2020 – the year of appreciating life

Despite the government’s best efforts, the number of Covid cases in Singapore continues to rise, now driven overwhelmingly by outbreaks in the foreign workers’ dormitories. As such, the government has instituted ever tighter restrictions on our movements.

I had been primarily working from home already, ever since I returned from LA on March 8. But while we’d cut down our social gatherings, and nights eating out, we had still continued to swim, to play tennis, and to kayak. Now all of these, even kayaking, has been taken away from us. Technically, we can still go to the parks for walks, but given that the government has closed down ever more places, everyone is just going to congregate in ever greater numbers there. I guess it’s time to just hunker down in our apartment for the next few weeks and hope that these measures will work.

Otherwise, I can’t really complain. Not being able to go out sucks – and in normal circumstances, we would have spent Easter in Phuket, kayaking. But, unlike a lot of people, we are able to continue working from home – and still have a busy schedule to keep up, which means job security. Also, unlike many others, Jeff and I have our own home offices, so we aren’t on top of each other while we take our conference calls. And also, we don’t have kids, so we can’t really empathize with the harried parents who have to deal with both working from home and teaching their kids at the same time.

So, instead of 2020 being the year of travel, this is the year I learn to appreciate what we have. Our health, our jobs, a comfortable roof over our heads, and a spread out but still close circle of friends we can keep in touch with in these times.

And given the additional time I have indoors, I thought it might be a good opportunity to root through old photographs on my hard drives and back them up online.

Here are some memories that I dredged up from 2006-2007:

2006

Ice climbing weekend in Munising, Michigan. That was the first time I’d gone ice climbing ever! Fun memories. Some quotes from my journal from that trip:

The lands around us – even the road – were blanketed in a thick, glorious white, a fluffy pure white that I have not seen in Chicago this winter.

Rows of Christmas trees lined the road, their sturdy pine branches seeming to bend under the heavy weight of the snow. I was excited – we all were. There was no more doubt that there wouldn’t be enough snow/ice for us this weekend. As it were, it was starting to snow out – heavily. The howling winds churned up those fat wet flakes that had just settled onto the ground, and sent them twirling in mad spirals in front of us, around us, such that visibility quickly fell to a mere 10 feet.

Our planned 7.5 hour drive was stretching out into a 11 hour marathon before us. No matter though, we were still excited; I forgot my usual attempts to spare the others from my singing and started belting out all the camping songs I could remember.

Finally, finally, we pulled into the parking lot by our trail head. Remembering the ranger’s backcountry camping directions, we each shouldered our camping gear and set off on the trail to find a nice sheltered spot to pitch tent. The wind had by now picked up, and screeched and yowled while sending snow flying directly into our eyes. With bent heads, we struggled our way across the foot of snow, slowly raising one leg and sinking it knee-deep into the snow, and then even more slowly raising the other to step forward. 

I picked up climbing regularly in 2006, and Pauline, whom I’d met by chance at a local bouldering gym the day we independently decided to pick up the sport, became my fast climbing buddy. We made an early trip out to Devils Lake Wisconsin in the spring, and it was just gorgeous.

Climbing in Devils Lake Wisconsin with Pauline, circa 2006

2007

We went up to Munising for the ice climbing festival again in 2007. We’d intended to camp again, but aborted our plans at the last minute given the frigid weather. Luckily, we had a couple other friends who drove up from Chicago too, and they let us bunk in at their cabin.

Weekend camping in Joshua Tree

What a surreal first quarter! I feel like we’ve been playing dodge ball with the fast spreading Corona virus; been incredibly lucky to date. As I write this, the US government has just announced a 30 day ban on travel to Europe; the Indian government has also put a stop on foreigners traveling to India until April 15.

In traveling for both work and fun this year…

  • Jeff narrowly missed getting quarantined in Guangzhou in January – a few days after he’d returned, the Chinese government announced travel bans
  • Two days after we left Venice, the Italian government announced a citywide quarantine
  • I managed to get into the US 10 days after leaving Italy, and before the US announced the new spate of travel bans
  • While I was in the US, Singapore enacted the mandatory quarantine on travelers who’d visited Italy in the past 14 days; luckily, by the time I touched back down into Singapore from the US, I’d been away from Italy for 19 days.

