Thursday, December 10, 2009

I Climbed The Great Wall on a random Saturday in December

Accompanying pictures available at:

I climbed the Great Wall…sounds kind of like a kitschy phrase on a tourist t-shirt doesn’t it? Comparable to those awful “my girlfriend went to Europe and all I got was this lousy t-shirt” shirts. But I can’t stop saying it. “I climbed the Great Wall of China” is running through my head like a broken record. Maybe I like the way it sounds, maybe my brain is malfunctioning after a week of Beijing madness running on little sleep, lots of caffeine, and adrenaline, or maybe I’m still trying to wrap my head around the fact that I am one of the lucky ones. Whatever it may be though, here I sit on a plane back to America for Christmas and even during my on-again, off-again naps I’m mumbling “I climbed the Great Wall,” with a sleepy half smile plastered dumbly on my face. I mean, I actually took out my computer, just so I could see it in writing for Pete’s sakes. I climbed the Great Wall of China. Ok, that’s the last time I promise…probably...

Needless to say I had a lovely, wonderful, fascinating week in Beijing. It all began just over a week ago when I met Jacob at the Singapore airport at 12 midnight. I took the red-eye flight to Beijing International Airport where, upon arrival, I settled myself and my computer onto a comfy sofa with a Venti Starbucks coffee and prepared to wait for Jacob’s plane to arrive four hours later. It’s amazing how much time you can kill with nothing but Internet access and a Venti Starbucks coffee…

When Jacob arrived we took the Beijing Subway, and, knowing no Mandarin except the essential “hello” and “thank you,” we surprisingly made it to Sarah’s (our good PiA friend with whom we would spend the week) without any major set backs.

Sarah lives in western Beijing. In Chinese philosophy, the West is often associated with good luck, fortune, and prosperity. Beijing developed around this philosophy. The foreign embassies were forced to the eastern part of the city and the foreigners with them. Therefore, western Beijing is far more “Chinese” than its eastern counterpart. This phenomenon means it’s nearly impossible to live here, in the West, without knowing some basic Mandarin, if for nothing else than to buy groceries. Unsurprisingly, the restaurant Sarah took us to for lunch did not have an English menu, and Jacob and I were reduced to relying completely on Sarah’s basic Mandarin and the pictures to order.

Thankfully, most meals in China are eaten family style, so even if we did order something horrible, there was bound to be something good on the table as well. The spread we finally composed was a combination of kung pow tofu, a crepe-like pancake filled with spinach, egg, and cheese, a Chinese version of tortillas which we stuffed with an egg and something mixture, a pork dumpling for Jacob, and, of course, rice…all the traditional names of course.

After our late lunch, Jacob, Sarah, and I made our way back to Sarah’s where we exchanged our cultural and classroom experiences with Sarah, Ben, and Abby, the other PiA teachers in Beijing. After all the gossip, we had worked-up another appetite so it was off to the night market. Wangfujing’s Street’s night market, Donganmen, reminded me of a state fare...kind of…all the food was fried or on stick just like the food at Huron’s fall festival anyways. Among the fare were not only lamb kabobs, fried sweet buns, and a variety of drinks, but also sea horses, slugs, snakes, tarantulas, and even live scorpions. Needless to say, Jacob and I avoided the stingers and bugs in favor of a fried bun filled with banana paste and covered in sugar. Maybe not the healthiest option of the lot, but definitely the least scary.

Tuesday morning began with yet another food adventure, this time at “Easy Time-We have English Menu” cafĂ©. Jacob and I were sold. After some pumpkin buns, flat, salty pankcake-esque buns, and white fluffy buns with egg yolk filling (again all technical names), Jacob and I were fully fueled and ready to tackle Beijing’s temples. First on the list: the Lama Temple, Beijing’s largest and best preserved temple. The Lama Temple is a working monastery and is one of the most important Tibetan Buddhist monasteries in the world. And while the monks at the Lama Temple follow the same yellow hat sect of Buddhism as the Dali Lama, they are required to reject Tibetan independence. (This is another story which I’m neither knowledgeable enough nor brave enough to delve into at the moment, but please feel free to do your own searching.)

Our visit to the Lama Temple was spent mostly in silence, in respect for the hundreds of worshipers flocking around the beautifully ornate five main halls and in awe as we wandered in and out of the many temples covering the monastery’s 16 acres. The most impressive of the five main halls lining the north-south axis of the monastery was the Pavilion of Infinite Happiness. With a name like that, how could I not love it? The 85 foot tall sandalwood carving of Maitreya that stood in the center of the pavilion didn’t hurt its majesty either.

After the Lama Temple, Jacob and I visited the less touristy, but no less impressive, Confucius Temple. This temple is the second largest Confucian Temple in China and is the place where people paid homage to Confucius during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), and Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). The fact that it is no longer a working temple made for an incredibility serene and peaceful experience, surrounded by impressive gold, red, green, and blue tiled temples, decorative awnings, and ancient trees. One item of note is the 700-year-old Chujian Bai (Touch Evil Cypress) in the temple grounds. Its name is associated with an ancient legend. During the Ming Dynasty, one day the superior official-Yan Song came to worship Confucius on behalf of the emperor. When he was passing by the cypress, one of the branches of the tree took his hat off. Since Yan Song was a treacherous official, people have thought the old tree could distinguish between good and evil people. Hence its name.

Our meditative tour of the temple was followed by a tea at the nearby Confucius Tea House, where we enjoyed the Wizard of Oz; aptly named as it was a bright green concoction of peppermint tea and white rum. Nothing like tea and a shot of rum to warm the soul.

The afternoon was spent lazily wandering through the hutongs, narrow gray alleys often associated with “old” Beijing, and stopping occasionally to sample tea or browse the souvenir shops. We climbed the Drum and Bell towers for a lovely view of the city before settling on a pair of cushy couches with some hot lemon water and French fries (you can take the girl out of America but you can’t take America out of the girl, I guess). After a lazy few hours, watching the day evolve into night, Jacob and I met Abby, Sarah, and Ben for a dumpling dinner Beijing style, complete with smoking patrons and customers yelling loudly for the bill.

Leaving the restaurant, we couldn’t see the moon, and unfortunately, it wasn’t because of the fog. Beijing is a beautiful gray city; one that looks strangely similar to Washington D.C. with its wide boulevards and flat buildings. The somber and professional but pristinely breathtaking atmosphere was only enhanced by the white winter air. However, the pollution often clouds the sky and poisons the air. The government rarely addresses the pollution problem, and in newspaper headlines, pollution is called usually “fog.”

Wednesday morning, Jacob and I lived an irony at the Summer Palace in the middle of winter. The Summer Palace is a sprawling 2.9 km of palaces, temples, gardens, and a large beautiful lake where emperors, empresses, concubines and friends would retreat to escape the everyday “hardships” of life as rulers in China. Famously, it served as a summer resort for Empress Dowager Cixi, who diverted 30 million taels of silver, said to be originally designated for the Chinese navy, into enlargement of the palace and the construction of a beautiful wooden boat painted to look like marble. We enjoyed some five hours meandering through the temples and palaces and along the winding garden paths before escaping the cold by heading to the Silk Market.

The Silk Market is notorious for its counterfit designer brands and lively atmosphere where vendors aren’t afraid to grab you by the arm, pull you into their stahl, and try their hardest to persuade you to to buy their “real Louis Vuitton” wallet for “very cheap price.” I myself, was not immune to their convincing pleas as I made my exit toting a brand new red handbag and flashing my new “Ray Ban” sun glasses. After a short hour long visit, Jacob and I left, bags in hand, to met Sarah, Alex (another PiAer in Beijing), and Alex’s roommates for more local cuisine and an even more “local” atmosphere, complete with not only the smoking and yelling patrons but also stahless, squatter, co-ed toilets.

Keeping with our crazy itinerary, Jacob and I woke at sunrise on Thursday morning to reach Tiananmen Square for flag raising and the playing of the Chinese national anthem. The square is the symbolic center of the Chinese universe. It is presently the largest city square in the world and has been the site of many significant events in China’s history. The most notable was in 1989, when a pro-democracy movement in China saw thousands of protesters gather there. Hundreds of protesters were killed by government troops in the streets leading from the square. The significance of Tiananmen and the somber feeling that pervaded my heart as I stood in the quiet morning watching the flags sway with the wind was in stark contrast to the Chinese tourists who happily ran here and there, snapping pictures of one of their nation’s most “patriotic” symbols from every possible angle.

Overwhelmed by the emotion of the significant memorial place in the dampness of the early morning, Jacob and I sought refuge in a nearby restaurant as the morning cold faded with the rising sun. We spent a long two hours sipping coffee, eating Buddha shaped cookies and fried rice, and reflecting on our experiences as of yet. After breakfast, we returned to Tiananmen and Mao Zedong’s Memorial Hall where we were able to, after enduring a high security check, view Mao’s preserved body. No, you didn’t misread. The day’s big events actually did kick off with a viewing of preserved Mao -- the infamous Chinese revolutionary and Communist leader pickled for all to see.

Mao’s Memorial Hall lies to the south of Tiananmn while the entrance to the Forbbidden City, with a large picture of Mao adorning its gate, lies to the north. On the east, is the Chinese National Museum, and on the west, our next destination, The Great Hall of the People. The hall is used for legislative and ceremonial purposes by the People’s Republic of China. It looks interestingly like our Congress and Senate buildings in the U.S. It was here also, that Jacob and I were bombarded for the second time today with Chinese tourists who wanted their pictures with the Americans.

In the afternoon, Jacob and I walked down another beautifully simple gray brick road and took rickshaws to the Temple of Heaven, Beijing’s most recognized symbol. The Temple of Heaven is a lovely temple where the emporeres would pray for a good harvest. The complex includes an echo hall in which one person can stand on one side and whisper into the wall and another person can hear what the person said on the other side. There is also a building in which you can stand in the center and sound like you are speaking into a microphone, due to the way the acustics work in the area.

