Traveling for a Selfie

Think back to the 1800s, about a century before the invention of the Internet; before electromagnetic and electronic technologies; before Faraday, Marconi and Bell. During this time, horses enabled long distance communication and travel. Fast-forward to 2014, an era of micro-absorbent travel towels, and apps that carry everything from your guidebook to your flight documents to your public profile displaying your every setting, meal, view, friend and feeling. This, my latest entry, spawns from the recent outburst of social media in travel.

I am aware of the irony involved in addressing this topic in a travel blog. I am not ashamed to say that I peruse the pages of countless explorers, artists, activists and foodies to help me make the most of my own journeys. I am definitely no stranger to Facebook or Instagram. And, I am the last person to turn down a good travel app – maps, currency exchangers, and restaurant locators to name a few. That being said, I think that a line must be drawn somewhere between being resourceful and feeling empty without a selfie from every place that you visit. Despite powerful marketing attempts to turn us into mindless, hash tag-posting consumers, we should pocket our cellphones, digital cameras, netbooks and earphones to be where we are!

I’m talking about REAL experiences from the very REAL life you are living right now! I speak for the senses you use to taste the fresh lemon sardines in Vernazza, Italy, to see Picasso’s Guernica in the Reina Sofia Museum in Spain, to smell the sea saltpans on the Mediterranean coast in Malta, and to rub the statue of St. John Nepomuk for good luck on the Charles Bridge in Prague! We should value the immediacy, engagement and authenticity of our REAL travel experiences, rather than feel tempted to impress and stalk users of social media platforms whom we often don’t even know!

All too often, I see tourists browsing through photos and scouring the streets for cafes with free Wifi to post the latest on their travels. In fact, it happens so often that we have even developed signature poses for these photo updates.

The Point and Gawk.

The Point and Gawk.

The Air Hug.

The Air Hug.

But Can You Make It Inappropriate?

But Can You Make It Inappropriate?

Miniaturize It.

Miniaturize It.

Nonchalant.

Nonchalant.

I’ll admit that I am the aforementioned tourist sometimes, sacrificing quality real time to send a message to a friend telling him/her what amazing thing I saw/did or to take a perfectly timeless photograph. But somewhere between another weekend in Paris and a day avoiding the rain in Belgium, you will experience the be all and end all of travel experiences; something so staggering that all you want to do is engrave every second of the moment you are in into your mind forever. Sitting thousands of metres atop Mont Blanc just before snowboarding down to the bottom or paddling through the caves in the Malta’s Blue Grotto were some of the many moments that have caused this for me. I know what you’re wondering now, Did I order an extra side of cheese with this post? The last thing I want is to drive you away with quotes about the enriching experience of travel that ring true as the word ‘yolo’. All I’m saying is, you can google a photo, snag one off a friend, check who tagged who and when another time.

As I said, the Internet and social media have their perks. We are able to purchase tickets and even select our preferred seats on nearly any plane, bus, train, or carpool out there. We are then able to flip through photos of countless bedrooms, lobbies, and dining areas until we have selected our accommodation, all at the tap of a button. Before we arrive, we can reserve day trips and tours to island hop or parasail or visit a famous sight/museum/building. However, is it possible that travel has lost its spontaneity because of our meticulous online planning? Why not show up and familiarize with the city before deciding where to stay or what to do? Or, instead of e-reviews, why not rely on the recommendations of friends who have traveled or lived there before?

Meeting new friends is another of many aspects of travel affected by the internet and social media. When all is said and done, there should be a happy balance between real presence and virtual presence; convenience and spontaneity.

I hope this provided some food for thought for those of you planning on “checking in” from wherever your next trip may be and a reminder to everyone to live the moment!

Phuket, Thailand

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Travelling in Southeast Asia is a bit different from traveling in Europe. There may be visa requirements for Canadian visitors to several places, like China, Vietnam, and Japan. I visited Phuket for a few days with my two friends, Jed and Will.

The Man With the Golden Gun, The Beach and The Hangover were added to my ascetic list of research homework for the week prior to my trip. And what a trip it was.

