Monday, June 01, 2009

Basil's big yawn - 365:5

Basil's big yawn - 365:5

For 365 days of my dog - day 5.
True TTV - taken through a Kodak Duaflex 2 that I bought on eBay for $1.25!

Sunday, May 31, 2009


This is a test post from flickr, a fancy photo sharing thing.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Shoal Creek Blvd - Before and After

Darin and I recently moved to Allandale - a charming older neighbourhood in Austin which is closer to downtown. We down-sized from our 4 bedroom house in Round Rock to a 2 bedroom 50s style smaller house (bungalow). The house is in a real good shape: the kitchen was redone recently (the previous owners refaced the cabinets and installed granite counter tops). The whole house (except the two bedrooms) has solid hardwoods. The two bathrooms have vintage tiles in real good condition.
The backyard is gorgeous - over one third of an acre, with trees everywhere and it backs to Shoal Creek. We love it!

Eventually we plan to add a second story to the house with a proper master bedroom and spa bathroom, and to bump out the kitchen wall. This will allow us to remodel the entire kitchen and enlarge it. Luckily there is plenty of room for the addition.

Remodeling: So far we have painted the entire interior of the house (including ceilings) and we ripped up the nasty carpets in the two bedrooms and put stained concrete floors instead.
Landscaping: Darin has cleaned up the landscaping in the front of the house and planted lots of herbs. In the backyard we have planted some more trees and shrubs and removed some tatty hostas that were just everywhere.

Here are a few before and after pictures. if you click on the slideshow, it will take you the Picasa album that has more description:

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Farewell Singapore, hello again Austin!

We are leaving Singapore tomorrow, Friday, 30th May after staying here for 9 months. Time went by really quickly! We had fantastic adventures here in Southeast Asia and we will treasure heaps of fond memories.

We are heading to the Australian outback for a week before returning to Austin. We arrive home in Austin on Saturday, April 7th. We can't wait to see our house and our doggies and all our friends and family.

Goodbye, Singapore! We will miss all the adventures!

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

New Delhi, India

In early March we went to New Delhi, India to attend Vivek Chopra's ( a colleague of Darin's) wedding.

Nothing prepares you for the sights, smells, sounds and absolute chaos that awaits you the minute you touch down in Delhi. Driving in a taxi is a white-knuckle ride as there are no road rules, and regular obstacles include elephants or camels walking along the side of the road and trucks and taxis coming towards you on the wrong side of the road.

We saw some jaw-dropping sights - people transporting heaps of petrol cans with passengers sitting on top of the cans, 3 dozen people riding on the back of a delapidated donkey cart and so on.

We stayed at the Hyatt hotel which is a regular 4 star hotel and in the US one wouldn't even pay more than $150 for this type of place. In Delhi, the Hyatt ran $375 a night. And this was the least expensive "real" hotel we could find!! From our room, we could see people living in shabby hovels and tents right across the road, sitting around camp fires at night with no electricity. This is very depressing and disturbing on many levels.

We went to the Taj Mahal one day which was a 3 and a half hours' drive from Delhi to Agra in a small "bus". The driver had excellent skills in dodging camels, elephants and wandering pedestrians on the crowded streets. I could not tear my eyes away from the road, and quite a few times I had to gasp out loud from the sheer horror/then relief of narrow escapes by a goat/dog/person/other taxi.

The Taj Mahal was commissioned by the Mughal Emperor Shāh Jahān as a mausoleum for his favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. The sad part is that she died before it was completed and never got to see it. While the white domed marble mausoleum is the most familiar part of the monument, the Taj Mahal is actually an integrated complex of structures and it is surrounded by beautiful gardens.

That day we also visited Agra fort which is a powerful fortress of red sandstone. After crossing an extremely smelly (dry) "moat", you enter through a very impressive gate called "India gate". We took some stunning pictures here.

The next day we went on a tour of the old city appropriately called Old Delhi. We visited the Red Fort and the mosque of Jama Masjid, and also Raj Ghat, the cremation site of Mahatma Gandhi.

The wedding was a tradional indian arranged marriage. It was absolutely amazing! We attended the ring ceremony the first night, which is a whole night affair and ends in the wee hours of the morning. It is at this ceremony that the two families of the bride and groom meet for the first time. Darin and I were the only westerners at this ceremony (because it is really just for the families) so it was extra special for us to see this. The women were all dressed up in stunning colorful saris and there was a lot of music, dancing, eating and celebrating while the bride and groom got engaged.

The wedding ceremony was also very spectacular. In a procession of dancing,loud trumpeting and drumming, the groom rode in on a white horse to the wedding ceremony. This procession is called the "barat" and lasted about 45 minutes. The bride arrived about an hour after that and was exquisitely dressed in the finest fabrics. Her hands were very intricately henna'd and she wore a lot of gold jewelery. And there was also the biggest buffet of indian food I have ever seen. They also had a traditional tandoor oven in which the chefs baked fresh naan and roti. The food was delicious. In fact, all the food in Delhi was excellent. Our friends, Mike and Sara, another US expat couple living in Singapore who also attended the wedding, took us to two restaurants in Delhi - both had some of the best indian food I have ever tasted.

