Sunday, November 27, 2011

all roads lead to decatur

I left to a pizza party.  I returned to a room full of balloons.

I am back from Singapore.  I've been back.  Weeks ago, Rita and Sarah risked abandoning children to the care of the dads and picked me up at the airport on a Wednesday night.  With the time changes, my body felt like it was Thursday morning.  I'd left something like 26 hours prior.  Visited Tokyo (but stayed in the terminal, thus depriving my passport of a Japan stamp).  Visited Chicago (but also stayed in the terminal, and was close to brain dead at that point).  And home.  

My friends.  My bed.  My stuff.  My tv, my books, my movies, my wonderful condo.  An empty fridge, no cable, but my place.  I spend time just walking around and looking at everything.  Despite being on the verge of a coma, I stay up 2 hours more with nervous energy.  I start unpacking (I do this fairly often when I travel.  I don't like leaving junk in the suitcase for a week).  

I have thought much about the things I want to do first.  Drive.  See friends.  Eat pizza and Chickfila and play with iTunes and download all the music that came out while I was gone.  
I do all these things and more.  (pizza actually took awhile, because as an awesome present, the Singapore work people threw me a pizza party the day before I left.  It was completely cool.  And yummy.)

Adjusting to the time difference was easier coming back.  Attempting to stay up as much as possible on the long flight helped.  

Went into work a few days later, and had a nice group waiting as I got off the elevator.  Too cool.  My office was the same as I'd left it, only now it was filled almost to the ceiling with balloons.  Opening the door, they began to spill out onto the floor.  I dove in to an ocean of candy colored balloon madness. 

Tuesday, November 1, 2011


Technically, I've been to Malaysia.  I say 'technically', though it was a real trip, and not some sort of stopover where I didn't get off the bus.  But it also wasn't the type of trip to really see the country.  Unless you count visiting a mall as really seeing the country.

In 3 months, I did extraordinarily little travel.  No visits to Thailand, flights to Taiwan, or half broken ferry rides to Indonesia.  For one, none of those places- while certainly beautiful- have ever been exceptionally high on my places to visit list.  For another, I'm absolutely terrible at planning any sort of travel (I prefer to let other people book the flights, hotels and trip, and I'll just hand over my money).  Being cheap about travel doesn't help.  But, largely, the factor was that I was by myself.  I don't mind doing things alone (except for seeing movies in the theater, which I've done, and it's a fairly humiliating feeling).  But travel, especially to someplace exotic, that's something that should be done WITH someone.  And I've been alone virtually the entire time here.  You may think a visit to a scenic jungle island is exciting, but you're probably imagining going with significant others, or friends, or family.  I certainly do.  So, in the end, I didn't really travel.  No regrets on that front either.

But's literally on the other side of the bridge.  To NOT go there would be something of a disgrace.  It was a 3 month trip here, and not finding the time or drive to make a 15 minute journey would be akin to failure.

Two weekends ago, I made the trip.  My Singapore friends were slightly less than encouraging, especially knowing that I'd be going alone.  Malaysia is high in crime, I'm warned.  Watch my wallet.  Pay attention to surroundings.  If I bring a bag, hold it in front of me at all times.  Horror stories abounded:  walking down the street, petty criminals on motorcycles drive by, grab the bag off your shoulder and speed off- and if you don't let go, they'll happily drag you along the road until your bloody hand lets go.  If you're mugged, give them the money.  Otherwise they knock you out, steal all your stuff anyway, then dump you in a deserted jungle field miles from the city, forcing you to walk back begging for help along the way.   Malaysia reminds me of the worst parts of Florida (actually, for that matter, this whole area of the world reminds me of Florida).

On a Saturday, I went.  There are a few options to get there, but the easiest is to take the Johor Bahru Express.  JB, as it's called, is the city in Malaysia on the other side.  As far as I can tell, it exists primarily to be a close point of contact in Malaysia to Singapore.  It's a bit like the cool town on the other side of the border that has looser laws, so people go there to buy alcohol on Sunday (a reference my Georgia friends will get, because GEORGIA IS LAME AND DOESN'T SELL ALCOHOL ON SUNDAYS).  I again find myself at a vaguely sketch bus depot, buy a ticket from a toothless man for $2.40, and hop on the bus.  Nobody directly stares, but let me tell you I'm out of place.  This is another good reason for iPods to exist.  

The drive is uneventful, as all 15 minute drives should be.  We stop halfway, on an island in the middle of the ocean, for immigration.  Here I get my passport stamped, as my goal is to have my passport one day look like the intro to European Vacation.   Then it's back downstairs, back onto the bus, and I'm dumped off at a bus depot in Malaysia.  

