All posts in 2024
  • Is This Defunct?

    My father was having a conversation with one of the students at the university where he works. Apparently one of them was a frequent visitor to this site. He told my dad as much and said I don't write anymore, that this site is pretty much defunct.

    When your father brings you these news, I suppose it's true.

    I think my relationship with blogging ended when Twitter began. It was around the time when I still imagined I would write full-time, and went off on my big adventure to see if that would work. Twitter became a faster, snappier way of transmitting those thoughts on the field. I got published in a few places. I did okay, with this writing thing; writing full-time then meant the blog became a receptacle for the miscellaneous writing. I'm one of those people who can multi-task, but I cannot write the same way here, the way I once did.

    These days, business takes up the bulk of my time. I am trying to build an empire of useful software and fun games. We're a few weeks away from shipping our first title, a social game on Facebook with a social message. There are more down the line. 2011 looks set to be one of the most productive I've ever had. I will make more money than I have ever made, and I will have a few things to show for it. I am learning to code. I am organizing tech events (most recently, Superhappydevhouse and LadyPy, a programming workshop for women held in partnership with Google). I still write. Will these secret writings ever see the light of day, here? I don't know. I think I would like to continue writing occasionally here, for posterity, but I write more frequently and more seriously at, where I will try to write about business and tech.

    In the last few months,

    • I was nominated in the youth category of the Singapore 9s award
    • I was involved in the setting up of a small project, You Say I Say Who Confirm, with mrbrown, Mr Miyagi and Belinda.
    • I helped to run the media team in the Singapore General Elections. I gave a presentation thereafter about the experience and the lessons learned.
    • I travelled the 380km to and from KL and Singapore every weekend to organize events, take part in them, go to meetings. I have become more accustomed to the idea of a work shirt. Which is new to me.

    I am toying with the idea of turning Popagandhi into an iPhone app — but I am unsure about whether I should use the app just to display the blog entries here, save the app only for a curated ‘best of' selection of articles from the last few years, or turn it into a guide to the places I love. Your thoughts?

    For now, I am going to try to cap off a busy, busy year by squeezing as much out of it, work-wise, as I can. I will write when I write.

  • #iamsingaporean

    I am a Singaporean who lives in a series of hash tags. They are:

    #iamchinese my race, my ethnicity, a language I speak, "mother tongue" classes I struggled with and the colour of my skin

    #iamasian a vague identity I hold; ‘one of them' in the tribes of Northeast India and I am ‘one of us' when I am on the streets of peninsular Southeast Asia

    #india my second home, a spiritual home that I frequent, whose cities I roam in, whose trains I love, whose air makes me homesick, whose people are my friends

    #tech what I do for work and love

    #iamsingaporean is the answer that's so obvious, it surprises me

    I spent many years doubting my future as part of this nation, for good reason. I always wanted to leave. I left, but as I returned I found the city's transformation to my liking; its new citizens and residents as friends rather than threats; its 2011 elections a watershed that I took weeks off my life to play a part in. I am proud of my little country, whose red passport brings me places in a way that shows me how we ‘punch above our weight'. It is a home I can count on, a home whose rapid change I want to be a part of.

    It has been an interesting journey: my circuitous journey upon graduation to the Middle East, to Europe, to India and Bangkok and KL, and back again by way of politics, tech and business. No doubt I will find myself living and working in other places in the world throughout the rest of my life, yet Singapore has never felt so much like home.

    I can't yet put my finger on it, it feels like a tide has turned somewhere. Friends I accepted as lost to the charms of the big cities of the West are now homebound; people who never used to care about this place now sing a different tune. I have had the honour to have served my nation with a great many able, clever, talented young Singaporeans.

    I think I may be homebound sooner than I thought — although I have already come home in more ways than one in the non-physical sense of the word.

    So happy 46th, Singapore. People expect a mid-life crisis of us but I think the best years are ahead of us.

  • A Drinkable History of My Family

    The following piece is an original piece written specially for Ceriph #3, published by Math Paper Press. It's on sale at my favourite bookstore, BooksActually, and also at Kinokuniya..

    Fish Sauce

    We are Teochew, people of the coast.

    Fish sauce, more than hot food, opera, more than even yam paste desserts - is what defines us as a people. It is what we live for, what fuels us; there is no life without it. We live for the very hot, and the very salty.

    My grandfather was a sturdy, if a little tiny, Teochew man who was much shorter than his wife. Like many patriarchs of his generation, if he even had a name, you would have never known. You simply thought of him as ah gong. On his birthdays when we sang birthday songs to him we did so in Mandarin, Teochew, and then in English. Every time we got to his name we were usually stumped. He did not like us saying his name anyway - it sounded too much like "turtle", he said - so we clapped, said "happy birthday ah gong tee hee hee", laughed at the incongruence, and stuffed our faces with cake.

    Ah gong introduced me to fish sauce. He must have. We were close for a Chinese grandparent-grandchild duo of the eighties - we played Chinese chess, and snakes and ladders, in near silence most afternoons - but he was at his most animated when we ate porridge with preserved vegetables and steamed fish. Which was every afternoon.

    If you hold your chopsticks that way you are going to move very far from home.

