An Exercise In Observation
April 16, 2024


While traveling, I miss many things about my everyday life – my comfortable bed, home-cooked food, the warm weather and reliable public transport system I take for granted in Singapore. On my recent short trip to the USA,  I realised that I also miss my daily walks and exercise routine. 

Four days after landing and on the second day of the conference that I had traveled to attend, I found myself wide awake during the afternoon sessions. The sun was shining brightly outside and I finally felt better. After the sessions ended, I decided to change into my comfy shoes and step out into the beautiful spring afternoon.

I walked across the Long Beach convention center to the Shoreline Aquatic Park with its pretty lighthouse, the Lions Lighthouse, an interesting structure set on emerald lawns. To say I was disappointed to discover that a place named Long Beach did not actually have a beach where you could wade into the waves, is an understatement. Turns out Long Beach’s claim to fame is its port, which is the second busiest container port in the US. I selected a warm spot on the lawn facing the water. From my vantage point I could see the Queen Mary, a permanently docked ocean liner that is a star attraction. 

At 5 pm on a Wednesday, the path was filled with families, many with children under the age of ten, some with dogs on leashes and in little wagons. Couples walked hand in hand or sat on the rocks by the waterside. One young couple was having a picnic on a blanket under the shade of a tree while others were taking pictures of the scene or themselves. Toddlers ran around shouting while babies slept in their strollers under the mild sun.

Tourists boarded the boats which promised guided tours of the harbor. Peppy piped music played from overhead speakers as I walked past the aquarium of the Pacific in Rainbow Harbor and turned towards the lighthouse. Children frolicked in groups or with their families, bought candy at the shops. I followed an active youngster with a Spirderman backpack on a bicycle. Electric scooters whizzed past at high speeds, some with teenage couples and others with an adult and a child. 

Lone travelers have the opportunity to immerse themselves in the moment (as long as they don’t pull out their phones). Although I took a couple of pictures, I decided to look closely at what was around me as I strolled around with a hat and sunglasses to keep out the intense glare. 

Although it looked like a warm day, there was a cool breeze and I was glad I had my jacket on. As I walked along the water’s edge, I noticed groups of people with fishing poles at the various jetty-like protrusions on the walkway. In the parking lot, families in pickup trucks laid out folding chairs and tables and silently sat around, munching snacks while observing the water. Other groups had music playing, some had birthday balloons fluttering in the breeze as they sipped sodas and ate cake from paper plates.

Larger groups with the elderly or special-needs children in wheelchairs enjoyed the warmth of the afternoon sun by the water while a handful of toddlers found great joy in rolling down the grassy slopes beside the lighthouse, giggling uncontrollably as their jacket-covered bodies rolled downhill. The lighthouse structure, which is supposed to be ten-floors tall, looked more attractive from a distance. Up close, it wasn’t too impressive. In any case, it was not a functional lighthouse and was built by the Lions Club to commemorate its activities to eradicate blindness. 

Traveling solo sometimes feels boring, there is no one to exchange your immediate observations with yet, solitude has its upside too. I can observe without having to articulate anything into words. Sometimes words feel reductive, a crude way of integrating an experience. Because what we feel comes from our senses and like spices mixed while cooking, they need to simmer and assimilate with all that is in order to come together as a holistic experience.

Using words too soon feels like going in for a taste right at the beginning of cooking a recipe – most often it leaves us feeling dissatisfied, not because the ingredients aren’t right but because we haven’t let it all integrate. We also tend to oversalt or add more spice than necessary from that early evaluation. Better to let things simmer first.

Depth and maturity are related, though I am not sure which comes first. Perhaps like our experience with food, the memory of it has little to do with the ingredients but more to do with the context, the cook, the timing and how ready we were for that unforgettable mouthful.

As I walked back towards town in search of dinner which I would eat alone in my room later that evening, I looked around at my surroundings. The reason I like to travel is because I like to discover new experiences, new tastes and new epiphanies.


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1 Comment

  1. Debashis Gupta

    I used to travel alone quite a bit about two decades ago, and I can vouch what you say that solitude has its upside. Besides freedom to explore whatever catches our fancy (mine was usually museums and other historical places), one may choose whether (and what) to put down in writing, and even to click. As you rightly say, sometimes words seem reductive, and the same goes for clicking – feels like we’re busy somehow documenting our experience rather than experiencing them!

    Alas, the advent of mobile phones has put paid to such simple pleasures of travelling too (more for peoples many of whom had their first phone experience on mobiles, rather than others for whom even a mobile phone is essentially just a communication device).


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