Sunday, June 21, 2009

Travel “Best Of”

Looking back on our Singapore experience, I feel very, very lucky. (Which perhaps is ironic, considering how often I’ve complained about the country’s manic obsession with lucky draws, fortune, and the 4-D lottery.) Three years ago, I couldn’t even point out Singapore on a map. But in the last few years, I’ve had the chance to experience some truly amazing places and cultures in the surrounding area. I’d had no idea what I was missing! In hopes of inspiring some future travel for others like me, here’s our “best of” travel list from the region.

Best hotel chain: Shangri-La. Singapore’s has a fabulous multicultural breakfast, Sydney’s has a panoramic view, and Kota Kinabalu’s (in Borneo) has an Ocean Wing with over-the-top beachfront luxury at the price of a standard room in NYC.

Best once-in-a-lifetime: the Maldives, whether at the laid-back Cocoa Island, with its coral reefs just steps from the villas, or the Conrad, with its underwater restaurant.

Best cultural immersion: Ubud, Bali (Indonesia), at the luxe Pita Maha Resort & Spa or on the cheap at Ketut’s Place. Eat dinner at Ketut’s for an authentic introduction to Balinese life, and catch a Kecak performance or shadow puppet play. Runner up: Arun Residence in Bangkok, Thailand, for a local feel, fantastic food, and a waterfront view of the temple Wat Arun from your bed.

Best wildlife: crocodiles, hornbills, monkeys, orangutans, and pygmy elephants spotted while staying at the Kinabatangan Riverside Lodge in Borneo. Runner-up: Singapore’s Night Safari just before closing, when the bats, flying squirrels, wolves, and lions are most awake.

Best “discovery”: the overgrown Cambodian temple ruin of Ta Prohm at dawn, before anyone else has arrived. Runner-up: the lagoons of Phang Nga Bay in Phuket, Thailand, accessible only by kayaking through pitch-black limestone caverns when the tides are right.

Best British Colonial indulgence: High tea at the elegant, soothing Tiffin Room at Singapore’s classic Raffles Hotel (do it soon—I hear it may not be there for long).

Best entertainment: the beautiful and creative Disney Seas park at Tokyo Disney. Worth spending at least a day or two, even if—especially if—you’re not a kid.

Best inexpensive city tours: commuter ferries. In Hong Kong, the best skyline view is from the ferry at night (fare: about 50 cents US). On the Sydney ferries, for just a few dollars you can spend a day exploring each harbor in turn.

Best of nature: Tie. Te Anau, New Zealand, for nearby glowworm grottoes and spectacular morning sea kayaking in the fjord of Milford Sound. Or drive the scenic Great Ocean Road from Melbourne, Australia, and stay at the Ecolodge. Help feed orphaned joeys; watch koalas, kangaroos, and wombats in the wild; and see a dazzling night sky.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Ain’t Walkin’ No More

We are stateside now. It took a five-week whirlwind of frenetic packing, sorting, redistributing, and moving, but now two adults, one cat, and a dozen bags of assorted personal belongings have arrived in NJ. (The rest of our stuff is in a container ship still floating across the Pacific.) What was our first impression on repatriating? Well . . .

We arrived in Newark on a grey, sunless afternoon. It wasn’t exactly cold—just limp. We had reserved a room at the airport hotel so we wouldn’t endanger fellow motorists by trying to drive after our 19-hour flight. Stepping outside the arrivals terminal, we could see the hotel across the parking lot. There was supposed to be a shuttle every 15 minutes. But it was still light, and we figured, how difficult could it be to get over there? Let’s just wheel our luggage and walk.

Five minutes later, we’d crossed the parking lot and were congratulating ourselves on not being lazy and taking the shuttle. We just had one street left to cross. Actually, it wasn’t exactly a “street.” Main thoroughfare, boulevard, autobahn, would all be more apt, given the way the drivers were careening from one lane to the next. Not wanting to play Frogger with our luggage, we glanced around looking for a pedestrian bridge or even a crosswalk—common enough where we’d come from. But not only was there no footbridge, there was actually a barrier of some sort that made walking across impossible, with luggage or not.

Disgruntled, we walked back across the parking lot and waited for the shuttle. We hauled our dozen pieces of luggage up onto the bus, then waited as it slowly chugged around the airport loop. Fifteen minutes later, it turned onto the street where we’d originally stood and dropped us off at the hotel entrance. Total time: 35 minutes. We could have walked it in 10.

