The Escapist’s Atlas

I’m having a gloriously bad week. It’s like the universe chased me to the last known corners of the world and collectively took a dump on me. But because I don’t want to wallow (completely untrue) and also because I know I should do something useful to improve things (like pretending I’m not actually here), I’ve decided to wake up early and plot a grand escape (I’m terribly task-oriented like that). And these are the five best hideouts I’ve found.

Sometimes, you have to roll up your sleeves and prep for battle, and other times, you just need to dream up a fortress and garrison it well. Because if you inhabit a beautiful fortress in an imaginary world, you become impenetrable in the real world, right?

TREEHOUSE in Kamishihoro, Japan

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If griffins were alive (or X-men griffins, for that matter), they’d live here. This bird’s nest treehouse realises all my childhood fantasies of running away from the world, building my own fortress and living amongst the birds. Interestingly enough, it was created by the Nestlé people for a Néscafe commercial and is now off-limited. Incidentally, it also has a lovely spiral stairway, in case you just don’t feel like flying today.

GLASS HOME in Milan, Italy

Glass House

All the white witches of the fantasy world must inhabit a space like this – pure, crystallised and charged with elemental magic. This blue-tinged glasshouse is the vision of architect and glass designer Carlo Santambrogio and sits in the middle of a wooden clearing. Everything, including the floor, stairs and furniture are made of glass. Acrophobes (those who fear heights) and scopophobes (those who abhor being stared at) are advised to stay away.

DESERT HOME between Vegas and LA, US

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As this design blog astutely puts it, this 360-degree home on a dormant volcano looks like the lair of some super-villain – good to note if you have any world dominion or elaborate revenge fantasies. If you’re particularly morbid, turn your thoughts to how some apparently ‘dormant’ volcanoes have erupted again.  The surrounding landscape is an apocalyptical wasteland and conducive to all matters of deep, dark melancholy.

IGLOO VILLAGE in Lapland, Finland

From www.myinterestingfiles.com
Pix from http://www.myinterestingfiles.com
Pix from www.hotelchatter.com
Pix from http://www.hotelchatter.com

In case fantasising is not enough, and you really want to go somewhere, this igloo village is actually part of a hotel open from December/January to end-April. They’ve got traditional snow igloos and futuristic glass igloos, where you’ll enjoy first class seats to nature’s most spectacular dance – the northern lights.

ENTIRE ISLAND in Iceland

Bjorkhouse4

If you really need time out from the world, you may want an entire island to yourself. Interesting story: After Björk put Iceland on the world map, Iceland reciprocated by (literally) putting her on the map as well – they gave her an entire island. Elliðaey, off the southern coast of Iceland, now belongs to the eclectic singer-songwriter, and is only accessible via helicopter, boat or rope. According to a blog post by Maryam Shamlou, the house on it doesn’t belong to Björk though. It is a hunting lodge for puffin hunters.

The question is: if you had an island to yourself, what would your fortress look like?

My other grand escape plans include: Bucket List Spas and My Ashram Experiment.

What My Mother Taught Me About Beauty

What My Mother Taught Me About Beauty
A Mucha print from http://graduate-extraordinaire.blogspot.sg
A Mucha print from http://graduate-extraordinaire.blogspot.sg

By the age of four, my mother taught me everything I know about being a woman.

As a little girl, my first memory was of her in red lipstick, stepping into a garden abloom with yellow miniature roses, purple orchids and dainty West Indian jasmines – the perfect picture of grace.

A picture of my mother
A picture of my mother

She passed away when I was four.

Later, I learnt from my father that she’d been struggling with respiratory problems all her life. But nobody seems to remember how weak she’d become. Staring into her coffin, what I saw was a poised and beautiful woman. And throughout my confused teenage years, I struggled to emulate her beauty and grace.

Thus I grew up in a confused and complex world, and like so many other, floundered through many moments of fear, self-doubt and heartache, seeking wisdom in books and forgetfulness in films.

