Tuesday, December 29, 2009


As promised, here's a continuation of the last entry about my parent's visit.  After we spent some time in Singapore, my parents and I headed to the city of Kota Kinabalu, on the north coast of Borneo.  Because Borneo sounds super exotic and you may not know where it is (I probably didn't until I moved here), here's a map:

As you can see, the north coast belongs to Malaysia, and the rest belongs to Indonesia, except for that tiny sliver that is Brunei.  (Brunei was actually supposed to join the federation of states that merged to form Malaysia in the early 1960s, but pulled out at the last minute.)  Here's another map showing Borneo in the context of Southeast Asia (ignore the random German writing on Borneo):

As you can see, it's not too far from Singapore.  So, after a quick two hour flight, we landed in Kota Kinabalu.  We did a bit of exploring around the downtown (consisting of a couple blocks - it's not that big of a city) and the harborfront.  Here there was an enormous "wet" market with stalls selling everything from fruit and freshly butchered meat to local handicrafts.  However, the food section of the market smelled terrible!  So, we wandered the handicrafts portion instead.  Here are some statues we found on the waterfront:

And some boats that were in such disrepair that they looked like they belonged to a scrappy pirate gang: 

The next day, we learned about the various cultures of the Bornean natives, with a visit to a resurrected tribal village that had once been inhabited by headhunters!  The man who rebuilt the village is descended from this tribe, and all the tribal artifacts (including 42 skulls) have been passed down through the generations and have ended up in his possession.  Here are some of the skulls:

We also got to do all sorts of fun activities that the villagers would have done in their daily life.  We saw how the natives made rice wine - and we even got to sample some.  It didn't actually taste like much, although if you drunk enough of it, I imagine it would have done the job.  We also got to try shooting blowguns!  Here is my dad showing off his expert skillz.

Later that day, we went to a wildlife park, where we saw proboscis monkeys and orantugans.  The proboscis monkeys were actually sort of disappointing - their noses were not nearly as large as I had hoped.  But, they did have some babies, which are always super cute.  The orangutans were more interesting.  The park helps to rehabilitate injured orangutans (I guess they are injured due to poaching?  I was not sure about this), so the ones that were in the zoo were the ones that were too injured to be released back into the wild.  Here's one with a mangled hand - he seemed to be managing ok.

Also, we saw a bird of paradise!  Most people only think of these as those poky, bright orange, flowers, but the original birds of paradise were actual birds.  These birds used to be incredibly common in Borneo, but were hunted to near extinction because of the desire for their beautiful tail feathers.  

The next day, we headed out to a group of small islands off the coast to do some scuba diving.  I recently learned how to dive about a year ago, so I was eager to go!  Unfortunately, the visibility was quite bad, the maximum visibility was only about 5m.  However, I did see a huge moray eel and lots of flourescently colored nudibranchs.  My parents saw a turtle, so I was quite jealous.  One of the coolest parts of the trip was when we stopped for lunch on one of the small islands.  The island was inhabited by water monitors!  They were huge - some were over 5 feet long!  The lizards were almost completely tame, because they were used to getting food from the tourists, that they were just lounging around in the sun and begging food scraps.  Like very large, very spiky, house cats. 

On our final full day in Borneo, we took a bus several hours to go hiking around Mount Kinabalu.  This is one of the tallest mountains in Southeast Asia, and is very popular with climbers because it's quite easy to climb - pretty much like a two day hike uphill.  Not having time to climb all the way up, we contented ourselves with some jungle hiking around the mountain.  There were a lot of very pretty plants and flowers that we saw, like these beautiful red flowers.

We realized while we were hiking that we were "hiking the jungles of Borneo", and that that sounded totally badass (it sounds extra cool if you say it in that movie-preview-announcer-deep-male voice.  Really.  Try it, right now.).  Here I am in the jungles of Borneo:

On our last day, we managed to have time to make it to the Sabah State Museum before we had to be at the airport to catch our flight.  A unique feature of this museum was that it had recreations of the many different types of houses that the various tribes of Borneo used to live in.  Here's a picture of a few, surrounding a picturesque (but completely mosquito infested) lake:

Also, it had silly animal statues, and I'm a total sucker for hokey dioramas, like this fake water buffalo standing in a rice paddy:

That afternoon, we headed back to Singapore and I said goodbye to my parents, who were off to Tokyo for a couple days before returning home. 

Overall, I thought Borneo was a really interesting place, for both the culture and the unique jungles.  I enjoyed being in a more rural setting, away from the huge city of Singapore.  However, I think that Kota Kinabalu is begining to experience a tourism boom, and will probably grow much larger in the coming years, especially as they promote themselves as an "ecotourism" site. 

