In This Part of the World We Call This Small Talk

Published on March 22, 2016 in The Wall Street Journal: Expat:

WSJ ExpatThe Wall Street Journal‘s hub for expatriates and global nomads, recently published my piece on how small talk varies around the world. Here’s a snippet:

When living abroad, your ability at small talk needs to be rebuilt from scratch, along with your knowledge of which topics and comments qualify as casual or intimate. It’s not called an art for nothing.

For instance, in the U.S., directly asking a new acquaintance how much they paid for something is akin to a needle scratch (unless you preface the statement with an apology and the excuse that you’re shopping around for the same item). In the Republic of Ireland, the U.K. and Japan, it’s doubtful that even that qualifier would be enough to stymie the awkwardness. But in China, Singapore and other Southeast Asian countries with large Chinese descendant populations, money isn’t tinged with the same shyness. A casual conversation on which neighborhood you live in can readily lead to the question of how much rent you pay. It’s a question I still stumble to answer graciously.

Read the rest HERE!

WSJ Expat

WSJ

Southeast Asia Travel Secrets

Published on January 1, 2016 in the Singapore American Newspaper:

With Singapore being so small and the surrounding region being so rich with culture and beauty, it would be a shame not to travel as often as possible. There are what seems like a million websites and apps out there to help with everything from packing to pinpointing the ideal snack joint, but here are some of the resources I’ve found most helpful over the last three years.

If you’re looking for flights:

Southeast Asia is a hive of budget airlines that compete with each other, which means plenty of cheap offers every week. Sign up for emails from TigerAir, Jetstar, Scoot, and AirAsia to get access to flash sales. Even Groupon has some great offers. Websites like Skyscanner and Kayak are also ideal for comparing cheap flights, while sites like Zuji go further and offer hotels, car rentals and entire holidays.

If you’re looking for hotels:

Booking.com is always my go to due to their free cancellation policy.

If you’re not sure about visas:

The State Department’s SmartTraveler app lays out everything you need to know about passport requirements, visas, entry and exit fees, locations of American embassies, local laws to take note of, tips on staying safe, and any other restrictions or requirements you can expect to encounter.

If you want someone else to do all the work:

It’s a lot of fun planning out a personalized itinerary for a new destination, but it does take time and research to pin down all the details. Companies like Eco Adventures provide everything from English speaking guides to hotels to internal flights, while making your trip as environmentally and economically sustainable as possible.

If you want the inside scoop:

Each article on WikiTravel is a comprehensive breakdown of what you need to know before you go and when you’re there. It’s easy to navigate due to clearly marked sections like “Get In” and “Eat”, and it’s one of the more reliable sources of information about ATMs, local scams, what prices to expect and how to avoid being disrespectful. TripAdvisor’s website and app have also proved invaluable for finding hidden gems, from UNESCO World Heritage sites to affordable nail salons.

If you’re looking to get around:

Uber has proven a lifesaver multiple times in multiple countries, from the United States to Vietnam. Since the Uber app is already hooked up to your credit card, you don’t need to worry if you’re stranded somewhere without cash. And since the driver will have you and your desired destination located on GPS, you don’t need to worry about giving him directions or language issues.

If you’re looking to just explore:

Google Maps is hard to beat. Look up your destination and save the map so you can access it even offline. If your phone has linked with the local phone network, the satellites will also be able to place you on Google Maps.

If you’re hungry:

TripAdvisor and Yelp are probably the most universally reliable, though sometimes digging through the piles of reviews can be exhausting. Usually I just recommend following your nose and taking a chance on a place that looks good. Long lines of people waiting to eat are also a good sign.

If you want a crazy adventure:

Koryo Tours are the people who got us in and around North Korea, but if that’s a bit too crazy a destination for you, they also offer adventures to remote parts of Russia, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Mongolia.

If you’re in an emergency:

Hopefully you have travel insurance. I personally recommend ACE Travel Insurance. They found me a clinic up to international standards when I contracted salmonella poisoning in Myanmar. If you’re already in the thick of things, the Travel Safe app is a directory of police, fire and medical services around the world.

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SCUBA in the Summertime

Published on June 1, 2015 in the Singapore American Newspaper:

If you’re looking to try something new this summer, why not learn how to scuba dive? Singapore is surrounded by some of the world’s top dive sites, so it would be a shame not to give diving a try during your time here. Like driving a car, learning to dive can seem overwhelming at first. There are new terms and rules to memorize. You’ll probably ask, “What does that button do?” at least once. And you have to pass both a written test and practical demonstration of your skills to earn your license. But just as you developed muscle memory for changing gears and checking your mirrors, it won’t be long before clearing your mask and checking your oxygen level become automatic.

If the thought of paying for all that equipment turns you off, don’t worry. Dive resorts are usually stocked with everything from fins to wetsuits to regulators. There are only two pieces of gear I would recommend you invest in as a beginner: a carefully chosen mask that fits you well and doesn’t fog, and water boots in your size (occasionally rented fins can cut into your heels and sometimes you enter the water over a rocky beach).

There are a number of acronyms you’ll learn during your diving course but the first one you should know is PADI, which stands for Professional Association of Diving Instructors. Founded in the 1960s, PADI isn’t the only diver training organization in the world, but it is the largest and the most well-known in Southeast Asia. Other training organizations like National Academy of Scuba Educators (NASE) and National Association of Underwater Instructors (NAUI) can also be found in Singapore. There are dozens of PADI-certified dive shops throughout the island but Eko Divers in Outram Park came recommended by a friend. We took their 3-day course to earn our Open Water certification, which consisted of two classroom sessions and one full-day session in a nearby swimming pool. The final segment of the course consisted of a weekend at a dive resort in Dayang, Malaysia, where our instructor guided us through the three ocean dives we needed to complete. Most dive shops in Singapore run weekend or week-long jaunts to the myriad dive sites in Indonesia and Malaysia (and beyond), providing plenty of opportunities for you to put your new skills to use.

Diving in Tulamben, Bali (103)

While my husband and I have only completed the entry level course, we have yet to feel restricted when exploring the reefs of Southeast Asia. The Open Water certification allows us to dive to a depth of 18 meters (to go deeper, you need an Advanced Diver certification), but I’ve found that most dive spots in the region can be enjoyed within this range. While the Advanced qualification allows you to do night dives and to go down to 30 meters, the main reason I’m considering earning it is to be able to more thoroughly explore shipwrecks. Encountering a turtle amidst the remains of the USAT Liberty, a relic from the Pacific War just 30 meters off of Bali’s shore, was nothing short of magical. And hovering alongside the teeming hull of a sunken sugar transport ship off the Perhentian Islands was one of the most breathtaking (no pun intended) sights I’ve ever seen. Yes, I pretend I’m the little mermaid every time.

In a time when selfie sticks have become a plague and we are pressured to capture every moment on film, scuba diving forces you to be in the present. You can’t use your phone or listen to music. You can’t even talk. Language is reduced to a series of simple hand signals: “Everything okay?” “Trumpet fish!” “Clownfish!” “Time to ascend to the surface.” While I certainly wouldn’t mind having a video of the sardine run in Cebu or a photo of that octopus in the Batangas, those memories are all the more precious because they were experienced fully. No reaching for a camera phone or trying to think of a caption for Facebook. Though you can, of course, buy an underwater casing for your camera or rent one from some dive shops. Nevertheless, I recommend you simply focus on your strange new surroundings and soak it all in.

