Blue Mountains Australia

After our eight day excursion in Sydney, Albert and Alan (see Sydney blog about these fellows) drove Gene and me to the Blue Mountains two hours away in their Bentley.  They took us to many vistas in Leura and Katoomba which were easily available by car and we walked out to the points.  The Blue Mountains are indeed blue.  A very serene sight although there are a lot of tourists, primarily Chinese in tour buses, but being winter it wasn’t quite so busy (see photos below text).

We particularly enjoyed a long hike along the Prince Henry Cliff Walk and then hiked back to town. Half way along the trail we were surprised to come upon an emergency rescue crew who were retrieving the body of a man who fell off the cliff a few hours earlier. Few of the natural environments we visited in Asia Pacific or South East Asia had the restraints or restrictions that are prominent at US sites; you have to be extra careful.

We stayed two nights in Leura, a quaint town with great coffee shops, restaurants, and unusually good shopping! I mean inspiring art galleries, handmade furniture, woven clothing and creative jewelry.  Yeah, no tourist stuff, no t-shirts, fridge magnets, nothing but some postcards at the post office. The attractions with the vistas, cable cars, trams etc. actually have lots of nice souvenir stuff, but it seems to be limited to those businesses.

We went to dinner at the Alexander Hotel and the food was so good we ate there both nights; the food reminded me of Fyfe’s and it was quite cold so we didn’t want to go far. After dinner we went to the hotel’s nearly empty bar and had scotch and warmed up at the fireplace. Two young blokes were watching Rugby and Gene asked them if they could explain the major points of the game and they were happy to oblige. Then they asked us, as in Gene, about some of the rules of American football and she was able to educate them in return. Now, I have a better understanding of both of these sports!

The last day we caught the train back to Sydney sitting on the top level and took it back to the Sydney Harbour.

Urban Ubud Bali Indonesia

I love that nearly every place we want to explore in Asia is within a 2-3 hour flight from our home in Singapore. Gene and I had a great get-away to Ubud (pronounced Ah-bood), on the island of Bali, Indonesia in late April. It is one of eight major islands of the 13,000-17,000+ islands of Indonesia (see photos below the text).

Since we are not beach bunnies (not that into sun burning, or scads of kids and surfer dudes), we headed north to Ubud, 1.5 hours inland. It has a reputation for impressive art and artists, spas and retreats (apparently the Julia Roberts movie, Eat, Pray, Love took place there), ancient temples, traditional dancing, and affordable shopping.  Surrounding Ubud are swaying rice fields, lush forests, deep ravines, thatched houses and huts, numerous temples, and the Mount Batur Volcano which is supposed to have spectacular sunrises.

Although we were warned about motorbikes, we were still surprised by their sheer numbers and how they were used.  A common sight is an entire family, up to 5 people, riding together. And large quantities of goods are transported this way, too, an entire vendor stall of products are tied and balanced on these bikes.

Ubud is an interesting random mix of urban and rural sites everywhere you go.  As we walked down the busy shopping street of Jl Raya with it many ancient temples along the way, some of which are now homes and art studios, there is an expanse of forest which plunges deep with homes and shops in the canopies and shacks below.

Indonesians have a reputation of being friendly and they really are.  We had many warm conversations with a variety of people: artists, shop owners, and the hotel manager who were happy to share information about life in Bali and answer our questions.  This was the first place we traveled where we didn’t see any Muslims although we knew that Islam was the predominant religion of Indonesia. The Hotel Manager, who is from Jakarta, explained that Bali is the only island in all of Indonesia with a high Hindu population, and the multitude of other inhabited Indonesian islands have high Muslim populations.

I have to say that Indonesian currency tested my math skills. We felt pretty rich temporarily when we took out 1 million Rupiah on our first day, but it only amounted to $80 USD. We were having trouble knowing whether we were giving rupiah worth $1, $10 or $100 and often gave too little because of the enormous bills. It took a lot of effort to spend $30 a day. The food was wonderful, fresh, and creative. We had a fantastic barramundi, a thick white fish with aromatic herbs that I love to cook with.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chinatown

There are many Chinatowns in the USA and other countries and, of course, they are quite different from each other, however, Singapore’s Chinatown is one of the oldest in the world.

In the early 1800’s, with only a small Maylay and nomadic population, Chinese started to settle on the east coast of Singapore and this area would evolve into Chinatown. With extensive land reclamation around the waterways beginning in the mid-late 60’s, soon after Singapore’s independence from Great Britain, Chinatown is now significantly inland. Currently, Singapore’s population is nearly 75% Chinese with the other major cultures being Malaysian 13.3%, Indian 9.2%, and other 3.3% (Phillipino, Indonesian and Westerners). While Chinatown has a higher concentration of Chinese there are also Indian and Maylay residents.

