Sunday, April 29, 2007

Turistas. And some bad experiences with food.

The long-planned and much-awaited trip to Sentosa finally materialised this Saturday. There were seven of us, including one guy from WIMWI. I had heard many conflicting opinions about the place, but I liked the island more than the best review I had heard. I am probably easy to please.

There's lots of stuff to see. And being first-timers, and being one of those groups where everyone expresses his viewpoint without bothering to listen to others, after spending the entire day there we ended up missing out on quite a few nice places. For the same reasons, we also ended up wasting a few dollars on bad planning. The place is fairly expensive if you don't plan things out properly.

But whatever we did see was full paisa-vasool for me. Probably because I saw many things that I had seen only on TV before this. The magnificent Underwater Kingdom, where apart from seeing some brilliant creatures from up close like sharks, dugongs, eels and many others, I also got to touch baby stingrays and baby sharks. The insect kingdom, where the intial few moments moving around in an enclosure filled with butterflies that are available dime a million in India felt like a damp squib but where I also got to see some huge and beautiful insects later. The dolphin lagoon, where I saw three really cute pink dolphins enthrall the audience with their antics. The luge, the sky-ride, the (juvenile) 4-D show, the southernmost tip of continental Asia. The tame beach, having beer on the beach, the music by the beach, the lighting across the beach, THE BEACH! And of course the cable car ride to and from the island. I missed not having my family here again, because these places would probably be more enjoyable (except the beach part maybe) with one's family.

I finally tasted durian (not at Sentosa). Spent SGD 5 (that's Rs 150!) on something that's nightmarishly bad. No human being should eat something that disgusting. It smells bad. It tastes even worse. Actually, I can't decide. The pulp inside the shell feels like touching a dead reptile. The taste is the worst mixture you can imagine when you mix asafoetida, a rotten onion, a rotten melon and a potato. I might have got the combination wrong because I took two small bites, and the discomfort was too strong for me to ponder over the intricacies of its unique taste. And now that I know for sure how it smells, I'll be able to figure out it's presence in my vicinity very easily in the future. Which will bring back the bad memories of tasting it all over again.

I also tasted sea-weed in the morning before leaving. I can't believe I am saying this, but I'll choose a sea-weed anyday over a durian. Sea-weeds are sold under different flavors packed in bags similar to Kurkure in India here. I decided to try out one flavor. I could manage to consume a few strips (they feel like strips of paper) but then the feeling that I was eating spoilt fish was too overpowering and I had to cook myself some tomato-flavored noodles to mask the smell. The packet's still kept in my room if you are interested in trying it out too.

Random observation: Singapore's tourism industry is supported to a great extent by auntyjis (and their broods) from India.

Monday, April 23, 2007

My Own Kitab Festival

So I visited this place Sunday afternoon, after reading a post here. It's the largest bookstore I have ever been to. I spent close to 4 hours there, and was still quite far from covering everything I wanted to. And this when more than half of the bookstore was not even in my itinerary. Bought a few books, even though I had decided in my first week here that I won't buy books here as they are terribly expensive compared to India. But in my defence, most of these books are difficult to find in India. Also in my defence, IT'S MY MONEY.

The reason I got to spend such a long time at a bookstore was because my neighbour was at a staging of Phantom of the Opera. My employers have sponsored the opera going on right now in the city, and the desk that this guy is working on has organized a seminar for its clients coinciding with it. Part of the recreational plan for the clients was a visit to the opera, followed by a cocktail party. Being an intern, my friend was responsible for a lot of mindless work like filing papers, checking name-tags, stapling documents, carrying boxes, and more. He apparently did a decent job of it as he was finally given a SGD200 ticket to the opera with the rest of the desk, along with an invitation to the party. The chap had no idea what this opera is all about, and was happy mainly because of the worth of the ticket. I, on the other hand, who knows all about the opera, didn't get a ticket because my desk is one of the larger desks at my firm and, thanks to some bureaucratic oversight, the same number of tickets were allotted to all desks, because of which there was a shortage at mine.

So, I was all set to get bored for the evening, when I thought of visiting the bookstore. And I am not sure I would have had more fun at the opera.

After the bookstore, I went to another mall here to wait for a friend, who was returning from work, to have dinner together. While moving about there I came across this store called the Comics Mart, a shop dedicated completely to comics. Now I might not be as great a fan of comics as this guy is, but I do get goosebumps when I see a whole store filled with rare comic-books and graphic novels. Add to this salesmen who know their comics well, and it's almost as good as it gets. I would have spent more time there had it not been for the dinner, but I did buy this, at a price that I believe is a lot less compared to what I might have had to pay in India.

