Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Last Friday Night

I've been complaining about customer service in Singapore lately, and it's as if somebody heard me! Last Friday our new flatmate Sophie from Scotland and I went to the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf in Holland Village to kill some time. That's where we met Andy, whose friendliness and customer service skills blew us away. Good customer service in Singapore does exist, but it's rare, so in order to protect yourself from a huge let down, it's better not to expect too much. That way, when you meet somebody like Andy who remembers your name and uses it in every sentence, you will be completely impressed.

Naturally after such a rare experience we were in a great mood, so Julius, Sophie and I decided to go out for dinner and drinks in town. Sophie, who's doing her PhD research on the British expatriate community told us about an InterNations shindig at a new Miami style bar in Somerset called Lucky 13, so we decided to check that out and then meet our friends Alex and Heath for drinks in Clarke Quay afterward.

InterNations is an expatriate community for expats worldwide. In most countries it's a classy group, but in Singapore rumor has it that more recently the InterNations get togethers have descended into an opportunity for the sleazier variety of expats to pick up on eager SPGs (Sarong Party Girls), which is a derogatory term for local ladies trying to find a western man to bring home the bacon. Speaking of bacon, Julius and I got the pulled porc dish of Cuban origin called Ropa Vieja, which was overpriced and just average. After getting hit on by two Singaporean men and witnessing an expat and SPG making out on the sofa, we started to fear the rumors may be true.

On a trip upstairs to visit the toilet in the adjacent mall "TripleOne," we let ourselves get totally sidetracked by a restaurant called Bilbao. A very tall Frenchman working there beckoned us inside, and upon seeing the Catalan flag, Julius asked if there happened to be any Catalans there. The Frenchman said "Yes, the owner is from Bilbao." Although Bilbao is not even in Catalonia, we decided to check it out anyway and we ended up meeting the owner, the chef, and a couple of their friends. We started conversing in Spanish, and the owner led us to a table on the terrace recommending this and that. We decided on the veal carpaccio and ham croquetes, both of which were absolutely to die for. If that weren't enough, there was even a bossa nova guitar player and accompanying vocalist directly in front of us, which gave the evening a very carefree and "warm summer night" atmosphere.

Estrella Damm beer with veal carpaccio and ham croquetes

Sea Penises
By this time we'd each had a few beers and our stomachs were full, so we decided to make a move. On our way out of the mall we came across a restaurant displaying tanks of live seafood to bait and hook their customers. There were tanks of eel, fish, and lobster, but the one that really grabbed our attention was the tank with the "sea penises." Thanks to Heath and Alex, I now know the name of this species of very large saltwater clam that strangely bears resemblance to a penis. It's called a geoduck or panopea generosa and is one of the longest living organisims in the animal kingdom. It can live to be 100 years old or more, unless of course it's lifespan is cut short and it ends up on your dinner plate.

After photographing the seafood, we took the MRT to Clarke Quay where we met Alex and Heath at the SQUE Rotisserie & Alehouse and regaled them with our stories of expats and SPGs, delicious Spanish food and sea penises whilst kicking back on the terrace with a couple of cold Tiger Beers. This is a picture of us closing the alehouse after everyone else had gone home.

From left to right: Alex, Kelly, Sophie, Julius, and Heath

Singapore is a big city with a village feel to it because it's surprisingly easy to run into people you know when you're out on the town. A lot of people hang out on the pedestrian bridge in Clarke Quay and bring their own alcohol and food. It's a cheaper way to enjoy Clarke Quay's vibrant nightlife, so you see a lot of young people and students there. This is exactly where we ran into our flatmate Tim on our way home, so we took this opportunity to take a group photo with all the roommates together. We're all very sad Tim will be leaving on Friday to go back to Germany. We will miss "Tim Leiter" dearly.

Flatmates: Sophie, Kelly, Tim, and Julius

The MRT trains stop running at around midnight, so we had to queue for a taxi to get back home. The queue was insanely long, but there's a trick you can use to beat the queue: you download an app called Comfort DelGro and just book a taxi on your mobile phone and one should arrive within about 5 minutes. 

