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.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

the night market

I've been warned by several of my coworkers here to take my time seeing everything in Singapore.  "It's a small, small island.  You'll run out of things to do really fast", they tell me.  I go through my mental checklist, and figuring 1-2 things each weekend, they're right.  I think I'll be able to occupy most of September, but it'll leave a month without many new things to find, aside from possible travel to other places.
So I was glad to be told about something new- the Night Market.  

I caught it on the last night it was open.  Apparently it opens around 7pm and goes until around 2am.  It was several train stops away, and solidly further away from 'home' than I'd been so far.  

It's a wildly busy place, this market.  Vendors, booths, stalls, all under tents on several blocks.  Some served food- I'm guessing the Singapore equivalent of carnival food.  Fried things, random stuff being heated up.  The kind of food you would buy for $2 and walk away eating, finishing in a few bites. In my mind, it was the kind of stuff that would probably taste okay and then make my stomach attempt to crawl out of my face.  I tried none of it.  A lot of the vendors were hawking clothes- shoes, Indian dresses, pants.   Every few stalls had someone on a megaphone or PA announcing.  "Cheapest you'll find!"  It was packed, there were easily a couple thousand people milling about.  And blindly walking around without a clue is me.  Every so often I tried to inconspicuously take a picture.  I was solidly under the impression that I was the only one taking any pictures, and I was clearly not from Singapore.  I had visions of people screaming at me that pictures weren't allowed or something.  
Towards the end, I came across an auction for rugs.  "Retails for $185- yours for $30!"  Ladies and gentleman, it took some will power to not buy a rug.  A rug that I have no room in my luggage for, that wouldn't really go anywhere in my condo, but looked cool anyway.  A steal at $30 (unless someone outbid me, which I doubted).  I managed to walk away without buying, but it was tough.

The next day was a national holiday, so I celebrated the day off by going book shopping.  I'd been to some book stores here, and most of the English language books look to be British imports, and aren't especially cheap.  The book store area I headed to was a smaller 'mall' with a few bookstores, some art supply stores, and some other random stuff.  Lots of it apparently aimed at students.  Overall my type of place, with stacked books that are haphazardly alphabetized.  So it was a shame most of them were closed for the holiday.  (I did go back there today and everything was open, so all is good).

Finding places to eat around here should be insanely easy, as every other store is a restaurant.  It's surprisingly difficult though- I'm kind of picky, I don't want to overspend, and I don't always have time for sit down/menu places (which is beyond the majority of eating places I've found).   Tonight I finally tried a Japanese place right near my apartment.  I've been gradually trying the restaurants near me, but they're all on the expensive side, so it can't be somewhere I go every night.  I like a variety of food (especially compared to myself growing up, when I hated just about everything), but a struggle here is not just the food itself, but the...culture of eating the food.  The WAY.  The ordering and eating, and trying not look like a complete buffoon.  At Japanese restaurants, they give you a warm, wet towel at the beginning of the meal.  Is that your napkin?  Do you wipe your fingers with it?  Your whole hand?  Should you wipe your mouth with it?  Tonight, at the end of my meal, waiting for my check to come back, the waitress put a cup of hot tea on my table.  I had not ordered this, but gathered it was like a free thing.  It smelled like nothing, barely a hint of tea aroma.  It had apparently been boiling lava hot as recently as 5 seconds prior to being set on my table.  I had been ready to leave, and now I'm worried that if I don't have SOME of this tea I'll be offending someone.  I don't know why, but I get the impression the Japanese are offended about such things.  Fine- I'll wait until this thing cools off a bit, take a few sips, and head out.  Ten minutes later, I'm still blowing steam off of it, and I'm afraid it will melt my tongue and teeth.  I have nowhere to be, there's no one anxiously scoping out my table, and yet I'm ready to go.  There's still some half melted ice cubes in my Coke glass (virtually empty with 1/2 my meal to go, because Coke is a precious resource here and all restaurants only give you one can- for a good $2 or more- when you order it).  Got to be discreet about this- make sure none of the staff is watching.  I make my move and dig some ice cubes out by hand and drop them in the tea.  They vaporize instantly, but I decide it's now or never.  Of course I've been lame, and while it's definitely hot tea, it's not scalding.  I credit the ice cubes.   I drink half and I'm out the door.

