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Telunas Beach Resort – Part 10: Ang Mo Perspectives
My first trip to Indonesia turned out to be a pleasant experience, and one with few complications. Indeed, everything was so uncomplicated that I was beginning to miss Singapore right from the beginning. The Telunas Beach Resort employs an excellent staff. If they dislike their jobs, they do a fair show of faking it. From the boat navigators all the way to the group hosts, everyone seems to relish their duties, performing them well and with a smile. Smiles where I come from are strictly optional and usually cost extra. I’ve been told that’s because the coat hangers they’ve stuffed in their mouths are rented.
I felt right at home in my chalet. It made for a comfortable lounge if I felt like an afternoon nap (and frequently I did), and the bathroom, far less rustic than the rest of the accommodations, proved up to the task of cleansing me of sweat and any refuse that might have clung to me during my occasional swims. Except, that is, of a determined tick that had dug itself into my back. I only discovered it upon arriving back in Singapore. I truly hope I won’t have a reason to blog about this experience again in the future.
And yes, my room apparently channeled the breeze more efficiently than Yang’s. What Yang didn’t mention is that I needed not an additional oscillating fan but a goshdamned shovel each time that bountiful breeze deposited sand onto me through my bed-side window. Each morning upon waking up I considered myself lucky if the residing children weren’t building sandcastles on my belly. At first I suspected shenanigans at play. It wasn’t until I camped out in my bed late one night, laptop on my left, serrated knife coated with fresh sambal chili dipping sauce on my right (hey, it’s all I could find), that I noticed the movie playing on my laptop featured a sandstorm in it every 5 minutes, perfectly synchronized with the incoming buffets of wind. I guess that was why I had to force that particular window open every morning and prop it outward (and also why housekeeping closed it each and every day). The joke’s on me after all.
As Yang mentioned, eating lunch in a local’s home on Jang Island was the highlight of my trip. Not so much because of being exposed to new experiences, but because of the deception I deployed: When our gracious host wasn’t looking, I used a cucumber slice as an improvised spoon with which to shovel food into my mouth. (Yang later admitted to having done the same.) You’d think as messy as I am around the dinner table that using my hands to eat would be second-nature to me, but you’d be wrong. If I’m going to die at the dinner table (or dinner mat, in this case), it’s going to be from choking on the delicious sambal prawns or homemade fishballs, not my right thumb. But seriously, I really enjoyed dining with respect to local and religious customs. I only wish I could get those last few rice grains out from underneath my fingernails.
The jungle hike ranks as a near second. Our guides Nick and Amin were conscientious and top-notch. I was also mightily impressed by the fortitude Yang and Ling exhibited by carrying Hannah nearly the entire way through. The jungle itself presented itself as an awe-inspiring environment demanding of respect. After a while, however, the thrill of telling myself, Hey me, I’m in the jungle! wore off and another realization began to rise to the fore: This reminds me of hiking through Missouri. The illusion of exoticism was shattered forever when an obstinate cow obstructed our slender path. It seems no amount of tropical fruits and vegetation is going to ever be enough to prevent one-thousand pounds of cow ass bringing you back to earth.
I can relate to Yang and Ling’s disappointment about the state of the beach and the waters, but as someone who has lived all his life in a land-locked state in the center of the USA, my expectations are decidedly of lower standing. I also happen to live near a gargantuan man-made lake that is assuredly filled to the brim with sewage of some sort, and that doesn’t stop half the population of the Midwest from vacationing there every summer. As long as floating dead bodies are removed in a timely manner, we’ll swim in just about anything.
Another disappointment is that I never found myself in a situation that required me to bribe someone. It occurs to me that locals are under the impression that Caucasians want nothing more than to avoid corruption. Speaking as an American, I can say nothing is further from the truth. We prefer corruption when we’re abroad because it’s much cheaper than the corruption at home. Sure, bribes abroad require instant cash, whereas corruption at home is most often deposited directly from one’s bank account during tax time; however, we tend to find cash exchanges much more personal and satisfying. So, for future reference: As long as the US dollar retains at least some semblance of strength, we Americans welcome any corruption you can manage to confront us with. You guys really lost out this time.
To those who asked me my impressions of the scorching hot Indonesian weather: Try walking 10km under direct sunlight every day in Singapore with a 6kg messenger bag sticking to the sweaty small of your back. I’m pretty sure you’ll find hiking through the Indonesian jungle or sprinting across the jetty to the beach a pleasant experience by comparison. (And yes, yes, I’m a total idiot for walking so much in Singapore, but never mind that that’s a stupid thing to do given the wonderfully efficient and relatively inexpensive public transportation. I never said I was smart, just used to the heat—the Singaporean heat.)
