This article was first published in the Huffington Post on December 19, 2016.
Visibility was almost nil. The howling sandstorm rendered walking along the narrow ridge almost impossible; engulfing us in a dense cloud of razor-sharp, golden sand particles. The gale-force winds roared furiously from all sides, ramming into us, imperiously demanding we get off this 600-metre mega-dune, at once! Balancing precariously on the spine of this gigantic, shifting monster, our team of 12 women carried on resolutely, ignoring the angry storm, carefully putting one foot in front of the other. As we advanced in close formation, trying in vain to use the person in front of us as a human shield, I realised we had no choice but to keep moving forward. If we turned back, we would simply find ourselves in the same impossible predicament. Squinting through my goggles while battling with the straps of my backpack, which were flapping wildly in the wind and whipping my face, I said a silent prayer that the next gust of wind wouldn’t carry me off the mountain.
Our crossing of the Dasht-e Lut of Iran (otherwise simply known as the Lut desert) in November 2016 was nothing short of surreal. In truth, it was breathtaking, challenging and ultimately, transformative. Under the banner of ‘Women On A Mission’, a non-profit organisation, which supports and empowers women survivors of war around the world, we became the first all-female team in history to cross the Lut desert on foot.
In 1271, the legendary Marco Polo journeyed through the Lut, as did British explorer, Wilfred Thesiger, in 1964 — but both used camels. Our team covered more than 200 kilometres in seven days, across a magnificent and varied landscape, which boasts wildly contrasting temperatures and climates. The Lut is truly exceptional and full of contradictions. From the sweltering heat of the mega-dunes to the icy cold nights in the valley of the Kaluts (sandcastle-like rock formations), from the salt plains cracked by the fierce sun, to the sand storms blasting through the meteorite craters, the desert kept us captivated by its raw beauty and versatility.
In Persian, ‘Lut’ means ‘emptiness’. This immense expanse of sand is home to the hottest recorded temperatures on Earth. Global satellite surveys once registered ground temperatures of 70.7 degrees Celsius. “NASA scientists say it’s the closest thing we have to the planet Mars“ declared Mehrdad, our Iranian guide, as we strode across the Eye of the Lut. The Eye is a massive crater believed to have been formed when a large meteorite struck the earth. Mehrdad proceeded to point out the similarities between the Lut and Mars; the scorching temperatures, unyielding aridity and the sheer force of the winds, which converge from all four directions at once, causing the formation of massive star-shaped sand dunes, which radiate across the desert plains.
During our voyage, despite the long and tiring days of trekking, the team stayed positive, motivated and fiercely determined. We were up every day at 4:30am and on the road by 6am. Majestic and imposing, the dunes lead us up their sinewy paths, charming us at every turn with promises of vistas more awe-inspiring than the last. On most days, we hiked till sunset, averaging a distance of 30 kilometres a day, made more tiring because of the uneven sandy terrain. A steady rhythm was maintained, alternating 50 minutes of fast-paced walking with a 10-minute break and so on. This gave us a good cadence throughout the journey, with a short stop for lunch, usually around noon. Then onwards again, charging ahead all afternoon, lured by the serpentine curves of the Lut’s hypnotic landscape. Walking, walking and more walking... The days seemed endless.
As the last thin rays of sunlight glimmered and our shadows lengthened against the amber-coloured sand dunes, we knew our daylight hours were running out. We resisted the temptation to stop for more pictures and picked up the pace in order to reach the camp before nightfall. Upon arrival, our individual tents still needed to be set up, and our preference was not to do so in total darkness. Once the tents were up, those who still had some energy tried their best to “de-sand”, treat blisters and other sores. Since showers were not an option, we freshened up using wet wipes in the privacy of our tents. By day two, I had given up trying to brush the sand out of my hair, which had turned into the driest, straw-like mass imaginable.
Once everyone had settled into camp, our guides would then serve tea and prepare a hearty dinner, which usually consisted of a bean and vegetable stew served with white rice. By 7:30pm, eyelids would begin to get heavy as we stared at the spectacular starry galaxies above. A few of us managed to extend our bedtime hour by drinking more tea and chatting around the campfire, but in truth, we were exhausted from the day’s exertion. Thus, after a quick visit to the “loos”, which were usually downwind and not too far from our camp, we’d drift off, one by one, and retire to our tents. By 8:30pm most of the campers were sound asleep, or if not, tossing and turning in their sleeping bags, trying desperately to ignore the aches and pains in their muscles and bones, praying the Gods of Sleep would soon arrive.
The next day, it would start all over again. A cacophony of different alarm clocks would go off at around 4:30am. Torches were strapped back onto the sleepy, dishevelled heads, lighting up our green tents one by one like a cluster of glowing caterpillars. Next, as people struggled to get out of their sleeping bags and tents, the sounds of shuffling, packing, zipping and unzipping resonated across the camp, as if suddenly an army of giant plastic bags had descended on us.
The campsite slowly came out of its torpor; and inevitably, the sound of women chatting and giggling would ensue. Despite temperatures being close to zero degrees at this ungodly hour of the morning, the noises of a waking-up camp were strangely comforting. While we continued to move around drowsily, packing up our things and sorting out our backpacks, the deep voice of Mohammad, our guide (aka the-best-breakfast-chef-in-the-world) would bellow, “Ladies, your eggs are ready!” - and that never failed to put a smile on our faces.
Soon my fellow explorers and I were off again, fresh and ready to tackle another long day of hiking in the sand. Our group was eager to see what new sights and creatures we would encounter. There were a few lizards and dead birds on the way, and a slithering, sand-coloured snake zigzagged across our path one morning. We were told that over the past few years, drug smugglers from the nearby Afghan and Pakistani borders had used the southern part of the Lut as a travel route. Luckily, apart from a few wolf, fox and camel tracks, we encountered no other sign of life.
During this pioneering journey, our ‘Women On A Mission’ team grew closer. Beautiful bonds of friendship flourished, as we pushed our limits in the desert. Within the intimacy of our sisterhood, cut off from all communication with the outside world, we felt free to open up and share our hopes and dreams for the future. As the journey ended, the team was overjoyed and I shared in the genuine pleasure of our achievement; yet, a part of me didn’t want it to end. My emotions were conflicted. I felt slightly melancholic to be ending a routine and leaving a world that was like no other I had ever experienced.