It's interesting to note that in my two visits of Malaysia, I'm always surprised at how developed it is.  It always seems much cleaner and safer than I expect.  Overall, I think it's a good place to travel to get exposed to Southeast Asia (I'm assuming Singapore doesn't really count), without encountering too many issues.  People are quite nice and helpful, and I rarely felt like they were trying to scam me.  So, all in all, a good trip.   

 Also, Merry (late) Christmas to everyone!  I enjoyed a delicious German lunch at a local brewpub with some friends, before heading home to skype with various friends and family.  Now, I'm just about to head out to meet Chris at the airport here in Singapore, and we'll be continuing on to Vietnam in a couple days.  Hope everyone has a very happy New Year!

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Playing tourist in Singapore

Last week, for the first time since I've been in Singapore, I got to play full-time tourist, as my parents were in town to visit me!  It was lots of fun and I found out a lot more about Singapore - often the places we visited were locations I had frequented before but had not realized the historical significance/cultural value behind them.

My parents arrived late Monday night and I met up with them on Tuesday morning.  After a failed attempt to visit a crocodile farm, we settled for a visit to Arab Street and the Malay Heritage Center.  Arab Street is one of my favorite places in Singapore, for it's chill vibe, good food, and funky shops.  The Malay Heritage Center was somewhat interesting, but I would have liked for it to focus more on the historical areas of Malay influence in Singapore - the present-day exhibits were much less interesting.  For dinner, I introduced my parents to the very common Singaporean dinner location: the mall food-court.  Like an indoor, air conditioned, hawker center, but more crowded.  The extreme crowds made it a bit difficult to navigate, but a friendly Singaporean family ended up sharing their table with us - everyone here is so much nicer to me when I'm with my family (more on this later)!

The next day, my dad had to fly to Jakarata for business, so my mom and I headed to Chinatown.  We visited a really cool Taoist temple - the first in Singapore, built in 1826.  Here's a picture of the inside of the Yueh Hai Ching Temple (Temple of the Calm Sea):

 The temple was built by the Teochew community of Singapore (one of the main Chinese groups during those times) to thank the gods for safe passages over the ocean, as the Teochew were historically sailors and fishermen. Besides the main shrine, there were lots of other shrines that I'm sure had very interesting stories behind them, such as this one (especially the guy on the right):

The next day, my mom and I headed to Little India, another very interesting neighborhood in Singapore.  I like Little India because it provides a glimpse of what Singapore was like in the past - like this spice mill in a sundry goods shop:

The whole shop smelled delicious and barrels of ground spices were stacked along the walls:

We also checked out a Hindu temple, the Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple.  Like most Hindu temples, this one was gaudily decorated and had a tall tower, called a gopuram, which is similar to a church tower in that it is designed to help pilgrims find their way to the temple.   Taking a break, we ate some kulfi, which is the Indian version of ice cream.  It's slightly thicker than normal ice cream and flavored with all sorts of nuts.  Seriously, if you ever get a chance to try it, do so!  It was madly delicious.  Finally, we rounded out our Little India explorations with a trip to Mustafa's department store, a 24-hour madhouse full of all sorts of cheap merchandise.

The next day, we decided to explore the British influence in Singapore by visiting the civic district and the waterfront.  (Apparently, this is also the point at which I stopped taking pictures for several days - sorry!)  The massive, stately government buildings look quite out of place against the lush, tropical background of Singapore.  We also visited the Philatelic Museum, which, for a museum about stamps, was pretty great!  Surprising, I know.

On our last day in Singapore, my parents and I went to the National Museum.  I had never been there before and it was probably the most extensive and through museum I've ever been to.  The exhibits in the Singapore history gallery were accompanied by an audio/visual "companion" that gave you audio snippets about historical events in Singapore's past.  After listening to these general snippets, you could choose to read more about specific artifacts, listen to discussions by various historians, or hear first-hand accounts of the (more recent) events in question.  I think our visit took about 3 hours - but we could have spent all day there! 

That night, we went to the Night Safari at the Singapore Zoo.  This is a special nighttime exhibit that features nocturnal animals.  It was really cool!  The prize for most adorably cute animal goes to the Lesser Mouse Deer.  Here's a picture (not mine): 

Seriously, how retardedly cute is that?!?  (For a scale reference, their max height is about 18 inches, their mature weight is under 5 lbs.)  The award for most bad-ass animal goes to the Malayan Flying Fox, which was a large bat about one foot long.  Part of the Night Safari contained a walk-in bat cage, which was a very very large cage that you could walk through and be up close and personal with the bats.  It was so cool being only feet away from these huge bats!  Observe (again, not my picture - my camera sucks at night shots):

 The next day, we woke up super early to get to the airport to catch our flight to Borneo - but I'll save that for another blog entry.