Hopefully our luck holds. At the very least, we’re staying put this next month.

Anyway, happily, I still managed to go to the US for work (if the conference had been a week later though, we most likely would have cancelled. As it were, we were given the option at the 11th hour and during the conference itself to leave if we wanted). A few coworkers and I decided to go camping at Joshua Tree the weekend before.

It was most of their first time camping – and we had to scrounge to buy and get the camping gear for everyone. But it turned out fantastic!

Twilight at our campsite. By the time we’d settled on the camping idea, all of the campsites within the Joshua Tree National Park itself was already booked, given that this was the peak period. Happily we did find this barebones but quiet campground a half hour outside the park. We had a camping platform and a wooden fence to block off wind, but otherwise wide open land.

After dinner, we decided to head back into the park for a bit of astrophotography. There was a half moon out, which beautifully lit up our foreground for long exposure shots. We didn’t stay long though – the elevation was higher in the park and the wind stronger, so we quickly got chilled.

Back at our campsite, we settled down outside with mugs of tequila to watch the half moon set at around 11pm.

After the moon had set, three of us decided to drive back into the park to try our luck at spotting the milky way. Alas, we realized only later that the milky way season in North America is shorter than in Australia. Apparently, the best times for milky way spotting is in the summer in Joshua Tree. Oh well – we had fun driving down the dark windy paths in the pitch dark.

After a few hours hunkered down in our sleeping bags, we roused again at 530am to drive back into the park for sunrise. Given the clear skies the night before, we weren’t expecting much color, but it was still lovely to breath in the fresh cool air and see the sun slowly paint the rocks and desert sand a warm orange glow.

I wish we had more time to spend in the park, to slowly hike the backcountry trails. As it was, we had to return to the city. So after breakfast and packing up, we just drove through the park, from the North Entrance through the South, before turning back to LA.

Lovely short teaser to JT National Park!

Three days in Venice and the Carnivale

When we decided to go to the Dolomites to ski, we also decided to spend a few days in Venice. After all, the last time either of us had visited was more than a decade ago! My enduring memory of my trip there almost two decades ago was the floods – half a foot of water blanketed San Marco’s, shutting down the Doge’s Palace and the Basilica. I remember waiters alternately bailing water out of the ground level restaurants and serving meals to patrons.

Happily, we enjoyed beautiful weather the 3 days we were there. Our first afternoon, we did the touristy thing and braved the crowds in San Marco’s to visit the Campinale for the breathtaking views of the city. We also spent a fun 2 hours wandering the halls of the Doge’s Palace.

The Carnivale parade along the boulevard and San Marco’s had just ended when we finally exited the Doge’s Palace, and, as the crowds dispersed, we got to join in the throngs of photographers to take pictures of the dozens dressed up in elaborate costumes and masks. It was quite surreal – but festive and entertaining! The Carnivale runs for 2 weeks, and we went smack in the middle, which meant there were masqueraders wandering all over town in their getups the entire weekend – when we tried to catch the sunrise one foggy morning along the water’s edge, they were milling around and posing for photographers too!

We briefly toyed with the idea of getting some capes and masks ourselves, especially since we were going to the opera, but we got sticker shock when we saw some of the prices of the warm capes we saw on sale!

We also spent an afternoon at the historic Teatro La Fenice, the famed Opera house that hosted the premieres of Rigoletto etc. Caught the Elisir d’amore, a 2.5 hour Donizetti comedy in a gallery box, which was fun!

Mostly, we tried to stay away from the main touristy areas, and instead explored the different neighborhoods – the Jewish ghetto one night, and the Castello district another morning, where, upon the advice of our host at the hotel, we stopped by the Scuola Grande di San Marco, an old church that is now part of the city’s hospital. It boasts a quiet little garden where many fat cats lounged in the winter sun.

Venice is a charming city to explore, for its many waterways and winding tight alleys. It’s impossible to know, when you turn a corner, if you’d wind up in an open piazza with many alfresco bars, or run smack into a waterway. At dusk though, the city becomes truly magical. The warm orange street lamps light up the blue waterways, and with the absence of motor vehicles of any kind, we felt like we could have really stepped back into another era.

