I’ll never forget her. She was called Dorothy, just like the girl in the Wizard of Oz. However, our Dorothy wasn’t a girl any more, and I met her, not in Oz, but deep in the Amazon jungle.
At the time we were travelling by boat down the mighty Amazon River. It was the start of the wet season, stinking hot and humid. On this particular day our guide had offered us the opportunity to swim. Although the danger of taking a dip with piranha was very real, it wasn’t the kind of adventure someone like me could turn down.
We docked alongside a pontoon – stunning in such a remote setting. Before I could have second thoughts, I quickly stripped down to my swimmers and dropped from a ladder into the murky depths. The water was lovely – cool and refreshing – and I found myself treading water alongside the platform, concentrating very hard on my toes for the slightest hint of a nibble. I held out as long as I could, then threw myself back on the deck with an explosion of breath that I hadn’t realised I’d been holding. I lay there for a while trying to still my hammering heart, while discreetly checking that all my extremities were still attached. Then I heard a big splash.
That was when I saw her – Dorothy – dog paddling off down the river. She was wearing a vivid red sundress and a wide-brimmed bright yellow plastic rain hat pulled down firmly over her ears. Open-mouthed we watched this crazy Englishwoman grow smaller and smaller as she disappeared into the distance.
There is a dark part of me that wishes I could say that was the last time we saw her, just for the sake of the story, you know. But it wasn’t. The boat eventually caught up with her, we pulled her back on board, and continued on our way.
The next day, using one of these fearsome piranhas for bait, I caught a catfish with a fishing pole made from a stick and twine, a creation worthy of Huck Finn. It was a proud moment, then I threw the little fish back in to fight another day.
As we puttered downstream, we visited remote villages and glared at floating sawmills (a curse on every one of them) gliding by on their way to as yet untouched rainforest. I also saw sloths, toucans, macaws, a pygmy marmoset entwined in a little girl’s braid, a huge tarantula, and had a much longed-for bottle of Coke stolen by a very grumpy monkey.
The boat ride down the Amazon was only one part of a two-month unescorted tour through a semi-lawless South America plagued by cholera and coups. Fourteen Aussies arrived on the continent via Tahiti and the mysterious Easter Island and, captivated by the Spanish language, we soon started calling ourselves ‘El Grupo’.
We started out in Chile, moving on to Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Ecuador, Peru, Colombia, Bolivia and home through the Galapagos Islands. I was just 24-years-old when we set out, and a much-changed 25-year-old by the time I returned. Looking back it was, without a doubt, one of the most fascinating, exciting and profound journeys of my well-travelled life.
I spent Christmas Day at the incredible Hacienda Los Lingues in Chile, and almost made it down to Patagonia, but flood waters turned us back.
I learned to tango in the La Bocca district of Buenos Aires, where we also spent New Year’s Eve and visited Eva Peron’s grave. Out on the Argentine pampas we danced with handsome gauchos (cowboys), ate their barbecue and rode their beautiful horses.
We roamed through the mysterious lost Inca city of Machu Picchu in Peru, and in Cusco, on my 25th birthday, I got giddy from a heady cocktail of pina coladas, high altitude and pan pipes, crawling home as gunfire broke out in the street. We drank chilled coconut water on Copacabana Beach in Rio and pushed through massive spider webs in the dark, in a misguided attempt to watch the sun rise over Iguassu Falls.
In Ecuador we shopped for textiles at the famous Otavalo markets and stood astride the equator, one foot in the northern hemisphere and the other in the southern hemisphere. We spent time in a floating reed village on Lake Titicaca, nervously peered at dried lama foetuses and charms in the witches market of La Paz, and in Bogotá, Colombia, marvelled at the priceless golden relics, stolen by the Spanish, and housed in the gold museum there.
We took a train across the Bolivian altiplano. At 3,700 metres (or 12,300 feet) it felt like moving slowly across the roof of the world. It is truly one of the planet’s great train journeys. We played cards and ate bananas pushed through the window by vendors waiting on the platforms of the stations we passed through. Despite hiring a bodyguard for the luggage, we still had our suitcases cut open and plundered by modern day train robbers. Fortunately, I carried nothing of any value whatsoever.