Today, we come home to our families with more gratitude in our hearts than ever before and feel extremely privileged to be able to undertake such a journey by choice. Often during our trek, we thought of women who are less fortunate than us, who have to flee their country because of war or unrest, escaping with just the clothes on their back, crossing vast expanses on foot, uncertain of any future. It felt good to rally our strength in support for these women survivors of war.
In hindsight, if we had based our travel plans on what some of our friends and family had said about Iran, we probably would never have made it to the Lut. For decades, the county has been cast as the bogeyman of the Middle East by many in the West, for various reasons, one being Iran’s dire human rights record. Nevertheless, during our travels there, and especially during our time in Tehran, and in the towns of Birjand, Keshit and Kerman, we found the people to be incredibly kind, spontaneous and generous, with hearts of pure gold. Indeed, our own logistical ‘dream team’ in the desert (as we liked to call our guides) lead by Mehrdad and his brothers Babak and Mehdi, along with their friends Ali and Mohammad, looked after us with every care and attention. They treated us like little sisters and today, they have become dear friends for life.
We felt incredibly safe and warmly welcomed in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Its proud civilisation and rich cultural heritage are remarkable. Walking around the sublime, turquoise-tiled domes and minarets of the cities, the atmospheric teahouses, bustling bazaars, and of course, witnessing the sheer force and beauty of the Lut desert, contributed to weaving for us a rich tapestry of colours and experiences of magnificent proportions. Undoubtedly, we left a piece of our soul in the vast emptiness of the Iranian desert and with the people whom we came to know during our journey in this astonishing country. In the end, Iran surpassed all our expectations and gave us memories to treasure for a lifetime.
This ‘Women On A Mission‘ (WOAM) Iran expedition, has successfully raised over S$100,000 for Women for Women International (WfWI) UK - an independent humanitarian organisation, which provides women survivors of war, civil strife and other conflicts, with the tools and resources to move from crisis and poverty to stability and self-sufficiency.
WOAM, now in its fourth year of operation, has managed to raise a total of S$700,000 to date, in support of organisations that advance the position of women and girls around the world. Their past expeditions have been to Everest Base Camp in Nepal, Wadi Rum Desert in Jordan, the Tsum Valley in Nepal, the Yamal Peninsula of Siberia and Angkor Wat in Cambodia.
Photo credit: WOAM - with special thanks to teammate Sandra Lim
A version of this article was first published in the Huffington Post on April 22, 2016.
It seems fitting to share this story given the tragedy and destruction brought on by the 7.8-magnitude earthquake that struck Nepal just over a year ago. It is my way of paying tribute to the beautiful people of Nepal and to the Sherpas especially, who suffered heavy casualties that fateful day.
On the afternoon of April 25, 2015, the strong quake triggered an avalanche that crashed onto the Base Camp of Mount Everest, the world’s tallest mountain (8,848m). At least 22 people were killed in what is, to date, the deadliest disaster in Everest’s history.This tragedy had a personal significance for me, as only a few years before, in October 2012, a group of adventurous girlfriends and I decided to embark on a two-week trek to this very place, in an effort to raise awareness and funds for female survivors of war.
The climb, inspired by my friend and Everest summiteer Valerie Boffy, turned out to be a journey of a lifetime and a truly transformative experience for us all.
Everest Base Camp — from which countless attempts on the summit of the goddess of all mountains have been made and continue to be made every year — commands nothing but respect and humility. At an altitude of 5,364m, the Base Camp is higher than any mountain in Central Europe. Because of the region’s spectacular mountain peaks, the loyalty and friendliness of its inhabitants, and the long days of hard hiking needed to reach the Base Camp, mountain lovers consider this trek one of the most worthwhile on the planet.
The way up
The journey to Base Camp can take anywhere from 10 days to three weeks, depending on how many days of acclimatisation you allow. This trek is classified as moderate to difficult, but it is not the terrain or hours on the trail — between five to seven hours on average per day depending on the itinerary — that are the real difficulty; it is the altitude itself. You start off from the village of Lukla (2,800m above sea level) — a short scenic flight from Kathmandu — landing at Tenzing-Hillary Airport, incidentally considered one of the most dangerous airports in the world. On one side of the single runway, which has a 12 per cent gradient, you have the mountains, and on the other, sheer nothingness — a complete drop. So it was no surprise that when we landed there, we held our collective breaths and hung on tightly to our seats as the pilot came in for the precarious final approach.
While many of the routes through the mountains are arduous, there are ample places to rest and enjoy a meal along the way. Furthermore, it is almost impossible to get lost — all you have to do is ask a local the way to the next village on your route, and he or she will direct you. From Lukla, we made our way to the Sherpa capital of Namche Bazaar, which is 3,440m above sea level. Even the fittest people can be prone to altitude sickness, and warnings about this are plastered all along the way into Namche.
One of the highlights of the journey was an important acclimatisation stop at Ama Dablam Base Camp (4,570m).
Massive glaciers stretch beneath the cliffs that soar up above the camp, adding to the dramatic scenery around this stunning mountain peak.
Meeting the climbers and Sherpas living at the camp for weeks at a time — as they prepared for their assault on the summit of the mountain — gave us a real sense of how a fully active expedition camp operated.
An arduous journey
Our non-stop trekking soon began to take a toll on us. Three members of our all-female team were on antibiotics, fighting flu and hacking coughs. Two other teammates had to be put on oxygen at the last stop, Gorak Shep, which is 5,164m above sea level.
They had been suffering from pounding headaches for three days, even after taking doses of paracetamol. They were weak and very pale and their lips were bluish — clear symptoms of the onset of altitude sickness, an ailment not to be taken lightly.
Eventually, after receiving oxygen, our teammates felt marginally better, and having come this far, we decided to set off and accomplish our mission collectively. The added motivation, of course, was the fact that we had committed to taking on this challenge to support a very worthy cause. Thinking about the destitute women who had lost everything because of war and conflict helped us focus on the task at hand.
