The Trip in Inappropriate Shoes

dsc_0610

As part of my blog I am adding edited excerpts of emails I sent on past travels.

In December 2001 and January 2002 I took the five week winter break between my first and second semesters of graduate school to travel in Southeast Asia. I spent the first two weeks in Indonesia, on the island of Bali, with my then-Balinese boyfriend. Originally we had planned to travel together for the rest of the weeks, but soon after my arrival it was apparent the relationship was not going to last. So, we broke up and on January 1 I flew into Bangkok to begin three weeks of travel split between Cambodia and Thailand.

I started this trip with only one pair of ill-advised shoes — a pair of cheap sandals I had purchased in a mom-and-pop store in northern Bali the spring before.  They were two inch high pieces of foam rubber with a wide blue band with no grip whatsoever on the bottom.  One time while walking in Lovina, the town in northern Bali I lived in for several months, I slipped on the sidewalk and landed on my behind in 2 seconds flat.  These were clearly some high quality shoes and just perfect for some backpacking.  I have long wanted to write a story of this trip with this title, though the shoes are only a minor actor in the tale.

On January 1 I flew to Bangkok.  I was exhausted and did not have the energy to do much searching for a cheap place.  The place I stayed the last two times appeared to be closed so I went a few doors down and paid $8 for a room.  I believe this is the most I have ever paid for a room in Thailand.  I did not do much for the next two days but eat and sleep and read.  I needed a rest.  Then I booked a bus ticket to Siem Reap.

dsc_0609

Me and my backpacks at the Thai/Cambodian border

The bus was supposed to pick me up at 6:45 am.  I was a little anxious as the last time I was to be picked up early for a bus in Bangkok it failed to arrive.  But at 10 til 7 a man showed up in front of me and asked “Siem Reap?”  I nodded and I was moved about 10 feet from where I had been standing.  Ten minutes later another person came up and asked “Siem Reap?” I nodded and was ushered along with another group of groggy foreigners shuffling down the street.  We walked about 10 minutes and crossed a rather busy road to wait in a highway circle.  There were buses there but the herders made no move to get us on them.  We stood for about 15 minutes and then the selection process began.  We were asked to show our tickets.  Some people got yellow tape or a badge to place on their shirts.  I received neither and was held back in a smaller group.  I began to wonder what was going on.  Then we were motioned to move onto a second bus.  The first bus looked more posh, but ours was less crowded and I actually had two seats to myself.  Our tickets were checked again and we were given orange pieces of paper, and then we were off.

We drove to the Thai/Cambodia border where we disembarked for lunch and visa applications.  We went through immigration on the Thai side and then walked across to the Cambodian side.  It seemed a strange border as all kinds of people were simply walking across without checks.  Unfortunately one person from our bus was denied entry and had to return to Bangkok.  We changed to a mini bus on the Cambodian side and our orange pieces of paper were collected.  Unfortunately some riders had lost the paper, were berated by our “guide” and were forced to pay more money to continue.

dsc_0612

Me among the ruins of Angkor

This time we were squeezed in shoulder to shoulder and the road was incredibly worse, if it could be called a road at all.  We were told we would arrive at Siem Reap at 7 pm, but instead finally made it at 9.  The trip had been fun for the first few hours and then it became very tiresome.  I guess that it is part of the beauty of travel, it was easy to get there then some of the fun is lost, at least then fun in re-telling the journey, and everyone would do it.  Again, exhausted, I took the first guesthouse I found.

I stayed three days in Siem Reap and saw the incredible temples of Angkor.  I spent hours examining the amazing carvings in the largest of the temples and clamoring over ruins in those ridiculous shoes of mine.  And yet I wrote very little of this part of the trip. 

On January 8, I had a 5:30 am pick-up for a truck to take me to Tonle Sap lake and then the boat to Phonm Penh.  I had a choice seat in the back with my legs crushed awkwardly under other people’s backpacks.  As we bounced over the steadily worsening road, I was sure I was going to bounce out backwards into a rice paddy, but after some 30 minutes we all made it safe and sound.  We boarded small boats to ferry us out to the “BIG” boat, which turned out to be not all that big.  I sat in the very last row in the back of the boat where the boat vibrated so loudly I could not hear the Cambodian karaoke movie properly (a blessing?).  I tried sleeping bu the vibration made my nose itch beyond control.  Instead I read my book (which I left behind and I will never know what happened in Mexico) and watched the mute videos.  Four hours later I gratefully disembarked in the capital.

dsc_0613

The sobering country map at Cheoung Ek

The same day I went to visit the Killing Fields of Cheoung Ek.  After a bumpy 25 minute motorbike ride I arrived at the field where the Khmer Rouge killed thousands of people, bludgeoning them to save bullets.  There is just the excavated graves and a pagoda with 17 shelves of skulls, almost 9,000 of them.  And 43 graves yet to be excavated.  My guide lost his parents there.  The weather was beautiful – a sunny day with blue skies, the fields green.  It reminded me of when I visited Auschwitz and Birkenau.  On the 9th I visited the Tuol Sleng Museum, which used to be a school but was turned into a prison for interrogation and torture.  Not a day of lightness.  Is it strange that this country boast the architectural achievements of the Khmers in monuments of beauty and grace and yet is also home to some of the sites of the most atrocious horrors done by humans to other humans.  Not uplifting, but it should be seen nonetheless.

I flew from Phnom Penh to Bangkok, stayed one night, and then flew to Phitsanulok in Thailand, where I took a bus to Sukhothai.

As soon as I step off the bus in Sukhothai I am accosted by a woman who demands to know where I want to go. I look at my guidebook.  Yupa guesthouse?  OK.  Forty baht.  I look at her dubiously but agree.  As we head to the “taxi” I realize it is a little truck, a songtheaw.  I also notice another songtheaw full of Thai people though I am being led to an empty one.  I aks her, how come all the Thai people are over there?  Farang (foreigner) 40 baht and Thai 5 baht, I ask her.  She laughs as she helps me into my own personal truck.  You must walk far if you take Thai truck, this truck right to door, no walking!  I wearily agree and off we go.

I do not have much energy for the day so I have lunch and take a nap.  I meet a woman from Belgium and we agree to have dinner.  She tells me the truck from the bus station is 10 baht.  The woman from Belgian tells me that the guesthouse is blissfully quiet.  I can hardly wait.  As I lay down to sleep after a furious storm a concert begins.  It is Children’s Day and some pop star from Bangkok is in town and there is nothing more enjoyable to do on Children’s Day then to set up a huge outdoor concern and keep all the children and everyone else in town awake until after midnight.  I put in my earplugs and try to get some sleep.

dsc_0614

A bridge at Si Satchanalai

iOn January 13 I decide to visit Si Satchanalai, another town 56 kilometers north of Sukhothai, where there are some nice ruins.  I consult someone at the guesthouse down the road and discover I can take a bus in the direction of Chiang Rai.  The owner of my guesthouse gives me instructions to the bus station.  He tells me “PingBaBaBuKaLa.”  I look at him.  He repeats “PingBaBaBuKaLa.”  I repeat after him.  He looks at me.  I realize he is saying “Pink Purple Bus Color.”  Ah ha!  I am set.

I write nothing about my time in Si Satchanalai or Sukhothai.  I am always curious of my choices to record some things and not others.  I remember renting a bicycle and riding around the ruined city and my ridiculous shoes constantly fell off as I cycle and I walk right out of them when I get stuck in some mud. 

