Monday 6 December 2004

Playing Catch-up

Wow, long time without an update! Let's see if I can get you all caught up. =)

 We've been fairly artsy, taking in both the permenant collections at the Tate Modern and the Raphael exhibit at the National Gallery. The Tate Modern is a pretty cool museum that uses their space very well, and even presents the building (an old power station) as a work of modern art. In fact, I think the way they use the space is my favorite part of the museum itself. Modern art is very much of a love it/hate it affair with me, and most of the Body and Motion exhibits unfortunately fell into the latter category. Their political work, including a really great collection of 1930s and 40s Propaganda posters, was phenominal. I find that I enjoy modern art when it has something to 'say' or present a new angle on a familiar subject (some of their portraits do this very well), rather than simply trying to shock the viewer into submission.

Going to the other extreme, the Raphael exhibit was really interesting. Not only did they present his works, but also the works of his tutors/masters as a way of showing his development as an artist. We got tickets through my employer, so we got to enjoy the works at our leisure, rather than being rushed through on the timed system in place for the others. Lovely, really. It's hard to think of any of the Great Artists as ever being students, but seeing his work in this way gives Raphael so much more depth as a painter and his works so much more context than simply another "Madonna with Child". So that was really neat to explore. The exhibit stopped right before the painting of the Sistine Chapel, and so now Rome has moved up a bit on my priority of places to see. As an interesting aside, one of the local community colleges offers a 3 month course on London museums. You spend three Saturdays on an individual museum, complete with field trips to give the viewer a better concept of the museum's history (rather than the history it houses) and development, an overview of the collections, as well as some general art theory. So that sounds like a lot of fun as well as filling in some gaps in my artistic education. Visual art has never been one of my foci, so what better time to correct it? The classes are pretty reasonable too and should be within our budget. Which reminds me, I need to start looking into getting registered. . .

The next weekend Stephen and I overslept the ramble we were going on and decided to take the weekend easy and just hit one major sight, this time the National Maritime Museum. We weren't as impressed with this museum as we have been with others, unfortunately. Not that they didn't have some awesome stuff, but just that it was presented primarily for people of an age in the single digits. The Aberdeen Maritime Museum (see my post from the Scotland trip) is substantially better if for no other reason than it presents the exhibits in all age friendly ways with as much or little depth as you want. I like museums that let the artifacts or art to speak for themselves and doesn't over do it with fancy sound effects (every room had a different series of sounds playing), funky lighting or weird themed cases, like the entire room that made everything look like it was buried in snow. Neat idea, made it hard to see the objects though. Most of the museum was under renovation, so hopefully that means they're redoing a lot of the upstairs exhibits. But, hey, it's free, and you can't really complain about that. Though I've noticed this tendency in a lot of London Museums to try to make the exhibits more funky by displaying them in unique ways or in non-traditional casings. Odd that. The Museum of London tends to do this, and quite successfully in a number of ways.

Stephen and I did a belated Thanksgiving dinner on Friday (the 25th). He did all of the cooking and it turned out marvelously! My darling husband is turning into quite the cook! We had a small turkey with stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy and a cranberry chutney (in lieu of sauce) that was particularly yummy. We had just enough leftovers to fill all our remaining tupperware containers and keep us fed through the next week.

On Saturday, we awoke to a fairly loud *SNAP*, followed by much squeaking. . .that didn't stop. Yes, we caught another mouse, only the trap didn't kill it and the rest of the Saturday was spent trying to find a way to humanely deal with it and clean-up the blood off the carpet before it made either of us ill. Stephen again saved the day by finding a box for him (so he would be contained) and then we tag teamed the reception people until they got the maintenance people to come round and collect the by-this-point very frightened animal. We then left for our ramble with promises from the front desk that our carpet would be taken care of by the time we got back.

This ramble was one of the older club's "Saturday Strolls", which take place in the London city limits and explore the 'common' areas of some of the old townships, now consumed by the metropolis. The really cool thing is that all of the HUGE parks in London are what used to be common grazing/garden areas for the older townships that surrounded the walled city. As London expanded, these common areas were maintained as parks, legally forbidding development (other recreation equipment) upon them. So we spent the day walking from one to the other and talking with the old folks ;). It was really nice, but I really prefer the out-of-town walks better. Still, good to go on once and it only took the afternoon rather than the whole day, which gave us time to deal with our mousey problem.

This past weekend, our friend Andy from OU came to visit and we saw St. Paul's Cathedral, which was incredible. They were saying their noon service (it's an Anglican church), which lent the already beautiful space a touch of sincere piety that every great church should possess. They are in the middle of rennovations in time for it's (get this) 300th anniversary in October 2008, and that's only for the current building mind you. There has been some kind of church on that site for nearly 1000 years. Amazing really. Even without the touch-ups, it's still an incredible building with wonderful spiritual energy.

On Sunday, we hit a series of East London Markets, including the Columbia Road market where we got our Christmas Tree!! It's really cute, about 7 inches tall including the pot. We decided to get one that would still grow and start our tradition. Evidently this particular species is quite a slow grower and one of the best kinds to use for bonsai. Perfect for what we're looking for! The flower market itself was a really lively experience too. With the different vendors shouting out for clients' attention selling just about every kind of flora available. Really, really neat. Felt just like something out of a movie. Once we have a bigger place, I know where I'm going to be getting the flowers for our garden! The rest of Sunday was spent just meandering through the city, we hit the British museum for a bit (especially their Parthenon collection--all of the friezes were removed before it's destruction in the 1600s).

Then caught a showing of The COMPLETE WORKS OF WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE (ABRIDGED), a humorous overview of all of the plays of Shakespeare. And it was HYSTERICALLY funny. Stephen caught more of the jokes than I did, but it was so well done that it has made me even more curious about some of the different works. The highlight for me was the overview of the Histories as an American football game. SOOOOO FUNNY!

This week is looking pretty quiet, though we're planning on getting the rest of our Christmas shopping done this weekend. For the first time in my life I will be done with the holiday shopping more than a few hours before Christmas begins. Being overseas definitely forces one to be more organized, that's for sure!

Sunday 7 November 2004

Rambling with the Old Folks

This weekend we went on another ramble, but with a different group since the Metropolitan walkers weren't doing anything this weekend. We didn't do much research on the group itself, just on the area they had listed. So we arrived at the train station to discover that we had joined in with the oldest walking club in London, the Inner London Area Rambler's Club, this one has a long history; in fact, they claim to have been founded in 1935; also, rather than being composed of 20-30 year olds, they are composed mostly of people above the age of 50. Apparently their numbers are dwindling as more of the new Ramblers join other, more specialized groups. There was also one man who joined the Club in 1936. He was over 90 years old, and still going strong. No teeth, though. Well, three visible teeth, two of which were blackened and one of which was a half-broken stump. Fascinating character: he became a environmentalist after some fifty years in engineering work. Quite passionate about it, too. The best part was that on the way back, he started telling the requisite stories from his misspent youth, which included fascinating accounts of drinking Thames water (he's over ninety, remember, so maybe there's something to it) and sleeping in barns which rambling agross Surrey. We also met many people who had traveled around the world, and everyone seemed quite excited to see young people on the walk, which was quite a relief, given that when we joined them on the train we were afraid we had crashed the local septuagenarians' day out.

In general, all of them looked quite young for their age, had relatively few mobility problems, and had absolutely terrible teeth. I wonder if that's a tradeoff the English make. Longevity and youth are an acceptable trade-off, or so Stephen seems to think. The actual ramble itself was quite nice too. We went through some beautiful old wooded country side that mostly belonged to the High Mill House and Moor Park wetland reserve. Though with this group, the highlight of every walk is lunch at the pub, in fact the entire walk seemed centered around getting to and walking off the meal from the Pub. Pu in question was the Barley Mow pub, which along with the cricket green and a few houses, seemed to be the only thing in the little village of Tilford Green. That and a great big oak tree (that is evidently over 200 years old) under which those of us who packed lunches ate. Best part of the day? NO RAIN! A huge thing for this time of year in a country known for it's soggy climate. It did drizzle for just a few minutes after lunch, but only enough to make the air feel clean and give it the "clean dirt" smell that accompanies rain in the forest. So a lovely day indeed. In fact, I came home and fell asleep around 8:30 and still managed to sleep until 11:00am this morning. Craziness, but hey that's what weekends are for right?

