Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Turnin' Avocado to Guacamole

Final countdown begins!  Only three full days left in Singapore.  Fortunately, I've been able to cross off all the last major things off my Singapore bucket list.
Last Tuesday, Jen, Dawn, Marie and I finally made it to the famous Gardens by the Bay, which was incredibly impressive even for someone who doesn't know too much about flowers.  The cab driver told us that the gardens contained over 70,000 types of vegetation.  Jen and I focused on redeeming our Groupon to see the Flower Dome and Cloud Forest conservatories.  The Flower Dome featured gardens from around the world, including some crazy Baobab trees (from Australia, if I recall correctly) that inspired the Supertrees that they illuminated each night.  The Cloud Forest was undisputedly my favorite- despite the humid moistness was frizzing my hair beneath its braids.  It featured a 35 meter high man made waterfall covered with a variety of orchards and ferns, which you could explore from the inside on multiple levels- I've never seen anything like it.
Waterfall at the cloud forest

We finished those gardens just in time for the simultaneously futuristic and tribal Supertree sound and light show- it felt like a cross between the Lion King and Star Trek.  Tomorrow, I'm meeting Lauren, Daly (my dumpling friend) and some fellowship people for wine and cheese inside one of the Supertrees!  So pumped- Lauren went last month and said she felt like she was inside a James Bond movie.
Supertree Grove
Speaking of fun Wednesdays, I think Wednesdays are favorite day of the week in Singapore.  Last Wednesday was particularly amazeballs because Ken got the EAPSI gang a room at Marina Bay Sands.  AND we got upgraded to a premiere room on the 47th floor with a ginormous bathtub.  I'm not used to staying places so nice- we called down to order some ice and ask for extra cups.  They called back, what kind of cups we would need.  Sure enough, when we opened the cubard, we found at least a dozen cups: coffee mugs, wine glasses, beer mugs, tumblers, highball glasses... more glassware than I know how to name!
Alissa jumping up and down- blur of excitement!
We didn't linger too long because fellow fellows were flooding in and we didn't want to miss out on our Ladies Night free drinks.  Almost everyone showed up and it was a fun way to celebrate a successful and truly unforgettable summer.

Katie, Dawn and Alissa in the infinity pool
Once Alissa and I stopped jumping for joy over the spacious epicness of the room, we donned bathrobes and headed to the infinity pool on the 57th floor. Nothing can beat the viewing experience of peering over the edge of the pool to see the illuminated city, spilling out before you.  It's where the musical genius B.o.b. shot his "Livin' the high life" music video (I think I shared it in an earlier post), rapping to life changing lyrics, including those in the title of this post (just kidding, it's an awful song but we like it for nostalgic reasons).
Most of the Marina Bay Sands crowd- some of the boys were still having fun in the room
Work has been going well too.  Last Monday, I gave a successful talk at NUS high school, despite being bleary-eyed after stepping off my Sri Lanka flight at 5 AM.  All of the physics teachers came and most stayed an hour and a half after my talk to chat (and eat yummy snacks).  Prior to my talk, I got a private tour of the impressive facilities.  Singapore definitely is doing some extremely innovative things with their education system.  NUS high school is exempt from national exams and they exploit that freedom to get students engaged in high level research opportunities, machine shop classes and electronics labs.  One student independently constructed Tesla Coils (a project beyond the capabilities of his teachers- they just gave him space to work).  Pretty impressive for 7-12th graders!
Today, I gave my final educational outreach "talk" to NUS-Yale college, which I was a little nervous about because the professors there were by far my most educated audience.  The acceptance rate for students was only 4% (in the first year of operation!) and students turned down Stanford and Yale to attend this brand-new school.  Dr. Adams, who I had met with before, was born in Kenya, earned degrees from Stanford, Oxford and Cornell, earned the prestigious National Research Fellowship scholarship in Singapore and helped set up a S$225 million educational initiative as a graduate student! He encouraged me to read the faculty bios of the RSVPed attendees and everyone was Ivy League educated, innovative and adventurous.  And he wanted me to provide a ten-minute introduction to SCALE-UP then lead a two-hour discussion so I had no idea what they were going to ask me.  Over a dozen people showed up which was an impressive turnout considering they have a small staff to begin with and everyone's nervous about classes starting next week.  I wish I knew more specific details about SCALE-UP implementations in the humanities (NUS-Yale College is Asia's first Liberal Arts College so they have a strong presence in the humanities) but at least I could successfully direct them to further resources.  Most of them stayed all two hours and it was cool to hear about their visions for the school.  Everyone gets the 7th week of classes off and students are encouraged to go on interdisciplinary trips- that sounds right up my alley!  And I got jokingly offered a job so they must have liked me.
So life is good!  Vice President Biden visited Singapore this past weekend and I was kinda bummed to have to turn down my invite since I'd be in the Philippines (in Dawn's approximate words "Superpumped to be invited to VP Biden's visit to Singapore.  Bummed to miss it.  Superpumped to miss it because I'll be in the Philippines") but the cohort who went, said we didn't miss much (just a 30 minutes broadcasting America's greatness).  So that was a relief.  Tonight, I'm meeting Etkin and some other couchsurfers at West Coast Park for some good brews and views.  Tomorrow is Wine and Cheese in the Supertrees, Thursday is lunch with the lab, Friday is the closing ceremony and Saturday morning, I'm off!

This summer has been the ultimate amazing adventure.  I've accomplished all I wanted (and more!) so I think I'll be happy to be home.  I told Zach that this summer was the traveling equivalent of a thanksgiving feast- it'll be nice to wallow in the equivalent of the subsequent "food coma", blissfully filled with good travels, good times and good memories.  I'm definitely looking forward to cooking, eating oatmeal, getting back into yoga, playing with Effie, seeing everyone and enjoying ant-free workspaces and warm showers.  
I won't be surprised if the next time I write, I'm in the airport- so enjoy life until then!

