Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Happy Holidays!

Bryan and I were lucky enough to make it back to the States for Christmas this year.  He's with his family in Montana and I'm with mine in Ohio.  We're both freezing to death, but loving the snow and the time with our families.

I've spent the past couple of days squeezing in all the Christmas-related activities I could think of- seeing "A Christmas Carol" at the Canton Players Guild with my parents, reading 'Twas the Night Before Christmas and about 20 other holiday stories to my niece after baking a huge batch of chocolate chip cookies, drinking a Starbucks peppermint mocha, wrapping presents with my niece and nephew, and seeing this awesome Christmas light display:

The display was really neat- you drive up to the house and they have a sign up in the front yard telling you which station to tune the radio to.  The lights are synced up to a whole bunch of songs- we sat there for about twenty minutes and never saw/heard the same one twice.  If you're in Canton, Ohio, you should check it out- it's on Saratoga Hills Dr, off of Werner Church.  Take a toy with you- the family that set up the display put a box out front, and they're accepting donations for Toys for Tots.  There's a news story here on the light display, and on a couple of other houses doing something similar.  My favorite part of the story is the quote by the owner of the house- "This is how Americans do Christmas."

It's been fun seeing the light displays in Ohio, but on our way out of Singapore, we also got to check out the decorations at Changi Airport, which, I must say, were elaborate but kind of weird.
Christmas ornament/rocking horse pegasus/fish?!
Ah, the traditional Christmas teapot
Bryan, Crystal, and the magical holiday teapot
Happy Holidays from the USA!!

Friday, December 17, 2010

Just When I Thought I Understood...More Miscommunication

Sometimes I fool myself into thinking that I've gotten pretty awesome at understanding Singlish, and at making myself understood.  Clearly I'm delusional.  Recently, one of my American colleagues and I had the following experience:

We walked outside of Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School, where I recently started a new job.  We were walking across to Singapore General Hospital for a smoothie.  Upon walking outside we noticed that the air was thick and acrid, and the smell of smoke was harsh.  It was the first day of a haze that hung over Singapore for several days.  The haze was a result of smoke blowing over from wildfires in Indonesia, but we didn't know that at the time.  Naturally we were curious, which led to this ridiculous conversation with the Singaporean smoothie girl:

American Pal: Hey, so do you know why it's so smoky outside?
Smoothie Girl: Wah?
American Pal:  The smoke?  Outside?  Where is it coming from?
Smoothie Girl: Wah, cannot smoke inside.  Must go outside.
Me: No, no, no.  We don't want to smoke in the hospital.  There's smoke in the air (pointing outside) out there.  Like fog or haze.  But smoke.  Outside.  Have you seen it?
Smoothie Girl: No, lah, cannot smoke inside.  Not allowed.
American Pal: We understand.  We just want to know why the air is so bad outside.  It smells smoky.
Smoothie Girl: (speaks to other smoothie girl in Mandarin, probably saying something to the effect of "What the hell are these chicks saying?  They want to smoke in here or something.  Can you make them shut up?")
Smoothie Girl #2: Cannot buy cigarettes here.  Must go to Seven-Eleven.
Me: No!  Not cigarettes.  Never mind.
American Pal: Noooo...the smoke outside (points vaguely to the window)...OK.  Never mind.  Thank you for our smoothies!

One day not long after that, I realized that my miscommunications aren't exclusive to my interactions with Singaporeans.  Sometimes I even have trouble understanding my fellow Americans.  Take, for example, this exchange between Bryan and me, one evening while we were cooking dinner:

Bryan: (sheepishly) Can you help me find the ring?
Crystal: (prolonged silence as I attempt to digest the enormity of this statement and then handle it without jumping up and down and terrifying Bryan) If you feel like you need help, of course, I'd be glad to.  When do you want to do it?
Bryan: After dinner?  Wait...what are you talking about?
Crystal: What are YOU talking about?!
Bryan: The ring in my video game.  It'll help my character go faster but I can't find it...seriously, what are you talking about?!
Crystal: You're mean.
Bryan: What?!
Crystal: I thought you meant an engagement ring.
Bryan: (laughter)
Crystal: So mean.  So, so mean.

Yeah.  I think Bryan found his video game ring, but my left hand is still naked.  But what's a girl to do?

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Things We Find in the Woods Part Six

It's been awhile since I've posted about the fun and unusual things that Bryan and I encounter on our ramblings through Singapore's wild spots, but never fear.  Your dose of wildlife is back.

