Tuesday, April 1, 2014

These are my confessions...

Forgive me, internet. For I have sinned. It has been more than a year since my last blog post. I have committed travels far and wide, completed books, met new friends and had some major life events and committed egregious abuse and neglect against my blog. I confess this to you now.

I will finally post all the half-drafted stories from Singapore and our Asia travels. And will somehow catch up on the rest of the year. And I will go forth and sin no more. At least until my work life and/or personal life get too busy or distracting.


Monday, February 4, 2013

Super Bowl from Singapore

So yesterday was the Super Bowl. The championship of football, played between the top team (according the playoff system, if not necessarily by record) of the AFC and NFC. The winner gets a big shiny trophy. Everybody watches the game.

Ok, clearly "everybody" is an exaggeration. It's a lot of people.
Also, "watches" may be an exaggeration as well. Many times, I have "watched" the Super Bowl and gotten to the end of the game without being able to tell you who won or what the score was, but being able to clearly articulate the line-up of songs performed at half-time, as well as the recipe for the dip that was served. 

But that's half the fun.

Now, imagine you are in a foreign country. Say.......Singapore. Hypothetically speaking. The ultimate football game is airing at 7am. You do not have ABC, CBS, ESPN or any other channel that might remotely be airing the game. You also do not have the ability to stream video because Singapore internet doesn't allow it. So ABC.com, ESPN360, etc. are all off the table as well. You do have access to one or two sports bars in town who are showing it, but due to limited space and high demand, they require reservations to get a spot. I know this based on a report from a friend. Seeing as the Seahawks were eliminated from contention, I gave up and quit paying attention to the football season. Therefore, at 7am, when the game was beginning, I was still sleeping because I was on a late night flight back to Singapore from a weekend in Vietnam.

When I got up and into the office, I caught up on the Super Bowl via the internet, saw the YouTube video of the halftime show. (Beyonce is rad.) Saw the recap of the power outage. (Srsly Nawlins?) And highlights from the game. (Go Ravens.) 

My co-worker (American, from Baltimore, big fan) took the morning off from work to go to the sports bar and watch the game. So when she got into the office, we discussed the game. And explained to everyone else exactly what the Super Bowl is, barely remembering to describe the sport as "American style football" so as not to confuse with soccer. And then we realized how silly the American football championship is in comparison to any of the soccer championships. So we started talking about Beyonce. 

Now there's a topic on which everyone can agree and a subject that transcends borders and backgrounds. 

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Musings from Singapore: the airport

While living in Singapore, there are many things I've had to get used to. Some are better than others.

But one thing I could DEFINITELY get used to is the airport.

Arriving in Singapore in August was my first foray into Asia and I had no idea what to expect. I mean, I knew Singapore was "first world" and had the requisite #firstworldproblems. And the BF had been here a few months and clued me in to a few things. But getting off the plane at Changi Airport was not what I expected. I was expecting squat toilets and non-potable water, possibly some sporadic air con. But instead, what I found was delightfully clean and automated bathrooms, drinking fountains on every turn, amazing travellators (that's what they call the moving "sidewalk" things in the airport that help you get from gate to gate more quickly. I always wondered what to call them....) and bright, shiny, clean everything.

As I traveled to and from Singapore, my initial awe and respect for Changi Airport has changed into true appreciation.

On my first trip from Singapore (to Cambodia, in August) I noticed a few things:

