Passports

The world is connected and separated by passports.

“A passport is the most noble part of a person. Thus it will be approved if it is good, whereas a person without a good passport can be just as good but still not be approved.”

– Bertolt Brecht, German poet, playwright and theatre director

I saw this quote in Berlin, when I visited the museum opposite Checkpoint Charlie. The museum focused on the division between East and West Berlin back in 60s, how people lived back then and the many attempts by regular folk of the East to escape to the democratic West.

I remember reading it and being struck by its profound truth. It was true in World War 2, it was true a few months ago when the Syrian refugee crisis was gaining traction in the media (who continue to face the same crap today), it was true when I applied for my student visa 4 years ago and it is true now as I figure out the Swiss visa system. And that makes me incredibly sad.

Of course one can argue that I am clearly upset about how complicated the system is, but the more I learn about it, the more I realise that it is deliberately so to deter people from moving about.

I remember the day I had get to the UK visa application office in KL 4 years ago to apply for a student visa. We arrived at 7am and there was already a queue. The office opens at 8am. The number of times I had to wait without knowing when it would end (not once but three times, if you’re curious) the exorbitant fees I had to pay, the interview I had to go through to make sure that I had “no other intentions” (unless your country makes a nasi lemak like the one in Masjid Jamek, I will always want to go home), the cross examinations of my documents by a stern emotionless being, the countless finger prints, being told that I wasn’t allowed to smile in my pictures…

I’m lucky to be able to rant about this to begin with, I must admit. But it’s the inequalities that irk me so much. It’s the fact that I am made to jump through hoops like a monkey in a circus just because I was born on the other side of the earth that upsets me. It is the sad truth that my Malaysian passport could hold me back from exploring the world, a privilege that many of my first-world peers get, that gets under my skin. It is this state of the world that seems to punish people for where they were born and how they were brought up, by no choice of their own, that really pisses me off.  

Again, I say that I am incredibly lucky. It is something I need to constantly remind myself about.

While travelling, I experienced many first-hand encounters with refugees fleeing their countries. Some begging, some sleeping next to me in a bus station as I waited for sunrise, some waiting in line to buy food from the corner shop.

In Budapest we walked into a protest when the local authorities shut the gates to the city’s main train station, delaying and possibly stopping hundreds of refugees from getting into Germany.

Above ground, right outside the main entrance, I saw young men excited, old men tired. Under ground, where the tubes connected to the station, mothers tried to keep an eye on their children as they talked to other women.

I had never seen so many people looking so out of place with absolutely no where to go.

At the ticketing offices, men pleaded with those issuing train tickets to take their money, to let them onto the trains, to let them be on their way. They promised no trouble. Those who were turned away the first time because they had insufficient cash returned with more, hoping that this time, they might be given a ticket.

Who are you to deny a person their right to safety and a better life?

There were security guards, policemen and soldiers with guns. The sun was hot and there was a lot of people. None of whom spoke my language, nor I theirs. It was chaotic and loud. I wish I could explain to you how I felt in that moment, feeling so scared because of the tension in the air (I mean, guns were in sight!), because the media had taught me to fear men with long beards; and feeling excited because I had no idea what was happening and I revelled in the energy of the crowd.

That day, I learned the importance of my passport and the colour of my skin. We asked strangers in the crowd if it was possible to get into the station and were directed to a side entrance where we approached a tall soldier who also wielded a gun. As he saw us, he lowered his weapon.

“Where are you from? Passport please.”

We handed over our precious little red logbooks, adding that we are Malaysian and were heading to Bratislava.

“OK. This way in. Have a good journey.”

For the last time, I need to remind myself that I am lucky. Much luckier than a lot of people. So for now, I need to put on my big girl pants, get over myself and get on with this visa application.

PS. I wanted to work this podcast by Freakonomics into the article but couldn’t so I decided to add it below. It gives a logical perspective on the possibilities of open borders. It is incredibly interesting and totally worth your time.

