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.

Favorites
Crouching Tiger, Crippled Dragon

Crouching Tiger, Crippled Dragon

Life is full of endless possibilities, one possibility that I have firmly ruled out is shaving my head and becoming a Monk. After nearly two weeks spent living in the woods, eating veg and sleeping with the mice, I can assure you that the monastic life style in not for me.

But you know what is for me? KUNG FU!

I know Kung Fu!

Vinnie and I joined the Wu Wei Si monastery ready to learn how to kick ass and take names. Instead we spent almost two weeks completely crippled by the early and endless workouts. It turns out that learning Kung Fu is difficult. And painful. And that we were sorely out of shape.

Each morning we woke before dawn, jolted out of bed by the sound of drumming, chanting and the ringing of a 1,000 pound gong. A gong that massive will reverberate for several minutes, repeatedly reminding your beat up body that it’s time to get out of bed. The next hour is spent in a battle between the forces of sleep and the power of Aaaa-mi-ii-to-o-o-o-fuuu chanting from Buddhist Monks. The Monks always win.

As the chanting came to an end, we hurriedly struggled to get dressed in the complete darkness, using all of our strength just to place one foot into the dirty pants that were worn the day before. Putting on socks has never been so difficult – knees refused to bend, leg muscles couldn’t support your weight, and lifting your arms above your head caused minutes of searing pain. It took all of our mental and physical strength to limp down the stairs and begin the day.

Our new home

My monastic bed

Seconds before the sun rose, we began our workout: a run to a nearby river bed where we grab a small boulder and haul it back to the monastery. On the way down, each step on the cobblestone road felt like an electric shock. You could feel your body asking: “Why are we doing this again! We haven’t recovered from yesterday! Stop running! Go back to bed!”

And on the slow walk back up, carrying that huge stone on your head, your body realized that once again it is in for some serious punishment. You began to feel your sore muscles loosen, your back straightened and suddenly you were ready for early morning Kung Fu.

Another Gorgeous Sunrise

Running to the river

Pick your stone!

Better than sit ups!

Early Morning Kung Fu

Kung Fu is basically the art of squating. Squat-punch, squat-lunge, squat-block, and the worst, the squat-jump. On the first day our 12-year old teacher, a budding ShaoLin Monk and professional Sadist, had us squat jump, squat jump and then jump into the air to touch our feet. By breakfast at 8AM on the first day, we could not sucessfully walk up the stairs.

It only got worse.

Each morning we would stretch. Our teachers seemed to take great joy in our relative inflexibility but even Mary Lou Retton herself would be considered inflexible next to these men.  It was totally normal to see a monk stretch his ankles around his neck – and smile. The Monks would jump in the air, spreading their legs in split kick that went above their shoulders. They could bend backwards to touch the ground with the top of their head.

We needed help from two other people just to stretch our legs…

Stretch those legs!

More Stretching!

After our early morning workout we grabbed breakfast and because we were living in a Monastery, certain rules applied.

  • No talking!
  • No eating before the Kung Fu Master eats.
  • You must eat everything in your bowl and anything that doesn’t make to your bowl (so don’t spill your food because you’ll have to eat it off the ground.)
  • To leave you must wait until the master has left, and then you must bow and say Amnituofo to each table.

At first we were amazed at how delicious the food was, it almost didn’t matter that there was no meat!  We soon found out that the cooks has perfected exactly five dishes, and they were served for every lunch and every dinner. The exact same meal. Everyday.

The same meal every day

After breakfast we were back at it, squat-punching our way across a large courtyard.  The Monks didn’t speak much English, and what they did know had obviously been taught to them by other foreigners.  Everyday we heard the same commands:

“Qui-kuh-ley! Move your S!” (Quickly, move your ass)

“Prak-tees! You! Prak-tees!

“Change arm! Switch leg!”

“Bad. Very Bad.”

It was hard to react seriously when a 12 year old Monk is telling you that your deep knee bend isn’t low enough. You can’t help but think, ‘I can’t possible squat lower than this’.  And then the Monk walks right up and smacks you, “BEND LEG!” he shouts, forcing your beleaguered body into a lower squat, “BEND LEG!”

We prak-teesed for six hours a day, everyday.

Now you- go lower! Bend Leg!

Block!

Move your S!

