An odd part about living abroad as an expat with the Foreign Service in contrast to the extended travel we used to do on our summer breaks from teaching in Idaho is how routine certain far-flung trip/cities have become. When I graduated from high school almost twenty years ago (is that possible?!) I would never have imagined that a weekend in Singapore would be second-nature and easily booked on a Thursday evening to fly out on a Friday morning. And yet, being assigned to Kuala Lumpur, planning a weekend in Singapore is about as much work as putting together a trip to Salt Lake City would have been. We’ve been there half a dozen times now, and have hit almost all of the main attractions. We’ve been on the night safari at the zoo, visited both the city botanical gardens and the Gardens by the Bay, spent hours sitting and people watching at the base of the merlion, wandered Sentosa and Haw Par Villa, shopped the markets in Little India and lunched in Chinatown and perused the high end shops on Orchard Street. Heck, we’ve even tried out the international hospitals, ophthalmologists and neurologists in Singapore! I think the one major tourist attraction we are missing is the Singapore Flyer, a huge Ferris wheel taller than the Eye of London. Thanks, but no thanks on that one.
But, this last weekend, we got to enjoy it all over again, almost as if for the first time. (Our initial trip to Singapore was in 2007. We were on winter holiday from our small teachers’ college in China where we were serving as Peace Corps volunteers. Along with good friends who were also PCVs in Gansu province, we did a multi-country tour of SE Asia and decided, on a bit of a whim, to hop a long-distance bus from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore for an overnight excursion. Unplanned, but spectacular, it was one of the highlights of that trip.) A good friend of Thad’s from high school came out to visit for two weeks and wanted to add another stamp or two to his shiny new passport, so a trip to Singapore was a great way to get another country and another experience in just a long weekend. Even though we’ve been there a handful of times, this last one stood out because we got to experience it all again, as if for the first time. Garrett was full of boundless energy, wanting to see and do everything the city had to offer, so we tied on our tennis shoes and headed out for two action-packed and long days of conquering the sites of Singapore, shin splints and haze be damned.
It was fun to take in the city again from the perspective of a new traveler. Wanting to see and do more than chill, we booked a budget hotel with small rooms, as we planned to spend little time there. What we didn’t know upon booking was the weekend we stayed would be the hotel’s first weekend with guests. It was brand new! This was great in that that pillow top mattresses were to die for and everything was sparkly still, but there was some evidence that they were still working out the quirks in their building. Morning showers and hot water were a particular issue. While Thad and Garrett opted for quick and cold, I chose the on/off method of conserving water to get maximum heat. To each his/her own. We did “get” to take selfies with the manager for their Facebook page, so there was that…
In two and a half days, we saw as much of the lovely city-state as humanly possible. Thad and I have a special love for Haw Par Villa, a strange and wonderful park on the marina side of town, built by the founders of the Tiger Balm empire. Wanting to pass on traditional Chinese beliefs about spirituality and the afterlife, the park is made up of statues and 3-D murals depicting traditional Chinese tales. A visit through the grounds culminates with a trip to Hell. Literally. The creators put together a slightly horrific and strangely graphic diorama inside a man-made cave that walks patrons through the nine courts of Hell, specifically outlining misdeeds and their punishments before one can drink the tea of forgetfulness and be reincarnated to give this world another shot. Haw Par Villa is strange and wonderful, cartoonish and graphic, all in a single glance.
After going through Hell together, we stuck to a much more cheerful and lighthearted schedule, focusing on the marina area, visiting the Sands Hotel and its ridiculous compound/attached mall area, where I searched endlessly for a merlion charm for my Pandora bracelet, but apparently such a thing does not exist. The air conditioning was a nice reprieve from the heat/humidity/haze of outside, so a turn or two around the shops wasn’t a bad break. The Gardens by the Bay were also on the itinerary for the day, a place we had not previously visited, so the one for which I was most excited. The free parts of the gardens are quite extensive, but we did shell out the Sing dollars to get into the Cloud Forest Pavilion and the Flower House. I was particularly drawn to the cloud forest, as they are talked about extensively in Jonathon Maslow’s Bird of Life, Bird of Death, one of the books I am writing about in my thesis. It was awesome to see that habitat in person, even if it was man-made. It may not be the basis of why I chose that book for my writing, but I’m going to chalk the ticket price up to research anyway!
