I am currently in the midst of my epic 6-week long European trip to pseudo celebrate my graduation from university, though I haven’t technically graduated and the grad trip ritual is one I do not personally or culturally connect with. So, I guess it’s more appropriate to characterise this trip as a celebration of life and our marvelous corner of the universe, as trips tend to go. As I’ve explored England (London, Stratford-upon-Avon, York, Bronte country, Lake District), Scotland (Glencoe, Glenfinnan, Isle of Skye, Edinburgh), and Ireland (Dublin, the Northern Irish coast, Rathlin island, Derry and Donegal) so far, it is most apropos to say that my trip has been part-literary pilgrimage and part-exploration of nature. It has truly been inspiring – both calming and invigorating. So, it is only fitting of my next alphabet challenge entry to be about travel and my experience in particular. Be warned that despite this post’s travel contents, it will not contain photos ala current lifestyle glamour-complexes. I realise how difficult that might be in today’s day and age, but people in the past have coped, and so will we.
D is for distance, not because distance makes the heart grow fonder. Instead, distance makes the heart grow wiser. Distance is a catalyst. It is reading glasses. Just like how crisis clarifies a person’s mind and gets rid of the clutter, distance gives you perspective, quite literally. Sometimes, one has to step outside of their homes to truly understand their full picture.
It is interesting because we never truly leave home behind, even when we travel. Especially when we travel. We compare everything to the Singaporean way (people are nicer here, angmohs don’t know how to cook veg, etc.) So, I guess it is harder than we think to shake a person’s origins off. Roots, if you will. Though, to be honest, I haven’t been doing much contemplating. I just have been enjoying the moments and wondering about another life. Maybe distance does this too. Help us see ourselves in another world, exploring possible selves, possible lives. Maybe our way is not the only way, and maybe that’s the only lesson we need.
D is also for distance because distance is not just a destination; it’s about the ride. Driving to one place to another is such a gorgeous experience. I’ve always loved driving, even in traffic-ridden Singapore. I love cruising, I love the way the road disappears under you like magic, I love that little trick your stomach does when following a bend. But driving overseas in non-urban areas is something else. Driving alongside mountains and giant lakes (or lochs) is the ultimate joy in Scotland, and as my traveling companion says, the wonderful thing about Scotland is how wild and untamed it is. One gets the sense that one can never truly consume it; we can only pass through and look on. And what a fantastic view it is.
And then there’s the non-driving. When trying to rent a car in Ireland, I faced the unfortunate trouble of not being of age. It sucks when things do not go as planned, especially a driving trip, because suddenly you need to cover some distance and you have no way of doing so. Distance is an obstacle. In such a large country (everywhere is large compared to Singapore), distance is limiting. But trying to cover distance without a car is a special kind of trouble that can be turned into wonderful experiences. So far, without a car, we have experienced a lovely scenic train ride, biking around an island with only 100 people, and hitchhiking (!!!!). People are sooo nice in Donegal that we successfully hitchhiked 3 times, when each time someone stopped within five minutes, and for the last time, the first car stopped. And everyone was so friendly and welcoming and just sincerely hoping we have a good and safe time in Ireland. (Highly recommend!!) I mean, like other places, Ireland is so interesting for other reasons – culturally, politically, but the people are always a good reason to visit.
I’ve met so many wonderful and fascinating people on my trip and that, I think, is the most interesting thing about distance. Cos distance creates differences, and suddenly the world is full of colour.
As I said, my trip so far has been around the UK and Ireland. Some of the most interesting cultural sights have to do with kings and high lords and crowns and battles and castles. And I love it. I’ve learnt so much about the different ages and the ruling powers at each respective time, from the Vikings, the Normans, Anglo-Saxans, to the Medieval era, the Tudors, the Stuarts, etc. I just want to spend one whole day on Wikipedia clicking links to find out more. But of course, I’ve had the privilege to learn more at the actual sites of power and/or siege. There’s something very powerful about standing in a place where so much has happened.
