Singapore: Part 2

Its been a few years since I’ve lived with a dog.¬† First and foremost, I am reminded of how low-maintance cats are. ūüôā

Roxy
Roxy

Roxy is a young Australian cattle dog mix. ¬†She’s very sweet and also¬†very energetic. Unfortunately, there are few places¬†in Singapore where dogs can be off-leash (and I’m not about to break any rules in Singapore). I think she would love a place to run and play with other dogs, but there just aren’t any nearby.

I suspect this is partially because many adults are afraid of dogs… Roxy is not very big¬†and her tail is always wagging, but adults will look visibly nervous, cower, and even cross the street when they see us on a walk. One day, I encountered¬†a woman¬†walking¬†a schnauzer. The dogs seemed interested in each othr, but when Roxy went¬†over to say hello, the girl¬†quickly jumped away and told me she was scared of dogs… despite actively walking one! So bizarre!

The other thing that could be throwing everyone off is that I’m white. Singapore expat familiess often have “helpers” – these are live-in help, women¬†usually from the Phillipines or Sri Lanka, who¬†take care of the pets, cooking, cleaning, shopping, childcare, etc. Based on what I’ve seen,¬†they are the only ones taking the dogs for walks.

The helper industry is an interesting one. It is heavily regulated by the government, ensuring that helpers get one day a week off (typically Sunday) or compensated for working extra. ¬†This is why the lavish champagne brunches happen on Sundays, and hotels often have a room where people can leave¬†their children while they eat. The helper’s employer must provide health care, all food & accommodation, airfare for a yearly trip home, plus an annual bonus. The helpers seem to get paid somewhere around $500-$700/month, and then the employer must pay¬†the government an additional $200/month.

Helper's Room
This is the typical size of the herlper’s bedroom¬†(There is a small attached bathroom to the right.)

The helper’s quarters seem awfully small and I’m sure the hours are long, but¬†based on what people have told me, many of them support their entire extended families on what they earn. And the goverment¬†oversight helps ensure people don’t get taken advantage of (hopefully).

I find it all fascinating. ¬†(And obviously, this family doesn’t have a helper or they wouldn’t need us to pet sit.) I tried to be friendly to the girls I saw walking other dogs, and while they would return a smile or “hello”, I also got the sense they weren’t sure what to make of me.

It was¬†nice to see what it could be like to live in Singapore¬†(albeit a¬†5 bedroom house with a private pool is probably not in the cards for us). The metro is fast and cheap and easy to use, and there are enough opportunities for Zumba classes. ¬†However, diets are so different here that many of my staples (decent cheese, hummus) are difficult¬†to¬†find, plus wine/alchohol is super expensive as the government taxes it heavily. That said,¬†there’s plenty of places to get good (and cheap) Asian and Indian¬†food. We both agree that we could certainly live here if the right opportunity presented itself, though the humidity would take some getting used to. (After 3 weeks there, it still seemed overwhelming every time we stepped out of the house.)


The Zoo

Singapore is home to the best zoo in the world (at least I think so).  Last time I was there I was blown away by how few cages they have.  I really think this can only happen because people never break the rules Рin the US, so many of the barriers are necessary to protect the animals from people, more than the people from the animals.

Singapore Zoo
The orangutans have a network of vines so they hang out above your head.

They have a part of the zoo that is only open at night, appropriately named the Night Safari.  Its much smaller than the main zoo, but a really unique experience since its mainly nocturnal animals.  They have a free tram that runs through part of the park, and then walking paths which cover the rest of it.

Its a great chance to see different kinds of animals, and they have tried their best to minimize cages wherever possible. While sometimes it was hard to spot the animals in the dark, other times they were incredibly close… you¬†felt the¬†rush of¬†air on your face¬†as the free-range bats flew past you, and the tram went through several¬†open areas for antelope and other hoofstock who¬†were close enough to touch if you just reached your arm out (which no one did since they repeatedly reminded you to not touch the wildlife, and no one breaks the rules here because punishments are severe).

There were many kinds of animals I’ve never seen before, or even heard of. ¬†They had a pangolin (a critically endangered mammal that looks like it’s related to an armadillo), binturongs (a “bear cat” which they said smelled like popcorn, but I think popcorn smells good and this animal certainly does not), slow loris (who are not slow at all), markhors (the world’s largest wild goat), and sloth bear (who also surprisingly active, given their name).And there were plenty of big cats, who were much more active at night.

