Worldwide with Wee-Cheng #73: Singapore At Last: Wee-Cheng Completes His Odyssey

Singapore At Last:
Wee-Cheng Completes His Odyssey

22 DEC 2002
After a five-hour bus journey, I have finally arrived in Singapore. My one-year odyssey has come to an end. Seventy one thousand flight kilometers, and sixy one thousand kilometers of land travel. I have crossed borders fifty-five times, entered the territories of forty-four countries, including twenty-six for the first time. I have visited fifty World Heritage sites, spent my nights in eight different places, plus fourteen overnight bus journeys and eight nights on a boat in the Galapagos Islands. Ninety-eight email updates on my travel progress!

I began my odyssey in Rio de Janeiro. I sped across southern Brazil so as to collect an elusive Bolivian visa in Santiago, spent six days in Paraguay, then cut across northern Argentina to reach Santiago de Chile, followed by Easter Island, northern Chile, Peru, Ecuador, the Galapagos Islands, Colombia, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Belize, Mexico, Miami, Florida and the Bahamas. I flew to London where I did short trips to Liechtenstein, Switzerland and the Faeroe Islands. I spent one month in the southwestern Balkans, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, Montenegro, Kosovo and Albania. I was briefly deported from Montenegro, but re-entered the country via Serbia. That made me technically illegal according to the laws of the unrecognized Montenegrin Republic, but perfectly legal according to the Federal regulations of Yugoslavia.

I returned to London and then took a bus to Moscow. I dropped by the Russian Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad, and explored some cities near Moscow, before I rushed back to Singapore for my uncle’s funeral. After the funeral, I flew to Azerbaijan and went on to Turkmenistan and then back to Russia. I briefly visited the Russian Arctic and then got onto the world’s longest railway, the nine-thousand-kilometer long Trans-Siberian Railway, all the way across Siberia to the Pacific Ocean. Then I backtracked to Irkutsk on Lake Baikal, the world’s deepest lake. I went on to Mongolia, and then cut across the remote central-western hinterlands of China, to Yunnan in the south. I entered Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia, and then into familiar Thailand and Malaysia.

I celebrated New Year’s Day on the beaches of Rio de Janeiro and Easter in Cartagena. I joined locals dancing during the Andean Carnival in Puno, Peru, and watched Cham Muslims, descendants of an ancient Hindu empire, celebrate the end of Ramadan in a Vietnamese village on the Mekong. I had the worst Chinese dinner of my life on Chinese New Year’s Day in Cusco, Peru, in a so-called Chinese restaurant with Andean Indian chefs. The Texan diner at the next table proclaimed that it was the best Chinese meal he had ever had in his life. I stumbled onto a wedding party on the wide-open plains of Mongolia, and was invited to dedicate a song to the wedding couple. I sang a nursery rhyme about Mary and her little lambs which delighted the local nomads enormously – a topic close to their hearts.

I have been to the largest cities of the world – Sao Paulo, Mexico City and Chongqing, China. I have also been to the sleepiest capital of the world – Vientiane and Vaduz. In the former, motor bikes and the cow’s moo break the occasional silence, and in the latter, it was more my grumbling of the local prices.

I have been to mountains in Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Mexico, China and Russia. I have gotten my feet wet in the Atlantic, Pacific, South China Sea, Adriatic, Amazon and Baikal, and my nose bled in the Atacama, the driest desert in the world. In the Galapagos, I swam with sea lions, sharks, iguanas and turtles. I went on boat rides in the Amazon, Lake Titicaca, Galapagos, Lake Nicaragua, Belize Cayes, Chiapas, the Croatian Adriatic, Lake Baikal, the Yangtze, Erhai in Yunnan, and Halong Bay and Perfume River in Vietnam. And in Murmansk, Russia, on the Arctic Ocean, I watched the glory of summer blossom.

As a closet war tourist, I walked on the old battlefields of Nicaragua, El Salvador, Macedonia, Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. I spoke to war veterans of all political stripes and colours, including an ethnic Serbian with a U.K. passport who fought on the side of the Bosnian Serb Republic in the successor states of Yugoslavia. I visited war-ruined cities and mass killing fields. In the Balkans, nobody believed I was a tourist. In Banja Luka, Bosnian Serb Republic, the top local businessman invited me to a serious business meeting simply because I checked into a hotel owned by him.

“Why should a Singapore ex-banker come to the capital of the Bosnian Serb Republic?” he asked.

Everywhere in the region, they asked whom I worked for. Only U.N. and NATO diplomats, NGO’s and spies came here. After a while, I decided to say I work for the World Bank, since nobody believed that I was a serious tourist. Even then, they suspected I was a spy.

I have come across demonstrations and strikes in Bangkok, Quito, and at least four Peruvian cities, including one occasion during which the women of the Amazonian city of Iquitos were denouncing the Peruvian press for portraying them as whores. From there, I got on a Peruvian Air Force seaplane to a border village where I jumped onto a canoe across the Amazon to Leticia, Colombia, shortly after the Colombian government broke the ceasefire agreement with the guerillas. I watched news bulletins with locals showing government military advances in nearby areas, before suddenly interrupted by a blackout resulting from guerilla attacks on local power stations. Government tanks and jeeps steamed onto the streets as I wondered if the town would soon be under attack.

