All Right Here?

Having recently moved from the UK to South East Asia, a lot of people have asked me: "So, what's it like, then?" This is my attempt to answer that question.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Fools Die For Want Of Wisdom

Almost a year ago to the day, I was in hospital having a knee ligament reconstruction. Look back at my June 2006 archives: it’s all there. I’ve just read it back and can’t believe what high spirits I was in.

On Tuesday, I was back in hospital again for another operation. This time: wisdom teeth extraction. All four of them.

I quite liked the whole anaesthetic thing last time, but this time I woke up thinking that there was a chance I was going to be sick. That’s probably because I had two gauze swabs soaking up the blood and dangling from my mouth like tendrils. Straight after I was woken up, I reached for my mouth to take out the gauze swabs, thinking that they were pieces of chewing gum I’d left in my mouth. The nurse told me to leave them where they were. After a couple more attempts to remove the chewing gum, I gradually became aware that my jaw was feeling a bit tender and that I should probably do what she told me to do.

It was only day surgery this time, so I was home about 3 hours after waking up. No fun hospital stories this time, I’m afraid.

Nothing much exciting has happened since. I’ve had the last 3 days off work because my gums are still bleeding and my face looks strange. No doubt you can guess what I look like. Take your pick:
I look like a chipmunk
I look moonfaced
I look like the Fat Controller
I look like Sophie Ellis Bextor
I look like Jay Leno.

Ella’s made me lots of really great soup and I’ve been eating ice cream too.

During the first day and a half I read A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini. It’s not as good as The Kite Runner, but it’s still very good.

I’m now reading Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer. I am loving every second of this book. It’s made me laugh out loud a few times, which books hardly ever do for me. It’s also one of the most moving books I’ve ever read. I keep putting it down to do something else, either because I’m moved, or because I don’t want to finish it. I’ve never done that before with a book. What’s wrong with me?

Anyway, read the book. It’s dazzling, heartbreaking and beautiful.

They’re showing one Star Wars film per night on one of the movie channels here. The first night it was the unwatchable Episode 2, which I was sure I’d seen before, but only bits of it seemed familiar. I watched it until I realised that it was unwatchable, then went to bed. Which is probably what happened last time. Last night it was Episode 3, which I love, even though it’s a bit silly in places. It surely contains the most exciting and eagerly anticipated moment in cinematic history: Darth Vader’s mask descending and attaching to his face for the first time, then that first breath being taken. Spine-tingling stuff.

Then there’s the funniest moment in Star Wars history: Darth Vader’s first few steps, crying “Noooooooooooo!” in a very un-Darth Vader-ish way. Cringeworthy.

Tonight it’s Episode 4. Classic.

Despite the joys of soup, reading books and watching Star Wars, it’s no fun having all four wisdom teeth out at once. Even though it doesn’t really hurt, it’s uncomfortable. I can feel the stitches in my mouth – they seem to thread from my gums to the sides of my mouth, for some reason. There’s a tangle of cotton or whatever it is in my mouth. Either that or it’s some bread. I’m not brave enough to get my finger in there and find out in case I pull stitches out. It’s also no fun having to go and spit blood down the toilet every twenty minutes or so.

Still, it could be a lot worse. That’s enough moaning.

But it is really annoying that wisdom teeth are completely unnecessary.

At least, I hope so.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Easter Treat

At Easter, my brother and his family visited for the first time. It was an absolute joy to have them here and we did loads of stuff with a week in Bali and a week in Singapore. This 'loads of stuff' included:

seeing some Balinese dancing (all colourful costumes, monkeys, eyes and fingers)

seeing pink dolphins:

going to the aquarium:

marvelling at what some people can do with water melons:

pool and beach action:

the obligatory Singapore Sling in Raffles:

the list goes on and on. And, indeed, on.

