Singapore Adventure

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Happy Trails
by venitha

We've settled into a routine in Rajasthan, alternating days of cross-country driving with days of city sightseeing. Jim and I, always happy road-trippers, are actually enjoying the long days in the car; we appreciate the time to read up on our next destination, the time to stop in small villages where my bare white legs and our digital cameras always draw a crowd, and the time to soak up the rural sights - today, a camel festival!

And, too, we like the time to compete in the Rajasthani Olympic event at which we excel: Car Games.

  • Sans Sari. How many women can you count before you spot one wearing something other than a sari? The Jaipur to Udaipur leg of the trip kicked our butts in this game: we lost count.

  • The ABC's of India. Go through the English alphabet, spotting something that starts with each letter. Hindi words work, too.
    • A is for... Ambassador! These elegant blast-from-the-past cars are common tourist vehicles.
    • B is for... Bindi! This forehead mark decorates both men and women.

    • C is for... Camel Cart! Woo hoo! Double score!

  • Highway Haiku. Our compositions of note:
    Jittu's great advice:
    "Lassi every morning ma'am
    Whole day no angry"

    Bring your own paper
    Filthy squat roadside toilet
    Don't touch anything

Jittu, obviously, thinks we're nuts. Happy, but nuts.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Rajasthani Olympics: Coverage from Jodhpur
by jima

It's been an amazing first week at these Rajasthani Olympics, and the competition just gets better and better. Top contenders for gold:
  • Event: . We have seen one incredible showing after another in this event, with each fantastically thick and creamy yogurt drink outdoing the last. 's local favorite, the saffron-flavored makhania lassi served at the Shri Mishrilal Hotel, has an excellent shot at the gold.

  • Event: Begging. An unusual twist on the oh-so-common "insistence" method of begging caught my attention and provided enough entertainment to be deserving of cash a spot on the podium.

    Beautiful girl (yelling): "Ten rupees! Ten rupees! Ten rupees!"
    Jim (shaking head firmly): "No."
    BG (yelling louder): "Hundred rupees! Hundred rupees! Hundred rupees!"

  • Event: Quotes. Yet another event in which the competition is fierce. The latest entrant: "We're in a hurry. Some other time." said by an American tourist to the Ranakpur attendant who wanted to show her the tallest idol. This Jain temple, straight out of The Jungle Book, is located on the scenic (ie completely deserted) route from Udaipur to Jodhpur.

  • Event: Marathon. The hands-down favorite in this event is Jittu, our stellar driver. He drives on rutted pot-holed backroads for eight hours straight without a complaint, then is disappointed when we're too tired to stay out late in town. He smiles and laughs at our lame attempts at Hindi, then scolds Jim for cheating when we're learning to count. He patiently finds our lovely off-the-beaten path hotels and obscure hole-in-the-wall restaurants, never hesitating in the least to hail a stranger for directions. Jittu da man.

Stay tuned to Singapore Adventure for more of our exciting Rajasthani Olympic coverage!


Thursday, February 23, 2006

Rajasthani Olympics: Coverage from Udaipur
by jima

Since we're missing the Olympics this year (go figure that winter games aren't of particular interest in either Singapore or India), we're holding our own, the Rajasthani Olympics, and best of all, we get to be the judges. Top contenders for gold:
  • Event: Scooters. We saw an incredible showing by the Jaipur team, with an entire family of five riding on a single moped. Two young sons stood in the space between the seat and the handles, Dad drove, and Mom sat side-saddle (she's wearing a sari) behind him, holding an infant. This is the kind of heroic effort we're just not seeing from the other teams.

  • Event: Hospitality. A clear front-runner recently emerged from the field on this event as our fearless driver spotted a wedding last night in Udaipur and suggested we crash. Much to our amazement, we were marched right up to the happy couple (OK, in reality the really young and dazed from all these people couple), who was incredibly gracious, was pleased to pose for picures, and encouraged us to eat eat eat. Venitha made herself very popular by taking photos of the gathered kids, all of whom loved to see themselves on the digital camera screen. Digital cameras are still quite uncommon in Rajasthan.