It began with my graceful acceptance of the award for most prodigious accommodation locator ever. Yes, in my head, the age old phrase “nanananana” rang loud and clear, but on the outside, I was a perfect Kate Middleton. My travel companions had fought me right up until the morning of our flight because I got them to agree to stay at a cheaper bungalow hotel on Patong Beach. What they didn’t know is that not only would it save us a small fortune each, but also that it would be a beautifully decorated hotel serving free breakfast and situated directly on Patong Beach!

Across the street from the hotel.

Across the street from the hotel.

On our first day in Phuket, we decided to hop on a boat tour to the Phi Phi Islands. We arrived at the dock at 7:00 a.m. As we crammed ourselves in between the coffee machine spewing sugar-water and the complimentary cheesies, one of the guides was blaring on about sea urchins and the astonishing protective capabilities of a pair of rentable flippers. We sipped the coffee until we were amenable and then quickly boarded the speedboat. Being the eager beavers we are, we volunteered to sit at the nose of the boat. We took our seats across from some first-timers and hid our phones in the cabin as we anticipated it would be a wet and bumpy ride. You have no idea. I flew out of my seat at a height that may have caused passengers of other boats to think I was parasailing; a height that would enable my 5 foot self to complete a slam dunk; a height that, upon landing, would easily shatter my tailbone; I think you get the point.

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As we pulled through the bay entrance, a narrow opening in the circumference of a towering limestone slab draped in trees and stalagmites, all of that jabber about broken tailbones seemed to disappear. Despite our guides’ stolidity on their hundredth visit to paradise, my eyes were wide open so as to survey every glimmer of the fluorescent turquoise water, every rumble within the caves, and every flutter of a fish fin. Every sight and creature was exotic and new and wonderful. In all my excitement, I failed to notice that a first-timer lost his cool on the way to the bay and the wind had forced a generous serving of his own white, lumpy vomit into his face.

No matter. I was lost in the Andaman Sea … No, literally. My friend and I decided to grab a pair of flippers and head from the reef to the shore of a tiny, untouched beach and the boat nearly left us there! Before we noticed our boat was leaving us, however, I caught a glimpse of a Moorish idol, also known as Gill from Finding Nemo!
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After feeding all our bananas to the monkeys who scaled down the cliff side for a visit, we headed to the Phi Phi islands for a meal of our own. Following a capricious dining experience with one very welcoming and well-off cat, we sped off to the island of Khai Nai for some dessert.
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I just want to take a moment here to stress the ecstasy inducing experience that is eating tropical fruit from Thailand, especially pineapples. To this day, it is the first euphoric memory and the first word that comes out of my mouth when anything Thailand is asked of me: pineapples. I sound ridiculous, I know, and I downplayed my reaction at first so as not to draw any unnecessary attention. It was only after I saw other people pretending to be part of certain tour groups in an attempt to get more free pineapple that I began realizing the significance of what I’d just discovered. Anyway, here one is.
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Aside from offering mouth-watering tropical fruits and a backdrop suitable for world-class yoga, Thailand also offers some much needed travel perspective. It is not uncommon to feel that the air is tense in many countries in Southeast Asia. Even in Singapore, one of the safest and least corrupt places I’ve been to, it’s easy to feel like you are walking on eggshells where the government is concerned. In Thailand, corruption is infamous; bribery of government officials, drug abuse and prostitution form a lot of the hearsay. While I was out enjoying Bangla Road in all of its Aussie-clad glory, or being treated by a humble worker to a tour of a temple in Phuket’s Old Town, I couldn’t help but contemplate the impact of my visit on Thai culture and politics. Should I avoid putting money in the pocket of government tourist companies? Or a bar owner that seems to be running something a little more dodgy upstairs? Or a Thai “massage” establishment? As it turns out, there is good and bad wherever you go; my resolve is to be well informed, responsible and respectful. Today, the Thai military leader has become president, presumably leading to a less corrupt reformation of the Thai government.

You can’t be your cake and eat it too.

Today my exchange in Singapore comes to a close. Since the summer of 2013, CIE has encouraged and assisted me in gaining experience abroad. It has not always been smooth sailing. I hope that my faux pas and words of advice will prove useful for those of you intent on pursuing exchange experience.

