Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The curse of the bucket list

Who cares what someone else decides are the hundred things to do before you turn forty or fifty, or die?

I haven’t seen Petra or the Pyramids, but I’ve been to a Lebanese wedding in Beirut and dined in a mountain villa in Nabatieh. It’s a warm memory that returns unexpectedly now and then to brighten a dull day. I haven’t seen the Hagia Sophia but I’ve picked lavender growing wild in an orchard in Izmir. It was a sensory effusion that Crabtree & Evelyn can only dream of. I haven’t seen New York but I’ve seen a little snow in California. The feeling of standing at the foot of a hill covered with snow made me feel like a child seeing the world for the first time.

I haven’t seen Angkor Wat, but I’ve walked barefoot in a temple where a hundred oil lamps glowed in the walls and caparisoned elephants swayed to the beat of fifty temple drums. I’ve even fed one of them (elephant, not drummer). I’ve never seen the Taj Mahal, but I’ve seen Humayun’s tomb.

I’ve meditated in an ashram, done yoga on a mountain top, stayed in a Tibetan monastery. None of them is all it’s cracked up to be.

I’ve been in the tunnels of Vietnam. I’ve touched the Pacific, the Atlantic, the Antarctic Ocean, the Aegean Sea, the Mediterranean Sea, the Gulf of Thailand, the South China Sea, the Arabian Sea, the Bay of Bengal, the Indian Ocean.

I haven’t seen a purple Tahitian sunset but I’ve seen the sun rise over a field full of Zebras in Cape Town. The wonder wasn’t lessened because I was on my way to a conference.

I haven’t seen the Seine or the Danube, but I’ve floated in a wooden houseboat filled with the laughter of close family down the backwaters of Kumarakkom, taken water taxis in Bangkok, abras in Dubai and a fishing boat in the Mekong Delta. I have snorkelled in Mauritius, sailed with dolphins in Oman, slept in the desert, climbed a small mountain, had kahwa in an Arabian souk.

I haven’t seen the Cirque du Soleil but I have seen in concert Placido Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti, Alicia Keys, Burston Marsella, Robbie Williams, Bryan Adams, Vanessa Paradis, Deep Purple, Sepultura, The Darkness, UB40, Fifty Cent, James Blunt, Kylie Minogue, The Cranberries. I haven’t seen Cats but I’ve seen Wicked. I enjoyed it with a fullness of satisfaction that is hard to describe.

I lived long enough in both Dubai and Singapore to not sum it up in one glib sentence.

It’s not that I don’t want to go to the places I haven’t been (I very much do), but I don’t see why the things I’ve done must be rendered null and void by the things I haven’t.

If there’s someone out there who only had two things on their list for their whole life: 1. Stay alive. 2. Cure cancer, it wouldn’t exactly be a wasted life, would it? No, and nor would you have wasted your life if your list said: 1. Go out for lunch every Sunday 2. Get promoted 3. Buy house with garden 4. Buy car 5. Buy big TV, 6. Watch children graduate 7. Play with grandchildren 8. Celebrate silver wedding anniversary with current spouse, followed by 92 other points that make up your own definition of a good life.

People who compile bucket lists don’t change the world, discover gravity, cure polio or invent the light bulb – throughout history this has generally been done by people who don’t go on holiday, don’t want to try new food and wouldn’t go near a spa even if you gave them a voucher.

Why must we accept new reasons to feel inadequate and insecure just because someone’s offering them?

Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Saigon effect

Most shops in Saigon shut down by nine, but in the streets around Ben Thanh market, that’s when they start up. The night market vendors begin setting up around 7pm, placing poles, tarpaulin and merchandise, in precision order. Every night is carnival night, a wholehearted outpouring of light and sound and colour. I don’t know when they actually close – but when I've returned at 2:30 am from the occasional party, they’re doing this in the reverse order. These streets are never empty. When I’m going for my walk in the morning they’re serving noodles for breakfast on the pavements. When I return from work in the evening, they’re selling grilled shrimp.