Overall, seeing Singapore from a completely tourist perspective was interesting.  Seeing all the things that surprised my parents made me realize all the little differences that I've adapted to in the past four months.  I think that what made the biggest impression upon me was how polite other people were to us - no pushing to get on the bus, offering their seats on the train, helping with locating various places.  I don't really know why this is - my only theory is that Asians are always kind of confused when a single woman is travelling alone, so maybe when I had my family with me, we seemed more like tourists.  Anyways, I enjoyed it while it lasted!

So, that about sums up the Singapore visit.  Next time: our trip to Borneo and my awesome German Christmas lunch. 

Monday, December 14, 2009

Travel Plans!

It's finally time for a holiday!  I am excited to take a few weeks off from work and spend some time with my visitors.  My parents will be arriving in Singapore soon (as in, a few hours) and we'll be spending some time here and then heading to Kota Kinabalu, in Borneo (the Malaysia part).  I'm pretty excited to go to Borneo; it will be nice to get out of the city and be able to do some trekking and exploring.  Hopefully we will see monkeys - orangutans and proboscis monkeys!

Then, Chris is coming to visit me!  We'll be heading off to Vietnam, to check out Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and the central coast.  I'm really excited to see all the interesting history there - ancient monuments from early tribes, remnants of French colonialism, and of course all the Vietnam War artifacts.

So, it may be a couple weeks before I update again, since I'll be in and out of Singapore.  But, I promise awesome pictures and travel stories when I do get around to updating!    

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Chinese Garden

I had a very nice visit to the Chinese Gardens by my apartment today.  They were very peaceful and beautiful.  Here are a couple pictures.

In the gardens, there was a Turtle and Tortoise museum.  Apparently, it is the world's largest collection of tortoises and turtles in the world, at 3,456 - what they don't tell you is that most of these are tortoise and turtle figurines, not real ones.  Only about 1000 of them are actually alive.  But, 1000 turtles and tortoises is still a lot!  After seeing the museum, I feel quite bad that I paid them my $5 and supported them, because the turtle conditions looked pretty horrible - small, filthy cages with lots of turtles crowded together.  However, it was pretty interesting to see the huge variety of species.  Most of the land tortoises were pretty cute.  Like this little guy:

A lot of the aquatic turtles were kind of gross and scary looking.  These snake-necked turtles were especially creepy:

And then...there were the pig-nosed turtles.  Here's a picture of one:

Doesn't look too scary, right?  WRONG.  Each pig-nosed turtle was in it's own tank, and there was a long wall full of these tanks.  As I walked down the wall, all the turtles started struggling against the walls of their cages and snapping their mouths.  Now, I'm sure this was a completely normal turtle response, because they assumed I was going to feed them, but it was scary!  The walls of their cages were not all that high, and these were pretty big turtles - at least a foot long.  For a few tense minutes, I was convinced that the turtles had coordinated an insurrection and that they were all going to break out and devour me alive.  Luckily, they calmed down, and I was only left with this guy to worry about:

I made it out of there unscathed, but I don't think I'll be going to any more turtle museums in the future!

Thursday, November 26, 2009

"One white can cover up three ugliness”

Here's an interesting article I came across today about Asian's (especially Asian women's) obsession with light skin.  (Side note - yay, I finally figured out how to put in those nifty little links!)  I hadn't really realized the extent of this obsession until I came to Singapore.  Although it's most often overcast here, a lot of the women always use umbrellas when they walk outside, so as to avoid the sun.  Also, whenever I go lap swimming at the pool on campus, I'm the only woman in the pool, which I think is because all the others are staying inside away from sun.  I recently needed to buy some face lotion, and it took me quite some time to find one that didn't include claims of skin whitening.

A lot of the obsession is historical - if you had white skin, then you were rich enough to not work outside in the fields all day long.  But did Westerners ever have this same obsession?  I haven't heard of it in any recent history, at least.  Now we have the reverse: people striving for the "perfect tan", which will prove that they have the time/money to laze around all day long tanning.  Anyways, I'll stick to my sort-of-tan that I've gotten in spite of going through several tubes of sunscreen in the three months that I've been here.  

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Research Sucesses

So recently I actually made some pretty significant progress in my research and solved a couple of the major problems that had been hindering my progress.  This was very exciting!  Even though now I have lots and lots of work to do because I feel like I'm a bit behind after taking so long to resolve these issues, it's really good to have something new to work on.

First off: I solved my problem with my iron oxide compound.  Previously, I was having difficulties getting the synthesis product completely clean, and this was really annoying.  I now have devised a several day, multi-step process for washing away various impurities to get a clean product.  Complicated and time consuming, yes, but it works.  Here's a TEM picture!

And a close up:

(The scale bar is really small, but that dark black bar in the second picture represents 5 nm.  So, each little particle is about 10 nm across!)

