Friday, July 22, 2011

Bintan Day One: The Singaporean Getaway

Bintan, an Indonesian island about 50 minutes from Singapore, is a hugely popular spot for Singaporeans to take a weekend getaway. Many of our friends have visited already, and we'd heard mixed reviews. Most people stay in the northern part of the island near the ferry terminal, where there are about 10 resorts sprawled along the coast. People said that the resorts were nice, but expensive; the beach was okay, but sometimes crowded; the food was all right, but not hugely impressive. On the one hand, I felt like we should go check out one of the vacation spots most popular with Singaporeans, but on the other hand, a weekend at a resort with a bunch of other people doesn't really fit with what Bryan and I usually enjoy. A friend at work suggested an alternative- go to Bintan, but stay on the quieter east side of the island, where there were just a couple of resorts, fewer people, and decent beaches. We took his suggestion and booked a room at the Cabana Beach Resort.

Our adventure began on Friday after work. We hopped on the MRT, stopped at Expo to get some Subway, then continued to the Tanah Merah Ferry Terminal. We'd booked tickets through Bintan Resort Ferries in advance, and it was a good thing because the ferry was sold out! Even though it was raining, our ferry ride was smooth and pretty brief. In under an hour, we were standing in line at immigration (side bar: Singaporeans don't need visas, but many other nationalities, including Americans, need visas, which can be obtained on arrival and cost US$10 for 7 days or US$25 for 30 days).
Boarding the rain-soaked ferry
Chillin' on the ferry

Immigration was also surprisingly speedy, and before long we were bouncing along in a shuttle bus (provided free by the resorts on the east side) with our freshly stamped passports in hand. The ride took about 45 minutes, but it seemed a little longer because the rain and darkness made it so we couldn't really see anything through the windows. We finally got dropped at Cabana Beach, where we were enthusiastically greeted by the staff, which appeared to be comprised entirely of teenage Indonesian boys. But they checked us in and gave us the Bintang beer we ordered, so we were happy with them. Our room was nice, and we settled in to drink Bintang and play Citadels, a new game Bryan brought along as a surprise!
Relaxing on our awesome balcony

When I'd emailed the Cabana Beach Resort, I'd requested a room with a sea view. Their reply said that our room would be "definitely sea facing," and Bryan and I had laughed over the endless possibilities that left open. When we checked in, we walked out to our balcony and squinted into the darkness, trying to make out the beach. For a second I was puzzled and then I realized we were ON the water- it was underneath us! Awesome. Definitely sea facing indeed! We were both looking forward to a weekend of playing games, relaxing on the beach, and eating Indonesian food!

Monday, July 18, 2011

Talking Cock: More Miscommunication

It’s been two years since we landed in Singapore and heard the amusing and confusing Singlish for the first time. Since then we’ve become a lot better at deciphering local language, and I even find myself tossing out an enthusiastic “Can!” every now and then. But we’ll never be as good as the locals, and we still find ourselves misunderstanding and being misunderstood.

One day I went with some friends to CafĂ© Iguana. There were seven of us, so we’d made reservations. The conversation with the hostess went like this:

Kiersten: Hello! We have a reservation for seven people at 6:30.
Confused Hostess: Name?
Kiersten: Kiersten.
Confused Hostess: (Stares at sheet of paper. Turns it over. Stares. Turns it over again.)
Kiersten: It’s K-I-E-R-S-T-E-N.
Confused Hostess: (Stares at Kiersten. Stares at paper, which has about three reservations on it.) No name. Not here.
Me: (I look around the restaurant, which is almost abandoned since it’s pretty early on a weeknight. There are three tables with eight chairs around them, and all are available.) Well…can’t we just sit there?
Confused Hostess: (Stares at me. Stares at paper.)
Kiersten: (Takes paper and looks it over. Points.) This reservation? Chris Tan for seven people? 6:30? That’s me!
Confused Hostess: OHHHHH! CHRIS TAN! Yes, this way.

I’m pretty sure the waitress thought that we were just with someone called Chris Tan, and never figured out that the person taking the reservation had misunderstood Kiersten and wrote her name down as Chris Tan. But that’s OK. We got a good laugh and some yummy food.

If we have that much trouble in person, you can only imagine how hard it is to talk on the phone, without the assistance of ridiculous hand gestures, pantomimes, and facial expressions to get the point across. I’ve had people just hang up on me out of sheer frustration before. But my favorite times were these two.

