Archive for January 2008

From One Laksa To Another? By Mike

January 24, 2008

On Saturday night, Diane and I overcame the cocooning urge this breezy, beautiful apartment has instilled in us, and headed out on the town.  Our choice was the New Asia Bar at the top of the Swisshotel.  And when I say top, I mean top.  I had to “pop” my ears three times as the high speed elevator zoomed us up to the 76th floor.  The view was spectacular.  It was the first time we got to see such an overall perspective on our new city.  The floors are all tilted 20 degrees toward the window which made for quite an unusual sensation – especially as the drinks flowed.  And flow they did.

Needless to say, the next morning our heads (and pretty much the rest of us) weren’t in such good shape.  Diane had just the cure, thanks to a meal she had been taken out for by her staff earlier in the week.

We went to a place called Katong Laksa – a small “hole-in-the-wall” that specializes in Laksa.  If ever there was a hangover cure, this was it. 

Katong Laksa (there are many variations of this delicious dish) is a spicy, coconutty brew of heat and yumminess in which floats shrimp, cockles, and noodles that have been cut up into small portions so you can shovel the stuff in your mouth even faster than if the noodles were left whole.  The coconut flavor tends to dominate on first taste but then the heat of chilies, a slightly sour shade of citrus and lemongrass, a touch of garlic, and many other more subtle flavors shine through.  That is, if you let them.  The stuff is so good that it’s easy to just keep spooning it in. 

One of the things that does slow you down though, is the otak that the dish is served with.  This is a fishy, spicy paste served wrapped up in a banana leaf.  You unwrap the leaf and put a dash of paste on your spoon before sending it diving into the glorious soupy pool.

The counterpoint to all of this wonderful spice is a beverage made from fresh limes that’s not very sweet, but just the thing to cool the palate while bringing out the citrus and oniony notes in the dish.  Yum!

Feeling fortified, we headed out to visit one of the city’s dog runs to get a dose of canine comfort into our day.  Sadly, it was mostly empty when we arrived.  A couple who were running their cocker spaniel around told us that most people were at the Singapore Dog Show and that we should go there. 

So far Singaporeans hadn’t led us astray, so it was off to the Singapore Expo Center.

The couple was right.  There were dogs everywhere!  And not just the little mix-breed, kind of funny-looking dogs you see most places in Singapore.  These were proper dogs – Goldens, Burnese Mountain Dogs, Yellow Labs, Great Danes, Shepards and more.  Chatting with one of the owners, we asked the question that really was on the back of both our minds – were there any standard poodles around?  The guy’s eyes grew a little larger and he pointed us to the back corner of the room where he said there was quite an impressive poodle. 

Jordan The PoodleWe followed his lead and soon we were talking to owner David Yeo and running our hands through the poofed up hair of Jordan, his standard poodle. 

As the conversation went on (with a  break for Jordan to take third place in the “fancy dress” competition), we discovered that Jordan’s girlfriend had just had a litter of puppies – ten in all!  THAT made for some pretty interesting conversations on the ride home and over the next few days including:  how would we ever housebreak a dog in an apartment, how much would a dog bite into our budget, wouldn’t a dog kind of mess up our travel schedule, wouldn’t it be too weird to have another black standard, where’s the nearest vet, what kind of dog food should we feed it, it can’t be allowed on the couch (at least at first), maybe I should take up jogging again to get it good exercise and … should we name the dog laksa?  Stay tuned …  

Three other random thoughts …

I sometimes get the urge to burst into singing some kind of loud, heavy kind of rock song on the bus (maybe Zeppelin’s:  We come from the land of the ice and snow, From the midnight sun where the hot springs blow …with the appropriate howl) because everyone is just so quiet and polite.

My printer ran out of ink recently.  I ordered more online.  When I checked out, I thought it said your ink will be delivered in 4-6 weeks.  I hit the back button on my browser and it was actually 4-6 hours.  And that’s exactly when it came.

The urinals are all much lower here than in the US.

Are You Settling In To Singapore Well? By Diane

January 24, 2008

On the eve of week three at Reader’s Digest Singapore….

