Viewing: Lah-lah Land

Revisiting Singapore

After almost two years away, we find ourselves back in Singapore this week.

This is just a stopover en route to Manila, where Marlon and I will spend Christmas, but it’s also a chance to catch up with good friends and indulge in a few things we miss about this city.

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Goodbye Singapore

Our last two-and-a-half days in Singapore, after returning from Christmas and New Year in Manila, were absolute mayhem.

We spent them at a breakneck pace running errands: bequeathing excess alcohol to friends, cashing in a voucher at Sephora, getting a haircut and pedi, and shopping for a few last-minute essentials…

saying goodbye to old friends…

and “hello” to new ones.

Along the way we managed to have a last few bites of some cherished Singapore favorites: xiao long bao at Din Tai Fung, curry puffs on Killiney Road (my breakfast on the way to work at the old BDA office), and of course, black pepper crab at Jumbo.

The most heartbreaking task by far was saying goodbye to Rogue.

She had just normalized (read: stopped being clingy, vocal and needy) after our three-week absence, and had absolutely no clue what was in store for her on Wednesday night. In hindsight, we could have handled her relocation better by doing things like familiarizing her with the new and larger cat carrier, providing her with a warm blanket, and putting in a piece of my or Marlon’s clothing so she can smell our scents and not feel abandoned.

But there was just so much on both our minds before leaving. So it was really hard to hear her low, mournful yowls when Mitchville Kennels, who handled the relocation at the Singapore end, came to take her away. I had to remind myself that we were entrusting her to professionals and would be seeing her again in less than 24 hours.

The most maddening task, on the other hand, was squeezing all our remaining possessions into the weight limits: 2 x 23kg for checked luggage, and 60kg for unaccompanied air freight. You’d think that over 100kg would be more than enough for our clothes and stuff right?

Hah. Try being 48kg overweight. PANIC!!!

In hindsight (again), I should have left all the clothes I used in Manila/Bohol/Boracay with Mom. And not bought so many books in Manila. (But, but… Alexandra Trese!) And not so many winter clothes either—they’re damn heavy. But somehow, with a few hours of panicked reshuffling and a last-minute trip to the Salvation Army, Marlon and I managed to magically squelch everything into three large suitcases, three small wheelies, two laptop bags, a coat carrier and a handbag.

Which seems to be about the time that things took off at warp speed. The turnover of the keys to our landlord, dragging our tired asses and 48,000 pieces of luggage into a Maxicab to go the airport, more frantic reshuffling at the check-in counter…

Were we thrilled, excited, brimming with joy? Yes. Was it all-consuming? Not really. Wrestling with all the hand-carried luggage took the edge off a bit. So by the time we collapsed into our seats in the plane, wide-eyed wonder had given way to this.

The minutes started blurring together and before I knew it, the plane had taken off. Outside my window, white-hot streams of jet fuel rushed past, pushing Singapore firmly into my past, and propelling me, mile by mile and minute by minute, into the Europe that was to be my future.

From happy to happier (hopefully)

A few weeks ago, Marlon and I saw a window display for a book about the world’s happiest countries. Imagine how gleefully we chortled upon seeing how our soon-to-be ex-home and our soon-to-be future home stacked up against each other on the list!

Moving 77 places up the list is not too bad, ey?

Though Singapore and I have not exactly been a match made in heaven, we’ve had some great times. And for a place that ranks below Kosovo, Bosnia, and Kazakhstan on the happiness list, it’s done very well for me these last three years. For obvious reasons, there are tons of things I’m looking forward to in Amsterdam. But to be fair, there are also a lot of things I’ll miss about Singapore.

The food. Singapore is where I really fell in love with Asian food. For some reason in Manila, if you want gobsmacking, very authentic Asian food other than Chinese (say Thai or Indian), chances are you have to pay through the nose for it. Not so here. Great food is abundant, very affordable and truly diverse. Unfortunately for me, I have enough added poundage to prove it!

Black pepper crab, my all-time favorite Singapore dish

The professional growth. Coming here stretched me professionally. I probably wouldn’t have pushed myself to take on production if I had stayed home; being shoved out of my comfort zone led me to discover the little payoffs and sweet spots in what seemed, many times, like a muck of difficulty. Among other things, I learned that being “fast” and “nice” is well and good, but not enough to carry me forward; not when there are other things to be, like “reliable”, “accurate”, “professional”… and so much more.

