Saturday, February 19, 2011

Saturday, February 19, 2011

A LITTLE TASTE OF HOME: We (Sandy, Katie, Terry and me) flew from Singapore to Langkawi. The Changi airport in Singapore was a breeze. It also led to another heart-stopping tourism moment. As we wheeled our way through Terminal 2, Sandy spotted a welcome sight--a Dunkin' Donuts. We took the obligatory picture (right). It was about the last thing I expected to see here. I'm not sure why. It's the biggest coffee-selling chain in the world, I think. (Starbucks are omnipresent.) Back to "last things I expect to see." Seeing someone in a Red Sox jersey is the next challenge. Heck, a baseball cap will suffice.
Langkawi (an island on the northwest fringe of Malaysia) is totally new to me. About all I know about Malaysia comes from some Somerset Maugham stories and the descriptions of the Japanese advance down the peninsula in 1941-42 as described in Singapore Burning. Clearly, I need some updated information.

WHAT'S MORE WORRISOME THAN FINDING A (NON-HUMAN) SLUG IN YOUR BED? I guess it's NOT finding the slug. So, I guess it's good news that we found the slug in the bed in Langkawi this morning. A little disturbing. But, we found it. And, pay attention New Yorkers, it wasn't a bed bug. It has gone to a better place. I flushed it down the toilet.

LOBSTER FOR BREAKFAST: Breakfast included this treat, some Lobster Hash. With a poached egg on top. It was absolutely delicious. More specifically, it is called Tanjung Rhu Spiny Lobster Hash. The first two words honor the nearby beach, a two-mile long sandy stretch that is known for its seclusion and its casuarina trees. It's bordered by some uninhabited islands on one side and limestone caves on the other.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Friday, February 18, 2011

A WAKE-UP CALL: Our Straits Times was at our door by 6:20 a.m. and it brought with it quite a shock. Page Two included a news package (above) about the sinking of a tourism boat in Ha Long Bay. A terrible tragedy, leaving 12 dead. This caught our eye for many reasons. Aside from the unspeakable tragedy, this resonates because just yesterday we received a travel itinerary for an April trip to Myanmar (Bagan, specifically), Vietnam (Hanoi and Ha Long Bay) and China (Beijing and Great Wall). We're not reconsidering, but this is a sobering news item. Our plans are, of course, the least of the problems. The survivors and families of the deceased are paramount.

THREADING THE NEEDLE: Granted, my perspective is skewed (and the photos are a bit washed out). But from my vantage point, 44 stories up and probably nearly a mile away, it looked like these three container ships (and lonely tugboat) really cut things close on Wednesday. Of course the captains surely knew what they were doing, but the slow-motion five-minute sequence (which might be easier to appreciate with more photos) was quite mesmerizing. (The chronology is as follows: LEFT, TOP, RIGHT, BOTTOM.) That's the 302-meter-long MOL Marvel (the largest ship) motoring out of port, heading toward the left. The one passing on the Marvel's port side is coming toward the shipping-container area. The one that's athwart (is that the right word?) pretty much sat there until both ships had crossed its stern. Then it wheeled around and got outta there. This is, indeed, a shipping crossroads.

I WANT ONE: The bottom of the front page of the Feb. 17 issue of the Straits Times had this advertisement slathered across the bottom. I will get a double samurai beef burger at some point. I know where a McDonald's lurks, hidden among the shophouses at Boat Quay. No, it's not authentic to Singapore (or, as some people call it, Sinkieland or The Little Red Dot) fare, but that's OK. I want one.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

THEY'RE HAWKERS, NOT FALCONERS: Katie Thorpe and Terry Kerr (right) arrived last night from Hong Kong. (Katie's mom, Sandy, followed late in the day on the 17th). After a morning of walking around, they met me for lunch at the famous Lau Pa Sat hawker center in the central business district. The stalls are housed in an 1894 cast-iron structure that Katie says (from her tour book) was made in Glasgow and shipped to Singapore, where it was assembled. We were there at 1 p.m. and it was absolutely packed. There were dozens of choices. Katie got some Vietnamese food, Terry had duck and I opted for some Indian food. None of us opted for the pig's organ soup. Someday... The place is billed as the "largest remaining Victorian-era filigree cast iron structure (see photo) remaining in Asia."

LITTLE INDIA: Katie and Terry visited the bustling Little India section of Singapore in the late afternoon (while I stayed home and did some research and while Sandy finished up in Hong Kong). They returned with some photos that capture the neighborhood. They visited some temples along Serangoon Road.
The one at right (which shows one temple surrounded by more modern buildings) and below (of the interior) are from the Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple, dedicated to Kali, a multi-armed goddess who is "the manifestation of anger in the face of evil." The building goes back to 1881.

