Janus in Singapore: Kuala Lumpur

April 17, 2017

Finally got around to a trip to Malaysia. I was a bit worried that it wouldn’t happen – all but 1 of my flat mates had been before, and the rest of my friends in Singapore were already busy reviewing for finals at SMU, which apparently is a bit of a colossal affair. My roommate Loic and I sat down one day and found a three-day period that we were both free of obligations, though, and decided to take a rather spontaneous trip to Kuala Lumpur, the country’s capital. In hindsight, given that I have four finals in a five days as opposed to the usual two week spread, it probably wasn’t a great time to go. But I wasn’t about to go back home after spending a semester in Singapore without a Malaysian immigration stamp on my passport.

A view from the bottom of the Petronas Towers. Inside are a series of malls full of luxury brands, like fifth avenue or orchard road compressed inside a city block.

The trip was absurdly cheap. I spent just under $120 or 3 days without really worrying too much about my budget, either. Roundtrip bus tickets cost about $30, two nights at a nice hostel were another $30, and the remaining $60 afforded me the opportunity to try anything I wanted from the famous Jalan Alor Street Food Night Market, a 90-minute massage, uber/grab transportation, and a few drinks at the local bar.

A view of Kuala Lumpur from the top of the KL Tower. It’s no New York, but it’s impressive that you can still see tall buildings in what seems to be miles away from the city center.

The hostel was probably the price that shocked me the most, as I expected something much cheaper. My classmates who had taken trips to other Southeast Asian counties like Thailand, Vietnam, or Cambodia, found similar quality or better lodging for around $5-10 a night, whereas even the luxury villa we booked on our earlier trip to Bali cost about $50 for 4 nights for much more extravagant lodging. But it was ultimately worth it – the hostel was right in the middle of the food street, and was at most a half hour cab ride away from the sights we wanted to see.

One of the many food stalls in the Jalan Alor Food Street. Like in Beijing and Xian food streets, nothing beats the lamb skewers in both taste and value.

When Loic and I found ourselves complaining about the price of the hostel as we sat outside the hostel eating lamb skewers and drinking sugar cane juice, we stopped for a moment and laughed at the absurdity of it. Back home, $15 a night for housing, especially of this quality, was nothing. We felt like living in Asia had given us a different conception of cheap and money. It was a realization that my classmates from the first semester and I had, too, towards the end of our stay in China. It’s probably one of the things I appreciate the most from spending so much time abroad – you get a better appreciation of money. If people can live off of x amount, it’s harder to justify spending at the rate you do when you’re back home in the U.S. on luxurious things.
There were five big places that we experienced – the Petronas Towers, the KL Tower, the Batu Caves, and the Sultan Abdul Samad Building, and of course the Alor food street. If TripAdvisor and my flatmates’ advice were to be heeded, these were the must see spots in Kuala Lumpur.

The outside of the Batu Caves. There are about 250 steps to get to the caves, with perhaps just as many wild monkeys to greet you on the way up.

The towers were absolutely gorgeous, though to be honest it felt like they didn’t fit in their surroundings. What I liked about Kuala Lumpur was that that there was a very nice and not too stark contrast between the old and the new. Like Manila, there were many worn down and dirty buildings, and interspersed among them were newer, cleaner, taller buildings that served a variety of purposes, from government buildings to corporate headquarters to residential areas. But they were never TOO clean, TOO new, TOO tall, so as to be strange – it just seemed like a city that, like many others, was growing up. Like Singapore, there was a lot of greenery in the metropolis that helped smooth out the edges of old and new, too. Parks flowed seamlessly into untamed jungle, and this somehow made the abandoned shacks or construction sites next to bank buildings seem natural, too.

We were wondering where the lights came from as the inside of the cave was well lit, and we were treated to this view after about a minute or two of walking inside.

