Monday, November 15, 2010

Life in Singapore

Taxi blues...

Ordering a taxi in Singapore is so easy because of the cab company's wonderful automated system. The system recognizes your number and offers to send a cab to your primary pick-up point (usually your home or office address). You just have to press 1 and hey presto! your cab is ordered.

Except when that automated system gets messed up. One of the hardest things for me has been trying to get the company to register my name. Pamposh would be impossible, so I shoot for Pam. But there are similar Chinese names in Singapore: Bam, Tam, Pan and Tan. For some reason, Pam is the very last choice of the operator.

What's in a name, you say - just settle for Bam or Tam or Tan. I did. But then the cabbie who was sent to pick me up would invariably look at me suspiciously and grill me about my name, phone no. and general antecedents. Not the cabbie's fault - after all you don't expect to see a big Indian woman when you've obviously been sent to pick up a petite Chinese lady. Who's this other woman trying to steal the cab?

So, I called the cab company. After several minutes of "P for Poland" etc, they finally agreed to put me down as Ms. Pam. Great! No more suspicious glances from cabbies.

This blissful state of affairs carried on for several months. Then, suddenly, for no reason I could fathom, the company started sending cabs for Mr. Ho Ming. Who is Mr. Ho Ming?? No-one knows. Boy, this one was much worse than Bam or Tam or Pan. I do NOT look like a Mr. Ho Ming!! Not ever.

In one case, I actually had to ask the cabbie to call my mobile phone (the company gives the driver the customer's number) and answer it in his presence when he rang! Only then did he grudgingly allow me to step into his cab.

So last night I called the cab company again to ask them to change their records. The conversation went something like this:

Me: I'd like you to change your records please. You seem to have someone else's name for my phone no.
Operator: You want to change your name?
Me (a bit taken aback): No, my name is still Pam. I just want you to change your records.
Operator: Ya, ya, change your name.
Me: Yes, please change my name. (This is easier, I thought.) Please change it to Pam. P for Poland...
Operator: T for Thailand...
Me (unable to stop myself): How do you get Thailand from Poland? (Then, composing myself): No, no, P for Poland...

And so it went.

Let's see what name shows up on the cab driver's screen next time. If it isn't Pam, I hope it's something fun and exotic.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Cambodia Vignettes

Vignette 3 - The Forgotten Temples

The magnificent Hindu and Buddhist temples of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom, built in the 12th and 13th centuries, are the major attractions of a World Heritage site near the city of Siem Reap. But temples - some older than that - are in fact scattered all around Siem Reap. Not all are marked on tourist maps.

My recent visit to Cambodia was an official one to see development projects, including some near Siem Reap. My colleagues and I decided to visit a village not far from one of the major highways in the country. Not far in terms of kilometres from the highway, that is. In fact we ended up doing a 45-minute bone-rattling drive on barely discernible paths - sometimes not discernible at all! I would have suggested turning back, but there was nowhere to turn.
We spent an interesting 45 minutes in the village, visiting a textile weaving scheme that builds on a traditional skill to create modern designs and provide greater income to women. As we finished, we let out a collective groan in anticipation of the drive back. On a whim, one of colleagues asked the women if there was a better way back to the highway. And there was!

So we took this better route back. I have never been so thankful for a dirt track! Bumpy as it was, it was heaven compared with the drive out along the practically non-existent path. We were so happy we were almost shouting in glee. Then, suddenly, we rounded a corner and found much more cause for joy. Two old temples in the middle of nowhere! Amazing. There were no deities in these small temples, but to my untrained eye they looked like old Hindu temples. The temples were built with the large stones typical of Khmer architecture.

There was also part of a wall and several broken columns. There was a one-room modern building near the temples and a Buddha statue, also from recent times, placed in the open next to the old temples. So some people were aware of the old ruins. But there was no sign of an archaelogical authority or government agency.

Of course, these simple, probably older, temples don't begin to compare with the glory of Angkor Wat or the Bayon. But on that hot afternoon, after the gruelling drive to and from the village, they were like a gift. A beautiful sight for sore eyes.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Cambodia Vignettes

Vignette 2: Restaurants.

New food is one of the joys of travel. After many years turning more and more squeamish about trying new meats, I decided to enjoy Cambodia's rather "daring" cuisine. My Cambodian friends seemed to find something new for me to try at every meal! And it was all delicious.

Usually one of them would introduce the more exotic dishes. One day he just told me we were eating deer meat, which I know and like. So I was happily tucking into the dish. The meat was accompanied by some lovely crunchy stuff - a bit like very crisp onion rings. When I was halfway through this delicious dish, my friend casually said: "Oh, and I forgot to tell you, that stuff with the deer meat is red ants." Wow. It tasted rather good, I must say, but I don't know that I would have tried it had I known what it was - known before I tried it, that is! Anyway, great food in Cambodia.