Queuing for a taxi on a Friday night in Clarke Quay

Our taxi driver called Steven Soh was an amazing storyteller who told us about growing up in Singapore working on his father's farm. Everyone in his family had a job on the farm, and his was to take care of the Siamese fighting fish. He fed them the best worms and kept them in complete darkness so that when they were brought out to fight once a week, they would always win and the people betting would fill his pockets with some of their winnings in gratitude. Unfortunately his family was forced to sell the farm to the government for a very low price, which resulted in the family becoming destitute, his father losing his mind, and Steven being forced to drive a taxi. 

Steven's native language was Hokkien, a Chinese dialect, and although he left school at a young age, his English was quite intelligible. He claimed to speak several languages such as Japanese and Mandarin among others, all of which he learned from driving his taxi and conversing with his passengers. It was so interesting listening to his stories; the only problem was that he got so into it that he would start gesturing wildly and the car would start swerving a bit and he would change lanes without realizing it. Fortunately we made it home in one piece. 

Steven Soh: The most fascinating taxi driver around

Monday, February 27, 2012

Welcome to the Jungle

The Tree Top Walk

On Saturday Julius and I went on an 10 km hike in the MacRitchie Reservoir with friends Kumudu and Azhar from NTU. We started the Tree Top Walk at 10:30am and finished at around 5pm. There's a really good reason it took us so long: we're out of shape. It seemed that every couple of minutes we were being overtaken by marathon trainees wearing Nike Dri-Fit outfits and speed-walking aunties and uncles alike (respectful terms for older Singaporeans). Our limbs felt as if they weighed 100 pounds due to the excessive heat and humidity, but we carried on relentlessly until we reached the bridge in the canopy, and behold how triumphant we are!

Tree Top Walk Bridge in the MacRitchie Reservoir

After that we stopped for a short lunch break of half a litre of water, mixed nuts, dried mangoes, apples... and potato chips and chocolate chip cookies (it started out healthy and went downhill from there).

After our lunch we were quite exhausted and hoping the Giant Forest Ants we encountered would carry us away on their backs, but no such luck. According to Wikipedia, The Giant Forest Ant, or Camponotus gigas, is one of the largest species of ant in the world, measuring at 20.9 to 28.1mm. The one we saw was on the larger side at about 28mm and for the sake of comparison, was larger than the US quarter dollar which is only 24mm in diameter.

Look at the fangs!
I read a sign that said there were monitor lizards around, so we decided to play a game called "Be the first one to spot the Monitor Lizard". The prize was 10,000 Indian Rupees (don't ask me why), and I'm still waiting for my prize money! The one I spotted was about 1.2m from head to tail. We scared him and he climbed up the tree to get away from the paparazzi (Julius and me). 

Monitor Lizard

On the home stretch we came across a tribe of monkeys blocking our path. We found them cute and took a lot of pictures, but this could have been a dangerous situation because there was a male patrolling around on the defensive. There are signs all over the park saying not to make direct eye contact with the monkeys or threaten them in any way as they can become aggressive. You also shouldn't eat or drink anything around them, or even carry plastic bags with you because they associate this with food and can try to snatch them from you. It is illegal to feed these monkeys in Singapore, and offenders of the Parks and Tress Act of 2005, "shall be liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding S$50,000 or imprisonment for a term not exceeding 6 months or both." Although the fine is pretty steep, this is really effective in getting people to leave the monkeys alone, and ensures that their natural diet of fruit from the forest can be preserved. They apparently also like supplementing their diet with fleas they've pick off each other's backs.

Hungry monkeys looking for a snack
A mama and baby monkey

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Culture Shock: Customer Service

Julius opened a bank account last week. He was supposed to receive his card in 4-5 days, yet still no card has arrived. We decide to go in to the branch to see what's going on.