But the Petronas Towers were just… too different. It wasn’t just the fact that the Towers (and the 30m shorter KL towers) were over 100m taller than the next tallest buildings, though that definitely played a big role. There was something about how the towers looked that made it seem distinctly not-so Kuala Lumpur. Its metallic silver color and the layered outside texture gives it an almost violent feeling that makes it seem like a ripple in the much more relaxed and low-key set-up of the rest of the city. Maybe that’s why it’s such a famous building – not just for its size, but for the emotions you get when you look up from the earth in Kuala Lumpur and see something so alien.
The KL Towers, unfortunately, didn’t impress quite as much. It wasn’t so much the fault of the building – it, too, is quite tall, standing at 420 meters, though aesthetically it’s quite plain outside of the sphere-like structure at the top of the tower. It was the fault of the view, really. The sky and observation decks of the the tower, which are its main attractions, offered a great vantage point to view the rest of the city. But that was just the problem – there really wasn’t that much to see. Besides the Petronas Towers, most of Kuala Lumpur’s skyline is quite unimpressive, though it was surprising to see just how far out the city stretched. The view, though, did cement the contrast that I talked about previously – sometimes you would see two buildings next to each other that looked identical, only one was a cleaner, newer, and taller version of the other.
The Batu Caves were the the highlight of the trip, for sure. The site’s main attraction is the series of cave and Hindu temples inside. When my flatmates who had been before talked about it, it sounded like they weren’t too impressed: they said they didn’t really understand the religious significance or what was so impressive about a bunch of caves. To be honest, I don’t either – it seemed just like any other Hindu temple that I’d seen. But it’s one of those things where once you walk up the stairs, past all the wild monkeys eating fruit and drinking from bottles left behind, and into the damp, naturally light caves and see the monuments and altars scattered around, as if they were just left behind by their creators, there’s a really strange and almost magical feeling you get inside you. This place just seemed so remote, so far away from society, so serene – and especially in contrast with the hustle and bustle of Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, the moment of quiet is special.

The Sultan Abdul Samad Building. Currently under renovation, so we couldn’t go inside – but the outside served for a good enough background photo.

The Sultan Abdul Samad building was just a pretty thing to look at, to be honest. We didn’t spend much time there at all, but my flatmate and I did end up relaxing in the green just across from it. It had a very country club feel to it – there were a few fancy restaurants and a beautiful white marble forum right next to it – but somehow, there were very few people in the green itself, even though we were there during what I would imagine to be peak hours, just after people would start getting out of school or work and just before it got dark.
A really interesting place. I don’t think Kuala Lumpur is a must-visit by any means, but I’m really happy I made the trip out .


Janus in Singapore: The Green City

March 22, 2017

Singapore is one of those cities that’s had many names over the years. Many of them sound quite cool at first, like the literary Javanese and Malay name for Singapore, “Temasek.” Disappointingly, however this turns out to be derived the Malay word for “Sea Town,” a fairly accurate but uninspiring name for a city. The opposite is true for how the Mongol Yuan Dynasty referred to Singapore in its records. When you hear the Chinese word “Longyamen,” I imagine that most people with no exposure to Mandarin would picture a bowl of soup, or some time meat bun. Longyamen actually means something like “Dragon Tooth Gate,” a much more creative name than “Sea Town,” and a name that I could imagine in a high fantasy novel. The name Singapore itself is derived from a word in Sanskrit that means “Lion City,” which is one of city’s many contemporary nicknames. It’s interesting, though, because unless my 7th grade biology professor lied to me, I’m certain there are no lions Asia (except maybe India?), not to mention Singapore. But it’s a fitting name, anyway.

