Tuesday, July 12, 2011

My Spectacular Singapore Sojourn Part IV!

On Tuesday, we got a late start. We were going to head out early for Pulau Ubin island, but it looked like rain, so we slept in. But then the clouds cleared, so we went. We stopped by a hawker center in the village to get a sack lunch of traditional food and some rose milk. Rose milk is crushed rose petals in milk. Very interesting, smells good and tastes kind of sweet.

The only way to Pulau Ubin is by bum boat, a ten minute ride, and you have to have 12 people to go. So we waited about twenty minutes or so for the boat to fill, and we got there around 12:30. We rented bicycles and cycled through the jungle. Here are the pictures:

Giant lizard in the trees, as big as my legs. Can you see him?

Jack fruit:

Not many people live on Pulau Ubin now. They say it’s like main island Singapore back in the 1960s, with pit toilets and electricity only from generators. Here’s an old style jungle house, tin roof and all. Reminds me of India:

After we cycled about five kilometers (3 miles), we came to a mangrove preserve and hiked along a board walk. Here is some wild life:

Mud skeeter or “lung fish:”

Mangrove trees:

The roots sticking high from the ground:

Mongroves grow between the low and hide tide zones of coastal areas and rivers. During high tide, the roots are completely submerged in seawater, but are exposed to the sun during low tide. For this reason, the roots are tall, pencil-like, and stick out above the mud. This allows the tree to breathe above the water-logged soil and have stability in the fine, silty soil. The leaves can pump out access salt, and the fruit germinates while it’s still on the tree so it can take root as soon as it drops. Mangroves are very important because they keep soil near the ocean and brackish rivers from eroding away. Lots of food chains can be traced back to mangroves.

Here’s the coastal boardwalk:

Submerged palms at high tide:

We enjoyed our spicy lunch overlooking the vast ocean. We could see all the way to Malaysia.

I wanted to walk back to enjoy it some more and see if I could find some more of the wild life the pamphlet talked about, but we were on a bit of a tight scheduled, so we cycled back, this time on a different route for more scenery. Here’s a cocoa (chocolate) tree. I didn’t know cocoa beans were so big!

Back at the bicycle rental place, a Chinese temple:

I think Pulau Ubin was my favorite place in Singapore. I hope to go back some day!

After we arrived back from the bum boat, we headed for Arab Street to see some Malay culture. Here’s the mosque:

Here’s an old opium pipe (but people don’t use it to smoke opium now; that’s illegal all over Southeast Asia):

I bought a few souvenirs, then we enjoyed Chinese chicken and rice with Ying-Ying’s parents, the most famous signature Singaporean dish. You take your pyramid of rice and smother it with dark soy sauce, chilly sauce, and chicken with the skin still on. We also had fried tofu with green sauce and coconut water. (They told me coconut milk is from the mashed up nut itself; water is just the liquid inside.) Here’s the whole dinner:

After that, we went to Marina Bay Sands to see the Wonderful show, a light, fire, water, and music spectacular similar to Songs of the Sea, only free.

Here's the finale:

Then we walked around the mall until it was time to leave. Here are the palm trees growing on top of the building:

There was actually a “river” running through the shopping mall, and you could take a French style boat down it for $7. Ying-Ying and I got a good laugh at that. Will people stop at nothing to make a few bucks?

Then, sadly, it was time for me to go home. Here’s Ying-Ying, her mom, and me at the airport. They said I was welcome back anytime:

My plane left at 1:20am on Wednesday morning, and after a long, sleepless plane ride with a wailing baby in the seat in front of me, a bus, and a train, I finally got back to my apartment around 12:30, having gone without sleep for nearly 28 hours. I wanted nothing more than to collapse on my bed, but just then I got a call from my school. They said I had some paper work to do and I had to come in. Ug! But went I did. At least I found this amusing billboard on the way, advertising a very happy gravestone maker:

Only in Japan, right? Smiling gravestones. That’s just morbid.

