Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Seven Links Blog Project

Guess what!

This is the TWO HUNDREDTH post on Crystal and Bryan in Singapore!! Hooray!!

For my two hundredth post, I thought it would be fun to revisit some of the blog's highlights over the past couple of years. My friend Flora nominated me to participate in something called the Seven Links Blog Project, in which you repost links to blog posts from seven different categories. So here are my contributions!

Our Most Beautiful Post: New Zealand Day Six: Milford Sound 

Gosh, this was a tough decision. Looking back over the past two and a half years since Bryan and I have moved to Singapore, my mind just reels thinking of all the astonishingly beautiful things we've seen. I went with Milford Sound because it was one of the most unusual and visually arresting things I've ever seen, and I think the blog post for it turned out pretty well.
A sight to remember

Our Most Popular Post: Pulau Ubin...Again!

I did this post after Bryan and I visited Pulau Ubin for the third time, so I guess I thought it would kind of be old news. But we ended up seeing some great wildlife that day, including wild boar and hornbills. We posted lots of pictures, and people really seemed to enjoy it. The post was linked to by several other nature sites, including Wild Singapore. Two people contacted me asking permission to turn Bryan's monkey silhoutte photo into a t-shirt and a birth announcement, so that was pretty neat!
This image turned out to be surprisingly popular
Our Most Controversial Post: A Word on the Monkeys

I don't generally post on very contentious topics, but I suppose I have covered some controversial ideas, like shark fin soup. But I think my most controversial post was probably one I posted one day in anger after I got home from a trying day of doing research on the monkeys at Bukit Timah. One of the residents had scolded me for not keeping the monkeys inside the forest, as though I was some sort of monkey shepherd instead of just a research assistant. It was a post I typed out in frustration, but I stand by what I said: if you're not ready to put  up with monkey antics, don't move in next to a nature reserve.
Eleanor, one of my favorite Bukit Timah monkeys

Our Most Helpful Post: Sumatra Day Three: Mud, Blood, Sweat, and Orangutans

This post was about visiting Gunung Leuser National Park in Sumatra. Visiting the park requires a guide, and we booked a great guide through a small tour company called Sumatra Travel. There is very little information about Sumatra Travel on the internet, and after we did this post a lot of people contacted me to say thank you, because our information had convinced them that the company was legitimate, and they had gone on to book tours of their own. We liked our guide so much, and I'm glad to have been able to help out their small operation, especially because their livelihood took a serious hit after a devastating flood in 2003, which killed several members of our guide's family.
Sumatran orangutan that we saw on our hike

Post Whose Success Surprised Me: Weird Groceries

This one has a hands-down winner. When I posted about the funny Pringles flavors in Singapore, I had no idea so many people would be as entertained by it as I was. The post was even featured on Boing Boing, which was nerd dream come true for me.
It still makes me smile

Post That Didn't Get the Attention it Deserved: Neighborhood Temples

Hmm...this is kind of a strange question for me. I started this blog to keep friends and family updated on our lives, and I've been surprised and flattered that strangers are interested in what we have to say. So I don't ever think, "HEY! Why isn't this blog post getting attention?!" But I always really liked the post on the temples in our neighborhood, and it never generated much interest from blog readers. I guess I think it really clearly illustrates the cultural diversity of Singapore. I mean, we can see all of these places from our apartment windows. I think that's pretty amazing.
At the Buddhist temple across from our house

Post I'm Most Proud Of: Cambodia Day Three: The Temples of Angkor

The post itself is actually kind of rough. I posted it a long time ago, when I was still new to blogging. But I'm proud of it not because it's the most refined post I've ever done, but because of what it stands for. I've wanted to visit Angkor Wat since learning about it in a college religion class, but I never dreamed that I would have the opportunity to travel all the way to Cambodia. But somehow I came to be living in Southeast Asia with my best friend, and we went there together. And I blogged about it, so I'll always be able to remember all the awesome times we had. I'm proud of that, even if the post itself isn't perfect.
One of the temples of Angkor

To keep the Seven Links Project going, I'm supposed to nominate three other bloggers to participate. I'd love to see what the following bloggers have to say: 

Ivan at The Lazy Lizard's Tales

Lauren at Real Life of an Expat Wife

Hazel at Makan

And thanks again to Flora for a fun idea, even though it took me a while to get around to it!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Trees of the World

In the sweltering temperatures of Singapore, it can be a little hard for me to get in the holiday spirit. So when I heard that the Singapore Botanic Garden was hosting over 300 Christmas trees, I dragged Bryan along, hoping to capture some holiday enthusiasm. We decided to make a date of it, and started out with dinner at Casa Verde.