The best part about the Temple of Heaven is not the buildings, however, but instead it is the people. Groups of people dance in the center courtyard while others gamble and play cards nearby; some participate in group exercise while young children play hopscotch and fly kites. The language barrier didn’t prevent a group of elderly women from inviting Jacob and I to join their dance party, nor did it stop an elderly man from playing a hoops game with us (which basically involved Jacob jumping like a seal to catch hoops around his neck and me taking pictures when I wasn’t laughing hystarically). After the game was over, the man continued to lay the “olympia” rings on the ground and asked us, with hand signals, to take a picture with him and send it to him by pasting the address he gave us onto an envelope. It is in these moments you realize that people are people -- we all share a common human desire to find a connection with others despite our differences.

Before seeing an acrobatic show, which was very similar to Circ de Soleil with less extravagent sets and costumes, Jacob and I pulled the American card again and sat down for dinner at a Pizza Hut delivery place. We also saw the CCTV building before heading home, exhausted from our busy day.

We got a late start Friday and officially started our day with a hot pot lunch near Ben’s office. Hot pot is not only food but is also an experience. Boiling broth is placed in front of every person as are mounds of chicken, beef, tofu, and vegetables which you drop into your individual pots and then proceed to cook your own soup. The flavor of your broth depends on the ingredients you choose to add to your own pot.

Warm and fueled from lunch, we spent the afternoon wandering around Bei Hai, an island park before retreating from the cold for the long train ride to the Olympic Park. We ended the day with a visit to the Water Cube and Bird’s Nest; surreal because I had seen the two famous buildings so often during the 2008 summer Olympics. In the evening, the PiA crew took on the town and met some of Beijing’s expat community before turning in to prepare for the big day ahead.

On Saturday…ok I’m going to say it one more time…I climbed the Great Wall. Colin, Jacob, and I met early and hired a car to drive us to Mutainyu where we grabbed a Cup O’Noodles in Colin and Jacob’s case and a latte and apple in my case for fuel before starting the hike up the mountain. We spent a breathtaking afternoon wandering along the great wonder, sometimes in such awe we wouldn’t speak for several minutes.

Our guidebook says of the site: “Besides its strategically important location and compact layout including 22 towers, the Mutianyu Great Wall is also famous for the breath-takingly beautiful scenery. Woods cover over ninety-six percent of the total scenic area. The wall presents different aspects of beauty in the four seasons. Flowers bloom all over the mountains in spring. Grasses dress the hillside green in summer. Trees are laden with sweet fruits in autumn, and especially in October, leaves are turning red or yellow, touching the mountain tops with gold. In winter, the wall is covered by snow, making it seem more magnificent. The pine trees around Mutianyu Great Wall are well-known. There are more than 20 pines over 300 years old and about 200 pines over 100 year old. Besides, spring water at the foot of the wall tastes pure and fragrant, much appreciated by visitors.” The wall more than lived up to expectations.
We rode the cable cars down from the top of the world (both literally and figeratively) and hopped in our “Special Car” for the return trip to Beijing. (As a side note, our car driver was a really sweet old Beijinger whose card said “Beijing Special Car; I drive you to great wall and waiting until you return”…so sweet.)

After grabbing some stew, bread, and stir fry vegetables, we all took a quick nap before meeting for…food of course. This evenings meal was at a noodle bar where the noodles were pulled by hand and made right in front of us. We capped the night with a beer at an Irish bar…seemed oddly appropriate.

As a grand fanalie, Jacob and I spent our final day exploring the Forbidden City. The Forbidden City was the Chinese imperial palace from the Ming Dynasty to the end of the Qing Dynasty. For almost five centuries, it served as the home of the emperor and his household, as well as the ceremonial and political centre of Chinese government.

The complex consists of 980 surviving buildings. The buildings exemplify traditional Chinese palatial architecture, and it has influenced cultural and architectural developments in East Asia and elsewhere. In addition to the beautiful temples and palaces we saw the nine dragon screens, some lovely gold sculptures from the Qing dynasty, and the well into which Empress Cixi supposedly had her nephew’s favorite concubine thrown.

Our final evening was spent gathering the last of our souvenires from the Silk Market and eating another family-style meal before saying our goodbyes. And that’s all for now folks. Because here I am…back in the U.S. of A. and slowly adjusting to the time difference and even more slowly to the blizard raging outside my window right now.

TIA from the U.S.A. and See You Soon,

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Risking my life to cross the street

Stephanie grabbed my hand and asked nervously, “Ready?” Not really, but what else could I say but “Yes”, we didn’t have any other option. There was no time to hesitate. We would be in big trouble if we did. They timed it just right so they wouldn’t hit us. We’d feel their exhaust hot on our legs as they went by. So we closed our eyes, held our breath, and walked into the lion’s den.

The “lion’s den” in this case being not a literal cave with a hungry lion waiting inside, but instead, an even more deadly flood of speeding, swerving pick-up trucks, buses, tuk-tuks, and mopeds with whole families crammed onto them babies and all on one of the busiest streets in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. (Stephanie and I actually had a running bet going about how many people could fit on a moped. (Answer: We saw five at one point).) I had been here for nearly four hours, and I still wasn’t exactly sure what side of the road they drove on. I had a sneaking suspicion that it didn’t really matter.

But, for the sake of suspense (I know you’re all wondering whether I made it across the street alive), let’s rewind a few weeks. To be completely honest, I don’t even really remember them. It is sort of a blur of lesson planning for hours on end sustained by Venti Starbucks coffees….black, sitting though endless planning and best practice meetings sustained by bad instant coffee…black, and a staff dinner and PiA party sustained by and recovering with wine…white AND red.

For the past two weeks, I have been working on the lesson skeleton, aka scheme of work or SOW, for my two classes next year. I will be teaching the two secondary two normal academic classes. Secondary two is the equivalent of our eighth grade, and the normal academic students are right between the express level and normal technical as far as ability goes according to the ranking system. After creating my SOW, revising my SOW, and rearranging my SOW, I’m still, today, working on my SOW and will be throughout Christmas break. That’s what happens when you get a new teacher who also happens to be an extreme perfectionist working on SOWs I guess. But, regardless of the insane amount of work, I’m really excited to start teaching my own classes in January. I will also be helping the music classes add a movement/dance component to the syllabus, and I’m choreographing the school’s musical as well. I consider myself truly lucky to be doing things I excel at and enjoy for my job, not-to-mention my job allows me to pop over to Cambodia for the weekend.

Amidst the craziness of lesson planning and staff retreats, I also had the opportunity to attend an end of the year banquet with my colleagues, the theme of which was “Kampong Glam”. We all dressed in traditional Malay costumes (mine borrowed of course), and enjoyed, what else, but a huge dinner. The dinner took the format of a Chinese wedding feast, complete with eight courses, and a presentation of the food that included flashing lights, dancing waiters, and cheesy “wedding” songs. Notable among the many courses was squid, sushi, warm almond flavored soup for dessert, and shark’s fin soup. I had a difficult time eating the shark’s fin soup, as after one bite my mentor informed me that hunter’s illegally hunt the shark, cut off their fins, and throw them back into the ocean to die. Ok, so I was under-exaggerating when I said I had a hard time eating it after that, I mean I could barely hold back the vegetarian-animal-rights-activist-in-me tears.

The problem is that old traditions die hard. Shark’s fin soup has been an integral part of Chinese wedding celebrations forever, and as long as there is demand, there will be supply. Shark’s fin soup aside though, it was a really enjoyable evening made even more exciting by the various dances we were made to choreograph and perform with our table-mates. Watching a bunch of your colleagues make fools of themselves…now that’s entertainment.

On the evening following my teachers’ banquet, I attended the launch party for the PiA Singapore-based office. It was a lovely evening at a quaint wine bar during which I served wine and smoozed with the big wigs for the first half, and drank wine and chatted about winter holiday plans with my fellow PiAers for the second half of the evening. It still amazes me that combined my friends and I will see Beijing, Cambodia, Nepal, Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, Bali, and India all in December. And, Stephanie and I launched the excursions with our trip to Cambodia this past weekend.

We arrived in the insanity that is Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital city, on Saturday morning at 7:45 a.m., and thus commenced our street-crossing extravaganzas. After checking into our lovely and conveniently located hostel, we literally ran across the street to the Royal Palace for our first tour of the day. Cambodia is officially known as the Kingdom of Cambodia, and, while there is a king, he is primarily a symbolic figure who acts as Head of State today, with the government being a Parliamentary Representative Democracy. Regardless of his power or lack-there-of, our tour guide informed us that the king is a former ballet dancer and a bachelor, both of which make him ok in my book. Despite our valiant efforts, Stephanie and I were unable to catch a peak of the king, though the blue flag flying high above the daffodil-colored walls told us he was in residence. (Side-note: He’s also in his 50’s, so sorry for those dreaming of a young, dancing Prince Charming).

First on the tour of the palace grounds was a strangely beautiful tree from which flowers are taken to make malaria medicine. The bark is twisted and ugly, yet the most enchanting flowers emerge from the strange branches; a lovely symbol of the healing process that Cambodia is undergoing since the reign of the Khmer Rouge (more of this to come).

We then followed our guide to the extravagant Throne Hall, which was first built of wood in 1869 and redone as it is today in 1917. Royal coronations and weddings still take place in the building, the floor of which is covered in a huge one-piece carpet that was a gift from China. The hall also holds the pure gold busts of kings of the past, which escaped the Khmer Rouge because they were buried in the mountain region along with other treasures before the king himself escaped to Beijing. From the Throne Hall we could see the king’s residence and the Moonlight Pavilion, on which the Royal Cambodian Ballet, and sometimes, the king himself, still perform.

