Our Final Day in Kuala Lumpur – Betel Leaf, the Royal Palace, Batiks and Ciao Ristorante

The Royal PalaceI was feeling quite sick again and had spent the whole morning coughing up a storm – my flu/cold had morphed into what feels like the beginnings, if not the onset, of bronchitis. I was exhausted and not sure how I would survive lunch and another tour without passing out.

But lunch managed to revive me! Our guide had told us how Indians use spices to clean the alimentary canal and improve health, and following a fairly spicy lunch of papadams and various chutneys, along with rice and chicken curry, I actually started to feel much better. It really was uncanny.

Continue reading

A Day in Kuala Lumpur – Batu Caves, Royal Selangor, and Carcosa Seri Negara

The owner of Royal Selangor
Everything was delicious (I had a special non-seafood menu – that would be a theme throughout the conference), but by the end of the meal, we were all stuffed. And running almost an hour behind schedule.

We agreed to cut out one of the afternoon activities, but I was unwilling to push the dinner back – it was already set for 8pm, and we had more than a few jet lagged delegates.

Finally, we got on our way and first headed to the Royal Selangor Pewter factory. Kuala Lumpur is known for their pewter, and our guide filled the spaces between stops with a stream of consciousness soliloquy about every tiny detail he’d ever heard about Kuala Lumpur. Some of it I remember and will share with you, but my brain certainly reached a saturation point fairly quickly.

We did learn that although making pewter seems like a very repetitive, menial type of job, those who do it are considered artisans and are paid as such. It’s also a job that is handed down through generations – those who come from pewter artisans are given the first opportunity to become artisans themselves.
The other thing that I remember is that our guide said that pewter is often given as a wedding gift in Kuala Lumpur. It’s called a “seven generations” gift, because it is seen to be so meaningful that it will be passed down through the family’s generations. Since I’m headed to an engagement party next weekend, I’ll be bringing them some pewter and sharing the story. Continue reading

Traveling to Kuala Lumpur, via Dubai

And sleeping and resting is (mostly) what happened. I was able to sleep a LOT on the flights going over to KL, and had picked up some flu medication, hand sanitizer, tissues and mints in London to use on the plane. So by the time we landed, while I wasn’t feeling good, I certainly was feeling better – no fever, for one!

We were flying Emirates, which was an interesting experience. I was pretty excited that they had hummus as an appetizer for pretty much all of the meals, so that made me a happy camper. For some reason, even sick, I can still manage some bread and hummus.

We landed in Dubai in the fairly early morning, and the airport was pretty quiet (I only know this because when we got there midday today, it was a mob scene). We did a quick stop at the ladies room, and it was the first time I’ve ever been in a ladies room that was totally silent. No one said a word. There were a lot of women in various forms of burkas – some were full, with only their eyes showing, while others had their faces showing. It was always interesting to see a couple, where the man was wearing a very casual outfit of shorts and a tee shirt, while the woman was covered head to toe. Although, as I said to my dad, at least it was easy for her to pick out what to wear that day – like my former days in a Catholic school uniform! Continue reading

Hanoi Draws You In

So here we are, almost to the end of day two of the conference, and as usual, it’s been a whirlwind.

Last night, we headed to Wild Lotus. And so much for me saying that there are no accidents here – we saw one on the way to the restaurant, with two people on motorbikes injured. A bunch of other people on motorbikes had gotten off their bikes to surround them and keep them safe from other motorists while they were being attended too.

The restaurant was really beautiful and peaceful. We were shown to a private room upstairs with one long table – that’s one of the nice things about being in a small group. Often, we’re small enough that we can all sit at the same table. It can make it a bit difficult to talk to each other – you can usually just hear the people right next to and across from you, but it gives you a nice feeling of togetherness. 

The food was excellent – there’s one thing I can say about the events planners, they’ve been very efficient about telling each of the restaurants that I don’t eat seafood or fish, so I always get a special meal (since most of the dishes are seafood). Last night, we started with a soup – mine was chicken, and reminded me of shark fin soup because the broth was very gluey like shark fin soup is,

Then, they began bringing us a number of family-style dishes (mine were separate though). I had some chicken, some pork, some spring rolls and rice – it was all delicious. For dessert, we had fruit – I really love mango (the fruit, not our guide, though he’s very funny) but I just can’t seem to get good mangoes in the states. So I always try to eat as much as possible when I’m in Asia.

For dessert I had a piece of mango, and a piece of watermelon – very refreshing. Then, finally, we were able to go back to the hotel and to bed! I feel that I will sleep for days when I go home.

This morning, we began with a speaker from the Vietnam Lawyers Federation. He spoke in Vietnamese, but there was a bit of a hiccup with the hotel not realizing that we needed a translator as well as as translation booth, so we had to get our Vietnamese lawyer to translate for him instead. But it was a very interesting presentation, which of course I’ll be recapping next week on my professional blog.

After another presentation from our host firm on local electricity projects and opportunities, we headed to lunch. We were eating at Ginger Restaurant, which I learned when we arrived is the sister restaurant of Wild Lotus.

The restaurant was similarly beautiful and peaceful, and we were again led to a private room upstairs, which had a very zen feel to it. I again had a special meal – we all started with a broccoli soup and despite my aversion to green vegetables, I actually quite liked it. 

After that, they brought me a plate with rice, some type of beef wrapped in leaves, and duck. The duck was a bit fatty, but actually quite good, and the chicken was very lemon-y. The beef was strange, so I didn’t eat much of that, but I’m getting quite adept at eating rice with chopsticks, along with everything else.

Following lunch, we were off on a real adventure – a bike ride in the countryside.

