This first post is coming much later than planned but if there is anything that exchange has taught me so far is that you can’t always expect everything to go according to plan. What you should plan for is room to be flexible and to adjust to new things given the circumstances. And so, here’s the first post to kick off the exchange series. A month late, but definitely one to mark a long series to come.
I’m currently a month into my 4-month long exchange in Singapore, which I’ve discovered is the perfect hub for Southeast Asia travel. The first month is always a period of transition – getting used to the public transit, making new friends, getting used to a new residence, and figuring out the lay of the land when it comes to a brand new campus and brand new classes. This transition – moving 15,000 kilometres across the world – was no small transition but so far, the first month has been good. I’ve gotten used to life in Singapore (and can even see myself living here in the future), have met some great people, and I’ve gotten to cross a few places off my travel bucket list so far.
And of course, that’s what this first post is about. Travel. The sights I’ve seen and want to share. The memories I’m making and want to document and remember forever. The things that seem larger than life.
Prior to starting school in Singapore, my parents and I flew to Singapore together to do a cruise around the Malaysian Peninsula. The 10-day cruise had the following planned ports of call: the island of Bali in Indonesia, Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, Penang in Malaysia, and Phuket in Thailand.
Bali is one of those islands that you hear about time and time again. It was the “love” in Elizabeth Gilbert’s ‘Eat Pray Love’. It’s on every person’s “to see before I die” list. It pops up as a recommendation for post-graduation trips, honeymoon trips, and retirement trips. I don’t know if it’s the hype of Bali that makes everybody want to go, or if it’s Bali’s beauty on its own. When I think of Bali, I think of turquoise green waters, swimming pools with flower petals on the surface, green rice terraces, and happy people. And so, when I learned that our cruise had a stop in Bali, all these images suddenly flooded my mind.
We arrived in Bali early in the morning, and I could feel the excitement and the anticipation of all the other cruise passengers, as is the case with any first port of call on a cruise itinerary. My parents and I had signed up for an excursion that would take us to an Elephant Sanctuary about a 2-hour drive from where the ship would be docked in Benoa. We’d get to take pictures with the elephants, watch them roam around, and also ride on the back of one for 30 minutes around the elephant park. None of us had ever been up close to an elephant before, so it was going to be a first for all of us.
As soon as we stepped off the ship early in the morning, we were greeted with the sounds of chimes and local music. Along the path we had to walk to go meet our bus, they had invited locals to perform music. Some were sitting playing an instrument that looked like the xylophone, there were kids banging on drum sets, and there were men who seemed to be in charge of striking a gong. It looked a little unorganized upon first glance but the sound that it all made when it came together was magical. That’s probably the best way to describe it. I felt like at that moment – with us walking on the island of Bali, the chimes and the gongs, and the sun beating down on us – I was finally starting my journey in Southeast Asia. It’s in moments like this that I can often feel overwhelmed in a good way – overwhelmed by the joys of travel, by the happiness of being in a new place, and the euphoria you feel when you’re just in such a good moment that you want to remember forever.
We went to go meet our bus driver and from there, it was a two-hour bus ride to the elephant sanctuary. Our tour was taking us to the Mason Elephant Park, which is in Ubud and set in the misty lands of Taro. The park is home to 31 endangered Sumatran elephants (there are no elephants native to Bali), 4 of which were born in the park. At first, I felt a bit skeptical about going to an elephant park where we’d be riding elephants and interacting so closely with them, but it definitely reassured me that the park followed the ‘5 Freedoms of Animal Welfare’ established in Great Britain in 1965. I later learned that it meant freedom from hunger or thirst, freedom from discomfort, freedom from pain, injury or disease, freedom to express most normal behavior, and freedom from fear and distress.
At the park, before we started our ride, we were given some time to interact with the elephants. At a certain section of the park, there was a cluster of elephants that were waiting to be fed. We got some food for them (some were available for purchase, some were for free) and went over to go play with them.
The elephants – each and every one – were so loving and tender. What I loved to do was to stand in front of them, put my hands gently on their trunk, and look them in the eye. It felt like they were looking right back at me. It felt like they were saying, “I see you. I am aware you are here.”
My favourite part was when their trainers (each elephant had their own dedicated trainer and in some cases, some pairs (elephant and human) had been together for a few decades) would get them to pose for pictures. They’d rotate through a mixture of different poses – a smiling elephant, a bear hug with the trunk, or a kiss on the head. It was just all so surreal to be so up close and personal with these creatures.
The 30-minute ride was next on the agenda. The elephant (and the trainer) would take you around the park and would end the ride with a quick wade into the pond. Again, I was comforted by the fact that the seats were designed to not cause any discomfort or injury to the elephant and the ride itself actually provided the exercise each elephant needed. The whole ride, apart from taking photos and admiring the scenery, I was talking to the trainer who was leading the walk. He was sitting right on top of the elephant’s head and would occasionally pet the elephant’s ears.
He (and the elephant) had come from Sumatra and they had been together for many, many years. He talked about his life, his job at the elephant park, and his family. He had kids and a wife back home in Sumatra but he hadn’t seen them in quite a while. He worked day and night at the park, almost every single day, just to be able to make enough money for his family back home. The family who he never got to see.
This is one of the main things I love about travel: the chance to interact with the locals and hear their life stories. Because it makes you realize that the world is so much bigger than your hometown and the people you see on an everyday basis. Because it makes you realize that there are people from all walks of life, and you can do teach yourself something just by listening to their life story.
By the end of the day, when it was time to go back to the cruise ship, I couldn’t bear to leave the island. We had just seen one tiny piece of the puzzle of the Bali; there was still so much to explore. Luckily, I have the rest of my exchange semester to make a trip back, which I hope will happen soon.