Wednesday, July 28, 2010

My life in Sing and the first installment of my Asian travels

I work long hours. I'm in before 9am (sometimes 8) and I leave anywhere between 6:30 and 9pm. Except on Fridays. Fridays, we have a happy hour in the office, it starts at 4pm. Sometimes I start at 4, sometimes I start at 5. Always, once I pick up a glass of wine, I don't work again until Monday morning.

Some days I'm frustrated and I hate my job. It can be overwhelmingly. Sometimes I can feel like I am in over my head. There are moments I want to quit.

I love my job.

Not once have I regretted being here.

I love the people I work with. We are an eclectic, international mix. We are a living Benetton ad, constantly mocking each other's nationality and race. But there is great affection and respect between us. It's weird being outside the US political correctness. The teasing each other about racial stereotypes at first was shocking to the American in me. (And the liberal). Now I join in. When Rebecca was here she asked, "When did you become so racist?"

My usual gang from work is compiled of a couple Aussies, some Irish, a few Indians, and a couple Americans and a Sri Lankan. That's our immediate team. When we hang out with other googlers, throw in some French, Brits, Malaysians, New Zealanders, even the Finnish.

What has been the most surprising to me? To realize that America's best export is Hollywood. Everyone, I mean whether you grew up in a long house in Borneo or a cottage in Ireland, watched Friends and listened to Michael Jackson growing up.

I love my house and get along with my flatmate. We are friendly with each other, but haven't done much socializing outside of the apartment. When I'm home, I tend to spend more time in my rooms, but that's mostly a product of having being used to living alone, and having a job where I’m dealing with people all day. I do feel at home in the house.

Singapore is clean and efficient. The MRT (the subway) always runs on time and I've rarely waited more than 3 minutes for a train.

Singaporeans walk into you. Personal space is a different concept here. Walking down the street, sometimes I feel like the sidewalk is like the game that's a board with a silver ball and you tilt the board, and the balls rolls down the incline. That is Singaporeans rolling towards me on the sidewalks. Drives me crazy.

Also, Chivalry is a Western concept. Holding the door open, giving your seat to a pregnant woman, holding the elevator door. These are actions that are not viewed as necessary to be polite, and not doing them is not considered rude. As a westerner, it feels to me like Singaporeans are rude. They will push and shove you out of the way to get on the MRT before you. A pregnant woman will not be offered a seat, and, she will be pushed and shoved out of the way. It drives me crazy. And the MRT is never not full of people pushing to get on the train before you. I have to remind myself that to them it isn't rude to knock you out of the way get on the escalator before you.

Politeness is in different rituals. For instance, in business, you hand your business card over using 2 hands. The recipient of the card must take the card and read it. Take at least a minute or 2 to actually read the card, and then place it on the table in front of you for the duration of the meeting. As an American my instinct would be to take the card and shove it in my pocket. Which, to a Singaporean, would be considered incredibly rude.

I miss Chinese food. I mean, American Chinese food. It's weird to be surrounded by Chinese food, and miss it. Its fish with the heads on (including eyes) and shrimps completely shelled with heads. And the chicken consistency is different. But, I do love dim sum and noodles. Some of the Hawker Center food is really good. I’m especially a fan of really good Chicken Rice. But sometimes, I just want some good old American Chinese Chicken and Broccoli.

So, my travels:

When Rebecca was here we went to Bali for the weekend. Too short of a visit, but it was fun, but the story there was the whole moped business. Stupidly, I forgot that I don't know how to ride a motor bike and that I do have a fear of death. So of course, we rented motorbikes. Which involved the very complicated process of calling the front desk and asking for 2 bikes for 2 days. An hour later someone came to our room with a receipt for us to sign, helmets and keys and told us they were parked in the parking lot. I did comment that it's a little bit weird that they didn't ask for driver’s licenses. (Since, you know, I'm no longer licensed drive)

We got on the bikes someone from the hotel helped us start them, and gave us directions to an ATM. We shakily took off down the road only a couple doors to a Circle K that had an ATM. Except when we got there, the ATM didn't accept my card. We got back on our bikes to find a new ATM, Rebecca hopped on her bike, revved the engine and took off down the street. She's in her 20's. She has no fear, all her body parts work and death is something she thinks will never happen to her. I'm in my 30's. I'm losing coordination and confidence. It took me a bit of time to balance on the bike, strap on the helmet and turn the key.

There I was, sitting the in the tiny driveway of a circle K in Seminyak Beach on the Island of Bali in Indonesia. And I heard, "click." The engine wouldn't turn over. I turned the key again. Tried revving the engine. Nothing. Rebecca had evaporated into the landscape of motorbikes and trucks and cars. And the needle on my motorbike engine was sitting snug and defiantly on E.

I hopped of the bike, took off the helmet and stood there.

What to do?

So, of course I stood there a minute more.

What to do?

I took out my phone and sent Rebecca an email. Because she could get wireless on her phone even if she couldn’t make calls.

I waited another minute.

Motorbikes, cars, and trucks whizzed by and beeped as they passed.

I waited another minute, and then decided to walk, assuming she have must noticed at some point that I wasn’t not driving up behind her and probably stopped.

I found a few hundred yards up the road, perched confidently on her moped waiting patiently for me. She greeted me with, "Where the hell have you been?"

I told her about the bike being on empty. She was waiting for me in the driveway of another ATM. So I tried that ATM, placing my helmet on a ledge inside the vestibule, noticing an offering to the gods. It was a dried palm folded into a bowl shape filled with dried spices, fresh flowers and Ritz crackers. Versions of these are all over Bali. Some on sidewalks, in driveways, and in ATM vestibules.

