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A day out in Pulau Ubin, More Strange Signs (TM), and cautionary tales about Google Maps

By on Dec 31, 2010 in Travel | 9 comments

Given the state of house addressing, using Google Maps to guide oneself around in India ends in tears. Singapore, though, is a well-planned city with a robust public transport system – and here Google Maps usually shines for a navigationally-challenged person like me. Usually. Last week, I needed to go to a place called Pulau Ubin (more on that later). I whipped out my smartphone, asked Google Maps to show me the best route via public transport from my (then) current location (it can do that, that smart cookie!) to where I wanted to go. Pat came the reply: “no buses found, 41 minutes walking from current location to Schiphol International Airport, Amsterdam.” Hmmm. Turns out that I was standing on the wrong side of the road; therefore, there were no buses heading the way I had to. So – like the proverbial chicken – I crossed the road…and all was m’kay. **** Pulau Ubin is Singapore’s last remaining kampung (village). For a country that was founded no more than 50 years ago, urbanization has been rapid in engulfing any semblance of rural settlement that might have been there. Pulau Ubin is the exception – it is a tiny island off the coast of Singapore, now maintained as a nature reserve. I had a friend from my university whom I used to work with vacationing in Singapore, and we (along with some travellers he met in Kuala Lumpur) decided to go mountain biking. To reach Pulau Ubin, one can take the MRT to Tanah Merah (on the Green Line) – if you’ve been here, then you might recollect this as the place where the MRT branches off to Changi Airport – and then catch a bus from there to Changi Village Ferry Terminal. At the ferry terminal, Singapore’s fetish for weird public signs continued to catch me off guard. For instance, this sign asking people not to wash their feet in the washbasin (complete with plagiarised stock photography of a foot being washed in a washbasin)… …a comic strip explaining how and why people should dry their hands after visiting the toilet… …a bizarre ‘Beware of Glass’ notice on a free-standing pane of glass, that serves no apparent purpose… …’2 crews’ (as opposed to ‘2 crew members‘) for every 12 passengers on our ‘bum boat’… …right until we reached Pulau Ubin, where we were warned not to set up tents on the jetty. It’s insane! Someone, somewhere has a job in Singapore to think of every single ‘undesirable’ situation and come up with pictorial representation warning the public not to do that. (For more on this, watch video blogger Natalie Tran’s vlog for Lonely Planet from Singapore.) **** The name ‘Pulau Ubin’ means ‘Granite Island’. Not surprising, because in the old days this island used to be a granite mine. Ever since it was converted to a nature reserve though, mining activities have been stopped. Pulau Ubin is now an idyllic resort for nature lovers, adventure seekers, and fat old bastards with moolah to spend at resorts on the island. The ferry ride from Changi Village Ferry Terminal is a short one – for about S$2.50, a ‘bum boat‘ will take you across the channel to Pulau Ubin in fifteen minutes. (You might have to wait a bit for enough people to gather at the departure jetty.) Not a lot of thought seemed to have gone into the naming a mode of transport as ‘bum boat’ and why tourists might find it funny; I’m assuming that the descendants of the creative geniuses who did so went to name a retail clothing chain ‘Wanko’. A short walk away from the jetty area, you’ll find shops renting out bicycles. (With signs that read “IS IT REALLY TRUE? $2 HIRE!” The answer is yes, it’s true, but only for children’s bicycles.) Prices are standard at every stall so there’s no point price hunting – decide the kind of bike you want and hire one. Standard rates hover around S$5 for the cheapest bikes going up to S$8, so there’s no need to haggle either for a couple of dollars. Bikes are rented out till 6pm in the evening. Although you can go to Pulau Ubin for hiking too, the place is primarily designed for mountain biking. There are varied difficulty levels for tracks and varied settings. Personally, I had never tried mountain biking before this, neither did most of the others in our group. The sections of the trail passing through jungle were excruciatingly hot and humid to negotiate, but they were interspersed with stretches of less steep trails every now and then to ease the pressure. The humidity can quickly sap your energy. Make sure that you buy enough bottles of water at the jetty base and keep rehydrating yourself! Overall, the bike trail definitely is one intended for novices, with a few challenging stretches thrown in. The reward for taking on the challenging stretches is that you get to see granite quarries not reachable via the easier trails. Unfortunately, I had to drop out halfway through the trail. I sprained my right wrist quite badly recently; I was even forced to wear a wrist brace. I reckoned that since I had been wearing the wrist brace and popping painkillers it would be okay, but the pain become unbearable going on a particularly steep slope. I decided to drop out from...