  • Event: Quotes. There's a great deal of competition here in in this category, but a clear favorite is "No! Go away! You make the whole thing horrible!", overheard on the way out of Fatehpur Sikri from a clearly unhappy female tourist to the tout who had been harassing her for her entire visit. Venitha and I couldn't help but laugh, but we can also relate to the sentiment; Go away is one of the few Hindi phrases we've learned.

  • Event: Dance. There are sadly only two entrants in this category so far, and one of those was me gracelessly doing the Jumping Swearing Dance of Pain after stubbing my toe on a cobblestone. But that lame offering takes nothing away from the other contestant, a woman who dances, and I'd like to stress that I'm not making this up, with nine pots balanced on her head while walking on crushed glass. I'm looking forward to seeing how this one will be topped.

Stay tuned to Singapore Adventure for more of our exciting Rajasthani Olympic coverage!


Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Queasy in India
by venitha

Within 48 hours of arrival in India, we are tired of beggars, we no longer point out every cow on the street, and we have seen the Taj Mahal twice. Also I am sick.

Chills descended as we headed down the dusty beggar-ridden path from the serene view of the Taj Mahal at sunrise, and while I could dismiss the feelings for a short time as the effect of the ethereal morning light on this most breathtaking of monuments, the side of nausea served up by our hotel's breakfast buffet was impossible to ignore. Jim snarfed potato-stuffed dosas, soggy idlis, and naan sopped in sambar, while I did my best to force down some yogurt and a hard-boiled egg.

Back in our room, I nestled under layers of blankets for mere minutes before rushing to the bathroom for the most impressive projectile vomit I've experienced in years. Feeling significantly better, I seated myself firmly on the toilet, my legs involuntarily shaking and shivering enough to generate a sweat were I still in Singapore.

I pondered the Asian logic of diarrhea-inducing countries that are stingy with toilet paper and mentally re-ordered off our Indian menus in a fruitless attempt to discover how my sneaky husband managed to usurp my usual iron-stomached role. We have disappointedly resisted all street food, including the oh-so-tempting gol gappas, and have become snooty connoisseurs of safely sealed and bottled water. We've even made vigilant use of prophylactics and avoided all hanky panky.

As I write this, I'm ensconced with questionable wisdom in the spacious backseat of our tourist car, which by Indian standards would seat, oh, at least 30, and that doesn't count the roof. I'm alternately lying down to quell my queasiness and sitting up to drink both water and the sights along the busy road leading from Agra to the pink city of Jaipur.

Ragamuffin boys play cricket in dusty schoolyards, sari-clad women build pile after pile of drying cow patties, turbaned men drive water buffalo and camels pulling rickety carts overflowing with bricks, bags of seed, chickens, people.

We drive slowly through towns, where even from my pristine and air-conned vantage point, the poverty, the filth, the desperation, are inescapable. Beggars surround our car. Scruffy girls wave and smile, Buy me a chapatti, madam! Emaciated women knock their palms insistently on the windows, then mime feeding the wide-eyed baby in their arms. Paraplegics pathetically yet hopefully display empty sleeves and severed pant-legs.

We leave the town for the less overwhelming sights of the countryside, and I lie down again with relief, unsurprised that I'm still queasy.

Never fear! At a cyber café in Jaipur now one day later, I feel much better, both physically and mentally. I have ventured well beyond the confines of the car, have enjoyed every minute in bustling Jaipur, and have even been assured by a local palmreader that I have positive positive thoughts, which is pretty hilarious if you know me or have spent any time reading this blog.

But maybe in India I will start living up to my destiny. Hence my positive positive thought for tonight: Tomorrow I get to start eating Indian food again.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Noogies and Other Hanky-Panky
by venitha

I was all set to post something about India today, but then I woke up to this adorable photo in my mailbox. Have you ever seen anything cuter?

Don't you just want to scritch her ears? Caress her soft head? Give her a gentle noogie on her snout?

How can you resist kissing her whiskered cheek? Taking her paw in your own and dramatically professing your undying devotion? Flopping down next to her and using her as a pillow while you read the paper with her?

What I would give to engulf her in a bear hug and never let her go.

I filled my wide laptop screen with the photo and stared tearily for a good ten minutes. She's right there. I can almost reach out and touch her. Almost.

