The Ugly Truth – Appearances Matter

Chic fashion models, glamorous movie stars, stylish influencers. we look up to these people and admire what they have. We admire their lifestyle, the presentation of themselves that they have put hours into building. But we hate them at the same time. We condemn them for portraying an unattainable image of beauty. We say that being pretty isn’t important. We say that looks aren’t important as we put on our 10 layers of make up everyday. How can anyone truthfully say looks aren’t important?

Romantic pursuits aside, looking good takes you places, whether you’re a gorgeous lady at work or a handsome man on the street. Looks will only cease to matter when we turn blind. What we perceive as beautiful may be due to societal influences but it’s also very much biological.

Notice the unending war against such messaging. No matter how hard we tell young girls that being pretty doesn’t matter, we fail. Utterly. And it’s not because the media’s influence is strong, or that education and advocacy is not loud enough. The problem here is the message.

It’s a confusing and inaccurate one. Instead of talking beauty, we should be talking attraction. What’s the difference? If you’ve ever found yourself attracted to someone you haven’t traditionally considered beautiful you know what I’m talking about. The charisma, the positive vibes, the confidence, the passion and the values a man displays elevate his social presence.

Sure, people who were born good looking are already one step ahead, but an ugly heart will pull their attractiveness down, if not immediately then in the long run. The way he dress, the manner in  which he treats people around him, the way he talks. These things add on to an overall sense of attractiveness. We talk about inner beauty, of being kind to others, of having a good attitude and strong confidence. These are the things that we should be focusing on.

So it’s not to say that we shouldn’t avoid a universal ideal of beauty. And not to emphasise that looks don’t matter. It’s about recognising that as functioning members of society, attraction matters. Not just attraction from your outwardly appearance but from how you project your inner self and let it shine through. Instead of taking the easy way out and blaming society on being superficial, we should just put in the effort and respect for others, to improve ourselves to the best of our abilities, be it on our faces or in our hearts.

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Is Life Instagram-able?

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Social media is a lie. And no I’m not talking about how staged influencers’ posts are, or what a sham Instagram photos are. We are way past that stage in discourse. I’m talking about how social media has not only fundamentally changed the way we see the world, but how we experience it.

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I am a photographer. I used to see the world in frames. Fragments of beauty that have been captured in my memory as I’ve experienced them. But as mediums converge and attention spans shorten, there’s no secret that good photography has become the key to good social media. It captures attention, it captivates, it tells a story, or so they say. Being a good Instagrammer has almost become synonymous with being a good visual artist. Just slap on a consistent filter and you are good to go.

Nowadays I see the world in posts. A job hazard probably, but a mindset not as isolated as you may think. A mindset that every single person who has once considered whether their photo was good enough for Instagram, has already fallen victim too.

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Attuned youngsters caught on quick, and establishments have been formed on the concept of being Instagram-worthy. White marble tiles, ample natural sunlight, a modern industrial-chic design and yolk-porn styled food. Sounds familiar? We’ve so readily bought into it all. We scour this tiny island of Singapore to find every “hidden gem” of a cafe, travel to far off countries to search for even more locations unexplored by our fellow peers; but at the end of the day, they are all the same. Same menu, same decor, same simulacra. Cafe hopping has got to be the defining folly of this decade.

I read this article titled “How Instagram is Ruining Travel“. I know it all too well.

Of late, I find it difficult to pick up my camera and take photos the way I used to. With an inquisitive mind, open to what vistas lies before me; to experience what I record with my trusty film camera. I go to places looking for familiar shots from specific angles that I’ve seen off Instagram (which is usually only that one angle that forms the illusion that this place is worth visiting). Preconceived expectations, replicated photos. What’s the point of visiting just to snap the same photos?

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Instead of using photography to capture the moments we want to remember, we create artificial moments of simulated awe as we stare out into the canyons before us, blatantly oblivious, more concerned with the outcome of a photo than the wonders at our feet.

We claim to be advocates of authentic living, kin folk style; but how real are we being with ourselves? How “Instagram-able” is real life?

Life in Words

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Time is a luxury even the richest can’t afford. While the idleness of youth linger in our collective memory, yearning for a redemption we cannot attain. One year into adulthood and the choices are clear. It’s hard to stay connected, even tougher to say “I’m here”. To say I exist in this society, a separate entity from our functionality. To feel unlike a zombie, a ghost with no spirituality.

How do we stay alive in an endless race of rats, scurrying towards a cheese-rigged trap. We find ways to escape, we find ways to run. But we all end up in the same square, back to one. Life is a circus, life is a ride. A fine balance between what we do and what we might. So take a chance and do what you’re told, by the voices deep within your soul. Find that adventure and take off those chains, of perception or of your own pains.

