Tearin’ Up My Heart

By the end of this very week, I will be on another long haul, 13-hour flight back home. So quick, so much anticipation, yet so much mixed feelings.

I have been rather nomadic over the past two years, been hopping about from city to city traveling, studying and now working. I probably have not stayed put in a place for more than six months continuously, and so when people ask me if I’m looking forward to going back home, I don’t really know the answer.

This will probably be my last long haul flight, at least for quite a while. I know for sure that I will miss this limitless freedom to travel, going wherever my soul pleases and feet take me. I know for sure I will miss exploring new places, getting lost in new cities with complex urban plans, and stumbling upon special zen spots by accident which I will claim to be my secret hideout for that city. And I will miss running to my secret hideouts or favourite quiet spots to ponder about the world at large. Traveling has changed me a million times over, in any and every way. It gives you so much adventure, and so many reasons why life is worth living.

So on one hand it is really hard to part with the hands of a nomad and return home where life feels stable, routine and grounded. It is honestly upsetting when I begin wondering when will be the next time I get to backpack to somewhere foreign again and let this world amaze me with its awesomeness. And somewhere deep inside I fear that for some reason, I may not even get to travel like this ever again.

On the other hand, I have been away from home quite long enough – I must admit. Home sickness does loom over you when you’ve been gone for too long. Never ever underestimate the power of home. People who will stand by you no matter where you are and what you do. Things that you’d deem so familiar that its merely second nature to you. Being home always makes me feel like I’ve got a new boost of strength and energy, ready to take life’s challenges ahead regardless what they might be. And so yes, I do yearn to feel grounded in some place I have known for as long as I can remember and indulge in the comfort of familiarity.

The bottom line is that my heart is torn into two — dying to stay yet begging to leave.

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Gusty souls

You haven’t experienced Chicago until you’ve felt the strength of its gusty winds. Fast and furious, the winds here are not to be underestimated. Enough to knock you off balance momentarily, you’d have to be careful not to be swept off your feet because the gusts can be ruthless.

Navy Pier felt like Fisherman’s Wharf all over again. Being a weekend it was flooded with big yellow school buses, kids of all ages, teachers and parents. The liveliness of kids chattering and laughing nicely juxtaposed the tranquility of the zen waters. Sat by the edge of the pier and watched sail boats with brightly colored CHICAGO words stamped on as they danced around in the waters. They looked so fragile, so vulnerable. One wrong move and the seemingly light-weight base would topple over. But those experts maneuvered the sail like it’s second nature to them, catching on the gusty winds with precise timing to hitch a ride down the waters.

The streets of Chicago are amazing. Millions of skyscrapers towering over you, perfectly aligned along the meshwork of streets. The grid-like road structure matches the four cardinal points of the compass, which essentially means that if you pick the right street, you can literally see the sun setting along the narrow slid between these skyscrapers, engulfing them from the top with an orange glow that slowly spreads downwards. Because of the variety of building heights, each structure gets illuminated to a different extent and cast different lengths of shadows on others as they block the sun rays from penetrating. I was fortunate to catch the first moments of sunset against the Chicago skyline from afar. It was breathtaking. You’d wish you could hold on to it for eternity and not let it go.

I take my hat off to the brains behind all these architectural masterpieces. Each carries its own flavor, be it old-school Victorian or slick modern marvels. It’s so easy to not watch where you’re heading as you comb the streets, since you’re perpetually eyeballing everything around and above you except the road ahead. As if there wasn’t enough on my plate, I headed to Willis Tower that stands at 103 storeys high, boasting to have been the tallest building in the world for over 20 years. You’d feel like a midget against the crashing heights of city skyscrapers, but at the skydeck, those skyscrapers seem nothing more like little Lego structures. From the top, you can really see how every building is so perfectly constructed and neatly placed seemingly equidistant from each other. The little boats by the pier become tiny white speckles in the sea. You realize how insignificantly small you are in this world.

My impulsive decision to catch a concert by a renowned street dance company was no doubt a good choice. I never heard of them before but it’s dance so that can’t go wrong for a dance lover. It was contemporary, with a modern yet odd classical twist. Three stints in total, very captivating. The worst thing about contemporary is that I usually find it hard to comprehend what the story is behind the choreography, but ironically that’s also the best part because it makes the dance so open-ended and thought-provoking.

