Sunday, September 30, 2012

Singapore Cab Drivers

I got into a cab last Wednesday morning to go across town (it would have taken over an hour on a bus).    By the time I got to my destination, I was ready to hurl.... and that wasn't the first time...  and I'm sure it won't be the last.  What is it with cab drivers here?!?!  Particularly those who are older than ....  50?  Rather than applying the right foot to the gas pedal with a consistent amount of pressure, they do a kind of press... release... press... release... perhaps one iteration per second - and of course this is whilst careening around corners and dodging in front of cars at a frightening speed.  The result is that during this harrowing journey, my body is rhythmically moving forward, then back, forward, then back, as my stomach, of course, continues to move forward.  I think of opening a window for some air, but then realize I'll get a mouthful of humidity and fumes.  What are they doing?!  Is it a combination of bravado and fear?  They wanna go fast, then, no, they don't want to run into the guy in front, then they want to get around the guy on the right, uh, but better slow down - WHAT???!!!  At first I thought it was just the guys driving the "beaters", you know, the ones that look like 1979 Datsuns, boxy, noisy, jerky - but no!  They do it in the new Hyundai Sonatas as well!...................  next time, I'll take the bus.

Monday, September 17, 2012

A Lesson from a Tea Master

Yesterday, Chris and I spent a delightful hour learning all about tea, from Vincent Low, a respected tea master who has a tea house and shop in Chinatown.  We had heard of Vincent when we first moved here and had tried to visit with him several times by just dropping by his tea house.  Eventually we realized that an appointment was necessary, as Vincent maintains a busy schedule of workshops and lectures at his shop and in schools and universities throughout Singapore.

His business has two sides, one that houses display shelves lined with teapots and cups and colorful boxes, tins and bricks of tea, and the other which is the teahouse, serving tea and tim sum.  (I think tim sum is the same as dim sum.)  We were seated at a round table in the back of the shop, where an assistant placed a large, round tray/bowl (see picture) with a couple of small teapots, a large teapot with water on top of a brazier and four small bowls containing four different kinds of tea.  Vincent sat opposite us, and started off by saying that there are only four kinds of tea, all originating from the same plant, camellia sinensis - black, oolong, green and white (shown in that order in the picture).  We soon learned that white tea is best, due to the part of the plant that is used, and how it is harvested (by hand) and processed - basically dried in the sun and that's it.  Lovely, delicate flavor and lowest in caffeine - and, as with green tea, high in anti-oxidants for fighting disease and cholesterol.  So, of course, we left with a beautiful green tin of it.  To my friends in Singapore, you gotta check this out - it's a real treat!

Monday, September 10, 2012

Weekending In Sendai

Chuson-Ji temple
This is Chris!  I had work to do in Korea and Japan over two weeks and it made sense for me to weekend in Japan.  Ricky couldn’t join me (Lucy neither), and I decided that I wanted to get out of Tokyo because it was going to be a hot and humid weekend (90+degrees, 90+ humidity).  I went north to Sendai on a tip that I could do some volunteer clean up still remaining from the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami. 
I did a little bit of work at a temple ruin complex 100 km northwest of Sendai at Hariazuma, but, really, most of the work was trying to volunteer for the work in English when everyone one else, EVERYONE ELSE, spoke Japanese.  I’ve seen four westerners in 72 hours.  And spoken probably less than 72 English words. Maybe that’s the way it is outside of Tokyo (many tell me that English has dropped there too significantly from the heydays of the eighties).  Maybe it’s the scare that remains around Fukishima – and still a scary set of outcomes is still in play.

Gateway to Akado Inari Shrine
So, instead I just explored Sendai, Hariazumi and Matsushima Bay – which took a significant hit from the tsunami.  Unlike the other temples that have been posted here, the temples in Hariazmi were not painted.  These were from the 14th century and the wood timbers were allowed to weather.  So, you concentrated on the craftsmanship rather than the appearance.  And, really good craftsmanship it is.
Small Temple where many stopped to pray and give an offering
I am also getting to respect the religiosity of the Asian Buddhist/Zen followers.  They are shamelessly devout.  We got a hint of what they pray for when in Myanmar (gratitude and fortunate futures), but people are praying everywhere.

