Life in Japan: Year One

Amy and I moved to Tokyo one year ago this August. And in light of that anniversary, I thought I’d reflect on a few aspects of our not-so-new lives here.

Challenges – For a foreigner, Japan can sometimes be a difficult place to live. There is of course the big challenge: a formidable language barrier that can add complexity to even the most routine of tasks – like buying a cup of coffee or consulting a subway map. But then there are other, more nuanced cultural challenges. Like the odd and often mystifying bureaucracy of rules and social politenesses that can make little sense to an outsider. For example, there is the unspoken rule that requires near silence on a morning train but condones the violent, almost mosh-pit like aggressiveness of people smashing their way onto the same packed trains.

crowded
Rush hour in the rain, no one’s idea of fun

Good news. Still, in many ways Tokyo is an easy place to live. Many aspects of daily life have been designed to provide maximum benefit at minimum effort. For example, the local convenience store – my closest outlet is just a 90 second walk from my house (or I can go to one 2 minutes away, or another one 3 minutes away or 5 minutes or 7 minutes ad infinitum) – is open 24 hours a day and is stocked with pretty much every conceivable (and not so conceivable) human necessity. From the obvious, like toilet paper and freshly prepared foods – restocked thrice daily – to the not so obvious, like one-use disposable underwear and white, super cheap business dress shirts.  You could easily write an entire blog about the ever changing delights of the Japanese convenience store.

 

pjimage.jpg
Oh the Japanese convenience store: food, booze and everything else!

Vending machines – But there are other aspects of life in Tokyo that are also designed for maximum ease. Like the ubiquitous, high-tech vending machines that make dehydration in the city a near impossibility. Vending machine locations aren’t limited to just obvious places like an office cafeteria or the train station, but are found almost anywhere in the city – from serene parks to otherwise quiet residential streets. In case I get thirsty and, for whatever reason, can’t manage the 90 second walk to the closest convenience store, no problem – there are two vending machines right around the corner from our apartment.

My favorite local ramen shop requires ordering and payment via a vending machine – a great option for those who – like myself – do not speak Japanese (although written in Kanji, there is a helpful yellow star pasted next to the restaurant’s top recommendation, which I’ve never seen cause to veer from).

pjimage.jpg
Unfortunately, this Sapporo vending machine is not on my street

My days are filled with confusion and misunderstanding. This is to put things lightly. Despite my fairly serious efforts to learn Japanese – both weekly classes and self-study – I evidently have no aptitude for the thing. I still struggle to understand even the most basic of human interactions and the simple prospect of going to the dry cleaner or to get a haircut can induce stress. Even more routine interactions, like a shop clerk asking if I want a bag, can quickly spiral into confusion and misunderstanding.

Business Attire – In Tokyo, the general rule appears to be this: men wear well-tailored, expensive black suits with pressed white shirts and polished shoes; and women, women wear whatever the hell they want.  Parachute pants with 4” wooden sandals – why not? Jeans that look suspiciously like sweat pants up close – no problem. A pillowcase with holes cut out for the head and arms – hey, that’s fashion! Baggy pants are in, and so are black heels with white socks.  Business shorts – a real thing – are perfectly acceptable, as are skirt suits paired with white tennis shoes. In Tokyo, when it comes to women’s fashion, anything goes.

If cash is king, are coins the devil? A too large part of my day is often concerned with the getting and then getting rid of coins. Despite claims of being a technologically advanced society, Japan is rather antiquated when it comes to the country’s reliance on cash. Because the smallest bill is a thousand yen note (equivalent to approximately $10) and the smallest coin is just one yen, an annoying plastic thing worth less than a penny, there are a lot of opportunities to pay for something with a bill and receive a dozen heavy coins as change. I am constantly thinking of where and how I can get rid of my ever expanding pile of change.

Change.jpg

Garbage! For such a large city, the streets of Tokyo are remarkably free of litter. This is despite the fact – or maybe in part due to the fact – that the city has virtually no public trash cans. This can make unloading an empty coffee cup or a candy wrapper a quixotic task (hint: try the convenience store).

However, it’s on the home front that the garbage situation really becomes byzantine. There is a large booklet that details the complicated garbage pick-up schedule and even more complicated garbage disposal rules. Special bags are required on Monday’s and Thursdays; boxes and spare paper has to be tied up neatly with string on Fridays; bottles and cans have to be separated and are picked-up every other Tuesday; plastic bottles need to be stripped of labels and are picked up on the opposite Tuesday; etcetera. The rules are frustratingly complex.

IMG_1390.jpg
This is just page 1!

But here’s the thing, with a few exceptions (read: plastic bottles and cans) none of it really matters. No one cares. I often throw everything into the general, bi-weekly garbage pick-up and hitherto, I have neither been confronted by the garbage authorities nor suffered through a sleepless night of guilt.

Other thoughts  

  • The Japanese culture is an odd mix of contradictions and curiosities. It is a society that acquiesces to public intoxication and ubiquitous “hostess clubs” but remains remarkably safe and, at least where I live, family oriented.
  • Hold the door! Not in Tokyo. People will push the door just hard enough so they can squeeze through – and not one bit more. If you hold the door for someone else, they will look upon you with either confused thanks or outright distrust. 
  • Chivalry. If you are injured or old and infirm, good luck getting a seat on the train. People simply do not give up their seats.  And after working 16 hour days, I can understand why.
  • Fruit in Japan is exceptional and, unlike in the US, most grocery stores only stock fresh, seasonal offerings. But really, some of the prices are downright shocking.
pjimage
Clockwise from top left: a single $8 white strawberry, a $100 melon, and a bunch of red grapes that cost a shocking $150!

