December 31, 2014 0 Comments

Welcome to the last day of 2014, the moment when we are supposed to reflect, give thanks and set goals for the year that would befall us in less than twenty four hours. Just mere ticktocks before we cross another threshold.

There are, naturally, many things to be thankful for. Access to clean water and food. Speedy internet, a glossy hand phone. Taking part in writing projects. The wherewithal to travel and experience different countries, to meander through forests, dirt roads and rivers.

Yet, my thoughts keep wandering to death and dying. What does it mean to pass away? What is the difference between people who choose to die and people who died without intending to?

In a space of days, death bloomed all around, like peonies in the spring. Something passed away. Someone died on a plane.

Do you know that it is statistically significant to experience more instances of death the older we grow? After all, the longer we live, the more likely we are to see dead creatures. It is expected. Growing up means surviving, means being inexorably drawn to organisms that do not survive.

My tortoise died not so long ago and I only discovered its death much later. For days, it lay in the tank, neither crawling nor nibbling. The other tortoise nudged it, pushing it away to get to the fresh green kalian and orange carrot placed right before its closed beak. I washed the poor tortoise with warm water and fed it organic cucumber, its favourite food. Perhaps, it was just refusing to eat, tired of being circumscribed in the same glass tank for almost five long years.

According to online sites, it might react to warmth. Start moving and eating again. Quickly, I bought a heat lamp. It never occurred to me that it was dead. This tortoise had always been passive. Slow, shy and timid. Its companion is the energetic one, knocking over the tray of water and dragging shreds of leaves around.

I thought it wanted to die by refusing food, like the dolphin that looked into its caretaker’s eyes before sinking to the bottom of the tank and drowning.

Years ago, I jokingly named it Xiang Luck, after my younger brother. They are somewhat similar in temperament. Now, my Xiang Luck is dead.

What does the other tortoise think? To be living in such close quarters with a corpse for days. To have to look at a face with rotting eyes, a body that was beginning to attract flies. This tortoise has always been somewhat of a bully, always chewing the tenderest leaves and pushing its now- dead comrade away.

I imagine that they are friends and that this other tortoise, like me, is mourning. It seems less eager to eat.

Would you think poorly of me if I were to say that my tortoise’s death impacted me far more than my grandfather’s? The former had been with me for more than five years, allowing me to stroke its forehead and wipe it clean after every shower. The latter had always been a distant figure. He was the archetypal masculine authority, there but silent, supportive in an aloof manner. Sorrow is a centipede that crawls on us in the most unexpected places in the most surprising manner. We know how much we should feel but don't feel.

Exactly one day after burying my tortoise in a grassy patch outside my primary school – I must do it even though I trembled while doing it – private and public spheres of sorrow collided. An air plane fell into the sea. Many lost their lives. Others lost their loved ones.

This is a moment as good as any to remember what came before and hang on to what would follow hereafter.


Mount Merapi: A Physically Painful Experience

December 12, 2014 , 0 Comments

While trekking on Mount Merapi can be painful, it remains rewarding. Lungs breathe clean moist air. Eyes absorb hitherto unseen sights. Every atom feels alive. 
A local poet once compared dawn to the tearing of light through a wound in the clouds.

Yet, this particular sunrise seems too harmonious to be described as such. It is far too gentle, transient, inviting and quiet.

 This is the cave where we spent one-point-five hours napping. It was exhausting to slither over scree, move from hugging trunk to trunk and just trying not to be impaled by broken branches.

I found myself wondering, why can't I be hornier? A mountain ram, with its exquisitely curved horns, is a skillful climber. So too a forest stag with a rack of antlers. Horny creatures, it seems, are better at climbing.

Our local guide, a patient, humourous, devious person, seemed to be smoking non-stop.
He lied to us that friend is 'pacar' in Bahasa Indonesia when it should be 'teman'. It led to a modicum of embarrassment the next day.
P.S. pacar = girlfriend

 This cloud is like a kueh lapis, with layers of fluffiness.

This giant clam, with stones as its shells and moss as its flesh, seems contented to be embedded in the rocky floor.

Dear faraway mountain,

Wearing a hat doesn't hide the fact that you're bald.


This brain-like fungus (lichen?) is humble. It doesn't demand anything from us except to leave it alone.

Someone - a scientist, I think - once said that it's easy to discover new fungi and name them after yourself. These organisms are abundant and fairly useless to humans, therefore not well studied.

Erioderma Yaoyao sounds like an interesting name.

Breakfast tasted exceptional, this banana pancake drizzled with caramel. (Partly because we barely slept that night.)

There are many moments during this trek that I felt like giving up. So tempting to just sit somewhere and while the night away. So tough to stay awake. So easy to fall asleep. Whatever happened, I am thankful.


A Critical Analysis of Seamus Heaney's Banks of a Canal

December 04, 2014 , 0 Comments

Heaney's Banks of a Canal, somewhat banally titled, is an exemplar of great art. It responds to a painting in the most sensual manner. The sonic beauty loaded into every line, the relentless streams of images, surprising if not startling. A casual reader is invited to stroll along the canal, sharing footsteps, breaths and thoughts with the poet.

This is what great art does: awaken the possibility of beauty, sparking a kernel of interest, touching, invading, even molesting. It upturns the staleness of existence, brings forth a fresh drizzle, clears layers of dirt and dust. A canal doesn't just facilitate the movement of water; it prompts the hesitant footsteps of one's thoughts, inviting meditations.

Painting and poetry, the best of them refracts life, love, loss. They touch even when one resists touching, even when one has hardened into a shiny piece of cold ore. They leave their imprints. It's a pleasure to be so influenced, to be brought to life in such a dangerous manner. Seeing the same with renewed eyes, seeing the familiar anew, it's strange. Weeds, insistent, sprouting, pots of coals, demanding to be felt. A journey about a water source or a reflection about one's thinking.

Banks of a Canal, near Naples, c 1872
by Gustave Caillebotte.
Photograph: National Gallery of Ireland
Banks of a Canal
by Seamus Heaney
Gustave Caillebotte, c.1872

Say ‘canal’ and there’s that final vowel
Towing silence with it, slowing time
To a walking pace, a path, a whitewashed gleam
Of dwellings at the skyline. World stands still.
The stunted concrete mocks the classical.
Water says, ‘My place here is in dream,
In quiet good standing. Like a sleeping stream,
Come rain or sullen shine I’m peaceable.’
Stretched to the horizon, placid ploughland,
The sky not truly bright or overcast:
I know that clay, the damp and dirt of it,
The coolth along the bank, the grassy zest
Of verges, the path not narrow but still straight
Where soul could mind itself or stray beyond.