At first we could barely make it through one workout. Each new move brought a wave of pain to muscles that we didn’t know existed. But after a week or so, our squats got lower, and punches got stronger. I found out that, at age 32, I can still do a front handspring!  Vinnie discovered a heretofore unknown aptitude for one legged squat punches.

We may not be the ass kicking KungFu masters that you see in the movies, but we cameout of Wu Wei Si with some serious moves. We managed to survive the monastic lifestyle, and dare I say, enjoyed it?

Squat Punch!

Squat block!

My friends are jealous of my low squat

 

Smile and say KUNG FU!

 

 

 

Attack of the Commie Zombies

Attack of the Commie Zombies

A Mausoleum is not the same thing as a Museum, a fact that Vinnie didn’t know when he ventured into Mao’s final resting place last November.

A Commie-style tomb

Those commies keep Mao on lock down.  You can’t get into the Mausoleum if you have a phone, a camera or any method of recording what you see inside those four walls. Vinnie and I were running late for our visit with the Chairman, arriving just 30 minutes before he was due for his 12:00 nap.

After standing in line and being frisked by the police, we found out that only one of us could enter the Mausoleum, the other had to wait outside with all of our electronic devices (of which there were three).

That’s how I ended up waiting outside the exit, watching a maniacal Vinnie run past hundreds of Chinese patriots. From yards away he began shouting:

V: “Do you KNOW what’s IN THERE!”

K: “Mao?”

V: “YES!  There is a dead body in there!!”

K: “How’d he look?”

V: “I didn’t know that I was going to see a DEAD BODY! I thought you were saying MUSEUM. I walked in and thought, man, this feels like a funeral home and all at a sudden there was a dead body! Mao’s dead body is inside there!”

K: “MAUSOLEUM. Dead bodies. So! How’s he look?”

V: “Ummm…. He’s wearing a lot of make-up.”

And he is. But you know who’s not? Ho Chi Minh.

The Uncle Ho’s Mausoleum is decidedly less grand than the Chairman’s. It’s hard to compete with the Chinese when it comes to massive showings of Communist strength. Tiananmen Square is the king daddy in display of state power.  A sea of pavement stretches from the Forbidden City to the Zhengyangmen, the front gate of Beijing’s ancient city, and right in the center of it all sits Mao’s cavernous final resting place. Your every move is observed by the watchful eyes of Chairman Mao whose oversized painting looks over the plaza (along with the thousands of strategically placed video cameras).

This way, Comrade!

Outside the gate of the Mao mausoleum a line of Chinese tourists sporting matching neon orange baseball caps wait impatiently, occasionally running, pushing and jumping the queue when space opens between people.  It’s highly controled chaos.

But the Vietnamese also know how to paint a grand post-mordem scene. The squat marble Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum overlooks the large square where the Vietnamese declared their independence. The grass and the nearby colonial-style Presidential palace gives the entire complex a genteel and inviting, rather than imposing, presence.

Vin and Uncle Ho

Uncle Ho’s mausoleum is smaller, more intimate.  The entire complex is approachable. The line is short. The guards quickly dispatch your camera without much hassle or confusion. Inside the Mausoleum there is no towering marble statue greeting you at the front door. The air is chilly. You walk up a short flight of stairs and suddenly a very pale, very dead Ho Chi Minh is lying just feet away.

Mao and Ho were embalmed by the same Soviet embalmers who first worked on Lenin. Along the way they learned some tips from Cher’s makeup team.

Everything in the Mao mausoleum is imposing, except Mao himself. Inside his crystal coffin, a halo of light beams down on Mao’s waxy, overy-rouged face. His hair is perfectly oiled in place, his fleshy pink cheeks are still plump and his body is shrouded under a wrinkle free blanket.  It’s entirely possible that Mao is just a head. A brightly lit floating head.

Mao and his security detail (a postcard)

Ho’s Mausoleum may be less grand but he certainly looks more dead.  The dim light does nothing to put Ho on display. Everything about the man is white – his face is devoid of any coloring, his white hair clings to his head and his colorless goatee flows down the front of his white outfit. Ho’s decrepit hands rest on top of his stomach and they’re clearly attached to decaying white arms.

Obviously, the Soviet’s hadn’t yet mastered Rouge 101 in 1969.

Someone took a sneaky shot! (Stolen from the interweb)

Mao and Ho are quietly resting inside elevated crystal tombs, their head’s positioned as if they’re staring down on the passing visitors. As you walk past the Chairman, you’re only able to peer in from one side before you’re hurried out the door. Mao gazes down at the four guards that are standing watch over his dead body, but Ho!