One year – So here is to one year in Japan.  It hasn’t always been easy, but it’s certainly been interesting.

IMG_0967.jpg

 

Scratching the Surface: A Week in South Africa

After a few weeks apart, and for the second time in less than a year, Amy and I flew from opposite sides of the world to reunite in an unknown airport in Africa. This time, far from the chaos of Douala, Cameroon, we met in the decidedly modern and western airport in Johannesburg, South Africa. Amy had spent the better part of June and July gallivanting through the U.S., while I, alone and lonely, slaved away at work back in Singapore 🙂

We were meeting in Johannesburg to visit our friends from South Africa who currently teach alongside Amy in Singapore. They had graciously invited us to spend the week with them on a whirlwind tour through a few of the country’s highlights.

Safari

Our trip may have been short on time but it was certainly not short on things to do. After a jet lagged but enjoyable day with our friends and their family in the suburbs of Johannesburg, we flew off to Kruger National Park for two days of safari. Definitely one of the most memorable parts of the trip – or of any trip for that matter – animal spotting through the vast African wilderness was a real highlight.

Due to poor planning, I was ill equipped to capture the experience on film as I didn’t bring – nor do I own – a proper camera (there are some things an iPhone camera just wasn’t made for). So please bare with the often grainy quality of the pictures below -hopefully some pictures are better than none at all – although many of our best sightings were seen through binoculars, where no photographs were possible.

IMG_6435.jpg
We had no problem spotting these elephants, as they walked directly in front of our car
IMG_6446.jpg
Zebras munching on some grass
IMG_6392.jpg
Hippos soaking in water
IMG_6397.jpg
Giraffes

 

IMG_6474.jpg
A rare baby white rhino with its mom partly hidden in the brush
IMG_6453.jpg
Off in the distance, a full blown stampede of African buffalo
IMG_6482.jpg
An angry elephant in a standoff with a car
IMG_1945.JPG
Two white rhinos we saw on a night safari tour

In addition to the above, we spotted a whole range of other animals including lions, crocodiles, impalas and whatever this animal was. . .

IMG_1983.JPG
Hyena?

Food

For carnivores of the human variety, South Africa is second to none. There is no shortage of savory, well-seasoned meats for all occasions: tasty sausage and bacon for breakfast; biltong (dried cured meat, similar – but admittedly better than – American beef jerky) and droewors  (dried sausage) for snacking; not to mention chicken, beef and a whole lot more sausage for the (almost) daily braai (the all-occasions South African BBQ).

IMG_6267.jpg
Typical store in South Africa

Our short time in South Africa was punctuated by one delicious meal after the next – most prepared and cooked by our excellent hosts.

Cape Town

When the weather cooperates, Cape Town is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. During our three days in the city, we were privy to the full spectrum of Cape Town winter weather: from beautiful blue skies to torrential downpours, and everything in between.

IMG_6553.jpg
Our first view of Table Mountain
IMG_6554.jpg
Not a cloud in the sky
IMG_6615.jpg
Tourists
IMG_6571.jpg
View of Cape Town from the boat to Robben Island
IMG_6581.jpg
Robben Island

Our tour of Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years, was partly conducted by a former black political prisoner. His poignant reflections of apartheid South Africa, and his first-person account of life behind bars, were both heartfelt and unsettling.

IMG_6590.jpg
Entrance to the former Robben Island prison

The surrounding environs of Cape Town are (justifiably) well known for their great wines. We spent a full day wine tasting about two hours from downtown Cape Town. The following morning, the start of my last full day in South Africa, we woke to rain and thunderstorms – the perfect weather for a beachside drive down the edge of the continent!

Here are some of the pictures from that drive:

A wild penguin hiding on the beach
IMG_6709.jpg
At the edge of the Earth
IMG_6675.jpg
Not a beach day
IMG_6673.jpg
Winding cliffside drive
IMG_6667.jpg
Selfie
IMG_6710.jpg
Far from everything
IMG_6713.jpg
The bottom of the world – Cape of Good Hope

 

 

Trip Report: Singapore to Washington DC (Introduction)

A few months ago, Amy and I began to plan our trip home this summer. At the time, I was beginning to worry that future airline mile devaluations could further erode my Chase Ultimate Rewards point balance. Rather than continue to stockpile points (a depreciating and unpredictable asset), I thought it would be a good time to use some of our points to fly back home in (relative) comfort.

Through the Chase Sapphire web portal, it is possible to transfer miles to a large number of frequent flyer programs that operate from Singapore including United, Korean Air and Singapore Airlines.

In general, Singapore and Korean offer superior products. However, the United website is far easier to use and provides availability through several Star Alliance partner airlines. After searching all three websites I found a good flight on the United website with two business class seats available. Our one way itinerary was the following:

Flight 1 – Business Class:

  • Singapore to Tokyo Narita
  • Boeing 777-300ER
  • Operated by the Japanese carrier All Nippon Airways (ANA)

Flight 2 – Business Class:

  • Tokyo Narita to Toronto Canada
  • Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner
  • Operated by Air Canada

Flight 3 – Economy:

  • Toronto Canada to Washington DC (Dulles)
  • Bombardier CRJ-200
  • Operated by Air Canada Express – Air Georgian

We were able to book the above itinerary using a combination of existing United Miles and transferring Chase Ultimate Reward points to my United account. In all, the above itinerary cost 80,000 points for each ticket and approximately US$55.00.

If we had purchased the tickets instead of using miles, they would have cost anywhere from US$8,000 to US$10,000 for the pair.