But whenever I felt like I’d truly hit a dead end, I’d hit the road again and meet many amazing people through my travels – poverty-stricken India women with the most vivid dresses I’ve ever seen, a 70-year-old Japanese woman with the brightest purple hair, a breast cancer survivor finding love and intimacy after mastectomy…

From www.ericsstudio.com
From http://www.ericsstudio.com

Only through their eyes did I finally begin to see my mother’s true legacy –
her parting advice to me was not merely how to be beautiful, but one of enduring strength and hope in the face of pain, uncertainly and death.

She was the first person who helped me understand that a woman without breasts is no less beautiful, bright purple hair on an old woman can still turn heads, making the effort to wear lipstick when you’re very ill is a final act of defiance, and planting flowers that you may never see is the greatest leap of faith.

Beyond all the designer dresses and makeup, that is what it means to be a beautiful woman.

If you like this, you might like: WanderlustOlfactory Journeys and Bucket List Therapies

Bucket List Therapies

Therapy. Possibly my favourite overused word.

First used to describe the medical treatment of disease, today, you can literally tag the word to any of your favourite obsessive, compulsive indulgence  and elevate it to a form of pseudo-psychological healing. Retail therapy, massage therapy, apartment therapy, chocolate therapy, you name it.

The thing is, despite all the pseudo-science, I love the hedonistic and imaginative misuse of the word.

I also adore all the little spas that have taken our self-gratifying, self-justifying rhetoric to heart and created spectacular visual wonderlands. Why? Because I truly believe in the healing benefits of a little imagination. And on that note,  here are my ‘bucket list’ therapies and spas – worth more than a visit to the doctor’s.

#1 Tea Therapy

Fast-forwarding through the anti-ageing, antioxidant spew of skincare brochures, what I really love about tea therapy is that this ritualised art instantly evokes a sense of clarity and tranquillity. Chanoyu 茶の湯 (in Japanese culture) and cha dao 茶道 (in Chinese culture) reflect the profound appreciation of nature, self-awareness and hosting etiquette. They also symbolise the act of leaving the mundane world behind and immersing in something truly pure and beautiful.

Bucket List Spa: GREEN T. HOUSE Bath House Residence, CHINA

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This stunning spa is born of artist, musician and tea connoisseur’s JinR’s quest for the quintessential neoclassic Chinese experience. Sitting on the outskirts of Beijing, it is inspired by a Tang dynasty emperor’s bathhouse and voted by the Best Spa Design by Wallpaper magazine. Everything about it (even the website –  http://green-t-house.com/greenteahouse1/bathhouse.html and its musical accompaniment) seems like something out of a Zhang Yimou film. Soak in the rooftop onsen, luxuriate in purifying green tea treatments, sample artistically plated tea-inspired cuisine, and declare time out from the heave of humanity.

#2 Hydrotherapy

Imagine the weightlessness and warmth of being submerged and suspended in lukewarm water. Proponents claim that this weightlessness relieves the body of the pull of gravity, gently massages, and stimulates the touch receptors of the skin. Adjustments to water temperature and pressure are used to improve blood circulation, encourage relaxation, enhance the immune system and hydrate the skin.

Bucket List Spa: Blue Lagoon, ICELAND

blue-lagoon-reykjavik

Four reasons I’m sold on this spa: geothermal seawater, in-water massages, the midnight sun and the otherworldly dreamscape of Iceland. Of course, the midnight package is only available from July to August when Iceland enjoys almost 24 hours of sunlight. (www.bluelagoon.com)

#3 Beer Therapy

Step aside, red wine. If you’ve heard enough of polyphenols and resveratrol, you’ll welcome this newer alcohol-skincare fad. This form of booze therapy is gaining popularity in Germany, Austria and Czech Republic, where the folks simply love their beer. Soak in a barrel and instead of a nasty hangover, expect better circulation, detoxification and relaxation from beer’s natural healing cocktail of vitamins, proteins and folic acid.

