Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Singapore Zoo

Wild animals at the Singapore Zoo. From left to right: Julius, Sophie, Kelly, Sif, and Ritchie

As you stroll along a paved footpath surrounded by a wall of ferns and leafy green trees, you glance up at an orange furry Orang-Utan and her baby hanging from a network of vines above your head. Casually chewing on a bamboo stick, the pair looks as though they haven't got a care in the world. Not far away, another Orang-Utan is lazily crossing from one tree to another via a swaying vine bridge. The animals are so close they could jump down to say hello if they wanted, but they prefer to keep their distance, safe up in the rain forest canopy.

This is the Singapore Zoo. Not your traditional zoo where animals and humans are kept at a conservative distance from one another, but a more modern, progressive zoo that strives for people and animals to interact as much as possible. They understand the excitement of happening upon real animals in the wild, and try to replicate this by letting some of the docile animals wander around freely in the park so guests can encounter them naturally.

Like the Orang-Utans. Or the turtles and harmless snakes roaming around. Or the beautiful butterflies and birds that circulate freely. For a small fee you can even go on an elephant ride.

This is one guy I would NOT want to encounter naturally, and fortunately for us he was not roaming around freely. This is the Komodo Dragon, a cousin of the dinosaurs. When attacking his prey, he plays it cool and moves very nonchalantly at first, until he suddenly decides to pounce! If you somehow manage to escape and he doesn't tear you apart, you will die from infection. The Komodo Dragon's saliva contains over 50 different strains of bacteria, and only one person has been known to have survived from a bite.

After wandering around the zoo and taking pictures of the amazing animals, we decided to rest our feet and re-hydrate whilst enjoying the Elephants of Asia show. It was fascinating to see how strong elephants were and how good their balance was, but overall the show was a little too long and slow-moving. If they took out the excessive banter, they could easily shave off a good 10 minutes.

Apart from this, my only complaint about the zoo, which is not really the zoo's fault, is that it's not easy to reach. If you're downtown, it's not that bad because there's a direct bus called the Singapore Attractions Express, which stops at most of the big hotels. But if you live in the west of Singapore, you have to take the MRT, then a public bus. The buses weren't running frequently at all, maybe because it was a Sunday, and we ended up having to wait 45 min to an hour for the bus. In all, it took an hour and a half to two hours to get there, each way, which is just insane because it would only take about 20 minutes to reach by taxi.

We bought the "Zoo-per saver" which is a day pass with unlimited boat and tram usage. We used the boat, which was scenic and nice, but waaay too slow. We didn't use the tram at all, so that was a waste of money. If I return to the Singapore Zoo, I will just get the regular ticket.

Right on schedule just like exactly one week ago in Pulau Ubin, we got caught in an afternoon storm. The park is normally open until 6pm, but the place cleared out at 5pm because of the crappy weather. Fortunately we had the good sense to bring along our umbrellas this time, and didn't end up completely drenched.

Dr Cornelius

Friday, March 23, 2012

Lost in Pulau Ubin

To the northeast of mainland Singapore, not more than a 10 minute boat ride away, is a tiny island called Pulau Ubin. People mostly rent bicycles and ride around on this un-developed island which is known as the last 'kampung', or village, in Singapore, because it reminds people of slower paced lifestyle and simpler time. 

Before leaving for Pulau Ubin on Sunday March 18th, Sophie jokes that we should take a before and after picture. "In the before picture we're all really energetic and excited, and in the after picture we're like this," she slumps down a little and closes her eyes in a mock state of pure exhaustion. 

I run to get my camera, put it on top of the TV and set the 10 second timer. We try to take one of those ridiculous pictures with everyone suspended in mid air. Julius is the only one who manages to pull it off, only because he keeps jumping repeatedly and somehow happens to get the timing right. 

