Giving and Garrulousness

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Floodwaters over a pavement along Jalan Ubi, right next to the Willing Hearts Soup Kitchen

Thankfully, I’d sought shelter long before the flash floods hit eastern Singapore on Monday morning. January had rolled around, and again I found myself at Willing Hearts. Maybe it was the announcement I’d heard over the radio that they had a shortage of volunteers on the weekdays, or the odd calm of being immersed in manual work. The kitchen was emptier than usual – the food preparation area seemed to be quiet, and the packing stations were filled mainly with the same kinds of people you’d expect to see on a January weekday morning. Retirees, university students on break, and younger students waiting for the release of ‘O’ or ‘A’ Level results.

Next to me scooping rice was a middle-aged Indonesian Chinese lady, one of the regular volunteer leaders whom everyone knew by face but not by name. (We just never felt the need to ask.) She had small twinkling eyes and a hearty voice, easily heard in cries of “Brother!” and “Sister!” to the other volunteers even at the busiest of times. My mother, who had come to help out with me a couple of times, always thought she was being too bossy and crass. I’d never talked to her. During a lull in the packing, I felt her lean over towards me.

“Eh girl, now you waiting for prelims results ah?”

“No lah Auntie, I’m in my second year of university already.”

She started, a big grin forming on her wide, round face. “Wah, university already ah!” Suddenly she pulled me in for a hug. “Auntie thought you still so young. You like chili padi! Small, but hot.”

This was nothing new for me – being small and slight for my age, I’ve often been mistaken for a thirteen- or fourteen-year-old. Nevertheless, hearing that I was in university brought to mind her own children, and she placed me in confidence in one of the unlikeliest places to hold a deep conversation. Below is an abridged version of what she told me.

“When I went to Johor in the car, I got lost. Then got one motorcycle pull up next to me, show me the way to the shopping mall. So Auntie said to herself, ‘Thank God!’ He sent me an angel. God is really good, ah. But we need to treat these old people well, because next time when old people must take care of us also. Like you put the veggie separately, then the meat won’t get soggy and become not nice to eat.”

“I have one daughter in NTU, studying Biochemistry. My third son now in NUS Law. My youngest, at first he fail Higher Chinese in secondary school, then he told me: “Mummy I don’t want to go JC anymore, I want to go poly (polytechnics).” I tell him, must still try, because go poly then very hard to go uni. Then later he said, “Mummy I want to go JC again. So he went to Victoria Junior College. Now he’s in army, next year will go university. And I felt very proud. His mummy not good at speaking, but then he can do good enough to go to the good school.”

Now I’m an ah ma (southern Chinese dialect phrase for ‘grandmother’) already! Two grand-daughters, one nine years, the other three months. My three-months-old grand-daughter so cute! Both are from my 33-year-old son. Girl, your family is girl-boy-girl, right? Maybe you pampered at home because you’re the youngest. Mine is boy, girl, boy, boy. But my girl very independent. She plays rugby. Over the holidays she played in Scotland, then she fly to Hong Kong.”

“Auntie recently went for checkup, and the doctor said: ‘Your only problem is you are over-weight.’ That’s because I used to take hormones for birth control. Better to have a larger age gap between the kids. Otherwise you every two years, every three years, you have one, it’s not good.”

The afternoon culminated with her eagerly showing me a photograph of the aforementioned baby grand-daughter. It seemed odd that she should open up to me so quickly, but the conversation we had was a gesture that touched me. Once again, it had, beyond volunteerism’s tangible social benefits and the dressed-up allure of charitableness it could bestow, reminded me of its lively human face.

An Evening with Sar Kong Lion Dance


A group of the ‘older uncles’ listening to a commemorative speech by other members of Lam Fong Fut Hok amid cans of beer and plates of buffet spread.

The men and boys behind many a lion dance performance are not just performers. Years of travelling round the island as a troupe and practicing together has made them a fraternity. And the end of the old year was a good time to cement that status.

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On Hari Raya Puasa


My classmates and I at a friend’s house for Hari Raya Puasa.

I have a junior college classmate who has invited her whole class down to her house to celebrate the end of the Muslim fasting month three years in a row. And every year I am amazed at the number of visitors that her family has thrown the doors wide open to – extended family from all walks of life, and ex-classmates and future schoolmates among others.

