Friday, October 23, 2009

Haw Par Villa

Definitely one of our strangest destinations thus far, Haw Par Villa (which Bryan has only recently learned to say, after spending a few weeks calling it Harper Village) is a park full of statues and displays depicting scenes from Chinese mythology. The park is really large and just packed full of scenes from a number of stories. Haw Par Villa was formerly known as Tiger Balm Gardens, as the family that founded it also owns the Tiger Balm dynasty. The gift shop there has a wide variety of Tiger Balm products, and there's even a tiger print car with a huge tiger head ornament mounted on the front of it. Awesome.A lot of the statues were quirky, but the strangest part was the ten courts of hell. According to Chinese tradition, the ten courts of hell are where you go to receive judgment and punishment for your sins after you die. These displays were located in a giant cave in their own part of the park. The cave is guarded by two giant statues called "Ox-head" and "Horse-face," the traditional guardians of hell.

Once inside, there was a separate section for each court, where people were shown being punished for their wrongdoings. It was pretty intimidating, and there weren't many kids around, but the ones that were there looked a little frazzled. The first court of hell is where everyone goes to be judged based on their actions in their most recent life. If they've been virtuous, they get to go on to paradise. Those who have been evil in their most recent life are sent to the appropriate court of hell to receive punishment. The first court of hell is for a variety of crimes, including robbery and prostitution. The punishment for robbery is to be thrown into a volcanic pit. For corruption and stealing, the punishment is to be frozen into a block of ice. And most gruesome is what happens to prostitutes- they're drowned in a pool of blood. The pictures below are someone being burned in the volcano pit, and the scary demon guy who's burning him.The third court of hell is where people who disrespect their elders get their hearts cut out (see below) . The same punishment is applied to people who are ungrateful and to people who escape from prison. This is also where drug addicts and tomb robbers are "tied to a red hot copper pillar and grilled."The fourth court of hell is reserved for tax dodgers, those who refuse to pay rent, and business frauds, and their punishment is to be pounded by a stone mallet (below-it looks more like a spike mallet to me, but I'm no torture expert). Some of these sins seem so random to me- why is there a special punishment reserved specifically for people who don't pay rent?! The same layer of hell is for those who disobey their siblings (I wasn't aware that I had to obey my brothers...I'm doomed) and for those with a "lack of filial piety"- respect for parents and elders. People who are disrespectful are ground between two large stones.The fifth court of hell is for those who plotted someone's death in order to gain their money, and (this is one of my favorites) money lenders who charge outrageous interest rates. These offenders are thrown onto a hill of knives.In the sixth court of hell, cheaters, kidnappers, and people who curse suffer a similar fate, and are thrown onto a tree of knives. I wondered if Chinese parents ever threatened their children with "If you say that word again, you'll be thrown onto a tree of knives in the sixth court of hell!" It seems a lot more terrifying than the standard American "I'm going to wash your mouth out with soap!" This part of hell is also reserved for those who own porn, waste food, and "misuse books." These people all have their bodies sawed in two. So, seriously, finish your peas. In the seventh court of hell, so-called "rumor-mongers" have their tongues pulled out and rapists are thrown into a wok of boiling oil. Down in the eighth court, causing trouble for your family will get your intestines pulled out. Also, harming others to benefit yourself results in bodily dismemberment.
Robbers and murderers have their head and arms chopped off in the ninth court of hell (below), and those that neglect the old and young are crushed under boulders. Finally, in the tenth court of hell, everyone is taken to the Pavilion of Forgetfulness where an old lady named Meng Po provides a cup of tea that makes people forget their past lives. After the tea, everyone moves on to the Wheel of Reincarnation, where they are reincarnated as either an animal or a human. Those who have led righteous lives are reincarnated into a life of comfort, and those that have led unsavory lives come back into the world to lead difficult lives full of suffering.After getting through the ten courts of hell, there are still plenty of oddities to take in. In the middle of the park, there's a pond with a couple of pagodas. And in the pond there's a bunch of turtles!! Red-eared sliders, of course- they are everywhere. The pagodas were really pretty and colorful too, and one had a huge Buddha on top.One part of the park has a little village that's below ground level, and you can look down into it. I don't think the builders of the village intended for it to flood but it did, and it actually gave it a neat effect. Now it reminds me of an ancient town that's been cursed with a massive flood- pretty cool. The whole place (except the sinister hell part) reminded me a bit of Mother Goose Land in Canton, OH. Mother Goose Land was a park in the town where I grew up, and it had a fairy tale theme. There were a bunch of big statues- the old woman who lived in a shoe (which, if I remember correctly, was also a sliding board), a big blue whale, and a castle turret. It was a great place to play and being at Haw Par Villa made me think of it- especially with some of the fantasy elements, like this turtle working as a waiter. The childhood memories inspired me to play like a kid, so I crawled into a pagoda.Here's me, rubbing the giant laughing Buddha's belly for good luck! And my favorite picture of the day- Bryan enthusiastically high-fiving some crazy-looking gorilla.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Things I Find in the Woods Part Two