So, all in all, I had a great time, reinforced by great company. I don’t think I would have enjoyed myself nearly as much on my own, so I’m eternally grateful to Yang and Ling for allowing me to tag along on this wonderful adventure. But after 6 days and 5 nights at Telunas Beach Resort, the barnacle had begun to form on my ankles. That’s a sure sign you’ve got to get back to civilization.
Whereas it seemed there were fewer breaches of the water by lovesick humpbacks whales than the projections of vomit by seasick passengers, I confess the 5-plus-hour trip was well worth the steep price of admission. The water was so choppy on this otherwise beautiful New England afternoon that it felt we were all aboard a 50-foot long drunken horse galloping through the streets of San Francisco. The voyage began under a uniformly blue sky occupied by nothing more than the sun. As we boarded the vessel passengers rushed for prized positions deck side to soak in the sunlight.
However, shortly after setting off and achieving full speed along the choppy waters, the wind roared and pales of waves spritzed coolly and wetly over and into the vessel’s side thresholds, and passengers ducked for cover into the sheltered cabin. Minutes later a whale enthusiast Gloucestered (my newest euphemism for projectile vomit) her lunch into — well, almost into — a trash bin, resulting in the most profitable protein spill I ever did witness, one which BP would no doubt appreciate. The smell, however, was so repulsive that nearly everyone evacuated the cabin in favor of wearing bucket loads of Atlantic Ocean on their clothing.
Hours later, and still nothing. Children amused themselves singing We Are the World. I suggested the theme to Free Willy would be more appropriate, but no one could remember the lyrics. While the more talkative of my fellow passengers attempted to guess others’ ages, I sought to obtain items with which I could fashion a harpoon. In the event that we did see one of those bastards, I wanted to be fully prepared to eat it.
But yes, we finally did see some whales. They breached, bandied about, paddled the water with authority and left us all thoroughly entertained, if but for 15 minutes. And yes, it was worth it. No one was harmed, even the whales. Though most of us did learn a bit more about the contents of half-digested lobster rolls and cole slaw than we thought proper for such an occasion.
Day 2: Trapped in Singapore! Ang Moh Imprisoned!
In all my years of fumble and folly, I have locked myself out of many places: my car, my house, my office, even my bathroom. Today, however, I managed to lock myself in.
Preparing to leave Yang and Ling’s condominium late yesterday morning, it became evident that I had lost track of the house keys Yang passed me. One key is paired to the front door, the other key is paired to the iron gate clasped to the external frame encasing that door. Opening the front door from the inside is obviously not a problem. However, opening the locked iron gate without a key is a non-starter. Having left earlier in the morning for their respective workplaces, Yang and Ling took with them, quite naturally, the only remaining keys. I was trapped!
I never tire of explaining to friends the safety and security I experience in Singapore, often conjuring exaggerated circumstances under which, comparative to the US or elsewhere, I’d be a dead duck, yet in the assuring confines of Singapore one’s safety is practically guaranteed. But one thing is for sure: If you lose the spare set of house keys, they’ll lock your ass up.
With William Wallace’s last-breath cry of “Freedom!” reverberating through my bones, I faced, by means of my own stupidity, the not-so-proverbial rusty cage that imprisoned me and my people — except Irish, not Scottish. Just beyond the reach of my outstretched arms: my shoes, the elevator, the neighboring children’s bicycles . . . roti prata.
A stiff wave of panic enveloped me. Before the US consulate could return my phone call, Yang caught up with me online on MSN. We felt certain the house keys fell out of my pocket while riding in the front seat of the car the night before.
“Listen, buddy,” he wrote, “it doesn’t look like you’re getting out of there until Ling returns home from work. I’m sorry.”
“That’s OK,” I wrote.
“As you know, you have plenty of bak kwa there, and if you like go ahead and order McDonalds in, or a pizza. They should be able to stuff the food through the gate rungs.”
“I just might do that.”
“But, in the meantime . . . Look, I’ve read studies on incarceration.”
“Oh?” I replied in surprise.
“Yes, it’s very important for you to keep busy, or else you’ll rot away into nothing.”
“Is Ling returning home sometime within the next decade?” I asked.
“Oh, yes, yes, of course. But still, we should be proactive.”
“What do you have in mind?”
Yang hesitated. “I think the marble floors could use a mopping.”
“Yes, I’m sure of it. You’ll find the necessary supplies in the storage closet. While you’re doing that, I’ll contact the warden.”
“The warden? You mean the landlord, right?”
“Yes, I meant the landlord. . . . Bye for now.”
With Yang’s helpful advice in mind, I took to my task. He was right, I’d decided, it really is best to have a clean prison cell to inhabit. And the work helped quell the pity for the self and the pangs of hunger quaking throughout my body.
Not long after completing my task, Ling sent me a text message. I rushed to my notebook to give Yang the news.
