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Archive for October, 2011

An IKEA Weekend

Nancy arrived early Saturday morning. I set the alarm for an unreasonably early hour and set off to catch the first train of the day to get to the airport to meet her. Even at 5:30, I was not the only person on the train, and as we went from one stop to the next, the train gradually filled up. By the time we got to the airport – two transfers later – the cars weren’t quite rush hour full, but there was definitely a good sized crowd. As expected, at the last stop – the airport – the station was well-organized for the traveler to be able to find a departing or arriving flight and get to the correct terminal with minimal confusion.

Unfortunately, the train ride took longer than I anticipated, and Nancy had begun to wonder whether she was stuck somewhere in Asia with no money and no ticket home. I found her wandering through the airport, pushing a cartload of luggage, and anxious to get to the apartment. The taxi stand has a Disneyworld-style serpentine line of ropes and posts to compress a big crowd into a small, orderly space. When she first arrived and started exploring, Nancy wondered why such a big area had been set aside for so few people. By the time I arrived and we wheeled the baggage cart into position, the line was about half full – at 6:30 in the morning! The line moved quickly, and we were soon in a cab giving the driver our address.

Our street – Cornwall Gardens – is a double challenge for taxi drivers. First, it is a street that is unfamiliar to most of them. Second, they tend not to understand my accent when I say the name. It is an interesting challenge trying to explain where we live when I really have no idea. The driver wants me to give him some help and directions. Sorry – I’m genuinely and completely clueless. And my American accent seems to work at cross-purposes to their Singaporean accent. The first time I gave a driver the address, it took us awhile to work out that he thought I said something-something “mall”. Nancy made the excellent suggestion that we carry a map to point out our street. Definitely worth a try.

After a nap and look around the apartment, it was time for another trip to IKEA. More clothes hangers, a lamp, a work desk, a shoe bench, and other odds and ends. The odds and ends were easy and all went into our big blue IKEA bag. The furniture was a little more problematic. Instead of wrestling it off the shelves and onto a cart, we “inquired of the staff” who looked it up in their computer inventory and printed out our order. We gave the order slip to the cashier who stamped it, and then we took it to the Merchandise Pickup counter. Stamped again, and this time assigned a pickup number – watch for the number on the tv monitor. So far so good, but now we had to deal with some practical realities. First, the desk, in its flat box, was too big to fit into a normal taxi for a ride home. Second, by that time, it was raining hard. Nancy, still a little sleep deprived from the trip, was starting to wonder about the wisdom of an Asian adventure.

After twenty five minutes or so, our number appeared on the monitor and our big boxes were wheeled out of the back room. There is a wall phone with a direct line to the Singapore central cab dispatching agency, and I called. Although there is no real language barrier, there is a very distinct accent barrier, which is magnified on the phone. I successfully explained where we were and that we needed a “maxi-cab” (the phrase used by the IKEA staff). “We don’t have maxi-cabs. We have London cabs and MPVs. Largest package size is 1.7 meters. Ok?” Um, let’s see. I don’t know what an MPV is, and I really have no idea whether this box is longer than 1.7 meters. “Ok – sure! I think we’re ok,” (I said, hopefully.) “What’s your handphone number?” Ummm – I have no idea, it’s in Nancy’s bag, she’s way over there, and I can’t even look.  Then I stopped talking to a person and started listening to a recorded message – nominally in English, but only some of which I could understand – that repeated every 20 seconds. After five minutes, I decided (still hopeful) that all was well and that we should wheel our cart with large boxes through the double doors (marked “Staff Entrance”) by the elevator to the (very industrial) loading dock in the back of the building to wait for the cab. The rain had stopped, the humidity was 98%, we both wanted to be someplace else, and we waited.  A couple of guys came out to have a smoke, finished, and went back to work. And we waited. A woman pointed to the direction the cab would arrive from, and we waited. The sun started to come out, and still we waited. Lots of people get big boxes from IKEA. They have to get them home somehow, yet we were the only people waiting in this very industrial area for a cab that was taking forever. It seemed wrong, we were still waiting, we were beginning to feel just a little bit desperate, and Nancy was no longer buying my story that there’s always something unusual that you have to adapt to out here.

