The creeping darkness and chill.

The clock has gone forward; British Summer Time is no more. The days are shorter, the nights longer, and the chill starts to set in. The layers come out, and that one winter coat after months of hiding in storage. What also comes out, is the homesickness, craving the warmth and sun of tropical Singapore. Or perhaps, an undiagnosed Seasonal Affective Disorder?

The trigger would be Instagram, a double whammy for me. In the first instance, I hate the platform for its outward and obvious celebration of capitalism and its excesses, built on our very human nature of wanting to celebrate friends’ happiness and share good things. Yet it also fans egocentricisms and inferiority complexes, and highlights disparities and equalities by what does not appear. The second, stronger emotion of missing ‘home’ is accentuated by the Singapore-dominated feed – it was a way for me to keep updated of friends’ going-ons when I went off Facebook, and for some reason it was mainly Singaporeans. Perhaps Singaporeans have bought more into the Insta trend than others, or perhaps there was a sub-conscious bias of only following my fellow countryfolk. In any case, Instagram is Singapore-centric, while Facebook is filled with people met over the years all over the world.

The unsettled emotions are further compounded by being separated from loved ones and the general distress of not knowing what one’s PhD is about – a feeling I am told is quite common among first years (but not allowed to perpetuate beyond that!). A heady swirl of emotions.

The world all around is erupting into action. Protests and marches, against gross economic inequalities, corruption, false democracies, and all other humanly grievances. I’m not enough of a political analyst to consider if this is a second 1968, but the future would be terrifying to behold if the end result is further divisions, the pitting of people against people and nations against nations, and the hoarding of resources by those able.

The next stage of academia: embarking on a PhD

Since 2017, I have fallen out of the habit of announcing life events/my movements on social media, yet somehow I still feel a need to announce/document my starting a Doctor of Philosophy programme this October at the University of Sheffield’s Department of Animal and Plant Sciences. It’s been a fairly long and considered process, since graduating from my bachelor’s in 2015. It took me 2 months of a voluntary/self-searched research internship at the University of Queensland, a year-long master’s programme at Imperial College London, 15 months research associate job at Nanyang Technological University and another year of intense reading/learning and 9 applications* to finally land myself a PhD (with a scholarship).

I had struggled with the question – to do a PhD or not – the whole time, questioning my motivations for wanting to do a PhD (prestige/reputation? trying to keep on par with my peers from similar educational backgrounds who have already finished/are in the midst of doing their PhD?), my level of commitment knowing what the graduate environment could be like (been reading PHD Comics since finishing GCE ‘A’ levels… though I’m aware the environment in the USA can be quite different to elsewhere), and most importantly, what topic I would want to spend the next 3-5 years of my life working on. The four years I had spent since my bachelor’s was formative in shaping the kind of research experience/academic mentor/environment I would like to have, and realising that I do thoroughly enjoy the research process and being part of the academic community. But I think the key question on what research is worth me spending those years on (and somebody paying me to do it) was really only answered after I attended the summer school on degrowth and environmental justice last July.

Doing a PhD is usually seen as the start of an academic career, culminating in a professorship, and I’ve seen enough criticisms of academia to know that I didn’t want to work on something with no “direct relevance” to reality and to be accused of being in an “ivory tower”. Engaging with political ecology and environmental justice literature also brought into focus many of the political and economic realities faced by those impacted by conservation measures, which are often times overlooked by researchers or perpetuated through conservation interventions. There’s still a lot to learn and think about (and work towards), but for my PhD thesis, I am intending to examine telecoupled links of protected areas in Colombia, Colombia because the lab that I will be joining (Prof David Edwards lab) has a good number of links there that I can tap on. I am sure this will be refined and evolve as I start the PhD process, but I’m really psyched to use the telecoupling framework to look at how distant actors and flows affect local systems.

I’m also really excited about starting the PhD in Sheffield. I had applied to do the undergraduate degree in the Animal and Plant Sciences department 9 years ago (I took a gap year after completing my A levels), and I’m pleased to be able to finally experience being there. Not to mention all the climbing!!

