Singapore: Crazy Laws, Haze and Orchard Road

And jet lag strikes again. Even though I’ve been on the road for over a week, my body is still slow to adjust to the 12-hour time change. I have to say, despite the bouts of fatigue each afternoon (and, as a result, sleeping through dinner), it’s kind of nice being wide awake so early in the morning. No coffee necessary!

Over the next few weeks, I will be traveling through Singapore, Malaysia, Bangladesh and Thailand in search of prices of items like spark plugs, women’s undergarments and iodized salt. Exciting stuff, folks. I still can’t believe I get paid to do this.

Before I write about my first destination this trip–the tightly regulated, gastronomic paradise of Singapore–I’d like to give a few shout-outs to some of the people I’ve been fortunate enough to meet in Boston over the last couple of months:

  • In the final leg of an all-you-can-fly Jet Blue trip, Sean Ogle took me up on an offer to host him for a long weekend. Sean is an interesting guy–after quitting his job as an investment analyst, he moved to Thailand for several months to hook up with the guys at TropicalMBA.com. He has since moved back to Portland, Oregon and recently launched a product of his own, Overcoming the Fear of Uncertainty. Sean, great to meet you and pick your brain. Next time you feel like a round of parkour, give me a call.
  • Nate Damm came down from Maine that same weekend. Nate, a long-time friend on the Interwebs, joined me for a killer hike in the White Mountains earlier in the summer. In March, Nate will take off on an epic journey and walk across America. Nate, you’re a legend-in-the-making. Hope I can join you for part of the walk!
  • Elisa Doucette, a comrade of Nate’s in Maine, also came down and hung out for a day. She is a freelance writer and dare-I-say hilarious person to have around. Elisa, when you’re ready to romp around the jungle gym, you know where to find me.
  • Nate, Sean and I were fortunate enough to spend a night out with Shannon Whitehead, a socially-minded entrepreneur who, just last week, left for Latin America to set up her own fair-trade clothing business. Shannon, look forward to following you and Kristin’s updates from Guatemala and Nicaragua!
  • Joining Sean, Nate, Shannon and myself were Matt Kepnes (AKA Nomadic Matt) and Kate McCulley (AKA Adventurous Kate), two world travelers from the Boston area. Great to meet both of you in the flesh. Next time you’re in town and feel like a night of dancing and tequila, you know how to reach me.

Nice to hang out with all of you! I trust our paths will cross again.

Singapore

Things to know about Singapore; it’s hot. It’s very, very hot. It’s an ultra-modern, ultra-convenient city with an absolute minimum of social problems. They’ve figured out everything here. No traffic, no litter, no drug problem, no violent crime. I mean, it’s a kind of benevolent, kooky, neo-totalitarian thing going on here. I’m an all-time Lefty, and yet, I’m ashamed to say this..I kind of like it here.

Anthony Bourdain, No Reservations

When my colleague and I landed in Singapore, a faint-white haze hung high in the air. Seasonal bush fires in Indonesia will sometimes yield that effect, I was told. This particular smoke was coming from a forest fire in Sumatra, hundreds of miles away.

Singapore, relative to the region, is like an Asia-for-beginners. The streets and lawns and buildings are immaculate. Taxis are everywhere, and prices are posted and tightly monitored. Orchard Road, one of Singapore’s main tourist attractions, is flanked by multiple mega-malls and international chains like Starbucks, Borders and 24-hour McDonald’s. It’s a shopping playground. 42% of the population is foreign workers. English is the dominant language. Singapore’s market-based economy is one of the most open, innovate and business-friendly in the world.

And did I mention the food?

Chinese, Malay and Indian cuisines. Ambrosial spices and noodles and strange, exotic combinations of seafood and local fruit and curry sauces. Here were my favorite dishes:

Char Kway Teow. A heady mixture of flat rice noodles, eggs, prawns and cockles. Sweet, salty, crunch and chewy.

Char Kway Teow

Laksa. Smooth rice noodles in a robust spicy gravy, topped with prawns and cockles. A Malaysian specialty.