Taking photos was a challenge due to the low light, but it was also good to just enjoy the animals without messing with your phone. Howeever, I did get one good one:

Bat Display
The bats put on quite a show…

Molecular Gastronomy

Singapore is home to many Michelin-rated restaurants and celebrity chefs. ¬†My current (lack of) paycheck doesn’t support an excessive amount of those indulgences, but we have found that we prefer to be conservative on accommodation costs in favour of eating well.

I couldn’t resist going to the Tippling Club. Its¬†a molecular gastronomy dining experience, and I’m happy to report it did not disappoint – from the scented cocktail menu to the gorgeously plated, creative¬†cuisine. One highlight was a tomato, basil and olive oil “lava lamp” – presented as a soup shot, the basil slowly bubbled to the top just like the name suggeted. ¬†It was all so fun! ¬†We sat at the counter and watched the open kitchen and also had a pleasant chat with the chef. ¬†I highly recommend it.


Garden City

Singapore is said to be “a city in a garden, not a garden in a city”… the humidity and regular rainfall means everything is naturally very lush. But nature doesn’t get all of the credit –¬†Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yu in the early 60s outlined a vision to “transform Singapore into a city with abundant lush greenery and a clean environment in order to make life more pleasant for the people” (and presumably encourage tourism and foreign investment). Elaborate landscaping is evident everywhere – even the plants in the medians are well-considered and cared for.

Gardens By The Bay¬†is one of many examples of¬†the government’s committment to engaging people about the environment and greening the city. The 250 acre park only opened in 2011. The highlights are the two glass conservatories which give you a very surreal impression of being on another planet. They are pleasantly cool on the inside, contain plants and flowers from all over the world, and have no¬†interior columns so you have clear views of both the plants inside and the tall buildings of Singapore outside.

Gardens By The Bay

Both conservatories¬†were designed to have a minimal footprint on the environment –¬†rainwater is collected from the buildings and sent to the cooling system, which is powered by the Supertrees in the middle of the park. These tree-like structures are vertical gardens with a massive array of solar cells. The solar energy is used to power most of the park.

Its a gorgeous display of plants and a strong message about the environment and conservation.¬†Even if you don’t usually get excited about flowers, it’s still worth a visit.


ArtScience Museum

We were already intrigued by the unusual lotus flower-inspired¬†building that is the¬†ArtScience Museum at Marina Bay Sands. ¬†Once we¬†saw a poster for an exhibit called “Future World: Where Art Meets Science”, we figured we had to go.

ArtScience Museum

 

The Future World exhibit wasn’t quite what we had hoped for… it looked like it would be a bunch of cool, immersive, interactive art. ¬†However, a lot of the exhibits lacked the polish and performance we’ve come to expect from technology. ¬†Children seemed highly engaged, though, and the ideas behind a lot of the pieces were interesting even if the execution could be improved.

The final piece, which was a LED-filled room intended to make you feel immersed in the cosmos, was particularly fantastic and made up for any disappointment in some of the other pieces.

Future World
It’s full of stars…

Lucky for us, there was also a MC Escher retrospective.  It was fascinating to see how his work evolved into the impossible scenes he is reknowned for.  The gallery did a great job with the installations and added their own interactive elements to it:

Perspective


Chinatown Bars

Sriram & Tanya decided we were missing some quintessential Singapore experiences, so we headed to Din Tai Fung to eat our weight in dumplings.  They are quite a famous chain and I can see why Рthe dumplings and steamed buns were all excellent! There is an army of highly trained chefs making them to order, and surprising amount of vegetarian options.

We then headed to Chinatown, which recently has become a destination for hipster cocktail bars.  One place required a password to enter, then you had to find the door in a mirrored box in order to get through to the bar area.  Another had really creative tea-infused cocktails in a laundry-themed environment. It was fun to explore the city and nice to feel like we were having a normal Friday night out with friends.

img_8094
The washing machines were showing videos of laundry.

Platinum Movie Experience

I had seen promotions¬†for a “platinum movie experience” so we decided to check it out. It is comparable to the difference between First Class and Economy on a flight.

You have a special place to collect your tickets, and a pre-show lounge that looks similar to a business class lounge in an airport (minus the free champagne, unfortunately).