Occasionally, there are some inconveniences with booking partner awards on the United website. In this case, we were able to pick our seats on the first leg of the itinerary (i.e., the flight operated by ANA) but not on the second and third legs (the Air Canada flights). Rather annoyingly, Air Canada does not allow travelers who purchase their tickets on partner airlines to pick their Air Canada seats until they check in for the flight.

I will write more about the flights in future posts, but I’ve included a few preliminary photos below. Unfortunately, I left Singapore just as I was coming down with a bit of a cold. So although the business class seats were fantastic, and far superior to the equivalent in Coach, I wasn’t able to fully enjoy the business class experience.

Our ANA 777 after landing in Tokyo

Our Air Canada 787-9 Dreamliner

Hoi An, Vietnam – 12 photos

The city of Hoi An is located in Vietnam’s central coastal region.  Last Friday we flew to Da Nang and took a bus the 45 minutes south to Hoi An, where we spent the weekend. We were there with a larger group to celebrate a friend’s birthday. The busy weekend included a bicycle tour, a cooking class and an afternoon spent walking around the city’s old town neighborhood, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Although a bit touristy, Hoi An has a lot to offer. Here is a glimpse of the trip in 12 photos:

IMG_5199.JPG
View from the plane as we come into Da Nang, Vietnam
IMG_5205.JPG
Visa on arrival booth at Da Nang airport
IMG_5401.JPG
Full moon over Hoi An
IMG_5307.JPG
Crossing the river by boat
IMG_5436.JPG
Greens!
IMG_5446.JPG
Early morning at the market
IMG_5453.JPG
Live frogs for sale at the market

 

IMG_5331.JPG
Lazy tourists being pushed through old town Hoi An
IMG_5526.JPG
Final product of the cooking class
IMG_5345.JPG
Cao Lau noodles in a market in Hoi An
IMG_5525.JPG
Learning to make Pho

 

IMG_5247.JPG
Amy making friends on the river

 

 

Cameroon – Part 3 (Dimako, East Province)

We spent two days and three nights in Dimako, a town situated in Cameroon’s East Province approximately 200km from the Central African Republic (CAR). Dimako is an anachronistic puzzle. A place where people have cell phones (flip ones mostly) but no running water. A place where the heat tops out above 90°F (32°C) but young men wear winter jackets and ski caps – they believe Malaria is spread by the wind. It is a place not immune to the long arm of global capitalism; where the forests are plundered for wood but poverty remains endemic.  It is a place where alcoholism is pervasive, electricity sporadic, and where schoolchildren gush over a passing jetliner but have little hope of ever boarding one.

Our time in Dimako was limited to just two full days. To make the most of our visit, we tried to see and do as much as possible. This included a visit with the indigenous Pygmies (the Baka People), a walking tour of the town, and visits with a family of American missionaries who have made Dimako their home. I’ve described a few of the highlights below.

Accommodations

Michelle is the latest (and possibly last) in a long line of Peace Corps volunteers who have set up temporary residence in Dimako. Like her predecessors, Michelle lives in a concrete ranch-style house, a short walk from the center of town.

IMG_3654.JPG
Home

Several smaller houses are located on the same lot of land.

IMG_3655.JPG
Dogs lounging in front of the Peace Corps house

The house is actually reasonably large, with two bedrooms, a kitchen and a large living room. There is also a “shower” room adjoining the master bedroom.

IMG_0787.JPG
Old fashioned shower: bucket of water and soap

The bathroom, or outhouse, is located around back.

IMG_1039.JPG
Outhouse

In case you’re curious, here is a picture of the inside.

IMG_0509.JPG
But where does it go?

Cockroaches swarmed the outhouse at night, but it was reasonably clean during the day.

Transportation

The primary means of affordable transportation (aside from walking) is riding on the back of motorbike taxis. As soon as we left Michelle’s house in the morning (we were on foot walking along the road) moto drivers zoomed by speaking rapid fire French and offering us rides.

IMG_3724.JPG
Waiting for customers

We rode on these motorcycles just once, when we went to see the indigenous Baka people.

The Baka people

One of the highlights of our time in Dimako was visiting with the semi-nomadic Baka people. These friendly, but largely marginalized people live in the southeastern rain forests of Cameroon.

The motorbike ride into the jungle was terrifying and exhilarating. We had been told the French word for slow down, but our driver (Amy and I sat together on one bike) either ignored us or simply didn’t care. We drove fast; first on the highway, hugging the shoulder so trucks could fly by, and then, turning off the main road, we flew down dirt roads and around blind curves, leaving a trail of dust in our wake.

The Baka family that we met lives in a small clearing that is also home, surprisingly, to a family of American missionaries. These missionaries have been living in the African jungle for years and years. They were just loading up a van with their kids for an annual New Year’s retreat in Western Cameroon when we arrived. Unfortunately, we were not able to talk with them for long. I would have liked to have heard more about their fascinating lives.

IMG_3562.JPG
The clearing where the American missionaries live alongside the Baka

The Baka people speak their own language, so communicating with them can be difficult for many outsiders (although the American missionaries have learned the local Baka dialect). Fortunately, one of the Baka men we met with spoke French and was happy to talk with us (through Michelle).

The Baka people live in temporary huts made largely of leaves and sticks. The man we spoke with said his whole family lives in one hut that is reconstructed every three months or so.

IMG_3548.JPG
Temporary Baka hut – you have to stoop to enter

We were given a tour of the inside of the largest hut, where the remains of a fire were burning in the hut’s center. With three people looking around inside, I found the hut to be a bit claustrophobic, but we were told that eight people usually sleep there at night.