*Coming back to the process of applying for PhDs, I think the main advice I can give is to apply to many and hope for the best (and also make sure you apply to labs you think you’ll fit in/professors whom you can work with). I had applied for 9 programmes from universities across Europe (including the UK), some of which were funded (the European programmes) and others which I had to separately apply for scholarship funding. I was offered a place in Vienna, but declined as I wasn’t prepared to move there (I was being hopefully optimistic when I applied and did not expect to get anywhere near the final selection of candidates, since I did not think my previous research experience fitted what I would be doing. But I really liked the topic that was being investigated, which was hidden emissions of forest transitions). I obtained offers of placement from most of the UK universities I applied to, but unfortunately did not manage to secure any funding. I was all ready to give up ever securing a PhD (scholarship) and so any hopes for an academic career, when an email advertisement forwarded by my previous supervisor A/P Janice Lee at NTU appeared in my inbox. I applied, got interviewed, and was offered the PhD scholarship (all within two weeks in July!) so you know, anything is possible. They say start applying early, but sometimes opportunities arise at the last minute…

Van life: labour, frugality and conscious living

When we think of ‘van life’ and in this modern age, ‘digital nomads’, we sometimes forget that nomadic living is as old a concept as life itself, with migrations centred around seasons. Living in a van or caravan now is associated with either climbing ‘dirtbags’ who don’t work, Roma gypsies who are often also perceived as economically unproductive, or various other societally undesirable forms of vagrants, or on the other end of the scale, millennial hipsters living the digital nomad, Instagram-worthy life or middle-class retirees.

The van somewhere near but outside Parque Nacional de Ordesa y Monte Perdido, in the Spanish Pyrenees.

These perceptions are something I’ve been struggling with, realising my privilege in being able to live this life but not wanting to perpetuate or abuse it. As well as the growing contradiction between previous generations of van-lifers choosing this lifestyle as a way of escaping societal/economic pressures (cue Christopher McCandless), and the present ability to continue working to support this lifestyle through mobile wi-fi and laptops, and so further perpetuating and expanding the spheres of capitalism.

Nonetheless, in spite of all my self-inflicted doubts and insecurities, this has been very much a lesson in the value of labour and skills, and in being very aware of our consumption and production. The whole conversion process – stripping it down, cleaning it out, cutting a hole in the roof for a stealthy window/ventilation (thanks to Omar’s friend James for lending an angle grinder), putting in timber battens, insulating and sealing the insulation with a vapour barrier, putting in the floor and ceiling, building the bed frame (with help from Omar’s friend Jethro), kitchen, dry toilet and cabinets, making the bed mattress covers, doing the electric wiring, plumbing for sink and gas for hobs – was a really interesting and eye-opening process, particularly for someone like me with very little prior DIY experience.

It took about a month and a half from purchasing the van to setting off, with time in between also spent on PhD applications, and only cost about £1300+ at the end. I realised there’s an impossible trinity of budget, rapid, and good workmanship – we ended up compromising between making/having well-made/reliable items and budget, but doing things yourself really saves a lot of money. A pre-made kitchen set (sink, hob, tap and cupboard space) would have cost upwards of £300-400, and we made ours for about £120 with the most expensive purchase being the gas hobs. Similarly, the toilet cost us less than £50 (most expensive item being a urine diverter which separates pee from poo and hence makes our waste smell less, not require water and easy to dispose of) instead of £200 for a ready-made set. Beyond wishing we installed latches on cupboard doors instead of just catches (been quite a few incidences where stuff fell out while driving. Having dark soya sauce all over the floor isn’t too good…), everything’s been more or less working well and up to expectations. 

Having to manage electricity (the leisure battery charges while driving but we also have a supplementary solar panel courtesy of James) and especially water supply makes us very conscious of our consumption. As a consequence of highly effective water-saving campaigns in Singapore, I have always been frugal with water use, especially with dish-washing. In the van, it’s taken to the next level, and we usually manage to wash up with about <2 litres of water – our grey water container is 5l. 

