Sunday Sofa Sojourns #13: Jakarta, Indonesia

Seeing as all our travel plans this year (and the next…?) have been put on hold, to ease the wanderlust I’ll post throwback photos every week from our past trips. Join me as I travel from my sofa!

Unlike my other Sunday posts, this Jakarta weekend trip probably wouldn’t be of much interest to the usual tourist. We didn’t drop by the Monas (National Monument), buy batik, or visit any of the city’s museums and parks. It was more of a random stroll down memory lane, possibly an attempt to reconcile rose-coloured childhood memories of a city I loved with its current reality.

Because of my dad’s job, my family moved to Jakarta in the 1990s. My mom, siblings, and I had spent a few summers there prior to the move. To this day, I feel a strong connection to this busy behemoth of a city. It reminded me often of the bustle of Makati / Manila.

View of the Selamat Datang Monument from our hotel room. It was a Car-Free Sunday.

We eventually left Jakarta in the chaos that was 1998 along with a number of other families we knew, in the aftermath of the Asian financial crisis (Indonesia was badly hit) and the race riots.

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We lived in the Kelapa Gading neighbourhood in north Jakarta. The Kelapa Gading Plaza was close to our house but often the wares came to us. I remember the tukang sayur who used to go around our residential village with a cart of fresh vegetables every morning. Our family helper, whom we affectionally called Mbak, would call him over and buy a bunch of fresh kangkong for Rp500 (ah, the pre-1997/98 era before the Indonesian rupiah had too many zeroes). Then there was the jamu seller in her kebaya bearing her mysterious herbal concoctions, which Mbak drank near-daily (she never let us try some).

A tukang sayur. Source: Detik Food

My favourite mobile vendor was the chicken-shaped truck that sometimes toured our streets selling ayam goreng kalasan (deep-fried kampung chicken served in oil-soaked boxes, sprinkled with crispy bits of batter called kremes). Give me kremes over KFC chicken any day.

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Anyway, back to our trip. We weren’t in Jakarta long enough to eat at all the places where I wanted to eat, so we just settled for a trip to our old food haunts in Kelapa Gading and near our hotel, as well as a clandestine visit to our previous primary school in Ancol (it involved some wheedling on our friends’ part to get the security guard to let us have a walk around the school grounds late on a weekday evening).

Jakarta now has Chowking! I remember when Jollibee first opened here

The cinema facade of Kelapa Gading Mall (it wasn’t a plaza anymore) hadn’t changed much. I hazily recall looking up from our car at the movie poster for ‘Speed’, which was hand-painted then. Keanu barely looked like himself.

Me, still zipping by

Inside the mall, we made a beeline for Bakmi Gajah Mada, an old favourite. We had ice cold Sosro teh botol (which now came in cartons instead of glass bottles), bowls of bakmi bakso (Indonesian noodles with beef balls) and crispy pangsit goreng (fried wonton).

I introduced the Hub to A Fung’s vermicelli noodles (graced with more beef balls and a huge block of tofu with meaty goodness nestled inside).

For novelty, the Hub and I tried the infamous kopi luwak. The menu helpfully explained it thus: “The luwak (Paradoxurus hermaphroditus) denizen of the coffee (kopi) plantations of Java, Sumatra, and Sulawesi, eats only the ripest coffee cherries. Unable to digest the coffee beans, the luwak graciously deposits them on the jungle floor where they are eagerly collected by the locals. The stomach acids and enzymatic action involved in this unique fermentation process produces the beans for the world’s rarest coffee beverage.” What exactly was going on through the minds of those kopi luwak pioneers? (In case you’re interested, it tasted like normal Arabica coffee. No 💩 taste whatsoever.)

Here is a food court spread from Sate Khas Senayan, with bowls of sop buntut (oxtail soup) topped with emping crackers, satay mix (meat skewers), ayam goreng kremes (fried chicken with the crunchy bits), and a rice meal doused with spicy peanut sauce. God I missed Jakarta.

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Now that I think about it, maybe most of my rose-coloured memories were all about Indonesian food. Consider our pasalubong haul.

Indomie is life

Think critically dear readers,

Sunday Sofa Sojourns #12: Siem Reap, Cambodia

Seeing as all our travel plans this year (and the next…?) have been put on hold, to ease the wanderlust I’ll post throwback photos every week from our past trips. Join me as I travel from my sofa!

When I first saw the moss-covered temple stones at Siem Reap in Cambodia, I was reminded of the mobile video game Temple Run released back in the early 2010s. Temple Run was a running game with no end, at least until you made an ill-timed swipe or the crazy monkeys caught up with you. The monkeys at Siem Reap are duelling kings however, pink and still in the ancient stone.

