Sunday, 30 June 2013

Going Hog-wild in Pulao Ubin!

I still have about a month left in Asia but this was my last full weekend in Singapore- next weekend is Siem Reap then Bali then Sri Lanka then Philippines then it's time for home (until I leave for a Northwest coast road trip two days later).  But the weekend was awesome and I've now completed almost everything on my Singapore bucket list besides Gardens by the Bay and drinks at 1 altitude (where you have a panoramic view of the city from 285 meters up).
Friday was my 25th birthday and all of the fellows had an afternoon event at US embassy.  Several important people made time to talk to us although the embassy was abuzz preparing for Vice President Bidin's upcoming visit) so we heard from the economic officer, the guy who deals with Americans jailed in Singapore (men can still legally get caned as a punishment in Singapore and American (men especially) need to look out for are "outrage of modesty" charges if a woman feels assaulted in any way) and this awesome ambassador named Lou who convinced us all that we want to abandon lives as scientists and work for the government in foreign countries.  I wish I had more energy to write about the cool stuff we learned but it's currently 1:28 AM Singapore time and I know this post is going to be long-ish anyway.  After the visit, all fourteen of us went to Arab street for some shopping/exploring then they all treated me to dinner at a Turkish restaurant.  Paul surprised me with a birthday "cake" of baklava.  It was a real treat to have everyone together- we haven't all been reunited since orientation and it probably won't happen again until the closing ceremonies.  After that, various people dispersed but a bunch of us stayed out for the nightlife.  We saw these bicyclists completely decked out in blinking glowsticks cruise down the street at some point which was interesting.  We didn't stay out too late since I'd been out almost every night last week and we were going to wake up for an island adventure at Pulao Ubin early the next morning but it was a great to catch up with everyone.  Alissa gave me some Japanese Pocky, a lizard showed up to my bedroom to munch on my aunts and I enjoyed reading all the birthday cards Ken brought me from the US.
Birthday dinner with all the fellows on Arab Street- starting with Alissa and going counterclockwise it's Alissa, Jen, Luke, Stephanic, Justin, me, Paul, Deb, David, Ken, Kevin, Dawn and Marie
Saturday morning, a bunch of us took off on an eternal walk-metro-bus-ferry journey to Pulao Ubin, the "adventure island" of Singapore where you can hike, bike and camp in the rainforest and wetlands. We all rented mountain bikes (the girls who chose the cheap rentals with baskets dealt with breaks that didn't work, chains that fell off and gears that would start switching when they felt like) and took off down dirt roads.  Pretty early on, it started pouring and by the end of the day, we were wet, muddy (covered in red splatters of fish sauce if you were Kevin in white shorts) and in various stages of undress but it was so much fun feeling like neighborhood kids in a bicycle gang, pedaling through the woods.  At one point during the downpour, we took a  break under a hut to munch on lunch that we brought from the ferry terminal.  Ken ignored the signs about not feeding the wild animals and tossed his apple core to a wild hog who was hanging out in the woods.  A couple seconds later, the area was flooded with three dozen hogs, in all shapes and sizes, from bearded daddy hogs to little baby hoglets.  We decided to play it cool, feign innocence and walk to the wetlands but when we came back, Marie's bike was knocked over and her sunblock was bitten into so those were some hungry hogs!
We went on a hike under swaying coconut palms through the wetlands at Chek Jawa and saw all sorts of snakes, flourishing mangroves and mud lobsters.  Only a few families live on the rustic island and the whole time, it felt like we went back in time.

Flashing peace signs on the wet land boardwalk at Pulao Ubin

On the top of the observation tower at Pulao Ubin
 After replenishing our electrolytes and stopping to slice up our Kuching cake to celebrate Marie's birthday, we headed back on the ferry toward the mainland.  We stopped at a Fourth of July event for some American food (Ken was so excited for REAL ketchup- he had an unfortunate run-in with red sauce at a hawker center.  He tried to cool down his spicy fried fish in the "ketchup" and it took him awhile before he realized the sauce was the problem) and met up with some other fellows.  Several of them stayed there for fireworks and scored us an invite to the ambassador's house for happy hour this week.  I went home and my "nap" turned into an early night- Ken invited me out to live music but I'm glad I slept through it since he was out until sunrise.
Being 'Merican at the US embassy Fourth of July celebration
On Sunday, Dawn and I did a walking tour of Chinatown and the surrounding areas, the landing point for most of Singapore's first settlers.  Dawn tried the famous chicken rice and banana fritters at the famous Hawker center and we toured several temples, including the Temple of the Golden tooth which was huge.  We saw monks doing their morning chants and toured four floors to learn about the various countries that influenced Buddhism in Singapore while seeing the rooftop orchid garden, the tooth relic, singing bell and the pagoda of a thousand buddhas.  She stayed to further explore Little India but I went back to campus.
View of chanting monks at the Golden Tooth temple, Chinatown
Ken and I met up with Etkin, a Turkish couchsurfer I met when we went dancing last wednesday.  He's working on his PhD in computer science and he lives in UTown so he gave us a tour  of the "state of the art intellectual, cultural and social hub" of NUS.  Ken and I went swimming in the mini infinity pool on the top of the recreation center, brainstorming how to sneak into the real infinity pool at Marina Bay Sands as poor Etkin battled stains doing laundry.  It was such a perfect way to spend Sunday afternoon (I just hope I don't give Ken my cold but I warned him!).  I should go to bed- this week, I'm doing some interviews and all my nights are already booked so it's going to be busy.  Here's the link to a fuller album of recent photos in Singapore. 