Now that we’re in our temporary apartment (waiting for our stuff to arrive), it’s much the same. Few sidewalks. No footbridges. And when people in our complex need to take their trash to the community dumpster two blocks away, they don’t walk there. They drive.

US car-centered infrastructure: 1
Singaporean pedestrian-friendly lifestyle: 0

Monday, June 1, 2009

Tennis in the Jungle

We walk onto the tennis court in the darkness, breathing in the heavy, soup-thick night air. Our sweat pools, helpless in the lack of breeze. We are grateful for the absence of the sun, but even without it the temperature matches that of our bodies.

When we were still new to this place, we learned quickly that to play in the daytime, scorched by the sun and slowly steamed by the surrounding air, is simply not possible. Instead, we schedule our games to catch the precious few hours during which Singapore is magical: before 8 a.m. and after the regular sunset at 7 p.m. Often, as we play, a cooling breeze brings blessed relief from the heat of the day future or past, and the clouds drift lazily across the sky in the twilight. Beyond that, we play on into darkness, hidden at last from the equatorial sun.

Yet to be hidden from the sun is not always to be hidden from the heat, and tonight the heat presses down on us inexorably. We heave heavy, damp balls back and forth across the net with labored movements and measured steps, each breath taking in more water than oxygen in the tropical humidity.

A storm must be brewing somewhere off the coast, to bring such density to the air; the moths realize it, too, and suddenly they are out in force around the bright lights of the court. Some venture lower, flying across the court, darting in front of our faces with utter disregard. As one flies across the court on a collision course with my racket, I duck, and the ball goes flying by me. Trudging to the backcourt to retrieve it, I brush away furry wings swarming around my head. We try not to open our mouths.

But relief has arrived: we hear the high-pitched squeaks in the trees, and now the bats are awake and swooping through the courts. Their tiny, dark bodies dive through the air, catching a moth in the bright-lit air of the court before disappearing upward into the darkness to start again. The bats work quickly; minutes later, the moths have disappeared, except for a hardy half-dozen or so still trying to singe themselves on the tall fluorescent lights. The bats have disappeared, too, their job of nightly pest control only just begun.

Slowly we begin to breathe easier in the now-clear air and, finally, the slowly dissipating heat. We gradually settle into our usual pace, relaxing to the regular rhythm of our shots and the bounce of the ball. Later, as we drag our sweat-laden bodies off the court into the shocking cold of air-conditioning, we smile sadly, knowing all of this—the heat, the moths, the bats—will soon be just a memory.

It was our last night of tennis in the jungle.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

On Leaving

So here it is: all good things must come to an end. Our time in Singapore is almost up, and soon we’ll be on to bigger and better things back in New Jersey. People have asked us how we feel about leaving: sad? excited? But truthfully, all we have time to feel is...busy. Two weeks from today, our cat leaves for his first journey across the world. (He’ll fly west, through Amsterdam.) Five days later, we’ll follow him (although we’ll fly east). We’ve taken this 19-hour flight before, but this time our tickets are one-way.

The company tells us movers will pack us, move us, and cause our stuff to appear magically on the other side—so what do we have to worry about? Clearly they don’t know what it’s like to undertake an international move. Sure, there’s the usual closing of accounts and sorting of stuff that accompanies any move. But running interference on logistics with two countries—while trying to say goodbye to our current “home” country, and hello to a home country that no longer feels exactly like home—we’re essentially living two lives at the same time. (Three, if you count our rapidly accelerating work life.)

This pressure cooker has gotten to us in various ways; Joey’s pulling regular all-nighters, and I’ve already had a nasty run-in with a parking pillar. (I swear, it moved.) To be sure, that last one was just waiting to happen, what with Singapore’s narrow and curvy basement car parks. But still.

Among the loose ends to tie up, what will happen to the blog? I’m not sure. If other expats’ reports are to be believed, once we return to the States, our time abroad is socially expected to become a hazy dream we remember only to each other. Once we’re back, we’ve heard, people in our home country won’t want to hear about the amazing people we met in Singapore or our trips to inspiring places. Instead, apparently, we’d do better to confine our conversation to our state, our hometown, preferably our neighborhood. Something everyday. Something “relatable.” Which makes sense, of course.

And yet, having spent the last two years fitting the whole world into our heads, how can we shut it out?

Friday, May 15, 2009

Harborside in Sydney

We went to Sydney at the height of the swine flu panic. I’d gotten the (regular) flu in Singapore, like everyone else, and though my raging fever had passed, I was still miserably clutching piles of Kleenex and mugs of hot tea. We called Qantas: surely with the flu scare, they’d allow us to cancel? But it seems that even with an international health crisis, nonrefundable tickets are nonrefundable tickets.