    Kopi-C Siew Dai

    Utter silence punctuated by occasional outbursts of snark. That hum of snarky silence dominated our lives, or at least mine. On hot Singapore afternoons in our tiny three-room flat, I never noticed the silence. Those damned SBC afternoon dramas masked the silence. The plod of Grandma's food processor distracted me from the silence. The jingle of the Raymond Weil sponsored news programmes were so loud I could not hear the silence. But the snark always jumped straight through the roof.

    Next to fish sauce, we liked coffee most. It was any kind of caffeine really, but coffee was king. More than that, it was the promise of a decently made local coffee, the sock kopi, with two fingers' worth with condensed milk and a very loud kopitiam server shouting in Hokkien, that we liked best. Those damned Hokkien people can't talk softly.

    We went to the kopitiam together in the mornings, on the mornings when I could wake up anyway. Ah gong liked routine, so much so that I have never seen him in anything other than a singlet and a pair of blue bermudas and brown, serious grandpa sandals. He had a wardrobe full of the same thing for different ages. He could dress you up exactly like him if you asked him to. This routine man's routine began before daybreak at the seaside.

    He would walk by the seaside, smirking at the taichi parade, not understanding why anybody would submit themselves to the torture of wearing red shirts with white pants. He would walk by the streamers of the Chinese dance contingent fielded by the neighbourhood's grannies, not understanding why anybody would wave little pieces of cloth around to awful music at 7 in the morning.

    He would understand, or at least try to, why the kopitiam could never get his order right ("because Ah Zoh got fired from his job and Ah Orh, who was hired to replace him, is a little slow in the brain"). He could fathom everything he needed to know in a second, but he could never understand why his coffee was never-quite-right everywhere he went.

    Lou Swa Ga Hai

    When the people of the coast speak of our motherland, we do not say China. We do not say we are zhong guo ren - when we speak of the zhong guo ren we are speaking of those people who look like us but who are really from someplace else. We say we are the people of the Tang Dynasty, we say we are the people from the coast. In our language there is no way of saying we are anything else. Even today we say our "home", this home most of us have never been to, is in the mountain, by the sea.

    The zhong guo ren eat rice and vegetables. We eat real porridge, unlike the Cantonese who break their rice grains and pretend to make soup. If a single rice grain breaks we throw all our porridge away, and start again.

    There is more water in our porridge than there is grain, but not too much. The grains should clump together, but not too much. The porridge should, like us, be of the mountain and of the sea. A bowl of porridge must physically resemble a mountain in a sea, swa ga hai. Mountain and sea.

    If the Cantonese, who believe themselves to be the masters of Chinese cuisine, have perfected the roast, we are the kings of the braise.

    A bowl of our porridge might taste of nothing unless you are one of us. If you were one of us, our gaginang, you would know how to eat it - with the amount of fish sauce, with a dozen side dishes. With a salted egg and with a big bowl of braised pork and eggs.

    Eating the rest of the meal is simple, anyone can get that.

    Every time ah gong ate his Teochew porridge, which was everyday at lunch, he would pour a large amount of braise sauce into his porridge, making it become the colour of dark earth.

    Lou, ga swa ka hai. Braise, and seas and mountains, he would say.

    Without a comma, and with one small shift in intonation, eating this meal with him everyday was about raising, not braising, seas and mountains each time he spoke at length with me.

    Ah gong may have been a man of few words but we drank the sea and ate the mountains together everyday.

    Bubble Tea

    At the hospital he was in some pain. Not a lot, but you could tell no matter how naturally stoic he tried to remain, he was not going to make it. I had to go to see him from Europe, made it just barely in time, and I like to think he waited for me. Or for something.

    In the year since I moved out of the country I had been back only for Chinese New Year, and I had missed his last moments where he had been confined in a wheelchair. He could no longer go on daily walks, nor could he go to the toilet unassisted, but he kept his mind steely by asking everyone endless questions about their lives. He kept his wits about by observing our neighbours and their daily lives from his vantage point, his wheelchair.

    The telephone was not made for people like my ah gong. Skype was an invention he could tolerate a little better, and only for the joy of watching someone on the other side of the world appear on the screen. The moment your image was formed he was no longer interested in speaking in sentences to you. That whole year all we ever spoke about was about burqahs and bak chor mee. I was in the Middle East that whole year and he was convinced I led a bak chor mee – less existence inside a burqah. Which was only half true (the pork, not the fashion sense).

    For someone like ah gong who led a relatively difficult life and who was not really a part of the modern world with all its trappings and assumptions, he did not get to - nor did he want to - experience anymore than what he already had, which was adoption, migration, war, poverty and distance.

    He had few cravings other than for Teochew porridge and preserved olive leaves, steamed fish and fish sauce.

    When we were by his side, teary, he could not speak much by that point. He had no teary goodbyes or pent-up messages for anyone. He had no epiphanies but silence.

    But he asked for his daughter.

    When she, crying as only she could, sidled up to him he gathered his breath and whispered, "Bring me bubble tea. Apparently it's delicious."

    We searched everywhere for bubble tea, we really did, but did not search fast enough. He could not wait.

    And then Michael Jackson died the next day and the whole world forgot about the man who had never had bubble tea.

    Sometimes I wish could have been there when he finally gave up on life and on bubble tea. He would have ranted, in Teochew, that tea isn't meant to be this milky, and what the hell are these bloody balls?

