China Rich Girlfriend by Kevin Kwan
Two weeks ago, I had to go to Singapore for some meetings. It turned out to be four meetings over the course of two days, which left me a bit of time here and there to do my thing. With morning and afternoon meetings each day, I was left with weird slots of my day to fill. Time was not sufficient for midday trips to my favorite merlion or to visit the Gardens by the Bay and with a big move headed my way next month, shopping on Orchard Street sounded like a bad idea. (Both in terms of space taken up and credit card balance!)
So, what does a girl do with herself and a bit of free time in the middle of a work day? It’s a pretty easy equation (at least in my world):
Coffee shop + Book = Hours whiled away
Over the course of two days, I found myself at four different cafes, enjoying a wide range of beverages (everything from hot chocolate in the morning to Snapple after lunch). I curled up in a huge over-stuffed love seat, relaxed in a wicker basket-like seat and wiggled until I found a comfortable spot on a metal chair with great people-watching. Knowing that I would probably have these odd bits of downtime between meetings, I planned ahead and brought along an Orson Scott Card book that weighed in at nearly 600 pages, enough to keep me entertained for a few hours. (Sadly, I finished that book as soon as I got to the airport and had to make due with a People magazine until I made it back home to Kuala Lumpur. At least now I am updated on the ever-so-current Kardashian drama, what’s happening on The Bachelor, a show I’ve never seen, and what Princess Kate wore on her last visit with the commoners.)
Overall, I can’t complain about my two-day mini-vacation. (Half a vacation? Between meetings, it really was relaxing and a nice getaway!) Looking towards Washington DC in the fall, I am going to miss year-round open air restaurants and patios. Informal apartment hunting is underway and I am thinking I am going to have to add a walkable coffee shop to the list of “must haves.” Maybe a bit of cold weather will add just a bit of cozy to that hot chocolate and new release on a Saturday morning.
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.)
When in pursuit of sidewalk endings, adventures are bound to pop up along the way. Most of the time, the escapades that seem the craziest at the time, once survived, end up being the best stories and they are the reason we sling on our backpacks as much as possible and go-go-go. But, not all adventures take us down a road we want to travel, and that, my friends, is how I almost became Thad’s personal ACS case last week. (ACS= American Citizen Services.)
It all started on a bright, sunny Friday afternoon, three weeks ago. I had just driven back to the embassy from a going away lunch at a local polo club (great Indian food!) and was settling in at my computer for an afternoon of sorting and scanning diplomatic notes. Strangely, my left eye was super blurry, but I blamed it on the raging sunshine outside and figured it would quickly adjust to the florescent lights of the office.
By Sunday night, I was doing the worst thing anyone with any kind of ailment can do: I Googled it. Suddenly, WebMD had me convinced I had rare eyeball cancer and was going to die before morning. Thank you, internets. The upside to my internet searching was that it made me realize maybe my blurry vision was a bigger deal that I was giving it credit for and maybe, just maybe, I should pop in to our embassy medical unit to have them take a quick glance on Monday morning.
Which I did. After finishing the visa intake for the morning. (I was really not too panicked about this whole thing yet. I’d get to MED when I go there…) Going in, I told the medical officer that I had only half-vision in my left eye. I would have slated it nearly a horizontal line across my eye, with vision on the bottom. Without much hesitation, I was shuttled off to an ophthalmologist here in Kuala Lumpur for a series of tests, but I still wasn’t feeling super worried about the situation.
That sense of calm would not last much longer.
After a succession of eye tests at the hospital here, the ophthalmologist sat me down and without much ado announced that he was diagnosing me with optical neuritis and that I must be admitted to the hospital immediately for an MRI, as the condition is a precursor to multiple sclerosis. Suddenly, I went from having what I thought was a bit of blurry vision to the possibility of a life-long, potentially debilitating disease. How did that just happen? Not really sure what to think or do in the moment, I told him I needed to check in with the embassy before making any further plans. I was in shock and couldn’t really process what was happening. Had my life just changed in the course of two minutes? I quickly got ahold of the medical unit, who decided if that is the route we were going to take, we were going to take it in Singapore.