We travelled also to the Nazca Desert where we flew over the Nazca Lines staring in wonder at the giant figures and geometrical shapes scratched in the dry earth by the ‘Chariots of the Gods’, and met Maria Reiche, the mathematician who made mapping them her life’s work.
The South American people were beautiful, the sightseeing breathtaking, the food delicious, and everywhere we went there was music and dancing. At the same time there was just enough danger to bring a certain richness to the experience. I had never felt more alive.
When I talk about my time in South America, I say it changed everything. Seeing such poverty for the first time in my young life had a lasting effect on me. Life was cheap there. I came home and walked away from a prospective career in journalism and politics and took up a position working with disadvantaged schools and students at risk. Several years later I would take a job at the local community health and mental health centre which provided free medical care.
After the things I had seen in South America I knew I could no longer live the life of privilege I had mapped out for myself. I took to heart the idea that to those whom much is given, much is expected. And I had been given so much.
As I travelled from country to country through South America I saw people killed when the cardboard boxes they were living in were washed down a hill in a mudslide. I watched as the faithful stepped over the homeless in order to enter churches filled with solid gold treasures. I saw children begging on the streets, and starving animals too weak to raise their heads. I saw a private security guard raise his pistol and aim it a little indigenous girl who had climbed up on a fence to look at the animals in a private zoo. We were briefly held hostage by the starving servants of a Colombian drug lord languishing in a Miami prison. I walked past people laying on stretchers dying from cholera, their skin grey and waxy, like it was melting from their bones.
How, after all that, could I go back to my own life as if nothing had changed?
I couldn’t – so I moved forward with a new sense of fairness, kindness, and a longing for social justice that I have carried with me all my life.
My travels through South America took place 26 years ago, but they are still a part of me. Those days were filled up with so many adventures, so much joy, friendship and laughter. I learned I was braver, more curious, more open, more resourceful, more compassionate than I ever could have imagined. What more do you need to live a good life.
(Many of the photographs in this blog were taken by Cleve Killiby)
I have started writing my first book. Here’s a small excerpt about sailing in the Greek Islands. Wouldn’t you love to be there right now?
“We anchored in a beautiful bay – I could not believe how beautiful. The water here is like blue green opal, shimmering and full of fire. It appears to be lit from within and swirls the way paint does when you stir it with a stick, changing with the light.”
“Because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach ….. I went to the woods.” Henry David Thoreau
Islands slide silently by on oiled tracks like big old blue whales dozing in quicksilver, their massive humps arching, overlapping at the edges, or alone – blue on blue.
Land melts into water, water into sky, sky into forever. Indistinct. Hard edges rubbed away by vaporous mist.
A short sharp night, mercury dawn. The air thickens white, stitched loosely with gold. An island rears up. Sudden, shocking, then disintegrates. A mysterious shape-shifter, in a monochrome world.
Warm in my sleeping bag on the ferry’s deck, I close my eyes, just for a moment, and the veil is lifted – brushed away like so many cobwebs to reveal mountains dusted with icing sugar, purple against a slate grey sea.
Time unravels like forgotten knitting – the mountains forest green now – bottomless crevices packed tight with ancient ice. A waterfall birthing melted snow splashes down the sides into deep green water, reflecting sky.
Twilight comes late. Jagged black cutouts on a drop cloth awash with pastels – pink, aqua, mauve, deep blue – two perfect stars a delicate counterpoint.
Travelling north – chasing a dream, like those who went before in search of gold.
I am a solo adventurer riding the Alaska Marine Highway, a network of ferries that travel tirelessly throughout the Inside Passage. It is possible to book a cabin on many of the great vessels, but it would be a pity when a cheap walk-on ticket allows you to unroll your sleeping bag on the deck.