  • People dress up. No one wears pajamas to the airport, because they recognize that they are, in fact, out in public. (I'm looking at you, SeaTac.) Also, it happens to be a portion of "out in public" that sells high end cosmetics, clothing, handbags and even jewelry. I'm not real sure about that, but if it keeps people from dressing skanky (as my dad put it) in the airport, I'm down. I was wearing a cute t-shirt dress and boat shoes and felt a little underdressed, but considering the alternative, I'm ok with that. 
  • We got our boarding pass at the counter and proceeded through the gates marked "Departure". In the US, this path takes you to a security checkpoint, where you basically have to strip down and completely unpack your suitcase on the conveyor belt before having your hair patted and sniffed. In Singapore, you proceed directly to an immigration checkpoint. Because every flight out of Singapore is an international flight. The country is 710 square kilometers in size, with one city. There are no "domestic" flights.
  • After passing through immigration, I expected the security checkpoint, but still no. It wasnt until we got to our gate that we went through a security checkpoint. The gates are walled off with glass walls and they check your boarding pass and scan you as you enter the waiting area for your flight. This means that everyone in the security line with you is on your flight. There's no missing your flight cuz you were in the security line forever!
  • Also...Dunkin Donuts and Starbucks co-exist peacefully...why can't they do that in Seattle?

On subsequent trips to Changi Airport, my appreciation has only continued to grow. They have signs that give the estimated walking time to your gate, so you can plan your journey through the terminal. They have massive duty-free shops and srsly full. on. mall. But probably the best thing is the "express lanes" for immigration checkpoints. If you are a Singaporean citizen - or have a handy-dandy little identification card, like I have, through my long-term employment pass - you can skip the lines at the passport checkpoint and go through the express lanes. You walk up to a kiosk and scan your passport or ID card. Then you walk to the next kiosk and scan your thumb print. The little screen says "Bon voyage!" and you're on your way. (When you come back to Singapore, the little screen says "Welcome to Singapore!") There's no waiting in line, no awkward conversation with the immigration official.....I mean, there are no passport stamps either, but it's a worthwhile sacrifice.

So when it comes to air travel, congratulations Singapore, you're doing it right!

It's been my experience that the nicer, more efficient, cleaner airports are the smaller ones. Knoxville, TN and Columbia, SC are some really awesome airports. But Singapore is no small potatoes! In 2012, more than 51 million passengers passed through the airport on one (or more) of the airport's 6500 weekly scheduled flights. As a point of comparison, LAX handled more than 63 million passengers in 2012 and RDU handled about 9 million. 

Home to more than 110 airlines, serving 240 cities in 60 countries, Singapore is a hub for Asian travel and a jumping off point to the rest of the continent. In addition to the major international carriers (United, Delta, KLM, etc.) it's also home to Singapore Airlines, which is consistently rated one of the world's top airlines* and a handful of regional carriers that offer limited itineraries for CHEAP for people like me who want to eat every variety of noodle in Southeast Asia in its original location. So with all that going on, maybe it should come as no surprise that this airport has its act together.

*I'm flying Singapore Air next week and will report back. 

Friday, January 25, 2013

One night in Bangkok...

Ok, it was two nights. Just enough to get a taste for the city.

Bangkok is 2.5 hour flight from Singapore, so the BF and I headed there for a weekend in December. Though north of Singapore, Bangkok is still a tropical climate, so the weather was warm and wet while there, but pleasant for touring around the city.

We arrived on a Friday night and toured around our neighborhood of Sukhumvit. This area is known for its social opportunities, restaurants, cafes, bars, hotels and shops. Though it lacks some of the seedier activity that Bangkok is known to have, as depicted in movies like The Hangover: Part II. So we strolled past some street vendor shops that were set up along the sidewalk to a lovely restaurant serving authentic local cuisine. We ordered some popular dishes, like pad thai and Thai-style crab, then ordered some other stuff that we werent sure about, but wanted to try. It was all delicious and we went back to the hotel full and happy. 

The next day, we toured around our neighborhood again and then headed to the Chatuchak Market. Open only on weekends, it has stalls selling everything from porcelain handicrafts and hammered steel decor (bowls and candlesticks and the like) to paintings, ceramics, woven goods, bags, clever t-shirts and knock-off purses. It also has a wet market area, where fruits and vegetables and meats and fish are sold. Rows and rows and rows and rows of stalls and stores. It may not be the world's biggest market, but it certainly felt that way. We spent all afternoon there and only covered a fraction of the market. I'm not sure what fraction of the market, because I'm not sure we saw more than one edge of the market - the end from which we entered.

