Thursday, 28 March 2013

Who let the blog out?

This is winter?
How is it possible that one-month has come and gone since we landed with a thud in Canada? How is it possible that 30 days have flown by so quickly and I haven't pressed a key, except to hook up utilities, bid on auctions and comb the web for the best places to buy pomegranates and track migrating orcas?  Not one single key stroked on our travels, explaining where we alighted on our latest adventure. I guess life got in the way. 

When you disembark in a new country, and yes, even though I am a Canadian, it feels like unfamiliar territory, there is an adjustment period and that is what I am doing. Adjusting my pompousness that I am not stuck in six feet of snow in Saskatchewan or sweltering through another soggy rain in SE Asia, while pancake-size armpit stains form on my dress. I am slowly becoming knowledgeable in what up island means, how the HST soaks you every time at the till, and how to recycle everything. I am learning a house doesn't have to be heated with forced air or cooled with constant air conditioning; there are places where you can survive with a perfect climate, surrounded by Cherry Blossoms and Daffodils. 
Not Japan, but as lovely

Most importantly, I am learning you don't drive your car on the left hand side of the road unless you are on a one-way street. You can get away with walking on the opposite side because the vagrants wander with no real purpose, but time to reign in the crazy when you drive on the wrong side of the mountains. 

Now that we are settled, my children are coming to visit when school is out for the term, and we already have a two week trip planned to Montreal; no, I am not foregoing my Spanish for French, but all Canadians speak French don't they? That was the question I was asked at least once a day in Asia when Canada was mentioned.

I promised my readers our travelling play-by-plays would not stop, so I will try to keep the Quebecois from cursing my Grade 12 French and ridiculing my Anglophone accent under their breath as I search for other madcap events to amuse in La Ville Aux Cent Clochers.

While our adventures are not ending, the laynainasia blog is winding down at 25,000 viewers. I am glad to report that I have started a book, which will give more in-depth adventures of Asia in an e-book format. I hope you all have a reader on your Christmas Wish list. With all of the advances in the e-book tablets; the abilities for colour photos, video clips and links, it is exactly how this techno-lover wants to showcase the beautiful sites we experienced. 

My book, while still garnering a few laughs, will tell the darker side of life in Singapore and beyond. These are stories I was scared to share because of possible repercussions while living in Asia. Nothing will get you a one-way ticket home like spilling the ugly hidden secrets they so carefully try to mask. With this, I mean the horrific lives many young children are forced to live when sold or taken from their families, the slaughter of the elephants, tigers, orang utans and other endangered beasts, and how maids are treated like modern day slaves. These are only my opinions and observations from what I saw and researched, but I imagine you will be as shocked as this Hicktown Girl was, to the travesties I witnessed. 
A little Asia in Canada

So back to the here and now; I promised to reveal where we are putting down roots, for as long as R2 and I can manage roots. Tomorrow, we are making a little jaunt down to the wharf, where we will board a Harbour plane. You know the Harbour plane? It is the one they used on the Beachcombers in the 70s. The type of aircraft that lands on the water and pretends it is a boat. R2 thinks this is going to be fun; I think he is wrong and he will come to learn this as I am throwing up my dinner from the previous night. He wants to take in a concert, so what better way than to arrive in style on a Seaplane, majestically landing on the Pacific. I bet even Bob Seger isn't arriving in such class. I hope they have life jackets.

While the concert is a nice perk, it is only a diversion to the real reason we are soaring off in a floating air taxi. A mere two weeks after landing, we were informed that R2 is being granted his Canadian Residency after almost five years in Canada and he doesn't want to miss our 10:30 a.m. appointment. There is nothing stopping him from getting that little card he needs to carry with him when he travels; a card that shows he has almost the same rights as any Canadian. He can travel freely, he can access health care, he can have a pension and best of all, he can pay an exorbitant amount of Canadian tax to really make him feel special; like he is one of us. Nevertheless, it is a proud, exciting day; one that is long overdue. Next stop, citizenship.
Bring the sick bags

For a change of travel, we will return to our cozy flat that over looks the majestic mountains, on the Tsawwassen to Swartz Bay ferry. Yes, we will travel from Vancouver, to Vancouver Island where we have quietly relocated in Victoria, British Columbia.  

To quote a tall, Mexican man, near and dear to my heart, "This place is like Moose Jaw but with quality restaurants like Montreal, great transportation like Toronto, less crazy than Vancouver and weather close to perfection. Victoria, oh, Victoria, where were you all these years in my search to find paradise on earth?"

It doesn't get better than this
I hope you have enjoyed the drama and will hang about for the book. Now that I have put it out to the universe, it will happen. As long as you are reading, I am writing.

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Birthday time zones

Curious emu in OZ
Last year on my birthday I was on hiding from the vibrant sun under a tiny umbrella on Manly Beach, in Australia, wishing I knew how to surf because the people that flock to the white sand beaches looked like they were loving the last week of summer in the surf. Summer was slow to come to Australia but we hit the sweet spot on our two week trip, enjoying dazzling autumn weather.

The most famous site in Sydney
This year is slightly different. It is my birthday and we are up at 5 a.m. sitting in the lounge waiting for a flight out of Singapore. Our passports are stamped, our employment passes have been surrendered at the border, we have withdrawn as much cash as our pockets will carry and it is sayonara, Singapore. We arrived during Year of the Rabbit and now that Year of the Snake has slithered into Asia, we are onto the next chapter in our lives.

Saying goodbye to wonderful friends
It occurred to me that I have written over 50 chapters on Asia and abroad. I started this blog as a way to keep me sane, in an insane place. When I came to Asia, I thought I would be lonesome and never meet any friends but that thought couldn’t have been further from the truth. I have kept so busy that often I don’t have time to write, the way I would like. I met interesting, friendly people from every corner of this small world, and no matter how far away they lived from Canada, we all had something in common, being so far from home.

R2 learning to make takoyaki
Some of my closest friends don’t speak much English but we still manage to laugh and figure out what the other is trying to say. When I said goodbye to my wonderful friend from Japan, she was so overwhelmed, everything she said as she cried was in Japanese; she forgot any English she ever knew. It didn’t matter what she said, I understood.