Being so far away, it’s always really special when someone takes the trouble and takes on the expense of a visit, but I was especially pleased that my bro made it out here. After they left, Ella and I took a while to get over it and spent our days moping about lethargically and crying on each other's shoulders. The goodbyes just seem to get harder and harder. Fortunately, Macau came along (see below) which served as an ideal distraction. It turns out that all we needed was a holiday to get over our holiday.

Ho ho.

We're much more positive again now and, instead of moping, we're looking forward to going home for a bit in the summer and seeing everybody again. That's the spirit, eh?

Anyway, here are some more photos, if you’re interested.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007


Went away this bank holiday weekend to Macau, kind of near to Hong Kong and attached to mainland China. Until 1999 it was Portuguese, in the same way that until 1997 Hong Kong was British. They’re both now Chinese again. If only the Iraq situation was that simple.

It was about 2am when we got to our hotel in Downtown Macau, only ten minutes from the airport, and slap bang in the middle of casino land. We decided the best thing to do would be to head out and find a bar in a casino and get some food. The casino fronts were all glitzy interchanging bright lights, shuffling through various neon/LED pictures of playing cards, chips, coloured patterns and, bizarrely, fish. Inside our first casino we were expecting a stock exchange atmosphere – all shouting and clattering. In fact, the atmosphere was closer to that of a library: hoards stooped over desks studying their cards quietly and seriously. They were playing games that we didn’t understand, and everybody seemed to be drinking tea.

Interested, but disappointed by the heavy atmosphere and lack of bar, we left and went to find somewhere to eat. Wandering up a sidestreet, I was struck by the presence of several beautiful women who seemed to be waiting around for their friends. I told Ella that none of them were as beautiful as her, of course, but also remarked that I’d never seen so many attractive women in such a small amount of space. I wondered whether Macau was going to be like this wherever we went. Perhaps they had special genes or something. Ella informed me that she suspected that they might be prostitutes, at which I kept my eyes glued to the ground until we reached the other end of the street where we got some fried rice. I ate the rice while Ella gave me a running commentary on the business transactions taking place outside.

Visually Macau reminded me a bit of Shinjuku in Tokyo – all lights and people, shops open well into the early hours. In Shinjuku, though, there exists a kind of synesthesia: sights merge with the sounds of all those colourful shops, arcades and Pachinko joints and fill the streets with sparkly cacophonous mayhem; flashing aural overload; blinding earth-quaking noise. In contrast, Macau was all sight and no sound. It reminded me of the end of Hitchcock’s The Birds when Mitch, Melanie and Lydia gingerly leave the house and walk to the car with the threatening birds lining lampposts, perching on cars and sitting on telephone wires, silently watching them. The threat of the eerie hush.

Fortunately, the next morning revealed Macau in a much more favourable light. We went on a walk through some of the main tourist attractions (other than casinos). Mostly the attractions were architectural, and Portuguese-influenced. We particularly liked the colourful cobbles of Senado Square, cheerful old churches and the Fort at the top of the hill which yielded stunning views.

Most importantly for us, lots of things were old. Really old. Historical, you might say. Living in Singapore, old buildings are few and far between. Indeed, a building forty years of age is classified as old. Some buildings may have ‘1820’ stamped on them, but they look as if they were built yesterday. Like Trigger’s brush in Only Fools and Horses, which he claimed he’d used for twenty odd years, but then revealed had had five new handles and twelve new brushes, in Singapore I get the impression that the building may have gone up in 1820, but since then it’s had all of its 1820-ness knocked down and replaced. Macau, though, had really old stuff that they had let grow old. Like 500 years old. I know that’s nothing compared to Stonehenge, but I’m just not used to it anymore.

The ruins of St Paul’s church (below) is a case in point. It was destroyed by fire in the 1800s apart from the steps and the facade. Instead of knocking it down, they kept it there and it is beautiful. In Singapore it would be Starbucks in seconds.

We also managed to see China for the first time, which lies about 500 metres across the water from Coloane Island. We didn’t make the trip this time (too little time to spend waiting around for a visa), but one day....