Click here to listen to Freakonomics’ “Is migration a basic human right?”

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From Russia with Love: #1 My first few hours in Moscow

I spent a week in Russia and I fell in love with the country and its people. They remind me of the misunderstood awkward kid in class who just needs a friend. I decided to take my time sharing about my experience traveling solo in Moscow and St Petersburg. I will be posting up a few short write ups throughout this week about specific incidences, my thoughts about them and my understanding of the Russian culture and people. So, without further adieu, here goes post #1: My first few hours in Moscow, Russia.

When I decided to travel, Russia was on the top of my list, next to Iceland. The thought of visiting the Kremlin and the Red Square and that place with all the domes just reminded me of every spy movie I’ve ever watched. It was exciting. Of course, being a tiny Asian girl, many people warned me about the big, scary and rude, Russians. Some even told me to give it a miss because God knows what would happen to me in a foreign land where people do not speak English. This only made me more determined than ever to visit the country because I possess a very strong rebellious streak.

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A little sidetracked but this was too funny not to share. This guy was on my flight from Brussels to Moscow.

Upon landing in Moscow, it felt like I was about to have an adventure of a lifetime. I was so excited. And then I hit the queue for passport control. I use the word queue rather loosely here. It was more like a herd of people unsure of where they should go (because no one did what the signs told them to do and no help was given by the airport staff, just a lot of stern looks and exasperated comments). It was a game of push and shove, something I had lost touch with ever since I was introduced to the art of queuing in Britain. Those folks aren’t patient but they’d rather complain whilst standing in line, unlike the rest of the world. Being a miniature version of a grown woman, I had to ask taller people what was happening in front because I simply couldn’t see. Seriously, I couldn’t.

It took me all of two hours to get through the mess, which was where I met a pregnant lady who was standing for more than an hour by the time we spoke. After that, I picked up my bag and exited the safety net of the arrival lounge into the large and busy airport. Having spent the last few weeks in smaller cities, the number of people who walked past me and sometimes straight into me (because I’m short) was a little overwhelming. I made a beeline for the information centre and the lady there had no clue what I was trying to say. “AEROEXPRESS”, I said with as much clarity as I could muster and she stared back at me like I was crazy. I decided to just handover my printed out directions and she understood it right away. “Straight and left”, she said. Straight and left I went.

The only problem was that all the signs for it seem to have disappeared after a certain point and the Aeroexpress was no where to be found. I asked another person at a desk and this time, he pointed to a tiny corner that was supposed to lead to the Aeroexpress. The little pathway was crowded and it was all very confusing. Everyone seemed to be looking for the Aeroexpress and had been told to head to this little corner in the airport but the lady working there was turning people away without giving them an alternative route. Sweaty and confused, I asked a couple next to me if they were looking for the same thing and they said yes. The husband then asked me to follow them and we began running for it. Me, with a giant pack, running through a crowded airport.

Yup.

And then I lost them. As soon as we exited the airport, I lost them. Great Nic. Just great. I was trying to suss out who was most likely to be able to help me when a random lady tapped me on the shoulder and told me to follow her to the illusive Aeroexpress. This time, there was no running. We walked silently to the ticket machines where I thanked her profusely.

It took me minutes to get a ticket and get on the train that would take me to the metro station. The metro station at Domodedvo looked like it came out from movies in the 60s or 70s, with the longest escalator leading to the underground.

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Again at the station, I had to ask a stranger which platform I needed to get on and she pointed me in the right direction and gave me a motherly nudge as if to say “Your ride is here, get a move on honey!”. The metro ride was hot and stuffy as all underground subways seem to be. It took me another 20 minutes to find the hostel and when I did, it felt like I had reached an oasis of calm.

Number of times I needed help: 5

Number of times helped by a random stranger: 5

So, the trip might have turned out a little more chaotic than I expected..

heh. 

