On Marrying Malaysian Princes and Some Useful Malay Phrases

Two months ago I started taking Malay classes in Singapore.  It took me the two months before that to actually arrange the classes – it seemed I was the only person in the country who wanted to learn Malay. First, I had signed up for university extension classes, but they never started because of low enrollment.  Then, I found private classes, but they continually got postponed; every 2 weeks I was told to check back later.  I was literally shocked when they finally told me they had decided to go ahead and start the class with 3 people – me, a Singaporean, and a Frenchman.  It sort of sounds like the beginning of a joke.

And sometimes class seems like a joke.  We don’t have textbooks; we have worksheets, and my instructor goes off-topic a bit. Apparently at some point he worked as a nurse in a hospital, and two weeks ago he decided to teach us the four things he always had to ask patients:

Sudah makan? Have you eaten?

Sudah minum? Have you drunk?

Sudah berak? or Sudah buang air besar? Have you passed a bowel movement?

Sudah kencing? or Sudah buang air kecil? Have you urinated?

For the last two questions, the second option is more polite.  He told us the first options are crude and ethically he shouldn’t teach us, but those were what was actually said in the hospital.  I’ll leave the literal translations to your imagination.  The literal translations for the second options are, “have you thrown water big” and “have you thrown water small,” which I find kind of amusing.  Even more amusing, however, was that my instructor said if we used the second options, people would know we had “taken formal Malay classes.”  Right.  When, exactly, would I ever need to say this in Malay?

I suppose a scenario could arise in which I start volunteering at a hospital in Malaysia.  Say for instance, I marry a Malaysian prince and get bored of being fanned with palm fronds, or whatever it is that Malaysian princesses do.  Now to be clear, marrying a Malaysian prince is not something that had ever crossed my mind.  In fact, I don’t think I realized there were princes in Malaysia until yesterday, when my Malay instructor suggested I marry one.  I’m not quite sure how this is supposed to happen, but at least if I meet a Malaysian prince, I have some useful vocabulary we just learned.

Anda apa temanita? Do you have a girlfriend?  (For those looking to marry a Malaysian Princess, the opposite is, “anda apa teman lelaki?”)

That’s about all I can say until we get married.  (Unless I want to ask him if he’s had a bowel movement, which would be an interesting way to court someone.) But after marriage, if we encounter some outside trouble, I can say, “Batu mertua saya Sultan Johor.” (My father-in-law is the Sultan/King of Johor.)  That will clearly resolve any issue and we’ll live happily ever after.

But before my teacher sets me up with a prince and I have to convert to Islam, move to Malaysia, and actually get married, I decided to do some research. I mean, how many Malaysian princes are there?  How old are they?  I don’t want to have to marry someone old enough to be my father nor do I want to marry someone much younger.  So I googled, “malaysian princes.”  Here is what came up, in order:

Teen model says Malay prince abused her (1 Jun 2009  A teenage US-Indonesian model has returned to her family in Indonesia with tales of abuse, rape and torture at the hands of a Malaysian prince…)

‘Deranged’ Malay prince stabs mother to death – Times Online (25 Jul 2006 … A Malaysian prince has stabbed his mother to death with a hunting knife and seriously wounded his father before dying of a suspected drugs …)

BBC News – Asia Pacific Malay prince sues Indonesian wife (21 Jul 2009  A Malaysian prince accuses his teenage Indonesian bride of defaming him, after she runs away alleging ill-treatment.)

BBC News – Asia Pacific – Malaysian princess confirmed dead (13 Oct 2002  Police in Malaysia confirm that Princess Leza, second wife of the heir to the throne of Perak, is dead, after being abducted last week.)

Handguns of Kelantan prince and bodyguards to be checked in ballistic tests (6 May 2010  Police will conduct ballistic testing on handguns seized on Tuesday night in Kota Baru from a Kelantan prince and his bodyguards. The Malay Mail had reported yesterday the seizure of the firearms was linked to the investigations into the attempted murder of Ramli Mohamed, a Kelantan palace guard, last Friday.)

Malay Prince wins suit against teen wife -Deccan Chronicle(11 Mar 2010 … The estranged wife and mother-in-law of a Malaysian prince were ordered Thursday to pay 1.8 million dollars after alleging he had raped and abused his teenage bride…)

After seeing these, two thoughts came to mind, “the Malaysian royal family really needs to hire PR people,” and “I think I’ll pass on marrying a Malay prince.”  All’s not lost, though – I hear there are some princes in Thailand…

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A Walking PSA Complete with Clam Costumes

Yet another reason to love Singapore.

