I start my walk from the Seaford Railway Station, and Google tells me to take what seems to be a more straightforward route than the trail that I have loaded on my watch the night before. My feet takes me to a busy highway, and I trod along the unkempt, very much less-taken side path filled with stinging nettles that decide to make their presence felt from the beginning of my walk. Ouch. The drivers that pass me by are probably wondering what the heck I’m doing here, but there is no turning back until the next couple of kilometres where I converge with the original route that I have set. To my left is an open field with roaming cattle and sheep, to my right is a green landscape that resembles a high-definition wallpaper, and ahead of me is a straight road that leads to the Seven Sisters Country Park, welcoming me in the distance.
If getting lost looks like this all the time, I don’t mind it at all.
“Why ‘Be Brave’?” she asked, as we awaited for the intermission to pass. I had just handed in my dissertation, and coincidentally I was wearing the rock climbing club T-shirt, where at the back of it was a slogan of my choice. I thought for awhile before I answered, as if I had just come up with the phrase all over again – but the reason remained the same.
I turned to look at her and replied, “I can’t think of a more apt way of describing what being here has been all about. From coming here, picking up climbing, to moving forward and getting out of my shell – everything.
And maybe someone who sees this could use the message too.”
The entrance of the Country Park seems rather quiet and tranquil – there aren’t many cars parked and I could easily count the number of walkers with my ten fingers. The wide open field leaves me a little confused and excited at the same time – I have not hiked nor walked in places where there aren’t fixed paths laden with concrete or some kind of gravel. I follow the tiny arrow that says “South Downs Way” and this time, the trail shown on my watch. Within the first ten minutes I see a lake, and some quaint houses perched in the horizon. And rain. I feel droplets of water falling onto my arms, and they get heavier rather quickly – I put on my jacket, as the other hikers do the same, stuff my camera into my bag and continue on.
The weather forecast lied, it isn’t supposed to rain today. Bloody British weather.
“I booked a ticket for Seven Sisters tomorrow. Thought I’d go of a long hike and soak in some of UK’s nature and fresh air, and maybe do some soul-searching on the side,” I quipped with my fingers soaked in rice and curry, the best kind that you can find in east London.
“Soul-searching, really?” my friend asked with a skeptical smile, knowing I don’t believe in that at all. If one can’t find answers in 28 years of her life, 24 kilometres isn’t going to cut it.
“24km?! How long would that take you?” my friends asked as if I had just told them the most ridiculous thing.
“According to the site, it says about six hours at a leisure pace…? The trail takes me from Seaford to Eastbourne. It’s pretty straightforward it seems,” the payasam was such a good finish to the meal. I licked my fingers in satisfaction, before I continued.
“I just need some quiet, quality, me-time. Before everything else.”
The rain has begin to subside, and the soft rays of sunshine revealing my shadow from behind tells me that the sky is clearing too. I meet a fellow hiker, probably in his 60’s, coming from the opposite direction, and upon noticing my drenched jacket he cheerfully gives me a dose of encouragement, “The rain’s moving away, it’s only going to be really beautiful as you go along. Have a nice day!”
I thank him, and stop for awhile to remove my jacket. As one of my arms leave the sleeve, I pause at the sight of Cuckmere Haven that stands behind me. The sky is now blue, as oppose to the dreary grey 15 minutes ago. And the blue has somehow made the green landscape, greener. The contrast of the shorelines are so vivid that I realise I’m doing something I haven’t done for awhile – smiling to myself from ear to ear. I look at my watch: 6km in, another 18 to go.
This is going to be epic.
“I think you should find a place to stay as soon as you can,” her words cut through whatever that was left of my empty heart, as she sat there on the couch, stoic and calm. It had been a month since I came to the UK, and the plan was this was going to be my temporary home for the year. We were going to work things out, we were going to be friends and learn to live together. But at that time, we were nothing more than strangers.
“You invited me to stay, and now you’re asking me to move out?” my voice remained steady, although I was panicking inside. The semester had started and student accommodations at the uni had already been taken up. I had not prepared my finances in advance to pay for the crazy rental deposits in London like most of my scholar friends had. I remember sitting still in the uni chapel the next day for a good one hour – as if I could escape everything in that short moment.
“Be still, and know that I am God.” That was all I was reminded of. That was all I knew.
It was supposed to be enough. The following months would teach me that it always is.
I must have passed the fourth sister by now, I think to myself as I climbed the rather steep ascent, half-tempted to just roll back down for fun. And because my knees are feeling a little wobbly. About two hours of hike in and the Birling Gap and the Belle Tout Lighthouse can now be seen from afar. There are more people taking breaks by the cliffs now, unfolding their packed lunches and sharing with their partners and friends, while some, like me, have come here on our own. But there’s something comforting about being with nature that even though you’re alone, you’re never really lonely. Over the past few months, the rocks and mountains have become my friends. And the sea, oh the vast open sea! Like an old friend who awaits for you to jump in so the she can envelope her entire being around you, embracing you for all that you are.
I look back at the ascending slope that is taunting me to move forward. Allez!
“Slowly, step by step,” my dad would tell me during the rare times he brought me (or that I would agree to go with him) out on his daily hiking routine. That would often be met by heavy huffs and puffs and the constant need to stop to take a break.
