30 July 2007


A few weeks ago, I had my first taste of a unique expatriate experience, that of hashing. Hashing is an activity that combines running and drinking, organized by a local chapter of a worldwide group called the Hash House Harriers. Hashing started with a few British expatriates in Malaysia in the 1930s, and it has spread across the globe, especially in this part of the world. You can find a hash in Singapore probably 25 days of the month. The one I went to was the Friday night hash put on by the Lion City H3 Club. The brother of a friend at Sabre in Southlake lives in Singapore (what a small world), and he and his wife are big time hashers. In fact, they met on a hash.

Being part of a group of hashers is like living an alternate life. They have their own language, they call each other by their "hash names", and they think that a good time on a Friday night is running for an hour or 90 minutes through, up, over, and under just about anything. My friend and his wife have their own hash names, but they are collectively known to their fellow Lion City H3 hashers as the Velcro Twins, since they were essentially inseparable after they met on a hash.

Each week's hash is set up by one or a few "hares", the hosts that mark the trail with either chalk, paper, or flour. The group then sets out at the designated time (6pm sharp for these folks), searching for the trail. The problem is, the trail isn't so easily followed. Part of the fun of the hash are the "T" stops or "Circle" stops, places where the trail ends, leaving the group to pick up the trail (a "T" stop means you have to backtrack, as the trail invisibly branched somewhere before you got to the "T"; if you reach a circle, that means the trail can be found again somewhere near - not necessarily backward - but it is usually a challenge to find). Once the trail is found again, the signal is given: a shout of "On On!", and the pack is off again. "On On" is short for "Onward!", and it gets everybody going once again. "On On" is just one of the many phrases that make up the hashers own unique language. In fact, when I read the weekly newsletter, I had no idea what it said, and it was written in English!

Hashers come in all shapes, sizes, and ages. Some are very good runners and sprint out front. Others walk the entire time. Most fall somewhere in between. This hash featured participants from 16 years to probably 60 years old.

The hash took me through open parkland, over locked fences, underneath streets into drainage ditches, up through brambles and overgrown backwoods, and back into drainage ditches for hunched over walks of 50 metres or more, through ankle-deep water. It was exhausting and exhilarating all at once! I ran, jogged, walked, nearly crawled, stumbled, and then trotted for just over an hour, reaching the finish line (the host's house) just after 7pm. And then the fun began.

As I mentioned, hashing is part running, part drinking. Well, as people started coming in from the run (the early arrivers, the good runners, are known as FRBs, or Front Running B*******), out come the drinks. The hashers cool down with water, sports drinks, and beer, and they get ready for the Circle and dinner. These people are serious - most have portable showers in their cars, small water reservoirs with hoses, and they shower right there by the side of the road (there is a bit of modesty - no full monty). Once the group is sufficiently cleaned and rested, at 8pm, the Circle is called to order. The Circle is just what it sounds like - everybody gets in a circle, and there are several toasts and songs to the hosts, to the first-timers (yes, I had to get in the circle and drink a beer), to the returning guests, and to a number of regulars who are simply called out by the hash grand master (this one was a German, and he got called out as much as he did the calling). Several other members get in on the act, and by the time the Circle is finished (about an hour later), everybody is in a good mood (some more than others). I didn't stay for dinner - I was exhausted and had an early train the next morning, but it was a great time. I was so exhausted, however, that I had a hard time sleeping that night - it was the best workout I have had since coming to Singapore.

All in all, hashing is a great way to meet a wide-ranging group of people (there are all kinds of expats as well as locals) who like to have fun. So, when you visit, if you fancy a hash, bring your running shoes. But don't bring your good ones - you never know when you'll end up in ankle-deep water 15 feet below the city's streets.