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Minding Your Manners

Published on May 1, 2015 in the Singapore American Newspaper:

Etiquette can be tough to master at home, let alone abroad. It seems like there’s always something new to learn. For example, I only just found out that if a Singaporean woman introduces herself as Madame Lim, she is using her maiden name, as opposed to when she uses Mrs. Hoh, which is her married name.

As a tourist in Singapore, you’ll likely be forgiven your faux-pas, but if you’re an expat doing business here, it’s a good idea to adapt to the work environment. As the saying goes, “Think global. Act local.”  When you put in the effort to understand local expectations, it not only shows your clients that you respect them, but will also enable you to adjust your marketing strategy or meeting style for a greater chance of success.

Punctuality is a virtue so arrive to meetings on time. Introductions are almost always in order of age. Ethnic Chinese generally use a very light, extended handshake feeling the traditional Western bone-crushing grip is offensive. Chinese men and women may shake hands, but the woman must always extend her hand first. Older ethnic Malayasian men may only shake the hand of another man. Younger Malays sometimes shake hands with foreign women, but it is more appropriate to bow the head which is how two Malay women meet. Indians may shake hands with members of the same sex and will smile and nod when being introduced to somebody of the opposite sex. Hugs are rare in the US in business, but pretty much non-existent here even between friends. Don’t back slap or high five either. In general, folks here simply don’t like to be touched.

If you’re introducing two people, state the name of the more senior or more important person first. When meeting with a Singaporean counterpart, wait for him or her to introduce you to the rest of the team. Avoid using first names until your Singapore counterpart suggests it. This is especially important when dealing with older people. In fact, most Chinese counterparts will introduce you by your last name.

Resist the temptation to give compliments. Giving or receiving compliments is not common in Chinese culture. In fact, if you do give one, your counterpart will probably respond with the words, “Not at all” or “It is nothing” rather than “Thank you.” Conversely, Singaporeans think nothing of asking highly personal questions that Westerners considered inappropriate.

Kang Ha Pheng Sim Kok Building

Here as in Japan, you should use both hands to pass your business card with your name facing the person. Study the card. Take the time to ask how to pronounce their name properly. Leave the card on the table horizontally facing you during the meeting. This is a sign of respect. Whatever you do, don’t put it in your back pocket. Never deal out your own cards like a deck of cards.

In Chinese culture, it’s important for people to see the exit. Since 70% of Singaporeans are of Chinese descent, it’s best you sit with your back to the door. Generally, you will be told where to sit as there is a strict hierarchy so simply wait to be told where to sit and you’ll be okay.

Appropriate dress depends on the industry in which you’re working. Finance jobs, for example, generally demand a full suit and tie whereas many other industries in Singapore are much more casual. Try to gear your style to the client’s.

Everybody likes to feel as if they’ve won, but this is particularly important in the Chinese culture. If you’re selling something, for example, give an initial price with a room for negotiation.

Most cultures consider it polite to offer a visiting client or business partner something to drink upon their arrival. In the US and the UK, we expect glasses of water to at least be chilled or better yet have ice. Room temperature water smacks of a half-hearted attempt to provide a nice drink. But in Malaysia, Singapore and a few other Southeast Asian countries, it’s a nice gesture to clarify whether they would prefer warm or cold water. The belief that drinking too much cold water will make you sick is still a fairly common one so if you can handle warm water, it’s probably best to just sip and make do.

Once refreshments are handled, it’s time to get down to business by…not talking about business right away. Relationships, rather than strict economics, rule business partnerships in Asia and so the straightforwardness that Americans value so highly can strike the wrong tone. We think we’re being honest and not wasting time, but the chunk of the business meeting you devote to small talk can often be the most productive part of the rendezvous. However, no matter how well that conversation goes, it can still be difficult to determine whether or not you have successfully made your case. In the same way that Singaporeans value relationships, they are also often reluctant to say “no” outright. Part of my job requires me to pitch our consulting services one-on-one to potential clients and I can never tell if I’ve made a sale until the moment they sign up. Some of the best conversations I’ve had have led nowhere, while conversations I wrote off as a wash led to that person buying a package several weeks later.

Singaporeans often put more stock in facial expression, tone of voice and posture than in the spoken word. They pay as much attention to what isn’t said to what is said. Silence is actually quite important in negotiation. By pausing before you answer, you signal that you’ve really stopped to think about what the other person said and how you want to respond. This is a symbol of respect while responding quickly is seen as rude behavior. Speaking loudly is also a sign of rudeness. Most locals speak softly and sometimes smile to avoid embarrassment and not necessarily because they think what you said is all that funny. If you’ve been getting a lot of smiles in your meetings, it may not be because you’re the stand-up comedian you think you are!

Something else rude? Moving something with your shoe or pointing the soles of your shoes towards somebody so don’t prop your feet up on the table. Things like pointing and whistling are totally unacceptable. Shrugging and winking are confusing.  Never write anything in red ink.

If you’ve lived here for more than ten minutes, you know that food is a big deal in Singapore. Business lunches can be super fancy or a quick meal at a hawker center. If you’re hosting, remember that Muslims don’t eat pork and devout Muslims should be taken to a halal restaurant. Hindus don’t eat beef. And there are no three martini lunches in Singapore. In general, drinking during the day is frowned upon, but drinking at night is acceptable and often an important part of bonding with clients.

Another thing to be mindful of is how you speak about Singapore. While Singaporeans themselves will be the first to admit they love to complain, that doesn’t give you equal rights to whine. Think about how you would feel back home if an expat complained about life in your city. Even if you agreed with their gripes, you would likely still feel a pang of defensive patriotism. Keep your bellyaching about the restaurant service or the weather to your own circle of friends and out of any professional relationships.

At the end of the meeting, guests should be walked to the elevator. High-ranking guests should be walked to the car. When a Singaporean offers to send you to the airport, they are literally offering to take you or collect you themselves.

Nevertheless, being polite on local terms doesn’t mean relinquishing all the traits that have made you successful back home. I begin my workshops by stating outright that I’m a loud American, which means I’m going to make them talk in class, urge them to work in groups and expect them to ask questions. The belligerent interactivity is often novel for adults who were taught in the more restrained Singapore style. When mixed with elements they’re to which they are more accustomed, communication not only becomes easy, it becomes enjoyable.

And don’t forget the number one rule of doing business in other countries: if you accidentally offend, simply apologize and take the lesson with you.

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Expat Health and Beauty Woes: Goodbye Home, Hello Frizz

Published on April 23, 2015 in The Wall Street Journal: Expat:

WSJ ExpatThe Wall Street Journal‘s hub for expatriates and global nomads, recently published my piece on the physical challenges of living in Singapore as a non-native. Here’s a snippet:

This means that tried-and-true styles from other climates simply might not work in Southeast Asia. (Layers? Forget it.) A friend from Chicago declares that Singapore taught her to finally embrace her curls.

