Monday, September 29, 2014

2014 Is The Best Year For Feminism

Truth be told, I never knew how dirty a word feminism was to most people.

Like Emma Watson, deciding to be a feminist has always been uncomplicated to me. Gender equality? Sure! I'm a woman, why on earth wouldn't I want the same rights as men? I grew up in a household of three women and one man - my mom, my sister, myself and my dad - so my childhood was marked by my sister and myself getting up to all sorts of dad-stressing mischief. At home, I was lucky to escape the most obvious misogyny. I wasn't loved less for being a girl.

I was 13 when I entered secondary school and my first all-girls environment of my life. To say I loved it would be an understatement - going to CHIJ Katong was the best educational experience of my formative years. (It's right up there with doing philosophy at university.) Being in a girl's school was empowering because I was never even presented with the option of chivalry, or letting guys carry heavy books or tables because it would be easier for them than for the girls. It never crossed my mind even once that there was anything guys could or should do that girls couldn't or shouldn't. We didn't care what we said, because we never had a 'feminine' image to maintain because we wanted to impress the boys.

When I went back to a mixed gender school at 17, I noticed for the first time how surprised and even uncomfortable the boys were with me, a girl, holding doors open, offering to carry heavy things, or do other things that were otherwise considered 'gentlemanly'. To me, it was courtesy; to them, it was chivalry. For the first time in my life, the great male-female divide was starting to become apparent.

Feminism in Singapore is rarely discussed, if at all, and the movement has yet to pick up substantial momentum here. While female rights groups such as AWARE are prominent in Singapore (if you excuse their big religious takeover saga a few years ago), the subject of gender equality is almost never discussed, overshadowed by racial harmony concerns.

I am one of the lucky ones. While it was always obvious to me that women and men should be given equal opportunities and treated equally, many Singaporeans - members of my own family included - believe that a woman's duty in life is to have children, and that a woman isn't complete until she's had them. (More about my child-free decision in another post.) Married women of child-bearing age are often looked over in job applications for fear that they may become pregnant and go on maternity leave. It is still commonly accepted here that women are less capable than men by nature of their sex.

Because of the lack of discussion of gender equality in Singapore, it wasn't until I lived in Edinburgh that I started becoming aware of just how much work still needed to be done. Until a couple of years ago, I never knew that there were people who equated feminism with 'man-hating'; it always puzzled me why any member of modern society would choose not to be a feminist.

2014 has been a hell of a year for feminism. It's been a wild ride, from Beyonce declaring herself a feminist in bright lights at the VMAs to Taylor Swift coming out as a feminist to Emma Watson's recent viral speech on gender equality for UN Women.

It's never been cooler to be a feminist than now.

But feminism isn't something that should simply be 'cool' - at its core, feminism is gender equality. It's called 'feminism' because its beginnings are in the fight for women to be recognised as equal by men after centuries of patriarchal history, but really it wouldn't make a difference if you called it gender egalitarianism. Feminism's mission is the abolishment of gender roles, not the raising of one gender over another.

In China and India, female foetuses are regularly aborted. Perfectly healthy humans-to-be are denied life not because their parents aren't ready for them, not because they have some medical condition, but simply because of they aren't male. Women weren't accorded the right to vote until the close of the 19th century. In Saudi Arabia, a state known for its religious zealotry and gender-biased laws, 15 girls died in a fire after being prevented from leaving the burning school because they weren't covered or wearing an abaya, therefore being and were therefore considered sinful.

In all these cases, one thing is clear: women are categorically inferior to men, despite the fact that women are the crucibles of continuation of both male and female human life.

Feminism in some parts of the world - mostly the Nordic countries - has developed so that their biggest issues of contention have to do with numerary compensation, and for the most part men and women in society are treated equally. One of the most striking moments of my first trip to Norway in 2012 was being on the Metro and seeing a man with a baby stroller, with no wife or girlfriend anywhere in sight. Just a man and his kid, doing a parent's job.

The sad reality is that in most parts of the world, feminism's main goals are in stopping the objectification and sexual harassment of women, preventing and reporting domestic violence, and affirmation of female sexual autonomy and integrity. If a man sleeps around, he's a stud; if a woman sleeps around, she's a slut. While doing research for this piece, I came across this following paragraph:
Regardless of how you feel about promiscuity, we can all agree that a guy who manages to rack up a lot of sexual partners has to have some skills. It’s challenging for men to rack up partners, even for good-looking men or men with low standards. A man needs social intelligence, interpersonal skills, persistence, thick skin, and plain old dumb luck. For women, though, a vagina and a pulse is often enough. Whenever an accomplishment requires absolutely no challenge, no one respects it. It’s just viewed as a lack of self-discipline. People respect those who accomplish challenging feats, while they consider those who overindulge in easily obtained feats as weak, untrustworthy or flawed.
UH, NO! The rest of the article is even worse, forgiving male sexual promiscuity because it is 'in line' with male evolutionary traits of trying to spread their seed. What a double standard! That's a slippery slope - any number of unacceptable behaviours can be excused because "it's just their biology", which turns the human species to non-rational animals.* For that matter, why is it of any importance at all how many partners you're able to rack up?! Does it matter at all if you've slept with one or ten partners? No one is judged based on their sexual prowess.