We drove an hour outside of Hanoi, and it was the first time I’d seen the “modern” construction that everyone’s been telling us about. I can really see how in twenty or thirty years’ time, things will look very different here (though I hope they keep some of the charm in the center of the city). We drove along their new highway, where motorbikes are not allowed.


There isn’t much car traffic because it’s so expensive to buy a car. To get a Honda, which would cost about $18,000 in the US would cost $36,000 here, plus 20% tax. So it’s not worth it to drive – much better to use a scooter or motorbike. As we started to reach the village, it was reminding me a bit of India, with a lot of garbage along the side of the road. But that was about where the similarities ended.

We picked up our bikes and headed along our way – and the bike ride was both treacherous and enthralling. There were some hills which were tough on our gearless bikes, but we had a lot of laughs navigating the streets and trying not to be hit by passing cars and motorbikes. I felt very much like Julia Roberts in Eat, Pray, Love as I tooled around the rice paddies with the group.

As we got a bit further away from the village, it was so beautiful and peaceful. The people were incredibly friendly as well – everyone smiled at us and many of them waved. The kids all said “hello,” generally followed by “give me money!” I heard one young kid singing a Justin Bieber song – he really IS everywhere!

The kids were really adorable and very excited to see us. We also saw a LOT of dogs, some puppies, wandering around. They weren’t too thrilled about the squeaking of the bike brakes as we headed down some steeper roads. We rode on some paved roads, but mostly dirt ruts which were very bumpy and exciting. Some of them were fairly narrow as well, causing some near misses a couple of times.

Everyone had a really great time and we were quite thrilled with the afternoon. But it was nice to get back on the bus and rest for a bit.

Tonight, we’re off to the Ly Club for our final dinner, which should be very nice. It’s been a wonderful, intimate conference, and I think everyone’s really enjoyed themselves! But I am looking forward to sleeping in my own bed and snuggling my puppy again soon!

Our Final Night in Hanoi


There was a lot of dancing
After a few hours rest, we were off to the races again – this time for the final dinner of the conference, our Gala dinner. We were again a small and intimate group as we set off in the bus for a restaurant only a block away.

We left the bus and again had to cross the street – as we started to cross, two red and yellow dragons began to perform a welcome dance along to some music. It was a great surprise to the group, and a fun way to welcome everyone. We walked up a flight of outdoor steps to get a better look at their performance and after it ended, headed inside.

We again had to walk up a well-worn staircase to the private room where we would be having dinner. The room had a stage, which gave the delegates some idea of what was to come. But even we didn’t know that the performances would be so detailed! 

We were invited to sit down (and the chairs were really beautiful and comfortable – just like what I’m looking for in my dining room, actually) and the musicians took the stage.They started with a welcome drum, with two men drumming on stage, and three women drumming just in front of the stage. Afterwards, we were treated to a series of performances that all seemed to include a different, and unfamiliar instrument. There was one set of bamboo pipes that required the musician to clap her hands in front of them to push air through them.

There was also a special instrument that we’d learned about the other day at the puppet show – in the past, only men were allowed to play it, and even women weren’t allowed to hear the music from it.

It basically sounds like an electric guitar, but is far cooler. The man playing it was great at audience interaction, and when he switched to another version of it, he let a couple of the people at the front table give it a try to. He even played “Old Susannah,” which got a laugh from everyone.

As this was going on, we were eating and enjoying each other’s company. The food was again in several courses, and everyone seemed to really enjoy it. Our events planners even arranged for a gift for the delegates – a wooden water puppet replica (which of course I accidentally left behind at the hotel and no one could find it). It was really a fun gift and everyone was thrilled with it.

After dinner, we had a short thank you speech for our host and took a group photo before heading back to the hotel and their bar, Angelina. It’s named after Angelina Jolie, who adopted a Vietnamese child – they wanted to honor her.

It’s quite a hip kind of bar for a place that’s as historical as the Metropole is, but we enjoying continuing the evening’s festivities there and chatting to each other. The conference again felt like it went SO quickly, and soon, we were off on a 38 hour journey to return home.

***
As a side note, I have to make a complaint. And also offer some praise. We changed our flight and went instead to Kuala Lumpur to connect to Charles de Gaulle airport. Holy cow, is that place incredible!

I had no idea.

They have so many shops it feels as though you are in a mall – they’re mostly upscale, but they have some great deals and a number of duty free shops as well. I bought some gifts there, including some lovely L’Occitane lavender hand lotion – my favorite.

It was a very modern and comfortable airport, and I definitely hope to be there again soon – if you have to connect, or if you’re looking for a place to travel to, KL is a good destination (I haven’t been outside the airport unfortunately, but we may be planning something there soon!).

Now, on to the complaining.

So I got my two bottles of L’Occitane lotion – a French brand, I might add. They were sealed in a duty free bag, which is what they give you nowadays to keep you from having to give up anything that’s over 3oz. – if you’re not familiar with current security regulations for flying, you can only bring liquids (which include gels, creams, etc) that are 3oz or less, and can fit in a small plastic bag (there’s a certain restriction on that too, but I can’t remember it off the top of my head – I have a regulation set of Ziplocs for that purpose).

Anything that’s over 3oz, or if you can’t tell how many ounces are in it (and it doesn’t count if you have a six ounce jar that you’ve used half of by the way), must be placed in your carry-on luggage, or security will confiscate it. I know that, and abide these rules accordingly.

But when you shop duty-free and buy creams over 3oz, they put it in a special plastic bag, which is then sealed. There’s a note on it that it can’t be opened before you arrive at your destination. That’s what I got for my lotion in KL. Great.