Pigging Out

By on Dec 25, 2010 in Travel | 3 comments

A blog post about the time I ate pig intestines. But first… **** One of the reasons why I was excited about going on study exchange to Singapore, petty as it may seem, was that I wouldn’t have to cook for myself any. Thanks, Capitalism, why I do like cheap commercial food made by underpaid workers. This is partly due to how student housing in Singapore is different from Surrey. Instead of having individual houses with shared kitchens and a do-whatever-you-want approach, NTU Singapore has hostel-style accommodation. Cooking for yourself – unless you define that as, perhaps, eating instant ‘vegetarian-flavoured’ noodles – is not an option as the shared kitchens don’t have any food storage cabinets. Fair enough. I expected this would only result in a wider choice of food dishes for me to select from without having to lift so much as finger in preparation of said dishes. I couldn’t be more wrong. As I have mentioned earlier, it turns out that I have less choice now due to a lack of ‘vegetarian-flavoured’ dishes. What astonishes me – and many other people who I rant about this to (everyone I meet, that is) – is that I have been a vegetarian for 14-odd years, didn’t have a problem staying that way in the UK even when I had to cook for myself…yet, I have had to give it up in Singapore. (I was ranting once to my Singaporean friends how I never seem to able to find a vegetarian dish as a simple as a salad here. They listened to me, nodding along sympathetically, and then asked, “What’s salad?”) The realization that I would have to give it up hit me on my very first day here when I looked at the menu in canteens here. I know the sizeable South Indian student population, which mostly consists of vegetarians, live by eating dosa for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the all of four years they would be spending here but that was a choice I simply could not live with. I find it funny (in a cruel way) how these people order a burger at McDonald’s, throw the (chicken/fish/beef) patty away, and morosely chew on a plain bun for lunch. **** Ordering food in canteens is an experience I dread every meal. To give you an idea, canteens at NTU are like this… …multiple food stalls under one roof, each specializing in a different cuisine. On the surface, it would appear there’s a lot to choose from! But what do you do when you have no idea whatsoever what those choices mean? All the dishes listed have names in Bahasa Malay, Bahasa Indonesia, Chinese/Japanese/Korean names written in English rather than describing what the dish is. Here’s how ordering food in the canteens usually turns out for me… (Picture me standing in queue, trying to figure out what to order. I’m frantically trying to search up what a dish I fancy is on my cellphone when I realize it’s too late.) Canteen lady: Rice you wan? Or noodle wan? Me: Wha…YES! Canteen lady [dumping both rice and noodles on plate]: What else you wan? Me [feebly, pointing at a particular dish]: What’s that? Canteen lady: [insert Chinese swear-word here] You no ask. You tell. You wan? You point number on list. Me [panicking, people behind me in the queue get impatient]: I…erm…[chirp]…EVERYTHING! Canteen lady: Okay-lah. [hands plate piled to the ceiling with food] You give 53 dollars. Me: [chirp] This sort of experimenting, as you might have figured, ends up making a huge dent in my wallet. So I don’t. By now I have figured out a list of 10-12 dishes that I have found ‘safe’ and ‘nice to eat’ and I try to stick to those. Also, if I have to eat ‘xing zhou fried rice’ one more time this week from Canteen 2 (it’s the one closest to my hostel block) I am going to jump in front of a bus and end my life. **** As a newly converted ‘non-vegetarian’, I am slightly squeamish when it comes to trying out dishes that overtly involve getting messy or obviously appear to be an animal part in the final form in a dish. Every now and then though I pluck up the courage to try something…unique. So when my Singaporean friends from the student TV station here suggested having a bak kut teh dinner after exams (which finished this week) I immediately agreed. I then followed that up by searching what, exactly, I had just agreed to eat. Bak kut teh is one of Singapore’s famous dishes; ‘bak kut’ means ‘meat bone’, ‘teh’ means ‘tea’. Founder Bak Kut Teh on Balestier Road is Singapore’s most famous ‘BKT’ restaurant, and that’s where we decided to go. As we travelled on D-Day to Novena MRT station, I told my friends about my squeamishness about eating anything that was like…what I had seen online. They explained to me along the way what the dish is. Essentially, it is pork ribs in soup. What usually distinguishes one restaurant’s BKT from another’s is the soup that it comes with. The two main styles of preparing it (in Singapore at least), are the Teochew style, in which the soup is peppery; and the Hokkien style, in which the soup is flavoured with herbs. There’s no ‘tea’ involved in the sense of the word you’d...