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Living the high life

Last night, we met one of Jen's friends who is moving to Austin, Texas after working in Singapore for a year and he said that he's excited to go back but his time in Singapore felt like a mini vacation (despite having to work throughout) and he's sorry to see that end.  I'm glad people who are hired here full time feel like way too- I've been doing a lot more work during the day but especially this week, the nights have been amazing.
On Tuesday, Ken, Kevin and I met up with couchsurfers Kaz and Sam in Chinatown (we wanted to give Sam a honorary name that started with "K" to complete the Ken-Katie-Kevin-Kaz clump of us).  The boys were ravenous so we started with a hearty meal in the Hawker Center.  Kevin ordered the Chili Crab, a Singaporean specialty.  They delivered the dish with two mountains of rice, a pile of gloves and Kevin dug right in.  
Kevin chillin' with Chili crab in the Hawker Center
From there, we wandered around the streets, checking out the cheap souvenirs and colorful lanterns.  Kaz requested we get snow ices at the famous Mei Heong Yuen Dessert place then we headed toward the waterfront to hit up Uncle Bob's suggestion of getting a Singapore Sling at the Raffles hotel.  The hotel is a beautiful example of 19th colonial charm and the famous inventors of this drink.  The drink itself was too sweet but the experience was worth it.  Entering the Long Bar ushered in the grandness of British imperialism.  The ceiling fans looked like handheld fans that swayed back and forth to the beat of the live band, a groovin' Malaysian group that played everything from Adele to Japanese love songs.  There were peanuts on the tables and you could throw the shells all over the floor (which is especially fun in a country with excessive fines for littering).  Once we survived the epically slow mirrored ancient elevator ride down a floor, we all went home with pieces of peanuts in our pockets and purses.
Sam, Ken, Kaz, me and Kevin with our Singapore Slings
Wednesday evening was even more action-packed.  A bunch of us bought Groupons for the river boat cruise, Gardens by the Bay and Cloud Forest so we started the night with a sunset cruise down the river.  When I left my residence, a Chinese girl and her mother asked me for directions to the MRT (not sure why they thought I knew where to go haha) and we started chatting and they decided to follow me around for the next five hours.  They came on the river cruise, joined us for free cider at the couchsurfing gathering and invited Deb and I over their house for extreme dumpling making tonight.  They invited me to visit China with them in July too- they were adorable!
Back row: Dave, Jen's friend, me, my new Chinese friends
Front row: Jen and Alissa
 After the river cruise, we met up with Marie and some of the boys at Zsafi for a special edition of the weekly couchsurfing meeting.  The restaurant supposedly was opening its kitchen so they served free food and cider so the place was packed.  We convinced a bunch of people to join us for Hakuna Matata Ladies' Night at the Marina Bay Sands clubs so after a prata pitstop, we headed out.  Dancing was a blast- there were a surprising number of people out for a wednesday but that's what happens when ladies get three free drink tickets I guess.
When we were in Kuching, there were these two french guys who were literally following us the whole time.  Same incoming flight, they went to Bako national park on saturday, we saw them at the Orang utan center Sunday morning and they went back on the same flight on Sunday.  But being French and pretentious, they were too cool to talk to us in Malaysia except to tell us that they knew we were American by our ugly accents.  But last night, we found one of them and actually talked to him for awhile.  We also bumped into a lot of the same people who were at the couchsurfing meeting and I met a Turkish computer science PhD guy who promised me lunch and to help me with planning my eventual trip to Turkey.
At the bottom of Avalon with Singapore skyline
After some time at the Avalon, we went up to the 57th floor to the Ku de Ta nightclub 200 meters in the sky with 360 degree panoramic views of the skyline and Straits of Singapore.  The club was supposedly voted one of the top ten global hot spots by the New York Times and I think connects to the famous infinity pool (but you can only go if you reserve a room- you can check out the B.o.b. music video that features it here- I don't like the song but the video is cool- does a better job with the scenery than my snapshots).   And we continued to dance our socks off- what a night!  And even better because it was free!
Always-photogenic-Ken and I two hundred meters up at Ku De Ta 
 By the way, this is my 100th post and the blog has about 3500 page views!  Thanks to all of you who check in, especially those of whom e-mail me your thoughts and comments!  I've been blessed with amazing opportunities and it's been a pleasure to share them with you!

Monday, 24 June 2013

No babies, no fat people and I found the hippies!

Being in another country like Malaysia helps crystallize the sharp contrasts that make Singapore stand out as a really unique place.  I was talking to Ken this afternoon and he said he saw a pregnant woman today and did a double-take when he realized that's the only one he's seen in the past two weeks.  Louis said the birth rate here is less than 1% and the marriage rate is also dramatically low, even though the country subsidizes it considerably.  I guess that's another reason why they attract foreigners so aggressively (a typical post-doc start up grant is $3 million!!!!  That's absurd... most of us agree we wouldn't be able to say no to a package like that, especially considering that post-docs subsist on peanuts for pay in the US).  So no pregnant people.  No fat people, even though Singaporeans are obsessed with food and supposedly start planning their next meal while eating their current dish.
Statue at the temple

A bunch of interesting things happened last week that I wasn't able talk about when I was in Malaysia.  On Wednesday, I met up with Sam and found my new favorite part of town.  He took me to Bugis street and the surrounding areas.  We found a beautiful Hindu temple and they were in the middle of an interesting ceremony and everyone was walking around with offerings.  Just a few blocks over was a Chinese temple and a Chinese street market where we got an ice cream sandwich with wafer cookies and sweet corn ice cream.  Around the corner from that was Arab street, a colorful haven for hippies and hookah smokers.  We saw the beautiful Sultan mosque (but girls aren't allowed inside)  and the Malay cultural center.  The street was filled with middle eastern restaurants, organic cafes for granola-cruncher types and interesting art/craft shops.  It's probably the only place in Singapore where you can find graffiti.  After lots of walking, we settled there to listen to live jazz and have a beer.  
It was interesting talking to Sam about the country he was born and raised.  I kept asking him "what is Singapore?  What makes the country distinctive?" because most countries have unique identities and I can't figure this one out.  Bali has their traditional dances, Cambodia has their cooking and floating villages, Brazil was incredibly diverse but has its samba and caipirinhas.  Singapore's famous for their food- but what food?  It's imported food from all over, often with a slightly Singaporean twist but not often all that distinct.  Sam agreed that to him Singapore was just all about shopping and business.  Shopping is practically the national sport in addition to the national hobby especially around this month, "the annual Singaporean sale".  They literally have malls everywhere and the "small" malls are usually six stories.  It boggles my mind.  He said the country used to have much more of a neighborhood-y experience, which I think is what Owen tried to show me when he took me to the "heartland" with the Hawker Center and mall at the center of a typical neighborhood.  Now with the high rise apartments, he said people have become much more inwardly focused and less friendly.  I've certainly noticed it traveling around the city- everyone is constantly on their electronics, it's really hard to meet locals and even when you say "thank you", no one replies with "you're welcome".  It's pretty sad!

