Sunday, April 12, 2015

Spain - Transport woes in Sevilla

In Spain, most touristy sights don't open till 9:30 or even 10:00am. Which was just as well, since it gave us a little more time to sleep in. We walked to the cathedral to take some touristy shots before heading to Plaza Nueva, where we met up with some of our hostel friends Steph and Jonathan, Eva and Bobby. The hostel had advertised a free walking tour that would commence at 11am. Either the Spanish went by Spanish time (i.e. very late) or perhaps it was a Sunday and the guide decided to take the day off, we didn't know. The walking tour never happened. In any case, our group took it upon ourselves to do some sightseeing of our own. We initially wanted to check out the Hospital de la Caridad because it closed at 12:30pm today, but walked past the Royal Alcazar (royal palace) on our way. Michaela, Sarah and I decided to hop in line to see the palace over the hospital. Due to hiccups in our travel plans, we had only half a day left in Sevilla, so we had time for just ONE tourist attraction. And c'mon, of course it had to be the palace. The palace over the hospital any day. Sevilla definitely deserves a visit of 2 or more days, but oh well,  it is what it is. Jonathan and Steph parted ways with the rest of us, while we got our tickets to see the Alcazar. Built in the 10th century for the governors of the Moorish state, it was extensively rebuilt in the 14th century under the rule of the Christian king Pedro I. The palace was elaborately decorated in the Mudejar style, which is a mix of Islamic and Christian elements, complete with colorful ceramic tiles, lush gardens, open courtyards and watery pools. We didn't regret picking this as our main sightseeing, only that we didn't have more time to stroll through the gardens on this beautiful day.

We rushed back to the hostel to collect our belongings before hopping into a taxi to head to the airport. Here, our troubles with transportation resumed. When changing our travel itinerary, all rebookings were done hastily, on websites that were fully in Spanish. Michaela and I had spent a lot of time and frustration cutting and pasting sections of the websites to Google Translate. Somewhere along the way, we had booked our flights out of Jerez, a different city one hour away, instead of Sevilla. And there was no way to change our flights as the next flight out of Jerez was two days later, and all flights out of Sevilla were booked solid. This meant we would miss at least a day or even two in Barcelona, which was to be our next destination. Us girls sat down in much defeat, typing furious on our various devices, trying to figure out the next best plan. In the end, we decided to reverse our itinerary, which was to catch a train to see Madrid first before going to Barcelona. Actually this worked out really well for me, as I eventually fly out of Barcelona anyway. But it meant changing train tickets, rebooking hostel reservations and coughing up more Euros. In any case, we were finally on our way again.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Spain - Sangrias in Sevilla

Michaela partied all night, so I woke up early this morning to visit Malaga's cathedral and tour the Carmen-Thyssen museum by myself. I got hopelessly lost trying to find my way back to the hostel but luckily I jumped into one of the museums to ask for directions, slightly embarrassed at my ineptitude with a regular old fashioned paper map.

Michaela and I met up again to leave for the Malaga airport to pick Sarah up. Even though her flight was delayed in Paris, we narrowly escaped missing our 4pm train to Sevilla, amidst high levels of stress and panic... However, it was a lovely 2hr train ride to the city of Sevilla, and in high spirits, we checked into the quaint and comfortable little hostel called the Triana Backpackers.

The Spanish have siestas between 2-5pm every afternoon. As a result, dinner time starts really late in the night. We strolled around the streets that night in search for a good place for dinner and chanced upon a pretty square surrounded by charming restaurants. We randomly picked out one for their sangria and Andalusian paella, and also had some really delicious starters - spinach, cod and oxtail croquettes and salmon salad with mango and pear.

We wanted to catch a flamenco performance but it was past midnight when we were done, so we strolled back towards our hostel. While crossing the bridge, we caught sight of a party cruise boat sailing down he river. We waited till they were under the bridge before we yelled Hola to all the guests on the boat, the sangrias definitely kicking in. The girls had some churros filled with Nutella for dessert, but I had to pass since I felt like Buddha with his big round belly. Sleeping horizontally proved to be a challenge for me that night.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Spain - ATMs and Malaga

My Bank of America credit card got ate up by a stupid ATM machine this morning. Michaela and I arrived, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at the Madrid train station, ecstatic to be embarking on our travels that will begin in Malaga. Michaela had reassured me she always got cash out of the ATMs, so before I arrived in Spain, I had only 100€ on me.

No problem, except when I inserted my credit card into the frikkin' machine this morning, the screen went blank and rebooted back to the homepage. As if denying my existence. As if me and my card never happened. And to add salt to the wound, Michaela had gotten cash out of the same ATM two seconds before me!

I took a deep breath and tried very hard not to panic. There was a service hotline to dial, which I did. But of course, the automated line was in full fledged Spanish. Luckily, there was an older Spanish gentleman in line. We got him on the phone and he started to explain my situation. From his expressions and body language, plus multiple outbursts of "Balle, balle!" ( which means OK) I thanked God profusely under my breath. This man was going to make everything all right!

He got off my phone and helpfully explained that I didn't have to worry about my card. The bank will retrieve and destroy my card in the next hour so nobody will have access to it. But, he counseled in all seriousness, that I would have to call my bank next to inform them of what happened. He proceeded to use the machine himself.

Great! I guess that was good news, but it didn't solve my cashless, cardless problem. And my train leaves in the next twenty minutes, so there's no sitting around waiting for the technician to come open up the machine. I dialed Bank of America and wrestled with the frikkin' automated menu for the next twenty minutes before getting a real person on the line. This was not how I had envisioned using the 100 minutes on my international roaming plan. And ALL the help they could offer me was to mail a new card to my US address in the next 5-7 days. Not helpful, Bank of America. I'm canceling my accounts with you when I get home.

Luckily, I still had my Discover credit card with me, although most Spanish merchants haven't really  recognized Discover as a major line of credit yet. But at least I could use the card at ATMs. Next time, I'll choose ATMs located next to their banks, so if this happened again, I could demand the bank open the machine and return my card immediately.

We arrived in Malaga and checked into the Oasis Backpackers' hostel to put up in an 8-bed all girls' dorm. The hostel has a nice spunky rooftop bar, where we had a couple of cerveza before meeting up with Anna, Michaela's cute little English friend, to tour the Alcazaba, a Moorish influenced castle built upon Roman foundations. The view from the top of the castle was amazing, probably one of the best places to get awesome panoramic views of Malaga.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Spain - Arriving in Madrid

I landed at the Barcelona airport one hour after the scheduled time. The flight was delayed and held up in queue before taking off. It was as if all my good fortune had run out. I was supposed to land at 7:15am, make my way to the Barcelona train station, which was 30 minutes away, to catch an 11am train to Madrid to meet up with Michaela. Even with the one hour delay you would think that gave me plenty of time to get to the train station right? Wrong.

I had one checked bag. I sailed past immigration and hurried to the belt to collect my backpack. Unfortunately, the Catalans have a different sense of time, in other words, no sense of urgency at all. Which was admirable, except I had a train to catch. My bag took what seemed like eternity to get to me, and by the time I hopped into a taxi, it was half past 9. And then with the early morning traffic, I barely made it to the train station on time. To me at least. I arrived at 15 minutes past 10, with plenty of time to spare. But I always like to be early just so I don't stress out. Everything went fine, I got to the Madrid station and stepped out into really chilly weather. I hadn't brought a thicker coat for want of space in my backpack, but also it was supposed to be warmer! I had packed sun dresses, skirts and tank tops! It was rainy and chilly outside. Refrains of "The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain" ran through my head.

The next hiccup came in the form of communication. Or the lack of. I couldn't get a hold of Michaela. I haven't figured out why my international roaming for data wasn't quite working and Michaela could only be reached via Whatsapp. So I couldn't call her. In our last communication, she said she'd find a place with free Wifi and text me where to meet. So I'm at the station, and still no texts from her. I didn't think to get her address so I couldn't even cab to her place and wait for her there. Some savvy traveller I was. I walked around the station and found the entrance to the Metro station. I thought, this would be the best place to wait since she was probably going to get here by the subway. So I hung around, crossed my fingers hoping for the best. To my relief, not too long after, I heard a shout from afar.


Michaela ran towards me and gave me a big hug, a little wet from the rain. After exiting the metro, she had gotten lost for 30 minutes trying to find her way to the train station. But she was here. We made our way to her apartment to drop off my belongings before heading out to dinner. We made our way to Plaza Mayor to have coffee and people watch, and strolled into the Mercado San Miguel to drool over the food extravaganza. The Mercado San Miguel is a food market that sold tapas, dessert, mojitos, sangrias. My favorite stall sold trays upon trays of olives. Olives wrapped in bacon, olives stuffed with ham, olives with sun dried tomatoes, olives with anchovies. You name it, they got it. The only reason we didn't get anything was because we were going to return to Madrid later in the trip with more friends and we thought we should all enjoy this experience together.

