Thursday, 30 June 2011

The Gripping Life of a Lodge

This past week was fraught with more hurdles… fortunately, having survived so many at this point, I find myself much better equipped to laugh rather than cry in the face of insanity. Or curse. Or both.

It turns out the United States is a vault. We don’t realize it when we live there, but once you are outside it’s borders, getting a view in is a lot like trying to sneak a peak at a celebrity through the tinted windows of their limo. Thank you Osama and your lovely team of 9-11 a$$holes. I’m trying to pay the last of my utility bills from Charlotte online, but am not granted access to government or utility sites. We are trying to set up bank accounts here, but in an effort to crack down not only on terrorism but the funding of terrorism, the US government has made it next to impossible to wire money from an American account to a Singaporean account (or maybe it actually is impossible, as we have yet—4 banks and over 20 phone calls later, most of which take place around midnight our time—figured out a way to achieve this seemingly simple task).

And to rub salt in our wounds, at the end of a long day and sometimes even longer night of chasing our tails, when all we want to do is collapse on a comfy couch, there is none to be found.

“That’s it!” I holler to Brad on Saturday morning. “As soon as Dagny wakes up from her nap, we’re getting the rest of our furniture!”

I head out onto our balcony/laundry area when I notice smoke curling around the edges of the trash chute door. Carefully opening it, I'm hit full in the face with a thick, choking cloud. I slam the door shut and rush inside.

"Wake up Dags!" I call to Brad as I begin frantically dialing the front office.

"Allo?" says a man on the other end. His accent is very thick.

"Uh, hi. Our, um, trash chute is on fire."

"It what? Fire in your apartment?"

"No, no! Our building's trash chute. I'm in tower C."

"Fire in kitchen?" Oh God, this is going to take a while. Brad has come out of his office and is looking back and forth between me and our laundry area—which is completely filled with smoke—with wide eyes. When at last I get the message across that it's the trash chute I'm talking about, the man says, "It could be fumigation."

"I'm sorry, what?" Now it's my turn to be the one totally lost.

"Every month we fumigate trash for bugs." Our apartment has a knack for posting completely useless information on the bulletin boards, but for some reason, this little tidbit wasn't deemed important enough to mention?

"Oh. That must be it," I reply, and notice that the apartment is now starting to smell increasingly like pesticide. "Thank you," I add, a little sheepishly.

"No problem. Okay, good, we call police for you now." And then his end of the line goes dead.

Uhhh... he's going to what? "Is everything okay?" Brad asked as I stare at my phone.

"Yup," I reply. "But let's go ahead and get Dags up now anyway." (and get the hell out of here before the police show up at our door!)

Furniture shopping for us up to this point has been interesting (not really—it’s actually been very boring) and full of hemming and hawing (which I hate). We’re here in Singapore for three years, at the end of which we will be leaving most of our purchases behind. So we don’t want to buy anything too expensive, but at the same time, three years is pretty substantial, so we don’t want to get anything too cheap or that we have to “put up with” for the sake of cost. Our answer? Ikea. So we load up our backpack with water and snacks, and strike out for the giant warehouse full of Scandinavian particleboard dorm room furniture. Sound a little like the preamble to an expedition? Well, as it turns out, it was…

The past week or two I’ve been SO proud of myself because I’ve successfully figured out the MRT. Not that it was too challenging to begin with, but for a girl who isn’t accustomed to public transportation, this was a big deal. And what’s even better—I LIKE the MRT! When it comes to trains, Asians know what they’re doing. The MRT is clean, fast, and reliable. And most importantly: it’s cheap! This is HUGE in a land where everything but rice costs a fortune (you think I’m exaggerating, but I’m not). So we decide we’re going to take the MRT to Ikea.

Two trains later, we get off at our appointed stop and wander aimlessly for close to twenty minutes, trying to find Bus Station C. We pass Bus Stations A and B, but the next two stations in the complex are D and E. What the—? I’m sure someone, somewhere, is screwing with me… someone with a video camera. Our search isn’t helped by the fact that it’s the weekend, so the crowds are thick and exceptionally pushy. Yes, Singaporeans are very kind, but it’s every man, woman and child for themselves in a crowd. There’s really no concept of personal space here, so if you leave six inches between you and the person in front of you, someone to your left or right will take that as an invitation to dart in. But unlike the US, when people here are elbowing and pushing through each other, it’s not an act of aggression or annoyance. It’s just the way it is. The same guy who cut off Dagny in her stroller sits and plays with her 30 seconds later on the train. I’m mystified.