We arrived at our hotel in the afternoon. We wasted no time in hiring a tuktuk to take us to Angkor Wat, the “temple city,” the largest religious monument in the world. We read that the outer walls and moat surrounding this medieval temple complex symbolised the edge of the world and the cosmic ocean, respectively. Unusually for Khmer temples, the Angkor Wat faced the setting sun, a symbol of death.

Outside Angkor Wat

The causeway leading to the temple was lined with vendors selling pirated English guidebooks for as cheap as a dollar. There were too many tourists with impractical shoes. Some of them spat on the ancient stone.

Angkor Wat looked time-worn and understandably so, having been built in the 12th century. Wooden steps were constructed over the original steps — not only to preserve it but because the older ones were too steep. The sensual apsaras lined the walls in an assortment of poses, jewellery, and headgear. I had a strong urge to see for certain what it looked like in its original glory.

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The rest of the architecture at Angkor had its own pull: take Banteay Srei To Baphuon for instance, with its salmon-coloured stones and incredibly detailed reliefs.

Banteay Srei To Baphuon

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Then there was the surreal Ta Prohm, which was deliberately restored in a way that cut as little of the surrounding jungle as possible.

The majestic tree roots at Ta Prohm

Parts of Angelina Jolie’s film Lara Croft: Tomb Raider were filmed here.

The giant banyan trees continue to simultaneously hug and crush the temple buildings, as they have for hundreds of years. In time, nature will finish its work and the temple too will fade.

A stegosaurus carved in the stone at Ta Prohm, or something else? It’s still a mystery

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Personally, I found The Bayon, also in Angkor Thom, the most enigmatic. The temple had a curious pull on me.

Our approach to The Bayon
The Bayon

The pyramid shaped temple mountain rises on three levels and features more than 200 stone faces, all with smiles as mysterious as the Mona Lisa’s.

The reliefs at the Bayon featured not only apsaras but also daily life — cockfights, festival celebrations, market scenes, meals being cooked. To me, this imbued the dreamlike temples with a sense of normalcy. In another time, ordinary people just like me lived here.

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The Baphuon was once one of the grandest of Angkor’s temples, built in the 11th century, but parts of it have long since collapsed. There is a giant reclining Buddha inside. Since the temple was dedicated to Hinduism the Buddha was probably added centuries later.

The Baphuon

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We had time to visit Neak Pean, a temple in the middle of what I call the Dead Marshes (it looked so much like how I imagined Tolkien’s Dead Marshes would look!). The temple’s pools were meant to cure diseases.

Neak Pean

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The “City of God Kings” remained on my mind well after our trip. I tried to search online for images of how Angkor’s ancient temples might have looked like in their heyday. Google did not disappoint. Scholars produced colourful overlays that show you the old and the new side by side, some even recreated the kingdom on video. The Smithsonian digitally reconstructed Angkor Wat, brightly coloured and gilded with shiny gold, a far cry from its present state.

More recently, laser scans revealed an intricate network of cities hidden beneath Angkor, suggesting a rich everyday life led by those who peopled it.

Source: The Conversation

The last lines of a poem came to mind as I reflected on Angkor (though it may be more appropriate for one of my previous posts):

And how one can imagine oneself among them

I do not know;

It was all so unimaginably different

And all so long ago.

The Gloomy Academic, Louis MacNiece

Think critically dear readers,

Sunday Sofa Sojourns #11: Dinner in Beijing, China

Seeing as all our travel plans this year (and the next…?) have been put on hold, to ease the wanderlust I’ll post throwback photos every week from our past trips. Join me as I travel from my sofa!

I plan to write a full post on my trip to Beijing in the future. This is just about an interesting dinner we had the evening of our first day.

I was on work training in Shanghai for six weeks. My colleagues and I thought it would be a cool idea to take an overnight train up to Beijing for a weekend. None of us had been to China before, so we were planning day trips left and right: Suzhou, Hangzhou, Xi’an.

We arrived in Beijing late in the day. After settling in at our hotel, we wanted to get some dinner. Being in Beijing, all of us naturally thought to look for a place that served good Peking duck. We ended up in a random restaurant called Tiānfǔ Shíbā Xiāng. (Think it was 天府十八香, which I suppose could be loosely translated to Heavenly Province 18 Spices? I’m not too sure.)

The servings were huge, good value for money, and surprisingly tasty. We had the Peking duck we wanted; it was carved skillfully tableside. You have to place the duck –including slices of crispy, juicy skin — in thin Mandarin pancakes, add hoisin sauce, cucumber sticks, fresh scallions and voila! A delicious bite-sized duck wrap. Apart from that, we ordered pork dumplings, diced chicken, plates of spicy tofu, and two kinds of rice (egg fried rice and soy sauce rice). It really was quite a lot of excellent food.