The first thing I realize is that my coworkers were right to be worried on one front- the official language of Malaysia is not English.  A good bit of signs have English subtitles, but not all of them.  I make my way to the money exchange, and am thrilled to see my $50 Singapore become about $150 Malaysian.  Woohoo!  I'm Scrooge McDuck, and Malaysia just became my Money Bin.  Awesome.  
Over a small bridge/walkway, I head into the mall.  As far as I can tell, this mall's sole purpose is to serve the daily shoppers from Singapore.  This mall was my sole destination.  I wandered around for close to 2 hours.  My lunch was ice cream (two scoops of which ended up costing US$3.  Malaysia is way cheap about food).  I ended up in some sort of skater/Malaysian Hot Topic and bought two tshirts.  Because I can't take this trip to Malaysia and NOT buy something.  Everyone speaks English, which is a bonus.  I learn one of the shirts is from California, which greatly amuses me.  I go outside and walk around the outside of the mall a bit, to get as authentic a Malaysian experience as possible.  It's what you'd expect.  Lots of motorcycles. Lots of rain. 
But, as a border town, there's nothing really to do here but shop.  And I've done that.  There are certainly things to do in Malaysia, but they're all hours away.  It's not uncommon for people to hop on the bus for 5 hours to get somewhere.  This is clearly insane, but I understand options are limited, and the bus is indeed cheap.  I make a note that if I'm ever out in this area of the world again, I'll be sure to plan a longer weekend for Malaysia.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

zoo station

I'm not normally a big fan of zoos.  They're depressing.  There's not much worse than seeing an animal that you normally see (on tv) running and jumping and eating an antelope just sitting around.  Or sleeping.  Usually sleeping.  On a small island of land smaller than the Brady Bunch backyard.  Zoos are really just animal jail.  
I read the Life of Pi a few years ago, and there's a section at the beginning that talks about zoos.  Specifically, why zoos aren't so bad.  Of course, I forget the arguments (the animals are safe?  they get antelope burgers delivery?), but it did do a bit to sway my opinion.  (side note: I enjoyed the book.  I recommend it, though it's not for everyone.  It's sort of a cross between actual literature and an airport book.  And it has this bit at the end where the author whonks you on the side of the head to say "GET IT?!", which is annoying.  But overall, I quite liked the book)

And as there's little left in Singapore to do, I went to the zoo this past weekend.  There are really two parks: the Night Safari, and the Zoo.  They are right beside each other, but are totally separate.  You can buy combo passes, and are encouraged to do so, but it's possible to only visit one if you'd like.  I went to both.  On separate days, but not by choice.

In a move that reeks of absolute genius, the two parks don't have overlapping operating hours.  There's a window of about an hour and a half where both are closed.  Thus, to visit both parks in the same day requires good timing.  Otherwise, you'll finish the zoo too early and be stuck waiting hours for the Night Safari to open.  The key is to get to the zoo late, and when you leave to have as minimal waiting time as possible for the Night Safari.  I missed that window.  

The zoo stops letting people in 30 minutes before it actually closes (how many places did I work that I wished had THAT policy?), and so no entry that day for me.  This meant a solid hour- at least- of sitting around waiting for the Night Safari.  I visited all the gift shops.  I passed on the $15 burger (it wasn't antelope).  I considered paying $10 to have 'doctor fish' nibble the skin of my feet, but then realized paying $10 to have nightmares is a bad idea.

Eventually it opened, and I safaried away.  Night Safari was smaller than I expected, and less exciting.  I'd been told that it was the better of the two, and certainly more unique.  You start off on a tram, taking a tour of the park.  It's a small circuit, and the whole ride is done in under 20 minutes.  You're given the chance to hop off halfway (conveniently at the store & restaurant) and walk around, but I rode the full circuit.  There are slooooow dooooowns every so often to check out the animals.  At the end of the loop, you can go back and walk around, so I did.  The good thing about the Night Safari is that the animals are indeed out and about.  Mostly they seemed to be eating.  The bad things are that (as I learned the next day), they're pretty much the exact same animals they've got at the zoo, and, since it's dark, you can't really take pictures.  You could try, but without flash it's just a dark muddled blur.  
Still, I walked around and generally enjoyed it.  For some reason, Psycho Lunatic was given permission to design one section of the park:  the Night Cave (it has a different name, but I don't remember it and there's no way I'm looking it up).  This is a plaster tunnel, designed to look like a cave, with plastic cages set into the walls.  The animals inside are:  rats, snakes, and centipedes.  It is the Worst Thing Ever.  I can't imagine anyone on the planet finds it enjoyable.  I looked around for some matches and kindling, thinking I would do the world a favor and burn the monstrosity to the ground, but no luck.  I imagine Singapore frowns upon zoo terrorism, even if it's for a good cause.  

The next day, it was back to the zoo.  I'd have gone a different weekend, but my combo pass I bought a month ago expired that day.  I'm glad I went- the Singapore Zoo was pretty enjoyable.  For one, they've got otters.  OTTERS ARE AWESOME.  All parks should have otters.  For another, they had loads of different types of monkeys.  The more monkeys, the better the zoo.  Even though it was essentially in the tropics in the middle of the day, all the animals seemed to be active.  Monkeys, rhino, giraffe, more monkeys, pygmy hippo, regular hippo, white tiger, lion, tapir, lemur, bats, zebra and more.  They all looked well treated, they all seemed to have a decent amount of space (except for the tigers, who zoos must hate because every zoo has tigers on a rinky dink island that could double as a putting green).  
I spent several hours walking around, and only part of that time was because I got turned around and walked to the far side of the zoo again. 

And with that, the checklist of things to do in Singapore was complete.  I've got this upcoming weekend, then one more after that.  I've got a new mini checklist of things to do these last two weekends, but home is in sight.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

haw par villa, land of crazy

All that was missing was the actual golf course.  And the hallucinogenic drugs.

