Decidedly urban couple who quit their jobs and successfully backpacked their way through Asia for a year. They met Buddha, drank baijiu and learned to master the squat toilet. Now appearing in a new life as ex-pats in Singapore.

Monthly archive January, 2011
Delicious Food with some light SMBD

Delicious Food with some light SMBD

Note: This post is about two very different concepts and at first may encourage you to grab a bite to eat.  Don’t do that because the second part of this post may make you want to throw up.  Also, if you’re a weak person, you may not like these photos.

—–

San Francisco has nothing on Asia when it comes to street food. Every country we visit has their own twist on outdoor dining: Korea serves street food inside orange tents, China fries bugs and bats, Taiwan has streets that come alive with night markets. But the king of street food, by far, has been Singapore.

A whole VILLAGE of street food

On our first day I discovered that Little India was celebrating the Thaipusam Festival right down the street from the Tekka Hawker Market and took this to be an omen from the heavens above.  A parade AND Indian street food? Yes!

Most of my Indian holiday history comes from Kelly’s explanation of Diwali or the vague recollections of paint being splattered on Stanford students during Holi day.  I thought it might be like on ‘An Idiot Abroad’ with Indian Babas who do crazy forms of devotional yoga and acts of faith like holding their hand above their head for 12 years.

Really my expectations of this Thaipusam Festival were pretty mild forms of needles coupled with some interesting babas and possibly some paint throwing. If I had been expecting some serious SMBD shit, I would have chosen NOT to dive into a huge Styrofoam plate of Chicken Biryani. With extra Sauce. Plus Lentils. With more extra Sauce.

But dive into the Indian food deliciousness we did.

Chicken Biryani - yes please!

Members of the Clean Plate Club

The heavens opened and rained down a delicious combination of grease and goodness that we soaked up with ever last bit of Roti. This was swiftly followed by a strong chai. Happily in addition to outstanding street food Singapore also has spotlessly clean bathrooms that cost 30 cents.

From the Tekka Market we rolled outside and joined the growing number of people who were lining the street for the parade.  We slowly ambled in and out of stores.  I even managed to make room for some gulab jamun as we waited in the sweltering heat for the festivities to begin.

Get your own gulab jamun!

As I put the last bite of sugary deliciousness into my mouth, the music turned waaay up and the first devotee marched into view.

Kavadi offering cage - with spikes!

Pierced tongue and cheek

Yes!  Bondage! Men on spikes with pierced tongues and cheeks! It turns out that the Thaipusam Festival is more along the lines of the Catholic Opus Dei than happy Hindu Babas.  The people celebrating this festive fast and meditate for weeks before subjecting themselves to physical pain, a method of asking for help from the God Murugan.

Perhaps I should do a little more research when coupling religious festivals with binge eating.

All Smiles in Singapore (thanks to the maid)

All Smiles in Singapore (thanks to the maid)

Today felt like a real life game of Carmen SanDiego – we went from mainland China to Southern India, Malaysia to New York City, Disneyland to Morocco, and back!

Except instead of racking up those airline miles, all we did was catch a cab around Singapore.

Little India, Singpore

China Town, Singapore

I was pretty wary about Singapore – the first night there I accidentally dropped a skittle on the sidewalk and nearly tackled a couple strolling by in an effort to reclaim the candy and put it into a nearby bin. The knowledge of heavy fines for mundane offenses coupled with the absurd sterility of my high-rise surroundings, made me super paranoid of breaking the rules.

Brand-new Condo- our home away from home

We stayed with our friend Steve whose job had transplanted him to Singapore for a few years. He opened the door to his sparkling clean, brand new executive high rise and said, “Welcome to Disneyland!” (a reference that at this point I did not exactly understand).

For the next few days my brain twisted itself to understand Singapore, it’s a really confusing place: relentlessly strict and interfering, spotless clean and well run, hugely diverse and opinionated.

Government Interference

Unlike China where everyone we met from students, to adults, and certainly the seniors, believed in the system and espoused an apparently sincere reverence for Mao; nearly everyone we met in Singa freely discussed the benefits and the negatives of living in a Nanny State.

From Malay, Indian, and Chinese alike we heard grumblings about the obvious daily interference of the government.  People openly complained about government involvement in marriage and having children.  We heard stories of government-sponsored mixers and the financial incentives that are used to promote marriage with additional subsidies for each child.

People complained about mandatory savings accounts from which the government can liberally borrow. And about prohibitively high taxes on cars and huge fines for simple misdemeanors (like spitting or graffiti).

