Category Archives: A Day In The Life

Whispers of Silk

Saturday

The road from Tabriz, the westernmost city of Iran, to the border town of Bazargan took far longer than I had expected. I am whisked on a Cold War era Mercedes bus across a barren landscape of golden heat, marked by pockets of green, drought-ridden river beds and impressive rock formations, of which I am the privileged few witnesses to its enormous beauty. An old woman in a chador sitting behind me has for the past few hours been trying to satiate her curiosity about me, but our fledging conversation in smiling pantomime is little served by our mutual unintelligibility. Meanwhile, a bee has been slamming itself, body and soul against my window for the last two hours.

Dotting the landscape outside are the ancient ruins of abandoned Persian Silk Road caravanserai – marks of the glorious and global history of this road, as well as lonely factories and rusting tractors of an isolated “free industrial zone” – marks of a land arm-twisted by sanctions and intransigent politics. As Rasool, my Tehrani couchsurfing host remarked, “we the Iranian people are fucked by the United States of America and the Islamic Republic of Iran”.

An overcharging taxi driver brings me on the last hour’s drive to the Turkish border. He takes the liberty of detouring round his street, showing me off to his wife and his neighbours – this, the show pony treatment of being the only foreigner in a 500 km radius, has been getting on my nerves for the past few days.

The border itself is a clusterfuck of Turkish cigarette smugglers. Ahead, aggressive border guards with Güvenlik emblazoned on their shirts and pistols on their belts are tossing contraband cartons above the customs allowance into a growing pile of abused boxes. There are flaring temples and shoving and shouting. Cartons of Kent are stuffed in my face – “Three cartons mister! Help me bring just three across!” Waving my bright red passport and shouting “Foreigner! Foreigner! I have no cigarettes!” enables me to push my way through a crowd of 50 Turks jamming up the only checkpoint gate. And I am waived through into Turkish Kurdistan.

A 7 lira dolmus, packed to its creaking seams with Turks and cigarettes and me, bundles on its way to the nearest town of Dogubeyazit. To my right is snow-capped peaks of Mount Ararat, the resting place of Noah’s Ark. It is an unmistakable presence that stretches indolently across the entire Northern horizon – glinting grey in the overcast sunset.

I have not seen clouds for a month.

Sunday

Five steps to my right across a broken border fence is Armenia. At some points a roaring gorge separates us, at other times, it is a mere fence, rusting and unpatrolled. An ancient arch bridge across the gorge into Armenia, now collapsed and ridden with bird droppings, used to connect eastwards to the Silk Road. Now it’s just emblematic of Armenia’s tragic estrangement from the ruins of its formerly magnificent imperial capital of Ani.

The ruins of Ani, sitting squarely in Turkish territory, is a sorry excuse for its former glory. One can’t help but feel anger at the slipshod destructiveness of half-hearted reconstruction efforts. Concrete and modern materials etch away crumbling memory of ancient masonry, steel pylons that offer little structural support slices into mosaics. An angry archaeologist dedicates an entire blog journaling the decades of deliberate neglect and grave-digging with impunity by both Turks and Armenians. In a pissing match of politics, global cultural heritage is the biggest loser, and its unhindered desecration is an outrageous travesty.

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Sunset on Göreme

Everything is an intense orange in the dying hour of this day’s sun. The grass has been set ablaze, and the rocks behind me are glowing. In the sky, a plane soars. Orange are its contrails: silent, light, ephemeral. This is a beauty, lingering no more than a few seconds, matched only by the evening call to prayer. It reverberates like a voice across the valley. Everything else is tiny and insignificant in its power and grace.

Yet my heart shudders with a hollow wail – you are not in my arms where you should be. Where are you now in this world? How long many more long months will pass until I can smell the fragrance of your hair on my lips again?

And then as the star-less dusk descends upon me, there is only darkness left.

