Thursday, May 31, 2007

Fruit of the Month Club II

Whoops! It’s almost June, so I have just enough time to slip in a fruit of the month for May (missing April was bad enough!). This month, we bring you: the rambutan.

This one, already half open, was given to us by the Thai fishermen who paddled our canoes in Phuket. The fruits can be found not just in Thailand but all across the region. We even had a young rambutan tree in our backyard when we moved in; unfortunately, before we got our first crop, our landlord discovered that the rambutan tree’s sweet, sticky sap is a magnet for bugs of all kinds and had the tree removed.

The inside of a rambutan is moist and refreshing, similar to a lychee. We still find the hairy outside intimidating, though. The fishermen could expertly pop them open with one hand, but we have yet to approach a rambutan on our own without a knife. (Would you?)

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

4 Things I Hate About Shopping

Shopaholics in the area have been salivating for weeks in anticipation of Singapore’s big June event: the annual Great Singapore Sale. According to the local paper, people set aside about $300 US per family member ($1200 US for a family of four!) just to shop the sale. Although I’m not much of a shopper, myself, I thought surely I’d catch some of the shopaholic spirit here. But it’s just not working for me. Why? Well, since you asked...

1. Expensive stuff. Coming from the US, I fell prey to the idea that “things are cheaper in Asia.” No doubt they are, in less developed areas like Indonesia and Vietnam. But here, while there’s a vast selection of merchandise, expect to pay for it accordingly. There are still deals to be had on textiles along Arab Street and knicknacks in Chinatown, if you can haggle like a local. But the majority of items - even electronics - are costly. It’s about status. It’s about quality. So, basically, it’s about a lot of dollars. Which does tend to make the Sale less exciting for me: I’m just not motivated to snap up those $400 chef’s knives, even if they are a fabulous Henckels set marked down from $550.

2. Lucky draws (raffles). As in most of Asian culture, “luck” is an integral part of everyday life here, and people tend to be very open about their pursuit of material gain. So I guess it’s natural that the idea of winning something for free is a national obsession. During the Sale, lucky draws are an even bigger attraction than actual discounts on merchandise. People will stand in line for hours at the mall for one of these “Spend $200 and have a chance to win this (fill in the blank).” As for me, once was enough: I’d actually gotten all the way through filling out my first lucky draw entry form when I realized the prize was me, in front of an audience, jumping around in one of those booths with flying dollar bills and grabbing as much as I could. Nope, not for me, never mind.

3. Huge crowds on evenings and weekends. Singapore to the tai tai (“wife” in Mandarin, but here more a society wife, or at least one not working full time) is a soothing and peaceful place. Parking is plentiful, the malls are never crowded, and there’s always a seat on the bus. But that’s because at least half the population is at the office. On evenings and weekends, Singapore morphs into Disney World in the middle of July: everywhere you look, long queues and teeming masses of sweaty parents trying to calm their cranky children. And, country mice that we are, we still forget to plan around the crowds. Case in point: last weekend we rashly decided to spend the evening browsing at the swanky malls of Orchard Road. Too late, it dawned on us that we’d hit a perfect storm: the first weekend of the school holidays and the first weekend of the Great Singapore Sale.

4. No online shopping. Some advice, should you wish to escape the crowds and browse from the comfort of your laptop: You can’t. It’s hopeless. Since online credit card purchases are almost unheard of, most businesses don’t bother selling online. And because of this, many don’t even have helpful websites that reflect the kinds of products they sell. There are maybe 6 or 7 million shops in Singapore, so I keep hoping to go online, look at websites with lots of pictures, and narrow the list to shops I actually want to visit. But as it turns out, the only real way is to go to all of them in person. How people have this much patience, I have no idea. But at least now I’ve figured out why they’re all so thin! Imagine the miles they must log. And, after all, if you don’t go in person, you miss out on the lucky draw! Which is motivation enough in itself.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Pirates of Phang Nga Bay

The island of Phuket is known for its resort-filled beaches and its nightlife, but we were looking instead for its quiet Thai peacefulness and spectacular nature, so we joined a canoe excursion to the phenomenal limestone caverns and wildlife-filled lagoons of Phang Nga Bay.

Phang Nga Bay is dotted with huge limestone islands, some of which have hidden lagoons, accessible only through caverns in the rock. Entering our first cave was an experience straight out of “Pirates of the Caribbean,” complete with the eerie tlop, tlop of the water dripping off the cavern walls and the squeaking of hordes of tiny bats.

