Musings On Massages, Mosquitos and Minorities by Diane

Posted January 30, 2009 by passagesintime
Categories: Shanghai, Singapore

Ok – it’s been too long since we blogged about anything to anyone.  We’re sorry, but contrary to what you might think of our adventurous life, it’s full of the same stuff as yours – bookkeeping, dog grooming, family joys and woes, work obligations, finding time to socialize, privatize, economize, prioritize, exercise and compromise.  Thus, we sometimes go quiet, for lengthy periods of preservation.

obama-cakeNeedless to say, autumn was all about Obama. Everywhere, the world in smiling support all around us.  We had an Obama victory party and were amazed to see about 30 people in our condo – is it possible we KNOW 30 people already?  Seems so, and amen for that.  I had ordered a deluxe cake from one of the better hotels on Monday before election day.  They were amused by my high hopes and the clear victory message on the cake.  In fact, they sent me a congratulations email on Wed., confirming the cake delivery and their joy at the outcome.  Every cabbie, every colleague, every confused and coherent Singaporean we meet seems to echo the jaw-dropping surprise of it all and the bucket loads of hope the world is investing in Obama.  He is an Ox, according to the Chinese calendar and he’s become president in the year of the Ox, so there is much hope.  Everyone is trying to ignore that 44 (as in the 44th) is double-bad luck, though I did read yesterday that the combination of his birthdate numbers, 1961, is considered so amazingly lucky that it will overcome all other auspicious concerns.  Well I was born in 1961 too, same month as Obama, so I’m having to re-evaluate my expectations of self this year….

Finally a massage mystery solved in Shanghai. I now understand why they are called “parlors.”  Secreted on the 7th floor of a dingy office building was a massage parlor extraordinaire.  Oversized reclining stuffed chairs, four to a room, beautiful wood furniture, dimmed indirect lighting, orchids climbing the walls and comfort oozing through the door seams and floor boards .  There was no sign of anything clinical or colorful, no Enya or exotic asian music, and I started wondering what was going on.  My colleague told me he brought me to a place that was “good enough for the Japanese to frequent” but still priced right for Shanghaiese.  After a few peaceful moments, intended to achieve solitude through deep breathing, the door to our parlor slid open and in came two men each carrying, BY HAND, an enormous wooden cask of warm water.  Rope handles were all that held these barrel-sized behemoths from flooding our cozy parlor.  Steaming hot towels were delivered, waxy lotion applied from just above the knees to the tips of my toes and I surrendered to the refuge of reflexology.  No words were exchanged, beyond a few nods of approval.  Oh let’s not forget  it was still a polluted city full of crashing cars, spitting citizens and tainted milk, but I pranced through my  parlor dreams for the next 90 minutes. Supposedly, falling asleep is the highest compliment, so I’ll have to go back and give that my best shot.  On my “floating” walk home, I saw a sign in the intersection that said “We are polite people.  Please don’t step in street before green light.”   Compliance in China isn’t about laws, it’s about deciding to be comply at all.  Shanghai is ultra-modern, but there’s a contrast on every corner.

And now, just a few musings on our continuing life in Singapore…

*I recently moved to a window office at RD, but not until the Feng Shu master came in, reviewed the birth days, years and times of the managers, annointed the office, lit some joss sticks as a blessing, reangled a few office doors (that was costly!) and said that we would all prosper in our new surroundings.  Guess he wasn’t reading the papers back in November.

*I’ve brought my own lunch to work a few times – homemade soup, pasta leftovers etc.  Doing so guarantees anyone instant freak status in Singapore. Nobody really cooks at home, eating out is so cheap and prevalent, why would I ever even make soup?  Or pack it to work?  Surely craving a non-oily, non-Asian, veggie filled lunch isn’t reason enough.  Wonder what they think now that I bring my own espresso.  It’s NOT a coffee culture here and I just got fed up with lousy coffee so I bought a good machine and now I take my Illy coffee in my thermos, like the much-misunderstood Ang Mo that I am.

