That photo from Singapore

Those of you who follow me on Facebook might remember this strange photo that popped up about seven months ago. A handful of dark, South Asian faces smile pleasantly at the camera, held by a man at the end of a long table, adorned with a paper-plated feast. But on the right side of the table, the beaming smile of a goofy American might make one think this participant had been Photoshop’d in.

Yes, that goofy American was me. And I would bet a lot of money (at least a large proportion of what little I have) that none of you will recognize that place as being in the heart of the island city-state, Singapore. It was one of the many shenanigans I have gotten myself into during my global travels, and that day very much reminded me of the reason I enjoy such solo travels: I can get myself into such shenanigans that almost always make for a good story. I’ve told only a couple people this story, not for any effort to hide it. It’s just one of those stories that need a fair bit of explanation, and I haven’t had many opportunities.

So, here it is. The somewhat strange, but very enjoyable story of that one photograph from Singapore.

It was another adventurous day of couchsurfing. It was actually the only proper couchsurfing I did in Southeast Asia. It appears that the community hasn’t reached Malaysia and Singapore the way it has in China, Korea, and Japan. My host had gotten tied up with some work that he was trying to finish up with the last days of his current job, and so I was left to my own devices to wander the city. I was perfectly happy to do so. Singapore is very easy to get around, and it lives up to the hype when it comes to cleanliness.

I don’t chew gum anyway, so I wasn’t paying attention to whether or not they sell it.

I found my way to Little India. It wasn’t hard. There’s actually a subway stop called Little India. I wandered by one after another of overpriced restaurants. The selection was practically endless, but it was coming to the end of my trip, and I seem to have a habit of saving the most expansive places for last.

But I was suddenly stopped by a sign resting against a wrought iron fence. It said exactly what every hungry and stingy traveler wants to see:

“FREE MEDITATION CLASS”

Just kidding. It said “dinner will be provided” (or something to that effect). But having recently completed 10-day meditation retreat on Koh Pang An, Thailand, I was also interested in the meditation. It said that the class started at 6:00, so I wandered off for a bit, but I was careful not to go so far as to forget which street I had been on.

The sign had only been a printed poster, set out in front of an inauspicious and unmarked boutique. Beside it, a door was propped open, and it led only to stairs going directly to the first level. A piece of paper taped to the wall with “MEDITATION CLASS” printed at the top also told me instructions: take the stairs up to the first level, and then take the elevator to the third floor (also the roof). I followed cautiously and curiously. At the top of the stairs, I seemed to hit a dead end, but light from around the corner guided me around a sharp bend. The light was coming from the glass door of a jewelry shop. A smartly dressed salesman watched me blankly as I inspected the concrete walls around me. I had been led to the front of the elevator. I quickly pushed the button and waited without making eye contact with the black-suited young man.

The elevator carried me slowly up two floors and let me out into a short hallway, lit by the sunlight illuminating the rooftop to my left. A sign on the wall across from the elevator asked me kindly to remove my shoes. On the rooftop sat two rows of empty white plastic chairs facing an altar of sorts. On it, a picture of an Indian swami leaned against a temporary wall. Flowers adorned the photo, and a bunch of bananas sat on the corner of the altar. On a wide rug in front of the altar, a woman sat in full lotus position, rocking back and forth and chanting quietly. Her face was pained, her eyes were closed, and she paid no attention to me or the rumble of the elevator doors as they closed behind me. I slipped off my sneakers, peeled off my sweaty socks, tucked them inside, and pushed my shoes neatly against the wall.

I stepped silently over the threshold of the open gate onto the rooftop temple. I walked silently around the chairs, keeping my distance from the woman deep in prayer. No one else seemed to be on the roof, but I explored all there was to see. Around the corner, a narrow path led to the other side of the building. I could see a makeshift kitchen through hanging drapes. I approached, expecting to find someone preparing the promised meal.

Instead, I saw a pair of feet. Against the wall, a man in nothing but a pair of shorts and a tank top (in this kind of heat, even that much clothing is too much) stretched out, fast asleep. I padded slowly closer and spotted his compatriot a few yards away. I decided not to disturb the napping fellows and figured they would wake up when it was time to begin.

I walked back to the main area and surveyed the view. As sunset approached, it was quite beautiful to look over the rooftops. And a few floors from the street, it was very quiet.