  • Lakewood

    Thiruvannaamalai to Yercaud, 155km, though it ended up a lot more

    I come from a place with no highlands. No real ones, anyway — the highest point, Bukit Timah Hill, is a mere 163 metres. Enough for families and joggers to work up a sweat on Saturday mornings; not quite enough to keep going. You run, you jog, you break up a tiny bit of sweat — then it's time to "descend" for breakfast at the nearby hawker centre.

    Not so in India. Home, after all, to the Indian Himalayas. My first time in India was magical, and one I will never forget. As a naive amateur traveller at the time I had mistakenly assumed all mountains were the same. I had only experienced winter, once, in Mount Sorak in South Korea. I remembered four degrees Celsius was quite doable, even without too many winter clothes. I packed just as light, then, for the Indian Himalayas. On reaching Darjeeling I realized what a mistake that had been. This time, I was no newbie: I had been to India about fifteen times since, and knew a thing or two about its disparate climates. I also knew a little bit about its hill stations, and its rickshaws. Something in my body — common sense? — also told me it might be a bad idea to climb a hill station in an autorickshaw.

    One of the things that people who know me are likely to say is that I like to do the very things that I'm told would never work.

    Like driving an autorickshaw up a hill. Remind me to never do that again.

    The last we ever saw of our route book.

    The real story began the moment we left Thiruvannaamalai. The breakfast briefing made it seem easy enough. Take off at 8am, get lunch somewhere on the way, meet in Harur to make sure everyone was on time, meet again somewhere near Pappireddipatti so we could time our ascent uphill together.

    Andrew and I were to get horribly, horribly lost, that day. For the first — and only — time.

    Karthik left us that morning in Thiruvannaamalai for Chennai. Having just obtained his PhD days prior to the race, he was slated to move to Brussels soon after. Due to some bureaucratic screw-up, he had to bus it back to the capital for a medical appointment for his Belgian work visa, then head back to meet us in Yercaud that night. Not having a Tamil-speaker onboard was doable, but my team had gotten used to the idea that we could muck around after flag-off, have breakfast, hang out with locals, see a few sights, then start moving.

    Flag-off at Thiruvannaamalai was as uneventful as it could be — I could not wait to get out of there. Karthik bid us farewell even before we woke up. When Andrew and I got to base we were pretty sleepy, still, having spent the previous night sleeping on terrible beds (and I on the floor). When the horn sounded and all the teams started for Yercaud, we headed to the nearest coffee shop to eat a quick breakfast (muruku and some other snacks) and to take swigs of coffee before we started properly. It must have been 8am, usually an ungodly hour for me, but the faithful were already awake.

    Hungry, we had kothu parotta in Kambainallur.

    At the coffee shop near a temple on Chengam Road, we looked quizzically at the legions of old, white people in "spiritual clothes". I looked even more quizzically at the firingi prices we were obviously paying here for muruku and kaapi. We read the newspapers, chatted a little, then with some reluctance got back into our rickshaw to begin the drive. Still no clue what we were in for. You know how some mornings when you wake up you drag your feet and don't want to go to work?

    That morning I woke up and dragged my feet and didn't want to drive my auto. Off we went anyway. My job, since I was no good with driving these things, was to sit in the backseat and navigate. My tools? Google Maps on my iPhone. Google Maps in this part of the rural world was fine — if by fine you mean, places, villages, towns and cities actually show up, in English. The directions they came with were impossible. Being from the big city, you understand: if Google Maps screws up, it is the end of the world as you know it.

    So we followed these maps on my phone, and the navigational directions they gave us. Except that we got hopelessly lost in the end. We kept going anyway, and the people we'd stopped for directions were no help. "Which way to Harur?" This way, that way, you go straight there and then you turn left… India is a pretty bad place to get lost in. Everyone wants to help, and does; except when you're lost, all that help is really no help at all. At a petrol station we got the usual "OMG, foreigners! Driving a rickshaw!" curiosity. And still no worthwhile directions. We kept driving, driving, following one lead after another.

    We passed lots of farmland, and lots of construction. We drove over bumps, we drove on very awful roads. We found ourselves in a village where I got out, and gesticulated wildly. Yercaud! Yercaud! Which way? (Making a note to myself that I should have paid attention to what little Tamil was spoken around me, growing up.) "There!" — followed by the Indian octopus. The one where at least eight arms point in eight separate directions. If you're a newbie you end up following directions given by the person who made his case most forcefully and most convincingly. If you've been around these parts, it's that guy you learn to ignore. We kept driving, in some direction.

    With another happy passenger. Fare: zero rupees.

    More farmland, more cows, more farmers and more awful roads. The lead we had followed previously now led to what seemed to be a dead end. I jumped out of the rickshaw and gesticulated wildly. Is Yercaud back there — pointing at the direction in which we came from, so at the least we could find out if we were going in the wrong direction — or that way? Nope, all the answers came fast and furiously. It's the other way, just keep going.

    I was driving on one of the smaller highways, emboldened by how easy it was becoming, when the highway suddenly led into a town, and the town led to lots of people. Remember, I don't really know how to do this — I'm just not good with manual gears, not yet — so I suddenly felt I could not control the rickshaw, and it was cruising along at a speed that was much too fast even for an small town. Andrew, who was chilling out in the backseat, was starting to realize this too.

