Singapore Adventure

Sunday, July 31, 2005

by venitha

We're taking it easy this weekend and staying here in S'pore. Easy is a relative term in that we sort of know how things work here. We agreed last week on the four-hour bus ride home from Melaka that half the good of getting away is the relief felt at returning to Singapore. We know how to get around here. We're thinking in terms of the currency here. We've got familiar comforts here: our own bed, our oatmeal for breakfast, our computers as an easy escape.

Fat white lab rats, we're working our way through the maze of mental adjustments inherent in expat-dom. For the last week, we've been stubbornly stuck in a corner called irritation. Does everything have to take ten times as long as it should? Why does everyone walk so slow? If I have to stand in one more %&*# queue! I'm constantly just a hair's width away from snapping, bursting into tears, throwing a hissy fit, smacking someone. I've done none of these things - in public - though I'm developing an Ally McBeal-like imagination. My bad behavior in reality has been limited to punching Jim in the arm and strangling the phone, though to be fair, Agilent benefits people have driven me to this in the US, too. The strangling, not the punching. I'm sorry, Jim.

Along with lots of deep breaths, the thing that's saving me from being buried alive under constant irritation is the recognition that I'm learning. I'm the slow child who needs to touch the hot burner several times before I finally get it, but I'm learning. Of course, constant learning is also the source of the irritation, so I'm making an effort to appreciate and acknowledge how far I've come.

It now takes only twice as long as it should to do some things instead of ten times as long. I now know which bus numbers will get us quickly back home. I now know to ask for a Giro application when I pay a bill in person so in the future it will just be paid automagically through NETS. I now know that 35 cents/100 gm is kind of pricey for a guava, but 4/$5 is a steal for persimmons. And just yesterday, I learned that in a powerful downpour, buses can throw water from the street nearly 20 feet (still not thinking in metric - damn!) and that white shorts may not be my best choice.

I've been perusing the travel ads in the paper for ideas for our next weekend getaway, and there, too, like a child who recognizes first cat and now dog, I'm learning to read. Chiang Mai is in Thailand, Free and Easy means it's not a tour, bagus is Malay for fantasic, wonderful, yeah! I set up our first getaway, to Batam, through Holiday Bagus Travel. Bag? US? Huh?

The destinations that catch my eye, that I find myself yearning for, are those with highlands in the name, those that tease me with the thought of cooler temperatures at higher elevation, those that taunt me with some semblance of my beloved Colorado mountains. A harsh dose of reality dousing my vacation dreams, my new knowledge reminds me that Genting Highlands outside KL is a gambling and sex mecca, and Cameron Highlands, in central peninsular Malaysia, is a longer trip than a weekend will allow.

I'll have to content myself with hanging up my pictures of Colorado's mountains today. And I'll try not to succumb to irritation at the fact that this requires a drill, anchors, and screws here in Singapore instead of an easy hammer and nail. At least I now know this, and I even know someone from whom I can borrow a drill. Baby steps, but progress nonetheless.


Saturday, July 30, 2005

by jima

Just a quick update on our Sounds of Singapore report, particularly the "bad music" aspect. Last night, while waiting for some friends for dinner, we wandered around the Little India section of town, just browsing in some shops. Many of these shops were playing music from India, soundtracks from Bollywood films I suspect, but I don't really know.

We, however, didn't go into those shops. Noooo. We went into a shop that was playing the 70's soft rock train wreck, Torn Between Two Lovers. For those of you lucky enough not to know this song, I won't infect you with it; just know that it was this song, and others like it, that drove otherwise normal, healthy kids to stick safety pins in their cheeks and to form punk rock bands.

When we walked in the shop, the song was mercifully almost over. "OK," I thought to myself, "I can put up with this for 30 seconds. The next song will probably be another Bollywood show tune." But alas, as soon as it finished, guess what came on? Yep! Torn Between Two Lovers - again!

We didn't stay to find out if this was the only musical selection they had. Venitha was definitely singing along as she browsed the aisles, and she later said that the woman working the register was, too. Venitha's purchases? Bluetack (to hang our cool laminated Singapore map) and a lingerie drying rack.


Friday, July 29, 2005

Chocolate Cravings
by venitha

Chocolate cravings finally reached a critical mass last night, and we indulged in a gooey slab of warm brownie buried beneath a slowly melting scoop of swiss chocolate gelato drizzled over with fudge sauce. Oh, yeah.

It's not that you can't get chocolate - and good chocolate - here in Singapore. Mustafa alone provides aisle after aisle of mouth-watering bliss that I regularly wander through just to soak up the fumes and drool.

