Monday, May 16, 2016

Why I love my Kindle

For one thing, it fits in my evening bag. Every book I have ever loved, and all the new ones in the world fit into a tiny bejeweled thing whose very existence is antithetic to an evening with a book. For me, that makes it a magical object straight out of Harry Potter, like Hermione’s bottomless bag.

Then there's the sheer breadth and scope of it. A press of a button is the soft thump of a library door, book-lined corridors stretching into infinity, an endless sunshiny Saturday afternoon. Whatever happened to all the William books? Well here are a few, ready to read in a minute. Haven’t seen an old-fashioned Mills & Boon in years or craving the fifth book of the Hitchhiker’s Guide? You can find it now, no need to get up. Want something new but not too much so? Here are some recommendations based on the types of books you like to read. What was that book about a nutmeg someone was talking about at the dinner party? Here’s a Google search and yes, there’s the book. One click and downloading now. It’s an almost overwhelming luxury.

I was an annoying kid, so my external primary school world was essentially solitary, but on the inside, cobbled streets and pavement cafes were crowded with fictitious beings and imaginary lives more compelling than the real one. Over the years plenty of actual people wandered in too, but my first friends were the books. I still like them to come with me; you never know when you might need an old friend. With the Kindle, they can.

In my parents’ house there was a small bookshelf behind the big ones, covered with dust and filled with the yellowing remains of the first “big” books I came across. Hardy, Tolstoy, Dumas and Shakespeare were not pulp fiction so they were not kept out of reach, but some of these were very big books indeed for an 11-year-old. Tess, for example, was read too early. As for Tolstoy and Shakespeare, I understood maybe one word in five, but I powered through anyway (it was good training for a career in advertising).

There were also age-appropriate books in there containing wondrous facts like baby swans are yellow and called cygnets, and what a Lipizzaner stallion is. When I booked my first holiday at 32, it was to Vienna, drawn by an echo of that word, a dim but persistent impression of castles and waltzes. Other such books brought into our lives Saturn’s rings, Jupiter’s moons, the redness of Mars and the existence of Australia. Dinosaurs, meteors, the Bermuda triangle and Apollo 11 are forever connected in my head to horses and baby birds.

The point is, the books came first and early, and inform everything I see and do. They remain my happy place. I love the social round, dressing up and laughing and being loud. So I’m glad the awkward, hyper-sensitive side now gets to bring her armchair by the window, a sequined blanket and a pile of books; she no longer feels the need to demand attention and cramp my style. The Kindle: More effective than medication, far more addictive and with no harmful side effects.

Friday, May 06, 2016

To the young waiters in Den & Trang

Thank you for the smile of recognition after two years. And the questions you clearly want to ask (as do I), but we have never had enough of the other’s language to go beyond `orders and bills.

So thank you, in writing, for still being here. I saw the scaffolding next door from a distance and I thought you’d closed, and I really needed you to still be here today. That's one of the reasons I am sniffling at my laptop. I’m sorry about that, but there’s nobody here and anyway this is my table.

I notice your piano’s still here. So are the weird aquarium decorations, though I see the drowned giraffes and elephants have been taken out. I guess someone has begun to take a practical look at the place and monetize it. Your menu is the same but the food has improved and the coffee deteriorated. You have new tables and chairs; the old black and white sewing machine tables are being phased out. You are selling the cacti that used to sit on your tables – I wish I could take one, except I don’t like cacti and I can’t bring your mainland soil into the island I live on now. And tell me, have the creepers hanging down your wall always had plastic ones mixed with the real? They used to smell of rainforest when it rained; I doubt they’ve invented plastic that can do that. That's okay, change happens. It’s a good thing in the long run, even if you did like those little wooden giraffes - I remember you seemed to. They amused me too, every time.

I got two tiny tattoos yesterday, they stand for transformation and integrity, my two defining qualities. My lightness has gone too, but those remain unchanged.

I will leave soon, sooner than I expected. Meanwhile thank you for remembering my table, for having noticed that I used to like the wind chimes and waving apologetically to the tree where they no longer hang. I come here not only for the friends I miss every day, but also for the place where I am equally happy to be alone. And that's your fundamental quality that is unchanged. May there be other cafes for me wherever I go, and other regulars for you.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

A house that built us

It came into our lives by accident. My dad was out with an old friend when they passed a rundown house for sale, and he saw something there that nobody else did. When he brought my mother to see it, she was horrified but decided to trust whatever vision he was so keen on. So it was bought, between him and my brother. Then for three months he walked about making complicated drawings (and inflicting them via email on those who’d hoped Dubai would be a safe distance from the epicenter). He was practically eating and sleeping with a pencil and ruler, spent his days in huddles with masons, plumbers and electricians.