At the branch, we are helped right away and Julius greets them in a friendly manner as one would do in the US. The happy cadence in his "Hi good morning!" immediately sets off a warning bell in my mind. I indiscreetly whisper in his ear: "Don't be friendly. Be stern." 

If you want to get anything done in Asia (even Singapore aka "Asia Lite"), you need to cut the niceties and just insist on what you want. This is extremely hard for people who are used to the American way of doing things, with the saccharine "Hi, welcome to Starbucks!" level of friendliness and "the customer is always right" approach. Basically the exact converse of what you'll find here. 

Many Americans may interpret "be stern" as "be an ass". This is not what I mean. One doesn't need to be rude to get a point across. It just means take no nonsense and really put your foot down until you get what you are asking for. Be stubborn. Keep your voice even, don't smile and look like you mean business. It is more difficult than it sounds, and takes a lot of practice if you've been conditioned to be warm and cheerful when dealing with others.   

Julius immediately takes my advice on board and changes his approach 180°. It's like a dark cloud has descended upon his countenance, and when he speaks it sounds more like thunder crackling rather than a ray of sunshine peaking out from behind a rainbow. And not a minute too soon, because the lady doesn't have good news. She tells us that no card has been issued yet. I can see lightning is striking in Julius' brain and he's really getting fired up. 

My Singaporean friend Alex gave me some words of wisdom yesterday. He told me you can't expect good customer service, because this will only end in disappointment and utter frustration. At this point I'm wishing I had remembered to relay this information to Julius before arriving at Citibank. You basically have to be ready for bad customer service and not take it personally, because this will just make you angry and raise your blood pressure unnecessarily.  

Fortunately Julius doesn't go to the dark side, and is able to keep his cool. Instead he takes a more pragmatic approach and asks, "Can you expedite the card?" The lady says she will and Julius fills out a form. Easy peasy. 

We think we're out of the woods, but we're wrong. There's an unforeseen obstacle that is thrown into our path. 

"Excuse me sir, it appears that your signature doesn't match. Can you sign again please?" We exchange a glance with raised eyebrows. He chuckles under his breath and signs the form again.  

Another lady appears as if out of thin air and they both scrutinize his signature. "It looks different," they say. I look at the two signatures. I can't see much of a difference. There may be a tiny bit of variation, but it's really minimal. There's no doubt that it's Julius and he has his passport to prove it, but confirming his identity (the big picture) is not the problem. The problem is this tiny detail of the signature not matching exactly to a T. 

I've been trying to remain calm, but this is just ridiculous and I snap. 

"He's not a robot. He's human. There's going to be some variation in his signature." 

"We know that, but the problem is that we're not going to be checking this paperwork, someone else is and they are going to see that the signatures do not match." 

I'm tempted to say is that someone called Big Brother? but I refrain. 

In an effort to solve the problem and smooth things over (for a minute I was really fearing they were going to say request denied), she suggests Julius update his old signature to the "new signature." 

Sighing with frustration, he goes along with it. More forms. stamp. stamp. The new signature is approved. I watch as she she stamps "cancelled" over the offending signature on the old debit card request form. 

"Sign again please with the new signature." 

The pressure is on. Julius is sweating bullets. He signs again. They scrutinize. Silence. 

"Hmm... can you sign one more time please?" We burst out laughing and I look around for the candid camera. 

He signs again. 

"Okay, this one looks alright. Thank you." 

At this point our anger has boiled over and turned to amusement. We go over to withdraw money at the counter brazenly talking and laughing about the signature fiasco, not caring if anyone overhears us. The lady at the counter's name is pronounced "orange tan", which doesn't help us contain our laughter any. As we leave, Julius tells me "this is going in your blog."

Monday, February 20, 2012

Some Singaporeans like...

... Shopping malls! The shopping malls in Singapore remind me of the ones in southern California, with their sub-zero temperatures and maze-like structures. Some Singaporeans will spend the whole weekend at the mall in "retail therapy". New bigger and better malls are constantly being built, so I worry that soon all the malls may converge into one humongous mall and there will be nothing left of real Singapore.

