Monday, 22 August 2011

A Weekend Getaway

The week started out a little rough. I’ve only been sick once since having Dagny—a bout of food poisoning in Charlotte that hit both me and Brad like a truck (I don’t think there’s any other way for food poisoning to hit a person). Fortunately, our part-angel neighbor watched Dagny for us while we screamed our final farewells to each other from two different bathrooms in our house, certain we were going to die. (We obviously didn't) But this week started out a little too similarly for my liking, with a stomach bug and no God-sent neighbor to pawn my daughter off on. Aaaand Brad was in China for the week. Of course.

But we made it through! The weather worked in my favor for two of the days… it poured rain, so Dagny didn’t experience her usual urge to play outside. And the cable company seemed to be on my side for those two days as well, airing a Tom & Jerry marathon that kept Dags glued to the TV. I’m convinced those doctors who say children shouldn’t watch any television before the age of five don’t have any children of their own. I don’t know what I would have done without Tom and Jerry. I have half a mind to name my future children after them.

Okay, so my week wasn’t exactly fun, and like I said, Brad was in China for five days. I don’t think there’s a person out there who returns from a business trip to China saying, “Wow, that was fantastic! The smog in Shanghai was so revitalizing!” That said, we decided we were due for a long weekend getaway in Bintan, an Indonesian island with gorgeous white sand beaches. We were told it’s Indonesia's family-friendly version of Bali.

The weekend starts out with a ferry trip to the island (another reason it’s such a popular destination here… you don’t need to fly!). I was a little nervous as we approached the boat, what with the crew lining the gangplank so my baby and I don’t get pitched into the bay while the ferry rocks violently side to side in front of me. I’m not much of a water person. Or a roller coaster person. I’m not even a big fan of turning around too fast. This was going to be interesting.

For the most part, the ride was fine. And it was pretty cool heading out of Singapore, passing between freight ships that were like floating cities towering above us. It was only a 55-minute trip to Bintan, and the water there was sheltered and calm compared to the port we left.

Following a bumpy, windy bus ride (I’m imagining a margarita and a couple of Advil waiting for me at check-in by this point) we arrived at Bintan Lagoon Resort! We were greeted at the lobby entrance by Indonesian dancers and drummers.

We wanted to get a picture of Dagny with the dancers, but she was a little freaked out (can you tell?). I suggested Brad sit with her on his lap. I don't think the words were entirely out of my mouth before he was eagerly plopping himself down between these two! Way to take one for the team.

Bintan Lagoon Resort. Not too shabby.

Our room. Dagny LOVED the couch/guest bed in the corner, and turned it into her own gymnastics mat.

The view from our balcony. When your daughter sacks out at 7:00pm, you realize balconies with nice views are an absolute MUST on vacation.

Dinner our first night was a lot of fun. We attended a buffet with seemingly endless amounts of Indonesian and Asian food, but it was set up a little differently than buffets in the States. In the center of our table was a heating element with a large bowl of spicy soup broth on top of it. The soup is kept at a rolling boil, and you pick raw and uncooked items from the buffet and cook them to your liking at your own table. Most cooking is done this way here, where all the food is cooked in one giant pot. Well, Brad and I had a blast playing chef! I think it’s best to approach meals like this the same way you would approach a Play-Dough kitchen as a child… you just have to give yourself over to being adventurous and view it as a great big vat of experimental fun! There was a lot of stuff to choose from (whole eggs, prawns, noodles, fish balls, crab legs, anchovies, fish strips… the list goes on), most of which was delicious but some of it was a fight to swallow. I think the highlight of our dinner was watching Dagny try chopsticks for the first time, entirely of her own will. Actually, it was just a chopstick (singular), which she stabbed at her food with, and when none of it stuck, she molded her rice in a ball around the end and stuck it in her mouth. I wish I had a picture of the pensive look on that little one’s face as she tried to make sense of it all!