All in all, the convenience and mobility of living in a home that is well, mobile, is pretty good, but the fuel consumption (though less than flying, which I’m trying to reduce) and ultimately privilege of this lifestyle weighs on my conscience. Also, while nomadic living may have had a long history, it’s usually done in larger family groups or tribes, and the lack of community embedded-ness is wearing in this lifestyle. 

La furgoneta


On the Road

It’s been a few months since my last post, or since any real updates. I’ve been wanting this site to be one with more formal writings than its earlier reincarnations, but perhaps that only comes with stability in life. Since finishing my previous work as a research assistant at NTU last May, I’ve been doing not very much in capitalist productive terms, being ‘jobless’ or ‘unemployed’ so to speak. Yet why do we have to ascribe these states of being with such negativity, when in times past, spending time seeking meaning in life and of existence and pursuing a better self would have entailed just the same…?

I’ve been spending time engaging more with a different literature, opening myself up to a pluriverse of world views, trying to school myself in fields that hold more similar positions and values to mine. Understanding justice, social and environmental, what a better life means, how economics need to and can be embedded within an environmental and social framing, and most of all, what do I want to do next given my interests and my skills. Research is what I think I do best, and what I greatly enjoy, and I do like statistics and data processing, spatial analysis and R. Trying to figure out what PhD topic could marry my growing interests in the social sciences with themes of justice and conviviality and a different kind of (non-market, decolonial) conservation, and those skills is harder. I have applied for a few PhDs, and am still waiting to hear back about funding, but I am increasingly less hopeful about obtaining any.

What happens next remains to be seen, but for now I am on the road, exploring a different lifestyle that is popularly called ‘van life’. More reflections on that later, as well as musings on human and non-human nature, philosophy, ethics, framings, justice, politics etc. Being outside a city (and away from the strong influences of mainstream society) does free up my mind. Plus the many miles on the road which is often spent listening to podcasts (like History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, Knowing Animals – in particular, check out the episode featuring Prof Rosaleen Duffy titled War, by Conservation) and articles on political ecology, degrowth and environmental justice (text to speech apps are quite useful).

Motivations and migrations.

It’s been two months since I passed through the immigration counters of Changi Airport in Singapore, with the intention of not being back in a while. I had hoped to write this then, but the travelling and learning I was embarking on at that point were distracting me from settling and distilling some coherent thoughts. I don’t quite want to label this departure as an emigration, as a leaving ‘for good’, mainly because I have very few concrete plans on where I intend to be, but everyone, everywhere, seem to demand concrete answers. Particularly at border control in other countries you are trying to enter. It’s strange how easily and widely accepted it is that one needs a passport to cross into another country, since hard national borders are relatively new (compared to the beginnings of civilisation), and the introduction of passports across the world even more recent (after WWI). Without losing my cultural roots and influences of my childhood upbringing, I’m increasingly preferring to move away from nationalism and unwarranted patriotism (nobody got to choose where they wanted to be born), reminding myself not to ask “where are you from?” as the first (or second) question upon meeting someone new.

This line of thinking has been slowly developing over the past year, as can be seen in my previous posts about business, being cynical over green-washed sustainability, and economic growth and the environment. My ideas and thoughts are still constantly changing, evolving and being shaped by the new information I’m absorbing – I haven’t quite felt so ‘transformed’ since a decade ago perhaps, when I ‘discovered’ ecology. Where I used to partake in taking scenic photographs and inspiring landscapes, and concomitantly upload it onto social media, I now find that I cannot bring myself to do the same (I still take photos, for keepsakes, but no longer or rarely upload them for public consumption) – because it adds to this systemic portrayal of what a ‘good life’ is, idealises travel to ‘remote’ and ‘untouched’ places, contributes to mental health issues and global demand for more travel (i.e. CO2 emissions) and the unintended negative side effects of increased tourism.

Similarly, I find that my idea of ‘norm’ has shifted away from most peoples’ ideas of ‘norm’, that I’m starting to question what’s usually taken for granted as accepted or the standard to pursue, like is it necessarily good to own a (usually urban) property? While this thread of thought still has its circles, I don’t want to end up too radical to be able to connect or converse with the crowd. Part of the reason for moving ‘abroad’ (from Singapore), was to be able to at least find some people who share similar views/thoughts, to have a community that holds the same values and vision. To not be forced to conform, through the physical and mental limits of the Singaporean system. In this sense, I know I am very privileged to be able to ‘escape’ and give myself the opportunity to live differently.