I have been on stage in dance concerts more times than sitting in the comfy theatre chairs, so I know exactly how those dancers feel. The blazing spotlights that seemingly switch colors and intensity magically, the squeaky sounds when you slide across the stage or turn on the ball of your feet against the non-slip flooring, and the anticipation and anxiety of response. The stage lights are often far too bright for you to make out anyone distinctly in the audience. Every person in the theatre can see every movement and facial expression you make, yet you can’t see any of theirs. On stage it feels like you’re in a different world, where you’re blind from sight. You can only trust your instincts and feel with your heart.

You want so badly to pull everything off perfectly, to give the audience everything you’ve got. And when you complete your performance and hear the roar of applause, it’s heartwrenching. So you smile at the darkness before you, the intensity of appreciation from the audience making every bit of energy spent worthwhile.

Those were the days.

What do you stay awake for?

It finally stopped raining, so glad! It’s still chilly though, hope I have layered enough to take the windy landscape.

Perfect start to the morning: up early for a warm sandwich with a cup of mocha latte. Sunday morning breakfast feeling. Tempted to make more progress with Hunger Games while sipping my coffee but knowing that I will get glued to it I’d better not. A lot of exploration work on my agenda today, can’t wait.

Welcome to the windy city

I seem to bring bad weather to cities I visit. Severe coastal fog when I went to San Diego, thunderstorms in Austin, rain and low visibility (I think) in Charlotte. Now it’s exceptionally wet and cold in Chicago. And from asking the locals here it seems like today was purely freak weather because apparently it hasn’t rained for weeks. It just has to pour when I set foot on windy island. When the captain said that temperatures in Chicago are about 40+deg when we were about to land, I was a little jittery. 40+ in summer? Even with all the gusty winds, surely it’s not that cold? I had summer wear and only summer wear in my backpack, so I started thinking what’s the warmest combination I can possibly make out from my limited resources.

Thankfully it wasn’t half as bad as I anticipated. Though it was really wet today. I can’t quite wrap my head around how can there be that much rainfall to pour at one go. It didn’t even stop for one second through the whole day. And well, I wasn’t the only one annoyed having to walk on splashy streets and lug around a drippy umbrella all day. Guess Chicagoans don’t quite welcome rainy days.

I love this district that feels just like Walnut Street. Clad with boutique stores, fine dining, cafes, retail outlets and everything that you need to complete a stroll-down-the-street-and-window-shop experience. Literally window shop. I found myself staring through every full glass; on the same side of the street, the store names were out of sight to know what they carry. It was fun trying to figure out each store and registering everything eye candy-ish within the time I took to casually walk past the storefront.

Today’s pot of gold was discovering a rustic, second-hand bookstore. I have never seen anything quite like it; three full floors of books of every possible genre you can think of, with shelves marking out narrow walkways. Everything had an age to it – the books, the shelves, the furnishing, the walls, the stairs.. It just felt like stumbling upon a time capsule. I loved how their solid wooden shelves extended from the ground up to the ceiling, engulfing you as you walk through them. The feeling of being surrounded (literally) by books is just so invigorating, so soulful, so much bliss. Every inch of the store is covered with books. There’s so many to see, so much to pry your eyes on that it’s almost visually exhausting. It has every flavor that a bookstore should carry. And so I can’t quite blame myself for buying a book when I finally managed to get myself out of the store. The feeling when you clutch a book, the smell of the pages.. I think I could even live in a place like that.

I concluded that there’s actually three things you should always do when you travel, not two. 1) Take photos, 2) write, and, 3) read. I love my reading obsession, it fits snugly into the traveling scene. In another place, a different timezone, different people on the streets, and different skies. Already so surreal. Add a fiction book and you find yourself taking the streets as the backdrop of your imagination, superimposed onto reality.

Hopefully the weather holds up tomorrow so I can head out to get some clear skies and sunshine, and comb the city with dry shoes.

Oh and today’s fortune cookie says: You need a new environment. Go on vacation. Absolutely spot on. A change in environment really helps to add a bit of tastefulness to your everyday, You’d feel a little more alive and like you’re actually breathing.

I had a few hours to kill, so I thought why not take that few hours to indulge in a good book over a pike brew. I took a seat by the corner, my favorite kind of seat where I can lean against the wall and watch the world.

People kept coming in to get a dose of caffeine to jump start their day, so I paid little attention to the queue of customers and their chattering.

But there was this little girl and her mother that came in. In didn’t notice them at first, till the girl walked past me and took the seat opposite me by the window. I happened to glance up from my book when she walked by my table, and was greeted with a big warm polite smile.

