Saturday, February 27, 2010

Hort Park

[Sunday 21 Feb--]  This afternoon we made a quick trip to Hort Park, or "Horticulture Park", which is one of the four parks in the Southern Ridges parks.  This isn't exactly a park in the sense of a reserve-- more of a garden center.  It is an area dedicated to gardens, garden design and horticulture.  Within the boundaries of the park are buildings housing a restaurant, rooms for education seminars, and a plant shop.  This is the place to go if you are interested in gardens and horticulture, or are planning a garden and want to get ideas. 
Walking around the park, there are small garden plots that are miniature examples of various garden designs.  Apparently there are design contests during the year, and small plots are assigned to entrants for their garden design.  There is also a building housing a butterfly zoo, of indigenous butterflies.  Unfortunately this was not open when we visited, although we looked in through the glass-- we need to return some time.
There are fountains and ponds in the garden with Koi and, if I am correct-- Toman-- the asian snakehead fish that is apparently prized for ponds.  (This fish has an accessary "lung" which allows it to breath air--  it is extremely hardy during drought conditions.  There have been a couple of cases recently where they were found in lakes in the United States, which has resulted in putting a huge scare into the Fish & Game guys.  These fish are really tenacious, eat the locals, and are very difficult to get rid of once they are established.)
Elaine hopes to get plants for our patio deck, both to green up our place, and hopefully provide a little bit of sound buffer coming from the road below.

If I am correct this is a Toman-- the snakehead.

Tortoise planter at the Hort Park

This is the shrimp bush

A granite penguin in one of the display design gardens

Friday, February 26, 2010

Chinese New Years-- Sentosa / Henderson Wave / Istana

I've been busy with some issues on our main computer recently (blog entry to come), and our many activities during our  recent four day holiday, have resulted in me falling behind in chronicling and posting pictures of our adventures--  Now finally getting posted--  JK
28-2-2010-- Corrections

Chinese New Year
[ Weds, Feb 17 ]  This past weekend was a national holiday for Singapore, Chinese New Year, which provided Elaine with two days of holiday-- a four day weekend.  Coincidentally, CNY and Valentine's Day were on the same day this year, February 14, both of which are celebrated here.  CNY is bigger event than Christmas in western countries, and is a time of hopeful prosperity, eating, and celebration.  The celebration goes on for quite a while-- it starts in late January, and will end on Feb 28.
This year is the year of the tiger, and there are many tigers to be seen about town.  (Pictures and costumes, not the real thing)  Many businesses are closed, some for a full week. (We are forced to take a break from the furniture excursions). Of course for many of the global retailers and restaurants-- Starbucks, Burger King,  it was business as usual.  CNY is also a time when many people take holiday retreats in Malaysia or Indonesia-- Bali or such.  And for those living in the surrounding region, Singapore is not a bad place to come visit during this holiday season, so there are a lot of tourists in town at this time.  Consequently for us, travel for the long weekend was pretty well booked and not feasible.  It would have required some a priori planning and reservations, which we didn't do (oh well!).
One big event that occurred very close to us was the opening of the Resorts World Sentosa-- their first big holiday weekend for bookings, although the resort is quite a ways from being completed.  The resort is the first of two entries in the "IR industry" (Integrated Resort).  IR's are the destination vacation resorts that have a little bit of everything for everybody--  a theme park, spas, restaurants, shopping... and a casino.  This follows the lead of Las Vegas with their alluring destination resorts.  In this case Resorts World Sentosa will have a Universal Studios theme park, which has yet to open.  However the casino has.  This will be a high class establishment-- entry to the casino requires a fee of S$100 for S'poreans, which has been quite a controversial discussion in the editorials.

Monkey See (or See Monkey)

[Monday Feb 22]--  Elaine went for a walk this evening-- up to the Henderson Waves Bridge, which is in a nearby park.  When she returned, she claimed that she had seen a monkey on the bridge.  I didn't think Singapore would have monkeys, as it is a very large urban city--  had the heat affected her vision?  Unfortunately she did not carry her phone nor a camera with her for some visual proof.
With some research help from Google, we quickly learned that indeed there are wild monkeys that inhabit the island of Singapore.  They are called Long Tailed Macaques, and are native to Singapore.  They are frequently in troops of 25 to 30 monkeys.  They look like this:

Long-tailed Macaque

They are apparently common in the park areas.  They can become overpopulated and a nuisance in areas  when people feed them.  The park officials ask that they are not fed, in the best interests of the monkeys.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Ron L 1933 - 2010

