Sunday, January 31, 2010

Januay in the Tropics

There will be an accompanying story soon, but for now, here is a photo montage of the last few weeks of January:



Wednesday, January 20, 2010

What if life was a musical?

Sometimes I think life would be a lot simpler if it were just a bit more like a musical. There are times when it seems perfectly appropriate to break out into song and dance, and wouldn’t it be convenient if the rest of the world would provide the harmony for your solo and join you in a set of instinctive choreographed dance moves. I mean who doesn’t want to walk around and, when struck by a sudden surge of joy, just belt out their own rendition of “You’ve Got the Beat” with fifty complete strangers joining in as if it is perfectly normal? Instead, I’m afraid, if you happened to try to encourage your fellow passengers on the subway train to join you in a little round of “Footloose” or “The Time Warp” complete with swinging, dancing, and running through the cars you’d get some pretty strange looks, a glare…or five, and, in Singapore, probably arrested.

Not only would life as a musical be convenient for all the moments of unexpected, complete, and utter joy, but also wouldn’t it be just perfect to use song and dance to express those more complex emotions…jealousy, fury, love, greed, fear, pain, hope. We would all connect and understand one another a lot better if we knew the specific song and dance for “leave me alone, I had a rough day at work today” for example. It might just be me (and I certainly know some people who would be absolutely horrified if suddenly if became o.k. to spend your time singing and dancing your way through life), but I imagine living on the set of a musical to be a perfectly lovely place to spend one’s time. Life IS a stage anyway right?

Yet, however lovely, there are some things about living in a musical world that would be rather impractical. Besides the obvious, (who really has time to perform a complete song and dance number every time a new emotion or idea pops into the minds of the leading cast members) there would also be the problem of slicking on pancake and all the other thick and pore-clogging stage make-up for an hour every morning, making your way through the day in fishnet stockings, corsets, and hoops skirts, and worrying about smelling like BO at the office after a particularly strenuous lunchtime performance.

Therefore, rather reluctantly I had accepted the fact that, despite my sometimes real desire to perform every emotion, idea and simple thought that crossed my mind, life as a musical probably was not all that realistic. I had, that is, until last weekend at the dance club Dbl O, when my faith that a musical life could actually exist in some form was reaffirmed.

Out of nowhere forty twenty-something-year- old Singaporeans walked onto the dance floor and proceeded to perform a series of choreographed, pantomime-esqu, dances to at least thirty songs in a row. (No, I did not fabricate this in my crazy “I wish life was a musical” mind.) It actually did happen, and, as they picked up some of the steps, others, including myself of course, joined them. It was probably, no definitely, the most surreal moment I’ve ever experienced at a dance club. How different from the usual random crazy jumping, swinging, and general chaos. It was a real life musical. And the best part…this is not atypical. Mambo Jambo, as I later found out it is called, happens quite often (YouTube it if you don’t believe me). In America, you probably wouldn’t find a group of young adults who actually think it’s cool to spend their free time learning a series of dance steps to be performed in perfect unison at one of the city’s premier dance clubs. (If you do, let me know. I want to be their friend). But, this is my life in Asia.

Unfortunately, other than my Saturday evening musical dream come true, I have not spent to much more time dancing my way through life. Though occasionally, I have busted a random dance move for no particular reason. Nothing atypical.

Friday night I joined my co-workers for Thai food to celebrate one of the English teacher’s birthdays. The highlight of Sunday was a brunch with the other PiAers complete with mango/strawberry crepes, Christmas eggs (with green and red peppers), fresh fruit, Chinese tea, and a Dutch baby (a sort of combination between an omelet and a puff pastry, what more could you ask for?). Other than that, my free time has been spent taking a couple hot yoga classes, getting a massage, and fixing a few recipes that I’ve picked out of my new Vegetarian Cookbook.