Food aside, one of the more memorable things about the meal was some inadvertently funny translations of dish names on the menu.

To be fair, this was around ten years ago. Google Translate didn’t exist and some poor employee at the restaurant probably had to dig out a physical dictionary and translate all these somehow.

Now that I also have the benefit of knowing a little bit of Chinese, I can figure out some of the characters myself… KIDDING! Of course I used an app (shout-out to Pleco). Also, sorry about the quality of the photos. By this time, I hadn’t saved up for a decent camera yet.

So, let’s begin:

1. Rabbit Leg Singular Taste. The script is stylised so I can’t make the last character out. I only understand 兔 (tù, rabbit). Can anyone tell me what the rest means?

2. Squirrels GuiYu (松鼠桂鱼). I initially thought this was referring to squirrels of the nut-eating kind. Now, even a Chinese language newbie like me knows 鱼 (yú) means fish. This dish is actually called Squirrel Mandarin Fish, a very popular dish because the fish lacks bones. It belongs to Huaiyang cuisine, from China’s Jiangsu province. The dish is called “squirrel dish” because the way it’s presented resembles a squirrel’s tail. I wouldn’t mind having this the next time I get the chance.

3. Poached [various] animal offal (毛血旺). Don’t get me wrong, I like plenty of dishes with offal ingredients (in fact, my all-time favourite dish is lengua estofado). But I generally prefer a bit more specificity when it comes to knowing what went in my soup. 😅 In Pleco, the name for the dish actually translates to “duck’s blood and beef tripe in spicy soup,” which kind of reminds me of Pinoy dinuguan (a delicious Filipino stew made from pork and pig’s blood).

4. Monolithic beef has generated a lot of income (铁板牛柳). I would like to think they meant this was a bestseller. 😂 The name of the dish translates to sizzling beef fillet served on a hot iron plate.

5. Bullfrog burning (小炒牛蛙). No, they don’t serve the dish burnt. This just translates to wok stir-fried bullfrog. And don’t knock frog meat until you’ve tasted it! Frog is a relatively common ingredient in Singapore, especially in congee. It tastes just like chicken (really!).

6. Shaozi soil egg (绍子土鸡蛋). No soil here! I think “绍子” may be referring to Shaanxi cuisine, which generally means dishes that are seasoned with many spices and condiments, including Sichuan peppers; while “土鸡蛋” literally translates to “soil eggs” but actually means free-range eggs, or eggs laid by home-kept chickens.

7. Chinese style hoecake (玉米饼). My friend’s favourite. I guess they should have just translated this as “corn cakes!”. And finally…

8. One for the world (一品天下?). This one had — and still has — me stumped. I think I can guess what the main ingredient is though!

My main takeaways from this menu are 1) tourists have it so much easier these days — clarity can be had with the tap of an app, 2) it’s easy to get things lost in translation, and 3) it pays to be a little adventurous.

If I could go back, I’d definitely order myself a sizzling plate of monolithic beef.

Think critically dear readers,

Sunday Sofa Sojourns #10: Seville, Spain

Seeing as all our travel plans this year (and the next…?) have been put on hold, to ease the wanderlust I’ll post throwback photos every week from our past trips. Join me as I travel from my sofa!

There are oranges almost everywhere in Seville, or at least, in the places tourists like the Hub and me frequented. There are trees heavy with orange fruit, fallen oranges on the ground, oranges accidentally squashed underfoot, mouldy oranges, oranges not yet quite ripe.

However temptingly orange and Sunkist-like the fruit looked, the general advice was not to pick one up and eat it. Notice the locals don’t do that either? That’s because Seville oranges are bitter. The British actually use it to make their beloved marmalade. So, we just contented ourselves with deep breaths of the fresh citrus-scented air.

In Seville we took long, leisurely walks all over the city. It was small and compact, and the number of “must-sees” was just right for a short weekend break. Unlike other European cities we had been to, we didn’t feel as pressured to be out and about all the time, and we even had time for a siesta in the afternoons.

We managed to get one of seven lovely rooms at a small hotel on Calle Zaragoza. The breakfast at the Taberna restaurant was exceptional – fresh squeezed orange juice, hot baked bread with sweet olive oil for dipping, coffee with kick, and slices of Jamón Serrano.

The Taberna del Alabardero courtyard

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The hotel was within walking distance of the Seville Cathedral, the largest Christian church in the world. The cathedral’s towering Gothic arches allow the building interior to have a temperature markedly different from the outside – inside it was cool and perfect for muni-muni (deep thinking).

