Monday, 9 March 2015

The Greatest Gift I Could Give My Daughter

Wow - I can't believe how overdue this post is.  Sophia and I took this trip together in November of 2013.  It's about time that I wrote about it!

While in Singapore, I learned through friends about a wonderful organization, Caring for Cambodia ( Our family had visited, and been keenly affected by, our trip to Cambodia in November of 2012.  When I found out about the volunteer service trip for ages 9 and up with parents, I knew that Sophia and I needed to go.
So we headed into the unknown by meeting a diverse group of volunteers at the Changi (Singapore) airport for our trip to Siem Reap - our leader was actually a former expat now living in New Jersey who was travelling the entire way for this project.  Caring for Cambodia now runs eight schools in Cambodia in conjunction with the government and has exceeded all goals - they are truly the blueprint for success in this still developing country.  We didn't know exactly what we'd be doing when we arrived, but we were game for anything.

Turns out, we accomplished three major objectives in 3-4 days.  The first morning, we helped serve breakfast at one of the schools.  Sophia and her new friend Gavin were rockstars - I see future teen servers in them! 

During the next couple of days, we built (ground up, even sawed the wood!) new recycle bins, a long paver pathway in front of the classrooms, and most importantly, the foundation for a building that would house a counselor for the female population.  It is so challenging to be a girl in school in Cambodia.  The families routinely expect you to drop out and fill a traditional wife role, and there can be pressure to resort to prostitution to support the family.  CFC is dedicated to changing this dynamic and we were proud to be part of it.  As a mother to a young lady, I was particularly emotionally overwhelmed (nah that never happens to me...).  Our kids were tireless workers - it was truly an inspiration to see them interact with the local children.  When you witness this sort of thing, you realize that language is not a barrier.  We are all the same, wanting and looking for similar things, albeit on different levels.  But it is heartwarming and heartbreaking simultaneously to see the kids playing together happily...knowing that they are on different tracks due to the place of their birth.

On our off day, we visited the famous Buddhist temple, Angkor Wat, (a second time for us, but it was fun with our new friends!) and had some lovely mother-daughter dinners in "downtown" Siem Reap. 

It was a once-in-a-lifetime trip and I hope my friends still back in Singapore would consider going!  Please visit for more information.  It's called the MAD trip (Make a Difference).

Please visit our destination page to see our other posts on our trips to Cambodia.  We have a strong connection to this beautiful country and the kind people who've we met.

Gavin serving breakfast

This is how they cook!  Pretty awesome fire pit.

Sophia serving breakfast to the students.

They all gathered each morning for their National anthem.  And if they weren't quiet enough, they did it again.  

The lovely countryside surrounding the school.

This little boy wanted Sophia to take his picture and show it to him..and he was sooooo proud!

My hard worker!

 This took hours.  For real.
No child labor laws today.

Sarah - rock star and momma hen to all.

I can't get enough of this little girl.  They all wanted to help so much!

That's a lot of rocks!

Long day!

Painted and ready to go!

The girls' building started out smoothly...

And then the STORM came!

Keep on working!


Time out for touring. I love this picture.

Ta Prohm

Sophia and Rath, our favorite employee at Journey's Within Hotel.  She was so happy we were able to take a taxi to come visit the hotel we stayed in previously.  Such a sweet lady.

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Settling in, in Selbyville

Container arrived - darn it!
On the morning of Friday, April 11, the reality of our "official" return to the US fully set in as movers unpacked more than 200 boxes of furniture and other belongings from Singapore.

We've actually been "home" for nearly a month and, while the combination of a late March snow storm and the arrival of our air shipment a few weeks back offered the first reality checks, something about Friday brought a blunt, abrupt closure to our adventure.

Both Jennifer and I secretly wished our container had fallen overboard and was somewhere at the bottom of the ocean - we have no room for more furniture and kitchenware!  But alas, a beautiful, bright orange container sat in front of our house at 9:00 AM Friday morning.  Not even a scratch on the thing, so apparently it didn't even come close to toppling overboard!