Accompanying the photo were two wonderful videos of Maggie that prove Jeff and Sarah to be angels and that prove Maggie to be adored and happy and still the cutest sweetest most wonderful dog in the whole world. As if there was ever any doubt.

So without further ado, I'm drying my tears and listing my favorites of the advice we received for our trip to India:
  • Take toilet paper with you everywhere. Everywhere. Also wet wipes, sanitary gel, and a handkerchief. This is all good advice in Singapore as well.
  • Take Pepto Bismol (or Smecta) prophylactically. This sounds so much more exciting and risqué than it actually is.
  • Make vendors write amounts on charge slips out in English words as well as in numbers. Also check that all receipts clearly indicate rupees. 44 Indian rupees to 1 American dollar.
  • Insist on identification and a codeword from the person who picks you up from the airport. Apparently it's not difficult to get names of incoming passengers and then to intercept them without rousing suspicion.
  • If there is any hanky-panky with the driver, call me immediately. This, delivered gravely in a fine Indian accent by our friend Rashid, totally cracked me up. I tried to maintain a straight face while I assured him that there would be no "hanky-panky", words which, in modern US usage, imply something sexual and voluntary. Apparently my stifled giggles did not convey that I understood and shared his concern: he has since engaged a personal friend to drive us. I shall try to keep the hanky-panky to a minimum.


Thursday, February 16, 2006

Business Casual
by venitha

I greet Benny with a warm smile, happy to see a friendly face. Usually the lift stops for a complete stranger who eyes me with suspicion before reluctantly joining me and keeping a silent and nervous distance.

Benny, on the other hand, and his family, who live twelve floors below us, are friends of a sort and have even kindly agreed to water our plants while we're in India. We have a rooftop garden, and plants need lots of water in Singapore. This is no small favor.

"You are off to?"

"Work," I tell him, pleasantly surprised to discover myself not unhappy with this destination. In spite of the exhaustion inherent in suddenly working full-time, it's been a good week.

"Ah!?" Benny is always a perfect gentlement, perfectly composed, perfectly polite, but he can't quite stifle this response as he takes in my attire with slightened widened eyes. In cropped khakis, a plain navy tee, and black leather slip-on sandals, I'm really not "playing the ang moh" card too egregiously, though I contrast inescapably with Benny's crisply pressed shirt and smart silk tie.

"I'm an engineer," I tell him with a laugh, and then without thinking, add, "I know how the computers work."

He nods stifly and says nothing, and I hear my apparently lame Dilbert reference splat sickeningly against the elevator wall, showering Benny's immaculate dress shirt with flecks of inadvertent insults to his intelligence. Benny is also an engineer, and he runs his own business. He obviously knows how the computers work, too.

"Perhaps I can get away with more... because..." Well, shit. Where to go with this? At last I come to my senses and shut my mouth. I shrug and paste on a rueful grin.

Benny is clearly relieved when the elevator doors open to eject me.

"Have a good day, Benny!" I tell him, looking him in the eye and beaming warmly before the doors close to whisk him further down, to the basement garage and the shiny black car that perfectly complements his attire.

Alone in our condo's lobby, I look at the closed elevator doors, shake my head, and sigh, exhaling completely before squaring my shoulders and lifting my head high.

You can't win 'em all, I tell myself as I step out comfortably with long, sure strides toward the MRT. But I do hope Benny will still water the plants.


Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Love, Hate, Name Something You Ate VII
by jima

  • One thing I love about living in Singapore is...
    ...all the great ready-made friends in the expat community. Singapore boasts expatriates from around the world, and we have new friends from Germany, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, South Africa, the UK, ... the list goes on and on and on. Being new and alone in Singapore makes us all happy for any chance to make a new friend. Here you're willing to go to a party thrown by a couple you only met briefly through a mutual friend; to go out for a beer with a new co-worker "fresh off the boat"; to have dinner with folks you've never met, yet know intimately through their blog.

    I haven't had this many long and involved conversations with this many new and interesting people since my first year in college. While this can be a bit overwhelming and exhausting, especially to an introvert like Venitha, to me it's great fun and one of the biggest attractions of life in Singapore.

