Sunday, August 30, 2009

Singapore Life 2 - Going out

I'm not an expert on the night life in Canada, but I think that I've spotted at least one difference in the night life here compared with home. Swimming pools at the bar?

Bain threw a private party for us at a place in Sentosa last night. As you can see, some were prepared - others were not. But it doesn't really matter here. It seems that the most important thing is to just relax and have fun when we can.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Singapore Life 1 - Living Arrangements

New country. New goals. New living arrangements. New lifestyle.

Over the next few months, I'll be making adjustments to many aspects of my life. The first that I will share is my living situation. Most of the students at my school either live in this condo or the one next door. It's a handy choice, since it takes less than 10 minutes to walk to school. And, so far, it's made for a much more social lifestyle than I've become accustomed to.

This is a view from my living room. Right below the high rise is my school.

The building...
Yes, I live in a gated community now.
Main Pool #1.
Main Pool #2. Main Pool #3 is basically the same. BBQ Pits! There are a number of these spots throughout the property.
My new donut sheets. Very Canadian?My new roommates. David from Belgium on the left. Mahmoud from Lebanon on the right.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Getting home

This trip was not supposed to include an aerial tour of northern Australia, but it seems only fitting that this story have one more chapter.

As instructed, I arrived at Moresby Airport at 6AM to find out if and when I was going to get home. The customer service desk was dark, and the only people to be seen were security guards and a few other unfortunate travelers in pursuit of solutions. So, we waited.
There's not much going on at the Port Moresby airport, especially at this time of day. So, when a large, angy man stormed into the airport yelling and waving his hands, it was a bit of a surprise. He was yelling in a language that I didn't understand and was looking (and walking) in my direction. He pulled off his shirt and threw it on the ground. Airport security stood and watched. The woman standing behind me, I would learn, was his wife. The half naked man and his wife proceeded to carry out their domestic dispute in public - with him physically intimidating her every time she spoke. Security stood around and did nothing. And, so did I.

The customer service desk finally opened at sometime after 7AM. I can't be sure of the exact time, since the airport clocks would only agree within about a half hour of each other. By some miracle (very likely someone else's misfortune), a spot became available to travel to Singapore today. The catch - I would need to travel to Australia first, then stand by for a flight to Singapore. By now intimately familiar with the airports of Papua New Guinea, I jumped at the opportunity for a new venue.

12 hours and two Australian cities later, I arrived home to Singapore. The moral of the story is that if you are traveling to PNG, you should travel with time.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Moresby Miracle

Against all odds, I made it to Port Moresby this evening.When and where I go from here remains a mystery - one that will not be solved tonight. But,rather than sitting in my hotel room feeling sorry for myself, I headed to the Moresby Yacht club to meet up with my friends Bob and Allan. This was my first glimpse at the 'white' side of PNG. Indeed, it was the nicest establishment that I have seen in this country, but the fact that the security guards demanded that my black drivers prove that they had a passenger in the car before they could enter the parking lot was unsettling to me.

At Bob's suggetion, we continued our evening tour of Moresby and headed to the aeroclub - a popular destination for pilots. We passed through the first security gate and Bob promptly introduced himself to a man holding a pump action shot gun. 'It's important to know who your friends are', Bob explained, which prompted a man on the other side of the fence to point out that he, too, was carrying a large weapon. We passed through two more doors and were just about inside when Bob spun around and said to me 'By the way, Aaron told me that there might be prostitutes here. Just so you' If there were, it was hard to tell; however, there was a man at the bar that was hooked up to an oxygen tank. You don't see that every day.

The small, narrow room, with its corrugated metal walls, had the feel of a shipping container - adding to the ample character already provided by its occupants. A band set the rhythm of the room while a silent television (first playing the simpsons, then wresting) offered visual stimulation. Eventually, a pilot took the mic and belted out 'I did it my way' to the amusement of everyone in the bar.

