Sunday Sofa Sojourns #22: Bali, Indonesia

Another throwback, this time written when I was pregnant with our kid. He just attended his first “by-himself” play date today and I’m feeling a little nostalgic.

I must say I never really knew about “babymoons” until a work colleague asked me about it. She’s Singaporean but had spent most of her life in Melbourne and therefore knows all about funky drinks I’ve never heard of like Lemon, Lime & Bitters, calls sunglasses “sunnies” and has friends who go on babymoons.

At that time, our kid also liked to make his presence felt — often in the mornings or in the evenings when I’m about to sleep — by rolling around, kicking (or punching?) me in the bladder region, or in a few instances, hiccupping (at least that’s what I think is happening; those times he moves in a small, steady dum-dum dum rhythm).

There were times during my pregnancy that I couldn’t believe I was carrying a little person around inside me (belly size notwithstanding). Funny enough, the Hub didn’t feel like a dad yet either, though he had felt our kid kick a few times. I guess we both need to see, smell, and hold him for reality to truly sink in.

But for now, there’s the babymoon.

We stayed in two different hotels: the first near to the Hub’s dive spots, then the remainder of our stay in Nusa Dua. The beach atmosphere called for the frequent consumption of lots of smoothies with summery, tropical names like Bali Sunrise and Cucumber Cooler, fresh young coconut juice and grilled meat/seafood. Needless to say, the recommended “300 extra calories a day” rule was not followed that week.

A highlight of our babymoon was a Legong Dance show at the Ayodya’s Balinese Theatre. It included an Indonesian dinner buffet. We were treated to four Balinese dances: the Panyembrana, a welcome dance; the Tarunajaya, a dance meant to show an adolescent and “his emotional turbulence”; the Legong Kraton dance, which told the story of the King of Lasem going to war for a maiden, but unfortunately dying in the end (as foretold by a bird of evil omens); and the Oleg Tambulilingan dance, a love story between bumblebees.

The dancers were young girls, even those playing male roles. They wore vividly coloured costumes and heavily lined eyes, which highlighted their eye movements and exaggerated facial expressions. It was lovely to watch them on stage. At the end of their performance each of the dancers tried to get an audience member to come up and dance with them. A little boy volunteered to go. As soon as he stepped onstage, he shimmied and shook for all he was worth; he twirled his hands and looked sharply left and right trying to copy the dancers’ eyes. And he was dead serious about it. The audience laughed and a few Chinese tourists snapped photos.

I wondered about the little boy forming in my belly and whether he would be an enthusiastic dancer too.

Think critically dear readers,

Sunday Sofa Sojourns #21: Montreux, Switzerland

I inadvertently skipped a Sunday. Forgive me. It’s December and we’re almost at the end of the tunnel that is 2020. How are you holding up?

Our hotel in Montreux looked like it popped straight out of a Wes Anderson set.

I loved the hotel’s mango ice cream-colored carpets, its rooms equipped with inner and outer doors, and the thick wooden side table which looked like it used to house a retro radio with knobs and dials (since removed, leaving the table with unexplained holes). My suspicions were confirmed when I leafed through the hotel flyer and discovered it was built in the 1870s.

On the plus side, the hotel was conveniently located next to Lake Geneva, a short walk from the train station and a longer (but still easy) walk to Chillon Castle. The castle is actually a medieval château made famous by Lord Byron in his poem ‘The Prisoner of Chillon,’ which he wrote after a visit to the castle back when it was still used as an actual prison.

Chillon Castle

According to the castle guide, Byron single-handedly kick-started tourism to the castle, which is now one of the most visited historical monuments in Switzerland. A true turista, Lord Byron also graffiti-ed his name on one of the columns in the castle dungeons. Unlike normal-person graffiti though, his is carefully preserved.

The walk back to the hotel from Chillon Castle is dotted with these wire figures performing random sports activities. Here’s one pole dancing.