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Celebrating Surya Pongal


Hastings Road was bubbling with an unusually expectant anticipation. The buffalo cart at the mouth of the road was festooned with coloured streamers. Visitors had come in their finest festive garb to the mini animal farm, bearing special gifts of bananas for the cattle, while a keeper indulged the animals with handfuls of boiled rice and turmeric. I had not just visited on an ordinary Sunday; I had arrived on one of the most important days in the Tamil calendar: Surya Pongal. The second day of the harvest festival Pongal, it was an occassion dedicated to the ritual cooking of the eponymous pongal rice pudding out in the sunlight as a thanks offering to the Hindu solar god Surya. It would also kick off the beginning of the month of Thai in the Tamil calendar in spectacular fashion.

Three sugarcane stems stood tied together at one end, over what appeared to be an innocuous clay brazier. It wasn’t directly under the glare of the sun as it is traditionally meant to be, but their leaves seemed to stretch for the sky beyond the white tent roofing sheltering the road. Sugarcane, as a signature harvest crop, symbolised prosperity and was thus an auspicious sign under which the all-important cooking of milk for the pudding would begin. Milk, as a life-giving substance and a product of the cow which is so sacred to Hinduism, took pride of place. The moment when it was cooked until it overflowed would usher in abundance and be a cause of riotous celebration.

Mr Manoj, a balding middle-aged man in a light blue kurta, set to work. Spreading out a variety of metal plates, he began arranging the ingredients – jaggery, ghee, raisins, cashews and the crucial dish of milk. A handful of turmeric leaves had been tied around the steel vessel that would be used for cooking . Onlookers slowly gathered, drawn by the lively charcoal fire that had been busily, but reverently, kindled. Pieces of hard orange candy were burned in a clay lamp, adding their own connotations of a sweet year to a growing stew of spiritual symbolism. Against the backdrop of a lively hubbub of Tamil commentary by an emcee, the man was quietly joined by more assistants. They anointed the corners of the objects with oil, stirred the fire with sticks and carried forth the banana leaf that would be the centrepiece for the food offerings.

More and more visitors began to gather. A Tamil woman wearing a cross around her neck stood with another wearing a hijab, eyeing the festivities as eagerly as their Hindu counterparts. There were curious Australian backpackers who had arrived next to Chinese onlookers toting cameras. The air was punctuated by waves of applause and shouts of ‘Pongal-o-pongal!’; cries of abundance in Tamil. The offerings were set out on the banana leaf: a pleasing mosiac from the colours of the ripe bananas, hibiscus flowers, and coconut shells that were quickly arranged at its corners.

Explosive festive music burst out from the sound system. The pot was uncovered and brought before the makeshift altar. Guests decked with flower garlands stepped up, to be passed a beaker of milk which they would take turns to add to the pot. A group of elderly men and women were brought toward the altar to do the honours, craning their necks to see what was happening. The crowd had grown so large I had to jostle to view even a slice of the festivities. The tempo of the music grew faster and faster.

Everyone was clapping in time, faster and faster. “We have to motivate the milk to boil over,” someone explained to me. Mr Manoj and an assistant in white crouched on either side of the pot, anxious, waiting.

The moment came in a split second. A huge fountainhead of white froth bubbled over, throwing the cover off its lid. The crowd roared. People cheered and laughed and cried out, “Pongal-o-pongal!” A woman in a red saree took the microphone from the emcee and made a high-pitched screeching call. The milk had overflowed – pongal, abundance, was ushered in for the new year.

Heady aromas of incense and the smoky scent of charcoal clung heavily to my clothes long after I left Hastings Road. All over the island, Tamils would be enjoying the pongal pudding, and its promise of sweetness for the year ahead.


Mr Manoj kindling the fire.


A ripened banana folded with a sugarcane leaf in a coconut shell, one of the two halves placed against the corners of the sugarcane structure representing the fruits of farm labour.


The charred remains of the orange hard candy that had been burnt as an offering.


Arranging the food offerings on a banana leaf.


Raucous clapping to the Pongal music.


Musicians on the nadaswaram flute and dholak drum.


A girl carrying a beaker from which guests would pour milk into the steel pot.


The milk being put to boil.


