Book Hunting in Singapore: 1-Day Walking Tour

Book Hunting in Singapore: 1-Day Walking Tour
Books Actually in Yong Siak Street carried books and short stories from local authors. A resident cat can be found sitting on the counter top. Modelling pour moi, the fashionable bookworm, Clara Devi.

You are here for the bookstores?” the lady at our hostel in Singapore asked. She wears her hair long; has colourful eyelids and nails; with a preference for bright-coloured tight top.

I was sitting leisurely at the reception one morning after taking a shower, ready for the day’s book hunting. The hostel lady was there, sorting some envelopes on her desk by the window, and she offered me coffee. When my friends W and C appeared, she asked us about our plans for the day. Hence, the bookstores.

“Go to Bras Basah,” she said. “You can find any kind of books and a generous selection of bookstores to browse from.”

As always, the local was right.

We went crazy in Bras Basah complex, hopping from one bookstore to another, adding more and more books into our backpack.

***

Personally, I love chaotic bookstores with amazing shopkeepers.

The kind of store where you could not really tell which shelves contain which books, but you could always ask the shopkeeper and he would respond as if he were an online catalogue: navigating you in an instant through the small alleys smelled of mildew and old papers to some hidden shelf littered with covers and titles, and there you found the book you were looking for.

Book Hunting in Singapore: 1-Day Walking Tour
Littered with Books is a wonderful place if you’re looking for travel books, writer’s interviews, or recipes. The travel shelf is upstairs. This picture is taken by my book-hunting partner, Clara Devi of Lucedale.co.

Later that afternoon (or two bags of books later), we sheltered ourselves from the pouring rain and sat at a lovely restaurant in Ann Siang Hill, savouring a pan of hot paella. We had circled this area a few times after leaving Bras Basah, and still not seeing the next bookstore we were looking for. So we asked the waitress if she knew anything about it.

“Oh, they closed down!” she said, and probably seeing our disappointed faces, added, “You are here only for the bookstores?”

***

Yes, most of the times, I’m in Singapore only for the bookstores.

I have been frequenting Singapore for book hunting since they still have this massive bookstore, Borders. I still remember how ecstatic I was when I found a special shelf there, dedicated to books about writing.

Book Hunting in Singapore: 1-Day Walking Tour
Woods in the Books. Another bookstore in Yong Siak Street. The street itself is so artsy and picturesque. Cannot stop snapping pictures here.

I could spend hours in front of this shelf alone; flipping a writer’s glossary book that would help writers find the correct terms used in specific industry/area. Boating, for instance. (Boat-hook: a pole with a hook on the end, used to reach into the water to catch buoys or other floating objects. Fender: an air or foam filled bumper used in boating to keep boats from banging into docks or each other, Icebreaker: a special-purpose ship or boat designed to move and navigate through ice-covered waters.)

Unlike India, where the price of books is really cheap (the price for 1 book in Indonesia equals to 3 books in India, and I ended up shipping 10 kilograms of books from Jaipur), Singapore may not be the cheapest option to shop for books.

However, the options are abundant!

Although I was heartbroken after Borders was closed, today I cherished the birth of local indie bookstores around Singapore; that only adds up to more varieties and experience for book-hunters. Not to mention the events, workshops, or book discussions they are sprouting from time to time to keep the community alive!

***

Visiting Singapore soon and thinking about having a one-day walking tour for book hunting? I’ve created this walking route for book shopping in Singapore that may help you navigate your way around!

Book Hunting in Singapore: 1-Day Walking Tour
Wear your comfy shoes, bring a bottle of water, and carry a big backpack with you. You’ll fill the backpack with many, many books! And, 7 books later, you’ll be thankful for bringing a backpack instead of a tote bag 🙂

Book Hunting in Singapore: 1-Day Walking Tour Tour

(0). ARAB STREET & HAJI LANE | 9.00 AM – 9.50 AM

Always start with a good and hearty breakfast! Many food stalls are available in Arab Street, serving Chinese, Malay, Indian, and even Indonesian breakfast from 7 AM. I personally love a warm portion of martabak and teh tarik at Singapore Zam Zam restaurant. From there, walk leisurely along Haji Lane with its lovely murals and picturesque facades. Stores and cafes are still closed in the morning (mostly open around noon), exactly why I love being here at these hours just to stroll along, snap pictures, and feel inspired.

