A Travellerspoint blog

Ernie Goes to Singapore

Two and a half weeks in the Lion City

View Trip 1 - HK, Singapore, Malaysia, China, Taiwan, Macau (December 2008 to March 2009) on ErnieHK's travel map.


I didn't spend much time planning out my itinerary for my three months abroad, but I did pencil in Singapore for the last two and a half weeks of the year. I had some family on my dad's side in Singapore, and, with the promise of a room of my own in their home, I landed in the Lion City in mid-December. They very graciously showed me around town, treating me to dinners and giving me rides to different places around the city, but I actually spent a lot of time on my own - which suited me just fine. For the first few days, I repeated my Hong Kong routine – wake up, eat breakfast, walk out the door and see where I end up. Even now, almost six years later, I can retrace my steps from my uncle’s front door to the Novena MRT stop, the main strip along Orchard Road, in and around the Central Business District, up and down Clarke Quay, and into the Fort Canning and the Singapore National Museum area.



I’ve often taken my 6’3 frame for granted whenever I’ve traveled. Here in Asia, where signs warning against pickpockets and purse-snatchers are ubiquitous in almost every major city, it’s not unreasonable to prepare for the worst. In subsequent travels, I’ve spent time in Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, Kathmandu, Shenzhen, and half a dozen other major cities where stories of muggings and riots creep into the edges of the picture – I know of friends that have experienced it first-hand. So I’ve always been pleasantly surprised that I’ve never been pickpocketed, mugged, or assaulted – at most, I’ve been taken for a loop by a taxi driver. It doesn’t stop me from thinking about the possibilities of any of those things happening though, or of being extra aware of my surroundings whenever I’m in an unfamiliar place. I do kind of think that my height and size have worked to my advantage, along with my “get out of the way” face that I’ve adopted and honed to perfection in Hong Kong. If the goal is to make myself appear to be the less attractive target, it seems to be working so far. In Singapore, however, I never once felt like I needed to be aware of my surroundings – I was free to wander at my leisure, regardless of time or place.



In my alone time, I walked and ate my way through crowded neighbourhoods, passed a rainy afternoon wandering through their excellent museum, spent a day in the botanical gardens, and, for the most part, went wherever my feet took me. I appreciated the relaxed tempo of my travels thus far, but traveling alone has its downside, as I mentioned in a previous post. There would be moments throughout my time in Singapore, and in the rest of my three months abroad, where I would marvel at something – a taste, a sight, a feeling – and I’d wish that I had someone to share it with, a friend to acknowledge and validate and increase the sense of wonder and enjoyment. Fortunately, about a week into my stay in Singapore, I had a friend from Toronto fly in to spend the holidays at home with her family. Nicole had grown up in Singapore, but for the last few years she had lived and studied in Toronto, where we happened to play on the same ultimate team. I spent a fair amount of time with her and her twin sister, as well as the rest of her family, over the next few days – their hospitality was unmatched, and I was able to eat the best of what Singapore had to offer. On subsequent trips to Singapore, the routine was the same – they would drive me to a hawker center, sit me down at a table, disappear for ten minutes, and come back with trays and trays of Singapore’s bounty.



On the night of Christmas Eve, the twins invited me down to Orchard Road. Known for being the beating heart of Singapore’s shopping and entertainment district, its glitzy malls and upscale hotels had taken a backseat, for one night at least, to dozens of street-side stages that had been set up along both sides of the tree-lined boulevard. An absolutely enormous crowd of Christmas shoppers and holiday revelers packed the sidewalks and streets, smiling faces lit up in shades of red, green, and purple by the thick tangles of Christmas lights draped around lamp posts and swaying palm trees. As I walked down the street, there were several stages that gave me pause – an Indonesian youth group singing doo-wop carols, a troupe of Korean primary school kids doing a choreographed dance, a Japanese church operating a photo booth – and I stopped several times to enjoy and partake in the holiday atmosphere. It was a timely distraction from my own thoughts of missing home – it would be my first Christmas apart from my family – and I was grateful to find it in an unexpected place. There would be other outings – the Jurong Bird Park, breakfast at the Singapore Zoo, an afternoon of ultimate, New Year’s Eve service at her church – but when all was said and done, Nicole was quite rightly sick of driving me around every day, instead of spending time with her family. She and her sister, Nadine, had played the part of host to a tee, pulling out all the stops to accommodate my requests, not allowing me to spend a dime on anything – I couldn’t ask for anything more. Nicole would move back home for good the following year after half a decade away, and I’ve had the good fortune of enjoying her and her family’s continued hospitality whenever I’ve found myself back in Singapore.


