(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!

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!