Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Last week of classes! Trip to the Aquarium

So the official count of days I have until being home has actually been altered a bit because I decided to stay an extra week so I could travel to the Philippines! Still only 36 days though until I start the LONG trip back. Sorry I haven't posted in awhile, but life has been pretty low key for awhile just staying updated with my classes, planning for travelling (!!), and doing touristy things around the city. I am definitely in the home stretch and have an exciting few weeks ahead of me. I leave this Friday for a trip to Thailand and Malaysia where I will travel to Phuket, Koh Phi Phi Don island, Georgetown, and the Cameron Highlands! Then I will return to Singapore for 1 week of studying, 1 week of exams, and then off to the Philippines. With rooms costing an average of $8 a night and $50 plane tickets, its hard not to want to travel all over southeast Asia while I am here!

So as far as Singapore touristy things go, this past weekend I ventured to Sentosa Island for the first time since I've been here. This island just off the coast of the main Singapore island is made up of all the resorty things- Universal Studios, Hard Rock Hotel, beaches, and a Casino, to name a few. It is also home to the brand NEW Southeast Asia (SEA) Aquarium- the biggest aquarium in the WORLD! I went to this aquarium with some friends this weekend and had a great time! It was nice to get off campus and away from studying for awhile. 

BARBECUE - This weekend we also rented out the barbecue pit near our hall to and had a nice get together! We went to the supermarket nearby to stock up on sausages, hot dogs, chicken, chips, etc. It was so nice to have everyone together before we all start going our separate ways or get sucked into the world of exams.  

Now for those that may not have understood just what I meant when I said "It's really humid here", here is a little bit of photographic evidence. This is my backpack I got at the beginning of the school year covered in mold from doing nothing other than just sitting in my bedroom.. Yes, folks, it really is that humid. 

Now on a more serious note, my heart goes out to all of the victims of the Boston bombings, the responders, the city of Boston and my entire country. It's times like these that the distance from home is especially felt. Much love to all from Singapore. 

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Monsoon season is NOT over

Along with living in the tropics comes rain- torrential/monsoon/worst-thunderstorm-of-your-life rain. It rains at least 4-5 times a week, either in short spurts or day-long storms. Luckily for me, I love thunderstorms! Although I have been caught in them walking back from class more times than I care for. Supposedly the rainy season ends in February, but I don't believe it.. Here is a video from the thunderstorm we had today! There's some pretty sweet lightning around 0:11

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Hindi Festivals and Giant Trees

Sorry I have been doing so terribly updating this blog! Time has been flying by. I cannot believe that: 
1. It has been 2 weeks since my last post. 
2. I have been in Asia for 2 and a half months. 
3. I have 51 days until I leave for the U.S.

Since recess week I have taken a little break from travelling since things are getting busier with my classes. I am taking this opportunity to see more of the sights in Singapore. In the last couple weeks I have visited Gardens by the Bay, and also got the chance to go to a Rang Barsay festival for the Hindu holiday- "Holi"! 


Rang Barsay means "Shower of Colors" which is a pretty accurate name for this Hindi festival.  Everyone wears light colors, and gets packets of powder to throw/rub on people. Some also mixed it with water from the beach in large buckets or squirt guns, then proceeded to shower the crowd. It was all an amazing chaotic mess of Bollywood music, dancing, conga trains, colors, Indian food, and showers of water. Needless to say, we got quite a few strange looks when we took the MRT (above ground subway system) and buses back to campus. It also didn't come out the easiest, and I still have a little red on my cheek and some light pink left in my hair- but it was worth every minute! I'm so happy I got to experience this cool culture. 


What would Singapore- "The Garden City"- be without a large garden attraction? Gardens by the bay is a very cool, completely self-sustainable park made up of 2 domes, the "Cloud Forest" and the "Flower Dome", and a large system of "trees" that tower above the area. It is all so beautiful and visually dynamic, with a mixture of modern architecture and amazing plants.   

Cloud Forest (left and right): 7 layers of amazing plants and information about cloud forests- found in rainforest mountainous areas, and also some scary facts about the earth (if it keeps heating up at this rate, 50% of the world's species will be extinct by 2080- SAVE THE EARTH, people!)

Flower Dome (right): The flower dome was a gorgeous collection flowers from around the world. Unfortunately, by the time we got there it was pretty dark and since it is in a large glass dome the lighting wasn't the greatest to see the colors. What we could see was still very pretty though! And decorated for Easter! 

