Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Monkey Mugging

Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary - Ubud, Indonesia

It's been a picturesque couple of days in Ubud gazing out our bedroom window at the rice fields and soaking up the ambiance of village life in Pejeng, just outside Ubud. However, there's one minor downside to our intimate encounter with nature.

Cockfighting is a major pastime in Bali, and most roosters I met don't seem to enjoy sleeping in, so we've had a natural alarm clock around 4:30 each morning. Roosters are like dogs in the sense that I have no idea how they exercise their vocal cords for hours at a time without tiring. Still, I'll take it over the sound of traffic and discos.

But, I'd rather not repeat our encounter with a certain troublesome troop in the Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary.

The jungle compound contains three sacred temples overrun by approximately 600, aggressive, Balinese macaques.

We heeded all the warnings — don't touch the monkeys; don't feed the monkeys; guard possessions such as cameras, sunglasses, and loose-fitting jewelry; and don't carry any food in bags because the monkeys will find it.

And so we wandered into the scenic jungle to check out our furry friends, all the time watching our backs. Alexandra even covered up her watch, never thinking that a small bottle of water tucked inside her purse would become the monkey equivalent of catnip.

The thing about monkeys or any other wild animals is that they're so darn cute, until they aren't any more.

Half-way through our walk, I heard Alexandra exclaim something in an excited, incomprehensible manner and turned to see a pesky primate clinging to the bottle that was protruding slightly from her purse.

At this point in the story, I'd like to say that I revealed my Superman cape and saved the day, but I was as stunned as she was by what was happening and how our attacker appeared so suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere.

Alexandra kept her composure, as she attempted to swing the monkey off. Later, she realized monkeys fly effortlessly through trees clinging to branches, so swinging her purse probably wasn't the best solution, although I likely would have done the same thing.

Once the monkey captured its liquid prey, it left Alexandra in peace and set its sights on breaking open the bottle.

Imagine this beast strapped to your leg. All in all, we got off pretty lucky. Afterward, Alexandra decided she's done with monkeys — forever.

Back in town, we had a much more pleasant animal encounter, sampling the local Balinese delicacy of suckling pig.

We wrapped up our afternoon at the Ubud Palace, where the local royal family still lives. While waiting for a ride back to our hotel, I crossed paths with a couple at the entrance to the palace who asked us where to buy a ticket.

I told them to walk right in because it's free. They both stopped in their tracks. "Wow!" the man replied, "Finally, something I don't have to pay for in Bali."

Thanks, royal family, and thanks to all of you for your well wishes during our trip.

Our final stop — the underworld.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Indonesian Getaway - Part 2 (Ubud)

Ubud is full of seekers — those trying to recreate the experience of the author of Eat, Pray, Love, although that very novel and movie of the same name led to a flood of tourism that would make such an undertaking impossible; and an equally large contingency of vacationers seeking to max out their Zen and their credit cards. As Alexandra puts it, Ubud is a shopper's, spiritual paradise.

Still, the overabundance of visitors and upscale shops can't diminish Ubud's charm. On the contrary, in some sort of surreal way, it seems to intensify the charm. 

On our way to Ubud,

we stopped at a coffee plantation, where we sampled several varieties, including Kopi Luwak, one of the most expensive coffees in the world. There's a reason why it sells up to $600 a pound in some areas.

Image from Wikimedia Commons free media repository

A small animal called an Asian palm civet eats the coffee cherries but they're normally only partially digested. The beans are then collected from, as our guide put it, the animal's "poop." The digestive process supposedly leads to a more flavorful brew, but we couldn't tell much of a difference between the "poop" coffee and regular.

During our tour, the guide assured me the civets run free, but animal rights groups say some plantation owners, in an effort to keep up with the rising demand for Kopi coffee, capture the animals, cage them, and force-feed the civets a diet of coffee cherries, so it's buyer beware.

 Hinduism permeates Ubud's architecture and
 the daily lives of the Balinese.

Here, we came across a procession ...


...  whose purpose was to gather holy water for sacred rituals.

Central Ubud can be a bit crazy, so we decided to stay in a villa several miles outside of Ubud, adjacent to a rice field.

I'm still a backpacker at heart, but I could get used to a few luxuries occasionally

and a few decorations on the walls of my indoor/outdoor bathroom.

Although I'm not a shopper, I did enjoy a visit to the John Hardy jewelry production facility. Alexandra tells me the brand is recognized worldwide. The company has made a commitment to eco-friendly practices, such as constructing their showroom from bamboo, and

the company is known for ethical business habits and paying just wages, which isn't always the norm in this part of the world.

We went to the facility, as part of a mission for Alexandra's mom. The tour gave me a much greater appreciation of the amount of work that goes into creating handmade jewelry.