The problem is that chocolate is not ubiquitous in the way it is in the US. The typical Asian desserts which are readily available everywhere involve no chocolate whatsoever. Candy dishes at the nail salon are filled with fruit chews, dishes of mango jello/pudding glide by on the conveyor belt at the sushi restaurant, (glutinous rice cakes) are featured in the dessert stall at the hawker centre, and rice and tapioca puddings top off the vegetarian Indian buffet. There is lots of dessert, but you have to go out of your way to find chocolate.

I have actually tried a good number of these sweet temptations with a very open mind, and I have frequently been soundly disappointed and often been thoroughly revolted. I hate to have to say it, but it's true: Asian desserts are lame. The problems as I see them:

  • Sweetness. They are either sickeningly cloyingly spit-it-out too sweet or dry carboard-y this-is-dessert? not sweet enough.

  • Contents. Beans should not be allowed in dessert. Burritos, yes. Dessert, no. I'm willing to concede that rice may be acceptable, seeing how this is Asia and all, but the rice really should be recognizable as rice, because...

  • Glutinous. This is not a word that should be used in the name of anything that you would eat with pleasure.

  • Texture. Where are smooth, creamy and melt-in-your-mouth? Here we have gluey, grainy, and containing-unidentifiable-gelatinous-floaters. I don't know what the floaters are, and I don't want to know. Euww.
My fondest hope is that the popularity of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory will straighten Asia out regarding the dessert situation. But then again, I should probably be careful what I wish for, as even chocolate could likely be ruined combined with beans, some sort of gelatinous floaters, or, God forbid, durian.


Thursday, July 28, 2005

Dengue Fever
by venitha

We returned from Malaysia to the alarming news that our friend Sonja has contracted dengue (pronounced DEN-ghee) fever and is in the hospital. Yikes! Thankfully, Sonja is now definitely on the mend. After nearly a week in the hospital, she was released with a promisingly improved blood cell count on Tuesday.

Aside from the National Kidney Foundation scandal (national meaning Singapore, of course; click here for an amusing satire), dengue fever is the topic of choice in The Straits Times these days, where it is reported that new cases have hit an all-time high of over 360 per week. Signs on the MRT inform us in vivid colors that dengue is spread by an enormous cartoon mosquito - it only takes one bite! We are urged to be vigilant in eliminating pools of stagnant water.

Like the abrupt telephone ring that thrusts you into the bleak reality of an early morning flight, Sonja's illness is a wake-up call. Why did it not occur to me that I might get this disease? Why am I thinking of it, like bird flu and slimming coffees, as something that only affects other people, people halfway across the world, people that I don't have the time or energy to care about? Somehow, amidst all the shopping and the jetlag and the humidity, I managed to miss the fact that I live halfway across the world now and I am one of those people.

Jim and I feel fine, though every slight itch is now a suspected mosquito bite. We think twice about the fact that were with Sonja last week at the Jurong Bird Park just four days before she was hospitalized; four days is the incubation period for dengue fever.

A quick perusal of the long list of vaccinations that Jim and I endured before our move reveals that we are not protected against dengue fever, and indeed there is no vaccination. It can be lethal and is almost always quite unpleasant. Its flu-like symptoms (fever, headache, joint pain, nausea) are accompanied by a nasty rash; Sonja is a sunburned-looking pink. Treatment is rest and lots of fluids while you wait for your body to fight it off.

Sonja's illness also provided us with an opportunity, hopefully our only opportunity, to visit a Singapore hospital. It was unsurprisingly similar to a US hospital, though I enjoyed a happy difference from my last hospital exit: I could walk - skip! - dance! - my way out the door. Only to have to ungracefully check my balance on the slippery wet tile walkway. It was raining hard. That's right; I live in Singapore now.

It rains really hard. Mosquitos can give you dengue fever. Bird flu is a concern. And, hey! Slimming coffees!

Never fear, I will resist the temptation of all of the various "slimming" products and services here. I early-on encountered an article in the paper that was the perfect antidote to the endless onslaught of slimming advertisements. A beautiful young local celebrity marries happily after many trials and tribulations. Last year, the groom proved himself worthy of her love by donating part of his kidney to her after a slimming treatment gone awry.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Colors of Melaka
by venitha

While the gray crayon frantically scribbled across Melaka's sky, the rest of the Crayola box doodled playfully through our pictures. Here are my favorite photos from the weekend.


Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Please Tell Me Why
by venitha

An Australian comedian we saw last month joked that Singapore is a land of extremes. Outside, it's always 10 degrees too hot; inside, it's always 10 degrees too cold. Walk down the street, and one minute it smells like flowers; the next minute, it smells like poo. This is, sadly, quite true.

In general, though, I'm finding Singapore to be a land of paradoxes. After six weeks, I still have no answers...