*I had to return unopened liquid shower soap when I noticed it had bleaching agent in it.  It’s really hard to avoid skin whiteners in every day products.  Those properties are such a benefit that it’s often not even mentioned…so it’s pretty easy to apply small doses of Clorox to your skin without knowing it.  Don’t even think about getting a tan, and don’t leave your building at mid-day without an umbrella, lest the sun pink your cheeks.  OK, I know they’re right but what about the benefits of Vitamin D and getting 20 minutes of sunshine daily?  Jeez.  It is a land obsessed with personal beauty – we are barraged with advertisements for all manner of surgical corrections – the most popular of which is corrective eyelid surgery.  It’s about $2,000 per eye, to make double eyelids, but it’s cheaper in South Korea if you’re ever headed that way.

*To keep things equitable, and keep parents honest, height is used to mark age, instead of what mommy and daddy protest.  So to decide if Junior pays child’s busfare or is entitled to a child’s plate, you simply stand next to the measure line.  No verbal exchange required.  Love that.

*There are “Dengue Kills” posters everywhere, with microscopic close-ups of the mosquito with massive stingers.  Full sides of buses are covered with “If They Breed, You Bleed” advertisements.  It’s jarring to look at and I have no idea if it’s effective but it sears the mind.  Malaysia, our neighbor to the North and East, has had 4,000+ new cases in January 2009, including 12 deaths.  That’s triple the same month last year.  Uh-oh.  Needless to say, I’m starting to choose long sleeves and light pants more often.

*I had a Muslim lady tell me that I looked like the Bee Gees lead singer.  Or maybe his sister, she wasn’t sure.  A few minutes later she said, “never mind, it’s really Lucy you look like…and you sound like her too.”  Two days later, a cabbie told me that he was “honored to have Julie Andrews” in his cab – meaning me!  “You do KNOW the Sound of Music, right?”  Oh yeah, I even danced to Edelweiss with my father at my wedding, but never saw/felt/conjured the resemblance.  It was clearly a compliment, though I thought what he needed to see most was my Madonna Halloween costume from a decade ago – then he would know a few of my favorite things! Being and looking and sounding different just elicits truth from strangers – there’s no time or words for polite diplomacy.   It got me thinking though about my identity as I’ve traversed this world – I’ve been a Haole in Hawaii, an English in Amish country, a Gringo in Puerto Rico and now an Ang Mo in Asia.  I’ve always identified with minorities, and now I wonder if I’ve morphed into one.  But Andy Gibb?  I think I need a new hairstyle…

*September was the Muslim month of fasting, and I thought about using it as a weight-loss opportunity, but scratched that idea.  Five of my eight-member team were fasting from sunrise to sunset for 30 days – no water, no caffeine, no snacks, nada.  I had to deal with the grumpiness and the hunger and the low energy of all of them, while keeping my own desk snacks hidden from view and minimizing my trips to the water cooler.  They didn’t care about my habits, but I thought a dose of old-fashioned Catholic guilt was clearly called for.  I couldn’t muster the solidarity for the fast, but I did enjoy the end of month feasting that followed!

*For the first time in all my travels, I had to visit a US embassy.  I’ve had a passport for 22 years and have been to at least 22 countries but luckily never needed to take refuge in a US embassy.  I think I’ll nickname myself the Fortunate Traveler.   No injuries, no natural disasters, no arrests, no passport theft, no political asylum – an awful lot of fun but no need to seek the shelter of the stars and stripes on foreign soil.   Well, while waiting to have additional pages sewn into my current passport (lots of multi-country trips now) I took notice of a sign in the waiting area.  In case you’re curious, here are a few things the American Embassy will NOT do for you, and I quote:  We can’t search for your lost luggage, we won’t settle hotel manager disputes for you, we won’t get you a driver’s license or a job and we won’t call a credit card company for you.   Imagine that they get asked to do this often enough that they had to print the sign?  Americans Abroad – there’s a scary subject.  I think somebody working at the Embassy needs to write a tell-all book soon.

There’s always more to say and always, if luck holds, another installment from the Fortunate Travelers.

Ouch! By Mike

Posted September 14, 2008 by passagesintime
Categories: Singapore, Tattoo

Well, it’s official.  To celebrate my 40th birthday (or, more likely to deal with my mid-life crisis), I have gotten inked.  

The yin yang is a reminder to keep my balance, and the dog yin yangs at the top and the bottom are there because the furry beasts help me to do that.  The celtic knot pattern represents the interconnectedness of all things and the the sun rays show the energy that comes when all is in order.  