The Seville Cathedral’s main entrance
The main altar’s 15th century altarpiece, the world’s largest. Composed of 45 Bible scenes with over 1,000 characters
The cathedral’s arches
Found this 17th century Madonna with Child in one of the displays. It’s by an “anonymous Filipino artist”

While we were there, we also climbed up the cathedral bell tower, also known as La Giralda. It had fantastic rooftop views of the city. The climb was made easier by the fact that it was a ramp rather than steps, the original design being intended for men on horseback. It was still quite steep though.

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In Barcelona, bull-fighting had been banned since the year before our trip. I’m not too sure about Seville, but when we were there the season hadn’t started yet so we just went to the Plaza de Toros de la Maestranza for the tour and a visit to the museum. I’ve never seen a bullfight before– and I’m not too sure I want to.

Plaza de Toros

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We toured the usual spots in Seville – the Real Alcazar, a luxurious Moorish palace with intricate designs on the walls and ceilings, the Plaza de España, a lovely square that was apparently used in a Star Wars film for its other-worldly feel, the Casa de Pilatos, a well-preserved urban mansion that reminded me of old Spanish-era houses in the Philippines.

Real Alcazar
Real Alcazar’s Sala de Justicia, with its impressive ceiling. Look closely: it’s composed of little stars with the royal emblems in the middle
Plaza de España, with colourful tile maps of Andalucian cities
A whimsical sculpture of a reading little girl we found while wandering, whom I later found to be a monument to the Spanish politician and women’s advocate Clara Campoamor

Seville was the first Spanish city we had been to, so we were really keen on seeing authentic flamenco dancing. Walking around the back-streets we chanced upon a small, cosy theatre on Calle Alvarez Quintero. The flamenco show started at 9pm and costed a mere €17 back then (€15 if you’re 26 years old and below). We were treated to passionate (in the guy’s case, the hip-swaying, furrowed-brow crooning, really intense kind of passionate) flamenco dancing and singing. Eyes closed one could easily imagine oneself walking in a fruit-laden courtyard, bathed in red-orange hues in the style of Vicky Cristina Barcelona, or eating tapas on a rustic table in a small whitewashed kitchen.

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Then again, I could be over-romanticising things.

We made a side trip to the Archivo de Indias, a library of documents related to the Spanish colonization of the New World. The building itself was built in 1598. I wanted to go see if there was anything about the Philippines in there.

We watched a short video presentation about the history of the building itself and the neglect it experienced – apparently, at some point it even became a halfway house for the homeless. It’s been renovated extensively since. The day of our visit, the exhibit was mainly about Latin American colonies. The only mention of the Philippines was a tiny dot on an old brown map exhibited behind glass.

Archivo de Indias

Sometimes, I catch myself talking casually about difficult times in world history and feel an odd twinge of guilt. My colleagues in a previous workplace included a British national and an Argentinian. I recall discussing colonies and empires with them over our lunch breaks. (It was the Argentinian who asked me if I ever felt upset about having to apply for a Schengen visa, given we were colonised by the Spanish for centuries. According to him, we should get a free pass since the Philippines was practically a part of Spain. Suffice it to say, a lunch hour was not enough for that conversation.)

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I’ve mentioned how much I liked grocery stores in a previous post. Same thing goes when we travel; we make it a point to stop by one in the places we visit. I feel that I get a glimpse into a country’s culture by looking at what they buy. I also find we have more in common than we think.

Anyway, we found these biscuits in the store we went to:

The Filipinos biscuits were doughnut-shaped, and came in milk chocolate or white chocolate flavours. It had either a light-coloured biscuit inside (similar to rosquillos biscuits in the Philippines, except Filipinos biscuits didn’t have scalloped edges) or a dark-coloured biscuit.

I remember reading about these Filipinos biscuits many years ago in the Inquirer when some congressmen thought the name an insult (note these biscuits have been in the market for over 40 years). The foreign secretary at that time, Domingo Siazon, attempted to counter the protest by noting that Austrians do not complain that small sausages are called “Vienna sausages.” (How about Belgian waffles, Hawaiian burgers, French toast?)

Names aside, it was a tasty biscuit.

Think critically dear readers,

Sunday Sofa Sojourns #9: Athens, Greece

Seeing as all our travel plans this year (and the next…?) have been put on hold, to ease the wanderlust I’ll post throwback photos every week from our past trips. Join me as I travel from my sofa!

Whenever possible, we try to visit a McDonald’s when we travel.

Why McDonald’s? Mainly because there’s a good chance the city has one (The Economist invented the Big Mac Index for a reason). Now, before you start thinking we’re unsophisticated eaters who don’t appreciate local cuisine (we do!), our reason for doing this is the exact opposite – McDonald’s has a menu item unique to the city and we like trying it out. In Paris, we had a cheeseburger that used blue cheese (au bleu) instead of the usual processed cheese slices they served elsewhere. Singapore used to offer a gula melaka (palm sugar) flavoured McFlurry.