Let's start it off with the creepy crawlies!!  On one day in Bukit Timah, Bryan and I found two spiders we'd never seen in Singapore.  This one is some sort of orb weaver spider, but I couldn't find it in the guide to common Singapore spiders that I typically use to ID the spiders I find around here. The web was really eye-catching, and I can just imagine being mesmerized as I flew directly into it, trapped myself, and got swallowed right up by the crafty spider.
Fancy web stitching.  Well done, little guy!

The other spider was impressive as well, because of its size rather than its handiwork. I found this one when we were standing on a path.  The massive web was suspended about eight feet in the air, and when I saw its huge inhabitant, I exclaimed "WOAH!" causing Bryan to back up right underneath it, just as a stiff breeze caused the web and the spider to shake, making me deeply concerned that Bryan was about to have a spider for a hat.  Luckily it hung tight and he managed to scoot out from underneath it.  No luck identifying this one either.  Any input?  Any arachnologists out there?
What Bryan saw when I said "Look up, honey, but don't freak out."

On that same day, Bryan and I encountered what was certainly the biggest, fattest skink I have ever seen.  It was a common sun skink and when we saw it, it was about a foot away from another, normal sized common sun skink, just emphasizing the fact that the fat one was absurdly large.  After we got home I looked it up in our very worn Wild Animals of Singapore book to see if it had any notes on size differences between males and females.  It did not mention any sexual dimorphism, but it did say that these skinks bear live young, so maybe our fat skink was just pregnant!
Suzie was always proud of her slim physique...
...but Bertha's friends were always telling her to go easy on the grasshoppers.

OK, for the sake of my mother, I'll move on from lizards and spiders now.  How about something furry and cute?  How about a teeny baby monkey, less than a week old?  You might recall Camille's last little girl, Dora, who almost broke my heart when she was killed by a car.  Well, Camille has a new baby now, a little boy and she is very protective.  So far he's very healthy, and I hope to see him grow safely into adolescence.
Mama's Boy

I think he's just as cute as can be, and so do the other monkey ladies.  That's why they're always trying to snatch him away!  Macaque females frequently try to touch, groom, hold, or outright steal young infants.  As you can imagine, the mothers of the infants generally disapprove of such behavior, and often try to snatch the baby right back.  Sometimes this results in a bit of monkey tug-of-war, with a screaming baby as the rope.
Everyone wants the baby but it's pretty clear where he wants to be- look at him clutching to his mom!

Camille's baby is the youngest in the group.  Izzy had the first baby of the recent baby boom,  so her little one has grown quite a bit...but that hasn't stopped him from continuing to act like a helpless little soul.  He clings on to Izzy for dear life, even though he's almost half her size at this point, and whenever she tries to lay down or rest, he's always rooting around to get at her milk.  She's pretty laid-back, so she seems to take it all in stride, but sometimes I anthropomorphize and think she looks really tired.
Izzy's pretty much a milk factory these days

OK, just a few more monkey photos and then I'll move on.  But we haven't seen any of the monkey teens yet, and they're my favorite.  Bryan's been getting in lots of practice taking monkey photos lately, and I think his skills are really improving.  It's not easy to get good photos of the energetic, always-moving juveniles, but he's gotten some good stuff.
Macaques jump super long distances and sometimes just barely reach their goal, but seeing one fall is pretty rare.
People often think "smiling" monkeys are happy, but they're actually expressing fear or submission.
No, I'm not interested in sharing my banana peel.  Go away.

Well, now we have the ladies and the babies and the juveniles, but I can't neglect those big males.  Here's Achilles, the most photogenic male, in my opinion.
What big teeth you have, my dear...

If you've spent much time hiking in Singapore's nature reserves, you probably know that it's quite common to find the macaques, but much less ordinary to encounter any other kind of mammal besides the ever-present squirrels.  That's why Bryan and I got so excited last weekend when we saw this colugo!  The colugo is also referred to as a flying lemur in wildlife guides, but a lot of the locals call them flying foxes, which is really confusing, because flying foxes are actually a type of large bat.  I've never tried to correct them though- not when they call colugos "flying foxes" or when they call changeable lizards "chameleons" or even when they call monitor lizards "Komodo dragons," because if I were a Singaporean that had lived here my whole life and some sweaty little ang moh started correcting me, I think I'd feel pretty annoyed.
Is it a mammal or an alien?

