London, United Kingdom

Monday, September 4, 2023

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An outcome–whether intended or unintended–of writing about my travels from the past year or so is the ability to relive moments, and once again feel an immense sense of gratitude for everything I’ve gotten to experience in my life thus far. 

And although blogging is no longer considered ‘cool’, it still remains my preferred medium of archiving memories, despite it being somewhat time consuming with no real readership, particularly in this day and age where everyone has the tiniest attention spans (myself included). Yet I can’t help but feel a sense of pride knowing that I’ve maintained this little Internet space for fifteen years now. Fifteen years of my life captured in photos and writing that I can look back on, and hopefully I’ve also grown to become a little less cringey especially since I no longer harbour dreams of becoming the next breakout star blogger.

Fifteen years ago, eleven-year-old me would have never imagined herself going on ‘business trips’, much less one to the birthplace of Harry Potter–sorry, I had to, it’s a way of relating to eleven-year-old me. I guess I still am pretty cringe after all, huh?

But yes, in June of last year, I found myself travelling to London for work. This marked the first-ever work trip of my life, which definitely would’ve come sooner if not for the pandemic. Still, I’m grateful to have been given the opportunity, and thankful for a body that held up post my India trip–though not for long, and you’ll see why at the end. 

Part I: Pre-work things (13 June)

I arrived London the day before my work engagements, and this being my first time in the city (in fact, it was my first time in the UK), I made plans with L, a friend who used to work in the Singapore office but had moved to London recently, for dinner and to show me around. 

We visited Brasserie Zedel, a French restaurant with the most gorgeous 1930's interior. 

Escargots, an absolute must. 

Food was great–classic dishes done well, at a fairly reasonable price point for London's standards.  And it was nice to catch up with someone across the world, reinforcing how lucky I felt–and am still feeling–about the experiences I get to have. 

We walked around to see a couple of iconic places in London before I headed back for an early, but not too early, night to fight off the jet lag. 

I've heard that the weather in this city can be notorious, but it was so good to us the whole time we were there. 

Part II: Fun things amidst work (14-16 June) 

For obvious reasons, I won't be sharing any details on what I was doing in London for work, but there were several pockets of recreational time where we got to play the part of a tourist, with some highlights below. It was pretty surreal seeing my co-workers from the US and EMEA regions for the first time in person, despite having worked with them on screens for two years. 

On the first evening, we went on a dinner cruise and got to see some of the city's most iconic landmarks from River Thames. 

The London Eye! City skylines always somehow feel lacking without the silhouette of a huge observation wheel, probably also the reason why we're sustaining the Singapore Flyer despite it being one of the least profitable tourist attractions.  

Golden hour views are unparalleled. 

Not the London bridge, here's the Tower bridge. 

Unsure what this was, but it looks gorgeous with that soft sunlight.

The Big Ben, which was thankfully not under construction when we visited. 

The Treasury building in Westminster was covered in red paint by activists from 'Just Stop Oil' the day before, to protest the UK Government's encouragement of oil and gas expansion. I'd never witness something like that in Singapore, so this was a unique sight, at least. 


Across all three days, I enjoyed my early morning solo walks to the office space from the hotel, which allowed me to soak in the beautiful city for what it was. As a self-professed true city girl who's also an introvert, I live for the hustle and bustle that surrounds me while not needing to speak or interact with anybody. 

The blend of greenscapes within the city centre was right up my alley–I loved how folks would simply lay down on the grass in Hyde Park at midday, suntanning with a bottle of wine by their side. 

And oh, all the characters you'd meet on the streets! 

One of the final things we did together as a group was to go a couple of oscillations (or was it a single one? I can't remember) in the London Eye. Completely touristy, but I did appreciate it. 

Part III: Post-work things (17 June)

With only one full day left and this being my first trip there, I knew I needed to check off a couple of London 'must-sees', despite that not being my preferred way to travel. L kindly offered to plan and spend the day with me (thank you!), and with her around I was able to cover more ground. 


We started our day at the British Museum which, aside from its problematic status garnered from all the stolen treasures it features, was pretty damn amazing. There was just so much to see, and if I had the luxury of time I would've loved to spend an entire day there. 


Scenes right out of 'Night at the Museum'.


The second stop was to the London HQ at Central Saint Giles. Though I had spent time at the office in the past week, it was the one located at 123 Buckingham Palace, which was more of an event space. 

Post-it art

We were just in time for lunch when we arrived. 

Important fuel, universal across all the offices. 

The CSG office boasted a rooftop spot that featured a barista bar, such an ideal space to sip on a cuppa and catch up with mates. 

As the saying goes (it really is just a trending Internet joke), the height of luxury is drinking three drinks at once: one for hydration, one for energy, and one for fun. Pictured here is just that—water, coffee, flavoured sparkling water, in that order. 