After a short trip - through total darkness (the guides do the paddling here) - our path opened out onto a spectacular lagoon open to the sky. The towering limestone walls were covered with trees, ferns, and orchids, and everywhere we saw the colorful flash of kingfishers in flight. Looking up at the vertical forest surrounding us, we were tiny, floating intruders, tiptoeing quietly through the hugeness of this paradise.

Suddenly, there was a whoosh of wings as the air above us filled with a colony of flying foxes (huge, fruit-eating bats) who lived in the highest trees on the island. We could see the reddish glints of their fur as they soared high over the lagoon.

By the time we traveled to our next cave, the tide had risen, narrowing the openings of the caverns. The guides jokingly reassured us we’d be able to get out again, so we laid back in the canoes and slid through. Staring up at the low ceiling of the cavern, we were dazzled by the brightness: thousands upon thousands of oysters were gleaming in the dim light.

We could have stayed for hours in the lagoons. But the tides were still rising, so the guides carefully paddled out of the low cavern into the open water, and we looked back once more at the now seemingly impenetrable islands of Phang Nga Bay.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Bad Taxi Driver

Of course, Penang isn’t the only place where the “taxi driver” may be anything but. The other day, I was even surprised by a “taxi driver” in Singapore.

First, he had no idea where I was going. I was heading home, something I’ve done via taxi plenty of times without any complications. While we don’t live on a major street, the area is well known to many taxi drivers. But my driver had no clue where to go. He didn’t even know how to get to the expressway, two blocks from where he picked me up. I had to give him turn by turn directions until we finally arrived at my door.

I said, “I’d like to pay by NETS” (a debit card).

“No can,” said the driver, ignoring the enormous sign that said “NETS accepted.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Don’t know how...system.”

I tried another tack: “Okay, I have cash.”

“Total $18.50.”

“Here’s a $50 bill.”

“No can,” he said again.

“You don’t have enough to make change?” I asked, surprised. $50 bills are commonly used for amounts like these, as Singapore doesn’t have $20 bills (or at least, I’ve never seen one).

He shrugged his shoulders.

“Well,” I said, “your sign says I can also use a credit card, right?”

He thought about this. “Don’t know how...” And he gestured that I was welcome to try to use the system myself, if I knew how.

I tried to think of alternatives. “Do you even have $30 for change?”

“Sorry, can.”

At this point I’d spent more time trying to pay for the fare than it took me to get home. NETS and credit cards have almost always been accepted by taxis if they are marked. I’ve paid for scores of taxi rides by cash and have never encountered any problems. How is it that this guy had no idea how to get around, no change, and no idea how to process payments? All this despite driving a taxi that is part of the largest taxi fleet in Singapore – clearly, he was covering for someone else.

Not knowing what else to do, I gave up and had to call upon my loving wife to rescue me. “Jenn? Could you come outside? With your wallet? ... Oh. No, really, I’m not being robbed.”

Sunday, May 20, 2007

“Taxi Drivers” in Penang

“Taxi! Taxi!” The calls came from the crush of Penang taxi drivers, descending upon the pier to snag early-rising cruise-goers filing off the tender and blinking confusedly in the bright morning sunlight. Usually, as recognizable “tourists” in this part of Asia, we’d be prime targets. But we successfully pushed through the crowd of taxi drivers at the pier to walk a few blocks to our first stop of the day: Chinese clan houses built out over the sea.

We had been walking for so long that we were beginning to wonder, when a lone man walked up to us. “Do you need a taxi?” he asked. We explained that no, we were just trying to find the clan piers. Surprisingly, he gave us excellent walking directions, without even a hard sell on the taxi ride. So on our way back, when we saw him again, we took him up on his offer of a taxi ride downtown.

Unfortunately, we soon found out that his car had no resemblence to a taxi at all - not even a single marker that said “TAXI.” And we weren’t reassured when the first thing he did was pull into the nearest gas station to refill his completely empty tank. “Just a moment,” he said, smiling. “Sorry for the delay.” So we waited as he went to talk to the gas station attendant. Strangely, no money changed hands, but our driver soon returned and began filling the tank. He waved significantly at the attendant before we left.