See those nice lines across each particle in the second picture?  Those are actually the planes of iron and oxygen atoms, nicely arranged in the configuration I want.  These are responsible for creating the x-ray diffraction pattern below, which proves to me that this is actually the compound that I want:

Sorry it's kinda fuzzy, but basically here I'm proving to myself that I actually have about 95% magnetite, which is the iron oxide phase that I want.  The issue here is that these particles are pretty thermodynamically unstable, mostly because they are so small that they have all sorts of surface energy issues (small particles have a larger surface area/volume ratio than normal size particles, and this causes all sorts of stability problems because of strains within them).  So, they tend to transform into goethite (another iron oxide phase) if you add any small amount of heat.  You can see here that I have about 5% goethite in my sample, which is an OK level.

The other exciting research development is that I made some very nice, titanium dioxide coated, silicon dioxide spheres.  The coating procedure is really complicated, and uses a very air sensitive compound.  If the chemical is exposed to air for more than about 10 seconds at a time, it will oxidize and ruin the synthesis.  So, throughout the whole process, I am required to work with ninja-like quickness.  But, I now have these great-looking spheres:

The inner spheres are made of silicon dioxide, and the darker ring on the outside of each is titanium dioxide.  The little bits outside the spheres are rogue clumps of titanium dioxide that form when I expose the compound to air during the synthesis.  Guess my ninja skills are not perfect yet!

So now I just have to do the in-between part: coat the iron oxide with silicon dioxide.  Then, I'll just put more titanium dioxide on top of that, similar to the previous picture.  However, no one has actually done the silicon dioxide coating on iron oxide, so that part is up to me to figure out.  Should be fun!

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Toy Museum and Dragonboats

OK, I apologize for my lack of posts lately.  I've been either (1) super busy at work, or (2) sick and not doing anything exciting.  But, I was feeling better this weekend, and had the time to do several exciting things.

On Saturday, I visited the Museum of Shanghai Toys.  Anyone who has travelled with me knows that I love completely random museums.  I think the best example of this was a combination internet cafe/indigenious burial jar museum that I made Claire and Rebecca visit with me on La Isla de Ometepe, in Nicaragua.  And it turned out to be a really cool museum!  Anyways, this museum seemed to fit the bill, so I decided to check it out.  It was actually really neat.  It was started quite recently by a Singaporean who is just enthused about toys, and wanted to showcase his collection and use them to illustrate cultural movements and historical events throughout the 20th century in China.  A lot of the toys were pretty funny and creepy looking.  This toy, made out of celluloid from the early 20th century, gets the prize for weirdest/most inexplicable toy:

The museum traced the modernization of China and the various social movements that influenced toys during the last century.  At the beginning of the 20th century, China was still closed to nearly all Western goods and influences, so the toy market was not very developed and most toys were very crude and made out of paper or straw.  However, when more Western goods, including toys, started appearing in Chinese markets, this created a push for the Chinese to modernize their own toy industry.  Another interesting example is that, before around the 1920s or 30s in China, it was not believed that toys could be at all educational.  Again, due to Western forces, the Chinese then realized that educational toys such as puzzles and mazes could be used to help children learn various skills, and this sector of the toy industry exploded.  One funny example of the Chinese toy market imitating the Western market was a collection of knock-off Disney toys, such as these creepy Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs masks.

However, the best toys were ones from the second half of the century.  Toys were one of the many ways used to indoctrinate Chinese children with Communist ideology during the Cultural Revolution, so there was a large exhibit on this.  Here is one toy that is entitled "Child Soldier":

There was also a list of some of the other toy names, which included "Ten thousand tonnes hydraulic machinery", "White Hair Women", "Female Mine Workers", "Sales Girl", "Defeating Paper Tigers", "Oil Refinery Pagoda", "Little Civilian Soldier", and, my favorite, "Offer Congratulations Truck".  I can just imagine little Chinese kids running around: "Hey guys, let's play Oil Refinery Pagoda!"  "No, I want to play Female Mine Workers!".   

Another large collection focused on Space Race themed toys.  I really liked the different renditions of what toy designers thought spaceships would look like in the future.  Here is one good one, the Universe Boat:

Something interesting that can be seen here - a lot of the "people" figurines in these toys were actually very Western looking, with blonde hair and big blue eyes.  There was a series of posters for Chinese children, which, I think, were supposed to illustrate lessons such as going to school, being polite, obeying your parents, etc, but all the children in these posters were white, even though the writing was in Chinese.  I actually still see this today in Singapore - often when cartoons are used in advertisements, public service announcements, etc, the cartoon people are obviously white.  I saw one at the grocery store the other day that tells people not to shoplift, and features a cartoon of a freckled, red-haired man getting caught shoplifting.  (Those darn gingers!  Always causing trouble!)  I find this really strange, since these images don't represent the large majority of the target audience.     

