Wednesday, December 31, 2008

On the Island of Borneo

We couldn’t finish out the year without including a posting about the island of Borneo, which we visited in September. Borneo is one of those places you hear about but never expect to see; it sounded far away to us, too, until we got our car in Singapore and the dealer’s license plate said “Borneo Motors.” Turns out that Borneo is only a couple of hours’ flight away, even if you’re visiting (as we were) the far side, the Malaysian state of Sabah.

Sabah is a strange and fragile place, in which the truly exotic rain-forest flora and fauna are forcibly intermingled with the ever-encroaching roads and palm-oil plantations. The great rain forests of northeastern Borneo have been squeezed up against the muddy Kinabatangan River until only two narrow strips are left. This means you can see a lot of wildlife from the river, since their only habitat is right up against the banks, but there’s an overwhelming feeling (perfectly captured by this article in a recent National Geographic) that the days of this precarious paradise are numbered.

Just beyond the rain forest’s edge, the neat rows of lush green palms look beautiful (and environmentally sound, as the oil they supply often goes into American and European biofuels). But the impact on Borneo’s plants and animals is inescapable. Spend some time watching the monkeys and orangutans swing (or even jump) powerfully through the rainforest foliage, and you begin to understand: with the rows of palm trees, there’s nothing to grab; the monkeys are reduced to crawling slowly along the ground.

We couldn’t visit Borneo without seeing part of the Gomantong Caves we’d seen on Planet Earth, replete with swarms of bats, skittering cockroaches, swallowtails, and workers climbing a hundred feet high on flimsy ladders to harvest empty birds’ nests for soup. David Attenborough never mentioned the happy and enthusiastic stray dogs that serve as self-appointed tour guides, though. They love to meet visitors at the entrance and lead you along the slippery boardwalk inside, making sure you keep up with your group and don’t fall into the massive heaps of bat guano. Perhaps they belong to a breed without a sense of smell...

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Call It What It Is

“Merry Christmas!” said the woman in the hijab.

Having spent much of the holiday season in December in a US work environment, I’m accustomed to the carefully coded holiday greetings there. With Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Christmas, and secularism competing for the same airspace, I heard lots of “Season’s Greetings” and “Happy Holidays.” For the politically correct, “Merry Christmas” is virtually extinct.

Since our return to Singapore, though, I’ve been wished a “Merry Christmas” at least half a dozen times - most recently by my favorite nasi padang lady, who wears a Muslim hijab. I would surmise that we are so glib about the phrase because there are few other competing holidays at this time in Singapore. We’ve already passed the Muslim holidays of Hari Raya Puasa and Hari Raya Haji. Deepavali, the Hindu festival of lights, ended two weeks ago. Chinese New Year isn’t for another six weeks. So now, we say “Merry Christmas” because it is Christmas.

With a festive season that runs from October to February each year, people in Singapore would get pretty tired of saying “Happy Holidays” all the time. So here, we call each celebration what it is. All in all, it’s quite refreshing to hear someone wish me “Merry Christmas!”

Saturday, December 20, 2008

How to Prevent Jet Lag

To prevent jet lag when traveling across 12 time zones:

1. Pull all-nighter the night before (or sleep one at a time, in 4-hour shifts), while trying to redistribute luggage so that all 4 bags are under the 50-pound limit.

2. Nap during 4-hour first leg of flight. (Bonus: Being oblivious to the indignities of domestic US air travel.)

3. Arrive at transit airport in evening with hours to spare and nothing to do. Allow sheer boredom to induce sleepiness. Prepare to sleep on 18 1/2-hour second leg of flight.

4. Board plane at 10:30 p.m. Attempt to sleep in sitting position in between weather updates (“still no change”) every 20 minutes. Give up at 2 a.m. and recline seat despite (remote) possibility of takeoff. Doze fitfully until actual takeoff at 5 a.m.

5. Alternate sleeping and eating for the next 12 1/2 hours. Wake up at 6 a.m. (local time at destination) thinking,
“We were supposed to be getting off the plane right now.” Stay awake by contemplating outrage of 25 straight hours on same airplane.

6. Disembark (gratefully) at noon and return home. Function long enough to find toothbrush and climb into bed. Succumb to jet-lag-induced sleep from 4 p.m. to midnight. Upon waking, medicate self for head cold which has mysteriously sprung up. Sleep until 7 a.m., and resume normal schedule in local time.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Traveling Abroad

It appears we may have adjusted to life at the equator, after all. On our home leave trip, predictably enough, we nearly froze to death in New Jersey. But this time, we also froze in Florida. And here in Texas, the final stop on our multi-city tour, it ain’t warm either, y’all.

In other ways, too, the America we know (and mostly love) is strange to us now. We’ve read the news about the economic crisis, and the markets in Asia have fallen, too, but we weren’t prepared for the mood of gloom. We didn’t know the standard greeting had changed from “Hi there!” to “You still have your job?”

America looks different to us, too, after our year in a crowded city-state on a tiny, tropical island. It’s a land of squandered space, where the houses are built on tiny postage stamps of grass but the big-box stores get acres and acres of parking lots, most of their spaces empty even during the holiday shopping days. And the flat, sprawling suburban vistas of the South confuse our sense of proportion, accustomed as we are to our vertical cityscape.

In the malls and the theme parks and the grocery stores, there are so few people at any time of day that we keep wondering: where is everyone? In the restaurants and hotels, we squirm when the staff keep up a never-ending stream of conversation and then expect a tip. And it must be said that the food courts disappoint us. In any of Singapore’s neighborhood hawker centers, we could easily eat the mom-and-pop food of a different culture every night. In US malls, the choices range from fake Chinese to fake Italian - all processed by the same conglomerate.

On the upside, we’re now in a country where “salsa” is not the same as marinara sauce. And we did make the switch from driving on the left to driving on the right quite easily. We were happy to find that the roads and buildings in the places where we used to live were still very much the same, in contrast to the perpetual construction and reconstruction in Singapore, where everything seems to change every six months. And we were lucky to be able to see family, friends, and neighbors after being away for so long.

But it does make me wonder what it will be like to move back to the country where we lived all our lives until two years ago. I always thought it would be like coming back home. But now I wonder if it might feel more like our move to Singapore - learning to live in a country that’s foreign to us.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Finding Peace in Cambodia

We cancelled our October trip to Cambodia to stay at home with our cat in what turned out to be the final weeks of his life. Only a few days after his death, we were sitting at home trying to absorb the shock of living without him, when I remembered we still had to cancel the plane tickets for the trip that weekend.

To make a long story short, the tickets turned out to be nonrefundable. And rather than face the prospect of a long weekend in a house that suddenly seemed silent and empty in the way of an old, bombed-out building, we began to slowly put the pieces of our trip back together. We would take our grief with us to Cambodia.

Cambodia has had more than its share of unspeakable horrors and tragedies, so it may seem a strange place to choose for quiet reflection and peace. But we were going to wander through the ancient temples of the Khmer empire—contemporaries of the great Mesoamerican peoples and rivaling them in the construction of huge stone edifices in the jungle. Somehow it was fitting to spend time in the ruins of a great and beautiful kingdom lost in the passage of time.

We looked at the smiling carved faces of Bayon, the sweeping grounds and carvings of the spectacular Angkor Wat, the delicate pink sandstone of the “women’s temple,” Banteay Srei. Mostly, with our understanding guide, we wandered quietly, avoiding tour groups and midday heat, preferring instead to creep out in the mornings and late afternoons for the cooler, gentler sunlight and the near silence.