Since finishing my work contract with NTU, I’ve been taking the time to think, read, absorb and try to consolidate the new learning, which should culminate in a few posts in the near future. It’s been good, having this freedom to be, and also the freedom arising from lacking any plans (of where to be, of what to do). While usually construed as laziness or ‘being picky’ (about jobs) by some, it’s romanticised by others, usually from my generation. And I do want to avoid any romanticisation about having this freedom, because it does also comes along with uncertainty over the future and associated anxieties, the worries of having to sustain oneself in a monetised economy without an income (and being able to get into countries which usually prefer the wealthy), and most of all the fears of inertia. Being located in a region with green spaces and (free) things to do outdoors, it becomes very easy to go with the flow of just doing and occupying time, without being constructive.

There is much to do for now, yet also very little. I feel the urgency of having to internalise the paradigm shift that has occurred/is occurring within me, of having to chart a course for myself, of having to address the global human inequality and environmental devastation by tackling the economic growth imperative. Some part of me believes it is all too late, that we will suffer the consequences of inaction by our elders (heatwaves and droughts, wildfires and floods, vanishing wildlife and a polluted earth), and the continuing complicity of our generation through ignorance (whether systematically planned or not). But I suppose there’s no point giving it all up to the doom of human civilisation, and we can still, in many ways, reduce the damage we are wrecking, so the earth and nature has a better chance of pulling through.

Leaving Singapore, the tiny island nation city state that managed to succeed economically, I will miss the little patches of trees that persist (for now) amidst the high-rises, the warm (though not clear) seas, the hawker centres, and volunteering with the NGO transient workers count too. There is very little to be said about missing the land, when the cityscape changes so quickly and often – most cities are interchangeable, and have similar structures and lifestyles. But most of all, what I will miss the least, the reason for leaving really, is being part of a rather insular, economic-growth-oriented society. Yet who knows what the future of Singapore will hold; being rather pragmatic, perhaps one day things Singapore will truly be the living example of a society that thrives without wreaking environmental destruction (in other places), without suppressing people’s needs and freedoms, without pursuing economic growth at all costs.

To the people with whom we share fleeting moments

It’s the end of the year, and time once again for self-reflection and new year’s resolutions. 2017 has been a bit of a whirlwind year, with more stability in the later months. One year ago, I was in a small village at the end of the Carretera Austral, the main road of Chilean Patagonia, called Villa O’Higgins. A similarly cloudy, gloomy and rainy day (though a lot colder than Singapore), ending with a wonderful shared dinner with those in the hostel, spectacular fireworks (for where we were), a live band and dancing. The immediate objective was just to get over the lake to finish our hike in El Chalten National Park, Argentina, but beyond that, blank pages to be filled. Now I’m back with my family in Singapore and a job with monthly salary.

The year’s been filled with self-searching and reflection, a slow move away from distractions and towards a life I’m at peace with. It culminated in the removal of my Facebook account – though right before deactivating it, I was still looking through my newsfeed, of people asking Facebook friends to comment on their status how they met or their best memories of each other. I was looking through photos I was tagged in, starting from the most recent and moving back in time (I only got to 2012 before I ran out of time – it’s the end of the year now). Photos of my time in the UK as a student, moments of fun, photos of overseas trips, field trips, captured with people I happened to be hanging around. Some I knew a bit, spoke to a bit, maybe even some I was fairly close with at that time. Some I never really knew, just a name, or not even that. Some people I meet on holidays, have a good chat with but nothing more. Some I met at climbing gyms, or hostels. But also always photos of some friends whom I’ll keep for life.