Some vendors recognise me now. The cigarette lady knows not to charge me the tourist price because I simply won’t buy. In return, I wait politely until the tourists have finished congratulating themselves on how cheap it is, not knowing they’re paying two and a half times what they should be.
The fruit sellers have learnt that bent old beggars might get money out of me, but I take a firm stand on extortionate custard apples. The ones with cut fruit will only hail me if they have properly ripened jackfruit (they learnt very early on that I know what jackfruit is supposed to taste like). The phone card man knows I want to be let inside his shop to use the card rather than on the street where someone on a bike can snatch my phone. The shoe sellers know their shoes are too big for me, but I won’t be able to resist the neon platforms they’re waving, so I will come in hopefully anyway. The clothes people ignore me entirely because everything’s too small. The bag sellers know I won’t buy but something sufficiently colourful will bring me in. And then I will complain about weak seams and zips. Most of them are just amused by this, but one old man looked thoughtfully at my battered Hidesign sling bag and nodded in comprehension – and then said with a twinkle that I could get 10 of his bags for what I paid for that. I promptly asked him if that was his price and he said only if I was buying 10 – and we both laughed and went our cheery ways.

The souvenir shops stopped calling out to me two months ago. I went in today though, to buy a fridge magnet for my Dad, and the coconut seller outside asked me if I was leaving. The first time I bought from him, he wanted to know if my nose stud was diamonds. I prudently said no. He laughed and told me he used to be a goldsmith. I grinned back noncommittally, but neither of us had enough of the other’s language to pursue the interesting story of why a goldsmith was selling coconuts.

I nodded to him and continued on, picking my way through the clockwork bicycles and paper snakes skittering about on the pavement, skirting the pushcarts selling ice cream, dried fish or gooseberries, nodding to the old lady with the rambutans, the scooter mechanic and the cheerful beggar without a leg, smiling at the ever-optimistic cyclo guy and hammock man. When I reached the back entrance of my hotel, the doormen sprang to hold the door for me, looked thoughtfully at the fridge magnet in my hand and asked me if I was leaving.

As I added it to the pile of gifts that needed to somehow magically not add up to excess baggage, I suddenly realised I’d bought very little for myself, though I’d been living on the doorstep of Saigon’s most popular tourist market.

I looked down from my window at this city that I’d wandered for three months, not a tourist or a resident, neither expat nor local. And I know I’m taking with me a heart and mind stuffed as full to bursting as my bags – unexpected friendships like I haven’t known since much younger days in Dubai and Muscat, equally unexpected sense of not just success (which I never really doubted), but appreciation, the sweetness of partnership at work, a reawakening of hope and ambition, a moving on from the baffling injustices of recent years, the return of the laughter and energy I’d feared were gone for good.

In the exhilarating chaos of life here, I’d got myself back. Merci, Saigon. Whatever happens next, that's one souvenir I will display with pride and pleasure.

PS: Most of the photos here are not mine but I don't know whose they are so cannot acknowledge.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Minutes of a bad date

What was I thinking? What was in the drinks in the house where I was introduced to him? I’m hungry, is he ever going to stop talking long enough to let the waiter get a word in edgewise? Why did I cancel the party I was invited to?

Is he just nervous? How much time should I give him before judging? Am I intimidating? It’s not my fault he didn’t get my joke. He’s English, how can he not get a joke? Is that racist?

Is he going to eat that? Can I have it? Should I have another drink? No? Yes? No? No.

How much can you talk about banking? I already know all this – I’ve had two banks as clients. Come to think of it, he’s exactly like all of them. Is he in marketing then? Oh no, really? I never go out with people from marketing, it’s too much like work. I thought he was in finance. There definitely must have been something in the drinks in that house. And how awful were the rest of the people there that I thought he was interesting?

Is he really not going to eat that? Oh screw it, I’m taking it anyway. Can we have some more food here? Should I have dessert? Oh wait, am I on a diet? I can’t remember – I feel like I’ve been sitting here with a smile fixed on my face since the beginning of time. Is he the president of America that he needs to check his phone all the time? At least it’s a Nokia Lumia. Should I ask him why he chose a... oooh look at those shoes. Did she get them here? Nice tattoo too. Should I get one? How painful is it? Is it like threading? That really hurts. Actually, is she a girl at all? Doesn’t he even want to discuss the hot girl in the corner? Why is he taking about how many houses he has? Maybe he is nervous.