(1) NATIONAL LIBRARY OF SINGAPORE | 10.00 AM (open) – 11.00 AM

A 10-minute walk from Haji Lane, you’ll reach the National Library of Singapore. Why, a library should be in the picture when we’re talking about a literary walk, shouldn’t it? Moreover, we’re talking about a 16-storey library, with gardens in the building that offered a good view of the city: the Courtyard on Level 5, and the Retreat on Level 10. The collections of books go without saying. Find out if there are any exhibitions on the day of your visit.

(2). BRAS BASAH COMPLEX – 11.02 AM – 12.00 PM

Only 2-minute walk from the Library, the upper floor of Bras Basah Complex is full of ‘oldies’ small bookshops selling rare and antique books, second-hand books, comic books, and many more. Book display and shelving may not be their thing (love chaotic bookshops!), but they may hide that one gem you’re looking for! Just ask the shopkeeper if you have a particular book in mind. Amazingly, they would remember whether they have the book, and where they shelf it! This is my go-to place to hunt for South Asian books & literature. Find Basheer Graphic Books (#04-19) if you’re into graphic design books: from typography, branding, animation, fashion, architecture, interior design, and many more.

(3a). THE BOOK CAFE – 12.30 PM – 1.20 PM*

*) If you choose this route, you’ll have to go for a 21-minute walk afterwards to our next destination. If you choose the other route below, the distance to our next destination is only 3-minute away.

This could be your first option for early lunch. Around 29-minute walk from Bras Basah Complex, The Book Cafe is surrounded by bookshelves (love!), and comfortable sofas are plenty! Time to cool off and check your book-list. Do you have everything you’re looking for? (Plus, after walking that far, you must be really hungry now!)

(3b). MAXWELL FOOD CENTRE | 12.30 PM – 1.35 PM

Maxwell Food Centre could be your second option for lunch—if you’d prefer hawker stalls rather than a cafe-like establishment. You may want to try Tian Tian chicken rice, Huang Ji wonton noodles, or Fuzhou oyster cake. It’s a 28-minute walk from Bras Basah complex, and you may think it’s quite far, but here comes the plus point: the location is only 3-minute away from our next stop!

(4). ANN SIANG HILL – 1.40 PM – 2.00 PM

After 21-minute walk from The Book Cafe (burn those calories!) or just a 3-minute stroll from Maxwell Food Centre, you’ll arrive in Ann Siang Hill. It’s a lovely stretch where you’ll find many concept stores with curated goods as well as Instagram-able cafes. The buildings around this area look beautiful in pastel colours. After Haji Lane in the morning, this could be your afternoon dose of inspired walking!

(5). LITTERED WITH BOOKS – 2.05 PM – 3.15 PM

Only 5-minute away, you’ll stumble upon Littered with Books, a beautiful bookstore with special sections for travel and culinary books in the attic; and a section for books about writing & writers downstairs. Couches are provided here and there, so you can flip the pages of your book leisurely. What I love the most is the hand-written notes glued by the owner on each shelves, giving you recommendations on certain titles to read and why you may find them interesting!

(6a). THE READING ROOM | 3.25 PM – 4.20 PM

Have filled your backpack with more books? After a 6-minute walk, what about a quick stop for coffee at The Reading Room before heading to your next destination? With countless books surrounding you from its walls and puffy cushioned sofas to bury your back comfortably, it could be your first option to sit lazily while checking whether you still have enough Singapore dollars to buy more books!

(6b). GRASSROOTS BOOK ROOM | 3.25 PM – 4.20 PM

The Reading Room’s next door neighbour can be your second option for a cool breeze from the hot Singapore sun. Only a few steps away, Grassroots Book Room is a serene unconventional bookshop with an adjoining cafe. You’ll find books on Chinese literature and history, as well as recipe books.

(7). WOODS IN THE BOOKS – 4.20 PM – 5.00 PM

I have an unhealthy addiction towards beautifully-illustrated children’s books. And after a deserving 21-minute walk from The Reading Room, Woods in The Books would come into view. It’s a quaint little bookstore with all kinds of children books to cheer you up: from fiction to nonfiction, in various categories imaginable!

(8). BOOKS ACTUALLY | 5.00 PM – 6.00 PM

This is my go-to bookstore in Singapore to look for works from local authors. A few steps away from Woods in The Books, Books Actually also published anthologies and journals from the newcomers in Singapore’s literary scene. Near the cashier, you would find a stack of Ceriph—a quarterly publication containing prose, poetry, social commentaries, photography, and visual art from local artists. You can take a past issue and pay as you wish by inserting your money into the provided tin-can. There’s a special section containing staff-picked books (I love their picks!) and a resident cat is around if you like to pet it.