We ate really well this trip. After the heavy meat dishes in the alps, we sought out – and found – lots of fresh seafood in Venice. At least we made sure to walk upwards of 25,000 steps a day to account for our feasts and scoops of gelato daily!

We also managed to spend a day in the outer islands of Venice, first visiting Burano for its colorful rows of houses, then Murano where we gawked at the beautiful glass works on sale.

A day in Verona, Italy

Coming down from the mountains, we spent a day in Verona, a quiet (relative to Venice) town just an hour and a half from the coast.

View of the Adige River

We arrived on Valentine’s Day, and we were initially dismayed at the realisation, because we hadn’t thought to make restaurant reservations in advance. But the upside, we found out, was that all attractions were going for the price of 2-for-1! Which meant discounted entries to Castelvecchio and the Arena that we visited.

The Verona Arena, where operatic performances are still held

Otherwise, we were happy to roam about the city, losing ourselves in the warren maze of medieval streets.

The campanile shines red for Valentines day

Skiing in the Dolomites

It’s been almost two decades since I was last in Italy. Oh my, time has flown… I can’t believe that I’m almost 20 years older.

Anyway, we had been very much looking forward to this trip – for the food, wine, culture, and of course the skiing.

Nothing disappointed, even though this hasn’t been the best season for skiing apparently, especially compared to last year. It didn’t snow the week leading up to our trip, nor the five days we were skiing. Still, the slopes were beautifully groomed and the runs soft and buttery for the most part. No complains!

We stayed in the Val Gardena area, and had access to a huge expanse of routes circling the Dolomites. We clocked roughly 50km a day on average, exploring all the interconnected ski resorts, via the main Sellaronda circuit. It’s been four years since we last skiied, so our legs were screaming by the end of each day, but what fun!

We made sure to stop by the huts for a proper sit down lunch everyday too. When in Europe, do it Apres style! One of our most memorable meals this trip was a lunch we took mid slope, with incredible views of the Dolomites in the backdrop. Jeff had nocchi, I had ravioli in duck consume, washed down with a delicious glass of Amarone. Life couldn’t get better than that!

And when my legs were really screaming in protest on the last day, having pushed like mad to get off the mountain before the chairlifts closed (and failing, but luckily there was still an alternate route we could take back to our car!), we explored the trails off the main ski runs. There were churches and huts for hikers in the summer, along with random benches that we luxuriated in, and enjoyed the warmth of the sun on our faces.

Stay: Villa Martha, a lovely, adult only bed and breakfast by the St Christina trail: http://www.villamartha.it

Ski: https://www.dolomitisuperski.com/en

Spot of kayaking in Sydney…

… for old times’ sake.

Got to spend a week in Sydney last week for work, so I got in the weekend before to meet up with friends. As usual, when the weather cooperates, I just had to get out on the water for a spot of kayaking.

Garry, Bridget and Natalie joined me for a short, leisurely paddle from Spit Bridge to the nude beach just past Balmoral and back. Perfect conditions to be out on the water too, for it was pushing 40 degree Celsius on land! When we returned, we splashed around in the cool waters for a bit to cool down, then met Kate and Aidan for a cheeky lunch by the Skiff Club. Good times!

Definitely grateful for the work opportunities that me back to Sydney to see these and other lovely folks!!!

2019 in the Rearview

Writing a look back on the past year hadn’t crossed my mind this time, not to mention my complete overlooking of the fact that another decade had just flashed by. I only realized this after the deluge of posts by friends online, listing their accomplishments, highlights and lowlights.

Photographically speaking (since this is technically a photo blog), 2019 was a year I spent capturing my experiences, vs. actively seeking out sceneries to photograph. There’s an important distinction here. I focused on the latter in 2016 and 2017, where I joined photography Meetup groups to visit beaches along the Sydney coast every weekend at sunrise, and later on with Sydney by Kayak every morning in Lavender Bay. My goal then was to learn to see, capture, and appreciate the same environments in the different seasons, clouds and light.

Here in Singapore, the beach-scape hasn’t inspired me to the same extent, though I admit it would be a good challenge to take up, to try capture the different essence that is Singapore. In any case, my motivation to consciously and actively seek out scenes to photograph has waned, and accordingly my DSLR and various lenses has for the most part, stayed in my cabinets.