All seemed to end well for the day. We were supposed to meet her friend Sarah tomorrow in Malaga, and had booked the next few train tickets and hostel accommodations in advance. Unfortunately, Michaela got a text from Sarah who just found out she had booked the wrong tickets and was only going to arrive the day after. Which basically meant that all our schedules were thrown off by one day. We tried not to panic as we scrambled to make new plans for travel. We finally got our schedule figured out, went online to change our train tickets and to purchase new ones when our cards got declined. Every single one of them. Credit, debit, Visa, Master, Discover. My Bank of America card got put on hold because I had made three transactions in a row and was reported as "suspicious activity". Even though I had called before I left the U.S. to notify them of my travel plans. I mean, I appreciate the bank's diligence but really, this was not cool. Especially after I had responded to their email, text message and call to confirm that I had indeed made those transactions. They told me to try again in 10 minutes, but I was unable to use my card for the rest of the night. Undaunted, Michaela and I decide to try to purchase the tickets at the train station in Malaga as soon as we got there the next morning. We went to bed close to midnight because of all the shenanigans even though we had to be up early the next morning to catch a 7am train. Oh well, the trials and tribulations of traveling. C'est la vie!

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Hola España!

Sitting in the airport again. Today marks 4 months since Justin's death. I am leaving for Barcelona in about an hour. I have had just about the best experiences along the way today. My Mr. Uber driver was super friendly and we chatted the entire way to the airport. He had a pair of binoculars sitting on his dashboard and I just had to ask if he was an avid birder like me. It turns out that he is an insurance claims agent, and uses his binoculars to survey roof damage.

The check-in agent who helped me with my bag was a jolly old man, but he had me a little uncertain at the beginning. All I said was "Excuse me sir, but I need help with my bag." And he stared at me for a good 30 seconds without a word. Now 30 seconds may seem like a short time, but when you're expecting a reply that can be one helluva an awkward pause. But really, he was just messing with me. He broke the silence and chuckled, "You have the cutest little face! You remind me of my granddaughter." Then the security checkpoint line was the shortest I have ever been in. I was through in a record breaking under-ten-minutes. Talk about stress free travel. Another traveler behind me asked the TSA agent for a band aid. I thought, for all the good fortune I've had so far, I think I'm going to pass it on. I reached into my purse and fished out a band aid for him. Even so, I was rewarded yet again in the next hour with commission-free currency exchange. I had sought out the little currency exchange booth but the lady was just about to take a 30minute break. She said if I wasn't in a hurry, I could wait for her to return. I agreed since I had plenty of time to spare anyway. And as if she felt bad for making me wait, she told me when I returned she wouldn't charge me a fee for the transaction. Score! But wait for it. As the plane to Barcelona closed it doors to the gate, I realized I was going to be the only one sitting in a row of three seats. Goodnight folks, I'm ready to sprawl out for bedtime.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Singapore - Birding in the Southern Ridges

One more bird watching trip before I leave tomorrow. I had enthusiastically signed up for a bird watch walk with the Nature Society some weeks ago, and regretted the decision last night. The walk will start promptly at 7:30 in the morning, and I was still up at 1am the night before. I had received group emails from people backing out of the trip, and was very tempted to do the same. In the end, I decided that it was my last day in Singapore, possibly my last birdwatching trip for a good while, so I bit the bullet as I set my alarm for 5am the next morning.

Obviously this was going to be a group walk. I hadn't forgotten my lesson about birdwatching with company. But I hadn't expected a crowd this size as I got out of the cab at the group's meeting point. There must have been over twenty people, adults and children alike. I had forgotten this was the tail end of the March week-long school holidays. Families were out with a vengeance, trying to make the most out of the last couple of days of the break. My heart sank as I counted the number of children present. Could they possibly walk in the silence and reverence that was required on such a journey? There wasn't anything I could do but follow the two guides as the tour started. Luckily, they decided to split the group into two. I quickly jumped in to join the first group after gauging that there were less children than in the other.

For the first stop, the guide brought us to the Henderson Waves Bridge, built at the tree top canopy level. The morning sun blazed a bright red, but we were able to gaze directly at it because of the hazy atmosphere. Within minutes, we spotted a collared kingfisher perched high on the branches. We also saw the very common Yellow Vented Bulbul, which we would consistently see throughout the walk today. Several people came equipped with their fancy cameras with their even fancier bulky lenses. I half wished I had borrowed my dad's until I remembered that his lens weren't powerful enough for long distances. I watched enviously at the little boy standing next to me, big-ass camera slung around his neck, aiming his shutter at the beautiful pink necked green pigeons, trigger happy and clicking away. Do I really have to pick up another hobby for my latest hobby??

Next, we were led through the treetop canopy walk on the Southern Ridges. Adding to my life list was the Racket-Tailed Drongo, also a fairly common but splendid sight - dark glossy black, with two single long tail feathers, falling like a regal train down its back.

Halfway through the walk I gave up trying to keep up with my group. They forged ahead even as I fell behind, taking my time to seek out the birds that I heard but could not see. By this time, the lesson was firmly etched into my brain - birdwatching is a solitary activity. Period. No ifs or buts. It was when I fell behind that I saw the most. A couple other stragglers from my group were by no doubt, serious birders themselves. I hung around them in silence, as I decided with a sweeping glance they were more experienced and seasoned birders. My patience paid off as one of them spotted a dollarbird in a far off tree. Through my binoculars I could only make out its bright and thick orange bill. As I pulled out my newly purchased Singapore Birds Field Guide to confirm my sighting, another guy pointed out the four long-tailed parakeets perched at the very top of another tree. Man, was I glad I stuck around! These guys are good! In the following fifteen minutes, we walked into a clearing and proceeded to spot two common flamebacks, multiple pairs of common hill mynas, and even a lineated Barbet!

By now, the sun had come out in full force and most of us decided to call it a day. One of the guys had struck a conversation with me, and when I described my birding experiences in Singapore thus far he remarked, "Wow, you're quite an adventurous girl!" To which I had no reply. I had never pictured myself that way, certainly not in Singapore where it is very safe to travel around on your own, by and large. But I felt a little flattered and a lot more confident.

I can be alone, I may actually have the courage to be on my own.

Bird list: collared kingfisher, yellow-vented Bulbul, Pink necked Green pigeon, olive-backed sunbird, oriental Dollarbird, long-tailed Parakeets, Javan Mynas, Common Hill Mynas, Dark-necked Tailorbird (?), Lineated Barbet, Common Flameback, Greater Racket-tailed Drongo, Black-naped Oriole, Asian Glossy Starling

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Singapore - Birding at Botanic Gardens

Having had a partner around for so long, being alone takes some getting used to. Justin and I were inseparable, we had been together for 8 years. So excuse me if I feel weird eating at a restaurant all by myself, feeling self conscious, thinking that I possibly look very much like a loser to inquisitive onlookers. In the last couple of weeks, my single and alone status has grown on me. I can do things on my own again and not give two hoots about what people think.

I am stronger than I give myself credit for.

Today I ventured out to the Botanic Gardens to do more birdwatching. It is one activity you have to do alone, as I have come to realize. The night before I had hesitantly agreed to let my friend accompany me in the morning. He had just returned from a trip to Cuba and NYC, and was perhaps just a tad too eager to share his experiences. I was also too polite to stop him, even as my eyes darted from tree to tree, and my attention wavered whenever I heard a birdcall. I couldn't do my usual note taking as I was not able to watch the birds long enough to make clear observations. With company, I felt pressed to keep moving. My friend redeemed himself with his photography skills, taking great pictures of the birds we spotted. I also saw some new birds for my life list today, which made me feel like my day wasn't a total bust. Up on a palm tree, dozens of Asian glossy starlings gathered together, their bright crimson eyes watching the skies, their bluish black bodies glistening in the sunlight. On another tree, I caught sight of a gorgeous Blue-tailed Bee-eater, his body a riot of colors, fading from orange, to yellow, to green, to blue. How is Mother Nature such an incredibly talented artist? How have I never seen such birds all my life, growing up in this garden city that is Singapore?

Bird list: yellow-vented Bulbul, Spotted Dove, Blue-tailed Bee-eater, Pacific Swallow, Brahminy Kites, Lesser Whistling Ducks, Asian Glossy Starlings, White breasted Waterhen, Olive backed Sunbird, Rock Pigeons, House Sparrow, Eurasian Tree Sparrow, Ashy tailorbird (?), Black-naped Oriole

Monday, March 16, 2015

Singapore - the Jukuleles and Going OM

Tonight I went to Going OM, a hippy dippy little sit down bar in Haji Lane, to watch The Jukuleles perform. The band members, Tian and Wan, perform covers, mashups as well as originals on their ukuleles. I first heard Tian sing at one of our friends' karaoke sessions a couple of years ago, and remembered thinking "Damn, this girl sure can sing!" Definitely not your usual karaoke caliber.

The first set started slow and mellow with songs like Jason Mraz's "I'm Yours", Radiohead's Creep and Ed Sheeran's Thinking Out Loud. The second set proceeded to be a lot more upbeat with songs from Muse to Oasis to Bruno Mars. I came alive when they did a cover of Taylor Swift's Blank Space. By the end of the night they had people dancing and even singing at the top of their lungs to Cee Lo Green's uncensored version of Forget You. I've always associated ukuleles with tame, Jack Johnson-ish sorta vibes. Who knew the instrument could produce such powerful sounds! Now I want to learn how to play the ukulele too! According to Tian, it is much easier and more forgiving for a girl. The wide guitar necks were always a constant problem for me, forcing me to contort my wrist at weird angles, and made bar chords a terribly tiring affair. I could see why ukuleles might be a welcome change. And it is also travel-friendly. I may very soon trade my guitar for a uke. Any takers?