A while back, I posted some of the things I've found while wandering around Bukit Timah. Given that I've seen a lot more fun stuff since then, I thought I'd share some more with everyone.

When we first moved here, Bryan and I got a field guide for Singapore's wildlife (Wild Animals of Singapore) and looked through it, picking out some of the things we'd really like to see. At the top of my list is my favorite animal of all time, the slow loris, which is the only venomous primate. They're really hard to see because they're nocturnal, arboreal, and rather small and shy. I haven't seen one yet, but I'm keeping an eye out. We both agreed that we'd really like to see a reticulated python as well. We've heard stories that sound like urban legends, about these massive snakes winding their way through drainage ditches in the city, but we've yet to spot one ourselves. Of course, we wanted to see long-tailed macaques, and we've fulfilled that wish many times over. Below is Kevin, trying to touch the lens of the camera while I'm taking his picture. Like the human Kevin, monkey Kevin is always getting into something : )Also near the top of the list of animals we wanted to see was the colugo (also known as the flying lemur, which is a rather inaccurate name, as they don't fly, they glide; and they aren't really lemurs, which only live in Madagascar). I have been lucky enough to spot these guys clinging to tree trunks several times, and every time I'm thrilled. They look so bizarre! They have a membrane of loose skin that covers their bodies and enables them to glide from tree to tree. I think they look like a mishmash of a bunch of different animals- pig nose, rodent face, bat-like claws, primate eyes, etc. One day I got to see one glide from one tree to another, and it was really amazing- their skin works like a parachute, a lot like a flying squirrel's. It was strange to see such a large creature gliding effortlessly just over my head. The first time I ever saw a colugo, it was clinging to a tree trunk, and one of the monkeys was running up the tree, poking the colugo in the behind and then running away. It looked like the monkey was having a blast, but the colugo was not amused.Another day, I saw a snake slither onto the path near my feet. Seeing that the snake was rather brightly colored, I had a mini freak-out and ran away, fearing that it might be venomous. I composed myself and got a little closer (still staying absurdly far away, Mom and Dad; I can hear your sighs of disapproval now) and got a few pictures. The snake was a red-necked bronzeback, which is in fact totally harmless. Bryan came with me to BT one day and we saw a white-bellied rat snake (also non-venomous), but we didn't manage to get any good pictures of it.I've seen skinks several times, but this many-lined sun skink had some unusual coloring and was also abnormally bold, not even running away when I crouched right next to it to take a photo.I know I've posted a lot of pictures of monitor lizards, but I see them all the time and they look so prehistoric, it's hard for me to resist taking photos of them. So, here's another- a monitor climbing a tree. It always looks a little unnatural to me; they just don't look equipped to be scaling tree trunks.One day the monkeys went to a place that I'd never seen them go before, and I followed along. I found a couch sitting along the railroad tracks, slowly becoming overgrown by weeds. Not exciting for everyone, but in my book abandoned furniture is almost as exciting as abandoned buildings!And finally, I don't want to leave you with a picture of a decrepit old couch, so here's a flower! I think it's ginger, but I'm not sure.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Miscommunication Hilarity Part One

People back in the U.S. are always surprised when they hear that Singapore is an English-speaking country, but it's actually a little more complicated than it sounds. Singaporeans speak English, and most of them do it quite well- for example, many younger people especially speak English as their first language, and although they speak with a different accent than we do, they're typically pretty easy to understand. However, a lot of older people and people who have recently moved to S'pore learned English later in life and therefore don't speak it as clearly as others- the English is very heavily accented and sometimes disjointed. This has led to some rather hilarious miscommunications.

One day while Bryan and I were still staying on Orchard Road (and were pretty fresh at deciphering the local accents), we went to a hawker centre to get some dinner. I walked up to a Chinese food stall and began to try to communicate that I am vegetarian. There was nothing vegetarian on the menu, and I wanted to see if they would just make me some rice with veggies. Normally this isn't too much of a problem, but this lady and I were having a lot of trouble.