“Yang,” I wrote, “Ling just texted me saying she found the keys in the car! They’d fallen out my pocket into the front passenger seat, just as I expected.”
“Great news, buddy,” he replied. “Did you mop the floor?”
“Yes, it looks fabulous.”
“Great. Ling should be there within the hour. Tell me, buddy, how do the windows look?”
“I’m logging off.”
Soon after Ling arrived home to free the incarcerated ang moh, carrying with her little Hannah, an armful of various food, and, of course, the spare keys.
“I have brought your rations,” she said, smiling. “Wait — have these floors been mopped?”
“Um, yes, Yang thought it would be good if—“
“Oh! Yang is clever one. This happens every time!”
“What, you mean this has happened before?” I asked.
She remained silent and set about preparing Hannah’s afternoon bath. I chose to leave well enough alone, for clemency had been grant and there was food to be eaten in the kitchen. And after all, I had learned an important life lesson today: To get the most out of Singapore’s tourism catchphrase, “Uniquely Singapore,” one need but remember the spare house keys.
Visiting the USA – Ang Moh’s POV
Whereas I’m ecstatic you’re visiting my country, buddy, I’m finding your current preparations alarmingly inefficient. It really sucks I won’t be around to show you the ins and outs of American lifestyle, but let’s go over some things you’ll need to acquire or keep in mind:
#1: A gun permit.
Don’t think the US is like Singapore. Here there is no “face”, but there is respect, and to get it, you’ll need to pack heat. Don’t worry about smuggling a pistol into the country; I’m pretty sure on the West Coast handguns are sold for pocket-change in most street-side vending machines.
Actually, forget the permit—no one bothers with those anyway. Most Americans simply believe they’re born with the right to bear arms and use them at will. Just be aware that everyone around you at any given moment—yes, even that obnoxious 8-year-old who won’t stop kicking the back of your chair—is carrying a handgun of some kind, and is just waiting for an excuse to use it.
#2: Perfect “flipping the bird” or “giving the finger.”
In Singapore I can’t tell you how many times I witnessed pathetic and placid extensions of middle fingers (most often directed at taxi drivers and motorcyclists). Such meekness only confuses us. If you can’t even make a red crayon blush, why bother?
When in America, you must put your whole body into the upward thrust of the middle finger, during which you shout, “No, you mofo, f**k you!” Don’t be bashful. They will appreciate the fact you’re shoving only an upright finger in their face rather than the hand-cannon you’re no doubt carrying.
#3: Bulletproof Vest.
See #1. Duh.
#4: Pedestrian caution.
Don’t think just because you’re walking on a sidewalk or street curb that you’re not a target—trust me, you are. You see, to American drivers who not only own the streets, but also the curbs, sidewalks, park trails, hotel lobbies, et cetera, there’s no such things as pedestrians, just trespassers. It’s not a question of if you’ll be mowed over, it’s a question of when and how long it will take the paramedics to arrive to scrape up your remains with a rusty spatula.
It’s not all doom and gloom, though. Assuming you wish to get out of your hotel room to inhale the carbon-monoxide and take in the clouds of smog blanketing the cityscape, travel among fat people. As over two-thirds of Americans are morbidly obese, you often won’t have a choice. Not only will you benefit from a boost in self-esteem, but you’ll also find that most vehicles, even when traveling at full-speed, will ricochet of the fat people’s “belly bumpers.” So yes, safe walking routes in the US consist primarily of ducking into each and every donut shop along the way to your destination, but that’s the price of security in this country.
If you should ever get behind the wheel, try this pop quiz:
When proceeding down the highway, you come to a traffic light which has just turned from yellow to red. What do you do?
a) Red means stop; apply the brake and come to a full stop.
b) Red means yield; apply the brake gently and proceed with caution.
c) Red is merely a suggestion; honk horn repeatedly and apply full weight to the accelerator.
If you have to ask, the answer is C. If you’re afraid you can’t remember this little tidbit, reminders abound at every pedestrian crossing in the United States.
#5: Bring a self-addressed & stamped body bag.
You might be asking yourself why this is necessary since all this laid before you is an attempt to enjoy your time in America, not to mention save your life. Well, as our national slogan goes, “Shit happens.”
To Peel or Not to Peel
I’m going to stay as far away as I can from the issues of gender roles in relationships. It’s been covered quite well here and at Ann’s blog. But I do intend to convey my sympathies toward those who desire their significant others to peel their prawns. I lack the required dexterity to peel prawns with utensils, and depending on the company I’m too prissy and needlessly self-conscious to commence with the deed using my hands. When unsure, I usually just crunch! crunch! crunch! like Ann mentioned (but that can invite weird looks from onlookers, too, depending on where you are).