“Ah Hor! Lu eh cha wa ah (Is this your daughter)?” one of his friends (also in her 60’s, probably) greeted us in Hokkien along the way. She was so light on her feet you would think she had a literal spring in her steps.
“Si lor, chua sin beh lai, bei chow eh (Yes, brought along a new mare, she’s a little slow),” he cheekily responded while ignoring my annoyed (and half-dead) stare.
My father was, and still is the fittest member of our family – and possibly also the most patient. He doesn’t ridicule our lack of stamina, but always encourages us at our own pace because all that matters is that we try.
I promise to be the same for my loved ones.
Slowly, step by step.
Finally, I’m at the Burling Gap! Seven (plus one) cliffs done, and it’s time for lunch. I walk ahead a little bit more, and notice an elderly woman sketching the beautiful view ahead.
“Hi there, that’s a really nice sketch,” I pay the due compliment. She looks up, smiles and thanks me, before I continued, “Mind if I sit here and have my lunch?”
“Of course not. Today’s a good day for good company,” she replies. I take out my sandwich and devour it while I watch her outline the coast with charcoal. I find out that she’s Joan from Southampton, and she has been an artist for the past 20 years. She hikes and walks all over England, and her reward is to put her wonder onto paper. When she’s done, she signs off her name at the back of the artwork and slowly packs her charcoal and crayon pieces into old cough drop tin boxes. I don’t know why but that puts a smile on my face.
“I’ve got to get going, I need to head to Eastbourne for my next piece.”
“Hey, I’m heading in that direction too! Maybe we’ll cross paths again.”
“If you do, give me a shout, love,” she flashes a smile and a wink before heading off in her pink jacket and navy blue hat.
“You, Wei Vern, have no sense of creativity at all. To you, a square is a square,” she said them straight to my 15-year old face. Did it hurt? Bruised my teenage ego. But she was right, most of my life until then, I had played by the rules. I never crossed the lines that were drawn, nor question the people that drew the line in the first place. I did well in school, and my logical brain had always rendered my creative side redundant. As long as I scored my A’s en route to a great university in the future, who needs freedom of expression or the freedom to be?
I had a choice to leave the program like many other kids did, or stay. The latter would prove to be one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life. I fell in love with art, song, and the ability to create. I fell in love with my little hometown with each story that I listened to when we were scattered across the inner city to interview the local people. I learned to accept that I will never be able to draw to save a life, but I can still create meaningful images behind a piece of lens.
In short, my cheese of rules and logic was uprooted, tossed, and melted into the art of storytelling. And along the way, I made some terrific, genuine friends for life.
On my way to Beachy Head, eager to see the famous lighthouse, a very endearing scene unfolds right in front of me and I know I have to take a photo of it. I transfer the still to my phone and slowly approach the old couple to show them the shot I have taken.
“Oh my, that’s a beautiful photo!” exclaims the wife in excitement, but her voice mellows right after. “Will it be too much work to ask for that photo?”
“Of course not. If you have an email address I can send it right over,” I tell her. Her smile comes back almost immediately, and she slowly dictates her email address to me.
“Done. That photo should be right in your inbox by now.”
The husband, Rich, stares longingly at the photo in my phone, before he breaks his silence, “It has been more than ten years since we have a photo together, Margaret,” he looks at his wife. My heart goes out to that comment and I ask them if they want a photo of them from the front.
He continues to stare at the photo, and shakes his head.
“No, my dear. This captures us for the past 48 years. This one is perfect.”
“I like how our hair is as white as the cliffs!” injected Margaret in glee.
I think of someone and send that photo alongside with the caption:
“Won’t it be nice to have someone to grow old with?”
“Modern dating is so f****ed up nowadays. Write a two-minute profile to sum up your 20+ years of self worth, hope that someone likes what they see, say hello, go on a couple dates, and let less than 48-hours worth of cyber-stalking and chemistry determine if you’re going to spend the rest of your life with that person,” my friend ranted after her Tinder date stood her up (which I stood in for). I nodded and sipped my drink quietly. I thought about another friend who encountered a boy in a bookstore the way we’d see in an old-fashioned movie plot, and how things did and did not develop after.
Communication, for my generation, is generally hard because we’re so used to hiding behind texts and screens. Once upon a time, we were taught to think before we speak so we do not offend nor talk out of spite – and now, we have the luxury of time to craft our words to make room for cryptic emojis, dishonesty or words left unsaid.
“I just wish people would just mean what they say and say what they mean,” she sighed.
Me too, my friend, me too.
I take a bus from Eastbourne (I did cross paths with Joan again on my way there) and I’m back in Brighton now. I walk along the familiar streets like I did last December, and recounted the last winter that was spent here. Back then, it was a time of healing and forgiveness. What followed is a journey of being lost, finding and being found. Again and again.
I think of the people I have met in the past year, and I am grateful that most of them are now an important part of my life, even beyond this London chapter. I have learned what it means to invest in relationships that matter, and the many forms of love. And most importantly, I have learned what it means to love myself.
I sit along the pebble beach a different person than I was nine months ago, but some things remain the same: the Brighton sunset never disappoints.