On this same night I met Barry from my Sisters Island camping trip, and found out he owns a store right next to Going OM. He sells fun things from crystals to incense, prayer flags to tie dyed shirts. I fancied an OM bracelet but it was too big. And I was already wearing a ton of bracelets given by various friends as farewell gifts. I asked Barry for an anklet instead and he pulled out a drawer full of beaded anklets. Instinctively, I picked out one with bells, as though I had been searching all my life for this particular one. I walked up and down the store, listening to the tiny tinkling sounds with each step I took. I bought it and put it on immediately. Later, I would be dancing to the Jukulele tunes with the bells for accompaniment.

Never again will I be lost. When all I want is to sink into the mire of the past, I will find myself by the sound of those bells, the bells shall bring me back to the present.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Singapore - Birding on the North Eastern Riverine Loop

It's true that Singapore doesn't have much variety in terms of natural landscapes. We have no mountains and valleys (just hills), no deserts, no changes in climate. But what little green spaces we have, we sure make a helluva good use of it. The National Parks Board have recently built a network of paved trails and walkways to link the major parks in Singapore to each other, so visitors can park hop from one place to another with great ease, mostly without having to encounter road traffic at all!

I live about ten minutes away from Punggol Park, which is part of the 26km North Eastern Riverine Loop, linking a total of four major parks. The website states it takes about 3-4 hours to walk the route, or a 2hr bike ride. Level of difficulty : Easy. So today, I packed up my Gryffindor backpack, armed myself with my binoculars and Justin's Chicago Bears cap, slapped on some sunscreen (being sensible finally) and trudged out the door. I'm off to do some serious birding today.

I rented a bicycle from the shop at the park. Nothing fancy, no mountain bikes (c'mon this was going to be a paved trail!). Just a simple bicycle equipped with a basket in the front, and an "I ❤️SG" tinkling bell on the side. The rental was $8 an hour. I'd be back in an hour an a half at most, smiling smugly to myself as I rode away.

Ahh.. Riding with the wind in my hair. I could ride on forever.

I made my first stop at the Sungei Serangoon Park Connector, and got my fair share of birds. I realized I could spot them a little more easily now, having had a little bit of practice the other day. I could also recognize some of the birds I had seen before, or read about. The yellow vented bulbul, the collared kingfisher, the black-naped oriole, the pied fantail.

I was glued to one particular grassy spot, watching a black-naped oriole feed on a bug it had between its beak. It didn't immediately swallow the fuzzy centipede-looking fellow, but proceeded to slap the bug on the branch it was perched on. Several times. As if it was trying to knock the poor creature senseless before devouring its crunchy snack. When it was done, I started to walk towards the paved trail when a movement amongst the grass startled me. I looked down, and about two feet away, a thin black snake slithered across my path. I was too stunned to do anything, and in retrospect I was glad I didn't make any sudden movements. Excitedly, I fished around for my camera, but when I finally got it out of my bag, the snake was gone. I made a mental note to stick to the trail from now on.

At some point on my ride, I silently wished that I would come across a raptor. Having volunteered at the Raptor Center in North Carolina, I grew very fond of these magnificent birds of prey. I had decided that the best way to make me voluntarily read up on these birds was to become a docent. It provided some external motivation, and a compelling one at that, to learn more about birds. Otherwise, I can be very lazy.

Ten minutes later, as I was approaching the Lor Halus Bridge, I saw two shadows in the sky. Too mighty to be anything but a stork, egret, or perhaps a raptor? My heart skipped a beat. I pedaled faster towards the bridge and parked my bicycle against some benches. Reaching for my binoculars, I tried to ID  the birds with my eyes. Gliding in the air, powerful wing beats, skimming the waters in search of food. For fish? Looking through my binoculars, a more powerful set of eyes - a white bald head, chestnut wings that glowed bright rufous red against the sunlight, black wing tips. Sea eagles? What kind? I scribbled frantically into my notebook. I later found out those were a pair of Brahminy Kites, only one of the most common raptors found in Singapore, snorted a birder in derision. Well, common for you maybe, it goes on my life list, thank you very much.

When I was done feasting my eyes on those kites, I turned my gaze towards the calm peaceful waters. A little head broke through the glassy surface. I blinked. What did I just see? I scanned the surface, this time with my binoculars and saw not one, but two otters. Excitedly, I looked around and saw a couple of people on the edge of the waters a little further ahead. I was so excited I wanted to call out to them to come look at the otters. Was I glad I didn't. I pushed my bike and walked in their direction, preparing to ride away when I saw what they were looking at. About five feet away, in the waters, was an otter feeding on a fish. Calmly and nonchalantly chewing away, as the onlookers excitedly took pictures and videos with their cameras and phones and other devices. This was wayyyy more interesting than my sighting of otter heads above water. Like the Brahminy kites, these otters are regular visitors. I felt like such a noob.

Multiple house swallows, white breasted waterhens and pipits later, I decided I was done for the day. Even though the trails were well paved, there were parts where I had to pedal upslope and across bridges. Okay. So the slopes were gentle, but unforgiving on my knees. I half wished I had rented those mountain bikes with better suspension and fancy gears. I was at the halfway point on the route, but I had already been out for two and a half hours. There was a convenient option of cutting through the loop via the Punggol Waterway. Nothing to see along this route, just plenty of construction and noise. Lots and lots of new residential buildings are going up. Good for the ever exploding population. 5.5 million and growing.

Bird list for today: Collared kingfisher; yellow vented bulbul; black-naped oriole; zebra dove; Sunda woodpecker; long tailed shrike; grey heron; house swallow; paddyfield pipit; white throated kingfisher; Brahminy kite; white breasted waterhen; common Iora; pied fantail; hawk cuckoo (not sure which kind); oriental magpie robin; common mynah; brown throated sunbird.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Singapore - Birding at the Lower Peirce Reservoir Park

Last night, I was looking through the National Parks website and decided I wanted to hike a trail in the morning. I picked a quick 45min easy trail that looped around the Lower Peirce Reservoir because the description said that I would be able to spot some native birds. I haven't really gone bird watching since I came back, so this would be a good opportunity as I had nothing on my agenda today. Zero. Amazing.

The weather in the morning was beautiful. Clear blue skies with not a cloud in sight. I took my time to have breakfast and Face Timed my in laws for an hour. When I decided to finally set off, the sky looked a little iffy. Newsflash! My weather app projected a 90% chance of rain. That didn't deter me. By my strange and stubborn logic, I thought I could perhaps outrun the clouds, get to the trail and finish hiking and birdwatching before the heavens opened.

I know what you're thinking. Uh-oh. This story does not have a good ending.

As the bus neared my destination, I could see dark ominous clouds lurking over the exact spot where I was going to hike. I muttered a silent prayer for the clouds to hold up, even just for an hour. I wasn't going to be greedy, just one hour please. The sun was still shining, even though I felt tiny droplets at random moments. I looked at my still-pretty-darn-new pair of walking shoes. Damn, they're about to get real muddy.

Still, i plodded on.

If there weren't enough warnings, a sign at the trailhead read : Do not enter in the event of stormy weather. Sailed right past it.

I was relieved to find that the trail was a boardwalk the entire way (I love you Singapore, and your no nonsense efficiency. I applaud you for your foresight). Muddy shoes, a thing of the past. The towering trees also covered much of the skies, so the rain suddenly became a distant memory. Very soon, I was straining all my senses in hopes of finding myself a new bird for the life list. Nada. I saw a monitor lizard, and a skink. And just a couple of other hikers. I could hear them little birdies chirping away, but identifying them by song is the least of my capabilities. I remembered reading on the website that the trail takes you to an open area to the quarry lake, where the birds are most likely found, so I doubled my pace to look for water.

There are many things an avid birder would avoid. One, dressing in bright colors, because let's face it, they don't call it the bird's eye view for naught. Two, making too much noise. The ultimate birder's nightmare was about to happen to me. I had reached the part of the trail that edges the quarry lake, and walked past an old man, who was doing some gentle stretches, minding his own business (as was I). To my horror, he started swinging his arms back and forth, clapping when his hands met. Now, I am all too familiar with this clapping shenanigan that the local older folks call "exercise". Here was one prime example, just doing it at the worst spot! In an effort to get away from all that ruckus, I quickened my pace so the birds won't flee from me into oblivion. Reaching a bend in the trail, I heaved a sigh of relief as I thought I had put some distance between us. I raised my binoculars to search for my little birdies when the sounds of  clapping traveled to my ears. Very faint at first, but approaching. Definitely advancing. Cursing under my breath, I picked up my pace and moved quickly along the trail.

It had to be a blessing in disguise. Because I wandered to the end of the trail and into the reservoir park proper. There was a little pavilion at the end of a cobbled path that led to nowhere. I decided to take a break from walking, and also seek shelter from the bigger drops of rain that were now falling. Right next to the shelter were two huge flowering trees. One was the beautiful flame-of-the-forest, but I had no idea what the other was called. It had pretty clumps of orange flowers that looked like the ixora, but I didn't think the ixora grew on trees. This was my big birding break. I could hear a symphony of chirping, I just couldn't see the birds. For now.

