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 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...

Sunday, November 7, 2010

MacRitchie Reservoir Park

Last weekend I left Bryan at home with his video games and headed over to MacRitchie Reservoir Park.  It was a great day- the sun was shining but there was a nice breeze coming off the water.  Even though it was a weekend, the park was pretty empty.  Aside from a few kayakers and runners, I was the only one around.  I decided to take the Prunus and Petai trails, which run near the reservoir for awhile.  They're easy trails but I'd never taken them before and was hopeful that I might see something new.
MacRitchie Reservoir

Right away I heard some noisy birds in the bushes.  I saw a crimson sunbird and a little further along the path, what I think were a pair of Asian paradise flycatchers.  I can't be sure about that though, because I didn't manage to get a good photo- I needed Bryan with his photography skills!  These bright dragonflies perched nearby, glistening in the sun.

The heat can get really oppressive in the forest- sometimes the air feels so thick with humidity that it's like breathing in through a wet washcloth.  So when I came to a bench at the edge of the wooden pathway, I decided to relax and have a big drink of water.  I zoned out for a while, staring into the undergrowth and enjoying the peace and quiet of the forest.  And then...shit.  Oh shit oh shit oh shit oh shit. There, about six inches from my feet.  A vine that wasn't a vine.  That distinct, red to yellow pattern.  My dad's voice echoed in my head "Red to black, friend of Jack.  Red to yellow, kill a fellow."  I fought the overwhelming urge to scream and jump and run.  I took a deep breath and slowly drew my legs up to my chest, spun around, and took a giant step away from the pit viper.  Safely out of striking distance, I stared at it, making sure it didn't move while I took some deep breaths and tried to get my heart to stop hammering out of my chest.  Then I crouched down and took some photos.
Thanks for not biting me, man
It was either a male or a young female- all the juveniles start out green with the red and yellow pattern, but by the time the females reach adulthood, they've changed substantially.  They grow to be much larger than the males, and they have a black and greenish-yellow pattern, the bright green and red totally gone.  The males stay smaller and keep the bright pattern, so their adult selves look similar to the juvenile version.  I think this was probably an adult male, and as I looked at him, it seemed silly to have been so afraid.  He was so small  that it seemed impossible that he could do much harm.  But it would be a mistake to underestimate the little guy- while their venom isn't known to be fatal to humans, it could certainly ruin your day.  Hemotoxins in their venom prevent blood clotting and inflict serious organ and tissue damage.
See how I missed it in the foliage?
After I had my fill of the snake, I headed onward down the path, still feeling a little spooked by my encounter on the lonely path.  About 10 steps later, I heard a loud twig snap and I stopped and whirled around and saw...nothing.  I stared into the woods for a second, then mentally mocked myself for being such a wuss.  I took another step forward and almost tripped over a monkey that seemed to have materialized out of thin air.  He must have crawled out from under the wooden path, and he'd planted himself right in front of me, seemingly unconcerned by my presence.  He startled me so badly that I jumped.  He looked annoyed and stood up and backed away a few steps.
I skirted the irritable monkey and moved on.  About another 10 steps on, I heard a noise and assumed that the monkey was just following along.  I glanced to the side and instead saw a large water monitor digging in the leaf litter.  Sheesh, had the jungle shrunk overnight?  I was literally tripping over the local wildlife!
Not much farther along, I ran into the rest of my monkey friend's group.  The group was rather large, and I guessed that their range on the edge of the forest probably meant that they got a lot of human food.  I was proved right a few minutes later.  As I chatted with some German tourists who were admiring the monkeys, everything seemed to happen all at once.  A Singaporean family rounded the corner- parents with their two kids, Dad toting plastic grocery bags with potato chips inside.  I saw him just before the monkeys did, and shouted" PUT YOUR BAG OVER YOU HEAD!  THE MONKEYS ARE GOING TO STEAL YOUR FOOD!"  He looked at me like I was crazy, and I threw my hands over my head, "Your GROCERIES.  The monkeys are going to TAKE them!"  He continued to gape at me like I was an idiot.  In the meanwhile the monkeys snatched the bags from his hands and began feasting on fattening potato chips.  His kids screamed, and he stared at the monkeys angrily.  I shook my head and rolled my eyes.  While they were all still screaming, an old man walked by and something happened that I'd never seen before.  All of the monkeys that didn't already have food in their hands jumped onto the path and started following the man.  He had a big trail of monkeys behind him, crawling all over one another in an effort to get closer to him.  It dawned on me that he must feed them all the time.  Sure enough, as he rounded the corner, I saw a bag drop out of his hand.  Now the monkeys had been fed on either side of me and the tourists, and the monkeys were rushing past us in both directions, fighting over junk food.  It was a scary few minutes as about 80 monkeys screamed in the trees and on the ground all around us.  I wanted to smack that man.  He'd put us all in danger by intentionally feeding the monkeys, even though he knew very well he shouldn't.  There were signs everywhere.  As soon as they saw an opening, the tourists took off in the other direction.  I waited until the fighting died down and walked in the direction the old man had gone.  There was food all over the place.  I sighed.  It seems that people just won't learn.
Monkey Feeder
After all the monkey excitement, I was glad to just walk along quietly, without seeing any people or animals for a while.  I did stop to stare at this funky fungi.  I liked the geometrical pattern.
 I also spotted a red-eared slider sunning himself on a log.  The invasive species is often released by locals who get them as pets and then decide they don't want them.  Releasing them into the wild is bad- turtles raised in captivity often die in the wild, as they don't know how to fend for themselves.  In addition, they decimate native species.  I felt a little pity for the turtle, but for the time-being, he looked pretty content in the sunshine.
Along the trail a little more, I found a newly completed little rest hut.  I poked around and was surprised to see a lizard on the ground near the hut.  I inched closer to get a better look and was even more surprised that the lizard didn't dart off.  They tend to be pretty skittish, and understandably so- the monkeys think they make tasty treats every now and then, snakes like to munch on them, birds gobble them up, and little  human children make a game out of trying to catch them.  They have a lot to be worried about.  But this one stayed put.  I saw that it was probably a Sumatran flying dragon, and wondered if it might be stunned- perhaps it had been gliding and had missed its mark.  It was neat to see one up close, but I didn't stay long- even though the lizard wasn't moving much, I figured my presence was making it a bit jumpy.
Not so  fierce for a dragon
Eventually I popped out at the end of the trail and headed for the visitor centre to use the bathroom before I headed out.  I was shocked to see monkeys raiding dumpsters right in front of the visitor centre.  I don't think that the bins belonged to the park, but they were right out in front of it, and I couldn't believe that they were properly bungee corded shut.  NParks officials are always telling people not  feed the monkeys, but here the monkeys sat, right in front of the visitor centre, happily chowing on food out of wide open trash bins.  It certainly didn't send a good message. trash, a monkey favorite
After the visitor centre, I headed over to catch a taxi home.  There were more monkeys on the sidewalk, just hanging around.  I watched them for a little bit, then had a strange experience- I stepped away from the wild monkeys and directly into a waiting taxi.  Weird.
MacRitchie Baby