I travel next to Chiang Mai.  I take part in a Thai cooking course.  I take a three hour Thai massage introductory course at the handicapped center.  I visit Doi Suthep, the temple on the top of the mountain, where I assist an Italian woman bitten by a dog.  I then follow it with my unexpected trip to the Chiang Mai Women’s Correctional Facility, which I chronicled in another post.  As I sit in a hotel room, once again in Thailand many years later, I feel nostalgia for this trip, for the kind of travel I used to do.  Though this time I have some better shoes.

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Palau – Islands on the Edge (2011) Part Two

On my second day I was signed up for a snorkeling tour in the Rock Islands including a visit to Jellyfish Lake.  I was just a tad apprehensive about the jellyfish bit, but had no time to think on it.  Best for me not to think too much.  The first stop was at a Japanese Zero, submerged where it crashed in WWII, just 10 feet beneath the surface.  At first we just stopped to look at it, but one of the guests asked if we could snorkel there and after just a few seconds of hesitation, and a quick scan at the sea, our guide said “Sure, why not?”  The others quickly threw on their fins and masks and jumped in.  I was a bit slower – I am always hesitant before jumping in the sea.  But once I was in, it was, of course, really cool.  And it was my first chance to test out the underwater camera a friend from work had loaned me.

32. mimicking mudmen

Hamming it up with the mud ladies

We continued on to an area called Rainbow Reef for snorkeling – and it was stunning, like swimming in an aquarium.  Then on to the “milky way” where the limestone mud just a few feet below the surface of the water is supposed to have therapeutic properties.  We all slathered up and then washed it off with a dip in the crystal clear waters.  Then it was on to Jellyfish lake.

Many, many thousands of moons ago, Jellyfish Lake was open to the ocean.  Over time it became closed off and a species of jellyfish became enclosed and isolated inside the lake.  With no predators, over time, they evolved to no longer have a sting.  Our boat docks at Eil Malk island and we walk up a small staircase trail and then down again to a dock jutting out into the saltwater lake.  “Ok,” our guide says, “go ahead and get in and swim out in that direction and we will swim with the jellyfish.”  Right.  I stare at the water.  I am not the only one of the group just staring at the murky green water, where underneath the surface teem millions of rumored-to-be-sting-free jellyfish.  Oh, and possibly a crocodile.  Thanks Tour Guide for that wonderful story about the crocodile sightings here at the lake.  I jump in and start swimming.

79. jellyfish

Surrounded!

Perhaps ten or fifteen feet in I see my first jellyfish and my instinct is to jerk back and dart in another direction.  I swim around it. But then I see two.  And then five.  And then more and more and more.  No turning back now.  I reach out and touch one.  Nothing.  It feels like thick, flexible latex.  It slides benignly along my hand and away.  I am giddy.  All of us are giddy.  We swim among them.  Through the swarm.  It is amazing.  I completely, well almost completely, forget there might be a crocodile lurking in the depths ready to take me down.  After half an hour or more we swim back to the entrance point and return to our boat.  Once settled and ready to move on to our lunch area, we spot a moon jellyfish floating in the water.  I want now to reach out and touch it and it takes a moment to realize we are back in the real world where jellyfish are not our friends.

It was lunch time and we headed out once again in the boat.  Our stop was a small, flat, palm covered islet.  From the small beach, the drop off is steep and quick.  Maybe 30 to 50 feet deep within 10 feet of the  shore.  Several beginner scuba diving classes were in progress when we arrived.  After lunch I ventured into the water.  This was a big deal.  Our guide had called it Shark Island or something like that.  If you know me at all, you know that I have an irrational fear of sharks and the ocean.  I know it is irrational but I have the fear all the same.  When I was five years old my parents took me (and my younger siblings) to see the movie Jaws.  Apparently I had been hounding my mother for weeks on end to see it.  So she did, and I had nightmares for weeks, maybe months afterwards.  [I used to think my mother was half crazy to do this but now that I have a 4 ½ year old child myself, I completely get it].  It complicates matters that I wear glasses and once they are off, as they are for snorkeling, I cannot see all that well.

43. sharks

Sharks just below me — unclear due to being underwater and not my my shaking or anything

So there I am in the water, halfheartedly paddling about, trying very hard to appear at ease, while pushing back the scenes running through my head of my impeding loss of life and limb by shark attack.  And there below me I spot a circle of divers practicing some basic scuba lessons.  And off to the side is a circle of black tip reef sharks doing what appears to be staring at the divers.   I felt a flutter in my chest.  I might have peed myself.  Wait, it is the ocean, I did pee myself.  I felt terribly brave and slightly panicked at the same time.  But I stayed put.  I willed myself to stay put and watch them.  I took pictures with the underwater camera a colleague had loaned me.  I had just seen sting-less jellyfish and touched them and now here I was in the water within quick swimming distance of some sharks and I was relatively, surprisingly calm.   Would wonders never cease?

50. bloody nose ridge memorial

Monument at the top of Bloody Nose Ridge.

On my third day in Palau, I joined a full day WWII tour to Peleliu island, the site of one of the fiercest battles of the Pacific War, resulting in the largest casualty rate of any amphibious assault in US history.  It was here that 1000s of marines were met with an entrenched Japanese force of nearly 11,000, all on an island only 6 miles long and 2 miles wide.  Over two months of fighting resulted in 40% of the 28,000 marines killed or wounded.   Although I am not a WWII buff I am very interested in history and before my trip I had watched the miniseries “The Pacific” and read the autobiography Hemlet for My Pillow by Robert Leckie, one of the true characters from the documentary who had served and was wounded on Peleliu.

An hour speedboat trip from Koror brought us to the shores of Peleliu, the southernmost of Palau’s main islands.  It looked like any other tropical island with palm trees and a short sandy beach.   Like any other place in history that has seen atrocities, I felt strange standing there looking at the beautiful sea and sky and greenery and trying, completely in vain, to imagine the horror that both sides faced and wrought upon one another.   The divers in the group headed off for their morning dive, which just left me and a family of 3 for the full land tour.   We walked with our guide through the small town, investigated several caves (one with a large spider that I might never get over),  to the old airfield, through the jungle to see rusted out tanks,  downed planes, armaments, and gutted bunkers and buildings.  We lunched and the divers returned to join the second half of the tour including a hike up Bloody Nose Ridge and to the small, but informative museum.   Our hike up Umurbrogol Mountain or Bloody Nose Ridge, a 300 foot high peak, took maybe 30 minutes.  During the US offensive, military leaders planned on 72 hours to take the ridge, but instead it took 73 days.  It was a sobering day but well worth the trip.

DSC_0111

Storyboard depicting Ngibtal

My fourth day was a lazy no-tour day.   I got a lift down to the town center for a visit to the Palau Aquarium.  I love aquariums and I try to visit them wherever I can.  It was a nice little place, part of a larger coral reef research center, but after actually snorkeling around the actual reefs of Palau, the aquarium could not hold a candle to the real thing.   I then walked over to the Koror Prison, an important stop on any tourist to-do list of Palau.   Unlike my visit to the Women’s Prison in Chiang Mai I was not here to see a specific prisoner but to call on the prison workshop where you can browse the beautifully wood-carved storyboards made by the prisoners as part of a rehabilitation program that benefits them and their families.  I hemmed and hawed between two particular storyboards while chatting with the carvers before deciding to purchase one depicting the legend of the fish-bearing breadfruit tree.  From the prison I meandered through some neighborhoods before getting lunch and then visiting the pleasant Belau (as Palau is sometimes spelled) National Museum.

