Sunday, 29 May 2011

Botanic Gardens Pics

Here they are... fairly impressive for all being taken from my cell phone (if I do say so myself!)

And here's one from the now infamous Croc Farm...


For the sake of sanity, even the most devoted parents need a night or two away from their little ones. Before moving into our new place, Brad and I decided to take advantage of the Treetops babysitting service one more time and kick up our heels for an evening on the Singapore River… to those who have been here, the Clark and Boat Quay district, where the pedestrian-only streets are covered by massive umbrellas pumping out AC and vendors hawking kitschy jewelry are situated at 10-foot intervals.

So. Freakin’. Cool.

The evening begins with us still pretending to be upstanding parents in their 30s, drinking wine at a beautiful little bar on the waterfront… but a couple of hours and couple of stops later, we give up the hoyty-toyty act and find ourselves partying it up at Seven Inch, an absinthe bar with psychedelic painted walls and a string of live bands. You know, the kind of environment where you have to shout to the person standing less than a foot away from you in order to be heard.

In case you’re wondering, the answer is no, neither one of us partook in any absinthe. My 16-month old doesn’t believe in sleeping in past 7:15am, and I hate to think how much even a taste would have cost if I’d been so inclined, considering Tiger beer (the Singapore equivalent of a Bud Light) costs $11/pint. YellowTail wine? $35/bottle. Excessive drinking isn’t really a problem here, as you can probably guess.

Anyway, Brad and I are having a ball, treating ourselves to vodkas and whiskeys and nodding our heads along to a pretty fun band. We situate ourselves by the pool tables and watch the groupies pile up around the stage, going scream-crazy every time the lead guitar player shakes his head and douses them in his sweat. Creepy. This band is the most current version of Sum 41, and Brad and I (as killjoy 30-somethings) snort with laughter every time the singer tries to say something profound or funny or cool—or worst of all, a combination of the three—between sets. (Of course, in first grade when we were asked who our favorite singer was and all the girls said Madonna and all the boys said Michael Jackson, I said Neil Diamond. Actually I said Needle Diamond because I was not only confused about which direction the mainstream was flowing, I was also spelling challenged as a child, so maybe I'm not the best judge of who or what band is cool by everyone else's standards.) But whatever, Brad and I are still having a blast out partying like we're back in college again. And a nice feature to watching a band surrounded by Asian groupies is that you can stand at the back of the room and still have a totally uninhibited view of the stage J

Perhaps the funniest moment of the evening for me came at the end of the band’s set, when the drummer pushed his way through a pack of screaming, clingy girls to see Brad. “I’m so glad you made it, sir!” he said, vigorously shaking Brad’s hand while moving in for one of those one-armed guy hugs. “We really enjoyed your seminar yesterday and are so honored you came to see us play!” I can’t really describe the look on Brad’s face. Blank and hysterical (for me).

“Yeah, I don’t think I’m who you think I am,” says Brad. Realizing his mistake, the drummer backs away, apologizing. Then Brad turns to me and says, “Great. I’m like Professor Dumbledore in this crowd.”

The next day we decide we absolutely must do some furniture shopping, if we plan on sleeping on something other than a hard floor this week. What better place to go than Furniture Mall? Seems appropriate. But 4 floors of nothing but furniture stores can get a bit overwhelming, so we decided to take a break after only 3 stores and get some lunch.

We didn’t realize until we got back outside that Furniture Mall is in the Arab District. It is beautiful, with palm lined streets and cafes teeming with men smoking hookahs and women draped in scarves. For a brief minute I question whether or not—in light of recent and not-so-recent events—this is a safe place for three Americans to be walking around. But like I said, it lasted all of a minute. Everyone smiles and nods hello, and when we stop for some drinks (and a lunch of Indonesian beef and tofu, which our daughter gobbled down… coolest 1-year old EVER), a couple of Arab men come over and begin playing with Dagny. Several Australian women in our hotel complex have been complaining the last week or two about how inappropriate they feel it is for the Asians and Muslims to stroke their children’s hair and tickle their arms. I can honestly say it doesn’t bother me in the least. I think it’s wonderful, and a welcome change from the somewhat standoffish nature of Americans when it comes to being overly protective of their children. (When I was touring with Barnum & Bailey for my book, one of the clowns told me they aren’t allowed to put their arms around children for pictures anymore because too many American parents freak out and threaten lawsuits… so sad.)