Left to right: Kelly, Sif, Sophie, and Jumpin' Julius

After traversing the entire country of Singapore by foot, then MRT, then bus, then foot again, we finally arrive at the Changi Ferry Terminal an hour and a half later. We queue to board one of the "bum boats" that will take us from the mainland to Pulau Ubin. There's no schedule; as soon as a boat has 12 passengers, it's ready to depart. It's really cheap too. It's only S$2.50 per person, and 2 additional dollars if you're bringing your own bicycle.

Stepping onto the bum boat is like stepping into a time warp. The boat is so old and dirty, which sounds dreadful, but it is actually refreshing to see something with some character -- a rare occurrence in Singapore where everything's usually so sterile and plain. We pull out of Changi Ferry Terminal and the bum boat driver is spinning the boat's wheel, and I can't help thinking of Mickey Mouse in Steamboat Willie, which for some reason reminds me of my childhood although that cartoon has got to be about eighty years old and I'm only in my late twenties. I blame re-runs.

Once we arrive on the island, the first order of business is lunch, then renting a bicycle, both of which are easy to accomplish as there is no shortage of restaurants or bicycle rental shops. The bikes are ridiculously cheap (S$8 for the whole day) and exceptionally crappy. I guess you get what you pay for, except for Julius who springs for a decent bike at nearly double the price (S$15).

After negotiating a bit, we end up with four bikes (three crappy and one good one) for S$35. The gears on Sophie's bike are a bit finicky, so Julius the bicycle repair specialist takes the bike for a spin to adjust the gears for her while we take a picture of him riding "Asian-style." I apologize if this sounds a bit racist, but let me explain: This is when you leave the seat really low and ride around in the granny gear (the easiest gear). Not only is this really bad for your knees, but looks really funny too. There is no advantage to riding a bicycle this way as far as we can tell, but for some reason we see countless people of Asian heritage riding bicycles like this, which is why we've called it "Asian-style" for lack of a better term.

We take off towards the beach at the Noordin Campsite with the wind in our hair. We make it to the beach in no time, but are met with a sight of utter disappointment. The beach is uglier than sin. The sand is a hideous brown color, there are lots of rocks of an unaesthetic size and shape, as well as driftwood and rubbish strewn all over the beach. If that isn't enough, an imposing fence has been erected to prevent erosion of the beach. I have never seen a more ugly beach in all my life. I can think of nothing but getting away from this place as soon as possible, before it's image is embedded in my mind forever. It may already be to late.

We consult the signboard with a map of Pulau Ubin and decide to go off-roading a bit, which is way more fun, and the scenery is amazing. We take some pictures of us on our bikes, trekking deep in the heart of the rain forest.

Sophie is struggling a bit and clearly isn't happy about something, so we stop to see what the trouble is. She's worried about getting tetanus from a scratch she got from a wire that's come loose on her bicycle. She is also a bit muddy and sweaty. Sophie hates being sweaty. 

"Here, Sophie. Use this." Julius is holding half a coconut full of murky water out to her, a grin on his face.

"Oh yeah great, let me just rub a little Dengue in the wound. That will help."

We get back on our bikes and keep going because it looks like a storm is approaching and I notice some mosquitoes fluttering around my legs. I manage to swat a couple before jumping back on my bike. We're being eaten alive, and the mention of Dengue Fever has got me shaken.

The trail starts looking a bit wilder and narrower, and I start having doubts when I have to scramble over a fallen coconut tree blocking the path. The strange thing is we hear music playing, so civilization must not be too far away.

We cross a cement bridge with a huge chunk that's collapsed. Probably the result of some recent storm, I think to myself. On the left of the bridge there's a river, and on the right there's a dry river bed. We carry on and riding, and I notice a very old "uncle" in a little red boat. He's using a single paddle to propel him and his boat full of crab cages to who knows where.

"Hello uncle!" I shout and wave to him. He waves back then carries on paddling. I snap his picture.

We continue following the river and we come to some kind of fishing shack. There are quite a few fishermen waiting for the fish to bite. At least it's comforting to see humanity.

On the right is a huge lake, and the path is very wide. Sophie takes the lead. I'm looking around taking in the scenery when I notice her up ahead. She's teetering on her tiptoes, stuck in the middle of a muddy stretch.