Another difference between restaurants in Asia and the US is how loud the atmosphere is here. Meals in Asia are typically large family events and are far from formal. For the most part, people are seated at round tables to make conversation easier. And there is no need to feel self-conscious at any point during your meal—even if you’re making a mess with your chopsticks, sweat’s dripping off your face because most restaurants are open-air and the majority of the food is incredibly spicy, and your place setting and lap are covered in prawn and crab shells—just take a deep breath and look around you… and you’ll find most tables are a bit of a mess, and no one really cares. And the locals understand their way of life is different and a little difficult for Westerners, so you’ll find they give you a lot of credit and encouraging smiles just for trying their food, using their chopsticks, and saying “Hello” and “Thank you” in Chinese.

Now, besides most meals only coming with a set of chopsticks and a porcelain spoon, I’ve found shellfish a bit of a challenge to eat here—they all arrive with their shell on (yes, even fried prawns, which sort of makes me wonder what the point of all the delicious batter is if I just have to peel it off?). I find I eat a lot less here than at home, because it takes me quite a while to actually get my food in my mouth! What still blows my mind to this day is to watch locals put a crab claw or entire prawn in their mouth, chew it up with teeth that must be part iron, and then spit out the little pieces of shell. I’m not that hardcore yet.

Most of our second day was spent at the pool and the beach. The pool had a swim-up bar… need I explain further? Kinda funny: I ordered a margarita, and had to explain to the bartender how to make it. He didn’t have any margarita mix, so he used fresh squeezed limejuice (yummy!) and finished it off with a splash of vodka. Ummm, okaaay. It was actually pretty good, and I’m still surprised I didn’t fall off my stool and drown in the water once I finished it.

Who's that sexy chick?

Dagny made friends with these two girls at the pool. They were so cute together! A fantastic lesson that friendship can transcend language barriers (since these girls only knew Chinese and Dagny only knows baby Venutian). They played for over an hour, and put flowers in her hair (and my hair, too).

Beaches here (in both Indonesia and Singapore) amaze me… they are completely empty during the day! Asians tend to think Americans are a little nutty for wanting to sit out in the excruciating heat while toasting their skin a gorgeous shade of cancer.

After a fun day of playing in the pool and on the sand, this one is all tired out.

Aaaand... about two minutes later on the way back to the room.

Following a brief nap, Dagny was ready for an extended evening on the beach. There was a little "party" our hotel was hosting on the sand, with a DJ and fire dancers. We got a nice spot right by the water. Yeah, that's a sippy cup of milk in the picture... this is how we roll.

Dags LOVED the beach party! At one point she stood up and started dancing, which is basically just deep knee bends and arm waving. Brad and I call it the "Hot Potato In My Diaper" dance.

View of the ocean.

This is the life.

"OMGoodness gracious! That guy should NOT be wearing a Speedo, Mommy!"

After three gorgeous days on Bintan, it was time to go home. And we were all ready. When you're advised not to drink from the taps, it turns out you can be charged ridiculous amounts of money for bottled water ($10/bottle, in fact). After a few days, staying hydrated starts to break the bank!

All "funned" out. 

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

The Monkey Wants My Baby

This week’s post begins with a correction and a confession. First, the correction: In my last post, I mentioned Dagny and I like to visit the coy ponds in the morning. Oops. They are actually koi ponds, filled with koi fish—not modestly shy water. And now, my confession: I have most likely misspelled and will continue to misspell a lot of words in my entries. I’ve never been a particularly good speller to begin with, and let’s face it, very few things I hear during the day are written down for me. I’m working with a very wide, strictly phonetic net here. There have been times I have asked (usually for blogging purposes) how something is spelled (like ohta), but even that doesn’t always deliver stellar results. For instance, just last week I made my first ever trip to the dry cleaner… it was located in the apartment complex across the street from us, hidden somewhere in a labyrinth of buildings and walkways (the complex is monstrous). On my way in, I asked the guard at the gate where I needed to go…

“Towa jkhay,” he says.

“Tower J?” I ask.


“Tower K?”


Oh heavens, we’re getting nowhere—and fast. Then an idea hits me. “Tower J, as in…" But I cannot, in that moment, think of a SINGLE word that starts with the letter J. Believe it or not, my brain (which I’m convinced likes to play very cruel games with the rest of me) starts screaming, “Jabberwocky! I dare you to say Jabberwocky!”