Naturally, we were pretty thrilled by the colugo sighting, but it got way cooler when... a little BABY colugo popped its head out!!!!  LOOK AT IT!!!  It's sooooo cute!!!  How do you not go crazy for a baby whose eyes are half the size of its head?!
I think I'm in love.
Notice the awesome colugo camo.
As we stood there and watched, the baby ever so slowly inched back under its mother's skin flap, completely disappearing from our sight.  The colugo already does a pretty neat job of blending in with the trees, so I was impressed to see how totally and completely the baby could disappear.

Of course, we can't forget our feathered friends.  Sometimes I go for awhile feeling like I must have seen most of the animals in Singapore, because I see the same ones (macaques, bronzebacks, mynahs, monitors) over and over again.  And then some days I see a whole bunch of new things and I realize that I could spend the rest of my life in Singapore and still not catch a glimpse of every species that calls the island its home.  On this particular day, Bryan managed to photograph three bird species he'd never had the opportunity to get before.

Pink-necked pigeon
Olive-backed woodpecker
Black-naped oriole
Well, I could probably stay up all night posting wildlife photos and blathering on about the extreme cuteness of baby animals, but I should really get some sleep.  If I got you in the mood to oooh and awww over baby animals, don't stop here...http://babyanimalz.com/

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Tsingtao Then and Now

So if you're a diligent reader of the blog, you probably remember that the kind people who rented us our apartment left behind all of their furniture and kitchen supplies for us to use, which has been awesome.  You may also recall that our landlords are serious packrats, meaning that we have some mind-boggling quantities of things, like big boxes full of clothes hangers, 13 colanders, three rice cookers, and three full-size woks.  Every once in a while we unearth something unexpected from the depths of our cupboards.  This was one of those times.

Bryan was rummaging around, looking for a spare cutting board (you know there's got to be one around here somewhere) when he found a very old Tsingtao bottle.  Yes, Tsingtao, the beer that we bravely attempted to order at the hawker center not long ago.  My parents' love of antiques must have rubbed off a bit, because I was pretty excited by the find.

Old and new

I thought it was interesting to see how the label has changed- the logo is still pretty similar, but the Chinese writing is much less prominent on the newer bottle.  The older bottle clearly says the beer is from China, but the newer one doesn't, and the bottle itself has changed too.  I don't know how old the older bottle is, but if you have any idea, feel free to post it in the comments.  In the meanwhile, I'll be rummaging through the cupboards, looking for more treasures.

Friday, November 26, 2010

What Are You Thankful For?

A Happy Thanksgiving to all the Americans out there, and to our international friends who have come to love the gluttonous holiday almost as much as we do.  This year one of my American co-workers was kind enough to invite over a staggering number of people, and she even promised turkey!  Naturally, we accepted the invite and I even managed to cobble together an imitation of my mom's awesome broccoli casserole- no small feat when you consider that I had to split it into two separate dishes, which then took turns in my tiny toaster oven.  But I made it!

My broccoli casseroles reheating in Kiersten's oven.   Aren't you proud, Mom?!

Kiersten's accomplishment was far more impressive.  Finding a turkey in Singapore is no small task, apparently.  But Cold Storage has wisely taken advantage of the 7000 American-born inhabitants on this island.  They started shipping in turkeys that were born, raised, slaughtered, stuffed, and cooked in the U.S.  In a move bound to give any locavore a migraine, the turkeys have been flash-frozen and shipped to the other side of the world just for us Yankees in Singapore!  Our friend even has a fancy oven (not so common here in Singapore) so the turkey was served hot and fresh.  Of course, I stuck to the broccoli casserole, but I think Bryan was happy to have a slice of white meat on his plate.
A small portion of the massive quantities of food we ate
Kiersten's Thanksgiving pride

This was without doubt our most ethnic holiday ever- an American holiday, celebrated by representatives of India, Pakistan, the U.S., South Africa, Malaysia, France, Singapore, Ghana, and more.  But if eating too much food and drinking too much wine doesn't bring people together, what will?!
A toast to our families back home and our friends here with us

As always, we miss our families on holidays when we can't be with them, but this year is a little easier since we know we'll be seeing everyone in just a few short weeks. So happy Thanksgiving to the Riley's and the Koenig's!  We are very thankful for all of you, and we can't wait to see you!  And a big thanks to Kiersten (who also has a blog!) for creating a little slice of the U.S. here in Southeast Asia.
Me with our gracious hostess
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Singapore Books: Scribbles from the Same Island

