Friday, March 27, 2009
For us who stayed, we spent the morning at Sungei Buloh Wetlands Reserve, had lunch at Bollywood (an organic vegetable farm), and some then went to a fish farm in the afternoon.
"Sungei" means "river" in Malay, and when it comes to "wetlands" in tropical river estuaries, say hello to mangroves. Much like their counterparts in temperate regions, mangroves have important functions for coastal and marine ecosystems. They do provide storm protection and can protect against erosion, but they also act as nursuries for pelagic and reef fish, and are homes to a wide variety of organisms such as mudskippers, mudcrabs, snails and birds. This was only my second visit to this reserve and I was looking forward to it as my previous trip had yielded sightings of birds and monkeys. Who knows what we'll find next?
Alas, I was slightly disappointed as the tide had risen by the time we got there. The last time, I had managed to catch the low tide, and thus the mudflats were exposed, along with their critters. In any case, we still managed to spot some fauna. Cassie, Fei and I spotted an interesting bird, which Cassie later described as "a cross between a penguin and a chicken." I had wanted to snap a picture of it but Fei chased it away with his persistent, "Do you want some fish food??" while throwing shrimp pellets at it. Grrrr. (Obviously the answer was a resounding no!) Anyway, it was either a white-breasted waterhen or a common moorhen. I'm tempted to say it looked more like the latter. We also saw some little egrets perched on one of the mangrove islands within the reserve as well as whimbrels with their characteristic long and curved beaks.
However, there were two organisms which clearly stood out (to me, at least) and which I feel compelled to at least mention. 1) Monitor Lizards and 2) Mosquitoes.
The lizards were everywhere. And they were huge. We had a few close calls and literally walked by a few of them without noticing they were even there had they not started to move away from us. The largest one we saw measured probably about 7 feet from head to tail. Thankfully for us, they were more interested in avoiding us than in checking us out.
The mosquitoes were also everywhere. And this time, I mean it quite literally. At one point towards the end of the walk, Ali came running towards us at full speed. "I'm being eaten alive so I'm gonna go wait at the entrance..." Her voice trailed off as she whizzed past. Minutes later, we knew why. Mosquitoes descended upon us and we found ourselves running towards the top of an observation tower. Bugspray would've been good I guess... (says Annabelle as she sits in front of the computer scratching her mosquito bites). But really, I didn't think the bugs were too bad, considering I had heard of worse summertime stories from people who lived in certain parts of the US. The idea of spraying myself all over with chemicals just wasn't appealing, and the benefit of keeping away that number of mosquitoes just didn't seem to outweigh the cost of getting bitten. Anywho, after getting all sweaty and hungry, it was time for some food.
Bollywood and Poison Ivy
We made our way to an organic farm called Bollywood that was run by a lady named Ivy Lee-Singh, or better known as "Poison Ivy." It was an amazing lunch that we had. It started with a spicy papaya salad with edible flowers, vegetarian spring rolls, followed by an assortment of mouth-watering dishes such as egg tofu, curry chicken, stir fried kang kong (a type of vegetable) and potato leaves, finished up with banana bread, two different types of kueh (chinese-malay style cakes) and a cup of fig tea with palm sugar and pandan leaf. Mmmm... It was kinda spicy for some of us; to me it was just heavenly.
But it was the tour of the farm that got me really excited. One of the employees there led us through a portion of it, showing us the various plants and herbs that were grown there. The sheer variety of things that could be grown simply boggled my mind. Neem, basil, oregano, coffee, cacao, breadfruit, lemons, west indian pea, asian figs, jalepenos... she would occasionally instruct us to pluck a leaf off of a plant to smell it, and perhaps I got the most excited because I recognized spices and herbs that were used in local dishes, as well as fruits that I grew up eating. (Yes, food is a very big thing here in case the previous posts didn't make that clear enough.) We also got glimpses of Poison Ivy's abode that was adjacent to the farm, and of her two Great Danes - just a part of her pack of 14 dogs. Wowee. In any case, if I do return after graduation and am unable to find a job (which would be a very very sad thing after putting myself through another two years of school), I'd either like to work at Bollywood, or dig up my parents' backyard and begin planting our own vegetables. A backup plan always helps.
To continue from Isaac's post about Day 10 and our trip to MacRitchie, I thought I'd include some photos of wildlife. Yes, even though Singapore is a small island with 4.6 million people on it, there is still some "wildlife" to be found.