School has been going well this week. There has definitely been less flipping off of the teacher and rubber band throwing. Tomorrow (Thursday) the students have e-learning day during which they stay home and complete lessons online. This is all in preparation for a possible pandemic, like H1N1, for example. Singapore’s motto, like the Girl Guides, really should be “always prepared.” So, without the students in school, we as teachers will be spending our day in character development workshops, playing bonding games, eating of course, and taking a walk around the reservoir across from the school.

The weekend should be pretty relaxed again with a trip to see “Men in Tutus” at the theatre planned for Saturday night, and a possible beach outing on the agenda for Sunday. The next exciting event at school: level camps. Next Wednesday through Friday, I will be going on a “camping” trip with all the secondary two students (not the kind of rugged South Dakota camping I know and love, but the one with hot showers, facilitators to take us on adventure hikes, and catered food, which is the kind I know less of but will equally love I’m sure). We will be staying at Jurong Bird Park, and while the students will be “roughing it” in tents at the campsite, the teacher’s have a special treat. We will be sleeping with the penguins. This is my life in Asia.

TIA and Cheers,


Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Sky lanterns

Sky lanterns are nothing more than a paper lantern made from oiled rice paper hung delicately on a bamboo frame. When a small, flammable cell is lit inside the lantern, the flame heats the air inside, and elementary physics causes the fire balloon to rise. Yet, as I feel the flame’s hot breath coaxing my fire lantern upward, and as the silky fabric gently tugs at my finger tips tenderly warning that it is time to let go, I cannot help but think it is something more.

Reluctantly, I let the warm fabric slip through my fingers and watch as my lantern gracefully dances after it’s fellows into the night sky. I stand immobile, paralyzed by the harsh reality and genuine splendor of it all.

As quickly as it had begun, it was floating away as fragile, as magnificent, as vulnerable, as brief, as painful, as beautiful as life itself. Each inhalation/exhalation cycle became shallower as my sky lantern was carried by the wind out to sea until I could no longer tell my own lantern from the others like it. Finally, the lanterns were indistinguishable from the stars, and though I was hesitant to look away, I peeled my eyes from the spot and conceded it was over. Only then did I realize I was holding my breath. Despite my futile attempt, it was impossible to hold on to the moment any longer. Now, like the sky lantern, all that is left are fragments.

It is a blessing, though, that, unlike the sky lantern, we as human beings have the ability to mold our memory fragments into something just as beautiful. A poem, a drawing, a story, a dream, a dance, a sculpture, a memory, a sky lantern.

I decided it was time to write a blog entry this Tuesday evening, when I began a Google search for Limoncello, Bacardi rum, and Absolute vodka cocktail recipes in a desperate attempt to convince myself that the coming weekend is closer than it actually is. I guess that’s what I get for taking a month long vacation to Beijing and the USA followed by just one week’s worth of work before jet setting off to Thailand. “That” being the “I would rather lay on the beach than wake up every day at 5:50 a.m.” travel bug.

But, while I do have my eyes set on the relaxing and sleep heavy weekend ahead (probably from a general lack of sleep in Thailand), I have truly enjoyed my solo teaching experiences this past week and a half. There have been some “minor” setbacks (i.e. a 13-year-old who gave me the middle finger in class when he thought I wasn’t looking, a day when I almost walked out of the room because I felt like was failing so badly the students probably wouldn’t even have missed me, and several 12-14 hour days filled with meetings, preparation work, and general administrative matters already, not to mention several other mishaps that must be shared one-on-one if I am to remain confidential), but for the most part, I absolutely love my job. And I’m not at all being facetious.

The little girl who told me after music class one day that she secretly wanted to join Singapore idol, and that I was the first and only person she had ever told…and her subsequent toothy grin when I told her we could work on that in class this year, more than made up for all the bad stuff. And that is just one example. I haven’t even yet mentioned the group of giggly girls who stopped me in the hall to ask any and every question they could think of about America (including what language we speak), or the quiet boy who faithfully comes to the front of the class to help me carry and set-up my lap top and Power Point presentation every morning, or the nearly 400 bright-eyed and innocent Secondary One students all dancing in unison to “My Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades” after I had worked with them for only just over an hour.