Last weekend I finally visited Haw Par Villa, a 'theme park' in town.  This description is technically correct:  it is indeed a park, and there is a theme.  But it's missing every other aspect of what you'd think would be there.  There are no rides.  No rigged games of chance.  No cotton candy machines.  Instead, on a small hill on the south side of the island, and consisting of a winding path, is a land of crazy and bad acid trips.

The overall theme of Haw Par Villa is lessons from Chinese mythology, with an emphasis on hell.  Along the path are 'statues' depicting various scenes of insanity, apparently.  They're the type of statues one would find at a miniature golf course.  Except instead of windmills, you're treated to a gigantic crab with a woman's head.  Or some rats and elephants, dressed in blue slacks, white button-up shirts and ties, with spears and guns, overseeing two gigantic grasshoppers kissing.  A central highlight of Haw Par Villa is the tunnel of hell.  Here the lucky visitor is treated to graphic scenes depicting the various stages and judgements of hell in Chinese lore.  There's a 'frozen pool', a pool of 'filthy blood', and statues of various people being tortured.  It's quite a treat to walk through, seeing a scene showing a person bent over a log and being cut in two by a huge saw, complete with loads and loads of blood.  Oh yes- blood everywhere.  Chinese hell is full of blood.  And even though you must be dead to be in hell, if you're a sinner you get to die again, clearly in a bloody manner.  

Elsewhere in the park are various statues of animals from foreign countries.  There's a whole row of kangaroos, for example.  Or the family of gorillas bearing a striking resemblance to Homer Simpson.  At another section, there's a wall of scenes from everyday life.  Assuming, of course, that your everyday life is full of car accidents with bleeding victims, or ships sinking while being attacked by men wearing fish costumes.  

The park is generally hard to describe- it's really not much more than a path up a hill, with decorations.  But those decorations are SO weird, and there are a lot of them.
The whole park is fairly small, which works to the visitors advantage by minimizing the nightmares you'll have later.  If it were any larger, there are doubtless people who might never recover.  I, of course, thought it was totally interesting, but won't be in a rush to get back.  


Thursday, October 6, 2011

a forest full of rain

In the middle of Singapore is the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve.  Like most other nature reserves, it's mostly walking trails through trees, with the occasional small animal sighting.  
What makes Bukit Timah unique is that the 'nature' is technically a rain forest.  A real deal, southeast Asian rain forest, right in the middle of the city.  It's advertised as one of only two rain forests in an urban setting in the world (this being a selling point because one would think that "urban" and "rain forest" would be mutually exclusive).  Bukit Timah was my destination for the day.

Despite Singapore not being gigantic, and despite it being in the middle of the city,  it took a longer cab ride than you would think to get there. There's no train stop nearby (in theory one is opening THIS SATURDAY, but not when I went), so a taxi had to do.  As I got dropped off, I noticed that the other visitors here had all driven.  I realized that leaving was going to be a bit of a problem, but I'd worry about that when it came time to leave.

On the map here you'll see the various trails.  The color highlights are the 'major' trails- wide, paved, clearly marked.  There are thin grey lines sprouting off from them- these are the smaller, unpaved, hiking-type trails.  They've got various degrees of difficulty- yellow is considered 'difficult', blue was 'easy', and so on.  Blue should take about 30 mins, yellow 1 hr 45 mins.  Red, yellow and green all basically end up at the same place- the summit of the park, some 500 ft. above sea level.  I decide to walk up red, then back down green.  Figure this will take me...about an hour.  Off I go.

The beginning would be easy, since it's paved, but it's extraordinarily steep.  I wouldn't be surprised if they carve steps into the path one day.   The walk up is fairly uneventful.  There are some signs warning me not to feed the monkeys (Monkeys! Yay! Best nature reserve ever!).  A few other signs here and there tell me what type of tree I'm looking at, or to keep an eye out for various endangered animals.  I'm in the rain forest, but honestly this looks and feels like a walking trail through the middle of Florida.  There was a brief rain storm as I arrived, so everything is wet and humid, but it looks to be drying quickly, and I make good time.  

At the summit, there's a rock giving you the latitude & longitude of where you are, some benches, and a gazebo type place to rest.  This is nice I guess, but if this is a rain forest I don't see the fuss and distinction.  So it's time to head back down, and I look for the green trail.  On second thought, this was pretty easy- let's look for the yellow trail and take that loop around.  It's got to be around here somewhere.  Ah- that post has a yellow band on it- that's it.  

The path I'm on is now unpaved.  It goes down the hill pretty steeply;  there are steps that are easily a foot high, and some of the larger steps are 2 ft.  It feels less like a trail staircase than a climb.  At this point, the warning system in my head starts some low level beeping- if this trail loops around back to the summit, then this insane downhill staircase is going to have a twin insane uphill climb.  Still I trudge onward, because now it's starting to look like a rain forest.  It's really humid, and the trail is getting a bit exhausting.

Wow, this trail is longer than I thought.  The trail is really just a muddy path- it looks more like a path carved by water running down the mountain.  I've seen 2-3 other hikers though, and along with the occasional marker post, I know I'm at least ON a trail.  But this...this isn't easy.  The trail is 2-3 feet wide at best, and in sections it's only half a foot wide.  It's still pretty wet from the earlier rain, and there are exposed tree branches and rocks all around.  And it keeps going and going.  