So, 2019 was the year of documentation, of recording our numerous journeys and adventures around the world, and of little moments with friends.

We rung in 2019 while still on the slopes of Kilimanjaro, where we learnt that at those altitudes where the air is so thin, it’s safer to stow away our cameras and focus literally on just placing a foot in front at a time.

When Jeff went to Shanghai for work in January, we also made a weekend trip out of it, and spent long hours walking around the town, delighting in the clean streets and charming old school architecture.

In March we joined a friend for a weekend in Yangon. It was like stepping back in time, into a Singapore in the 1950s.

We also did our first week long kayaking and camping trip in Coron and Palawan in the Philippines. There, we got a first real taste of ocean kayaking, where wild waves and currents freaked us out just a tad. But the food, freshly delivered each evening on long tail boats, was heavenly, as was dips in the crystal clear waters at our lunch and camping spots.

We also spent a long weekend in Bali, where we dove at Manta Point and Crystal Bay, and also visited some padi fields.

Over the Labour Day long weekend, we visited Hoi An in Vietnam. We may have spent one too many days in that little tourist town, but had did enjoy visiting the Champa temples in My Son.

Mid-May, we went to Sydney for work, and made most of the weekends visiting with friends.

Over the Vesak Day long weekend in May, we went to Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Even though the weather was unforgiving, we thoroughly enjoyed wandering around the different temples. Apart from the main Bayon temple, which was crawling with tourists, most of the other temples were quiet and serene.

Natalie visited for two weekends in June, so we went to Langkawi in Malaysia for one of the weekends. We were a little disappointed that none of the beaches had kayak or SUP a rentals because of the (small) surf, but we still had a relaxing weekend splashing about in the sea and pool.

August saw us visiting Copenhagen and Greenland for the first time. The food in Copenhagen was stunningly expensive but delicious, and the kayaking in Greenland was addictive.

In September, we spent another long weekend in Sydney, this time for our friends’ Garry and Linh’s wedding.

When we got back, I found that I had an extra week and a half before I started my new job, so I booked myself on a week long trip to Nusa Penida in Bali.

October saw me travel back to the States, the first time in almost five years, to San Francisco for onboarding. I made most of my weekend there, meeting up with various old friends.

Over the Deepavali long weekend in November, we went to Yogyajarkta with a friend. We weren’t blown away by the Royal Palace or Ratu Boko, but Borobudur itself is grand and worth a visit.

In December, we did the Raja Ampat liveaboard, and so thoroughly enjoyed the diversity and richness of live in these Indonesian waters, we are seriously considering jettisoning our plans to kayak in Greece this September for another liveaboard aboard the Blue Manta to Komodo Islands.

Jeff’s family visited over the Christmas break, and after a few fun and relaxing days touring Singapore’s attractions and lounging in our pools, we spent a couple days in Bangkok.

2019 was definitely a good year travel-wise. It turned out fantastic career-wise too. So I’m stoked for the many more adventures 2020 will bring!

A week on a Raja Ampat diving liveaboard

What an incredible week we just spent living on the Blue Manta, a diving liveaboard that is currently sailing the waters of Raja Ampat, from the Dampier Strait to Misool and back.

A pod of at least two dozen spinner dolphins accompanying our sail to Dampier Strait

Life underwater there is so rich, teeming with enormous schools of fish that is heartening to see. Many dives, we were swarmed by darting anchovies and glass fishes that occasionally coalesced themselves into large balls to counter the prowling schools of jacks and snappers. Schools of large batfish cut placidly through these, and the schools of butterfly fish, juvenile triggerfish, juvenile snappers and blue and yellow fusiliers. At times, we were quite content to swim away from our close inspection of the sea walls for nudibranches, lobsters, shrimps, and pygmy seahorses to just revel in the busyness.

We were so lucky to luxuriate in the rich environs underwater

Then there were the mantas. We were lucky to spot them on several occasions, both the reef and ocean mantas. Enormous beasts that span up to 7 meters, they would come into the reef from the deep, to get cleaned by the eager butterfly fish. At Manta Ridge in Dampier Strait, we tied ourselves down to the reef with reef hooks and stayed almost the entirety of our dive to marvel at these majestic creatures regally gliding their way through and around the strong currents.