It's time to do some quick grocery shopping.  They have the BEST GRAPES ON EARTH here.  They're gigantic, and super firm.  I hate squishy grapes- gross.   I pick some of those up, and....and....crud, they're out of Lucky Charms.  Don't they know I'm here?  People- stock up on the Lucky Charms and I'll be your best customer.  Frosted Flakes will have to do- it's a solid Top 10 cereal, and doesn't cost $10 like the small box of Cheerios does.  

And now I'm home, realizing that Avatar is somehow even worse watching it the second time, and planning a new day of adventure tomorrow.  I'm thinking a trip to the gigantic Ferris Wheel on the edge of the island is in order. 

Saturday, August 27, 2011

I'm living in an apartment right on the Singapore River, which is a pleasant view to see each morning.  Ever since I got here, there's been a tent fairly close by, filled with workers, welders and paper animals.  Pink dolphins, blue sharks, random dragon parts.
This week, it actually started getting put into place.  On the bridges and on the path lining the river, it's all being set up.   And it's pretty neat- they're all wire-framed, with a thin cloth covering, and they've got lights inside.  When they're lit up, it's very colorful and interesting.  I originally thought it had to do with the national holiday this Tuesday, but I learned late this week that they're actually for a Chinese Lantern Festival, which is something totally different.
The Lantern Festival apparently starts in mid-September, so it looks like I'll get to see more of these lanterns for the next few weeks.  

The holiday on Tuesday is Eid, which is the end of Ramadan.  It has a different name here, something like Hara Raya Puyasa, but I'm too lazy to go look it up.  It's a public holiday and everyone is off work, but I'm getting the impression it's not a holiday with a lot of activity.  

My guidebook has an interesting description of an Indian temple up in (shockingly) Little India, so today I tried to make my way there.  This was to be after a stroll through Ft. Canning Park, which is right by my place.  
First I was attacked by the narcosleepy.  I woke up as usual around 8, had a nice breakfast of super happy fun time Lucky Charms, and then promptly fell back asleep.  Until 2pm.  I was out of it.  Soooo tiiiiired.  I couldn't begin to say why, since it's not like I'm super active or anything (although I did actually go to the gym a few times last week, huzzah).  
Housekeeping comes by on Tuesdays, Thursdays....and Saturdays.  Fortunately I was coherent enough this morning to put the Do Not Disturb sign out before falling asleep.  UNfortunately, after waking up I got a healthy dose of guilt and 'oh man, I hope this is not what it seems like.'  I woke up, got ready, and headed out the door.  And on the steps outside my place is the cleaning lady.  With a genuine smile on her face, "oh- are you done?".  Say...what now?  It's like 230, lady.  "You're the last place I need to clean, then I can go home."  As I said, oh man.  Now, her English wasn't 100%.  But I'm trying to ask if she's been waiting outside for me to wake up and take the Do Not Disturb sign down.  And trying to ask if there's a time where she's allowed to just skip my place.  I'm getting nowhere- she's just ready to clean.  My only hope is that she wasn't sitting on my steps for the past few hours, waiting for this slacker to finally wake up and go about seeing more of this country on the other side of the world.

So off to Ft. Canning and Little India.  Having been to Ft. Canning once already, I was excited to make it a 'regular' place to go.  I knew I hadn't walked through the whole thing, so today I'd discover more.  The problem was that apparently I HAD walked through the whole thing.  It's not a big park, and there wasn't much new to see.  The main difference was that today it was raining and very windy.  I've brought my umbrella, but it's on the cheap side, and it's not friends with the wind.  
Leaving the park, I headed north to Little India.  I had looked at my map prior to leaving, and had a general idea of where I was going.   I walked until my feet hurt, saw almost nothing of interest, got tired of the wind and rain, and decided to call it a day. In Atlanta, weather like this would have called for a day of movies and sitting around.   When I reviewed my map after getting home, to see just where I'd gone, I made the discovery that I'd stopped my trip right at the border of Little India.  I hadn't even made it there.  That's ok, as it means something to do another time.  

