(Mostly) virtual explorations in 2020

I barely took any photographs with my cameras this year except on my phone. Once Covid shut down all travel, we mostly just hunkered down at home. So since March, all our exploration has been local, or virtually, via books and movies and TV shows.

I managed to read 61 books to date this year (maybe 61 by year end if I get started on any one of the three books on my phone now).

Skiing in the Dolomites in February
Enjoying an aperitif in Venice, 3 days before the government shut down the Carnivale and the city due to the spreading virus

Top Fiction

  • American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins: This book was really visceral for me, and really helped me empathise with the migrants’ travails north across the border into America. It also turned out to be a very controversial book, with many people protesting against the heralding of a book about the migrant experience that is written by a white woman. Personally, I think sometimes people are way too sensitive. If a book is well written and can help raise awareness of such pressing issues, is that not a good thing?
  • [Update: December 29] Homeland Elegies by Ayad Akhtar: Learnt a new genre – “autofiction”, where the author blurs his autobiography and fiction, such that it’s hard to find out what’s real and what’s not. I tried, googling some of the characters and trying to read up on him but in the end, gave up, and just went with the flow. After all, there’s so much to unpack in this book already. Of his struggles as an ethnic minority trying to reconcile the opposing cultures – one of his birth place, and the other of his ancestors. The process which is not helped by the increasingly strident voices on both sides of the ideological divide which brook no room for nuanced conversations.
  • Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins: Prequel to the Hunger Games series. I loved the Hunger Games, and I loved the world she painted in the prequel. Well not literally, since that world is also pretty messed up, but she managed to give more dimensions to the main villain of the later Hunger Games.
Star gazing in Joshua Tree on Feb 28, a week before the US shut down travel to Europe, and two before the Singapore government placed all travelers into Singapore on quarantine notices

Top Non-Fiction

  • Ride of a Lifetime by Robert Iger: This is my top book of 2020. I really enjoy how he talks not only about how he climbed through the ranks from the bottom at ABC to the top job at Disney, but distills it into lessons he’s learnt along the way. Because of that, and because of his clear, engaging writing that saw me race through the book in a single weekend – which never happens for a non-fiction book!
  • Invisible Women by Caroline Criado PerezThis highlights all the data gaps that result in the sometimes unconscious designs of everyday things / policies that are biased against women. It’s food for thought for the different ways we can and should go about design.
  • The Sun is a Compass by Caroline Van Hermet – This is beautiful and evocative travel writing through the Alaskan wilderness. Written by an ornithologist, we also get first hand lectures on the habitats and lifestyles of the birds and animals she and her husband come across in their treks. Her writing is so vivid, I could almost picture the soaring mountain ranges, breathing in the cold but clear pine-scented air, and imagine the heavy humidity of the Mackenzie delta with its permanent stink of rotting muck in mud and the relentless clouds of mosquitoes that drives both people and caribou insane. Loved reading this especially in lock-down.
  • Land of Lost Borders by Kate Harris – Another awesome travel book to read in lockdown, about two women’s bike ride across the Silk Road.
  • Into the Planet: My Life as a Cave Diver by Jill Heinerth –  The opening paragraphs grabbed me right from the beginning:

If I die, it will be in the most glorious place that nobody has ever seen. 

I can no longer feel the fingers in my left hand. The glacial Antarctic water has seeped through a tiny puncture in my formerly waterproof glove. If this water were one-tenth of a degree colder, the ocean would become solid. Fighting the knife-edged freeze is depleting my strength, my blood vessels throbbing in a futile attempt to deliver warmth to my extremities.

The archway of ice above our heads is furrowed like the surface of a golf ball, carved by the hand of the sea. Iridescent blue, Wedgewood, azure, cerulean, cobalt, and pastel robin’s egg meld with chalk and silvery alabaster. The ice is vibrant, bright, and at the same time ghostly, shadowly. The beauty contradicts the danger. We are the first people to cave dive inside an iceberg. And we may not live to tell the story.

