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.

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Living la vida loca

Last year I missed the Christmas hoopla in Singapore because I wanted one last hurrah with my children and of course, I can never get enough of that frozen stuff that is so plentiful in Canada. I know you thought snow, but I was thinking the ice in my drink that manages to stay frozen for the entire length of the drink. In Singapore, it lasts as long as you can walk from the kitchen to the dining room. While scraping car windows, braving the biting cold to do battle in the malls and ramming old ladies in Costco for the biggest pumpkin pie, I missed all outrageous seasonal parties in Singapore. Come on, you know you would knock over someone for those pies. Have you seen the size of them?

R2 showing his sopes
R2 and I got the party training rolling by inviting a dozen Japanese friends over for a little pre-Christmas spicy Mexican food and spirit.  Nothing says "Joy to the World" like jalapeno peppers, black bean dip and chicken chocolate mole on top of freshly made sopes.

For a little added fun, R2 asked the guests to help make the sopes from imported corn flour, in our hot, steamy kitchen. Most of the guests have a limited grasp of the English language but with sign language and a little cerveza, he got the message across. I know there was a lot of bowing and laughing as Yukihiro rolled the sopes and Kyoko pressed them flat in the tortilla maker. I suggested we introduce tequila in the cooking class but then R2 would have been speaking Japanese and the Japanese, Spanish with remarkable efficiency.

Oddly enough, the next party I am attending, is again hosted by me. Don't judge; at least this way I always like the host gift and I am dressed appropriately for the occasion.

I am trying to outsmart Mother Nature at this event. At our last fiesta of this magnitude, we had the monsoon rains blow in during the evening making conversation almost unbearable, so if I host early enough, maybe we can have a conversation without screaming at the top of our lungs while the rain pummels my glassed-in dining room. Is 10:30 a.m. too early for aperitifs?

This get together started innocently as a ladies book swap but now we have more than 30 women coming, and me serving sangria along with nibblies. The one thing I know is the only booking involved will be of taxis to get the blottoed chicks outta the henhouse before my Old Rooster gets home. As for any swapping; well, that is another kind of party down the road in Geylang.

An $8.95 per litre rip off!
Fast forward to the next, next party because you can never have too much Eggnog during the Holiday Season; even if that Eggnog is $8.95 per liter in this part of the world. R2 and I are invited to a restored shophouse for an old-fashioned Secret Santa party, with friends from the UK. I really have no idea what a Secret Santa is but I do know that if Santa doesn't point his sleigh due East, trade Rudolph for a camel named Habib, and shed his fur, he won't be finding me anytime soon in Singapore. And here is my secret for you Santa, Rudolph, even with his nose so bright is no match for the heat, sand, oil and Ferraris in Dubai.

With all of this hobnobbing, a girl has to find some fancy regalia to wear to the parties. Shopping for the western woman in Singapore puts fear into the heart of gals from one end of the island to the other; I am no different.  I shudder just envisioning a trip to the mobbed malls, going through racks and shelves full of clothes meant for wee people. The average expat is almost out of luck when it comes to buying, well, almost anything except for the occasional pair of shoes or a pashmina.

I was not going to let Singapore win this clothing battle. I loved to shop in new stores in North America and no way was I going to let Asia defeat me. When I used to try on clothes in Canada, people would give me feedback and compliments, telling me clothes looked decent on me. Here, I am told, "We find you bigger size, you fat." I have also been told, "You aren't THAT fat," and my all-time favorite, "You too big, go to fat western store." How is that for a kick in the ego?

Off I sweated to Orchard Road where if you can't find it, it ain't made. I went into a department store and determinedly marched to the Ladies wear. I knew boutique and Layna were not going to see eye to eye on 5'9" and curves.

The salesclerk spoke some sort of English that was unfamiliar to me but I explained I needed party dresses for Dubai and a Secret Santa party.  I think she understood the Dubai part; the jury is still out on the Santa comment.

She dragged me back to the change room with an armload of dresses which I eyed dubiously. They were beautiful lace and sequined frocks but the size and price didn't match. I think the tinier the dress, the more it costs, as with lingerie.  She began to push, shove and stuff me into dresses that the armpits where so small, I looked like I was in a permanent "hold up."  The waist bands on my over-length torso became an underwire bra. It may be just me but something about a glittering belt situated and holding up your tatas just didn't sit right with yours truly.  To top it all off,  the mid-length dress turned in its modesty to become a micro-mini on my frame.

Finally we found two dresses that didn't make me look like a 10-year old girl covered in ruffles, frills and bows, and were decent, if not quite attractive. Never mind that, I now am the proud owner of a size L and, gasp, XL. Maybe I can cut the tags out. All sense of pride and vanity is thrown out the window when you are dealt the "Fat Card," and given an XL.

No wonder I am XL
Despite the calamities that befall R2 and I, overall the Christmas season has been special in Singapore because like us, there are thousands of expats searching for that "down-home" Christmas experience they left behind. What has made Christmas charming in Singapore, as in Canada, is the friends we have made. We might be sweating around the fake Christmas tree, the rum that goes in the eggnog is even a more outrageous price than the nutmeg thick goo, but with all the wonderful friends we are blessed to have met in this past year, I want to say thank you for letting us share in your Christmas traditions.  So as they say in Holland, "Gelukkig kerstfeest", or in Thailand, "สุขสันต์วันคริสต์มาส", or Portugal, "Feliz Natal" and of course Mexico, as R2 recalls his father telling his mother “Your mother is here, pass me the Whiskey.” 