Ho lies there inviting his guests to view his body from every angle. As you circle around  the base of his coffin his elevated head lies facing you straight on, like he could wake up at any minute and declare, “American! Get out! The imperialist aggressors can never enslave the heroic Vietnamese people!”

And it’s creepy.

Kris and a lifesized Uncle Ho

The Chairman wins the prize for the most fake looking Commie – Madame Tussauds could do a better job! As for Uncle Ho, he simply looks dead.  Which is how a man whose last breath was more than 40 years ago should look (though you know that takes a lot of cash to keep them looking fresh-ish).

Now that we’ve visited Mao and Ho, we ‘re on a mission to meet the remaining two Commie Zombies.  It’s now a life goal to visit the the Eternal President of North Korean, Kim Il Sung and the founder of the USSR, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.

We’re taking bets to see if Fidel will follow his fellow commies to a final resting place filled with glycerol and potassium acetate.

Our next dead Commie, Lenin!

 

 

 

 

Volunteering at a Saigon Orphanage

Volunteering at a Saigon Orphanage

J’adore the children at Thien Phu’oc orphanage in Saigon.

I was hesitant, dare I say nervous, to volunteer at an orphanage in Vietnam.  Not only had I never worked with children with disabilities but I was uncertain about how to volunteer exactly. Should I just call and show up?  Is it ok to barge in and hang out?

Absolutely!  I called Thien Phu’oc orphanage and was told to stop by at anytime. And so I did.

children at saigon orphanage

Tien & her partner in crime Tai

The first day wasn’t easy. It’s hard to face human suffering and on the surface the children appear to be in pain. Many of the children at Thien Phu’oc can not walk, some can not talk and some are impacted by Agent Orange. Upstairs were 16 smaller children who have more severe mental and physical disabilities; they’re not mobile and spend most of the day laying on their bed.

I was so uncertain what I should do, and if my silly back rubs and attempts to smile and chat with the kids were doing any good.

Volunteering at a Saigon Orphanage

Her face lights up when you sit down for a chat

But as I walked downstairs to spend time with the more advanced kids, something really unexpected happened.  One of the older kids piped up, “Hello! Where are you from!”

I was shocked!  The sisters who work at Thien Phu’oc don’t speak much English and here was this kid in a wheelchair speaking perfect English with an American accent! The boy’s name was An and he is AWESOME.

An at orphanage in Vietnam

An is amazing

This small interaction helped to remind me of the advice given to me by my best friend (who is a school psychologist): Try to talk like you would to any kid their “true” age. Their receptive skills are probably much better than you suspect- they understand a lot more than they can verbally communicate.

Talking just happens to be one of my strong suites.

If An can teach himself English then who knows what the other kids can understand! After this I was able to relax and enjoy spending time at the orphanage. Some days we spent time doing physical therapy and other days I read, played ball and just spent time hanging out.

Kris and Nguyen working it out

The kids are utterly fantastic and are absolutely thrilled to spend time with you. And after a few hours I realized that An may be the only person that speaks English, but all the children communicate in their own way: pointing, smiling, motioning with their heads. Even the smaller children upstairs will follow you with their eyes and give you a big smile or nod their head when you sit down. Not only do they communicate with you, they care about and look after each other.

Tai, Phuong, Nguyen and Kris

I was surprised to find myself looking forward to returning. It wasn’t hard to fall in love with some of these smiling faces.

Loving the children at a Saigon orphanage

I have big LOVE for Bac

I highly recommend spending several afternoons at the Thien Phu’oc Orphanage.  Here are the details – just give them a call and head to district 12 on a xe om. It takes 30 minutes to get there and roundtrip cost is about 7 bucks. Free time is from 8am-11:30 and 2:00-4:30 pm.

If Sister Kim Chi isn’t around, you have to ask where the toys are stored (unfortunately they’re not just lying around). They toys are kept in the very front room on the right – just point to the door and someone will give you the key.

Sister Kim Chi at Thien Phu’oc Orphanage
156 / 1, An Phu Dong Ward, District 12,
Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). Vietnam
Tel / Fax: (84-8) 7195997  0903 949 981  0918 207 660
E-mail: thienphuoc20012004@yahoo.com

Where is that damn spoon? 10 days of silent meditation.

Where is that damn spoon? 10 days of silent meditation.