15 July 2007

National Stadium

Singapore's National Stadium is due to be torn down this year to make way for a bigger and better version. I was able to attend the final event at the current National Stadium, a football match between the Singapore (Lions) and Australian (Socceroos) national teams. The Socceroos had set up a training camp here in Singapore to get ready for the Asian Cup, a prestigious tournament in which they were one of the favorites (it looks like they won't make it to the second round, however, after a couple of poor showings). The Lions did not qualify for the tournament, but thousands of faithful still showed up for this friendly and celebration afterwards. The match was a scoreless draw at the half, but the talented Aussies broke through early in the second half, and the floodgates opened. When the final whistle blew, it was 3-nil for the Socceroos. We snuck out early to avoid the crowd and get a water-side seat for some post-match refreshment. It really was a festive night in that part of Singapore - as we walked by the National Indoor Stadium, just adjacent to the outdoor stadium, we could hear the final few strains of Lady Marmalade, the finale for Christina Aguilera in her Singapore concert.


This will be the first year since 1985 that I will not attend a Major League Baseball game in person. I hoped I would get the opportunity to get to a game this year, but it looks like I won't return for a visit until December. So, for those of you lucky enough to enjoy the sights, sounds, smells, and so forth of a major league stadium this year, please feel free to send me an email telling me about it. I will live vicariously through you. Thanks.

10 July 2007

Sungei Buloh

Singaporeans often complain about the lack of things to do in the city-state, but then they don’t take advantage of what is here. Expats and locals alike will spend hundreds or thousands of dollars for nature holidays to nearby countries when they haven’t even explored their own backyards. I decided to join a friend and check out this “backyard” at the Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve. This area is featured in tourist guidebooks, but our cab driver’s lack of knowledge about its location reinforced how little attention Singaporeans pay it. Eventually, after a consultation of the website and a call to the cab company, we wound our way to the northwest part of the island, well off the beaten path. On the way, we had a great view of Johor Bahru (JB to locals), the Malaysian city just across the Straits of Johor from Singapore (in fact, my friend’s cell phone service switched over to a Malaysian provider while we were at the reserve).

The reserve features several paths that wind back into the mangrove and wetland, and it is very well done. It really offers a complete escape from the city; the only sounds are those of the animals and insects. We weren’t very far up the path when we spied our first reptile, a beautiful golden-red lizard about six inches long. I was able to get pretty close before he took off. But, that was just the start. A few metres later, we spied a monitor lizard. Unlike his cousin, the Komodo Dragon, the monitor lizard shies away from humans, and this one escaped into the bush. At that point, the path branched out to a pond-side observation deck, where we spied a turtle enjoying himself, somewhat oblivious to the two large monitor lizards cooling themselves in the water. The turtle swam towards one of the lizards but recognized something was about to go awry just before he got too close and reversed course. While we were watching this, the original monitor reappeared, taking up a position at the entrance to the observation deck. Were these guys cornering us like the raptors in Jurassic Park? Turns out, no, as the first lizard made a quick exit as we approached again.

We ran into an Aussie who was trying to photograph birds from a lookout tower, but he said the migratory birds were all gone for the season. We asked about crocodiles, because there are croc warning signs all over the reserve, but he said he had only seen one in his entire time coming to the reserve, and it was near the entrance at the Visitors Center (comforting thought). Alas, his comments turned out to be prophetic, as we didn’t see any trace of a crocodile (or a snake, as my friend really wanted to see) the rest of the time. We did see another large monitor lizard that looked like it had recently eaten a small dog or large cat (or both), but no other big reptiles. And we happened upon a pack of semi-wild dogs. Apparently, they belong to several farmers that live just off the reserve, and they run free within the park. We had heard them growling from across the river, but all of the sudden they emerged from the trees, running out into the shallow water to chase fish. There were about 20 of them, and after they had checked out the fish, I guess they decided it was time to head to the other shore, so they all just plunged in and swam the thirty metres or so to the other side (see picture). And then they disappeared into the woods again.

We did see several interesting fish and birds, including the beautifully-colored Kingfisher (bird) and the rather odd-looking Mudskipper. This is a fish that swims with its bug eyes sticking out of the water. It can actually crawl across land, and we saw several propelling themselves with their fins across the mud in search of food. They eat all kinds of things, even the little black crabs that live in the mud (they were everywhere). They looked like something crawling from the primordial swamp millions of years ago.