Pouring rain that looked like it would not end but suddenly did, almost sunk my kayaking and snorkeling tour on day five.  Four people cancelled.  Luckily one other person had not as the tour company required a minimum of two.  My tour companion was an American working on a US naval vessel who just wanted a quiet day of swimming and boating in the Rock Islands.  We stopped first for snorkeling above a reef and then at a partial cave, more an opening in one of the smaller islets.  At another location we picked up the kayaks to begin our trip along the mile-long Long Lake, a saltwater lake surrounded by mangrove forests.  It was quiet and relaxing.

24. Badrulchau monoliths (2)

Some of the stone monoliths of Badrulchau amongst the lush greenery of Babeldaob

Rain the next morning nearly washed out another tour but again the skies cleared just in time.  This time it would be just me.  I agreed to pay extra for a solo land tour of Babeldaob, the country’s largest island, and the largest island in Micronesia (other than Guam).   Despite its size, only about 30% of Palau’s 18,000 residents live there, and is one of the least developed islands in the Pacific Ocean.  Babeldaob.  It is a mouthful but it sounds exotic.  Unlike the other islands of Palau, which are limestone, Babeldaob is volcanic.   It is hilly and still very much covered in foliage.  Here in 2006, Palau established its new capital of Ngerulmud, moving it from the most populous town of Koror.   Though the capital is the only settlement to have its own zip code (the country is serviced by the US postal system), and it has a few capital-looking buildings, it does not have the feel of a bustling capital city.

My tour took in the capital, ruined Japanese WWII sites, the mysterious stone monoliths at Badrulchau dating back to 161 A.D. (sort of like Palau’s version of Stonehenge), waterfalls, and traditional Palauan meeting structures, it was my conversation with my young tour guide as we drove around the island that stuck most in my mind.  “A” spends most of her time leading scuba dive tours.  Her father, also a scuba dive tour leader and instructor, worried about his daughter spending too much time underwater and the toll it might take on her body.  He wanted her to find another job.  So “A” did go the United States for college.  Palau, with its small population, only has a community college but no four year institutions.  But there are special considerations and scholarships for Palauans to attend university in the US.   Many go to Hawaii, but not all.  “A” went to the mainland, but quickly became homesick and after a year or so called it quits and returned home where she returned to the job she loves, much to her father’s consternation.

On my final day, I was picked up once again by representatives of Sam’s Tour, the company with which I had taken every single one of my tours.  My flight to Manila, like the one I arrived on, would depart in darkness, after the sun had set.   I would spend the day at the Sam’s Tour headquarters – where they have their dive shop, gift shop, bar and restaurant facing the marina with beautiful views of the water.  I arranged one final tour – a helicopter flight over the Rock Islands.  I was joined on the tour by two 20-something Japanese girls whom the pilot inexplicably assumed were my daughters.  Seeing the islands from the air was breathtaking.  And it was a great end to having experienced Palau from land, sea, and air.  I spent the rest of my trip awaiting transfer to the airport, sitting in the bar, nursing beverages, as I looked out at the water.

27. sunset (2)

Sunset at the Sam’s Tours marina

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Palau – Islands on the Edge (2011) Part One

[As part of my blog I am posting stories from my past travels.  These are edited, augmented, versions of email stories I sent to friends and families, or in some cases meant to send but were never completed.  They are at times supplemented with information from my diaries and/or memories.  This trip to Palau was one of my last before I started carrying a baby on board and joined the Foreign Service.  It was a trip in which I pushed up against my comfort zone (swimming in the ocean with a twist), bent to convention (signing up for lots of tours – because the nature of the islands make it nearly impossible to get to places on your own unless you have your own boat – and realized what things I might be too old for (like running after Taylor Swift in the Manila Airport during transit–I did not do it in case you were wondering. I only thought about it.]

19. placid Palauan waters

The incredibly stunning and calm waters of Palau

“The Caroline group includes, besides coral islands, five mountainous islands of basaltic formation, beautiful and fertile with rivers and springs…They look very picturesque as you approach them, with the white shining sands of the beach in the foreground dotted with their queer-looking canoes; then the cocoanut [sp]palms, lifting their tufted feathery heads seventy or eighty feet in the air, the long drooping leaves of the pandanus trees, and the dark, shining foliage of the bread-fruit, while beneath all one can here and there catch glimpses of thatched huts of the natives.  With a closer inspection, however, the beauty vanishes, and the barrenness and isolation of the island are realized.  The heat is intense, and there are heavy languor and lifelessness in the air, which is heavy with the odors of decaying vegetation and the rancid copra, as well as the odor which seems inseparable from heathenism…To establish protectorates over any of these groups must be purely philanthropic work—a laying up of treasure in heaven for there will certainly be none to lay up on earth.” —Harper’s Weekly, November, 20 1900

Palau.  A string of small sun-kissed islands in the Western Pacific Ocean.  Who wouldn’t want to visit?  Certainly not the author of this Harper’s Weekly article over 100 years ago!!  Funny, how our visions of far-flung tropical islands (and heathenism) have changed.   I suppose if more than just a few die-hard divers, WWII history buffs, and Asian honeymooners knew the place existed (and I am none of the above), I expect many people would like to make their way there.   Yet these days even many guidebooks seems to have given up on Palau.  Perhaps a decade and a half ago I had myself a Lonely Planet guidebook to Micronesia.  I was going to visit Guam and had visions of myself soon after somehow making my way to these other difficult to reach islands.  That did not happen.   But it must not only have happened to me because Lonely Planet no longer makes a guide book to Micronesia.

4. sunset at hotel

Sunset view from my hotel

I had a number of reasons to visit Palau.  I love visiting different countries and cultures.  But I do have a particular interest in the South Pacific after spending 6 months in Hawaii as a visiting fellow and then visiting the Cook Islands and Samoa in 2004.  I am not quite sure when Palau came on my radar – but it was sometime after 2004, just 10 years after Palau’s independence from the United States, after 47 years in trusteeship status.  Just a few years ago I started thinking I would really like to visit Palau, but it seems a long way from anywhere.  Unlike Hawaii, which, although it is the world’s most remote island chain in the sense of distance,  is connected to many places by daily flights, Palau has but a few flights a week, some only by charter, from Manila, Guam, Tokyo, Seoul, and Taipei.  Although it is perhaps closest to Indonesia (they share a maritime border!) there are no air connections between the two countries.

I love that Palau is home to the longest river and second largest island in Micronesia.  And amazingly enough there are bridges between several of the main islands!  I find this extraordinary in the Pacific.  Also the famed Rock Islands, featured in multi-years of my National Geographic Islands calendars, are here.

Another interesting tidbit about Palau is that in 2009 the country offered asylum to the 20 Uyghurs held at Guantanamo.  Eight took them up on the offer (and on my first day a guide took me by the apartment where they all supposedly reside.  According to the guide, they are all “very nice”.)  Several months later the US offered Palau something along the lines of $240 million in long-term assistance and in September 2010 the first permanent U.S. Ambassador to Palau started work.  Previously, the US Ambassador to the Philippines also covered Palau.

Palau is different.  Most flights arrive in the darkness.  Mine landed right on schedule at 2:05 am.   Despite that, I noticed something was off as soon as I got into the car to take me to my hotel.  My driver got into the right side of the car, but we also drove on the right side of the road…  Uh, what?  When I asked him why he was driving on the wrong side of the road he said he was not.  So I asked him why his steering wheel was not on the other side of the car.  Turns out, a majority of the vehicles in Palau are from Japan.  i.e. for the Japanese market.  Though the traffic patterns of Palau are those of the US.  I found this confusing because well, the Philippines is perhaps Palau’s closest neighbor (though parts of Indonesia might be just as close, there are no direct flight connections) and they manage to have their steering wheels and their lane directions matched up.  But this is just one of Palau’s many idiosyncrasies.

