Dispatches from Danang, Piran, and a Rice Field in Ubud

Dispatches from Danang, Piran, and a Rice Field in Ubud

I got stuck in the toilet once, and it was traumatic. It was the size of a locker and I had left my bag and my phone at the restaurant’s table. The sliding lock on the door wouldn’t budge and I found myself short of breath, nauseous, and ready to cry… or scream for help.

Before I give you more details of this pathetic bathroom fail, my point is this: I’m not keen on small spaces. And when I write, I would like a space (don’t we all?) that looks out to something vast, expansive, preferably awash in pastels or in my favorite colors of green and blue. Like paddy fields or mountains or the sky or the beach. A quaint harbor lined with boats weathered just so—or an edgy skyline, twinkling in the distance.

This view ain’t bad. The coastal town of Piran, Slovenia ~ looking like Venice sans the crowds.
In between writing in Piran, where I’ve coerced yet another stranger to take my pic.

The reality is I write in my tiny guestroom in Singapore, on a desk that took me months to hunt down because it had to fit the wee space between the wall and closet. I write on the dining table, in a jumble of placemats and coasters and the odd stray morsel of rice,  while my husband watches basketball on TV. I write in cafés around Singapore, where the tables touch one another, the coffee is either bitter or blah, and the noise level borders on annoying. I write on tray tables inside airplanes, where my laptop is at risk of being snapped in half once the person sitting in front me decides to recline his seat without warning.

I try my best to write while I’m traveling. “Try” is the operative word.

Sometimes I succeed. Sometimes I just end up gorging on the unhealthiest local food or draining my phone’s batteries taking pictures I’d never post.

Sometimes, I even end up annoying those who’ve unwittingly come to the trip with me: I wrote chapters of Miss Makeover in Da Nang and Hoi An in central Vietnam while on holiday with my best friend. He chain-smoked, threw a minor fit, and looked on helplessly as I typed in a street-side and very crowded local café.

Momentarily abandoning the pen—for pictures in Hoi An, Vietnam.
Wild colors and this lantern-maker’s focus for inspiration.

Still, I try. I squeezed out pages of my third novel, Budget is the New Black, in various hotel rooms at 4:30 a.m. all around Tasmania, Australia on an incredibly hectic press trip when I was still editing pages for Harper’s Bazaar. I wrote and re-wrote Girl Meets World in Manila and Bangkok.

And then there are times when I can write in middle-of-nowhere Miradoux in southwestern France, or in Piran, a tiny coastal town at the edge of Slovenia, or in Polish suburbs with unpronounceable names. I can’t forget the times when I wrote in a small hotel with a floor-to-ceiling glass wall that looked out to the glorious Han River in Da Nang, or in Porto, Portugal with a sweeping view of the pastel-colored houses below. More recently, I drafted chapters for my next novel, Hue City, in a local and very basic guesthouse surrounded by the rice fields in Ubud, Bali.

In and out of old buildings in Porto, Portugal. I swear, I’ve got my writing notebook in that bag!
Ornate church interiors in Wroclaw, Poland that make you want to grab a pen—or your phone (for an Instagram pic, of course!)

I cherish these times—when I travel to a city not knowing anything or anyone, and then ending up becoming part of the landscape. Sometimes, it also feels lame and cliché, even pretentious and indulgent. Too Eat Pray Love. Too much focus on “inspiration” and the “muse” and “this is my remote office” type of thing.

Truth is, I’m just happy that my journal gets filled and that I manage to squeeze out a chapter or three. I love traveling, period. And the commitment I made to myself—that I will write something, anything, when I’m in a different place—is something I’d like to uphold. They may end up as trash or unused or unpublished, but they are my words and I would like to believe that they help me move forward.

Taking over the paddy fields in lush Ubud, Bali.
We have Boracay. Slovenians have this. Prime sunny spot in Piran.

Singapore, where I live, is a tiny country where you can see all four corners in a day. Here, space is precious. It also feels claustrophobic. After a decade in this big little city, I’ve learned how to cope like the locals do: they get out. They take yearly vacations or get on a budget flight to Ho Chi Minh or Helsinki whenever they get the chance.

That’s eventually what happened to me in that tiny toilet: I got out. I gripped the damn lock as hard as I can and pulled with all my might.

It opened after the sixth try, and my hands were red and raw when I finally stumbled out. I blinked in the bright lights and gulped in the restaurant’s recycled, air-conditioned air. It didn’t smell any better than the miniscule bathroom. But I was out and I was free, and it smelled like the world.

Sunset and a secret beach in Da Nang, Vietnam.

Solo Stories

Solo in Scotland. At the incredible Isle of Skye… with a trusty tripod!

I like doing things by myself. When it comes to writing, I absolutely must do it alone. When it comes to traveling, I adore doing it solo.

As a child, I spent huge chunks of hours in my room, which both awed and bewildered my parents. I would emerge for meals, moody and preoccupied, and then slip back into my solitary world of books, writing, painting, crochet, or whatever it is I was obsessing on. I distinctly remember being so smitten with the songs “Tenderness” and Grease’s “Summer Nights,” — that I spent days painstakingly transcribing the lyrics from a cassette tape.

On the way to the Fairy Pools. I just stuck my GoPro on the ground.

