Friday, August 11, 2006

in travelling fashion

the past month has been a bit of a revelation to me about the different ways people travel.

i've discovered that my best pal june has no patience for time whatsoever and prefers to have every slot of her day filled with a place to visit, an activity to do or just something new to experience. markus prefers to slow things down and talk to people, to gain as much first-hand knowledge about the culture as possible. my friend shirley from hk, whom i had not seen since i was 11, chose petaling street and central market over the petronas twin towers when she visited kl. as for me, i find that as much as i like activities, people and shopping, i like them in ways that are very very different from june, markus and shirls.

the most important element of travel, in my opinion, is time: time to spend at my own pace, time to take in everything i like and, this is crucial, time for me to reflect on my thoughts and feelings for the day. there is nothing worse than a rushed 3-days-4-nights tour where i am whisked from one location to another in an air-conditioned bus, stopping for meals at (God forbid!) chinese restaurants when i'm not in china.

i would trade a bus route guide, a map with all the tourist spots and markets circled in pink and time to breathe for that. anytime.

while i enjoy activities, i find that doing things robs me of the luxury of being able to stop and appreciate things slowly. i have long known that extreme sports is not for safe ol' me, however cool it is to brag that i have bungee jumped into a beautiful canyon in new zealand (not that i've done that) or scaled the heights of mt. kilimanjaro (nope, haven't done that either). but that doesn't mean that i will not take a deep breath and go for it, as long as there is sufficient persuading involved. lol. i do, however, prefer activities where there is time to waste in between, for me to take another deep breath and just immerse myself in the experience.

during the climb at mt. kinabalu, i badly wanted to stop for longer periods of time to take in the full beauty of the place. alas, i was a slow climber and there was hardly any time to spare for photographs and for gazing at the lovely view from the mountain. although i was pretty upset, i would not have wanted to be one of the singaporean tourists that came up after us; they made numerous stops along the way to savour the wonders mt. kinabalu served up but paid for it later as they only reached laban rata after dark, having gone through two heavy downpours and, once at laban rata, were faced with the prospect of getting little or no rest before the ascent at 2am.

as for culture, i cannot deny that the best way to know the place is to know the people. i am most fascinated whenever ian wright, of globe trekker fame, shares a meal with the local people on the show and gets a valuable lesson in the country's cultural practices. when markus shared his stories of his encounters with the people of sabah (he was in sandakan before he joined us in kk), i felt a twinge of jealousy because i knew that i would not be able to just go up to people and talk to them and, at the end of the day, get invited for a bowl of soup at a primary schoolteacher's house.

i am, and have been for most of my life, an observer. i prefer to learn about a place's culture by living there and experiencing it for myself. to me, there are no shortcuts to learning about people's lives. a chat on the bus may leave the door ajar, but it can only be truly opened if i lived there for awhile.

this is, of course, unrealistic when it comes to travelling. it also gives off the impression of being unfriendly if i were to really live in a foreign country. i blame myself for the fact that although i am familiar with the way singapore works, i hardly have any singaporean friends. i remained an observer for the two years i was there, so eventhough i know and am very comfortable with the singapore culture, i don't know much about the people itself.

pretty ironic, if you think about it. maybe it just means that i don't know the culture as well as i think i do because i don't know the people.

anyway, shopping is at the bottom of my travel list. the one and only reason why i'd shop at all when travelling is because my friends and family would most definitely expect souvenirs. i love collecting knick-knacks but, due to the lack of a display cabinet, i have resorted to taking as many photos as i can and saving bus tickets, museum tickets, and other little things i have accumulated over the course of the trip instead. they serve as reminders to what i did there and they evoke much more memories of the smells, tastes and touches of the place than any postcard or wooden figurine ever will.

one of my most treasured souvenirs from the mad-rush-tour-bus holiday i had with my sister in cambodia last march is the pamphlet that was given out free at the s-21 tuol sleng genocide museum in phnom penh. everytime i read through the (spelling mistake-laden) description of the museum's history and look into the eyes of the innocents that were murdered there, i am brought back to the dark, blood-streaked walls of the converted high school. i remember the overwhelming grief that greeted me as i walked the corridors and the pain in the guide's voice as he told us about his own experience during the khmer rouge's bloody reign in the 1970s.

the red and blue kroma (scarf) that now serves as a table runner in my room can never elicit the same rush of emotions i feel when i see that pamphlet. it just can't.

i guess the best way to travel would be with a companion that seeks the same kind of experience as you do. my sister is the closest i'll have to the perfect travel buddy because we enjoy travelling the same way (map in one hand, time in the other) and we love the same things...although she is less than enthusiastic about the prospect of walking from one tourist location to the other, lol.

however, i am not picky when it comes to choosing a travel partner. the friends i have travelled with so far have all given me a chance to experience different modes of travel - and we're not just talking forms of transportation here. with june, there was never a moment too dull. after talking to markus, i am far more aware of how important it is to overcome my aloof behaviour and to talk to people because it is the best way to get to know the place in a short period of time. shirley demonstrated her good taste and eye for detail when i went shopping with her at petaling street, central market and klcc.

they are three very different people with three distinct travel styles that compliment my own preferences when it comes to travelling. i'm just glad that at the end of the day, we each took something different away from the experience but we also completed the experience as a whole for each other.

lishun at 6:47 PM