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Fashion Never Seemed so Interesting

March 19th, 2013 No comments

Our exit from Saigon was to be an overnight train departing at 11:20pm, giving us a bonus night to partake of the rich nighttime street culture.

We began with a drawn out session of beers, appetizers and a meal at a Mexican restaurant with nice outdoor seating1, and were happy to participant in some of the local commerce by purchasing a Paulo Coelho book from one of the venders toting stacks of books about the street.  I’m a big fan of his work The Alchemist, and this promised to be a good read on the train2.

From there we let ourselves get talked into massages at a super sketcheroo massage parlor.  Tracy and I were situated in a dark, narrow room up on the third floor of a small building with 5 massage tables in a row, separated each by a curtain.  I opted for Thai-style, a sort of preview even through Thailand was still 2 countries away.  My tiny-yet-nimble masseuse adeptly maneuvered all about as she contorted me for one great stretch after another, standing over me on the table and pulling my limbs this way and that.  Tracy heard me giggle from two tables over, but what she didn’t know is that it was because on several occasions I swore I was like 2 steps away from being offered a happy ending.  And because I find the “naughty Asian massage” cliché just a kinda hilarious if not offensive, well, I found my situation oddly both super relaxing and genuinely funny.

She whispered in my ear sweet nothings about upgrading my 45 minute massage for the hour long option, to which I relaxedly mumbled “sure, if my wife is okay with us spending the extra time”.  My masseuse tried to clear this with the Mrs. but due to a gap in understanding came back with a reconfirmation of the fact that we’d chosen the 45 minute option.  When I shrugged at the report that 45 minutes it would be, my masseuse scandalously insinuated through wicked whispering that perhaps I feared my wife.  I know this is probably off script in this sort of situation, but I couldn’t help but just chuckle3.

Still, all in all she was a sweet girl and gave a really good massage.  She implored in hushed, urgent tones that I give her a tip right then while still at the table rather than have it go through the house.  Sure thing, a generous percentage on top of about 6 bucks was worth every penny4.  Tracy and I regrouped, paid up to the matron in the stairwell, and were on our way.

The hospitality of the Beautiful Saigon III Hotel shone once more when we returned at about 10pm to pick up our bags.  Tracy was heartily invited to take a shower in the lower level bathroom and was given ample towelage to do so.  A cab was summoned on our behalf and the bellhop politely insisted on carrying our big bags to it.

Training Through the Vietnamese Countryside

I was so looking forward to taking an overnight train but found it a bit hard to sleep.  As you might imagine, a sleeper car in Asia doesn’t easily allow the stretching out of my 6’5″ frame, and I must be getting too fickle as a sleeper for the rattle and hum of a massive locomotive making its way down decades-old tracks to be a soothing ambiance.  Still, a worn but clean pale green blanket looking like standard military issue was a most welcome piece of comfort for the ride5, and earplugs given to me by Yee-Pin back in Singapore turned out to be quite the godsend.

A few chapters in my bootleg book plus a brushing of teeth with questionably potable water and it was lights out.

I awoke to the sun rising over the Vietnamese countryside that was whipping by our wide window.  Rural and pleasant, rice paddies dominated the landscape with what appeared to be plastic bags mounted on sticks, as if masquerading as scarecrows6.

Turns out in the night we were indeed joined by two others, a fellow my age and his mom, from Japan and traveling about Vietnam as part of the work for his non-profit.  We made acquaintances when I overpaid for I guess 3 cups of tea from a woman poking her head into our car at one of the stops7.  I offered my third cup up to Soren on the top bunk across from me and netted a few good hours of company for it.

Upon arriving in Da Nang that afternoon Tracy and I headed a few blocks out to a bus stop, looking to catch a 40 minute ride which would take us into Hoi An.  There we found a couple of native guys also waiting, and for no real reason save for to be nice one of them offered me a banana, of which I was delighted to partake.  People are great.

Our first order of business in Hoi An, as if to further convince ourselves that yep, we’re well sated on the wandering-aimlessly-with-our-backpacks-in-search-of-lodgings front, we wandered aimlessly with our backpacks in search of lodgings.

It wasn’t entirely aimless though, for we were headed clearly towards the old part of town, the veritable perennial festival of lanterns that is the riverfront of the ancient city.  Every night, just after dusk the city comes alight with its myriad lanterns lining streets and bridges, and dotting the water itself in candles floating aboard small containers resembling colorful, translucent Chinese take-out boxes.  The visuals are most definitely worth a look over at Tracy’s blog.

Unexpected Appreciation for High Fashion

One of the signature facets of Hoi An is its thriving culture of tailors.  During walks through the main streets you’ll see shop after shop offering high fashion made to order.  I usually don’t pay much attention to designer clothing.   My understanding that “fashion” fashion, as it’s practiced most places I’ve been, is priced generally some 3-10x what I’m used to paying for comparable garb, thus my perception of it generally blocked by a thick veil of “yeah, that’s not worth it to me so I’m not going to pay any heed whatsoever8“.

