Monday, 24 June 2013

Solo travel

It always happens when I am recounting a recent escapade to what some of my friends call an 'exotic' location. Maybe it's the enthusiasm that lends itself to my stories or the sparkle in my eyes that glues them to what I'm saying, because it is then that they raise the question: 'when are we travelling together?'

Suddenly the excitement and passion with which I had relived my foreign experiences dissipates. I find myself lost for words and offer a meek, 'yes we should do it sometime'. Don't get me wrong, it's not as if I don't like company during my escape from the island; it's just that solo travel has opened up so much more. It feels like an epiphany, and I have some friends to thank for that.

One, for example, was very keen on going to China's Xinjiang province in mid-2011. But because ballooning airfares were making the trip increasingly impossible, we changed destinations. Several times. It's 2013 and we have yet to travel together.

Up until 2011, I was content with admiring Nari for her ability to just pack her bags and fly off where she desired. What made it all the more incredible, for me at least, was the fact that she's petite and a girl! I'm not sexist but it did make me think: if she can do it, why not me?

Of course there's the initial apprehension about going it alone: will I get bored, how do I bring myself to eat alone, and -- more importantly -- who's going to take photos of me (especially if you, like me, are one of those who thinks sticking your arm out and aiming the camera at your face is absolutely silly)? As cliched as it is, and like everything else, you won't know until you try solo travel. And the results can be quite surprising.

Travelling alone makes you your own master! You choose how long to take in one place -- you can linger for days, or run off after half an hour. You let everything take its time to slip into your skin -- the sights, the smell, its taste. You make conversation with other people because at some point you simply have to -- be it with the barista in a cafe or a fellow traveller -- think the Ethan Hawke/Julie Delpy starrer, Before Sunrise (1994).

During my solo trips, I've couchsurfed a number of times. The people I met were absolutely amazing and they added so much more to my overall experience, whether it was discovering an un-touristy part of Krakow with Maciek, or walking into an Argentine-run cafe in some corner of Barcelona with Cesar. There's so much more you learn about people, their city and their country when you live with, or simply share some time with them. Conversely, they learn a little more about you too. In Kyiv, Ivan and his friends were amused that they had to zoom in several times before Singapore showed itself in its full glory on Google maps. I still remember the looks on their faces as I described the island's population density.

Above all, travelling alone takes you to that one place no one else has access to: your self. You learn so much more about who you are, what you're capable of. Afraid of getting lost? Can't speak the language? Too bad. Learn how to communicate with your hands, a pen and paper, or your body. Outside the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, I was a second away from choo-chooing around the bus stop after several attempts to get directions to the train station were going nowhere.

Solo travel for me allows me to break out of my shell, even if by a whisker. I consider doing things I ordinarily wouldn't (mostly legal of course) back in Singapore. I'm generally not a very sociable person,  I prefer to stick to people I've already established relationships with. But when push comes to shove, I surprise even myself. In Ljubljana, I met Luka for a road trip after we'd exchanged some messages online. He had suggested showing me Bled, an alpine town about an hour and a half away from the Slovenian capital. I jumped at the opportunity (he had a car so...). I saw another side of the country, and I made a new friend.

Distance makes the heart grow fonder, and this is true when you're alone on the road. It makes you re-evaluate your relationships with those who matter. Something or the other triggers a memory and takes you back to someone you said goodbye to. The same goes for the country or city you were so eager to leave. You return to it with a new pair of lenses. You add something new, good or bad, to how you perceive that which you always thought familiar.

Most times, none of this would be possible with travelling companions. They distance you from such experiences. You end up being cocooned in your little universe, characterized by checking tourist sites off your list and freezing them in your camera. You could couchsurf with your travel buddy too, but more often than not, especially if you're from Singapore, this option is deemed to be unsafe.

Sometimes it's justified of course because you could easily meet nutcases. But this is where discretion comes into play. If the person you talk to online is giving you bad vibes, you obviously don't go looking for trouble. There was this one fella I was talking to from Prague and it emerged that we're both fans of Converse sneakers. Except in his case, it was not just about collecting or wearing them (I'll leave it to your imagination). Less threatening problems include long layovers at airports. I spent 12 hours between flights at Doha's airport in late 2011. Not something I would want to repeat in a very long time.

The most uncomfortable thing about solo travel for me is pulling out of a city. It is in those final moments that everything tries to hold me back. The seconds slip out of my fingers and it feels as if something has been left undone. It is during this time I wish I could spend more time with the people I've met. Before I boarded my train to Budapest from Cluj-Napoca's railway station, I expressed regret to Luci that I had not gotten to know him better (he was at work for the most part of my time in the city). It was then he said something I have always lived by, and had perhaps forgotten at that point:
there's always a next time.