In Athens they served a ‘Greek Mac’: two beef patties, lettuce, and tomatoes sandwiched in pita bread.

The McDonald’s branch was a short walk from our hotel in the Plaka district but the route was a little dodgy – graffiti on the walls, men loitering in the street corners. It was the year of Grexit and my siblings joined me on a rare “just us” holiday to Athens. Parliament was also close by. I recall expecting protests in the neighbourhood and being a little worried.

The evzones or Greek soldiers in front of Parliament, dressed in traditional attire

The view of the Acropolis from the hotel roof deck was unforgettable though, so we made do.

We headed to it the next day. The Acropolis is the highest part of the city. The walk up the hill was easy and clearly signposted. We passed several places that evoked memories of our high school “History of the World” textbook: theatres with names like Dionysus and Herodes Atticus, a temple named after Athena Nike.

At the top of Acropolis Rock was the Parthenon. At that time, restoration was in full swing so parts of it were covered in tarpaulin and there was scaffolding too. But still… it was the Parthenon. A building built circa 5th century B.C. during the golden age of Athens, one of the oldest cities in the world. We were right there! And the view was stunning.

The Erechtheion. According to myth, Athena and Poseidon battled for Athens on this spot
The Parthenon

From the Acropolis we made our way to the Agora, where Socrates was born and where St. Paul preached. There was hardly any shade on the way so water bottles and face towels are recommended.

The Agora is for wandering. There are several buildings on the site you can explore. You can shut your eyes and imagine it as the ancient marketplace it once was centuries ago, complete with the hustle and bustle typical of a public palengke, the famous philosophers who spoke, the huge crowds that must have gathered here to listen.

We continued on foot to the Roman Forum, where the Romans moved Athens’ marketplace from the old Agora. It’s smaller and has the beautifully named Tower of the Winds, an octagonal tower built in 50 B.C. There used to be a bronze weather vane on the tower roof which indicated the direction of the wind, personified in carved relief at the top of each side. Rays of sundials are carved on each side beneath the scenes of the winds, and inside there was a water clock powered by a stream from the Acropolis.

Dogs at the foot of the tower, napping in the shade. There were plenty of askals in Athens

We had lunch at Diogenes taverna. It had a shaded terrace, which we craved after the heat. I ordered a creamy moussaka, a traditional Greek dish made of minced beef and eggplant baked in a tomato sauce, and our youngest had rabbit stifado, a local meat stew.

For me, the best part of this trip were the conversations with my siblings. As sweltering as the walks may have been, their company was hard to beat. That made it okay.

We talked about ourselves, mostly.

This is a bottle of Absolut being repurposed as a water bottle. We got our mom, whom we Skyped often while on the trip, to a near panic when we joked that we were having an inuman session

We sat in a cafe, To Kouti, for rose petal ice cream and strong shots of Greek coffee and talked and talked. The conversation was at times light, at times serious. By then, I had lived abroad for a few years. It was the longest I’d been away from my family and I felt out of touch. I used to know the daily minutiae of A’s love life. When I left, our bunso was still in university. Now A was in a serious relationship and the other was about to become a high school teacher.

While I did keep in touch with my siblings since leaving, I felt I was only getting a highlight reel of what went on in their lives. It just didn’t feel the same.

I think the distance from home helped us talk a little more freely. Without going into detail about our (fairly sheltered) childhood, it was thrilling for me to be there in a foreign country with two grown individuals whose lives I felt I knew intimately (and yet didn’t), whose voices sounded like mine (but spoke differently), whose thoughts reflected mine (but still managed to surprise me, in fascinating ways).

In Singlish, same same but different.

So, how about it, A and C? Let’s get another round of ice cream — it doesn’t have to be rose — we can have chocolate this time. Let’s pick the place together, it doesn’t need to be far. Let’s have more

Sweet, crazy conversations full of half sentences, daydreams and misunderstandings more thrilling than understanding could ever be

Toni Morrison, Beloved

Let’s do this again, just us.

Think critically dear readers,

Sunday Sofa Sojourns #8: Singapore

Seeing as all our travel plans this year (and the next…?) have been put on hold, to ease the wanderlust I’ll post throwback photos every week from our past trips. Join me as I travel from my sofa!

Today’s a special post since it’s Singapore’s National Day, so it’s not quite about a trip. Happy 55th Birthday, SG!

Celebrating SG51 with pancit canton and Peranakan kueh back in 2016

八 (Bā) or 8 is an auspicious number in Chinese culture because it sounds similar to 发 (fā) which means to “become rich, make a fortune” (among other meanings). This year marks the 8th National Day my small family has celebrated in this Little Red Dot. (I also just realised this is my 8th #SundaySofaSojourns post!)

2020, of course, is turning out far differently than any of us expected.

