Monday, 28 February 2011

Singapore's OK Toilet

"OK" has a bit of a different meaning here. Apparently it means "really good".
These large stickers are posted in all of Singapore's bathrooms.

Sunday, 27 February 2011

An Island With No Malls

Last weekend's adventure took the three Oliners to the charming island of Ubin off of Singapore's northern coast. Though Ubin is part of the Republic of Singapore, Ubin is mostly undeveloped. With limited electricity and running water, it's a wonderful place to spend the day, biking on partially paved paths and exploring the nature reserves.
A drink stand on Ubin does its best to attract customers in Singlish.

Dance-deficient Diversions

Wow. Time is moving fast here now. A consequence of becoming more comfortable, no doubt. The week has a routine feel to it in some ways, now, and I must admit, I like it. Sometimes, when some of the novelty wears off, what is left is something a little less lustrous than before. The excitement can wane as time passes, as I have experienced in other places. Here, though, I the newness was too thick on Singapore, and the wearing away of a bit of it has left the place looking much nicer than before. I can better appreciate the gorgeous greenery that Jason was so fond of on that first day. I can exult in the wonder of the common lightning storms.
Much has happened…. I will try to relate the most interesting parts that are still in recent memory.
On Friday night, Jason, Lexi, a boy from Harvy Mudd named Ozzie, and I set out to attempt to go line dancing in Chinatown. The internet and Jason’s guidebook agreed that this was a fun activity, if a little strange. We found a website with information so up-to-date that they had the song list for the 25th of February, 2011. This inflated our hopes, though a small discrepancy in location between pages on that same website did raise eyebrows. We set up with happiness in our hearts, ready to dance, despite the pouring rain.
After forging our path on a mostly direct route, we arrived at the Far East Square, the location which had the most internet sources citing it as the destination our fellowship sought. But, lo and behold, there were no dancers! Not too surprising, as the place was rather wet, but Jason was bold enough to ask, anyway. After three consecutive people each got his or her coworker (with better English), Jason eventually got the information he desired. The square had indeed once held many joyous dancers, but these were in times past. Now, no line dancers would be found.
At least, not there. Maybe at the other place the internet suggested. Maybe one of these days we’ll be curious enough to find out.
In any case, we were then in Chinatown with no plans. After some enjoyable aimlessness and indecision, we decided to go to the “hacker space,” one of Ozzie’s favorite hangouts. The place is discretely located amidst restaurants, just a simple door in the wall labeled “hacker space.” A group of people approached and greeted Ozzie. We walked inside together.
Within, the space was closer to an Olin lounge than other space I can think to compare to. There were sketches, both of art and business, computers, some nerdy artwork, and a couple of guitars. And soft chairs in which we sat. The people inside were either working or chatting. The one that talked with us the most was using the space to work on a tech solution for education.
Jason, Lexi, and I agreed that the place reminded us of the historical salons of the enlightenment era. Only, without the rich lady funding them :p An interesting experience, to be sure.
The next day began with delightful relaxation. In the evening, Jason and I went to dinner and a movie, except dinner consisted of the most fabulous ice cream sundae ever! It had oodles of ice cream of the vanilla and green tea varieties. And plenty of tasty fruit and other treats as toppings. We then saw I am Number Four, which I really enjoyed. At the theater, when you buy a ticket, it comes with a seat number and everything! So buying your tickets early is what counts, not getting to the show early.
I’m not sure the world really wants me to be able to go dancing, but I may still attempt again on Sunday, for swing dancing. I hope it will happen this week, as opposed to last week! But even if it does not, it will take more than that to make this anything less than an excellent weekend.

Friday, 18 February 2011

A note on classes

Just so you don't think all Singaporeans do is eat, let's pause to consider the educational experience!

For the sake of brevity, I will do it in limericks.

Gene Therapy is rather dry.
Three-hour lectures antagonize.
The professor teaches,
In long-winded speeches,
And an accent that makes me sigh.

I am fond of Product Design.
It sharpens the creative mind.
A watering can,
That's in high demand,
Is what the professor assigned.

Accounting's my favorite course.
The lectures are are large but terse.
I peruse the book,
In the library nook,
And love the logical verse.

Marketing's a fair bit of fun.
Examples of what can be done,
Are used to express,
Her lessons the best,
Then students show ads they've begun.

That just about covers everything!

