Friday, March 27, 2009

Day 11 - Mozzies & Bollywood

This makes two posts in a row for the resident Singaporean. (Yes, go read the previous one for a really cute owl picture.) Day 11 was spent in the North of Singapore. It was an "optional" day as we were given the choice to take the day off if we wanted to travel elsewhere. Some people went to Pulau Tioman in Malaysia to snorkel/dive. I'm sure they'll blog on their trip when they return. ;)

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 Buloh

"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.

Day 10 (cont'd) - Some Wilderness

Time for the resident Singaporean to post a blog or two I guess, considering a large portion of environmental advocacy such as information dissemination and event organizing in this country is done through mailing lists, blogs, Facebook, websites, RSS feeds, and yes, even Twitter. (Phone plans here generally give tonnes of free text messages and not so much talk time - say 100 minutes or so? - and so Twitter is much more cost-effective here.)

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

Day 10

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

Day 9

Or at least I think it's day 9.  Anyway on this day we went to Malaysia.  [Chorus of angels].  No, it's very exciting becuase with a 2 hour bus ride, we ventured into an entirely new country where, as the tour guide gently reminded us many times, the people speak Malay.  Maybe some Chinese, maybe a little bit of English but Malay, Malay, Malay.

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.

There were also a lot of rubber and palm oil trees, plantations I guess, but just fields of large palmy trees lined nicely in rows.  Apparently you can harvest palm leaves all year around.  
They simply harvest one section of the field at a time, moving from section to section and then coming back round again.  
Rubber, as I recall from my foreign movie prowess, comes from tapping the rubber tree and collecting the sap.  After some processing, it becomes rubber. 

We also saw orchid farms.  Apparently all the gorgeous flowers come from Malaysia.  Singapore gets to keep some in its botanical gardens. 

Our destination was a small Kampong, or traditional village, on the coast, a traditional fishing village built on the water.  Kukup.  Yes, I looked that up on Google just now.  My first attempt was Kekup.  Correct me if I'm wrong now.

The interesting thing about the village, and all of these villages traditionally, is that they are built directly on the water.  (Move over Venice).  They have foundation poles than run into the ground, and then the houses, road/pathways are built about 6 feet above the water, give or take a couple feet due to the tide (which was really fast - we saw a lot of mudskipper activity, due probably to the changing water conditions at the time).   But, as we saw, being on the water has an impact on the water.

Some of the toilets were more primitive than the squat stalls everyone has been trying to get used to.  They were literally a hole cut into the drywood.  Where's the flush?  The tide, I guess.  It's also really difficult keeping possessions, especially waste, out of the water when it's all around you.  Around Beaufort, there is considerable trash in the intertidal zone.  Here, it was that times 10.  Slumdog Millionaire has been a big hit recently.  It's like the pictures of the Indian slums initially, the kids just running through a jungle of trash.  The rubbish collects underneath the houses closer to the shore.  We also saw the cleaning mechanism of one of the docks - hose it into the ocean.

In addition, these fishing villages have a tradition of aquaculture and currently practice it to considerable lengths.   We saw maybe 20-40 farms out on the water.  Students got to play with archerfish, which shoot sprays of water out at their prey (spiders) in the wild.  Hold up an anchovy and they'll do the same trick for you.  Just watch out for your eyes.  We also saw a fishermen harvest jellyfish.  They were so large!  I imagined the small stinging ones you see in aquariums, but these jellies for food had a diameter of maybe a foot to a foot and a half.  We saw various fish.  I'm not a fish expert, so I won't try to name them all.  I believe we saw tilapia.  Maybe bass?  On the exotic side, we saw baby sharks, horseshoe crabs (blood shipped off to pharmaceutical companies), and a pufferfish, I think.  We also snacked on Prawn chips.  My favorite!  Ugh, but so bad for you.  I was very tempted to buy a bag, but then realized I don't eat this stuff anymore.

After the boat ride to the aquaculture facilities, we walked through another village, then had lunch or prawns, fish, tofu, veggies, and rice.  I was glad to be able to get a vegetarian lunch for a day.  Getting fast food (well, quality fast food - hawkers) has meant a lot of meat and wheat for the past week.  (Rhymes! Sometimes I ammuse even myself).  I was glad to have some greens.  It reminded me of my grandmother's apartment.  I love my grandmother.

Oh, but epic Day 9 is not done!

The night we spent at Night Safari, Singapore's zoo experience minus the heat and even the walking.  Disclaimer: I am not a fan of zoos, in that I don't like them.   My initial reaction to Night Safari was "Disneyworld?"  Honestly, it's like Animal Kingdom minus the fact everyone going to Disneyworld has a rental car.  There was a tribal dance with fire.  (Is this slighly insensitive considering the indigenous populations that are still in SE Asia?)  The place has a food court, restaurants, and like 8 tourist gift shops.  They also have the fish that nibble away your dead skin, also known as exfoliation, like at Sentosa.  My goodness.

But I have to say, I had a decent time despite everything.  They had asian tropical animals.  The Asian elephant.  Tapirs.  A Golden jackal.  A striped hyena.  Barasingha.  Babirusa.  Red dole.  Gaur.  Also, a capybara from South America.  See what I mean?  I've never seen these before.

They also had a quite entertaining safari guide who had an accent mixed between Singaporean and British.  I wonder if they hand the guides scripts, because what she said was really cheesy, to the point that I don't know how it could look respectable written down on paper.

But all in all, it was a long day, and we were ready to take that taxicab home at like 10:30 PM.  Wakey wakey at 6 AM the next day for MacRitchie Reservoir hike! 

Monday, March 23, 2009

More on Day 7

I was a late posting about Day 7, so please scroll down for Mike's great overview of the day! I'll just talk about a couple things and show you some videos and pictures.

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.

Day 8 - Half touristy

Today was hotter than the armpit of Satan. Keep that in mind as you read.

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.

Day 7 - 75% fresh tired feet

And on the 7th day, we were bewildered and disoriented. That is, those of us not familiar with the Chinatown wet market were. In the basement of a huge complex in Chinatown is a market with what has to be hundreds of vendors selling fruits, vegetables, beef, poultry, spices, seafood, dried goods, etc, etc. There were many interesting things I’d never seen before, but to list them here would take hours maybe days. Instead I’ll skip to the most interesting: seafood and live food. There are three rows of stands selling nothing but seafood of all varieties, but mostly fish. Many stands had a big butcher’s block where an often shirtless man wearing rubber gloves and a rubber apron and wielding a huge cleaver, hacked fish apart with terrifying speed and precision. The blood flew. Fish were scaled alive. Huge frogs were slaughtered one after another before our eyes. Yes, frogs. There were thousands of live frogs. And live eels. And live turtles. And live snakehead fish and carp and post operation’s fish (what is that? I don’t know). We saw a 4 ft black tipped reef shark on ice. There was 100% fresh crocodile meat (which made me wonder….what is 75% fresh crocodile meat?). There were also tons of prawns, salmon, snapper, etc. All for sale. Quite good prices. And the place was packed.

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.