To sum up the weekend, it was a lot of fun—and in the week ahead, I can’t wait to get moved into our new place! Here are a few pictures of the Quay street umbrellas I mentioned, the Singapore River, an awesome up-the-nose shot of Brad and I partying, and the Arab District.

This poster in the restaurant where we ate lunch cracked me up—underneath "Please Stop At Two" it says "I'm On Strike." It was sponsored by the Chinese Government, go figure!

Thursday, 26 May 2011

If You Step Off The Concrete Sidewalk…

… you will invariably find yourself in a rainforest. Sure, trees line highways back in the States, but you can usually see a good distance into the trees (unless it’s summer in the South and you’re driving past an infestation of kudzu). Here, I’m a little afraid to wander into the unbelievably lush plant life. For starters, I’m not entirely sure just how far I could wander even if I tried, as I’m instantly met by a wall of leaves, stalks, and vines that extend from the ground (which is also a mat of green) to a canopy overhead so dense that it blocks out all sunlight. Secondly, such an environment has all the feel of Jurassic Park. Yes, dinosaurs roaming the earth may seem improbable when you first think about it, but somehow stepping into the Asian rainforest, Crichton’s supposedly fictionalized ideas don’t seem so unrealistic.

So, rather than venture into uncharted territory (which I’m not even sure I’m legally allowed to do, and according to the rainforest guides my family had in Belize, I should NEVER do), I’ve decided to begin my outdoor Singapore adventures in the Botanical Gardens. They are in the heart of the island and are absolutely gorgeous.

Stepping through the silver ivy gates, I immediately check the park map and rules—as you might notice by now, there are a lot of rules here, and I’m deathly afraid of breaking any of them. None of them seem too unrealistic here in the Gardens… no skateboards or bikes or flying objects allowed. As I turn around, my toes are nearly sliced off by a scooter and I notice a group of adults playing Frisbee. So maybe I’m the only one that takes the rules so seriously… nice to know some things haven’t changed since childhood.

The paths through the Gardens are a lot like all the roads in Singapore: very few are straight or intersect at right angles. And there are dozens of them—ranging from the width of a city street down to a faerie path just wide enough for one person to walk along. I call them faerie paths because they’re a little bit hidden and wind through trees with tangled trunks, curtains of ivy and neon flowers—exactly the kind of place one would expect to run into a magical faerie kingdom.

We’ve started coming to the Botanical Gardens every evening. It’s a fantastic place for Dagny to run around barefoot and watch the swans and turtles… she’s mesmerized by them. There are always a lot of people here who are also picnicking and playing, but it never feels crowded. And though I’ve walked the paths every night for about an hour for the past two weeks, there are still parts of the garden I have yet to explore… there is an orchid garden I’m dying to see, and I caught a glimpse of the bonsai and sundial gardens from a distance, but have yet to wander through them. I promise to post some pictures soon, so everyone can get an idea of just how amazing this place is.

In other exploration news, Dagny and I ventured out to the Crocodile Farm yesterday. Not quite up to par with the Botanical Gardens, and after seeing it, was more than a little shocked it was listed as one of Singapore’s Top 10 Children’s Spots.

The trek begins with a cab ride to Serangoon, where my driver (after making 2 phone calls to the Croc Farm to find out where exactly it’s located) pulls into a teeny tiny (and completely vacant) parking lot situated between a gas station and some public housing. There is a building in front of us with the window panes smashed out of it and bent iron gates across the doors.

“Crocodile Farm!” says my driver gleefully—obviously relieved to at last have found the weird little spot.

From the back seat, still buckled in, I say, “Umm, are you sure it’s open?”

“Croc Farm! Croc Farm!” the driver repeats, now pointing to a sign that is barely legible with peeling paint that claims, yes, this is in fact the great Singapore Croc Farm. Dagny starts pitching a fit on my lap and I’m feeling car sick from the long ride, so I go ahead and get out. I don’t really have much choice at this point… my driver has already unloaded the stroller and is opening my door for me.