I had hoped to write my impressions after the first week of work – good thing I didn’t!  Talk about having it slung at you fast.  NOTHING could have prepared me for the onslaught of my first week in the office.  Because the guy I replaced had been only physically there off and on for the last few months, I think they were saving up their we-need-a-manager ammunition for a warm body.  The word “orientation” was mentioned about six times the first day; I’ve come to understand that the very saying of the word WAS the only orientation I was going to get!  No one even showed me where the bathroom was.  It went kinda like this..

This section of our blog has been suppressed due to the potentially sensitive nature of the corporate information it contains.  It can be found following this link.  For the password, please email either Mike or Diane.  Watch for a new installment soon…red envelopes….chili crab…and the PRC!  

Yeah but where’s the bathroom?  And all those other 25 really useful things you need to know when you start working somewhere.  Yikes.  My head was spinning.  I had to keep laughing or I was going to cry.  The good news is that it all got MUCH better by week two.  Not having a secretary or an office or great Mac skills or any kind of orientation made the first week a lot rougher than it needed to be.  But I got through it and with a heady dose of optimism, I sorted myself out.   My team is great, I’ve taken all of them to lunch already so they could introduce me to the best local foods and I’ve had my first staff meeting to tell them I won’t be working till 7 every night and that I don’t understand Asian culture yet so if they have a problem they better tell me or suffer silently.  I suspect we’re going to have a lot of fun and that as the newness wears off, things will only get more interesting.   To keep this from approaching novel length, I will list a few of the more interesting things about my first two weeks:

*Commuting by bus is great.  They’re frequent, air-conditioned, cheap and boarding is almost insanely civilized.  Bus drivers actually wait for running people.  You do have to signal the approaching bus that you’re interested though.  I had my nose in my book and just assumed my bus would stop at the crowded bus stop but it zoomed by since no one else needed that bus but me! Taxis are affordable and abundant as well but the public transportation is the best I have experienced, world-wide. 

*Chinese New Year is a massive holiday here and red lanterns have started appearing everywhere.  It’s the Year of the Rat and there are Rat promotions everywhere.  Big plants with teeny-tiny oranges are for sale as are about 100 other CNY items.

*Maids are out washing and polishing cars every morning.  They use only buckets – no hoses available – and it looks hard work in this heat.  The executives seem to love their royal treatment.

*I’ve been bike riding in mornings, around 6:30 am and the park has large and small groups of mostly elderly people doing Tai Chi.  Looks like the official uniform is white pants and either blue, red or yellow shirts – maybe depending on your skill level?  They play Chinese music on boomboxes and they move like marionettes.  I’ve almost crashed my bike watching them. 

*A stranger at a Japanese food counter bought my lunch.  He talked to me a lot about his lazy kids, spending all his money, not taking care of the parents etc. He told me I should go to a Singapore hospital to get my “no kids problem” fixed.  They could do anything.   Then he paid for my lunch and left while I was eating it.  I remained, confused and amused.

*Speaking of food, it’s simply amazing.  And abundant and cheap.  I get cut up mango, papaya and pineapple slices every day for about $1.10, total.  Lunch costs about $4 and the variety is just too much to list here. 

*We’ve seen a lot of weird looking dogs here.  We’re guessing most breeds don’t mate well with Pomeranians and shiz tus.   And quite a few stray cats are missing most or all of their tails. Since this is shark-fin soup country, I’m keeping an eye out for the guy selling cat tail satay. 

*Michael’s pretty good at the house-husband stuff. He’s learning how many dishes we really use and how much laundry needs doing.  He’s actually done a great job setting up house, cooking, banking, shopping etc.  Not sure he loves it all but … at least he’s not unclogging one of 13 toilets!

The Big Easy — By Diane

January 8, 2008

Singapore First week impressions…

Wow is all I can say.  Look how our Asian journey has begun.  We’ve been here a week yesterday and the only scary thing I can say is that work starts tomorrow!  That’s going to be interesting, for both of us.  This will in fact be the first time since we’ve known each other (15 yrs!) that we haven’t worked together, so that’s a BIG change in itself. Our apartment has exceeded every possible expectation we had. We even have our own bathrooms which may prove pivotal to years of happiness here, no doubt! 