I’ll be writing about the whole experience in a new men’s magazine to be launched here in Singapore called Frank, so I’ll post that in about a month or so.  In a nutshell, the whole process hurt as much as you would think getting repeatedly stabbed with a needle for 3 1/2 hours would.  Then there was the pain I felt in my back, butt and neck from sitting in a strange position for all that time.  Made me realize that I really am getting old!

Yet another Never B4 for me in a year full of ’em!

Let me know what you think …

Breeze, Trees and Sleaze By Mike

Posted September 14, 2008 by passagesintime
Categories: Indigo Pearl Resort, Nai Yang Beach, Phuket, Thailand

The ripe white moon bloomed against a pale blue evening sky.  The ocean water on which we were floating was as calm a lake on a still August day.  On the iPod, John Coltrane was belting out notes that took to the still air around us like tiny blue bats.  The whiskey was bracing, the fish – the freshest I’d ever eaten.

It was two nights before my 40th birthday and, partly inspired by my friend Cathy Boyle’s excellent Never B4 blog, I’d decided that I wanted to do something I’d never done before to mark the impending Big 4-uh-Oh.  So here we were — tied up to the floating home of a fish-raising family in the middle of a large bay off the coast of Phuket, Thailand.     

We’d boarded the flat-bottomed boat earlier that morning, carrying with us too much luggage and too-big heads from revelling at a restaurant in Singapore where we celebrated Diane’s birthday the night before. 

After a bit of recovery time, and some cold coconut water, the trip had truly begun.  And as me, Diane, the captain and his Thai girlfriend enjoyed the fish that just been plucked out of the sea and cooked over a small wood fire, all was truly well.  Our hosts not only lived in the ramshackle structure supported by Styrofoam blocks to which we were tied – they also raised fish here for the local restaurants and aquariums.  Before settling down to our meal of grilled fish, we were given a tour through the flimsy network of plywood planks where the nets suspended between them were pulled up so we could see the different species being raised.  It was baffling and impressive to see how these two lived with their three young children in the middle of the sea.  One thing I know for certain is that they must sleep well every night.  It might have been the most silent conditions under which I ever dreamt. 

The next morning, in lieu of a shower, I just jumped off the back of the boat and was again awestruck by the simplicity and ingenuity of the little floating fishing huts all around me.  After a great onboard breakfast, we were off, exploring mostly unseen areas of Phuket with our informative – if chatty – captain.  We drifted through small passages too big for most boats, through tumbledown Thai villages, past anchovy and rubber farms, and spotted the occasional spirit house on the banks of the island.  These elaborately-painted miniature mansions are built when Thais construct a home for themselves so that the spirits of the cleared land have a nice place to relocate.  It’s the epitome of Thai thoughtfulness. 

That night we drifted into another floating community – this one with significantly more activity including pearl farms, more fish farms and lots of floating restaurants.  Once comfortably tied-up to one of the bobbing eateries, Diane and I got busy playing rummy, and I hit the Thai whisky again with the captain.  This led to a climb to the top of the boat where we listened to Paul Simon, Jack Johnson, and the Grateful Dead as the setting sun set coaxed out every drop of color from the various shacks, boats and restaurants.  I think I might have spooked the captain’s Thai girlfriend with my one and only magic card trick and my Al’s Mar Azul tank top that changed colors in the sun (which I gave to her as a parting give the next day).  Then it was up to the restaurant for some more super-fresh fish and dancing to Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall album which – yes, yes – I also provided.

The next morning – my actual birthday – we were definitely ready for some real showers and aircon, so arriving at our resort – The Indigo Pearl – was like arriving at a true oasis.  The place is nearly indescribable.  Conceived as a tribute to Phuket’s tin mining past, the resort bursts with creative design (silverware fashioned to look like wrenches, restaurant seats made out of old horse carriages).  Rivets and other industrial touches share space with cushy beds, rainhead showers, gourmet food and three superb pools.  The perfect downtempo soundtrack plays underneath it all.  Because it was my birthday, the place treated us in amazing fashion – upgrading us to a private pool villa, dropping off a free birthday cake and bottle of wine and giving us free glasses of champagne and flowers at dinner. 