So we flew to Sydney, expecting that at any moment some nervous health official would take me off to quarantine, never to be seen again. But apparently I set off neither the infrared sensors in the airports nor the suspicions of the flight attendants (I did run them completely out of herbal tea), and we arrived without incident.

I have only hazy memories of our first day in Sydney, and I didn’t make it out into the streets until dinnertime. But I did sit up in bed and watch the day breaking over the harbor, with the iconic bridge and opera house slowly highlighted by the sun as it crossed the bracing blue sky.

After that I was well enough to do some exploring in the harborside neighborhoods, so we went out to immerse ourselves in life along the water. We wandered in the cobblestone laneways of The Rocks, once home to rowdy sailors’ taverns and now filled with quiet cafes. We took a ferry past marinas filled with huge white sailboats and gorgeous glass-walled lofts. We walked along the wharfs and ducked into the aquarium (where we greeted the dugongs). At the stunning maritime museum, we climbed aboard a replica of Captain Cook’s ship that still plies the same waters as Cook did in his original voyages.

One night we attended a magical performance of (appropriately enough) Debussy’s symphony The Sea at the opera house, which quietly glowed in the darkness. In the music we heard an echo of centuries of life on Sydney’s waterfronts: the longing for the sea, for exploration and adventure, the freedom of being out on the open ocean, and the satisfaction of returning to the safety of the harbor after a journey well sailed.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Second Time Around

Everything in Singapore is easy - if you’ve already done it once before. That’s how life is here. Like today, when I went to the industrial estate of Ubi to pick up a water filter for the fridge.

The first time I needed a water filter, sometime last year, I had no idea where to start. Rather than end up in a scary Alice-in-Wonderland environment (like that time I bought a sprinkler), I went to a few appliance stores to see if they had the part. But we have an American-brand fridge that’s far from common in Singapore. After several fruitless trips, I finally found a salesperson that would give me the address of a wholesale parts store. They sold only to contractors, she said, and they might or might not have my brand. But it was my only option, and that’s how I found myself heading to Ubi.

Still new to driving in Singapore, I felt like I’d reached the end of the earth. I dropped off the highway at a practically unknown exit, panicking as I glanced at the street directory and found I’d missed a turn. In the pouring rain, the gray buildings seemed hopelessly confusing, each looking exactly like the next. The workers seemed grim and dour, the security guards suspicious and unhelpful. I parked at a coupon lot a block or two away, still unsure if I was in a legal parking lot. Walking along the street, I felt utterly out of place. People stared at me curiously from under their umbrellas; what was an ang moh (and a tai tai, at that) doing here, in the blue-collar industrial park?

Today, though, I casually swung by Ubi on my way home from a pleasant lunch downtown. Now I easily recognized the exit as one of the ways to Joey’s workplace - not exactly the end of the earth! The sun shone in the blue sky as I entered what now seemed a cheerful, bustling neighborhood. Sure, I did miss the street on the first go-round, but in a matter of minutes, I’d found the right building, had a friendly chat with the grinning security guard, and parked my car right outside the door.

The dealer had the part in stock. Only cash accepted? No problem; I followed his directions to the mysterious
“canteen” where the ATM was. Last year, I might have felt out of place, but the Chinese and Malay faces were the type I’m used to seeing every day. A businessman helpfully showed me the canteen, where I’m sure I was the only ang moh for miles around. But all I thought was, “Hey, I should come back someday to try that new mee goreng stall!”

Minutes later, paid-for part in hand, I began to navigate my way out of Ubi. Only one thing hadn’t changed since my previous visit: the cars with a giant L on the back and the painted line, “Please be patient and let me learn!” In Singapore, only certified instructors can give driving lessons, and one of the major driving schools is right in the heart of Ubi. If there’s a worse place to learn to drive, I’d like to see it; parked cars on the side of the road reduce two lanes to one and a half, and orange cones and construction barriers block the rest. The L drivers wobble hesitantly around corners, hoping against hope there’s not a giant bulldozer blocking the path.

But as a driver in Singapore myself, I sympathize. I learned to drive from my dad, in mostly empty parking lots and broad, quiet streets. That’s how it is the US. In Singapore, though, for driving or navigating or finding the part you need, you’re thrown in the deep end. As I said, everything here is easy - except the first time.