One morning just after dawn we walked down a long path, utterly alone, and came upon the ruins of Ta Prohm, left in their jungle state with banyan trees slowly working their roots through the rock and dismantling the structures, bit by bit. We spoke in hushed voices, feeling as if no one had ever discovered this place but us, walking slowly and turning corners to find staggeringly tall trees whose roots on the walls were several times our height. Huge blocks of stone lay in piles where the roofs of long galleries had fallen (the columns still stood in their places).

A scene of destruction? Perhaps. But there was beauty and even peace in the slow but sure transition. Time and the trees were only taking their natural course, slowly but surely, knowing nothing could last forever.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Farewell My Furry Friend

This is my first, and it’s really hard. I can only hope he was comfortable. It’s difficult to know what to expect – six days ago he was still chasing his favorite string around, still waiting for us at the front door when we came home in the evening, still smacking his lips when he heard the sound of ice clinking in a water glass.

Now he will no longer come bounding down the stairs when he hadn't seen us for half an hour. No more lying on his back like a furry rug with four paws sticking straight up in the air, as if gravity suddenly reversed itself. No more patting of my leg with his left paw when he wanted my attention. And no longer will I have this fuzzy warm animal snuggling against my feet at night, or jumping up and down on my tummy to wake me up in the morning.

But he will no longer be vomiting bile and blood. Nor will he lose 10% of his body weight in two weeks. No more seizures, pills, injections, blood tests. No more shaving just to find a vein or conduct an ultrasound (he was an incredibly placid cat, but electronic shavers and hair dryers really freaked him out). No more x-rays, barium meal, steel sterile cages at the hospital.

Probable diagnosis: non-leukemic feline lymphoma. He was ten; that’s like being 50 in people terms. Inside always so he didn’t have leuk or FIV (we confirmed with bloodwork). Prognosis: median of 60 days, even with chemotherapy. When we visited him today at the hospital, his liver had just completely shut down in the last three hours – despite all the supportive care. He was in no condition for further treatment or diagnostics, so at 3:30PM Singapore time, 18th of October, we let him go.

What’s so weird for me is that I work in the field of medicine, and this isn’t the first time I’ve listened to physicians and patients talk about dire life expectancy. But it’s the first time I’ve had to deal with this personally. And it’s complicated because he’s an animal. That means the notion of trying to live a little longer just to be able to see or participate in some future event is meaningless. Patients will often want to “make it” to the next graduation, wedding, birth, etc. With pets, they’re just miserable and suffering.

So I had no idea when I played with him and brushed him six days ago, it would be the last time I would see him as his former self.

Were it to be the last
How infinite would be
What we did not suspect was marked
Our final interview.
- Emily Dickenson

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Can You See the Birdie?

It’s been awhile since we’ve last put a post up because our beloved animal has not been doing well. And when I’m depressed about something like that, everything you write seems melancholy.

But a few weeks ago, before all of the aforementioned events, we did manage to witness our first live Singapore sports event – for free! A doubles badminton championship was being held at You Chu Kang Sports Complex, and my better half graciously agreed to go with me. So we joined the crowds in an unairconditioned gymnasium.

Clubs and schools from different areas had sent their best, and supporters lined the stands. Raffles Girl’s School seemed to have the loudest, if not the largest cheering group.
I felt a bit out of place, as I had no idea who to root for, but it was amazing just to watch. As with other sports, you have no idea how fast it is until you see it live. The players stalked the court, leaping up for blazingly fast slams, and covering them with fervent tenacity. This was one sporting event I daresay I’ll probably never see in the States.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Feeling Pensive

It’s early September, the end of school holidays and the beginning of a new season (at least in some parts of the world). It’s a time when many expats are in transition. In the last month, I’ve run into people moving to and from the UK, Denmark, Poland, the US, the Philippines, Ecuador, and others. Most have talked about new beginnings, new cultures, new work challenges. I am reminded of our own first experiences in Singapore - and the adjustments we’ve made.

We’ve learned to live with the transient nature of our situation (and have begun to accept the basic truth that any situation in life is inherently transient, no matter what our plans may be). But we haven’t quite gotten used to having the circumstances of our life more closely tied to my company than I ever thought possible. When sales are rolling and Cristal is flowing from the water coolers, expats may get perks that are unusual by headquarters standards. But the flip side is that during tougher times, the cost-cutters back at HQ may view expats as Hummers among hybrids.

We also haven’t quite adjusted to logistics (taxes, rent, etc.) that are hopelessly muddled, what with company policy and the laws and rules of two vastly different countries. It’s been 18 months now, and I’m still confused by my pay stub. It probably has more lines than a 1040 tax form. All I know is that allowances and adjustments are generally good (read: more money), and obligations and contributions are generally bad (read: less money). If I’m ever on the stand for receiving a few more dollars than I should have, I’m going to look awfully stupid. “Yes, Your Honor, I have an MBA. Yes, I did take accounting (and passed). No, I have no idea exactly how line item 24b on my pay stub was calculated . . . can I just start my prison term now?”

But otherwise we’ve thoroughly adjusted to Singapore’s expat life. We’re used to the way things work here, the way the environment looks and feels. Consequently, many of our blog posts have lost that wide-eyed wonder. It also means our next move, whenever that is, will be filled with its own re-adjustments. With one eye toward our eventual repatriation to the US, I have to admit: we really do like some things better in Singapore.

I’ll miss having US$2 lunches of noodle bowls or nasi padang. The lush greenery and sunshine also come to mind. And international air travel in Asia, especially through Changi Airport (ranked the world’s best for good reason), is so much more tolerable than flights in the US. I’ll also miss the community of expats and permanent residents (some with Singaporean spouses), where our differences serve as our common thread - not just to be tolerated but often to be acknowledged and talked about. Having lived this way for some time, I’ll probably blurt out a few politically incorrect things back in the States.

I’m sure there will be other things that sneak up on me - you never know exactly what you’ll miss until you actually make the transition. But at least I realize that more than a year of trying to adjust to and embrace living in Singapore has changed me. And for better or worse, it means I’ll probably think of life in the US differently than when I left.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Fruit of the Month Club XIV

This is a mandarin orange - no, they don’t all come in cans - and a Thai honey mandarin orange, at that. If you are lucky enough to come across any fruit in your supermarket that begins with “Thai honey” (we’ve seen mangoes, mandarin oranges, pomelos, etc.) please just buy it. It’ll be the best fruit you’ve ever tasted.

Mandarin oranges are not particularly in season here right now, but I’m still thinking back to our Bangkok trip earlier this summer. One hot, muggy afternoon, we walked off the ferry into the sweetest piquant orange smell you can possibly imagine. A teenage girl at a small stand was juicing piles of ripe mandarin oranges and chilling bottles of the fresh tangerine-colored juice.

Wrapped in the heady smell of the oranges, we were compelled to buy a couple of bottles. A few baht seemed a small price to pay for the one of the most refreshing juices we’ve ever had.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Last on the List

On the other end of the cultural spectrum (though equally high in quality), last night’s entertainment was opening night of the movie WALL-E. Yes, Pixar’s latest blockbuster began showing in Singapore on August 28, two full months after its opening day in the US.

