Sunday, June 26, 2005

Fawning over the flora

With the humidity and heat, gardening in the tropics must be so easy. Today we checked out the Singapore Botanic Gardens so we could visit the National Orchid Garden.

It amazes me that orchids, that are so expensive and exotic back home, grow rampant in the ground here! Singapore cultivates original and hybrid species of the orchid, including Miss Joaquim, the national flower of Singapore. They even developed a VIP Garden where they honor heads of state and royalty that visit with their own hybrid orchid. Both the First Ladies Bush have orchids named after them.

I had orchids like these at my wedding.

I don't know how my dad notices these things, but he found this little bugger begging to have his photo taken.

Inside the Tan Hoon Siang Misthouse, we learned that some orchid hybrids have been cultivated to have a fragrance. One was supposed to smell like vanilla, the other more like a perfume.

I wish Jeff could have come with us, because he would have loved testing his new SLR camera out here. Faithful readers, you can expect the quality of these photos to get much better once Jeff starts shooting with it. I certainly won't mind coming back here so he can do just that another day.

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Morning visit to the wet market

My dad made the observation to me that Singapore seemed dominated by young 20-somethings. I realized then that I hadn't shown him the more everyday side of Singapore, away from all the commercial and touristy attractions. So we got up early on Friday to go buy fruit at my local wet market in the Tiong Bahru HDB estate.

Most Singaporeans live in HDB housing and going shopping in the morning at the wet market is part of a daily ritual. Wet markets, so named because the floor is usually wet from being continually mopped, are where fresh seafood, meat, fruit and vegetables are sold. It used to be that live animals were slaughtered and sold here, which provides another (bloody) dimension to the "wet" in market, but they don't do that anymore. The wet market is not cute like a farmers market and nor sterile like a grocery store, but I love shopping here in the mornings for the sense of community and connection. I've become acquainated with the people that sell me my eggs, tofu, vegetables and fruit. Plus, I get to practice my little bit of Mandarin on the vendors!

I'll need to take some photos soon and post them, because scenes of HDB life is the real face of Singapore. This is where the older adults are to be found during the day, in clusters just lounging, talking, shelling beans, tending children, going about their daily lives.

By the way, in case you were interested, we bought apples, oranges, and jackfruit, a cousin of the durian. And because I'm such a good customer, the fruit lady threw in an Asian pear.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Smells like hell, tastes like heaven

So here I am making comments about adventurous eaters, and I myself had not yet tried durian, the most notorious fruit of all Southeast Asia. You know how some things seem to taste just like they smell? Well, durian certainly throws people off because it smells so nauseating that buses and other public places forbid its very presence. Yet even with the odor, durian has its connoisseurs that rave about the fruit and organize durian festivals to celebrate it.

My dad wanted to see for himself what the fuss was all about so he bought a package of sweet Malaysian durian yesterday in Chinatown. The package was triple-wrapped, but we had to keep it outside on the balcony until we were ready to eat it. The time finally came after dinner. I tried to cut the fruit sections up so that we could skewer the pieces, but discovered it has the consistency of custard. With all of us crowded onto the balcony (since that stinkiness wasn't coming inside), Dad and Jeff tried it first. Even though they didn't like it, they managed to choke their portions down. Mom was next, and I could tell right away that she didn't like it.

They all said that it wasn't necessary for me to try it since they had not liked it, but that would be chickening out, now wouldn't it? So I smooshed up a piece with my fingers and popped it in my mouth and... found heaven. The taste is very hard to describe — it's wonderfully sweet like honey, with the barest hint of sharpness that some might call bitter. I couldn't stop eating it after that, until my mom was afraid that I was going to gorge myself sick.

I am now a self-professed durian lover. Too bad the pleasure is not without the pain of durian burps that plague you for hours afterwards. I guess that's just part of the experience.

UPDATED 26 JUNE: I passed this durian stand the other night at the Bugis Night Market and one of the sellers let me sample some of the durian that he had just cracked into. He also gave me tips for avoiding the dreaded durian burps and how to get the smell off your fingers. I'll share these secrets with the first 10 people that write in.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Mom and Dad arrive in Singapore

In the dark of night, after 24+ hours of travel, my parents arrived for their visit. It was so good to see their familiar faces in the airport — Jeff and I are both so happy to have them here!