My  stepdad  Ron passed away in the early afternoon of Saturday Feb 20 in Boise, Idaho.  The final decline was sudden and swift.  Last Saturday he enjoyed a special Valentine's day lunch with my Mom, Nathan, and Nathan's girlfriend Kristen.  He was also visited and blessed by the resident priest .  The following day he was visited by some close friends of ours and he told them about this wonderful lunch, and his recent religious experience!  I had a Skype call with him from his room on (his) Tuesday evening.  His eyes were wide open and I could tell he knew I was there.  But by Wednesday everything had changed.  It is a blessing that this last phase of the illness was so short because he was no longer capable of communicating.  On his last day he was cared for by the nursing home staff that knew him best.   His grandson Nathan was with him at the end.  My Mom had stepped away at the suggestion of the nurses, as they felt like he was holding on just for her.

- Elaine

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Durian-- National fruit of Singapore

This past weekend, I bravely stepped up and took my first taste of durian.  Durian, for those who don't know, is a large fruit about the size of a volleyball, with spikey tentacles coming out of it.  It looks like the business end of a medieval mace.  As one bakery shop clerk informed me, when I enquired about a particular dessert cake, "You may not want this one-- most Westerners do not care for the taste of durian".  That is a true story.

Durian  (Image from wikipedia)

Once the durian is cut open, there are pods of the edible portion of the fruit, which each in turn surround a large seed.  The husk of the fruit has a white pithy substance that surrounds the fruit, similar to a pomegranate. In the grocery markets, durian is often in its raw form, either as a whole fruit, or more commonly, packaged with the seed/fruit separated from the fruit husk.  Seeing the processed fruit in our local "hypermarket"  (supermarket) I thought these packages were some type of bread dough (the meat of the fruit is a pale yellow color and has a visual texture similar to raw dough), but perplexed as to why they were located in the fruit and vegetable section of the market.  Durian is prevalent in many food items sold around town, including cakes and ice cream.  It is used in a number of local dishes.
You know when it is about.  It has a strong and permeating odor, and drives a strong urge to vacate the premises.  It takes some stamina to do the grocery shopping, and to walk past the ice cream shop with durian ice cream.  Durian is an acquired taste-- and smell.
Durian grows on trees, and is native to Brunei, Malaysia, and Indonesia.  There are a number of varieties, and it is cultivated for harvest.  If apples are are symbolically American, then durian is the national fruit of Singapore.  The Esplanade, a theater-arts building in downtown Singapore is patterned after the fruit.

The Esplanade  (image from Wikipedia)

My first experience with eating durian occurred last weekend.  We attended a house warming party at some new friends apartment, who have moved here from all places, Marin County in the SF Bay Area ("it's a small world").  She is native to Bali, and he is American, although has spent a lot of time in Asia (he speaks fluent Mandarin).  Durian was served, and I cautiously took a small sample.  My bravery was fortified by some of the beverages they also had served.  After tasting it, I find the smell and its texture to be the most displeasing aspects of it-- I cannot really describe the smell, however the texture is something like a stringy persimmon.  It's a bit slimey.  After I ate some of the durian, one of the guests related (old wive's tale, I think) that mixing durian and alcoholic beverages is a bad thing to do.  No further elaboration.  I had not heard this previously, but she was quite serious about it.  Our host indicated he did not care for it-- not because of its taste or smell, but because it upset his stomach terribly.  I suffered no apparent ill effects (I had a very small piece) from the experience, and perhaps have dispelled the notion of not mixing it with alcohol--  I'm not sure how you would chose to eat it any other way.
It's an acquired taste.

