Face Your Abyss

Life doesn’t stop when you travel; your light and your dark follow you as you move, and as much as you might try to purge yourself of all evidence of a former self, if you don’t confront your dark places honestly, you will simply be running away from you.

So travel. Face your abyss. You might discover beautiful things in the darkness.

Photographs from the Phong Nha and Thiên Đường Caves near Dong Hoi, Vietnam. 

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You Like-a Boom-Boom?

Clutching a ticket for the night train headed south, I stood outside the hostel in the dim evening light and said goodbye to the friends I had made in Hanoi.

Adam worked at the hostel, and had just arrived on the back of a Vietnamese man’s motorbike. They shook hands like friends, so I asked Adam if he’d arrange for this man to drive me to the train station. I hopped on to the back of his motorbike and waved a final adieu as we tucked into the tangled traffic.

“You and Adam make-a boom-boom?” he asked me over bubbling the noise of the engine.

“Excuse me?”

“You and Adam make-a boom-boom?” this time with pelvic thrusting.

Ah, he was asking if I had had sex with Adam. A standard kind of enquiry. What?!

“No, we’re just friends,” I answered, trying to hide my indignation, pretending I wasn’t completely taken aback by his brazen vulgarity. Maybe it’s a cultural thing, I thought.

“You like-a boom boom?”

What do I say? “Um, that’s a very personal question,” by now, starting to giggle a little bit.

“I like-a boom-boom,” pelvic thrusting again. Oh my gosh!

I’m not sure if I was trying to divert the conversation, or spark some sense of responsibility in the man’s mind; I asked, “Do you have a wife?”

“Yes, but make-a boom-boom many women,” now reaching back and stroking my leg! Shit, wrong question! But at least we had some silence for a little while after that. And then…

“You like a leekie-poosie?” At first I wasn’t sure what I had heard.

“What?!”

“Leekie-poosie.” He turned his head and demonstrated enthusiastically, flapping his tongue about in front of his face like a chameleon with Tourettes, somehow managing to punctuate this terrifying display with a self-congratulatory grin.

“How far is it to the train station?” I asked, timidly.

The Heart of Hanoi

I couldn’t wait to leave Singapore; its sterile streets and overbearing rules had depressed me, and I was in search of a different kind of adventure.

Before I knew it, I was standing on the side of the road beside the Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi, waiting for a gap in the thick flood of traffic so that I could cross – and slowly, like water climbing to a boil, it dawned on me that I had found the sweet disorder that I had been craving. I had landed myself in its centre. I was going to have to enter this amoebic mass of vehicles, to become part of it, and then to emerge from it a new person.

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Hanoi is a vascular system; a complex twist of narrow streets and tangled wires, walled by the looming romance of crumbling French facades. Scooters flow staccato through the city’s veins and arteries, from a throbbing heart somewhere nearby. There are no interludes, there is no order, but there is synergy. Beautiful synergy.Hanoi traffic, These Walking BootsHanoi traffic, These Walking Boots

The pavements in the Old Quarter are not for pedestrians. Shops spill out onto the road, rows of scooters stand stationary on the sidewalk, and street-food vendors somehow preserve for themselves sacred little spaces amid the chaos. The streets ooze at the edges and pulsate in the middle. You have to have a new kind of spatial awareness to survive it.Hanoi traffic, These Walking Boots

Always lost; overwhelmed by the city’s unyielding onslaught, and never able to take it all in, I was in love with Hanoi. I moved, purposeless, through its streets; at first trying to gain some kind of traction and then gradually, finally letting go, simply absorbing. The colourful disorder fed my soul, and the contrast of my solitude against the unrelenting chaos became my quietest comfort in the heart of Hanoi.Hanoi street scene, These Walking BootsHanoi street scene, These Walking Boots

Tiong Bahru: everybody’s welcome

When I go to an upmarket city like Singapore, I’m less interested in visiting the world class shopping districts or experiencing the shiny Singapore Flyer, or any other high class tourist attractions as I am in getting as close to tasting local life as I possibly can. I struck gold when I hopped off the subway at Tiong Bahru, following a recommendation from The Culture-ist which described it as a suburb “where Singaporean ‘Aunties’ shop at the market for durian, ‘Uncles’ chow down on a bowl of Bak kut teh and their hipster twenty-something kids sip on a latte around the corner at 40 Hands”. I had to see it.

I started my tour with a walk through the Tiong Bahru Market, which is a smorgasbord of fresh produce, seafood and meats, cheap clothing, plants and cut flowers. The Culture-ist was quite right, I saw several Aunties there, shopping for their week’s supply of durian or their two bananas. It has a very local feel about it, not in the least bit pretentious.

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I slipped out onto the street to find said latte. I had hoped to sit on the street outside the Tiong Bahru Bakery and do a little people watching, but my plan was thwarted by its sheer popularity on a Saturday morning. And it’s no wonder; the offerings are delectable, and the atmosphere magnetic. So instead, I slunk sheepishly away, coffee and croissant in hand, to find a shady step to sit on. Not very glamorous. Being around hipsters always makes me feel ultra un-cool. At least there are lots of old people in Tiong Bahru; sometimes I feel more at home around the aged anyway.

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There really are loads of little hipster handouts and shops in the area; cafes, bars, speciality book stores and even a male grooming parlor. That’s when you know. But they are indeed refreshingly interspersed amongst old school Chinese eateries and tea shops. It’s a pretty cool confluence of old and new.

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Tiong Bahru is a residential suburb. The low rise, “International Style” blocks were built between 1948 and 1954 to provide extra housing after WWII. They provides a stark contrast to the typical high rise apartment buildings that characterize Singapore’s public housing. With so much construction and reconstruction happening in Singapore, this little bubble of architectural history is rare, as is the leafy atmosphere between the buildings. The suburb feels a bit like a university campus. It made me realise how much I appreciate the large gardens and big open spaces I enjoyed growing up.

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20131202-131224.jpgA new apartment building going up just around the corner from Tiong Bahru

Singapore: a city (re)created

I spent just over a week in Singapore, and over the course of my time there, I developed a sense that the city-state is a little disorientated. It feels like the government is tenaciously determined to turn Singapore into a world class destination, kitting it out with luxury shopping malls, a slick metro service, shiny sky scrapers and top end attractions. It’s as if Singapore has carefully selected features of iconic cities around the world and is systematically and strategically combining them to create an ideal place.

But sadly this means major physical reconstruction and the effective overhaul of the country’s architectural history. Has Singapore forgotten that a strong sense of national identity and the preservation of important history are central to the success and appeal of a city? My short time in the country and my interactions with locals would suggest so.

Actually, Singapore reminds me of the classic line from the Joni Mitchell song Big Yellow Taxi: “Don’t it always seem to go / That you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone? / They paved paradise / And put up a parking lot.”

It’s probably clear by now that I wasn’t hugely inspired by my time in Singapore, but that’s not to say that I didn’t find some little treasures and learn some valuable lessons. I’ll be sharing these soon.

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20131202-143625.jpgPictures taken from the sky deck at Marina Bay Sands (pictured above) with a Canon 600D.