Saturday, March 31, 2007

March Madness

As I sat in a conference room the other day, I noticed how much people were caught up in the tournament taking place in the Western Hemisphere. How some favored teams had made early round exits. How some expected great players didn’t deliver. How huge the official and unofficial worldwide betting pool must be.

March Madness? Definitely.

NCAA basketball?’s the Cricket World Cup.

Duke left the party did India.
The Gators are playing well as are South Africa and the Aussies.
Will the Gators repeat? Will Australia repeat?

While much of the US population is staying up late to watch hoops across the nation, much of the Eastern Hemisphere’s population is staying up late to watch hard-fought international cricket matches unfold in the West Indies.

And while apparently it’s virtually impossible to get a cricket feed on US television, ESPN in Singapore carries quite a number of the US events. Which means I’m getting a little bit of everything. And because I’m not a big sports junkie, all of this is just overwhelming. Imagine twice the March Madness, still all in one month.

Plus, it’s rendered me useless for comments on any particular play, in either sport. To all the basketball terms I know, I’ve had to add a host of cricket terms, all enormously confusing. Wickets, Stumps, Bowls, Overs, LBW (Leg Before Wicket). Of course, I don’t know that Flagrant Foul, Traveling, Double-Double, Post, and Pick’n’Roll are that much more intuitive either...

So I have to be careful not to let it all run together in my head: “Gators over Aussies at the Swamp in the Outback!” Erm...yeah. Something like that.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Jazz Night at Harry's

On Friday night we find ourselves at Boat Quay (sounds like “key” - we’re all very British here), a row of at least fifty amazing restaurants and bars right on the river with a killer skyline view. Walking past restaurants at Boat Quay is actually something of a hazard, as “touting” is allowed: people appear seemingly out of nowhere and demand that you stop in your tracks and turn in to their restaurant for dinner or drinks.

It’s a strange dichotomy: On the one hand, you’re walking arm-in-arm with your significant other, gazing at gorgeously lit-up skyscrapers, colonial-style hotels, the strings of lights that decorate the refurbished junks taking tourists up and down the waterway. On the other hand, you’re also trying to ignore the tout following just behind you and rattling off, “Table-for-two-right-by-the-water-nice-live-jumbo-chili-crabs-just-for-you-prawn-noodle-soup-also-very-nice-just-in-time-for-drinks-special-tonight.”

But tonight we dodge the touts and press on, because we are here to see the fabulous Mandy Gaines singing jazz at Harry’s Bar. Of the many “small-world” stories we’ve heard since coming to Singapore, Mandy is our favorite. Awhile ago, visiting my aunt and uncle, we heard an amazing CD and asked who was singing. Turns out she was a friend of theirs from years ago, when they were all in the Midwest. Later, they headed south and she headed west, very west, across the Pacific, where she has been making a name for herself in Asia. “That’s too bad,” we said. “We’d have loved to hear her live!”

And sure enough, now we can: our first two months here coincide with Mandy’s annual return to Singapore. So as we sidle into Harry’s in search of a table, Mandy is singing the final, liquid notes of “The Way You Look Tonight,” and I sigh in appreciation of something comforting and familiar. Harry’s seems familiar, too, although we’ve never been here before; it’s the kind of comfortable, unpretentious space that reminds me of coffee shops we frequented in college, except for the humidity seeping in.

Most people seem to be here for the music, more than the drinks. Groups of chatting coworkers lapse into stunned silence, then cheers, as Mandy effortlessly scats through “Bye-Bye Blackbird.” A Singaporean couple swing dances in the open space (“My dancers are back!” Mandy says into the microphone, so they must be regulars). An elderly Englishman, alone, silently leans against the bar, listening intently to every note. An Australian trio, led by a beefy guy who is probably an ex-rugby player, gets a little rowdy and starts to ignore the music, but Mandy flounces off the stage and sings “Ain’t Misbehavin’” to him so flamboyantly that they laugh, and clap, and are Mandy’s biggest fans for the rest of the night.