My last shoot with BDA for the Disney Channel in Kuala Lumpur
Finding the courage to leave a job that I’d loved was a daunting risk that paid off. And both learning that I’d done well enough for other people to want to hire me, and being able to sustain a financially rewarding freelance career out of that, have done wonders for my professional confidence.

Our house. I will miss our house! It may be out in the boonies as far as Singaporeans are concerned, but  I’ve loved living in this green, quiet, low-density, sprawling complex.

Our home has been an expression of Marlon’s and my still-developing identity as a newlywed couple. We’ve had so much fun decorating it (even if I did end up getting rid of half the furniture), making my first culinary steps (and mis-steps) in it, hosting the many guests of “Hotel Plazo” (or Palazzo Plazo, as Pauline calls it), just holing up and getting cozy on leisurely weekends, and yes, even messing it up when we just get too damn lazy. I enjoyed the comforts of home especially over the last six months when I started working freelance.
 The view that tells me the workday is over
It may not be a Town & Country or even a Real Living kind of place, but it’s been our home. And I sure am going to miss having a pool…
Singapore = 1, Amsterdam = 0

Note to self: must swim more this week! Barring Boracay and Bohol in December, God only knows when I’ll get to swim next!

Multicultural colleagues and friends. The locals may complain about us “FTs” or foreign talents (some even go as far as to call us foreign trash), but Singapore sure knows how to attract people from all over the world. (Whether they actually stay and put down roots is another story.) There are just so many expats here.

Happier times at BDA
I’ve had the chance to work with people from China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, India, Japan, Australia, the US and the UK; some of the dearest friends Marlon and I have made here are from as far away as Colombia and South Africa.

Just like when I traveled to Europe with the Glee Club, meeting people of different cultures and backgrounds makes you realize there are so many different ways to live, so you don’t feel completely insane for making certain decisions. (Like going freelance and moving to Amsterdam, for example.)

The infrastructure. When locals whine about their infrastructure, sometimes I just want to slap them and say “Please travel more! And you’ll see that in this world, you’re lucky just to have a country that works!” Because public transport here is pretty awesome.

It’s why we haven’t felt the need for a car for three years (seven years for Marlon). And it’s why I don’t understand why one of the most widely circulated newspapers in the country prints letters to the editor that are about such pressing problems as puddles (yes, puddles) in MRT stations and heated pleas to the government for an in-train display that lights up to tell you what stop you’re at and on which side of the train the doors will open. (People! It’s four freaking MRT lines, not rocket science! Have you seen the metro systems in Paris, Tokyo, Seoul?)

But I guess discovering malfunctions in such a well-oiled system can be like paying through the nose for tickets to Disneyland and finding out that Space Mountain is down for repairs. Oh, and I’ll miss cabs.

Cabs are my biggest vice here by far. Never mind the cabbies and their driving. I’ll miss relatively affordable taxi rides (relative to Europe, that is), being able to book taxis via SMS, and having them arrive in minutes. Ohhhh. If I think about it too much, I might get depressed. On to the next.

The large, and growing, Pinoy community. The number of Pinoys in Singapore has boomed since I first started visiting Marlon seven years ago. And the demographic is changing; for the first time in the history of Singapore, there are more Filipino professionals than Filipino domestic helpers. Nowadays, I catch snatches of Tagalog nearly everywhere I go. It’s like living in Makati. Or sometimes, Katipunan.

With Singapore-based high school and college classmates (Justine was visiting)

It’s great to be able to speak Tagalog to someone (most often on the customer-facing side of things) to break the ice, get things done, or simply create instant rapport. It’s even better to run into old acquaintances and rekindle friendships. And best of all, because of the large Pinoy community, it’s easy to get a lot of things home. In the mood for longganisadaing na bangus, sukang pinakurat, even pan de sal? Lucky Plaza lang ang katapat niyan.

Proximity to home. Cheap flights were a godsend for me in the first few months here, when I was still very homesick and hadn’t found work. Later on, as I started to make a home for myself here, the Philippines became our destination of choice for short getaways.

