Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Ecolodge Experience

Last Sunday was Earth Day around the world, and it reminded me to post about an amazing and environmentally friendly place we stayed during our drive along the southern coast of Australia: the Great Ocean Ecolodge at the Cape Otway Centre for Conservation Ecology.

The electricity is from solar panels, the water from rainwater collection tanks, the irrigation from treated wastewater, the insulation largely from the passive-solar design. And all this is more than adequate to run a cozy lodge and a thriving wildlife rehabilitation center for orphaned or injured animals from the national park next door.

We arrived at the lodge just in time to join the daily guided dusk walk through the eucalyptus trees to see the wild koalas snoozing high in the branches. They weren’t very easy to spot from the ground...

...but it was worth it, as we found when we zoomed in for a closer look!

Twenty or so koala spottings later, we walked through a cool, damp fern gully to the edge of the forest. A kangaroo mob and a few swamp wallabies were grazing in the fading light. As we turned back toward the lodge, I was struck by how remote the place felt, and how quiet. That night was clear and perfect for stargazing. With no other lights around, we could see the whole Southern Hemisphere sky, filled to capacity with shining lights and huge swaths of the Milky Way. And while we watched, four shooting stars streaked across the sky.

The next morning, we joined one of the owners, a zoologist and marsupial expert, on her rounds caring for the animals at the Centre. I had just taken this photo when she surprised us by handing us each one of the bottles she was holding. So Joey fed the young kangaroo on the left, and I fed the little wallaby on the right.

Then we moved on to a small group of koalas, who were recovering from injuries from a brushfire a few months before. One of them, the oldest and sweetest of the group, was an unusual color; his outer, gray coat – a koala’s waterproofing for rain – had been burned off in the fire, leaving only the soft, red undercoat. So he will have a home at the Centre (and a place to duck into when it rains) until his gray topcoat regrows.

Last we went to a huge pen, right at the edge of the forest, for young kangaroos in their last stage of preparation for life in the wild. As we entered the pen, three heads perked up out of the tall grasses, and suddenly three chest-high kangaroos were bounding toward us, exactly like dogs excited for suppertime - but bigger, faster, and higher. We fed the joeys (with larger bottles this time), surreptitiously scratching their heads and running our fingers through their fuzzy fur. And afterward they happily followed us back to the gate to say good-bye.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Tax Day

And you thought you hated taxes...

It’s odd, but of all the US holidays we’ve spent in Singapore, the one we’ve been most cognizant of is Tax Day. We left Singapore just as the tax forms were being mailed out, and we were sure something would go wrong. But one thing after another actually went right. Change of address logged for all 1,458 tax-related accounts? Check. Forms received in Singapore, scanned, PDF’d, sent to CPA? Check. Draft of taxes received and scrutinized? Changes sent back via email on deadline, taking time zones into account? Check, check. We live in an amazing electronic world.

But then the accountant’s new assistant sent an email apologizing: somehow she’d already e-filed our taxes, with none of our changes - no new address, and no direct deposit information for refunds, which will now be sent by mail. And especially since we’re out of the country, everything is now in a bit of a pickle.

Usually, mail sent to our old address is forwarded to a US PO box and periodically couriered to us. But before we moved, our old post office told us they don’t forward government mail. Will they consider our refund checks “government mail”? It’s tough to find out; we can’t call them to clarify, because the new USPS phone system won’t let you get through to actual local staff.

So we had to try to change our address with the IRS - which is only available from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m., our time. When we finally got through, IRS said nothing doing, we have to personally mail them a form first, and we can’t send it overnight mail - but they need it really really soon. Then they suggested we call our old local post office and ask them to watch for the refund check. Obviously they have never tried this themselves.

And even if somehow the check is not lost or returned and does reach us, we’ll be muddling through paperwork in the confusing and fee-laden process of depositing US checks, because of course now they’re “overseas” checks which require huge amounts of paperwork and months to clear.

I suppose on the grand scale of things, it’s a minor inconvenience. But it’s so hard to juggle it all from the other side of the world. I like to believe we live in a global society - a small, navigable world - and sometimes I forget: we’re just not there yet.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Culture Shock: Melbourne

My first thoughts while walking into downtown Melbourne: Hey, a piece of trash on the ground! ... Is that group of people actually smoking on the sidewalk? ... This is utter chaos, people just crossing the street willy-nilly wherever and whenever they feel like it. Shouldn’t they be using the crosswalk? Clearly I’ve gone a bit soft in Singapore.

But in reality Melbourne is a wonderful city I wish I lived closer to, though perhaps not in, on account of the cost of living and the driving on the left, which is complicated by the tram lines in the center of the street. Melbourne is visually fascinating, with traditional forms of architecture (Gothic stone cathedrals, painted Victorian buildings) right next to spectacular modern wonders in glass and steel.

The central area is small and easily walkable but packed with interesting side streets and a different ambience on every block - galleries of indigenous art, riverfront nature walks, high-end fashion and tearooms, buskers doing magic tricks for gathering crowds, and all of it interspersed with friendly restaurants and pubs. Plus, among other things, it’s nice to be in a city where I don’t immediately stand out as a foreigner, so I can just sit back and observe.