Our persistence paid off, and on a windy autumn afternoon, we finally clambered up the last few metres of uneven ground onto the shifting moraine leading to the Base Camp of Everest. A surge of elation filled our racing hearts: We had succeeded in accomplishing our goal as a team. After embracing and congratulating one another with moist eyes and throats tight with emotion, we began taking in the incredible view from this symbolic place.
Relishing the moment
Surrounded by majestic snowy peaks — a little breathless from both the excitement and the 50 per cent oxygen level in the air — it was hard not to imagine the mountain’s legendary climbers standing very close to where we stood.
Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay were the first to conquer Mount Everest in 1953, using the South Col route, forging a path through the treacherous Khumbu icefall, at our very feet. My teammates and I had been dreaming of this moment for many months while we were training hard to be in the best physical and mental shape possible for the demanding trek. Despite the sun shining brightly in the cloudless azure sky, it was a chilly minus 5 deg C at this altitude. Soon the sun would move behind the mountains and the temperatures would plummet to minus 15 to 20 degrees Celsius.
Looking back, the trek to Everest Base Camp was one of the most meaningful experiences of my life. It is an adventure I will always treasure and the reason I went on to co-found “Women On A Mission”, a non-profit organisation headquartered in Singapore, with my two teammates, Valerie and Karine. And while planning such a trip may be somewhat of a daunting prospect, especially given the devastation brought on by the recent earthquake, it is one way to support Nepal and its people and help its tourism flourish once again. The breathtaking vistas, the kindness of the local people and the sense of achievement and pride you gain at the end of the journey make it all worthwhile. Nepal leaves an imprint on the heart of those who visit, and never ceases to inspire.
36°C Below Zero -- Braving the Freezing Cold Arctic Circle with the Nenets Reindeer Herders of Siberia
Article first published in the Huffington Post on 14/01/2016
Its head facing east, the animal's eyes bulge out and its tongue hangs limply to one side as the rope around its neck, pulled by three broad-shouldered herders squeezes the remaining life out of it. Slowly its resistance weakens, its eyes are fixed on a point in the Arctic sky above, then suddenly, complete stillness. For centuries, the Nenets of Siberia have been living off reindeer meat and blood, utilizing every inch of the animal from hide to heart, to bone and antlers even -- nothing is ever wasted.
As soon as the animal is dead, the hide is meticulously removed and kept in one piece to be used for clothing. Then the feasting begins, and everyone starts to tear out pieces of kidney, liver, heart, or whatever parts they most enjoy, occasionally dipping and swirling the bits in the open carcass, which still holds the reindeer's warm blood. A small saucepan containing blood is passed around, and each one takes a turn to have a drink.
When it's my turn, I hesitate just for a moment. I grab the dripping saucepan, take a couple of small gulps and swirl the warm blood around my mouth to show that I appreciate the full flavor. It tastes salty and not at all unpleasant. I'm certain my eagerness to try these newfound treats is fueled by the fact my "Women On A Mission" teammates and I feel extremely privileged to accompany these exceptional people during a portion of their epic yearly migration across the frozen gulf of Ob, in northern Russia.
We are a team of nine women from Singapore, Dubai, London and Kuala Lumpur and ultimately, we've embarked on this adventure to raise awareness and funds for women survivors of war. By trekking in such hash conditions, we hope to inspire women to leave their comfort zone, their families and homes for a certain period of time, while pushing their limits in an effort to rally support for a worthy cause. Even if we could never claim to truly understand the suffering survivors of war go through, by doing something challenging, so alien to our own way of life, and dedicating it to these brave women, we believe we are standing in solidarity with them, and it gives us strength as we face the howling Arctic winds and debilitating temperatures of Siberia.
The Nenets of the Yamal Peninsula are among the world's oldest surviving true nomads. They are guardians of a style of reindeer herding that is the very last of its kind. In their language, 'Yamal' means 'the end of the world' and indeed, as we journey with them in this vast Arctic desert, along with their gigantic reindeer herds, we feel as if we are pioneers, standing at the very edge of humanity's first settlement.
On migration days, we are up at four a.m. helping the women dismantle the camp and load their belongings on the sledges, while the men go off to lasso the specially trained transport reindeer from the main herd. Once the reindeer are harnessed to each of the sleighs, the tribe is ready to go. Then begins the 20 to 25km journey to the next encampment, with the sleighs forming a 2km-long convoy snaking its way across the frozen landscape.
We won't eat or drink all day, or at least until the new camp is set up. It's overcast and so dreadfully cold. When the wind picks up and the snow begins to swirl violently around us, the temperatures plummet to minus 36 degrees Celsius. We are grateful for the reindeer fur coats and thigh-high boots the Nenets have lent us. However, in these extreme conditions, despite the many layers we wear, our extremities begin to feel dangerously numb. The biggest risk, as we spend close to 10 hours without shelter, is frostbite and hypothermia. We are aware that if our body's core temperature drops by just one or two degrees, hypothermia can set in, thus we keep a watchful eye on each other throughout the day for any early warning signs.
Once the camp is finally set up, it's time for warm tea and a feast of frozen fish and bread is laid out in front of us as we all pile eagerly into the chums (traditional conical tents made of reindeer hides) to warm up. Antonina, Yuri's mother, brings out the vodka, while the family's nine dogs curl up on the furs around us, watching expectantly for any scraps. She then begins to tell us about the rules. "In Nenets culture women have a lot of mystical powers," she begins. We are elated to hear this, then quickly realise there's more to it. "Anything to do with the birth-giving area of a woman's body can be harmful and is considered somewhat of a taboo," she explains.
We soon discover the laws of the tribe, as it relates to women: We are not allowed to step over men or any of their tools. If we come across one of the men's lassos or tools on the ground while walking through the camp, we must always walk around it and never over it, lest we incur horrible bad luck for the whole tribe. Additionally, we cannot cross or put our hand through the invisible line, which goes from the center of each chum all the way to the back of the tent and extends another 100 meters outside. Toileting activities have to be carefully conducted out of sight of any of the men, which in itself is a real challenge given the Nenets men are in constant motion, coming in and out of the camp from any side and at any time.