Sunday was at Matsushima Bay, which got hit with a 10 meter (30 ft) tsunami wave in March.  Yes, plenty of residual artifacts here and there and an occasional empty lo where a shop house once was, but, life is back to normal.
Hitchcock Moment
I took a boat out to run through the area with 300 limestone islands scattered across the bay.  Inevitably, sea birds followed close and these guys were quite brazen!
And, a real gem was a small island of Fukuurajima preserved from development and alive with hundreds of tree, plant, flower, bird, frog and insect species that was sheer music! At about the same latitude as Boulder, Philly, Columbus and Brady, NE, this place is an active temperate rainforest and was humming!
Fukuurajima Island
 Sendai is a big place.  Like Colorado Springs, Austin or Des Moines big.  It’s a university town but a retirement location so very young and very old – and not much in between.  Although Sendai is the place during the quake where you saw people running from buildings and debris falling – there is no indication of any aftermath, sixteen months later.

The Tilley hangs in there

Behind the Bird, a small island, about 40 feet high

This weekend there’s a street jazz festival and while I’ve put up with a lot of “Paper Moon”, and ABBA covers, I’m writing now watching a Japanese guitarist with a great voice and a very talented piano accompanist doing an all Japanese set – no western music at all. “Paper Moon” and “Dancing Queen” was all done by Japanese in perfect American English and pitch. Perfect.
The same island covered with fishing debris following the tsunami
All in, a nice way to see another part of Japan and a part that took a big hit and has moved well beyond it. I sure missed Ricky and her instant perspective on things.  Her love of the Japanese culture would be strengthened by what I saw!

Thursday, September 6, 2012

History Lesson in a Cab

I had to make a run today to pick up Lucy's thyroid medication at her vet's office.  It is located in the Ang Mo Kio neighborhood, an area considered the "heartland" of Singapore, with many HDBs (housing development board apartment buildings), hawker stands and local shops that have been around for decades.  The cab driver started describing the history of the area and asked if I knew what "Ang Mo Kio" meant.  I said no, and then remembered that "ang mo" is the Malaysian word for foreigner. Indeed, I am an ang mo.  He said that "kio" means "bridge", and that it got its name from the fact that J.T. Thomson, Government Surveyor in the 1800's, was responsible for building a bridge across a canal between the area and the more central part of Singapore.  So it was a tribute to the ang mo who built the bridge, actually one of several interpretations of the name.

With that slice of history, the cab driver was off and running.  Turns out, his family owns a popular Singaporean cracker company and when he was a kid, he'd drive all over the island with his grandfather, delivering their products and learning about the rich heritage of his country.  I learned that Bukit Merah means "red hill", a shopping area so named because of the hill in the area and the red clay that used to be visible there, or possibly because of the red blood from a murder long ago?.... there have been several interpretations....  Another name, Toa Payoh, means "big swamp", reflecting the landscape before it also became a major HDB residential area.  Near to where we live is Old Airport Road, which used to be a runway for a large civilian airport that was used as a military facility during World War II.

I was so engrossed with what he had to say, that I asked him to wait for me while I retrieved Lucy's meds so he could give me a ride home.  As a result, I enjoyed a round-trip's worth of interesting trivia about Singapore.

At the traffic lights, we shared pictures of our dogs and then I asked if he would take a dog in his cab?  He said yes, but no, he didn't respond to private callers - too busy.  Oh well - hope I hail his cab again to get my next history lesson!

The Golden Triangle

This is the third of three posts about our recent trip to Laos and Thailand - so if you want to take a look in chronological order, then tab down to "Luang Prabang"... or not!

Crossing over to Thailand
Hmong village, Northern Thailand

For our venture into the Golden Triangle area, the area bordering Thailand, Laos and Myanmar,
 we decided to use Chiang Rai as a base,
 as it provided accessibility to Hmong villages and rural Thailand without the big-city atmosphere of Chiang Mai.  We arrived via long boat across the Mekong and sped through villages and rice paddies to arrive at our hotel in time for a soak in the pool before dinner.  We stayed at a Le Meridien - very nice.....  We were met first thing in the morning by Charlie, a very energetic and knowledgeable guide, and his driver, Pok.  Providing too much detail here - must cut to the chase.  We spent two sight-seeing-packed days, visiting temples, hill tribe villages and including a quick excursion into Myanmar, a real treat.  The market in Tachilek, which was right at the border with Thailand, was worth the price of admission by itself.  I was kind of surprised that we were just about the only Westerners there, and learned later that
it is more of a crossing for Thais to take advantage of lower prices.  The five pictures around this text were of Tachilek Market.  Myanmar is now on our list for a week-long visit while we are in Asia -