*I'm not saying that humans are better than animals, simply that the fact of our civilisation's progress against other intelligent species such as cetaceans and primates suggests that Homo sapiens has the capacity to act in manners that profoundly affect both our environment and social groups.

More importantly, feminism as gender egalitarianism means that these issues - objectification, sexual harassment, and domestic violence, and more - are just as much applicable to men as they are to women. Cases of male domestic violence and rape are vastly under-reported, with the victims suffering from the same issues as affect women rape and domestic violence victims: shame and embarrassment. And just to set the record straight, rape can happen even if the perpetrator is a partner or an ex-partner, and it can happen at home. Men can be victims just as much as women, but they are often prevented from asking for help for fear of being seen as weak and therefore less of a man.

Gender roles are still very much prevalent, and they hurt yourself and those around you.

I have male friends who tell me they are upset by their virgin status, and that they feel ashamed for having to masturbate to a porno instead of going the whole way with a real human person. It makes them feel inadequate, they say. Is this really the kind of gender expectation we want to be forcing upon anyone?

Being a feminist isn't just about being trendy, or about being a part of the latest politically popular movement. A few years ago it was environmentalism, led by Leonardo Di Caprio; now it's feminism and female empowerment, led by stars Lorde, Beyoncé, Taylor Swift and Emma Watson. Having pop stars champion these moments is important because it makes them visible and gives the movement the ability to clear up any misdefinitions of what the word really means. Too long has feminism been associated with bra-burning angry women.

The Hollywood visibility of feminism today not only tells audiences that being a feminist is okay; it is also a reminder that women and men both have autonomous bodies and that it is never acceptable to violate the integrity of that body without their consent. 

For any socio-political movement, almost nothing can be more valuable than the endorsement of a celebrity. It's not that any one celebrity's endorsement can be a 'game-changer' - yes it's true, Emma Watson's UN speech did go viral and spark a great deal of response - but as this article says:
Every few months, it seems as if the media identifies an actress as the new young feminist darling, and Emma Watson is only the latest in the procession. Emma Watson may be making feminism more palatable for people who aren't comfortable with in-your-face confrontations from less camera-friendly feminists, but she isn't doing anything new or groundbreaking.
So Emma's UN speech, for the most part, was written for the same demographic as she came from - white, young, privileged, from a Western country. But unlike Amy McCarthy, who wrote the above quote, I don't think that Emma Watson has done nothing at all for the face of feminism. Emma's role, and the role of other feminist celebrities, is precisely that of making feminism palatable. And making feminism palatable is that most important first step toward gaining momentum that leads to lasting change for both women and men.

Images here, here, here, here, here and here.

Monday, September 22, 2014

She made me feel awful about myself. I thanked her for it.

In a previous post, I talked about how Adeline and I spent endless hours talking about life, the universe, and everything. I also talked about how absolutely essential it is that whoever it is that you do your road trip with, you get along. What I didn't talk about was how close you can wind up getting to that friend over those long talks down long, empty roads.

Perhaps one of the things I treasure the most about Adeline is that she taught me in no uncertain terms the meaning and value of honesty in a friendship. And although the way it was done was brutal, it was both necessary and effective.

See, Adeline is one of those people who doesn't hold back. At one point of our road trip, we both started telling each other precisely the kinds of things that we didn't like about each other.
"You want too many things."
"You're very uncertain."
"You say one thing when you mean another."
"You don't know what you want."
"You need to have more tact."
It's always painful to have someone point out your character flaws in cold honesty. And as she was pointing out those flaws, I fell silent in the car because I knew that all of them were true.

Most of the time, when people tell you character flaws, the immediate and instinctual response is to deny all of them. So while a part of my brain was fighting against these allegations, at the same time I knew that this was precious advice.

I also knew that we'd reached a pivotal point in our friendship - you don't just go up to anyone and tell them the things you like and you don't like about them. So when someone tells you that you need to fix these things, that's a big step for someone to take.

Instead of defending myself against those faults and denying they existed, I realised that even if I didn't think those faults were there, someone else did.

There is a very important quote I read a while ago. When I read it the first time, it was like a switch flipped in my head - I realised the mistake that I'd always made in all my friendships and relationships. 

"We judge others by their actions, and ourselves by our intentions."

So when Adeline lay all my flaws out on the table for me to see, I realised that these traits were the result of myself making excuses for some certain behaviour - something which I had intended to do, in the process creating some bad habit. And hearing all of this hurt. It made me feel awful, and it made me want to scream at her. It made me want to get out of the car right now and go somewhere else. But still, I listened.

If I was saying one thing but meaning another, it was because I was trying not to hurt someone by something I was saying - except that in the process, I'd come across as being extremely insincere and fake. This wasn't the person I was trying to be - I was trying to be tactful, but wound up being insincere.

Even if I had good intentions, it wasn't excusable behaviour if I'd wound up causing hurt in the process.

After all, if someone else had unintentionally caused some hurt to me, did that make the pain any less real just because they didn't mean to?