  • One thing I hate about living in Singapore is...
    …the time difference from the US. 7:30am calls, 10:00pm calls, staying up late to sit on hold on my health insurance company's support-line, getting up early to catch someone in the office in Ft Collins before the end of his work day. At any time, I can tell you the time in any US time zone without a second's thought, and man, am I sick of it.

  • A new thing I ate recently is...
    Lo Hei. This Chinese New Year dish is a "tossed salad" - literally. The plate is placed in the center of the table, and everyone digs in with chopsticks to lift part of the salad high into the air, calling out wishes for the new year while letting it fall. It's fun and a tad messy, or at least it was with my co-workers.

  • Something I recently bought is...
    …orchids. One bonus to living in Singapore is the low cost and easy availability of tropical flowers that you'd pay a small fortune for back home. Two large bunches of orchids ran me SGD $10, about USD $6. US readers are now thinking, "Six dollars! That's awesome!" Singaporean readers are now thinking, "Wah! Ang moh, he got Ali Baba, lah!"

  • Singlish o' the day:
    Ali Baba: to steal or cheat.


Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Miss Doolittle, I Presume
by venitha

I was shocked recently by the brash, fast speech of co-workers visiting from FC. My ears! The goggles do nothing! I abruptly morphed from hear-no-evil to speak-no-evil, however, when talking with them made me realize that I'm developing an accent of my own. An accent somewhat pretentious. Somewhat over-enunciated, especially the t's and the o's. Somewhat slow and soft. Somewhat deliberate.

But does it sound... somewhat Singaporean? Not in the least, which I have to admit is both a relief and a surprise. I've always been highly susceptible to accents, even unconsciously mimicing the speech patterns of new friends. I swear I'm not making fun of you! I can't help it! While I could easily pick the unmistakable Singaporean accent out of a line-up, even one dominated by Asian tongues, I fail spectacularly even trying to imitate it, even silently in my head.

I view my new inescapably snobbish voice with some suspicion and self-disgust. Is it a sign of my growing comfort with the place in Asian society that my pale skin assigns me to? When everyone regards you as rich and upper-class, is it only natural to start to believe yourself entitled to special treatment? Or, at least, to sound like you believe it?

A more forgiving and, I hope, more accurate explanation is that I'm making a subconscious accommodation in order to be better understood. I remember the dawning realization not long after I started working here that the Singaporean engineers couldn't hear the difference between can and can't. My current most-excellent diction solves that problem. But turn the tables, and it's not hearing but comprehension that's the problem, and I don't know that even Professor Henry Higgins could help with that.


Monday, February 13, 2006

Manic Monday
by venitha

Today was the first Monday I've worked since February of last year. Brutal. I feel for all of you normal working stiffs and have newfound appreciation for my usual half-time status. Instead of what I should have been doing (preparing for our India trip - we leave Saturday) and instead of what I wanted to be doing (blogging - see the list below), I spent the day in meetings with co-workers in town from the US.

Things I didn't have time to blog about today:
  • Our fab party Saturday night, complete with fab fireworks display.
  • Our anti-fab hangovers Sunday.
  • Finally meeting and absolutely adoring fellow bloggers D and A.
  • The thrill of finally getting our airline tickets to India followed by the agony of Air Sahara pilots stranding flights yesterday.
  • The thrill and the agony of Thaipusam.
  • The delicious new Indian foods we've tried; pictured are idlis and sabudana wada.
  • All the interesting/funny/scary advice we've received about travelling in India.
  • My interesting/funny/scary accent.

You think I should quit my job, too, don't you? Too bad blogging doesn't pay as well as engineering. It's certainly more fun, especially on Mondays.


Sunday, February 12, 2006

Electrical Appliances 202
by venitha

For an electrical engineer, I am embarrassingly inept at determining which transformer and/or adapter is required for which electrical appliance. Logic let me down one too many times, so I abandoned it in favor of the ever-popular "if it fits, try it" scheme, which has been predictably - and, annoyingly, logically - ill-fated. So far, I have destroyed the following:
  • My curling iron. The actual act of destruction was a fit of rage that ended with it broken in half, but I doubt I'd have been driven to such fury had it worked. After months of lulling me into a false sense of secure curling in Singapore, it developed an attitude when connected to Malaysia's electrical system. It got hot enough to melt my hair the first time I used it and refused to heat above lukewarm from then on. Melting was actually a fairly positive contribution to the bad bad haircut, but lukewarm, i.e. no, curling was deadly. I still maintain that my own bad behavior was therefore justified. You may feel differently, but you didn't see that haircut.