Finally, after what seems like forever, I come across another one of those bench/hut/gazebo things.  I'd seen a few spots like this on the walk up to the summit, and know that they've got a trail map posted.  
I am not on the yellow trail.  Not on the main yellow trail anyway.  I am on one of the side grey trails.  The insanely long one, that goes waaaaaay to the edge of the park border.  And I'm at the hut that's at the absolute farthest point from anything.  (If you care to look at the map again, and can make it out, there's a tiny red square at the very top of the map labelled something like 'Dairy Hut'- that's where I am at this point).  
I'm tired, but not exhausted.  I can either keep going forward, or backtrack.  Each looks like it'll be equally difficult.  I press on.

The trail doesn't get any easier.  15-20 minutes past the hut, and I make it to the next little hut on the path.  It's disappointing how long it took me to get here.  It's calming, but the headphones on my iPod are starting to glitch and stop playing in one ear.  It's super hot.  Forward is the only way to go.  
A little further on, and I hit the upward stairs.  The FIRST batch of upward stairs.  It's solidly 3-4 stories tall, and each step looks gigantic.  I sit on the first mini landing and take stock.  I haven't been camping in years, haven't reallllly been hiking in ages.  I'm no survival expert.  But I lived in Alaska as a kid, went to high school in Colorado, and am not an idiot when it comes to the outdoors.  I think:  I have no phone.  I am not wearing proper hiking shoes.  I have no water.  I have nothing to eat, not even a candy bar.  There's a possibility the monkeys will attack.  I've seen other people on the trail, but not many.  Realistically I figure I could go 20 minutes before seeing another person.  I am not in total danger, but a twisted ankle could get really bad really quick.  I now notice that there is a mist or steam coming from the's coming from ME.  In addition to having no water, I am sweating galore, and steam is rising off my shoulders and head- I think I must look like some football player from the old NFL Films.  "Down to their last timeout, the team turned to star player Dan Warnick to yet another miraculous comeback", the voice intones.  I'm losing fluid, and must be another 20 minutes from the summit.  Must keep moving.  Carefully, but quickly.

Good lord these steps are immense.  You walk up 30 of them, walk another 50 yards, and there's ANOTHER bunch of steps.  My sole focus is just getting back to the main path.  This is slightly easier since the iPod earphones finally stopped working entirely on the left hand side.  More stairs.  Walking.  More...and oh sweet yes it's a paved trail.  I'm back on the main yellow.  

I'm exhausted, but being on the main trail again is rejuvenating.  Plenty of people here, I know where I am, and I know there's a water fountain at the bottom.  I make it back, and that water fountain is my best friend.  I twisted no ankles.  Wasn't attacked by monkeys.  Got some good photos and a cool story.  And saw a rain forest up close and personal.  Now, to find a way out of here.  Looking at the map, it looks like there's a mall fairly close by.  They always have taxis there, so I head out.

On the road out of the park, HOLY COW HOW DID I MISS THIS-  monkeys.  MONKEYS, PEOPLE!  Lots of monkeys!  There's a whole bunch of monkeys- there's got to be 40 or 50 just chilling out in this clearing by the park.  They're smallish, tan, and have long tails.  They are cool.  There are signs about the monkeys- don't feed them, don't leave your backpack on the ground and not pay attention (the monkeys will steal things from it), don't walk between two monkeys.  It is awesome monkey zone.  I resist all urge to start Oooh Oooh Aahh Aaah! to them (I make a quite good ooh ooh aah aah monkey noise), as I don't want to have a field full of monkeys attack me if I offend them.  

It's close to dinner time when I get a taxi at the mall, and I'm thinking I could easily sleep until the next morning.  But I've seen a rain forest and I've got pictures of wild monkeys, and it has been a most interesting day.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

art. science. artscience!

If you find yourself in Singapore, and you're the type of person who enjoys visiting art museums, you don't have many options.  
The lesser of the two real choices is the Singapore Art Museum.  Any art museum, in my opinion, is worth a visit on some level.  And if it's free, like this one was, all the better.  But it's a good thing it was free, as there wasn't much going on.  Several of the gallery rooms were closed for upgrades/renovations/new installations, though when I peeked through the crack in the door they were just empty rooms.  No sign of upgrades, or renovations, or new installations.   The main feature was an exhibit of works by Liu Kang, an artist I'd never heard of.  Feel free to look him up, but not my favorite artist I've seen.  Annnd...yeah, that was about it.  There were two other sections with art, but none were very memorable.  But hey- it's art.  And it was free.  Can't go wrong there.  