After 10 days of silent meditation, I am now a lot more sympathetic to what Neo must have been going through when he discovered the Matrix.  That is to say, a shit ton of PAIN.

Seriously folks, we are not hippies.  We are not new age, crystal-and-gem-stone healing freaks. We’re not that deep either, we don’t often sit around questioning the meaning of life or debating our conscious existence. But for some reason when a local Malaysian girl told us how calm and focused she felt after her 10-day meditation course, we thought, without much hesitation or research, “Sounds great!  Sign us up!” A week later we were in Indonesia taking a vow of silence and sitting cross legged for 11 hours a day.

Dirty Hippies - Not on their way to Vipassana Retreat.

The first four days

The course was full of normal looking, non-dreadlocked, fairly clean looking individuals – which eased my worries about joining a cult. But on the first night when the gong sounded and the Buddhist chanting began, I was ready to hit the door running.  My mind is open to new ideas but it hesitates when asked to zen out to a piped in recording of a man who sounds like Dracula growling in Pali. Chanting, among other things like animal sacrifice and praying with snakes, was just too wacky for me. And after one minute of sitting on the floor, my toes were already numb. I was ready to leave without the course even properly beginning.

And the next day I discovered that our teacher wasn’t even at the retreat center, instead we would be listening to audio recordings that were paused every fifth sentence and translated into Bahasa Indonesia so the entire class could understand. At night we were shown a lecture given by the teacher in 1993 and filmed by a novice who just learned how to pan and zoom. What are we doing here!?

I really felt that we were being filmed for a hidden camera tv show. I was prepared that at any moment someone with a camera would jump out and laugh.

A dip in the Ganges of Damma

But we stayed. Our video guru had a positive message and all he asked us to do was sit still and observe our breathing. The kitchen didn’t appear to serve kool aid.

We woke up at 4:00 am and meditated the entire day, sometimes for 4 hours at a time – always sitting still, just breathing, breathing, breathing.

Your mind has a lot to say when you’re asked to concentrate on your breathing. You drift off into a day dream. You think about the past, you plan the future, you scratch your itches and adjust your back.  Try it right now, sit still for just one minute, feel your breath and don’t allow your mind to wander – it’s hard! But our guru continued to tell us, “have a calm and patient mind. You’re bound to be successful.”

So after the first two days, about 20 hours of meditation, my mind began to calm down. Suddenly I could sit still for 3 minutes and breathe. Then 4 minutes. Then, maybe, 4 minutes 20 seconds. But the pain! The sheer and total agony of sitting still is almost overwhelming.  Your back aches, your legs go numb, your feet and hands tingle from lack of blood. And this is where Buddhism kicks in.

I am in PAIN! This is not CALMING!

Vipassana (the short-short version)

Each night our taped guru taught us a tiny bit more about why we were putting our bodies through this torture – namely experiential learning. All religions are meant to act as a moral guide and Buddhists believe that meditation is the best way to learn how to affect positive change in yourself and others. You learn to understand and accept that your body is in pain and that the pain you’re feeling is temporary, you learn not to react. You train your mind not to scratch your itchy nose or adjust your sore back. By not reacting, the physical pain goes away. You begin to understand everything is temporary.

In training your mind not to react to your physical pain, you learn not to react to emotional pain. When someone makes you angry, you are able to step back and understand that the anger (pain) you’re feeling is temporary.  You can choose to react or your can choose not to react.

Eventually, there is no anger.

When there is no angry reaction you have the space to feel compassion towards others. You can positively impact a situation by responding with kindness and compassion. When you can do this, you help yourself and you help the other person.

The last few days

If you can agree with the basic tenets of Buddhism, meditating becomes a lot easier. And so does accepting the odd nature of the course.

You master breathing and learn to concentrate on your body – how does your head feel? Is there pain?  What about your shoulders? Can you feel your clothes or the wind blowing on your back? Suddenly every part of your body is humming in utter misery. You feel everything. My hip joints ached, blood was pumping vigourously through my fingers, a single hair was brushing against my face.  I wanted to move, stretch, itch – react!

But slowly you discover Sabbe sankhara anicca (everything is temporary) and you don’t need to move. Somehow the pain subsides. Somehow you become calm.

There is no pain.

Freedom!