Anyways, here is one last picture from the toy museum.  It is the saddest panda ever!

Today, I met up with some friends to watch Dragonboat races in the Singapore River.  Dragonboats are traditional Chinese boats that are very long and skinny and have decorative dragon heads and tails.  They used to be used mostly for folk or religious rituals, but today Dragonboat racing has evolved as a serious sport.  This weekend's event was huge!  Races ran all day Saturday and Sunday, from about 9 AM to 5 PM.  There were all sorts of teams - high school/college, serious adult teams, company teams, and expat teams from various countries.  One of the cool parts about Dragonboating is that, instead of caller (such as in crew) to keep time and tell the paddlers when to stroke, there is a drummer who beats out time.  The drums are huge and the drummers are normally teeny tiny girls, so it's pretty funny to watch.  We had fun hanging out on the riverside and watching the various races go by.

Also, if you read my last blog post, I talked about the various government campaigns here in Singapore, and specifically the most recent kindness campaign.  In the train station on the way home, we ran into a relic of the previous kindness campaign: Singha the Friendly Lion.  He reminds you to let train passengers out first before you board.

In other news:

Research success!  I'll probably post some pictures and an explanation sometime this week when I'm bored at work.

In order to fully complete my transformation into a cranky old lady, I've taken up knitting.  It's really fun, and has the ability to completely mesmerize me for multiple hours at a time.

I finally finished Infinite Jest!  Maybe I'll write about it here, if I can ever get my head around it.

Monday, November 16, 2009

NYT Article about Singapore

Here's an article about Singapore from Sunday's edition of the New York Times:

It discusses Singapore's many 'campaigns', the most recent of which is the Singapore Kindness Movement.  I was especially amused by this quote near the end of the article:

"...here in Singapore the law is very strong. They tell people to be kind, they must be kind. Cannot be rude.”

 This quote embodies what I think is a quite typical Singaporean attitude - when the government tells you to do something, there's not really any point in resisting, because they'll just fine for it until you give in eventually. 

Monday, November 9, 2009

Chinese Class

The books we use in my Chinese class are pretty hilarious sometimes.  Lately, the books have instructed me with such useful phrases as:

"Excuse me, do you know how many children I have?"
"I would like to introduce you to my lover."
"Here are two Americans, one of them is my friend, the other is not my friend."
"I like capable people."
"We all know that he has lots of money."
"Your girlfriends are certainly numerous."

The book also contains sample conversations that depict everyday occurrences, such as commissioning paintings, debating the relative merits of watches vs. clocks, and buying tape recorders.  One entire conversation is devoted to discussing a shady figure named Mr. Zhang, who is rumored to have a very attractive girlfriend.  Really, quite a lot of emphasis is put on the supposed girlfriend's high level of attractiveness.  In a surprise twist at the end of the conversation, the reticent Mr. Zhang reveals that he doesn't even have a girlfriend and that his more talkative friend Mr. Li has been spreading these rumors to their mutual friends.  Now that's what I call drama.

We recently learned country and city names.  According to the book, the names for most Asian countries have "historical or literary meaning".  Some of these I was familiar with, such as the "Land of the Rising Sun" for Japan.  However, I was unaware that North Korea is historically referred to as the "Land of Morning Freshness".  The book then goes on to discuss the names of Western countries, which are apparently chosen to represent a pleasant or flattering quality of the country in question.  Here are a few:

USA: The Beautiful Country
England: The Brave Country
Germany: The Virtuous Country

However, I am learning some useful Chinese, and these phrases are great for amusing my Chinese speaking friends and colleagues.  Actually, this book is not the worst language book I've ever had.  That prize goes to one of the Danish books I had early on in the Rotary sponsored language courses that all the exchange students attended.  This book was originally meant for Middle Eastern adults who had immigrated to Denmark.  Our favorite phrase from this book was "What is your caseworker's name?", and we proceeded to repeat this phrase ad nauseam until it drove our language teachers crazy.  Last summer, I visited one of my old friends who was also an exchange student and in the same language class - she had forgotten most of the Danish she had learned, but this phrase was still very clear in her mind!