We walked through the ground’s gardens, stopping occasionally to ogle the stupas, which are Buddhist burial places for ashes, and the elephant statues. In the past, the king rode white elephants during parades and festivals etc., but because the Khmer Rouge killed the country’s population of white elephants, the king is now carried by his staff during such occasions. Despite the fact that they were all destroyed, the white elephant is still a prominent symbol in Khmer art and architecture. This, again, I believe is symbolic of the Cambodian peoples resilient spirit.

The final stop on our tour was the Silver Pagoda, named such because of the more than 5,000 silver tiles covering its floor. The locals also refer to the pagoda as the Emerald Buddha, because of a beautiful emerald Buddha statue that sits high atop a shrine near another Buddha statue encrusted with 9,584 diamonds. These treasures, and many others found inside the Silver Pagoda, were also buried in the mountains during the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror and thus escaped from being destroyed.

Interested to know more about the Khmer Rouge, Stephanie and I grabbed a quick lunch on a balcony overlooking the river, before heading to S21, a Khmer Rouge “museum.” I put the word museum in quotes, because a visit here feels more like a visit to a concentration camp in Germany than to a museum. This former high school was converted into a prison and torture chamber by the Khmer Rouge from 1975-1979. Small cells still contain the Khmer Rouge’s instruments of torture, blood stains are visible on the walls, and pictures of the “inmates” hang in a display room, faces gaunt from starvation and eyes wide with fear or half-closed in defeat; men, women, children, even babies, all staring blankly into a camera held by the people that will eventually kill them.

The leader of the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot, came to power in a situation similar to that in which Hitler did; a country in shambles (because of the Vietnam war) and in need of strong leadership. Soon after entering Phnom Penh to wild cheers from the people, Pol Pot evacuated the city dwellers to the countryside in pursuit of a “purer” agrarian society. His army captured, persecuted, and killed intellectuals, doctors, teachers, any one who was educated and did not hide it or anyone who spoke out against the government. Of the 20,000 prisoners who came to S21 during the Khmer Rouge’s reign, a mere seven survived.

Stephanie and I spend a silent four hours walking the halls, our footsteps hauntingly echoing in the former torture chambers, reading, with growing horror and thickening sadness, the stories of the prisoners and Khmer Rouge leaders themselves. I’m still shocked by how little I knew about the history of the Khmer Rouge. Even more shocking to me though, many of the former leaders and murders who worked under the Khmer Rouge lived freely and were not charged for their crimes until 2007, nearly thirty years after these atrocities against humanity occurred. All I could say as I left was to echo the pleas of those who survived the reign of terror; what happened to “never again?”

After our visit to S21, the lingering effects of the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror became acutely apparent. I have never seen such a young society. There are so many young families and children, primarily due to the fact that such a large portion (over three million) of the country’s population was killed in the 1970s. In addition, nearly 90 percent of Cambodia’s people are farmers. Yet, the country has started to rebuild itself, a beautiful testimony to the resilience of the human spirit. In a country still struggling to get back on its feet, I have never seen so much blatant happiness; yelling, laughing, honking, winking, begging, hugging, living and most of all, simply smiling. As our Angkor tour guide would tell us the following day, “We are told to smile like the Buddha.”

After our visit to S21, Stephanie and I needed to feel and see this resilience again, and what better way, than to put our own lives at risk to cross the street to a market. We wandered through the crowded alleyways haggling for scarves, street art, and trinkets, all the while trying to avoid stepping on the fish heads that the vendors were chopping off right on the street and the pig’s hooves that the woman was slicing off the pig’s leg on top of that table over there (over there because we decided not to get too close).

Following our colorful and exciting market experience, we met Stephanie’s friend Emma and several of Emma’s friends for a traditional Khmer meal. The restaurant is run by an organization that takes kids off the street and trains them to be waiters/waitresses, hosts, and cooks. We then went out to experience a bit of the small but lively expat nightlife of Phnom Penh. Business men and women in suits at a velvety bar stands in stark contrast to the small barefooted boy, who followed me for nearly two blocks today trying to convince me to eat at his family’s food stall by pointing at his mouth and saying “num nums.” (Another side-effect of the Khmer Rouge is the lack of a middle class in Cambodia. The people are either very wealthy or very poor. And, unfortunately, the very wealthy are often not Cambodians themselves.)

On Sunday morning, Stephanie and I were once again up with the sun as we had to catch a bus to Siem Reap, which is the town near the Angkor temples. We thought we could probably sleep on the five hour ride to Siem Reap. We thought wrong. The “highways” in Cambodia are not exactly like the highways in the U.S. or Singapore to say the least, and we were lucky if we went five minutes without bouncing into and right back out of a giant pot-hole. In addition, the bus drivers drive on the highway similarly to the way they drive in town. Enough said.

Despite all this, the ride was oddly charming. The bus wound through, and sometimes into, rice fields as far as the eye could see. Most men, women, and children harvested the rice by hand, while the lucky ones drove the family’s cow through the fields. Occasionally, we came upon a village with houses sitting on stilts with woven roofs and no doors. Half-naked children ran in and out of the small ponds playing rope games while fathers gave the family cows a bath in the same ponds, and mothers cooked over open fires. I’ve never seen so much poverty in my life. I’ve also never seen so much pure, simple happiness.

When we arrived at our hostel in Siem Reap, we were pleasantly surprised by its grandeur, inclusive of beautiful wooden statues and a spiral staircase at the entryway. Even more exciting though, the crocodile farm out our back window. When we asked, we were told they export them to Vietnam. When we asked why, they said they didn’t know. I’m not sure I want to know really, but if I had to guess, if you own a pair of crocodile boots, they may have come from my hostel in Siem Reap.

The remainder of the afternoon was spent wandering through Siem Reap, a smaller and less hectic version of Phnom Penh, stopping to browse at the various souvenir stalls and for a massage, greatly needed after an interesting bus ride. In the evening, we enjoyed a meal of vegetable curry, rice, ginger shrimp, spring rolls, and coconut rum shakes at the Butterflies Gardens, a restaurant with a similar premise to the one from the night before but set in a garden with real butterflies. Exhausted, Stephanie and I went to bed early, needing rest for our full day at the Angkor temples the next day.

Monday morning we were met at the front of our hostel by our tuk-tuk driver, Mr. Sampo, and our guide, Veutha. After toast and coffee, we set off for the temples. The temples of Angkor number in the thousands, but one can visit the main temples in a few days. First stop: the “Angelina Jolie” temple (because scenes from Tomb Raider were filmed here), aka, Ta Prohm. Ta Prohm was built by Jayavarman VII, a ruler who built many many temples during his reign and who Veutha often refered to as “the builder” to help Stephanie and I remember. Ta Prohm was built as a Buddhist monestary and university, but today is famous because it has been left in much the same condition in which it was found: a photogenic and atmospheric combination of trees growing out of the ruins with the jungle surroundings.

We made a quick stop at Pre Rep, one of the artificial mountain temples; aptly named, I believed, after I had scaled the steep stairs to reach the top where the shrines to the ancestors were located. We then continued our journey to the furthest of the temples we visited called Banteay Srei. Along the way we passed more traditional Cambodia villages, and Veutha shared with us his own experiences growing up on a farm as a cowboy. I had to laugh when, later in the day, Stephanie and I taught our Cambodian cowboy guide how to play Marco Polo while riding in a tuk-tuk at the ancient temples of Angkor; an oddly satisfying, ecletic experience yet again.

Banteay Srei is more red in color than any of the other temples, because it was built from a different type of sandstone. The walls of the temple are elaborately decorated with beautiful carvings, all of which depict Hindu epics. It’s name means citadel of woman or citadel of beauty. Which, of course, it was.

On the way back through the villages, we stopped to watch two Khmer women make candies. The long process involves, first, men climbing up the palm tree to obtain the fruit. Then women extract the sap from the fruit and boil it for several hours until it turns into a sugar paste. The women fill small circular molds with the paste and let it harden in the sun to form candies. Though the women couldn’t speak English, the kept shyly looking at Stephanie and I as Veutha explained the process and even gave us a sample of the sugary sweet.

We stopped at another mountain temple, before settling down to lunch at one of the villager’s food stalls. Veutha told Stephanie and I later that the women at the stalls kept talking about how beautiful we were, and one even joked that she had a few single brothers. Ironically, Stephanie and I were talking the whole time about how beautiful these young women were. Girls will be girls despite cultural and language differences I suppose.

The rest of the afternoon was spent wandering around a shaded temple with a main pond and four smaller ponds, each with a shrine representing earth/human, fire/lion, wind/horse, and water/elephant. (I asked Veutha where the heart pond was. He must not have watch Captain Planet as a child, because he didn’t really get it.) During the dry seasons the ponds dry up, but during the rainy season they fill so much that water flows out of the shrine’s mouths like a natural fountain.

The last temple for the day was another built by Jayavarman VII called Preah Khan, or Holy Sword, because it may have housed the king’s sword. Stephanie’s favorite temple, Preah Khan was once the center of a substantial organisation, with almost 100,000 officials, servants, dancers, and teachers. The temple is flat in design, with a basic plan of successive rectangular galleries around a Buddhist sanctuary complicated by Hindu satellite temples and numerous later additions. The king’s of Angkor often switch from Buddhism to Hinduism and back again. Like the nearby Ta Prohm, Preah Khan has been left largely unrestored, with numerous trees and other vegetation growing among the ruins.

Finally, we stopped briefly at Angkor Thom, a walled city, to visit the Terrace of the Leper King and the Terrace of Elephants, both stage-like structures covered with emaculate carvings. To end the day, Stephanie and I hopped on an elephant to take us to the top of the hill for sunset. Yes, I did just say hopped on an elephant like it was a completely normal thing to do, but in the moment it really seemed fitting. I mean, extravagence was nothing for the kings and queens of Angkor.

Tired from our long day, Stephanie and I showered before heading into Siem Reap for a seven dollar facial, a drink, and some live music. We needed to rest. The next day…sunrise.

