Friday, September 11, 2009

There is not a chair, window, table, or hook in this apartment without wet laundry hangin on it...seriously

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There are geckos in our house. I saw one when I was making tea this morning. They are kind of cute. They are cute in the way geckos are cute as they run across your kitchen counter in their sticky sort of way without much warning and then literally flop onto the floor like a blob of goo only to start running again to find refuge under the stove…yeah cute in that way. They are mostly cute in a “at least they aren’t bugs running across my counter and flopping on my floor” kind of way. Yeah, cute in that way.

After tea and breakfast, we had a Discovery Tour, which the Ministry of Education organized for us. We started our tour at Horticulture Park (HortPark for short and a nick-name I was having trouble understanding when my colleagues were trying to explain this park to me. I mean seriously, would you understand if someone with a very think Singaporean accent was trying to tell you to go to a place called HortPark near your house. But I get it now.).

HortPark is another beautiful oasis tucked away in this concrete jungle. Highlights include a butterfly garden, a lifestyle section (including examples of ways in which to incorporate plants as decorations in your home), and a fruit and vegetable garden complete with star fruit, pomegranate, and bread and cheese fruit (don’t ask, I don’t know). Our next stop on the tour was Tiong Bahru, one of the neighborhood areas in Singapore and the site of some of the first HDBs (short for Housing and Development Board). The Housing and Development Board is generally credited with clearing up the squatters and slums of the 1960s and resettling residents into low-cost government-built housing. Today, about 90 percent of Singapore’s population lives in them. Tiong Bahru also boasts some beautiful art deco buildings, and a delicious Hawker Center.

The afternoon started with a quick tour of Chinatown. Here, you can physically see Singapore’s modernity and tradition contrast…a contrast illustrated by old Chinese shop-houses set in a background of concrete skyscrapers. It is a perfect example of Singapore’s rapid growth and change and the ability to preserve tradition among this growth and modernity. During our tour, we were able to visit the Sri Mariamman Temple (Singapore’s oldest Hindu place of worship) and the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple (which obviously houses what is believed to be a sacred tooth relic of the Buddha) as well as a Muslim Mosque and a Methodist Church all on one street! Again, what a great visual of Singaporean society, it is such an adaptable and cosmopolitan city with a multicultural spirit that stands at its heart. I hope to return to Chinatown soon to explore and learn more about the worship sites, and also do to some shopping in the beautiful open-air markets.

The tour then led us to Raffles Place where we would find ourselves in the heart of Singapore’s financial district. We also saw another of Singapore’s Merlions (a widely recognized symbol of the island nation), Boat Quay, Parliament House, The Supreme Court, City Hall, and Raffles Landing Site. Sir Stamford Raffles arrived in Singapore in 1819 while on a mission to find the East India Company new trading sites. He persuaded leaders to sign a treaty giving exclusive rights to Britain (hence the many many similarities I discover everyday between London and Singapore…could this be why I love this city?!). It wasn’t until 1959 that Singapore would become independent of Britain and united with Malaysia. Lee Kuan Yew acted as first prime minister. Finally in 1965, Singapore gained full independence as the Republic of Singapore when Lee announced a separation from Malaysia due to political and racial tensions.

After this very informative leg of the tour, we concluded our day at Cineleisure on Orchard Road. This complex is a very popular hang out for the kids we will be teaching in just one short week, and I can see why. Included in the nine story building, are fast food restaurants, ice cream, pool tables, 12 movie theatre screens, shops catering to the teen crowd, and an entire floor dedicated to internet gaming and television! Talk about a teen’s paradise. I think I might be the “cool” teacher now that I can discuss this popular hang-out spot with my kids…or maybe I’ll be the lame teacher who is trying way too hard to be cool…isn’t that what you think when you’re 13? Today, at Cineleisure, Stephanie and I actually said, “that kid is sitting way too close to the T.V.!”

