Saturday, April 2, 2011

Wilderness and nightlife

So after using the internet at the mall yesterday (where I also had an unremarkable brunch), I came back to the apartment to drop off my laptop to find a woman inside the apartment. We gave each other, "Wait, what? Who the hell are you?" looks of confusion. Evidently, my host's real estate agent found a tenant for the master bedroom and failed to give him any notice whatsoever. The woman, knowing that the other tenant was male, was understandably confused as to who I was. She was also told that the current tenant was informed of their arrival the day before and that the room would be cleaned (which it was not). So the agent just stuffed all of Johnny's stuff into the smaller bedroom and gave him notice after the couple had already moved in. Way to go professionalism.

After that bizarre experience, I set off for Pulau Ubin, which is a small island off the northeast coast of what I suppose could be referred to as the mainland. It took much longer than I expected to get here, and I'm starting to think that maybe subconsciously I assumed everywhere in Singapore would take about 30 minutes to get to because it's so small.

I first stopped by the Sri Srinivasa Perumal temple because it's right by the MRT station, so I figured a 2-minute detour would be justified. It was closed, so I could only get photos of the outside.

Anyway, after taking the MRT for forever and then taking a bus for forever, and then waiting for a bumboat for forever (see picture below), I finally got there around 6:15. You're really supposed to come to the island in the morning or around noon, so needless to say, this is really, really late to arrive.

Passed a women's prison along the way

There were a lot of these signs.

You will be staring at this for a long time.

And this, too

Then finally, this.

And this is nice.

A guy who was on the bumboat with me struck up a conversation (and informed me I should've come much, much earlier), and upon arriving at the island, talked to a friend of his who let me borrow a bike for free. The guy from the boat told me, "Whatever he asks you later, just say yes, because I sort of lied so he would lend you the bike." They were speaking to me in Mandarin, so it's not like I was worried I'd accidentally be sold into prostitution or anything, so that sounded fair enough.

Biking around the island, you really get the sense that something is going to slither out of the surrounding jungle-like environment at any moment and eat you. The bike paths are really the only sign of human influence.

Evidently I cannot take pictures and bike at the same time.

There was a lot of smoke, but I don't know why.

Along the way, I stopped on the road to yield to a large Jeep, which to my surprise also stopped. The driver asked me where I got the bike from, and I said "From the guy by the jetty," to which he responded, "Did you tell him you took the bike?" Now really, even if I hadn't, would I honestly tell you that? I guess maybe, if I'm stupid enough to steal a bike on an island that I can't leave without passing the person I stole it from.

So when I got back to the jetty around 7 (I did not bike around the whole island or see the English houses that I later found out are there) and returned the bike, they guy asks me, "So did you go in?" Now I have no idea what he's referring to, and at this point, I had already completely forgotten that I was just supposed to say "yes" to everything, so I said, "Oh, I just biked around for a bit." So the guy was confused and said, "Wait, you know the guy from before, right?" At which point I thought to myself, "Oh crap," and said, "Yeah, yeah." But the thing is, the Mandarin here is so different that I really do have trouble with it, so it became obvious very quickly that I am not Singaporean. So yeah, I hope that didn't break any ties. Although if you're going to be really pissed off about lending your bike to some random tourist for half an hour, I think you need to relax.

There was a rather intimidating rain cloud over Ubin at this point, and it started raining just as I stepped on to the bumboat going back, which was very good luck. Especially since it stopped by the time we got to Singapore.

From there, I went all the way back to central Singapore to meet with Michele, Johnny, and his friend for dinner at Jumbo seafood restaurant at the Riverwalk by Clarke Quay. We had chili crab with steamed and fried buns, baby squid, cha shao and fried pork belly, scallops, and prawns with fried cereal.

Scallops and shrimp and tofu and stuff

Prawns fried with cereal, which adds a sweet touch

Steamed and fried buns

Baby squid

Chili crab

Fried pork belly and cha shao (spelled char siew in Malaysia and Singapore, which I think is from the Hokkien dialect)

After dinner, Mikel met up with me and Michel for a walk around Clarke Quay, which is where all the nightlife is, and being a Friday night, it was rather lively. We passed a very old-school ice cream truck (which is more like a trishaw), and I tried the durian ice cream.