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It was just past 6:00 by now, but I figured I could wait a bit longer. Having recently spent much longer blocks of time in silence, I had no problem pacing the tile floor, feeling the cracks and dirt with my bare feet. The dampened sounds of the street below and the packed city beyond made the rooftop peaceful, a veritable refuge.

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I paced slowly, staring out through the bars of the protective grate topping the low wall that surrounded the rooftop sanctuary.

Going back to the lessons I had learned at Wat Khao Tam, I started counting the rhythm of my steps.

One – lift, two – swing, three – place. Lift-step-place. Lift-step-place. Lift-step-place…

and so it went.

As I was rounding a corner, facing the hallway to the elevator, I heard it slide open and looked up. A middle-aged gentleman, dark of face and hair, with a long-sleeve button-down collared shirt and jeans, stepped through the gate, smiling. He paid only a glance at the woman still entranced on the floor and let her be. He turned to me. I smiled in return, and he approached me.

Unfortunately, I don’t remember his name, or anyone’s name from that day. None were familiar; simply collections of sounds that people identified with themselves. But I remember he was kind and genuine. He spoke softly in good but accented English. Where the accent was from, I could only guess, but his features told me he was Bengali.

He asked if I would like to begin. I was sort of confused because I thought more people would come. A young man, mustachioed and dressed in a T-shirt and shorts, had entered behind my interlocutor and was setting up a table in the back. I had no objection though, and he asked me to take a seat anywhere I felt comfortable. I chose the chair in the front row on the far right. I didn’t turn around to see if he was following me, a bit of military training that has stuck with me. It was the younger man who walked into my view.

He introduced himself and shook my hand. He said that the session would last about 45 minutes. I said that would be fine. Then he told me to close my eyes. I did so.

I felt the tip of his right thumb press forcefully but not aggressively into the spot directly between my eyes. His left hand rested calmly on my shoulder.

“Focus on this spot,” he said. “Do not stop focus on this spot. Do not open your eyes. Keep focus here. I will tell you when the session is finished.”

And then he disappeared.

I felt the skin between my eyes where he had pressed his thumb. It tingled gently and persistently. I felt my eyes slightly cross as I tried to focus on that spot. My hands rested gently in my lap, and my back fit comfortably along the curve of the plastic chair. I could hear mutterings in a strange language behind me and the soft chanting of the woman on the floor in front of me. I did not focus on those. I focused on the spot between my eyes.

Having had hours of practice recently, my focus stayed for quite some time, but within minutes it was wandering. How I had gotten there… which street I was on… that park I had walked by… there seems to be a lot of green for such a concrete jungle… and a lot of sports facilities… I found three pull-up bars within a short walk of my host’s apartment… I don’t think I’ve seen that many in all of Fort Collins… Americans are so lazy… but I don’t know how people exercise in this heat… I’m sweating sitting down. Sitting. Focus.

And back to the spot. It still tingled. Like he’d put a sticker there. I’m not much into the mystical parts of Buddhism or Hinduism, but this felt different than all the other times I’ve meditated. A lot different.

And the focus stayed. Until I heard a familiar and exhilarating sound. The sky was being torn in two. An angry god was ripping through the blue fabric above me. As it got closer, it moved faster, and as it passed, it stopped ripping, it rumbled like thunder in the cloudless sky. The thunder grew louder as the tail end of the low-flying F-16 pointed almost directly at me.

And then it turned, made another pass. And another. I could hear him wheel in long circles above the city. I wondered if I was right in my identification. I knew there was only one. I knew it was a single-engine fighter. But I couldn’t remember if Singapore had gotten their first F-35s yet. Or if they flew anything other than the F-16… what is he doing?… Why is he alone…? Is there a holiday today…?

Focus.

The roar of the jet faded away.

Minutes passed.

The elevator door opened, and a few voices chattered. A little girl came running onto the rooftop. She ran right by me. So close, I could feel the eddies of air fluttering from her dress. It startled me enough that I opened my eyes for a brief moment. But I closed them again without focusing on anything.

My heart rate was now up, and focused on that. Before I could calm my nervous system, I jumped again when a hand landed softly on my shoulder, marking the end of 45 minutes that had passed in what felt like seconds. I looked up into the smiling face of the older gentleman.

“That was very good,” he said.

“Yeah, that was amazing,” I replied.