Rishikesh in October

Something stirs in the perennial heat of Rishikesh – it is preceded by a scream and a riot of sheer panic in the clogged streets of colour and smells. Two bulls (these sacred bovine beasts that indolently dominate every traffic junction in India) are clashing, horns against hide, hooves against faces. The alpha sends his rival hurtling across the streets into a tiled bench of old ladies in sarees – they scream at a higher octave and pull each other to the safety of an elevated garden – littered with cigarette butts, coke cans and other detritus of third world consumerism.

Two men, one a fruit hawker and the other a sundry shopkeeper, rush out with wooden rods fashioned for the singular purpose of whacking the hierarchy of human dominance back into the hormone-flushed brains of these sacred bovine demigods. They flee in the direction of the highway.

J and I stand hesitantly, just inches away from this chance occurrence of a daily street catastrophe – by sheer luck, we were in the opposite trajectory of this mating contest, and by the love of the Gods, not one of the old ladies were hurt. Rapidly, the street reverts to its lively insouciance – hawkers return to their makeshift stalls, holy men resit themselves on their cardboards, and pilgrims again clog the streets with their consumerism. 100 rupee ear-diggers, children hawking prayer candles, honking autorickshaws drivers and yogis with advertisement banners. Transactions are more frequently encountered here than religion. But no doubt, the many of these transactions, from satchels of marijuana to telepathy workshops with money-back guarantees, would bring one closer to an apotheosis with Lord Khrisna.

“Where are you from?” – a young holy man speaks in perfectly-accented English to us from amidst the impassable humdrum of pedestrians.

“Singapore.”

“Ah, Singapore! Are you guys looking for some guidance?” – comes the beginning of a routine, rehearsed-to-perfection sales pitch, followed by the insouciant understanding that comes with our polite rejection. He knows us already – mere tourists, not travellers trying to find themselves. Unprofitable. And he disappears back into the street.

Somewhere along Laxman Jhula, an ancient iron suspension bridge of a tiny gauge no less named after the brother of the eponymous Lord Rama in the Ramayana, we make one of our many dozens of regular criss-crosses across the Ganges. A British woman is locked in an embrace with another holy man on one of the iron railings, clogging the motorcycles whose every honk is an indiscriminate barrage of aggression at herds of pedestrian traffic – “… the next time you come to India, I’ll teach you how to kiss properly like…”

Below the wooden decks of the bridge, adventure rafts (more money flowing from the Global North to South) ply the silver surfs of the grand Ganga. It’s a river with flows both mercurial and mercury-coloured, like the long, knotted locks of the holy mens’ hairs – sacred and abundant. Here, God(s) is in the colour of the red sunset, in the paneer whose fragrance surmounts even the staunchest ascetic, in the click of camera flashes on a motorboat throbbing past half-naked pilgrims in an ablution on the banks, in the shops selling cheap cotton pants tailored by the sweat of unschooled children, in the multi-coloured sheen of a calendar with Ganesh emblazoned across its cover, and in the blank Wi-fi logo that reminds me that I have not updated my Instagram in the last 48 hours. Here, one man’s mundanity, is another man’s sanctity. Here, the Gods consort with vice and sin.

Dusk falls indolently and the October heat is replaced by a humid threat of rain. Wi-fi is found only in the bars after a transacted drink or two.

J and I are about to leave a bar, having finished our glasses of mint chai, drunk to a playlist of The Beatles – the White Album on repeat (the many drug-induced, yoga-inspired songs therein produced right here in Rishikesh some five decades ago). We spent the night in conversation with B – he had introduced himself as a Tibetan exile who works in the Dalai Lama’s office.

He provides us with a farewell epigraph – “In life, you should aim to be a man of virtue, not a man of success.”

And thus, having received his blessings, we make a 3km trek back to the dingy hotel that our college housed us at. We fly home tomorrow.

Midnight Rishikesh is a town without colour and a town of squalor. The familiar must of burning marijuana wafts across the intersection of the road and Ram Jhula. Two holy men are crouched by the closed shutters of a stall, yellow-dotted, saffron-robed with the red amber of a smoking joint in each of their parched lips illuminating their moment of religious communion. They nod at us, inviting a joint each for a few rupees. But we have not the time for blasphemy.