For Mom and Dad's first day here, we took a bumboat tour of the Singapore River. We got some great views of the major sites of Singapore, like the Merlion, Raffles' Landing Site, and the Esplanade.

I've been trying to take it easy on both of them, because even though they don't seem to be affected by the jet lag, I know they're having a difficult time adjusting to this humidity and heat. So after the bumboat tour, I thought it would be a good idea to take my parents to a reflexology place to get a foot massage. Mom seemed to benefit from it, because she had complained about having swollen feet from sitting so long on the plane. But I'm pretty sure Dad hated it, because he acted like he was in a great deal of pain afterwards. Maybe it wasn't such a good idea after all.

Later that evening, after giving my folks time to recuperate from the foot massage, we went to Boat Quay so they could try some of the local fare, like coffee chicken, satay, and steak. Nah, I'm just kidding. Steak is not local fare, but that's what my dad prefers to eat. My parents are pretty adventurous eaters, but Jeff reminded me last night that I need to go easy on them during their first couple days. It's been a while since I've eaten Western food and I need to remember that a lot of this is new to them.

Maybe they'll be ready for the fried ants and scorpions in a few days.

Friday, June 17, 2005

Who wants to buy a house?

Our place at 2473 Albany is going on the market soon and Jeff and I are looking for another couple to buy it with us. We have an idea what it's going to be listed at right now, with final appraisal numbers coming in next week. Many of you know the wonders and beauty of 2473, so for a Logan Square two-flat with a huge garden and backyard, this is a great opportunity.

Please email Jeff or me ASAP if you're interested.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Hiking in the Rainforest

Back in the day, the pre-colonial day that is, Singapore was mostly covered with tropical rainforest. While progress has cleared most of that forest, a huge nature reserve of primary and secondary rainforest remains on the slopes of S'pore's highest hill Bukit Timah. It's said that Bukit Timah has more species of trees on this hill than exist in all of North America.

I've attempted to hike Bukit Timah on the weekends with Jeff a number of times, but for a number of reasons we've never made it. So I was happy this morning when Jimmy called asking if I wanted to go hiking today — yes! finally! With Marisa's visiting brother Barney in tow, we headed for the Treetop Trail Hike, an 11K that would bring us over a tension bridge at the summit of Bukit Timah.

I forgot the camera today, but some of the highlights we saw along the way were the tasty rambutan fruit, some beautiful butterflies, icky snakes and lizards and the ever-popular Long-tailed Macaques! These monkeys had eluded us all day, until at one point we paused on the trail after hearing a bunch of rustling in the trees. Sure enough, there they were surrounding us! A bunch of baby monkeys were in the group of 10 or so. They just paused to look at us too, probably curious to see if we had any food they could snatch.

Our hike ended around the MacRitchie Reservoir where I noticed a bunch of crew teams rowing in the water. I'm going to have to investigate if kayaks are available to rent here.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Birthday in Bangkok

Bangkok is now my favorite place I've been to in Asia. The people, the pace, the culture, it was absolutely dazzling and such a new experience! Jeff laughed at me a lot because he says that normally I'm pretty sophisticated, but in Bangkok it seemed I was all naivete.

We arrived on Friday night at the lovely Sofitel Silom with enough time to go out for dinner at the nearby Patpong night market. Our concierge gave us such a stern warning to avoid tuk-tuk drivers (auto rickshaws) and be on guard for touts, that I was a little worried. We hadn't realized this night market was also a red-light district full of local entertainment and DWGs (dirty white guys) checking it out. But, Jeff and I did just fine and had amazingly fresh seafood at a wok-slinger's cafe set up in an alley. And, as enlightening as the list of sex shows sounded, we did not stop in.

On Saturday, we had a jam-packed day that I will never forget. First, we went to see Wat Phra Kaew, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, and the Grand Palace. This was our first exposure to Wat architecture and royal living and, oh my goodness, was it spectacular! Literally a feast for the eyes with gold everywhere, beautiful slender finials gracing tower tops, and colorful tiles, mosaics and murals decorating every possible surface.