The Curiosities of Mr Bian


This expressive bamboo sculpture of the Chinese God of Wealth, dressed in a Qing dynasty official’s cap and magua jacket with an abacus under one arm, was one of the many wooden sculptures I found within the Singapore Chinese Opera Museum. The museum was tucked away in a tiny lot on the first floor of Sultan Plaza, and I had arrived hoping to learn more about traditional Chinese opera forms. Instead, the first thing that leapt out at me upon my arrival were the rows of wood sculptures neatly arranged on tables and shelves lining the premises. The heady smell of camphor incense wafted through the air, accompanied by the soft lilt of qin (zither) music playing over the sound system.

These sculptures were all part of the personal collection of Mr Bian Huibin, a soft-spoken man in his forties and the museum’s owner. I first saw him quietly drifting in and out of the museum, while his wife Mdm Huang Ping attended to a small steamer at a side table surrounded by bowls of rice and pickled vegetables for his lunch. “I looked for and imported these all myself,” he told me, speaking in Mandarin as he ushered me into the area, beaming with barely-concealed pride over each of his valuable pieces. “The middle row,” he said while pointing to a line of dark-coloured Guanyin sculptures in the centre of the room, “are from Indonesia, and the rest are from China. There’s one sculpture in the corner that’s about 200 years old, but the rest are fairly new.” He admitted that as a Chinese opera instructor he used the space to conduct classes on the weekends, but seemed to take an especial interest in these artefacts. When I asked them why he collected them, he told me with a simple sincerity, “I like them. I like all forms of art.”

As I surveyed each of the sculptures, Mr Bian followed me steadily, eager to share his knowledge of each of these pieces. Each of them had been carved in the likenesses of various Chinese religious or historical figures, infused by the artist with a startling liveliness in their vivid expressions or the flowing creases of their robes. All of his sculptures gained a deep, soft lustre in the glow of the museum’s fluorescent lights. He picked each of them up in turn, flipping them over to reveal the rings that signalled each sculpture’s beginning as a humble block of wood. When I asked him in halting Mandarin which of them was his favourite, he answered within a heartbeat. “It’s this statue of Zhuge Liang at the back,” was this enthusiastic response as he moved swiftly to a sculpture that had been prominently displayed on a pedestal at the back of the room. “Zhuge Liang symbolises of wisdom in China, and this carving is so lifelike. It’s also very heavy, and I enjoy feeling its weight.” He went on to elaborate on the special features of each of the different types of wood used to carve sculptures, and how the density of each sculpture was indicative of its worth. I began to have a sense that he was taking pride not just in his role as a collector, but also in his efforts to highlight Chinese culture.

It took some scrutiny to find signs of the stated focus of the museum – Chinese opera. I had to peer past the statues to see the information on the histories of different types of Chinese opera on the walls. Each dialect group in different regions of China has its own variant of opera – besides the ubiquitous Beijing Opera there are other styles such as Fujian, Teochew and Cantonese (Yue) opera that have historically been prominent in Singapore due to its large southern Chinese diaspora. I looked at the pictures of actors and actresses in flowing, richly-embroidered brocade costumes; their faces heavily made up in the standard white and deep pink that is characteristic of the genre. Chinese opera is a demanding art, involving not just singing and choreography for distinct roles, but also martial arts training for the many mythological and historical tales that are the subjects of many a traditional play. It was also a vanishing tradition, with many troupes seeing slowing demand and a lack of young actors. I thought that he would have been more openly proud of this particular tradition that he was helping to safeguard.

And yet Mr Bian was modest, if not reluctant, about mentioning his involvement in the Chinese opera scene. “You must enjoy looking at my pictures,” was his only wry comment when I came to a series of framed newspaper clippings at a corner. In bold Chinese characters, it proclaimed the couple’s status as one of the leading promoters of Chinese opera in Singapore, and mentioned the many shows they had participated in. His wife, herself still an active performer and instructor, gave no indication of the recognition she enjoyed in her hushed conversations with her husband while I was in the room. And yet under his mild-mannered exterior, Mr Bian had an eclectic of talents. He had published a photo album on the stray cats of Singapore and held his own exhibition, and a drinks menu pasted above a register referenced the opera-themed cafe he had opened along Kandahar Street.