The hotel that I've been put up at by the airline is actually quite nice. Apparently, it's the choice of the UN and other such organizations when they post people in Moresby, which explains why the internet costs K$1/minute. Tomorrow morning I head to the airport early to find out if and when I will be able to leave the country. Wish me luck.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Travel with time

The departures/check-in/security/waiting hall are combined into a single open room at Madang airport. It's solid turquoise walls are interrupted only by the residue from many years of contact by soiled hands. Next to the ladies rest room is the Executive Club Paradise Lounge, a room that measures no more than 200 square feet and bears a name that may have been more fitting in its glory days, which, judging by the decor was some time before I was born.

I've come to know this room well over the last six hours, my flight having been delayed indefinitely due to a mechanical problem. I have now missed my flight to Singapore and I have been advised that the next direct flight there leaves on Monday. To make matters worse, all connecting flights until monday are full. It may not matter as I will need to get to Port Moresby first. And, at this point, I'm not sure when that will happen. There is no mechanic in Madang to fix the plane, so we will need to wait for another airplane to get here.

I think the lesson has finally set in for me - when in PNG, it is important to travel with time.


Time has no meaning in a world with no clocks. Which, perhaps, why getting to a destination in PNG on the same day as scheduled is considered the same as getting there on time.

Today's transfer was tricky because we could only get a 5 seater cesna, which meant two trips to get everyone from Simbai to Madang. It was a satisfactory arrangement, provided that the plane was punctual (a term that they may want to look up in the dictionaries that Bob donated).

First, it was the early morning cloud cover. Then, the pilot was missing. Then, the airplane needed to stop at two other villages before coming to get us. When the plane finally arrived, the pilot advised us that, although there were five seats on the plane, he could only take off with three passengers from this gravel and grass runway. So, what was intended to be a day at the beautiful beach town of Madang instead became an exercise in waiting and transport logistics.

Now that I'm here, though, I think it was worth the effort. Madang is like what I imagine Hawaii must have been like 50 years ago. A few hotels, but not much evidence of a booming tourist industry. My hotel room looks out at a lighthouse that is located on the beautiful volcanic coast line. It's quiet enough that I can only hear the sound of the waves. A great way to spend my last night in PNG!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Village People

Accessible only by air or a multi-day trek by foot, the village of Simbai offers a taste of life at its most simple.

We are staying at a lodge that is a 30 minute hike from the gravel and grass airstrip that made our arrival here possible. Shelter here comes in the form of straw huts. Showers in the form of river water in a bucket. Heat in the form of fire. In the communal area, there is solar power, which extends our evening social time by about an hour.

Yesterday, Emmanuel and I went trekking with two of the locals, while the others took a tour of the village. The terrain was spectacular. Steady climbing. Rugged jungle. Small villages. I am not a bird fan, but there were a lot of interesting sounds in the jungle (Dad, every time I hear a bird chirping, I think it is you). I was surprised by how few bugs there were in the jungle. Apparently there are no snakes around here either. It's a hikers paradise.

After a few hours, we came across a woman and her two children in their 'garden' (marginally organized patch of soil in the middle of nowhere). She had set up a small fire on the dirt and was cooking the potatoes that she was peeling with a dirty stick. When they first saw us, the kids ran away. But, in time, curiosity brought them back. Eventually, one came up behind me and began inspecting my hand. I get the impression that there are not many visitors around here - particularly white ones.

Then again, we did see two albinos today. TWO.

When we arrived back in Simbai, we walked around the village and watched the school kids play volleyball. Bob brought a few dictionaries to donate, which got us a free pass in to the classrooms and an excuse to chat with the village people. I'm getting over my struggle with how much impact to make on this place - because this seems like a very good idea. Next time I travel to a developing country, I'll bring some dictionaries. And pants. There seems to be a shortage of those around here.

In the evening, we played texas hold 'em for stones until we ran out of light. Let's just say that I'm lucky that we were only playing with stones.

A storm rolled in over night, bringing plenty of rain, thunder and lightening. I had forgotten how much I enjoy sleeping in storms (provided that I am somewhere dry). I left my window open so that my room would be illuminated every time there was lightening. It was so lovely that I didn't want to fall asleep.