That evening, I had to teach my Wednesday evening class until 9:15. But then, around 9:45, I finally collapsed into bed, having not slept in over 36 hours.

And that was my trip to Singapore! The only other thing I have to report is that I had a job interview the following Saturday with Altia Central. The interview was for a seven month position, September 1st to April 1st with another Assistant Language Teacher company and I would be working for a public school, most likely elementary.

Here are the pros:
1.) They pay pretty well, though not as well as my current job.
2.) I could come home for about 3 weeks during Christmas
3.) I could attend a really good evangelistic church in Osaka called Jesus Life House.
4.) I could finish up some traveling I want to do (Okinawa, Shikoku, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Philippines, Guam and New Zealand)
5.) I could come home just in time for my book Treasure Traitor to be published (hopefully by Written Word Communications) and for me to promote it at the Oklahoma Writers Federation Inc. Conference in May 2012 (if all goes well with my current agent).
6.) I could save some more money.
7.) I wouldn’t have to look for a job in the U.S.
8.) I’m able to be very “green” in Japan. No car and mandatory recycling.

1.) Like I said, I’ll most likely be teaching elementary, and the job won’t be nearly as easy as what I do now. It might be downright exhausting.
2.) I might not have as much time to write.
3.) I’d forfeit my free plane ticket home
4.) I’m utterly exhausted, and I’ll probably be even more exhausted after Mom and my trip to Thailand. Do I really want to move to a new place, find my own apartment, and start a new job immediately after I get back?
5.) A large part of me just wants to go back on the same plane as my mom.
6.) I might be smarter to be home for the few months before my book is published to spread the word and begin promoting it. If I took the job, I would be trying to do publicity from Japan, and when the book came out, I would hit the ground running without a breath of air.
7.) I really, really, REALLY miss my family. My sister-in-law is having a baby in November. I missed my nephew’s birth. It would be nice to be there for my niece.
8.) My mental health in Japan has not been so good. I suffer from severe bouts of depression, crippling anxiety, loneliness, fatigue, and weight fluctuation. (I often go for days when I can’t eat anything, and then I’m so hungry I eat everything. Sometimes I lose and gain back as much as ten pounds in one week.) It would be nice to get back on some herbal remedies to help combat that, and that will require tests and doctor’s advice. I don’t like to just take stuff that others recommend. When it comes to my brain chemistry, I would rather not do the hit and miss method.

Final thoughts: Oklahoma Christian University just requested my resume. If I get the job with Oklahoma Christian (teaching ESL to Japanese students) then I am, without a doubt, coming home. Teaching Japanese students at a university and full-time writing is the best of both worlds. I would be home with my family too. Problem is, I probably won’t know about the OCU position until AFTER I have to make up my mind about the Osaka job. There is a small chance Altia won’t hire me. They have to speak to two of my supervisors, and that might no go so well, considering recent events. There was quite a bit of confusion over my plane ticket home and my tax forms, which wasn’t my fault or theirs (technically it was the IRS and a misunderstanding with the Board of Education). Maybe they’ll realize that, or maybe they’ll get frustrated and it’ll sound to the Altia person that they’re angry with me. Besides that, my supervisors made it pretty clear that they were unhappy about talking to strangers about me. So who knows? I will find out tomorrow whether or not they want to hire me, and then I must decide by next week Friday.

It all comes down to trust. I’ve prayed a dozen times for discernment, and God does not seem to be sending any clear messages. Maybe He’s leaving it up to me. Whatever I decide, I just have to trust that God will love me and guide me and provide for my needs.

Last thing. I just found out who my successor is. She’s seems very nice, but she’s Muslim, so I have to find someone else to take over the Christian library and my church class. I have no idea who, but I’m attending a Christian conference this coming weekend in Aomori, up north in Tohoku. Hopefully, someone there might volunteer!