But here in South East Asia the prices make my mind so much more open to considering, thereby enabling a glimpse into that joy of standing starry-eyed in the windows of some Madison Avenue gallery, imagining myself in such smart attire strutting into some fancy place amid important people.  Let that in for a moment, and dang, I have to admit the wear upon this endless stream of both male and female mannequins looks sharp indeed.

Tracy and I stopped at the robe (kimono?) shop one evening and picked out a pair of really kickin’ silk robes, thereby lending credence to my arguably rash decision to do away with our old ones before this trip.  “Don’t worry, love, we’ll get better ones later” I assured her.  Thanks, Hoi An!

The process of getting tailor made clothes is as easy and welcoming as it is affordable.  Just saunter past one of the open storefronts and pause to look with more than a fleeting interest9 at some of the garb on display, and a friendly tailor will warmly greet you, usher you in to be sat in front of a large stack of catalogs, and gracefully guide you through the pages to pick out something you like.  Measurements are taken, a small deposit is left, and you’re sent off to return 24 hours hence to pick up your made-just-for-you selection from one of the American-brand designer catalogs.  For about $30 Tracy got a flowing blue blouse and a remarkably nicely form-fitting white collared button-down shirt.

Maybe it’s the near 8 months of seeing only clothes from the same ol’ rotation speaking, but in that shirt she looks good.  Traveling as we are for the next 5 months there is to resist the temptation to order a nice new suit or other such svelte garb, for we would need to tote (and make good and crinkly) such things for some time to come.  So instead, I submit to you (and my future self) a tip for a future endeavor: come to Hoi An with a near empty suitcase and leave with a new wardrobe.

Notes:

  1. A bastardized experience for sure, but the more legit food cart-style restaurants didn’t seem as appealing for hours of milling about.  When an eating establishment consists of 2 or 3 tables, it feels wrong to monopolize one for such lengths.
  2. Dear Mr. Coelho: 11 Minutes was quite enjoyable.  If you read this, please let me know where I can send you a few bucks, because I’m not sure you got your proper due from this sale.
  3. I mean really, I wasn’t about to fall for the bait of reasserting my self-directed manhood and up it to 60 minutes, much less double-down on independent machismo and opt for the hand job which may or may not have been on implicit offer.
  4. Er, Dong.
  5. For the lack of company in our sleeper car I was tempted to grab a second one from the bed above, but was paranoid that we’d be joined a few stops later and didn’t want to be that guy.
  6. Turns out that yep, that’s what they are and that’s why they’re there.
  7. The offers in these situations are delivered so smoothly, the unaware (or groggy from a night of overnight train sleep) are apt to mistakenly assume they are a complimentary part of the transit service.  Deja vu from the overnight up to Tikal.
  8. I happily own my cheapness here.  Frugality like this is the stuff of tradeoffs which enables other things like, say, travel.
  9. About 6 seconds should suffice.
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Lively Nightlife in the Streets of Saigon

March 15th, 2013 No comments

For the first 2 hours of our presence in Vietnam, I had concerns that I wasn’t going like it.  The airport was a bit drab and dirty1, and even though the high schooler in me enjoyed a cheap laugh at the big sign plastering the wall beyond the immigrations counter, a sign which proudly proclaimed in bright bold letters “Get more Vietnamese Dong with Your Visa”2 I felt a little blah about entering what I presumed to be the imminent chaos of a hot, crowded, and polluted city.

Having assiduously avoided the hectic streets of Denpasar for most of our stay in Bali, I was essentially out of practice with the whole thing, or perhaps feeling greatly diminished patience for the genre of environments after getting so very cozy with the calmer rural life and/or the Australian suburbs and/or New Zealand’s outdoor wonderland.  Sure Singapore was crowded and bustling as well, but that was beyond reproach clean and orderly.

The city vibe I got from the cab ride was right in line with what I expected of the metropolis, so no luck with expectation-defying pleasant surprises there.  Fair enough, I would endure the big city for three or so days before heading north, and I would just have to suck it up and not fantasize too much about the neighboring rice terraces we’d left behind days ago.

Fortunately, that was about as much time as my malaise had to fester about the bustling city, for once we made it to our hotel (led by an eagerly helpful bellman from the cab to halfway down a side street which admits no cars) my concerns were quickly laid to rest.  The Beautiful Saigon III is the hotel Tracy booked us online before we arrived3, and ah, what a find.  Four star accommodations for about $40US a night, a small and tidy hotel with only 15 rooms on six floors and super friendly staff.  And sharply dressed, too!  Women in uniform, snazzy red satin dresses with the slit that comes up way up past the waste, but with flowing satin pants that come right on down from there to keep it classy.  Yeah, you know the look.

A few pieces of fruit from the complimentary basket in our room, a nap on the plush, king-sized bed, and the realization that our tucked-away hotel location makes a peaceful oasis from the hectic swirl all around had me clear that we were going to be just fine.