I came to PNG for the Hagen Festival and I would say that it met my very high expectations. But it is the time that we have spent in this village that I have most enjoyed.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Hagen Festival

Two days of colours, movement and sounds from every corner of PNG; this is the reason that I came here - the Mt. Hagen show. This year, the event drew over 100 different cultural groups (down from previous years that reached over 200) and an estimated 50,000 spectators (only 300 of whom are from abroad).

At this scale, words become inadequate for sharing the experience. Photos will help, when they come. A crew from the BBC was on site to get some footage for a new series called Human Planet. That will be a show to watch.

But, what wont be captured in the photos or video is the experience outside of the performances. What struck me was the people. So many people - but nobody asking for money or aggressively trying to sell me something. They were interested to say hi or to wave or to shake your hand. But they don't seem to have been ruined by tourists. Yet. It's coming though. After the show, I was approached by a performer who said that he was selling bags to raise money to buy body paints. Perhaps. But the story lacked conviction. It was as though he was trying it on to see what the reaction would be. This place is on the precipice of change.

I wanted to purchase a souvenir and some gifts, but I was struggling with the idea of accelerating the pace of change. The thing that makes it so nice to be here is, at the same time, preventing me from enjoying it to the fullest. I know it wont be possible to leave no trace here, but I will try to minimize my impact. I did accept an offer to have my face painted. I now have a sunburn in the inverse shape of a bouquet of flowers on my left cheek. I guess that is a souvenir that I can carry with me for a while.

Bob, Allan, Emmanuel and I headed down to the 'Bowls Club' after the show. Bob (a 67 year old Indiana Jones / Photographer) had scouted the place out the night prior. A relic of the colonial days, the club is now in the hands of the locals and has fallen into a bit of disrepair (otherwise known as having 'acquired some charm'). The club is located on a compound, which seems to be the style of the city. Through the main gate, you enter another gate, and then walk through two doors before entering the bar. Then, the bar itself is behind bars. Darts were the game of the day - kind of like modern day arrows, so it was just a continuation of the cultural experience. We were quickly challenged to a competition with the locals, who appeared to have had ample practice. But Allan's British heritage saved the expats at the end of the day.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Paiya Sing Sing

With the Mt. Hagen festival set to commence tomorrow, tribes from all around the country are making their way to the Mt. Hagen area. About a dozen of them gathered today in a nearby village for a sing sing (performance). And, we were invited.

We arrived early to watch the performers apply make up and prepare costumes. Most of the materials and body paints seem to be original and sourced some how from the plants, animals or the earth. Here and there, you can find evidence of civilization - one of my favorites was the use of rear and sideview mirors (no longer in the vehicle) as handheld mirrors. Costumes and makeup were incredible. Feathers of all colours. Wigs made of human hair. Furs. Photos will come.

I watched the others in the group with their fancy cameras. Each person seemed to have a different approach to taking photos - some going for the face shots, others focused on the entire scene. The one commonality among them was a total inhibition about getting in to take the picture. Some would even choreograph a photo - grabbing a subject and assisting them in a pose. I think they will end up with much better shots; however, I am struggling with whether that is truly capturing the point. Then again, some of them are here with a professional purpose in their photography. I am here as a spectator.

One of the charming things about the people here is their handshake. Everyone shakes your hand. Even strangers. And, it's a real handshake. One that lingers. It's kind of awkward at first, if you come from where I do, where physical contact between people is kept to a minimum. But I like it now. It removes the distance between people.

I've gone from one end of the spectrum to another, it seems. I'm now staying at the nicest hotel in town, I have organized things to do during the day, and I have the companionship of other tourists. My loneliness during the first couple of days made things hard for me. I like being in the company of other people, though there is something lost in the experience when you are surrounded with too much familiarity. Likewise, staying at a fancy hotel does nothing to help me to understand a place. This hotel is basically a compound, protected by a 9 foot gate with razorwire on top and a guarded gate to restrict entry.