So Singapore is…startlingly clean…almost incomprehensibly efficient and oh-so-easy. 

Surely life in Vieques prepared us for almost anything and we keep wondering how much of our first impressions are based on Vieques as a back-drop.  But, can anyone imagine that in five short days we have managed all of the following:  bank accounts and ATM cards; picture ID’s for our housing complex; WiFi in our apt.; full cable set-up, a cell phone, a landline; figured out the bus and underground and bought passes; had a TV, rice cooker, printer and fan delivered; bought a used fridge from a neighbor and had it delivered for $15; had another fridge removed; hired someone to iron everything we brought with us; bought two tables and two office chairs from another neighbor; explored our neighborhood, got rid of an old receiver and pillows and a bunch of cardboard boxes; and managed to get Pizza Hut to deliver to our door one exhausted night?   (Our printer was delivered twice, about four hours apart and we told them about the mistake.  They really wanted us to keep  the 2nd one but we double checked that we had only purchased one so they took it back.  Someone called the next day to ask if we got our printer and to re-confirm why we turned down the delivery!) 

So that all sounds pretty mundane but you have to realize where we are and just how amazing it is to have accomplished so much, with so much ease.  The people have been truly accommodating and just plain patient.  Sometimes, in shops and eateries, they fall over each other to help you – it can be kind of humorous.  We’re just shocked by the service we’ve seen. We said to each other at least five times this week that a few years from now it’s going to be really difficult to go back to the US and suffer through commonly apathetic and inattentive service.

So Singapore is just bursting onto our senses this week… the food choices are beyond comprehension.  Think of everything you know and all foods you’ve ever tried and then simply double it.  Or triple it.  The grocery stores are making me giggle.  The mushroom selection is hard to imagine, I even saw gift packs of mushrooms for the upcoming Chinese New Year!  Fruits and veggies are abundant and inexpensive.  There are so many things I’ve never seen or heard of and have no idea how to use that we just can’t wait to start experimenting with it all.  And there is more Western food than we could require in all of our time here.  We’ve already seen great Australian cheeses and meats and all things British and American.  Chili sauce is everywhere and some restaurants stake their reputations on it.  When you ask for noodles with something, they ask you what kind – yellow, white, thin, fat etc.  Think sweet sauce, hot sauce, fish sauce, coconut sauce.  Think Korean, Thai, Vietnamese, Indonesian, Japanese and 5 kinds of Chinese food, on offer, almost everywhere you turn.  Singapore is a culinary carnival, chock full of all the colors and characters you’re expecting to see!  I have thought of so many people in our lives and how this non-stop food fest would excite, impress and tantalize so many of you. 

And then there are the massages.   I had a 40 minute, $22 reflexology foot massage that I will swear was a life altering experience.  Who needs pedicures when your entire body gets affected by tiny Asian hands?  This lady kept giggling at my large and tough feet, saying I must walk a lot.  In the meantime, she was kneading me into a new future with every whimper and groan in my repertoire.  It was so good we went back for more 5 days later and this time, the guy who was massaging Michael actually got up on the table and walked on him!  He says it was the best massage he’s ever had – the guy’s feet were like super-strong hands.

Oh yeah, it’s quirky here too.  Our apt. has no hot water in the bathroom sinks or the kitchen sink or the laundry. They really don’t believe in making anything easy on the maid. And because it’s the tropics, the cold water isn’t really all that cold so everybody just makes do.  And it’s not a place to make substitutions. They like the way things are offered and “customization” when it comes to menus or other things for sale, just isn’t a good idea.  I think that’s why it’s so efficient – they figure out the best or most accommodating way to offer things and then it’s a one-size-fits-all approach. It works, especially for my mentality, because I think the “me generation” has ruined much of what’s great about America. 