That is all before I mention the student who has trouble speaking English in class, because it is not the language his parents speak at home yet who wrote me the most complete and coherent English paragraph about what I had taught him about Mesopotamia or the pride glowing on the two graduating students’ faces when they realized they had been named top in Singapore and were featured on the front page of the Straits Times along with Commonwealth’s name. I could go on and on, gushing about all the ups and downs (yes, even the downs, as most of them tend to be funny a few days later, or, for the sake of my sanity, I simply force myself to think they’re funny) but for the sake of time and confidentiality, let’s just say I’m really enjoying my experience so far, I’m learning a lot, everyday is a new adventure, and I will certainly never get bored. Instead of rambling some more, I’ll share with you something I wrote after one of those particularly long and difficult days at school last week:

“Sometimes the words to country songs are a bit melodramatic…and, well let’s just face it, sometimes they’re downright corny. I mean “Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy” anyone? Or maybe “Red Neck Woman?” Don’t get me wrong; I’m as guilty as the next person when it comes to blasting some Big n’ Rich or Gretchen Wilson, singing along at the top of my lungs with a few car dance moves thrown in for good measure (were talking some serious steering wheel drumming and air fist pumping) when driving down the deserted Wyoming highways, but I wouldn’t exactly call these songs intellectually stimulating or thoughtful. Sometimes, though, there is a song that you just relate to at certain moments in your life. Faith Hills “The Secret of Life” recently hit me that way.

Weighed down by what seemed like five hundred and forty nine pounds of groceries slung over each arm and the burden of a tiresome and difficult day at school, looking a bit like a lost, wet puppy as I sloshed through the rain that seemed to form a perfect little puddle path on the only trail leading to my apartment, Faith’s song began playing on my iPod. One verse is as follows: “The secret of life is in Sam’s martinis, the secret of life is in Marilyn’s eyes, the secret of life is Monday night football, Rolling Stones’ records, and mom’s apple pies.” In that moment, in that circumstance, I just related to that song. You know you’re right, Faith, I said to my little country buddy who was whispering in my ear.

And you know what…the secret of life is splashing barefoot through puddles, the secret of life is dancing in the rain, the secret of life is a good country song, a teacher who is able to touch the heart of even one child, and singing in so loud in public that your sweet little neighbor looks concerned you might be insane.”

When we arrived in Phuket, Thailand last Friday evening, Stephanie and I took a minibus. We were with a group of Australians who, when asked where they were staying, snottily responded Le Meridian, in a fake French accent without even a “and you?” Had they asked, however, I would have told this group of “holier than thou” tourists in my own haughty-sort-of-way that I was staying in a five person bunk bed suite complete with air conditioning and even complimentary towels at Som’s guesthouse, just to see their reaction.

When you ride in a minibus in Thailand, there are certain things you just have to expect.

Example A: Within the first ten minutes of our hour long bus ride from the airport, our driver had already stopped at a tour agency where beautiful little Thai women with big brown eyes and honey skin tried to convince us to go for this tour or that. (For those naïve readers out there, the driver is obviously in cahoots with the company and gets some sort of commission for taking his customers on a little detour to the agency). Not at all surprised, Stephanie and I calmly told the women that we already had our tours planned for the weekend but thanked them profusely for the offer with wide, though fake, grins on our faces. The women reciprocated our wide, though probably fake as well, grins. Our French Australian friends were not as cooperative.

Example B: Because our French Australian friends had made our minibus driver mad by not listening to his friends back at the tour agency, our minibus driver decided that this was a perfect time to stop for gas. After filling up the tank, he proceeded to wash the windows (yes each minibus window) as well as scrub the bugs off the grill of the car with what must have been the smallest brush ever. But, our French Australian friends still did not learn their lesson, and continued to complain in loud, fake French accents about what a horrible driver we had.

