Saturday, January 2, 2016

Hong Kong

At some point in 2015, I took myself on a trip to Hong Kong. After months in semi-rural Cambodia and its absolute antithesis, Metro Manila, Hong Kong was such a beautiful, rich revelation, with an unwasted sort of buzzing energy buoying you from beneath its streets, and vestiges of its colonial past buried in towers of new beneath old beneath new.

I'm not sure I could ever capture it in photos, but I did try. (Click pictures to view in large)

Day 1: First Impressions

I spent my first evening in Hong Kong wandering around the less touristy part (I think!) of the tourist district. The ladies' market with its neatly lined stalls of high fashion clothes and more granny panties than I knew could exist, the goldfish market with rows of plastic bags ballooned up to each hold a single fish inside, the flowers market and the songbird market, both of which I missed on this trip, and the noisy, well-oiled choreography of food vendors coursing through it all.

That first day there, I was taken by the ease with which old blended with new. All the world's best cities manifest elements of this in their own way, I suppose, but walking through central Kowloon, I got the distinct feeling of being transported through the decades, peeling a layer away at a time. The amalgam of colonial history and Asian heritage aside, the one thing that stood out to me was that -- if you go beyond the shiny harbour front high-rise corridor -- Hong Kong doesn't make excuses for itself. It doesn't try to be shinier or more glossy or plastic. Buildings are old, streets are narrow, and most businesses are still as heartwarmingly simple (fixed prices, tarpaulin roofs, contents packable onto the back of a motorised bike) as they have been for years, with great success. Shops and houses have withstood time and selling out to land developers, markets are still held in rickety buildings according to the strict plan they were initially set up with -- seafood and meats on the ground floor, vegetables on the first, and a food court ('prepared foods centre') on the second. And everyone is just getting on with their day. 

Overpass, Ladies' Market, Mong Kok

Peckings, Sham Shui Po

Touristy Hong Kong, Sham Shui Po

Aviary, Kowloon Park

I also found Kowloon Park on my first day, a sanctuary in the tourist hub of the city, with public swimming pools, tennis and squash courts and an aviary, all in the same park!

My host and I spent the evening looking out over Victoria Harbour from Ozone, the highest bar in the world, over some great conversation. No pictures though, because how could one possibly capture that?

Day 2: Three quests, much soreness

Quest #1: Search for the Walled Village

Hong Kong's walled villages are remnants of a time when Hong Kong was overrun by pirates, who understandably enjoyed the shelter and element of surprise that Hong Kong's hilly, winding landscape provided (as well as its delicious cuisine, presumably). To protect themselves from possible attacks, Punti and Hakka villagers built walls around their villages, and equipped themselves with cannons and lookouts.

On my second Day in HK, I went (or rather, attempted) to visit one of these villages, Tsang Tai Uk. The pictures below are in order of escape from city centre confines.

No public transport, ladies and gentlemen. Not this far out of the way.

Tsang Tai Uk's other name is Shan Ha Wai, which translates to 'Walled Village at Mountain's Foot'. Makes sense?

When I reached, I found the village's central shrine was closed for construction, with shrubs and too many 'No Entry' signs in all its alleys even for me to ignore. For one of the city's best-maintained walled villages, it certainly wasn't going to oblige any visitors today.

Maybe because it was a hot, humid day, or because it is in fact abandoned, the entire village was also deserted. In a city known for how well it manages to pack people into small spaces, the emptiness of my entire excursion, including the trip over there, gave the whole thing a very time-travel feel.

Quest #2: Bride's Pool

While in Hong Kong, I also wanted to go hiking in the mountains. Having declared Quest #1 a partial fail, much research, many bus rides and a lot of walking brought me to Bride's Pool, where story has it that a bride fell in while being carried on a sedan during her wedding procession. Eerie, but beautiful.

The road (what I console myself by calling 'tarred hiking trail') to Bride's Pool went on for hours. No bus service, no taxis, no car pools, no bicycles. Just one foot in front of the other, mindlessly, for what seemed like foreverrr. Great hike.

I finally reached, though! Just before officially decreed closing time.

Bride's Pool

Waterfall, Bride's Pool

I lost a bag and a fair amount of peace of mind to this view, but gained a few friendly mozzie bites and bonded with a father and daughter over an orange on my way back. You win some...

Quest #3: No real quests.

Sometimes, nay, most times, it is the unplanned adventures that make the day.

On my way to Bride's Pool earlier in the day, I found myself at Tai Po's food court, eating delicious har gow (shrimp dumplings) with a hundred strangers at one of the best dumpling stalls in the city.