As she peels out of the parking lot, leaving me on a hot concrete slab in the middle of the ghetto, I see a tiny sign on one side of the building with an arrow that says “Crocodiles This Way.” A few feet farther down is another one: “Watch Your Step, Don’t Be Reptile Food.” I literally cinch Dagny into her stroller so the poor girl can barely move. A third sign points the way down a completely lightless corridor to the back yard of this super-shady unit. I must have done at least a dozen glances over my shoulder, hoping my taxi driver will suddenly pull in and tell me she got the address wrong, but I’m still alone and baking out in the sun.

What the hell. I’ve come this far.

So the Croc Farm is at first incredibly scary, and then really depressing. By simply peering over a 3-foot brick wall, I find myself within easy touching distance of a 15-foot crocodile, laying with his mouth open too cool himself off, displaying his prehistoric teeth. I lift Dagny out of the stroller so she can see, and she giggles and reaches out her hand like she wants to pet it. Those who know my daughter probably aren’t surprised. We continue our tour through the back yard, peeking in on several more crocodiles, alligators, caimans, and super-creepy gharials (the kind with a needle-like snout). And they are all living on top of one another in tiny concrete tubs caked in slime and stagnant water. Yes, this is where it started to get depressing.

After about 10 minutes of walking around, I’d about had enough. Dagny didn’t want to sit in her stroller or be held, and I wasn’t about to just let her wander around—especially since the only employee of the farm was a shirtless guy who wouldn’t stop scowling at us while holding a rusty machete in his one hand.

I decide to go in the gift shop to see if someone there can call me a taxi, when I’m met with perhaps the most disturbing image of all… the “gift shop” is divided in two—on one side is a wall of glass cases displaying alligator and croc skin bags for sale, and on the other side is a skinning facility.

Still not feeling great from my windy cab ride there, now I really feel sick. I’ve worn leather before and eat meat and all that, but this is just a little too much for me.

Back outside the Croc Farm, I start walking, hoping to find someplace where I can hail a taxi. Dagny and I are getting a lot of strange looks as I try to navigate us through a not-so-nice neighborhood, surrounded by not-so-pleasant smells that are making my queasy stomach really start to turn… it’s a combination of seafood from the octopus trader, the durian stand (durian is a spiny fruit that is illegal to even carry on public transportation because it pretty much smells like death), and general b.o. Okay, so maybe I’m to blame for the b.o. In the 93-degree heat, I’m suddenly realizing I may have forgotten to put on deodorant that morning… and come to think of it, may have forgotten to brush my teeth, too. It’s a hygienic phenomenon that only mothers of children who personify Mexican jumping beans at seven in the morning fully understand.

At last I notice a woman flag down a taxi in the middle of the highway. Oh, so that’s how you do it. Feeling a little stupid for having never done this before, I follow suit, and after about 5-10 minutes of flailing my arms at anything remotely resembling a cab in the line of traffic barreling toward me, I finally catch a ride. I swing the BOB stroller into the trunk with one arm while holding Dagny with the other… I feel the need to mention this because anyone who owns a BOB and 16-month old will appreciate the adrenaline rush I was having to be able to accomplish such a feat J

And as I related all this to Brad later that night, he smiled at me and said, “Congratulations! You just had your first real Asian adventure!”

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Happy Hunting

Apartment hunting in Singapore isn’t like apartment hunting in the States… here it’s more like house hunting, with different real estate agents representing each individual unit within a complex, where letters of intent precede offers, and prices and contracts are negotiated. When the average cost of a 1000-sq. foot place is $5000/month, you can see why.

Eager to get out of Prada-ville, when our realtor asks us where we would like to begin our search, I pipe up with, “Geylang!” In response to the confused and horrified look on her face, Brad assures our agent that I’m just kidding. And I am… sort of. Geylang is home to Singapore’s notorious red light district. Now don’t go getting the wrong idea… I’m not into the skin trade or anything, but as an artist and aspiring writer, being surrounded by prostitutes and brothels seems like a far more colorful canvas on which to paint a potential story than, say, boring ol’ Orchard Road, which has offered me nothing but the twangy sounds of talkative Australian expats and women hiding behind sunglasses that look like the windshields of their Maseratis. But Brad’s probably right: we don’t want Dagny to get the wrong idea when we tell her we want her to be a “working girl” when she grows up.