Club on Arab street
 Thursday nights are the weekly couchsurfing meeting at a bar near Little India and I promised Mikel that I would go and I recruited a bunch of my fellowship friends to join.  Ken and I went early to explore the cool parts of Little India.  We went into a temple, down a lot of crazy shops and had an amazing dinner at a Hawker Center.  I read about a famous prata place so I had that.  Prata is the "Indian" pizza and it was fun to watch the guy make it in front of you and toss the dough in the air.  We found cheap Kingfisher and I think that was my best Hawker Center meal.  As we wound our way closer to the tapas bar where the meeting was held, we found Alissa who was also eating prata but at another restaurant.  Sure enough Marie and Dave walked by and we flagged them down to join us.
The meeting was awesome- not as big of a turnout as Sao Paulo but the air pollution was at dangerous levels and we were on a rooftop bar.  The meeting was jokingly deemed "masquerade-themed" to celebrate the creative ways people could cover their faces.  We talked to people from all over- Slovania, France, UK... I spent the most time talking to a Russian who is moving to Bali to teach surfing lessons out of the Hard Rock Cafe (I may try to recruit his services in a couple weeks) and a Japanese girl, Kaz who just moved here and I definitely want to hang out with her again!
Alissa eating prata!  They serve food with a spoon and a fork here haha
Speaking of Japanese, on friday morning, Lauren, Samantha and I had an amazing cooking class taught by the resident expert.  She centered the menu around veggies from her weekly delivery service and showed how to make basically anything from four ingredients (soy sauce, sake, mirin and rice wine vinegar). We made a delicious mushroom broth based soup, teriyaki eggplant, sushi rice and cooked up some delicious squash that I hadn't heard of.  She also served up three varieties of pickles, taught us proper etiquette for eating and served us tea from her fancy pot.  Best meal I've had in Singapore for sure and I can't wait to try it myself when I get back to Raleigh.  And she lived 10 minutes from the airport so it was spectacularly convenient.  And then off to Borneo I flew!

Japanese cooking lessons from Lauren :)
Hopefully this week will be productive- SUTD is on vacation but I've got an interview with Ying Hui Yang scheduled for Monday and I have lunch meetings the next two days, to talk with various people about science education related things.  Good night!

Sunday, 23 June 2013

LOST: Malaysia Edition

What an amazing way to escape the smog for a few days for less than $250!  There was a time that we thought we may be trapped overnight there.  Not sure we felt comfortable staying on the jungle-y island teeming with wild animals overnight but we commandeered a boat, demanded to be taken back to the main station and fortunately able to return to civilization.  This wasn’t the only scary moment of the long weekend but our 2.5 days in Kuching were action-packed and amazing.  For those who aren’t geographically inclined, Kuching is a city in Sarawak, Malaysia which is part of Borneo, an island shared with Indonesia.  Kuching translates as “cat city” so there’s a ton of weird cat statues, cheesy waving cat souvenirs and wandering stray cats with short pom-pom tails.

Kuching: cat city

We arrived late Friday afternoon with only a vague idea of what we wanted to do, checked in our hostel and wandered down to the waterfront.  In general, the city is pretty quiet- the buses stop working at 5 and most of the shops were closed but we found some action by the river.  We toured a Chinese temple, made some friends dancing to local teenaged street musicians and encountered a group of Malaysian people visiting from China.  They took us to all these stalls where people displaced fresh seafood and veggies, you chose what you wanted and what style you wanted it cooked and they whipped it up for you.  Alissa and Deb tried octopus and famous bamboo clams and we enjoyed dining while being stared down by dead fish heads.  After wandering, we meet up with Dave, another guy from our program which decided to book tickets last minute and just showed up at our hostel.  We compared tales about arriving in Malayasia then went to bed.
Dave, me, Deb and Alissa at Bako
Saturday morning, we woke up early to go to Bako National park.  We took a bus for about an hour which dumped us at a run-down boat station where we met Andrew, our  British boat buddy who ended up spending the day with us.  We took off across crocodile-infested waters, through the foggy mist and plopped us on a beach where the bearded pigs roamed.  We stopped at the visitor center then into the jungle we went!  Our first hike was to Paku beach and on the way, we passed skeletal mangrove trees, navigating massive tree roots and very shaky wooden bridges/ladders than made Debra (our resident civil engineer) very nervous, especially because they were lined with long-tailed macaques.  We got to see some shy proboscis monkeys (they've got big noses and Bako's supposed to be the best place to find them) high in the trees and ended on a beautiful beach with lots of interesting rock formations and a tiki hut with some exotic flowers.  Then we embarked on the Telok Pandan Kecil hike which had some jungle but radically different surroundings- more of a sandy path lined with "carnivorous pitcher plants".  We ended on a cliff with stunning views of the bay then descended to swim in the warm waters below.  Unfortunately, the warm waters mean it's jellyfish season.  Poor Dave got stung but not badly, which we appreciated when we saw two basketball sized jellyfish washed up on shore.  After soaking in sun for awhile, we took a boat back to the main headquarters for close-up views of the famous sea stacks.
Sea stacks, Bako