 Happiness in Bohol

I tried going to a few other beaches (Phuket, isdatchu?), but I guess there really is no place like home. It’s just ironic that I could only really afford to travel around my own country once I got out of it. When plane fare home moves up by from three digits to four next year, I am sure going to miss being able to hop on a Philippine-bound plane at the drop of a hat!

The home stretch

Here we go, folks. I’m officially hitting the home stretch: my last seven days in Singapore. After that, it’s home for Christmas and to wait for our Dutch visas to be issued at the Dutch embassy in Makati. 
We have no idea what date we’ll be starting our new lives in Amsterdam, as Marlon’s new employers won’t book a flight until the visas are issued, which puts us in a kind of travel limbo. But I’m confident that at the end of this limbo is Europe, and you can’t imagine how that thrills, scares and excites me.

The euphoria has been derailed somewhat by a nasty fever that has knocked me out for the past two days. I’ve been mostly zonked out on paracetamol, but in between naps I got into mini fits of paranoia and panic.

The first one was about finding an flat. “The flats are tiny and expensive! Everyone will be out to stiff us! We don’t have money to burn like every other expat! We’re not on some giant expat package! Zzzzz.”

The second one was about getting things done before we leave. “I don’t know what to buy Marlon for Christmas! I need to go Christmas shopping! And buy a steamer! And the Eames chairs! And Sally Hansen wax strips! And have lunch with Maya, dinner with Sila, a barbecue with office friends, and squeeze in yoga everyday and… zzzzzzz.”

I had a whole list of things we wanted to do before leaving Singapore, which included finally trying Buddha Jumps Over The Wall (a mysteriously named and very expensive Chinese dish), dinner at Cocotte, brunch at the Botanic Gardens, and one last black pepper crab at Jumbo. (Is it obvious what I’ll miss most about this country?) But with the clock ticking, I think I’ll be content to simply pack up all our stuff, get some exercise, and say a few goodbyes. Anything else will be a luxury!

Conversations with cheapskates

Wherever there are sales, there will surely be bargain hunters. And fortunately or unfortunately for us, our recent spate of unloading brought some real Scrooges out of the woodwork. Just in time for Christmas!

Craigslist Cheapskate: (Buying a two-seater couch worth $49) How old is this couch? The cushions look worn out. The paint looks worn out. I can give you $20 for it.
Me: (In my mind) If it’s so old and worn out, then what kind of loser are you to even want it?
Me: (In reality) Sorry. The couch has been sold.

Gumtree Cheapskate: (Buying a bookshelf worth $49) Hi. I really love the shelf, but I checked transport and found out that it will cost $50, which is more than the cost of the bookshelf. I don’t want to insult you, but only way it will work out is if you can sell it to me for… $10?
Me: (In my mind) You don’t want to insult me? Honey, you just did!
Me: (In reality) *DELETES EMAIL*

The penny-pinchers weren’t just virtual; we got real live specimens at our garage sale, too. Now I’m no stranger to garage sales. We’ve moved a lot so we’ve always had them; a couple of years ago ACS did a really successful one in QC where nearly everything was wiped out.

When you see a crowd made up of maids, tricycle drivers, market vendors with five kids hanging on to their skirt at your sale, you expect to give away things for dirt cheap. What really irks me is that these cheapskates who showed up at our garage sale  drive, were dressed well, wore gold watches and branded bags. And I’m supposed to believe these people can’t afford a frigging Swarovski crystal figurine marked down to $5?

Cheapskate # 1: (Picks up a crystal figurine marked $5) This one got no tail ah.
Marlon: It’s a bear. Bears don’t have tails.
Cheapskate: No. I think should have tail.
Marlon: …
Cheapskate: I think you broke tail. I give you $1.
Marlon: One dollar! Are you kidding?
Cheapskate: Made in China what.

Marlon: Everything’s made in China these days!

Sold! To the man who failed zoology for $3!

Cheapskate # 2: (Picks up an unused H&M shoulder bag) How much is this bag? I buy it for my daughter, she just started her internship.
Me: It’s $19.
Cheapskate: Wah! $19 too expensive.
Me: It’s unused.
Cheapskate: You buy bag outside got cheaper one. I give you $10.
Me: You can’t buy a bag that looks like that for $10.
Cheapskate: Can what. You go OG, they got bag for $10.
Marlon: Okay, go OG then!