The blog has taken on a life of its own and the first question is whether it will continue when I leave Asia. I wish I could answer that, and I wish I knew the title or whether LaynainAsia will remain. I have reached 20,000 readers in one year, was nominated Blogger of the Year in Singapore, and it shows no signs of stopping, but my Asian life has. 

I loved my elephants
I started this blog as a way to keep my children and friends updated on our adventures, and I started writing for the newspaper so my parents knew I was not stranded on some island in the middle of the South China sea. However, knowing my love for technology, even if I was, I would find a way to connect. I can picture R2 up a coconut tree trying to find a signal for my phone so I could keep in touch. “Layna, do you have signal, how many bars are there, maybe if I move my hand to the right? How about now?”

Since I began telling my Singapore friends we are leaving, it has been difficult saying farewell. I don’t do “goodbyes” well, and I avoid them at all costs because I am trying to save the environment from all the soggy tissues I produce. 

Our biggest challenge is our return to Canada. Arturo, yes, that is his real name because most English speakers can’t roll the second R and find R2 an easier way to address my husband, is not a Canadian citizen. Many people think if you are married, it is an automatic freebie into the country. Not so. We have struggled for more than four years to have the federal government grant him a Canadian residency. We have written, phoned, begged, pleaded, spoken to our political leaders and still that tiny piece of paper that grants him Residency is out of our reach. 

I will miss the animals
It is a mystery why they are making us jump through every hoop, cross, all Tees and dot every I when we see thousands of people immigrating to Canada that can barely murmur “hello”. He is a well educated man that speaks four languages and has lived all around the world, with a professional respect that many will never achieve. He pays his Canadian taxes, rarely uses any medical care and is not a burden to the country. He loves Canada almost as much as he love me, and it was his decision to give it one last shot before we are too old and will be denied Citizenship forever. If that is the case, Viva la Mexico.

It is my turn to support and work, while he follows his passion for cooking. Twenty odd years, running from airport to airport, living in suitcase and hotels is more than most people could take. Many think it is glamourous, but once I lived this “envied” life with him, it is far from that. Yes, you see many countries, but before he met me, each looked the same from a hotel room window. I made him leave the comfort of the hotel and see the landscapes with my innocent eyes. Even though he would return, often exhausted, he never denied me when I had something to show him in every location we travelled. 

We will persevere with an Immigration lawyer from Vancouver, to help our cause because nothing, to date, has helped. The amount of money he has spent on immigration could front a small country for a few years. We feel we are close, but we need to not be traveling to secure the papers. It is a sad state of affairs that everyone in Mexico is deemed part of a drug cartel and the hard working people that want a better life don’t get a chance. The divorce rate of international couples is staggering because often one person isn’t allowed into the country and it is too difficult to live apart. We have chosen not to let anyone deny us our right to be, us, so if Canada is not the place, then other countries will welcome his skills and professionalism gladly.

Amazing Asia
I want to thank all of my readers from my blog and the paper that have followed, left comments, laughed and cried at my stories. The people that phoned my family and said, “That is your daughter, sister or friend? We love her writing,” bless you. That means more than you know, to know you enjoy reading about our crazy life. While I have worked for the Government of Saskatchewan for 16 years, I feel this is my true calling, and I have a spouse and family that backs me 100 per cent.

I am not certain LaynainRegina, or LaynaBackatWorkintheSnow will be amusing and entertaining, but I promise you, we will scale the CN Tower in Toronto, or hike the Three Sisters in Alberta to keep you amused as you log on, whilst drinking your morning coffee or your evening Gin and Tonic by the pool in Singapore.

We are in the Hong Kong airport, waiting for our next flight to Canada; we have two more to go. While it seems like such a long way home, I know I get two birthdays once we cross one of the many time zones. My children have already wished me happy birthday in Asia, and tomorrow, I get to hear their voices. R2 hasn’t stepped foot in Canada since 2011, so having him back here with me is the best present I could ask for.

Please don’t forget us, and follow us on laynainasia.blogspot.com. Until we meet again, or as they say in my kampong in Singapore “Sehingga kita bertemu lagi.” Let’s leave it at that to save the trees from my tears.

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

The tuk-tuk diaries

Fancy tuk-tuk in Melaka
Pardon me, Che Guevara, because I don't mean to impose on the highly famous "The Motorcycle Diaries" however, in my little world, it feels like I have crossed Asia on a tuk-tuk and made it out the other side, alive.

Coming from Canada, I had no idea what an Asian tuk-tuk was. As Canadians, we think it is our god given right to own a car, a mini-van for the kids, a truck for hauling the weekend trailer, a sled to cruise in the snow and maybe even a quad to roam around the north forty if there is enough mud to get down and dirty. Public transportation and taxis are foreign to most of us, unless we have swilled down too many drinks on TGIF happy hour.

My closest experience to these tiny transports would be the Pneumonia Carts that whizz around Mazatlan, Sinaloa, Mexico. Compared to the tuk-tuks, the Mexican carts are champagne next to no-name beer chugged down at a country jamboree. 

My first experience was India and I have never looked back. Each region I have visited has their own version of the tuk-tuk but no matter where you go, the drivers are hungry for business and willing to take you on the ride of your life. Every time I hire one, I think it might be my final day on earth but even with all the close calls, the honking and blaring of horns, I manage to survive. We won't mention all the kissing of the ground I do, when I get through another excursion.

Houses on stilts from floods
Our latest joyride in Siem Reap was fancier than some and less than others. It consisted of a motorcycle pulling a seated, covered cart that could carry four but often ten were crammed inside. What we didn't count on was the dry season in Cambodia, making for asphyxiation by red dust that coats every thing in a fine red silt, including our lungs. Most people wear masks but the "newbies" in town forgot. We had to pull our T-shirts over our noses, making us look like we were on our way to a badly orchestrated bank heist. Bonnie and Pedro, cameras, not guns, a blazing, Mexican style.