... BBQs. Our friend Sierin Lim invited us to her lab's BBQ at the "Palo Verde Commons" of NTU. There was lots of good food, including chicken wings, chicken and mutton satay, stingray, squid, fish, hotdogs, rice, and noodles. For dessert we roasted marshmallows California-style, and enjoyed durian-free chocolate birthday cake and refreshing watermelon.

Bioengineered and Applied Nanomaterials Lab BBQ at NTU

... The Lottery. It seems that nearly every time I go grocery shopping at FairPrice I see an endless queue of people waiting to buy tickets. I wonder how much the average Singaporean spends playing the lottery. I've recently read an article that says the poorer people are made to feel, the more likely they are to play the lottery. The lottery is like a tax that favors the rich, because a much higher percentage of a poor person's salary goes towards paying the lottery. The gap between the rich and poor in Singapore is perhaps bigger than people realize.

Queue for lottery tickets at FairPrice

...Fishing. The two guys in the picture below are fishing in man-made Jurong Lake right next to a very narrow pedestrian bridge where many people go for a leisurely stroll. I've seen a lot of urban fishing going on in Jurong, especially on weekends, so stay on the lookout for flying hooks when walking near lakes and rivers!

...Durian! Pre-packaged and ready to be devoured. The stench of this fruit is even more overpowering than usual because they have already been cut open.

... Food. Yes I know I've already mentioned BBQs and Durian, one of which involves eating lots of food, and the other of which is a type of food. Nonetheless, I need to mention food again, because some, if not most, Singaporeans really love eating. It's one of their national pastimes. Everywhere you turn you can find a vast array of food courts, hawker centers, and restaurants to suit everyone's taste and budget. No wonder obesity and diabetes are on the rise. 

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Beauty in Everyday Nature

Gordon the Gecko

Gordon is our pet gecko. He doesn't live in a cage. In fact, we didn't even buy him. He's more like a flatmate than a pet. He comes and goes as he pleases and we only see him every once in awhile, but at least he's friendly and cleans up around the apartment by getting rid of the insects. 

Actually these geckos are literally everywhere, so for Singaporeans having a gecko in the house is nothing special, but for me it's a real treat! 

This flower, called the Spider Flower, is also common and you can see them all over Singapore. It's beautifully exotic.

Spider Flower

It's been a bit cooler (around 26°C) and raining a little more frequently the last few days, for which I am thankful. People take cover under the many covered walkways because when it rains here, it pours. Giant drops plummet from the sky and land on the rooftops, trees, and ground with such force that the resulting sound is very melodic and soothing. A clean, earthy scent fills the air after a rain shower, which reminds me of playing in the dirt as a child. Listen and watch:

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Day of Realization

I have been struggling with a self-imposed internal pressure to get a job. I think the feeling that you always need more and more money, and therefore must work to attain it is something ingrained in a lot of us. If I'm not striving towards the goal of earning money and furthering my career, I automatically feel guilty like I should be doing something, and if not, I'm just being lazy and that's bad. This is ridiculous because I will only be here for three months, (really just two and a half months now), which makes finding work nearly impossible as nobody wants to go to the trouble of hiring and getting a visa for someone in my situation. Nevertheless, I have trouble letting it go and just enjoying my time here.

Today I've made the decision to let it go. I'm no longer going to worry about finding work while I'm here. I'm going to be content just taking it easy, going to museums and sight-seeing. I came to this decision thanks to a conversation I had with a local who I met by chance about a week ago.

I sometimes go grocery shopping at a store called FairPrice. The name makes me laugh, and although everyone knows that the prices are anything but fair, people still shop there because the location is convenient and it's open 24 hours.

While shopping at FairPrice I was having trouble deciding which dumplings to buy for my new rice/cooker steamer, so I asked a lady next to me for advice. We got to talking, and it turned out we had a lot in common. Like me, Christine had lived in Germany for a time, and I reminded her of when she first arrived in Munich and everything was strange and new. What's more, it turns out that as a child she lived in the same building as I'm living in now. It was one of those moments where you feel a connection with a total stranger and that the world is the size of a pea.