On that same day, we got chased down a street by naked children begging for food and water, and Mike got firm with a pushy tout. We also had fun with Mr. Singh, and a very good laugh about a human scarecrow. For maximum impact, these stories have to be told in person my Mike/Darin/Sara. =)

To see more pictures, including pics from the wedding:

Delhi, India

Monday, February 26, 2007

Serendah: A Glass House in the jungle

Recently went on an off-the-beaten-path adventure in the jungles of Malaysia. We took a bus from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur. The bus ride itself was part of the adventure, because we booked on an "executive coach" promising personal entertainment sets, massaging chairs, food & beverage services and leather seats. Sounds glamorous, no? Well, not really. When you wipe the arm rest of the seat with an antiseptic cloth, a lighter streak reveals that the seat is actually totally covered in grime. You cannot feel the "massage" either because the bus itself vibrates/rattles so much. The food was slightly worse than airplane food, and in order to enjoy the entertainment system you need bring your own headset (because you won't want to use the ones they provide)! Anyway, still faster and cheaper than any airline, so we endured the 5 hour ride in anticipation of a relaxing weekend in the jungle.

In KL, we rented a car from Hertz - a locally manufactured car called a Proton Waja. Not too bad considering the jalopy of a taxi we rode to get from the bus stop to the rental place. I got a bit nervous about the stickers on the dashboard that were a dead-giveaway that this was a rental, and therefore a potential prime target for thiefs and crooks. Darin did a great job of driving through the mad and very confusing traffic of KL at rush hour on a Friday where they tend to change the directions of lanes as needed. Of course, you cannot see this on a map, so a two way street suddenly turns into a one-way street and before you know it, you are jam-packed and stuck in traffic with thousands of devotees on their way to prayers at the mosque.

We drove about an hour north of KL to a little tiny town called Serendah. From there, we took a few (very scenic) meandering dirt roads into the boonies, past 2 Orang Asli villages to the retreat in the jungle. The Orang Asli are the indigenous minority peoples of Peninsular Malaysia. The name is a Malay term which means 'original man' or 'first peoples.' (Incidentally, Orangutan is a Malay word, and means "man from the forest"). They (the Orang Asli, not the Orangutans) still live in simple, often delapidated shacks with no sign of electricity or facilities such as toilets or running water.
Two little scruffy looking boys standing by the side of the road, surprised us by throwing a big rock at our car as we slowly drove by. We didn't stop, but we heard the father shouting loudly at them as we drove off in shock. I am sure the got in trouble, but luckily our Proton wasn't damaged.
The Serendah Glass House: Sekeping Serendah is a private house/shed that is very transparent to allow you to fully enjoy the beauty of the natural environment surrounding them. The sheds are intentionally kept basic and free from lavishness. They are seen more as ‘glorified tents’ to provide basic shelter - so one step up from camping. There were these hand-made iron wire chairs everywhere that were very uncomfortable and there were a number of bugs and mosqitoes that feasted on my body, but other than that, the glass house was very comfortable, relaxing and very quiet - no tv, phone or radio. Just the basics.

We had a great time just getting away from it all, cooking food on an open fire, listening to the sounds of the jungle, catching up on napping and reading, and being awakened at dawn by the sunlight pouring in through the glass walls.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

American in Singapore

The clock is ticking and we have about a month left in Singapore! I thought I would record some of my observations before they are lost in the dark recesses of my brain. These are just random observations.

In Mexico, I am a Gringo. Here, I am an Ang Moh. I don't think it's a derogatory term. At least, that's what they tell me.

In America, we visit tanning salons and buy lotions to make our skin darker. Here, they buy whitening cream to appear more "fair".

Public transit here is amazing. The buses have a GPS system and you can send a text message to find out if the bus is near your stop. There is a smart card that you can use at on every bus and train throughout the country. You tap the reader with your card when you board, and tap when you get off. It automatically deducts the proper fare based on the distance travelled.

Some city buses have satellite television. I watched Singapore Idol for several weeks on the Express Bus from Jurong to Orchard Road.

Many people here have maids from the Philippines or Thailand. It is not uncommon to read about a maid who has been verbally or physically abused by a Chinese housewife. I have also read about several maids who fell to their deaths while hanging laundry out of the window in a high-rise apartment.

There are no laws against drunk driving here. Only "drink driving" is illegal.

You don't "get off" the bus. You "alight". Sounds much more graceful than something I would do every day.

There is no tipping in restaurants and no server is assigned to your table. They will NEVER bring the bill unless you flag them down and ask for it. This is because it is considered rude to bring the bill before you ask because it implies that you should vacate your seat. Once we learned this, we were much less furious when dining out. Just stick your hand in the air, and someone will come help you. I actually like it better than the American system. If you flag down the wrong person in an American restaurant, they will say "let me find your waitress for you". Here, they just take care of you.

In general, service staff in Asia are better than what I've seen in the West. Here, they are more attentive and proactive. They anticipate your needs and take action.

Most carriers serve free alcohol in coach. The service on Singapore Airlines is so superior to any that you will receive in America that it's embarrassing. American Airlines should change their name to Kazakstan Airlines based on the comparative quality of service they offer. Let me illustrate a couple of examples:

Singapore Airlines screens its employees for customer service skills and good looks. The men and women are young and attractive and seem most happy when they are filling a request.

American Airlines employees on the Texas to Japan route are grumpy old cows who hide in the galley and give you dirty looks if you ever press the Call button.

On asian flights, you receive an ice cold scented fresh towel as soon as you sit down, and a full hot meal - even on 1 hour flights. You may also order a special meal such as vegetarian, muslim, seafood and others according to your preference or dietary needs. The food is really tasty!

Just recently, an airline steward saw that I was reading and turned on my reading light for me. This has never happened in the history of American aviation.

On American Airlines, if you miss your connection due to a late departure, you get sent to a counter with nobody to help you, three dirty phone, and nothing to write with. "Call the reservation line and sort out your own damn schedule" is their message.