Laksa

Barbecue Stingray. Stringy in texture, and tasting like a kind of weak chicken. You know, the one that was always picked last in gym class. Quite tasty, though.

Barbecue Stingray

Crazy Laws

You can’t sell chewing gum in Singapore. It’s illegal. So is bungee jumping, peeing in an elevator and pornography. Oh, and don’t spit, feed the birds or forget to flush the public urinal. You might get fined.

Are these the kind of laws that help foster such a clean and “staunchly non-corrupt” society? I wonder.

Interestingly enough, in the four-odd days I spent wandering Singapore’s streets, I can’t recall seeing a single police officer. The system is so effective, it governs itself!

Luanda, Angola: Street Entrepreneurship, More Bribing and a Side Trip to Soyo

A little known fact; for foreigners, Luanda is the most expensive city in the world. While most Angolans live in poverty, expatriates pay upwards of $15-20,000 a month to rent a 3BR house. A moderate dinner typically costs $100 per person, and a 3-star hotel room will run at least $300 a night.

Yikes. When I wasn’t waiting in traffic, I spent most of my time in Luanda marveling at the prices. Of strawberry jam, of meat and toilet paper and motor oil. All very, very expensive.

I wish I knew more about history and economics to be able to explain why prices are so high. I read that during the Angolan Civil War (1975-2002), families thronged to Luanda. It was farther away from the fighting. The large surge in population put stress on the city. The government–getting rich from oil and diamond revenue–has since heavily invested in Luanda infrastructure. Like Dubai just a few years ago, cranes poke out of the skyline. New roads are lain, even a new airport is under construction. Unlike Dubai, however, Luanda isn’t nearly as organized. There’s government corruption. Many of the buildings are broken. Sidewalks are puddled and attract malaria-carrying mosquitoes.

Street Entrepreneurship

The traffic is abysmal. Not as bad as Lagos, Nigeria, but close. Idled in the city’s cramped streets, a thick layer of carbon monoxide hangs in the air. Hawkers meander from car to car, selling anything and everything. Mouse pads, air freshener, cold sodas, clocks, mini-violins, toilet seats, hats, socks and pirated DVDs. Hustling in the finest sense of hustling there is. It’s a wild scene. Just off the streets lie barbed wire, scaffolding, dust, trash and exposed sewers, indicators of a city that’s running too fast for it’s own good. In the distance, ratty soccer goals line the sandy shore. At the end of Ilha de Luanda, a skinny and posh peninsula that juts out from the center of the city, an oil rig stands tall.

More Bribing

One afternoon, I helped my driver pay off the police to get out of a traffic violation.

Side Trip to Soyo

This particular cost-of-living study required a few nights in Soyo, a small city at the northwestern-most part of the country, bordering the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Accommodation at one of our client’s oil camps had been arranged. The first afternoon, I was asked to participate in a mandatory site orientation. Ben, a large man who spoke in a slow, southern drawl, outlined the camps facilities. “They have a big incinerator there, sometimes it work, sometimes it don’t.” Ben mentioned that over 1,000 snakes had been relocated from the camp over the last year. Forest and black spitting cobras, gaboon vipers, and Jameson’s mambas. Not to mention the killer bees, wasps, scorpions and spiders. I made sure to stay on the path.

I was escorted around town by several of the expatriate wives. They’re probably the most hardcore foreign workers I’ve ever met. These women have lived all over the world, for years, in places like Kazakhstan and Nigeria. One of them took me through Soyo’s largest outdoor market.

At first, Angola was slow to issue me a visa–my first passport picture was deemed too “inappropriate.” (I had apparently exposed too much chest?) I’m glad they decided to let me in. What a week.