Today Christine came over and took me to Holland Village for lunch. On the way there I asked about her stay in Germany.

"What did you do while you were in Munich?"

"I took a lot of walks. Went sightseeing, met friends and visited museums. Like you," she said. "I was so relaxed because I didn't have to work." She looked so happy reminiscing about the time she spent there that it made me think.

What am I doing? I should be enjoying my time here because it may be one of the best times of my life. I could tell that for Christine, being with me brought back lots of happy memories of her sojourn in Munich and that I should appreciate this opportunity I had.

In Holland Village we went to a hawker center to get food. Christine took me around to all the different stalls and explained a little bit about the various dishes. Eventually we settled on a Malaysian dish called Nasi Lemak that consisted of rice steamed with coconut milk, omelette, deep fried anchovies, peanuts, and deep fried chicken. I thought the combination of peanuts with the anchovies and rice would be weird, but it was actually really delicious.

A Malaysian dish called Nasi Lemak

The good thing about life is that we are constantly growing, learning, and experiencing new things. Thanks to people we meet and new places we go, this sparks realizations that hopefully bring us more appreciation for life so we can enjoy our time wherever we are a little bit more. 

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Marina Bay Sands and the Esplanade

The Marina Bay Sands
The Marina Bay Sands is a hotel, shopping mall, theatre, casino, restaurant oasis, and art museum all rolled into one. It's main structure consists of three towers with a boat on top! It has a definite Las Vegas feel to it, and on the inside it reminds me of the Venetian hotel in particular. There are even canals inside. As a matter of fact, I've literally just discovered that the Marina Bay Sands is owned by the Las Vegas Sands corporation, owners of the Venetian hotel. I guess the similarity wasn't a coincidence after all!

The picture below depicts my favorite fountain, which is actually in the ceiling. If you look right at it you get the impression of being underwater as you can see the sunlight coming through the water. You can rent a boat for S$10 dollars, however I don't think it's worth it as the ride is pretty short. You can also go up to the top (another S$10) and take in the view while enjoying drinks or a meal at the Ku Dé Ta restaurant on the 57th floor, but be sure to make reservations first as it can fill up quickly.

Saturday, February 11th

After a lovely meeting with a friend for high tea at the TWG Tea Company, we went to visit the Titanic and Cartier exhibitions at the ArtScience Museum. The ArtScience Museum looks like a hand with the palm facing upward, and is referred to as the "The Welcoming Hand of Singapore" (see the picture of the Marina Bay Sands at the top of this post). Both of the exhibitions were extraordinary, but the Titanic one was a bit better, had more artifacts and things to look at, including a real "iceberg" you could touch, and was thus more expensive. We bought a combined ticket for S$28 (residents S$24). Interestingly, the museum is also part of the Marina Bay Sands Hotel. That explains why they had a Cartier exhibition, which although it was nice to look at the watches, was really just getting people to pay to see advertising for Cartier.

At 8pm there was a water laser show, which was also reminiscent of Vegas. Some aspects of it were quite similar to the Bellagio water show, but it was still nice to watch (and free). I suppose if you've never seen the Bellagio show, you would have been completely and utterly amazed by this one. It seemed to have more of a "Singapore is great" message to it though.

The Esplanade
We decided we'd had enough of Marina Bay Sands and ventured across a very nice pedestrian bridge to discover a free concert at the Esplanade (nicknamed the Durians because of it's shape) by a band called the Odd.inary Band. They played covers of popular songs like "Someone Like You" by Adele and "Forget You" by Cee Lo Green.

The Esplanade is a performing arts centre that also has a free concert series outdoors called "On the Waterfront" every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday evening, and the evening before and on a public holiday. It was nice to know there was something fun you could enjoy in downtown Singapore without having to break the bank at Marina Bay Sands.