Within weeks, I was exploring the hysterical nightlife of glittering Bogota with its shiny glass towers and roads de caf�s with beautiful people. I wondered where the war was.

It’s a miracle that I have emerged safe and sound. I was involved in two road accidents, both in Albania. First, a motorcycle ran into me in the day-lights of Tirana, with a slight cut on my toe and a big shock. Little did I know that the coach I was to travel on three days later was to crash with a car, and then fall into a trench, with the car totally flattened underneath, its occupants almost certainly dead. The female passengers on my coach screamed hysterically while I knelt down and thanked Buddha for my survival.

I caught cold numerous times, had more than one hundred mosquito bites in the Amazon, and two bouts of bad diarrhea, in Paraguay and in Mongolia. On those two occasions, I had dinner in fancy restaurants. I have also eaten in all kinds of street stalls, in dirty-looking places without any problems.

I have had unpleasant encounters with corrupt police and bureaucrats in Peru and Russia. In Peru, the border official merely asked for a minor tip. In Russia, I got stopped by nasty, racist and corrupt police every other day in my one-and-half-month stay. On one occasion, I was detained for half an hour for a crime I didn’t commit and threatened with three years in prison unless I paid a bribe. Thank goodness I got out without paying a single cent.

There have been numerous attempts by petty thieves to pickpocket me. Only one succeeded. In the metro of St Petersburg, a thief got my mobile, which I had only owned for two weeks. For more than eight months I traveled without a mobile, and bought one when I was back in Singapore for my uncle’s funeral. I lost it within weeks. Amazing considering that it was the first time I ever lost a mobile in the more than five years I owned one prior to my journey.

The worst thing was not being with my family when my uncle was diagnosed with cancer. He struggled for half a year before succumbing. I rushed back to Singapore from the upcountry town of Yaroslavl, Russia. I considered abandoning my journey several times over that half-year but that would have done little. I spent a bomb to interrupt my journey but I don’t regret been back with the family during that sad occasion.

In Latin America, I learned fifty words of Spanish, which were enough for directions, food and some small talk. Those were completely forgotten and over-written by thirty words in Russian when I traveled across Siberia. My Russian was eventually abandoned in favour of a handful of Mongolian learned in independent Mongolia, which earned me a free lunch in a restaurant run by ethnic Mongols in Inner Mongolia, China. Now I am mostly trying to re-gain my good old Singlish in an attempt to be Singaporean again. No problem, lah!

I walked on the freezing slopes of a 5,000-meter high mountain in Ecuador in only a T-shirt – someone eventually lent me a sweater otherwise, I would have been dead. On the Peruvian-Ecuadorian border, I walked across the heavily flooded border villages during the terrible El Nino storm during which a large part of Ecuador was declared an emergency disaster area. I got stranded in a bad storm in the Faeroes, completely ignored by the many passerbys in their cars (only to be given a ride after an hour by a pastor) and climbed up to the Sun Gate overlooking Macchu Picchu in the rain, completely drenched.

I traveled on the longest railway in the world, the 9,000-kilometer Trans-Siberian, and spent three days discussing philosophy and life with North Korean diplomats and Russian soldiers. During my year-long journey, I met the chairman of a self-proclaimed parliament of Easter Island, saw the Governor General of Bahamas close-by and joined the Indian Ambassador to Mongolia in an embassy outing to a national park. I met Dr Ho, a strange egoistic local doctor in the remote Jade Dragon Snow Mountain of Yunnan Province, China, made famous by an article a few decades ago by Bruce Chatwin, the renowned travel writer of whom I am a fan. By a strange twist of fate, it was like meeting Chatwin himself, for this literary creation of his flourishes like a circus star, in a faraway village, decades after the death of the writer himself.

I have attended numerous masses and religious ceremonies – Catholic, Protestant, Russian Orthodox, Serbian Orthodox, Buddhism, Taoism, and a host of less well known religions. For example, the Dongba, a colourful mix of Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism and animism of the Naxi people in Yunnan, China, the religion of San Juan Chamulla, Chiapas, Mexico, which is a Mayan-Catholic mix with San Juan as the main saint and a Vietnamese religion called the Cao Dai, whose pantheon of saints included Victor Hugo, Vladimir Lenin and Sun Yat Sen.

I had my hair cut in Brazil, Peru, Nicaragua, Mexico, Macedonia, Albania, Russia, China, Laos and Cambodia. Things wear off quickly on long-term travel. I repaired my backpack, and bought new clothing, daypacks and sandals countless times in a vain attempt to boost global economy. Right now at the end of my journey, I am wearing a Cambodian shirt, Vietnamese pants, Chilean underwear, Nicaraguan sandals and a Colombian cap, and my day pack, like most things everywhere, was made in China and bought in Ecuador.

What have I gained and what does it all mean? I have realized a number of things.

Nothing is impossible and something that appears bad initially may well turn out to be good. The most important thing in life is – follow your heart! Like most good old Singaporeans, I have done way too many detailed computations and cost-benefit analysis into the intricacies of life. Will that necessarily lead to the best solution? I don’t think so. It merely sets you off thinking about what you have missed simply because you missed the qualitative factors which are not easily converted into dollars and cents. I don’t think I would have embarked on this journey if I’d been too “Singaporean” in my approach to it all.

Have I done enough traveling? NO WAY! If anything, this is only the beginning of WeeCheng’s life-long odyssey.

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