So we finally find Bus Station C. We have to exit the MRT and hawker stand complex and cross two roads to get there (why wouldn’t a person assume, sans any signage, that this is what you have to do?). To my surprise, the next bus to arrive is the one we want, with the bus number clearly emblazoned across the front. Things are starting to look up…

This is my first time on a bus here. The local expats seem to avoid them, preferring MRTs and taxis, and now I can kind of see why. They’re crowded (everyone gives me the evil eye when I board with a stroller) and smell a little like 7th grade gym class, where approximately half the kids don’t realize yet that it’s time they start wearing deodorant. Add to that everyone is standing with their arms raised, the bus isn’t air conditioned, and it’s 95-degrees out. Mmmmm… funky.

The bus jolts to a start and sways out into traffic. Brad, Dagny and I nearly cause a domino effect in the aisle and quickly grab onto the handrails. The metal is warm and has that combination gritty, slimy feel to it. I’m not a germaphobe, but even I’m grossed out.

Bracing himself like he’s getting ready for a football tackle while holding Dagny (who’s giggling up a storm because she thinks this ride is FABULOUS), Brad hollers to me over the clanking engine, “Where do we get off?”

I look down at the careful notes I took off Ikea’s website. “Bus stop A.”

We approach our first stop, about 150 yards down from where we got on, and I check the bus sign. Stop 162. 162?? Why are there numbers and not letters? I ask Brad, who of course has no idea (just like I tend to ask him what a character in a movie is up to at the beginning, when like me, he’s never seen it before).

“They’ll turn into letters later on,” he says, trying to sound reassuring, but I detect a question mark at the end of his statement, not a period.

So the bus barrels on, weaving through traffic and stopping every couple hundred yards in slam-on-the-brakes fashion, as if the driver was halfway past the bus stop when he realized it was there. And every stop continues to be a number, not a letter. And I’m starting to feel bus sick.

A little while later, we pull up to a stop marked 83A. “There’s an A in it, should we get off?” I ask Brad. The bus is growing increasingly crowded, and I’m hoping beyond hope he says “yes.”

Instead he says, “I don’t know.”

We deliberate whether or not to get off for too long and the bus starts moving again. “Hey, look!” Brad says the instant we pull off the curb. “Ikea!” Our view out the far window of the bus blocked by all the people wedged in around us, we missed the usually un-missable, giant blue and yellow store.

“Don’t worry,” Brad says when he sees the semi-panicked look on my face. “The bus will stop in another hundred yards and we’ll get off there.”

Only the bus doesn’t stop. Instead, it veers left, away from Ikea, and starts climbing a long, curving ramp onto a—

“Omigod! Omigod! Omigod!” I holler to Brad, my palms pressed to the window. “We’re getting on the freeway!” You would think our driver was ferrying our bus onto the River Styx. And to me, it felt that way… This bus ride was turning into a death sentence. I just wanted off!

The bus drives. And drives. And drives. And with every passing mile, Brad and I actually start to laugh harder and harder. Because only so many things can start to go wrong in an afternoon before it becomes straight-up hilarious.

Finally the bus stops and we jump off, to find ourselves in Serangoon. Anyone with a fantastic memory may recall me having been to Serangoon once before, when I visited the Crocodile Farm. I’m really not a fan of the area.

“Of all the places—in this entire county—to get dropped off,” I mutter as we load Dagny into her stroller.

We are surrounded by HDB flats (government built housing) and are getting strange looks from the locals. They know we don’t belong here. We wander for close to a half hour until we find an MRT station. Actually, it’s a kind of branch of the MRT that picks up workers and takes them to the main lines. We have to wait for a couple of trains to come and go because they are too crowded, and we get boxed out of the little space available by hurried riders who are lining up behind us. Now the pushy crowd mentality, however unintentional, is starting to get to me.

At last we shove ourselves into a train, and three transfers later find ourselves back at home. With no furniture. Never at any point on our route back from Serangoon did Brad or I even bother to ask one another if we wanted to attempt to re-find Ikea. We’d been walking or riding on public transportation for four straight hours. We were done.