We fuelled up on some traditional Malaysian food in the mess hall then climbed the Tanjung Sapi trail which was short and steep but supposedly had the best views in the park.  After that, our team diverged- Alissa and the boys elected to stay back at base camp and Debra and I wanted to re-do our first hike so we could take advantage of the better swimming hole.  We had the beach entirely to ourselves but Debra had a hard time relaxing, haunted by the feeling that we were being watched.  I thought she was silly but sure enough, our tranquillity was suddenly interrupted when a monkey tried to steal Debra's camera bag.  Fortunately, the bag was heavy and she was quick so the monkey thief left empty-handed and we didn't have to try to claim "stolen by monkey" for an iPhone that was almost lost.  Who knows what kind of crazy jungle we'd have to trek through if the monkey stole the bag and we were using the "lost iPhone" app to track it.
but this wasn't our last encounter with these mischievous creatures.  Going back, two of these monkeys leaped out of the trees right in front of Debra and started grunting at us.  She screamed, I screamed.  I ran forward and she ran back on the bridge on which we were walking.  The monkeys kept advancing toward Deb, she was freaking out but eventually, she followed my advice and ran for it.  We rushed back to base camp and rewarded ourselves with a cold beer to follow the doctor's orders (when Deb was sick in Austria, the doctor told her she wasn't drinking enough beer- apparently it helps to replenish electrolytes).  While we were having animal issues, Alissa, Dave and Andrew were having problems of their own with wild boars sniffing their bags.  Fortunately, the boars were more interested in chomping on nearby palm oil than digging through the bags so they avoided a "King of the Flies" episode. 
After the adrenaline rush, we were looking forward a relaxing boat and bus ride back to our hostel, expecting our driver to pick us up at 4:00 as scheduled, to make the 4:30 bus and give us some wiggle room in case we had to take the last bus at 5:30.  It ended up being a logistical nightmare because our driver never showed up and there were a bunch of boats there hanging out but they refused to take us because it wasn't our numbered boat.  After waiting about an hour and hearing rumors that the boat in front of us was the last of the day, we decided to jump in and refuse to get out.  It still took twenty minutes of determined persistence and refusing to move to finally convince the guy to take us back to shore.  It was a great day at the Park but especially after those monkey incidents, we're happy we weren't stuck!  
At the boat terminal... we were here forever

Even the bus home didn't drop us where we got picked up but we stopped for a delicious traditional Malaysian dinner at a pretty classy waterfront place.  We felt a little bad since in our sweaty, salty hiking clothes but once we started eating, we were so euphoric that we didn't care.  Deb and Alissa were literally swooning over their Laksa at the Jim Brooke restaurant. 
We were mistakingly told that there was a saturday night market so Druve saved the day by taking us out on the town.  Druve typically works on oil rigs in Dubai but he's been in Kuching for five months helping out at the hostel.  The mission was to find good dessert but along the way, we stopped to try "black water", which looked like black water and had a subtlety sweet syrupy taste (after much deliberation, we decided it tasted like how the tapioca pearls in bubble tea taste).  We also split a bottle of local rice wine served in shot glasses.  We proclaimed a jubilant "woo haw" (Malaysian cheers) and drank it, finding surprisingly sweet and delicious.  We did some more walking around town, fresh fruit juice drinking and Kek Lapis Sarawak (the famous regional colorful layered cake) tasting before we called it a night.

Sunday, we went to the orangutan conservation center bright and early and saw a ton of orangutans since we visited during feeding time (and June's an awesome month to visit because no fruit grows so they all come to feeding)!  The park keepers were nervous when the big male Ritchie arrived because he chased people yesterday.  Their non-chalant advice (almost optimistic, in Dave's words) was "if he approaches, run for your lives".  Ritchie scared all the monkeys away from the first feeding area but many orangutan were feasting at the other one, including two mothers holding babies.  It was a blast to watch them swing from tree to tree, break coconuts and hold bananas in their hands and feet.  
After the orangutans, we went for one last outing on the Waterfront to do some shopping and eat a very tasty lunch at a cafe.  I went back to the hostel with Dave and Alissa and Deb got massages.  Alissa had a tiny lady literally walk all over her and lucky Deb got massaged by a transvestite.  Sounded like an appropriate adventure to end our crazy days for sure!  Here's the link to all my Kuching photos because I couldn't post enough here to capture the experience.
Anyway, I just played poker with the boys and I'm exhausted.  More later!

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Working hard or hardly working?

My grandma’s been reading my blog and supposedly she commented recently “It sounds like Katie’s having a great time but when is she going to get working on her PhD stuff?”.  And the answer is that I have been, kind of…
Yesterday, I gave a talk on SCALE-UP at NUS.  It was a pretty good turn-out considering it wasn’t advertised very well- just a couple last minute e-mails from my host.  Probably three dozen students showed up and a handful of faculty members.  One of the professors was incredibly interested in what I had to say since her efforts at incorporate active learning didn’t go as well as she hoped.  One graduate student told me he was interested in getting a degree in physics education, which he knew he couldn’t do here but North Carolina State University was on his list of possible places to apply.  Unfortunately, before I finished talking to him, we were surrounded by a swarm of Reddy’s students for a group picture so I lost him before I got his e-mail but hopefully I’ll be able to figure it out and find him again.
After my talk, Reddy gave an overview of his research to give students a sample of the avenues that they can pursue with their individual projects.  He manages 30-40 high school and junior college students with an annual budget of ~S10,000 and manages to get 3-4 papers published per year.  He certainly has a gift for finding projects appropriately matched to his lab facilities, time scales that are realistic for his students and engaging their intrinsic motivation.  It’s especially amazing when you think about how his work compares with “real” labs with graduate students and budgets 10-100 times that.  His work (co-authored by these students) is actually getting published in legitimate places!  And he agreed to take on a random person like me, even though he knows our research isn’t remotely related (but I'm not entirely random- he researched me extensively before accepting me and repeatedly says how impressed he is at all the things I've accomplished).
Dr. Reddy and I and the gang... 
I’ve also been back to SUTD for multiple observations- once for a lecture (incredibly traditional and boring) and back for a cohort session (much more fun).  Monday night, I was able to meet up with the girl I tried to meet up with at Hard Rock and actually was surprised by finding my co-worker from India in the store before I found Lauren.  I knew she had been in Malaysia but apparently she’s not a fan of Kuala Lampur, which she found to be dirty, not easy to get around and she felt generally uncomfortable.  Her favorite part was the luxury bus ride back (for $15) when she had her own cozy lounge and personal TV.  She said crossing back into Singapore from the border was like entering Oz, when the world turned to Technicolor.  Hopefully my Malaysia experience this upcoming weekend will be better (we purposefully stayed away from Kuala Lampur)!  Lauren is also super-cool.  She’s from Texas originally, spent a couple years living in Tokyo and now she’s doing a mix of things, including writing a column about finding organic foods in Singapore.  We're going to have a pickling party and she's going to show me how to cook Japanese food on friday.