How soon can I leave without hurting his feelings? Do I care about his feelings when I might kill him soon just to relieve the boredom? It reminds me of watching One Day and being so happy when she got hit by a bus. Oh God, he’s talking about “next time”. Well it’s a welcome change from how successful and well-travelled he is, but really – next time? Without making me laugh once? Oh don’t look vulnerable. Stop that, why should I care if you’re insecure? Don’t feel sorry for him, please don’t do anything stupi – fine, call me, I may be free. Thank you. Sure, I had a great time too.

I told you not to have that drink. I told you so.

Sigh. This is not who I wanted to be having dinner with on a relaxed Friday evening.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Saigon Trot

Or how to cross the road in Ho Chi Minh City.

Over four weekends of hanging out in the tourist areas, I’ve seen that the peoples of the chaotic lands manage it best – South America, North and South Africa, Eastern Europe and anywhere in Asia, except Singapore (I've seen groups of nervous Singaporeans marooned for ages). The intrepid races are also up to the challenge – the natives of all the rugby playing nations, Iceland and Scandinavia can do absolutely anything. And of course, the young of all species, who seem to consider it an adventure sport. That’s one way to look at it. The other, more sustainable, one is to treat it as karmic ascension.

Rule 1: Don’t wait for the road to clear; it is never clear.

Rule 2: Look all ways, not just two, especially on the one-ways. Once you’ve tapped into the fluid oneness of the universe (two or three crossings), this is easy to do.

Rule 3: Clear your mind of fear, hesitation, scepticism and all other frivolous fight-or-flight responses you’re cluttered with.

Rule 4: Look calmly upon the vast amount of traffic flowing your way and step off the kerb, where “kerb” stands for any square foot of earthly soil you set out from. Yes, those are full-sized

Rule 5: Recognise yourself and everything else on the road as unique particles moving through the cosmos, each in its own individual, inviolate orbit. Make no judgements, acknowledge no barriers, question nothing. Just let it all flow around you.

Rule 6: Move steadily and above all, continuously, across the road. Two steps forward, one step back. Sidestep, sway back, swing forward, skip around. Two steps forward, one step back. And don’t forget to smile. The Saigon Trot, apparently coined by the expat community in District 2.

It works. More than that, it’s the only way it works. If you’re not willing to join the stream, you will be stranded forever. To begin with, you can practise in crowds – there are lots of these too – but the time will come when the cigarette lady has unaccountably shifted across the road and you will have to blood the sword on your own.

*Secret Christian Master Rule: Channel Moses.

*If you’re given to reading/watching The Secret, you could try that too. It couldn’t hurt more than being hit by a motorbike any other way. But it doesn’t work if you think like that.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Cu Chi tunnels, Vietnam

The narrowness and darkness of the Cu Chi tunnels are difficult to describe. My stubby Dravidian body needs to bend double to walk in them. The Dutch visitors have to practically telescope. It takes me two tries and the bracing support of an intrepid Australian to nerve myself to enter. Crawling along well out of reach of the flashlight, I might have been one of Tolkien’s dwarves going through the mines of Moria. The walls are smooth and hard and way too close, except for the terrifying breaths of dark air when we pass openings to different sides; I more than half expect orcs and goblins to pour out of them. I only go about 60 metres (I had signed on for 20, but somehow got herded into the longer one), but I emerge with the sort of adrenaline high that a roller coaster produces and a real sense of the relief it must have been after seven long years.

Before you get to the part where you can enter the tunnel, neatly designed areas show you the weapons and methods used, a 3D model, a full map and even an old propaganda documentary. It’s all carefully sanitised, painless and undemanding. In the bright sunshine of a Sunday morning, the young forest that has grown over the ravages is innocuous and inviting. The fact that your guide keeps repeating the injunction not stray from the path does not register until you read a sign that says “B52 bomb crater”. You suddenly realise you’re on the battlefield, and there are still traps, trenches and camouflaged holes in the dappled forest floor. One of these is available for your guide to demonstrate and everyone keeps faithfully to the path afterwards.