While the reserve is beautiful, its remote location means that you can’t get a cab to come get you. So, we had to walk through the Kranji Nature Trail, an adjacent nature area, to catch a bus, which took us to an MRT in an area I had never seen. I am not sure what was more of an adventure, the reserve and its roaming reptiles, or the trips to and from the reserve.

09 July 2007

Arts: Taraf de Haïdouks

The Singapore Arts Festival is now over, but I was able to catch another performance on its last night, that of a Romanian group called Taraf de Haïdouks (Band of Honourable Brigands). This colourful ensemble of Gypsy “lautari” (traditional musicians) plays violins, accordions, upright bass, and the cimbalom (a type of hammer dulcimer - a stringed instrument where the strings are stretched over a trapezoidal sounding board) at a frantic pace, enough to put the best of bluegrass bands to shame. Every other song or so, a couple of old vocalists would come out from backstage and for a rousing rendition of some local Romanian song, all the while playing to the crowd with a twinkle in their eyes or a light dance step. They were having more fun than the audience. It may have been the subject matter of the songs: “tales of cheating husbands, unsatisfied wives, and a longing for the elixir of youth”. I know this only from the program, as all the songs were in Romanian. But, it was a fun show.

While the group is not well-known in its own country, it does have an international following, even in Hollywood. Johnny Depp, for whom they played his gypsy family in The Man Who Cried, had them play the at his club on Sunset Strip for the opening of Sleepy Hollow back in 2002. He said, “they have this gift to make you feel alive.” I can’t disagree.

Travel: Langkawi, Part 3

Well, I'm off driving around the island. My first stop was for a bite of local food, so I pulled over at Laksa Power, a truck that was parked just off the airport road. It had been recommended by the bartender at my hotel, and it was excellent. I was the only non-local there. If you don't know what Laksa is, I will provide an ode in a separate post. After this early evening snack, I was off exploring. I drove all around the island, doing recon for the next days adventures, and generally acclimating myself. I managed to find the night market, which is held in a different location every night, and joined hundreds of locals in a food and merchandise bazaar. I ignored the books, crafts, and clothes and (you guessed it) headed straight for the food. I can't remember everything I sampled, but it was all delicious. Mostly chicken, with some beef (no pork - Malaysia is heavily Muslim), all washed down with exotic fruit juices. I was in culinary heaven. It was time to head home, however, especially since I had already tempted fate by nearly running out of petrol in my drive around the island (that would have been a good one).

The next morning I decided to indulge myself with a massage. I chose a hot oil (they call it "third eye") massage at an Indian place called Ayurvedic. Basically, they pour a stream of hot oil on your forehead for nearly an hour, which is supposed to relieve all kinds of stress. I am not a massage expert, so I don't know what to expect out of any massage. After reading the brochures for this place (it was even in my Lonely Planet guidebook), I was pretty sure I was going to achieve total consciousness and a heightened sense of awareness. Well, I didn't. It was not a bad experience, but now I know to lower my expectations.

I then headed out for a drive. I wound my way up the 13 kilometers of twisty road to the top of Gunung Raya, the tallest point on the island. The view would have been incredible, only it was completely fogged in. About halfway down the mountain, you could get a glimpse of what the view from the summit would have been like, and it was fantastic. The highlight was the family of monkeys who really didn't want to give up the road and just stared as I gently rode by.

Not satisfied with one mountain, I headed across the island to hike the waterfalls of Telaga Tujuh (Seven Wells) and ride the Langkawi Cable Car. As I pulled into the parking lot (car park) at Seven Wells and turned off the car, I was startled to see a little black hand grab the passenger side mirror. Another hand appeared, and then the owner of the hands, a long-tail monkey, used them to hoist herself onto the hood (bonnet) of the car and stare at me. They are all over the place! But, I had to get up to the falls and back down to the cable car before it closed, so I was off. Little did I know that you could cut the 800-metre steep hike in half by driving up to the top car park. Well, consider it my workout for the day. Up I went, into the rainforest, until I came to the falls, which cascade nearly 100 metres down the hillside through a series of seven (tujuh) wells (telaga). At the top, you can actually slide from the first couple of wells to the next, through the falls, before it becomes too rocky. My timeline (and better judgment) did not allow for this, however. I was off to Oriental Village (a restaurant and shopping area that includes a museum of props and costumes from Anna and the King, which was partially filmed in Langkawi) to catch the cable car.

