Finding Sita

The air hung heavy with a mild flavor of coconut oil floating no doubt from people’s skin, and hair (and probably their food, too). Despite my exhaustion over the past 2 hours of standing on a roller coaster of a train ride, I couldn’t help but stole occasional glances to the mother and son on the left. The slender, tanned looking lady in plain orange sari next to me was hand-feeding her seven-year-old son a mixture of cooked rice and something smelling suspiciously like curry. I observed the way her fingers moved to collect stubbornly scattering pieces of rice, and made soft contact with her son’s luscious lips. Where were these two heading to, I wonder, on a Saturday morning no less. Were they travelling to see the father and husband who was probably slaving away in a distant province just so she could prepare homemade curry rice for her young son on a train where most people would rather buy lunch from the loudly, yet strangely melodically, yelling sellers instead? There seemed to be a certain degree of understanding between the mother and the son. The way his mouth opened, in sync with his mother rhythmic fingers.
Swirl, rice, pork, swirl, pat, feed.
Chew, open, chew.
Surrounded by such familiarity, by such synchronicity, one couldn’t help but felt, rather acutely of just how much of a foreigner one was.

Yes, I was racially foreigner, and alienated appearance-wise- the only slant-eyed Chinese looking Asian in this sea of wide-eyed, heavy-lipped, Indian looking people. But there seemed to be another factor of difference, bubbling from deep within. These people had their own rhythm of traversing and conversing. Me? I was still largely lost, both metaphorically and literally. I was lost as to what I would like to do with my life after the trip, and lost as to what station I should leave the train owing to the absolutely unhelpful English announcement from the train radio which sounded neither Sri Lankan, nor English.

Having caught a slightly uncomfortable shift in the eyes of the busy mother, I knew she must have caught me staring. How rude of me. To avoid further embarrassing the unsuspecting mother and child, I averted my gaze to the square box of scenery, running indifferently at the son’s left instead. Green, brown, blue and white shapes mashed together, barely distinguishable from one another. I recalled the brilliantly lit jungle of Anuradhapura with occasional bands of wide eyed monkeys and white birds circling never faraway from me yesterday. This was the famous land of Lanka, with its rich jungle, and richer inhabitants. This was where Ravana, the demon king, lived and cried, and fought. This was the land where Sita spent a large potion of her life being imprisoned, waiting for her husband, Rama to rescue her. And at that instance, I realized,

I was Rama, full of hopes and dreams, cocky to a certain limit, seeking something (happiness? fulfillment? love?) in the vast island of Lanka.

I was also Sita, abducted, lonely and lost, full of regrets for past foolish mistakes, waiting for a redemption, a salvation from the current episode of nightmare.

I was both lost and seeking at the same time, depressed, and hopeless and headstrong and hopeful.

I was Rama and Sita was me.

Happiness Tour Package

2016 has been a year full of new, exciting travelling experience for me. I mean, it literally started with a domestic solo trip, followed by a few more international solo adventures. Though I’ve not achieved the ultimate backpacker status by visiting the entire world this year, I believe I’ve gained enough insights, well, enough for a short blog post anyway. Essentially, this experience just confirms my suspicion that travelling advertisements are definitely too good to be true. In a typical exotic island advertisement you see on the internet, there is always that one typical girl doing yoga on a rock with a smiling face, and a hot guy sunbathing on the beach with heaps of alcohol involved. The catchphrase is always about experiencing something amazing, wonderful and can ultimately bring us happiness.

Now, that’s the deceptive promises that travelling agents give us. Book this flight, they say, your happiness will be guaranteed. Well, guess what? It’s not. I’ve written about the arguments for and against travelling with some supporting researches here, so this is just a more personal complimentary reflection.

You see, I believe happiness (here, loosely defined as having pleasure and satisfaction) generally comes from two sources- outer and inner ones. Outer sources of happiness may include a nice weather, a comfortable bed or an air-conditioned atmosphere. We may also get the sense of wonder and awe from seeing the stunning arrays of colors from a sunset on a mountain peak or a three-thousand-year old man-made structure that embodies the heart and soul of the civilization that created it.

The thing is, yes, you can get this kind of happiness from travelling. Book a trip to, say, Egypt and its most luxurious of hotels and you’re all set. The problem with this though is that you need money. Without money, you can’t get in close and personal with anything of typical natural or cultural value. Going to the museum, getting into a world heritage site and sleeping on the softest bed you’ve ever lain in cost you bucks. Even camping and mountain climbing needs you to spend for the trip and preparation. If you don’t have the money, mate, you’ll still be deprived of such happiness-generating factors no matter where you are. Just take a look at the poverty-stricken local people in your destination. They are literally living in the most magical place (you think) day in and day out, yet they are still miserable as long as they don’t earn enough to cover their day to day struggle.

The second type of happiness- the more personal, more sought-after happiness is the one that comes from within. It’s a person’s ability to see, understand and appreciate the things around and inside of themselves. Needless to say, this is definitely not dependent upon the environment. You can be as contented in an old hammock in your backyard reading the afternoon away as you are trekking in the famous jungles of the beautiful Amazon. It’s obvious that if you want to escape demon inside your mirror, travelling will probably fail you since that demon also travels from one mirror to another, following you to every corner of the world. If you don’t acknowledge and make peace with it, you will never escape its wailing cries, no matter how many exotic islands you’ve scuba dived in.

This year’s adventures have freed me from the illusion that I can become a happier person just by travelling alone. No, I can be a happier, more contented person if I have enough money to spoil myself during trips. And to seek for an inner happiness, my boring old balcony is as great as any place to do so.