Sentosa at night

The three of us took the tram to Sentosa, which is Singapore’s “pleasure island” which Universal Studios, a casino, an aquarium, some beaches… a place even more precisely manicured that the rest of the city, which was hard for me to believe.  We ate at a Chili’s restaurant and Western food really hit the spot.  Lauren was going crazy eating black beans, which she hasn’t had in two years because it’s expensive and hard to get here.  I hate how oatmeal, black beans and sweet potato are all nearly impossible to find but those are my main staples back home.
Dinner with Lauren (on left) and Samantha at Chili's!
 This afternoon I went swimming and it was hilarous.  The three male lifeguards were listening to Shania Twain "This Kiss".  They also had an intense game of kayak-water polo going on where they hit the ball with their kayak paddles.  Even on the other side of the mammoth pool, I felt like I was swimming in the rocky ocean seas because they were moving the water around so much.  So at least people are still exercising outdoors despite the dangerous smog that is shrouding the city in white and the American government keeps e-mail me warnings about.  Everyone's starting to bust out their face masks. They've been burning fires in Indonesia which has raised the air pollution to dangerous levels but I think Malyasia suffers from a similar problem so unfortunately, I probably won't be able to escape it this weekend.  At least, in my Dad's words, "it's better than China!"
Top of the mall where we took the shuttle to Sentosa... shared this picture for two reasons: first there's a swimming pool on top of the mall!  Second, you can see the smog and its gotten worse in the two days since I took this photo!

Sunday, 16 June 2013

“Singapore makes me want to eat cheeseburgers”

So now I’ve officially spent over a week in the country and I’m still not sure what to make of it.  In some ways, it barely feels like I’m in a foreign country (especially in comparison to the other places I’ve been).  I can drink the water, I encounter white people on a daily basis and they speak English.  But every so often, you’re reminded that although you think you know what’s going on, you really have no idea.  For example, when you’re in the Hawker center and you point to the picture of what you want to order and they give you something else entirely.  Deb ordered eggs and toast.  She got half-hard boiled eggs (hard boiled eggs but when you crack them, it’s a gooey mess inside) and they covered her toast in green stuff.  Ken ordered a ham and cheese sandwich.  They gave him a half of a sandwich with a piece of ham in it.  Another half with cheese in it.   Subtle misunderstandings and incidents like these caused Justin to exclaim “Singapore makes me want to eat cheeseburgers”.  Partially because he misses American food but also because it's frustrating not being able to get what you want when you order things.  Every meal in the Hawker Center basically feels like the luck of the draw. 
Eat cheeseburgers?  Or get eaten by a tiger car?
For a city so seemingly organized, I’m slowly starting to realize how weird it is.  First impressions: it's an example of city planning at its finest with the public transportation, lots of green (and clean!) space and the integration of modern architecture.  It has one of the lowest crime rates in the world (but the Singaporean mafia rigs European soccer games), it’s economy is booming (but it's old people are left without healthcare and not enough money to support themselves) and is considered by many to be a “half-world country”: more advanced than the United States in many ways.  But then you start to learn about how the country is held together.  Justin remarked “Singapore really reminds me of University of Notre Dame: excessive amounts of paperwork and arbitrary security”.  Applying as a non-graduating student at NUS allowed us to dive headfirst into the Singaporean sea of paperwork.  So many forms- hard copy, soft copy, printed passport photos, photocopied passports, scanned passports… some filled in on-line, some hard copies had to be shipped ahead of time, more had to be filled out upon arrival.  As far as security, you’re constantly being videotaped on all the metros and public spaces and security guards are all over the place.  However, these guards are skinny old men with sunken chests (in Luis’ words).  And Singapore’s filled with rules that are often impossible to enforce.  For example, our dorm has a rule that you can’t have a member of the opposite gender in your room unless you keep the door open.  But we learned that the security guards can go in the elevator but they don’t even have access to the hallways.  Another example is the “attention food thief!  Stealing food is a crime- prosecution could lead to expulsion” sign on the refrigerators.  
Another source of underlying tension seems to be the relation with foreigners.  It's the one country where the natives seem disadvantaged.  For example, foreigners can enter the casino at Marina Bay Sands free of charge but Singaporeans are charged S80 for entry.  I’ve especially noticed preferential treatment for foreigners in academia.  Singapore has been very proactive in recruiting the top brains from around the world, especially in their universities.  This has successfully skyrocketed Singapore’s positions in global rankings.  NUS is supposed ranked 22nd globally and NTU (Nanyang Technical University) has risen over 40 spots in the last few years and also is in the top fifty.  They offer ridiculously generous start-up laboratory funds… I’ve heard murmurs of post-docs being offered hundreds of thousands of dollars of funding for research.  They recruit undergraduates the same way (between talking to the students in the Reddy lab and at SUTD, Singaporeans tend to be in the minority) and one can see how this could cause resentment especially because it’s hard for them to get a college education- only 20% of Singaporeans complete this degree!  Education here seems to be an especially long road, which may contribute.  After completing high school, students who want to continue on an academic track (as opposed to a more practical degree) typically enroll in two years of junior college then need to qualify via standardized testing for four years of university.  Before entering university, all males are required to complete two years of service for the Army (which I heard about from couchsurfers Sam and Owen- they were sent into the jungles of Taiwan and Malaysia for training).  So by the time guys finish their college degrees, they’re already into their mid-twenties and disadvantaged compared to students from other countries who don’t have to serve (Owen said he forgot everything he knew when he was living in the jungle).  Luis pointed out yesterday how segregated different cultural groups here are, even though Singapore’s incredible diverse (all signs are typically translated into four languages).  But whenever you enter a food court or look at people sitting on a bus, they're all separate... even living spaces are different- you've got Little India, Chinatown and what Deb calls "ex-Pat land".
For people who don’t receive higher degrees, I can’t imagine how they earn enough to live here.  Everything is imported, even water!  (so even though I can drink tap water here, it’s basically impossible to find but public water fountains).  A box of cereal costs $10, pint of beer costs $15 ($100 for a six-pack of Corona... the price of a roundtrip ticket to Bali haha), a single scoop of ice cream costs $7… so even buying groceries adds up quickly (exchange rate is 1 USD is approximately 1.3 Singaporean dollars which doesn’t help much).  We’re definitely looking forward to stocking up on goods when we travel- supposedly, prices are cut by a fact of four when you cross the Malyasian border, which I’ll do on Friday.
Random adventure of the weekend: Haw Paw Villa
So to end on a lighter note, Ken and I had a fun adventure at Haw Paw Villa yesterday afternoon.  Tiger Balm sponsored the construction of this place in 1937 and it has over 1000 statues and 50 dioramas to illustrate Chinese fables and folklore to instill good morals in the Singaporean youth.  It used to be the ancient equivalent of Disney World or Universal Studios but when those better options arrived, the park went bankrupt and today, it’s relatively abandoned and free to enter but an absolutely massive facility!  When you thought things couldn’t get more random (rats cooking in the kitchen dressed in just a chef’s hat and teal underwear, fighting cockroaches, turtles with human heads), it did.  One of the major features were the 10 circles of hell, where there were graphic depictions of people getting their tongues pulled out and impaled in various ways.  You’ll have to check out my full photo album to really appreciate the wackiness of this place... words do not describe the weirdness.
Time to observe a simple harmonic oscillator lecture at SUTD... at least physics is the same wherever I go! Au reviour!
Ken and the mermaids... he fits right in!