16 long months ago, I recall a less apt tween, sulking into a scrapbook and incapable of admitting she’d even accepted her exchange abroad offer. Today, despite my excessive collection of useless travel souvenirs to add to said scrapbook, I am more confident in the person I want to be and the things I want to accomplish. What started as an attempt to try something new and chalk up on edgy CV bullet points spiraled into sailing through the Croatian islands, snowboarding down Mont Blanc, picking lemons from the peaks of Cinque Terre, cliff-diving in Malta’s Blue Grotto, searching through peat for a monster in Loch Ness, crawling through Budapest’s underground caves; sipping vin rouge at the base of the Eiffel Tower and gluhwein at the Christmas Markt, seeing remnants of historical tragedy at the Sachenhausen concentration camp and of historical achievement at the Berber village of Ourika. The list goes on and on, and I could not be more grateful because there is nothing more rewarding on this earth than realizing all of its places and people, past and present. It’s overwhelming to think of the experience I’ve had this past year.

I don’t think I will ever stop traveling. Aside from the thrill of being on the move and having magnificent photos to share, there is something truly eye-opening and inspiring about traveling. I have had unspoiled, raw and wondrous moments in every place I have visited.

An extremely preservative-filled leftover cake has been deviously nibbled at and resealed for 16 months. I am that cake; reformed by new fresh fruit and sweet ice-cream toppings with every night visit to the fridge until nothing of it remains. I have been an enjoyable companion to hundreds (maybe) of new friends, colleagues and family. I have made you laugh, cry, and shudder, until you have devoured every last savory crumb of my adventures abroad. Though the journey ends here, out of the oven comes an entirely new cake, rock-hard (as I have no idea how to make cake) and ready to take a beating in fourth year engineering at UofT. Wahoo. Hey, I can only be so enthused by a 23-hour plane ride.

Thanks for reading!

How to Buy Your Own Buddha and Visit Portugal in Hong Kong

My internship is getting better each day. I started the week by volunteering for the International Congress on Marine Corrosion and Fouling (ICMCF) at NUS, and ended it in Hong Kong! Having spent most of my time in the lab analyzing pitting corrosion properties of stainless steels, the conference allowed me to see the benefits of corrosion studies in various industries from ship maintenance to naval research to fish farming. The latter event was one that came after a week of visiting some more must-sees in Singapore. Here are a few.

At The Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and Museum in Chinatown, not only can tourists and visitors observe a traditional Buddhist service, they can also purchase their own Buddha for the strangely precise price of $84.99SGD.
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Merlion. While it seems to be another of Napoleon Dynamite’s favourite animals, make no mistake, there is nothing amusing about Singapore’s national animal.
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Lastly, I discovered a few Singaporean hot spots that help suppress my urge to carve through fresh powder while snacking on a beavertail, a.k.a. overcome mild traveler’s food poisoning and homesickness: Holland Village, a bar/food strip and a hipster hub known as Haji Lane.
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Hong Kong is a bustling place filled with great food, great markets, skyscrapers, dense green mountains, and a wonderful friend. There was no question that I would end up there at one time or another to visit her.

I arrived in the evening, hopped aboard a double decker public bus and began snapping photos through a streaky bus window. Cargo ships lined the harbour, lights lit up the Tsing Ma bridge, video ads beamed from the faces of buildings, and people streamed from every street corner. Naturally, I was on the wrong bus, so aside from a great night tour, I did little to stick to the schedule.
I definitely made up for it in the following few days. Some of the highlights of my trip include:
– Eating the greatest food I have ever eaten at a Michelin star dim sum restaurant, Tim Ho Wan.
– Eating the worst food I have ever eaten at God Knows Where (bug in food, can’t say more).
– Island hopping followed by ordering fish right out of the water at Sai Kung.
– Visiting Ruins of St. Paul’s Cathedral, eating the most delicious egg tart and gambling in the old Portuguese colony of Macau.
– Racing through the elevated walkways in Central Hong Kong.
– Buying cheap, gag electronics at Temple St. Market in Tsim Sha Tsui (TST).

View from campus...

View from campus…

 

Tim Ho Wan dim sum.

Tim Ho Wan dim sum.

 

Central Elevated Walkway.

Central Elevated Walkway.