Friday, April 24, 2009


We went to the Maldives back in February, but we never got around to posting about it. Why? It’s the sort of place that defies words. And even pictures can’t quite capture this tiny paradise in the middle of the Indian Ocean. We figured it was a once-in-a-lifetime vacation, especially since we’re about 19 hours closer than if we were to fly there from the US. But now all I want to do is go back someday. It was the colors that hooked me. Have you ever seen so many shades of blue?

Monday, April 13, 2009

(Visitors) Trying Singapore

We love having visitors - though it happens all too infrequently - so we were thrilled when my parents finally announced that they’d racked up enough frequent-flyer miles to make their first trip to this side of the world in March. Nine utterly packed days (and one sick day) ensued. Some highlights:

  • the first glimpse of our little guest-house in Bali along the river gorge - and the air-conditioned, intricately carved rooms at $50 per night

  • the surreal kecak chanting during an evening Ramayana dance, followed by an other-worldly trance dance through burning coals (bonus: the realization that, yes, you are on the other side of the world)

  • the bird’s-eye views, from breezy East Coast Park and the Singapore harbor, of the huge container ships and the complex operations of one of the busiest ports in the world

  • the memorable first moment my dad gingerly stuck his feet into the tank of very hungry (and very ticklish) fish at the fish spa

  • the best description of durian’s flavor, courtesy of my mom: “like a cross between peaches...and sardines”

  • the experience of haggling in the hot, crowded markets of Chinatown - and discovering the cooling powers of lime juice

  • the massive flying squirrel (“wing” span probably at least four feet) that swooped gracefully right in front of us at the Night Safari

  • the expressions of utter bafflement at the sheer variety in the carnival-like stalls of the hawker centers

  • the expressions of utter contentment after a wonderful meal at our favorite Thai place (and our favorite Peranakan place, and our favorite Eurasian place, and...)

For us, having visitors also highlighted how we’ve grown to love our little island home, with its greenery and cleanliness and variety and spectacular weather (now that we’ve acclimated to the heat and humidity). We’re proud that we can now drive on the left side of the road and maneuver a large-ish car backward into the tiniest parking spaces. We’re happy that we’ve learned to navigate a complicated world city and find the hidden treasures in its varied cultural enclaves. It seems normal to us now to live in a city that is very Western in some ways and, in other ways, anything but. And while our visitors do get to experience a quick taste of all that Singapore has to offer, we feel lucky to have stayed here long enough to actually find our niche in this place on the other side of the world.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

More on "6 Things I Hate About Singapore"

Usually, posts on this blog generate maybe five comments, tops, within the week or so they’re posted. Then we never hear about them again. This is why it’s so surprising that this post, from back in April 2007, keeps right on going: we’re up to 19 comments so far - not counting a few unprintable anonymous ones we’ve deleted.

A recent comment finally provided the explanation for such popularity: apparently, if you type “hate Singapore” into Google, our little posting is the very first site on the list. (Don’t all go and test it out, now; you’ll only keep it at the top!)

Why this post “hates Singapore” more than any other website, I can’t imagine. The six reasons listed are simple difficulties we had in making the transition to life in Singapore. And anyone who bothered to read the rest of the blog would find it obvious, I think, that we’re fascinated (in a positive way) with the place we now live as expats. In fact, one reason I chose to write the post in the first place was that I feared the blog was becoming a little rose-tinted in its lush descriptions of the cultural and tropical wonders we saw around us every day.

Joey and I can only hope that people who drop by any entry on the blog will read a few more, for context. No single post could explain the complex, baffling, fun, and fascinating experience of trying Singapore.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

New Year's, Take 2

It was our third Chinese New Year in Singapore, and oh, how we’ve adapted. Last year we tossed yu sheng a number of times, watched the Chingay parade, and immersed ourselves in the colors and crowds and noise of Chinatown at night. This year, apparently, we’ve become so blasé about it that, aside from a leisurely daytime stroll through the Chinatown stalls, we hardly did any outside celebrating at all.
It wasn’t entirely our fault.
We scheduled our vacation around the neighborhood CNY potluck, only to have them change the date at the last minute; and our traditional steamboat (huo guo) celebration with close friends was cancelled when the hostess got the flu. (None of this got us off the hook with our friends’ children, though - they all got their hong bao anyway!)

But as it happened, we did most of our celebrating at home, where we finally succumbed to our friends’ pleas to put more decorations up. With just a short few weeks between Christmas and CNY this year, we went straight from the Christmas tree to the “CNY tree” – a vase full of long pussy-willow branches, decorated with a couple of hanging goldfish ornaments. We bought a cute little kumquat tree, too, which reminded us of the oranges people like to exchange this time of year. And we put a couple of lanterns with the fu character (“blessing, good fortune”) out front.