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Halloween, Singapore Style

Happy Halloween, everyone!  Last night I headed out with some friends to celebrate Halloween at Clarke Quay, a popular party spot that is right on the banks of the Singapore River.  The area is full of clubs, bars, and restaurants, but on Halloween the whole area was pretty much packed with people.  I decided on a very Singaporean costume: the durian, king of fruits:

I think that only one person was able to guess my costume over the course of the night, but most people were pretty amused once I explained it to them.  Even if they didn't realize what my costume was, there were still plenty of people who wanted to take pictures with me.  Seriously, my friends and I couldn't walk 10 feet without someone stopping and asking to take a picture with us.  I think that part of this was that most Singaporeans don't get very dressed up for Halloween - a lot of people were there just as spectators.  Also, Asians just seem to really like taking pictures.  (Especially pictures with blond people.  Anytime I go anywhere touristy in Singapore, I end up having to take pictures with a bunch of random people.  It reminds me of how, as a kid at Disneyland, there were tons of Asian people who wanted to take pictures of my brother and me.)  There were a couple people with good costumes, my favorite being a girl dressed up as a Rubiks Cube.  At one point in the night, one of my Singaporean friend and I somehow wandered into a party for a bunch of Singaporean TV/radio personalities and local celebrities.  I didn't realize this until later, when my friend told me so, and then I understood why she had been so excited (I was excited because there was free food and drinks).

Today, I went to an exhibit on the Philippines at the Asian Civilizations Museum.  The Philippines is somewhat different from the rest of Southeast Asia because of the strong Spanish influences, especially in terms of religion - 80% of the population is Roman Catholic.  The exhibit traced the history of the Philippines from its precolonial roots, through the eras of Spanish and American rule, up to the People's Power movement in the 1980s.  What I thought was most interesting was seeing how the Spanish priests mixed indigenous religions with Catholicism to make Christianity more palatable to the natives.  The exhibit had an extensive display of religious icons, most of which were made by Chinese artisans.  This added another cultural influence into the mixture: the icons showed a mix of Christian and indigenous religious symbols, rendered in a Chinese style.  Unfortunately, no pictures were allowed.  However, I did stumble onto a display of Hindu "small gods" on my way out:

Apparently, the Hindu gods most people are familiar with, such as Shiva, Ganesha, Kali, etc, are known as the "large gods".  These are the gods that have big statues in the temples and lots of legends about them.  However, there are also all sorts of minor gods called the "small gods" that are in charge of daily life kind of stuff.  People would normally have these kinds of statues in their homes and would set up small alters on which to place offerings.

Speaking of Hindu temples, last night, before heading out for Halloween, my friends and I went to a really cool restaurant called Annalakshmi.  The restaurant is run by a Hindu temple called the Temple of Fine Arts.  The Temple of Fine Arts puts on all sorts of music and dance performances, as well as running this restaurant.  The catch is that for all of their performances, as well as the meals at the restaurant, there are no set prices, you just pay what you think it was worth.  The food was really good and all the people working at the restaurant are volunteers who genuinely want to be there.  An interesting concept, and a really nice place overall.

Now I am off to make a spectacularly delicious sandwich.  If I had to pick one food item from home that I miss the most, it would be delicious sandwiches.  The lunchmeat situation here is quite dire - the Singaporean grocery stores only have various kinds of weird looking meat called things like "chicken ham" and "beef ham".  The cheese situation is just as bad: most stores only sell the rubbery pre-sliced "processed American cheese food" stuff.  So, today, I went to Carrefour (French Walmart, but much classier because it's French) and bought some delicious roasted turkey and gouda cheese.  Mmm I am so excited for this!

Update: That sandwich was AWESOME!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Tourist Fun! And, work.

On Monday night, my friend Holly was briefly in town, so we decided to do some tourist things that I haven't gotten a chance to do yet.  Holly also has a Fulbright fellowship, to teach English in Macau.  Macau has a pretty strong Portuguese influence, since it was a Portuguese possession until 1999.  It's also know as the "Las Vegas of China", so all in all sounds like a pretty interesting place.

Our first stop was the Merlion Fountain at the Esplanade.  The Esplanade is a new concert hall that is right down on the bay.  The Esplanade is of course modeled after Singapore's favorite fruit, the durian:

The merlion is, just like it sounds, an animal with the head of a lion and the body/tail of a fish.  There are actually many merlion statues around Singapore, since it is the official symbol of the Singapore Tourism Board.  Apparently, the fish part represents Singapore's ancient name of Temasek, meaning "sea town" in Javanese, from back when Singapore was just a tiny fishing village.  The lion head represents new Singapore, as the Malaysia name, Singapura, means "Lion City".  We went to see the original statue:

According to wikipedia, although the statue is made of concrete, the skin is made from porcelain plates and the eyes are made from small red teacups.  To our great disappointment, when we arrived at the statue, all we could see was scaffolding set up around it - they were in the process of restoring it and we couldn't see anything!  Luckily, there was a smaller replica statue just next to it, so we at least got to look at that one.  From reading wikipedia just now, it turns out the that Merlion was struck by lightening in February of this year.  Maybe that was what the construction was all about?  Eight months seems like a long time for repairs though... 