In Phnom Penh, the tuk-tuks were the same, but we noticed many rickshaw drivers pedaling or pulling people in a tiny cart meant for one scrawny posterior, not the four we saw stuffed into the seat. Luckily the Cambodians are wee people. One western rear would barely fit into a rickshaw seat but in Asia, why take one when four can ride?

 There is a special dance that occurs when you cross the road in Cambodia. With the thousands of scooters, it is best to cross when you see a small break in the traffic, don't hesitate and act like you own the road. Like a beautifully choreographed Tango, the drivers will weave in and out never giving your presence a second thought. Miraculously you emerge, unscathed on the other side.

On our journeys we have seen scooter gangs as far as the eye can see, and I thought I had seen everything until I went to Siem Reap. I have witnessed several strange items being carried on scooters but we had to look twice when we saw a man carrying a queen sized mattress and box spring, strapped precariously, riding shotgun. 

Off to market
It is always pleasant to go for a Sunday drive in the country, but on this Khmer outing, it was a family tree on a scooter. Papa was driving, while first born sat in front helping him steer. Mama was behind with a child wedged between, standing on the seat. The granny was perched, sidesaddle on the back, holding an infant in her arms, with a smoke hanging from her lips. In total, there were 6 people on a scooter meant for one. How the wheels managed to carry that weight is anyone's guess, but perhaps that is why Cambodian people are slight.

If that wasn't enough, we saw several scooters with two huge pigs strapped to the back. For the sake of Porky and Wilbur, I hope they were dead; they looked pretty stiff to me as we whizzed past. 

We saw dozens of drivers carrying hundreds of upside-down chickens, tied by their feet on their final drive to the chopping block. They were squawking and clucking, with their heads bouncing off the potholes and wind ruffling their feathers. 

Our hired driver informed us that village chickens, such as these, were the most delicious. He told us they were more tender. No wonder, they were being tenderized on the fly as they took their final ride to some restaurant serving up Chicken Curry Amok. Not a nice way to leave this world, and I avoided eating any chicken or pork for the entire trip. Mango salads suited me just fine.

Another way to travel
Cambodia is a fascinating country and I am pleased I had the opportunity to visit a small portion before I left Asia. It was an in and out trip, however, it made a deep impression on me. While the country is so far below the poverty line you can't find the percentile, with many people making less than 75 cents per day, I was charmed by the locals. I was amazed at the service, the quality of the food and how we were treated with respect and dignity. 

Kids waving to us
You can see the poverty everywhere in Cambodia and yet, the children were happy to meet us and when we left a US two dollar tip with a lady at the foot massage, you would think she had won the lottery. The death and destruction of such a country is unimaginable to most people but when you drive through the country side, you will see, even with the little they have, they take pride in their homes and work. The people that have lost their limbs to the land mines still smile when you pass them on the street. 

Life in Cambodia
I don't feel I am done with Cambodia. Every day I think about the poverty, the survivors of the land mines and the children that are sold by their parents into the human trafficking for the sex trade. The poor are conned, the children work in sweat shops and often the tourists that think they are volunteering for a good cause are being completely scammed due to a big heart. Cambodia has come a long way since it opened up to tourism in the 1990s but there is a long way to go to for human dignity and rights for all of the citizens.

I may never get back to Asia, but I know I will always have a soft spot in my heart for the people of Cambodia. I recently read about a special Canadian, former RCMP officer that has dedicated most of his life to helping the people of Cambodia. I may just have to look him up and see what I can do to help. 

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Garage sale..Singapore style

This is not the first time I have sold everything I own, and something tells me it will not be the last. I believe there are a few more moves waiting in the wings before we put down permanent roots somewhere in the world.

When R2 gets the moving bug, nothing is safe from an online posting site that sell the strangest items. It was when I saw him heading for my enormous shoe closet with the camera, a well-flung slipper nailed him and his red Canon, stopping him in his tracks. Some things are sacred, and to me, I have spent a large percentage of my life hunting down the perfect texture, the right heel and the correct shade of black for every outfit. Back away from the high-heels and no one gets hurt. Those 250 pairs are coming with me, even if I have to smuggle them on the plane by wearing five pairs through security.
How we love technology in Asia

Singaporeans are among the world's most voracious users of digital media so it is no surprise I am refereeing bidding wars via smart phones, tablets and computers. When I started posting my items, I had no idea my phone would be buzzing, whistling, pinging and chirping all sorts of messages. I couldn't keep up. I could write a book with all of the hilarious texts and messages I received. Keep in mind, Singapore is an English speaking country, but most of the offers are in Singlish so it often takes two or three replies to figure out what the people are asking me.

"Your blow up mattress, blow, can? If blow, want, lah. I like your photo, you pretty Mizzus." This was one of the first messages I received, and from there, it became more difficult to determine. I am translating and filling in the missing blanks once I used my special decoder ring to figure out what the locals wanted to buy from me.

"Can vacuum ride on bike with me?' One of my favorite questions and yes, he did pull up on a pizza delivery scooter and rode away hoovering as he cleaned off into the sunset.

"You make me good price, you make me good, lady." This was on a fifty cent spatula; how much better can I make the price?  I threw in some free slippers I enjoy stealing from hotels for guests to wear in the house. Hey, don't judge; wearing slippers on the house is something I learned from my Japanese friends. You never now what evil lurks on the bottom of your shoes, walking in the local Kampong.

"Hey lady, you have ten foot palm, selling, lah?" was one inquiry. "How tall?" "Is it palm?" This one had me in stitches and shaking my head. I received this message while riding and I had to stop the bike for fear I would fall from laughing so hard. I am not sure what part of "Selling Ten Foot Palm" was not evident in my ad.

I sold everything so we cook with fire now
Honestly, I can't make this stuff up. "Does your popcorn popper, make popcorn? Does your blender, blend?"  As for the rice cooker inquiry, I can't even go there. Let's just say, rice cookers make rice and you fill in the joke.