Well, when I went through security in Paris, they took my lotion. First, they said it was leaking. It wasn’t. I told them that, and then they asked where I bought it. I told them, and they said because Malaysia isn’t a European country, I couldn’t bring it with me. It apparently didn’t matter that the bag was sealed, that I bought it in the airport and never left the airport, and apparently, it was lost on them that it’s a FRENCH PRODUCT. So it was shipped FROM FRANCE to Malaysia, where it sat IN THE AIRPORT, where I bought it and flew it BACK TO FRANCE.

I was so mad.

The awesome part about this is that they’ll probably take it home to their wives or something, and that defeats the whole object of not allowing me to take it with me on the plane. I mean, I was taking it OUT of France. Jerks.

Even better, one of them didn’t even know Malaysia was a country. He thought it was part of Singapore. Awesome.

Then, I also got called out of line for special screening (picture what everyone’s been complaining about in the US lately). I don’t mind the extra screening, but this was like icing on top of the cake.

Plus, I was super mad because one of the lotions was a gift for my mom, whose been looking after my dog. I was so angry.

But I did manage to pick her up something in the airport just before I left, so I at least feel better about that. Though I don’t feel as though I want to rush back to Paris anytime soon. It just makes me mad that when you follow the rules, you still don’t get treated fairly. I’d understand if I’d taken something over 3oz from my suitcase and kept it in my carry on – that’s my fault for not knowing the rules. But this is something that they just made up. I travel a lot and I’ve never heard that before. And now I’m out $40. Ugh.

Anyway, I now need to let that go and concentrate on getting some rest when I arrive home. I did manage to sleep a bit on the 13 hours flight from KL to Paris, but I’m currently typing this on the flight from CDG to JFK, and we’ve got about three hours to go, and I haven’t slept at all. I’m not even really sure what day or time it feels like! Ah jet lag…

Ly Club

Experiencing Hanoi

Green Tangerine restaurantHanoi is an experience.

It’s almost indescribable. The last couple of days have been spent solely at the hotel, so I haven’t had the chance to really experience the city. But all of that changed this afternoon.

We headed out for lunch at the Green Tangerine – to get there, we took a very short coach ride (truly we could have walked if it wasn’t so darn treacherous), and then walked a bit to get to the restaurant.

Walking in Hanoi is an adventure, one I’d had a bit of a warning about. The driving here is what our guide calls “controlled chaos.” There’s really no such thing as right of way. It’s more like, just go and people will get out of your way. They alert you to coming up behind you by beeping their horns – everyone does it.

Apparently, that’s true for walking too. Our guide said that when you cross the street, you just have to do it. Of course, you look both ways first, but don’t be too hesitant.

But with all this craziness, there are very few accidents here. And we got around very quickly despite the amazing amount of  cars, scooters, bikes and people everywhere.

Oh, and that’s the other thing – the sidewalks are really for parking your scooter and socializing, not for walking. Our guide said that the Vietnamese are a very social people – and if you just drive along the streets, you can absolutely see that.

People do pretty much everything outside – eat, cook, sell, shop, even work. It seems everyone is either crouched on the ground, or sitting on a small stool, talking to their neighbors. Our guide later told us that people don’t even drink tea at home unless they have friends over – tea drinking is a social event too.

Interestingly though, some of our lawyers last night were describing the feeling here as “cold.” It’s not that the Vietnamese aren’t a nice people, it’s just that unlike in Thailand (the land of smiles), they’re very distrustful of everyone (including each other). So they seem less warm and welcoming at first glance.

At any rate, lunch was in a lovely little Vietnamese place, with French influences. There is an open air courtyard as you enter, with a small winding staircase. We went inside the restaurant and up well-worn dark stairs to the second floor, where we enjoyed our meal.

I’m definitely having trouble finding food I like and eat here in Hanoi – I’m so picky, unfortunately! We started with an amuse bouche that seemed to be a savory type of profiterole – it was quite good, though I’m still not sure what was in it.

The first course was then a type of yogurt in a pastry, along with some kind of root. I had a little of it, but the cold yogurt was a bit overpowering for the other flavors and it didn’t seem to do much for anyone else at my table either.

For the main course, we had a choice. I went with the pork, which was done in a roll with spinach. There was also a mixed vegetable kind of lasagna almost, and a cracker in the form of a basket. I actually liked the vegetables and the cracker basket the best!

Dessert was a small crème brulee and raspberry frozen yogurt. Crème brulee is not high on my list, but the raspberry yogurt was delicious and refreshing.

After lunch, we headed to the water puppet theater. We’d been told that this is a must-see here in Hanoi, so we were looking forward to it. There had been a bit of a hiccup with the events planners changing the time of the show without letting me know, but we made a quick change to have an earlier show, which worked out well.

My reaction to the show is that it’s very interesting, and you probably should see it once if you’re in Hanoi…but only once. I won’t tell you more so that you’ll still go to see it if you’re ever here!

Afterwards, we hopped back on the coach and headed to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. It’s apparently similar to Lenin’s tomb in Moscow, but it’s not open in the afternoon so we weren’t able to go inside (fine by me!).

Instead, we walked around the grounds which were quite peaceful. We saw a number of Vietnamese people getting some exercise in front of the mausoleum, along with the usual horde of tourists, and guards everywhere.
After about 45 minutes, we hopped back on the coach and toured around some of the city a little, including the temple of literature. I would have loved to get out and take some photos there, but with our limited time frame, it wasn’t possible. Instead, we went to Hoa Lo prison – also known as the Hanoi Hilton by the American POWs who were kept there during the war.

It was a grim place, with torture devices on display and photos and clothes from the political prisoners and the POWs. We saw John McCain’s flight suit and a photo of the soldiers pulling him from the water when he was captured. We saw tiny, tiny cells where they kept 20 female prisoners at the same time. And with the dark, gloomy weather today, it was a fitting mood for this place.