Nai Yang beach was just a three minute walk alongside the hotel.  Wow.  It’s basically a strip of shacks that seem like they’d fall down like a row of dominos if tapped just right.  But they must be sturdier than they look because they were able to stand up to the amazing endless breeze.  Each shack – set beneath soaring casuarinas pine trees that whooshed, swooshed and dispensed that unmistakable woodsy incense – served up traditional Thai dishes like chicken with chillies and basil. One did it up better than the other.  Mains were about $3 each.  Of course, we were too stuffed from our resort dinner (the only one we had while there because once we found the shacks, there was no going back), so I decided a beer and bed would be the right way to end my birthday.

The only place that seemed lively was the Aloha Bar.  So we went in and got two beers before realizing the girls hanging around the place were interested in playing with more than just the balls on the pool table.  One took a real liking to Diane and at one point I asked her if one of the girls had kissed her.  She responded, “no, it was just a weird kind of hug.”  We were in a thatched shack full of giggly, charming, pool-shooting, hip-hop -dancing Thai hookers – yet another never B4 for my 40th !  Once they realized that they weren’t going to get more than lousy pool and one beer out of us though, they graciously backed off – flashing those endlessly endearing Thai smiles. 

We skipped the Aloha Bar for the rest of the trip but we sure did enjoy plenty of the beachfront fire and flavour of Thai meals for the next few days.  As we watched the sun set on our last night, digging our feet into the sand, watching the kite surfers flirt with the wind – and chillies, basil, lemongrass and coconut milk flirt with our palates – I let any anxiety I’d felt about this milestone birthday drift away on the outgoing surf and be replaced with gratitude as the waves rolled sweetly back in.

P.S.  Chutney wasn’t on the trip with us … but she sure makes coming home a lot more fun!  That’s why her picture’s included here.

Oh My Mumbai by Diane

Posted August 31, 2008 by passagesintime
Categories: India, Mumbai, Travel

It’s been over a month since I spent three days in India and every memory teases my every sense.  You hear about it, you imagine it, you read about it, yet nothing prepares you for the assault on your psyche.

Dreamy illusions are shattered upon arrival at the Mumbai airport.  Think of the seven seas, full of people.  Churning crowds making carpets of color, restless and roving fields of families and dark, exotic faces full of hope, adventure, hunger, purpose. It seemed, in the space of a few minutes, that everywhere I looked I was seeing something I’d never seen before.  Clearly, ordinary life in India is extraordinary to outsiders.

We left the terminal and walked through a massive muddy field that is the airport parking lot.  (Photos would support the similarity to Woodstock….) It was 11pm and the place was teeming with people, though I would quickly learn that India overflows itself 24/7.  Our driver un-wedged our car and as we exited the airport I saw a well-dressed man drinking from a puddle while another man stood proudly in his underpants, bathing in the same muddy puddle.  I thought “ok, there’s my Nat Geo moment, I’m good with this,” while I unconsciously squeezed my purse and took comfort in my 32 oz. stash of bottled water. 

To get an idea of the scale of what you see, imagine a stadium full of people.  Flatten it, wrap it in saris of every hue and acres of white cloth.  Throw dust on it, raise the temperature to 100F, add an ark of animals and a caravan of chaos and start walking into this textural landscape.  What’s that smell?  What’s THAT smell?  Nothing smells like India.  And this was just Wednesday night, July 9th,2008. I asked my colleagues the next day what everyone was doing on the streets the night before.  “Huh?  What kind of question is that?”  I quietly scolded myself with the current travel promotion slogan “Incredible India.”  Those massive crowds of people on the streets at night were just living their lives. Heaving heaps of humanity.  I had felt sure they were waiting for something.  I’m sure they’re still there.

As a true first-timer, I knew goal #1 was to avoid the dreaded Delhi-Belly.  This pretty much means fruits and veggies and anything uncooked is off-limits.  It’s kind of unfortunate because the array of fresh foods is mind-boggling but I learned quickly the variety of curries and kormas and steamy towers of naan certainly made for three heavenly days of saucing and sloshing.  Yum. The Indian food I ate in India was nothing short of divine. Never have I been so blissfully unaware of what I was eating yet delightfully aware of the festivity of flavours in my mouth!

