Monday, November 23, 2009

A 50 year storm, a request to be the school landscaper, and Thanksgiving at work

Three brief stories from my school this week:

1. This past Thursday, it started raining. Like really raining.

We're in the rainy season here in Singapore, but that doesn't usually translate to rain all the time but rather just an afternoon thunderstorm every other or every third day. These storms are amazing because it cools everything off and you can finally stop sweating. Then, on last Thursday, the normal afternoon thunderstorm started at 1pm.

By 1:15pm, the entire sky was black.

By 1:30 pm, it was raining so hard that it was literally like a thick fog; you couldn't see more than about 15-20 feet in front of you outside.

By 1:45 pm, I started to get nervous, because I had a class at 2pm that was a 10 minute walk away. Time to get wet. I started walking towards my class, and was able to stay under covered walkways for the first 6-7 minutes or so of the walk. Finally, though, I reached the last road that I needed to cross to get to my classroom; unfortunately, the road was covered with knee-deep water. I walked along the road in both directions for several minutes and found that all roads surrounding this road were also knee deep in water - it was a verifiable river flowing through campus. Luckily I also ran into my students who were also stumped by the river, and so we all were able to converse about what to do together.

As I was about to tell them to follow me to another building, I turned around and saw half of them had taken off their shoes, rolled up their pants, and were wading across the river to our lecture location. Meanwhile, they yelled, "We're doing this for you, Mr. Zoller!" Needless to say, it was a pretty good feeling. Apparently they cared enough about my class to wade through torrential rain and knee deep rushing water in their school clothes, before having to sit through a 3 hour class with me. I eventually found a path to walk around the river (after wandering around for a good 15 minutes).

I later found out that this storm was a "50 year" storm, or something that only happens once every 50 years in Singapore; the storm was so intense that it reached local newspapers (Bukit Timah is the town I live in). Between 1.20pm and 1.50pm alone, 92mm of rain fell. Overall, 110mm (or 4.5 in) of rain fell throughout the 2 hour storm, almost HALF of the monthly average for November (a rainy season month). It was incredible.

2. A request to be the school landscaper

This morning, I was sitting at my desk when my office neighbor, with whom I usually barely speak with because he's very eldery and I didn't think he spoke English very well (because he barely speaks to anyone), stopped by. He noticed my four mini cacti that I have as a decoration on my desk, and asked "You like plants?" I responded, slightly startled because I'd never heard him talk, "Oh, umm, yea, I do." He replied, "Come with me." I got all excited because I thought he was going to take me to some place to get some cool plants for my cube.

We started walking towards the greenhouse; I got even more excited. We walked inside the greenhouse, and he started pointing out different species of exotic orchids, cacti, bamboo, and ginger plants. Then he pulled out the garden hose. At which point we proceeded to water the entirety of the greenhouse for 45 minutes, and during which time I was attacked by a thousand mosquitoes. (Meanwhile, I'm supposed to be at my desk as I have a ton of prep work to do for next week's classes.)

Ok, fine, I thought, he's just getting his excitement from showing me all of the different plants that he works with everyday. I enjoyed his excitement, because my co-workers here take a lot of pride in showing us around the town and around their various areas of expertise. So as we finally left the greenhouse, I was still fairly pleased that he had taken me around his area of pride.

Then, he turned to me and said, "So, you liked these plants a lot?"

"Yes, I did. They were quite nice," (a standard Singaporean phrase to describe food or other items).

"Well then, can you water, fertilize, and add pesticide to all of these plants (about 2-300 in all) once a week? It will only take about 2 hours each week and you can work up a great sweat!"

I was taken completely by surprise. ".... Uhhhh ..... These plants are quite nice but..... uhhhh.... well, the thing is ..... uhhhhh" I was stalling; I had no idea how to say no without offending him. People here often ask us to do a lot of tasks, because I think they know we can't really say no, but I thought that this task was way over the top. Finally, a perfect excuse hit me:

"Well I'm really allergic to pollen (I am, really, but not that bad), and with my asthma and all, I don't think it would be such a good idea for me to do that..."