17. german consulate

Clothing store downstairs and the German Consulate upstairs.  Old school representation in Palau

Like when I went into a souvenir shop and looked at the postcards.  First, the selection was really limited.  But then I noticed that some of the cards were not even of Palau!  I noticed three cards were of Yap, Micronesia.  Okay, I guess that is relatively close by, but it is a different country, the Federated States of Micronesia.  And then I noticed a card that showed an aerial view of a village.  I picked it up to look at it closer – and thought there was far too much land visible for it to be of any island in Palau or Micronesia.  And, wait, the houses looked European.   What?  I turned it over and the card information was not in English, but I noticed the words C. Krumlov.  Oh my goodness.  I have been to Cesky Krumlov.  It is in the Czech Republic!  Why in the world would they sell a postcard of the Czech Republic in Palau?

I had only a few things planned for my first day.  Buy sunblock, get my watch battery replaced (it died the day before I flew to Palau), arrange a few tours, and take a walking tour of Koror.  The live-in-manager of the hotel, Maisa, drove me down to the main shopping center in Koror around 10 am.  (well, at 10:15 am she told me she wanted to leave at 10 am! – but hey, I got a free lift to town).   I browsed through the supermarket to check out what was available, had my watch batter replaced (check) and bought the sunblock (check).  Then I decided to talk a walk around town.  Funny, but that morning as I looked out from the hotel balcony, to see swaying palms and the crystalline sea, I thought, “I could live here”.  After about 10 minutes of walking in the blazing heat, along the main road lined with nondescript buildings, I thought, “there is no way I could live here.”

Koror reminded me of Suva, Fiji, and even parts of Hawaii.  Blessed with beautiful blue skies, warm trade winds, palm trees, and stunning vistas across clear aquamarine seas – but cursed with ugly, functional concrete block architecture.  Maybe it is a result of so many WWII battles being fought in the Pacific that so many of the buildings resemble bunkers? Tall, often colorfully painted, bunkers.

I had a delicious lunch at an Indian restaurant staffed by Filipinos before calling Maisa to come and pick me up.   She let me know that she had arranged a river tour for me that afternoon and they would be picking me up in about 40 minutes.  I was thrilled.

The River Tour was great!  First, on the way there, the self-employed Polish couple from Chicago with whom I shared a pick-up service regaled me with their hilarious tales of tourism in Palau.  When asked how long they would stay in Palau they said 2 months – but so far it was three weeks and they wryly said they were not sure how much longer they would stay.  They said that Palau is odd because it thrives on tourism and yet is not very helpful to tourists.  There are few, if any, maps available.  Many tourist sites have no signage.  For example, they told me how they tried 3 times to visit the Crocodile Farm.  The first 2 times they went it was closed.  So, on the third try they called the place at 8:30 am to ask their opening hours and were told until 11 am that day.  But when they showed up an hour later it was locked up tight!  So they parked the car, scaled the fence, and took a look around themselves!  They also told me when they arrived and the immigration officer asked them how long they were staying, he laughed and asked them “what are you going to do here for that long?”  They loved my story of the postcards!

9.

I am quite sure I would never grow tired of seeing tropical flowers

Once at the river boat tour site we had an opportunity to hold a juvenile fruit bat and a baby crocodile.  I think fruit bats are cute.  I really do!  Their faces look like puppy dogs.  It is just when they spread their leathery wings and reach out with their clawed toes that things start to get a bit scary.  Still, I held him as he pawed my shirt, then licked and nipped my hand.  Until the nipping got a bit too hard.  However, better than the little crocodile, which I dropped as soon as he started to squirm…

So, yes, there are crocodiles in Palau!  I was rather surprised myself.  As part of preparing myself for snorkeling in Palau, I googled “sharks in Palau” and came across some articles about the crocodiles, which some divers seemed a little concerned about.  I know I certainly became concerned as well.  I get that the Philippines and Indonesia and Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands have crocodiles – they have some fairly large islands – but the little islands of Palau, a minimum of 400 kilometers from anywhere?  However, an online search of the worldwide habitat of saltwater crocodiles revealed that they were in fact in Palau.  Though there has not been an attack, at least a fatal attack, on a human being since the 60s.  That attack turned the Palauans against the crocodiles, nearly wiping out the island population.

While meandering down the river we saw only one crocodile.  On the way down river, we saw him sunning himself on the bank, on the way back he swam up to the boat.  Otherwise there was little to see along the river – a few birds and fruit bats, but mostly lush green vegetation on either side.  It was quite relaxing.  The tour was supposed to last around an hour, but I think our guide took at least twice as long.  Time seemed unimportant.  There was no hurry.

Back at the hotel, the owner told me that she would be going to the supermarket at 6 pm and I could join her.  I told her it was already 6:10 pm.  That’s Palauan time.  Her friend ended up taking me at 7:30!

Kathmandu 2002: Part Two

I should have known better.  I went to the same restaurant.  Again I had the same plans for the following day:  to visit the Buddhist Boudhanath Stupa and the Hindu Pashupatinath temple.  Clearly I was tempting fate.

Well, I have certainly learned a very valuable lesson, and that is DO NOT eat a second time in a restaurant from which the first time you received food poisoning.  I thought perhaps to give the New Orleans Cafe another go.  It might have been a coincidence to become sick after one meal, but twice?  I woke up about 1:30 in the morning and dragged myself to the bathroom.  Despite my illness I did notice that my two handsome neighbors were playing, of all things, the Greatest Hits of Whitney Houston!  So while ridding myself of my dinner I could enjoy the Greatest Love of All and the theme song to the Bodyguard.  What a strange place is Nepal!

6

Buddha’s eyes watching from Boudhanath

The day after my visit to the “Poison Café,” I could barely get myself up.  But I managed to eat a few pieces of fruit and have some tea before heading out to Boudhanath and Pashupatinath, the most famous of Nepal’s Hindu and Buddhist temples.  Boudhanath is apparently the second largest Buddhist stupa in the world.  It is also home to a large Tibetan community in Nepal.  All around were monks of all ages in their red robes and women with their traditional garb with colorful aprons, some carrying their wooden beads.  I walked up onto the stupa and looked around at this amazing little Buddhist village.  It was very charming.  I even saw people walking their dogs, when I thought in general dogs were not pets, but just street animals.  A sign on the stupa tells visitors in English to not do immoral things while there, such as smoking, gambling, spitting and the like, while all around me I saw people doing these exact things.  Several young novice months, maybe 6 to 12 years of age, stood around a gambling area, placing their bets.  And I saw many people smoking, some quite young.  And spitting, of course!  The sound of the throat clearing and the spit is as common as car horns!  I walked around the stupa about three times, soaking in the atmosphere and decided to then try my luck walking to the Hindu temple, which I had been told was about 30 minutes on foot.

I headed off in the direction of Pashupatinath along a gravel and dirt path between two store facades.  Immediately I was transported into the real life of Nepali people, away from the tourists.  The first scene I came upon was a group of boys throwing stones at another boy.  Without thinking I intervened, telling the offending stone throwers “No!”  They hesitated and slyly threw a few more stones for good measure.  I then came upon also three people washing in a stone bath outside, though they were all wearing saris, and a woman bathing in an area outside her house. There were lots of children playing.  Along one side of the road a bus stood broken down, though for how long it had been there, who knows, and three men stood talking conspiratorially behind it.  On the other side, three young women stood gossiping with each other.  Perhaps they, the men and the women, actually wanted to talk with each other.  It reminded me a bit of a scene I had seen on the first day as I walked to Kathmandu Durbar Square.  One one side of the street a young man sat on the stoop of a store smiling shyly.  On the other side of the street, a lovely young woman in an all red sari stood, brazenly flirting with the man.  It was enchanting to watch.