So in conclusion… travelling serves no purpose then?

Definitely not. Go pack your back and book your flight because despite everything, travelling still provides you with a unique opportunity to explore a different way of life, and meet new interesting people whom you would never have met otherwise.  It will force you to listen and trust your survival instinct and learn to live independently. Rest assured that you will definitely change as a person after an adventurous trip, but just remember that happiness? That’s definitely not a complimentary feature in your travelling package.

Magical Travelling Dust

I believe part of what makes travelling so magical is the fact that it forces us to really appreciate our surroundings. Who knows? Maybe this will be our last time being in the suburb of a foreign beach soaking up the sun with a stray dog dozing off peacefully near us. Or maybe till the next time we are here again, say, 10 years’ time, this place will no longer be the same as it is now; and neither will us.

This sense of urgency- the sense that if I don’t soak it up now, it will be gone forever- forces our scattering minds to retreat into its child-like state again- curious, inquisitive, and hyper aware of all our surroundings. This will not last, might as well as drink in as much as we can for now, right?

It makes sense that these fully utilised attention and awareness brings appreciation and ultimately happiness because it coincides with the notion that mindful living- the act of being aware of what’s happening today instead of worrying about yesterday or anxious about tomorrow.

I don’t know. I just think travelling is so appealing to so many people partly because it forces them to be mindful which in turns brings about a sense of slowed-down time, and clearer mind.

That begs the question, why can’t we always practice this sense of ultra-awareness and indiscriminate attention in our everyday life? After all, wherever we are, there’s always the urgency of death, hanging upon our every breadth. This life, no matter how ordinary, will cease to exist in the future. This moment, no matter how mundane, never happened in the past, and will never happen exactly as it is now ever again.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from this trip in Sri Lanka, it is to really commit to mindful living because life is way too short and precious to only be alive during the holidays.

If you’d life to explore more, read my take on the art of slowness here, Slower, Harder, Better!

Six Things I learned from One and a Half Year of Smart-phone Free Life

In 2015, I gave my ancient Iphone 3 (yes, these things still exist) to my sister, adding up to a long list of hand-me-downs she’d received from her big sister over the years which left me with a  red 20-dollar Nokia phone.

This decision was prompted one ordinary afternoon, when I caught myself instead of enjoying the fresh scent of money tree in my school’s garden after a fresh afternoon rain, I was instead, busy replying to Instagram comments about that same garden.

One and a half year have passed, and here are the things I’ve learnt so far from roaming the outside world without a smartphone:

  1. You feel much much lighter when you go out: I don’t know about you, but I usually feel quite anxious and pressured when there’s a chance, however slim, of people sending me urgent messages. Of course, I didn’t go completely off the line, I still had my normal Nokia phone (which is amazing), but the fact is that, people are more reluctant to send not-so-important messages to your number which means you have less chance of being interrupted (rudely) by those annoying ping ping just to be updated of a classmate’s breakfast picture.
  2. The less frequently you reply, the less people chat to you: this seems pretty obvious in hindsight, but when you’re caught up in the whirlwind of inbox messages, it might seem like the whole burden of the world is resting on your shoulders. You might feel like if you don’t reply that one freaking message, their whole life will be in ruins. I’ve learnt that after people go through the initial shock of not getting an instant reply, they pretty much leave you alone until there’s something important to talk to you. Even then, if they have important things to say to you, they should know to contact your number.
  3. It can become very very inconvenient sometimes: of course, sometimes you can get quite frustrated, say, your boss just sent you a file, and you have no way of accessing it because you’re outside and without a device that can connect to the internet. It’s extremely frustrating especially if you are freelance worker like me who relies on the internet for work inquiries. However, I’ve managed to survive by informing my bosses that they should contact me through the phone. I don’t think they are very happy about that, but at least it’s not an impossible demand.
  4. Less photos: the thing about not having a smartphone is that unless you have a camera with you, you are not likely to be able to snap the interesting moments that are happening in your life! It used to upset me that I won’t have photos from a wonderful hangout or a beautiful concert to post on social media later. However, I’ve grown to appreciate the fact that I have a wonderful hangout or a beautiful concert in my memory in the first place. It works well for me too since I’m more inclined to use writing as a way to immortalize my experience rather than a photo. However, I also remember to bring my camera with me if I have plans to capture shots.
  5. There’s a sense of security especially if you live in a theft infested city like Phnom Penh. Frequent cases of phone robbery are a norm, and so, without a smart phone, you feel much safer going out, and receiving calls in public.
  6. Short trips abroad suck without a smartphone: seriously, I’ve gone on a solo trip before with nothing but a Wifi-iPad, and I found it hard to find places to go and things to do. Indeed, you can use the old face-to-face communication to find out more about the place, but if your trip is time sensitive, a smart phone with an internet connection is a very helpful device to have.

I guess the biggest lesson I’ve learnt from this is the sense of control I have over my life and present moment after I eliminated the time I spent on smart phones out of the equation. Of course, I know quitting smart phone cold-turkey is a little bit extreme. You might argue that learning to control it is a better option, and that’s true. But for people who have been trapped in one side of the scale for too long, maybe going to the extreme opposite side is the best option in bringing a new perspective into their sense of balance.


Adventure with Lifters!

I got a message from my friend, Sonita on the evening of 9th, September. It was short and to-the-point, “pack your bags. I managed to get you a seat to Kep this weekend.”

And yup, that’s how it all started. Continue reading Adventure with Lifters!