Today was spent walking round London, where we found a fantastic old maps shop near by the Foyle's, the London equivilant of Book People. We also learned that Covent Garden should be avoided like the plague on a Sunday. Dancing Saints was it crowded!! But it's always a lovely place to sit down, have a cup of tea or pint of brew and people watch. There's also some amazing street performers in the area that draw huge crowds, which are also a good deal of fun to watch. So that's our weekend in a nutshell. Hope everyone else had just a refreshing time!

Saturday 23 October 2004

Our First Ramble

So, Stephen and I finally went on one of the walks that we've been discussing since our first days in London. About 20 of us gathered at Tring, snaked through some farmland to an old village with a really cool church, St. John the Baptist--one of those with a cemetary where most gravestones are so old the names have disappeared. We stepped inside just a moment to see the tomb of one of the first parishoners. Usually, tombs have a lion or a dog carved at the feet of the one buried there to show if he died in battle (lion) or peacefully at home (dog). This one was a bit different as he had a green man carved at his feet. Stephen and I got bonus points for the only ones being able to identify it correctly and then knowing what a green man *was*, and here I thought that was an English icon. Oh well.

Then we headed up to into the hills and forest where there is an old manor house and random monument to the builder of the English Canal System. Standard English monument=concrete block for a base, with generic greek style pillar with piece of statuary on top. Here we stopped for lunch and there was a really neat little cafe being run by the National Trust. Stephen and I packed our lunches and ate them in the picnic area, but got tea and hot coco afterwords---85 pence for a whole pot of tea. I was a happy camper, or rambler as the case may be. Up until then we'd been having pretty nice weather, not sunny, but warm and an overcast that made the fall leaves really vibrant.

Of course, we start the second half of the hike, the part going up into the chalk hills & Ivinghoe Beacon and through a Pre-Roman trail back to Tring, turning into a windy soggy raining mess. All of us who did have the forethough to bring along anything more than a raincoat (not waterproof pants, mud guards, gators, etc) were completely soaked to the bone and muddy up to our knees. We still had a lovely time though as people were in pretty good spirits, but we missed most of the beautiful landscape due to trying not to fall on the slippery paths and keeping the rain out of our eyes. The guide was awesome though and is planning on doing the walk again come spring when the bluebells are in flower. But we survived no worse for wear, by the end my hips were starting to ache (and my right knee for some strange reason, same kind of ache in my hips too which does *not* bode well), but nothing a nice hot shower (bath would have been better), hot soup, tea and a nap couldn't fix. So that's good, and getting a pair of waterproofs for the rainy season like this would probably do a good bit for preventing the aching since cold + wet does tend to trigger what's left of my old injuries. So we liked the group quite a bit, got some good talks in with other members. Very friendly people who love to get out and in the thick of things so to speak. We may not make any fast friends there, but it is nice to get out with a bunch of like minded people, get a feel for the local history, breath the fresh air, and see some neat country side.

Good stuff all round and another whole day of weekend left--just what the doctor ordered.

Monday 18 October 2004

Cologne, Germany

Well, we officially made our first trip to the continant this weekend- Cologne, Germany!! The occasion: Stephen's Godmother's 85th birthday. We had an incredible time, and it was fabulous to finally get to meet most of the European crew that I've been hearing about from Stephen and his family.
We left Saturday morning early and arrived in Cologne mid-morning to be picked up by Manfred (family friend of the Siards) and his son Jakob (pronounced Yakob) and taken back to their home in a suburb of Cologne where we would spend most of our time. Manfred and his wife Marianne are long time friends of Stephen's parents when Gib was stationed in Germany. Manfred is now retired from Exxon and Marianne is a teacher of History and Germany Language in the local public school system. They have four children, all of whom are in University: one son 23 (Kristian), twin girls (Alexandra and Theresa) age 21, and another son (Jakob) 20. The way the German educational system is constructed, it is a fabulous achievement to have children studying at University. All four of them were home for the weekend, so we had the pleasure of meeting them and talking with them. Bonus: the entire family speaks English really well. The eldest son Kristian could easily be mistaken for a native speaker.

They have a beautiful home in the suburbs. It's extremely comfortable with an "American" style living room added and a huge backyard complete with Walnut trees and a type of crab apple tree that is used to make a type of jelly well known in their region. A very pleasant comfortable home that is unique to happy families. Watching them all interact and joke with eachother was a wonderful experience.
Anyway, once we got there we found out that the get together for Stephen's godmother was that evening, so we did a quick reorganization of plans and talked Kristian into coming with us to act as a translator since virtually no one at the party would speak much more than basic English. Let's just say we owe Kristian BIG TIME.
Now, I really do love my dearest husband, *but* he is hell on translators. When we were in Petersburg he would try to get into philosophical discussions with Russians who didn't speak any English and then get upset, because my translations were too "simplistic". *rolling of eyes* I'm sorry, epistomological isn't in my working vocabulary. Anyway, I tried very gently before going to the party to remind him that when working through a translator it's a good idea to keep your ideas concise using language appropriate for the situation. He sort of listened to me, but Kristian did an excellent job nonetheless, especially considering we were there for 5 hours. I was also amazed at how much German I started to understand. It shares quite a few cognates with English, Russian, and French, so that combined with knowing the context, I was understanding about 10-15% of what was being said without translation. Not too shabby for being almost completely new to the language as a whole. Naturally, I forgot my camara to the family events, so we're definitely going to have to go back to visit, this time with German language skills in hand

Stephen's Oma is a fabulous cook too! She made all of the cakes for the reception and they were delish!! The three I tried were a Marzipan and Cream, Apple cake, and something like a Cheesecake with a "german" chocolate cake outside- tres yummy! She was the sweetest old woman too, and you wouldn't take her for much older than 65. Very spritely with a great humor, reminded me a lot of my friend Marcella in that way, and a lot like my grandmother when it came to her attitudes toward food. We quickly learned that an empty plate was her exuse to fuss over us and fill our plates with the next round herself. Fortunately everything was really tasty.
So we had a really nice time and learned a bit of a new language while we were at it. It was quite frustrating though to rely on someone else to be able to carry on a conversation or even deliver simple compliments to the hosts. So now I'm debating on if I should start learning German now or work my French up to a reasonable level first and then start.

Sunday we got up rather late, had a fantastic brunch: cereal, 10 different kinds of bread, butter, 5 different kinds of cheese, cold sausages (think salami type). Doesn't sound like much, but it really hit the spot and got us off to a good start for spending the afternoon in Cologne.

So we went into the city centre and saw the *huge* Gothic Cathedral. We didn't get much time there as the day was for an overview of the city, but it was incredible. Started in 1200, it wasn't finished until in the mid 1800s, only of course to be partially destroyed in WWII. So they're slowly restoring it. You walk in and the spiritual presence is electric. Next time we go back I want to go to Mass there.

Then we walked around the city as Marianne told us about the history, the various places that are now memorials to WWII and the Roman times. Evidently Cologne was an old Roman outpost and still has some of the original strucutures. Incredible considering that the city was virtually flattened during the War. Marianne had an interesting point of view as her father served in the German Army and her mother fled the Russian "liberation" of Eastern Germany, as well as being a modern History teacher.

So then we went back to their house, had a bit of a rest and then out to dinner to a local German restaurant that was wonderful! We sampled some of the local brew Kolsche, and man was it yummy. A light beer, but with less of the "grain" taste you usually get with them. Very well rounded and just a little on the sweet side. Definitely something to drink socially and not ponder too hard. It went really well with the food- Sauerbraten kind of a "sour" roast with a deep red gravy with macaroni type noodles dry sauteed every so slightly to make them crisp. 

A good description comes from this website:
Traditionally made with a beef roasting joint (topside or similar) the meat is marinated for 2-3 days in vinegar and/or beer, spices such as cloves, juniper berries, allspice and peppercorns, bay leaves and onions and is then braised in the marinade for a long period
Very yummy indeed. And good sized portions too. Stephen had to finish mine off, despite the fact that it was quite tasty.

Then we went back and had a nice long chat with Manfred and Marianne before heading to an early bed, since we had to be at the airport pretty early (though it turned out our flight was delayed an hour).

So a really great "taste" of Germany, and we're defintely looking forward to fairly regular visits. Our next one will probably be in time for the Christmas Markets, for which Cologne is renowned throughout Germany. And "hopefully", by then we'll know enough Germany that we can do our Christmas shopping there, and maybe all our interactions can be in German. It's so much more fun to learn a language when you have fairly ready access to native speakers. Yay for that, and yay for another stamp in our passports.

