Sunday, 19 February 2012

Buy Me Drinks Girls

Often I am asked why I don't write more stories about my life in Singapore. The straightforward answer is, "because I am boring." I do exactly what you do and no one wants to read about how I buy groceries, albeit, I don't have a car so I schlep a grocery cart like an octogenarian and dicker the fish mongers in the wet markets for the freshest catch. I trod carefully because in the markets you better believe that isn't water you are sloshing through.

You and I do housework the same with the exception of I tend to clean in a bikini because no matter how much I run my air con, 25C is as low as I can cool our spacious condo.  I have surprised more than one delivery man when they ring the bell of a 40 something, sweat covered, crazy lady in a fuchsia bikini.  I refuse to get a maid so "Sweat, Swimming Suit, and Sweeping" is going to be my newly released exercise DVD.  Look out Billy Banks because my workout regime is going to go Tae-Bo on your spandex ass.

Finally I have a story worthy enough to share. R2 and I made a pact to try new clubs, restaurants and sites at least two times per week, and so far, we have overshot this target. We are always on the go, whether to Haji Lane in the Arab area, to Clarke Quay to watch the tourists, for walks on the beach or exhausting bike rides on the hundreds of kilometres of bike paths in this country. Each day is a mystery; sometimes I am screaming when I see a rat, sometimes he is annihilating cockroaches before I discover them and sometimes we are just enjoying not wearing toques and mittens, in our rooftop hot tub.

On this particular night, we decided to take in the Year of the Dragon festivities in Chinatown. I am not certain why this area is called Chinatown when the country is eighty per cent Chinese but who am I to argue? It is a cool, entertaining area to hang out and people watch.

We got rockstar seating at a quaint seafood restaurant and dove into a delicious helping of Chilli Crab - one of the local dishes made famous in Singapore. While digging out the meat we began to play our favourite people watching game, "Gay or Straight," "Real or Fake," or "Why is that Gorgeous Girl with that Homely Guy."

Once we devoured the final shred of crab, wiped the sauce off our faces and licked our fingers clean, we decided to see what else was happening in C-Town. We ventured off Pagoda Street and wound our way through the dim, semi-deserted streets. It wasn't long until we happened upon a section of CT unbeknownst to us.

We discovered antique shophouses that had been converted to trendy restaurants, luxury condos, gay bars, and eclectic boutiques; boutiques I will return to with R2's Platinum card, but not R2.

We heard a band playing some mean blues in a run down tavern so we decided to investigate. We walked into a funky bar with Led Zeppelin, Stones and Hendrix adorning the walls from end to end. We grabbed a drink and the last table in the joint.  It was full of white guys, Asian women and us.

"Hey, wait a minute. Why is that attractive, young lady dancing with that overfed, clammy Englishman? Why am I the only pasty, white woman in this bar? Why is that same Asian lady snogging the old fossil on the dance floor?" These are questions racing through my mind as we enjoy a little blues and rock 'n roll for the first time in months.

On my last visit to Singy, I read in the paper about clubs that hire men or women to chat up, flirt, and get boozy clients to buy them drinks, so it was all coming back to me, except I was seeing it happen before my eyes. These ladies, it turns out are from the Philippines, at least in this particular bar. I am not certain they are used to dressing in such a come-hither manner because I saw one lady fall off her platform shoes at least three times while grinding on a Indian who resembled a dancing Elaine from Seinfeld.

After a little research I found the ladies are hired to come to Singapore to either freelance in a bar, or the owner flies them over, holds their passport until they pay back their flight, charges them for room and board and they often never make enough money to send home. They can only stay a short period of time and then must return to their own countries or face deportation from Singapore. Many times, the women are much older than they appear but inebriated, dense, cheating blokes can't usually tell the difference.

The ladies are paid to liaise with the men and get them to buy their drinks, but the catch is, the man's drink is $10 while her same drink can be anywhere from $30-$100.  She will try to convince the man to buy the most expensive beverage because she gets a commission.  Her target is to have him buy 15 or more drinks and if he quits buying, she just moves to the next sucker. Often two or more of her friends hit on the same man so he buys more drinks for everyone.  At the end of the evening, he better have a lot of dough in his pocket when his tab in in the hundred of dollars. Even with this many drinks in her system, she gets so used to drinking, it barely affects her.