We had a great time. We bought Christmas presents and souvenirs and found some great things. We got home with a mind-boggling amount of Thai silk scarves. It. Was. Awesome.

After shopping, we took a harrowing taxi ride back to our hotel. We had heard that auto traffic in Bangkok was a nightmare, so we took public transit to get to the market. But with our bags and bundles (srsly. we bought a lot of scarves.) we decided to take a taxi back. Our taxi driver tells us he's going to take us to a tailor shop on the way back to the hotel. When we told him we werent interested in stopping by the tailor shop, he upped his fare. Interesting little racket he's got going there..... We proceed to sit in traffic in who knows what part of town, as we watch the gas gauge on the vehicle get closer to empty. At some point, not that far from our hotel, the taxi driver pulls over to the side of the road, hops out, runs over to some bushes and relieves himself. He then hops back into the taxi, apologizes for the delay and we're off again. Now, I have taken many a taxi in America that has had some strange occurrences, but that was my first roadside potty break. 

We finally get back to the hotel, shower, change and head out for dinner. We had scheduled an early morning city tour and a 6am wake-up call, so we called it a night and headed to bed pretty early. 

First thing the next day we met our tour guide and headed out for a tour of the city, starting with a boat ride through the canals and rivers through town. I love a good boat ride, especially one where we get to see interesting architecture of paddle-up homes and temples, people paddling their wares to market and giant (I mean GIANT) catfish bobbing through the water. 
After an hour on the water, we headed off to see the Grand Palace, the Royal Museum and some of the country's major temples.

The temples of Thailand have a unique look that makes them recognizable and different than the temples of Indonesia or Cambodia or Malaysia. The temple structures and stupas are ornate, with decorative buttresses, towers and pillars and are covered in mosaic patterns of shiny metal, glass and mirrors. Cambodia stupas have similar formats, but are more likely made of carved stone or clay and sometimes include mosaic design made of bits of ceramic. I know this now. Did not know this before.

In the key temples (or Wats, as they're called in Thai), there is a rule that arms and legs (of men and women) must be covered. But it was very warm in the city, so we did not wear long pants and sleeves for our touring and covered up just for the temple. I was not prepared for this and had not packed my zip-off pants, so I rented a wrap skirt from a lovely street vendor outside the temple in order to meet the dress requirements and gain entrance. That's right, I said rented. A cottage industry has sprung up outside the temple, to rent proper clothing to tourists. 

While wearing the very colorful wrap skirt and touring the temples, we saw the emerald Buddha wearing his winter garb (he has multiple outfits and there is an outfit-changing ceremony every few months when the Buddha's wardrobe is changed). 

We saw a very large, very shiny reclining Buddha that was so large, they had to build the building in which it's housed around the Buddha.

And we saw a giant gong. It looked like something out of the old 70's TV show, "The Gong Show" and of course, the BF wanted to pose with it. He may or may not have also said he would love to have something like that in his house...... But for now, we'll have to make do with a pic of him pretending to hit the gong. (In the temple, they don't let tourists hit the gong.....but if he had one at home, the BF could hit his own gong. Maybe that's why he wants one....)

And pretty much the whole time we were touring I kept singing "Shall we dance" and "There's no place like home" in my head, expecting to see Yul Brynner pop up and shout "Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera!" Because up til this, the movie "The King And I" was the basis of my knowledge of Thai history.....And turns out, it's an excellent period piece that shows much of the Thai culture and history.

Anyway, after a long day touring the city, we changed and headed out to dinner at a rooftop bar we heard was worth it. And we were not disappointed. Above Eleven, the bar at the top of a hotel in the Sukhumvit neighborhood. It has delicious drinks, delicious fusion food and the best bathroom I've ever been in. Seriously, the bathroom had gorgeous views of the city from the stalls and the sink area. And the views from our table weren't bad either.

After an action-packed (though PG) visit to Bangkok, we headed back to the airport and back to Singapore. At no point did I feel the devil walking next to me, though I did feel a bit like the world was my oyster....