    I kept going anyway, freaking out and yelling "ANDREW I NEED YOUR HELP!" but by the time he scrambled and leaned over to take control of the gears, the rickshaw had already hit a motorbike. There was an old man on it. He fell. I felt like everything that could have gone wrong already had — and yet here we are, about to be in the middle of a large mob with possibly no way of getting out of it.

    True to my projections, a large mob had formed around us and the old man. But they were not yelling, nor were they demanding anything. They gathered in large numbers but then some of them helped him up from the ground, another group picked up his motorbike and brushed off the dust, and others yet just stared at us. "It's okay, just go," the mob was saying. But I knocked over someone's bike and it's possibly not working now! "No, he's fine, you should get on your way." I tried to give the old man some money to fix his bike. He shyly refused, acknowledging the power of the mob around him. They were so nice to us, almost to the point of assuming that we must have been so unlucky to have had a tiny accident here in their town, even though it was my fault, that I felt embarrassed instantly. Knowing I could not out-talk the mob, not in a language I didn't speak, and not wanting to embarrass the old man either by insisting openly that he take my money for his bike, I made it seem like we agreed, gathered our stuff, and got back into the rickshaw. But not without shaking the hands of the man whose bike I had knocked over (even if it was gently so), and pressing a small wad of cash into his hands. We took off then, and kept going.

    Then the phone rang. It was Aravind, wanting to know where we were — everyone had already assembled somewhere for lunch — so where the hell were we? Ask someone, he said. With no Tamil between Andrew and I, and sign language not cutting it for when actual explicit directions are required, I passed the phone to someone who spoke in Tamil to him.

    When I got the phone back, Aravind calmly told us we were at least two hundred clicks in the opposite direction. Please drive back towards Harur ASAP. Still the villagers pored through our route book, and were unanimously convinced we just had to keep going, there would be a turn, go up that hill, and then it'd be Yercaud. I could see it, and I wanted that hill to be Yercaud, quite desperately. But of course it wasn't.

    So we doubled back and drove off in the other direction.

    One hour. Still no sign of Harur. We were, instead, in Kambainallur. This being a good-sized village, and by this I mean there was actually a place we could stop and eat a proper meal in, we parked outside a little hut where I saw something I recognized. An iron griddle. With food on it. Food being kothu parotta, one of my favourite childhood foods. This far out from home, and from the places I knew in India, having something close to home like kothu parotta was a wonderful feeling. It reminded me of all those nights I walked from my university hostel in Singapore to Little India to eat parotta, chopped up, with egg and chicken. I decided I would have the same thing right here in Kambainallur just so that I could feel we might somehow find our way to Yercuad later.

    The people at the restaurant were bemused, to say the least. When I think of rural Tamil Nadu now, I will forever remember it for the sweltering, still heat beating down on our backs. No wind, no breeze — just the slow oscillations of a very old, very dirty ceiling fan. Tic. Tic. For half an hour we ate our tasty kothu parotta in the hut, and entertained the people of Kambainallur who were coming into see what we were up to. Yes, we are driving this thing…

    I'm often asked, wasn't it dangerous? Dangerous, to the extent of possibly damaging life and limb on the road, yes — theft and other crime, not so. We usually parked our auto somewhere in sight. By the time we were here in Kambainallur we had gotten so comfortable in this part of Tamil Nadu we even experimented with leaving our bags of expensive camera equipment in the rickshaw, although well-disguised. Every single time we — as foreigners in this part of town — were treated with far more curiosity and amusement than anything we owned (which probably didn't look like very much, considering how we were dressed).

    We clambered back into our rickshaw with a small post-lunch stupor, armed with cold Pepsi and Thums Up, and took off somewhere into the distance. This time we had a small feeling we might be on the right track. We kept driving, and noticed people were trying to flag us down. This time we were in the small country roads that cut through the villages, not on the state or national highways, and not on the larger arterial roads between the towns either. There did not seem to be any public transportation — nor any other autorickshaws — around for miles. We decided since we had just had a small spot of good luck (with the tasty lunch and finally figuring out which way to go), we would pass on the karma. We began picking up passengers.

    All of them were going a short distance, usually to the next village, so each ride lasted an average of 10 minutes.

    With our music thumping in our rickshaw, food in our bellies and cold drinks in our hands, Andrew and I started feeling rather invincible. We stopped for every single passenger who flagged us down. Each time, happiness as we drew to a halt, then confusion, horror, as they looked into the vehicle and found us looking like that. They all climbed in in spite of the incongruity. Not knowing how to speak with them we simply drove on straight, and they told us when to stop.

    Lady we gave a ride to in Kambainallur.

    First, an old lady near Kambainallur who wanted to go to her sister's house. She climbed into the backseat with me, her orange sari so long it flapped into my lap. She was mostly silent, being rather shy as some rural old ladies can be, only using her hands to direct how we should go to her destination.

    After a few minutes, her curiosity got the better of her and she asked, in Tamil (which I understood a very limited amount of), "Where are you going?"


    "By rickshaw?"

    "Yes. From Chennai."

    "Why didn't you take a train? It's so much faster."

    With that, she pointed to the village she wanted to alight at, and ran off into her sister's house. I often imagine what she might have said to them. "I came here to your house in an autorickshaw, driven by an American and a Singaporean, and they were dressed like rickshaw wallahs." I often imagine that might have been the rural equivalent of saying you just saw a spaceship.