Apparently many Singaporeans think you can avoid Hep B simply by avoiding clams.  I’d seen a few billboards with a similar message, but the clam-people definitely caught my attention.

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How to Make Friends and Break Out of Guest Houses in Laos

I recently returned from a quick trip to Thailand and Laos, for which I flew to and from Bangkok on Tiger Air.  Given my adventures on Tiger Air last time, or the ongoing protests in Bangkok (I arrived the morning after the PM declared a state of emergency, and came back to Bangkok three days after the situation got violent), you might expect that the craziest part of my trip happened en route to/from Bangkok or in Bangkok.  However, both were thankfully uneventful and the most entertaining aspects of my trip were the 48 hours I spent in Luang Prabang, Laos – a charming, relaxing little town I fell in love with immediately.  In addition to seeing a number of temples, exploring the Royal Palace, and taking a boat trip up the Mekong to some nearby caves, I also: practically had dinner with two celebrities; broke out of my guesthouse before 6am; and discovered an innovative way to make friends at the airport.

My first night in Luang Prabang, I wound up at a place called Tamarind for dinner – I’d heard it had great food and was part of the Stay Another Day Organization, which promotes sustainable tourism.  It was a small restaurant with only a few tables, and I sat at a counter, in front of a window that looked out onto the quiet street.  There was a temple across the way and I could see some monks in the courtyard.  So, I ate a delicious dinner while enjoying the view.

But the view was about to get better.  Two customers arrived on bikes – the first thing I noticed was the woman’s stylish, bright-red outfit.  The next thing I noticed was the man behind her, and that he was Jude Law.  I admittedly stared for a bit trying to figure out if it was actually Jude Law.  It was hard to believe that out of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, he walked into mine.  Especially since I was in a small restaurant in a small town in a country that most people on our half of the world can’t even locate on a map, let alone make plans to visit.  The woman also looked vaguely familiar, and I realized she was Sienna Miller, his on-and-off girlfriend.

Now you may be wondering if I talked to them or asked for a picture.  I did not and here is why.  It was Friday night.  I had flown to Bangkok on Thursday morning, walked around Bangkok for a few hours, gotten sweaty, and then boarded an overnight train to Chiang Mai.  I  had arrived Friday morning, walked around Chiang Mai for a few hours, gotten sweaty, and then boarded a plane to Luang Prabang.  I tried going to my guest house to check-in and shower, but no one was there.  I changed my shirt, walked around Luang Prabang for a few hours and got sweaty, before ultimately finding my way to the restaurant.  I did not exactly look nor feel my best, and had no desire to record the moment for posterity while standing next to two incredibly attractive people.  Also, I can’t exactly call myself a fan of theirs.  At the time, I could only think of two of Jude Law’s movies (Alfie and Sherlock Holmes, neither of which I thought was that great) and nothing that Sienna Miller had done.  I have since learned that Jude was nominated for awards for his roles in Cold Mountain, the Road to Perdition, and the Talented Mr. Ripley, among others, but I haven’t seen any of those movies.  Anyway, the point is, I had nothing to say to them.  If it had been almost any other British actor (Hugh Grant, Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, Daniel Radcliffe…) I probably would’ve said hi.  So unfortunately I called it a night without becoming best friends with Jude Law and Sienna Miller.

The next morning I woke up at 5:30am.  Why would I do such a silly thing on vacation?  Well, one of the main things to do in Luang Prabang is to watch the monks go through town collecting food offerings from locals (and tourists), which for some reason they do before 6am.  I thought that waking up that early would be the hardest part about seeing the monks, but I was wrong.  When I went downstairs to leave,I discovered that the front doors were locked.  At first I couldn’t figure out how to unlock them – it was 5:30am after all, so it was dark.  I finally found the latches at the top and bottom of the doors, which opened to reveal another set of doors.  They had the same latches and I opened them thinking I was free, only to be greeted with a tall fence and a gate, which was padlocked.  At first I couldn’t see how to escape without killing myself – either from the sharp spiky things on the top of the fence, or the jump to the other side.  I found a chair, pulled it over, and stood on it.  The jump down still looked too treacherous.  So I found another chair, pulled it over, dropped it on the other side of the fence, and jumped from one chair to the other, embracing my freedom. I felt like I had escaped from prison.  I made it to the top of my street just as the monks started to arrive, it was perfect.