After living in Singapore for eight months, we’re getting a better understanding of the neighborhoods beyond the few things they are known for. Singapore’s Chinatown has its ubiquitous narrow, crowded and fun pedestrian shopping streets, two types of hawker’s markets/food vendor streets, and an upscale restaurant area, besides the shopping area more like State Street. It is one of the prominent gathering places for observing cultural celebrations each year.

Last weekend (early February) Gene and I went to see the decorations for Chinese New Year (first day of the lunar calendar is February 19 and it’s celebrated for 15 days) which is a very important holiday in Asia and preparations start very early. Each New Year is represented by the sign of the zodiac. This is the year of the goat; the appearance of hundreds of giant illuminated goats down the center of the main street in Chinatown and its image all over is the tip off. Every extra space in the markets are inhabited by vendors selling New Years decorations and items to bring good luck and prosperity for the upcoming year (see photos below).

It feels like a combination of Christmas and New Years Eve. Asians from different cultures tend to go back home to their parents’ home and feast. “Symbolically, new clothes are usually worn to signify the new year. It is also the tradition for every family to thoroughly clean their homes to “sweep away” any ill-fortune, making way for the arrival of good luck. Chinese New Year also brings people together, and is marked by visits to kin, relatives and friends, a practice known simply as “new-year visits”. The highlight for children and younger members of the family during these visits comes in little red packets, or “hong bao”, filled with money.

“Chinatown’s stunning streets are lit-up, night markets and decorations are the focal point for Chinese New Year celebrations in Singapore. This is when lion dancers, fire eaters and female dance troupes grace Kreta Ayer Square with their mesmerising performances. Armed with giant paper fans and intricately patterned umbrellas, they will provide you with street entertainment that you are unlikely to forget.

Folklore is very much at the heart of this festival. All across the city, you’ll notice dragon and lion dances everywhere – lending a cheery, festive atmosphere to the occasion. Dragons and lions are prominent characters in Chinese mythology; its roots originating in ancient China when Nien, a mythical beast which tormented villagers was discovered to be afraid of the colour red.”

 

 

Our New Apartment Home

After many more days of looking in many different parts of town, all with their positive attributes, we are going to rent a lovely apartment on the 18th floor of The Metropolitan. It is close to the train (only a few stops from Gene’s office), close to wet markets (farmers markets) and Hawkers Center (prepared foods from vendors), and has a great view.

The wet markets and hawkers centers are not everywhere, at least not near where we are now, but in many neighborhoods; they are a big draw for us to live in a more traditional neighborhood.  In addition to younger working people, we saw many elderly and young families here. This building has many Japanese and Indian residents living here, too.  Since owning a car is so expensive, having these shopping areas near train stations or bus routes is quite common.

We need to get furniture and kitchen stuff.  This should be fun, or frustrating, probably both.  We have been looking online because we need to get most of it pretty quickly.  I think we move in late July.

First meal prepared
First meal prepared

 

 

A Culture of Food

Singapore is a very expensive country for most things. I am finding that food and other things in the downtown and tourist areas are at least double, but it also depends on what you want and where you go to find it. Singapore is known for its marvelous food. The variety of foods you’ll find include: Singaporian, Maylay (Malaysian), Indian, Vietnamese, Indonesian, Korean, Chinese, Sri Lankan, Thai, and lesser amounts of Indonesian although it is really close (we will just go to Indonesia I guess) and more. This is also home to China Town and Little India.

For prepared meals, you can experience fine dining at elegant restaurants of many different cuisines (I hate to guess the cost), to wonderful, traditionally prepared meals, Asian mostly, at Hawkers Centers with 20-50 food vendors (some are open air with roofs, others are indoor, less slick versions of our mall food courts). But Hawker Centers tend to be in shopping centers or neighborhood based. For American franchises, there are KFC, McDonalds, and I think Subway, but I haven’t more than a couple of each. However, Singapore has too many Starbucks here.

For raw ingredients, Singapore has wonderful Fresh Markets, similar to our Farmers’ Markets, they also have roofs, open 7 days a week, and often until midnight. One booth sold beer by the bottle (better than the bars that charge $10+ for a beer). They are a great way to get authentic ingredients. Also, there are large grocery stores in neighborhoods that are pretty reasonable, outside of the tourist areas. Nearly if not all malls have big grocery stores in the basements.

Fresh Market at Red Hill neighborhood
Fresh Market at Red Hill neighborhood
Prawn Laksa (curry) with Tofu
Prawn Laksa (curry) with Tofu

 

Great Indian meal in Food Court (will make two meals)
Great Indian meal in Food Court (made two meals)

 

Popular food vendor
A Hawker vendor