IT'S A MARVEL TO BEHOLD: Thanks to a telephoto lens, I can see that the ship that spent the day loading at our doorstep is the MOL Marvel. I can track it at this site. It left about 5 p.m. on Wednesday the 16th.
By 8:30 a.m. on the 17th, I went to the tracking page and it said it was in the Indian Ocean. The map at right shows its most recent position, but I'm not sure what time it was recorded. It's heading up the Strait of Malacca.
There's lots of information on the site. The MOL Marvel 302 meters long and 42 meters wide. It can comfortably fit on the playing surface at Gillette Stadium. It has a top speed of 19.8 knots. No idea where it is headed. If you spot it, let me know! (Maybe it's bringing BIRTHDAY GIFTS to my sisters, Josephine and Molly, whose birthdays are Feb. 17 and Feb. 25 respectively! OK, maybe they'll be delivered a little late this year.)
The Marvel serves the Japan-Europe Express (JEX) Loop between Asia and Europe. That means it will head through the Suez Canal (hopefully avoiding those pirates along the way). And assuming that Egypt continues to allow safe passage in this all-important connecting route despite disturbing reports. The map here shows the MOL's to-and-from routes and ports along the JEX.

SCLEI: Speaking of shipping, here's today's Singapore Crane (not to be confused with Crain) Limited Economic Indicator:

Date: Feb. 17.
Time: 8:30 a.m.
Cranes Up (bad): 5.
Cranes Down (good): 23

Things are looking GOOD for the worldwide economy!!!!!

Alert: "Money Never Sleeps" BREAKING NEWS Update at 11 a.m.:

Cranes Up (bad): 1.5
Cranes Down (good): 26.5


Alert: "Money Never Sleeps" BREAKING NEWS Update at 7 p.m.:

Cranes Up (bad): 8
Cranes Down (good): 20


NOTE: On this date, in 1972, U.S. President Nixon began his historic trip to China.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Wednesday, February 16

KEEPING AN EYE ON THE CRANES: Someone who works near the container terminal at Tanjong Pajar told Sandy and me that economic downturns and upticks are hinted at by the massive cranes at the terminal, which dominates one view from our apartment. It's one of the terminals run by PSA International, which used to be the Port of Singapore Authority. "When the cranes are up, the economy is slow; when they are down, the economy is up," this person said (approximate quote). I took a couple of photos yesterday, one in the morning (top) and one in the afternoon (bottom). The top one shows the cranes in the DOWN position and able to move containers on and off the ship. The afternoon shows one crane still in the DOWN position. The others are UP. The ship (an NYK Line vessel) left in the early evening.
So, this begins my Singapore Crane Index Limited Economic Indicator. Yes, it's simplistic. And narrow. And unscientific. And easy (just look out the window). And I have no idea what I am talking about. Does that make it all that different from other one-source Economic Indicators? It's international. It's real-life. It's longitudinal. It's simple.
The first Singapore Crane Index Limited Economic Indicator
Date: Feb. 16
Time: 8:30 a.m.
Cranes Up (Bad): 11
Cranes Down (Good): 17
I might do it again tomorrow. I think I'm counting the cranes accurately.

EN GARDE: I didn't know it, but yesterday was Total Defence Day in Singapore. This has nothing to do with post-Valentine's day tactics. A Public Warning System siren went off at 12:05 p.m., but I was oblivious, innocently poking in bins at Ikea at the time. Five components are part of the nation's Total Defence plan: military, civil, economic, psychological, and social (see icons above). The overall logo is at right. The official explanation says that the image represents an outline of a HAND (with five fingers, representing each of the components listed previously). And, it's in the shape of a house (in a strong wind). When I first saw it, I thought of a missile. Silly me. I was wrong. They take this VERY SERIOUSLY here. Peace and security are very important. The concept was introduced in Singapore in 1984, drawing from examples in Sweden and Switzerland.
Why Feb. 15? Well on this date in 1942, the British forces here surrendered unconditionally to the Japanese. About 1,200 people gathered at the War Memorial Park to honor civilians who died during the occupation by Japanese, which lasted from 1942 to 1945.
Security is an issue, of course. Maybe that's why next Sunday, at 7:32 p.m., there's a documentary on "Surviving Disaster: Mall Shooting" on Channel 102 (Channel 5) in "Prime Time Morning" which is linked to I think it aired originally in October 2009.