R2 hates when I sell our almost new items. If he had it his way, he would open the window and heave everything out, letting the people below think it is raining washers and dryers. I, however, am from small town Saskatchewan and making a buck is what I know. He leaves the room when the potential buyers come, he cringes when he hears me chatting them up, asking questions about their lives in Singapore. He shudders when I ask how long they have lived here, or about their children.  He just doesn't care. He is of the mindset, open the door, shove the goods in their hands, grab the cash and slam the door in the poor soul's face.

"I would like to take your almost-new, front-loading, energy-efficient washer-dryer set from Germany that you paid an arm and leg for, but I want a quick-bargain deal and if I have to go on any stairs, I am charging you," was one comment. Am I mistaken or was I the one selling the item? I am being charged for moving from a penthouse elevator, straight down the lift to the car park in the basement? What is wrong with this picture? How do I end up paying for the man's delivery when I have cut the price by thousands of dollars?

He could use my mattress
"Your King sized mattress, is that a Sing King, UK King or a Queen?  Is it latex, can it fold, can I come and sleep to test, are you single?" I am close to my boiling point by now, and googling like a maniac for Women's Shelters in need of gently used items so I don't have to put up with crazy questions anymore. Leave me in peace so I can continue my quest for the next country to move.

Through all of my electronic selling, I met some interesting people too. People that started to read my blog, people that were quite thrilled when I gave them special deals on items and threw in a few free plants and cactus and even a media mogul that allowed me to drool on his BMW convertible while he checked out my goods. I hope slobber comes out of the Nappa leather. I hope he enjoys his spatula.

Overall, it was another amusing experience to chalk up to Singapore living. Maybe R2 has the right idea, open the window and drop everything overboard and yell "Heads up" but I doubt that phrase makes sense here and with my luck, I would crush a few of the tail-less cats, on the way down.

My next flat, condo, casa, villa or casita is going to be made completely of stone and plastic with a wash basin outside and the old-fashioned sun to dry the clothes.  No irons, no skillets, no flippers and definitely no more selling. I wonder if I can get some stock options in paper plates and plastic forks because I think that is going to be my new way of life. Now where is that atlas, I need to find a country.

Saturday, 2 February 2013

Let the countdown begin

Today was a day for trepidation, sadness, anxiety and excitement. Today was the day I waited with my stomach in butterflies while R2 gave his terms and conditions to his boss, a man he has a great respect and admiration for, however, he still felt it is time for a change from our life on the Little Red Dot. Health, family and immigration must come first.

I love this site
Leaving Singapore is something that has been on our minds for a few months but a part of me tried to ignore the cold, hard facts that there was a high probability we would leave before the full two years. 

There have been so many extraordinary aspects about Asia, and yet there have been so many appalling things from this region that will remain with me for a lifetime. I have seen, smelled and heard noises that still don't seem real to me, coming from small-town, semi-safe, Canada. I have tried to write about the positive experiences we have encountered and leave the shocking stories behind until I am safely away from a nanny state that watches our every move.

Orchids galore in Singapore
When we came to Singapore, we made a decision that we wanted to live in a local neighbourhood for two reasons. The rent in our neighbourhood, while still outrageous, at least did not take the entire paycheque. It left us just enough for an ice coffee at the local hawker station each morning, instead of shelling out $10 in the fancy expat, frappa-crappa-mocha latte that no one seems to blink an eye, as they dash to their air-conned Landrover. We also decided if we were going to live here, we didn't want to try to keep up with the Joneses because it is impossible with the expats that have companies paying $20,000 per month for rent and $40,000 for each child to attend an International school. We wanted to live as residents and have the means to travel most weekends to new countries to see as much of Asia as possible. While we didn't see it all; an impossible feat, we did manage to see dozens of fascinating areas.

While living in a predominantly muslim community, we spoke to many neighbours that told us shocking stories about the treatment of the maids or helpers, as they are often called. We refer to them as Modern-day Slaves. If you think the maids in the book The Help by Kathryn Stockett were treated poorly, you haven't seen anything.

We also lived very close to the area where prostitution is rampant in Singapore. Prostitution is legal in Singapore and controlled by the government in brothels, but for the illegal, underground activity, the Human Trafficking and smuggling of women in Asia is a vicious, competitive and fierce business. These are stories that won't be my typical humorous look at Asia, and I will be safely in another country when I speak of some of the horror of the kidnapped women and children forced into prostitution rings. 

There are also stories to be told on the Inflated Expat Ego Syndrome; an affliction that hits many expats that think the locals are beneath them, and behave in the most unbecoming, obnoxious way. Case in point, out with some friends dancing when a drunken man fondled me, not once, but twice. The second time, it handed him a well placed elbow to his overextended pot belly. To grope or grab anyone in Singapore is a criminal offense that will land you in jail and on the receiving end of a tortuous caning. I noticed the bouncers were watching this exchange so I didn't worry he would touch me or my friends again. He stumbled away, holding his gut, sulking in the corner. Many expats think it is there right to misbehave and they are above the law to any of the strictly enforced laws here.  So why do we wonder why the locals glare at us and hate our very existence? Perhaps it has to do with the inappropriate manner so many behave.

The loveliness of the Botanic Gardens
While I appreciate the orderliness of this country and the symmetry of the structured landscaping, what I will miss the most is the people. I have met more people than I can remember, from so many countries. We are all in the same boat, and my experience with the expat community has been more than I could have imagine. I have not told many that I am leaving, allowing this chapter of Layna In Asia to be my mouthpiece because I find it too taxing to say adieu. There are not enough tissues in Singapore for my soggy tears and snotty sniffles.

Maybe he will let us live with him on a mountain
My 20,000 plus readers have asked if I am continuing the blog, will we still travel and where will we go? R2 is not a Canadian and immigration in Canada is extremely difficult, contrary to what  you are lead to believe; marriage does not make a Canadian, no matter what you have been told. All of these questions are issues that keep me tossing and turning at night. We are nomads up for the offering, a lot like the prostitutes and maids, except we don't have a house or country to return to. We are taking a quick side trip to Cambodia, we are selling our meager possession and we have less than one month to leave this country before we become illegals in a nation that takes their custom and immigration seriously.