So my pocket was fairly lighter by the time I got back to my room. But I sure was a lot happier than I had been at the start of the weekend. And I have got lots of interesting work at office for the time-being.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Writeous Brothers

One thing that having to go to office does is make you a regular blog-reader, and, if you have the enthusiasm, a regular blogger too. So many of the young professionals, whose blogs that I have been to over the last few days, started blogging, or at least returned to blogging after a brief fling in their college-days, because they had substantial periods of no work at their jobs.

And I am not sure this happens with new recruits only. The way things are at the trading floor I am working at right now, everyone in the desk, right from the MD through the VP, associate, analyst to the worthless intern (that would be me), sits around the same table. And even the VPs, especially the ones not involved in day-to-day trading, get ample time to read and talk about a range of things not connected remotely to credit derivatives, including, but not limited to, the TV series Heroes, the media event of the year - the Abhiwarya marriage, the World Cup matches (along with baffling scrutiny of past records), and other things that I try to listen into but am not able to. They probably don't blog, though even if they did I wouldn't know, because, based on their handling of Powerpoint, it's too complicated for them.

Anyway, I was talking about these blogs that I have been visiting. Irrespective of whether the blogger is involved with coding, or consulting, or banking, the general dissatisfaction that arises out of having nothing to do at work is eerily similar and extremely frightening. But as I said earlier in a post, it probably comes with the territory and one just has to get used to it. I realised while talking to a friend a few days back that the reason I dread the periods when I have no work is because I feel guilty of not working enough for the money these guys are spending on me. I think I am digressing again by making this post about me.

So coming back, again, to these blogs that I have been reading, I was fairly amazed at how well many of these people write. I knew some of these people personally at college, and I had never realised they had such amazing writers hidden somewhere inside. I mean writing decently is one of the, very few, things I think I can do without too much effort. People have been more or less complimentary of my writing skills all through my life. And, again as I wrote to a friend in a letter just yesterday, I am almost narcissistic, and slightly protective, about my writing. I reread several times almost everything that I write - even letters. It's probably because I am so infatuated with what I write that I use ten words to say something that could be done using two. When I was younger, whenever I came across something written very well, I would try to find out the age of the person who wrote it and feel satisfied if it turned out that the person was older than me, which in most cases he/she would be, because I knew that I had time to improve and reach the high standards of that particular piece. That's why I was very unhappy when I read a story written by someone close to my age in an issue of Target - it was about some WWII thing where a retired soldier is visited by someone from the past - as part of a story-writing competition. It was a mind-blowing story, and though I have always been too laidback to get envious of anyone, I envied the writer of that story his writing skills.

And now, when I see so many people writing so well, how do you think I feel?

Friday, April 20, 2007

Trains, workers and comedy

After being used to public transport in Delhi, where most people consider staring their birthright, the disinterestedness of Singaporeans in the metro is almost spooky. On my way back from office today there was this Indian couple travelling in front of me with their very young son in the mother's arms. The kid smiled at a young local lady standing beside his mommy, and the parents, as most of us must have seen parents behave in India, looked expectantly at her anticipating a smile in return, which sort of acts as a reassurance that the kid is cute. But the lady disappointed them thoroughly by not letting the remotest sign of expression come on to her face and looked away almost embarrassedly. The parents got off at the next station with slightly downcast faces.

There have been several occasions when I, who is normally very uptight about skin contact, have been taken aback by the strong abhorrence for physical proximity among the local population. The discomfort gets actually funny at times in crowded trains or elevators.

I read Indian newspapers' online editions at office, and I have noticed mention of this politician from Punjab involved in illegal migration of workers to foriegn countries. It's not only US and Canada that these unfortunate people go to, many also come to Singapore. Come to Little India on a weekend to meet many such people. There was a feature on one of the channels here recently on how many of these poor men end up unemployed and resort to prostitution to survive. The areas shown were places I visit regularly.

I caught about half an hour of Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World on TV. It's one of the dumbest movies I have seen in a long long time. And that should mean something considering my indiscriminate taste in movies. There was some controversy regarding the disrespectful connotations of the title as well as in the movie when it came out. The movie is bad simply because it's obvious that it tries to make money through the tensions between the US and the 'Muslim world' without any concern for authenticity. And Albert Brooks must be the worst 'comedian' ever. The only part funny in the movie is when he talks of showbiz as if he is a veteran. He probably is, which does not say much for Hollywood. It was so bad it was insulting to continue watching it and I switched to the wrestling match on another channel once my dinner was done.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Office Office

Yesterday, I had absolutely no work in the office and I was going to make a post cribbing about it. (Did anyone notice that I crib a bit too much?) But I left for lunch before posting it, and after I returned to my desk, asked the youngest member of the desk (after me, of course) for some work...and then was swamped with loads and loads of work that got over just now.