The Langkawi Cable Car provides a two-kilometre, L-shaped journey to the top of Mount Machincang, from the base near sea level to a height of more than 700 metres. The first leg to the middle station on a ridge of the mountain is supported by only two towers, and the distance between the second tower and the station is a full kilometre. This while suspended more than 200 feet above the mountainside, rising at a 42 degree angle during the final part of the ascent. At the middle station, the cable bends about 90 degrees to the left to take you across a chasm for the final 60 metre rise to the summit. When I bought my ticket, I was warned that it was overcast at the top, so views would be limited. I said, "Okay, I'm going." I had the entire 6-person car to myself. This ride is not for the faint of heart - you really are way, way up there, and I started thinking, "What if this thing breaks down?" Curtains. The views were breathtaking, however (I have included a picture of Telaga Tujuh taken from the cable car; compare it to the picture of the falls taken from about 50 metres). But, just a few hundred metres higher at the middle station, it was already very foggy, and the wind had picked up. In fact, the last span to the top station was a bit dicey, and about 100 feet out, a gust hit my car and started whipping it side to side. Enough for me to have to grab on to the railing inside. It is slightly unsettling when you see the workers and tourists at the top station looking and pointing at you with eyes and mouths wide open. The wind got so bad that they stopped bringing people up. The way down was a pretty quiet ride, with three others joining me in the car. It was nice to reach the bottom.

Having survived, I had dinner and then went for dessert at the Bon Ton Resort. This resort is a collection of old Malay cabins that have been preserved and moved from all over the country to be rebuilt along the sea. The cabins were spectacular - such a great idea. The woman who runs it is an Aussie who also happens to love animals, and she has set up a foundation on the island to take care of stray cats and dogs (Muslims consider dogs unclean and won't touch them; being a dog in Malaysia is not such a good life). It started as a simple shelter, but her determination and fund-raising skills have turned it into a full bore, no-kill operation with two vets on staff. Each animal is neutered and lives with the other animals (dogs and cats separately) in sort of open-range quarters. The restaurant is outside, and you could see a few of the "house" cats and dogs wondering around. I think the dogs are quite useful in keeping the cobras at bay (yes, they have seen cobras in the yard). The atmosphere of the place was fantastic, and the desserts were the best I've had in a while. If you ever go to Langkawi, stay or dine (or both) at Bon Ton.

That's about it. I did spend most of Sunday on the island, exploring Eagle Square (with the huge eagle statue), Langkawi Legends Park (with sculptures that brought to life the mythical events of Langkawi's past), and Tanjung Rhu (the beautiful north side beach bordering on the Four Seasons resort with it's nearly private lagoon). And I did it all without wrecking the car or driving on the right (wrong) side of the road. All that was left was the flight back (you walk across the tarmac to board the plane) on Silk Airways, Singapore Air's low-cost airline, and to bring me back to the reality of the big city.