Sunday, 28 July 2013

And then the cops took us home (Philippines)

My last weekend in Asia came and went, spent in the Philippines, the 9th country I visited this summer.  Alissa had heard amazing things about the country, especially the chocolate hills and the 5-6" tall big-eyed monkeys called tarsiers so it was off to Bohol we went.
We flew into Cebu then took a ferry almost immediately to Bohol, excited about relaxing at our beachfront resort.  When we landed at the ferry terminal, we figured we should take advantage of arriving in the largest city on the island to do some exploring and grab a much overdue lunch.  Honestly, we were quite shocked- poverty isn't a foreign concept after spending a summer in Southeast Asia but it hit us in the face here.  Immediately after leaving the boat, we were surrounded by a swarm of dirty, young kids looking for money, food, water or even empty water bottles. I had gotten a restaurant suggestion from the official tourism board and it turned out to be a dingy seaside shack with food sitting out on the table in assorted Tupperware containers.  No thanks!  And we weren't going to try the street food, where a woman was fanning flies of sticks of meat.  Dodging drivers who wanted us to enlist their ricks has services, we finally arrived at what we thought was a semi-acceptable place.  We enjoyed our meal but Dawn got food poisoning from her pork and rice.  After eating, we were all ready to get out of there and we hired a driver henry to take us to our hotel and he became our driver for the weekend since he was so adorable and eager to please.  It was a pretty drive through tidal beaches, fishing villages and lush rain forests.  When we arrived at our resort, we were "lei-Ed" with shell necklaces and a warm welcome by the American owner, John (after our experience in the city, this was a relief!).  Then we enjoyed a leisurely evening of a delicious dinner, swinging in the hammocks on the beach to the sound of the ocean, swimming in the pool then a feisty game of spades where the blondes (Alissa and I) decidedly dominated the brunettes (Ken and Dawn).  We went to bed relatively early to prepare for an early saturday morning start.
On Saturday, our driver picked us up nice and early to beat the crowds at the chocolate hills.  Legend has it that these 1200 hills were created by giants in a mud fight.  Now people know the hills are made of coral and the chocolate hills turn green in the rainy season (which is when we visited), but they were still pretty cute.  Originally, we hoped we could hike the hills but it turns out that visitors can only visit several outlooks because an abundance of snakes and pythons in the area.  We decided to do an atv tour to get a little closer which was a good choice.  We drove through the heart of a small village, where we passed families of four on mopeds, smiling children sandwiched between their poncho-wearing children.  Dawn was going to skip the tour since she didn't feel week, but the guide invited her on the back of his motorcycle and both of them were grinning the whole way.
Tree pose in front of a tree and a chocolate hill (not so chocolate during the rainy season)
ATV/dune buggy team!
The next major stop was the tarsier conservation center.  Alissa loves monkeys- she's the one who wanted to do orangutans in Kuching, let a monkey climb her on the monkey forest in Bali so this was on her bucket list, because tarsiers can only be found on this island.  The monkeys are nocturnal (but several woke up to peer at us through their big round eyes) and teensy tiny.  They hung out throughout the center, curled up on tree branches underneath palm tree umbrellas and they were pretty adorable.
Alissa and I being tarsiers at the tarsier conservation center
Dawn, Alissa and I and a real tarsier- so tiny!
All morning it had been raining so we decided to skip the river cruise, hanging bridge and butterfly garden and head back to our resort.  After lunch, it cleared up enough for Alissa and I to o snorkeling off the hotel beach.  The boat man hooked us up with snorkels and flippers and even paddled us out to the conservation sanctuary that was supposed to be the best spot.  Unfortunately, with all the rain, the water wasn't clear and couldn't see much even though we knew we were above extensive reef.  However the water was lovely, we had a good swim and most importantly, we made friends with that boat man who encouraged us to come out to a local joint for karaoke that night.  I met a Filipino at marina bay sands on Wednesday who wrote an extensive itinerary, including all the night life hot spots, food and drink recommendations and a day trip to swim with whale sharks.  It turns out that we couldn't do most of it,being based in Bohol so when he heard this, he seconded the boat man's advice "When all else fails, karaoke with Filipinos is always a good time".  
After a leisurely afternoon, reading in hammocks, talking to the bartender over piña coladas and an early dinner, rumor had gotten around to the staff that we planned to sing and they were so excited that we'd be hitting up their after work hangout.   the boat man insisted on walking us over to the karaoke bar at the neighboring seaside resort.  As the only foreigners, we received a celebrity welcome.  It took awhile to drag Alissa away from the new puppy lucky at the entrance, but they stationed us front and center and plopped down an incredibly massive songbook.  Dawn fearlessly took the stage and we later attempted some "vanilla ice ice baby" , sweet Caroline and gangsters paradise in between some of the wait staff who stranded us with Filipino songs.  In the meantime, I talked to the owner who just bought the property three months and had quite the ambitious vision for the place.  Bohol is supposedly the "next big tourist destination" and the owners want to build the biggest pool in the island, 20 villas and expand their reputation for the nightlife.  it seems to be the only place to go in central Bohol but its only frequented by locals- i think most tourists are superlame and don't leave their resorts.  The owner wanted our permission to switch from karaoke to "disco" then the party really got started.  Besides the waitresses and a couple older fearless Filipinos, it was definitely mostly us on the dancefloor.  Accompanied by our admirers, who literally lined up for the chance to dance.  Ken said "you literally made those guys night.  Week.  Year.  They probably thought they were dancing with an angel with your white dress, blonde hair and blue eyes".  An Angel who can't dance, I replied, especially considering Ken was literally sweeping the waitresses off their feet!  But we had an amazing time, especially when the bartender from our resort joined us after her shift.  Everyone wanted to take pictures with us and by the time the night was over, i think we had pictures of everyone, thanks to the click-happy bartender documenting the ridiculousness.  And we still got extra perks- the kitchen staff brought us over barbecued pork sticks (which made Ken happy) and the owners took us up to the roof to explain their vision for the place.  When we had danced our hearts out and were ready to head back, the bar tender convinced the local police to give us a complimentary lift back to the resort and three of them happily squeezed together in the front seat to make room.  We decided the night was a type I success: "good times, good story" and the perfect way to make the best of a rainy day.
Sunday, we slept in a little with the hopes of heading into the city to see a parade and dance contest.  But the rain was back so the parade was postponed to the afternoon.  Fortunately, Henry had a back-up plan so we saw one of the oldest coral churches in Asia, a cave where soldiers would hide out during WWII and the blood table ancient human sacrifice area.  It cleared up a bit, so he took us to Pongol, the famous beach that stretches 4 km and houses most of the main resorts.  He dropped us on the local beach, which earned us some weird looks and worried Henry who thought we'd want the white sand exclusive tourist parts.  The beach was beautiful- we wanted to stay but we had to catch the ferry to begin the journey back to the airport.
Overall, the weekend was excellent.  I don't know if I'd recommend Bohol (especially not for a weekend trip from Singapore- between the four hour flight and two hour ferry time, it's a lot of transit for three days).  The Philippines in general would probably be nice- filipinos are awesome, its cheap and the snorkeling/scuba is supposed to be some of the best in the world.  But we had a blast, we were able to thoroughly explore the island and it was nice to relax and catch up on sleep for once... I'm giving a talk to nus high school on Tuesday morning and we have to do a couple final presentations for the closing ceremony, so it'll be nice to start the week with some energy.  Thanks for reading- link to full photos here.