12491806_925782617378_5744341730046242447_o.jpg
Baka huts being constructed

Outside, a family was cooking over an open fire. The food did not look especially appetizing.  They were cooking field mice that the family had caught using outdoor traps.

 

IMG_3561.JPG
Gutting mice after cooking
IMG_3565.JPG
Waiting to eat

As we were preparing to leave, we saw this child coming back from the fields. He was dragging a large machete as he walked.

IMG_1190.JPG
Big knife

The Market

The open air Dimako market is a short walk from Michelle’s house. The best time to go is early in the morning, so we set out before the sun was fully up.

IMG_3665.JPG
Sun rising at the market

The market sells a variety of vegetables, meats (both fresh and not so fresh), fishes and spices. In addition, there were piles of clothing, shoes, machetes and African print dresses for sale (just to list a few of the things we saw).

The local butcher slaughters a cow every three days. We happened to visit the market on the third day and the remaining meat, such that it was, looked, without the benefits of refrigeration, like it was probably unfit to eat.

IMG_3657.JPG
Meat for sale at the butcher. This was “three day old beef”
IMG_3673.JPG
Fish and spices
IMG_3659.JPG
Fresh produce

The Missionaries

Michelle is not the only American living in the small town of Dimako. A friendly American missionary couple lives down the road with their four adopted children and a temporary home school teacher. They welcomed us into their home and we enjoyed talking about their work and their lives in Cameroon. Their work – to translate the bible into a language that has no alphabet or other written form – sounds both fascinating and exhausting. You can read more about them here:

http://haretranslation.blogspot.sg/

Other thoughts / sights

During our walking tour we visited the remnants of an old, colonial-era logging plant. Along the same tree-lined road we came across a half-dozen abandoned French houses.

IMG_3680.JPG
An old abandoned house

I would imagine there’s a lot of history behind these houses, not all of it good.

We also visited the local hospital which has intermittent electricity and no running water. Later we went for a chicken dinner that we prepared, with the help of a gracious local family, from farm to plate.

Stay tuned for Part 4 of our trip to Cameroon.

Singapore: A Week in Food

Food is an important part of Singapore’s identity. The city-state is home to not only a diverse mix of cultures and languages but also cuisines.

Before moving to Singapore, I knew little about the country’s rich culinary history. Even today, after living here for almost a year and a half, I remain woefully ignorant regarding the names and unique ingredients that make up many of my favorite dishes. My food choices are often based on recommendations from friends and my own rather arbitrary sampling.

Many of my favorite Singapore dishes are from hawker centers. These outdoor food courts offer a wide variety of food options at very reasonable prices. Over the last few days, I’ve tried to document a few of the meals I eat during any given week (at hawker centers or otherwise). I do not profess to be a food critic, or to even be an exceptionally picky eater, I just know what I like (most Singaporean cuisine) and more importantly, what I do not like (see pig liver and durian). But in general, I will try most things at least once.

The list below, in chronological order, represents a few food highlights from the last week. Hope you enjoy.

Monday lunch – Fried fish in a spicy tom yam soup with yee mee egg noodles.

Hot fish soups, in various forms, are popular dishes in Singapore. It can take a while to get used to eating hot soup in the blazing Singaporean heat. But for those willing to sweat a bit (or a lot), it can be well worth the effort. My favorite variant is a simple sliced fish soup bee hoon. This rice noodle soup contains a broth made with a small amount of milk and lightly cooked sliced white fish. In contrast, the soup below was made with fried white fish, egg noodles and a spicy, Thai influenced, tom yam broth.

IMG_4356.JPG
The fried fish was the best part

This is from a very small hawker center / coffee shop on Boon Tat street near the Telok Ayer MRT. The queue was long but well worth the wait. In Singapore, a long line generally means one of two things: either the food is very good; or the food is very cheap. It is rare to find both. At S$4.00, this dish was actually near the more expensive end of the spectrum. Very cheap hawker food can run for as little as S$2.50.

IMG_4355.JPG
The queue in front of the fish soup stall

Tuesday lunch – Chicken rice from one of my favorite hawker centers, Golden Shoe

This popular downtown hawker center is one of my go-to lunch options.  I particularly like this chicken rice stall on the second floor.

IMG_4378.JPG
There is always a long line at this chicken rice outlet

This is labeled boneless chicken rice, but it is still good to ask for no bones.  The juice from the chicken at this stall is unbeatable.

IMG_4379.JPG

My large portion was S$4.50. The rice is cooked in the chicken stock and the chicken is steamed (the other method, more palatable to some, is a roasted variant).  The black sauce on the side is a dark soya sauce. Next to it is a red chili sauce that adds a nice kick. Both are great complements to any chicken rice meal.

Wednesday  lunch – Indian food at Shenton House

With a population that is approximately 10% Indian, Singapore has no shortage of good Indian restaurants.  Hawker centers downtown are an especially good place to find quality Indian food at reasonable prices (Indian food is generally a bit more expensive than its Chinese and Malaysian counterparts). This Indian restaurant is located in Shenton House, a commercial high-rise building with a popular food center on the second floor.

IMG_4370.JPG

I opted to go for an à la carte option that was more expensive than some of the pre-set meals.

IMG_4375.JPG
You can’t go wrong with butter naan

I had butter naan, a cauliflower and green bean vegetable and a spicy chicken dish (not butter chicken).  It tasted great but at S$9.50, it was a bit pricey, especially when a nearby hawker center also offers high-quality Indian food at much better prices.  You may be paying a bit of a premium here to eat indoors.