After that, we headed to the Long Bar at the Raffles Hotel.  The Singapore Sling was invented there in sometime before 1910, and a lot of people still go there to order an original Singapore Sling.  The Raffles Hotel is super classy and gives you the feeling that you are still back in the British Colonial era.  Here is the front of the hotel:

The inside is full of beautiful little tropical courtyards and patios and really makes me wish that I was some turn of the century British expat, lounging around in a hammock drinking a Singapore Sling while waiting for my dashing British explorer husband to come back from a tiger hunting expedition.

Here we are with our drinks:

And here is the informational handout they had about the drink:

  LongBarLogo picture  
The Singapore Sling was created at Raffles Hotel at the turn-of-the-century by Hainanese-Chinese bartender, Mr. Ngiam Tong Boon.
In the Hotel's museum, visitors may view the safe in which Mr. Ngiam locked away his precious recipe books, as well as the Sling recipe hastily jotted on a bar-chit in 1936 by a visitor to the Hotel who asked the waiter for it.
Originally, the Singapore Sling was meant as a woman's drink, hence the attractive pink colour. Today, it is very definately a drink enjoyed by all, without which any visit to Raffles Hotel is incomplete.
30ml Gin
15 ml Cherry Brandy
120 ml Pineapple Juice
15 ml Lime Juice
7.5 ml Cointreau
7.5 ml Dom Benedictine
10 ml Grenadine
A Dash of Angostura Bitters
Garnish with a slice of Pineapple and Cherry
Also, the Long Bar is one of those bars that gives you peanuts and lets you throw the shells on the floor.  I love bars that do that.

Another exciting thing that happened on Monday was that I finally met the professor I am working for, Dr. Tim White.  He is an Australian who was working here for some time and then moved back to Australia this summer, right before I arrived.  This is actually OK since I mostly work with the grad students anyways, but it was good to finally meet him.  He seemed happy with the progress that I have made, and had a couple good suggestions for solving the problems that we are still having.  That said, I really hope those suggestions work because I'm getting really frustrated with a very simple problem that I am having.  Basically, I'm making this iron oxide compound, but to make it I need to use a chemical called oleic acid (which is exactly how the name makes it sound - really oily).  However, once I've done the reaction, I need to wash the oleic acid away so that I can have a clean product.  As it turns out, this is really hard to do.  So, I've spent the last month just making samples of this stuff and trying different washing techniques and solvents to try to get the sample absolutely clean, but none of them have been entirely successful yet.  I've got one new method that I'm trying this week, and I'm pretty optimistic about this one.  The frustration is actually good, it's been motivating me to work really hard so that I can finally get this done and move on to something more exciting. 

Now I am off to work on completing my Halloween costume.  I'll put pictures up when I'm finished, but I'm pretty confident that it's going to be awesome!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009


This weekend, I headed to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, with some friends.  I felt justified taking Monday off because it was technically a public holiday, Deepavali, the Hindu festival of lights.  So, Saturday morning we caught the bus and headed off to KL.

The bus ride is quoted as taking 5 hours, but it took more like 6.5.  The border crossings add significant time - one at the Singapore border to leave Singapore, then the bus drives over a short bridge and you have to repeat the same process to enter Malaysia.  But, the ride was quite scenic and also included a lot of sleeping.  For most of the drive up into Malaysia, the highway was surrounded by neat, straight rows of pineapple plantations:

The first stop after dropping our stuff off at the hostel were the Batu Caves, which are about 10 km north of KL.  We took the public bus, which is always an adventure.  I love taking public buses in new countries - the routes they take are typically less direct than trains or taxis, so you see a lot more of the neighborhoods, as well as all different types of people.  Similar to the buses in Nicaragua, these buses had "bus wranglers" who would call out the bus destinations at the station and then sell the tickets once the bus had started on its route.  This is actually a very workable solution for countries without fancy buses with automatic ticket machines, and the bus wranglers tend to be really helpful in figuring out which bus to take and where to get off.  Anyways, the Batu Caves are a Hindu religious site that contain shrines and temples.  Here is the main cave:

The statue here is 140 ft tall, and is of Lord Murugan, a Hindu deity especially popular with the Tamil population of Southern India (a lot of the Indians here and in Malaysia are Tamils).  This is the tallest statue of Lord Murugan in the world!  To get to the main cave, you have to climb up 272 steps:

The main hazard here is not the steps themselves by the obnoxious monkeys - they were everywhere!  They were very used to people and very brave; visitors are advised to hold onto their bags tightly or the monkeys will run up and steal them, in the hopes that they contain food.  Inside the caves, statues and shrines were nestled into every nook and cranny.  They were hard to make out in the dark, but a lot of them were really weird and made me wish I knew what the legends behind them were.  There were also two more temples inside the caves:

That night, we did some shopping at Petaling Street, which is actually a market spread over several streets in Chinatown.  The stalls were full of convincing and not-so-convincing knockoffs of popular brands.  Our favorite store was a combination Christmas/Chinese New Year store.  Here is my friend Nathalie with the Christmas display:

I have to say, eating Chinese food in Malaysia to the sound of Christmas carols was a bit surreal. 