Welcome to Street Food Heaven

We took it easy in our post-nap forage for food that night, and picked one among the many touristy restaurants tucked into our little urban enclave.  A noodle dish with shrimps was tasty enough for sure, but the real magic of Saigon didn’t begin reveal itself until my next meal quest, when I took to the real streets for breakfast at 6:30am the next morning.

Like I said back in Bali, the real challenge of eating in other countries is often just a matter of training your eye to recognize the opportunities all around you.  The plexiglass box with a few little shelves upon a wheeled cart is a visual signal that will get you far in Vietnam.  Food cart.  I found one with a few baguettes in view on the shelf, and wandered over.  With a little sign language and a few words in English, the woman working the cart cracked open a baguette, spatula’d in some mayonnaise, laid in some slices of cheese, cuts of pork, tomatoes and cucumbers, and laid on 4 distinct kinds of sauce.  Not knowing what anything costs I handed her a 50,000 Dong note4, and she made me 35,000 in change, meaning my sandwich cost about 75-cents US.

And the taste?  Holy moly that’s good.  The French influence from the imperialist days is still well in tact, at least as far as the bread is concerned: the baguette was pure perfection.  It had the sort of soft crackle about it, that unfakeable tell of freshness in the highest.  The meat was cooked and spiced to perfection, and the produce was fresh, cool and crisp.  And the medley of four sauces?  It’s clear that there’s a reason for every one, for the combination is just so good in the way you just wouldn’t suspect a mere sandwich to be.

An 8-inch baguette that tastes this good for under a buck?  If anyone cracks the code of exporting Vietnamese sandwich food cart technology in a cost effective way, Subway is screwed.

But wait, there’s more.  All along the streets, amid the undifferentiated bustle of motorbikes coming and going, there are numerous restaurants comprised of a slightly fancier cart setup surrounded by few little tables, and just making eye contact with the women presiding over the operation is enough to fetch you an invitation to sit on down.  And by “little tables” and “sit on down” I do mean just that.  Street culture in Vietnam has no need for the pretense of “adult sized” tables which we are used to.

No, the tables you’ll find at street food joints are low to the ground, perhaps raising 18 inches off and with small plastic chairs that would barely qualify as footstools in a western country.  Think the kids table at Thanksgiving, but smaller.  And believe me, with my 6’5″ frame I have NO reservations about hunching over to enjoy a meal in this setup, not for variations of the stuffed baguette with fresh scrambled eggs, permutations on the theme of rice noodles, meat and veggies, and, my favorite staple of Vietnamese cuisine, pho.

You wanna know simple joys?  Sit down on a 6-inch stool in a dank alleyway and be served a big bowl of pho, accompanied by some of the most flavorful and fresh pho mix-ins (Thai basil, cilantro, onions, lemon wedges, alfalfa sprouts, and chopped chillies that are hot as hell) you’ve ever had.  While you eat this hot, brothy bowl of noodles and meat adorned with whatever compliment of vegetables and herbs suit your fancy, look across the alley at the woman pouring thick black liquid through a crude cloth filter, and know that she’s brewing up Vietnamese coffee, some of the most flavorful, caffeine-buzz inducing coffee you’ve ever tasted.  Order and sip that in this dank alley, and watch hoards of motorbikes zoom past 20 feet from your perch.

Then.  Then you will know simple joys, in this case a small sampling of the simple joys of Vietnam street life.

The experience will set you back about three bucks.

The nighttime is even better: more food carts of the portable and semi-portable variety, thumpin’ tunes from the clubs around, and sidewalks that swell to 10 or 15 feet deep in front of regular establishments, to accommodate little table seating for the masses assembled to enjoy food and 25-cent beers.  It’s the best street life I’ve encountered yet, and I thought of several guy friends back home with whom I’d love to hang out with in this environment for a mandate5.

Go check out Tracy’s blog for visuals of the Saigon street life.

Realizations through Remembrance

One of our main to-dos here in Saigon6 was to visit the War Remnants Museum.  Formerly known as the “Exhibition House for Crimes of War and Aggression” (and formerly formerly known as the “Exhibition House for US and Puppet Crimes”), the museum gave what seemed to be a fair telling of the story from the non-US perspective.  Put another way, it wasn’t an over-the-top blame fest of the US.

Oh don’t get me wrong, in it were some legitimate gripes about our presence from ’61 to ’73.  In cultural references then (and perhaps a smidge now), what we call the “Vietnam war” is referred to as the “War of US Aggression”.  Numerous walls document news pieces of people and governments from around the world decrying the US involvement.  I recall reading a quote from Ho Chi Minh himself to the sensible effect of “In the future we’d prefer the US to let us, as a nation, work out our own internal conflicts, thankyouverymuch.”

Also poignant was a little education on Agent Orange, one of several chemicals sprayed by the US military all over the Vietnamese countryside which still continues to have lingering effects on the agriculture and livability vis-a-vis horrific deformations, cancer,  etc.  The widespread use of it to gain some sort of upper hand in the conflict just seems like a major middle finger to the slice of humanity who lives here.  All’s fair in love and war, I guess, but, I mean, Jesus.

