Things I learnt after living alone for 6 months at home without a regular job or a social life after 10 years of travel

1). It’s not easy.

2). The first two months are the easiest because your body is fatigued from all the travel and is happy to have one place to spend all the time. Because your friends haven’t seen you for such a long time, they are keen to meet you and you have a decent social life. This is the most you’ll ever see them. Make the most of it. 

3). As your social life wanes, you feel sadder and lonelier. The monotonous routines take a toll on your mental health. You stop getting out of the house. You try to engineer random encounters like you do when you travel but realise that it doesn’t really work when you’re at home because you live in a boring suburb where people like to keep to themselves and some unmarried loner who hasn’t been around for such a long time is too weird to engage with.  It’s not as if you never felt sad or lonely when you traveled but there was an inherent flux and movement of people in and out of your life then and that made sure you were never in that state for more than a couple of days. It’s the stagnancy of this city that hurts.

4). You learn to get used to the fact that you aren’t going to meet new people every day. Every other day you plan to pack your bags and get out but you look at all the money you’ve spent and the money you have and it doesn’t make sense anymore. So you try to make the boring monotony work. 

5). You learn not to call any of your friends to meet because you get sad when you realise that no one’s ever free when you want to hang out.  So you wait for that rare occasion when someone calls you. But when the occasion comes, you don’t feel like meeting anybody. Because you haven’t had any conversations for so long after you stopped traveling, you fear that you would feel awkward and not as interesting, sharp and uninhibited as you like to be. Sometimes you get over this fear and try to make the best you can out of this rare social evening but after it’s over, the loneliness hits you like a bullet. You feel like you should be doing this every day and you miss your traveling days when you were having these long conversations all the time.

6). You learn not to blame your friends for the situation you’re in because you’re the one responsible for the life you make. These are conscious choices you’ve made to feel freer and happier without having to work for somebody else and if you live in a city built purely for working people, you need to claw your way out of there. 

7). You wonder if you should look for a proper job but you’re a snob and your skills are so individualized and specific and unnecessary that you’ve practically thrown yourself out of the market. And then you think it’s probably not a good idea to work for someone else while being consigned to a claustrophobic cubicle after flying free for such a long time.  

8). You think you’re depressed but you google for signs of depression and realise you’re just plagued with anxiety and sadness. You think about going to a shrink but you remember that you don’t have a job and good shrinks are expensive and you would rather use that money for future travel because that’s the one thing you know that truly works for you. 

9). Your sleep takes the biggest hit. There are nights when you sleep very well and there are others when you don’t sleep at all. Sometimes it’s because you’re anxious about the fact that you’re alone. But you learn quickly that it’s okay if you don’t sleep at 3 am if you can’t. Even if you sleep much later, you can sleep till the afternoon and get your 8 hours. Perks of not having a job or a vibrant social life and being a master of your own time without anyone telling you how to live. 

10). You become sadder as your time in the city gets longer. But you also learn to cope with the sadness. If you’re sad, you stay sad and let the sadness wash over you. Don’t look at the phone or the laptop even if it may temporarily get you to a neutral state. That only serves to make you sadder when you look away. When you let yourself be sad without any crutches, you realise you get a clear head and some happiness at the end of it because your mind is done dwelling over the useless drivel it had been moping about. 

11). Stay away from social media as much as you can because nothing takes you down like reading about other people doing cooler things and making a ton of money. When you go to facebook and see everyone else leading a normal, happy life, be conscious that it’s only a mirage. You have no idea what’s going on in other people’s lives and how happy or miserable they really are. The only way you’re going to learn is if you meet them face to face and ask questions and you’ve stopped talking to them a long time ago. Also your life is unique and specific to your experience and if you compare it to other people, it’s only going to make you feel terrible. 

12). 80s heavy metal and old Hindi film music always works like a charm to alleviate the blues. 

13). But the only thing that truly works for you while you’re wallowing in misery all alone in the city is burying yourself into the work you like to do i.e. editing the thousands of pictures you’ve taken over the years, walking around the city shooting and exploring its corners and writing about your travels. They won’t make you any money but they keep the sadness away. And you feel as if you’re doing something worthwhile instead of thinking about where you could be right now if only you had x amount of money in your bank account. 

14). Make plans to get out of the city as soon and as often as you can but also try to make the city work for you. It’s difficult but not impossible. And it saves a ton of money. Make peace with the fact that your days of long, never-ending travels are over and that there’s a chance nothing you do in life from here on will ever be as good as what you did in those 10 years.  