This afternoon, we also learned that there had been an 8.9 earthquake in Japan, which we’ve subsequently learned had quite serious results and may lead to devastating tsunamis. Prayers go out to the Japanese people and to anyone who may be affected. Fortunately, our Japanese lawyer was able to be in touch with his family by email and found out that they were okay.

Tonight, we are off to Wild Lotus restaurant, which is supposed to be quite good. Although I’m sure it will be enjoyable, I’m most looking forward to the end of dinner – because this jet lag has really caught up to me now. I went for a run early the last two mornings, but tomorrow is definitely a sleep in until absolutely necessary kind of day!

First Impressions of Hanoi

I have arrived in Hanoi!

I managed to get up on time on Tuesday morning, despite not having gotten much sleep the night before again. After arriving at Charles de Gaulle and finding out about a not so fun extra baggage payment, we were on our way to Hanoi.

Well, first, we were on our way to Hong Kong – the flight was about 11 ½ hours, and with an extra seat in our row, it ended up being more comfortable than the flight to Paris. Then, after a quick layover and our bags *just* making it to the plane (we saw them out the window), we were on our way to Hanoi.

We had to arrange for our visas once we arrived, but it was a relatively painless process and before we knew it, we’d gotten our bags and were headed to the hotel with our guide, Mango.

Yes, really, that’s his name.

Though we later learned that he does have a Vietnamese name, which means “mango.” He said everyone in Vietnam is name for something, with most women’s names being those of flowers. 

As we rode to the hotel, he regaled us with stories about his family and the history of Hanoi, along with the plans for the future, which include expanding the city to the other side of the Red River.

I asked him why it’s called that and apparently, it’s because in the rainy season, so much silt is washed into the river that it appears red.

We also got the chance to see the world’s longest mosaic – since Hanoi is actually lower than sea level, there is a concrete dike built along the city to keep the water out. A reporter who was living here felt that it was very depressing, so she started a campaign to have it decorated. For the 1000 year anniversary of the city celebrated last year, artists from all over the world came to design and put together the mural. It IS really long, and also beautiful. Not to mention it’s incredible that the city is 1000 years old!

After battling our way through the traffic (more on that in another post) and being amazed at the electrical wiring here, we finally arrived at the Sofitel Metropole Hanoi. Despite the strong French influence here, the hotel is definitely decorated in a British colonial style, with large dark green shutters on all of the windows and dark wood everywhere. There are two wings to the hotel, and we’re in the old wing – honestly, I prefer it. It’s got much more character than the newer wing and doesn’t seem as busy (though there are always people in and out in the lobby).

Unfortunately, our rooms weren’t ready when we arrived, so we had a spot of lunch in one of the restaurants, and ran into one of the other delegates who joined us. Finally, we were able to get into our rooms and sleep. The rooms are very comfortable as well, with a chaise lounge at the end of each bed, very high ceilings, and a fabulous bathroom – the bedrooms, while still having a colonial feel (and incredibly beautiful dark wood floors), have a decidedly French decorative influence.

The only real downside is that you can’t get wifi in the rooms (unless you prop your computer in an open window, and even then, it’s limited) and my computer doesn’t have a port for an internet wire. So I’ve been spending a lot of time in the lobby checking email and uploading photos, blog posts, etc. in between meetings and other work-related activities.

I puttered around for a bit, but then fell asleep around 3 and slept until 9:30 – it was glorious. I got up for a bit to have some dinner and iron my clothes, and then it was time for some more sleep. Unfortunately, I was up bright and early the next morning for some reason, so I pushed myself to go for a run first thing before we had our meetings with the hotel and events planner.

After our meetings and some lunch at the buffet in the hotel’s French restaurant, I was fortunate enough to have a spa treatment – the jet lag recovery (unfortunately, it just made me relaxed enough to want to sleep ALL the time!). The prices here are incredible – it was a 90 minute massage for $95. Seriously.

The treatment started with a small cup of tea. Then I was led into the treatment room and put my feet into a bowl of water with rose petals. After that, it was on to the massage, which was so relaxing I had trouble blinking the sleep out of my eyes at the end of it! After another cup of tea, I was incredibly relaxed – it was just lovely.

The rest of the afternoon was a bit hectic with some deposit difficulties, a lost (and found) cell phone, and rushing up and down the stairs and to my room (which feels like it’s half a mile away). But after a bit of time relaxing, I headed down to the first event of the conference – our welcome reception & dinner!

It was a small group, but we had a lovely time. The buffet was quite extensive (it’s for 30 people, but we only had about half that). One of the items was roast suckling pig – I’d never actually seen one up close before, and it was very sad. I couldn’t manage to eat it

That led to a conversation at my table with one of the hosts (an American who moved here ten months ago) about other strange foods that are eaten here. He said he’s tried snake – and it’s a whole ceremony to eat it. The bring a live snake to the table and chop it’s head off before draining the blood into a glass. Which you drink.

M.

Then, they cook the snake up with some other vegetables and spices and such (because apparently it doesn’t have much taste), and you eat that. Don’t think I’ll be trying that while I’m here. Or ever really.

The other thing that they eat here (apparently, they eat pretty much anything except tourists – some of us are too spicy, according to Mango) is dog meat. That’s something our host hadn’t tried, but wants to (but our Vietnamese host said he’s never tried it and has no interest in ever trying it). That’s also supposed to be quite a ceremony, with all the men gathering together to sit on the floor and eat it. Again, won’t be trying that.

I was horrified by the whole idea of it, along with a few other people at my table who said they’d never be able to try it either. Good thing I left my pup at home!

It’s interesting too, because many people here do seem to keep dogs as pets, so it’s a bit strange to think that while some people have them as pets, other people are eating them.

