Archive for the ‘Singapore’ Category

Monkey See Monkey Do

Singapore is consistently ranked as a city with one of the densest populations in the world.  Paradoxically, it is also one of only two cities in the world with a nature reserve consisting of rain forest;  Rio de Janeiro is the other.  Of the two, only Singapore’s is original, natural rain forest – Rio’s was hand planted to preserve threatened species.

Singapore’s jungle covers 163 hectares (403 acres, not quite two thirds square mile) of a hill in the center of the city / island / country called Bukit Timah.  (You can’t live in Singapore without learning at least a little Malay – bukit timah: hill of tin.)  There’s not a lot of jungle, but it’s the real deal.

A jungle wouldn’t be much of a jungle without monkeys, and monkeys we have.  Monkeys that will steal your groceries as you walk home from the market.  Monkeys that will root through your garbage can and make a monumental mess.  Monkeys that will steal the ice cream cone out of the hand of an unwary child – and then stand and lick it.  Monkeys that will earn you a fine if you get caught feeding them.  In addition to about 1500 long-tailed macaques, a tribe of about 40 banded leaf monkeys (larger and darker) lives very shyly deep in the jungle away from curious eyes.

“Bukit Timah Nature Reserve Visitor Center,” we told the taxi driver who pulled up to our condo.

“Where’s that?” he replied.  Hmmm.  I always worry when the taxi driver doesn’t know where we’re going; I’m certainly no good at giving directions. “Bukit Timah, is it? Some kind of park?” I had naively assumed that every resident of Singapore, taxi drivers included, must have gone to the nature reserve at least once.

We needn’t have worried.  He knew how to get to the nature reserve; he just wasn’t sure about the visitor center.  And Singapore drivers have sharp eyes once they get somewhere close to the target.  We got there without a single wrong turn.

Even though the visitor center looked like it was from 1975, it had interesting information on the flora, fauna, and biodiversity of the rain forest.  One exhibit displays the man-eating Malayan tiger, a fearsome presence in Bukit Timah until it was intensely hunted and finally completely eliminated in the 1930s.  Two of them are on exhibit, a little worse for wear after 80 years, but big enough to get your attention on a dark jungle path. A video of the Malayan culogo shows a vaguely bat-like creature stretching the membranes between its arms and legs and gracefully gliding from one tree to another.  We learn that the hottest, and least rainy days in Singapore are in June.  All this and more, but not a single word, as Nancy noticed, about the monkeys, Singapore’s largest wild animal.

Once a month, the Jane Goodall Institute Singapore, sponsors a “monkey walk” to find the monkeys and watch them in their natural habitat.  Tonight’s guide is a working researcher at the Institute. Starting from the visitor center, we walked with her along a pleasant path to a spot where monkeys regularly congregate in the trees.  On the way, we saw a mama culogo clinging to the side of a tree, cuddling her baby firmly within her “wings”.  The first monkeys we saw were a pair very high in the forest canopy.

Then, one brave soul worked his way down to a tree limb just a few feet over our heads.

As the afternoon faded into early evening, a few more monkeys showed up until we saw a dozen or so. They ignored the three-foot long water monitor and the two large turtles in the nearby pond.

The monkeys sat quietly grooming each other, fussing over the babies, nibbling fruit in the trees, slowly moving from one tree to another, gradually working their way away from us and toward their nightly roost.

By 6:30, our necks were sore from looking up, and we’d had enough.  It was time to imitate monkey social behavior and find a place to have dinner with new-found friends from the walk.

We all followed the trail back to the nature center, working our way from one familiar landmark to another.  Just like the monkeys. And we finally came to a very familiar place.  In fact, it was exactly the same spot we’d stood to watch the monkeys!  We’d just discovered that in the jungle,  it’s easy to go in circles even if there are no tigers to avoid.


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A few weeks ago, Nancy and I went to Mustafa’s in Little India.

The Mustafa Centre is an institution in Singapore. Begun in 1971 by Mustaq Ahmad as a small shop selling clothes, it moved to a larger space in a 900 square foot shophouse on Serangoon road,  but moved to Serangoon Plaza when the government acquired the Serangoon shophouses for conservation. When 40,000 square feet in Serangoon Plaza Serangoon Plazastarted to get crowded, Ahmad took over the shophouses on the adjoining Syed Alwi RoadSyed Alwi Road shophouses to create a total of  150,000 square feet of shopping displays, four floors, open 24 hours a day, with over 1200 employees. Bigger than Costco, bigger than Sam’s club.

Everybody in Singapore knows about Mustafa’s.  Groceries, clothes, jewelry, house wares, garden wares, car accessories, books, and who knows what else is on offer at Mustafa’s.  Take your choices to any of the cashier’s that are scattered throughout the store – literally throughout, not just at the exits – and they’ll take your money, put your purchase in a plastic bag, and close it securely with a zip tie.  You can buy things as you find them, or you can take everything to one cashier.