7

Nepalese children

Further along the path I saw a boy hitting some cows hard with a stick.  I thought here was a boy who had not learned that cows are sacred in Nepal!  I took a picture.  This did not make the boy shy; he only hit the cows harder.  As I walked, I would come to a fork in the road and would just ask someone “Pashupatinath?” and I would be pointed in the right direction.  A few children yelled hello to me, but for the most part I seemed to pass by unnoticed.  This was such a relief after the constant “Hello friend,” “Tiger Balm, cheap for you madam,” “Where are you going? Rickshaw?” and “Come inside, just looking, very cheap” calls in Thamel.  Also the interesting proposal I received of “Tour? Sightseeing? Marriage? Madam” from a rickshaw driver.  Tempting, but no. 

I began to grow tired and feel sick.  My legs began to feel like lead, my stomach to hurt, and my head to pound.  Just at that time by my side appeared a Nepali man who spoke English and told me the temple was not farther.  Thank goodness!  Although a 30 minute walk would usually be a piece of cake for me, this one was beginning to feel it would never end.  The man asked me questions along the way, and showed me the path to the temple and the way inside.  I knew I was earning myself a “guide” but I did not have the energy to tell him to go away.

Those who are not Hindu cannot enter the temple grounds proper but only the area alongside the river and up to the cemetery.  I paid the entrance fee and he led me inside, immediately to the right of the ticket booth we went to the riverside where the cremations are performed.  I looked over the side of a wall and there lay a body almost burned and another wrapped in white cloth being prepared for cremation.  My guide points out to me a hand on the pyre.  “Can you see it?” he asks.  “No,” I say, “and I am not sure I want to…ah there it is.”  My stomach churned.  “Can you see the foot?” my eager guide asks.  “I need to sit down,” I say.  That the smoke in my face is coming off the burning pyre and the ashes as well are from this just burned body, is too much for meI sit down and my head spins and my stomach leaps about.  I tell my guide I think I need to go.  “No, no, I have more to show you.”  I tell my guide that I am going to call it a day.  I pay him some money and catch a motor-rickshaw back to town.  I feel every bump in the road and I slide further and further into the depths of the rickshaw clutching my stomach and moaningThen the rickshaw breaks down.  A policeman watches the driver tinkering with the engine but does not offer to help, while I slump in the back holding my head and wondering at it all.  After perhaps 10 minutes the driver gets us going again and we bump our way back to Thamel and my hotel.  I dragged myself up to my room for a long nap. 

8

Cremation at Pashupatinath

The following day I woke up quite late, about half past eleven.  I was still tired.  I think the air of the Kathmandu valley quite tires me out.  I have to use my asthma inhaler quite frequently and I feel lightheaded at times.  I was not too worried about getting up late, I am here after all to relax, and I had been sick the day before.  I was just worried about being sick still.  I decided I would return to Pashupatinath.  It took me a couple hours to get going and I did not arrive at the temple until about 4 pmAgain a guide joined me almost immediately and though I tried to shake him, he hung on tight.  But he was very informative and I was glad I had him to tell me about the temple.  I saw a cremation on the commoner side of the river.  Though actually on the same side of the river as those for the rich, in government positions, or in the royal family, the cremations for the commoners are separated from the others by a bridge.  For each caste there is a separate platform.  On the commoner side there are four platforms for the four castes.  On the other side were three platforms, one for rich and high government positions, one for, I believe, the sons and daughters of royalty, perhaps for the queen as well, and one for the king. 

My guide told me what a sad time it was last year when so many members of the royal family, who had been murdered in the palace, were cremated.  That royal homicide occurred just weeks after I last left Nepal, and things have become even more difficult for the struggling country. I was not the only spectator; there were many more, most Nepali.  How strange I thought to watch a funeral.  But I thought this in Bali too.  I sat and watched a Newari cremation ceremony until the sky grew very dark and the first fire was lit under the pyre.  Beforehand each member of the family and friends had gone down to the holy river (which flows to the Ganges in India) to dip their hands in and to carry a handful of water to the lips of the deceased.  At last the eldest son dressed all in white and being supported by another man, walked three times around the pyre and then placed the first flame beneath the head of the deceased.  He then fled to the back of the crowd wailing; his loud cries could be heard across the river. It was very sad and very strange for me to be sitting across the river from this rite of passage.  When I said this to my guide, he told me not to worry for this is human life, part of the cycle of life. 

That evening I enjoyed a nice dinner in a cafe overlooking one of the main thoroughfares of Thamel.  Enjoying Mexican food, writing in my journal and reading for my exams (yes I did in fact study) it was hard to reconcile the life on the street below, the shops, loud music, strands of blinking lights and people preparing for or returning from a trek or others selling their wares, with the end of life I had just witnessed, but there it was – the cycle of life.

11

Riding in style – Kathmandu public buses.  See the goats?

The next day I had plans to go to Bhaktapur, the UNESCO World Heritage city about 18 kilometers from Kathmandu.  Last year my friends and I had decided to skip it because we were too angered by the entrance fee.  The fee is 750 rupees (or $10) for foreigners and 50 rupees (.75) for citizens of SAARC countries or China. This time however I was prepared to payThis time I would not take a taxi.  I was determined not to take the easy traveler’s way.  I had hoped to take the bus there, and the trolley car back, but was disappointed to learn the decrepit trolley had finally seen its last days.  I walked down to the City Bus Park in Kathmandu and asked the first police officer I saw to help me find the bus to Bhaktapur.  He kindly helped me find one.  I was delighted because it looked to be about a century old!!  Well actually it looked as though it was rather newly made, welded together from other century old buses, pieces of wood and carpet, which with grinding gears and horrible exhaust belched its way down the highway.

10

Beautiful carved door opens to a courtyard in Bhaktapur

The 18 kilometer trip to Bhaktapur took about 45 minutes.  I arrived though in good spirits right outside one of the city gates.  Who needs to take a 300 rupee taxi ride when they can take an 8 rupee bus ride?  My first glimpse of Bhaktapur, just inside the entrance, was disappointing. It looked shabby and the houses in disrepair.  But on my left a courtyard opened up, with an old woman sitting on a wooden parapet and weaving on an old loom.  Beside her a young girl stood, just in the doorway to this courtyard.  Inside women were threshing rice and the yellow grain littered the ground beside Hindu temples.  Ah, this is Bhaktapur!  From the courtyard I hurried up the street to see more of the city’s treasures and came upon a square I mistakenly took to be Bhaktapur’s Durbar Square.  It was wide and open with some big temples and a totem like pole in off center.  A lovely tea shop set up right into an old building with beautiful windows, porticos and balconies to my right.  I thought I would come back there for lunch, but I did not.  As it was still too early to eat, I headed off down a side street.  I saw two boys rolling thin rubber tires with sticks; they spun their tires quickly up another side street and away. 