Indeed. There's always a next meeting, always another adventure to be had.

Postscript: this entry was published on 24th July 2013 on The Hindu's Business Line

Friday, 7 June 2013

Coastal Croatia

To be completely honest, I used to think the old-school tourism commercial for Croatia that I used to chance upon on the BBC was cheesy. The ad claimed Croatia is 'the Mediterranean as it once was'. Really!

In Trogir
Yet there was something that drew me to this country. Maybe it was its name, or that a friend had been there before and raved about it. Or it was simply the fact that a routine scan of airfares on some airlines' websites made it possible to visit this country by the Adriatic Sea.

Whatever the reason, I found myself along the Croatian coast in April 2012 as part of a broader trip to the region. My trip took place during the low season but that did not really dampen the experience. If anything, I was to find out that it made for easier access and navigation. The only downside to it was that I did not get to visit the islands for which the country is famous, and this was because of the lower frequency of boat rides to and from such places like Hvar and Krk (and more importantly, my refusal to zip from one place to the next with what little time I had). Having said that, the cities boast some postcard-pretty sights and winding alleys that should keep you busy for a few hours, if not full day trips.


Filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock was on holiday here once and described the sunset he saw in the horizon as the most beautiful in the world. It is a claim that was echoed by some locals I spoke to, and I must say they're not very far off from the truth. Of course it's quite another matter if you consider people who wax lyrical over sunsets pathetic. In which case, you might want to check out one of the following:

Sunset as seen from Zadar
St Donat's Church (above, right): one of the best preserved pre-Roman buildings in the world.
Sea Organ (below, right): This man-made organ works with the motion of the waves and 35 pipes to create a musical soundscape. Sounded like a whale singing to me.
Museum of Ancient Glass: This museum has what's been described as the most outstanding exhibits and the greatest collection of ancient glass in this part of Europe.

Sibenik as seen from
St Michael's Fortress
Cathedral of St James (right)
in Trg Republike Hrvatske
This medieval city is often bypassed for its more famous neighbours, but Sibenik is lovely in its own right. You'll find steep backstreets and ancient chapels compactly packed in this part of northern Dalmatia. There's also the Cathedral of St James, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, whose most unusual feature is the frieze of 71 heads on the exterior walls of the apses. They may look like caricatures but are actual depictions of people from the 15th century (left). Apparently the cathedral cost quite a bomb, and it's said that the stingier the donor, the gross their caricature!

Sibenik is also home to the St Michael Fortress, which offers fantastic views over the city, the Krk River and the Adriatic Sea (click! click!). Parts of the structure date back to the 13th century.

North of Sibenik is the Krka National Park, similar to the Plitvička  Lakes National Park. The one in Krka offers you breathtaking scenery of waterfalls and all else nature has to offer. Some historical and archaeological remains can also be found here.

a street in Trogir
The showcase of Trogir:
Cathedral of St Lovro
Tiny Trogir is on the UNESCO World Heritage List as one of the best preserved medieval towns in Europe. The medieval core is surrounded by walls and comprises a preserved castle and tower and a series of homes and palaces. These are from the Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque periods. The most important sites include the 15th century Fortress Kamerlengo. It hosts concerts during the Trogir Summer festival.


The bell tower in
central Split
Reading at the foot of
St Duje's Cathedral, Split
Split is in Central Dalmatia. It was originally built around the Diocletian palace where locals sought refuse centuries ago. Within this UNESCO World Heritage Site you'll find the Cathedral of St Domnius and its iconic belltower (left), a couple of museums, Roman walls and temples. 

Split harbour
Split is also famous for housing the Galerija Meštrović, which displays the works of the Croatian sculptor. I did not get to see it though because the gallery was closed at the time of my visit. There's another such museum in Zagreb. 

view of the Old Town and Lokrum Island
from the City Walls
The Old Town as seen from
my guesthouse

Then there's Dubrovnik, images of which are splashed virtually everywhere that Croatia is advertised. The city is marble streets, baroque buildings, and an endless stream of tourists frantically freezing virtually every inch of the Old Town in their cameras.

A dwelling in one of the
streets in the Old Town
The entire area is closed off to cars and surrounded by thick defence walls. You can walk around the walls for a fee (the main entrance and ticket office is by the Pile Gate, but you can also make the ascend from Ploce Gate in the east). I went at around opening time and had the walls mostly to myself. I finished the walk in about an hour, but I suppose if you go during a busier period, especially in summer, it may well take a much longer time. Stroll, too, along the main street, Placa, or as it's commonly known, Stradun, the Old Town's pedestrian promenade. I was told that in summer it becomes very difficult to walk down this stretch without being elbowed or rubbed against someone else.

