I don’t know how to milk sheep, but if it’s worth anything, I’m willing to learn

In Pronoia by Gerald Koh

This is the feeling of owning your life. Of letting go. Of not letting Changi Airport, the Merlion and the Marina Bay Sands stand as symbols of potential opportunity cost. I spent 2 weeks in New Zealand alone a few months ago. I felt freed, and free. Beginner’s luck perhaps, but if this is what #seeyououtthere#vanlife#campvibes#camplife is about… I can see the appeal. I know deep inside this is what I want. It isn’t that I haven’t left the safety of home before. Singaporeans are, after all, a decently well-traveled populace. We have the money, we have a wide-enough worldview, and we have the desire to see outside Singapore. So why is it that long-term travel is often talked about as nothing more than a pipe dream here? It breaks my heart to see travel romanticised like this:

Frankly, it is really annoying. Not to mention somewhat repulsive. The proverbial grass may always be greener on the other side, but how would you actually know from being an armchair tourist? The four walls of the room aren’t the issue any longer. The four corners of the bezel are the problem now. Vicarious living is uninspiring and foul.

Thankfully, some manage to actually live, even if for the shortest of times. At least you can say you’ve seen 0.0001% more of the world. Asking ‘why not?’ now is, I reckon, a better pill to swallow than ‘I wish…’ and ‘what if?’ at the end of our assuredly miserable lives. The excuses? No money. No time. No travel companion. Gotta work to get that corner office with a view. Do these not beat any corner office view?

I figured as much, and booked flights to New Zealand. No, I didn’t fly 3 hours later to have a whirlwind day through NZ. I booked 4 whole months in advance. I didn’t know where I would go, I didn’t know how I would get around, I didn’t know what I would do. What I did know? Why I was going. It wasn’t to escape, take a break or to visit New Zealand. They would have all been excellent reasons. But I was set to go because I grew tired of the moaning and groaning inside me. I grew tired of living through the lens of Instagram. I become annoyed that I kept myself on the inside looking out. Reactions  to my trip ranged from ‘wow that’s really cool!’ and ‘you’re really brave’ to ‘you have too much money’ to the very grim ‘you’re going to die’. Heck, I went through each of these thoughts myself as the departure date inched closer.

The day came, and I was not ready to go. Alone? By myself? No effin’ way.

But along I went. 12 days spent on the road from Auckland to Christchurch in my own company most of the time. In that time, 3 things began to be laser etched onto my heart:

The first two days were tough. I felt alone, verging on loneliness even. I have had lunch by myself many times, I have gone to the cinema and watched movies solo, I spend most of my time studying alone. Road tripping sans companion, though, is totally different. The time is yours, and yours alone. There are no places to be, no expectations to meet, no one to please. I wondered many times whether I made the wrong decision to travel alone, whether I should rush a drive down south to meet a friend who lived there. I was restless. There was no one to ask me ‘isn’t this just amazing?’, no one to tell ‘what an incredible view’ to, no one to share my first visit to New Zealand with. I couldn’t digest what I was experiencing without someone to talk to. I spoke to other travellers in the hostels, but it wasn’t the same. They weren’t friends. All I had was my book, my car and me. Then on the third day, something clicked as I started heading south, out of Auckland. The cloud within cleared as an Avicii track came on the radio.

The lyrics that got me? “When thunder clouds start pouring down, light a fire they can’t put out. Carve your name into those shining stars. Go venture far beyond the shores, don’t forsake this life of yours. Don’t let it slip away. When you get older, your wild life will live for younger days. One day you’ll leave this world behind, so live a life you will remember.”

The view? The undulating hilltops, wide rivers and clear skies of the North Island. The feeling? One that, as cliché as it sounds, really cannot be described in words. It was visceral, and went right through me. I tingled inside. I realised, from that point, being alone isn’t the same as being lonely. You are merely freed from the colour imposed on your world by other people, open to everything else that you might otherwise miss because you were distracted by conversation. You are free to live and travel, on your own or otherwise. Why should money, work, people or yourself stop you if to see the world, one trip at a time, is what you want?

We all know the scene– a happy, chirping bird following a fairy tale character around a garden, they sing songs together, then the bird lands on said fairy tale character’s forearm before flying away and the story continues. I don’t know about you, but I think that if that happened in real life, it would be pretty magical for many people. Until it actually happens, as I found out.

In a wide open park, there’s no real place to run that a bird can’t find you quickly enough to continue its playful chase of you. It’s not pecking at you or aggressive. It’s just having fun following you around. The other park visitors are amazed and think it’s awesome. Of course, you don’t think so. You just want it to go away. It’s really annoying, and potentially dangerous. Dangerous?! Such a small kind creature, dangerous? Well, that was what I thought and I quickly tried to get away. Like in a Pokemon battle. I managed to, and a few minutes later, frustration came over me when I read information about the bird, a New Zealand robin. In the description, New Zealand robins ‘are friendly and trusting, often coming to within a couple of metres of people‘. I realised that I ran away from a good thing simply because it had never happened to me before. The lack of familiarity scared me. I didn’t stop to think fright or flight. I just picked flight.

What a story it would have been, to earn the trust of a living creature that I could not verbally communicate with in any way. I was reminded of when, only a few weeks before, I had told the daughter of a friend not to sit on the grass because she would get her clothes dirty. I recoiled inside immediately after saying that. I advocate that people should be going on adventures off the beaten track. Yet when when teaching a young person, the first thing I went to was ‘don’t dirty your clothes’?! It’s obvious that it takes time to get out of our comfort zone. But it’s also clear that these little wonders will keep happening and maybe it’s time to stop turning the other way.

They say if you fail to plan, you plan to fail. There is truth in this statement. But how much must one plan? Down to the hours, the minutes, the exact second? Even the almighty Google Maps doesn’t, try as it might, have every single pavement, road or building mapped out. New Zealand showed me this for a fact. Perhaps the point I’m trying to make here is that most of the time, we can only see part of the way. To hold back from moving forward because you cannot see your whole way through is searching for perfection where there is none. Detours, roundabouts, tolls and road closures are part and parcel of any trip. And as sure as Google Maps will recalculate when take the wrong turn, sometimes the longer scenic route is what we get directed to take in life, even if there is a shorter way somewhere else.

Sometimes, we’re just going to have to deal with the fact that our map needs to be updated.

The moon landings could well have been faked, and that’s a little too difficult a journey to make. But experience the vastness of the Mongolian plains, the breathtaking Kiwi landscape, the burn of Russian vodka, the facade that is American pop culture or the diversity in China for yourself? It’s not all that hard anymore. My worldview evolved in 12 days. Maybe we’d all be one step closer to taking charge of our lives and dreams if people stopped saying they’d love to go places and actually did it.

About the Author
Gerald Koh

Gerald Koh

Gerald is an expert dilettante. He used to play in a band, run a recording studio, write about local sports, sell self-designed t-shirts and teach kids to fight fire and save lives. His latest sinking ship is proving he is not good enough for law school.

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