Example C: Hearing the fake French complaining, our minibus driver would, ever so often, give a nice slam on the breaks, nearly sending Stephanie, who happened to be sitting in the middle of the front seat in the only place without a seatbelt, through the minibus window every time. “Hello my fake French Australian snots of friends, your life is in the hands of a pissed off minibus driver in Thailand. Please don’t drag me down with you,” is all I could think.

After nearly two hours of a trip that should have taken one, we finally arrived at Le Meridian and got rid of the ridiculous Aussies. However, by this point the driver was so steaming mad, he insisted on dropping Stephanie and I at the bottom of a one way street and simply pointing up there and to the right, indicating that our hostel was somewhere up there and to the right, but he no longer had the patience or energy to drive us around. So lugging our bags, one over each shoulder, Stephanie and I spent another hour searching for the hostel at which we were supposed to meet her friends, which incidentally was up there, but to the left instead.

I cannot say that I blame the minibus driver for one second, though I’m still upset with the fake French Australians. The thing is, people, like things like places, are a product of circumstance. Our Thai minibus driver, was probably forced by some corrupt government official to take all of his tourist to the tourist agency. He probably lost the money that would have fed his family for the evening, because the fake French Australians refused to spend 15 minutes simply listening to a pitch that the tourist agency’s women are probably forced to give by the same corrupt government official. Driving a minibus for fourteen hours or more a day is this man’s livelihood. And I’m certain that he has never, nor will he ever stay at Le Meridian or any of the other five star resorts at which he drops many of his clients.

But, if I’m ever going to finish writing this entry, I must now get off my “human rights, who told you you could treat people like crap just because you’ve been more fortunate than them” soup box and tell you about the rest of my weekend in Phuket. After a long first week of teaching, and what seemed like an even longer Phuket minibus ride, we were ready to hit the town. Stephanie and I finally met Steph’s friends from California, Adriana, Karen, and Staci (who had been in Singapore for the week and had left for Thailand a few hours before us) at Som’s guesthouse, freshened up, and put on our dancing shoes. First stop: a Rainforest Café-esqu bar for girly, fruity island drinks complete with flowers, pineapple slices, umbrellas, the works.

We then continued to the main drag party street where I was actually a bit shocked (“actually” because at this point it, corrupt minibus drivers, fake French Australians and all other things considered, it would take a lot to shock me) by the blatant prostitution and rampant running around of what have become known in Thailand as “lady boys.” (I’ll let you work this one out for yourselves). Regardless of the shock-factor though, we thoroughly enjoyed the dancing, music, company, and girly drinks until late into the evening.

The following day we took a speed boat on an island hopping tour to islands that looked more like paradise than anything I’ve ever seen. Several of the islands have starred in Hollywood films like “James Bond” and “The Beach.” The day was spent stopping to snorkel at various Nemo-esqu reefs, lounging on the boat and on the white-sand beaches, and staring in awe at the mountain-shaped islands that seemed to appear, like I imagine the glacier of Titanic appeared, rising majestically from the ocean seemingly out of nowhere. We also saw the Viking Cave. It is here that the bird’s nests, used in bird’s nest soup, an expensive and rare delicacy in Chinese culture, are harvested. We even shared a buffet lunch on one of the islands with a stray cow. Yep now I've seen it all...stray dogs, stray cats, and stray cows joining me for dinner.

Exhausted, yet totally contented, the evening was spent enjoying the local Thai cuisine, wandering barefoot on the beach, and watching our sky lanterns fade into the night.

On Sunday morning we took a Thai cooking class complete with a trip to the local market to see eels, frogs, chickens with eggs still inside, and even some pigs’ heads. I guess it’s good to know where you’re food is coming from. Needless-to-say, my vegetarianism was reinforced.