When I was last at Yang’s parent’s home in Lentor for dinner, I had just arrived in Singapore that morning and hadn’t slept a wink in just shy of 40 hours. But once those large, juicy prawns were situated upon the table in front of me, I began to perk up. They were so enticing, but something occurred to me: How am I supposed to eat them? I didn’t want to commit a potential faux pas, so I waited until someone else dug in to see how they approached those tasty-tailed devils.
This required much discipline. A steely resolve washed over me. I watched as family members served themselves that oh-so-delicious rendang, tended to their soup bowls, and poked at the three-layer pork.
To my dismay, the prawns remained ignored. When Chek-Tchung, sitting to my right, reached across the table, my heart skipped a beat—but no, he chose instead to secure a hardy portion of Hainanese chicken. A more severe act of unintended cruelty I have never known. :)
Then finally Jasmine mercifully snatched up a prawn. I was all eyes.
But to my astonished horror, she began dismantling the little bastard with her fork and spoon. This, my friends, just would not do. In my incapable hands we’d have more prawns on Mrs. Foo’s floor than on the table. I wouldn’t have blamed anyone if they’d sent me to Pedra Branca to dodge bird droppings for the duration of my stay.
But, thankfully, Jasmine and others soon after chose to forego the utensils, merrily peeling away those translucent layers with their fingers and piling the remains into a tidy pile to be discarded later. Now this I could do and do well!
I’m of course playing up this little anxiety of mine, but it serves to remind me that in a casual situation having someone handy who can systematically peel those plump prawns is some kind of a blessing. And as for the dinner at Mr. and Mrs. Foo’s, it remains the culinary highlight of my stay in Southeast Asia—great company and great food!
Harbinger of Disaster
I’m beginning to think I’m the harbinger of catastrophe. Here in Singapore, accidents of all measure occur in my vicinity while I’m off in one direction or another.
During my November, 2006 stay in Singapore I witnessed several traffic accidents, the most thrilling of which occurred in Chinatown at the corner of Mosque and Hill St. An avid motorcyclist began turning into Mosque St at a high speed; however, Mosque St happens to be a one-way road. The biker, seeing a silver Mercedes roll toward his direction into a lazy halt at the junction, too realized this. Quickly and as laid back as can be, the biker corrected his error and began to continue down Hill St. It turns out he overcorrected: the bike and its driver slid on their sides across the width of Mosque St’s outlet, and into a trash can (Singapore: Litter Free!). Onlookers screamed, motorists honked their horns, I cheered in approval—a better show I had not yet seen. But with much luck the biker and his bike recovered to their former upright positions and went off on their merry way, all in the span of perhaps 15 seconds.
The funniest traffic-related mishap occurred just outside Labrador Park. At the easternmost bus stop exists, I think, a bus-only lane. Further down the course is limited space for vehicles to park, but the mouth of the lane is restricted. This is because the bus requires a lot of room at its disposal to turn around. Now of course this doesn’t stop Singaporeans from driving through and even parking their vehicles along the entire length of the lane, and one such sod had the misfortune of coming in behind the bus as the bus driver attempted to turn around. It turns out that this eager parker had just occupied the very last bit of real estate required by the bus driver to perform his turnaround—and the bus driver let him know it. I do not speak Hokkien, but even so I felt like I learned every Hokkien curse word in the book. The driver’s verbal onslaught would’ve made a sailor blush. The subject of the tirade stood there like a red-headed stepchild, mouth agape. His hand was in the cookie jar, and the owner of that cookie jar was perhaps the foulest-mouthed scallywag to ever drive a bus. Finally, the cowed motorist snapped into action. But so quickly did he do so that, upon opening his car door in a mad rush, he slammed it directly into the black Mazda next to him, initiating an obnoxious car alarm and caving in a more than noticeable portion of his neighbor’s passenger door. (I wish I could describe the characteristic of the bus driver’s laugh in response, but words fail me. Know this: it haunts me still.)
A scarier incident happened only recently at the Dhoby Ghaut interchange. I approached the final descending escalator leading to the Northeast line. No more than two meters ahead of me was an elderly lady holding four plastic bags and seeming to have a rather tough time of it. As she granted her feet purchase upon the flat escalator procession, she staggered upright. It was a frightening sight. I honestly thought she’d experienced a brief, minor seizure, but she caught herself, gripping the rubber railing with her right hand. However, a second later—totally out of the blue—she tumbled backwards as the escalator formed into descending steps. She banged herself up pretty good, dropping her bags—two oranges tumbled to the very bottom of the escalator steps—and managing to scare the ever-loving shit out of me. I helped her up and grabbed her bags, but she was too dazed to notice. And then, upon reaching the bottom, she snapped right out of her funk, thanked me, retrieved her bags—though not grabbing the two battered oranges—and hopped aboard the Punggol-way MRT car. (And by the way, though there were people nearer by than I, not a soul did a thing but stare on in a kind of pacified astonishment. Not cool.)