Additionally, the landscape around the camp is for the most part completely flat, thus our trips to the "toilet" turn into real treks of 200 to 300 meters or more, sometimes in knee-high snow. Furthermore, despite carefully planning our toileting expeditions with great precision and strategy, we discover, to our horror, that the reindeer crave the salt in our urine! Thus they constantly shadow us like ninjas and pounce on us when we are at our most vulnerable, with pants down, clinging without any success to the last shred of our dignity.
Other camp activities include chopping wood, in order to keep the stoves in the chums burning and drawing water through a manmade hole and pulling it back to camp on a sleigh. The work is constant and yet when we look up on occasion and take in the magnificent scenery around us, we are reminded of the extraordinary journey we are experiencing and drink in this otherworldly landscape, which keeps us quite literally spellbound.
Living with the Nenets is truly an unprecedented honor. As of today, just a handful of people have ever experienced travelling with them. We are in fact the largest group they've ever hosted and certainly the first all-female team to journey with them during a migration. And as the days go by, we learn to appreciate the tranquility of the boundless empty spaces, while the deafening silence of the frozen tundra keeps us suspended in time. The dramatic sunrises and sunsets are unforgettable; even if we often confuse the two, given the days are so short.
Despite the harshness of the environment, we adapt surprisingly well to our new way of life, but it's also because the Nenets are so hospitable, treating us like their daughters, making sure we are warm and well fed at all times. Yuri's pregnant wife Elena sees that I'm am about to step out of the chum to go herding with the men, who have made an exception by inviting our women's team to see how they move 10,000 reindeer across the tundra. I can't find my balaclava -- essential to avoid frostbite when riding on the snowmobiles to reach the herd. Elena quickly pulls off her own embroidered scarf and ties it tightly across my face to make sure the skin is protected, while whispering words of motherly concern in the Nenets language, as I run out.
Undoubtedly the proud Nenets people have cast a beautiful spell on us. The contrast with our comfortable, materialistic lives could not be more extreme. And despite the fact their world now also incorporates some modern items such as phones, generators and snowmobiles, their way of life remains pure and in many ways far richer and more meaningful than ours. By sharing the simplicity of their existence, the Nenets remind us of the importance of community and family for survival. Needless to say, as a result, this humbling experience will count as one of the highlights of our lives. The noble Nenets people of Siberia will remain in our hearts, unforgettable.
Article first published in the Huffington Post on 07/03/2016
In celebration of International Women's Day, I would like to share a letter I wrote to my daughters not long ago. It highlights what I value the most for them, as well as my hopes and dreams for their future.
My dearest daughters,
Ready or not, the day will come when you will become women and leave our home. Nevertheless, despite the years and great distance separating us, you will always remain my darling girls. Thus, I only ask that you keep this letter close to your heart.
Remember to love yourself always, with all the qualities and imperfections you may have. Never forget that you are worthy of love, kindness and respect. Don't settle for anyone who treats you any less than you deserve. Self-esteem is the key to being whole and happy.
Dare to live life to the fullest, go after your dreams even if you don't know yet what that looks like. Choose to do something you are deeply passionate about, you will find joy and fulfillment by living life this way.
Find ways to challenge yourself continuously, and don't be afraid to try new things, because this is how you will grow and blossom as the years go by. Choosing to do something outside of your comfort zone will ignite talents you didn't know you had.
Live with no regrets and let go of guilt. Learning to forgive yourself when you don't get it right or make mistakes is the best thing you can do to be truly at peace.
Travel whenever you can, because you will come to know yourself better and discover how full of wonders and beauty the world really is.
Apply yourself at your chosen career and always conduct yourself with integrity. Remember that every single one of your actions shows who you are and what you value.
Be thankful for all that you have and for all that you have received. The happiest people are not those who wish they had more, but those who feel they have enough.
Strive for goals, but don't choose someone else's definition of success. Instead, have the courage to define success on your own terms. Your uniqueness is your power.
Develop the spiritual side of your life and practice compassionate love, by giving back to those who need it most. Remember that with great privilege comes great responsibility.
Lastly, invest in the meaning and purpose of your existence, and find a way to live a life that matters - a life that empowers and uplifts others with kindness and true generosity of spirit. This is what will give you the greatest satisfaction in life. It won't happen by chance, the choice will only be yours to make.
So when the time comes, dare to make those brave choices and strive to live a life that matters and that is true to your heart.
I love you.
This article is a 'Guest Chapter' in Catharine Patha’s book, entitled Roaming - Living & Working Abroad in the 21st-Century, published in January 2016.
When I was five years old, I moved from tropical and warm Manila to a cold and rather austere French country town north of Paris. At the time, my father had decided to pursue a business opportunity with one of his uncles in France, and as a result, he uprooted the whole family, and this is how I came to experience my first move abroad.
Although often very exciting, relocating to a new country is never easy. During the first few months after you arrive, many factors can affect how you adjust. It can depend on where you’ve moved from, and how it compares to where you’ve moved to. What stage of your life you’re at; if you are an experienced “relocator” or if this is your first move abroad. And of course, it helps if you speak the local language and are familiar with the new culture. All these variables can dramatically impact how you experience the initial integration period in the new country.
In this particular case, I was obviously NOT an experienced relocator, but I did luckily speak the local language fluently, given my French father and my Filipina mother had made French the language of our family home in Manila. However, what was somewhat of a shock to me was the dramatic change in our lifestyle. All I had known till then had been a beautifully warm and sunny country, with cheerful, smiley people and a happy somewhat privileged lifestyle, filled with birthday parties, outings at the country club, and my mother’s large and loving family always close at hand.
For me, moving to France was akin to a 180 degree change in lifestyle. In fact, it was my very first experience with culture shock. Soon after we arrived, I started my schooling at a local public school. The French education system seemed strict and more punitive than what I had known in my American-style kindergarten in Manila. Despite the beauty of the short European summer months, the cold and dark winters also took some getting used to. We lived in a big house on the edge of a dark forest and occasionally I felt a little isolated. Furthermore, I could sense my mother’s longing for the support of her family and friends back in the Philippines, but it also didn’t help that my father was often away on long business trips abroad.