Unsold! Nek-nek mo, ni wala ngang H&M sa Singapore noh! 

Cheapskate # 3: (Picks up an unused digital photo frame, still in the box, marked $29) Wah, so small ah. Seven inch only. I want bigger one. I give you $10.
Marlon: You can’t get this small one for $10. How will you get a bigger one for $10?
Cheapskate: Got no stand ah.
Marlon: It’s in the box.
Cheapskate: This one used ah.
Marlon: It’s still in the box.
Cheapskate: My friend say pay $10 only.

Sold! To save sanity and brain cells, a bargain price of $15!

At may pahabol pa yan.

Cheapskate: (Picks up luggage lock, which is not for sale, off the kitchen counter) I buy your frame, you give me this padlock free.
Marlon: What? No!

Sigh. I didn’t want my last memory of Singaporeans as a people to be these penny-pinching vultures. I think I need to go eat some black pepper crab now so Singapore and I can part on warm and fuzzy terms!

Trains on the brain

It seems I’ve been in this train-obsessed phase as of late. It may have started with a short film that I watched in my very first screenwriting class (yes, I’m taking a class! More on which later). Strangers by Erez Tadmor and Guy Nattiv is set on a late-night train (in what looks like Paris) and I liked it a lot (so clicky the linky!).

For reasons that are apparent if you’ve seen the film, it stayed with me. So for my first screenwriting assignment, one of my three short drafts was set on a train. Following the age-old advice to “write what you know,” I wrote about a routine (commuting by train) and nestled it in a memory (the Paris metro). It went over quite well, and it’s going to metamorphose into a short screenplay over the next two weeks.

My final assignment for photography class was due the same week. I was cramming, with just one afternoon before the class to shoot a series of photos on a single theme. It was a debilitatingly hot day, I had zero ideas for themes or subjects, and all I wanted was to stay indoors. I thought I would just hop on the train, wait for ideas to come to me and get off wherever something fired up my wilting imagination.

Then it hit me. I didn’t even have to leave the train station!

Thanks to my sister, who sent me this great article on the best places to practice motion blur shots, I achieved my two-pronged aim of completing my photography assignment AND beating the heat!

A reversal: still train, moving people. By the way, all these long exposures were taken with no tripod. My teacher was amazed and said I must have an iron grip.

I stayed for a good twenty minutes without realizing it was bawal to take photos in the MRT station. Wala namang humuli sa akin

Finally I stepped off the platform and into the train… where I was lucky to sit right across from this adorable little girl. Who by the way was both eating and drinking in the train.

Then I transferred to the green line and off at Kallang station, because I remembered that I had been there once before and found it very striking.

Motion blur is fun! Wheee!

And THEN I realized I had always been curious about the old railway station at Tanjong Pagar. It’s a train that actually takes you all the way to Malaysia. Built in the 1930s, the station stands on property that’s recently been turned over to Malaysia by the Singapore government.

Diba, parang Grand Central lang? My thought bubble upon seeing the station for the first time was: Meron palang ganito sa Singapore? I was really sorry I didn’t have a wider lens to capture the whole interior. There were many, more accomplished (or at least better-invested) shutterbugs there the same afternoon with bigger lenses than mine.

I was happy to have visited while it’s still a fully operating train station—operations will be shifted to Woodlands, closer to the Malaysian border, starting July 2011.

A significant proportion of the crowd at the station seems to be old-timers who go to the station to kill time and grab a bite. 

In fact, I’ve heard more about the authentic Malay grub at the canteen from people I know than about them actually taking the trains.

The mood seemed a lot more slow and sleepy than any of the other train stations I normally pass through.

But no matter how many things change, I guess there will always be someone rushing to catch the train.

Food for thought

Back in college, Food for Thought was that little sandwich shack with two rickety benches, right beside Colayco Hall. It was one of my favorite places to go for a quick lunch or a snack, and I always ordered the same thing: a salami sandwich with a pack of Zesto.

Years later, another Food for Thought has become a favorite of mine—this time, in Singapore. This one is a nice little brunch place on Queen Street, right beside the Singapore Art Museum. It’s walking distance from VHQ, where I work on some days, and from Raffles City, where I do yoga.