(9). THE OPEN DOOR POLICY|  6.05 PM – FINISH

With your backpack full of books, it’s time to head out to a place where you can flip and glimpse at each book you’ve just bought—peacefully, while having dinner. Have a short 1-minute walk to The Open Door Policy, and celebrate the day with a portion of crab cake or their delicious lamb dish. Have a sip of fresh juice, massage your feet, and open your backpack while waiting for your meals to arrive. Now, you need to decide: which book to read first?

Full map for your “Book Hunting in Singapore: 1-Day Walking Tour”*

*)If you skip The Book Cafe, you can follow the shorter route from Bras Basah Complex to Maxwell Food Centre (refer to map 3b above)

Happy walking! And happy book-hunting in Singapore!

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10 Years of Blogging and Being Here.

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I WAS 17, typing away from my desktop computer in my room from 7 pm to 3 am, non-stop. The fan was blowing to keep the CPU from overheating. We didn’t have an air conditioning unit back then. I typed letters I would never sent, grammatically incorrect short stories in English, angry poems, sad poems, almost-love poems, teenage novellas and many unfinished novels I kept on revising.

I was 17. I was lonely and sad.

I felt unwanted, unattractive and unaccepted in a world that didn’t really belong to me. I ran into my books (they make me laugh, they make me cry, but they never hurt me) and my writings (my most genuine company). But books, with stories written by someone else, were like the world I didn’t belong. They were out of my control. Writing, however, was the opposite.

And that was how, when I was 17, I learned about the balance of life.

I wrote about things I’d like to experience. About things I couldn’t (or too afraid to) experience in real life. In the afternoon, he was the popular guy with a popular girlfriend, and I was the best friend who silently loved him. In the evening, I wrote about how the popular guy fell in love with his best friend, eventually. Realising that she was the ‘perfect match’ all along. Finding out that his popular girlfriend had been cheating on him all along. But the best friend was already in love with a more popular guy who had been kind to her all along—who had silently loved her all along.

It was only in these stories that I became cute and beautiful, cool and confident, rebellious and couldn’t care less of what other people think of me.

But morning always came, and I had to go to school.

***

I HATED high school because I wanted to learn, not being lectured.

I wondered if high school would be better if I chose social major instead of natural science. Unfortunately, at the time, I hadn’t had the courage to choose anything for myself. So I tried to skip as many classes as I could, legally: being too active in the student body so I needed to visit other schools and attended school meetings, signing up for debate team and English-speaking club so I needed to spend many days competing in different schools or campuses, offering myself to help the choir team if they didn’t have enough people to sing that day… anything, as long as I didn’t have to be in class.

In the afternoon, my math teacher called me stupid numerous times, scolded me because I often missed his class during the month of the debate championship. In the evening, I wrote about a math teacher who looked down on his student and bullied her all the time. At the end of the semester, the student won numerous awards in various poetry-reading competitions and she made the school famous.

The day I found the Internet in college, I started reading about stars and supernovas, blackholes and mutations, literary critics and the beatniks, Freud and Jung. I couldn’t stop asking more and more questions of the things that had always intrigued me, because it seemed as if the search engine had the answers for them all.

And then I found out about blogging. Where I could just write and threw my words away to the world, for some complete strangers to stumble upon them accidentally. It was the days of Blogspot and Livejournal and Friendster blogs. WordPress came last.

The blogs were my ways of both reaching out and reaching in. And I never stopped ever since.

***

MY FRIEND once told me that my blog is reserved to those who are heartbroken.

Maybe because in the old days, I wrote about sad things. I was sad. I didn’t know happiness back then. It was such an abstract concept. Sadness fuelled my writing in such a way that got me somewhat addicted to it. I couldn’t write when I was happy. So I made myself sad, sometime subconsciously, other times consciously.

But I was tired of being sad. The idea of a troubled and angry writer didn’t excite me anymore.

I used to daydream about being broke and living in a rundown flat without electricity; about working as a waitress in a small jazz club and writing under the candle light at night. I used to romanticise the idea about being a struggling miserable writer. It sounded like an indie movie.

Then Rory Gilmore came along. She made me thought about how I, secretly, have always wanted to be happy. And so I braced myself to cross over. To be happy; even if it meant I had to lose my writings.