We’ve given up alcohol here because it’s just too expensive, but that night we splurged on a six-pack of Singha beer. Yes, isn’t it sad that buying cheap Thai beer is now a splurge?

The next day, I wake up revitalized. Brad has to work but I want to make a go of the whole Ikea thing again, and I assure him I can do it on my own. This time I’m going to try the other Ikea, which requires more train transfers to get to, but appears to be reachable without riding any buses. I’m done with buses.

When I reach my stop and unload Dagny (who has turned into my incredible travel buddy), I realize I might have misread my map at home a little. Yes, according the Ikea website, there is a bus I’m supposed to catch from the MRT station to the store, but as I’ve already stated (with my hands planted firmly on my hips), I’m not riding the bus anymore. Plus, it seemed the store was a pretty short walk from the station.

Wellll… pretty short ended up being a little over a mile. But, an hour and fifteen minutes after leaving the apartment, Dagny and I finally alight at Ikea! (I love that people use the word 'alight' here... "Alight at the next stop" instead of "Get off at the next stop," so I've decided to try it out... How's it sound? Too snooty?)

I get what we need pretty quick. At this point, I’ve been on Ikea’s website enough to know exactly what we want. And perfect timing, I wrap up the shopping trip just about the time Dagny’s decided she’s had enough of her stroller and starts to become the dreaded toddler in the store.

Now anyone whose been in an Ikea knows how the showrooms are designed, and that they are cleverly set up so you have to go through ALL of them to get to the checkout. Well, as I’m heading out, I see the area rug we’ve been eyeing online but keep deciding is too expensive is on sale! I look all around for a cart while falsely promising Dagny we are leaving “so super soon,” but of course there are no carts or dollies to be found. Or staff, for that matter. So I’m left with a split-second decision to make… The rug department is smack in the middle of the showroom lineup, which means I: 1) forget about the rug, or 2) race to either the beginning or end of the store, grab a dolly, head back into the “Ikea city,” and then race to the finish line with a VERY unhappy little one in tow.

A few minutes later, I’m making my way toward the checkout area, and having said “screw it” to both options, am pushing a stroller with my hip, holding my initial purchases in my one hand, and hoisting a 44-lb. rug on my shoulder with the other. Once I reach the checkout line, a woman behind me says, “The things we have to do as moms, right? We’re like wonder women.” And the woman behind her says, “You could be your own circus act!”

Okay, fast forward to fifteen minutes later, I’m in a cab with Dagny on my lap and the rug wedged into the backseat beside me, one end of it propped up by my head. I’m totally beat but relieved to finally have the last of our stuff for the apartment. And at last Dagny has quieted down and seems to be enjoying the taxi ride home. Actually, she seems a little too quiet. I kiss the top of her head and say, “You all tired out, kiddo?” And she responds by promptly throwing up all over my lap.

And again my mind is saying, “Omigod, omigod, omigod!”

Now this next part may sound totally heartless, but let me preface it by saying that Dagny was fine. She wasn’t choking or freaking out. That said, I will admit that the first two things to go through my mind as I looked down at all the vomit were:
    1) Wow, Dagny didn’t chew any of the noodles she had for lunch, and
    2) If eating or drinking even water on public transportation here, including taxis, is punishable with a $1000 fine, what am I going to be slapped with for vomit?

While my left hand functions as a ladle for Dagny’s stomach contents, I use my right to fish out my cell phone and call Brad. I’m not sure my driver realizes Dagny has puked yet, so I want to keep my conversation discreet. When Brad answers, I say, “Hey, hubs, how’s it going there?” Before he can answer, I continue, “We have a code orange down here. Can you meet me by the cab drop-off in about five minutes with some paper towels and a trash bag?” Dagny glurps up another round into my lap. “Make that a code red,” I correct. “We’re going to need a lot of paper towels and a couple trash bags”—she heaves a third round, which I attempt to catch in my right hand with my phone now pinned between my ear and shoulder (how much can a 17-month old stomach hold???)—“and add to that a bucket of water and some cleaning supplies… vinyl friendly ones.”

So my cab driver ended up being incredibly kind, and when I tipped him for the ride, he kept bowing and thanking me (there isn’t usually any tipping in Singapore). I was blown away… my daughter threw up in his back seat and totally stunk up his ride and he’s thanking me???