Furnishing the Apartment

We have an interesting "problem".  As part of our expatriation package, Elaine's employer has provided a sizeable budget for purchasing furniture to outfit our living quarters during our stay here.  (I won't say how sizeable).  Our problem is that there is some urgency by the relocation company and Elaine's employer to have this expenditure off their accounting books, so to speak.  Our four week absence in December/January has delayed our ability to go spend this money, and yet we would like to take advantage of this benefit.  What a problem!  So for the past two weekends we have slogged all over Singapore, visiting furniture stores and malls in an effort to get this done (in some cases multiple visits-  arghh!).  This requires some planning and navigating, as we are traveling by public transport and foot to do the shopping.
On our first furniture Saturday we purchased two items from two stores, and on Sunday three items from three stores.  Our second weekend we made purchases at two stores.  Sounds like a lot of furniture for a 1000 ft apartment, doesn' it?  Deliveries can only be made during weekdays, so the weekdays following the purchases were logisitics of cooridinating delivery times.  Because of Chinese New Years, some of our new furniture will not be available until March.
A disparate set of ideas on styles and function on decoration for Elaine and I has made the process "interesting" (we're still speaking), but in the end we have converged on agreement for purchases made thus far.  The amount of leg work required to do the shopping has helped expedite the decision and agreement process, I think.  Shopping with someone else's money is a bit of a high, but has some hang-over feel for me when the dollar amounts are considered.
Although there are many styles of furnishings available here, Modern seems to be most common.  Leather sofas and chairs are widely available.  Some shops have Italian modern styles from Italy.  There are also Italian modern styles from China.  Lots of glass, chrome, and high gloss lacquered surfaces.  On the more classic front there is a lot of teak and rattan furniture from Indonesia and Malaysia.  We also viewed some Asian antique reproductions from China that were quite spectacular.
IKEA has two stores here, and is an extremely popular place to shop.  Elaine has been told that the Singapore IKEAs are the largest revenue grossing stores of all IKEA stores worldwide.  We made the mistake of visiting IKEA on a weekend, when the place is packed.  On weekends, there is a large queue of people waiting for taxis at the door, and check-out queues are large as well.  I'm not overly keen on IKEA, but one of their modular wall units was considered, which would have worked well.   However, the components are out of stock at the moment.  We have something else on order from another store.
We've seen a lot of furniture and upholstery colors that are....   not our style.  If you are a die-hard BSU Bronco fan though, you would be in luck.  Here are a leather sofa, love seat, and couch that would go nicely together in the family room.  (Howard & Patti--  you should consider these...)

I would like to have more pictures to share.  However, most shops have signs indicating photography is prohibited.  It is common practice to have furniture or other items replicated by manufacturers in Malaysia, Indonesia, and China at significant cost savings, despite shipping charges.
If we had more time perhaps we could stretch our furniture shopping dollars farther by making a shopping trip to one of these locales.

Virtual Furniture Tour:
Here's a virtual tour of our apartment furniture, thus far-- more on the way:

Tan leather love seat.  Like the styling we chose?  (Nope--  a loaner from the landlord.  Also very uncomfortable.   It goes)
Brown leather arm chair  (another loaner-- it goes)
The dining room--  another loaner, but it stays.
A shoe cabinet (another landlord loaner piece).  A common practice here is to remove your shoes before entering the residence, a custom which we are following.  We have our cabinet near the front door, inside.   (OK, somebody didn't put their shoes away!).  At many apartments, including our neighbors you will see shoe racks outside in the hallway, keeping shoes completely out of the house.  Apparently shoe theft is not a big problem.  (Keep the Gucci's inside, though)  This piece stays.

Technology Central-- in the office/spare bedroom.  The desk and roller-drawer are loaners.  The shelf is our first furniture purchase in this campaign (yea!) neatly housing the computer, UPS, and the new HP All-In-One (AIO).  (Which replaces the printer I burned up in the 240 volt outlet.)

Teak chairs (2), another purchase.   Hopefully constructed from sustainable plantation teak.  We intend to redo the cushions in fabric which matches a couch we have on order.  After purchasing these and getting them delivered, we found another shop (actually in an industrial building basement, out in the sticks of Singapore) where we could have purchased these same chairs (or ones extremely similar-- perhaps of  lesser quality workmanship).  However for the same price we paid for our two chairs we would have also received a matching couch (two-seater) and a coffee table.  Such is the art of shopping.  (In fact we didn't care for the table and couch, and wouldn't have a place to put them).

UPDATE:  The back cushions have been replaced by these.  The penquin theme is a little reminder of Susan as she braves the Antarctic winter (soon, anyway) at McMurdo Station.  (Susan--  it continues!)

The brass floor lamp with silk shade

Have oven, will travel--  Many Singapore apartments, particularly older ones, do not have built-in ovens.  Although of relatively recent construction, ours is sans built-in oven.  The apartment came with the combination microwave/convection oven (on top-- and what a nice reflection!), but it is very small, by our standards-- it can only accomodate the smallest of the baking dishes and pans we own.  So one of the "furniture" purchases we have made is decent sized (51 liter) built-in convection oven.  Only this one isn't built in-- it is housed in a wooden cabinet, on wheels.  This is also something that is done quite frequently here.
The oven is Italian made, and is very simple, although it will take some getting used to.   There are hieroglyphics for the knob on the left, which describe its various operating modes.  (For help, refer to the Rosetta Stone oven manual that comes with it).  There is a mechanical timer knob (center) that must be used in all modes--  this oven, in its simplicity, will prevent you from forgetting to turn it off and waste electricity.  Finally, the temperature for the thermostat (right) is calibrated in Celsius not Farenheit, so don't get that confused.  (For example, 350F is about 175C.  On the other hand 350C is... really hot!)