Saturday, 15 June 2013

Out on the town in Singapore

So I know I'm supposed to be here researching but I haven't been working too hard yet.  My NUS host researcher says "hang out with my students, have fun, you don't need to do any work!" which doesn't help me muster up motivation.  But I'm definitely having a great time and it's been action-packed!  Where to begin??
Friday, a bunch of us sat down to plan weekend trips and I booked tickets for Bali, Cambodia and Malyasia for less than $600 USD for all three trips.  Singapore is an expensive city to live (especially compared to India and Thailand) so that makes it especially tempting to travel.   Deb went out with a friend friday night and paid $100 for dinner and two drinks at a moderately priced restaurant.  Buying a beer here can cover hostel housing for a long weekend anywhere else in Southeast Asia.  So it's almost economical when you think about how much a night out in Singapore costs.  We're probably going to book a trip to Cebu, Philippines too... I'm just going to hate airplanes and flying by the end of the summer... too bad Tiger Airlines and Malyasia air won't help with frequent flier miles back home.
So Friday night, a bunch of us headed to Hard Rock Cafe with the intention of meeting up with a couple who are friends of friends (she worked at TIP nerd camp back in the States) and listening to a live band.  We got live music (mostly a 60s/70s cover band) but the couple was at the OTHER Hard Rock Cafe, which was unfortunate.  But good times were had by all and I plan to catch up with Lauren soon.
Saturday morning, several of us went on an early morning tree-top trek at MacRitchie Reservoir with Owen, one of my couchsurfing friends.  The hiking group kind of polarized into Deb and I (who moved at a reasonable clip) and the photographers who definitely took their time enjoying and capturing their surroundings.  It was pretty crazy being in a relatively dense jungle in the middle of this busy city, seeing monkeys, lizards and hearing the forest buzz with insects and birds that you can't see.  This trek involved some bridges amongst the treetops that were pretty cool and had some amazing views of the leafy green fauna below.  Deb and I wasted time exploring Holland Village to wait up for the rest of the group but once we realized they were a couple hours behind on the 11 km hike, we enjoyed some Dim Sum and headed back to the hostel.  I enjoy everyone here on the fellowship but it's great to have Deb around.  She's an engineer so both of us aren't used to hanging out with girls much so we both appreciate how exciting it is to have a fellow female with similar interests.  We're both vegetarians, love to hike, love to travel, definite go-getters... and now I've got a place to stay in Nashville during her last year finishing up a PhD in environmental engineering at Vanderbilt.
We were pretty high...

Deb and I at the Treetop Trek at MacRitchie
When we came back Saturday afternoon, I had every intention of getting work done but ended up playing bananagrams and doing more trip planning.  Saturday night, we went to Clarke Quay for some happy hour specials at a Spanish Tapas bar and walked around to enjoy some live music and the illuminated river scenery.
Clarke Quay at night

Alissa, Justin and Ken at Clarke Quay
 Sunday morning, Deb, David and I went on another nice walk to Faber point (the highest point in the city), Henderson Waves bridge, HortPark gardens and another canopy walk on elevated bridges... we definitely covered a lot of ground.  After that, we sat at Labrador Park, absorbing the sea breezes and looked out at the barges floating in and out of the busy seaport.  Time for transcribing... talk soon!
Deb and David at the Alexandria bridge

Thursday, 13 June 2013

SUTD... Sign me up!