Amidst the darkness, we detour around fighting bulls and masses of resting cows. A highway stretches for miles without electricity nor a drum of an engine – we are alone, without company nor the Gods themselves.

As we close to the banks of the Ganga, a girl, perhaps ten years-old, squats by the lapping waters and floats a polyurethane bowl of flowers, a prayer candle lit cautiously in the navel of the bowl. It floats perilously, carried away by the currents of the Ganga, bearing her hopes and her prayers. The light of the little flame is now all we can see in the encroaching darkness.

But even that too, is quickly, if not pathetically, extinguished by the currents.

DSC_0517Photo taken at Rishikesh, October 2017

 

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More wrinkled than phallic

My homeostatic functions have collapsed catastrophically at 5am. I am cold and yet I am burning. The fan drones on a croaking clockwork in the gusts of frigid wind but I am coated in the stench of perspiration. Wet with the churning, nausea of nightmare.

It is the same nightmare. It has always been the same nightmare every night. The same pockets of imagery and absurdity that comes to the fore every time my insomnia recedes. Fire ants of red crawling on my hairs, they don’t bite, they don’t hurt, they merely threaten by virtue of existence. I am a claustrophobe, naked in a rusty, algae-stained shower cubicle the size of a coffin. A caterpillar more wrinkled than phallic crawls and survives along the straight edge of the pillow.

This has been the third night I’ve gone to sleep in a drunken stupor. When I am not inebriated, I am an insomniac. When I am inebriated, I am schizoid. I can’t hear the dashes of conversation of the girl sitting across the bar. I serve her drinks, with the caustic liquids spilling over the brims with my parkinson-ed hands. I can’t even see the bus numbers when my shift ends. I have my spectacles on but my myopia has transcended even that.

***

1.

I am a cynic. I live in perpetual and uncompromising anomie. I have no faith, no love, no emotion, no hope for my future, no optimism for humanity or any political process, nor regard for what I will be. I simply do not have the capacity.

2.

I believe there is a threshold age by which if you do not display indications of greatness, or otherwise, have accomplished things that are precursor to greatness, you will never be destined for greatness. You will not be great, you will not be granted grandiosity, not even a footnote in a history book. Your death will be as light as feather, your life even lighter.

I am rapidly approaching that threshold, with nothing to show. Destined for mediocrity and fated to be of little quality, far in face of a twisted upbringing and ignominious personal narcissism that has promised nothing short of greatness.

3.

I don’t think I will ever be satisfied with life. I’ll always find inauthenticity and artificiality in whatever I have and whatever I have achieved. In the same vein, with or without religion, with or without love, with or without ever finding meaning, I doubt I will ever be truly happy in life. What the hell is “truly happy” even supposed to mean?

The caged soul

I am a walking defect. Without warranties nor guarantees nor replacements. I have a deformed left clavicle from a fracture 7 years ago. A deformed 5th metatarsal from a triple fracture that I’m still recovering from (it probably worsened because I mistook the fracture for a sprain and continued haphazardly trekking, motorcycling, swimming, partying and getting wasted for 5 days in Southeast Asia before treating it at a clinic). I have a myopia so bad I would have long since died if I was living in the Stone Age. CMPB tells me that my thoracic cavity, restricted by a deformed ribcage, cannot sustain me with enough oxygen to engage in strenuous activity. I also probably have quite a lethal dose of cholesterol in my blood stream from sometimes eating five KFC 2-piece meals a month vis-a-vis an indolent lack of exercise.

Some things heal, and the many scars and scabs attest to that. Most things don’t. Like my well-worn two decade old skeletal system.

Fragility. Frailty. Futility. They epitomise the human body and and its uncompromising lack of longevity. Accumulative damage to the physical body is the driving force of ageing and old age will be the death of us all. We are all born with eventuality of death stamped in the nucleus of every cell, as much as I shy from that reality. I will never heal from these damages I’ve incurred in just two decades of existence. And I will incur far more for the years to come.

For all my prideful intellect, it is but a mere effect of this 1.3kg organ sitting underneath my skull. A hundred currently known viruses, bacteria or other illnesses would spell the death of this miserable mass of flesh and blood – the site of all this ego and existential consciousness. God, just one minute without oxygen is irreparable damage to my brain cells.

