Travels: Lessons on Nature

img_3410I remember telling Dawn when in Sapa, “It feels like we are in one of those 360 all around image drag”. The use of my wholly unnatural, technology-inspired phrase to describe the experience clearly reveals just how swagu I am in terms of nature.

Expanse. That was the sensation I was trying to describe. No towering buildings casting shadows on us to make us feel claustrophobic. Feeling like the world is so big and feeling I am so small.

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Throughout our 24 days we had the luxury of being in the mountains in Sapa, following the flow of the river in Laos, winding through karsts and hiking through forests in Cat Ba. We visited many well-known natural features specifically, like Halong Bay and Sapa’s terraces. But there’s a real difference between living in a place where man-made structures pop up amidst the nature as opposed to the other way around. Pure nature rather than the manicured patches of grass cut and pasted to fit around the concrete pavements and traffic lights in Singapore.

img_3599Nature is something I’m trying to get to know. Afterall, it wasn’t in the Singapore syllabus. I remember noticing how my Nepali friends were touching every plant along the way. After all in Singapore, nature means Singapore is a Garden in a City, but this Garden has rules.

“You mean, you can just pluck them off like that?”

“You mean, you can just throw peels on the floor?”

Stupid me. Banana peels are biodegradable – they’d be better off in the bushes.

Overtime I had to get used to being in non-Singapore. “Okay this is not Singapore, I can touch these.”

I was also in complete awe when they told me they knew the names of the plants they see. My vocabulary before I started to care was limited to names of fruits and a few other flowers such as bougainvillea (the kind on bridges and in schools), ixora (my primary’s school’s friend name), angsana (learnt that in science). Now I know a little bit more. And I was a rebel when I touched the plants in Pulau Ubin and even plucked off a tiny leaf despite the initial (because I know there’s no CCTV).

In comparison to my technology-inspired vocabulary, I remember a little girl who lived in the Nepali village who told me my green hair made me look like a peacock. The Sapien-whorf hypothesis really cued to my mind back then. If I asked myself as a little kid I would probably have said I look like a monster with my green tresses. In fact I have asked little kids at the program I volunteer with before and they just say I look like a monster that ate too much vegetables.

So yea. I remember coming back and immediately feeling inspired to initiate a day out with my friends at Pulau Ubin. It is truly one of the few places in Singapore where I could have feel a semblance of the expanse I felt when in Sapa amongst the rice terraces or at Halong Bay when on the boat. That was also where we saw crabs having sex.

On the other hand I was quite amused when I saw palm trees being planted in Marina Bay and the pathetic amount of grass they were afforded. The idea of Marina Bay is too progressive and futuristic for me to understand and appreciate. A great place for community I am sure, but the tribute it pays to nature seems a bit narcisstic, with its own super dome, trying to outshine nature but ending up as a expensive but poor mimicry.

And all this talk about nature matters because I’ve come to realise the lack of connection between Singaporeans and nature, which led us down paths of consumerism and a stressful lifestyle. How can we be environmentally friendly if nature is not our reality?

I remember someone being shocked that I volunteer for the environment, making the comment that: “I prefer to help the elderly and children. Like you know. People.” In that moment it made sense why nobody was turning up for the events we were organising. Environmentalism in Singapore is seen as lofty ideals serving an abstract. It is intuitive for people to help fellow human beings – the immediate human connection, the feeling of helping someone – that’s great. But what about the very soil we inhabit?

Environmentalists have tried to personify the environment of course, with terms like “Mother Earth”. But in Singapore, the disconnection is so great because we don’t depend on it (or at least it seems like we don’t). We have free flowing taps, food imported daily. We are living in such a built and man-made environment we are detached to the effects on the natural one. It’s okay to use styrofoam because it gets thrown away, incinerated and landfilled. My living environment is still clean because waste management in Singapore is efficient.

I’ve always felt that people who go for nature trails are hardcore nature lovers. But nature shouldn’t be a niche thing, or relegated to a hobby. I don’t expect myself to remember the names of every species of animal and plants. But I can try harder, look out for the greenery around us (I realised that the variety of plants planted in Punggol is quite high) and appreciate them. Literally stop to smell the roses.

On the other hand, I remember coming back to Singapore and going to Nex, and feeling overwhelmed. I want to hold on to that feeling because I need to remember that malls bring me into a place where I am not longer connected to the environment, where my values and actions are often reduced to purchasing items for momentary pleasure.

I mean, I’m no good at math. But surely the things we are producing, the number of malls we have, are excessive compared to what we actually need.

And that’s the end of my attempt to green-wash a travel piece. Or the other way around. A way to get people to read about environmental issues by tricking them into thinking its a travel blog.

Real travel pieces upcoming, I promise 😛

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