Sensing my detachment with our current surroundings, our agent assures me that Brad and I can’t afford anything in the Orchard Park area anyway J And so we head out to the east coast…

So far I’ve mostly stuck to walking around Singapore. But now I get to experience careening around the island in the back seat of a very nice Mercedes. All the cars here are nice—by law, none can be older than about 10 years in order to curb emissions and keep the roads clear of broken down beaters. Two days of driving around with our agent, though, has confirmed for me that I will be sticking to walking or the MRT (subway) while here. Everyone drives fast. And a little crazy. Motorcycles are like buzzing flies, darting around cars and racing up between them. They’re expected to, which is the upside to owning a motorbike—but the downside is that cars can pretty much bump them into the curb if space allows for it.

Back in our own car, our realtor scared the living daylights out of me as she repeatedly straddled the dotted lane lines and, on occasion, the solid divider line. And holy crap, the woman would not stop texting as she drove! A couple of times, when her text message was just too long to type out one-handed, she would turn on her flashers and simply stop her car—in the middle of the lane, mind you—until she’d finished. Yikes.

The east coast turns out to be pretty darn nice, with miles of boardwalk along the shore, ample green space, and a much quieter feel than the central districts. The swimming pools are like mini-Atlantises, which is perfect for Dagny, who would play in the water from sunrise to sunset if I let her. But it still feels… not… quite… right…

Then our agent takes us about 10 minutes up the East Coast Highway to Katong, and I fall in love. Lining the streets are hawker stands and independently owned restaurants, shops selling handmade crafts and—gasp—nothing American or European or Australian in nature. Katong is absolutely perfect, and after an amazing lunch of local laksa (noodles, prawns and fishcake cooked in coconut milk and chile), ohta (fish wrapped in banana leaves) and rojak (a mix of bean sprouts, cucumber, pineapple and turnips), I declare the east coast our new home.

More to come on Botanical Gardens and Buddhist temples... finally, let's get to the good stuff!

Friday, 20 May 2011


As I step out of customs to breathe in my first lungful of Asian air, I’m hit by a wave of humidity that is both suffocating and heavy, settling around my head and shoulders like an uncomfortable blanket I just can’t seem to shrug out of. Dagny’s hair instantly coils into beautiful blonde curly-q’s while mine turns into a scraggly mess of sweat-soaked frizzies. Oh well. Lesson one when traveling to Singapore: check your vanity at the terminal doors. It’s hot here. And sticky. Swap out your flattening iron for an elastic hair band and don’t bother with makeup, unless you like the melting box of crayons look. And I’m sorry to say the conditions are never going to change. Being situated so closely to the equator, there are no seasons in Singapore… only hot and—you guessed it—hotter.

The first couple of weeks in my new home were something of a blur… and not always the good kind. Navigating a baby into new eating and sleeping habits is tricky—I would liken it to having a newborn again. A very irritable newborn. As my friends and family know from past gripings, I hate the newborn phase. So, suffice it to say, I did not exactly enjoy my first week or two in Singapore.

But like all phases, there is a beginning, a middle, and thankfully an end. Around the eighth day, Dagny adapted to the 12-hour time difference, and like groggy bears emerging from hibernation, we at last stepped out of our hotel into the blinding sunlight, blinked a few times, and started looking around.

Singapore is a lot of things to a lot of people. Our hotel is located on Orchard Road, a virtual dreamland for Sex And The City addicts. It is home to a scrubbed and polished line of elitist storefronts such as Armani, Hermes, and Jimmy Choo—where Rolexes are a little more like Casios in the presence of watchmaker Philipe Patek, a company with the audacious tagline You Never Own A Philipe Patek, You Just Take Care of It For The Next Generation. Uh-huh. So here’s the thing… I’m not really the ritzy shopaholic type. Buying SmartWool running socks and Exofficio underwear for the steamy summer months is the height of indulgence for me. And another thing: I hate Sex And The City (A show about catty women who claim to be powerfully independent and yet do nothing but talk about wanting to find a man while feeding their socio-economically retarded habit of hungering for $3000 shoes? Wow, thank you Sarah Jessica Parker for confirming every man’s stereotype of an annoyingly high maintenance woman). Anyway, back to Singapore…

In addition to the couture shops I would never dare enter with a grubby-fingered 15-month old, I found myself a little disappointed in how Westernized everything was. All signage was in English, and everywhere I turned there was a McDonald’s and a Starbucks. The only things reminding me I wasn’t exploring a new city in the US were the sea of Asians surrounding me, the impeccable cleanliness of the streets and sidewalks (have I mentioned yet that chewing gum is illegal here?), and the abundance of trees that no other city back home has—at least that I’ve ever visited. Oh, and the time I was nearly flattened by a cab because I was looking the wrong direction as I headed into the street also confirmed for me I was no longer in the States.