Monday 4 October 2004

1st Month in London

Stephen and I celebrated our one month anniversary of being in London and our 9 month wedding anniversary by. . .unpacking!!! We finally got our shipment of household goods from the US, after a huge hassel and another large chunk of currency. This has perhaps been the single most insane experience of my life, but, hey, live and learn and know better for next time.

Amazingly enough everything seems to fit in our little bitty space. It's a bit squishy, but everything more or less has it's own spot. Over time we'll obtain more tupperwear type storage units to get everything accessable, but for now it's comfortably cluttered. =)

Sunday we went out and wondered the Piccadilly & Oxford Circus area of London. I'm endeavoring to find a pair of knee high brown leather boots that won't cost me a fortune, but shopping in London is really quite fun in and of itself as they have cutting edge fashions, some of which are scary, but quite a bit is really tasteful. I'm pleased to see that the tailored look is very much back "in". So good stuff there.

As most of your know, I received the best birthday present imaginable. . .a job!! It's a 3 month contract through a temp agency with a huge financial services firm. My job is a secretary to two different "teams" of analysts--making copies, scanning documents into the system, binding reports, making travel arrangements, filing, etc. My coworkers are pretty nice; my cube-mate speaks Russian! So there will be much Russian practice, though hopefully without too much cringing on her part (she's a native speaker).

I'm also starting to get a feel for the kind of work financial analysts do. . .and micro-economic analysis is not for me. Hey, at least now I know. If nothing else, temping is going to give me the opportunity to at least get a feel for a couple of different career options and maybe help figure out what in the world I want to be when I grow up. In fact, I'm really starting to learn that maybe I don't want to work for a big multinational, while the atmosphere at work isn't unpleasant, it's very impersonal on the whole. Lots of individual work and only superficial interaction with other human beings. Not liking that so much. I found an advert for an Assitant Program Manager with a nonprofit specializing in conflict resolution, so I'm going to work on the essay portion of it and turn that in at the end of the week. Another nice thing about temping--24 hour notice to leave the job.

So things have officially settled. We're living in London!! 

Thursday 1 April 2004

California 2004 - Day 2

In keeping with their natures, the boys were up at dawn, but kindly let me sleep until just after 8am. Breakfasted and off we went into San Fran to see the Golden Gate Bridge. Fortunately for us, it was sunny enough to actually be able to see the bridge (evidently it gets so foggy that only the tops of the turrets are visible), but still foggy enough to get the "authentic" experience. We wondered through the little nature area a while, me taking pictures from further away, and watching the surfers among the rocks near the closest in support structures. Not sure how they managed not to freeze or bash themselves to bits on the very pointy and prominant coastal rocks, but it was neat to watch.

Then we decided to walk part-way across (to the first turret) and look out over the bay. I didn't realize that Alcatraz was so close to the shore, and actually inside the bay itself. I always envisioned it in the big ocean not visible from land. The bridge also didn't sway nearly as much as what I was expecting it to, and it was a reasonably windy day; in fact, the bridge shook more from the brisk traffic than from the weather.

After turning around and coming back, we walked through the Gift Shop (or Gifuto Shoppu as the sign read in transliterated Japanese), before heading over to Japan Town for lunch and a bit of window shopping. As much as it pained me, we ended up doing A LOT of driving, instead of walking the city as I would have liked to have done, but it was necessary to see everything we wanted to see, and I got to watch out the windows while Pyrex drove--a feat for which he deserves to be sainted. CALIFORNIA DRIVERS ARE CRAZY!! Not sure what rules they were driving by, but they were just similar enough to lull one into a false sense of security, before nearlly catastrophically trouncing you out of it. Of course it doesn't help that the lanes shift at very odd angles without helpful markings. Fortunately, Branson was equipped with a trusty road map and a decent amount of familiarity, so we got everywhere safely, but Pyrex's nerves must have been shot by the end.

Anyway, lunch was at Juban which specializes in a certain kind of Japanese cooking called "Yakiniku." It's kind of like a do-it-yourself hibachi, only minus the ultra sharp knives and tons of strangers at your table. The grill is actually recessed into the table, and you grill the meat and veggies yourself. I ordered a pre-cooked dish (Bibimbo--beef, spinich in sesame oil, pickled dikon and two kinds of fermented bean sprouts over rice. Actually quite tasty) The boys did the grill-your-own thing, and wound up with some ultra tasty bits.

Afterwords, we headed out into the shopping district wondering through several craft, textiles, & antique stores as well as some exhibitions on temporary display. After two-ish hours, Pyrex and I started to crave sweet things, and being in San Francisco, the only place to sate it is the Ghirardelli Chocolate Factory. Two ice cream sundays (hot fudge and caramel) between the four of us, we were off again. This time to the Golden Gate Park to see the Japanese Tea Gardens, where theoretically there would be tea. Said tea never qutie materialized, but the gardens were beautiful, if not a bit small for the amazing number of tourists in the area, but that's what we get for going on a late Saturday afternoon. Also turns out that admission was free after 5pm (about the time that we left). So if you're ever in San Fran, and want to see the gardens, go after 5 on a weekday. But they were beautiful none the less.

The next stop was primarily for Pyrex and Branson, and that was the Castro. Filled with some amazing Victorian architecture and lots of neat little shops and cafes, Pyrex spent a good deal of time shopping for friends back home, and enjoying the atmosphere of acceptance and general upbeatness. It was really amazing how hopeful and fun the entire area felt, much more so than any of the other neighborhoods we meandered through, but then again, there wasn't much meandering, so take that for what it is.

As it was getting dark, and our tummies were getting the grumblies, we headed back to San Jose for dinner at a random Vietnamese Noodle shop that I didn't get the name of, and was only adequete, but it filled us up, and got us on our way in less than an hour so that we could pick up snacks and drinks for the bonfire that Garner was getting set up for later that evening.

I really couldn't have asked for a better end to the weekend. We arrived at Ocean Beach and stood on the shore watching the waves in the darkness--inky blackness punctuated by bonfires reflected from the distance and silvery caps on the waves.

Then there was bonfire. =)

Garner had brought palates from the wharehouse where we works, and another couple had just decided to leave for the night, and allowed us to take over their already fading fire pit. So we threw on a palate at a time, drinking beer, and generally talking and catching up with lives that had been too long out of sync. It's always really fabulous to see people loving what they do. Garner had never quite been happy with CS as he studied it at OU, but has since moved on to sound production for a company that does big concerts in the Bay Area, and he LOVES it. I have rarely seen someone so invigorated in life and career they have begun to create for themselves. I only wish that all people can know that at least once in their lives for whatever that may be.

So, tired, smokey, sand saturated and soulfully sated we headed back to Branson's for the last crash of what was an incredible weekend, one that may never be repeated. Three days in a fascinating locale shared with three of my closest and dearest friends. Doesn't get much better than that folks, doesn't get much better than that. 

Wednesday 31 March 2004

California 2004 - Day 1

Aside from the fact that this day started WAY TOO EARLY (up by 3:15am to catch at 6:00am flight), but I got a good amount of sleep on the plane, and it turned into a beautiful day, raining yesterday instead of today. =) Yay.

We took lunch in Mountain View where Branson lives at this really fabulous (and cheap!) Japanese place- Bento boxes for everyone! Man being a Catholic during Lent is way too easy in this town- the fish is so tasty that it's not really penitent, but hey I'll save the guilt for something else. *wink*

Then we headed to San Fran, and started off by spending a good 3.5 hours in the Asian Art Museum across the street from the recently famous City Hall. Talk about an great museum!! Not only does it have some amazing pieces & is arranged very well, but the building itself is also really interesting, being cobbled together from one very old building with new, very modern glass additions onto some of the sides. So visually appealling inside and out. We didn't get all the way through, but will probably finish it up tomorrow.

Afterwords, we walked towards the shopping district. The guys let me do my girly thing picking up some bath bombs from Lush and then walking through Union Square toward China town, where we grabbed some very tasty Dim Sum and tea. That's the great thing about Asian places--good tea.