Even more recently, and by far the most frightening yet, was the all-too-close opportunity to witness my first traffic fatality. A bicyclist proceeded south along Sengkang Ctrl where Compassvale Bow meets. He gave little credence to the no-walking light just as a motorist driving a pale-blue Kia hatchback and poised to make a right turn into Compassvale Bow nearly gave no credence to the jay-walker—or jay-rider, as is the case. My perspective from Compassvale Bow did not provide me an accurate assessment of just how near the collision these two fellows were, but take my word for it—it was close. The bicyclist had to dodge the incoming car by veering his bicycle sharply to the left. This last, split-second maneuver probably saved his life, as the motorist had only then applied his brakes. The sharp turn to the left did however ensure the bicyclist rammed straight into the 6-inch high median, which stopped his bike right in its tracks. The bicyclist was not so lucky, as the abrupt stop sent him flying, feet-over-head, over his handlebars and into Compassvale Bow’s opposite lane. Amazingly, the bicyclist immediately returned to his feet, raising an apologetic hand in the air toward the driver who, at this point, could do little but inhale short bursts of charged air into his lungs and seemingly not lift his hand from his horn.
All of these incidents fortunately involved no serious injuries, as far as I know. Nevertheless, it’s getting to the point where I’m afraid to even walk by The Quartz condominium project, lest I see some dazed worker plummet from the 15th floor to his death as I’m taking a leisurely stroll to Buangkok MRT station. I could count the number of accidents I’ve witnessed back home in all my life on one hand, but I come to Singapore and it’s as if I’m a magnet for disaster. If you see some ang moh wandering around your neighborhood, you’d best steer clear—but be sure to look in all directions before doing so, or it might be your last decision.
A Plague of Insects
Along the hike up to the Treetop Walk near Bukit Timah, I smelled a distinct fragrance in the air. “What is that smell?” I asked. I just couldn’t place it, but it was familiar. Could it be lavender? No. Or it could be some sweet, exotic leaf or spice. Not likely, but damned if it wasn’t something fairly powerful. I bet it’s something really nice and unusual.
Then, Ling says, “It is insect repellent.”
I sure could have used some of that during my brief walk through Punggol Park last night, but I doubt it would have helped. I strolled briskly around the lake, taking in the serene cityscape reflections shimmering whimsically upon its still surface. I wasn’t the only one: the place was packed with joggers, bicyclists, family picnickers, the occasional fisherman, and this perspiring ang moh yearning for a place to sit.
Through all this human traffic only one amiable park bench presented itself to me, and it beheld perhaps the most promising, uncluttered view of the park lake of all the benches. I thought to myself why this particular bench remained unoccupied. Indeed, several passersby seemed interested in a seating arrangement yet didn’t look twice at this vacant bench.
I thought nothing more of it, leaning back in relaxation as the twilight surroundings captivated me completely. That is, until about two minutes later when I felt the first of a dozen stings all across my body. An elderly fellow standing no more than four meters from me looked on as my body convulsed in a spastic, panicked dance.
“Ants,” he said, chuckling as he playfully slapped his wrist.
“Yes,” I replied, reciprocating his gesture with a few well aimed slaps upon my own arms, legs, neck, and back. “Ants.”
Bangkok by Metre
Use a metered cab—make sure it is metered!
This is obviously good advice. And like most good advice I’ve received throughout my life, I chose to ignore it. At the Bangkok airport, taxi stand in sight, I ducked through the revolving doors and toward the pavement. Within two seconds I felt like the prettiest girl at the prom. But these people didn’t want to dance, nor did they want to admire my bright, shining smile . . .
“500-baht!” shouted one man, placing his outstretched palm so close to my face that I read his future. It was thus: You will not be receiving my 500-baht in this lifetime.
A less anxious man next to him quoted the same figure, adding, “Where you wanna’ go?”
I pulled out my printed sheet with the picture of my destination. “Asia Hotel, please.”
“What? No way!” He and the anxious man laughed, their entire bodies jiggling with glee. It was the kind of laugh that slaps you right in your face. “That too far. I lose money for sure. Now for 800-baht, I take you to hotel.”
I tried to act like I’d done this before. “800-baht is too much.” I looked on as the Singaporeans who had flown with me jetted off in metred taxis. Meanwhile the two men rattled off a number of figures, each an attempt to justify their price. I pretended not to listen. After flipping on my sunglasses I began to proceed on.
They followed, but a third man equipped with a clipboard stepped up. “700-baht and I take you to your hotel. Have nice taxi just for you.”
The man drew a “7” with his finger. “700-baht.”