It is pathetic that humans will cease to exist, for all the generations of trying to make heroes of ourselves, for the all the long years of constructing meaning and fulfilment. It is precisely because the body will die that constructing meaning takes on such a huge preoccupation in human society. And it is this very obsession with physical fragility that creates massive buy-in to the social construct of the soul.

But there is neither soul nor a priori meaning.

We are all destined to cease to exist some time in the future and our bodies are just empty cages.

***

On a side note, it is both depressing and humbling to have spent the last month on crutches. Nothing creates more empathy for the disabled than being one yourself. Our handicapped-friendly architecture isn’t friendly. The Singaporean public isn’t the nicest. And I would never again blame the elderly or disabled from risking life and limb, trying to take the shortest paths, when the overhead bridge or the traffic junction is just a step away.

An Ode to Laos

The highway from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng is a dusty dirt road. All the people I’ve talked to say it requires more courage than a human heart can have to brave those roads. I found only beauty in it. Clouds are like a river that spreads its tributaries through the green peaks of Laos. The sun is a gold hue that teases the soul.

Vang Vieng too is said to be an ugly town. But when you hurtle away to the countryside, you find instead an unparalleled beauty in undeveloped poverty.

People tell me not to die in Laos. No, I haven’t felt more alive here.

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I’ve met with backpackers from over 20 countries (more than I have in my life), with promises to meet again either in Singapore when they come over or in wherever place there is in this world. Its a culture founded upon our common ennui and love for the world (as well as a hatred for Chinese tourists).

But for all the romanticised wistfulness of being away, my watch and phone is still on Singapore time. I had never actually left home.

Lament for Laos

We call them ang mohs not just because they are merely the white men but because they are a whole package of unbridled arrogance and willful ignorance towards local dignity. Apart from the colour of my hair, the slant of my eyes and a slightly lower level of blood alcohol concentration, I have very much been an ang moh myself two days here in Vang Vieng.

Vang Vieng was a village set on the idyllic Song River. Vang Vieng now is everything that is wrong with tourism. These white people jump naked into sacred pools. Crushed cans of dirt cheap Beer Lao, moonshine whisky and cigarette stubs churn in a cesspool that is the river. You could ride on an abused elephant for far cheaper than anywhere else in the world. Lao children grew up under the shadow of debauchery: they spend their days chasing after tuktuks laden with half-naked tourists; and, they spend their nights playing at the billiards table among the fog of a Malboro cloud. The Laotian cafe owners play re-runs of Friends, neither knowing what is so amusing about 6 decadent people living in an apartment, nor knowing if they’ll ever even have a taste of the standards of developed world luxury espoused therein.

A festering ankle injury from two days ago meant I had to spent my second day in the town floating down the river in an inner tyre tube with a bottle of moonshine whisky in my hand, together with R (an Aussie friend I made the night before) and alongside a dozen other ang mohs from all over the globe. Admittedly, it was guilty fun floating from bar to bar downriver.

We had a Laotian guide, he sat on the kayak, splashing us with the cold Laotian water or blasting us with techno from a huge speaker mounted before him. He’s like the goddamn guitarist from Mad Max, with all the post-apocalyptic madness. Apocalypse: it must have felt like one to the elder villagers that have seen the decline of the town over a decade. They would stand idly by the banks at makeshift bamboo bars, hawking more alcohol and chips. I see entertainment in the eyes of their children but a deflated frown in the eyes of the elderly: they have no other choice.

If one peers past the haze of drunkenness and techno, one would see an engulfing sight of sheer green-clad cliffs, blue running waters, and the lazy afternoon sunlight that wafts about. But there is no space for beauty in our intoxication. Not in my heart or in R’s despite our attempts to savour it. (Thank goodness I had yesterday to myself on the motorbike exploring the beautiful countryside.)