It was lovely to see everyone again, catch up, and have some laughs. Soon, I was ready for bed though so I headed back to my room to rest up for the morning’s business session. When I laid down to sleep, it felt as though my back was still being massaged, so I fell to sleep almost immediately. Maybe there’s something to that jet lag recovery!

Singaporean Street Food, World Cup, and Exhaustion

Filtering into the Chamber Room
It turns out that the last day of our conference would find me awake for almost 24 hours straight – no small feat considering I have not been sleeping well (thank you jet lag) and was therefore so tired that every time I sat down, I feared slumping onto the table.

At the end of my last entry, I was getting ready to head to Straits Kitchen at the Hyatt, where we would find Singaporean street food without the street. I have to say that this was one of my favorite meals of the conference, and I believe that a few of the other attendees would agree with me. Straits Kitchen is a buffet, which is a favorite option of ours whenever in a venue where the food might not be agreeable to everyone – that way, the group can pick and choose what they would prefer, and also have the option of eating as much or as little as they want to. In my case, I was interested in eating some Indian food, hopefully some chicken tikka masala and especially some naan bread.

I wasn’t able to find the tikka masala, unfortunately, but a bite of chicken (which seemed a bit pink to me, resulting in my eating only just a bite) and rice was sufficient. My dad found the naan bread, so I stuck with that, dipping it in the satay sauce – quite a satisfactory lunch in my mind!

Another thing that I’ve been hearing about since arriving is Durian – it’s a local fruit, called the “king of fruits” in Asia. It sounds like quite an adventure to eat, as it’s a rather large fruit with a thick skin, and the meat makes up only a small part of it – but the real adventure is in overcoming the smell, which I’ve heard described as everything from leaking gas to week old gym socks. One of our hosts and her husband have been trying to get us to try the durian with them since we arrived, and we’ve been considering it. Another Singaporean recommended that we ease into it, either trying durian ice cream or cakes first. So yesterday at Straits Kitchen, one of our Chinese lawyers found that they had durian ice cream.

Being that I felt that we could not miss this true Singaporean experience, I decided to try it. I got a bowl (two small scoops) for my dad and myself. Sniffing it closely, I decided that there was a slight smell, though I couldn’t really identify it – kind of like rotten eggs. The smell of the fruit is rumored to be so bad that it’s not allowed on planes or in hotels, and many people won’t even bring it in their cars. But I didn’t think the ice cream smelled too bad, so I gave it a shot.

It wasn’t terrible, but let’s just say I won’t be rushing out to have it again any time soon – if the smell was a little like rotten eggs, the taste was a lot like it. One of our hosts had made sure to come over to watch our faces as we tried it, and she thought we handled it very well. After she’d walked away, two of our Swedish attendees tried it, making hilariously disgusted faces – it was quite entertaining. Apparently at another table, one of the Danish attendees had tried it and almost choked on it, so the rest of her table decided they were too afraid to follow suit.

I love things like this, because I think that’s what really adds to the experience of a conference – getting out of your comfort zone to try something new and bonding at the unfamiliarity of it all.

After lunch, we sent one group to the fish spa and the Singapore Flyer – I had hoped to go, but they were going to the Flyer first (which, with my overwhelming fear of heights would have been something I couldn’t participate in) followed by the fish spa. I needed to do a bit of work on the table seatings for that evening because of some additions and early departures, so it was best to return to the hotel early anyway. I was disappointed to miss out on the fish spa, where the group put their feet into tanks of water and had schools of fish nibble away at the extra skin – apparently it was a very funny experience and they all enjoyed it. We sent another group on an exclusive tour of the shopping mall Isetan, across the street from the Hyatt, where one of our hosts is very friendly with the CEO.

Many of us returned to the hotel, and after we finalized the seating arrangements for the evening, I took another trip to the spa.

Unfortunately, this massage was not quite as relaxing. The masseuse was very good, but for some reason, the massage felt longer and so I started to become concerned around the mid-point that she had confused my 60-minute massage with a 90-minute one, which would have given me only 15 minutes to get ready for our fanciest dinner. So instead of being relaxed, I was becoming more and more nervous. And in addition, I had mentioned tension in my shoulders and neck, so she focused in that area – this would have been great had she not been determined to eradicate the thick knots I have there, which I’ve had for years (and would take regular weekly, painful massages to get rid of permanently from what my doctor tells me). Working on the knots at this stage serves only to inflame them, so it seems now, almost 24 hours later, that my neck and shoulders are actually MORE sore after the massage than before.

But at any rate, the experience was useful for helping me to take some relaxation time, and I did end up with just about enough time to ready myself for the evening’s activities. Our host is a former member of Parliament, so he and his partners wanted to showcase the Singaporean Parliament to our group – he had arranged for an exclusive tour of New Parliament and we were to dine in the Arts House, which was the old Parliament building.

Because of the tour, we had had to rearrange the timing of the evening, leaving promptly at 6pm. Although we regularly mention to the group that the printed itinerary they receive upon arrival should be the only one they refer to, and we additionally mentioned the 6pm departure in the morning’s meeting, we did have a few who didn’t realize we weren’t leaving at 7. Three of them were able to take taxis, and one managed to get ready in a flash and join the second bus, so we managed to get to the new Parliament only about 15 minutes late. Security is necessarily tight there, so we had all sent in our passport numbers in advance and presented them again on the way in, where we were then subject to metal detection and x-raying of our belongings. We also had to surrender any camera phones and cameras, as no photography is permitted.