So here's the thing about durians. For me, the smell is not that bad. But you should be prepared not to be able to escape the smell for your stay in Southeast Asia. The taste itself is also not that bad. But the aftertaste will kill you. It reminds me of the way gasoline smells, and Michele said her friend described is as dirty socks. The absolute worst part comes way after you've finished your durian or durian-flavored treat and you BURP. Dear god, it is horrendous.

Michele went to go meet up with her boyfriend, so Mikel and I just hung out on the bridge, where everyone else who isn't clubbing or at the bars hangs out. This is perhaps the one place in Singapore where they turn a blind eye to littering and drinking in public. So the thing to do is to buy beer (or white wine or Bacardi breezers or Jim Beam cola, etc.) at the 7-11 and then just sit hang out on the edge of the bridge. It's really nice, because the view is good, there's just the right amount of breeze, and you can actually hear each other. Plus the drinks are cheap.

It should come as no surprise that the sleaziest guys here are white. Because as Mikel put it, Asians behave like Asians everywhere.

Hanging out on the bridge

After hanging out, we walked around the bar/club area just to get a feel for the real Clarke Quay atmosphere, and it's basically like any other place that has dozens of bars in one place. A lot of drunk people, some random guy throwing up, and a lot of merriment.

At clinic, a hospital-themed bar where you can sit in wheelchairs and drink from syringes and/or IVs

For the utmost in Singapore tradition, Hooters

We then went on an expedition to Chinatown to see if there were any places still open serving bak kut teh (pork rib soup), since that was the only thing on my list of things to eat that I hadn't had yet. (The durian ice cream was enough to check of durian for me.) We didn't find any, but we had some porridge instead. The chicken was surprisingly tender.

I came home to find that the tenants had gotten a modem and wireless router installed, so I am now happily blogging from somewhere other than a mall.

Now for the bad news. I am taking the night bus from Johor Bahru to Kota Bharu (assuming such tickets do not get sold out), and from there I am going to the Perhentian Islands. What that means is no internet, possibly until the 7th of April. So you guys are going to have to live without me for a few days. (I know, I know. My condolences in this difficult time.)

Friday, April 1, 2011

Happy Birthday, Diana!

It is my sister's birthday, so as a tribute, these are my notes from when we were travelling together in China last August.

Ok, so I ordered a "mocca" at Hooters in Shanghai (which is awesome and delicious), but it was terrible. So I asked the waitress to come over because I wanted a new one or a different drink because it was really that bad. (I don't think I've ever returned food on any other occasion.) So instead of just taking my word for it, she brought the drink back to a gaggle of waitresses and they all taste-tested it using my spoon. At this time, my sister and I were both quite sick, with a fever and a really bad cough, so this was truly a poor decision on their part. But they did all agree that the drink was disgusting.

I don't remember what "jiggly jiggly" refers to, only that my mom said it to describe something. THEFT refers to the fact that I literally watched someone steal another person's cell phone. Thieves often do not work alone though, so it is generally unwise to do or say anything. But seriously, do not attach a fuzzy orange bear to your phone and then leave said bear hanging out of your pocket. Not that it's ever the victims fault, but you can take steps not to make yourself an easy target.

Bag dogs was the saddest thing ever. There are these guys who sell pets along the street, and then at the end of the night, they just stuff these poor puppies into a burlap sack, along with their folding chairs and other stuff, sling it over their shoulders and go home.

So the next day, there was a thief who was all beat up and bloody by the train station, so I guess that's the flipside to being a terrible person. A taxi driver who took us to a jade shop (he clearly gets commission) told us life was meaningless, which was weird. Someone told me the Muslim area in Xi'An has a lot of rude shop owners, though I didn't find this to be the case. I cannot remember what the quotes are referring to. I assume T-shirts or poorly translated signs.

And by the way Diana, the guy that asked us to translate on the train just had a baby boy a few months ago. In case you were wondering about the fate of random strangers you meet in life.

What is in this laksa? Apparently seafoody deliciousness.

Two things I forgot yesterday as a result of flying blind: Kampong Glam and Mustafa.