After fifteen minutes that lasted forever, I put the cell phone in my pocket and called to order a cab again. This time, they would “call back on your handphone with the taxi number”. And back we went to the loading dock to wait for the call. Five minutes later, I was told that they had found a taxi for us. Great. “How long should I expect to wait for it?” I’m not sure exactly how I asked this question, or how it was interpreted, but it was definitely not what I intended. I was put on hold, waited for another five minutes, and was told, “Thank you, Mr. Mike.  Sorry for the wait.  I’ve found a taxi for you.  The number is”  now a different taxi number. I don’t quite understand this process, whatever it is, but I sure didn’t want to disrupt what seemed like it was succeeding.  I said,”Thank you,” and we waited. Ten minutes later, a gold SUV rolled up and the driver got out and cast an appraising look over our cart and boxes. I waited for him to say that they were too long for his car, but instead, he lowered the back of the center seat, squeezed the long box in, and off we went, homeward bound at last.

Boxes wrestled home, up the elevator, into the apartment, onto the floor, and furniture assembled with only one mis-step. Now we have a handsome shoe bench sitting outside our front door with several pairs of (very large!) shoes under it. And a handsome desk for our computers sitting in the the spare bedroom. It’s starting to look like home.

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Dinner in Little India

The lines at all the food stalls were long, there was no place to sit with a plate of food, and I started to despair of finding dinner. Neither did I see many sit-down restaurants, and the few I saw were crowded and looked hot. Not very appealing on  an evening that’s already very muggy. I was, therefore, surprised to see the sidewalk suddenly widen with tables and chairs under a broad awning. The Amber Restaurant – Authentic Indian and Nepalese Cuisine. And, amazingly, there were a couple of empty tables.

A restaurant advertising Nepalese food piques my curiosity about the spices and sauces of that remote part of the world. Nepalese cuisine in Singapore has some chance of being more authentic – for better or worse – that the same cuisine in San Francisco, and a street restaurant in Little India is certainly more colorful – for better or worse! – than the quiet place in Bernal Heights we occassionally visited. As I looked around, slightly bewildered, a waiter asked if I wanted a table for one. An “other”, by myself – obviously a business tourist. I was hungry and hoped that the prices would not be unreasonable. Yes, a table for one please.

Only after I was seated and had ordered did I reflect that a restaurant with an empty table was probably not a good sign when the streets were so crowded. And maybe not the best sign when a substantial fraction of the diners were other. The place was busy – the waiters were kept running, with shirts sticking to their backs – the tables were soon all full, and the beer was cold – at least for a few minutes. As an extra bonus, I was seated in the “air conditioned” section, which meant that there was a big oscillating fan a couple of feet behind me that gave me a blast of wind every 30 seconds or so – hang on to the napkin! And the clincher, of course, was that one of the chef’s recommendatons (at least according to the menu) of authentic Nepalese cuisine was on its way. Chicken and spinach in spiced gravy. And naan bread instead of rice. Not much variety for a proper Indian meal, but a table for one can only support so many dishes. As it turned out, “on it’s way” was about 30 minutes long.

[Sidebar: there are three main strategies for eating here, depending on culture. Chinese style, of course, uses chopsticks. Sometimes with a spoon, if the dish is soupy. Western style uses a fork and spoon. Spoon in the right hand, fork in the left, not to spear things, but to manage getting the spoon loaded; spoon goes into the mouth.  Indian style is to tear off a piece of flat bread and scoop or grab a morsel. I’d forgotten, until I noticed an Indian at the hawker stalls, that the proper etiquette for this style of eating is to use the right hand only. That means coordinating only the right hand fingers – left stays in the lap – to tear a piece of bread off the larger piece. There’s no knife at the plate or on the table for cutting the bread into manageable pieces. Just an interesting dance of the right hand. It’s definitely possible – well, obviously, since the population of the Indian subcontinent isn’t shrinking! – but as challenging for the beginner as learning to use chopsticks.]

The chef’s recommendation was good, if not memorable. Tiger beer was a suitable, if not outstanding, accompaniment. Naan was delicious, but challenging to manage one-handedly. And there was even a wash basin to use for cleaning my hands when I was leaving. All this and a couple of coins change from my $20 bill. I’d happily return under the same circumstances, and while I’ll continue the quest for great restaurants at good value, I think this qualifies as a memorable meal – for reasons other than the food. Sorry, no food pictures.