Despite all these challenges, after many months, we finally adjusted to this new life and found many things to enjoy and love about France. Eventually, we made the most of our four years there, before moving back to live in the Philippines once again.
Today, I have lived in a total of five countries and in seven different cities around the world. In my opinion, regardless of if you are a child or an adult, it really does take at least six to 12 months (minimum) to settle into a new life abroad. Even if you do speak the language and have a structure in place when you arrive – such as a new school or job for instance – culture shock can work in mysterious in ways.
It is also important to note that your state of mind prior to the relocation may play a pivotal role in how you experience your first few months in a new country. Was this a personal choice? Were you reluctant to move or did you specifically ask to be transferred? Generally speaking, when the move wasn’t strongly desired to begin with, a certain period of “mourning” for the past life may also coincide with the first few months in the new country. If this is the case, then it may unfortunately make the adjustment period more difficult and emotionally challenging at the onset.
Two months after my 18th birthday, I moved from Manila to Tokyo to attend University. I had never set foot in Japan before, and I didn’t even know much about this country’s great history and culture. I spoke not a single word of Japanese, had never been interested in studying the language, and didn’t even like the taste of Japanese food. If truth be told, I had in fact, no desire at all to go to Japan.
Of my 200 plus classmates at the international school in Manila, I was the only one who ended up going to Tokyo for university. The majority of my friends went on to study in Europe or in the United States. Going to Japan to study was entirely my parents’ enlightened decision. They believed with a strong conviction that I would benefit from this unique life experience and from the added bonus of learning the Japanese language.
So off I went, on my own, to the land of the rising sun, without really knowing what to expect. I could never have foreseen the kind of massive culture shock I was about to experience. Here I was, a cocky-know-it-all 18 year- old expat-brat, who thought she was an Asia-veteran, having lived a total of 14 years in the Philippines, and completely unprepared for how different this new culture was going to be. For starters, to my surprise, people in Japan seemed to be following ALL the rules. Moving from Manila, where traffic lights are a mere suggestion, to Tokyo, where the only people who dare to jaywalk are from the local mafia called Yakusa, was a very strange and novel experience to say the least.
Furthermore, during my freshman year at university, I lived in a strict all-girls dormitory run by stern Japanese nuns. All activities were severely regimented and everyone had to be up and dressed, ready to clean the dormitory communal areas, such as toilets and showers, every morning at eight AM sharp. Having grown-up with a somewhat privileged lifestyle in Manila, with maids and drivers at my beck and call, this alteration in my way of life did take some serious getting used to. Additionally, I often felt frustrated because despite studying the language for hours on end every single day, I was unable to communicate in Japanese till about six months into my stay there. It was only after I spent two weeks working on a Japanese farm in the southern island of Kyushu, where I was forced to speak the language constantly, without any other foreigners in sight, that I finally made a breakthrough with the language. I came back to Tokyo dreaming in Japanese. And in this particular case, I can confirm that total immersion really does work!
In the end, my time in Japan turned out to be a truly humbling but incredibly rich and formative experience. All in all, I lived in Tokyo close to six years, and although I did eventually get used to my new life, and succeeded in speaking the language with fluency, I truly believe that up until the very last few months of my stay there, I was in many ways still adjusting.
Ultimately, when moving countries, the differences between the old and the new culture suddenly become more obvious, and may even cause much anxiety. Getting used to these changes can be mentally exhausting, as it was for me in Japan in the early years. New stimuli, day in and day out, often resulted in chronic mental and physical fatigue. There is so much more to take in and to digest. Changes in weather, food, medicine, language and customs can heighten the sense of disconnection with your surroundings. One may also feel very lonely or homesick because of the lack of friends and support. Language barriers easily become major obstacles and make everyday ordinary tasks much more difficult and stressful.
Nevertheless, in most relocation cases, if one is genuinely excited about moving to a new country, the first three months are usually referred to as the “honeymoon” period. Everything is new and shiny: new food, local habits, pace of life etc….most people are fascinated by the new culture and excited by their fresh discoveries. But like most honeymoons, this phase eventually comes to an end, and reality tends to quickly set in.
When I first moved to the west coast of the United States from Japan in my early twenties, I felt exactly as if I was on a honeymoon. I had been dreaming of living and working in America, and everything was different and exciting to me. Things were much cheaper and more affordable than in Tokyo, and I felt spoiled for choice in local departments stores and supermarkets. Working in marketing for a company such as Nike was a thrilling experience, and I found that Americans had a straightforward and practical work ethic that was easy to adapt to. People valued go-getters and hard-workers, and it wasn’t about spending long hours at the office like in Japan or in France, but rather about being as productive as possible with your time.
Furthermore, in contrast to Japan, where group consensus was often given consideration, I quickly learnt that in the United States, if you didn’t speak up in meetings, it was almost akin to having no opinion. But apart from some adjustments in the work environment, my new life was much easier to get used to, than it had been for me moving to Japan. Language was not an issue. Culturally, it was quite similar to the Philippines, which was once a US colony. And except for a few local customs that were new to me – such as hugging people (even new acquaintances), speaking quite loudly in public places, the huge food portions at restaurants, and being carded at the supermarket even if just to buy a six-pack of beer – settling in was not too difficult, and much easier once I developed a routine.
This is why I believe that no matter what country you move to, it usually takes several months to a year to settle in. As habits begin to form, life starts to seem more “normal”. Having a routine can be very comforting for many people. Familiarly is reassuring and calming, and one begins to create a new life, with friends and acquaintances. You may start to find favourite places to eat or to shop at. Your neighbourhood can also finally become more familiar and thus make you feel more welcome and at home. This is when you really begin to settle into your new life.
When I moved to Paris, New York and more recently to Singapore, I also experienced these various stages of culture shock. Despite the fact that language was not an issue, until I found my way around and familiarized myself with the new cities’ unique characteristics, I felt in a state of transition, and in fact quite unsettled.