So at 4:45 a.m. on Tuesday morning, Stephanie and I were back in the tuk-tuk with Veutha happily chatting about the history of the temples, and Mr. Sampo driving us back to Angkor Wat, the most famous temple in the complex. Walking across the moat in the pitch black morning with moisture hanging thick in the air, mist caressing the peaks of the lotus-bud towers of Angkor Wat barely visible in the distance is something a picture cannot capture and words cannot fully do justice. A wild, yet strangely calm, sense of anticipation is building up inside you. You know what’s coming. The sun is going to rise behind this grand, awe-inspiring temple and you are one of the lucky few that gets to watch the world wake-up at Anchor Wat today. No one will ever see this exact scene again. Yet as much as you want it to happen, you don’t. Once it starts, it will have to end. It is almost too painful to think about it ending, so maybe it’s better if it just doesn’t start in the first place.

Watching the sunrise at Angkor was the most amazing moment of the trip for me, and quite possibly, one of the most wretchingly beautiful things I’ve ever witnessed in my entire life. I wish I could describe the way the sun looked as its light apeared through the slits in the clouds and as it turned Angkor into a black silouette against a brilantly pink and orange sky. I wish I could paint a picture with words of the wavey reflection of the five giant towers in the lily covered pond, birds and insects coming to life with the sun. I wish I could transfere onto paper the feeling of heart pounding excitement and muscle tingling calm one feels as the full grandure of this twelvth century masterpiece is unveiled by mother earth. But alas, I cannot. No words, nor pictures can do it justice. The experience cannot be replicated for others, but must be lived for oneself.

After the sunrise, Veutha took Stephanie and I on a tour of the temple. As the best-preserved temple at the site, Angkor Wat is the only one to have remained a significant religious centre since its foundation—first Hindu then Buddhist. The temple is the epitome of the high classical style of Khmer architecture. It has become a symbol of Cambodia and even appears on its national flag. Bas-relief carvings, each depicting a part of a Hindu epic or the everyday life of twelvth century Cambodians, cover the walls surrounding the temple. Within the temple lies the Hall of a Thousand Buddhas, which now holds only a handful of Buddhas, because due to theft, many have been moved to the National Museum. Stephanie and I found ourselves rather amusing as we refured to the hall as the Hall of a Handful of Buddhas. I don’t know if Veutha found this quite as hilarious as we did. Also, of particular interest to me, were the many carvings of apsaras lining the walls. Apsaras are female spirits of the clouds and water in Hindu and Buddhist mythology. They are also particularly proficient at dancing.

After leaving Ankor Wat, we visited the Bayon which is at the center of Ankor Thom city. The Bayon is a beautiful arcitectural feat made up of several towers and a total of 48 massive smiling stone faces. After taking the typical “kissing the Buddha” tourist picture (similar to the “holding the Tower of Pisa” tourist picture), the remainder of the morning was spent visiting two smaller temples, and then finaling climbing the unfinished artificial mountain temple to enjoy a beautiful view and a cool breeze. On the way out of Angkor, I requested a detour past Angkor Wat for one final look at the breath-taking temple.

Stephanie and I had lunch at a street stall complete with flies, cats, dogs, old women cooking over open fires and all (some things are just worth the risk), before saying goodbye. Stephanie was headed to Thailand to spend Thanksgiving with her aunt and uncle, and then she is onto Laos and Vietnam for the remainder of our break. I boarded the crazy bus back to Phnom Pehn for my flight out the following morning. Maybe the road was smoother, but more likely I was just exhausted, because I slept most of the way back to Phnom Pehn, waking only to watch the sunset over the rice fields. I had a quiet Mediteranean meal with three French backpackers and watched CNN and Animal Planet at my hostel before going to bed.

Wednesday morning I flew back into Singapore, and spent the afternoon playing catch-up, paying bills, doing laundry and all. Thanksgiving day was atypical to say the least. My friend Jacob and I spent the day lazying on the beach before meeting Stephanie’s friend, Jens who is traveling, and some of Jacob’s Singaporean friends for Indian food. Surrounded by great people, enjoying good food and conversation, and watching the sunset over Singapore, the only things I really missed were my family, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, and Grandma’s mashed potatos. Ironically, I even spent the Friday after Thanksgiving Christmas shopping…my own version of Black Friday in Singapore.

Today is Saturday. I spent most of the day at my school’s open house, which is basically a day when perspective secondary one students come visit the school and we try to convince them that Commonwealth is the best place for them. Essentially, it’s college recruitment for 13-year-olds. But now I’m officially on “vacation” (Cambodia was like the pre-vaca to the vaca), and am packing to leave for Beijing tomorrow. Yep, Cambodia and Beijing in one week. This is Asia.

I’ll try to keep everyone posted while I’m in Beijing, but forgive me if I’m distracted by the Forbidden City, Great Wall, Summer Palace, 2008 Olympic venues and all the other wonderful experiences that will make up my near future. See you in the states in just over a week.

Goodnight, TiA, Cheers,


Pictures: to help you feel like you were there with me

Monday, November 9, 2009

Adventure Pics

More pictures for your enjoyment at the following link:

These include our recent trip to Kusu or Turtle Island and September's bike riding adventure on Pulau Uban.

Turtle Island

Sea glass is found on beaches along oceans or large lakes. It is one of the very few cases of a valuable item being created from the actions of the environment on man-made litter. At one point it was whole. Maybe it was a family’s only plate during the Great Depression, a famous novelist’s ink bottle, a beer bottle broken in a bar fight, or a lover’s long lost message in a bottle. But at some point, somehow, it was forgotten, lost, broken, tumbled, tossed, smashed, forced to cover large distances by the water’s immense power. Yet, somehow it emerges from its toils smoothed by the water and the sand, frosted, colorful, beautiful, a perfect metaphor for human suffering.

I’m quite fond of sea glass. Its metaphor is incredibly empowering. But I don’t just like it for its metaphor, or for its beauty, I like it because it is a little reminder of the powerful connections between people all over the world. Someone, somewhere created this product, and then someone, somewhere used it for an unknown amount of time, and maybe someone else, somewhere else used it too, maybe a number of someones used it, and then it was lost, and broken, and forgotten. But the ocean took it upon itself to transform it into something maybe more beautiful than before. And someone else, somewhere else finds this little piece of glass and, without even thinking about where it came from, places it in his or her pocket to use for an unknown reason. But, regardless of whether or not this “finder of the sea glass” realizes it, the fact remains, he or she is indeed connected to at least one other, if not several other, people through this small gesture of collecting the pretty little piece of glass on the beach.

Stephanie and I looked for sea glass yesterday at Kusu Island. We found many shells and pieces of coral. No sea glass though. It is rare. More and more so now. Maybe that is for the best. Beautiful things aren’t necessarily given to us. Maybe we should have to search for the color in toil, the beauty that arises from suffering, those human connections, the sea glass.

Stephanie and I spent part of our afternoon on Kusu Island, wandering aimlessly along the beach in search the elusive glass, admiring the skyline of Singapore in the distance, and squishing the sand between our toes. But the aimless, beach wandering wasn’t even the best part of the day (I know, you’re thinking “how could this get any better?!” but it does).

Kusu Island is a small island about 5 kilometers off the coast of Singapore. Small, as in you can stand on one end and see the other end. The legend goes that a Malay sailor and a Chinese sailor were shipwrecked and drowning off the coast of Singapore. A giant turtle witnessed their distress and turned himself into an island to save them from death. To offer thanks, the two sailors each built a temple on the island. Every year devotees make a pilgrimage to Kusu in the 9th lunar month (mid-October to mid-November) to pray for wealth, prosperity, fulfillment of destiny, children, health and all things related to good luck in general. The first thing you do when you arrive on the island is aim a coin at three bells encased in a lotus flower sculpture. If your coin makes the bell ring, your wish will come true.

After dutifully making our first wish, Stephanie and I followed the incense that was floating on the breeze toward the little Chinese Temple where worshipers where offering prayers and thanksgivings in front of ornate, colorful little alters. They placed fruit, oil and small trinkets on a large alter in front of the temple and bought stacks of paper to be burned in large fires in order to increase the chance their prayers would be answered. Family after family stepped up to the small alters, one by one, offering up their prayers and waving incense until it was dancing, thick in the air.

Stephanie and I continued along the winding path toward the Malay temple, occasionally stopping to admire the little turtles, strategically placed, no doubt, throughout the island so tourist would not feel disappointed when visiting “turtle” island. And now this is the best part.

We climbed 152 steps along a path lined with trees all covered in gold and red fabric to the top of a little hill where a hot yellow shack stood, the worshipers’ songs and shouts of praise threatening to topple its walls. This little Malay temple looked more like a busy marketplace than a house of worship. Devotees carried incense and money pausing to offer praise and a donation to each of the three alters: the father, the mother, and the daughter. The father, mother and daughter promise to then carry the prayers onto God. Young Malay men offer to tie little yellow wishing strings to your wrists. The older Malay men provide loud and confident blessings to each person in a never ending line of worshipers, and everyone is laughing and yelling to each other, while three middle-aged men kneel, seemingly undisturbed by all the chaos, in front of the daughter’s shrine singing the most hauntingly beautiful song of praise I’ve ever heard. It is a parallel universe, and Stephanie and I stick out like sore thumbs, all doe-eyed in awe and confusion about where to stand and what to do.

Then a young Malay man approaches us and offers to give us a brief tour, obviously not fooled by our miserable attempt to blend in. He explains that the worshipers all make a pilgrimage once a year to the same shrine to pray to the father, mother, and daughter who will then take their prayers on to God Himself. He stresses that God is the most important factor in this little telephone game, but the father, mother and daughter are good messengers. Some worshipers are here to pray for babies he says. “Do we want babies?” Stephanie and I nearly die laughing at this point as we explain that that is not what we would like to pray for today. “What else can we pray for instead?” Well, others pray for nice boyfriend, or husband, or good luck, good health and prosperity. We like these better.