  • Eating and shopping are the national pastimes... yet Singaporeans are extraordinarily thin and live in very small apartments. In both cases, where do they put it?

  • They do an incredible amount of walking... yet the Singaporean women wear the most non-sensible shoes you can imagine. I'm choosing to view this as modern day , which we learned about in excrutiating detail at the Enduring Beauty exhibit at a museum in Melaka this weekend. Also featured: lip and earlobe plates, scarification, and neck stretching.

  • The weather is always always hot... yet every food stall serves many varieties of soup. And it's not just the arctically air-conditioned indoor food stalls, either, though I admit that soup has its appeal in an 18 degree room when I'm wearing shorts and a tank top.

  • The mass transit system is great... yet there are no bike lanes. Given the insane way that people drive here, this one isn't all that difficult to figure out. Clearly, it's natural selection at work. Anyone biking down the street long enough to have the thought, "Hey, it sure would be nice to have a bi-" Wham! Flattened by a lorry.

  • Singaporean engineers earn a fraction of what US engineers earn... yet the cost of living in Singapore is higher. My theory is that over-supply has left engineers selling for a dime a dozen, and we're all in big trouble now that China's joined the game.

  • Singapore is a small island with no natural resources... yet recycling is not prevalent, and there is no movement for conservation of water or energy. I blame the garbage chute. It somehow feels very irresponsible that you can just toss anything into it and away it goes. Growing up with such a cavalier attitude toward trash can't possibly result in a conservationist mindset. Me, I'm terrified that I'm accidentally going to put something valuable down the chute, though I suppose it's really Jim who should be terrified because, well, some jobs are just really for men, you know?

  • Meals are commonly very messy and are eaten with your hands... yet no napkins are provided. I've given up on understanding this one and am just always carrying a handkerchief and a pack of kleenex in my bag. So, see! I'm not sexist. Here I am happily doing one of those jobs that's just really for women. You know?

  • Food is almost always spicy... yet gum is not available for sale. I was quite tempted to indulge this weekend in Malaysia, noisily chewing big fat wads of gum, blowing enormous bubbles, and putting on a whiny Brooklyn accent. Unfortunately, in spite of the humidity, my hair just isn't big enough to pull it off.

* The best line of the evening: The thing about free speech is... Oh, wait! I can't say that. Click here to return.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Tida' Apa
by venitha

It rained a good deal of the time we were in Malaysia this past weekend, appropriate given that the Malay word for water is ayer, pronounced air. My linguistic triumph of the weekend is terima kasih, thank you. I grandly thank everyone: the taxi driver, the hotel doorman, even Jim, who can't keep it straight and keeps asking me to say it again. Hajime mashite. Hakuna Matata. Shopko Optical. I may be slightly responsible his confusion.

My favorite Malay word becomes tidak when I discover that it's far more effective than its English equivalent, no, in getting assertive hawkers and trishaw drivers to leave me alone. My Malay phrase book describes the k as a glottal stop, the sound you make between the syllables of uh-oh. Tidak. Tidak. Tidak. I practice it over and over, a bratty Malaysian 3-year-old. I make up for my contrary attitude with good manners and a smile. Terima kasih.

I'm disappointed to find no reason all weekend to use the quintessential Malay phrase Tida' apa, which I learned from Anthony Burgess' brilliant Malaysian trilogy The Long Day Wanes. Tida' apa means It doesn't matter, but to a degree far beyond what this phrase conveys in English, to a langourous, what could possibly matter in this humidity, extent.

Strangely, tida' apa was more appropriate to my life when I read the book in Colorado, an invalid flat on my back with my leg strapped into my CPM, one arm thrown tragically across my forehead, than it is to me now, when I am a weekend tourist in Malaysia, climbing Bukit St Paul to see the remains of its church and easily alighting narrow staircases in the Sultanate Palace. An actress who froze with the spotlight upon her, I have missed my big chance. Tida' apa.

Jim, too, is miscast by Burgess in Melaka, somehow not quite right for the role of lovable alcoholic Nabby Adams, drinking every Malaysian morning/afternoon/day away in an attap hut. Jim's beer at a sidewalk table at the Geographer's Cafe on Jonkers St. is far more reminiscent of Indiana Jones. But this is Melaka, not Morocco, and shouldn't he have a hat?

The props mistress is still having problems Saturday evening after our delicious supper of Nyonya laksa and dabel (devil) curry, when we splurge on an iced chendol. It's a frothy creamy shaved ice sundae, atop a bed of... are these beans? Some are red and some are... this green color is not normal. It tastes good, I guess, but... beans?