[Sidebar: I’ve always been intrigued when I’ve seen people taking pictures of their meals. I thought it was a small niche. Recently I discovered that digital cameras have a setting in addition to Portrait, Landscape, Seascape, … – a setting for food pictures. Maybe not as small a niche audience as I thought.]

9:40pm:  84F, 79%, feels like 94F

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Big Crowds in Little India

This year, Deepavali is today.  In Singapore, it’s a public holiday.  Next month, we have Hara Rayi Haji, and Christmas in December. Hindu, followed by Islam, followed by Christian holidays – seems like a good plan.

For a Hindu holiday, the obvious trip is Little India.  On Deepavali eve, Little India was not so little. The crowds were dense, eating, shopping, walking along the streets – sometimes in the streets – and just hanging out.  Here, I felt like I was in Asia.  Deepavali is the festival of light, and Serangoon Street is the place to see the lights.

From our apartment, it’s a fifteen minute walk to the subway station.  Then, one station south to Buona Vista and change to the East-West line.  At Outram Park, change again to the North-East line and alight at the Little India station.  As the train got closer, the density of Indian passengers increased.  Mostly young males who have, I’m sure, come here to work for awhile and send money home or build up enough funds to get married.

Subway stations often have multiple exits, and there’s a locality map.  The trick is to find where you’re going on the map, find the closest exit, and then figure out whether it’s a right turn or left turn out of the exit, and how many blocks to walk.  It doesn’t do me any good to think in terms of compass direction because I can’t tell directions here (and I’m not sure how to recalibrate my mental compass.  Yes, I know, there’s an Android app for that.) I expected a crowd streaming out of subway station, and I was surprised that there wasn’t anyone to follow. It was already dark, so I was a little concerned about launching on my own into the night, but here I was and there was no turning back.

Turn left and a block away, the lights were shining.

This must be the place.

And the crowds – and cars – were streaming. Definitely the place.

All the shop fronts were lit up – this seems to be a great opportunity to do some extra, end of the year, business.  Sidewalks are fairly narrow to start with, and a step or two below street level.  The shops all had tables or racks or some kind of offering moved onto the sidewalk, leaving about three feet between the table and the store front, and about two feet between the table and the road. In these narrow paths, was crowded … everyone!

Some people shuffling along, grazing against, sometimes bouncing off, the oncoming traffic.  Some people were stopped to look at the goods on display.  Some people would suddenly stop to take a picture.  And all with Indian music blaring from one shop or another, and the warm, humid Singaporean evening enfolding everything. On the opposite side of the street, equally congested and possibly even louder, the sidewalk was not enough and people overflowed into the street –

a street four lanes wide and thick with cars all, I suppose, out to see the lights.

While Serangoon Street was brightly lit, the side streets were considerably darker.  Some of them had a lot of people – shopping, eating, hanging out with friends and being there, as far as I could tell – and some of the side streets were full of people.  Full, as in cars had to edge their way very slowly through the crowd (and what were they thinking, trying to drive through streets like that?) Down one street, about a block off the main drag, in front of a salon,  there was a big crowd, loud music, drums going, shouting and hand waving.  These folks were having a Good Time.  Some people put their cameras in the air to get a snap of the main attraction.  Whatever it was.  I was reluctant to work my way through the crowd to get close enough to find out.  And I was a little worried that I might not like it if I did find out.

There was a good business in Indian hand painting – mehndi – on the streets.

Customers were both Indian and “other”.

There were baubles and bangles aplenty available.

The mall was open, and I’ve never seen so many Indian dresses on the rack.

There should be something for every size, taste, and occassion here – maybe not the most typical Singaporean souvenier, but the price is definitely right.  And almost certainly negotiable. The temple was doing a pretty good business – big crowd congregated there, but I didn;t feel bold enough to go in. Interestingly, it was pretty unusual to see a Chinese or Malaysian face in these crowds; there may even have been more “other”.  But other was still a very, very tiny minority.

At 2230 (or ten thirty), it was time for me to head home again, though traffic was still pouring in.

Back to the subway station where the trains on both the North-East line and the East-West line were as crowded as early rush hour.  The walk home was through the warm, humid, equatorial evening, and I came through the door and turned on the aircon for the evening.

Currently 82F, 84%, feels like 91F.

