Sunday, September 27, 2015

Part 2: Autumn in Singapore: Of Haze and Mooncakes

So yesterday I shared the less-pleasant side of autumn in Singapore... now let me get to the good stuff. 

The really, really good stuff.

The sweet treat that equates the caloric intake of a full day's worth of meals...

The Mooncake.

You may remember my mentioning mooncakes during my very first semester in Singapore. Well, I'm pleased to tell you that I have become something of an expert in these particular desserts since that time, if expert status can be gleaned from just eating a whole lot of something. 

Mooncakes are served as a traditional treat during the Mid-Autumn Festival. The most traditional of mooncakes, seen here, is a baked pastry shell containing the rich, densely caloric lotus seed paste scattered with melon seeds, packed around a salted egg yolk. It sounds strange, but it is at once smooth and nutty and sweet and rich with just a hint of salt.

It is, in short, incredible.

Mooncakes are not cheap, either. This one, pictured above, was one of the most reasonably priced ones at SGD$8.50 ($5.95 USD). They can work their way up to nearly $50 a cake... or more. Over time, the mooncake has been modernized and riffed and created and recreated, all with delectable results. This Saturday, a new colleague friend and I ventured down Orchard to a vendor fair which was like Mooncake Heaven:

And the best part? FREE SAMPLES.

And it wasn't like free samples in an ice cream shop, where you feel
self-conscious and slightly guilty for asking. Here, vendors pushed samples upon you - before you can speak, toothpick-speared chunks of mooncake are being shoved into your hands, and the vendor is excitedly telling you about this particular variety or that one. There WAS great variety. Snowskin mooncakes, which are named for the frosty appearance and cold temperature of the skin, are melt-in-your-mouth delicious. Some mooncakes were dusted in edible gold, while others packed a punch of a vodka- or gin-infused center. Still others contained dried fruit, nuts, or more, er, surprising elements... "What is that... other flavor I'm getting?" "Barbecued chicken, miss!" It was as much a feast for the eyes as it was for the taste buds.

It was great fun, and I felt very much like a child that had been turned loose on a bag of Halloween candy with no parental supervision. Finally, my own stomach slammed on the brakes, and I stated that if I didn't get a bottle of water and non-sugar containing food in me soon, I was, in fact, going to die.

Perhaps I wouldn't have died, but I certainly was able to tell I had had enough...

Until later on that evening, when I remembered my purchases sitting innocently in the fridge...

Surely one little piece wouldn't hurt...

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Part 1: Autumn in Singapore: Of Haze and Mooncakes

The view of trees & buildings from office window. #nofilter
Autumn has come to Singapore, and the change of "seasons" brings pluses and minuses.

One of the things I miss terribly about Buffalo are the very distinct seasons. This time of year, you can feel a crispness growing in the air; this time of year in Buffalo, you can smell winter approaching in the dying leaves and sweet apple cider.

In equatorial Singapore, summer is eternal, but there are nuanced changes that one can note.

This is the time of year that Indonesia burns off the old fields to ready them for new crops. The smoke from the fires blows over Singapore and Malaysia, where it settles in like a blanket. 

An early afternoon at the Bayfront. Within two hours the skyline was a ghostly silhouette.

It's labeled "haze," which can cause a misconception, especially in countries removed from the situation, that it is simply urban smog caused by over population of cars and factories. But the truth is that it's smoke. The fine particles that get in the air can only be blocked out by special respirators (N95 masks), and Singapore tracks the haze like we Buffalonians might track snowfall - in fact, they have a unit of measurement called the PSI, or Pollutant Standards Index, which is tracked in 1-hour, 3-hour and 24-hour increments. When it reaches an "unhealthy" level, school may be cancelled for children.

The entire situation, as you might imagine, is a touchy geopolitical issue among these nations. It's as much a question of economics as anything else: slash-and-burn methods are the fastest, cheapest, and most effective. This article from the BBC is concise yet informative.

The interesting thing about the haze is that it's very comparative, to me, to Buffalo's sudden snowfalls. Just as you can set out in the morning to clear skies and roads only to be hit by a sudden storm in the afternoon, so the haze can also seem to creep in without notice. 

Sunrise and sunset present a pink marble of a sun. 
Taken at neighboring Ngee Ann Poly university.
On Tuesday morning, the haze was only faintly visible, with just a slight smokey smell to the air. By the afternoon, as I walked to my 3:30 class, I could not clearly see the end of the long, open-air corridor. My eyes burned, and I held my breath, and was relieved to get into the air conditioned class room. Now, I keep a mask in my bag like one keeps an umbrella. The mask is extremely efficient in filtering out those fine particles - I can't even smell the smoke when I'm wearing it - but it also makes breathing more difficult as every breath your lungs pull in is being filtered through layers of mesh. 