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Musings from Singapore: meow's it going?

My apartment building has a family of cats living in the courtyard/lobby. the cats are multi-colored (black, white, tan, calico) but all seem to be part of the same family. They play well together and share the dwelling space with no quabbles. They're lovely.

Someone in the building feeds them: they gather around the building manager's office around dinner time and wait to be fed. I'm not sure who feeds them, but there is a bowl that appears from time to time, with food in it and the cats eat. Then they nap. The scatter around the courtyard, on the ground, on the furniture, on the sculptures, etc. 

There are a couple of cats I like more than the others. (Yes, I have a favorite stray cat). There's one with an eye injury. I'm not sure if it's from a fight or just some weird infection or a scratch or...but his right eye is hurt. But despite the injured eye, he's the most adventurous of the cats. Sometimes I see him roaming around the pool or hanging out in the stairwell. And after dinner, when the other cats are licking themselves in the parking lot, this cat likes to curl up on the narrow table just opposite the elevator.

Sometimes (when he's not in a post-dinner snooze), he's roaming around and will say hi. One night, as I was coming home from work, he greeted me in the courtyard and walked me to the elevator. The doors opened, I entered the elevator....and so did the cat. He walked in, then turned around and faced the doors and sat there, facing the doors for the duration of the ride. He didnt look at me or talk to me...just the doors. Just like humans do in an elevator. We reached my floor, the doors opened and he walked out of the elevator and off to the left. With a purpose. Like he had somewhere to be. I got out of the elevator, turned right to go to my apartment and bid him goodnight.

I'm not sure how he got back down (I live on the 7th floor) but the next morning, when I walked out to go to work, he was lounging in the courtyard.

The rest of the cats kinda bug me. And there are more now than there used to be. Some of them look gross. And mean. But this one, I like.*

Maybe being alone in a foreign country makes me more interested in the company of stray cats. Or maybe I just feel bad for a stray cat with a hurt eye. Or maybe the heat has finally gotten to me. But I have made friends with the stray cats that live in the courtyard of my apartment building.

I keep telling The Tad and Rosie that if they want a cat, I'll bring one back for them. So far, no takers on the offer. But I'm here til March. Let me know.

*I dont like him enough to invite him in to my apartment or even touch him or anything. But I do speak when I pass him in the courtyard. I say hello. He nods at me or meows back. It's casual, but pleasant.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Malaysia: Truly Asia (Batu Caves)

Malaysia borders Singapore to the north; the two countries are separated only by a narrow strait and are connected by a bridge. Because you are entering a new country, you must visit the immigration checkpoints on either side of the bridge, but you can drive across the border.

So, the BF and I have taken a couple of weekend trips to Malaysia, to check out different areas of the country. We visited KL (the capital of Malaysia) and toured around town for a couple of days. In addition to the historical and beautiful sights of the town, we ventured outside of the city a bit to see the Batu Caves.

The Batu Caves are a Hindu temple in the side of the mountain. They are considered the most important Hindu shrine outside of India, an interesting claim to fame in mostly-Muslim Malaysia. During the Thaipusam festival in the spring, THOUSANDS of people travel to the Batu Caves to celebrate the holiday. We were there in November, so there were merely hundreds of people (mostly tourists) visiting the temples. 

The first things we noticed on arriving at the caves were the GINORMOUS statues of key Hindu personalities guarding the entrance to the Caves.

Hanuman, the monkey god of Hinduism, stands 15 meters (that's 50 feet) tall outside the entrance to the caves, in full color and ceremonial garb. Hanuman guards the Rama caves, with depicts the stories of Lord Ramayana. To the right of Hanuman is a 43 meter (140 feet) tall Lord Marugan statue, which guards the entrance to the main caves, or the temple caves. We walked past the statue and climbed the 272 steps up into the caves to view the various shrines within its walls. 