The rest of us hampered and hindered proceedings in our usual aggressive fashion. We fought at the dining table (the most favoured arena), in the car, on the phone and in hardware stores. Deciding on a simple kitchen tap could include every grievance - real or imagined - collected from birth. But there came a day when that dingy place was transformed into a thing of light and space, complete with pink bathroom for the daughter and blue one for the son. And we could fight afresh about furniture placement.

It has hosted a spectacular housewarming, a happy wedding, birthdays, anniversaries, parties of all kinds. It welcomed a wonderful daughter-in-law and grandchild. And a running stream of family and friends. It healed returning prodigals and sent them forth again. It had its fair share of slammed doors and “discussions” that require yelling and angry tears, and also much of the opposite. Not to mention the regular complement of poisonous snakes, squirrels, birds, bandicoots and dogs that have generally surrounded us (all as noisy and ungovernable as the human inhabitants).

The new owners plan to raze it and build anew. So the home remains intact, playing out the scenes in the photo albums until the end of time. A quiet guest who’s slipped away from the chattering dinner crowd is forever curled up on the beanbag in the book room upstairs. A close group of cousins or friends talk into the night on the balcony. My brother and I are sharing confidences, plotting and/or fighting in a continuous loop. No matter how far I go, I stand always in the doorway of the kitchen chattering to my mom, or the entrance to the “workshop” talking to my dad. And a large German Shepherd remains here, purposefully quartering the yard, from raintree to silver oak, bamboo to bougainvillea (with breaks to be fussed over like the world’s biggest puppy)

Now we look forward to arguing over setting up the dining table in a new place to continue the conversations that have fortified us all our lives, making our journeys possible.

Thursday, December 03, 2015

The man in seat 61

I found him first in 2007 when I was planning my first epic train journey, across the US. I was startled to find that someone had listed practically every train in the world, with detailed information on how to plan your journey, where to book tickets, and everything else you need to know. He’ll practically tell you what platform it’ll arrive on!

Over the past seven years, he’s become an essential part of my travel planning. Somehow he is bound in my head with a bar in Providence, having a drink with my cousin as we waited for the release of the last Harry Potter. Because he's part of the journey of that book we bought, which my cousin read first, I read on the train across the country, and then left for a friend 3000 miles later, in LA. He is another cousin who put me on a train in Boston Station, and the one who met me at the end of that trip, a continuity of childhood travel completely unaffected by the distances we have all gone since. He is part of my own writings in a Buddhist library in the foothills of the Himalayas, involving a very different kind of train journey through Middle India. He’s the reason I was able to brave the trains of Vietnam, and buy tickets in the most bewildering language in the world.

He demystified the Italian and Spanish railways for me. He helped me plan an even more epic train ride from Saigon to Moscow. The fact that my trip didn’t eventually work out is less important than the fact that it exists. The same goes for Norway’s Flam railway, the Sydney-Perth Indian Pacific, and the Tren Crucero in Ecuador.

When I plan a holiday, I do the usual searches, read the advice about cars and drivers, go through the apocryphal information on travelling alone, all the highly subjective views on Trip Advisor. I listen in on uptight backpackers giving each other misguided advice. And then I turn to my main man, who has what I need, carefully organized, fully thought through, answering not just the questions I have but those I hadn’t thought of asking. Most importantly, he knows you’re probably not a shoestring traveler, and would like some information about the most comfortable form of train travel.

Having grown up with a father who is passionate about trains, a family that ran the Southern Railways, and an India where the train was pretty much the only viable form of long-distance transport, I have always been used to train information that is accurate, precise and detailed. So I have immense respect for this labour of love.

As I’ve said in an earlier post, every train contains at least one passenger per car who can glance at a pair of orphan rails in the night and tell you which station it is, or wake from a deep sleep and know instantly where we’ve stopped, why, where the coming freight train is bound and at what speed. It’s the man in seat 61*.

*PS: If you're on an Indian train, this is probably my dad. If you're on a plane anywhere, that's definitely my brother.