The moving crew was very friendly, very competent, and very careful not to damage anything.  Again - I would have preferred a few dropped boxes of plates and glasses!!  We don't have room for them either!

As we talked with Ed and others from the moving company, the conversations eventually led to questions like "what took you to Singapore?", and "are you happy to be back in the US?"  This second question was commonly asked by friends before we left Singapore as well as those we've seen since returning to the States.  I've always responded by saying, "we're happy about seeing family and friends, but we really weren't in any hurry to leave Singapore".  While this may sound like a completely noncommittal response, it's entirely true and accurate.

Our two years in Singapore flew by quickly, but we did miss friends and family.  It's been great to visit with so many people over the last few weeks, and we still have many more we hope to see very soon - so don't think we forgot about you!  But aside from "people" in the US, none of us really felt the need to hurry back to our lives in the US - or to hurry away from anything in Singapore.

Fully embracing our Southern Delaware Lifestyle
Sure, I'll admit that I enjoy the convenience and freedom of having our own car now that we're back in the US (and coincidentally, I LOVE my new truck), but a car was something we specifically decided to do without in Singapore.  Likewise, some things are a little easier in the US, like shopping, quick trips to the grocery store, etc. - but some are actually more difficult because of the lack of public transportation, inefficiency, and the length of time it takes to get from place to place... in comparison to Singapore, anyway.

And while we are enjoying getting settled back into life in the US, we also miss friends, neighbors, classmates, and co-workers from Singapore.  I miss taking Jessie up and down four flights of stairs for her morning walk, and listening to the crazy birds in the rain forest adjacent to our condo.  I miss the Uncles who drove the buses and taxis, always eager to share their political views or the latest Singapore gossip.  I miss the sweet old Aunties who cleaned up after everyone at the hawker centers, and all the locals and expats alike that made Singapore...Singapore.

I miss my daily commute on Singapore's amazing public transportation.  I miss the often oppressively hot and humid weather.  I miss the "greenness" of the city, the variety of plants, and the rare, but potential monkey encounter.  I miss the FOOD - God, I miss the Char Kway Teow and Satay at East Coast Food Center, Chicken Rice from the Hawker Center in Holland Village, the Roquefort Burger from the Feed Lot in Tanglin, Din Tai Fung, and many others!  How I managed to lose weight in Singapore vs. blowing up to 300 pounds is amazing.

On Friday, as we opened the 200+ boxes of furniture, clothing, kitchenware, etc. we came across the many reminders of our experience in Singapore.  Whether it be the multitude of Tiger Beer paraphernalia I've collected (all of which Jennifer hates), the elephant statues Sophia has collected from across Asia, or the "artifacts" Jennifer and I purchased in Singapore and other places we were fortunate enough to visit - the memories of our amazing experience all came back to life.

With that in mind, I put together another video that I think captures some of what we experienced over the last 12 months.  (Link to the original year 1 video is attached here)  It was truly a great experience and I hope you've enjoyed sharing it with us, and I surely expect that it will "be continued"...

Here's a quick view of our final year in Singapore... the end of what was an amazing, endless summer.  I hope you enjoy.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

A Crazy Morning at Bukit Brown Cemetery

Coming off a late Saturday night dinner at Ku De Ta, Jason and I were looking forward to crossing one more thing off the "bucket list" and meandering around some of the 200,000 graves of Bukit Brown Cemetery in central Singapore.  Bukit Brown is the largest Chinese cemetery outside of China and takes up 213 lush acres and is a haven for nature lovers. Apparently, for stray dogs as well...

The path
Jason and I arrived by taxi and began to search for our friends, the Wihmans, who were meeting us there with our children (sleepover the night before!).  Having no idea where we were going, Jason and I headed down a path, thinking it would take us into the heart of the cemetery where we would eventually find our friends and family.  Well, we certainly were WRONG.  As we passed scores of graves, we thought we were headed in the right direction, until we passed a caretaker's abode and saw a pack of stray dogs ahead.  Jason rightly became wary and we decided to turn around.  Well wouldn't you know it, one of the dogs ran up and bit Jason on the back of his leg!  It broke the skin, drew blood and all I can say is thank God that rabies does not exist in Singapore.