The tunnellers made fake termite mounds in which they hid the air holes. There are many of these around and it’s impossible to tell which was made by termites and which by humans. They learnt to make land mines from unexploded enemy missiles and fashioned bamboo sticks into deadly traps. I count 12 types of these, from a spiky ball copying the rambutan that had stopped growing on their dead land, to a lethal swinging door inspired by cradles that no longer had a safe place to hang. When the river was poisoned, they dug wells inside the tunnels. They took their kitchens underground, designing chimney vents to make smoke disappear wispily into the morning or evening mist. They lived on tapioca for years. The resulting malnourishment only helped them make the tunnels even smaller. All of this is demonstrated through well-made, understated exhibits. You can even eat tapioca dipped in powdered peanuts, fire a rifle and buy sandals made from truck tyres.

The US Army didn’t stand a chance – how could secure young boys raised in mild climes have hoped to defeat this kind of on-the-fly innovation and endurance baked hard by centuries of struggle?

Back in Saigon, I see a notice outside a passing church and, deducing from the musical symbols that something songlike is in progress, I enter and sit in a familiar dimness, listening to the tail end of a Vietnamese choir. The words are strange but the tune of Amazing Grace is unmistakeable: “Through many dangers, toils and sins I have already come; ‘tis grace that brought me safe thus far and grace will lead me home”. It’s a strangely appropriate sentiment for a communist country that shook off the Catholic invader a long time ago. At least it replaces the tune of Green Fields of France that’s been playing over and over in my head ever since Cu Chi.

Agent Orange is still around, it gets in the meat and milk. My Vietnamese peers grew up in the desolate aftermath, their parents lived – or not – through the war. No monument stands here with the names of the dead, no flags went to the families of the fallen, nobody even knows how many fell. These claustrophobic subterranean corridors are all the memorial there is to an incredibly brave generation of civilian soldiers, both men and women. And that I think is the secret to the calmness and the complete lack of self-pity in the country: they were small and poor fighting the big and rich and they won, through their own spirit and ingenuity. What’s more, they are gracious in their victory.

Getting there: There are buses aplenty but I highly recommend the boat. Saigon River Express does it beautifully.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

The economics of food

Taking a drastic pay cut is a fascinating exercise on all fronts - especially when you’ve long been accustomed to certain careless luxuries - but the supermarket is for me the most challenging one. Suddenly, you can’t just fling things into the cart, a bit of Austrian goat cheese here, a spot of organic Darjeeling tea there, a bushel of Californian oranges, never knowing how much they cost, let alone counting that cost. In fact, you don’t have a cart at all, because you’re taking the train, not a cab, and can only carry one basketful at a time.

You’re that lady who looks at the price tags in the vegetable aisle. You’re that person who buys the milk that’s on promotion for 50 cents less – that’s a good portion of your train fare and you’ve learnt from experience that it’s not to be despised, especially in the last week of the month. You’re the crazy one who knows exactly how much small change you have at any given time. (You’re also the near-mythical being in the Ikea checkout line with just one thing in your hand.)

In doing so, I’ve discovered that responsible or healthy or just flavourful eating is expensive. Lean meat, wild-caught fish, cold-pressed oils, pure juices, the better kind of fruit and vegetable, whole grains, fresh herbs, low-fat dairy – they all cost significantly more than the other kind. Pretty much anything that’s organic or without additives is out of reach. This is wrong, but apparently it’s the way the world works. Something ought to be done, but I don’t know what.

Now I’m in Vietnam for three months, I’m rich again – but I’m staying in a hotel and don’t have the pleasure of buying groceries. On the other hand, the food is good everywhere. Vegetables and fruits taste like they've just been brought in from the farm. The seafood is fresh, the meat is tender. Every sprig of coriander, each quarter of lime and sliver of lemongrass is a burst of exuberant flavour. The very salt on the table seems youthful and sparkling. I've eaten food of this quality before - in the sort of restaurant where you pay fortunes for it. Here it's on every street corner for a few dollars. I think the reason the Vietnamese are generally in a good mood is because of their food.

(My boss here is going to Singapore for a few days and I suddenly felt homesickness for my flat. I miss my kitchen, my study, my lake and my 1000-thread-count cotton sheets. It's my two-week marker, it always happens on every long trip. From here on, I will drift steadily away from the old and when the time comes to leave, they'll have to drag me kicking and screaming to the airport.)

Sunday, May 06, 2012

The wisdom of Noraini

I have only one more birthday before I turn forty and I’ve begun to fear it like an imminent sentencing.

