viernes, septiembre 29, 2006

Singapore - Part 5

I always like a ghost story where a dead man is destined to wander the earth. A lost soul. Unseen, unheard of - a nothing. Blending into the landscape, taking in the scenery, weaving in and out of history without ever having to be a part of anything. Invariably, he is a miserable one. He’ll wonder why he isn’t in a heaven or a hell or at least some form of netherworld. He’ll grumble and whine, trying to figure out where it was he went wrong in life.

Ungrateful. Bastard.

I’d have traded places with him in a minute my first few months of Singapore! I stuck out like a sore thumb. Singapore is full of foreigners. But my corner of Sembawang… This was no expat community. There were Malays, quite a few Chinese, and some Indian. The only white face I saw was the one in the mirror and the ones on television. I’d never experienced anything like it in my life. I’d walk down the street and get stares. People would gawk at me on the bus. They'd take abnormal levels of interest in the loaf of bread I was buying from the supermarket. I’ll bet most people would have gotten over this a little quicker than I did. But really, there’s nothing I hate more than that type of attention. It drove me up the wall. And little did I know it, but once I moved in with Blue’s parents that December… well, let’s just say I had miles to go before I slept - all downhill.

I should mention, now that I've started on this topic, I owe my life-in-fishbowl experience not only to the obvious stranger in a strange land predicament. There’s more to it. When I arrived, Blue was working to complete the military service he'd stopped short to go study in the US. Because he had an MA (unusually high level of education for someone still doing National Service), they made him serve his remaining months in a high-profile, high-security position. He couldn’t tell me a thing about his work (a whole story in and of itself...). What he did tell me was that I shouldn’t alarmed if I felt I was being followed or thought my phone was being tapped. He was told they’d do this. I was a foreigner, and that was a serious liability to his organization.

At first, I didn’t believe a word of it. Government employees wasting their time following a 22 year-old American girl? They’d pay people to do that? But several times I got into the apartment elevator only to see a man running around the corner, asking me to hold the door. He’d ask me where I was from and why I came to Singapore. Harmless questions, all of them. I can’t prove he was checking up on me, but it sure felt like it. None of my other neighbors ever talked to me (they only stared!). I could never see which apartment he came out of, and he always managed to catch me as I was heading downstairs. Then there was a guy in the food court whose job it appeared was to supervise cleaning staff. A tall, heavyset Indian. He’d eat lunch with me sometimes. Was he being nice because he saw I was alone? Or was there some other reason he talked to me? I never knew, but I was happy for the company. He was nice. And my phone, well, I’ll believe that was for real. The connection was full of static up until Blue finished his military service.

Invisibility. I’d have killed for it. I started leaving the apartment later and later. Sometimes, not at all. And when Blue came home from work I’d lie and say I’d gone out when actually I’d only gone to the corner store to grab lunch. I kept my head down, spoke when spoken to, tried not to notice how much people were noticing me.

jueves, septiembre 21, 2006

Angelito Vuela

Taking a break from the usual.

I thought I’d share this with whoever happens to be reading. I like a type of music called reggaeton. I guess you could say it's Spanish rap mixed to a reggae beat. Sometimes, a touch of salsa or merengue gets thrown into the mix. Most of it is total, utter crap. Many of the lyrics, when you bother to listen, speak like gangster rap – Death Row Dre-and-Snoop-bouncing-in-a-Caddy gangster rap. The guys who sing reggaeton (almost always men, with few exceptions) wear big, shiny chains in videos sippin up gin and juice with their mind on their money and their money on nothin but some g-thangs if you know what I’m saying. I think the beats are very catchy. It’s only once in a blue moon that one of these guys will write a song where words take on a life of their own, apart from the music.

