Catching Up

So much has happened since my last blog post. It’s been hard to find time just to sleep, let alone keep up with a blog. I’ve been here for more than three weeks now and I’ve hardly blogged about any of it so far. So without further adieu:

Moving In

After a painfully long process of completing registration at the university, Judy and I found out that we could go ahead and check in to our residence on campus. We packed up our stuff and headed that way, saying goodbye to the hostel and the several friends we had made there in our short stay.

Now, our residences… how do I describe them? Our housing complex is a brand new complex next to the university campus. It includes several residence buildings, several activity centers, several places to eat, and a whole lot more. It opened the week we moved in, making us the first people to ever live here, and only about half of it is complete. The complex itself rivals the size of the entire Forty Acres, and the buildings are massive. Each residence hall (there are currently four, with two more under construction) is about as big as Jester Dormitory at UT. The complex is like something from the future. Everything has an ultra modern style, all of the door locks are RFID controlled, and there is more study and activity space than you can imagine.

The entrance to our housing complex
The tower where I live
The lawn outside
Common living area in our apartment
My brand new room

The pictures of my apartment do not do it justice. It is, without a doubt, one of the nicest places I will live in for the next several years. Unfortunately, the apartment doesn’t have air con, but it has plenty of windows and fans. It is comfortable as long as the windows stay open and there is good circulation.

After hanging around my apartment for a bit, Judy and I headed to an event for exchange students called The Amazing Race. It was basically a scavenger hunt around campus, but a lot more fun because we got to meet tons of other exchange students. Meeting people here is ridiculously easy. All it takes is a simple “Hi! I’m Philip from Texas, where are you from?” and you become instant friends. By this point, Judy and I have met more people than I can count from almost every country on the planet. This event is where Judy and I met several people that will undoubtedly make an appearance later in this blog: Tin (pronounced “Teen”) from Croatia, Wonchi from Connecticut, and Kelly and Alison from Vancouver. The event was a lot of fun, and gave us a lot of time to get to know other exchange students, local students, and gave us a whirlwind tour of the beautiful, but confusing, campus.

Tin practicing caligraphy during the race
Dancing to Jai Ho

Towards the end of the event, the facilitators gave everyone gift bags with small things like water bottles, brochures, and a map of the campus. Written on the bag said “Exchange Program 2008” on it. Weird. It also included a can of “Mackerel in Tomato Sauce.” We asked the locals to see if maybe it was some sort of S’porean dish or something. It wasn’t, and they had no idea why it was given to everyone. Weirder.

Sentosa!

After the race we heard rumor that a large group of the exchange students were going to Sentosa to hang out at the beach. Sentosa is a resort island off the coast of Singapore, and it is notorious for being a tourist hotspot. The entire island is known as Asia’s premiere resort hotspot. Everything is expensive and there are tons of fancy hotels, casinos, clubs, restaurants, etc. Universal Studios Singapore is also located on Sentosa. Before I ever came to Singapore I was warned that Sentosa is a fun place to go once to see the sights but that you will never want to go back because everything feels “fake”. We went anyway.

To get to Sentosa we had to take a train from a mall on the waterfront. This was our first experience of one of the major shopping malls in Singapore (of which there are many). It was crazy. Even at 10:00pm there were thousands and thousands of people running around, shopping at almost any store you can think of. We didn’t stick around much, though. We wanted to get to Sentosa.

We didn’t arrive until after dark, so I don’t have any pictures of the island. We plan to go back during the day and hang out on the beach, though. Despite being fake and manufactured like I had been warned, Sentosa was beautiful. We met up with a large group of 100 or more exchange students and hung out on the beach for several hours. The original plan was to go to a club on the beach, but the cover charge was $35 nobody was willing to pay it. We sat on the beach right outside the club where we could hear the music and see the lights anyway. It was much cheaper and much more fun. It was great to get a chance to know more of the exchange students, and provided much needed relaxation after a long day of running around.

Texas, Our Texas

At this point, almost a week after arriving in Singapore, I had met plenty of people from all over Asia, Europe, Australia, and even Africa. It was a little strange that I had only met two people from America, though.

Funny story about that. While walking back home at 2 in the morning after our trip to Sentosa, we ran into a guy wheeling his luggage around the main plaza looking very lost. He had just arrived and was trying to check in to his residence, but the check in desk was closed.