In the clothing stores, I still drift towards the red jeans and floaty teenage tops, but now I've become conscious of it. Just last week, I wondered if I shouldn’t be buying something age-appropriate in black, even as I eyed something with multi-coloured polka dots. So I gloomily left the store, and walked on to the Coffee Club at Orchard Fountain Square to drown my sorrows in cappuccino, where I was pleased to see my favourite waitress, Noraini, was on duty. She’d cut her hair quite drastically so I took off my headphones to chat about that.

And found she’s well over 50, though she looks 35, has four grown-up children and is expecting a grandchild. When she’s not serving coffee, she’s coaching soccer at some of the city’s best schools. Her take on this is that as you age, you need to do the things you love because otherwise you’ll grow old. She’s generally a beacon of health and good humour, and this apparently is the reason for it.

A few days before this, my uncle sent me this picture from Chicago saying: “For some strange reason I thought of you this evening”. I looked at the picture for a long time, thinking of the Stuart Weitzman store in Dubai, my first pair of “designer” shoes, the joy of six-inch heels quite unimpaired by the considerable pain involved.

Forty, shmorty. I bought the polka dots on the way back. And I walked to the station in high heels the next morning, feeling so much more exuberant – though far less comfortable – than the misguided woman who’d lately taken to wearing sensible shoes.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

The return of the Nokia phone

The Nokia Lumia 800 does all the things other smartphones do, while looking and feeling better than most.

It has interesting proprietary features such as Nokia Drive, which is a proper talking GPS like the kind you put in your car. Windows Mobile has come a very, very long way. Setting up and synching took only about the same amount of time as the iPhone 4 did. You can import many of the apps you have on other phones. The camera is good, and sharing pictures on social networks is a lot easier and more intuitive than other smartphones I’ve tried. And beneath it all is the almost irrational belief that since it’s a Nokia, it must also be more reliable, better tested than the others.

But I think the most amazing feature of the Nokia Lumia 800 is the social network one. All your contacts are linked to their Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter profiles. For example, if you’re looking for your friend’s number, you also see under his name his latest FB post or tweet. And you can choose to call, text, send an FB message, mention him on Twitter or email him at any of his addresses. The listing reflects the real world where your friend is one person, with several ways to be contacted. So friends who have contact details under both married and maiden names, my cousin from Cornell who has about a million addresses and phone numbers, people who have both personal and company FB profiles, and even people whose phone numbers I don’t have, but have other means of contacting are all in one consolidated, streamlined phonebook. And a shining example of a product feature matching the brand promise. Nokia, connecting people indeed.

As with all good ideas, this one too has a simplicity to it that makes you wonder why nobody thought of it before. It makes me almost burst with pride.

Many years ago, I was a small cog in the teams that helped launch the first Nokia camera phone, the first music phone, several Communicators and many startlingly edgy models that were probably ahead of their time. There was much pride in being associated with them, a time in the life of the brand when it was a pioneer. It was a time when internet and mobile were just beginning to collide. The iPod had just transformed portable music. Brands had just started to get in touch with customers digitally. Online banking and bill payments were still pretty cool, not a basic requirement. Traditional ad agencies were talking of digital departments, old agency folk were introduced to new types of skills. Those who worked on the Nokia account were at the front of this revolution.

I moved on from the account and agency, and eventually succumbed to the lure of the shiny pink Razr, but never really lost the my-first-one affection for Nokia.

So it is with great pleasure that I now find I can give the Nokia Lumia 800 my highest praise – after working on it for a few hours, the iPhone felt clunky.

Friday, April 27, 2012

How government services should behave

The Singapore Public Utility Board are rockstars.

I arrived home tonight at 11:00 pm to find no water in my taps. No water. Until that actually happens you have no idea how fundamental it is to your life.

I called the apartment building's 24-hour helpline, only to be told unhelpfully - five calls and three maintenance guys later - that it was my problem, not theirs. Their weird reason was that it was just one flat and not the whole floor. By then it was almost midnight and I still had no water. I had a fight with the guy who told me this, hung up and wandered outside my flat, looking at the stuff there for the tenth time, hoping to spot some magic valve I hadn't seen before. There were none - the only meter outside my door is for electricity; I've never seen the water meter.

