The air conditioner in my office is really loud but I just realised this: I hadn’t noticed it at all!
Today when the air conditioner stopped suddenly, the office felt almost pin-drop silent, except I could still hear the ringing in my ears. The machine had been bellowing like a Ferrari – unnecessarily loud, but without the sexy to make it at least slightly palatable.
While my damaged ears were still ringing, I scribbled this in my notebook: we adapt and forget that we adapted.
One of the things I find myself enjoying more about travelling is the accommodation. No it is not about being able to afford to live in nicer hotels now that Charlane and I are both working adults. Money has little to do with the joy we are getting from staying in people’s homes through Airbnb!
For the first time in my life I’m yearning to go home early from a vacation. The only time this has happened was when I was 12 and stuck in the never-ending Women’s Street in Hong Kong with my mother and sister. I guess I could blame it on women, or Hong Kong.
But really, who does that? Who finds time to go on a vacation and then rushes home before its supposed to end?
What we’ve been doing in Hong Kong is walking and shopping and eating, which to most people (or at least any Singaporean) would be a fantastic holiday. Not to me though. Not this time, at least. It’s as boring as doing laundry. Washing the dishes is more interesting than walking in gigantic shopping malls with the same old big name brands. Eating in dim sum restaurants is nice, but this doesn’t feel like the time for it in my life right now.
Shopping isn’t what drove me borderline crazy today (though it had a part in it, especially during the hour that I stood at some corner in a shopping mall waiting for the family to finish their shopping). It’s the fact that I could have been spending this time working. I could be coding a website or deepening my understanding of programming or writing an essay. I wanna go home so I can work!
Maybe a few years from now this sort of thinking would appear to be a fallacy, but my drive to do more work is strong now and that is all I want to do right now. Write programmes, make electronics, write, create a business. Playing the guitar and street photography might also have a place in the list.
What is certain to me is that travelling to a familiar place has no place in my timeline right now. Travelling to a new place is different because that’s exploring, not relaxing and unwinding. There’s nothing to unwind. I’m not wound up.
Put me beside an average older person who has worked for 30 years and we will look like two different animals. I know deep down that that day will come for me too, as it does for every human being. In the end, we all realise that the only real currency we have isn’t wealth or even legacy, but time.
I know that, but I want to do good work and be useful to other people while I still have the drive and energy in me. I wanna go home!
The transitional space between pre-regulation and regulation might be the best time to get in on something.
Paddle boarding from the Manhattan side of New York to Brooklyn.
Unless it’s clearly bad for society collectively, only the sour and ill balanced will beat their chests and yell cry foul.
In life, there is plenty more that we can but don’t do. For some it’s because they don’t even think to do those things. For many others it might be more a matter of choice. But that is odd, considering how much we seem to like proclaiming that life is short. YOLO, right?
On a lighter note, I just realised how angry I can sometimes get with hotel showers. When I lift that tap handle and expect water to flow out from below and onto my feet and instead am greeted by an unexpected downpour of cold water, I just feel like smashing a hole in the wall. Of course, I’m not going to do that lest I break the pipe and get dr(owned) by much more cold water.
8:32am, 20 April 2016 in Travel Inn, South Lake Tahoe, California
We left Oakhurst for good early this morning. To be honest, I’m glad to be leaving that overpriced accommodation behind. Yesterday I made a mistake in the booking dates and booked our hotel just outside Yosemite National Park for 21st instead of the 20th. It was a pricey mistake – we paid an extra USD $25 for that night’s stay. Silly me be gone!
For about a decade I’d heard about giant redwood trees that stand in California. The photos I remember most of these ancient trees are those with a man with climbing gear on hanging on a rope and smiling to the camera, him looking like a tiny bug scaling the wide red bark of the redwood tree.
Today I finally saw it. I think we drove about 2 hours from the south entrance of Yosemite before arriving at the quiet Tuolumne Grove, home to about 20 giant sequoias. I counted about 15 standing and 2 fallen trees. They are astounding. Tall and broad beyond words.
I hate to have to put it this way, but the two fallen giants actually helped me understand their hugeness. Standing beside a fallen giant sequoia, I come up to less than half its radius! I didn’t lie on the floor and do back flips so I don’t know how many me’s it takes to run the full height, but it’s safe to say that it’s extremely tall. It might have been over 10 storeys.
Awestruck, we started our return hike from the Tuolumne Grove. Before we even started the ascent, though, one of the most astonishing things that ever happened to me happened. I saw my junior college friends, Wan Pin and Ariel.