Thursday lunch – Chicken and noodles from Chinatown

This was possibly my favorite meal of the week. The soya chicken was perfect – juicy and plump. The noodles were also great. I was with a large group of friends so we ordered a whole chicken.

IMG_4395.JPG
A whole chicken
IMG_4393.JPG
We each got our own side of noodles

The chicken went fast.

IMG_4396.JPG
Not much left

We got to the restaurant early to avoid the lunch rush.

IMG_4397.JPG
The queue was long when we left

My friends ordered in Chinese so I’m not sure what other foods are offered at the restaurant. However, I will definitely go back for the soya chicken. The meal was about S$6.00 per person, including drinks.

Sunday dinner – Crab Bee Hoon Soup

Amy and I went out to a famous Singapore crab restaurant, Mellben Seafood, which is about a 15 minute walk from our apartment.

IMG_4419.JPG

The wait was about an hour but we were rewarded with a delicious, although messy meal of the restaurant’s famous crab soup.

IMG_4430.JPG
Crab Bee Hoon soup – tastes like butter!

We also ordered a medium, salted egg crab (think deep fried goodness).

IMG_4428.JPG
Salted egg crab

It took a lot of work to get through this meal.

IMG_4434.JPG
We made a mess

By any measure, this was not cheap. Each crab came in at nearly S$70. However, it served as a satisfying conclusion to another great week of Singaporean food.

 

Cameroon – Part 2 (Douala and the drive East)

We spent our first night in Africa at the Star Land Hotel. The hotel was impeccable by Cameroon standards with modern amenities and a nice food selection.  This was by far the nicest place we would stay during our trip and served as a nice transition to the country.

IMG_3501.JPG
View of Douala from our hotel room

Michelle arranged for a driver, Julian, to take us around the country. He lives near her village in Eastern Cameroon. On our trip he drove a yellow truck emblazoned with the MTN logo on the front and sides. Our luggage was tied to the bed of the truck and covered with a large tarp.

IMG_3736.JPG
Our Cameroon ride

MTN is a South African telecom giant that appears to be in a fierce battle with the French multinational, Orange S.A. for Cameroon customers. Advertising for both companies was ubiquitous throughout the country with signs plastered on nearly all available surfaces and store fronts in Douala and elsewhere.

Julian was unfamiliar with the confusing Douala roads, so he enlisted the help of his friend to navigate us through the city from our hotel.  We piled into the backseat while Julian’s friend sat up front and helped navigate.

IMG_3505.JPG
Tight fit in the backseat

The drive from Douala to Michelle’s village, Dimako, is listed at 8 hours and 12 minutes on Google Maps.  The route we took is shown below.

unnamed.png
drive across Cameroon

Unfortunately, the drive took closer to 10.5 hours after accounting for traffic, poor road conditions and multiple “security” checkpoints. However, it provided a good chance to see the country.

IMG_3514.JPG
Dusty roads outside Douala
IMG_3522.JPG
Place to refuel and stop for some rest along the road
IMG_3519.JPG
Garbage along the roads

 

IMG_3723.JPG
Fruit for sale along the road – there were also lots of pineapples for sale

The roads directly outside Douala were badly in need of repair and Julian had to constantly swerve to avoid potholes or slow down when obstructions blocked the road.

Our drive to Dimako passed us through the outskirts of Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon. In the interest of time, we decided not to stop. After driving through the city, we took a quick break for lunch.

IMG_3529.JPG
Lunch!

Lunch was at a small roadside “restaurant” where we ate an interesting dish that was a hybrid of tomato omelette and spaghetti.  Or maybe it was just an omelette with spaghetti in it.  Either way – it was one of my favorite meals on the trip.

IMG_3542.JPG
Spaghetti omelet

The food was made to order on a small stove top.

IMG_3541.JPG
The chef at work

IMG_0709.JPG

After lunch Amy and I stopped in the street for a quick picture before we continued on.

IMG_3546.JPG
In the middle of the road.

The remaining drive was long and uncomfortable. The roads were already bad during the day – but after the sun set they became downright terrifying. Julian drove way too fast considering the poor road conditions: low visibility (of course there are no street lights) and lots of unexpected turns. The presence of huge lumber trucks speeding along in the opposite direction, weighed down with massive payloads, added to the real sense of danger.

IMG_3695.JPG
I wouldn’t want one of those logs to fall on our truck

Another danger was the inexplicable presence of pedestrians walking down the middle of the road at night. Julian swerved at the last minute on multiple occasions to avoid hitting people.

We passed several accidents on the drive.  These were made all the more frightening by the presence of large crowds gathering around crushed cars or toppled motorcycles with no sign of forthcoming (trained) emergency assistance.

Needless to say, we survived the drive. We had left Douala before 11:00am and (finally) pulled into Michelle’s house a little before 10:00pm.  From Ang Mo Kio, Singapore to Dimako, Cameroon.  It was a long trip.

See part 3 of our trip to Cameroon here.

48 Hours in Yangon, Myanmar

Jetstar has great non-stop fares between Singapore and Yangon. We booked one way flights for less than S$100 each (for timing reasons our return flight was on SilkAir – Singapore Airlines’ sister airline). Our flight was scheduled to leave Singapore at 5:15pm and land in Yangon at 6:30pm (Myanmar is on a weird time zone that is one and a half hours behind Singapore).

The flight was about two and a half hours long but we were late getting out due to bad weather. Once in the air, the flight was fairly uneventful.

It was dark when we landed, and there was little to see out the window. A friend at work had told me the Yangon airport is very modern (built recently in partnership with Thailand), so I was a bit surprised when we disembarked directly onto the runway.

Once inside the terminal, we joined the long, disorganized queue for Immigration.