Phew. Trivial, menial task smoothly avoided, feelings left unhurt.

3. Thanksgiving at work!

Today, I spent Thanksgiving at work (well obviously, because clearly Singapore doesn't celebrate Thanksgiving). BUT, our department had scheduled a pot luck Thanksgiving lunch in our honor! So last night, I prepared a sweet potato/marshmallow/brown sugar casserole recipe, while other colleagues prepared the turkey, stuffing, vegetables, and an assortment of traditional Indian and Chinese dishes, including a loaf of bread stuffed with chicken curry, and a duck/vegetable soup. We also had chocolate fondue, pumpkin pie, chocolate chip cookies, and an assortment of other desserts and side dishes that rounded out a more than fantastic Thanksgiving feast. My dish was very popular and none was left by the end, and I was continually complimented by co-workers on how "quite nice" my sweet potato dish was.

I will upload pictures soon.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Knowing how to do "The Worm" has finally paid off

For the past 3 1/2 weeks, I, along with the 14 other new staff in my department (LSCT) at Ngee Ann, have been preparing for a talent show that we were roped into by our senior lecturers. The 15 of us included the three IFs (International Fellows, including myself), new lecturers, TSOs (Technical Support Officers), and RAs (Research Assistants). A whopping grand total of 1 of us had any dance experience - a tiny little TSO by the name of Li Yan who's been belly dancing for years.

For 2 afternoons a week during this period, we would all meet and try to scramble together a performance that wouldn't completely suck. Over the course of our preparations, we built together a fairly solid routine - we designed a belly dance routine to Shakira, a bangara routine (a typical Indian dance), a Michael Jackson routine for the 3 IFs (of course they had the white people do MJ), and finally a routine to "Sorry Sorry" by Super Junior (a very hip, popular Korean Pop song among the teenagers here). As all of the pieces of our routine started to come together (including the MJ performance which we choreographed 8 hours before our performance), we started to get really excited to perform - in front of 600 students in our department!

During the moments before the performance, waiting backstage in the dressing room, I started to get the same feeling of nervous excitement that I would get before swim races - it was a rush. We walked out in the dark as the previous act was singing, and assumed our starting position for the belly dance song. As soon as the curtain opened, the students erupted into a scream - we were the only staff performance in the talent show, and already the students have fallen in love with the American lecturers. Each time I or Trevor or Ana performed on stage, the students would squeal with delight. In particular, I had a solo at the end of the performance, during "Sorry Sorry" where I performed "The Worm" - a break-dance move where you wave your body along the ground, moving backwards. I picked up this trick mainly as a party trick over the years, and it's pretty easy to do but looks really cool. As I went through the motions for the dance, all I could hear was the deafening roar of the crowd. They simply went nuts during this part, it was one of the coolest experiences of my life.

The best part about doing this dance performance has been the after effects. All of my coworkers have come up to me at some point to comment on my ability to do the worm - they all think I'm some kind of gymnast or dance performer from the past. It's hilarious. Even better, the next 2 classes I walked into, my students all erupted into cheers as I walked into the room. It's certainly a great feeling to enter a room with this kind of reception!

For one of my classes, the students had a projector already set up with the youtube video of my worm performance on the screen and all the lights off, and timed it so just as I walked in they were in the middle of watching it, erupting into cheers. In addition, just randomly walking around campus now, I will walk past a group of students whom I have no idea who they are, and they will shout out "THRILLLA!" (in reference to the MJ performance). We're kind of like mini-celebrities on campus now. Check out the dance performance below:

Yea, it's awesome here.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Bali: Check one off the life goals list

This past weekend, I finally accomplished one of my biggest goals for my year in Asia: I surfed Indo. To me, this was one of the biggest drawing factors to living in Singapore, was that I would have very easy access to Indonesia, which is home to some of the world's best and most consistent waves. It took 6 weeks for me to get my feet wet and venture into Indonesia, but it was well worth the wait.

