Chasing the perfect moments

Today I have a sad reality that those perfect moments where you feel like you are exactly on the same wavelength as someone is more likely to be a random fluke.

You stared into each other’s eyes and time stood still. Everything else disappeared. For in that moment you are in sync. Your clocks aligned and no words were necessary. You understood each other perfectly. That is the definition of perfection.

However, the moment passes.

You try to reconnect with the person again to see if any signs of that connection remain. Not a thread remains.
You may even find the person, repulsive to an extent.

How is this possible?
Why does the universe play such cruel games?

 

 

 

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Zambezi River Take Une

Hours of looking into the glistening water started to make my vision blurry. I tried to rub my eyes with my bare wrist, bringing my left arm close to my face during the motions of rowing. I couldn’t spare a moment with my hands off of the paddle. The paddle was my sole lifeline on what turned out to be an unforgettable journey.

The story begins nearly two weeks prior. On a fateful coach journey from Windhoek, the windy capital of Namibia, to Livingstone, the famed city bordering Victoria Falls on the Zambia side, I met an Australian who had been traveling across southern Africa along the same route that I had been. We bonded over this because few people took this circular route, starting and ending in Lusaka, Zambia. Most travellers traversed north to south, south to north, either starting or ending in South Africa.

I ended up following this adventurous Australian to the easternmost parts of Zambia, specifically, the Zambezi River. Initially, we considered doing a safari at the Lower Zambezi National Park on the Zimbabwe side. However, given lack of planning on our part, it was deemed impossible for our three-day rendezvous. Our taxi driver led us to a wonderful lodge owned by a rugged and gregarious Dutch lady who had lived and travelled the world over. The lodge was right by the River and we were the only guests during the quiet season. She suggested that we do a canoe safari, the length of which is quite flexible. Throwing all caution to the wind, my travel partner and I agreed.

The next day, we sat on warm grass on the premises of the lodge, waiting for our canoe guide. As we waited, we wondered what grave mistake have we made. Will we live to tell the tale? Of course, there is a delay. We even felt relieved by the delay, rationalizing that perhaps this trip was not meant to be. Finally, our guide arrived; he appeared soft-spoken, efficient, and alert. I felt comfortable with him immediately. After finishing lunch, we strapped all of our supplies onto the canoes and pushed off into the river. The guide took one canoe with most of the supplies, while my travel partner and I were on another canoe. We received minimal guidance and were ready to jump in armored with ignorance as our courage.

At first, I struggled to find a good pace. Pride got the best of me and I would go through spurts of speed rowing only to fall back once I grew tired. I started to observe the Zen-like motions of our guide. Each stroke was controlled, purposeful, and consistent. His strokes were like clockwork. I made it my personal goal to learn this Zen-like rowing. The river was quiet in the beginning. The afternoon sun beat down on us relentlessly and the glistening water was, sometimes, blinding, but it was quiet at first. Every so often, our guide would hit the handle of the paddle on the sides of the boat to warn hippos of our approach. We don’t want to startle the hippos with surprise.

Suddenly, we found ourselves surrounded by groups of hippos, called pods. Most were submerged, but a few started to stand up. Inside, I thought this could be my last breath on Earth. We were told that hippos are the most dangerous animals on the water, responsible for more human deaths in Africa than any other animal. Somehow, we all managed to stay calm and continued rowing at the same pace as before. I feared so much that my arms would freeze up and fail to perform under such high pressure. I was so relieved that it was just a scare.

We continued to row along this unique river; the fourth longest river in Africa, that is constantly changing course. It’s impossible to maneuver without an experienced guide, even if there weren’t any dangerous animals. We saw many animals along the way, including elephants, crocodiles, and fishing eagles. Once, we rowed up to the bank and were right next to a group of elephants drinking water by the bank. It was a magical trip to say the least, topped off by camping overnight on a tiny islet in the middle of the river. I had never been closer to nature nor seen so many stars at night. I would do this all over again in a heartbeat.

Somethings you can only understand after someone has passed

You will always wonder if you should have spend more time together.

I realize that no matter what, one will have have such questions on the back of one’s mind. Instead of using up mental space to ponder the “what ifs,” spending time to understand people after they have passed is a more valuable use of time. Going through my grandfather’s things, I found that he kept the ages of each one of us in the family following traditional Chinese methods of keeping track of years. It is not very obvious. If one doesn’t take the time to really observe, one could easily miss the fact that he was keep track of specific people. From this process, I learned that some things just aren’t spoken, There is always more to learn about each person and there will be some things that can only be learned from carefully going their work after they have deceased. Moreover, the way in which a person is understood can never be separated from the perspective or curation of the person trying to understand. My image of my grandfather will be very different from my father’s or my sister’s. Inevitably, we each strive to project onto the dead our hopes of what they ought to be.