I spent the next two hours sitting on the bench, propping my elbows up on my knees. Birding can be a tiring affair, as I have come to remember. Holding the binoculars up for an extended period of time causes the arms to burn. Really bad. And then you start to tremble, which is not good at all for looking through the binoculars. You need really steady hands. And then there is the disconnect between spotting a movement with your eyes, then raising the binoculars and trying to look for that same spot. I was only getting the hang of it by the end of the two hours. And then comes the challenge of trying to catch a glimpse of unfamiliar birds. If only they would stay put long enough for me to note their features for identification later on! As if teasing, these birds flit in and out of the trees, behind leaves or in the glare of the sun so you don't really think you'd seen what you saw. But patience always pays off. If you follow a bird long enough, sooner or later you'll get a good look, and bam! Field notes taken, image committed to memory. New bird for life list. Mission accomplished!

My two hours of hard work yielded sightings of a purple-throated sunbird - a beautiful bird the size of a hummingbird with a iridescent turquoise crown and bright red belly, and of course, its shiny purple throat. I also saw a common flameback. - a magnificent woodpecker in flight, with yellow wings with a bright red crest on its head. A common tailorbird that drove me nuts for the first hour as I could only hear it's incessant chuk-chuk-chuk, but could never spot it. When I'd finally seen it, you could only imagine the amount of satisfaction and relief flowing through my veins. Adding to my list are four female pink necked green pigeons, a crimson sunbird, a yellow vented bulbul, a black naped oriole, two barn swallows and a thousand mynas. Oh and three macaques.

The rain never did fall. I must have been in the area with 10% chance of precipitation.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Singapore - Singapore Zoological Gardens

I returned to one of my favorite spots in Singapore - the Singapore Zoo. The last time I was here was in July of 2010, when Justin and I celebrated our union, riding into the celebrations atop an elephant. When I was in school I had volunteered at the zoo for a short stint and was assigned to the elephants. That was when I fell in love with these gentle giants. They became my favorite animals and my dream job is to someday be able to care for them.

Today I visited my old haunt with one of my best friends, Elisa and her 6 month old baby girl Noms. We decided to start the day off with the Jungle Breakfast with Wildlife, where you get to dine alongside the Orangutans and take photos with them. About seven or eight Orangutans joined us for breakfast this morning, munching on leaves and sunflower seeds. Despite my experiences with the monkeys on Sisters' Island, I love these creatures. Watching the mother orangutan carry two young ones on her back, feeding and caring for them, it's such a sight to behold.

We managed to watch several shows including my favorite Elephants at Work and Play, walk around the zoo to see all the animals and catching them at feeding times. I thought it strange that the zoo was much smaller than I remember it to be, but everything probably seemed bigger when you were a kid. Still, there was a lot of walking, although we didn't mind. It was a beautiful day and the zoo was like a mini rainforest, paved with walking trails. There was plenty of shade from the towering trees and the occasional gentle breeze provided some respite from the island's unrelenting humidity. And Noms has been such a trooper even though we stayed all day from half past 8 in the morning till 5 in the afternoon!

There are too many different enclosures to choose from to call my favorite, but I do love the Primate Kingdom - the monkey enclosures, and walking through the Fragile Forest - you walk through a covered enclosure without any barriers between you and the creatures of the simulated rainforest. I also fed the giraffe and the elephants (naturally), carried a ball python, and came nose to nose with a fruit bat. The mandrill and its rainbow bottom tickled us, the chimps' resourcefulness commanded our respect and the scuttling rhino iguana gave us the heebie jeebies. I never cease to be amazed by Mother Nature's creations and how they evolve and adapt to this world we call home. I just feel sad that these creatures at the zoo had to give up their freedom in order to educate us humans, the greater and yet, lesser creatures, in the lesson of living in simplicity, harmony and contentment.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Singapore - Sisters' Island

This was a weekend of firsts. I spontaneously agreed to go camping with a group of people I did not know, save one or two. Which required me to change my other weekend plans around. Not difficult, but the old me would've just denied the invitation because of previous set plans. It was also my first visit to the Sisters Island, about a 40 minute boat ride away, off the coast of Singapore.

When we got to the island, we had a meeting so that everyone was on the same page. Actually, I was the only new kid on the block, everyone else had camped out on this island at least once or twice before. So this meeting was mainly for my benefit.

Mostly to discuss our plan of action against the audacious monkeys that live on the island. Nothing we did could put the fear of God in them. They attack in waves, they had strategies, and most of all, they could predict our ever predictable human behavior. Even as we first walked in from the pier to our campsite, the monkeys were sizing us (and our bags) up, plotting and scheming in their monkey minds how to raid and loot our rations. I felt like it was a scene out of Planet of the Apes as I walked past them. The plan was to have at least one person watch the food at all times. Even so, within the first twenty minutes of our arrival, the monkeys sneaked up on us and managed to take off with our precious bag of marshmallows. When that happened, it was all out war. No more sympathies for our very remotely distant relatives.

Second thing to consider - we had to set up our shelters for the night. Some were going to sleep in tents and the rest of us in hammocks. I was pretty useless with knot tying, so I looked on while everyone else got busy setting up the accommodations for the night. I wish I could say this was also a first for me, setting up hammocks, but alas I had to rely on my seasoned camper friends. Because it was such a last minute decision, I had no appropriate camping gear. My friend Tian generously loaned me a hammock. Yes, sleeping under the unpredictable open skies - also a first. Luckily, the skies were clear that night, and there was also a cool sea breeze that kept us in comfort all night.

We also had to collect firewood for the campfire. Fortunately for us, the local authorities have plans to turn this beautiful island into yet another touristy marine park (whatever that means, though it can't be good). So they've been clearing a lot of trees (stupid, why can't they leave anything well alone) and left a decent supply of firewood at our disposal. Very soon, we had a magnificent fire going, that would also last throughout the night.

A couple of the girls decided to show me around the island, and so we took a quick tour of the circumference, which only took less than twenty minutes to complete. It was a really small island. And quiet, which I appreciated. There was no one else, save the monkeys, and a pair of brothers who were also staying the night. They had kayaked from a beach on the mainland to Sisters' Island to fish and snorkel. The brothers became an integral part of our team, fighting the monkeys, guarding all our belongings.

During our free time, when we're not busy with camp "duties" or rendered useless in a food coma, we played with the toys my friends brought. My friends are poi performers, poi being a style of performance which involves the swinging of tethered weights in rhythmical and geometrical patterns. My talented friends swung poi lit on fire, but I was pretty happy using their practice tennis balls and LED staffs. I certainly do not have a death wish. It was difficult trying to coordinate the more complicated moves like the two or three ball weaves, but after a while of practicing, I got the hang of it. The trick is not to think too hard, or break down the technicalities totally, but to move with the flow. There is, I think, a natural body instinct or rhythm. Well, or maybe I am just a natural. Lol. I'm totally getting a set for myself to while away my free time when I get to California.

The food was just another amazing part of the weekend. We had Toby and Sophia's couscous salad, chia seed pudding, some grilled veggies topped with different types of cheese (absolutely divine), Barry's signature bamboo chicken, Greta's hummus and baba ghanoush and home baked chocolate cake. I really couldn't say we were roughing it out. In the morning, we had omelettes and maggi goreng (local instant noodles) for breakfast. And Guy's brewed-from-scratch chai tea!! What?? These guys are camping pros I tell you. I was suitably impressed. No wonder the monkeys hung around as much as they did. They knew these were no ordinary campers.

It was amazing to sleep under the stars. We hung light sticks on trees for fear it would get too dark, but the half moon shone so brightly we could've done without. I watched the moon set as I tried to fall asleep, wondering why justin and I missed out on camping opportunities the whole time we were in North Carolina. He had gone once or twice with his dad and his friends; we talked about taking the dogs with us, but we never did.

I was the first to wake. I wanted to watch the sunrise, do some morning yoga and meditation. Just as I laid my mat on the ground, I heard some cackling, turned around and saw about four or five monkeys invading our food station. We had covered and tied up the food with a ground sheet the night before, but one of the monkeys managed to reach under and had grabbed a tray of eggs. He broke two before I chased him away with a stick. This woke a couple of the guys and so they stayed on guard while I resumed my morning routine.

We did some acroyoga (another first!), swam in the sea, ate and drank some more before packing up our stuff. It was 5:30 in the evening when the boat arrived to pick us up. I had spent the entire weekend with no access to electricity or internet connection and I didn't even miss it. I think I just might survive off the grid in my upcoming Cali trip.

So grateful for this weekend, for friends new and old, for new experiences and for living life.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

On Code Switching

After living abroad for almost ten years, my spoken English has gone from bad to atrocious. I used to take pride in my perfectly enunciated English (even supercalifragilisticexpialidocious couldn't trip me up). Now, I stumble over the most mundane words like car park. Do I roll the Rs or do I ignore them, as in cah pahk. Well, whatever, I'll just say parking lot.