It was true that I couldn’t really write for quite some time, but then I started learning to write as a happy person. I learned about it all over again. When I came to think about it, the blog was all about that: about me, learning to write—and about me, learning to understand myself.

***

I AM 33.

I remembered how in my early 20s I found my childhood friend and got reconnected with her when we stumbled upon each other’s blog. About when in my mid 20s, I giddily launched an idea for a social movement with my bestfriend in the blog, and kind people shared the post to the point that we got more support than we thought possible—that 8 years later, the movement is still running.

About how people I didn’t know reached out to me (or I reached out to them) from the blog, and we poured our hearts out as if we had known each other for years, and then we became friends.

I remembered about how in my late 20s I got hosted in New Delhi, India, by an Indian blogger who knew me through the blog.

About how I shrieked and jumped around the room in happiness when my Santorini blogpost got featured by WordPress for the very first time—a few days before my birthday. About how I still shrieked and jumped around the room when some of them got featured again in different years: The Answer, My Saturday with Mishka, Why I’m Keeping My 100-List & The Things I’ve Crossed Off in 2015, and recently, The Short History of Instant Noodles.

I remembered when a month before my 33rd birthday, an editor from WordPress, Cheri Lucas, contacted me and asked if she could make a profile about my blog in the Discover section of WordPress.

Processed with VSCO with f2 presetI remembered how, in some of my lowest days, I found comments or messages from people I didn’t know in or through the blog; saying that they had gone through the things I went through, saying that they could relate to my stories, saying that they enjoyed being around and read along, and then my days became instantly better.

***

THE blog has been running for 10 years.

I didn’t remember it at first. WordPress reminded me when I woke up this morning. It’s been quite a journey.

Some of my friends decided to create a new blog after a few years. Some said that the old blog didn’t suit them anymore. That some of the things they posted years ago embarrassed them. I understood what they mean. I did feel a certain level of embarrassment when I flipped through my first few blogposts here, but I decided to keep them around.

Because they simply reminded me of who I was. About how my writings grew with me.

I once read that we tend not to notice how far we’ve come until we looked back to where we were 3 years ago, 7 years ago, 15 years ago, 25 years ago. For this reason, sometimes, I look back. It keeps me humble when I read my old posts once again and be reminded of where I came from. It keeps me optimistic to know how far I’ve come. It keeps me wondering about what I would see when I look back to this moment 10 years from now.

It reminds me that no matter how much I’ve been broken, I am still here.

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9 Ways to Make You Want to Write Again.

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There were times in my life when I didn’t feel connected to my writings. I called these times the dark state.

These were the times when I decided to be lazy. When I felt as if I had nothing left (or interesting enough, at least) to write about.  These were the times when I diligently work on other things and honed my skills in different types of creative pursuits. Surely, writing was not the only one?

Next, came a tidal wave of days, weeks, or even months when I was completely unmotivated and uninspired. I had no drive to write a sentence, let alone a short story. My mind stopped producing ideas, plots, characters, or conversations.

During the dark state, I didn’t even know whether I still wanted to pursue this life of writing. These were the times when I told myself that maybe I should have just given up writing altogether.

But of course, I didn’t.

Because those of us who have always think of ourselves as writers, know that we will always write. Even when we’re in our dark state, when we are not writing, we will keep thinking about writing (or about why we are not writing)—imagining our glory days in the future when we’ll be typing 200 words per minute as this brilliant idea for a short story, an essay, or a novel exploding around our head like a spectacular fireworks show on New Year’s Eve.

Every now and then, I needed to be reminded on how to keep my passion for writing alive, on how to fall in love once again with the craft, on how good it feels when I was so absorbed in a new project I forgot to eat, shower, or check how many instant messages have cramped my phone.

Whenever I got caught in a dark state, I tried to ‘jumpstart’ myself by doing some of the things below—if not all of them:

1. Read some books about writing

9 Ways to Make You, Motivated, and Inspired to Write Again.

There are books about technical parts of writing, such as ones on how to write a novel in certain days, how to structure a story, how to create a memorable character, how to make a plot twist, and many more. These are not the kind of books I enjoy during my dark state.

I’d prefer to read books about the love of writing itself—or the creative processes behind it. Of course, you can also find some technical parts such as settings, characters, or dialogues come up in these favourite dark state books of mine, but they are not explained in a technical how-to manner.

2. Follow some fellow writers’ blog on the Internet

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I like writers who blog, and on top of that: those who blog regularly. Some writers use their blogs to hone their skills, to share their thoughts (and worries), to store valuable resources, or simply to record memories, quotes, sentences, or scenes that may work for other types of writings, at other times.