I also walked into the heart of old market in Tai Po, where this beautiful gem lay.

Man Mo Temple, Fu Shin Street, Tai Po

The Man Mo temple was built by the Tsat Yeuk community over a hundred years ago to mark the opening of Tai Wo Shi (Tai Wo Market Town), now Tai Po Market. The temple was built to worship the god of literature (Man) and the martial god (Mo). In the middle of a busy marketplace on a hot day, I spent a dozy few minutes just watching its coils of incense flake ash. (Though I could've spent hours.)

Little blessings.

Days 3 and 4:

I still hadn't hiked on the wild mountainous paths I had read about, and it was the weekend, so my host and I set out with two hundred other Hong Kongers on a walk through the mountains.

The climb was gentle, but it was the view that took my breath away. Fleets of clouds rolling in and out over the buildings, rows of papercut mountains in the background, planes landing on the water, and on the other side, so. much. green.

Later that evening, we rode up the much-hyped open-air, public escalators, walked around the fashionable parts of the city that I had successfully avoided till then (much more bearable with a friend), and I went for a swim in Kowloon Park's lovely public baths.

The next day, we went to the beach!

Sand sculpting practice, Stanley Beach

Day 5: Cha, marketing, and the best scrambled eggs in the world

A good cup of tea is a great way to start the day. I had my cup of milky Hong Kong tea (Cha!) on the top floor of a Tsim Sha Tsui food court, in the rare, quiet hour between the mahjongg ladies and the early lunchers. The camera and fabric markets were just about beginning to open, but the vegetable sellers were in full swing.

After much searching, and another failed quest, this time for Michelin-starred Tim Ho Wan's famous-but-affordable dim sum, I ended my last day in HK with another iconic Hong Kong meal; Australian Dairy Company's famous scrambled eggs on thick toast. Happiness.

As with all good travel, by the end of my trip, I felt completely rejuvenated.

On that note, I wish a very happy new year to you all. May much joy, love, learning and adventure find you this coming year. May you get enough rest, good food, and the very best of company to keep you healthy and in good spirits in the next few months. And if you haven't already, may you walk back in to work refreshed and rejuvenated in the next few days.

Oh, and go visit Hong Kong!

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

"Eat your damn chilies, child"

Fish drowned in heaven-facing chilies
(you can't see the fish, you can't taste your tongue by the time you get to it either)
The Spice Temple, Sydney, August 2014

Today, I found a photo I took over a year ago sitting in my drafts folder. So much has changed since then, but not the feeling that I should be less surprised by that thought.

On this day last year, I arrived in this country from my little wild corner at the end of the earth. Less than five months later, I left to go to rural Cambodia, without a concrete plan and just the faintest idea of who I was going to meet while I was there. My incentive? I was going to get my hands right into doing what I have wanted to since I was sixteen: fieldwork towards poverty alleviation. And I was going to get the hell out of this sanitised, bubble-wrapped suburgatory.

How things have turned around. I am right back here, by some mad chance, working in a place I am still trying to figure out whether I really believe in the virtues of.

I feel like at some point in the past couple years, I dove right into that bowl of sichuans pictured, because by the time I got to the bottom of it, I was unable to taste anything, my tongue numbed by the first touch of something seeking heaven.

In other words, sometimes things don't turn out as vividly or ideally as you pictured they could, or by the time you get to them, you have killed the tastebuds you would have needed to enjoy their full flavour. And that's okay! (The fish in question was mostly flavourless, and lay buried in an ocean of oil. Or maybe that's how I tasted it, who knows.)

Regardless, the extravagant spectacle of having an entire chef's garden of chilies brought to us and showcased and generally floo-flahed over by this expert waiter at one of Sydney's best restaurants, not to mention the novelty of the tongue-zinging chili itself, was probably worth it. You see, you have to know what you don't really care much for, just as much as you should know what is important.

It's part of growing up and all that.

So, as it's that time of year when you start to get reflective and thankful and all those goo-making things, I'll ask you something that I hope you can spare just a little bit of mindspace to think about.
What has surprised you (pleasantly or not) or underwhelmed you in this phase of your life? What did you learn about yourself through it? And what will you take with you going forward?
Feel free to write me if you care to share. You know how to reach me (email, phone call, Facetime/Skype/Hangouts, instant message, whatever, however). Regardless of what you learn, remember that you have grown (and are continuing to learn!) a little bit more in this time of your life, as you have in others. You are wiser, braver, and you know a little bit more than you did before. And you are loved.

That's something to be glad for.

Feliz Navidad, my friend! And much love from Obama-city.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Meandering: A Post About Siem Reap

Many of the enterprises we set up in our lives are temporary. We take hold of an idea, give in to a burst of inspiration, flow with it for a while, and just as easily let go of it when the meandering gets too much.