Prayer Requests: Wisdom and discernment about my new job. Safe travels as my mother and I head to Thailand in two weeks (we’ll be there for three weeks). Prayers that I find someone to take over my Christian stuff and get everything I need to get done done before I leave. It’s so overwhelming! I also have to make a speech in Japanese on the last day of school. I hope God will give me the right words to say!

Until next time, keep praying and loving, no matter what the cost,
L.J. Popp

Spectacular Singapore Sojourn Part III!

Monday, we had a traditional Singapore breakfast of pork floss toast, egg, and malted barely milk. Here’s the pork floss toast:

I was surprised when Ying Ying asked me if I had ever eaten peanut butter. “Of course!” I exclaimed. “It was invented in America.”

“Really?” she asked. “I thought it was Singaporean, or maybe British. We can’t live without our peanut butter.”

I laughed at that. “Sounds the same as America. Everyday, I eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch.”

Oddly enough, she had never heard of jelly. I explained it was like jam, only less healthy, like most American foods. We both got a good laugh out of that one, and she asked what happens to all the fat guys in America.

“Do they just stay single?

“No,” I replied. “They usually marry the fat girls and have very fat children and that’s why the fatness propagates.” That was just one of the many funny conversations we had together. Over the course of my stay, we must have talked about everything from politics, religion, history, culture, arts, and more. I’m so glad I got to stay with her. I learned so much!

Then we went to the zoo. So hot! We about died. We ended up paying for the tram just so we wouldn’t have to walk everywhere in the sun. I felt so sorry for the poor outdoor animals. Some of them may be tropical, true, but there were some deserts ones, and I’m sure they weren’t used to the humidity. Here are some pictures:

White tiger:

Giraffe feeding:

Baby orangutan (orangutan means “man of the jungle” in Malay):

Adjusting baby orangutan for a picture. Neither it or the mother seemed to mind this:

A dominate male African baboon, head of the pack:

It was really fun getting to see the baboons being fed. People could pay $5 for a plate of fruit. The baboons would jump to get your attention, hoping you would throw to them. They also swam for it if it fell in the water, unpeeled the bananas, and often fought over the best fruit. The dominate males had really big, red butts, as did the females. That’s to show they’re ready to mate. The less dominate and not currently ovulating females have normal butts. Just in case you were always wanted to know why baboons have such big, red butts.

Asian zoos do it right, I’ve noticed. The exhibits are so nice and they have so many animals because they make money in every way they possibly can. Any possible animal you could ever want to feed, you can pay to feed. Rides, pictures, souvenirs, food, all overpriced. But people buy them! And then they get more animals. America should learn a thing or two from Asian zoo tactics.

We saw some fun shows, too. The elephant show revealed how elephants can be used in sustainable logging to drag and push and tote logs into, around, and out of the river. There were some funny parts too, like when the trainers dropped their sticks and the elephants retrieved them, then stole a trainer’s hat.

Another elephant lay on her side and refused to get up until the trainer talked to her “like a lady.”

Elephants are actually very kind and gentle. The problem that people had in the past is that they tried to train males together because they thought they would be stronger. They are stronger, but they’re also not meant to work in a group with other elephants; it makes them violent. When a male elephant reaches adulthood, he is actually kicked out of the group and lives a solitary life, coming together with others only to mate. The females, on the other hand, form large family groups with a single matriarch. They are good at working together, like humans, and are not aggressive (except if you endanger their young).

The other show was called “The Rainforest Fights Back” and was about a Western man named “Vamush” who wanted to come and tear down a rainforest to build a giant shopping mall. He was thwarted by a native girl and her animal friends. Kind of funny.

We ran into Jessica and her brother while we were eating our pastry lunches that we bought earlier to avoid the high price of zoo food. Singapore is a VERY small country. I guess it’s not uncommon to randomly run into your friends anywhere and everywhere.

In the evening, we went to the world-famous “night safari.” Here`s a footspa at the entrance where you pay to have little fish eat the dead skin off your feet. I didn`t do it, of course, because it costs about $10 for ten minutes and I can get it for free in Nabari with the local fishes in the waterfall! It tickles:

I had a lamb burger at the bango restaurant. Ground lamb just doesn’t taste as good as ground beef. It has a greenish/yellow color to it too. It tastes much better as a kabob or in strips in a pita pocket.