I was told under no circumstance should I give up the blog, and I doubt we will stop the travel until one of us becomes incapacitated, "What was your name again?" Layna in Asia may seem strange if we become worker bees in Canada or Mexico, but my promise is to seek out adventures in everything we do, even if it is Layna at the 15 Minute Lube in Prince Edward Island or R2 changing a tire in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.

Until then,

Cheers and Salud, Singapore

Thursday, 24 January 2013

The great blizzard of 2013

My final day in Canada started out innocently enough with an early flight to Vancouver, where I would relax, make a connection in a couple of hours to Hong Kong, hang out in the HK airport, only for a few hours and then take my final leg to Singapore. This was a completely different route than I had taken almost one year ago, to the day. Last year was the milk run; Vancouver, Seattle, Seoul to Singapore with little time in between to relax or make a connection if the plane was delayed. The thought of running the 2 km boot camp sprint through the Seoul airport with no boarding pass, still strikes terror in my heart.

My flight wasn't too early, which is a change of pace for me. Often I find myself at the airport by 4:00 a.m., bleary-eyed and grumpy from lack of sleep. This flight was lovely; 9:20 a.m. granting me enough time to catch a ride and enjoy a leisurely breakfast with my parents. So much for my smug, best laid plans. According to the weather, an abundant amount of snow had fallen during the night and the Highway Hotline was reporting blowing snow, ice and whiteout conditions. This seemed impossible to me because it was clear and there was no extra snow on the ground at my parents' home.

Never pass these beasts!
After loading my ten ton suitcase into the car, my parents and I started our 60 km journey to the airport in the darkness. It is a 40 minute drive in good weather but when there is an impending blizzard, our timeframe was anyone's guess. It was lucky I allowed myself extra time to check in. While the drive wasn't bad yet, we still drove cautiously making sure not to pass anyone. The plows were out in full force, trying to clear the snow from the previous night. If you have ever come upon a snow plow on a darkened road, it is scary business.

I was explaining my drive to a friend when I reached Singapore. She is from South Africa and just can't imagine the intensity of an old-fashioned Canadian blizzard. There really are no words to describe the biting cold, the blinding vertigo, or the perceived terror of driving into a ditch with a semi truck bearing down on you while you pray catches a glimpse of your tail lights.

My first-class pods
My flights to Vancouver and Hong Kong were exceptional because thanks to "Mr. Frequent Flyer" Velez, I had a first-class ticket again. I took full advantage of the Executive lounges, the premier boarding and snapped my fingers to alert the attendants I was onboard so bring the Veuve Clicquot champagne and keep it flowing.

I arrived in Hong Kong quite fresh, considering the copious amount of bubbly, the 14 hour flight and the 14 hour time difference. Playing with the electronic buttons on the pods, and watching a plethora of movies will do that to you. It wasn't until I found wifi in the airport, opened my mail, that I saw the horrible storm that was raging in, not only Saskatchewan but making its way to Alberta. Even British Columbia was getting more snow than they had shoveled in years.

The Hong Kong airport
This is when panic kicked in. I quickly sent a message to my sister, asking her to make sure my parents were home safely. Luckily I have a night owl Sis and she was online to tell me that they arrived without a scratch. I wish I could say the same hundreds of others. According to reports, there were three fatalities, jackknifed semi drivers, hundreds of cars in the ditches and thousands of motorists stranded when a major portion of the highway was closed. There were abundant heroes who tried to dig out a man that was buried under a truck, but their attempts were sadly, in vain. This driver didn't make it, but that is Canadians for you. So many risked their lives in a blinding blizzard to try to rescue someone in need of help.

The blizzard didn't stop there. It came back with a vengeance in a couple of days, dropping about 15 cm of snow, to the already momentous amount that had accumulated. This amount might not seem like much, but you combine it with wicked winds and you are looking at snow drifts that can grow to be more than six feet tall on roads, sidewalks, highways and against people's doors.

A familiar site in Saskatchewan
It would seem I dodged an extraordinary bullet with my timing to leave Canada. The travel gods were for once, on my side, when most of the time, they take great pleasure in messing with my flights and mind. 

I have now been back in Singapore for a week, and it feels like I never left. I am back to sweating at every meal, having shiny-face syndrome, my hair has shrunk back to poodle dimensions and I can never wear enough deodorant. 

A brolly - rain or shine in Singy
I am still addicted to the weather, a fascination all that is inherently Canadian, but the closest I can find in Singapore is the impending rain, which on some days, it is announced as a Monsoon Day. I am not certain how you can qualify it as a Monsoon Day, because every day is a monsoon day. It just means you get wet, really, really wet.  Thankfully, it isn't freezing rain that makes your car skid into the ditch, it isn't blinding whiteout conditions, that cause your eyes to play tricks on what you are really seeing, and it isn't small mountains of snow to navigate through. It is just hot, sticky rain that lasts an hour and then the sun comes out with a vengeance, turning the city into a steaming, hot bowl of Sauna soup. 

Somewhere, someday, we will strike a balance between this sweltering heat and the bone-chilling cold. We are searching for the perfect climate and according to National Geographic, there are two places in the world that qualify; Kenya and Lake Chapala, Mexico. 

I am not up on my Swahili, but I can manage some Spanish on a good day.  Hmmm, Mexico! Why didn't I think of that?

Thursday, 17 January 2013

I wish I was homeward bound

It looks pretty, but brrrr....
You can't go home again, especially when it is -28C and you left +28C, but somehow I managed to live to tell.

The trek to Canada was easy once I got out of the Denver airport; just hop on a plane the size of a Tonka truck, slouch as you squeeze through the aisle because you are too tall and two hours later, land in snow-covered Regina.

The only snafu was the 45 minute wait on the runway in Saskatchewan because they have one ground crew, who seemed to be busy with another plane that landed earlier. Dear god, where have I landed? Oh yes, and of course, the snafu in Denver where five agents had difficulty finding my reservation and my spinning head and frothing mouth, telling them I had a confirmation, I was getting on the plane, even if that meant sitting on the pilot's lap and helping him land the aircraft.