The next day, we woke up bright and early to obtain tickets to visit the Petronas Twin Towers.  At 1483 feet, the Petronas Towers were the tallest building in the world from 1998 until 2004, when they were beaten by Dubai.  However, they are still the world's tallest twin tower building.  The skybridge, at 558 feet, is open for visitors and free if you arrive early enough to get a ticket for the day.  We queued for about an hour (I really enjoy using queue as a verb.  It sounds so much better than "stand in line".) and got our tickets for later in the day.  We then headed outside to take some pictures with the towers.  Here they are:

Because of the extreme height of the towers, it was quite difficult to take pictures with a person in the foreground and the towers in the background.  As a result of this, people were putting themselves in all kinds of funny positions on the ground in order to get the right angle.  I noticed one guy off to the side quietly taking pictures of all the people in these funny poses.  He noticed me and, after making a shushing motion, came over to show them to me.  They were really funny!  He said he didn't care about the towers, he just liked taking pictures of the people; I also thought the pictures of the people were way more interesting.  After some lunch, we returned to the towers at our scheduled time.  First, we watched a really hokey 3D movie about Petronas, the national petroleum company of Malaysia.  This movie looked like it was made in the early 80s - odd considering that the towers weren't built until 1998.  It was pretty funny though.  Then, we took the elevator up to the skybridge.  Look at all the floors!

The elevator was really speedy, it ascended at 5 or 6 m/s.  Here I am on the skybridge:

Since it was the weekend of Deepavali, malls and stores had festive Deepavali displays set up.  These displays consisted mostly of rice paintings called kolam.  Kolam are a sort of artistic prayer - they invite the goddess Lakshmi into the house or building to bless the inhabitants.  Here is my favorite one that I saw:

 The next day, we again woke up early to catch the bus to Malacca Town, another Malaysian city that is on the way back to Singapore from KL.  Malacca was originally a Portuguese colony, and was settled later by the Dutch and the British.  There are a lot of historical buildings and influences left from these different colonising groups, and Malacca was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008 (this was actually quite unfortunate, since it meant that the place was crawling with tourists).  We took the local bus to the Dutch square, which contained a Dutch church, the Stadthuys (city hall), and, of course, a windmill.

After poking our head into the Dutch church, we headed to Bukit St. Paul, or St. Paul's Hill.  On top of the hill were the ruins of a church that was originally built by the Portuguese, and was later used as a fortress and lighthouse by the British.  The church contained one of my favorite things to look at when I'm travelling - old gravestones!  (Seriously, I don't know where this interest came from.  I blame my parents for taking us to the old cemeteries in Boston while there on a trip; my brother and I proceeded to laugh at the names of the dead people (our favorite was Dorcus) and had a grand old time, and from there my obsession was born.)

We then climbed down the other side of the hill to visit the remains of the A Famosa fortress, built by the Portuguese in the early 1500s.  Originally, the fortress formed a 3 meter thick wall around the entire settlement, but here is all that is left of it now:

Finally, we visited the Istana, or the royal palace, of the Sultan of Malacca.  Here is a picture of his grand meeting hall:

I love museums with really hokey dioramas like these.  Another exhibit I really liked is this one, which depicts some legend of an epic duel.  It shows the earliest known example of Matrix-style fighting:

Unfortunately, we didn't have much time to look around here, since we had to get back to the bus station to catch our bus to Singapore.  In our mad dash through town looking for a taxi, we went by this museum:

I originally thought this was a body modification museum, but after a quick google search by Chris it turns out that it portrays the "differing concepts of beauty as practiced by different cultures".  The description is pretty admirable because they write two paragraphs about the museum, and use this quote in literally every sentence.

Overall, Malaysia, and especially KL, was a lot less sketchy than I expected.  It felt like being in the more shady parts of Singapore, which are really not very shady overall.  At no point did I feel worried about getting my bags snatched on the street or getting robbed by a taxi driver.  Another thing that surprised me was the large number of white tourists in KL.  I guess it's a more popular European travel destination, but I don't think I know any Americans who have traveled there.  Finally, especially in light of the large numbers of tourists, I was surprised at how few Malaysians (outside of the service industries) spoke English.  Especially in Malacca, we had to ask around quite a bit to find someone who spoke some English and could help us out with figuring out directions, etc.  Overall, I really enjoyed Malaysia, and wished that I had more time to hit some of the smaller towns, including Malacca again...maybe a return trip sometime in the future?