I should probably mention the food, too. As I'm sure you can imagine, there's a European-Asian- with-colonial-influences fusion thing going on in Macau. I'd recommend the African chicken with a Portuguese green wine. And the pear and sesame seed dim sum was a pleasant breakfast. It's always nice to see a doyley, too.

On the third and fourth nights we made forays back to the casinos. We shunned the one we went in on the first night, choosing instead to go to a fairly new one run by an American company. The atmosphere was much better. There was a bar and everything. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a game that a) I wanted to play and b) I understood. Baccarat looked confusing, but seemed to be by far the most popular game. I watched a few hands and was slightly less confused, but still didn’t really get it.

The only kind of poker they had was Caribbean Stud, which is a five card game with what seemed like no bluffing involved. What was the point of me spending hours in front of the mirror perfecting my poker face?

There were some strange dice games which I wasn’t interested in because there were no seats for the players.

The only roulette I found was a machine-operated wheel: no click-clack of the ball being thrown? No little man with white gloves doing the throwing? No long stick with which he collects chips? No thank you.

The only game I understood well enough to play was Blackjack, which I’ve always known as Pontoon. I’d saved up a few coppers in the hope that I might have a little gamble, but the minimum bet we could find was 100 Hong Kong dollars, which is about six quid. I was hoping for some tables for cheapskates like me, but it seems that gambling in Macau is a very serious business. My coppers didn’t go very far, unfortunately, and when I did get some chips, Ella found it amusing to throw them on the floor as if in a tantrum. With cameras everywhere, I was expecting to be escorted from the premises quick-time. When she’d stopped laughing, she picked them up and gave them back to me. I spent a while pretending I didn’t know who she was until I felt the danger had passed and, after finally deciding that I probably should start speaking to her again, I suggested that we sit down at a Blackjack table. Ten minutes later, after a few wins but more losses, our chips were spent.

I would have gladly spent a couple of hours wasting the same amount of money if only they’d let me.

Just a little tip for you: it seems that the casino pretty much always wins in the end.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Beastie Besar

It’s been a rollercoaster, the last few weeks. This weekend, though, was Chinese New Year, which meant (yet another) holiday – three days off, Friday to Tuesday. We went for a long weekend in Pulau Besar, which is a tiny Malaysian island, then came back to Singapore to watch the Beastie Boys and Jurassic 5. Nice.

Besar was stunning. White sands, sea of various shades of blue and lovely sunshine the whole time.

In my two and a half years here, I’ve become accustomed to travelling light. When I first arrived and went off to Sri Lanka for half term, then Krabi for Christmas, I over-packed. I would wear trainers, for example, and take flip-flops. Stupid. I’d take five pairs of shorts for a week. Ludicrous. I’d take two more t-shirts than there were days. Imbecilic. I’d take two pairs of long trousers, just in case one pair got wet. Pathetic.

In addition to all of these clothes, I’d make sure that my bag contained lots of important equipment like sun block, mosquito repellent, sting relief and tiger balm. Since becoming a more experienced traveller, I’ve realised that, actually, you can travel even lighter by leaving all that stuff at home and buying it when you get there. 7-11 is ubiquitous in Asia. They even had one on Phi-Phi Island.

So to Besar. The hotel didn’t have a shop. We wandered down the track a little bit and came to a shack which had bottles of coke in the window, so we thought there was every chance it might be a shop. An old hunchbacked woman lifted herself off a hammock strung onto a nearby tree and limped over to us (she was carrying two huge bananas behind her back, which is irrelevant, hence the brackets). She wandered into the house next to the shop and said something in an irritated voice to an old man, who opened the shop door. He had whiskers sprouting all over his face and not many teeth.

The shop was tiny. The counter was covered by a film of greasy dust, on top of which were placed items for sale which, in turn, were covered by a film of greasy dust. There was some sun lotion in a glass cabinet, but, after scraping off the film of greasy dust, I discovered that it was out of date.