But while people in Singapore are super aware of- and disagree with- these government policies, support for the severely neutered opposition party remains low and folks tend to fall in line. The rules are easy enough to play by, and the rewards are high.

I spy graffiti in Singapore!

Sexy Maids

It seems that everyone has to put up with things they don’t like in order to enjoy all the benefits of Singapore. The expat life is an easy one in Singapore.  Firms pay the big bucks so businessmen can afford the $20 mixed drinks.

From friends we heard tall tales about overpaid businessmen and bored country-club wives. If your significant other works in Singapore, the world is your playground – you don’t even have to watch the kids. The government subsidies given for children also apply to expats, so the cost of owning a maid/baby sitter is fully covered by the government.

Maids can be found at the Maid malls, where you can choose the preferred ethnic makeup and religious beliefs of your future maid.  This may be more important to your husband that it would be to you, because if he wants, he can have sex with the maid.

Choose a maid!

My favorite story has to do with the ‘headache money’ that families are asked to provide to their live-in maids.  Apparently when the wife has a headache and isn’t interested in some hanky-panky, the husband can turn to the maid for some side action.

Creepy Maid

Singapore is not exactly Disneyland,  it’s more like the ride “It’s a Small World” where children from around the world smile and wave while the music plays on repeat. Everyone is smiling because, frankly, life is good, but underneath we’re all wondering – why is daddy sleeping with the maid?

How to do nothing

Have you ever wondered where J-wow and Snookie would vacation if they came to Asia?

Welcome to Kuta, Bali, the austro-european equivalent of the Jersey Shore, complete with fake breasts, fist-pumping nightclubs, and serious narcotics. It’s curious how this small peninsula of  trashtastic party beasts can exist in a country with a zero-tolerence policy and the death penalty.

Drugs. Is a bad decision to have such happiness

Drugs. Is a bad decision to have such happiness

We left immediately.  It took us two days to get as far away (mentally) from Kuta as possible and involved 3 buses, 2 ferries, one slightly crooked tour operator and was set to the soundtrack of Michael Bolton’s greatest hits on repeat. And man, was it worth every minute.

The Gili Ferry

Gili Air. No cars. Intermittent electricity. Great Food. $10 beachfront bungalows.

This is where we learned to sit back, look at the ocean and disconnect.  I lasted 3 days before I wanted to swim back to the bigger island and get a move on. Vinnie managed to hang on for a week plus.

In return for staying in one place for so long, I am now allowed to set the agenda for a week-long jungle trek through Sumatra complete with leeches and orangutans. Fair trade off, right?

Crispy but chilled.

Our private Bintang bungalow

Private beaches

Beachfront Berugas for each and every delicious meal

I'll have some of that!

Our night with the Sultan of Jogja

Ahhh! Salaam and good evening to you worthy friends, please come closer and listen to this incredulous tale of Indonesian intrigue, of mystery, of fleeting fame and yes, it’s all true.

So we booked it out of Jakarta on business class train to Yogyakarta (Jog-ja), the cultural capital of Java. Happily we didn’t have to ride on the roof of the train like some folks but 12 hours on a train is crappy, particularly when you expect the fellow passengers will try to steal your shoes.

Indonesians are just insanely inviting, but you never know if someone is talking to you because they’re crazy friendly or because they’re trying to direct you to their friend’s tourist-trap Batik shop. Walking down the street you hear a chorus of, “Hello, what are you doing? Where are you going?” and if you answer that question, “Where are you from…You’re from US!!!” and now you’re screwed.  Sit back, relax, chill out.  You will not be moving  for at least 30 minutes.

When an extremely gregarious local tourism dude asked us to attend a local parade, we judged him to be the friendly sort and not the buy-my-stuff kid of guy and quickly agreed. He promised us an authentic Indonesian dance show and a small dinner. What reason would we have to say no? Little did we know that we were going to be the main stars of the parade, except for the freaking Sultan of Yogyakarta himself, of course.

Our guide

That afternoon we met up with a group of other whities who agreed to the same proposal and our guide who arrived wearing his traditional clothes.  He also arrived with four bicycles, explained that the eight of us would ride the bikes to the beginning of the parade.

The eight of us – a German couple, the English girls and Vinnie and me – took a long time to process this information.   It wasn’t until we were ready to depart, half of us standing there waiting for our bikes, that we realized that we were meant to actually ride in pairs on the back of rickey, rusted peasant bicycles, on the wrong side of the street, through insane amounts of traffic.