Each day is a brand new day.

Under the Sea – Tulamben, Bali

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Ten meters below the surface, eardrums crushed under the weight of the ocean; with no oxygen except for what you have in your 13kg tank and no sense of direction. The fear of the ocean is real, but what you have to do is real simple – just keep calm.IMG_5158

Our first dive was to USAT Liberty, at Tulamben. Strong waves crashed against the rocky shore at day break as we entered the sea after a 30 minute crash course. The soft morning rays barely penetrated the surface as we sunk deeper and deeper as we moved further away from the shore. Swim, equalise, breathe.

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We had dived into this whole new world of fishes bigger than my face and tiny ones as brightly coloured as neon bulbs. There was silence. With only the wheezing of our oxygen tanks and bubbling of our exhalation as the soundtrack for our expedition, it was surprisingly peaceful. The shipwreck was massive, extending far into the abyss, it’s entire surface covered with coral and marine life, thriving in it’s own ecosystem. It’s a pity I didn’t get many images because my instructor was holding on to the camera.

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Our second dive was to a nearby coral reef. In the underwater world, it’s survival of the fittest, yet fishes school synchronously to deter predators. Fishes have it all figured out.

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All images shot on Canon G7 X with WP-DC54 (thanks to Canon)

By the end of the trip, our bodies were a wrecked, so tired we were dragging our feet as we stumbled back to the airport. They say you need at least 12 hours of rest before travelling after a dive. The instructor was right. With a dry throat, a panging headache and muscles weak from all the physical activities the last 5 days. It was REALLY exhausting, but equally worth it. Until next time.

The Road of No Return – Ijen, East Java

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Kawah Ijen, 2,799 above sea level. The time is approximately 1 a.m. when we set off from the pit stop halfway up this active volcano. Under the starry night sky, the route was dark but illuminated with the torches of hundreds of  visitors, trekking their way to catch the infamous blue flame before the break of dawn. Lightning raged in the distance as we trailed along, behind the holiday crowd, on a 45 degree dirt path in 15-20 degree night temperatures. We were over-prepared for the cold, but not enough for the climb.

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It wasn’t as cold as we had anticipated. Perhaps it was the effectiveness of my HeatTech leggings or simply the head generated from the climb, but one regular windbreaker was sufficient. The 2 hour ascend along a never ending trail, wide enough for 3-4 people, was tough. My legs muscles burnt from the desperate need for oxygen, or perhaps from this rude awakening at 1 in the morning. We struggled to catch our breath or keep our footing at times as we navigated around other resting climbers, but we made it anyway. So did the women and children, mainly locals who were climbing along side us. After approximate 10 kilometers uphill and one rest-stop along the way, we arrived at a pitch black plateau with a breath of relief.

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Our relief was short lived as we were slowly guided into the crater itself. “Gas masks on,” the guide instructed, through the crowd. Torches ready, improvised hand guards on. We began a rocky descend, down a slippery, winding path littered with lose rocks and sharp boulders. “This is it. The climb to the blue flame.” As we focused our torches and our attention solely on the next steps before us, taking extra care to find proper footing before inching forward, we eventually caught glimpses of a iridescent glow obscured by thick smoke in the distance. The path was longer than it seemed and we took longer than we had anticipated, navigating down the crater in the dark.

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But there it was – burning majestically with a strong luminous blue as if to remind us of the deadly beauty of the planet we rent space on. The planet doesn’t belong to us. We’re just temporary residents, blips in the expansive lifetime of this planet.

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Sulfur miners carried fully loaded baskets up this dangerous path like workers on another planet. Their lives and lungs at stake just to make a living.

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A crowd of locals gathered at the entrance of the crater, welcoming us back from our climb through the “pits of hell”. With our first steps back to the top of the volcano, we saw Ijen with fresh eyes. The morning light cast broken rays of gold, over the ridges of the volcano’s western face. Have you ever seen a lake so teal?

The murky sulfur lake below (which was where we were at) peeped through the clouds of sulfur fumes as the morning breeze changed directions. White sulfur dust coating the soil surrounding the crater looked like dead snow at the end of winter; thick choking fumes rose, as if to chase these uninvited visitors up back to its rims. Nevertheless, Ijen was still an eye opener.

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The road down was no less spectacular with the morning golden hour lining the unfamiliar path back with beautifully lit layers of forestry and landscapes. 9029 steps, 21.15km and 7 hours later, we made it back. Unscathed, unharmed and ready to push new frontiers.

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Road to Ijen – Munduk, Bali / Ijen, East Java

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A cloudy sunrise at Lake Bratan, some packing and we were off. Through the terraces of rice paddy and down the windy road; towards the Gilimanuk Ferry Terminal, bound for Ketapang in Java.