Okay, so I’m sure anyone reading this is totally glued to the screen by now, completely blown away by the riveting life I lead. I didn’t want to let too much time slip by before posting again, so what the heck? Might as well post the truth and grant myself a little therapy in the process!

I will conclude with at least some fun photos to look at (if the description of Dagny’s dazzling digestive pyrotechnics didn’t do it for you). These are all photos taken in the immediate vicinity of our apartment, so you can get an idea of where we are in our day-to-day lives.

We live on the tip of a kind of peninsula bordered by two rivers, in an area called Kallang, just south of one of my favorite areas to eat and explore, Katong. Kallang and Katong… kind of sounds like a toddler going through the pots and pans drawer, doesn’t it?

This is the walking path around back of our apartment. On the far side of the river, you can see the Singapore Flyer, the world's largest observation wheel (or was as of two years ago). We haven't ridden this yet, but definitely will at some point.

This picture of an observation tower is taken from the peak of the walking bridge across the Geylang River. Those are our apartments on the left.

The walking bridge leading from our apartment across the Geylang River. Behind it is the soccer stadium (there is an international badminton tournament currently going on... Brad and I have been brushing up on our badminton trash talk, most of which uses the word "shuttlecock" at some point). Our grocery store and a hawker center (which we frequent for lunch) are on the other side of the stadium.

Teochew, one of my favorite lunches at the above mentioned hawker center. All this very yummy food for only $3. Most dishes (also delicious) are between $2 and $4.

The walking bridge, heading back to our apartment.

This is a dragon boat team practicing on the Geylang. These guys (and girls) are amazing. It's impressive enough that they are out in the heat of the day, but they aren't just lazing along the river... you should see them! They paddle like Jaws is after them!

A group of boys playing cricket in the park outside our building. I could watch cricket for hours—days, even—and not understand the rules of this game.

Dags playing at the park. Everyone say it with me: "Awww..."

Remember my post when I talked about the ENORMOUS snails that come out at night? This is the shell of one that didn't make it back to the bushes before the early birds went hunting. That's Brad's foot beside it.

The entrance to our complex.

More entrance.

Our swimming pool. Now I don't mean to brag, but... Well actually, yes, I am bragging. Our pool is AWESOME!!! And Dagny loves it (what kid wouldn't?)

This is the baby pool. Those colorful arms usually have water shooting out of them. In the back is the slide. Dagny is already one of those kids who rides it in a constant circle... up the stairs, down the slide, scramble out of the pool, up the stairs, down the slide, scramble out of the pool... and on and on.

Our building! Our apartment is the one on the far left, second from the top.

Our view of the Geylang River and the stadium from our dining room, Brad's office, and Dagny's room.

The view out our family room and master bedroom.

The view out our front door (that building is the Marina Bay Sands, the new and super cool hotel that is in pretty much all the tourism pictures you see of Singapore)

Our first furniture, courtesy of Ikea! I feel like there should be three bowls of hot porridge in this picture, too.

These hooks were all over the apartment when we moved in. They crack me up (for obvious reasons). I know the Chinese view the turtle as lucky, but if you ask me, frogs may have something going for themselves, too.

And now, your moment of Dagny...

"I pledge my eternal loyalty to you, Kai Lan... yes, yes, I have mom and dad believing the carefully coded messages you are sending me in Chinese actually mean 'up, down, happy, sad, and snow'..."

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Happy Father's Day

This weekend was about as laid back as they come. I don’t have much to write about, so instead I’ll just post some pictures with a little commentary.

We decided to celebrate Brad’s second Father’s Day by going to Sentosa Island. It’s just off the southern tip of Singapore, and following a quick train ride from our apartment to Harbour Point, was accessible via taxi, monorail, cable car, or boardwalk. We opted for walking across the channel on the boardwalk (though the cable cars looked like fun, too!).

Crossing the boardwalk from Harbour Point to Sentosa Island.

The grand entrance to Sentosa. Looks a little like Hollywood, doesn't it? This is a resort island, with a casino, a Universal Studios, and plenty of bars. So in a way, it is a lot like Hollywood.