  • My ultrasonic jewelry cleaner. This marvelous invention is just the ticket when you're constanty swathed in sweat and sunscreen; if only they made them body-sized. Not long ago, however, I pushed my cleaner's power button, and instead of the familiar oddly-comforting dentist-office buzz, I heard a pop, followed by a good deal of cursing.

  • My "good" transformer. I've used it successfully many different times with many different appliances, but last weekend when I plugged it in, it promptly melted, leaving me to wonder three things: How much will we be charged for singeing the kitchen counter? Does our condo have smoke alarms? Do we have any other "good" transformers that we're just leaving plugged in? My fervent apologies, but, alas, the melted transformer is unfortunately on that list of pictures I regret not having taken.

Jim has destroyed nothing, has not lectured me one whit, and has taken to keeping his iPod out of my reach. Apparently his extra three years of education beyond my own were worth something.

The complete the prerequisite Electrical Applicanes 101, click here.

Friday, February 10, 2006

by venitha

"Awwww," Sonja said with compassion, reaching across the table to caress my arm.

"What?" I asked, genuinely surprised to have evoked this response.

"You're still counting. The months."

Yes. Yes, I am. And yesterday made eight.

"I'm going to count up to twelve and then right back down," I said with certitude. Our plan is two years here and not a day more.

Alex, beside me, nods knowingly and in complete agreement. A fellow counter, I note, though she needs fewer fingers and, well, toes than I do. She's nearing six months in Singapore and is headed home for good in just two weeks. A lucky girl, in both my opinion and her own. She can't wait.

Sonja, on the other hand, loves it here. She even loves my nemesis, the weather. Although I wasn't looking for her sympathy and in fact view the eight-month milestone as quite a happy achievement, I greatly appreciate her compassion. I'm a lucky girl, too, to have a friend here that I can be honest with, a friend capable of sharing her love of Singapore with me without condemning me for not feeling the same way.


Nearly six months ago, Jim and I waited in our new apartment for the rain to let up and allow us to meet our new friends, Timo and Sonja, at nearby Novena Square. The phone rang, and Jim answered it, smiling at Timo's still-unfamiliar German accent.

"The sun has come out, and we bought some strudel!"

"All is right with the world," Jim laughed. "It's a recipe for happiness."

If only it were that simple. The real recipe for happiness, I'm coming to believe, is friends, and we're very thankful to be making some wonderful ones here.


Thursday, February 09, 2006

by venitha

If tastes are any indication, I don't need The Genographic Project to determine that I am not Chinese.

I took a bunch these Chinese "cookies", purchased at great bodily risk amongst the CNY hordes in Chinatown, to work to pawn off on share with my co-workers. Given that they lasted for more than a week in my apartment, you can infer my opinion of them. They're kind of gooey in the soft fluffy way of a piece of Bubblicious that you've chewed for about 20 seconds and blown several very large bubbles with.

I left them in the "pantry", which I would call a break room, and they disappeared in no time flat, while the chocolate fingers (crunchy cookies covered with chocolate) beside them, of which I could easily eat about, oh, 100, sat virtually untouched. The chocolate fingers may even have been left over from the day before.

Universally popular pantry treats: a million different varieties of pineapple sugar cookies. Universally unpopular pantry treats: chalk cookies. There was no label on the container, so no name and no list of ingredients, and I therefore couldn't fully verify the presence of chalk, but really, these are unbelievably bad.

Okay, so Chinese genes are right out. How about Indian? I have a penchant for the food and great admiration for the lovely and colorful saris; but no, this, too, is inconceivable. Just look at my parents. I share my coloring with my mother: red hair, pale skin, freckles, blue eyes. No Indian there. My father claims the very smell of curry makes him ill, and he's left more than one roadside "potel" (Patel + motel) because of the aromas wafting from behind the check-in counter. No Indian there.

Then again, they did name me...


Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Sweat Lodge
by jima

At the end of yet another morning run:

Venitha: "Running in this country is sweaty business." She wipes her face for the hundredth time with her already-drenched t-shirt.