Overall, San Fran is a really odd city; kind of a cross between Singapore with all of the ethnic diversity and New York City with all of the buildings and the odd street crazy elements. Needless to say that it twisted with my perspective. Granted, I'm more than a smidge naive about these things, so it's probably good for me. It is a fabulous city though, and I'm looking forward to getting to see more of it tomorrow. The agenda is looking something like: Finishing the museum, Golden Gate, Japanese Tea Gardens (mmmmm tea), Japan Town, and the Castro (just for Pyrex & our Monkey--that should be an eye opener for sure!), and whatever else happens to come up. There is also talk of a bonfire on the beach tomorrow night, so that should be especially promising. It's a kind of Zen weekend with some of my favorite people. 

Wednesday 14 January 2004

Honeymoon - Day 7 - Wrapping it up

<p>I must say, our last day in Singapore started off very well. I had an appointment for a massage and facial at the Amarita Spa in our hotel at 10:00am that morning, and it was fabulous!! It was a much smaller spa than any I've been to, but they did have two steam rooms: one Finnish style (dry heat), one Russian style (wet heat); they also had two whirlpools and one "cold pool". There was only one other woman there when I arrived, so I'm guessing more people use the facilities in the afternoon. So it was nice to get some time alone before they called me in for my appointment. The same girl did both the massage and the facial, and she was exceptional at each. It was nice too having one technician too, because you didn't have to move after the message, and just continued to relax. I really liked the way she did the massage--long smooth strokes, using pressure points to work on individual knots rather than poking or pinching or kneading. Very nice. The facial was good too, she gave me a lot of really good tips on how to better take care of my skin, and it really helped to even up the texture of my skin considerably, as well as clear up the acne break-out I'd been battling since the wedding.

So by the time I left the spa I felt incredible. I headed up to the room for a quick shower and met up with Stephen, then we headed out to grab lunch before going to finish up seeing the botanical gardens.

We grabbed lunch at this great mini sushi supermarket thing in the bottom of one of the large shopping centers on Orchard Road. So we grabbed a table and ordered some drinks and dived in. Good sushi. Then we decided something sweet would go down well, before hitting the streets again to go to the Botanical gardens. So they had this white mousse cake with coconut flakes on top and what looked like coconut on the inside. I get it back to the table, take a big bite, and IT WAS ONION! Who in their right mind puts onion in cake? Evidently the chinese do. (do not trust the Chinese; they are malfunctioning)

At that point we jumped street side to grab a bus to head to the Botantical Gardens. We had forgotten our handy guidebook, so we used the street guide in the metro to figure out which bus number we needed. The bus came, we got on, got to the point where the bus *should* have turned to go to the Botanical Gardens, and it DIDN'T. So we hung tight, thinking "ok, maybe it's taking a different route." After a long ride, we finally decided to ask the bus driver, and low and behlod, that bus didn't go to the Gardens anymore. So she dropped us off at the next stop and instructed which bus we needed to get on to get to the Gardens.

So we hop on the next bus, and I grabbed a route schedule. It would have taken us over an hour by bus to get back, but we did recognize one stop that we knew for sure had a metro station, so we got on that one, and took the metro back to the stop where we got to the gardens before, and got on the right bus, making it to the gardens in less than 20 minutes.

This bus dropped us off at a different part of the gardens than previously, so we got to see quite a different section as we made our way back to the orchid garden to finish up where we left off. Unfortunately, the bromeliad garden was closed (Stephen was disappointed), but we got to see the rest of the orchids, which were amazing, but decidedly prettier when it was raining. There was something about the rain that made their colors even more vibrant than in full sun. Perhaps contrast with the grey sky? Who knows. However, as we were discussing this effect, the sky started to cloud over and bits of rain began to fall. Fortunately, it never turned into the downpour of our last visit, but it rained enough to make the gardens even more beautiful. We walked past several new areas in our quest to find a bus stop (our day for adventure, so we avoided hitting any one place twice), and finally found one after exiting hte gardens and walking for a few blocks. The gardens really are a place that one needs to spend several long afternoons over the course of several months to really appreciate--preferrably with a picnic.

So from that bus stop we decided to go back to Little India to pick up a few things we remembered at the last minute. I got the feeling that we were on the verge of some fabulous festival as many of the streets were now lined with vendors and there was a large tent in the center of one square with chairs and podiums set up. We would have loved to sit around and see what was about to happen, but we had dinner reservations at the top of the hotel (Equinox restaurant) so we had to go about our business.

Dinner that night was an intersting mix of fabulous and unnerving. We had been reminded when we made our reservation that there was a dress code, so Stephen donned his suit for the first time and I wore a nice skirt-top combo with a favorite pair of heels. We looked quite the dapper pair and headed to the downstairs bar for a drink before heading up to dinner.

The view from the 70th floor looking out over the harbor and financial distric was really amazing; our waiter, with his obsessive compulsive lurching, was not. At first it was really pretty annoying, and then became comical as the night wore on. I'll spare you all the details, but it was pretty obvious he was new, and had not had a chance to familiarize himself with much of the menu. The dinner itself was really quite tasty, an interesting mix of french and asian cuisine.

Stephen informed me that the menu style was very french, except for the lack of "set" menus. Evidently, most truly French restaurants have several proposed meals that include 1 or 2 choices of appetizer, entre, dessert, cheese and wine for a set price, I guess figuring the chef knows what will taste good together better than the average Joe (dunno, just guessing). We ran into this at a few other places, and really found it to be the best way to make a dinner decision with unknown foods, so maybe the French have something there.

Anyway, Equinox only had one set menu, and it didn't really appeal to either of us, so we ordered a la carte. Stephen ordered Lobster Ravioli, I got braised lamb with this rasberry-burgandy sauce. Really, really yummy. Followed up with a trio of Creme Brulee's: Orange Spice, Chocolate, and Regular. Very, VERY tasty indeed. We stayed for quite while drinking tea and coffee, talking and reflecting over the city. Stephen became quite overjoyed when he found out they had a particular kind of apple-pear liquor that he hadn't had since he was in France. Nice crowning moment to the evening, and to the trip in general.

Unfortunatly the night didn't contain much more (though we were both in the mood for a stroll), since we had to be leaving the hotel at 4:00 the next morning to catch our 6:50 flight. Bleah. So back to the room for a quick nap, and then packed. And thus our trip ended. Quiet, full, contented, well-dressed, and reflective. Amazing city, fascinating country, definitely a place to return to. 

Tuesday 13 January 2004

Honeymoon Day 6 - Little India and Kampong Glam

<p>Today we ventured back into Chinatown to pick up Stephen's new suit, and then headed over to Little India and the Malay sector.

We got to Chinatown a little after 10am, and not a whole lot was open. It took us a good while to find the tailor shop again, as the numbering system is not as intuitive as it first appears. But we found it after not too long of looking, and Stephen tried on his suit. You know, it's amazing how a well fitted item of clothing can make a person look quite stunning. Stephen is usually quite attractive, but this suit, well, suits him perfectly! He was very pleased, after of course giving it his typically deep inspection, and asking more questions than I thought possible about its construction.

While Stephen was changing back into his street clothes, the shopkeeper turned to me and mentioned that he had a friend whose jewelry store "down the street" was having a sale. Would I like to go? Wanting to be polite, and more than a little curious I said ok, and asked for the address, to which the shopkeeper responded "I get it for you, I call my friend." Ok, sure. So, Stephen comes back out and the shopkeeper is talking a mile a minute, in both English and Mandarin, and the next thing I know a taxi pulls up to the shop door. Turns out the shopkeeper called a taxi to take us to the jewelry shop of his friend. This is where things start to get odd. The taxi driver turned out also to be the cousin of the jewelry store owner. He chats with us a bit, asking us where we're from, how we like Singapore, etc, etc. (He did sneer a bit when he found out I studied Economics and International Relations, and quickly turning the subject back to Stephen's job. Grrrr.) All the while he's driving. Now, Chinatown is not that big, and we were quickly out of it and headed downtown. . .and he keeps driving. . .and driving. Finally, after many worried looks pass between Stephen and I, he pulls up in front of a very rich looking building, which said in very prominent and snooty letters: The Singapore Gem Trading Exchange. Great. He escorts us through the security guards, and into a showroom manned by more hostesses and sales personnel than customers by a ratio of 30:1. Even better. So Stephen and I attempt to wander through the various cases (all of which housed beautiful gems in terribly gaudy settings that were way overpriced), trying to figure out how long was polite to stay and yet not be expected to purchase anything. Fortunately we made it out with our wallets and credit lines intact and no jewelry. Friend down the street, my hiney!!