We have been marveling at the energy Mandy must have to travel to a new place every couple of months and give an all-out performance like this every night. But what strikes us even more, when we get a chance to talk to her between sets, is how grounded she is: a seasoned traveler so comfortable in new places - and so comfortable with who she is - that she can take her own personal and musical style and bring it to a region with a decidedly different style. And make them love it.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Fruit of the Month Club I

We picked this fellow at the local grocer. The green fingers are pliable, and the pink part is firm to the touch, but not hard like a rind. Any ideas of what this might be?

1) Rambutan
2) Red kiwi
3) Dragon fruit
4) Passion fruit
5) Lychee

Okay, so you might have known that was dragon fruit. But what does it look like inside?

1) Pink, like a watermelon
2) White, with black flecks like a kiwi
3) Yellow, and firm like a mango
4) Green, and pale like a honeydew

Stop to guess, now...

no peeking ahead...

So there you are folks. Bright white, in total contrast to the exotic pink. Tastes kind of like kiwi to me, though not as sweet – which is kind of a let down. But it sure looks cool!

Sunday, March 18, 2007


Back from a grueling grocery-shopping trip (on the weekend, against my better judgment), I am putting the eggs in the refrigerator when I see it. On our beautiful granite floor is a slimy, gray, cigar-shaped, hairy wad of goop: the tell-tale sign of feline nausea gone awry. “No!” I say, stupidly, and the flimsy egg carton slips out of my hand, sending a raw egg crashing to the kitchen floor.

Ignoring the egg, I move in for a closer look at the offending gray object. Yes, the size and shape of a (very large) cat’s esophagus. A hairball for sure. Muttering under my breath, I head to the kitchen for paper towels and nearly crash into Joey, who’s already quietly mopping my splattered egg off the floor. “Two brushings a day, then,” he says grimly.

But there’s nothing we can do about what’s happened already. Even after the floor is clean, the dampness is dark on the granite. It won’t dry out for days - a dark, hairball-shaped badge of our failure as kitty owners.

It’s amazing the cat has done as well as he has, really. One rainy January morning, for no reason apparent to him, he was coaxed into a travel crate, whisked off by strangers, driven several hours to an airport vet, given various shots and tests, repacked into the crate, and then - thinking the worst was over - unceremoniously loaded onto a plane and flown off to Amsterdam.

In wintry Amsterdam, he was (we hear) unloaded from the plane, given a roomy kennel to rest in, and loaded onto the plane for a long flight to Singapore. He was unloaded in tropical temperatures, taken through customs, given the obligatory rabies shot (although he’d had one in August), and transferred to quarantine. A week later, we arrived, and we began to visit him two or three times a week. And one day, inexplicably, he was put in his travel crate again and whisked off to a place he’d never seen, with entirely different furniture, that we assured him was “home.”

He sniffed everything suspiciously for days. And a few weeks later, just when he’d gotten used to it, that set of furniture disappeared, and movers arrived with a giant sea container and unloaded furniture that vaguely reminded him of...something...what was it? It looked like home, but it smelled like boxes and cardboard and crates and movers.

It’s been a few days since our sea shipment arrived, and I think he’s finally starting to settle in. He’s stopped bathing too much out of nerves (so hopefully we’ve seen the last of the hairballs), and he spends his days sleeping on his favorite chair. He follows Joey through the house in the evenings and curls up tight next to me at night. Even in the chaos, I think he was relieved to find us at the end of his journey. We put him through quite a lot to get here - it wasn’t easy for us, either - but somehow I think he’d agree that it’s better than two years without us.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Are You From Around Here?

In the US, immigration has come in and out of popularity as a hot political topic. My parents are US immigrants, and I’ve known international students who immigrated to the US. But I’ve never personally experienced it before. And although I know there is a difference between a citizen and a resident, I’ll admit to being ignorant to the practicalities - aside from voting. So coming to Singapore has given me a taste of that nuance.

If you are a citizen, you can open a bank account, sign up for a cell phone, and obtain a driver’s license, provided you have money and proof of address. As a resident, all those things apply, but you also require a personal recommendation of character in addition to your passport and green card. There’s an extra step or two in the process. And then, depending on the type of resident you may be, you might not be allowed to have any of those things after all. So you can live in the country, but you can’t do anything there.

It made me realize that while people can be unbiased, societies by definition are not. An individual can be open minded, but for society, the first and most fundamental question often is, “Are you one of us?”

