Thursday, January 26, 2012

Vietnam, briefly

I wrote this over the course of a 5 day trip to Saigon.

Jeff and I have decided that it's like finding a 4-leaf clover if we spot 5 people riding a scooter. So far we've only seen 4 at once and some unusual loads including: a tree, 100 balloons, a bookshelf, 4 large bags of coconuts, 8 wooden folding chairs, 6 milk crates full of bottles. 

All adults wear helmets on mopeds, but kids do not. Just hats. Hardly any local women wear skirts. I suppose this is for practical reasons given the main mode of transport. The daily uniform for many older women seems to be pajamas. I guess that's the local version of the leisure suit. 

The CDC says to avoid street food, but we've chosen to ignore this advice. So far so good. We've had some incredible soups costing about a dollar a piece. 

Per Anthony Bourdain's advice we also went to "snail street" and had delicious seafood at an open air restaurant called Lucky. I'd never had cockles before so I wasn't sure if the fact that none of the shells were open was a bad sign. They tasted so good, though! And neither of us got sick so who knows. I guess we got lucky! Beers there were $0.50 a piece and we sat at a kids table on kids chairs just like all the locals. 

Gambling on cards is big here. Seems to be popular with all ages and is even done at family gatherings. 

Nose picking in public is rampant. 

Update: I saw two motos carrying 5 people and one with 6! Three adults, 3 kids. 

We took a day trip to the Mekong Delta, which was super touristy. I can't really say it was worth it, especially when we heard from some Australians that on the Cu Chi tunnels tour they got to shoot AK-47s. I didn't want to do that tour because I knew I wouldn't want to crawl through narrow underground tunnels. Oh well. 

People do still wear the conical hats, although mainly just people working outdoors.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Out of the comfort zone

On Sunday I went on the treetop walk at MacRitchie reservoir. The portion of the walk in the trees is pretty short (although quite picturesque) and the rest of the walk is uphill on the way there and downhill on the way back. Needless to say, my calves are killing me. It's a good hurt, though.

There is so much to hear in the forest. I wanted to just stand still and listen at times (and rest!) but then a group would come along behind me being so loud, one even carrying a radio. I can't understand why you'd want to bring your own soundtrack to a tropical forest.

At one point I had paused beside a freshwater stream and two British women came along. One saw a bug and screamed and then the other screamed. Instantly the noise in the trees around me picked up to a much more intense shriek. It was like all the insects and frogs and whatever else were complaining about the ruckus. After the women passed by, the wildlife quieted back down.

When walking around Singapore there is a little moment every time I spot another white person and I know it's not just me because I have noticed many whites looking right at me, almost quizzically. I know they are thinking the same thing I am: where are you from and how did you wind up here? This gaze is held even longer when the encounter occurs outside of touristy areas.

Note: this is not the case if the whites are carrying maps in their hands. It's only when each white person clearly knows where she's headed and is wearing business attire (ie, not a tourist, although I have caught tourists looking at me with the gaze). It's not like there are so few whites, but we're definitely in the minority. And it's not even as if the others are American!

It's a strange thing. It's one of those things that's difficult to describe and you won't entirely believe me until you are in a similar situation.

It's the same way you can tell someone that it takes living in another country for at least a couple months to really appreciate that you are really and truly an American. So many of us believe that we don't belong in the US, that we're European, especially, at heart. But if you ask most anyone who has lived abroad for some time they will tell you that it was a wonderful experience and it was a bit of reverse culture shock to come back but they did realize they are American through and through. Try it. Ask around. There will be exceptions, of course.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

My motto is to try anything once

Christmas is huge in Singapore even though only half the country is Christian. Equally big is Chinese new year, which is coming up next week. Various celebratory foods and clothes, mainly for kids, are for sale everywhere.

I pass a construction site on my way to the train every day. When I came home at 9pm last night, I heard clanging and banging in there. I wonder if it's being worked on all night long.

Yong Tau Foo
This morning I took the small road next to the building as usual. A forklift zoomed by and a cherry picker was slowly maneuvering into place. Several men were walking across the road carrying heavy loads. I asked one man if it was still okay to go that way. He nodded in the affirmative and pointed the way. I walked quickly beneath the cherry picker and made my way to the station. I guess the onus is on the pedestrian to determine if it's safe to walk there?

I am in love with Australian nectarines. Oh man are they ever juicy and sweet. So far every day I have eaten two for breakfast along with some sort of soft bread thing from a bakery. The bakeries are everywhere. They sell these soft breads with a variety of toppings such as ham & cheese or coconut cream and chocolate sprinkles. My favorite so far have been the cheesy ones because they're a bit salty.

Would you guess that dried figs are good? I would not but I took a chance. And they are very good! I guess they are what's in Fig Newtons, but I'm not particularly fond of those, I think because they are too cakey.

I really miss knives. It doesn't help that often the chicken is hacked into pieces that include bones. And yet one is expected to dissect it with a fork and spoon.

The other day I got a soup at a place called Yong Tau Foo that was very delicious. You pick out the ingredients with a pair of tongs and then the proprietor puts them into a noodle soup for you (after you choose which type of noodle you want). There's no meat, just seafood, tofu and vegetables. I thought it was pretty great but come to find out this is a style of soup and there are way better stands that sell it. I can't wait to try the best one.