Monday, 22 July 2013

So Sri Lankan: Epic times in God's country

Oh Sri Lanka!  Deb is an engineer whose dissertation/summer project involves a holistic analysis of water systems (and their economic, social, cultural implications) in Sri Lanka.  She was there before coming to Singapore, didn't have the best experience and had to go back for a week of data collection so we decided to join her for a fun weekend of sightseeing.  The three of us (Alissa, Dawn and I) who joined Deb didn't know much about the country when we agreed to go, partially none of us know anyone else who has been to Sri Lanka.  Fortunately, Deb's Sri Lankan childhood friend recommended a driver for us so all we really had to do was pile in a van and try not to worry too much that nothing makes sense in this country (with my time in India, I'm getting good at staying calm in the chaos!).
The trip was an adventure from the very beginning.  I sat next to a hilarious British guy about my age who was flying home after 8 months of olive farming in Australia.  He made me pinkie promise that I wouldn't do the same, a lesson he learned the hard way, even though he worked on his best mates' farm.  So valuable advice for all my readers: "Don't harvest olives in Australia".  
After arriving in the airport, we had to navigate through the most ricidulous duty free store I've ever seen, where they sold washer machines and lawn mowers (exactly what I need once I get off a plane!).  We were a little nervous about filling out the mandatory address on our arrival card, but lucky for us, "Namal's house in Kandy" is perfectly legitimate.  Namal (the driver) and Sean picked us up to explore Columbo for a couple hours until Deb got out of meeting.  They introduced us to drinking King Coconut (normal coconuts will never be the same!  They actually call Sri Lankan sugar daddies "King Coconuts" which cracks me up) and we walked around Galle Face beach.