Finally I connected with the faculty members at Singapore University of Technology and Design through an ambiguous e-mail “Come visit tomorrow morning!  Call me when you get here”.  I eventually figured out her phone number, and where and when the class was happening.  Next year, the school is moving out of their temporary location here (where the incoming class size is limited to around 300 students) to a more permanent location by the airport where they’ll start a PhD program and start growing their incoming class size to an eventual goal of 2000 students.
Vision for 2014 SUTD campus
When I was talking to my friend last night about visiting a class today, he said “What kind of class?  Firebreathing?”  Watching physics isn’t quite the same as learning to breathe flames, but all things considered, I had a very good time (and no loin cloth was required!).  Hui Ying is an absolutely adorable, tiny, young Chinese woman and greeted me with a huge hug.  We walked to today’s class, a breakout problem solving session for the cohort of 45 freshmen.  She invited me to speak to the students, who were actually very excited to talk to me.  Like MIT, the students were from all over Asia- probably half of the students I spoke to were from China but I met someone from Myanmar and Malaysia.  They were enthusiastic about the program and told me that physics here was easy compared to China but “Hui Ying is so cute and I like working with my cohort”.  One group asked me, “are you going to teach us?”  I said that I wasn’t planning on it but honestly, I don’t know what my plans are for the next several weeks.  However, all the professors and students I’ve meet here seem very accommodating so hopefully I'll accomplish something academic this summer.
Not much else to report here unless you wanted to hear me raving more about SUTD.  I learned about the “1-D: design project they’ll be doing in physics as well as as the 2-D interdisciplinary project they’ll be doing to apply their math-physics-engineering knowledge.  Between the amount of teamwork, public speaking and problem solving these students complete on a daily basis, plus practicing applying the knowledge in creative ways, these students are going to be incredibly well prepared for future engineering design jobs.  And unlike MIT, where everyone seemed supercompetitive and on the verge of depression, these students were superhappy.  We even had a birthday celebration at the end of class/  It’s only in its baby stages but SUTD may be the most impressive university I have ever visited.
After that, I went for a swim then cashed my check at the fanciest, almost sci-fi-esque bank I've ever been too- huge touch screens on the walls and individual banking rooms.  I would have taken a picture but then I would have totally looked like a tourist.  And maybe got hauled off to jail for being a security concern.  No thanks!
This is what happened when Deb and I picked out our own food- mashed rice, beans and mushrooms.  Dragonfruit juice was good though!
I'm about to meet with a “mostly vegetarian”, meditating, yogi couchsurfer for dinner... Singapore's famous for it's food but Debra and I haven't had much luck picking out our stuff.  And besides that, I'm excited tomorrow's friend!  I'm meeting up for free live music at the Hard Rock Cafe with a couple who knew Samantha (my TIP co-worker) from a previous summer.  TIP employees are sure to bring a good time!  Then I'll be trekking at a reservoir  Saturday morning, maybe attending Asia's first beer fest on Sunday and who knows what else?  I got invited to a deluxe screening of Superman, a trip to the beach and an Avicii concert also... plenty of options but not enough time!  More later!
Team photo from the other day... Back row: Marie, Dawn, David, Ken, Luis, Kevin, me, Justin, Luke
Bottom row: Paul, Stephanie, Alissa, Jen, Debra

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Destination: Singapore!

Sorry for the slight delay in posting- I left my macbook charger in the hotel in Thailand which isn't the best place for it and it's surprisingly challenging to find a replacement but I've secured a temporary solution.
It's hard to believe how fast the first three days flew by in Singapore.  Ken and I got in late Sunday night, settled into our teeny (but air conditioned and perfectly adequate rooms) in the Prince George Apartment complex.  Bright and early Monday morning, we were bussed off to rejoin the other fellows at an opening ceremony for the EAPSI Singapore programs.  Some university administration, faculty supervisors, past EAPSI alum working in Singapore and even a representative from the American embassy joined to welcome us.  This does seem to be a country where people come to visit then end up staying and/or living... I think this place is a little too predictable to capture my mind and heart but we'll see.  It is hands-down the nicest, cleanest, more organized and efficient city I've been in, so that's saying something.  After the morning festivities and brunch, the fun began with an afternoon of paperwork to procure Singapore student passes that substitute for the visa requirement.  The process was infinitely better orchestrated than Indian but it still took awhile when you need to wait in an office that services the entire country.  The afternoon involved Chinatown and Little India eating and shopping adventures and ended back in campus with a fruit sharing party where we munched on those red spiky fruits and mangosteens (new favorite!) and discussed travel plans.  Everyone in the program is really laid back and interesting, especially the other 8 living in my hostel and working at the National University of Singapore (NUS) so I'm really looking forward to this summer and hopefully we'll find in amazing weekend adventures.
Some of the skyline... such interesting architecture!
Tuesday was the fun orientation day.  We started off at a very random Transportation Gallery that summarized that showcased some of the technological leaps and techniques for moving people around this city efficiently.  After that, we went to a chapel and museum commemorating the Japanese occupation of Singapore during WWII which was pretty intense.  I never even thought about how this area might have been affected by the wars, since very little fighting took place here but there were many prisoners of war whom suffered greatly and it did impact the country significantly.
After that, we went to the famous Merlion park with amazing views of the Marina Bay Sands hotel and many fancy hotels and shops.  We had fun taking pictures and trying all kinds of crazy foods at the local hawker center.
Some of the EAPSI team at the famous Merlion