RATINGS CONTROVERSY: Yes, The Kids Are All Right will be shown in Singapore. However, there's a catch. First, it gets the restrictive R21 rating. Second, only ONE PRINT is being allowed to be used, meaning, of course, that only one theater will show it.Clearly, it's an effort to limit the people's exposure to same-sex family issues. Those who invested money in the movie are not amused. Neither are some film lovers in Singapore who want more freedom of expression. Others see it as a sign of loosening up--because they thought the movie would be banned outright.

MAID IN INDONESIA: The relationship between Indonesia and Saudi Arabia has turned cooler because of reports of extreme abuse of Indonesian maids (e.g., tossing one into a Dumpster in November) by Saudi employers. An article in the Straits Times presents some interesting numbers. About 1.2 million Indonesians work in Saudi Arabia, mostly as maids or drivers. Another 2.2 million work in Malaysia. All told, about 6.5 million Indonesians work overseas. They collectively send back to Indonesia about $7 billion (U.S.) every year. That's a little more than $1,000 apiece or $20 a week on average. Those are interesting numbers. Here's the INCREDIBLE number. Indonesia has put stricter rules in place to make sure that prospective employers of maids have an annual income of at least 24 MILLION rupiah. That sounds pretty good. But that translates to about $2,700 dollars A YEAR. You can be considered "wealthy" enough to a maid with an income of $2,700? That's poverty level, of course. How much does such a maid get paid? Do those numbers make sense?

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

THE LAMP-LIGHTS AT THE END OF THE TUNNEL: The search for bedside table lamps took a wonderful turn today. I finally got to Ikea on Alexandra Road. What a store. It has clever furnishings AND a restaurant AND a Swedish food market. I bought three we-dare-you-to-put-them-together-yourself-without-tools desk lamps (S$9 apiece) and took a taxi back home (again, no tipping). I thought things were under control and that we would finally get our bedside lamps. But that's when the adventure really began. As many could anticipate, the DIY aspect of this required a Phillips-head screwdriver. We didn't bring any tools to Singapore. Neither a paring knife nor a corkscrew worked.
No stores in the sprawling underground mall had anything remotely resembling a screwdriver, although I was tempted to buy an eyelash curler and take it to a new level. That sent me to Google. Most searches turned up places that sell sheet metal on the west side of this island-nation. I finally spotted Meng Hoe Seng, aka T.S. Hardware and Electrical, at 111 Telok Ayer, on the fringe of Chinatown, about a half mile away. It will never have a place in any of the tour guides, but the store (right) now ranks as one of the greatest sites of the city. I bought a screwdriver. I built the first lamp. It looked great. However, I couldn't plug it in. The round prongs did not fit into the outlets. I need some rubberized adapter. I think it's called a "plug key." I might have seen one in a 7-11 store that doesn't sell screwdrivers. So, the bedside reading must wait.
But not everything at Ikea meant a delay. At the Swedish food market, I passed on the marinated herring, but I did grab some chicken wieners. They made a great supper. Fortunately, I had all the tools necessary. Very LITTLE assembly was required. But don't get me started on the problems with the salad.

A REAL TIGER MUM: That story about the man in Malaysia who was saved by his wife from a tiger attack had a graphic follow-up in today's Straits Times. The coverage included the photo at right, which shows what the tiger did to Tambun Gediu, 60. The man's name is different from earlier reports. So too was the device his wife, Madam Han Besau, used to beat on the tiger. She didn't use a stick, as an earlier report said. She used a LARGE WOODEN LADLE she grabbed in the kitchen. The place was so remote, that Mr. Gediu had to wait 10 hours for medical attention. The tiger it turns out, weighed 80 kg and 90 kg. Those numbers mean a lot to me after my episodes with the metric-oriented elliptical. I, too, fall into that weight range. One of the great quotes of the day was from Shabrina Mohd Shariff, director of the Malaysian Department of Wildlife and National Parks in Perak state. Shariff said, "The tiger was probably hunting for prey and mistook Tambun for a mammal."
Wait a minute. That was no mistake, was it? Aren't we mammals, too?