On a recent Malaysian Airlines flight, our departure was delayed 1.5 hours. They hired a caterer to serve hot food, tea, coffee, and juice in the waiting area at the gate! Also notable is the fact that with all the travelling I've done over here, I've only had one late departure.

There is a wide range of foods and wide range of prices. I can eat fish, rice and a vegetable at the local food court, (Yummy Yummy is the name of the food court), for less than two Singapore dollars. Or, I can pay a LOT more for Western food at a proper restaurant. I've yet to eat at a Mexican restaurant where everything didn't taste like curry. I really miss burritos.

There are some foods I really like here, but to be perfectly honest, most of the local food is not appealing to me. Food courts tend to have a fishy, greasy, chicken smell that dampens my appetite. Even though everything is in English, you still don't know what it is. A food court may offer Tom Yam soup, Laksa, Nasi Lemak, Ikan Bilis, and Chicken Rice. I only know what chicken rice is. They take a whole chicken, cook it, and chop the whole thing into slices and serve with rice. Each slice may contain bone, skin, and chewy bits. Much like the Native Americans, Asians waste no part of the animal. This approach is much less wasteful than the American approach, but it takes some getting used to.

One thing I do crave now and then is Durian. It's a spiky smelly fruit that MUST be eaten as soon as you crack open the skin. If you save it for later, you have a stinky mess on your hands. You must also buy good quality Durian and pay dearly for it. As much as $15 SGD per fruit.

Three Nights in Hanoi, Vietnam

We get a long weekend in Singapore for the beginning of Chinese New Year (they call it Lunar New Year here), and Maggie booked a trip to Vietnam for us. We travelled on Vietnam Airlines and experienced the same level of comfort and service one would expect from any airline in the region, (which, for the record, is superior to any American carrier).

We cleared Immigration in Ho Chi Minh City, (formerly Saigon), then boarded a domestic flight to Hanoi. The airport at Ho Chi Minh is clean but tired looking. Our luggage was scanned three times as we made our way from the International Arrivals gate to the Domestic Departures gate.

I was struck by how quickly people would fill any perceived void in a queue. I used body language and my size advantage several times to prevent people from squeezing ahead of me in line. One young Vietnamese lady even tried to squeeze right between me and Maggie as we stood in line to present our boarding passes at the departure gate. Fortunately, it did not take much effort for me to hold my place in line as long as I was vigilant. After nine months in South-east Asia, I have lost most of the concern I once had over being perceived as a rude American.

In Hanoi, we used an ATM to get local currency. The exchange rate is 13,500 dong for 1 U.S. dollar. As in Cambodia, most businesses accept U.S. currency.

Maggie had arranged two guided tours for us through an
on-line booking service with a local Vietnam company called Buffalo Tours. Our guide for both days was a somber young man named Hi - 26 year old Vietnamese guy. All tour guides must be trained and certified by the Vietnamese government. Hi said this is to ensure that we get accurate information about the country and the "regime".

Hi harbored a thinly-veiled bitterness about the fact that people in his country were not as wealthy as people in other countries. Just like many people in this region are, Hi seemed jealous of the prosperity that Singapore enjoys. He asked if if I thought that Singaporeans are genetically superior to Vietnamese. I laughed at such an absurd question, but he seemed to think it was relevant. I explained that Singapore is successful because the government is transparent and free from corruption. He acknowledged that Vietnam suffers from corrupt government officials, but did not seem to equate Communism with corruption. He seemed to think that corruption in the Vietnamese government happened in spite of the Communist regime. I did not share my thoughts on the subject.

Hi told us that Vietnam now enjoys a market-based economy and this has made things better for everyone. In fact,
Intel is building a chip-manufacturing and testing facility in Vietnam to take advantage of the cheap labor and relaxed environmental laws.

Hi did not explain why the regime still calls itself "communist" when they have a market-based economy. I did not ask. I assume that would be admitting defeat. He used the word "regime" whenever he referred to the government, apparently not realizing that regime is a derogitory term in America.

[side note: Here in Singapore, the word "scheme" is neutral. You will often see banks advertising an investment "scheme". Funny how this word always means something bad in America. Comment from Maggie: same thing in South Africa - the word "scheme" refers to a schema or system - nothing negative at all. In America, no wonder I was met with a long, awkward silence when I asked a member of the Human Resources team to explain the "bonus scheme at Dell" during a fully packed meeting which included regional directors and managers]

Hi told me that he harbors no resentment against America for "the war" He is too young to have fought in the war, and America is just one of many countries to invade Vietnam over the centuries. Just as the Vietnamese successfully pushed the Mongols out of their country, they pushed out the Americans. The Chinese and the French seem to have had the most success occupying parts of Vietnam, and their influence can be seen in the food and the architecture.

Our first trip involved a visit to the Perfume Pagoda, and a hike to a shrine in a huge natural cavern. The only way to reach the pagoda at the base of the mountain was by renting a boat. Most boats were rowed by young Vietnamese ladies. I saw one lady rowing a boat with 13 people in it (see picture). One thing I found interesting is that the person rowing the boat pushes the oars through the water, thus propelling the boat forward. I find it much easier to pull the oars, but then you can't see where you're going.

None of the boat-rowers seemed tired, and I never saw one break a sweat. The journey was about 45 minutes and nobody stopped to rest along the way. The lady rowing with 13 people in her boat kept pace with our boat. Our boat was rowed by a man and had a total of four people, including the guy rowing the boat.