Most moving  for me was seeing a tidy collection of honorary medals which belonged to a decorated US soldier who served in the war.  They were sent by the soldier back to Vietnam along with an inscription: “TO THE PEOPLE OF A UNITED VIETNAM.  I AM SORRY.  I WAS WRONG.”

My mom has a simple position on the abortion debate, and it goes roughly “How could you do that to a sweet, innocent baby?  No, no, you just don’t do that to a baby.  To a loving and cute baby?  No, you don’t do that.”  It is an argument which vastly oversimplifies and ignores any sort of surrounding context, but has a certain elegance.  As I took in the exhibits (and whilst in the thick of so far loving everything about this country and the people I’ve interacted with), her words on the matter popped into my head.  I found myself musing in earnest, complete with her sweet, old lady Midwest accent,  “How could you wage war against these people? Oh, they’re a lovely people and a lovely culture.  No, no, you just won’t wage war against the Vietnamese.  No, you just don’t do that.”

Some days it bums me out that we don’t live in a world where reasoning from such fundamental elements isn’t sufficient to settle the decision making processes.  I would love the deliciousness of a country’s cuisine and coffee to be a strong enough case to not wage war, but I grant that as a species we’re not there yet.

As we left and walked the bustling streets back to our neighborhood, a realization popped into my head, one that might seem trivial at first glance but was (for me) a profound realization.  “Hey Tracy, you know what’s awesome?”  “Um, no, what?”

“Peace,” I replied.  “Peace is FUCKING AWESOME.

“I mean, when there’s peace you can really do some shit.  You can enjoy time at a food cart, and leisurely read a book, and build civilization.  Man, peace is so great.”

I think thus far I’ve lived something north of 99% of my waking moments taking peace for granted.

Notes:

  1. Not that the utterly world class airport that is Singapore’s is an easy act to follow.
  2. I’m totally serious about this.  Though to be clear, it’s not the suggestion that it might appear to be, that the global credit card company is somehow advocating the opportunity for elevated consumerism of male prostitution and/or whatnot in the southeast Asian country through use of its financial instruments.  Nope, “Dong” is the unit of currency in this fine nation, rendering this otherwise striking fodder for juvenile comedy a strictly above-the-board financial proposition.  Ahem.
  3. This new strategy represents an early-stage foray of our new “We’re Getting too Old For this Shit” program, here specifically regarding the ritual of wandering aimlessly with full baggage looking for accommodations.
  4. I got a lotta Dong with my Visa, if you know what I mean.  And since you’re the type to read these footnotes, the answer is yes, yes you do.
  5. Yes, the plane ticket price will override any savings realized from consuming cheap beer, I know.  It’s still a way cool experience.
  6. Or, as it’s officially known, Ho Chi Minh City.  Did I mention that yet?  After the north won the war, Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City.  But it turns out an edict from on high to map makers and signage crews doesn’t necessarily get through to the whole populace’s parlance, not even after 37 years and counting.
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Everywhere You Look, Skyscrapers

March 11th, 2013 No comments

Maybe it was just because of where we came from, rural Ubud, where anything over four stories counts as a rather imposing structure.  But I’m pretty sure that the city-state of Singapore has a statistically impressive density of skyscrapers within its tidy 272 square miles.

Our departure from Bali had only a touch of melancholy about it.  Our landlord Nyoman gave me a nice man-hug on our way out and said, in his characteristic friendly way, “See you next time.”  Next time indeed.  I give it 18 months, tops, and pre-hope that his place is available.

It’s funny, because Tracy and I both felt more sad and were waxing more nostalgic during our cab ride to the airport in Cusco back in September, yet by all accounts we enjoyed an even more lovely time in Bali.

I think this year is providing us with a lot of good practice at the mental task of setting up and tearing down life and living situations.  Being good at this means being quick to find fondness in a new set of circumstances, as well as readily accepting of the impermanence of things when it’s time to move on.  In our less practiced state surrounding our first month-long living situation, we were much slower to find our groove, and less ready to give it up once we had.

But here we were in the cab ride to the Bali airport, well rested and inspired to experience whatever lay ahead.

Against two months living essentially in the sticks, Singapore immediately impressed as a thoroughly modern and beautifully well put together metropolis.  The two little dishes at every station’s counter in airport immigration are exemplary of the attention to detail: one with candies, the other for the candy wrappers.  Welcome to Singapore.

Heck, we were just delighted to have potable water on tap again, and eagerly filled our 1.6 liters of water bottle capacity from the public drinking fountains like thirsty little urchins.

The change in the currency climate immediately revealed itself with a visit to an ATM.  In Bali, you have to type a lot of zeros in manually to get 2,500,000 rupiah, hope that the machine will actually allow such a big transaction (of about $260US), and then hope that it will give it to you in bills of the largest denomination, 100,000 rather than 50,000 notes (which basically leaves you with a fat stack of fivers).