A minute or so later, all six dogs chased and surrounded us. I have NEVER been scared of a dog in my life, and I admittedly was terrified.  The dogs were different breeds and sizes (med-large and relatively stocky) but all shared the same vicious attitude.  While they growled and barked incessantly, we just kept yelling at them and trying to back away.  Eventually, they decided to back down and we hesitantly started back down the path.  But the ringleader decided he wasn't done with us and ran right back for round two!  At this point I had a huge stick in my hand and I was ready to use it.  Once he realized that it was a losing situation, he finally retreated and we went on our way, bleeding and anxiety-ridden.

"Just a flesh wound"
As a huge dog-lover, it was extremely upsetting.  And I hope I never have to feel that way again.  But I have to admit, Jason went into full-on protector mode.  Funny what adrenaline does to you - he was my hero!  And thank goodness our kids were not there.  Those dogs wouldn't have stood a chance with either of us.

So eventually we found everyone and embarked on our walk around the dog-free main path of the cemetery.  Opened in 1922 and closed in the 1970's, it is named for its first owner, George Henry Brown (Bukit means "hill" in Malay).  It was passed into municipal hands in 1919 to be designated as a Chinese cemetery and by 1929 accounted for nearly 40% of all registered Chinese burials within municipal limits (thanks Wikipedia).

The Chinese burial practices are very interesting.  They believe that the next world (called the "Yang" world) is a continuation of this one (the "Yin world"), and try to provide their dead with things they will need.  Ancient burials would include tangible items, but now offerings are made in the form of paper.  Loved ones will burn paper money, cars, even paper mansions, believing they will be received on the other side.  My friend, Liisa, took me to a store on Joo Chiat Road that makes and sells these paper offerings - you wouldn't believe the size of some of these items - dead people demand luxury!
A paper mansion!

Most Chinese graves are in the shape of an armchair, as it is thought to symbolize wealth, comfort and dignity.  As would be expected, they come in various levels of opulence.  As you can see in the pictures, some are rather plain, others have beautiful tiles and even Indian guards!  (sadly, I guess they also believe their "servants" will be serving them in the Yang world as well...).

Overall, it was a really interesting experience and I would love to go back by myself and just wander around looking at the details of the graves and the pictures and wonder who all these people were.  Graveyards always bring a sense of mystery and wonder to me, and this one brought that feeling to a new level. 

Unfortunately, Singapore has limited space and the need to alleviate some traffic problems has prompted the government to put a huge highway through the cemetery.  On the positive side, they are making the highway a "flyover" meaning it will be built above the ground, like a bridge.  They made that decision in the wake of protests about disturbing the plant and animal nature of the vast land.  Apparently, disturbing the graves is less important than disturbing the animals.  About 4,000 graves must be exhumed and relocated.  The families had a time period to schedule a private exhumation or to register for the mass exhumation.

Graves marked for exhumation
Unclaimed graves will be exhumed, the contents cremated and if unclaimed after three years, will be disposed of at sea.  There is a movement to prevent this from happening, but considering the exhumations have begun and the government historically does what they want - I don't believe it can be stopped.  Cooper was very moved by this situation and appalled that this could be done to the families.  For an 8 year-old, he has such a strong sense of humanity and right and wrong, and it is a joy to behold.  Sometimes issues seem to weigh very heavily on his mind, but I still believe it is a very healthy attitude to have.

Love the decorative Peranakan tiles

The Indian guards have cute little dogs at their feet!
Lastly, on our walk around the grounds, we encountered a fire!  Singapore hasn't seen rain in over a MONTH and conditions are dry, dry, dry.  It is a perfect storm for a large-scale fire, and this particular fire did not look to be contained.  So Pete did his civic duty and called emergency services (995 here!) and we saw the police come then later heard what we think were (as Pete referred to them) the fire brigade.  For some reason, Jason envisions show tunes and fancy costumes when he hears "fire brigade".  I picture Joe Manganiello in Magic Mike (look it up, people).