Even though a friend I was speaking to on phone on Sunday made fun of me when I talked about 'the first week of my working life', I think I am learning a few things that any person who first starts off working does. Or maybe this is just how things work in an internship. For one, I am learning to not feel uncomfortable if I don't have any work to do. Everyone else on my desk is busy and I can't expect them to think up jobs for me to do all the time. I have got a fair amount of work, I am picking up the tricks of the trade gradually, experiencing work-life first hand, and that's about all that an intern bargains for.

I also feel I spoke too soon when I called my work here pointless. By my stringent definition then probably very few jobs like a doctor's or a teacher's would be worth anything. I might have been on the verge of making the same mistake I made with Chemical Engineering. I realised very late that a job or a field is what you make of it, and you don't need to change the world or even make a very significant difference to a person's life for your work to be worthwhile. That does not mean that I have fallen in love overnight with sitting on the trading floor and staring at the screen, or that I would not be on the lookout for things I feel are more suited to my expectations, but after a long discussion with a Mathematics PhD from Australia on my desk last evening I think I respect the field a whole lot more.

I didn't intend to write that last paragraph actually when I started off, but let it be there as a reminder for (many more) occasions when I am in the mood to crib about my work. After I got done with the work assigned to me and before I started writing this, I was reading GreatBong's blog. That man is hilarious. Of course most of you already know that. I think I'll be more regular now, depending on how much time I get in my office. I only hope my antics on the net are not being monitored by someone from the IT Help Desk in the office.

Another important reason, apart from the really great people I am working with, for settling down well at work is the fact that we have discovered this Indian eating joint at the nearest hawker centre that serves really authentic Indian food. Most of the people working there prefer conversing in Hindi, which adds to the home-effect and it's really nice to find properly cooked Indian food amidst the chaos of boiled Chinese food at a hawker centre. As you would have guessed, I have still not regained the courage to try out new stuff after I recovered from my brief illness. I am sticking to Indian, McDonald's or KFC food.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Where's My Overcoat?

Little India gets really insane on weekends. Every single Indian or person of Indian origin in Singapore decides to visit a temple or have Indian food or shop at an Indian store on a Saturday. I had prior warning, but I hadn't taken heed and was caught slightly unawares. Will take care to be outside the area at these times in the future.

Saw The Namesake with a friend today. The multiplexes are pretty much the same as in Delhi or Kolkata, except the audi that we saw the movie in was really small. I liked the movie, though I had known that I would before I went in, but the music is very inappropriate in places. The song Yeh Mera Deewanapan and the way it's been picturised is positively embarrassing.

A few months back I wouldn't have believed I would say this, but I miss Kolkata. I'll crib about the place once more from June probably, but an Indian city does provide a kind of familiarity that a foriegn place, even if one is living in a locality called Litle India, just can't. I can't decide completely if the facilities are worth living away, and I am not sure if I'll have the luxury to choose, at least in the early part of my career.

While watching the movie a memory from my childhood came back, something that I had thought about when I read the book too. I had read the book in a bus on my way to Jaipur from Delhi in August 2005. This memory is of my father crying. The only time I can recall seeing him cry, and it's not a sight a kid who thinks of his father as the epitome of everything strong should get to see. I was about six years old then. We had been a few months in Iraq, and my parents were still fairly young in their careers and money was not as conveniently available as it is now. In August 1988, one ordinary day I saw my mother rush back from school (she used to teach some senior classes) to our home a few metres away. I got momentarily worried but got back to my classwork. It was only when I returned for lunch that I saw my father sitting on the bed red-eyed. And I knew something was wrong.

My grandfather had passed away in India a couple of days back, and the way telephone connections used to be then, added to the fact that we were living in a fairly remote area on the Iraq-Syria border, ensured that by the time my father got the news he could only feel helpless. My father's brothers convinced him that there was not much practical sense in spending too much time or money flying back to India as my father couldn't really do much.