Here in Singapore your best bet for being able to fold your wallet isn’t what equates roughly to a series of ten dollar bills, but rather you’ll get a tidy stack of 50 Singaporean dollar bills (worth about $39US a piece), meaning any withdrawal you make will fit in just fine.  You want S$300?  S$600?  S$1200?  No problem, just push this button here, no need to type in a lengthy series of zeros.

The light rail system out of the airport continues the immaculate and well-engineered mojo.  Just a look at the sign detailing the fines for mucking things up hints at how they keep it all so clean.  You wanna eat or drink on this train?  S$500 is the fine.  Smoking?  S$1000.  Bringing on flammable goods will set you back a few mortgage payments at S$5,000 per offense.  I don’t know if those fines are strictly responsible for curtailing infractions against the tidiness of the city’s public transit infrastructure, but goodness whatever they’re doing is working.

Amid my delight in how clean and well kept everything is, I couldn’t help but think that punk kid from the US who got caned here back in the 90’s for vandalism totally deserved it.  Having been a grateful guest of now 10 countries this trip and counting, combined with admiring the environment before me, makes the idea of going into another country, messing it up a little, and expecting an exemption from the law of the land when you get caught doing it seem utterly brazen and disrespectful1.

Upon arriving at the station for the rendez vous with our Couch Surfing host Yee-Pin, I was in desperate need of my first dalliance with Singaporean cuisine.  It did not disappoint.  A small counter in the station set me up with a pile of rice, some super flavorful chicken, and something deep fried of a potato nature, all for S$2.  My earlier concerns from the ATM withdrawal options that Singapore would be a baller city in terms of its pricing were allayed to know that delicious food could be had this cheaply.

After a quick rest at his place, set on the 6th floor of one of the many many 20+ story housing complexes in the neighborhood, Yee-Pin took us out to partake in two mainstays of Singaporean culture: food courts and mega malls.

The food court was just a few blocks away, an open air space on the ground floor with a sprawling lineup of varied Asian food counters.  Like so many countries with an abundance of skyscrapers, it’s probably fair to say that Singapore doesn’t have much of a native food culture itself, but rather boasts ubiquitous availability of neighboring cuisines.  In this food court you’ll find options for Malaysian food, Korean food, Chinese food, Japanese food, and so on.  With each counter restaurant offering between 6 and 10 staple dishes, there was so much delicious ground to cover.  I settled on bulgogi beef from the Korean joint.  Over dinner I did the math while contemplating how many menu items within eye shot seemed worth a try, and worked out with 3 days here I could work in 9, maybe 12 meals in Singapore.  Decent coverage.

After dinner we went to the mall.  The way neighborhoods are laid out, Yee-Pin explained, is that they are centered around a train station, and the mall which is generally within a few hundred feet of that station.  In fact sometimes you’ll exit a train and be somewhere nestled deep inside a mall.  Malls are generally tall, with a large central atrium and series of escalators taking you up the 3-6 stories.  Malls house food courts not unlike the open air one we just ate at (super clean and with really good food options), as well as movie theaters, grocery stores, post offices, and libraries.

Humility and Awe from a Positive Racial Stereotype

Malls also house arcades.  For grins and nostalgia I asked Yee-Pin and Tracy if they would indulge me a walk through, to see how over-the-top fancy arcade games are getting.

And to see if there was a Dance Dance Revolution machine there.

For back in the US, there’s generally an understanding that it doesn’t matter how good you think you are.  If you go out looking for a match in the arcade you will sooner than later meet, say, a 12-year-old Asian girl wearing a Hello Kitty backpack, and you will lose.  You can challenge her to a song of your choice, a tough one that you’ve mastered.  And at the end you will be out of breath, having managed a solid B, while she will have finished AAA with her perfect 536 combo and saying “Tee hee, that was fun, let’s go again!”

I think I’m pretty decent at DDR.  Now and again I can get an A on 8-footer (on a 10 foot difficulty scale, you see).  I’ll be winded, but I can do it and that’s more than most people can do without serious practice.  So here I was is Asia, in a thoroughly modern city with a mall loving culture.  Surely, I thought, I might see one of these legendary stars of DDR and thus quickly jettison any futile pride I might be carrying in this area.

Indeed I did.

As we encroached upon the DDR machine there was a guy, maybe 15, who was doing impossibly hard songs with sequences that spanned across both dance pads, and getting perfect scores.  For me this was a delightful grounding exercise, one to wipe away any delusions of grandeur regarding my prowess on the video game dance floor.  It was also just plain fun to watch and marvel, something to genuinely make me mutter WTF in awe and confusion as to how2.

When this spirited youth finished out his 4 songs (3 for the S$1.60 he paid for a game, plus a bonus one for being awesome: even the machine knew it), he graciously allowed me to step up for my turn, presumably allowing him a nice chance to take a breather (not that he looked like he needed it).  Like an old man out of touch I couldn’t figure out where to swipe my card to start my game, and after he patiently helped I played my 3 songs with joy and on a difficulty level that impressed no one.