Back to the embassy I shuttled to throw together the makings of an emergency medical evacuation. By this time it was Monday evening and I was scheduled on an early Tuesday morning Air Asia flight, with specialist appointments booked for Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday morning. (All of these bookings happened in the course of about an hour. When MED moves, they move!) Before leaving post, I had to get a few things in order at my desk, I had to top off my cell phone minutes, I had to pack a bag for a week and load up as much school work as I could fit to take along. Things were a blur, and not just because my left eye had quit working!
It was all happening quickly.
Which is how my crazy medical condition also nearly made me become Thad’s personal ACS case! In the midst of the chaos of prepping and packing to go, as I moved all of my money and cards to the purse I was taking to Singapore, my credit card got left sitting on the dining room table. On Tuesday, I caught the quick one-hour flight to Singapore and headed to the 4 Seasons hotel where I would be lodging for the duration of my stay. The great medical section team in Singapore had the room pre-booked, so when I arrived, I just rolled on up to the counter, ready to sign in. I passed my credit card over and scanned the fancy lobby as I waited for the desk clerk to run it. Soon, he had a worried look on his face. He swiped the card again, but I could tell something was wrong.
Oh no! He didn’t need to say a word. I might be partially blind, but the lightbulb went off.
A few weeks ago, we had some weird taxidermy charges on our credit card out of Texas. (You know how I like to keep stuffed dead things lying around my house!) The credit card company shut off those cards and sent us new ones. Well, the card in the hand of the desk clerk was the old card and the new shiny one was sitting at home, in Kuala Lumpur. Not good.
So, there I was, in a foreign country, half-blind and with only the cash in my purse: about $200USD total, trying to pay for a hotel that ran $300 a night. Uhhh…Thad to the rescue! I quickly called him and had him give his card number to the hotel so I could check in. He then had to sign an avadavat saying he would cover my costs for the entire stay (room service, anyone?!), but he quickly sorted it from his end so I was able to drop off my bags before heading to the first appointment.(It is almost as if sorting out unprepared Americans is his job or something!) But, the lack of functioning card did make me basically destitute in what is definitely not one of the cheaper cities on the globe. I spent the next four days, until he was able to join me in Singapore, convincing doctors and hospitals to take my card by just the number, without physically having it in-hand. (Scary how well this actually worked! I was able to put thousands of dollars of medical bills on a card I did not actually carry.)
I felt like such a dunce! Maybe the eye-sight really was a bigger brain issue.
Over the next three days, I had eye tests where I realized that no, I did not have 50% vision in my left eye, but closer to 5% and that I was basically color-blind as well. I had an MRI, which at the cost of that thing, I’m not sure why they can’t add a muffler to the machine. And I was admitted to the hospital for three days of IV steroids to reduce the swelling on my optical nerve. (My nurse friends will attest, I have what must be close to the world’s worst veins, so this was a rather unpleasant period for me. I’m such a terrible blood donator that Red Cross usually sends me away, not able to get enough blood to bother with. The doctors at the hospital in Singapore had to call in the head phlebotomist, who was still not able to get three full vials of blood and then had to poke and prod to find a place to insert the IV. No fun for anyone! Three weeks later, my right hand still has two rather good sized bruises on it from the poking and prodding procedures.)
To make a long story short, the answer to the big question is “we don’t know.” Thankfully, the MRI scans came back clean, no lesions, so for now, no MS. (This is something that will have to be monitored long-term with follow-up MRIs in the future, but clean and clear for now.) The IV steroids and subsequent oral steroids (don’t mess with my right now, man!) have brought my vision back to probably 90% and its improving each day. With nothing to go on, the doctors are leaving the diagnosis as “optical neuritis” and will just monitor. I’m headed back to Singapore in a month for follow-up exams (you can bet I’ll have my credit card next time!) and then it will just be a wait and see (literally!)situation.
Adventures, for the most part are fun, but sometimes the sidewalk gets a little blurry, which gets a bit scary. Over the last three weeks, my sidewalk nearly disappeared but is slowly coming back into focus and is a good reminder to keep searching and enjoying the journey. (It’s also a good reminder to always carry a valid credit card!)