While I was the one pushing to visit this particular green house, I think Thad and Garrett may have enjoyed it more. The set-up reminded me of the aquarium in Baltimore, where you go to the top of a multi-story building and wind your way down through the exhibits, back to the main floor. In Baltimore, that worked great for me. It was just a series of ramps circling down through tank after tank of fish. The cloud forest was not so comforting for those of us with major fears of heights. Rather than solid floors, the path that wound down was more like a suspension track with woven metal floors that you could see through. Not good. Plus, it moved. Just a bit, but a bit was too much for me. I tried on the top floor to do it, but made it about ten yards before chickening out and heading back to the stairs in the center of the building. I opted to meet my companions on each solid level. Towards the bottom, maybe floor three (there were seven in total), I decided to give the walkway a try again, thinking I could make it happen since we were so much closer to the ground. Did I make it to the next level? I did. Did I see or enjoy a single flower or plant along the way? I did not. Did I nearly run over a lovely Indian family who were camped out doing photos in the middle of the walkway? Shamefully, yes. It seems Maslow at least had the “death” part of the cloud forest right!
Feeling like we were quickly running out of time to see and do everything the city had to offer, on Sunday we opted for tickets on a hop-on/hop-off style bus tour that took us to Little India for some great Deepavali shopping, Chinatown for an amazing xiaolongbao lunch and through the modern financial districts as well as the historically colonial neighborhoods of town. Seeing the city through Garrett’s eyes was rejuvenating, as he loved each and every place we wandered. Watching him barter for singing bowls in Chinatown or search for a taste of durian, it’s great to be along as someone experiences something so entirely different from their normal day-to-day life. It makes me think maybe I should have become a tour guide! The hundreds and hundreds of photos and dozens of videos on Garrett’s phone attest to his newfound love of all things Singapore.
And of course, no trip to Singapore is complete without some quality time with the merlion, so we had dinner down on the marina and enjoyed the perpetually warm nights that come with being mere degrees above the equator.
After my two most recent trips to Singapore having been on behest of my eye, I loved having the chance to go down and take in the sights as a tourist- 100%. There is much truth in the fact that last weekend’s trip really was seeing Singapore through new eyes- both Garrett’s and my own. (Click here for the back story on my previous, less fun and more stressful trips to Singapore.)
Top Ten Tuesday: 10 Wishes I’d Ask The Book Genie To Grant Me
I’ve been out of the TTT circuit for a few weeks (months?) as much of my writing time has been devoted to working on my thesis about the inner and outer journeys portrayed in travel writing, but I thought I would hop over to The Broke and the Bookish and just see what I have been missing out on recently. I hadn’t planned on doing an entry for this week, but after just finishing Salman Rushdie’s new novel Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, the word “genie” in the prompt caught my attention and just bounced around in my mind while I made dinner. (If you haven’t had a chance to pick up a copy of Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, head to your closest book store, library or online lending site right now! It’s a great read…although long and mind-bending.)
I’m curious to see where other bloggers go with this prompt, as it can veer off in innumerable ways, but between ponderings of genies (thanks to Rushdie) and my mom’s recent call for family Christmas lists, I’ve compiled a list of bookish things a genie/Santa could USPS to me in Malaysia!