Me: "Arh-kabloo-ptah!" I lob a gob of phlegm into a monsoon gutter.

Venitha: "Singapore is a fine city, lah." She's right. There is undoubtedly a fine for such disgusting behavior.

Me: "Sorry, lah. Uhg-hummm." Clearing my throat.

You may infer from the fact that we are running together, that we are running, tragically, foolishly, heroically, outside. What the hell are we thinking?

I am thinking that it is a major bummer that our condo's treadmill, the one next to two, count them, two, blasting air-con units, is not functioning. My lovely and fitness-devoted wife is thinking that she doesn't like running outside in the dark by herself. Lucky me.

Now, for those of you just joining the story, this is Singapore. It's hot. It's humid. Even at 6:00am, a 40-minute run produces sweat in quantities more than a touch frightening. And Venitha, being the sadist good training partner that she is, insists on a one-minute sprint at the end and has even - in Singapore! - found hills.

It is always near the end of our runs - when the only thing that keeps me going is the fact that the fastest path to air-con, faster even than hailing a cab that would have to obey red lights and one-way streets - is to keep running, when I am reminded of my father-in-law. No, it's not the sweaty stench. And, no, it's not Venitha's ponytail, bobbing with annoying perkiness and not a little hypnotism, in front of me. It's his tale of his experience in his neighbor's sweat lodge. Which I am clearly channeling.

A tribal leader was called in, they stripped down and packed tightly together inside the lodge, too close for comfort to each other, to the blazing fire, and to the scalding, billowing steam. Whether visions resulted from the intense heat, the dehydration, the spirit world, or spirits of-this-world, I don't know.

As for me, I believe it's the sweat that induces my visions of my father-in-law's sweat lodge, and it's the visions of a bunch of near-naked sweaty senior citizens packed into it that leave me hacking up a lung.

jima - with thanks to my lovely running partner/editor

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Monk Stalker
by venitha

We've taken thousands of pictures since moving to Singapore, and we laugh about how odd it will be to return to a life where we don't photograph nearly everything before we put it in our mouths. I carry my camera with me everywhere, yet I frequently regret not having taken certain pictures.

One shot in particular that I missed in Bangkok was of a luminously beautiful female monk. Hair shorn very short and wearing a dark brown robe, she chatted animatedly on her handphone as she sat across from us at a café. I'm not practiced at sneaking photos, and even if I'd asked and she'd assented, a posed smile could not have captured the moment.

In Chiang Mai, my desire not to miss another such opportunity melded with the vivid orange robes of the monks, and SHAZAM! My secret identity was born: Monk Stalker. Of course, I still need a cool name (your suggestions are welcome), and a cape, and potentially a stronger telephoto lens. Then again, nix the cape; I've seen The Incredibles.


Monday, February 06, 2006

Mutant Cats
by venitha

"What kind of psycho goes around chopping off cats' tails?"

A friend here laughed at this, his initial impression of Singapore. What a relief it was to discover that it's merely a mutant gene that afflicts the island's feline population and not the local version of . Or Singapore's epicurial twist on the ever-popular Chinese oxtail soup. Or an economical alternative to the aphrodisiacal .

You laugh, or perhaps you just ponder whether aphrodisiacal is actually a word (it is) and how you pronounce it (just like you think if you don't think too hard), but even in this, the heyday of Viagra, the Chinese prefer herbal remedies and anyway, you'd be surprised how much I pay for prescription drugs here. Economical alternatives are definitely of interest, though I can fortunately not speak personally to Viagra's local price.

At the Time of the Psycho Cattail Chopper, I was busy cooking up my own initial impression of Singapore. I hadn't even noticed the strange bobbed tails of the local cats, though I was glad to have the issue cleared up in advance. Who knows what other theories my overactive imagination would have served up alongside the potent brew of jetlag and insomnia.

Today, jetlag is a distant memory and, thanks to those pricey prescription drugs, even insomnia is held at bay. Yet as I wait in the harsh afternoon sun for the green man to allow me across the street, I snap pictures of the stray cat hogging the shade beside me, and I wonder, as only the wife of someone who loves bad, and I mean really bad, movies can: Are mutants truly preferable to psychos?

