Saturday, August 29, 2009

Moving to Singapore is like building Ikea furniture

Moving to Singapore is kind of like building Ikea furniture. It comes with very little direction, is frustrating at times, often has a lot of pieces and parts to be figured out and put together, but comes with huge relief and great satisfaction when something fits. I know this, because I just spent the last hour trying to put together a chair and a desk from Ikea, and I’ve spent the last week trying to put together my life in Singapore.

Those of you who know me may be quite surprised to find out that I’m not all too apt at building furniture…I know, shocking right?! Those of you who don’t know me should know that I can be a bit sarcastic at times and am not exactly the type of person who goes around building furniture on a regular basis. However, that is exactly what I set out to do one hour ago. And that is exactly what I sent Jayme, a fellow PiAer, a text about exactly five minutes ago. The text was not exactly to tell him how successful I was in building my chair and desk. In fact, it was a text pleading for help before I hurt myself trying to force one more screw into a hole in which I’m not exactly positive it is suppose to go.

A few words of wisdom: helpful friends, who happen to be helpful male friends who just built their own desk and chair who live a few floors below you, are a great kind of friends to send texts to about building your Ikea furniture.

Anyway, enough about the furniture as just writing about it has me about as riled up as when I was actually building it. Instead, here is a rundown of the past few wonderful days.

I last wrote on Thursday morning when my intention was to go to the Botanic Gardens. Nature, however, had other plans as it started to rain almost the minute I stepped outside. So instead I had to give up my walk in the beautiful gardens for a full on mani-pedi…we’re talking calf and arm massage and nail trimming and painting here...instead. Rough trade huh!? After relaxing and treating myself a bit, I met Shannon (the women I met a few days prior in the Botanic Gardens) and her daughter, ten month old Grace, at her home for lunch.

It was an amazing afternoon. Shannon gave me a tour of their flat, which sits on the ninth story of a beautiful building with a breathtaking view of Singapore. They also have an infinity pool that overlooks the city, and Shannon invited me to come over and use the pool someday soon with friends! I cannot believe how kind and generous she has been. We then enjoyed a lunch complete with salad, vegetable pasta, and bread and berries and banana muffins for dessert. Heidi, Shannon and Patrik’s domestic helper (a PC term here for maid, butler, chef, nanny and whatever else she does) prepared the meal. I guess it is really common to have a domestic helper in Singapore, and most homes and condos come with a separate room and bathroom area for them to live. Heidi seems like very much a part of the family. She is this adorable young Indian woman who is so small I could lift her with one arm I’m sure. Lunch was soooooo good…one of the best meals I’ve eaten yet. It was also nice to have a home-cooked meal, and I thanked Heidi profusely for it. Heidi asked me what my favorite meal is. When I told her I love salmon, she clapped and told me salmon was her specialty, and she would love to have me over when she makes it for Patrik and Shannon sometime. Again, how wonderful and how rare to come across such kindness and generosity. I was so lucky to have such a perfect afternoon.

When I returned to my apartment, I showered and got ready for the PiA pizza party. The party was in one of the other apartment buildings, and it was so wonderful to see everyone again, to meet the fellows who have been here for a year already, and to see Leslie (the PiA director who is establishing an overseas office in Singapore) for the first time. We enjoyed good food, good drinks, and good conversation until everyone was too tired and jet lagged that we had to go to bed.

As a random side note, some people were drawing henna tattoos, and Neil, a PiA fellow who spent this past year in India, wrote Big Sister in Tamal on my arm….just because I miss you Elizabeth, and I took a picture too so you can see it! (Don’t worry Dad, it’s washable ink that comes off in about two weeks.)

On Friday, I woke up at my usual time…around 7:30 a.m., went for a walk, and went to Ikea to browse for some decorative items. I made lunch plans to go to Little India with Will, Neil, Lisa, and Jayme, who are all other PiA people and we also met Marcus, who is a foreign teacher but not PiA. Because Neil spent the last year in India, he knew exactly what to order and he ordered for all of us. I had cheese Dohsa, which is like a flat bread with cheese in it and comes with a bunch of different curries and chutneys in which to dip it. It was really great, and I plan to eat a lot more Indian food while I’m here. It has been my favorite cultural cuisine yet.