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Just One Word: Plastic [Update Feb 21]

Taking out the Trash  (Update [Feb 21])
Just what you wanted-- another discussion on Singapore trash.  However I felt some obligation after viewing a recent show on The Discovery Channel (How Do They Do It?).  The show contained a segment on Singapore's trash system, which is turns out is pretty amazing.  My ignorance was showing badly.  Here's a few points from the show:

  • Singapore recycles something greater than 50% of its disposed trash.  Recyclable components are removed (I'm not sure how this is occurring).  The remaining trash is brought to a very high technology processing plant that runs 24-7-365.
  • The trash for processing (not recycling) is placed in enormous bins at the processing plant, where it is dried.  It is turned by gigantic claws to aid this process.  (There are also automatic sprayers to put out fires that can occasionally erupt).  Once dried the trash is dropped into a furnace, in multi-ton scoops.  The furnace heats boilers for steam, which in turn powers turbines for electrical generation, supplying Singapore with a respectable contribution for its electrical power demand.
  • The ash from the furnace is emptied-- 120 truckloads daily, every day, to a large barge.  The barge ferries the ash out to an island in the making called Palau Semakau-- a man-made creation, that will be filled by 2050.  Because it is ash, and not trash that must decompose, the island is green with vegetation, neat in appearance, and does not have trash blowing about as most landfills do.
Singapore can use the extra space.

If Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) had taken Mr. Robinson's (Murray Hamilton) career advice in The Graduate, he'd likely have gone far--  there seems to be a lot of it (plastic), and there certainly is a lot of it in Singapore, although perhaps no more than anywhere else.
Over packaging seems to be prevalent.  Take for example crackers.  A particular brand of wheat crackers that we have come to like has perhaps 60 crackers to a package.  These are assembled into cellophane packages of three crackers each, then set in a plastic tray, and then collectively bundled and sealed by another cellophane wrapping.  An advantage is that the crackers do not go stale or soggy in the cupboard once you've gotten into them.  However, setting out a tray of them for an evening snack requires a bit of time to unwrap and dispose of several of the individual packages.  Is this necessary?
Carry Bag?
As at home, shops here place each purchase in a "carry bag" for you.  Here, sometimes bags go within a bag.  For some purchases each individual item goes in its own bag, and then these are gathered into the carry bag.  I have made snack purchases, where the single item was inserted into two nesting plastic bags.  Paper bags are uncommon--  I've only seen two shops using paper (IKEA, and the National Museum of Singapore, with recycled paper-- yes!) all others have been plastic.   Some of the carry bags are very stout, made of heavy guage plastic sheeting, and with colorful store name and graphics.  I would guess they are costly.  Despite our efforts to decline the carry bags at the stores, we still have a steady stream of plastic bags coming into the apartment on a regular basis.  (You have to be prepared when approaching the point of sale register).
I am appreciative of sturdy carry bags when I leave the store, when transporting purchases on the public transportation for some distance.  Many of the paper bags used by retailers in the U.S. would fail in this application here, resulting in an embarassing and inconvenient spill.  A the shopper could easily be trampled as they attempted to retrieve the spilled goods if this occurred in a busy train station.  U.S. bags typically need only survive a trip from the store to the parking lot, and from the car trunk into the house.  I carry two cloth shopping bags, and minimize my dependence on plastic carry bags.
Binding twine (again, plastic) is available at most shops, and is used to lash around larger boxed items, fashioning a handle for their carry transport.  It is facinating to see a flat screen TV (smaller ones) on its way to a new home on the subway train.  (For larger items, most stores offer delivery service, often free).
Singapore has a strong petrochemical industry (it is in an oil-rich region-- e.g. Brunei is not far) and oil refinement is a very large industry here-- It makes sense that plastic is prevalent, and can be a locally produced product.
Recycling is occurring here, but it is not clear how mainstream this is with the population.  It appears to be a practice that is encouraged by the Singapore government, but still in its early phases.  A few areas of downtown (Orchard Road) have waste receptacles on the street for accepting separated trash (plastic, glass, all other).  Our apartment complex has large bins in the basement parking garage for recycling, but it is voluntary--  everything else goes down the trash chute in each apartment.  Recycling is apparently not occurring at most apartment blocks.  Plastic is by far our largest quantity of trash that goes to the recycling bins.