Our search for a shop continued, but every time we asked someone where the nearest shop was, they pointed us back towards the shop that didn’t sell the stuff we wanted. There was, you see, no other shop.

Fortunately we had a squeeze of sun lotion and, by conserving it carefully and sitting in the shade, we managed to avoid burning. Ella had brought a little bit of mosquito repellent, but she still got bitten about 20 times by sand flies. I, however, managed to avoid being bitten at all. Brilliant.

Anyway, after over two years here, I’ve finally been somewhere (other than the Red Centre of Australia) that really is in the middle of nowhere. Unless you count the shop as evidence of not-nowhereness. Which I didn’t, because its sun cream was out of date.

Snorkelling was problematic too. On the day we decided to do it, millions of miniature jellyfish were being washed up to shore. They were about an inch or two long. They were harmless, but Ella was a little bit squeamish. Every time we did a swimming stroke, we pushed them away with our arms. They filled our vision, too. Ten minutes was all we managed. Ella maintains that it was 'like swimming through frogspawn' and that the only reason I wasn't scared too was because I couldn't see them without my glasses. Nonsense.

We watched a number of other people run enthusiastically into the sea, then realise they were surrounded by jellyfish, before beating a hasty retreat.

After two and a half dreamy days in the sunshine reading Dracula and Snow Falling On Cedars, it was back to hectic Singapore to go to the Good Vibrations festival. It was an all day event, but most of the acts were a little disappointing. It warmed up with the third to last act, Aussie band Cut Copy, who were really eclectic and had some great songs. Then the Jurassics took the stage. They were cracking – very tight and melodic – they even rap in tune at times. The Beasties took the biscuit, though. They came on looking like 1940s types with suits and trilbies. They also carried briefcases, which was a nice touch. Oddly, they reminded me of Madness in a way: same sense of humour and natty threads. They played a number of classics, opening with Gratitude and closing with Sabotage, with No Sleep ‘Til Brooklyn the song they chose from License to Ill. It’s hard to believe I was still (just) at Primary School when they released that album. They were very classy.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

The Rainbow

Jonny’s doing a grand job of documenting my holiday. It was a quite extraordinary three weeks in which we saw the stunning Blue Mountains; went wine tasting at the Hunter Valley; went to the races (and lost – it’s a mug’s game); had a top Christmas day BBQ followed by a game of cricket on the beach, rounded off with another BBQ; enjoyed H’s birthday; watched the NYE fireworks from the Opera House; went to Field Day, a dance festival; body boarded and wave jumped; walked coastal walks; celebrated Chewie’s birthday… the list goes on.

I’ll leave Jonny to carry on telling the full story, but I’m a busy man at the moment, so I’ll just talk about the sky on our last night. Having seen so many people from home, saying goodbye was pretty tough as no one really knows when we’ll all be together again. In fact, the longer I spend away from home, the harder the goodbyes seem to get.

As we were getting ready to go out on the last evening, the sky went a misty grey colour and what appeared to be a fine mist dressed the promenade like a peignoir. Looking out to sea, we noticed the faint glimmer of a rainbow, which gradually sharpened until the whole arch had fastened itself to the sky. The sky morphed, bruised and blossomed.

The rainbow seemed to reflect the bittersweet nature of parting. The sky seemed to reflect the time of uncertainty ahead, for just about all of us. The holiday was over. I’m going for promotion which is pretty much make or break in my current job. Ella’s finished her MA and is trying to work out what to do next. Jonny, H, Chewie, Stan, Steve etc might also be able to apply this slightly overwrought symbolism to their own lives too. Either that or they’d tell me to stop being so pretentious.

The rainbow was a fitting end to an unforgettable holiday. Thanks to everyone, but especially H and J for putting us up and putting up with us. Eye am the sky, as Dr Phibes and the House of Wax Equations once put it.