And that is how, on a long drive into the setting sun in the middle of rural Lithuania, I came to realise that the most necessary truths are also the most painful ones - the ones that we hide beneath the belief that just our intention for something to happen is all that anyone should see. That's just not true - it isn't the intention of an action that counts, but the action itself.

Just because we don't mean for something to happen doesn't mean that we are therefore excused from their consequences.

It takes incredible courage for someone to tell someone else their character flaws and trust that that's not going to make them run away from the fear of it all. Perhaps it was spending 24/7 around each other; perhaps it was us being two girls from South-East Asia in the middle of a Northern European country with only each other to rely on; perhaps it was just one of things that happen during road trips.

Whatever it was, I'm glad it happened, because I doubt anyone else would have told me. Most people turn a blind eye to someone else's faults, perhaps because they're afraid of hurting them by telling them how much they're being awful for doing something wrong.

But the truth is, often people are incapable of looking at themselves as others see them.

And sometimes we all need a little bit of help just to see exactly where we're going wrong so that we can fix it. Is it going to be painful? Of course it is. A little heads up is always nice, or you can just let the topic come up naturally in the flow of conversation.

And although it can be hard to listen to,  I learned that you should encourage others to be honest and let you know when you're being stupid. Don't feed the trolls, of course - trust that those who know and respect you will give you genuine feedback. It's gonna sting, but no pain, no gain.

As Adeline and I pulled up into the parking space of what looked like a Lithuanian country resort, we saw the sun setting over the calm water. In the span of that drive, we had said very little, but the weight of what was said was immense. In the serenity of the Lithuanian country, my thoughts were chaotic with trying to identify those guilty instances.

The remainder of the night was quiet, with our conversation hanging over our heads. Hearing your flaws and not trying to fight against them, it turns out, is extremely tiring, because you're going against something that you're naturally inclined to do. Who knew that trying not to do something could be so hard?

Still, it was a conversation I was glad I had. I would have probably continued doing those very same things if I hadn't been told about them there and then, by someone who I knew and trusted had my best interests at heart.

And I learned that when you meet someone who genuinely cares about and respects you enough to tell you about your flaws, it is your privilege to know them and they'll wind up being one of the greatest treasures someone can have.

I'm still trying to change, of course - change doesn't happen overnight, but what I've become is more self-aware, more observant of the things that I do, more careful with every action. And if I learned nothing else from that conversation, I learned this: that the best thing you can do for yourself is to listen, really listen, to what others have to say about you.

Now every time I look in the mirror, I see not only my own intentions, but how my actions are perceived by others. If someone tells me something that makes me feel uncomfortable, I don't just sweep it under the carpet - I look for the truth in what they say.

I'll never be perfect, but at least it's a start.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Travel Caution: 5 reasons why I'm not joining WorldVentures

Not too long ago, someone asked if I’d like to be a part of a new business venture in the travel industry. Being a travel blogger and all, and liking to think of myself as generally open-minded, I was pretty interested to sit down and talk about what all of this was all about. What I left the meeting thinking left me more than a little bit on guard.

So, first a bit of a quick run-down on what WorldVentures is.

I hadn’t seen this little blue banner before I met with a representative before, but if his word is to believed then WorldVentures is supposedly big enough that people are posting pictures of themselves with blue “You should be here” banners on Facebook and the like.

Fun, freedom, and fulfilment!

It's a company that sells holidays that are exclusive to club members - so first, you sign up as a member, which makes you eligible to buy vacations or holidays from the company at low rates, such as $200 for a 7-day holiday in the south of Spain.

But wait, there's more! If you get enough referrals, you even get compensated for your efforts from WorldVentures, with the potential to earn money in the range of thousands of dollars a month, car maintenance money, housing maintenance money... That's more than enough money to become a full-time vacationer!

Sounds incredible? Makes you want to sign up yet? Me too. But before you jump on the train, maybe you'll want to read this. Here are five reasons you should be wary of WorldVentures, Dreamtrips, Rovia, and anything else associated with this travel club.

If it's too good to be true, that's probably because it is.

#5 Pretty much a pyramid scheme.

Alright, they’re not exactly a pyramid scheme, but they’re as close as it gets to it. They’re a network marketing scheme, selling a product (their holiday packages) which you can only purchase with a membership and subscription, which you buy through a representative (that's the network bit) - that's how they remain on the technical right side of the law. First, you have to pay money to be part of the club, and then later you pay some more for the right to sell the scheme.

So you pay $200 for membership entry, then $50 every subsequent month, a fee which is waived after you recruit 4 people into your team. Until then, the $50 you spend a month is put into your Rovia/Dreamtrips account, which you can then use to redeem holidays. But in order to recruit people, you have to pay $100 to be given the rights and marketing tools to sell the scheme, and then $10 every subsequent month.

So right off the bat, you're paying either $200+$50 a month to be able to buy holidays, or $300+$60 a month to buy holidays and sell club memberships. You don’t start earning money until you recruit 30 people. Thirty people! So before you even start becoming compensated, you're helping WorldVentures make $6000, and that doesn't include the $50 that these new members have to pay every month.