Casa Verde is a cool place, because it's located just inside the Botanic Gardens, so there's lots of greenery and bird song all around. We ate outside as the sun set and the lights came on in the garden. It was a great backdrop for dinner.
Dinner in a garden

The place has a wood-fired oven, so we got pizzas for dinner. We were both very happy with our pizzas, which is kind of unusual for us. Americans can be very hard to please when it comes to pizza in Asia! It was fun to watch the pizzas being made too!
There's a window to the kitchen so you can watch your pizza being made
Grilled vegetable pizza

It was a nice dinner, and it would have been really romantic, except that it seemed that every child in Singapore had also chosen to eat at Casa Verde that day. So it was pretty loud in there, especially because the two boys at the table next to us were tossing a rugby ball back and forth across the table (Yes, their parents were at the same table. No, they did not do anything to stop it). I think a lot of families had the same idea that we did - to eat dinner then check out the trees - so I'm guessing it's not usually that chaotic.

After dinner we strolled through the gardens. The lit-up trees were part of an event called Trees of the World. Over 300 tropical trees were sponsored by embassies of different countries, companies, and sometimes individual families. Each tree was decorated by the sponsor, so no two were alike. We started out right next to the entrance, where some of the country trees were.
The UK tree
Australia's contribution

Of all the country trees (and there were a lot!), there were two that really stood out. Russia's tree was all about their space accomplishments, and was decorated with rockets, satellites, and astronauts. It was pretty great.
Rocket on Russia's tree
A pretty "stellar" tree

My absolute favorite tree was Uganda's, which was covered in tiny animal ornaments. It was so cute!
Uganda wins "cutest tree," in my opinion. The hippo agrees.

As we walked along, we realized that we had passed the country trees and were looking at trees sponsored by companies. But we never saw a USA tree! So sad! The company trees were beautiful though. Lots of them used everyday products like water bottles or old CDs to make ornaments. I thought that was a neat idea.
Slightly creepy water bottle angels
Creative ornaments
Made from straws!
My favorite ornament! It's just dried glue!!

We noticed several trees that were sponsored by landscaping companies, which seemed like an innovative way to advertise. One even incorporated live orchids into their tree decoration!
Orchid with tree lights shining through

I had a couple other favorites, including one tree decorated entirely with ornaments made from LEGOs and another by a medical supply company that from afar just looked like bright stars, but up close revealed x-rays!
LEGO duckling!
Like Halloween and Christmas combined!

The gardens were decorated beautifully, and it was really nice to walk through them at night. It was easy too - the Botanic Gardens MRT station opened recently, so it's a cinch to get there now! I recommend checking out the Trees of the World while you can - they'll be lit up until January 1st. You can take the MRT and follow the signs to the trees, or you can get a taxi to the Nassim Gate. Visiting the trees might just help you find some holiday spirit, even here in the tropics!


Saturday, December 17, 2011

Things We Find in the Woods Part Nine

Now that I'm back to working with the monkeys full-time, I'm seeing a lot more fun nature stuff. For example, check out this awesome bird I spied one day near Bukit Timah! Isn't it beautiful?! It's obviously a raptor of some sort, but I've been unable to pin down an exact ID, so any of my wise nature friends are welcome to chime in with a suggestion! (update: my knowledgeable nature pal Ivan says that this is a changeable hawk-eagle, totally capable of snacking on little monkeys! Woah!)
Doesn't he look regal perched up there?!

We've been having exceptional luck with birds lately, and we've seen several Asian koels, which we typically hear loud and clear, but don't often see. If you look closely at the photo below, you can see that they have blood-red eyes!
A male Asian koel

One day at Chinese Garden, we saw this yellow bittern, busy hunting prey along the water's edge.
The little fish hate to see this guy coming their way!