I checked online for 24-hour plumbers and found several. Then I registered that if all the taps were dry, it was probably not a plumbing issue but one of supply, which would make it either vandalism or a mistake. Either way, I needed the support of some sort of authority. In any case, I was reluctant to hand over a hundred dollars to a bunch of plumbers for something they may not be able to solve. So I went to the SP Services website and called the first phone number I saw. I eventually got someone who told me I'd called the wrong place. But - and this is a very big but - he didn't stop there. He asked me: "but tell me what assistance you want". So I told him my story and he said he would leave a message for one of the Public Utility Board guys to drop by and check. I thought he meant in the morning, but 40 minutes later, I heard water in the kitchen sink (I had, of course, left the tap on in my dismay). And three minutes after I'd turned it off and done grateful raindances, a PUB engineer arrived at my door to tell me I should inform my building management somebody's messing around in the water meter area and playing with the valves.

It was government service in the best sense. He did not even let me tip him.

Update at 7:30 am: The kinder of the building maintenance guys I had spoken to last night did show up early, as he had promised.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Can you hear the drums Fernando?

I looked up casually from my book somewhere on my train journey this morning, was briefly confused about whether I was coming or going and suddenly realized something very startling, apropos of nothing – I'm happy. I'm almost terminally broke, nearly forty, about 10 kilos over my ideal weight, and my career is a revolving door. And yet somehow I'm happy.

I'm not given to counting my blessings and being grateful. In fact, I usually exist in an exalted state of resentment. I complain all the time. I throw tantrums on the smallest provocation, feel sorry for myself on none at all. And yet somehow I'm happy.

I have a good boss and nice colleagues. At least half my clients respect my work. Having known the other thing, I fully appreciate the importance of these to my overall well-being. Now and then, my Facebook newsfeed throws up a status update from some brand page that I wrote - and I'm reminded afresh that my content calendar was accepted as-is by the client. With no changes at all. Small though it is, that's two doses of job satisfaction a week, the highest rate of my working life.

When I’m done working, I have family and friends, rolled into one, a daily benediction. Actually that’s even when I’m working – I objected to being in the same office as my brother but actually it’s fun.

My flat is in a crummy building that I mutter to myself about every day, but it sits on the edge of a lovely lake that is another daily benediction (hourly on the weekends). And inside, I have room for a study, with a desk by a window through which I can see trees and rain.

Then I returned to my office from the rooftop where I’d been sitting writing this, and I found my life had changed again. It was not a nasty change – far from it – but I will have to uproot at short notice, leave the desk, the window, the lake and the family, start again with new colleagues. And I'm still 10 kilos heavier than I want to be. On the other hand, great problems hold great opportunity, and as a boss once said to me “only stupid people are not nervous”. Especially when I keep getting exactly what I wanted, quite unawares. Maybe that's why I'm happy.

In the words of ABBA, if I had to do the same again, I would, my friend.

Fernando, ABBA. Non-album single, 1975

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

I know what I did last October

I enthusiastically embraced what I think of as the Lebanese spirit. Distilled over many centuries of being at war and in the path of invaders or retaliators, it’s a simple concept: the important things are uncertain, so just have a good time wherever you are, with whatever you have. Surround yourself with glossy magazines and shiny things. Expend your energy on the colour of your walls. Get worked up about the texture of cushion covers. Worry only about the alignment of rugs. The rest will be history anyway.

So all through October, I flung myself into setting up my hard-won flat. No sleeping on a mattress for six months this time round; it was going to be visitor-ready from the start (though, come to think of it, the mattress-furnished flat had visitors plentifully and often. Perhaps it was only my head that needed furnishing, but it’s too late now).

All day, every day, last thing at night, first thing in the morning, I sent and received messages about bookshelves, wardrobes, sofas and beds with strangers from Craigslist and Gumtree. In the evenings, I visited lovely houses to look at stuff. The notes function on my phone became well-thumbed. Ikea catalogues were attacked with Post-Its. Carrefour, Best Denki, Mustafa, Courts and Mega Discount were scoured for the best-priced appliances. I made obsessive notes, took incessant measurements, updated tireless Excel sheets.

By the end of the month, I’d travelled all the Metro lines from end to end and seen parts of Singapore I doubt I’d have seen any other way. Some of it I saw from the cab of a truck. After many arguments with various men-with-vans on the subject of carrying stuff up flights of stairs, my BFF of the time was a tiny, cheery jockey who was moonlighting in his lunch break as a van driver.

