Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Wet Weather

So you remember those waterproof trousers I mentioned? I felt foolish at packing them you will recall? Well this weekend I really could have used them.

This was the first weekend we escaped the neatly boxed efficiency of Singapore for more exciting climes. We went to Phuket for a long weekend and it rained almost without cease. Some other friends went to the nearby Krabbi for the weekend and spent the weekend in their hotel room. We got wet.

I had actually put out our waterproof jackets in my proposed packing selection but the DFP waved them away, "oh, we won't need those" he said. Famous last words.

We watched the rain thunder down over breakfast on our first day and then set out. The DFP started looking at places to hire a scooter. I had read the lonely planet's comments about scooter fatalities and gently suggested that it may, perhaps, rain again over the course of the weekend. But it turned out not to be a choice open to discussion.  A scooter it was. It did rain again. And again. And again.

So on day one we headed off for Phuket Town on the scooter, me on the back. It's across the island from Surin beach where we were staying in a beautiful hotel paying less than half what you would pay for a travel inn in the UK but unforutnately with a similarly enthusiastic staff.


It has beautiful teak floors and a bar area with inviting sofas and huge ornamental jars with water trickling over them. It all felt very post colonial chic.

Phuket is a refreshing change to Singapore. It's low rise. You can see the poverty contrasting sharply with the luxury holiday accommodation for the tourists. Lush greenery (no prizes for guessing why), amazing beeches with white sands and while we were there at least, wild foamy waves, though on season endless blue. We did go swimming, red flag flying. It's exhausting. You have to keep diving into the waves and then by the time you've recovered another huge waves is on it's way towards you. Swimming isn't really an accurate description of what you have to do. Plunging and recovering is more accurate.

We visited Patong which is really, properly nasty. It makes Torremolinos look like a classy joint. It's full of drunken people, mainly Australian drunken people, but generally caters to drunken people of all nationalities. It's where you can meet the famous Lady Boys. They come out touting for punters for their shows in their finery all of them with figures you or I would kill for.

They're on a scale between sad and nasty. We saw money openly changing hands between them and men who'd just seen a show. It may be jumping to conclusions, but it did seem fairly clear what was about to happen. If it were just dressing in beautiful spangles and mining to pop hits and seemed a positive, feisty life choice I would cheer them. But it seemed more like a tawdry tourist attraction. Flesh rather than overpriced cocktails.

I tried to have a chat with one who seemed less aggressive than some and tried to ask a few personal questions but s/he clammed up immediately, or didn't understand, or didn't want to understand. S/he explained that she was a real lady boy and had had breast implants and a nose job "like you" she said to me touching my nose. I said, no I hadn't had a nose job and that if I had I would have gone for something something much smaller than this.

Anyhow, even though it poured down, if felt like a break. And the food was fantastic. Side of the road stalls selling fish cakes and barbecued meats on skewers. And on the whole very friendly people happy for us to shelter from the downpours under their porches and give us directions.

I always start to wonder what it is we go travelling for. For most people it's got beyond just having some time off work and lying by a pool reading a good book, though of course that's a part of it. We search for something new about ourselves or to add something new to ourselves through experience.  Through something we see or someone we meet. We want the untouched, unspoiled experience, though ideally still with a beautiful hotel on hand or at least a flushing toilet with loo roll provided. And what is that something more we're reaching out to find in ourselves? And what do we expect it to do to us if we find it?

Sunday, 21 August 2011

The Heat

Our shipment of boxes arrived on Friday. It's lovely to have my bike back again and my scruffy old rucksack which should have been replaced years ago. But as well as the things I've missed and are really useful there's a lot of stuff I wonder what I was thinking when I chose to send them across the world from among my many stored or discarded belongings.

Did I really need to pack those jumpers? What as I thinking about what my life would be like here when I decided to ship five pairs of high heeled shoes? Waterproof trousers? Well I can answer that one actually. I imagined myself trekking intrepidly through the Burmese or Thai jungle in a tropical downpour feeling smug that I'd thought to bring something so waterproof all the way from the UK.

What I was forgetting of course was the heat. Though forgetting isn't really right. People had told me. I had asked specifically about what people wore and whether I should pack jeans. But nothing can really prepare you mentally when you've lived in London for most of your adult life for the heat here.

Singapore is practically on the equator and it is always really, properly hot. At night, or after an enormous rainstorm it can get slightly cooler but when I say slightly I mean still hotter than the UK ever gets even in one of it's rare heat waves.