On day 10 we were released from our vow of silence and, surprisingly, it was totally unwelcome. This course was deeply introspective and physically intense. After paying such close attention to your body, all of your senses are physically heightened. During meditation when someone coughed, I could feel the sound hit and reverberate on my ears. When silence ended hearing all the voices of fellow mediators was absolutely jarring. After having all this time to understand my own mind, I was not yet ready to share that watershed of emotion with other people, not even Vinnie.

It took a while before the room filled with voices.  And then the voices became a little louder as people realized that we all went through the same experience. And then suddenly the room was filled with laughter, “I thought I was the only one in agony!” “Me too!” “On the second day I asked our teacher what kind of cult is this!?” “Me too!’

What’s next?

Now that we’re not meditating 11 hours a day, we can easily say that the course was wonderful. It was certainly deeply impactful.

And we’re happy. Calm. More compassionate. Plus, we have six more months of traveling ahead of us!

So with our new found knowledge of the world, Vinnie and I are setting off in different directions for a while. I am on my way to Vietnam where I will indulge in french baguettes and volunteer at a local orphanage.

And keeping with our Matrix theme, Vinnie is heading back to China to chill with Buddhist monks and learn Kung Fu at a Shaolin monastery .I’ll join him in a few weeks.

I know Kung Fu!

 

 

Gong Xi Fa Cai: We survived Chinese New Year

Gong Xi Fa Cai: We survived Chinese New Year

Chinese New Year is a great time to be deaf in Asia.

The Chinese believe that noise will scare away the evil spirits for the upcoming year and they’re intent on making life as loud as possible. Roman Candles constantly explode around you, competing with all manner of drums, bells and cymbals that echo from each city street. Lions parade around restaurants and wag their huge eyelashes into your soup. Gorgeous fireworks randomly explode off of your balcony and crowds of people stop dead in the street to stare at the sky.

It was a pretty wild 15 days.

We started the CNY in Miri.  After a huge family dinner, folks gather in the temple to light incense, watch fireworks and burn fake money.  Burning pillars of incense light the sky and a thick layer of smoke covers everything and everyone in a 4-block radius.

As I rule I think your meant to leave the temple totally stoned.

Similar a menorah but not really

Even SF isn't this foggy

Sticks taller than Vinnie

Too much smoke!

In Kota Kinabalu and Kuala Lumpur we danced and dined with Lions.  We had the chance to pet their cute little heads and receive a good luck orange.

Dancing with the Lions

Little Drummer Boy

On the last day of the Chinese New Year we watched as dragons and lions paraded around town, young children performed intricate martial arts dances and everyone threw oranges into the Melaka River.

Hopefully with all this incense burning, lion dancing, and orange eating, we have enough good luck to last until the year Dragon.

Farewell CYN, see ya next year

Adventures in Caving with Poisonous Creatures!

Adventures in Caving with Poisonous Creatures!

Normal shit, not bat shit

The caves in Mulu National Park are legendary both for their sheer size and because they’re home to an incredible amount of bat shit. During filming of Planet Earth, the film crew had to wade through hundreds of feet of bat doo — and you can watch it here!

I am not sure what kind of muck we climbed through, but I came back from Mulu stinking of dirt, sweat and fear. Fear of snakes, fear of massive pregnant spiders and fear of falling from a rock and being pierced in the heart by a stalagmite.

Poisonous Snake - don't get too close!

Spiders!

Stalagmites

Rock climbing is hard even when there is light and clear footholds.  But take away the sunlight and throw in some poisonous creatures and that’s when you have a good time!

Just reach over the ledge and brush away those bugs

Climbing over wet rock

Amorous Relations with a Giant Cicada

Amorous Relations with a Giant Cicada

Our trip to Borneo was meant to be a disaster. Chinese New Year had begun: vacationers were out in full force, flights were double the price and hostels were all booked. The Batang Rejang was dammed and the winter rain had flooded Niah Caves.  It was beginning to feel like travel hell.

It felt like a good time to throw in the towel, spend a little dough and do something fantastic. So we jumped on a plane to Gunung Mulu, the ultimate in national parks; home to the world’s largest cave, millions of bats and all manner of crazy-huge bugs.

Landing in Mulu

Our first night in Mulu went something like this: Gorgeous sunset, dusk, insects!

Good night Jungle

The bats keep Mulu fairly mosquito-free, and the bugs that the bat’s don’t eat are nabbed by the geckos. Except, of course, if the bug in question is the size of a bat.