Mumbai is a city that works, clearly with the aid of daily miracles.  My colleagues travel almost 2hrs each way to work every day.  The site of their new office is in a neighborhood that looks forgotten by technological progress. They cannot bring their lunch or pc’s or carry anything on the trains because it is too crowded.  10-12 people die every day on trains in Mumbai.  Every day. This apparently is just an unfortunate fact when you deal with numbers so large.  A small section in the daily paper lists the train fatalities in this city of 18 million. Everywhere you look you see signs of growth and decay.  Buildings are being erected next to crumbling offices and stores.  People in business attire are doing deals with men herding goats and disfigured women selling fabric or chillies.  The air is laced with passion – I close my eyes now as I write and I see smiling faces full of fervor.

Cows, indulgent in their protected status, wander east to west across the visual landscape, looking healthier than the people who part in their path. Truly, I have never been to a place where the voice in my head kept saying “close your mouth, don’t stare, smile, don’t look surprised.” I had to keep censoring myself or I might have started levitating from the magic of the madness around me.   

There is squalor everywhere but it is vibrant and alive with frenzy.  I did not feel any sense of stillness. Of course Yoga originated here  – necessity is the mother of invention.  There are slums that are so vast they are on the map.  They are permanent residences for hundreds of thousands of people – shanty-towns many, many square miles large. They are cities unto themselves and it’s hard to believe that there is anything on earth unavailable here.  (If you have ANY interest in India, please read Shantaram.  The Australian author has hero status in Mumbai.  He has captured life in India as well as any Westerner could hope to.) There is unimaginable traffic.  It took us four hours to go less than 40 miles and at least two of those hours were spent crawling through jam-packed city life.  There can be five or six lanes of traffic flow, going in as many directions. It appears congenial, somehow, as it trickles along. But the magnitude of this traffic is hard to comprehend.  It is not unusual to see cars perfectly perpendicular to each other, engines running, drivers talking on the phone, moving only inches per hour. Games are played on the hoods of cars, meals are cooked and consumed in the midst of all this and everywhere, wherever one can turn their back to the crowd, there are men peeing.  I have never seen so many men standing in the position – I started to call them X-men, for the shape the back of their bodies create while emptying their bladders. I wondered where the women let loose.  

July was the middle of Monsoon season and I cannot possibly explain the strength and suddenness of this kind of rain.  It’s glorious.  It’s a shower of relief on a nation of need.  It pounds for hours and then disappears without warning.  I could barely focus on my work when it was raining.  I felt giggly and stimulated and utterly in awe. You see it, smell it, hear it, feel it – no longer are the words “it’s only rain” in my vocabulary. My colleagues were delighted that I appreciated the rain, because they too rhapsodize about it.  And their country.  They seem fiercely patriotic and proud of their diversity.  British colonization brought a degree of western civilization and India seems to have integrated the best practices of that time.  Never in so short a visit to any country have I felt I had been transported to a culture so rich in traditions, history, and tribe upon tribe of related but distinct people.  The diversity is as staggering as the whole of it.  My colleagues from Mumbai, 6 men and two women, were from 7 Indian “countries” and collectively they spoke 28 different languages.  Indians do everything with gusto, except making decisions. There is always something else to consider.   The famous Indian “head wag” must be seen to be believed. They wag for yes and for no.  In disagreement and agreement they shake their heads to and fro, up and down, ever subtly. Men and women wag, and it’s done so often that you forget you are observing it.  To Westerners, the meaning is often unclear.  I decided the wag was a cultural trait – a kind of readying of the head to speak and conspire. It was the only way I could focus on what was being said. I had to keep explaining India to myself, just to keep my moorings.

Bound for the airport, I had been in the car for four hours and I was physically exhausted from keeping my thoughts to myself.   My final meeting was at the airport Hyatt and I admit that walking into that hotel lobby felt like crossing to safety.  The air-con washed over me and I realized I was experiencing the euphoria of relief. From what?  Just observing Mumbai city life?  I spent a few minutes deconstructing my thoughts and impressions.  Then I ordered a glass of wine and a hamburger, to feel the full American-ness of my appetite.  My colleague fidgeted a bit and then said “you do know that won’t be a beef burger, right?”  Oh that’s right, I was still in India, despite the fresh familiarity of all things Hyatt.  We split the veggie pizza, he being Hindu, me just religiously hungry.

If you’ve read this far, it’s clear impressions of India are embroidered in my mind.  I have omitted almost as much as I’ve included, because it’s just not possible to say it all, and say it well. A visit to India is a glimpse into another world.  I’ve written only a fraction of what I remember from only a three-day visit to one city.  Put simply, there is not another place on our planet like India.  Incredible India.

