Wednesday, March 30, 2011

New Blog!

Well, it's been a while! In the off chance you're still subscribed to this blog via Google Reader, you may be interested in my new blog.

Decided to go with Wordpress mostly because it offers a few more options and flexibility. Hope you enjoy!

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Singapore doesn't mess around...

First off, I apologize for being a less than competent blogger.  I'll try to chronicle some of the stories I've accumulated before I get promises.  With the outbreak of the Swine Flu (not-quite) pandemic, Asia stand ready, almost eager.  With memories of SARS and the bird flu still fresh, I received a nice little email from the university.  Here's an excerpt....enjoy, I know I will (not).


All Students


Managing Influenza A (H1N1) in NUS - Update 3


1.            As you may already know, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has maintained its alert level at Phase 5. There is also no change to our Ministry of Health’s (MOH) Disease Outbreak Response System (DORSCON) Alert status. The alert status remains at Orange; there have been no human cases of Influenza A (H1N1) detected in Singapore to date.


Temperature Screening


2.            The Ministry of Education has advised that as of Monday, 4 May 2009, all schools and Institutions of Higher Learning in Singapore will begin daily temperature taking of their staff, students and visitors. In line with this advice, the University will be setting up temperature screening stations at the main entrances of building clusters to conduct temperature checks on visitors entering its campuses. There will be directional signs to the temperature screening stations.


3.            All examination venues will be open one hour prior to the start time of each scheduled examination for temperature screening.  A circular from Registrar’s Office will contain more details.


4.            From Monday, 4 May 2009, all students will be required to monitor their own temperatures on a daily basis. Please record your temperature reading online at by 10 am each day.  


5.            Students will also need to produce their student matriculation cards for access to offices, laboratories, workshops, tutorial/seminar rooms, lecture theatres and examination halls.


Saturday, March 21, 2009


Alright, by popular demand, I have created some links to the Facebook albums that have been accruing. You'll see them on the right of the screen. No need to have Facebook, anyone can view them. Let me know if there are problems. I didn't realize how shutter-happy I'd become. You'll notice the pictures are more up-to-date than the blog accounts...I'm working on it. Midterm Monday, trip to Hanoi, then things slow down...maybe. Enjoy, and I promise I'll catch up...eventually.

Monday, March 2, 2009

"Hello, Mista!"

Picture a quaint city, on the coast of Java, a sweet smelling breeze floating in off the sea, highly organized streets and simple to get around. Ok now you can forget that, I made it's actually exactly what Jakarta is not. Jakarta is one of those cities you read and hear about, but you never really understand until you experience it.

On the eve of Valentine's Day, I sailed from Singapore to a nearby island (Batam) where we caught a plane for Jakarta (much cheaper than flying from Singapore). No worries, Mom, this wasn't one of those Asian ferries where they overpack the boat, the boat sinks, and everyone drowns. It was quite comfortable. From the moment we stepped off the ferry, it was obvious we had left Singapore. The small, simple buildings, the poor sidewalks, and red, dirt roads reminded me more of Africa. After a quick walk around we headed to the airport and headed to Jakarta.

Flying over Jakarta immediately gave a sense of it's monstrosity. Offically, Jakarta has a population somewhere around 9 million. From the air, you could see the miles of small shanties on top of each other. Upon walking from the airport, we were greeted with all kinds of friendly people...turns out they were all taxi drivers and they quickly lost interest when we asked where the bus stop was. It was a very confusing bus system. The bus we were convinced that we wanted kept driving by without stopping, no matter what we did. We weren't the only confused people, finally an attendant told us he'd tell us when the bus was arriving. Eventually we made it to the city. It took us a little while to find the backpacker district, but after a few wrong turns, we found a decent hostel. By this time it had grown dark, so we grabbed some Indonesian food (Nasi Goreng for me: fried rice and chicken) and headed to bed.

Next day we did a lot of exploring. Perhaps Jakarta's coolest, and arguably only real tourist attraction is their national monument, Monas, called other things, but you'll have to google that. It was a tall tower in one of the few green spaces in the city. We went up to the top where we got a good look at the city. Throughout the day, we friendly greeted by all kinds of people, mostly kids who were walking around the city. They were eager to practice English and take photos with us. Possibly my favorite part. Everywhere we went, we'd here "hello, mister" followed shortly by giggles...especially if we responded.