While we were eating, I noticed we were the only Westerners in the restaurant, and we were also the only one’s to have spoons and forks on our table. HAHAHA…these people obviously had a lot of confidence in us. I think the waiters were impressed though that, in true Indian style, we all used our hands to eat our food. Traditionally in India, only the right hand is used to eat with (I do find this skill a bit difficult and will have to practice…I’m sure Mom will be impressed when I come back to the states and am eating all my meals with my right hand only). The reason only the right hand is used is because in the past, the left hand was used to clean yourself, by splashing water, after you used the restroom. Still today, the left hand is considered dirty in Indian cultures, and it is offensive to try to shake someone’s hand using your left hand. The waiters were also impressed, because Neil was able to speak a little Tamal and he ordered our food like a pro. I think they found us quite entertaining for Westerners, and I’m quite proud to have such talented, worldly, smart, and wonderful friends here in Singapore.

After lunch, we went to Clark Quay (pronounced Key) for happy hour margaritas. Clark Quay is a very European area of Singapore with outdoor cafes lining the riverfront and colorful pastel restaurants and bars boasting good beef, espresso, gelato and sushi. Singapore is such an interesting city in that way. I can feel like I am in India, California, and Paris all in one day! So just another plug to convince you to visit me…instead of traveling to all those wonderful places, just come and stay with me…I’ll show you the U.S., Asia, and Europe all in one week.

And if traveling to India, Cali, and Paris wasn’t enough yesterday, I also re-lived my college days in Wyoming. Last night a group of us played beer pong at the apartment of a couple other PiA fellows…hahahah…it was like hanging out at the fraternities all over again…in a really good way!

This morning I slept in for the first time and then went to lunch with Jayme and his roommate Greisha, who has been a foreign teacher in Singapore for just over a year and is from California, We had food from one of the food stales nearby, and then went to Ikea. And from there, you know the rest!

Tonight, we have an informal training with some of the older PiA fellows. They are going to tell us what to expect in our first weeks at work. Tomorrow?…maybe the Indonesian beaches…who knows!

It really has been a wonderful couple days, but like the furniture, I have been frustrated a bit. I do get lonely, especially at night because Stephanie isn’t here yet. And I do miss all my family and friends back home. I love you all so very much, and am thankful for your strong support as I continue my journey in Singapore. Keep writing, I love to hear from you!

Cheers and TIA,

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

What's cheap and what's not

It is another beautiful (and hot) morning in Singapore. Sitting on my bed in my apartment (my no longer bedspreadless bed), I am listening to the birds and to the man who is sweeping the sidewalk below me in a constant, slow swish-swish rhythm. It is going to be a good day.

Yesterday (Wednesday), I spent my day at the Ministry of Education in training. It was a long day, but also a very helpful day. We received our work passes, listened to information about our bank accounts and hand-phones (what they call cell phones) and Internet access, and set-up our bank accounts, Internet, and hand-phones. I was also really excited to see everyone from PIA and to exchange numbers. It will be much easier to be social now.

I met some of the other teachers as well. Two girls from England, Hannah and Kerry, were really sweet, and I got along with them both really well (haha…there is just something about the English).

I feel so lucky to have had my housing arranged for me, especially after listening to Hannah and Kerry’s stories. Kerry and her husband have been living in really cheap, really “dodgy” (as she puts it) hotels for the past two weeks as they have been doing their housing search. Hannah and her boyfriend Jacob, who is Costa Rican and is in Singapore doing his Ph.D., found a place in Chinatown. They needed a central location, because they will be traveling in opposite directions in the mornings. But the central location was not cheap…$1,900 a month for an unfurnished apartment! I guess it is really nice though, but wow.

After our long day ended around 5, a group of us went to a nearby Hawker Center. Hawker Centers are like outdoor food courts, and they are everywhere and everyone eats at them. It is no wonder though, I’ve never paid more than $2.50 for my meal. Typically, I’ve gotten rice and three vegetable side dishes. They also have these really great fresh fruit juices. Last night, though, I opted for a Tiger beer .

While food may be cheap, alcohol is not. My meal cost me $2.20, and my beer cost $5! The cheapest bottle of wine I’ve seen is $18 and Smirnoff vodka is $59…this is not a joke. So, if you are ever on your way to visit me, please stop at the duty free in the airport on your way out! But, back to the Hawker Center.