We rode our bikes through this crowd

To make it even stranger, we weren’t led to the sidelines, instead we were directed to the entrance of the parade and given signs that we couldn’t understand.  I didn’t know if we were protesting, advocating, directing – what the hell are these signs and why are we holding them?

Suddenly everyone wanted to take our photo.

We're big in Indo

And at that point we were told that we would be riding these ricky-ass bicycles onto a stage where we would open the parade festivities.  Huh?

So we slowly, with great balance, rode through the streets, waving and smiling at everyone until we reached the red carpet.  The crowd was forcibly parted by the green beret guards and suddenly a bevy of photographers descended upon us. We stood with our bikes, and our signs as people started, clapped and the press took our picture.

Our photo-hogs

Once the flashing lights subsided we were led to a tent where we were sat one row behind the city’s Mayor and the Sultan.  Around us sat important looking men in their Batik shirts, and women with their heads covered.  The crowd pressed in from all sides, trying to get close to the Sultan and watch the events that were about to unfold. We sat there awe struck, wondering why the hell we had VIP seats to watch the Sultan’s address, the gorgeous dance troupes and some fancy signing ceremony.

Kris in the 2nd row at the main event

Once the dancers cleared out and the festival ended, we were paraded around the city and asked to pose for pictures with locals.  The Sultan’s personal guard circled in around us, leading us behind the sultan as he inspected the festival grounds.

Finally at the end of this confusing, exhausting day, we were invited for dinner at the Kraton.  A huge spread of food was laid out at the Sultan’s brothers house where all the dignitaries and us, the token whities, feasted on Ayam Goreng, fish curry, and fried tempeh.

Dinner at the Kraton

So what the was all of this!?

No clue what's going on

We still don’t know what the hell the festival was for.  Some people have told us that Mohammad’s birthday is coming up.  Other’s mentioned that it has something to do with crop production. The photo they used in the paper was to show solidarity with the recent earthquake victims.

We all know that mother nature has not been kind to Indonesia during the past decade. And with the occasional tribal scuffle in Kalimantan or the foreign-targeted bombing in Bali, tourists have chosen to spend their vacations elsewhere.

We’ve concluded that our friendly tourist bureau dude was told to provide some white faces to promote tourism during the festival. Instead of asking us to help, he just kind of threw us into the situation where we all played along.

Our Next Destination

HERE WE GO!

THE SUPERBOWL!

Foot Eating Fish

Jakarta is a pretty confusing city. All our research (ahem, the 5 minutes we spent on the LP forums) points out that Jakarta has no city center, that it’s horribly dirty and to get out immediately.  One person even advised tourists to stay inside and escape the heat in the extensive malls.  It appears that all asians love their malls.

While we didn’t find Jakarta to be that awful, it wasn’t very clear what we should check out.  And it was HOT. So we followed the random internet dude’s advice and after wandering around the humid, rainy city jungle for a few hours, we hit up the mall.

I shouldn’t say mall, the vegas-stlye shopping mecca didn’t resemble any mall that I have ever seen. It stretched miles in each direction: floor upon floor, block after block, acre after acre of theaters, food courts, upscale clothing boutiques and kids mini golf amusement parks.  It put our vaunted Mall of America to shame.

We even found a fish pedicure salon. Ever since reading about this ‘beauty treatment’ in some travel magazine, I have been searching for these famous foot eating fish. In my quest for a pedicure-by-poission I forgot that I freaking HATE fish. They have no legs. They don’t blink. I hate their creepy metallic scales, their bulgy dead-looking eye balls, and I really hate their gaping mouths.  Why would I ever want them to eat my feet?

I convinced Vinnie to endure the pedicure with me, and this is what it looked like:

After seeing all of those fish, I just couldn’t manage to put my foot in the water:

It turns out that I don’t just hate fish, I am also scared of them. It’s good to know these things about yourself.

One in the stink

Night markets rank up there on the tourist list of things to do in Taiwan.  For good reason- CHEAP DELICIOUS FOOD.  The Shilin market is the big draw, but in every neighborhood you can find tiny temporary stalls filled with noodles, fresh vegetables and sizzling hot meat skewers.

Shilin Night Market

Shilin Night Market

Night Maket in Taiwan

Night Maket in Taiwan

You wander around, starving, drooling over the huge selection of food in front of you, getting ready to settle in for a magnificent meal and then – BAM. The nauseating smell of over-ripe human feces hits you. Stinky Tofu.

This smell haunted us as we traveled through China and horror upon horrors, it’s even more popular in Taiwan. People told us, “It’s just like blue cheese.  Just try it! It smells a little offensive but tastes delicious.”

