There must be more to life than this

How to need less. How to have more. How to give in.

There must be more to life, I tell myself, than this relentless consumption of stuff, this never-ending desire to do more and to achieve. Life ought to be more. Life ought to need less.

Are we too connected, is that the problem? I find that when we are always tweeting or chatting with someone online, that we rarely have a moment of peace and solitude to simply cut out the noise and reflect.

We don’t allow ourselves the opportunity to go deeper into ourselves. We cannot afford the time, we say. It’s what we often say, sure enough. No time.

Oh, and we consume so much.

We read the latest gossip, we trawl for chaos and calamities; we are awestruck by the automobile accident on the other side of the road, wondering what the car number plate is (it could be the next day’s winning lottery number).

There is always something better. There is always some faster vehicle or gadget we must have. We get lost in the world outside. But not within ourselves; we cannot afford the time or the downtime. Or so we tell ourselves.

Boulangerie Poilâne, Paris

We sleep dreaming of when we would wake up and continue doing. (The moment I realised that I had dreamed of being stuck in a work meeting more than twice in a week was truly frightening.)

It seems so important that we are constantly doing something: eating or talking or presenting or convincing someone of something. It always seems to be someone else we are trying to impress.

Why do we live for other people?

Why do we not admit to ourselves what our own dreams and passions are, and chase these down as relentlessly as we consume stuff others tell us we ought to consume? Why do we not pursue what our hearts truly desire?

I have no idea, really.

There is a rut we get into, and few of us get out of. I need to get out. On the DVD shelves at home, titles like “Les Chansons d’amour”, “Before Sunset”, “The Dreamers” and “Paris, je t’aime” jostle for space. Call it an inspiration but I knew where I had to go.

There must be an explanation, I tell myself, that I can come up with for eating yet another croissant.

It’s hard to resolve the conundrum of slim Parisians walking briskly in the chilly winter air to the nearest Métro stop and the sheer number of boulangeries available at every corner one turns with their freshly-baked offerings.

How can one resist with that heady, heavenly aroma? Someone has to be eating up all that bread, surely?

Apple tartlet from Boulangerie Poilâne, Paris

It’s about half past six in the morning in the City of Light and half of Paris is already up. I look out of the French windows (I guess I know why they are thus named now) of my rented apartment in the 15th arrondissement and say a quick prayer of thanks that I have nowhere to go. I am not in a rush, at least for the next seven days.

Later, there will be my usual life to return — my work meetings, my mortgage, my incessant need for a good Internet connection everywhere — but for now, I have this borrowed life instead. I am someone with no plans and no phone. I am not connected.

I will leave the apartment much later, when the nine-to-fives are safely ensconced in their offices, leaving the metro and the sidewalks free. I will stumble upon a café with the appropriate je ne sais quois for brunch and I will have cup after cup of good coffee. I will linger over a book my friend gave me for my birthday, laughing at the very American observations of Parisian life, as though I had experienced them myself.

Well, I am experiencing them now.

I am disconnected from everything that used to hound me — be this, do that, get more — and I have never felt better. So this is what it’s like to live as you dream, even for a week. And why only a week? Why not bring this spirit of taking life as it comes home with me? Stuff will happen, and so let it. C’est la vie!

In the meantime, I wouldn’t mind another coffee. And while I’m troubling the waitress, why not one more little croissant…

Another cup of coffee, Paris

Each day was a revelation to me.
David Lebovitz, The Sweet Life in Paris

Red eggs

The colour of abundance. The fullness of life.

It’s not often someone would make red eggs for your birthday. In fact, as far as I know, it’s mostly reserved for a first month celebration or a first birthday. Not when someone turns thirty-five. But I’ve been wrong before.

My friend assures me it’s not a lot of work. Hard-boil a couple of eggs and dip them in red food colouring. “This is why the eggs are still wet,” he says, the shells a rich shade of dripping blood. Blood is life; it’s not a bad thing. It doesn’t remind me of horror flick gore or vampires having a nice bit of neck sandwich; the colour red is full of life and hope and possibility.