The upside of all of this is that we were just two blocks from our hotel, and were able to drop off the suit before heading back out to Little India and Kampong Glam.

Now this was quite the experience. Definitely the poorer section of town financially, it was rich in sounds and smells of the Middle East. Also fabulous was the fact that the shopkeepers were pretty hands off, offering initial assistance , but otherwise stood back unless summoned or to explain some eccentricity or culture peculiarity; unlike in Chinatown, where you are constantly harassed in multiple languages to "come inside, have a see, best (insert good here) in Singapore, we make you good deal." Very nice change indeed. Also, I am convinced that Indian women have the best end of the fashion world. Not are the fabrics beautiful, sporting the best embroidery man is capable of, but they're comfortable! Long tunics with loose fitting pants and a scarf/shawl (forgive me Lynn, I don't know all the correct terms). Yup, that culture definitely gave their women the better end of the bargain there, and I'm jealous, as well as half tempted to buy one, just for the sheer beauty of the clothing.

After much wandering about the shops, we came to the largest mosque in Singapore, the Sultan's Mosque. We were allowed to go inside (fortunately I had bought a pretty scarf, and had it with me), and wander all but the prayer halls, for good reason. There were a few people around, but otherwise we were free to explore. I wish I had more information about all the symbolic placement of the various arches, pillars, and other architectural and ceremonial elements to better appreciate the space though. But it was very interesting, especially to quietly watch the prayers of the faithful there. Different traditions are astounding, and, at least in this temple, the humility before God was very evident in the postures and expressions of those praying.

Back onto the street, we wandered about some more, taking a fabulous curry lunch in a little shop in Historic Little India. It was served on a large leaf, with lots of pappadam (sp?) and ginger drink. MMMMMM good stuff. Though we haven't been able to find the fabulous mint chutney since the zoo. I may have to track down a recipe.

From there we walked over to the area of Temples, and to do so passed through the closest thing to slums we have yet found in Singapore. The buildings had definitely seen better days, and a few tattered beggars were on the other side of the street. The interesting thing was, that this area was also under the most intensive construction we had yet seen. The book I read on the plane coming over here (From the Third World to the First by Lee Kuan Yew, Christmas present from my in-laws--Thank You!!) mentioned that the government subsidised modernization of many old (pre-independence) apartment blocks, and so I can only assume that what was going on. It was interesting, because just across the street, was completely modern apartments. Fascinating.

Moving on, we came to the temple area where four Buddhist and two Hindu temples sat, more or less, next to each other. Both Hindu temples had prayer services going on, so those could only be viewed from the outside, and were stunning. More layered statues in a pyramid shape, with walls adorned by more colorful statues. Listening to the chants of the worshippers was a beautiful experience, and made the entire complex come alive with the sounds. The waves of heat made many of the figurines shimmer and almost dance with the rhythm of the voices inside.

Further on, we came to the Buddhist temples, which we were allowed to enter. Only two of them we really understood much as they had some limited information available in English, but all were fascinating to behold, and displayed an interesting mix of the various ethnic symbolism of the area.

The largest was established by a Thai monk in the 1920s, and features an enormous Buddha statue, some 50 feet tall and several hundred tons, as well as several relics including a piece of bark believed to come from the tree under which Siddhartha gained enlightenment and a replica of the Buddha's foot print set in mother of pearl. The entrance was guarded by a four headed statue of the Hindu god Vishnu, the creator, meant to guard the temple from all four corners. There was also a statue of Ganesh (elephant-man god of fortune) in one corner that was associated with the early life of Siddhartha. Fascinating symbolism that. By far the most interesting part of the temple was the series of murals around the base of the large statue depicting the life of Siddhartha/Buddha and his path to enlightenment.

Across the Street was the Leong San See temple built about a decade earlier than the previously mentioned one, that is about half Buddhist, half Hindu. It is dedicated mutually to the Hindu goddess of mercy and compassion as well as the "Sakyamuni" or "Laughing" Buddha. Unlike all of the other temples, this one did not ask its visitors to remove their footwear, and allowed us to wander all parts of the temple pretty much unhindered, except for asking us to explore it in a clockwise motion so as to properly respect the energies of the space. This temple was much more ornate than the previous one, with the ceiling made of exquisitely carved & gilded rafters, featuring an entire room of gilded ancestral tablets over a central altar. It was set one room inside of another, which, presumably, aided in the meditation of the worshippers as they moved through their prayer cycles from the entrance near the penitential kneelers, to the shrine of the patron goddess, to the ancestral room through another mini shrine to another manifestation of the patron goddess, and through a second minor shrine area to a lesser manifestation of the Buddha, back to the main room only in front of the final Buddha, and before exiting, the shrine to the patron gods of the city. I really enjoy all the symbolism of the various buildings, and am very glad that these two temples had detailed cards to help out the unschooled better appreciate the rich surroundings.

Back out onto the street, we made our way back to the hotel, to change, and head out to Orchard Road for a bit of shopping and dinner. We took dinner in a more upscale version of the hawker center, and got some seafood noodle soup, which Stephen really enjoyed but I was not all that fond of. I've found that I enjoy the Indian and Malaysian foods much better than their Chinese counterparts. The flavors suit my stomach better and are much less likely to contain bits of anchovies. Bleah.

So, after some more wandering about, back to the hotel to plan out our final day in Singapore--Wednesday.

Honeymoon - Day 5 - Bird Park and Oriental Gardens

Since Sunday wasn't a very "productive" day, we decided to make Monday a big day by visiting the Jurong Bird Park and the Chinese and Japanese Gardens.

Unlike getting to the zoo, we got to the bird park with no problem and were inside the gates by 11:30. It is built on pretty much the same principle as the zoo, only with more cages since birds are substantially more mobile than most other animals, but usually even the "cages" were large enclosed areas several tens or hundreds of feet tall. They also had trained falconers on hand to help exercise the large birds of prey, of which they had numerous species, ranging from the smallest kites and miniature hawks to bald eagles. But still, many birds were allowed mostly free range of the park including most of the pelicans, ducks, flamingos, herons, and storks. The flamingo pond was home to some 1000 birds! A huge stink, but really interesting to see a flock that large interact.

They also had this amazing Waterfall area housing the largest man-made waterfall, cascading some 100 feet high, with the net probably another 50-100 feet above that. It housed numerous birds, mostly tropicals. There was construction being done on the upper pathways, so we could only go so high among the trees, but it was enough to get a lovely view, and see quite a few birds.

Looping back around, we had lunch overlooking the flamingo pond (inside looking through glass to keep our appetite from the smell), and then took in the rest of the park.

They had a miniature Rain forest set up to emulate the environment of East Asian rain forests, where, again lots of birds roamed/flew free. You had to be pretty careful here, as these birds were substantially more land based than in the waterfall area, and were prone to darting out of the bushes behind or in front of you, and then squawking loudly if you got too close (dumb birds). One of the crowned pigeons evidently found Stephen on the offensive side, as it came up and bit him on the foot as he was standing there watching me take pictures of other birds in the wooded area. The next thing I knew he yelled and was doing a dance that was him halfway trying not to kick the offending bird and yet keep a safe distance. So we made a bee-line for the exit, as two of them now chased us. Fortunately our legs were longer, and they didn't try to fly so we made it out in one piece. Unfortunately, this experience has not done much to cure his habit of booting pigeons, and had this particular variety not been labelled endangered and there been many cameras around, that one would have gotten kicked as well. Stupid bird.

Moving on we came to a huge hummingbird exhibit (including their own enclosed large tentish thing), pelicans, toucans and horn bills. I didn't realize the latter two got so big!! Even with cages some 25-30 feet wide and 60-70 tall, they didn't have enough room to fly more than a few seconds worth. When they flapped their wings, it sounded like a helicopter getting started up. They had wingspans easily 6-8 feet wide. Beautiful birds, and the only ones that it really pained me to see caged up as all the others (including the largest of the birds of prey) got plenty of room to exercise at least once a day.

The last two exhibits were probably my favorites of all though: the parrots and the owls! The parrots were in a completely open area, and were awaiting their own netted tent to fly around in. As it was, they were free to roam the park during the day (for the most part), and then were caged at night. Very lively birds, it was fun to watch them play, and see all the normal items they turned into toys. In many ways, parrots seem to be the monkeys of the birds: highly intelligent and playful.