Back in the lovely little kitchen at an upscale restaurant and dinner theatre, the five of us and four chefs prepared papaya salad, green curry, fried egg tofu lightly drizzled with red curry sauce, and satay, or skewers of chicken with a sweet peanut dipping sauce. After graduation, proudly carrying our official Stylish Thai diplomas and brand new aprons, we went to the spa to give our feet a bit of a rest.

“A rest” however is not exactly the right word to use when your spa treatment consists of hundreds of tiny fish pedicurists nibbling on your feet. Yep, fish eating the dead skin off your feet. Relaxed yet? After the “you have to try it to believe it” fish spa treatment, we spent the rest of the afternoon lazing on the beach and watching God paint the sunset in magnificent shades of pink, purple, gold, and orange.

And now here I am, back in Singapore, halfway through my second week of teaching, and the days of green curry, fish spas, and painted sunsets seem a million miles away. If, I close my eyes just tight enough, though, the leopard spots behind my eyelids evolve until I can see my sky lantern floating off into the distance.

On that note, sweet dreams, happy almost Thursday,

Saturday, January 2, 2010

A real, rugged, you have to be from the Mid-West to know what this is like, South Dakota blizzard

You know you’re back in Singapore when:

1. You step out of the airport terminal into the cool evening air and you’re instantly…sweating.
2. The ring you typically wear on your pointer finger now only fits on your ring finger (Swollen feet and hands kind of come with the package deal here, so say goodbye heels unless you find stuffing the little sausages that are now your toes into a casing that is far too tight appealing.).
3. You aren’t exactly sure of the meaning of the last five sentences that were just spoken at your staff meeting. It could be the jetlag, but you have a sneaking suspicion it is rather because you still have no idea what those acronyms mean and at least three of those words were new to your “Singlish” vocabulary. A Singlish dictionary might be a good investment at this point, or at the very least, more than three hours of sleep.
4. The adorable bright-eyed three-year-old on the bus in front of you was just speaking Malay to his mother before breaking into a rousing rendition of the ABCs in perfect English (Yes, even the three-year-olds have a greater language proficiency than you.).
5. Your pillow is moldy. No joke.

Ahhh, home sweet home…sort of. Though Singapore does feel a bit more like home now that I’m coming back to a familiar place with familiar faces to boot, nothing can beat the feeling of home for the holidays in South Dakota.

There’s just something about being able to see to the ends of the earth in every direction and knowing you could walk to the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow if you really wanted. There’s something about the winter steam billowing off the Missouri River and feeling the cool air caress your cheek as it races past. There’s just something about the familiar taste of mom’s cooking. There’s something about turning on the radio and knowing there will be a country song playing, inevitably one that you know word for word...George never fails me. There’s just something about watching the golden sun kiss the winter grass goodnight as it sets over the open plains. No matter how far away I am, no matter on what adventures life takes me, there’s just something about South Dakota that will always feel like coming home.

And speaking of coming home, highlights of my lovely trip back included:

