(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!

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!

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!

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.