As I sit here writing this, completely stationary, with only my fingers moving I am running with sweat. Eating breakfast makes me sweat as though I am going for a run. In fact, weirdly I probably sweat less when I run on the machine here in the air-conditioned gym.

I was in Russia in February earlier this year and it was unimaginably cold. So cold I wore two coats and three pairs of gloves and layers and layers of thermals and only then didn't feel so cold it was constantly uncomfortable. You had to brace yourself every time you left the comfortable warmth and never really relaxed until you were back inside. As you walked past open shop or restaurant doors you could feel the blast of warm air. You could almost see the spectrum of warmth around the doors fighting out against the cold.

Here it's the opposite. As you open doors into air-conditioned spaces you feel the relaxing blast of coolness coming towards you. Walking past shops and restaurants you walk through patches of cool as you pass their air-conditioning. It's Greek holiday hot. It's beach hot. It's smooth and enveloping a silken overcoat of hot.

Just as in Russia I could never be without an awareness of my physical state I'm always aware of the heat, a constant companion. And what it does to your body, sweat running down your back, beading on your lip, filming over your forehead. I am constantly tacky and moist.

However everywhere indoors (expect our flat for financial reasons) is air-conditioned. I always carry a cardigan or some light top because it can be so fiercely cold as to be uncomfortable.

I went to the cinema with some friends of friends when I'd first arrived here. It was a proper expat wife outing. All the women were very slender and well groomed, impeccably dressed carrying smaller expensive looking handbags tucked under one arm. They were all very nice and pleasant company to be with though I didn't get much of a chance to chat as we were watching a film and then I decided not to stay for a drink afterwards as we were moving into this flat the next day and I wanted to finish packing etc. Probably a mistake in retrospect, but there you go.

What made it so expat wife apart from the wives (and yes, they were all 'dependents' ie on a dependent visa which you get if your highly paid expat husband has an employment pass. You will remember I couldn't get one of these because we're not married and the state doesn't approve of that) was that it was 'Gold Class' cinema. This is sort of like business class air travel but cinema.

When you arrive you go and wait for the film to start and a waitress takes your order from the menu which includes things like wedges, dim sung and alcohol as well as popcorn (though I would argue nothing beats popcorn in the cinema). Then when you go into the special cinema itself the waitress will bring you what you've ordered at the time you've specified so in theory you could ask for different nibbles to be brought to you every half an hour all the way through the film. Or if you suddenly fancy a beer half way through you could flag a waiter down and order one.

It has enormous, reclining, business class type seats with small tables for your orders to go on and, best of all, a blanket to snuggle down under and feel cosy under despite the rampant air-conditioning. I found it all hilarious and felt very out of place and rather guilty at the price. I hadn't realised it wasn't just a trip to the cinema, though actually it worked out at about 15GBP, so what I'd pay seeing a film in the west end.

I am posting this to you from Coffee Bean at Bugis next to Raffles Hospital. Coffee Bean is a coffee shop chain like Starbucks with equally poor coffee but excellent wi-fi and kindly staff who don't take exception to my sitting here for very long periods of time while job-hunting etc.

Bugis is a few stops down the green MRT line from where we live in Geylang. It is the Malay or Arab quarter. There are lots of the low old houses which I love and have posted pictures of before. It's a bit like the Shoreditch/Old Street or area in London or as Soho used to be. It used to be a hangout for Transvestites, now long gone and replaced by the funky youngsters of Singapore and monied expats. We were out for a drink there on Saturday night as saw people being id-ed going into a bar where you rented hookah's to smoke. You have to be 18 here to smoke.

I mention this because tomorrow, finally, our internet is being connected. I cannot begin to say what a relief it will be to have free flowing internet again. I realise that having no internet is almost as inconvenient as being without heating or running water. Well, not a problem not to have heating here. It's not just big things like job applications you do on the internet, it's little things like checking the time the cinema starts, trying to find friends on the expat forums or which bus to catch. Anyhow, let today be a day of celebration, because tomorrow between 9am and 11am we will be connected!!!

Monday, 15 August 2011

Well, here we are then....

You may have noticed that an entry has disappeared. I wrote about my friends daughter who died without realising that it had hit the British press. I would hate to inadvertently reveal details about their lives that they would prefer to remain private so I've removed that entry. I am also reminded that it's not a good idea to use people's names so I won't any more and have edited through previous entries where I may have been more indiscreet.

I had talked about getting things in perspective and those troubling things at that time had been the stress of moving into our flat which we've now happily been in for a few weeks. It does seem ridiculous to be delighted to have moved out of a 5* hotel, but I am. It's so good to be able to cook again and wash my own clothes, to start to put down roots and get to know my area, to find my local supermarket, post office and corner shop all of which I have.