Of course, red birthday eggs are a Chinese tradition, so the colour mostly means prosperity and wealth and abundance. We are a people who are afraid of scarcity. I’m fortunate to have always had food on my plate and a roof over my less than ambitious head, so count me grateful. I don’t need red eggs to remind me of that.

Red birthday egg by CK Lim

It’s nice to have a birthday so close to the Lunar New Year. It’s propitious, surely. Our home is rather bare this year; we have a dish of mandarin oranges and a vase of last year’s pussy willow (the stalks covered with hard buds, their shells still intact) but not much else. We need to put up some decorations, gold ingots and horse-shaped ornaments; we have to get some beautiful red packets to put crisp, new notes in; we ought to get some red calligraphy paper with auspicious sayings written on them in stark, black ink.

Come to think of it, red eggs are supposed to get their colour from being smeared all over with a wet piece of red calligraphy paper. The results are the same; the colour comes off and stains my fingers crimson as I peel the eggs. You tell me to pause; you want to take a photograph. Twenty minutes later, there are scraps of eggshell all over the table and my hands look as though I’ve murdered something bloody.

“Okay, you can eat the egg now,” you tell me.

I stick my tongue out at you. I no longer complain when you turn an impromptu supper into a photoshoot. It’s what you do. It’s what we do together: the cook, the hand model (both me) and the photographer (you).

The peeled eggs are still moist and covered with gentle arteries of pink. Like a web of life, full of fortunes to be told. Shall I try to read these lines?

That’s silly, of course. Eggs are meant to be eaten. I flatten them with a fork, add mayonnaise, freshly ground black pepper and a dash of shichimi tōgarashi. You tell me I’ll get fat eating this late at night. I stick out my tongue once more. You laugh.

There is no scarcity here in our sparse apartment for we have an abundant home, and a very full and good life.

Love in the time of diarrhoea

Travel isn't rehearsal for a life together; it is the journey

I

Preparation for a trip, especially a long one, can be such a thankless task. There are the flight tickets to figure out: which routes work best, which airlines have the most affordable fares (but not so cheap that service may be unreliable), how to match connecting flights from different airlines, and so on.

I get a headache just thinking about it. The worst part, of course, is thinking about it isn’t enough. I have to actually get all of this done. I wonder if my father had had to endure the same ordeal when coordinating family vacations for us when I was a kid.

These days, this job falls onto me whenever my partner and I travel. Usually I enjoy the planning thanks in no small part to my natural OCD tendencies. Filling our travel itinerary with flight numbers and durations, various airport acronyms (e.g. AMS to GRU, LIM to IPX, and other three-letter mysteries), hotel addresses, bus/train transfers and more fill me with giddy anticipation for the upcoming trip.

This round, however, it’s been a little bit of a nightmare. Our itinerary, which usually fits neatly on a single sheet, threatens to spill over to more than thrice its normal length. The half-joking title of “Our South American Expedition” is now a painful reminder of how enormous an undertaking this is. Who knew São Paulo was so far from Easter Island? They had looked so near to each other on the map.

As I start grumbling under my breath in half-panic as the days disappear and I’m no closer to completing my task, you wander over and pat me on my shoulder, adding sagely, “You can do this, dear.”

I retort, “How do you know for sure?”

“Well, I don’t,” you admit, “but better you than me.”

You wisely walk away before I can aim a stack of visa and vaccination requirements at your head.

Cowherd, Peru

II

The first thing they warn you about when you visit the famous sights of Peru, such as the Inca ruins of Machu Picchu or Lake Titicaca (the world’s highest navigable lake), is soroche or altitude sickness. Symptoms range from mild nausea to full-on vertigo.

The second thing they warn you about is not to eat raw fruits and vegetables due to dangerous bacteria in the soil and water supply. In some South American countries, if you don’t see the food being prepared in front of you, there is always a chance that the more sensitive stomachs will suffer from food poisoning.

No worries, I thought, nothing an obsessive, over-prepared seasoned traveller like me can’t handle.