I’m moving off Facebook because it’s a time sinker for me. When I get bored or restless and just want a stream of information until something appears to catch my brain, I scroll through my news feed, though I care little for most posts. I’ve come to realise that friends I know I’ll keep, I’ll make an effort to keep in touch without needing a Facebook reminder, and most people don’t update on Facebook anymore anyway. It’s probably the people I met briefly and shared a few moments with that I’ll miss the most; yet in a world before Facebook, they would also just have remained happy memories, without a means of contacting.

I’ve used Facebook as an information dispenser, posting about environmental or social issues and having discussions. But I’ve come to the stage where I’m reluctant to engage in loaded discussions on social media, and it feels like the few people who might read the barrage of articles I post (on Twitter but routed to Facebook) would probably read about the issues on other platforms anyway. I used to use Facebook as an information gatherer, but not any more – I’ve started perusing news sites.

Still, going through the photos and having flashbacks of my past, I realise how much I’ve changed, even in, or perhaps particularly in the 5 years. Priorities have changed, my understanding of the world has been broadened, and I realised I want to live for myself, a life that I am content with and feel no need for escape. A quieter, slower way of living more thoughtfully and carefully, in line with nature and ecology, without exacerbating the social and economic inequalities that pervade. More blank pages to be filled, but it starts with going off Facebook, and with that, a goodbye to the people with whom I’ve shared fleeting precious moments of joy. I’ll still be thinking of you and wishing you well, even if I don’t post on your wall.

Doing fieldwork as a female

How do females deal with their menstrual period while out field? It is a rather underrated and neglected topic, so today, we had a female health in the field session for the (female) students in NTU’s Asian School of the Environment. Though I don’t teach the students, being a Singaporean who’s used a menstrual cup for the last 6 years on field trips, diving trips, and hiking and mountain-climbing expeditions gave me an insight with useful experiences and stories to share.

The issues surrounding doing fieldwork as a female may not be obvious to males (who are also the more common sex in the field), and many females might feel like menstruation is a taboo topic. But getting menstrual periods is something that happens to half of the world’s population and just needs to be dealt with appropriately. Just as many people with the means to have embraced the use of sanitary pads and so go about their everyday life, instead of being confined to their homes while they’re having their period, we shouldn’t feel like we can’t do field work (i.e. go outdoors without access to a toilet with running water) while we’re having our periods, particularly when alternative possibilities exist.

The session started out with Urinary Tract Infections (UTIs) and vaginal thrush, and how to prevent them. It seems like the best way would be to not hold your pee (wild pees ftw!), drink lots of water, and maintain a basic level of hygiene. Girls do require a higher minimum level of hygiene than boys do I think, going by my experience thru-hiking in Chile. Using toilet paper (and burying it) and changing fresh underwear is almost a necessity for us, whereas guys don’t seem to get UTIs when they neglect those. Most people are aware of feminine hygiene though, I think.

The more pertinent issue was that of dealing with periods while outdoors. Apart from not having a ready bin for disposal (i.e. you have to bag your used sanitary napkins/tampons and bring it with you till you reach ‘civilisation’), the lack of a toilet bowl/running water can sometimes deter females. Personally, the massive waste of single-use, disposable but un-recyclable sanitary pads/tampons are a major con for using them, and after experiencing the comfort of using a menstrual cup as well, I would never use the disposables again (except for emergencies/supplement to prevent leaks!). I switched from using sanitary pads to using a menstrual cup in 2011 when I planned to hike in Nepal, and have since used it even while camping in Australia, climbing Mt Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, on expeditions in Ecuador/Peru, field trips in the UK, and long-distance hiking in Chile.

Menstrual cups are great especially when you’re out in the field because

  1. You don’t have to deal with disposing bloodied pads/tampons, you can just empty the blood out where you’ve been peeing/pooping (buried if necessary!).
  2. You don’t have to bring a massive supply of disposables.
  3. You can swim/dive.