Windhoek, Namibia: Crazy Meat, Sandboarding and a Haircut

In the heart of downtown Windhoek, two streets intersect at a large roundabout that houses an old Lutheran church. It’s an otherwise normal, nondescript arrangement, save for one small detail. Now, I’ve seen some goofy and funny street names in my day, but this pairing has to rank as one of the quirkiest; Fidel Castro Street and Robert Mugabe Avenue, named respectively after Cuba and Zimbabwe’s iconic dictators. Apparently, Namibia’s first president had befriended the two during the country’s struggle for independence. An interesting tidbit, I thought.

Some other fun facts about Namibia:

  • Behind Mongolia, it is the world’s least densely populated country.
  • A third of the population speaks German.
  • Mining accounts for 25% of the economy. Currently, it’s the world’s fifth largest producer of uranium.
  • The Namib Desert is the oldest desert in the world.
  • The Namib Desert is home to the highest sand dunes in the world.
  • Shiloh Jolie-Pitt, the daughter of Brad and Angelina, was born in Namibia.

Disclaimer: the learning of interesting and awesome things is good for your health.

Crazy Meat

Vegetarians beware; Namibia is a nation of meat eaters. One place in particular, Joe’s Beer House, is notably light on the vegetables. A large, quasi-outdoor expanse just outside of Windhoek’s city center, Joe’s Beer House is the place to go if you’re looking to expand your culinary repertoire. Check out the menu!

I opted for the Bushman Sosatie, a “variety of ostrich, crocodile (when available), zebra, kudu and chicken meat, served with corn fritters, sour cream and salad.” Each meat had it’s own unique flavor. The chicken tasted like chicken, of course. The zebra was light and flavorful, the ostrich rich and beefy. The prices were surprisingly reasonable, the beer cool, the atmosphere inviting, just the kind of place I feel good about recommending to a fellow traveler. I must say, though, that I went almost an entire week without meat after that meal. It’s an overwhelming experience. Be prepared.

Sandboarding

Always in the mood to escape city life and thrust myself into Mother Nature’s open arms, I traveled five hours outside of Windhoek to go sandboarding. From Rhino Park in Windhoek, I paid about $15 to ride in a fifteen-passenger van. It was nice, not as crowded as I had anticipated. Cruising down the B2 highway, we passed Karibib and stopped in Usakos, where I bought three samosas, a coke, some juice, a Nestle bar and some chocolate covered raisins. I like to travel in style, folks.

As we entered the desert, the landscape became more distinct; distant and undulating hills, sun-bleached shrubbery, the occasional craggy outcropping. Termite mounds, reaching up from the cracks like long, skinny fingers, sporadically spaced out amongst the brush. It was ragged, dusty, seemingly endless, Namibia’s own sandy heart of darkness.

The van stopped again in Arandis, a small town adjacent to a much larger uranium mine. The driver, who had been towing some luggage behind the van, stopped to unload some items; two tires, a mattress, an HP printer, and three very large, industrial-size bags of clothing.

We arrived in Swakopmund just as the sun was setting. Due to the location of the shoreline–where the Atlantic’s cold water reaches Africa–there’s often a thick fog that covers the road, but that evening it was clear and temperate.  I checked into the Desert Sky Lodge and ran down to the beach.

It was a Sunday night and the city was quiet. I found a German pub, had some beer and fish and walked back to the guest house. The next morning, I was picked up at 9:30a by Alter Action, a Swakopmund-based adventure company. I hopped in a van with a guy from Portland, Oregon and was soon joined with a group of overland travelers from the U.K. and Australia. Fifteen minutes later and we were on site, at the base of the dunes.

Instead of traditional sandboarding (standing up on a waxed snowboard), I opted to lie down on a flexible wooden sheet. I was told I’d go faster, be able to ride longer dunes and, since I’m not too comfortable on a snowboard, I’d have more fun! It was fun indeed; on the steepest run, I reached a speed of 74km/hr (46mph). This is what it looks like.





It was a once-in-a-lifetime kind of morning. That afternoon, I found another passenger van that drove me back to Windhoek. I arrived just after dinner and went back to work the next morning.