The location is so perfect and the food is so good that I ended up going there five times in less than two weeks! And the airy, contemporary ambience is not bad either.

I especially love the bottle installation as lighting fixture. That’s a total of 540 bottles of Leggo pasta sauce! The owners and staff repacked the pasta sauce and gave it away to charitable organizations for Christmas. This restaurant professes to be all about “good food for a good cause” (as part of the proceeds go to charity) and the lighting is a striking, visually appealing reminder of that.

I took Talbot to brunch with us so I could complete my first photography assignment, which was to shoot a variety of photos from one vantage point. Brunch was the perfect opportunity to park my ass in one place and just click away!

Chai spice-crusted salmon with risotto and mango-ginger chutney. Yummers!

This super cute little girl wandered up to all the tables to say hi. Then she made a beeline for the desserts. 

Nobody beats my brunch date in the cuteness department though :)

Talbot & I

One of my goals when I resigned from my full-time job earlier this year was to free up more time to learn and try new things. So I felt a wonderful sense of achievement when I signed up for, and completed, a three-week basic photography workshop at Objectifs on Arab Street. I had Talbot, my new Canon 550D, and Marlon had a semi-DSLR Fujifilm Finepix generously bequeathed to us by my sister. 

The first class was pretty confusing for me as I attempted to absorb the basic rules of how things are related to each other, retain the knowledge that a bigger aperture number actually means a smaller aperture opening, train my fingers to push the right buttons and turn the right dials, and remember why you don’t need a shutter speed of 400 to shoot a can of Coke. 
We headed out into the Kampong Glam area right after the first theory class to practice our newfound knowledge. These are some of my favorites from that first shoot. 
One of my very first photos, taken during lunch break. 

Objectifs is located near the quasi-hipster hotspot called Haji Lane, but also near the Mosque. I really like this area for the small, quaint feel and the many Muslim (both Malay and Turkish) eateries around.

Shawls for sale!

Coffee break!

One of the cafes in the are was really cozy and full of daybeds, which were in turn full of Caucasian backpackers.

Shisha, anyone?
That first afternoon was all about simply getting the right exposure relying entirely on manual settings. It was a bit of a struggle at first, but the span of a few hours, I realized how much fun you can miss out on by just going on Auto all the time! 
I really got how pictures could go beyond just a record of an experience to a form of communication and expression when our instructor would constantly ask, “Well, what did you want to achieve with this picture?” And how, by choosing not just your subject but what you want to highlight about that subject, you can actually say something; a statement about the world that is completely your own.
Don’t get me wrong, I still love my trusty little Lumix, but Talbot and I… well, this could be the start of something beautiful.

An overdue update

Hello everyone! I’m still alive! I hadn’t wanted to go over a month without updating, but September just trampled all over me like a herd of wild baby elephants… and suddenly I find I’ve missed my deadline.

So in the last month, I have…

Made significant changes to my diet. Thanks to an unfortunate incident with a mascarpone cheese pasta and this article on “hidden reasons” for weight gain, I realized that I am lactose intolerant. It felt a bit like finding out you had been betrothed to a man you didn’t love, as lactose is so pervasive in the things I normally eat! Aside from cheese (which I have as much as twice daily), it’s also present in milk chocolate, potato chips (goodbye Lay’s Salt & Vinegar!), baked goods, sliced bread, processed meats like cold cuts and sausages, breakfast cereals and milk.

After trial by elimination, I noticed a big difference in my water retention, digestion and in other, more minor symptoms that I’d been experiencing but never thought were related to diet, like asthma and small patches of eczema.

The most significant change was really to breakfast. From cheese sandwiches or cereals with milk, I switched to healthier options like peanut butter sandwiches and fruit with Greek-style yogurt (above). Later on, I discovered over-the-counter supplements like Dairy Care (the local equivalent of the American Lactaid), which help me eat what I like (like desserts!) in moderate doses. And thank goodness there’s no lactose in dark chocolate! Meiji for the win!
Went wakeboarding for the first time… almost. K invited Marlon and I to go on a day trip to Batam, Indonesia, for wakeboarding at a cable ski park. We were with an entire gaggle of German men (over twenty of them!), parang Renner Ensemble lang. Haha.