Posted by ErnieHK 03:19 Archived in Singapore Comments (0)

Ernie Goes to Hong Kong

Hello world

View Trip 1 - HK, Singapore, Malaysia, China, Taiwan, Macau (December 2008 to March 2009) on ErnieHK's travel map.


In December of 2008, I arrived in balmy Hong Kong, just as the first echoes of winter began to descend on Toronto. I could rehash all the usual first impressions of Hong Kong – the lights, the noise, the crowds, the smells, the unrelenting sensory overload - but I won’t. It was exhilarating though. When I was young, my family would visit Hong Kong every 1 or 2 years, but those trips were spent in endless MTR, taxi, and bus rides, and my impression of the city was what I saw from the inside of moving windows. This time around, I wanted to do things my way, to explore the city on my own two feet. Every morning I’d wake up, grab a quick breakfast on the street downstairs, and pick a random MTR stop – names that I had heard and familiarized myself with through countless Hong Kong movies throughout my childhood, like Causeway Bay, Wan Chai, Mong Kok, Tsim Sha Tsui. It’s almost embarrassing how limited my view of Hong Kong was, and still is, to be honest. Little details buried in old memories found context and new life years later – an MTR station name that had seemed out of place when I was young (Jordan - a neighbourhood I would later call home for a little over a year), the smell of the cheap leather seats in taxis, the quiet streets and neighbourhoods around my uncle’s home in Kowloon Tong, and the kitschy seaside district of Stanley – once an exhausting day-long excursion involving multiple cars packed full of family members, now a fifteen minute mini-bus trip from the closest mall. Being in Hong Kong felt familiar and unfamiliar all at once, a feeling that still defines my relationship with the city to this day.



For the next three months, Hong Kong would serve as my home away from home. I stayed in a spare family apartment set aside for overseas relatives, which included me, and, with the exception of a few days here and there, I had it largely to myself. Those days at the apartment were spent in relative quiet - I would reflect on where I had just been, think about where I wanted to go next, and try my hardest to fight back the inevitable feelings of loneliness that seem to encroach on the experiences of solo travelers everywhere. I yearned to be able to share the things I'd seen, the places I'd been, with my loved ones back home, wished that they could be beside me to experience and take in the memories together. It wasn't all moping around the apartment though, and, in between my trips to other parts of Asia, I often set my eyes on a side of Hong Kong that was, and is, decidedly un-city. I spent a day with family at the Mai Po Nature Reserve, a large wetland area right up against the border with China, in the furthest north of what can be called Hong Kong. We walked along raised dirt paths surrounded by tree-lined waterways that stretched into the distance, and hobbled across narrow boardwalks that meandered through swamps and vast mud flats. Situated at the estuary of the Sham Chun and Shan Pui Rivers, the reserve is home to over 90,000 migratory birds in the winter. Access to the wetlands is restricted to tours organized by the Hong Kong chapter of the World Wildlife Fund, and for good reason. Increasing urbanization in Hong Kong and across the border in Shenzhen is seen as a likely factor in the rise in pollution within the confines of the wetlands. Caught between two of southern China's mega-cities, Mai Po serves as a relative oasis of tranquility in the rapidly developing Pearl River Delta - one that the region sorely needs.



A few weeks later, during another long stretch of in-between in Hong Kong, I took a series of buses out to the Sai Kung region of Hong Kong. Located in the far eastern section of the New Territories, its rugged terrain and pristine beaches have remained largely undeveloped, making it a popular getaway for the city's urban population. I had wanted to hike the main trail through Sai Kung, the MacLehose, and end at Tai Long Wan, considered by many to be the most beautiful beach in Hong Kong. About halfway through the hike, however, I took a sharp detour past a rusting warning sign, and scrambled up the side of an adjacent hill. As I got to the top, a landscape of rolling brown hills opened up in front of me, and I spent the next hour or so traversing the hillsides. In the distance, the deep blue of the Pacific shimmered in Hong Kong's winter sun, and a stiff breeze blew across the hilltops and over the shallow bays and inlets that mark Sai Kung's windy coast. When I had reached the top of the highest hill, though still in the shadow of Sharp Peak, the dominant feature that towers above the aforementioned Tai Long Wan, I sat down on a nearby rock and took in the scene before me. A good ten to fifteen minutes went by, and as the light began to fade, I stood up and started to make my way back.


