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.