In my view, during this early important stage, one’s general attitude, outlook and state of mind is in actuality the key to making integration into the new country a success (or not) in the long term. If you manage to adapt to the aspects of the host culture while keeping a positive attitude, and if you are able to maintain some of your own unique cultural habits and preferences, while also incorporating bits of local culture into your new lifestyle, then you are undoubtedly on your way to assimilating effectively into your new country of residence.
Over the years, during the numerous migratory periods of my life, I’ve come across countless incidents which contributed to moments of culture shock. Nevertheless, what I always find interesting, and often very entertaining, are the differences in each country’s attitude to the following universal subject matters: work, success, education, pregnancy and giving birth, service, alcohol, hygiene, courtship, food, the list goes on and on. If you try to keep an open mind and view these differences as learning opportunities, you will discover a wealth of knowledge in social and intercultural variations that can only enrich your view of the world.
Take the subject of pregnancy for example, as I reflect on the three countries where I’ve experienced these important stages of my life – in the United States, France and in Singapore – I can think of countless episodes which were truly amusing and culturally diverse. In France for instance, as a pregnant woman, I was told NOT to exercise and that I could drink a little wine and have coffee everyday if I felt like it. In contrast, my American obstetrician insisted I exercise regularly and not touch a single drop of alcohol or caffeine under any circumstance!
In Singapore, I was asked to pack comfortable loose clothing to wear for the day I would leave the hospital to take my newborn baby home. In France however, pregnancy books advise that you pack a nice dress, make-up and a pair of shoes with low heels for the day you leave the hospital with your baby. There are countless other examples which are all part of the learning experience of being a roamer such as myself. And ultimately, it is about wanting to embrace the rich diversity of human cultures around the world. As the American novelist Henry Miller once counselled, “Develop interest in life, as you see it, in people, things, literature, and music – the world is so rich, simply throbbing with rich treasures, beautiful souls and interesting people.”
In some ways, adjusting successfully to a new home is in reality about finding your own unique blend of cultures and taking the best parts from your personal background and interweaving them effectively with the host nation’s unique local flavour. Doing this takes time and patience. No matter how experienced you are or how cosmopolitan you think you have become, it can’t be rushed. Give yourself a good six to 12 months to adjust, but most important, remain open-minded, and I am convinced that you will eventually get settled in quite nicely indeed.
This article was first published in Sense & Style Magazine Philippines
Has courtship become a thing of the past? Is it deemed out-dated to let men do the chasing? While some men seem to drag their feet in relationships, others chase and commit.
Courtship used to be vital for a man to earn a lady’s consideration. Not so long ago it was expected that the male should actively “court” or “pursue” the female, thus encouraging her notice of him and her openness to a proposal of marriage. This notion of the gender roles of males and females in courtship may have altered in today’s modern society, nevertheless, might an updated version of it not be the best way to get the right man to chase and commit to you?
We all know women who seem to constantly be dating the “wrong guy”. Men who undervalue and take them for granted. While some women accept this kind of treatment from the men in their lives, are they not as much to blame for the fact the men are reluctant to commit to them? Some women it seems stay in dead end relationships because they’ve convinced themselves that there is a shortage of good men out there, so they're just thankful to have “somebody”. Sadly, some would even rather be in a bad relationship, than have no relationship at all.
A while ago, I met such a woman. Juliette was 36 and dreaming of marriage and children. Once quite an attractive girl, she now had an air of sadness caused by a life spent too long disappointed by failed relationships. Eric, the man she shared her life with for the past five years, was in no hurry to commit to her. Juliette was still madly in love with him, while he was simply happy to have her around. Travelling to all four corners of the world, Eric had a promising financial career, and at 37 he felt the world was his oyster. Juliette on the other hand, had a mediocre marketing job at a publishing company that underpaid her and took advantage of her accommodating personality.
As the month and years began to fly by, the ticking of Juliette’s biological clock became louder and more deafening. She felt the increasingly urgent need to bring up their future plans together. In those instances, Eric would be incredibly uncomfortable and simply try to change the subject. And while poor Juliette made her hints of yearning for a marriage proposal more and more obvious, Eric began to feel increasingly distant. In fact, her strategy would always backfire and he would end up declaring in an icy voice, that he didn’t feel ready and that he needed more time. The subject would then be dropped, but every time it was raised, it chipped at their already stale relationship, which was rapidly and unavoidably coming to a dead end.
Does this story not sound vaguely familiar? Juliette is just one of the many of women out there who has chosen to keep waiting for the man in her life to commit to her, while wasting the best years of her life and sinking into depression. Many women find it hard to leave the man they are with because they've formed a "habit" of being with him, or because they think that they can change their companion in time. In some cases there is fear of embarrassment, or pressure from family and friends. But unfortunately, many people are simply afraid of being alone.
It's clearly a flawed relationship when it centres only on sex or when there is no sense of belonging, loyalty or trust. Other signs of a bad relationship are estrangement, disrespect, no communication, no laughter and of course no exchange of values, dreams or goals. Co-dependency is also a classic sign of why a person settles for a bad relationship. When one feels that they cannot continue to exist without the other person, even though they’re miserable with what's happening between the two of them. And when it comes to holding on to a pitiful relationship, the psychologists agree that between the two sexes, women probably wait the longest before giving up. Boys and girls are often raised differently. Boys are given more chances to experiment and sow their wild oats, so to speak; consequently, they find it easier to search for other alternatives because they've been allowed to do so. In many countries, even the most developed, girls are still educated to be “nice” and occasionally even “dutiful”; as a result, they lack that sense of empowerment and the conviction to feel that they deserve a healthier and better relationship. Thus although it is sometimes easier in relationships to blame the man for not committing, who can really blame him for keeping a girl around who sleeps with him without expecting much in return?
In earlier centuries, young adults were required to court with the intention of finding a marriage partner, rather than for social motivations. In recent years, conventional dating has progressed and taken on the properties necessary to sustain itself in today's society. This can be seen in the rise of Internet dating, speed dating, blind dating and the rapid growth of apps like Tinder, Hitch around the world. Some speculate that courtship as it was known to prior generations, has seen its last days and that now the roles are often reversed with women doing the courting and sometimes even the chasing.