After our tour, we wound down with happy hour drinks at Wala-Wala in Holland Village, and then we joined Lisa for dinner near her apartments. Now: bills to pay…wow I feel like a grown-up today, the “thinking about kids sitting too close to the T.V. and paying bills and all” version of me is I guess.

Before I left for Singapore, I was trying to explain what a nice place Singapore would be to a particularly worried older friend who also has the older stereotypes and concerns about the older Asia ingrained in his mind. To calm his concerns, I described it in this overly simplified way: “It will be like Honolulu, but there will be monkeys instead of squirrels.” While the city can be quite a lot like Honolulu sometimes, my fantasy of monkeys running around the streets like squirrels hasn’t exactly been accurate. However, this afternoon my dreams did sort of come true.

Stephanie and I visited Bukit Timah nature reserve this afternoon. Bukit Timah is one of the last remnants of Singapore’s primary rainforests. It also boasts the highest point in Singapore, more plant species than all of North America, and monkeys who actually do run around like squirrels. After making it to the top of the initial incredibly steep hill (we’re talking “maybe I should have brought my rock climbing gear” kind of slope on this hill), Stephanie and I enjoyed a leisurely two-hour hike on packed dirt trails that wind snake-like through the tropical jungle. There were wild mushrooms in colors like sun-rise orange, highlighter yellow, and even the “blackest black” color of my mascara. Birds in neon colors and others with white Mohawks fluttered in the flora, and ants as large as beetles marched like little Boy Scout troops along the trail. The air hung think and mist-like, as if the trees were pressing it softly in on all sides. We spent hours wadding through the heavy air, enjoying the busy, loud silence of the rainforest. (Among Bukit Timah’s rules like “Do not litter” and “Do not feed the monkeys” is a rule which I find particularly appealing in the rainforest paradise “Please hike quietly to preserve and appreciate the natural sounds.”)

Stephanie and I climbed along the Jungle Falls trail until we reached the summit. Finally, on our journey down the mountain, we spotted the greatly anticipated family of monkeys. We watched as mothers hoisted their little babies tightly up into their arms, and the little ones grabbed onto the mothers bellies fiercely and nervously when the mothers began to swing through the trees. Younger monkeys played rambunctiously, often hitting or biting one another, only to quickly run away like toddlers on the playground. And the father?...he sat patiently watching all the fuss and occasionally glaring at us with a “this is my family and you better not mess with them, because I’m not scared of you” look on his face reminiscent of the way human fathers look when they are trying to protect their own families. He even glared at and scolded the adolescent monkeys who were getting too wild. (I think Elizabeth may be familiar with a similar “look” from my own dad.) The father monkey’s glare actually made us retreat occasionally, worried we were getting to close. We were fascinated by the little every day goings on of this family, and we watched in awe for several minutes until the father gave the “let’s move on signal,” and they crept passed us in a nervous and suspicious sort of way, running only when they were safely on the other side. It was such a unique and interesting interaction with a different species; one like I’ve never experience before.

Wednesday was another day of Ministry of Education training. The topic this morning: The Singapore Education System. I will save this explanation for a different day. A day when, after being exposed to it myself, I will hopefully be able to explain it a little better.

I spent the afternoon alone, wandering lazily through the Chinese and Japanese Gardens…places of such peace and serenity, it would be impossible not to feel an almost other-worldly calm while wandering along the spiral pathways, adjoining islands, incredible architecture, and bonsai trees.

Wednesday concluded with an incredibly enjoyable evening as Stephanie and I joined Lauren, Lauren, Merriam, Nick, and Katie for a pizza making party at Lauren’s condo. We met at a grocery store, collected ingredients for our individual pizzas, and proceeded to Lauren’s to make our mini, individual, edible works of art. We even had chocolate hazelnut ice cream for dessert. What an enjoyable evening spent in the company of new friends, sharing life stories, future ambitions, and good food, and, did I mention, eating chocolate hazelnut ice cream!