“Your hotel is so far away, much further than other places, plus there is huge airport charge. 600-baht is low as can go.”
“Funny, because I hear metered taxis go lower. Oh,” I said, looking forward, “there’s one now.”
“Wait, sir. They very slow. My taxis treat you right.”
“Treat me right for 500-baht.”
The man looked exasperated. “Come this way please; 500-baht.”
Pleased with my first haggle, though aware that clearly I was being played whether I liked to think so or not, I agreed. I followed the man and his scribble-addled clipboard across the departures traffic where upon he passed an invisible baton to an older man who I was then to follow. Already this was less fun than I imagined it. Into the trunk of the man’s Volvo did my suitcase go, with me following likewise into the rear passenger seat.
One wonderful feature of this car was the pristine, untarnished seat buckles. This made perfect sense when I noticed there were no seat belts to accompany them. It turned out not to be an issue. The man drove slower than paint dries whereas I had always heard the reverse was true of Bangkok cabbies. But he was an amiable chap. He mentioned that before long a train would be built connecting the airport to the city proper. “When comes, I no good anymore,” he said, chuckling at the prospect. “I look for another job already!”
I finally arrived at my hotel, a little later than I presumed but no worse the wear. And I had conducted my first bit of haggling, regardless of being royally screwed. At least it was consensual. But a larger problem loomed: the word was out that I could be easily had. Every hoodlum, trickster, and money-grubber in Bangkok was on notice. During my first jaunt out from the hotel I was confronted by a heavily tattooed man in his 50s, cigarette dangling from his mouth, who claimed to be raising money for the Boy Scouts of Thailand; a young woman who praised my watch and then claimed she had access to expensive jewelry for very cheap (“Buy now cheap and soon resale value go higher!”); and a dapper-looking fellow wearing an Alfred Dunhill leather café racer jacket who didn’t really need my money but, hey, if the stupid Caucasian was just giving it away, why not give it a try?
I could take no more: I needed a disguise:
This would have to do.
Not! This outfit would only attract more attention—and the kind I definitely didn’t need. But this goes to show what lengths I’m willing to go to just for a cheap laugh . . . or a cheap cry—you decide.
Speaking of which, I came across several transvestites during my stay. This isn’t an entirely uncommon thing to see in the United States, even in the more conservative Midwest region in which I live. One difference, however, is that the transvestites in Bangkok give the women a run for their money. Thai people are generally quite attractive but, darling, their transvestites are simply duh-vine.
But though Thai-trannies are the more attractive and hygiene-conscious, I’m positive Ameri-trans could whip the mother-lovin’ crud out of them in a fair fight. I say that because in a fight between real women, I always bet on the one with hairy legs.
Yet never did I run into a prostitute. Or, rather, never did a prostitute make herself known to me by way of a proposition. I’ll admit disappointment. I had tons of witty verbal comebacks planned for just an occasion but alas they never had the opportunity to be sprung forth. I guess I’ll have to save the witticisms for when the next time a stray dog attempts to hump my leg.
However, the bright and amiable schoolchildren of Bangkok definitely knew how to rock:
Lost Luggage and Found Cake
The day before my departure for Bangkok went by more quickly than I anticipated. Yang and Ling each had busy days, and I once again whiled away the morning at the The Rivervale awaiting word on the status of my misdirected luggage.
Sunday at the airport’s Lost and Found offices, the representative told me my baggage would arrive from JFK to Changi early Monday morning and to expect a call to set a time for delivery. Monday when I called their baggage-trace hotline the person on the phone told me with confidence that my luggage would arrive Tuesday morning. When on Tuesday my baggage did not arrive and the service respondent assured me Wednesday would be the day of delivery, I took a trip to Singapore Air’s offices on Orchard Road to speak in-person. (This was a great excuse to take in the sights, do some window-shopping and grab something to eat.) I was quickly put at ease by the service representative who, during his phone conversation with the trace hotline, practically cracked me up as his needled whoever it was on the other line. “If you do not receive your luggage tomorrow, sir, call and demand compensation. Here is my name and my card.” Fair enough!
On my way home I stopped at Guardian to grab some hair conditioner. Even in the U.S. my senses fail me when browsing through the health & care aisles. A misstep is bound to occur, and before I know it I’m in the feminine hygiene section before reaching my intended destination. In Singapore, however, I can feel the weight of clerk’s and attendant’s eyes as I wander aimlessly through one aisle to the next. So unlike in the U.S., here I’m content to ask for help.
I approached a man in his twenties busy with stocking what appeared to be bottles of shampoo. The hair conditioner could not be far off I reckoned.
“Excuse me, where is the men’s hair conditioner?” I asked.
“Ah, no idea,” he said. “Cannot English, lah.”