Random fact — I took a pole dancing class years ago! It’s not as easy as it looks

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Our hotel was also located next to the town promenade where a statue of Freddie Mercury stood. From the plaque at the base, I found out that 1) Mercury was born Farrokh Bulsara on the East African island of Zanzibar (!), 2) he had strong links to the town and acquired a lakeside studio here in 1978, and 3) Montreux was where he did his final work. I savoured these new pieces of trivia and envied Freddie his daily view.

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We had lunch with old friends whom we hadn’t caught up properly with during the wedding – walnut pesto, sticky four-cheese pizza, and clams which were surprisingly good (and way better than what the Hub and I had in Nice). Afterward, we had gelato outdoors along the lake. I can’t remember why but the conversation turned to babies. E said she was sure she didn’t want any, she couldn’t stand the fussiness. A said she was undecided. Both had urgent questions for me, the sole mother in the group at that time.

Did I eat fish during pregnancy? Yes, but I had to cut out sushi (which A found acceptable) and alcohol (this, she protested). Could you feed babies water? I replied no.

I shared with A that I didn’t really like being pregnant (“You’re not helping!” said E, who wished for A to get started on the baby-making ASAP). I felt I had to explain so I started, “Don’t get me wrong…” “Hay naku, when someone starts with ‘don’t get me wrong’ that’s where I get concerned,” E said. I had to laugh.

I love the end result, of course. But admitting that one dislikes the process of getting there, the bloat and the bulge and the heaviness, the way your body stretches to accommodate a tiny human (but does not stretch politely back when the human is out, how rude) – that’s an unpopular opinion, it seems. What with the ‘glow’ all pregnant women are supposed to experience (which I call BS on). Anyway, every time I talk about this I always tend to over-explain.

A wall of chocolate at the grocery. No limits on chocolate when you’re pregnant

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After our lunch the Hub and I hopped on the GoldenPass Panoramic to Zweisimmen, which after two more train changes would eventually see us in the Swiss Alps, where we planned to spend a few days. The panoramic express was truly worth it – rolling hills, chalets perched alongside said hills, snow-capped mountains, flowing canals, and cows standing on the slopes (how do they do that?!). The scenery was so achingly beautiful that at one point the Hub turned to me and said, “Ganito ba buong Switzerland?” in disbelief. I completely agree – the Swiss lucked out.

The train ride was around five hours long. We passed the time reading, soaking in the Sound-of-Music like fields zipping past, and having intelligent conversations like this (which I faithfully jotted down in my journal):

Hub: “Gaano kaya kataas yung clearing na yun?”

Me: “Mataas.”

H: “Eh yung isang mountain na yun papunta sa isa?”

M: “Mas mataas.”

H: “Eh yung paakyat dun sa may ice?”

M: “Super taas.”

I also people-watched a bit. Next to us sat a trio of women, one a platinum blonde woman in her 30s, one with black hair streaked with grey, and the third an older, smaller woman with thick, all-white curls (I will call her Little Old Lola a.k.a. LOL). LOL told the most stories — her voice full of energy and loud enough for me to hear (and listen to, had I understood French). All three ladies nursed a plastic glass of wine. LOL finished hers well before they got off at their stop.

I could get used to this. Travelling on trains subsisting on nothing but Vittel water and small croissants for weeks. When I’m as old as LOL, hopefully.

Think critically dear readers,

Sunday Sofa Sojourns #20: Panama City, Panama

Travel time from Singapore to Panama City takes nearly 1.5 days, one-way, or 3 days in total. This includes flights and various airport layovers. It was, and still is, the farthest I’ve ever flown.

But there I was, sipping a piña colada at the CasaCasco rooftop terrace in the middle of Casco Viejo, Panama City’s old quarter. I was chatting with our site engineer from Barbados and our site veteran electrician from the Netherlands about Jollibee. It felt a little surreal. Why was I here?

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The why was easy to answer. I was in Panama for work. I visited a site along the famous Panama Canal and wrapped up what I had to do in a few days. On the way to and from the site I was surprised to see vehicles in Panama had no front licence plates. Our site engineer confirmed it wasn’t required, which he said could be annoying if you were waiting for an Uber and had to let every car pass by first before you could check out its plate.