I surprised them all
Only one person knew I was coming to Canada and that was my daughter. She was my partner in crime, telling white lies to everyone we spoke to for eight months. Both of us nearly spilled the beans so often but somehow we managed to keep mum on the plans to give my son, family and friends a huge surprise.  We made up so many stories that by the end, we couldn't keep straight what we told people. I managed to block FaceBook so my immediate family had no clue I had arrived; the beauty of technology.

When I finally got off the plane, I raced down the gangplank, knocking over moms with strollers and one man taking his sweet time with a white cane. I raced up to Immigration barely able to answer the questions about where I lived, where I had been and when I was I last in Canada. I couldn't concentrate on what she was saying, but when I tried to answer where I had been, I said, "Lady, you don't have enough time to hear my story. My kids are out there and I haven't laid eyes on them for over a year, just let me go.  No fags, no booze, just a bunch of cheap souvenir crap from Southeast Asia." Miraculously, she said, "Welcome home."

I was shaking when I found my funky pink luggage and wheeled it from the protected area.  I heard a scream that would shatter glass and was hit with a blond bombshell, yelling, "MOMMY." Luckily my daughter is petite or she would have sent me flying. She was hugging me, crying and getting mascara all over R2's huge coat that I wore; I barely saw my son who was shocked and grinning from ear to ear with his beautiful smile. Everyone at the luggage area was laughing and pointing at the tearful reunion of these three crazy people.

Our Road Warrior - Ed
We were fortunate to have the help of a wonderful friend and man I worked with. He had no clue what was going on, but had volunteered to help make this reunion happen even though we had told him fibs and fabrications to get him to the airport. He drove us 60 km to my parents’ home through blustery conditions to give my parents the shock of their lives. My children went in to greet their grandparents and I hid in the Jeep. Finally I emerged from the vehicle with my hood up.  When my dad turned around, I took off the hood and said, "Merry Christmas, dad." My father talks more than I do but for once in his life he was speechless. My mother saw me from inside the house and screamed my name. Yup, the plan worked as orchestrated.

The Great Mitten Swap Tradition
Christmas held the same traditions; the cabbage rolls, the games cheating, the great knitting swap of mittens made by my mom, and of course, the annual photo of overstuffed grandchildren who are now too big to make the pyramid pose. We Skyped R2 but he was knackered from a ten hour delay in Beijing so we only saw him for a moment. It was a great Christmas even though I only had a few gifts to give from the various countries due to weight restrictions on the planes. My daughter said "We don't need any presents mom, your being here was enough." We can all thank my thoughtful husband. He is generous to give me up almost every year since we have been married so I can see my family, while he spends Christmas in a cold, lonely airport, drinking stale coffee and eating greasy food at the nearest food kiosk. I pinkie swore to him that next year, it is all about him.

Seeing my dear friend CLW
I can't say I loved the frigid weather, I got a cold almost immediately, but I was pleased to spend quality time with friends, old and new. I saw people I hadn't seen in yonks, I met some new people that I hope remain friends for a lifetime, I chatted with people that follow my blog and asked when the travel book was coming. My Singapore people ask me that all of the time but they are friends and have to ask that question.  When it is a perfect stranger, it gives me the courage to contemplate the thought. I know there is a book somewhere, even if it is only for me, I believe I have it in me.

While Saskatchewan is my home, I know I don't belong here anymore. Every time I ventured to Regina to visit, I was smacked with a white-knuckled drive back. I drove through fog, mist, rain and white outs. I can't bare the cold and I now dress like a hippie, European in a multitude of layers. That look is wonderful for the girls in Spain but on me, it just adds to the "Singapore Fat Western Woman" look.

Goodbye GPA - tearful goodbye
Our time in Asia is on the countdown now because we are in Year Two. We are homeless people with no possessions with the exception of my bike, my ten foot palm tree and a bunch of hangers I will never give up. We are nomads up for the offering. The older I get, the more Mexico is beckoning us to return and live a simple life. For a fraction of what we pay in Singapore, we could live like Kings in Mexico and this thought truly appeals to me; no work and be the Princess I have always envisioned myself.  

GMAs are the best
Thank you to the friendly people of Moose Jaw who follow me, thank you to the lovely Japanese waitress I met in DK Sushi House who reminded me of home, thank you to McNally’s for a $28 round of drinks, instead of $200 in Singapore, thank you to my co-workers from Saskatchewan Highways and Infrastructure that made me emotional when so many of you showed to greet me, thank you to Rikki and Lucas who made Christmas extra special, being the amazing adults you have grown into and mostly, thank you to Herman and Gerry Segall who put up with my slovenly ways, my late nights, and giving me their brand new car to bomb around, when I can barely remember what side of the road you should drive.

Happy New Year Canada.

Friday, 11 January 2013

In the Land of the Tortillas

Breathtaking sunset over the Pacific
It took me a couple of days to unclench my fists, and loosen my jaw once we arrived in Ixtapa, Mexico for Christmas. I didn't realize how much I missed our "second home" until we arrived and were settled in for a couple of days. The first few days were spent trying to forget the constant noise, pushing and sweltering heat of Asia. I guarded my table in the restaurants like a hawk, thinking someone was going to come along and put a packet of tissues on the table to take it away from us, like they do at the Hawker stations in Singapore. Once I got past the screaming nightmares and had a few tequilas, everything on our return visit home, was under control.

Our tiny Mexican family
It has been 18 months since we were in Mexico, and we have been in, on, and around dozens of beaches since we left North America but there is nothing that spells rest and relaxation like the sand in Mexico; that is unless you go during Spring Break. Then that spells, bikinis, booze and ambulances hauling away pickled university students. We got lucky; our week was filled with family Christmas festivities, courteous staff and people that greeted you with Buenos Dias every time you met. In Singy, I could faint dead away in the MRT train and no one would lift a finger or bat an eye at my plight, except to push me off the seat so they could sit down.