While I managed to escape my guest house without hurting myself, I did not manage to leave Laos without hurting myself – or at least my pride.  My last stop before I left Luang Prabang was a restaurant I hadn’t had time to try.  I’d heard good things about their pork casserole in coconut milk, so I decided to get it to go and take it to the airport for my lunch.  However, it was not a casserole.  It was simply pork in coconut milk – boiling hot coconut milk that was packed, like all takeaway food, in a little plastic bag.  Thirty minutes later after I’d arrived at the airport, checked-in, and gone through immigration, it was still so hot I couldn’t rest it on my legs.  I knew I had to be careful eating it, but somehow halfway-through it magically exploded all over my legs.  And my chair.  And the floor.  And my bag.  I’m pretty lucky I don’t have burn marks, because it was still that hot.  And while I felt like an idiot, I managed to make new friends.  The Japanese girl sitting across from me immediately offered me some moist towlettes and then ran to the bathroom, coming back with a cloth towel she used to help me clean up.  We hadn’t spoken before that, but afterwards she showed me pictures from Japan on her camera.  Similarly, the Canadian guy sitting next to me began talking to me.  Apparently spilling curry all over yourself is a great way to start a conversation and make friends in a small airport.  Shortly thereafter, we boarded the plane to Chiang Mai, where more adventures were in store. (Stay tuned.)

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Going to Hell in Singapore Costs $1

There are not many things in life, or in Singapore, that are free.  Fortunately, however, Singapore’s most bizarre attraction does not cost anything.  Haw Par Villa (originally called Tiger Balm Gardens) was built in 1937 by the brothers who invented Tiger Balm.  Haw Par Villa is frequently described as a theme park (and it did have some rides in the 1990s), but a more appropriate description would be a sculpture park.  A very odd sculpture park.  The statues depict scenes from Chinese folklore and legends that are supposed to teach Chinese values and morals.  The most interesting – and most gruesome part of the park – is the 10 Courts of Hell.  However, you have to pay to enter Hell; it will set you back one Singaporean dollar. (About US $0.72).

Before you enter Hell, you see a set of statues that appear to be rabbits and rats fighting each other, with some guinea pigs thrown in for good measure.  You have no idea what this is about, nor what it is supposed to mean.  This is not an unusual feeling at Haw Par Villa; sometimes there are descriptions explaining the scenes, sometimes there are not; sometimes the descriptions leave you just as confused as those without descriptions.  It’s almost like going to a modern art museum and wondering what the artist was trying to say.

Only a small portion of the diorama

We asked the attendant of the nearby shop for an explanation and he excitedly led us back to the diorama, where he told us that the rabbits and rats were in a war.  “This one kill, you see?”  He was very friendly and eager to help, but we still had no idea why they were fighting or what we were supposed to learn.  Fortunately, the shop had a book that shed some light.

Once upon a time, two white rabbits were happily married.  One day, a black rat came along and seduced the wife.  The rabbit and his compatriots were outraged and declared war on the rats.  The book claims it’s unclear which side the guinea pigs were on, but there’s a picture of a guinea pig consoling a rat, and I think guinea pigs look more related to rats than rabbits, so I assume they’re evil.  Apparently (according to the book), the lesson to learn from this is that bad things happen when strangers interfere.  (Or, alternatively, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife/thou shalt not commit adultery?)

Once you enter the gates of hell, you walk by dioramas depicting each court of hell, with descriptions of crimes and their associated punishments.  I’m not sure I necessarily see the association between a crime and its punishment or the relation between some of the crimes that are grouped together.  Here are a few examples:

Crime

Punishment
Ungratefulness, Disrespect to elders, Escape from Prison Heart cut-out
Plotted another’s death for property or money, Money lenders with exorbitant interest rates Thrown onto a hill of knives
Cheating, Cursing, Abducting People Thrown onto a tree of knives
Misuse of Books, Wasting Food, Possession of Porn Body sawn into two

And here are two examples of the accompanying sculptures:

Hell is only one small part of Haw Par Villa – there are lots of other (less gruesome) statues that I also found interesting and perplexing.  So, I highly recommend a visit to Haw Par Villa if you wind up in Singapore – not only is it (almost) free, but it’s definitely a unique experience.