I have followed several writers on the Internet these past few years. However, lately, I only go back to these blogs—mostly, because in my opinion, they are not trying to ‘write the perfect piece’ for their blog. To me, it feels as if they’re just writing effortlessly (although maybe they are actually working hard to produce each post).

The pieces are mostly short, clear, and concise. Reading through, I do not feel an invisible weight on my shoulder or a feeling as if I have to ‘catch-up‘.

  • Alexandra Franzen, mostly on copywriting, non-fiction, and writing for the Net
  • Jeff Goins, on thoughts, resources, tips, and challenges in writing books, e-books, and articles
  • Nick Miller, on fiction and creative process (Nick happens to be one of my favourite writers of all time)
  • Austin Kleon, on creativity and creative life
  • James Altucher, on life, thoughts, and musings on self-development
  • Allie Brosh, on doodling and looking at life from a funny lens
  • John Green, on writing, writing process, and the life over the Internet
  • Dani Shapiro, on life and writing life
  • Tim Ferris, on writing, productivity, and showing up for your work

3. Read books/writings from the writers you admire, or from the genres you want to write about

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This is one of my favourite ‘shortcuts’ to get out of my dark state. Reading just a ‘random’ book or a new book doesn’t always have the same effect.

I’d prefer to read a book I’ve read more than once for various reasons: maybe because the book is really good, the story is really twisted, the premise is mind-blowing, the technique is excellent, the sentences are compact and effective, or because the way it is written has never failed to make me hate myself for not writing this book at the first place. There has to be something about the book that hooked me, hard.

For me, these kind of books are the best to be read during a dark state, and below, you could find my dark state reading list:

Fiction:

Non-fiction:

4. Read, watch, or listen to interviews or talks about a writer’s creative process that are available on the Internet

Listen to an interview with a writer.

I had a selfish motive when I first came up with Behind the Pages, a special section in this blog dedicated to interviewing Indonesian writers (in English) about their writings, writing life, and creative process. Basically about things that happened behind-the-pages.

Watching, reading, or listening to interviews about a writer’s creative process helps me to rekindle my passion towards my writings, since I can clearly see parts of myself through their experiences and relate with their struggles. And don’t you think reading about someone’s creative process somehow makes us want to be ‘creative’?

Here are some of my favourites:

5. Watch movies about writers; or that are related to writing

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Sometimes, we’re just too lazy to read. In a dark state, most of the times, we’d like to do something more… passive. Watching movies (in bed) serves this purpose very well.

  • My Left Foot: The Story of Christy Brown, about an Irish writer and painter who had cerebral palsy and was able to write or type only with the toes of his left foot.
  • Sylvia, about the ups and downs in poet Sylvia Plath’s relationships with Ted Hughes, as well as her hunger to ‘create’ meaningful works
  • Finding Forrester, about a young writer Jamal Wallace who befriends a reclusive writer, William Forrester
  • Barfly, about a troubled writer spending his nights drinking and fighting, based on the life of successful poet Charles Bukowski
  • Adaptation, about a sciptwriter who is trying to adapt Susan Orlean’ work The Orchid Thief; a work I read as an assignment during my narrative journalism course.
  • Kill Your Darlings, about the ‘brotherhood’ of the beat poets Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs.
  • Freedom Writers, about a teacher who uses ‘writing’ to inspire a class of at-risk students
  • Bright Star, about the love story between poet John Keats and Fanny Brawne
  • Reprise, about two competing friends—both are writers—struggling with life, love, and the choices they make in life

6. Enrol in a writing course or take up a writing challenge

Screen Shot 2016-04-21 at 3.06.56 PMA bit of pressure is good. When you’re in a dark state and do not want to write, you can benefit from being forced to write.

Either by enrolling yourself in an online writing course (in which you’d need to submit your homework on a scheduled time), or announcing publicly that you’ll take up something like a 30-day writing challenge, what you need is to put yourself, your writings, and your commitment on the spotlight. And the peer pressure will force you to write again.

You can also learn about some writing-related topics online, in which you’ll find yourself jotting down some notes. Who knows, maybe the things you’ve just learned about could trigger the story inside of you to come out!

Some courses and writing challenges to get you going:

Wait, wait, what about NaNoWriMo—you may asked. Well, not for the dark state. In such times, a bit of pressure is good, but a lot of pressure is bad. With NaNoWriMo, there’s just too much pressure. When I’m in a dark state, I don’t feel like writing—let alone writing a novel, in a month.

