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!