Appropriately topping off our Saturday was the Sound and Lights Show, which Jim summed up laughingly as a Wisconsin Dells Tommy Bartlett show, put on in spite of the fact that none of the cast showed up for the performance. We sat in a bandstand listening to a boisterous re-enactment of the highlights of Malaysia's history and watching lights flash intermittently on various tourist attractions on the hill in front of us. Mostly, the show was just an excuse to sit outside on a very pleasant evening under a surprisingly clear sky munching dried mango - not the least bit green - with Jim.

Terima kasih, Melaka.


Sunday, July 24, 2005

Groovin' in the Bus Lane
by jima

One of the possibilities that excited both me and Venitha when we decided to move to Singapore was the thought of not owning a car. Having grown up in the US and living in relatively small towns and cities, the idea of not having a car seemed foreign, liberating, and a bit unsettling. Would we really be able to live without a vehicle? Would it be such a pain that we would give up on it soon after arrival? Would we end up spending as much on cabs as we would have if we had just gotten a car? Inquiring minds want to know!

The first month in Singapore we lived in a service apartment, one of the features of which was a bus that went (quite quickly - only 3 stops) to work. They did not, however, provide a similar bus service back in the evenings. This turned out to be a good thing, as it allowed me to ease into the public transit patterns without having to worry about scheduling in the morning. The service apartment was also convenient in that it was close to an MRT station that was on the same line as the station closest to work. Very easy, very convenient, and also very cheap! For those of you keeping score at home, a short ride on the MRT costs a little over $1 SDG.

We moved from the service apartment into our current apartment on a Thursday night. I took Friday off to move and unpack and thus had three days to figure out how I would get to work Monday morning. I used this time exactly as most of you are imagining, by completely ignoring the issue.

That Monday morning found me eating my breakfast while checking the on-line bus schedule to figure out how I was going to make this work. I soon discovered that my real problem was not finding a way to work, but rather picking which route I wanted to take! I quickly came up with five different ways to do my commute, and I spent the first week trying them all out and learning valuable lessons in the process:

  • The same bus route can take VERY different amounts of time in the morning and the evening.
  • Some transfers at MRT stations are MUCH closer than others. Dhoby Ghaut is one of the worst ones!
  • The front seat in the upper level of a double decker bus has good leg room AND a great view.

  • Cabs cost WAY more than buses and trains, though they do make the trip a bit quicker. A cab will take about 20-30 minutes to get between work and home, whereas mass transit takes about 40-50 minutes.
  • TVs on buses are evil. There are many current movies that I don't ever want to see, solely based on having to see the trailer for them 3 or 4 times each day on the way to work!
  • The MRT is generally loud.
  • Paying attention to which stop you're at is a generally "good idea". I've only gone past my intended stop far! Venitha has done this once, too.
  • Reading on the bus is a bit easier than reading on the subway - just because it's easier to get a seat!
  • If there are two of us and it's a long ride, taking the cab often isn't too much more expensive than mass transit, and it can be MUCH more convenient. We've had the conversation with friends of ours here that we all had the block about taking cabs. There are times when it does make sense to use them, after all!

Now that I'm a few weeks into the commute and am starting to get into the rhythm of it, I'd have to say that the idea of not having a car is still liberating, but no longer all that foreign or unsettling. And, for those inquiring minds above: yes, no and no.


Friday, July 22, 2005

Salad Dressing
by venitha

So maybe, just maybe, I'm starting to suffer some withdrawal from products available at home. I was thrilled - overjoyed! - JUBILANT! - to find the following, in a Fair Price supermarket.

My glee was hightened to near hysteria when I turned a bottle over and found the serving size specified in tablespoons along with a number of calories. There is a God! My delirious giggling scared other shoppers from the aisle. Even better - all for me!

I bought seven bottles, one of each kind that looked even remotely promising. Note that not one of these is a dressing that I would look twice at in the US. If I ever stumble onto a stash of Annie's dressings... good grief! I'll surely get to experience Singapore's version of the loony bin. Don't worry; I'll blog about it so you don't miss out.

Gretchen, my sister-in-law's sister, who will soon be in Singapore on an Asia tour, kindly offered to bring us something from home that we're missing. This generated a mouth-watering discussion between me and Jim about the various foods that we miss, most of which it would be impossible, or at least very messy, to put in a suitcase: Pulcinella's spinach pizza, falafel, cottage cheese...

Since I just hit the salad dressing lotto, we settled on tea. Celestial Seasonings Vanilla Hazelnut, to be exact. I know, I know, all the tea in China. Unfortunately, caffeine-free is literally a foreign concept. From the aisles upon aisles of tea in the supermarket, those that have found a place in my cupboard are from England, Germany, and - here's your geography lesson of the day in case you had so much eggnog last December that you missed the tsunami - .


