Eyes, heart and soul
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
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
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.
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
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
TV Tower, when for the only time we turned “outsiders”, keeping a distance, just
as we sat by the harbour
Nothing else seems to have happened. Perhaps that is what a perfect break should