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Sup Tulang – Bone Soup

Awhile ago I went to the Golden Mile Hawker Centre to try the infamous sup tulang – mutton bone marrow soup.  Mutton bones are cooked in a bright reddish-pink chili sauce, which does not taste at all spicy and does not look at all natural.

Needless to say, this is quite the messy dish.  Thankfully, unlike the time I attempted to politely eat chilli crab, I had a fork (and spoon) instead of chopsticks.  (While I can use chopsticks, my fingers aren’t strong enough to hold onto a heavy bone.)  So I daintily attempted to get the meat off the bone with my fork and spoon.

Even though I was sitting a bit away from the sup tulang stall, I was apparently being watched, because one of the guys came over and told me it wasn’t going to work – I needed to use my hands.  I was simultaneously curious about how closely I had been watched (and how many Westerners come to their stall) and amused by the permission to eat with my hands.

I really enjoyed the meat on the bones, but there wasn’t a whole lot, as I think the crowning aspect of the dish is supposed to be the marrow inside.  You can watch Anthony Bourdain using a straw to suck out the marrow when he ate sup tulang, but I was not given a straw and I did not feel like asking for one.  So I developed my own method – I discovered that inverting your spoon/fork and using the narrow end to dig out the marrow works quite well.

While I don’t think sup tulang makes my favorite Singaporean foods lists, it is on my list of places to take visitors if they’re up for it/there’s time because of the novelty of the dish and the “Anthony Bourdain ate here” factor.  Conveniently, the stall is also next to a famous Roti John stall, which I’ll explain in my next food post.

There are several sup tulang stalls at Golden Mile (505 Beach Rd).  I had it at Haji Kadir & M. Baharudeen Soup Tulang, Stall #B1-14.

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Singapore Bucket List

I’m past the half-way point of my time in Singapore and I so I drew up a list of things to accomplish in the four months that remain.  I figure it’s important to have goals, although most of these are just things I think will result in interesting experiences, which really means embarrassing myself in public.  Some simply require a little effort/organization on my part (#5, 8, 15…), while others require being able to find a class or training, at which I have thus far been unsuccessful (#3,9).  Others will require the Singaporean god of fortuitous and awesome experiences to smile down on me (#6, 11…).  Without further ado, in no particular order:

1. Line dance  with the Chinese aunties and uncles who gather for a hoedown on Friday nights

2. Go to a songbird competition

3. Learn how to play mah jong.  Bonus points if I can find some Chinese grandmothers to play with

4. Take a Peranakan or Malay cooking class

5. Take a People’s Association class  (Pretty much the equivalent of community ed classes, with more Chinese cultural-themed classes offered.)

6. Get on a Singaporean TV show/commercial

7. Hang out with the ladyboys at Orchard Towers (I’m not sure what I mean by “hang out with”…probably “find some”)

8. Attempt to make the following dishes: rojak, bak kut teh, satay, carrot cake (not what you think), laksa, popiah, mee rebus, beef rendang.

9. Learn how to Lion Dance

10. Meet KF Seetoh (local food celebrity)

11. See Lee Kuan Yew (Singapore’s PM from 1959-1990)

12. Watch a Singapore-league football game

13.  Dragonboat

14. Explore Pulau Ubin (small island near Singapore)

15. Go Prawning (i.e. shrimping)

16. Day-trip to the Exotic Fruit Farm in Malaysia

17. Catch a concert or play at the Esplanade – the building that looks like a durian

18. Take the Tiger Beer Factory Tour

19. Watch a Chinese Tea Ceremony

20. Figure out what game the old Chinese men play near Chinatown complex and get them to play with me (I’ve been told this won’t happen because I am not Chinese, and worse, I am female.)

21.  Go to a Singaporean Farm

I’ve left off the museums/attractions I want to visit, because I think that’s the more boring part of the list.  Is there anything else you think I’m missing?

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The Best Roast Pork in Cow Car Water

I was wandering through the maze that is Chinatown Complex’s hawker centre when I saw the following sign:

I was amused and confused.  What is cow car water?  Cow water could mean beef broth, but where does the car come from?  More importantly, why would you cook pork in this? It really doesn’t sound very appetizing.

