Monday, 16 July 2012

to travel or not to travel..

Every time I come back from a vacation, I wish I could pack my bags and leave once again. Where I would take off to would almost not matter. My whole being would simply desire a taste of another road untravelled, another city/town unexperienced.

Countless times I have told friends of the longing to just drop work and hit the road for that next bit of adventure that will add to my repository. But alas, this is not always immediately possible. Life loves to quickly sink its teeth into you like a crazy dog and not let go. Yes, life’s a bitch that way. But it loosens its grip every now and then. In the interim, there’s work to return to, obligations and responsibilities to continue fulfilling.

So often you read about people who talk about travelling for 3, 6, 12 months at a stretch. They come back with bagpacks full of dirty clothes, torn underwear, and more importantly, a treasure trove of memories and experience. They describe their time away as ‘awesome’, ‘mindblowing’, ‘life-changing’. Of course, I’m thrilled when people get to travel and sometimes I even suggest places they should go to, things they should see/visit. But I’m only human, and have to admit that these gap travellers do make me jealous sometimes. And that’s only because I wish I could do that too.

Of course you can, someone once told me. Everyone only says they want to do this and do that but choose not to. Yes, he pinned it down to ‘choice’. I agree to some extent. Some of my friends say they are envious that I’m always (in relative terms) jetsetting. And I’m usually puzzled by such comments. A number of them easily earn more than me. How is it that they cannot afford to travel then? I’ve got a car, I need to save up for my condo, etc, they tell me. So there. People have priorities. Some they don’t want to give up (like a car), others they simply cannot. And it is this latter group that I come from as well.

It’s not as if I’ve always been able to afford to travel. My mum’s not rich, and she spent most of my growing up years struggling to raise my sister and I. At the same time, I used to be in awe of my youngest aunt who would slip out the door with her sleek trolley bag for her next flight as a flight attendant. For a long time, I was happy enough receiving postcards from her jaunts.

Then until 2011, I could only dream of ever stepping foot into Europe, given the cost involved. But I managed to save up and cut back on expenses (not like I spend a lot to begin with). It also helps that the euro has weakened dramatically against the Singapore dollar. The arrival of certain airlines also meant I did not have to pay a foot and an arm for a seat on the plane.

But not everyone is able to do this. I once thought of moving to India for work. A friend there said I had lost my mind: how do you think you’re going to travel if you move here? Well, there’s always India, isn’t there? I’ve not been to every part of the country. But his point did not fall on deaf ears: there are people who struggle to make ends meet. Their main concern is putting food on the table for themselves, for their families. To hop into a plane to some faraway destination is something that’s better left to characters in a film.

For some people, getting visas is a nightmare. I had a glimpse of this problem when I tried applying for my visa to Bangladesh in late 2009. Some people wait for months for their visas to be approved, only to be rejected. A Pakistani friend of mine has not been allowed entry into Indonesia for the longest time. They’re probably worried that I’m some militant, he joked (all he wanted to do was to soak up the sun in Bali). The other problem is one of high-level politics: your country and mine are not buddies.

Travelling is no doubt an experience like no other. It teaches you so much about the world, about life, about yourself. It reminds you that no matter how much you think you know, there’s so much more that you will never fully grasp. This includes the reasons other people cannot travel.

Those who choose not to...well, that’s their loss.

Monday, 9 July 2012

In the city of "Before Sunrise"

Soon after returning from my trip, I remember watching "Before Sunrise" (starring Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke) again just to catch glimpses of the places the characters left their footprints. 'I was there too!', I exclaimed to whoever was watching the film with me. Maybe it's just me, but there is something about seeing images of the same spots you've visited on the big (or small) screen. Strange as it may sound, for me there is a sense of childlike pride for having been there, having seen the city. The image on the screen affirms the city/town's worth and beauty which your own words may not convey. Then again, maybe it's your own images that make people sit up and pay attention to a city/town they would have otherwise not thought of as a travel destination. Here then are some of my own images of the Austrian capital. Hopefully they inspire you too. :)

Start off in the west of the historic city-centre where you will find the Schönbrunn Palace (left). It is the former imperial summer residence of the Habsburgs and has just over 1,440 rooms. Of these, 40 rooms are open to the public. Audio guides are provided for a more comprehensive tour. Before or after you wander in the rooms, take a stroll around the gardens and walk up to the Gloriette, a structure that houses a cafe and offers generous views of the city. In the historic district itself, you can wander around the Hofburg Palace. The area here has been the documented seat of government since 1279 for various empires (including the Austro-Hungarian) and republics. It now serves as the residence of the President of Austria.

Walking around the many parks in the city centre might bring you face-to-face with this statue on the left. That's
The conductor expects some level of audience participation too
Mozart in Burggarten. Loitering around here you should find a couple of modern day 'Mozarts' selling tickets to classical concerts. I paid 42 euros for my ticket (in June 2011) and it was quite worth the price. The best part is that you don't have to be fancily dressed for the event because it caters specifically to tourists. So go on, let your ears feel music as it once was.
View from Leopold

Vienna is also home to many museums (the lady at the hostel told me there are at least 100). Chief among them is the MuseumsQuartier in the historic city-centre, where you will find the Leopold Museum (showcases the works of Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt) and Museum of Modern Art (or MUMOK, which was closed at the time of my visit). Only if you're into architecture should you venture into Architecture Center Vienna (Architekturzentrum Wien). Don't get me wrong, it's not entirely technical; it's a one-room exhibition space detailing what went into the planning of the city. Away from MuseumsQuartier, other art spaces include the Belvedere (above left). There is also the Wien Musuem at Karlsplatz which traces the history of the city.  