Color is another challenge, especially if you’re a bottle blonde like me. Asians obviously aren’t concerned with a blonde dye job appearing natural, so most stylists in Singapore seldom combine highlights and lowlights.

Read the rest HERE!

WSJ Expat

WSJ

Developing an International Resume

Written in March 2015 for Aureus Consulting:

Applying for a job in a foreign country contains a myriad of communication challenges. How do you translate your school records? Should you use British or American English in your cover letter? What if your references don’t speak the language of the company you hope to join?

Business standards and professional expectations can be tough to navigate, particularly when it comes to the crux of your application: your resume.

The UK and the US wish to know nothing about you but your qualifications in order to minimize the amount of influence your gender or race has on the decision to call you in for an interview. Many people even forgo listing hobbies. Singapore, on the other hand, normally wants a photograph and a date of birth, and you’re more likely to be selected if your experience or previous titles directly overlap with the position you’re applying to. In addition to a photo, the Philippines sometimes go as far as expecting your height, weight, religion, and even parents’ occupations. Be prepared to fax your resume in Japan, where cultural/organizational fit often outweighs hard technical competency. Inappropriate email addresses are grounds for immediately rejecting a CV according to 38% of employers in Brazil and 36% of employers in China.

Research has shown that it takes just 6 seconds for a potential employer to decide to reject your resume or get to know you better, which means no matter where in the world your career takes you, the first impression of your curriculum vitae is crucial. So how can you develop a resume that is impactful worldwide?

Regardless of cultural norms and expectations, some elements of a strong resume are universal. Your contact information should be near the top and your email address should be professional (no “Iheartmartinis@hotmail.com”). Formatting should be consistent and clean – bullets should be neatly aligned; bold and italics are great ways to highlight achievements but they should be used sparingly; and don’t mix and match fonts. The descriptions of your work experiences should be evocative and your accomplishments should be quantified. Don’t say you were the number one sales person without including the net gain you earned for your company. Don’t say you increased the efficiency of production without including by what percent you increased it by. Numbers are clear markers of success in any language.

Put the effort in to make sure your experience is accessible to a person who knows nothing about your country. Every employer in Malaysia will know that Petronas is a Fortune 500 company, but odds are that employers outside of Southeast Asia will not and so it’s up to you as an applicant to include that detail. Generic job titles can also work against you. A potential employer won’t be able to visualize your responsibilities from “Marketing Manager” alone. Even if that technically was your official title, add a qualifier – like “Head Marketing Manager for APAC Region” or “Digital Content Marketing Manager” – to give readers a shortcut.

And lastly… Spell-check. A careless error makes a poor impression in any culture.

aureus

 

The Charm of Inle Lake

Published on October 1, 2014 in the Singapore American Newspaper:

A quick flight north from Yangon and a long, winding drive through the mountains of Myanmar will lead you to the gorgeous expanse of Inle Lake. The calm, blue waters are a bracing contrast to the red earth and the dusty green landscape surrounding it. Located in the Nyaung Shwe Township of the Shan State with an estimated surface area of 116 square kilometers, it is the second largest lake in Myanmar. We stayed at the scenic Hupin Hotel in rustic rooms that stood on stilts in the low, lapping water of the lake, which was host to a flotilla of emerald-green water plants. From our balconies we watched boats return to the hotel through the pagoda-style gateway in a fence made of sticks that separated our cove from the open water. Since we had arrived in the middle of the afternoon and had scheduled a full day of touring the lake for the following day, we opted to borrow bicycles from the hotel and explore by land.

Cycling along the quiet little road in the dappled shadows of the trees had the thrill of a childhood adventure. We exchanged waves with the schoolchildren bound for home in their green longyi while we swerved around the occasional traffic: a truck carrying twenty people, a ramshackle tractor or two, men on motorcycles, and women encumbered with hefty bundles of sticks. Small paths led from the main road to simple pagodas and to the tightknit communities of local villages. Before we knew it, the afternoon had flown by and we had to hurry back to the hotel to catch the sunset. A tall hill stood next to the resort and we decided to scale it for a better view. Perched at the peak was the home of a Buddhist monk clad in traditional orange robes who happily pointed us to the western side of his pagoda-style living quarters and asked us about our homelands. I paused to remove my flip flops before stepping onto the wide stone porch that encircled the building but the monk shook his head and said there was no need. Plus the dogs would steal my shoes if I left them unattended. A gaggle of friendly, well-fed mutts romped around the grounds, pestering us to play as we soaked in the setting of the sun over the glittering Inle Lake. At night the secluded Nyaung Shwe Township slept under a brilliant blanket of stars.

The next morning we hired for the day a long, thin boat and its operator, and by 8:30am we were whizzing across the vast blue lake in the bright sunshine. The boat was affiliated with the hotel and so was well-equipped with cushioned chairs, umbrellas, water, and blankets to weather the sun and the wind. After some time we arrived at the Ywama inlet for the morning market and our boatman expertly maneuvered us through a traffic jam so thick you could barely see the water. Our boat mostly rubbed shoulders with the brightly painted tourist boats, but on the other side of the thin inlet I could see a large number of the unadorned canoes of the local villagers beached on the reedy shoreline.

IMAG1181The stalls around the edge of the market were piled high with souvenir items (Buddha statues, gemstones, marionettes, and the like – which may or may not have been authentic) but the further in we wandered the more we saw the stalls for locals on their daily errands. Women with thanaka (a creamy paste with cosmetic and sun protection purposes) painted on their cheeks sat cross-legged on elevated mats behind small mountains of tomatoes, eggs, and leafy greens. There were wide baskets of peanuts and beans, tables of flip flops and t-shirts, and piles of watermelons. Vendors fried bread-like snacks and served tea. A few tailors sat at their pedal-powered sewing machines under a loose patchwork ceiling of colored tarps. In one corner, a few barbers were laughing with their customers. Sitting at one of the marketplace’s outer edges was a row of men behind woven mats laden with fish big and small, all shimmering in the morning sun. Some were still gasping for air.

The Intha (the 70,000 or so people of Inle Lake) live in four cities bordering the water, in numerous small villages along the shore, and also on the lake itself. The village of Ywama is just one of many rustic villages and is part of the rotating market cycle of Inle; each weekday the market is hosted by a different village on the lake. After escaping the bustling clog of boats, we continued our tour by water. We zipped past villages built entirely on stilts that either stood in the water or in the verdant riverbanks. Floating mats of vegetation, anchored in place with bamboo poles, sported ripe tomato plants. Residents waved from their canoes, and from the bamboo walkways and simple bridges that arched over the canals. Since nearly all the homes and public buildings were perched on piles driven into the lakebed, these villages had no town squares. Instead, the Intha gathered in pagoda complexes and monasteries like Nga Phe Kyaung (nicknamed the Jumping Cat Monastery for its cats trained to jump through hoops). Unsurprisingly, these peaceful community centers receive most of their guests by water and are rimmed in long docks.