04 July 2007

Travel: Langkawi, Part 2

So I return from the mangrove tour and decide I need to be mobile to see the island. As I mentioned, the main mode of transportation on the island is the scooter, 150cc and below. Well, that looks like fun, why don't I try? So, I go to a rental place, which is basically a convenience store with a bunch of scooters and small cars for rent ("for hire" as they say here) out front. The charge per day for a 150cc scooter is roughly $13, with a $30 deposit. Sounds good! So, I showed my drivers license, paid my $43 (RM 139 - Malaysia's currency is the ringgit), grabbed my helmet, and hopped on. Mind you, I have never ridden a scooter, but I know how to ride a bike. Well, I took off out of the parking lot, tried to turn, went straight across the street, and laid the scooter on its side, breaking the mirror, scratching the side and my right leg. I did not get 30 feet. Apparently, riding a scooter is not like riding a bike. The two attendants, 20-something Malaysian girls (one wearing the traditional Muslim headscarf) come running up to ask if I am okay and show me how to ride it. So, they take turns telling me what to do, driving it up and down the street to show me, trying to make sure I was going to be alright. Finally, I looked at one and said, "You know what, maybe I should just take a car." So, I turned in the scooter and got a car. Now, I had just signed an insurance contract with a RM 2500 deductible - gulp! They looked at the scooter, talked it over, and charged me 15 ringgit for the damage to the mirror. So, for about five bucks, I got a lesson in humility and three strawberries on my right leg.

Now, I have to get in my car. They rent Perodua Kancils there (see picture), which are about half the size of Mini Coopers. I haven't driven a car in more than 5 weeks, and now I am going to have to drive away from the girls, in front of whom I have just completely embarrassed myself, in this little car, all the while remembering to drive on the left hand side of the road. Yes, the car is right hand drive, and it will be my first experience on the opposite side. So, I am a wreck. The first five minutes were quite scary (at least I got out of sight of the rental store quickly enough). After those first minutes, however, it was a piece of cake. I did go to the wrong side of the car a couple of times when I had parked and was getting back in, but otherwise, no problem. There are some interesting things about it - some things are reversed, others are the same. The steering wheel is obviously on the right side, but the gearshift is still configured like in the US, as are the pedals (although in this car, they are quite small and spaced very closely; I had to drive barefoot to avoid mashing down on the clutch and brake at the same time). The turn indicator is on the right side, however, with the windshield wiper controls on the left side. Several times, I tried to signal a turn and ended up with the wipers on full blast.

After driving around the island for three days, it was apparent that everybody there but me can ride a scooter. There were old women in full traditional Muslim headscarf and long dress, there were teenage boys and girls, there were the young mothers and toddlers mentioned previously. There were fathers with two or three kids. But, there wasn't this idiot American with a banged up leg. So, one of the things I can put on my list is "learn how to drive a scooter."

01 July 2007

Travel: Langkawi, Part 1

For my first planned trip (Bangkok was a last-minute decision), I wanted to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city and chose Langkawi, an island off the northwest coast of Malaysia, just next to Thailand. Actually a collection of 99 islands, Langkawi is part of Malaysia and a popular destination with Europeans and Australians. So, I prepared for three days of sitting and looking at the sea, just relaxing. I didn't really do much of that, but the island was a perfect get-away. I arrived on a Thursday night, a couple hours later than planned after my flight was canceled (mechanical problems). My hotel was on the southwest part of the island, on the beach. I had a little villa to myself, and I could hear the waves hitting the sand, since the beach was about 50 yards from my front door. The villa even featured an outdoor shower (totally private), a nice touch that emphasized my temporary escape from an urban environment.

I decided to spend my first day on a mangrove tour, a guided boat ride through the natural environs of the island. The tour left from the northeast corner of Langkawi, and they arrange transportation. I was expecting a bus or van but instead got a ride from an employee of the tour company in a beat up car, with a fellow tour passenger up from Australia. The driver apparently has never met a vehicle he couldn't tailgate, whether it be car, van, or scooter. But, the 40 minute drive allowed me to see much of the island, which was beautiful. Flat pastures divided lush green mountains that would disappear into low-hanging clouds of mist, reminiscent of something out of King Kong. I suspect Hawaii looks much like this. We passed ramshackle houses and shacks, and then we would drive by new homes that looked like they were out of any subdivision in America. All in a very tropical setting. The locals were out and about, the majority riding on motor scooters, which is a popular way to get around the island. This is a very laid back environment - often, you would see young women driving a scooter with a toddler just propped up on the handlebars, having the ride of its life. It was crazy! But, despite the tailgating of my driver (and the presence of cows in and alongside the road), it seemed like everyone got around safely.