But some rivers find us again.

In the two months that I've been here, I've been working to develop the monitoring and evaluation framework for an agricultural microfinance programme, making sure that what we envision on paper is what we have on the ground. A conversation I had today reminded me of immensity of the task at hand. Who knows where the whole setup will stand in two years? Who knows whether we will have trained enough farmers and rolled out the microfinance project well enough to call ourselves a success? Is this organisation (and by dint of my involvement, am I) any better than the rest of the voluntourists who come in to 'developing' countries, throw their money or skills and some English lessons around, and then leave?

I hope so. I want to come back, I want to stay involved, and I hope I will be able to. Siem Reap is beautiful, and I have found much warmth in my time here (sometimes literally). Though I am most definitely a farang (or barang, as it is called in these parts), I find myself faced with curiosity rather than the blank animosity I felt sensitised to as a teenager growing up in Western Europe. "Ah, you're from Indieaaar" - cue endearing look - "Much of what's in Cambodia comes from India" (The religion, the claimed genetic makeup, and even the coconut trees). So there's that.

Then there's the food. I jest to my mother that I subsist on a diet of fish soup and rice, and to a large extent, that is true. Sam lor and baai for lunch. Sam lor and baai for dinner. It's a healthy existence. But there's also the fresh fruit (usually served with cries of "fresh from my farm!"), raw vegetables, fresh pickled salads, and hot red chilies in fish sauce that complete each meal. There's green rice noodle soup with light coconut broth, banana blossoms, mung bean sprouts and mint, basil and cucumber shavings (nom banh chok), rice paper rolls freshly packed with rice noodles, whole tiny shrimplings, shredded pork, wrapped in iceberg lettuce and topped with some nearly-not-intense-enough garlic and peanut sweet sauce (nime chao), yellow crepes filled with much of the same and served up with fresh, raw salad and more light sweet peanuty sauce (banh chao). And there's coffee. Oh, coffee. The best I've had it was in a market cafe in the Rolour village this weekend, seated on a very well-polished wood trunk watching Canadian boxing live on TV with a morning breakfast club of twenty-three men. The coffee was smooth, black and strong, served fresh over ice with half a can of condensed milk and a spoon to stir it all up with. Twenty-five cents for the lot. No wonder everyone is always smiling.

So like them all, I'm enjoying my time here, ambling the bylanes, finding smalltown marketplaces and poolsides to spend my weekday breaks at, and making friends with people I sometimes share maybe just fifty common words with. This past week, I've been sneaking in some last glimpses before I parcel myself up in a giant mechanical bird headed to Manila, filled with thoughts of the worth of my 'contribution' to the local agricultural scene in a village 27 km from Siem Reap city. Pangs-iety.

What about all this moving, then? In the seventy-odd days I've spent here, I've managed to flip my life 180° (cold to hot, world-renowned metropolis to the middle of a chicken farm somewhere, NY Fashion Week wardrobe inspiration to the more appropriate travel boho chic) and keep close tabs on myself through it all. Travel must be getting to my head.

But somewhere out there, there's a riverbank waiting.

(Click on the photos to view in large!)

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Silver Linings

Decades after they first met, my parents still manage to find a corner for a quick chat.

Congratulations on your 25th, M&D ♥️

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Adventures in Cambodge

Workers at a school building, Siem Reap

So it happened. I moved to Cambodia. After nearly four months without a moment's pause in the centre of the universe (or so it would like to believe), I shifted base to New York's complete antithesis overnight.

Where do I even begin? Where New York is a rambunctious labyrinth of shiny landmarks, languages and -- especially on public transport -- extremely well-coordinated limbs, Siem Reap is a loose assortment of centuries-old temples, sunburnt tourists and well...'strongly scented' marketplaces, all housed in the distinctive, pervasive red dust of a country caught in its own smoke trail as it tries to move forward. It is perhaps the first time in my life that I don't speak a word of the local language (at least I didn't when I first moved here a couple weeks ago), and no one seems to understand what I previously thought was universal sign language; 'You', 'me', 'yes', 'no', 'eat', 'read', 'drink', 'home', 'money' and most of what is a given in other parts of the world. Needless to say, much is lost in translation.

Nevertheless, it is a great reminder that no one will understand you the way you want them to, only the way they want to. Great for my personal learning, but not as helpful for everyday life.