Book Lovers’ Soy Candles– I have had several of these candles, both the full-sized and the tea light collections. While I am not sure what Gatsby’s mansion smelled like, I can attest to Reading at the Café being spot-on. My favorite might be Bookstore, but I do enjoy burning all of them. (We lovingly call these my “study candles” as I always light one when I sit down to work on my thesis. I figure books in the air might help the literary juices flow in my brain…so far it seems to be working!) https://www.etsy.com/shop/Frostbeard
Bookopoly- I’ve never been a big fan of Monopoly (the game invented to start fights between siblings), but now that I found a book version, I may have a sing a new tune! I’d probably never play this if I owned it, but it would be fun to take out and look at on occasion! http://www.amazon.com/Late-for-the-Sky-5514870/dp/B000HET4YC/ref=sr_1_15?ie=UTF8&qid=1354048649&sr=8-15&keywords=book+end
Bookplate stamp- What a cute idea! I absolutely love recommending/lening books to people and while I don’t really complain if the book never comes back, it might be nice to keep a bit better track of them. I have sticker bookplates, but I always end up using them up (or not using them enough because I don’t want to use them up). A stamp would be the perfect remedy for this little book-problem. https://www.etsy.com/listing/189508315/custom-bookplate-stamp-personalized?ref=shop_home_active_2&zanpid=2091145740314612736&utm_medium=affiliate&utm_source=zanox&utm_campaign=row_buyer&utm_content=977275
Card Catalog– I don’t know what I would do with it or where I would put it, but I would love to have a card catalog. They’ve got to be around, right? Libraries are switching to having all of their files electronically, so where are those beautiful wooden cabinets going? My place would be the perfect forever-home for one! http://www.ebay.com/bhp/library-card-catalog
Notecards from the Library of Congress– Between my love of books and my obsession with stationery products, this is a must-have item! There is little about this not to love, including the price. http://www.theliterarygiftcompany.com/card-catalog-30-notecards-from-the-library-of-congress-14731-p.asp
Pandora book charm– My bracelet is almost full (which just means it is time to get a second one), but somehow with all of those charms, I don’t have anything bookish. It might be time for the literature genie to remedy that oversight. http://www.pandora.net/en-us/explore/products/charms/790536/by/theme/~100
Quilt- My best friend is a quilter and has promised to make me a book quilt, if only we could find a pattern we loved. When I was in Utah last summer, we went to a handful of quilting/crafting stores looking for a pattern, with no luck. How are there not more bookshelf patterns out there? Do the worlds of quilters and readers not overlap?
Quote pencils- While I am not a huge Harry Potter fan (I know, I know, take away my middle school English-teacher title!), I do love these pencils. Take this idea and use quotes from a variety of American literature (or travel literature) and I’d be all over that. (We’re talking about a genie or a fictional gift-bearing fat man here, so I’m sure this is a doable tweak.) https://www.etsy.com/listing/75863177/harry-potter-6-wrapped-pencil-set?ref=related-1
Tattoo- No pictures yet…just a thought wandering my head…I do have a favorite book quote in mind…time will tell…
Vintage Typewriter– Last Christmas, we were invited to a holiday party at the home of another Foreign Service officer in KL. We had chatted around the office and at a few events, but I had no idea that he had a degree in poetry and was blown away by his beautiful vintage typewriter collection. While the rest of the party-goers enjoyed the eggnog and mulled cider, I wandered his apartment, fascinated by these beautiful machines, contemplating a new collection of my own. Maybe this is the year to start! http://www.vintagetypewritershoppe.com/Vintage_Typewriters.html
Okay book genie, you’ve got your marching orders. I’ve got ten items of my wish list, but if I had to narrow it down to the traditional genie three, I’d go with: card catalog, start of a vintage typewriter collection and a bookshelf quilt. Abracadabra!
Recently, as I was scrolling through my Facebook feed, mostly in an effort to avoid working on a chapter in my thesis that was quickly become painful (think: redundant, superfluous, unnecessary, beating a dead horse, and just overall not adding a single new idea to academic discourse), I came across the headlines for the daily newspaper in my hometown. The Idaho Press Tribune has been a part of my reading repertoire since before I could actually decipher letters, words, paragraphs and articles. While that jet black in was still nothing more than strange black squiggles on paper, I was able look at the photographs, make stories out of the comics and figure out if there was going to be a yellow sun in the sky or a menacing cloud with a lightning bolt overhead each morning. Living overseas, it has been years since I actually had a subscription to the paper, but that doesn’t mean I’m not up to date with happenings in the Valley. Not only do I see the headlines in my Facebook feed each evening (the advantage to being fourteen hours ahead in that the morning news stories show up before I go to bed), but I still get occasional clippings in the mail from my dear mother. (I never know which stories are going to show up in the envelope. It might be one about a former student who is doing well. Or maybe the story will be about someone we went to church with growing up. Book lists often make the clippings cut, as do random comic strips and the occasional goofy article included just to make me laugh.)
Most of the stories that make the newsfeed headlines have to do with local construction projects that are shutting down lanes of the freeway or the drama of a school board election recall campaign. Those pass me by like Malaysian snatch and grab hoodlums on scooters. But, recently, one caught my eye and then my heart. The headline read: “Sugar beet harvest on the horizon.” Of all the days for the IPT posting to catch my eye, it was the day they wrote about the sugar beet harvest. I instantly felt a pang of homesickness, as nothing says fall in southern Idaho quite like the sugar beet harvest.
