Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Oooh, Look What I Found!

Brad’s been out of town since last Sunday and will be gone until late Friday night. Lucky guy is back in the States, eating red meat, drinking affordable wine and visiting friends. Oh, yeah… and attending multi-day conferences and long business meetings. Semi-lucky guy. 

After a week of staying up late, watching crappy television while chatting one-on-one with Dagny's toys (only to be disappointed by their less-than-stellar conversational skills and lack of laughter at my awesome jokes), I decided to do something productive and slightly more sane with my time... Like organize my iPhoto albums! Whoo-hoo! But as fortune would have it, while I was sifting through some pictures last night, I found a fun batch that I had set aside to place in my blog, and then completely forgot about! These are from about two months ago, but better late than never…

It was Saturday, and the morning started with our usual round of chores. Now I assure you, this involved no coercing on my part whatsoever, but two of Dagny’s favorite activities are Swiffering the floors and doing laundry. Here she is, slaving away on our balcony.

"One day a handsome prince will come for me. Hopefully the glass slipper won't be ridiculously small... I have such big feet already!"

"Would you like me to also fold what's on the drying rack, Wicked Step— er, Mom?"

Once our chores were done, we headed to MacRitchie Reservoir, where there are miles and miles (or kilometers and kilometers) of trails to hike. Sure, there are some parks and playgrounds around our apartment, and even a beach nearby, but Brad and I were ready for a day in the woods!

Heading out!

Very cool trees... the stuff of fairy tales and haunted forests.

Adventurer vest with pockets for collecting pebbles and leaves? Check. Minnie Mouse water bottle? Check. Hiking shoes? Check. Everything in coordinating shades of Diva Pink? Checkity check.

Believe it or not, the trails were kind of tough! Of course, we aren’t used to hiking with a 22-lb. kid on our backs, nor are we accustomed to slogging through a rainforest in 95-degree heat and off-the-chart levels of humidity. But I was pleasantly surprised that on an island that appears relatively flat, there were some pretty impressive climbs.

The forest was very dense, and filled with all kinds of sounds I wasn't used to hearing… squawking and strange chirping and shrill monkey calls. About 20 minutes into our hike, we encountered our first bit of wildlife… sunning itself on the trail in front of us was a 3-foot monitor lizard! As soon as he saw us he slid off the trail and none of my pictures of him hiding beneath the lush plants came out very well. But it was fun to see (and a little scary!). He was definitely much bigger and more dinosaur-like than the lizards I’m used to seeing around the apartment!

Our destination was the Rainforest Canopy Trail, which ended up not being quite as close as it appeared on the park map. But we enjoyed every step of our hike, and Brad and I got such a kick out of showing things to Dagny and watching her reactions to the world around her. And the long, hot, and hilly climb was definitely worth it... Who wouldn't be excited by the chance to walk across swinging bridges in the treetops of the rainforest? 

Canopy bridge. We were probably about 75-feet up from the ground.

I almost missed seeing this guy! I was so focused on the bridge and clinging (yes, clinging) to the handrails that at first I didn't notice him sitting not 15-feet away from us, staring at me and probably thinking, "What a wuss."

View out to the reservoir from the bridge.

All in all, the hike took us about 5 hours. We were exhausted by the end! About fifteen minutes away from the parking lot, as Brad and I were walking and discussing where we should stop for ice cream on the way home, the usually-still trees around us started rustling. Then they started whipping frantically back and forth. And then came the cackling shrieks of monkeys. And then came the monkeys themselves, dashing across the trail in front of us and hopping up and down in the trees beside us!

And as I fumbled for my camera, I just kept thinking, “These are WILD monkeys! Dozens of them! I’m like Jane Goodall!”

See the monkey sitting on the fence to the right? He darted right between Brad and I. Dagny kept pointing to all of them and making monkey sounds. SO. CUTE!

Monkeys everywhere!

Some of the babies could have fit in the palm of my hand. I love this little guy. I would have named him Diablo, with those cute horns of his.