I smiled. “It’s okay, I’m sure I’ll find it.”
I turned to inspect the products to my left, but the conversation didn’t stop there. “Could be there,” he said, pointing to the upper shelves on our left. “Or even be maybe down there.” He pointed down toward the bottom shelves on which sat bottles plastered with images of smiling Asian women, their hair soft and glossy. His English was better than he thought.
“Okay.” I kneeled down to inspect his suggestion.
“But cannot English. So sorry.”
“Sure, no problem.”
“I speak Chinese only.”
I nodded politely as I scanned through the selection before me.
“Is just a matter of practice,” he said, placing the last of the stock from his basket on the shelf in front of him. “I must learn to apply myself.”
I felt like saying “Han na!” Clearly his English was better than that spoken by some of my friends in the States! After reciting a Shakespeare sonnet in perfect iambic pentameter, he broke away to the back office. Meanwhile, I settled on searching through the feminine hair care products looking for something neutral in scent. A lady from the counter approached me.
“You need help, sir?” From her tone she sounded like no problem was too large to conquer.
“Yes, I’m looking for hair conditioner. I can’t find anything that doesn’t smell like fruit.”
“Oh,” she said, kneeling down to join me, “you want to smell like fruit?”
“No,” I said, shaking my head, “not like fruit. These all smell like strawberry, papaya, or apples.”
“Okay. You want natural?”
That was the word I was looking for. “Definitely.”
“For dyed or treated hair?”
“For damaged or thinning hair?”
This gave me pause. “No,” I said, reluctantly.
“Then this, perhaps?” She grabbed a slim, plain-looking bottle from the shelf and opened it part way. “Smell, please.”
“That is so natural,” I said. “I’ll take it.”
It turns out the product brand is Asience, its motto: For Progressive Asian Beauties. Now I might be progressive, but I am not Asian, much less a beauty. But this goes to show how even buying hair conditioner in Singapore for an ang moh can be an amiable little adventure.
Only on Wednesday, a full 72-plus hours after my arrival to Singapore, did I receive my luggage. That meant the small gifts I bought Yang and Ling had arrived, too. Now these were very, very small items, mere tokens of appreciation, some of which included fridge magnets. Yes, you read correctly. Yang mentioned before I left for Singapore that he and Ling were in the process of decorating their refrigerator, so I donated six thematically dissimilar magnets to their cause.
However, I couldn’t just come bearing fridge magnets. So I also bought a heavy Mario Batal Italian cookbook and Blade Runner Collector’s Edition on BluRay. I’d need more, though. While killing time in Compass Point during the morning of my arrival, Yang commented on how much Ling liked the macha macha cake at Bread Talk. (He in fact bought her the exact same cake for her birthday.) I had to admit, it sure looked good. This would be the perfect show of appreciation.
But I had little time. Yang and Ling were set to arrive home quite soon, and with my departure to Bangkok looming near, this would be my last opportunity. So I ran to the Buangkok MRT terminal, boarded the train, minded the gap, alighted in Sengkang, and rushed through the brief link to the mall. Happy, happy. I had plenty of time, though I’d need be delicate when transporting the cake back to The Rivervale. The human traffic was particularly high, so I took no chances—I’d walk from Compass Point mall back home.
Only upon arriving home and placing the cake in the refrigerator did I remember what I’d forgotten: gift wrapping and a Thank You card. I sprinted back to Buangkok MRT, boarded, forgot about that stupid gap, alighted once more in Sengkang, and stood in line at the basement-level grocery store with an armful of gift wrap.
But when I got back home I had no time to apply care and consideration toward the wrapping of the gifts. If I was a skilled gift wrapper like Ann, perhaps I could’ve managed, but I’m a complete novice. And beyond that, I was sweating like Oprah in front of a buffet stand. So into the gift bags did the presents go, with the gift wrap crinkled and stuffed haphazardly behind them, and loose ribbon dangling festively from the opening.
All in all, it felt great giving gifts. I should do it more often. In fact, to haul all the stuff I bought in Bangkok back home I’ll have to buy another luggage bag.
But no macha macha cake—too messy.
Pulau Ubin . . .
. . . AKA: The Mosquito Coast. Or so I’d been led to believe. So ferocious are the mosquitoes of Pulau Ubin, so insatiable is their thirst for human blood, that local custom demands that an ang moh devour a fried carrot cake before the clock strikes eight in the morn, thus ensuring the bumboat captains and all their passengers safe passage to their respective destinations. It turns out I was the man for the job. So after ducking into the seaside food court and doing my part to prevent unnecessary calamity (and having fully digested the delicious carrot cake and accompanying sides) the three of us hopped aboard an able captain’s bumboat and chugged across the watery gap to the island of abandoned rock quarries, Pulau Ubin.