Jason's idea of a fire brigade

My idea of a fire brigade

If you'd like more information, read Liisa's blog post on Bukit Brown!

Monday, 3 February 2014

The Crazy Lady in the Taxi Line

I lost it in public today.  Really, really lost it.  I was *that* woman. 

It all started when I arrived at my physical therapy appointment two hours early.  It was supposed to be at 1pm, I showed up at 11am.  Mistakes like this are in no way abnormal for me, so I laughed it off and decided to run some errands.  After finally getting around to canceling my yoga contract (boo!) and browsing the bookstore (a new Thai cookbook - yes!), I made my way to the Mount Elizabeth Medical Center to visit one of my best friends in the world, my orthopedic surgeon Dr. Raj.  I am pretty sure he spends more time with me than his kids.

So after 30 minutes with Dr. Raj, I was reeling from a BIG ASS injection in my knee, and having to hold a conversation that included the words "quality of life" and "possible knee replacement".  Oddly enough, I was able to hold back the tears (a nice change of pace for my dear doctor) but was not in the best mental state when I limped out of his office. 

Although I usually take the bus home when I can, I thoroughly deserved a cab ride home today (Dr. Raj made me cancel my PT appointment).  I was pleasantly surprised to see no one in the taxi line outside of the main entrance and hobbled to get in the (non)queue first. 

What happened next unglued me.  It felt like an out-of-body experience. 

Three groups of people exited the hospital behind me, and instead of playing by the rules and getting behind me in the OFFICIAL line, just moseyed right up to the cabs to wait while the exiting customers paid.  I couldn't stop the first two, but when the third group (a family of three, all adults) literally stood right next to me outside of the roped-off queue and started approaching the cab pulling up in front of me, I went berserk.


If you were there you would have observed a crazy-eyed, middle-aged lady in workout clothes YELLING somewhat incoherently, arms flailing and of course, limping slightly.  I believe I said (screamed) things like, "I can't take you rude people another minute", "Don't they teach you manners in your country?" (they were not Singaporean) and a few other good ones that I either can't remember or I subconsciously don't want to.  Oh yeah, at least two times I LOUDLY demanded to know, "What is wrong with you people???"  In my attempt to get out of there as soon as possible, I practically tripped over my bag of books, somehow flung open the taxi door, hit it on my leg and slammed it shut as hard as I could.


And then I had a wonderful cab driver, who talked it out with me and agreed that this is all too common, for foreigners and locals alike.  He truly sympathized with me and we had a nice chat. 

Do not take this post as Singapore-bashing.  For those who know me, you know that is the last thing I would do, and it irks me to no end when I hear other people doing it.  I would take a lie detector test to prove that I have never had a day in two years that I didn't want to live here.  And I'm dreading leaving in 37 days.

Okay, writing this has raised my blood pressure again.  Time to go youTube the puppy bowl or something.  I guess I should just be hoping my meltdown doesn't end up on youTube.

Until next time...

Sunday, 26 January 2014

Horoscope Shopping in the Year of the Horse

I don’t know about you, but whenever I am scheduled to go away for a vacation, am planning an outdoor party, or have a tee time booked for a round of golf, I do a little “weather shopping” in the days leading up to the occasion.  “Weather Shopping?”, you ask… come on, don’t pretend you don’t spend hours searching multiple weather forecast sites, looking for one that convinces you the weather will be just as you want it on the day of your event. predicts 60% chance of rain….well, then I’ll go check which predicts only 20% of rain, isolated thunderstorms, and just a light breeze – yeah that sounds much better.

In similar fashion, I’ve recently found myself “horoscope shopping”, trying to find the most positive – or in my case this year, the least damning predictions for the approaching Chinese New Year.  In Singapore, Chinese New Year and the festivities surrounding it are a big deal.  (read last year’s post for some observations).   And while there are numerous traditions bringing families together, and rituals to welcome good luck – there are also warnings for danger in the new year.

