On throwing off the bowlines
By Toh Hsien Min
Nobody, it seems, can actually be credited with the saying that travel broadens the mind. Mark Twain has written that "Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime." Even so, he can only claim two out of the four words. Going much further back in time, Seneca is supposed to have said that "Travel and change of place impart new vigour to the mind", although there seems to have been no conclusive evidence of this. Perhaps the closest is G.K. Chesterton, who wrote in his short story 'The Shadow of the Shark': "They say travel broadens the mind, but you must have the mind". So it's not clear whether Chesterton was himself trying to quote someone else, but he was on to something of course. As so often, the popular version that survives survives in so simplified a form that it has lost its essence. My version of the phrase would be that travel can broaden the mind, but only if you allow it. An annual ski trip to Niseko doesn't really help with that. Travel that challenges you, however...
I had been set on Cape Verde for 2020. For other reasons, I had been scheduled to visit Portugal that year, and tracing through onward destinations I found out that Cape Verde was most easily accessed from Portugal. Of course we know what happened. For me personally, the last two years amounted to the longest I've not been out of Singapore since the A-Levels segued into national service. So when the vaccinated travel lane opened up in the latter half of 2021, notwithstanding that it didn't make it any easier to get to Latin America or continental Africa and instead suggested only a small circle of destinations, I jumped to it and booked my ticket to France.
I've been to France any number of times - technically, more than once a year on average in the last decade - but there was something about this trip that felt different. It was not just that I had to complete and carry more paperwork than I had done to enter the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region of Tajikistan (pre-Covid). As it turned out, the French were incredibly relaxed about it all; at immigration they only checked my passport, and did not ask to see my pre-departure test or health declaration. In this way, France provided a model of what it meant to be treating Covid as endemic. It was liberating to walk outdoors without a mask. There was no TraceTogether-type tracking. One needed to be vaccinated to enter restaurants and to take long-distance trains, and although restaurants were reasonably compliant (because, it seems, of the size of the potential fine), checks were only done at Gare de Lyon and not at any of the other train stations I passed through. More, in reconnecting with my friends in France with no restraints on numbers or frequency and no angst about social distancing, I felt all over again the power of human contact. And perhaps, and I say this with full awareness of how privileged I am, I learned all over again how much getting out of Singapore so effectively vents the stress that builds up under the skin of this country.
So despite the neverending series of tests on the way back (marked by some unusual Singapore government ineptitude), I would do it all over again. Perhaps this comes with hindsight. I know someone who flew to France four days after I did and returned two days after I did, who contracted Delta and who has been regretting it ever since. But perhaps even hindsight bias is wrong. He had taken a swathe of precautions, whereas I had not been especially cautious - for instance I joined half a million people in the centre of Lyon for La Fête des Lumières. If it is really quite up to chance whether we catch it or not, then the sooner we bring ourselves back to the mindset of normalcy the more we can think about broadening our minds.
December wasn't just about travel for me. There was rather a bit of work that I had to get through, QLRS celebrated its twentieth year with an small (socially distanced) event at the National Library, and then towards the end of the year, as we were compiling submissions for this issue, we discovered an issue. I had perhaps first wind of it when a contributor wrote to ask about the outcome of his submission, but I had no record of ever receiving his submission. A number of diagnostics later, I discovered that Yahoo! (who we use for our incoming submissions email) had amended its spam filtering algorithm, with the net result that a majority of our submissions emails had disappeared into the void. While we did manage to recover most of the December emails, those who have submitted to us in the latter half of 2021 and who have not received a reply should probably assume that their submissions have done astray. Do re-send these to us, if you like; otherwise please accept our apologies for the inconvenience.
Notwithstanding this, the team still managed to put together a decent issue. I was able to select some strong poems, and even the diminished count owed more to administrative issues over the editing and layout of poems rather than to not having enough to pick from. Kai Chai had a small scramble for short stories, but I'm quite impressed with what he has managed to assemble. Shu Hoong has put together another decent slate of essays, perhaps for the last time in a while, as discussions within the team concluded in a consensus for Shu Hoong and Stephanie to swap roles on the basis that being based in Singapore was probably helpful for liaising with publishers and reviewers while assembling a Criticism section. In this case, being overseas confers no advantage!QLRS Vol. 21 No. 1 Jan 2022