View of the King's Cross station from the rooftop. I suppose this is where Harry Potter catches the Hogwarts Express. 


After the little office tour, we bought some snacks and wine from Marks & Spencer (of course) and headed to Hyde Park to people-watch. I could do that all day, but before we knew it, it was almost time to catch the West End musical that we had pre-booked way in advance–The Book of Mormon! We grabbed a quick Japanese dinner before heading over to the Prince of Wales Theatre. 

Sacrilegious, in the best way possible. It was the perfect end to my time in London. 

Epilogue

Alas, the moment I landed home post a pretty uncomfortable flight, I knew I had brought back more than a suitcase load of memories (and dirty laundry). My awfully scratchy throat and ridiculously stuffy nose were the first indications that I had caught myself a week of isolation, later confirmed by the first bold double lines on my antigen rapid test kit, the sight of which honestly sent chills down my spine. 

It was definitely a sooner-or-later situation, and I recovered fully in no time. I did, however, have to sit with the guilt of having passed it on to my mom. As mentioned at the start of this post, I'm at least thankful that my body made it through two back-to-back trips before collapsing on me, rather well deservedly I'd say. I was clearly asking for it. 

Souvenirs to look back on in 20 years.

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Tiruchirappalli, India

Sunday, September 3, 2023

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For me, India’s one of those countries you step foot in and know that you're gonna have to be back again. 

Perhaps, it's due in part to the the ridiculously short amount of time I spent there–we only had one full day as we were there just for my good friend G's wedding in June last year–and I needed to be back in Singapore as I was headed to London two days later for a work trip. 

But in my brief time there, I was blown away by how colourful the country is–literally, and figuratively. From the moment we arrived at the Tiruchirappalli airport in the depths of the night, to driving along the streets to get to my friend's hometown and wedding venue, there was a definite buzz in the air that I can only describe as 'lively'. Local folks were always out and about, all doing their own thing, and were very affectionately intrigued by the presence of our East Asian-looking group–I was travelling with two of G's buddies, a Singaporean-Chinese and a Korean. 

Unfortunately, we only got to see the tiniest sliver of what India has to offer–just a bit of Trichy and my friend's hometown of Venthanpatti in the Tamil Nadu region. And as far as I know, the country's a mosaic of multiculturalism, with the most obvious differences being between the North and South regions, and I can't wait to be back to explore more. 

I do acknowledge that a bulk of my excitement for the experiences I made on this trip came from a place of doing something for the very first time, so if any of my recounts come across as culturally-ignorant, please accept my apologies. 

With all that said, here's a glimpse into one of the most eye-opening weddings I've ever been to, of a dear friend of mine and his wife who's also a friend back in the day. Such serendipity. 


Mad traffic greeted us outside Trichy airport when we arrived the night before the wedding, but G had arranged for the good folks at our hotel to pick us up. 

So thankful for the seamless commute as we had just spent quite a couple of tiring hours travelling. Our transit at the KL International Airport was quite the disaster when we discovered we had to go through immigration to-and-from Malaysia despite it being only a transit destination. We didn't have the necessary Covid-19 documents or app, and ended up having to run through the airport (we were also buggy-ed at some points) to make the flight. One of the guys even had to run ahead to get the staff to wait as I was stuck at the airport security screening for a little longer than expected. 


We stopped by a quick mom-and-pop store to grab much-needed juice of life: bottled water! As someone who once worked on an India-first consumer app, and spent my days understanding the merchant users of such stores, it was quite surreal seeing one in action up close and personal. 

The next morning, I was up from 4am watching 'How to wear a saree' tutorial videos on YouTube and frantically trying to figure out the very beautiful but confusing piece of cloth. Thankfully I managed to throw it together somewhat decently at the last minute before heading down at 7am to start our commute to the wedding venue.  

Thank you Pri for styling me! When she realised I was going for a wedding in India, not only did she loan me her saree, she even kindly provided matching pieces of jewellery to make sure I looked my best. 

Traffic in India is exactly how it's portrayed in media. 

Pit-stop for authentic chai at a roadside stall. 

Unassuming small paper cup that contained the richest, most fragrant chai I've ever tasted. Apparently the milk used came from a dairy cow at the back of the shop, and while I couldn’t verify this claim, it definitely added to its charm. 

As we neared our destination, we were greeted by huge billboards announcing the wedding. Truly a grand affair that the entire village would be privy to. 

The day started out in the bride's home in Mahibalanpatti village, which was so vibrantly decked out.  


Across most cultures, it seems like weddings, or any celebrations for that matter, go big on food. This one took it to the next level though, I felt like we were stuffing our faces non-stop. The moment we arrived in the house, we were ushered into a huge veranda-like open air space with tables and chairs and had food brought to us magically. 