The seats were ridiculously enourmous, reclined almost flat, and came with cozy blankets. And there was a promo running to get free snacks, so all said and done, it didn’t wind up being that expensive.

cathay
The seats really did look like this. (Thanks to The Cathay for the image.)

The food & drink wasn’t nearly as good as somewhere like the Alamo Drafthouse, but it was still a fun twist on a movie outing. And the theatre only had 32 seats in it, so we never had to deal with crowds or people talking or someone kicking your chair.


So now we are headed to Malaysia. ¬†We are planning to spend the next 6-8 weeks exploring SouthEast Asia. I’ve never had a strong pull to any of those countries, so I’m going in with little information and no preconceived notions about what it will be like… I know it will be cheap, warm, and food will be good but cheese will probably be in short supply.

Let me know if you have any recommendations!

 

Zumba (& Other Classes) in Singapore

After failing to make it to any classes in Dubai, I was determined to get back into action in Singapore. Its was a mixed bag, especially in comparison to Cape Town, who really spoiled me.

I did my usual pre-arrival emails to local instructors.¬†I discovered¬†a large¬†amount of incorrect/incomplete info on zumba.com… its surprising how many people¬†don’t keep their class info up to date! How do they find new students? Is it entirely through word of mouth?

I also came across¬†quite a lot of¬†“requires a membership” venues, and not just for gyms… dance and¬†yoga studios either had mandatory year-long memberships or made you purchase packages of classes. ¬†I was struggling to¬†find anything that would work for a short visit. (one place was around¬†$15,000 to join… it was more than just a gym, but still!)


Hip Hop/”Swag Fitness”

My first success was Rhomeiny’s class. I found him through zumba.com but he let me know in advance that he was in the process of transitioning his class to something he calls “Swag Fitness”.¬†It’s predominantly hip hop and pop music, and the choroeography is more complex than Zumba but it is still easier than a regular hip hop¬†class. I figured I’d give it a shot.

Overall, I loved the music and enjoyed the challenge of more complex routines. There wasn’t as much cueing, though, so suffice to say I was the white girl bumbling around in the back of the room. ¬†The toughest part is that he used a lot of the same music as I did for Zumba (like Dessert and¬†Shawty Got Moves), but the routines were totally different. This¬†meant my body wanted to do something other than what my brain was telling it to do, which often manifested¬†in some less-than-graceful results. ¬†Still, the class was a lot of fun and I imagine it would get easier over time¬†(especially some of the crazy footwork).


Jammin’ with Gerald

I managed to secure a spot at a Jam Session with a Singapore instructor, Gerald. (Jam Sessions are classes held¬†for Zumba instructors to¬†learn new choreography.) ¬†In addition to leading jam sessions, he teaches regular classes every day of the week. He knew¬†everyone in the room by name – I suspect he’s a local Zumba celebrity.

It was a generously-sized studio for 30+ instructors, with plenty of mirrors and a platform for Gerald¬†so it was easy to see him. ¬†He was super-sassy and very positive – I loved his sense of humour and all 4 of his routines were great (which is a rarity for a jam session – usually there’s at least one I don’t love.)

The session was non-stop for over 3 hours. (Typically there’s at least one break built in.) We rarely stopped moving! First we all danced through the 4 songs, then broke¬†down and repeated the individual¬†sections, and then everyone took¬†turns leading them. Gerald was particularly organized¬†how he handled who led which¬†song, which I appreciated. I was surprised (though exhausted) when the time was up!

Jam with Gerald
I love that he set a theme, even though I didn’t have any camouflague workout clothes.

 


Zumba with Erich

Classes here are pretty expensive… anywhere from $11-$15 (or more). ¬†I¬†was excited to find I could do a free demo class at True Yoga, which¬†in addition to offering a million yoga classes also has some Zumba. ¬†Erich’s class was a lot of fun. ¬†He did a lot of pantomiming to the song lyrics (including pretending to take shots) ¬†and ended every song with sassy poses. ¬†I absolutely loved it, of course, but I felt a bit bad as the other women in the class weren’t as¬†enthusiastic about all the campy fun.

The studios were all gorgeous and they have very nice facilities – they provide towels, yoga matts, and have a lounge with free wifi and drinks in it. ¬†Unfortunately, the smallest number of classes I could buy came down to $29/class, so I won’t be going back.


1Fiesta Zumba

Halfway through our visit I moved to our pet-sitting gig across town, which meant starting all over again with the class hunt or spend over an hour going to and from each class.  I was excited to find a studio closeby, but then disappointed when it appeared it was actually of business (despite still having events posted on MeetUp.com and a website advertising classes).  Sigh.