Me: (Freshly out of bed, home alone and in my pajamas) Hello? I’m calling to make an appointment for aircon maintenance.
Me: (With many repetitions and a lot of spelling out, I give him my address.) Can you come tomorrow? In the morning?
Loud Indian Man: MORNING CAN!
Me: Tomorrow morning?
Me: NO! Not fifteen minute! Cannot! Tomorrow morning!
Loud Indian Man: TWENTY MINUTE CAN! (click)

I called back but there was no answer. I was unprepared for this. I was supposed to be going to follow the monkeys, and I had no cash on hand to pay the maintenance man. I threw on some shorts, ran out the door, and jogged to the nearest ATM, then ran back. This was a trial for me, because S'pore is so bloody hot that I don’t run here unless I’m being chased. Anyway, I got back, sweating and panting, to find the maintenance man standing outside my door, energetically ringing my door bell. He looked me up and down, shook his head once, then went inside and worked on the aircon.

Another time we were with a bunch of friends at their condo. We were all playing board games (ROBO RALLY!) and enjoying their posh rooftop hangout spot. Around dinner time, we decided to order pizzas. Since I’d had a hilariously bad time ordering Indian food the last time we’d all hung out (there’d been a lot of shouting of “MUTTAR PANEER” before the person at Anjappar passed the phone to someone else who heard me say about three words before passing the phone on again), the responsibility went to my German friend, Hen. She has a slight accent, but had successfully ordered pizza from this place a few times, so she went for it, and repeated our order for four pizzas several times. One of the pizzas was a Four Cheese pizza.

When the food got there, three of the pizzas were correct, but the one that was supposed to be Four Cheese was mysteriously covered in sea creatures. We were positively perplexed. How could “cheese” have been confused with “seafood”?! We looked at the menu and spotted the culprit- a “Fortune Pizza,” covered in squid, shrimp, fish, etc. I guess Hen and I are both out the next time we delegate responsibility for ordering food!

This one wasn’t a miscommunication so much, but it made me laugh. One day, I got into a taxi and the driver was very animated and talkative. Our conversation went like this:

Taxi Uncle: Where you going?!
 Me: Jurong East.
Taxi Uncle: Jurong East! Wah! Why you go there?!
Me: I live there!
Taxi Uncle: WAH! NO! You do not.
Me: Yup! I’ve lived there for two years.
Taxi Uncle: (laughs) You from UK?!
Me: Nope, I’m from the US.
Taxi Uncle: Ohhh, US ah. (laughs harder)
(long pause)
Me: Why did you think I was from the UK?
Taxi Uncle: Because you not fat. You skinny. Only fatty bom bom from US! Skinny people from UK!

I laughed hard. Then I gave him a tip.

When my friend "Chris Tan" moved away recently, she left me her copy of The Coxford Singlish Dictionary. At least now I have something to refer to when someone describes something as "shiok" or calls someone a "ya ya papaya."

Thursday, July 14, 2011

I'm Famous!

Well, maybe famous is kind of a strong word. But I AM in the Bamboo Telegraph (the magazine of the American Women's Association), and that's pretty cool! And look! I'm with the monkeys!
Me and some of my good friends (click for larger view)

The article features the monthly Monkey Walks, led by yours truly, at Bukit Timah Nature Reserve. The walks have been a success so far, and have been a lot of fun for me and (I hope) the people that come along. We've even had a few colugo sightings!

And we set new dates! Some of the walks will be led by Dr. Gumert, who recently returned from collecting more monkey data in Thailand, but most will be led by me.

Monkey Walks 
August 13th
September 10th
October 8th
November 12th
December 10th

If you'd like to come hang out with the monkeys on one of the dates listed above, please email sgmonkeywalk(at) You may sign up for yourself and up to three other people. Spaces are limited, so please register early. All walks begin at 5 PM with a brief talk in the Visitor Center classroom, and usually last until about 6:30 PM. Walks are canceled if it rains heavily up to 45 minutes before the walk, and participants are notified via SMS. Most importantly, it will be a good time!

Many thanks to Melissa Diagana, a Monkey Walk participant and the author of the article above!

Friday, July 8, 2011

Bukit Brown Chinese Cemetery

In one week, two of my friends highly recommended visiting Bukit Brown. At first I wasn't sure why my pals were so adamant that I should visit a creepy old cemetery, but then Andrea mentioned monkeys and Flora (who did her own blog post on B. Brown) mentioned abandoned stuff and I was sold. Bryan and I went on Saturday, the next available opportunity.

After a particularly harrowing cab ride that ended up taking about three times as long as expected due to three separate accidents on the PIE (I swear everyone on the road that day was drinking liquor, smoking a cigarette, eating a sandwich, and texting simultaneously), we arrived at an imposing old gate with an old man quietly dozing next to it. We walked through and into Bukit Brown Chinese Cemetery.

I was pleasantly surprised by the openness of the cemetery. In Singapore, it is very rare to see wide open spaces, but the cemetery was very spacious. The whole area was lush and green, peppered with overgrown gravestones.
Lookin' a little dilapidated
So green!