On principle, I don’t do ANYTHING that tells me I need to pay money to make money. The first month you sign up, you lose money paying for your membership until you get 4 people to join up, and then you stop making payments. Even then, the prospect of seeing the returns on your investment is so dismal - remember, you need to sign up 30 people to start making money.

As a get rich quick scheme, they’re pretty awful. I don't know about you, but the likelihood of me recruiting 30 new people to be a part of WorldVentures is next to nothing. (I'd have more luck paying people to join.) But let's say, hypothetically, that you are in the lucky few that do manage to get to 30 people. What happens then?

You'd start by getting a paltry $500 a month.

That doesn't even cover rent, let alone food, transport, and other generally necessary things you need to be a living human being. If you're in WorldVentures to be able to "Make a living... living!", you're going to be sorely disappointed. You don't get free trips just by being a member - the money for those trips is still coming out of your own pocket. The person making a lot of money off WorldVentures probably won't be you.

The vast majority of its members don’t get paid. In fact, nearly 80% of WorldVentures representatives don’t make anything at all from the scheme.

#4 The sheep herd mentality of its followers

When I was being pitched to about WorldVentures, they told me that their presence in Singapore was ‘new’ and that I should ‘get in early’ on this scheme. Yet, while I was researching about WorldVentures, it seems like at least a third of the complaints were Singaporean! Clearly, the scheme really isn’t as new to the market as their representatives were making it sound.

Already, WorldVentures was investigated in Norway for potential illegal practices. While they were eventually allowed to continue selling their memberships (they're very good at staying just enough on the right side of the law), here are a few of the comments that came up in response:

Cultist alarm bells are going off in my head.
Here in Singapore, it appears that our famous Phua Chu Kang - yes, Gurmit Singh himself - endorses WorldVentures. But just because a celebrity’s face appears on an ad doesn’t mean they actually use it. If you paid anyone enough money to do something, of course they’d lend their face to it.

Hell, if you paid me enough money, I'd probably endorse pretty much anything. David Beckham's on Calvin Klein adverts, but I'm pretty sure he wears underwear from more than one brand.

When I was asking representatives about further sources and credibility and research, they said that I was of course free to do my own research and come to my own conclusions, just as long as I was aware that “This is an idea that a lot of people are very afraid of, so there are people out there who are saying not-so-nice things.” Well, I don’t really know about you, but I’m not too convinced about the credibility of a company whose representatives are so worried about people being 'misled'. A good product usually speaks for itself.

Which brings me to my next point…

#3 The members REALLY don’t know what they’re talking about.

I was shown an example ad of a holiday in Zante, Greece. This very ad, in fact.

Now, let me show you a picture that I took in Santorini, Greece.

If it looks an awful lot like the previous picture, that’s probably because they the same. Zante? Santorini? I wouldn’t trust a travel company that can’t tell Santorini from Zante. Zante, FYI, is another Greek island, known for its rugged coast and for being a nesting ground of loggerhead turtles. Not that it isn’t a pretty tourist destination, but don’t go there expecting to see the white buildings and architecture of Oia.

#2 Their holidays aren’t really any cheaper.

(On that note, they sell holiday/vacation packages.)

If you find the exact same trip, WorldVentures says, for ANY amount less, they will absolutely refund you 150% of the amount you paid AND send you on that trip just the same. So let's say that you buy a 7-day DreamTrip in a 5-star hotel in the south of Spain that costs $200, and you go somewhere and find a trip that costs $199. They'll give you $300, and send you on the trip just the same.

That's $100 that they're giving to you, plus the trip, and in fact most of the time people are able to find trips that are cheaper than what WorldVentures offers, which means they make money that way. (Catch - the refund is in DreamTrips points, so you can't take your money and spend it elsewhere.)

Cheap holidays! Who wouldn't want that?
But the key here is that the price you see excludes airfare. For a lot of travellers, airfare and transport is often the most expensive part of your trip. So if you’ve excluded airfare, of course your holiday is gonna look ridiculously cheap! The $200 holiday that you got in the south of Spain is now going to cost you $1400. But that's still cheap, isn't it? After all, you're getting a 5-star hotel stay, concierge to attend to your every need, free airport pickups, and being treated like a total superstar while you're there. All that for all of $1400! Still sounds like a deal?

Sure, except your $1200 airfare could have been a lot cheaper, and this is why.

Rovia is WorldVentures's official travel booker website - the website you go to if you want to redeem points, buy a DreamTrips holiday, or use your WorldVentures membership benefits in any way. Their cheapest ticket for a ticket from Singapore Changi (SIN) to Malaga Airport (AGP) from 30 Sep to 7 Oct 2014 is US$1134.69.

This is Skyscanner, my favourite air-travel booking website. Their cheapest trip from SIN to AGP from 30 Sep to 7 Oct is, by contrast, US$910.

That's more than $200 over the price that you would otherwise be paying. So your cheap holiday isn't really as cheap as you thought it was. Not quite so great if your intention was to get the best bang for your buck.

Which leads me to the next point...


Too good to be true? That’s probably because it is. How can holidays be provided at that cheap a price? How does anyone earn ‘residual income’ - and for that matter, where does WorldVentures get the money to be able to pay for that residual income? Let’s do the math.