Admiring the graceful waltzes of the manta rays

In the deepening darkness when we descended for the night dives, we were usually rewarded with the sight of hunters prowling. Black tip reef sharks, swimming moray eels, stingrays, octopuses, squids, and cuttlefish. The crabs and lobsters would come out of their hiding nooks too, and the polypops would be unfurled in their splendid glory, feasting on the plankton. We also spotted the shy walking shark, endemic to Raja Ampat waters.

Some scenes from our night dives

One of my favorite highlights was ascending to the surface after our exciting night dives, to see the black sky filled with twinkling stars. Out in those waters, with no light pollution for hundreds of miles, save the warm cheery lights of our boat, the stars twinkled as brightly as they did in Australia (a sight I dearly miss in Singapore). I loved these quiet moments where we gently bobbed in the flat waters, soaking in the beauty of the night, before our trusty boat crew puttered up in their small boats to take us back to steaming mugs of hot chocolate and piping hot dinners.

Above water, in between the dives, we enjoyed little naps or chatted with the other divers. It’s always fun to swap dive tales with fellow enthusiasts, and get tips for new destinations to visit. This trip, we had many avid photographers and videographers on board, most decked out with unwieldy and heavy gear that they really put through the grind. It was inspiring to see their work, and to enjoy the gorgeous images of life underwater that they captured.

Our cruise director also found time for us to do a few land excursions – one where we spent a sweaty 20 minutes climbing the steep slopes to the viewing platform to see “Love Lake”, another where we visited Little Juliet Bay in Misool to see baby black tip reef sharks swimming in the shallows, and another to visit a quiet group of rock islands rising in the middle of the seas to form breathtaking lagoons.

Life above water in Raja Ampat

A swim through the mangroves in Dampier Strait

After a frustrating start with my camera underwater, where I had to get used to the settings all over again after not having touched it for almost two years, I gradually got more comfortable with the camera and strobe. So much so that I think I’m at the point where it makes sense to invest in another strobe light and a wide angle wet lens. (Lol, the little excuses we give ourselves for the acquisition of more gear.)

Some of the many types of nudibranches we spotted

Dani, our dive guide
A photo Dani took of me underwater – I felt a little like Moses, parting the sea of glass fish

Love the rich biodiversity underwater

Our dive sites

Borobudur at Sunrise

Diwali long weekend = another opportunity to explore the region around us. Our aim this year – and the next – is to visit as many South East Asian cities and historical sites as possible while we live here.

So that’s how we (Jeff and my old primary school mate Kate) found ourselves in Yogyakarta last Saturday. The main focus of our trip was Borobudur, a 9th century Buddhist temple in Central Java. Given that we’d landed in the morning and couldn’t make the 11 hour day tour to the other highlight in the area, Jomblang Caves, we decided to wander around locally.

Where we visited Saturday:

  1. The Kraton Royal Palace – Very underwhelming. Most of the palace is private and can’t be toured, and the only open areas we could wander around were really rundown and basic. We were left honestly very confused if we had gone to the right place. Our hotel and malls were in much better condition
  2. Taman Sari Water Castle – We had a local volunteer to bring us around and give us the history of this compact grounds, and so could appreciate the history of the 18th century bath house a little better. As bath houses go, we enjoyed our visit to the better preserved ancient Roman Baths in Bath more, but this visit was a huge step up from the palace.
  3. Ratu Boko – This archaeological site is a 45 min taxi ride out of Yogyakarta, but given that we’d completed both the palace and water castle visits in 2 hours and had the entire afternoon wide open, we jumped into the cab after a gelato lunch. Our recommendations? Skip this one too, especially because of the US$25 foreign tourist price we were forced to cough up (the local price was less than half that!). The 8th century site has not quite been properly restored; just yawning stretches of land broken up with old piles of rocks. The few signs scattered around the park did nothing to help inform the history, but just listed the dimensions of the site. The tourism board needs to be overhauled.

So our expectations were very low Sunday morning when we roused out of bed at the ungodly hour of 3am, so we could make the hour drive to catch the sun rise over Borobudur.