Stuffing our faces again
Like me, R2 was homesick for his sister in Mexico. It had been too long since he saw her and his tiny family. His parents passed away so he is an orphan with only his sister's family to call his own. He has adopted my mom as his surrogate madre but with no VISA to Canada, and scared to death of the snow, he wanted to eat, drink and breathe Mexico for a week. What a week it was.  If R2 could gain weight, he would be a Sumo wrestler by now with all of the tortillas, sopes, quesadillas, chilaquiles and beans he shoved down his gullet. I told him he needed to slow his pace and that no one was going to take the corn tortillas away from him.  He was so excited to have authentic Mexican food that he forgot breathing was essential to eating. After every meal he would complain, "I can't believe I stuffed my face like that again. I need to stop," and yet each meal he would be ravenous, indulging in the familiar food from his childhood. I would just shake my head and make a bee-line for the papaya and mango.

One of the twenty crocodiles at Playa Linda
I have been to Mexico so many times, I have lost track but even so, I never grow bored or restless with the country. There is so much to see and do and this time was no exception. We wandered down to the crocodile swamp where there are vibrant flamingos and egrets among the prehistoric reptiles. It was Sunday so many locals hang out at the swamp because it is free to view. Even though we have been there dozens of times, we never tire of watching these slow moving beasts sneak up on the egrets for a morning snack. 

My goddaughter with baby and teeth
This time, we were shocked to see an elderly, dark skin man with daisy duke shorts, bleached blond hair and a wonky eye walking among the crocodiles. He was cleaning the banks from garbage and telling everyone that he is able to walk among the reptiles. At least that is what I think he said.  He might have said he was selling crocodile boots from the back of his car because my Spanish is still in the learning phase. I fear that one day, someone will happen upon this sanctuary and only find his hat and mess of blond hair. I have seen the crocodiles sneak up on an egret and make a quick meal out of it, and I don't think this 80-something year old man man is as agile as the bird.

He hauled out some tiny crocodiles for the locals to pet and take photos with, but we stayed far back. Even the babies had a mouth full of teeth that would do serious damage if they thought we looked sweet and juicy. Really people, it is not a puppy or a kitten. They are not adorable and fun to cuddle; it is a crocodile, no matter how small.

The rest of the week was filled with gyms, swimming, jelly fish stings, snorkelling and generally being a lazy sloth which is a good thing because once again, landing in the USA is pure hell and you need to be on top of your game to deal with Customs and Immigration.

We got off the plane in some nameless US city, to be ushered like steer to the Visitors line. It was similar to being in Disneyland, winding through the enormous queue. You were forced to listen to the propaganda welcoming us all to the United States of America, over and over. In fact, we listened to it for the 1.5 hours we stood in that line.  We watched as the Americans raced through their lines but us Mexicans stood, silently waiting for our opportunity to be abused when we finally got our turn with the official.

I can't believe I ate so much, again
Our Agent was named Lopez, but I guess he forgot his roots and manners when he spoke to us. As usual, R2 was treated badly, his passport scrutinized from all the stamps that decorate his pages and the usual question, "What are you doing with this Canadian woman?'  "She is my wife." And the sceptical eyebrow from the agent.  "How long you lived in Thailand and what is your business?" "We live in Singapore, huge difference, and he is a Computer Engineer." Can we go now!  I had to correct Sr. Lopez three times that we lived in Singapore and contained myself from punching him in the throat for his racist attitude toward R2. As a Canadian, I am treated decently, but if you are Latino, watch out and be prepared for the glove if you look the wrong way.

We barely made the gate to my next plane, where R2 and I parted company with only a few leaky tears from me. He flew to Chicago, where his Singapore reservation mysteriously disappeared, was rerouted through Beijing almost freezing to death with the ten hour layover. I went to Denver for an overnighter before I boarded a miniscule plane to Canada to surprise my family for Christmas.  

The things we do, just to get a decent Tortilla.

Monday, 24 December 2012

Can we melt the 24 K gold taps?

There was a time when staying on a beach for $25 was all that was within my budget.  Soccer, guitars and keeping a roof was priority one and if there was anything left over, a great seat sale, and God willing, I took a little R and R for myself to regenerate my frozen batteries. That was five years ago, my children are now in uni, and now I have a husband whose idea of roughing it is sharing a bathroom with me on the 50th floor of the Conrad Hilton Hotel. 

The billowing sail
I have always known R2 is "high maintenance" and yet he swears it is all about me. What I didn't know is that he harboured a secret fantasy about staying in the most luxurious hotel in the world; a hotel that provides a private butler, a fleet of Rolls Royces at your disposal and the infamous 24 karat gold faucets that grace the bathrooms. A hotel where they provide a place for you to land your helicopter when no other parking spots are available in the desert, and if you require complete privacy, at The Burj, you will be indulged. The hotel stands on an artificial beach, and was built to resemble a billowing sail. For us Canadians, we can be proud that the design and construction was managed by Canadian engineer Rick Gregory, from Vancouver. 

Due to a little side trip we decided to take several months ago, our flight happened to be landing in Dubai.  At the time, when we booked the trip, all we knew was the journey was going to be miserably long. That is when R2 got the brilliant idea to change the flight and extend our time by booking a room at The Burj Al Arab, the only self-proclaimed seven star hotel in the world.  You aren't allowed into this hotel without a reservation, and even with one, the security is tight, limiting photos to protect the extremely rich and famous that often use this hotel as home base. We fall into neither of those categories, but I do fall into the category of having a husband that enjoys making each and every anniversary we celebrate better than the last. This was our fourth, and his surprises always give me one year to wonder how he will top the next.  Last year we were separated by Singapore and Canada so I guess he was making up for lost time.

Our grand entrance
R2 told me that I couldn't walk into The Burj with my ratty, sweat-stained Singy clothes and the thought of shopping in tiny-sized Singapore sent shivers up my spine.  He also told me the Roots Canada backpack was out. "What?  That backpack is almost as worn as I am from being in so many places."  What had I got myself into agreeing to go this hotel? Luckily I did find a couple of muumuus that I thought would suffice and eventually I talked him into letting me carry the backpack when he saw how handy it was for the telephoto lenses for the camera to take the photos of this 8th Wonder of the World. You can take the girl outta Canada but I can't travel without my tacky grey and black Roots bag. He did suggest I purchase a Louis Vutton carry on until I told him, the bags start at $1,500.

