Are you a secretly obsessive Singaporean traveller? Lee Siew Hua advises why you should let go a little

The Iguazu Falls is made up of 275 waterfalls in Brazil and Argentina.
The Iguazu Falls is made up of 275 waterfalls in Brazil and Argentina. -- PHOTO: YOHANES LEANDER
ST journalist Lee Siew Hua squeezes through crevices during a spelunking adventure at the Ugong Rock, a 75-foot limestone outcrop in Tagabinet, near Sabang in The Philippines.
ST journalist Lee Siew Hua squeezes through crevices during a spelunking adventure at the Ugong Rock, a 75-foot limestone outcrop in Tagabinet, near Sabang in The Philippines. -- PHOTO: ST FILE
Snow mountain in Sichuan.
Snow mountain in Sichuan. -- PHOTO: ST FILE
Snow scene in Japan.
Snow scene in Japan. -- PHOTO: ST FILE

Do you like to control the sprawling details of your trip, even if you firmly believe travel is best with lots of spontaneous moments? 

Do you hate to lose your way in a new city? 

And possibly you take time off to plan a trip, like a purposeful PSLE-prepared parent? Don’t tell me you take leave to plan your holiday? 

There’s a big inner planner inside almost every Singaporean I know. 

Personally, I take guilty pleasure in planning my trips in lavish detail if I can. Yes, even though I’m a travel writer, I can get a little obsessive, but I like to think that’s really because I can’t come home without a travel story. 

I know intricate travel plans can unspool in a flash. 

When that happens, I’m tossed out of my comfort zone which, for many Singaporeans, is not a zone that’s compact but more like a continent. 

The good news is, I look at the world afresh when I’m in a spot of trouble. 

Last year, in 2013, I was set to explore the sublime Iguazu Falls, a vast curtain of 275 waterfalls that separate Brazil and Argentina. 

Singapore Airlines whisked me smoothly to Sao Paulo in Brazil. But once inside Brazil, I found that a Singapore travel agent had wrongly booked my internal flight to Iguazu by one terrible, irreversible day. 

I was supposed to fly to the falls on Nov 29. I had a seat for Nov 30. 

I hot-footed it to the airport in Sao Paulo to sort things out in the evening. I couldn't swop my ticket as every flight to the waterfalls for Nov 29 was already full. 

I was asked to return at daybreak on Nov 30, to grab one of three remaining tickets. I had competition. 

Jet-lagged, I lugged my bags around glumly, wondering if I could snag a sleep capsule at the airport and snooze my predicament away. I found the stamp-sized SleepFast hotel, where the receptionist estimated a two-hour wait for a room. Mercifully, one opened up in 45 minutes. 

SURPRISED IN SAO PAULO 
As I settled in, I stopped feeling aghast and started feeling amused that I was feeling like a traveller again, discovering within teeming Sao Paolo the hidden terrain of a mini-hotel with dazed guests and rooms booked in eight-hour slots. 

I was happy that the bathrooms were sparkling, disinfected 24/7 by staff with a flawless work ethic. I had wi-fi (I promptly e-mailed my complaint to the travel agent and felt a bit better), and extra cups of water appeared when I asked. 

The next day, after clocking four hours of sleep, I grabbed the last seat on the first flight to Iguazu, just after sunrise. 

When I finally set foot in Iguazu, my guide Jose Pae told me coolly: “You’re 10 hours late.” 

Creatively, he rejigged my two-day itinerary so I still enjoyed every panorama at the Iguazu Falls in both Brazil and Argentina, on a slightly sped-up schedule. 

My senses were heightened - near-mishaps can focus the mind greatly - so I relished Iguazu even more. I marvelled at the crashing power of the mightier falls, and also loved the delicacy of the smaller cascades. 

GO WITH THE FLOW

I was learning anew to go with the flow.  The coollest frequent travellers are sure to tell you that’s the way to travel - go with the flow. That may be painfully counter-intuitive to the meticulous Singaporean, but it works. 

When I think about it, my misadventures have turned out to be fun and revealing. A couple of quick anecdotes. 

On a four-day Chinese road trip to the mountainous Tibetan corners in the far west of Sichuan province, we encountered many delays on the road - construction, accident, everything. 

Because we spent too much time inside the car, we asked around and a local mentioned a new route back to Chengdu – and it is perfection. On our last day, we gazed at tiny Tibetan towns edged by wildflowers in white and lilac in Xiaoqin county. 

When we ascended a winding, empty road, we spied wild horses and powdered mountains. Each vista surprised us, and at the pinnacle, I loved the sea of clouds drifting far below our feet. 

In my travelogue, I wrote: “Unshackled from our meticulous original plan, we stand in an icy wonderland and marvel at the serendipity of it all... 

“And so China’s wild west is wonder and rigour, conjuring the sense that we have touched the far rim of the known world.” 

This has my story again and again. When a snowstorm threatened to paralyse Tokyo in February, our group of snowshoe trekkers left the metropolis by bullet train four hours earlier, and was rewarded with extra time in a wondrous landscape. 

MAKING UP ITINERARIES ON THE GO

My Filipino host on Lubang island in the Philippines e-mailed me a solid itinerary just before Easter. But when I arrived in Lubang, she blithely told me she would “make it up as we go”. I had the loveliest time lingering on her windswept bungalow and on the jungle trails walking in the footsteps of a Japanese soldier who had hid 30 years on the island. 

It is easy to imagine travel writer Pico Iyer, author of luminous travelogues including The Lady and The Monk: Four Seasons in Kyoto, as all free spirit. But he is a planner. 

“I do enjoy planning. I am fairly organised. It is one of my relative strengths,’’ he told me in an interview once. 

It is a help psychologically to map out an itinerary, he feels, even if he later departs dramatically from it. “The planning is what allows me to do without the plan,” he added. 

So plan, be a little obsessive if we wish. 

But feel free to liberate ourselves any moment from the elaborate itinerary, the map and the inner planner embedded in the Singaporean soul. 

CONNECT WITH ST'S LEE SIEW HUA: 

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