7. Attend writing-related events, book clubs, or writing sessions. Surround yourself with fellow writers

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When you surround yourself with fellow writers (or fellow readers), most of the times, you’ll be talking about books, stories, or other writers whose works you’ve just read. What are you reading or do you have a book to recommend, would be the natural course of an ice-breaker.

Arrange a meet-up with your fellow writers.

Reserve 1-2 hours in the weekend to stay somewhere and write anything non-stop. No pressure to show or share whatever you’ve written to the rest of the group. Surrounding yourself with the right people and the right environment would be enough to stir up something dormant inside your soul.

8. Go to your favourite bookstore and spend a minimum of 2 hours examining books you like and, most importantly, books you do not like

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Go slowly from one shelve to the next. Browse all the books in the best-selling sections and all the books in the most hidden corners. Flip the pages, read the opening lines, scrutinise the blurbs, study the cover. Which books you’d be happy to receive as a gift? Which books you wouldn’t want to read?

Hold on. Do not skip the books you do not like. Pick them up in a cynical and critical manner. This is badly written, you may think. Or what a lousy title. Or too many typos. Or the cover is a disaster. Surely, you can do something better than this, right? You know how to write better, how to pick a nice title, how to catch typos before they go in print, and you have a better sense of style to design at least a decent cover. Right?

If you’re asked to improve this book (that you dislike so much), how would you write or package it differently? There’s always a critic and an editor inside of us. In a dark state, even the two are absent—because we do not write anything for them to rip off. It’s the right time to provoke and unleash the beast.

9. Have your do-nothing day

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Pick a day (or a minimum of 12 hours) when you can go somewhere or stay at home. You can stay at a hostel or rent a nice hotel room. But you need to be alone, undisturbed. Turn off your phone. No wi-fi. No gadgets.

You can go out and wander around, you can enter shops but you are not allowed to buy anything. You can go to a restaurant or cook your own dish, but you need to eat alone. And no, you cannot bake. You can only cook to feed yourself. You are not allowed to talk to anyone, but you can talk to strangers. Okay, you can get yourself cups of coffee (or tea).

You can play musical instruments, alone. Or do some sports, alone. You are not allowed to read. Or watch movies. Or listen to music. Or play video games. You cannot immerse yourself in other crafts and hobbies (no painting, drawing, doodling, sewing, knitting, gardening, taking pictures, or the like).

At some point, you will want to write. You’ll feel the itch to go to your computer and type something, or to grab a piece of paper and create a snowflake-method outline. Your mind will be full of chatters and ideas, characters and plots, as well as dialogues and sentences to begin or end a story.

Because when you have nothing to do, nothing to do at all, you’ll be reminded of the reasons why you pick up writing at the first place. About why, as a writer, you just need to write. It has been the one thing your 10-year-old self has always wanted to do—the little girl who would cry her eyes out if she only knew that the grown-up you would betray her: by giving up that love of writing.

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5 Ways to Find Story Ideas for Your (Travel) Write-ups.

How do you find story ideas for your travel write-ups? How to write about a place from another angle instead of reporting about what you do on a day-to-day basis? I’ve been asked this question quite often in various occasions, so I thought I could share about it through this post:

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1. Follow your curiosity

You are not a cat, so hopefully, you won’t get killed (and even cats have 9 lives!). Have you ever looked at something, heard something, or read about something, and felt curious about a certain thing afterwards? Curiosity is human. We like to ‘sniff around’. We want to know what is happening, we want to know more, we want to know what will happen next. Our mind is full of chatters and questions–even about the most trivial things. The next time you are curious about something, follow it like a detective.

There was this one time around 3 years ago when I watched a TV series, Miss Advised. One of the characters used Craigslist–a listing site, to find herself a date. I was curious whether there were also people posting dating profiles on Craigslist in Indonesia. So I went in. And there were loads of people looking for ‘dates’ on Craigslist, in Jakarta–even just reading their ‘creative’ ads had given me a few hours of uninterrupted fun. Then I asked myself, do people really answer these ads? Does it really work? And so I replied to one of the ads and set myself up for a blind date. The story of the blind date–I’ll keep that for another time!

Stories that may come up: stories about exploration, about your effort in following ‘clues’, about uncovering something, about the challenges in getting the information you need, etc.