That ATM also didn’t accept VISA. Rebecca and I decided that I would ride on the back of her bike we'd go get gasoline for the bike and find another ATM. I hoped on the back of the bike and she took off down the road, her face in the wind, mine tucked behind her back, terrified. We pulled into a gas station that also had an ATM, one that luckily took my card. While I was in the ATM she filled up her bike with gas. As I walked back to her bike, I realized, I didn’t have my helmet. She was trying to ask the gas station attendant if we could bring some gas back to fill my bike. They don't understand English, we got frustrated.

I told her about my helmet. We decided it was probably back at the other ATM, so decided to ride back there. Once again, I hopped on the back of the bike. As we were turning at an intersection, a policeman stepped out in front of us and signaled for us to pull over. On the corner was what looked to me like a photo hut, but was a police station. They sat me down on a bench outside, and brought Rebecca in.

There they were, her, tall, blonde in a tank top and shorts, looking very much like an American tourist. And him, tall, rotund, a policeman. Looking very much like an over weight, middle-aged policeman. He could have been in New York, Chicago, or Bali.

He asked for her ID. Told her there were big problems, she didn’t have an international driver's license and I wasn't wearing a helmet. She tried to explain that we were going back from my helmet. He just shook his head saying, "Big problem. But for 200,000 it can be done." (200,000 IDR is roughly 20 bucks). Rebecca had no Indonesian money. She had American dollars. She offered him 20 US dollars, trying to explain that she was out of the Indonesian money that she had changed at the airport. They brought me into the photo hut/police station. He said to me, "200,000. It’s not for me, it's for the government."

It was, at that moment, that I understood what was going on.

Something to note, I can’t do math. And for me, currency exchange can be confusing. Even the most basic, at times, can throw me out of whack. It gets worse when I'm holding a 100,000 bill. I mean, What? It's hard for me to wrap my head around it being 9 dollars. So, I opened up my wallet and I pulled out 1 bill of 5,000. I can't count zeros when there are too many on a bill.

As if I was bargaining, he shook his head at me and held up four fingers. "One, two, three, four." Right. 4 bills at 5,000, for a total of 200,000. Or one for him and each of the cops hanging around the photo hut/police shack. But, it's for the government, not him.

I gave him 4 bills. They then let us go and get back on the motorbike, without international drivers licenses or my helmet.

At the ATM vestibule, my helmet was waiting for me, sitting next to the offer to the gods.

Rebecca was furious that we had pay off the Indonesian Cops. I put on the helmet, and we decided to leave my bike where it was, and find a place for lunch, and deal with the bike later. So, once again, we were zooming along on the frenetic, chaotic streets of Seminyak Beach, Rebecca with her face to the wind, me cowering, my head down behind her back, holding on tight.

We found a lovely cafe and ordered burgers. Yes, we were those tourists. We ordered burgers. I love Indonesian food, but I think both of us needed something familiar. She was still all in a tizzy and angry about the forced bribe. I found it hysterical. I kept reminding her that it was my money after all. And, in the end, it was 20 bucks.

We finished our burgers, decided to do some exploring, so back on the bike we hopped her driving, me hiding behind her. She was Dark Knight all over the streets, eventually I raised my head and took in the scenery and stopped imagining death by moped in Bali. We worked our way back to my abandoned bike.

Rebecca suggested that we try one more time to turn it on. She sat on it, turned the key and revved the engine. It burped, coughed, then hummed. Mocking me, of course. Apparently I was trying to turn it on wrong. It was on empty, but it wasn't actually empty.

Rebecca got a good laugh. Suddenly the whole Indo Police Shakedown was funny.

She road off, I wobbled and we returned the gas station to fill it up. Well, not only was I not comfortable with starting the bike. I also wasn't comfortable stopping it. Luckily, I'd slowed to an almost stop, so I sort of hopped off it to make it stop (and solicited the help of the gas station attendants that I almost knocked over). Rebecca had to start it again for me.

For the rest of my motorbike driving, I was wobbly but ok. Until the last day.

On our last morning we had time to drive around and do some shopping. We took off on the bikes again. Well, Rebecca took off, I wobbled and sputtered. On the way she took a left turn rather than a right at an intersection, heading in the opposite direction then we intended. She pulled over, and I (almost) smoothly pulled up next to her. She might be Dark Knight on the bike, but I’m the one with the gift of a Sense of Direction. I pointed out the wrong turn, so we turned our bikes to make a U - turn, waiting for a break in the flowing stream of motorbikes and trucks and cars. She zoomed off, I waited for my turn. I was definitely getting a bit over-confident. There was as safe enough break in the traffic flow, I turned the bike wheel and revved the engine, except, I didn’t U-turn. I sped across the street, and with my lack of finesse for stopping, slide sideways and landed on the other side of the road. The bike on it’s side, and me as well. People came and helped me up. They couldn’t have been kinder. Although, I’m sure they were thinking, “Stupid American tourist lady shouldn’t be riding a bike.” We got the bike up right, and I checked my limbs, my fingers and toes, and my sanity. Rebecca came back to check on me, and I said to her, “And I’m done with motorbikes.”

I wont be getting on a bike anytime soon.

That was Bali. I’ll catch you up on Macau, Hong Kong and Ho Chi Minh later. (what you have to look forward to are hookers, casinos, Buddha, a Vietnamese pop band that covers only American music, sparklers, Pho, blown fuses, more Pho, and stories about me being cranky)

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