On the following day, I also gained a greater appreciation of something far more serious — the dangers of interacting with wild animals.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Indonesian Getaway - Part 1 (Sanur)

One of the perks of teaching is a generous number of vacation days. One of the even bigger perks of teaching in Singapore is the ability to spend those vacation days in exotic locales a few hours flight away. For my October holiday, my girlfriend Alexandra joined me from America for a week-long journey to Bali, a major tourist draw in Indonesia.

                            We started out at a quiet beach called Sanur, also known as "snore" for the smaller waves compared to other beaches and for the tamer nightlife. It's the kind of place for more middle-aged vacationers, and since I'm 49, it seemed appropriate. I'll always take a good night's sleep over partying at 2 a.m. Plus, neither one of us is a sun worshiper or a surfing aficionado.

Besides swimming in the Indian Ocean, the highlight for me was a romantic dinner at this restaurant on the beach, followed by stumbling across a troop of authentic Balinese dancers performing for local dignitaries.

Passing a couple of lazy afternoons ...

     in the expansive gardens ...

    of our hotel ...                                       

                                                                             ... didn't hurt either.                                               

I love my job in Singapore, but, at times, the heat, humidity, and smog become overwhelming. Unwinding in Sanur was the perfect antidote.

Indonesia - a collection of more than 18,000 islands - possesses the world's largest Muslim population, but Bali is a Hindu enclave,

Saraswati Temple - Ubud, Indonesia   

which is reflected in the abundance of Hindu temples,


  bearing depictions of the millions  

                                                     of Hindu gods.

Dragon guarding Saraswati

Many more of those Hindu temples are found in Ubud, the cultural capital of the island of Bali and stop No. 2 on our Indonesian odyssey.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Food Fau Paux

If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it still isn't always a duck, or, in my case, a green bean isn't always a green bean.

Part of the thrill of exploring a foreign culture is trying new food. With that in mind, I went to the store determined to pick up an item I'd never had before.

Here's what I found in the frozen food section.

Having grown tired of spinach lately, an unfamiliar Chinese vegetable seemed in order. 

The open package revealed the following:

I wasn't exactly sure what I'd purchased, but it looked similar to green beans I'd eaten countless times back in America.

Regardless, how difficult could it be to cook and consume a Chinese green bean.

A few days later, I popped my beans into the microwave and sampled my new discovery, or, at least, tried to because my Chinese green beans weren't the easiest things to eat. I chewed ... and chewed ... and chewed some more but couldn't seem to completely consume them.

I assumed I cooked them incorrectly.

Perhaps, the package would reveal a clue.

 or maybe not.

I tried again. This time, I stir fried the beans, hoping that would tender them up a bit.

Nope. I still couldn't gnaw my way through my culinary nemesis.

Rather than embarrass myself at work by having to ask some of my Singaporean colleagues how to cook a batch of beans, instead, I asked my girlfriend Alexandra, a self-proclaimed foodie with a refined palate.

She went easy on me, but still chuckled, telling me that my Chinese green beans were actually edamame beans and that the pods aren't supposed to be eaten.

Edamame, soybeans in a shell, is popular throughout Asia as part of a meal or as a healthy snack. In recent years, it's also gained popularity in the United States, which I remembered after my futile attempts to devour the pods.

The pods can be boiled, steamed, or microwaved, so, at least, I got that part right, but the little soy beans inside are all that get ingested. I must admit they're quite tender and quite tasty when eaten correctly.

I guess it could have been worse. I could have bought peanuts.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Will China One Day Rule the World?

Many of us in Singapore are transfixed by the events unfolding in Hong Kong. The protests are even more relevant because the city is a mere 4-hour flight away and many people here have connections to the region.

In the midst of the crisis, I can't help but think about the future of China, a country that's often predicted to one day rule the world. It well might, but it's hard to imagine after listening to some of our Chinese students.

I try to make it a habit not to discuss politics with teenagers, but I can't stop them from sharing their candid insights.

In particular, I'm intrigued by a Chinese boy I'll call Wong who seems to know more about popular American culture than me.

The student can't get enough of American music, movies, and, especially, television. Last week, Wong spent nearly an hour filling me in on all the details of the first four seasons of the popular drama The Walking Dead.

Today, I asked Wong how he manages to watch so many US programs in China and how he's able to access web sites like Facebook that are blocked by the Chinese government in his homeland.  Over the weekend, China also blocked Instagram, a popular photo-sharing ap, in an attempt to prevent citizens from viewing images from Hong Kong.

"It's no problem," he said. Wong told me there are many technological devices available that enable Chinese to surf restricted sites, so the flow of information might be slowed down but can't be stopped.

It doesn't surprise me that Wong would know ways around censorship. After all, he knew when the iPhone 6 was set to launch in both America and China, long before I did.