First, there was a cultural show where men in native costume from some other Southeast Asian country breathed fire.

They all drank from a thermos that seemed to contain some sort of special liquid. I just looked it up, and it appears that it was probably liquid paraffin wax or mineral oil. The liquid is sprayed over an open flame and the flame intensifies. Apparently, if done with the proper technique, it is quite safe, as the direction of the spray, away from you, prevents the flame from coming into your mouth. But the really cool thing was that they could “eat” fire! That’s something I couldn’t get an answer to. I know it has something to do with cutting off the oxygen to the flame in your mouth, that there are no special liquids involved, and fire eaters often have blisters covering their mouth and tongue, but that’s all. There was a girl in the show too, dressed more conservative than the guys, and she juggled fire.

On a side note, I find it very interesting that America, Japan, and Korea are the only countries in the world that I’ve been to so far where I`ve seen women dress less conservatively than men. Usually, it’s the other way around. Even when they don’t wear a lot (like when I was in Africa), the women still tend to wear more than the men. Most Americans (such as my father, for example) seem to think that countries where women cover up are more censorious of women and treat them as second class citizens who have no control over their own bodies, but I wonder if it’s not sometimes the other way around. In cultures where women are so exposed, is it not easy to see them as objects? In Korea, women undergo ridiculous plastic surgery so people will like their faces and bodies. If a woman covers up and tries to look natural, it has the potential to place less emphasis on her appearance and more on her voice, thoughts, and personality. Now that’s an interesting thought.

After that, we saw the creatures of the night show. Very fun. They “lost” their giant anaconda snake and “found” it in a box in the bleachers, and then it ended up around some audience guy’s neck. That was pretty funny.

Then we took the tram to see the animals up close and roaming, then walked just a bit on the separate walking trails. I thought Asian river otters were active during the day, but they’re even more hyper at night! They chirped at us and played with the little laser light someone brought. When do they sleep, I wonder? The safari was open until midnight, but we left around 9:30 because it was still so hot and we were tired.

Ying-Ying’s dad and mom picked us up in the car, and they had a surprise for us. Her dad had bought real durian fruit! Here they are:

Here’s what the fruit on the inside looks like:

And here’s me eating:

They were pretty good, oddly creamy. When I burped, I could smell it on my breath, it was so strong. I think I ate too much, though. I threw up a little. Or maybe it was just all the weird food. I don’t think I ate a single “normal” thing the entire time I was in Singapore, and by “normal” I mean things I had eaten before, except for that McDonalds at Sentosa. I will have to remember for Thailand to try to eat at least one “normal” meal a day to keep my stomach from getting too confused.

Tuesday was my favorite day! Stay tuned for that next time...

Spectacular Singapore Sojourn Part II!

Sunday, we enjoyed a traditional Singapore breakfast of soft boiled eggs with dark soy sauce, toast sandwiches, and royal milk tea. (What makes it “royal” is that the tea is actually steamed in milk, not in water with milk added.) The sandwiches contained butter and a sweet marmalade that I thought was honey at first, but Ying-Ying said it was made from a special fruit and mashed sugar cane. Interesting.

We went to Ying-Ying`s church for the morning English service. (They offer Mandarin in the afternoon.) It was “Bible Presbyterian,” and since I grew up in the Presbyterian church, I knew when to sit down and stand up and all of that. I was struck, however, by how they always spoke in King James English and used “Christianese.” I asked Ying-Ying later how much a newcomer might be comfortable in that setting or even be able to understand, since English is not the first language of many in Singapore and as a minority, it was particularly important for Christian Singaporians to at least present themselves in an understandable way. She admitted that they rarely got visitors. But there are churches in Singapore, she said, that are really reaching out to young people and non-Christians. The main concern of her church is teaching people to live biblical lives and being set apart from the world. That`s important, of course. One thing that concerns me about the Presbyterian churches back home is that few seem to know the Bible, and some don`t even think it is important. Growing up, I had a Sunday school teacher who taught us that the Bible couldn`t be trusted, and that Jesus was just a great teacher who got exaggerated over the centuries. As a result, one of the girls in my Sunday school converted to Islam. Is that a Christian church? I don`t think so.