Luckily, I discovered 1Fiesta who offered drop-in classes in 5 different locations around the city. They offer multiple classes every day and have a bunch of different instructors (like Gerald).

Some classes were better than others, and that’s partially because of the attendees. ¬†I wound up in one mid-week morning class that was mostly older ladies. The class was so shoulder-shimmy inept that the instructor tried breaking it down for them. ¬†These women barely moved the entire time…¬†the instructor was trying her best to amp them up and I was trying to be extra-energetic to support her, yet they were somehow just sucking the life out of us.

Tomomi’s class was particularly good. She’s very high-impact so I got a great workout, plus my arms were sore the next day (a rarity!).¬†¬†I was a little worried as I was the tallest (at 5’6) and whitest woman amoung the 40 students, but Tomomi was easy to follow¬†so I didn’t stick out at all.

And Gerald’s regular class was just as great as his jam session – he’s got an enthusiastic group and he is very playful with everyone. And as you’d expect, he’s very easy to follow.


Classes in Singapore¬†are very quiet. ¬†No clapping at the end of song or cheering or singing along or shouting “hey”… ¬†I’m not looking for a cheerleading squad, but its a little weird that its absolutely dead silent between songs.

One instructor was trying so hard to get her class to make any noise at all, I thought I’d compensate for their silence with my booming American voice. ¬†It was comical – the two of us shouting, call &¬†response style, in a room full of slient people. It was almost like I had Zumba¬†tourettes.


Classes At A Gym: Zumba, Kpop, HipHop

I had to buy some additional workout clothes since I was going to class so much (and was tired of doing laundry every day). At the shop, they gave me a 7 day pass to a local gym. I was especially excited as not only was it free access to some Zumba classes, but it would only take 20 minutes to get there (whereas the other studios were 40 minutes away or further).

I should have known it would be too good to be true. Just finding the gym in the massive mall was problematic. ¬†Then¬†I had¬†to deal with a very pushy sales guy. He didn’t listen to anything I said about my experience or fitness goals, gave me a half-hearted tour (which included no practical info, like how to sign up for the classes), followed by a hard press to sign up for 12 months (even though I hadn’t even used the gym yet). ¬†When I repeated that I¬†wasn’t a permanant resident, he was reluctant to honour the pass and then badgered me to give him names & phone numbers of friends he could call and try and sell memberships to!

While the gym had a great view of the harbour, the facilities were pretty tired. ¬†The¬†dance studio was nice, but the gym equipment was old and the locker room was far from inviting. And they don’t keep the class schedule updated, so you might show up for a Zumba class and find that it’s something else.

The first class there was with Tomomi, so at least I got one great Zumba class for all the time I spent trying to get the guest pass out of them.

Later in the week I went for a class which was called “Kpop” (with no supporting description). ¬†I assumed it would be like Zumba, but in reality¬†it felt¬†more like a dance workshop for professional dancers learning music video choreography… except¬†that everyone in the room was far from being a professional dancer.

In less than an hour she tried to teach us 40 seconds of very fast choroeography for the chorus of¬†this music video¬†(:58-1:38). (I have new respect for those girls in the video¬†– they¬†make it look easy!)¬†The moves were cute, but she was going through them really quickly, not breaking them down very much, and not giving us much time to run them. ¬†I’d wager she spent as much time cueing up music as we did dancing.

Suffice to say, everyone in the room was lost. It wasn’t even clear when we should start dancing since she wasn’t always counting us in. And then there was a part¬†where you supposed to trade places with the person next to you… ¬†people¬†were literally bumping into each other.

Then she very abruptly proclaimed it was the last run-through. ¬†We all bumbled through it one last time, then she¬†grabbed her stuff, and ran out the door. ¬†No cool down, no “thanks for coming”, nothing. It was very odd.

Since I didn’t feel like I got any kind of a workout, I decided to stay for the next class. The schedule said Zumba but when I went to the front desk to sign up for it, they let me know it was going to be Swag Fitness instead. (Why can’t anyone provide accurate info here?!)¬†At least this was a pleasant surprise.¬†While his format is certainly a little harder than Zumba, it¬†seemed like a breeze compared to the Kpop class and I was certainly glad I stuck around for it!