Thursday, July 21, 2005

Electrical Appliances 101
by venitha

It took three days and the macho of three men to figure out how to turn on our water heater. Ultimately, it was Russell, our new neighbor, who came to the rescue, and he had crib notes: he checked the setup in his own apartment, a mirror of my own. It was the four separate controls in three different places that threw us all. Go figure.

It's not just the water heater that imposes an intelligence test with its excessive controls. Thankfully, Jim and I have fared better on our other exams. After a slow start of one hot night and one cold night, we're getting a passing grade from the six air conditioners. Each has its own remote control with a bizarre and confusing number of buttons, including the hands-down favorite, Powerful. For extra credit, we pose like the symbol.

I passed the hair dryer's pop quiz with flying colors. It's built in - how nice! - and must be turned on in three places, including a switch outside the bathroom and a timer on the dryer itself. Yes, a timer. I have a hard time imagining myself forgetting that the hair dryer is on and thereby making the timer useful, but perhaps this is more of a problem for your average Singaporean. I can't say.

Now I'm clean and comfortably cool, and my hair is dry, or at least as dry as it's going to get in this humidity. It's time to ponder Singapore's doozy of an essay question on this topic: Why? Why does my apartment have more controls than the cockpit of an airplane? Why does every individual electrical outlet, each individual outlet on power strips, each individual outlet on the devices that no one knows the name of that let you plug three things into one outlet, have its own cute and colorful on/off switch? Why is there such a lack of standard plugs that nearly every appliance asserts its individuality by requiring its own special adapter? And why, in an area of the world where everything from the people to the bus seats to the individual serving yogurt containers is so small, is it all so big?


Wednesday, July 20, 2005

by venitha

Another day, another threat of being fired. Ah, life in the high tech world.

We are told again and again regarding our stay in Singapore to expect the unexpected. That we might be sent home at any time. That we might stay the full two years - or more. That this might lead to anything.

This seems a bizarre way to live life until you accept how false any employment security is these days. A common question from friends in Colorado when they learned of our Singapore plans: Are you guaranteed a job when you return? Our common response: No. Are you?

We moved here under the shadow of looming layoffs at Agilent and with a swirling cloud of uncertainty obscuring Jim's HP job in Singapore. Six weeks later, we're still here, and the sky is pouring rain. Rumor-filled news reports inform us that Agilent will soon sell my division and that HP will soon have massive layoffs.

All of this is nothing new; years of such uncertainty have left us, along with our US co-workers, somewhat blasé. Interestingly, however, Jim's Singaporean co-workers are not blasé: now it's their jobs being threatened as well.

Yes, that's right. You know that insatiable merlion who's been gnawing on Uncle Sam? Well, it turns out that he's swimming in a big bowl of Yong Tau Fu. Wielding chopsticks above the bowl, a chubby panda wears a red bib that says Made in China.

Today, we are here. Tomorrow, I don't know. And this situation is really no different from any other day. For me or for you.


Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Fruits of Paradise III
by venitha

Just when I think I've tried them all, when I've gone days without spotting something new and different...

  • Soursop. Large, gourd shaped, and strangely squishy, to the point that you need to cut it with a bread knife. The white pulpy interior breaks off easily into fibrous pieces. It's sour and slightly reminiscent of a pineapple, though nowhere near as sweet.

  • Custard apple. A soft lumpy baseball from the outside; were you to lob it up to the ceiling, it would undoubtedly make a very cool splat and then stick there. It breaks open easily when ripe to reveal soft white teardrops surrounding black seeds. Sweet and indeed custard-y, though Jim and I agree that the appeal of custard-textured fruit has been a bit tempered by the dreaded durian.

  • Tamarind. Walks away with the prize for Most Hilarious Appearance. The brittle pod cracks off easily to reveal the fruit, equally turd-like. Tastes just like a fig and has numerous pea-sized pebble-like pits . It's probably best not to extend the turd metaphor here. I will undoubtedly buy tamarinds every time I stumble across them; the laughter their appearance generates is easily worth their price.

Our favorites so far, the ones that I buy again and again and am always looking for deals on, are guavas, mangoes, and persimmons. We are also thoroughly enjoying the delicious pineapples; I just can't get over the price: only US$1 each!


Monday, July 18, 2005

Fourth of July
by venitha

As evening descended on the Fourth of July, I sat alone in our service apartment, gazing out at a sky bereft of fireworks and pondering the last six months of my life. I hardly need real fireworks after the unwelcome explosions of last winter: Jim's father's death, Maggie's cancer diagnosis, my broken knee. And then, of course, there's that little bomb that Jim and I lit ourselves: moving to Singapore.