My fellow pedestrians vote a silent but resounding "Yes!" by edging closer to the mutant cat and further from the psycho ang moh cat butt photographer.


Sunday, February 05, 2006

by venitha

It's been one month now since our family left, and the memories of their visit resonate, echo, make me smile.

Marilyn. Wearing pajamas of my favorite color in the kitchen in the morning. "How many pineapples have we eaten?"

Matthew. Ending every taxi ride with a heartfelt thank-you that never failed to get even the most grudging, grunting, tooth-smacking driver to smile at him.

Elizabeth. Her passion for handbags, and her successful hunt for a cheongsam. How lovely, how adult, she looked in it.

Karen. Her sisterly reassurance and easy smile. "I know you don't like it here, but, still, you seem so comfortable."

John. His enchantment with watching the people, with wandering the wet markets, with exploring the untouristed side of Singapore. So much like me.

Jim. Smiling. Smiling. And laughing. Laughing. Wrestling with Matthew, reading Boondocks with Elizabeth, hugging his mother.

All of us. Happy together. Sharing our enthusiasm for dominoes, computers, chocolate, and hard-boiled eggs.

In our elevator, the smeary wet footprints that marked our frequent path from the pool have long since disappeared, but inside my apartment, a rubber ducky sits brightly on our bookcase. His Nirwana Gardens logo has worn off, and his twin has abandoned him for the colder climes of Colorado, yet he's unrelentingly perky.

He makes me smile.

Friday, February 03, 2006

God, No
by venitha

Last night, we met some fellow HP expats for drinks at Brewerkz, where the raspberry beer is really good. Or perhaps my standards have fallen dramatically given a meager diet of Tiger, the beer equivalent of bread crusts, for the last eight months.

I slowly sipped my tasty brew while the six of us, new acquaintances who met through HP's e-mail wives' spousal support network, ran through the standard questions. How long have you been here? How long will you be here? Where are you from? Where do you live in Singapore? Do you have a car/a maid/children? Where have you travelled? Have you tried durian?

Everyone is nice and friendly, and being that we are all U.S. expats in Singapore courtesy of HP, we have plenty in common. We lament our difficulty in making Singaporean friends. We laugh about the funny products we request from visitors from home. We rave about Singapore's incredible mass transit system.

As I finish my beer, I look quietly around our small table and contemplate before me a short human timeline documenting my life in Singapore.

One couple has been here less than a month. I remember their "excited about everything, thinking it's all going to be easy and fun" stage. So naive.

One couple has been here four months. I remember their "irritated with everything, one bad day short of full blown depression" stage. So awful.

I look across the table at Jim, animatedly talking with the guys about sugar cane juice(?), and ponder my own current state of mind. What stage is this?

On our MRT ride home, Jim and I discuss our relief in being through those initial stages and remark how heartening it is to have survived and to be on the other side. I silently wonder what stages, both good and bad, lie ahead.

As the lift delivers us to our 19th floor apartment, I ask, "So if you had it to do over, would you come to Singapore?"

Jim, giving me more proof, as if I need it, of his exceedingly poor memory, responds, "I don't think so. But I'm much closer to maybe than I was two months ago."

He unlocks our door and ushers me inside, squeezing my shoulder gently as I take off my sandals. He doesn't bother to turn my question back on me. We can both hear my answer, "God, no!" without my saying a word.


Thursday, February 02, 2006

Soylent Green
by venitha

Work has been very quiet this week, as many of my co-workers are still away for the new year holiday. The silence is nice, but come lunch time, hmmmm... what to do? The cafeteria is mired in a rut of inedibility, and when I ventured to the nearest food court for a popiah fix, my favorite stall, the one where they recognize me and make it extra extra spicy without my even having to ask, was closed. Drat this holiday!