On the way back to town, we are bikini-clad, half-naked sardines packed into a tuktuk, and the same techno music is blasted through the tiny evening streets. The inebriated Laotian guide is pounding the roof of the tuktuk to the beat. R and I and a German couple with us all concur he’s probably in his late twenties, but he has the wrinkles of a man aged by two packs of beer and cigarettes a day. The villagers we zoom past would again look on with a certain drowning dejection, however used they are to this.

R and I together with A, a North Carolinian teacher are having a drink and a joint at a bar later that evening. A French guy stumbles pass our carpet: I can see the whites of his eyes and his epileptic hands. He collapses on his face two seconds later. A few ang mohs jump in to check on the French man. He OD-ed on opium, this Brazilian dude who joined us for a cup of an opiate-laced tea explains. The stoned waitress doesn’t do shit, she can’t count notes properly, nor even open her eyes fully. A, having already had a bad trip on that joint, bails back to her hostel, having just seen a man OD just an inch in front of her.

Sometime in the evening, two Dutch girls I’ve returned to the hostel with from another bar don’t want to pay their share of the tuktuk fee. He’s cheating us, they exclaim with giggles and with gin of their breathes. Every inch of my soul is on the verge of exploding, “What the fuck is 10,000 kip to your wallet? What is 10,000 kip to his livelihood?”

But long before I muster the indignation to do so, the tuktuk driver accepts a French kiss from Girl A as payment. God fucking dammit. Girl B walks away drunkenly from the negotiation for her payment, leaving Girl A to continue teasing the half-smiling, half-quivering driver.

“No, no! We having fun chat chat”, says he, when I step in and try to gently convince her to just fucking pay what is essentially one bloody US dollar.

This town is fucked.

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La Vie En Rose

I surrendered her away at Tekong: Tekong was the first time in my life that I had ever seen such stars in the night sky. Mandai gave her back to me: Mandai was the first time I had ever heard eagles cry.

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How could such a piece of plastic, pink and flimsy, be the enduring object of such yearning and envy?

“Quand il me prend dans ses bras
Il me parle tout bas
Je vois la vie en rose”

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Ode to the Quarry

Two huge eagles are shrieking as they circle across my sky, bathed in the dying orange light of Sunday evening. Their echoing cries are the muezzin’s call to prayer, they are the blowing whistles of the evening flag lowering in the battalion square. In reply, the thousands of trees and vegetation of every kind, decked like a panorama across the massive quarry sway in the gentle breeze that blows southwards. Cerulean blue is the waters of the centre reservoir, black is the mouth of an abandoned cave at the north side.

I sit on the edge of granite outcrop, inhaling the sheer beauty that surrounds me. No matter how many times I’ve sneaked up here, the beauty is always breathtaking. One easily forgets that this is still Singapore.

Corporal G and Private J stand closely by my side; they too are trying to register the beauty that engulfs them. They’re probably glad they’d agreed to accompany me for my last joyride (illegal as usual and punishable with a term in the detention barracks). No other person in camp, sane or not, would bring them where I’ve brought them, and in the same method.

Today is my last day wearing this uniform. And this is the last time I’ll be seeing this.

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I’ve spent 2 years in the most beautiful army base in Singapore. It’s a pity that few of the hundreds that pass through these gates catch no more than just a passing glimpse of the raw beauty hidden behind chain-linked fences and thick vegetation. Life has gone on here for the longest time with little interaction with the quiet, unassuming allure of the great outdoors in the backyard. Some personnel have never even seen it, nor even thought it to exist. Most don’t care.

I was one of the lucky few (and hopefully not the last) with enough balls (and of a rank high enough to warrant some measure of autonomy) to explore this place more than rules or sensible thoughts would allow.

“Explore” however is quite an understatement. Read: rock-climbing, skipping-pebbles, spelunking through gated caves, trekking, hiking, trespassing, trespassing with a vehicle without a license, bashing a new road through lalang, racing, crashing up vehicles, off-roading, dirt-roading, green-laning, cross-countrying, tracing longkangs, and climbing trees, all while mostly high on whisky.

People don’t miss NS, I don’t think I will as well. But this beauty, I will miss.

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2016 Film List

I love films more than I love books and I’ve watched some supremely beautiful films this year. Of the many dozens I’ve watched, this is a list of my favourite ones.