When we got home, Dags put on Daddy's hiking boots and started walking around the apartment. She must have had a good time, too, and didn't want the day to end!

Here are a few more pics that never made it into a blog post, but I love looking at. They are from National Day, which was quite a while ago (August 9th). It has now been 46 years since Singapore first established their independence from Malaysia! 

We kicked off our version of celebrating National Day by going to the TOP of Marina Bay Sands (the super-cool hotel/casino that looks like it has a cruise ship perched on top of it). The elevator ride alone was pretty amazing... we rocketed up almost 60 floors in just under 10 seconds. I was a little wobbly when we stepped off at the top. And once I found my stomach again (which bottomed out around the 20th floor), we found our way over to the terrace bar for a drink of the most expensive, but most delicious Chardonnay I've ever had. They charge about $30/glass, but part of that must also be for this impressive view...

Daddy and my darling diva. The girl loves anything pink, pouffy, and covered in bows. And watch out, future boyfriends... this one has a serious affinity for jewelry!

A view from our table at the bar. Our apartment is "sitting on the head" of the guy in the red shirt.

Walking around Marina Bay after our drink. Some of the sidewalks have these great "misters" to help keep everyone cool.

Early evening in downtown Singapore, also taken along Marina Bay.

Not sure who this guy is, but he made a friend.

Walking home from the celebrations.

The Lodge Family in our matching Singapore polos. They didn't have one in Dagny's size, so her t-shirt says "Singapore Love."

Friday, 23 September 2011

Would You Rather Meet Willy Wonka or Buddha?

This past week was pretty rainy, which was actually kind of nice. I don’t think I realized, even with my sunglasses on, how much constant sunshine can strain a person’s eyes. The cloud cover was refreshing, and my eyes finally felt like they could relax and breathe for a few days.

But the rain did limit some of my Adventure Wednesday options. Sometimes the on-again-off-again storms hit with the ferocity and visibility of a dense waterfall. So obviously Dagny and I wouldn’t be doing anything outdoors, or anything that required extensive walking outside.

Fortunately there is an entire city that exists beneath Singapore.

No kidding, there are miles and miles of malls and store-lined hallways, extending five or six stories below ground. It took me a while to get used to it… the feel of a mall with no natural light, no windows… walking around like a lost mole in a never-ending maze. None of the malls or underground “links” are on a grid system… they wind and twist and take you up ramps and down escalators and just when you think you know where you are, you pop your head out of ground like Bugs Bunny, look left and right, and realize you have NO idea where you are after all. (And, if you’re sticking with the Bugs Bunny theme, you may say something like, “I knew I should have taken a left at Albuquerque.”)

Anyway, on our saturated Wednesday this week, Dagny and I ventured into the subterranean malls. And believe it or not, I actually got us to our intended destination! There wasn’t going to be anything cultural about this particular adventure… today was a day out for Dags, and was appropriately dubbed “Willy Wonka Wednesday.”

We went to a mall that is just for kids. Dagny rode carousels and a knock-off Thomas the Train. We wandered in and out of stores in search of new shoes for her and a birthday present for her baby cousin, both of which were fruitless ventures. I know anyone reading this probably gets sick of me talking about how much things cost here, but let me assure you, it’s not nearly as aggravating as actually having to deal with it on a daily basis! Out of curiosity, I jotted down some Toys R’ Us prices here, and compared them to Toys R’ Us back in the States… A $15 toy in the US costs about $60 here. So poor Dags didn’t get any new shoes, and her poor cousin still does not have a birthday present.

We spent a long time in Bookaburra, a very cool kids bookstore. We sat in a corner and read all the totally captivating books that are covered in sparkles, have purse handles sprouting out of them, and smell like peppermint candies. Then we put them back on the shelves, and I bought Dags a few ratty books out of the Used Book bin in the back of the store. She didn’t seem to mind.

After the mall, we pigged out on ice cream and other not-so-healthy foods. Then we went to the grand opening of Garrett's, a gourmet popcorn stand. Now, let me tell you, Dagny and I are popcorn FREAKS! We raced each other to the bottom of a bag of warm cheddar and caramel corn, which stained the underside of my fingernails orange for the next two days. Ahhh, heaven.