"Ahh!! I'm stuck!!"

Her shoes are getting really muddy and I'm worried she's going to topple over into the mud.

"Keep going!" Julius shouts. The longer she stays there, the deeper she sinks into the mud. We all sigh in relief as she somehow manages to get across.

"The trick is to keep going and don't stop," He informs Sif and me as he takes off towards the muddy patch and cruises through without a problem. He makes it look easy.

Sif and I manage to make it across without too much trouble except that we're now really muddy. We all continue on the path that takes us around the edge of the lake. Julius has now taken the lead, but he's slowing down. Something's not right.

He stops and turns around to shout something to us, "The path gets really narrow up here!" It's not normal for Julius to stop unless there's really something wrong.

"I don't think this is the right way!" He rides back to us and we decide to go back across the muddy patch and try a different route we saw on the way there. Unfortunately that path is a dead-end as well.

"What do we do now?" We're all surprisingly calm. I guess we don't feel very lost because we've just seen people at the fisherman's shack. The only problem is that it has started to drizzle, which is like a ticking time bomb, counting down to the moment the deluge explodes from the sky. You start getting used to the routine after you've lived in Singapore for a month and a half.

"Let's go back to where those guys were fishing. At least there's a roof there we can huddle under in case it starts chucking it down," Sophie puts forward. We all agree and make our way back to the fisherman's shack at break-neck speed as thunder and lightning crack in the distance.

When we reach the fisherman's shack, one of the uncles starts talking to us.

"Hey! Way out over there lah!" He points to an inconspicuous bridge where the words "Way Out" have been scribbled in chalk.

"Maybe should move sign over there," He points to the fork in the road where we went straight when we should have turned left. It was clearly the most logical place for a sign. Oh well, we we are just relieved to have found the way out, so we just chuckle and ask him to take a picture of us so we can remember the momentous occasion.

We find the paved road in no time and we laugh with relief. There's even a cafe, albeit a very shabby one, right across the road. We park our bikes and joke about how we definitely deserve a cold drink. An old man with an umbrella at the ready waddles over to take our order.

An isotonic drink in hand, I sigh as I collapse onto one of the plastic yellow chairs. That's when we hear it. The pattering sound starts in the nearby trees... then it's already here, and it's like someone has turned on a faucet.

"Perfect timing!" Sif says with a smile. And she's right. We couldn't have timed it better if we had tried.

Drenched people start running towards the cafe out of nowhere. It looks like the storm is doing wonders for the old man's business.

After about an hour of playing "I spy" and "guess who I am", it's almost 5:30pm and the rain still hasn't stopped. It has let up a lot though.  We have to return the bikes by 6pm, so we decide to brave to the storm, drop off the bikes as quick as we can, and get the hell off this island.

The "town" was literally only a 5 minute bike ride away. We get pretty wet, but manage to be on a boat heading back to the mainland in a record breaking 10 minutes.

You've already seen the "before" picture. This is what the "after" picture looks like:

On the way back home in the MRT I manage to beat one of Julius' Angry Birds high scores without even really trying. It's the perfect ending to the perfect day.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Aftermath

Clockwise from left: Heath, Alex, Sophie, Sif, Ritchie, and Julius at Makansutra Gluttons Bay

When we got back from Bali we had two new roommates waiting for us: Sif from Denmark and Ritchie from China. Sif is doing her PhD in Mathematics Education and will be in Singapore for only a month, and Ritchie is doing an internship here as part of his PhD.

The other great thing that happened when we got back from Bali was I received my Work Holiday Pass and can now officially work in Singapore! I picked it up from MOM (the Ministry of Manpower) last Tuesday. I found out I was eligible for the pass thanks to Sophie, who assured me that recent university graduates who are under the age of 30 can apply, as well as current university students. You can visit the MOM website for more information, but just be warned that the information is really unclear, which is why I'm so glad Sophie was "in the know", otherwise I might never have applied. The pass is valid for 6 months and includes a multiple entry visa, so it's actually really similar to the Training Employment Pass that Julius has. It wasn't too expensive at S$120, but up quite a lot from last year's price of only S$40.