Sean was a professional cricket player back in the day (supposedly people still recognize him as a national celebrity and he still coaches) and he spent about a decade in New Orleans so he was an entertaining and amazing guide and translator.  Namal personified preciousness and we loved him, especially his contagious laughter, expert avocado-picking abilities, photography advice when Sean was behind the lens and strategic wind-chime shaking routine to ensure Alissa picked the most melodious one.
We picked up Deb then headed to the hills!  Driving in Sri Lanka isn't quite as crazy as India (Sri Lanka was a little crazy but nowhere near as crazy as India) but its impossible to go anywhere fast on one lane roads, especially on a Poya weekend (Sri Lankans get a three day weekend every full moon... apparently they never do any work.  Especially because even when they are "working", they're usually just standing somewhere).  We enjoyed passing compartmentalized roadside stands: basket-land, car seats for sale, fruit stands followed by a stretch hundreds of inflatable toys and swimming pools.  Eventually we reached Kandy, where we had a delicious dinner.  Sri Lankan food looks similar to south Indian but with different flavors.  It's very spicy- tears were building in our eyes as we demolished roti, prata, hoppers (a crispy cracker-like bowl), fish and daal curries and kottu (mushed up meat, bread and assorted spices- surprisingly delicious).
Us with our offerings at the Tooth temple- mine was huge!
Saturday morning, we woke up in Kandy, a town in central Sri Lanka, a UNESCO site, partially because it holds Sri Dalada Maligawa "Temple of the Tooth", a worldwide Buddhist pilgrimmage site. Dawn and I actually visited the Singaporean version last month but this was an entirely different experience.  We all bought flower arrangements as offerings and joined the massive herd of worshippers (between the holiday weekend and people visiting for the 11 AM ceremony, the place was pretty packed).  We didn't see the tooth itself because that would require several more hours in line but we got to experience some traditional Sri Lankan musicians, beautiful British architecture and a VIP tour of the Buddhist museum on the upper floor.  We stopped at a jewelry store where we were spoiled with classy couches and tea as we learned about Sri Lankan gems.  One of the gems went on a little adventure, hiding in my handbag, which was somewhat terrifying, but after some standing and shaking, I recovered and returned the gem and could breathe a sigh of relief.
After some brief exploring (Kandy was pretty disappointing), we hopped back into the van and headed to a tea plantation, built back in the 1930s.  Sri Lanka produces the world-famous Ceylon tea and we were really looking forward to seeing how it was made.  Like many things in Sri Lanka, we didn't exactly get what we were hoping for but it was an experience, nevertheless.  The manager give us a personal tour of the small-ish factory, which smelled like we were inside a Lipton tea bag!  However, the conditions in which people were working were pretty dismal. Supposedly a recent strike increased their daily wage from $2 to $5 but the manager definitely ordered them around in a demeaning fashion.  Sri Lanka is probably the only place when people's faces light up in stunning smiles when they catch you staring at them.  But this was not the case here.  Back in undergraduate, I signed a petition boycotted Starbucks for almost a year in hopes that they'd support Fairtrade practices.  Seeing the way they treated the tea workers reminded me why.  I'm glad we saw it and I'm glad they took us to a place that was off the radar of most tourists- the next day we took a potty stop at a massive tourist trap tea plantation- it would have been interesting to how our tea experience differed if we went there instead.
Our "family" at a tea plantation: Namahl, Sean, Alissa, Deb, Dawn and Me
After sharing a pot of tea, we headed to a place of pilgrimage for our water girl- the dam where all the water in Sri Lanka starts.  The beauty and serenity of the site took me by complete surprise- but we weren't as suprised as the gaggle of native Sri Lankans whose company was touring the site and couldn't believe that four white girls visited the dam.  
Saturday night was interesting... we had a delicious dinner so filling that we were all unzipping our pants after eating avocado ice cream that pushed us to the edge of explosiveness.  After that, we expected to snooze off our food comas but the drive ended up being such a surreal experience, it was difficult to nap.  We drove in the dark through windy switchbacks with only twinkly house lights on distant mountains to light our way.  At one point we were jamming to Sri Lankan music, enjoying the catchy 6/8 beat and before we knew it, our van was stuck in a ditch.  In the dark, cold rain so people didn't want to stop and help.  And Sean and Namal didn't want our help so we just huddled in a dark corner, trying to be inconspicuous when we formed human hiney hiders so people could take turns to pee.  A couple hours later, a half dozen Sri Lankans jacked up the car out of the drainage channel, put the car back on the road and none of us picked up any leeches along the way.  Needless to say, making it to the hotel was a huge relief.  The 70 degree weather in the mountains felt refreshing during the day but it was really cold at night- the natives were prepared with ear muffs, scarves and hoodies but not us!
Our van in the ditch: Dawn calls this "type 2 fun: good story, not-so-good time"
This entry is getting long so I'll speed through Sunday.  The morning was spent winding through lush, green tea plantations in Newara Eliya, which truly felt like God's country.  When our car was weaving its way down the mountain with hairpin, random teenage boys would pop out of the bushes with bouquets of flowers, yelling after us.  They'd scramble through the bushes, jumping and leaping and meet up with us again on the road a few meters down.  It would have been nice to reward them for their impressive athleticism but our King Coconut, Sean, had bought us each a bouquet of flowers a few hours earlier.
Happy dogs with happy elephants (post-feeding)
We were looking forward to visiting a famous elephant orphanage but it wasn't really what we expected.  When we arrived, we saw them leading chained elephants across the road so we weren't sure if we wanted to stay.  We ended up doing an elephant ride into the river with an excellent view of elephants bath time.  We rewarded the elephants with bananas then we went on the accompanying "herbal and spice garden" tour.  Honestly, this tour may have been even stranger than Haw Paw Villa, which is saying a lot.  The "doctor" showed us his plants while raving about his magical balms and tonics, miming the symptoms with exaggerated and awkward gestures.  We ended in a weird hut where Dawn got a creepy face massage and he tried to convince us to buy things.
Weird massages with the medicine men
Our travel guide book was pretty skeptical about Sri Lanka (ie "Welcome to tea country!  But get ready to be disappointed because they send the good tea elsewhere") but I do agree that "for a country of such modest dimensions, Sri Lanka has a remarkable variety of breathtaking landscapes".  Some Sri Lankan people were amazingly happy and hospitable but it was frustrating because we were constantly being scammed, despite having Sean there to fight for us.  Breakfast bills that were added wrong and mysteriously tripled in price.  Someone took away Alissa's buffet plate then tried to charge her for two.  Elephant people who expected mandatory tips.  Random taxes and foreigner fees... Thankfully God, Sean and Namal tried to defend us against most of the ridiculousness- I can't imagine traveling this country without them.
Overall, it was an interesting and eye-opening few days but I think all of us were excited to return to rooms where we don't get locked inside (and have to throw keys out they window to escape), our exponentially increasing toilet paper towers (since it's nearly impossible to find in bathrooms there) and places you can pee in peace without rats walking up walls.  We'll treasure these remaining two weeks in Singapore with a renewed appreciation for civilization.  Here's a link to my full album even though my point-and-shoot camera didn't do this country justice.
Also, my friend Martin put together an amazing HD video from Nusa Lembongan in Bali- definitely check that out too!

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Who let the (happy) dogs out? (Bali part 2: Kuta)

Although we were based in Kuta for the second half of our trip, we didn't linger in commercialized Aussie-land.  On Saturday morning, we met up with Rachel (A classmate of one of my best friends from high school who has lived in Bali for the past couple of years) who got up signed up on an awesome day trip to Nusa Lembongan through her friend Martin.  Fortified with donuts, we boarded a boat and sped off to the island, aka heaven on earth.  The area is relatively off-the-beaten path so it's less touristy, the locals were nice (but we found that to be true everywhere) and the scenery was positively breathtaking.  We went snorkeling in crystal clear water.  We didn't see any manta rays (which the island is famous for) but there were fish of every shape and size (we didn't even have to bribe them with bananas!).  Deb and I discovered three stone buddhas at the bottom which were supercool.  After snorkeling, we piled into open-aired jeeps and bounced down dirt roads through an island, switched to a small boat to cross to a neighboring island Nusa Ceningan (because a bridge was recently blown out... which was a bummer since we were supposed to go be able to rent motorbikes to get there) then continued on another truck.  Riding down these quiet dirt roads was an experience in itself- Deb stood up, arms outspread (never-let-me-go-Jack-style) to feel the ocean breezes and commented "I don't know if its the ghetto Jersey in me but who needs the Titanic when you have a truck like this?".  Especially when the truck leads to incredible vistas of limestone cliffs and the bluest water I have ever seen (even the colored water on Singapore's manicured party island, Sentosa, couldn't compare!).  The waves were rough so we could only jump off a smaller deck but Ken, Jen and I survived!

The group chilling by the Blue Lagoon- look at that water!
Bali family totem pole after we survived cliff jumping
The adrenaline rush helped our appetites so the day ended with a tasty Balinese meal overlooking Dream Beach (which many claim is the most beautiful in Bali) and naps on the beach to recharge before some late night adventures in Kuta, upon our return home.  We switched speed boats for the return to the mainland so we could pile on the top for a bouncy, open-air journey.  As you can see below, hanging on for dear life was positively exhilarating.  We joked that we felt like dogs with our heads out the windows and decided "happy dogs" defined a new level of unaltered joy: salty skin, wind-whipped complete carefree-ness!
Happy dogs!