At first I felt sorry for the women but after more research, I learned many of these women make more cash than the tourists and ex-pats they dupe. Often the old men fall for the young women, but the truth is, they are hustling you only for the money.  They can't stop working because they have a debt to repay to the bar owner and if you become their "boyfriend," they have five more behind you also paying her bills.

These women are not prostitutes but if the money is right and you spend enough on drinks during the night, anything can happen. If money is no object, neither are their actions. There are different levels of "Buy Me Drink Girls,"and it is all over the internet on what they do and don't do, if you are so inclined to research this, as I was.  This activity is prevalent in Asian countries, but I thought Singapore was too puritan for that, boy, was I wrong!

Generally the women are from China, Thailand, Philippines, and Indonesia that are brought for men to "adore" and buy drinks all night.  Sometimes they are strippers in their own country, often they don't know what their job will entail until they get here, and by then, it is too late to turn back. They do learn quickly and their "selling" skills are far better than a used car salesman in a polyester leisure suit.

For me, it was a captivating time observing the ladies in action. Because I was sober, I could tell they had been around the block several times. I could see the tell-tale signs of baby mamas in their figures, their lack of polish in their cheaply made clothes and shoes they had no idea how to walk in, but to the fifty-something, desperate men, it made no difference. All the men think is they have a young, pretty girl acting like they are all that, and not some drunk-as- a-lord, pathetic tosser. Believe me, you are just a dollar sign to the women. These women, more often than not have husbands, and children back home that they are supporting and you are just a cash register to them.

We didn't stay long because the action in the bar was getting too much for us. One of the funniest things we saw was when a hammered Aussie kept giving me a boozy, sloppy winky-smile. From my location he couldn't see R2. I think he was pissed as a newt and thought I was 8 inches shorter, my curly red hair magically turned into black, straight, long, flowing hair and my skin colour changed from the white tone I sport year round to a Filipino shade. I was so disgusted by this sloth, I would have to be blind drunk on tequila and hopped up on any drug (which aren't legal in Singapore) to even find this guy mildly hideous. Guess I would make a horrible "Buy Me Drink" hostess girl.

We have booked for Thailand in the near future, I wonder what will be in store for us there?

(Follow Layna in Asia on Mexico on My Mind site for her perspective of travels in Mexico)

Monday, 6 February 2012

Remembering the real Asia

El Baile de los Viejitos (the dance of the little ole men)
While the stories we read in the media sadden and discourage me, hearing about what is happening in his own country must be heartbreaking for my R2.  Please don't for a second think we take the tragedies lightly and our hearts go out to the families of the people whose lives are forever changed from this senseless brutality.

This story is to demonstrate the kindness we have experienced from one side of Mexico to the other, no matter where we go, no matter how many times the policia stop us, no matter what type of trouble we manage to get ourselves into.

La Vista (view from our condo)
R2 is a VIP owner of a splashy condo but even this posh place makes him antsy. He can't sit for long and is always thinking of things to do.  We were in Ixtapa, Guerrero, probably under a palapa when he said, "Vámonos," to me.  I tried to ignore him but I knew that look. He wanted to "do" something.

Famous coverup and shoes
Normally we are somewhat prepared, but this time we jumped in our rental and decided to drive to a little secluded beach I had researched called Troncones. Along the way, we stopped in a pueblo, had some great grub and continued on our merry way. The only thing I had was a bikini and a coverup which I was wearing and of course, what every person needs on the beach - high heels.  We had no phone, a little cash, a camera and just a couple of towels to throw on the playa.

Now, when I say rental car, I don't mean just any rental car.  To this day, I believe this particular car was swapped for the weekend by the teenage brother of the rental car dude.  It had no horn, the side mirror was cloudy with caked-on grime, and the rear view mirror was duct taped. What was also missing was gas but that minor detail went unnoticed as the gas light was broken.