The other main art museum here is the ArtScience museum (Singapore gets right to the point with their museum names).  If you've seen pictures, it's the building that's shaped like a lotus.  Or a bowl with fingers.  Three exhibitions are happening here at the moment:  Salvador Dali, Van Gogh, and shipwreck treasures.  
We start with Dali.  In my experience, most people who like art like Dali.  In fact, I've known a lot of people who don't care for art who like Dali.  I like art, and I like Dali.  But I also know that Dali's quality went somewhat downhill in the later years, and this exhibit was almost exclusively later years (lots of stuff from the 70s).  This is not to say it was bad though.  There was a nice collection of watercolors, statues, paintings, and more. 
The next level down is the Van Gogh exhibit.  It is distinctly lacking in any actual Van Gogh art though.  HOWEVER, this exhibit was totally interesting. You go in through a door, and into a long, dark room.  The room is wide, and easily two stories tall.  It's barely lit, except for large screen projections of various Van Gogh works on the walls.  There is classical music playing throughout, and the projections change every 15-30 seconds.  A few benches are throughout the hall, so one can sit and just enjoy the show.  I spend a good 20 minutes here, just enjoying the art and music.  True, there's no real Van Gogh pieces here, but the experience is good.
The last exhibit is the shipwreck treasures.  It might be a letdown after the Van Gogh, but it also might be a letdown because it's "shipwreck treasures".  To you this may conjure images of gold dubloons, pieces of eight...pirates.  In reality, it is almost exclusively clay jars.  A few bits of gold here and there, but mostly jars.  Broken jars, decorated jars, sealed jars, jars still covered in barnacles.  

As I leave, I make a mental note to make a new painting once I'm back to Atlanta.  I've got an empty wall, and Van Gogh and Dali would be disappointed if I left it blank any longer.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

let's go sentosa

I've been advised a few times that of the many attractions in Singapore, most of them are boring.  To tell people of a place to go is to get a roll of the eyes, or a blank stare, and almost definitely a straight "borrrring."  It's unsurprising- how often do local people really visit the tourist areas?  

One of the few places to get a "oh yes- definitely go there" is Sentosa Island.  A small island just off the Southern shore of Singapore, Sentosa is a recreation/resort area.  I thought of it as something like a mini Orlando.  No residences- it's only hotels, tourists, and photo opportunities.  

It's a short train ride to get to Sentosa.  Two train rides really- one that takes you to the edge of Singapore proper, then the Sentosa Express to take you the rest of the way.  Or you could take Option #3 like I did, which is to walk across the bridge.  The Express is free, but I thought the walk would be a more unique option.  I must have been the only one thinking that though- I saw a grand total of 3 other people the entire walk.  

When I got to Sentosa, it was a ghost town.  I knew it was supposed to be popular, so that was striking.  Restaurants were closed, there didn't seem to be many stores at all, and the whole place was shaping up to be a disappointment immediately.

I shouldn't have worried.  Because I walked, I arrived at the island at a different place than people riding the train.  When I finally got to that area, that's where the people were.  Whew- at least I'm not here on some freak day when everything is closed.

There's a Universal Studios there, but I didn't go.  I saw no roller coasters (and strangely, no rides whatsoever), and a park with no visible rides isn't somewhere for me. There's another Merlion, I'd guess about 5 stories tall.  No water shooting out of its mouth, but you could buy a ticket to walk up to the top.  
There's a Butterfly Park, which I DID buy a ticket for.  I didn't know what to expect (butterflies?  a park?), but was told it was something interesting to do.

The Butterfly Park is a small, enclosed walkway.  With butterflies.  The main 'room' is fairly jungle-like, with a small stream and a miniature waterfall.  The next area had some more parrot/macaws (pretty much the same ones that were at the Bird Park), but no butterflies.  I assume because the parrots would eat the butterflies, but who knows.  What do parrots eat anyway?  Peanuts?  Pirate treasure?  I'll go with bugs, which includes butterflies.  

With no other agenda, I decide to just wander through the rest of the island.  It's a short walk to the other side, and...a beach.  I had few agenda items for my trip here, but visiting a beach was on the short list.  If you've been to the....less attractive...beaches that Florida has to offer, you get the idea.  Small waves, the beach was more like a tiny circular inlet.  Out in the ocean were shipping vessels, and the whole effect was vaguely...industrial.  Still, there's no way I'm getting this close to the ocean and not getting in.  Shoes off, I wade in, letting my feet sink into the sand a bit with each wave.  It's when I walk back onto the beach that I realize I have no towel.  And my feet are soaking, and covered in sand.  Crap.  I can't put my shoes on either (though they're really more like sandals).  I'm going to have to go find some grass.  
Success!  There's a bathroom fairly close by.  Just a barefoot walk on the scorching sidewalk to get there.  More success!  There's a kiddie sink just a few feet off the ground- definitely low enough to rinse my feet off.  Sand is all gone.  If only there was a way to now dry my feet.  Singapore is not a fan of paper towels, napkins, or other devices to dry or clean that involve something other than hot air.  A few awkward moments of trying to hold my foot up to the air dryer, I manage to not totally fall over, and my feet are mostly okay enough to put the shoes back on.

On the map, the whole area I've walked looks like 1/2 the island, but it only took 5-10 minutes to cover.  I decide to save a bike ride down the road along the beach for another visit, and make my way back to where I stay.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

birds and an unexpected tour

Going through the various tourist guides available, a few attractions seem to come up repeatedly.  There's a zoo.  There are some parks.  A few statues or monuments.  And there's a bird park.  
Jurong Bird Park, to be precise.  It promises untold wonders- thousands of exotic birds, a full spectrum of colors, some endangered or threatened, and a great many birds that I've never seen and will never see again.  I am assured by the people at work that the Bird Park is boring.  It is the kind of place you visit once as a child for school, then never revisit unless you are desperate to show a tourist somewhere to go. OR, I suppose, if you just like birds.  I like birds.