No one believed me when I said that I had found a bug as large, if not even bigger, than the average American bat. “Pics of didn’t happen” was the lame response to my discovery. Well, Roman!  Here are your pics!

HUGE BUGS!

Unfortunately these pictures were taken after the cicada flew into my shirt and tried to make sweet, sweet love to my back.

I was hiding behind a column waiting for the giant bug to fly out of the room when it happened. I didn’t know what to do but run. The mammoth flying cockroach descended so quickly there was nothing you could do but cover your head and bust a move.  For some reason, I was the only intelligent person in the room who thought to do this, everyone else just sat there eating their meal, staring at me.

And I took off, flailing across the dining hall, screaming at the top of my lungs, and the giant cicada landed on my back. I froze. Time stopped.

After several hours of standing there frozen, a child, a mere baby the age of 10, grabbed the monster from my shirt and put it on his face. And laughed at me.

Fearless child and monstrous bug

Gonzo the Great: An Autobiography

Gonzo the Great: An Autobiography

Some people claim that Gonzo is a turkey. They’re wrong. He may have a chicken for a girlfriend, but Gonzo is most certainly a Bornean beast.

It has been revealed that Gonzo is actually the blue bastard son of a Bornean Proboscis Monkey and a South African Vervet Monkey (photographed by our travel friends Zach and Tessa).

"Worst case of blue balls I ever saw" - Zach

proboscis monkey at Bako

Coming over to say hi!

Sadly both monkey groups shunned Gonzo – one for his skin color, the other for his unusually ugly nose. Gonzo, rejected and lonely, set off to make a new life for himself on the mean streets of Sesame. After years of bussing tables and PA’ing for the Montel William’s show, he scored big with Jim Henson’s traveling troupe of misfit Muppets.

Way to go Gonzo, you showed them!

Anyway, here are some pictures of Gonzo’s regular colored cousin who we spotted at Bako National Park. Check out his schnoz.

Hongry Monkey

Bako proboscis monkey

Showing off that proboscis profile

Vinnie verses the Giant Bamboo

Vinnie verses the Giant Bamboo

In one corner, a 6’2″ human, weighing in at  200lbs, with full use of arms, legs and opposable thumbs, Ladies and Gentlemen, our defending heavyweight champion, Mr. Vinnie Lauria!

Mr. Lauria

And in the other, the contender, a well known brawler from the jungle, the 12-foot long Giant Thorny Bamboo.

The meanest plant alive

It was a drawn out battle. Mr. Lauria with full use of his senses was able to deftly bob and weave as the giant bamboo took aim at all measure of sensitive areas.  Giant bamboo was thwarted as Mr. Lauria, always on guard, managed to discover it’s position and constantly remained vigilant of Giant Thorny Bamboo’s proximity to the jungle trail.

Giant Thorny Bamboo

The fight continued for hours.  Jungle heat, limited water, difficult terrain and impaired visibility began to sap Mr. Lauria’s formidable strength.

And then he did it!  Giant Thorny Bamboo threw a haymaker to the face, taking advantage of Mr. Lauria’s extreme height and precarious positioning on the thick tree roots covering the jungle floor.

Mr. Lauria withstood the blow and came out fighting –  but his wife did not.  She was down for the count after removing the huge thorns from her husband’s eye.

A decided victory for the Giant Thorny Bamboo, taking out not just one opponent but two.

Yikes!

Singapore Tech Scene

Singapore Tech Scene

Singapore was a trip, only a week long, but a fun city.  And Steve is right, it is Adult Disneyland thanks to its countless fun attractions –  from the giant sling shots launching crowds of people into the air, to the man-made lake with a moving cable around the top pulling kneeboarders around and over jumps.  This is a place to spend it if you’ve got it.

All of this will set you back a handful of Andrew Jacksons though, as the fun is built and priced for all the foreign born execs and their families.

We learned that a full 20% of the population are foregners living in Singapore for work – that number includes western execs to daylabors and migrant workers who come from as close as neighboring Malaysia or as far as India.

But Singapore shouldn’t put all its eggs in the multi-national corporate market when it has such an interesting domestic tech startup scene hatching…

Singapore Geeks

HackerSpace.sg

I heard Singapore had a bit of a tech startup scene so Kristine and I went to check out a local co-working space, HackerSpace.  There is an active and bright startup community in Singapore, more so then in other cities I’ve seen so far in Asia.  At just about a year old, HackerSpace has definitely been a major contributor to the local startup community.  I met up with one founder for dinner, Vin Nair of Smartloans.sg, a successful LendingTree for Singapore.  After dinner, we met up with some other startup folks for drinks – showing that the community is not all just work, but play as well.  I met half a dozen fellow geeks for coffee, and though introduced separately, each knew of the other people I was meeting with and what they were working on.