Now I'm home, had dinner at a nearby Thai place.  I ordered the spicy fried rice, and received a plate of rice and seafood that had been soaked in kerosene.  I used to seriously avoid spicy food, but now I really like it.  When it's that spicy though, I run into a problem.  I remembered this problem approximately two bites in:  hiccups.  Eating really spicy food (and getting drunk) is a surefire way for me to start hiccuping. Which I do.  Because drinks are precious and have to be cherished, my only relief is one can of Pepsi Light (which, for the record, I ordered as a "yeah, Pepsi's fine" after ordering Coke, and apparently "Pepsi's Fine" was interpreted as "Pepsi Light", but whatever).   I think my stomach and lungs turned inside out from these hiccups, and it's possible I started convulsing in my chair.  But in the end, it was a good meal, and maybe I even built up the spice tolerance a bit.

(a final note:  after dinner, I turned on HBOAsia and caught the end of Rocky III, because that's what passes for something that should be on HBO here.  I'm happy to report that Rocky III might have the single most unrealistic boxing scene committed to film.   Round 1 is Sylvester Stallone punching Mr. T about 50 times, Mr. T missing on EVERY SINGLE PUNCH, and yet he's totally fine.  Round 2 is the reverse, with Mr. T absolutely destroying Rocky, and at one point actually grabbing Rocky and throwing him into the corner.  The ref seems to think this is okay, and thus I now determine that Rocky 3 is the grandfather of MMA fights.  Rocky 3 is ridiculous.)

Sunday, August 21, 2011

weird dreams

I'm having odd dreams here.  Usually I forget them pretty quickly upon waking up.

Tonight's dream took place at the Conan O'Brien show.  I'm backstage, and for some reason it's clearly a small club.  The band Hanson is on stage, and they're playing a cover of Matt Pond PA's "Magic Boyfriend".  They're playing quite well, and I think I'm mighty impressed with how these Hanson kids have grown up.  One of them is on guitar, one is singing, and the tall one is playing electric violin.  
Then Ashley Olsen (it's not Mary Kate, though I can't tell the difference between them in real life, so I have no idea how I knew it was Ashley) comes out on stage.  She's in a silver evening gown, and begins to play upright bass.  The crowd is into it- everybody's impressed with the band, and you can tell it's one of those moments where Ashley Olsen has gone from tabloid celebrity to Genuinely Awesome Person.  
The song is really grooving, and Ashley stands on the side of the upright bass and keeps playing.  I'm pretty sure I saw the bass player from the Rev. Horton Heat do this once.  Only he wasn't in a silver evening gown.  And Ashley is, and this is when her top starts to fall down.  With cameras still rolling, it's the start of a wardrobe malfunction.  She smiles and finishes this part of the song, then scampers off stage.  Strangely, the crowd doesn't seem to care for the most part.  I'm backstage, and now I'm standing next to two members of the band James- clearly I'm on the show because I've come with them.  While the band is finishing their song, we decide to give them an instrument as a gift for playing so well.  I run down the hall, and here I run into a nobody who informs me that they just saw a coworker from TMP (Maureen, for those of you who know her) leave the show, covering her kids eyes as she went.  Not angry, just in an 'Uh Oh! Wardrobe disaster, time to leave' way.  I decide I'm going to ask out Ashley Olsen when I'm presenting her and Hanson with a gift instrument from James, and this is when I wake up.

Weird.  I need to go download Mmmbop when I get back to the US.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

nice little saturday, but no time for bed bath and beyond

What's a global gent like myself to do on a Saturday in a city on the complete opposite side of the world from home?  And who may have just gotten paid.  To the casino!

I have been gambling before, but am generally not a gambling person.  I like wasting my money and getting something definitive in return: music. a good meal. a book.  And gambling is essentially paying a place for the privilege of giving them your money, based on the possibility that you MIGHT come out ahead.   But there's a new casino in Singapore, and the building looks cool and I'm told it's something I have to go see.  Mandarin Bay Sands, and Skypark, are a huge complex right on the edge of the island.  It's three hotel towers, topped by a horizontal piece with trees and such (this is the Skypark), and then a bunch of shops and the casino.  It's large, it's modern, and it's very impressive.  