I’ve been Shanghaied … By Diane

Posted July 22, 2008 by passagesintime
Categories: China, Shanghai, Travel

In mid-June I visited my Chinese colleagues to help their business-in-infancy.  I arrived and followed greeting guards to the longest line I have ever stood in in my life.  No less than 500 people, all of whom needed to pass through one metal detector.  My first thought, thank God I have a muffin and something to read!  My second thought: how weird that they have all these “tell us how we’re doing” signs and rating cards all over the place.  Like you’re going to tell them, on arrival, their system needs an overhaul?  In a country that hangs almost as many people as Singapore?  Never mind.  Read, snack and wait.  Exiting the airport I was amused by the pile of cigarette lighters with the “one per person” sign.  Seems China is doing their best to give back to travelers.  If I was a smoker, after 1.5 hrs in line, I’d have grabbed two. 

 

The airport was sparkling clean and clearly getting ready for BIG things to come.  No less than 2 city blocks length of waiting drivers were outside the gate, (just think massive proportions in all things China)  but none holding a card with my name.  My guy apparently had his phone turned off and spaced it out.  That’s ok, because the taxi ride to the city will live in infamy and shame in my mind forever.  There was smog, haze, rain and cars looking like they’d spent the last 30 years in a dirty snow cave.  No joke, it was a white-out, with outside temps a balmy 75 degrees!  (How will I breathe?  Are shallow polluted breaths better than deep ones?) But breathing didn’t matter because I spent half the ride hiding in the back of the taxi, as my driver honked his way into Shanghai.  We pushed our way through the traffic and almost knocked a helmet-less couple with an infant squeezed between them on a motorbike into a ditch. They glared, I groaned.  We came so close to people I could read the labels on the t-shirts they had wrapped around their smoggy faces.  And then I realized we were driving on the right side of the road.  Had the colonists just given up on China all those years ago?  I would soon find out why. 

 

I stayed in a Japanese hotel in the French Concession area of Shanghai, just off THE main shopping avenue.  I’m tempted to say it looked like any modern Asian city but there were clear differences.  It’s a city FULL of bicycles.  Suits riding bikes.  Dresses riding bikes.  Businesses on two wheels:  noodle men, laundry ladies, water bottle delivery guys.  Bikes full of hoses.  Bikes with four people.  Bikes with cans of cooking oil obscuring the riders.  And just wait till you get to the intersection.  Traffic lights mean nothing and cars plow into groups of pedestrians trying to cross with the aid of the blinking green man.  I saw so many Chinese business men trying to safeguard their ex-pat colleagues across the street.  “Oh just ignore those cars, they’ll hit me before they knock you down, usually they just nudge you.”  My colleagues thought this observation most astute…

 

Speaking of observations, I was sure noticing an awful lot of men in Shanghai.  Where have all the women gone?  I soon realized it was best not to ask that question too loudly, because foot-binding was not the darkest chapter in Chinese history.  Girls from the outside the cities are in high demand, just to even out the marketplace and show that China is a modern business climate.  But there’s another even more fascinating sociological phenomenon going on.  The one-child policy (1979) has resulted in a society without siblings.  They lack the language of families and their lives are predicted and planned at birth.  They are called the Little Emperor generation – 2 parents, 4 grandparents and a whole lot of hope resting on one head of black hair.  They’re spoiled, wealthy (if they’re city-born) and breaking under the strain of trying to be the best, among peers doing the same.  Suicide rates are highest among people under 30.  And the one common thread they all have is the need to get married and have one child, preferably a boy.  Uh-oh. 

 

The architecture was marvelous and modern and ancient and mysterious.  Western choices abound in Shanghai, great wines and food are available everywhere, as is the cheapest, scariest looking morsels of who knows what.  They’re fashion freaks and it shows.  My guess is that I was there during “dressing blind” week.  I’ve never seen such clothes put together on one person and worn on days OTHER than Halloween.  And what’s with all the spitting?  I actually ducked once or twice, to avoid whatever was airborne.  I wondered if it was required to spit once a block?  Or maybe people were just getting rid of the solids they were breathing? I’m told the Chinese are famously filthy and that a trip to the countryside is beyond the imagination of most civilized folks.  Oh, now that’s something to look forward to.  The government is waging a “clean ourselves up” campaign to try to get people to put their best face forward during the Olympics.  They’re temporarily taking dog off the menu, attempting smoking “sections” and giving out free tissues to pedestrians.  Okey-dokey.