If affirmative, just casually flash the ID card and you’re done. If negative...well, step over here sir, and let me ask about your passport, NRIC numbers, marriage license, recommendation of character, home address - not here, but where you’re from - why you are here, what you have on your person, etc.

It makes me appreciate the boldness and perseverance of those trying to establish themselves in a new country - not only expats but especially those in for the long haul.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Losing Money in Mumbai

I did get swindled out of $1 US in Mumbai.

I am flying back to relatively wealthy Singapore, and I am fortunate enough to be flying business class, which means I have a valuable ticket to the airport lounge. This makes me a prime target. And though I am on the lookout, I let my guard drop as I’m looking for the lounge. The airport at Mumbai is not tourist friendly. Yes, things are marked, but very few areas are marked correctly. A very helpful man next to a free-standing sign that says “Business Lounge” comes up to me to offer help. He’s dressed in an outfit that looks exactly like those at the check-in counter - nicely pressed jacket, dress shoes, slacks. He has a badge. His English is quite good. He asks to see my lounge ticket (standard procedure), but the moment I hand it to him, I know something is amiss. There’s no lounge in sight.

He nods to his right and we amble through the airport “toward the lounge.” Suspicious, I ask to see my lounge ticket again, and he reluctantly brings it back for my inspection. There is the briefest tug of war, which I lose. Finally, he says, “Sir, can you do me a favor? Would you mind changing this Singapore $2 bill for rupees?”

I consider the proposition. If I can get my lounge ticket back, sure. But the last thing I want is to carry what I assume is counterfeit money into Singapore. So I reply, “Why don’t I give you $1 US, and you give me back my lounge ticket?”

He thinks about it, acquiesces, and I continue my search for the business lounge alone. I picture him walking back, picking up his sign, and setting up for the next passer-by. I am $1 US poorer, but oddly enough, I feel guilty for having the money to do this, while he has to swindle people for his.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Culture Shock: Mumbai

“Ladies and gentleman, in accordance with the Indian government, we will be applying a health spray just before the aircraft lands in Mumbai. Please remain in your seats.”

Eh? “Health spray”? They’re gassing us before we enter the country? I haven’t even landed, and already Mumbai is a very different experience. (Later, I heard the spray was a holdover from the days of the SARS outbreak. I never found out what they put in it.)

I have steeled myself for a crush of humanity. When I arrive, it’s not more crowded than Singapore or even New York, during peak hours. But I quickly find out that it’s always “peak hour” in Mumbai. If you need a breather, you’re out of luck. The crowd itself isn’t bothersome at any given time, but after three days I want to come up for air. I wonder if people ever get comfortable with perpetual rush hour, 21 hours a day.

I have readied myself to suffer from gastrointestinal difficulties. Every time I mentioned my upcoming trip to someone in Singapore, the reaction was the same: “You’ll get sick! Be careful!” So while I am sampling wonderful Indian food at high-end restaurants, I take far more precautions than I would at an outdoor Singaporean hawker center. I don’t drink the water. I even remember to avoid the ice. I apply the 30-second hand-washing rule at least five times a day. Still, I count myself lucky: I do not get sick.

I have been expecting to see extreme poverty, so it does not surprise me. Instead, I am shocked by the extreme poverty and ridiculous opulence standing side by side. I walk by a lavishly designed hotel, then see the slum just next door: the nearest tent - housing a whole family - is attached to one of the hotel walls. Walking down the street, I am likely to pass someone who earns no rupees a day, then someone earning 100 rupees a day ($2 US), then someone earning 2 lakh (200,000 rupees, or $400 US) a day.

My biggest - and least expected - culture shock happens when I return to Changi airport in Singapore. When we first flew into Singapore from the US, I thought the airport was very nice but rather ordinary. Arriving from Mumbai, I can’t stop thinking, “Wow. Everything is so clean!” It takes me at least three days to get over how clean it is in Singapore.

Thursday, March 8, 2007


The blog recently has been a little short on pictures, so for your viewing pleasure I present some examples of one of Singapore’s signature elements: Really Big Critters. I’m underwhelmed by the insects here - the Florida cockroaches would eat them for lunch - but the other garden creatures are alarmingly huge.