We took down the lanterns at the official close of the holiday two weeks later, and we threw out the pussy-willow branches when (appropriately enough) the cat got interested in the puffy white blossoms. But we’ve still got our kumquat tree to remind us of the golden glow of the Chinese New Year.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Luddite and the ATM

Yes, I know, just because someone is wearing the saffron garb of a monk doesn’t mean he’s a Luddite; we’ve certainly seen our fair share of monks toting cell phones. Still, the flash of bright orange robes in the ATM queue got my attention as one of those things I’d be unlikely to see in the States.

It reminded me, too, of how we’re all impacted by global economics. No matter how much you might try to live a cloistered life – even if you’re a locavore, you’re off the grid, you have someone spinning straw into gold a la Rumpelstilzken – chances are, you have to store some money, somewhere, for later use. Which leaves you standing in line at the local ATM in the hope that your bank is still solvent. Just like everyone else.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009


We’re behind on blogging, but we have a reasonably good excuse: we’re driven to distraction by the newest (and nuttiest) member of our household: a giant orange kitten named Oliver.

We came across Ollie online about a month ago. He’d been dumped next to a construction site and spent a terrified few weeks out in the open before being rescued by a local cattery, where he was under the name of “No-No.” (I admit I don’t understand Chinese names, but surely in a Chinese/English-speaking community this is not the best name for a pet?)

His tufty feet and long fur reminded us of our late, beloved first cat, though he was maybe a tenth the size. Plus, he seemed calm and quiet at the cattery and his age was listed as “mature” – plenty of people love to adopt zany kittens, but we love adult cats and their quieter, more developed personalities.

But once we got our new kitty well fed and well rested, it was clear that he was anything but “mature.” Though we’d guessed already from his bounding jumps and schizophrenic romps up and down the stairs, the vet confirmed it: we had a barely one-year-old kitten on our hands. True, he was already the same size as most adult cats in Singapore, but apparently he has a long way to go before he grows into his outsize feet and massive fluffy tail.

We tried many names (Linus was an early favorite, due to his habit of wrapping his tail around him like a security blanket), but Oliver was the only one he ever answered to. It’s a fittingly Dickensian name, perhaps in tribute to the large, tranquil cat we still miss.

As Chinese New Year came and went, we were reminded that in Singapore, as anywhere, holidays are much better when shared with pets. Ollie, for his part, helped us celebrate Chinese New Year by investigating the decorative pussy-willow branches and making friends with the lion-dance marionette we bought in Chinatown. Sounds auspicious to us.

To find your own fun and fluffy bit of good fortune, take a look at the pets available for adoption at the Singapore SPCA, Cat Welfare Society, or this blog.

Friday, January 23, 2009

New Year's, Take 1

Last year, we celebrated our first New Year’s Eve in Singapore by nursing our collective jet lag from the long flight home, so this New Year’s Eve it seemed appropriate to celebrate in somewhat higher style at the Eurasian Association’s black-tie charity ball - thanks once again to the social involvement and charitable instincts of our good friend Monica.

Fortunately, I’d remembered to pick up a dress while in the US, where most people are not a size 0. And back in Singapore, Joey managed to rent a dashing tuxedo from a local tailor, where he was surprised as they immediately started measuring him. Contrary to his fears that they’d try to hard-sell him a suit on the spot, he quickly discovered that they would be altering the tux to fit exactly - none of that “adjustable” nonsense they have in the US.

Suitably turned out, we arrived at the beautiful Marina Mandarin hotel downtown to spend the last hours of the year with some great friends from many cultures and a band from, possibly, America, given the sometimes unique song choices. (You just haven’t lived until you’ve danced with the whole Eurasian Singaporean community to “Sweet Home Alabama.” How, and why, do they know all the words to sing along?)

Midnight came quickly, with the city’s fireworks drowned out by a massive balloon drop. Balloon drops are quiet, you say? Not when the main reason they’re dropped is so people can pop them with their designer stiletto heels. The result dwarfs the sound of a thousand firecrackers.

Sometime after midnight, we slid into our taxi (pre-booked, to send us straight to the head of the queue - we’re the kiasu ones now!) and went home to sleep. Why such an early end to the night, you ask? Because otherwise we never would have woken up by noon the next day, just in time to get to the American Club and watch the ball drop in New York City, at exactly 1 p.m. Singapore time.