Hang around Resselpark after you're done at Wien Museum; have a simple lunch of kebab or sandwiches (there are several stands around the city) here if you'd like. Sit in front of the pond facing Karlskirche, or St Charles Church, or one of the benches in the park. Here are two pictures of the church, at different times of day (left and right).  

Speaking of churches, a visit to Vienna won't be complete without a visit to St Stephen's (Stephansdom) at Stefansplatz. A church has stood on this site since the 12th century but little remains of the original structure. You could buy a ticket at the South Tower to climb it for spectacular views of Vienna (below left). I recommend it -- there are only 343 steps to overcome, plus it's a good cardio workout. :) 

The area around the church is the shopping district in Vienna. Note though that they close by around 7pm on most days. Coming from a city like Singapore, this might seem 'weird', since shops in the island open till much late. But it doesn't take long for you to appreciaet why the Viennese (and perhaps other European cities) do this: the rest of the night allows one to spend time with family and friends. It is, after all, more important than pandering to the whims of consumerism.

A little east of the centre of the city is Leopoldstadt (the 2nd district) where you will find the Prater Park and amusement park. Head for a spin on Praterturm (right). But if hanging in the air is not your idea of fun, try the Riesenrad ferris wheel (bottom left). It was built and erected in 1897. I recently found out that a permit for its demolition was issued in 1916. Fortunately, a lack of funds meant it could not be destroyed (reminiscent of the story of the Eiffel Tower). 

How many days?
Up to 4 full days would be good. More if you want to seriously museum-hop. My friend and I went to 5 during our 4-day trip.

Getting In
I entered Vienna by train from Prague. Train connections are also available from several cities in neighbouring countries. They include Bratislava in Slovakia (just one hour away), the Hungarian capital of Budapest, the German cities of Munich and Switzerland's Zurich.
You could also consider taking a bus in from the Balkans, Greece, Italy and Germany. If you're jetting in, options include Emirates, Qatar Airways, Austrian Airlines, Qantas, British Airways, Air China and Air France.

Friday, 6 July 2012

Charmed by Hong Kong

Some years ago, if you were to ask me about Hong Kong, i'd have told you two things: one, there are too many people there, and two the authorities shoot you if you're found to have tried to smuggle drugs to the island. The latter notion was coloured by two Hindi films, Naam (1986) and Gumraah (1993). Little wonder then I wasn't too thrilled about ever visiting Hong Kong (not because I was planning to smuggle drugs into the territory of course). But a work trip changed things: I was attending a conference at a university on the island.

It takes you 30-40 minutes to get to Hong Kong island from the airport. Just as well, because it builds up curiosity about the place: how crowded is it, really? Are there high-rise buildings EVERYWHERE? Is it really just grey?

Yes, is the answer to all three questions. Yet, I found it charming. At some point, walking through the streets of Hong Kong, especially the residential areas, felt like I had stepped into a television image of Singapore in the 1980s: it's the old buildings that get to me; the retention, in a digitized age, of the past, alongside newer structures that are pinched out taller than the next.

But no, this wasn't quite it. There was something else to Hong Kong that makes me want to go back in future. I eventually nailed the reason: it was the people.

Now, I can imagine you frowning in puzzlement. And it is true that i spent barely five days there. But it is true that people make all the difference, in every little thing they do. I watched the Hongkongers during their morning/evening rush hours, I observed them when they were in less of a hurry. One constant emerged: they are systematic.

I've lost count of the number of times I have to battle with an incoming crowd seconds after train doors open in Singapore. And what about the times when people rush into buses as if there'd be no other? I didn't have these problems in hong kong. Yes, people are in a hurry but there's a way to go about it. What did it for me too, was the fact that people stay on one side of the escalators, to allow others to pass. On my last day there i did see one escalator filled to the brim with people. But the one I was on had an 'empty lane'.

Did I mention the Hongkongers are 'cute', with the way they use the English language? Remember that every place embellishes a trend/language with its own peculiarities. In Hong Kong, most of my 'thank yous' were greeted with a 'bye bye': be it the very helpful staff at G2000, or an associate professor who gave me directions the day I missed the bus to my conference venue. Then there was the McDonald's staff who asked if i'd like to 'stay here' or take my meal away. The first option wasn't too bad really, considering my room was on the 22nd floor of the hotel next door.

Alas, was it all not just a case of romanticism attached to a space I cursorily experienced? Most definitely. Hong Kong isn't without its problems (as far as i'm concerned). Summers can get very humid. I was just lucky to be there during a cooler period, layered as it was by well-dressed people.

What about Hong Kong's poor? Where are they? Hidden up in the hills it seems, as I was told by one of the conference participants. I was reminded of the homeless in Singapore. You don't see or hear of them, but that doesn't mean they don't exist.

As for those old buildings I was raving about, they're just breathing for as long as the Hong Kong government allows them to. It seems the authorities are notorious too for pulling down old structures, despite wild protests from the island's residents. They, the powers-that-be, are under the impression that everything new is better, nicer. but is it? isn't there more to life than marrying steel and glass?