My co-passenger and I met up with the rest of our group at the dock and boarded the boat, just as it started to drizzle. Our first stop was a fish farm. Here we fed stingrays and saw all kinds of marine life, from eels to horseshoe crabs to oysters to archer fish, which spit precise streams of water to knock insects out of the air. Our guide rolled a napkin into a point and held it between the planks of the deck, and the fish would hit it like a bulls eye. We did miss the barracuda, who would not come to the surface due to the rain. We then headed out to open sea, just as the rain stopped and the sun came out. It was amazingly calm, almost like glass. I’m talking waterskiing calm. We circled a couple of rocky islands and then experienced two really cool things - we fed coral fish and observed thousands of fruit bats. The coral fish is colored brilliant shades of yellow, blue, and green. We would throw crackers in the water, and they would swarm like piranhas. They really were beautiful, even in their frenzy. After we finished feeding them, we trolled a little further to the fruit bat habitat. These are very large bats, known as flying foxes because of their size and the shape of their faces. They were hanging by the thousands in trees on the hillsides of the island. (Quick aside: there were a couple of Germans on the boat, and it was cool to hear them speak of the fledermaus.) The bats apparently adhere to an age-determined hierarchy, with the younger, smaller bats relegated to the lower level trees. The higher up you went, the larger (and presumably older) the bats got. The really were pretty big, but they seemed harmless (and they are) at a distance.

On we went into the mangrove. Mangroves essentially are forests that grow in salt water. I, of course, thought they were mango trees, and I was looking forward to sampling a few of the tasty fruit. Good thing I kept that assumption to myself, because they are not mango trees. As we navigated into the mangrove, we passed by a mountain called "Gorilla Mountain" due to an uncanny (and apparently natural) resemblance to the face of gorilla. It looks man-made, it is so perfect. I have included a picture here - talk about reminding one of King Kong!

The boat threaded through the trees to an open area that was more like a river, where our guide started throwing chicken meat into the water. All of a sudden, several brahminy kites and a sea eagle (a cousin of the American bald eagle) swooped down for a meal. They would circle for a little bit, spy out a piece of chicken, and then plunge to grab it. The kites eat it immediately, dipping their heads to their claws as soon as they begin their ascent from the water. Our guide said that was because they are small for predatory birds, and they have to eat quickly to ensure other, larger birds don’t take their food from them.

We then headed to Gua Kelawar, the bat cave, where thousands of smaller bats make their homes. We had to walk about a hundred feet from the river, and you could hear their squeaking as you approached the entrance to the cave. It was pitch black in there, and our guide had the only flashlight. The cave is an old limestone cavern, complete with big stalactites and stalagmites. The bats clung to the roof of the cave, and they were mostly interested in sleeping or taking care of their young (several had babies clinging to them - pretty cute!). Some, however, flew out and buzzed us. The cave was quite impressive - I bet it's even better when the bats all fly out for their nightly hunt! This was our last stop on the tour, but it wasn’t the end of our interaction with the local wildlife. On our walk back to the boat, we encountered dozens of long tail monkeys who were quite interested in us. They entertained us for several minutes, even jumping on one of the German's outstretched arm to check out her sunglasses and earrings. They clearly were used to having humans around, and it wasn’t the only place on the island that I encountered “friendly” monkeys. More on that later.

Television Commercial

We get pretty good coverage of the international sport scene here, getting British/international feeds on everything from European soccer to Wimbledon to Formula One. Wimbledon has been great, as afternoon matches at the All-England Club are in prime time here, and we get commentary from former international stars like Vijay Armitraj, Boris Becker (his English is pretty bad, actually), Tracy Austin, and Virginia Wade. Even the commercials are excellent. I have attached a link to YouTube here showing a clever Mercedes ad that runs frequently here but that I've never seen in the States. We get a shortened version with an English language song in the background, but I thought I would let you enjoy the full length clip. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tkK6n7n4y0k