National Day in Singapore is held annually on 9th August. I think it can be best described as a celebration of how this city-state proved itself to be “the little nation that could.”

There’s a live parade (a.k.a. the NDP) where members of the Singapore military, police, and civil defence force as well as its best homegrown companies march, where almost everyone from students to seniors showcase musical performances, and where one can see all the nation’s politicians don their best red & white clothing on TV.

My kid watching a past parade with his pork floss bun

There’s a much-anticipated fly-past of the country’s flag, the Red Lions freefall jump, and the fighter jet display (usually, they spend over a month practising this – from our office building in the business district, it was common to hear the deep rumble of the jets every day in the weeks leading to the NDP). The parade itself is broadcast real-time on free TV, but tickets to see it live are balloted to citizens months before.

This year’s NDP Funpack includes hand sanitiser, face masks, and a digital thermometer (Source: Mothership)

Apart from the NDP itself, there are signs of celebration elsewhere – sales, commemorative cakes & breads, ‘I ❤️ SG’ t-shirts.

Bread Talk, a popular bakery chain, offers a Taste of Home Set which includes breads with local flavours like kaya (coconut jam), seafood laksa, and otah (a delicious fish paste)
Toys“R”Us is still operational here

Everyone is encouraged to participate. This year’s theme song is “a tribute to Singaporeans’ spirit of community” and gratitude for each other. While NDP 2020 will be a more sombre, more reflective affair, the ceremony will go on.

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For any country, there is value in this kind of active retelling of its history — for the younger generation, that they are introduced to this sense of belonging (outside of their immediate families and communities), and for the older generation, that we may remember what we were taught in school. It is easy to forget. And when we forget, we risk repeating past mistakes.

As Joan Didion said, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”

I am trying to think of a unified ceremony celebrated in a similar way across the entire Philippines (one that covers all Filipinos, so religious or provincial holidays don’t count) and I am coming up short. (I may be missing something here, so if you have an example please share in the comments.)

For us personally, this question of national identity is becoming more relevant as our kid grows. We want him to feel connected to both countries and to be able to navigate both cultures, with understanding and mutual respect for each. How do we do this? What stories do we tell our children? These are not easy questions.

It is in the stories we choose to tell that we shape our nation’s collective memory, or leave it without one.

Think critically dear readers,

Sunday Sofa Sojourns #7: Venice, Italy

Seeing as all our travel plans this year (and the next…?) have been put on hold, to ease the wanderlust I’ll post throwback photos every week from our past trips. Join me as I travel from my sofa!

Venice to me is a beautiful, eccentric grande dame, bedecked with heavy jewels. Her lipstick is a shade too bright. Her gait is a step too slow and heavy with history. She’s seen everything – from the elegance of the Renaissance to the steady grip that tourist kiosks selling knock-off carnival masks and keychains from China have on her narrow streets.

A city built over the Adriatic Sea. What can get more romantic than that? Venice sparked my imagination ever since I read an adaptation for kids of ‘The Merchant of Venice.’ Later I came across Casanova; I imagined the sea salt in the air as I read about his escape from the Doge’s Palace. I sensed how eerie the city’s canals must look late into the night, reading Daphne du Maurier’s ‘Don’t Look Now.’

And then there I was. I could taste the air and meander through her alleyways myself.

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We queued very early the next morning for Basilica San Marco and a climb up the Campanile for a wider view. (There’s also a lift to the top.)

I felt something magical looking down on Venice’s brown tile roofs and seeing Sky blue meet Sea blue on the horizon. It made me feel absolutely at peace with the world.

Piazza San Marco is a great place to hang out. You don’t have to buy coffee from the pricey caffès around the square. The Hub and I each had a bottle of Lipton peach iced tea bought from a small convenience store and sat on a bench a little way from the Columns of San Marco and San Teodoro (where public executions used to be held, imagine). We people-watched.

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To get around, the Hub and I often rode a waterbus or vaporetto. Before you start thinking about boats traveling at breakneck speed à la The Italian Job, note there are actually speed limits for boats because of wave-induced damage to stonework and building foundations. The vaporetto travelled at a measured, leisurely pace – as did life in the rest of the city.

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We went on the Doge’s Palace Itinerari Segreti or Secret Itineraries Tour, which I highly recommend. You have to book it separately – this section of the palace is not accessible on the standard ticket. The hushed tone of the tour was set from the start when we entered through a small wooden door which led us to hidden rooms, with floors that groaned with age.

It’s the part of the palace where the torture chambers used to be. This was where old Venice’s political prisoners were detained and made to confess through a disturbing yet ingenious device constructed from rope and water, where the cells where Casanova was jailed (and escaped, and jailed, and escaped again…) are located. The small barred windows in the cells were claustrophobic. There was barely any sunlight and the stone walls felt cold to the touch.