Part of the MacRitchie Reservoir trail branched off to the treetop walk. A few of us missed it at first, even though it was clearly labelled as such, and actually headed further up the trail where it simply ended in an open space. Uh. Weird. We thought, surely we should be going up and not branching off towards steps that lead downwards right? Well, wrong. Anyway, the coolest thing about the the treetop walk? Not the suspension bridge in the canopy, not the giant blue beetles or cicadas that were buzzing about, but the sleepiest cutest owl I have ever seen in my life. (Ok, so I haven't seen many owls in my life.)
The ranger at the start of the bridge warned that we should be real quiet, "or else the mother (owl) will fly away and then what happen? - the monkey will come and eat the eggs... but if not, two weeks later, you can see the chicks." And when we got to the tree that the owl was in, I realised why. The bridge was an approximate 3 metres (9 feet) or so away from the tree, and we were quite literally towering over the bird and its home. I felt like we were a disturbance. It seemed a tad uneasy and was watching us instead of sleeping - which should be what most owls do during the day, right? Anyway, a quick snapshot of the bird and we were on our way. I grimace just thinking of the large group of hikers that followed behind us. Thankfully, they were quiet, but I now grimace further thinking of those groups that didn't heed the ranger's advice to be quiet. I really really hope the owl hangs in there and that her chicks will eventually fledge!
Thursday, March 26, 2009
Today the class went to the MacRitchie Reservoir Park. We arrived early to beat the heat. The park featured waterside and rainforest trails, a tall observation tower and a canopy bridge. We encountered many colorful butterflies, flowers, at least two groups of macaques (monkeys), water monitor lizards, snakes, and squirrels. Nearby we could hear the Singaporean military firing artillery for training and flying Chinook helicopters, but otherwise the park was filled with only the sounds of cicadas and other rain-forest critters. The trails were rather strenuous, totaling over 15km (9 miles). Luckily we discovered a ranger station with water right as my camelback ran out of water. The only bad thing about carrying water in a bladder inside a backpack is you can't always be sure how best to conserve it, suddenly the tube runs dry.
Walking back we came along side the Singapore Island Country Club, which was located next to the park but accessible by the nice, shiny cars many Singaporeans drive. There were golf courses rather close to the reservoir, with little to no buffering vegetation. We attempted to find out from the park rangers how they manage the border to the park, but they were unsure or only knew of the neighboring properties fences and signs. The water in the reservoir is obviously treated before being used by many Singaporeans, but eutrophication can be a problem if excessive inorganic nutrients leach from golf courses. We saw some workers removing algae from an area where a stream entered the reservoir.
As a (used) car enthusiast, I was shocked to see cars less than 5 years old cut into pieces at junkyards near the Kranji part of the island earlier. Here there are heavy taxes on cars and the right to re-register a car to drive it again after 10 years can be expensive. The result overall fewer more efficient, shiny cars, but at a heavy price tag. I am unsure whether the cars I saw junked were wrecks. It seemed like a treasure trove of spare parts nonetheless.
Wednesday, March 25, 2009
First impressions? My goodness, this place has some forest in it. Being engulfed by the traffic and buildings that is Singapore for a week has had its effects. I've found myself wishing for open water, like in Beaufort - seeing the sun set on the ocean, ocean 360 degrees around.
Monday, March 23, 2009
One of my favorite parts of the day was visiting the Buddhist temple that was right next to the Chinese market. I am not Buddhist, but standing in this temple left me with a feeling that is hard to explain. The central room had a huge altar and there were several monks who were chanting. The chanting was incredibly calming, but also made me feel so alive. I can't explain it but I know that I could definitely go back there to just sit and enjoy the serenity. Here is a brief video:
Here is a video of a man selling some seafood to customers at the Chinese market. Read more about the market in an earlier post!
A few people visited the Taoist temple, which was sandwiched in an area with several tall, modern buildings. You can see the temple below as well as several spiral incense cages (I am not sure what to call them) that hung from ropes leading up to the temple.
Although some of us visited the botanical gardens on Day 8, I cannot resist putting up some pictures of the beautiful orchids. I especially enjoyed the "VIP orchid" garden, which showcased orchids named for some famous figures.
I am not sure what species is in the first picture, but I thought the flowers were beautiful. The second image shows the Margaret Thatcher Orchid. I really loved its twisting petals.
Finally, I need to put up this image of food at a Koren barbeque that a few of us went to on the night of Day 7. I have never seen so much food all at once. It was a bit overwhelming, but the food was absolutely delicious.