He also explains that worshipers offer donations for the upkeep of the shrines and bring other gifts like the little bananas sitting on the alter in front of us. Our impromptu tour guide then proceeds to take two bananas from the alter and insists that we eat them, which feels a little odd to me considering they are someone’s offering to the gods, but I oblige non-the-less (I haven’t had lunch). He then gives each of us a sweet smelling flower to stick behind our ears. The mother likes these flowers, he explains.

Finally, he leads us over to one of the men giving out all the blessings, tells him what we’d like to pray for, and ties a little yellow string around each of our wrists. The man asks the mother to give me good health, a good man, good life, wealth, and whatever else may be in my heart at the moment. He says something I don’t understand, waves the incense around, clasps my hands together, and rubs some sweet smelling perfume on my shoulders, neck and wrists. Then he shouts, with great enthusiasm, something else I don’t understand and gives me a toothy grin before moving on to pray with the next devotee in line behind me.

Stephanie and I walked slowly away from the temple, a bit shocked still by the beauty, chaos, and pure joy of it all. You’d be crazy if you didn’t feel God in that place. He was sitting there laughing, right next to the old Malay man while he shouted blessings, occasionally shooting bits of spit through his teeth at my face. We followed the lead of the other worshipers, and tied our little yellow strings to tree branches on the way down the steps. I don’t mind leaving my prayers with the father, mother and daughter there. They’re in good hands.

As we silently climbed down the stairs leading away from the shack of a temple, each lost in our own meditative thoughts, I couldn’t help but notice all the prayers written on the railings. Most of the prayers were in Malay or Chinese, but an occasional few were written in English. Many people had prayed for good health and happiness. One person had asked for his dad “to become very rich.” Several others had written their lottery ticket numbers. My favorite, though, was the student who wished “to pass his exams and become very clever.” Maybe it’s the teacher in me.

The rest of last week was spent decorating our house (as you can tell from the previously posted picture montage) in preparation for the “You, A Plate, and Your Favorite State” party we hosted on Saturday evening. Though hot without air conditioning, the pot luck was an immense success and we all enjoyed food ranging from nachos and guacamole to Yorkshire apple crisp to crab pasta bake to cornbread. I prepared grunt (yes the dish is called grunt), a dish with European roots that is most often served on the northeast coast of the U.S. It is basically blueberry fruit compote with cinnamon dumplings, very similar to a cobbler but prepared on the stove top. It is called grunt, because of the sound the dumplings supposedly make when dropped into the fruit compote. Unfortunately, though we listened attentively, we didn’t hear the dumplings grunt.

Today is a rainy Monday, and after a three-hour-long lesson planning meeting this afternoon, I definitely have a case of the Monday blues. Off to the gym and then to Starbucks. Endorphins and caffeine should do the trick.


Saturday, November 7, 2009

Photo Montage of Halloween and House Warming

Click on the following link for Halloween Merlion pictures and "You, A Plate, and Your Favorite State" party pictures among others:

Click on the slideshow button at the top left of the screen to see the pictures in slideshow mode and larger. If you run your cursor over the bottom of the screen during the slide show, you can slow down or speed up the pictures to read the captions. Enjoy!

Monday, November 2, 2009

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas...

…And speaking of Christmas in July…Santa Clause and his reindeer have officially thrown-up all over Orchard Road.

It is only the beginning of November and there are snowflake banners strung every two meters along the entire strip of the famous shopping street. Snowmen sit on top of every lamp post, smiling, probably out of pure shock that they aren’t melting. Every store front is decorated in various shades of red, green, and white with wreaths, ornaments, and garland hung in such a perfect and precise way it is as if the elves themselves flew in from the North Pole specifically for the job. Giant Christmas trees stand proudly, showing off the elves’ handy work. There is even a “ginger bread” village, and every Starbucks is only too willingly advertising the Christmas flavors: toffee nut, peppermint, and chocolate covered cherry. A massive, fat Santa Clause and his bearded reindeer sit smack dab in the middle of the main junction watching over it all, directing everyone to “smile and look like Christmas.”

All this, and the lights aren’t even up yet. . Christmas has definitely been Disneylandified as it merrily exploded in Singapore. Yesterday, one of my co-workers mentioned that Singapore’s “Christmas” tends to be even more commercialized than that of the U.S. (if that’s possible), because very few people here celebrate it has a religious or family holiday.

None-the-less, it is nice to have found yet another little piece of home here. I mean, here I am in Asia, sitting on the equator, in the 90 degree heat, far away from the snow and warm feelings of winter and the holidays that come with it, but Christmas found me anyway.

This past weekend, though, it was not visions of sugar plums but rather ghosts and ghouls dancing in my head as I celebrated Halloween. Saturday evening Stephanie and I spent a solid two hours pinning, wrapping, and tying ourselves into silky green material and brown netting and meticulously painting whiskers on our faces. What may seem like an odd combination at first, becomes perfectly logical when you realize that we went as, drum roll please, Merlions.

The Merlion was designed as an emblem for the Singapore Tourism Board in 1964. It is a creature that has a lion’s head and a fish’s/mermaid’s body. The lion head symbolises the legend of the re-discovery of Singapore. In ancient times, Singapore was known as Temasek, a Javanese word for sea. In the 11th century, Prince Sang Nila Utama rediscovered the island. When the Prince first landed on Singapore's shores, he sighted a mystical beast which he later learned was a lion. The Prince then decided to re-name the island "Singapura" which in Sanskrit means Lion (Singa) City (Pura). The fish tail of the Merlion symbolises the ancient city of Temasek and represents Singapore's humble beginnings as a fishing village.

So dressed in true Singaporean style, Stephanie and I joined our friends, The Monopoly Man, the Hamburgler, Where’s Waldo, Lady Gaga, the fortune cookie and others, for an evening of treats, conversation, and, later, some dancing at the nightclub Zouk.

Adding the evening’s dance party to the mix, I certainly had enough exercise on Saturday. The day began with my two hour dance class and was quickly followed by an outdoor spinning class (Yes, I fully admit that it is crazy to take a class that already makes one sweat profusely and add 95 degree weather to it. But before you write me off as insane, wait to see why I did it). Stephanie and I joined a crowd of bubble gum pink in the middle of a plaza on Orchard Road for Spin for Life, a fundraising event for the Singapore Breast Cancer Foundation. What a wonderful experience, doing something good for yourself while doing something good for others.

After the activity-intense Saturday, I decided Sunday would be a true day of rest. Jenny, Jacob and I spent the afternoon at a double feature of “Love Happens” and “My Sister’s Keeper” in the movie theatre. After picking up some groceries, Stephanie and I enjoyed an evening of live jazz music while sipping on a cocktail in a quaint little club with the loud, and busy hustle of Boat Quay bellow seemingly worlds away.

Monday was an uneventful day at school, spent working on a “general knowledge” PowerPoint presentation for next week, and accompanying six students to the U.S. embassy where they were picking up their passports for an upcoming trip to Chicago and D.C. The bus ride was spent answering questions like, “What does snow feel like?”; “Will we be able to make snow butterflies or angels or whatever?”; “So is it really going to be that cold?” (The last question to which I laughed and answered, “Yes!” to these 16-year-olds who have never been to anyplace outside of Southeast Asia.).

Stephanie and I had a truly enjoyable afternoon and evening shopping for DIY art supplies on Orchard Road and old picture frames and a comfy couch at the Salvation Army. The evening was spent painting, gluing, cutting and basically playing artists while, in true artist style, sipping red wine and philosophizing about life. This week we are finally putting the finishing touches on the walls in our apartment as we plan to host a “You, A Plate, and Your Favorite State” party this weekend. Just in case you want to make a weekend trip to Singapore, the invitation for the party reads as follows:

You, A Plate, And Your Favorite "State"!!!!!!!!!!
Stephanie and Rachel would like to cordially invite you to their first (but definitely not only) dinner party/potluck of the year this Saturday at their apartment at SP.

Now, for the explanation: "You" is obvious, but for those of you who need a little help here, it means we want YOU to come to the party. "A Plate" is the dish you bring to share at the potluck. And, drum roll please, "Your Favorite State" is the theme of the party, and thus should be the theme of your dish and, if you're so inclined, your outfit.

We would like everyone to bring a dish to pass that is somehow related to his/her home state, and for our non-U.S. friends, home country. For example, if you are from Texas, you might dress like a cowpoke and bring BBQ pork or crocodile or whatever they eat there.

Stephanie and Rachel will be providing exciting dishes, and most probably wearing exciting outfits, from the great states of California and South Dakota respectively. We can't wait to see what you come up with!

Please also BYOB, and maybe some extra plates and silverware to share! See you Saturday!
As for the rest of the week, I have curriculum and department meetings at school, and on Wednesday and Thursday I am giving a dance combination at the auditions for next year’s school musical. Steph and I have trips to Arab Street for fabric for curtains and to Mustafa Center for coasters and a few other kitchen supplies planned for the evenings. Tonight: waiting for the couch to be delivered, yoga, and more painting.

Happy November already and TIA,

Friday, October 30, 2009

Halloween in Singapore? Like Christmas in July: weird but a guaranteed blast!

I’m reading this book right now called “Everything Bad Is Good For You.” Unfortunately, it says nothing about a recent scientific discovery that a diet consisting primarily of chocolate cake, gin and tonics, and ice cream can actually contribute to weight loss and lower your risk of developing cancer, but it does raise some rather interesting points about popular culture, especially video games and television, and how, contrary to popular belief, it is actually making us smarter.

In one particular passage the author, Steve Johnson, refers to John Dewey’s idea that “Perhaps the greatest of all pedagogical fallacies is the notion that a person learns only that particular thing he is studying at the time. Collateral learning in the way of formation of enduring attitudes, of likes and dislikes, may be and often is much more important than the spelling lesson or lesson in geography or history that is learned. For these attitudes are fundamentally what count in the future.”