On our way home, we popped into Peekaboo, which is an indoor climbing gym and play area for kiddos. After two hours of crawling around in plastic tunnels, riding down spinny slides and wading through colorful ball pits (with a stomach full of energy-less, fatty-fat food, mind you), we were finally spent, and headed home. I had a salad and water for dinner that night.

Climbing through Peekaboo.

"Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your... oh wait, sorry Dags, you don't really have any hair yet."

Okay, so let’s hit the rewind button to another Adventure Wednesday, from a couple of weeks ago…

The Buddha Relic Temple and Museum! Now for some reason, my guidebooks don’t give this place very many stars, and I don’t understand why. Dagny and I LOVED it!

The temple is located in Chinatown, and is impressively tall and expansive. 

Hanging lanterns and strings of bells that sound so beautiful when the wind blows.

A giant and ornately designed "cauldron" (I'm sure it's actually called something else) outside the main entrance. Those are joss sticks burning, in groups of 3 (one for earth, one for heaven, one for mankind). If a loved one has recently passed away, you may only see two joss sticks. Some temples have strict rules against this, and state that 3 must be burned at a time, though I'm not entirely sure why. 

The doorway into the temple. A lot of temples and Asian houses have a raised doorstep like this. Even most apartments around here have a small lip to step over upon entering... From what I've been told, it has to do with a superstitious belief that a person's foot should completely clear the threshold upon entering a house. 

Prayer service (again, I probably have the appropriate name for it wrong) was going on when we entered. The temple was gorgeous inside, as you can see. Very colorful. Monks were seated at the tables, their heads bent over books while they chanted and hummed into microphones. Buddhist followers were seated in rows of chairs along the side, occasionally chanting along in the same way Christians sing refrains during church services. The chanting is so amazing... very deep, monotone, and relaxing.

An entire wall of small alcoves filled with different statues of Buddha lined one side of the temple. I liked this one, with the flower.

I mean, seriously, who could possibly walk into a place like this and not be wonderfully overcome by the beauty of it?

After staying a while to watch the prayer chants in the main temple (Dagny was totally enthralled, and very well-behaved through it all), we headed upstairs, into the museum. Again, Dagny did great, but I had to keep us moving (as anyone with a toddler understands). So I unfortunately didn't get to read very much about the items on display, nor discover in too much detail how Buddha came to achieve Nibbana (also called Nirvana, in other parts of the world). Maybe another day, sans Dagny, since the museum did have a pretty cool layout for visitors to "wander in the same steps" as Buddha once did.

There are days I wish I had this many arms.

There were literally hundreds of statues of Buddha throughout the museum, which covered three floors, all situated above the temple. Who knows... there might have even been thousands, of all different sizes and appearances. But this one was my favorite.

At the end of the museum tour, we finally got to see what we'd come all that way to see... not that the prayer chants and endless Buddhas weren't spectacular enough, but Dags and I wanted to see the Buddha Relics

Yes, it is claimed that actual relics from the living Buddha are housed here. Now, I unfortunately have no pictures to share from this room, because photography was strictly prohibited. So you'll have to just take my word for it when I say: It was incredibly cool to see, and a little bit odd.

All along the walls, behind a thick pane of glass, were very ornate vessels, sculpted from gold and covered in a variety of precious and semi-precious stones. In the center of each was a (usually) teardrop-shaped piece of glass, about the size of the palm of my hand. And inside the teardrop were remains of everything from Buddha's teeth and bones to pieces of his brain and internal organs. I can honestly say they did not look anything like what I imagined... some looked like grains of sand, while several others looked like clear glycerin beads. Buddha's blood looked like tiny yellowish marbles, and his brain looked like small pearls. If there was an explanation for where the relics were found, or how they came to be in these vessels inside this temple, I couldn't find it. But then again, the basis of all religions is faith, is it not? Maybe there isn't supposed to be a thorough explanation... Maybe part of finding Nibbana is realizing some questions are not meant to be answered, and the swiftest path to happiness is to just believe.