Bucket List Spa: První Pivní Lázně Karlovy Var, CZECH REPUBLIC

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This beer bath takes place in 1000-litre whirlpool tubs infused with brewing yeast, selected varieties of hop, and malt grist – natural extracts from which Krušovice beer is brewed. Heated to 37°C, it purges toxins, rejuvenates the skin and melts away stress. This is followed by 20 minutes of resting on a bed made of wheat straw, and endless pints of beer in case you still have any residual tension. (http://pivnilazne-kv.cz)

#4 Multi-sensorial Therapy

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Combining colour, shape, light, sound, vibration and warmth to induce deep relaxation, this newfangled type of therapy feels like something out of a futuristic sci-fi world. AlphaSphere, for example (the brainchild of artist Sha) is a monochromatic blue rocking relaxation couch offered at Berlin’s Mandala Hotel ONO Spa and Bulgaria’s Kempinski Hotel’s Zalez.

Bucket List Spa: Wellness at Backstage Hotel, SWITZERLAND

1. Cube 2 at Wellness, inspired by the 2nd day of Creation

7f3f80de16448fdcb5469ce5e54fb0ccInspired by the seven days of Genesis, this spa invites you to experience the miracle of creation in seven splendid rooms. Begin in a steam room flickering with an art projection of light and shadow, lay down in a field of infrared heated glass pearls as clouds drift by, travel through a cosmic world seen through a Hubble telescope, and drift away in a floating basin to the sound of whale song… Through sound, aromatherapy, art, video installations, temperature and state-of-the-art technology, this spa recreates a rich world of magic and imagination. (www.backstagehotel.ch/wellness_80.html)

For more aspiration travel destinations, read: The Escapist Atlas

And p.s., here’s my budget attempt at Self-healing at a Yoga Ashram in India

*Most pictures were taken from the websites of the respective spas.

My Ashram Experiment

My Ashram Experiment
Sivananda yoga ashram after a morning walk
Sivananda yoga ashram after a morning walk

Right off the bat, I’ll admit that:

One: Two weeks in an Indian ashram was my ‘cheap shot’ at accelerated self-discovery.

Two: I was your textbook epiphany-seeker (no thanks to Eat, Pray, Love, which I never read).

Three: I now have firsthand experience of living out an old cliché, indulging a quarter-life crisis, trying a headstand with close to zero yoga experience, and dangerous chocolate-deprivation for two weeks.

Well, I’m still not sure why I went.

I guess, in a world measured out by Foursquare check-ins and cardboard cheeseburgers, the threat of unreliable wifi and a strict vegetarian diet might have just stricken me as refreshing at the time… Or it might have seemed like one of those trips that would give me granny-cred when I’m old and toothless.

In any case, I packed three of my oldest T-shirts, an insect repellent, iPhone and concealer into a 10 litre Deuter backpack and left for Sivananda Kerala, India.

15 days of curry vegetables, eight unsuccessful headstands, and a close encounter with a hairy palm-sized tarantula later, here’s are three random things I’ve gleaned:

#1 Everybody’s in some kind of crisis

The interesting thing about a clichéd vacation is… well, everyone else was thinking exactly the same thing – everyone in a short-term or chronic crisis seemed to converge at the ashram. I’ve never met so many people with quarter-life, mid-life, three-quarter life crises. There were people who couldn’t get jobs, people who hated what they were doing, tired people, confused people, people who were unhappy for no particular reason…

And perhaps it just seemed like the place for it, but well, people just shared their stories more freely.

The thing was, it wasn’t ‘solidarity of the miserable’ at all. On the contrary, what I realised was that everyone’s got some kind of half-formed plan too. I met a girl who wants to start a sustainable community in Costa Rica, a woman who lost a job she’s had for 19 years and suddenly decided to be life coach, and an ex-banker reinvented as a stopgap-hippie prepped to take on India.