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My favourite part of our trip was when the Hub and I just walked aimlessly along the back streets, chatting. It was quieter there, with less tourists and fewer souvenir kiosks.

We stumbled upon a genuine Venetian mask shop, La Bottega dei Mascareri, in the market. The shop crafted intricate, detailed masterpieces and even supplied those mysterious masks used in the movie Eyes Wide Shut. We found creamy gelato and deep-fried cheese sandwiches. I enjoyed the fresh seafood best though.

While the map on our guidebook tried to be helpful, Venice’s streets had a mind of their own – they squeezed out of straight lines and twisted, turned. Leapt over canals, led us over nameless bridges with railings for safety and without.

It was in the quiet side streets that Venice let her hair down. We both liked the city better that way.

Think critically dear readers,

Sunday Sofa Sojourns #6: Moscow, Russia

Seeing as all our travel plans this year (and the next…?) have been put on hold, to ease the wanderlust I’ll post throwback photos every week from our past trips. Join me as I travel from my sofa!

Moscow’s train stations had an old-book smell, which I loved. I think it was because of the wooden escalators. Until our trip, I had never seen wooden escalators before. In London they were banned because of a big fire at King’s Cross in 1987. In Moscow, they are still very much in use.

Moscow was one of the more difficult cities we’ve had to navigate in by far. There were no English translations in the Metro. The Hub and I tried memorising the station names to navigate our way around but belatedly realized most of them ended in “-skaya” so we got lost anyway. To add to our confusion, the Cyrillic alphabet kept fooling our brains into thinking we understood the signs — but the letters in the Roman alphabet all mean and sound very different here.

C in Cyrillic is pronounced “es”

I clearly recall that the interior of Saint Basil’s Cathedral in the Red Square was just as beautiful as its unusual onion-shaped domes. Inside there were colourful frescoes, tall ceilings painted with somber-looking icons, and a male choir singing Orthodox chants.

Saint Basil’s Cathedral
The cathedral interior
The Kremlin

The Kremlin State Armoury is a must, must, must see. Of the many museums we’ve visited, I think it’s by far the most impressive and the richest. The collection was vast and clearly valuable — ancient medieval plates, golden Bibles set with rubies and precious stones, Tsarist-era gowns, dainty French clocks, intricate wooden carriages (with their original wheels!), ingeniously crafted Fabergé eggs. It spanned several ages and even countries (were the pieces donated? were they “borrowed” from other museums?). The Orlov Diamond in the Diamond Fund (where you had to pay a separate entrance fee) was sparkly and crazy huge, it almost hurt my eyes to look. On the bright side, I could stare at it for as long as I wanted.

No photos are allowed inside the armoury, so this photo of the exterior courtyard is all I have.

Included in the Kremlin ticket price — a visit to the medieval Dormition Cathedral
The impressive interior of the Moscow GUM (State Department Store) facing the Red Square

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I wasn’t leaving Moscow without my own matryoshka dolls (also called nesting or Babushka dolls), so after a failed search at Arbat Street we trekked up to Izmaylovo Market. Izmaylovo is a flea market of sorts and a Russian souvenir paradise: you could find the kitschiest (NBA nesting dolls, anyone?) to the most detailed of matryoshka dolls (with up to 15 little ones nested inside). Even better, you’re allowed to haggle.

Interestingly, Izmaylovo Market also seemed to have been an amusement park in its former life. If you look up when you enter the market, you’ll notice a rusty kiddie-size roller coaster track leading nowhere. There are also stranded pirate boats in odd locations. Does anyone know how it ended up as a market?

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We used the Metro to go everywhere. Almost everyone in the city did too, I think. It actually felt quite nice being part of the rush hour crowd, shoving and bumping along with everyone else.

I think Moscow’s Metro train stations are things of beauty and worth a trip by themselves. Each had its own unique character and style. So towards the end of our trip that’s exactly what we did — we station-hopped with no particular destination in mind.

Partisanskaya Station, the stop for Izmaylovo Market, had Soviet statues.

Partisanskaya Station

Ploshchad Revolyutsii Station had even more bronze statues of Soviet citizens under each of the station arches. Presumably they’re holding the ceilings up?

Ploshchad Revolyutsii Station

Mayakovskaya Station was decorated in an art deco style.

Mayakovskaya Station

Kiyevskaya Station had interesting Russian-themed mosaics between the arches.

Kiyevskaya Station

Novoslobodskaya Station had back-lit, stained-glass panels.

Novoslobodskaya Station

Komsomolskaya Station, with its Baroque-style chandeliers, was especially unique for me. It had a lot of Communist-themed hidden Mickeys. We spotted a bust of Vladimir Lenin and a ceiling mosaic of him rallying the troops (I think!).