Giant "Supertree" Garden (right): Large towers with plants growing up the entire structure. Completely self powered by the rainwater/solar energy they collect! 

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Recess Week: Cambodia

This week was spring break- a very welcome break from classes and schoolwork! I spent the week travelling in Cambodia and enjoyed learning about the deep history of such a special country. We left last Thursday, flying into Siem Reap. 

This area of the country is known for the large amount of historical temples built by the Khmer people, dating as far back as 800 AD. Overall, we spent two full days exploring the temples, beginning with a breathtaking sunrise at Angkor Wat- the largest and the most popular temple. We left soon after to escape the large crowds of tourists and headed to other temples nearby. It was so interesting to see how different each of the buildings were, and the amount of detail involved in each one. I have WAY to many pictures to post them on here, so here are a couple of my favorites:

Angkor Wat

Breathtaking sunrise
Inside Angkor Wat- the sheer size of this temple is incredible

Ta Prohm

The temple where the movie "Tomb Raider" was filmed, Ta Prohm is one of the most incredible to see due to the many large trees that have taken over areas of the temple. It was absolutely amazing to see how powerful nature can be as it took over these stone buildings from hundreds of years ago. 

Banteay Srei

Banteay Srei is not commonly visited by most tourists because of its distance from most of the other temples, but our tuk-tuk driver, Sinat, said it was his personal favorite and called it "the beautiful one" so we decided to take his advice and make the trip. It was ABSOLUTELY worth it, as this ended up being our favorite temple by far! The detail in the carvings was amazing, and everything was a rusty red color. 
Such incredible detail! 

Batman's tuk-tuk
We had an excellent guide, Sinat, who drove us to and between temples via "tuk-tuk"- a cart pulled behind a motorbike. Because it was Cambodia's dry season, the day got unbearably hot pretty quickly, so we usually got an early start exploring the temples (usually around 6am) then were done by noon and ready to head back to the air conditioning in our room. 

The Night Markets! 

Siem Reap was a very cool town, and really came alive at night! Our hotel was just off "Pub Street," which was the center for food and entertainment. The atmosphere kind of reminded of a festival because they blocked off the road at night, and there were people everywhere, especially tourists. We spent the first night shopping for souvenirs in the Night Market- rows and rows of booths owned by locals selling Cambodian silk, t-shirts, jewelry, wooden carvings, paintings, etc. I got pretty good at haggling down prices with local shop owners- you don't ever want to pay the value they give you. As Sinat put it, "if you look like you have a lot of money, they'll say $100! but actually only $2." I guess we didn't look too rich, because we never had prices like that. We also took advantage of the massage shops that lined the streets, and got a 30 minute leg and foot massage with a complimentary beer for only $3! Also while in Siem Reap, we discovered their signature spring rolls! One of the most delicious foods ever, and we had them with nearly every meal :)

After three days in Siem Reap, we journeyed to our next destination: Cambodia's capitol, Phnom Penh. We got there via large minivan- not a good experience. But thankfully, the 5 hours were over quickly and everything was fine once we were safe in Phnom Penh. This city was much larger and busier than Siem Reap and there weren't nearly as many tourists, depending on what area of the city you were in. It was interesting to get to see more locals in their natural atmosphere. 

Memorial at the Killing Fields
One of the saddest, but most powerful things I did on this trip was visit the Cheong Ek Genocide Center (or the Killing Fields) and Tuol Sleng Prison. One thing I was unaware of before this trip, was the fact that Cambodia experienced a genocide that killed about a quarter of the population between the years of 1975 and 1979 when they were under control of a group called the Khmer Rouge. Specifically targeted were those with high levels of education, those living in cities, and those with influential jobs. As a result, the country was set behind greatly in terms of economic standing and development. This is an integral part of Cambodia's history, and the visit truly helped me to understand the Cambodian people a little more. It is such a terrible piece of history, and many of the commanders are still on trial for their crimes. I could go into more detail, much of which would astound you, but for the sake of cheerful travel blogging, I will limit it to this paragraph. However, if you are interested in learning more about it, follow this link

Walking through a local market- they had everything!

While in Phnom Penh, we also walked to the Royal Palace- gorgeous! and visited the National Museum, home to many artifacts found in and around Angkor Wat and other temples. I also got to experience my first "real" market- as in housing more than just souvenirs. We wandered through several of the local markets that had everything from raw meat to snails to hardware parts to bras. 

