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