Considering I had come such a long way, I decided to book a guided day tour on TripAdvisor to see the canal’s water locks and a few other sights. When the tour van arrived, it ended up being just me and an African American family of three from New York – parents and a surly teenager – which suited me just fine as I could chill with my music at the back, by myself.

The parents asked me where I was from and I told them I traveled from Singapore but am from the Philippines, which surprised them. The mother in particular seemed keen to hear about where else I’d been and kept trying to make small talk. Maybe she was just being polite.

Panama City uses US dollars so it’s a popular place to holiday for Americans. Miguel, our tour guide / driver told us if you drive straight on the Pan-American Highway, we’d reach Costa Rica, then Mexico, then the US. We could even drive all the way to Canada and it would only take us two weeks. It was the first time I ever heard of this road.

Our first stop was the Panama Canal’s Miraflores Locks. It sounds cliché but seeing the canal up close really emphasised how it truly was a marvel of human creativity and engineering. It opened in 1914 and continues to operate in the present-day virtually unchanged.

Miguel said, think of it as the Pacific on your right shoulder, the Atlantic on your left. The locks elevate up to 1,200-ft length ships to head-level. (Probably not to scale.) No pumps are used, and ships save up to twenty days of travel around Cape Horn. The two magic ingredients? Gravity and more importantly, water.

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We made a pit stop near the Bridge of the Americas where there was a small park dedicated to the Chinese community in Panama. They had a long history here on the other side of the world and were key to building Panama’s railroads and bridges over 150 years ago. (Even here, I was reminded of my language classes. 惊喜连连!) Miguel seemed very amused by the phonebooth in the park and made each of us take a photo inside it.

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Miguel drove us to Amador Causeway which was an artificial road built by the American military to protect the canal entrances and exits at both ends. At the end of the causeway was an outlet store where I bought dark chocolates with chili and sea salt and briefly considered purchase of a Panama hat as pasalubong for the Hub.

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We then made our way back at Casco Viejo, where I had been the evening before, to look for a place to eat. There were many teenagers on the square – it was graduation day that day – and there were also a number of churches which reminded me of Intramuros.

More dark chocolate purchases

We ended up at Central Hotel (Miguel’s recommendation) ordering what I thought was a pretty standard carbonara pasta. Apparently, it wasn’t basic enough – the teenager was only picking at his plate and I overheard his mother saying “How are we going to travel if you don’t start eating different” which for some reason struck me as funny.

Exotic cream spaghetti

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Traveling alone didn’t bother me as much as having to transit through a US airport. It was my first time to do so. This was a great source of anxiety for me, mainly because of horror stories from family and friends. Their overarching message seemed to be: travel through the US is tough when you’re brown-skinned.

Thankfully, my trip was mostly uneventful except for my transit through Houston to Panama City. The guy at immigration was all right, he asked me if I travelled a lot, I said yes and he stamped my passport and waved me on. Customs was slightly scarier – they stopped me for a bag check which left me waiting nearly 40 minutes near a special luggage belt.

There was very little time on the layover and I felt stressed because it was ten minutes to boarding and my bag had not appeared on the belt. (I needed to check out and in again, because I had to pass through immigration.) My luggage had been tagged and was supposed to be one of the first to appear. I mentioned this to the airport staff who quipped “Oh, they don’t care about that downstairs.” Amazing service, US airports. (In contrast to Singapore, where you can find your bag on the belt as soon as you clear immigration, or Tokyo, which even positions your bag a certain way on the belt so it’s easier for you to grab and go.)

Anyway after all that, I was eventually told they’d just let me go because the airline had already forwarded my bag on to my next flight.

Still, the presence of so many Filipinos in the SFO Airport shops was comforting.

Think critically dear readers,

Sunday Sofa Sojourns #19: Pisa, Italy

While at the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa in Italy with the Hub, I thought two thoughts:

Random Thought #1.

Where did I put away my 4th year high school Physics book? Paul Hewitt was the reason why Physics was my favourite science subject then. I remember reading up to Einstein’s theory of relativity, past the required reading list, just because I was so caught up with Mr. Hewitt’s writing + his Hewitt Drew-It cartoons. (Ah, the nerdy days of yore.) I hoped my mom hadn’t given the book away. Random connection to Pisa: I vaguely recalled one of his cartoons showing Galileo throwing balls from the tower to demonstrate Newton’s Laws of Motion.