IMG_4048.JPG
Immigration line at Yangon International Airport

The line was not as bad as it first looked, and we waited for only about 25 minutes before our turn came. Entry to Myanmar requires an advance visa which we obtained in Singapore the week before (this is a fairly straightforward process for Singapore residents but does involve some planning and a bit of time).

There was a visa on arrival booth at the airport in Yangon but it was unmanned when we arrived. Also, it may be limited to select nationalities, so check before you plan your trip.

Once through immigration we changed US and Singapore dollars into Burmese Kyat. I had read that the currency exchanges only accept US dollars, Euros and British pounds, so it was nice to find a place that took Singapore dollars.

The line for customs was disorganized, sprawling and vaguely reminiscent of Cameroon. Everyone’s bag, regardless of size, had to go through a single scanner manned by two men who were both distractedly playing on their phones. Amy and I were able to bypass what would surely have been a long wait by simply cutting to the front of the “line” and throwing our bags on with a Burmese family.

Once through the terminal and outside, we approached two youngish looking men in official uniforms. “Taxi?” I asked and one of them blew a whistle and a taxi appeared before us. We negotiated the price to our hotel before getting in, 10,000 Burmese Kyat, or about eight US dollars. I did not see any formal taxi lines. The ride to the hotel took about half an hour.

It was Amy’s birthday weekend so we were staying at one of the city’s nicer hotels, the Park Royal Yangon. Hotels in Yangon, unlike Thailand and Vietnam, are expensive and our hotel, with breakfast included, was almost twice the rate we would normally expect to pay in one of those countries.

I was surprised to find that the Park Royal, unlike similar hotels in the area, had a metal detector and baggage scanner at the entrance.

Security at the hotel lobby

Recently remodeled, our hotel room was clean and spacious with a comfortable bed and large bathroom. Our view was not much to write home about though.

 

IMG_4166.JPG
View from our hotel window

Saturday

The morning haze brought back bad memories of Singapore last October (luckily, this haze was largely gone by early afternoon).

After breakfast, we showered and changed and then climbed into a taxi for a short ride to the Yangon Heritage Trust, the meeting point for our morning walking tour. The cab ride was delayed a bit due to a morning procession of monks requesting alms.

IMG_0574.JPG
Buddhist monks on the streets of Yangon

Our walking tour left from the Heritage Trust’s office next to the Yangon Port Authority (our taxi got lost trying to find the right building).

The tour is $30 per person (fairly expensive for Myanmar) but we were told proceeds are used for preservation and conservation of Yangon’s poorly maintained historic buildings. The heritage trust is also working to transform the urban downtown of Yangon by promoting a revitalized, cleaned up city with more green spaces and a friendlier river front. There is little progress right now but our guide seemed hopeful that the new government, once fully in power, will be amenable to positive change.

The tour was a great introduction to the city and its troubled past through the prism of architecture. There were only two other people on the tour with us – both US expats.

We heard about this government building which was partly destroyed in 1941 by Japanese bombs. Little has been done since to restore it to its pre-war glory.

IMG_4069.JPG
Government building still in use today

Remarkably, many of the city’s rundown buildings (including the one above) remain occupied – either by small business owners or residential tenants.

We ventured inside this building which is occupied by several small law offices, lots of families and, disturbingly, hundreds of giant rats. See if you can spot them in the second picture amongst the basement’s garbage.

IMG_4080.JPG
A historic building in downtown Yangon falling apart
IMG_4085.JPG
Rats!

Based on their size, there doesn’t seem to be any shortage of food to scavenge.

Many of the buildings were constructed during the country’s British occupation prior to WWII. Unfortunately, many of these buildings have been poorly maintained. Architecture styles ranged the full gambit from Art Deco to neoclassical.

IMG_4070.JPG
Art Deco building in downtown Yangon
IMG_4074.JPG
Neoclassical columns
IMG_4096.JPG
View from the city’s downtown park

The tour left us off at Bogyoke Market (formerly known as Scotts market).

The tour ended around midday and the heat was becoming oppressive (93 degrees Fahrenheit or about 34 Celsius). Although only a few blocks away, we decided to take a taxi to the Musmeah Yeshua synagogue.

The synagogue is the only one of its kind in a city that has just five Jewish families (excluding expats). At one time the city was home to over 3,000 Jews.

IMG_4130.JPG
Entrance to the Yangon Synagogue

We visited on a Saturday morning and were told the synagogue only hosts Friday night services now. The previous night only three people showed up, not enough for a minyan (the quorum of ten Jewish adults required for certain religious ceremonies).

inside the synagogue

After visiting the synagogue, we walked to 999 Shan Noodle, where we had a cheap but delicious meal of Burmese noodles. Popular on trip advisor, the restaurant had more tourists than locals. 999, its popularity well deserved, was clean, efficient and served a great meal.

By our glutinous western standards, the meal was rather small (similar to hawker dishes in Singapore) and so we headed over to the historic Strand Hotel for high tea.

There were two options: a traditional British high tea and a more local Burmese choice. We split one of each.

British high tea

 

Burmese high tea

We booked a food tour of Yangon for dinner. At 6:00pm, our tour guide James met us at the hotel, and after brief introductions, we headed to Chinatown via taxi. We were the only ones on the tour.

James took us to a small restaurant and we sampled a range of local Burmese foods. Of particular note for me was the fried tofu made from chickpeas instead of soybeans and the sham noodles (sticky rice noodles similar to 999). Similar to Thai cuisine, many dishes in Burma include peanuts.