I spent many a lazy afternoon with my feet up on the Kowloon piers, watching the timeless green and white Star ferries criss-cross Victoria Harbour underneath Hong Kong's incomparable skyline. It was probably during one of those afternoons that I began to play around with the idea of moving to Asia for good. The lack of ties in Toronto that allowed me to go on holiday for three months without seemingly missing a beat seemed as good a reason as any to extend my time abroad. In my last few weeks in town, in fact, through a series of meetings and interviews, I found myself being offered a job as a technical writer with a local IT company, and suddenly the decision took on an unexpected urgency. But I digress. Months before any of this would take place, before I even dreamed of being able to live and work abroad, I was back at the Hong Kong International Airport. After ten days in Hong Kong, I was about to begin my second leg of the trip: two-and-a-half weeks in the tropical city-state of Singapore.

Posted by ErnieHK 18:50 Archived in Hong Kong Comments (0)

Ernie Goes to the Beginning

It starts with a pack of hockey cards

To the extent to which the term wanderlust can be applied to a risk-averse individual with a general preference for toilet seats and running water and other suburban amenities so essential to a mundane and settled lifestyle - I have it. I can remember the exact moment in which that part of me was first realized, sitting on my bed as a newly-minted hockey fan, browsing through my burgeoning collection of cheap cardboard hockey cards. It was here that I learned that Gretzky was not, in fact, from Los Angeles, that Messier was not a native New Yorker, and that Fetisov had plied his trade in distant Moscow before ending up in Detroit - across the river from my own hometown of Windsor. The realization that people actually moved around, that where you were born was not necessarily where you would end up, was a powerful idea that found a fertile home in my young mind. The fact that I came from an immigrant family - my mom had come to Canada by way of Shanghai and Hong Kong, my dad by way of Hong Kong, California, and Minnesota - should have tipped me off, but childhood has its own set of blinders. In that moment, tucked into my own corner of the world on the snowy margins of Toronto, where my family had moved soon after I was born, something was switched on in me that could not be switched off.

My family traveled more than the average family, I think. It seemed like every year we would decamp to Hong Kong for two to four weeks at a time, shuttling from one family home to another, the entirety of the city seen through the rain-spackled windows of the ubiquitous red taxicab. There were other trips to Australia - more family - and even a couple of jaunts around Europe, a place that always appeared to be further in my mind's eye than in actual fact. Closer to home, we doubled down on cheap cruises in the Caribbean and yearly road trips up and down the eastern seaboard, with more than a few flights cross-country to sunny California thrown in. I grew up expecting to be somewhere else, both in the future and in the short-term, but I had no idea how it would play out as I entered university and, unexpectedly, pursued a Master's degree in Anthropology.

Graduate school was not kind to me. I passed, and I've got the degree tucked away in a plastic bag in my room to prove it, but the experience had shaken up my admittedly feeble plans to continue in academia. Meanwhile, friends around me had had a few years head-start to build up their careers and invest in families and houses and cars and other staples of adulthood. Feeling a bit left behind, but not particularly bothered by it, I saw my window to be somewhere else open up in front of me - I was free of any ties of the academic, financial, or relationship sort, and it seemed as good a time as any to answer the call to distant shores. So in December of 2008, a couple of weeks before Christmas, I packed my bags, took the last of my university funding, and boarded a plane to a place both familiar and unfamiliar - Hong Kong. What was supposed to be a three month backpacking trip turned into six-plus years of living and working and traveling around Asia.

Looking back now, there are some regrets, or perhaps, more accurately, without all the negative feelings attached to the term, there are things that I wished had turned out differently. I've missed a lot of weddings, including those of family members and my closest childhood friends, and I've been absent from the lives of their children as well. I haven't been home for Christmas since 2007, and I've lost count of the number of holiday get-togethers from family and friends that I've witnessed unfold on newsfeeds and group chats that are a poor facsimile of the real thing. But in return, I've received much. I've experienced that true wonder, I've felt the tickle of marvel in my lungs and diaphragm as my breath catches, I've gotten that itch to be somewhere else and I've had the freedom and the opportunity to satisfy that itch many times over. So no, no regrets, actually. I started in Windsor, and ended up somewhere else, with someone else, and I am content. What I write here is a record of the various travel itches that I've satisfied since that fateful backpacking trip, and a self-guided narrative on where Ernie goes.

Posted by ErnieHK 15:10 Comments (0)

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