Each of the last six years, Jim and I spent both the Fourth of July and our anniversary, the following day, in Crested Butte, hiking, mountain biking, enjoying the company of good friends. It's a yearly dose of heaven on earth. In all honestly, I wish I were there right now, though I admit that this has much to do with the weather, a cool 72 in CB, and that I frequently feel exactly this same yearning in Colorado, at home in Ft Collins.

July Fourth 2005, however, found me in Singapore and Jim in Taiwan after an early anniversary celebration on a beach in Indonesia. Can this really be my life? It's somehow appropriate in this year of ever-escalating chaos, each blast bigger and brighter than the one before. But I think of my life just one year ago and am amazed. How did this happen? And, worse, what could be next?!?

Right now, what I hope is next, what I have to believe is next in order to maintain my sanity here, is a big bucket of cold water. A return to normal life. A return to cooler temperatures and lower humidity. A return to Colorado and another 6 or 16 or 26 summer vacations in Crested Butte.

Until then, however, I might light a few sparklers here in Asia. Do you hear me, God? Sparklers! Just sparklers! From now on, let's please leave the real fireworks to the professionals, and I will enjoy the show from a distance and the comfort of my rooftop garden.

Singapore's National Day is August 9th and will undoubtedly provide a sky filled with fireworks. And with any luck, Jim will be in town.


Sunday, July 17, 2005

Boys Buying Breakfast
by jima

On Friday morning I was invited to join Don and Choon Hwee for "a real Singaporean breakfast". How could I resist? So we walked from work over to a food court under the building next to us (who knew that was there? - these guys are hiding eating establishments everywhere!).

Don assured me that he knew what to order, and, against my better judgement, I trusted him. He went and ordered for all three of us, and then he and I went off to get some beverages. I ended up with a mixed drink (NOT that kind of mixed drink) of soya juice and some drink with jellied grasses(?). The jellied grass came in the form of little black "worms" that were about 1 inch long. Once you got past the form factor, the taste was OK. I will admit that it will take me a while to get used to drinks with "floaters" in them. Not something I'm used to.

After a few minutes of sipping our drinks and pleasantly chatting, our meals showed up. All I can say is YUMMY! Two different kinds of roti prata; one with an egg on it (lower right) and some fish curry to put on top (upper left), and one with crispy edges and a soft, white, fluffy center (upper right). This one came with brown (orange, actually) sugar and coconut shavings to place on top. Very sweet and very delicious.

Thanks again to Don and Choon Hwee for taking me along on this. Eating breakfast out has long been a favorite treat of mine, so it's good to know that I can continue this tradition but with a Singapore twist! Hopefully we can make this a regular thing. Next time I buy!


Friday, July 15, 2005

Fabric of the Nation
by venitha

Last weekend we chanced across the exhibition of Fabric of the Nation, a community quilt made in celebration of Singapore's 38th birthday. We wandered mesmerized for some time, entranced by glimpse after glimpse into the Singaporean mind.

Little girls' minds appear to be the same the world over. Definitely time to buy some Hello Kitty stock.

Tragically, Disney has worldwide appeal. There's quite a bit of excitement in the paper here about the new Disney Hong Kong.

Many of the quilters displayed their national pride by depicting the Singapore flag or their Lion Symbol.

The cynic in me laughed when I first saw this square, and now I wonder at the motivation behind it. Pride? Sarcasm? The start of a revolution? Gahmen propaganda? Singapore is indeed a democracy, for some definition of that word. I guess the same can be said of the U.S.

Unity is a popular rallying cry in Singapore; a community quilt provides an appropriate metaphor.

I wandered amongst the quilted panels and was touched by the obvious love Singaporeans have for their country. I believe I was truly blessed to have been born in the United States, and it's humbling to be reminded that people everywhere have this belief about their own country. In a strange way, this is something we have in common. We all have the same pride in our history, we all have the same love of our traditions, and we all get the same choked-up feeling listening to our national anthem.

If you were to contribute to such a quilt for your country, what would you make? As for me, my square would have ski tracks shishing down majestic mountains. What the hell am I doing here?

* Gahmen is the Singlish mispronunciation of government. Click here to return.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Sounds of Singapore
by venitha

Jim started a blog entry on this topic several weeks ago but gave up before he finished it. A strong urge to sing along with "Wind Beneath My Wings" yesterday at Cold Storage, loudly belting it out as I wandered the aisles in search of oatmeal, led me to revive it.

From its towering highrises to its lush tropical vegetation to its captivatingly diverse population, Singapore is a visual feast. But when I close my eyes, what do I hear?

The sounds you expect are assuredly here: a chaotic melody of foreign languages, frenzied honking of city traffic, annoyed cackles of birds. But the most frequent and inescapable noises are not what I expected.