I will add that it is interesting to notice the cultural differences in the classroom. The nice professors here are careful to water-down correction with lots of praise. They seem to be afraid to give you clear direction, since you might take their critique too personally. This results in my general state of confusion.

Another peculiar moment was when students stood at attention to read their answers in tutorial. Apparently the formality is beaten in them during primary school.

Happy Weekend!

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Singapore's still got some tricks up it's sleeve...

While much of what was new to me in Singapore is now old hat, this past weekend showed me that this land still has plenty of surprises.

Exhibit A:
A grove of giant carrots.
There's more after the break. Click "read more" to see it.

Chingay in Pictures

As we arrived at the Chingay Parade site, we were treated to a beautiful sunset over the Marina Bay:

The crowd's attention was drawn elsewhere, however, as the pre-parade performances began.

The website we were using to find Chinese New Year goings-on listed the Chingay Parade as a "Must See!" and "Asia's grandest street parade". Suffices to say, it did not disappoint.
More pictures and details after the jump. Click "Read more" to see 'em.

Monday, 14 February 2011

Nothing but a calloused old soul

This is a sad state of affairs.

I've only been in Singapore a month, and yet it feels like forever! Things that used to delight and mystify now seem as boring as dirt.

I don't bat an eye when I see students sauntering about with take-away drinks in open-top, plastic bags. Sidewalks seem complete only if they are covered. Withered old men sweeping leaves from the paths every morning are as normal and reliable as the sunrise. Dishwashing paste is a fact of life. Sometimes I step on the cats with missing ears and broken tails who sit outside my room, I'm so used to them. Singlish is almost perfectly intelligible to me lah. Tropical flowers blooming every which way are practically like weeds.

Today, I went to a Bhangra lesson, ate some Indian food I'd never heard of before, and chatted to folks from China, Indonesia, South Korea, Russia, Scotland, and Singapore. Just another humdrum day. I tried to drown my sorrows in a bowl of laksa at dinner.

Oh, where has the magic gone! Maybe, it was used up in the fireworks and bejeweled costumes of the 8,000 Chingay Parade performers. Or, perhaps the ginormous, rabbit-shaped flower displays on Sentosa Island drained the wonder away. Maybe it is hidden on Istana's* golf course. Forsooth!

Will it ever come back? Maybe if Yuan punches me by accident in kickboxing class. Maybe if Tom mails me a WonderBox. Maybe if I sustain a head injury in ultimate.

Until then, I remain comfortably conditioned to life here. It almost feels like home.

*the President's house
It's really quite a mystery to me why he lives on a vast estate and the rest of the population remains in crowded flats. The perks of politics?

Kaya: Spread of Wonder, Spread of Delight

It occurs to me that I really haven't given the food here the credit it is due. I will now give just one tiny portion of Singaporean food the praise it deserved.

Most mornings, I've been eating the "breakfast set" at the canteen by my dorms. For a mere S$1.50, I get 2 soft-boiled eggs, hot tea, and a sandwich made with butter and kaya. Now, what is kaya, you may ask, that it deserves this post's title?

It may help to tell you that kaya is a malay word, and most of us English-speaking people would call the spread coconut butter, instead. It is made of coconut milk, eggs, pandan leaf, and sugar. It ranges from brown to green, but whatever its color, it brings sheer delight to the taster. Imagine if honey were more of a creamy paste flavored lightly of coconut, and you may be getting close to the idea of kaya, though nothing short of the actual experience of kaya can fully describe it.

Kaya and butter sandwiches are so good that I do not even regret not being able to eat a bagel with nutella in the morning, as I did over the summer.

You can see pictures and find out more about kaya here, including how to make it yourself, if you'd like. I hope that each morning you wake to a delightful breakfast!

Friday, 11 February 2011

Demanding Patience

Sometimes, it feels like the world conspires against you. Sometimes, it's something big and horrible that happens. Sometimes, like during the past handful of days for me, it is a lot of little things that go wrong all in a row. Mostly, all the world, but mostly NTU's bad internet, has conspired against my ability to play WoW.

About a week ago now, I attempted to play a heroic dungeon in WoW, but my interent connection was so poor that I could not enter. Not only this, but I could not enter WoW at all, my character being trapped in the nether of a load-screen that terminated only by disconnecting. I was at the mercy of dungeon reset at 3am server time, or the aid of my wonderful Mother.

