Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Can I Get a Leash For My Bird?

I have been a "gym girl" all of my adult life. I have spent countless hours lifting weights and travelling nowhere on one torturous piece of cardio equipment after another. When I moved to Singapore, I decided to forego the gym and let nature take its course. We live two km to the beach so what better way to fight off the Ice Kacang bulge than power walking and cycling along the surf in East Coast Park.

You can't fool me by changing colours
The views I encounter along the way are so foreign and awe inspiring to me that I often forget I am working out. It isn't often in Regina, Saskatchewan you see snails the size of a Toonie oozing along the pickets or multi-coloured birds serenading you as you zip past. Often I will see roaches, which I don't want to talk about, and on occasion, rats, which I really don't want to talk about. I have seen kaleidoscopic lizards that try to fool me by hiding in the Ixora bushes lining the bike paths. I have laid rubber trying to stop when I spot these minute creatures and watch their metamorphosis from an orange hue to brown, trying to trick me. To see a two-toned lizard thinking he is pulling the wool over my eyes is something I wish I could capture and share. I often feel I have interrupted a National Georgraphic episode.

I try to ride at least 25 km on my bike at the crack of dawn.  It is an early start and even still, I return so drenched from the humidity, that I barely manage to peel off my clothes and pitch them in the laundry.  My neighbour's maid has seen more than her share of my "Moon Over Miami" streaking across the kitchen tiles. Each day is an adventure and I always encounter something unusual that intrigues me.

Today was no exception. Some days I ride at breakneck speed; and then I am passed by a 75 year old man on a roller skates. Other days are leisurely photo op days. Today was the latter and I was well rewarded for dilly dallying.

On the shaded bike path I encountered some captivating views. While many of the sites were fascinating, this one had me shaking my head. I often see the Help walking Golden Retrievers with jackets and red booties. They must be protecting their paws from the ice and snow that will freeze their pads in Singapore. I would love to see the maids (because it is always the maids that walk the dogs) wrestling the booties on in the early morning light. Yesteday I saw a man skateboarding, carrying his Schnauzer. I am sorry, I thought a dog was supposed to walk, on a walk. That is why it is called a WALK.  But today was the strangest "stroller" I have run across on my cycling trips.  I saw an expat walking his green Eclectus parrot. Yes, I said a parrot. How he got a leash to fit over its beak, I will never know.
Locals fishing on the jetty

I took a right turn and rode down the Bedok jetty to watch the fishermen casting off from the pier. One Uncle with a flannel hat and no teeth must have been amused by my wonderment because he wanted to show me his catch of the day. He had about 50 piddling fish that he called King Fish.  He said they made good sardines and rewarded me with a toothless grin.
Dammit, I am not a coconut

I continued on where I found a tremendous treat.  There is a fascinating tree in Singapore called the Cannon Ball Tree.  Many people ignore this tree, thinking the fruits are coconuts, therefore missing an amazing site.  The fruits are huge, perfect spheres, resembling, of course, Cannon Balls. Today I was presented the opportunity to see these majestic trees in full bloom. The flowers are larger than a man's fist and breathtaking when you see this ancient tree covered in orange, scarlet and pink blossoms. Imagine riding, if you will, and seeing mango, guava, banana and coconut trees.  No need to have the Blue Plate Special with those fresh fruits ripe for the picking.

A little further down the path, where the foot traffic thinned, I had a chuckle over an Auntie that undoubtedly had the Groupon Special. Her freshly permed hair resembled marmalade cotton candy,  dyed perfectly to match Ronald McDonald's coiffure.  Her husband walked several meters ahead of her, not because of an Asian cultural thing, I imagine he was mortified to be seen with her. Oh to be a fly on the wall when her children saw this frizzy do.

"You tell her. She likes you best."

"No, you tell her. I am not telling her she looks like Ronald McDonald after he received a swirly in McHappyland's loo."

While I do take great pleasures in my rides, there are also things that drive me to drink. I am sure all bike riders want to pulverize the "Biking Texters."  Nothing says "idiot" as much as someone riding straight for you as they text, blather on the phone and ride with no hands. There is a reason cell phones are banned in cars; doubly dangerous on a bicyle.  And of course, we have the family bikes that swerve all over the paths with as many people as they can cram into a four seater bike.  "We must get our money's worth so let's invite the neighbourhood to jump on for a ride."

There are also the snazzy, spandex, uber-hip racers that dart down the bike path like they just took a coffee break from the Tour de France.  These racers make riding look so effortless as they glide past you in their matching lycra, sleek helmets, mirrored sunglasses and bikes that cost more than my car in Canada. Now my bike is no slouch; everything costs a fortune in Singapore, but my mere $1,500  for a ultra-light hybrid pales in comparison to the $15,000 these Lance Armstrong wannabes pay for the privilege to kick my ass on the path.