There were small placards around, with information on where to go to see notable gravestones, such as the oldest known Chinese grave in Singapore, which dates from 1833 (it was originally somewhere else, and was relocated to B. Brown in 1941). The placards were placed by the Asia Paranormal Investigators, as part of the Saving Bukit Brown Project. A new MRT station was recently built near Bukit Brown (but it isn't open yet), and the cemetery is slated for redevelopment as a housing estate. API hopes to see the historical site spared, and so do I. It's such a peaceful place, and it seems so disrespectful to disturb all the gravesites. Not to mention the fact that I wouldn't want to live in a house built over an old cemetery! I mean, that seriously did not end well for those people in Poltergeist...
Oldest Chinese grave in S'pore

Gravestones were everywhere, and each one was unique. Some had small photos of the deceased, others were very plain, some were adorned with fancy gold writing, and many had small statues flanking them.
An intimidating defender.
Jungly guardian lion
Detailed embellishments
Mossy guardian

In terms of gravesite decorations, I was particularly fond of the tiles that adorned some of them. They reminded me of something my grandmother would have had in her bathroom, but somehow they still looked really pretty!

The graves were is various states of decline- some were so long abandoned that they were crumbling and being overrun by vines and trees. Many more just looked a little unkempt, and a few looked new and well-tended. The really abandoned ones were kind of sad, having been left to rot. But there was also something kind of poetic about them, the same thing that I find strangely beautiful about all manmade things left to be overtaken by nature. It always reminds me that life is fleeting.
Nature takes over
A more modern gravestone, amid all the ones falling apart

As we walked along the road, we saw loads and loads of birds: kingfishers, pigeons, spotted doves, black-naped orioles, and more. They were everywhere, especially the kingfishers. I don't think I've ever seen so many kingfishers in one place!
Collared kingfisher

The birdlife wasn't the only thing flourishing at Bukit Brown. There were flowers blooming all over, and as usual most of them were unfamiliar to me. I need to brush up on my botany!
These look like cabbage!
And these look like plastic!

As I scouted the trees for more birds, I noticed some bigger movement. Monkeys! I had heard that there were monkeys living in the cemetery, but we hadn't really expected to see them. We took a seat on the side of the road and watched them playing in the trees and romping over the tombstones. It was really neat to see them in a slightly different habitat.
This mom had a wiggly, rambunctious baby!
An interesting perch
Tough guy
Monkey shenanigans

Right up the path from the monkeys was an elaborate offering of oranges. I was astonished that the monkeys were refraining from raiding the offering- they love oranges! But the whole time we were there, we only saw one female timidly sidle up to the plate, grab a fruit, then scurry off. All the others left them alone.
One brave soul

The oranges weren't the only offering we saw. Others included cakes, paper money (for spending in the afterlife, of course), incense, and mysteriously, a pretty sweet action figure.
Obviously the best offering in the place.
Sweet incense burner

Down the path from the monkeys and action figures was the best abandoned thing in the whole cemetery. It was a gate that looked like it might have been attached to a fence long ago. The fence had long since disintegrated, leaving the gate looking rather pointless on its own, smack in the middle of a sea of graves. It was in the process of rusting into oblivion. I loved it.
The year on the stone says 1942, but it looks much older
One of the more crowded sections of the graveyard

In this area, Bryan also got lucky and spotted a cute juvenile monitor lizard clinging to the base of a tree. Bukit Brown seems to be quite the wildlife hideaway!
Awwww he's peeking!

Some of headstones had a strange, bright orange moss (or lichen?) growing on them. Another unusual thing about the graves was that most people seemed to be buried behind the tombstones rather than in front of them like I'm used to seeing in the US. Also, most of the graves had a circle of bricks or stones to denote where people were buried. I liked that because it made it easier to avoid walking over someone's grave, which always feels a bit inconsiderate.
Strange orange stuff
Grave with borders, probably for a family.

We'd been in the graveyard for over two hours at that point, and we decided we should start heading out so that we could give ourselves plenty of time to exit before the gates closed at 5:30. Of course we thought we knew where we were, but naturally we were wrong. We spent some quality time following promising leads that led into brick walls or dead-ends. We were starting to laugh nervously and joke about spending the night in a rather creepy location when we encountered some people on horseback. We asked them the way out, and they set us in the direction of an exit. It wasn't the way we came in, and it dumped us off by an equestrian club, but it was nice to get out before it got dark. Plus we saw some more cool birds on the way out, including some white-crested laughingthrushes and a greater flameback. Unfortunately we only managed blurry pictures before they flitted off.
Greater flameback

Bukit Brown is a really cool place, and I sincerely hope that the advocates of preserving it are successful. Singapore has so few historical places, and such little wild space left that it would be a shame to lose a spot like Bukit Brown, which is both historical and nature-y. I recommend visiting while you still can!

By the way, voting for the Singapore Blog Awards closed on July 3rd. We find out the results at the awards ceremony on July 23rd. I'll keep you posted! Thanks so much to everyone who voted!!