Unable to face the cafeteria, I continued on through the maze of parking lots, narrow back streets, and quiet HDB void decks and was amply rewarded with take-away vegetarian rice at the whopping price of S$3 (US$2) from a popular Indian stall. Hooray for Indians! Within minutes, I was back at my desk, unpacking a bag of the following:
  • Two crispy papadam, which are a cross between potato chips and tortilla chips. I don't quite get the appeal of these so I rarely eat them, but, like many things in Singapore, it's easier to smile and accept them than it is to communicate the fact that you don't want them.
  • Two tied bags of spicy soup and/or sauce. The orange one had lentils, and the brown one was just a broth. Tying liquids into puffed-up plastic bags like this for take-away is very common. I've tried to do it myself and concluded that it requires lessons. Getting the liquid out of the bags is no small trick either, so I'm proud to say that I didn't end up wearing any of this, in spite of the fact that I was dressed in white.
  • One brown paper package of four delicious veggie toppings on a bed of rice. A cabbage dish, a carrot dish, an "I don't know what that green vegetable is but it's good" dish, and... looks like meat, it tastes like meat, it smells like meat, it must be... meat?!? Nope, believe it or not, that is not meat. I was completely stunned way back in June when I first enjoyed numerous dishes of what-had-to-be chicken, mutton, and beef at what-couldn't-possibly-be a vegetarian Indian buffet. I clarified with the owner, the cook, the bus boy, the guy behind the counter, and more than a few of my fellow diners that it really truly honestly no kidding absolutely was vegetarian. And then in the "Inconceivable! I do not think that word means what you think it means" way, I clarified that by vegetarian, they meant not meat.

And if it's really truly honestly no kidding absolutely not meat, then what is it? Someone told me: onions and garlic. My guess: soy and textured protein. My suspicion: soylent green. Lucky for all of us, I have no more time to explore that line of thought. It's yummy. I ate it. Back to work.

The Indian are vastly superior to anything I've had in the US. Clearly, Givaudan needs to send my favorite food scientist and her husband to Singapore ASAP for in-depth analysis.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Tequila Required
by venitha

A friend here recently joked that the exorbitant local booze prices are good insurance against alcoholism, but dealing with ineptitude from across the globe has a big ol' bottle of tequila looking quite reasonable in comparison.
  • Fidelity. Mail from them (my 401K rollover check) and mail to them (my pension rollover paperwork) apparently collided, and the resulting fireball destroyed both packages, including Jim's freshly notarized signature. A US notary is available at one end of a charmingly long line during charmingly limited hours at the charmingly inconvenient-to-get-to US embassy for a charmingly non-zero fee.

    Tequila required: One shot for the 401k; one for the pension. Bonus shot for Jim if the notary gets to charm him again.

  • Avago. My vacation balance has been incorrect since Agilent's sale of my division became official two months ago. Thankfully, this hasn't stopped me from being able to take vacation, and - surprise! - they're perfectly capable of accounting for that. Subtraction, they've got down; addition, not so much.

    Tequila required: One shot every work day until it's resolved or until my math skills deteriorate to the point that they match my employer's.

  • United Healthcare. They have lost/not received/rejected without informing me/conveniently and suspiciously misplaced every insurance claim I've submitted through the post and, when I call them, they deny the very existence of their international claims department.

    Tequila required: One shot for every insurance claim I have to re-submit. One shot for every time a United Healthcare employee flat-out lies to me; make it a double if the employee claims to be a manager; make it a triple if the employee does not have an American accent.

  • Associates in Family Medicine. It turns out that the Hepatitis B vaccinations I received in 2005 (three shots over five months) are most likely ineffective due to improper vaccine storage. My US doctor will gladly give me more shots for free. But will he pay for my airline tickets? And what about my pain and suffering? And I don't just mean from the needles and the jetlag; if I get vaccinations here in Singapore, I have to submit claims to United Healthcare. See above.

    Tequila required: One shot per shot. Heh.

  • US Postal Service. Our airline tickets to India were apparently also destroyed in that mid-air collision, and multiple calls to the US Postal Service have resulted in the not-so-reassuring assurance that they'll file a request to find our tickets and get back to us within 60 days. My Singaporean travel agent's advice: file a police report at my nearest police station and take a copy of said report to the airport, where for a fee, the airline will re-issue the tickets.

    Tequila required: If I really do end up having to file a police report to get to India, forget tequila. I'm holding out for a .

Two other details to justify my impending alcoholism:
  • A help-line available from 9am to 5pm Eastern US time means 10pm to 6am in Singapore.
  • 1-800 numbers are not free outside the US.

Pass that bottle of tequila, and, no, I don't need a glass.