From there, we strolled around the surrounding neighborhood, looking at the herbal medicine shops and checking out the statues and amulets spread on blankets over the sidewalk. Finally we decided to have some lunch, so we picked out a little cafe tucked inside a labryinth of shop stalls that overlooked the river next to a pier. The Bangkok River is a real transportation hub for the city, with ferries and longtail boats taking people up, down and across the river.

After lunch, we made our way to Wat Pho, where the enormous Reclining Buddha lounges about. When I say enormous, I don't mean merely big, I mean gargantuan. The surrounding grounds and temple buildings reflect the peace and serenity of this Buddha and were really lovely to walk around.

Which was how we found the Thai Massage School inside the grounds. This is not your typical spa/salon, but a working massage school that offers temple visitors amazingly cheap and awesome body and foot massages. Jeff and I decided to hand ourselves over to these professional masseuses, who led us into an open air room filled with platform beds. After our session where our masseuses used their hands, arms, feet, legs and knees to reach every possible kink, I can honestly say forget Swedish, goodbye deep tissue, I am now a convert to Thai massage.

Riding this wave of bliss, Jeff and I returned to our hotel. To our surprise and delight, the hotel had noticed on my passport that it was my birthday and delivered a little cake up to our room! The Sofitel is now officially my favorite hotel.

After a little more rest, we got ourselves together and went to this fantastic Thai restaurant someone had recommended to Jeff. I knew I liked Thai food before I went to this restaurant, but after eating here and trying so many new and inventive dishes, I love it. Jeff had also whispered to the host that it was my birthday and dessert was brought out to me with every waiter in the house yelling the happy birthday song. I think I must have been stunned because for once I didn't want to crawl under the table when everyone turned and started singing, I merely turned beet red.

Since the night was still young, I wanted to check out the Suan Lum Night Bazaar, which a friend had recommended to me. Must have been too pooped to shop, because we went home emptyhanded, but determined to return the next day.

Sunday was pretty uneventful, just a bunch of window shopping. Monday before we had to go to the airport, we had time to take a longtail boat ride through the maze of canals that worm through the city. While it was certainly not a glamorous view of Bangkok, it gave us a glimpse of life along the river.

I can't wait for my next trip to Bangkok!

Friday, June 10, 2005

Mandarin class field trip

Ni hao! I'm coming upon my last week of level 1 Mandarin classes and today was the best class yet. Our laoshi (teacher) took us to Tea Chapter, a local teahouse, and we had our lesson over tea and dim sum.

Tea Chapter is especially cool, because it's in an old Chinese shophouse that is true to its roots. Usually a lot of these shophouses are gutted and only the facade is kept.

When you take tea there, a tea master shows you the gong fu way of preparing and serving tea. We had him give us our lecture in Mandarin. I understood maybe every third word.

This is my entire class. My laoshi is in the middle.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

You break it, you buy it

Tonight I attended a gallery opening for a Contemporary Studio Glass Exhibition that Fraser Suites sponsored in conjunction with the Singapore Arts Festival. 'Round the Coyote it is not, but I have to admit that besides the art, part of the draw of attending an art opening is always the free cocktails and the chance to talk to some of the artists.

Glass is such a fragile medium that I'm not quite ready to explore fully yet, but at least the exhibition exposed me to a new place that I have not yet visited in S'pore, the Arts House, which is Singapore's oldest surviving government building. The Arts House only re-opened about a year ago and is a base for art happenings and developing new talent.

Saturday, June 04, 2005

Birthday wishes DO come true!

My dear husband surprised me this morning with the news that I'm being whisked away to Bangkok for my birthday next weekend! OK, so I've been dropping subtle hints right and left that I wanted to go there for my birthday, but still, what a surprise (it worked)!

So for the next few days, I'll be scouring the travel books and sites to plan what to do and see. Bangkok is about an hour-and-a-half flight from Singapore, but I want to make the most of my time. Any suggestions/recommendations out there?

In other news, my Gucci sunglasses I bought in KL fell apart already.