Snippets from 21st Century Vagabonds, No. 2

I met the most persons while traveling in Cape Town. In a dodgy hostel that appears to lodge local druggies, I found a place that felt like home for the first time in weeks. Again, I was reminded of the tired cliche that home is not a physical place, but the company one is in.

First, I met one of my roommates, a reserved, independent German lady, who is traveling in Africa for the very first time. In one of the rare times of my life, we appeared to click almost immediately. She was inspired by my bravery and bemoaned her own 9-5 life. She was on holiday from her job in Frankfurt. I will never forget that moment when I told her how I visited one of the poorest slums in Lusaka, Zambia and how shockingly eye-opening the experience was. I relayed my observations, inarticulately, as words could not describe some of the things that I saw and feelings that I felt. To my surprise, she expressed a genuine sense of awe that I had the courage and the opportunity to visit these places. Partially, due to our conversation, she decided to extend her stay in South Africa. I found it really special that my experience inspired someone else to expand their horizons and open up to the great big world. Perhaps, I could join the ranks of some these 21st century vagabonds one day. 🙂 Her words were also very special to me. She told me that though we have met only very briefly, she feels that we can speak to each other from the heart. That statement alone tells me that German must be a more romantic language than English, because those words are something that I have wished to  express in a long time, albeit in the negative, but had never found any conventional English forms of expression.

One of the things that I enjoy the most about speaking with non-native English speakers or English speakers from different parts of the world, is how they use English to express concepts in their native cultures in a way that I never knew English could express. I expand my understanding of what English is capable of, from every person that I meet.

Ok, back to the story. In turn, at this dodgy hostel, I also met a solo-traveling elder lady from China. I have recounted my awe for this lady countless times now. Unlike the typical Chinese tour bus style, this 65-year-old lady from China who spoke very little English chose to go at it alone. She reminded me of the Chinese revolutionary spirit of the mid-1900s. She’s not one who has gotten comfortable and soft from China’s eager development. Her salt-and-pepper hair was in a short, almost-buzz cut. She spoke in a rush, ready to get on to the next task at hand. She dressed in a greyish-floral, pant-suit-esque attire from the revolutionary era with a water canteen hanging from her neck. Her movements were swift; she appeared healthy enough for rough traveling. Her story is such: she’s a retired schoolteacher from Jiangsu, a historically wealthy and cultured province that borders Shanghai. She has always dreamed of traveling the world and decided to finally let go of the fetters of social norms. Her husband prefers to play chess at home. Her plan was to visit a continent each year, stopping when she hits 70. First she traveled around China, then US, then Europe. Africa is her fourth continent so far. When asked about her travels in Europe, she described it as a piece of cake, given how well connected the countries are, by rail. Africa was her biggest challenge so far. She once waited four hours for a car to fill so that she could travel from one point to the next. I hope that I can have her courage at her age and similarly, never become too soft for rough solo travel.

Within two days or so, I also met a couple from New Zealand and Belgium who are rounding the African coastline by motorbike. Since, they were the first long-distance motorbikers that I had ever met, they left a huge impression on me. (Subsequently, I would go on to meet or observe countless many others, which unfortunately dampens the novelty a bit, though of course they are still incredible endeavors.) As a relatively mainstream (**cough cough capitalist) person prior to my travels, I thought everyone was career-driven, more or less. What most shocked me is that the couple quit their jobs in their mid-30s to embark on a 2-year motorbike voyage. I had always imaged the mid-30s to a prime time in one’s career. A time when things start to snowball and accelerate really fast. Plus, that is also a time to start a family, etc. A time to be a real, real adult. Many questions started to brew in the back of my mind. I, too, started to become aware of my fetters.

Where are you from?

I think when one lives “abroad,” there is some upside-down U-shaped curve about feelings towards one’s home country (or passport-holding country).

Before you leave the national borders of the land that you grew up in, you don’t consider that you could be from another country. “Where are you from?” is usually assumed to be the state or province that one is from.