That is what Nancy and I wanted to explore one Sunday.  What we didn’t know is that on Sunday afternoon, the streets around Mustafa are packed, packed, packed with Indian construction workers who are doing their shopping and meeting their friends on their day off.  Dense crowd, all young men, shoulder to shoulder, visiting with each other, enjoying someplace other than a building site.  Nancy immediately noticed that there was no fair complexion, no blonde hair to be seen.  No other women, either.  Her grip on my arm tightened.

It was something of a push, shove, fight to get to the front door of the center.  Once inside, we found a warren of narrow paths through tall shelves and plenty of people wandering along.  It was difficult to explain what we were looking for – a dehumidifier – but we eventually discovered them (and decided they were too expensive for now).  We bought a few necessities (toothpaste) and experiments (pre-packaged spice for chicken masala) and then confronted the thought of trying to get out again.  Eventually, we decided to have dinner – quite a good curry – at the rooftop restaurant and hope that the crowd would dissipate in the meantime.  It did, but only a little, and Nancy decided that she did not need to go to Mustafa’s again.  Ever.

Would it be as bad on a Saturday morning? I decided to give it a try while Nancy is on a home visit.  No crowds – the construction workers are still busily building a new Singapore on Saturdays – but the same warren of paths, the same difficulty in trying to find anything.  I left with the decision that Mustafa’s is manageable, just, but maybe not worth the effort.

Leaving at lunch time, and being in Little India, I decided to have lunch there. Syed Alwi Road is packed with little restaurants across from Mustafa, and the street is packed with cars, and the sidewalk is full of vendors’ wares.  Walking requires some agility in moving from the covered sidewalk (out of the sun and the rain), down a steep step to the roadside, and sometimes out through the stalled traffic.  A little bit of Third World in Singapore. For no particular reason, I chose a restaurant and ordered the North Indian Platter:


It turned out to be vegetarian: a lightly curried paneer (a cottage cheese-like product, with the shape and consistency of tofu chunks) , some very nicely spiced kidney beans, some very nicely spiced potatoes, rice with herbs, a bowl of raita (yoghurt), a papadum (crisp), a nice bowl of naan, and a big slice of raw onion.  The top right compartment has one gulab jamun (deep fried fritter soaked in sugar syrup). Pretty good, but all carbs – not exactly Dr. Atkins friendly. My tray and a bottle of water set me back $9.10 (Sing) – a little more than hawker center prices, but I got some atmosphere with my lunch:

Vegetarian restaurant in Little India

And what did I bring home from this trip to Mustafa?  I found some tea and some warm-and-eat packaged Indian side dishes. And another Singapore adventure.

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Our faithful readers know, by now, of course, that Singapore is just three degrees north of the equator.  Our two seasons are hot and wet, and hotter and drier.  Our days get at most five minutes shorter in the winter (our hot and wet season) and five minutes longer in the summer.  Our population is primarily ethnic Chinese, with a significant fraction of ethnic Malay, and a smaller but still significant fraction of ethnic Indian.  In school, English is the primary language, but students are required to take twelve years of classes in the language of their ethnic heritage: Mandarin, Malay, or Tamil.

We do not get snow.  (When I took a taxi home from the airport a few days ago, I talked with the driver about the rain that we’d had for the last several days, and then I asked what he thought the weather would be for Christmas.  “Maybe it will snow?” I asked.  He almost choked!  “No.  No snow in Singapore.  If it snow here, something wrong!”)  We do not have short days for the winter solstice.  We do not have a majority Christian population.

So, what about Christmas?  See for yourself:

Is that snow on the tree?  Snow in Singapore?  Really?  Well, no, it’s soap suds.  There’s a special machine that churns the suds and sprays them on the tree.  Really?  a soap suds machine?

If you look closely, you’ll see that the girl in the picture is not Nancy.  Who is she?  I have no idea.  When the Christmas trees appear on Orchard Road, the cameras come out.  Everyone has a camera, and everyone wants to take a picture of their girlfriend/boyfriend/wife/husband/kids or maybe some random hottie standing in front of a big tree:

Every mall of any importance along Orchard Road has a tree.  Twenty feet seems to be the minimum height.

It looks like the hop-on, hop-off bus has a special tour of the Orchard Road Christmas trees.

Paragon Plaza may be the mall with the most expensive brand stores, the coldest air-con, and the biggest tree.

Soap-suds machines not withstanding, we don’t expect a white Christmas in Singapore, but the light show is pretty good none the less.

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This morning Mike and I walked to Holland Village to have hair cuts, and we got the works again, including massage shampoos.  And somehow I got talked into an extra-deluxe moisturizing treatment, and he got talked into an extra-deluxe product to prevent further hair loss—so we left our “salon experience” a little lighter than we expected . . . but stylishly coiffed.  Then we had to “research” some fancy kind of festive torte for next Saturday when we’re having a couple of young women (another story) over for Christmas Eve dinner.  So we went window-shopping at several bakeries/dessert places in Holland V and found out how early we’d have to order our something decadently chocolate for next weekend.