Still, my peeps cheered me on and even the super star player gave me a thumbs up as I descended from my rondo of mediocrity.  I appreciated his and his friend’s patience during amateur hour, and hope that my gangly, flailing white guy limbs did provide entertainment for their break.  Who knows, perhaps just as I gained humility and grounding from watching them, my DDR performance served them as an exercise in sympathy and compassion.  Either way, they were super nice and the subsequent show of now two titans of DDR dueling it out was similarly impressive.

I thanked Tracy and Yee-Pin for their patience in all of this.

Incidentally, it should come as no surprise that my mini spiritual journey in the arcade was not captured by Tracy’s masterful photographic skills and equipment.  But you can see a grainy image of it taken by her iPhone, along with a few other fun shots of Singapore, here.

A Whirlwind of Milling and Malling About

The next morning we rose bright and early to do good on a perk for our hosts: Tracy did a yoga class for me, Yee-Pin, and his roommate Cheng.  After that it was breakfast at another outdoor food court nearby (Yee-Pin explained on the walk how Singapore is one of those cities where most everyone eats the majority of their meals out, owning to a combination of it being so good and so cheap, and generally tiny kitchen space at home).  Then we parted ways for the day, bound for the botanical gardens and then a lunch meeting with a friend.

One of the inciting factors to visit Singapore was a casual invitation months ago from a Dr. John Kenworthy, the first paying customer (and one of the most vocal fans) of my baby, coachaccountable.com.  The serendipity of it was just too good to pass up, given that Singapore was already a worthy destination for a visit3.  Our face to face meeting after months of emailing back and forth was a treat, and yep, it was at another super fancy mall with a more than ample food court.

From there it was onto another mall, this time killing time with a snack, of a pair of gourmet creme puffs4, and a meal of noodles and dumplings.  The fancy, crowded atmosphere of even the basement level began to explain why in such a populous city you see virtually no one about on the hot city streets: everyone is packed into the air conditioned malls.

From there it was to The Stamford Swissôtel, a fancy hotel at which, in our rugged backpacker state, we have no legitimate business, but nonetheless they allowed our presence at the bar on the 73rd floor as we sipped our wine and took in views of the city from on high, looking down at the sea of skyscrapers.  I kept feeling as though we must have snuck past some snooty concierge to get there.

Dim Sum Cultural Exchange Program

Yee-Pin and Cheng were grade-A couch surfing hosts, an not just because the cushioned sleeping arrangement on their living room floor was way more comfy than you might expect.  It was the numerous conversations (spread over 3 breakfasts, 2 dinners, and 3 sessions of living room loafing) in which we compared notes of what life and society was like in our respective backgrounds.  Over mall dim sum for breakfast one morning in particular we went into all sorts of interesting nuggets.

Yes, Singaporean society does have a more strict set of rules for acceptable behavior (as suggested by the lore of caning and fines for metro offenses), but it’s hardly authoritarian, and the rambunctious youth still get away with defiance and malarkey.  As youth are, you know, apt to do.

The school system is setup to split students into separate tracks at the tender age of nine based on testing, which puts some serious pressure to perform early on.  Everyone’s mama wants their baby to get accepted to the engineers’ track as opposed to, say, the burger flippin’ track5.  Yee-Pin had the odd fortune and misfortune of being at the bottom of the elite tier.

It is hard to say which system is better or worse.  In the US, the great split doesn’t really happen until the dance of college admissions.  But the Singapore system is carefully metered to get the right mix of professionals, meaning if you make it into the engineering tier and finish there will indeed be a job waiting for you.  It is a much more solid proposition than how that promise in the US has been a crap shot for the last decade or so.

Male citizens of Singapore have mandatory military service for two years starting around 18, and then something like 10 more years of reserve duty.  While it makes for a bonding, shared experience and should be a rewarded mark of service, the harsh irony is the tendency for employers to disfavor young, male citizens for jobs because of their yearly need to take two weeks paid time off for their service duties.

The broad stroke economics of the upwardly prosperous city state are a real study in long term sustainability.  Everything is super nice, impressively architected, and just all seems to fit nicely.  But to keep it all going that way requires something like a 10% annual growth in foreign investment.  As such Singapore constantly strives to make itself attractive to outside capital6, and to fit it all in regularly bulldozes 10-story buildings to make way for 30-story ones.  Even affordable public housing, lived in by 85% of Singaporeans7, is getting progressively pricy and tricky to land.  People have to be married to qualify, unless you can land a rare rental deal from someone else able to legitimately get in.

Just a glance at a map makes clear that the only option is to build up, not out.  The mathematician in me, familiar with steady state analysis and exponential curves, wonders how many more years this can possibly hold together before something needs to fundamentally shift in the equation.

But until then, Singapore is a lovely place.  Make no mistake about it.

There was just one more  important thing we really learned from Yee-Pin & Cheng during our last breakfast, and that is the degree to which couch surfing hosts really want to hang out with their guests.  “That’s the fun of it.  I don’t want to host people just looking for a place to crash, I want to spend time with them and have conversations like this.”