    We kept going. We picked up at least four people, each of whom was just as incredulous as the last. One man had huge gunny sacks of spices with him, and he too sat in the back seat with me. Each started out shy, embarrassed, but burning with curiosity — each ended up wondering why we were doing this. At that point I was starting to wonder myself.

    One happy passenger after another, we were finally well and truly on our way. Harur was in sight. Our team phone was low on battery, so we had no communications from the Mothership (the convoy) since the last time we spoke. We found that M., who was responsible for making sure all teams got rescued if anything went wrong, had been waiting in Harur for us for hours. His pickup truck was recognizable from afar, so we drove up to him. It was 4pm. All the teams started making their way up to Yercaud about 3 hours earlier. "So you better start now before it gets dark."

    At Harur I don't think either of us had any idea we were only halfway there. It seemed such a tremendous accomplishment to have made it thus far. I started to feel relieved, like we could take things easy from here. We even celebrated with a 20 minute fresh fruit juice break. But we were to face a truly uphill battle.

    We left Harur and made for Yercaud. We were so hot and dazed and frustrated by this point that even the relatively straight road towards Pappireddipatti, from which we would begin our ascent, was difficult to find. M. drove his pickup truck alongside, doing the convoy equivalent of kicking our asses, and we were finally in Yercaud!

    Not so.

    After 45 minutes up the hilly roads into Yercaud, a gear and brake problem we had been ignoring for the last four hours began to act up. The rumbling sound from the rickshaw was growing so much louder we had to pull over on the side of the hill. M. was not far behind, so we got him to take a look. Yet another 45 minutes spent not-moving, even though M. had really talented mechanics working with him, the sun began to fade. I have been to many places in the world and I'm supposed to be used to this — but it takes a huge effort for me to remember that when the sun sets, sometimes what follows is total darkness. And so it was. "Turn on the front lamps," I said to Andrew. "But… they are already on." They were just feeble, and really quite pointless. We could not see a single thing. M.'s team sped off and we soon lost them, driving in the dark ourselves. Our feeble lights did as much as to allow us to see when something was immediately in our faces, but not much else.

    We were heading to the base hotel, but there was still a substantial climb to make. We were probably driving in the dark for about an hour before we finally saw a sign that said "Glenrock Estate" — our base camp for the next two days. Despite following the signs, and the instructions we received earlier, we could not find it. We would go straight, make a left bend, and then be in complete darkness again with no signs of a hotel anywhere near us. We kept going in what must have been circles in the dark. When we finally saw a bunch of lights, we knew it was not the hotel but the small village of Kakampatti. We pulled over for me to get some directions.

    I ran into a store with a telephone, and dialled hopelessly for our friends. No luck — nobody had any cellular reception at the hotel. I asked a few villagers where Glenrock Estates was, and they said it was just ten minutes away, just up the slope we just came down from, where it was so dark we could not see the sign that said "turn right", so we missed that completely. When I got back to the rickshaw and to Andrew, he was on the ground peeking into the underside of our rickshaw. Disaster, yet again.

    A bolt had fallen off the rickshaw some time in the last ten minutes. It could not start without this bolt — there was a risk the rickshaw would simply fall apart, if we did. But it couldn't even move at all. At this point I was beyond wanting to cry. Somehow I had some blind faith in how India always comes together for me.

    A villager got on his motorcycle, and said he was going to buy the part for us from the garage 15 minutes away. When he returned, we found he bought the wrong bolt, and before we could even thank him for his help he got back on his motorcycle with someone who knew more about mechanics than he did, and they both went back to buy the proper part.

    I sat on the ledge, wanting to help but really not being able to, just tired beyond belief. It's the sort of feeling when you are not sure when the work day will end — except in this case you don't know when the day will end, or whether you will get to where you need to be. I was fully prepared to spend the night in the village.

    Suddenly, loud roars came riding down the hill towards us, and two men on quad-bikes came towards us.

    "You must be Adrianna and Andrew."

    I thought they must have been angels.

    "We're the Bosen family, from Glenrock Estates. One of the village kids ran up here to tell us, quite breathlessly, that there were two foreigners whose rickshaw had broken down in their village. Since you were the only people not here yet, we assumed it must be you."

    The beauty of my mother India is in how in spite of the chaos, things come through. If you don't panic, if you don't worry too much, if you don't allow yourself to be swept away by how different, and how insane, India seems to you, she will be good to you. Our rickshaw stayed in Kakampatti that night, but we didn't have to — we got into the quad-bikes with the Bosens, and they brought us uphill to their comfortable coffee plantation estate where we joined the teams around the bonfire, with Kingfisher and coffee magically appearing each time we wanted some.

    Coffee. Beer. Food. A comfortable bed, even though it was one I shared with 20 other beds in a dorm, I was happy we made it. Now that the worst was out of the way on the second day of the race, surely there could be no worse moments hereafter?

    The villagers of Kakampatti fixed our rickshaw for us, and even drove it to the hotel when they were done.

    Yercaud may not be in the Himalayas, or any other majestic mountain ranges, but as a compact and quaint hill station in the Shevaroy Hills it was all I needed it to be, right there and then.

    Aside: Visit the Bosens at their lovely Glenrock Estates in Yercaud! Great coffee and quaint place to stay.

  • Private Islands for Everyone

    I've been spending a lot of time in the Philippines lately...