I know it's wrong to think about these things, but that day I decided that I would always be around for my parents. I can imagine how painful it must have been for my father. And that fear of not being around for my parents, or not having them around to experience any comforts that I earn, will keep me from going too far too long from them.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Singapore Diary - 2nd weekend

The reason for the unexpected hiatus was a brief illness followed by the first week of paid-work of my life. The latter experience was substantially better than the former. It seems I had overestimated the virtues of tap water supply in a developed country. That, and the long walks under the sun that I am not used to, proved a potent combo. Which also put a stop to my experimentation with food and have been on a strictly Indian diet for a week. I had to come back to the oil and spices anyway.

Coming to the work week, it passed off in a daze. Though the work is fine and the people are very nice, I am not sure I'll get used to the pointlessness of it all. The money is not worth the feeling that I am wasting my talents (or whatever I think I have). But, as I said to a friend in a letter ripe with frustration, it's not that I am not happy. Learning about credit derivatives is more fun that I would have credited it with, and the idea that if I use my internship properly it will give me skills that can earn me loads more of money is not all that bad. Really.

So after a week of early-to-bed-early-to-rise, we went to the famed night safari of Singapore right after office Friday evening. It was the longest we have travelled at one go after coming here. And the place is fantastic. It began with a Creatures of the Night show, followed by a 3-km tram ride through the park, and a short interlude of a walk. Everything's very well-managed, which is more a routine than exception for this city, and sort of goes without saying now. But if you are pained by the apathy and ineptitude of the authorities in India'a zoos, the enclosures and living conditions of the animals here would delight you fairly. A caged animal is a caged animal, but a clean, well-supplied cage is infinitely better than a dirty, uncared-for one. Eagerly looking forward to the zoo trip that'll come on one of the future weekends.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Singapore Diary - 3rd Day

When I realized the day I arrived at Singapore that I'd have to walk a fair bit to get around, it made me happy, despite the at times unbearable humidity, because I thought it would help me control my weight that was reaching slightly risky limits. Little did I know that I'll undo all that exercise - and I have walked a lot - by succumbing to the culinary temptations of this city.

I woke up late second day running at 8:30 IST, the time I used to get up in Kolkata and at home, which does not bode well for someone who needs to be in office by 8:30 Singapore Time from Monday. Have three days to adjust.

Went to Shenton Way, Singapore's Wall Street and the place where I'll be working, to understand the directions and look for cheap eating options in the area. Found a nice bookstore at the ground floor of the building next to it. On the way, we decided to have lunch at Lau Pa Sat, one of the many hawker centres of Singapore. I had a Crispy Garlic Roti Prata. It's a curiously named dish, resembling a parantha, drenched in oil and filled with different ingredients. One is quite filling.

After exploring the Shenton Way area and the bookstore, along with browsing through a few guide books, we decided to visit the Singapore Urban Redevelopment Authority office that is situated close to my office. It's a brilliant concept where a fairly boring topic like planning of a city has been turned into an enjoyable experience by using a combination of huge models, interactive games, touchscreens and several other tools. If only DDA could come up with something like that. There's so much planned for Singapore that I won't be able to see, at least in this trip. Noted down several places that I would like to visit in the next few weeks after seeing their models, photos and videos.

All this walking had made us hungry again and we decided to have a light snack at one of the underground shopping areas along the MRT stations. At a lot of eating joints run by the Chinese here it gets really difficult to understand what they are saying or even make yourself understood. So much for everyone in Singapore knowing English. Even if one manages to understand the difficult accents, the food ingredients have completely different names and it takes me several attempts to get an inkling of the items on my plate. And I am not the only one with this problem apparently as most stalls at hawker centres have pictures of each dish with the price mentioned along with it. So in most cases it is fairly obvious what all you are being served. But not always. I was feeling particularly adventurous today and ordered a dish that I was not even pronouncing properly, and the lady at the counter, after a lot of effort, was only able to get across the fact that it had some meat and eggs with noodles. The dish arrived, and tasted pretty decent. Most dishes here have very strong flavors, but are not very hot and are quite an experience. The first thing that I did on returning to my room was to look for it on the net. This is what Wikipedia has to say about Mee Rebus (pronounced as Mee-Ray-Boos).

We had to go one station beyond our stop to collect a few clothes that I had given at the laundry (why are all laundries run by Chinese who don't understand English at all and keep smiling irrespective of what you ask them and then suddenly turn angry?). Finding a laundry close by was the last thing we needed, and now we are officially well-settled here. We were walking back and chanced upon this fantastic bakery run by a group of women that is a pure delight for a foodie. The smell of freshly baked bread and cakes and doughnuts is mind-boggling. We had to have a doughnut each. And we went back again after dinner to get some bread for tomorrow's breakfast. I also bought some coconut jam, which has a very nice unique taste and I have made a note to carry a small jar home when I return.

