The heat is unlike anything I’ve experienced. It’s so hot here that it invades your insides and attacks all organs. My stomach is sour from it so that I can taste heat in my mouth. Picking up my hand is like moving through water. It’s a heat index of 110 degrees, which by lunchtime makes me and everyone I work with feel completely broken. When we stop shooting and drive to the next location, I pass out in a deep slumber and pray we hit traffic that will delay our 15-minute drive to 30 minutes. When we’re finished shooting for the day, I don’t head out to experience some of the most inventive Asian food, but instead head back to my hotel room where I drink a beer for dinner and go to bed.
One of my non-beer meals was Chicken Rice, which is considered to be Singapore’s national dish. When the heat drives me inside to the safety of an air-conditioned mall, I realize how starved I am so I head to the food court. Food courts in an Asian mall are completely different than ours, meaning less artery-clogging fried fat and more fresh food made from scratch. I saw that one stall specialized in the famous Chicken Rice, but I hesitated. Do I really want to have this iconic dish from a food court stand right next to a Hello Kitty shop? Again, I was hungry and it seemed like the comfort food that would be good for my stomach and soul so I went ahead and ordered it. My goodness! It was amazing. The chicken was tender, succulent and almost melting in my mouth, the rice pillow-soft and whatever sauce that was served with it, some sort of syrupy soy fish sauce, brought the whole plate to life. Every bite I appreciated, every taste remembered. It was that good. But there was still this matter of having eaten it in a food court which I would imagine wouldn’t sit well with the foodies, which Singapore is full of. So when I was with Seetoh, one of the predominant Singaporean food critics, and he asked me where exactly did I eat my Chicken Rice — famous place A or famous place B. I said, “Um, yeah the second one.” So only you know.
It’s pretty amazing staying at Raffles, one of the most well-respected and beloved hotels in the world. I feel like a big shot, like I’ve made it. My room is overlooking the lobby so at night I go to bed to the sounds of the grand piano belting out tunes from the American songbook. My husband, Kevin, is joining me, as he had work in Asia as well, and is capping off his trip with me. We sit in our living room (yes, I have one) and eat chocolates and marvel at our lives. “Did you ever think you would stay in a suite in Raffles?” I ask. “Nope, not in a million years.” he says.
I will point out that the Singapore Sling is just disgusting. I really didn’t have high hopes, but I have to admit I couldn’t come to Singapore and not have THE drink. Even if it was 15 bucks. It’s sweeter than a Shirley Temple, like drinking liquid candy. I don’t remember if it made the show or not, but it was created at Raffles as an acceptable drink for ladies who were now coming to what used to be an all-male bar. What women had to endure! No vote, little opportunity, and crappy cocktails.
I would like to point out to all the people who won’t believe me or interpret the scene in the show negatively that I actually in all honesty LIKED the fish eye. I was totally thrown off by it being offered to me and knew that this being something given to the guest of honor, meaning that I could not turn it down without severely disappointing my hosts, and I would never do that. I was completely grossed-out by the size, which was about as big as a jawbreaker, but when I put it in my mouth the experience completely changed. It went from a solid to something more gelatinous and soft like silken custard until it just finally dissolved. To feel it transform was what I thought the joy and honor of the experience was all about. And I truly enjoyed it. I am, however, glad they didn’t offer me the second eye.
Malaysia is my first Muslim country. I am excited about this as it adds a certain exotic mystery to the trip as well as being a change from the predominantly Buddhist countries we have been visiting. The difference is immediate as while checking in to our hotel in Kuala Lumpur or “KL” we hear the Call to Prayer. It’s a haunting beautiful sound that throughout my trip affects me. I am not religious but the chanting being sent out over a loud speaker turns into a reminder to me to give thanks, to think about my family and to remember all that is good.
In all my travels, I’ve never seen a woman in a full Burka with the face completely shrouded. It’s a shocking scene, and I try to divert my eyes but the real sight of this is like a punch to the stomach. There are only a few women in the hotel in the full dress, but the sight to me is a grim reminder of how the fate and rights of women are so different in other parts of the world. What is more angering is the husband of one of the women who struts by in a Western-style outfit of long basketball shorts, a t-shirt, gold chains and flip flops. He can’t be more than 30 years old. The woman is covered head to toe, and it’s a heat index of 105.
KL isn’t the most interesting city but making things more difficult is an intense heat that about 1/2 hour into my “getting to know you” walk I decide to give up and surrender to the nearest mall. The malls are amazing in KL, where ours have 200 stores there’s have 500, we have 2 stories, they have 8. While down in the food court, which to me is more like a kingdom, I am approached by an Asian woman holding a Western baby. “Are you British?” she asks. “No, I’m American.” Then she says, “Oh, this baby’s father is British.” At this point, I’m wondering where this is going. She continues, “The father has been gone for a whole week, and the baby has been in a bad mood and cries all the time. I think it’s because all he sees are Asian people so I thought I would walk over here and show him someone who looks like him!” I don’t think I’ve laughed so hard in my life.
We are on the 8th hour of a 12-hour bus ride from Sapa to Hanoi. The ride down the mountain is a steep and curvy one; each turn reveals another gorgeous terraced field vista. My pure enjoyment of this trip is brought to you by Dramamine. The roads here are as sinuous as the curvature of the rice paddies and I realize the chance for me to work on my computer will be next to impossible so I let the Dramamine lull me to sleep. It’s been a trip of bad fitful nights’ rest. The night before I was on a straw bed that is only slightly more comfortable than ice, an experience I have actually had while shooting ice camping in Ely, Minnesota. Two nights before that I was on an overnight train and now the bus curled up in a semi fetal position with each turn being tossed back and forth, back and forth, like a small stone in an oncoming tide.
As incredibly monotonous as a long ride can be, this one is not without its staggeringly beautiful views. Life here seems to be lived either on the road or close by so where most car trips are void of people on featureless highways, here we have to swerve not to hit them. I am amazed how fearless people here are of automobiles. Here 3 and 4 year olds play feet away from whizzing scooters, cars, and barreling trucks. Our large bus speeds by a group of 5-year-olds who walk purposefully along the busy road far away from any home with no adult in sight as well as some 8-year-olds who were all learning how to ride a ten speed … together … at the same time. One boy stood on the pedals his body so small he fit in that triangle of a space created by bars with one hand on the bar above his head and the other slightly touching the handlebars. His two friends running alongside steadying the bike with their hands. They had large smiles across their faces, their youth and joy much enjoyed by the passing bus of worn-out television crew.