 

So while it took a lot of effort (and commute time) on my part, I did manage to go to 4 classes a week throughout our stay!   I also spent some time recording myself and then watching it back for places where my movements could be cleaner or my cueing could be better. (We used to do this for bellydancing all the time Рwhy have I not done this for Zumba before now!?)  It was a little tough to watch, but a very useful exercise.  I definitely want to continue doing this.

Next up is Penang, Malaysia… its a much smaller place, but I know they have Zumba there. Fingers crossed I can find some drop-in opportunities!

Singapore: Part 1

We took a red-eye from Dubai to Singapore on Singapore Air, which is now my favourite airline.  Even in economy, the flight was actually pleasant!

Singapore Air
While you’re watching a movie, the remote displays the remaining flight time.

When we booked the flight, I was surprised at the selection of meals they had available¬†– everything¬†from specific allergies, to religious meals, to non-carb, and of course, vegetarain. The flight attendants were all very¬†friendly¬†(and have some pretty nice uniforms, too). And the seats were well-designed… there’s a cup-holder for your drink, a small mirror embedded in the tray table, and the entertainment system had a cool second-screen display on the remote. Considering it was an economy flight, this is the best food we’ve had, the largest pillows & blankets, and the most leg room. If you have the chance, I highly recommend flying them.

Singapore feels really easy to me. ¬†I know this is partially because I’ve been here before (unlike Dubai or Cape Town), but also because its so clean and safe, easy to get around, and everyone speaks English. I’m particularly impressed with the metro, which is very cheap and easy to use – we went across town for less than $1 and the driverless trains are always perfectly punctual. People even stand back and let others exit before getting on! So civilized!

We started our visit by staying near Orchard Road, which is the main shopping street. After Dubai, I¬†didn’t really need any more mall time, but there were¬†also lots of dance classes in the area, cinemas, restaurants, etc.,¬†plus¬†easy access to many other parts of the city.

I jumped at the chance to go see Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (the latest Tim Burton film). The Chinese subtitles were only slightly distracting, and the¬†large cinema had really nice reclining seats with headrests. I loved the film and would like¬†to pay a visit to wherever¬†Miss Peregrine shops. While Singapore is far from being a cheap city, we later relalized we paid¬†less than $13 for the 2 tickets, so it was nice to learn that not everything is expensive¬†here.

We met up with a former Apple colleague who lives in Singapore. It was great to see him and meet his wife. They¬†took us for our first “hawker center” experience. Its basically a bunch of food stalls – kind of like if food trucks never moved – so you have access to all kinds of tasty food for very reasonable prices. Satay (aka “meat on a stick”) is very popular, plus there’s Indian, Japanese, Chinese, etc. ¬†And its all very affordable.

Hawker Center
The German enjoying the meat-fest!

And then there was a stall which sold “cold desserts”, which sounded very appealing in the extremely muggy weather. ¬†This turned out to be shaved ice with all sorts of strange toppings, including corn, red beans, coconut milk, etc.¬†After the third bite of indistinguishable gummy stuff, The German declared he’d had enough.

Cold Desserts
They tasted as strange as they looked.

We followed it up with a drink at the sister bar to a place we loved in Cape Town. It was Friday night and everyone was out on the streets. Its so nice to be out late and not worry about which streets we walked down or how we were going to get home.

Sriram & Tanya
Our former colleague, Sriram, and his wife Tanya at Operation Dagger

 

One of the highlights from my last visit to Singapore was the champagne brunch at the Grand Hyatt. More than a buffet, they have 7 different cooking stations where chefs are preparing sushi, malaysian cuisine, british-style roasts, eggs, oysters, etc.  The cheese table was an impressive array of imported cheese and accompaniments, and I could go on for days about the desserts, which seemed to run the length of the dining room. And the best part? Every time you took 2 sips of your Perrier-Joeut champagne, they were there to top up your glass!  We stayed for hours, then took tipsy selfies on the way back to pass out at the hotel.

 

Now we’ve moved into an incredible house in a residential¬†part of the western side of the city. ¬†Some American expats that I found through Trusted Housesitters needed a dog and cat sitter¬†for 10 days.¬†We were pleased to discover that not only are the people and the animals very nice, but the house is a¬†gorgeous¬†modern home with a pool table, small swimming pool and blazingly fast wifi, plus its just a short walk to the metro.

Pet Sitting in Singapore

I think this is going to work out just fine…