One thing we’re definitely grateful for this year: the addition to our family, puppy LL. Technically, she’s my parents’ dog, but she’s brought so much joy (and some headaches, like the time the Roomba “ate” and then “spit out” her poop)
Kayaking – our main mode of exploration this year

Here’s hoping for the resumption of in person adventures in 2021!

Still in lockdown but at least I’m traveling virtually

The Singapore government loves play on words. We’re going into the second month of our “circuit breaker” – it’s not a “lockdown”, they insist, because essential services are still able to continue to work, because we are still allowed to go to our local parks for runs and walks, albeit with masks on. And now as the second month of the CB (yes, acronyms are another thing the government loves) draws to an end, the government has decided that we’ll move into phases of gradual loosened restrictions. In phase one, which could last at least 4 weeks, we are now allowed to visit our parents, and kids are allowed to go to school. But I was looking forward to – craving – playing tennis again, kayaking, and swimming. Sadly, that’s not likely to happen until July at the very earliest.

I was quite depressed by the news. In the larger scheme of things, I know, I know, I’m lucky. I’m tired of repeating the refrain even to myself: no kids and home-based learning to drive me nuts, jobs even while some colleagues have faced cuts, our health. But I allowed myself a couple of hours to mope, to validate the feelings.

Then I went online to search for good travel books. If I couldn’t go out physically, no reason why I couldn’t do it from my couch. If anything, these books validated my yearning for exploration.

I realise this is primarily a travel and outdoors photography blog. But I haven’t wielded my camera in months, and have lost the urge to revisit old photos. In any case, here’s a few of my favourites, most, somewhat coincidentally, by women. I don’t think it was so much a conscientious decision to search for women writers, as much as wanting a more thoughtful and less macho look at the world. Ordered by latest read descending:

Land of Lost Borders: A Journey on the Silk Road (Kate Harris)

Kate Harris graduated from Princeton, then became a Rhodes scholar who toyed with the idea of completing a PhD in the History of Science at Oxford. Instead, she started on a PhD at MIT. Ultimately though, she felt shackled by a life in the lab, and ran away instead to bike the length of the Silk Road. Afterwards, she chose to settle down at the edge of the Juneau Icefield, in a spare one room log cabin with her partner. I was variously drawn to her conscious rejection of the material wealth, to her eloquent treatises of traveling and history of explorers, from Darwin to Marco Polo, and to her detailedly mapped out descriptions of the Central Asian ranges.

Camping in Blackheath, Blue Mountains, Australia May 2016

Into the Planet: My Life as a Cave Diver (Jill Heinerth)

If I die, it will be in the most glorious place that nobody has ever seen.

I can no longer feel the fingers in my left hand. The glacial Antarctic water has seeped through a tiny puncture in my formerly waterproof glove. If this water were one-tenth of a degree colder, the ocean would become solid. Fighting the knife-edged freeze is depleting my strength, my blood vessels throbbing in a futile attempt to deliver warmth to my extremities.

The archway of ice above our heads is furrowed like the surface of a golf ball, carved by the hand of the sea. Iridescent blue, Wedgewood, azure, cerulean, cobalt, and pastel robin’s egg meld with chalk and silvery alabaster. The ice is vibrant, bright, and at the same time ghostly, shadowly. The beauty contradicts the danger. We are the first people to cave dive inside an iceberg. And we may not live to tell the story.

How do you not get sucked into a book with this beginning? It’s a fascinating account of how she got into the life of cave diving, and how through the years and countless of pitch black, zero visibility dives, she variously helped and led in the discovery of new watery passageways miles underneath us.

The Sun is a Compass: A 4,000-Mile Journey into the Alaskan Wilds (Caroline Van Hemert)

This is beautiful and evocative travel writing through the Alaskan wilderness. Written by an ornithologist, we also get first hand lectures on the habitats and lifestyles of the birds and animals Van Hermert and her husband come across in their treks. Her writing is so vivid, I could almost picture the soaring mountain ranges, breathing in the cold but clear pine-scented air, and imagine the heavy humidity of the Mackenzie delta with its permanent stink of rotting muck in mud and the relentless clouds of mosquitoes that drives both people and caribou insane.