One of the candy trees outside Candylicious, the massive store whose motto should be, "So Long Atkins, Hello Diabetes." Guess who was completely enamored with these? Hint: She's about the size of an Oompa Loompa.

Behind and above the trees you'll see canopies to offer a little break from the sun and heat, a lot like the ones in Clark Quay. Very nice!

Dagny chomping on a lime. Already the little actress, she ate it down to the rind because every time she made a sour face, mommy and daddy would laugh.

I really have no words for this picture. Are any needed?

The Merlion near the center of the island. This guy is HUGE! (See the teeny tiny people at the bottom?) There is a staircase to the top and you can get your picture taken from inside his mouth, his teeth framing you with a view of Sentosa behind, which sounds like a cool Christmas card pic for another day—not today. Like I said, it was a laid back weekend, and climbing that many stairs (the Merlion is 37 meters tall) sounds like anything but relaxing. 

The lion is a proud symbol of Singapore. Singapore actually means Lion City. So what's the story behind the Merlion? Well, all explanations I found reported a Malay prince spotted a lion while hunting on his first trip to Singapore (though zoologists say it was more likely a tiger, since there are no lions here). The prince decided the creature was a good omen and named the island Singapura... And there the story seemed to end.

"Okaaay... what about the fish tail?" I ask someone. They shrug and point to the ocean surrounding us. The prince arrived by boat. I'm trying to make the connection and fill in the holes, but all in all, I think their Merlion story could use a little work.

Brad and Dagny making their way along the rainforest walk around the Merlion. I feel like we are a continuous ad for REI here… Always wearing either SuperFeet or Chacos on our feet, synthetic North Face clothes, my ventilated Osprey pack with the critical water bottle holders, and Dagny’s BOB. Anyone having a baby, spring for the BOB… and spend the extra $100 for the rotating front wheel. Okay, slipping out of my green REI employee vest and continuing with the tour…

The walkway to the beach. A river of water trickles down through these cool mosaic art, um… thingys. 

We walked to the other side of the island from the boardwalk, to where the beaches are. That sounds a lot more hardcore than it really was. The island isn’t terribly big. We immediately found a restaurant/bar, kicked off our shoes, and settled into the sand. Here is a picture of daddy leading the little nugget to the water. What you can’t see is that behind her, two Asians are also photographing her. “Did you see her eyes?” one calls to the other, completely in awe, as though she has three instead of two. 

Yes, the girls serving us were wearing bikinis. It was obviously Father’s Day, not Mother’s Day…

I have no clue why the guy in the background is wearing a ski hat. Sure, it was cloudy, but it was still close to 90-degrees! Maybe dipping into the 80s is equivalent to a cold spell here.

After our break at the Bikini Bar, we continued our walk down the shore. It was a fun (and slightly unusual) mix of young adult debauchery and family togetherness, where a woman in a burka serves her children lunch beneath a loud speaker blaring Eminem. There’s a luge running down the “mountain” in the center of the island, a trapeze zone, and a wave pool. We headed to the wave pool, where we ran into this strange anime version of Jack Sparrow. Actually, he ran into us. Again, and again, and again. Dagny was very leery of him, and he just wouldn’t take “no” for an answer from her!

Happy Father’s Day to all the dads out there who would pose with a giant, buck toothed fish just to get a giggle out of their daughter.

Saturday, 18 June 2011

Have A Little Faith

Singapore prides itself on being an exceptionally peaceful nation, and is accepting of all religions. All religions, that is, except two—which is pretty impressive when you stop to think about how many different religions are practiced in the world. I can’t recall the name of the first one, but it is practiced in remote areas of China and condones polygamy—which is why it’s not allowed here. The second is Jehovah’s Witnesses, and I find the reasons really interesting… First, Jehovah’s Witnesses do not allow their followers to carry guns, which clashes with the decree that all male Singaporean nationals must serve in the military for at least one year. Secondly, Jehovah’s Witnesses are required to complete some form of evangelicalism, and here it is considered illegal to press your faith on someone else.