The day I picked up the pass I went straight to work. The timing couldn't have been more perfect as I got a call that I was needed for some freelance work doing a voice-over for a company called Koobits. They specialize in educational technology for children and have an online tutoring site to help your kid get ahead (or catch up) in school. I edited then read and recorded about 40 essays in three days. These audio files will be used to help kids improve their listening comprehension. It was nice to be able to work again and earn some money to help offset some of the costs of our Bali adventure!

Then on Friday we went out for dinner and drinks with the new roommates and our friends Alex and Heath. We all met downtown near the Esplanade at a hawker centre called Makansutra Gluttons Bay. All the hawkers there are hand-picked by Makansutra, a well-known food critic group, so the quality is tops and is therefore a bit more expensive than other hawker centres.

A food orgy at Makansutra

By the way, "makan" means "eat" or "eating" in malay and is commonly used in Singapore, like in the Singlish phrase "Makan already?" which means "Have you already eaten?" We learned this, among several other phrases, thanks to the Singlish book Sophie gave Julius for his birthday!

The Merlion

After stuffing ourselves we decided to stretch our legs a little and take a walk along the marina, which Alex explained is really the world's first urban reservoir, and uses a complex system of dams and pumps to separate the salt water, leaving only fresh water behind. Singapore is a very small country with a large population, and they used to have a lot of water shortages, which explains why there are so many reservoirs around. On our walk we discovered a lot of the region's local wildlife: the Merlion, which is half mermaid, half lion and is Singapore's symbol of tourism; and Robin Hood and Cat Woman. How anyone could wear winter boots in a tropical climate, I'll never know...

Robin Hood and Cat Woman

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Bali Part III

The night of Friday, March 9th, the entire jetty at Ayana Resort and Spa was only for us. Bamboo xylophone players beckoned Julius and me to our table, which was set atop bamboo mat covered in rose petals. The dining area was separated from the rest of the jetty by a bamboo curtain, and bamboo decorations had been affixed to the pier's railing. I felt like Julius and I were the only couple in the world. Two oil burning torches cast a primitive glow on the surroundings, and the gold and white umbrella decorations reminded us that we were on the tropical island of Bali. The sun was setting, and waves crashed melodically on the shore. Drinks in hand, we posed for a few pictures taken by our very own dedicated waiter, then tried our hand at the bamboo xylophones before sitting down at our secluded table.

The table was decorated with a beachy sea theme. There was a beautiful conch shell, a white ceramic holder with a tiny candle inside, and a picture in a driftwood decorated frame, which was ours to keep as a souvenir of our special evening. I examined the framed picture. It was of the romantic pier setting, along with our names, the date, and the menu of the extravagant supper in which we were about to indulge.

The first course was called "Pesta Trio", which was a chicken and mushroom tart with cauliflower purée. This was followed by the Lobster Consommé Royale. Julius is more into "surf"and I'm into "turf", so for the main course he had the duo of steamed rainbow lobster and lobster en croute, while I had the chargrilled beef tenderloin, truffled potato mash, onion confit and port wine reduction. For dessert, a tout guanaja chocolate bomb filled with chocolate mousse for me, and a banana and coffee crème brûlée with Balinese fruit for Julius.

Right before they brought our mains I decided to take a potty break and use the opportunity to discuss possible special birthday arrangements for Julius. The waiter surprised me when he reassured me that the necessary preparations had already been made for "Mr. Julius' birthday." Very impressed with the attentiveness of the Ayana staff, I made my way back down the long creaky pier as the bamboo music filled the balmy night air.

I smiled as I saw Julius waiting for me at the end of the pier, and we embraced while taking in the scenery around us. The sun had set long ago. Everything was quiet, even the bamboo xylophone players had stopped playing. The only sound was the occasional wave rolling past us. We were now completely alone on our little pier, enveloped by the darkness of the sea out to the northwest, and the bejeweled lights of civilization to the east and southeast. As we looked down the pier, the sight of the waiter arriving with our dinner brought us back to reality.