Tin: “Do you need a place to stay for the night? You can sleep on my couch if you want.”

Me: “Yeah, it will be difficult to find somewhere to stay right now. You can definitely crash in one of our rooms for the night.”

Lost guy: “That would be awesome. Sorry, I’m Zack. Where are you from?”

Tin: “Valentine, from Croatia.”

Zack: “Cool. I’m from America.”

Me: “No way! We were just saying how we hadn’t met very many Americans. What state?”

Zack: “Texas.”

Me: “Me too! What school in Texas?”

Zack: “The University of Texas at Austin.”

Cue jaw dropping.

Zack also knew of another Longhorn studying in Singapore this semester, Will. Apparently because Zack and Will are on exchange through the general UT study abroad office and not through the business school, nobody informed us that they were coming. It was a pleasant surprise.

Zack crashed on my couch for the night. I offered one of the empty bedrooms to him so he could sleep on the bed, but he declined. He didn’t want to sleep on someone else’s bed. We woke up the next morning and I took him down to the check-in desk to see where he would be living. On the way, we joked at how funny it would be if we are roommates and the bed he refused to sleep on was actually his bed.

We are. It was.

Suddenly, Durian

We met up with Alison, Tin, Kelly and Wonchi to go shopping at Clementi Mall near the campus, but instead of shopping inside the mall we went to the much cheaper marketplace behind the mall. We had to buy pillows, bed sheets, and a few other random things for our rooms. The locals here are all so helpful and determined to get you exactly what you need. We also went to a hawker centre for something to eat. I tried Chicken Laksa, a soup with chili and coconut sauce. It was good, but spicy. Pretty much everything here is spicy.

We also tried durian. Durian is another one of those things that is just unexplainable. It is impossible to understand the taste and smell of durian without actually trying it in person. I think the closest description you can get is a mixture of gasoline, rotting onions, and various nuts. Some people love them, most people hate them. It’s even against the law to carry durians with you in certain areas in Singapore, such as buses and trains, because of the pungent smell. Everyone except for Zack grabbed a small piece and popped it into our mouths. It was terrible. We finally convinced Zack to try it, and go figure, he loved it. He took the rest of the durian and ate it all, nearly causing the rest of us to throw up. We plan on holding it over him for the rest of the semester, “Remember when you didn’t want to try durian? Remember when you loved it?”

With that said, I’ve adopted a personal motto for this semester that goes something like “For the next four months you are not allowed to say ‘no’ to trying anything new unless it could kill you, and even then…”

It’ll be fun.

More Exploring

The rest of the week was extremely busy. From shopping, going out, exploring more of the city, and dealing with course registration, there was hardly any free time to be had. And the small amounts of free time that did pop up here and there were occupied by much needed rest.

On more than one occasion my group of friends and I have found ourselves in restaurants where the staff have been slightly overzealous to cater to a group of foreigners. Nearly every local we have run into has gone out of their way to help us in any way possible. In one particular restaurant, the manager came to our table and hovered above us the entire time we were eating. He told us funny stories about Singapore and made sure that every bite we took was the best thing we had ever tasted. It was a weird experience, but he treated us like royalty. The food was delicious, too, and even though the restaurant was fancier than the places we had previously been eating at, it was still only $6 SGD per person.

Typical tourist photo at the restaurant

Wednesday night is Ladies’ Night in Singapore, which means that all bars, clubs, and pubs have free entrance and free drinks for all women. We (“we” being a huge group of international students) decided we were going to check out the nightlife of Singapore, but first we had to go to the mall and get some nicer clothes. For some reason, I only packed two shirts worthy of being worn on a night out, and one of them is a plaid country shirt. I realized once I pulled it out of my luggage that it would be completely useless to me for the next four months.

We stopped by VivoCity, a huge mall near the waterfront, to see if we could find anything good. All we found were insane prices. Don’t get me wrong, there were some nice clothes and the mall had pretty much any store you could ever think of, but $140 for a Banana Republic polo? Blah. We decided to go back to Clementi Mall where we found slightly cheaper prices. Clementi always seems to be the best place to go.

The American Top 40

Anyway, back to ladies’ night. The nightlife in Singapore is crazy. At first, everything was just like a normal night out on the town, but once we started dancing things got a little insane. Locals were crowding around us just to watch us dance, and one group of local girls kept insisting on taking pictures with me and Tin. We’re just so darn irresistible.