We enjoyed our brief time at Troncones but it was time to head back for our daily "tequila on the deck and watch the sunset" ritual.

We were scooting down a steep hill in this jalopy when R2 discloses, "there is something wrong with the car." I knew by the tone of his voice, he was dead serious. I whipped around to make sure we weren't going to be rear ended.

He managed to pull this rust-bucket to the side of the road but I had to get out and push so we didn't get hit on the narrow road; my white cover up became a beacon, waving in the wind for help.  It wasn't long before three caballeros in an old pick-up with two longhorn bulls in the back, pulled over.  "Ah, hell no, I am not getting in that truck," I think to myself.  Luckily another car pulled up at the same time.

R2 spoke with this hombre chiquito (tiny man) and told me to hop in - we were out of gas, in a rental car we had just picked up. The hombre's car was equally tiny, and yet he managed to secure two bikes to the roof. His wife was in the front and two sleeping kids were in the cramped backseat.  How we managed to get our long legs in, I will never know, but I do know, I was holding a hot, sweaty niño in my arms.

The man drove for miles but nothing was open. We were in the middle of nowhere. As he drove, he kept turning to talk to R2, forgetting to watch the road. This was entertainment for them and a great story to tell.  We could hear it all now, "Stupid tourists forgetting to put gasolina in the car!"

Finally we came upon a station - thanks to God.  Oh, but wait....they don't have a gas can? The man, his wife and R2 start rifling through the trash looking for pop bottles.  Now, I don't know much about cars but isn't sugar in the gas tank a bad thing? Oh well, the car is not going to last so keep searching people.

Meanwhile the kid wakes up and starts to play with the radio, blasting it and taking the car out of gear.  I try, desperately to remember how to say "stop it," in Spanish as I feel the car start to roll. All I manage is "no no" in Spanish, which is pretty much "no no" in English, as I reef on the emergency brake.

They find the bottles, fill a few and we are on the road back to our car.  Not so fast...we have to get past the Mexican Army who has created a roadblock near the gas station.  Of course, we have no passport or marriage certificate in the bikini.  Why is this red-headed gringa with a bunch of Mexicans?  R2 told me to slump down in the car, as if there was any room to slump.  I am holding two, two-litre bottles of gasolina between my feet, trying to not slosh gas everywhere and scootch down.  Canada has got talent!

The Mexican sunset
We locate the abandoned car, the man wedges a branch to open the tank far enough so R2 can pour the gas, which he managed to douse himself with, we gave the man a  hundred pesos for his trouble, and we were on our way.  You will be happy to know, we still managed to have our nightly Paloma on the deck and watch the colourful sunset (after R2 showered off the gasoline).

The moral of this story is...ALWAYS CHECK YOUR GAS TANK IN MEXICO.  It is not the rentals' practise to fill them up when returned.

Dear people, don't fear Mexico and don't spread hate about the eighth largest nation.  Most of the people are kind and generous.  Be cautious, be smart and remember, you are a visitor in their country.  There is far more to do in this wondrous place than get blindly drunk and insult these hard-working people.

One day we will get back to a place we both love, one day the drug cartels and the government corruption will subside.  Until we return it is up to YOU to continue our love affair of Mexico.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Trains, Planes and Automobiles

A typical train in India
When R2 mentioned we were taking not one, but two trains in India, and in first class, I had visions of the Orient Express fleeing through the cool night air. I could visualize myself dining with fine bone china, sipping chai from a dainty tea cup and having white jacketed waiters fall all over my feet trying to serve my every whim. It was a nifty fantasy, however my bubble burst rapidly as our taxi navigated the foul, crowded grounds of the station.

We made the station by minutes and, in typical Velez fashion, we sprinted through the station, trying desperately to find our car. What we saw were people jammed into coach, sitting on broken benches with newspaper or tattered blanket covering them, and not an inch to spare between them. Had we not been in hot haste to get to Agra from Delhi to witness the miraculous Taj, I think we would have cut and run. 