Count 'em- SIX people on that motorbike!
Not that unusual of a sight in Asia. 
Authentic Khmer massages- great way to beat the heat in the afternoon.
And only $6 for an hour!
I was born to live in a royal palace..
Way too much happened for me to fit it all into this blog, but I think I got a pretty good overview of the highlights. Overall, Cambodia was a remarkable country and I will always have a soft spot for its wonderful people :)

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Chinese New Year- Gong xi fa cai!

So the year of the Snake began on February 10th, as a large portion of Asia shut down to celebrate Chinese New Year! While we don't normally celebrate CNY in the states, it is a very big deal here (as could be expected). Due to the holiday, we got Monday and Tuesday off of school giving us a very long weekend. However, something that didn't really occur to me before the holiday is the fact that all of the locals, including the owners of canteens on campus, would be going home to spend the new year with their families. This caused a very abandoned campus, with only some exchange students left, and very very limited places for us to eat. We did a lot of venturing out to nearby malls and hawker centers, a lot of which were also closed. Probably the best solution we had to dealing with the closure of food stalls was to make homemade egg/bacon sandwiches in the kitchenette of our hall! Definitely something I had been missing from home.  
Happy Year of the Snake! -Chinatown

Chinatown- So many people! 
On New Year's eve, Saturday night, we went to Chinatown (where else) to bring in the new year. The whole area looked so different decorated at night with lanterns hanging everywhere. It was a little crazy with the mass amounts of people, but definitely worth seeing! There was a stage set up for a concert later that night, which was all in Chinese of course. It was a very cool thing to see. 

In Chinatown with friends
for Chinese New Year
Also, this past weekend, my friend Hailey and I were given the opportunity to go to a real Chinese New Year party at her hall neighbor, Ad's house! It was very interesting to see all of the customs that go into the celebration as well as venturing out to a local home- an apartment flat. Most Singaporeans live in these flats due to the shortage of space! One Chinese girl I talked to there could not believe that I lived in a house with property (and animals). She said, "In China, you would be a millionaire or billionaire to live in such a place!"
Chinese New Year at Ad's
Hailey and I (center), Ad and her parents (front right)

The first tradition was that we needed to bring oranges to the party- in even numbers to signify good luck. We each had 2, and upon entering the apartment gave them to Ad's parents saying, "Gong xi!" (pronounced 'cone see') which means something along the lines of well wishes/ happy new year. They then took the oranges from us, gave us good wishes as well, then gave us two different oranges for us to keep. They also gave us envelope's with money inside, another CNY tradition.

Chinese Salad- mixing
with chopsticks!
Another Chinese New Year tradition is the mixing of a plate full of vegetables and other things. First, they assemble a plate full of different colored vegetables (no clue what they were), then gradually add other things such as nuts or honey. With each addition, they say something in Chinese to ask for good luck in some area. For instance, while putting on the honey they might wish for luck in their financial decisions, or for grandkids, etc. Once the plate is completely made, everyone gathers around the table with chopsticks and begin to mix! Supposedly the higher you toss the salad and the more mixed it becomes, the more fortune will come to you. It was really cool to participate in this tradition! And the salad wasn't even too bad when we ate it afterward. 

Also yes, there have been dancing dragons everywhere, usually accompanied by loud drums and cymbals. At one hawker center I went to for food, the dragon weaved around stopping at every stall until they "fed" it money.

This Thursday I leave for Bali for a weekend, then the following Thursday I have Spring Break during which I will be travelling to Cambodia, so I probably won't post for a little while. But when I get back I'll have so much to talk about! 


Wednesday, February 6, 2013

They have school in paradise, too

Believe it or not, I actually do need to go to school while I am here as well, it's not all just fun and games and swimming in the pool.. Although, yes, that's a lot of it. In fact, one of the largest challenges I've had since I've been in Singapore is finding the motivation to do schoolwork when I feel like I am on vacation! 
That being said, here are a few key differences I have observed between NTU and CMU:

1. Drop/Add period- One of the strangest things to get used to is the fact that NTU has drop/add period for the first two weeks of classes. As an exchange student, if I wanted to switch my schedule around I needed to do it during this time. This includes getting potential classes approved, arranging a schedule, arranging a backup schedule (in case you don't get into some), applying to be put into those actual classes, and then trying to foresee which you will actually be placed in so you can attend the first few weeks of lectures. It was all pretty confusing to figure out, but I have survived and am scheduled for 4 classes and total of 15 credits! 