Join two and sell as dress on Orchard Road
When these masses blow by me, they probably laugh at the lady pedalling like her butt is on fire. They have barely broken a sweat in their skin tight gear. I look like a Salvation Army reject with my ratty shorts that saw the light of day when the Village People were sashaying to the YMCA, and a t-shirt that says, "I Love My Mom," made grudingly by my 17-year old son for Mothers' Day. He was instructed to make this shirt when he was slinging hash in a buffet joint.  Once the occasion was over, I laundered the pork fat and bacon grease only to be told it was either me or the homeless wearing that shirt because for him, once was enough.

If you find my decaying, rigid body flattened by a lorry because for the umpteenth time I forgot "traffic on the left," just pry off my happening Maui Jim sunglasses and my rocks from R2 to pay for the kids' college. Don't worry about the bike, it will be long gone. I have been told these hybrid bikes are the hottest ticket thefts in Singy. You can identify my bike by the matching pink horn and water bottle holder, and a guy that is too short, struggling to ride off into the sunset.

With all this sight seeing, you wouldn't think I would have time to reflect on how fortunate I am to be living on the Tiny Red Dot.  Yes, it is hot and the bugs are creepy but the early mornings and the evenings are beyond description.  The scenery is breathtaking; more than I could imagine or ever hope to see, after living on a bald, prairie province my entire life.

I am near dead by the end of my ride so I slow down and weave in and out of the foreign workers brought here to reshape the ever changing landscape of Singapore. These men literally pull up the sidewalk, take off their Personal Protective Equipment, cover their faces and sleep in the mid-day sun until they go back to their back-breaking manual labour. I try to avoid running over the tailless cats and breathe a sigh of relief when I see my Penthouse in the distance. I never know what tomorrow will bring in Singapore, but for now, I think I will go have a tall glass of Teh Tarik and plan my monkey hunt through the rain forest.

On the beach, you can live in bliss."

Dennis Wilson -  Beach Boys

Beautiful fragrant blossoms in bloom

Fisherman working hard on the jetty
(Follow Layna in Asia on Mexico on My Mind site for her perspective of travels in Mexico)

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Whole Lotta Rosie Eats Her Way Across Singy

What is the black goo?
Some people spend their entire life pursuing the Fountain of Youth or the elusive Holy Grail. While my goal is not as lofty, it is as important to me as finding the Lost Ark was to Indiana Jones. I might not have to battle snakes to reach my evanescent treasure but if you pay close attention, you will see the odd rat scurrying about.

I have made it my mission to hunt down the best Ice Kacang in Singapore; a dessert I had never heard of until three weeks ago. R2 and I were sitting in a Hawker's station when an elderly lady walked by with a bowl full of "something" almost bigger than she was. We watched her tackle the red and green mountainous mystery with such gusto that we had to investigate further.

Mango anyone?
After some super-sleuthing and the great powers of observations that never elude the unlikely duo of R2 and Layna in Asia, we realized this strange concoction was called Ice Kacang. After more poking around we deduce there is an island fight for who makes best rendition of this saccharine, frigid treat. R2 came to the brillant conclusion I must blog about this extraordinary masterpiece that hails from Malyasia and is loved by many.

As I usually do, I tell R2 he is loco because I am not going to tackle this mammoth bank of shaved ice. Not only is it covered in two colours of sticky syrup and condensed milk, to make it all the more strange is the fact there are mushy red beans and corn hidden in the dessert. Also, black grass jelly and attap chee (palm nuts) hide in the middle of the snow; what these delicacies are, I don't know. In true Layna fashion, I cave to R2's silliness, knowing this dessert is quite fascinating for my "soon-to-come" visitors. My only stipulation of writing about Ice Kacang is that we have to sample as many locales temptations as we can so I know what I am writing. I mean, really, why would you eat dessert with beans and corn? In Mexico you call that dinner. In Canada, you call that Taco Bell.

The following night we discover a highly recommended stand located within walking distance to our home. We put on our sensible trainers and start the humid hike to Joo Chiat. After a little iPhone assistance, we pin-pointed the tiny dessert station in the basement of one of the thousands of hawker stations located throughout the country.