According to representatives, the money you give to WorldVentures will be given back to you in points - so whatever money you give them, you'll be able to redeem via their booking engine, Rovia. That means that as long as you redeem your points, WorldVentures isn't supposed to be actually getting anything. So your $50 a month you get to put toward your next trip booked via Rovia.

Now, even WorldVentures members readily admit that they’re often able to find the same holiday for less than what Rovia, charges. So when they find cheaper prices, Rovia refunds them the whole lot and them send them on their trip anyway. So if a ton of people do this, where does Rovia make money? For that matter, where are they getting the money from to pay people an additional 50% anyway?

So, a lot of people get DreamTrips holidays for free or even get refunded in excess. But how? They can’t keep sending people on trips for nothing.

When I asked representatives about how WorldVentures is able to negotiate such low prices, this was the answer they gave me:
“The current business model is that travel agents buy a lot and then create the demand, so they have to charge you more. WorldVentures presents demand (in the form of membership bases) and then buys to cater for the demand, thus being able to negotiate lower-than-wholesale rates.”
Uh… Alright, so maybe I didn’t do economics in university, but that still doesn’t check out to me.

Surely someone has to pay for the electricity, water, petrol and food that you're going to consume while you're off in your 5-star hotel. Someone has to pay the hotel staff - and the hotel staff have to earn enough money to feed themselves and their families. Someone is paying for your luxurious 24-hour concierge who's treating you like royalty, and someone is paying for all the activities that you're going to be doing while you're there. $200 just doesn't seem enough to pay for all of that.

I don't know if $200 is enough to pay for that yacht.
Now let's talk about their compensation scheme. Let's say that you get 30 members and earn your $500 a month. Let's also say that all the members redeem their points in the form of dubious cheap trips. Where is that $500 coming from? And let's not even talk about the thousands of dollars a month that you're promised if you make the rank of Top Incomer, plus housing and car maintenance. To me, the numbers just don't check out.


The biggest red flag to me is how unsustainable the whole thing is - the money just doesn't check out. Mike Azcue and Wayne Nugent, the two top guns at WorldVentures, have been convicted of tax fraud. And that doesn't even include how, with a lot of MLM and network marketing representatives, every coffee becomes a new opportunity to sell a product. I'm keeping my wallet tightly shut.

Read more:
The truth about WorldVentures
WorldVentures Scam? Yes It Is In My Opinion
5 Reasons Why I Refuse To Join World Ventures
WorldVentures: This is NOT the Way to Travel the World

Monday, September 8, 2014

These are the Rules of Amazing Road Trips

Quickly, which are the moments you'll remember the most? I bet it won't be the moments that you spend sitting in your cushy tour bus looking out a glass window, having your tour guide announce the sights in front of you. No - I bet they'll be the moments you spend out in the middle of nowhere, looking out into vast fields of absolutely nothing, spent in silence with people who you have somehow come to know, love, and trust.

The best travel moments aren't even the most iconic ones.

The best travel moments are the ones that you know can only belong to you.

This is why a lot of people consider road trips the best way to see the world. You're off somewhere - often in the middle of nowhere - and there doesn't seem to be anyone near you for miles and miles around. There's the earth - vast, wide expanses of lush, green grass and trees - and the sky - so endless, so infinite and boundless. And if even for a fraction of a second, you realise that we humans are so small and tiny and insignificant, and our insignificance is beautiful.

Perhaps one of the most unbelievable things about your particular situation might be that you are in a country in Central Europe, better known for its gruesome WW2 history than its surreal green summers. You might even ask yourself, "What did I do right that I wound up here?"

Have a fantastic partner

One of the most essential things to a great road trip is, of course, having a fantastic partner. Partners are crucial - these are the people you'll be spending 24 hours a day with, for however long your road trip takes. It is essential that your partner get along. (It also helps if you have the same taste in music, especially if your taste in music is similarly ridiculous, like playing Le Festin from Ratatouille on repeat even though you're nowhere near Paris.)

Here is my Polish road trip partner, Adeline. There are many like her, but this one is mine.

Adeline sometimes runs off into the tall grass and sunsets.
We spent our entire road trip sleeping in our car, shielding the windows with clothes hung up like laundry and spending more time than I'd like to admit searching for gas station showers so that we could have at least some semblance of hygiene.

Having a great road-trip partner is so important because travelling together can make or break your friendship. If you aren't better friends by the end of your trip, it's probably because your friendship fell apart doing it. But if you find a travel partner who's willing to be sticky and stinky and sweat it out in the middle of a Polish summer with you, you better hold on tight cos you got yourself a treasure.

Don't follow all the rules

Okay, I know this post is called 'Rules of Amazing Road Trips', but really, aren't all rules kinda made to be broken? If your map tells you to turn right, turn left; if your GPS tells you to take a particular road but your gut instinct figures there must be a short-cut, take the short cut. Yes, it's sometimes a stupid thing to do - more than once we've gotten ourselves stuck in tall grass and almost unable to get out of a pretty frightening situation - but it's only when your adrenaline starts pumping that you realise you must be well and truly alive, because your fear takes over and you start thinking you might just die.