 

Sai Kung fish market.

Sai Kung fish market.

 

Portugese egg tart.

Portugese egg tart.

Until next time!

Making Friends and More Than Friends

This time around, I’ve chosen to give a more practical twist to my blogging. Naturally, this leads me to my first topic: how to avoid the giant Malaysian moth swarming. I don’t know if moths have eyelids, but if they do I’m sure that they are not even blinking as I make a highly coordinated attempt to shoo them off every evening. I have since opted for a less aggressive tactic, avoidance, which seems to be working just fine.

Sarah-1 Giant Moths-0

Sarah-1 Giant Moths-0

During daylight hours, when I can freely leave my room without worrying about being attacked by a swarm of angry black butterflies, I am trying to finally become settled in Singapore. My free, thousand-dollar data plan has been most useful in keeping in touch with my friends and family while I’m abroad. In fact, thanks to my mom, who insists that the family balance will be thrown without my virtual presence at every major milestone, this weekend I was able to watch my baby sister go for her G driver’s license test!

Let Skype week begin.

Let Skype week begin.

In addition to a SIM card, shampoo, toothpaste and some rather exotic groceries, I also had the privilege of attaining a student pass from Singapore’s immigration checkpoint authorities. After undergoing the usual test of patience that is immigration work, I returned to my laptop for some R&R to find I received an email. This would be how I met my first Canadian friend in Singapore, Jed. His desperate attempt to leave his cockroach-infested residence and find friends by emailing the exchange coordinator at NUS proves to be a hilarious inside joke whenever people ask how we met. “We met at NUS”, followed by a smirk is our usual response.

Will and Jed and I.

Will and Jed and I.

I also met a lovely group of German travelers who are studying and/or working in Singapore. Being FIFA victors, they decided to invite us to a spectacle of their new found confidence at a German Dragon Boating event one weekend. $15SGD later, we were geared up, filled with 100 Plus energy drink and ready to paddle through Kallang River, which, as it turns out, is also a fantastic way to see downtown Singapore… Though, sightseeing was the last thing our instructor/drummer was preaching to us. She was tough, tight and gave a mean pep talk, which culminated with advice on how to incorporate our drive into work, hobbies, and…Finding a significant other. Moments earlier, I was moved to the engine of the canoe to provide some much needed leg room for the older and burlier Britt who now sat staring at me from his side of our shared canoe bench. Due to the sweat, tears and blood that were shed in our efforts to win the newbie race, I only managed to snatch a husband and a picture of the beach and the keg of Paulaner beer after we washed up ashore.

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We won a prize!

We won a prize!

My final group of friends is one that has organized some of the greatest experiences I’ve had so far in Singapore: the NUS Climbing Club. From meeting bouldering legend Rustam Gelmanov while volunteering for BoulderActive to completing my first lead ascent at Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, the climbing club has helped me make the most of my time in Singapore and nurture a passion I picked up during my Professional Experience Year (PEY) in Belgium.

Rustam Gelmanov at BoulderActive!

Rustam Gelmanov at BoulderActive!

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This weekend I visited Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia with a few climbing buddies to check out Asia’s largest indoor climbing gym, Camp5. We came, we conquered Jalan Alor food street and worked it all off on the wall. For those of you who are interested in budget accommodation, Serenity hostel in Bukit Bintang was in the dead center of a famous nightlife district and well worth the $10.00SGD we spent per night. While it didn’t include parking, it did provide an interesting rooftop shower experience and a modest selection of first come first serve toast, jam, boiled eggs, and coffee for breakfast, which was more like breakfast and a show once we realized there were more guests than food to go around.

Jalan Alor.

Jalan Alor.

Twin Towers, KL

Twin Towers, KL

Camp5

Camp5

 

Chinatown, KL

Chinatown, KL

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Can’t thank this generous, fun-loving, inspiring, and down-right crazy bunch enough for letting me join in on their adventures!

Now that I’ve settled down and began networking it’s time to get moving around Southeast Asia. More from my trip to Phuket, Thailand when I return!