Approaching by boat every time, we spent the afternoon paying visits to a silk weaving shop, a metal smith, a silversmith, and a parasol workshop: all exquisite industries that the people of Inle Lake are known for. The culture of the Intha is rich and fascinating, and it is heavily influenced by Buddhism and by their aqueous environment. They are water people through and through. They’re on boats as often as not. Their cuisine is centered around fish. Every stork-like house has a collection of canoes leashed to the porches from which the Intha simply reach down to the water’s surface to wash their clothes or themselves. The entire drama of their lives is played out on this lake. But the most notable aspect of the Intha—and of the Burmese people in general—is their genuine affability. A warm smile and a friendly wave greeted us wherever we went on land or water. On our return to the hotel, as our boat coasted through the sunset, we passed a young woman sitting cross-legged at the bow of her boat and she impulsively tossed me a flower. I grinned in thanks and she waved goodbye before effortlessly sailing off across the surface of her home.

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Yogyakarta in a Weekend

Published on May 1, 2014 in the Singapore American Newspaper:

Prambanan

When I was first invited to spend the weekend in Yogyakarta, I admit I had to Google where it was. Located in the southern part of Central Java in Indonesia, the district of Yogyakarta is famous for its proximity to two breathtaking UNESCO World Heritage Sites: the Buddhist temple of Borobudur and the Hindu temple compound of Prambanan. Regardless of my ignorance, Yogyakarta (occasionally spelled Jogjakarta) has become Indonesia’s second most popular tourist destination after Bali and it is widely regarded to be the center of Javanese culture. Best of all, it is small enough to make it an excellent weekend destination from Singapore.

Friday Afternoon

A purple storm brewed in the sky as we made our way through the bustle of Yogyakarta’s small airport and the March rain came down hard during the hour-long drive to the Manohara Hotel. The hotel cuddles up to the Borobudur Temple compound and it is the only guesthouse within walking distance from the immense 9th-century Mahayana Buddhist structure. Not long after our arrival, we borrowed umbrellas from the front desk and set off into the wet afternoon. We scaled Borobudur’s six square levels and the top three circular platforms, simulating the path that Buddhist monks follow on pilgrimages to the temple site. The rain darkened the stone statues of headless Buddhas that guarded each tier and the entire temple had a hushed, peaceful atmosphere about it. Borobudur’s Javanese architecture perfectly accords with the conception of the Universe in Buddhist cosmology: the dense stone base of represents the sphere of desire; five square terraces represent the sphere of form; and the sphere of formlessness is represented by the three circular platforms as well as the large stupa topping the structure. The ascending stairways and paths are lined by over 2,000 carved stone panels in the walls which depict these three realms in detailed relief.

Saturday

We woke bleary-eyed before dawn and were led through the dark by a hotel staff member, who gifted us all with flashlights. After gingerly climbing to the temple’s summit, we perched on the ledge of the top tier to await the sun amidst the Buddha statues encased in their perforated stone stupas. The countryside was quiet and the full moon shone like a spotlight over our heads. Pale blue mists swirled around the surrounding mountains and then glowed gold as the first rays of sunlight struck them. Birds sang overhead in the fresh morning air, which was warming up quickly.

After breakfast, we relocated to the Phoenix Hotel, an elegant historic building from 1918 in Yogyakarta City, and spent the day leisurely weaving through the throngs of horse carts, cycle rickshaws, motorcycles, mopeds, cars, trucks and pedestrians. On the crowded streets of the popular Malioboro district, petite stores sold everything from cellphones to traditional Javanese clothing. Men caught naps in the shaded seats of their trishaws. By the park, women crouched over fiery barbecues grilling delicious-smelling satay skewers. Yogyakarta is a prosperous town that is growing—like a great many towns in Indonesia—but it is growing at a rate of its own choosing. Foreign investment is present but it doesn’t overpower the local culture, giving the city a distinct personality that is an inimitable blend of heritage and modernity.

Yogyakarta retains strong communities that are focused on carrying on traditions in silver work, the creation of batik fabric, and gamelan music. But the most alluring of these artistries are the performances of wayang kulit or shadow puppets, which are fastidiously crafted masterpieces of leather, buffalo horn and bamboo. The ethereal movements of the shadowy figures draw you into their world and you find yourself transfixed on the story they tell. There are a number of puppet shows that take place on various days in Yogyakarta; the best way to find one is to ask a local (or the front desk at your hotel) where the best show near you is.

There were two more stops on our list before dinner: the kraton and the bird market around the Taman Sari castle complex. ‘Bird Market’ turned out to be a misnomer; while there were cages upon cages of roosters and parakeets and budgies, you could also buy squirrels, puppies, bats, pythons, hedgehogs, iguanas, civets, and the list just kept going. While the market provides a fascinating insight into the lives of the local people, it’s not for the squeamish. Live ants and maggots are kept on hand as birdfeed, and plenty of the cuddly animals are purchased to be eaten.

The Yogyakarta Kraton complex serves as the principal residence of the sultan and hosts a number of official ceremonies, however the sultanate officially became part of the Republic of Indonesia in 1950. The compound is often hailed as the cultural heart of the region. Music and dance performances are regularly held within the palace grounds and the buildings are a majestic display of Javanese architecture. Most of the palace complex is a museum with numerous artifacts on display, including a variety of gifts presented to the sultanate from the kings of Europe and a complete gamelan set.

Sunday

The Phoenix Hotel provided a good night’s sleep, breakfast and a convenient starting point for our final destination. Upon our arrival to the Prambanan Temple Compounds, the staff manning the entrance tied white and indigo batik around our waists, which drew much amusement from the groups of local schoolchildren also visiting the famous UNESCO site. The stunning shrine was built in the 9th or 10th century and consists of over 200 separate temples, which makes this compound the biggest temple complex in Java, the most expansive Hindu temple site in Indonesia, and one of the largest temple sites in Southeast Asia. Originally there were 240 temples but a number of those have unfortunately been reduced to piles of rubble on the grass. The compound is dedicated to the three great Hindu divinities—Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma—and is considered to be one of the world’s top three ancient masterpieces of Hindu architecture. The central building is devoted to Shiva and looms high at 47 metres (154 feet) tall. We spent hours exploring the otherworldly temple complex, and it was too soon that we were on our way back to the airport to catch our flight home.

Though the region of Yogyakarta is small enough to see in a weekend, the city’s warm and unique character also makes a destination worth experiencing for a second time. There are far too many streets to discover, cheerful people to meet and tasty restaurants to try to only visit Yogyakarta once.

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History’s Different Facets: Confronting New Perspectives in Vietnam

Published on April 7, 2014 in Young & Global Magazine:

War Remnants Museum

Here’s a question you probably weren’t asked in history class: Who won the American War? If you’re a little confused as to which war I’m referring to, you’re probably not Vietnamese. To the rest of the world, the prolonged struggle from 1959 to 1975 between communist-backed northern Vietnam and the United States-supported south is commonly known as the Vietnam War. A recent visit to Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) taught me that history would never be an easy topic to confront or discuss abroad, but that it is worth trying.

A great many Westerners know little about the history of Vietnam before or after this gruesome conflict. The Southeast Asian nation makes a single, traumatizing cameo in American history books, and students will rarely learn about Vietnam from any other angle. While it would be ideal if our education about other nations were more holistic, it isn’t unusual or even remarkable that Americans are taught about the world mainly through our own country’s actions and interactions.