Getting to the Jurong Bird Park is a minor adventure.  There is no close by train station, and it's way too far to walk.  Taking a taxi is a possibility, but it seems like a waste of money.  There's a bus.  I hate the bus, but it's going to have to do.  I get VERY DETAILED instructions on what to do, because I find bus maps thoroughly confusing.  I take the train a full 25 minutes to the almost-last-stop.  It is- shockingly- at a mall.  I manage to find the bus depot, and stand in line for my bus- I am feeling decent because at least one other person in line is clearly a tourist and clearly on the way to the Bird Park.  I shall follow you stranger- discreetly so I don't look like I don't know what I'm doing (I have very detailed instructions, but still think I don't know what I'm doing.  I am surprisingly un-confident when it comes to riding the bus).  

The bus ride is uneventful, and drops us at a stop near the Bird Park.  Just outside the gates is a small pavilion with 4 or 5 blue & yellow parrots.  Or macaws.  Stereotypical jungle exotic birds.  HOORAY!  As they're really the only thing I wanted to see, I consider saving my money and turning around now.  As I have zero other plans for the entire weekend, I decide that's stupid and head in.  

The park is fairly small.  It's essentially a circle route, with various bird areas every so often.  There's the Night Birds- it's in an enclosed hallway, the lights are almost entirely off, and there are rooms made up to look like nighttime areas.  One is a barn, one is a forest, that sort of thing.  Almost all of these birds are owls.  I make a mental note to reread Harry Potter when I get back to the US, because owls are awesome.  
I hear some crowd noise after exiting, and head over to a small arena.  It's fairly packed, especially since the park didn't seem too busy.  It's one of those 'shows', with a host wearing a microphone headset and some assistants with birds.  I stay enough to watch a cockatoo and a parrot race to see which can put some wooden trinket things into a box the fastest.  The parrot wins, the crowd goes crazy, and both birds get a treat.  Big crowds in arenas like that creep me out- these people are WAY too excited about watching this to be sane.  

I continue around, taking the occasional picture.  The birds seem to have enough room, but there's no doubt they're all in enclosed cages.  I see some of them flying from one side to the other, while others are hard to spot as they hide in the branches.  There are indeed some fairly exotic birds- parrots, macaws, toucans- things straight out of PBS specials.  A few are more common but still neat- ostriches, emus, flamingos, pelicans, swans.  

I particularly liked the Birds of Prey section, because part of me is still an 8 year old boy.  They have a bald eagle, and the sign on the cage helpfully points out "the bald eagle is the symbol of the United States of America."  AMERICA.  Wooooo!  I take a picture of that bad boy.  

It is halfway through the tour before I realize that my brain has YET to make a single Angry Birds reference.  I rectify the situation by making Angry Birds references to myself the entire rest of the time I'm there.  I start looking for materials on the ground- twigs and such- to build a little structure in hopes that I can entice a bird to come close enough to sort of knock it over.  I spot a kid with an Angry Birds tshirt (there is a LOT of Angry Birds merchandise in Singapore), and I wonder if that game is the reason he's here.  And then I further wonder if that game will somehow be responsible for a sudden spike in Bird Zoology specialists in 20 years.  Weird.

It's threatening to rain most of the time I'm there, but never does.  All told I made my way around the park and probably finished in an hour.  It wasn't boring, but it's also not the sort of place you're going to go unless you're in Singapore for awhile and looking for things to do.

With nothing else on the agenda, it's time to make my way back to the area where I'm staying.  I make my way back to the bus stop and wait.  There are two possible bus numbers that could come by, and either will get me back to the depot.  What I didn't know was that ONE of them takes a much, much longer route to get there.  That would be the bus I hopped on.  

I realized something was amiss immediately- not a single other tourist got on the bus with me.  PEOPLE did, but none that looked like they'd just spent the day gawking at birds.  Whatever- this bus will get me there.

It is useless knowledge to know that the Jurong Bird Park is right near a fairly industrialized area of Singapore.  I'm on a double decker bus, but aside from a guy asleep in the very back, I'm the only one on the bottom row.  i stayed there when everyone else went upstairs, figuring the trip wouldn't be long.  After 10 minutes and 2 stops, I realize I'm in for the long haul, but it's too awkward to head up.  

The bus winds around and we are in factory land.  Tall buildings of metal pipes, some spewing fire, some steam.  Work is done for the day, and there are MASSES of people in jumpsuits just sitting on the side of the road.  The identical jumpsuits all say things like "Some Name Engineering", but these people look nothing like engineers.  Everyone I see looks vaguely miserable- they are almost exclusively Indian, many of them have oil, grease, or dirt stains on their face and clothing.  Our bus passes multiple pickup trucks crammed full of people.   Every so often we stop and a few more people get on, and eventually our bus is fairly packed.  And here's me jamming away on my iPod trying to look nonchalant.  Don't mind me people- I'm on the right bus, just thought I'd take a tour through your work area!  Make no mistake- nobody seems to pay any attention to me, nobody talks to me, I am apparently totally ignored.  But I certainly feel very much out of place, and I'm starting to worry that maybe I missed the bus depot stop.  It's not like I was really paying attention when I originally left.  I figure at the very least, it'll stop by the Bird Park again though, and I could always get off there.  