Finally, after a moment of awkward silence, I finally say (with copious amounts of relief and pride), “Jakarta!” Go me. Everyone here knows Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia. “Okay, J as in Jakarta, or K, as in…” Oh, you must be kidding me. K… K… K… “The, um, middle… letter… in Jakarta.”

And now you know why my spelling stinks, and why I probably won’t do a darn thing to remedy it at this point.

This week (though I guess by now, it was last week) was kicked off with the Hungry Ghost Festival. This week, according to Taoist and Buddhist beliefs, the gates of Heaven and Hell are opened, and the deceased return to earth to walk amongst us. Queue the creepy music from The Twilight Zone. Being a total Halloween nut and lover of ghost stories (NOT horror stories!), this festival immediately caught my interest.

Heading out of our apartment Monday morning, I’m hit with the rich smell of incensed smoke, and a thick haze that has nothing to do with the humidity (for once) saturates the air. All up and down our street, people are tossing burning stacks of Heaven and Hell money into metal drums, and are planting glowing joss sticks in the ground. Wax from burning candles streaks the sidewalks, and several times I see paper replicas of everyday items go bouncing down the street gutters, engulfed in flames, like scary tumbleweeds from an old Western. Kudos to you if you remember my trip to funeral row, where I got to see the making and selling of these paper items. The week of the Ghost Festival must be similar in scope to America’s Black Friday for those vendors.

Also, all along the sidewalks and in the parks, prayer and offering tents have been set up. The reason everyone is burning money, laying out food, and praying is to keep the wandering spirits appeased, so they (especially the ones from Hell) will return happy to their realms at the end of the lunar cycle. If the gates close while the spirits are still wandering in search of food and money (and apparently a little respect), they will be trapped on earth as ghosts, until next year’s festival.

Melted wax and ashes covering the sidewalks.

Hell money and paper replicas that can be purchased for the Ghost Festival.

Offering tables similar to these can be found all over the city... pictured here are candles, joss sticks, and plates of food (mostly vegetarian).

I recently bought myself a Singapore cookbook. Every morning, Brad and I pick out what we are going to attempt to cook that night, and then I head to the wet market and grocery store, and we all three get adventurous. We set up assembly (or disassembly) lines in the kitchen… Brad’s really good at popping heads off prawns, which is nice, because I hate doing it. I get kind of gaggy when the brains burst all over my hands in a brown gooey mess. But I’m really good at removing the mud vein. While here, I learned how to use a wood skewer to slide them out with ease, without having to slice the prawn open (or “butterfly” them, which is the “lazier” approach). Believe it or not, the cooking has been going pretty well! Several times I’ve had to Google an ingredient, having no idea if it’s a fruit, vegetable, spice, or something that used to breathe and walk, but all in all, the results have been amazingly good. And healthy! And, most surprising of all, increasingly vegetarian. Gasp!

Every time I go to the wet market, I learn something new. This week, I realized I can use my cuter-than-cupid daughter to my advantage. All I have to do is take her out of her stroller, put on her little monkey backpack with the long tail that clips to my shorts, and… Bam! I no longer have to seek out the vendors… they come to us! That’s right, Dagny giggles and blows kisses and waves to all the elderly Chinese folks, and I immediately find people offering me great deals on veggies, and free bags of peanuts and tea biscuits. Is it wrong to be exploiting my daughter this way??? I kind of think no, because she has an amazing way of making everyone she meets deliriously happy. She doesn’t care how old anyone is, what their nationality is, or whether they can walk or are restricted to a wheelchair. She loves, hugs, high-fives, and blows kisses to everyone she meets. This week, she approached an old woman who was hobbling with a cane, took her free hand, and started walking through the aisles of the market with her. The woman was just beside herself. She couldn’t speak English, but kept stroking Dagny’s arms and kissing the top of her head. And then she led us to a stand run by a friend of hers, who gave us over a pound of fresh prawns for only $6. Thank you, Dags! Dagny actually does this kind of thing a lot… takes the hands of random people and babbles to them for a little while, then blows them a kiss with a big “Mmwaah,” and is on her way again, off to entertain someone new.