Kampong Glam is the Muslim neighborhood in Singapore where Mikel and I had Moroccan food. The particular lane where we ate was lined with traditional Singaporean shophouses selling Middle Eastern fare. In a nutshell, there are shisha bars here, very few Chinese-Singaporeans, and a lot of headscarves.

Mustafa is a huge shopping complex a block away from where I’m staying. I went in to get some laundry detergent and was searching for a good ten minutes. I had to stop three times to ask for directions (seriously) because the place is so large. And this is coming from an American, the land of Walmart. So you can imagine what size it must be for even an American to be in shock. And it’s open 24 hours to boot. Now if only there were wi-fi…

Tip: If you’re travelling through the region, laundry detergent is a lot cheaper and comes in much smaller (i.e. convenient) packets.

Yesterday “morning” I headed off for East Coast Park. I took the MRT to Little India and then bus 48 to the stop closest to the park. (These are the directions the guy at the MRT gave me. I would not recommend this route.) Even so, I walked a good half hour to get there, intermittently feeling like I must be going in the wrong direction because I hadn’t arrived yet. Sure enough though, the underpass to the park finally showed up. Moral of the story: Do not follow these directions. Find the real ones. Or take a cab. It’s apparently not that much, but I didn’t know this until later.

Tian, a local CouchSurfer, had mentioned that there’s really nothing to see or do at East Coast Park. Coming from a native Singaporean, I can see why he would say that, but coming from someone who cannot easily walk along the shore of a beach without driving for several hours or taking a plane, I have to disagree. For me, East Coast Park was a nice break from being in cities all the time. There’s a strong breeze, which cuts the considerable heat, you can rent a bike for three hours for S$6 on weekdays (that’s S$6 for one hour, get two free – not S$2/hour), and there’s sand and waves and trees. There are also a number of supposedly very good seafood restaurants. (I came for the laksa though, so I didn’t try them. Plus I’m getting chili crab with friends tonight.)

After biking for about an hour, I stopped in the McDonald’s just for some ice water when I saw that they offer a variation on the McFlurry called the Milo McFlurry. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Milo in the States, but it’s a very common instant coffee mix here in Asia, akin to Nestle. Because very few people drink their coffee black here, it’s already got powdered creamer and sweetener mixed in. So the Milo McFlurry is supposed to be malt-flavored, and I really like malt, so I decided to give it a try. It was indeed quite malty and thus very good. Basically just imagine Whoppers and sweet syrup in your McFlurry instead of Oreos. (If you get M&Ms or Butterfingers in your McFlurry, I just don’t understand you as a person.) As a side note, they have chili sauce here next to the ketchup dispenser. Also, the ketchup here is sweeter. It’s almost like they’ve replaced the vinegar with rice wine or something.

There’s no bus from East Coast Park to Katong Road, which is supposedly where the best laksa is (which is believable since it’s referred to as katong laksa), so I took a cab, which only amounted to S$4.75.

The laksa here is very different from the laksa in Penang. It’s got a lot more coconut milk in it, so it’s sweeter and creamier without being heavy (like with milk), even though it retains a tangy, spicy taste. A small bowl was more than I expected and had some shrimp and other seafood for a grand total of S$4. They cut up the laksa noodles, so you only need a spoon (no chopsticks) to eat it.

After laksa, I met up with Tian in Chinatown (as he had no motivation to come to East Coast Park). Everyone I asked said there’s no direct bus from katong to Chinatown. This is not true. I saw a bunch of people waiting about a block from the laksa restaurant, so I walked over to see which buses stopped there. Bus 12 goes directly to Chinatown. (Unlike in Thailand, where bus stops have little to no information, Singaporean bus stops tell you everything you need to know.)

Something I’ve noticed is that whenever I ask people for directions (which I do in English), people’s response always involves one sentence in English and then the rest is in Mandarin. Why is that? I don’t sound Singaporean (believe me, American English and Singlish sound very, very different), so how can they be sure that I speak Chinese? It’s very strange to me. Maybe most Chinese people in Southeast Asia speak Chinese so they don’t realize that a lot of (perhaps most) Chinese-Americans are not actually fluent in Mandarin.