Ken making his famous dessert
I had my $1.50 in my hot and sweaty palm and I told Ken, the owner of Ken's Delights I wanted my ice covered in Mango fruit and not Durian. R2 is still hounding me to sample Durian but the thought of eating this soiled-nappie smelling fruit isn't on my "to-do" list, just yet.  Maybe at the six month mark but I am still a Singapore virgin so I haven't worked my tolerance for repulsiveness up to durian level quite yet.  R2 can fool some of the people some of the time, but he can never fool Layna, any of the time!  At least not when it comes to eating stinky-cheese food.

I asked the owner if I could take his photo and he just gave me a huge smile. All the other "chefs" assembled and started to tease him about being famous.  We seemed to gather a lot of attention because I don't think a lot of foreigners trot into this minute local haunt, being as excited as I was to try this dessert.

Corn ice - what a concept!
I imagined the Kacang was going to be as simple as a snow cone we all used to beg our parents for at a myriad of summertime events. I hate to admit it, but I was as wrong as I could be.  This strange mountain of sweetness was incredible.  It is the perfect dessert when you are melting in the relentless Singapore sun.  R2 would disagree with me. He was put off by the "gummy bears".  I believe he was refering to the palm nuts but to him, they were giggly ju-jubes.  And to quote him, "This Mexican Beaner does not like the cold beans."  He thought the corn in a dessert was unorthodox to a Latino. At least Ken was delighted to see me enjoying his creation.  He gave me an even bigger smile when he saw I finished the entire bowl, only stopping to take pics.

Stop the madness....
Since we indulged in Kacang I have made it my lifework to find the finest in Singapore. Like all things in life, some bowls are better than others, some people add peanuts and many add fruit and hide coconut in the middle of the ice. I am just happy to have something that cools me down, especially after a spicy bowl of French beans and chillis or red-hot claypots in the sweltering heat.  If I continue down this road of over indulging, ACDC's Whole Lotta Rosie is going to be my new anthem.

Another masterpiece
One bowl at a time
R2 has given up on Ice Kacang and is now sampling other Malay delights like Chendol; another dessert that makes no sense to me but is popular among the locals. Perhaps his palate is more sophisticated than my hicktown taste buds. Be that as it may, I have seen him eat chilli and lime grasshopper tacos in Oaxaca and have spindly, long bug legs sticking out of his mouth, so I am not sure he is the King of Discerning Taste. Not the most charming image of your newly wedded husband, but it is one I will carry to my grave.

There are still thousands of dessert stands to try on The Little Red Dot. It is a tough job, but someone has to end the fight once and for all on who reigning Ice Kacang King. I believe if I try one per night, I might complete the island before we return to Canada, where the entire country is one massive Ice Kacang.

All I ask for my heroic efforts can someone shop at Tent and Awning and send me some new clothes once I have eaten my way from Changi to Joo Koon up to the Straits of Johor Bahru?

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

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Do You Come From A Land Down Under?

Before you get righteous on me, I realize Sydney is not in Asia, but we did fly out of Changi Airport so that has to count for something. And if I want to get really technical, there are thousands of Australians in Asia for work or pleasure, and about fifteen billion Asians in OZ for the same reasons, therefore, I can count Australia as Asia. Convoluted thinking?  Sure, but that is what being in a mixture of sun and rain all day does to the brain.

Buying bread from a man in Brussels
He was six foot four and full of muscles
I said, "Do you speak-a my language?"
He just smiled and gave me a Vegemite sandwich

Which brings me to my next points. What is vegemite?  Why do the Aussies eat kangaroo? How come there are so many Flying Foxes terrorizing the CBD in Sydney? How do the girls manage to manoeuvre the city streets in killer heels? And most importantly, is everyone in Australia that darn good looking? They all look like they just stepped off a "Surfer Shoot" on a Hollywood sound set.

He seems too tough to eat
I found everything about Sydney fascinating from the kids partying the night away, to the bikers that roll up on their scooters, to the Aborigines playing didgeridoos, to the grapefruit-sized avocados. 

Sydney is a city with a checkered past and the history of this city is triumphant. Every corner has a tale, every building has a saga, all the churches, parks, tunnels and restaurants revel in their shady past. I wandered through every nook and cranny, taking in so much of the lore, the Sydneysiders said I knew more about their city than most of the locals. 

I took a cautious trip to the Botanical Gardens, not for the flora but a purposeful mission to photograph the Grey Headed Flying Foxes that have made the park their home, much to the disdain of the park officials. They are called often bats, megabats, fruit bats or flying foxes but they all the same animal.  I just call them freaky, bizarre, flying mammals that swooped straight out of a horror movie.