He asked me to come to meet our new guests. He explained that they would be having a small service and that I probably wouldn’t find it very fun, but that I was invited to join them for dinner in about an hour.

I went back out into the city, now glowing with artificial light, and wandered the bustling streets, half dazed, partly still meditating. I was incredibly relaxed. It felt like a pleasant dream. It felt a bit like walking out of a massage parlor. I wasn’t anxious or bothered by anything. I was just there, taking it all in.

When I returned, a feast had been prepared. I enjoyed as much as I could, but I literally could not continue despite their insistence to go for a third plate. At some point, the gentleman decided to document the night and stood to take the picture. He is not in the frame. The young man first on the left had started my session. The little girl is mostly hidden behind her father three men down the left side of the table. You know which goon I am.

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I got the gentleman’s phone number, and he sent me the picture. He added me to a WhatsApp group of followers of the man in the picture whom they call Swamiji. Even though he died several years ago, they believe that he is influencing their lives even now. Apparently, Swamiji meditated for 23 hours a day until he achieved enlightenment. The other hour in the day is for us. All of these followers make a point to meditate at least one hour a day.

I’m still part of the group, but I’ve silenced the notifications, and I haven’t checked it in months. There are literally thousands of unread messages. But I can’t bring myself to leave the group. It reminds of that experience every time I see it when I’m checking messages from friends.

I’m not up to an hour a day, but I’ve started my day with 30 minutes every morning for the past 19 days. I try to focus on that spot. I might have solid focus for a total of three minutes out of every 30, but the impact on my mental state has been undeniable. I’ve been happier, more relaxed, less anxious, less emotionally reactive – less “neurotic” as the psychologists would say.

And now that I’m finishing this at a reasonable hour on a Sunday night, I’ll sit for another 30 minutes and get my hour for Swamiji.

Rond Ter Streep op de fiets

I have made an almost complete survey, and I can say with high certainty that Ter Streep is indeed still an island. If you read my first post from Oostende, you may have caught that the origin of the name Oostende (literally “east end”) actually does make sense even though it is in the far west of the country. The city was on the east end (really, the northeast end; the coastline runs basically SW-NE here) of an island called Ter Streep. After a few centuries of ambitious civil engineering, this island has been brought into the mainland. Almost. The water that separates Ter Streep from the rest of the country has been reduced to a series of canals, perhaps a meter deep and a few meters across at some points. But it does appear that Ter Streep is still only connected to the rest of the country by bridges.

I confirmed this by circumnavigating the island. It took me a few hours, but I could have done it in half that if I didn’t stop every 10 minutes to take pictures.

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Google Maps will tell you it’ll take several hours, but Google’s rider is on a rusty old fat tire. My new machine moves a bit faster. Indeed, it startled me how much this horse wants to jump out from under me when I crank on the pedals. I’ve made quite a leap from the aluminum wreck I wrote about last weekend.

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I mentioned last weekend that my new ride just wasn’t very enjoyable to ride. Getting my new Orbea up to speed is sheer joy. That’s the way a bike should be. I honestly didn’t think I’d own a bike like this anytime soon. I’ve had to do some creative budgeting, and I’ll need to make some sacrifices, but it’s about priorities. And when a bike like this in on 25% discount, it’s very hard to pass up.

My ride this morning started before sunrise, but the bike paths in the city are fairly well lit, and I got a pretty powerful headlight. In a place where daylight hours bottom out around eight, I figured it was a good investment. It was the intention to circumnavigate the island, so it started by getting out to the first lock of the canal that forms the southeast side. There are a handful of historic buildings at the junction, which was once a guarded entrance to a Spanish fort. It is also a popular meeting place. As I was figuring out which way I wanted to go, a group of cyclists started to form. They kept looking at me, and I guessed they were trying to figure out if I was joining them. They were headed toward Bruges, but they were going offroad. Most of them had mountain bikes. And they were properly outfitted in matching spandex. They were only the first of several such pelotons I saw today.

 

 

 

They headed east to Bruge, and I headed south along the canal. The bike trail continues almost uninterrupted all the way to Westende (and maybe next time I’ll turn left to take the route to Dunkirk). But I kept getting distracted by things in the middle. Including this random little nature reserve.

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Of course, I had to go check it out.

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Soon enough, I bypassed the town that marks the middle of the island, Middelkirke (“middle church”), but it didn’t take long to get to Westende.