Lunar New Year is an auspicious time to visit a pagoda and pray for good health and prosperity. There were thousands of people making the journey to the pagoda that day, and only about 10 of them appeared to be tourists like us.

Although Hi said it was OK to take pictures inside the pagodas, I felt uncomfortable snapping photos in a place that was packed with people making offerings and praying at the various shrines. Hi said that many of the people only come once a year to pray for prosperity. He said these people are not real Buddhists. (Sounds like some Americans who only go to church at Easter and Christmas. )

When you make an offering at a Buddhist temple, the stuff you place in front of the shrine is collected by the monks for their consumption. Most of the stuff is small bags of rice, fresh fruit, toothpaste and other practical items. Cash is also acceptable. When I noticed a can of beer at one shrine, I asked if monks are allowed to drink beer. (They are not). Hi said that some items are only left on the altar until they are blessed, then you can take it home and share it with your family, in case they couldn't make the pilgramage to the temple. I guess somebody shared that can of beer with his family.

[Side note: Here in Singapore, as in China, "
Hungry Ghost Month" is a time when you leave offerings for your ancestors and other ghosts who roam the streets. Small offering tables are set up on the sidewalks, and items you want the ghosts to have in the afterlife are placed on the table. Money must be burned before the ghosts can use it. They sell special ghost money that you burn each night for the ghosts. I mention this because I once saw a can of Guiness on an offering table during Hungry Ghost Month here in Singapore. The ghosts come and take the "essence" of the offerings. In the morning, the trash collector takes the physical item and disposes of it. You never take the beer home to share with your family in this case.]

Buddhist monks are not allowed to kill another living being, so this makes them vegetarians by default. [Sort of.] When we were in Cambodia, our tour guide, (who always smelled of booze and garlic), told us that some monks get hungry for meat and will eat fresh meat if it died a "natural death". Monks will not slaughter a live animal, but if they walk past a market and see chickens in a cage, they will ask the vendor, "Any dead chickens?" The vendor will say, "Sorry, not right now". Later, when the monk walks by the same vendor, one chicken will be dead. The monk will purchase this chicken and take it home to eat. I guess all religions have their loopholes. For some reason, this makes me smile.

Hi also told us that "we the Vietnamese people are carnivores, we eat everything". Everything including dogs, cats and a ratty looking ferret animal called a cevit of which we saw carcases stringed up in local restaurants, complete with blood still streaming from their noses. I kept looking over at Maggie, trying to anticipate the exact minute she would start crying, but she kept a poker face. She quietly announced at lunch-time that she wasn't hungry at all. I didn't blame her. (see pictures of the food we ate, and didn't eat)

I was disappointed to find that the infamous hammer and sycle emblem is not prominent in Vietnam. I only saw it once in downtown Hanoi. I suspect that much like China and other Communist countries, the government of Vietnam finally realized that the educated "elite" are something to be valued, rather than scorned. [During the cultural revolution in China, everyone with a college degree was rounded up and killed or sent to a labor farm. Now, China grants an exeption to the "one child per couple" policy to people who have a PhD.]

Sorry, this is a long entry....

Our second tour involved a 3 hour drive from Hanoi to Ha Long Bay. In Ha Long, there were dozens of boats waiting to take tourists to see the sights. We did not realize until we were on the boat that our $40 USD per person had bought us a three-hour drive from Hanoi, and our own personal chartered boat.

We wound up on a replica of a Chinese junk with a crew of three. They served lunch and warm beer on the boat. (In Vietnam and Thailand, "ice" is pronounced "eye". There was no "eye" on the boat). Hi said that only rich people could afford to charter a boat for two people. Most boats had 20 people on board. Maggie did not disclose that, when booking on-line, we had no idea that we would have a private boat.

[side note: In Cambodia, our tour guide told us that Germans and Koreans are the most obnoxious tourists. They tend to ignore the rules and violate the temples. In Vietnam, Hi told us that Israelis are the worst tourists, because they demand "better" food, etc. than what they have paid for with their tour package.]

View our pictures here:

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Siem Reap, Cambodia

Last weekend we went to Siem Reap, in the north of Cambodia. Siem Reap is small charming gateway town to the world famous UNESCO World Heritage sites which comprises a mind-boggling 292 ancient temples . There is no way you can see all of these temples and ruins in 2 days, so we had to cram in as much as possible in our short visit.

After an early morning flight that departed at (an excruciating) 6am from Singapore, we arrived in Cambodia at 7:10am and had to endure the longest customs/immigration process ever. You get a visa-upon-arrival at the airport for which you have to stand in line with your papers, passport and $20 US per person. Then your passport is scrutinized by 9 different officials by handing it down a line. Then you have to stand in a line and wait for you name to be called out (Darin's name had to be called 3 times, because we didn't realise the official was calling Darin when he kept yelling "Deh-REAM"). Then you h ave to wait in line to go through the actual customs, where a picture of you is taken with an outdated web camera. What surprised us the most was that all the computers and monitors were Dell. The entire process took more than an hour.

We were then taken to the Bed and Breakfast called Journeys Within, owned and run by a very young couple from California. The rooms were very spacious and comfortable, overlooking a salt-water sparkling pool. We organized a driver and a guide through the B&B and they were waiting for us when we arrived. Our guide, named "Kong", could speak english quite well but had a very hard-to-understand accent and at times I had no idea what he was saying, but just smiled and nodded. He must have thought we were very stupid. He talked a lot!