Me: Hi, is there any way you can make me something with no meat? No fish or anything? Maybe just some rice and vegetables?
Her: Rice!
Me: Um, yes, and maybe some vegetables? I'm a vegetarian.
Her: Rice!
Me: Um, rice, yes.
Her: A-OK!
Me: Oh, great! Thanks!
Her: A-OK! A-OK?
Me: Yeah, rice sounds great! Thank you!
Her: A-OK?! A-OK?!
(This is when I give her a super cheesy thumbs up and a goofy grin)
Me: Yeah! A-OK!
(It goes on like this for awhile. Bryan and I keep looking at each other and I keep nodding and saying "A-OK" like an idiot until she laughs and walks away and comes back carrying an egg. She points at the egg.)
Her: A OK?!
Me: OHHHHH!! EGG OK! Yes! Eggs are OK! I eat eggs! Thank you!
(She walks away shaking her head)
And eventually she brought me some yummy fried rice with eggs in it, and I was happy.

Another day I was in a taxi, headed to a restaurant in Holland Village to meet up with Bryan and his co-workers. When I got into the taxi, I said "Holland Village please," and then sat back. A few minutes later the driver said something that sounded like "Where'd you like to go in Singapore?" I thought maybe he wanted something more specific, so I said confidently "The Cold Storage in Holland Village" (Cold Storage is a grocery store that's located by the restaurant I was going to). I noticed the driver looking at me in the rear view mirror with a strange look on his face and he said "Ah...yes...Cold Storage is very nice..." and that was when I realized that he had actually said "Where DO you like to go in Singapore?" but by then we were there and it was too late to clarify what I had said. So now there's a cab driver somewhere in Singapore who may or may not think that American girls like to come to Singapore and hang out at the awesome grocery stores. Oops.

I have a million of these, so I will share more of my shame for your reading enjoyment : )

Science Centre

This past weekend's excursion was to the Singapore Science Centre, which is only about a 20 minute walk from our apartment. Like most everything else in Singapore, the Science Centre was well done- it was fun, informative, and engaging. Most importantly, there was a giant animatronic dinosaur at the entrance.The first exhibit was on optical illusions, and we spent a lot of time there. Because Bryan and I combined have taken a LOT of Psychology classes, we'd seen a lot of the illusions before, but there were some new ones, like this one below. When facing this direction, the picture looks like a man sitting in a canoe with a fish in the water ahead of him, next to an island with two trees.
When flipped 180 degrees, the picture looks completely different. Now you should see a big bird with a little girl in its huge beak. The things that previously looked like trees are now the bird's legs, and the fish is the bird's head.The main attraction at the Science Centre is the massive Tesla coil that sits in the hub of the building. Tesla coils let off a whole bunch of electricity, and make for pretty sweet demonstrations like the one in the video below. The balloons were full of hydrogen and when the sparks from the Tesla coil got to them, they exploded in a big burst of flame about 10 feet in front of us. Pretty awesome, and pretty loud!

Here's another fun optical illusion. No, Bryan is not actually decapitated, but it looks pretty neat, huh? The table has mirrors on each side that hide the person under the table, and reflect the walls and the floor, making it look like you can see under the table. Bryan went in a little door in the wall and stuck his head up through a hole in the table. And that's how magic happens : )
Most of the exhibits were really interactive- giant air cannons that you could use to shoot glittery tiles hung from the ceiling, sound wave demonstrations that allowed you to adjust amplitude and frequency to change the bouncing of ping pong balls, and super fun strength tests that Bryan and I turned into a competition (I lost miserably). Below is a giant, nifty kaleidoscope. It looks like a ton of mirrors, but it's actually only four mirrors that are set at odd angles. If you look closely, you can see Bryan in the mirrors, and it looks like he's pointing in a bunch of different directions. We ended up playing around with the mirrors for a long time.
The real fun came when we got outside to the science garden! It was like a big playground for nerds. The video is Bryan playing on some contraption- I think it's supposed to teach you about centrifugal force, but mostly we just learned that it was really fun to play with. He's trying to see how fast he can go.

