Saturday, August 31, 2013

Singapore - A Bittersweet Visit

Festival in Little India
Returning to Singapore, I was reminded of what I have missed about it:  how the lush former jungle island hits you as you speed along the ECP from Changi with the smell of humidity and the pink flowering shrubs spilling over the median strip.  Chris and I whiz by East Coast Park, the Starbucks at Big Splash, Katong Park, where we spent many lovely times with Lucy, good friends, and doggy friends under the huge acacia-like trees, dripping with parasitic ferns.  We see the Belvedere, home for two years, source of a few really good life-long, I'm sure, friendships, and a great pool which kept me in shape, sort of; kept me sane. 

Waking up near Arab Street, we can see the Sultan Mosque peek over the roofs and hear the call to prayer, anticipating a morning of good food and great shopping.  Next door in Little India is Tekka Market,  where I used to buy our veggies, fish and fruit from the same guys and always felt a part of a vibrant community.

The Banana Leaf Lady at Tekka
  I love the market's smells and sounds of a blend of nationalities, religions, cultures, mingling under the same roof.   Indeed, this is representative of the whole city:  multiple cultures peacefully coexisting in the same neighborhoods.  
 A taxi fare here can buy you a rocky ride, but also a quick
Atop a SuperTree
but meaningful exchange about the state of the world, or at least about the country.  Then there's the skyline.  I'm not a city person, but the view across the river or from up above one of the "Super Trees" or from the bar at Level 33 is stunning - you watch new, bizarre structures go up, wonder what were they thinking, and then marvel at how it all fits.

Muddy Ollie at the Hash

Dog hashes - almost forgot to mention these incredibly awesome events, where, once a month, Chris, Lucy and I would  go crashing through the jungle on these organized runs, followed by dog bowls of beer, sometimes food, a bit of hysterical banter and bawdy British drinking songs.  A long-time UK past time that had been cultivated in "the colonies" and enhanced by this club with the wise inclusion of our doggy buddies.  

Then there is Tanjong Beach, a lovely dog-friendly beach on the island of Sentosa, about a half-hour drive from our condo - yes, this island, which is Singapore's playground, can be reached via a very short causeway off the south side of the island.  Dogs are allowed all the time, but it is Saturday mornings, when the humans are off work and it is relatively
The Girls on the Sentosa Beach
cool, that dogs rule on Tanjong Beach.  It is wonderfully not crowded - dogs running in and out of the waveless surf, exuding unbridled, literally, joy, humans standing by, milling around, catching up on the week's news.  And then there is the part about swimming with with Lucy - up to my neck in the water, looking out at the ships on the distant horizon, Chris a bit further out, about to throw the ball, and Lucy's face moving towards me on the surface of the water.  Magic.

A visit to Chinatown takes us to the tea master, who offers an hour-long private talk on the properties of tea, demonstrates the ritual of serving it, and sells tea pots, cups, tea in beautiful tins or as bricks.  Here, I tasted white tea for the first time, delicate, subtle and loaded with antioxidants. 

Ricky, Christopher and Christopher
A few blocks away is Eight Treasures Vegetarian Restaurant, my favorite here, where a gentile older Chinese man ("call me Christopher", he said) serves us Black Pepper Chicken - tastes like chicken, has the texture of chicken, but is plant- based.  His place is right next to the Buddha Tooth Relic Buddhist Temple, so we often enjoyed lunch or dinner here beside a large table of monks.

And that's just one example, of course, of the incredible food - it's a wonder that Chris and I didn't double our weight here.  On every corner we could find Indian and Thai curries, seafood and veggies cooked with chilies, lemongrass, citrus, spices - and if we went to a hawker stand, we could eat really well for less than 10SGD (about 8USD) a piece.  Well, unless we got Chili Crab.

I'll end my diatribe with the food - gotta go grab some lunch.....

Monday, August 26, 2013

The Long Way Home

Our long, exciting trip home from Singapore begins this week.  I'll catch a flight there from Denver, meet up with Chris and enjoy a few days visiting dear friends and returning to old haunts.... And acclimating.  On Sunday, we'll catch a red-eye (yuk) to Beijing, spend an evening amongst the hutongs with a colleague of Chris' who is based there, and hop on a train to Ulaan Baatar the next morning.

This is where the real adventure begins.  Chris decided that after 42 years of work, he needed a break, an adjustment period, a dramatic transition to help launch into the void of retirement.  A journey home using minimal flying time through unchartered territory seemed to be the ticket.