As we finished the delicious main course, we settled back in our chairs in anticipation of the dessert. Glancing up at the sky, it occurred to me that we couldn't see any stars or the moon. That meant it was cloudy, and we both noticed that the tide was rising and the waves had begun crashing more forcefully on the shore. The pier would vibrate a bit when an especially strong set of waves would begin. The weather was changing quickly, as it frequently did in tropical climates.

The sound of approaching footsteps brought my attention back, and before us was a group of waiters carrying a cake and singing happy birthday. I joined in singing and whipped out the camera to take a picture of Julius with his cake.

As we were devouring the tiramisu-style cake, I reminded Julius to save room because they were still bringing the other dessert that came with the meal. And sure enough, soon there after the chocolate lover's delight and crème brûlée masterpiece arrived.

While enjoying the abundance of desserts thoroughly, I felt the first few drops of the impending storm. Remembering how we had got caught in a storm at the Rock Bar just the night before, I told Julius we should start thinking about going soon, as the weather was worsening.

"Not yet," he said.

I shrugged and continued injecting myself with chocolate.

"Something bit me on the leg," Julius said.

"Hm." I was too enthralled in my chocolate binge to pay attention. It was very common to get bitten by insects in tropical countries.

Suddenly he grabbed my hand. I looked up from my dessert, and by the look on his face, I could tell something strange was happening.

He looked so happy and his eyes were sparkling brighter than the stars ever could. Before I could say anything, he started telling me how today was the most special day he'd ever had.

"When I was out there surfing I looked around and the water was so clear and beautiful. It was perfect. I thought about how you had organized this for me and how you were waiting for me so patiently on the beach, and at that moment, I realized I loved you more than surfing."

And with that he got down on one knee and pulled out a little red box. When he opened it, a diamond ring was sparkling as brightly as his eyes. He was still speaking, but I couldn't hear or say anything. As he took the ring out of the box, I thought, Oh god, what if it falls into the sea and is lost forever? Apparently Julius was thinking the same thing because he gripped that ring so tight there was no way it was going anywhere but on my finger. We both stared at it on my hand, mesmerized by its beauty. It was a perfect fit.

"So what is your answer?" He was still on one knee waiting for me to say "yes" or "no."

I blink and without even pausing to think I exclaim, "I do!" with a tremendous smile on my face. We both laugh and kiss each other. Raindrops the size of grapes start landing on us, but we don't care. We're engaged!

The voice of our waiter breaks our embrace. "Mr Julius, the storm is coming! Need to go now!" He's holding an umbrella out to us.

"I just proposed! And she said yes!" Julius was ecstatic.

"Oh, the big one! Congratulations sir!"

The waiter was able to snap a couple of pictures of us before the downpour forced us to high-tail it to a covered table that had been prepared for us at the other end of the jetty. The waiter also relocated our half-eaten desserts so we could enjoy them, now as fiancés, safe from the rain that was coming down in bucketfuls.

Sitting down at the new table, I had a perfect view of the jetty and where we had been just moments before. It was like I was briefly frozen in time, looking at myself through someone else's eyes. I realized how fortunate I was to be on vacation in Bali, and to have friends, family, and a fiancé who care about me immensely. I thought about the future and all the adventures that lie ahead, and I squeezed Julius' hand.  


Friday, March 16, 2012

Bali Part II

It was Julius' birthday, Friday March 9th. We woke up at 6am, but for once in my life I didn't mind getting up early. I was excited because I had planned a surprise activity for Julius. I had packed his bag the night before, so he had no idea where I was taking him. The only clue he got was when I told him how he should dress for the day: "Wear your bathing suit." This sent him into a frenzy of excitement, because he loves anything to do with water.