The Flying Foxes hang in groups in the trees
I met an elderly volunteer at the park that took the time to point out the hundreds of Flying Foxes hanging upside down in the trees. She also explained why the bats were not wanted due to the damage and destruction they cause to the ancient, exotic trees. The Foxes serve an important role in Australia. They transport seeds and pollen over a wide region, helping to diversify and regenerate the forests. She also told me the foxes make a horrific noise. While it was kind of her to point out the obvious, it was impossible to miss the intense screeching hundreds of these flying mammals make.

I may be furry, but I am not cute
R2 was born and raised in Mexico City, the largest city in the world. While he hasn't lived there for over twenty years, the city boy hasn't left the concrete jungle  He isn't big on nature, at least the flying, licking, barking or crawling kind. So to see if I could drive him a little "batty" I took him to Nature as sunset approached introducing him to a National Geographic episode in Hyde Park. I never revealed to R2 that the swooping UFOs were not pigeons or Sydney's famous Black Cockatoos. Flying Foxes are huge, their wing span is more than a meter and their bodies can be the size of a small dog. R2 was too busy looking at the sites to get a sense of the impending doom. 

All of the sudden, a huge clap of thunder crashed through the sky followed by streaks of lightening. It was as if I had orchestrated the entire show for him, "Cue the lightening, cue the rain and bring on the bats."  It was at this moment I disclosed the huge flying forms in the sky where not birds but Sydney's famous Flying Foxes. At first he didn't believe me until about five dipped so low he got a face-to-face with them. I haven't seen R2 move that quick since someone told him there were free shots of tequila being offered at the local cantina!  

Yes, I know I have an evil twin but that night, I decided Senor R2 should practise what he preaches to me. So often we are stuck in our comfort zone, unwilling to leave the porch and experience life outside of the familiar rut we often find ourselves in. Since I have met R2, he has challenged me, pushed me and taught me there is a huge world to be discovered if you just take that leap. Every day I leap with some plunges more graceful than others.  Often I fall hard and fast, and it is difficult to not run for the airport and return to the cold and familiar world I know so well. A world that doesn't have bats, spiders, geckos, cockroaches and bizarre smells and foods. We both take this adventure one day at a time.
A view you never tire of in Sydney

That dark and stormy night taught R2 this world is more than uptight hotels and Executive airport lounges. There is more to life than another corporate gig in a city you can't even identify because you go from the airport, to the hotel, to your work. 

R2 now has Layna in Asia directing him to the weird and wacky sites and while I am on a trip of a lifetime he has discovered the same.  "Hang on, it's gonna be a bumpy ride."

Saturday, 3 March 2012

A SPActacular World

Coatimundi steals food at Le Kliff Restaurant
R2 has been an intrepid, adventurous husband, providing me opportunity to explore 20 plus countries whether it is for his work or our pleasure. This is why I willingly get sucked into a vortex of craziness when he gets a "brilliant" idea. Who can forget the day he declared we were going to give up eating for two weeks and only drink a concoction with lemons, cayenne and maple syrup. This from a man who takes more pleasure in food than a chunky kid in a donut factory. I am still suffering the horrible black Ginseng stint he decided would improve our energy levels. Then there was the time he insisted we elope and secretly flew my children and I to Puerto Vallarta to exchange handwritten vows overlooking the cliffs of Mismaloya, Jalisco. Granted, that idea was one of his better, because I didn't lift a finger.  He arranged everything from my hair, the ceremony, our travel, the photographer and included an uninvited wedding dinner guest, a coatimundi.
When R2 gets an idea, I know to go with it or get out of his way because nothing can stop him. Perhaps that is why he is so respected world-wide for, well...whatever it is he does with that mystical computer.  There is one madcap passion of his I can say I have come to enjoy in every locale we visit, and that is his love of spa massages.
Many people take holidays and deplete their money on All-Inclusives, tours, nightclubs or shopping until their suitcases are ready to pop. Not us. We only travel with carry-on so extra purchases are out, we cringe at the idea of AI or tours and while we enjoy our tequila, two is usually our limit.  That leaves us with the quest for the best massage in the world.  And lord, have we experienced some exotic sessions.
We have been squeezed, smoked, squished, brushed, polished, and bent into positions I didn't think my body would survive. I have heard cracks from R2's back that left me wondering if I would need to roll him out of the torture chamber in a wheelchair. We have sought out spas in Delhi, Paris, Nassau, Hong Kong, Ho Chi Minh, Langkawi, Singapore, Radner, Denver, Victoria, Darmstadt, Brussels, Bad Wildbad, Sydney and on and on but there is nothing that comes close to the treatment we received in Ixtapa, Mexico.
No molestar - I am having a massage
From the moment you enter the tiny, private spa in Melia Azul, you know you are in for a treat by the silent greeting and bow you receive from the diminutive women. You are led into a couples' room and for the next 90 minutes you might as well dismiss everything in your mind. These minuscule females give you a treatment that makes you feel like you are drugged and when you groggily leave, you almost float. That was four years ago, returning two years after to make certain we weren't dreaming. While other massages in Mexico come a close second, they still lack what the Melia Azul has accomplished.