This happened multiple times, and left me with the sad realization that I can only do heroics on *really* off-peak interent hours at my school. With this crippling disability, what was I to do in WoW? Well, one of the only other viable means of improving my character is archeology, so I took that up. Only a few days ago did I realize my good fortune in beginning this task before the patch! The barrier to entry to archeology is now somewhat higher, but I am already past it. So perhaps in this small way, the slow internet indirectly produced a good thing.

This said, that very same patch revealed yet another very unfortunate result of bad internet. The small 140MB patch took 11 hours to download. Yes, that's right, 11 hours. So no WoW on Tuesday. Then, Friday, when I was looking forward to playing, especially with the possibility of finally getting my new dragon mount, my laptop AC adapter unexpectedly died. I didn't even abuse it. How could an adapter be so inconsiderate?

All that said, the tides did eventually turn. I got my dragon on Sunday. Jason graciously let me borrow his power adapter so I could play :) I even got a new piece of gear the same night from a heroic I was able to enter! A happy time, indeed. Here is my character riding atop the Drake of the West Wind in all its glory:

I've been having a lot of fun in the real world, too! We saw the Chingay Parade on Friday night, and went to Sentosa to see flowers and Fort Siloso on Saturday. I do believe Jason will do these events better justice, as he once again took many delightful photos :)

a rant on Japanese studies

I've frowning at my screen, trying to put meaning into the Japanese characters I'm supposed to memorize for class on Monday. It the pace of engineering classes here is - shall we say... relaxed? - very relaxed. Meanwhile, the language course I'm taking, introductory Japanese, feels very fast. I guess it doesn't help me that the entire class has learned a few thousand Chinese characters already.
This is why I'm staring at the Hiragana chart on my screen. In Hiragana, there are obvious patterns -- the character for 'nu' is halfway between 'a' and 'no', and 'wa', 're', and 'ne' definitely share ancestry.
The Japanese Hiragana alphabet. Vowels, at the right, are combined with consonants, on top, to form letters, or 'kana'. Memorize this by Monday.
At first I thought I could use those patterns to my advantage in learning the alphabet, but they serve more to confuse than to organize.  I feel that the way the patterns work is a job for a cryptographer. In the Roman alphabet, a curlicue is usually a stylistic thing. In Hiragana, a curlicue turns a 'ke' into a 'ha', then remove one measly line and you get something totally different! What gives? Aaaaaa.
I'm hoping that random mnemonics will help me out. I looked at the character 're' for about a minute, trying to convince myself it looked like a 're' of sunshine. I didn't succeed, but now I remember 're' as the character that looks absolutely nothing like a ray of sunshine.

Monday, 7 February 2011

Sunday morning

I know I just rambled recently, but this adventure is too good not to share.

I was supposed to meet up with a friend to go to mass on Sunday morning. The Plan: rendezvous at 8:00am at the Hall 8 bus stop and ride over together.

Nothing could be simpler...(dun, dun, dun).

Alas and alack, I didn't confirm The Plan via email. I did send him a text saying I would meet him there. Where, there meant the Hall 8 bus stop. He must have thought I meant the church. So, he went along without me, and I managed to wait at the wrong Hall 8 bus stop, preoccupied with how hungry I was.

When 8:15 came along and he didn't show, I decided venture out on my own. The directions to the church seemed so easy.

I hopped onto the 199, changed buses at Boon Lay to the 174, and plopped in a window seat where I would be able to see a "building that looked like a church" that would signal my stop. Unfortunately, I never saw the church. I just kept riding the bus, staring out the window, allowing panic to set in. I knew I must have missed my stop miles back, but I didn't see anyway that I could still make it to mass in time at my original destination.

Now, when I'm hopelessly lost I generally do one of two things: (1) ask for directions or (2) pretend I know where I'm going.

The first option was too taxing, so I opted for Plan B. I followed the people on the bus who looked like they were heading to church. There was a whole crowd of them, so it seemed like a safe bet. I got off at their stop, trotted down the sidewalk after them, and followed them right into the back entrance of a large building. The whole time I was praying, "Please let it be a Christian church, and please let the service be in English!"

I hovered in the foyer in indecision when my bus friends scattered in different directions. When a lady came in, I asked her if they had services in English. She was amazingly nice and adopted me on the spot (metaphorically speaking).

