Fuzzy but Free

“Just walk without your specs.”

Now why would I do that? I was in a volatile city in a foreign land, walking on a barely familiar path with someone I hardly knew. She had myopia, not as severe as mine, but she casually ambled along the pavement without lenses, completely unperturbed by the haziness of her vision.

I’d heard that people do some pretty crazy things in Jerusalem. There’s even a psychological phenomenon named after the city – the Jerusalem syndrome – where mentally stable people feel the inexplicable need to shout Bible verses, deliver sermons, wear white gowns, or single-handedly trigger the coming of the Messiah. Of course, staggering around like a blind bat was nowhere near the insanity of tourists suddenly assuming biblical personas, but it was an odd suggestion nonetheless.

The year was 2013. I was on an exchange programme at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where I met some of the most fascinating people I’ve ever encountered. My roommate was a religious American Jew who sat in darkness during the Shabbat (that was when I learned that observant Jews refrain from using electricity on the Sabbath). I attended lectures with a Japanese diplomat who had witnessed first-hand the turmoil of Mubarak’s overthrow in Cairo. I vaguely recall a middle-aged Ugandan man who spoke animatedly as he extolled the virtues of Kabbalah, the ancient tradition of Jewish mysticism. I distinctly remember my bewilderment when an American student railed about the “irresponsibility” of Israeli soldiers on the tram who had strapped their magazines to their rifle butts… instead of keeping their weapons loaded and cocked, ready to respond in the event of a terror attack.

But I spent most of my time with a Chinese student from Canada, the same one who had nonchalantly suggested that I walk the streets of Jerusalem with blurred vision.

“I can’t see a thing without my specs,” I protested.

“But you already know the way from campus to the accommodation block. Can you see the cars and pedestrians? That’s good enough.” Her reply was striking in its simplicity. But that changed abruptly as the conversation took an unexpected leap into the terrain of new-age spirituality.

“Just free yourself!” she exclaimed. “Why do you need to remain in control of your surroundings? Do you really need to see everything clearly?”

How did she turn a silly little dare into a philosophy lesson? Did I look like a Beatle sitting at the feet of the Maharishi?

Stunned and slightly amused, I let her words sink in. As outlandish as her remarks were, I admired the carefree attitude behind her words, which stood in stark contrast to my own uptight and cautious disposition. Maybe my hesitation really did indicate a need for absolute control over my surroundings. Perhaps I needed to embrace a tiny bit of insecurity? After all, hadn’t I already hopped on a plane to the Middle East completely alone?

I never thought I would engage in such deep soul-searching on the street. But those were the streets of the Holy City after all.

With straight back and puffed-up chest, I smugly removed my specs and made my way back without incident. Rather than feeling crippled by blurred vision, I felt unburdened, unencumbered, free. There was no bridge resting on my nose, no smudges to wipe off, no barrier between my eyes and the strange new land before me – a land I would soon make my home for two years.

It was an unremarkable event but it’s remained in my memory as a helpful metaphor for life. We will never completely understand the events in our lives, or immensely complex geopolitical trends, or even the innermost thoughts of our loved ones. The mundanities and vagaries of life coalesce into foggy obscurity. But we can still move forward. Naturally we’d like to have 20/20 vision all the time, but there’s no need to fret if we don’t have full clarity. We don’t need to know or understand everything.

It’s liberating to know that there’s freedom in the fuzziness.

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Accept, Reject, Don’t Ignore

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Chapel of the Shepherd’s Field, Bethlehem

Last week in Bethlehem, I tried to help two tourists who had just gotten off the bus from Jerusalem and were poring over a map of the city. It was quite obvious to me that these European girls had never been to Bethlehem before, and so I decided to point them in the right direction.

I approached them and asked if they were searching for the Church of the Nativity. But the girls completely ignored me and continued scrutinising their map. It took me a few seconds to realise that they thought I was a local taxi driver trying to fleece them.

“I’m a tourist like you. I’m also walking to the church,” I said. Again, complete silence. I walked off in disgust.

To some degree, I understand the girls’ behaviour. They had just been accosted by an army of taxi drivers and tour guides, and were feeling insecure in an unfamiliar environment. Also, even Arabs think I’m Arab, so it’s no surprise that these girls thought so too.

But at the very least, they could have replied with a polite but firm “No, thank you”. They didn’t even acknowledge my presence. It was quite a dehumanising experience.

Of course, I can easily brush this experience off. But hundreds of Palestinians experience this everyday. So do thousands of taxi drivers, tour guides, salesmen, advertisers, and beggars around the world. As much as possible, I’ve decided that no matter how annoyed or inconvenienced I am by such people on the streets, I will either accept or reject their offers, but will not ignore them.

A little empathy goes a long way.

Train 202: Armenia to Georgia

“Sorry, my English is not good, but where are you from?”

Cue the nervous smile. Whenever I’m asked this question, I always wonder what my interlocutor’s reaction to my response will be. It’s often a puzzled look with a comment about how I don’t look Singaporean. Or I may be asked more questions about whether Singapore is part of China, what the capital of Singapore is, and which city I’m from in Singapore.