2. Keep asking ‘why’ and talk to people

When we travel, there may be many occasions when we realised that we know nothing about something: the way people dress, how they treat each other, their eating habit, the way they treat guests, their local beliefs, about why it seemed like every students in Kazakhstan were always asking me about how many languages do I speak, or about why we would see some old people in Paris walking down the street or sitting in front of a restaurant–talking to themselves.

Of course, we can always shrug our shoulders and let these things pass; or we can always try to understand these ‘unfamiliar’ things by asking people. I talked to a guy working in a villa in Bali, and it turns into this.

Stories that may come up: a feature story about someone you meet/talk to, a conversation with this person, the way he/she left some memories or give valuable life-lessons that are relevant to you, a story about that person and his/her life experience, etc.

3. Observe keenly

Did you still remember the things you see, hear, smell, taste, feel, and think from one of your traveling journeys? Maybe we remember what we saw–more or less, because we took pictures, but most of the times, we forgot the rest. But these small details are like seeds. When we plant, water, and nurture them, when they are ripe, they can burst into stories. To keep a journal on the things you see, hear, smell, taste, feel, and think on your journeys is a great way to keep these seeds. For instance, what is the headline of the local newspaper at the day of your visit?

I overheard a conversation at Musee d’Orsay one time, between a father and his son, and it made its way into this post. I played around with a memory of a city in this post. I wrote down the things I felt as I walked around the small alleys of Santorini, and it became this. I’m not saying they are good stories–but they are short drafts and snippets of what can actually come up from keen observations.

Stories that may come up: a reflection on life based on an overhead dialogue, how a dialogue you overheard reminds you of something–or enlightened you about something, about capturing a spirit of a city or an environment through the local’s conversations, etc.

4. Break your habit

If you’re always staying at a hostel, try a nice hotel when you have enough money. If you’re always staying in a hotel, try an Airbnb space. If you are always following a map, try ditching it. If you are always traveling with friends, try traveling alone. If you’ve never bought souvenirs, buy one. If you’ve always bought souvenirs, buy none. Try to do new things when you travel and break your usual habit. It will feel odd and uncomfortable–two sure signs that you’re about to experience something new. And when we experience something new, we are being introduced to a new story.

From trying out Tinder, having a picnic date with a stranger, dancing with a bunch of policemen, staying with a transgender host, hopping on into a stranger’s car at 4 am in the morning, eating horse meat, to hanging out with a bunch of high school students, each one is a story in itself!

Stories that may come up: challenges you need to face when you’re dealing with unfamiliar territories, the internal conflict of doing things you are unsure about, the way you see a place differently because you change your habit, etc.

5. Try to see things from a neutral ‘place’

Are you opposing arranged marriage? Do you think couples should get married because they love each other–not because of their compatibility towards one another? Do you think it’s shallow for a girl to not want to go to college–and opt for an arranged marriage instead? When we travel, we may see, hear, or experience things that are not in-line with our beliefs or our views of the world. It is easy for us to pass judgement instantly; but things are not always what it seems.

I always thought bitterly about India and its arranged marriage tradition; until I tried to be more open about this and started chatting with an Indian woman–who happily chose an arranged marriage rather than a college life; and with a car-rental driver–who said confidently, that of course–he would choose a compatible husband for her daughter through an arranged marriage! I may still disagree to some extent, but opening up myself to see things from a neutral ‘place’ made me able to understand the underlying reasons behind; and to accept the fact that there are couples who really fall in love after their arranged marriage!

Stories that may come up: unveiling the reasons behind why people act or think a certain way, background about a city/country’s cultural or political history that affects the way they interact or behave with each other, busting myths or breaking the stereotypes about a certain place, etc.

So, are you ready to find your (story) ideas?

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If you’re interested in narrative travel writing, maybe you want to check this class to be held in May by my friend (a travel writer and a senior editor, too), Windy Ariestanty. Have fun! 🙂

How We Say Goodbye When Summer Ends

Our retrouvailles marked the end of summer in your city. The city I came to love despite its constant windy chills and random rain showers: in summer.