The owl exhibit was really neat, as it was almost completely dark, except for a very dim light in the color range that particular species of owl could not see. They had 10-12 different species of owl, including a Siberian variety more adapted to seeing and hunting during the day, since the Siberian summers experience almost 24 hours of light for several weeks on end. Beautiful, beautiful birds. They had other nocturnal birds as well, but they weren't nearly as impressive as the owls.

Then, still having a good bit of energy left (and daylight) in us (must have been the good sleep of the night before), we headed to the Oriental Gardens. Just a short walk from the metro, they had a sign announcing that the Japanese section of the gardens was under renovations, and thus closed. Stephen was pretty disappointed, but the Chinese gardens turned out to be plenty to explore on their own. First we came to the 7 story pagoda, that from afar looked decorated with many colored lanterns; however, when we got close they turned out to be umbrellas!! The whole park was decorated in colored lanterns and umbrellas and various paper figurines to celebrate the Chinese New Year. So, a very good time for us to visit!!

We also found an extremely large bonsai garden, and got to watch one of the bonsai masters at work trimming some of the trees. Fascinating!! The large trees out front were over 250 years old, and many inside the garden of various sizes were aged near or older than 100 years. It's amazing to look at those works of art, and realize that it has taken numerous generations of masters to achieve the present state of beauty. Awe inspiring to say the least. Unfortunately, by the time we got to the Bonsai I had already filled up two picture cards and was on the third (yes, that's nearly 400 pictures in one day), so not many pictures of the gardens could be taken, but I have a feeling

Stephen is planning on going back while I'm at the spa on Wednesday morning.

So after exhausting our picture capacity, and staying right up until their closing time, we wandered through the rest of the gardens enjoying the festive decorations and holiday spirit. Then we hopped back on the MRT, and headed to Newton Circus for dinner.

Newton Circus is what is known has a "hawker" center, or a large open air food court with dozens upon dozens of vendors selling everything from the scarily familiar to the completely alien--all for really good prices. They are fantastic ways to sample the local cuisine without spending a fortune Since the day had been a hot, sticky one, even by Singapore standards (I will never complain about the humidity in Houston again), I opted for an Indian vegetarian dish that was part omelet, part fritter, and with lots of vegetables, foreign and familiar, served with this amazingly tasty spicy orange soupy sauce. Hit the spot! Stephen ordered beef satay and chomped his way through two portions. We both had two large glasses of lime juice topped off with kiwi and papaya for dessert. Now that's what I call a stellar meal, and all for less than S$30 I think hawker centers are going to be the staple of our dining from now on. Too good to pass up.

Sunday 11 January 2004

Honeymoon - Day 4 - Botanical Gardens

Today we got a little bit of a lazy start after our full day today, and decided to take it easy and only hit the botantical gardens. We got there around noon and I figured out some more settings on my camera that made taking pictures with the overcast sky without a flash much easier. (yay for good cameras).

The botanical gardens are really amazing, with a swan pond and simulated rain forest as well as various subsets of gardens scattered throughout including a garden expressly dedicated to members of the ginger family. So we wandered for several hours and just got inside the orchid gardens when it started to sprinkle. So we broke out the umbrella (just had the small one with us) and continued on. Unfortunately, we only got through a little less than half the garden when the sky let loose with buckets full of rain, that inhibited our progress substantially as we only brought the one umbrellas with us and a backpack. So we took cover under a little pavillion thinking we would wait it out, but after a substantial amount of time it was obvious it was not going to quit anytime soon. So we packed it up after a snack, and walked leisurely through part of the gardens to get back to the bus stop, sharing the umbrella. Back at the hotel we dried off a bit, changed and hopped over to Nooch Noodle Bar for dinner. Very tasty indeed!! I had a Thai noodle concotion rich in garlic and ginger with duck meat and rice noodles, and Stephen had beef udon. Good stuff. Then some window shopping and back to the room for some down time, as we realized that we were both pretty tired and wanting a quiet evening alone. Something we haven't had for at least a month.

So not a whole lot here, tomorrow we plan to pick up the pace from today.

Honeymoon - Day 3 - The Zoo

Getting to the zoo was a bit of a challenge. The guidebook listed a couple of different was to get there, so using a detailed map we picked the one that looked the easiest, but when we got to that bus terminal there was a sign posted that said the bus we needed only ran on Sundays and public holidays. As this was a Saturday, we had to go to the next terminal, about a 10-12 minute metro ride away. Alas, we got there, got on the right bus, and were off to the zoo!!

At the zoo, we met these two really nice guys who had two extra free passes they got at school, and upon hearing that it was our honeymoon let us have them as a kind of a wedding present which was very very nice of them. I would have liked to have gotten to know these two guys a little bit better, but they went their own way after we got through the gates.

A few words about the zoo: there are very few cages as such, instead they rely on "natural" barriers, such as moats (with water and without), tree and brush lines, etc to keep the various animals in their little areas, and many are allowed

completely free reign of the park (some monkeys, most birds, some reptiles, etc). Also, usually, more than one type of animal exists in each area, giving it more of a biosphere feel. This concept does two things: 1) lets you get very close to the animals, but still stay safe; 2) Keeps the animals happier--even the big cats looked content. I absolutely fell in love with this zoo. Fabulous, fabulous place.

At this point, Stephen and I picked up a map of the zoo, and decided to pay the small fee (less than 2 USD) to ride the trolley, thinking it would give us some useful information on the zoo's inhabitants and allow us to see all of the exhibits. Not only did the trolley move too quickly for picture taking, but the information that it pro ported to provide was scanty to say the least; much more useful for getting around the zoo, rather than really seeing it. So we hopped off at the next stop, and footed it, which turned out to work really well.

I don't know that I can remember all of the animals that we saw, because this zoo is amazingly huge, but they had quite a few species that you don't typically see in American zoos (in my experience). The zoo "specializes" in primates, so they had three large areas dedicated to them: one specifically for Orangutans (no I didn't get to have breakfast with them), one for Baboons, and one large area that probably had 7-8 different species each in their own little sub-section. The Organutans were probably my favorite. There was this one in particular that had gotten a hold of a burlap sack and was throughly amused with it. Great thing to watch!! There were several baby orangutans as well, and although you could tell the animals were used to humans from a far, the mothers of the little ones got pretty anxious at one point and bundled them off to a secluded area. Another great thing about this zoo--the animals can "escape" if they get overwhelmed or scared. No wonder most of the animals seem healthier here than in almost any other zoo I've been to.

There was also this little area that was more enclosed (but still pretty big) that was called "The Fragile Forest" that simulated the edge of a rainforest. Inside they had lots of birds and a ton of butterflies!! Easily hundreds of them--enchanting really--like walking into a fairy tale. After breaking free of the trance of the butterflies, I noticed in the upper corner of the area there were these large fuzzy creatures that turned out to be giant bats!! These bats were easily the size of small house cats. But very tame, and mostly holding still as it was their feeding time. There were also several sloths and two tree kangaroos!! The tree kangaroos were quite cute, and just like regular kangas, except with long claws for climbing.

After seeing many more animals, we came to the center of the zoo that had some eateries, so we decided to stop for lunch. The nice thing is that unlike most zoos, the food was not over priced, and wow was it tasty!! They had this tandoori chef (Indian) that was amazing- he cooked everything to order (with a bit of pre-prep admittedly) and it was beyond good. Stephen and I split an order of chicken tikka (came with a cucumber type salad and mint chutney- mmmmm mint chutney), garlic nan, and vegetable curry. Stephen even went back for seconds!! (for those of you who know his typical appetite, know this is quite a statement) Even two days later he's commenting on how good it was.

So with full tummies and rehydrated we continued through the rest of the zoo. The zoo doesn't have a very large water exhibit, in fact it's the smallest setting with the fewest animals: dozen penguins, four sea lions, two manatees and various pelicans and other birds of that type. Being in a very humid and tropical climate, I can see how it would be difficult to maintain healthy animals that typically like cold wet weather.