An uneventful ride later, he dropped us off, pocketed his 10 baht, and drove happily away in the direction we had come from. “You know,” Joey said, thoughtfully, “from what I learned in Mumbai, I’d say he’s no taxi driver - just a guy with no money for gas. I’ll bet he just promised the station attendant that he’d be right back with 10 baht, just as soon as he got it from these tourists he was driving downtown.”

Having sworn off Penang “taxis,” as we later left a museum we found our way blocked by a trishaw driver determined to have our business - and, unfortunately for us, his buddy the museum guard, who backed him up. “But it’s a trishaw for one,” said Joey, pointing out the obvious flaw in this particular model. But the driver insisted I could sit in the seat, and Joey could perch on the seat back just in front of him. There was really no getting around it, so we settled on the lowest fee we could manage and gingerly arranged ourselves on the cart.

I’d asked the driver just to take us to the Eastern and Oriental Hotel (E&O), since it wasn’t too far and I’d figured there were no major roads on the way. But suddenly we wheeled into a two-way road with two lanes on each side. Our tiny trishaw was moving at maybe a quarter of the speed limit and weaving gently in the exact center of the road. But the cars didn’t seem to mind, and schoolchildren on the curbs waved happily at us, as if it were the most normal thing in the world to be creaking down a traffic-filled road while balancing precariously on a tiny cart. Our driver, getting quite a kick out of this, even managed to maneuver us over a speed bump without pitching Joey off onto the street.

And that was how we drove right up to the door of the E&O, sister of the Raffles Hotel, icon of refined British colonialism and decorum. The doormen, in perfectly pressed linen and proper pith helmets, were quite nice about it. But it took us a good half hour in the deserted bar (accompanied by at least a quart of fresh mango juice) to feel we were civilized enough to show our faces in the lobby again.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

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

A recent conference call, where people with American, Asian, and Australian accents attempted to make themselves understood, reminded me of an experience I had in Australia. After priding myself on understanding all the different accents of English, I was brought down to Earth by a simple Australian system called CityLink.

Central Melbourne doesn’t have any toll plazas. Instead, the city has a rather Singaporean solution. They record the license plates of all vehicles going into and out of the city. You then call into a hotline and pay your toll via credit card, after you’ve finished your driving for the day.

So after our first trip on the tollway, I called the hotline and selected the route I had taken. Everything was going just fine - until I had to supply the license plate number. The system preferred you to say the tag number instead of typing it in.

CityLink: Please say the license tag number.
Me: U, M, H, 1, 2, 6.
CityLink: You said, “U, N, J, 1, 2, 6.” Is this correct?
Me: No.

CityLink: Please say the license tag number. You can also use words starting with the letters.
Me (trying my best Australian accent): U, Mary, H, 1, 2, 6.
CityLink: You said, “U, A, E, 1, 2, 6.” Is this correct?
Me: No.

CityLink: Please say the license tag number.
Me (channeling Crocodile Dundee): U, Mum, ai-tch, 1, 2, 6.
CityLink: You said, “U, M, E, 1, 2, 6.” Is this correct?
Me: No!!

And on and on it went. Eventually, I gave up shouting at the system “in Australian” and resigned myself to pressing 0 to speak to humans, who promptly processed my toll. It occurred to me later that my “h” might have sounded very similar to the way Australians say “each.” It serves me right for trying to use a voice-automated system in Australia! I can only imagine what would happen if I tried this on a Singapore voice-automated system, but actually they don’t use those here at all. Now I think I know why.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Culture Shock: Cruising Southeast Asia

I have to say, living in Singapore considerably dampened our culture shock in the ports of Penang and Phuket. But what we didn’t expect was a bit of culture shock when we boarded the ship!

Our intrepid compatriots have already racked up weeks of independent travel to such exotic destinations as Cambodia, Laos, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam (like these two, just back from Hanoi). Being somewhat more timid, we decided a cruise would be an easier first foray into regional travel. We’ve taken two cruises off the eastern U.S. and enjoyed them (two narrow escapes from hurricanes nonwithstanding). So we figured, probably more of the same, with some new and interesting ports thrown in.

But once we looked into it, we couldn’t resist booking a cruise not on a Western cruise line but on a local Asian cruise line. We knew right off the bat that there would be some differences, at least in the food. The specialty restaurant on our last cruise was Johnny Rocket’s (burgers and milkshakes), but one on this ship was an Indian restaurant, certified halal for Muslim diners. (“The first Indian restaurant afloat!” they said, as if the others had sunk.) And once we boarded, we started to see differences even at breakfast: an Indian vegetarian dish, a stack of waffles, a vat of scrambled eggs, and a steamer of Chinese pork dumplings, all in a row on the buffet line.