This snail’s shell was literally the size of my fist: to put things in perspective, that’s our garbage-can lid he’s moving across. Imagine coming across that when you’re sleepily throwing out your trash just before bedtime!

Joey came rushing in: “There’s a snail out there!” I said, “So?” He said, “A BIG snail.” Which, in retrospect, was an understatement. We couldn’t resist taking a picture but figured the flash would scare the living daylights out of him.

The next morning, he was gone (the big ones move faster than you’d think!), but we found this lizard. Looks like nothing special, until you realize those are six-inch tiles he’s sitting on.

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Sumatra Earthquake

I might as well preempt the emails...

Yes, there was an earthquake in Sumatra today, and it could be felt to a limited extent in Singapore. Joey felt a slight tremor at work. I did not actually feel anything, so I didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary - until I went upstairs and found that the cat had managed to squash his enormous bulk into a very high, very tiny pedestal-sink basin. Which is highly unusual - I’d have thought it was impossible until today. Guess he was trying to get as far away from the ground as possible.

Monday, March 5, 2007

Singapourin' Rain

My beloved is right: rain in Singapore is beautiful and refreshing, well worth watching from a dry, comfy spot. Aside from the aesthetically pleasing aspects, though, rain has a somewhat different effect on practical Singaporean life - as I learned on my way home from work.

It started to pour just as I left the office. You’d think it had never rained before in Singapore. Suddenly, all public-transportation bets were off, stranding commuters all over the city. For starters, no taxis. Couldn't hail one, couldn't book one. Literally every single taxi was hired. For a while, I stood on the street with everyone else, trying to hail a taxi and slowly taking on the appearance of a drowned rat. After watching taxi after taxi speed by with some DRY happy passenger, I tried booking one over the phone. Normally, for a small fee, this method puts a taxi at your doorstep in ten minutes flat. But the central line was busy - too many other people trying to get through.

If I can't get a taxi, my other option is to walk a few blocks to the bus stop. It’s easy enough in good weather. But when it’s raining, I know I’m in for another round of the oft-maligned Singapore Shuffle. Even in sunny weather, this affliction strikes many of the most able-bodied and ambitious Singaporeans. People stroll along at a pace that would make a New Yorker scream with impatience. Usually, the excuses involve staying cool in the heat or being distracted by constant text messaging. But even the most purposefully striding pedestrian can hobbled by the rain.

It has everything to do with glazed tile. Pedestrian bridges over busy intersections, walking lanes right outside shops, central courts in malls or corporate parks - all are beautifully adorned with tile. It’s nice to look at. But those nice, wide walking areas become ice-skating rinks without rails in the rain. While in my sturdy Rockports, walking at a normal pace, I've come close to a double-axel - without the pretty landing. So now when it rains, I move like a tree sloth, but I'm still standing on my own two feet. Next on my shopping list? Galoshes.

Sunday, March 4, 2007

A Different Melting Pot

We’ve heard since grade school that the United States is a giant melting pot of cultures. But Singapore, as an international port and hub for all of Asia, is also a pretty intense mix. The guest list from a local get-together I attended this weekend was illuminating:

    Our hosts - an Englishman who loves Chinese food and his Chinese wife, who prefers her steak and potatoes

    A Singaporean of Chinese-Malay-Portuguese-Indian heritage, her Swiss husband, and their Canadian-born son

    An Indonesian woman who grew up on the coast of a small island, diving among the coral reefs until the dredging and construction of a string of new beach resorts turned the reefs bare and white

    A Spanish man and an Israeli woman who had come to Singapore by way of Philadelphia

    A radiantly pregnant Thai woman who lives in a luxurious penthouse, but who wistfully expressed hope that her husband would someday travel less than 70 percent of the time

    A woman from Denmark and her Norwegian husband, who had both tired of the cold in their homelands

    An Indian woman who runs three hugely popular restaurants (only one of them Indian)

    An American from Iowa and the Australian she moved across the world to marry 40 years ago

    A Malaysian woman who prefers living in Singapore because the food is “so much less spicy”
And then of course there was the Irish-American, whose Chinese-American spouse was traveling at the time.