The shadow of the tower on the neighbouring buildings
The inside of the Baptistry looks like a spider’s web. The font is at the centre

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Random Thought #2.

Why is the Leaning Tower of Pisa so squeaky-clean white? Considering its age, I expected it to be a little dirtier. Was there perhaps some mould-repelling characteristic of Italian marble which I didn’t know about?

The Leaning Tower of Pisa and the Duomo

A Google search that night revealed that the tower’s fresh-as-nearly-nine-centuries-old look was the result of eight years of careful restoration, finished in 2010.

Do not be deceived into thinking the Leaning Tower is an easy climb because it appears short. The lean itself threw me off. I felt like I was falling when rounding those corners, as if navigating a marble fun-house.

However of all the buildings at the square, my favorite was the cemetery, or the Camposanto

It wasn’t as popular as the Duomo or the other buildings so there was hardly anyone about. There’s something peaceful about the early morning light, the scuffed marble on the floor, the stone faces that had long lost their noses, the empty sarcophagi.

Most of the frescoes were destroyed in WW II
A famous resident

Of course I also did my touristy duty and had a token “Look Ma, I’m holding up the Leaning Tower” shot that kind of looked like this:

Tai-chi at the tower (Source)

I also tried to imagine what Mr. Chinese Factory Worker was thinking (because really, all the souvenirs I’ve bought here in Europe have a ‘Made in China’ sticker) when he was making these leaning shot glasses.

Think critically dear readers,

The Hilltop Merlion

We live near a small hill in central Singapore called Mount Faber. One afternoon after fetching our kid from school, we decided to hop on a cable car (not too much of an indulgence, since we have an annual pass) and walk to the lookout on top of the hill.

We recently learned that apart from the famous Merlion in the central business district downtown, there were four other official, Singapore Tourism Board-approved Merlion statues scattered around Singapore, and our neighbourhood hill housed one of them. (There used to be six, but the giant Merlion on Sentosa with Cyclops laser eyes was closed last year.)

The Merlion statue itself is a short ten-minute walk from the cable car stop, at a spot called Faber Point.

You can get there via a shaded path where you can find murals depicting various scenes in Singapore’s history.

The view at Faber Point was stunning – on one side was the sea, the tall cranes at the port, the distinctive shape of the luxurious Reflections at Keppel Bay residential complex, and the orange egg yolk-sun sinking slowly on the horizon.

On the other side were neat rows of Housing and Development Board (HDB) flats in the Bukit Purmei estate and a glimpse of the city skyline.

It was quiet when we dropped by, with only a few joggers catching their breath and one enthusiastic teen busy with what I guess was a TikTok video. She danced alone, with her phone camera on a little tripod.

There were many telescopes at various sides of the lookout point for us to get a closer look at the scenic views. Each side had an arrow which indicated both an international and a local destination that – I assume – one would eventually reach by walking straight as the crow flies, through walls and water.

Here’s looking at you, Manila.

Think critically dear readers,

Sunday Sofa Sojourns #18: London, UK (The First Day)

I dug in my archives for this one. I wrote it back when we lived in London. Homesickness hit hard back then.   

I’ve been in London for around two years now, but I remember my arrival here clear as day. While I’m in the process of catching up with my backlog of travel posts, I thought it would be good to write about my current home and the very first European city I ever visited.

The Hub (then the Fiancé) picked me up at Heathrow after an hour or so of nervous waiting, because my scheduled ride from the relocation company never showed up. We took a black cab to Citadines Barbican, the serviced apartment where I would stay for my first month. I remember passing by the Big Ben, all lit up in the evening, and thinking to myself it was shorter than I expected.

