Day 237: Hey Murugan, I’ll pierce my back if you do me a solid

DISCLAIMER: The photos in this blog may be disturbing to some. If you think your stomach will churn at the sight of 40+ piercings in someone’s chest or back, I’d recommend you just skip this one. If you think you can handle it, read on!

Thaipusam is a Hindu festival celebrated by Tamil Indians both in India and abroad. It’s celebrated on the day of the full moon in the Tamil month of ‘Thai’ (January or February) and is dedicated to Murugan, the god of war and favors. It’s for the favors received that devotees carry ‘kavadi’ (burdens) over a distance of about 3 miles to give thanks. As I understand it, devotees ask for favors throughout the year and vow to carry a kavadi during the Thaipusam festival to fulfill their vow. The bigger the favor granted, the more elaborate the kavadi required to repay the favor.

Elaborate Kavadi + Tongue and Cheek Piercings

I saw a variety of kavadi ranging from slightly burdensome to incredibly painful. The most common was a metal pot of milk carried on the head. Even though it was the least burdensome of them all, I imagine even this would get heavy after a 3-mile walk. More painful kavadi included tongue and cheek piercings, sandals made of nails, elaborate metal hoops decorated with peacock feathers (a symbol of Murugan) laced with long metal skewers piercing the stomach and back, and thick metal hooks placed in the skin of the back to pull carts containing large shrines.

Walking on Nails

Even kids participate!

Shrine on Wheels Kavadi

Hooks in his back to pull the shrine

Since there’s an inherent gore to the festival I was surprised that Thaipusam had a very festive atmosphere. Many men carrying large kavadi had what I would call a personal ‘cheerleader’ walking with them from the beginning (Perumal Temple in Little India) until they made their offering at the very end (Tank Road Temple near Robertson Quay). The cheerleaders sang and did chants and encouraged some fancy spinning for those with a hoop kavadi to show off their feathers. Many devotees had family accompanying them on the walk as well.

Perumal Temple & Confetti

An Elaborate Kavadi

I had read about this festival during our preparations for moving to Singapore and was disappointed that we weren’t expected to be there for it. I’m thankful our departure was delayed and I was able to witness Thaipusam. I’m not sure my description can really capture the essence of the festival: there’s more energy and less gore than you would imagine for a festival of this kind. It was probably one of the most interesting things I’ve witnessed in my life… so far!

Empty Milk Cartons from Offerings made to Murugan

More photos of Thaipusam in all its glory HERE!

Day 171: Durian, the King of Fruits

Durian

Durian

Have you ever left sweaty clothes in your gym bag on accident and almost upchucked when you went to take them out weeks later? Or gone on a long vacation and come home to rotten onions in your cupboard? If you have, then you have a pretty good idea of what the durian, the so-called King of Fruits, smells like. Due to the offensive odor this King isn’t permitted on the MRT (Singapore’s subway system) and is banned from most hotels.

Michael and I with the Durian

Michael and I with the Durian

The fruit has a lousy reputation among Westerners but for some reason many local Singaporeans love it. Michael and I decided that we would try durian just once so we could make up our own minds about it. When a couple of local friends offered to take us out to try it we readily accepted. What better way to try the fruit than with experienced locals who have a taste for it? They knew exactly where to get it and what variety to try.

With Linn and Peng Fong as our gracious guides, we arrived at Durian Lingers (how appropriate!) in Katong to sample the fruit. After carefully choosing the finest specimen our friends demonstrated how to eat the fruit and watched in anticipation as we took our first bites.

My first bite

My first bite

Michael's first bite

Michael's first bite

The first thing I notice is the texture of the fruit. My fingers sink into the custard-like flesh and what initially felt soft and smooth quickly turns to mush from the warmth and pressure of my grip. The scent of the fruit hangs in the air but as I take my first bite I find that the fruit doesn’t taste as strongly as it smells. The durian’s flesh is both mushy and stringy at the same time and it sticks to the inside of my mouth and throat as I chew then swallow. I find it’s not as bad as I had imagined, so I take a few more bites and finish one section, then grab another.

The durian wasn’t terrible, but it definitely wasn’t good. Which makes me wonder- what’s the draw? It may have some vitamins but it’s full of carbs, calories, and fat. And it’s not cheap. In Singapore a large, high-quality fruit can set you back S$50 or more. I can only assume that there are vast differences in the taste perception between those who like it and those who don’t. If you eat it, you must somehow believe that it tastes good. Otherwise… Why? I’m glad I tried it, as it seems a sort of rite of passage of living in Southeast Asia. And now I’m quite glad to cross it off my list for good!

