Eyes, heart and soul

Tsang Shu-ki

4 September 2007




We were in Hofn, the southern-most fishery port in Iceland, with an estimated population of about 1000. After checking into a hotel, we went to the seaside. We had sensed something extraordinary while driving in from Vik through the seemingly endless sands of Skeidaraarsandur formed by residuals of volcanic eruptions, braving head-winds and side-winds of 60-80 kph, which sometimes stirred up frightening tornado-like swirls. Still, as we stood there, we were stunned.


A total of five glaciers spread beyond the harbour in the north, where the Vatnajökull – the major mountain range in the country was located. They were of contrasting shapes and the evening mist made them look a bit elusive. We had been to quite a few icy places in the last decade, but no words could describe such a wide-screen, nearly 180-degree, natural splendour. We sat at this unsurpassable vantage point, doing nothing, just trying to feel and absorb, until it became too cold. (Summer 2007)




It was an afternoon of sweltering heat in January. Our coach slowed near a stretch of water, and the local tourist guide, speaking with a strange Cantonese accent, warned with a sigh: “Ladies and gentlemen, you’re about to witness the fourth world.” Down the coach, which was parked next to several others, we walked along a dirty muddy path bordered by temporary shelters. The air smelt very foul; and people around crowded in. We struggled past, eventually boarding a boat which was waiting, and onto the largest inland lake in Southeast Asia.


We were scheduled to enjoy the sunset on one of the platforms in the midst of Tonle Sap in Cambodia, near Siem Reap, where the famous Angkor Wat was. The boat sped through clusters of quarters apparently housing different inhabitants. Most were essentially fragile see-through structures with little furniture and amenities. “They belong to different ethnic groups, and they do not get on too well. The shelters have to be moved because of changing water levels during the year,” the guide, who in his fifties was a survivor of the killing fields, told us. Into the more open water, we saw young girls floating on tin basins. They approached us with makeshift paddles or merely moving the basins with their hands, while attempting to catch our attention and yelling in passable English: “one dollar, one dollar”.


On the three-storey platform, many of the international tourists ordered beer or coke. With no clouds in the sky, the setting sun looked gorgeous. But what has lingered forever since is not it. (January 2006)




The dinner was billed as a highlight for our stay in Cape Town, other than the fabulous landmark Table Mountain. The abalone was alright, but most dishes were average. “Can’t hope for more in a group tour,” people at our table agreed. After dessert and tea, we were asked by the guide to leave this city-centre restaurant. “But please follow me, keep together and don’t spread out. The coach is only fifty yards down the street.” I looked around for my fellow travellers. Suddenly I saw a big chap whom we had never met walking by our side. Wearing totally no expression and glancing in all directions, he was holding a truncheon. I became nervous and alerted some of my friends. We then walked as fast as we could.


Back on the coach, the guide, who was a young lady from Hong Kong, said, “Don’t worry, folks. That black guy is the security guard of the restaurant. He just wants to make sure of the safety of all customers after their meals. So he usually accompanies them to their cars.” Then I remembered that he was actually holding the baton with his left hand, and pointing it downwards. “That’s a non-combat mode,” I explained to my friends. “If he sees some dangerous elements appearing, he may shift to the combat mode—that is, holding the truncheon with his right hand and pointing it upwards.” They found my interpretation rather trivial.


Days later, we were in the resort town Knsyna, a destination along the coast which was not normally included by tour operators. After a dinner featuring oysters at a bistro, there was still time and members of our tour group wandered around in the souvenir shops. “No security guard this time?” I smirked to Alex, the very friendly driver of our coach. “No. It’s safe here.” He beamed charmingly. “I like the food, and the atmosphere. What do you think?” I tried to open up the conversation. “Although my home is in an area nearby, this is the first time I’m in an eatery here. It’s quite good.” “What do you mean?” I was puzzled. “We were still not allowed to enter places like these until not too long ago,” Alex replied. Although the broad smile had dimmed, the way he said those words was surprisingly devoid of bitterness. “It is much better now, though.” The beam emerged again. “Aparthe…” The utterance was almost out of my mouth but I managed to hold it right there. After a few seconds, I smiled back at him, admiringly. And the gracious face of the most famous South African suddenly appeared in my mind. (Summer 2005)




Having visited the old towns of Riga, and especially Tallinn, we didn’t have high expectations of the cultural heritage in Helsinki. We came for the lakes anyway, thousands (or 180,000 to be more precise) of them. We hired a car and drove out after a short stay in this utterly expensive city, first to Lappeenranta via Porvoo, then northward to Imatra, Savonlinna and Kuopia. According to the maps we could get hold of, we would be passing through lakes of many interesting shapes, sometimes along routes over narrow and winding ridges.