Ever since I met him, Wong has been reiterating his dream of attending a university in the United States and then staying behind to either live in California or New York City.

The key to any country's long-term prospects and prosperity is winning the hearts and minds of its young people. After talking with Wong and others, it appears that the leadership in China has an uphill battle.

And the kids aren't alone.

A survey released this month by Barclay's showed that nearly half of wealthy Chinese plan to move within five years. The number one reason cited - better educational and employment opportunities for their kids.

China is still an economic and military powerhouse, but the voices of the young and many of their parents seem to be telling us that it might be a bit premature to anoint China as Master of the Universe.

Note: I downloaded the above photo from the free media repository on Wikimedia Commons. I wish to credit the author  流璃

Friday, September 26, 2014

Singapore Buddhist Lodge

Within a capitalist system, there are those who achieve great wealth but also those who struggle to just secure the basic necessities. Singapore is no exception. Last month, I had an opportunity to visit one of the organizations here dealing with the problem of hunger.

I believe government has a responsibility to provide some sort of societal safety net, but I also believe private groups should lend a hand. The Singapore Buddhist Lodge is a wonderful example of the latter.

The group serves meals three times a day to anyone with an appetite, regardless of need. An administrator told me they welcome guests ranging from business people to backpackers to the truly destitute. All meals are free, but donations are accepted.

On average, 1,500 people dine at the center daily and as many as 3,000-5,000 on the weekend. The lodge is open seven days a week.

The vegetarian buffet is quite extensive. A full-time cook prepares the meal, while volunteers man all of the other jobs in the facility.  Many of the food items are donated.

Looking around, I noticed that about half of the crowd was elderly, but I also saw several young people and parents with kids, lending evidence to the idea that hunger can affect anyone at any time.

Although no money exchanges hands, guests are asked to pick up their own plates and utensils from the kitchen and wash their dishes afterward.

The lodge is not alone in offering food to the needy. Giving is an essential tenant of Buddhism, but the lodge is one of the few places that demonstrates kindness on such a wide scale.

Walking around the facility that consists of dozens of tables in an open, cafeteria-like space, I couldn't help but admire the smiles on the faces of the enthusiastic volunteers and the general feeling of peace permeating through the crowd like the scent of freshly cut flowers.

I had no intent of dining, but one of the volunteers insisted, so I found my place in line and loaded up on a plethora of tasty, vegetarian delicacies. It's not the kind of culinary fare one would expect to find at a food kitchen. Afterward, I was offered fresh fruit to take home, but I felt that someone else could put it to better use.

You won't find the lodge in any tourist guides, but I can assure you it's worth the trip.

The Singapore Buddhist Lodge is always looking for volunteers. If you'd like to help, you can drop by the office any day from 8-5. The lodge is located at 17 Kim Yam Road.

Note: Out of respect for maintaining the confidentiality of the guests I limited my pictures to just a shot of the building's exterior.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

A Residential Experience

Today, I became an official Singaporean local, or, at least, in the eyes of a group of Chinese tourists.

On my way to lunch, two guys stopped me on the street to ask for directions to the nearest subway.

I didn't hesitate. "Walk a couple of blocks to the Buddhist temple and turn left on Irrawaddy. Walk up the hill. You'll see the national police center on your right. Stay on Irrawaddy and walk down the hill. At the bottom of the hill, you'll see the Novena mall on your left. That's where you'll find the MRT," I said.

One of the guys rolled his eyes because he was hoping for a shorter walk. "It's the nearest train station. I know because I live here," I replied, wishing him a pleasant stay as he turned to walk away.

It's been almost three months now since I deboarded the plane from America. That's not a tremendous amount of time, but I guess it's long enough to pick up the appearance of a local.

It was nice being able to offer confused tourists assistance because I've certainly asked for my fair share of directions.

The same kind of metamorphosis happened to me when I moved to New York City back in the 1980. For a few months, every lunatic on the streets of Manhattan seemed to pick me out of the crowd as a target to be hassled. Then, almost overnight, it stopped. Former Mayor Ed Koch referred to it as newcomers gaining the "New York look," a look of confidence that told others he belonged in the city.

Legally speaking, I am a Singaporean resident, and I've got a work permit to prove it. Last week, I filled out a form that asked my country of residence. I paused for a second, mulled it over, and then marked Singapore. It's a bit surreal, considering that at this time last year I was teaching in a small, rural town in Georgia, wondering if I'd ever take the steps to try to teach abroad.

Being a Singaporean local has its share of privileges, especially crossing boarders. Rather than going through the immigration line for foreigners, I exit the country through the "Singaporean citizens and residents" line.

That involves swiping my passport, giving a thumbprint, and I'm finished.  No passport stamp. No questions asked. Coming back into the country, it's the same easy procedure.

Not bad for a small-town Georgia boy, or I should say, a Singaporean resident.