For our last day in Bali, we hired a driver to make sure we hit the major remaining highlights in the south of the island.  We started in Nusa Dua so Ken and Alissa could fit in some watersports (which surprisingly, weren't cheap).  We proceeded to Pandang Pandang, one of the best surfing spots in Bali which was recently featured in the film Eat Pray Love.  The beach itself was pretty hidden and we had to wind down flights of stairs, squeezing between two rock slabs while keeping a wary eye on the monkeys in the jungle trees.  The beach itself wasn't huge but the perfect place for people watching- so many attractive surfers!  The Rip Curl Cup should be happening right now but unfortunately, there wasn't any official competition while we were there.  Which was probably a good thing so we could relax and enjoy the sun and the surf.
It's always an adventure with us- jumping photo at Nusa Dua, the watersports capital of Bali
After the beach, we wrapped ourselves in purple skirts to visit the Uluwatu temple.  The temple itself wasn't incredibly impressive but monkeys and an amazing view from 300-foot cliffs made the stop worthwhile.  The temple is one of the most famous six in the island and it's supposed to guard the Balinese from the evil spirits of the ocean.  I was grateful that the temple guarded me in my attempts to do yoga cliffside- Ken and two Asian men almost peed in their pants when they saw me attempting tree pose teetering near the edge of a steep drop-off but I survived!  Our day ended with a seafood dinner and sunset on Jimbaran beach.  Our feet were buried in sand as we enjoyed Pina Coladas, were serenaded by wandering musicians and watched the daylight turn into twinkly stars.  There was a spontaneous fireworks show and we had an excellent view of the planes landing, which kind of helped mentally prepare us for returning back to reality for a 6 AM flight the next morning.
But in all honestly, reality hasn't been all that bad this week!  I met with someone from NUS-Yale college yesterday to dialogue about their vision for this brand new school.  As Asia's first liberal arts college, this school aims to integrate interdisciplinary competence in a strong core curriculum and give graduates an Ivy League equivalent education.  He wants me to give a talk/discussion my last week here so I'll definitely be busy!  And Peter from MIT wants me to embark on a quantitative gender study on his decades of grades and course data... I think I could make that part of my dissertation data collection and it would be pretty amaze-balls to be published with co-authors from MIT!
Time to swim!  Oh and link to full Bali album here.

Monday, 15 July 2013

Having a ball in Bali (part I: Ubud)

Talk about the best $105 I've spent this summer- the price for round trip tickets for four and a half days in Bali, Indonesia.  Somehow I booked a different flight than my friends getting to Bali but the 8 or so hours I spent before they arrived were some of my favorite for seeing how the average Indonesian lives.  Sanur, a balinese couch surfer and a vet, camped out at the airport 3 hours before my arrival and greeted me admidst throngs of tourists with a handmade sign and the most delicious roti-o French toast-sequence warm crispy bread.  Before exploring the island en route to Ubud on his motorbike, we stopped to meet his brother and sister-in-law who greeted me with warm smiles and a mug of Balinese coffee.  After chatting for awhile about their lives in Dubai and things to do in bali, Sanur and I took off for the hour long drive to our villa.  The place we booked was a two bedroom private villa plopped in the middle of rice fields outside of Ubud.  The place was owned by a Norwegian who was renting it out while abroad and we lived like kings for $15/each per night.  After I got settled, we headed downtown, ate dive at a local jive, and ended up listening to a live band at a biker bar.  I got my first taste of Bintang (the local brew and their pride and joy) rocking out to 90s tunes with Indonesian motorbike boys.
The view of our private pool from the balcony in our villa
The next day was an eco-cycle tour suggested by Didi, the wife of our friend at the embassy.  We had high expectations and all of us laughed out loud when we read about the tour ahead of time: "We ride through lush forested areas, plantations full of Balinese staples and cash crops (cloves, coffee, cocoa, vanilla, tapioca, taro, local vegetables and exotic tropical fruits), through timeless small villages and lush rice paddy panoramas. And throngs of adorable Balinese children will be there calling out ‘hellos’ and wanting ‘high fives’ on the way down" but literally, that's what happened (I felt bad when kids reached out for a high five because I'm a two-hands-on-the-wheel-kinda-girl when I'm flying down hills).
We started with a Balinese breakfast of black rice pudding and banana pancakes overlooking Mt. Banur (an active volcano) and Bali's largest lake.  Fortified with deliciousness, we got on mountain bikes for my favorite kind of biking (almost entirely downhill, "Mary Poppins style") winding down quiet village roads.
On our bikes!  Outside rice paddies where Deb almost got stuck in the mud
The first major stop was the plantation where we learned about (and tasted) Balinese fruits, tea and coffee.  We elected to sample "Kopi Luwak", the most expensive coffee in the world, fondly referred to as "Cat-poo-ccino" by our sassy tour guide.  To produce this coffee, a civet ("half-fox, half-cat like creature) eats, digests and excretes the beans from which the coffee is brewed.  We tasted it with an open mind and enthusiastic anticipation but I think we agreed with Tim Carman, food writer for the Washington Post who concluded "It tasted just like...Folgers. Stale. Lifeless. Petrified dinosaur droppings steeped in bathtub water. I couldn't finish it" after tasting the brew.  From there, we hopped on our bikes, stopped at a traditional Balinese family compound to learn about their daily life and dance with the three adorable kids rocking out to Gangham style.  We ate bananas at the base of a huge Banyan tree, walked around rice paddies and got stuck in the mud, saw woodcarvers at work and ate a delicious Balinese meal for lunch.
Deb and I in front of some terraced rice paddies
After the tour, we did an obligatory wander through the monkey forest, which is exactly what it sounds (a forest filled with monkeys).  It's kind of cheesy (and terrifying for Deb and I... monkeys haven't been the same since Kuching) but just one of the sights that you have to hit if you go to Ubud.  After some shopping, we returned to our villa for some party tunes and a private pool party, just us girls, as the sun set.  We agreed life was basically perfect... all I could add was "if only I had ten toenails" (stupid door!  I ran into on the first day of orientation but my toenail flew the coop just prior to arriving in Bali- no pedicures for me).
Ken joined us very late thursday night for a very indulgent Friday in Ubud.  Despite planning to sleep in, Deb and I woke up and were so excited by the farmers peacefully tilling the rice patties in our front yard and the beautiful weather that we couldn't go back to sleep. After some villa appreciation time, we headed into downtown to dine on jaffles (toasted sandwiches) and tofu satay, sitting on pillows at a private table in the middle of a beautiful, open temple area.  After some shopping in the local markets (famous and featured in the book/film Eat Pray Love), we all got $8 hour long deep tissue massages.  We left the spa, glistening like greased chickens with tousled hair and goofy grins- so relaxed!
After packing things up at the villa, we headed to a traditional Balinese cooking class which seemed to be in a compound where people lived.  We started off with some ginger tea and a lesson on how to make an offering (like the ones that literally line the streets in front of every shop, restaurant, home... everywhere you look in Bali).  Bali's a very spiritual and unique place.  Indonesia has one of the world's largest Muslim populations but Bali's 80% Hindu. And we experienced first-hand the spontaneous celebrations that overtake the streets with a large parade, stopping traffic for miles.
Preparing the offering, pre-cooking class
The chefs were the two happiest Balinese men (and apparently Michael Jackson fans) who made us elicit a cheer at every step of the process: "grind the peanuts! woooooo!", "pound the tuna!  wahoo!", "smoosh fish balls- yipee!", "stir the BFC ("Balinese Fried Chicken")- yeehaw!".  The lesson went by in a flash and before we knew it, we had prepared Gado Gado (a salad with peanut sauce), soup, Nasi Kuning (yellow rice), Fish (and Tofu and Tempe) sate, fish (and vegan) curry and Kolak Pisand (braised bananas in a palm sugar cinnamon sauce).
We were planning to power nap during the ride to Kuta but our driver picked us up in a car playing  Akon movie videos to prep us for entering the Aussie-party-land of the island.  After unloading, we explored the town- found the beach, listened to some live music then checked out the famous "sky garden" 8-clubs-in-one-complex.  If Aussie teenagers are your thing, we highly recommend it!
I think the beachy parts of our trip are going to have to wait for another entry- we woke up at 3:45 AM for an early flight.  I interviewed an important faculty member earlier today which went surprisingly well.  I didn't get too much information out of him but he loved me and wants me to come back next summer to develop an integrated math and physics course.
Check back soon for Bali, part 2!  Part of the reason this trip was so cool was that the first part (mountainous, rice-paddy-Ubud-land) was so different than the second (surfer-snorkel-beach, bluest-water-you-ever saw), although both were positively amazeballs (amazing balls as Ken says).  Good night!