9

Hanging out in Bhaktapur

Off I went down another street and I came upon the true Durbar Square.  It was truly beautiful.  There were some temples there which seemed like those I had seen in Lopburi, Thailand or Angkor in Cambodia.  Along the steps were parades of animals.  Once again I acquired a guide, though this one, a student, said he wanted no payment, only a chance to practice his English.  He told me his name was Dave.  Dave gave me a wonderful tour around Bhaktapur, telling me many wonderful things about the city I would never have known on my own.  And he told me about himself. Seventeen, he just taken his high school exit exams and is waiting to go to university.  We had cokes in a cafe overlooking the Durbar Square.  We had a nice conversation and I watched the school kids just let out of school scatter across the square.  I also bought a Thangka painting, painted by my young guide.  It was not expensive and it will help him to go to school.  Dave brought me out another of the gates to another bus park and I hopped aboard a smaller bus back to Kathmandu.  This time I had to stand the whole trip.  It was fine.

Tomorrow is my last day in Nepal.  Then I fly back to Bangkok for an evening and back to Singapore the following day.  Back to the exams.

The trip must have worked.  I scored very well on my exams.  Quite well in fact.  When I graduated I received a gold medal for achieving the highest score in my program that year.

13

My Thangka painting by Dave

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kathmandu 2002: Part One

1

One of my favorite pictures from the trip: Temple bells.

As part of my blog I am adding edited excerpts of stories I wrote on/of past travels.  I have been thinking a lot on the person I was before I joined the Foreign Service.  The person I was before I became a mother.  My by-the-seat-of-my-pants travels, the ones without hotel reservations, the ones where I carried everything in a single mid-sized backpack, the ones where I stayed not in hotels but in shared dorms or cheap guestrooms, sometimes with shared facilities, sometimes without hot water.  The trips where I would walk for hours instead of taking a taxi or tuk-tuk or rickshaw that I thought cost too much.  The trips on which I might wear the same pair of pants or shirt for days.  I sometimes really miss those footloose and fancy free vacations.

Still I am, and was, a planner.  I poured over maps and guide books, train time tables and bus schedules.  Once on the road things could change.  If I arrived somewhere and I did not like it, I could leave a day earlier, even that afternoon, off to somewhere else.  If I liked a place a lot I would stay longer.  But I still had a very good idea of what I would find in any given place.  I was prepared.  Yet my 2002 trip to Nepal is the least planned of all my trips (except maybe that time I went to Albania).   I always wondered if I could be one of those people to show up at an airport and simply buy a ticket and fly to anywhere same day.  This is the closest I have come.

2

Look at those snazzy hiking pants!  One of my first acts in Kathmandu was to buy two pairs.

I was a graduate student in Singapore and we all had one week off between classes and our exams.  I wanted to get away, out of the country.  I decided to fly to Thailand.  Inside my bags I had my class notebooks.  My plan was to sightsee during the day and then study for my exams in restaurants and in my guestroom in the evenings.

After a day in Bangkok listening to the thumping sample CDs competing with the bars and restaurants on Khao San Road, I knew Bangkok was not the place I wanted to be.  The day before, I had met a Japanese rafting instructor who was on his way to Katmandu.  I had been considering going to Brunei, but who goes to Brunei for a week?  So I went to one of the Khao San Road travel agents and instead of asking about a ticket to Brunei I asked about Kathmandu. A day later I was on the plane.

Now about 30 minutes before landing at the Kathmandu airport I am wondering if this trip was a good idea.  For one thing, I have no guide book.  For another, I have no cool weather clothes with me.  The pilots just announced the weather is in the 70s.  I look around the plane to see the majority of people dressed in khaki pants, long sleeved shirts with pullovers or jackets and hiking boots. I look down at my own knee length skirt, a short sleeved shirt and sandals.  I have one jacket in my checked luggage.  The flight attendants hand out the customs forms.  One question asks me to declare how much currency I am bringing into the country.    I realize I have about US$50, (US$30 is to cover the cost of the visa on arrival) and 50 Singapore dollars. I cannot recall if Kathmandu has ATM machines. Thailand has them on every street corner so it had not occurred to me.  Until now.

4

I sought calm and inspiration in Durbar Square.  I am not sure who I liked more: the uber cool Sadhu chillin’ out at the temple, or the young man just below him staring up in rapt attention

But it was enough.  I bought some pants, found a place to stay, and have managed. It turns out there are two ATMs in Katmandu, although I was in a bit of a panic when I went to the first outside of the Kathmandu Guest House and found it out of order.  However the owner of the Thamel guesthouse where I found a small, quiet room on the third floor with a wooden desk perfect for studying and a window that looks out on a busy pedestrian street, told me not to worry and to just pay him the following day once I located the other ATM (which thankfully worked because it turns out that the banks are closed for two or three or four days for a holiday). 

I am so glad to be here in Nepal.  I love the atmosphere.  I am a bit envious of all the people I see heading off or returning from treks.  There is the excitement of starting something so amazing and the uncertainty of whether one will be able to complete the trek.  Then for the returnees there is the joy of accomplishment, of having the smiles and pain and blisters and stories about the journey.  I spent some time last night with some women about to head off on a two week trek to Everest Base Camp, and how much I longed to bunk my exams and head off to the hills.  I think they would have made lovely companions.  But as spontaneous as I can be on travel, I usually remain practical. No, this trip is just for a week.

3

Festive colors for Diwali and the Newali New Year

I feel lucky to have come to Nepal at this time even though I had not planned on this trip.  It is a week of celebrations.  First, it is Diwali.  The streets are full of lights.  Candles and carpets of yellow flowers lie at the entrances to many shops.  Groups of children are caroling from door to door for tika, a blessing and a small amounts of money.  Tomorrow the boys will receive tika from their sisters. They give a small present to the sister, who will then give them some small amount of money.

Today Kathmandu Durbar Square was full of holiday makers buying fruits, flower garlands, and new clothes for the occasion.  The last time I was in Kathmandu, although there were certainly people in the Square it was more of an oasis from the crowded narrow streets, but today the Square rivaled the streets in energy and raucous noise.  It was rather wonderful. On the way to the square I was blessed by a Sadhu, who planted a tika on my forehead, put some flowers in my hair and doused me with holy water.  I returned the favor with a “donation.”

 It is also the Newari New Yea.  At first I was a little confused.  New Year?  I thought it was New Year the last time I visited Nepal, in April 2001.  And it was.  Then it was the Baishakh New Year 2058.  Now instead it is turning 1132.  What luck to always turn up during such celebrations.

Because I have been to Kathmandu before and am a little familiar with the

5

I felt pretty blessed to receive “tika” from this happy fella

streets and restaurants, I can sit and study in a cafe enjoying a cup of Nepali tea or in a Kashmiri’s shop having lemon tea, do a little studying, but still enjoy a different atmosphere..  It feels just right.  I hope I feel the same after a week (or even tomorrow because I tempted fate by having dinner in the same restaurant that A&P had our last dinner together the last time I was in Kathmandu, and the following day I was extremely ill.  I sat at the table beside the previous table.  I think I even had the same surly waiter!  But it was a delicious meal then, and it was tonight too.)

I am growing a bit tired. Although it is just 8:45 Nepali time, it is 11 pm Singaporean time (Nepal doesn’t like to have the same time as India, so it is 2 hours and 15 minutes different from Singapore).  It’s time to head back to my hotel and sleep.  I want to get up early tomorrow and head out sightseeing.

Namaste & Happy New Year

SARS in Singapore (2003) Part Two

Between July 2002 and July 2003 I lived in Singapore while studying for my graduate degree at the National University.  For three of those months, from 1 March to 30 May, Singapore life was altered with the arrival of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome or SARS.  During that period of time 238 people fell ill with SARS and 33 people died.  The small country reacted quickly with numerous restrictions and regulations affecting most aspects of social life. 