Monday, October 05, 2015

So this year I thought I would make you a present out of my own head

Whenever I see a Pajero, I see two hopeful friends engaging a four-wheel-drive for the first time, at short notice, on a soft-sand beach we were not supposed to be driving on. Following the fortunes of six fictional Friends, and trying to decide which of us was which. Walking through strange clubs in search of a Friday night. Crashing parties we were not invited to and getting in every photo on principle. After messy nights out, I made sure to drop you home first and watched you enter your door before moving on, and then I watched you turn into one of the best moms I know. You grew up way faster than I did. You became a star, and stayed one.

I see a group of friends rallying loyally, no matter what. I hear honest opinions, yours tactfully phrased, mine not so much. I hear a lot of laughter, mocking mere time and space and the very concept of goodbye. We’ve cried for every little thing, happy and sad, but shed no tears at the big stuff, just tossed off our wine in a purposeful toast, and got on with it.

So we kissed some frogs who turned out to be just frogs. And took the occasional wrong exit in our careers, and had to make u-turns. We made some fashion choices along the way that will forever haunt us on Facebook. We did things to our hair that our best friends would have advised against – if we weren’t all such enthusiastic lemmings.

The time-lapse video would show Bacardi-coke (Diet for you, Regular for me) turn to coloured cocktails and lethal shots, and then distil into wine. A procession of Mango and Zara and hair products (straighteners for you and curly ones for me), and then all of it again, but this time pushing strollers. A hundred relationships joining, parting, coming back together, binding in the warmth of a Dubai night. A few more lethal shots. And a big woohoo.

The YouTube tribute would be a pageant of enthusiasm, generosity, sensitivity, and strength, crowned with bling and anointed with perfume. We’ve cut many birthday cakes, blown out too many candles to count, but you are forever 22, and I am always 28.

-End of birthday present-

(Really? You prefer the kind that comes in boxes? Sure, it's in the mail. I totally remembered to courier it.)

Monday, September 28, 2015

Making friends

I don't know how to; I've never had to. They just came. Good friends. Bad friends. Friends who are still in my life 15 years and three countries later. Those who became family in five minutes. Others who came and went according to their convenience or time of life. But always copious numbers of them, of all kinds, ranging from the ephemeral bonding in the rest room of a club to the kind where you get on a plane to be there when she picks up her divorce papers, or you’re willing to risk the entire friendship to tell him what he needs to hear but doesn't want to know.

And since I've never had to go looking for them before, I'm now a bit handicapped in what seems to be the world’s most difficult place to make friends. I faithfully follow the instructions I'm given on WhatsApp from other time zones, so I go out and join things. Yoga classes, Thai boxing lessons, Colour Runs, wine tastings. I smile at idiots in the gym, in case they're nice idiots. I’m friendly to the mean girl by the pool in case she's only mean because she's friendless. I doggedly stay at barbecues where I am bored to tears in the hope that somewhere in the humourless, needlessly competitive throng is another person feeling the same way I do. I put up with being patronised on the subject of children (lack of), and irresponsibility (too much of) in the hope that underneath it all is a real person worth knowing. I stick on at dinners that crush my spirit in the belief that the problem is mine to fix. I hold on too tight to friendship that was never meant to be anything but light, until it finally stops fluttering and dies. In short, I’m the idiot in the gym.

Recently, while attempting to be bright and entertaining, and winding up just being dull, I remembered suddenly what my mom said to me when I first left for college: Don’t worry if you don’t find friends immediately, the right friends will find you. Well, she's been right for 25 years, so there’s no reason to disbelieve it now. Which means I can just peacefully return to my Kindle. Here's my number, call me maybe.

Thursday, July 02, 2015


A few years ago, an aura-reader I talked to in a serious error of judgement said sadly: “I’m sorry, I don’t see it”. I’d asked her the inevitable question of “Will I be married? Will I be loved?”, fully expecting in reply the usual variation on “Que Sera Sera”. It was a bit startling to get a flat no.

On the other hand, I never had a picture in my head of a wedding, or a vision of who the future partner would be. Some introspection before I turned 40 revealed that I had nevertheless been certain of a home and family. And the reason my age bothered me was that I had no new picture of the future to replace the expired one I hadn’t even known about.