The temples are awe-inspiring - all of them are exquisite in their own right - some have very detailed carvings, some are so vast in size (Angkor Wat), and one (Ta Prohm) is being swallowed (literally) by the jungle with gigantic banyan trees growing over the ruins. This is also where the film Tomb Raider was shot. Other highlights included a ride on elephants around Angkor Thom, eating at a Khmer restaurant where they served delicious food at incredible prices ($3USD for an entire meal of green curry, rice and soup) and $2USD for a large bottle of beer. We also visited the town of Siem Reap which has an old market that sells everything from fabrics, t-shirts to bottles filled with unknowd brown liquids and unrefridgerated eggs. We saw a grisly sight of a woman washing/sloshing dishes around on the ground in a muck bucket filled with brown liquid and lumps of food floating around. They also eat everything from frogs (on virtually every menu), and snakes - amongs other things.

But Cambodia was the country that has touched me the most out of any other country we have travelled to. After many years of war and genocide this country seems to be able to move past their tragic past without ever forgetting it. Given the relatively recent trials and tribulations the country suffered, it is absolutely staggering just how friendly everyone is, even to Westerners.There were many children around the temples trying to sell their wares (usually books or bracelets made from grass) and most of them could on say one sentence in english: "Only wan dollah, meddim". It was heart-wrenching to say no to them. We also saw several landmine victims, some blind and some with lost limbs, making music on home-made instruments. We bought a cd from them, and they were genuinely thankful.

One night, we took a tuk-tuk (an auto rickshaw or cabin motorcycle) to a local restaurant called Madame Butterfly. Owned by an old French guy, this restaurant offered exquisite French/Khmer fusion cuisine that was very reasonable (nowhere in the US, or anywhere else in the world, have I had exquisite French food for a reasonable price). Our tuk-tuk driver (who's name was "Wet") patiently waited for us outside the restaurant to take us back to the hotel. When we arrived at the B&B, I asked him how much, and he said "whatever price you think, madam". I gave him $6 and his eyes almost bulged out of his sockets. Apparently, $1 would have been enough (I found out later from the B&B staff). And considering that most of the farm workers in Cambodia earn about $1.25 PER DAY, Wet got his annual bonus that night. I am glad I paid him $6. Because he wetted outside for us. Hehe (sorry, couldn't resist).

Poverty-stricken, delapidated houses, road-side cooking on open fires, dusty dirt roads, people riding on bicycles with their faces covered - these are all sights that reminded me so much of South Africa.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Thaipusam in Singapore

I was aroused from a drunken stupor at my desk by the phone. I figured out how to set my phone at work to sound like the phones in the Counter-Terrorism Unit on the show "24". It makes every phone call sound important.

An excited Maggie was on the other end of the phone line. "They're doing Thaipusam right near our apartment! I was on my way to Plaza Singapura and saw them walking to the temple!"

I hurried home to make sure I wouldn't miss the stream of devotees as they marched to the Hindu temple in a cleansing and purifying ritual that is practiced by Hindus each year. Note that the pictures only show a handful of the dozens (hundreds?) who performed the Pilgrimage that day.

The pictures speak for themselves. Captions are added for the less imaginative viewers:

The Elusive Kukup Valley

Let me first say that overall, Maggie has done a fantastic job of booking fun weekend trips for us, and I really appreciate all the time she spends dealing with poorly designed web sites and a variety of thick accents when making our travel plans.

Kukup Valley was to be a simple day trip across the border into Malaysia, yet Maggie seemed more excited about this trip than most of the others. She kept reminding me "Kukup Valley next weekend!". There were promises of a remote fishing village where all the buildings were on stilts. An authentic Malyasian seafood lunch. Shopping for local handicrafts, and a visit to Orchid Valley! Every day, I heard the countdown: "Four days till Kukup Valley!".

Finally, the day came.

We walked a couple blocks to a nearby hotel to catch a minibus to the Suntec City mall. At the mall, we transferred to a large tour bus. I had my huge camera bag and my tripod. Maggie had a giant bag filled with snacks, brochures, her camera, and enough Malyasian Ringgit to handle her planned shopping spree.

Once on the bus, we heard the tour guide explain the process for crossing the border and we learned that a Malaysian Tour Guide would replace out Singaporean Tour Guide. We each got an immigration card to fill out. As the bus headed north toward the causeway that separates Signapore from Malaysia, the tour guide started at the rear of the bus, checking to make sure we had all completed our immigration cards.

[When we first moved to Singapore, we had to apply for green cards. I have a green card indicating that I have a work permit. Maggie has a green card to indicate that she is the spouse of someone with a work permit. These green cards have ensured that our wait at Immigration, when returning to Singapore, is never longer than 20 seconds.]

It so happens that when the tour guide stopped at our seats to ensure that our paperwork was in order, Maggie confessed that she was not in possession of her green card. Maggie inquired if it was "really necessary" to actually carry the card at all times? In response to Maggie's query, the tour guide walked to the front of the bus and said something to the driver. Within 30 seconds, the bus stopped at the side of the road and the doors opened. The tour guide unapologetically told us: "You might alight here. You can take a taxi home".

We gathered our camera bags, sack of snacks and brochures and my tripod and marched the long walk of shame from our seats to the front door of the bus. We stood in shamed silence as the bus drove away. Maggie began to cry.

I assured Maggie that this was a minor setback. "By God!", I said. "We'll keep trying until we get to Kukup Valley! We'll get it right eventually!" Then we went to the Orchid Garden in Singapore and had breakfast.