My Schedule: It's a little wacky, but it does the trick.
No class on Tuesday or Friday! 

2. Exams- At Central, people often complain when their final exam is worth 40% of their grade for the class. However, at NTU it is the norm for your final exam to be worth a whopping 70% of your grade! The grades are a lot less spread out which means less quizzes, midterms, homework assignments, etc., but also more independent learning. It makes sense why exam week(s) are such a big deal here. I have a few weeks off of class before exams, just for preparation!    

3. Being the minority- It might seem like a given, but as an exchange student, I am usually a minority on campus- especially in my classes. For instance, in my statistics lecture I am the only exchange student out of 220! This has been a new experience for me, and little difficult to get used to. However, I'm sure when I get back to the U.S. it will seem strange to not be surrounded by Asian students every day! 

4. Tutorials- Most of my classes are split up into two parts, lecture and tutorial. Depending on the classes, they can be structured a little differently. For the most part, during lecture the professor presents material and more theoretical things. Then, during the tutorial sessions, you will be in a smaller group of people (similar to a lab) and work on the practical applications. In the previously mentioned statistics class, I have three hours of lecture every week, then 1 hour of tutorial during which my teaching assistant goes through assigned problems and demonstrates how to do them step by step. However, in my "Sexuality and Society" class, the tutorials are spent with in-depth group discussion.

Overall, I am glad for the opportunity to observe a new type of educational system! I can see pros and cons to each, and am interested to see how the semester will turn out. I am still playing a little catch-up from classes missed during those first two weeks of schedule-adjusting, but am starting to settle into the general swing of things. 

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Singaporean Cuisine

Due to all of the questions I've been receiving, here is a (brief) summary of the food I've been eating:
Korean- Chicken BBQ
Doesn't taste like BBQ in the U.S., but it is so good!
On campus, we eat most of our meals in "canteens" which are basically just cafeterias with booths for all of the different types of food. These booths are all owned by locals and each features a different type of food such as Thai, Indonesian, Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese, or even western food. Because Singapore is made up of such a mixture of cultures, there are a lot of different delicious options to choose from! That being said, I AM in Asia, so pretty much everything consists of rice, a meat, and some type of sauce. Even most of the western food is just "chicken chops and rice" or "beef and rice," although sometimes they throw in some french fries with it too. Speaking of french fries, I find it interesting that this is probably the closest I have ever lived to a McDonald's in my life. There is one on campus just a short walk away! Dangerously close if I want to eat some American food. Interestingly, since Chinese new year is coming up soon, they have a few special options, such as a "prosperity burger", pineapple pie, or curly fries. 

Chicken and Rice- Yummm
A classic Singapore dish, and probably one of my favorite since I've been here, is "Chicken and Rice." It's made up of exactly what it sounds like, chicken.. and rice. But it is so good! You can get it roasted, with lemon, or steamed. Also, I have become victim to all of the waffle shops around campus! You can get a lot of different toppings including peanut butter, jelly, or ice cream (so good!), but not syrup. One advantage to being on a tropical island is all of the fruit juice they have here! There are booths everywhere with freshly squeezed kiwi, watermelon, lime, lemon, pineapple, lychee, etc. juice.  

Waffle topped with mango ice cream!
You may not be able to tell from the picture,
but the waffles are slightly green from
 a leaf they put in it
Kiwi Juice- So delicious
Rice roll- Filled with meat and such

However, not everything here is great.. For the first few days I was here, I kept noticing a strange smell around town and campus. I soon came to find out that this was durian, a fruit very popular with the locals and characterized by the incredibly strong "dirty sock" smell it has. Because the smell is so strong and lingers so much, many buses have signs on them prohibiting people from bringing the fruit on with them. Since I needed the authentic Singaporean experience, I tried some creme puffs that had durian in them, and I can tell you firsthand that it tastes much worse than it smells. I have been assured that you can develop a taste for it over time, but I think I'll just take their word for it.  

Durian Tree on a hike! There is one outside my hall that is often rather stinky.
Overall, the food has been great! I am slowly figuring out which kinds of Asian foods I like/dislike. And yes, I have gotten great at chopsticks! There is silverware available everywhere, but I've still been practicing a lot.

Also, I went hiking yesterday and got chased by a monkey, but that will just have to wait for another post.