However, it is often forgotten—as in the case of Vietnam—that the foreign players in our nation’s history have long and rich backstories of their own. This is why travel continues to be vital in an era when every nation on earth is represented by galleries of photos on the internet and summaries on Wikipedia. When we go out into the world, we relocate not just our physical bodies, but our minds as well. We are granted the ability to hear these countries’ histories as narrated from their points of view.

This can be frustrating. The history of the world you learned in school will likely be quite different from the recounting you hear abroad, especially when it comes to conflict. It may be tempting to enforce your own nation’s version of events as the “correct” one, but it is important to remember—whether you travel the world or not—that there will never be one entirely accurate account of history. Retellings vary from textbook to textbook, city to city, and country to country. Authors and historians make assumptions, mistakes, and oversights, just like the rest of us. In some cases, you will come across obvious biases or misrepresentations—such as in North Korea’s museums, which feature a clearly false retelling of world events—but most variations will not be so blatant.

History is a collection of human experiences, and each person experiences the world through a unique lens. This lens is heavily influenced by cultural norms and heritage, and many people are unaware of how deeply embedded these influences are. For example: a person who grows up in a powerful, independent country will learn (through formal teachings and subliminal cultural osmosis) to judge the world differently than one who grows up in a country influenced by foreign invasions and occupation. A person who grows up with more than enough to eat is going to appraise a meal differently than a person who grows up with barely enough. A nation that venerates honesty is going to reflect on war differently than a nation that venerates societal harmony.

Modern Propaganda

It is easy to become emotional when faced with an unflattering version of history, particularly if you are American or British or Japanese. You may become angry with your own country, as perhaps you wonder why your teachers failed to cover certain historical events in class. Or you may direct your anger at the country you’re visiting, as perhaps you believe this retelling of events to be unfair. You may feel the urge to completely write off this account of the past, but by doing so you sacrifice a tool for gaining insight into the nation that authored the account. Instead of reacting blindly to this unattractive portrayal of your country, ask yourself why this portrayal exists in the first place.

The War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City attracts approximately half a million visitors annually and has become one of the city’s most popular tourist sites for foreigners. I left the museum in tears, shaken and bewildered by the unforgivingly vivid photographs of American soldiers smiling next to dismembered men, the piles of slaughtered women, and the children torn apart by U.S. bombs. It might be tempting to decry the War Remnants Museum as propagandist. After all, the museum depicts American soldiers as genocide machines who invaded this country for no reason, and there is almost no mention of any of the Vietnamese-on-Vietnamese atrocities that occurred. But it is worth mentioning that many of the photographs are from vetted American sources and it is worth considering why the Vietnamese government would choose to portray the conflict in such a manner. What might their objective be? And what does it say about them?

By framing this part of history in this way, the War Remnants Museum presents a national Vietnamese identity via its suffering. As a country literally and emotionally split in two by a bloody conflict, a unified identity was an uncertain reality, one that needed to be reinforced. And how better to unite people than to depict them with a common enemy? But this enemy isn’t the United States, however much the violent exhibitions may suggest that it is.

The ground floor of the museum is devoted to the international antiwar movement and the museum does take care to include Americans among the posters, newspaper snippets, and photographs: a B-52 pilot who defected, protests in Washington DC, quotes from Martin Luther King Jr., and so on. The Vietnamese government may want its population to forget how divided it once was, but the last thing it wants is to incite its people into another imbroglio. Thus, while the museum has no qualms about demonstrating the gory actions of the United States, the enemy it wants visitors to remember and fear is the brutality of conflict. We are supposed to understand that ideologies may be grand and noble, but for the civilians on the ground, war is never anything but senseless and inhuman.

In this case, I agree with the choice to portray history this way, even though I left the War Remnants Museum bawling. Most high school history textbooks explore the macro trends that spurred international conflict but don’t expound upon the grisly trauma. And so, it is occasionally necessary to recall that history happened to people. However, while Ho Chi Minh City’s visceral museum is an indispensable reminder of the human element of war, it is also necessary to remember that no matter how mindlessly violent, no conflict is created in a vacuum. Vietnam’s suffering was real and important, but it was not the entire story.

The War Remnants Museum displays some of what occurred during the Vietnam War, actions and reactions, but not why it occurred. Framing the war as a foreign invasion streamlines Vietnam’s role in the struggle, but it subsequently oversimplifies the convoluted and interlocking series of world events that led up to the conflict in the first place. The Vietnam War was only possible due to the tense atmosphere of the Cold War, which cannot be understood without understanding World War II, which in turn cannot be understood without knowing World War I. To fully understand the reasons for the Vietnam War, one has to go back a full century to the beginning of French colonial rule in Southeast Asia. Empathy alone will not prevent history from repeating itself; we must be knowledgeable as well. Thus, it is important when considering a nation’s past to strike a balance between the causes of war as well as the effects. The global currents and ideological conflicts that take place on a macro scale are crucial to understanding why any individual human being would slaughter another.

History gives us context for what we encounter when we travel and while it empowers visitors to be understanding, equally important are your own eyes. Present-day Ho Chi Minh City is bustling and cheerful. The streets are replete with coffee shops, clothing stores, and petite hotels, in front of which women in nón lá (the traditional conical hat) sell baguette sandwiches, bowls of noodles, soft drinks, and fresh coconuts. Tourists are welcomed. When it rains, foreigners and locals hide under the same awnings and share incredulous laughs at the strength of the downpour. This is a far cry from the horrific depictions in the War Remnants Museum and from the somber history featured in Western textbooks. It is important to be aware of the complicated history and to feel personally how brutal conflict is, but it is also vital to take stock of the living, breathing present and to see how the soul and culture of a nation is so much more than just a past struggle.

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Potent Nostalgia: Cocktail Bars from Bygone Eras

Published on April 1, 2014 in the Singapore American Newspaper:

As I sipped a bliss-inducing Lemongrass Collins at the Miss Wong Cocktail Bar in Siem Reap, I wondered: Just what is it about bars devoted to the past? A speakeasy can now be found in just about every major city – from Raine’s Law Room in New York to Milk & Honey in London to R2 Supperclub in Tokyo. If I had to choose two reasons why, I would say it’s partly the nostalgia for a straightforward form of glamour and partly the luxurious, hand-crafted cocktails. For anyone bored of the standard mixer/spirit combo, these bars’ bespoke recipes, freshly-squeezed juices, and house infused liquors are a godsend. And while these drinks will obviously cost more than your average rum’n’coke, the rich ambience makes up for it. These bars invite you to step out of your daily troubles and experience life as a member of the exclusive elite from a time past. The vintage Shanghai atmosphere of Miss Wong is a soothing and seductive counterpoint to Cambodia’s dry heat and Pub Street’s pulsating clamor, but don’t worry if you’re not swinging by Siem Reap any time soon. There are a couple of speakeasies to be found right here in Singapore.