Next on our agenda was heading to an Orchard Road mall where we knew a Citibank branch was open on Saturday afternoon.  This involved first waiting for a jammed bus, standing all the way, and fighting our way through Christmas shopping hordes on the street.   We spent another 30 minutes at Citibank with an extremely polite youngster attired like a banker in dark suit/white shirt filling out the paperwork, passport info, and signing multiple forms.  This was just to get me a supplemental credit card for one Mike already has.  By then we were starving for lunch, and the Ion Mall “food hall” (mammoth food court with many dozens of places) was jam-packed.  But we finally found a tiny table and ended up with a great roasted duck lunch with veggies.  But after all that window shopping for tortes, it didn’t feel right without stopping at one of the enticing shops to buy two tiny bits of dark chocolate truffle on our way out ($4.40—and they were VERY tiny).

We still had to go grocery shopping—and this time we were off on the MRT (subway) to Carre Four a “megamarket” in a different 10-story mall (slightly cheaper prices than the typical Cold Storage supermarkets).  It’s so big it’s on two floors, and because it’s the holidays, it was also more mobbed than usual, but we managed to fill our cart with $245 of food and wine, including a plump whole duck to roast for the aforementioned Christmas Eve dinner (and inspired by our duck lunch).  Mike was careful to point out to me that  the “whole” duck included a long neck and head attached. We then stood in the taxi line for 10 minutes with our 10 bags of groceries and were whisked home in another 10 minutes.

We unpacked and put everything away and were both so exhausted that we sank into the sofa to “read,” where Mike woke up from a dead sleep in the pitch dark at 7:30 pm.  I had somewhere along the line staggered to our bedroom and was also dead asleep.  So he fixed a couple of omelets for a late dinner, and now it’s just after 9 pm, and I’m writing YOU!

So that’s a tiny glimpse into a Singapore Saturday for us, and weirdly, it’s all starting to seem somewhat normal.

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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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Some subway station names are easy for me to remember:  “Orchard” “Somerset” “City Hall”.

Some are a little more challenging.  In the morning, I take the North South red line in the direction of Marina Bay and transfer at City Hall to the East West Green line in the direction of Joo Koon, alighting at Tanjong Pagol.  In the evening, I take the Green line toward Pasir Ris, transferring to the Red line toward Jurong East, passing through Dhobi Ghaut.

I’m sure it gets easier with time, but for now I have to look at the map every day to make sure I’m going in the right direction.

At seven o’clock in the morning, the cars aren’t empty, but there are seats available.  At eight o’clock, cars are jammed full. Moving onto or off of a car requires a slow shuffle of inexorable progress or you’ll be left behind.  Aggression isn’t needed – and it would probably be bad form. I haven’t seen any, and everyone is respectful.  On the other hand, determination is a requirement.

Getting in and out of the station is a little easier.  Allow yourself to be swept along with the mob.  Have your smart card pass ready to tap at the gate and you’re in.  Or out. Probably no worse than New York at rush hour, and maybe a little better.  The line through the gate moves steadily and quickly. The gate shows how much money is still available on your card and tells you when it’s time to top up. I get to the office for about 78 cents.

Signs in the subway are in four languages (and three scripts): English, Chinese, Malay, and Hindi. Announcements are in English, Malay, Chinese, and I assume Hindi too. Station signage is all in English.

One other clue that this isn’t Kansas: in various official paperwork, my official ethnicity is “other”. I guess that shouldn’t be a surprise when in the sub-one percent minority.

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Singapore is famous for its hawker stalls.  There are collections of informal food stalls all around the city.  In the downtown business district, they’re in an old Victorian ironwork building that was at one time the fish market.  Now, there are maybe 50 small stalls selling all different varieties of food – so many that the choice is overwhelming.  And the choice is not made easier by the lunchtime crush of people.  Buy your lunch, then go hunting for a table – and good luck finding one.

The hawker stalls are definitely informal.  Some of them give you a cafeteria-style tray lined with a sheet of heavy duty waxed paper and that’s it.  The rice, vegetable stew, meat stew, whatever, is piled onto the paper.  Low on ceremony, but a tasty, hearty, filling lunch that makes supper optional is only five or six dollars.

I waited until a little after one to go for lunch, hoping that the crowds would begin to thin out.  They had, but all there were still no unoccupied tables.  After a couple of tours of all the possibilities (including one that offered “pig organ soup”), I opted for Indian.  My stall didn’t have a long line, so it probably wasn’t the best choice, but it was still good food.

Looking around, I think that a couple of things were generally true.  Napkins were pretty much non-existent. After all, the food was piled on a piece of waxed paper.  That becomes a bigger issue when you realize that some national cuisines – like Indian – are eaten with your hand.  Tear off a piece of bread, use it to scoop up a bite, repeat. Be sure you start with clean hands.  Be sure you bring your own napkins.

And most of the stalls do not offer a drink option.  I’d say that 90% or more of the people eating there did not have a drink with their lunch.

Good, but different. I’m not sure when I’ll try the pig organ soup.


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