So, the first leg of the journey will be about 9 days roaming around Eastern Mongolia, beginning and ending in Ulaan Baatar, the capital.  We will travel by SUV and by foot, visiting villages and Mongol Empire ruins, on the high steppe and in the Gobi Desert and staying in ger camps.

Then we will take an overnight train on the Trans-Mongolian line to Irkutsk, near Lake Baikal in Siberia, where we'll spend a day or so hiking around the largest fresh-water lake in the world.... and deepest, I think.  There, we'll pick up a train on the Tran-Siberian Railroad and travel for a couple of days until we get to Yekaterinburg.  We'll stay a night there only because we have to change trains - that evening will be our anniversary.... Should be interesting.  Yekaterinburg is know for two things:  as the birthplace of Boris Yeltsin,  and where the last czar and his family were murdered.

Back on the train from Yekaterinburg, we'll head to St. Petersburg, which was formerly Leningrad, which was formerly St. Petersburg.  Friends who have been there have all said that it is a beautiful and fascinating city, so we'll spend four days there.  Then we'll hop on an overnight ferry to Stockholm, across the Baltic Sea.  We'll overnight there and then fly home, through Newark......

That's it in a nutshell.  I hope you can see the map I've uploaded - kind of gives you an idea of where the heck we're going.  (I understand it doesn't work with notebooks, but hopefully, you can see it with a laptop.)  We'll do our best to keep this blog updated, whether you're interested or not!  You'll be spared whilst we're in Mongolia, as I doubt the yurts have wi-fi.....

Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh – August 2013 (entry by Chris)
There is something about Emerging Asian cities that Ricky and I really enjoy.  All of that is Phnom Penh.
The Skyline.  A mix of brand new office towers and new posh hotels among the old colonial era shop houses and backpacker hostels.
Tuk Tuking around
The Traffic. An assortment of Tuk Tuks, motorbikes with five people on them, cement trucks and trash lorries, loud intercity busses filled with people and livestock , rickshaws, and the occasional Cadillac Escalade (equivalent) with darkened windows.  All mixing the roads into a swirl of dust and diesel that you can taste and a noise that’s a third world symphony.
Kandall Market
The Markets.  The loud, boisterous wet markets of produce, beef, pork, flowers, chicken, goat, fish, prawns, and the occasional disgusting offering (durian and edible spiders and bees).  The smell of rice vinegar is everywhere as it’s used as a disinfectant – and the occasional whiff of something that is just wrong in any culture.  And the dry markets loaded with local (or passed as local but really Chinese) made
clothes, name brand rejects from the outsourced factories or knockoffs, pirated movies, software, and music.
The History.  Mosques, Wats, Palaces, Tombs… these cities go back.  Way back. To trading times that precede Marco Polo, to feudal agrarian empires, to Monasteries with strong monks and deeply held beliefs with fascinating local variations, and to warlords that built all this magnificent stuff with, well, slaves. 
The Royal Palace
The Foreign Correspondents Club
And, the Scene.  The mix of locals, the native economic bosses, expats looking to make a buck or spend their trusts more slowly.  And the tourists.  Me and Ricky.  PLU (People Like Us) or some with seedier motives. The Scene plays out in all the areas above but congregates around cafĂ©’s and bars but steps up its game at night (which comes early near the equator) along the tourist strip, at the smoky open air music bars, at the hostess bars filled with girls working for tips, patio restaurants with the smells of curries and stews enticing you in, along the river way, and in the week end night markets.
Staking out a Picnic Spot
at the Night Market
More than a night version of the day markets, these are temporary stalls in public squares, lights strung at levels that have me doing a constant Limbo, local bands, beggars, and drawing families in from the city and the towns who lay out blankets on the concrete, have picnics and hunker down until dawn. ...For the market, for the music, and for the munchies!  the street food is outstanding with all varieties of curries, stir frys and BBQ from tens and tens of hawkers.  wow.
All that is Phnom Penh. 
Solitary Confinement
 on the Mekong Night Cruise
I spent a week there on a solo trip – mostly to see if Singapore would exert quarantine on me for taxes.  (They did not.)  Now, I’m comfortable solo – would certainly prefer Ricky’s company and perspective on all this – but Phnom Penh is a bit different given the variety of tourism.  It attracts the same sort of tourism frequently enjoyed by middle aged, bigger, creepy, solo, Western males.  A sort of tourism that’s become popular in Manila, Bangkok, Taipei.   They far outnumbered me.  No PLU. My longest conversation to non-service people was 15 seconds.   Ah well.  I made the most of the time in solitary.
Ho Chi Minh to Angkor Wat Cruise
The other difference in Phnom Penh is that this is the capital of Cambodia.  Ricky and I have been in other cities like this, but they were not capital cities – at least not current capital cities.  Phnom Penh is flooded with NGO’s (non -Governmental Organizations).  Offices of the World Bank, United Nations, countless philanthropic NGO’s – and their staff and their influence is everywhere.  The most popular restaurants and the priciest retailers are all aligned with A Cause – part of their proceeds benefiting a philanthropic cause.  A good thing – but boy are there a lot of them.
Would I return?  With Ricky, sure.  As a destination – perhaps not.  But, while wandering around the riverfront I saw this elegant old steamer filled with PLU (they looked older, though!).  A port on a trip up the Mekong.  Ho Chi Minh to Angkor Wat.  A new entry for the bucket list.
Sun sets in Phnom Penh