Can you imagine the wonder of waking in the middle of the night to see a snow covered mountain drifting by close enough to touch? Or to look up and see millions of diamond stars wheeling across the sky? Or to sit watching the sun slowly settle into the water around midnight, only to rise again a couple of hours later? Or to see a black bear ambling up a waterfall in search of berries? Out here it is my reality.
Those who sleep on the deck, and there are many of us, have access to lockers and coin-operated hot showers, vending machines, and a cafeteria or dining room. The larger ferries carry marine biologists who give lectures, point out wildlife, and answer a million questions. Most of them can’t imagine working anywhere else.
Once you learn to sit quietly and take a good long look around, you notice the old fisherman tying his flies, the earnest musicians softly playing their guitars. You see young families, native Alaskans, grandmothers, hikers and backpackers. Remember, there is nothing but time when you are travelling on the water, and everyone has a story to tell.
When I left Seattle (the Columbia sails from nearby Bellingham) my best friend thought my plan for the summer was crazy, his flat mate thought it was daring and adventurous. I put it down to them being city dwellers. It wasn’t until later that I realised how rare it is for a woman to travel alone, and independently, through this great wild land. By then of course it was too late – I was on my way.
I will always be grateful that, at least this once, I chose the road less travelled.
I changed from one ferry to another, stopping off at towns and fishing villages along the way. I hiked for miles and miles through the beautiful woods and mountains of Southeast Alaska, singing songs as I walked so I wouldn’t startle the bears that lived there. It seemed to work, however, there was one walk from my cabin at Bear Creek Camp into town, when I could almost feel those bears closing in on me. Displaying a bravado I didn’t feel, I launched into a spirited chorus of ‘Que Sera Sera’. I have often wondered, in the times since, whether I stayed safe because my singing scared those bears away – or if they were so breathless from rolling around laughing they were too tired to stalk me.
Throughout my journey I met the most amazing people. I was taken into the hearts of the Haida, Athabascan and Tlingit people. From them I learned to track bears, spot a beaver lodge and find where the bald eagles feed. I fished for salmon and learned about beading and carving totem poles. I listened to their stories and shared some of mine.
As I travelled, I was overcome by the sheer beauty and stillness of the land, but what I felt went deeper than that. Alaska touched me on a soul level. There was a heartbeat that ran through everything – the trees, the mountains, the water, the rocks – and it ran through me. It was a feeling of homecoming – of belonging. It was a remembering.
Like Thoreau, I too went to the woods …. and found myself there.
The sea around us was boiling as the large pod of whales circled our boat, rolling, breaching, diving and occasionally raising their heads to take a good look around.
Now I have seen whales before. I have seen them in Alaska and on the New South Wales south coast. It is always a thrill – and they have always been off in the distance. Often the only indicator they are there at all is a plume of spray on the far horizon or the flash of a fluke (tail) as they dived deep, slipping silently beneath the water’s deep dark surface.
Yesterday, however, I experienced whales in a new way – a very up close and personal kind of way. It filled me with gratitude and a kind of stupefied awe.
It is the end of August and these giants are making their annual migration along the east coast of Australia. Knowing I would be in Queensland I booked a tour with Brisbane Whale Watching. It was money well spent.
We set off on a beautiful morning and quickly motored towards Moreton Bay. The boat had barely slowed when the first sighting occurred. We stopped and waited. Before long a pod of humpback whales came over to take a look at us – and they stayed.
For the next few hours these giants of the sea played around our boat – sliding underneath us to come up with an unexpected whoosh on the other side and scratching themselves on our hull to knock off some of their barnacles.
At times they would move away a little, because whales are nothing if not considerate, and leap into the air, twisting their bodies as they crashed down into the water – another little trick they employ to knock off those pesky barnacles that come with a life lived beneath the waves.
To be so close to these leviathans that I felt the mist of their breath drift across my face was something I will never forget. The enormous sound when they expelled air so nearby filled my head. I could see the bite marks, scratches and barnacles on heir skin, and the whiteness of their bellies when they rolled over underneath us.