There’s been a lot of tut-tutting about pirated movies, but picture this: You’re a Singaporean with ready access to American TV and the Internet. For a solid month before WALL-E’s “scheduled opening date,” you see the ads, the media coverage, the ecstatic reviews: WALL-E is fantastic. WALL-E is cute. WALL-E is a must-see. Accidentally or not, you’re a victim of the studio’s no-holds-barred marketing campaign to attach this movie to your brain.

So, naturally, when that promised opening date rolls around, you check your movie theater listings for the first showing. But what do you find? Nothing. Maybe a TBA listing in the “films coming soon,” if you’re lucky.

You’d think in these modern times, someone could just FedEx all the film reels out to theaters on the same day (or close to it). But instead, Singapore is often last on the list, with films opening months after the US and other Western countries have seen and forgotten them.

If that doesn’t create a market for pirated movies, I don’t know what does. While the big studios have been busy self-righteously speaking out against pirating, I wonder if it ever occurs to them that they helped set up the whole system in the first place.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Raffles, Hallucinating

So much is going on in downtown Singapore: there are museum exhibits, dance performances, symphony concerts in the botanic gardens, hundreds of clubs with music in every style imaginable, and theater events. And that’s just in a typical weekend. But we live in the suburbs, and too often we forget to go into town to for a dose of the arts.

It took a nudge from a French friend to send us to our first Singaporean play: a rather avant-garde rendition of Stamford Raffles’ last hallucinatory hours. Though Raffles has a prominent statue on the bay and is a well-known name here, Singapore has understandably had a somewhat conflicted opinion of the British colonialist.

So rather than a Raffles reflecting on his successes, we watched a Raffles haunted by past memories - and hamstrung between a love for the exotic jungle-ness of Singapore and a rigid desire for progress. (If this sounds similar to present-day Singapore, you got the Singaporean playwright’s point.)

Feverishly imagining the lure of the rainforest, Raffles finds his bedroom invaded by a poetry-spouting, sprite-like rafflesia bloom, which tempts him to return Singapore to its natural state. At least, that’s what we deciphered from the cryptic poetry. Raffles was the discoverer of the beautiful rafflesia (pictured at left), which is not only the world’s largest flower but also a parasitic plant whose open center reportedly smells like a decaying corpse.

The only thing that seems to frighten the rafflesia away, though, is even more upsetting to Raffles: a living copy of the statue that today stands in his memory. “Come to the future with me,” says the statue. “You’ll like it! You have a statue, a hotel, a luxury airline class!”

Living in Singapore, we could fully appreciate the symbolism as the flower and the statue tried to throttle each other, and we could laugh at many of the in-jokes (though we missed a few Bahasa phrases that most of the audience found hilarious). And we enjoyed the international casting, which we hardly ever see in the US: an actor originally from Mumbai was the perfect Raffles, and his statue was played, to great effect, by a Singaporean.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

5 Words or Less

At a recent book-club gathering, one of our compatriots was challenged to summarize in 5 words what he’d learned from living abroad (and specifically in Singapore). He came up with:
        People same, food better, lah!

It’s so true; though we’ve found that people share commonalities across the world, it has to be said: some places just have more exciting food.

But Dennis’s pithy summary reminded me of several unusual notices we’ve seen recently in Singapore, all communicated in 5 words or less. Here’s a sampling:

On a hawker menu (as an enticement or a warning, depending on your tastes):
        Contains octopus - very chewy!

In an ad for a face cream for which I could unfortunately be the spokesmodel:
        Guaranteed pinkness in 1 minute!

And the best, at a mall McDonald’s sometimes overrun by students:
        Please refrain from studying here!

Monday, August 11, 2008

Watching the Games from Singapore

Several friends from the US have expressed surprise that we didn’t make plans to watch the Olympics in Beijing this year. True, we’re closer to the Olympics than we’d be if we were still in New Jersey. But we’re at the equator, whereas Beijing is up around the latitude of Philadelphia. So it’s not exactly a quick trip.

Plus, by the time we got our visas approved, the Olympics would most likely already be taking place . . . in Vancouver. (The problematic visa restrictions, incidentally, are not just for Beijing; a number of Joey’s colleagues have had trouble even getting into Shanghai for business trips.)

And we’ve seen Beijing already, with its dust and haze and noise and construction and ancient structures and creative new architecture. From what we’ve heard, it’s already much different from what we saw less than a year ago. But would we get a better sense of Beijing’s character by going there during the Olympics? I doubt it. Not with the disappearance of so many hutongs - and, according to all the press, the artificially revamped manners of its residents.

That said, being able to watch the Olympics live, in your own time zone, is a beautiful thing. And while we do miss the ubiquitous trumpet fanfare that accompanied the NBC coverage in the US, here in Singapore we get to see parts of the Olympics we’d never seen before (read: parts in which no Americans are participating). I just don’t remember Bob Costas covering sports like archery, shooting, judo, fencing, or badminton in depth. And yet all of these are surprisingly compelling – and sometimes spectacular – competitions to watch.

It’s also interesting to cheer on two countries instead of one. Of the 204 countries parading through the Bird’s Nest last Friday night, the two we were most interested in could hardly be more different. The US, of course, showed up with hordes of athletes confident of winning piles of medals. Singapore showed up with a couple dozen athletes competing in six sports – and hoping, with a bit of luck, to bring Singapore its second Olympic medal, ever. And what’s Singapore’s best shot at such an honor? Another sport you’re not likely to see too often on your nightly highlight reel: table tennis (that’s ping pong, to you).

Edit: They did it! Singapore squeezed past Korea to make it to the final of the women’s team table-tennis event. They were flattened by China in the end, unsurprisingly, but their efforts secured the silver medal for an ecstatic Singapore.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Fruit of the Month Club XIII

This is a loquat. I found it, along with about a dozen others, in a fancy package with lots of Japanese writing all over it. The loquat is tiny, not even the size of a lychee; in fact, it may be our first fruit of the month whose photo is basically life sized. Taste-wise, it reminds me of a plum crossed with an apricot (though it’s nothing at all like a pluot). Too sweet for me, almost like honey. It peels very easily, though the skin seems edible as well. The texture is slightly mushy, so while it would work well in a drink (loquat martini anyone?), it’s probably not so great for a salad.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Road Trip to Sentosa

Last weekend we headed out to Sentosa for what Singaporeans (and the British) call a “minibreak.” It’s cheating, really, to put this on our travel log, as Sentosa is a truly tiny Singaporean island just a bridge away from the city. It was the first trip we’d taken in ages that did not involve passports and immigration officials.

It would be an exaggeration to say that Sentosa feels a world away from life in the rest of Singapore. The food is the same, the people are the same - and just as in the city, there are numerous ongoing construction projects (a casino and a Universal Studios, among others, are planned for the next decade).

But thanks to the parts of the island that are still filled with vegetation and quiet, natural spaces, Sentosa is still an interesting place. Not only is it home to awesome fish reflexology, I’m not sure where else your relaxing spa time would be rudely interrupted by the squawky call of a wild peacock and your sliding glass door would carry this helpful message:

Monday, July 7, 2008

Two If By Sea

On our second day at Tokyo Disney, we visited the incredible DisneySeas park, which is exclusive to Tokyo. You won’t find many stuffed-animal-type Disney characters here; in a way, it’s similar to Epcot in that it caters more to adults. There’s less “cute” and more detail, proportion, and interest. Apparently the Japanese company that owns Tokyo Disney spared no expense on creating this park, and in return they got impressive creativity from the Imagineers.