But as it turns out, there is a vast and exciting Singapore beyond Orchard Road. There are multitudes of shops and restaurants and temples just waiting to be explored. Hawker stands are a great way to try food from Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand, and the fact that they are heavily regulated by the government means they’re (usually) a pretty safe bet.

I avoided the local food for the first few days, still feeling like I was battling a hangover with the time change and dealing with Dagny. But believe it or not, my little girl was actually the one—unbeknownst to her, I’m sure—to get me to at last take the adventurous plunge into trying authentic Asian cuisine. Since her usual selection of baby food wasn’t around, she starting mowing down on dim sum, tofu, sticky rice, pork dumplings, and fishcake. I was so proud of her, so I decided to take a page from her book (you know, the indestructible cardboard ones made specifically for tyrants like Dozer Dags) and also try new things. I wasn’t going to ask what it was I was being served, I was simply going to dive into the plate of food handed to me and hope for a pleasant experience.

This worked well, at first. I had some Thai fish, Cambodian chicken, and Chinese beef from Indochine that were all amazing. Bean sprouts, papaya, and turnips were a breeze. Then came a lunch of what I believed were fried noodles and chicken…

“These noodles must have cooked in fish oil,” I comment to Brad. He nods in agreement as he tastes them, neither one of us surprised since everything here is cooked in some form of seafood.

But then he spears a few of the noodles with his fork and holds them up for closer examination. “Actually, I think these are fish.” He holds out his fork to me, not at all disconcerted with his find as he points out, “See the little eyeballs?”

I take a big swig of lime juice to swallow what’s already in my mouth. Then I swallow again. And again. My brain screams for my stomach to keep it together, but my stomach has ideas of its own when it comes to eating baby fish with their heads still attached. I’m not proud of myself—and I hate to admit it—but I started dry heaving at the table.

The food since then has been okay, thanks in large part to our realtor who took us to some local joints that serve up dishes that are, in a word, heavenly. More on those in my apartment hunting entry to come.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Heading Out

An adventure.

That’s what I labeled the “Let’s move the family to Singapore” plan when Brad first presented it to me six months ago. And it still is… though I would be lying if I said it wasn’t laced with moments of “Wow, this is a much bigger pain in the a$$ than I thought it would be” and “Is it smart to turn our lives upside down and inside out on something of a whim, especially with a baby in tow?”

But as it turns out, that’s exactly how all great adventures begin; on something of a whim, filled with risks and sacrifices and blind corners, around which unknown things await. At some point, the pros vs. cons list must be put down and the adventure seekers must simply jump in—with both feet—only half-peeking out through tense and squinted eyes.

Rather than go into any detail on the six months of prep work that went into our move, I’ll simply list a few of the highlights and lowlights. Feel free to turn on some music as you read, to give it the true feel of a Hollywood movie montage. I have no song suggestions, as some of the angrier moments could be tuned to a Papa Roach or Linkin Park soundtrack, while more tear-jerking moments belong to the likes of Band of Horses and, specific to leaving my dog Roxy behind, “Friend Like You” by Joshua Radin. So here goes…

Skyscrapers of paperwork from before unknown government agencies… Endless immunizations for once unknown diseases that make my skin crawl to think about… Dealing with destructive hail storms two weeks before leaving… Selling off the material aspects of our life, some which come with many happy memories attached, like our boat and kayaks and house (especially the one small room at the top of the stairs that was painted with love, eagerness, and trembling anticipation)… Saying goodbye to the nonmaterial parts of our life, like family and friends, and begging their support and understanding… Hoping beyond hope that my faithful dog—who has a broader range of emotion than a lot of people I know—won’t think I abandoned her…

Okay, montage over, and onto the airport. Already exhausted as we ready ourselves for 32 hours of travel with a 15-month old, Brad and I hope for the best, realistically expect the worst, and once again jump in—the three of us holding hands as we head down the jet way, as a family must in times like these.

And as I lean back and listen to the sing-song safety chant of the flight attendants, I pull a map out of the seat pocket in front of me, open it up and say to Brad, “Now where exactly is Singapore?”