Thursday, June 28, 2007

Fruit of the Month Club III-IV

This month there are actually two fruits of the month: snakefruit and passionfruit. Although they’re common in Singapore, we hadn’t actually seen them up close until we broke into the fruit basket in our room in Bali.

Snakefruit is appropriately named; the reddish outer peel is thin and papery, with a rough, scaly texture on the outside. The piles of peel really do look remarkably like a shed snakeskin. Inside, it’s less interesting - a white, slightly crunchy fruit similar to a lychee, though not as sweet and somehow not quite as refreshing. Oddly, the inside is always divided into one large part and two small parts, like a lychee with two cloves of garlic attached.

The passionfruit looked innocently like an orange or a mangosteen on the outside, but I could tell it was different from the smell, which was oddly familiar though I couldn’t place it - and why was I suddenly thinking of Bath and Body Works? Then I realized: half their products are scented with passionfruit. So, waiting to see what this glamorous fruit would look like, I watched Joey press through the peel and...

Eeuurrggh!!!! The entire inside consisted of a gelatinous, violently green substance I can only describe as goop. Which was filled with dozens of tiny, crunchy seeds. Joey poked it with a spoon, and it wobbled a bit, so he tried to scoop some out. He pulled it, it stretched, he tried again, and it slipped off the spoon and snapped back inside the peel. I called the friendly guy at the front desk: “Can you really eat this stuff?” He laughed and said yes, even the seeds. So we did. And, as long as we didn’t think too much about the gooey texture or the horrible crunching sound from all the seeds, it was pretty tasty.

But I think it will be a long, long time before I buy a passionfruit beauty product again.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Too Expensive...?

After the events of the past week, I have regretfully scratched “Balinese import/export tycoon” off my list of future careers.

Wandering through a stone-carving village in central Bali, watching all the artisans at work, we couldn’t resist picking up a couple of pieces - and then we realized they were so heavy we couldn’t pick them up. So much for putting them in our luggage! So we decided on cargo shipping (as in, on an actual ship). The distance is, after all, maybe 1 percent of the distance from Indonesia to the US, so we figured it would be relatively cheap.

Unfortunately, what I never calculated for was the haggling - or rather, the multiple hagglings, at each stage in our multinational transaction. First we negotiated for the carvings themselves. (In retrospect, that was the easy part.) Then we bargained over getting the carvings into a crate, then port-to-port freight, then getting the crate off the boat into a warehouse, then customs clearance, then home delivery and unpacking. That last one was the most painful - but we should’ve known that any mover in his right mind would jack up the price once he found out he’d essentially be hauling 400 pounds of rocks!

It was a pretty reasonable process, actually. But the hitch was - I might as well admit it - I am an abysmal haggler. Case in point: toward the end of our Bali trip, I was so tired (or maybe so relaxed) that I somehow managed to bargain the price up. (You try crunching numbers while vacationing in a soothing tropical paradise, and see how you fare!) It was so hard for me to be on my guard with the Balinese, who are kind and sweet and easy-going and completely readjust the numbers - turning a whole transaction on its head - without even blinking.

“One for 50,000 Rp,” said one gently smiling, elderly shopkeeper. “Buy more than one, and I give you better price!” So I offered two for 80,000 Rp total - not a very ambitious bargain, but a slight discount. “Oh, no,” she said, with a show of horror. “I lose money, then! I give you two at 70,000 Rp each. Good price for you.” No, no, I said, feeling that at last I was getting into the swing of things. 60,000 Rp each is my final offer. “Okay,” she said, “you happy, I’m happy,” and we were done.

It was only later, when I found myself forking over 120,000 Rp, that I realized she’d redirected the whole negotiation from “total” price to the price for “each.” So now, instead of one for 50,000 Rp, I was paying 60,000 Rp apiece.

My admirably patient Chinese tutor has been trying to break me of this unfortunate tendency. Just by looking at me, she could tell I was probably overpaying for every vegetable at the Chinese wet market. She was sure that, with the right phrases, she could teach me to haggle doggedly down to rock-bottom prices. So some of the first new Chinese I learned from her was, “Tai gui le!” (Pronounced Thai, gway, luh, it means, “Too expensive!”) And in the name of doing my homework, I have tried it a few times. So far, I’ve gotten it to work almost as effectively as when I say it in English. On the upside, now I can haggle badly in two languages. That’s progress!

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Hanging Gardens

When I’m not frustrated or discouraged or homesick (all natural parts of expat life, I suppose), I realize it’s the simple things in life that keep me going. Regardless of where I am, if the grass in my yard is growing and green and fuzzy - and the leftovers in my refrigerator are not - then what more could you ask for, really?

So I can appreciate living in a place where the plants grow, whether you help them or not. Here, I can pretend my spectacularly brown thumb is edging toward green; I accidentally kill a plant, and it magically resuscitates itself within a day or so. And the consistent year-round sun and humidity encourage rapid plant growth, so the surroundings always seem to be on the verge of becoming again the rain forest that once filled the island.

Taking advantage of this exuberant growth, Singapore’s government long ago decided to make Singapore a “city in a garden” - so in addition to some nice public gardens, a couple of mangrove swamps, and the patch of remaining rain forest, the city streets are lushly landscaped. Elaborate tropical flowers and stunning traveler’s palms burst from between buildings. Even the footbridges are swathed in colorful blooms:

The highways were the biggest surprise for me. After living in the northeastern US, I was used to the concrete tangles of overpasses and divided roads, with nary a plant in sight. So I’m always amazed, driving down Singapore’s ECP on my way into town.