“It’s tiring,” he put it bluntly. “I’m a musician. I also run photography classes and opera classes. It’s a rich life, yes. A rich life, but busy.” He appeared a man of simple desires, content to avoid the trappings that fame would have wrought upon him. Perhaps he delighted more in the joy he gained from his hobbies and the joy of an honest conversation than his hectic career as a Chinese opera instructor. The museum was in itself a product of his subtle but refined tastes, and reflected well who he appeared to be. Small and nondescript, but brimming with a rich and understated cultural life.


The statue of Zhuge Liang that was Mr Bian’s favourite. Zhuge Liang was a famous war strategist from the Three Kingdoms era and is often depicted with a crane-feather fan. This statue was carved from nanmu, the precious wood of the Phoebe zhennan tree that was widely coveted by Chinese royalty.


A statue of Wang Xizhi, a famous calligrapher who lived during the Jin Dynasty, that is another of Bian’s favourites. “This statue was carved from a single piece of nanmu. It’s a very expensive wood. Normally it’s used to make musical instruments, but this one was too small so it was used for a sculpture instead. It depicts him as an old man; his wanderlust and his transcendence of the material aspects of life.”


A sculpture of the God of Longevity carved from a piece of boxwood. Part of the bark was retained on the sculpture “to give the appearance of wearing robes.” The peach the sculpture is balancing on his head is a symbol of longevity in Chinese cultures, and flour peaches are often consumed on birthdays for this reason.


A statue of Guanyin – more commonly known as the Goddess of Mercy – carved from an un-dyed piece of yellow aromatic wood.


A carving of a ruyi sceptre made from boxwood. It is adorned with five smaller engravings of bats, which are associated with good fortune because of the characters for ‘bat’ and ‘prosperity’ in Chinese are read the same way.


A nanmu sculpture of Guanyin before an incense burner, both carved from centuries-old wood that has attained a darker sheen. This sculpture depicts her as the Thousand Arms Guanyin, with more overt references to her status as a boddhsivatta in Buddhist canon through her attire and the lotus flower she sits on.


Three sculptures of the Laughing Buddha next to a statue of the God of Status. The first two sculptures from the left have part of their bark left on the statue.


A cypress statue of Guan Yu, a Three Kingdoms general and a figure frequently venerated as a god of war. “You can tell how old the wood is from its colour; the younger ones are lighter-coloured. The tree this was made from must have been eighty, ninety years old.”


Copies of old scripts for Beijing Opera plays. The title on the left is ‘Sending the City Maiden for A Thousand Li (a unit of measurement)’ while the one on the right reads ‘Five Women Praying For Longevity’.


A scene from a wall depicting a Cantonese opera performance of the famous folktale, ‘Madame White Snake’. The titular character is in the middle, with her sworn sister the Green Snake Lady on the left and the mortal Xu Xian on the right.


A Chinese opera headdress above a mask that was typically worn by performers. The colour of each mask was used to convey certain attributes about the character. White masks were often associated with treachery and evil, and usually worn by the villain.


A headdress and phoenix gown worn by the female (dan) roles in Chinese opera.


Three dolls depicting the three main characters of ‘Journey to the West’, presented as opera characters. From left to right they are Zhu Bajie, Sha Wujing, and Sun Wukong.


A display featuring Mr Bian’s book of photographs on the stray cats of Singapore. “I find the stray cats cute. I did it to promote tourism to Singapore. I think these cats represent the idyllic atmosphere here.”


Mr Bian Huibin.



Conversations Over Kway Chap


My father returned from the queue with a plate of cuttlefish meat and eggs. My momentary surprise was quickly broken by the arrival of the familiar dishes. Two bowls of thick rice noodles, topped with fried onions and sitting in a thin brown soup, were set on the table next to a large dish of sliced intestines, gelatinous pig’s skin and sliced pork belly steeped in a thick dark gravy. It was an unusual breakfast, but also one of my all-time favourites. The chewy, savoury, saucy toothsome goodness of all manner of pork coupled with the slippery kway (the chap refers to the soup used for the rice noodles) was a flavour that never failed to make me feel at home.