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Public toilets are fairly common here, and, as you might expect, they vary from modern, new, and clean, to a little older and, well, crappier.  Sometimes, there’s  a minder who sits at the entry door and collects 20 cents as a user fee. The facilities in the Bugis MRT are middle of the road.  No minder.  Not the most modern, but not all that bad, either.  Mostly Western style, but one squat toilet for the more traditional folks.

There is an apparatus on the wall near the door (after you enter) that looks sort of like the giant roll of tissue that is often found in the stalls in public facilities at home.  On closer inspection, it turns out that that’s exactly what it is.  And there’s a little sign, advising that this is the only place to get tissue – it is not available in the stalls.  It’s freely available, but a little planning here can make a lot of difference.

Temp 84, Humidity 79%, feels like 94.

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Walking in the Rain

Lesson 1: When it smells like rain, it’s probably going to rain. Asian rain still smells like rain, even when it’s close to the equator.

Lesson 2: If it smells like rain, it’s a good idea to dig the short umbrella out of your day bag and take it to lunch with you. Even if you don’t need it to keep off the rain, you can use it to hold a seat at a crowded Hawker center.

Lesson 3: Like so much of life, timing is everything. When it’s raining, stay under cover and start walking  just before the Green Man appears on the crossing light. Hit the street just as the light changes and you minimize your time in the rain. Since predicting the Green Man can be a challenge, it’s a good rule of thumb to start walking when everyone else starts. The longer the distance between dry cover and street, the greater the challenge for everybody.

Lesson 4: Plan your route. Choosing the right exit from the MRT will keep you cool when it’s hot and dry when it’s wet. Most of the buildings on the street have an overhang over the sidewalk; the protected part of the sidewalk will be densely crowded when the rain is coming down, so patience is a virtue.

Lesson 5: Have a good, big, full-size umbrella for the rainy season. It’s on my list for this weekend.

Singapore is a two season kind of place.  Hot and dry, and hot and wet.  During the monsoon, it becomes Singa-pour.  It’s coming soon and I’m not sure what to expect.

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Moving In

Saturday morning, the keys to our apartment were released. Before I got them in my hot little hands, we had to have a walkthrough to look at everything and check against the apartment inventory.  I thought the inventory would say, 1 dining table, 6 dining chairs, and so forth.  Wrong again: balcony, two lights (which both happen to be recessed).  Master bathroom: one rain shower head; one regular shower head.

Here’s a quick picture show.

The view out the balcony:

The living room:

Dining room, ready for guests (as soon as I get more plates!)

Kitchen, ready for business:

And comfy bedroom, fixed in the Singaporean style of comforter (to keep warm when you turn the A/C to freezing):

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Homecoming

After a business meeting which was an intense cultural experience in itself [sidebar: we met with a client company at the client’s offices, where the elevators were the biggest I’ve ever seen.  After the key ritual of exchanging business cards (at our office, before the meeting, I was asked at least twice whether I had cards), we sat down and their big boss made a short speech.  In Japanese.  The translator, provided by them, gave me the gist of it.  It was only then that I realized that, in addition to not really knowing what the meeting agenda was, I was the big boss on our side – hey, I’m just the out of town consultant – and I was expected to make a short speech for our side.  Seriously extemporaneous.  Then, their big boss made some comments and asked some questions on behalf of his team, and I answered, wondering how much they were understanding, since the translator did not translate.  Shortly thereafter, big boss left and the meeting got down to brass tacks, where they expressed their questions and concerns.  And that was when the meeting shifted to mostly Japanese. Lots of follow-up needed in the next couple of weeks.  I think the job may just have gone from 25mph to somewhere around 100.) – after the meeting ended, we just had time to get back to our office, buy my train ticket to the airport, and get a quick lunch, before I ran for the train to begin the trip home.

It is a profoundly strange feeling to get to the airport for the flight home and ignore the announcements for Los Angeles and San Francisco and Dallas.  Going home now means coming back to Singapore.  It’s going to take awhile to get used to that.

On the elevator in the morning, an Australian asked how long I was staying. “Leaving today.  And you?” “Going home today as well.”  “Where’s home?” “Adelaide. You?” It took me half a beat to figure out that the right answer was “Singapore”.  And it struck me as strange that he didn’t think that was a strange answer; par for the course out here.

Finally, it is strange to get the Sing immigration and ignore the lines of people presenting their passports and immigration form.  I now go to an automated checkpoint, put my passport in the scanner, put my thumb on the reader, and the gate pops open.

Home isn’t what it used to be.

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