Running from the bats
The bat cave massage
Until we find another utopia that offers such a service, our quest continues. There was the massage in Sandals Bahamas where the woman was so strong, she was able to effortlessly lift me off the table. A massage in Hong Kong that had us crying like little girls; we found out that the more you scream and squirm in China the better. The masseuse thinks she has done her job. We were whacked with a sacred bush in Chichen Itza and then covered in sticky aloe straight from huge leaves, we have been blessed with holy water in Uxmal, one that was supposed to be received in an underground cave until I saw the mosquitos and bats swarming. The treatment in Langkawi, Malyasia had a  man walking across my back and putting my ribs through the table. Of course, I can't forget  Xalapa, Veracruz where I had a rain stick shaken over my supine form while R2 had cow bells jingling over him. We thought it was  to ward off his wicked ways. 
In Edmonton, I had a young lady blather through the entire treatment about my tattoo and what “Beach Bum” meant – duh!  But this takes me to one of the strangest massage R2 has talked me into. A few months after we married he decided we needed a second honeymoon and flew to Germany, where to fit in with the locals you must be au natural in the baths. Naked and Layna are not synonymous.  I can wear a piece of dental floss as a swimming costume, but being buff is not my nature. I am from Canada, it is cold, we wear clothes, lots and lots of them.
Baden Baden Spa - leave your clothes at home
After R2 told me Canadians are uptight, prudish, square, Victorian and straight-laced, I caved. I said I would try one bath but if I didn't like it, I was bailing for the bikini hills. In Baden Baden, Germany, clothing is NOT an option at their world famous spa.  You enter a series of pools and steam rooms at different temperatures that is meant to loosen up and detoxify you. Who could relax with all that flesh flopping around me? R2 assured me no one was looking at me, but I was definitely looking at them so that story didn't hold any water with me.
To make matters worse, you change in a coed locker room with Hans and Franz watching your every move, and they guard you to make sure you have a shower before you enter the hallowed water. R2 decided we needed a massage to soothe “Mrs. Jittery-Canadian Prude.”  So to calm me, I laid on a freezing cold slab of marble while a Fräulein from the German Olympic Shotput team scrubbed my nakedness with a rough, horse-hair brush. She managed to alleviate me of two pounds of my pasty, colourless skin with lye soap.  Okay, it wasn't lye, but it felt that way to me under the harsh lights. People were sauntering by watching this procedure.  Oh yes, it definitely de-stressed me. 
I got excited in Singapore because the spas are extraordinarily expensive but dollars do not equate to service. While many of the spas we have gone to are decent, they always ruin it by trying to “upsell” you after you are finished so you to shell out for $2,000 worth of treatments. Not happening.
There are many “spas” around our home in Singy, ranging from Thai to Javanese but the worst was three weeks ago. Around the corner from our home, we found a small spa but the women spoke no English, except for the receptionist. We were guided to the couples room and we laid down hoping for the best, but fearing the worst.  Two Chinese ladies that blathered away in Mandarin through the entire 60 minutes  gave the most pathetic massage in my history.  It was obvious they were imported as cheap labour and had no training whatsoever.  At one point, I thought she was plucking a chicken. I was so annoyed, I was about to jump up and show her a few massage moves and to tell them to shut the hell up. Pointless really, she didn't speak the language and I would look like a crazy person. R2 fared a little better but now I am a cranky spa customer.  I question every place I go, and I tell them “No Talking.”  Too bad, they interpret that as “No Stocking,” and they remove their socks.
There are many more countries to continue our spa search until we can return to our much missed Mexico. It doesn't matter if you pay $25 on the streets of Puerto Vallarta or pay $200 in the upscale Hilton in Cancun. You can be assured the massage is second to none.  As for Baden Baden, “The City so nice, they named it twice,” if you find my bikini, please airmail to me; no one there will be needing it. 
A little nibble on the feet at the Oriental Village fish spa

Having a zen moment in this quaint spa - Langkawi, Malyasia

Can't forget the Moose Jaw Spa

An outdoor spa in Nassau, Bahamas

Tree of Life Spa in Jaipur, India - very beautiful
Celeb spotting @ The Beverly Wilshire Spa on Rodeo Drive 
Almost my turn at Hacienda Temozon, Uxmal, Mexico

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