We had set foot at a small un-named coffeeshop on our way to the wholesalers’ at Pasir Panjang. A narrow grey tiled platform poked out indiscreetly from under a row of condominiums, scattered with foldable tables over which bent hungry customers. A stocky bespectacled man in a white singlet and Bermudas had approached our table and asked us if we wanted any drinks–standard procedure for drinks stalls at local coffeeshops. My father asked him in rapid-fire Hokkien for ‘snake-grass water’, and he returned with a cup of ice cubes and a tall grey can that read ‘Sparkling Oldenlandia Water’. (“I don’t drink it for the taste, but because it’s good at clearing heatiness in the body.” It tastes like carbonated water.) An odd quiet permeated the thick, humid afternoon air.

The murmur of chatting customers was punctuated occassionally by the crisp cries of the drinks-stall-man in fluent Mandarin, and the squeals of the young nephew of the vegetarian-food-stall-lady. He trundled around coyly asking customers if they’d like him to help clear their empty plates, and received two pieces of fried beancurd skins from a large tin on the countertop for his effort. The cuttlefish was a dish I’d never tried before, and I was surprised at the tangy sweetness that entered my mouth after I’d slathered each piece in dipping sauce. A fondness shone in my father’s eyes. “This dish actually takes me back to when I was a young boy eating with my father and grandfather,” he began.

“We used to live in a shophouse along Merchant Road. My father used to own one of those traditional Chinese medical halls. We used to go to eat Teochew porridge across the road. We would eat things like the cuttlefish, but now they hardly make it anymore. Last time Teochew porridge used to be a buffet. There will be steamed fish, like the ngoh hu (Indian threadfin) and also the ngeng. I don’t know what you call it, but it’s like the, you know, the mackerel. There will also be steamed crayfish, and steamed crab. It was very expensive in those days. They also had meat section, like kway chap, and vegetables. Not like stir-fry, but those salted vegetables. When my father was alone, he would just order porridge and maybe a fish and another dish. When there were more people, we’d order a lot more. Simple but elegant: that is the flavour of Teochew cuisine.”

“We used to eat from there very regularly. The man who made the Teochew porridge had many, many workers working for him, not like this one with only one or two workers per stall. But now the shop is closed down. It became an underground tunnel connecting the CPE to Chinatown. His son didn’t take over the business. He went to join IBM. Such a pity. It’s because he thinks his dad’s business is low-class. If I were him, I would have stayed on and become a billionaire from the shop. True, you need to be in the kitchen from 4a.m., but he doesn’t really have to cook. He can just have his workers do it for him. I was aware as a child that his father was a prosperous man. But his son didn’t take over.”

“Maybe they should have competitions to motivate people to learn hawker cooking! I had one colleague who studied beer-making in university. It’s very complicated because they have to learn about chemistry and pressure and all these things. They would have to make beer to compete against each other, and he was the reigning champion for many years. But he didn’t start a brewery. He also joined IBM. But after he retired, he began making machinery for microbreweries. He also has a very rich life, full of expression, because of music. He can play the piano very well, like jazz style. Whenever we’re anywhere with a grand piano, he’ll go to it and play. His playing was so good and everyone would be clapping afterwards. He and his wife were in Bosnia during the war and saw the killings on TV. So he went to the border and picked up an orphaned baby from the street and raised her as his daughter. Okay, not really the street, but from the Red Cross. He said, ‘I can’t save all of these babies, but I can at least save one.’ You know, these people lead so fulfilling lives because they’re a lot more sensitive to their surroundings.”

“I think a bad thing about me is that I always cling on to things from the past. Progress can be good, but sometimes you end up losing things in the society. Food is one. Language is another. I heard a saying once, that the quality of life is determined by how many times you have your breath taken away. Amazing isn’t it?”


Sandy the Bubble Pirate


Outside the National Gallery, a crowd caught my eye. Many rapt gazes were fixed on a tall, sinewy man; a psychedelic scarf worn at a rakish angle under a dark wide-brimmed hat. Adults and children alike watched with a wide-eyed eagerness as he immersed the tips of a pair of long sticks into a vat of green liquid. “When I say ‘bubble’, you say ‘attack’!” he yelled to the crowd, drawing enthusiastic cries. Then, he unleashed a stream of bubbles—glowing rainbow in the setting sun, floating tantalisingly close to the crowd before vanishing as suddenly as they appeared. He thanked his audience and swept off his hat to a wave of applause.