For example, here’s Tokyo Disney’s idea of...

There’s a lot to be said for the photogenic scenery, with combinations and elements that made the fantastical feel real, if only for a moment. It started with the classy park entrance through an archway into a Mediterranean-style town, complete with gondoliers who would sing to you (in Japanese) while paddling you through the canals. Among our favorites were the shimmering, underwatery wonders of Mermaid Lagoon and the breathtaking turrets of an Arabian Coast straight out of the pages of Sinbad’s voyages. Close behind was the Lost River Delta area, with its creepy jungle-archaeology feel and near-full-scale Mayan temple.

We enjoyed the luxe details, like the fresh, modern, sea-themed decor of a hotel restaurant bordering the park. We especially enjoyed the simpler details, like the souvenir-seller who painted Disney characters (Donald Duck, the Little Mermaid) on the sidewalk in water (with a squirt gun from his cart) - an unexpected nod to the Chinese tradition of water calligraphy.

But most of all we loved the atmosphere of the park as it faded from day into night, gradually becoming a soothing, dare-I-say-romantic place with glowing lights and fantastic creations. Here’s what it looked like:

Friday, July 4, 2008

Land of the Free, Home of the Brave

Happy Independence Day to those of you in the States. As you celebrate, we’re sure you’ll feel safer knowing that the Department of Homeland Security is watching over you.

They’re watching us, too.

A few days ago, my dad received his birthday present from Singapore: a couple of green-tea cups with Japanese writing and Mickey Mouse logos (from Tokyo Disney, of course), plus a Disney art book and a birthday card.

Apparently, the package arrived wrapped in big strips of yellow tape informing the recipient that his package had been opened by the DHS. I can understand that these days, packages going through customs may be opened and checked.

But did they really have to open and read the birthday card?

Evidently, they did; it was ripped open and carelessly resealed with a strip of the same yellow tape.

So now you can rest secure in the knowledge that you’re protected not only from any gifts from family and friends overseas, but also from any happy birthday wishes.

Monday, June 30, 2008

One If By Land

0830 hours and we’ve mapped out our initial strategy at Tokyo Disneyland. Park opens at 0900 hours. We’ve already got our tickets. Once we’re in, it’s straight to Cinderella’s castle, back of the park, second land to the right, and straight on ’til morning! Our competitive intelligence (Jenn) says Pooh’s Hunny Hunt is mobbed from the start, so our only chance is to out-hustle everyone else. But we are seasoned Disney fans, and we’re living in kiasu Singapore to boot, so we’re confident of our chances. Until we see this:

And that’s 30 minutes before the gates even open.

Dutifully, we queue, our hopes somewhat lower. About 96% of park guests are Japanese, so they have the home field advantage. As the gates open, the orderly line becomes an orderly . . . scrum. It’s Japan, so there’s no pushing or shoving - just a kind of intense strategizing. Fortunately, we reach the attraction early enough that the wait is only 15 minutes. Success!

We leave quite amazed by technology we haven’t seen on any ride in the States. Picture hunny honey pots that are individually guided by GPS. There is no track, and each honey pot traverses it own course. We whirl and do-si-do around the other pots (including one containing Heffalump “tourists” taking photos of us). It’s a bit like being immersed in a ballroom dance competition.

As we leave, we gleefully note that our strategy has worked: the wait for the ride is now 130 minutes. Later, we lunch at a gorgeously themed (and slightly trippy) Alice in Wonderland café called Queen of Hearts Banquet Hall, whose roof is covered in a hedge maze and whose doorway is a doorknob with a keyhole taller than we are. We eat unbirthday cake for dessert.

Unfortunately, our flawless strategizing begins to unravel when we try for a parade and a show. The best spot we can snag is far, far away from the parade floats (which have fun Asian touches like a dragon dance with the crocodile from Peter Pan). And we’re shut out of two shows before we figure things out. Being from the States, we just didn’t anticipate anyone sitting on the ground for three hours for a parade - or a full hour for a show.

But the Japanese are very patient, and not only patient but prepared. Each family has brought a ground covering to sit on as they wait. They look at us sadly when they see we have none. One elderly Japanese couple squeezes to one side of their mat and motions for us to share it with them. (Eventually, we buy our own as a souvenir, and it’s a big hit with our cat.)

Later, we adapt enough to score a perfect spot for the Electrical Parade, which Jenn has been missing for years (it was cruelly moved here from Orlando’s Magic Kingdom). It’s all worthwhile as we see the sunset behind the castle and the musical arrival of the “thousands of sparkling lights.”

But by 2200 hours, we’re bushed. And we’ll have an early start tomorrow: Day Two is by Sea.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

In the Mail

I spent most of yesterday grappling with the dreaded arrival of . . . the mail pouch. In a nod to the double life we’re leading, Joey’s company has provided us with a PO box back in New Jersey at which we can receive mail. And as they put it, they “pouch” the contents to us every few weeks.

We’re not clear on how it actually gets here: Do they pitch it onto the next boat out of New York harbor? Do they use some secret-agent interoffice mail service? Do they stick it in the suitcase of a hapless executive traveling from HQ to Singapore? However they do it, they thoughtfully transport the contents of our PO box halfway around the world to Joey’s desk.

And what, you may ask, is so valuable that it gets ferried to us across continents and oceans? Good question. Our friends and family use our address in Singapore if they write to us, and our US banking and bills we do online. So usually our haul looks something like this:

a few issues of BusinessWeek from last month (there’s nothing like reading the weekly market tips a few weeks late)

several alumni communications (our Ivy League alma mater and top-20 b-school are, naturally, desperate for funds)

and, mostly, tons of the same junk mail we’ve been patiently shredding for years.

Yes, the company thoughtfully ships us those credit card offers, personal loan ads, and sweepstakes entries so that we can personally evaluate them. Surely we wouldn’t want to miss that chance to refinance at a low, low rate! And of course we’d want to know we’ve been personally selected for an exclusive card membership!

Lesson learned: you can leave the junk mail, but the junk mail won’t leave you. I suppose I should appreciate the little touch of home: sitting in Singapore, as I slowly feed the pile of junk mail through the shredder, it almost feels as if I never left New Jersey.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

More Ads That Make You Go Hmm...

What comes to mind when you hear an advert for a cash line of credit? In the US, the ads usually suggest that your line of credit can help you pay for a dream vacation, start that huge home renovation, solve a financial emergency. But here in Singapore, I recently heard a radio segment advertising a line of credit for the cash payment by a young couple for their wedding banquet!

You would think that the wedding itself would be stressful enough for the couple, but the bride and groom are often responsible for the traditional wedding banquet, too. And Asian wedding banquets typically put Western receptions to shame, with huge guest lists and course after course of the most expensive foods available. Sometimes, if a large number of parental friends and colleagues are attending, then the parents will help out. Otherwise, the young couple are on their own.