Until then I’d been perfectly happy being single, but I started to become conscious of it. Ten years without a date seemed abnormal; I didn’t fit into the social frameworks of my peer group. Wrapped up in secure coupledom, friends gave me ridiculous reasons for why I was single. But I’d had plenty of opportunity for observation, and knew it wasn't about what you looked like, your BMI, IQ or point of view. I’d seen all types hook up eventually. Except me, of course, so the lady was probably right.

Now they’ve started to tell me I should adopt a child, as if a child were a hobby, or a validation exercise. I smile and nod and read another book. Because it has always been more interesting to read a book. Looking back I see I must have been a terrible girlfriend. I’ve always worked better as a friend.

Now at forty two, I can finally accept myself with relief. I think too much. I take things too personally. I’m too anxious about doing the right thing. I store Allen keys and spare buttons. I read manuals, company newsletters, annual reports and the chairman’s speech. I get excited about the stuff I learn there. I’m kind rather than competitive, because I sense what people are feeling before they recognise it themselves. I’m loyal – never blindly so, but completely (and this is often uncomfortable for the recipient). Above all, I am always, fundamentally, the girl in glasses who will leave you without a backward glance for a book. There’s nothing wrong with that. It takes all kinds.

Sure, I stand a little left of centre, but I stand tall.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Just two days in Bali

Sitting in the airport, composing excited Facebook posts, as befitting someone on their way to a fabulous beach resort, I knew it was not a good time to go to Bali. It was grey and rainy, both outside and in. I did not know if I was going towards something or just away, but whatever it was, I was dragging too much baggage for comfort.

My first day there was spent on the lovely Nusa Dua beach, willing the sea to take away the crawling restlessness, the unreasonable expectations doomed to disappointment. It worked a bit, and in the evening, I drifted to Seminyak, uncertain of what was there. What I found was the happiest place on earth. A beach stretching endlessly in both directions, a row of busy restaurants with brightly coloured paper lanterns and bean bags, and beyond them the sea untouched by the artificial light, surf white in the moonlight.

I picked a place and settled down for the night, and soon noticed among the chattering groups and limpid couples, a lot of people on their own, reading. You can tell things by looking at them. The Singaporean woman with the LV bag reading Paulo Coelho is waiting for friends to join her. The Australian girl curled up in a bean bag reading Neil Gaiman is travelling alone, but won't be alone for long. The self-contained older Indian man with the Kindle is also travelling alone. He's curious about me but is going to say hello to the Australian (10 minutes later I was proved right). The South African lady on her iPad is not reading at all, but browsing or checking Facebook. She's hoping she won't be alone long either, and she won't, but it's going to take till later in the evening. The man reading a Dutch book is recently heartbroken. I don't know what conclusions can be drawn about me, alternately observing, writing, reading and texting, like the Recording Angel’s PA afflicted with severe ADD.

Much later, in a surprising development, the Indian guy stopped to say in passing: “You’re a Bruce Springsteen song, but I’m in a Katy Perry sort of place.” I wished him well in his endeavours. As he walked away, a voice behind me said “Wanker.” I turned to see an old man covered in tattoos, a much-used surfboard leaning next to him. I told him I agreed with his reading. And he said he hoped I wouldn’t now feel the need to ask inane questions about whether he surfed or where he was from. I said I knew he was from Adelaide or thereabouts. He looked so startled, I explained I use to live in Vietnam. He agreed there were a lot of Australian accents there, and moved to my table saying “You’re going to need help finishing that bottle anyway”. And so I had a relaxed hour with an 80-year-old surfer, listening to war stories, what Seekers concerts were like in the seventies, the rigours of removing landmines in Cambodia, how to run a winery in Barossa Valley, and the life and times of his grandchildren. I told him my dad used to grow grapes for a winery, and discussed the differences between hybrids and genetic modification. He was waiting for his wife to return from a spa. When she (unsurprisingly young and Asian) returned, she showed me her shopping, recommended the spa she went to, ordered another bottle and told me what it was like to grow up in a rich family in Myanmar. I told her the stories my grandaunt used to tell us about being an expat there long ago, when it was still Burma.

By the time they left, the beach was full of music, some people were dancing, others were still surfing. And I saw with relief that the Recording Angel had got the memo, and the South African lady had found someone.