On our way out of the museum, Dagny seemed particularly enthralled by a semi-large statue that smiled down on her, one hand raised as if saying hello while the other cupped a lotus flower. She looked at it with a very intense look on her face, and finally pointed to it, saying, "Dat? Dat? Dat?"

"That's Buddha," I replied.

And she smiled so big the corners of her mouth nearly touched her ears, and then she combination giggled and screamed, "Boo-dahh!" 

I was shocked. The only words she'd spoken up until then were Mama and Dada. Word number 3: Buddha. I laughed when she said it, and as we got on the elevator to go back downstairs, I told her, "I think your grandparents would probably have preferred 'Jesus!', but whatever, we'll go with Buddha." 

Enjoying a Splat (fruit pouch) after our tour through the temple and museum. 

So where would you rather go, and who would you rather meet? Wonka or Buddha? My suggestion: Visit them both. How often, as busy adults, do we take the time to go either place? ... To look at the broader, more universal picture of life and our fleeting path through it ... Or to go the opposite direction, thinking only for the moment, only about fun and immediate gratification, and living like a kid again?

Yes, definitely, definitely take time to do both.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Adventure Wednesdays!

I’ll admit, sometimes I need a little motivation when it comes to living out my dream of being a dedicated adventurer. Every day I walk great distances in even greater heat and humidity, navigate crowded trains, and am forced to assimilate to Asian culture when, to be quite honest, I sometimes just don’t want to (I mean, seriously, what red-blooded American mom wouldn't occasionally become frustrated by a grocery store's lack of macaroni and cheese and applesauce, but over abundance of prawn crackers?). So, yes, there are times I don’t get wonderfully excited by the idea of exploring… of stepping even farther outside of my already teetering comfort zone.

But (please the excuse the analogy here, since it might sound kind of corny), I’ve found that learning to live abroad is a lot like learning to mountain bike. When I first started mountain biking, I was terrified. I fell a lot, and the more I fell, the slower I tended to ride. For some reason, the more cautiously I rode, the more I fell. It was a vicious cycle (no pun intended). Eventually, I avoided any trails that had rocks and roots on them… which kind of defeats the purpose of mountain biking. But then I learned that the faster I rode, the better I did. If I took the obstacles head on and pedaled hard as I approached them (rather than riding my brakes), I remained upright on my bike and—wow!—discovered that mountain biking was actually pretty darn fun! Are the trails still scary at times? Yes. But now they’re navigable.

The more time I spend in Singapore, the more I realize this same basic principle applies to life abroad: Fight your initial urge to slow down, and instead take a swift and direct path straight into your new surroundings. And go figure, the more I do it, the more comfortable I become with life here. Is it still scary and frustrating at times? Heavens, yes. But it all becomes increasingly more navigable.

So, to overcome my days of trepidation, a couple of months ago I initiated “Adventure Wednesdays.” Every Wednesday (NO EXCUSES!), Dagny and I head out to explore a new part of the island. Sometimes I have our adventures planned out days in advance. Other times, I pull out my Singapore guidebooks over a Wednesday morning coffee, while Dagny slurps soggy Cheerios beside me, and make a split-second decision as to where we will be heading that day.

Heading out on a Wednesday morning train. I took this picture because I thought it was kind of funny how everyone in my train car was tuned into their phones or iPods at the same time. Very little talking on the trains here... except Dagny. She makes sure everyone knows she's aboard.

Some Wednesdays, I’ll admit, are pretty low key. I’m not entirely sure the actual destinations would even count as “Adventures,” but anyone who knows how directionally inept I am will probably nod their heads in understanding when I say the journeys to the different locations are certainly adventurous enough.

An example of a low key adventure: On exceptionally hot days, Dags and I sometimes set out to find cool new splash pads and fountains to play in. These are quite possibly a mom’s best friend. Unlike a pool or playground, I don’t have to constantly waddle, climb, swim, or scurry after Dagny. There are no intimidating metal ladders or scary deep ends to worry about, which of course are two things my daughter is helplessly drawn to.