Three weeks later, "Try, try again". The tour company graciously offered to book us on a later trip, and we once again arrived at Sunset City mall. This time, before we boarded the bus, they told us that they "No longer do the trip to Kukup Valley, due to lack of interest". This, despite Maggie's phone conversation with them the previous day confirming our trip. Instead, they asked, would we like to visit the Zoo or Johor Bahru?

Johor Bahru is another town in Malaysia, just across the border. Something akin to Tijuana. The trip ended with us gnawing on my camera bag because we were so hungry. They did not stop anywhere near a source of food during the entire tourist-trap ridden journey.

We told ourselves that the Kukup Valley trip was probably over rated anyway.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Langkawi, Malaysia

This past weekend, Darin and I went on a short getaway to Langkawi, Malaysia. A popular holiday spot known for beautiful white sandy beaches and romantic sunsets, Langkawi is an archipelago of 99 islands in the Andaman Sea, some 30 km off the mainland coast of northwestern Malaysia.

While waiting at the gate for our delayed airplane to arrive, the friendly Malaysian Airline staff broke out a refreshment stand serving hot food: rice, noodles, samosas and spring rolls as well as coffee, tea and orange juice. Something you would never see in an American Airlines waiting lounge! We also had complimentary foot massages (see picture in the album) which were a bit more vigorous than what we anticipated. It felt like you stuck your feet into a machine that you shouldn't have - perhaps a paper mill.

We stayed at the Frangipani Resort and Spa, set on a long, white powdery stretch of beach with smaller islands dotting the horizon. The resort was pretty, with lush gardens and ocean view bungalows. But the "spa" in their name is a bit misleading. The only massage available was offered by an untrained masseuse (an old lady wearing Muslim attire) in a beachside hut for which one pays 60 Ringgit (about US$20) for 45 minutes. I had the massage late in the afternoon at which time the sun shone directly onto the massage table at an angle. I got so sunburnt while the lady vigorously rubbed my skin with hands that felt like rough sandpaper. Ouch!

We went on a tour to an oriental village at the foot of a cable car that takes one up to the top of Langkawi's higherst vantage point to look out over all the other islands. Unfortunately, the wind was too strong so the cable cars didn't run that day. The oriental village was also an overrated tourist trap selling expensive "crafts". The highlight was feeding an elephant that some locals were offering rides on.

One evening we walked along the beach to the "Light House Restaurant" where we had a lovely meal while enjoying the gorgeous sunset.

We had a very nice and relaxing short weekend getaway. Picture are posted on google photos:

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

KL and Batu Caves

On January 12-14, we went on a short weekend getaway to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia's capital city. Locals refer to it as "KL". They love abbreviations in Singapore, even more than the U.S. military does. ("sabo" is short for sabotage, and refers to setting up your friend for embarassment; people often write: "S'pore" instead of spelling out the name of the country; and the newspaper refers to "m-cycle" accidents, as if they can't afford the space to write the word "motorcyle").

But I digress.

Kuala Lumpur is a modern city with skyscrapers, Starbucks, and Kenny Rogers Roasters. The Petronas Towers (owned by the petroleum company) are the largest twin towers in the world.

Throughout the city you will see taxis and personal vehicles made by the Malaysian automobile company,
Proton. A Proton looks like something Chrysler might have made in the early 80s to compete with the Toyota Corolla.

On Friday night, after having checked in at the
Istana hotel in the heart of the golden triangle of downtown KL, we went of a night tour of the city. This included a stop at the bustling Petaling Steet night market where one can find heaps of knock-off watches and purses. Some are better crafted than others, and of course one has to bargain for the best prices. After that we went to a Malaysian restaurant where we enjoyed some authentic malay dishes and watched a traditional malay dance show. Darin even got on stage to join in a dance where two men hold onto the ends of 2 bamboos and clack them together in a repetitive rythm. The "dancer" (in this case Darin) then has to jump in and out of the bamboos before his legs get caught. It was really funny, I got some good video footage of this.

The show ended with a Disney-style crescendo of the recorded music from the television advertisements that the Malaysian Tourism Board plays throughout the region. The full dance troup was on stage in bright colors, while huge video screens showed beautiful scenery and images of racial harmony. There was no mention of the
Muslim militants in the north who are training for jihad against America and Israel. Nor did they mention the black magic that the militants use to defend themselves against the evil weapons of Western nations. I guess they don't have time to cover every little thing that Malaysia has to offer.

On Saturday we went on a full day tour of the city. We thought it would be a bus tour, but when our driver picked us up at the hotel in a blue Mercedes, he announced that it was a private tour. I cringed because I thought we'd have to make uncomfortable small talk with the driver all day long, whereas a bus tour offers comfort in anonymity. But it turned out that our driver was super nice, very knowledgeable and easy to talk to. He explained that Malaysia is divided into 14 regions, each of which has a Sultan. To avoid jealousy and civil unrest, each Sultan gets a turn at being King of Malaysia. The term is five years, and you get to live in the Royal Palace. No official duties are required of you.

Chinese temple on the hill:
Although Malaysia is officially a Muslim country, you are free to practice the religion of your choice. (you are not, however, allowed to hang a pig carcass in public, except in Chinatown. No joke). There are many Chinese people in Malaysia, so there are Buddhist temples. We visited a temple that honored several of the Buddhist gods, including the God of War, who is often visited by businessmen. Visitors to the temple can place a smoke stick into a thing that looks like a wishing well, and for a fee, you can have your name placed in the temple for one year. Your name is written on a piece of paper and stored in a special plastic container. There are stacks of these things arranged in columns that stretch from floor to ceiling. Having your name in the temple for a year is meant to help those who have fallen on bad fortune.