And of course, in this cash-based society, it would never do to put the whole thing on a credit card (as we suspect most couples in the US would do these days). No wonder etiquette requires wedding guests to bring a substantial little red packet as a gift: you wouldn’t want your hosts to go broke just as they are starting out.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Fruit of the Month Club XII

This month’s fruit is quite a world traveler. The one we ate was from Vietnam, though some we see in the markets have been grown locally on Pulau Ubin. Apparently, the fruit is native to Mexico and may have been introduced to Asia via the Philippines. Here it’s called chiku; in Mexico, sapodilla. It’s reminiscent of a peach, or maybe a plum. But I think we cut into it before it was fully ripe, because although the taste was quite sweet, it dried out our mouths (the way a dry tea or wine might do).

Thursday, May 29, 2008

48 Hours in Bangkok

Historic Bangkok is a visually overwhelming place; intriguing glimpses of everyday life mingle with the ostentation of the temples, whose spires are visible from miles away. The profusion of color, the detail of the mosaics, the exotic architecture, and the friendliness of the Thais we met there (not to mention the delicious food) left an indelible impression on us - and that was in just a short trip, 48 hours from start to finish!

We stayed in a fantastic renovated residence down a local alley along the river, so we could spend some time where local families live as well as tour the historic temples and canals.

The temples we saw were Buddhist - appropriately enough, I guess, for a trip during the Vesak Day weekend. Thai etiquette requires “respectful dress” for visitors to these sites, and thus arose our major packing problem: finding shoes that weren’t flip-flops. (After living in Singapore for a year and a half, we’d gone from having one pair of flip-flops apiece to having nothing but flip-flops in our wardrobes.)

But, dress code aside, we marveled at the detailed and gleaming mosaics on every inch of each temple building, the intricate carvings in gold, and the beautiful stonework. (We marveled at the massive Asian tour groups, too, but mostly we managed to stay one step ahead of them so as to view the temples in the peaceful atmosphere they’re meant to evoke.)

A highlight was our trip through the local canals on a long-tail boat, watching local life and lunching at a floating market along the water. We saw homes built on stilts over the water and some pretty sizeable monitor lizards - “Godzilla!” said our boat operator gleefully - along the way.

Long-tails are essentially slim boats fitted with whatever motor is at hand, so it’s not a quiet experience, but they are the usual method of transport in the area. Local merchants have smaller dugouts that can be paddled by one person - even when loaded with vegetables or goods to be sold down the canal at the floating market.

We were lucky not to be taken to the main (read: very touristy) floating market, which sounded like a floating souvenir shop. Instead, we visited a floating market where Thais often go for meals - in fact, it felt very much like an outdoor hawker center along the water. We were right at home, and some of our most enjoyable interactions in Bangkok were with the wonderful vendors - from the shyly smiling papaya-salad lady to the elderly man at the wok who handed me a tasty bite of prawn cake, fresh from the pan, to sample as we waited for our order.

Best of all were the evenings at the hotel, where from the loft in our room or the deck of the restaurant, we could look straight across the river at our favorite architectural icon of Bangkok: the stunning Wat Arun, temple of the dawn.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Peel Me Some Noodles

As you may know, my regular lunchtime repast is a noodle bowl, a deal at S$2.80. I love all the different types of noodles available at your average food stall - ban mian, bee hoon, u mian, and la mian, among others.

When we went to Beijing last year, we visited Mian Ku (Noodle Loft) and witnessed some divine noodle making. Chefs in the open kitchen were flinging long strands of noodles, pinching off identically sized lumps, or shaving strips off mounds of dough, so that each piece landed neatly in one of the pots of boiling water.

Until last week, I had no idea I could catch a glimpse of equally inspiring noodle making right here - in a food court at Tampines that serves dao xiao mian, literally “knife-shaved noodles.” These are strips of noodles cut from a loaf of dough straight into the boiling water. It's as if he were peeling a huge cucumber. The fellow graciously allowed me to take a quick video, which you can watch here.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Mystery Drinks

Heading back to the “town” area of Pulau Ubin, we grabbed a drink at one of the makeshift cafes along the water. “Wow,” said one of our friends, “We’re really not in Singapore anymore! Is that trash along the beach?” But soon the conversation turned, as it often does, to what people around us were eating and drinking.

My favorite was a day-glo green can of something called “Joy Juice,” with an excessively happy-looking guy doing something, we couldn’t quite tell what – falling into a barrel? floating above a barrel? – you gotta wonder what’s in that. Unfortunately, when we actually bought one, it turned out to be some variant of Mello Yello.

And then there was the one, apparently brought from home by a Singaporean and fellow tourist, that we couldn’t even hazard a guess at. Does anyone have any idea what this is? Or, more specifically, what those things are at the bottom?

We’ve seen lychees, rambutans, and pineapple pieces at the bottom of drinks like this, but we’ve never seen these before. They look a bit more like flowers than fruit, but you never know; we just might have a new candidate for our now sadly out-of-date Fruit of the Month.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Pulau Ubin

Pulau Ubin, say the tourist books, is the last bastion of what Singapore used to be: a sleepy fishing village with lazy dogs asleep on the corners, chicken running loose, abundant species of flora and fauna. So one day we planned to wander down to the Changi Ferry Terminal, wait until 12 people arrived (that’s as much of a schedule as the bumboat ferry has), and head across to experience the quiet, rustic, traditional atmosphere of the nearby island.

Unfortunately, we’d chosen to visit on Labour Day (May 1), a public holiday in Singapore. When we arrived in the usually quiet, easygoing hamlet of Changi Village, all the legal parking spaces (and plenty that weren’t) were taken. And, far from waiting idly for a dozen people, the bumboats were chugging hurriedly back and forth, depositing hordes of visitors on the other shore.

On the island, we soon found that the aging zinc-roofed wooden houses and the peeling paint were the only clues that we weren’t on the main island anymore. Everyone we could see looked like they’d just come from downtown; even the bicycle attendants spoke like Orchard Road shop clerks. So we hurriedly escaped down one of the bike paths, in search of the natural beauty of Pulau Ubin.

It was beautiful to cycle beneath the overarching palm trees, sighting the occasional gigantic jackfruit fallen from a tree or a golden-retriever-colored macaque loping through the palms. But even surrounded by nature we were part of a crowd: As we biked, we were constantly pulling over to avoid the ancient vans that trundled by, laden with visitors. The many other bikers often stopped dead in front of us and got off their bikes to walk up a hilly part - just when we’d gotten up enough momentum to pedal through. “City people,” we muttered, climbing awkwardly off our bikes and walking up the hill ourselves.

There were also hordes of walkers, most looking like schoolchildren on a field trip. But they mostly stayed out of the way - until we stopped at a hut to rest and I started to get off my bike. Just as I was swinging my right foot over the top, I was engulfed by a group of them. Suddenly someone’s bag knocked my left shoulder, hard, and in slow motion, the sweaty ang moh and her bicycle fell to the ground in a heap. I wouldn’t have minded so much falling off my bike while riding it. But falling after I’d already gotten off? I found it nearly as ridiculous as the approximately 500 pairs of eyes that blinked curiously at me as I slowly untangled myself. Our friends, I noticed, had moved discreetly down the path.