After penning Notes from an Even Smaller Island, Neil Humphreys rose to substantial local fame, and was asked to write a weekly column for a newspaper.  His second book, Scribbles from the Same Island, was a compilation of his columns, along with some expansions and additional original material.  I wasn't crazy about the book.  I thought the writing was a little sloppy at times.  It was as though he'd stayed up all night the night before, drinking coffee and trying to conjure up a decent idea for the week's column, settled on something at 3 AM, hammered it out in the few hours before it was due, then handed it in unrevised.  And while he was occasionally critical in his previous book, he was much more harsh in the next one.  He speaks of other Westerners with such disdain.  Humphreys lived in an HDB flat and worked in a school with a lot of Singaporean teachers while he lived here.  Naturally, he made friends with a lot of his co-workers, meaning that he ended up with a substantial network of Singaporean friends.  However, a lot of the people that move here for work end up in jobs with a bunch of other foreigners and relatively few Singaporeans.  Those people obviously befriend their co-workers as well, which often unfortunately means that foreign talent end up with relatively few local friends.  Rather than seeing this as the natural way of things, Humphreys endlessly criticizes all foreigners that come here, implying that they make no effort to fit in, and that they're being uppity and conceited by living in private condos instead of HDB's.  He acts as though he's the only foreigner to have ever had the fantastic idea to live in government housing (he's not.  We do, and so do some of our foreign friends).  In the end, he sounds as though he believes himself to be the only foreigner capable of truly appreciating Singapore.  To use his vernacular, I think he succeeds in sounding like an insufferable prat.  When he wasn't knocking other Westerners or making sweeping generalizations about the local population, he sometimes made interesting and insightful observations about life here.  But overall, I think there's a reason that you can buy a used copy of the book on Amazon for 38 cents.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Jurong Bird Park

Over the Deepavali holiday weekend, Bryan got ahold of corporate passes from work so we could go to the Jurong Bird Park for free.  The bird park is run by the same organization that runs the Singapore Zoo and the Night Safari, so I expected it to be pretty well done.  However, I still had some qualms.  I always have mixed feelings about animals in captivity- I think it's good for people to be able to see animals and learn about them, and I know that zoos often serve conservation functions, such as breeding endangered animals, but I still feel bad for the trapped animals.  For some reason I feel especially bad for birds, particularly when they have their wings clipped....so I headed off with some excitement but a dose of trepidation too.

Just inside the park, next to the pretty flamingo statues and the Hawk Cafe, elegant black swans swam around with some fluffy ducks.  The ducks kept puffing out their head feathers, making themselves look like they had wacky hairdos.  I loved them!
This duck looks like the Fonz...

Colorful macaws were right near the park entrance.  Many of them were preening themselves, two of them were posturing at one another and appeared to be bickering, and some were munching away at the log they were perched on (in the wild, I think they peel away bark and eat the insects they find underneath).
Any bugs under there?
Can't we all just get along?
Awww, that's much better.

Next up were the elegant flamingos with their bendy pipe cleaner necks.  Flamingo chicks usually hatch white or gray.  The characteristic pink color doesn't come until they get on an adult diet of animal and plant plankton, which contain proteins that give them their bright hue.
Pretty in pink

Everywhere we turned there was another set of bird eyes, peering down from a tree or peeking from behind a cage.  A lot of the birds were in open-air enclosures.  I remembered seeing a bird like this grey crowned crane in the Nairobi Animal Sanctuary a few years ago.  The cartoon-like creature below that is called a shoebill.
Fancy headgear
Funny-looking shoebill

I couldn't help but laugh when we got to the storks.  In storybooks, they're always portrayed as lovely, swan-like birds, gently delivering swaddled bundles of joy to expectant parents.  These birds were hideous!  They looked more like vultures than swans!  Why, some of them looked like elderly avian burn victims!  I mean, I'm sure there are some types of stork that are better-looking than these guys, but it was still a silly image.
Ugly bugger, isn't he?
Another ugly member of the stork fam

The ducks next door definitely would have beat out the storks in a beauty contest.
This guy made me miss the overly friendly ducks at NMSU
Paint-by-numbers duck