‘Vegetarian-flavour’ pot noodle and yucky durians

By on Nov 21, 2010 in Travel | 17 comments

The only Oriental food that I am familiar with in Singapore (because of its ubiquitousness around the world) is pot noodle. Vegetarian cuisine is hard to find here, thus I was overjoyed to find ‘vegetarian-flavour’ pot noodle (“suitable for vegetarians”, as the packaging clarifies) at the supermarket. I have never eaten vegetarian flavour noodles in my entire life. My curiosity was aroused enough to make me attempt to decipher the ingredients on its packaging: Made using finely chopped bits of the tenderest and juiciest vegetarians money can buy, mixed with a dash of parsley and packaged with light, fluffy dehydrated noodles. The above text might be slightly mistranslated as my grasp of Mandarin is sketchy. **** My Singaporean friends have been pestering me to try eating durian for a long time now. Some said they “absolutely fucking love durian lah” while others were more cautious and called it an acquired taste. From its reputation I gathered the latter statement had a higher chance of being true. The Wikipedia article on durians compares its taste to “turpentine, rotten onions, and gym socks” – and I’m not quite sure whether that qualifies as vandalism or not. According to the first group, “the best fucking durian lah” can be found in Geylang, the red light district of Singapore – where, to quote again, “the odd-numbered lanes stink lah because those are the ones where durians are sold, and the even-numbered streets stink because that’s where all the hookers are, lah“. (I might be remembering it the wrong way round; don’t blame me if you go to Geylang and end up in the wrong lane.) Not quite wanting to brave the full force of the stink, I opted to try out durian in a more civilized setting instead. Durian Mpire is a chain of eateries that exclusively sells durian ‘delicacies’. This company, whose name was thought up by an advertising campaign of marketing executives (the appropriate collective noun has been used), sells durian shakes, durian juice, durian cakes, durian crepes, durian ice cream, durian waffles, durian puffs…and bear with me because I’m running out of breath here…plain ol’ durian. I have passed by this store many times at the local mall, seen many families happily munching on durian delights that I decided to give it a go on a whim one day. I ordered a ‘Mini Durian’, which is a small pudding-cup sized serving of plain ol’ durian. Looks appetizing, doesn’t it? In hindsight, the fact that this came little fucker came in a sealed airtight jar should have set alarm bells ringing in my head. The icing that you see on the top is merely a thin layer of sugary camouflage that hides the real horror beneath it – a chunk of durian fruit flesh. (The bright colours are probably thrown in to sucker in kids and na├»ve tourists into buying the stuff.) The texture is akin to that of…dense and chewy cotton candy while the taste itself…well, nothing can quite parallel durian for comparisons. If I ever had the misfortune of tasting my own shit (say, if a Saw movie style Jigsaw Killer forced me to) I assume that would come close to describing it. I ate two tiny spoonfuls before I gave up and threw it into a trashcan. (I momentarily considered giving it to some starving, homeless person but then I remembered I was in Singapore and I wasn’t going to find one. Certainly not on the third floor of a mall.) In a nutshell, durian is the most dis-fucking-gusting thing I’ve eaten so far. The worst part about eating durian is the pungent smell – so pungent that it stings your eyes. No, scratch that. The worst part about eating durian is that even if you have two small spoonfuls, the taste and ‘durian breath’ lingers for hours on end. I downed a whole packet of Clorets breath mints and still the smell / aftertaste didn’t go away. :| If I ever become an evil scientist and/or a billionaire I pledge that – cancer and world peace be damned – I will spend millions on funding research into wiping this fruit off the face of this planet. Okay, maybe I’ll give durian one more chance later when I feel brave again and opt for a freshly-cut durian instead, as my friends here have suggested after hearing about my experience. I have a much better understanding of the gravity of the warning at public transport stations here preventing commuters from carrying durian during a journey. **** Chinese cuisine as its found in Singapore is completely different from what you would find in India – or the UK for that matter. ‘Chinese’ takeaway food in the UK is mostly a sham, where ‘satay’, ‘sweet and sour’, and ‘pork’ are randomly thrown in front of meat / vegetable dish names and a cheap price tag tacked on. Hey, when the bloke ordering it probably drunk and will praise it as heavenly food anyway. In any of the Chinese cuisine stalls in cafeterias here, or hawker stalls all over Singapore, I am hard pressed to find any ‘Chinese’ dish so far that is familiar to me. This ‘gap’ is particularly evident when it comes to noodle-based dishes. Noodles are often served boiled instead of fried and oily as in Sino-Ludhianvi cuisine that I am accustomed to in India. I ordered a mushroom...