Jacob, (Hannah’s boyfriend and not a MOE teacher), Hannah, Marcus (a Canadian guy), and I sat in the Hawker center and watched the daylight fade, the city slowing coming to life. Sipping our Tiger beers we chatted about everything from diving in Singapore to wine tasting on the U.S. west coast. A beer and good conversation with good people in a city that is so fully alive you can feel it running through your own veins…now that is what life is all about.

When I got back to my apartment, I used my Internet for the first time and was also able to Skype video chat with Tim and Skype call my dad. Again, really good to hear voices from home. Then, I stopped downstairs at Jayme’s and hung out with some of the PiA guys for a bit.

Today will be another new, wonderful and exciting day I’m sure. After I shower, I plan to head back to the Botanic Gardens to explore a bit more. I will then have lunch with Shannon and Gracie at their house! After lunch, I’ll head to Ikea (yes, the Ikea that is big and blue and square) to search for a rug and maybe a futon. Tonight, Leslie from PiA is treating us to a pizza party! We will probably eat Pizza Hut pizza, laugh about eating it in Singapore, and laugh some more about how lucky we are to be eating it in Singapore. More on this later.

For now, Cheers and TIA,


Toilet paper, ellipticl machines, and red bean ice cream

I was sitting on my bed after Mrs. Tan, my “Introduction Mentor” had left. Looking around at my empty apartment and sitting on my empty bed, I thought “Well, what’s next?” Due to the 33 hours of traveling I had just undergone and the 90 degree temperatures despite the 2 a.m. hour, a shower seemed to be in order. The only thing I needed was a towel. I looked in the closet, in the bathrooms, in the other bedrooms, and even in the kitchen. No luck. Time to get resourceful. The bedspread they had given me was more the texture of a towel than a comforter anyway. It would have to work. I would soon find out this resourcefulness, which I possessed despite the 33 hours of traveling I had just undergone and the 2:30 a.m. hour, would come in handy again on this morning…

…there was no toilet paper. Are you kidding me!! It is 2:45 in the morning and 90 degrees and I just used a bedspread as a towel and there is no toilet paper!! Time to get resourceful. The random scratch paper I had with me would have to do. Five minutes later, as I lay down on my bed (my bedspreadless bed) I made a list of things to do in the morning. First on the list: buy toilet paper and towels. Around 4:30 a.m., when the air conditioning kicked-in, I added “buy a bedspread” to the list. And so it began.

Before I continue with my story, let me back up about 33 hours. Thirty-three hours ago I was boarding a plane in Pierre about to leave on the biggest adventure of my life thus far. I was flying to Singapore to teach Language Arts at Commonwealth Secondary school with a program called Princeton in Asia. Not actually thinking it would be the last time I saw them for at least three months, I had haphazardly said goodbye to my parents and little sister the day before as they left for a soccer tournament in Sioux Falls. You see, my e-ticket from the Ministry of Education in Singapore didn’t come until about 7 hours before I had to be at the airport. Thirty-three hours ago, I had just said the hardest goodbye of my life (hopefully the hardest goodbye I will ever have to say again) to my boyfriend, Tim. And I was on a plane.

All my flights went incredibly smoothly. I flew from Pierre to Denver with a brief stop in Alliance, NE. I then flew from Denver to LA with just a short layover in LA. The flight from LA to Tokyo was 11 hours! It didn’t feel so long though because I was flying Singapore Airlines, and if you don’t know…they’re amazing. The women flight attendants wear these beautiful long flowery skirts and Asian-style fitted tops. All the women wear their hair in French twists and the men wear suits. The seats are really comfortable. The flight attendants hand out warm towels and socks and two meals plus snacks were served. I watched two movies on the back of the seat in front of me and slept quite a bit. The 7 hour flight from Tokyo to Singapore went similarly smoothly. All my luggage arrived and Mrs. Tan met me at the airport with keys to my apartment in hand. Mrs. Tan is this adorable retired primary school principal who is both incredibly helpful and easy to talk to.

I guess I had such good luck with my travels, it was time to have some bad luck with my first night in the apartment. I am already laughing about it, but after 33 hours of travel, at 2:50 a.m. in the morning, in the 90 degree heat, when I had just used a bedspread as a towel and a scratch paper as toilet paper, it didn’t seem so funny.