I like to notice the little things, such as that the women, regardless of shape or size or personal style or lack thereof, are all wearing completely fabulous, super-pointy, dragon-lady shoes. Clearly they have their priorities straight. Lots of the men seem to be descended from the same ruddy, slightly snub-nosed outdoorsman with sandy blonde hair and roguish smile. And aside from that, the population is hugely diverse, with immigrant populations from all over the world.

Apparently, for example, there are more Greeks in Melbourne than in any other city except Athens. It’s completely impossible to eat Greek food in Singapore, and even in New Jersey it’s pretty much limited to the annual festival at the local Greek Orthodox church, so of course we jumped at the chance to try their food. Stalactites, a 24-hour Greek eatery with what looked like a “popcorn ceiling” gone horribly wrong (all in the name of themed decor), had phenomenal food matched by the festive atmosphere from the crowds packed into the tiny space.

Unlike Singapore, where shopping is the leisure activity of choice well into the night, Melbourne closes its stores around 6 p.m. so that everyone can go to dinner or hang out with the rest of Melbourne in one of the cozy pubs tucked into the laneways. This general spirit of cameraderie makes Melbourne seem like a small town. Strangers strike up long, friendly conversations with one another - and with me, despite my studied imitation-New-Yorker avoidance posture. I am an introvert among introverts, but even I inadvertently acquired a host of bosom buddies: the department store sales clerk who rang up my small purchase, a lady sitting alone in a tea room (as I was, since Joey was in two days of business meetings), and an elderly couple in my museum tour of Australian Impressionst painters.

Even from a distance, Melbourne is worth observing: the skyline along the calm, tiny Yarra River is spectacular in every direction. And the sky here during the daytime is that classic, deep blue - like September in the Northeast, but more brightly lit. It makes sense that I’m thinking of September, of course, because it’s Fall here. That's one of the greatest and most mind-boggling things about living and traveling in this area: temperature-wise, we moved from Winter to Summer in January, and now that we feel like it should be Spring, it’s still Summer where we live, but we’re on vacation in Autumn. Soon, though, it will all make sense: we will be heading back to Summer, and just a couple of weeks after that, we’ll feel in our bones that it should be Summer anyway, because it will be May.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Off the Map

Woo hoo! Time to clear the roads, and quick: we’re now tooling around Singapore in our new set of wheels, practicing driving on the left side of the road and pretending we know where we’re going. But we don’t, actually. In fact, we celebrated our inaugural day of driving by getting really, really lost.

Jenn: I took the car out for what I thought would be a quick trip to the grocery store, so that I’d get there and back long before the evening rush-hour traffic began. I did fine getting there (thinking left side of the road, left side of the road, stay in your lane), but somehow on the way back I missed my own exit in the tangle of expressways, all denoted by acronyms. PIE? TPE? ECP? And as I was wondering, I managed to slide past all my choices, and suddenly the only remaining lanes in the road said


Oops. But there was no way out, so only after a 20-minute white-knuckled tour around all three terminals did I finally manage to get back on the highway. Oh well, I thought, at least when people visit us, I’ll know how to pick them up at the airport! But by then it was uncomfortably close to rush hour, and I resolved to look more carefully at the exits on the way back. Couldn’t be the PIE or the TPE, right? Must be the ECP.

But as I drove down the ECP (thinking reach right for the blinker, not left - that’s the wipers), I still didn’t see my exit, and what I saw made me worry. A sign for Tanah Merah, then Bedok - I was heading straight into the city, and home was now somewhere behind me. There was nothing for it but to get off the highway, so suddenly I was in rush-hour traffic in local streets I barely knew (thinking when did this lane become a turn lane? and this lane? and this lane, too?). I passed Joey’s office; he’d already be on the bus home, though, because I’d told him I just didn’t think I’d be able to drive in to pick him up! Unsure where to go, I finally had a chance to dig out a street directory while waiting at a stoplight. But the light turned green, and all I’d seen was the cover.

Luckily, I eventually wandered onto a local street I knew. I was starting to breathe again when suddenly my phone buzzed in the seat next to me, and my heart skipped a beat: what now? At the next stoplight, I checked it: a text message from Joey.

Got lost am running late sorry

I started to laugh. Lost? How could he get lost on a bus? I was the lost one!

Joey: While that drama was unfolding, I had in fact gotten myself lost on a bus. Mind you, I've commmuted on my two-bus route at least 70 times already. But this time, I decided to take a new, more scenic route for my first leg, before catching my usual homeward #2 bus, albeit at a different stop.

I felt full of confidence as I stepped off the first bus at the correct stop, ready to transfer for an easy trip home. But then self-doubt set in: “Wait. Which direction will get me home? The same as the bus I just got off? Or the opposite direction?” Somehow, I felt sure it was the opposite direction, so I walked up to the intersection, crossed the road, and walked to the bus stop. I got there just as the #2 pulled up. Perfect!

Then I noticed that the MRT subway line, which is always above ground in the suburbs, had mysteriously disappeared underground. And as the sun kept shining in my eyes, I realized...I’m heading west into the city, away from home! Yes, I had picked up the bus on the wrong side of the road.