To get there I took my first trip on their subway, the MRT.  Unlike bus schedules and their mass of confusing numbers, train maps to me are really easy to me.  It's a fairly uneventful trip, and their subway is just like every other city train you've been on.  The main exception is that on the platform, you can't see the track.  Where the ledge would be is just a wall with sliding glass doors.  No jumpers on these tracks, buddy.  (It's a bit like the airport trains, now that I think about it).  And buying a ticket is interesting- there's a map just beneath the monitor, and when you buy a ticket you press down on the destination on the map.  You then get a ticket for that destination.  

It's a short walk from the station to the casino.  Aside from the likelihood of losing money, the casino had one other feature that rubbed me the wrong way:  locals have to pay to get in.  You have to bring your passport to the casino, and there are two lines.  One for foreigners, one for locals.  Locals have to pay $100 just to get in the door.  I get it, but it's not something I'm totally on board with.  And I'm not sure if I'm more or less on board when I saw that there were quite a few locals going in.  Not only do they check your passport, they checked it more thoroughly than customs did.  I wonder how many people are using fake passports to get into a casino these days anyway. 

I'm in, and it's time to find some blackjack.  I foolishly stop at a slot machine first, because look at the pretty shiny lights and the beeping  Slot machines are stupid.  If it was as simple as 'money here, pull lever' I'd be okay.  But slot machines are nothing like that these days (though they do have the lever, in case you want to be retro).  They have buttons to determine whether you're betting 2x, 5x, 10x, and so on.  And there there are other buttons that are '50 lines, or '100 lines'.  And you have to put your money in, decide on a combination of those buttons, and go.  It's ridiculously confusing, and the whole process is measured in credits.  They lure you in with a big "5 cents!" sign, but then when you sit down you notice the minimum bid is $2.50, measured in 5 cents.  I note to myself that these people probably have advertising degrees.  It takes me all of about 3 spins to lose $10.  But hey- I won $1.25 in the process.  WHICH, I may add, they don't pay you in coins.  They print out a receipt that you've got to take to the cashier.  

Slot machine ripoff out of the way, it's time to find blackjack.  Blackjack is an idiots game.  It takes zero skill.  There is just a set pattern of what to do, and you follow it.  You look at your cards, you look at the dealers card, and you either hit or stay depending on what each is.  Sure, you could "gamble" and take a chance and do something else, but other players get mad at you if you do.  "The dealer had 3!  And you had 14 and you HIT!?  You're supposed to stay!  Aaaarrrrgghhh!"  At stores near casinos, you can almost always buy a credit-card sized piece of paper that tells you what to do (hit or stay) depending on what your cards are.  It takes like 5 seconds to learn and memorize. 
So this is my gambling.  And I'm not in the mood to lose lots of money, though I got $200 from the ATM.  I'm scoping out for $5 tables- these are the tables where it costs $5 to play one hand.  There are none.  Nor are there $10 tables.  Or $20.  I'm not sure if it's because it's Saturday, but the cheapest tables are $25.  And there's only like four of them.  The others are all $50 and up.  Grrrrrr.  At $25 a hand, and $200 in my pocket, I can afford to lose 8 hands.  Eight.  Losing eight hands in a row isn't suuuuper likely, but it's a definite possibility.  And 8 hands will take approximately 2 minutes. So I am now realistically looking at the possibility of an "afternoon" of blackjack being over in less times than it takes to find a parking space.  (and yes, for the record, I considered putting a 'your mom' joke in the 'less time' line just now).  So, heart racing like I'm taking a test I'm not prepared for, I start playing.  It was stressful, though ultimately uneventful.  I ended up leaving down about $15.  I was only ever up as much as $50, and never down more than $50.  I couldn't tell you how long it took.  In the end, I'm glad I left without losing more, since the only real long term outcome is to lose it all.

Now I decide that last night's dinner of Cool Ranch Doritos (what? I was excited to find them) has worn off, and I'm starving.  I head back through the mall shops, and follow the signs to the food court for something hopefully cheap.