Suffice it to say, I've stayed indoors a lot this fall! ...But, as they say, the sun will come out tomorrow... Until then...

Stay tuned for a brighter sign of autumn in Singapore: MOONCAKES!

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Facing my demons on Orchard Road

Note: I originally drafted this post during my second week of the past summer session. However, the session took off, an exciting experience with an illness and detained medication ensued, I got well as the semester, like a roller coaster reaching the track peak, plummeted onward with momentum, and final projects came pouring in. In short, this post got lost in the shuffle. But I found it recently, and felt it was still worth posting. Enjoy!

Try as I might, I've never been able to adequately capture the Orchard Road 
experience with my own amateur photography skills. This photo does it justice. 

Click here to be taken to its original source, a great article on the Singapore Sale.
I’ve lived in Singapore for three years now, and I have yet to spend a lot of time on Orchard Road. 

Famous for being Singapore’s 5th Avenue (and while I’ve never been to New York’s counterpart, I’ve heard Orchard rivals even that), it’s alive with sights, sounds, commercialism and community; however, I’m not much of a shopper and I’m not fond of crowds, so when I need to buy something, I head toward quieter gift-shopping areas (Tanglin), places with a bit more culture (Chinatown or Little India) or malls that cover more territory and disperse the crowds (VivoCity). 

But I moved to Treetops in January, which is situated nicely off of Orange Grove Road, a small offshoot that has a very tropical-escape feeling to it, and is also halfway between the hub-bub of Orchard and the quieter elegance of Tanglin. On Friday, a mere six days after arriving in Singapore for the concentrated summer session, I decided to head out.

Let it be known that my downfall is directions. I’m famous within my family for once getting lost at the Four Corners of Orchard Park, a classic “small town Americana Main Street” environment. I am pleased to say I’ve grown up a bit since that childhood incident, but even still, directions are simpler in a small town.
“I’m looking for such-and-such – can you point me in the right direction?” 
“Y’know the yellow house on the corner?” 
“Well, go two country blocks, pass the horse farm and turn left at the first stop sign you come to…”
So plop me down on Orchard and it’s just bound to be trouble.

I did some shopping at Tanglin then headed up Orchard to go to a favorite stationery shop (Typo). At this point, the burst of energy that came with my jetlagged early wake-up had evaporated like the morning clouds, and now I was tired. Tired, hot, and frustrated that the shop didn’t even have what I was looking for. So I started back.

And got lost.

Supremely, irrevocably lost. For about an hour. My overheating smartphone burned my hand as its battery drained and GoogleMaps resolutely attempted to set walking directions that would lead me head-on into traffic. The combination of jetlag and heat exhaustion made this a powerfully emotional experience, and the only thing preventing me from sitting on the curbside and weeping was my last remaining shard of pride and the fact that I had perspired so much at this point that I don’t think I could have produced tears if I had wanted to. Swallowing a painful lump in my throat and with it my shame and feeling of profound failure (I’ve lived here three years and I’m LOST?), I hailed a cab, took it back to my apartment, and stayed in busily prepping lectures and activity materials for two straight days.

On Sunday, a student surprised me with a ticket to see Singin’ in the Rain at Marina Bay Sands Theatre (read about that delightful experience here). Leaving MBS, I decided to take the train back and get off at Orchard Station. Little did I realize, it would put me right back at the scene of the crime. 

But it was night; it was cool(er), I was relaxed, and after popping up out of a few underpasses and realizing I was heading in the wrong direction, I found the correct one and was on my way. On my way, walking back to my apartment, feeling on top of the world. 

But would I find it again in the heat of the day?

On Wednesday, there was some construction going on at my apartment, so to escape the noise, I took a bus down to 313@Somerset for lunch and a visit to a different Typo branch. I took the train back to Orchard, popped up out of the correct underpass, and walked back with nary a care in the world.

It seems like a small victory; maybe even a foolish one at that. The foreigner figures out how to escape one confusing city block. Big deal. But in the three years I’ve been in Singapore, I’ve chosen to live in three different apartments in three very unique neighborhoods on this small island-city. I could have gone for the same, safe experience each semester (and I did for two of three years), but I opted along the way for something new and with each new environment comes a new “starting over” period in which one stretches one’s wings, bumps about a bit, but eventually, hopefully, figures out how to get airborne. 

And with each small success, my heart is all of a flutter.

How many visits?