Sugar beets hold a special place in the memories of my childhood. I was fascinated by those giant brown tubers. Once harvest season started, giant trucks filled over the brim with the beets would roll by our house, one after another, all day long. Because they were filled by other giant machines, they were always overly full, meaning as they sped along the road, the top-most layer of beets fell to the wayside, littering the edges of the country roads. I can’t begin to count how many of those sugar beets I collected with my sister and brother over the years. For a long time, I was convinced that if I could crack one open, I’d find it full of sugar. After all, it was a *sugar* beet. In my eight year old mind, if I could only get through that tough outer layer, I’d have cups of refined sugar, just like the stuff in the yellow Tupperware sugar bowl on the dining room table. Sweet! Of course, the truth was about as polar opposite of that as one can imagine, which I found out once we were finally able to chop through one of the beets with a sharp-edged shovel.
That’s what the sugar beet factory is for. That appellation itself is a bit divisive. Everyone who was raised in the area calls it nothing more and there is no need to explain that the factory actually refines sugar and doesn’t *make* sugar beets, as the name seems to imply. I’ve heard people argue that it isn’t correct terminology to refer to the operations as a sugar beet factory, but these are usually the same folks who’ve moved in from California and Texas who think Boise is pronounced with a “z” sound at the end. You’re non-Idahoan ways are showing, folks!
If you are local to the Treasure Valley, the sugar beet factory is a landmark, both visually and olfactory. Someone once tried to tell me it had an “almond-y” smell, which I would heartily disagree with, but after living away from home for so many years, I must admit to a fondness for the unique stink that permeates the valley during processing season. One whiff of that unique odor and I know I am home.
It’s a bit ironic that I’m weirdly touched by an agricultural headline from home at a time when agriculture in Southeast Asia seems to be trying to kill us all. Indonesia is burning crops at the end of the growing season (and forests in an attempt to make more room for palm oil plantations) and the smoke from their fires is infiltrating the Malaysian peninsula to an unprecedented level. The air has been so hazy that Malaysian schools have been cancelled three days in the last two weeks and it burns my eyes to be outside for more than an hour or two at a time. Maybe it is precisely because of the current air situation in Malaysia that I am drawn to stories of home, where the sky is blue, the leaves are changing color and the harvest is in full swing.
It doesn’t matter how far I travel or how many stamps clutter up the pages of my passport, at heart I will always be from Idaho, land of sugar beets and giant trucks and that oh-so-familiar smell of Nampa’s sugar beet factory, as well as home of the Idaho-Press Tribune, a relic in world where news consumption has shifted to the online world rather than the rolled up paper delivered to one’s driveway each morning.
The idea of travel evokes many emotions. On one hand are the positive ones: excitement about seeing and exploring a new place and a new culture, and thrill at participating in new adventures and activities. But on the other hand, there is a bit darker side of travel that can, at times, be hard to reconcile for those of us raised within the confines of middle class American privilege. When I am on the road, it is hard for me to not see the poverty that abounds and even harder to know what to do about it. Should I bargain for a handful of bracelets from the little girls standing outside every temple in Siem Reap or does that encourage them to hawk to tourists rather than attend school each day? Does buying the stunning, but mass produced artwork from a night market in Laos benefit the sellers and their families or does it cheapen the beauty of their culture? I have read article after article online about being a thoughtful and responsible traveler, but in the end there is no way to overcome a small amount of internal awkwardness when it comes to traveling in developing nations; after all, it is because of travelers like myself, who have the expendable income to throw on a backpack and hop a flight to a remote country that these tourist-driven economies even exist.