This is the second of two posts cobbled together from emails I sent out to family and friends during this time.  The strain of living under the conditions imposed to stop the spread of the illness began to take their toll on me.  I began to feel depressed.  I will admit I sought some counseling. At the same time SARS not only brought me closer to my Singaporean friends but also made me think about the consequences of SARS in a more political context.  The ways in which the Singaporean government could react quickly were both positive and negative.  And I got a little political.  When my friends and I, along with all the other international graduate students in our building, were unceremoniously notified on a weekend that we would have to vacate our apartments earlier than expected, we contacted the media.  I served as a student representative from our building in meeting with university officials and I was interviewed on television.  We still had to move out but I spent my last six weeks living with friends in an even better apartment.  When the government announced the plan to require all international students to pay a deposit before they left the country to pay for their possible quarantine upon return, my friends and I contacted our relevant embassies to express our dissatisfaction.  The government soon backtracked and it was never instituted.  The below was written before I started to work for the US government and as such represent only my thoughts at the time and not those of the USG or any department or agency of the US government. 

7. Batman mask SARS comic

Another Straits Times front page SARS comic

May 6, 2003

If you think that subject “SARS: The Show Goes On” sounds silly or tasteless I will have you know it is the title of yet another SARS-related television show launched here.  The following night you can tune into another show entitled SARS: A Courage Within.

Now not only do we have to report each day for our temperature check and receive our stamp, but if we fail to do so we are charged 50 Singaporean dollars a day.  On a Saturday afternoon – when we could not complain until Monday – an announcement was placed in our elevators notifying all students we had to vacate our apartments by June 16 because they will be doing a massive cleaning and all the incoming students will have a ten day mandatory home stay. (Sounds like a fancy name for QUARANTINE!)

8. Fight SARS together brochure

A cover of a what-to-do in the event of SARS brochure

At the bowling alley my friends and I had our temperatures checked, and once declared normal, issued with a sticker allowing us entry.

I have seen the workers at the Deli France wearing their “I am fever FREE!” stickers and the “I’m OK!” sign in the windows of the Singapore buses, to report the temps of the drivers.

Now I am, though not completely officially, a person with a Masters degree.  I thought I would feel happier but because of SARS and the government and university policies my friends are scattering to the winds all the more sooner.

Things are just not as I expected them to be now.  I had plans.  To travel to Malaysia with friends, or to hop over to Batam or Bintan (nearby Indonesian islands, one I fondly remember as the Island of a Million Mosquitoes).  But life has a funny way of throwing up the most unexpected things.  I am itching to travel.  I had planned on a glorious month long trip to China, but that is a definite no-go.  Yesterday downtown I saw three western backpackers alight from a bus near Orchard Road.  Each was wearing their very own mask.

May 22, 20039. cover mouth when sneeze comic

Though the World Health Organization has declared Singapore “safe” in the battle for SARS, the Singapore government continues its relentless political and media campaign. Though today’s Straits Times declares Singapore need not be on the defensive against allegations that it is “exporting” SARS, the government seems intent on pointing its own fingers at the importation of the disease. If ever there was a global non-traditional security issue, SARS is it.   It is literally testing the invisible boundaries between countries and the ability for countries to work together on such an issue. Singapore may have won the battle so far in containing the disease, but I do not know if it would win popularity contests for its diplomacy.  Just a few days ago the Singapore government announced that ALL foreign students in the country would have to re-apply for their student passes and come up with a S$1000 deposit when leaving the country FOR ANY DESTINATION to cover possible medical expenses upon return.  This is clear discrimination against foreign students in the country, as Singaporean students are free to go on their trips abroad without such a deposit, although they are just as likely to contract SARS as anyone else.  I have already sent my letters of protest to the US Embassy and Singapore Ministry of Education after phoning the Ministry of Health. Of course for SARS affected countries there are special measures, but Singapore seems to so easily forget that it is itself a SARS-affected country, and that viruses do not recognize invisible lines drawn on maps, nor the nationalities of its victims.

10. I'm OK SARS note on bus

It’s alright to ride this bus because this driver is OK

I find it so intriguing, this focus on SARS, equating it with war and battle.  I noted that once SARS hit Singapore the front page headers of the Straits Times simply changed from “War in Iraq” to “War on SARS.”  Every day in the paper, the front page begins with a cartoon related to SARS.

Yesterday I heard on the radio that a new television channel has been launched, the SARS channel.  I am not making it up.  They say on this channel one can “see all the SARS programs you missed.” Oh, what a teaser!  Makes you want to tune in right now.  Once I move to my new digs with friends (for just a month) I just may try to tune in, out of curiosity and my new found fascination with the media’s role in policy.  The radio and television ads plead with Singaporeans to be vigilant.  One ad proclaimed that such a war required vigilance, that one mistake, one “selfishness,” could cost the country greatly.  There is even a terribly annoying television commercial in which two “friends” badger a third friend about hygiene practices. It starts with the woman saying she is going to wash her hands, and the idiot friend asks her “why?”  She and her male partner begin a barrage of DOs and DONTs for their third friend, such as “you should always wash your hands after you use the toilet” and “always cover your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze” and “don’t spit on the floor” and “if you feel unwell see a doctor but don’t ‘Doctor hop.'”

Singapore’s most well-known comedian Phua Chu Kang released a song called SAR-vivor.  There is a video.  It is basically a public service announcement about washing your hands and delaying travel to SARS-affected countries packaged into a dreadfully silly rap.  (This is not a joke.  You can Google it.)

What gets me is that Singapore has been declared SARS “safe” and the regulations and admonishments just keep coming.  So far eleven people have been arrested for spitting. (One such criminal claimed “something flew into my mouth and my instinct was to spit” but the judge would have none of that and he was fined S$300).

11. dont discriminate SARS quarantine comicSingapore is doing its best to recover from the economic consequences of both the Iraq War and SARS.  The government has launched a campaign “Step Out! Singapore” to encourage Singaporeans to get out and have fun, “live life as usual,” yet while being socially responsible (i.e. not spreading SARS).   I am tired of campaigns.

As far as “living life as usual,” we all have to adapt to what is now usual.

Yesterday I found myself taking my temperature while at the copy machine at the library. Although the mandatory in-person temperature checks at the apartment complex have come to an end, we must now register our temperatures on-line every day.  One problem with this, which I pointed out to the Dean of the Office of Student Affairs, is that we have no internet connection in our housing complex.  It is perplexing that international graduate students in one of the world’s most connected countries are housed in a building with no Internet or air-conditioning…but I digress.  Therefore, we are supposed to go to the campus every day, twice a day, and log our temperatures.  Never mind that the computer labs now close at 5 PM each day and they were not open last Thursday, which was a national holiday, and last Friday I could not access the SARS daily temperature declaration website.

12. A tribute to healthcare workers window display

After the WHO declared SARS safe the fancy stores on Orchard Road used window displays to celebrate and recognize the sacrifices

So, yesterday.  I went to the school library. Before entering one must have their temperature checked and identification cards swiped.  This is reportedly so in the event of a spontaneous SARS outbreak, all persons who were present at the time can be contacted.  I submitted myself for the requisite check. I registered a temperature of 37.5, which is the cut-off point, and had to wait five minutes to have my temperature taken again.  I will note that this is Singapore, located close to the equator, with a year round average temperature of 80 degrees Fahrenheit with 80% humidity.  The entrance to the library is located on the fifth floor and I had just climbed five flights of stairs. I certainly felt warm.  My second temperature check registered at 37.6.  The young woman taking my temperature sounded panicked. “No, no way!  Sorry.  Zhe ge ren you 37.6.  Wo yinggai zuo shenme? (This person has 37.6 degrees, what should I do?)”  I thought, “Maybe I should not have walked past the hospital which looked like a scene out of the movie “Outbreak” because now I might have SARS and I cannot get into the library.”  Luckily, third time was the charm; I was released and allowed to enter the library.  Thereafter I found myself photocopying with thermometer in mouth.