Citadines Barbican, my first home in the UK

Since I arrived quite late, most of the nearby stores were already closed. (Another thing to get used to, coming from Makati where the malls close 10pm on weekends!) There was a Tesco Express near the apartment so we went there to stock my tiny fridge for the next few days. My very first purchases were a carton of Tesco chocolate milk, a jug of Cravendale whole milk, Yakult (only because it reminded me of home), a Lindt orange dark chocolate bar, a bottle of Evian, and a box of Kellogg’s Crunchy Nut Clusters. I also bought a tray of juicy Sweetheart cherries — it was my first time to see fresh cherries that didn’t come in a jar.

The apartment was 10 minutes from the office. I arrived a few days before starting work to allow myself time to settle down and recover from the jetlag.

The Hub walked me to the office so I would know where to go. Afterward, we went for a stroll around the immediate neighbourhood.

A glimpse of St. Paul’s Cathedral, a short walk from the office

It was the perfect introduction to London weather: a grey “summer” day, complete with rain.

The streets around Barbican

I found it fascinating that there were plaques commemorating most anything all over the city. It was like a mini-history lesson wherever I went.

Maybe it’s because I grew up with reading so many British authors–Charles Dickens, Roald Dahl, Jane Austen, etc – I felt like the city was foreign yet familiar.

Street art around the Barbican
My first time to encounter the concept of cycle hires. In my time, these were Barclays bikes a.k.a. Boris bikes — and they had just been introduced. I think they’re now called Santander Cycles, and they changed the colour scheme to red.
Street art around the Barbican

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Since then, whenever I feel stressed from work, I always remind myself how absolutely lucky I am to be working in London, surrounded by so much beauty and history.

I’ve taken thousands of photos, been to many more places since then. There are still some days though, when I remember that first week when the City and I were both new to each other. And I just can’t shake off a strange melancholy.

Think critically dear readers,

Sunday Sofa Sojourns #17: Brussels, Belgium

It’s a historic, joyful day for our friends over in the USA. Deep breath, savour the moment!

In the midst of today’s excitement and the absolutely hilarious, yet fitting end to that man’s presidency in a random landscaping company’s parking lot, I thought I’d keep today’s #SundaySofaSojourns short and sweet (literally).

We did a lot of stuff in Belgium – including a token visit to the popular tourist spot Mannekin-Pis, a statue of a little boy peeing a jet of water into a fountain (why is this famous?) – but I particularly enjoyed the little taste test the Hub and I conducted on one of the things Belgium is best known for. Introducing:

The Great Belgian Chocolate Challenge!

The Contenders: Neuhaus vs. Wittamer vs. Marcolini (It’s like the name of a dorky three-way boxing match.)

The Mechanics: Buy a box of chocolates from each store, eat them, and judge which was the best. Simple enough.

We started “judging” these on the train from Brussels to Bruges. The sweets barely made it.

(1) Neuhaus’ Claim to Fame: Established 1857. Creator of the praline and the ballotin. Mr. Neuhaus created the first filled chocolates ever in 1912 (bless him) and also created a gift-wrap box to protect them from being crushed, i.e. the ballotin.

Neuhaus pralines

(2) Wittamer’s Claim to Fame: Creating chocolate-y goodness since 1910. Official supplier to the Court of Belgium. Chocolates fit for the royals!

Chocolates fit for royalty — Wittamer

(3) Pierre Marcolini’s Claim to Fame: The youngest kid of the three, born 1995. Mr. Marcolini was named the World Champion of Pastry.

Marcolini heaven

The Verdict: Neuhaus’ pralines were a winner in my book. The Hub liked the richness of the cocoa flavours in Wittamer’s chocolates. However, both of us loved the variety in Marcolini’s “origin” chocolates – it evoked delicious, exotic locations (even the Earl Grey Tea flavor was *chef’s kiss*).

So… a three-way tie I suppose. 🍫

Think critically dear readers,

Sunday Sofa Sojourns #16: Jungfrau, The Swiss Alps

I’m back! I feel bad that I haven’t been blogging as often as I’d like to lately. Believe me, if I had the time these past weeks to blog I would.

Cases are on the rise again in some part of the world. The day when all of us hit the road again seems even further away. For now, I hope you enjoy this throwback post as we travel together from the safety of home.