Along the 272 step walkway up to the caves, there were dozens of wild monkeys roaming freely about. The little buggers were kinda cute, but definitely scary and creepy, so I tried to keep my distance, while the BF took pictures. The monkeys LOVED the tourists, who kept feeding them, everything from raw coconuts to oranges, apples, cookies and bread.

Touring around the caves, we saw many of the tenets of Hinduism explained in paintings and carvings along the walls and in dioramas. However, due to the damp, moist air in the caves, much of the artwork was showing its wear. But seeing the caves was still fascinating.



The pictures and dioramas were displayed in vivid color, representing everything from  the key deities and demons of Hindu as well as sage advice for healthy living. Much of the advice dispensed was either wise or amusing. 

We had a lovely afternoon touring around the caves, learning about Hindu traditions. Growing up in the US, I haven't met many (ok, any) people who profess to follow Hinduism, nor was I a religious studies major in college, so my knowledge of the belief is limited to what was included in a world history class in high school.

Traveling around Asia and seeing the  temples and shrines has been very educational. 

Saturday, January 19, 2013

My Love/Hate relationship with REI

I love/hate REI. I go back and forth between loving them and hating them pretty much constantly. Let me explain.

When I shop at REI, I buy good things. Useful, important things. Before traveling to Peru a few years ago, I bought a pair of Columbia brand zip-off pants that have been LIFE SAVERS in multiple situations. I wear them at home and abroad, in situations including mountainsides, hiking trails and temple ruins. I have worn them in front of friends, boyfriends and wild monkeys. Sometimes they are just the right thing. 

Before heading to Singapore, I stopped by my local REI (the flagship store in South Lake Union in Seattle) to pick up a few odds and ends. I needed a new Nalgene bottle, some packing cubes and a mini-messenger bag for toting guidebooks and water bottles through temples and city tours. I found everything I was looking for (granted, I had to get a purple water bottle, instead of hot pink like I wanted), used a gift card to help pay for it and went home happy. While touring around SE Asia, I've LOVED the bag I bought. It's a Keen bag, perfect size and shape: easily slings across the shoulder, holds a LOT of stuff without being too huge and has lots of internal compartments for organizing things. The inside liner is water/spill resistant and the outside fabric is water-resistant. This comes in handy when you end up on an accidental hike through Cambodia and get caught in the rain. 

The bag and me in Malaysia
The bag and me in Bangkok
The bag LOVED temples
in Cambodia.

But I hate going into the store.

I roll up into the REI wearing whatever I wore to the office that day - some variation on polo shirt with a khaki skirt and pearl earrings - or what I wore to walk Greenlake - Nike workout pants and a sorority t-shirt and pearl earrings - and I get dirty looks. All the granola-eating, bicycle-riding, mountain climbing Pacific Northwest nuts look at me like I dont belong in the REI cuz I'm wearing Sperrys and not flannel. The sales staff don't help me, the other shoppers get in my way and the whole experience just kinda sucks. By the time I leave the store, I am generally stressed out and upset and sweaty. It's just not that fun. I feel judged and want to walk around the store yelling, "I'm outdoorsy! I'm legit! I hike in South America AND Asia AND Snohomish County."

But they sell good stuff. That's quality, useful stuff.

For Christmas, my mom gave me an awesome jacket that she bought at REI in her town. But when I unwrapped the gift, we realized it still had the security tag on it, so we headed back to the store to get the tag removed. I was pleasantly surprised at how different my mom's REI was from the one in Seattle. The sales staff were super helpful, the customers chatted with each other, I got the security tag removed from my jacket and I ended up spending another $150 on some awesome stuff that was on sale. Thus, restoring my love of REI.

Maybe it's the PNW-ers who bug me (rain that makes people cranky)...or maybe Southerners are just nicer in general.....probably because of the access to Duke's Mayonnaise and Bojangle's fried chicken.

Maybe next time I go into the Seattle store, I'll just roll in wearing my "I survived Dead Woman's Pass" t-shirt and smear some mud on my zip-off pants to try to fit in. (I will, of course, refrain from telling them about the time I went camping and got there with my rain fly and tent stakes, but no tent.....)