I blame the American English. Why do they have to be so different from the British English? Now that I'm back home, I'm trying desperately to code switch back into Singlish (Singaporean English) , which has its roots in the British English, just because we used to be a part of the British colonies back in the days. I'm so self conscious when talking to my local friends for fear of accusations of jiak kantang which literally means "eat potato", a colloquial expression for being too Westernized. The potato, and sometimes the banana, refers to an Asian with a Westerner's mentality - yellow on the outside, white on the inside. Funny, but also not quite amusing.

I have been saying bathroom with an eh sound instead of an ah sound, and then realizing that everyone else here says "toilet". And then I give up. The other day I had a conversation with my ex employer, a very well spoken English lady, who suddenly made me super self conscious as I spoke. I had to, on several occasions, correct myself on using the term "children" instead of "kids", because everybody knows that kids are merely baby goats. Not that she minded, I just thought it was respectful. We are after all, speech and drama teachers.

This code switching exercise is like brain gymnastics, and it's giving me a massive headache. I think I shall work on my equally atrocious Mandarin instead.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Happy baby!

Met up with this little bundle of joy! 
That was all that I needed today!

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

One bad day...

I've been bickering a lot with my mom. Mostly, I've been an insufferable little twat, being so short with her. In all fairness, she has been unwittingly egging me on, asking never ending questions, demanding answers. It could be something as simple as, what would you like for dinner tonight? I know I sound ungrateful. But on some days, can somebody just take charge? I don't want to make any decisions, and she will not take no for an answer. And so we go back and forth.

Today was a bad day. I didn't do anything but sit around and moped. Tried to read, I couldn't manage more than 10 minutes in one sitting. I just couldn't concentrate. I ended up spending hours playing Words with Friends with the autobot, because my live friends have a life. I'm beginning to regret my decision of spending a month back home.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Singapore - Da Vinci: Shaping the Future

Let's give it up for the supposably travel savvy moi. I couldn't have picked a better time to break in those new kitten heels, especially when I had plans to be out all day. Just brilliant. Took the almost empty train to the ArtsScience Museum to see the exhibition, Da Vinci: Shaping the Future. Just as well there was nobody in my section, I don't think anyone wanted to see me adhere 4 plasters (you say Band-aids I say plasters) on each foot. Not a very pretty sight.

The exhibition was well curated. Each section was accompanied by a Da Vinci inspired installation by different artists. I learned a lot more about Leonardo in this exhibition than the one I saw in Italy. Maybe because I really took my time today, or maybe it also had interactive exhibits that engaged me more than the Italian one did. My favorite section was of course all about Leonardo's paintings -- you learn about his techniques such as chiaroscuro and sfumato; discover Leonardo's principles of symmetry by which he had composed a very balanced and aesthetically pleasing The Last Supper; watch a video that compared Leonardo's Last Supper to the restored version by his pupil Salai.

This exhibition also included original pages from Leonardo's largest notebook Codex Atlanticus which featured pioneering technological inventions and sketches. To say this man is a genius is probably the understatement of the century.

Although I would have loved to spend a couple more hours at the museum, my feet were killing me. I was close to tears at the thought of having to walk another minute in those evil red shoes. So I bit the bullet, flagged a cab and headed back home.

I have also forgotten how finicky Singapore's weather can be. When I left the house again, (this time wearing more sensible flip flops) it was bright and sunny. Then I took the train, emerged from the station, right into a tropical thunderstorm. According to my friend, it hasn't rained in days, but the heavens decided today's the day to turn my day from bad to worse. Of course, the umbrella was the last thing on my mind, even though it should be a staple in every Singaporean's bag. Maybe I was just supposed to stay home today.

But I visited Julia, met up with Shoba, and had a very pleasant end to the day, thank god. I just checked the weather app, and I think I'm just gonna stay in tomorrow.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Nostalgia and reminisces

I am so jet lagged I have been sleeping almost all day everyday. Haven't really had the chance to go exploring in this new city I used to call home. It's strange to see buildings in places where once there were just empty lands. The last time I was back it was perhaps about 3 years ago. So much has changed. But I do appreciate the lush greenery all over the country. It is so green everywhere- you drive down the road and trees flank you on both sides, and even the medians on the roads are dotted with shrubbery and plants. It's right hand drive here in Singapore, so I'm doubly disoriented. I'm not going to try driving anytime soon. The last time I did, I turned into oncoming traffic. Not a good idea.

Going through a couple boxes of my stuff today. Mostly books which I'll be donating to the library. I found my old journals, one was labeled "Shanghai Inspirations", containing mostly drawings and sketches. When I was a kid, I wanted to be a fashion designer. I loved sketching human figures and designing my own fashion line. But they're mostly whimsical, like what I think  fairies would wear. Not at all practical. I figured I wouldn't make much money selling those. Another was a travel journal I kept of my travels around China. Maybe one day when I run out of entries for this blog, I'll type them in here. It was interesting to read through them. I had cuttings of brochures and pictures and long hand written entries... Time before the iPad. Lots of good memories of Justin and I.

Also came across photos of my teaching days. I would take pictures of all my favorite kids in my classes and compiled them into albums. These were also days before Facebook or iPhotos... When pictures were developed into prints. Ah, the good old days.

I suspect next week will be a little more hectic. I'll try to be a tourist in my home country again, to seek out places to go and things to do. I really want to check out some exhibitions, visit the bird park, go swimming and hike some new trails, just to name a few... But right now, I'll catch up on my sleep yet again. Good night world.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

On life and death

I went to visit my uncle at the hospital today. He is brain dead and lies in bed, a vegetable. Alive, nevertheless. His family had the medics resuscitate him twice when his heart failed, not realizing that they were saving his body and not his mind. Perhaps death would have been a kinder option. I think it is against the law here to pull the plug on his life support. When we asked how long he will live, the doctor said he'll probably outlive us all. Is that living, though? He worked so hard all his life for his family, and it comes to naught. Was it worth it? Life is so short, every minute so precious. I have to do something meaningful with mine. I can't go back into the rat race and live just so I can pay my bills?! I looked into his unseeing eyes, trying hard to decipher if he's still in there, somewhere, trying to reach out to us. My mom stood next to me, crying in despair and sorrow. There has been so much sadness in her life.

A week ago I thought about this other question. Is it tougher to be divorced, or to live through the death of a spouse. I couldn't decide which would hurt more. Then I thought till my head hurt, and I decided I was an idiot to think that it mattered.

I hate to spend the first day of the New Year in such sorrow and pain. I'm heading out to the temple again to ask for deliverance, I have a lot of people to pray for.

And below, I share my favorite prayer:

Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light.
Where there is sadness, joy.

Oh divine Master, grant that I may not seek so much to be consoled as to console.
To be understood, as to understand
To be loved, as to love
For it is in giving that we receive
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned
It is in dying that we are born into Eternal Life.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Singapore: Chinese New Year eve

I time travelled to the future and arrived in Singapore two days after I left. It's Chinese New Year eve today. I hurriedly met up with my friend Jiani before she leaves tomorrow, and also met Nikolai for the very first time! What a lil cheeky monkey! He was slow to warm up to me, but eventually did, because how could he refuse a walk to the fountain to count the stone lions, or watch the skies for birds with Auntie Chewy? I still have some tricks up my sleeve. I sometimes wished Justin and I had a kid, I wondered how he/she would've looked like. We were going to name our son Ernest Dexter Russell (Dexter had been a long standing family name) and if it was a girl she'd have a Chinese name Min Rui, which means sharp, as in sharp as a tack.

I am so jet lagged I slept through my family's reunion dinner. And I was so looking forward to the spread! I woke up three hours too late, and now there are only crummy leftovers in the fridge. Well then, it's time to catch up on my sleep again. Happy Chinese New Year fellas!

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Universal Studios Orlando: Knockturn Alley and the Mardi Gras parade

Our last day in Universal Studios!! We did some last minute shopping at the Weasley's' Wizarding Wheezes, getting candy like the Nosebleed Nougats or the Every-Flavor Beans. Jess and I each got ourselves a shirt - mine says "Butterbeer". I really couldn't justify the price of the Time Turner necklace so I settled for the Time Turner key chain instead. In the words of Priscilla, I spent my money buying nonsense but I loved it! I also got myself a Gryffindor backpack and a luggage tag. Uh, can you say dork?! But I totally needed all these things!!!

To deviate from the Wizarding Worlds for awhile, of course there are plenty of other areas in the theme parks. In case you need a recommendation for rides, my top favorites are Rip Ride Rock-it (a roller-coaster that lets you pick your own music to ride to); the Hulk (where the exhilaration begins right from the start); the Dragon roller coasters in Hogsmeade are awesome if you get first row seats; the Quidditch game was the best of all simulator rides, even though my heart skipped a beat when I first rode on it. Daniel Radcliffe looked just like Justin when he had those round glasses.

The Simpson's ride was hilarious (even though Jess and I were the only ones laughing...Guys? Do you not have any Simpson's humor??) but we skipped all the water rides just because it was much too cold to be standing in lines soaked. We also watched Fear Factor Live, Sinbad's Voyage and Shrek's 4D movie. And you will definitely need to ride the Hogwart's Express in both directions. Walking through the lines in the Wizarding Worlds is definitely another experience. Even though you'll need to deposit your bags in lockers, keep your phones with you so you can snap pictures as you walk through Hogwart's or Gringott's. I have been totally impressed by the attention to the tiniest bits of details that makes the Harry Potter experience complete.