After a late start, we took taxis to the US embassy to hear a presentation from to State Department foreign service officers, Matt and Elizabeth (I think), who discussed the US role in Singapore. Most of this is economy-related due to Singapore’s importance as the busiest trading port in the world, and security-related due to Singapore’s importance as the busiest trading port in the world. Apparently, Singapore is nervous about its size and location among developing, sometimes hostile nations, and the US is trying to help them out a little and they are trying to help us out a little, mostly because they are the busiest trading port in the world. Does the State Department focus on environmental or marine issues here? Not really, since those are more Singapore’s domain and the big problems are mostly in surrounding countries and the US is much more focused on the fact that Singapore is an exceptionally lucrative trading partner and that they have the busiest trading port in the world. It was interesting to see the lens with which DC views Singapore as it is all so strategic.
Then we stepped out of A/C and into the blazing sun. We walked (slowly, trying and failing not to sweat) to Samy’s Curry restaurant. This place has insanely good food. They put down a banana leaf in front of you, hand you lime juice which is probably the most refreshing possible thing you can drink when in such close proximity to Satan, and then they walk around with tons of different Indian curry dishes, spooning them onto your leaf. You ask them, “Is it spicy?” They say “No, no, not spicy.” And so you accept and they put it on your leaf. And then you eat it (often with fingers) and then your mouth rapidly begins to burn with a not so subtle creeping white-hot fire. Their specialty was fish head curry. This was a quite fishy curry which had an enormous fish head in the middle of it. At the other end of the table, they were interested in eating this; at our end, the group was interested in dissection. Elda and Joanna were unable to find the otolith, but Noelle meticulously pulled apart the eyeballs and peeled all the tissue off the lenses so we could play with them. Annabelle walked down to our end at one point and, after looking at our fish head, said with obvious consternation: “You guys haven’t eaten the best parts!” The food was wholly too good for our own good and many (including yours truly, the Asian food glutton) won’t have much of an appetite tonight.
The group split up again, half going to the Urban Redevelopment Authority to see how Singapore is planning their future. I hear they had cool hands on GIS layers that displayed where the coastline is and where reclamation has/will take place to change the coastline so that Singapore has more space to develop.
Those of us with lower IQs ventured back into the heat to spend the next few hours walking about the Botanic Gardens. These were quite lovely, especially the Orchid Garden which had countless beautiful flowers and soothing horticultural achievements of all shapes and colors. I would have enjoyed it even more had I not spent so much time sticking my head in fountains and standing under the misters in the cool house trying to relieve the pain from the fire in the sky. Eventually, we couldn’t take boiling in our own sweat anymore and headed home.
To tell the truth, It made me really want a kitchen here so I could make a huge dinner for everyone with all the awesome food (note: some of the things described above do not fit into my personal ‘awesome’ category).
There ended the environmental relevance for the day. We put on the tourist hats and then we walked until our feet fell off.
We left the market mid-late morning to explore various places of worship. I will apologize here and now for what I’m sure is a blasphemous representation of most of these places and religions. Please be patient and remember, I’m only a simple savage who mostly worships the wind moving my sailboat.
1st stop, a Buddhist temple. The 1st floor was filled with incense smoke and chanting Buddhists and walls and ceilings ornately decorated with red and gold. Not sure about the 2nd floor. The 3rd floor was the museum and reliquary describing the life of Buddha and sacred relics of his body. The 4th floor was where they were trying to cover the floor of an entire room with golden tiles each costing $5000. The top floor was the roof where there was an awesome open garden with orchids and waterfalls and the shrine of 10,000 Buddhas.
After this we split up for more walking and people saw different things. A bunch of us went into the Hindu temple which was full of people doing all kinds of things…eating, worshipping, resting, talking, and chilling out (or so it seemed to me). We had to take off our shoes to enter and taking photos cost $3. We also had to take off our shoes to go inside the mosque. No photos of people were allowed and an American guy who had converted to Islam explained some things to us and then tried to convert us. He had to interrupt himself to get robes to cover up Jenny and Elda who were wearing shorts. There was a ton of pro-Islam propaganda on the walls.
I hear that some people visited the Taoist temple which I gather was equally interesting. As Professor Mike noted this morning, perhaps even more interesting is that all these religions seem to coexist here in close proximity in what appears to be general tolerance if not harmony.
At a food court during lunch, some of us tried a durien milkshake. Durien is an infamous fruit in Singapore for smelling absolutely foul. Our curiosity got the better of our reason and we actually drank about half of this foul concoction that smelled bad and tasted largely of rotting onions.
A bunch of people walked some more around Chinatown shopping at the hawkers’ stalls. Many Asian delights were purchased at low prices.