Haircut

The summer of 2008 was the last time I paid for a haircut. I was in Istanbul, traveling with my brother and some friends, and a guy named Mustafa worked his magic. I looked all slick and European. I miss that haircut. Since then, I’ve had this routine of letting my hair grow long, buzzing it, letting it grow long again, buzzing it, etc. Back in Windhoek, in an unseen dash of spontaneity, I walked into a German hairdresser and got myself a haircut. The barber did a much better job than I’ve been doing the last couple of years. Maybe it’s time to stop buzzing my head.

Have any of you gotten your hair cut on the road? Any interesting or funny experiences? After reading my friend Earl’s tribute to underarm shaving, I wonder how many more wacky stories I might be able to round up. Care to share?

Harare, Zimbabwe: Vampire Hunting, City Touring and Chicken Farming

In my book of travels, Zimbabwe exists in an elite group of countries-that-are-ridiculous. Since its hyperinflation made U.S. news back in 2008, Zimbabwe has piqued my curiosity.

Just a few years ago, Zimbabwe was in shambles. Unofficial figures put annual inflation at 516 quintillion per cent and prices were doubling every 1.3 days. A Z$100 trillion banknote was printed just before the country abandoned their own currency for the U.S. Dollar and South African Rand.

photo from drewgstephens

I had a wild nine days in and around Harare, the country’s capital. Below are some of my more memorable experiences.

Vampire Hunting

It was 12:15am, and I had almost given up. Etson, a taxi driver I had employed earlier in the day, was supposed to call me. We had planned to get drinks when work calmed down, around ten. Past midnight found me curled up, reading Blindness, my eyes heavy and weary, perfectly poised for a night of deep sleep. The phone rang.

ALAN! This is Etson. Yes, Etson. I am ready. I am coming to pick you up. Ten minutes. Ten minutes. Oh, great. You can say that again!

We drive to Tipperary’s, a nightclub just outside the city center. Etson informs me that due to a special event, entry was $3, each ticket good for two beers at the bar. We navigated the crowd and walked through an outdoor patio. Inside, the bar was pulsating. African music, hard and hypnotic in one room, a billiards area in the center, jam-packed with scantily-clad prostitutes, the clinking of beer bottles and shuffling of feet around the pool table.

Etson and I found another room, in the back with a bar, and sat down, attracting a small crowd. Sporadic drunken approaches by a journalist for The Herald (a local paper) interrupted our conversation. Etson received a call from the hotel to return and pick up a client. My guess is that the hotel didn’t know he was drinking with me at the bar.

On the short drive home, Etson turns the other way, onto Chinamano Road.

Now it’s vampire time. Let’s go look for vampires.

The road was dark, quiet, full of shadows, tree branches slenderly draped toward the dirt, a thin layer of dust in the air. It took me a few seconds to figure it out. When I did, I asked Etson how much a “vampire” might cost. “$15 for short-term, $60 long-term. Oh! That one is waving, look!” I politely waved back, of course, asking Etson to drive away, back to the hotel. He was slow to the pedal. I glanced back and saw three girls, running toward the car, left behind in a late-night heap of dust.

City Touring

Rather than a trip to Victoria Falls, which would certainly have exhausted what little recreational money I had allotted for this survey, I opted for a Harare city tour. Below are a few pictures.

Kopje, a large granite hill just south of central Harare. There is a monument there that was built in 1936. It’s a great place to scout out downtown Harare.

The Chiremba Balancing Rocks, a field of precariously balanced rocks, some with art from the Zimbabwe bushmen of the early 20th century.

Luv dat chicken! Of all my options, this is where I decided to stop for food. This billboard reeled me right in.

At the Zimbabwe Museum of Human Sciences, images were not allowed, so I snapped this one from outside. Inside, I saw stuffed vervet and samango monkeys, a black rhinoceros skeleton, a Vulcanodon dinosaur foot and a replication of an indigenous Shona village. The museum itself was dilapidated, dark and grimy, but from what I was told it was the only museum in the city. There was an interesting exhibit on the Zimbabwe Olympic Committee, which began sending athletes to the Olympics in 1980, thirteen who were represented in the 2008 Beijing Games.