Monday, February 14, 2011

Monday, Feb. 14, 2011

MNF, SINGAPORE STYLE: It was Monday and it was Night and they were playing Football. But it's anything but Monday Night Football. Sandy flew from Singapore to Hong Kong for business in mid-afternoon. Casting about for activity, I took a 50-minute walk/MRT ride to Hougang to see one of the season-opening matches in the S.League, Singapore's professional soccer league. The game pitted Hougang United (the Cheetahs, a change from last year's Dolphins) against Woodlands Wellington (the Rams).
Because it was opening night, there was some news coverage. While in line for my S$5 ticket, I took the photo above, which shows a television reporter interviewing some kids about the match. English Premier League soccer is king here, far outpacing cricket, rugby and the rest in fan interest. An indicator of that passion is the "Rooney" spanning the back of the shirt on the child in the foreground. (The kid must have LOVED Rooney's remarkable game-winning bicycle kick on Saturday versus City.)
Before getting to the game, I did a little "research". Each team is allowed to have four players of non-Singaporean citizenship on the roster. The Hougang team has players from Japan, Brazil, Canada and Argentina. The Hougang roster has players ranging from 170 to 186 centimeters and from 59 to 79 kilograms. (You can figure it out here. Or you can trust me when I say their height ranges from 5'7" to 6' 3" and their weight ranges from 130 to 174 pounds). The players certainly seem like they have some speed. No real beefiness, though. Wonder how one of those linebacker-types would do here.
Hougang Stadium is the smallest in the league with seating of about 2,500. The league's largest stadium seats 6,000. On Monday, there were 1,547 on hand. I don't think that includes any of the players and refs. It doesn't sound like many, but I think league organizers were pleased.
The game? Well, it was 0-0 at the half. Things loosened up in the second 45 minutes. A Woodlands player, Graham Tatters, was red-carded on a breakaway and had to leave the game in about the 65th minute. Even though Hougang missed the penalty kick, the home team kept the pressure on. In the 86th minute, Mamadou Diallo scored, and Hougang held on for the win. To get a jump on the crowd, I left quickly after the final whistle. I was starving, anyway. No Fenway franks were available. I spotted some people eating a pasty-looking rice concoction on a banana leaf, but they were all out of them by halftime.
I probably should have stuck around. One news account by Shamir Osman from Feb. 15 about the game noted that Fandi Ahmad was at the game. He is a Singaporean football legend. Lots of fans gathered afterward to have their picture taken with him. I missed that. By then I was scuttling of to the MRT. This proves that just being there isn't enough. It's always good to read a knowledgeable account of a game, even if you were there in person. Note: Journalism is important.
THE ODDS ARE YOU MIGHT NOT WANT TO PLACE A BET: Amazingly, there's a betting line on these S.League games.
I ask, "How can anyone possibly bet on a game that includes a sideline referee who doesn't notice when, in the closing moments of a close game, a player sets up the ball for a corner kick 2 or 3 feet outside the corner-kick quarter circle, closer to the goal?" EVERYONE could see it. Many in the stands were howling. The official who should have been literally on the ball was so far away that he didn't notice. Bizarre. I've included a screen shot related to the betting on the Hougang-Woodlands game. I have no idea if this chart reflects pre-game odds or post-game winnings. Really, no clue. But somewhere in some darkened bar in the outskirts of London at 1 p.m., someone was eagerly awaiting the results of this one. Hope they had a hunch about Hougang.

YES, HIGH INFLATION AND POOR EXCHANGE RATES HURT, BUT NOT AS MUCH AS SOME HORRIBLE, TERRIBLE MATH: I don't know much about the first two, but I know a bit about the third item and how it can destroy the value of money. I bought some groceries today at the underground (literally, not politically) Four Seasons Gourmet Market. In my two-bag pile lurked TWO navel oranges. They were supposed to cost S$1.50 apiece. (OK, maybe s a bit steep, but they did have to get here from California.) The running tally looked good until the very end when the clerk added the oranges. The total bill magically skyrocketed to more than S$70. As I was giving her the money, I said, "I think that's too much." She paid no attention to me. She churned out the change. Then she handed me the receipt. I was shocked. I didn't think the Sing Dollar had suddenly become worthless despite recent trends. Did the U.S. suddenly base its currency on Oranges, thereby sending Singapore on a quick Weimar-like descent?
Nope. It turns out she charged me for 32 ORANGES, not 2 ORANGES. I don't think the store even had 32 on hand even if I wanted them. She quickly saw the point I was making, apologized profusely and gave me an extra S$45 change (shown at right). Phew. I admit freely that this might have slipped by me during my jet-lag era, which lasted about 6 days. Now, I'm a bit sharper. Not by much, I assure you.