The restaurants were interesting too, everything from the roadside eateries to the huge, tourist-bus-oriented buffet restaurant with a cultural show. Lovely dances.

Equally interesting was the decor in this roadside eatery. A couple of different styles, to say the least. Don't miss the giant mushrooms in the corner. Globalization or clash of cultures? Hmm.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Cambodia Vignettes

Vignette 1 - Coke Seller on the Tonle Sap

We were chugging along in a motorized boat on Cambodia's huge Tonle Sap lake; I was facing the front of the boat, waiting for the lake to open out before us in its full glory. Suddenly a boy appeared just behind me - on our boat - with a bunch of cold drinks. I couldn't figure out where he had materialized from. Turned out he had jumped on from another boat that had come close to ours. I asked him if I could take a picture - he flashed me a big grin and a victory sign.

I twisted around to see his "mother ship" - couldn't spot a boat near us. Apparently the boat had come up close, the boy had hopped on, and his companion had swerved away from us. He asked me what I'd like to drink. I didn't really want anything, but how could I not buy from such an enterprising and charming seller? My two colleagues and I each bought something from the boy.

Once the transactions were complete, the boy moved to the edge of our boat. The other boat - manned by his father, he explained - magically appeared beside ours. The boy prepared to jump back on to his Dad's boat.

My Cambodian companions assured me all little kids on the Tonle Sap were expert swimmers in addition to being great saleskids.

So I relaxed and waved goodbye to the boy as he jumped into his own boat.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Revisiting the Buddhas of the Bayon (Cambodia)

I recently had the opportunity to go back to Cambodia after 16 years. Unlike my first trip, back in 1994, this time I was there on work and on a very tight schedule. Sightseeing was out of the question, even though my work took me to Siem Reap, a city surrounded by the fabulous Hindu and Buddhist temples of Angkor. As we drove closer to Siem Reap, my memories of Angkor Thom and Angkor Wat, in particular, grew ever more vivid.

I remembered how I had loved the early morning visit to the Bayon temple in Angkor Thom. The roof of this temple is covered by huge Buddha heads, all serene, yet each with a somewhat different expression. Up on the roof you feel you are surrounded by the presence of the Buddha - everywhere you look, the Buddha, larger than life, is smiling quietly at you. And if you go just before sunrise and watch the sun come up from atop the temple, you can see each face come alive as the sun's rays hit it. It is a beautiful, calm, serene feeling.

This memory began to haunt me. Even if I couldn't visit any of the temples during daylight hours, surely I could steal away for an hour or so at day-break and visit my old friend the Buddha. So I fixed for a thuk-thuk driver to come pick me up from my hotel at 5:30 in the morning and drive me to the Bayon. Given my programme, this was only possible on my last day in Cambodia.

The afternoon before the much-anticipated morning I fell ill! I finished my work and went back to my hotel room to ride out a fever and get some kind of food poisoning or water infection - whatever it was - out of my system. I slept, woke up and did Reiki (energy healing), fell asleep, woke up and did Reiki, and so on. At 9:30 at night I forced myself to eat some bread and butter to keep my strength up, set my alarm for 4:30 and went to sleep praying I'd be fit enough to go to the Bayon next morning.

And of course I was! No doubt the Buddha heard my prayers and helped me recover quickly! A lovely tuk-tuk ride through nearly deserted streets in the early morning light (even before sunrise), a cool, soft breeze, driving past Angkor Wat and into Angkor Thom - and then we were there, at the magnificent Bayon temple.

My memory had not deceived me. The Bayon at sunrise is a glorious site. The sunrise is kind of quiet - the sky is already light, so the sunrise itself is not dramatic - but the sun's rays seem to wake up the Buddhas all around one.

I walked, sat before some of the Buddhas, walked again, took a few picture. Talked a little to the Buddhas - yes, I am a little crazy, so what? I lost track of time, but I guess I must have been there about 2 hours - until the foreign tourists started arriving (other than myself that is). The first lot were a group of 4 loudly discussing their negotiations over something they had bought and seemingly not too interested in the Buddhas around them. Soon the tourist buses began to arrive too. Time to go.

But the rest of my work team were running a bit late. So the tuk-tuk driver drove me around the historical site to see some of the other temples and the elephant terrace of the old palace. With my head still full of the magnificent Buddhas of the Bayon, and my body still a little weak from the previous day's illness, I was content to see the rest from the tuk-tuk. We drove back to the Bayon and my colleague phoned to say the team would take a little more time. No problem, I said and settled down practically in the shadow of the Bayon Buddhas to have a nice al fresco breakfast.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Singapore Tales: Hungry; go where?