IMG_4196.JPG
Final stop on the food tour
IMG_4192.JPG
local beer

James was informative but not overly friendly. It was a bit like an awkward three person first date with stilted small talk: so what do you do in your free time? How did you get into this line of work? Etc. etc.

The food was all good though and it was nice having someone who could order for us and explain the local dishes. We went to four restaurants / food vendors in total. My favorite was probably a sidewalk fish stall in Chinatown that reminded me of the fish mamas in Cameroon. The fish was lightly seasoned and grilled perfectly.

FullSizeRender (12).jpg
fish from a street vendor in Chinatown

We also enjoyed this local dessert which was reminiscent of Chendol from Penang, Malaysia.

IMG_0641.JPG
Colorful dessert

Yangon is a different city at night – much more vibrant, active and colorful.

Yangon at night

Sunday

In the morning we ate breakfast at the hotel – I was pleasantly surprised that many of the hot dishes were new. I also explored the hotel and discovered a large state of the art fitness studio and two bars.

We left for the iconic Shewdagon Pagoda shortly after breakfast. The Buddhist temple is the tourist highlight of Yangon and it was especially crowded while we were there. This was partly due to the presence of a large cruise boat in port.

IMG_4221.JPG

 

The tourists were still outnumbered by the local Burmese who came to the temple to worship and socialize at the famous pagoda.

The pagoda has a strict no shoes or socks policy and knees must be fully covered. I was required to purchase a traditional Burmese dress which i personally think looked quite flattering. I received a lot of positive feedback from locals and westerners alike (or at least that’s how I’ve chosen to interpret the laughs and pointing).

IMG_4232.JPG
New outfit
fa2aaa22-90fd-4a4f-831e-55c8f46be827.jpg
matching

After the pagoda we went back to Scotts market and wandered through the Byzantine stalls, eventually purchasing a local acrylic impressionistic painting depicting Yangon in the rain.

We ate at one more local restaurant that served Sham noodles and  other traditional dishes and then headed to the airport for our SilkAir return flight to Singapore.

A few other notes and thoughts on Yangon:
-The people were by and large friendly and helpful. At the market we found very few pushy salesmen – instead they were often reserved and rather shy.
–  lots of stray animals, especially dogs roaming the city. The pagoda was crawling with cats.
– In contrast to other Southeast Asian cities (e.g. Ho Chi Minh and Bangkok), there were almost no motorbikes in the downtown area. We were told this was due to a long standing ban instituted by a former city general. Although this generally results in a less chaotic downtown it also has the unintended consequence of increasing the number of cars on the road and by extension exacerbating the already bad traffic situation.
– The taxis are all unmetered and fares should be agreed prior to departure.

Cameroon – Part 1 (Travel to Douala)

Amy’s sister Michelle is in her final year as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Eastern Province of Cameroon, Africa. This past July, Michelle traveled back to the United States for our wedding in Washington D.C.  It was during our time together in D.C. that the three of us, along with Amy’s dad, made our first tentative plans to visit Michelle in Africa. Six months later, after lots of planning and many vaccinations, we were finally ready for our trip.  This is our story.

This is part 1 of my experience: travel to Douala, Cameroon.

Getting there:

Amy went home to Boston for Christmas but I stayed behind in Singapore. Consequently, we were not able to travel to Cameroon together. Our plan was to rendezvous at the Douala airport on the 27th of December.

Getting to Cameroon from Singapore is neither cheap nor easy. I booked my round trip flight on KLM / Air France (the only airline that flies to both Cameroon and Singapore). My itinerary to Cameroon included a long daytime layover in Amsterdam and an overnight stop in Paris.

My fully flexible, but also very expensive economy ticket was the only option available when I booked my ticket in late October. However, the ticket came with certain advantages including the ability to upgrade to business class at steep discounts if availability existed at check-in. This came in handy later on my flight back to Singapore (a flight that was much longer than expected due to an emergency landing in Romania – story to follow).

There were other, cheaper options to get to Cameroon from Singapore, but they generally included even more stops (in not so nice cities) or otherwise long flights on small, uncomfortable planes. One option that I considered but ultimately dismissed was to fly from Singapore to Istanbul and then from Istanbul non-stop to Cameroon. However the second leg of this journey included a 9+ hour flight on a single aisle 737. I decided to pass on the Istanbul route.

Finally, I had never been to Amsterdam and the KLM / Air France route would give me almost a full day in the Northern European city.

My flight to Amsterdam was uneventful. The half empty plane left just after midnight on December 26th. After takeoff I moved to an empty row, stretched out along three seats, popped a prescription sleeping pill and slept for almost nine hours (a personal record). The sleep was neither restful nor relaxing but it made the 14 hour flight far better than I’ve come to expect from similar long-haul trips.

After waking up I was served breakfast (I was starving after sleeping through the earlier food service), watched several episodes of How I Met Your Mother and before I knew it we were landing in Amsterdam.

We arrived in Amsterdam early in the morning and EU customs only took a few minutes. I had done a poor job of planning for my layover and had little idea of how to get to downtown Amsterdam or what I should do once there. I had, however, read about the luggage storage area at the Amsterdam airport and found the large lockers in the airport’s basement extremely convenient. After storing my bag I headed out of the main airport. Luckily the airport is connected directly to the train terminal and I quickly bought a ticket and was on my way into the city.

Amsterdam was cold, overcast and largely empty when I arrived.  I tried to make the most of my time in the city though: I visited the Anne Frank house, took a canal boat tour and wandered through the red light district (although it was still early and the streets were largely deserted).