Just make sure that you're smart about when to follow the rules and when not to. Sometimes it's okay to get yourself stuck, but always - always know when to turn back when it's time to turn back.

If you're lucky, your risk-taking might be rewarded with beautiful views something like this one.

Sometimes, driving wildly off-route can lead to picture-perfect ponds.

Treat yourself

Even the most hardheaded of roadtrippers needs a coffee break. Go ahead and take one. You've been driving for easily 10 hours, you're tired and exhausted and your legs need a stretch. Pull up into the next town and take a couple of hours away from the wheel, looking out into the harbour in silence. You deserve it.

While you're there, you might as well take a stroll around the harbour too. Road trips are awesome, but sometimes when you look at other modes of transport, you might find yourself wondering if a boat trip on your very own private yacht might not be such a bad idea either. Boat trip next time, maybe?

Just remember to feel guilty when you return to your car afterwards and think about how loyal and trusty she's been, getting you from one place to the next. Almost every road trip involves a slightly overenthusiastic degree of fondness for your rented vehicle, who you by now have no doubt named and talked to on numerous occasions. 

Take it as it comes

This is probably the most important one of all. Road trips are all about letting go, and this means that it's perfectly okay if your drive gets suddenly blocked by a herd of cows standing in the centre of the road. Yes, really. And if that happens, it's perfectly okay to make silly mooing noises, wait for the cows to move, and generally be quite amused by your drive being stopped by cows instead of heavy downtown traffic.

If you have a great road trip partner, you may even start checking out cow butts, just for the hell of it.

Probably some of the most memorable moments of my Polish road trip involved, in no particular order:
  1. Sleeping under the stars in a rural area so dark you could see the Milky Way,
  2. Driving towards the primeval European forest Białowieża near the border with Poland and Belarus in the middle of the night,
  3. Seeing deer by the roadside just as we we're talking about the improbability of seeing deer on our drive,
  4. Later becoming totally lost in said primeval forest while looking for European Bison (we didn't find any), and
  5. Endless hours talking about life, the universe, and everything with my awesome road trip partner. (More on this later.)
Sounds crazy? Awesome, I thought so too. But the crazy randomness of these moments is what makes them so great. After all, you're not really rushing anywhere are you? So go out there, get lost, have fun. and watch the different colours of grass paint the world a work of art.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Is this the death of the camera?

A couple of days ago, my friend Aggy over at DEW Traveller posted something over on Facebook that made me stop and think. She confessed that she'd started using her iPhone as a near-total replacement for a proper camera while travelling, citing the alternative as being far more lightweight and easier to carry while maintaining decent image quality.

Although this isn't really something that should have taken me by surprise, it nonetheless did. Already, there are vast numbers of tourists that opt to use their phones to capture memories of their trip; during my most recent trip to Scandinavia, it was glaringly obvious that most people around me had abandoned their standalone cameras in favour of iPhones and Samsung Galaxy S5s.

And no wonder - the cameras on these phones are among the best in the market, and their ease of use makes them extremely consumer friendly. There are an abundance of apps which can turn any picture into something breathtakingly beautiful and easily sharable, from the pioneers of social photo-sharing Instagram to VSCO and Afterlight. Is there really a need to continue hauling around a big, bulky, clunky camera?

Starting out in photography

I started becoming interested in photographs when I was 11 and picked up my first copy of National Geographic Magazine, although it wasn't until 2012 when I picked up my first dSLR that I started becoming interested in the art of photography. My first 'real' camera was the Canon 550D, a beginner-level little thing that was nonetheless an amazing first camera.

I dived into playing with settings (I refused to use any of it on Auto mode) and my first real photography experience was at Galloway Forest Park in September of that year. Galloway is famous for its dark night skies, free of light pollution and giving rise to the opportunity for seeing the Milky Way.

Of course, the only tricky thing about trying to photograph the Milky Way is that any kind of star photography requires at least a passing knowledge of how light hits a camera. If your shutter isn't held open for long enough, all you'll photograph is pitch black, so the shutter needs to be open for 30 seconds to a minute at minimum. This was my first real experience with using a camera on a fully manual mode.

Galloway Forest Park, Scotland, September 2012. Shot on Canon 550D.
Why do I talk about something that happened two years ago? Because this is a prime example of something which simply cannot be replicated on an iPhone camera.

The iPhone holds its weight

For all the fancy filters and ease of use of the iPhone, there are limits to its capabilities. Of course, the iPhone's camera does hold its own - recently, National Geographic photographer Jim Richardson travelled around Scotland armed with nothing but an iPhone 5S.
With intense use (I’ve made about 4,000 pictures in the last four days) I’ve discovered that the iPhone 5S is a very capable camera. The color and exposures are amazingly good, the HDR exposure feature does a stunningly good job in touch situations, the panorama feature is nothing short of amazing—seeing a panorama sweeping across the screen in real time is just intoxicating. Best of all it shoots square pictures natively, a real plus for me since I wanted to shoot for Instagram posting.

Once I figured out what the camera could do well I began to forget all the things it couldn’t do at all.

