Cycling is the closest thing to flying I can ever get without developing wings or depending on an external engine to get moving.
It feels like flying because I am elevated above the ground (though ever so slightly) and I am moving without touching the ground and I feel the breeze against my face while moving.
It is different from riding on a motorcycle or travelling on a car or bus or train as cycling doesn’t depend on a motor. Also, the speed and direction at which I cycle can be controlled by how I move my legs and body, almost like how a bird moves its wings and body in flight.
Cycling is like a powerful drug – it can get addictive. The more I cycle, the more I want to cycle. The more I gain confidence in maneuvering the bicycle, the further and the more places I want to cycle to. Each new destination brings new satisfaction at the end of the day. And as a new day begins, another new destination becomes the next goal. Or sometimes I get a desire to try another route to cycle to the same destination and experience the thrill of exploring new routes.
Sometimes danger lurks when I cease to be alert momentarily, and I may stumble or fall or hit an obstacle or get hit by a car. I may get bruises or cuts or scratches, and I may spend the next few days nursing my wounds and go about my life in bandages and rest from cycling. But after recovering, I will start cycling again and rediscover the joy of cycling, this time with a little bit more caution and a little bit more wisdom.
Being a regular bike commuter is somewhat like being a pilot flying a plane. A typical day of “flight” begins when I board the “plane” (i.e. my bicycle) and roll along the “runway” (which may be a pavement or a corridor or a car park etc) before taking off into the air (usually a main road). I will cruise and soar and glide like a bird, and at times hit a “turbulence” when I travel along bumpy roads. I will feel the strain as I pedal uphill and also the relief as I coast downhill. Along familiar long roads, I usually lapse into an “auto-pilot” mode, and let my subconscious take over the navigation process. Finally, I will arrive at my destination, and touch down on the “runway” before coming to a stop (usually at a car park or bicycle bay etc). I will disembark from the “plane”, grateful for another successful “flight” and for arriving safe and sound.
These two words appear innocuous when I first came across the name of the waterfall in a local hiking group website. I have never been to this waterfall until October 2014, and I got more than I bargained for from this hiking trip in Terengganu, Peninsular Malaysia.
It turned out to be an intense hiking experience as we trekked through the treacherous rainforest and river crossings to the Cemerong waterfall and back to the base camp. The hike up towards the summit through the jungle started well at first, though we soon found it tiring and tricky to navigate the steeper slopes along the narrow trails that were criss-crossed with tree roots. Upon finally reaching near the summit around early afternoon, we stopped to rest and eat lunch and watch with admiration at close quarters how the waterfall flows from the top down the mountainside. Just as we started to pack up and head back, it began to rain torrentially, and the already slippery moss-covered or algae-covered ground became even more challenging. We were glad to have brought along gloves and raincoats or ponchos, which were perfect for such wet weather conditions. Our progress slowed to a crawl on many parts of the track as we had to gingerly take one step at a time, so as not to trip over the protruding tree roots and lose our balance, especially when we were climbing up or down steep slopes. It was also a wonder how we made it across the river (with the help of ropes) back to the other side, as the river had become swollen from the rain and the water level came up to around knee level at some points during our crossing.
Before long, it became dark in the dense forest as night fell, and we were still some unknown distance from the base camp. The trails weren’t always obvious or well marked, and we decided to put our whistles and torch lights or headlamps to good use. At some points, some of us were lagging behind, and if not for the whistles, we probably would have lost contact with one another in the shroud of darkness in the forest. Strange sounds from nocturnal creatures in the rainforest began to ring out in the silent air from time to time, adding to the whole surrealistic atmosphere. We summoned every last reserve of our energy to persevere throughout the journey and kept going forward, and it was only when we finally reached the stony main path that leads to the base camp that we collectively breathed a sigh of relief.
Cycling has given me the opportunity to muse and contemplate about life in general, as well as about death. Having commuted to school and work by bus and later by MRT train all my life until I reached the age of 40, I have never gotten so up close and personal with other vehicles on the roads until I started cycling on the roads.