We’d decided to bike the eastern half of Pulau Ubin for its boardwalk through the natural costal ecosystems rare in this part of Asia, where land reclamation is rampant. (Besides, the western half consists mainly of a temple and about a million prawn farms, which will sell them live to you.) We might not have timed the tides quite right; the water was still a bit too high for us to see some of the coral underneath. Admittedly, one of the informational signs described it as “coral rubble,” so perhaps this area didn’t survive the land reclamation as well as we’d thought. But there were still some hauntingly beautiful - if strangely dry - mangroves, as well as some feisty fiddler crabs defending their turf. And you can’t blame them, really, for staking their claim to what’s left of the quiet, natural world of Pulau Ubin.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Our Evening: A Haiku

Two night conference calls,
One for each of us, talking
Over kitty yowls.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Tea and Taboo

Last week, so as not to distract Joey during his Hugely Stressful Looming Deadline, I figured I needed to find a project of my own. So I decided: I would bake. Strangely, though I loved my semi-custom kitchen in New Jersey, I find myself cooking a lot more in the Lilliputian (though, thank God, air-conditioned) kitchen here in Singapore.

True, the oven is only just big enough to fit the smallest baking sheet I could find in the US. But here I also know a lot more women who either work part time or freelance (as I do) or don’t work at all. Which means I can lure them over during the day to eat the excessively caloric things I’ve made, so I don’t have to.

The other reason I bake for them is that my ordinary American staples are new and exciting to my Singaporean and international friends. Never mind that they can make the best mee rebus and rojak imaginable, the most delectable popiah filling from scratch, the perfect crusty Norwegian bread, the most endorphin-inducing Thai salads with piercing heat and delicate blends of spices.

They’ll still mob a plate of my standard chocolate chip cookies as if they were made from a secret gourmet recipe. And the American southern-style biscuits - my specialty, true, but they’re still only about 15 minutes from start to finish - are rhapsodized over as the most melt-in-your-mouth “scones” anyone has ever tasted.

So our mishmash of cultures made for a fairly successful afternoon tea - and, after only crumbs were left, a rather interesting game of Taboo. (We brought this game with us from the US. It consists of cards that each have one word at the top, which you must get your team to say, followed by five seemingly too-obvious words you are not allowed to use as hints.)

I admit I’d already edited the cards somewhat; I did not want to be doing the “Muslim” card or the “George W. Bush” card with this bunch. But I hadn’t anticipated that they’d have no idea what a “heartthrob” was – and I should have known they’d have an easy time with “shag” (the makers of these cards clearly weren’t British).

The “equator” card was pretty easy, too: “A line we live 85 miles away from.” And I’d guess that (Thai) “kickboxing” and “feng shui” were much more top-of-mind than they’d have been at a party in the US. A “bin” was a “thing you put rubbish in.”

And the “cockatoo” card? Easily identified as: “You know, those huge white birds that screech in your back garden at 6 a.m.”

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Our Morning: A Haiku

Car sans umbrella
Cumulonimbus lurking
Which first reaches work?

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Fish Food

As we walked up to the low tank full of fish, the mass of them swirled toward us, just like any other aquarium fish who know someone is approaching with food. But in our case, it was different: this time, we were the fish food.

The spa called it “fish reflexology.” But it was simply this: we were to willingly dangle our feet and calves into a pool full of fish. So they could nibble on us.

It sounds completely insane, but supposedly varieties of spa fish have been eating the dead skin off humans for centuries. We passed up the tank of African spa fish, about an inch or two long, in favor of the larger Turkish spa fish. Neither size seems like such a big deal - until a couple dozen of them are heading for your toes.

Each of us was afraid to put the first foot in (the fish were looking pretty interested, and seemed likely to overwhelm a single foot), so we tried to put our feet in at about the same time. Then, in trepidation, we watched as they swarmed toward us, sizing us up for tasty morsels.

And then came the tickling of puckering fish lips and the tiny flicks of fish tails as they brushed along our feet and legs. And yes, especially at first, it tickled a lot. Much hysterical giggling ensued. Trying desperately to keep still and not twitch away, I kept thinking, “Please, don’t let me kick any of them in the eye.”

But they didn’t seem to mind us at all, and as they got into a routine, we almost got used to the sensation. And so we began to watch them work. It was surreal: “Huh. A fish is cleaning up my cuticles. How nice of him. And look at the little ones nibbling between my toes. They’re doing such a good job.”

Three of us, being female and recently pedicured, were still worked over by our fair share of fish. But Joey was clearly the tasty feature dish. He was, to put it plainly, mobbed.

Once, he tried lifting a foot out of the water, so as to send more fish down to our end of the pool, but they attempted to follow him. Even after he gently shook off the clingier ones, the mouths still hopefully kissed the surface of the water beneath his foot, begging for more.

After twenty minutes of being nibbled, just when we’d begun to get used to the idea, we were led away for a foot massage (this time, by a person) on our newly exfoliated skin.

After the foot rub, we passed the pool again on our way back to our shoes. By this time, it could have been mistaken for any ordinary fish tank; the fish, apparently satisfied with their afternoon meal, had returned to placidly following the current of their pool.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Touring Singapore

If you’re wondering what happened to the last half of March (and its attendant fruit of the month), I’ll tell you: we were, as Singaporeans put it, “so blur.” We had work, we had travel, we had houseguests. And somehow, before we knew it, it was April.

But I do remember that we spent our last week of March trying to convey to our guests, in just a short time, what Singapore was all about. Singapore has a reputation of being a quick, easy place to visit; most people think they’ll be done in a day or two. Our guests had even scheduled a couple of days in Bali in the middle of their fairly short trip (not that we blame them; who would not want to go to Bali?). But they still wanted to see all Singapore had to offer. So we tried...

We ate a modern, multicultural breakfast at the lush Shangri-La Hotel. We pounded the pavement at Orchard Road and pretended we could afford the merchandise. We ate Thai food at our favorite place (of course).

We packed our guests off to wander in Chinatown and Arab Street, and they returned with handfuls of costume jewelry and stomachs full of dim sum and kebabs. We dropped by the Malay wet market to choose from the endless fruit stalls. We ate a quick sunset dinner of hawker food (fried bananas, noodles, nasi lemak, satay, sugar cane juice). And after dark, we watched the yipping river otters, pouncing fishing cats, and a flying squirrel the size of a housecat frolicking in the dim light of the Night Safari.

Our guests collected sea glass at East Coast Park and got horribly sunburned (it is the equator, after all). With Joey they ate roti prata and laksa by the harbor, dropped by the American club, and dined at a gorgeous place designed to look like a Peranakan nonya’s living room.

We toured the botanical gardens one morning, timing our visit so we could see the stunning orchids, walk through the mist-filled room filled with pitcher plants, and be sitting in the shade sucking down ice-cold lime juice just as the mid-day heat set in.

Then our guests were off to Bali. When they returned, they told us their tales of watching temple dances and the rice harvest (and being climbed on by mischievous macaques), as we eased them back into big-city life at one of Singapore’s colorful riverfront quays.

Their last day, we wandered through the huge British Colonial buildings, the Asian Civilizations Museum, and the legendary Raffles Hotel’s Long Bar, where the Singapore Sling was invented. We did the tourist thing, drinking the pink stuff with fish and chips and throwing our peanut shells on the floor. And then we headed off to a most unusual spa on Sentosa - but that deserves its own post.

A whirlwind tour, and still there were things we missed: Little India, the Chinese and Japanese gardens, the fishing village on Pulau Ubin, and the rainforest, just to name a few. Who knew such a tiny island would have so many things to see?