So clearly, the iPhone camera is good enough that there are professional photographers willing to leave their workhorses at home when they travel. And, as Jim Richardson notes, "What surprised me most was that the pictures did not look like compromises."

The cons of camera photography

As some of you might know, I freelance in photography. I've put aside my Canon 550D now, and my baby is a Nikon D90 that lives in a makeshift dry box (it's really an airtight box with a pack of dehumidifying silica gel thrown in) with three lenses. And really, when I travel, those are all the lenses I really need.

Is it bulky carrying around a D90 and three lenses? You bet. I've found that the Crumpler 5 Million Dollar Home is the best way to carry all my memory-capturing essentials when I travel. I'm guilty of often wishing that my D90 wasn't the big, clunky monster that it is - when I pull it out of my bag, it's a look that screams 'tourist' and often makes me feel really self-conscious.

Ritual bather in Bali, Indonesia, December 2013. Shot on Nikon D90.

The iPhone captures small moments

The rise of iPhoneography is in no small part due to the ease of having your device on you all the time. Most people don't have their standalone cameras on them all the time; I'm guilty of carrying my iPhone with me absolutely everywhere, even to the bathroom. The constant availability of the iPhone has changed the way photography happens. It's less intrusive, less forced, more natural. This is particularly useful in photographing people who might not be comfortable in front of the camera - the result is something more like a daily moment.

I'll be the first to admit that I don't take my D90 with me everywhere, while on my iPhone I am more likely to capture moments that I would not have before. I would very rarely, if ever, use my D90 to take pictures of food, but on my iPhone I don't think twice before pulling it out to capture an attractive food setting or take a selfie of a precious moment with friends. Besides, I can hide any photographic imperfections with an array of enhancing or desaturating filters.

Another advantage of smartphone photography is how easy it becomes to share an image. With Instagram being a dominant channel of social media, capturing an image on a smartphone makes it easier to upload a picture than if you used a different device. For a lot of people who just want to share bits from their life with their friends and followers, this can be a huge plus.

The camera still has a role to play

But would I consider giving up my dSLR in favour of my iPhone? Probably not, and here's why. Despite the ease of use of the iPhone, the camera on an iPhone simply does not have enough control. You can't control aperture, shutter speed, or ISO on an iPhone camera - perhaps fine for the vast majority of users who don't really care, but this would definitely be a significant loss for me. There's no way I would have been able to capture Galloway in September 2012 on an iPhone camera.

On a smartphone, you probably won't be taking any particularly stunning pictures. You'll probably be capturing everyday moments. In addition, you lose a great deal of depth of field - the resulting images are flatter. There isn't a total loss of depth of field - they're great for capturing what's around you, which is perfect if your purpose is to take a nice landscape, but a more particular photographer may feel restricted.

An example of depth of field, Westfjords, Iceland, June 2014. Shot on Nikon D90.
There's a beauty to the big, bulky SLR that isn't acknowledged often enough when talking about smartphones and cameras. I will mourn the day that we no longer require the technical knowledge that is necessary to creating a good photograph, the day that the exposure triangle and manual settings on dSLRs become redundant, and the day that people no longer suffer the weight of the tools of their photography.

Despite how much we resent the weight of camera bodies and multiple lenses, photography, like any other creative form, is a mode of expression whose creators are often caught in a love-hate relationship with the art. We love what we create, but we don't love the pain that creating it causes us. (I mean that very literally - my shoulders often ache from the weight of carrying around three lenses, extra batteries, and sometimes even a tripod.)

Of course, it might be easier to just go entirely iPhone, but then the legacy of photography would be lost. No longer would we be able to follow in the footsteps of Ansel Adams; we might very well lose the magic that was once the exclusive domain of those capable of capturing emotive pictures in the style of Sebastião Salgado.

Some conclusions

Is the camera going away any time soon? I doubt it, at least not as far as dSLRs are concerned. I think there's a chance that smartphone cameras may replace point-and-shoot cameras completely - the usual function of point-and-shoot cameras is to take somewhat decent photos in a relatively compact body, which smartphones today are perfectly well capable of doing.

There's absolutely no doubt that the advent of iPhones have made photography more accessible to the everyday person. Anyone can be a photographer today, and I think it's great that it's easier than ever for anyone to capture the moments that mean something special to them. But the big, bulky camera remains the home of the 'serious' photographer; the amount of control you get on one of these is not something that can yet be replicated on a smartphone.

While anyone who is serious about taking quality pictures is not likely to toss their dedicated camera, the iPhone, for the vast majority of people, is a more than adequate, easy and compact device that captures everyday moments. Many lightweight, budget and compact travellers also value the small body of the iPhone.

The dedicated camera and the smartphone camera are both image capture devices, but their best use varies wildly from user to user. Both devices have their niches in very different applications, and even the best photographers may find use for both dSLRs and iPhones.

The big, bulky, standalone and dedicated camera isn't quite ready to die just yet.

What do you think?

Is the iPhone steadily encroaching on the space of the dSLR or the dedicated camera? How many of you have abandoned your cameras in favour of more lightweight, portable options? Or have you been able to find an in-between compromise at all - how many of you are trying Micro 4/3 cameras as lightweight photography options? Let me know in the comments!