Tuesday, 9 July 2013


I just spent over two hours talking to Peter about the development at TEAL (Technology Enriched Active Learning) at MIT (we still need to talk about bring TEAL to SUTD (Singapore University of Technology and Design) but we're saving that for another conversation)- we talked about the grants, the politics, the administrative figures and the scholarly collaborations that made it happen.  A we were wrapping up, Peter asked if I knew the real reason John designed the reform and fought so hard to make it a permanent part of MIT physics.  I replied, "he said there was a lot of money floating around and he had been working with Dr. Beichner on another project to develop computer based educational simulations".  Peter raised an eyebrow and asked again, "No, that's not the real reason he got into this physics education stuff in the first place".  I replied a little more tentatively, "he told me he felt that he felt future projects couldn't beat putting the voyager space craft in orbit so he wanted to end on a high note and switch gears".  Peter looked at me and said "he fell in love".  And it's true.  He married the director of MIT's educational technology initiative and she "opened his eyes.  He had an epiphany and she made he knew nothing about teaching physics".  And so it began.
Serendipity was actually Peter's word for the whole situation.  His own story was equally as interesting and unconvential.  Arriving at MIT to finish his PhD with a professor in the math department, he was lucky enough to take advantage of an interesting string of opportunities that perfectly prepared him for his current role managing all the curriculum for TEAL at MIT and SUTD (along with some side projects like 'misty Italy' and some physics programs in South America... I'm hoping he can hook me up haha).  He wasn't specifically interested in education but he was enlisted lot help out with some experimental courses that sound amazing.  In 8.01x, students would receive a red box filled with random supplies that could be purchased at a hardware store.   When the integrated studies program talked about time, they built watches, when they talked about food, they cooked chinese food, when they talked about automobiles, they built engines.
He reflected "The point is serendipity is a critical factor.  I realize this in my case- things that happen almost by accident.  There's a moment in time where something happens- it could be by chance, it could be an accident but then after awhile, you realize that there's a process- these opportunities kind of open up and you can start to anticipate when the opportunity is there..."
Peter said he's not religious and I don't know if I'd attribute all this to serendipity or something greater but it's truly amazeballs how this wacky world works.  Most of the time, I feel like I'm blindly bumping around this world.  I have an idea of where I want to end up but especially this summer, I've been trying to wake up with an open mind and see where each day takes me.  And so far, things couldn't have worked out better.  Who knows why i turned down working with a science education department to work with Reddy, the random Indian man from the National University of Singapore homepage who specializes in solid-state electronics and batteries.  But now I live walking distance of SUTD.  If I waited until next year, SUTD would be in their new campus on the other side of the country.  What are the chances that the 14 nerds selected to go to Singapore are all awesome, adventurous people?  I never even met Deb at orientation and it turns out she's more like me than probably anyone I've ever met (and that's not easy... Couchsurfers tell me all the time that they've never met anyone like me but after readsing my blog, even deb's brother admitted "she sounds like a perfect friend for you").  Ken hadn't even heard about the EAPSI fellowship until the deadline was extended.  He wanted to go to Japan but they told them they wanted him in Singapore.  After re-writing his proposal twice, he ended up here and decided to spend a week with a relatively random girl in Thailand.  And we had the best trip ever.  I'm a physicist and a believer in quantum mechanics so I know that there's some inherent, unavoidable randomness in the universe we live in.  But life is too beautiful for me to deny that there are greater forces at work that arrange the probability densities in our favor. ;)
For example, why did those two Chinese ladies chose the clueless blonde on the street to ask directions from?  Other than what became an awesome night on the town and an evening in their home cooking together.  Why did applying to teach a nuclear science course in North Carolina turn into teaching Engineering in India?  I don't know but I've always wanted to change the world and it world and several of those kids wrote in their evaluations that those were the most life changing 3 weeks in their livestock date.
Dumpling lady- one of the happiest people I've ever met
Certainly as I was cruising on the floating house tour, I was overwhelmed with wonderment about how I could have grown up anywhere, could have grown up as anyone- I could have grown up running around naked, dropping puppies, feeding crocs on my floating crocodile farm and getting in gunfights with random foreigners who materialize at my house.  It just makes you wonder...
Adorable boy in the floating village in Cambodia
Tonight, I met Kaz, Sam and two Vietnamese sisters for dinner and a drink at One Altitude.  It was an incredibly classy choice- not crowded and there was an incredible trio playing trio playing some of my favorite songs- Lana Del Rey, Lady Antebellum and Jason Mraz... and the view put Ku de Ta to shame! It's the highest al fresco bar in the world.  It was so high that I got all these text messages since my cell phone thought I was in Malaysia- no Indonesia!  It didn't know what to think.  But I will be in Indonesia tomorrow!  Which reminds me- I should get packing!  Bye!
Kalle, Evie, me and Sam 282 meters in the sky! 

