Friends. On Monday, Sanoop leaves for business in Brisbane, and on Tuesday, I meet his best friend and college roommate and his girlfriend, as they’re visiting from New York City. Such unfortunate timing with Sanoop being away, but it still seems like a natural and obvious thing to meet – for the first time. The American couple lived in Singapore a few years ago; met here actually, she having moved here with work, and he having moved here for a job and to be close to Sanoop. They even lived in Tiong Bahru at the time, just across from my first flat. Those facts, plus some heart-warming anecdotes delivered by Sanoop about their Kerouac-like guys’ trips to South America during summer holidays from college, is all I know when he and I meet, at vegan Afterglow in Tanjong Pagar, his favourite restaurant in town. I get to the small, charming, cosily lit spot a little early, after work and a barre class, to wish a friend who is speaking about being a digital nomad at Lime House next door good luck, and then another friend joins me for a glass of organic red wine and a chat until my new friend shows up. I expected we’d get along and that he’d be a nice guy, but I’m very pleased to discover the degree to which this date is a good idea. I learn so much about Sanoop from hanging out with his best friend. Not that we talk about him much, but just the general spirit… how absolutely pleasant and balanced and funny and smart his best friend is. We talk and talk for hours, almost neglecting the creatively presented and perfectly delicious raw food, and sharing a bottle of wine. Afterwards, we meet his girlfriend and a couple of her friends for drinks at TBC, such lovely people too. On a hot night down on the corner in my neighbourhood. Ahh… After the first drink, I suggest we go home to share the bottle of white wine I have in my fridge. That way they can see the flat as well. We take turns at choosing music on YouTube and talk for another few hours, until way past midnight, the couple leaving me with a sweet housewarming present, a beautiful grey ceramics jug and a lovely scented soy candle, as they say goodbye – with an invitation to come see them in NYC soon! – and stroll down to Wangz Hotel, from which they’ll check out less than six hours later to catch a plane to Langkawi.
Leaving Party. On Wednesday, my friend who has been staying with us for a few weeks has her farewell party. I used to cry when people left London. Now I cry when people leave for London. Aahh, the irony! It’s the right thing for her to do – she’s done so well for herself here, started an amazing career and travelled so much, really made the most of it, and now, at 27, she’s ready to go home and set up an office for her company there and move into her Bermondsey flat, which she’s been renting out for the 3 years she’s been living here. I’ll see her in the summer in London – summer in London! – as well as in Singapore when she’s back on business trips, which she will be frequently… It’s all good, but it’s also always a bit easy to tear up at these kinds of events. A vibey, touristy bar facing the the bay. Lots of girls, chilled wine, a splendid view of the turquoise water and the Marina Bay Sands directly across from us. As the others fill up a party bus to go clubbing at the top of the iconic hotel, I cycle home. How I love having a bike!
Australia! Near the weekend, I wake up with butterflies in my stomach, thinking, ‘I’m going to Australia tonight’! Australia! For the first time in my life. I can’t remember the last time I was so excited to go anywhere… with Google Maps aglow with stars for so many personalised recommendations for Coffee, for Cheap & Cheerful or Fancy dining places, for Yoga and Barre studios, for Scenic Runs & Walks, for Art Galleries, for Wineries… collected from friends who’ve lived, studied or backpacked through the destinations of this trip, Byron Bay, Melbourne and Sydney. I want to be open to what’s around me and take every day as it comes, but I’m hoping for a wonderful combination of experiencing my friends’ tried and tested highlights, the special spots that Sanoop wants to share with me and then my own explorations and inclinations… haha. The perfect intention-setting and recipe, huh?