They seated us in a small auditorium for a 15 minute video and I saw a few of the more jet lagged attendees getting some quick shut-eye once they turned the lights off. It seemed I wasn’t the only one having some difficulty staying awake any time I sat down – particularly in the dark! But I was determined to stay awake, and did. They then took us upstairs in two groups, showing us the view of the river, which was quite lovely in early evening. The guide mentioned that the building had been built in such a location that no sniper bullet would be able to reach it, though she wasn’t sure about snipers on boats. She then led us into the public viewing gallery for the Parliament, behind glass on the second floor from the main chamber. She mentioned that the glass was a recent addition, after someone threw something at Tony Blair in London – she said Singapore often watches what happens in other Parliaments and acts to secure its own.

Giving us a number of facts about the government, one of the more interesting ones is that it can take only a day to make a change to their constitution – the US government certainly doesn’t move that quickly! She also mentioned that members are Parliament are not supposed to swear, and those that do are scolded by the guy in charge.

Following a few questions from the group, she escorted us downstairs and outside, where the humidity was incredible – we were expecting some thunderstorms yesterday, but they never materialized, so the humidity just climbed and climbed. We asked the guards how to get to the Arts House and finally found our guides, who led us over there. Once inside, we headed into the chamber room of the old Parliament and took our seats to wait for our host. He gave us some history of the old Parliament and his experience there for about fifteen minutes, and then we were treated to a wonderful performance by the Chinese Youth Orchestra – it was a six-piece band with more than one unique instrument. They played four songs, three of them Chinese, and one being the tango from True Lies. They were quite good, coordinating each instrument beautifully and alternating strength of play so that you could pick out one instrument over the others from time to time. Everyone was very enthusiastic in their show of appreciation.

We then gathered for fifteen minutes of cocktails and canapes in the hallway before going into the blue room for dinner – the blue room was formerly a lounge for members of Parliament but has since been painted white. Everyone found their tables and dinner began, accompanied by the background of a guitarist, who was quite good. We had also arranged for two fortune tellers, but our host dismissed them because he preferred everyone talk to each other with no interruptions. I felt they would have added something to the evening and was disappointed to not have my own fortune read, but the group did especially seem to enjoy each other’s company last night and we certainly had difficulty moving everyone out the door once it was time to depart.

I stayed until the end to leave with the second bus and make sure everything was okay, and unfortunately for me, this was the party bus. They arranged with the driver to drop us first at Clarke Quay before going on to the hotel, and I was talked into joining them. I had hoped to return to the hotel for a few hours’ sleep before the 2:30am start of the World Cup game between England and the US, but most of the group planning to watch wanted to try to stay up instead.

We went first to a bar called “Carribbean” – I think – and there were only a couple of people inside. Most people were outside despite how hot and humid it was (not so fun when you’re very dressed up), so we only had one drink there and moved on. We’d split up from part of the group who was in search of a Cuban place and another part of the group looking to sit by the water, so after the first drink, those of us there headed in search of the group by the water. We found them, and it was quite pleasant to sit there with the fans blowing an artificial breeze as we chatted. I had ordered a mango juice, which was really very refreshing. After a little while, some of the group wanted to find those at the Cuban bar, so we departed again and finally located them sitting at a table outside. A couple of people wanted to return to the hotel, and I decided to go with them because it was so hot, I was very uncomfortable after a day of high heels, and there was far too much cigarette smoke for my taste.

Six of us returned to the hotel and a few of us decided to change and meet in the lobby to await the World Cup game. I threw on some jeans and a tee shirt, grabbed a coke from the mini bar and my phone and headed downstairs. The hotel was kind enough to turn on the tv in the bar, though it was closed, but it was then that we ran into a problem – although they would turn the tv on, they refused to turn on the sound. They said it was hotel policy that once the bar was closed, the only sound was to be the music playing over the PA, which was terrible by the way. This was quite unfortunate, but no matter who asked or who we asked, the answer remained the same. Pretty disappointing, considering we are a fairly large group for the hotel and regularly give them our business.

As a result, my dad was forced to get his iPad so that we could at least listen to the game, even though the commentary ran a few minutes behind. I was so tired, but determined to stay up – about half the group left after the first half of the game, and about eight of us stayed to watch the whole thing. One of the delegates had a passerby take our picture at about 4:30am to show the die-hards.

By that time I was EXHAUSTED, so I got ready for bed and zonked out. Despite staying up as late as I possibly could, I STILL didn’t have a good night’s sleep – probably because it was really a day sleep – and woke up at 8:30 (which looked to me like 1:30 on the clock for several minutes). I did manage to fall back to sleep for another few hours and woke up several more times until I finally forced myself to get up at 2:30. Despite all the sleep, I’m still completely exhausted and could go back to bed right now.

Instead though, I’m going to hop in the shower before meeting some of those with later flights for dinner this evening. I’m not sure where we’re going, but I heard talk of a good casual Italian restaurant, which as you may know, is right up my alley.

My last night in Singapore

This is apparently going to be a hotelSo let’s be honest – I pretty much spent my last day in Singapore asleep. I was so tired from all of the lead-up to the conference, the conference itself and then staying up to watch the World Cup that I was just spent. But that’s not to say I didn’t enjoy my last night here.

We met a couple of our delegates in the hotel bar and chatted for an hour and a half while deciding what to do for dinner. Four of us decided we would take a taxi down to One Fullerton Square (just by the Fullerton Hotel) and walk around until we found a suitable place. One Fullerton Square is a lovely little walkway just next to the river, with a fabulous view of Singapore at night (from either side really, since it’s kind of shaped like a U).

We walked along the riverfront looking for a restaurant to dine in – we agreed that we preferred Italian food or perhaps we would end up at the Morton’s in the Mandarin Oriental. But along the walkway, we only saw Starbucks and one Chinese restaurant. We learned from the concierge earlier that many Italian restaurants are closed on Sunday nights. And we had learned from one of our hosts that most Singaporeans eat out most evenings, so any close of restaurants means the others are very busy.