The Botanic Garden, at sixty eight hectares, has over nine hundred species of shrubs and wild trees from all over the country.

Chicken Farming

Today, farming and land ownership are two huge issues in Zimbabwe. Robert Mugabe, disturbed by the imbalance of land ownership–in the 20th century, whites made up less than 1% of Zimbabwe’s population but held about 70% of the most arable land–initiated a land reform program that, in the eyes of many turned the country upside down. Beginning in 2000, Mugabe “redistributed” farmland, kicking some 4ooo-odd white farmers off their land. The country used to thrive agriculturally, exporting crops like tobacco and maize, but now with suboptimal management and a lack of proper knowledge, Zimbabwe imports more and more. It’s a sad story.

I heard this history firsthand, from a guy named Mark, a family member of a college friend. Mark and his wife, local Zimbabweans, were kind enough to let me into their home, feed me, introduce me to their friends and children and enlighten me on what life in Zimbabwe has been like for farmers over the last several years. We also snuck in a little golf.

Back in the mid-90s, Mark was kicked off of his farm in rural Zimbabwe. The chief of police, a friend of Mark’s, showed up to the farm one day and asked him to leave. Since they were friends, the police chief gave Mark’s family time to pack their things. There weren’t any guns involved, but many other farmers were not as fortunate.

I visited Mark’s new farm, where he raises chickens, 15,000 at a time, five times a year. He also grows passion fruit and has entertained the idea of raising crocodiles from Mozambique. He purposefully keeps the farm disheveled, in an effort to thwart any government employee in the market for redistribution.

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I could go on and on. Zimbabwe was a wild experience, definitely a place that I’ll be keeping tabs on. Who knows what will happen with new leadership–Mugabe is going on 90. I saw so much potential during my visit. With agriculture, with tourism, with all kinds of business. Given the right direction, Zimbabwe could turn itself around. It’s such a beautiful country.

Lusaka, Zambia: Billboards, Mobile Phones, and a Serbo-Croatian Lunch

My first stop is Lusaka, Zambia. It’s a tame city, ever-sunny, sleepy in the evenings, amicable, the kind of place I’d be interested to shack up—did I phrase that right?—for a couple of years, the kind of place one could enjoy a nice, lazy meal. You could get some serious reading done here.

Greetings from the road, folks. I spent the first four nights of this survey in Lusaka, Zambia. It’s a calm city, easy to get around and an overall solid start to my African excursion.

In my last post, I had mentioned a new writing gig with Flightster. The quote above is from my most recent article over there, “From Zambia, With Love.”

Billboards

Zambia, like many other African countries, has oodles of billboards.

Zambezi Airlines has been on the EU blacklist since December 2009.

Mobile Phones

Walking off the plane, down onto the tarmac and through the long tunnel before immigration, I’m bombarded with advertisements. Zain and MTN, the two largest telecommunications operators in Zambia, hug the walls with their large, bright ads.

Throughout my stay in Lusaka, driving around and walking through its centralized shopping complexes, I see Zain and MTN, head-to-head, vying for consumers’ attention.

Serbo-Croatian Lunch

My final afternoon finds me relaxed, lounging at a road-side café, book in hand, waiting on an ice cold Coke. Upon sitting down, I soon realized that I had snagged the last open table, as two gentlemen come up to me and ask if they can join.

We start chatting, and I learn that one of them is from Croatia, the other Serbia, and that the two of them had both traveled independently to Zambia nearly two decades ago. “Only Africa can bring our two countries together like this,” one of them told me.

We discussed dual-identities, various engineering and non-profit initiatives in Zambia and what kinds of changes they had both seen in the country over the last several years. It was a fantastic conversation, healthy, engaging, just the kind of experience I needed as a proper send-off. As I mentioned in my Australia write-up, these are the kind of random, chance encounters I live for on the road.

Cheers to the many more to come.