Land's edge

The Kranji Beach, just one stop in School of the Arts graduates Charis Tan and Mariel Chee's quest to walk around Singapore's perimeter in three days, offers views of the Johor Baru skyline from afar.

SINGAPORE - Life can be boring. We fall into habits like well-trodden paths, seldom going out of our way to explore. For many of us, that well-trodden path is to work, or school, the hawker centre and the mall.

On my days off, my own circuit is the last two plus the library and the cinema.

True, as a reporter, I do get to go off the beaten path.

I've seen Jurong Island from a bus while out to cover the opening of a power plant there. I've been trailed by friendly stray dogs along Pasir Ris Farmway in the course of stories on pet farms, and been stuck in mud at Lim Chu Kang's sulphur-smelling mangroves when writing about discoveries of sea creatures there.

But it seldom involves pausing to find, or even, savour new aspects of my country's landscape. I've never indulged in the sheer pleasure of wandering along a path just because - well, because.

And yet, I have longed to see Singapore differently, as I've never seen it before. To walk, slowly, taking in the sights.

In an age when we can hop on a train and be at the other end of Singapore in an hour, we can forget how to really walk.

My chance to really walk came when I heard about two teenagers who planned to walk around the edge of Singapore, partly for charity but mostly because they could.

Recent School of the Arts graduates Charis Tan and Mariel Chee, both 18, aimed to do a three-day, nine-stage walk around Singapore's perimeter - about 130km in all.

I joined them on the second stage of their walk, when they set off from Boon Lay MRT station one Sunday at 8am - their Day Two. They were joined by three friends, and Charis' parents. Photographer Nuria Ling and I were tagging along for one section: Boon Lay to Kranji.

Mariel and Charis are no strangers to adventure. Nor is this the two best friends' first walk around Singapore: In 2009, at age 15, they had done it for a lark "to be able to say, we walked around Singapore", Mariel says. It took three days, including a camp-out at the Japanese Garden to watch a meteor shower.

Though they have raised several hundred dollars for the Little Flower Projects, a charity which provides long-term care for disabled orphans in China, it is not a fund-raiser walk, Mariel says. "It's about getting people to see Singapore in a different way."

Mariel, a performance artist, is also having us take photos on disposable cameras, to see the walk through the eyes of participants, possibly to use as an artwork.

By 9.30am, we are ambling past the entrance to Nanyang Technological University, and up towards the Choa Chu Kang cemeteries and the sparsely inhabited farm zone of Lim Chu Kang.

Circumnavigating Singapore exactly is not possible, of course. A large section of the western coastline is military land. Instead, we walk up Lim Chu Kang Road, a road broad enough to land a plane on. Out here, even though we are far from the city, traffic is king. Lim Chu Kang Road lacks a sidewalk, and trucks rush towards us at terrifying speed.

At the Christian cemeteries we pass through - so rare in land-scarce Singapore - sculptures of angels with their hands folded in prayer, and a small chapel, fascinate the group. We linger there longer than planned. Further up, we catch the pungent ammonia whiff of an egg farm.

At a junction, we hesitate, considering walking to the far end of Lim Chu Kang Road to see the jetty and some mangroves. In the end, Charis and Mariel decide they are on too tight a schedule. As we plod on, I reflect that I've driven through the Lim Chu Kang area on my way to fish farms or Sungei Buloh for news stories, but I've never experienced its vastness on foot. Suddenly, Singapore seems that much bigger - and suddenly, your mind is also freed from thinking of it as boring.

At noon, we round the corner onto Neo Tiew Road, stopping to gawk at the BBC World Service's antenna farm, which is just visible through the trees. "It looks like a UFO landing site," Mariel says of the British broadcaster's transmitter centre. Antenna towers dot the rolling green landscape, while herons perch atop radio-signal receivers that resemble fishbones.

For lunch, we tuck into banana curry and chicken wings at the Bollywood Veggies farm. By 2.30pm, we are at Kranji Beach, having covered 16km at a leisurely stroll over six hours.

Barefoot, silent

Walking can be used in a kind of performance art, says Mariel, who is attending Yale-NUS this year. She writes about or photographs the experience, sometimes walking barefoot to feel the ground, sometimes in silence with the company of friends. Meanwhile, I imagine Charis, a music major, composing a soundtrack to the walk in her head. And that's where Nuria and I leave them, to straggle on towards Admiralty.

Physical challenge was not the point of this walk - as it turned out, the journey is the point.

I'm the sort of goal-oriented, Type-A person who logs the distance and speed of my runs. But during the walk, I realised that distance and speed were less important than paying attention with all my senses to the pong of a dead monitor lizard by the roadside, or the whirr and hum of fat carpenter bees.

I saw poignant rows of small rainbow pinwheels, planted beside graves, whirling in the breeze. I meditated on the loved ones who return, year after year, to put pinwheels in the ground and lay flowers on stones.

This type of journey requires three things:

The time of a walk matters. The anticipatory stillness of the Central Business District before dawn is much different from the frenzied CBD at lunch hour.

The speed matters. A stroll along Punggol Waterway, stopping to peer at plants and spot critters, is much different from jogging along it focused on your watch.

The company matters. You can have three completely different walks solo, with a loved one, or with friends, and all three will be a good time.

So often, we think of our paths in life as neat straight lines. But we should make room for, and time to appreciate, detours - we shouldn't forget we can stray.

caiwj@sph.com.sg


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