He started narrowing it down, trying to work out what I had up my sleeve. I just listened while wearing my best poker face. He concluded that it could be white water rafting, surfing, snorkeling, scuba diving, spending the day at the beach, kayaking, wake boarding, or taking a boat ride to a nearby island. I was really enjoying keeping him in suspense! It was 6:30am. Just an hour before we had to be in the lobby. It was time for breakfast.

Breakfast was an international buffet, and my eyes lit up when I saw the array of foods laid out everywhere. There was Japanese, Indonesian, American, and Chinese food. An assortment of breads and pastries, including donuts, waffles and pancakes filled a table. On a nearby counter there was bacon, sausage, potatoes, and an omelette station where you could choose your ingredients and a chef prepared it right in front of you, or if you preferred, you could have your eggs cooked any way you wanted: poached, scrambled, fried, hard boiled, you name it! Another counter was decorated with different tropical fruits like mangosteens, pineapple, melon, watermelon, rambutan made my mouth water. There was also juice stand with guava, mixed fruit, orange, and watermelon juices, and even coconut milk served in a coconut with a little straw.

We decided to focus on the pastries and breads for our first breakfast in Bali. Fortunately we had three more breakfasts remaining to dedicate to experimenting with the other varieties of food.

We got to the lobby right on time at 7:30am, and I looked around anxiously. There was no sign of the guy. A nightmare scene started playing through my mind: We're waiting there for an hour, the guy doesn't show up, the surprise is a failure and the day is ruined. The worst thing was I didn't have a backup plan.

I smiled at Julius, blocking the negative thoughts from my mind. I tried to appear relaxed. I'm completely at ease. 

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a very dark Balinese guy with sun-bleached hair. As he came our way, I noticed the words "Odyssey Surf School" on his t-shirt. Julius followed my gaze and a look of pure excitement dawned on his face.

"Are you Julius?" The surfer dude asked.


"Ready to go on a surfing tour?"

"Ahhh!! YES!!!!" I've never seen Julius so excited. He was like a teeny bopper at a Justin Bieber concert. The van was loaded up with four boards of various sizes, and we departed for Turtle Island to the tune of the Beach Boys "Surfing Safari".

I hung out on the beach tanning (burning rather) while the instructor, Made (pronounced "Mah-day"), and Julius surfed for a good three hours. Later Julius told me the water was so clear he could see the coral reef several meters below him. Coincidentally he had taken a picture of that exact break from the airplane because he thought it was such a beautiful spot. He was really happy with his surprise. But it wasn't over yet!

Julius and Made surfing at Turtle Island
Turtle Island break from the air

After a quick lunch of delicious fried noodles and saying lots of "No sook suh'mah" (no thank you in Balinese) to persistent older ladies touting massages, we headed to Uluwatu to check out the most famous and dangerous surf spot in Bali. Don't worry, we didn't surf there, we just wanted to see it.

Uluwatu was beautiful. It was a bit tricky to get to because you had to traverse a network of flimsy wooden bridges and ghetto cement staircases to reach a dubious bar/restaurant staffed with more aging masseuses. From there you could finally get a clear view of the sea.

Uluwatu. Notice the extremely flimsy wooden staircase ascending into the rock on the left.

The birthday surprise was a huge success, and I was so happy that Julius had enjoyed himself immensely. There we just enough time to get back to the hotel, shower and take a quick nap before our 6pm rendezvous on Ayana Resorts's private pier for the romantic lobster dinner our parents had booked for us. The dinner was so epic that it deserves a post of its own.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Bali Part I

When we arrived in Bali last Thursday afternoon, a driver from the Ayana Resort and Spa was already waiting for us at the airport.

"Where are you from?" He asked as we made our way to the car.

"I'm from California and he's from Barcelona."

"Barcelona! Very good football! You like football? Mr. Messi!"

We didn't realize that this was going to be the first of many very similar conversations. As soon as anyone found out Julius was from Barcelona, they loved us and started raving about FC Barcelona and Lionel Messi. One driver told us he gets up at 4am to watch Barcelona play and then goes straight to work afterwards. Now that's a real football fan.