Millionaires, Moths and Chicken Rice: An Intro to Singapore

Off the tip of the Malay Peninsula, barricaded from the Southeast Asian haze by skyscrapers and architectural marvels lies a thriving city-state and island country. I’m here squeezing the remains of a used teabag in what seems like one of the five or six homes not owned by millionaires…

I’m Sarah, an engineering undergrad at U of T with an incredible and overwhelming 13 months of travel experience to 21 countries and over 60 cities in Europe, Africa and Asia. This summer, I am working on a corrosion-based research project – go figure, Singapore’s busy port is also renowned for its ship repair services – in my field of Materials Science and Engineering (MSE) at the National University of Singapore (NUS).

I have boldly begun my exchange by dragon boating, traveling to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia with the NUS rock climbing team, and much more. The following are my first impressions of Singapore.

Cargo ships lining the Port of Singapore just before landing at Changi airport.

Cargo ships lining the Port of Singapore just before landing at Changi airport.

The first and most obvious spur of culture shock is the climate difference, causing me to throw in the sweat-ridden towel and submit to the dewy island air and temperatures that are never short of 20°C. Since my immobile and sticky beginnings, I have progressed to sleeping comfortably with only a ceiling fan and appreciating the detoxifying process that is an evening run. Nevertheless, when the will to beat the heat is hanging by the cumbersome thread of my lab-appropriate clothes, air-conditioning is hardly scarce. Dehydrated and weary, I still managed to make some new friends, some of which have migrated here all the way from Malaysia in a rare swarming.

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Otters, a white-faced saki monkey, a cheetah and a Malaysian giant moth. In the spirit of abusing the privilege of writing a public blog and for the sake of having someone know the reason behind my future trauma-induced illnesses, look up the Malaysian/Singaporean giant moth swarming for yourselves.

Otters, a white-faced saki monkey, a cheetah selfie and a rare Malaysian giant moths. In the spirit of abusing the privilege of writing a public blog and for the sake of having someone know the reason behind my future trauma-induced illnesses, look up the Malaysian/Singaporean giant moth swarming for yourselves.

Like other city-states I have visited, including Monaco, Vatican City and, debatably, Dubai, Singapore has an ultra-modern appeal attributed to its post-independence booming economy. Not even hiked up registration, taxes and insurance can prevent the Maseratis from flying in the face of minimalistic religious roots. Gardens by the Bay, near the man-made stretch of land carrying famous Marina Bay Sands Hotel, houses a grove of “super trees” that capture solar energy to put on an evening light show! Even campus is riddled with luxuries; rooftop infinity pools, free shuttles, terrace restaurants etc. In what I can only assume is an attempt to preserve these landscapes, there are strict laws prohibiting littering, chewing gum, eating on public transit, and even not flushing the toilet. I was greeted by my first vacant stare from a local Singaporean when I asked for a napkin with my meal. I have yet to see a napkin in this country.

Super Tree Grove

Super Tree Grove

Speaking of meals… My supervisor and new-found friends (not the animal kind) have been very helpful in feeding me and stoking my will to try Singaporean, Indonesian, Malaysian, Chinese and Indian cuisine like kway teow, laksa, kaya coconut jam, chicken-rice, and stingray! Despite finding the first actual use for my tongue scraper after eating my first mouth-full of chili peppers, I am now head over bowels in love with sambal chili. I have also had my fill of exotic tropical fruits and fruit juices, like the notoriously potent durian, whose smell renders it banned from many public places.

Laksa (top left); rice cakes (middle left);  sesame peanut ball (bottom left); sambal sting ray wrapped in banana leaves (top right); sautee (bottom right).

Laksa (top left); rice cakes (middle left); sesame peanut ball (bottom left); sambal sting ray wrapped in banana leaves (top right); sautee (bottom right).

Once, after I extinguished my tongue with some grass jelly, washed my hands, and tossed my chewing gum, I ventured out for a night on one of Singapore’s lavish rooftop nightclubs. With $30SGD entry and only $50SGD per alcoholic beverage, you’d be a fool to stay home!

View of Marina Bay from one of the rooftop joints.

View of Marina Bay from one of the rooftop joints.

Stay tuned to find out how I almost met my future spouse on a dragon boat, climbed my arms off at Asia’s largest rock climbing gym and planned a trip to the location where ‘The Beach’ was filmed!