Tuesday, 1 October 2013


Athens (1989) , a city I always wanted to visit.
SOLITAIRE.  This word puts the romance and glamour into doing things alone. Maybe it's the way Andy William sang it. Maybe it is associated with diamonds.

I have been playing Solitaire since I was a kid. There was a card game my mum taught me. It is a game of chance -- you win if you deal yourself the right cards and end up with 4 Aces. I would use this game as a kind of oracle. If I get 4 Aces, it would mean that I pass maths... Or I would get the doll I have been badgering Dad to buy.

I grew up enjoying doing things on my own -- going for shows, drives, bus rides, eating out, shopping. I am my own best company.

So it was that I set out to Athens one September (off peak season for tourists in Greece) in 1989 -- on my own. Always wanted to see those ruins and majestic columns, and those postcard white domes against a brilliant blue. There was a monastery I wanted to see at Thessaloniki -- so I took the night train from Athens in the south to northern Greece -- and missed some of the best Grecian scenery -- so I read when I returned to Singapore. (I have this habit of reading travel books only after each time I've returned from a country.)

But the trip to Greece was one of the best I ever had... I walked all the way from Delphi to Itea, a little sleepy seaside town that appeared suddenly after I have walked past rows after rows of olive trees. Before the olive plantations, hills kept me company -- foothills which shot up vertically from each side of the road. (They must have cut a road through the hills.) Occasionally a herd of goats would trot out from somewhere among the rocks, their bells tinkling, and their heads following me as I trudged on.

Visited the town called Drama of course -- I just had to, because of the very name. People there were friendly but not overly so as to ask you all sort of questions. Just a smile or two when you visited the shops, which was how I liked it (I hated the way salesgirls greet customers in a singsong manner in some chains in Singapore). As I walked along the streets in the afternoon, I thought I could well be back in Singapore -- now and then, some stray notes from the piano as a child practised, would drift out from among the bungalows. A very homely feel about this sleepy residential neighbourhood.

The hotels, no matter how cheap, would have marble for counters. Often, they were way too high for me -- I always had to stand on tiptoes to present my passport and sign whatever there was to sign. The cinemas seemed to always show RA stuff, so there went my hope of seeing a show on my own in Greece. Roadside stalls selling piping hot food seemed delicious as I walked along the chilly streets of Athens in the early dawn, just back from the night train ride. But I needed rest badly and trudged on to find a reasonably cheap hotel.

Solitaire -- flight to Delhi

It was this solo flight to Delhi which led me to think that travelling alone is not all that bad. This was in 1983. My friend had gone ahead of me to India and after my uni exams, I was to meet him in Delhi. Took a flight by Aeroflot. My friend had requested me to bring what appeared to me to be very strange things to sell in India. These items, he wrote with much confidence, would fetch good money. And what were these items? Watches (any brand) and Johnny Walker (must be black label). Got the watches from a shop at North Bridge Road. Got the whisky at the Duty Free Emporium at the airport. Thus armed, I went on my first flight and on Aeroflot, no less.

The Russian air hostesses were not exceedingly charming, but I liked their brisk and no nonsense attitude. The passenger next to me (who was also bound for India I presume, though the flight had a stop-over somewhere in Middle East, couldn't remember where) had begun to kick out a big fuss just when we were about to take off. He insisted that the two bottles of whisky that I had in a paper bag below my seat, was his. A burly air-hostess appeared and told him to shut up, and that the whiskies were mine.

I don't know to this day how she came to the right conclusion, but I am forever grateful. Anyway, after this uproar, I mentally congratulated my friend that he had hit upon the right ware to sell in India -- it being so coveted.

Reached Delhi airport in the middle of the night -- and no friend waiting at the airport as promised. What to do? Look for a public telephone. There they were, all lined up in a straight row. Strange, all the dials have missing bits -- so that certain numbers became 'undialable'.

I ran from booth to booth -- trailed by a long line of kids draped in long torn blankets that trailed behind them as they ran after me. I remembered what my friends told me -- don't give money to any of them or you will find yourself mobbed by beggars!

Then one of them signed that he will help me dial the number. I was desperate so I showed him the scrap of paper with the number of the tourist inn my friend was staying in. Magically, the boy managed to dial the number even when the dial was broken in many places. Mission Possible and I managed to speak to a very sleepy friend. He mumbled that I should take a cab to the inn and hung up. I was very grateful to the little boy and gave him some rupees. He smiled. They stood in a row and waved me goodbye as I went in search of a cab.

I then met another angel -- a Sikh and a fellow Singaporean.

"Looking for a cab?" a voice suddenly sounded in the darkness outside the airport. We hopped onto a tut-tut which sped to my destination. Both the tut-tut driver and my new found friend helped me make enough ruckus to wake the dead -- and the caretaker of the inn. The Sikh waited for me to go into the gate and onto this long path that led to the inn before speeding off in the tut-tut.

How can I forget such an exciting and heart- warming travelling experience?

After note: We managed to sell the two bottles of Johnny Walker to a tut-tut driver. But I had to bring home the two Titoni watches. No takers.

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