The Odd.inary Band on the waterfront at the Esplanade

Monday, February 13, 2012


Julius and I celebrated our anniversary (it's been four years since we first met) on Friday at a classy restaurant called Flutes at the Fort.  He had the scallops and lobster. I had the cream of chicken soup and beef tenderloin with gratin dauphinois. Simply delicious. For dessert we shared the Earl Grey Crème Brûlée, which knocked our socks off. I mean, look how gorgeous it is! Tasted even better.

Earl Grey Crème Brûlée

A Friday night could not be complete without a trip to Clarke Quay, the party district of Singapore. There you can find a Hooters restaurant, loads of bars with various live bands playing, and we even stumbled upon a Persian restaurant called Shiraz with a crowd-stopping belly dancer.

We didn't participate in the debauchery of Clarke Quay that evening. Julius' main purpose for taking me there was the river cruise. The Singapore River Experience took us away from the mayhem of Clarke Quay and led us down the river towards the Marina in a cute old-fashioned boat. A recording in a peppy female voice told the story of Singapore's rise to prosperity as we gawked at the many massive skyscrapers lining the riverfront.

"The riverfront was transformed from a seedy neighborhood rife with mafia crime and prostitutes to a dining and entertainment oasis!" The recording boasted.

There was a very nice statue of children jumping into the river, which was part of a collection of statues showing the old way of life. The recording explained that children living in houses near the water's edge would play and jump into the river. You definitely won't find any poor kids living around the river these days, as the old houses have been torn down to pave the way for development.

The Singapore Flyer (far left), the ArtScience Museum (the oddly shaped building behind the boat), and the Marina Bay Sands (three towers with a boat on top)

On the way home in the MRT we saw two funny signs I'd like to share with you. Have you ever seen sunscreen that strong before??

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Chinese Garden and StraitsKitchen

Yesterday after lunch I decided to venture out in search of a garden centre in our vicinity. I love houseplants and wanted to buy a few to liven up the decor in our apartment a little. I ended up taking a slight detour to the Chinese Garden where I discovered an amazing koi pond full of fish.

Koi fish in the Chinese Garden

I also paid a visit to the Live Turtle and Tortoise Museum, which is within the walls of the Chinese Garden as well. They boast over 50 types of turtles and tortoises, some of which are scary looking like the snake turtle (right), or goofy like the pig nosed turtle.

It cost me S$5, which I think was a bit overpriced. I feel sorry for the poor turtles and tortoises that are cooped up in cages, although the lady working there assured me they took them out every so often to swim or run around. I doubt they ever take the guy below out of his cage on account of his being so mean. Don't be fooled by his friendly grin. Is he wearing lipstick?

After my adventures in the Chinese Garden I got all dolled up and went to meet Julius for a work dinner at the Grant Hyatt Hotel, right off the famous shopping street called Orchard Road. The restaurant was a fancy buffet-style place called Straits Kitchen.

Singapore is known for it's marketplace style dining where hawkers make and sell their own food. StraitsKitchen is a more up-scale hawkers food court in a restaurant setting with top-notch renditions of local favorites. You go and grab what you want, but there are also servers who wait on you hand and foot. For the buffet dinner it was S$52 per person (£26/$42/32). I would definitely go there again. The chicken rice (boiled chicken with rice cooked in chicken broth) was so flavorful and tender, it was absolutely to die for.

I have never before in my life seen so many extraordinary tropical fruits. My favorite was the mangosteen. It almost looks like a fake fruit from a Mario Bros video game. Once you've opened it by pulling it apart with your hands, you eat the little white fruits that look like garlic cloves! It is so sweet and so delicious. If you buy them you have to eat them the same day or keep them in the fridge to avoid instantly attracting a bunch of ants. It probably doesn't ship very well, which is why it's not readily available to purchase in the US or Europe (as far as I know).

Posing with Mangosteens: Julius is holding one that has been cut open so you can see the fruit inside 

Another highlight of the evening was Julius tasting durian ice cream. Durian is a very stinky fruit, and to most westerners it smells and tastes horrible, like rotting meat or cheese, but Singaporeans and especially kids go crazy for it! Julius didn't seem to like it much.

