Tuesday, July 12, 2011

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!

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