Chinatown in Singapore
This year, Chinese New Year comes on January 31, and welcomes the Year of the Horse!  Depending on which Chinese Astrology web site you consult, you’ll likely read that the horse symbolizes everything from graciousness, dignity, and momentum – to energy, self-improvement, and intelligence.  Within the walls of SAP, I’ve heard  sales leaders, co-workers, and even the Industry analysts I meet with, proclaiming the year of the horse as one of innovation, progress, prosperity, and re-invention.    But – they must not have been born during the year of the Tiger, because at every turn, I hear that the coming year of the horse brings bad luck for Tigers like me. 

Predictions for Tigers in 2014
In fact, according to Grand Master Tan Khoon Yong, Tigers are ranked last among the 12 zodiacs during this year of the horse!  And while many of us might view astrology as “hocus-pocus mumbo jumbo”, do we really disregard it altogether?  Personally, I don’t buy into the daily or weekly horoscopes, and honestly don’t think I’ve read one since my co-workers in Singapore pointed me to my Chinese New Year reading last year.  

Last year, however, these same co-workers decorated their desks and left offerings for the Lion Dance that comes to the office just before New Year.  Lion and Dragon dances are common around the new year in Singapore, with the lion accepting offerings in exchange for casting out evil spirits and leaving behind good luck.   For my co-workers, in addition to a red envelope of cash, they left four packets of numbers with the expectation the Lion would choose a number from each packet.  The four “lucky” numbers that were left behind were played in the next lottery drawing… and they won!

So, I’m not taking any chances… I’ll be decorating my desk for the Lion Dance this week, and am continuing to “shop” the internet for a more optimistic take on my year ahead.  At this point, The Chinese Fortune Calendar and Huffington Post are both getting a nod from me, as they predict significantly better years than the Grand Master… but can I really disregard the GRAND MASTER?

Don’t know your Chinese Astrology Animal?  Find out here – then go see what the Grand Master predicts for your Year of the Horse… and if you’re a Tiger like me, you might want to do a little more “horoscope shopping” over the next few days in the hopes of finding some good news!

Relaxing with the In-Laws in Langkawi

December in Singapore is typically wet...very wet.  In fact, Sophia and Cooper's comment, "you never know when it's going to rain" really doesn't apply this time of year, because you do know.  It's ALWAYS about to rain in Singapore in December.  So, with Jennifer's parents in town during the wettest time of year, we decided to schedule a short trip to somewhere a little different and where we knew we'd find more sun.  After all, we figured Kathy and Grant would enjoy some sun and sand after traveling nearly 10,000 miles and leaving behind one of the coldest, snowiest winters in years!

Our destination for this quick trip was Langkawi, Malaysia.  Officially, Langkawi is a collection of over 100 small islands in the Andaman Sea, about 15 or so miles off the coast of mainland Malaysia, and directly on the border with Thailand.  Our visit was to Pulau Langkawi, the largest of the islands and the most popular resort destination. 

We selected the Berjaya Resort, largely based on TripAdvisor reviews and a desire to experience the "over-water" villas.  The villa layout was reminiscent of the Maldives, and at this point we know that we are out of time and will not make it there.  So it checked lots of boxes!  The resort was very large and spread out, which for some TripAdvisor reviewers was an issue.   While we have typically opted for the smaller, more personal hotels during our trips throughout Asia, we found Berjaya to be very comfortable, and several employees provided a very personal touch that made our stay wonderful. Apparently, size really doesn't matter.

Our villas were located side by side, perched over the Andaman sea and offered amazing sunset views every evening.  The rooms were large and included a king size bed, sofa, large bathroom, and good size patio overlooking the sea.  While the resort was large, a quick call to the front desk sent a shuttle our way, which would take us anywhere we wanted to go within the resort - and on most occasions, that was the beach, the pool, and the beach restaurant. 

The beach and pool were both very nice.  The pool had a swim-up bar, waterfall, plenty of lounge chairs and friendly wait staff happy to bring you another cold drink.  The view was really amazing, with heavy vegetation and palm trees framing the pool area and the 2,300 foot high peaks of Mount Chinchang jutting up in the background.  