That brings us to dinner. After resting for about an hour we decided to explore Little India and covered a good part of it comparing the prices and the menus at the various restaurants as well as making a mental notes of things we can buy later as gifts and souvenirs. There are several Punjabi, Bengali and Pakistani eating joints apart from the usual Tamil ones. But after walking for a significant distance we finally decided to eat at the place where we had our first meal after arriving in Singapore on Tuesday. It's a hawker centre at the edge of Little India, and the difference in my understanding of the place was astonishing. I was feeling badly out of place and lost the first day. I was feeling confident and completely at ease tonight. We bought a few slices of Dragon Fruit, which was the sole experimentation done by my neigbor, who's a vegetarian, but could barely eat one small slice. It smells funny, has a slight tinge of sweetness but is mostly tasteless and has way too many seeds that look like insects. I had a dumpling noodle soup garnished with dried fish to wrap up the day.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Singapore Diary - Day 2

Well settled now. Some confusion has given us quite a bit of free time before work begins, which is being put to good use exploring the city.

Have been experimenting with the food here. Both the number of options, especially if you are as comprehensively omnivorous as I am, and the number of food outlets are mind-boggling. It's difficult to understand how most food-outlets make money here, as the total number of food-stalls and restaurants is probably more than the number of residents in the city. But I am not complaining. Because of the competition the prices are really low and I am sure I am spending less on food here than I would be at Mumbai or Delhi, because I wouldn't dare to eat at most cheap outlets at most places in India.

Had to go to office for some formalities today after which we explored the area around Raffles Place and Marina Bay on foot. I walked more today wearing formals than I had before this in my entire life. Am not a very keen photographer, but the place is so beautiful that I had to click a few pics. The ones I did take do little justice to the the beauty of the area, but they will serve as good mementos.

My co-intern, and neighbor, and I discovered a very nice South Indian eating joint close by. They have large portions, cheap rates, VERY Indian ambience and the waiters insist on speaking in Hindi. Will be a nice break from all the prawns and seaweeds and noodle soups and pork-rice.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Strangers in a Strange Land

The first thing that hits you on reaching Changi Airport, after a fantastic flight on Singapore Airlines, is the, almost sterilized, spotlessness. Everything, even the people, seems artificial. Of course, it's really beautiful. And so is the city.

But also very humid. The humidity is almost as bad as Kolkata's was when I went there last June, and is made better only because the pollution is much less and everything's a lot more systematic.

My first day at Singapore began very badly, which included, among other things that have already begun to fade away, my first encounter at a backpackers' hostel, bathing and changing into formals in a communal bathroom, forgetting where I had kept all the currency I had got converted last night in Delhi and changing several shirts because I kept on dropping something on each of them in the process of searching for the money. Had to leave for office with the firm belief that all that money was lost. Losing half my body liquids perspiring didn't help matters either.

But the helpful people at the office, finally finding the money after I had given up all hope, getting paid on the first day itself, a great lunch with a couple of HR managers and, best of all, finding a great (and cheap) place to stay in Little India - all made the day really memorable, for the right reasons.

I have fallen in love with Little India and, unless some mishap happens that confirms the image I had built up based on all the fore-warnings, I think I am going to enjoy my stay here a lot. The food's crazy (in a good way). The people could be a little more cheerful. And there's more to India than Tamil. But it's still a lot like home. In which other foriegn land, except maybe London, can you listen to Himesh Reshammiya while having an amazing biryani discussing life in the city with the waiter in Hindi.

And Singapore itself is a city fairly easy to get a hang of. I sincerely hope I haven't said that too soon though. I have learnt enough, or it might just be the good feeling that comes from not doing too badly in a completely new situation (coupled with a couple of Heinekens), that I am raring to show the newcomers around and help their familiarization process be easier than it was for me.

Have to do something to improve my net accessibility. Of course, once I start working, and once others from India turn up, I might not feel as lonely as I am feeling right now, typing this sitting alone on the terrace outside my room, and the 1/2 hour free quota at my hotel might suffice. I'll probably, and hopefully, be able to post this tomorrow.

I wrote that a few minutes back. Came back to my room intending to put myself to sleep watching Guru in my comp. Decided to try for a wi-fi connection, even though I was told that there isn't any. And this day actually got better!! Not only do I have a wi-fi connection in my room, it's actually really fast. I love this place even more now.

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