What I find is indeed cheap, as far as Singapore goes.  It's a row of food places, and there are pictures of every meal you can order on the wall.  Apparently these were all different food places, with registers every so often to indicate where one store began and another ended.  To me though, it might as well have been one big restaurant.  I walk around for like 15 minutes trying to decide.  I'm skipping the one over there, because it has birds hanging in a case and they're...well, they're smiling happy, if you get my drift.  Yucky.  I'm also skipping that one, as their display has what looks to be a small fish completely just dipped in breading and fried.  And by 'completely', I mean it looks like they just caught it from the river and fried it up.  It has all its fins and everything.  So yeah, not having that.  I order some prawns and noodles, and it's here I notice that there's not a drink menu.  And there's no soda machine back there.  And I'm super thirsty.  Surely I've missed something....I mean, people drink with their meals right?  I look for a place to sit,  No, they do not apparently drink with their meals.  It's a full blown food court- tables, lots of people.  And none of them have drinks.  Everyone happily eating away, friends, families, kids, old people.  I would guess maybe 150 people, and probably 3 of them have anything to drink.  And they've got bottled water.  Oh man, I'm going to die.  My throat is closing up.  I've never wanted something to drink more than right now.  And yet I'm way starving, I've GOT to eat.  So I eat my yucky watery noodles and prawns with their heads and antenna still attached.  And then it's off to find something to drink.
This mall is a desert.  It has a freaking river- with boats- in the middle of it.  You know what it doesn't have?  A water fountain.  I pass 3 bathrooms, and not a single water fountain.  I walk about a hundred stores, and none of them serve drinks.  Possibly the ice cream store, but as it was $10 for a tiny kids cup, I wasn't going to ask, because screw them.   
Ladies and gentleman, I walked 20 minutes back to my apartment.  I walked straight into that 7-11 around the corner and served myself the biggest Big Gulp that 7-11 had ever served.  That Coke was the sweet nectar of life.  I should've tipped the cashier I was so happy.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

take me to the river

This past Friday, I moved into the new apartment.  It's just down the river from the old hotel, so luckily I already know the general area.  And even better, I don't have to learn a new way to get to work.  I've still yet to take the subway, and I can't read a bus map to save my life so that won't be happening anytime soon.  Seriously- have you ever looked at a bus map?  Those things a jumbled messes of confusion.  

The new place is very much a short term apartment.  It has cable, but only certain channels and virtually nothing good.  There's HBO, but it's odd in that it shows things like the 1991 classic Necessary Roughness, starring Scott Bakula and Kathy Ireland (fun fact: Kathy Ireland was a mega babe and one of the worst actresses of all time).  
There's a kitchen, which means I'll be able to eat in occasionally and not have a $30 bowl of ramen for dinner each night.  Interestingly, it took me several days to notice that the only room in the whole place with a window that's permanently open (though with angled slats) is in this kitchen.  That explains why that room is always slightly hotter.  But maybe it's just me, but I'd vote 'The Kitchen' as one of the rooms I'd least want to have a permanently open window.  You know....the room with the food.  I await the day when I walk in to find a gigantic Singapore tropical bug going through my fridge.  
There's also a washer & dryer- score.  One more item off the checklist- find a laundromat.  And yes, I *did* get excited about having a washer & dryer, and yes, that gave me a moment of sadness.  I hate laundry- worst chore of them all.

It's also a 2-bedroom apartment.  It's all they had available, and yes they'll be kicking me out into a studio as soon as one opens up.  Which is....when now?  Oh yeah- they don't know.  Super!

I also learned that both the hot water and the various wall outlets have switches on them.  And yes, they've got to be turned on for them to work.  I figured that out after wondering why the shower was going for 10 minutes and not getting any warmer.  

With the kitchen available, I made my first trek to a grocery store this weekend.  I've been eating out for every meal since I left Atlanta, so the grocery store was paradise.  It was like I was high.  Every single item on the shelf was almost bought. Star fruit! Frosted Flakes (which they call 'Frosties').  I put back the Cheerios since they were $10.90 for a small box.  Haagen Dazs! Lays Sour Cream and Onion Chips! Peanut butter!  In the end I only bought about $40 worth of stuff, but it was all quality junk food so it was worth it.