It is with Dewey in mind that I taught 80 (yes, 80), 14-year-olds (yes, self-conscious/awkward 14-year-olds) a lesson on the American cultural tradition of Halloween and subsequently introduced them to some pretty sweet moves from Thriller at school on Wednesday. It isn’t exactly that I wanted them to memorize the history of Halloween, nor that I expected them to develop the dancing skills of Michael Jackson himself, but I do hope they left with a greater appreciation and understanding of the Halloween holiday and the ability to understand the talent required to “walk like a Zombie.” At least they had fun, which I was able to judge by the cheers from the “audience” as the selected 20 students performed the dance at the end of the workshop (included in the group: three boys who actually volunteered to play the part of Jackson himself…hip thrusts, spins and all). It was one of the more rewarding days I’ve had at school. I’m really looking forward to further daily interaction with the students next term.

As for the rest of the week, it was post-exam activity week this week at school. This means the students have finished their exams for the term and came back to school this week to celebrate with various learning journeys or field trips and workshops (hence the Michael Jackson dance party). In addition to a tribute to the King of Pop himself, I also accompanied the students to Singapore Repertory Theatre’s production of “Lord of the Flies”, helped to monitor a spelling bee, played some general knowledge games, and went to the end of the year awards ceremony/play/dance performance.

The performing arts have been a predominant aspect of my week, as on Monday evening I attending “A Ballet Gala Evening with Paloma Herrera” at the Esplanade. The famous American Ballet Theatre dancer shared the stage with two dancers of the Tokyo Ballet, two from the Staatsballett Berlin, a principal dancer from the New York City Ballet, two dancers from the San Francisco Ballet, and (my favorite part) Sascha Radetsky of American Ballet Theatre and also the star of the movie “Center Stage.”

It was a truly magical evening, as going to the ballet always is for me; finding myself caught up in the whirl of the movement but unblinkingly still, holding my breath while at the same time pacing my breathing with the dancers themselves, feeling every emotion so acutely yet feeling nothing at all. I’m always exhausted after a ballet performance, as if I’ve actually been the one on stage performing Sleeping Beauty Act III Pas de Duex, the White Swan Pas de Deux, or Raymonda Act III Solo, though I’ve done nothing at all. Mentally, physically, emotionally it captivates me. Nothing is comparable. I would try to describe it like this: It’s like one of those rare, intense, amazing workouts at the gym when you catch a runner’s high and just can’t stop. The endorphins come in such large, powerful quantities that before it’s even over you’re already planning the next time, because you know the feeling will inevitably end and you just can’t wait until it happens again.

Thus, it is still in this exhausted state that I find myself Tuesday evening, eating hummus, couscous, and falafel on the floor in an Arab street restaurant with most of the other PiAers, Leslie, and, PiA’s director, Anastasia, who happened to drop-in for a visit. Despite being tired, and maybe because the beer tower (yes, it is as sweet as it sounds) was constantly being refilled, I truly enjoyed catching up with everyone, learning about some of the “first week horror stories” that are still happening in the sixth week, and also, happily reliving some of the amazing memories we’ve already made. I mean, there isn’t really a better way to spend time when you’re tired than sprawled out on pillows colored in rich maroon and gold, sharing food, stories, advice, and the bottomless beer tower with your friends who are practically family in Singapore.

The rest of the week flew by in a sort-of whirlwind of post-exam activities, grocery shopping, planning a future trip to Cambodia, and, of course, preparing the all-important Halloween costume for the weekend. For now, Stephanie and I have a brilliant, but secret, idea that will be revealed in full tomorrow at our Halloween party and subsequently in pictures on this blog. Hint: It is the symbol of Singapore and hilarious.

Besides the Halloween extravaganza that will certainly ensue tomorrow evening, the weekend plans include a co-workers birthday party tonight, which I am really looking forward to as I am always thrilled for the opportunity to get to know my co-workers outside of the cubical-and-business-pants setting in which I typically interact with them. Also on the agenda: Saturday morning dance class, a Spinning event for the Breast Cancer Foundation in the afternoon, a costume party/club-filled evening, and a double-feature movie day with Jenny on Sunday (showing: “My Sister’s Keeper” and “Love Happens”).

Off to slather on a face mask and bask in the warm, glowing happiness of Friday afternoon.

TIA, Cheers and Happy Halloween!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Beauty, life, regret, and toilets

In his 2008 Pulitzer Prize winning feature article, journalist Gene Weingarten tells the story of famous violinist Joshua Bell’s street performance experiment. ( This incredible musician positioned himself in a high pedestrian traffic area of Washington D.C. discreetly, if you don’t count the priceless instrument emitting heart-breakingly beautiful music produced by an internationally renowned musician whose playing has been said to do “nothing less than tell human beings why they bother to live." The gimmick was the brain-child of the Washington Post; an effort to see if people can or are willing to recognize and appreciate beauty amidst the stressors of everyday life.

The result? Of the 2,004 people who passed Bell on that busy morning on their way to work, 27 gave money, some gave pennies, every single child tried to stop, straining to listen only to be pulled away by a hurrying parent, seven stopped to listen for more than a minute, and one of 2,004 recognized Bell for the famous musician he is.

I read the Washington Post article yesterday. I stopped to pick a flower on my way to work today. I had never noticed them growing there before. Before I pinned it in my hair, I buried my nose in the soft pink petals and inhaled, letting the sweet scent fill my lungs.

Beauty is an ambiguous concept by nature. Can we really define it? If it is beautiful to me, is it beautiful to you? Is it beautiful if no one is there to see it, hear it, touch it, taste it, smell it, love and appreciate it? What makes one thing beautiful and another not? Is beauty limited to the physical world? Can we really define it?

Maybe not. But I do want to know it. I need to know it, and see it, and hear it, and touch it, and taste it, and smell, love and appreciate the ambiguous it everyday. We all do. We need it to survive amidst the evils and ugliness the world can sometimes hold.

I tried to find beauty in my everyday activities this weekend; jazz, yoga, sun bathing, gym going, and movie watching with friends and the girls. I promise it’s there, just waiting for someone to look, to notice.

The cake, so to speak, was an e-mail from my friend Claire inviting me to Sunday afternoon, ladies-only tea and homemade cookies. And the icing?...the link to an article from “Yes” magazine online titled “Now I Become Myself.”

The introduction to the article by Parker Palmer reads as follows:
“What a long time it can take to become the person one has always been. How often in the process we mask ourselves in faces that are not our own. How much dissolving and shaking of ego we must endure before we discover our deep identity—the true self within every human being that is the seed of authentic vocation.” (

Wednesday evening I had the privileged of attending a preview party for “Asia 360”, a new economic and political magazine covering 28 major Asian nations to be launched next year.

There are moments in life when you realize you are exactly where you should be, doing exactly what you should be. Surrounded by prominent journalists, investors, and professors from all over the world, I had one of those “this is exactly where I’m suppose to be moments’ (and I don’t think it was the beautiful venue, free snacks or open bar either). I have an incredible passion for the art, the science, the field of journalism, and this experience, teaching, writing, learning in and exposing myself to Asia, is exactly the path I should be following at this point in my life. Like being slurped up by a big helium balloon and then floated softly around, chest all puffed with excessive joy, on this random Wednesday night in October I felt closer than I ever have before to finding Palmer’s seed of authentic vocation. On a path, discovering a deeper identity.

Back to the violinist. Among those seven who paused to listen to Jason Bell play his violin that morning, was John Picarello, a supervisor at the U.S. postal service who, in his youth, had studied to be a concert violinist. When he was 18, he gave up his music studies for a more practical line of work.

In his award winning feature article, Weingarten writes of Picarello, “When he left, Picarello says, ‘I humbly threw in $5.’ It was humble: You can actually see that on the video. Picarello walks up, barely looking at Bell, and tosses in the money. Then, as if embarrassed, he quickly walks away from the man he once wanted to be.”

After I finished the article, this particular section struck me. It scared me even. It was my biggest fear manifesting itself in a complete stranger. I have, since I was young, promised myself I would never look at another person and realize they are who I once wanted to be. What I hope, is to look in the mirror and realize I am the person I once wanted to be. I’m here to grow, evolve into and reveal that person.

I try to go to my hot yoga classes with a mantra. Not only does it seem very yogic and worldly of me, it also prevents me from falling over when trying to hold these ridiculous balances in the 95 degree heat. Tonight this will be mine: “Find beauty everyday, constantly seek your true and deep identity, never regret, you can be the person you always wanted to be.”

But of course I cannot close this serious, personal and heartfelt glimpse of the private workings of my brain for the last week without a lovely story about, what else but...

Toilets. I actually can’t believe I haven’t mentioned this topic before. They really have been an integral and interesting part of my life in Singapore. A perfect example: Just a few days ago, I had a very in-depth Skype conversation with Tim about what exactly would be the correct method to plunge the toilet in my apartment that just doesn’t seem to be flushing correctly lately.

Another random toilet phenomenon, are these signs that are posted in most of the “Western” bathrooms in Singapore. Basically there are pictures of people squatting, literally on the toilet, with a red X through them like the “no smoking” signs in America. The correct way of sitting on the toilet is shown next to the wrong way. At first this seemed ridiculous. I mean who would actually squat on a toilet?

Um…people that have never seen a Western toilet before of course. You see, in much of Asia, toilets are holes in the ground build for squatting over, and you can imagine the confusion of someone who has never seen a Western toilet before encountering one for the first time. In addition, if you really think about it, squatting is much more sanitary than sitting your bum on a toilet seat that a complete stranger’s bum had been sitting on only moments before. So if you aren’t accustomed to the Western toilet, it would only seem logical to you to squat on them.

Now don’t get me wrong. Singapore is certainly westernized, but if you really want them, Asian toilets can be found in almost every restroom in the city. There are even these squatter toilets at my school, and I’ve been in situations in the suburbs, at the soccer game on Tuesday night, and in Malaysia where the squatter is my only option. Never did I anticipate the years of camping and bonfires in small town South Dakota and Wyoming would teach me such a useful skill.