The first morning in Singapore, I woke up, thanks to the jet lag, at 7:30 a.m. after having gone to bed around 3 a.m. I went and woke-up Jayme, a fellow Princeton in Asia teacher and my neighbor 2 stories down. He, unfortunately for him, had recovered from the jet lag, and, I’m sure, was not overly thrilled to see me at 8:30 in the morning bright-eyed and bushy-tailed on his doorstep. He did give me some good, if not fully awake, advice on where to shop for my list of items that started with toilet paper, towels, and a bedspread. I then walked around Singapore Polytechnic campus, which is the university campus on which my apartment complex is located. I found, among other things, a Pizza Hut, a Subway, and a 7-11 on campus. Haha…well, so much for total emersion. There are just some things you cannot get away from…(i.e. U.S. capitalism).

I spent the rest of the morning at the MRT (subway) stop just one up from my MRT stop at the university. I found the gym that the Sports Manager at Singapore Polytechnic had recommended after kindly informing me that I cannot use their gym, because I am not a student there (even though I do live in the staff quarters). I also found a grocery store and looked in several of the open stall shops in the area. I then took the MRT into Singapore City Center and got off at Raffles Place stop, which I assumed obviously meant Raffles Hotel would be just around the corner. Wrong. But I did find Boat Quay which is a beautiful quaint set of brightly colored restaurants and bars along the Singapore River.

I spent the early afternoon ambling along Boat Quay and the opposite side of the river on which the Asian Civilizations Museum lies. I thought about how lucky I am to be in such a beautiful city. The people are so beautiful here and so kind. Everyone is smiling and maybe that makes them beautiful and kind. But how could they not smile? Their city is a strange combination of tradition and modernity that seem to co-exist in perfect harmony. There are so many unique “cultural things”, and there is art and dance and music, and there are parks, and there are so many shops and sooooo much food it is ridiculous. There city is so lush and green (although, my mentor says that the greenness is planned and strategic, just like everything else in Singapore…haha). They live mere miles from beach on all sides. I mean, how could you not be beautiful and smiling? And by “their city” I mean “my city” now too (sigh of contentment). But now that I’ve gotten off on a tangent, back to my first day in the Lion City.

I left the Raffles Place MRT stop after grabbing a smoothie, which I watched them make with real fruit and sorbet, at a stand. I then went to Orchard Road to try to knock some of the things off my “to buy” list. Orchard Road is like the New York of Singapore. I seriously felt like I was in some U.S. city except for the fact that I’m the minority here. I mean at one point I was sitting in an Internet Café next to Dolce and Gabanna and Dior…seriously. After walking through like the fifteenth mall, (that is not an exaggeration, seriously Grandma, a shoppers paradise) I finally found a store within my price range that didn’t sell Gucci sheets. I bought a comforter, a shower curtain, some towels, and some sheets. Now I just needed the toilet paper.

While on Orchard Road I also picked up an alarm clock and a converter. A quick side story about the man I bought them from. When he was showing me how to set the time and alarm he said he would just set the alarm for tomorrow morning for me. Then he asked “6 or 6:30” quite matter-of-factly, like those were the only two possibilities of time to wake-up. In my head I was thinking “6 or 6:30!!?? How about 9 buddy?” But I just smiled and said “Oh, 6:30 is fine”, making a mental note to change it to 9 later. I think this story is a good example of the work ethic of the Singaporeans. They work very hard, often 16 hour days, but they also know how to enjoy themselves and appreciate all their city has to offer.

I finished my day of shopping with a final stop at the grocery store at which I had stopped in the morning. I bought some toilet paper, hangers, hand soap, laundry soap etc etc. I then returned to my apartment to unpack. I enjoyed a relaxing evening sipping wine on my balcony, and watching the sun’s light slowly fade, caressing the trees as it set in the distance. And as I sat there reading my Singapore Guide, I found my self thinking “wow, what a beautiful place, what a wonderful life, and what an amazing opportunity and journey I’m about to embark on.”

After an 11 hour nights rest (I did sleep until 8:30, not 9 like I had set the alarm for), I woke up to singing birds outside my window. I walked in the morning dampness to my gym and lifted weights and ran on an elliptical-like machine. Here is a quick funny side story about the gym experience. When I ran on this elliptical-like machine, I was literally running at a dead sprint…I’m talking as fast as I could possible go and the machine was speaking to me saying “go faster” like every two seconds. It was super embarrassing as I was running as fast as I could. And it was pausing every 2 seconds. So when the machine said 5 minutes, (I had actually run 10) I got off, dripping in sweat, and red faced and vowed never to use that particular machine again.