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Landing in Java was like stepping back into the tropical pit of Indonesia, a far cry from the cooling weather we were blessed with the last couple of days. Thankfully, our wonderful AirBnb, Mi Casa Guest House, and its host was nothing but delightful.

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Designed and hand-built by our architect host, Marc, the little cottage was meticulously designed to include elements of nature like beautifully sculpted wooded furniture, a fresh wall of ferns and a stone bathtub. Former French ship designer turned resort designer, Marc really knew his way with the elements. My favourite part? The second floor bedroom designed like a quaint attic. When are there ever attic bedrooms in Singapore? It was a dream house. It was a pity we didn’t get to spend more time in such a pleasant place. They even had their own bar, a Koi pond, a river and a mini farm. We were all awe-stuck #retirementgoals. The hosts were extremely hospitable and graciously prepared dinner (before our short nap), and breakfast for us before seeing us off on our midnight trek up Ijen. If you’re travelling to Ijen in a group, this is definitely an amazing accommodation!

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Putting Things in Perspective – Munduk, Bali

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Drifting in and out of sleep at the back seat of our van as we speed through villages and hills (and even fog at one point). We awoke at midnight, to a pitch black resort with temperatures that made me doubt whether we were still in Bali. It was probably 20 degrees up in the plantations of Munduk. As I lugged my baggage indoors in my still damp beachwear, I came to the realization that we were living in a plantation house with natural air-conditioning. Certainly not a regular experience for us urban-dwellers, living so close to nature. We had 3-4 hours to catch up on sleep before we set of again for sunrise.

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It was a cold cold night. “Why didn’t I bring warmer clothes,” I thought to myself. Standing at the vantage point above Lake Tamblingan, we waited for the sun to rise. The sun crept up from behind the mountains as low-lying clouds rolled across them. We raced down the hill as the golden light greeted us through the moist morning air. There was no time to waste.

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Dew laced the sporadic vegetation surrounding the area, catching the light with a glint of gold. Fog streamed along the surface of Lake Tamblingan, clearing out from the forest, as if the Earth was slowly awakening from it’s slumber. Vapor evaporated from the surface of the lake just like steam, as the warm sunlight brought us to our senses.

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Gentle rays of morning light brought out gradients gold, blue and green in the mist, water and forestation around the lake, making it a real sight to behold.

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After breakfast, some much needed rest and lunch, we set of for an impromptu hike to Red Coral and Laangan Waterfall (which was honestly more intense than I was prepared for).

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While the waterfalls weren’t the grandest, being in the presence of such a force of nature puts things into perspective. We are all temporary moving parts in the grand scheme of things. On our long walk/climb back to Puri Lumbung, we passed many friendly villages who were kind enough to guide us on our way with eager smiles on their faces. Back before sunset.

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From the plantation, we had a view of the sunset overlooking the foothills all the way to the ocean.

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After a 3 hour hike, it was time for a soothing Balinese massage to relax my aching muscles before my first attempt at astro-photography. With no tripod and just a small compact camera, I was surprised at the results. Stars and planets lit up the night sky, forming a dusty trail along what is to be the arm of our Milky Way Galaxy. Millions and millions of stars, visible with the naked eye, each its own system capable of seeding extraterrestrial life. An incredibly humbling thought. Not considering the difference in the experience of time and space out there. Nothing can compare.

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Where It All Began – Uluwatu, Bali

Looking back at the last 10 years, if I had to choose one defining moment in my life, it would be have to be my first trip to Bali way back when. Funny how in my entry I said I don’t remember the location, yet I so distinctly remember it now.

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Uluwatu Temple, Bali, was the place that first gave me a sense of awe – a sense of wonder about the Earth. The place that got me set on taking up photography, with the aim of capturing such beauty in the world, and look where it has gotten me today. Heading back to Bali for my first photography trip is almost poetic. Intense as it was, the journey was worthwhile.

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As we arrived at the end of the road that opened up to a panoramic sea of blue, waves of awe engulfed us as we stood lost for words, at the edge of the high cliffs of Melasti beach.

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How vast is the ocean, that it can capture the hearts of so many. Glorious but mighty, alluring but dangerous. I’ve always had a complicated relationship with the ocean.

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Crystal clear lagoons with rocks and seaweed clearly visible from the surface, sheltered beach goers from the crashing waves meters away. P.S. Swimming amongst the seaweed does feel quite unsettling.

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Location 2 involved a long climb down into an underwhelming “secret” surf beach – Suluban beach. Overcrowded and over hyped, this beach itself was average but the overlooking bars did make for an amazing spot for catching the sunset whilst drinking away to splendid golden light.