The tour group was larger today and will remain so for the duration of my trip. I have connected with a few people in particular - Bob (a Canadian living in Australia), Allan (an Englishman living in Australia), and Emmanuel (a Frenchman living in Dubai). My recent move to Singapore qualified me to be part of the group. They are all clearly photography enthusiasts, so I am hoping to learn a few things over the coming days. So far, I've learned that even masters of their craft have different perspectives on how things should be done.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Waghi Mud Men and Pidgin lessons

Today I joined a tour group to go to the Waghi Valley, home of the Waghi mud men. I think this might be where storm troopers are decended from. If I could show you a picture, I would, but perhaps google will suffice as an alternative. Picture practically naked men, brushed in white paint from head to toe, with gigantic, full-head clay masks on.
Most people around the cities here speak three languages. Their local language (of which, recall, there are about 800 in the country. Pidgin (trade language that is kind of like broken english/german/spanish). And English (which is the language of the public education system). Pidgin seems to be the most commonly used. Easy to understand and used among the literate and illiterate alike. It's the language used on billboards, store fronts and other media.
The other tourists in my group were french and the tour guide did not speak french. So, I had an ideal opportunity to test out mine, as he translated from pigin to english and I translated from english to french. I spent some time teaching the guide some basic french words and phrases. In exchange he taught me some pidgin. Fun language. Too bad that I can't use it for my INSEAD language qualification.
Sweet potatos are common here. The english white potatos are grown as well, but demand a premium price. I think I will refrain from telling them that it is the opposite in Canada, where we pay two or more times the price to get yam fries.
We visited a coffee plantation and processing plant. I had an opportunity to help dry the beans with my unwashed bare feet. Just think about that as you are drinking your next coffee.
Today I will spend my first night off the lutheran compound. I have moved to the highlander hotel, which is about 5 stars above where I have been sleeping the last couple of nights. A welcome change, though it lacks the feeling of being away that I was just beginning to enjoy. Funny, I didn't think that I was going to miss those creepy crawlies in my shower, but I sort of do.
Oh, and for those that have heard about the plane crash down here, I wasn't in it. Or, in pigin, amrite.

Stay on top of things, check email from other accounts! Check it out.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Papua New Guinea

I remember my first family trip to Hawaii. On the airplane, my mom asked me to draw a picture of what I thought it would look like. I think that I drew some palm trees, a few grass huts, some coconuts and a hula girl. Considering how much I watched Magnum PI at that age, it's rather embarrassing that I got it so wrong. Though it was thousands of miles away, I remember feeling like it didn't really feel that far from home.
Since then, I've seen a few more parts of the world and learned that what sets different places apart from each other tends to be subtle differences in every day things - whether it be architecture, food, music, language, fashon, skin colour. Here, in Papua New Guinea, it's all of the above (well, except for maybe music, I heard some Bon Jovi playing on the street today). This is, by far, the farthest I have ever felt from home.
I arrived yesterday and am currently in Mount Hagen. It's the country's third largest city, but as we were flying in, I could see that people around the city actually live in grass huts. For real. Non-industrial agriculture is visibly the primary means of subsistence out here. I'm staying at a guesthouse run by a nice evangelical lutheran family. The religious orientation is reinforced in every corner of the establishment - from the art work to the prohibition on alcohol on site. In the lobby, there a large bouquet of gigantic exotic flowers. It's the kind of arrangement that you might expect to see at the Waldorf Astoria, but these were casually gathered from the garden this morning. I am being given the red carpet treatment. Literally. There is a red welcome mat in front of my door, while the other rooms have no mat. It is a nice gesture, though I am not looking for ways to be more conspicuous. My bone structure, skin colour, straight hair and western clothing are doing a fine job of accomplishing that already.
On the street, there are groups of people just hanging out and chewing something called betelnut. It turns their saliva and teeth a rich colour of red, giving the appearance that their mouths are bleeding. And, since the chewing is accompanied by spitting, the street looks as though it is spattered in blood.
Across the street is a convenience store that sells 'livestock supplies, industrial chemicals, coffee, snacks, film, day old chickens and wire supplies'.
At dinner last night, I ate with one of the guesthouse family members. He politely attempted to eat his chicken with a knife and fork (as I was doing), until he finally gave up and used his hands. It is apparently not common to use utensils here. In the case of the chicken dinner, I'd say that his ultimate method was much fore effective than mine.
Today I went with the owner of the gueshouse to his village, Paiya. It's about 45 minutes from here if you take a dilapitated Toyota truck, which we did. Most of the vehicles here wouldn't pass a road worthiness inspection in the developed world. I have yet to see a windshield that is not impaired by a colossal web shaped crack - but these vehicles seem to work just fine for what's needed around here.
Paiya was lovely. I didn't think that there were actually places on earth like this anymore. It was like a diarama at a natural history museum, except that the pigs made noise and I was allowed to walk through the village!
The huts were not arranged together, rather on each respective plot of land. There is a common area for certain families. Today, there were people gathered there to prepare for a bride price ceremony that will take place tomorrow. I also saw a skull hut, which is basically a memorial for loved ones that have died. As its name suggests, it displays their skulls. It actually was quite a bit lovelier than a graveyard, in my opinion.
This is a country that has an estimated 800 distinct languages. The few cities that exist are small and the vast majority of people live in small villages. If there were an opposite to Canada, I think this would be it. This is going to be an interesting week.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Weekend Fun