WHERE IN THE WORLD....? It's been a bit humbling when it comes to geography. I picked up a copy of Today, published by the same firm as the Straits Times here, and read an article about a woman beating off a tiger with a stick. The WHERE references in the first two paragraphs in the story had me at the end of every one of my wits. I have put place names in bold and added links to help any who might also have a limited understanding of geography. Here's how the story begins:

A tiger has badly injured a man at Hutan Belum in Gerik, about 200km from Ipoh, the Bernama news agency reported yesterday.
Mr Tambun Gering, in his 50s, was hunting squirrels with a blowpipe near his house at the Sungai Tiang Orang Asli settlement on Saturday when the tiger attacked him.

Of note:The Bernama news agency is Malaysian. Ipoh is the capital of Malaysia's northern state of Perak. It borders the state of Kedah and Thailand. It had a population in 2007 of 710,000. That tops the 2009 figures for Charlotte, Memphis, Boston, Baltimore, El Paso, Seattle and many more prominent U.S. cities. Lots to learn.
Also of (lesser) note: We are heading to northern Malaysia (in the state of Kedah) on Friday (with Katie and Terry). Should we be worried?

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Sunday, Feb. 13, 2011

A REMINDER THAT WAR IS HELLISH: We spent the morning on a bus tour commemorating the fall of Singapore to the Japanese in 1942. The tour was ably led by Geraldene Lowe. Our first stop was the Kranji War Cemetery, on the north side of the island, near the causeway to Malaysia. Quite a moving place.
One grave, for Signalman A.C.B. Clark, who died at 22 on April 24 1942, includes the inscription "Here is a place in a foreign land that is for ever England." It's inspired by the highly romanticized poem "Soldier" by Rupert Brooke, which begins this way:
If I should die, think only this of me
That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England.

That Kranji corner was a touching scene. There's a lot of turf that will be "forever England" there. And "forever India". And "forever Malaya". And "forever Australia". And "forever New Zealand". And "forever Sri Lanka (Ceylon)". And "forever Netherlands". They all died defending Singapore and Malaya. Too many soldiers.
Another highlight of the four-hour bus tour was the Reflections at Bukit Chandu museum (right), just to the west of the center city in Singapore. The museum honors the sacrifice of the 1st and 2nd Battalion Malay Regiment in attempts to defend the western sector of Singapore in 1942. The museum is on Pepys (that's PEEPS) Road. Quite well done. After the tour we bought a very detailed battlefield guide to Japan's conquest of Malaya and Singapore. This does not equivocate. It blares: "Britain's Greatest Military Disaster." There's a good case for that label. We also bought a book about Japan's victorious and brutal--and lucky--Masanobu Tsuji. The book is entitled "The Killer They Called God." That got our attention!

TO-GO OR NOT TO-GO: Early on in the tour (which had about 22 people on it), we stopped for refreshments at a rural hawker stand. One of the great features was Coke in a Bag (right). It's a lot easier to drink a Coke INSIDE the stand, sitting on a chair, at a table. A to-go purchase of a drink is a bit more complicated. The buyer walks out with a small plastic bag filled with ice, a straw and a can of soda (in this case the ubiquitous Coke Light). You simply pour the soda into the ice-filled bag, which can't handle an entire can. The key to it all is a very thin blue drawstring that allows the consumer to 1) hold the bag; and 2) drink from it; and 3) devote your undivided attention to the task at hand. It is a two-handed operation, if you hold the can in one hand and the bag in the other. This inhibits the much-trumpeted multi-tasking, of which we are so fond. You can't drink and talk on the iPhone at the same time. I don't think vehicles are equipped with cup-holders that can accommodate this kind of to-go drink. A refrigerated can of soda would have done the trick, but this sufficed in a pinch. It hit the spot. In fact, it might have left a few spots on the shirt.

WALL-TO-WALL ORCHIDS: After the tour, we headed to the nearby Singapore Botanic Gardens. We had lunch at the Halia restaurant in the Ginger Garden area of the SBG. This is where I embarrassed Sandy--not the first time; likely not the last time. While ordering something to drink, the waitress suggested a cold tea that contained strips of ginger bark. I asked where the ginger was from. She said "Vietnam." I was OK up until that point. Then I asked, "Don't you have any ginger trees around here?" This is when Sandy dropped her head and wished she were in Vietnam. The waitress at Halia (which is "ginger" in Malay) patiently waved her hand in a circular motion and said, "Yes, all around you." The restaurant is INSIDE an area called the Ginger Garden. I guess it was like asking if there were any roses near the Rose Bowl. We also had ginger nougat for desert. Then we went to the truly fantastic National Orchid Garden. The lineup was incredible. I don't know the names of the flowers pictured here, but it's a sampling of what you can expect if you go.