Else where there were Pygmy Hippos (with a newborn), regular Kangaroos (I was surprised at how small they were), Baboons, Elephants (newest addition) and surrounding the largest Primate area there was this moat. Beside the moat there was a sign that said: "Please do not feed the fish. Bites can cause serious injury." So, Stephen scoffed a bit, doing his little rant thing, and then we noticed a zoo guy with a large bucket of fish and a stick coming up to the edge of the water. We thought maybe he was going to feed the monkeys, until he stuck a fish on the end of the stick, held it over the water and this huge splash occurred that coincided with the disappearance of the fish. Turns out the moat is populated with 6 Giant Arapaimas that average 1.8 meters long (~6 feet), and about as big around as a decent sized tree (bigger around than most trees in NW Oklahoma). They are the largest fresh water fish in the world, typically found in the amazon river. They're also beautiful fish, with red streaks around the edges of their scales. Ugly faces though, but one is allowed to be less than pretty when you can devour most other species in a single bite. Now we know why they don't need fences in the primate complex, though I wonder how many monkeys they lost to the giant fish.

After wondering through the rest of the zoo, and getting most of the exhibits it was nearly 4:30, and we decided to head back to town to change for dinner. We had originally planned to visit an orchid farm on the way back, but decided instead to focus on the botanical gardens the next day, that had a huge orchid area. So we passed on the orchids in the near time.

We took a different bus back to the metro (different station too, but no worries), and this bus took us through the residential sections of Singapore, which were very interesting. There were obvious differences in housing, but it all seemed to be mixed together and none of the complexes seemed to be truly slum-like. They also had banners advertising all kinds of classes: English comprehension, Children's Robotics, etc. We also passed a *huge* library to rival in size most small universities. Very nice.

At the bus stop was a kind of shopping bazaar, and we got a soy-milk peanut honey snack, that was interesting. Still not sure if I liked it, but it hit the spot for the time being.

We decided to hit Boat Quay for dinner and drinks, supposedly a hot night spot right on the bay. It didn't take long after our arrival to find a tasty restaurant for the famed local Black Pepper crab. The wait staff, while very attentive (I thought it was a bit of over-kill with the hovering and obsessive filling of our glasses after two sips, but Stephen found fabulous) didn't speak English as well as they could have, and I must have misunderstood something, because the next thing I knew the maitre-d was holding a live crab next to my ear! So after a bit of shock and stammering I got through to him that that particular specimen would be just fine for my dinner. I think he wanted me to touch the blasted thing, but the squirming mass of legs and unchecked claws were a bit of a hinderance. No groping of my pre-cooked dinner, thank you. Low-class probably, but hey, at least I have all my digits intact, though it probably should have been a clue that my social graces may not quite have been up to the task at hand.

When they served the fabulous concoction of legs, spices and meat, they also brought out a nut cracker too small to fit around most of the part needing cracking, chopsticks, a linen napkin and something resembling a cross between an escargot fork and a crowbar. It didn't take long for me to kindly request a fork and knife and ponder how I was going to get at the tastiness inside the shell without getting it all over the table cloth and my blouse. Stephen and I both commented that we had never before eaten crab at an establishment that did not also provide bibs. Yeah, this was going to be an experience. Soooooo, with a marked lack of grace and a bit of good ole American brashness I dived into the crab, which was possibly the best thing I had eaten in months. Just the right balance of spice and sweetness, my mouth still waters at the thought of it, though I'm sure the maitre-d still cringes at the sight of me with fingers, fork, cracker and escargot-fork-thing attacking his chef's culinary masterpiece. It got so bad that they eventually brought me a finger bowl, which was greatly appreciated, but none of the crab ended up on the tablecloth or my blouse!! (I consider that a great accomplishment, thank you) And I got as much of the meat out of the sucker as I could find--and it was worth all the work.

After tipping them well, and expressing our thanks we walked down the rest of Boat Quay (pronounced like "key") being accosted by various people wanting us to dine, dance or drink at the various clubs, bars and restaurants. We eventually landed at a little coffee shop for dessert and coffee/tea. Very tasty, though I'm sure they made the cheesecake with soy rather than real milk products. Not the first time we've come across this either. Singaporians have a heavy dose of soy in their diets that's for sure. After eating and drinking and people-watching, we decided to take the short walk back to our hotel rather than the metro, and enjoy the lovely night.

The walk was pleasantly uneventful, as only it could be in Singapore at 11:30 at night, with only the sounds of traffic and construction breaking the night silence. It still amazes me how utterly clean even the gutters are here.

So arriving back at our hotel, we hit the sack to get ready for another fun filled day. 

Friday 9 January 2004

Honeymoon - Day 2 - Chinatown

After another fabulous breakfast, we headed into Chinatown where we spent the majority of our day. We made a quick stop by a diving shop we saw while on the boat tour, but they weren't open yet (it was around 11:30am). Shops here keep the strangest hours--most don't open until 10:00 or 11:00am and are open well into the night, usually midnight. This is definitely a schedule that I could get used to!! So after looking around, and not finding another one, we jumped back into the Subway, and got off in Chinatown. Chinese New Year is in two weeks so the whole area was decked out, and lots of street vendors were set up offering great bargains to get people ready for the upcoming holiday. We got quite a few souvenirs taken care of this way.

One place we stopped while looking at some things, invited us in, and offered Stephen an amazing deal to custom make a suit for him. We had already discussed that he desperately needed a new one, and were planning on getting one back in the States. This guy offered him a Marino Italian Wool Suit, hand tailored to his measurements, plus a silk shirt (also custom made) and tie all for the price of a very good suit in the US (though of much better quality than anything we could afford there). So we jumped on the deal, and it will be ready on Tuesday. Huzzah!! Now all he needs is a new pair of black shoes, and he will be set to go. The best part about the deal is that, this tailor will keep Stephen's measurements for life, and all we have to do to order another is email or call him, and he will ship it to the US for no extra charge! Whoo hoo!! So, if you're ever in Singapore, and want a good suit for an exceptional deal, stop by Master Hand Tailor Shop in Chinatown on Temple road, shop number 21. Evidently this guy also makes suits for Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, so his craftmanship is quite good. I'm thinking that after I get my first job that pays over 50k, we'll have to come back here, and have him make one for me. *big grin*

Then we wandered town Temple Street, and came to the oldest Hindu temple in Singapore, Sri Mariamman. Built in 1826, the facade features over 70 Hindu deities in full color! It was a huge complex with many different alcoves and statuaries. They allowed us to take some photography in designated areas, and so I got some really amazing shots of the ceilings and various of the decorated facades!

Next we stopped off at People's Park Complex for a extra tasty lunch in the food court. I got Chicken, mushrooms and noodles in a brownish sauce that was obviously fish based, and Stephen got this crazy seafood soup concoction that looked tame enough, but evidently packed enough chili peppers to clear out his sinuses for the rest of this life. Interesting to say the least, and pretty tasty to boot, though it left me wanting something a bit more familiar (or at least recognizable) to munch on, so we stopped at several vendors to try some of the festive foods available: Thai Coconut (they chopped the top off of and stuck a straw in to drink), Sugar Cane juice, and various types of candied fruits and herbs (ginger, GREEN papaya, tangerines, dates, etc).

Then wandering around we came into "historic" Chinatown, and came across a series of Buddhist temples, the largest of which was Thian Hock Keng, dedicated to the Goddess of the Moon and Sea, as well as a Female Buddhisatva (forgive my spelling). This particular Buddha's focus was on compassion. Fascinating, and amazing craftmanship.

Next door was a Mosque under repairs, but not much further down the street we came to the oldest Mosque in Singapore, Al Abrar. They were having lessons inside, so visitors were prohibited unfortunately. Still quite impressive. It's really interesting how these major religious buildings are set on street level with facades that almost blend into the surrounding area, whole area something of a mystical feel. So paying attention to where you are going is a major plus.

Then we wandered through this beautiful park, coming across several minor temples to various Buddas or Hindu deities, some of which were no more than a statue in a wooden box, others were the size of a standard shop with a little place for people to kneel off the street. Again, lent the whole area a pious atmosphere, and indeed this area of the city was substantially quieter than that filled with vendors and New Year's preparations. The park especially was a nice repose for our tired feet, and presented some nice opportunities for contrast with the surrounding apartment blocks, skyscrapers, and tree lined lanes.

Then we braved the vendor streets once again to head back to the hotel for a quick dip in the pool to refresh tired muscles, a warm shower, and then off to dinner and more walking in the Sun Tech City shopping plaza, the LARGEST mall in a country where shopping is *the* national past time. This turned out to be our craziest adventure yet. 