There was a moment which came when one of the humpbacks positioned itself to look up at us, that I can only describe as mystical. Once you look a whale in the eye I don’t think you can expect to ever be quite the same again. To connect on that level with something so wild and mysterious was a great privilege.
What we experienced out there was not common. The sight of the captain and crew hurrying to the railings with their cameras was a bit of a giveaway. They see whales every day, but this was something different – special. This time the whales didn’t wave as they passed by – they stayed.
“There must be very good energy on this boat today,” the captain said.
It seemed as good a reason as any to explain this remarkable behaviour.
By time we moved on, well into the afternoon, the crew estimated that around 15 individual whales had stopped by to connect with us in their own unique way. They were drawn to us – and we loved them right back.
At the railing people were blowing them kisses, calling and waving to them, their faces alight, mouths stretched wide with easy laughter. This was life being lived on full-throttle – and it was amazing.
I believe it is exchanges like this that will ultimately save these hunted creatures. I defy anyone who experienced what we did yesterday to allow the slaughter of whales to continue. And maybe the whales know this.
Maybe they understand that despite their unimaginable size and power, their ultimate survival now rests in the hands of a small, frail, land-based species – the same species, which almost wiped them off the face of the earth not so long ago.
Please do what you can to ensure their survival. Trust me – the world is a much better place for having whales in it.
Louise Eddy is a freelance writer and photographer. You can contact her at email@example.com
Following many years spent working in the newspaper industry I have just started my own freelance writing business. It is a breathtaking step for me, and one that I hope will give me greater opportunities to do the things I love.
While I specialise in travel writing and photography, including magazine articles and blog posts similar to the ones in this blog, I am thrilled to now have the chance (and the time) to assist businesses in getting people excited about the wonderful products and services they are offering. This can be through the use of social, digital and print media, press releases or advertising copy.
In addition to copywriting, I also provide editing, media consultancy, travel and candid photography classes and community workshops. I also record stories.
Perhaps you would like a story written to commemorate an anniversary, wedding, significant birthday or retirement – something that could be presented or read aloud on a special occasion. Maybe you would like to tell your story for future generations, or find the right words to meaningfully celebrate a precious life that has been lost to the world – or welcome a new life into it.
Being a born storyteller I love crafting tales that inspire, motivate, inform, enlighten and entertain. I hope I can do that for you. After all, whether it is personal, or business, everyone has a story inside of them waiting to be told.
Because I work remotely it doesn’t matter where you live. If you need any kind of writing jobs done, no matter how small, I would love to hear from you.
In my head I carry an illuminated flip book of rich and beautiful moments. Some are of sounds – like the first time I heard the call to prayer echoing all around me in Istanbul’s dawn light; tastes – popping a sweet plump date in my mouth along with a sip of bitter black coffee in a Bedouin camp dwarfed by sand dunes; and sights – the sweeping vista of monument valley punctuated by a lone Navajo rider.
One of these moments, so simple yet perfect, teased at my memory today as I sorted through some old postcards I had sent to myself from far away places.
“Tonight I floated under a frangipani tree, white against a deep indigo sky studded with blazing crystals. It was so still and quiet. Waxy blossoms fell around me, floating fragrant on the water.”
It has been more than thirteen years since I have been to Bali and more than thirteen and a half years since the first Bali bombings that shattered our hearts and stole our innocence.
Being younger, and more carefree then, my friend Fiona and I decided that there would be no better time to visit than in the wake of a terrorist attack. Everything would be so cheap, and lightning never strikes twice, right?
With only a handful of people on our flight, once we were in the air the crew set up two drinks carts at the front of the cabin and invited us to come up and help ourselves. In a nod to a bygone era of air travel we all stood around chatting and sipping beverages in our own cocktail bar above the clouds. It would never happen again.
We were sharply brought back to reality on arriving in steamy Denpasar Airport with its military presence, dogs and harshly shouted instructions. And then, just as suddenly, we were in a car being whisked away to our resort in Nusa Dua.