As we were pulling up to the hotel, the driver informed us that he was taking us to the villa check-in. I looked at Julius and a smile crossed my face. Did Julius upgrade us to a villa?? 

"Did you do this?" Julius asked me with a grin.

"No, I didn't." But I couldn't help smiling, so he didn't believe me. If I didn't do it, and he didn't do it, then who did?

We sat down in the villa check-in lobby, which was an open plan seating area that was completely surrounded by water. Wearing plumeria and marigold leis around our necks, we were given jasmine-scented cold towels to refresh ourselves, as well as a delicious fruit juice beverage with a wedge of pineapple. Now this was the life.

Julius and I at the villa check-in lobby at Ayana

"Excuse me... could you tell me who upgraded us to a villa?" I asked. It's got to be our parents...

"The hotel, ma'am. We chose you!"


"It's a one bedroom villa with an ocean view, a pool, and your own butler. Breakfast is also included."

Julius and I couldn't believe our luck! Or maybe it was that really expensive romantic dinner we had booked for tomorrow night or maybe it was the fact that it was the low season that led them "choose us", but we didn't care! We were going to be staying in our own apartment in Bali! But before we could be whisked away to our private villa, there was something I had to take care of first.

"I need to make a phone call." I looked at Julius. He took the hint and went for a walk. The next day was March 9th, his birthday, and I urgently needed to put the finishing touches on his surprise. I had arranged everything from Singapore the week before leaving, but the plans had fallen through at the last minute. I couldn't relax until everything was taken care of.

After about 30 minutes on the phone, I finally managed to get everything sorted out. Our vacation could officially begin! On the way to the villa I whispered in Julius' ear: "Be ready to go tomorrow at 7:30am." That meant we actually had to be up at 6am. That night I would prepare his bag with the appropriate clothes and gear for the activity I had organized so he wouldn't be able to garner any hints by asking me what he should bring along.

When we got the villa, we thought we were dreaming. It was every bit as amazing as we had imagined.

The entrance to our villa

In addition to our own pool, we also had two showers (one outdoors and one indoors) and a huge bathtub filled with rose and plumeria petals to welcome us.

The sun was beginning to set, so we decided to catch the sunset at Ayana's famous Rock Bar, a very classy bar set in the side of a rocky cliff with stunning views over Jimbaran Bay. Because we were staying in a villa we had "VIP access" and didn't have to queue for the cable car that took us down to the Rock Bar. Unfortunately the weather wasn't on our side, and we barely had time to enjoy our french fries and pita bread with three delicious homemade dips (ketchup, curry mayo, and hummus), or the out of this world mojitos with sugar cane, before a torrential downpour forced us to take shelter.

After hastily finishing our aperitif, we decided to find some real Indonesian food to get a taste of Bali. We went to a restaurant at our hotel called Padi and ordered steamed vegetables and tofu with peanut sauce and beef rendang with steamed rice. While enjoying our food on the terrace, we started hearing weird sounds coming from the other side of the restaurant.

Steamed vegetables and tofu with peanut sauce (left) and beef rendang (right)

Upon investigating, we realized that it was a dance troupe. Bali is famous for it's traditional dance performances, and we were fortunate enough to catch part of one. They were performing the story of the Ramayana, which is a Hindu epic, and happens to be Julius' dad's favorite story.

The story is thus: Prince Rama, his wife Sita, and his brother Laksmana are banished from their kingdom and comdemned to wander through the forest. One day they are tricked by the evil Rawana, who kidnaps Sita.
With the help of the mythical Garuda, and Hanuman - a white monkey general, Prince Rama eventually rescues his wife.

After dinner and the performance we decided to call it a night because we had to be up bright and early the next day. Julius had no idea where I was taking him and I couldn't wait to see the look on his face tomorrow when he found out.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Peranakan Cuisine and Tim's Farewell

This is a great way to start your day. Some vitamin water, some waffles with butter and maple-flavored golden syrup. Look closely at the vitamin water's label. It's very Singapore-specific. Now that's damn good marketing. At the time, I didn't realize that it was a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The day started normal enough. Sophie and I met Alex and Heath at Paya Lebar Station. They wanted to show us Joo Chiat neighborhood and then take us to a Peranakan Restauant for lunch.