It was the jarring rat-tat-tat of the jackhammer that initally opened my ears to the sounds of Singapore. The city is growing. Quickly. Everywhere, there is construction, and with it, the sound of jackhammers. Our apartment looks out onto a construction site. None of the apartments we viewed were not in the vicinity of a construction site. Our nearest MRT station is a construction site. I ride up the escalator into increasingly hotter air and an increasingly louder jackhammer.

More inescapable than the pound of the jackhammer is the sound of Singaporean women: a cacophony of pointed heels click-clack-clicking on hard surfaces. A chaotic beat resonates in the pedestrian underpasses and echoes through the MRT station hallways. Ironically, I must stand out in my stealthy sandals from Lands End and SAS.

If I have to crown a winner, though, the true Sound of Singapore is ... really bad 80s music. We're talking Foreigner, Culture Club, "Funky Cold Medina". An endless medley of awful songs that, sadly, I know all the words to. I keep hoping it's just some sort of strange Singaporean torture. I confess! Whatever it is! Just make it stop! Unfortunately, it's way too pervasive for this to be the case.

The taxi driver plays the radio. Bad 80s music.

The shopping centers play Singapore's version of Muzak. Bad 80s music.

A show is put on in the courtyard of our service apartment. Bad 80s music.

I'm taking comfort amidst all these yearning, heart-broken ballads in the fact that my musical tastes have not - yet, at least - reverted to those of my teenage self. I saw Bryan Adams in concert when I was in high school, but I passed on seeing Air Supply at the Esplanade earlier this month.


Wednesday, July 13, 2005

by venitha

Jim returns from Taiwan and tells me it was even hotter there. I am shocked. Hotter than Singapore on an unshaded sidewalk at noon? I don't believe that's possible.

Of course, Jim has been working, basking daily in Singapore's frigid air-conditioned indoors. I, on the other hand, have been out during the day. I've returned home several times completely drenched in sweat and with a hairstyle reminiscent of the 80s. I asked Bin Chin if you ever get used to Singapore's weather, and he laughed. "My family has been here for generations," he told me. "It's still hot."

And humid. Thanks to the expert tutelage of my brother Vern, the yoda of male itch, Jim was armed against the humidity with lots of boxers. I hadn't considered that chafing would also be a problem for me, but alas, I was not blessed with "independent thighs" like the toothpick thin Singaporean women. I had envisioned staying cool in summer dresses. Erm... that's not going to work if I expect to walk any distance at all. Perhaps I'll have to raid Jim's boxer supply?

So far, I'm sticking (pun intended) to shorts and tank tops and my umbrella. Yes, I admit it; I am using my umbrella in broad daylight just for its shade. It helps, but it also makes me a bit paranoid. In spite of all the company I have in this behavior - honestly, I am not the only one - I can't help but feel like I'm the butt some elaborate practical joke, and I'll eventually turn a corner and run smack into the people from Candid Camera.

For now, I'm giving up on becoming physically accustomed to the heat. Summer won't last forever, right? Heh. Instead, I'm concentrating on becoming mentally accustomed to the heat.

Trust me, this is much harder than it sounds. I've been working on it, but still, every single time I go outside, I'm shocked. SHOCKED. Even when I prepare myself, think before I open the door, It's going to be hot. Really hot. No kidding, really really really hot, I never expect it to be as hot as it turns out to be.

Good thing I've got two years.


Tuesday, July 12, 2005

by venitha

Last November, when a merlion knocked boldly on our front door, I checked out every book on Singapore in our local library. Each painted the same picture: Singapore is hot, and Singaporeans like to eat and to shop. Half an hour of reading completely squashed my excitement and had me telling Jim to forget it. Yet nine months later, here I am, and I have a great deal shopping to do. Well, I have come to the right place!

Shopping in Singapore is seductive. Advertising mesmerizes from unexpected locations: video monitors on the bus, moving billboards in underground pedestrian walks, the very pavement of Orchard Road. Curving fingers of arctic air waft from shop doorways and beckon you inside.

For the last month, I stoically resisted temptation. Not only did I not know what we would need, but I also had nowhere to put it and would soon have to pack and to move it myself. Forget it. Today, however, all that has changed: I have a home of my own. Gentlemen, start your engines; let the shopping begin.

  • Park Mall: three stories of furniture furniture furniture. We brought very little with us, so the salespeople adore me and curry my favor with water, candies, and, my favorite, Ferrero Rocher chocolates. Last week, I bought a dining room table and chairs and an L-shaped black leather sofa. Tragically, neither was from the store with the chocolates. Perhaps I'll have to go back and look some more?