One of the most widely practiced religions here is Buddhism. May 17th was Vesak Day, which celebrates the birth of Buddha. Stepping out into the streets of Singapore on that day was surreal… the once-bustling metropolis was like a ghost town! Everyone was at temple, and the few who weren’t seemed to move at a much slower pace than usual, and act a little more thoughtfully. Why? Just as people who aren’t devout Christians still frequently celebrate Christmas, Buddhists happily encourage followers of other faiths to be a part of their way of life on Vesak Day. Their suggestion (or for me, their challenge) is to not eat meat for the entire day, and to try to be a little more aware of the life around you, from the towering trees to the tiniest ant. Also, if you can—and I’ll admit, this one’s a tough one—only allow yourself to speak, act, and think in peaceable, positive ways. Yup, even while you’re alone in your bathroom, brushing your teeth at the end of the day, don’t allow yourself to think ill of the jerk who cut you off in traffic or the woman who sneezed on your child in the grocery store.

As I thumb through tourist and expat magazines with articles about Vesak Day and how best to celebrate it, I realize there is something stunningly beautiful about Buddhism… not preaching fine points on how we can be “saved,” but simply pointing the way down a more fulfilling path while we are alive. I wasn’t able to accomplish the not-so-simple tasks outlined for Vesak Day (not that I’m surprised, since in my 32 years of life I have yet to make it through Lenten Fridays without eating pepperoni pizza or a chicken sandwich), but the day piqued my interest in a faith I know nothing about, so I booked myself on a tour of the (take a deep breath) Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Monastery. Whew! (Anyone who can say the name of the Hindi temple Sri Veeramakaliamman five times fast before I visit it this summer wins… um, let’s see… my respect and a whole bunch of bragging rights)

The Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Monastery is an entire complex (read: HUGE) of Buddhist temples that were founded back in 1920, making it the sight of some of the oldest temples in Singapore. It is surrounded on all sides by busy roads and several of the buildings are in the process of being renovated, but the sprawling estate still somehow maintains a sense of calm. The low, musical humming of passing monks has a way of drowning out the sounds of cars and tinkering hammers. Their prayers are chanted at a frequency that reverberates slightly in your chest—like the dying out of a gong that has been rung—and makes you feel… chill. The lawns are as manicured as an upscale golf course, and thousands of colorful Tibetan prayer flags are strung up between the buildings. Notice I didn’t say, “fluttering between the buildings.” It’s another brutally hot day and the flags hang completely limp. My clothes feel about five pounds heavier on me as we walk around. I’m dripping in the shade, and when I step out into the sun, the beads of sweat on my arms and forehead begin to sizzle and pop like water added to a hot skillet.

The monastery library.

The temples look inviting as we move toward them. The doors stand open, and inside it looks shady and cool. Well, the shady part is true enough. The cool part… not so much. I expected the white marble floors and pillars to have the same feel of a cathedral, but this wasn’t the case. It was still very warm and humid inside, and adding to the warmth was the glow of prayer candles and the burning of joss sticks. Joss sticks are sticks of incense and are burned in groups of three… the two outside sticks represent heaven and earth, and the stick in the middle represents man. It is the Buddhist way of saying man should not live his life entirely for this world or for the next, but that he should find a balance between the two.

A healthy balance… I like that.

Tibetan prayer flags.

The painting behind this Buddha is of a giant fig leaf.

The temples are modest places. No sleeveless shirts are allowed or shorts/skirts that come above the knee. To enter the temple, you must take off your shoes, which you do before entering anyone’s home here (god or human). People kneel on pillows on the floor, and some pray in silence while others softly chant. While each temple is vastly different in appearance, they all have a bell and a drum inside, which are rung or beat 108 times in a row to represent the 108 sins of man.

108 sins. Wow… I’m not even sure I could list the Ten Commandments right now if you asked me to.

Another drum and bell.

Prayer beads, similar to a rosary.

My tour guide was wonderful, but had a very strong Russian accent (I know, I was a little perplexed as well, but let’s just roll with it) and had a habit of turning her back on me and the other tour attendees midsentence, occasionally leaving us dangling as her words got lost in the humidity and echo of marble. “And the Buddhists believe you can only achieve Nibbana, or everlasting happiness, once you…” The guide’s voice trails off as she begins walking toward the next temple sight, and I turn to the woman next to me and—probably a little too frantically—ask, “Once I what? What do we have to do to achieve everlasting happiness???” So my point here is: I will abstain from going into too much detail about the Buddhist faith, as I would feel terrible if I got it wrong simply because I misunderstood my Russian guide. I’ll just stick to the basics of, “This means this and that means that.”