Cyclone Debbie. I’m flying into Gold Coast, where Sanoop will pick me up in a rental car and take me down to Byron Bay for a blissful weekend at his favourite corner in the whole wide world. As Queensland is hit by a cyclone, Debbie is its name, this week, I keep refreshing the page displaying my flight status for hours before takeoff, partly hoping the flight won’t be delayed or cancelled, and at the same time irrationally terrified it won’t be. All of Sanoop’s meetings were cancelled on Wednesday and Thursday as people in and around Brisbane were told to stay at home. As my flight sticks to its schedule, I end up boarding the plane with a good portion of anxiety. I’m not fond of flying, and least of all straight into a natural disaster. ‘I am in safe and competent hands of people who’ve assessed that our route isn’t going to be too negatively affected by the storm’, I keep repeating to myself as I fasten my seatbelt and long for the moment when I can purchase one of those miniature bottles of wine. Possibly due to the combination of melatonin, tylenol, French merlot and a whole seat row to myself, I end up feeling surprisingly well on the trip. There is quite a bit of turbulence and I can’t sleep despite the pills, but at least I’m not as terrified as I sometimes have been in the air…
Gold Coast. I land, fly straight through immigration with my passport which is due to expire exactly six months after this trip (I don’t know why this fact makes me nervous – it’s fiiiine!), grab my luggage and head for the cafe in the arrivals hall, and just as I slurp down the last foam of my fairly traded almond flat white, I spot Sanoop pulling up in a shiny white car just outside the sliding glass doors. It’s a bright, sunny day, and he wants to take me to Fingal Head before leaving Gold Coast, a special spot with beautiful homes facing a beautiful beach on the edge of town, but as we head down the highway and are about to turn right to get there, we discover that the road we want to turn onto is under water! Eh, straight onto Byron then – we think. But after a few minutes of driving south, the traffic comes to a halt as water has flooded part of that road too. Trucks are cruising past, but cars and motorcycles are ordered to stay put – by the police, who start to drive their sturdy jeep back and forth through the water to keep track of its increasing depth. After half an hour or so, we get out of the car and walk a bit up the road to chat to some of our 30 or so fellow strandeds. It’s refreshing to feel the cool air and bright sun light against our skin – apart from a few clouds creating a sharp wind (which keeps pushing the water across the road), it’s a pretty clear day. It’s a pretty spot too – beautiful view of the accumulating lake, the almost toxic green meadows and, in the distance, Mount Warning and its surrounding rolling hills. On the road itself, jumping and creeping their way from what we think is a river (but which, it turns out on Monday morning when we drive back up the same way, is really just low fields covered in far-far-travelling ocean water), slowly flooding the highway from one side, to the long grass on the other side, are big fat toads, rats, grasshoppers and spiders… my first authentic meeting with Australian wildlife. The people we talk to, a motorcyclist named Chris and a solo car driver, Tara, are both taking it easy. He’s heading south to visit friends and do business, but with a pretty relaxed schedule. She’s going to a baby shower in Byron, but it will happen whether she’s there or not. We don’t really know for how long we will be stuck – we’ll have to just wait and see. When it gets a bit too chilly to hang around outside, we go back to the car, lean back our seats and catch up on some sleep, read a bit, listen to a podcast… basically, normal holiday stuff.
Service Station. Near the end of the afternoon, when we’ve been waiting in the roadside for 6-7 hours, the police and emergency workers ask us if we want to go to a nearby servo (my first Aussie word!) to get a coffee, maybe a bite to eat. Why not. I grab my bag containing books, laptop and wallet, adding a jumper and my toilet bag, just to be sure. Sanoop stuffs his wallet, phone and a package of contact lenses into his pocket. We squeeze into the high seats of a firetruck with our new friends, and then one of the competent SES guys drives us safely through the deep, brown water. The world is so quiet – no traffic, not a soul anywhere. Once we’re at the servo, the driver joins his wetsuit-wearing colleagues on their mission to rescue people – and pets – whose houses have been completely destroyed by the water, or who are in medical need, or who are just lost in the flooded outdoors. We settle down at a table with coffee, sandwiches, magazines and playing cards. Some of the people around us were headed for weddings, funerals, concerts and other events. Two guys who were going to be best men at weddings further south were picked up by a chopper, but every one else is just shrugging their shoulders and making the most of it – chatting, snacking, chilling. Some families and friends are on roadtrips, with no specific plans as such. A local lady lost her camper van home, but she’s tried that before and seems pretty calm about it – she saved her small pet mouse. What do you save when your house is hit by a natural disaster? At the next table, a man is busy unpacking framed family photographs – those, and his kids, are his priority. Sanoop and I were just headed for a romantic evening similar to so many others we’ve had in the past and will have in the future. Idyllic Byron Bay Airbnb by the beach. Dinner at a cosy restaurant with his good old friends – maybe oysters, perhaps champagne. Instead we’re playing UNO with new friends at a petrol station somewhere in no man’s land without knowing when we’ll be able to leave, and reluctant to ask the SES workers when they might take us back to our car – they are busy saving people in real need. There’s no one we can call or nothing we can buy to get out of here. Safe and warm, we remind each other to appreciate this very rare true moment of plain, unembellished, unplanned life in the present. We take a walk outside, and another one later, looking at the water, enjoying our coffee – in Australia, even the servo coffee is good. And we won’t run out of it. Or of vacuum-packed tuna sandwiches. As dusk draws near, the emergency workers tell us that it’s unsafe to go back to the cars any earlier than tomorrow, if even then, and ask us whether we want to stay where we are or be taken to an emergency centre. We look at each other and weigh the options – the centre is for people who really need help; we don’t really want to take up space there, and also, there might be a bit of a desperate atmosphere there, whereas at the servo, we’re surrounded by people who are okay; making the most of the situation. We decide to stay, even if it means sleeping on a linoleum floor in a neon-lit cafeteria. The next day, we’re told that there weren’t beds or even blankets enough for everyone at the emergency centre, and that the only food they had was stale sandwiches. We buy a pair of fleece blankets, towels and newspapers in the servo shop, and make a little nest for ourselves on the linoleum floor, right under a brightly shining McDonald’s sign. Cuddling up and covering our eyes with towels, we still don’t really close an eye in the cold, neon-lit room, our bones aching against the floor and people chatting around us all night.