One final note on toilets: When my students ask me if they can use the restroom, it typically goes something like this, “Cher, I need to go toilet please?” To me this sounds equivalent to, “Hey you, I have to pee,” but when translated to English from Singlish, it actually means something like, “Teacher may I please use the restroom.”

May you find beauty everyday, may you constantly seek your true identity, may you never regret, and may you learn how to squat to pee if you come to visit me in Asia.


Friday, October 16, 2009

A picture is worth a thousand words...

Chickens in Melacca...right next door?...a chicken rice restaurant!...yum
Chinese Temple in Melacca

The museum in Melacca

Luxury bus
Steve and I enjoying tarts and coffee on the roof of our hostel


The entrance to the fort.

Steve at St. Paul's

My street artist

On the way up the hill to St. Paul's church, a beautiful view of the Portuguese area of town, the ocean, and the farris wheel

Neil eating his breakfast

Jonker Street

Lisa, Amy, me, and Liz outside one of many pineapple tart shops

Hanging out in the Hostel
Me, Lisa, Jacob, Joe, Amy, Liz and Steve enjoying Capital Satay...not pictured: Neil

Digging in

Liz with her selection from Capitol Satay

Rickshaws galore

Random animals

Me at Christ Church in the red Dutch square
Flowers in Melacca

Oldest Chinese Temple in Melacca

Watching a movie on the "big screen" at Dan, Trevor, and Mark's pad.

The rest of the gang: Will, me, Mark again, Jacob, Neil, Steph, Steve, and Lisa

Neil and I showing some mid-west love

The gang: Mark, Liz, Aaron, Irene, Trevor, Ana

Will, Mark, me and margarita

Stephanie and I out in Holland Village


A giant mooncake of course!

Showing the Buddha some love.

Futball game with the boys: Dan, Peter, Colin, Mark, Neil, Andrew, Steve, Jayme and I

On the boat to Semakau Landfill

Semakau design
A random fishing hut off the coast of Semakau landfill.

Tour of Semakau Landfill

Italian Train Wrecks in Singapore

Just when I start to think there is no way I could possibly feel more comfortable and at home in Singapore, someone comes by my desk with the “Girl Guide” cookie order form. “Would you like to order some Girl Guide cookies to support our troop?” I hope she wasn’t offended when I looked at her like “are you kidding me, you are asking a proud former Girl Scout of six years who also happens to have an incredible sweet tooth and a special weakness for chocolate, if I want to buy some soft, chewy cookies smothered in chocolate and filled with smooth cream…of course you idiot!” After about one-point-three seconds I had decided to order one package of each chocolate hazelnut, mint cream and chocolate cream cookies from Singapore’s version of the American Girl Scout. No wonder Singapore is rated as one of the top twenty expatriate cities in the world in which to live…they have Girl Scout cookies for gosh sakes.

My week has been a perfect example of the opportunities this city has to offer. Monday evening was spent enjoying a quiet meal of sushi and frozen yogurt with Stephanie (it was pay day after all) in Holland Village. The meal was followed by a movie with friends which they projected on their giant white wall, movie-theatre style. Tuesday evening I enjoyed my first ever hot yoga class (AMAZING!), and Wednesday evening I partook in Hatha yoga followed by a two-hour jazz dance class at my studio that is really starting to feel like MY dance studio. Yep, this is my life.

I know it sounds like I’m doing nothing but dancing, eating and yogaing my life away, but I actually do go to work as well. I invigilated several exams both Monday and Tuesday, and I evaluated oral exams on Wednesday. I’ve also marked (graded) 212 comprehension sections of the English exams for secondary two express classes this week. Yes, it is as tedious as it sounds. Thirteen questions multiplied by 212 students is…well a lot. (I’m an English teacher, not a maths teacher after all. And, no, “maths” is not a typo. Singaporeans call it maths after the British English spelling.).

Only moments ago, I entered the final student’s grade into the class template, and am now waiting to go take my English Language Department staff photograph to be included in the annual yearbook. This week I’ve really felt like a real teacher: marking, invigilating, planning for post-exam activities, and being photographed for the yearbook and all. While waiting for my close-up, I’m enjoying some warm bean curd that looks a lot like floppity, white, opaque Jell-O floating in a watery yellowish liquid. Believe it or not, I didn’t exactly choose this appetizing concoction out of my own desire to eat it. Because today is a marking day and it is Friday, or maybe just because it is a day in general, food has been provided at work. My vegetarian option includes rice, mixed vegetables, curry and, of course, the bean curd. The jiggley, half-liquid/half-solid is really quite good though, and I’m sucking it down like it is some sort of bean-flavored yogurt complete with chunks, as my “uncle” coworker tells me for the forty-first time this week I am “not a typical U.S.”

This co-worker is a rather noisy, opinionated, older gentleman from Hong Kong who likes to be called “uncle” as it is typical to call your elders this in Asia. I think he particularly likes me to call him “uncle,” because he knows I’m not totally comfortable with the term yet. This “uncle” is also an “expert” on U.S. culture as he spent a brief stint in Canada (obviously this qualifies him an expert), and he is regularly informing me of American customs of which I was not previously aware. For example, all Americans eat bacon for breakfast, love McDonalds, have a lot of money, and are afraid to try new foods, especially spicy Asian cuisine.

It is because not one of these particular qualities apply to me that he tells me on a daily basis, in his very loud, very Singaporean accent so the whole staff room can hear, “You are not a typical U.S.” Initially, I tried to convince him that his “expert” theories on American culture were not overly accurate or logical and did not necessarily apply to the population as a whole. However, that effort has failed miserably as he is so certain he is correct when it comes to evaluating the culture of the United States, and obviously I have no idea what I am talking about. So, recently, I’ve taken to nodding, smiling, and quietly agreeing that “yes, I am not a typical U.S.”

As frustrating as these encounters could be, I often find myself laughing out of pure exasperation when he walks away from my desk, all triumphant that he has won our argument; which he typically has as I tend to give up easily. He really is no different that many U.S. citizens who have so ingrained Asian stereotypes into their ways of thinking that they refuse to change their beliefs and see the culture for what it really is: a beaded necklace of food, traditions, ideas, celebrations, religions, and values designed by people who are connected to others all over the world by the common string of humanity and the ability to feel the same raw emotions of joy, passion, grief, devastation, anger and, of course, love.

And now, while it is an incredibly comfortable place to stand, I must step down off my hippie peace and love soapbox, back to earth from where I can tell my Chinese Embassy story. A story, not at all about the commonalities of all of humanity, but rather about the frustrations that inevitably occur when you are traveling and cultures clash. This is one of those experiences that you don’t really look back and laugh about later, but rather you learn a real lesson from and are just as valuable, if not more so, than those stories that do give you a good laugh.

Ironically, as I reflect on my Chinese Embassy experience that occurred last week, the first thing that comes to mind is my 2007 trip to Florence, Italy. While studying abroad in London in the spring of 2007, my roommates, Amanda, Heather, and I decided to take a weekend trip to Italy. We spent one lovely afternoon exploring the Leaning Tower of Pisa and then exploring the pizza of Pisa, before hoping a train to spend the rest of the weekend in Florence. Unfortunately, there is this little rule in Italy (that is actually a really big rule written in Italian on the back of the train tickets) that you are supposed to stamp your train ticket at the departure platform. This law is logical as it prevents people from using their tickets to make several journeys. However, if you are from America where the conductors come through the train and stamp your tickets for you, where you don’t speak Italian, and where you don’t really ride on to much public transportation to begin with because you are from South Dakota (picturing anyone in particular?), this Italian rule isn’t exactly what we would call obvious. However, the Italian police at the platform in Florence seemed to think it was, as we tried for over an hour in broken Italian on our part and broken English on theirs to explain that we didn’t know we had to stamp our tickets at the departing platform. We do not speak Italian and have never traveled by train in Italy before. And we do not want to pay the fine of one hundred euros a piece…please? Finally, after much bargaining, we managed to convince them to let us go for 20 euros a piece, which was still a big chunk for students traveling on a budget, but at least I wasn’t going to Italian jail. It was one of those experiences that you don’t really look back and laugh about, maybe give a weak smile, but you certainly learn from. All travelers are bound to have at least one, if not several, of these, as I like to call them, “Italian train ‘wreck’ experiences.” So it was only a matter of time before I had mine in Singapore.

It happened last Friday. I had an Italian train wreck in Singapore. I was granted an hour and a half work leave to go to the Chinese Embassy to obtain my tourist visa. I needed it not only for Beijing in December, but also because I planned to go to Shanghai October 16-19 to visit my friend from Wyoming, John Paul, who is working in China until the end of the month. The embassy’s passport/visa department is only open Monday to Friday 9-11 a.m. This should have been my foreshadowing of disaster. I mean seriously, who can go during these times? In addition, the embassy had been closed all week in reflection of the Chinese mid-autumn festival and Chinese National Day. So, the Chinese Embassy was open on Friday and was also opening for two hours Saturday to make up for the back log that would inevitably result due to the holiday. However, I planned to travel to Malacca, Malaysia early Saturday morning. So, my option was to get my visa Friday or Friday.

When I arrived, after taking a $20/30 minute cab ride, because it was faster than public transportation to the embassy at 9 in the morning, I was greeted by a line almost 400 meters long. And that was just to get to the door of the building. But with my visa being an urgent matter, I had no choice but to get in line. By the time I had reached the window, my hour and a half work leave time was up, and I was supposed to be back at school to invigilate an exam. Needless to say, I had to call the school and tell them I wouldn’t be able to make it back to invigilate, and I probably wouldn’t be back for at least an hour after my invigilation would have been over. To make matters worse, it isn’t exactly like I’m an experienced teacher who has put in my dues and deserves to have time off. I mean I’ve only been working here for five weeks. They seemed very understanding, but I’m not sure if they really were fine with my absence or if they were just doing that whole Asian thing I’ve heard so much about: that whole pretending not to care even though they are really angry just to save face and to prevent you from embarrassment thing.