I suppose there needs to be a balance. I tend to see denominations as good things actually, because as human beings we have a tendency to overemphasize some points and underemphasize others. So different churches focusing on different things eventually gets you the whole Biblical picture, and the whole spectrum of human experience. Various worship styles reveal creation’s diversity, and different types of people express God’s love in different ways. If we were all Presbyterian or Catholic or Pentecostal, there would most certainly be aspects missing. All that matters is being Christian, and the only thing you need to claim that is faith in Christ.

I met a girl named Jessica at the church. She wants to come visit me in Japan. I hope I can host here before I leave. Everyone at the church was very nice. Lots of people came up to talk to me.

That afternoon, we went to Jurong Bird Park, which has something like 8,000 birds from 600 species. Of course, we started with the penguins:

Here`s Ying-Ying and me with some pretty birds:

I had a light snack at the park (chicken wings and ice cream), then I participated in the “Be a Falconer Program” to provide hands on research for my Bird Girl series. It cost $100 for the hour, but I learned a lot, so I think it was worth it. A zoo keeper showed me various birds and explained them to me. Falconry was invented a long time ago when people noticed how good birds were at catching prey. It was practiced all over the Middle East, Mongolia, China, India, Egypt, and throughout Europe mostly by royalty, but these days many people use it as a sport.

First I handled Priscilla, a Lugger falcon from India, on a leather glove on my left hand. Why the left? Because traditionally, falconers rode horses while they hunted, so they controlled the reigns with their right hand. Ying-Ying took pictures. Here they are:

The thing on the falcon’s head is to keep her from getting scared. Falcons are really high-strung, so just like street horses that have to wear blinders to keep from getting spooked, falcons have to wear “hoods” to keep from flying away in fright of new people and animals. Once the hunting begins, though, they take off the hood. Falcons usually catch small things like song birds and rabbits. This particular hood is a Middle Eastern hood, and they gave me one at the end, along with a picture and a book about falconry as mementoes.

The second bird I handled was Hawk Eye, a Harris Hawk from America. Hawks don`t need hoods because they’re much less nervous, especially if they know the falconer. (I suspect that is because hawks are bigger than falcons and have less predators so they can afford to be more calm, but I`m not sure.) I actually got to release him to go for prey. He went for a fake rabbit covered in meat. He was really protective of his rabbit, but when I offered him some food in my glove he went for that instead and I got to take the “rabbit.” Here are some pictures:

Next I handled Sheela, a Secretary Bird from Africa. They’re called “secretary birds” because they have a lot of funny feathers sticking in all directions on their head, and secretaries used to write with feather quill pens and place them behind their ears, so she looks like she has many extra pens. Nowadays the “secretary” name is even more appropriate because these birds have long legs and long, thick eyelashes like female secretaries in offices. Secretary birds aren’t usually used in falconry. I held her on my arm for only thirty seconds or so; besides being heavy she was wobbly and unstable. She didn`t seem to belong there like a falcon or hawk. But they are sometimes used to kill snakes. The keeper lady showed Sheela a rubber snake and the bird went crazy, stamping on the snake’s head.

Next came Brahminy Kites from South East Asia. They didn’t land on my shoulder; kites also are not usually used in falconry either. They’re pretty small. Their specialty is even smaller birds; they can catch food in mid-air! I tossed them several pieces of meat and they caught them all. One I made extra tricky and the kite spun around and caught it!