    There comes a point in every traveller’s life when the experience of going to a foreign place no longer feels the same, nor as exciting as it used to be when she first began. Cities blur into similar skylines, restaurants and bars. Non-cities remain precisely that—good in small doses but rarely more. The magic of travel fades into a succession of airports, suited executives and boring business hotels, or a kaleidoscope of lobster-red package tourists and concrete bungalows on dirty beaches.

    Even I could not avoid that fate.

    Having travelled around many parts of the world on a student’s budget not too long ago, I used to skip perfectly affordable, mid-range hotels in favour of Rs100 rooms. I was used to travelling for three months or more at a time, and had a strict travel philosophy: “It’s got to be all or nothing. Either luxury on a private island scale, or whatever I can get for next to nothing.”

    The Philippines, with its 7,107 islands, was especially appealing. Under-visited and often overlooked in favour of Thailand and Indonesia, the Philippines has a certain charm that sets on slowly, but lingers on long after you’ve left. It’s so large, with each region and group of islands distinct from each other, that it feels disjointed; and so disorganized and chaotic that it can be hard to pinpoint what exactly the Filipino experience is about. Is it about the colonial heritage of Intramuros in Old Manila, or the pine trees and mountain ranges around Baguio, where strawberries, ube (yam) jams and hot springs rule?

    Why the Philippines is not overrun with tourists is the reason why it should be: It can be experienced in so many spectacularly different ways.

    Download the PDF here

    Read online

  • The Great Southern Trunk Road

    Madras to Thiruvannaamalai, 185km

    I've often said India never calls for me, she mostly shouts. With India, there is no moderation: you either love her, or you hate her to death — she never cares for you, or you can't get enough of each other. It's clear which camp I fall into.

    I could have been in class, somewhere in Singapore, dying in a statistics lecture on an unbearably hot day. A message would come in from friends in Mumbai — usually about their plans that weekend — and I would not be able to work, talk, study, or function. Not until I booked a ticket to India. I could never explain it, I just had to do it.

    It was like that again when I sat at the void deck of my apartment, decked out in my funeral whites, missing my grandfather terribly, not knowing how I would ever stop. Other people need Prozac; India's yelling, honking and shouting did it for me. It did it for me every time I needed her.

    When the horn sounded at flag-off, we left Kodambakkam High Road behind. The gaggle of reporters, photographers, radio personalities, curious onlookers and well-wishers faded into the distance. Our destination: Thiruvannaamalai.

    If you looked on a map, the holy southern Indian city is merely 185 kilometres from Madras. If you took a bus, it would take just under five hours. If you travelled by car, perhaps three and a little bit. Since we took an autorickshaw, our estimated travel time was something like eight hours. Or before nightfall; whichever came first.

    It takes a while to actually leave Madras. The city is a sprawling mess of neighbourhoods, many of them neat and compact and middle class and manicured — by Indian standards anyway. We passed Thousand Lights, rode on to Cathedral Road, our music thumping in our DIY in-rickshaw entertainment system.

    Near Menaka Cards factory on Arcot Road I made us slow down to stare at the ridiculous sign I have always loved on the side of its building: "Marriages are made in heaven. Marriage cards are made in Menaka". We strode on confidently — empowered with the sort of zeal only people who knowingly embark on insane adventures can have — past Mount Road, on to Saidapet. Guindy. St Thomas Mount. Chennai Airport. And then it was the open road from there, our first "highway" on an autorickshaw.

    From then on we were well and truly on our own. We would lose sight of all the other rickshaws in the rally, most of the time, and only run into them when someone broke down, when we ran into another team in a random village, or when we caught up with the rest of them somewhere on the road. It would be up to us to decide which way to go and how to get there.


    Most mornings we were armed with little else other than the name of our final destination. At our daily morning briefings we were given tasks, and sometimes hints of how we should make our approach, but that did not preclude the fact that we would be waving our arms frantically outside our rickshaw most of the day, shouting at someone who was walking, or riding a bike or rickshaw: "Thambi! Chengalpattu, where? Left-ah? Right-ah?"

    We perfected the art of speaking without words. Most times we received instructions with a bob of the head, and we replied and expressed our gratitude in the same way.

    Thiruvannaamalai was not a difficult destination to get to. Excited and pumped with adrenalin, we raced our rickshaw through the Great Southern Trunk Road and then the National Highways like champs on three wheels. We stopped when we found the first breakdown of the day, Tim and Gary's, but otherwise stopped only to refuel, and to drink sugarcane juice. We got there fairly quickly, and without much incident. (Other than when we'd stopped for a train crossing in a small village, and a little girl came up to me to ask, "aunty aunty, what are you, white or Indian?" I said I was yellow, and drove off before she could ask me what a yellow person was.)

    Chengalpattu. Tindivanam. Vallam. We stopped outside Gingee Fort to take photos of the fort and of the bulls with painted blue horns. Pennathur.

    I have a love-hate relationship with India's religious, holy cities. I know how my skin colour, and the fact that I was born outside the structures and strictures of traditional Hinduism, means I will never encounter holy life in an Indian holy city the way it was meant to be; I will always be an outsider, always a firingi, in the religious places far more than in most other cities. It also means I see much more of the harassment and the stupidity that their most aggravatingly frustrating touts and pimps and drug dealers subject to foreigners, who believe we all come to India's holy places to seek darshan with the gods of drugs and sex, without exception, and must thus be given what we want: sex and drugs. In Benares I felt no holiness, only sexual harassment; I did not have high hopes then for Thiruvannaamalai.