After five days, we felt a little bit depressed. Yes, lakes were everywhere. But in our car and on roads of hardly any slopes, albeit with bends, all we saw were patches and stretches of water on the two sides, with small hills and islets here and there. Adjacent to some big lakes, castles and cafes could be found, and beaches or promenades might provide opportunities for a stroll. Nevertheless, we did not travel so far just for these.


From Kuopio we turned south, all the way down to Tampere, a city where Lenin and Stalin met for the first time a century ago. The Lenin Museum was fascinating with its detailed displays, and disseminated an ambience of nostalgia. So at least something of historical value existed, Joanne and I comforted each other.


Then we realised that there was a TV tower in Tampere, advertised as the highest building in the whole of Finland. We drove in, neglected the theme park and went straight up to the top of the tower. My intention initially was merely to buy some souvenirs and have a drink.  


Instead we stayed for over an hour. The observation deck did not revolve, but the scenery was worthy of dozens of revolutions on foot by any one who happened to be there. Two very large lakes of contrasting shapes, bordered by tall hills, separated by stylish urban sprawls, and littered with funny looking islands, were competing for the attention of the glorious sun, but randomly frustrated by shifting clouds which, like naughty angels, never intended to be permanent obstructions. The result was an unpredictable mix of changing colours, reflections and shades, which were periodically sliced by the trailing waves of boats passing by. Honestly, it is difficult to better such a lake view. (Summer 2006)




Insider and outsider


The above are a few snap shots from my holidays in the past two years. Travelling is in fact quite tiring, and the impressions always become more inspiring after the trip, especially when one reviews the photos and the souvenirs. The gripes of journeying hassles faded, and the lasting moments acquire a certain treasurable glow.


While the eyes are the antennas and recorders, the deepest impacts are invariably felt by the heart and sometimes permeate the soul. Cambodia and South Africa are more than natural beauty, wild sensations and cultural wonders. They shock, particularly if one takes an “insider’s” perspective. No person could emerge psychologically unscathed from a walk through the Tuol Sleng (S21) torture camp in Phnom Penh operated by the Khmer Rouge during its reign of 1975-79. Nor would one not be saddened to see the sign “Private Property-No Intrusion-Armed Response” in front of so many high class residential blocks in Cape Town or Johannesburg, only to pass by another shanty town miles down the road. Closer understandings heighten one’s empathy but also aggravate one’s distress.


Iceland and Finland, on the other hand, are in sharp contrast. When the plane was approaching the Reykjavik Airport, we felt like about to land on the moon, but the young guys at the car rental company later corrected us: most tourists thought it were Mars. This island country marginally south of the Arctic Circle has a population of 300,000; with roughly the same number of visitors annually. It is a rare combination of ice, fire and wind. Driving from Reykjavik to Hofn constitutes a journey through an enchanting but desolate territory, filled with grotesque landscapes. If the weather is not kind and the winds come, the experience can be nerve racking. The awesome force of nature would seem to be engulfing one, and there is simply nowhere to hide. To compensate, the zoomed out, wide-angle parade of five glaciers in Hofn probably beats anything that most travellers have seen. In Alaska or the Canadian Rockies, you may be immersed under the imposing terrain of one or two more breath-taking and majestic snowy mountains. But five captivating geological structures rolled out in front of your eyes in one go? 


Finland, the home of thousands and thousands of lakes, is the opposite: peaceful, tranquil, and soothing, in summer at least. Indeed, I now have problems in recalling any special scenery or event during our 10-day vacation there in 2006, other than the view from the Tampere TV Tower, when for the only time we turned “outsiders”, keeping a distance, just as we sat by the harbour of Hofn. Nothing else seems to have happened. Perhaps that is what a perfect break should be.