Sushi for two in Krakow

Krakow was also my first destination alone, thus beginning my solo adventure for the next three months. I also have to admit that I was looking forward to being alone after spending almost every waking moment (apart from the times I needed to shower or pee or brush my teeth, I don’t poop, I’m a lady) with someone else for almost two weeks.

I took the night train from Prague to Krakow, which was an interesting experience in itself. I booked myself into a 3 berth carriage and was accompanied by two other women (I thanked God for not being dumped with a couple, they’re the worst). I quickly befriended another girl who turned out to be a free walking tour guide in Krakow. I proceeded to tell her how much I just love free walking tours and we ended up chatting for a bit.

Upon arriving in Krakow at around 7am, she guided me out of station and gave me directions to Rynek Glowny, the main old town square where my hostel was supposed to be. We also agreed to meet up for dinner. The plan was to go for sushi as I was seriously craving some asian food by this point. (Travelling has definitely brought out all my cravings for asian food that’s so accessible and cheap in Malaysia but no where else.)

The wind was crisp and I enjoyed the walk to the hostel. It was nice to stretch my legs and explore a new town, even with a ginormous backpack. I loved watching sleepy Krakow wake up. 

After arriving at the hostel, I grabbed some free breakfast (score!) and caffeinated myself with fresh coffee from real coffee grounds, not that Nescafe 3-in-1 crap I’ve been having for the past few days (double score!). Guess what I did next? That’s right, I joined the free walking tour around the old town at 10am. I met more people in that one tour than I had in the past few weeks. One girl from Malaysia who was touring Europe for a month, another from Columbia who was in Poland for business and a very cute guy who was travelling before starting his Phd in Applied Maths (he said something about physics somewhere, who knows, I was distracted by his face).

For those hoping to visit Krakow, I highly recommend this walking tour not only because the guides are incredibly experienced and have a good sense of humour, but also because they give out kickass maps at the end of tour. It had a ton of recommendations for good places to eat, cheap places to eat, museums, ideas for gifts and Polish pickup lines.

That night, Joanna and I met up for dinner. We went for sushi in Genji which has a beautiful interior and very friendly staff. I have never wished to have been able to speak Polish anymore than my short stay in Poland. Everyone I met was friendly and nothing short of proud of their country. Even the guy who drove me to the airport at an exorbitant rate was friendly and loved showing off his hometown to me.

Proof that I was with another human being and a sushi boat.
Proof that I was with another human being and a sushi boat.

Too much sushi + great company = great diner with Joanna. We talked about our ambitions and what we wanted to do when we grow up. We chatted about family and friends. We chatted about the refugee crisis in Europe. We chatted about our countries. It was great and I added her on Facebook. That’s how close we are. BFFs. Best Facebook Friends.

Exploring Bratislava in 24 hours

We decided to make a pitstop in Bratislava, between Budapest and Prague. The first thing that hit us as we got off the train was the chillier winds despite the sunshine.

We stayed in Hostel Blues for the night, which is probably the friendliest and most helpful hostel both of us have come across so far. They have free concerts and cooking classes on a weekly basis, which is a great way to meet other backpackers. I do applaud the hostel for taking the initiative to create such opportunities for their guests. Apart from that, they also have a really neat luggage storage room, with shelves for bags rather than piling them on top of one another like they do in some other place (I will not name drop here).

My attempt at being artsy. this was the view from our window that night.
My attempt at being artsy. this was the view from our window that night.

In such a short time, we decided to go for a free walking tour (but of course) before exploring the little gem that is Bratislava. They’re history and experience of Communism and Nazism is very similar to that of Hungary and Czech Republic, mostly because they used to be Czechoslovakia twice upon a time. I won’t bore you with all that history stuff, just know that there are two free walking tours each day, one at 11am and another at 4pm. Be sure to bring a jacket or coat, anything to keep you warm and dry.