Other things we saw were the old town with the remnants of the Dutch colonial days, museums, and even a club. Yep, lonely planet said it was possibly the most hard core club in SE Asia, so when in Rome. This was one of the more interesting experiences and maybe the most disturbing. The club contained 4 floors with a club on each of them, more or less. The first floor, no one was in, so we sat and had our "free" drink by ourselves. The second had live music, which was cool. Every few songs were even in English. The crowd was much older than I expected here, but there was a decent crowd. When we walked in, we were shown to a table where we were approached by several women. At first I thought them to be waitresses or servers or something. The oldest woman held out the hands of the other two and introduced us. "Friendly people," I thought, being from the midwest I shook their hands. Then it started getting weird. (Ok, maybe it was weird we were approached by three women right away, but hey we are a couple of good lookin fellas I'm sure this sort of thing happens all the time in clubs, right?) The oldest woman, the only one who had spoken up to this point then began offering us massages by the two ladies. I didn't really hear this part, but I started to catch on when the girl next to me had latched onto my arm and was standing oddly close. It then hit me what was happening. After a short, inward giggle about the irony of a small-town farm kid in a huge club being approached by prostitutes I turned my attention to fixing the situation. After some forceful insisting we pursuaded them that we indeed didn't need a massage. The rest of our time, the older woman brought several girls by out table, in case we changed our minds...we didn't.

All joking aside, it was very eye-opening to see the things we read about up close. To see prostitution, begging, hungry children, people living in the street, even a naked man wandering the street in the middle of the day was sobering and heart-breaking. To add to these problems, Jakarta is the third most polluted city, attested to by the fumes spewing from every vehicle and raw sewage being dumped straight into the river. Indonesia is also the largest Muslim majority nation in the world. All new experiences for which I wouldn't trade, but wouldn't mind if they never existed.


Turns out I'm not much good on staying up to date with these things...who knew? Since I don't particularly feel like studying for my midterms, I'll catch you up on things.

First off, Singapore is a very diverse country where different cultures and religions peacefully coexist. Although not a utopia, it is a pretty impressive achievement. Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, Atheists, etc. all in significant numbers exist peacefully together. That said, there is a lot of interesting cultural and religious celebrations and festivals that go on. (Singapore has divided its public holidays equally between Indian, Chinese, and Christian holidays.) On February 8, I attended a Hindu festival called Thaipusam.

Thaipusam is celebrated on the full moon of the Tamil month of Thai. The premise of the festival is to seek blessing, fulfill vows, and give thanks to the lord Subramaniam. Not all Hindus participate, just those seeking to accomplish those things. Preparation of those devotees is pretty strict. For a month prior to the festival, he must live a life of abstinence, adhere to a strict vegetarian diet, fast, and pray. It is believed that only when the mind is free of material wants and the body free from physical pleasures that a devotee can undertake the sacred task without feeling any comes the interesting part.

On the day of the festival, devotees shave their heads and go through an elaborate ritual before donning the kavadi. The kavadi is a metal apparatus (see picture) that is carried on the shoulders. At the top is carried a statue of the lord Subramaniam.

The painful part is that there are many metal rods or hooks inserted into the skin connecting the kavadi to the skin. Some devotees attach large hooks through the skin in their backs and pull a bullock-type cart with the statue. In addition, they often pierce their tongues, cheeks, and mouths with skewers. Kavadis are generally carried for keeping a vow, I think. Once the kavadi has been assembled, devotees journey from one temple to another, 4 km away. They have a large group of supporters giving encouragement and playing drums and instruments. Often, the devotees do more dancing than walking. The simplest, least painful way to participate is to carry a milk pot. This symbolizes the cleansing of the mind and soul. It seems that the more pain, the more god-earned merit.

I and another guy went down to the temples after church and watched the whole process of putting the kavadi together. We walked the 4 km to the other temple and watched everything along the way. I can't really explain the feeling it gave me. It was very sobering to see hundreds of people inflicting pain on themselves to gain the blessing of...a statue? At times I wondered if it was more for favor from a god or from other men that was the driving purpose. One of many experiences that will give me an odd feeling, here in the religiously diverse SE Asia.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Chinese New Year