Overall, this was a really fun outing. It seems like a great place to take kids, but it's also really fun to go there and just pretend to be a kid yourself!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Monkey Lady

I've been collaborating with a professor at Nanyang Technological University on long-tailed macaque research. We've been focusing specifically on one group of macaques at Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, so I've really come to know these monkeys. I spend a few days a week following them around the jungle, taking photographs and getting familiar with their behaviors and their movement patterns. They do a lot of moving around to get food from different food sources- jackfruit trees, durian trees, grubs from underneath rotting logs, and food that they pilfer from people. Right now I'm working on identifying all of the juveniles (the adults are already identified) so that when I start collecting data I'll know who they all are. The project that I'm planning involves examining the macaques' facial expressions (like fear grimaces) and what they mean- when the facial expressions occur, how other monkeys respond to them, how often they occur, etc. In grad school I did research on human facial expressions, so this is an interesting continuation. The photo on the left is one of the babies. The babies (like the one on the left) are extra cute- they have black coats and generally look like little old men.
Over time, I've really gotten close with the monkeys. I know their personalities now- Sidious is cranky, Camille is a sweetheart, Punk is fearless, and Stumpy is mean- and their physical characteristics- Catherine's broken hand, Stumpy's short tail, Fang's snaggle tooth and cataract, and Nad's rotund shape. They're used to having me around, and some of them, especially the juveniles, will come right up to me. The first day that I looked down and saw one of them chewing on my shoelace, I was pretty surprised. I try not to let them get too close to me- I don't want them getting any more comfortable with humans than they already are, because it can be bad for them- but sometimes when I get engrossed in taking pictures or watching a particularly interesting interaction, the little ones sneak up on me- trying to open my backpack, chewing on my pants, tugging on my shoelaces, and one day even swiping the bug spray right out of the side pocket on my backpack (it was a stupid place to put it, I had left it there after a weekend trip that didn't involve being around monkeys). Little Punk is below, chewing on my pants after I crouched down to take some photos of another juvenile. The group of monkeys is large- 26 adults, 10 infants and more than 20 juveniles. Usually long-tailed macaque groups don't get this large, so these guys are a little unusual. It's hard to learn to identify them all, but I'm slowly getting it down. There are now monkeys named after my family- little Nancy, Charles, Craig, and Kevin- all of them adorable, and of course a little Bryan, so named because he has a heart-shaped white patch above his eyes (the picture on the right is him).There is always something going on with the monkeys. The juveniles are really rambunctious and do a lot of playing- wrestling and running and swinging through the trees. The females are interesting, because they all want to touch the infants. So a mother with an infant is often groomed by other female monkeys in return for letting them touch her infant. Sometimes a greedy female will try to steal the infant away from here mother, which can result in a chaotic scene, with the mother clinging on to her baby, another monkey yanking on the baby's legs, and the baby screaming in the middle. This particular group of monkeys is experiencing a baby boom right now, with 10 infants.

Some days with the monkeys are sad. I've gotten attached to them, so it's always hard to see something bad happen to them. Not too long ago, Catherine (the monkey with the broken hand; there's actually a picture of her posted elsewhere on the blog, sitting on top of a truck with her baby) was carrying an infant. I was happy to see that she was a great mom and was very attentive to her baby. Then one day I caught up with the monkeys and her baby was paralyzed from the waist down. Catherine was still vigilantly caring for the baby and the baby was doing its best to hold on to her without the use of its legs. Each day that I returned, I was shocked to see that the infant had survived another night, but one day I came back and the infant was gone. Catherine seemed despondent, making sad little honking sounds and always looking around. It was really heartbreaking, but it wasn't the first sad story for the monkeys. Two days later I found a tiny infant dead, probably stillborn, under a tree that they frequently use. Then Charles, a little juvenile, got a serious limp; Michelle had an infant that disappeared one day, and one of the adult females, Iris, also disappeared. It appears that life as a wild monkey is far from easy. (To the right is Stumpy, #2 in the male dominance hierarchy. This is his intimidation face. Scary stuff- males have huge, vicious-looking canines).

Of course, the monkeys have fun too. They seem to particularly enjoy trying to steal food from people- chasing people carrying plastic bags, which they have learned often contain food, and raiding garbage bins and dumpsters. I've also seen some of them peeking into the windows of the apartments near the nature reserve (below is Fang checking things out). They like to swim too, and the juveniles really seem to relish terrorizing the squirrels. Like I said- never a dull moment.
It's taking a while to identify all these juveniles- it's hard to pick out their differences when they're all running around non-stop. But in the meanwhile, it's pretty fun to hang out with them!

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Singapore Zoo

Animals! Bryan and I both love them, which is one of the reasons that this blog is overflowing with photos of lizards, snakes, monkeys, turtles, and other animals. We particularly enjoy seeing animals in the wild, but the zoo is nice too. Having heard lots of good things about the Singapore Zoo, we decided it was about time that we check it out. The zoo is often advertised as the "best zoo in Asia," and although it is the only Asian zoo I've ever been to, I think it would be really difficult to compete! The Singapore Zoo beats out any American zoo that I've ever been to, that's for sure!