What cruel words. Not only do I not have access to any of the world’s delicious cheeses, but I was encouraged to actually put the tofu into my mouth.

I dearly wish that you had a scratch and sniff screen, because nothing can adequately describe how utterly obnoxious, odious and offensive this small square of fermented bean curd actually is. And it tastes worse than it smells.

Eating Stinky Tofu is now on our list of “things that we can’t believe we tried and will never do that again.”

The taste is so utterly foul

The taste is so utterly foul

Hot Springs, Haunted Spirits and Human Rights

Human Rights

I don’t know how many island prisons there on on this earth, but somehow I manage to find them when I’m traveling. First Robben Island, then Alcatraz and now Green Island. It’s amazing how much history you absorb just by visiting a country. In Taiwan we discovered that the ROC didn’t treat their citizens any better than the PRC during the immediate aftermath of the Chinese civil war. The commies and the nationalists were equally shitty. In China you were beaten, your possessions were taken away and your house was repurposed. In Taiwan people suspected of political dissidence were sent to a labor camp on what is now a beautiful tourist island off the east coast of Taiwan.

The Coast!

In the winter there is only one ferry a day that scuttles between Taitung and Green Island. The guide book author warned us that the hour-long ocean ferry to Green Island would make even the most sea-worthy passenger deathly ill, particularly in winter. That guide book author is a pussy. We survived the waves with our lunch intact, only to discover that it wasn’t throwing up that we should worry about.  It was eating. You see, there are two ATM’s on Green Island, and neither of them take foreign cards.  After renting scooters for $9 and paying $30 for a hotel, we had exactly 3 American dollars remaining – and needed to buy gas for the scooters!

Thank god it doesn’t take much to power a scooter, so for $2.50 we were able buy just enough petrol to scoot around the island three times, leaving us with just enough for a bag of dinner Doritos.

Urban Hiker/Scoot Star on Green Island

Urban Hiker/Scoot Star on Green Island

Hot Springs

Most American’s expect some level of comfort when they’re on vacation. On Green Island the hotels are pretty basic, and you shouldn’t expect much in the way of fancy tropical vacation atmosphere or posh restaurants. Comfort comes in the form of a salt water hot spring – one of two in the entire world.

Holy Moses.

On the tiny eastern corner of this tiny island lie the most deliciously indulgent bathing experience I have ever had the luck to enjoy.

Jhaorih salt water hot springs on Green Island

Jhaorih Salt Water Hot Spring!

Being the off season, we were on our own, faced with an entire coast of warm sea water all to ourselves.  We floated, we flounced, god damn, we frolicked. As the sunset we watched a heard of goats wander by on their way to the hillside. And when the wind turned colder, we worked our way up to the 50 degree water and soaked. And soaked. And soaked.

Chilling in the ocean water hot spring

Six hours after our toes turned wrinkly and dead skin began to float away, we decided to head back to the hotel.  But I didn’t want to, memories of this hot spring will fuel my travel fantasies forever.

Sunset from a 42 degree hot spring

Haunted Spirits

Unlike mainland Chinese under Mao, Taiwanese people were able to continue to practice their religious beliefs under Kuomintang. Everywhere you turn in Taiwan there is a shrine or a temple. People are incredibly spiritual.  They consult with God by throwing tiny wooden blocks and reading fortune sticks. I’m not talking about elderly people, everyone does this – young and old, professional, student or retiree. Green Island is no different.

Guanyin Cave on Green Island

Guanyin Cave on Green Island

One of the oddest shrines I saw in Taiwan was in a cave that once protected a lost sailor in a storm.  The sailor believed that a stalagmite in the cave was the incarnation of the Goddess of Mercy who guided him to the safety, and now it is a popular place for pilgrams.  As you approach the underground opening there is slightly creepy, tinny music playing from a speaker.  Peering down into the cave, you see a rock covered in a red cape and a tiny underground alter where people can light incense, throw their divining blocks or chose their fortune sticks.

I didn’t feel in touch with any spirits while I poked around the Guanyin Cave cave, but walking past the grounds of the crumbling prisons sure gave me the creeps.

Prison walls complete with great view of the water

I’m fully aware that the planet is old and people have been tortured on all corners of the world, but standing on the grounds where people were held captive and tortured for transparent political motives gave me the heebee-jeebees. And I couldn’t help but think that my own country currently has it’s own island prison where innocent people continue to be held for the same political transparent motives.