On Thursday (after having “a bit of a lie in” as my English friends would say), I played tour guide for myself with my “Top Ten in Singapore” book. I started my tour in Little India where I walked along Serangoon Road. It is the heart of Little India, and is yet another place where tradition survives among rapid growth and change. Families still own little shop houses where they sit, fanning themselves with these gorgeous fans, and encourage (rather forcefully) passing tourists to buy their homemade goods, home-cooked food, and beautiful imported Indian fabrics and knick-knacks.

I visited, among others, the beautiful Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple and the small but very impressive Sakya Muni Buddha Gaya Temple. My favorite of the lot, however, was Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple. This temple was constructed for the worship of Kali, a divine mother figure who provides comfort to worshippers far from home. How fitting!

Inside Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple, I stood barefoot in the center of an open-air worship hall with the colorful hand-crafted figures of Hindu gods kindly (and some not so kindly) looking down on me, and offered a silent prayer to my God for giving me the opportunities I have had in my life, for all my new friends, and for the support of my family and friends at home. In such a beautifully ornate and calmingly spiritual place as a Hindu Temple, it would be hard not to feel connected your God (Hindu or not) or the Universe in some way.

The last stop I made in Little India was at the Mustafa Centre. This enormous shopping center had literally anything and everything you could possible want (and many things you would never want), but if you were looking for something specific, I doubt you’d ever find it! I really think this place is one of those things you’d have to see to believe.

I continued my tour at Kampong Glam, which is home to many Muslim Singaporean residents including Malays, Bugis and Arabs. The most recognized mosque in Singapore, the Sultan Mosque, is one of many highlights in Kampong Glam. The Ramadan festival is happening right now, so the area around the mosque was particularly interesting, because there were hundreds of vendor creating various, delicious foods and snacks in preparation for the daily breaking of fast after nightfall. (I plan to attend the “break fast” before the end of Ramadan on September 18…look forward to an amazing story I’m sure). After walking along Arab Street, admiring the various silks and carpets, I enjoyed a hot tea at a sidewalk cafĂ© and watched the passer-bys, occasionally guessing about their lives (this seems to be becoming one of my favorite pastimes in Singapore!).

I then met Stephanie, Hannah, and Jacob in Chinatown where we would spend over an hour walking through the Chinatown Heritage Center. The museum is located in three restored tailor shops, and displays illustrate the difficult lives of the Chinese immigrants in Singapore’s early days. I was interested to discover how similar the hopes of these Chinese settlers were to the hopes of the first settlers in the Americas. Singapore was the land of opportunity, and many left their family, friends and countries to seek prosperity in the new land. However, what many of those early immigrants found was a very difficult life, and they had to work harder than I can ever imagine to create even a minimal life. The museum was a true learning experience, and I hope to soon learn as much about the histories of the other ethnic groups in Singapore.

After the museum, the four of us joined Jacob’s friend Jen at an Indian cultural center (in Chinatown ironically). We enjoyed a lovely buffet of curries, chutneys, sauces, rice and breads. The culture center has a “pay what you want” policy as its main purpose is to encourage others to become more aware of Indian culture, a large aspect of which is food! Stephanie and I then joined Jacob and Hannah for a drink at their studio apartment (which is adorable by the way) in Chinatown.

Friday morning began with another Ministry of Education training session concerning our specific course curriculums (although, I still don’t feel prepared at all for Monday). Hannah, Stephanie and I then met Shannon and Grace (If you don’t remember, Grace is Shannon’s daughter and they were random strangers who invited me over for lunch the first week I was here and are now wonderful friends) for a lovely lunch at a quiet little Italian restaurant. We enjoyed three courses: salad, pasta, and homemade sorbet with coffee! My Friday evening was spent at the gym (working off those three courses), doing laundry (this is a completely different story, but let’s just say for now that there are wet clothes hanging on every chair, window, table and hook in the apartment), and blogging of course (enjoy!).


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