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Upstream on the Mekong

On the boat
Please see previous post, Luang Prabang, if you want to read about this trip in chronological order.  If not, have at it!  At 6:45am a tuk-tuk transported us to the charter dock in Luang Prabang to board our Luang Say long boat up the Mekong.  We hustled on board, trying to find the best place to camp out on the large "slow" boat, which could hold up to 40 tourists..... and found out that we were the only customers for that trip.  It's good to travel in the off-season!  So, this was a commercial-sized Mekong touring boat outfitted with comfy wicker chairs and sofa, and a dining table where our meals were served to us.  REALLY GOOD meals.  Probably haven't mentioned that I gained about 5 pounds on this trip...  A short distance upstream were the Pak Ou Caves, a centuries-old repository of hundreds of buddha statues that are too damaged or disfigured to warrant a temple altar.  It was an amazing vision, climbing up ladders inside limestone walls with black streaks of oxidation to find rock shelves lined with hundreds of tiny buddhas and some larger standing buddhas as well.  Further upstream, we visited a village where they made textiles from cotton and silk, and whiskey from rice.  That night, we stayed at the Luang Say Lodge, a beautiful open structure with about 16 bungalows set on the river bank.  It was a lovely spot that we had to ourselves - a glass of wine on the veranda and an incredible Laotian meal in the open-air dining room.  It seemed criminal to spend so little time there, as we arrived at dinner time on the first day and left after an early breakfast the next morning.  The next day we visited another village and then passed the point where the left bank of the Mekong became Thailand (previously, we were wholly in Laos).  We arrived at Houei Sai on the Laos side, went through Laos customs, took a ferry across to Thailand - the "ferry" was a small long boat for the four of us plus the pilot - then were processed through Thai customs on the other side, in Chiang Khong.  After a harrowing ride in a mini-van, we arrived at our hotel in Chiang Rai - stay tuned for the next posting...

Pak Ou Caves
View from Luang Say Lodge

Pak Ou Caves

Village and rice paddy

Textiles woven in the village
The Luang Say boat

Luang Say Lodge
Who's on first?
Storm brewing

Luang Prabang

This is the first of three posts of our recent trip to Laos and Thailand - we just got back last week.  Chris' brother and sister-in-law, Pete and Mary, decided to make a trip to Southeast Asia, so we joined them in Luang Prabang, Laos, took a trip up the Mekong to the Golden Triangle, spent a few days in Thailand around Chiang Rai and made a quick excursion into Myanmar.  Covered alot of ground in a week!
View from Phousi
At Wat Xieng Thong
Luang Prabang is enchanting.  Chris and I had been there once before, with our dear friend, Joni, but when the opportunity arose to visit again, we jumped at the chance.  The town was at the heart of a thriving kingdom of Lane Xang Hom Khao, the Land of a Million Elephants and the White Parasol, around the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and at one point, was a vassal state of the Siamese kingdom of Sukhothai.
Wat Xieng Thong
Situated where the Khan River dumps into the Mekong, it is surrounded by green mountains and exudes serenity, culture and the spirituality of the temples and monasteries there.  It is a magical place and in 1995 was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, so although it is gaining popularity with tourists, hotel development is strictly limited.  It still has a slow feel to it, with many cafes to sit with a Lao beer or a coffee (Lao coffee is awesome), and tuk tuks as the principle means of transportation.
Ringing the afternoon bell
We arrived on a Thursday afternoon, spent all-day Friday, and left early on a Saturday morning to catch a boat up to Thailand.  So, the one full day, we all made the most of it.  While Pete and Mary visited an elephant sanctuary, the All Lao Elephant Camp, Chris and I strolled around town, visiting temples, cafes and markets that we had missed during our previous visit.  As markets go, the night market was amazing, as it had grown considerably since we had been there 5 years ago, and now covers 5 blocks down the main road which is cut off from traffic from 4:30pm on.  Items for sale were essentially handicrafts, including textiles, carvings and silver, mostly made in Lao, Vietnam and China.  A day and a half in this town was not nearly enough..... might have to go again....
Naga, protector of the Lao