Tonight was also the Mardi Gras parade. We planted our butts and weary feet on the sidewalk as we waited for the parade to begin. I've never been to New Orleans or attended any Mardi Gras parades, so I didn't know what to expect. I loved it!! The beautifully lit floats went by, one after another, carrying people who threw beaded necklaces at the crowds. The boy next to me hurtled in front of me every time beads flew in my direction. There are plenty of beads to go around, son! He stopped intercepting my loot when he realized I wasn't competing with him, especially after I kept giving him my beads. I think he was a little embarrassed. He even tried giving me a broken necklace once, as sort of a peace offering.

After the parade we hurried back to Diagon Alley because we realized that we had missed Knockturn Alley completely, had I not examined our maps closer that evening. Diagon Alley definitely has a more sinister feel than Hogsmeade, and Knockturn Alley even more so. Practicing spells in the dark also gave it a more magical feel. Although satisfied with our Wizarding Worlds experience, we reluctantly left Universal Studios to prepare ourselves to return to Muggle world. Ah the sobering effect of reality. If only I could live where broomsticks fly and dragons breathe fire.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Universal Studios Orlando : the Wizarding Worlds of Harry Potter - Diagon Alley

Second day in Universal Studios and this morning we head on down to Diagon Alley for our free breakfast in the Leaky Cauldron. I had the best pancakes breakfast with a side of hot Butterbeer. Yesterday, Jess and I tried both the frozen Butterbeer (slushy version), and the cold Butterbeer (carbonated version). They both tasted absolutely perfect, but a lot of people had voted the hot Butterbeer as the best. I couldn't for the life of me imagine how a hot version could ever be better than the cold ones, especially when the word 'beer' was involved. However, Butterbeer is not really beer, but a yummy caramelized non alcoholic drink. Nevertheless, I remained skeptical. The temperature this morning was in the 40s. When I took my first sip of the said drink, all my suspicions were dispelled. Hot Butterbeer, topped with foamy caramelized whipped cream, runs down your throat smooth as silk, especially when the temperature of the drink is just right. Consumed in the early morning chill, even better. Hot Butterbeer for me is like what Starbucks is to Muggles - I could be addicted to that sh**.

I got ahead of myself, talking about food and all. The grandeur of Diagon Alley begins when you first step in and behold the magnificence of the fire-breathing dragon who sits atop the Gringotts Bank. There is really no where else to look. Your eyes travel the long cobbled pathway that leads your gaze to the Gringotts Bank at the end of the street. Your gaze continues to trail up the building before you squint against the glare of the sun (or perhaps from the dragon's fiery display). It breathes fire upon the hour, and tons of people gather around to take pictures and videos of this great moment. In the Gringotts building, you can ride the simulator down to the vaults of the bank.

Jess and I chose our interactive wands today and began practicing our spells in earnest. Her favorite character was Professor McGonagall, but they were out of her wands. She eventually picked out Sirius Black's. I love Luna Lovegood, but her wand didn't really do anything for me. In the end, I picked one that was made from Ash wood, even though I was torn between others. Although my birthdate dictates I should have picked out the Hazel wand, the description of the Ash wand really called out to me. The description says that Hazel wood is associated with wisdom, protection and magical skills. Hazel people are often wise beyond their years. They make inspiring teachers, combining creative talent and practical knowledge. That's totally me, isn't it?! However, I didn't care for how the Hazel wand looks, so I picked the Ash - wands made from Ash are especially productive as Ash trees are known to attract energy. Ash people are kind and generous with a gift for seeing what is beautiful in the world and in others. I'd really like to attract some positivity and I liked the wand, so Ash it was.

A map accompanying each wand shows the different locations where you can cast your spell. You look for a medallion cast into the ground that not only gives you the spell, but illustrates the way to wave your wand. When Jess and I first started out, we weren't sure what the medallions looked like. We saw an unassuming golden round disc on the ground and excitedly jumped on it, waving our wands around waiting for something to happen. A witch politely pointed out that we were really standing on a sewage system marker, and guided us to the right medallion. Flushed red with embarrassment, and feeling like total Muggles, we immediately saw that the proper medallion had carvings and words and arrows on it. Our excitement quickly overrode any feelings of shame as we resumed our incantations. Ascendio and descendo made things rise and fall; incendio made a bird burst into flames; aguamenti and the water fountain spouted water. Jess was practicing this particular spell when she accidentally splashed water onto a bystander. I was corrected on many occasions by Jess that it was "Wingardium Levioooosa" and not "Wingardium Leviosaaaa". Swish and flick, swish and flick. Whatever, Hermione.

Tonight, we got tickets to watch the Blue Man Group, courtesy of our friend Mark, who had the proper connections. I loved every minute of it, and it made me wistful for my theatre days in school. Mime, music and visuals were the key elements in the performance, but the power of these elements cannot be underestimated - no spoken words were necessary. There was also heavy use of technology which in turn was used to make a social commentary on how we are all so dependent on it. It was funny and clever, and you get a sense that these guys must have a lot of fun brainstorming, writing, rehearsing and performing.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Universal Studio Orlando: the Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Hogsmeade

On my flight to Florida, the plane flew into the sunrise. I watched the colors of the sky change from a deep burnt orange, to the color of gold. I met Jess at the Orlando airport before checking into our hotel at Universal Studios. The hotel is fairly new, with cute 50s decor. We brought our bathing suits but no way we were going to need it today. The temperature was a high of 64, with lows in the 40s. I had just come from LA and Hawaii, this was not what I was expecting. Come on Florida, I didn't sign up for this!

Wasting no time, we dropped off our suitcases and headed straight for Islands of Adventure, home to one of the two Wizarding Worlds of Harry Potter. Islands of Adventure was the smaller of the two theme parks, so we decided to tackle that today.

Hogsmeade was everything a Harry Potter fan could ask for, and more. We were greeted by the Hogsmeade Station at the entrance with lines snaking around the corner. The Hogwart's Express transports visitors between the two theme parks, so we didn't ride on it until we needed to get to the other side. I don't think I could adequately describe the authenticity of Hogsmeade. From the music in the air, to the snow covered roofs and the cobbled streets, the attention to details was impeccable! It felt like we were in the movie, heck, I felt like JK Rowling's books came to life! All the people who worked there were in character ALL the time, referring to regular tourists as "Muggles" using our "Muggle Plastic" credit cards. For those not in the know, Jess is possibly the world's no. 1 Harry Potter fan, and I couldn't have picked a better travel partner. Every time we saw something, Ike the Triwizard Cup or the Pensieve, I would gasp in faint recognition, but Jess could tell me exactly what we were looking at, which book and which part of the book it was from, and possibly quote a line or two (or a whole paragraph). Every time she second guessed herself, she would turn to me quizzically. I returned her look with an equally confused and incredulous stare that read, "Me?! Are you seriously asking ME???" Think Hermione versus Ron. I felt bad I didn't have more enthusiasm to offer ( and I was already darned excited!) like I was letting her down with my incompetence. I knew I should have studied before this trip!

Jess and I gave most of the other rides in a park an obligatory try, but eventually returned to Hogsmeade for more Butterbeer, to walk through the stores for the nth time, and just to soak up the whole atmosphere. It was great to see children and adults alike, dressed from head to toe in Hogwart's robes, carrying their wands and practicing spells in earnest. This is for real!

We walked into Ollivander's Wand Shop for the thousandth time, unable to decide on which wand to pick, even though technically the wand chooses the wizard. If you were there you would understand our dilemma. You could pick a replica of favorite character's wand, you could also pick a wand from a selection of different types of wand wood. The wood type you pick is determined by your birthdate according to the Celtic calendar. And then there were regular wands and interactive wands. With the interactive wands, you are given a map that shows you where you can practice your spells. There are areas in the town where you can make things happen with a wave of your interactive wand. Now tell me, how on earth do you decide? This is no trifle affair, guys! We decided to sleep on it tonight and pick one out tomorrow. After all, tomorrow we will be heading to Diagon Alley.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Los Angeles - Hacienda Heights

Taking it easy today after having one too many drinks at King's Head the night before. I decided to drive out to Hacienda Heights to visit one of North America's largest Buddhist temple, the Hsi Lai Monastery. The Buddhist temple consisted of 2 halls - the main hall housed 3 Buddhas -- Amitabha Buddha, Sakyamuni Buddha and the Medicine Buddha. I walked into the hall without any knowledge of the significance of each Buddha and promptly planted myself in front of the Medicine Buddha to offer my prayers and to meditate. Imagine my surprise finding out afterwards that I had subconsciously picked the Buddha that heals all physical and emotional wounds. A coincidence? I think not.

Sara and I took her dogs out to the park at Hollywood Lake, where the famous Hollywood sign was prominent enough for me to take some cheesy touristy shots. That was the extent of my Hollywood experience, and it was enough. We then went for a much needed massage, only to find out those guys are from China! They are everywhere!!! When I got a massage in NYC, we had Chinese masseuses too! I didn't realize how much I miss the Chinese massage until my massage lady sought out and rubbed fervently at my sore spots. She knew exactly where to find them. Amazing. Can I pack her into my suitcase please?