Sunday, 7 July 2013

Cambodia = AMAZEBALLS!

What a worldwind!  Thursday night, the fellows attended the US ambassador's Fourth of July reception at the Ritz Carlton.  It was pretty amazing to be surrounded by almost 1000 fancy, important people.  Deb and I were talking to a Chinese man for awhile who gave us explicit instructions on how to eat Durian, which is a famous, smelly Asian fruit. He told us to go to a specific MRT stop and get ready to splurge (since good durian isn't cheap).  Then, we need to find an Asian man to buy it for us, since the seller wouldn't give their best fruit to foreigners who don't look like they'll appreciate it properly.  We can't mix the durian with beer (or we may die) and we need to finish up eating the King Fruit with a dessert of the Queen Fruit (mangosteen).  At the end of the conversation, he gave us his card "if we ever needed anything"- it turns out he's the executive advisor to the Singapore minister of defense!  Good guy to know and not just for his fruit eating advice!
The event overall was enjoyable and we got to talk to so many interesting people- Paul hopefully got us invited to a New Zealand colonel's mansion for a barbecue.  The food was delicious and highlighted dishes from around the country (Boston Baked beans, New Orleans Jambalaya, New York Cheesecake), free drinks were a-flowing, live jazz, a cheesy digital fireworks show and we got met the ambassador.  When we left, we got goodie bags of "American" treats- I'm not sure I'd pick Hershey's chocolate, soymilk, Sydner's pretzels and Bigelow tea to represent our country but I'm not complaining!  Armed with our patriotic drawstraw flag bags (where boxes of tea would jump out randomly "Katie!  Why is there tea on the table?!?"), we headed to Clarke quay for some dancing to a live band to make the most of being all dressed up.
Us and the US ambassador
Bright and early on Friday morning, Deb, Marie and I boarded the plane to Cambodia.  I had learned about the Ankor Wat temples during an undergraduate Asian Art class so it was one of the destinations I was looking forward to most for that reason.  It's my favorite country this summer but for different reasons than we expected- we expected the temples to take our breath away but we didn't expect the people and the culture to steal our hearts!
After landing in Siem Reap, we headed out almost immediately for a cooks in tuk tuk class.  Our chef for the day accompanied us the local market to teach us about the local ingredients while exposing us to the daily life of the people with skwirmy fish, ladies violently chopping up meat with their bare hands with cute kids running around and people making flower and fruit offerings at typical temple.  The class was phenomenal- the three of us made a banana flower salad, amok and a tapioca-yam pudding for dessert.  We enjoyed our meal poolside and I think we all plan to recreate these khmer dishes back in the US.
Us and our chef with our delicious meal served poolside
Saturday morning, we woke up at 4:30 am to catch sunrise at Angkor Wat.  The sunrise itself was somewhat anti-climatic but the temple was awe-inspiring with its massive three layers of intricate carvings everywhere.  Our tour guide had temple traveling down to a science: he knew all the best places to take pictures and could navigate the crowds- at the first temple, he warned us that a surge of Asians would arrive in fifteen minutes and sure enough, as we walked out, tour groups from every asian nation flooded in waving flags and wearing matching t-shirts.  After that, we headed to Angkor thom through the bridge lined with creatures churning the mystical milk sea.  The bayon temple was probably my favorite with Buddha faces smiling down at you from every angle.  After a delicious lunch of cashew stir-fried veggies, we headed to the La Phrom temple that Angelina Jolie made famous with the Tomb Raider movie.  Gigantic trees tore the temple apart while holding it up with their snaking roots.  Seeing how the jungle overtook this temple, turning much of it to ruin made it easier to understand how some of this complex was hidden until an airplane laser surveying mission discovered more ruins last month.
Morning at Ankor Wat
Us at one of the gates to Ankor Thom
Our tour should have ended there but we asked if we could go to the floating village and our guide happily obliged for no extra charge except for the boat ride ticket.  To get to the launch point, we drove through the most beautiful, lush, green countryside of rice patties, water buffalo and ox carts.  We got our own boat and seemed to be the only people cruising (and I use that word lightly because we got stuck quite a few times) through the lily pads to see floating homes, floating pig pens and even a floating school.  These houses rise and fall with the river and everything they need is here- gas stations, grocery stores, playmates for the kids who were swimming and splashing in the lake and gossip buddies for the women weaving fishing nets.  It was such an amazing tour because these homes are so open that you can see how these people live: fish, nap, play and work.  We stopped by a crocodile farm to hang out with a local family for awhile.  They had the cutest boy who got in a "gunfight" with deb and we were able to play with their newborn puppies.  Deb and I are already planning to go backpacking through Vietnam, Laos and more of Cambodia, hoping to hang out with locals in homestays like this.  You don't need to speak the same language to play, laugh and eat!
Deb on the boat through the floating villages
We came back from a long day but headed out for dinner on Pub Street (50 cent beers!) and we navigated past the people trying to convince us we needed fish spas, $5 for an hour long massage stations and a tuk tuk ride somewhere "no tuk tuk!".  Then we hit up the night market.  Deb is a merciliness bargainer and we returned home laden with silk scarves, hand carved plates, colorful hammocks, hand-painted canvases and the famous Khmer fishing pants.  We tried the famous chocolate banana pancake on our way out, which didnt disappoint.  We returned back to our hostel right before a massive storm which reminded us how lucky we were with the weather all weekend.