I gave up. I got off the bus at the next stop, sent Jenn a text message, and hailed a cab. I arrived home just in time to see Jenn park the car at the curb.

Saturday, April 7, 2007

6 Things I Hate About Singapore

The blog has been waxing poetic of late. On the flip side, here are some things that periodically make me want to pack my bags and grab my passport:

1. Milk. When we visited Singapore, people asked me, “Is there anything you’re worried about not being able to find?” And everything I thought of, I’ve found here - or can have someone send me. Except for milk that tastes like...well, American milk. I drink milk the way Southerners drink sweet tea, so this is a considerable problem. I don’t know what they feed the cows in Indonesia and Australia; it must be some strange stuff. And even when I find a brand that tastes okay, I have to drink whole milk. “Lowfat” milk doesn’t exist here; in its place is an appalling gooey substance called “Hi-Lo” milk, which is essentially skim milk with various “milk solids” added to bulk up the texture and add calcium. They don’t even try to call it milk - it’s a “milk drink.”

2. Dodgy home air-conditioning. Singapore’s public buildings are thoroughly, reliably, even arctically air-conditioned. But rather than pay for aircon at home, people tend to suffer through the heat, so home air-conditioning systems are far behind the technology used in malls and offices. Ours is comparatively state-of-the-art, but it’s still a temperamental system of eight interconnected units, any of which can (and frequently do) start flashing and kill the whole system at any moment.

3. Rude people. People who leave their extra sacks of garbage in my yard by my garbage can. People who back out of a driveway across the street and smash into my garbage can so hard it’s hurled across the lawn and then roar off, leaving it lying there. People who park right in front of our gate so we can’t get into or out of our home. People who “chope” (save) food-center tables for family members who won’t be showing up for an hour - and who refuse to allow us to sit, even when we promise to eat and leave within 15 minutes. People who leave the entire family’s freshly washed tennis shoes out to dry on our garden wall.

4. Loud motorcycles. Singapore has noise laws that prevent anyone from selling motorcycles fitted with engines big enough that they sound like jet planes. But that doesn’t stop motorcycle repair shops from refitting the bikes with bigger engines.

5. The 10-minute radius. Many “city” people, though not at all rude (see point 3), are politely aghast at where we live. We live less than 30 minutes’ drive away from even the far side of the city, but I’ve seen at least one person’s jaw literally drop when we told them how far east we live. It’s true that you can get everywhere in the city in less than 10 minutes, but 25 is still worth a visit!...Right?

6. Workmen who don’t speak English. I’d sympathize if we had moved to China or Malaysia or Indonesia or something. But we’re in Singapore, where - as we’re constantly being told - “Everyone speaks English. It’s so easy to communicate!” We’ve mostly adjusted to the Singlish; at least it’s decipherable, even if you have to listen a little harder. But unfortunately the people I really need to speak any kind of English - repairmen, landscapers, the guy connecting the phone - do not. “Do you speak Chinese?” asked the head lawn guy, as I tried to explain a problem. And I do, a little bit: I can say hello, offer you something to drink, tell you I’m hungry. But I just don’t have the vocabulary to say, “How can I stop the caterpillars from eating my mango tree without killing them, thus cutting off my future supply of lovely butterflies?” Mang guo (the word for “mango,” go figure) is about as far as I can get.


Edit: See this more recent post for some thoughts on the comments below.

Monday, April 2, 2007

To-may-to, To-mah-to...

I come from an Asian community where “he” and “she” were used interchangeably. I grew up in Texas where a “payette” is a nice, domesticated furry animal. I went to college where “wicked weeid” refers to something strange. I lived in a place in New Jersey where “Nwok” was one of the closest airports.

All this leaves me somehow with a rather flat accent, but some ability in deciphering different pronunciations of words and unusual turns of phrase. At times I even successfully understand Singlish accents and grammar: I make a rough guess of what the American English word might be, and then back-translatie it through my feeble command of Chinese to confirm. But it’s not just the pronunciation; it’s the actual vocabulary that confounds me at times:

Self service - please don’t help yourself like you might when adding gas (petrol) to your car in the US (except in that state where one goes “down the shore”). Self service means they’ll get the grub and hand it to you, but you have to bring it back to your own seat - as opposed to actual service from waiters.

Top up - essentially the same meaning as top off (as in a drink), but used primarily for cards (cash cards, phone cards, transit cards).

Free flow - free refills, which are a rarity, as most drinks aren't topped up for free. Used for almost any food type item: bread, rice, sodas, and most commonly for alcohol (in which case it will add at least S$100 to your bill).

Carrot cake - yeah, I thought this might be sweet, too. Actually, carrot cake is a savory mixture of flour and daikon (“carrot” can also refer to daikon - white radish) fried with eggs and onions.

Steamboat - I thought these were only found cruising on the Mississippi. Here it’s basically a small huo guo, or a “hot pot” of boiling water or broth filled with fresh vegetables, meats, and tofu.

There are many others, I'm sure...but that’s for another post, another time.