It's great to be back in Singapore. Fabulous green city, with lovely treetop trails and walks through forested areas, unlimited shopping and, of course, amazing food. One of the joys of Singapore has long been that you never need to cook for yourself if you don't want to: eat safely in a scruffy roadside eatery, enjoy a mix of cuisines at a food court, or wine and dine at an upscale restaurant. All these option are as available today as ever, albeit at a higher cost than before - especially if they involve any alcohol, which is pretty highly taxed in Singapore.

There are also a growing number of food-by-phone or food-via-the-Net options. Your choice of Chinese, Indian, Thai, Vietnamese, Middleastern food is delivered to your home. Such luxury. You can look up your cuisine options and menus online, then order via the Net or on the phone.

So, you are ready to eat but don't have food at home. What's the first thought that passes through your head? I'm hungry. And then, knowing there's no food at home: Where should I go? A clever company has captured these basic thoughts into perfect Singlish (Singapore English) for their website:! Knowing that, how can one even think of typing out any other address for food delivery! Brilliant.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Kuala Lumpur Old and New

A recent brief visit to Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia) brought home to me just how much the city, and the country, has changed since the mid-1980's when I worked and lived in KL for a couple of years.

Back in 1985, I fell in love with KL almost as soon as I landed there. It was a big, warm, overgrown village with all the modern amenities. The people were friendly and hospitable and just so much fun. We took our work very seriously, worked long hours in a deadline-driven industry (journalism), but we had fun even as we worked. (Deadlines were not measured in seconds in those low tech days, but they did drive the business.)

Going back to KL is kinda weird now. It's like going into the future a couple of centuries. Of course, all Asian cities have changed drastically in the past 25 years, but none quite like KL. In most other cities, the old lives on alongside the new. KL feels like the old city just vanished into thin air and was replaced overnight by this gleaming new one.

Some of the old landmarks are still there - the British-style railway station, the beautiful old Indian mosque, the Central Market. But the old buildings are hard to spot among all the glittering new high-rises. In 1985, the tallest building was 18 storeys high. Today, the city's skyline is dominated by the Petronas Towers, the highest twin towers in the world, soaring 88 storeys above terra firma.

The "plazas" are now called malls, as they are in most other Asian cities, and boast more designer and high-end brand names. There is an efficient light rail system and an equally efficient rail link to the huge and very modern airport located way outside the city.

More than the buildings and the railways, it's the psyche of KL that's changed. Among all this glittering steel and glass, Malaysians are currently fighting over the name of God. Does anyone stop to ask themselves: Does God care what we call him? Does he think mosques and churches should be attacked to settle this dispute over his name?

When I lived in KL 25 years ago, I worked in a thoroughly multi-cultural office. The camaraderie of the office often spilled over into impromptu parties after work. I shared a house with some colleaugues very close to the office, so many of the parties happened at our place. Despite differences in race, drinking and dietary habits, we all enjoyed our get-togethers.

The differences didn't divide so much as add variety to our lives. My first Eid in Malaysia was spent visiting the homes of several of my Malay friends. All of them had an "open house" that day - anyone could walk in and would be treated like an honoured guest. One of our hosts had even kept beer for us in his fridge - although he didn't drink himself, he wanted to be a good host to his non-Muslims friends.

Similarly, Indian Hindus had an open house for Diwali and the Chinese for lunar new year. My two years in Malaysia passed quickly with all these festivities and the general friendship and hospitality of my colleagues and friends.

Now, Malaysia's three major communities live side by side, mostly peacefully (barring the odd controversy over God's name and such) - but not together. My taxi driver on the ride in from the airport assured me that the God controversy was incited by politicians for political gain. No doubt that is so, and such cynical politically-motivated stupidity is certainly not restricted to Malaysia.

But, while in KL, I couldn't help noticing that the communities are now partying separately.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Singapore Notes - Shooting Missiles

I moved back to Singapore this months after 3 years in the Philippines. I'm enjoying getting re-acquainted with the city.

One learns something new every day. I thought I was pretty well up on Singapore slang, but I learnt a new expression the other day: shooting missiles.

My husband and I were in a cab and my husband commented on how nice it was to drive down such a quiet street, especially when one considered that the very next street from us was always so noisy. The cabby nodded appreciatively and said he hated driving down that busy street. Because of all the "shooting missiles."

In these terrible times, the mind goes pretty easily to terrorist activity; but I quickly dismissed that first thought since the cab driver seemed more amused than alarmed. I thought perhaps he was referring to some manner of fireworks, this being the Christmas-to-Chinese-New-Year festive season in Singapore.

But no. He explained that many pedestrians, new arrivals from a certain part of Asia, oblivious to Singapore traffic norms, would suddenly dart into this very busy road anywhere and everywhere they felt like crossing it! Shooting out into traffic like missiles. What an evocative image!

What part of Asia? That shall, of course, remain nameless though it will not be a mystery to anyone who knows Singapore - or that certain part of Asia. :)