Julius tasting durian ice cream

Group picture! It was fantastic evening full excellent food and lively conversation. Thank you!

Monday, February 6, 2012

A Sunday Night Out in Singapore

Julius and I met Etienne and Domenico at Lakeside MRT station. It was nice to see some familiar faces after spending the last couple of days fending for ourselves. Etienne took us to a place called the Long Bar at the Raffles Hotel, which is home of the famous Singapore Sling cocktail. The Long Bar is a classy joint that feels like something out of an Indiana Jones film, with earthy decor inspired by Malayan plantations of the 1920s. Peanut shells on the floor and old-fashioned bamboo fans affixed to the ceiling add to the atmosphere, as does the light cast by green glass lamps adorning the bar top. You really end up paying for all that atmosphere though, as one Singapore Sling was more expensive than a very tasty vegetarian meal for four in Little India. 

A very sweet and fruity cocktail called the Singapore Sling

I was just about the only woman in a sea of Indian men in Little India. It was extremely crowded because it was Sunday when everybody has the day off. I'm not sure why there weren't more Indian women around. A friend told me that lots of Indian men come over here to work so they can send money back to their families in India. Anyway, it was like being in a completely different country. The streets were anything but clean, there were lots of diverse bad smells wherever I turned, and I didn't feel as safe. Fortunately I wasn't there alone.

Little India

We went to a restaurant called Komala Vilas and I had the Vegetable Briyani for S$7, which was served on a real banana leaf . A Singaporean colleague said that five years ago it was really hard to find a meal anywhere in Singapore for more than S$5. I guess times have changed! The food was delicious, and the presentation outstanding, so I can't complain.    

Vegetable Briyani

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Trip to the Botanic Garden and Random Musings

Singapore is a gardener's paradise. Yesterday we went to the Botanic Garden, which is absolutely amazing and huge! I will be going back soon to check out the orchid garden, which we didn't get to. We did, however, manage to stroll through the rainforest part, which contains some original trees from before modern-day Singapore was founded in 1819, as well as spiders the size of grapefruits! The Botanic Garden also contains some strange looking flowers, a very old tree that's featured on the S$5 bill, squirrels that look identical to those in the London parks (a British import?), very loud cricket type insects that sound like a car alarm going off, as well as the nicest toilet I have ever seen.

An unusual looking flower of which I do not know the name

A toilet at the Botanic Garden

On the way to the Botanic Garden we encountered an amusing sign in our apartment building that I just had to share with you all. Notice on the left the guy sleeping on the couch in the living room and the two men sleeping on bunk beds in the bedroom.

Here's a sign that's a little bit less funny, but to be honest, I haven't seen one mosquito yet here... and I hope it stays that way! (Update: After writing this yesterday I have discovered I have two mosquito bites! It's as if they heard me...)

Another strange thing about our apartment: We don't take our garbage out to a dumpster. Instead we have a garbage chute. We have no idea where it goes, but if you want to throw something away, you just put it in the chute. The building manager has reassured us that they separate the trash from the recycling, but I have my doubts.

Julius throwing some trash in the garbage chute

Interesting tid-bit: The most recently minted money of Singapore is made out of plastic, not cotton and linen like in the US. Although it's not as nice to handle, re-using plastic by making money from it is a very innovative idea.

Speaking of money, we've been facing some difficulties opening a Citibank account here as Julius has not yet received his Training Employment Pass (TEP) card. He has all the original paperwork that has been signed by the Ministry of Manpower (That's MOM for short!), but apparently that's not enough. I guess they're very by the books and lack a bit of flexibility or creativity when trying to find solutions to paperwork impasses. It's a bit frustrating to be quite honest.