Mooncakes and floating lanterns

By on Sep 25, 2010 in Travel | 8 comments

A mooncake is a muffin-sized Chinese dessert that is traditionally eaten around this time. The occasion? A traditional Chinese festival called the ‘Mid-Autumn Festival‘, with its roots in moon worship and harvest celebrations. Legend has it that messages were hidden inside mooncakes – much like in fortune cookies, the idea being that the medium of communication could be eaten to destroy the evidence – exhorting the masses to rise in revolt that ultimately lead to the Ming revolution. Although messages are no longer hidden in mooncakes, they are still an integral part of the festivities. My local Singaporean neighbour next room tells me that these days modern mooncakes come with a range of fillings – durian, chocolate, orange – even ice cream! I wanted to try out a traditional mooncake, one which has a filling of lotus seed paste. Don’t let the variety of colours fool you! The mooncakes themselves are all the same flavour. It’s hard to describe the taste. With lotus seed paste filling, these mooncakes were slightly sweet and chewy but without any discernible taste that I could make out. I can’t imagine myself enjoying eating this during a normal meal as a dessert though, unless it’s one of the fancy-schamncy ‘new-style’ mooncakes that have more palatable fillings. The NTU Chinese Society held a celebration on our campus at the Chinese Heritage Centre on the day of the festival (17th September). I regret not being able to attend that since I was simply so tired that day! Instead, I went to the nearby Chinese Garden in Singapore where celebrations were being held over a week. Reaching Chinese Garden is easy – the entrance is right outside the exit of the namesake MRT station. Follow the path to reach the Red Bridge lighted with red lanterns – red being an auspicious colour in Chinese tradition. At the very end of the bridge, before you enter the gardens, you’ll come across two marble lions ‘guarding’ the entrance. (Took me a long time to get this picture right. Couldn’t use flash as the range as the objects were out of range, and had to keep my hand rock steady as I was shooting in low light. Had a long exposure shutter for this one.) I was blown away by the astonishing variety of lanterns that I saw there! The picture above was taken from the lakeshore, where there were lanterns floating in the water. These – and other lanterns – that people were carrying aren’t electrical lanterns but traditional fire-lit ones! The Mid-Autumn Festival is very much a family affair. All around the garden, there were families and friends gathered together having a picnic and lighting sparklers. Also, this festival might as well be the Chinese equivalent of Valentine’s Day. Some of the more traditional (?) family groups were lighting candles instead. Unlike Diwali celebrations in India, usage of fireworks was subdued. None of the loud ‘bombs’ that I hate. I was tired after a day of recording the first Spectrum TV episode, but I had one more stop before I headed back home. The Ru Yun T’a pagoda is a seven-storey structure at entrance station close to the MRT station. I doubled back to the entrance I came from. The design is based on the Ling Ku Temple in Nanking. Not until I was right at the footstep of the pagoda staircase did I realize that climbing to the top might be a challenge when I was dog-tired! The architecture places a strong emphasis on symmetry – both the exterior and the interior. I know that pagodas are supposed to be places of worship, so I found this place intriguing. There didn’t seem to be any sort of scripture, prayer room, inscription, idol or any religious paraphernalia to indicate this was a place a worship. Possibly because this was built as a tourist attraction? Each storey of the pagoda has a viewing balcony. I climbed the spiral staircase to the top, where the height affords a view of the whole festival area. I was expected there would be hawker stalls to try out Chinese cuisine but I didn’t come across any. Anyway, my day ended on a high – with a climb to the top of a seven-storey tower. :) More pictures from the festival in my photo gallery for Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival 2010 in...