He was a bubbleologist: Sandy the Bubble Pirate. Having only caught a glimpse of one of his performances for the Gallery’s inaugural Night to Light Festival, I was determined to catch the whole of his next show. Even before the performance started, he was answering the questions posed to him by the DJs with a warm, effusive charm. When asked about the composition of his bubble solution, he joked, “If I tell you, I’m afraid I’ll have to kill you,” flashing a winsome smile. There were three components to his performances, he said. First was for children—and children-at-heart—to pop the bubbles. The second was sharing the big bubbles—not popping them, but letting everyone enjoy them, because “not even the richest person can possess a bubble.” The third was outdoors performances—even considering Singapore’s finicky humidity. His mission was to spread fun and joy through the art of the bubble.

And what better place to carry out this philosophy than a bare, open space? He didn’t need many tools for his trade: three vats of mysterious bubble solution, a couple of giant bubble blowers affixed to poles, and a pair of hands (which could become very handy bubble blowers too!) But simply by engaging the audience, he transported them into a moment of joy, whether it was by eliciting excited squeaks when he accidentally rained bubble solution down over the audience, to gratuitously creating more large bubbles if the previous ones had popped just after they were created. The timid requests of children to take a picture with him and the hearty congratulations of grown viewers were testament enough to the atmosphere he had managed to create. Yet a question remained in my mind: how had he decided to become a bubbleologist in particular?

“I started with Smoky Bubbles,” he told me, producing a small blue tube from inside his jacket pocket. While he had lived in Singapore for 14 years, he had only begun performing with bubbles for the past 5 years. “It was a passion. Got into a bit of trouble on the MRT—became an incident in the news.” Nevertheless, he was able to find his calling. “I didn’t think I’d become a cook; I became a cook. I didn’t think I’d become an athlete; I became an athlete. I didn’t think I’d become a bubbleologist; I became a bubbleologist. It’s about finding purpose. Sometimes what you do is not what you’ll end up doing later.”

And why bubbles? “Bubbles are ethereal. They’re profound. They’re the meaning of life.”

Beyond the fun of bubble-blowing, perhaps one wouldn’t be hard-pressed to find a metaphor for similarly ephemeral human lives in the greater scheme of the world. But the bubbleologist’s main purpose would be to entertain, and his bubbles have the power to create positive memories that can never be bought by the richest person in the world.

A Meeting with Another Traveller


Zorro was an interesting sight on the steps outside the School Of The Arts. He didn’t seem that unusual when placed against the surge of people crossing the road in the direction of Plaza Singapura–young men and women sporting shocks of red and green hair, arts school students and other pedestrians in shirts bearing anime motifs. His strident voice seemed somewhat muffled against the crowd as he crooned out a soulful ballad in Japanese, strumming on his guitar. What really set him apart was the little cardboard placard at his feet that read ‘From Japan!’–and the roguish warmth of his smile that he flashed me as I approached him, bringing to mind his namesake.

In halting English we struck up a conversation, where he revealed the ambition behind his modest performance by the street. From under his nondescript appearance shone a carefree cheerfulness, brimming from the joy of a free spirit that seems to have found a fulfilling release through his music.

“I’m travelling the world. I came from Japan. I come to Singapore because I heard it’s good for buskers. Earlier I was in the Philippines, but there the public order is very bad, and the divide between the rich and the poor is very big. After this I’m going to Malaysia, and from there I’ll be travelling to Central Asia, Middle East, Central America, South America, North America and maybe after that I will travel back to Japan. I told my parents; they’re just a little worried for my safety. Before this I lived in Australia and New Zealand. The nature there is very beautiful.

My dream has been to travel the world since I was fifteen years old. I learnt to play the guitar since I was young, but I mostly played for fun until recently. The suitcase contains all my belongings–sleeping bags, food, etc. I earn the money to travel by busking. I stay in one country to busk for a while before moving on to another country. I want to be able to produce my own series, and practicing through busking can help me to become good enough.

I think the best experience of travelling is meeting new people. Second would be food, and third would be the busking. I’ve tried chilli crab. I like spicy food, so I like Singaporean food. I’ll be playing here for maybe one more week then maybe I’ll go somewhere like Chinatown. Or somewhere local like Tampines or… Bedok.”

We ended our conversation with a mutual handshake. As I went on my way, I couldn’t help but be struck at how his sentiments seemed to echo my own. Perhaps in some way we are all travellers, and it’s the chance meetings we have when we collide with others on their own path that lead to the most meaningful experiences.