Days 163 &168: Learning to Cook Indian Food (and a Short Rant)

At first I balked at the idea of doing all of the cooking, laundry, and other domestic duties by myself. Women in America have had a long, hard battle for equality and I want to stay equal, dammit! After a couple weeks of being incredibly stubborn on the point, I began to relent. Michael’s assignment brought us to Singapore and he’s the one working 60+ hours a week. And me? I do yoga three times a week… I also have a very full schedule of lunches and coffee dates with other expat wives. But somehow these activities don’t take up nearly 60 hours per week. As much as I didn’t want it to, it just made sense for me to take care of the household.

The fact that I’ve always loved to cook must have been forgotten in my temporary inequality rage. Since arriving in Singapore I’ve really enjoyed planning our weekly meals and venturing out to various local supermarkets and wet markets. Recently, I’ve taken a few Indian cooking classes to expand my recipe collection. The first was at the local community center where I had taken other classes in the past. I liked the instructor so much that I took two more classes, both held at her home. Michael was thrilled when I put my lessons to use and made him a dinner of pelak paneer (spinach curry with homemade cheese), saffron rice, roti prata (pan fried dough similar in taste to naan), and chicken masala.

Homemade Indian Food!

Homemade Indian Food!

I feel like I’m really starting to earn that “Homemaker” check mark that I fill out on the customs form under “Occupation” each time I travel. Even if the feminist in me secretly hopes that the customs agents think that I actually MAKE homes instead of cook, clean, and walk the dog. Because we women are equal, dammit! And I could totally make homes, if that was what I wanted to do.

Note: Never once has my husband said “I bring home the bacon, you better make me dinner!” or anything along those lines. This has been an entirely internal struggle for me. And while I do the majority of the household chores, he definitely helps when he can. He’s a pretty great husband!

Day 157: Thanksgiving in Singapore

Thanksgiving in Singapore

Thanksgiving in Singapore

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays back home. A four-day weekend spent with family and friends watching football and eating great food. What’s not to love? Naturally we would want to try and recreate the holiday here in Singapore, although the circumstances aren’t quite ideal.

The first (and worst) difference is that since Thanksgiving is an American holiday, there’s no four-day weekend. Not a big deal for me since I currently have unlimited vacation, but a huge bummer for Michael. The next difference is that due to the 13-hour time difference from EST, football games are generally played while we’re fast asleep. Again, not a huge deal to me (I love Michigan football, but I don’t care too much about watching other teams) but a big bummer for Michael.  Finally, ingredients for the Thanksgiving meal that are readily available in the US have to be purchased at the Expat (read: expensive) grocery store at a ridiculous mark-up. French’s Fried Onions for S$9? Give me a break!

Despite the obstacles, my friend Hannah and I attempted to recreate the holiday feeling here in Singapore. She took on most of the cooking, having been fortunate enough to find an apartment with a normal sized oven. I cooked a couple of the sides in my mini microwave/convection oven and brought them over to her place.

The meal was an astounding success! We had all of the required foods: turkey, gravy, stuffing, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, rolls, and pumpkin pie. And it was delicious. Hannah did a great job with her first solo turkey and Jon turned out to be an excellent bird carver. Michael and I enjoyed the traditional meal with our new friends, followed by an evening of Tiger Beer, Wine, Chinese Rice Wine and board games. All in all, a great Thanksgiving in Singapore!

Day 148: Ladies Brunch at the Raffles Hotel

The Raffles Hotel

The Raffles Hotel

I’m thankful to have a friend here in Singapore that will do all manner of girly things with me that my husband wouldn’t be caught dead doing. One of said girly things was to attend brunch at the Raffles Hotel. The Raffles Hotel is a beautiful colonial-style hotel that opened in the late 1800’s and was named for Singapore’s founder, Sir Stamford Raffles. The hotel was originally seaside, but after years of land reclamation the hotel is now situated nearly 500 meters from the sea.

In the early 1900’s Raffles was a favorite of locals and travelers alike, who would gather to eat, drink, and dance in the hotel’s ballroom, restaurant, and bars. Despite its popularity, the hotel didn’t fare too well during the Great Depression and was closed. Toward the end of World War II, the hotel was used as a temporary camp for prisoners of war who were being released. In the late 1980’s the Raffles Hotel was declared a national monument and underwent a two-year restoration project, returning the hotel to it former grandeur.