We made Wengen our base for our Swiss Alps trip. We stayed at Hotel Edelweiss, run by warm and friendly hosts whom we got to know a little over the next few days. It was the kind of place with an “honesty box” in the lounge for the snacks and tea.

The garden had two huge bunnies and a nice playground nearby with a wooden log house our kid would’ve loved, had we brought him along. I told the Hub that Wengen looked a little like Tagaytay Highlands, except with better views. The air was so fresh and pure.

The next morning, we had a breakfast of toast with honey, cherry jam, homemade wild berry juice, cold meats, and cheese from Ultima, the hotel cow. We were set to visit Jungfraujoch that day, a mountain that billed itself as the “Top of Europe” at 3,454m above sea level. The Hub was obsessively checking each mountain’s live webcam on the hotel TV to see whether the peaks were foggy or rainy, ready to change our itinerary depending on the weather. (The webcams are also available online.) Thankfully it was clear skies over Jungfraujoch that day.

From Wengen, we traveled to Kleine Scheidegg via Lauterbrunnen, and onward to Jungfraujoch. Rail tickets are crazy expensive in Switzerland. Instead of buying individual tickets, tourists can save by opting for a Swiss Travel Pass, a 2nd class 4-day adult ticket that costs over CHF 410 and allows you unlimited travel throughout the Swiss rail, bus and boat network.

But we found the Half-Fare Card (CHF 120) to be better value for us because #1, we weren’t staying in Switzerland that long and the Swiss Travel Pass was better value only if you spread the cost over more days and # 2, most of the rail journeys we had planned were quite short. The Half-Fare Card is valid for one month and you need to have a copy with you at all times, as most conductors ask to see it when they check your tickets.

The Jungfraubahn train looked like it came straight out of a Hercule Poirot novel, with its red velvet seats and cog wheels. The route to the top takes you through the mountain via a tunnel hacked, cut, and dug by manual labour in the 1890s. The visionary engineers who designed the Jungfrau Railway were so good at their job that the railway has been running virtually unchanged since 1912. The fascinating history of how it was built is on this link.

There are two 5-minute stops at Eigerwand and Eismeer before you reach the top, except if the train’s running late (which in our case, it was). I didn’t mind too much because Jungfraujoch was just… wow.

Jungfraujoch has come a long way since the 1900s. It’s a vast complex with an observation deck, a snow fun park, a historical exhibit called Alpine Sensation, an Ice Palace full of sculptures, restaurants, and even shops selling Swiss watches and chocolate.

The best part of the day for me was when we walked out in the snow in an attempt to make it to Mönchsjochhütte, a hut with supposedly breathtaking views of the Valais mountains. I couldn’t even see it from the trail, it was such a small speck.

But oh, how I loved the vast expanse of white. The Hub said we could actually get sunburn from the chin up because the white was reflecting everything. (We both did get a little tanned by the end of the trip.) There were very few clouds, which moved briskly by, and the sun looked so close directly overhead.

I felt a little thrill whenever I slipped on the ice. What if I fell all those many meters above sea level? The snow was as soft as our kid’s powdered milk (I thought of him often on that trip).

We said yes to everyone who asked us to take their picture. We saw not one, not two, but three different waves of women stripping off their sweaters and thick jackets for a photo facing the mountains.

They looked so brave, with their “I ❤️ SWITZERLAND” pompom hats and perky breasts and YOLO, devil-may-care shrieking. I thought for a second what it must feel like to be young and carefree like that, a chilly wind on my naked chest. “Why?” an Asian tourist beside us laughed in disbelief, taking a snap. Well, I thought, why not?

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The Ice Palace had sculptures of eagles and bears and a rooster with Chinese script – a nod to the many Chinese tourists we saw on our trip. They often moved in massive groups and you had to make sure to scoot ahead of them else you get caught in the tide.

We took too many photos on the observation deck which was over-full with people. I had qualms bringing our kid to Switzerland because we would be climbing peaks like Jungfrau, and I read that the high altitudes and thin air could make very young children sick. But I saw a fair number of little people on the deck, tiny ones in baby carriers and some close to our kid’s age, toddling around way too close to the rails.