A small group of us continued walking in Little India where the sidewalks were so full you had to walk in the street. We had special pulled tea. We went into Mustafa, a store containing everything WalMart contains except in 1/10 the area with tiny aisles packed with people. We walked through another mosque. The girls were observed frequently by the Indian males. I saw illegally exported electronic waste sitting on pallets on the sidewalk. We walked more. And then we all felt disgusting and had to go home and shower worse than 100 apes in a closet-sized hothouse. I’ll leave you with that image. And this one.
Sunday, March 22, 2009
As for Day 6, we began with a walk up to NUS to hear presentations from the MEM students in the Design and Environment program on how to transform a landfill into a new usable space. These were some quite impressive students with some very innovative ideas. If one can judge the quality of planning in Singapore from its masters students, one would conclude that they are on top of all the issues and are developing little genius ideas for engineering the perfect island city and that the result will be a meticulous, well-sculpted, well-integrated, captivating, vitalized, and aesthetically pleasing place. They are thinking ahead of the curve environmentally with biogas facilities, roof gardens, phytoremediation, etc, etc. One student from Europe did express frustration that in Singapore, there is very little history/memory/personality/animus in the architecture and planning, that it's sort of sterile and most buildings don't last longer than a couple decades because they get knocked down and replaced with newer, more efficient ones. An interesting trade-off. Singapore has made many such decisions that are culturally impossible in the US.
The afternoon may appear somewhat boring from the blog-reader's perspective. Some people went out and explored more of the city, but others of us focused on the master's project. You can almost smell the panic in the air when a CEM student is in the room.
Fortunately, evening was a relief. I should figure out what the undergrads are doing so I can report their doings as well, but I can only speak for the grad students for last night. We headed down to some Quay or other (there seem to be endless Quays in S'pore, or at least what are referred to as Quays, the only boats operating anymore seem to be tour boats) found a famous food court, had a couple pitchers of Tiger (pretty much THE local beer), and coerced Annabelle into ordering all the cool uniquely Singaporean foods.
(Let me explains something about the food courts here. They are much better than US food courts. There are way more food sellers with way higher quality food. They often serve you at your table. Sellers may try to force you to eat food from their establishment. There are more options albeit mostly asian. They serve beer. They are cheaper...one can get a huge meal for $3 US. People are always eating at the food courts. They are awesome.)
The foods we had were: carrot cake (not like any carrot cake you've ever had--several other vegetables and kind of a casserole/saute more than a cake; don't ask me why the call it cake), stingray (with delicious chilli sauce), duck and chicken satay, some saucy chicken w/ bok choy, this crazy stir fry of a million things, and then some decidedly not-American desserts, some of which were very good, many of which involved coconut milk, and none of which I can remember the exact names of or describe.
After this enriching and delicious cultural experience of which I want many more of, a few of us walked over to the Esplanade for a punk/alternative rock concert featuring 3 very awkward bands from Thailand, Manila, and Singapore. And when I say awkward, I mean that these were the most unsmooth, uncool, stumbling, stuttering, and goofy rock stars you can imagine. The music was actually quite awesome, but they desperately needed lessons in stage presence (with the exception of the keyboardist/vocalist in the closer who wore exceptionally tight, brilliant gold pants that threw Jennie Dean into fits of both laughter and awe). For a pleasant addition to your playlists, I recommend that everyone go out and listen to Southeast Asian punk/alt rock and, if you're in for some comedy, watch some music videos.
Saturday, March 21, 2009
I got up at this ungodly hour because we left at the only slightly less ungodly hour of 7:30 am to take a ferry to St. John’s Island, site of National University of Singapore (NUS) marine lab. This island had some intense fenced off areas built for when bad things were happening in Indonesia and they were worried about Indonesians trying to come illegally to Singapore and having somewhere to put them.
The island is also overcome with cats, which I have yet to see much of anywhere else. A drenching walk through the humidity brought us to the lab where we heard 2 talks from professors working on marine issues. It is very interesting to hear them because there’s been almost zero science done in the region until recently, so they don’t have anything close to a baseline guess of what the area is like ecologically without human impact. The result is that you can’t really do very good environmental impact assessments because you have no idea what the history of the area is and if any changes in the environment are a result of human activity from a particular project, some other human activity, or natural events. They simply don’t have the scientific history. The result is a dichotomy between scientists: some want to just work on establishing baselines, and some want to try to apply what little they have to a problem. It’s hard for those of us used to having lots of historical data on trends to comprehend these issues.