But first, let me reminisce a bit about the early days when I first learnt cycling as a young boy before I move on to recollect the first few times I tried to cycle on the roads. One of the earliest memories of cycling I had was when I was in East Coast Park learning how to cycle and balance on a bicycle. My neighbour’s dad was kind to teach me how to cycle. Inevitably and understandably, falls from the bike for a beginner tend to abound, and I remember there was once I lost my balance and fell on my right side. Instinctively, I stretched out my right hand to stop the fall. I landed squarely on my right arm, and fortunately the grass helped cushion the fall somewhat and I remember I wasn’t seriously injured. However, that episode might explain the reason why I suddenly experienced frozen shoulder on my right side many years later, which has recovered only up to around 90-95% by today.
Another early memory I had was also in East Coast Park, except that I didn’t have the opportunity to cycle then and there. I must have been in Primary 5, and my class was supposed to go through this Road Safety programme through role play. I had wanted to play the role of a car driver or cyclist, but ended up being selected to play the role of a pedestrian. Man, I was so disappointed at that time, and I could only watch with envy my classmates who drove or cycled.
Well, fast forward some 30 years later, around end 2013, I found myself being entrusted with a second-hand Hercules bicycle by a friend and former colleague who decided to go back to India indefinitely and planned to return to Singapore some time in future. At long last, my wish to cycle regularly has been fulfilled. In order to help look after it and not let it rust and deteriorate, I decided to take it for a regular spin, or should I say, for a ride. The rest, as they say, is history, and may I add, geography.
I added Geography because cycling enables me to explore the terrain of Singapore in ways I couldn’t have done by walking or taking public transport. For a start, I began to know the gradient of slopes of pavements and roads around my neighbourhood and beyond more intimately. I would hardly have felt the strain of walking upslope unless the slope is significantly steep, like at Bukit Timah Hill or Mount Faber, but cycling has a way of making even the slightest rise in slope angle felt, especially since the bike itself is a rather heavy steel mountain bike with a front basket (a.k.a. market bike). There were many times I felt as if I was riding or driving a tank uphill, such as when I was cycling along Rifle Range Road or Mount Pleasant Road or the like.
So anyway, I started with pavements and car parks in my early regular cycling days, which naturally function as a kind of baby swimming pool for toddlers and young children who are learning to swim for the first time, where it is safe and presents little or no risk of drowning. I rode the bike almost solely on pavements and PCNs for the first 6 months or so, and it was mostly uneventful with hardly any mishaps or accidents, except for a slight stumble here and there over uneven ground or sharp corners when turning.
Just as naturally, as my confidence and curiosity to explore new lands grew, I began to cycle further and further. Roads were a new territory to me, and the idea of cycling on the roads felt like entering deep waters of the sea for the first time, where there may be dangerous creatures such as jellyfish and sharks. The minor roads in my neighbourhood were relatively tame, like a lagoon with gentle waves, but the main roads such as Upper Thomson Road and Braddell Road felt like choppy waters of the sea initially. I made sure I cycled along the pavements beside these main roads many times and observed the nature of the traffic first before I finally dove into the proverbial sea.
I remember the first time I rode along Upper Thomson Road towards Sembawang, the heavy vehicles and long vehicles that passed by me never sounded so loud and strident before because their rumbling engine noise usually would sound muffled when I was sitting in an aircon bus, whereas when I encountered them on the roads on a vulnerable-looking bike, their loud engines sounded somewhat like the roaring of huge dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. These notorious trucks and lorries that I read about in the news whenever there was a road accident involving cyclists sometimes weighed heavy in my mind, and it took me a number of months to master my calm and not let my imagination run wild whenever they drove behind me or passed me close by. To date, I never had any accident with them, as most of them turned out to be gentle giants, like elephants and giraffes in a safari ambling amicably alongside with me, except for an odd brutish hippopotamus or two that overtook me too closely for comfort and I had to stop by the roadside to avoid being hit. (One such incident was at Mandai Road.)
It was only a matter of time I decided to buy my own bike, and I got a second-hand mountain bike with a front basket and rear rack – perfect for running errands but not so ideal when I want to cycle long distance with slopes within a certain time frame, as compared to a lighter and faster road bike. Still, it served its purpose well most of the time, and I used it for commuting to work. Some months later, I saved enough to buy a reasonably light second-hand foldable bike, and alternated between using the foldie and the MTB for commuting and running errands.