My brother, Craig, and I were on the train from Armenia to Georgia. We were sitting with an elderly Georgian man and his wife, who were both intrigued by the curious sight of two bearded Asian brothers on a Soviet-era train in the Caucuses. When we replied that we were from Singapore – probably the first Singaporeans he had ever met in his life – he gave us a tentative smile and wished us a pleasant journey.

Our new Georgian friend probably wanted to ask more about us, but the language barrier was too high. I really wished that we could continue the conversation, but there was no common language between us besides the few words of English that he knew. At least that’s what I thought.

I was soon proven wrong. After the aborted conversation with our new acquaintances, Craig pulled out his iPad and left it on the table, hoping to read an e-book. Our Georgian friend promptly walked toward us and poured out a handful of roasted sunflower seeds on the iPad! We were surprised by his unusual choice of tablemat but grateful for his generosity.

To me, this was more than a gesture of kindness to fill our stomachs. I saw it as an act of accommodation and inclusion into the culture of the region. It was as if he was saying: “Come join my wife and me in an age-old Caucasian custom of snacking on sunflower seeds while looking out the window and watching the world go by.” I quickly understood why sunflower seeds are appropriate for train journeys – eating them is a very hypnotic and time-consuming activity. This is not a chocolate bar that you can wolf down in seconds. You have to break each shell open, which is often a struggle, and then pop each seed individually into your mouth. Soon you develop a soothing and therapeutic rhythm, broken by short pauses to give the jaw a break.

The sunflower seeds occupied us for at least half an hour. As my hands were breaking shells and my jaw was getting a workout, my eyes beheld the spectacular undulating terrain of the Armenian countryside. I daydreamed blissfully about the impressive Armenian monasteries I had seen, in which countless generations of monks not only studied the Scriptures, but developed the Armenian language, demonstrated their architectural prowess, studied the natural world through experiments, and mastered their feelings and temptations. I eagerly sought out one last glimpse of the formidable Mount Ararat, the resting place of Noah’s Ark and the national symbol of the Armenian people – a symbol that is so important that it sits at the heart of the Armenian state crest although it lies in Turkish territory. I solemnly reflected on the tragedy of the Armenian Genocide, and then smiled as I thought about the resolve of the Armenian people to emerge from the ashes, guard their rich heritage and build a brighter future.

My train of thought and mechanical eating were interrupted as our train pulled into the next station. Two new passengers joined our cabin – a sweet Georgian grandmother and her six-year old granddaughter, Anna. Unfortunately, the grandmother was even less confident in English than our first Georgian friend, so we were unable to talk throughout the journey. But I suspected that food would eventually break the ice again – and it did later on at dinner time. Meanwhile, the adorable Anna eyed us suspiciously but then broke into a smile each time we grinned at her – after which she would whisper something to her grandmother in Georgian, as if we understood. 🙂

Soon, Anna made friends with the girl from the next cabin. Their giggles added to the already jovial environment of strangers sharing stories, food, music and much laughter. It was heartwarming to see the pure and simple joy of making new friends, unadulterated by the urge to impress and put up false pretenses. I longed to participate in some way!

I got up to stretch my legs and walked to an open window to soak in more of the stunning Armenian landscape. Glorious mountains as far as the eye could see, overlooking quaint villages at their feet. An endless blanket of lush greenery against the rich gradient of the dusk. What a picturesque countryside!

Armenia mountains

We pulled into another train station in a small town close to the border with Georgia. The children of the town were playing on the railway platform. That’s probably their daily ritual, I thought. They probably gather at the train station every evening and frolic around the platform while eagerly awaiting the arrival of the 7 o’clock train. The wheels grind to a halt, the engine heaves a sigh of relief, and new faces emerge from the cabins. The new passengers watch the carefree children with delight, and the children revel in the attention. After five minutes, the train resurrects and pulls away from the station, while the children wave excitedly to the visitors who must now continue their journey to a faraway land.

As the sun sank slowly beneath the horizon, everyone pulled out packed meals from their bags in almost perfect synchrony. As I had expected, the grandmother kindly offered Craig and me some pastries. We politely declined but she insisted. After the pastries, our first Georgian friend offered us some delicious fried chicken, which we now accepted without question. Then he offered us a swig of vodka – with a refill – followed by a glass of beer. The look of gleeful mischief in his eyes was too much to resist.

After dinner, Anna entertained us with a few games and “magic tricks” until her grandmother said that it was time for her to sleep. “That will take a miracle,” I thought. “She’s pepped up on Coke and M&Ms!” What was even more miraculous was that Craig and I managed to heave ourselves onto the upper bunks. Fortunately for Anna and her grandmother, who were sleeping below us, the upper bunks held our weight all the way till Tbilisi, where we bid our friends adieu.

I had an unforgettable and priceless experience on Train 202. I was really touched by the generosity of our fellow passengers. But more than that, I was encouraged, inspired and even edified by the joie de vivre that I experienced on that train.