The beach was likewise beautiful.  The water wasn't as crystal clear as we experienced on Malaysia's east coast (read - Batu Batu posts), but it was very clean and refreshing in the afternoon sun.  We have read about jelly fish issues in the Langkawi sea, but we did not personally experience this.  Plenty of lounge chairs were available along the beach, as well as seating by the unassuming, casual beach bar.  Kayaks, paddle boats, jet skis and other water sports were available along the beach (no charge), and a favorite for the kids, a batik craft area was just a few feet away allowing them to create some great souvenir artwork.  (Jennifer's note:  What?  Favorite for the kids?  My mom and I LOVED painting our masterpieces!)

The resort also has a short mangrove walking path, if you want to get up an personal with some of the wildlife.  Just be careful what you wish for.  Sophia and I came across a few hornbills as well as a monitor lizard that must have been at least 6 feet long.  And even if you aren't walking off the beaten path, the area around the resort is home to Macaques and Dusky Leaf Monkeys.  The latter paid us a visit in the trees by the pool on one afternoon, but weren't really much of a bother.

While we spent much of our stay at the resort, relaxing and enjoying the sun, we did venture out on two excursions during our brief stay.  For the first, we took the short, three minute shuttle ride (ten minute walk) from the Berjaya Resort to the Oriental Village.  The village offers more than 50 shops, restaurants, and activities to chose from, but we had just one in mind...the Langkawi Cable Car.  The Cable Car is the hub of the Oriental Village, and takes passengers on a crazy ride to the peak of Mt. Chinchang and the Langkawi Skybridge.  
Though the skybridge itself is closed for renovations, the cable car ride and view from the three observation decks ABOVE the skybridge are still amazing. Besides, it removed the possibility that I might be too afraid to walk out on the 400 foot long, curved bridge that's precariously balanced across the mountain peaks.  The thing just doesn't look safe!

The views were really amazing, and the kids loved watching the clouds blow through the mountain passes below us.  Cooper insisted it was the coolest thing he's ever done...which he says about almost everything.  You've gotta love how "in the moment" that kid is!  Sophia loved it as well, after she got over her initial fear of the very steep cable car ride to the peak.

Two recommendations - First, the lines for the cable car can get very long with multiple hour wait times...look for the daily promotion and pay the extra money to go to the front of the line.  We were at the peak in 5 minutes vs. waiting 3 hours!  Second, take a postcard and stamp with you.  There is a post office box at the peak of the mountain.  I'm sure you or your kids have a friend who would think it's pretty cool to get a post card from one of the highest peaks in Malaysia)

Our second excursion in Langkawi was much closer to sea level.  In fact, it was exactly at sea level. As one of the world's most active fisherman, it was no surprise that Grant wanted to try his luck fishing the waters of the Andaman Sea, and so we booked a half day trip through the hotel activity desk, and headed just off the coast for Barracuda and a variety of other fish.

Sophia, Cooper, Jennifer, Grant and I headed out on the morning trip, but unfortunately, my luck on fishing trips (or lack thereof) followed me and we didn't fare too well.  We completely struck out with the Barracuda, but Grant and Jennifer managed to catch a few Kerupa and Sophia and I both caught tiny reef fish.  Cooper managed only to catch a good tan, but he was as happy as could be checking in the sights.  Though we didn't catch much, it was a really enjoyable day on the water.

On our final evening in Langkawi, we headed back to the Oriental Village for dinner and to do a little shopping.  Unfortunately, most of the shops were closing up early (Sunday evening) when we finished dinner, so shopping was limited.  But Sophia found a souvenir elephant to add to her collection from our journeys throughout Asia, and Cooper managed to find a toy guitar.  The kid likes what he likes.

While Langkawi was far less "culturally stimulating" than much of our recent travel, it was truly enjoyable.  The beach and pool offered a great alternative to wet and rainy Singapore and our visit just a few days before Christmas was a very relaxing one.  Now, with only a couple months left before we leave Singapore and return to reality in the US, we have officially started the countdown.  Our "bucket list" is long, so you can expect to hear from us again soon!