Morning. At least we have each other – and once we decide to get up, we’ve never been that close to a freshly made flat white. It’s around 8am, and we take our coffees for a walk in the sunshine, past drowning cars, a cemetery, a mini golf place, forests… talk about being grateful and celebrating small things in life. Sanoop’s best friend messages him from Langkawi, announcing his engagement. When we get back to the servo, a musician, who was supposed to go to a spirit festival in Byron, has set up his homemade musical instruments in a corner and starts playing. We settle down and enjoy the show with the rest of our crowd, a real cross-section of society. I chat to two Danish teenage boys, who worked at a wildlife park up near Cairns and are on their way south to Sydney. Sanoop chats to a drug addict from Queensland who walked here last night, fleeing the authorities back home who wanted to medicate him. We play cards with our friends, Chris, the pizza restaurant owner, and Tara, the osteopath and yoga teacher. The SES people are still helping people who actually need help, and they don’t know when they can help us; don’t know how the roads are, if we can go south to Byron, or if we’re better off staying here, or going back to Gold Coast or Brisbane where the roads might be clearer. We don’t know which resources are available and what we can do. We ask around and we check online, but information is sparse, and we don’t want to be annoying or sound ungrateful or impatient. This is our unique experience together. At least 10 times that morning, we take a stroll down to a sunny spot behind the station, where we sit and sip our coffee, coconut water and cold pressed juices, do breathing exercises, sketch and read, think and chat, contemplating the concepts of waiting, celebrating, chance, luck, freedom to choose where we want to be, balance. Yes, we are basically okay here, but external factors are deciding for us; it’s not necessarily a negative thing; to us, this doesn’t feel like an emergency situation; the weather has cleared up and the cyclone is gone; but if we got to decide, we would be strolling along the beach in Byron Bay, reliving Sanoop’s happy memories of the place and creating new ones together. Instead, we’re here, sharing this. I thought this entry would be all about Byron, yet it’s mainly about something I hadn’t scheduled. At 2pm, finally, the drivers among us are picked up by an army truck and taken down to the cars. When Sanoop picks me up five minutes later and we make our way south with fingers crossed and holding our breath, we discover that the highway has opened up completely and that nothing is stopping us from driving straight to Byron. We pass the spot where we were stopped the day before, look at the meadows and towards Mount Warning, smile euphorically at each other as we speed on.