Saturday, August 17, 2013

The Missing Months - from Chris

Phnom Penh, Cambodia - While 2013 will be one year that Ricky and I will both remember fondly for a long time, it was a challenging one for us given the disruptive events for Ricky and me around changes in my work environment. We are each filling in the gaps in Singapooch. My company was running through some changes that I felt would inevitably affect me one way or another, and we together made the decision that it would be best to concentrate those changes with me rather than with the whole family – small as it may be. So, that meant long times apart from Ricky, and Lucy (the pooch in Singapooch), a part of our family as any child might be to us. Ricky and Lucy left Singapore, and took all of what we had built together there, and I went solo. At first, my months in a Malay Muslim neighborhood were exciting.
Kembangan, Singapore
I was the only Ang Mo (westerner) around in Kembangan. But slowly, the windowless quarters, the great street food menus written in Malay and Chinese that I could not read, and the isolation become less and less intriguing. I took to the road on business trips and weekends on side trips on my costs. April was nonstop with trips to Beijing, Xi’an (central/west China), and Bangkok with a weekend trip to the Ayutthaya ruins, Tokyo travel too. Xi’an is the home of the Terracotta Warriors – 2100 year old stone soldiers built to protect the Emperor in death.
Terracotta Warriors and One Bubba
Impressive enough, but most day trippers to the excavation site miss the city of Xi’an itself. This was a terminus of the Silk Road where Muslim traders from the Middle East travelled and traded with their eastern brothers. And here in Xi’an is a 1600 year old Islamic mosque built to Chinese architectural models. It’s hard to explain how puzzling it is to see Chinese pagodas with Islamic stone engraving.
The Great Mosque of Xi'an
In Bangkok to Ayutthaya, an ancient city that was the ancient capital of Siam.
Reclining Buddha near Ayutthaya, Thailand 

Stunning – and stunning as well in the breadth of a core spirituality that reaches from Indonesia and Japan to Thailand, from Korea to Sri Lanka.
Good Old Sally Barber Mine
In May, I found myself in Colorado. I forget the business reason or for how long, but the reunification invigorated me more than I would know. I left Colorado for a return to Singapore for five hours before going to Australia for a few weeks with a long weekend in Melbourne. It was nice to be part of an autumn (Southern Hemisphere. May = October) and seeing trees changing color and cool rains hitting the hills.
Healesville Sanctuary
I went from far north in Victoria at an animal rescue reserve to far south to watch the Blue Penguins in their dusk parade to shore for an evening of wild fornication before returning to the sea at dawn to sleep it off. (they are on shore at dusk to dawn to avoid the birds who prey on them when the birds’ eyesight sucks). It was a good revisit from my first visit with them 24 years back on my first trip to Australia. (The whole place went Hollywood)
"Little Blue" Penguins of Phillip Island
June was back in Singapore, where I continued to get reacquainted with my old Gary Fisher HK II mountain bike and many many 20, 30 and 40 km bike rides around Singapore.
Singapore from Marine Barrage
The end of June brought me a resolution to my Asian work assignment and another very rewarding visit home for a good old American 4th of July and massive kanreki in Breckenridge . And, planning on the future ahead.
Getting a Welcome at Denver International
I dumped my Malay housing situation and was taken in by our new lifelong friends in Singapore who now refer to me as their Unemployed Teen Age Boarder! Louise and Rob Baskerville have showed me more genuine hospitality and friendship then I could ever imagine. And, I have a surrogate pooch in my pal, Ralph, a Schnauzer miniature in breed, but giant in personality. I will be forever grateful to Rob, Louise and Ralph… in making what should have been a traumatic lifetime transition, toward a new chapter with Ricky.
Louise and Rob Baskerville