  • Mustafa: the Wal-mart of Singapore. One-stop shopping for all the necessities the morning after our ocean shipment arrived: wall outlet adapters and a power strip, plastic hangers, shelf paper, and a hot water pot.

  • Cash Converters: an international chain of re-sale shops with several locations in Singapore. If I wanted to decorate our apartment with those psychotic waving kitties and smiling buddhas, this place would be of great assistance. And it also stocks oodles of small kitchen appliances and electronics. My mother would love this store. Our first expedition met success: an iron and a three-tiered steamer, oval-shaped to accommodate fish.

  • Ebay. While the selection is a bit limited compared to that enjoyed in the US, Singapore plays a trump card by eliminating shipping costs. Most items here are exchanged in person at an MRT station. My first winning bids: a clock radio and a set of 4kg dumbbells.

  • Ikea. Wildly popular here in spite of the way it is pronounced: icky-uh. Somehow this amuses only me and Jim. On our list: closet shelves, shoe racks, reading lamps, and, to my extreme annoyance, a full-size bedframe. Always always always assemble new furniture before shipping it 10000 miles. Always. Hopefully there will be demand for a queen-sized bedframe on ebay, though delivery by MRT will certainly pose a challenge.

Our most fun purchase so far is a subtle nod to Colorado: a pretty purple carabiner we've used to raise the living room lamp a couple of inches. Jim was in grave danger of brain damage, and he's going to need to remain employable if he's to finance all this shopping.


Monday, July 11, 2005

Roly Poly Fish Heads
by venitha

If dead animals turn your stomach, bring along your Pepto Bismol when you come to visit us. By my measure, Singaporeans are way more comfortable with the fact that their food was once alive than we are. In comparison, Americans, with their chicken breasts and their fish filets and their beef steaks, seem downright squeamish, fastidious, and naive.

I suspect this reputation preceded me. Despite my repeated requests, Bin Chin was obviously reluctant to take me to a wet market. Now that I've had the pleasure, I can understand why. At the wet market, harsh reality is on vivid display: a whole roast pig, decorated with red bows (but without an apple in his mouth, and why, exactly, does the missing apple seem wrong?); a wildly flopping fish being clubbed to death; an army of live frogs hopping within a cage.

So far, I've been a big chicken, if you will, in this vein, tackling nothing more challenging in the meals I've prepared than roast chicken (head off) and unpeeled shrimp (head on). Okay, the shrimp had that icky unidentifiable green goo, but still.

Next on my menu is a whole roast duck (head on) available at many Chinese eateries. And after that, perhaps a squid (God-only-knows-what-that-body-part-is on). I am assured that the wet market vendors will be willing to clean my squid, or at least show me how to do it, as I am ang moh.

I suspect, though, that it may take more than our planned two years here for me to graduate to cooking something as brazenly in-your-face as fish-head soup. No, for the foreseeable future, fish-head soup will require dining out.

"The cheeks are the most tender and tastiest meat," advises Jaz, a friend from Colorado and an experienced Singapore diner.

"And the mouth," amends Choon Hwee, Jim's Singaporean co-worker. "Some like the eyeball, but not me."


Sunday, July 10, 2005

Harpers On Moving Day
by venitha

Number of carloads brought from our service apartment: 3
Number of packages in our ocean shipment: 64
Number of guys moving and unpacking said items: 4
Item Venitha was happiest to see: silverware
Item Jim was happiest to see: coffee mugs
Most useless item we brought: coatrack
First purchase after moving in: ant spray
Number of keys that came with the apartment: 26
Number of air-conditioning units, including with remotes: 6
Number of plants on the first floor that need to be watered daily: 4
Strangest location for watering these plants: leaning out of the window from the shower
Number of plants on the rooftop balcony that need to be watered daily: 47
Strangest appliance: wireless doorbell
Venitha's favorite item left by the owner: wooden shoes
Jim's favorite item left by the owner: naked torso lamp
Venitha's least favorite item left by the owner: naked torso lamp

Weight of one of the wooden shoes: 60 lbs.
Appliance we still haven't figured out how to work: water heater
First utility installed: wireless internet
Number of times Jim has bonked his head on the ceiling lamp in the living room: 3
Number of days it took us to finish doing all of the dishes: ?
Percentage of our view dominated by construction: 15
Number of construction cranes spotted out the kitchen window on moving day: 12

First meal in the apartment: bread (courtesy of our first guests, Timo, Sonia, and Anais - thanks!) and guavas and rambutans (courtesy of the fruit vendor along street to the MRT station)
Inaugural drink on the rooftop: 2004 Trivento Reserve Syrah-Malbec from Argentina
Sighted from the rooftop as we enjoyed said drink: fireworks over the Esplanade