I met some nice people that I will never see again, considering the only reason they were selling is because they were leaving town. I encountered startling meanness, equally amazing generosity and much weirdness. The lady who sold me her plants wanted them picked up at once. But when I got there, she made me coffee, waved me to a chair and explained leisurely (in sign language) how her husband was upset that she hadn’t learnt English after a year in Singapore. It turned out my text messages were with the husband, not her. She then lavished upon me a bird cage and extensive crockery, including the cup I was drinking from.

Another day, an Argentinian diplomat was ridiculously unbending on the phone about the price of a high-end food processor, but had, when I arrived to get it, also included a crock pot, full set of baking dishes and a cookie jar. The only extra thing I paid for was a cake plate that her little kid wanted to sell me for a dollar.

My cash flow situation was soon suffering from what my brother calls the Daiso Effect –where nothing costs more than two dollars so you fling things recklessly into your cart and end up spending some 200 anyway.

I cannot believe how small a budget I’d been working with or how much was possible with so little. It was a lot of work of course, but with every new thing I managed for myself, I walked a little taller, felt a little more capable, made this city a little more mine.

Discovering Japan – Part 2

My impressions of the world are formed almost exclusively from the books I read, the music I listen to and the words I write (even the places I actually live in). What with one thing and another, I haven’t read too many books that go to Japan, so the country has just sat in a box at the back of my mind. But things kept being put into the box – a book on traditional Japanese skincare borrowed from a Bangalore library long ago; the creative sophistication dimly perceived in Japanese comic books; sparks of interest set off by movies like Lost in Translation and The Ring; a feature or article seen in passing; anecdotes from an uncle whose entire career has been in Bridgestone; trivia from my brother and sister-in-law who both work with teams there; the occasional brand launch or research document thrown up by my own work – until suddenly the box is full and has somehow moved itself to the front of my mind (much like a simple cardboard carton might behave in a Japanese horror film).

Singapore has a sizable Japanese population and very many Japanophiles, so there’s plenty of opportunity to indulge the new curiosity. Given the war history, it’s understandable that there’s no well-preserved Japantown anywhere, but there are definitely malls that are more Japanese than others. I keep coming across them in the search for low-priced books. (Books are costlier than gold here and the local library does not supply enough variety, so I spend much time and effort hunting down stores that sell second-hand.)

Last week, I had government work which required me to walk through a strange, mall-like place that at first glance looked like a has-been, but on closer acquaintance turned out to be busy and prosperous. My antennae caught a shop selling winter clothes and ski equipment. It’s a sure sign of a Japanophile establishment, and by now I know there will always be a bookshop in one. Sometimes it’s a used-book store, sometimes a specialist boutique selling only graphic novels, anime or fantasy sagas. Whatever it is, there’ll always be something interesting to read in there (and sure enough, a thorough search on my way back did yield a bookstore – big, cut-price, half Japanese and half English).

There’ll also be CDs with horrific covers and vinyls you’ve never heard of. You’ll find Hello Kitty merchandise for all ages, whimsical accessories for grown-ups that even an eight-year-old might hesitate to put on her dolls. Gourmet stores where you do not recognise any of the food. Lifestyle stores that sell minutely useful things, such as pill boxes shaped like beetles. And, as stated in a previous post, totem pole umbrellas and keychains that acknowledge fridge-magnet cousins. Japan must be a singularly fascinating place to live in. Maybe the streets are paved with books. I should go see.

Monday, March 26, 2012

There's this blogger I used to know...

There never seems to be anything to say. Emotions are tamped down, even the fears are muffled. Daily life is unexamined, the minutae of work and office are unspoken. And I’m quiet about the past two years, even to myself. There doesn’t seem to be anything to be said there, either. Sometimes, I silently contemplate the pieces and experiment with putting them together again. Sometimes I equally silently reject the self-pity.

And when you’ve sat in silence for a long time, it’s hard to break it. You sound over-loud and awkward. The things you say acquire a depth of meaning that you probably didn’t mean. Jokes fall uneasily. Comments become pronouncements. Everything seems simultaneously too serious and too uninteresting to mention. After a lot of thought you think of something to say and suddenly you are the cynosure of all ears. And your mind shrinks from such extravagant display so you decide to go home quietly.

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