One of the coolest things about the zoo is the orangutan habitat. The orangutans have lots of space to move around in, including lots of ropes and nets up in the trees, so they can walk back and forth. The exhibit was ingeniously designed to maximize space- the orangutans can walk on ropes that go over paths that the people are walking on. It's neat for the orangutans because they have a lot of room, and it's pretty cool for the people too, to see them swinging over their heads! We had lunch at a spot near the orangutans, and got to watch them while we we eating, which was really nice. The zoo does a good job of posting information about the animals in lots of places too- we learned that "orangutan" is Malay and means "man of the forest" (orang= man; utan= forest). And there was a BABY!!!! Who doesn't love a baby orangutan? He was super cute and had that awkward, wobbly toddler walk that I can't help but love.

Bryan and I are both big fans of the primates, so we ended up spending a lot of time watching the orangutans, and then the chimps, and then the gibbons. The chimp exhibit was spectacular. I think that chimps often look bored in zoos, but these guys were super active and rambunctious. They had lots of room to run around and the zoo seems to do a lot of enrichment programs for them. While we were there, some keepers were tossing fruit to the chimps, who were expert at catching- it was strange to watch because it looked a lot like people playing catch! It was especially interesting to see chimps that hadn't been tossed fruit in a minute or so- they put their hands out and gestured at the keepers with a "gimme" kind of motion. The chimps had a successful breeding program going on too, so there were several darling little ones wandering around. Props to Bryan for the photography skills that resulted in the heartwarming picture on the right.

And then there were the gibbons, Bryan's favorite. Hopefully sometime we'll get to go somewhere to see these guys in the world. It really is fascinating to watch the way they move with their huge arm muscles and tree-swinging agility.I always love turtles and tortoises, so we spent a little extra time with them. And I sat on the giant tortoise statue like a little kid.
One of the most unique exhibits was one that you walked into and the animals roamed free. It was a mixed-species exhibit, so there were huge iguanas, crowned pigeons (the largest pigeon in the world; they're about the size of chickens), two types of lemurs (the ringtailed lemur is pictured on the left), mousedeer with their strange little toothpick legs, ducks, sloths (SO WEIRD), Malayan flying foxes (which are actually bats and not foxes at all), tree kangaroos, parrots, and butterflies. I've been in exhibits like this before, where you're actually in the enclosure with the animals, but I've only really seen it with birds and once (at the Bronx Zoo) with Egyptian fruit bats. This was totally different- it was so strange to be right there with the lemurs, so close that you could reach out and touch them (but we didn't). At one point Bryan and I were standing on an observation deck watching the bats, when we heard a strange honking sound. We turned around to see a lemur perched on the railing right behind us, leaning forward and making terrifying sounds while looking right at us and the other people on the platform. We backed up pretty fast, but it was still a little scary. After the lemur chilled out a little bit we noticed a sign that said "Some new lemur babies and their mother are starting to explore the area. Please give them lots of space!" That would have been nice to know... Below is a super mellowed-out sloth and below that is me with a butterfly on my face. It first landed on my back, then migrated to my leg and eventually ended up on my face where it decided it was perfectly happy. There are no pictures of Bryan at the zoo because I relinquished control of the camera and let him do the photographing.Some more faves- this insanely lovable meerkat, working hard on sentry duty and totally looking like he's wearing pantaloons, a gangly giraffe, the first polar bear ever born in the tropics, a surprisingly colorful Komodo dragon, and a formidable-looking rhino.Overall, I can't really say enough good things about the zoo- the animals had a lot of space and looked healthy and happy; the signs were interesting and informative; the staff was helpful; even the food was good- unlike the usual American zoo fare, this zoo had healthy, affordable options (Indian food!!). The zoo made great use of more naturalistic enclosures- using moats and cliffs whenever possible instead of the traditional, depressing metal bars and panes of glass. And the place is huge- we spent so much time watching the chimps and the orangutans that we didn't make it through the whole zoo. But we did get passes through Bryan's company to go back on October 31st, which should be fun- we can visit the bats on Halloween! I can't wait to go back. From what I've seen so far, I really do think it's the best zoo that I've ever visited!

I leave you with these absurdly adorable little otter. We got to them right around feeding time, and I was shocked to see how much noise these little guys could make. So cute.