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The Lives of Others (2006)
There’s tragedy, humanity and a tersely written screenplay in a film set five years before the fall of the Berlin Wall about East German secret policing of its dissident populace and a member of the secret police who expresses more humanity than he is allowed to. The silent brooding power of the film lies in the whispers of love, resistance and loss heard behind closed doors and spied walls. Few films I have watched have as satisfying a conclusion as this one for all its historical tragedy.

Apprentice (2016)
In Boo Junfeng’s acclaimed feature film, a prison warden with a dark family history of a hanged criminal father, learns the ropes of the prison hangman in a fast-track promotion to heir executioner. As much as the ending is faulted for its directorial laziness, I have never seen a more breathless local film as this. It has not fallen into the traps of didacticism, emotional gaudiness or inaccessibility that quite frequently plagues local films and remains as potent as it is humanising. I say without a doubt that this is my favourite local film.

A Single Man (2009)
Colin Firth, dressed impeccably in the retro over-designed fashion of the 60’s Cold War with a bespoke shirt and suit, polished Oxfords and hipster glasses, plays a depressed homosexual English professor who spends a day preparing for his evening suicide. With intermittent hot flushes of colour that dies back into monochrome, accompanied with bits of a soundtrack by Shigeru Umebayashi, I at times feel like this is American cinema’s equivalent to Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love. Every scene threatens to rip you apart for its sheer beauty. Dammit, more films should be made by fashion designers.

Sicario (2015)
Sicario has this heightened level of tension that never diminishes throughout nor leave you at the conclusion of the film that you feel like you’re suffering from priapism. You can see what’s going on, but you don’t know what’s going on. The stirring dynamics and talent of Benicio del Toro, Emily Blunt and Josh Brolin breathes intensity into every corner of this film. Never imagined drug wars could be so thoroughly gripping from start to finish.

Spirited Away (2001)
Adorable with every bit of Hayao Miyazaki’s magic.

Rogue One (2016)
By the final crescendo of the film as the credits broke, I was embarrassingly hyperventilating. Being a film lover, I have watched many remarkable films in my life and I dare blaspheme intellectual and cultural sensitivities by saying that this could easily be one of the best visual experiences I’ve ever had. By some magic of screenwriting, pacing, storyboarding, composition and music, the potential for jaw-dropping oomph of space opera has been expertly captured, unlike the other Star Wars films. It is by no means without faults, but it has quite boldly gone where no Star Wars films have gone with its moral depth and invigorating complexity. At its worst, it is a film that has ticked every box on a list of action-blockbuster cliches, but it has carried it out so well, you wouldn’t think it as cliche. Oh and also Darth Vader, holy shit.

Her (2013)
The mise en scene is adorable: the colour palettes and the Satie-inspired music especially. And the soulfulness leaves you feeling quite very fulfilled.

New World (2013)
I think Koreans do better contemporary gangster films than any other film industry. This one ranks of the blood spilled by Hong Kong’s seminal Infernal Affairs and Japan’s Takeshi Kitano, but yet with the refined suits and cigarettes of George Clooney. It has arresting visuals that even the most violent scenes make you appreciate the thoughtful cinema behind it.

Seven (1995)
Kevin Spacey.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)
John Hurt, Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch all in one film dealing with John le Carre’s MI6 and 70’s British fashion. Need I say more? It damn well did the book some damn justice. (I do however very much want to watch the 1979 one with Sir Alec Guinness and Ian Richardson).

1987: Untracing the Conspiracy (2015)
In a concise 57 minutes, Jason Soo uncovers in voluminous loudness an unpalatable segment of our history so saturated with the stank state narrative. This is a documentary of paramount importance: most detainees would die off in a matter of years without any official revisiting of this episode and this would be the only counter-narrative around to get anywhere near scratching what is the truth of our 1987 experience. This is one film, of the few, that has made me angry, and for that, it is one of the most favourite films I’ve watched this year. Thank goodness it isn’t banned and it’s still available with some restricted screenings around the island in forefront cinemas of cultural development and political dissidence.

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