But our fears were unfounded. Borobudur itself is worth the trip to Yogyakarta (along with Prambanan temple, which we visited after). The air was crisp and cool when we walked up the steps of the temple in the dark. There were other tourists milling around, but everyone was quiet, just silently soaking in the meditative atmosphere.

I brought along my nifty little Fujifilm X100F for the trip. It takes great photos in light, but personally I feel its low light performance is quite wanting. I can’t quite bring out the shadow details like I can with my Canon 6D, or even my tiny Sony RX100! Or, maybe it’s photographer error. I’ve found that it still takes me a few seconds to adjust the settings in this camera to take photos, whereas I can make the same adjustments on my Canon in a fraction of the time.
The morning mist slowly dissipated as the sun rose, lending an impressionist feel to the landscape
Some of the stupas still had sitting buddhas in them; but a lot were either empty, or had headless ones
The grounds of Borobudur were large enough that we could find empty stretches of corridors to wander around in

We’d signed up to visit Borobudur under a day tour, with the second leg The next part of our tour, we visited Mt Merapi. Or tried to get close to it at any rate, on these old school open top jeeps. Honestly, the jeep ride up the rocky trail was much more fun than walking a couple hundred meters up a dusty track to stare at the live volcano in the distance. Its top was obscured by clouds.

For the last leg of the tour, we visited Prambanan, a 9th century Hindu temple. It’s in the similar style as the temples we visited of Angkor Wat in Cambodia. The main compound was crowded, but as soon as we ventured to the other temples, the crowds dwindled to nothing, and we had a very enjoyable couple of hours wandering around and soaking in the sights.

Good weekend excursion. 🙂

San Francisco in October

I got to go to San Francisco recently for work. It must have been about 10 years since I’ve been there, but happily, I now have a bunch of friends who have moved to the area over the years. So I had the good fortune to catch up with them over the two weeks I was in town.

October seems also the best time to visit. We were blessed with beautiful weather throughout – cool but sunny days with fog that usually dissapates over the Golden Gate Bridge by mid-day.

The weekdays were filled up with work during the day, and catch up with friends in the evening, followed by losing battles with jet lag at night. But on the weekend, I managed to slowly take in the city and enjoy the Indian summer (although, just north of the city, the dry conditions were such that PG&E unilaterally cut off power to thousands of families).

On the weekend, my friend Eric decided to rent a car to drive down to Half Moon Bay, just so we could sample the delicious burgers from Dad’s Luncheonette. While there, we tried to check out the beach, parking in front of this cute little house
Well, here’s the beach at Half Moon Bay. The fog rolled in just as we approached, so we could barely make out the waves
Driving back to San Francisco, the fog lifted to unveil the gorgeous blue waters

My visit also coincided with Fleet Week, so on Saturday afternoon, Eric and I strolled along the waterfront, joining the thousands lining the piers, beaches and grassy knolls to watch the military planes do aerial loops overhead.

The Blue Angels over Alcatraz. Seeing these jets reminded me of the air and water show in Chicago, where we’d take an afternoon off work to enjoy the show off the back of my boss’s boat. Good times.

After, we continued our walk along the coast, through Presidio into Land’s End, where we tramped down the steep cliff to Marshall Beach. It’s a beautiful stretch of beach, overlooking the iconic Golden Gate Bridge and the Marin Headlands across the water. I didn’t expect that it was also a nude beach though, popular with guys looking for action by the rocks!

Watching the sunset

On Sunday evening, I also managed to get out onto the water for a bit of paddling, joining City Kayak for their monthly full moon paddle out by Pier 40.

It was a leisurely affair, more floating than actual paddling, not unlike the sunrise paddle tours I used to guide in Sydney. But it was very peaceful to watch the sun set on the water, and then to watch the huge orange moon rise from the horizon.

After, we did get a bit of kayaking in, using the moonlight to paddle up the waterway by the Oracle Arena to the last of the boathouses in San Francisco.

Watching the colors of the sky rapidly change as the sun set in the background. A lone sea lion popped its head out of the water every so often in front of our kayaks, to see what we were up to
The full moon rises over the Bay Bridge. I didn’t have my telephoto lens on me, so this little pinprick in the background hardly does the gigantic orange orb in the sky any justice.