1. A week spent simply enjoying one another’s company with Tim in Vermillion. I especially enjoyed eating Mexican food, attending USD’s presentation of “Peter Pan,” watching “Elf” and drinking hot schnacolate (chocolate with peppermint schnapps), attending a beer tasting (when in South Dakota…), and taking a winter walk in five layers of Tim’s clothes for a cup of much needed frothy, hot cappuccino.
2. A lovely early Christmas celebration with Tim, Dee, Chad, Anita, Shelby, my Tim, Kevin, Terry, and my immediate family in Sioux Falls. Beating the guy’s team in Trivial Pursuit giving us bragging rights for the rest of the weekend, and a chance to catch up with my good high school friend, Andrea, were top on the weekend’s “best of” list.
3. Some quality time with Gordon, Sylvester (when he wasn’t avoiding affection of any kind), and the two new kitties while my family was off at work and school.
4. The wonderful day spent baking Christmas goodies with my mom followed by a movie night out at the theatre to see “Blind Side.” (As a side note but not totally off topic, while they are brewing a love potion in Harry Potter, which was incidentally also a movie we happened to watch over the holiday, Hermione says people smell things they are attracted to when they smell the potion. Hermione, for example, smells fresh cut grass, something I can’t remember, and spearmint toothpaste. Personally, I think I would smell Christmas goodies, movie theatre popcorn, the breeze floating off the Missouri in the summer months, and Abercrombie and Finch’s Fierce cologne. Two out of four on this day with my mom…pretty good huh.)
5. Hockey games, especially the kind with my sister playing. It just isn’t winter without hockey.
6. Catching up with great friends over a bowl of salsa and basket of chips at, where else, but Guadalajara.
7. Making the annual trip to the capitol to see the Christmas trees with Tim.
8. A solid six hours of Wii tournaments with my sister on Christmas Eve day.
9. Singing “Silent Night” in the candle light at church on Christmas Eve. I love this tradition so much that, had I not been fortunate enough to be home for Christmas Eve, I probably would have lit a random candle and belted out the three verses I know solo in some hostel in Southeast Asia.
10. “Alvin and the Chipmunks the Squeakquel.” Nothing like movie theatre popcorn, girly chipmunks singing Beyonce’s “Single Ladies,” and quality time with the family.
11. Sledding in a blizzard with Tim and Elizabeth in wardrobes complete with ski masks and my dad’s camo hunting cap.
12. A real, rugged, you have to be from the Mid-West to know what this is like, South Dakota blizzard on Christmas Day.
13. Walleye at Mad Mary’s with my parents, Tim, and his parents.
14. La Minestra and the Pub.
15. And for the grand finale, a road trip to Minneapolis where Tim and I spent the night at the downtown Marriot and enjoyed the most amazing four course meal complete with chocolate covered crème brulee for desert. Yes, chocolate COVERED crème brulee.

The only things missing were time with my family in Custer, grandma’s mashed potatoes, and grandpa’s caramel corn all thanks to that aforementioned South Dakota blizzard.

And now, I’m back in Singapore where snow is replaced by one hundred percent humidity, where Mexican food is replaced by Chinese, and where sledding is replaced by rollerblading. My lazy winter days spent reading, watching the Food Network, and napping with Millie and Rafiki have also been replaced by grocery shopping, bill paying, cleaning, laundry, school meetings, and lesson planning. I’ll spare you the boredom of the details of my first few days back in Singapore. I’ll also spare you the gory details of returning to a house in the tropics that has been locked up for four weeks. Let’s just say…not pretty… and not exempt of mold, dust, and mildew.

My one social endeavor since I’ve been back in Singapore was New Year’s Eve, and a fabulous celebration it was. We started the evening with appetizers, drinks, and the countdown at Jacob’s place (The “countdown” was basically a timer set on a computer, since we don’t own televisions). The party was then moved to downtown Singapore where, for the first time in my life, I experienced the glitz and glamour of a New Year’s Eve in big city in all its glory for the first time in my life. I like to say that a girl to sparkles is like a bug to a light. Well let’s just say there were a lot of sparkles…and I couldn’t get enough.

Today is Sunday. I just finished a yoga class, both to stretch from a bit of airplane soreness that still insists on lingering and to calm my nerves for my first day of school tomorrow. I feel a bit like a middle school kid before the first big day at a new school…nervous, giddy, and a bit awkward all at once. I even have my clothes laid out and a bag packed, and it is only one in the afternoon. Off to do some more cleaning and a bit more lesson planning.

Ms. Rachel

Happy Holidays

Happy Holidays from Singapore!

Swathi, Steph, Jacob, and I

Jacob, Steph, Dan, and I

Happy New Year from Singapore

Preparing to go sledding...Gordon thought he was coming

Blizzard aftermath

Gordon, Sylvester, Millie, Rafiki...yep the gang's all here.

Mom and you

Animal house...literally

Merry Christmas Eve

Missouri River

Nothing like a South Dakota winter.