I stood there, feeling my eyes spring open and my jaw falling, when Wan Pin saw me and yelled, “NICK!”
It’s one of the most surreal experiences in my life so far. The world is kind of big, you know? To bump into someone you know well in a foreign land (none of us were living in the US) and in such an obscure part of one of a few hundred national parks in the US is an unthinkable coincidence. I never imagined this would be possible. It’s probably the same for them, I think. We skipped the imagination and headed straight for the implausible reality – we met in a small forest in a big forest in an enormous country tens of thousands of miles away from home.
I’ll leave it to you to imagine how it feels.
Leaving that behind took a while but I eventually came around and shook off the adrenaline, and we started our way north. Yellowstone National Park is our next stop but that’s over 900 miles away, a distance we can’t cover today and especially not by driving on the dark American highways. At night the highways are not lit and it can be extremely dangerous to drive unless you are practised in driving those roads. So we decided to push as far north as possible, and covered quite a lot of ground and arrived in the small town of Minden, Nevada.
How to Get Cheap Accommodations Without Prior Booking
We didn’t have any reservations for lodging, so I pulled over at one of the large open-air carparks that are so commonplace throughout the states and took to Google.
Tonight’s lodging arrangement was deliberate. Mei and I meant it to be an experiment. We wanted to know the best way to save money on accommodation and we thought it made sense that some hotels and inns would cut their nightly price as night time drew closer, since making some money is better than making none from vacant rooms.
For today, our hypothesis was right and the experiment paid off. We paid a grand total of USD $32.70 for the room that I’m writing this in. It’s very comfortable and has all the amenities that a normal traveller would need but because we booked it last minute, we snapped a great deal. The Indian guy at the front desk who I think owns and runs the inn told me that it’s off-season, so that must have had an impact too. $32.70 for a night’s stay in South Lake Tahoe surrounded by mountains, with a long stretch of cafes and restaurants within walking distance from us – it’s budget travel perfection.
It was dark by the time we got here, but I’m looking forward to seeing the lake under the early morning sun tomorrow!
People Moving Around
We’ve so far eaten at about six Chinese restaurants and Mei and I take turns to ask each other “Why?” Why did these people migrate to X part of the US, especially if they are far flung places like the passing towns hundreds of miles away from major cities?
I haven’t gotten a suitable answer to that. I’m not sure how they’d react if I asked. What if they regret their decision and me bringing it up is like pushing my thumb into an open wound? But I’m still curious. That means I’ll probably ask soon before our trip ends in 13 days.
Near the Chinese restaurant where we had linner (dinner and late lunch…?) today was a petrol station, so I drove over to refill the tank of my rented Hyundai Elantra.
South Lake Tahoe was recommended to us by the lady behind the counter. She looked like she was slightly over 40. Over a short chat I found out that she used to live in San Francisco where they have “real Chinese food” compared to here, and that she used to work in a startup that at some point filed for bankruptcy after owing money to multiple foreign investment firms. Suddenly she was out of a job and because she had a house out here (in the middle of nowhere), she packed up and relocated.
A woman over 40 years old, a failed startup and a house in the middle of nowhere. I wonder how many times something similar to this has played out for people all around the world…
Finally found the time to write my travelogue. I’m behind by three days now I think. I’ve been experiencing and seeing and thinking about so many things I hope I don’t miss too many out.
Throughout the trip I’ve been taking short notes on Wunderlist on my smartphone. When an idea comes up, either something I’d like explore more as an essay or a potential business idea, I’ll summarise it in a short sentence on Wunderlist to review later. When I write a post I’ll typically cross out five or six of these. So far that list is the longest it’s been since we started.
We’re in Los Angeles now. In fact, we’re in a posh Hilton Hotel near the LAX airport (where we’ll fly home from), even though we’re not guests here. Our only business with the hotel is our Hertz car rental. Not all car rental locations will offer the same rental rates, and I found this one to be the easiest on the wallet, so here we are.
Prior to this we’d taken the Bolt Bus from San Francisco’s Transbay Terminal to LA’s Union Station for $30 for two. Then we paid $16 for two to get from Union Station to LAX airport, and took the free shuttle bus to Hilton Hotel. We got the VIP treatment because the driver was clueless we’re just renting a car that happens to be in the hotel lobby.
The driver did something worth mentioning though. He gave me the tipper stare. And it worked. When he had so dutifully insisted to offload our bags for us and pulled an eye-to-eye, I couldn’t not give the man a tip. This was despite the rehearsal I had in my head telling myself “These other people who are tippin’ him are rich, staying in Hilton and all. I’ll let them tip. I’ll just pay with a smile.”