Up until our fab host made this point so abundantly clear through such straightforward reasoning, Tracy and I erred on the side of not wanting to be a burden, treading cautiously to not require much time and attention.  Always grateful for the opportunities to hang out, for sure, but deliberately maintaining and independent and non-assuming demeanor throughout our stay.  To learn that our company was itself the perk of hosting (and so much more than a means for earning good hosting karma to be cashed in later) was a most welcoming sentiment indeed.

All told, our couch surfing hosts made our trip to Singapore a real gem.

After our 3 days here it’s on now to Vietnam.  Tracy, through her diligent homework back in Bali, has all of our paperwork in order to enter the country (it’s one of the most complicated to get into ’round these parts), and we are excited for it.

Notes:

  1. I suppose this puts me just a few steps shy of yelling at children to “Get off my lawn!”, if I had one.
  2. I know people generally find their dose of such marvelous grace on say, a figure skating ice rink or at the metropolitan ballet.  Whatever, I find mine in Asian malls.
  3. Now, if he had invited us to swing back and visit him in, say, Cuba?  Whole different story.
  4. Seriously, this was from a counter that offered 30 varieties of creme puff.  We tried the Boston creme and tiramisu.
  5. I’m sure the actual track labels are much kinder this, I just don’t know them.
  6. You didn’t think those little candies at immigration were just to be nice, did you?
  7. Unlike many other countries, living in public housing is NOT a sign of poverty in Singapore–very few here live below the poverty line.
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So How is it That Bali Got So Magical, Anyway?

March 6th, 2013 3 comments

We are now rounding out our two months in Bali, and yes, I could go on with further reasons for my fondness of days spent living here.  I could describe the joys of making a fort with pillows and cushions for dollar-bootleg movie nights, or of being sold various articles Balinese fashion by pushy (yet ultimately masterful) women at the market1, or of sitting back and watching the beautiful afternoon rainstorms from the dry comfort of our very well designed house (in defiance of the utterly blurry line which separates the inside from the outside, judicious use of awnings keeps the inside remarkably dry amid heavy, wind-swept rains).

But I’m going to fast-forward, and consider it sufficient to say that Bali is, to my tastes, a remarkably standout place indeed.  I would go so far as to dub it “Planet John”, a place that so thoroughly agrees with me that I would be hard pressed to conceive of a better fit.

The amateur anthropologist in me has wondered from time to time what makes this island so stand-out incredible.  At dinner one night with Martin and Phillipa, Phillipa shared with the table her theory.  To a crude approximation, it goes like this.

Bali has above-average natural abundance.  Just a walk down the path to your hotel can reveal some 10 different sustenance-bearing trees and plants2.  All of these things just grow, naturally and without much special cultivation.  Of course there is the opportunity to carefully cultivate all of these plants for greater yield, but the key idea is that this baseline abundance requires no maintenance.

So for much of the region’s history, one can handle the work to hunt and gather enough for your family in, say, two or three hours per day.  (Contrast this to a harsher climate, like Afghanistan, for example, where it might take more like six hours a day to gather enough water for a family.)  So what do you do with all that surplus time and energy that you have when sustenance requires but a fraction of your waking hours?  Well, if you’re Bali, blessed with it’s relatively peaceful history, you spend that surplus creating carvings, sculptures, dance, music, temples, ceremonies, traditions, stonework, and floral incense offerings laid out everywhere you look, three times a day.

In essence, you create culture, and Bali’s is about as rich and dedicated to beauty as any I’ve seen.

Another facet to the theory behind Bali’s agreeability came from an unlikely source: the final paragraph of a magazine article on display in the Blanco Museum.  Don Antonio Blanco is reputed as the most famous artist to ever live in Bali, and, well, he liked the ladies.  Or at very least liked to paint them.  Nude, female, Balinese hotness is the subject matter of better than half of his paintings on display at the museum3.

Regarding Blanco’s preferred subject matter, the article about the museum points out that the Dutch East India Company (which ruled over Bali and all of Indonesia back in age of sail) explicitly forbade the Christian missionaries from entering Bali.  The result, as argued by the article, is that breasts in Bali never got subjugated to the realm of shame as they have been so commonly elsewhere in the world, thus they have remained awesome/regularly on display through most of Bali’s history4.

The broader implication of all this is that the absence of missionaries has enabled Bali’s religious traditions to remain more natively in tact, rather than become watered down by external influences.  Indeed, the main reason for the missionary ban was the hostile reaction that natives had to the missionary’s preachy edicts, specifically those telling them to destroy idols and temples as being of the devil.  The Christian converts had their rice fields sabotaged as a result, and were expelled from their villages.  Perhaps you could argue that it’s tough to say who was oppressing who, but I’m glad the natives held tough and kept all this beautiful stonework (and culture) in tact, rather than succumbing to a play to homogenize & assimilate.

Couch Surfing Karma

Towards the tail end of our stay we had the good fortune of someone taking up our offer to host after all.  In a delightful chance to back good karma, it was Charles & Amy, the couple from New Zealand who put us up for a weekend back in December.  They were in touch, telling us about the pollution and chaos of Kuala Lumpur.  We invited them to swing on over to Bali and stay a while with us, so that way we might delight in playing the host and repay their earlier favor.