Next came the Ruppells Griffon vultures from Africa, my special interest, since Acha in my book is sort of a vulture. They were pretty ugly, and they fought a lot over the food I offered them. Vultures have dominate and non-dominate males in each group. It was clear to see who was dominate and who was not.

Check out this little gal! She`s about the size of Acha and looks a lot like him, only he`s black. Can you imagine something like that on your shoulder all day long? No wonder people avoid Rena!

Nowadays, lost birds are tracked by radar. They have a small device attached to their foot and the closer they are, the louder the radar in your hand beeps. But if they get beyond ten miles, most radars can`t pick that up. In olden days, people had servants who would search for the lost birds. Peasants who found a falconer’s bird (usually marked with colored cords or paper on the feet) could be rewarded.

One should never think that these birds are domesticated or even trained. Even those bred in zoos are nothing of the sort. For sure they can recognize a falconer’s face and voice, but they are still very wild animals. The only reason they come back to the falconer is because the falconer has food. If you don`t have food, no matter how much the bird likes you, it won`t come back to you usually. That`s why the relationship between Rena and Acha in my book is so special.

Also, in Europe, noblemen often hunted with a bird/dog combo. The dog would flush out the pray from the bushes, and the falcon would catch and kill it by squeezing the neck with its talons. Most birds do not hunt with their beak, but they are known to fight with them.

After the falconer program, we saw some more interesting birds. Here they are:

Shoebill stork (it`s beak looks like a Holland wooden shoe):

Doesn`t he look like a puppet/muppet or something? He certainly doesn`t look real. Like something out of a 70s sci-fi movie.

Jurong Bird Park has the largest aviary in the world called the “African Waterfall Aviary” with the tallest manmade waterfall in the world. Here it is:

Here is a lovebird in a coconut nest. Love birds are so called because they mate for life and if one dies, the other will mourn and often die shortly after. They are sometimes seen “nipping” affectionately, a behavior that most zoologists compare to kissing.

Bee eaters are another interesting species, not just because they can remove the stingers of bees and then eat the bee, but because the parents often recruit their adult sons to help them raise a new brood of chicks. They sometimes prevent him from making his own nest and having young by taking away his insects that he has to give the female in order for her to mate with him, and by coming between him and any female he meets. Rather interesting behavior, isn’t it?

There was a bird show, birds and buddies, with a parrot that could count to ten in both English and Chinese, and knew both English and Chinese folk songs. Finally, he sang “Happy Birthday.” Rather off-key, but he got the jist of it.

It was so hot! We left around 6:00 and stopped by an Indian shop in the Hawker center so I could buy some clothes. I got a really nice Punjabi suit. The lady even altered it for me! I wonder where I’ll ever be able to wear it, though…

Then we went to eat Singapore BBQ with Ying-Ying’s friends. We ate red snapper,

squid and a surprise…

Can you guess what that is? Stingray! No, it’s not poisonous. They remove the stinger, of course. A bit spicy, but good, really tender. I also had green sugar cane juice.

For desert, we went out for Udders ice cream. Besides chocolate I had the durian fruit ice cream on a waffle. It was…interesting. Sweet but not in the normal fruit way. Nothing like citrus, not at all juicy. I can’t really describe it. It doesn’t taste like anything else except…durian. Very pungent smell. But the ice cream place itself felt very American. But I just looked it up, and Udders was “born and bred” in Singapore. It’s a very international place. I had fun just chatting with Ying-Ying’s friends too. They mostly speak “Singlish,” which is a combination of English, Chinese, and Malay. For example, they say, “Come on la” and “Ok la.” The “la” is Chinese for emphasis, but it can also mean reluctance, and is only used in certain contexts. Some of her friends were visiting from Hong Kong. I suppose Singapore and Hong Kong have a lot in common, since they were both a British colony, in Asia, with predominantly Chinese ethnicity, and are small city states. I asked them what there is to do in Hong Kong. They said Disney Land. That’s all. I’m sure there’s more than that. I’ll just have to visit there someday.

I`ll write about Monday in a little bit!