However, Abhishek Cherian George would be reluctant to brand his cocktail bar, The Spiffy Dapper, as a speakeasy. With its tables plastered in vintage comic book covers and a pair of colonial Indian fighting staffs on the wall, the establishment is more of an homage to the creative and irreverent spirit of the 1920s. Originally from South India, George calls himself an “insufferable capitalist” and is an enthusiastic advocate of trial-and-error. Many of the custom ingredients on the shelf behind the bar (which bear labels such as Turkish Black Tea Gin and Cayenne-Citrus Himalayan Pink Salt) are the result of mistakes. For instance, accidentally over-dehydrating some tomatoes led to a reinvented Bloody Mary called the Ossified Mrs Grundy, which translates to ‘The Drunk Prude’ in 1920s lingo.  Every beverage on the menu sports a jazzy name and a rich description because, George says, “A product is only as good as the back story.” For him and his lead bartender Hilda, the creation and consumption of a cocktail is nothing short of art. The idea behind the drink is vital to the process and the beverage must convey the artist’s thought or emotion to the drinker.

House of Dandy

House of Dandy in the Tanjong Pagar area also has a proclivity for the irreverent. Despite being a temple to the dandy (a middle-class man in the 1800s who highly valued his refined appearance, aristocratic mind, and leisurely hobbies), the upscale cocktail bar hasn’t limited itself to top hats and aristocratic superiority. As their menu explains: “A dandified life is one that is refined and tastefully in excess. Keeping an edge without sacrificing neither style nor standards.” Thus, among the myriad of hedonistic idols that the lounge pays tribute to are Beau Brummell, Oscar Wilde, and Andy Warhol—see the Dandy Warhol cocktail, an inimitable and delicious blend of vodka, Midori, Limoncello, lemon juice, sugar syrup, and egg whites.

While the Miss Wong Cocktail Bar in Siem Reap seeks to emulate 1930s Shanghai, both The Spiffy Dapper and House of Dandy allow themselves to follow the spirit of an exalted era through the years. The bathroom at The Spiffy Dapper is a maddening tribute to Stanley Kubrick’s film A Clockwork Orange and the walls at House of Dandy feature portraits of women wearing revealing outfits and Stormtrooper helmets. Singapore isn’t searching for a flawless recreation of a past decade, but rather for a taste of the irreverence that was once possible. The speakeasies of today strive to provide that old, gossamer spirit of carelessness in a world where now every foolish act can be splattered across the internet in seconds. So if you find yourself nostalgic for a time when leisure was uninterrupted by mobile phones and secrets remained secrets, slip into the dim interior of a speakeasy. Bring high expectations for a quality cocktail. Remember to sip slowly.

Where to Find:

Miss Wong Cocktail Bar
The Lane, Siem Reap
Cambodia

The Spiffy Dapper
2/F 61 Boat Quay
Singapore

House of Dandy
74 Tras Street
Singapore

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The Nature of Sri Lanka

Published on November 1, 2013 in the Singapore American Newspaper:

How would you describe your ideal travel destination? Tropical beaches or crisp mountains? Adventurous hikes or luxe spas? Exquisite food or cultural wonders? Even if you chose all of the above, Sri Lanka fits the bill. As it were, my friends and I decided to make nature and wildlife the primary focus of our ten-day trip around the island nation. We were not disappointed.

Sri Lanka has excellent roads and for a multi-city tour like ours, a driver was by far the best option for getting around. Our trip began at dawn in Negombo, a coastal city seven kilometers north of Colombo, where we observed the bustling outdoor fish market in action. Brightly painted fishing boats filled the green waters of the Laccadive Sea and the docks were busy with butchers expertly lopping the heads off fish larger than me. Along the 100 km long canal, groups of men and women could be spotted shaking nets to loosen tiny fish, which danced and glittered under the watchful eyes of cats and crows. When I smiled at people, they smiled back.

We drove from Kalpitiya (on the west coast and perfect for dolphin watching) inland to Sigiriya, and it was impossible to resist pulling over to sample the myriad of freshly picked local fruit. Bright hanging bunches of apples. Small, fragrant bananas. Piles of fresh pineapples, durians, and jackfruit. If you’ve never tasted a rambutan, mangosteen, or king coconut, this is the place to do it. Painted Buddhas, white stupas, and pastel-colored churches flew by our windows, but our attention was seized by the mammoth Lion Rock in the distance. 200 meters high and shot through with red and white layers of stone, the boulder can be seen for miles. Visitors climb to the summit via narrow staircases, passing by acrobatic families of monkeys, colorful frescoes, and the Mirror Wall, which once upon a time was so well polished that the king could see himself as he walked alongside it. A sudden squall hit when we were two-thirds into our ascent, but we pressed on and up through the whipping winds and pouring rain, and we were rewarded shortly after reaching the grassy top. The storm dissipated and the fog rolled back to reveal an endless, deep green landscape stretching out around us in all directions.

We spared a few hours for Kandy, a lively little city that encapsulated Sri Lanka’s easy blend of modernity and heritage. Men and women wore both western and traditional clothing. Post offices, police stations, medical centers, banks, and the public bus system all appeared readily available across the country. Yet there was a refreshing lack of a dominant fast food presence. For the next leg of our journey, our van climbed out of the tropical jungles up to the misty tea plantations nestled near the cool summits of Nuwara Eliya’s mountain ranges. Tamil women moved through the winding rows of Assam bushes with practiced ease, plucking the young leaves and shoving handfuls into the sacks on their backs. Though there are a number of smaller inns and lodges balanced on the mountainsides, I suggest splurging on a stay at the Heritance Tea Factory, which has been refurbished into an elegant hotel that retains almost all of the factory’s original 1930s infrastructure.

The next morning was crisp and sunny. Though I didn’t think it was possible, our little van climbed even higher, up into and above the clouds, where we tackled the nine km World’s End hike across the Horton Plains. We marveled at the herds of elk in the vast grasslands and the proximity of the clouds to the dense forests. The trail led to a vantage point perched on a sheer cliff drop overlooking a rolling basin ringed by mountains that lurched into the sky.

Horton Plains (1)

Although we had retained our driver, Upali, for the entirety of the trip, we couldn’t resist taking a train back down from tea country. Though not the fastest form of transportation in the country, it is without a doubt the most scenic. Our blue locomotive raced through corridors of lush foliage that would suddenly give way to views of immense valleys dotted with terraced farms and varicolored villages, surrounded by infinite waves of highlands. Sri Lanka is a rainbow of greens: emerald Assam tea bushes, pale new sprouts in vegetable patches, dark and gargantuan forests that run rampant up steep mountainsides.

In the southeastern town of Tissamaharama that night, we went to sleep early so as to rise before dawn the following morning for an all-day safari in Yala National Park. It was a long, dusty, adrenaline-fueled day spent in an open-air jeep hunting for a glimpse of a wild leopard. We were lucky enough to find one napping in the crook of a tree while locked in a hilariously quiet traffic jam of jeeps all trying to get close without disturbing the creature. For me however, the real treat was witnessing a family of elephants (including two infants) splash in the mud of a reservoir in the hot afternoon. There were a number of other animal sightings and we didn’t leave the park until after sunset.

Our next destination was the southern city of Galle, a historic colonial town cradled inside the barricades of a Dutch fort. Engulfed in such picturesque scenery, it’s easy to be lulled by the waving palms and clean beaches, but the memory of the devastating 2004 tsunami lingers. Just off the coast, portions of the old road could be seen in the sparkling surf. Memorials could be found in every town and park we’d visited. Cemeteries were full of tombstones constructed from debris. Chunks of wrecked houses stood along the shore, now veiled by creeping vines. These somber markers were a reminder that behind this natural paradise was a grim and difficult past.

