(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!

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.