The real highlight was the Night Safari at the Singapore Zoo, which was probably the best zoo I've ever been to.  We hopped on a tram and received a narrated tour about so many animals, many of which I had never heard of.  Some of my favorites were the sloth bear, flying squirrels and various hyenas that looked straight out of the Lion King.  We got to walk around a few of the trails and watched the fire breathing tribal dancers but all of us wish we could have stayed longer.
Wednesday (today) was kinda the first day of work but we had to pick up our cheques and figure out banking so most people didn't end up doing much.  I was pretty proud of my productivity though.  I went swimming in the beautiful outdoor Olympic sized pool which made me really happy, picked up my check and met up with my host research for a lab tour and I met some of his students.  One of his students' projects on Nanostructured Co3O4, CoO and CoN as High Capacity and Long Life Anodes for Li-ion Batteries won a global award, which is incredibly impressive.  This summer, he has a variety of students from all over Singapore and India working in the lab, from high school students to junior college to PhD students.  So I guess I get to hang out with them as I analyze my data from Singapore University of Technology and Design, which actually has one of the active learning classrooms I need.  I'll walk there tomorrow and figure out if I can actually get data from them (*keeping my fingers crossed) and in the meantime, get ready to give a talk to the department on July 18th.
We loved these granite statues- Ken and I, Sam (the Singaporean) and the German girl

This afternoon, Ken and I met up with Sam (a Singaporean) and a visiting German couchsurfer.  We started with henna and lunch in Little India, went for beer and sightseeing in a pastel-colored alien town in Clarke Quay then ended up enjoying the wilderness at the Singapore Botanical Gardens which are free and massive and put Central Park to shame.  We thoroughly explored the Evolutionary Gardens (which take you through the development of living flora and fauna from the beginning) and the Healing Gardens (which are organized by biological system which was really cool... plants for digestive health, etc.).  We'll have to go back to finish the rest.
Ok, I'm meeting up with some people- sorry this was boring and rushed but I AM alive!
Exploring pre-historic forests

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Final days in Phuket

Time does fly when you're having fun.  We're currently sitting in the hotel lobby waiting for our shuttle to the airport, looking forward to Singapore but not wanting to leave and not looking forward to going somewhere we're expected to do work.
The highlight of Phuket was probably the Discovery Scuba course on our second day.  Even the drive to the boar was scenic, winding down the East side of the island with long stretches of sandy beaches and chilled out shacks as far as the eye can see.  We boarded the boat with probably ~30 other scuba divers and especially enjoyed hanging out with a mom and her 19 year old son from British Columbia (I got many travel recommendations for our west coast road trip, Shann and Becca) and a British guy who was here for a destination wedding.  I must say, the wedding sounded like a dream- there were even baby elephants involved.  The boat ride to the scuba site took a couple hours and I was trying not to think about how this scuba company basically violated everything I learned in NCSU scuba.  You're supposed to stay away from caffeine while diving because it dehydrates you but the most readily available free liquids were Coke, coffee and beer.  We lucked out with a private instructor (/cameraman) for just the two of us, which was especially helpful considering the lack of instructional direction we received.
Ready or not... getting ready to dive!
Not only did they want you to quickly sign your life away liability-wise, but there was a ten question pop quiz with basic scuba information that you were supposed to review with your instructor before diving.  He’s like “you don’t have to worry about that.  We’re just going to get wet and swim, swim, swim!”.  His 5-minute introduction to the equipment and scuba didn’t even mention the golden rule of scuba: never hold your breath.  So basically, that was that and before we knew it, we were suited up and in the water.  The first dive was for about 40 minutes in a sandy section around the island.  We saw blue starfish, found Nemo and swam through huge schools of smaller fish.  After lunch, we went on a second dive for about 40 minutes but that time, we went down 21 meters in a coral reef area, which was absolutely breath-taking.  Honestly, it didn’t seem like there was much difference between our dives and the dives that our scuba-certified friends went on.  This scuba company was pretty… relaxed, haha.  But it was an amazing experience and I’m certainly thinking about finishing up the actual certification process especially if I can do it with Ken this summer.  Those two open-water dives count toward the certification so adding some theoretical information and some skills tests should be relatively simple.

After a long day in the sun, we came back to the hotel, went for a swim, spent some time in our “office” at happy hour at the hotel bar (you could only get free wi-fi in the hotel hobby and restaurant so we’d set up camp with our electronics and buy one get one free gin and tonics).  We watched an extraordinary sunset from our perch and they had a band playing live music, with only us to enjoy it.  A little later on, we went for a walk under the stars and dined on Pringles and wafer cookies (Ken and I make a good travel team for the most part but we’ve been struggling to find good food places and thus have been sustaining ourselves on interesting combinations of snacks like these). 
Our final full day in Phuket, we took full advantage of the beach and pool at our resort.  Originally we were going to rent a scooter and explore the East Coast and go up to the Big Buddha but there was some miscommunication regarding our last rental and we were feeling lazy so we hung out by the resort.  It was somewhat unfortunate because we had plans to meet up with Jenna and an Aussie couchsurfer if we could get there, but we had to cancel those.  Jenna’s boyfriend just moved to Singapore so hopefully we can meet up there next month!  Swim in the ocean, swim in the pool, play pool, massage and a movie… so our last day passed in a blissful blur… and now I’m about to board the plane to Singapore.
Closing thoughts about Thailand?  Beautiful, relaxed and easygoing country, which is relatively easy to get around and travel in, even without knowing the language.  The people, especially in Chiang Mai, seemed really generous and helpful.  I left postcards in one of the tour vans early on and they made a special trip to drop them off at the hostel for me before our flight departed.  Ken was supposed to pay to check a second bag at the airport and they waived the fee saying “you’re checking a stroller, right?  No charge”.  Even coming to this airport, I was dragging my luggage down a wrong ramp outside and some security guard interrupted his smoking break to run down the hill and help me bring up my bags.  He was adorable and wanted to know my name and life story after I stopped huffing and puffing.  We lucked out with the weather even though we’re approaching rainy season and it rained every day but it never interfered with our daily plans.  Which also meant it was off-season which means it felt like we had Phuket to ourselves most of the time.  Overall, an amazing six days.  I’m looking forward to seeing what Singapore has in store!

Sunset on the second to last night from our hotel