As far as the sights and sounds of Singapore, I've learned that it has much in common with Atlanta: aside from shopping and restaurants, there's nothing to do here.  I've verified this with the coworkers.  I asked them what there is to do-  "we go to restaurants."   
There are things here and there I'll be doing, but by and large this is a city of malls and restaurants.  Not joking about the malls either- there are at least 3 within a 5 minute walk of my apartment.  

So what's on this tourists agenda?  A visit to the Botanical Gardens (coworker Kalyn's report:  "it's nice if you like looking at plants."), the Singapore Zoo (I was wisely advised to take their Night Safari option, as the animals are more active and it's cooler temperatures),  a casino where I will redeem my wallet from the Las Vegas disaster, and some smaller trips.  No plans yet to travel abroad further, though that's a possibility.  I've been advised that Malaysia isn't the safest place in the world, and that I should go with some sort of tour group if I go at all. Encouraging.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

going native

I'm nearly a week into the overall trip, and have successfully made it through two whole days of work in Singapore.  I've now managed to have a pretty good idea of my way around the immediate area around my hotel also- just in time to check out tomorrow.
The good news is that tonight I walked around and found the place I'm moving to.  It's maybe a 5 minute walk away, which is good.  The bad news is that with the hotel check out time and apartment check in time, I've got an overlap that means I'll probably be lugging my luggage into work.  Getting to work is super easy, unless you're dragging along a 60 pound bag.  I'm debating taking a $3 taxi ride down the block.  

I'm happy to report that the office is a good place.  It's on the small side from what I'm used to- there's only about 15 people there, and 5 of them are in a creative group that's separated from everyone else (across the lobby, through a closed door).  But they've got some chairs and couches and pillows that give it a comfortable, inviting look.  I'm working out of an office (the only one), and it has a large L-shaped bright red couch that I like.  I definitely like all the people working there, although it's way too quiet.  I'll have to work on being loud, weird and obnoxious to get some energy going in that place.  

Late yesterday afternoon though, the quiet was interrupted by a commotion outside the office.  It's a guards...the rising voices of teenage girls yelling strange words.  We're all confused, and none of us recognize who the four guys at the center of it all are.  Thankfully a few of the fans have signs, and we now know we're in the presence of Korean boy band B1A4.  I'm originally highly impressed- it's my first day at work and some actual Asian celebrities are having a photo shoot outside our window!  Wikipedia informs me their album went to #6 somewhere (I'm guessing Korea).   Thinking later, I realize that this 'huge crowd' was really more like 30 people.  And while they were definitely fans, I find it suspect that they all leave at the same time in 3 matching vans.  I come to the conclusion that the record company has paid for this crowd to be there somehow.  

Day one also brought a good meal with some of the coworkers.  We went to a Japanese place in the mall across the street from my hotel.  We managed to order quite possibly the entire menu.  My basic rice/chicken and udon noodles were accompanied by:
- some delicious sashimi (mmmm...yellowtail)
- a steamed egg.  A steamed egg is served in a small, narrow upright bowl.  You eat it with a tiny spoon.  It has the consistency of pudding, but it is definitely egg.  The bottom of the bowl is filled with broth and mystery meat- either beef or chicken, but I'm told that you rarely know which it will be.  I have a bite.  It is not something I care to have again.
- all the shrimp here still have the heads and antenna on.  I have no idea why, 
- We have a small plate of tiny fried shrimp, maybe the size of a pen cap.  They also still have heads.  You are to eat the whole thing in one bite.  They taste like fried breading, and aren't bad.
- I eat sea urchin sashimi.  It's yellowy-orange, and is the consistency of slime.  It's gooey and shiny, and everyone seems to look at me as I try it.  The taste is roughly equivalent to fish broth and ocean water.  I make a note to not try sea urchin again.
- My coworkers agree this place isn't super good- average at best.  I've decided it's probably the best place I've been, and make a note to come back.