Camping, Mt. Kosciuszko, Australia January 2017

Kabloona in the Yellow Kayak: One Woman’s Journey through the Northwest Passage (Victoria Jason)

What can I say, I love reading books about kayaking, and the Northwest Passage seems an epic journey that attracts kayakers of all stripes. Enter Victoria Jason, a plucky grandmother of two who picked up kayaking later in life. Her travel companions sound nightmarish, but if I just focus on the nature bits, this was a great read.

Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage (Alfred Lansing)

Shackleton’s journey is so harrowing and epic, it’s almost incredible. August 1914 – Ernest Shackleton leads a crew of 27 aboard the Endurance, just as WWI breaks out. Their goal: to cross the Antarctic continent on foot. Alas, just short of their destination, their ship became locked in ice. So began the 2-year struggle for survival for these men, including a heroic paddle to Elephant Island where the majority of the men awaited rescue while Shackleton and 5 others rowed for South Georgia Island 650 nautical miles away.

The River (Peter Heller)

A beautiful piece of fiction about two close pals’ canoeing expedition in the great Canadian wilderness. So evocative.

And then one evening they pulled up on a wooded island and they made camp and fried a meal of lake trout on a driftwood fire and watched the sun sink into the spruce on the far shore. Late August, a clear night becoming cold. There was no aurora borealis, just the dense sparks of the stars blown from their own ancient fire. They climbed the hill. they did not need a headlamp as they were used to moving in the dark. Sometimes if they were feeling strong they paddled half the night. They loved how the darkness amplified the sounds – the gulp of dipping paddles, the knock of the wood shaft against the gunwale. The long desolate cry of a loon. The loons especially. How they hollowed out the night with longing.

I read it and recall our canoe trip up in Boundary Waters in Minnesota so long ago, and the quick but deeply satisifying weekend jaunts down the Wisconsin River.

Rowing to Latitude (Jill Fredston)

One of my all time favourite adventure writing – bonus points because it’s about kayaking. I like it for her quiet, no nonsense attitude. Unlike most other epic adventure books I’d read up to this point, she wasn’t doing it to “prove herself”, to “complete a first”. She didn’t seek out sponsors. She did it for the sake of pure enjoyment.

In the process of journeying, we seem to have become the journey, blurring the boundaries between the physical landscape outside of ourselves and the spiritual landscape within. Once, during a long crossing in Labrador, we found ourselves in fog so thick that it was impossible to see even the ends of our boats. Unable to distinguish gray water from gray air, I felt vertigo grab hold of my equilibrium, and the world began to spin. I needed a reference point – the sound of Doug’s voice or the catch of my blades as they entered the water – to know which way was right side up. Rounding thousands of miles of ragged shoreline together, driven by the joys and fears of not knowing what lies around the next bend, has helped us to find an interior compass.

Those carefree weekends kayaking in Kangaroo Valley, March 2018

The Push: A Climber’s Journey of Endurance, Risk, and Going Beyond Limits (Tommy Cadwell)

I read this after watching The Dawn Wall. It’s not the most polished piece of writing – he apparently chose to write it himself with no ghost writer… but if the author’s life to date is already so epic, you’ll get pulled into the story no matter the writing (Lone Survivor by Marcus Luttrell jumped immediately to mind!). It’s a great behind the scenes of how he got into climbing, and a good look at his climbing philosophy especially at a time when his contemporaries are perishing in big mountain climbs or taking outsized risks free soloing.

The Great Alone (Kristin Hannah)

Reading this novel reminded me of like Tara Weston’s Educated, about growing up in a dysfunctional and abusive family. Except that it’s set in the Alaska and talks to the wildness in both man and nature. The themes are at times hard to stomach, because her writing is so vivid and real. She’s a beautiful writer who has brought us other gems like The Nightingale.

Exploring the Redwoods in New Zealand, April 2016