We were met at the airport by our driver, with a bouquet of roses in hand to welcome us to Dubai and say "Happy Anniversary." We thought Singapore was an amazing city with outstanding architecture, but it pales in comparison to Dubai, and to make it all the more remarkable, this city was a desert only ten short years ago. There were pristine conditions everywhere we went, with flower, green grass and date palms making, what is a desert, seem like your are in the tropics. An even more pleasant surprise was cooler December weather, giving us a respite from the oppressive humidity of Singapore. The summer reaches temperatures of 50C so I am not sure I would be as impressed in July.

R2 being artsy
We arrived at the hotel which dominates the Dubai skyline. I am sure the chauffeur had to pick up our jaws and wipe the drool from our chins as we stepped into the lobby. R2 yelled as I pinched him to make sure he wasn't dreaming. I kept waiting for security to come and toss me out, spotting my fraudulence a mile away. This must be how Granny Clampett from the Beverly Hillbilly's felt when first laid eyes on the cee-ment pond in Beverly Hills. I grabbed Jethro and we rushed to the room for more visual stimulation.

To answer your burning questions, yes, this hotel was everything we expected, and more. From the grand entrance in our two story suite with the sweeping gold staircase, the gifts of His and Hers Hermes perfumes, the gratis bottle of French Merlot, the fresh tropical fruit and boxes of exotic chocolate dates, the butler that draws you a fragranced sea salt jacuzzi, the towels that are so heavy you can barely lift them, to the bed so luxurious you sink in a sea of softness. We toured the facility and saw private elevators to floors not meant for peasants like us, impressive lounges with crystal pianos and 30 ft nutcrackers. We checked out the aqua blue Arabian sea, dined amongst a few celebrities in town for a film festival and had our socks blown off at the most impressive gym and infinity pool we have ever laid eyes on.  If I wasn't so jet lagged from our red eye flight and long stop in Sri Lanka, I could have enjoyed playing with all the electronics in the room a little more, and might have got up the courage to summon our butler for a soothing massage. I could only open and close the drapes from the bed with the controller so many times before I knew I needed some Arabic coffee to jolt my caffeine fix into action. Strangely, I don't drink coffee, but I felt if I ever needed it, it was now. While I have nothing to base my opinion on, I imagine I drank one of the best Cappuccinos in the world.  

The Khalifa is outrageous
Our time in Dubai was short but we did manage to take in as many sites as possible. The Burj Khalifa Tower has recently opened and is the tallest building in the world in every category. It is so tall, you become dizzy trying to see the top.  I thought the Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur were impressive but they have nothing on the Burj Khalifa.

It is a well known fact that in Dubai, the stranger or more outrageous the idea, the more quickly it will be built, as if to show the rest of the world, "We don't care what you think, we will be the biggest, the best, the most amazing city on the planet." Their newest project to outshine anything in the world is the largest shopping called appropriately enough, The Mall of the World which is being built to beat Dubai's own record of largest mall in the world, call The Dubai Mall. They have run out of records to slash and burn so they are now turning on themselves.

What we found the most familiar about Dubai, was on the way to the airport, I spotted Tim Hortons out of the corner of my eye as the taxi zipped in and out of traffic.  A nice piece of Canada while so far from home. From my research, Timmie's is just as busy being flooded by the Canadian expats in Dubai, as any drive-thru in Canada with the exceptions of the high-performance cars instead of the trucks and 4X4s. 

We had our anniversary dinner at Al Mahara (Oyster) seafood restaurant surrounded by an over the top 990,000 litre fish aquarium that was bigger than most people's flats.I couldn't eat any fish with eels, Blacktip Reef Sharks and hammerheads staring at me with bulging eyes.  I didn't ask the price of the bill but I will bet R2s latest pay stub is a few less zeros.  We may have to dine on white rice at the hawker stations in Singapore for a month but I think it was worth the indulgence.

It was difficult to leave The Burj but like so many things in my life these days, it seems like a dream, with each country we visit, more exciting. The thing that kept my spirits was our next, but not last destination; The Burj was merely a stopover. One stop in a journey that doesn't involve servants, fois gras, men in white, billowing dishdashas or women dripping in Cartier and Tiffany diamonds. 

A bathroom to love
When my son came to Singpaore in April, I was so homesick as the days raced by and I knew he had to leave to get a job to cover university costs in BC.  I felt a physical pain in my stomach that all mothers feel when it is time for your kids to leave the nest. R2 to the rescue to make me smile. He came up with a brilliant idea, and gave me the ultimate gift of travel.

R2 knows I share a tight bond with my children so it was then he decided to buy me a flight to Canada for Christmas with a one week stopover in our favourite place before I hit the frozen tundra. I was able to leave The Burj because I knew I had a week in sunny, Mexico with his family  and then two weeks in Canada with my family.  The only catch is that I would have to carry on to Canada on my own due to his immigration issue with our Immigration friends.  Once again, a Christmas apart but one day, I know we will be together, with loved ones.

My family or friends  have no idea that I am coming for a brief visit, so by the time you read this, I will be flying  through the USA and being hassled at Customs, too give them a surprise Christmas to remember.  I haven't seen my daughter or my parents for over a year.  I plan to land in Regina, Saskatchewan with no winter jacket, mittens, pants or socks because I tossed them away when I moved to Singapore, but somehow I will make the drive in 4 feet of show and bone chilling temperatures.  I hope I remember how to live in Canada; I am scared out of my mind about the cold I keep reading about. 

With my kids once again
Somehow I doubt I will feel the cold when I see my kids but after the reunion happens, I will be raiding my dad's closet. If you happen upon  a curly haired woman with her tongue frozen to a pole, provide a little warm pee to unstick me.  If you see my face crack from the cold, provide the humidity I am used to in Asia.  If you see a frozen popsicle wearing a Chicago Blackhawks jacket, and man's winter boots, say hello  because Layna in Asia is home for a good time, but not a long time.