On the way back past the cats and the razor wire, Daylin found mangos on the ground. I flung a peel into the water in the midst of my mango rapture and she justly yelled at me “What are you doing! This is Singapore!” I realized too late, such an action could be construed as littering—usually a $1000 fine. Keep it on the d/l please. This is also the only place we got a chance to actually touch the water at a tiny beach. Not recommended though; the harbor is highly polluted. This contrast is weird too: the land is so clean and the water so dirty. Why?
Next stop via ferry was Pulau Semakau, the offshore island landfill. Singapore basically built a large island out of 2 smaller islets and uses this island to dispose of most of its waste. From a waste stream of 15,000 tons/day, they recycle about 8000. About 6,460 is incinerated and the resulting ash goes to the landfill. The other 540 is not incineratable and goes straight to the landfill. So about 2000 tons/day of waste is deposited in the landfill. They expect the island to fill up in 2045, maybe longer if people get better at recycling, etc.
The island itself is kind of cool. They destroyed some mangroves in building it, so these were replanted in a different part. They have lots of nature walks and birders, stargazers, and bbq-ers show up for recreation. We saw giant monitor lizards, eagles, herons, and kingfishers on just a brief tour. They really seemed to care about the environment here and wanted to do better all the time. Can’t speak for everyone, but I was very impressed.
Upon returning, everyone split up, as usually happens in the evenings. Jenny and I walked down Orchard Road which is like 5th Avenue in NYC. Kind of an intense shoppers experience. Then we walked down to Clarke Quay and had a delicious beer on the Singapore river. This is a very happening, if touristy area where there are a ton of restaurants/bars/fun things going on. Then we met up with Katherine and Joanna at West End, the little enclave of non-planned interesting area near our hotel, for dinner at Noelle’s favorite restaurant “Hooha!.” Most of Singapore is meticulously planned, but this corner has a good Durham 9th street feel to it with good places to eat/hang out. There’s a lot to explore and I feel like every free moment I need to see another part of the city/country at the expense of my class project and my master’s project. Oh well, when’s the next time I’ll be here?
Friday, March 20, 2009
The third day was spent largely at the National University of Singapore (NUS) with faculty at the School of Design and Environment. After a tasty breakfast of the same eggs & hot dogs (or as the ever delightful Pasir Panjang Inn describes them, ‘sausages’) as the previous couple days, we hiked for ~45min through the early morning sweltering heat to a talk from N. Sivasothi, aka Sivas aka Otterman, who gave us a great talk on environmental action and activism in Singapore. In short, he’s pretty awesome, if a little crazy. Apparently, the first prime minister and basically the father of Singapore, Lee Kwan Yew, really likes the environment and had tons of progressive policies featuring green ideals. So when Singapore became independent in the 1960s and was very poor and basically screwed, he fostered economic development that catapulted Singapore from developing nation to developed nation in just 30 or so years, but did not leave out the environment. There are still some problems: as good as Singapore is at all things terrestrial…they really don’t know or seem to care about marine issues. Maybe that’s where we come in.
After the lecture and a brief stroll through the natural history museum, we had lunch at a university food court (soup, muslim noodles, chicken wings, wantons = $2.20 singapore = $1.50 US = holy moly that’s cheap food) and then got some groceries.
The afternoon was spent with Professor Lye, who is a law professor at NUS. She was also awesome; and despite studying in the US and the UK, she’s very Singaporean and very proud of her country’s accomplishments. I must admit I came away impressed. They basically built a highly prosperous, highly organized, highly educated, highly healthy, highly egalitarian, and highly safe country in a highly hot climate in a highly short amount of time. It is highly illegal however to get high (possession of 20 grams of drugs = death by hanging; no joke). The main 2 things Professor Lye took issue with were that Singapore doesn’t have an environmental impact assessment law and they don’t have good marine laws. Other than that, the country is perfect. Haha, just kidding, they also are scared of bugs and dogs, even the soldiers.
I can’t speak for what everyone else did then (though I’ve heard rumors of Master’s Project work and some form of debauchery in a playground), but a few of us took the metro down to the Esplanade at sunset and saw some awesome sights like the concert hall, the national day celebration spot, the water-spouting mer-lion, and the glorious spaceship supreme court building. Then we walked along the Singapore river among giant skyscrapers and through the Boat Quay area which used to be the site of all the port and warehouse bustle, but is now an active restaurant and nightlife scene. We were accosted left and right by people trying to force us to eat at their establishments. After running the gauntlet several times, we settled on the multi-restaurant with the best deal (free first round of drinks and 20% off everything else). More walking on the river, some ice cream (even at 10pm, still hot…think 1 degree North), headed back to the hotel, and then collapsed due to severe case of jet lag. Which is also why that last sentence was a fragment. And why I’m passing out now.