We continued to walk along the waterfront and I snapped some photos of Singapore at night. It wasn’t too hot out, but it was still very humid making for a rather warm walk. Eventually, we decided we would have better luck across the river, and fortunately, there is a footbridge that we could use to get there directly. We continued to walk along the riverfront in search of a restaurant – we saw one packed out Italian restaurant that boasted wood fired pizza and next to it was a series of stalls of different kinds of Asian food, all lined up in a row, with tables to the left of them. People would stand in line to buy their dinner at one stall, drinks at another, and then enjoy the night outside.

We still didn’t see anything that made us want to go inside, so we decided to head to the Mandarin Oriental and Morton’s. As soon as I saw the inside of the Mandarin, I knew we’dmade the right decision to go with the Four Seasons – not that there’s anything wrong with it, it’s quite a beautiful hotel, but it’s one of those ones with the center of the hotel cut out so that you can see down to the ground floor from every hallway. And the elevators were in the center, open to the hotel. My fear of heights would have really been wreaking havoc on me if we’d stayed there – I would have had to have a special room just on the ground floor!

Morton’s is on the fourth floor, so we headed up there. And as is the case with any good chain, it looked exactly the same inside as any I’ve been in, a true steakhouse. We only had to wait a few minutes for a table, and once we were seated, our waiter brought out a tray of the different beef cuts and a bowl of the sides for us to see. After perusing the menu, I decided on the single cut filet and some french fries (I’m so classy). 

The meal was delicious – my filet was perfectly cooked and tender, and the bearnaise sauce was a delicious accompaniment. The fries were similarly excellent, but a touch hot when they came out, so I ended up not eating too many of them and sharing them around. I was entirely stuffed by the end of the meal, but then the waiter came around with the dessert tray. And on it was key lime pie, my weakness. I went ahead and ordered it, and unfortunately, it wasn’t quite as good as the rest of the meal (or as my homemade key lime pie). But I shared it around as well. The meal was lovely as much for the company as the food, and it was quite a pleasant way to end my stay in Singapore.

Afterwards, it was back to the hotel to finish packing and have a good night’s sleep. Once again, I was awoken after only 4 hours, and have found it difficult to fall back to sleep, so hopefully I will sleep on the plane instead. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for a whole row to ourselves again so we can have a comfortable flight. And I’m very much looking forward to being back home after such a long trip and catching up on some rest! Au revoir Singapore!

You Are the One, Singapore

HaliaThe title of my blog comes from this little commercial ditty that keeps constantly playing on television here, in advance of the youth Olympics, which will be in Singapore in August. It’s been stuck in my head all morning!

When last I left you, the conference had yet to begin. We’re now in the middle of the final day, and it’s certainly been an incredibly busy whirlwind. Because we had to move the conference from Bangkok, I’ve found that there are many more last minute details that need finalizing, many more changes, and many more adjustments than usual, so it’s been a fairly busy two days. 

Thursday saw the beginning of the conference, with a business session, group lunch at One Ninety Restaurant here in the hotel, our Board meeting, and then the welcome reception on the 20th floor. Of note at the welcome reception was that we had another Chinese meal, which made dining an adventure, because many of the foods were quite exotic. So it was fun to see everyone trying to figure out what they were eating, who would try it first, and who enjoyed it. The other item of note was that we were ableto have an Opera Mask Face Changer – these face changers are quite special. They do a short performance (seven minutes), during which they dance around and change the mask that they are wearing on their face – and you can’t figure out how they do it. With a small shake of the head, the mask turns to a new one in a second. The group really enjoyed this welcome to Singapore, and had a good time catching up with each other and enjoying each other’s company, despite most of us being jet lagged.

Friday was another busy day. We had a business session in the morning at the hotel, and then headed out to Halia for lunch. Halia is in the Singapore Botanic Gardens, specifically in the ginger garden. Apparently, it is surrounded by 250 different kinds of ginger, so ginger was featured prominently in the menu. We began with a shrimp satay salad that included pomelo (a fruit), mango (which is so crazy good here) and glass noodles, with a ginger dressing. I gave away my shrimp, but the rest was delicious, with the dressing adding a very sharp flavor. The next course was soft shell crab – I wasn’t too excited about that, obviously, but I was sitting with two of our hosts who let me know I could eat the whole thing (including the shell – which actually made me want to try is LESS). But when it arrived, I saw that it was deep fried, so I was willing to try it. I’m not a big fan of eating something whole – something to do with guts and other pieces being in there that gives me the willies.

But I didn’t want to seem silly, so I started with the claw – it was pretty obvious that’s what it was – and it wasn’t terrible. I ate one of the three on my plate, and when I took a bite of the second, it was far to fishy, so I gave up. One of the hosts commented that one more trip to Singapore and they’d convert me to a seafood eater!

But discussing my limited palate gave rise to a very interesting conversation about some of the foods that are eaten here in Asia that in some Asian countries and most other Western countries, we might be horrified to hear about. This included things like dog, in South Korea – one of the lawyers joked that she has three dogs, and whenever they misbehave, she tells them that she’ll send them there to be someone’s dinner! Another delicacy, though I can’t remember from where, is deep fried birds – they take a sparrow and deep fry the whole thing. Including the feathers.

We all agreed that we wouldn’t eat that. Then I learned that in the Philippines, it’s popular to have fertilized duck eggs – you got it, duck eggs with the actual bird fetus in there. I still feel a little bit ill when I think of it. Mostly I think they eat them raw – our lawyer from there said that people will bring a basket of them to parties to eat towards the end of the meal – but she said that sometimes they will crack them open and fry up what’s inside with a little oil. She doesn’t really like it that way though. Yikes.