There is also a can full of long sticks that look like tongue depressors. You pick them up and drop them into the can. If one stick is sticking up above the others, you read the number at the top of the stick, and open the corresponding drawer to find your fortune. If no stick stands out, or more than one sticks out, you keep trying until only one sticks up. I believe there were 100 sticks and 100 corresponding drawers.

Batu Caves:
The Batu Caves are situated thirteen kilometers (seven miles) north of the capital city Kuala Lumpur. They are a sacred place for both the Hindus and the people who sell food and trinkets at the entrance to the limestone caves.

There are 272 steps to climb before you reach the top. Each step is numbered in bold red numbers to save you from having to count them yourself as you climb to the top. Darin shamefully photographed two large women from behind, as they overcame tremendous posteriors to make the climb. Justice was done when Darin was later attacked by a monkey while posing for a picture. Sadly, there is no photo of the actual attack because I was so shocked that I forgot to press the button. I only got the moment just prior to the attack.

The Thaipusam festival: Every year, on Thaipusam, as many as 800,000 devotees and other visitors throng to the caves. As a form of penance or sacrifice, many of them carry kavadis (literally, "burden," such as a pitcher or jug). These are large, brightly decorated frameworks, usually combined with various metal hooks and skewers which are used to pierce the skin, cheeks and tongue. By doing this penance they expect some favours from their Gods. This grisly festival is held in the tenth month of the Hindu calendar (mostly the end of January). Darin says his kavadi is his paunch, and he considers it a form of sacrifice to carry it to work each day.

Royal Seleangor Pewter factory:
The Malaysian Tourism industry makes a huge fuss over the pewter factories. "The tin is mined RIGHT HERE in Malaysia!!". Despite live demonstrations prooving that a pewter mug can be made in 12 seconds, all pewter items are prices as if they were made from pure silver. I actually saw a poster touting pewter as a precious metal. I'm not sure who buys the pewter items, but the shops had plenty of salespeople and halogen lights to highlight the beer steins and ashtrays, so they must be making money somehow.
To view our pictures:

Sunday, January 07, 2007

New Year's Eve in Borneo

What better place to ring in the New Year than Borneo? That's what we thought when we reserved a "chalet" at the Lankah Syabas Resort in Kota Kinabalu. Borneo is an island that is "shared" by Malaysia and Indonesia. Malaysia is officially a Muslim country, but you are allowed to attend the church of your choice. About 60% of the population are Muslim. Men are allowed to have up to four wives. I'm not sure if this is a Muslim thing or simply a Malaysian thing. Last year, a little over 13,000 marriages in Malaysia involved a new wife being added to the family. The last cannibals in Borneo were reformed 50 years ago. At least that's what they told us when we were driving through remote stretches of jungle.

When we boarded the Malaysian Airlines Boeing 737, they were playing music from the Lawrence Welk era. It was Christmas carols on a Wurlitzer organ. That same weekend, another Boeing 737 flying between the islands of Java and Sulawesi disappeared and still has not been found (five days later). A ferry also capsized off the island of Java with over 600 people aboard. Some of the passengers floated in the ocean for five days and travelled over 120 miles from the wrecked ferry before being rescued. After hearing about all of that, the organ music on the plane seemed like a very trivial matter.

The resort where we stayed is run by an Aussie couple and the atmosphere is decidedly laid back. There is a friendly little pony called Raleigh that runs freely around the property. When we first arrived, he spotted us from a distance and ran directly at us. I feared new video footage for "When animals attack" was in the making, but it turns out he just wanted to say hello. We have pictures of the pony and all the other cool stuff we saw on our Google Albums site (see link below). There were also a couple of sheep walking around, and one sheep head-butted Maggie when she petted it.

The beach was a disappointment for us. In front of the resort is a narrow, sandy beach that is completely littered with trash. Unfortunately, this is what most beaches are like in Borneo. The Malaysians are the worst litterbugs I have ever seen. Piles of trash line the highways in most of the beautiful jungles and valleys. One person explained that Malaysians used to wrap all their purchases, food and other items in banana leaves. These wrappers could be discarded anywhere and they would blend back into the vegetation. The advent of plastic bags and the Malaysian tradition of discarding wrappers on the ground have resulted in a trashy landscape.

On our first day there, we went on a private tour with a guy from the UK named Martin. A nature lover who is very passionate about Borneo, Martin took us to Mount Kinabalu and the Poring Hot Springs. Fortunately, there is much to see other than the hot springs themselves. It was very hot and muggy that day. As in Thailand and Bali, we saw many, many dogs running loose as we traveled through Borneo. None of them looked hungry, but I doubt if any of them have ever been to a vet for a checkup.

On New Years Eve, there was a big party in the second floor restaurant/bar of the lodge. A full buffet was laid out, and the entire carcass of a pig was on a separate small table away from the other food. A large handwritten sign above the pig stated "Non Halal". I can't imagine a Muslim person mistakely eating a pig, but maybe there is a legal requirement that non-Halal food be labeled in Malaysia.