Through their eyes, I saw a vast world of infinite possibilities, only limited by my imagination and courage. And somehow, I started to believe that all we need is a half-formed plan, and then we’ll make the rest up along the way.

#2 Epiphanies are over-rated

I may be saying this because I didn’t have one spectacular ‘moment’… like in the movies. No lightning spark went off, no ‘highlights-of-my-life’ flashbacks occurred – sorry to disappoint.

On my first day, our yoga teacher took us down to the river to mediate. Because every tree, every rock, every weed, he said, has vibrations and ‘memories’ that can heal the mind and soul, and so we’ve got a secret stash of positive vibrations right in our backyard.

This may sound a little new-agey, but I did feel just a tad calmer for that, and it made the crucial difference. I’m starting to think that perhaps, sometimes, instead of waiting for life-changing epiphanies, all we need is to calm our mind and think quietly.

#3 The monsters are really just in our head

No surprises – Monday is the day I hate most – it’s the day the world drags you out of your warm bed and across the street in your sleeping clothes, your hair bedraggled and your knees scrapping against the pavement, and makes you do a stupid tap dance.

The ironic thing was, Monday morning chased me right up to the ashram in India. I had no forgotten deadlines, no early morning meetings, no embarrassingly stupid powerpoint slides, and yet I felt the same sense of anxiety, the sense that I was somehow late for something, had forgotten something, had missed my shot – don’t ask me at what.

Maybe because, as they say, we can run halfway across the world, but we can’t run away from our own demons, fears and anxieties.

And of course, the other ironic thing was that I had to run halfway across the world to truly appreciate that.

More on why I love to travel: Wanderlust
And other Places On My Bucket List

Wanderlust

Wanderlust
From my trip to Agra, India
From my trip to Agra, India

After visiting 23 countries over the 31 years of my life, I must say that there are only three things I absolutely hate about travel – touts, toilets and packaged tours. Why? Because touts are always make me feel like a money tree, exploring new toilets feels like an incalculable risk, and package tours are really just like watching 18 poorly edited trailers back-to-back when you really just want to see one good movie.

Having said that, these are the five reasons I brave such ‘untold dangers’ to hit the road time and again.

#1 Mental Detox
Packing for a trip helps to un-clutter my life – because unless you are Paris Hilton or her chihuahua, you usually only have one or two bags of luggage space. And deciding what to bring helps you pare the thousands of creature comforts and cool toys you have down to the essentials.

I never realise how many things I’ve amassed and how much time I spend sorting them out until I pack for a trip. And somehow, deciding that I really don’t need to bring another perfume, pair of shoes or gadget helps me clear up mental space, sift the essential from the fluff, and ultimately put things in perspective.

#2 For An Adventure

It’s either the white noise or the plastic chicken, but taking a plane always makes me feel like I’m in some kind of fake temporary limbo, and when I emerge on the other side, I’ll be entering a different world, a new Narnia where I can be someone else for a while, and even vanquish a Minotaur or two. Regardless, I always up for an adventure again on the other side.

#3 For New Perspectives

Remember Dead Poets Society where Robin Williams gets his students to stand on their desks to see the world from a different perspective? I’m starting to think that maybe as we grow older, we start to take ourselves too seriously to ever flippantly climb a table again, or see anything special when we do. That’s why we need to climb mountains, castles, 100 storey observatory towers in search of that same sense of wonder again.

#4 To Find My Pace

Don’t get me wrong: I love travelling with friends. But it also somehow feels like travelling in one big cloud of familiarity. Solo travel is a refreshing change because it helps me discover a new place, discover myself and find my own pace again. In a world where we are always scrambling to keep pace with others, I think everyone should try solo travel at least once.

#5 Because The World Is So Beautiful And We Are So Small

Travelling makes me believe in the magic again.

Taken in Rajasthan, India
Taken in Rajasthan, India