Dagny working the wet market.

This week, we finally decided it was time to lease a car. Brad’s new business facility is on the north end of the island, and takes an hour and a half to get to by train—or else is a $30 cab ride each way. The car makes things a lot easier for him. And as for me, during one of my most recent cab rides, my driver had to slam on his brakes four times, kissed one bumper, and ran two VERY red lights! All this with Dagny wrapped in my arms, seated on my lap. After that, I was ready for a car, too… but I warned Brad I don’t ever want to actually drive it. I’m not ready to attempt driving on the opposite side of the car, on the opposite side of the road, in a country where even the locals openly admit they are among the worst drivers in the world.

Brad's first day of driving. Proof positive I'm a total dork, since I felt the need to mark the moment on film.

"Mom, Dad? Why is everything backward? Can't we just take the train?"

I also splurged for a bike this week, so now I can take Dagny to the beach more easily… just a quick, ten-minute ride on my bright purple jalopy. Yes, jalopy… or whatever the equivalent word would be for a bike. Even though this bike is brand spankin’ new, it sounds and rolls like the bike from the movie “Friday.” It creaks, clatters, and whenever I need to shift gears (which thankfully isn’t very often, since Singapore is pretty flat) I have to get off the bike and manually adjust the chain. But this isn’t really a big deal, since I have to stop about every twenty minutes anyway to re-raise the seat. Want to know what kind of a bike $100 gets you? A big piece-o-crap, that’s what.

Here’s a picture of Dagny in her new bike seat. I think she looks like one of the mushroom guys from Super Mario Brothers.

With our new car, we took our first family trip to the zoo this weekend. The Singapore Zoo is touted as one of the finest in the world, and now that I’ve seen it—or maybe experienced it is more accurate—I have to agree. We bought a year pass, which was a good thing because after spending almost four hours there, we only saw about twenty percent of the exhibits.

This. Zoo. ROCKS!!!!

We spent most of our time exploring the primate enclosures. Now this just blew me away… the monkeys are “free range!” This means they swing in the trees over your head and drop onto the park signs beside you, staring with amazingly human eyes as you walk past. Dagny was in heaven, giggling and pointing at all the monkeys as we walked through. Some were pocket-sized, and even the toughest-looking visitor couldn’t look at them without saying “Awww,” while others were obviously quite large (like the orangutans and chimps).

Along one of the paths, I let Dagny out of her stroller (with her monkey backpack on) and let her walk for a bit. Suddenly, a small clump of visitors in front of me start pointing and yelling something in Chinese. I immediately tense, because they are gesturing at something over my head and behind me. And then, two seconds later, a feisty little monkey comes flying off a pavilion rooftop and smacks me square on the head with a tree branch. The other visitors, who all have their cameras out, think this is fantastic… something tells me I’m going to appear in several home video viewings this week.

But the best part is that the monkey won’t leave us alone. He (or she?) is fixated on Dagny. I don’t know if it was the monkey backpack she was wearing, or if maybe her cuteness transcends species, but it followed her down the path and into a picnic pavilion. Its eyes darted between me and her, and it occasionally reached a paw (or hand? My dad and I are in disagreement on this) toward her, never aggressively, but with such affectionately wide and wondering eyes that one of the visitors says to me, “The monkey wants your baby.”

Dags with her monkey backpack on.

Just moments before the "monkey attack."

Inside the picnic pavilion... this is the little guy who follows Dagny around for about ten minutes, and won't take his eyes off her.

He occasionally reaches out a hand and tries to climb down to her, but then he catches sight of me and returns to the rafters.

Daddy and daughter in front of a monkey jungle gym. As you can see, Dags is having the time of her life!

The car Brad wishes the leasing agent gave him.

Here's hoping you all had as fun and relaxing a weekend as we did! And a final reminder from our friends at the zoo: the family that grooms ticks out of each other's hair together, stays together.