I ease the car onto the green, shady highway beneath arching oak trees so thick I can barely see the sky. At the side of the road, perfectly shaped flowering shrubs of all colors flash by. To my left, I can look through the trees and catch the glint of sunlight on the water; the sea is just moments away. Then the road opens out for a sunny stretch lined by neat, Hollywood-like rows of huge palm trees that sway gently in the breeze. The median is filled with carefully tended tall plants flowering in reds, yellows, pinks, and deep purples.

As I move into the next shady stretch, where the oaks again arch gracefully over the road, I see a flashing road sign that must be unique to Singapore: “Slow. Plant Watering Ahead.” As I coast by, I smile at the sight of a huge water truck and a gardener directing what looks like a fire hose at the trembling shrubs.

My other favorite road sign is “Plant Pruning Ahead,” where I can expect to see a gardener calmly clipping away at the shrubs, as though he were working on a hedge in his own backyard - not on a shoulderless road next to cars passing by at 90 km/h. In this climate it’s not hard to imagine that, without the gardeners pushing them back, the plants would extend slowly into the roadways, covering the concrete and asphalt of civilization with verdant nature. It’s a nice change from the plants I remember, that needed far more skill than I had, and far more painstaking encouragement, to make it through the winter.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Dou Xia

As if I hadn’t had enough difficulty keeping up with the Malay, Bahasa, Mandarin, Cantonese, and various English pronunciations, recently I found myself face-to-face with someone who was speaking Hokkien to me.

It happened on my way out of a car park. The attendant leaned out of the kiosk window and mumbled something. Whuh? It took me awhile to realize he was asking for the car’s plate number. I don’t speak Hokkien. My parents speak Taiwanese, which is a similar dialect, but I’ve never been taught - I had enough trouble with Mandarin.

So reaching really deep into what little brain I have left, I uttered a garbled “Ji’ bwe xi’ zhap” - more from instinct than anything else. I half expected him to hand me paper to write it out, but he understood enough to type the number in and reply, “Gao koh.” So I handed him a ten and got one back as he lifted the barrier and said, “Dou xia” - many thanks.

The experience highlighted yet again the delightful mystery of language in Singapore. Sometimes when I step up to an unfamiliar hawker stall or hop into a taxi, I find myself playing a game of “old maid” with language. Let’s you speak Mandarin? No? Hmm...Let’s try the old standby: English? Not that either...Pity, I’m running out of options here. No, sorry, I still can’t understand you (is that Bahasa?). Why don’t we try charades? And so it goes.

Monday, June 4, 2007

Test Drive

Tuition. No, it doesn’t refer to the cost of college. For Singaporeans, tuition is the extra education that almost everyone attends after the regular school day is over. In those additional hours, they learn how to logic their way through tricky questions. They learn to memorize huge amounts of material in a short amount of time. And these were the people who assured us that, “if you study,” the Basic Theory driving test was “easy.”

So we did study, keeping in mind that 15 percent of test takers do fail and a 44/50 was a failing grade. The test actually wasn’t too difficult (though Jenn suffered acute “test anxiety” when she saw the touch-screen computers all arranged for the test), and we both passed. But I’m glad we studied; the Basic Theory test often requires you to choose the best answer, or the answer that is “most correct,” from a set of choices that all seem pretty good.

So, to celebrate our passing grades, here are some related questions we (now) know the answers to. Try them out, and let us know how many you got right!

1. This single jagged yellow line means
(a) no parking 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., except Sundays and holidays.
(b) no parking at any time, except for pickup and dropoff.
(c) no parking at any time, and no stopping for passengers.

2. Except on public holidays, bus lanes are restricted during the following times:
(a) Mon. to Fri., 7:30 to 9:30 a.m. and 4:30 to 7:00 p.m.
(b) Sat., 7:30 to 9:30 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.
(c) both (A) and (B).

3. ERP stands for
(a) Electronic Road Protocol.
(b) Electronic Road Policing.
(c) Electronic Road Pricing.

4. A sign that states “70 km/h” means you should
(a) maintain 70 km/h.
(b) not exceed 70 km/h.
(c) drive between 60 and 70 km/h.

5. When would a driver be allowed to turn at a red light?
(a) When finishing a right turn to clear a yellow-box junction.
(b) When making a left turn as traffic allows.
(c) Turning at a red light is never permitted.

6. You should park your vehicle at least this far from a bus stop:
(a) 6 m.
(b) 9 m.
(c) 12 m.

7. This sign means
(a) expressway ahead.
(b) bridge ahead.
(c) tunnel ahead.

8. This sign is a
(a) mandatory sign.
(b) prohibitive sign.
(c) restrictive sign.

9. This sign means
(a) one-way traffic ahead.
(b) proceed straight only.
(c) turn only as traffic permits.

10. Overtaking (passing) a bus at a bus stop, you should
(a) stop behind the bus and wait for passengers to alight.
(b) slow down and be ready to stop in case passengers cross the street.
(c) lightly tap your horn to notify the driver.

Bonus Question. To qualify for a driver’s license in Singapore, you must
(a) be 16 years of age or older.
(b) have 20-20 vision with or without corrective lenses.
(c) not be prone to attacks of giddiness.

Answers: 1. b 2. c 3. c 4. b 5. a 6. b 7. c 8. a 9. a 10. b Bonus. c