We were assigned to a table beside a boorish Australian gentleman named Drew. His job is to secure customs clearances for his company to ship spices all over the world. He spent nearly two hours explaining that to us. We spent much of the evening thinking of reasons to leave Drew alone at the table. Ironically, just days prior to this trip, I had mentioned to a colleague at work that I have never met an Austrialian that I didn't really like. They are all such likeable people and fun to be around. Maybe Drew isn't really Australian... When we returned to our table from our first "Drew break", the buffet has been closed and the pig carcass removed from the little table. I noticed then that the little table where the pig had been resting had a chrome pole running up through the center of it. Soon the young Malyasian ladies were on the little table, dancing around the strippers pole. Their dancing was provacative and showed a talent that must have required hours of practice, but it seemed as if they were just having fun and they were completely unaware of the keen interest that some of us paid to their moves. At one point, the white haired, overweight, elderly Australian man who owns the resort, joined the ladies on the small table. After that, his six year old daughter (grandchild?) took her turn on the pole. I couldn't decide if the little girl on the strippers pole was charming or disturbing. I want to say she danced very well, but that would sound creepy, wouldn't it? Fortunately, nobody actually "stripped", so I was spared the decision of sticking around to leer and nake ladies vs. grabbing Maggie by the hand and loudly announcing my disgust at the behavior on the stripper's pole.

On our last day, we went on a jungle cruise to see monkeys. The Proboscus monkeys are the most interesting, because of their large ugly noses. Unfortunately, they tend to stay high in the trees and they are not attracted by the fruits that the lady at the dock sold us. Fortunately, the Macaque monkeys on the remote fishing pier were very eager to catch the hairy fruits that we tossed to them.

I am always on the lookout for examples of good luck that have been bestowed on me. That day, my good luck involved NOT being on the same boat as the loud, whiny children who rode on our bus to the dock. I was also fortunate to get some pretty good pictures of monkeys, despite the rocking boat and the overcast skies. Take a look at the pictures here:

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Maggie buys airline tickets online

We have been spoilt in the US with websites that work, electronic ticketing, online bill payments and online shopping in general. Getting things done here is definitely harder and more frustrating than in the US. For example, the AC is leaking in my studio and I complained 3 days ago to the maintenance guy who promised he would "come fix it soon".

Also, I recently bought some air tickets online on a Singapore website called " - your online travel guru" for us to go to Vietnam next year. When they asked for my billing address on the website, naturally I had to give our Round Rock (Austin) address for the credit card that I was using. When I checked out they said the tickets will be mailed to the billing address, but they changed the country from US to Singapore: Foppiano Loop, Round Rock, Singapore! This is AFTER I have paid and checked out, assuming we would be issued electronic tickets. Nowhere did it say they were actually going to mail tickets through snail mail!

So I had to call them and ask them to send it to the correct address here in Singapore. There was a lot of confusion. Conversation went something like this:

[Robot says: "Hi Welcome to Zuji, your online travel guru. Your call is imporant to us. Please hold and your call will be ansered by the next customer service representative" - goes on for 18 minutes]
Zuji Customer Service: [Loud cough/snort] Haao, thi ee Zuji, how ken hell yoo?
Maggie: Hi, I just bought some tickets online and at checkout it asked for my billing address, which is in the US because that is where my credit card is from. However, the site never asked me where I would like the tickets mailed to and it bungled up the US address by adding Singapore as the country.
Zuji Customer Service: Mem, wha is bookee numbah
Maggie: 39847758892
Zuji Customer Service: Okee, mem, plees holl why I get yoh bookee. Yes, your ticket will be mailed to 1515 Foppiano Loop, Round Rock, Singapore.
Maggie: That is not the correct address. There is no Foppiano Loop in Singapore
Zuji Customer Service: Okee, mem. But tickets heff reddy been mail.
Maggie: Ok, so when the tickets are returned to you by the post office, can you please send them to this correct address: [gives Singapore address]
Zuji Customer Service: I will go check to see if mebby I ken fine tickets.

[Puts me on hold for 5 minutes. Robot says " You can now book all your travel needs online at Our website makes your trip easy!" I groan]
Zuji Customer Service: Okee, mem. Tenk yoo foh holdin. I was lucky to fine ticket in mail basket. [paper shuffling noises]
Maggie: Thank good ness!
Zuji Customer Service: [Loud cough] Okee, mem. Wha you say is that you put wrong address on website?
Maggie: No, I put the correct billing address for the credit card I am paying with, but it is US credit card.
Zuji Customer Service: Mem, then the ticket will be mailed to thet address.
Maggie: No, it won't because the Zuji website assumed that I wanted the tickets mailed to my billing address but then added Singapore as the country instead of what I put in the first place, which is USA. It is an error on the website. I do not want the tickets to be mailed to the US.
Zuji Customer Service: Okee mem, can you hold for a minute?
Maggie: Sure
[Puts me on hold for 6 minutes. Robot says " You can now book all your travel needs online at Our website makes your trip easy!"]
Zuji Customer Service: Ok mem, thak yoo for wetting. You send us fax. Can?
Maggie: Excuse me?
Zuji Customer Service: You send us fax with yoo new address to where we sen the ticket. We nee to heff yoh signa-chair.
Maggie: My what?
Zuji Customer Service: Your SIGNA-chair
Maggie: Oh, my signature. The fact that I know the booking number, reference number, flight number, address on the booking and email address isn't enough for you to validate my identity as purchaser of these tickets?
Zuji Customer Service: No mem, you send fax to 6758-4498. Put booking number, reference number, flight number and new address on fax...wif signa-cher.
Maggie: Ok, can you give me that number again? I will send that out this morning. Shall I put "For Attention....."?
Zuji Customer Service: Can, 6758-4498. Just put For Attention Ingrid
Maggie: Ingrid, my I have your surname?
Zuji Customer Service: Only wan Ingrid in office.
Maggie: Ok, thanks, Ingrid

Maggie sends fax. 2 days later.....
Maggie gets email from Zuji confirming that tickets have been dispatched to 1515 Foppiano Loop, Round Rock, Singapore...