R2 trying to not touch anything in our berth
I grew up around trains; my dad was an Engineer on CP most of my life so I had a vague idea purely through osmosis; I told R2 to run for the front and by sheer luck we saw our names scratched on a piece of paper taped to the car. Of course, no sharply uniformed Conductor, but some disheveled employee wearing old clothes with a scarf wrapped around his head grabbed my bag and told us to squeeze into to a sleeper ahead. I will venture he was the Conductor.

What a shock. Where was the first class? Where was my champagne on ice, or my down comforter? What we found was a shabby, cramped car that hadn't seen up upgrade since 1950. There was a threadbare blanket on the bed we didn't dare use, never mind the pillow. We barely perched on the bunk for fear or who or what was on the blanket before we boarded.

When we alighted, luckily R2 had the foresight to have a car meet us. At the Agra station there were people huddled for warmth near lit fires, rats, roaches and overwhelming poverty. It is hard to fathom this life when millions make their way to one of the seven wonders of the world, the Taj Mahal; a tribute from the Emperor to his favourite wife when she died giving birth to their 14th child.

All too soon our Taj Mahal fun ended. We didn't relish the thought of boarding another train heading to Jaipur to take an elephant ride, tour Amber Fort and enjoy a tranquil spa called the Tree of Life.

It was virtually the same drill on this train ride except we made the grave mistake of being early; alarming is a massive understatement. Once again, people blatantly eyeballed us, like animals in a cage.  When we were paying the taxi driver, filthy street urchins tried to grab the money and run until he ran them off.  I believe being at this station at 5:00 p.m. is the most vulnerable I have felt in our travels in the world.  I tried to ignore the 3 year olds defecating and scampering on the train tracks with no recourse from anyone. The only amusement was watching the monkeys that zipped along the telephone wires trying to steal food.  

As predicted, our second train ride was equally as decrepit, especially when thirty minutes into the ride a toothless man flung open our door, threw his luggage in our room and told us he was bunking with us.  I told him, "I don't think so," but he left his luggage, came back 15 minutes later and jumped up on the top bunk. He proceeded to talk on his phone with no regard for us whatsoever, so I got out my iPhone and did a rousing rendition of American Pie at the top of my lungs.  Don McLean would be proud. My boisterous singing must have lulled him to sleep because his snores could have woke the dead.

The taxis we took in India were antiquated, therefore I have no reference to what or where they originated.  They were so slow that I swear I saw a camel passing us...and speaking of camels, the Army in Delhi ride camels through the streets in herds, or group, or gaggles.  We were always late, traffic was insane and we would jump into these taxis that maxed out at 40 km per hour, watching as anything and everything passed us by.

Sadly, Jet Airways was our airline of choice. The airport in Delhi and Jaipur were respectable but NEVER fly to Chennai unless you enjoy cockroaches, foul, leaky toilets and no where decent to eat or sit while you wait for your flight. As our first point of reference in India, we soon learned that men and women are separated to be searched at security due to modesty but an inconvenient hassle, never-the less.  The planes used by Jet Airways are so small that when the person ahead of you puts his seat back, he is almost in your lap, with no embellishment from this blogger.  If you need to use the toilets, get there first or hold it until you land in Singapore. Don't say I didn't warn you.

Amber Fort in Jaipur - a breathtaking wonder
This is not my photo but not far from the truth

While the sites in India such as Amber Fort and the Taj are breathtaking, it is not a country I will be revisiting anytime soon.  The poverty is too overwhelming; as it the stench, the putrescence and diseases in this country of 1.3 B people. Our hotels were first-rate, and you couldn't find better hosts than R2's colleagues, but I had a hard time adjusting to the constant honking, the livestock wandering the streets, people using the broken sidewalks as their personal toilets and taking my life in my hands every time I tried to cross the road. I was ripped off at every turn when it came to taxis, the trains were something from my worst nightmare and jetting through the sky, wedged into a metal tube like a human sardine is not what I was to re-enact in the future.

Bring on Australia!