I took Friday off from work with Ana De Roo, another PiAer who also has no class on Fridays, and we prepared to fly off to Bali for a long weekend. I had spent the previous night printing out page after page of information on surf spots and locations in Bali, and I knew that my first priority was going to be Uluwatu. I was so excited Wednesday night before the trip that I wasn't able to sleep, and Thursday at work dragged on forever. But finally 6 o'clock rolled around and Ana and I taxi'd over to Changi Airport for our 9:45 departure to Bali.

Our plane landed in Bali 45 minutes late, and of course the pre-arranged free airport pickup from our hostel never showed up. So we taxi'd from the airport to our hostel at 1am, only the taxi driver had no idea where he was going (except he didn't tell us that). We didn't realize he didn't know where he was going until he dropped us off at a hotel and drove off; we walked inside only to find out that we simply were not in the correct location. By this point it was 2am and we were exhausted, so we proceeded to call taxi number 2. 10 minutes into this taxi ride the driver pulled over to call his operator and ask where our hostel was. All I could think was, This hostel better exist somewhere, or tonight's going to be a long night... But the cabbee assured us he knew where it was.

We then turned into a street that was so narrow that the cab had only 2-3 cm of free space on either side of the sideview mirrors. We noticed the cabbee's apprehension about continuing forward, so we asked him how much further to our hostel. He told us only several hundred meters, so we decided to get out and walk down this pitch black alleyway at 230 in the morning, as we received a cat call from a loitering Balinese man. We quickened our steps at this point, but finally saw a sign for "The Island Bali" - our hostel at last! After these missteps, all we wanted was a bed and a roof: little did we know that we had stumbled upon the nicest hostel either of us have ever stayed at.

For only 25 USD a night, we had an air conditioned room, a beautiful pool and outdoor lounge area, an amazing free breakfast of fresh tropical fruit, clean sheets and towels, and a location that was only a 2 minute walk to the beach. I was in heaven.

I could write pages upon pages about my first trip to Bali, but I'll let my pictures do most of the talking. You can check out my first Bali album at But I do want to write about my experience at Uluwatu, as this was one of the biggest goals of my life to experience.

On Saturday morning, Ana and I woke up and met Robbie, our personal driver that we had hired for the day (for a mere 15 USD pax). He drove us the 45 minutes from our hostel to Uluwatu beach, at which point I realized I had just stumbled into heaven. Uluwatu consisted of a small beach village with about 30 small shacks on the side of a cliff, of which 20 were surf shops and 10 were restaurants/bars. The village extended down the side of a jagged cliff and you needed to walk down several hundred steps to reach the bottom of the cliff village. At this point, you find yourself surrounded by surfers from all over the world - I saw/heard people from Australia, Britain, US, Russia, France, Germany, and of course Indonesia. Now the cliff opens up onto a secluded beach surrounded by caves, and at the far end of the caves, the stone walls give way to a beautiful crystal blue ocean filled with stunning coral reef. I could not have been happier.

I then embarked to haggle with the surf shops to rent a board, and was able to bargain with a store keeper for a 6'2" Ed Sinnott Pro series "The Ace," which was the best board I've ever ridden. I got the board for 4 hours for 20 USD, but I think in the future I'll be able to haggle them down a little lower. I then paddled the approximately 300 meters out over 3 feet of jagged, sharp, stunningly beautiful coral reef to the first of the four point breaks. I spent the next 4 hours catching wave after wave of endless lefts, all with a permanent smile etched onto my face (which would later literally become permanent from the sun-burn lines...). I had one of the best surf sessions of my life, as I rode 5-6 foot peeling barrels over a 3 foot drop into coral reef. 72 hours after this surf session, my arms and back are still sore, as I didn't want to take the time to rest or stretch, I only wanted to surf.