But things did eventually return to normal of course.  The temperature checks and other SARS related measures slowed and then ceased.  The Singaporean government announced that the Great Singapore Sale would happen, a bit delayed but as part of normalizing.  Tourists returned.  My roommates and I moved out of the University apartments to our own place.  I did my six week internship and then left for travel – not China, but Turkey and Denmark instead. 

SARS in Singapore (2003) Part One

Between July 2002 and July 2003 I lived in Singapore while studying for my graduate degree at the National University.  For three of those months, from 1 March to 30 May, Singapore life was altered with the arrival of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome or SARS.  During that period of time 238 people fell ill with SARS and 33 people died.  The small country reacted quickly with numerous restrictions and regulations affecting most aspects of social life.  It was a strange time to be in Singapore.  The following is edited from emails I sent to friends and family while living through this period.  It is my take on my experience only.

1

One of the SARS related comics from the Straits Times

April 14, 2003

 If one rides the subway or buses or goes out, there is a feeling that many Singaporeans are restricting their movements around town.  Subway stations on Friday or Saturday nights are almost deserted.

There has not yet been a case of the disease on my campus, and the school is doing a lot to see that it does not, although many other schools in the country have already been closed.  Fewer people eat at the canteens and all the silverware and plates have been switched to disposable plastic.  All the water fountains have been shut down.  The university administration divided the campus into five zones.  We received a Presidential circular requesting we restrict our movements between zones.

2. SARS ambulance brochure

A special SARS ambulance with is own number was established

The exam schedule is also going to be adjusted so that students can undergo a health check before entering the exam rooms.  Students will be sat further apart and there will be fewer students in each room.  We have known our exam dates since the semester began and now we are in limbo, awaiting news as to whether our exam dates will remain the same or be pushed back.

The other day there was a bit of a scare.  One of my roommates and I had just finished our last class and were feeling really good.  We joined classmates for a lovely late dinner.  We felt relaxed in a way we had not for weeks.  While at the restaurant, we received calls that two people from our apartment complex had been taken away in ambulances, possible SARS cases. We were told not to take the elevator for fear of exposure.  Previously I had not given much thought to my own safety in regards to SARS.  Cases are going up in Singapore, but I spend little time in places other than my apartment and the study room at school, but this, this was where we lived.  It turned out the students had food poisoning and all is well, but for an hour or so it was scary.  SARS became real.

Much of the papers in Singapore are dominated by two stories: SARS and the war in Iraq.  Though the war receives more notice in the paper, it is SARS that has people here jumpy.  My roommate and I went to a party last evening and needed to get off at the subway station closest to the hospital where many of the SARS cases are quarantined.  We were warned not to go.  We went anyway.  People want to avoid movie theatres, clubs, restaurants, basically most public places.  I just don’t know…how “dangerous” they could be?

3. fever and weight SARS comic

SARS comic humor.  Keeping it light.  Unrelenting but light.

 

Last evening on the bus my roommate and I saw an advertisement for a new weekly television program called Living With SARS.  No joke.  I can see it is quite a shrewd move on the part of the government to calm the fears of citizens and help businesses being affected by the illness.  But something rang so….uh…Singaporean about having such a show.

I do not know how plans will turn out for the summer.  I had wanted to intern for six weeks and then travel.  But I had planned on traveling for a month in China but with SARS that seems very unlikely.  Right now even people who travel to Singapore are quarantined for ten days when they go back to their countries.  It is hard to say how long these measures will be in place.  Two more patients with SARS died yesterday in Singapore.  It is not quite an epidemic, but it is very serious.

April 28, 2003

There are already more precautions and more new things to report about SARS in Singapore.  I am not sure what to make of it, but the paranoia is growing. I am glad I do not have a television as I might be locked up in my apartment afraid to go out.

4. SARS foldout poster

A “Fight SARS” poster – I collected one in all four languages

Last night I had the opportunity to watch television for about an hour on a friend’s computer, and we tuned in just in time to catch the beginning of the new show Living With SARS.  We promptly changed the schedule.  We know what living with SARS is like. All over the campus are signs about SARS; all the water fountains are shut down for “maintenance,” and every time one signs into the campus intranet via Outlook we get a dose of SARS with notifications telling us to wash our hands, not to hang out with any SARS affected people, not to do this and not to do that.  Today there was a list of places that if anyone has visited in the past few weeks one was supposed to monitor their fever every two hours.

By email we also received an exam update, which listed the number of people who went through the exams and how many had to go to the isolation room and how many went to the hospital.  I know it is supposed to make us feel better, but in reality I am not sure it does.

Beginning tomorrow there will be daily checks at the dormitory apartment building where I live.  We have been issued thermometers.  Every morning the residents of our complex, all 350+ of us, are supposed to line up to have our temperatures taken.  Should we be “cleared” we will receive a stamp – HEALTH SCREENING NUS – on our wrists, which is good for the whole day.  The following day we go through the whole thing again.  This will go on every day until the end of May when the policy will be reviewed.  And the stamp colors are changed each day so that we cannot cheat and use the stamp from the day before.  (I want my next one on my forehead!)  Those who fail to turn up for these checks face disciplinary action.

5. support friends in quarantine comic

A few days ago I was a bit hungry and wanted something different than the usual fare, and it being a Sunday the school canteens were closed.  A friend drove me to the National University Hospital, which has a Deli France.  The scene which met me as I stepped out of the car and up to the entrance was straight out of some movie.  The people were dressed all in plastic with hats and gloves and face masks.  I explained I just wanted to get a sandwich and they said I just needed to go through this small procedure before I could enter the hospital.  I was given a clipboard with a form to fill out (have you been to Hong Kong, Hanoi, Toronto? In the past few weeks have you been around a SARS victim?), and then they took my temperature, issued me a sticker badge only for the Food Court and ATM and my very own mask.  Then properly masked I headed off to get my sandwich.  I was not so nervous until I saw those hospital workers decked out like that.  I will not be getting sandwiches from the hospital for some time to come.  It felt very odd because just a week before the SARS outbreak my best friends and I had enjoyed a lovely lunch there.

The other day I stepped into the university bookstore and already there were two books on sale about SARS.  I went to our local supermarket yesterday and there were very few fruits and almost no veggies. I didn’t make the connection until a roommate reminded me that the Pasir Panjang market closed down because a worker there came down with SARS.  The market, a major supplier of produce in Singapore was shut down. 7-11 is selling SARS kits for S$19.90 which includes masks, gloves, vitamins and related items.

6. Me in SARS mask 2003 close up

Look, I got my stamp, so I’m good to go.

A few quarantined individuals broke their quarantine so now things are even more stringent.  In a special congressional session the government is going to pass a law which allows people who break quarantine to be fined.  Quarantined individuals who refuse to answer their phones will have to wear electronic tracking bands.

The final thing is this screening at Changi airport and at the causeways connecting Singapore and Malaysia.  Now they have infrared temp screening for all passengers/arrivals/departures in Singapore.  The authorities are looking into putting these machines in other places.

These are certainly strange times in Singapore.