Apart from the Old Town in Bratislava, there are a few other places worth checking out whilst you’re there. The Blue church/Smurf church/Cake church/Candy church/Cotton candy church or it’s actual name Church of Saint Elizabeth is something worth having a look at. It truly transports you to Disneyland and you almost expect Tinkerbell to fly over its towers.

After the tour, we decided to go for dinner at Bratislava Flagship Restaurant which was highly recommended by out guide. It was possible to get a meal and a beer for just under €5 if you ordered the right thing. We, however, ordered a weird mix of food which included the garlic soup served in a bread bowl, pork schnitzel (which is really a fried piece of breaded pork fillet), potato pancakes and wine. It was a combination that didn’t make sense whatsoever. Mainly because the Chinese menu translated pork schnitzel to fried ribs, which clearly sounds so much yummier. What I liked about this place was its no-frills-good-food sort of approach that clearly appealed to both locals and tourists.

The next morning, Sue Huey lugged my sorry butt up another hill, to the Soviet War Memorial in Slavin. It was a half an hour walk from the hostel and we got to go through the new part of town to get to it. It was nice to see the rest of Bratislava, apart from the Old Town which is the only thing that seems to grace the front pages of travel brochures.

Before leaving, we made a quick trip to a local supermarket since we couldn’t seem to find a local market in time. Does anyone else get as excited as I do about going to a supermarket in a different country? It always intrigues me how the layout of certain items are different (for example, in the Malaysian supermarkets, fruits and vegetables are always the first items you see, unlike in the UK where you’re first bombarded with quick meal deals and milk), the assortment of cheeses at the cheese counter, the cold meats on offer etc. We made a quick purchase of sandwiches and fruits and were on our way out of Bratislava’s train station within the hour.

An over-edited picture of my bag weighing in at 13.2kgs.
An over-edited picture of me with my bag weighing in at 13.2kgs. I promise to take better pictures in the future.

I Love Trains

I love trains. When you get on a really good one, it’s like you’re gliding through clouds, or at least that’s what I think gliding through clouds would feel like. The soft whirrs of the gears and engines (I’m not a train engineer, clearly) and the subtle vibrations that remind you that you’re on a moving piece metal – absolute bliss.

Yes, a perfect train ride is also like a unicorn trotting on clouds.

Look out of the windows to find trees, lakes, hills, forests, cows, goats, sheep, a flock of birds flying in their fancy formation, sea, sand and if you’re really lucky, a clear blue sky. No scene lasts for more than two seconds but beauty is fleeting anyway so you learn to appreciate what you’ve got.

In the UK, where people are reserved and love their personal space, one rarely sits next to someone. The next seat is for your bag(s), your feet, your coat, you. It’s like your own little chamber of secrets (I had to throw in an Exeter pun – JK Rowling graduated from Exeter, you see). Plug into Spotify, order a cup of tea and you’ve escaped to your own little paradise.

The lack of any network connection also makes it the perfect place to unplug, even for a couple of hours. I often find myself drifting off into my mind midway into a book or a song, thinking about the experiences I’ve just had, reliving them till I’m tired and move on.

I love trains. It’s pondering mind-drifting qualities are simply unbeatable. My next train out will be to London, when I leave Exeter for good. There will be no one to wave me off the platform, except a place I called home for the past few years. A place where I made great friends, explored veganism and fell giddy in love – twice. A place that has a charm that will forever leave you longing for just a little more. I loved showing it off to friends and family, despite its deafening silence at midnight or its lack of cheap Asian food. My mind will probably explode from the weight of leaving.

My next train out will be the end of an era (I’m not being overly dramatic here, it’s the truth!) and the beginning of an amazing adventure. There really is no other way to describe it so I’ll just let you recall every overused quote you’ve seen on Facebook or (God forbid) Elite Daily because it will be one hundred percent accurate and true.

I love trains because it gives me space and time. Both of which I’ll need to get over my relationship with good ol’ Exeter.

PS. “пока” is pronounced “poka”, which means bye in Russian.