Saturday consisted of a lot of relaxing, including a trip to Sentosa. Sentosa is a little beach wonderland just off mainland Singapore (connected by bridge). Nevermind the bloody history of the island (google it or whatever) - there is not a shred of that legacy that remains. There are some nice beaches in Sentosa - I think they are man made - the sand is too good to be true and there are some protective islands that keep the water nice and calm for swimming. There are a load of ships on the horizon. Scratch that, they are not even on the horizon - they are shockingly close to shore. Constant ship traffic. I don't think it bodes well for water cleanliness, but it was actually kind of calming just to sit and watch the traffic.

Sunday was Singapore's National Day. 44th anniversary of the country's independence from Malaysia. For the past few days I have seen flags, banners and posters everywhere to celebrate the event. Elad, Yuel, Oded and I went down to Marina Bay to watch the National Day Parade and Fireworks. It was one of those things that you just have to do, though it's not like I do that at home. The parade was markedly more military than what one might see at the Stampede Parade. Fireworks were amusing - they would send them off one at a time in 15 minute intervals during the 2.5 hour performance/parade - then set off a pretty good show at the end. It seemed a bit unfair to the kids, who would get excited at each bang, thinking the firework show was starting.

I studied for most of monday before meeting up with some classmates for dinner. It was good to finally put some faces to names and get to know a few of the people with whom I will be spending the next year, or at least the next 4 months. I was surprised by the number of people that have still not worked out their living arrangements. I think I am paying too much for rent, but I'm glad that I'm not scrambling right now to find a flat. Particularly because I will be heading out of town tonight for a bit of time in Papua New Guinea. There is a festival in the highlands(Mt. Hagen Festival) that I am hoping to catch. Then will pop over to Simbai and Madang before coming back to Singapore. Not sure what the internet will be like, but I hope to at least post an update or two.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

First Night in Singapore

Met up with a classmate, Elad, and his wife, Yuel, for dinner. We headed to Chinatown based on a recommendation from a taxi driver. There's a pedestrian stretch filled with street vendors and picnic tables. Elad and Yuel showed off some of their 'local knowledge' by placing a package of tissues on a table to reserve it while we searched for the perfect dinner. I think they picked this tip up in a lonely planet travel book. When we returned from our search, the seats were still available but the napkins were gone. Who steals tissues? ew.