While we may not be home, and we are both missing our families and traditions, we are enjoying being surrounded with new friends and customs, no snow and the knowledge that all of my amigas are also wearing size XL.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Santa, grab your flip flops

People from Canada will think I am barking mad when I whine and moan about the tropical, sweltering heat during the Christmas season, but that is what I am about to do, so pull up a chair.

Orchard Road spectacle
Let me correct myself, it isn't the Christmas season quite yet but the decorations have been up for yonks. In Singapore, we had to get through Thanksgiving for the Canadians, Hari Raya Haji for the Muslims, we then had Halloween for the party revelers, Deepavali for the Indian community, Remembrance or Veterans  Day for the many westerners and never to forget the Americans, it is Thanksgiving today and Black Friday tomorrow.  Whew, I hope I didn't forget anyone.  But amidst all of festivities, Santa has been lurking in the background, trying to get your hard earned dough by advertising what are the hot ticket items you must buy for your kids or their lives will be forever destroyed.  Singapore is always about the money so what better time to drill into our heads that we must head to Orchard Road, one of the most expensive shopping areas in the world, to load up on Prada, Louis Vuitton and Cartier.  I know that I am expecting a $20,000 diamond encrusted Rolex under my Christmas Cactus.

What kind of tree is pink and neon?
Singapore is never one to do anything on a small scale so when I say there are Christmas decorations, I am not talking about a subtle tree or nativity scene scattered here and there. I am talking about 50 feet, neon pink, bedazzling trees that have globe sized ornaments that advertise banks, credit cards, liquor and anything else they can showcase. The electricity needed to light these fake trees would power up an even smaller country. Every nook and cranny has garlands, jolly elves, bulbs, sweaty, scrawny Santas and mustn't forget the music.  

The Yuletide tunes blasted everywhere would rival a rock concert for ear shattering decibels. I have not heard any beautiful music that has anything to do with an Oh Holy Night, but I swear if I hear Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree one more time, I can't be held responsible for my actions. By the time you get out of the madness, you need to have a Christmas Jack Daniels.  

Ye old Christmas VISA tree
The most interesting part of all this manufactured “O Come all Ye Faithful” is that Singapore is one giant construction site.  It is hard to be festive and oohh and aahh over decorations while a brobdingnagian crane is looming overhead and you are listening to the pounding jackhammer make, yet another hole.  I am living in a country full of holes and always on the lookout in case I fall into one. Maybe it will have a candy cane protruding to make the gorge more jolly.

There has never a single Christmas that I haven't been immersed in snow and had Jack Frost nipping at my nose, while I was nipping on Rum Toddies.  It isn't as if I have never seen Christmas in a hot country before. I took my children to Disneyland but it was still chilly while we watched Santa Mickey during the night time extravaganza.  I have gone through brown Christmas where people were out golfing and flying kites after opening presents during El Nino in Canada.  I have had the pleasure of before and after Christmases in Mexico where cities are adorned with real mistletoe and poinsettias as far as the eye can see.   It is charming to see the children in Mexico because of simple pleasures; not this outrageous, overstated grandstanding ad naseum in every mall.

Fighting the crowds at
 Hello Kitty Christmas
Christmas to me was always a time for family, eating until we couldn't roll off the couch, family snapshots where one kid was always putting rabbit ears behind another's head until I would bellow at them to knock it off.  My mom would bake the most delicious cookies, slices and chocolates.  Her house always smelled of turkey, cabbage rolls and the sage from the dressing. I can almost guarantee my house won't smell like that on Christmas for two reasons. First, my oven is 13 inches big so it is tough to make sugarplums dance through your head when you are dealing with an Easy Bake Oven. Furthermore, my house smells like a wet chicken that hasn't been plucked, thanks to the constant rain.  Well, at least it is in the poultry family. Maybe I could sprinkle sage in the corners for that authentic wet chicken dressing smell.

Christmas hasn't always been as easy time in my family.  When my oldest sister Leslie died, much of the enthusiasm of Christmas went away for my family.  Christmas was the time she always made it back to Saskatchewan.  We would sit up for hours arguing over endless games of Scrabble. I know to this day she cheated and that is why I could never beat her.  She would drive me mad by playing the piano and her flute at all hours of the day or night so my sleep pattern was out of sync, but it was a time for family. With the addition of six grandchildren to the mix, my parent’s house became more crowded; there were more sloths on the couches complaining of turkey asphyxiation and while the flute is gone, my son plays some mean Christmas carols on one of his many guitars.  The games may have changed but I play them with the kids and they cheat as well as their Aunt did.
A Mexican Santa in Vera Cruz

I have never missed one Christmas from my family so this will be a first. To make me forget what I am missing, R2 has come up with an even whackier idea than celebrating Christmas in the torrential downpours, soggy decorations and frenzied tourists that push and shove you to jockey the best position for a photo op on Orchard Road.  He has decided to book me into the dessert for an even hotter experience.  We are heading to Dubai to stay in the most glamourous, indulgent hotel in the world, The Burj Al Arab.  I hope having a butler at my beck and call, a fleet of Rolls Royces, and camel racing will make me forget jellied fruit cocktail salads and celery slathered with Cheese Whiz. Thanks to the beauty of Skype, I can’t be with my family but they have promised me they will steal wifi from the neighbours, connect and show me the cookies.

Fighting to take a picture
So Santa, this year I won’t be in Singapore looking out the window while the rains make it as hard to see as a Saskatchewan blizzard.  I am heading for warmer climates.  If you are coming to find me, make a right turn and head to the Middle East.  The security is so tight at The Burj, I hope you can make it through the metal detectors.  

Just between me and you, I would suggest your bikini and flip flops but remember it is a Muslim country so modesty must be maintained.  Perhaps it is okay to wear your speedo under your Dishdasha. 

Merry Christmas from this side of the world.