Cavtat's promenade
Dubrovnik was the target of bombardment during the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s, and if you'd like to get a sense of this slice of history, take a peek at War Photo Limited , a photo gallery curated by a photojournalist who worked in the region in the 1990s. Note though that the gallery is closed between November and April.

the harbour at
If the crowds of Dubrovnik get too much for you, hop on a bus and head down to Cavtat, which is a lot less touristy. This little town oozes charm and grace. In terms of sights, there are the baroque St Nicholas Church and the birth house of Vlaho Bukovac, Cavtat's most famous son, at the northern end of Obala Ante Starcevica.

Getting around

The coast is well-connected by buses (and ferries) which leave for each destination mentioned here almost hourly. You can also get buses from these cities to other parts of Croatia (including the capital Zagreb) and neighbouring destinations like Mostar in Bosnia-Hercegovina (from Split and Dubrovnik). There are airports in Split, Dubrovnik and Zadar. The cities are also served by trains though buses are a better bet.

The cities are also good jump off points for some of Croatia's famed islands. These include:

Between us
Pag and Kornati from Zadar
Hvar, Brać and Vis from Split
Mljet, Korćula and Lokrum from Dubrovnik

Best time to visit

Summer is where all the action is! But if you prefer it to be less crowded, visit during the shoulder months (April, Oct, Nov).

How many days

Dubrovnik, Split and Zadar can keep you occupied for a day. I'd suggest spending at least a night as well. I'd set aside 2-3 days each in Split and Dubrovnik which was a bit too much, which is why I made trips to Sibenik, Trogir and Cavtat. I spent on average half a day in each place but it ultimately depends on your individual preference.

Saturday, 1 June 2013

80 Rupees

This piece was first written on 25th March 2010

In a span of an hour and a half, the brown faces at the bus stand at Fatehpur Sikri were replaced with foreign ones, mostly Caucasian. One had been pacing up and down even before we got there.

The bus may have met with an accident, the guy at the nearby cafe told us. He suggested we round up eight people to share a cab which would cost under Rs 100 each (about 2-3SGD at the time). Another group of eight had disappeared under a similar arrangement.

The other option was to simply keep waiting for a bus that would cost Rs 27. But what if none arrived? How much more would it cost to take a cab on our own?

There were seven of us: my mum, an Irish woman, a trio of Koreans (2 girls and a guy), and a Caucasian man and woman. The same guy at the cafe was most eager to help us, considering the cab arrived within minutes of the end of his phone call. This sounds like a scam, I thought to myself.

The cab, as he called it, was a 6-seater -- one in front, 3 in the middle and two at the back, where a spare tyre meant you'd have to sit in a somewhat squatting position. A French couple, whom I didn't approach to be part of our road trip, were the first ones to sit themselves in the van. I couldn't find the words to tell them to get out, and no one else seemed to bother. What this meant was that the Caucasian woman who was to be part of the group had to be left behind. The Irish woman we'd approached had to squeeze with the two Korean girls (with the spare tyre). Because of this inconvenience, she was asked to pay Rs 50, as opposed to the 90 the rest of us were asked to fork out. I was not entirely pleased with what had transpired, and the other passengers made no effort to be discreet about their scathing remarks about the situation they were in. 'This is India', someone seemed to suggest.  

Fast forward to Agra's Idgah bus station: I pulled myself out of the vehicle after having my butt cheeks spread thinly between the passenger and driver's seats. The French couple were the first to pull out two fifty rupee notes and place them in the driver's palm. Thinking the rate had been brought down to 50 per person, the rest of us followed suit.

As we were leaving, the driver held us back, asking for the remaining amount. I realised then that it was indeed only 50 for the Irish woman. We called the French couple back and explained the situation. The man said they were not paying more. The rest of us, who had agreed to make up the difference, were thrown off-guard. Even the Irish woman started getting into a fit on our behalf (I don't understand why she decided it was her business to).

So what next? I was the only person the driver could speak Hindi with and he asked me to help him out. But what was I to do? The others were still standing around, but by this time the prevailing mood was not to take out more money and there was no way I would pay for everyone.

At some point my mum thought I was being harassed into making the difference and told me to leave. But what about everyone else? I started walking into the mass of people and traffic, and told the others to leave. My mum and I shuffled away and hopped into an autorickshaw to go to the railway station.

We did not look out of the three-wheeler. What happened to the others, I will never know. But sitting in the auto, I felt disgust for the French couple. More than that, my mum and I felt horrible for having cheated the driver. How much value did those 80 rupees add to our lives that evening, I asked myself later? But things had happened so fast. There was almost no time to think rationally.

Does cheating someone and then feeling bad about it make it less wrong? Your take on this is as good as mine. But how do you forget a poor man pleading with you for his rightful share, and the look on his face searching for an answer in yours?