Alas, eye contact was too effective. Had I proceeded to take the bag without tipping, he’d feel embarrassed and I’d feel slightly guilty and I’d surely look bad. I don’t mind the last, but I hate the first two and will try to avoid them if it doesn’t cost me too much. So I tipped a dollar.
Once we were inside the luxury hotel, I wasted no time and headed straight to the Hertz desk to pick up my car. I was already an hour late. The car should be spick and span, ready to be driven from south to north and back.
But it wasn’t ready. “We don’t have a compact as you requested, sir. But we have a full-sized car, a Chevrolet 200, that you can use with no additional charge. Except for insurance. Instead of $11 per day, to use this car you’ll need to pay $17”, the manager told us in a seasoned way.
My face turned red in a mix of disappointment and frustration. I also felt like I was being unfairly treated.
“I don’t really care about a better car, but I care about having to pay extra $6 every day for something I don’t care about. I’m sorry to say this, but it’s not very fair to us”, I replied.
“I see what you mean. I think it’s a little unfair too. But the fact’s the fact. We don’t have a smaller car here.”
After explaining to him our previous experience with Hertz in the US being good (we’d gotten a free upgrade with no extra charge to a Chevrolet 200 convertible because of similar reasons), I think he finally realised that we weren’t soft boned first-timers in the car rental scene.
“Okay, I can call and check nearby Hertz outlets to see if they have a compact that they can transfer”, he conceded.
I tell this story because when it played back the first time in my head during our drive along the American highway, I realised how much I’d grown as a mature consumer.
Frequent travellers mature as consumers the earliest, I think, because being abroad puts you closer to your survival than cruising mode. That means you’re more alert to people who don’t care about you (since at the back of their minds they probably won’t ever see you again) and might be out to profit off you. Ultimately for me, travel has made me a much more savvy consumer and accelerated my growth in self-reliance in general. And what more are we but consumers most of the time throughout our short lives?
So we got ourselves a Hyundai Elantra in the end. Renting with car companies is always an interesting experience because you never know what car you’re going to get exactly. I can’t say I’m disappointed this time. This white Elantra looks like as though it just slid out of the factory floor; it’s clean inside and outside and has only been driven 18,000 miles. I happily hopped in with Mei and pulled out of the driveway of Hilton Hotel like a play-pretend rich guy in a Ferrari.
In minutes we were on the great American highway. Even though this is the second time we’re driving in the US, the distance of the Interstate highways still remain unfathomable to my Singaporean mind. In fact the vastness of the United States is something I find difficult to wrap my head around even till this day. I like that.
Enroute to Bakersfield from Los Angeles where we’ll spend the night the ‘Car Pool Only’ lane caught my eye. It’s actually quite hard to miss, since it’s the leftmost lane meaning it’s the fastest lane. Somehow I’d forgotten all about it, this wondrous piece of social engineering.
A car pool lane here is meant only for cars with two or more people in the car. So drivers who are alone cannot access the lane to skip traffic and drive comfortably at 80 mph (132 km/h). What a brilliant invention! By reserving an entire lane on the highway for cars with two or more people, the state government is nudging people to car pool. They’re effectively saying “Hey, if you wanna get around faster, you can do it on this lane. We’ve reserved it just for you. All you need to do is bring a passenger or be one with your friend!”
I’m not sure of the numbers but I’m quite confident this has an impact on the number of car owners in the state of California. It boils down to two options:
Buy a car to use on your own (ie. single driver) most of the time -> drive in congestion-prone traffic
Buy a car only if I know my partner or someone from my family will ride with me most of the time -> drive more or less congestion-free
Since heavy traffic is the biggest pain in the anus for drivers, especially for those like me, I think this is a strong incentive. The sight of an empty express lane on a congested highway gets people thinking. It got me thinking for sure. I hope the Singapore government will seriously consider implementing this on our expressways eventually…
On the topic of driving still is another interesting fact: non-US drivers who drive on the opposite side at home can rent cars without here without paying any extra for insurance. Isn’t that odd?
With many firsthand experiences driving on the opposite side from what I’m used to, I can attest to the potential risks involved. It’s confusing. Throw in the differences in traffic rules—like San Francisco’s four-way junction no-rolling-stop rule—and car insurers should have a quandary in their hands. Strange as it seems though, they don’t. I’m not complaining though, since I’m not asked to pay more and besides, I’ve always sold myself as quite adept when it comes to driving.