Asking if I could take a picture of the sign led to asking if I could interview the stall holder, who thankfully agreed.  However, when I came back a few days later for the interview, I completely forgot to ask about the meaning behind “cow car water.”  I did learn other interesting things, though; for example, the stall owner used to work as a hotel restaurant manager and served President Nixon when he visited Singapore.

The interview also included a peek into the “kitchen” – i.e. the stall next door.  Here’s the chef who makes the best roast pork in cow car water:

So what’s the deal with the cow car water?  My friend Lauryn solved the mystery.  Chinatown’s water was pretty bad back in the day, so water had to get transported in from other areas via cows.  Consequently, the Chinese name for Singapore’s Chinatown became “niu che shui”, which translates to cow car water.  So “the best roast pork in cow car water” really just means “the best roast pork in Chinatown” and has nothing to do with cooking liquids or methods.

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The Craziest Pringles Flavor

One of my favorite things to do when I travel is to explore the local grocery store.  While this is usually more interesting when traveling abroad, I’ve sometimes been equally amused by wandering around domestic stores, especially independent ones.  Possibly the best part of this activity is finding interesting flavors of familiar brands.  For example, I spent $25 at the Tokyo airport on KitKats because of the crazy flavors – green tea, apple, cheesecake, soy flour, wasabi, and soy sauce.  (The latter two were not actually as disgusting as they sound – there was no chocolate involved – it was a wasabi-flavor coating or a soy sauce-flavor coating over some wafers.  And the soy sauce one didn’t taste anything like soy sauce. It was a unique experience, but one I don’t need to repeat.)

Anyway, it took me a day or two to locate an actual grocery store when I first moved to Singapore, as I was living downtown and my roommate only knew about the nearby expat grocery store.  So when I trekked out to the Clementi Fairprice (a good 20-minute train ride from where I was staying at the time, but I had other business in Clementi…namely trying barbequed stingray), I took my time walking slowly up and down every aisle looking at every item.  But I didn’t really find anything worth writing home about.  (Except perhaps canned pumpkin, although a more recent trip revealed they no longer have any.)

No, I did not find that item until today.  And ironically, I don’t think it’s Singaporean – or even Asian – I think it’s American.

Pringles, is after all, owned by Procter and Gamble, an American company.  That being said, you find flavors overseas that we don’t get in the States.  In Malawi, I discovered Pringles “Rice Infusion Sweet BBQ Sparerib Flavour” and Pringles “Gourmet Flame Grilled Steak and Caramelized Onion Flavour”  I am currently wondering why I did not buy these to try them…

On that first trip to a Singaporean grocery store, I did notice three such flavors: grilled shrimp, soft-shelled crab, and seaweed.  I was amused, but they didn’t strike me as that strange.  Shrimp-flavoured chips/crackers, while seemingly bizarre when I first encountered them at Epcot at a young age, are quite common in Asia, and a “Prawn Cocktail” Pringles flavor is even available in the UK.  Soft-shelled crab seemed to be an extension of that theme.  And dried seaweed is a popular snack, so why not make it into a chip flavor?  The most unusual thing was their color: the shrimp ones are pink and the seaweed ones are green.

I never got around to actually trying the flavors, until I took some home with me over Christmas to share with other people.  Today, however, I found a flavor that was so bizarre, I bought it immediately and opened it as soon as I had paid.  I give you:

The other new flavor is Lemon and Sesame, which I find about as bizarre (and consequently intriguing) – I may have to go back tomorrow to buy them.  But, really?  Who came up with these?

When I got home, I googled them.  The only thing that came up was someone from DC who had recently proclaimed on Twitter his surprise about these flavors, which leads me to believe they may be in your local grocery store as well.  That would make some sense, as blueberries are not exactly a Southeast Asian fruit.

I’m still not over the combination.  I can think of several tasty ways to mix fruits and nuts  - dried cherries/cranberries and almonds in a trail mix, grape jelly and peanut butter in a sandwich – but I don’t think I’ve ever seen blueberry and hazelnut paired together, least of all in a potato chip.  What’s next, watermelon and macadamia? Strawberry and brazil nut?  Lychee and cashew?