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Waves rolled in at a distance as the surfers caught some last waves before the big red sun unfolded a sky of midnight blue, like a curtain closing the last act for the show. Perhaps it was the weariness of a long day, or maybe the disappointment in a missed opportunity, but I’d like to think that it was the captivating view before us, that created a brief moment of silence between us.

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Be Alright

Dear me,

Life is tough. There are times when you will feel stuck. Like bad things never end. As if there is nothing else to life but tediousness and going through the motion. There will be times where you feel like shopping your worries away, or binge on your favourite foods. There will be days you just want to take a break… forever.

And I’m not here to tell you everything will be alright. It may never be alright. You may always have shit thrown at you (and you will). People will disagree with you, people will laugh. The world doesn’t owe it to you to be kind. There may be times where you meet people who disgust you, people who make you give up hope in humanity. The moment you realise you can’t escape the jaded feelings of adulthood and the circumstances that put you there. But stop.

Stop internalising the hate. Stop producing self hate. Stop fretting over what you can’t change or what may be. All you can do, is your best.

Stop internalising the hate. We live and work in an environment to please people. To work with people. To work with situations. And some times (most of the time) things may not go your way. If you’ve tried your best, then let it be. C’est la vie. Bad things happen and things may not feel alright but believe that you can feel alright.

Stop producing the self hate. The internet can be a glorious thing but also a deadly trap. Self help advice and “inspirational” quotes plaguing the entire world with pseudo truths and life mantras that will “make your life better”. Teaching you how to live your life. “Be healthy. Eat clean. Drink smoothies and do yoga.” We talk about “my body is a temple”. We say “treat your body right because you only have one” but does anyone see the by-product? Just like the by-product of any trending movement: peer-pressure, guilt and self-loathing. The stress you feel from not sticking to your routine, the guilt of chowing down on a juicy burger, the self-loathing for not having a toned body because you were lazy, lack discipline, or lack will power. But it’s more than that. How can a society that emphasises so much on physical health be so careless with mental health?

So when I said to myself, I want to get my shit together, I meant doing things for me. To eat clean because I enjoy the food, to eat junk because life is nothing without good food. To get proper sleep and a good sleep cycle so it improves my quality of life instead of staying up late to get more “me time”. To buy only what I need, because why waste on retail therapy when you could be using the cash for gaining experiences instead.

At the end of the day, the most important thing is to being the person you want to be. The person who is alright with the choices you make (even if your decisions aren’t too great, life moves on). We just have to keep going, keep laughing and keep living in the moments that matter. Keep that spark alive, the world has enough negativity without you giving in to it.

The Revenant (2015)

Dubbed as one of the most best films of 2015, The Revenant (2015) was a silent contender that exploded on the big screens right before awards season. I was lucky enough to be able to catch the preview of this Best Picture earlier this week, at Shaw IMAX before it hit theaters in Singapore.

Beautifully shot and directed, by Alejandro González Iñárritu  this film was unlike any I’ve seen. A strong combination of extremely well executed one takes (much like Alejandro’s previous hit, Birdman (2014)) and incredible Golden Globe caliber acting from Leonardo DiCaprio & Tom Hardyartful cinematography and magnificent snow-covered frontier landscape. Aesthetically, the experience was a treat. It was both immersive and enthralling, but not one for the faint-hearted.

At the core of this visual masterpiece is an intense and gritty story of perseverance and survival in an unforgiving terrain, set against the backdrop of equally the brutal times of the callous American Indian War in the 1890s. Just a glimpse into the raw Native American lifestyle of really living off the land made most of the audience queasy, not to mention the graphic nature of Hugh Glass‘ (Leonardo) setbacks. Long takes and stellar acting elevate things to the next level, making most scenes so painful yet riveting to watch.

Acting, directing, cinematography, sound all made for a spectacular film however as a whole The Revenant fell a tat bit short (that is according to the high expectations I had for it). Individual sequences we were gripping and bold; well plotted and engaging; however some pieces never quite came together. Overall the story was empty and dull, over dramatized at times and extremely superficial. Characters were barely develop, backstories unexplained and the setup seemed implausible at best, and that really took away from the experience.

I would consider this an art house styled film that is daring and experimental, with little payoff for the audience in the traditional sense of conflict-resolution plots. Which is a pity because there were all the ingredients for a film that would be one for the decades. Having said that, it’s still a great film that is definitely worth a watch, if you have the stomach for it that is.

8.5/10 (Acting 20/10; cinematography 20/10; directing 10/10 but plot 7/10 which is bad foundation for a film of this weight.)