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Sometimes I think I digress way too much with these travelogue entries. Should stick to more documenting the journey and less philosophising on ideas as they come along. I think I’ll make use of the latter as fodder in future posts.
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9:02pm, Tuesday 19 April 2016 in Yosemite Sierra Inn
First of all, I have to remark that this post is turning out to be a mega post. I’ve been slowed down by my sore throat and threatening body aches in the past two days and haven’t found the energy to write. But I conceit that’s just an excuse. Moving on.
We left Bakersfield today, which is a 3-hour drive away from Yosemite National Park’s south entrance. I pulled us over at a town just 10 minutes from the entrance called Oakhurst. We had a filling meal at Burger King for under $10 accompanied by two of their six or seven types of packet sauces. I think there’s only three in Singapore: chilli, ketchup and ranch. I have no difficulty imagining an American adult dipping everything in everything though.
We planned to do a 3-hour hike today in Mariposa Grove surrounded by giant redwood trees (also known as giant sequoias) but it seems we were out of luck – the National Park Service has shut it down for restoration work till 2017.
But saying we were unlucky wouldn’t be true. By some remarkable means, we’d visited Yosemite at just the right time. From 16 to 24 April 2016, entry to all national parks around the country is free! We saved $30 for a 7-day pass right there for being lucky.
National Parks Week is wonderful annual affair that encourages people to step into the closest thing to the wilderness. I love that they have an initiative like this. Collecting substantial fees that go into the preservation of the vast (and I mean gargantuan) national parks throughout the US for 358 days is enough. Seven days of free admission might just be the most democratic thing I’ve witnessed so far.
Driving through the windy and up-and-down single-lane roads in the ‘park’ is really enjoyable. It’s fun to go with the flow of the road which itself follows the mountain contours, and magical to be surrounded by untainted trees and herculean granite mountains. I absolutely loved driving in Yosemite.
Getting out and sitting on a huge slab of granite that must have fallen from the face of the mountains is also an experience not to be missed. Photos don’t do justice to the majesty of a place like Yosemite, but we try anyways. It’s just too beautiful to be left unrecorded. In these situations, a photo serves merely the function of eliciting the shape and form of memories; it’s dull and mostly unremarkable until you fill it in with your unique memories that colour and give it depth.
As I wound along the road of the Yosemite, I eventually caught up with the car in front. On the way in there were take-over lanes that periodically came up, but on the way down there were no such thing. And this car was going so slowly I almost fell asleep tailing him.
While I drove, displeased, behind the car in front, I realised that I was being silly. I knew I hated driving behind someone who drove slower than they should, especially when the road is supposed to be fun to drive on, yet I continued to tail this stranger with poor driving skills. In my mind I had the perfect solution to this problem: pullover to the side when the chance presents itself and wait half a minute before carrying on. That should put some distance between us and I’d redeem my joy ride.
But while the plan sounded perfectly logical and I knew it was going to work (at least I won’t be stuck behind that car), I didn’t put it to action until a lot later. Strange!
I think this happens in other areas of my life too. I’d think of a great way to solve a perplexing problem like how to get away from a social situation I disliked and I’d hesitate to make it happen and break free. In moments like these a hundred alternate reasons spring up that try to convince me not to do what ought to be done. My stupid human mind.
Merging back into the lane half a minute later, I regained every bit of enjoyment driving through Yosemite.
A Note About the Camera I’m Using
Days prior to this trip Mei and I decided it’d be a good idea to invest in another camera. My previous camera purchase was more than five years ago and is a DSLR. I brought that with us on our previous trip to the US in 2012 but found it cumbersome. Travelling abroad already comes with many things to worry about. I shouldn’t have to stress over whether to bring the camera with us on walks everyday.
After some research—okay, too much research—I decided to get the camera we’ve been using for this trip – the Fujifilm X100S (here’s a link to the X100T, the latest generation of the camera). I bought it second-hand from a Filipino guy for SGD $750 (original price over $1,100), and I really like it.
It’s very light compared to an entry-level DSLR. It’s also much smaller, about half the footprint. Despite its size, it packs a punch. Controls are very easy once you get used to them. Since I used a Canon 550D before using this, it was a breeze learning to set the shutter speed, ISO and aperture on the Fujifilm.
Without sounding like a reviewer I’m just going to say one last thing about the camera. It’s impeccably designed to encourage use. So light, small and fun to use. Neither of us regret investing in this camera.