For our final day we again awoke at sunrise, this time to travel by tuk tuk to the harbor in Mirissa to set sail with Raja and the Whales, a tour company I found professional, knowledgeable, and friendly. They located a trio of blue whales and brought us in close without disrespecting the giant creatures’ space. Before heading to the airport we popped by the Kosgoda Turtle Hatchery, which was obliterated in 2004 and rebuilt thanks to donations. After sunset, we brought precious three-day-old turtles to the seashore and watched them scamper from our hands towards the pounding surf that called them home.

Alongside its layered history and colorful culture, Sri Lanka nurtures a rich and varied natural world: feisty fruit and serene landscapes, safaris in prairies and at sea, cool peaks and steamy beaches. We easily could have spent a week in every place we visited. I’m already planning my second trip.

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Top Five Travel Tips for Exploring Asia

Published on August 1, 2013 in the Singapore American Newspaper:

Cameron Highlands, Malaysia

There are plenty of reasons why Singapore is a great place to live. One of them is how easy it is to leave for a short break. Changi Airport has consistently topped lists of the world’s best airports for the last two decades and those with residency status move through it very quickly, but there are still a number of obstacles that can trip you up when setting off to explore Southeast Asia. To help you avoid my mistakes and oversights, here are my top five tips for newcomers to Singapore who are looking to discover the riches of the continent around us.

Number One: Visas!

Visa costs and requirements vary greatly throughout Asia, so right after (or even before) you buy your flight tickets, hit the website of your destination’s embassy to figure out what you’ll need. Many nations surrounding Singapore will allow you to buy an On-Arrival Tourist Visa but some require a Letter of Approval from the local embassy to do this and most can only be purchased in American dollars (and sometimes only in new bills). There can also be extra requirements, like a minimum number of blank passport pages. Bottom line: do your research in advance and prevent a debacle at the airport.

Number Two: Know the Health Risks

Malaria is a year-round risk throughout Southeast Asia but it needn’t prevent you from going where you want to go. A general physician in Singapore can usually provide anti-malarial tablets but be aware that you have to start the regimen a few days before your trip, so give yourself enough time. However, the most frequently reported illness among visitors to Southeast Asia is the highly unglamorous traveler’s diarrhea. While abroad, one of my greatest joys is trying dishes in restaurants frequented by the locals but this can admittedly be risky. So, there are a few rules of thumb to keep in mind when it comes to chowing down. Don’t drink or brush your teeth with the local water. Be sure to check that the seals of any bottles of water you buy are unbroken. Don’t eat raw fruits or vegetables as they have likely been washed in the local water; the exception is fruit you peel, like bananas or oranges. Be wary of how foods with a high risk of salmonella—like eggs or chicken—are prepared; opt for fried instead of steamed or boiled if you’re uncertain.

Number Three: Take More Cash than You Think You’ll Need

I will be the first to confess that I rely far too much on a credit card and not enough on cash. Take my word for it: it is no fun wasting your precious time in an exotic paradise desperately searching for an ATM. But even if you’re not me and you calculate your trip’s expenses down to the penny and take out enough foreign notes in advance, there will always be an unexpected cost somewhere down the line. For example, did you know you need to pay an airport tax in cash when you leave Indonesia?  So, in addition to taking way more money than you need, I would also suggest you don’t exchange your extra baht, dong, or kip until you’re safely back on Singaporean concrete, where at least the fees will be in a currency you’re used to.

Number Four: Invest in a Necessities Kit

It’s easier to have a little travel bag of necessities on hand instead of rifling through your cabinets for 100ml toiletries before every trip. Ideally an essentials kit for Southeast Asia should include: sunscreen, insect repellant, Purell, painkillers, band aids, anti-malarials, Pepto Bismal or the equivalent, wet wipes, toothpaste, toothbrushes, extra medication and miniature versions of your normal routine (shampoo, face wash, shaving cream, etc.). And don’t forget the number one necessity: tissues. Much of Southeast Asia operates on a system of BYO toilet paper and you will come to cherish the packets of tissues you cleverly brought with you.

Singapore’s pharmacies are pretty good about carrying travel-sized toiletries, which were once a convenience and are now a necessity if you want to step foot on a plane without checking a bag. And when you’re only flying a few hours to stay for a few days it is worth neither the hassle nor the cost to check a bulky piece of luggage. Pack sparingly and smartly.

Number Five: Relax

I’ve heard a lot of scary stories about Asia from a lot of people who’ve never been. I actually had a friend frantically warn me about a disease in Papua New Guinea that causes a person to laugh themselves to death. A quick internet search revealed that this disease is transmitted via cannibalism, which I don’t generally practice. What I have found from traveling around Asia is a lot of breathtaking sights, delicious food and friendly people.

There has yet to be a country I regret visiting. Sure, the salmonella poisoning in Myanmar wasn’t all that fun, but the Burmese were some of the most genuinely sweet people I have ever met. It’s up to you what you get out of travel. Not every trip will go completely to plan (actually I can guarantee that almost none of them will) but if you keep an open mind and an adventurous spirit, there also won’t be a single trip you don’t learn something about yourself from.

Happy travels!

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Five Mistakes Not to Make: Hanoi

My theory is that as long as I have my passport and some money, I can figure the rest out. For my slightly more prepared and detail-oriented travel companions, this lackadaisical approach is maddening. And although I think disastrous changes of plan and getting lost in a foreign city are undervalued opportunities, I will admit there are a few mistakes I made in Hanoi this past weekend that I wish I hadn’t made. So draw wisdom from my errors and go forth!

#1 With the exception of the words ‘Thank You’, English isn’t even sort of prevalent. Before you damn me as an unreasonable tourist demanding that the world speak American, let me say that in a number of other Southeast Asian countries (Laos, Myanmar, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand, to name a few) English actually is fairly widespread. Menu items had columns of English translations; the locals spoke enough English for a simple conversation and sometimes even a more involved one; even some street signs were readable. Vietnam, however, makes you work a little harder. Outside of national monuments and tourist hubs, you’re going to need to buckle up and use a phrase book. Or work on your charades.

#2 May isn’t the best month to visit Hanoi. When it wasn’t raining, it was scorchingly sunny. When I remembered my umbrella, it wasn’t the worst (could always be monsoon season) but it also wasn’t ideal for traipsing around outdoors. Our guide for our day trip to Ha Long Bay suggested September or October instead.

#3 You need a map. Hell, we used three maps: the one the hotel gave us, a printout from Google maps, and the offline map of the city downloaded onto my phone. And we still got turned around at a couple of Hanoi’s monster intersections. Not that I don’t love getting lost in new places but…

#4 The city’s most popular sites have oddly specific hours and you’ll want to arrive early. Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum is only open in the mornings and on Sundays it is MOBBED. Also you will be denied access if you’re wearing shorts. Because my pasty white thighs were really going to offend the dead guy.

#5 Bug spray. Use all the bug spray. Hanoi isn’t called the City of Lakes for nothing, and where there are lakes, there are mosquitoes.