It turns out that I attended a Presbyterian church with wonderfully welcoming people. They were perhaps slightly confused when I told them I was Catholic, but they remained friendly. I learned about Hebrews 11 (Christ is the ultimate sacrifice), I enjoyed a delicious Myanmar lunch, and I received excellent directions to my next destination. Really, now! God not only answered my prayers about the church, he fed me lunch, too!

How awesome is that?!

Saturday, 5 February 2011

Today Jason and I crested the highest height of Singapore! Well, the highest natural height, that is. We went to Bukit Timah, you see, where there is a nice nature reserve. The monkeys lounge around the visitors center where they receive food (illegally), and the brave can attempt the arduous trek up to the 537-foot summit.

This one is particularly relaxed

But is this really as high as you can get in Singapore?

Of course not! Singapore has not one, not two, but 34, yes 34, buildings that are taller than 537 feet. The three tallest buildings in Singapore are all a modest 919 feet tall. To give some perspective, the Empire State Building is 1,250 feet tall, and the highest point in the US is Mt. McKinley, at 20,320 feet. And Mount Everest is 29,028 feet high.

But all this is not to belittle our experience. Bukit Timah was a delightful excursion. We went to the Chinese gardens afterwards, which were also excellent. Among their many delights were a variety of beautiful flowers, many of which were also very aromatic. This one was my favorite:

Note: the pictures in this post, and probably any other post in which I use pictures, were taken by Jason. Thanks!

Life on the edge

There is a mild fear that comes over me whenever I sit down to dine with locals. It sends shivers down my spine and gives me heart palpitations. I find myself short of breath and struck speechless by turns. I've developed a nervous twitch in my left eye. I lost command of my senses once and sprang to my feet, knocked over my chair, and shouted, "The horror! The horror!"

You see, the problem is that I never know what slimy things locals will put on my plate. And once they're on my plate, there's really nothing left for me to do but eat them. It's sort of terrifying. Half the things they give me, I never even thought of eating before.

The locals are perfectly kind about it all, too. They even asked me, upon making initial contact, if there was anything I didn't like to eat. The two problems with this question seem to be (1) my answer, and (2) their response. I replied that I wasn't particularly fond of seafood. Seafood, as in anything that comes from the sea. Things that float, things that swim, things that crawl, etc. As best I can tell, they define seafood as a whole fish, nicely broiled, served with its head intact. That dish is the only thing they've shown any hesitation in serving to me. But maybe that wasn't hesitation, maybe that was just a nervous twitch.

At reunion dinner for Chinese New Year, when I sat down to an empty plate, I felt the palpable suspense. I managed sea cucumber (zero calories, I'm told, but slimier than celery), foreign-looking sushi, fish balls, squid, cuttlefish, shrimp with their legs and heads still intact, broiled fish, some unknown squishy fish, raw salmon, raw fish (with a name that sounded like bologna), and crab. I drank 6 glasses water, consumed globs of chili paste, and delighted in the pickled ginger that came with the sushi.

By the time I had conquered dinner, the eating was drawing to a close. I was munching on lettuce leaves and feeling delightfully full. Perhaps fish didn't taste altogether awful. And my, wasn't it lovely to have steamboat with a family that chattered in Mandarin half the time and English the other half and included me in their festivities?

Life was going along swimmingly when the bomb was dropped onto my plate. It came as a pale-white, slimy strip. The grandfather nodded encouragingly to me from across the table. "Fish stomach, fish stomach." He grinned. The English-speaking crowd clarified that it was actually pig stomach. "Pig stomach, pig stomach." He grinned some more.

I wasted no time. In crises like these, immediate action is required. Any careful thought results in paralysis. I secured some pickled ginger, scooped up the pig stomach, took a moderate bite, and swallowed it down. I don't know if anyone noticed the pained expression I had when I finished it. I only know, that no one gave me any more after I ate the first piece. A triumph in its own right.

Ah yes, dinner with the locals. Seemingly innocuous, but fraught with untold thrills. I simply, cower, in anticipation.

In completely unrelated news, I can't help but add that washing machines are free here! I sense an increased urge to do laundry all the time. Maybe I'll wash my sheets...nay, not, not even weekly, but...yes...yes...that's right...daily! Then I'll never have to make my bed in the mornings!

Well, my laundry is finished. And since that's the only reason I was staying up writing this blog post to begin with--so long friends!