After our car had been searched for explosives we walked up some low steps that led to a foyer, which evoked the peace of a cool rainforest. Thin wooden columns stretched like tall trees towards a ceiling painted with mystical Balinese scenes. All around us, water ran over pale green stones, whispering like a stream.
As we crossed the threshold a sonorous gong sounded once, and then again, welcoming us to Melia Bali.
After we had unpacked, we walked to the poolside restaurant for a seafood pizza and icy pina coladas in coconut shells (the drinks would get bigger and stronger every day as our friendship with the bartender grew.) On our way back to the room we had to skirt the edge of the tropical pool – in darkness now. We couldn’t resist – we slipped out of our clothes and slid silently into the warm water. There we floated under the frangipani trees.
It was still dark when we woke the next morning so we decided on a dawn swim. We went down to the beach, walking along the sand towards the east.
The sun turned the pale green water pink with darker bands where the sand rose up to kiss the surface. Balinese fishermen waded in the shallows. We followed a path up to a Hindu temple on the cliff top where we sat in silence, watching the world come to life.
After a breakfast of nasi goreng, a typical dish of fried rice with an egg broken over the top served with chili sauce, satay sticks, fried chicken and grilled prawns, we walked to the markets. It was so hot. Two young men on motorcycles gave us a ride home. We whizzed through the traffic tightly clutching our parcels. In retrospect, holding onto our drivers would have been a better idea.
This pretty much formed the pattern of our days. As we walked between the resort and the market the young men leaning against their motorbikes would call to us offering rides. Fi would cheerfully call back “jalan-jalan” to indicate we were walking simply for the pleasure of it. In an age-old game, stall holders along the way would smile broadly and entreat me to come and buy from them. I would smile back and sing “only looking”.
By our third day, no matter where we went in Nusa Dua, someone would inevitably wave and call out “Hey, it’s Jalan-Jalan and Only Looking!”
Life went on in Bali after the Sari Club bombing, although everyone felt sharply the decline in tourism. Wherever we went these beautiful gentle people would ask if we were Australian. “We are so sorry – so sorry,” they would tell us sadly.
Towards the end of our stay we hitched a ride over to Jimbaran Bay where seafood restaurants line the beach. We chose prawns to be grilled, mussels with garlic, snapper, and lightly fried calamari, all fresh off the boat. It cost almost nothing.
Then we were led to our table in the sand. The legs of my chair sank deep. The waitress lit our candle and its soft light shone out in the night, joining the other flickering flames all along the beach. The fragrant air was warm and still. Waves broke gently a short distance away and, to the side, a vendor selling grilled corn on the cob adjusted his kerosene lantern.
I thought about the hundreds of people who died in such fear and pain further along this beach and felt a great sadness.
Musicians started moving from table to table. When they reached ours I asked if they knew John Lennon’s “Imagine”. It was one of those moments where time stood still. All the tables fell silent as their perfect harmonies filled the air. On that beautiful beach, on this beautiful island, we all sent a message of peace out into the world.
It was just three years later that bombs, left there among the tables in the sand, exploded once more – and I felt my heart break.
In the shadow of the Sultan Mosque in the Kampong Glam district of Singapore lies Haji Lane. It is clear from the beginning that this is a part of Singapore that does not conform. Fabulous little boutiques sit alongside tiny bars with tiny tables, coffee shops, and upstairs rooms for practitioners of new age therapies. Street art covers the walls of a Mexican cantina.
Here the hipster vibe prevails and the narrow lane is packed with young people wearing trendy fashions by up and coming designers. They are too cool for words, sitting fiddling with their devices, chatting, smoking, reading, shopping, greeting each other as old friends. There is a sense of kinship here – every bit as strong as you will find in traditional Chinatown. I too flowed into the groove, whiling away a pleasant hour sipping on a coke and reading, as the crowd ebbed and flowed around me. Maybe my satchel, which is understatedly stamped with the single word ‘writer’ earned me passage – but I felt very much at home there perched on my rickety wooden stool as passing motorcycles brushed my elbow.