Stories about diadems and royalty have fascinated us for centuries and we still place emphasis on these historical touchpoints. It’s interesting because it’s far away from ordinary life for peasants back then (signaling basically changes in management), yet also very close to the hearts and minds of ordinary citizens throughout history because of culture and identity. And so much of royal scuffles have a living heritage today, or consequences that still resonate.
There’s the story told to me atop the Derry (Northern Ireland) city walls about how the city was besieged by the Catholic King James I for 105 days, the longest siege in British history. And today Derry~Londonderry still holds together in tension the two threads that gave the city its double name – Catholic and Protestant. There’s the castle sitting at Eilean Dornan, in the western Scottish highlands. Its haunting feel might mislead one to think it abandoned, but its MacRae clan still comes by every year when the portcullis is raised and they shout in unison their war cry: Ridge of Tears! (How cool is that, honestly.) And of course what better example to use than the continued influence of the diadem as seen in Britain and the 1000 gifs of baby George already online.
It’s interesting because the existence of royal bloodlines and warring states is only an extension of the human wish to conquer, to domesticate. It’s so often that we are trying to contain nature and control it, the same way kings do with their people.
When I was in London, I had the pleasure of catching Arthur Darvill’s last show on Once. It was one of the best musical productions I’ve ever seen. Arthur Darvill, of Doctor Who fame, was always my favourite character as Rory. But man was he on fire that night. He sang amazingly and was strangely charismatic. It happened to be the last night of performance for the female lead as well, and it showed in the emotional rawness and power of the music. Once is a special musical production because there is no orchestra and the music is intimate and moving. Set in Dublin, it is a testament to how important culture is to the Irish, and was an extremely interesting precursor to my trip in Ireland.
The story itself is nothing revolutionary – boy hates self and music because ex-girl left him for New York, and meets girl, who helps him find his way again. Almost manic pixie dream girl, but thankfully the female lead played her role with so much vitality and humour that I loved and saw her for herself, and not just for how she served the male lead’s woes. I actually really liked this story arc if not for the fact that the two leads fell in love. I quite like the idea of a human being helping another human being be themselves again, with no agenda or hope. Just that. Humans being humans. Romance is secondary, and most times, unnecessary.
The female lead on the show was supposed to be Czech, played by a Croatian, helping an Irish man, played by an English, with and through his music. While in the audience two Singaporean girls sit, impacted by the performance by ways the performers might not even realise. How cool is that. I love how we are all brought together by art, even when we’re from different places. When I went on a walking tour in Derry, I met the traveling Avenue Q cast (so cooool) and they have one of the most multi-racial casts I’ve seen. Interestingly, the musical accuses everyone of being a racist in one of their songs, and is always a funny one because it is identifiable.
So, you know, sentimental ideas of connecting with others through art aside, politics is always at play. Especially racial politics. Most people I’ve met along the way have been tremendously friendly and great, but there are always certain hints of assumptions and stereotypes that people carry when they interact with who they view as an Other. One of the most common things I’ve noticed is the widespread assumption that we do not speak English. English is our first language, we have had to say about 5 times on this whole trip. And it is fine when people think something of you but quickly re-evaluate you based on how they come to know you. But what is most insidiously dangerous is when people interact with you and you obviously disprove their mistaken assumptions, but they continue to believe in their long-held ideas about you. Like this one dude who consistently spoke to us slowly and full of gestures as if we didn’t understand English though we replied normally like normal English speakers. This insistence on ignorance is how it starts, and more often than not in today’s world, this is the face of racism.
Hahahahahahaha. I am. I really am dead broke. Traveling for so long to so many epic places has nuclear-bombed a hole in my pocket. While I believe it is worth it, I’m still left feeling a little bit… Vulnerable, for lack of a better word.
While I’m very proud to have funded my trip myself, I’ve also had helping hands extended to me by my loved ones (thanks sis, mom and Darryl).
I guess the lesson to take from this is that traveling is suchhhhhh a privilege and I will try my best to remember it, always.