But truthfully the worst story I’ve ever heard is one that my dad told me a while ago – I can’t remember where this is (maybe Hong Kong?), but they will eat the brains from live monkeys. While they are STILL alive. I’m still horrified.

So anyway, although that certainly wasn’t an appetizing conversation, we agreed that each country has their own specialties and customs that might horrify people in other countries, but in turn, their customs and dishes would be equally shocking to the first country. With that, I agreed to try the local drink favorite – lime juice. Sort of like our lemonade, but with lime. Although it’s quite tart, it’s very refreshing, which we certainly needed yesterday as my prayers worked and the sun was out in full force. As was the humidity. It was brutal.

The main course was chicken, with a mango salsa and sweet potato puree. The mango was again my favorite part – I just can’t seem to find such fresh, juicy mangoes at home. Plus, even if I could, they’re such a pain to cut that I almost prefer eating them out instead. Ginger featured prominently again in dessert, with a type of young ginger ice cream that had a very unique flavor. It was very good, but I can’t really say that it was sweet.

Afterwards, the plan was to split the group in two, and send one group first to the Asian Civilisations Museum, followed by a bumboat ride up the Singapore River, and the second group would do the reverse. A few of us chose to go with the second group so that we could skip the ACM and get some rest back at the hotel before dinner. Though I normally don’t skip anything, I’ve been so tired and needed to get a bit of work done before dinner, so it was necessary.

We took a short bus ride to Clarke Quay, where we were to meet the boat, and our guide gave us some interesting information about Singapore on the way. The funniest part of her speech was telling us about “Singlish,” which is the Singapore way of speaking English – it’s so quick, without tenses really, and adding letters to words to make them flow better that it’s pretty difficult to understand what they’re saying! She demonstrated it for us, and said that there’s an effort for everyone to speak more pronounced English, but it wasn’t until I was trying to understand my cab driver later that I truly got what she was explaining to us!

The boat ride was wonderful – I squeezed into the back deck of the boat with a few of the delegates so that I could sit in the sun for a bit. It can be tough to spend so much time in the artificial air and unflattering indoor light, so it was a welcome respite. We cruised along, and while I didn’t pay much attention to the guide or the recorded message, we quite enjoyed looking at the boats, seeing the Merlion (which I had missed during our last trip) and getting a view of the Singapore Flyer, their ridiculously large ferris wheel-type things, similar to the London Wheel. There was a lovely breeze and it was quite enjoyable.

Afterwards, it was kind of a pain to find a cab, but we and a few other people managed and headed back to the hotel. The turnaround for this conference has been quick, because there’s so much to see and do, and we’ve been beholden to the dinner schedules of the venues that we’re visiting. Last night’s venue was the Night Safari, the part of the conference I’ve been most excited about.

I’d mentioned it to the events planners, asking them for some information so that we could offer it as an optional tour, but they came back with the idea to have dinner there, on a moving tram through the park! What a unique experience.

After a few procedural hiccups and latecomers, we were all packed into the trams, which were necessarily cheesy. The tablecloths were fake animal skin – ours was zebra – and the tram itself was draped in fake leopard fur and live plants. As we headed off, the waitstaff on the tram offered us drinks (I went with the lime juice again, despite the fact that my ulcer has been acting up) and we started with some bread.

I was given a special lanyard to designate my non-fish eating status, so I had the vegetarian-ish menu – I say “ish” because I did have chicken for dinner. We had a salad to start, followed by soup. Instead of the bisque, I had a mushroom soup. Since I don’t like mushrooms either, I just had a few bites of it.

All the while, the tram was moving, and our guide was pointing out the various animals along the way – we saw rhinos, flamingoes, all kinds of cow and deer, and later in the trip, we were able to see zebras, elephants, a giraffe, and even some capybaras. I love those things, even if they are giant rodents. We also saw a lion – wow, was he beautiful – and some tigers, who were sleeping. Very cool.

For the main course, they stopped the tram and fed us at a standstill. That worked great, and we had big fans blowing on us so it didn’t get too warm. Shortly, we were on our way again, making our way through the various animal ecosystems around the world, all right at the Singapore Night Safari. Dessert was a mango cake type thing, which was very good, and I declined coffee so that I wouldn’t be too wide awake to fall asleep. 

Finally, we came to a stop, and it was on to the animal show! They took us into the amphitheatre and sat us down. It was a full show and the main host was fabulous – funny & entertaining. They started by bringing out a wolf, who let out a long howl, and my dad and I agreed that his basset hound, Bentley,can do a far better job of howling. Over the course of the next thirty minutes, they brought out hyenas, these dark furry animals that climb vines and can hang from their tails, mongeese (mongooses?), small otters who knew how to recycle – seriously – and even a giant python. She was huge. Afterwards, we were able to go outside and pet another, smaller snake if we wanted to – I did, and even had my photo taken with it!

Everyone enjoyed themselves, and after a long day we were happy to pack onto the buses for the ride home. Today, we have concluded our business session for the morning and are shortly heading out to Straits Kitchen, where our host tells us that we will enjoy Singaporean street food, without the street. I overheard someone say that they have good Indian curry, so I might try to track down some chicken tikka masala or at the very least, some naan bread. Then, I’m not going on either this afternoon’s shopping tour or the visit to the fish spa/Singapore Flyer, so that I can get some work done on the seating chart for tonight and maybe take a breather.

Tonight, we have a full program – first, we are heading to the New Parliament for a special tour (by invitation only), then we go to the Old Parliament, which is now the Arts House, for a performance by the Chinese Youth Orchestra in the chamber room there, and finally, dinner. I’m especially looking forward to the fortune tellers! Well, truthfully, I’m especially looking forward to sleeping in tomorrow – I am tired!