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Although I don’t buy into the myths and ceremonies that the building was constructed to support, I find the social utility of such a conspicuous and beautiful civic center very charming. Even though most Europeans aren’t religious anymore (apparently I qualify as “Christian” by Belgian standards because my family celebrates a purely secular Christmas), there is definitely a community culture here. People seem driven to participate in local events and take pride in their communities. I’ll have to dig into specifics at some points, but that’s a feeling that I’ve gotten throughout northern and western Europe.

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There’s a focus on more than just utility here. Even simple buildings are aesthetically pleasing. Few buildings are merely a collection of walls to accomplish some purpose. Even new buildings copy the traditional style with distinctly 21st-century additions.

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Ashley had a conversation with someone a couple weeks ago who claimed that Belgium got something like 50% of their electricity from renewables. In truth, their goal for 2020 is to get 18%, but I can see where there’s confusion. Everyone has solar panels! What more electricity could we need?!

Do you think those panels are generating much electricity with that kind of sky? No. And it’s like this most of the year. It’s a nice gesture, but there are a hundred better ways to spend that money to increase renewable energy. Here’s one of them:

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A combined wind & solar farm that powers probably a couple thousand homes. They’re old turbines. The ones with the boxy nacelle (the house on top where the blades are attached) are 900kW machines. The next wind farm Parkwind builds will use turbines that are 10 times as powerful.

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Orbea should pay me for advertising. I wonder if they pay for renewable energy for their factories? That’d be cool.

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Finally, I reached the end of the island and on the other side of the water, I found Nieuwpoort. I hope I don’t have to translate that one.

I thought Oostende was cute, but this takes it to a level that’s actually a bit uncomfortable.

 

 

The way back was far less distracting. And I also threw off my elevation measurement because I climbed an observation tower. It says I gained 84m on that section. That was almost all on the tower.

I once made a comment that Rotterdam was flatter than Kansas. Seems to be true throughout the coastal areas of the low countries.

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When I reached a section that follows the beach, I stopped while I was walking my bike over the piles of sand that had blown onto the walk. Having recently watched a documentary on World War II, I thought about how Oostende could have been the site for D-Day.

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When I turned around, I realized that Hitler had the same thought.

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This area is teeming with history. The system of canals has been in progress since the British and French were bickering over their colonies in the Americas. The layouts of the streets can probably be traced back to the Middle Ages. This beachfront has concerned military commanders since amphibious assaults became a viable military tactic, and many of the fortifications the Nazis had hoped would keep the Allies from opening up a second front in Western Europe are still here.

And now that I have a liberating mode of transportation, I get to go see all of it!

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An adventure in Bredene

Today’s image: my new ride!

First off, don’t get used to this frequency of posts. I just so happened to have a day off in the middle of the week and a bit of a weekend adventure very reminiscent of my time in Korea. I remember enjoying recounting those explorations as I learned as much as I could about my host culture. Whether or not you all enjoyed it is irrelevant. These were the times that reminded me that despite the banality of my daily routine, I actually was on some sort of crazy global adventure. Belgian culture is far more like the one I grew up with than is Korean culture, but it’s the subtle differences that keep things interesting.

And so, after finally assembling my mail-order bike to the point that I was more or less satisfied with its safety, I decided to take advantage of the mild weather. My new steed and I were on our first adventure!

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I suppose the first thing I noticed was that I didn’t much enjoy riding this bike. It was the cheapest bike I could find that fit my criteria, but it was the same amount I paid for the bike I had in Visby and the one I also bought online in Denver. Both of those served me very well, so I figured I just needed a little time to adapt.

Even though I wasn’t particularly excited about the particular bike, it sure felt fast to move faster than a walk! It’s been several weeks without wheels, so the fact that I could cover several kilometers in a reasonable amount of time was exceptionally refreshing.

First stop was the entrance to the harbor. I assembled the bike at my office which is on the north side (the opposite side from my apartment), so I headed for the old Fort Napoleon.

This part of the harbor seems much less used than the industrial area where our office is and is lined with decaying old vessels, some still floating, others hauled onto the pier.

 

The Fort was closed, but the sandy hill it is built into is crisscrossed with paths. I might have to start using this area for a lunchtime run. It’s a surprising encounter with Nature adjacent to a military installation commissioned by Napoleon Bonaparte (who feared an English invasion via Ostend) and very busy industrial park.