Yet thousands of centuries of evolution haven't changed human nature and even the most knowledgeable of women daters will have stumbled upon male behaviour that defies belief. “He acts like an absolute Caveman!” she may declare. And do you know? She isn't far from the truth. Why? Simple, man is a hunter; that is what he was intended to do -- Hunt.
This in essence means that in the dating world, the man wants to hunt you, even if you are the easiest prey on earth. Women overlook this reality and ignore it at their own risk and peril. To get the man you want, you have to make them pursue you and believe they have achieved something when they finally get to put their arms around you and give you that first kiss. They need to feel proud when they finally have you on their arm. If that sense of triumph is missing, your hunter will go on searching and you will be left on the sidelines.
The dating world is filled with opportunities to play both the role of the hunter and the hunted. While many people enjoy the thrill of chasing down prey, it's often more desirable to be the one being chased. Learning to attract and keep a man's attention is the key to getting a man to chase you. But to get a man to chase you, you first need to be “chase worthy”. Do you have your own convictions, beliefs you stick to? Do you take care of yourself physically, emotionally, and mentally? And you don't have to be a conventional beauty at all. Do you enjoy your job and have interesting hobbies and friends? Do you have your own purpose in this world? A man will do the courting, if there is something to court. Men are generally attracted to upbeat personalities that have a passion for life. Nothing is sexier than an intelligent woman who is dynamic and who has an interesting and full life. Men love a woman who can make them laugh and who doesn’t take herself too seriously, but who is also a good listener, a loyal friend and creative in her own way. Showing appreciation for what he does for you in terms of his courting is always a way to ensure he will try to make you happy and proud of him again, by continuing to court you and surprise you in the future.
Being positive is also a big winner for most people and not just for men. Who wants to be bogged down with someone who has tons of emotional baggage and lots of negativity? Ultimately, self-respect is probably one of the most important and key attributes for any relationship to grow and flourish. Why would a man value a girl if she does not value herself enough to look and be at her very best, and vice versa? To get him interested in the first place, a girl must be attractive, but more importantly she must emit positive and confident energy and her own brand of charm and sexiness. The great Irish writer and poet, Oscar Wilde, once declared that as a man “It’s beauty that captures your attention; Personality which captures your heart.”
And this quote, in my opinion, embodies exactly what attracts men and keeps them interested. The more men pursue and chase, the more rewarded they will feel when they at long last succeed. And without doubt our hunter will calm down and give up hunting. But only if his lady makes him feel like he has conquered and attained his true love. At this moment our hunter thinks he has captured his lady all by himself, but perhaps, could it just be, that she let herself be caught?
Men like to pursue and conquer something, be it your admiration, respect, trust, sexual favours and of course your love. So if you want to tame your hunter, keep him chasing YOU girls! Continue to interest and intrigue him long after he thinks he has caught you. Persist in gently encouraging him to go on courting and chasing you, and he will feel more of a man for it. After all, is it not possible that men are the most uncomplicated of creatures? In the end whatever you do in the dating world, never EVER consent to be an easy catch.
This article was first published in Urban Nomads website.
Sonamarg, meaning the Meadow of Gold is a region in the Ganderbal district of the Indian state of Kashmir, and probably one of the most scenic treks I have ever undertaken in terms of pristine beauty and remoteness. Not only is it known for its green alpine meadows, rolling hills, and snowy Himalayan peaks, but the region is also celebrated for its stunning turquoise lakes and unspoilt meandering rivers.
Poised on the northwestern tip of India, at 2,800 metres of altitude, not far from the volatile and often unstable border with Pakistan, Sonamarg is a part of the world some travellers hesitate to explore, mainly because of the strange vagaries of the politics in this region. Yet its beauty is second to none, and there is so much diversity on offer in terms of landscapes, that it’s no surprise the area is compared to heaven on earth for adventure seekers.
Furthermore, Sonamarg has great historical significance as the gateway on the ancient Silk Road connecting Kashmir with China and other Gulf countries. The Zojila pass lies 15 kilometres east from here, and is one of the highest routes for road transport in the world. Additionally, the area is still used as a base camp for the Ladakh mountain pass, and is strategically important for the Indian army, who holds tight control over this part of the country.
From hiking, trekking, snow skiing, rock-climbing, to horseback riding, you can experience just about anything in this mountainous region of northern India. For example, the day this picture was taken, my trekmates and I were fortunate to catch a glimpse of an Asian black bear strolling nonchalantly at the foot of these mountains, weaving in and out of the alpine treeline, about 50 metres from where we were standing. As I held my breath savouring this rare sighting, it dawned on me just how unforgettable this instance was. Complete stillness…majestic beauty…it’s in these quiet moments, suspended in time, that I feel the most grateful to be alive.
The original version of this article was first published in Harper’s Bazaar Magazine Singapore.
Five and half years ago, I met my second husband. He was 34, single, never married, and out on the town for a good time. On our first meeting, little did he know that I had a six-year-old daughter and four-year-old son waiting for me at home—and an ex-husband living in a different flat but in the same building as mine. After the breakup of our ten-year marriage, my ex-husband and I consulted a child psychologist who advised us that living in such close proximity to each other would be the least traumatic for the children. It would give them some form of stability, knowing that although they now lived primarily with their mother; their father was very close and accessible at any time.
Today, my second husband and I are happily married and have two children of our own, a four-year-old son and a two-year-old little girl. All four children live in our home, while my ex-husband still lives a few floors above from us. The older children view their father’s flat almost as the upstairs part of our home and zoom up the service lift, several times a day, to see him when he is in town. Weekend sleepovers at his place are made easy for them with little, if any, changes to their daily schedules. My two younger children often accompany the older two to visit their “Uncle” in his flat upstairs. They feel equally at home there and occasionally even share their meals with him. In their innocent eyes, he is an important member of our family. But it is the sight of my ex-mother-in-law and my mother-in-law cheerfully chatting together at one of the children’s birthday parties that I still find incredible. My mother-in-law, a phenomenal cook, sometimes invites my ex-husband over for dinner with her and the children when she’s in Singapore to babysit, while my husband and I are away on holiday. Most people look at our setup and think, “How bizarre. Why would anyone want to live this way, in such close proximity to an ex-husband—or an ex-wife, for that matter?” The answer is simple. “It takes a village to raise a child.”