After finally exhausting myself in the hot Indonesian sun, and as the tide began to draw out leaving sections of the reef exposed to the air, I decided that it was finally time to call it a successful session. I half paddled/half walked back in along the reef, and then met up with Ana who had been relaxing in the secluded cave beach all day. We proceeded up to the village, where I found that surf photogs had been taking pictures of the surfers all day, and I was able to check out pictures of myself. I will wait till the next time I go back to Uluwatu to make some purchases, as they're able to store the photos indefinitely for you. Our final stop of the day at Uluwatu was at a bar overlooking the steep cliff that dropped into the ocean, where we sat for an hour watching the sunset and enjoying a few Bintangs.

That night, I was in bed and passed out by 9pm. It was easily one of the best surfing days of my life, if not one of the best days of my life.

We finally left Bali on Sunday, and I spent the whole plane ride wishing I had more time to spend in my own personal paradise.

Oh wait, I'm going back in 2 weeks...

Monday, November 2, 2009

"Don't Play Play" on Singapore Halloween

This past weekend was Halloween in Singapore. Do Singaporeans celebrate Halloween, you ask? You bet.

Well, not most. But enough to make this story interesting.

Leading up to the holiday, I had little idea of what to be for my costume. I had already heard some good costume ideas that my expat friends were being (including a papier-mache fortune cookie - it was pretty intense), so I knew I needed something that could stand up to the other ideas. In the past, I'm not one to take Halloween lightly - I like to put in the effort to get a good costume, even if it costs a few extra hours of searching for the right items.

Anyway, my friend Ana and I came upon an amazing idea for our costumes 48 hours before Halloween. So all around Singapore on the MRT (Mass Rapid Transit = subway trains) are public service announcements made by two of Singapore's most famous sitcom characters. The characters can only be described as follows: loud, obnoxious, corny, hilarious. The guy is called Phua Chu Kang or PCK for short, and the wife's name is Rosie. They come from a Singaporean sitcome called PCK, in which the main character basically runs around Singapore getting into all sorts of trouble because of his use of Singlish. In particular, his main catch-phrase is "Don't play play!"; I still have yet to find someone who actually knows what this means.

So on every single MRT door, you see posters that look as follows:

Notice 2 things about this picture. 1 - his enormous black mole on his right cheek. 2 - his hideously long right pinky nail. And there's one more thing that you can't see in this photo, but his trademark outfit includes giant yellow rain boots, which you can see in the following video: (this video is played nonstop on the MRT as well - it is a rap song by PCK enticing you to be courteous, as he dances around in his yellow rain boots. It is well worth watching.)

I found every detail to this costume. I owned a white dress shirt and black pants, I bought a perfect black wig, got black face paint for the mole, found glow-in-the-dark fake finger nails, got multiple gold chains for the necklace and bracelets, and found an amazing pair of bright yellow rain boots. With costume complete, I set out for the pre-game party before we moved on to club Zouk. See below for a comparison between the MRT pictures and the picture of Ana and I:

So safe to say, our costumes were pretty amazing. Little did we know that we would soon be celebrities though.

Upon arriving at club Zouk, a club we chose because they gave free entrance to anyone in costume, we immediately became swarmed with Singaporeans. Everywhere I walked, anytime I made eye-contact with anybody, all I heard was "PCK! PCK!" Every single local, whether guy or girl, loved the fact that an Ang Mor (derogatory term for a white person in Singapore) had dressed up as their favorite pop culture star. Over the course of 2 hours at the club, and this is no exaggeration, I had to stop for no less than 50 photo-shoots with my favorite fans. Every single group of teenage girls stopped me to take personal pictures with them, and of course I was more than happy to oblige. I wouldn't be surprised if my images are floating somewhere in the Singaporean tabloids right now, because I feel like somewhat of a celebrity after that night. Needless to say, with the massive ego-boost of a succesful Halloween costume, I had a fantastic night. The only downside is that my camera has been broken for the past week and so I don't have any footage from the club, but I'm willing to bet that you'll be able to see my pictures floating around someone's myspace or facebook or even US weekly sometime in the next couple of days. Just keep your eyes open for a white PCK surrounded by gaggling teenage girls.