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Just down this little hill is a beachfront walk. It runs for a few kilometers further on up the coast. On the Sunday after Christmas, however, it was rather busy with pedestrians and less than ideal for my lightning-fast racebike! That’s a joke. I actually just couldn’t find a path that connected to it.

But that also meant that I got distracted by the sign for “sporthal”. I had seen a pool on the map that I had been meaning to visit. I knew they wouldn’t be open, but I wanted to see if it would be a reasonable ride from the office so I could go before work. I ended up failing to follow the signs and getting lost in the seemingly endless network of dedicated bike paths.

Side note: in places in the US that are trying to be more bike-friendly (I’m mostly thinking of Denver and Fort Collins, cities ranked near the top of bike-able US cities), painting a bike symbol on the street and posting a few signs that supposedly form “trails” seems to be good enough. Spending an hour riding in this very ordinary, par-for-Northern-Europe town reinforces what a pitiful effort that is.

But in my getting lost, I stumbled upon a sight that seemed very out of place.

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Look closely at the animals in this apparent schoolyard. Yes, those are deer. It’s a literal deer-park.

I found my way to the center of Bredene, the town adjacent to Ostend and the host of the pool I was seeking. I knew it was the center because I found the church.

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More thoughts later on the presence of the church in Belgium, but it seems that its primary function at this point is a storehouse for the remaining bodies of the quickly dwindling number of those who die as believers.

In a smooth segue from human corpses, I also found food!

And in a form that I had never seen before. I suppose it makes sense though. Belgians love bread. Actually, I don’t know if they love bread or if they just can’t conceive of a meal that doesn’t include bread. Walk around any Belgian city at lunchtime and most people will be walking around with broodjes, baguette sandwiches stuffed with an assortment of meats, cheeses, and/or veggies. The local supermarket consistently stocks an enormous cabinet (five racks high and probably 30 feet long) of fresh-baked bread. All of it delicious. Anytime I go to the store after about 6pm, it’s probably picked clean. But Belgians are bread snobs (for good reason). The prepackaged bread section, tucked away around the corner, looks to be full of expired loaves.

And so, I should have been surprised only by the fact that I had not yet seen a fresh-bread vending machine.

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If for nothing other than pure curiosity, I had to get one. The bottom two held one klein wit and one klein bruin (small white and small brown) for €1.60 each. I dug out the baggie of change in backpack and started dropping coins in the slot. They backed up, jammed, fell back down to the return tray. Once I got enough of them to register, I pushed the “8” key for what I wanted with no response from the machine. I tried pushing the button before inserting the money, tried other buttons, started with a “0”. After about 10 minutes (during which multiple people had entered and exited the adjacent bakery that stocks this thing), I finally accepted that it wouldn’t give me my klein bruin but it did give me a klein wit! I opened up the paper bag. It was cold, but when I stuck my nose in it, it still smelled like top quality, chewy and delicious, fresh-baked bread!

Proud of my successful cooperation with the machine and starting to get cold from standing still so long, I mounted my steed and headed home. The next road up led straight by my gym, so I knew where I was going, and I was excited to taste my treasure after being warmed in my microwave/convection oven combo box (more on that in another post).

But my adventure was far from over. As I gently pedaled along a quiet bike path the frame shuddered, the bike made an awful snapping noise, and pedals spun freely. I’ve had chains fall off before, but this is different. This is a single-speed bike. The chain does not fall off of a single speed bike. Nor can one get it back on without tools and knowledge that I did not have. And no, it was not user error. The drivetrain was one of the few parts of the bike that were assembled by the manufacturer. It also wasn’t their assembly failure. No, the damn thing just couldn’t take the pressure.

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If you’re wondering, it’s not supposed to look like that. The chain busted.

And so, after pushing my awkward behemoth of a scooter back to the office, I walked home like usual. I took consolation in two things:

  1. I had fresh bread in my bag that was about to make a delicious addition to dinner.
  2. I had a good excuse to send this piece of junk back to the rubbish heap from whence it came.

The next time I write about my cycling adventures, I will be very excited to tell you all about the amazing man-powered machine I will have acquired.

And there will be many more adventures! I may have spent my New Years Day at the office (it’s very productive when no one is here), but my explorations of Europe have only just begun!

Tot ziens!