I put new songs on my mp3 player the other day. I had my headphones on at work today and when I got to this one song I began to wonder what in the world I was listening to – some haunting chorus about a little angel flying away, wings of death, something about a relationship, and then I couldn’t catch the rest. So I looked up the lyrics when I got home and, well, it’s actually a very beautifully worded song. The whole story, more or less, told in the video:
Angelito Vuela, Don Omar

EDIT - 9/21. Because friend said wording was making him cringe. Upon reading this sober... um, yeah. Yikes. I am cheesetastic! Not changing the top part, Mickey luv. In some way I feel I deserve at least that level of embarrassment for liking this music.

domingo, septiembre 17, 2006

Singapore - Part 4

A man in the corner approached me for a match.
I knew right away he was not ordinary.
He said, "Are you looking for something easy to catch?"
I said, "I got no money." He said, "That ain't necessary."

That’s from a Bob Dylan song called Isis. I’ve had it in my head all night. Funny how I write this and almost guiltily picture my students in Chile, smirks on their faces. Teacher, you are study this Bob Dylan singer? Like you are study Miranda, kiddos. Pero, oye. Ahora es mi solo, no es la guitarra de Lolo.

These lyrics remind me of a feeling I always had living in Singapore, a feeling I loved and miss now more than anything - an anticipation that anything could and would happen. Every day was magic, every day for 3 whole years. This is how I know, or at least how I think I know, no matter how much I grumbled about the place because I was in a bad mood over this or that, my life there gave me something I have to get back. But, wait. I was telling you about Bob’s song. It starts with a man who loses his grip on the love of his life. Her name is Isis. In a devil-may-care burst of craziness he runs out west looking for a change of scene. He winds up in a bar – I always picture some wild west saloon type thing - and a man offers him a partnership (see above). The man, of all things, is going to take old Bob into Egypt. Tomb raiding, no less…

Our apartment in Sembawang faced an open field. I had a problem with the contrast in temperature between the heat outside and the arctic blast of the air con indoors. I rarely let Blue turn the thing on. We often left the windows open, risking visits from all species of tropical bug. Most of what got were mosquitoes and smallish beetles. One day, I walked into our bedroom to find something the size of a small bird knocking itself against the walls. It was a beetle, but the kind you might see mounted in a museum. It had a blue body and two large black pincers on its head. I’m not sure if it would’ve hurt me had I given it the chance, but it sure did scare the crap out of me. It got up and started to fly around the rest of the apartment. Then I watched as what I thought was my very Americanized Chinese Singaporean boyfriend shot the thing down flinging rubber bands, covered it with a take-out plastic soup container, weighed that down with a bottle of laundry detergent, and told me he thought it’d suffocate by morning by which point he’d be able to pick it up and throw it out the window. Blue was slowly but surely showing me he wasn’t the Blue I thought I knew. Blue was Tarzan. Magic. See?

This brings me to an aside. You know, I’m a bit self conscious I write like Singapore was some wild frontier. Those of you who know the country very likely think of it the same way I think of the place I grew up in New Jersey – nice, clean, safe, dull, modern, comfortable. I certainly wasn’t braving any danger living there. My life was not some backpacking adventure. If you sat me down with someone who lived anywhere else in Southeast Asia I’m sure they could top me with cool and exciting stories 100 times over. This was simply a period of my life I never want to forget. And so I’ve decided to write it all out. In a way, I think Singapore might’ve been my Isis.

I was thinking about Isis, how she thought I was so reckless.
How she told me that one day we would meet up again,
And things would be different the next time we wed,
If I only could hang on and just be her friend.
I still can't remember all the best things she said.

Bob, that blows. Well, I'm certainly going to remember what mine said.

Until we meet again,
Tomb raiding in Beantown

domingo, septiembre 10, 2006

Singapore - Part 3

I’d been reading up on Singapore months before moving there. Most of what I read and what I’d heard from Blue was all very similar: bland descriptions of a clean city with good shopping, excellent food, tropical climate, etc.

My initial reaction to HDB life in Sembawang was to wonder whether I’d boarded the wrong flight. Talk about false advertising! Now this was completely different from what I’d expected. Not to say I was unhappy. I was very amused by my new surroundings. In a way, I was glad Singapore wasn’t the dull little modernized island I’d been led to expect.