My favourite store was a little boutique called “Mondays Off”.
John Lennon’s words “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one” in stylish white lettering fills a third of one window. To me, that captured the spirit of Haji Lane and its inhabitants. Those who want to be free to lead an alternate lifestyle have found a home in Haji Lane.
None of this is unusual, until you look at the community surrounding this single narrow street just a couple of blocks long. Once you step outside Haji Lane you are back in the predominantly Muslim, Malaysian part of Singapore.
The Sultan Mosque’s golden domes draw the eye no matter where you stand in Kampong Glam. It is a beautiful building and is at the heart of this community.
Fabric stores line the streets, their windows full of silks and chiffons in all the colours of the rainbow. Beautiful materials in pink, green gold and turquoise are wrapped tightly around too thin mannequins. Unlike many Muslim communities across the world the women here rarely wear black. Instead their clothes, while modest, are colourful.
Look closely and you will see the Aladdin Trading Company and Jamal Kazura Aromatics – Manufacturer, Importer and Exporter of Perfumery Compound, Aromatic Chemicals and Essential Oils. There are rug sellers too.
Around the square small cafes are packed with local women and children sipping on fresh juices as they take a break from shopping. The men, if they are not working, are in the enormous prayer hall of the mosque, which can hold up to 5000 people. The mosque welcomes visitors, as long as they are modestly dressed and without shoes. One of the volunteers a blue-eyed blonde from Holland cheerfully asks if I have ever visited a mosque before. “Many times”, I reply. “I have travelled quite a bit in the Middle East.” There seems to be little more to say after that. She tells me she is married to a Singaporean and has lived there for 25 years. “Singapore is changing,” she tells me. And of course it is, yet at the same time it is a country that takes its heritage very seriously.
To really get a feel for Singapore you need to understand that history, which is why on this journey I am doing my best to get out into the many districts that make up Singapore. It is easy to think that Singapore is a futuristic city – one that is safe, clean, very well organised – a city that runs perfectly, smoothly, lawfully. And it is all those things. But like any modern city, it is also a collection of neighbourhoods steeped in tradition. I had a wonderful afternoon in Kampong Glam – it felt like another world – yet it was only a short, cheap and very efficient ride away on the MRT.
This was my first experience of Singapore’s underground rail service and it was an absolute delight. Fares range from under $1 to $2.50 and it will take you pretty much anywhere in the small island country you wish to go. People will tell you it is easy to use, and you think to yourself ‘I bet it can’t be that easy’, but it is. It is the perfect way to explore Singapore in air-conditioned comfort, but when you step out of the station – that is when the magic happens. Suddenly you find yourself set down in the middle of Malaysia, or China, or India, on the waterfront, or on the doorstep of one of the greatest botanical gardens in the world.
But they are stories for another day.
Brothels, opium dens, gambling, vice … Singapore’s Chinatown had it all.
Although today it is a shadow of its former murky and mysterious oriental self, it still provides a fascinating glimpse into another world, with hidden surprises everywhere you turn.
A ten minute walk from where I am staying you cross over a bridge designed to echo the lines of a Chinese pagoda and, in doing so, step through the looking glass into the past.
From above you can look down into one of the alleyways lined with old shophouses restored and painted in glowing pastels – red and yellow Chinese lanterns criss-crossing the sky between them.
In a city that is incredibly modern it was a relief to me to find so many rows of these traditional buildings which are the heart and soul of Chinatown.
While there are many splashes of the vibrant red and gold that epitomises Chinese tradition, it was the mauves, blues, buttery yellows, pale pinks, and soft greens of Singapore’s shophouses that captured my artistic heart. At each window there are shutters, often in a contrasting colour, to keep out the intense tropical heat. At times they are flung open to catch the slightest breath of air, and at others they are pulled tightly closed to keep out the blazing sun.