After my gym experience, I went to the grocery store and called home from a pay phone (since I can’t get my mobile until I get my work pass). It was nice to hear the familiar voices of my mom and Tim and I did feel a bit lonely and homesick after I talked to them. A perfect cure for homesickness though?...a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. So I stopped at my usual grocery store and bought the ingredients for peanut butter, jelly, and banana sandwiches (in case you don’t know: peanut butter, jelly, bread, bananas, a knife, and paper plates). The lunch was good except I accidentally bought this random bread that tasted like dessert bread and is a little too sweet for me. Oh well, I guess you learn from experiences right? Next time I’ll go for the “whole grain” label rather than the “enriched with calcium and iron” label. After lunch at the apartment, I took an afternoon nap. Not quite over the jet lag yet I guess.

Around 4 p.m. I took the MRT to the same Internet Café I had used the day before, and caught up on my e-mails. I will have Internet in my apartment soon, but for now Internet Cafes and pay phones will have to do. When I had finished, I had planned to take the bus to Holland Village, a bohemian area with stores full of knick knacks and such. However, once again, I got off on the wrong bus stop, and once again, I found something really great because of my mistake…the Botanic Gardens.

Before I continue with my Botanic Gardens experience, I have a short story for Elizabeth to tell Rick at Zesto. My friend Sarah had told/warned me about the Singaporean ice cream sandwiches that they sell on the streets. These are literally sandwiches…I’m talking ice cream spread between two pieces of bread, and vendors sell them everywhere. If that is not funny enough, the first time I spied one of these vendors, I took a quick glance at their menu. First on the list for ice cream flavors: roasted corn or red bean. Hahahahahaha. I nearly had a laughing attack on the street. Well Rick, there is one thing the Zesto doesn’t have on Singapore. I suppose someday when I’m feeling super adventurous I will have to try one. I’ll probably start with vanilla. But today is not that day.

Anyway back to the Botanic Gardens. This is a completely beautiful oasis in the center of the city. Miles of beautiful plants, trees, waterfalls, even an orchard garden! I am so excited to have discovered this spot early on. It was nearing night fall when I chanced upon the gardens so I was unable to explore it fully, but I know I will be back when I have the desire to reconnect with nature and my South Dakota roots (in a tropical sort of way). Expect to hear much more about the Botanic Gardens.

I also ate my first Singaporean meal at the food court in the gardens. I had egg and cheese roti prata. Roti prata is one of Singapore’s famous dishes. It is basically fried bread stuffed with your choice of stuffing (i.e. chicken, egg, cheese, banana etc.) and served alongside curry for dipping. It kind of reminded me of watching the street vendors cook crepes in Paris…kind of. And it tasted kind of like an interestingly shaped crepe with curry sauce…kind of. All in all, I really enjoyed it and will be making prata a staple in my diet I’m sure.

A final story about the Botanic Gardens, and one of my favorites of the trip thus far: As I was walking out, I asked this nice-looking couple to take my picture in front of the Botanic Gardens sign. As we started talking, I found out the woman’s name is Shannon and she is from North Carolina! Her husband (I can’t remember his name right now) is from Germany, and they have lived in Singapore for four years. They have a ten month old little girl named Gracie who was sleeping the whole time, but she was adorable! The couple told me they like to come walk in the evenings in the Botanic Gardens, because their home is near and it is one of their favorite places in Singapore (I’m so glad I found it). They were so kind, asking me questions about what I was doing there and giving me advice on where to shop. When they found out I had only been there for a few days and didn’t know many people yet, they offered to have me over for lunch on Thursday. Also, when they asked me if there is anything I don’t eat and I said “chicken and red meat,” they said “us too!” And so we are having something with seafood or vegetables, because that is what they typically eat. I think her maid is preparing it! I’m very excited for my lunch date, and so thrilled to have met so many nice people so far. Everyone has been very kind and I’ve been given a couple business cards by people offering to help me get settled in. I’m so thankful for everyone’s kindness and generosity. I’m sure with their help, Singapore will begin to feel more like home.

One final thing before I go to bed for the evening. In the movie “Blood Diamond” they use a saying: TIA, standing for This Is Africa, is used to describe a situation or experience that is so typically African that it cannot be described in any other way. For a similar reason, I have chosen to sign off my blog posts with the acronym TIA, standing here for This Is Asia.

Good Night, Cheers, and TIA,