Singapura!

By on Sep 19, 2010 in Personal | 2 comments

I realise that I haven’t made a single blog post yet about my shift to Singapore yet. I was dealing with my debilitating caffeine addiction, craving to buy notebooks at ungodly hours of the night, settling in, and murdering my conscience. Right off the bat, you can’t find Mountain Dew (okay, not everywhere) or chewing gum in this place, so those are two obsessive-compulsive habits snatched away from me like a toy from a baby. You know what’s worse? Whether it’s on campus or places around campus, you simply can’t find good coffee shops in NTU. They call it kopi here (it’s a Malay / Indonesian word) and it’s sweet and milky shit – not very much unlike South Indian filter coffee. There’s a variation called kopi-o which is black coffee without milk…but still with a fuckload of sugar. Now I hear what you’re saying – why not just ask for a regular cup o’ joe? You think I haven’t thought of that already? Most of the coffee here is served from pre-prepared metal containers in canteens – or from vending machines. Vending machines that spew out coffee with milk and sugar when you ask for it black. It’s a daily struggle, I tell you. This is a big climbdown from Surrey, where we had three Starbucks outlets on campus with Costa Coffee and many other quaint coffee shops within walking distance. (One of the Starbucks we have is a 250-seater cafe which is one of the biggest Starbucks in Europe.) I’m so caffeine-starved that I’m thinking of making my own coffee in the hall of residence kitchen. If it weren’t for the fact that our kitchens only have microwave ovens and this video has freaked me out, I’d have given this a shot already. **** Me: Maybe we can test the efficiency of voice recognition software with different accents. Guy 1: How about dropping an egg from a height attached to different types of parachutes and see which one’s best? Or how about seeing whether a laptop’s heat can be used to fry an egg? Or devising a way to drop an egg from a height without it getting damaged? Girl: Let’s test the effect of Red Bull on fishes. Guy 2: My idea is…wait, what? Girl: Yes, let’s mix a fish’s food / water with Red Bull and then see what happens to it. They might swim faster. Questions? Me: Can I have your phone number? I disagree on the point that fishes will start swimming faster. In my opinion, the best way of going about this is closely observe any blogs / Twitter feeds the fishes have and checking whether they’ve made any posts about sleep-drunkenness. **** So yeah, NTU. This place is simply massive. You can keep trudging for hours on end to go from one lecture hall block to another. There are about 600-1000 students for each batch of each department that justifies the investment in real-estate this university has put in. Buildings are also spread further apart. I don’t mind walking since I’ve become used to in the UK now, but it’s the hot and humid weather that saps out my energy. I’m also working with the student TV station here – called Spectrum TV – and their TV studio is “sweet mother of Alanus Morissette”-huge in proportion. I’ll be working here as VT playback operator, post production editor, and on a features team producing a segment like Mythbusters. Already working on our first episode that will be recorded live-to-tape this week. I’ve had to take on a particularly heavy load of courses since I have to take courses from the electronic engineering, computer engineering, and computer science departments here to maintain compatibility with Surrey. (There’s no degree or double major as ‘Electronics & Computers Engineering’ here.) Many Oriental professors can’t pronounce the letter ‘l’ properly, which means that we are sometimes referred to as ‘erectronic engineering’ students. I arrived ‘late’ compared to most other exchange students so I haven’t had the time to explore many places yet. I also unfortunately got food poisoning (some other friends got it too) after we ate at a dodgy place after a party. Missed out a trip to Malacca subsequently. I’ve slowly been exploring Singapore when my timetable permits. **** I’ve had a few requests to make a blog post showing funny signs, so here ’tis. I’ll sign off here. When I saw this at the on-campus supermarket, it was like love at first sight. Surely such a flavour had been invented only for a person like me? Well, don’t try it. It’s all levels of terrible, just as you’d expect. At the local Courts Digital consumer electronics store. Random banner outside one of the lecture theatre blocks here. No explanation as to why we should know this. Technically, this is cheating since this photo was shot at a gift shop in Delhi airport and isn’t a sign. Still, why would anyone want to gift an Indian-style toilet? That would be an oddly-specific and passive-aggressive way of telling somebody that they are a piece of...