    Karthik at a rest stop.

    By the time we found Chengam Road, with some difficulty, it was already dusk. The town's sacred vibe was apparent: in addition to the numerous temples, priests and sadhus, there were a great many white people in what I call "enlightenment attire", wandering around town. When we pulled in into the grounds of our first base hotel, a fancy resort along Chengam Road, we were tired, but victorious.

    I could not have asked for a better way to end the Rickshaw Challenge, having had such a great first day; but something about Thiruvannaamalai did not sit well with me. The hotel's staff started off friendly and grovelling, but when they found out my team did not intend to plan to stay the night and spend a ridiculous sum on their "affordable luxury" they quickly turned sour. The cheap hotels we wanted to stay in were sneered at by them — we CANNOT stay in those hotels, they said, because "these hotels allow smoking", and "they serve alcohol and meat." I have utmost respect for teetotalers, vegetarians and non-smokers, but it's this sort of holier-than-thou attitude practised by a small number of you that makes me run in the opposite direction and do those very things you dislike.

    So off we went, back onto Chengam Road, back towards the town centre, in search of the Promise Land: a cheap hotel with alcohol and meat.

    We were turned away by many budget and mid-range hotels, because I was "gasp a WOMAN!" I was a woman who intended to share a room with a white man and an Indian man, but the idea was inconceivable to many. I was told by several hotels that they were looking out for me by not letting me stay there, to protect my honour or something flaky like that. Others said they were protecting me from the many bachelors who stay in their hotels, as though these bachelors would not know how to deal with the presence of a Chinese woman in a rickshaw wallah uniform. Dejected, exhausted, and still ranting about self-righteous vegetarians, we finally settled for a bright pink hotel with a decent fan room for a handful of rupees.

    A shower never felt so good.

    I slept on the floor, deciding it was preferable to the hard double bed shared by the boys, and dreamed a long dream about driving down the Great Southern Trunk Road.

    Tomorrow, we would conquer Yercaud.

  • We Have No Dungarees, Saar

    Madras, India

    There are slower ways of seeing India. On a buffalo. On a "two wheeler", a motorcycle, stacked to great heights with assorted luggage until you can't see what's in front of you. Or on foot, "by walk", like a sadhu with no clothes on.

    We travelled by autorickshaw.

    An autorickshaw isn't too bad an idea on paper: it is, after all, capable of hitting up to 50km per hour. Which would be comforting if our speedometer actually worked. Instead, ours wavered meekly several times per day, mostly settling for the number 65. How machines lie. I wouldn't even call our autorickshaw a machine — a primitive piece of equipment, yes, but machine, implying any form of mechanical achievement or efficiency, no.

    We set off from Madras one hot morning, dressed to the nines. It was a good idea before flag-off, this brilliant idea we had of dressing just like a rickshaw wallah. The previous nights we had been in Pondy Bazaar every night, looking for various items to complete our get up. We'd planned to dress as Super Mario characters at first. The mustache and beret were no problem, the theatre costume company we'd checked out earlier had plenty of those things. They were initially designed for Roman centurion characters and other popular roles, such as various Hindu gods, but we could appropriate those items to create our Mario outfit. But the suspenders were impossible. Even the salesmen at Saravana Stores laughed at us when Karthik described what we wanted. "You mean you want dungarees, saar? They're so old-fashioned. You cannot find them in Madras. They're too old-fashioned, saar, we have no dungarees." If a Madras salesman tells you they are out of fashion, they are out of fashion. So we thought we'd dress like a rickshaw wallah instead.

    Saravana Stores is a bit like Singapore's Mustafa Centre. Mustafa scores better on the "has all the crap you ever need to buy" front, but Saravana wins on the "has an entire section of the store dedicated to rickshaw men's uniforms" front. We skipped over like crazy firingis, trying out different types of singlets (who knew there were so many?); a variety of khaki shirts, and patterned lungis. A few hundred rupees later, we were in business.

    Me as a rickshaw wallah

    The author dressed as a rickshaw wallah with a tilak.

    We took off from our base in Kodambakkam High Road, much to the delight of the local press. I was interviewed several times, very likely because I was a girl with a tilak on her head, dressed like an autorickshaw man (thereby bending gender norms a little bit). I smiled nicely and fiddled with my lungi, and put on my best I am a foreigner accent. All was forgiven. Foreigners can do whatever the hell they want because we're all supposed to be crazy. Crazy enough to be driving a three-wheeler for 21 days continuously anyway.

    Among the many questions posed to us by the Indian media, the one I could not answer was, "What do you hope to achieve by doing this? What is your intention?" Insanity has no intentions. It simply happens. Likewise, when I first read about the Rickshaw Challenge five years ago in Wired, I knew I had to go. The insanity took over and consumed me until I finally bit the bullet and went for it.

    Where we would live, where we would spend our nights, how we would repair our auto when it broke down (and we knew it would break down at least once a day), I had no idea. Everyone else had booked the hotel package that came with the race, but we were too cheap adventurous for that. If we were going to see South India the way none of us had ever seen her before, we would do it the proper way. We would drive an auto everywhere and we would stay anywhere, as long as it was close to a TASMAC and a good breakfast.

