All eyes, and ears


  • Lifestyle
  • Sunday, 03 Oct 2010

People watching, especially when travelling, offers insights that are worth sweating for.

THE joys of travelling are many – food, localities and culture. Along the way, the arts, entertainment and lifestyles of your chosen destination also become a welcome distraction. Armed with to-do and to-see lists, learning about the place one is visiting is never an easy task.

Unfortunately, with constant time constraints, the pressure to take in all piles up. Which could be a chore, when unwittingly you miss out on the simple joy of just sitting and watching the world go by. A world filled with people.

Watching people is not only a pleasurable activity, it costs nothing and offers an insight into human nature and its origins. Accompanied by a bracing cup of coffee or a chilled wine, it must surely be the best way to get to know a place. Whether they are denizens of the said city or fellow travellers caught in the same place at the same time, people watching has to be the most interesting part of travelling.

In Malacca last weekend, scores of people (must have been Malaysians and in-the-know Singaporeans) were queueing up to satisfy their craving for the city’s famous chicken rice balls.

The old coffee shop is in a tiny, rundown corner lot, stuck in a time warp of its own. A gatekeeper, in his ubiquitous white Pagoda T-shirt, shorts and flip-flops, would let people in only when seats became available.

You hardly had any choice in the meal, drinks or seating, yet the searing sun and the long wait did not keep people away. Even the drizzle that soon followed only brought forth a burst of colourful umbrellas and frantic phone calls. But everyone resolutely stayed in line.

Then there were the two fellow passengers who flew into a rage on a late-night flight from Doha. It began when the person seated in front of the other passenger reclined his seat to the limit.

Their ensuing exchange, though slightly nasty, was conducted in two different tongues, with intonations and mannerisms standing in for swear words. It was better than watching The Bounty Hunter, though luckily both men cooled down quickly and there was no untoward incident. The diversion also offered a quick study of human nature in an enclosed space.

Or, take the grizzly Italian oil man in a plush Middle Eastern hotel. Sticking to his well-honed taste buds in the ground floor Italian restaurant, he summoned the chef for a quick discussion before deciding on his meal.

He asked for only the best in Italian mineral water, plus something interesting that was not on the menu. Meanwhile, his joke about the lack of wine during the month of Ramadan flies over the head of the waiter.

Then, while elegantly demolishing his wood-fired pizza, he sent another timid waiter scuttling. “No mozzarella with pizza,” was the crime.

People watching, of course, is not a new recreational activity. In common with European cafe culture, our very own mamak stalls feed this habit and our sense of humour (when we have it!).

This act of deliberately observing people and their interactions, although done without their knowledge, affords great insights. Not only into human nature, but also into informing ourselves about lifestyles, history and origins.

A quick surf on the Internet shows that this is beginning to take off as a hobby, with people allocating time and effort, plus notebook and coffee, to recording these observations. Some sites even offer tips on how to begin people watching, with advice ranging from conducive locations to body language – as well as speech patterns, if you are keen on eavesdropping, too.

However, as we “progress” and have less time, more apps and an increasing inability to do nothing, this very useful pastime has taken a back seat to other pursuits.

Yet people watching involves a choice of who to watch and leaves a lasting travel memory. And that’s what adds to the joy of travelling, no matter where you go or who you watch. And you never know who’s watching you.

People, places and perceptions inspire writer Jacqueline Pereira. In this column, she rummages through cultural differences and revels in discovering similarities.

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