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We had lunch at the cafeteria. It seemed the Indian tourist groups were fairly large too because they had their own restaurant, Bollywood, right below the Lindt chocolate shop. I had chicken nuggets with fries — I suspect I accidentally ordered a kids’ meal — while the Hub had chicken in a yellow curry sauce.

While we were eating, we suddenly heard a roaring rumble. The cafeteria walls shook. A giant mound of snow, presumably from the restaurant roof, fell down the mountainside. Apparently it’s all part of a normal day up at Jungfrau, but for a moment there I thought we were going to tumble in a wild avalanche down the mountain.

This is much bigger than an “icicle”

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On our way down we chatted with an American couple on the train who were on holiday. It turned out the guy’s stepmom is Filipino (“Her cooking is over the top, but I miss it!”). He told us about how long it took for his dad to bring his stepmom over to the US. The train conductor gave us two small chocolate bars after he stamped our tickets.

That afternoon, the Hub and I had a silly argument about stamps (don’t ask). It lasted for the length of the walk to Trummelbach Falls (around 45 minutes), during which time:

  • I got momentarily blinded by an unknown insect that I had to rinse off with sweet-smelling water from a trough,
  • We both saw a paraglider falling gracefully down the field next to us (first of many I saw on that trip), and
  • We got turned away at the falls because they closed at 5PM.

I remember that strange, quiet walk with the Hub because later that evening, a bombing at an American pop star’s UK concert was all over the local news in our hotel. And I realised I needed to be more like the women in the pompom hats. They had the right idea. Life is too short, much too short, not to live in the present.

Think critically dear readers,

Sunday Scares #4: Books-Turned-Movies

In honour of Halloween, this October instead of my weekly Sunday Sofa Sojourns posts I will list a few of my favourite creepy things. I’ve written about horror graphic novels, kids’ books, and music videos.

I hate to be that person but, but in the case of these three books – they really were better than the movies.

1) World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks (2006)

First line: “It goes by many names: ‘The Crisis,’ ‘The Dark Years,’ ‘The Walking Plague,’ as well as newer and more ‘hip’ titles such as ‘World War Z’ or ‘Z War One.’”

From George Romero’s game-changing Dead movies, to scary shibito in the Siren PS games, to the crazy fast hybrid versions in ’28 Days Later,’ I find the concept of zombies fascinating. Zombies are the perfect foil to humanity’s complicated emotions: survival, compassion, mercy, grief, hope. The undead can even potentially be a great teaching tool of various values for kids.

Anyway, nowadays zombies have been done to death (pun intended). TV shows, movies, games, chibi versions – they’re everywhere. The United States Centre for Disease Control and Prevention even has a special site on zombie preparedness.

But if you’re a fan, as far as books with the undead go World War Z remains one of my favourites. It’s written as a collection of interviews across the globe complete with a believable introduction from the book’s anonymous narrator. The narrator traces the “Z epidemic” from its first victims all the way through to the final chapter. The zombies are great equalizers: most countries pitched in to combat the threat. The debate of what is right or wrong on the subject of preserving the human race comes up in the “clear, logical, efficient” solution proffered by one character.

The book covers a wide variety of practical situations: dealing with the undead in winter, the most important people a community needs to rebuild after a crisis (unsurprisingly, bankers don’t feature very highly on the list), what the Queen of England would do.

All sorts of characters are revealed too: the opportunists, the crazies, the disbelievers, the everyday heroes, the governments who bungled their response vs. those who didn’t. What’s interesting is that if you replace the zombie epidemic with a more realistic event (say, a certain ongoing pandemic), the scenarios and characters are not far-fetched at all…

Overall, the movie butchered the nuance in favour of a tidy story. If you’re a fan of the genre, pick up this book and start reading.

2) I Am Legend by Richard Matheson (1954)

First line: “On those cloudy days, Robert Neville was never sure when sunset came, and sometimes they were in the streets before he could get back.”

I put down the book abruptly. I was in between Chapters 4 and 5, and Robert Neville had just realized his watch had stopped. The afternoon was bright outside, and next to me on the couch the Hub kept on playing his NBA game on the console, nonplussed. “What’s wrong?” I remember him asking. I could feel my heart pounding, fast. “I’m scared,” I replied.