There are many other pros of using menstrual cups over pads or tampons, like

  1. It’s really comfortable. You don’t end up sitting in your warm pool of blood, as you do with a pad.
  2. You save a lot of money not having to buy pads/tampons. I do use a thin, light-flow pad on my heavy flow days just in case my cup leaks because I haven’t had time to empty it, but otherwise a panty liner will suffice, so I end up using just 2-4 pads over the course of my period, as opposed to at least 10. And a menstrual cup can be used for many, many years – I’m still using the same one.
  3. You have to go to the toilet less often. When I was using a pad, I often worried about leaking, and so kept going to the toilet to check. The menstrual cup just needs emptying about twice a day usually, thrice if it’s a heavy flow, and once when it’s the last day.
  4. They don’t cause Toxic Shock Syndrome, because the cup merely collects the blood instead of absorbing it like tampons. Hence you can keep it in for longer.
  5. You’re not contributing to unnecessary waste. So much plastic and other waste goes to our landfills/incinerators every year. Waste less, don’t use disposables.

There is a higher starting up cost to using menstrual cups, in that they cost between S$30 (for Freedom Cups, a Singapore-based company) to S$50 (for UK-based Mooncup, which is what I’m using and was the only option in Singapore 6 years ago). It also took me about two periods to get familiar and comfortable with putting the cup in and taking it out.

However, maintaining hygiene while using the Mooncup is not difficult, I wash it out with water and put it back in (using my water bottle if a tap is not available). I have even accidentally dropped it in the toilet bowl while cleaning it out, and just rinsed it and popped it back in with no further issue (I am not advising cleaning your menstrual cup with toilet bowl water though, especially after you’ve peed in it…).

Everyone would have their own way of dealing with periods while outdoors, but to me, menstrual cups are a genius invention that should be embraced. It would be a huge shame if menstruation was a deterrent to more girls doing field work or going outdoors, though having (really bad) menstrual cramps would be a completely different issue.

We may be physically weaker (for most of the population) and have a slightly greater need of personal hygiene than males, but we shouldn’t fear it to be an impediment when doing fieldwork, nor allow it to be an excuse for not having more females on an expedition, because there is a need and value for women to be in the field at times, as Haifaa Abdulhalim accounts as when working as IUCN’s World Heritage Coordinator in the Arab region.

[Update: 10 May 2017] There are several other slightly more (than just trying to get let the blood out in a less disruptive fashion) drastic options for controlling your period, e.g. birth control/contraceptive pills, and intrauterine device (IUD). They both have the main/side effect of preventing pregnancy, so depending on your personal beliefs, you may prefer to use/avoid them. I’m not as familiar with these options so did not mention them as methods for controlling period bleeds, but from comments provided, they are sometimes a better option than menstrual cups.

A new blog for the next stage in life

If you know me, you might know that I’ve been blogging for many years on a few sites. I had been thinking about ceasing activity on both my personal blog (which I’ve maintained for a decade, and contains some of my most embarrassing teenage thoughts, though it also shows a slow and gradual maturity towards adulthood, I hope) and my nature blog (which I had initially started to log the field trips and activities I was involved in pre-university, but also has some of my contemplations on conservation and the environment, and hike/climb/travel logs) for a while. And while I was hiking in Chile at the end of 2016, I decided this would be one of my to-dos for 2017. So after a month of being back home in Singapore, coming into the fourth month of 2017, I’ve finally summoned enough energy to execute this move. I had initially wanted to get my own hosted domain, but decided I’m still not willing to put in that money – and what I’m currently doing hardly justifies that spending. So here I am, back on wordpress.com.

This to me is a fairly significant, if egoistic event. Maintaining two blogs – one personal, one more interest-based – appeared to demonstrate a dichotomy within myself, as if I had failed to harmonise my interests with my being. It had seemed necessary 5/6 years ago, but rather superfluous now. In addition to having started my first job and so entering ‘adulthood’, my increased clarity in my career aspirations encourage me to start a personal academic-oriented website.

There are many thoughts I’ve had that I’ve been wanting to pen down/type out, ranging from my experiences travelling through several capital cities (Santiago, New York City, London, and Singapore) in a month, job-hunting on the move/in other countries, the growing field of conservation social science, and my despairing/the need for systemic change. Maybe I’ll eventually find the time to write about those, but more likely not (my sites are littered with unfinished drafts). In any case, just to say me, my ego and my thoughts are back online, and I’ll be writing again soon, about more important things than myself.