We stopped by an exhibit of Southeast Asian birds.  The area was nice- it was open and although some of the birds were in cages, a lot were free to flit about your head as you tried desperately to not get crapped on.  It was neat to be so close to the exotic birds, but I was annoyed when a little girl came running past me, chasing a peahen with a stick while her father followed, laughing gleefully.  Nice.  Anyway, it was cool to see some of the birds that we haven't yet succeeded at seeing in the wild.  There were lots of the critically endangered Bali mynahs, which the zoo works on breeding and releasing back into their native habitat.  But my favorite was a shiny blue bird with red eyes, whose proper name I can't recall.  There were also lots of colorful and unusual types of peafowl roaming about.
Doesn't he look like he's wearing a helmet?  Maybe with some chainmail?
Peahen, much duller than her male counterpart, the peacock
Doesn't this toucan's beak look hand painted?
Bird with papaya...and lots of COLORS!
I loved her dusky blue color

After visiting the Southeast Asian birds for awhile, we went to on to the Lory Loft.  It was another aviary that you could walk into and have the birds fly all around you.  There were all sorts of fantastic birds around- rainbow lories, yellow-bibbed and red lories, black-capped, blue-streaked, and dusky ones.  They were selling nectar to feed the birds and I think I broke the rules when I picked up a cup of it that someone else had set down and walked away from.  Bryan and I passed the nectar back and forth and it was fun to have the birds eat out of our hands and perch on our arms.  The whole place was just thrumming with birdsong- those little lories can make a lot of noise!
Black-capped lory
Rainbow Lory wants to be your friend!

Rainbow lories on my arm
They loved me!
But Bryan had a little trouble...
Eventually he got the hang of it!

After successfully escaping the Lory Loft poop-free, it was getting cloudy and a bit rainy, so we went indoors to the World of Darkness.  On our way, we tried to stop by to see the birds of paradise, which we got really enthusiastic about after seeing them in all their glory on an episode of Planet Earth.  They seemed to be hiding pretty good, and we only managed to spot one obscured by a lot of branches.  So we moved on.  The World of Darkness, as you can probably imagine, houses a variety of nocturnal birds, mostly owls.  They were awesome, especially the fluffy snowy owls, but it was very difficult to get photographs of them (no flash photography!!  it hurts their light-sensitive eyes). 
Hedwig?!?!  How did you get here?!
Wouldn't want to be a mouse trying to get away from this one...

When we walked out of the dark, it was still kind of crummy outside so we decided to call it a day.  I'd heard about a vegetarian restaurant in The Village, across from the Bird Park.  We decided to give the place (Eight Immortals) a try.  It was only about 4:15 PM, but our breakfast pancakes had pretty much worn off.  It turned out that the restaurant wasn't open yet, and neither were any of the other places in The Village.  The whole place was pretty much deserted except for a guy at the information desk and a whole bunch of people outside.  We decided to go see why they were all crowded around.

That was when we walked into one of the stranger attractions I've visited in Singapore.  The people were all chilling at a place called Jurong Hill Prawn Fishing & Beer Garden.  People were lining the edges of five or six big, square pools.  Everyone had a simple fishing pole in the water and every once in a while someone would flick their pole backward and tug a squirming gray prawn out of the water.  Then they'd unhook the prawn, drop it into a net secured in the water by their feet, rebait their hook and start over.

It was such a strange thing to have stumbled upon that we just stood there and stared at the production for awhile, a little dumbstruck.  I started to walk a little closer to the front counter and just as I took my first step, a flying prawn cam straight at me, almost pegging me in the forehead!  I shrieked and ducked low and it swung over my head.  I looked up, in utter confusion, into the face of a shrieking Singaporean girl who was swinging the prawn every which way.  I had a feeling this might be her first time.  We laughed and snapped some photos of her catch.
The Magnificent Flying Prawn

Over by the front desk was a tank which contained a bunch of little prawns and one massive big daddy.  According to the tag on the aquarium, he was all yours for only S$40!  Up until we saw the ones at the fishing place, I don't think I actually really had any idea what prawns looked like.  I certainly didn't know they had these really long arm-like things with pincers on the ends.  I thought they were pretty much the same as shrimp, but they looked a lot more complicated.  And they can get so big!  The one in the tank looked like a lobster!!
I don't understand how these things came to be considered edible.

Our dinner options thwarted and not wanting to fish our food out of the water, we headed back to Jurong Point and ate at a little European Cafe called Ambush.  It was a tasty end to a long day!  And after all those birds, I was glad that Bryan didn't order chicken...