Next stop was Clarke Quay to meet up and go for a drink with another student, Oded. Clarke Quay is a lively area filled with trendy bars. It was totally packed. We started at a scottish pub. It was strange to see slender Singaporean men in kilts, but the atmosphere was actually pretty nice. There was a stag party of Scots in the bar - sure beats Vegas as a destination!

For a change of scenery, we checked out the bar across the street. It was called Clinic. The menu featured drinks served in IV bags and oversized needles. The furniture included wheelchairs and gurneys. It was kind of hard to take seriously the poster in the corner that read 'be socially responsible'.

Our last major stop was a hopping place called Pump. What made it special was the live band, which featured a fairly large man in womens clothing. Like, I'm talking Andre the Giant meets Dame Edna. Why do cross dressers like blue eyeshadow so much? Heshe rocked out some good tunes from ACDC to Whitney Houston.
Tomorrow we hit the beach!

Friday, August 7, 2009

The New Adventure Begins!

After about 24 hours in transit, I arrived in Singapore this morning around 2:00am. As I could not take possession of my apartment until 9:30am, I was left with some time to kill. Fortunately, there's an airport lounge in Singapore that provides sleep chambers at rates that are much more palatable than a hotel room. Every airport should have this.

My apartment is located close to INSEAD; about a 10 minute walk. I leased a 3 bedroom flat at Heritage View with two other students, neither of whom I've met. We picked each other on the basis of very little information, other than we were all enthusiastic about living with people we'd never met. They wont be arriving for a few days still, so the mystery will continue.

My first order of business was to get my student pass, but I couldn't get an appointment today and will not be able to go until the 21st. Turns out that I can't get a phone plan here without a student pass or a permanent resident I'll be on limited communication for the next couple of weeks, which is frustrating. At least I was able to get internet set up.

With those critical elements out of the way, I was free to take care of some other business. This included buying sheets and a blanket. I feel a bit silly, but it didn't even occur to me that there would not be sheets on the bed. I hate wasting money on this sort of stuff, but I found a really good deal on a set. They have pictures of donuts all over them. Sweet. Literally. I bought the duvet cover but skipped the duvet on account of the fact that it is holy freakin hot and humid here.

I walked around a fair bit too. My hair and clothes were soaked with sweat, but I tried to pretend like I wasn't phased by it. I think it might take me a while to get used to this.

I'm meeting up with some other INSEAD students tonight for dinner. I think we are going to China town!

Monday, August 3, 2009


There are few places where you can feel as free as you do in Montana. I love this place. Erik, Devin and I came down here to ride Logan Pass. It's one of my favorite rides. Erik brought me here for the first time about 10 years ago and I reflect upon that trip as a key reason that I became so interested in cycling.

On our way down here, we stopped in Waterton for a short ride. My first time there. Amazing spot. We even saw a bear!

This trip was a last minute decision on a long weekend during peak season, but we had miraculously found a place to stay. Or so we thought. Upon our arrival in St. Mary, we discovered that the KOA online booking system hadn't quite registered our reservation and the campground was now full. But things have a way of working out. We ended up at a place called Johnson's (which, incidentally, had room only because of a booking error). Family owned business with a fabulous restaurant and a lot of character. It was just the perfect, quiet spot to unwind.

Our initial ambition of riding the full pass both ways on the same day was quickly discarded in favor of a more relaxed schedule that included swimming in the lake, snacking on gummy tarantulas and, most importantly, plenty of rest. Erik's schedule hasn't provided for much (any) rest for some time now and Devin is the proud father of an energetic three year old. Let's just say that there wasn't any hurry to get out of bed in the morning.

We rode the east side on Sunday. Devin went for seconds while Erik and I chilled out and went for a swim in the lake. Today we rode the west side. Well, mostly. Erik and I got turned around by a ranger just a few kilometres from the top as a consequence of the bicycle restrictions. Devin made it to the top. We finished the day with a dip in Lake Macdonald.

Definitely the sort of trip that makes you wonder why you don't do it more often. I'm sure glad that Erik was able to steal away from work for the weekend.