 

In short, though this wasn’t short enough, I was fascinated with the visit.  I have never wanted to visit China and now I am intrigued enough to go back.  My hotel alone was an oasis of comfort:  lemongrass-infused towels, peeled apples floating in ginger water, a heated toilet seat with built-in bidet and pressure washer (ok – that was fun AND funny) and the most exotic breakfast buffet I have ever witnessed.  But outside that marble palace people were living VERY differently.  A colleague’s friend told me he moved three times in the first year, to different apartments in Shanghai, before he figured out that the water goes brown and cloudy several times a week all over the city. 

 

Brown and cloudy water is rarely a good sign. 

FOUR NIGHTS IN BANGKOK by Mike

Posted May 9, 2008 by passagesintime
Categories: Bangkok, Temples, Thailand

Remember, click the pix for bigger views!

I wake up.  Around me is a sea of unfamiliar faces and people speaking in a language that sounds like a mix of Chinese and Klingon.  A woman puts a tall, iced, milky-brown drink in front of me.  I sip.  It tastes like a Milky Way bar dissolved in perfectly-roasted coffee.    

No, I’m not dreaming.  I’ve just nodded off in the Palm Court restaurant in Thailand. 

Our guide Nui has left me here while she negotiates getting us some food and Diane has left in search of a non-Milky Way coffee.  I dozed because we’ve been up since 6:30 and have spent the morning hoofing it through two of Bangkok’s most famous landmarks – the Royal Palace which is home to the Emerald Buddha and Wat Po, the temple that houses a giant golden reclining Buddha.  As I was drifting off in this crowded, local restaurant, I was watching images of the temples’ ornate mosaic work, golden domes, mother-of-pearl inlaid doors, flowers, intricate statues and towering, alien spires dance across the dark of my closed eyes. 

 But now I am awake.  Diane is back.  Nui sets her plate of food down and soon, the waitress brings me a bowl of steaming hot Tom Kha Khai soup.  I am about to wake up again.

This time it happens as I am enjoying the sour, salty, heavenly coconut broth filled with veggies, chicken slices and small green … beans?  Oh wait, that wasn’t a bean.  Nope, that was a chili.  A big chili by Thai chili standards.  And I just ground it up real good in my mouth before lobbing the burning ball to the back of my throat and down my gullet and now it’s … oh god … oh Buddha … this huuuuurts!  Nui is giggling in that demure Thai way.  Diane is concerned but also smiling.  The table of Japanese tourists across from us points and laugh.  But this is so totally not funny.  This is the hottest thing I’ve ever put in my mouth.  Why do we eat these things?  These things that make me feel like I’ve just eaten an ice-cube-sized chunk of ground-up glass? 

I drink the rest of the coffee.  I drink my water.  I eat the string bean that’s supposed to cool things down.  Nothing helps.  But time.  Eventually the searing pain goes away and I am left with the easier-to-bear sensation that an angry cat just clawed its way down my throat.  As the cartoon alarm bells around my head and smoke that’s surely puffing out of my ears dissipates, I breathe deeply and … start eating my soup again.  It’s just too good not to finish.

And this little story sums up a lot about Bangkok.

It is certainly a city of contrasts.  Just as you can be enjoying a really pleasant bowl of soup and then get hit in the mouth with a chili punch, it is possible to have just emerged from a high end shopping mall and come upon a homeless beggar.  The temples that are found everywhere in the city are ornate beyond belief but the homes you catch glimpses of from the Sky Train (the raised rail platform that gets you up, up and away from Bangkok’s notorious traffic), don’t look like they hold a speck of gold in them.  Shrines housing golden Buddhas, Krishnas and Ganeshas share crowded streets with vendors selling cheap trinkets and deep-fried crickets.  The lovely Thai woman serving you your noodle soup says “thank you” in a voice that lets you know she ain’t no woman but rather, one of the country’s many kathoeys, or lady boys.  You can find yourself in a market stressfully haggling with a ostensibly grumpy salesperson one minute and, when the transaction is over, you not only receive your merchandise at a good bargain, but you get a big smile and a wai (the custom of putting the hands together at the center of your chest, prayer-style). 

