The Road More Unconventionally Travelled

There are times in life when, much as you’d like to, you just can’t get away. Or at least it doesn’t seem worth it to get away. It might be a matter of time, or money; ill health, or commitments to work or family. Some people feel the whole period of their children’s existence up to age five or so falls into this category, and heaven knows I don’t judge them for that, especially on those occasions when we mismanage our way into the nearest MacDonald’s as an easy escape from the rigors of our holiday. But that doesn’t mean we can’t explore, gain new perspectives, or shake up our routine a bit, even if we do return to our own beds in the evening to sleep.

There’s the classic day trip, of course, but not only that. At a certain travel-free point in our past, my husband presented me with the Lonely Planet Guide To Experimental Travel. It’s not exclusively for the geographically-restricted. You can experiment at home or away; wherever you are and wherever you go – that’s the point. I dug it out again for the school holidays (during which time we will be some of the few people left in Singapore, it seems) and it immediately fell open to page 150: Horse Head Adventure. (Hypothesis: test normal standards of social behaviour and etiquette by drawing attention to yourself in an outlandish and potentially absurd manner [using] some strange prop or costume, eg a horse’s head.) So that was obviously out – with a 5yo and a 2yo, it’s pretty much props and costumes whereever we go. No shake-up there. The suggestion on page 208 (Slow Return Travel: choose a faraway destination and […] return […] as slow as possible) has, similarly, become a bit too de rigeur around these parts. I began to see a new reason why so many previously-mobile parents feel no need to journey anywhere with their youngsters.

I still felt the pull, however, so I gave the book a third flip, which brought me to page 243: Voyage To The End Of The Line – which reminded me of our holiday to Tumpat, but on a smaller scale. Feeling thus inspired, I closed the book and sought out a dice, a small, clear, plastic container, a water bottle and umbrella, and two cashed-up ez-link cards, valid on all parts of the Singaporean public transport system. With that, the 5yo and I set off out the door to see where we’d end up.

Who went? Mum, one 5yo.

Hypothesis: That it’s not as necessary to worry about getting on the right bus as you might assume.

Apparatus: Stored-value public transport travelcard; water bottle; appropriate weather gear (hats/umbrella/etc); dice (in clear plastic container for ease of use; optional); emergency equipment (purse containing a small amount of cash, smart phone with public transport app/journey planner, local maps, phone number for taxi service, snacks recommended).

P utilises our dice navigation system.

P utilises our dice navigation system.


We started at a nearby shopping centre – and busy bus interchange – after completing a brief errand. Our plan was to roll the dice (inside the plastic container, to make things easier) to determine whether we’d catch the first bus that turned up or the fourth or what. Then, having boarded our randomly-chosen bus, we would roll again to see how many stops later to get off. We’d catch the next bus that turned up at our new stop, roll to see how many stops to ride for this time, and so forth, and just see where luck took us. Like daffodils on the breeze. Footloose and at the mercy of fate. Spirits flying free on the unpredictable winds. And so on.

Two shakes of the dice later, we found ourselves back at our front door. “Ok, new rules,” I said to P. He was a bit confused as to why it should be a problem to get home so efficiently, when I have spent so much energy on previous trips trying to achieve just that, but he played along. We decided simply to take a bus we’d never taken before, and get off when we felt like it. The first trip took us to the depot, where we swiftly changed on to a bus of P’s choice. We took that until he said he was tired of it, and alighted at what turned out to be an MRT station. “How do we get home?” he asked.

“Well, the easiest way would be to go into the MRT…” I started, but P cut me off. He wasn’t in the mood for the MRT. “Then I don’t know. I’ve never been here before. Why don’t you just pick a bus you like the look of?”

“Will it take us home?” he asked.

“It’ll take us somewhere,” I replied.

“We shouldn’t have done this,” P said, suddenly looking glum. “We’re lost.”

“We can’t be lost – we’re standing right next to an MRT station, and it’s even on the right line for our house.”

“But I don’t want to take the MRT.”

“And that’s fine – we don’t have to take the MRT. I’m just pointing out that there’s a big difference between not wanting to go a certain way, and not knowing any ways to go.” As P digested this nugget of traveller’s wisdom, an elderly gentleman standing behind him gave me a conspiratorial grin over his shoulder. On a whim, I decided to follow him when he boarded whatever bus he was planning to catch.

Following the crowd is a wrongly-maligned practice. As human beings, there is enough connecting us to give a statistically better chance of ending up somewhere good by blindly relying on others’ knowledge and judgement, when compared to following a totally uninformed guess of our own. It’s a particularly stark improvement over getting absolutely nowhere. The more data points you have to guide you the better, of course, but when actually clueless, a single, elderly gentleman with the right kind of conspiratorial smile will do.

The gentleman’s bus pulled into the stop, and we all boarded. “I’m hungry,” P complained, as the doors closed two stops down the road.

“I wish you’d told me that ten seconds ago. There’s a grocery store near here.”

“How do you know?”

“Because most of the people who just got on were carrying grocery bags. I bet it’s over there, on the ground floor of that set of HDB flats. HDBs often have shops on the ground level, and that one seems to have an awful lot of people walking around considering the number of apartments. They can’t all live there. Some of them are probably shoppers.” P looked at the receding flats. “These are the sorts of things you have to notice and think about when you’re travelling somewhere you’ve never been before,” I added. P mused silently.

“I’m still hungry,” he said, a couple of minutes later. But it was ok, because it turned out our elderly friend was heading for a big bus interchange where, by following a whole lot of other people, we quickly found a hawker centre.

Following a random elderly gentleman and a disorganised crowd led us to a satisfying char siew bao.

Following a random elderly gentleman and a disorganised crowd led us to a satisfying char siew bao.

As we ate, I noticed that P looked tired and the sun was getting low in the sky. “Let’s see if we can find any bus numbers we recognise,” I suggested, “and try to make our way home.” P scrutinised the board and found the number of a bus we sometimes catch from home.

“We’re travelling away from the sunset,” he observed as we pulled out of the interchange for the last leg of our journey.

“So what direction must we be headed?”

P thought about it. “Well, the sun sets in the west, so we must be going east. Unless we’re on Venus, which rotates in the opposite direction to Earth.”

“Still looks like good old Earth out there to me.”

“Yeah, and also, if we were on Venus it would be so hot we could cook an egg without an oven.”

“Then, logically, the odds are in favour of Earth. Is east the right direction?” We consulted google maps, found our position, and concluded that we were ok. “Looks like we’re on our way back home then, just as we wanted,” I said. “See? We made it.” P smiled, laid his head in my lap, and rested his eyes.

Heading east, unless we're on Venus.

Heading east, unless we’re on Venus.