it is just harder to get to Kolka than Nida in Lithuania. And Kolka is in the Slitere National Park, with wonderful forests and old Livonian towns. I cycled 45km today to see some of the sights. This really tired me out, but it was worth it. I think if someone wants to do a sword and sorcery epic, Slitere Natioanl park would be the perfect place to film it.

I am so glad that I am having this opportunity to explore the Baltic states. And as much as I love the romance of old towns, the beauty of nature is having an effect on me. It kinds of puts into perspective what is important in life and it is not the rat race.