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?