It was a constant cycle: guests would come in, have food, and the banana leaves would be cleared to make way for new ones for the next hungry guest. 

Dollops of everything yummy. 


Behind-the-scenes! The food was all cooked in-house. 

After our bellies were filled, we took our spots along the courtyard area and eagerly awaited the couple's entrance. 

Caught sight of the beautiful bride.


I was seated next to the percussions which made for quite a full-blown experience, particularly for my eardrums. No complaints though. A kind lady seated beside me also helped to adjust my saree–but not without praising me for even managing to getting it to the state I did, she's the sweetest. 

The groom!

A Tamil poem written specially about the couple and their journey: the Google Lens' translation function really came in handy here. 

We witnessed the wedding rituals, which I didn't fully understand, but what was universal was the obvious joy in the air. 

Once the morning rites were over, bags of candy were handed out to all the guests present. 

 Essential to all weddings: photo taking!  

We were then brought in to the same dining area for lunch on banana leaves, even though our filling breakfasts were barely given any time to move through our digestive systems. 

Post lunch, the three of us decided to take a quick stroll nearby around the house in the Mahibalanpatti village.

I love the rainbow-hued houses–so much character, and made for the best #ootd backdrop. Thanks to my travel buds for patiently snapping a couple of photos to commemorate my first time in (and tying!) a saree, despite the blazing heat. 

Tea time treats awaited us the moment we arrived back into the bride's house. It was quite amusing, how well-fed we were, but who can say no to deep-fried pieces of yummies? Yes, unfortunately I forgot the name of that triangular snack, and my searches online have only led me to ‘samosa’, which definitely isn’t it.   


Most of the wedding happenings took place in the morning and evening, so there was quite a bit of free time in between. Guests would typically retreat back to their homes to freshen up and return for the second half of the wedding, but considering our hotel was a good 2 hours away, we had the honour of staying with the couple and hanging around their homes. 

After a quick nap (for the guys), we travelled to the groom's village of Venthanpatti. The bride and groom's villages are adjacent to each other, which was completely coincidental. 

Exploring G's family house. 

The couple taking a much-needed break amidst the festivities. 

And you guessed it–more snacks! This was one wedding you'd never leave hungry. 

My travel buds finally changed into traditional Indian garb, I believe they're wearing a dhoti here. Clearly I didn't get the pink/ red memo, and at this point I was a hot, sticky mess. 

The second half of the wedding started with rituals at a temple. It was really fun to hang out with all of the bride and groom's closest friends and family, and they always made sure we felt comfortable throughout. 

As the temple which was open to the public, we stood out quite a bit for looking different and we ended up having a line of random locals wanting to take a photo with the three of us. Though we acceded to these requests, a part of me was slightly concerned where the photos would even end up. 

We then walked from the temple to a ceremonial hall in the village for the final part of the wedding–of course not without beautiful lights, firecrackers and drumming.  

Loved how their sarees reflected the light, too gorgeous. 


Dinner being prepared fresh. 

Our final banana leaf meal of the trip. Stuffed silly at this point. 

With the couple and G's friends. 
 

By far, one of the best weddings I've been to. Thank you so much for inviting me and taking care of all our travel arrangements– from ensuring that we got everywhere so easily and even fussing over our SIM cards and travel insurance. Your family has been so kind and hospitable to us too. 

Of course, I cannot be happier that you and V found each other. Here's wishing you both a lifetime of bliss and joy. Considering this incredibly late post, it's already been more than a year since your union and as far as I know, you both are enjoying married life and a space you both can call your own. 

Before it got too late, we made our way back to the hotel to rest up before our journey back to Singapore the next morning. 


Despite the short time I had in India, I knew that as a self-professed cola addict, I had to try for myself the famous real-life competitor case study in India, Thums Up. 

For the unacquainted, Thums Up was introduced in India in 1977 when Coca-Cola had to pull out from the market due to regulations that required the company to disclose their formula. When the American company re-entered the market, they ended up acquiring Thums Up to fight against Pepsi. 

Verdict: Coca-Cola reigns supreme for me, but probably because I'm more used to its taste. I was honestly taken aback by how different Thums Up tasted, it featured a very strong herbal note. 

And to cap the trip off, I couldn't resist getting some masala cup noodles while we waited to board our flight back to Singapore. I'm always a sucker for well-done localization of known brands, and am happy to report that this flavour was not bad at all.  

This trip exceeded all my expectations, and served as a reminder to say ‘yes’ to novel cultural experiences that I’d likely wouldn’t get a second chance for, especially in my youth. It was truly an honour getting to witness my friends getting married in their hometown villages some seven thousand kilometres away from here. 

A month later, the couple hosted a wedding reception in Singapore too. Of course, I'd conveniently left this detail out when informing my mum that I was off to India. 😉
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