I’ve known for a long time that Singapore is considered to be very westernized compared to other countries in Asia, but I had assumed that there would still be some sort of local music scene around here. There isn’t. Every single song we heard was straight from the American Top 40 playlist, and most of them were songs that were popular several years ago. Since I’ve been here, I’ve heard more U2, Britney Spears, Adele, and Bruno Mars than I ever wanted to hear in my entire life.

The club we were at had a house band that was surprisingly very good, although all of their songs were American covers. I still find it strange that their biggest hit was “Dani California”, but at least it sounded alright. They also played Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’”, which appears to be just as popular here as anywhere else (everyone went crazy).

Speed Bumps

The next few days were dedicated to course registration and planning a weekend trip. Course registration here is a pain, but after several days of walking back and forth between department offices seeking approval to take specific courses, I finally ended up with the classes I needed for my degree plan.

On Friday we went to the U.S. Embassy to clear up a few random questions we had about visas and traveling. I guess it was somewhat interesting to see the embassy in person, but the only remarkable thing about the place was that it looked like a fortress, and I wasn’t allowed to take any pictures of it.

We got lost on our way back from the embassy and ended up at another random mall (it seems like there is a shopping mall on every street corner here) and started looking for something to eat. Now by this point we had all been in Singapore for over a week and although we all love S’porean cuisine, several nights of drooling over all of the dishes from our respective home countries had us all missing some good ol’ western food. We stumbled across a food stand simply labeled “BBQ” where Zack and I spotted some corn dogs and barbecued chicken. We couldn’t resist.

Zack and his BBQ chicken

We also ended up walking through a random street market on our way back. Tons and tons of random stuff. We saw one guy that sold nothing but old television remotes, although there were several others that sold typical street vendor stuff like watches, cell phones, or old laptops. I might need to go back to buy some cheap trinkets and souvenirs.

Before going home, we needed to go the bus station to see if there were any seats available on a bus to Malaysia, as we wanted to get out of Singapore for the weekend and go to Pulau Tioman, a small secluded island. Tin already had arranged to go to Tioman with a group of about 50 other exchange students. Unfortunately there wasn’t any room left on their bus for the rest of our group, so we had to get there some other way. After several hours of looking for the bus station (we have become really good at getting lost in Singapore) we gave up and I called one of my local friends. It took him about five seconds to give me a phone number to call to check ticket availability. Next time, I’m calling him first.

There weren’t any tickets available, and after such a long day of walking around the scorching hot city, we resigned to the fact that we were not going to Tioman.

Blowing Bubbles

Even though it was Friday night, we were all exhausted and decided to relax on the lawn in front of our dorms. Judy busted out a bottle of bubbles and started blowing them everywhere. You would think that the people here have never seen bubbles before, as several people ran up to us in utter amazement of our floating soap spheres, demanding to know what they were and where we got them. Then again, someone probably thought the same thing about us. We ran around the field for an hour chasing the bubbles like little children. It was one of those simple things that you could do anywhere in the world, but the fact that we were doing it in the middle of a field in a foreign country made it all the more interesting. I think it was just what everyone needed to cheer up a bit after a long, hot day.

And then, at 1:00am Saturday morning after just enough cheering up, we made the final decision that we were, in fact, going to Tioman for the weekend. Nothing was going to stop us.

Pulau Tioman

We woke up at 4:00am (yes, four in the morning) to begin our journey to Malaysia. Unfortunately, Zack, Will, and Wonchi had previous obligations and could not go with us. It was just me, Judy, Alison, and Kelly. Honestly, I was a little wary of trekking through the forests of Malaysia with just me and three girls, but I wasn’t going to let that stop us from going.

We took a taxi from our residence to a bus station from where we had heard a bus departs for Johor Bahru, the city immediately on the other side of the Singapore-Malaysia border. The bus ride was uneventful until we got the border, at which point we had to get off the bus and go through Singapore’s immigration checkpoint, get back on the bus, drive across the bridge connecting the two countries, get off the bus again, and go through Malaysia’s checkpoint. It took about an hour and a half, much longer than we had hoped, but it still wasn’t a big deal. We eventually got to the bus station in Johor Bahru. This is the point from where we were pretty much improvising the rest of our trip. We had heard that you could get buses from here to Mersing, the city nearest to Pulau Tioman, but we weren’t sure. We walked around for half an hour before we found a bus company with open seats to Mersing, but our bus still didn’t leave until 8:00.