I had intended to try the much talked about In-n-Out Burger but after that massage, greasy burgers were out of the question. Sushi, however, sounded absolutely divine. Sara brought me to Yen Sushi on Ventura Boulevard which was uh-may-zing. The sashimi was so fresh that every bite was an orgasmic explosion of flavor. Why would anyone choose burgers when they can have this?! They also served edamame drenched in garlic and spicy peppers. Enough said.

I leave tonight, so there wasn't anything to do after but my laundry and pack. I'm glad I had my own unique experience of the city instead of trying to do the usual touristy stuff. Having friends in different cities show me around has been the best decision ever. This has been a such a well paced vacation, I hate for it to come to an end!

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Los Angeles - the Getty Museum and the Griffith Park Observatory

We started the day off with another first -- a Pilates class for me. Pilates is very much like yoga...Not. The only similarity lies in using your core. But how do you sit on you that bench-press-looking-machine and pull at the handles with your stomach muscles, when all I want to do is use my arms and brute force?? a very strange activity, but I made it to the end of the hour. Somehow I think I'll have sore arms instead of a six pack tomorrow.

Sara had to work today so I was once again left on my own to explore the city. Only this time, she let me use her car as it was impossible to walk to anywhere. I decided it was a good day to visit the Getty Center, a museum that holds a collection of ancient European art pieces to those of the early 20th century. I love art from the Renaissance period. When I was in Italy, I was like a kid in a candy store. The gilded mosaic tiled churches, the sculptures, the famous works of Michaelangelo, Raphael, Bernini, all brought tears to my eyes. Not really, but close enough. I remember admiring the Sistine Chapel, reflecting on how anyone would be a Christian convert just by looking at those awe inspiring murals! Have you seen those images of hell? They scared the bejeezus outta me!

The Getty Center consists of four main wings and plenty of outdoor grounds to roam around. The weather was perfect this morning for visitors to lounge outside for a picnic or to enjoy a panoramic view of the city. Renaissance pieces aside, I spent the most time in the gallery of the Impressionists -- Renoir, Monet, Cezanne. What an exciting time it must have been, to be a part of a new movement, deviating from the traditional to a more experimental technique.

When I was done with the Getty, I headed back to pick Sara up from work. Driving in LA was yet another first for me. I was not used to driving in anything other than my Toyota Avalon, and her new age hybrid Prius doesn't even have a key?! It has this strange key fob thingy and it takes only $20 fill up her tank? What crazy awesome gas mileage is that?! Even so, once I got used to it, driving in LA was no different from driving back home. The crazies will always be crazies, they drive the same no matter which state you're in. I had just a little less road rage because I'm on vacation.

We met up with Sara's friends for dinner before heading to the Observatory in Griffith Park. Tonight, the Observatory had telescopes out for public viewing. We saw Jupiter and its four moons, the Orion Belt and the Trapezium, a constellation made up of four of the universe's newest stars (only about 100,000 years old!) Justin got a telescope the first Christmas we moved back to NC. It stood about as tall as I did, each lens costing twice as much as our monthly grocery bill, if not more... He would take it outside to look at the stars, sometimes even in the dead of winter, as we stood frozen to the spot, fascinated with the worlds and universes beyond his grasp.

The night view of the city of LA was just as amazing as the view in the day. The streetlights pulsed, literally like the city was alive. If I was still in Hawaii, I could have easily mistaken it for lava flow. I didn't want the night to end because the stars brought me just a little closer to my Justin.

Los Angeles : Topanga Canyon, Malibu, Santa Monica, Venice

Five years and two dogs later, Sara, my host for the LA trip, still looks amazing as ever. We spent a good part of the morning catching up over breakfast, in a tiny little cafe called Pat's Topanga Grill, sharing adventures, lamenting love lost, celebrating new journeys.

Topanga Canyon is home to quaint little stores, restaurants and cafes. We stopped by a store called the Spiral Staircase because it's sign read: "New Age Shop" and also "Unusual Things". That caught my attention. How can you resist walking into a store full of unusual things?? We didn't get anything, but the shop assistant recommended a few religious sites we could visit. Now, I am not one for visiting Hollywood, nor am I enticed by the city of ritz, glitz and glamour. But Hindu temples and Buddhist shrines, hell yeah! Bring it on! So we wove our way around the mountains and valleys. The view was incredible. In the far distance, you could catch a glimpse of Malibu beach, where the sky and the ocean melted into one. Where does the sea end and the sky begin??

Our visit to the Malibu Hindu Temple was impeded by the fact that it was closed between the hours of 12 and 5. We decided to drive to Santa Monica and Venice instead.

Santa Monica pier was pretty much as expected - a tourist trap with plenty of souvenirs for sale and seagulls to dodge. There was a little old lady named Psychic Jude who had her hands full, reading fortunes one after another, saying things like "you may or may not remember..." Venice was a lot more exciting with different characters to see -- buskers, artists, vendors selling their craft. I was out on a mission to find myself a dreamcatcher. I've wanted one for the longest time, and one soon caught my eye. It had a huge Rose Quartz in the middle, and many tiny quartz pieces around the edges. Rose Quartz is a crystal of unconditional love, and carries energy of compassion, love and peace, tenderness and healing, nourishment and comfort. I think that was what called out to me, although I really didn't need to buy one more thing. Strolling up and down the beach, we finally found a nice little bar to enjoy the setting sun, have a nice cold beer while we listened to the tunes of the busker Mr. Biff.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Oahu: North Shore

Last day in Hawaii. Headed out to the North Shore for breakfast at the famous Kono's Beach Cafe, where you'll get a discount if you are kama'aina, or a local or long term resident of Hawaii. Molly and James are trying to get their Hawaiian licenses for kama'aina perks. Me, I could probably pass off as one, given that my skin has been tanned golden to a crisp in the last six days. Not to mention I'm Asian.

We spent the rest of the morning sitting on the North Shore beach, mouth wide open in awe of the majesty of the waves as they crash into shore. Here on the North Shore are some of the biggest waves I've seen on the island. Perfect for experienced swimmers and seasoned surfers. I was quite happy watching people get tossed around, thankful that that wasn't me.

Today is exactly two months since Justin's passing. It seemed like it happened so so long ago but has it really only been two months? They say time flies when you're having fun, which was how this past week had been. Time is only relative. I remember vividly everything that happened two months ago. From the time of David's call, to my excruciating drive home from Charleston. From waiting to hear from the police to the never ending line at his wake. Time had stretched out to infinity then.

I'm still waiting to hear from the medical examiner. Why does it take so long? Do they always make families wait like this, in the dark abyss of the unknown? In agony? Can somebody explain the process to me to justify this wait? 60 to 90 days is a damn long time to put a grieving family through hell. Is this me in the second stage of grief then? Is this anger? Am I then past denial, and do the stages work in a linear way?

Let's try to turn this entry around again. As I sit here in my seat on the plane, let me perhaps quietly list in my head all the things I'm grateful for.

And guess what, nobody is sitting next to me on this flight either.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Oahu: Manoa Falls

So this morning I found out that the Hawaiian alphabet has only thirteen letters, five vowels and eight consonants. Which explains the number of recurring vowels. In fact, the Hawaiian name for the state fish is twenty one letters long. Are you ready for this? The state fish, the triggerfish is also known as the humuhumunukunukuapuaa. Now say it fast, three times.

And while we're on the topic of state symbols, the Hawaiian state flower is the hibiscus, and the state bird is the nene (Hawaiian goose) pronounced nay-nay. I thought i would get a glimpse of it today as we embarked on a morning hike, but it is not as common as you'd think a state bird oughta be.

Crazy trees in Manoa

We journeyed inland to Manoa to see the waterfalls. Here lies the lush green rain forests of Oahu, where it rains almost every day. I managed to catch sight of two more new birds for my life list -- the Red-billed Leiothrix and the Saffron Finch. Pretty stoked about my lucky birding experience! The falls, however, was a different story. It hadn't rained that morning so the waterfall was unimpressive to say the least. James showed me a picture of the waterfall when he was here another time. Now that was a waterfall. This was a mere trickle.

With mixed feelings about the birds versus the falls, we headed out to the west coast to White Sands Beach Park, where people go to surf. I am done with trying new things for awhile, so I gave surfing a miss. Instead, I spent my time combing the sands for pretty shards of seashells, daydreaming about the jewelry I could create with them. My prized find was a tiny heart-shaped shell of the prettiest shade of maroon, though I wouldn't be surprised if the shells crumbled to pieces before I could do anything with them. I had to cram all my belongings into one carry-on. How did I manage to fit everything in the same suitcase before??

That's it. Tonight is my last night in Hawaii. Tomorrow, I visit North Shore, and then I would have covered all four corners of the island.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Oahu: Ala Moana Beach Park and Chinatown

So how was it 63degF (17 deg C) this morning? I woke up nestled under three blankets. And I walked to the coffee place in long pants and a sweater on. Am I glad I packed a sweater in place of hiking shoes! No, not really. Still amazed at my imbecile life decisions, but grateful for the brief lightbulb moment when the sweater went into the suitcase.

Also received my first valentine from the people that stole my heart - the Zamora kids. Sebastian, Stella, Christian and baby Alexander sent me a card with their names handwritten. I'm so proud to have been able to watch them grow. I love the family,  the kids were always so easy to look after, and so much fun. I still cannot believe they paid me to play with their kids!