I say almost because I decided to let Marlon represent us in the aqua sports department…

while I lazed, read, tanned and enjoyed the other delights of Batam, such as cheap massages and satay.

Invested in my career. It really makes you feel quite adult when you realize your most significant gadget purchases are no longer for recreation, but for professional use. And I say that with the least amount of shopper’s remorse/post-rationalization as I can muster. It also makes you feel quite adult when you realize that you actually paid for these things with money that you earned yourself.

I look forward to learning to create my own personal video projects on my new Canon 550D (which came with a free electronic dry box, tripod and many other freebies!), and learning to edit them on my new Macbook Pro. I guess you could say my mind finally caught up to the reality that I’m no longer “just” a writer, but a producer too.

Celebrated my favorite Singaporean festival. Oh, Mid-Autumn Festival, how I love thee and the mooncakes thee bringeth! At one point, I think we had nine mooncakes at home. My favorite is still the classic lotus seed without yolk (to which mooncake auntie said: “No yolk?! But the moon is the yolk!”), but Lilian gave me this very pretty and very tasty pumpkin mooncake that is a serious contender.

Met up with friends from home. Tons of visitors this month! There was Mira, who came over to visit her Singaporean boy, and Pastor and Pastorella Tica, whom I didn’t even get to meet up with anymore…

Sir Jojo, who came over to conduct workshops and prompt Paul into hosting a lovely intimate dinner at his casa

And preggy Elaine with her hardcore biker hubby, who happened to come over on a weekend when Marlon and I planned a biking trip! Perfect!

Checked a long-standing item off our Singapore “must-do” list. With my (relatively) new-found cycling skills, Marlon and I finally made the day trip to Pulau Ubin, an island off the east coast that is the last undeveloped frontier of Singapore.  The main activity there is biking, so we couldn’t have done this until I learned how to bike.

It took the greater part of the day, with some difficult uphill pushes. But it was all worth it—I love to discover new places. And many times, it felt like we weren’t even in Singapore anymore.

We had great company in Elaine and Paul and their UP Arki friends. Together, we laughed and camwhored and pushed and biked and walked and finally…

Ate the tastiest, cheapest best chili crab in Singapore. It’s on another island, yes, but even with the boat fare it’s still cheaper than any on the mainland.

Looking back at these, now I feel better about September having stampeded past; like “Oh, so that’s where it went!” And suddenly, now it’s October… which brings with it new and exciting developments. Abangan!

On Everton Road

Over the last two weeks, I’ve been working at a production house that’s situated in one of the nicest neighborhoods I’ve seen in Singapore. And by nice, I don’t mean affluent. There are no jaw-dropping paeans to modern architecture, no Porsches or Beemers parked in the driveways—no driveways, in fact. I’ve seen quite a few of those here (and it always amazes me how these types of houses aren’t locked away behind village gates) and they didn’t charm me as much as this neighborhood did.

Tucked away in a cluster of streets near Chinatown and the central business district of Tanjong Pagar, these old shophouses on Everton Road aren’t rented out to businesses as many of their kin are. They are purely residential, as far as I can see; the production house is there only because the owners live in the attic.

The first time I came here to edit, I saw elderly residents gathered together, sitting on ancient wicker chairs on a doorstep, chuckling among themselves and trading some afternoon gossip. And seeing that was nice.

Fueled by my love for old places, I made a point of coming early for one edit session so I could walk around the narrow streets and take photos of the charming details. Of which there were many.

From old, earth-hued tiles, to walls awash in delicate pastels faded and chipped by time and neglect…
To surprising pops of colour…
An assortment of gates, grills and guardians…
And even the luckiest fire hydrant in all of Singapore! The Chinese would disagree with me, though, since 8 is their thing. With the little bag of java hanging from its arm, it could even be someone’s favorite coffee corner.

“Everton Road, please,” I told the friendly auntie who was driving my taxi the other day. (Yes, there seem to be an increasing number of female cabbies here!)

“Ah! Going to the shophouses there, is it?” she asked, smiling. “I like that place, you know. It’s a souvenir. It reminds me of the old days. It is a memory of how Singapore used to be.”