Bus station in Johor Bahru

Market at the bus station
McDonald's in JB

We stopped by a bread shop at the station to get some cheap breakfast. We walked around the bus station a bit, too. It was slightly creepy because it was so early in the morning and most of the places were still dark. We stumbled across a KFC, a McDonald’s, a Pizza Hut, Dunkin’ Donuts, Long John Silver’s, and a Popeye’s. Despite being curious about how such places taste here in the far east, we didn’t try them out.

Once we got on the bus, we slept almost the whole way from Johor Bahru to Mersing. The ride was about three hours long. I woke up every so often to snap a few pictures of the Malaysian countryside, which was beautiful. It really was like driving through the rainforest.

Malaysian countryside
Malaysian countryside
Mersing!

After we got to Mersing, we had to wait several hours to board the ferry to Pulau Tioman. As the ferry ride was also about two hours long, we slept most of the way on it, too. Arriving at Tioman was like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. I don’t know what I was expecting, but whatever it was, I did not expect to find the mountainous tropical island that I was now standing on.

First glimpse of Tioman from the ferry

The ferry dropped us off on the west side of the island at the village of Tekek. We needed to be on the east side, as that is where we were supposed to meet up with the other exchange students that were staying nearby. Not long after we got off the ferry, a taxi driver approached us and offered us a ride to Juara, the village on the east coast. We accepted before we realized that his taxi was actually a 4×4 pickup truck with only room for one of us in the cab. We were going to have to ride in the truck bed. We thought it looked fun, so we hopped in.

To get from Tekek to Juara we had to climb a tiny road up one side of a mountain, and then slowly descend the other side. The ride took about half an hour, and the entire time I felt like I was driving through Jurassic Park. We were in the middle of the jungle, with nothing but trees and wildlife around us for miles. It was amazing.

Climbing the mountain

I think we all had expected Juara to be somewhat touristy, with a good bit of people running around on the beach. We were wrong. Other than the few locals running the small resorts on the beach, we were the only people there. We practically had the entire beach to ourselves. The beaches, by the way, were gorgeous. I haven’t been to very many beaches in my life but when I think of an island paradise, its beaches don’t even compare to Tioman’s. It wasn’t long before we were in the water.

The gorgeous beaches of Pulau Tioman

After awhile we met up with Tin and the rest of the exchange students that were on the island. We had a blast playing sand volleyball and swimming through the waves. A local walked out onto the beach with two pet monkeys, so we all crowded around to take a look. They were cute, funny, and even knew how to swim through the ocean. It looked a little strange to me that they were on chain leashes, though.

Monkeys!

The rest of the day is kind of a blur. We did more typical beach stuff. We wanted to try surfing or maybe snorkeling, but unfortunately we didn’t really have time for it. The other students had planned to have a barbecue and throw a big party on the beach that night, so we joined them and had a good time. Like everywhere in Southeast Asia, there was a lot of good food. I tried calamari for the first time. It was pretty tasty. A tropical rainstorm blew in sometime in the middle of the party, so we all took shelter inside a small resort on the beach.

Speaking of resorts, when I say “resort” I don’t mean a five-star hotel on the beach. The Tioman version of a resort is a small shack with several smaller shacks around it. The main shack has a small bar, a lounge, and a small office. Each smaller shack houses a single bed and a small bathroom. Originally, we were going to camp on the beach in a tent, but once it started raining we found a shack instead. It was definitely a smart choice.

The "resort" or chalet where we stayed

Unfortunately, because I had to be back on campus by Monday to finish course registration stuff, we had to leave the next day around noon. We woke up early and spent a few more hours on the beach before beginning our journey back to Singapore. The return trip was pretty much the same as the trip there, except during daytime instead of early in the morning. People in Malaysia are extremely helpful, and we concluded that everyone wants to try their hardest to get you where you need to go, they just hope that they can get some money out of you. As long as you are aware of what fair prices are for bus and taxi rides and don’t let them sucker you into paying extra, traveling through Malaysia is wonderful.

I do hope that we can come back to this part of Malaysia when we have more time. Our trip was cut a little short, and we didn’t get to do much sightseeing. While passing through towns like Kota Tinggi and even Johor Bahru, I found myself wishing that I had a few days to wander through the city and get to know the locals. Maybe next weekend.

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