I’d wake up every morning to the sound of the Chinese mom next door breaking the sound barrier. Lord knows what exactly she was saying. She must’ve been hurrying her kids off to school because after all the screaming and what sounded like the thumping of a broom against doors, I’d see 3 terrified children running to the elevator in their uniforms. Our living room window faced a sort of outdoor corridor, so I’d see everyone on their way to the elevator. It made for great people-watching. Then the newspaper guy would ride through on his bike shouting to announce the morning paper. What a voice on that man. I still jumped whenever I heard him, even though by then I knew he was not shouting about a fire. Later in the morning, women who weren’t working gathered downstairs gossiping loudly in Chinese or Malay. I was surrounded by sound.

Together with the sound came the smells. Funky smells. Curries and spices (Sembawang is predominantly Malay and Malays like to cook!) the likes of which I couldn’t imagine having to eat in the morning. A hot, humid breeze would waft odd scents into our apartment day after day. The living room stunk of chicken, fish, and pork.

Ok, so maybe now I’m beginning to highlight the only major downside I can see to HDBs - neighbors. If you’ve got good ones, GREAT, because walls are thin and privacy is scarce. Bad ones? Well, then you’re in for it. I think I have a pretty good picture of “bad neighbor” types. You’ve got your screamers and shouters. Then come the people with noisy pets. See a dog or a birdcage next door? Just you wait until dark! There’ll be enough barking and chirping to wake the dead. Next come the people who cook all the time. What do I have against people cooking? Well, just imagine you come out of the shower smelling all nice and clean only to be hit with –BAM! - a blast of curry perfume. Now you’ve been kicked up a notch! Your hair smells like shampoo AND curry! On a food note, you’ve got your dumpers – the people too lazy to go out to the garbage chutes in the hallway, so they dump leftover rice out the kitchen window. Not uncommon for those leftovers to land on the laundry someone just hung out to dry. Moving on, you’ve got your peepers – very often windows in HDBs are built facing each other and you look out of your kitchen window only to see someone staring right at you with morbid curiousity. Ok, maybe I felt that last one a little more than most people because I was the only white girl in the neighborhood. I couldn't go anywhere without getting stares. I wonder if I've missed out any HDB bad neighbor types. Let me know if I have!

Changing topic, my job interview at the American School didn’t go badly, but they decided in the end that they needed a web designer more than someone to do the type of PR position they had in mind for me originally. I didn’t know the first thing about web design, so I had to keep looking. Most days, after a rude awakening by the Chinese woman next door, I’d start doing jumping jacks and running in place to prepare myself for one helluva cold shower. In between, my heart would probably stop beating from the startling cry of the newspaperman. I’d come out of the shower, and, more often than not, I’d get hit with whatever crazy stench was drifting out of the downstairs kitchens. I’d walk to the mall where there was a library with internet. It was there where, stinking like food with Malay school kids hanging over my shoulders because they wanted me to get off the computer so they could play video games… it was there, on the 3rd floor of Sun Plaza, that I began my search for a job.

Coming soon - spies, a friend I met in the mall foodcourt, mall bathrooms, and scary bugs that come through the windows when you live near an open field! Stay tuned...

martes, septiembre 05, 2006

Singapore - Part 2

Note: I’ve removed my ex’s name from Part 1. I don’t plan to mention anyone else by name, so it only seems fair. From here on out, people are colors. He will be Blue.

It’s been nearly 4 years since I waited for Blue in Changi, sitting in a pink chair between American Express Foreign Exchange and Delifrance but I doubt I’ll ever forget the day. Blue rented a car for us to drive to the apartment we’d rent in Sembawang, a town in the northern part of the island. He was still operating under the illusion that he was as comfortably-off as he was in America, living off generally well-paid part time jobs together with the government stipend included in his scholarship. It took a while for him to admit to himself (and to me) he couldn’t afford certain things while earning a pittance salary completing the compulsory national service requirements he’d left behind by accepting his scholarship to study in the US. And these certain things he couldn’t afford – sadly enough, they included his sanity and happiness. Money can’t buy those? Oh, you haven’t met Blue. And renting a car? Really… he shouldn’t have.