OK, brace yourselves, because this next one's a little weird. But it's so freakishly bizarre that I feel compelled to share it, even though it will involve using the word "poo" for the first time on this blog. You remember the super-cool colugo?
Remember these awesome things?!

We've discussed before the total weirdness of the colugo: they have a rat face, bat ears, and loris eyes. Well, apparently, it gets even stranger. You see, when the colugo takes a poo, it flips its back end over its front end, like it's opening the trunk of a car.

Isn't that crazy?!

While we're on the topic of strange things, have you ever seen dragonflies mating? They look like contortionists! It looks very painful! I read a little about it, and apparently dragonfly mating is rough stuff. The males often mate with the females against their will, and sometimes they bite them! Although these two are locked in a painful-looking position, I like that they're making a lopsided heart.
Iberian bluetail damselflies

And now my friends, I can think of no better way to end this post than with a photos of baby monkeys! I'm sure I'll be sharing lots more monkey pictures in the months ahead!
Cuddling with Mom
Thirsty baby
Cuteness triple-take

Friday, December 9, 2011

A Singaporean Wedding

Whenever I tell someone in the US that I live in Singapore, they always have a lot of questions about how things are different here. One of the things that I'm often asked about, especially now that I'm engaged (YAY!) is what the weddings are like here. I never have a good answer, partly because I had never attended a Singaporean wedding up until a few weeks ago, and partly because there are so many cultures and traditions here, that weddings are often a mishmash of a lot of cultural components.

The wedding we attended last month was no exception. Bryan's co-worker Edwin and his new wife Septiana are both from Indonesia, but their heritage is Chinese. They studied in Australia and now they live in Singapore (people are always confused by Bryan's and my round-the-world history, but theirs is even better!!). So their wedding was a conglomeration of a lot of their experiences.
A pretty snazzy invitation
The inside was in English and Chinese

The ceremony was at the posh Four Seasons Hotel just off of Orchard Road. We were invited to the ceremony and reception, but no one told Bryan and me that the ceremony would be much smaller and mostly for family, so we rather awkwardly showed up. Oh well. Anyway, it was high up on the 20th floor, with a fantastic view of downtown.

The ceremony got under way and Bryan and I smiled at each other when we realized that the whole thing was going to be in Bahasa! But we just sat back and admired the lovely couple. The ceremony was Christian, so even though we didn't know what anyone was saying, we often knew what was happening. And, interestingly enough, Edwin and Septi exchanged their vows in English.
Exchanging vows

It was fun for us to note the similarities and differences between this Singaporean Christian wedding and the ones we've attended. Obviously it was in another language, so that was different. But the bride was wearing a white dress, was attended by her bridesmaids, and was given away by her father, so that was all the same. There was even a ritual where the bride and groom took their separate candles and lit a larger one together, like I've seen in lots of American weddings. My favorite difference came after the ceremony started wrapping up. An official-looking man stepped up and addressed everyone in English. He said he was with the Singaporean government and very officially pulled a form and a pen out of his jacket, which had to be signed then and there by the bride, groom, and witnesses. It was so funny to me! It seemed so Singaporean that the bride and groom would have to take care of business right in the middle of their ceremony!
Pink bridesmaids walking down the aisle

There was a long break between the ceremony and the reception, so we went home for awhile after offering the bride and groom our congratulations. We returned to the Four Seasons that evening for a dinner reception. We met up with some of our friends from Bryan's work, so that was nice. We had stressed briefly about what sort of gift to buy the bride and groom, but luckily someone advised us that it was appropriate to give money in a red envelope. Good thing we got advice! We would have been the only yahoos showing up carrying a big present with a fluffy bow on top!

The reception room was lovely but very dimly lit, so apologies for my grainy photos!
Elegant reception

The tables were beautifully set with gold china and cute favors: little jars of honey specially labeled with the couple's name!

We had only been seated a few moments when the newlyweds welcomed everyone, and then the food promptly started rolling out.
I think they look like a celebrity couple : )

The food was traditional Chinese, served family style...sort of. A large platter of food was brought out, and then the waiters served each person off of the platter, so there wasn't that passing around of food that usually occurs with family-style serving. As a vegetarian, I was an exception, and all of my food was served separately, and plated as though we were at a 5-star restaurant!