By the time Sunday rolled around, we were all so tired that Deb read the word "amazing" as "amazeballs", an exclamation we're going to try to make stick.  Our plans to take it easy changed when we learned we could get a tuk tuk for a half-day tour of workshops and airport delivery for just $7. The tour of the first workshop allowed us to learned about dying and weaving palms into baskets, candle and soap making, spice cultivation and making of more cosmetics.  It ended with a free mug of cinnamon coffee or lemongrass tea, while we enjoyed while chatting with our tour guide who kept stroking our hands, saying we had skin like babies, "big babies".  After that, we headed to the silk farm for a free tour of the production from the growing of the mulberries to retrieving the silk to dying and weaving into the final product.  There was also a mini-museum showcasing some of the famous patterns and common silk goods for Cambodians.  Midway through the tour, we had a tasty snack of a silkworm stripped of its silk straight out of its hot pot.  Yum!
We love tuk tuks!  
So that was our weekend!  Check out the full album of my photos because Cambodia=amazeballs and words do not describe it.  We had a smooth and speedy flight back on Malaysian airlines.  They play a song "Beautiful Malaysia" when we were about to land and I could barely withhold my laughter when the Hispanic guys next to me starting speaking English for the first time to coo "the land where dreams come true" for a private serenade in tune to the music.  Two full work days then it's off to Bali! :)

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Puttin' on the Ritz

It's hard to believe our time in Singapore is halfway over but as Alissa said last week "we're about to embark on the CRAZIEST MONTH OF OUR LIVES".  With all these trips and the awesome things that keep happening, July is going to be pretty epic.
Fortunately, July seems promising research-wise.  I've been able to do some interviews this week and Peter arrived from MIT and he's going to be a great resource for advice, information and good connections.  I've had lunch with MIT/SUTD people every day this week and I love hearing their interesting stories.  One of my favorites is when the SUTD students did a summer study in Boston, some of them 3-D printed a ring.  They figured out how to remove the magstrip from their Charlie Card so they only have to flash their ring at the turnstile to hop on the T.  They've been in communication with Massachusetts Transport Authority about potentially mass producing their product- so cool!  
Today I ate with Max, a young italian physics professor who Reddy used to know at NUS and who taught in Australia for 10 years.  He's going to provide a pizza bribe for his students to be interviewed by me in a couple weeks.  We were joined at lunch by other young male professors who really exemplified the young, creative energy of SUTD- another Italian (frisbee coach), guy from the UK and a smiley silent guy.  It was interesting to hear about their perceived cultural differences working with Asian students here and they also had some interesting expectations of Americans and their education.   
Walking up to Lou's mammoth mansion
Yesterday, we went to Lou's house for happy hour.  He's the C.O.O. (Chief Operating Officer at the US embassy, one step down from the ambassador), he talked to us at the embassy then talked more extensive to some of us at Saturday's Fourth of July celebration which scored us this invite.  His house was absolutely beautiful- supposedly worth S80 million and he moved into it fully furnished with a full fridge.  They added decorations and wall hangings from around the world so we got a tour, met their cats and enjoyed story time.  Their Indian chef cooked us up some delicious samosas, Mexican mini-tacos and brownies- we were all in heaven.  His wife, Didi, is really cool too- she was a high school math teacher that he met in Malaysia.  She volunteers to help handicapped kids through horse therapy and she's into triathlons.  They're both so adventurous and down to earth.  Supposedly, Lou is the only American governmental employee who took the train into Mali.  The people at the embassy freaked out and tried to bribe him to take a plane using every technique possible but he refused and arrived to Mali on a train, after a very crazy ride.  They love trying street food and they impressed Anthony Bourdain with all the foods they had tried.  They gave us advice about Cambodia, since Marie, Deb and I leave tomorrow and they just reinforced my feeling that this is the trip I've been the most excited about!  Apparently, US is the preferred currency, which is surprising and convenient.  Marie read that the people from whom you buy a Visa on arrival request "crisp bills" and have refused wrinkly ones so we might have to bust out Deb's iron depending on the state of our cash.  
Kevin, Dawn, Ken, Alissa, me, Didi and Lou
Front: Marie, Dave, Deb
After happy hour, Ken, Alissa and I decided to take advantage of girl's night, partially because we were supposed to meet up with some couchsurfers who never ended up materializing.  We tried to find Ken a suit for the embassy shindig (more details later) but his arms were wayyyy too long for Singaporean suits so we gave up pretty quickly and enjoyed walking around the Bay and on the DNA bridge to see the city lights.  On August 9th, Singapore has their national day and they've been preparing all year.  People on campus have been making floats and practicing various performances.  We got to see people at the stadium do a performance to music where they held up colored papers and created a dynamic ship that moved.  So that was pretty cool- it's too bad that we have to leave the country a week before this celebration.
Flashing peace signs on the DNA bridge
Eventually, we hit up Ku de Ta and Avalon at Marina Bay Sands to get our weekly dose of dancing.  We met this awesome group of guys from all over (Germany, Sweden, India and Indonesia) who are currently studying at James Cook University.  They were especially jubilant, re-united after a month-long break.  They had ridiculous dance moves and we hung out with them all night.  They invited us to a party at a mansion this weekend but I'll have to miss it unfortunately.  
Speaking of fancy parties, earlier this week, the ambassador sent us invites to his fancy fourth of july shindig at the Ritz Carlton grand ballroom.  Unfortunately it interfered with veggie sushi making with Lauren (hopefully we can reschedule) but it sounds like it's going to be amazing.  Lou was surprised we got invitations- supposedly it's usually diplomats and "key business contacts" who get invited.  He says the Embassy has been trying to avoid answering the phones this week because people are trying to get invitations.  So I'm definitely looking forward to seeing Lou again, free food, open bar and jazz entertainment- supposedly they go all out for this event.  
Invite from the ambassador