Immediately I thought this girl must be very well-mannered. She looked approximately 6 or 7 years old, dressed in a denim jacket, black leggings and a puffy black skirt that resembled swan feathers. She wore bright pink socks with what seemed like ballet shoes, and carried an air of confidence with each step she took.

Her mother was still in queue for a coffee, I would guess, so she bravely decided to take a seat on her own while waiting. What I love most in children is their public display of carefreeness. I watched her take the window seat, sitting gingerly at the edge of her chair with her legs stretched out, as though she couldn’t care less if that was considered dainty or not as long as it was the most comfortable sitting posture.

She sat there quietly eating her muffin, curiously looking outside the window at pedestrians crisscrossing each others’ path along the streets. Her mom must have lent her phone; the little girl played with it occasionally, and when her mom came to the table with her drink, she immediately returned the phone to her mother even without being asked.

Her dad must be out of town, because he video called his little daughter. She took the phone from her mother, delighted to see her dad’s face. She carried and articulated herself well, speaking with a tinge of excitement and zest, recounting the day’s events.

They spent a few moments talking; I didn’t hear what the mother was saying, but the little girl obediently listened. Her mother stretched her hand out to her daughter across the table, and the little girl immediately understood, stretching out hers and held her mother’s hand. She seemed so mature for her young age, sitting across her mother at the same table without fidgeting or squirming in her seat, responding to her mother in some grown-up fashion.

Though they were sitting some distance from me, I could feel the warmth of their parent-child love. I witnessed bliss at its purest form, and happiness at its simplest moment.

That’s how life should be right?

Escapism at its best

The best part of traveling is exploration. You need to know where you’re going of course, but the actual route of getting around and finding your way is pure awesome. Watch where the crowds are heading, listen to what people are saying, talk. Ask for directions, get some recommendations of where you can get the best deal.

Challenge your less than perfect pseudo-American articulation as you ask bus drivers and passerbys for help, it’s part of the fun actually. Sometimes, you’ll get a weird facial expression as a response because your natural accent got the better of you and the poor chap has got no clue what you just said. Sometimes, you meet really nice people who tell you not just how to get around but even share a piece of their life story during your quick chat. Follow directional signs as they take you from place to place, or just roam the streets like a random stranger and walk into the first restaurant you see for brunch.

The little surprises that delights every waking moment, the adventure that awaits you at every corner. Loving it.

Moving on

Liverpool feels like one of those empty cities that the world has decided to leave behind, passerbys looking back occasionally to marvel at its history. Besides Anfield and museums, there really isn’t much here. Streets are broad, sometimes empty, clad with old bricked buildings. Pretty low population density, you don’t see crowded streets packed with commuters. Always a slow stream of pedestrians, or just a speckle of people across the streets.

It’s hard to imagine that this city was once richer than London with an incredible sea port trading industry. Everything is so quiet now, to the point that you’d start wondering where have all the people gone to. You catch tourists equipped with their DSLRs and their compacts firing away at tourist spots, but other than that, it seems like people who once lived here have moved on to somewhere else, leaving just a trickle of locals who still reside in this old city.

Go easy on the feet, but never on the tummy

You know your traveling itinerary is a bit too packed when you have to start backdating your blogging. I’ll get to that later.

Right now it’s chilling out with late night dinner/snacking, with a bit of time to write while the boys watch some crappy soccer lol. Imba vending machine spotted at the lobby, more awesome munchies tonight, I forsee.

New continent musings

Europe is so similar and yet so different from America. Residential districts are clad with low-rise, standalone houses spanned across spacious land masses, with more to go around than ever seemingly needed. You can feel the age of the place — old buildings tell you much of a city’s history, but yet it’s not quite the same kind of oldish feel as in America.

I’d always thought of Ireland as a country that is rustic and flavorful, covered with grassy landscapes and populated with people carrying deep, rich culture. And beer of course.

Dublin seems to fit that picture. Love how perpetually every house follows this template of bricky, low-rise terrace rows with arc doorways and brightly-coloured doors. Bold colours seem pretty much in favour; dull streets in monotone sometimes have a couple of striking structures installed — shophouses with tinted colour glasses or residential blocks with bright yellow doors.

People speak in deep, rich languages that I don’t understand, but their intonations and exuberance somehow creates a sense of grandeur and pride. Like how I enjoyed listening to people articulate French in Montreal like it’s some kind of tune, the myriad of languages I’m hearing everyday along the streets is music to my ears.