The hotel’s major claim to fame is the invention of the Singapore Sling in the storied Long Bar. Raffles also claims to have been an inspiration to many literary talents, touting as guests Somerset Maugham, Noel Coward, and Ernest Hemingway. Today, it’s a popular spot for their famed brunch and beverage, attracting businessmen from the nearby Central Business District and tourists from all over the world.

Hannah and I were seated for brunch and decided to pass on the S$30 Mimosas, although they did sound tempting. The brunch spread was impressive: curries, pastas, fish, oysters and shrimp on ice, carved meats, and an amazingly stocked salad bar. The dessert bar was even more impressive: miniature crème brulee, tiramisu, bread pudding, chocolate mouse, and small dishes filled with local fruits turned into beautiful, sweet, concoctions.

Hannah and I at Brunch

Hannah and I at Brunch

Raffles Brunch

Raffles Brunch

After brunch, Hannah and I went upstairs to the Long Bar so she could have a Singapore Sling. I’d already tried it, so I opted for a Summer Sling instead. The Long Bar was much more casual than the dining room for brunch. Rattan fans waved from the ceiling and each table was stocked with a box full of peanuts in their shell, and cracked shells were strewn about the floor. We felt like tourists sipping on our fruity drinks, watching slightly sunburnt Caucasians saunter in with cameras slung around their necks. But unlike the tourists, Hannah and I had both forgotten our cameras. Thankfully we were able to document the outing with our iPhones!

The Long Bar

The Long Bar

Hannah and I enjoying early afternoon beverages

Hannah and I enjoying early afternoon beverages

The rest of my iPhone photos are here.

Day 130: Monkey Business

Family Portrait

Family Portrait

Macaques are about the same size and shape as a cat, but they differ from cats in a big way: they do NOT run from dogs. In fact, these monkeys will run TOWARDS them, hissing and baring their teeth. We realized this unfortunate fact on a walk through Singapore’s Southern Ridges parks one Sunday afternoon.

Maybe the aggressive male was protecting this little guy?

We had just left the carpark and were setting out for our walk when we saw a family of five monkeys in the walkway a short distance ahead. Thinking nothing of it, we continued walking in their direction. Lexi noticed the monkeys and started pulling hard on her leash towards them. We were about 10 feet from one of the larger male monkeys when it began to run at her. Naturally, we shrieked like little girls and ran back toward the car. The monkey must have thought us not worth the chase – it turned around, gathered its family, and very slowly started to walk away. So slowly, in fact, that I felt as if we were being mocked. We waited for about 5 minutes until they disappeared into the forest and then resumed our walk, now on high alert.

Monkey Watching Sunset

Monkey Watching Sunset

The rest of the walk (as seen here in photos) was pleasantly uneventful. We had a couple more monkey sightings but managed to keep our distance from the frightening beasts. In the future, we’ll probably be taking our nature walks sans pup!

Housing Development Board (HDB) Flats, where most Singaporeans live

Day 116: Life is a Beach

The constant heat and humidity in Singapore makes it difficult for our dog Lexi to get as much exercise as she did back in the States. As a result, Lexi put on a few extra lbs (like many expats do!), or as our Houston vet would put it, she was starting to get a little sausage-shaped. Since no one wants a sausage-shaped Labrador, Michael and I decided to take her for a swim at Tanjong Beach on Sentosa Island one Sunday afternoon in October.

Michael, Lexi, and her extra lbs

Michael, Lexi, and her extra lbs

We got to the beach and were surprised how nice it was relative to other beaches in Singapore. Despite being an island in the generally scenic Southeast Asia region, Singapore’s beaches are anything but beautiful. This is because it’s one of the busiest ports in the world and at any given time there are about 1,000 vessels in the port. This causes murky water, tar balls, and a horizon dotted with ships in every direction. Tanjong Beach is part of a small man-made cove that keeps it slightly insulated from the trash and oil surrounding the ships.

Ships, Ships, Ships

Ships, Ships, Ships

After an intense 30 minute round of fetch, Lexi had a saltwater induced “Marley and Me” moment on the sand (I’d rather not describe it in detail, so let’s just say that drinking 2+ liters of saltwater would do a number on your system, too). We rinsed her off, headed home, and decided to never ever take her to a saltwater beach again. Ever. Another effective (and much easier) way for an inactive dog to lose weight? Less food.

Note: Theoretically, day 116 should come before days 126-128. BUT, theory doesn’t hold when you forget to download your photos in order and your blog strategy is to upload photos, edit photos, and write about experience from photos. Oops!