The opium dens are long gone now – today these narrow architectural delights create alleyways of shops packed with tasty morsels, herbal medicines, reflexology practitioners, chests of tea, and cheap souvenirs – yet there are gems too. I found some beautiful soft cashmere shawls – one in ribbons of pale green and turquoise and another with swirls of pink and orange – buried deep in piles of satin purses, shot glasses, fridge magnets and snow globes. I wasn’t in a shopping frame of mind, but I knew I would regret it later if I didn’t carefully roll them up and tuck them in my canvas satchel for safekeeping.
I was wandering aimlessly up and down alleys admiring the buildings when an old man came up to me sporting a broad toothless smile. He walked me to a 100 year old coffee house which sells traditional Singaporean coffee. They boil the coffee up in ancient pots and add condensed milk, carnation milk and lots of ice. The black coffee is so bitter it balances out the sweetness. It is rich and smoky and creamy and so delicious I had two in quick succession. The atmospheric darkness of the red interior with its heavy dark brown wood brought welcome relief from the intense heat and dazzling sunshine. I sat quietly and read for a while.
Before leaving me, the old man had pointed down a street which, for all intents and purposes, looked like a construction zone, explaining there was a Buddhist temple at its end. I had my doubts, which quickly turned to awe, as I stood looking up at the enormous Buddha Tooth Relic Temple. Four levels of red pagoda roofs, white plaster, intricate carvings and gold, so much gold. It is said that the stupa which houses the Buddha’s tooth weighs 3.5 tonnes and is made from 320kg of gold.
Before the studded temple doors, a large brass bowl filled with sand holds smoking incense sticks and prayers – the scent curling heavenward on fine tendrils of smoke is divine. It is simplicity itself and far more beautiful to me than all the gold housed within.
A little way down the road I glanced up to see two beautiful white cows gazing lovingly down on me from on top of a wall. Am I dreaming? I wonder. No, I know of this place – it must be the Sri Mariamman Temple – the oldest Hindu temple in Singapore. If it seems out of place here in Chinatown that’s because it is a remnant of a by-gone era, a time before everyone was divided up into districts by the colonising British.
The craftsmanship in the Sri Mariamman Temple is exquisite. Thousands of painted figures perch on the roof tops, their expressions benevolent, compassionate, whimsical. They are so real they might be people you see on the street today … except of course for the fact that some of them are deities – and a pleasing shade of blue.
It was shady and peaceful and I loved wandering around there in my socks which protected my feet from the hot stones but still allowed me to connect with the spirit of the place. Shoes, of course, are left at the door, along with any preconceived ideas.
On my way home I stopped off at a mall to get some supplies. It was there I saw a tiny café called Toast Box. There was a line outside stretching half way down the neighbouring row of shops. It seems in Singapore stopping for a pot of tea and toast in the afternoon is a popular diversion.
They make the Kaya toast I loved so much when I tried it at Street in LA, although it is a little different here – not as fancy – although the chilli jam is to die for. I decided to throw my lot in with these lovers of toast, after all it was a long time since my lunch of sizzling satay sticks and ice cold beer, and lined up for 20 minutes for butter sugar toast – two slices for $1.60 which in Singapore is the bargain of the century. No wonder people were lining up. I got mine to take away so I could escape the crowd. Tea and toast should be enjoyed in peace.
The buttery, sugary toast had been cut up into small squares and I was given a toothpick to spear them with. I went outside and sat with the old men in the Hawker Centre. The bread, perfectly toasted, was delicious – thick and fluffy and just the right mix of sweet and salty. I will be back tomorrow for breakfast. Maybe it will be quieter then. I will probably hike over to the coffee house too for some bitter sweet love, and then I will be ready to begin my second day in this city which has already stolen my heart.
There is so much to do in Singapore – but part of me knows I could simply return to Chinatown every day and find perfect happiness. After all, I’ve yet to thread my way through the tables set up in Food Street – vendors offering everything from sizzling seafood to pork dumplings , or have my pressure points … well … pressed. I haven’t even walked the mysterious, narrow alleyways at night breathing in the exotic smells, peering in brightly lit shop windows, and listening for the clink of glasses in the trendy bars that are springing up here.