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Me in Melbourne

As I write this, I’m taking afternoon tea in a large, comfy wing chair angled toward the window and its view of the Melbourne skyline in the waning hours of the afternoon. The red and yellow stripes of old-fashioned Flinders Station stretch out in front of me along the river, blending gradually into Gothic church spires and the contemporary rock-like bulk of Federation Square. Beyond the riverfront, the silver skyline of the central business district gleams in the afternoon sun against a backdrop of a bright blue sky brushed lazily with cirrus clouds.

Last night, on the way in from the airport, Joey’s boss asked me, “What do you plan to do in Melbourne?” I offered some lame excuse, parroting the typical Singaporean response (“shopping”), but the truth is that I came to Melbourne for no definite reason. I like to breathe the bracing cool, dry air, such a contrast to the tropics. I like to wake up in the morning with the real possibility of a good hair day. I like to walk outdoors along the tree-lined river under a blue, sunny sky. I like to browse in department stores designed for Caucasian bodies and listen to buskers singing country music on the street corners. And any time I tire of wandering, I like being able to turn down the first laneway in my path, where there are guaranteed to be at least a dozen hole-in-the-wall coffee shops and cafes. There’s something in the feel of the place that stirs my nostalgia for heady September days in Boston and Cambridge. All that’s missing is a course guide and a couple of crew shells practicing out on the water.

All this, of course, is tempered by the twinge of guilt I feel because my beloved, the reason I’m here in the first place, is stuck all day in a nondescript, windowless office north of the city in bland, suburban Noble Park. And during the evenings, when business meetings in the hotel lobby last until 11 p.m. and the glow of the laptop and the clacking of the keys continue long after I finally fall asleep, I sense that my other half may not be taking full advantage of our river and skyline view. It’s a lovely sight; as I’m gazing out right now, pairs of gulls are swooping gracefully over the river while commuter trains slide languidly in and out of the station. But it seems to me that the view would be even better shared.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Red Light, Green Light

Living in Singapore every day, I forget sometimes that some seemingly “normal” parts of our lives would once have struck us as pretty strange.

Singapore driving, in particular, has subtly changed our way of life. Partly it’s because of Asian culture’s lack of any need for personal space, as we’ve experienced on the MRT, buses, and elevators. On the roads, we’ve had to get used to people, cars, buses, motorcycles regularly coming within a foot of the car. We often share a single, skinny lane with a motorcycle - or even two, one on each side. And since driving here isn’t all that fast, people tailgate and pass without an inch to spare.

But even with basic skills like parking, we’ve had to make some adjustments. These days, we’d have difficulty just turning into a parking space - forward, that is. Instead, it’s perfectly natural to follow the local custom of backing into the space, flashers on, rear sensors beeping as if we were maneuvering a Mack truck into place for a delivery. Then there’s the essential extra step of pushing the little button (that comes standard on almost every car in Singapore) to pull in our side mirrors. Otherwise, we’d never get the door open in such a tight space.

And of course to get to the parking spaces, we nearly always have to negotiate our way through a “car park,” or parking garage. Who’d have thought that driving to the grocery store would involve two dollars in parking fees and a cautious roll down a dark, spiraling ramp with no room for error, all for the privilege of squeezing into a parking space apparently designed for a Fiat?

On home leave in American suburbia, we were amazed by the huge open-air parking lots at the malls. We felt so exposed, out there in the open: what if it rained? And what a waste of land: surely these were excessively roomy parking spaces, and why were all these spaces spread out over just one level? On the other hand, we’d almost forgotten that “free parking” was anything but a square on the Monopoly board.

The sudden strangeness did make us uncharacteristically sympathetic to other drivers who were experiencing the culture shock of driving American-style, though. Once, during our home leave, we stopped at an intersection just as the light turned red. Across from us, the minute the light turned red, a man confidently drove his minivan (surely a rental) through the intersection to turn left. Cars going the other direction honked, swerved, gestured at the driver. But we shook our heads sympathetically. “That poor guy. He has no idea the left-turn arrow comes after the green light. He thinks it’s normally after the red light - just like in England and Singapore.”

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Fruit of the Month Club XI

We found this sitting in the middle of other, more innocuous looking items and just had to buy it.

Would you guess that it’s
(a) the tentacles of a yellow squid?
(b) Medusa’s new highlights?
(c) a sunlit sea anemone?
(d) Buddha’s hand?

Oddly enough, it’s a fruit called Buddha’s hand. The whole thing looks like this:

What’s inside? Well, we cut it open, and from the look and the smell, we deduced that a Buddha’s hand is . . . a weirdly shaped lemon. With nothing but pith inside. No juice, no seeds, just the white stuff, though there is a nice lemony fragrance.

No one we asked could tell us how to cook or eat it; apparently it’s mostly used as decoration during Chinese New Year along with other “lucky” fruits.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

CNY Revisited

People kept asking us why we were going so far away for the Chinese New Year holiday. “Why not somewhere closer, like Vietnam or China or Taiwan?” they said. There was actually a very good reason: all of Singapore was traveling for CNY, and they’d out-queued us. Again. I talked to plenty of people who revealed that they’d started making plans last August.

We’d figured that since most Singaporeans have extended family in Singapore, they’d want to spend the holiday eating the traditional meals with their relatives and visiting their neighbors to trade symbols of good luck. What we forgot, though, was that Singapore celebrates every moment in the two-week festival, of which the two-day public holiday is just the beginning. Travelers confidently make plans for the four-day weekend, knowing CNY will still be in full swing when they return.

So when we arrived back in town, we celebrated our second CNY weekend at the Chingay parade, Singapore’s version of the parades at Carnaval and Mardi Gras. We splurged on tickets to grandstand seating (though we did get turfed out of our original row B center seats because of a VIP platform), so we could see the full show of dramatic special effects. The best was the opener, with people rappelling through smoke and lights down the imposing British Colonial columns on City Hall.

The parade itself involved some pretty flashy floats and lots and lots of dance performances. There are maybe 4 or 5 million people on the whole island, and we’d bet that at least 1 million of them were involved in the highly choreographed routines (of both the cultural and pop-and-lock variety) that accompanied nearly every float.

Along with the floats from local community groups, there were a number of cultural highlights. In keeping with the CNY theme, there was a nifty psychedelic dragon dance and a float with dozens of lion dancers (some of which climbed high pedestals to perch above the crowd). We watched a ritual dance by a native Taiwanese tribe, a Bangara dance by a troupe from southern India, and even a modern collaboration between the local university and an Irish school of the arts. (There were some odd moments, too; what was with the choreographed siege of a medieval fort with catapults, courtesy of the City Harvest float?)

What was most fun to watch, though, was not so much the ordered choreography but the atmosphere of controlled chaos: acrobats and high-school students and musicians and lion dancers and confetti and fireworks and a yu sheng toss about the size of a small barge. We did, however, skip the all-night street party in the same location. (For all its reputation as a somewhat conservative place, Singapore clearly isn't nearly as stodgy as we are...)

The next evening, we celebrated one last time at a friend’s home, decked out in red and gold. We tossed one final yu sheng salad (Joey’s enthusiasm was starting to wane; it was his fourth of the season) and spent an enjoyable evening hanging out with friends (and doling out piles of red envelopes to their children). For us, that was a perfect conclusion to our CNY festivities.

As usual, though, we were the first to leave the party; the shops continued to stay closed for at least the first half of the week, as families celebrated at home, and many of the decorations will still be up for a few more days, though the holiday for this year has officially come to a close.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Sumatra Earthquake III

We’ve got to be reasonable; we can’t post a blog entry every time there’s an earthquake nearby, or we’d be up to something like Sumatra Earthquake LVII. So I’ve restrained myself to the times Joey has felt a gentle swaying on the fifth floor of his office building.