Byron Bay. We get there around 3-4pm, to the quaint coastal town full of special boutiques, art galleries, vegan food shops and bars in pastel-coloured wooden shops with verandas, nestled between rolling green hinterlands and wide white beaches, the most easterly point of mainland Australia, heaven on earth, home away …, no, wait, maybe actually just home; a happy place you never wanna leave… Our Airbnb, which is located down a quiet villa road, is a cute white wooden summerhouse with a palm tree framed lawn in the back, a small veranda with a huge barbecue grill and two shiny hipster bikes, panorama windows lining the garden-facing living room wall, stylish, streamlined wooden furniture, organic nicely scented shampoo, conditioner and soaps in the white bathroom, the fluffiest bed that wraps its white arms around you and swallows you whole… especially when you spent the previous night on a cold linoleum floor, and the night before that on a plane. But before we dive further into that, let’s swallow some idyllic keywords to go with the pictures of the Byron bliss. Long hot shower and clean clothes. Jumping on the hipster bicycles and racing up through the wide quiet residential neighbourhood towards Clarkes Beach, past oh, so many cute mint green and baby blue family homes and yards. Parking our bikes and running down to the vast expanse of smooth, firmly packed beach… so fresh, so breezy, such a homey place to be… we stretch out, breathe in, gaze out towards the waves and surfers, to the left towards the mountains lining the horizon, to the right towards the green hills leading up towards the white lighthouse towering at the top of Byron. Strolling along the beach to the right, we pass by the most adorable happy hippie beach wedding full of flower garlands, flowy clothes, deep words and acoustic music (guitar, violin, drum), climb the many wooden stairs to the Fisherman’s Lookout for one of many breathtaking views of the bay, pass by the up-market art deco restaurant and spa institution, Rae’s on Wategos Beach, and continue up the hill through fragrant vegetation to the lighthouse, as the sun starts descending. Those pink and orange golden hour hues tinting the ocean, the sky and everything in-between… ahhh! Backtracking to Beach Byron Bay, the beautifully decorated, and a little bit more vibey bar and restaurant than Rae’s, situated on absolute beach frontage, a few meters up in the hill above Clarkes, and showcasing coastal dining by celebrating local and seasonal produce. Getting a table on the deck, we order a batch of meaty oysters, dreamy deviled crab on sourdough, juicy pan-seared salmon and a delicious kale salad. A super dry riesling for me and fruity local craft beer for S. An espresso martini to share for dessert. Cycle downtown in the dark, like kids or teenagers on a summer holiday, or just like us… meeting a couple of Sanoop’s friends from Sydney at a local outdoor pub, where we chat and laugh happily while listening to the live band and sipping vodka/soda/lime (me) and more of the local craft beer (the others). Cycle home tipsy (wearing our black mushroom hipster helmets, of course), picking up a piece of heaven in the shape of a raw sugar free dairy free matcha cacao cake from the window-takeaway section of Spar Express on the way, and jump into that heavenly bed the minute we get home. Up five-six hours after with the sun – this far south, the sun rises at 6, and the cafes even open this early as well! Running (me) and driving (Sanoop) down to the beach for some sun salutations on the edge of the water – well, beyond the edge; ecstatic, in my right element, feeling creative, wanting to paint and write, reminded of so many beachy childhood memories, I run out into the waves and get my Nikes and yoga pants and hair wet as I move through the sun salutation series. It starts raining. We wander back up to Beach Byron bay for a cup of excellent coffee and a turmeric tonic on the deck. Go back home to leave the car there and pick up our bikes. Cycle into town and meet our friends for breakfast at the one place that everyone who’s been to Byron raves particularly much about, Bayleaf, the decor, ambiance, healthy food and superb coffee selection of which is absolutely blissful… We hang around for a while, just enjoying it all and each other’s company. Continue on to the nearby farmer’s market, where we splurge on locally made basil/lime scented soy candles, a 100% black wool hat for me, a necklace made of white sea shells for me, a flower vase made of slate for the flat, veggie juice, sugarcane juice with passionfruit, incredible 15 minute shiatsu massages by a guy who really knows what he’s doing and gracefully, effortlessly, puts his whole body into it, beeswax lotion, aloe vera lotion… we rarely browse and shop in Singapore, but we want natural hippie souvenirs from here! 😉 Drive on to Crystal Castle and Shambhala Gardens in the spectacular hinterlands, one of many things Sanoop has been looking forward to showing me and sharing with me, a wonderful spot, so charged with natural beauty and bliss, which we only venture in to explore after having had a spontaneous half hour nap in the car in the parking lot. Driving through all of that idyllic greenery and listening to classical music on the car radio lulled us to sleep. The gigantic sparkling crystals, the spiritual stone sculptures and the meticulous lush landscaping then wake us up and energise us. Just enough to drive back to town, parking the car and strolling around the cute streets of the centre for inspiration, finally deciding on dinner at Main Street Burger Bar, another hip and healthy place, where I opt for pulled chipotle-marinated jackfruit burgers on rye bread, with a side of homemade slaw. So yum! Stroll over for another piece of that matcha cake with rose petals strewn on top. Stop for a few minutes to listen to a canadian singer-songwriter with a velvet-smooth voice singing an ode to his weed-addict best friend back home in Vancouver. Drive home and chill on the sofa before an early night.