So, what are they like? I can taste the blueberry, and if I concentrate intently I get a hint of hazelnut, followed by a blueberry finish.  But as I walked home munching, I decided that I was probably only recognizing these flavors because of the container, and in a blind taste-test I’d have no idea what Pringle flavor I was eating.  I decided to test this hypothesis on my roommate – she said it tasted like confetti cake.

I have now consumed half the can in the name of research (once you pop, the fun don’t stop!), so I’m hoping they’re not subject to the Pringles recall that was just issued…thankfully it appears to be just the cheeseburger and taco flavors.

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Rojak

While it may sound like a type of cleaning product, rojak (Malay for “mixture”) is another tasty dish found in Singapore.  (Other versions of the dish are also found in Malaysia and Indonesia.)  The Singaporean version consists of pieces of pineapple, cucumber, green apple, fried dough, fried tofu, and bean sprouts in an addictive, sweet yet savoury sauce – made from lime juice, chili, shrimp paste, sugar, and water – and covered in ground peanuts.

The term “rojak” is also used to describe the multi-racial culture of both Singapore and Malaysia.  To me this is similar to referring to America as a”melting pot.”  But while both imply a mixing of ingredients, the ingredients in rojak remain distinct whereas those in the melting pot theoretically melt together and become indistinguishable.  On a related note, I find it curious that the government makes a big deal out of classifying everyone as “Chinese,” “Indian,” “Malay,” or “Other.”  Why not just call everyone “Singaporean?”

Despite appearances, I promise it tastes good.

(Speaking of classifications, there is also a dish in Singapore called Indian Rojak.  It’s basically a plate of fried dough, fried shrimp, fried potatoes, fried squid, fried tofu, fried coconut dough, and fried prawn cakes.  For the sake of my cholesterol, I haven’t tried it yet.  It comes with a sweet potato-chili dip that will probably be the reason I do try it.)

The best regular rojak I’ve had was from Clementi Brothers Rojak at Block 449 Clementi Ave 3 #01-211.  There’s a related stall run by the brothers’ uncle at Zion Rd Stall 21 – I’m assuming it tastes similar, but I haven’t actually tried it there.

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Notes on Manila

I’m actually headed back to Manila in two weeks for a conference (a consequently crazy work schedule is the main reason my posting frequency has declined), but here are some of my first experiences in the city.

Transportation

Transportation in Manila was characterized by a lack of information.  The bus from the airport into Manila made several stops, but never announced the names of the stops.  Guided by some tourbook maps of the city (my contribution) and a good sense of direction (not my contribution), we managed to pick the correct one.

Later, we attempted to ride the subway/light-rail system.  The first thing we noticed was a huge line to get into the station – security was checking everyone’s bags.  (This turned out to be fairly common in Manila, as it also happened in shopping malls.)  Once inside, I was again surprised by the lack of information.  You get fairly used to subway stations having maps, so that you can figure out which train you need.  (All we had was the name of the stop we wanted.)  There was only one line, but we still didn’t know which direction we were supposed to head.  There might as well have been a scarecrow pointing in both directions.  We found a security desk and the guard helpfully pointed in only one direction.

We headed for the platform, which was pretty crowded. However, it was nowhere near as crowded as the train that arrived a minute later.  Manila doesn’t hire train pushers like Tokyo to squeeze as many people in as possible, but they might want to consider it.  I did notice that there was a separate boarding area for the elderly and women; when I got in the normal car, I appeared to be the only woman in a car packed with men, all of whom appeared to be staring at me.  At the next stop (again, no announcement – we had to peer out the window to try to catch the sign on the platform), the crowd shifted a bit and I was slightly relieved to discover I was not actually the only female in the car, although I was still getting stared at.

At the second stop, we couldn’t see the station sign.  But since everyone else seemed to be getting off the train, we decided we should too.  We had reached the end of the line, but the station was not the one we wanted.  After a few minutes of feeling confused and disoriented (why aren’t there any maps?), we discovered the next station we wanted was connected via a short walk.   Thankfully the next train was less crowded and we arrived at out destination unscathed, but ultimately decided to take a taxi back to the hotel.  (Cost of the train: 50 Pesos ($1US); Cost of the taxi: 150 Pesos ($3US); Getting home directly and not having to deal with the insanity: priceless.)  I’m glad we tried the trains, but we stuck with taxis for the rest of the trip – they were more convenient, quicker, and cheap.  I think our most expensive ride was $3US, and it was at least 15-20 minutes long.