When we moved to Singapore, I converted our guest room into a writing room, where I hide when I need to be alone with my thoughts. But this didn’t mean I was able to churn out the words easily. I’ve had (and still do) many, many blank-screen days, long stretches where I just browse through Net-a-Porter or Sephora and debate with myself whether I really need Rihanna’s new Fenty lipgloss or not.

The scenery at Skye. I love these adorable creatures.
Countless moody mountains. Gloomy weather added to these dramatic backdrops.

Still, I enjoy going to cafes, watching movies, shopping, cooking, and eating a meal by myself — extra happy points if it comes with a glass of wine.

I’m forever curious about new places and I’ve learned that not having a travel companion is, actually, okay. In fact, it can be quite fabulous. I have a yearly travel date with my husband, but when he can’t get away from work, I don’t hesitate planning the next trip on my own. I’m sharing with you pics of my solo travel in Scotland’s Isle of Skye, armed only with my GoPro and a little creativity!

GoPro-ing it at Isle of Skye’s Quiraing Mountains.

My first real solo travel was in Boracay thirteen years ago, where I spent three days sun-tanning on the beach (a practice I regret now), trawling the talipapa, and eating dinner in family restaurants. I remember coming back to work cheered-up, rejuvenated, and strangely empowered. The second time was after a press junket in Paris: I opted to tour solo and stayed in a cheap hostel where the shower was ensuite but was in a teeny-tiny corner of the room and… doorless. I took my showers when my Mexican roommate was asleep.

Now I can’t count how many times I’ve traveled on my own. I’m no adventuress, but I’ve been left stranded on a dark mountain road and had all my belongings taken away from me in Sapa, Vietnam (I’ve conveniently borrowed some details for my book, Miss Makeover!), relentlessly chased by an amorous Italian in Rome, and gotten involved in a nerve-wracking Rimowa tug-of-war with a stranger in Munich.

Sariling sikap in Scotland.

But I’ve also had the pleasure of having my Airbnb host take me out to a local lunch in Gdansk, having waiters watch out for me in Piran, strictly Spanish-speaking taxi drivers trying their best to help me in Granada. There was even a barman in Amsterdam who asked exactly what time my flight was, so he could remind me to go (in case I get drunk from the pint I was enjoying too much). In Scotland, our kilt-wearing guide Glenn, seeing that I was traveling alone, offered to take all my pictures at all our stops at the Scottish highlands. Strangers, I’ve realized, can be really kind.

When I think of these moments, I’m filled with all kinds of positive vibes. I laugh at myself — though I also take pride — at how I’ve lugged my big-ass suitcase up eight flights of stairs, on and off train platforms, and to as many as ten cities. Best of all? I think I’m slowwwly mastering the delicate art of asking strangers to take my picture!

Hope to be back at the highlands, solo or not!

First Times

My first time in Saint-Petersburg, Russia

I’m thinking about firsts: the first time I got inspired to write and the first time I realized I wanted to see the world.

I’ve always been a reader, but it wasn’t until I was in Grade 4 that I fell in love, hard, with writing down words. Our English teacher asked us to compose a poem and I tried my hand at writing one about the rain. I enjoyed searching for the right words to make it rhyme (at age nine, it felt that poems just have to) and for it to make sense at the same time. And then I discovered a crumbling old poetry chapbook at home and read and re-read that along with my growing stash of Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden, Sweet Dreams and Sweet Valley High books. Along the way, I decided to keep a diary and I still remember the first one: small, thick and pink, with a (kinda useless) lock on the cover.

I ended up writing for a living, first as a lifestyle writer for TODAY where I wrote lengthy features on everything from food, travel, fashion, arts, and… showbiz. I also still remember my very first time at a press lunch, in a posh Makati restaurant for an Italian fashion brand. I couldn’t get enough courage to ask my question and didn’t utter a word during the whole thing, that the host asked if I was sick!

I eventually found myself writing and editing in women’s magazines like Cosmopolitan, Preview and Harper’s Bazaar. I got lucky and was asked by Summit Books to write my first chick-lit book, No Boyfriend Since Birth. I remember the surreal feeling when I got a call from Unitel, who told me they were considering it for a movie. It was eventually made into a short TV series for TV5. When I moved to Singapore, I had the good fortune of working with Marshall Cavendish who published my novel, Budget is the New Black. Now, I just finished my fourth novel, Miss Makeover, and I’ll be telling you more about that soon!

Traveling wasn’t really new to me. My parents were from the Visayas, so I was already doing airplane rides as a toddler to visit relatives in Iloilo. Because my dad was in the military, I distinctly remember summer vacations in Puerto Princesa, Zamboanga, and Tawi-Tawi.

But I was twenty-two when I had my first trip out of the country. I had finally scrounged up enough money for an uber-cheap, buy-one-take-one ticket to Hong Kong. I traveled with my best friend, and we flew to Hong Kong without any hotel booking whatsoever. We ended up using a payphone in the airport and found a spartan room in the notorious Chungking Mansions.

Being my first time in a foreign country, I was ignorant of the very basic things, like dressing right for the weather (it was chilly when we got there, but I’d only packed T-shirts and sleeveless tops) and using pedestrian lanes — I crossed anywhere and at anytime, until my friend had to hold me back. We unwisely spent most of our time shopping for cheap clothes, missing out on the sights. It would be years before I’d see the famous Victoria Peak for the first time!

I love ruminating on these innocent firsts. It reminds me why I choose to continue writing even if I sometimes want to give up, and makes me creative on the ways I can see the world, even when at first, it didn’t seem at all possible.