Of course, the differences went beyond the food. Western ships, for one thing, don’t have “fabulous karaoke rooms” - or if they do, they don’t publicize them. And they’re not likely to have anything like the big highlight of our ship’s lobby: a two-story high statue of three horses covered in gold leaf - flanked, inexplicably, by a couple of Greco-Roman-style statues. It was far too gaudy to our Western eyes, but apparently it was an “auspicious” symbol to many Asians, who thought it a perfect photo op.

And whereas on Western ships, we’d just showed up at the scheduled time, on this cruise we had to make good use of our Singaporean training in early queueing (yes, we are now kiasu with the best of them - see if you are, too). Reserving space for the gala dinner at 3 p.m.? Best to queue by 2 p.m. Queues for the tender to shore open at noon, with first departures at 12:30? Better show up by 11, to queue for the queue! It’s not that there aren’t enough spaces for everyone. It’s just that everyone’s in the habit of showing up early - so you should, too.

The other main difference, and a bonus in our view, was the mix of people: noisily happy Indian families, fashionable Chinese Singaporeans, friendly Australian retirees out to see Asia for the first time. Even sitting in the audience during the evening shows, we noticed the variety; at a comedy magic show, for example, the different groups of people laughed at very different things. And I guess we did our part to contribute to the diversity. At dinner one night, they read out the numbers of passengers from each region, by passport. India: 500-something. China: 200-something. Singapore: 200-something. Australia: 100-something. Europe: 100-something. USA: 2.

Friday, May 4, 2007

The Price of Petrol

Now that we’re starting to drive around Singapore, our eyes are opened to all sorts of “car-related” necessities. For example, where do we park the car? Where do we wash the car? Which way do we drive the car? (And trust me: this last one is important. Almost all the parking is back-in only.)

What caught my eye today was the price of petrol: S$1.60/liter. At first glance, this looks normal, until you convert the units. Let’s see...there are 3.8 liters in a gallon. So that’s S$6.08/gallon. Converting Singapore dollars to US dollars gives $4.05/gallon.

That’s about 33% more than the $3/gallon that had me cringing in NJ - and that was with a tiny car which, naturally, got terrific gas mileage. No wonder there are so few SUVs here.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

The Spice(s) of Life

After we returned from our first visit to Singapore last fall, the first thing that struck us was how salty American food is (even Asian food in America). It’s not that food in Asia is tasteless - far from it! But instead of salt, the main flavoring could be any number of things: curries, chilies, or an array of complex spices might permeate a dish. And almost every dish is unique: you can even go to a wet market, find the curry guy, tell him what meat and vegetables you’re planning to cook that night, and he’ll whip you up a custom dried curry perfect for your meal. The sheer variety of tastes is unlike anything we experienced in the US.

And now that we’re here for the longer term, we’re taking full advantage of this culinary adventure. Thai food, in particular, has become a new addiction, especially for my better half. Although we frequented several nice Thai places back in the US, I have to admit that the food there seems a little anemic by comparison. Perhaps they never believed us when we asked them to dial up the spice, or perhaps it’s the inescapable advantage in Singapore of having Thailand itself practically next door.

Regardless, the Thai food here is unsurpassed. Take, for instance, A-Roy Thai - a small but highly recommended establishment tucked into a row of retail stores not far from us on the East Coast. We’ve tried quite a few green curries by now, but none compare with A-Roy’s. Every bite is rife with flavor, and the pungent spiciness of chilies enhances beyond imagination. The complex curry taste, the texture of the unusual Thai eggplants, and the aroma of the basil make it a memorable dish.

We’ve developed a sort of ritual when eating this kind of Thai food. There’s that first whiff of curries and chilies. A reverent spoonful of the mixture placed over the fluffy rice. A small bite of flavor that piques the interest of your taste buds. And then the spice starts to work its way through. Then that crucial sip of cold water (or for some serious cooling, Thai iced tea with milk). A deep breath. Then you’re ready for the second bite.

And so it goes for nearly an hour. Pretty soon, there’s a bit of perspiration on my head, even though the rest of me is quite cool. Given all the steps involved, it takes us forever to finish our small bowl of green curry - but it’s worth it.