 

Not many people out the morning after Christmas in Amsterdam.
My flight to Paris did not leave until after 8:00 pm but around midday my jet lag began to catch up with me and I decided to head back to the Amsterdam airport. At the airport my exhaustion and fatigue were overwhelming and I did my best not to fall asleep and risk missing my flight.

Thankfully, I had booked a room at the Charles de Gaulle Hilton in Paris. My flight from Amsterdam was unremarkable and after arriving in Paris I stumbled to my hotel, took a long shower and fell asleep.

The flight to Douala, Cameroon was scheduled to leave Paris at 11:00 am.  My father-in-law was flying from Boston via Paris.  After suffering through the long customs lines at Charles De Gaulle I found him already seated at the gate.  We grabbed a quick bite to eat and it was soon time to board.

I had, somewhat naively I suppose, assumed that Douala would not be a popular destination and I expected a somewhat empty plane.  I was wrong. Every seat on both the flight to Douala and the flight back was filled. The Air France entertainment selection was good and the six plus hours passed in a blur of movies and TV shows. In no time the pilot came on the intercom to announce that we were beginning our descent into the city. My seat was in the middle section of the two aisle 777, but I did my best to strain to get a view of the city through the window as we approached the airport. The first thing I noticed was the smog and smoke. It looked, from the air at least, like there were fires throughout the city. A not so auspicious first impression.  Later, I learned these fires were from people burning their own garbage, something that happens not just in Douala but throughout the country.

As the plane was continuing on to another destination, the flight attendants announced that passengers would have to show their tickets when exiting the plane to confirm they were at the correct destination.

IMG_3489.JPG
Our Air France plane at the Douala airport
We disembarked through a dark jetway and emerged into a very basic airport gate. The walls were corrugated and opened up to hot outside air.

IMG_3491.JPG
First view of the Douala airport
I had no real expectations for the Douala airport but I had read and heard from Michelle that it serves as an intimidating and not so pleasant welcome to the country. We quickly passed through a health inspection station where a woman took only a cursory glance at our WHO vaccination books to confirm we had the requisite yellow fever immunization. There was no real line for this, so it would have been easy to circumvent this check.

The customs “line” was next. This resembled more of a crowded concert, with people pushing to the front, than any sort of organized line. While waiting to pass through customs, the flight from Brussels arrived and guess who we ran into. . .

IMG_3494.JPG
Amy waiting for her luggage at the Douala airport
The baggage claim at the airport was chaos.

IMG_3495.JPG
Luggage was piled up all over the place
After more than an hour of waiting, Amy and her Dad finally retrieved their bags (I had not checked mine) and we headed outside.  It was a relief to escape the airport.

Just outside the Douala airport, first night in Africa
See part II of our trip to Cameroon here.

On my way to Brunei

This afternoon I will be flying to the tiny country of Brunei for work.  This will be my first trip to the country and also to the island of Borneo. Unfortunately, I may not have much time for sightseeing as I’m scheduled to return tomorrow evening.  I will update this post once I return.

Update: I have returned from the haze-free and mostly sunny country of Brunei. Although the trip was short (I was barely there for 24 hours) I was able to visit many of the city’s more prominent attractions (mostly a few very ornate mosques). Travel outside of the city, to the country’s rainforests and famous caves will have to wait for another trip. 

My flight from Singapore to Brunei was on Royal Brunei Air, the country’s flagship (and only) airline.  

 
As an uneasy flyer to begin with, my anxiety level was elevated at the prospect of flying an airline I had little knowledge of. Despite the plane being a bit old, the flight proved to be generally pleasant. The seats were comfortable with ample legroom (especially compared with some of the budget airlines in the area), and the flight attendants went out of their way to make you feel comfortable. The flight was relatively short at just under two hours but food service was still provided. Unfortunately, the food was the one drawback of the flight. I had a rice and chicken dish that was even less appetizing than it looks. 

 
I would have enjoyed a drink to calm my nerves on the flight but Royal Brunei Air, like Brunei itself, prohibits the sale and consumption of alcohol (although non-Muslims may bring small quantities of alcohol into the country, provided it is not consumed in public). 

This was also my first flight with a pre-takeoff prayer following the safety briefing. The Islamic prayer was projected over the plane’s drop-down video monitors and I believe was in Arabic (although I could be wrong). There were also two sets of subtitles with one in English and I’m guessing the other in Bahasa Malay.  

Strangely, rather than finding the prayer off putting, I actually found it somewhat soothing, but then again that might have just been the anti-anxiety drugs (notice the plural) I took before leaving. 

I was lucky to be shown around Brunei by one of my work colleagues who was born and raised in the country. He picked me up at the surprisingly large and modern airport in a big Toyota Camry. Sitting in that familiar car with the sun shining down, I watched the palm trees pass as we drove out of the airport, their large branches swaying in the afternoon breeze. From my slumped position in the backseat, I could have been forgiven for suddenly feeling fourteen again, freshly landed in West Palm Beach, and on my way to my grandmothers house. 

Despite being shown around the country by a local, I’m still not sure what Brunei cuisine exactly entails (or at least what, if anything, sets it apart from popular Malaysian dishes). During my short visit I can list out what we ate:

  1. Burger King at the airport 
  2. Authentic…Malaysian food
  3. Starbucks
  4. Japanese – mostly very fresh sushi 

Before leaving I was taken to one place for a taste of local Nasi Lemak (a coconut rice dish generally found in Malaysia and Singapore). The “restaurant” was simply someone’s house where you order from an opening in the living room window. 

Me ordering local Brunei Nasi Lemak from someone’s house
 
The food was certainly good, but aside from the presence of a red (pickled?) vegetable, I’m not sure how it differentiated from the Malaysian version of the same dish.