When everyone else's first course came out, there were all sorts of things I didn't recognize. I watched, bemused, as the waiter dished onto Bryan's plate shrimp, duck, jellyfish, and whole baby octopi. Bryan looked slightly less amused than I did. But he ate most of it, quietly scooting the octopi off to one side. He declared the jellyfish "springy" and we moved on to the second course. At that point, I was even more grateful that I was vegetarian.
Vegetarian first course

The second course was shark's fin soup. You may have heard of it, as it's been in the news lately due to the ethical dilemma it presents, and the toll it takes on shark populations. Many Chinese people claim that shark's fin has health benefits, and it has become a deeply-ingrained tradition to serve shark's fin at wedding banquets. However, modern research has shown no significant health benefits for eating the very expensive delicacy, and research has actually shown that sharks have levels of mercury that exceed the limits considered safe for consumption by women and children.

Perhaps more importantly, shark fins are obtained through the cruel practice of reeling in live sharks, lobbing off their fins, then tossing them back into the water to die a painful death. The entire shark is thus wasted for its fins. This vicious and wasteful practice has led several places, including California and Hawaii, to ban the sale of shark fin altogether. Apparently attitudes toward shark's fin are shifting among young people in Asia, but when they get married, they face pressure from older relatives to keep the soup on the menu to avoid losing face. Hopefully attitudes will continue to shift and more young people will take a stand against the sad practice.

In the meanwhile, our table was faced with a tureen of shark's fin soup. A lot of the people at our table were foreigners that knew about the practice of shark finning and there was a lot of awkward shifting in our seats as everyone had a bowl placed in front of them. I dug into my vegetarian soup guilt-free, and Bryan and several others just pushed their bowls away untouched. Apparently the soup is pretty bland anyway...all that hassle for soup that doesn't even taste good.

After that, the courses just seemed to KEEP COMING! I think there were ten courses in all, including these angry-looking fish with their teeth still intact.
These are not the fish I grew up on.
Mine were rectangular and came out of a blue Van de Kamps box.

Even though some of the non-vegetarian food wasn't particularly appetizing to me, it was all presented beautifully. And my vegetarian food tasted fantastic!
Yummy veggie food

The festivities continued throughout dinner, with toasts from Edwin and Septiana's friends and family, a champagne fountain, and a cake cutting.
Oooooooh bubbly

OK, let me tell you about the cake cutting. Americans, this is going to make you laugh. So there was a cake cutting ceremony just like at most American weddings, except as I watched them cut the cake, I thought they were doing it rather awkwardly, just kind of skimming the knife along the cake. And then they didn't actually take out a slice of the cake. In fact, the cake just sat there the rest of the night. No one ever ate any. You know why? Because the cake wasn't real. It was just iced BOXES!!! Isn't that funny?! It's there for appearances and for the cake-cutting, but no one ever actually eats any cake. We had sago for dessert instead.
Looks tasty, doesn't it? Too bad! None for you! Well, unless
you want an iced slice of cardboard. In that case, feel free.

One of my favorite parts of the evening was when the new couple sang a song to honor their parents and thank them for putting on the wedding. Septi had a lovely voice and Edwin played the keyboard very well. It was neat to see them doing something as a team.
Talented duo

Another highlight of the evening was when some of the couple's friends got up and did a choreographed dance to the Bruno Mars song Marry You. It was really fun, but it made me want to get up and dance too! I guess I'm just used to being able to do that at weddings!
A friend of the couple, gettin' down

The thing that surprised me most about the wedding was the extravagance of it. The bride had one dress for the ceremony and a separate one for the reception. The groom also had a wardrobe change. There were fresh pink roses everywhere. There were four professional photographers and a videographer. There was a ten-course meal, wine, beer, and of course it all took place at the opulent Four Seasons Hotel. This would be a swanky wedding in the US, but here in Singapore where prices are high for virtually everything, it's that much more luxurious. It must have been very costly, but it was also very beautiful, and everyone had a great time. But most importantly, at the end of the day, Edwin and Septi were husband and wife!
Next on the marriage roster : ) Posing with that fabulous pretend cake!!