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Hawker centers, rock bands, conversations

Having blown the budget on my first day in this expensive city-state, I had to find ways to be frugal for the rest of my time here. What made this possible was that most splendid Singaporean thing, the hawker center. They came in all shapes and forms, from the upmarket Makansutras to the 3 dollar meals in a corner in Chinatown. The cheaper my hawker center was the better I felt and the more authentic I thought the food tasted.

One day, while I was gobbling up a plate of chicken rice at the Maxwell Road center, I saw a guy in a Steve Vai “Alive in an Ultra World” T-shirt sitting with two of his friends on an adjacent table. I hadn’t spoken to anybody outside of my hostel in the 3 days I had spent in the country and I was yearning for some genuine interaction in Singapore. So I popped over, said hi and asked him where he got his t-shirt. He invited me to join the table and said he could take me to the place if I wanted.

C, the guy in the Steve Vai tee, and his friends, T and S, were studying Computer Science at the National University of Singapore (NUS). He was learning to play the guitar in his spare time, he said, and was a big fan of Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, Rage Against the Machine and Limp Bizkit.

“Why Limp Bizkit?”, I asked disapprovingly.

“Because they have a lot of energy”, he said, “Anyway, I like all kinds of music. Jazz, hip-hop, country, dance. It’s all good. Sometimes it’s good to like dance music to get the girls.”

Did he have a girlfriend who listened to a lot of dance music?

“I did until one month before but we broke off. Life isn’t so easy in Singapore. I go to college, study, work 2 part-time jobs to make ends meet. My parents live in Ipoh in Malaysia and they don’t send me a lot of money. So I have to work hard if I want to drink beer and have some fun. But some girls don’t understand that.”

Where did he live in Singapore?

“We live together”, he said pointing his finger at T and S, “We have a small one room apartment that we share between the three of us. It’s cheap, only 500$ a month for the three of us and bang in the center of Chinatown.”

Didn’t they get sick of living in such a cramped space for so long?

“We’re hardly home, lah. Always outside. Either in college, or work or drinking beers. No time for sleep. You’re old so may be you sleep a lot. But sometimes, if we want to sleep, we go to college or walk to Pulau Ubin on a holiday and sleep on the beach.”

Where did they work?

“I work all night at a 7/11 in Tiong Bahru and go to a hawker center at Changi in the morning where I work for 4 hours in a noodle shop. Then I go to college where I sleep a little. After college, practise the guitar a little bit. T also works with me at the noodle shop. S is a rich man. His parents give him a lot of money so he doesn’t have to work.”

If his parents were so rich, why was he living with them in a cramped apartment?

“Who wants to live with family, lah? It’s no fun.

C and his friends then asked me to tag along with them to Lau Pa Sat, one of Singapore’s more legendary hawker centers where a band they knew was playing in the evening. Lau Pa Sat was housed in a building that was over a 100 years old and furnished with an elegant clock tower. It was a rusty old architectural marvel. There weren’t a lot of people when we went and a small stage hung above the stalls where a band was churning out amateur grade versions of classic rock hits.

When I asked the group if they wanted to eat or drink something, they wondered if I was mad. The food at Lau Pa Sat wasn’t very good, they said, and it was expensive on account of its location in the Central Business District. The only people who ate there were tourists who read about it on the Lonely Planet and later complained  of stomach upsets.

The band chugged along perfunctorily and the only people listening to the music was our group. After a while, even C and his friends got bored and we left the place and got some beers from a 7-11. They took me to a secluded riverside promenade north of Raffles quay where we sat quietly sipping our beers staring at the disco light of the Singaporean glitz reflected in the waters.

I asked C if he planned to settle down in Singapore.

“I don’t know,” he said, “if I find a rich girl to marry me, yeah, why not? But no, it’s too expensive here. I like the life in Singapore. It’s very easy and comfortable if you have the money. But I have no bank balance. If I want to run out of money I would like to go to a place bigger and more interesting than here. My dream is to go to Japan and Canada after graduation.”

It was getting late and I thought I would rush back to the hostel before the last train left. As I was leaving C said, “Hey, listen, there’s a guitarist coming to Singapore this weekend. His name’s Tommy Emmanuel. He’s really good and plays in Singapore every year. Join us if you want to see a nice gig at the Esplanade.”

So we met at the Esplanade that weekend to see Tommy Emmanuel play.

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