I want to tell you about my favourite person here in Singapore so far. His name is A***. Now I suspect that isn't what his mother named him as it's a very western name and he is a 70 year old Chinese man. But that's how he was introduced to me so that is what we will call him.

And how did we meet I hear you ask? Well, I have to start with the contract you make as a tenant in Singapore. One of the stresses from the deleted entry was that we were sent a new contract at 10.30 the night before we were due to sign the lease, which the DFP refused to sign as he'd got people at work to check over the contract and I had asked my father who is a retired property lawyer to look at it too. My Dad thought it was mean in parts, no fair wear and tear clause and a mean diplomatic clause which means we could get out of our two year lease after the first year if the DFP were sent elsewhere, but only at quite large financial loss.

Anyhow the long and the short of all of that was that the DFP was arguing his way through the new contract which should have been signed at 10am but when it came to it was still battling on gone 12 noon by which time I was outside the apartment block with the removals men with whom I had driven around Singapore collecting the various bits and pieces of furniture I had bought. They had unloaded these onto the grass outside while I phoned the DFP asking 'how much longer' and he said (about five times) 'two more minutes'. Anyhow, he signed, we moved in, all good.....

….until Sunday night when we tried to roast a chicken and it fused all the lights.

Now the contract we battled over said, as is standard, you have 30 days to report things in the flat which aren't working and it's the landlord's responsibility to fix them after which time the first $150 cost is paid by the tenant. The oven fusing the lights clearly is the landlord's responsibility which brings us to A***.

I called H*** P*** and told her and soon I got a call from A*** which I understood about half of. Although English is supposedly the first language in Singapore I am discovering that quite a lot of people either speak very little English or not at all, like the woman who dyed my hair.

Anyhow, A*** speaks some, but not much but is one of the more delightful people put on this earth. When he arrived he seemed convinced he's seen me at thet market at Old Airport Road, which is quite possible. It's about 10minutes walk from us and has an amazing hawker centre. Tonight for supper there we had fried fish with Sambul, kailam (a leafy green vegetable) with garlic, chicken wings and tiger beer. What a feast!

I am trying to think why I like A*** so much. He's very smiley and friendly. He's very small and thin but with lots of his own hair. His toenails are black and curly. He came around twice, once with a friend and both times with no success insofar as the cooker not fusing the lights. He suggested in the most winning manner that I might perhaps like a small oven that would sit on the side instead of the current one being mended. I thought about it, but felt fairly sure I would like the large one to work.

Eventually he took the oven away. He had to go and get one of the guards to help him carry it downstairs. I would have helped but didn't understand what he was saying when he must have been saying “I'm going to get one of the guards to help me carry your heavy oven”.

The effort of lifting it doubled him over and he said 'I seventy you know!' I told him I hoped I looked as good as he does at seventy. I doubt he understood what I was saying. When he came back, again with a friend but a different one this time, to replace the now working oven he met the DFP for the first time and told me he was very 'hamsone'. Which of course he is.

I feel as though, even though we don't really have a clue what we're saying to each other, he's my friend.

My other friend who spoke no English was the guy who tidied the room at the hotel. On our penultimate day in the hotel I waited I gave him a tip and then went up for a swim while we tidied the room. He look staggered when I gave him the money. When I got back from my swim he was still there and the DFP arrived. He asked us (gestured, pointed and used similar amounts of English as my twin niblings who aren't yet two) for a plastic bag and left. I got into the shower and he knocked on the door while I was in there. The DFP said, suspiciously, 'did you give him a tip?' He had filled the bag with mini sewing kits, teabags, cotton buds etc. All the things I usually steal from the trolleys as I go past unless the DFT is there to say 'it's not a buffet'. I am learning that it isn't usual to tip over here.

Religion with parking space

 ....and without...

As well as being a place where you can get laid Geylang has a lot of temples so you can mix business with pleasure. In our street we have three different religions establishments: Buddhist, Christian and Taoist. With impressive foresight many of these boast their own parking.

The Evangelical place of worship opposite has, very cannily in my opinion, it's own parking built in. The first two floors are car park and presumably the upper floors are all about God.

Now for those of you who may be questioning this combination of the practical and the divine you can't have had the same Catholic upbringing I had. I remember some very unholy family moments trying to find a parking space when we'd left it just a little bit too late going to mass.

No such tensions would be experienced here in Geylang! Region with parking. What a great idea. Coming soon chickens that jump into your ovens and parking wardens who give change for meters.