So I ride around.  I try to stay out of the way.  I eventually give my seat up to a woman so she can sit next to her mother (karma points I could apparently use).  I get a kind of fascinating view of a side of Singapore I'm positive most people don't see.  The route becomes a little less industrial, and eventually we pull right back into the depot and everyone gets out.  

From there, it's back on the train, another 25 minutes back to the area where I'm staying, and an internal debate about what to do with dinner.  I make a mental note to take at least one more bus ride before I leave.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

devil's haircut

One of the aspects of this trip that I've tried to impress upon people is that it's not a vacation.  I'm a tourist yes, but but this is no week of travel, strange currencies, and photo opportunities.  It's 3 months of work and the everday.  I'm now nearing the halfway point, which in the realm of the mundane and everday, means it's time for a haircut.
Perhaps you've seen me after it's been some time since I've gotten a haircut.  It's certainly longer, but really the overall affect is that some land mammal died on my head.  Somewhere in the range of afro and shag rug- it's not pretty.  
I've been worried about this day since I got here.  There's no way I'd make it 3 months without a haircut, and it's not like the info for visitors and tourists is overflowing with info about where to get a haircut.  What little is available is mostly aimed at people wanting to visit full beauty salons.  I've been Google (perhaps you've heard of it), which was some help.  But, really let's be honest, what I'm looking for is the Singapore equivalent of one of the $15 haircut places in the US.  I don't want to look like a clown the rest of the time I'm here, but I also don't want to drop $200 on a haircut.  
But trusty Google (courtesy of some expat forums updated over a year ago), and I find something I think will work fairly close by.  Just FINDING the place was a victory, and I'd been hating my hair so much that there's no way I'm going to risk anywhere else.  
Haircut is $30 to start.  Adding shampoo is another $5, and adding a full shave is a bit more.  Since I'm planning on doing some tourist stuff after, I spring for the shampoo.  This $35 is quite possibly the most expensive haircut I've ever gotten in my life.  
All looks good as I sit down.  Normal haircut chair.  Normal mirror.  Normal haircut looking supplies.  Okay, so far so good.  
My barber looks at me:  "shorter?" 
Her English is...spotty.  This is going to be trouble.  I have a hard time describing what I want to the haircut places in the US- now I'm going to have to do it through sign language and rudimentary language.  
I try to give the general idea of what I want.  Complicating matters is the fact that once my hair hits a certain point, I have to stop styling it like I normally do (meaning that instead of making it short and spiky at the top, I start parting it down over my forehead a bit).  She will of course think that's what I normally do and want, only shorter.  I manage to give her the general idea of what I want- I think.  She points at the sides of my head "clippers.",  then at the top of my head "scissors."  I anxiously await the apocalypse of haircuts to begin.
I'm looking at myself in the mirror as she goes.  If it starts to go horribly wrong, I can stop her, but don't know how well that would go.  Thankfully, she's doing okay.  All right.  Not too shabby.
All in all, she does a good job.  Originally it's a bit too long on top, but some more scissoring fixes that.  Sweet.  This went well.  Much better than expected.  Hot diggity, I can be on m....she's not done. 
Now she walks over with a straight razor in her hand.  The kind straight out of Sweeney Todd or old timey barber shops.  As in a long razor on a flip handle.  As I don't live in movie land, I have NEVER used one of these.  But...interesting.  Okay, let's go with this.  I'm paying $35 for this haircut, let's get my money's worth.  Little bit of shaving cream on the back of my neck and sideburns.  Ah- just going to get the parts that most places would get with clippers, but whatever.  Schwick schwick (that's the razor sound).  I'm not going to switch to a straight razor anytime soon, but something to add to the list of things I've done.  Shaving cream is a little cold..and...huh...there's some on my ears.  Maybe she's just....nope, she's shaving my ears.  MY EARS.  Little bit on the top, and the ear lobes.  Now clearly I needed a haircut, but come on now.  My ears did not require shaving.  That's just bizarre.  And the haircut continues.
With a newly cut and totally dry head of hair, she now squirts some....I dunno...onto my head.  She must have emptied half the bottle on there.  My head was dry, but it quickly foams up- I'm guessing this is the shampoo part.  The shampoo part, you may be interested to know, consists of more than just foaming up my head.  No- it also apparently includes a full on head massage.  She is massaging my temples, kneading my head, and overall tenderizing my brain.  This continues for a bit, and now she's massaging my shoulders and arms.  
I've been told that a pedicure is more than just getting nails painted.  That it includes some foot massages and such.  My guess now is that this haircut is the equivalent.  
She finishes up, ducks my head back into the sink by the mirror, and rinses out the foam.  Time to go.
Ah- not so fast.  One last step, apparently.  Off the shelf nearby, she grabs a brown glass bottle, shaped something like a flask.  It looks like some sort of medicine bottle from the 1890s. There's barely any label- I'm trying to look to see if there's a "Heroin is Good for You!" label.  She dashes a bunch onto my hair and rubs it around.  Now I see the label:  Hair Growth Tonic. 
WHAT ON EARTH.  Who USES that?  For real- how old IS that bottle?  Jesus woman!  I've seen enough Bugs Bunny cartoons to know my hair is now either about to immediately fall out, or grow instantly and turn me into Bigfoot.  And now it's seeping into my scalp.  Why on earth would I need hair growth tonic anyway?! I still have my hair!  What if it's poisoned now!?  

