Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Southeast Asia Part 1

Some of you may have gotten this as an email....


I'm not sure how to sum up into words everything we saw, but I'm going to give it a try!

The first night in Singapore we stayed at a backpackers hostel, which is the preferred way of staying places if I don't have a floor or a couch to crash on. The hostel was really great, with awesome company and a whole bunch of people in town from Europe and south Africa for southeast Asia's biggest dance music festival, Zouk Out. This festival takes place on Sentosa Island, which is kind of like the Coney Island (but much more shiny) of Singapore, and has over 30,000 attendees every year.

We only stayed there a night because we had made arrangements to stay with my Brother and his Fiancee. They live on the far east side of town, in a very "regular" Singaporean neighborhood, which was nice because it kept us away from the city center, where it was tourism galore. We took the very clean subway, called the MRT (there is a 500 fine for eating on the subway there!) across town to his house, and met my brother there. He lives in a very typical, older Asian flat with three bedrooms and familiar looking marble floors reminiscent of the ones in my childhood homes. They will soon be knocking down the 30 story, 5 building complex to make a bigger one!

The most striking thing about Singapore is how crowded it is. There isn't a place you can go where you can be alone. Jon and I noticed this quite distinctly because we had previously been living in the country in Michigan and now we live on the edge of town in Colorado!

Being in Singapore was family time - I feel like we got to know Shi-Hsia's (my brother's wife) brothers and sisters better - one is a social worker and the other one is a professional break dancer. Despite hanging out with them a lot we still got to see quite a bit. Jon and I went to the Hawker's which are basically food courts where you buy stuff out of little stalls. They are noisy, crowded and you have to really hunt to find a seat at lunch and dinner time! Most of them are open air complexes, usually next to wet markets, which are places where you can buy fresh seafood, caught that morning and then packed on ice. Around noon the seafood looses it's "just caught" freshness so the meat stalls close up. You can also buy household things like brooms, or vegetables, or fake designer handbags. It's like an American flea market meets farmers market, and they go on all day. At the hawkers, a meal costs about 3.50 Singaporean, which is about 2 - 3 bucks US! Both of us ate regularly for under 10 dollars a meal, including drinks and desert. Jon's preferred method was looking for the word "vegetarian food" in the stall sign, while I picked the longest line and ordered whatever the person in front of me ordered. This led to some interesting dishes to pick through, most of them really excellent!

Jon and I also went to sentosa, not for Zouk out, though. We just wanted to go swimming in the oppressive heat and humidity (it was 94 degrees with 94% humidity every day!). As it turns out, sentosa island is the lowest point on Continental Asia and I have the pictures by the signs to prove it!

We headed out to little India a lot, and it proved to be my favorite neighborhood there. It not only housed the fabric district of Singapore where you could bargain down the incredible silks and brocades, but you could see fabric buyers for some of the haute couture houses picking up bolts and bolts of some of the most incredible, sparkling, and intricate fabric I have ever seen. At one fabric house, panels of handmade, hand beaded lace were going for 3,000 SD a meter! I purchased a meter and a half of incredible silk after some furious bargaining (it was way above my price range to begin with...) and later had it made into a dress for the wedding in Malaysia.

Another treat was walking by a temple on our way to dinner one evening that was hosting an Indian wedding - I have never seen such a technicolor wedding in my life - the women were dressed in pinks and blues and turquoises, yellows and roses, and the bride alone stood out in pounds of gold jewelry and a red sari with so much gold woven in she might have set off a metal detector if she would have needed to walk through.

We toured several temples, which, for some reason, always feels a little invasive to me. I don't know what it is, but whenever I go to someones place of worship to look around and peer in like a tourist, I feel really rude. We went into the temple of 10,000 Buddhas, which is this incredible 5 story temple in the heart of Chinatown. It has a lush rooftop orchard garden with a prayer wheel housed in the center. Lining the walls of the rooftop and the inside walls of the prayer wheel house are 10,000 tiny Buddha's, all numbered and claimed by people. They are all gold, set against vermilion walls, in tidy never ending rows. We also went inside of a mosque. I had dressed knowing we would be visiting houses of worship that day, in long sleeves and a long skirt down to the floor, but Jon wore shorts and had to wear a robe over his clothes. The mosque was light, open and airy and in a hidden upstairs room, behind many long curtains, dressed under layers of fabric themselves were dozens of women praying, kneeling and looking ethereal in the dim light, murmuring their petitions. I think that's the most rude I felt the whole time - they take such great care to veil themselves and here we are just traipsing into something we hardly understand.

Despite pockets of the city transporting you back in history, or over to India, Singapore is a very modern city with a huge population of westerners. It's primary language is English, and every three steps there is an air conditioned mall. When the heat gets to oppressive or you need to find a clean, modern toilet, you can just jump into one and relax for a little bit. Jon and I didn't do a ton of shopping in Singapore because everything is quite expensive and pretty much stuff you could find over in the states (like J. Crew clothes and Marc Jacobs handbags....).

Jon and I had coffee one morning in an empty coffee shop and the women serving coffee had studied graphic design in California and was trying to explain, to her, the difference between her life there and her life here in Singapore. "Here, everyone just shop, shop, shop, shops....they shop for things they need and things they don't need! The national hobby is shopping! In California I would go to Joshua tree and the Forrest with the redwoods but here we just go shopping." She went on to explain that she really missed the laid back attitude of the united states, as well as the national parkland, but her family was in Singapore. I think her assessment of a very shopping-oriented culture is correct, and never was able to find a place without some sort of mall.

Our trip to Singapore quickly came to a close, and we headed back for a puddle jump flight to Malaysia. I assume that this email is enough for you all to read in a morning and I'll send you part two of the Saga tomorrow! This will involve hiking in the jungle and losing our water down an open sewage ditch, trying to understand the political ramifications of colonialism, and my mother in law getting attacked by a monkey. (sorry Lynn, I have to put that one in :)

I have many, many pictures posted up here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/royal_wedding/collections/72157622985395406/

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