For instance, different nationalities have different representations of Buddha. The next time you see one, you can sound like a theological smartypants in front of your friends by knowing these little factoids… The Chinese Buddha is the one that is also known as the “Fat Buddha” or the “Happy Buddha.” The Burmese Buddhas are usually fashioned from white, Burmese marble and have a headband. The headband is most likely made of real gold. And the Thai Buddha has a crown with a spire-like point on it.

Burmese Buddha.

Most of the temples here look like traditional pagodas, which the Chinese believe have the power to turn evil into prosperity. This is why you will frequently find miniature pagodas in Chinese households or sitting on the desks of Chinese businessmen. They are extraordinary, covered in beautiful murals that tell countless stories about Buddha’s path to achieving Nibbana. What is even more impressive is that up close, you see the murals are a mosaic of tiny tiles.

There are all kinds of animals and mythical creatures surrounding the doorways and perched along the rooftops of the temples. Each of these is significant for a different reason, but the only explanations I caught were for the dragon—a fierce guardian, always positioned with its head looking back over its body in a protective stance—and the white elephant. Buddha’s mother had a dream one night she was impregnated by a white elephant, and nine months later she gave birth to Buddha while holding tight to two fig trees… you’ll see a lot of fig trees around Buddhist temples for this reason.

A lion guarding the door.

The white elephant.

This scary looking guy keeps evil spirits away.

A Burmese lion guardian.

Also dominating the facades of the buildings were swastikas. I was the only American on the tour, accompanied by twelve British women, who all looked astounded. We shifted our weight uncomfortably as our guide told us about the phoenix that was guarding one of the gates, and I’m sorry to say I have no idea what the impressive looking bird exemplifies to the Chinese because I was too busy staring at the swastikas. Okay, so it turns out these are TOTALLY different than Nazi swastikas. I kind of figured, since they’d been around since before WWII, but it still makes a person feel edgy. Here in Asia, they actually represent wheels of life. Ah yes, that’s more like it. Too bad the Nazis had to ruin the look of so many temples that are entirely devoted to peace. Stupid Hitler.

We take a bathroom break before touring the monastery’s crematorium, and this is where I had my first experience with a hole-in-the-ground toilet. I think anyone who travels to Asia needs to be able to say they squatted over a hole in a tile floor at least once… and hope they don’t get a leg cramp while doing so.

I really didn’t think it was too bad. Of course, I grew up in Colorado, where the term “Potty Grass” or “Brush Squatting” is as much a part of a girl’s vocabulary as “Keep An Eye Out For The Cairn” and “Hug A Tree.” (Please, Kristin and Ali, tell me you remember the circa 1975 Hug A Tree video we had to watch every fall in PE class!)

So the next stop on our tour is the crematorium. Three massive furnaces are roaring while the family members of the deceased wait in rows of folding chairs, staring silently at the large metal doors. Every now and then, one of them stands and makes their way to the long tables set up at one end of the building, where plates of food can be purchased as offerings to the deceased. On the farthest table, urns are waiting to have a name and picture affixed to them. All the urns are the same—simple, ceramic green squares, because Asians understand better than anyone the concept of large numbers and overpopulation. Simply put, the urns are square because they stack easier, topple less, and don’t take up as much room in the storage buildings, which is where we head next.

The preparation tables outside the crematorium.

A strange feeling comes over me as I peek inside the facility, through the crack of an open window, and find myself staring at the stoic face of a Chinese woman on the side of an urn. She’s been dead for a while… I can tell because her ashes are inside one of the older urns, with the curved sides. And as I look at her, all I can think about is the fact that she used to be alive… I know, a total duh moment, but it made me feel somewhat empty inside.  Maybe it had something to do with being able to see what she looked like that did it to me—not the usual sense of detachment you get from just looking at a name chiseled into a headstone. Regardless of the reason, I found myself somehow wanting to know this total stranger. I kind of wanted to ask her what had made her laugh and cry when she was my age. I wanted to know what kinds of things she stressed out about, and whether or not they seemed completely trivial once she came face to face with her death. She was human, which most likely meant she’d fallen in love with someone at some point. She’d probably had her heart broken at some point, too. I wanted to ask her if she had children. I even found myself wondering if she shared my terrible habit of repeatedly putting something in the oven and then forgetting all about it until the smoke alarm screamed a reminder.