Speaking of which, Mandarin here (in the region) is a bit different from Mandarin in China. To translate roughly, someone asked me in Melaka how many “couples” of chopsticks we needed instead of how many “pairs.” And the bus driver here told me my fare was “One dollar ten,” whereas in China you say “One dollar one” with the latter “one” referring to units of ten cents. In Singapore, word order also tends to be different, so you’ll often find that someone is speaking Mandarin but following English grammar. There are also slight differences in vocabulary, much like Mexican Spanish differs from Spanish Spanish or American English differs from British English.

Tian promptly took me to eat yam cake and raddish cake. This particular stall is only open from 5pm until they are sold out, and given that there is always a line in front, I presume that’s not too much later. By “cake” what they really mean is almost a glutinous sort of paste, but considering how hungry that description probably made you feel, you can see why they went with “cake” instead. The texture of it is sticky and mushy, almost like pudding, but with more substance, and if pudding were savory instead of sweet. We ordered two cups of sugarcane juice which were huge and much greener than it is in China (where it is usually yellow).

The white one is raddish cake, the darker one (up top) is yam cake. It's not yams like sweet potatoes; it's taro, but they've translated it as yam.

After that, we walked around the area, and I have concluded that once you’ve been to Chinatown in one place, you’ve been to it everywhere. Basically, there are a lot of stalls selling you things you could never possibly truly need in your life but you might buy because you think it’s cute or you like novelty items in general. There is also a lot of red, a lot of haggling, and a lot of trying to get you to go to their store. I bought some souvenirs here (because they’re cheaper here and in Little India) and then we left.

Honestly, this picture could be from any Chinatown ever.

There was a local temple nearby called the Sri Mariamman Temple, which is free, but you have to pay S$3 if they notice you taking pictures. It’s an old Hindu temple, and you’ll see plenty of people praying here.

I would not want this altar in my house. This is one creepy dude.

After that, we walked around to the Tian Fu Temple, which is the oldest temple in Singapore. (Also, it is closed at night.)

We got a little lost on the way over, but that allowed me to take pictures of the more colonial architecture here, buildings which are now occupied by swanky bars and unnecessarily overpriced shops.

At this point my host messaged me and we decided to meet in Geylang (the red light district) for dinner, because there’s supposed to be really good food there (among other things). So we took the MRT to Aljunied station and walked about fifteen minutes to this restaurant with really good beef kueh teow. This is very different from the char kueh teow (which I may have spelled differently… there are a few variations on the word) in Penang, which is basically Chinese food. This is still Chinese-based for sure, but there’s a lot of sauce and the beef is really tender, so even if it is just a Singaporean variation of Chinese food, it’s really good Chinese food, and I don’t feel like I could just walk down the street from my apartment in Nanjing and get some. Besides, Singaporean food in general is just food from other Southeast Asian countries, but different. Sort of like how pizza is really Italian, but American pizza is different.

Lime juice, which is essentially green lemonade

We also had frog leg porridge, which was really good. The porridge was cooked for an appropriate amount of time (because undercooked porridge is just like cooked rice in watery soup) and the frog legs were flavored with some sort of soy sauce, so that was tasty.

Porridge on the left, frog legs (not that you can see them) on the right

Oh, also before dinner, I had to stop by this beef/pork/chicken jerky store that makes the BEST stuff ever. It’s called Bee Cheng Hiang, and my favorite is the caramelized bacon. Sooooo good.

After dinner, we went down to the street that where all the “highest quality” prostitutes strut their stuff, but we were highly disappointed. Not by the quality of the prostitutes, but because as Tian explained, the cops must have come by in the past few days, because we passed less than ten girls, whereas they are usually lining the entire street. Prostitution is legal in Singapore, but the girls standing out on the street are not. Past this lane, where the “elite” are, Geylang gets divided into the Indonesian zone, the slightly older Chinese area, and the Indian territory. So there are unwritten rules as to where you go depending on what you’re looking for or willing to pay. Tian repeatedly expressed that this was nothing close to how it usually is, where girls are just soliciting male passers-by right and left.

Even in Geylang, there is order. The sign that's cut off on the left is for no littering.

By this time it was around 11:00, so we called it a day and went home to chill and sleep.