For the former, I hit the local pharmacy and loaded up on their entire stock of Diamox tablets (acetazolamide) or more commonly known as altitude sickness pills. For the latter, I simply made a vow to avoid the salad bar. (Not difficult since I’m not a fan of uncooked greens anyway; my Chinese ancestors have made sure I prefer my vegetables stir-fried.)

Easy.

Twenty-four hours in the air and two continents later, we are surrounded by llamas, salt mines and more varieties of potatoes and corn than we can sample in this lifetime. A different world: so strange and unfamiliar yet so beautiful.

You are the first to fall for its charms. In this case, almost literally fall, as you stumble on the hotel steps. You’re dizzy, you say, and slightly uncomfortable from the thin air. The altitude sickness pills seem to have worked for me but not you. The concierge kindly offers us some coca tea, made from native coca leaves which are known to help with soroche.

As you lie in bed, you tell me to head out for dinner. Not a bite for you; there’s no way you could stomach another wedge of potato or kernel of corn. Where’s a hot bowl of ramen when you need one?

A couple of hours later you wake up feeling better. I’ve got a surprise for you: cup noodles from the corner grocery. It’s not your favourite spicy Korean flavour but at least it’s not fritas or tamales.

You beam. Who needs coca tea when there’s MSG?

Basket of corn, Peru

III

You’ve always told me I’m not the sharpest tool in the shed but I never really believed you until, almost inevitably and in spite of all the precautions I took, I get food poisoning.

We have just conquered the mountain Huayna Picchu (which overlooks the ruins of Machu Picchu), and I am ravenous. The waitress at the rail-station restaurant tells me they are out of my favourite chicha morada, a Peruvian beverage made by boiling purple corn with pineapple, cinnamon, clove, and sugar.

“Would you like to try some fruit juice? We have pineapple, papaya and mandarin,” she says.

“Mandarin sounds great. Vitamin C is good for you,” I say as you roll your eyes at my favourite habit of belabouring the obvious.

By sunset I am spending most of my evening in the toilet as one loud explosion followed another: Diarrhoea.

I had forgotten that the mandarin juice was probably freshly squeezed and not boiled like my usual chicha morada. Yes, definitely not the sharpest tool.

Rather than telling me “I told you so”, you don’t say a word about the failure of my raw-fruit-avoidance campaign. Instead you make sure I drink enough water and rest enough in bed or on the bus.

Not the sharpest tool in the shed, yes, but sharp enough: I found you, didn’t I?

Lake Titicaca, Peru

IV

I remember being 23 years old and backpacking in Europe alone. I trekked from city to city — Munich to Milan, Naples to Nice, Barcelona to Paris — and making many happy mistakes along the way. There was no planning. I slept on benches at train stations; I got rides from strangers I met along the way; I danced in the streets during a thunderstorm: it was an adventure.

Ten years later I no longer travel alone; I have you. As a couple, danger is a big no-no on our To-Do list. Everything is checked and double-checked before we get into our taxi to head to the airport. (The taxi’s booked a couple of days earlier, of course.)

Holidays are safe, predictable events.

“Come and look at this, it’s so pretty! Which one do you want or shall we buy every colour?”

We are on one of the floating islands of Uros in Lake Titicaca, our feet not so firmly on the ground. Separated from the water by only a few layers of interwoven reeds, I can’t help but wonder if this is the best location for souvenir shopping, much less bargain hunting.

Your soroche’s all gone and my tummy is fine. There is laughter in the air as the Uros children run around in their colourful garb, playing their own innocent games. They aren’t frightened of the water.

I look at you as you hold up another tablecloth resplendent with tribal pre-Inca designs for me to consider, and I realise I’m not frightened either. Travel, much like love, can be scary but not when we’ve got someone to take every tentative step with us and to chase down every good deal.

“Every colour sounds good,” I say, smiling, “Let’s buy a rainbow.”

Inca stone, Peru

It was time when they both loved each other best, without hurry or excess, when both were most conscious of and grateful for their incredible victories over adversity. Life would still present them with other moral trials, of course, but that no longer mattered: they were on the other shore.
Gabriel García Márquez, Love in the Time of Cholera