My next memory involves a piece of red tissue paper sitting on a freshly-laid cement base of a floor on the 17th story of a Punggol apartment. We didn’t drive straight to Sembawang that day. Blue’s parents were in the process of purchasing a Punggol HDB and had asked him to drop by to check on the place. For many people, I realize, two words in previous sentence require explanation. Punggol is a town in the northeast of Singapore. It’s a former fishing village/sleepyville type area. A few years ago they decided to make use of this space, constructing high-rises as far as the eye can see. They’ve got to accommodate the island’s ludicrously large population somehow. HDB’s? You can Google for more detail but basically this is government subsidized housing for Singaporeans. No, it’s nothing like The Projects in the US. These are way nicer. And they’re not somewhere you live if and only if you are below poverty line. You don’t have to be poor to qualify for an HDB. But the best thing – you don’t have to be rich either. Even people like Blue’s parents, who, combined, made less than half of the money I was making in my very first job out of college were able to afford a nice new one.

So Blue’s parents bought an HDB, in Punggol. It was a new construction. They were still in the process of renovating when I arrived. Blue stopped by the apartment with me that day to check on some tiling recently done in the kitchen or the bathroom. But let’s not forget about the red tissue paper. Inside the red tissue paper was a load of food – bananas, oranges, a pineapple, and some rice. I’d never seen anything quite like it. Blue explained that his parents put it there as an offering, something for the spirits so they’d bless the house. But let me tell you – if I knew then what I know now, I’d have piled 10 roast pigs and 20 lamb chops on top of that fruit because, clearly, the spirits did not think very highly of the offering as it stood.

The rest of the day is a blur of new and exciting. I’ll bet I can list at least 10 events under said category. And here they are! In no particular order:
  1. The jungle landscape around Serangoon River on the drive to Sembawang giving me the impression I’d landed myself in Jurassic Park.
  2. The Malay woman who was renting us her HDB in Sembawang insisting, last-minute, that her eldest daughter room with us (seemingly, to keep an eye on the suspicious, mixed couple). Thankfully, we talked her out of the idea.
  3. The crazy real estate broker, coming into apartment while we’re talking with Malay owner, shouting at Blue in Chinese because his girlfriend is clearly not Singaporean (she demanded to know my ethnicity/nationality and proceeded to take a long, uncomfortable browse through my passport). Lucky for us, she eventually calmed down and all was cool.
  4. Checking out all the nutty Mashi-Maro, Pucca, Hello Kitty junk they sell in Sun Plaza (a nearby mall).
  5. Checking out the food court in Sun Plaza and finding a stall that does Penang Laksa (a very spicy, sour, fishy, noodle soup – one of my faaaaaaavorites).
  6. Buying green bread – bread made with pandan leaf. It’s good!
  7. Learning how to use the water heater in the shower. Then turning the knob the wrong way and accidentally breaking the water heater for the shower. We’d be taking cold showers for the next 2 months straight - we knew our landlord wouldn’t chip in to help us repair it, Blue had blown too much money renting the car to get me from the airport to do it himself, and my money was limited because I didn’t know how long it would take for me to find a job. It’s not as bad as it sounds. Singapore is boiling hot. And lucky us, the owner didn’t think to check the showers when we moved out.
  8. Jumping 10 feet in the air when the newspaper guy on his bike yelled in Chinese to announce he had the evening paper. He was loud! And for all I knew, he could’ve been yelling “FIRE! FIRE!”
  9. Discovering those horrible small brown ants that somehow worm their way into every Singapore apartment and pinch you from time to time as they crawl up and down your arms and legs.
  10. Watching a sheet of tropical rain drop down from the sky. I’d never seen the likes of it.

    What a long day that was!
    I’ll have to start making these entries shorter.