It’s a marvelously casual country, the tropical heat just makes it so.  If you’re dressed up, you must be going somewhere other than Singapore! They’re very discreet about their cell phones, though everyone has one and uses them constantly.  There seems to be a respect for others around you that permeates the culture.  They line up for everything, in an orderly way.  They bow and smile and exude joy for a $2 tip.  They ask for permission to use YOUR cell phone number, knowing it will cost YOU minutes.  Shopping is a national sport.  No kidding.  I don’t know how else to say it.  They shop with vengeance and fortitude that I’ve never observed anywhere.  More than 50% of the population is myopic by age 12 so this is THE best place to buy glasses.  There are multiple opticians in every shopping mall and that’s top of my list once the first paycheck arrives.  Mostly, I’ve noticed the lack of stress and pretension. They’re here no doubt, but I just haven’t seen either in any noticeable amounts. 

I saw a floor neighbor yesterday who shouted and smiled across to me “Welcome to Singapore.  I hope you will enjoy your stay here.  Welcome to Singapore.  Good luck to you. I hope you will be happy here.”  What a warm and wonderful greeting from an old Chinese man and his almost older dog. I hope he’s prophetic.    

Well, the sun is setting so there’s just a little more time to take a glass of wine down into the garden and ponder all that’s happened this week.  Who knows what this next one will bring – but we’re damned excited to find out!

Singapore Dreaming — By Mike

January 8, 2008

We’re official!Sitting in the food court at the mall across the street from our hotel on our first night here in Singapore couldn’t have felt more like a dream – in the literal sense of the word.  Everyone around us looked different than us, yet somehow similar to each other.  The food on offer came in a variety of shocking colors and textures and featured such things as “fried intestine” and “bee hoon.”  The language being softly clucked around us simply didn’t fit in my ears the right way.  I had no chance of determining where one word ended and another began.  I felt floaty, displaced, other.  

The sense of strangeness I felt as I ordered and then ate a relatively safe bowl of broth and dumplings was no doubt a product of serious jet lag (although the Singapore Air flight was absolutely perfect with seats that folded down into full beds) mixed with a mighty blend of medicines I had received from a doctor earlier that day to treat a cold that had morphed into bronchitis.

But the soup was delicious, the people were all polite and smiley and the medicine had actually halted my pushy cough.  Things were getting better by the minute.

And they would continue to do so. 

This city has really impressed us – especially coming on the heels of our time in the Caribbean.  Everything here just works.  People do what they say they’re going to do, show up when they’re supposed to and are generally efficient, positive and pleasant.  They go out of their way to help you, whether it’s finding out where the nearest bus stop is or telling you at the bank that it’s a better idea to change your money out with the street exchange people because the rate is better.  There’s an expression locals use here which is “can.”  It means “yes, I can (or you can) do that” and it’s often repeated very fast like “cancancan.”  In part, it really sums up the spirit of the people we’ve encountered here.

The weather so far is superb – every day is around 85, there’s a breeze, it rains but doesn’t last long.  The apartment we were so lucky in getting is amazing – huge, open, breezy, great flow.  The condo complex has a huge pool, decent Thai restaurant, small grocery store, gym and billiards room and – best of all – easy access to reliable, inexpensive buses right out our front gates.

So far, we’ve focused on setting up house and exploring our little corner of the city.  There’s a great neighborhood we can walk to with a few bars, shops and restaurants and across the street via an under-road tunnel is East Coast park – a great place for biking, walking, rollerblading and, of course, eating.  We ate over there last night and, on our way back home after the sun had set, the lights of the multitude of ships out on the water actually looked like a full city skyline.

Food is EVERYWHERE here and truly a passion in Singapore.  That suits us fine.  Every meal we’ve had has been full of fire and spice.  And, for the most part, it’s cheap, cheap, cheap!

While we’re looking forward to learning more about our new home city in the next few weeks, we’ve also just booked a trip to Krabi in Thailand for the Chinese New Year Holiday in early February.  We’re staying on Railay Beach which you can see here.

Diane starts work tomorrow and I start my life of leisure – uh, I mean of job-hunting.  So we’ll have more updates soon, lah?