Beef stew
When I told my trainee (a Chinese Singaporean) that I liked the soup he replied, "Okay only lah." That means "meh" as best as I can tell. Or, in other words, he doesn't think much of the soup place I went to. Singaporeans say "lah" a lot. It means pretty much anything and is perhaps akin to the Canadian "eh?"

The other day I went to the Hungry Hippo for lunch with some coworkers. We sat down and a waitress brought menus and took drink orders. Today I went back because I was told the the beef stew special on Wednesdays is not to be missed. I sat down in the corner and proceeded to be ignored. I finally flagged down the waitress. She said "you sit here?!", laughed, and walked away. Frustrated, I got up and walked to the cashier. "I'd like to order the beef stew to stay." "Do you have a table?" "Yes!" "Well go sit down." I have no idea what I did wrong there but so what because that beef stew was indeed to die for.


In 2010 I did a 365 photo project where I managed to take photos 350 days out of the 365. In 2011 I made a more ambitious attempt to record a short video every day. That wound up being simply too hard to accomplish, so I gave up. I missed this challenge, so this year I'm trying something new. I'm doing a photo collage every day. So far, I'm really liking this challenge, but I'm only a week in (I started a couple days late). The idea is to have the photos be more a day in the life sort of snapshot. Stay tuned to see how it evolves.


Entries on my previous month-long stint in Singapore start here.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Escape to Indonesia

I took a ferry over to Batam, Indonesia, on Saturday. The boat sped between the huge oil tankers anchored around Singapore Bay.

Tree house room
Shortly after arriving, I saw a giant lizard crossing the road right in front of the taxi! The driver had to stop the car so that the huge lizard could waddle across the road. I thought was a Komodo Dragon, but apparently they are quite rare and that is unlikely.

I stayed at a resort with 8 rooms, one of which is the tree house room. I decided to splurge and stay in that one and I'm so glad I did. The bed is suspended from the ceiling and I was rocked to sleep. I'm not sure it would be as enjoyable with two people making it rock every time one person moved, however.

I got a deal on a couples spa package so instead of 3 hours of spa time I got all 6 hours. This may have been a tad too much spa time, but I can't say I regret it at all. On Saturday afternoon I got a Balinese massage, a facial, and a scalp massage. The scalp one is meant to do something for your hair. I don't know if it did, nor do I really care because the real reason I chose it is was for the washing and massaging.

On Sunday I had a shiatsu massage, a hot compress massage and a body scrub. I had never had shiatsu before. I'm definitely a fan of it now. It poured that day so instead of getting a tour of the island, I was taken to the mega-mall. As you can imagine, it's all relative just how mega it is.

The Indonesian rupiah coins feel like play money. I think they might be made of plastic. At an actually mega grocery store in the basement of the mall I bought a sackful of tasty snacks that cost me $3.50 US. They sell dourian cookies. I wonder if it's illegal to bring dourian cookies on the train in Singapore like it's illegal to bring a whole dourian.

At a traffic light in Batam there were signs that count down how many seconds are left before it changes red and green. So useful!

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Settling in in Singapore

Takeaway boxes are cardboard with a big sheet of plastic laid inside. You then wrap it around the food. This is probably less likely to leak than those stupid styrofoam containers. 

I am staying in a sort of compound in a condo that has seen better days. The plus sides are that there are 4 pools on the compound and a private washer and dryer. And the condo has 2 bathrooms, which is certainly a luxury, although not so much until Jeff arrives. I wish I had brought my running stuff because there is a trail as well. I thought I was kidding myself in thinking that I'd spend any time exercising. Hell, I probably still am. 

There isn't a lot near the compound except for a small hawker center (8 stands), an even smaller hawker center (3 stands), a small grocery store, a yogurt store that has not yet been open, and a bread store where I bought a package of chocolate bread (hot dog buns with a little bit of chocolate sprinkles and cream inside). Everything looks the same around the compound. Two of the three times I went out I walked exactly the opposite direction I thought I was going.

At the hawker center last night was a family with 3 young kids and a woman who must have been the auntie (nanny). The parents were rather manic while the auntie was completely calm. The father told her to grab a high chair for the youngest child, which she did. The toddler refused and she put it back. I guarantee the auntie knew it was fruitless. I know the culture of having a live-in nanny in a tiny apartment is the norm here but I still have a hard time accepting it. 

I learned yesterday that men are called uncle, no matter the age of either party. I gather it's instead or "sir" and no doubt less formal. 

The commute to the office is about 45 mins -- a bit more of a hike than the 20 mins it took when I stayed in a hotel right downtown last time. 

No one would ever try bubble tea on looks and description alone. I'm thinking you have to be told it's good by someone you trust. I ponder how gross tapioca pearls look every time I eat them. 

Christmas music is still playing all over Singapore. It's January 2nd. How long will this go on?! Enough already!

Pedicures are not cheap here. I guess the nail salons know they'll always be in demand in a place where it's always summer. I was handed a magazine to read while I got my calluses soaked off (magical! But the product would set me back $50 so I'm not sure I'm that desperate to soak them off myself at home). I read a magazine called Her World, which is published here in Singapore. The ads feature primarily white women, though. One for LancĂ´me described a special formulation specially for Asian skin, alongside a photo of Julia Roberts. 

I walked all over the Ion Orchard mall this evening searching for the sushi place I fell in love with last time. I finally found it and naturally it was not as good as I remembered.