    With that policy of insanity and inebriation firmly in mind, we set off for the open road, cruising on the East Coast Road. It was one of the happiest moments of my life.

  • Southeast Asia for Lovers

    I have a piece in the Valentine's Day issue of Mint, the Indian paper. Read it here. I have not written much since my cover story in Reader's Digest Asia in July 2010, so I'm feeling pretty good about my "comeback". I will be writing more regularly, here, as well as for a handful of publications.

  • Crazy, Delicious Love

    One of the projects that's been super fun to work on has been the birth of the Klang Valley's first homemade ice cream outfit, The Last Polka. M and E run the ice cream empire, I help out with the other bits, like the… tasting of the ice cream. And the copywriting.

    What started as a crazy idea — bringing ice cream to KL from Singapore, in a bus, because we couldn't get it here — turned into opportunity. "Why don't we just do it ourselves?" I'm quite the pro at eating and at being strongly opinionated about what I put into my mouth, but the girls have much more of a culinary bent than I do. So I stick to writing about it.

    Exactly one year on, we've managed to introduce the pleasures of homemade, "artisanal" ice cream to the Klang Valley. From the little home kitchen and tiny machine, to the ramped-up production now underway, the French-style, Asian-inspired gourmet ice cream idea has flourished from the idea it was, to the real brick-and-mortar business it now is. The ice cream now retails at three location: Marmalade at Bangsar Village II, Marmalade at Mont Kiara, and The Bee in Jalan Universiti (Petaling Jaya). The first scoop shop just opened a few days ago at Taylor's Lakeside campus.

    The ice cream repertoire has expanded rapidly: we've now introduced Guinness, French Toast, Nutella and Horlicks to the Klang Valley, to great acclaim.

    We were asked to collaborate with Time Out KL for a Valentine's Day special — an aphrodisiac flavour. We managed to create two. Until the end of February 2011, the special romantic combo of chocolate chilli and strawberry cream cheese can be had for just RM 45. Since cool indie ice cream kids love cool indie music kids, we're also collaborating with one of our favourite bands, Furniture. Their new album (preview here) "They Made Me Out of Dreams You've Forgotten", can be purchased together with the two tubs of ice cream for just RM 65 in all.

    Order at our website (I know, we need a new one — I threw this together very quickly even before ice cream production began, and we've since outgrown it!), and get yourself some love.

  • Be Kind, Reboot

    It's no secret I've lost interest in writing a blog — I'm not sure when that happened. It just did. Uni came and went. Life and love took me places. I got caught up in my projects, and soon the fun that blogging once was paled in comparison with real life.

    I still wanted to keep this site around, but it went through something of an existential crisis, not knowing what it wanted to be. Before Twitter came about the dichotomy was easy to understand: offline, long form writing, was in magazines, newspapers, academic journals; everything else was here. It is now hard to write in the same intimate, personal way I once did. I hope I still can. I have good reasons to be less forthcoming. In any case, Twitter served instead as a fast and dirty way of getting all that other stuff posted. Life stopped being so dramatic. In turn, I had little to report.

    For about a year after university ended, I had the time of my life because I learned I could spend all my time writing, taking pictures, riding in planes and buses, and get paid for it. I stopped living in Singapore full time in 2008 and went through Spain, UK, United Arab Emirates, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Oman, India, Thailand, Philippines, Germany, Sweden although I never really thought it was possible.

    Some time beginning 2009, I began to exhibit signs of wanting to settle down. I began working on an aviation startup with a business partner, and although I have moved on to other things since, I learned a great deal from the scene, the experience, and the people I worked with. I'm now between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore and Bangkok, getting my two companies up and running. Business is picking up, and I will link to it once our new website is up, and I am still learning and making it up as I go along. One of the companies designs and develops on the web, and also publishes lifestyle publications; the other, just a day old, specializes in iOS development. We have had the luck to work with some great clients in our early days, and we continue to learn new things everyday. We have done some good work, there are cool things happening at the moment, there are iOS titles we will soon be publishing that I can't wait to tell you all about, and everything's new and exciting and shiny at the same time.

    I still write, but when I put down my bags and signed on for a two year lease and for animals, I told myself that I will save what little time and focus I have left after all the other stuff I want to do, for writing that matters to me. Offline, I will resume writing for a number of good publications that I like, on topics that I give a damn about. I will post links here as they happen (there's a story slated for 12 February in the Indian paper, Mint). Online, I will save this space for the long form writing I want to do more of. Twitter and Tumblr will serve as the repository for the off-the-cuff ideas and thoughts that tend to become fragmented and scattered after a while.

    I will be saving a whole section on this site for India, as it's probably about time. I don't think I will ever run out of things to say about India, even if I don't write about anything else. I intend to start writing more about my work as well. In previous incarnations, the mystery wasn't so much of one, as it was my complete and utter inability to get organized. Now that I've finally managed to define what I do, and to keep tabs on each aspect, I should be able to share them more thoroughly and frequently.

    So why did I pull the plug on the old site? I haven't. The old site and all its archives are still available here. I felt I needed to reboot my online life to make a complete break from the old way I used to write, and the person I used to be. I don't know if this version is 100% different, or better, but I'd like to find out. I could no longer allow my 16 year old rants — no matter how eloquent or interesting I think they might be — to define my online self.

    So we start afresh.

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