This was a fantastic alignment of people and places, and there was only a small wrinkle thrown in by Charles when he replied to say, in effect: “We’ve booked our flight and will be there for 16 days, let us know if that’s too long.”

What an odd sense of conundrum that arose from this perfectly polite notice!  I mean, 16 days is a really long time to host people you don’t know that well5.  But they’ve been super nice to us already.  Our place was big and we were totally keen to host, so there’s this guilt of saying that anything less was preferred.  But it was preferred!  At least, we think it was, right?  I mean, that would put the kabash on skinny dipping for most of the rest of our time here.  And we’d have to schedule ourselves around them, and feel obligated to play host lest the situation degrade into 2 pairs of indifferent roommates, awkwardly co-habitating.  But we wanted roommates, we were excited to have people other than us to hang out and do stuff with…

And so on.  A rambling, incoherent, and contradictory stream of pro and con thoughts when looking at the prospect of hosting for 2+ weeks.  The opening to say it was too long was right there in the email, but our thought process was all underpinned by this desire to exercise gracious reciprocity and not be selfish, amazing-tropical-house hogging hogs.

The writers of Seinfeld could’ve made 8-minutes of banter out of the scenario.

We ultimately replied with a semi non-committal “let’s call it a week, and we’ll let you know if it’s too long beyond that.”

Sure enough, it was a total treat to host them, and they made fantastic guests.  Amy would cook fab dinner now and then.  We’d sit around for hours having what we dubbed “fruit parties”, slowly eating through big plate of varied fruits we’d gotten at the store, some known, some not.  We played card games by candlelight up on the terrace over beers, and had great companions for a day trip to various sites around the island.  We even hosted Martin and Phillipa at our place on one occasion, making us feel truly popular with a party of six in our home.

The time did come when I again yearned for more autonomy over our home6, this was about day 10.  Consumed with the same (almost certainly irrational) guilt, I rehearsed a few times the right way to break the news over dinner that night.  “So… you guys have been fantastic guests and we’ve really enjoyed your presence, but now you gotta go.  I wanna enjoy skinny dipping for our last week here.”

Of course I needn’t have feared, for Charles and Amy took the news with immaculate grace and appreciated the heck out of our hospitality.  Not a trace of awkwardness, and I was all too happy to say “of course” in response to Charles’ request for a night or two more so that they could plan out their next move.

Exploration vs. Exploitation

At times during our stay I’ve casually insinuated to Tracy that we should stay here for a third month.  She always wisely says no, and I grant that I’ve never really been serious with the suggestion anyhow.  This is not just because of the extra complicated/expensive hoops one must jump through to extend a tourist visa beyond two months, either.

In machine learning, the branch of computer science concerned with how computers can learn to perform certain tasks automagically, there’s this notion of “exploration vs. exploitation”.  “Exploration” is the process of having a learning algorithm explore new things so as to learn.  Algorithms get better from the experience of doing the not-yet-known.  “Exploitation”, by contrast, is having a learning algorithm exploit knowledge it’s gotten from earlier explorations in order to perform the task.  No real learning or improvement to the approach happens during exploitation, but rather you just get results based upon prior learning.

To stay in Bali for another month or more would amount to simply exploiting the knowledge we’ve gained (i.e. the knowledge that this place is awesome).  But world tour isn’t about exploitation in the machine learning sense of the word, it’s about exploration.  To find lots of places that are awesome.  The game, which I decided once whilst talking myself off of the short-sighted “let’s just enjoy the rest of world tour here in Bali” ledge, is to discover TEN such places, ten places in the world good enough to come back to for a month or more.

This collection of ten, I figure, is knowledge ripe for exploiting later.  And we have to earn it first.  So we will leave, and not with me clinging white-knuckled as Tracy drags me on to the next place, but rather rejuvenated and excited to uncover other places that truly give us joy.

And where will we go next?  Singapore.  Turns out there’s a friend there for me to meet.

Notes:

  1. And my gratitude goes to them–turns out I look pretty good in Balinese garb, and enjoyed putting on a small fashion show for Tracy.
  2. One possible configuration you might find: coconut, papaya, lemongrass, ginger root, rice, snake fruit, mangosteen, banana, cinnamon, coffee.  Makes my mouth water just to type it.
  3. In fact, the last room of the museum is dedicated to super explicit/borderline raunchy works that are pretty over-the-top by most any standard of taste.  I like to think of these the works as coming from his “You know what?  I’m famous and old, so, fuck it” phase.  Earning your stripes has its perks.
  4. The article adds that regular work in the rice fields, which has the effect of broadening the shoulders and toning the upper body, also helped the cause.
  5. Or even people whom you do know that well.
  6. Who am I kidding, skinny dipping.  I mean, other things too, sure.  But yeah.  Jumping into the pool all sweaty from a run in the morning heat after wolfing down a mangosteen and a snake fruit?  That’s just great.
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