Precision riding, for example, came with practice for me. (It is probably redundant for me to say this, but I thought I would mention this for emphasis.) The first few times I tried cycling on the road, I couldn’t do a proper turn at a road junction, and nearly hit a kerb once. In fact, the few accidents or falls I had on the roads so far all had mostly to do with my own mistiming or misjudgments about the distance I need to keep from the roadside or surrounding vehicles (I collided into a stationary car’s sideview mirror once, and another time, I was sideswiped by an overtaking car), or about the unevenness of the road surface (I lost balance when the bike wheels skidded on the jagged protruding edges of some recently laid and dried bitumen on the road), and so on. Motorists by and large do give me sufficiently wide berths when overtaking me, and I only need to make sure I am as visible as possible (such as by having front and rear bike lights on when it is dark) and as predictable as possible (such as giving hand signals when changing lanes wherever possible) and so on.
With practice, road cycling can become as second nature to us as it is for mountain goats to traverse mountain slopes and cliffs seemingly easily and effortlessly. To us, it may look dangerous for mountain goats to live and move about on steep hillsides and cliffs but to them, it is home. Similarly, as long as we continue to ride defensively and practise mindfulness for the safety of ourselves and others, we can indeed cycle safely on the roads in Singapore, with or without dedicated bike lanes (since at this point, it is still uncertain when these will finally materialise on the mainland).
This afternoon, I decided to recce Mandai forest trail to ensure it is still accessible to people who want to cycle en route from Mandai PCN to Dairy Farm nature park. My trip turned out to have the makings of a characteristic rough and tough mountain biking experience as it includes a fall from the bike due to a sharp change of gradient that caught me by surprise, the bicycle chain becoming loose twice in a row, the wheels skidding and sliding over some tricky uneven rocky slopes, and me stumbling into a muddy patch and got my left foot and sandal submerged into the quicksand-like mud in the middle of the forest. Along the way, I also came across two fallen trees that blocked the cycling track and I had to carry and push the bike over the obstacles. I decided to take photos of the fallen trees and report to the relevant authorities via One Service mobile phone app so that these obstacles can be removed soon in order to clear the path for future cyclists and hikers.
The kayaking event is organised by Kayak Khakis meetup group based in Singapore. We kayaked from Pasir Ris beach to Pulau Ubin and back, and we were fortunate to experience favorable weather as it had been raining the past few days.
I participated in a nature ramble organised by the Nature Society of Singapore on 11 May 2013 evening, during which we walked from Jalan Kayu to Punggol Park. It was a tiring but rewarding walk as the group members and I saw a glorious sunset on one side and a rainbow on the other side of the sky while we were walking along the perimeter of Seletar airport, and we also saw some wildlife such as parakeets, bulbuls, herons, a gecko and so on along the way. Jalan Kayu, as I learnt, used to be a village many years ago, and it is gradually being developed and is now a semi-rural area.
I was glad to have managed to find the starting point which is the public carpark along Jalan Kayu near the expressway where the society members were supposed to meet before setting off for the nature ramble. We started the journey by walking across the expressway towards Piccadilly Circus, which is an old roundabout, and then continued our way northwards, past Seletar airport, before turning eastwards and walked along the breadth of the reclaimed islets. This part of the country is near the border of Peninsular Malaysia, and the Internet connection on my iPhone was lost for a while as its battery was running low. Fortunately, as we crossed the bridge to the mainland across Sungei Punggol, the Internet connection on my iPhone was restored. I think it was because we were reaching Punggol Park near the residential area where the phone network reception is stronger. I decided to head home by myself since it was getting late, and I continued my way walking along the main roads beside the LRT stations that were still under construction. I was glad when I finally saw Punggol MRT station. While I am a nature lover at heart, I have grown accustomed to the modern conveniences of city life, such as the transport amenities. However, I hope the nature areas continue to be conserved for as long as possible as Nature is always refreshing and inspiring for our soul.
“The temple bell stops but I still hear the sound coming out of the flowers.”
~ Basho ~
Rest in Nature
Study nature, love nature,
stay close to nature.