Joo Chiat is a predominantly Malay neighborhood where a lot of older buildings are still standing. It's full of pastel colored pre-war shophouses that reminded me of houses in San Francisco, but with an Asian flair. Some of the buildings are residential only, and others also have shops on the ground floor level. 
Unfortunately a crime had recently been committed in the area, so one of the over-sized "Crime Alert" signs had been put up to warn everyone.

Sophie, Heath, Alex and me in Joo Chiat Road

Singapore was a major trade post for the British, Dutch and other Western countries in the 15th and 16th centuries. Many traders decided to settle permanently in Singapore and married local women from China, Malaya or India. The term Peranakan, meaning 'descendant' in Malay, refers to the culture and people born of local mothers and foreign fathers. They also sometimes call themselves Baba Nonya, Baba referring to the gentlemen and Nonya the ladies. If you'd like to learn more about Peranakan culture, you can visit the Peranakan museum, which allows you to explore and learn about the culture through the many artifacts on display in the setting of a colonial style building from 1912.

Alex and Heath took us to a Nonya Peranakan Restaurant so we could taste the traditional home-style cuisine which is a unique blend of Malay, Chinese and other cuisines. The food at Chilli Padi Nonya Restaurant was of course absolutely delicious. My favorite dishes were two-fold: The first was the "Top Hats" appetizer, which came with six crunchy pastry shells filled with sautéed turnips and topped with lettuce, a prawn, and a tasty sweet and sour sauce. The second was a dish called Beef Rendang. The beef was cooked in coconut milk and was so tender it was falling apart. We also tried some very nice desserts, and I really liked the Sour Sop Kachang, which was Sour Sop (a type of fruit) over ice shavings.

"Top Hats"

Clockwise from lower left: a spicy fish cake wrapped in cabbage, a chicken dish, beef rendang, and squid with beans

The desserts: The one in the top right corner is Sour Sop Kachang, below that is Sego Gula Melaka (similar to tapioca pearls, but made from the sego palm and topped with palm sugar), and I can't remember the one Sophie got in the top left corner but it was quite colorful! 

In the evening we went to Tim's going away gathering, which of course took place at his favorite hangout: the pedestrian bridge in Clarke Quay. 

While waiting for more people to turn up, Sophie and I noticed a strange guy sitting near us who kept looking over our way. Before we could warn Tim and the others, it was too late. He had already engaged Tim in conversation. Sensing an introduction on the horizon, Sophie and I promptly decided not to give Mr Creepy our real names, as if that would make him go away any faster. It didn't work, and he ended up drinking a lot of our beer and tried to hit on us by talking about how big his muscles were and bragging how easy it was to smoke marijuana without getting in trouble. Thank you, but I'd rather not end up in jail. 

I'm not quite sure what Tim's doing.

"Everybody on your knees!" we suddenly hear somebody shout. Ready to drop down and surrender my wallet thinking a highway robbery was taking place, I was relieved to discover it was only a local pub crawl on their way to a night of self-obliteration. Everyone in the group had to get on their knees and take a shot of a pink Bacardi liquor before the pub crawl could resume. Sensing the opportunity to be in the spotlight AND get free alcohol, I instantly joined the queue, pretending to be part of the crawl. I didn't fool anyone and lots of people started shouting, especially when they saw Julius join as well. It was a fun photo-op, and because of my craziness, the guy let me stay and gave me the last shot afterall! 

Joining the pub crawl queue
Okay, so we maybe we didn't end up passing out and waking up the next day somewhere in Clarke Quay with dried Mee Goreng stuck to our faces, but we had a pretty good time and we hope Tim managed to catch his flight the next day thanks to the Red Bull we gave him as a going-away present. God knows he probably needed it.