So I am trying. I am trying to learn Khmer. I am trying to expend less energy and drink more water to cope with more sun than I've seen in years. I am trying to quell my more vegetarian pangs and appreciate the flavour of meat/fermented fish in every. possible. dish. I am trying to walk slower, see things slower and more thorougly, regardless of whether that means I end up circling the same block twelve times a day (there is not really that much more to downtown Siem Reap). I am trying to desecrate my inhibitive (and probably well-founded) sense of self-preservation around non-human living beings so that I am not the laughing stock of the farm I spend most of my days on. And I am trying to find a place that makes me a decent iced soy latte.

I am constantly reminded that this kind of change, this kind of work is what I wanted, that this part of the world is where I come from, and that this experience, like life, is both a blessing and an opportunity, but mostly that it will be what I make of it.

Much of it could have come close to not happening. I signed a contract less than 18 hours before packing up my life in New York and shifting here. But I'm here, and I'm ready to take it on for the most part, I think. I have the best of friends to share it with, the wisdom of the ancients, the internet at my fingertips and so much love from every direction possible that it's hard not to be buoyed by it all.

So here's to more of doing the things I love and learning crazy amounts from it. Come join me on my travels, won't you?

Saturday, March 7, 2015

On Living Photography

Many of us have photos of long ago birthdays or the predictable poses at graduations and weddings. But isn’t it the moments in between that capture the rawness of how we live?

Meredith Novario on her children: “I want them to know how they looked to me,” she says. “I don’t want to tell them everything, I just want to show them what I saw. And from there, it can become their own open-ended story.”

From here. (Photograph below is mine) 

Bryant Park Carousel, Christmas 2014
(Click photo to view on black)

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Sometimes the Sea

"You know the thing I love best about this city?", someone asked me last night. He was a stranger but for that confession.

"The freedom? The feeling that you could do anything here? The glitz of the UN?", I ventured. We were talking in one of the most iconic of buildings in Midtown Manhattan, after all.

"The fact that you can take a train to the sea."

Well, there's that.

"For someone like me who comes from a landlocked country [Austria], it's amazing to me how I can sit down in the subway and just...emerge at the ocean."

Of all the things he liked about New York, that was one I would perhaps not think of immediately. So much of my life here in the past two months has been about the grangy towering metal and glass and what goes on within. That interspersed with lovely, lazy brunches and walks in bits and corners of the city. Oh, and snow. Endless snow. Easy then to forget that beyond this piece of solid metamorphic rock, we are surrounded by so much more.

But the sea always finds a way to travel with me, somehow. And with all the moving I've done over this year, I might as well be floating on some (cold) current around the world's oceans. Water meets water meets water, right?

Still, blame winter and the clouded over skies, or just plain old inertia, I realised I haven't paid homage to the sea since I got here. So here's a picture from the city I left it in last. It's not the sea, but it's so close, I can almost smell it.

How's that for sea-rious yearning? I'll send you a picture postcard when I make it to the shore.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

On Understanding and Finding Your Flow

Happy new year, you! Wherever you are, I hope this year ushers in a host of little lovelies, whether you can see them immediately or not. I also hope you on your part find a way to fill this year with wonder, memorable moments, and love.

Winter flowers on the Highline

I could say lots more, but I'm going to let Ms Popova from Brainpickings help me with that today. In response to (and in support of) Greek philosopher Philo's maxim: "Be kind, for everyone you meet is carrying a great burden", she quotes an extract from surgeon Sherwin Nuland's conversation with radio show host Krista Tippett,
"When you recognize that pain – and response to pain – is a universal thing, it helps explain so many things about others, just as it explains so much about yourself. It teaches you forbearance. It teaches you a moderation in your responses to other people's behavior. It teaches you a sort of understanding. It essentially tells you what everybody needs. You know what everybody needs? You want to put it in a single word?  
Everybody needs to be understood.  
And out of that comes every form of love.  
If someone truly feels that you understand them, an awful lot of neurotic behavior just disappears – disappears on your part, disappears on their part. So if you're talking about what motivates this world to continue existing as a community, you've got to talk about love... And my argument is it comes out of your biology because on some level we understand all of this. We put it into religious forms. It's almost like an excuse to deny our biology. We put it into pithy, sententious aphorisms, but it's really coming out of our deepest physiological nature."
Perhaps this is the greatest message of all. Be kind. Show some understanding. The ocean of life is so expansive; sometimes you're ebbing peacefully into clear skies, sometimes you're being tossed into the eye of a storm. (Though you know what they say about the eye of the storm) You just have to roll with it. Watch the waves go by. And dive into them when the time is right.

In other words, you have to find your flow. Find it, make it, melt into it.

That way, by the time you reach the shore, you are at peace with the wave that brought you there.

Have a good one, everyone!