At midnight, I stood for a moment at the entrance to the road and looked back with deep satisfaction. The sea rolled massively in and out, the notes of guitars rode the sound of surf breaking, the perfect place and time. I watched a lone lantern rise lightly, happy to glow within itself. Not all those who wander are lost.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Heavy suitcase, light heart

Found this blogpost that I wrote exactly three years ago today, the first day I landed in Vietnam. I took the photo at the coffee shop I was in then. It went on to become "my place" in Saigon.

I have often paid excess baggage. It is impossible for me to go somewhere without six pairs of shoes and three bags. A profusion of other accessories. Laptop, two phones, external hard drive and all their attendant paraphernalia. Extra adaptors, back-up headphones, 57 pens (all but the worst one get lost in the ride to the airport), skincare for various parts of the body and times of day, specialist hair care. All of this is somehow doubled on the way back.

But in my head, I travel light. I carry no pre-conceptions, bring no personal agenda. I leave self-destructive habits and personal existential angst at home. I need about a week to pack the smallest suitcase but my mind is travel-ready in about fifteen minutes.

So when people tell me I am brave to come out to a strange country at short notice, I don’t know how to be sufficiently modest – to be effectively self-deprecating, you have to believe the compliment is true. The truth is you don’t need a lot of courage to get on a plane that’s been booked for you, be met by a hotel that’s been pre-arranged for you and work in an office exactly like all the others you’ve known. Within an hour of landing – in the middle of a long weekend –I got a call from my new boss’s PA, asking if everything was okay. It was.

Yes there’s a language to get familiar with, there are cultural idiosyncrasies that you have to recognise and accept. Even more important, you need to be able to separate those from personal behavioural traits. You need to find out where things are and how they get done. It’s not hard to do, it comes to you in the course of living every day. And it will come to me here too, in this unexpected, wonderfully exuberant city that I never knew existed till a few hours ago.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

After three months in Jakarta

It’s hard to get a grip on Jakarta; there’s too much of it. Its not easy to reach around from point A to point B, or any other points – it’s often not clear which is which. Even the food is hard to pin down and understand. Perhaps this is how people feel when they move to India – you sense there is more to the cuisine than the familiar names in restaurant menus, but you have no quick way of getting to the bottom of this. Jakarta is a very big city, with so many levels of life that you spend your first month or so just being overwhelmed. So much so that you give up trying to get your bearings and just take it an hour at a time. But this is the only way to do it – you don’t assimilate, Jakarta absorbs you as you are. One hour at a time.

I had my first inkling of this three weeks ago when yet another flood enlivened my evening commute – I didn’t even look up at the main arteries turned to canals, let alone switch on my phone camera; I simply discussed an alternative route with the taxi driver, and then carried on reading my mail. It wasn’t until I got home that I registered that I was able to contribute to that discussion. Somehow I’d been oriented and inducted into which roads were likely to be dry, which sheet of water would be shallow enough to drive through. 

Indonesian people are unfailingly good-natured and quite philosophical about the hundreds of little daily privationsLike in Vietnam, the priorities are right – it’s family, friends, food, getting together as often as you can, the nurturing of relationships of all kindsThe closeness of client-agency relationships is unlike any I’ve seen anywhere else. (My expat client and I are slowly but surely moving to this highly social model, both of us sensing that greater things can be built on this base than the more formal kind). As in all places where you can’t take anything for granted, the strongest, most efficient infrastructure is your network.

76 active volcanoes are strung along the length of Indonesia. Not a day goes by without some activity in one of them – this is no more worthy of headlines than the biblical rain that can pour with little warning out of a clear blue sky.  Alert levels rise and fall, magma ebbs and flows, and life goes on, exhaling and inhaling with the earth itself. Perhaps it's the largeness of that spirit that flows through the Indonesian approach to life.

It hasn’t been too long since I left Vietnam, do... Well, actually it's almost a year but it feels like I left last month. So much has happened so fast that there are days when my taxi arrives somewhere and I alight with a silent nod because my mind is cycling through "cam on", "terima  kasi", "shukran", "xiexie", "thank you", and is not able to select the right one. Anyway, as I was saying, it feels like I just left Vietnam so I’ve thought I was too bruised to appreciate something new. But I was wrong.

Now, as I wait in Singapore for a visa change, I feel that same surge of wonder and gratitude at the way my life twists and turns, and keeps flowing ever onwards along scenic routesMost of all, I find with pleased surprise that I am impatient to get back home.

Blog Archive