We should all learn from our combined past mistakes and concentrate on building more salt water hot springs, not island prisons.

Gorgeous hot spring coast

Adventures in Chinese Mothers

Riding a scooter is great fun.  Scooting in freezing cold wind and sleeting rain is not. And with our limited wardrobe and lack of scoot experience, I was not only freezing, I was scared.

Highway 11 is supposed to have outstanding coastal views. But instead of blue waters and green forested mountains, I saw angry grey skies, skidding trucks and handles gripped by ice blue fingers.

Angry ocean and gorgeous clouds

The wind that was busy whipping huge white waves along the coast was also determined to unseat me from the scooter.  Going fast helped you remain upright but brought the risk of skidding on the wet pavement.  Slowing down meant flying sideways across the highway as huge trucks rumbled past.  This was not fun.

Scooting down Highway 11, Taiwan

Scooting down Highway 11

We finally reached some famous lookout point where we stopped to check out the view and hopefully buy some hot coffee.  Instead we found a duo of Taiwanese women who Chinese-mothered all over us.

I have come to love Chinese mothers, which is easy to say because I don’t have one up in my business 24/7. Unlike American moms (or at least my American mom), Chinese mothers tend to fawn all over you –  from physically holding hands and petting you, to explaining in exact detail how to do a certain thing, to actually taking the reins and just doing it for you.

The Taiwanese women we met on that freezing cold afternoon tsk’ed all over us – questioning our choice of clothing, feeding us sweets and warning us to stay off the scooters.  Seeing that we had bare hands, one woman ran into the back room and produced white gardening gloves.  The other women insisted that we stuff ourselves with newspaper for better insulation.

Well Insulated

As we scooted home I could only think of what would have happened at an American rest stop. Nothing.  People would have made eye contact, smiled and gone on with their own business. But in Taiwan, you’re treated like family. What a great country. What fabulous people!

We are absolutely loving our time here!

Highway 11, Taiwan

Highway 11

Future ScootStars of America

One summer our friend Peter rode a 50cc scooter across the entire United States and filmed it.  We may not be official ScootStars, but after riding a scooter down the coast of Taiwan we’re close. I now understand the ass-numbing thrill and frustration of riding the equivalent of a John Deere lawn mower for days on end.

We assured the scooter folks that we had certainly driven scooters before although it was pretty clear that we had never even sat on one. Our cover was blown when we couldn’t figure out how to turn it on and asked how to change gears (there are no gears on a scooter). Then, immediately upon turning the engine over, Vinnie took off into traffic and crashed into a cement barrier. The scooter people didn’t appear to care, and for the equivalent of 10 American dollars and our driver’s licenses, we were given the official vehicle of Asia – a beat up grey scooter. And since Vinnie’s foot wasn’t broken, we bypassed the hospital and proceeded down the coast.

Future ScootStar

We went in search of coastal highway 11 and instead found ourselves inland on the farming oasis that is Highway 9. We slowly learned how to scoot as huge trucks whipped the wind past us and gravel bit into our eyes. Not even the rain could dampen the pure beauty and fun of zipping down Taiwan’s east coast.

Ruìsuì

Ruìsuì

After 20 minutes we were surrounded by mountains, huge swathes of tropical farmland and palm trees. We gassed it, passing old timers on rascals and speeding by tiny towns at a top speed of 43.5 miles an hour. Sometimes we stopped to putt down main street, waving to kids and waking up the dogs who didn’t bother to move out of the street. We even dropped by a local cemetery to check out the tiny mausoleums that decorate so many hillsides in Taiwan.

Taiwanese Cemetery

Taiwanese Cemetery

After a few hours of leisurely exploring Highway 9, I found what I was looking for: Ruisui’s famous carbonated Hot Springs. 43 degrees of hot water INDULGENCE.

Ruìsuì carbonated hot Spring

Ruìsuì Carbonated Hot Spring

Hello relaxation and vacation!  This is when we really started to cut loose and release all that backpacker tension that had been building up over the last few months.  Even better, we had the entire hot springs to ourselves.

And since we’re not in a rush, and we don’t believe in schedules, we decided to stay.  We stayed in a real bed.  With clean, laundered sheets.  And a HOT SPRING IN MY BATHROOM!

Thus began possibly the best part of our trip so far. Our couple interests were finally aligned – maybe for the first time ever!  Vinnie loves his scooter and I love my hot springs.  Together we can combine these two passions, spending the day scooting to the next hot spring.

And this is how we spend the next two weeks.

Leaving Highway 9

Leaving Highway 9