We found this fountain over in Marina Barrage a couple of Wednesdays ago…

Dagny with her friends Camden and Marrietta. Dags is the one in the sombrero.

I can only imagine what Dagny was babbling about to Camden... "You think peas are bad, my mom tried to get me to eat crawfish the other day. I was like, Mom, you must be crazy!"

Some Adventure Wednesdays turn out to be total busts, though this has fortunately been a rare occurrence. For instance, I read about Malay Village and their expansive fish market in one of my guidebooks. The write-up touted it as a great place to check out truly authentic, Singaporean culture. Well, when I got there, the fish market was shut down, and Malay Village didn’t appear to be doing too well. Most of the storefronts were boarded up, and the few people who were there stared at Dagny and I with looks of confusion—and more than one or two frowns. I could tell the shopping district used to be quaint and picturesque, but now it looks (and smells) a little more like a shantytown. The paint was peeling off the buildings, sections of wrought iron fence were propped toward the sidewalk at menacing angles, and the alleys were full of headless manikins. Kinda creepy. Needless to say, we didn’t stay long.

Malay Village. Probably won't be heading back anytime soon.

Another Wednesday, Dags and I ventured into Little India, which, as it turns out, is not so little. Disembarking the train, I really did feel like I was entering India, sans the immobilizing crowds (or what I suppose India is like, from listening to Brad’s stories and watching episodes of Outsourced). The buildings were painted in a rainbow of vibrant colors. Shop doors were standing wide open, and racks of beautiful saris and beaded purses covered the sidewalks out front. There was barely enough room for me to eek through even without my monstrous BOB stroller, so most of the time Dagny and I had to walk in the street.

Colorful buildings. This was the less populated part of Little India. 

Each of the stores sold very similar items—a lot of statues of Indian gods and bins full of colorful wrist bangles. And everywhere I went, I heard Indian music. What fun! Not many of my adventures come with an upbeat soundtrack playing in the background. Makes me feel like I’m in a movie or something. And I’ll tell you what, it’s next to impossible not to kind of dip and shimmy as you walk when Indian music is blaring up and down the street.

This really isn't a very good picture of the stores, but I'm including it anyway. The narrow side streets with shops and vendor carts were much cooler, but they were also full of delivery trucks at this time of day, so I couldn't seem to get any good pictures of them, either.

I think one of the things I was most impressed with was the number of different restaurants I saw. Back in the US, an Indian restaurant is usually just labeled as “Indian.” But in Little India, my options were much more specific… Northern Indian, Nepalese, Tibetan, Bengali, Punjabi… the list goes on.

Dagny and I planned a visit to the Hindu temple Sri Veeramakaliamman (Yep! I told you I would make it there! Now say the name ten times fast). I’ve attached a picture of the front because my written description would fall way short. It’s pretty spectacular.

But the sidewalk was as far as we got on our expedition. It turns out I wasn’t appropriately dressed to go inside. No, I wasn’t wearing a bikini top or a t-shirt that read “Jesus Rocks”—it was simply a sleeveless shirt. We’ll make it back one day, with more pictures to share and hopefully an interesting story or two, so if you can’t say Sri Veeramakaliamman yet, don’t worry… you still have a little time to practice.

Before leaving Little India, I stopped by a henna stand. I thought the result was artful and kind of cool… for a few hours. The ink lasts for about a week, and every day of that week I kept thinking I had something like mud (or overflow from a baby diaper) on the back of my hand.

It was a wonderful day, and I look forward to going back, hopefully with Brad this time!

Dags at the end of our Little India trip.

I actually have another Adventure Wednesday to write about, but I’m beginning to see that this entry is already getting a bit lengthy. Come back in another day or two to hear all about Dagny’s first word (aside from Mama and Dada) and to find out what Buddha’s brain looks like.

Yep… that’s right… Buddha’s brain. For real. Can’t wait!