We were however successful in getting a pre-paid sim card from M1. In Singapore the two big mobile carriers are M1 and SingTel. We went with M1 because we're hoping to get a three-month contract (which we also can't get yet without the TEP). With a three-month contract you can call three numbers for free, and as we only know about three people here, we hopefully won't have to pay for any calls! Important note: Make sure your mobile phone is unlocked before coming to Singapore as it will make your life so much easier.

Now that we have a Singaporean mobile number we were able to register for the free wi-fi that is provided by the government. In theory, all you have to do is provide your name, passport number, and Singaporean mobile number and you can register online. If you don't have a Singaporean mobile, you have to register in person and bring along your passport. However, I think this free public wi-fi thing is not something you should rely on because it seems that service is quite patchy and we haven't successfully connected to it yet. Maybe it only works in the downtown area?

Tomorrow Julius and I are going to Little India for dinner with colleagues from Imperial and NTU, so we're looking forward to that. Hope you've been having a nice weekend wherever you are, and thanks for reading!

Friday, February 3, 2012

Our Arrival in Singapore

We're here! We made it! We arrived Wednesday afternoon at 17:15. Our 12-hour flight with British Airways was very smooth. I managed to sleep a record-breaking eight hours during the flight thanks to my Night Nurse cold medicine. That stuff really knocks you out! For the record, I really did have a cold, so I wasn't taking it just to drug myself.

My first observations upon arrival in Singapore: 

It's very green. There are loads of amazing "houseplants" all over the place. Beautiful orchids abound. At the moment it's not as hot as I had been expecting, because although it's pretty warm at 28°C / 82°F with 96% humidity, it is still bearable. People here have told us that the weather is still pretty cool. It will start getting hot soon. 

Our apartment is out in the "country", as our taxi driver called it, but it's more like the outskirts than the countryside. The apartment is very spacious, especially for London standards. However, it's extremely basic, and it's obvious that the construction company cut all the corners they could to save money. In Singapore new apartment buildings are sprouting like wild mushrooms all the time because of all the money that can be made from extremely high rent prices. 

Positive things about the apartment: No carpet, we have our own bathroom with shower, a friendly roommate from Germany called Tim, and a nice view of Jurong Lake from our window. Negative things: The street below us is very noisy (fortunately we've brought lots of ear plugs), no stove to cook food on, not as clean as I had expected, and there's a noisy parrot/rooster type creature that starts crowing at 6am. 

The view from our balcony

After dropping off our luggage we ventured out to a nearby food court. Fortunately our flatmate Tim explained the food cleanliness grading system beforehand. If the food stall has an "A", it's very clean. "B" is okay, and "C" should be avoided. Legend has it there's a "D" stall out there somewhere, but nobody's ever survived to tell the tale.

The food court near our apartment had "B" and "C" food stalls only, and we got a dodgy vibe from it, so we got out of there and went to the MRT (metro) station which was only a minute's walk down the road. MRT stations are happening places and there's a huge shopping mall at nearly every MRT station except ours! However, at the time we did not know this, and decided to settle on the only food shop at Lakeside MRT called "Munch House". 

Where we bought our first dinner in Singapore

We spent today, Thursday, visiting the lab at NTU (Nanyang Technological University) where Julius will be working, and taking care of admin stuff. Tomorrow we're going downtown and are looking forward to seeing the heart of Singapore.

On our way back from NTU we stopped off for groceries at Boon Lay MRT where there's a massive four story shopping mall. We went to a supermarket called "Fair Price" which must have been meant ironically because we found the prices to be quite high. In fact, they were comparable to what we used to pay for groceries in London. The prices were probably so high because Singapore doesn't produce much food and has to import everything from other countries. For example, a 375g jar of Nutella costs S$4.90 (USD $3.92, £2.50 or 3€). However, one bite from a perfectly ripe and juicy mango made it all worth it.

It's funny how you see a lot of signs for "Western Food" everywhere here, just as one would see signs for "Asian" food in the west. It seems absurd to lump French, Italian, and American food into one category. I guess people from Thailand, China, and Japan probably feel the same way when they see signs for "Asian" food in Europe and the U.S.