As both a traveler and an ex-patriate, I think it is important to find ways to give back to the communities that I call home for several years at a time. In China, that meant serving as a Peace Corps volunteer for two years in rural Gansu province and then organizing a donation campaign to help earthquake survivors in Sichuan after the quake of 2012. Here in Malaysia, I spent six months volunteering as an teacher for Chin (a Burmese minority) refugees, trying my best to not only strengthen my students’ understanding of comparative and superlative adjectives, but to also given them a sense of what American middle and high schools will be like once they relocate. Once I started work at the embassy, I was no longer able to devote several days a week to the school, but was still on the search for other ways to be a positive member of the community in which I was living. At a bit of a crossroads, not sure what to do next and not having a whole lot of free time between working full time and working on a literature and writing graduate degree, the embassy newsletter had my answer! One Wednesday, scrolling through the pages of information about upcoming concerts in the city, welcomes and farewells to officers and their families, and my favorite, the book club calendar, I noticed an advertisement seeking help with a Habitat for Humanity project. I wasn’t wholly unaware of this project, as CLO had been doing fundraising all winter and more than once I had dropped my spare ringgit in collection containers around the building, but with actual building time on the horizon, I was excited to sign up and join in!
The US embassy was assigned two days to work on the project in a small town a few hours outside of Kuala Lumpur. I signed up for Saturday, thinking it would give me Sunday to rest and sleep in before another week of work. The Saturday crew met at the embassy at 5AM to hop in the vans to carpool down to the site. My van had one poor marine trying to sleep in the backseat and four women, all of whom chatted and laughed the entire trip south. Arriving at the land cleared for the new home, I was struck by several things: 1) the large piles of sand and rocks placed beside the road, 2) the square footage of the foundation of the home and 3)the fact that the sun was already blazing down and it was barely 8AM. These three things were to be the entire focus of my day.
Saturday’s crew had one goal: complete the cement foundation. The catch? The cement needed to be mixed. By hand. There was no electric cement mixer. There was only a pile of shovels, a pile of rocks, a pile of sand, bags of cement and a hose for water. Quickly, I learned the correct recipe for cement:
Habitat for Humanity Cement
5 wheelbarrows of sand
2 wheelbarrows of rocks
1 bag of cement
Add water until a thick goo. With a shovel, mix, mix, mix. Once the cement is the right consistency, load it up in a wheelbarrow, drop it in an empty corner of the foundation and spread quickly, before it starts to harden.
Repeat. For seven hours.
When we arrived at the building site and were given our job for the day, I overconfidently that it would be no problem. The foundation was small. It was perfectly square. It should be easy to fill it up, three inches thick. Boy, was I wrong. Wrong is an understatement. We worked the entire day, sweating in the relentless sun (thunderclouds threatened, but we never saw a drop of rain), and still we barely finished the foundation by the end of the day. By late afternoon, we were all dog tired, pulling the last of our energy to mix a final batch of cement to complete the last corner. (There was semi-serious discussion about buying the family a nice plant to put in that last corner to cover the lack of foundation. None of us were sure if we could load up the last wheelbarrows of cement ingredients, let alone stir, stir, stir.)
I learned several things about myself over the course of that seven hour work day. First, I discovered that I was not really cut out for physical labor. Apparently, there is a reason I prefer to collect degrees rather than get my hands dirty. (Okay, this wasn’t really a sudden epiphany. There is little about me sporty or athletic.) Sunday morning I could barely roll out of bed. It took until about Thursday before I was able to go up and down stairs without having to rest the majority of my weight on the railings. I was in pain. But, with that said, I also realized (or re-realized) how great it was to be a part of something bigger. I may never see that completed house, as other teams were working on continuing the project, but I know that in a small way, I helped to provide a solid home for a family in need. (While on the site, I walked over to see where the recipient family was currently living. It was basically some wooden walls covered by a blue tarp with a lean-to addition off the side that housed a one-burner gas stove.) One of the best moments in the day came mid-afternoon when everyone was feeling the pain of the work, but still plugging away. A fellow embassy volunteer, closer to my parents age than my own, walked over to where I was loading yet another wheelbarrow of sand and told me how impressed he was with how I had been holding my own throughout the day, always one of the last to break and the first back to the shovels. With a smile on my face, I told him I had my parents to thank for that one. Work ethics were never lacking in my house growing up.
My Saturday as a Habitat for Humanity volunteer was humbling and a good reminder that giving back is an important part of being a traveler. I might still struggle with the conundrums of coming from the privilege of a highly developed country living/visiting areas where governments and people struggle to ease the difficulties of daily life, but I try not to be blind to the issues. Finding small ways to help is important. I didn’t build a town, a neighborhood or even an entire house, but I did literally build a foundation for a new life for one family.