Regardless of my missteps, I have to say I fell in love with Hanoi’s easy blend of the traditional and the modern. I loved its delicate, old French architecture and especially adored the food. And now that I’ve learned some lessons the hard way, I’m looking forward to a much smoother trip on my next visit.

Up a Creek With a Paddle

Published on May 1, 2013 in the Singapore American Newspaper:

Kayaks on Jurong Lake

If spending time outdoors in Singapore’s oppressive heat seems daunting to you, I suggest venturing out onto water. Luckily, you don’t have to brave the ocean or submit to the rigorous routines of dragon boating in order to enjoy skimming across the water’s surface. Kayaking around Singapore’s peaceful, contained reservoirs can sometimes feel like paddling around a fishbowl and the more adventurous among you might prefer to tackle the salty coasts to venture to nearby islands. But the reservoirs are ideal for young or inexperienced boatmen and they can offer unique views of the familiar skyline. Plus, it is hard to deny how refreshing an afternoon on calm water can be.

Water-Venture’s branch in the Kallang Riverside Park is a welcoming, clean facility that’s well stocked with all sizes of paddles and life jackets. The efficient staff members got us on the water in less than twenty minutes for less than $20 a person and were even friendly enough to laugh at my dad’s jokes. There are a number of other locations where beginners and experts alike can rent a kayak—the Bedok Reservoir, Jurong Lake, the Lower Selator Reservoir, Changi Beach, Marina Bay, Sembawang Park—but Kallang is the favorite location among schools for training their kayaking teams. On weekends, the basin is regularly flooded with colorful clusters of boats but on an overcast Tuesday afternoon, we shared the waters with just one other kayaker and two duckboats, loaded with tourists who gleefully waved at us.

Buffeted by warm breezes and cooled by splashes of water, we paddled leisurely and took time to gaze up at Millenia Tower and Suntec City from novel angles. From this new perspective, the Marina Bay Sands hotel was completely framed by the gargantuan Singapore Flyer and the rolling glass domes of the Gardens by the Bay shimmered in the clouded light. The East Coast Parkway flew overhead but, except for the distant sounds of construction, it was surprisingly quiet.

If you’re eager to explore a less familiar part of Singapore, the suburbs that surround Jurong Lake feel like a friendly town far away from the crush of Orchard’s malls and the crowds that fill the CBD. Pack a picnic basket, a book, and a change of clothes in case you get doused while kayaking, and you could easily spend a whole day at the sanctuary of Jurong Lake Park. To test these waters, we rented sit-on-top kayaks since neither of us had the certificate of training required to rent a closed boat.

If it hadn’t been for the breeze the lake would have been utterly still. Plus it is generally even less crowded than the Kallang Basin, making it the perfect location for inexperienced or nervous kayakers. While floating on the peaceful waters we took in the sights of the Chinese Garden, the vibrant and tall pagodas, the MRT swooping above the dense treetops, and the apartment complexes that peppered the landscape. Unfortunately, not too long after we had paddled out onto the reservoir, a threatening storm sent down a bolt of lightning in the distance and an alarm called us back to shore.

Though this activity may not intrigue paddlers used to white rapids in thick jungles, urban kayaking is nevertheless an unexpected way to see the sights of the city, as well as a refreshing way to exercise outdoors in a tropical climate. Just make sure to bring plenty of sunscreen, a few bottles of water, and a willingness to get splashed.

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In the Shadows of Myanmar’s Golden Stupa: New Friends in Old Places

Published on April 23, 2013 in Young & Global Magazine:

Shwezigon Pagoda, Nyaung-U

In the dry heat of the late morning, the gold Shwezigon Pagoda shone blindingly bright against the fierce blue sky. It was February, the very beginning of Myanmar’s blistering summer, and the day was only going to get hotter. Regardless, the compound surrounding the gilt stupa was busy with barefoot visitors. At the giant structure’s base, local women kneeled on cool white tiles or sat on thin mats to pray. Little boys scampered around in packs. Tourists encumbered by cameras gazed up at the elaborate peaks of the various shrines. A dog slumbered in the shade.

Many of the women and children had a yellowish-white paste applied to their faces in a circular patch on each cheek. I knew Myanmar was primarily a Buddhist country and I wondered whether the markings had a religious significance.

A trio of young girls sporting this face paint approached me arm-in-arm and greeted me in English. Like every other local I had seen, they all wore the traditional longyi (a piece of cloth tied around the waist that falls to the ankles) in vivid floral patterns. However on top they wore a variety of shirts not unlike ones I could pick up in an American Target store.

“Hi,” I responded, curious but a little wary. Were they going to ask for money?

“We are students of English. Is it okay if we talk to you so to practice?”

I nodded, with a smile.

Their names were like knotted silk scarves: long and full of soft syllables. I could never hope to pronounce them properly and, out of shyness, I didn’t ask them to repeat them.

The girls at the Shwezigon Pagoda

The ringleader of the little trio had dark shoulder-length hair and a ready smile. “Do you have any questions about our country?” She queried.

“I do, actually. What is the meaning of your face paint?”

She laughed and patted her cheeks. “It is thanaka! To protect from the sun!”

We spent a few minutes chatting about where we came from, and I played them a video on my phone of my teenaged brother in my family’s kitchen in New Jersey last winter. Several feet of snow had walled us in, burying our cars and patio furniture. My new friends marveled at the expanse of white visible outside our windows and they giggled as they proclaimed my brother very handsome.

“Can I be sister-in-law?” The ringleader asked cheekily, causing her friends to squeal and hush her.

“Oh absolutely,” I replied, sending them into peals of laughter.

They were eager to improve their English and pulled out paper notebooks emblazoned with advertisements for the upcoming Twilight movie. I shook my head in amazement. Only six months earlier the Myanmar government had announced that it would cease censoring media before publication, and already Twilight had arrived.

I knew many of the locals refused to acknowledge the country’s name as Myanmar, but when I complimented the beautiful looping letters of written Burmese, the girls shyly corrected me: Myanmar language, not Burmese. Perhaps they were too young to remember Burma before the military junta tightened its grip on the government and isolated the nation from the rest of the world.

The girls’ English writing was neat, peppered with well-rounded a’s and cleanly crossed t’s. The vocabulary lists meticulously written into their flimsy notebooks were curious amalgamations that gathered seemingly unconnected words into one category. One such list contained: elbow, disseminate, max, meander, price tag, and nullify.

I was doing my best to explain how Americans and British idioms were quite different when I noticed “That sucks” was on their list.

“Now that is a useful idiom,” I said with a laugh.

They flipped through several pages, stopping to ask me the correct way to pronounce “I’ve” and to verify the accuracy of their lists of idioms, which some English-speaking tourists didn’t seem to know.

In the shadow of a golden stupa built in 1102 AD, we traded email addresses. Then, promising to stay in touch, we went our separate ways.

In the coming years those girls will undoubtedly see their homeland move through unimaginable changes. The tourism industry is exploding at a startling rate and the local people will have to safeguard their culture against the tide of Hollywood movies, Western fashions, and convenient modern alternatives. But this amicable trio of girls, so eager to learn the English of their visitors, will also have a broader array of opportunities than they’ve ever had before.

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