There is much wisdom in this old African proverb. The proverb is from the Igbo and Yoruba regions of Nigeria where it’s believed that raising a child is a communal effort. The responsibility lies not only with the parents, but also with the extended family, and in some cases, the community. And this is a proverb that my ex-husband, my husband and I have taken to heart, especially now during the formative years of our children’s upbringing. In addition to the mother, the father and the step-father raising the children, every other family member and close friend has a role to play. The larger the community, the better for the child. Every member of this extended family can impart wisdom and tradition that children are extremely receptive to. Rich human interactions make up the fabric of their childhood memories, culture, morals, sense of right and wrong and responsibility, which they will take with them on the road to becoming young adults.
Of course, as one reflects on this quite unconventional modern living arrangement, it is obvious that this requires a certain type of individual who can look beyond the petty differences of opinions, the bruised egos and the emotional volatility that inevitably come with any divorce. It helps if the second husband, as it is in my case, is not responsible for the breakup of the first marriage; nevertheless, ultimately, it is about putting the children first, and our feelings a distant second. Beyond the sense of failure, frustration and self-pity that may dominate the emotions of the adults after a divorce, it is the children’s fragile feelings and nascent self-confidence that really need to be placed at the centre of this complex situation.
My eight-year-old son once declared, “When I grow up and become a famous professional football player, I will buy a big house where all of us can live together!” When probed, he told me what “all of us” to him meant: his father, his step-father, his mother, brother, sisters and all grandparents, including step-grandparents and nannies! In his young mind, there should be no impediment for this situation to one day become a happy reality. In the meantime, we may not be living in the same house, but living in the same building is as close as it will ever get. It’s not uncommon to see my husband and ex-husband chatting by the pool while the children happily paddle and splash about them. It’s a scene that a few of our neighbours had to adjust to at first, when they learned of how our unconventional family unit works.
When I witness these heart-warming family moments, I simply thank my lucky stars for having picked two admirable and unique men in my life to have had children with. Both men have been able to put egos aside for the love, happiness and well-being of the children. This is what is at the heart of our family’s genuine partnership, and at the core of our big, beautiful village.
This article was first published in The Straits Times of Singapore.
ABOUT a year ago, I was lost in thought, contemplating the beauty of the sparkling Aegean Sea, from a balcony high above the cliffs. As I stared at the horizon, I felt as if I was sitting at the very edge of the world, at the foot of a heavenly gateway, far from the realities of my usually purposeful life.
Indeed, I was on idyllic Santorini, the celebrated southernmost island of the Cyclades, just a few hours from the mainland of Greece. Directly ahead of me was the spectacular caldera — a cauldron-like lagoon formed by the collapse of land following a massive volcanic eruption some 3,600 years ago.
Lawrence Durrell, the 20th-century expatriate British novelist, who spent his childhood on the island of Corfu, once wrote: “It is hardly a matter of surprise that few, if any, good descriptions of Santorini have been written: the reality is so astonishing that prose and poetry, however winged, will forever be forced to limp behind.”
Thus, it is no surprise that the exquisiteness of the island has a way of plunging those who visit into a trance-like state. And there are many who still believe today, that Santorini was once Atlantis, one of the most mythical lands ever described, and mankind’s oldest lost paradise.
A childhood dream
All throughout my childhood, I had heard about the beauty and unique charms of Santorini from my mother. She had been fortunate to vacation on the island in the late 1960s, before it became internationally famous as a holiday destination. Despite the modernity that has taken over this island almost 40 years since mum’s first visit, I was not disappointed in the least. In fact, much to the contrary, I too, became completely and utterly enamoured. My husband and I stayed in Santorini for a few days to celebrate a special wedding anniversary.
During that time, we explored as much of the island as we could. We learnt that Santorini is home to one of the most significant excavation sites in the Mediterranean — Akrotiri. The ruins of this ancient town are well preserved because, like Pompeii, it was buried in a volcanic eruption. Additionally, we also discovered that there are close to 250 churches on the island, and that it only takes an hour and a half by car to traverse it lengthwise. The locals venerate the Virgin Mary, considered to be their guardian goddess, and are mostly of the Greek Orthodox and Catholic faiths.
Indulging in Greek delights
As we took in the view of sea and sky on a quiet evening, awaiting one of the sunsets for which this island is so renowned, we made our way to a friendly taverna, where the owner served us a delectable dinner. He brought out a whole sea bass, baked in thyme salt crust, and drizzled with sage-infused olive oil, accompanied by a plate of perfect cherry tomatoes with Feta cheese, and a bowl of freshly roasted vegetables. For dessert, we devoured a ripe peach, sliced and garnished with fresh mint, served with a dollop of Greek yogurt, generously coated with local honey. And let me not forget the wines! Santorini’s volcanic soils produce notable vintages, whites especially, that are dry, citrusy and simply delightful.
The vineyard owners are welcoming and knowledgeable. Later in our stay, we spent a day bumping along dusty roads in our rented Jeep, strolling through rows of grapes and tasting the offerings. At another time during our holiday, we devoted the day to just walking up and down the cobblestone streets of the quaint town of Fira — relaxing, picking up charming little souvenirs, visiting churches, always eating magnificent food and taking in the beauty all around us.
Sailing the Aegean Sea
The highlight of the trip, however, was renting a magnificent 12m catamaran boat and speeding up and down the pristine coast with the sea wind on our faces, visiting neighbouring islands, and enjoying the hypnotic swell of the magnificent Aegean Sea. Lunch on the boat was unforgettable — we savoured wonderful local wines and feasted on an exquisite selection of native seafood, barbecued on board by our skipper, while we swam in the invigorating waters of the little cove where we had dropped anchor.
Naturally, it was very hard to leave this magical island, where sea and sky, heaven and earth, seem to meet in perfect accord.There are only a few places in the world where time stands still — surely this must be one of those rare havens. Santorini has unquestionably cast a spell on me, for there are times when I simply have to close my eyes and reminisce to feel that warm Aegean Sea breeze on my face, beckoning me to return.