Matheson’s I Am Legend still scared me in broad daylight. It pulled me in and held fast. The book is about Robert Neville, sole survivor of a disease that turned everyone else to vampires. His wife, daughter, and neighbour Ben Cortman (who, in vampire form, seems to relish tormenting Robert on a nightly basis by camping outside his house) have succumbed to the disease and are either dead or undead.

Robert is dedicated to finding the cause and cure for the disease, and had established a regular routine: eating breakfast, making sure his car was in good condition, burning bodies, gathering ‘subjects’ for experiments, fixing his house barricade, and drinking. There are some interruptions: a poor dog that wanders by (unlike the movie, the dog wasn’t with him from the start — but both versions are just as heart-breaking), Robert losing track of time as the day turned to night, the possibility of another survivor.

What I like best about I Am Legend is how Matheson forces us, over the course of the novel, to think about the power of perspective and majority rule. Who is the hunter and the hunted? Following that, what dictates our sense of right and wrong? Matheson prompts us to consider this early on in the story, as Robert argues with himself in a drunken haze:

“Vampires are prejudiced against. The key of minority prejudice is this: They are loathed because they are feared…

At one time, the Dark and Middle Ages, to be succinct, the vampire’s power was great, the fear of him tremendous. He was anathema and still remains anathema. Society hates him without ration.

But are his needs any more shocking than the needs of other animals and men? Are his deeds more outrageous than the deeds of the parent who drained the spirit from his child? The vampire may foster quickened heartbeats and levitated hair. But is he worse than the parent who gave to society a neurotic child who became a politician? Is he worse than the manufacturer who set up belated foundations with the money he made by handing bombs and guns to suicidal nationalists? […] Is he worse, then, than the publisher who filled ubiquitous racks with lust and death wishes? Really, now, search your soul, lovie — is the vampire so bad?

All he does is drink blood.”

3) Tales of H.P. Lovecraft by Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890-1937)

First line: “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.” (The Call of Cthulhu)

I remember my first Lovecraft story very well. “The Rats in the Walls” was one of the stories in Great Short Tales of Mystery and Terror, a Reader’s Digest compilation I loved so much, I tried to steal it from my high school library. The story made such an impression on me I had nightmares about the underground ruins and “flabby, fungous” shapes that night.

Lovecraft is probably best known for his style of writing about fantastic, hopeless terrors on a vast scale, a genre known as cosmic horror. I think his stories don’t scare in a jump-out-of-your-skin sort of way, but in the creeping dread that you get when reading it. Before you dive in to the many films Lovecraft’s work has inspired, it would be better to read the man himself.

My compendium of Lovecraft stories is edited by Joyce Carol Oates. In her introduction she mentions the ‘Cthulhu Mythos’ which is an alternate mythology where “there are no gods, but only displaced extra-terrestrial beings, The Great Old Ones who journeyed to Earth many millions of years ago.” Cthulhu is one of these Great Old Ones, with its “cuttlefish head, dragon body, scaly wings,” “a green, sticky spawn of the stars” with “flabby claws,” and the awful ability to fuse itself right back despite being stabbed in the stomach by a “sturdy yacht.” (“There was a bursting as of an exploding bladder, a slushy nastiness as of a cloven sunfish, a stench as of a thousand open graves, and a sound that the chronicler would not put on paper.”)

Reading Lovecraft describe “distant wastes and dark places” in 1920s Providence has a dreamlike aspect to it (my mind imagined his words in soft focus). His horrors were ancient and vague — monsters that lived in the dark depths of the sea, humanoid water-beasts, alien colours —  far away from where I was, reading next to the brightness of my laptop.

Lovecraft’s stories continue to fascinate and draw me in. Whatever the setting, fear itself is timeless. As Lovecraft himself said, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”

“In his house at R’lyeh dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.” (Image source: Pinterest)
Source: Pinterest

That ends my Sunday Scares edition this year. Join me as I resume “travelling” next week! ✈️

Think critically dear readers,