But there’s no hurry – for such a fast city, time in Singapore moves slowly.
Three months ago I experienced one of the greatest spectacles of my life – a moment to be filed away and savoured on the difficult days. I saw the sun rise over the crater of the Haleakala volcano on the beautiful island of Maui, part of the Hawaiian Islands.
After a night without sleep – I didn’t dare – I was collected at 2am for my ride to the crater. Haleakala is the third largest volcano in the world and one of its great energy centres. We would climb to 10,200 feet and there watch the sun rise over the edge of the crater. Haleakala is so high it sits above the clouds and waits for the first rays to caress its twisted slopes. Standing at its edge feels like flying.
While it was balmy down at the beach, even at that hour, it would be bitterly cold at the summit and a little difficult to breathe, but I knew that when the sun came up through that dense cloud layer there would be magic.
We were blessed with the most perfect morning. Even our guide was stunned. There are many times when people have risen early, driven for two hours, and made the ascent only to find the dormant volcano shrouded in cloud and fog, or the wind blowing so hard it is too dangerous to stay at the summit and they must descend. We held our collective breath. There is no true indication of what the weather will be until you pass the 8,000 foot mark. Beyond that Haleakala makes her own weather and she is capricious.
Winding up the volcano in pitch darkness we looked up at the stars and down to see fields of sugar cane burning – orange patchwork squares on the landscape.
There was a thin pink line on the horizon as we arrived at the top of the world. Everything else was black blending to indigo. It was cold, yes, but so still and clear we could see the crescent moon and a crackling of fiery stars.
Close to 1000 people waited, poised on the very rim of the crater, all eyes turned to the east. I wriggled and wriggled and wriggled until I had subtly moved through the crowd to the very front. Focused as they were on that tiny strip of light, no-one really noticed the woman in the bright blue surf shirt, layered with a t-shirt and fleece who casually leaned on the railing as though she had been there all along. I had to have a front row seat – I just had to.
As time passed the sky became a layer of mango and pineapple against the creamy lavender ice-cream cloud layer and a dark chocolate lava biscuit base. (Do you have any idea how hungry staying up all night makes you?)
“Here it comes!” someone shouted as a fine wire of gold ran around the edge of the clouds below us. The mighty crowd cheered. As the curve of a fiery disc peeked over the clouds, a lone male voice rang out in a Hawaiian chant from deep in the darkness. It was joined by another pure voice, blending to create a joyful crescendo of song as the sun made its journey fully into the sky.
Slowly the crowd dispersed and we returned to our small bus where our driver Wayne waited with hot chocolate to warm numb hands. “The song wasn’t what you think,” he said as we sipped. We looked at him puzzled. “You think it was a song to welcome the day and celebrate the rising of the sun.” We nodded.
“It was a welcome, yes. It was a welcome to the seekers of knowledge – you. The divine ones who came to stand at the edge of the volcano in pitch darkness trusting the light would come.”
On the way back down the volcano we hiked in to a lesser known spot – a place where baby craters are born – their mouths gaping open like hungry fledglings. The colours that painted the walls from which they had sprung were so beautiful – red and gold sand, hardened black lava, yellow sulphur.
We were the only ones there and stood silent in awe – our tiredness swept away. There was amazement at our good fortune and some tears. Later, after we had carefully picked our way back down the shifting slope to where Wayne waited, he said that normally this part of the volcano, which stands at 7000 feet is completely hidden inside the cloud layer. He had only seen it a few times himself, but today the conditions were so perfect it could not remain hidden from us. Nor did it seem to want to.
As people clambered off the bus at their various hotels at around 11am (already having put in a nine hour day) they shook his hand, hugged him, thanked him. “It was the best day of my life!” one man who was visiting from India trumpeted, embracing him and slapping him heartily on the back. “Mahalo God”. He bowed, hands pressed together. We could not help but nod solemnly and agree. Then, like the sun, the joy came out, and lit up all our faces.