It will never fail you.
~ Frank Lloyd Wright ~
“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” -T.S. Eliot
When I was studying in university and discussing poetry with my schoolmates on BBS (bulletin board system), I first came across this quote from a fellow student and I was wondering about its meaning. Years later, the meaning of the quote began to dawn on me, and I now understand it as a neverending, lifelong journey of exploration (about our world, about life, about ourselves, about the mysteries of the universe, and so on), and the goal of the exploring is not so much to reach the destination or come to explain all the mysteries, so to speak, but to arrive where we started and know the place (our starting point) for the first time through new eyes and new understanding. It is perhaps like space exploration – the more astrophysicists and cosmologists seek to understand the furthest reaches of the universe, the more it points back to who we are – that we are all connected to the stars atomically, for example (see here).
I did a google search on the above quote earlier, and I learnt that it came from T.S. Eliot’s poem “Four Quartets”, which is a series of inter-linked meditations on humanity, time, universe and the divine.
Four Quartets are four interlinked meditations with the common theme being man’s relationship with time, the universe, and the divine. In describing his understanding of the divine within the poems, Eliot blends his Anglo-Catholicism with mystical, philosophical and poetic works from both Eastern and Western religious and cultural traditions, with references to the Bhagavad-Gita and the Pre-Socratics as well as St. John of the Cross and Julian of Norwich.
What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make and end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from. And every phrase
And sentence that is right (where every word is at home,
Taking its place to support the others,
The word neither diffident nor ostentatious,
An easy commerce of the old and the new,
The common word exact without vulgarity,
The formal word precise but not pedantic,
The complete consort dancing together)
Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,
Every poem an epitaph. And any action
Is a step to the block, to the fire, down the sea’s throat
Or to an illegible stone: and that is where we start.
We die with the dying:
See, they depart, and we go with them.
We are born with the dead:
See, they return, and bring us with them.
The moment of the rose and the moment of the yew-tree
Are of equal duration. A people without history
Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern
Of timeless moments. So, while the light fails
On a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel
History is now and England.
With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flames are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.
My understanding of the poem by T.S. Eliot is that life could be about self-discovery, and our journey in life is ultimately about knowing ourselves. Perhaps it can be said that our true self is timeless – we are that which who was, who is and who will be.
“Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past.”
I would like to think that we have lived in the past, and we will continue to live in the future. We live in a timeless zone called the present.
“Time past and time future
Allow but a little consciousness.
To be conscious is not to be in time
But only in time can the moment in the rose-garden,
The moment in the arbour where the rain beat,
The moment in the draughty church at smokefall
Be remembered; involved with past and future.
Only through time time is conquered.”
In the early 2000s when I was still coming to terms with existential crisis, I would sometimes spend time by myself in Nature places during weekends, trekking along grasslands, through rainforests or along beaches. Many a times I would still feel a sense of emptiness. Perhaps back then, I saw myself as being separate from Nature. In recent years, having come to realise more and more I am one with the Divine, and one with Nature, I am beginning to see myself as part of creation and not so lonely after all. As mentioned in the verse below, our story is interconnected with the story of the Earth.
“The river is within us, the sea is all about us;
The sea is the land’s edge also, the granite,
Into which it reaches, the beaches where it tosses
Its hints of earlier and other creation:”
Maybe there are no new truths to discover, but old/ancient truths – or rather timeless truths – waiting to be realised and revisited at each stage of one’s journey. As the saying goes, home is where the heart is, and returning to our true self is like coming home. To me, it’s returning to our innocence, or our true identity as beloved children of the Universe/God/Divine Love.
“Step out of the circle of time / And into the circle of love.”
In a sense, the journey of our soul/spirit is like the journey of a water droplet in the ocean – first, we came from the ocean and we rose up into the sky as water vapour and we stayed in the clouds for a time and season, and then we travelled to the peaks of mountains and fell to the Earth’s surface as rain or snow, before joining rivers and streams and flowing through valleys, forests, plains and cities back into the ocean where we came from. (In another sense, there may be no beginning and no end in this water cycle because our starting point can be anywhere within the cycle, whether it is the ocean or the sky or the mountains or the plains or the rivers.)