Sadly, we did not attempt the most popular form of transportation in Manila – the jeepney.  Jeepneys (jeep+jitney) appear to operate like a cross between a bus and a taxi.  They look like elongated aluminum jeeps decorated by someone who just discovered color after living in a black-and-white world. (And who has a fondness for random Americana – ie Micky Mouse and the NY Giants – or religious depictions/quotes.)  They have signs with certain destinations and I think you can flag one down and travel to a destination along its route.  But since our geography of Manila was not all that great, we weren’t sure where we’d wind up if we took one.  I’m hoping some local Fulbrighters at the conference can show me how it’s done.

Food

Filipino cuisine is notable for some items that are pretty exotic to Westerners.  You may have heard of balut – a fertilized duck or chicken egg, with a mostly developed embryo, that is boiled and eaten.  Or if you’d prefer not to see something’s eyes, you can move to the inside of an animal and eat isaw – barbequed chicken or pig intestines on a stick.  (Everything tastes better on a stick!)  Despite being an adventurous eater, I wasn’t sure how I felt about either of these dishes.  But I never actually saw them for sale, so my willingness to try new things was not properly tested.  I’m still not sure I could handle balut, but if I see some isaw in a few weeks, I might be able to try a bite.

Despite (or perhaps because of) the lack of balut and isaw, we had a tasty time in Manila.  The main dishes we tried were: fresh lumpia (a type of spring roll made with hearts of palm and other veggies); a few types of pancit (stir-fried noodles);kare kare (oxtail, tripe, and vegetables in a peanut stew); adobo (chicken and/or pork cooked in a mixture of garlic, soy sauce and vinegar, although there’s supposedly 100 ways to cook it in the Philippines – it was salty, but delicious); and, possibly my favorite - bibingka.

Bibingka is apparently a dessert, but I didn’t realize that at the time and ate it as dinner.  (If only I could unlearn that  ice-cream, cookies, and brownies are desserts…) I read about bibingka on the in-flight magazine on the way to Manila, which I just googled – the description I read was of  a “wood fire-cooked rice cake in banana leaves and covered with butter, cheese and grated coconut.”  I guess I remembered “rice cake” and “cheese”, which brought to mind something savory, given that Quaker rice cakes aren’t sweet (unless you get the kind coated in chocolate).  Now, if I focus on “cake”, “cheese”, and “coconut,” I can see how it would be a dessert.  Oh well, it was a delicious misunderstanding.  To me, it tasted like an arepa (only fluffier, thicker, and sweeter) that had been inverted (given the cheese on top). I’m not sure where the corn taste came from.  I suppose I’ll have to figure that out in a few weeks.

Sights

We only had about a day and a half in Manila, but we managed to fit in a lot.  Our first stop was Intramuros – the oldest district of Manila, built by the Spanish in the 16th century.  Within its walls, we visited the Manila Cathedaral, Casa Manila (a recreation of a colonial-period house); and Fort Santiago.

Despite my love for colonial history, my favorite sight in Manila was the Coconut Palace.  The palace was built in the late 1970s by former First Lady Imelda Marcos in honor of an upcoming visit by Pope John Paul II.  However, when the Pope arrived in Manila, he was appalled and suggested the US$37 million spent on the palace could have been spent instead on clean drinking water for the Filipino people.  He refused to stay and somehow the palace was officially “opened” at a later date by Brooke Shields and George Hamilton.

We had our own tour guide who enlightened us with trivia about the palace (the dining room table has 40,000 pieces of inlaid coconut shell) and encouraged us to sit and take pictures at the dining room table and in former President Marcos’ office chair.  He even removed a “please do not sit” sign from Imelda’s mother of pearl chair and invited me to sit down.  I wouldn’t have been surprised if he told us we could take a nap in the Marcos’ bed.

After the Coconut Palace, we headed to the nearby SM Mall of Asia, the fourth largest mall in the world.  It has four buildings and I think we were only in two of them, so I’m not sure I properly grasped its size, although I got a sense through the interactive maps.  All of the directories were electronic; you picked a store (or in our case, a restaurant) and it would give you walking directions.  I was somewhat surprised the mall was on Manila Bay, but it was nice to end our visit by watching the sunset over dinner and drinks.

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