Not that I'm expecting any more valentines. Justin and I were the least of gift givers. Special occasions were celebrated with food, and extra special occasions were celebrated with home-cooked food. He will always be the world's best Master Chef in my heart, even though he sucked at remembering important dates. I believe he never got our wedding anniversary date right, ever. But that was what made him him, if you know what I mean.

Another first for this trip - I signed up for a stand up paddle board yoga class. I don't know what's up with the weather this week, but it was super windy on Waikiki. I started out for the Ala Moana Beach Park for the class hoping for calm seas, only to be dismayed by the choppy waters. Well, at least I wasn't going snorkeling today, right? Apparently the instructor had to cancel several classes this week because of the Wind. Luckily she didn't do it today. It was, however, a great challenge to my balance. First of all, we couldn't paddle out to sea, so we stayed in the shallow waters. Secondly we were given anchors(?!) to keep us from drifting away. Lastly, we had to modify every pose because standing up on the board just wasn't happening. Nevertheless, I had a great time. Heck, maybe I should teach SUP yoga too!

I was determined not to be a bother to my hosts, so I insisted on walking home, taking the scenic route on the famous shopping stretch that is Kalakaua Avenue. Have you noticed how fun Hawaiian names are? There are always more vowels than consonants and it's a challenge to say them right! The GPS says them all funny, according to Molly, who apparently is our local expert. :)

Molly took us to Chinatown for dinner and the First Friday event. You know you have arrived in Chinatown when all the road signs start to include Chinese characters. Every first Friday of the month, Honolulu turns into a huge block party for artists, performers, galleries and stores. Or simply put, just another excuse for people to jumpstart their weekend getting really wasted. The Chinese lion dancers were also out in full force tonight, visiting stores, setting off firecrackers, drumming up good fortune for the new year.

We had dinner at J.J Dolan's on Nuuanu Ave (try saying that one!), which has famous kickass pizza. We had ourselves a spinach and garlic pizza that had a creamy quiche like topping but was certainly not too garlicky; although you wouldn't want to talk to any one after. Wash it down with a cold glass of beer, aahhh pure heaven.

Oh and did I mention I caved and bought myself a pair of walking shoes?
Now I'm really ready to take on the world.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Oahu: Waikiki

The week is just flying by. I had a late start to the day and because my gracious hosts both had to work I was pretty much left to my own devices. This has been a trip of firsts, so I decided this morning I was gonna get myself a nice cuppa with almond milk. Yeuuccchh. Never mind the health benefits. Oh and then right before I left the house for coffee, I discovered some neighbor locked me in. The main gate was padlocked, so I parkour-ed over the low wall. Also a first.

I hadn't planned anything for the day so I was going to hit the beach on Waikiki and get some obligatory souvenir shopping out of the way. No but seriously, I enjoyed every minute of the retail therapy; the beach on Waikiki, not so much. This has got to be the week of high winds. Every time I sat down I got sand blasted. There was sand in my hair, in my bag, up my nose. I know, first world problems right? I will stop complaining. On the upside, that makes for some good exfoliation. 

Dinner with Molly was good ol' Chinese/Cantonese comfort food. We relived some Shanghai moments as we munched on our char siu and qie zi bao. Good times. 

On a side note, I read an article about some locals trying to make SPAM from scratch. I know they're trying to be health conscious and all but isn't it a little antithetical to the concept of SPAM? I say live and let loose a little already.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Oahu: Hanauma Bay

Today's weather is more in line with my idea of Hawaii, although Molly pointed out that there is a part of Oahu that rains every morning without fail. Unthinkable! We went to Kaimuki for breakfast at Koko Head Cafe. Molly tried to teach me how to say Kaimuki without sounding like a tourist. Kai-mu-KEE, with emphasis on the second K. I couldn't hear the difference for the longest time.

I had udon for breakfast! Whaddya think about that?! Molly ordered one of their signature dishes Cornflakes French toast - toast fried in cereal, topped with bacon and ice cream. She said when the ice cream melted it tasted just like cereal in milk. I thought that was too much sweetness to break my fast. I prefer savory Japanese noodles with creepy bonito flakes.

 We headed towards Hanauma Bay to snorkel. I was a little apprehensive, given my last failed attempt in the waters of Cancun, Mexico. Justin had taken to the ocean like fish in water, I was like a fish out of water, desperately flopping around. I had had a major panic attack, turned around and headed back to the boat. The waters were too choppy, my mask kept slipping off... Getting me to snorkel this time would not be an easy feat, but I was determined to give it a second try.

 All visitors to Hanauma had to watch a compulsory 9 minute educational video. I thought that was pretty neat. You can't prevent one million visitors a year from stepping on sea life, but you can most certainly try to educate them and hope for the best. The walk down to the beach was spectacular in itself. The coastline was dotted with tourists, the ocean different shades of turquoise, azure blue. You could see the dark patches of reef against the white sandy seabed. It's so beautiful I almost feel confident about snorkeling again.

 We parked ourselves right by the lifeguard tower, for intangible security reasons. Molly and I stepped gingerly into the cold waters before affixing our masks and flippers. I had trouble getting my mask on comfortably much to the Molly's chagrin. She was, however, very patient as she waited for me to fuss over my hair, mask and flippers. I second guessed my ability to swim with flippers and decided against them. Once again, Molly patiently waited as I removed my flippers, trudged back to shore and return to the waters. We finally paddled away when I stopped almost immediately. I was breathing too hard, my lungs hurt, and why were the waters so cloudy?! I tried again, and again. Started and stopped. After my tenth try, I convinced Molly to go ahead without me. I was gasping for breath, I felt embarrassed about my panic attack, I just couldn't do it! It was Cancun all over again.

I watched Molly paddle away from the safety of my beach towel. She returned to tell me about the huge purple fishes, striped fishes, schools of fishes. I decided I would stick to watching documentaries. Twenty minutes later, I got up, put on my snorkel gear and decided to practice close to the shore. I will snorkel or at least die trying, dammit! With every swim, I ventured a little further away from shore. My breathing eased as I got used to breathing through my mouth, but whenever water got into my mask, or when the waves slapped me around too hard, I panicked and reached for the ground with my feet. I gave up, and decided this was all the snorkeling I was doing today.

 Finally Molly had a brainwave, we could try snorkeling on the other end of the bay where the reefs were much closer to the shore. Read: I didn't have to swim too far out! I don't know why we hadn't thought about it earlier, but this was when I got to see the purple fishes, yellow stripes fishes, schools of shiny fishes and even a weird sand-camouflaged creature. I was about to put my feet on the sand when something moved. I freaked out a little but remained calm enough to watch the flat sandy looking creature scuttle away.

 I was triumphant. I conquered my fear and did one more thing I never thought I would have been able to do. Justin would have been so proud of me. We were famished after ALL that snorkeling so we stopped by the 7-11 to try spam musubi, which was basically a giant sushi with a slab of spam on the top. It was probably delicious only because I was hungry, practically inhaled it. For dinner we went to Home Bar and Grill, which was a local sports bar. It was probably the brightest sports bar I've ever been to, and they had the Seahawks flag on the ceiling. Just was glad they didn't put up a sign that said "back to back Super Bowl champions". I saw a picture of a guy on Instagram with that tattooed on his arm. Unfortunate decision, poor man. This place has amazing tuna poke "Negri Toro", Parmesan truffle fries, seared Ahi Tuna and wings. Yes, that was what we had for dinner. I must have gained ten pounds since I landed on Hawaii.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Oahu: Makapu'u Lighthouse Trail

Rainy morning. I dutifully spent the morning on a crash course of Hawaiian birds while James and I waited for Molly to be done with half a day of work before we head out to the Makapu'u Lighthouse Trail.

We drove to Makapu'u in torrential rain, hearts sinking with every minute of the horrible weather. I checked my weather app constantly for changes in weather. It said "Light rain", which made me question what their "heavy rain" might be. This rain looked like a pretty severe thunderstorm to me. We made several pit stops along the way to take in the sights along the coast, albeit a little cloudy. But no sooner than the downpour started, it stopped. By the time we hit the trails, the sun was out in full force. Of course, no one had the foresight to bring sunscreen. What? Sunscreen on a rainy day? Pfffttt. Very soon we had the sun beating down our backs. No whale action today, but lots of birds for my life list. Japanese white-eye, zebra doves, red-vented bulbuls, red crested cardinals.

 Molly pointed out the tide pools down below, which we couldn't get to because we all wore our Locals. Why on earth did I not bring my hiking shoes?! We found the lighthouse, which was inaccessible to the public, and looked out at the amazing view. Blue upon blue. As the sun continued to beat down on us, I actually got a little burnt on my shoulders, plus acquired some weird tan lines.

 Went to Kailua for some frozen yoghurt at this fun place called Yo Mama. Lychee seems to be the to go choice on this trip. I had the most amazing combination of lychee and mango yoghurt with gummy shark toppings. I thought it was very apt for this beach vacation. Hurried home so Molly can go back to work for an hour before we headed out again for some Korean BBQ dinner, and Karaoke with Molly's friends.

 Lesson learnt: when in doubt, apply sun screen.