Once you set foot outside, whether to study, live, or tour, at first, you feel proud to answer I’m _________ or I’m from _________ and state your nationality or home country with pride. It’s almost as if it is in these instances that you yourself become explicitly aware of your country of loyalty. In particular if you don’t look like what people usually assume to be the look of a person of such nationality–usually because of your race–then, in these instances you may feel you have to defend your legitimacy with an overcompensating force and each time someone accepts what you say without further questions is a triumph. It’s something that can warm your blood and make you feel more patriotism then you ever felt because sometimes in your own country you may have hunches about some portion of the population simply assuming you are not local and does not bother to inquire.

But hey, after living abroad for over a year, everything begins to change. The concept of being a citizen of a country seems increasingly arbitrary and elusive. “Where are you from?” is now answered with increasing nonchalance and you no longer give two shits about whether people question it or not. You are not bothered by a further explanation if need be. Everything goes. Without your overly confident answers, people feel free enough to even use the term “passport country” as a follow-up clarification. What does it matter, really, on a human level?

I am a citizen of the world. I believe in global interests. I don’t think war is ever the answer. Why do we draw boundaries?

Snippets from 21st Century Vagabonds, No. 1

Intermittently, I will post snippets from my observations and interactions with travelers that I have met on trips to southern Africa in the past year. I have decided to affectionately refer to them as “21 Century Vagabonds,” which I hope is not offensive to any party.

The first traveler that I met on my journey was an American in his 60s who has been sailing solo around the world for the past ten years. We met in the lovely city of Johannesburg. Johannesburg has quite the reputation for crime, but for me it was the place that energized me and motivated me to travel on, keep seeing, and keep learning from travelers. Like in life, one’s impressions of a place is ultimately down to the people one meets. I was a lucky one. The white bearded and leather-skinned traveler had an easy and approachable attitude towards life that enticed me to find that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow that he had seemingly found.

So, this is the story that he told me.

As a young man, he had spent a few years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Kenya. Following the international stint, he returned to America and worked as an engineer for Nissan all his life. Finally, he was offered early retirement at the age of 50. When he realized that living on his small sailboat was cheaper than living in his house in California combined with his lifelong goal of traversing the world, he sold his house and began his journey. First, he sailed south, hugging the coast, making it down to Latin America. He would dock at a place and live there for several months or years before moving on. For the last couple of years, he has been docked in Southeast Asia. He enjoys the tropical climate of Indonesia. Every year, he returns home to celebrate Christmas with his elderly parents.

“Wonderful” is the only way that I could describe my response. I was awestruck when he relayed his story. Without much prior sailing experience, he simply just up and went.

I want to keep these stories of carefree bravery, always.

Moonlight

Got on the bandwagon rather late and only just watched the film, Moonlight, tonight. If you have not seen it yet, I urge you to. You are short-changing yourself and your human experience. **Forewarning of potentially not-so-PC language to follow.** Moonlight is the first all-black cast film that I have seen that transcends race and other categories of identity politics, to be, above all, about the human experience. Watching the film is itself a human experience. It will make you engage within yourself and consume you with questions and just pure awe. It is a film that makes me wonder if I am not getting the most out of this human life by not having explored my potential in art more. It is also during these moments that I know what is art and why art is important. Art is about expression. Not any expression. But, the ability to express what a lot of folks want to, yet cannot express well. And it’s about expressing in a manner that captures you, captures your senses, and makes you question your values and your premises.

Americanah

To all those interested in Africa or humanity, broadly, please check out Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche. It is novel that has affected me greatly. It has been eating me inside out, almost like how Camus’s The Stranger did for me in high school. Adiche’s novel resonates with me and at the same time, challenges me. It raises a very personal question for me, that is, to what extent am I being authentic? Instead of simply living life as me, am I creating various eccentricities as a means to feign authenticity?

Forgetting to breathe

So far, I have found at least one similarity between Third and First World living, that is my forgetting to breathe.  However, the differences behind it are starkly different in each setting. Living in a city in the Third World means walking on dirt pavements or no pavements, directly adjacent to passing vehicles, and constantly being enveloped in a mist of dirt, dust, exhaust fumes, smoke, and other pollutants. After a while, I became so accustomed to holding in my breath as soon as my nostrils caught a hint of strong exhaust or backyard trash-burning that I found myself breathing less, taking shallower breaths, or forgetting to breathe from time to time. Perhaps, my body adjusted to a new equilibrium of lower oxygen intake?

Back in the First World, today I have realized that I am also forgetting to breathe as much I believe I should. In the life of endless to-do lists and ceaseless ways to be more productive, breathing almost takes too much. Perhaps, that is why so-called mindfulness seminars and meditative practices such as yoga are so popular in First World cities? Through the development process we may lose some aspect of our primal humanity in the quest of becoming a superior homo rational?