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Review: Lush's Herbalism, the weirdest skin cleanser you might ever use!

Today, I've got something a little different for you than the usual travel stuff! I'm really excited because today I'm going to be doing a review on the Lush Herbalism face and body cleanser.

I picked up Herbalism while I was in Gothenburg, Sweden a couple of months ago, mostly on the recommendation of a Lush girl who I'd stopped to chat to. We were both totally fangirling about amazing Lush products, especially about how great they are for cabin-bag-only travel. I've loved Lush ever since I found out they do solid shampoos, soap bars, solid body moisturisers... As a travel addict, Lush is pretty amazing.

So when the Lush girl I was talking to told me that Lush does solid face wash, you can imagine I was pretty excited! After talking about the various options available, I decided to pick up Herbalism, which is this little green crumbly monster in a pot.

Now, first things first. How do you use this stuff? I'm gonna admit that Herbalism does take a little bit of getting used to. It's not often that you get face cleansers that are in solid form, but even then it took me only something like three or four uses before I got the hang of them. You just pinch off a tiny little bit, add a tiny amount of water, mush it into a paste, and use it the same as you would a regular cleanser.

The key here is really not to add too much water. What I usually do is to wet the fingers of my other hand and start working the product into a paste. It then turns a very pretty colour of green - a light, milky green - and then you use it the same as you would any other face wash.

The thing I've found I like a lot about Herbalism is how natural everything is. I grabbed this from the product website - the list of ingredients include ground almonds, kaolin, glycerine, chlorophyllin water, nettle, rosemary and rice vinegar extract, rice bran, gardenia extract, rose absolute, chamomile blue oil, sage oil and perfume. Those are all natural ingredients, and I really like the sound of them, which is great if you're inclined to use all natural products.

My take on it

I love how my face feels after using this face wash. I've used the same face wash in a few different climates while travelling, and I can safely say that it's been holding up really well so far. Whether I'm in a place with wetter or drier humidity - like Singapore or Sweden - it doesn't make my skin feel dried out. I just feel refreshed and clean, which is great! Rice bran is the exfoliating agent here, and it's a soft enough exfoliant that your skin doesn't feel red or sore after use, so you can use it every single day.

Kaolin clay as an ingredient is also great if you have oily skin, because kaolin soaks up excess oil in your skin. Here in Singapore, my skin gets really oily really quickly, and I have definitely noticed less shine on my face after starting to use Herbalism. It takes a little while for your skin to adjust, but all around it does a bang-on job of being a great, gently exfoliating cleanser for all skin types.

Because it's a solid face wash, it's also fantastic for travel because you don't have to worry about liquid restrictions when you put it in your carry-on. Herbalism also doubles up as a body cleanser, so you can save on even more space in your travel bag!

On the website, Lush says:
"Nettles, rosemary and rice bran vinegar work to cleanse the skin, removing dirt and grease, leaving bright and beautifully clean skin. Chamomile blue oil and rose absolute are used for balancing skin tone. Rice bran and ground almonds will gently exfoliate the skin and when mixed with water, the almonds create a soft cleansing milk. Our chlorophyllin is extracted from alfalfa, which is rich in vitamins and minerals and is great for revitalising the skin."
Will a face cleanser, which is on your skin for all of maybe a minute and then washed off, really be able to give your skin a boost in vitamins and minerals? I'm doubtful. I'm not sure that chlorophyllin water is all as effective as Lush makes it out to be, but at any rate it turns the product a really pretty green. 

There have been times that I've gone over my skin with a toner afterwards, and there is a bit of a green tint on my cotton pad. So even after washing off, there are traces of the product left on the skin, but it doesn't really bother me. My skin's not being stained a bright Elphaba green, and I feel so much better after washing my face with this.

While I love this product for the most part, that there are some cons. Probably the biggest one is how quickly it goes bad. The shelf life of the product is just 2-3 months, which is isn't very long at all. Given how little of it you need to use every time, a small 100g pot is going to last easily 4-6 months, so that's a lot of product that goes bad really quickly. My confession: I'm actually past the expiration date for my pot already, but I'm still using it because it doesn't seem to be losing any of its effectiveness. I should be safe... Right? I'll keep you guys updated if my skin winds up breaking out or doing crazy things, which it isn't doing just yet.

Something else that's extremely interesting is Herbalism's smell. I've read a lot of reviews, and something that seems to come up again and again is that some people don't quite like the smell - people are saying that it smells like 'green chutney' and 'vinegar'. Weirdly enough, I don't think that at all. Quite on the contrary, I love the smell of Herbalism! To me it smells like fresh-cut grass and has a really nice sweet forest, jungly kind of smell. Some people may like it, some people may not, but personally I love the smell. It's not overwhelming - just enough for you to feel refreshed when you use it, but it's not overpowering in any way.

Price: S$25 in Singapore, or £6.40 in the UK for a 100g jar. Isn't it crazy how different prices are in different parts of the world?!

What do you think of Herbalism? Have you tried it before? Will you be trying it anytime soon? Let me know in the comments!

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