Today’s earthquake, a 7.0 off the west coast of Sumatra, was one of those. Joey, who by now can distinguish the difference between vertigo and actual building movement, did not need the radio to tell him there was an earthquake. Our usually lethargic cat spent the whole day trying to climb the rafters. And, typically, I was completely clueless to the geophysical events in my adopted country’s backyard.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

At a Loss for Words

New Zealand defies description, to such an extent that it’s ground our blog-writing to a halt. We keep trying for a neat wrap-up of the trip - from its beginning, when we heard the three sweetest words in the English language (“upgraded to business”), to our last evening watching the sunset across the harbor in Auckland, the world’s City of Sails. But for the New Zealand we experienced in between, we’re at a loss.

It’s hard to explain the range of climates and wildlife, the sharp drama of the landscape, the warmth and generosity of the Maori in the north, the meandering pace of life in the practically unpeopled south. It’s even harder to convey the outsized proportions, the way things seem thrown together in unexpected ways. Huge peaks rise abruptly from deep, still waters in the fiords. Standing on an icy mountaintop glacier, you can see the shimmering blue of the ocean not far away. And of course there are thousands, and thousands, and thousands, of sheep.

We really felt we’d found the true New Zealand while kayaking one morning in the fiord of Milford Sound, now one of our favorite places on the planet. It was quite an experience to be out there first thing in the morning with our small group before anyone else was out on the water. Cormorants plunged out of the sky, fur seals lolled on the rocks, and penguins poked their heads above the surface of the water to eye us curiously. The silence and the sense of space were exhilarating. We loved the feeling of our paddles slicing cleanly through calm water up to 1,000 feet deep as we gazed up at 500-foot-high waterfalls and 5,000-foot-high peaks. Like New Zealand as a whole, it was stunning - and unforgettable.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Eurasian CNY

February 7 and 8 were the official Chinese New Year public holidays in Singapore, but we celebrated our CNY a week early at a fundraiser for the local Eurasian Association, thanks once again to the urging of our friend Monica.

No, we’re not exactly Eurasian, although I suppose our combined Irish and Chinese heritage might qualify the two of us in a pinch. Here in Singapore, many Eurasians are of mixed Portuguese and Cantonese descent (Portuguese settlers colonized Macao, near Hong Kong), but many other cultures are represented as well. Sitting next to me was a friend of Monica’s whose family was from a part of northern India settled hundreds of years ago by Italians. (Who knew?)

Our CNY-themed lunch began with a classic lion dance by a cadre of adorable lions that turned and leaped on delicately pointed toes as they peeled oranges and spat out chocolate coins and hong bao. We tossed lo hei (yu sheng), just as we’d done the year before.

But there were some new twists. For one thing, the traditional Chinese dishes we ate were cooked in a Eurasian style, influenced by Portuguese spices.

And as we ate, a singer with an elaborately coiffed pompadour belted out not only the usual Cantonese new-year songs but also Latin tunes, including that perpetual favorite, La Bamba. Unfortunately, for some reason we hadn’t thought to brush up on our salsa skills for our stint in Singapore...

And as at any proper fundraiser, the bingo caller soon arrived, and we bought the obligatory card for a good cause.

But we soon discovered that, rather than bingo, this was tombola, the Italian version. Would you have any idea how to play a card that looked like this?

Still, when we left at the end with our pairs of oranges and our hong bao party favors, we were feeling traditional enough to stop by and pick up a CNY decoration to hang on the wall at home. This one seemed singularly appropriate; after all, it is the year of the rat!

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Fruit of the Month Club X

In Singapore, something like 99 percent of produce has to be imported by truck, ship, or plane. We get strawberries from Korea, blueberries from the US, grapes from South Africa, and various fruits from Australia, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand. Okay, there may be the odd package of fruit labeled “locally grown,” but Singapore being a little short on farmland, we wonder: where is it really grown?

This month’s fruit of the month is therefore unusual; this time we’re absolutely certain it’s local produce. Why? Well, after a full year of battling the bugs and the elements on behalf of our mango tree, finally we have something to show for it: two mangoes of about the same size as the ones we’d usually buy at the wet market. True, we don’t know how they taste yet, and odds are high that they’ll ripen and drop while we’re out of the country. But we still think they look good enough to qualify as January’s fruit of the month.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Respect the Chope

The other day I was enjoying my regular noodle bowl at a busy food court. I was slurping away, marveling at how wonderful it was to get noodles, ikan bilis (dried anchovies), green vegetables, ground pork, chilis, mushrooms, dried onion, slices of fish, and an egg to boot for $3.50 Sing.

Unfortunately, my reverie was interrupted by strident shouting. I (along with everyone else in the food court) turned to see one Singaporean woman squawking at another, who was an elderly “auntie.” No one else dared to intervene as the younger woman yammered away - everyone was too embarrassed.

“You are so inconsiderate!” the younger woman was shouting.

A few people near me clucked and shook their heads; the younger woman was clearly losing face, as the older woman unsuccessfully tried to deflect the tirade. But it soon became apparent that the younger had choped (reserved) a seat in the traditional, time-honored way - by leaving her stack of tissues on the table. The older woman had committed the almost unheard-of infraction of moving the other's tissues and shopping bags to make room for herself. Now, some of the clucks were directed toward the auntie.

Lesson learned: it doesn't matter if it’s a forlorn umbrella or simply a dilapidated pack of Kleenex on that empty table. You must respect the chope!

“You are rude! How can so rude . . . do you not know, lah?! You cannot see, izzit? Table choped ’ready!”

I decided to slurp the rest of my soup and quickly head back to work.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Back to “Normal”

It took a surprising amount of time to get back in the swing of things in Singapore after three weeks in the US. True, we lived in Singapore for only ten months before going on home leave, but could it really have taken only three weeks for us to forget everything?

I nearly got lost on the way to pick Joey up from work - though switching back to the right side of the car was no problem. And, horror of horrors, we had trouble remembering the ECP exit for our favorite Thai place! Plus, we found our palates had in fact changed during our somewhat blander food forays in the US; that Thai food had more kick than we’d remembered. Of course, they might have added extra spice to celebrate our return. They were so happy to see us - and you haven’t seen happiness until you’ve seen a Thai person smile - I think they might have feared their best customers had moved.

Still, things are back to normal now.

We know, because when Joey was carrying a newly purchased kitchen gadget through the mall, a nice man walked up and asked him in Chinese, with no preamble at all, “How much did you pay for that?” And when Joey told him, he tut-tutted sympathetically and said that wasn’t cheap.

We know, because we scheduled the nefarious landscapers for today, a rare sunny day at the end of rainy season, and of course they didn’t bother to show up.

We know, because my “social calendar” out East is filling up again with birthday lunches and people who threaten to drop by for tea without warning, just to say hello; apparently I was much missed by the local ladies, a fact which continues to surprise me. (And here I thought they only loved me for my bowling skills...)

We know, because we’re back to the family phone call time-zone crunch, all our quality time packed in between 9 and 10 a.m. and 9 and 10 p.m. so no one has to be awake too late or too early.

And the main reason we know things are back to normal: We’re finally, finally updating the blog.