Prior to this year, I've been pretty ignorant of the Chinese New Year holiday. I remember vaguely in elementary school watching a 1st grade class parade through the hallways on Chinese New Year after they had done some kind of unit on it. I knew it was in January/February. That's about all I knew. Turns out it's kinda a big deal in Asia...who knew?
First off, the day of the new year and the following day are public holidays. This meant a four day weekend for me, but I decided to stick around to take part in the festivities. The celebration officially lasts for 15 days. For the weeks leading up to it, Chinatown pulls out all the stops. The streets are closed off to traffic and stores overflow into the streets. I had a few Singaporeans take me around Chinatown three days before the holiday. They took me to a restaurant and worked out a line-up of Chinese dishes for my sampling. It was kinda like dream come true. One of them, having studied at ISU, assured me this was the real deal and I wouldn't find it in Ames. Afterwards, we walked through Chinatown. Turns out they give samples of pretty much all the food. Being with Chinese-speaking friends I had soon sampled the green tea candies, pineapple tarts, and the barbecue pork. To top off the night, they insisted I try durian, the "king of fruits" and a local favorite. I'm pretty sure it was more for their enjoyment, than mine. The durian has a distinct scent, and aftertaste, I might add. Check out "Durian" on Wikipedia. The descriptions of the odor will give you an idea :) Anyway, I ate it (while being videotaped) and almost enjoyed it. The texture is good. The smell wasn't that terrible. Didn't really enjoy the aftertaste. I'm told when it's in season, the smell is much stronger. Later that night while trying to rid my hands of the odor I began to understand why the fruit is banned on all public transport.
Another tradition is to have a reunion dinner with the family on the eve of the lunar new year. I was fortunate enough to be invited to one. This dinner takes place over the course of a few hours and a lot of food is consumed, kinda like Thanksgiving, only better. The food is cooked as you want to eat it. There is a "steamboat" in the middle of the table. It's pretty much a pot of boiling water in the middle. There are platters of all kinds of food. Seafood, vegetables, dumplings, meat, etc. Everyone has little fishing-net type things where you can set your food in the pot for a while, and then take it out and eat it. The meal progresses at a leisurely pace. It was interesting to observe the conversation. At this dinner there were several nations represented including Pakistan, Mauritius, Indonesia, Malaysia, and of course Singapore and the US. Conversation turned to politics. I think it was the first time in my travels that people have openly criticized the US and then asked me to explain. Needless to say, I failed miserably. Anywho, at the end of the night, they sent me off with two oranges (for good luck) and one of those sweet red envelopes. These are given to all the kids usually, and you continue getting them until you marry. I asked some of my friends why people marry here. They informed me there were advantages to marrying as well. I'm not convinced.
The last big event I attended was the Chingay Parade. This parade is held at night, and it includes lit-up floats and performers. Countries from all over Asia were represented in the parade. I was lucky enough to have a front row seat...for free. It's tough to describe it properly, so I won't try. Perhaps I'll get some pictures up at some point.
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed Chinese New Year. It seems to be a cross between Thanksgiving and Christmas. You eat a ton, exchange gifts, and visit all your family throughout those two weeks. I never realized how big a deal it was. Friends on campus even get together and have a dinner. I have come to the conclusion that the US should officially adopt the holiday. We need more public holidays anyway.


The first trip outside of Singapore was to Malaysian Borneo. A group of about 20 of us descended on a small hostel in the city of Kuching, the provincial capital. Kuching certainly wasn't Singapore, nor was it Libreville. Somewhere in between. Still a safe city to freely explore, I think the drinking water was even safe (I bought bottled water anyway). Here, however, taxis drivers were willing to rip you meters here. The buses were a cross between the old school buses and and old Cyride buses. Less English, more trash. The people were nice and welcoming. The markets were interesting, not to mention cheap.
During the three days in and around Kuching, we went to two national parks, an orangutan sanctuary, and walked the city a bit. The first national park required a bus ride, followed by a boat ride, the latter being a thriller. We arrived in the morning while the tide was still high. To get to the park, we chartered local boats to take us across. It turns out that with high tides, come rough seas. We set out in the five boats it required to get all of us across. It was smooth sailing at first. Soon we began to experience some waves. Not a big deal, they were less than a couple feet, and out pilot-man was all-pro. Then we had to stop to tow one of the other boats till he could get the engine started again, at least ours was running nicely. As we got more into the open, the waves grew pretty quick. Now they were more like 5 or 6 feet high, which meant they towered over us when we were in the troughs. We were a little concerned, but our pilot wasn't. then we met one of the boats coming back...soaked. Still we continued. It wasn't until we turned around unable to see any other boats, that our pilot decided we should go back. Top 5 best times in a boat. We had to wait for a couple hours for the tide to go out. Then we made it no problem. Once there we did some hiking in the jungle, splashed around on the beaches we found, watched some monkeys play, etc.
The second park was less exciting, but we played in a waterfall and hiked to a pretty cool lookout. The orangutans were pretty impressive. Luckily they weren't interested in us much. Good thing, cuz that male could've squashed me like a bug.