I'm keeping a close eye on it.  But you know, overall the haircut turned out pretty well.  I'll need at least one more trim before I go home, and I'll go back.  And maybe even sooner than a month, if a certain tonic actually works.

Friday, September 9, 2011

the middle way

I am walking back from another excursion.  It is a bright sunny day, which also means it is exceedingly hot and humid.  Sweat glands you did not know existed roar to life.  
But I've chosen to walk, as I usually do here.  It's free.  It doesn't involve taxis (I hate taxis), it doesn't involve busses (I dislike busses, but mostly find their maps and schedules to be gibberish), and it's not a train (which I like, but they never have stops close enough).  Besides, I'm never in a hurry to get anywhere, and am really just killing time each day anyway.  
Halfway home, I see walking towards me a thin man in a robe.  He looks like a full on Shaolin Monk or something.  Shaved head, sandals.   As he gets closer, I get more detail.  He's smiling, but there look to be some teeth missing.  He's thin, but not unhealthy.  Not dirty, but clearly not the type to be showering every day either.  In different clothing, he could pass as homeless.  And for those of you who don't know me well, I severely dislike the homeless (they are frequent violators of the 'if I don't know you, don't talk to me unless you are a hot girl' rule).  
He's not homeless, of course.  He could just be a bad day away from it though, and that alone is typically enough reason for me to Avoid At All Costs.  (side note: my personal ultra fear is one day being homeless.  And now you know.).  
I am returning from a trip to the Singapore Flyer, the large Ferris Wheel at the edge of the island.  It was a good trip, one of the better things I've done here.  $30 for 30 minutes was pricey, but worth it to do once.  I have my iPod, and shuffle is choosing well.  I am in a good mood then, and so against all Dan Logic I don't go out of my way to avoid this monk man.  
There are other people in the area walking, and he'd clearly spoken to them, though none stopped.  He smiles, and walks straight towards me.  He's holding a small card in his hand, and as he comes up I take it.  About the size of a business card, it's a thick paper card with Chinese characters and a picture of the Buddha.  Not as awful as it could be then.  Whew.  He shakes my hand (Germs! Dirty! Where has this man been with this hand! MUST wash asap!).  The card says something about him offering a prayer for me.  It's his time to spend praying not mine, and who am I to pass up an offer, so I say thanks and smile.  Genuinely.  This is pleasant.  
Then he slides a bracelet of beads on my other hand.  They're all red, probably plastic, and about the size of marbles, all on a stretchy rope thing.  The beads have Chinese characters on them, and I have no idea what they say, or what this means.  But cool- this is new, and will make a nice story and a good souvenir.  I say thanks again and smile, then start to move away.
Now he pulls out a little notepad.  It's lined, and the first two entries are filled in.  I'm to fill out my name, what country I'm from, and what I'd like for him to pray for.  The entry above mine is something to the effect of "Marie, Spain, Peace."  The entry above is similar, different name and country, but also a generic 'peace' as what should be prayed for.  Easy enough, and peace is fine.  He gets a scribbled D. Warner (strangers like this never get an accurate name from me- I always trail off the end of the signature and mumble something 'Warner'-ish), USA and Peace.  All set.  I've got my card, I've got my bead bracelet, I've got a prayer coming my way, the sun is shining.
Only now he points at the far right of the notepad, which he has not closed.  He also draws my attention to the other half of the notepad cover, which is a picture of a tall building under construction.  I look down again.  I've missed the far right part of the notepad. 
The part with a dollar amount.  
He points. He says something in not English.  Shakes my hand again, smiles.  Points at the notepad.  Shakes my head, emphasizing that I'm wearing these beads and holding a prayer card.   Points at the construction photo.  Back to the notepad, now to the amount where the two entries above me have input their donation:
One hundred dollars.  Each.
"No,  No.  ONE dollar."   This is my offer.  I like your bead bracelet, I like the card, I appreciate that you want to live in a nice building instead of wherever you live now.  I would too.  ONE dollar.  
"$100," pointing at the notepad, at the photo, and at my bracelet.  "ONE dollar.  That's what I can give."  He looks at the notepad.  He does not seem to understand English very well, but he certainly knows that "one" is a much, much lower number than "one hundred."  He scratches out the $100.
"$50!"  I am being haggled by a Buddhist monk.  Buddhists, practitioners of the Middle Way and believers that anyone can reach Nirvana, it turns out are just as money hungry as everyone else.  This is disillusioning.  
"One dollar. I'll give you a dollar."  "Fifty."
I take the bracelet off-, one dollar only.  I put the bracelet back in his hand. I decide a few bucks is worth it to get him on his way.  I open my wallet and...crap.  My lowest bill is $10.  Fine, let's just end it and move on.
"Here's ten. That's it.  Ten."  I go on my way.

And that is how I became the owner of a $10 Buddha prayer card. Retail price, probably 5 cents.

This was last weekend.  And without details, life has been anything but peaceful since.  I start to wonder if I should have given him the other  $50 I had and gotten the best Buddha monk prayer I could.  Maybe a cheap prayer was worse than none at all.

I've lived most of my life utterly convinced that aspects of my life are impossibly charmed.  And sometimes I'm reminded that other parts seem to be fantastically cursed.  And in the end, it will probably all balance out somewhere in the way of the middle.