The trip shore to shore takes but five to seven minutes tops, but the mosquitoes were particularly feisty. Reports poured in through the newswire warning of a frenzied mosquito swarm capsizing seafaring boats. We were sitting ducks. Yang’s shoulders were but temporary placeholders for his chin, his head swiveling rapidly side to side. Panic was in the air.
“These bastards mean business,” I said, my voice breaking. Yang didn’t respond; he was in full-on sentry mode.
With great fortune we and nine accompanying lucky souls arrived at Pulau Ubin. Other bumboats and crew, we were informed, were not so lucky. But in the spirit of adventure we sought to make good on their sacrifice, to explore where those ill-fated could not. But first, Yang and Ling sprayed and liberally rubbed each other down with insect repellant. Having indulged in the fried carrot cake only a half-hour prior, I declined such measures, believing fully in the prophecy.
Within minutes we found ourselves riding merrily atop our rented bicycles, darting with careful consideration and much precision through the morning traffic consisting of fellow bikers, near-sighted truck drivers, and oblivious tourists traipsing by without a care in the world. Yang, already on edge from the mosquito scare, began exhibiting signs of road rage.
“Careful,” I said, trailing behind as we ducked through the horde, “it’s been practically forever since I’ve ridden a bike.”
“Oh *&%@!,” he shouted back, “once you learn you never forget!”
Judging by his reply, it was too late to reason with him—he’d become unhinged, though not without his logic faculties. Yang alternated between colorful swearing and brief, corrective lectures as he bulldozed his way through the ignorant masses. Moments later the crowd parted in half to make way for the irate bicyclist and his cavalcade. As we passed by the cowed and quivering onlookers, I was only too proud to be among his party.
From that point onward it was nothing but smooth riding—if not for those blasted hills. Worse yet, Yang and I were quickly running low on soul coal though Ling showed no signs of slowing. “Where does she get that kind of energy?” asked Yang, squinting ahead as his bride breezed over the horizon.
“She’s trying to outrun the smell of that insect repellant,” I said between desperate gasps for air. “Hurry, or we’re going to lose her!”
With loving mercy Ling accepted our pleas and allowed us the occasional breather disguised as photo-op. Before long we barely attempted to cover up our lack of stamina.
“Look,” I’d say, “a rock I haven’t seen yet.”
“Oh,” joined Yang, parking his bike, “that’s no ordinary rock.”
“It is very rare indeed. I’ve only read about ones like this in books.”
“Should we get a picture, you know, to document our find?”
Snap. Snap. Snap.
Meanwhile the ever patient Ling rode in circles up and through the hillside, popping wheelies and soaring over potholes.
And speaking of potholes, as expected, there were plenty. A short while into our trek our bums were quite tender, and the jostling from the bumpy off-roads was nothing compared to meeting an unexpected crater in the paved roads. With every nerve-wracking, brain-numbing
During one particular stretch of road, something strange occurred to me. Sensing the unusual, I quickly turned around to head in the opposite direction. “What are you doing?” Ling asked as Yang took the opportunity to gasp for air.
“I’m heading back,” I shouted. “I think I missed a pothole on our way down this hill.” Sure enough I had, but this was easily remedied.
Perfection attained, it was time for a break.
We committed ourselves, feet to the ground, to a stroll along the beach-sprawling, wetland-dissecting boardwalk where we took in lots of sun and the infrequent wildlife sighting. Eventually we arrived at an observation tower, the top of which promised an imposing view upon the island. To reach such lofty heights, however, one must proceed to the giddy little top of said tower by way of the old reliable staircase.
“Where’s the lift?” asked Yang, his voice a study in mock incredulity.
Ling could only sigh. “Dear!”
But to the top we ventured, thinning oxygen and quaking legs be damned. The view was quite good, though nothing spectacular. There’s something about spying down onto the very tops of trees that feels wrong, like peering directly down at a balding man’s head. One should, above all else, retain dignity and duly allow others do the same. Still, we were in no hurry to descend those mother-loving stairs. It was about then that I spotted the cautionary sign which informed us that the maximum load was twenty people. We were a good ten to fifteen over the limit already, with more gaining every minute.
“Great” Yang said, “maybe I won’t have to use the stairs after all.”
Soon after we collected our bikes and decided to call it a day. We careened over the hills and through the ever increasing crowds, returned the bikes, boarded and survived the return bumboat back to the mainland, and, upon returning to the air-conditioned comforts of home, breathed a sigh of relief. Not one of us had experienced a single mosquito bite, much less succumbed to malaria, and we persevered where others, sadly, had failed.
If there’s one thing I learned from my day in Pulau Ubin, it is this: for the repelling of mosquitoes, choose fried carrot cake over insect spray—not only does it taste good, but it smells better, too!