First of all, we walked nearly two miles to get to the mall, ALL of which was underground, one endless string of shops and eateries. So we get there, and Stephen picks the Sushi place that is on the other side of where we are; so, we walk another mile, get there, and it is the weirdest experience of our lives. First of all, they had this conveyor belt that moved plates of sushi through the restaraunt and past all of the tables--the catch? You're not allowed to actually eat it. Then we noticed these computer moniters that said "order here", but you weren't actually supposed to use them. They brought us paper menus instead, that listed California Rolls as "Premium" sushi. So we ordered Bento boxes: Chicken Katsu Don for me, and a mixed sushi box for Stephen, both of which came with miso soup. We get them, and my box had fried chicken, fried tofu, and rice that had crushed up anchovies on it. The miso soup was even reconstituted. Yeah, definitively not tasty. Stephen's seemed a bit better, but he didn't recognize most of it, which was probably what made it appetizing. As discovered earlier in the day, it is amazing what you are willing to eat if you don't know what it is. Yes indeed, the ole "close your eyes and try it trick" from childhood came in handy. So, we finish with "dinner" and walk the 4 miles back to the hotel. The good part of this whole thing is that we discovered a book shop and got the bus and detailed city map that we need to plan tomorrow's adventure, which hopefully will be a little easier on the taste buds. It did end well however, as we ordered dessert from Room Service. :) Cherry pie with ice cream. The best thing I've had all day.

Where might the next destination be, you ask? Tomorrow's agenda includes the Zoo and the Orchid Gardens. They're a bit out of the center, but only by around 30 minutes (bus and metro, so we'll get to use our nifty cards on the bus). Now, I'm going to pay some more attention to the dessert that just arrived and my darling husband. Ciao!

Thursday 8 January 2004

Honeymoon - Day 1 - Historic Singapore

To no one's surprise, Stephen was up a dawn and cracking to go; fortunately, he let me sleep until 8:30am while he made coffee and puttered about the room trying to make just enough noise to wake me, but not enough to make it quite obvious that's what he wanted to do. It was really kind of cute. *grin* The hotel gave us complimentary breakfast tickets, that we redeemed--mm good stuff. A really nice assortment of breakfast foods from a variety of cultures. There was this Thai oatmeal stuff that looked pretty tasty, but I decided that red peppers would probably not be the best thing on my stomach that morning, but maybe for tomorrow. *wink wink*.

Then we headed to out to see the city!! We really could not have asked for a prettier first day. A few rain clouds threatened late in the morning, but cleared off with little other than blocking the sun for a few hours and adding to the already oppressive humidity (didn't believe that it could get worse than Houston--welcome to the tropics!). But we braved it, venturing into the vast shopping centers that dominate underneath the city when we needed a break from the heat or when an entrance looked particularly appealing.

We spent most of the day in "old" Singapore and the area right around the hotel. The first thing we did was head across the street to the WWII monument, which is an obelisk made of four free standing pillars joined at the top, with an urn thing in the center surrounded by fountains. Really quite pretty, a fitting testament to the plight of all of East Asia during WWII. 

Then we headed down the street, past the Singapore Sporting Club (including several cricket fields--now there's a game I really don't understand), to the Anglican Church, which was built in the 1850s and to this day is not air-conditioned. I could not imagine how stifling it must be when full with the already overbearing humidity. It was really pretty on the inside though, and set on some beautiful grounds, that, for whatever reason, were being used partially for downtown parking.

After that we wondered by the Supreme Court and old City Hall, neither of which we were allowed to enter as court was being held in the former, and they were in the middle of a business function in the latter. Neat from the outside though. It's really neat to see the neoclassical facades punctuated by palm trees and giant ferns. A bit of cognitive dissonance, but provides an interesting insight into the mindset that must have built this place.

Past these buildings we came to the landing site of Sir William Raffles, who first opened Singapore up to World Trade, establishing it as the basis of the economy to be resurrected in the 20th century, leading to it's grand economic "miracle". Behind the statue, you can see some of the taller towers of the financial district.

From here, we walked around the main river banks, checking out the sculptures gracing the outside of the Asian Civilizations Museum and the various bridges.

We didn't go into any of the museums today, preferring to enjoy the beautiful weather, and saving those for a rainy day, literally.

In light of the beautiful weather, we decided to take a boat tour of the Singapore River to learn a bit more about the various bridges and buildings along the banks. It was a bit disappointing in this regard, but we got some spectacular pictures from the water, and got to give our feet a rest and sit in the shade.

The bumboat (seriously, that's what they call it!) let us off across the river and we made our way through the Ft. Canning Gardens. It had a little walk way that every so often had signs explaining much of the pre-colonial history of Singapore, as well as pointing out some of the more significant vegetation. The trees here are really amazing, and appear to all coexist with various types of ferns and vines that over the outside of them. It kind of makes them look like something out of a science fiction novel.

About half-way through the park, we stopped at a little shopping center and had lunch at Don's Noodle shop. I had ramen with vegetables and prawns and Stephen had Udon, stealing some of my shrimp if I didn't keep a close eye on him. hehehe. His dexterity with chopsticks allowed him to steal more than a few. After that, we stopped at another little shopping center to pick up some personal items before going back to the hotel to download the pictures and allow me to change shoes. The combination of humidity and a goodly amount of walking meant my feet were pretty swollen, but a brief rest and a more comfortable pair of shoes got us back out on the trail (so to speak), and we caught the MRT (subway) back over to the Canning Gardens to finish the tour there (with freshly cleaned memory cards).

The MRT system here is really swank. Instead of buying tokens or the flimsy paper tickets with magnetic strips (that tear easily or get jammed in the machines), they issue credit card like things, that you merely hold up to the sensor at the subway gates and they let you pass. It doesn't charge you until you exit the system (again by waving the card in front of the sensor). They're also supposed to work the exact same way on the bus system, but we've yet to try that out.

Back to the Ft. Canning gardens, fed and rested, we toured through an old cemetary. In the 1970s they went through and cleared out all of the grave stones, and set them into the walls surrounding the area. They left a few up in one little corner, but the vast majority now form the wall. A really cool idea to say the least, though I imagine that family members of those "transplanted" may not be too thrilled with the idea.

From there, we toured through the spice gardens, most of which were not in flower, but those that were, were quite stunning. I also learned a good bit about the various plants that I eat regularly, but never knew how they grew. For instance, vanilla grows on a vine! So that was pretty cool.

The spice gardens turned onto a working archeological dig site, where most of the knowledge of "Pre-Raffles" Singapore comes from. So we toured through there, learning a good bit about the culture as it was before the arrival of the british. Evidently, they were not the first ones to realize it's potential as a trading post, and spent most of the 1300s, 1400s, and 1500s bouncing from one Asian empire to the next. Not really conducive to trade, I wouldn't think, but it seemed to be enough to keep the area going economically.

At this point it became obvious that we needed more picture space, and just happened to come upon the largest Tech mall in the world. So, naturally, we went in, and found a really good deal on another picture card, and enjoyed looking through some technology that is either unavailable or horrendously expensive in the states, but readily available here. Guess it really does help to be located so close to all the major electronics manufacturers.

Thirsty again, and just around the corner from the historic Raffles Hotel, we stopped in to have a drink and a snack; I could not resist having a Singapore Sling (despite the fact it contains gin *bleah*), and it was surprisingly good. Stephen, being responsible, had lime juice. We shared a platter of satay (Indian/Malay version of shish-kebobs), and being a bit tired, hopped back to our hotel for a nap and a shower (the humidity had taken its toll) before popping over to Chijmes for dinner.

Chijmes is an old nunnery, converted to a shopping mall and set of eateries. We didn't get to go into any of the shops or the old church, as they were closed by the time we got there; but it's on the agenda for tomorrow!!

We had a fabulous dinner at one of the little eateries (Breeze Garden), and Stephen discovered that yes, some people do even put hot chilies in ice cream. My desert was substantially less hot, but just as exotic: Sweet Basil Ice Cream (like green tea ice cream only not as tannin laden, really quite good). Stephen had Salmon for his main course, and I had duck. Mine was fabulous, though the vegetable selection was obviously constructed for looks and not for eating. I resisted the urge to take a picture of it, and picked around the edges as best I could (the center pieces were literally glued in place with cheese--could not get it apart to save my life).

By this point we were both pretty tired, despite the nap, so back to the hotel we went to rest up before hitting the town again tomorrow. Until then!!