However, while attending a talk for a university entrepreneurs group – the question was thrown out by Danny Tan of foound.com: “How many of you have an idea for a business to start?” and nobody raised their hand!  On the follow-up question “You’re part of an entrepreneur club and you don’t have any business ideas?” one student raised their hand to say “but we need more experience first” – a complete 180′ from what you would overhear at Stanford.  Following up on that mentality, two people mentioned to me that many young startups fear sharing their ideas, going as far as to require NDA’s from potential investors during a pitch – young startups like to stay in ‘stealth mode.’

Over coffee with Jason Ong (who runs the local Ruby meetup) we discussed the startup mentality in Silicon Valley vs. Singapore. Toying on the notion of how to kickstart the ‘free flowing’ of ideas, I mentioned Super Happy Dev House (SHDH) = A party in which geeks get together to build fun software/services in one day and show them off at night.  A SHDH encourages people to work together, then share and present their ideas to a crowd of fellow geek enthusiasts.  From this conversation, we decided to wortk together on hosting the first ever Super Happy Dev House in Singapore – in fact, the first ever in the whole continent of Asia!

Ghost Hunting

Ghost Hunting

Like most backpackers, we travel with a guide book (Lonely Planet for us), which we may complain about at times, but it usually proves itself to be helpful.

We’ve found that the little tidbits in the book that don’t get a lot of attention tend to be the most fun adventures – from “the roads less travelled” sections to the little gray boxes of interesting facts, off to the side of some paragraphs.

One of these boxes contained a brief sentence about the Singapore Paranomal Investigators (SPI), a local group obsessed with the supernatural.  The images of Ghost Busters came to our minds and we had to check it out.

Singapore Paranormal Investigators

After emailing them, they  invited us to join them on a trip around Labrador Park, where an iconic battle was fought between the British and the Japanese in the 2nd Sino-Japanese War (we’re slowly learning how aggressive & brutal the Japanese were in the early 20th century).  This park is known to every Singaporean because the Brits fumbled with their canyons pointed in the wrong direction as the Japanese snuck up behind them on bikes!  We were to go ghost hunting for tortued  souls!

We tagged along with a dozen or so investigators, many donning fitted black collared shirts with SPI embroidred in white letters to the chest and across the back (think FBI).  We were given an array of ghost hunting tools, from three-dimensional Electro Magnetic Radiation readers to laser powered heat sensors, to infrared spotlights and IR cameras.  We were told of past sightings and learned about paranormal that exists in Singapore.

Our Ghost Hunting Gadgets!

 

A lesson in the Paranormal

We learned about the black market for stillborn babies – their spirits used for good and evil.  In ‘evil’ hands, these tortured souls are used to put curses on enemies and control them by hanging very personal items above the soul in a jar.  On the ‘good’ side, monks pray to these souls placed within alters for many many years until the souls mature and the hatred and sadness behind their unfortunate deaths can be put behind them and they turn into deities and the jar can be opened (a spirit may talk to a monk in their dreams).

We also learned that typically virgins have the best visions of ghosts and the 15yr old investigator in the group could help with that!

With ghost hunting gadgets in hand, we set out to explore the area just before sundown, which was starkly different then our return trip by moonlight.  As  night fell a feeling of eeriness took over as wind blew tree branches and everybody ran over with their instruments to investigate.  The group is well balanced on it’s theories and keeps a level of skepticism among them to keep everything in check – including using physics to explain why one tree branch was aggressively swaying while others around it were not.

Ghost Hunting in Infra-Red

Ironically enough though, as we were walking by an obelisque monument to the veterans that died in battle, a nearby festival down the bay started playing that famous song from Ghost –  Unchained Melody by the Righteous Brothers.

While we didn’t experience any encounters, we did have an interesting time and the investigators of SPI were nothing but fantastic towards us – welcoming us into their group, sharing past stories, asking about our travels, and sharing local knowledge on cuisine and politics. – And we’ll happily trade a lack of virginity for a lack of ghost sightings any day!

 

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?