But of course, I have no idea what the answers to any of these questions are. I don’t even know the woman’s name. It’s written in characters that are as confusing to me as the feeling I’m grappling with at the moment… it’s that same feeling you get when you stare up at the stars on a perfectly clear night and suddenly feel insignificant. This woman had a story, and in it she was the main character… just like I have and am right now in my own life. But all that is gone for her—everything that was stressful and wonderful and important and heart wrenching—and now she is just one star among millions, barely even noticeable unless someone gets a clear view of her through a small crack in an open window. Her urn shares a shelf with a hundred others, and the shelves are stacked floor to ceiling, with rows barely wide enough for a person to walk between without turning sideways. The shelf units cover the entire floor of the building, which is approximately 50-meters on a side. Add to that that the pagoda-style building is five stories tall. Oh, and there are four of them on the grounds, and this is just one temple sight among dozens on a single, relatively small island in Southeast Asia. Are you beginning to understand my vast feeling of anonymity?

The tour concludes with a stroll past the turtle pond, which is a sight to see. There are hundreds of them, of all sizes, swimming and sunning themselves and climbing on each other’s backs. Turtles are considered to be lucky here, and our guide tells us if we spot the giant turtle who generally chooses to keep himself hidden in the deeper parts of the pond, it would kind of be like winning the lottery. I lean over the side of the bridge, peer into the water on both sides, but see nothing. Actually about a hundred turtles stare back at me, wondering if I’m there to feed them, but I wouldn’t classify any of them as “giant.” Guess I’ll have to hold off on buying that Aston Martin just a little longer.

After we leave the monastery, our tour bus takes us to an area of town referred to as “funeral row.” Since the Chinese are very superstitious, none want to live in an apartment or house close to a funeral home, so they are pretty much all set up on one small street. There you can purchase a coffin, make funeral arrangements, and buy items to burn for your loved ones.

All of us got a pretty big kick out of this part of the tour… In Chinese culture, it is believed that when you die, you first go to Hell, and after a certain amount of time and after performing a certain number of deeds, you can cross over into Heaven. If they are Buddhists, there are different rebirths in Heaven and on Earth until the soul achieves true Nibbana (it’s complicated, and I’m definitely not the person to relate the information correctly). Anyway, family members who are still alive can burn money and paper replicas of everyday objects for their ancestors to use in Hell or Heaven. There are paper rice cookers and bottles of laundry detergent (apparently you can’t get out of doing chores even once you’re dead), and there are even paper dresses and houses. While we were there, they were making a scaled replica of a Mercedes to burned at a man’s funeral, because he always wanted one but could never afford it in life. By burning one for him at death, his family believes he will have a Mercedes to drive around Heaven and Hell in! So of course the tour through the shop turned into a show-and-tell among us women, seeing who could find the coolest or funniest everyday item that had been remade in paper. My favorite was the “Hell Passport Kit,” which included a first class plane ticket on Singapore Air to Hell and a Hell’s Bank Visa card to make your stay there a little more comfortable.

A paper house (in case your ancestors need a new place to stay on the "other side")

It was surreal, and I’ll admit that for a good portion of our time there, I felt like I was giggling my way through a funky Chinatown gift shop. But as we were leaving, I saw a few people sitting at tables on the sidewalk, burning Heaven Money one sheet at a time, looking both sad and respectful as they sent gifts to the deceased.

Then, of course, I felt kind of guilty. I can only imagine what these people must think of Christmas… We celebrate the birth of Jesus by shoving a fat man down a chimney. And Easter? I mean, who wouldn’t think to celebrate a person’s resurrection from the dead with a giant rabbit who hides painted eggs???

I believe there is a higher power… a universal force… a God present around us. Life is too poetic for there not to be. But I would not consider myself to be a religious person, since I haven’t practiced or truly believed in any one religion for a long time. If I was handed a microphone (or in my case, a keyboard) and asked to be a preacher for moment, I guess my message would be this: None of us know. I think a person could read the Bible or the Quran or the Torah, memorize it start to finish, and still not know all the answers. None of us truly know what God is thinking, or what the universe has planned. One day we’ll all be side by side with the nameless woman in the urn. And then we’ll know.