And boy did we visit some markets.  They were hot, heaving, humid mazes of everything from watch knock-offs to beautiful silks, cheap luggage to light-as-a-feather cotton shirts and pants. 

When we weren’t visiting temples, enjoying the truly spectacular food, or squeezing our oversized Farang (white person) bodies through the small alleyways of the markets, we were racing back to our hotel to meet the tailors.

Before we left for Bangkok, Diane managed to find a guide who had a connection with a back-alley tailor shop.  That guide turned out to be Nui who took us down a side street I’m sure few tourists visit.  There we found a tiny family-owned shop – the kind of place the more posh tailors use to have clothes made for the tourists they lure into their shops.    By cutting out the middle man and bringing us direct to the tailors themselves, Nui saved us a bundle.  But perhaps the best part was visiting the tailors themselves and then having them visit in our hotel room for two smile-filled fittings.

Of course, no visit to Bangkok would be complete without checking out its notorious nightlife and so, after yet another amazing meal and a cabaret show featuring about 30 kathoeys, we took ourselves over to Soi Cowboy, a tiny side street filled with neon bedecked bars, barely-bedecked women and the occasional not-at-all bedecked elephants.  While I expected to feel sorry for the girls working in this district I actually wound up pitying the elephants more.  They’re paraded up and down and fed bags of snacks from drunken Farangs who buy the snacks for a few pennies.  The big beasts (I’m talking about the elephants) looked like they would have been much happier in the jungle somewhere in northern Thailand.  The women however, looked completely comfortable in their environment, and were perfectly suited for relieving the big beasts (I’m talking about the drunken Farangs) of their cash.

On our last night, we visited a restaurant called Bed Supperclub which was housed in what looked like a giant gray oil barrel turned on its side.  Inside, it was all white and wonderful.  Running along the curved walls of the ground floor and two lofts were long, extra-deep cushions covered in white sheets, white pillows, white tray tables and lounging diners.  We took our seats in the loft and were treated to world-class food and drink.  At the end of the four-course surprise meal, I got a seated massage from one of the roaming “relaxation specialists.”  I looked over at Diane, wondering if she’d like one as well.  But, at that point, she didn’t.  She was already dozing contentedly in a pile of pillows, dreaming of our four contrast-filled days in Bangkok.     

P.S.  For some Singapore writing, check out my latest article in Time Out Singapore by clicking here.

Blessed Bali by Mike

Posted April 7, 2008 by passagesintime
Categories: Bali, Besakih Temple, Indonesia, Ubud, Uncategorized

Whatever you think of when you hear the word “Bali,” you’re probably right.

Mystical island cloaked in green with rushing rivers and waterfalls flowing like the blood of the gods through the landscape?  Yup.

Magical land of dreams where nights are filled with ancient dances featuring slender men and women moving eyeballs and fingertips in time to hypnotic gamelan music?  You betchya.

Homeland of painters, carvers, sculptors, and craftspeople off all ilk who can turn a stick of wood into a miniature palace or a blank canvas into a nearly impenetrable jungle?  Check.

Temple-clad paradise where incense wafts heavenward and offerings of colorful flowers in banana-leaf trays dot the sidewalks all day long?  Got it.

What a testament to this little island haven that it is everything you expect it to be – and then some.  It might be the last place on earth that exceeds the expectations of earthlings.  In our six-day trip there, we went white water rafting; hiked up through a temple built into the side of a volcano as it was celebrating its once-yearly anniversary; ate at stunningly good restaurants; stayed at amazingly-affordable and oh-so-comfortable hotels tucked into the jungle on the side of gorges or perched next to rice paddies; and got tired cheeks from returning the exuberantly generous smiles of the Balinese people.

We are totally smitten and can’t wait to go back to the little town of Ubud that was our sanctuary during out stay. 

Here are some pictures of our timeless time there (click to make them bigger) …

Besakih Temple, Bali\'s \     Priests blessing festival participants         

         

         

 

P.S.  In one of our earlier posts, I mentioned that there would be an article published on the oh-so-stinky durian fruit.  It has now happened and can be found online at http://www.janera.com/janera_words.php?id=104.