I did eventually complete the series of steps necessary for visa application and return to my school in time to do my afternoon invigilation. As is the case when you apply for any visa, I happily left my passport at the embassy, agreeing to pick it up with my visa inside on Monday. It was only at 4:30 that afternoon that I realized I would obviously need my passport to travel to Malaysia the following morning. As I had a bus ticket for 8:30 a.m. and as the embassy didn’t open until 9 a.m., I had no choice but to rush down to the embassy and beg for someone to open the passport/visa room (which if I haven’t mentioned closes at the ridiculous hour of 11 a.m.) to get my passport for me.

This tactic did not prove to be overly successful. The guard at the door spoke absolutely no English and forwarded me via telephone to a man who did speak English but only the rude kind. He basically told me, in between my own pathetic pleas for help, that this was my own problem, there was absolutely nothing he could do to help me, he didn’t really want to be talking to me in the first place, and then I’m pretty sure he swore at me or called me some horrible name in Mandarin before hanging up the phone with a loud click. What if this was a real emergency and I had to fly out of the country that evening, because someone died? Isn’t there someone there with a key? Or someone you can call?…I mean this island is like twenty five kilometers long for gosh sakes! Then the non-English speaking guard smiled at me, as the tears started to roll down my face and gave me this shoo, go away gesture. Talk about kicking you when you’re down.

I lost it. I walked down to the bus stop, and just stood there, on one of the busiest streets in Singapore, bawling. Red face streaked with blotches of black mascara, I stood at one of the busiest bus stops in Singapore and cried and cursed the Chinese and Asia in general and cried and wished for my mom and kept right on crying not caring at all about the sideways glances I was receiving from the hundreds of passersby. Then quite suddenly, the tears stopped. I wiped my face and quite a lot of black mascara on my shirt sleeve, climbed on my bus, and said to myself, “That’s quite enough. Now that you’ve had that little episode, it is time to be logical about this. You need to sort out this Italian train wreck of a situation, and then have a stiff drink.”

And that’s exactly what I did. Liz had decided at the last minute to come to Malaysia as well, so I sold my bus ticket to her. I decided to pick up my passport with our without my visa at the embassy at 9 a.m., hop on the 10:30 a.m. bus, and meet everyone at 3 p.m. at the hostel. Then, I went to Holland Village and had a drink.

But it wasn’t over. Saturday morning brought its own set of struggles. I arrived at the embassy at exactly 8:45 a.m. and was one of the first in line to pick up my visa. After a long explanation to the “boss” I was able to obtain my passport, which actually already had my visa in it, for the additional fee of $50. A fee which I had not anticipated and had to get out of line to withdrawal from the ATM down the road and then come back to the embassy to pay. A ridiculously large fee, but a small price to pay to insure I would never have to come back to the Chinese Embassy again. (And here’s the real kicker: There was no need to rush to get my visa, because I’m not even going to Shanghai this weekend because by the time I decided to buy my plane ticket the least expensive flight was completely booked and a three day weekend wasn’t worth $500. John Paul will be back in Shanghai in February though, and my double-entry visa is good through April. We are going to try to make a trip work sometime this spring.)

Back to Saturday morning. While I was rolling around in the mess of embassy garbage, I found out my friend Steve had forgotten his passport for the 8:30 a.m. bus ride with everyone else and was going to catch the 10:30 a.m. bus with me to Malacca. This circumstance, though annoying for him, was a huge relief to me as I was going to have someone to ride with on the four-hour trip to a strange country and with whom I could figure things out when we arrived. I did manage to reach the bus on time, and just when I was starting to breathe again…more bad news. Steve hadn’t been able to find his passport and was not going to make it for the 10:30 a.m. bus. But he would be on the 11 a.m. bus, and we would meet at the station when he arrived.

And so I slept most of the way to Malacca, waking occasionally to stare in awe at the lovely tropical jungles through which we were passing and blissfully unaware of the challenges still ahead. You see, when we left Singapore, the bus stop consisted of two trailers with a few of buses parked in front of them. Kind of like a simple city bus interchange. The bus station in Malacca was more like an airport. I’m talking corridors running in all directions, what seemed like a million bus drop off points, shops, restaurants, and crowds of people. My only hope was that when Steve arrived he would think to go to the taxi stand.

So there I was, sitting at a taxi stand in Malacca, Malaysia, munching on several giant pieces of fresh mango that I bought for the equivalent of U.S. fifty cents, being unabashedly ogled by random men, praying that my friend would find me in this mess, and thinking about what an incredibly Italian train wreck experience I was having…when Steve appeared out of the crowd, sauntering in his laid back way, smiling from ear to ear, and ready to give me a much needed hug. All I can say is thank God for lucky coincidences and good friends.

From this moment onward my weekend improved a hundred fold. Steve and I took a taxi to our hostel where we met Howard, our welcoming Asian hippie host, who conveyed a message from the rest of the group about when and where to meet them and offered suggestions of things to do in the meantime. Steve and I took the opportunity to clean up, do some wandering, sample some delicious pineapple tarts on the streets of Chinatown, and reflect on how our morning experiences had made arriving in Malacca just that much better. We then met Jacob, Joe, Neil, Liz, Amy, and Lisa, all fellow PiAers, at Capital Satay for dinner.

It was definitely a hands-on dinning experience. Basically there are a bunch of different vegetables, meats, and tofu on sticks, and you pick the ones you want and dunk them in this random pot of hot brown boiling liquid for specified times depending on the type of food you choose until it is cooked. And in case you don’t think it is a great restaurant by simply tasting the food, all you have to do is look at the line of at least 60 locals waiting to eat as soon as you’re finished.

After dinner, we wandered around Chinatown, occasionally stopping to browse in one of the antique or souvenir shops lining the carnival-like Jonker Street. We also enjoyed the street karaoke, at which random people were just performing, singing or dancing, on this giant stage in the middle of all the shopping, eating, and general Saturday evening socializing. Liz, Amy, Jacob, Joe and I stopped to enjoy an hour of head, neck and shoulder massage and foot reflexology for the equivalent of about twelve U.S. dollars. Our group then met Howard, the Asian bike-riding, guitar-playing, hostel-owning hippie and others who were staying at our hostel (including a German businessman, two women backpackers who were each traveling on their own for six months, an Australian making his way around Asia before moving to the U.S. to live with his girlfriend, and a British couple on vacation) for a beer in a gay club.

There are moments in Asia, when I simply cannot believe that this is actually my life. Sitting outside a gay club in Malacca, looking at the amazing people and environment with which I was surrounded, having just had a wonderful massage, and feeling that rush of genuine happiness snaking up my spine, was definitely one of those surreal moments. Everyone had a story, or twenty, to tell and tell stories, both real and slightly exaggerated we did late into the evening.

Sunday morning was spent at the Stadthuys, the Malaccan history museum. There, we learned about the history of Malacca from its time as a small fishing village, to major porcelain trading hub, to fall to Portuguese rule, to Dutch then British colony, to Japanese occupied during WWII, and finally to independence in 1957. Malacca has an incredibly vibrant and varied history, and its peoples, traditions, architecture, religions (there are several places where you can find a mosque, a Buddhist temple and a church all on one road) and food are a result of this history.

After the museum, the others had to catch a bus, but Steve and I spent the rest of the morning wandering to Malacca’s historical sights. We saw the ruins of St. Paul’s Church, an old Dutch church turned burial grounds with a wishing well the locals believe brings good luck. Steve and I, of course, made a wish. We couldn’t afford to take our chances with any more bad luck. We also saw the entrance to Fort A Famosa. The fort was constructed by the Portuguese in 1511, and it suffered severe structural damage during the Dutch invasion. The plan by the British to destroy it was aborted as a result of the intervention of Sir Stamford Raffles, the founder of Singapore, in 1808. The only area left is the entry way. We also explored the beautiful red town square, where rickshaw drivers constantly bombarded Steve and I with questions like “Ride for the lovely couple.” We found this rather hilarious. And we enjoyed watching toursists pose for pictures with iguanas, snakes, parrots and the like.We also bought some street art from a local artist who was painting the scenes near the historical landmarks.

The afternoon was spent shopping for more art, souvineers, and food. In addition to two more paintings, I bought a few boxes of pineapple tarts to bring home and share with Stephanie and my mentor at school, a t-shirt designed by a Malaysian artist, and some kaya jelly, which is a Malay coconut jam. Steve and I also sampled the local cuisine. Baba-Nyonya cuisine, is a mixture of Chinese and Malay cooking with some influences from the Portuguese, Dutch, Indian and British cultures. We quickly discovered that most dishes are spicy, including the as the famous Nyonya Laksa that I had for lunch. It is a very spicy, brothy noodle soup with onions, cucumbers, and a random half-develed egg on top. We also tried the chendol, or shaved ice with brown sauce and green beans as I like to refer to it, for dessert.

Steve and I spent our final hour in Melaka, sun bathing on the roof of our hostel, snacking on pineapple tarts and sipping coffee, listening to the drums calling the people to worship, and watching the city slow down for the evening. We enjoyed a quiet, sleepy bus ride home in what looked like the luxery suite at a five star hotel, and arrived back in Singapore much more relaxed than we had left it.

And so, my week began. Now, as it is ending, I am sitting outside at a candel-lit organic vegetarian restaurant, reflecting on the past week and planning for the weekend. I’m sipping a glass of rose wine and enjoying my pesto, pine nut, asparagus, olive and brocolini pasta immensely. As I sit here alone on a Friday night and absolutely content, I realize this is one of the first meals I’ve ever eaten at a nice restaurant by myself and felt completely comfortable in my own skin. I don’t feel awkward in the least bit, nor am I wondering what the couple next to me is thinking. I am truly enjoying the company of my own thoughts. Maybe this is what it feels like to grow-up. If it is…bring it on.

Goodnight and TIA,