Komsomolskaya Station
I see you, Lenin

Ironically, we ended up missing our train to the airport and having to race through the airport Home Alone-style to catch our flight. We barely made it.

Think critically dear readers,

Sunday Sofa Sojourns #5: Marrakesh, Morocco

Seeing as all our travel plans this year (and the next…?) have been put on hold, to ease the wanderlust I’ll post throwback photos every week from our past trips. Join me as I travel from my sofa!

If I dig deep enough in the recesses of my memory, I find the Moroccan souks.

We wandered down its narrow, sun-dappled lanes where we promptly got lost. There were the tanneries – streets covered with animal hides drying to make leather, heavy with the smell of cow.

Vivid colours from baskets of saffron and turmeric, the heady scent of lavender and verbena, bottles of argan oil and sticks of cinnamon. A strange, sticky mound that looked like the sundot kulangot one finds in Baguio. Chameleons in cages, blending with the rust. Fanous lamps made of coloured glass and rusty metal; small silver lamps shaped like Aladdin’s; miniature camels carved of sweet-scented cedar wood.

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We stayed at a local riad, within walking distance from the famous Jemaa El-Fna square, a UNESCO cultural site. The walk is a bit tricky, but once we got the route down pat it was easy to navigate. Inside our riad it was quiet and peaceful, in contrast to the nightly carnival outside.

Riad Altair, where we stayed.

They served great breakfast. We had soft cinnamon bread and yoghurt with fresh fruit and honey. The little spreads included fig, which was seedy like kiwi, but sweet. I remember the pot-holder with hot breakfast tea shaped like a man wearing a djellaba, the national dress.

Oh, the tea. It was everywhere — mint tea that both cooled our throats and left a warm feeling in our bellies. It was made simply, from mint leaves steeped in hot water (no tea bags here!) and served with generous amounts of sugar cubes.

We waited with our hot tea until evening came, then made our way to Jemaa El-Fna. The map on our guidebook’s back cover had plenty of white squiggles which were meant to represent streets – except there weren’t any street signs so the map wasn’t particularly helpful. The Koutoubia Mosque stood tall and was visible from afar, so it was a more useful compass.

Koutoubia Mosque.

I remember the hustle and bustle of Jemaa El-Fna, which at night magically transforms to an open-air food market. For our first dinner in Marrakesh, we opted to try our luck there. Don’t be intimidated by the very forward food hustlers. We took our time considering what each stall had to offer and politely shook our heads each time a plastic laminated menu was shoved in our faces. Funnily enough we were greeted with endless ‘Konnichiwas’ and ‘Nǐ hǎos.’ Maybe to them all Asians looked alike.

There was a lot of food on offer: grilled meats, snails in spicy broth, hard-boiled eggs sprinkled with cumin. We picked stalls that were packed with patrons. Our first meal was at Chez Ali. The grilled lamb and couscous were unremarkable but the staff were very friendly.

I love ox tongue, so naturally we just had to try the stalls that served sheep face and tongue boiled in a delicious brown sauce (in what looked like Oscar the Grouch’s can). Delicious, but not for everyone.

Ox brain? Kelangan mo nun

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It was back to the souks for us the following day. Cross the street at your own risk. Go slow and you might see live peacocks on a bicycle. I didn’t want to think about where it was headed.

I remember Le Musée de Marrakech suffused with a warm, gold light. There were plenty of artists, all women, sketching the paintings.

We eventually found the Medersa Ben Youssef after several false trails into the souk streets. The colour of the glazed tiles and the intricate carvings on the walls were an enigmatic, yet calming sight. We took our time wandering the small rooms, which used to be student cells back when the Medersa was an Islamic theological college.

Medersa Ben Youssef.

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That evening, we were drawn back to Jemaa El-Fna. While some may think the square too touristy, I found there was much to observe.

Apart from the food stalls there was the entertainment and the market, which had modern touches but also parts which to me felt and looked like it came from a different, much older time.

Ever wondered what a Coke in Morocco looks like?

We saw young acrobats performing in the street–cheerdancers making pyramids with no safe, soft rubber mats to fall on.

But there were also more unconventional sights: tooth-pullers with small piles of teeth hawking their trade; charmers with sleepy-looking snakes under large cloth hats; murmurs of rapid French and Arabic; pink clay rooftops all dotted with satellite dishes; tired horses pulling caleches for the tourists; stray cats having sex in the corners; the faint sounds of prayer punctuating the times in between snacks.

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If I concentrate hard enough, I can almost smell the clay pot of tender, steaming Moroccan tagine. Soft slow-cooked lamb, tarty olives, fragrant spices, chopped apricots.

The aroma of Marrakesh lingers in my mind.

Think critically dear readers,