We remembered the couch—with plush pillows and soft blankets thrown carelessly over its surface; something that reminded us of the chaotic beauty of a studio of an artist. We spent so many times snuggling there; our excuses were the cold, the wind, the rain, and the little time we had. We were surrounded by bookshelf, spice rack, Amy Winehouse, and the faint hum of the world outside: the trams, the bikes, the planes, the still sound of the canals, the rustles of the leaves at the park nearby.
how we say goodbye when summer ends

I came to love the park much more than I ever did when I was there—and I never thought that this was possible, since I had always loved parks with all my heart. When we were outdoors, we spent most of our times riding or walking through it on our way home or on our way to the museums; as it provided us with a lovely shortcut from the busy streets where bicycles whizzed by in incredible speed. We had a picnic when the sun was up: reading books, sharing a generous portion of French sausages and seaweed burgers, sitting leisurely overlooking the lake while talking about our future plans and the end of summer that would also mark the end of our time together.

Probably it was this: the realisation that the clock was ticking (or maybe it was the cold), that made us clutched to each other ever-so-tightly as we zigzagged on your bicycle under the city’s rainy evenings, humming some random songs that came to mind while the street lamps shone their damp lights on us like dim stars hanging low. Or kissed abruptly at the park; behind the supermarket alleys; at the coffee shop; in a bookstore; in front of a closed shop—its roof invested by spiders—as we sheltered ourselves from the hard rain;  or by the street-side of the museum complex—where a couple interrupted us to ask whether they were close to Louis Vuitton store.

***

We had cold mornings, cold afternoons, and cold evenings altogether—and I had no intention to go out on those days. I found solace on the couch, reading your 25th Hour, my feet stretched out on the coffee table, my upper body got buried underneath the soft blanket, while you were working all day and stopping every now and then only to make cappuccino, buy groceries for breakfast, prepare lunch, open a bottle of wine, cook dinner, or hug me in random intervals.

On the rare occasions when you managed to convince me to go out, we would savour food from exotic places with exotic smells of exotic spices before retreating to a beer place for some warmth and random conversations about everything we could think about. We would leave when it was late, and most of the times it had grown colder outside; and I would flinched as the chill hit my face when you opened the door.

When a girl told a guy that it-was-cold, she was simply asking to be hugged.

And you would give me a hug and rubbing my upper arms for a bit of extra heat as we ran to the bicycle, laughing and looking forward to the promises of warmth: that we needed only to brace ourselves against this cold for a little longer and home would welcome us in just a little while.

***

My initial memory of your place was the bookshelf.

I sinned from judging people based on the books they read, and as you prepared some drinks for me that afternoon, I stood in front of your bookshelf and browsed the titles lining up there only to find out that I had also read most of the books you had.

When you showed me the terrace—overlooking the artsy neighbourhood—I noticed a string of Tibetan prayer flags on the porch of one of your neighbours.

That evening we found ourselves enjoying a live Nepali classical music concert in a small cafe on a hipstery street. People had beers in their hands, nodding their heads to the beat of the tabla, and some were clapping their hands. Soon after, in the dark, we danced to the last song being played with a bunch of friendly Nepalis who had lived in your city for quite some time. We were all just a bunch of shadows moving in unison: people from faraway places with stories of romance and heartbreaks altogether. As the music wafted in the air, around us, the boundaries between friends and strangers disappear.

We jumped and clapped and swayed. And laughed—not because there was something particularly funny, but because we were simply happy. Probably that was the best kind of laughter after all.

***

There were things I didn’t tell you after we parted in front of the supermarket at the end of that cold summer, when we said goodbye as abruptly as we kissed the previous days:

About how I had prepared myself to forget—not because I wanted to, but because sometimes forgetting is better than remembering; the way sometimes the anticipation of disappointment is a much safer option than the anticipation of hope.

About how I dragged my suitcase across the park to be at the other side of the city, and it was raining, and cold, and I was clutching to my phone for directions—but the screen got wet every five seconds or so, after a while I gave it up and pocketed it, couldn’t care less about finding the shortest route to get to where I should be.

About how the park was full of life despite the weather and about how when I got too tired of circling around with my blue suitcase, I sat on a park bench—the raindrops were falling over the hood of my parka jacket—and cupped my hands on my cheeks; both felt oddly cold.

About how I just sat there and for quite a while I thought I could smell the wet soil, the lake, the leaves, the grass, and the grey clouds above. And about how the thought of a warm bed, a cup of Chocomel, and Chinese takeout finally got me going.

***

Distance was a funny thing. We might have thought about it silently as we had our banana smoothie in the morning or our rooibos tea in the evening—though we didn’t really want to go further into it.

I have always believed that distance is not measured in length. It is measured in faith.

And the farthest distance is one that is not crossed. But it was you; not me; that had decided to cross the distance that day, and I was thankful that you did, that you braved it out, that you tried. Because if I was not afraid, I, too, would.

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