The Supertrees in the Garden, in the middle of their special holiday light performance

The moniker I didn’t expect, though, was “The Green City.” When I think of a highly dense, urban area, green is probably one of the last adjectives that come to mind. I think of some of the most densely populated and urbanized places I’ve lived in my life – New York, Beijing, Manila – and I can think of pockets of gorgeous greenery, like New York’s Central or Prospect Parks, Beijing’s Temple of Heaven or Summer Palace, and Manila’s… nevermind. But outside of these special places, I don’t think of green, and a few tourist attractions hardly justify calling a city “green.” Before I did my research, I thought Singapore would be like these places. Not quite dirty like Manila, or overcrowded and full of strange smells like Beijing. More like New York, where it’s crowded enough but not terribly uncomfortable, where some some streets can get dirty and smelly at times, and some streets are dirty and smelly all the time. I pictured that like New York, Singapore would have a few tree-lined streets and the occasional small park, but for the most part would be more ‘concrete jungle’ than actual jungle. Especially when you think of the meteoric rise of its economy over the last century its land and natural resource constraints, the thought of Singapore putting such an emphasis on nature is unfathomable. You would think that to get where it is now, Singapore would need to make certain environmental sacrifices.

SMU’s Library, hidden in greenery

But somehow, the opposite has happened. Singapore has actually become greener as its population and economy grew. In 1980, Singapore’s green cover stood at 36%, but is at an impressive 47% today. That’s a figure that seems unbelievable at first – but once you walk through the streets of Singapore, it becomes clear that the nation has really placed nature near the top of its list of priorities. Even the busiest streets in the financial and commercial centers are full of vegetation, and most roofs are covered by either gardens or solar panels. One of the nation’s biggest initiatives is its rules regarding new developments – you have to replace any greenery you remove. Additionally, many sectors in Singapore have “green rating” requirements, which requires that buildings meet a certain environmental friendliness standard.

Another garden just outside the gardens – space is a premium near the Bay, as it’s one of the busiest parts of Singapore

The Gardens by the Bay, a nature park in Singapore right next to the heart of the city, and right next to the Marina Bay Sands, arguably Singapore’s most famous building, is the perfect symbol for the city’s progress. The central exhibit is a series of massive trees covered in steel rain collectors and solar panels. It was one of the first sights I got to see in Singapore, and also the most inspiring. Before I came here, I was always under the impression that economic development and urbanization are necessarily at odds with environmental protection, at least when you seek to maximize them. But Singapore disproves this idea. Singapore is indeed the greenest city in the world, but somehow all of its environmental protection is productive, too.

A view of the river running through the Gardens by the Bay


Janus in Singapore: On the First Weeks

January 27, 2017

“Discuss your preparations to go abroad – how you are feeling, anxieties or excitements, last minute projects or plans you are making, etc.”

It feels a little strange writing about my “feelings, anxieties, or excitements” about studying abroad in Singapore when I’m already three and a half weeks through my semester. Singapore Management University (SMU) has this strange schedule where exchange students are encouraged to attend a student orientation on December 29, and classes start as early as January 2, so while many of my classmates were still enjoying the final trips of their study abroad programs or tucked into their comforters back home, I was already on the other side of the world, roaming the streets of Singapore looking for a hostel that had open beds on New Year’s Eve.

Then again, it’s still quite early, and the first three weeks have really been a frenzy of getting my immigration formalities done, attending student orientations, adding and dropping classes, and of course, turning my new flat into a something that resembles home. There hasn’t really been a lot of time to “feel” or “be anxious.” Writing this entry feels like my first real opportunity to reflect on what’s already happened and what I think will happen.

I spent my last semester abroad, too, in Beijing. When I hear about study abroad, usually I hear that students will do significantly less work than they do back home, spend a lot of time traveling or exploring the city, and generally have a lot of time to relax. In a way, it’s a lot like a vacation to another school. My experience was the exact opposite.

I participated in a language immersion program that required me to speak Chinese on weekdays, and classes were from 8:30 to 4:30 daily, and each of us in the program did at minimum 3-4 hours of homework and studying each night. Somehow, there was still ample time for most of us to enjoy the semester and bring home stories that weren’t just about being locked up in a classroom. We still managed to explore Beijing, travel all over China, experience the Beijing nightlife, and even fall into study abroad romances. It was a complete semester, but it definitely came at the expense of sleep. By the end, many of us sported the deepest eye bags we’ve ever had.

I expect that a semester at SMU will be more of the “traditional” study abroad experience. I’m only taking four classes (7-12 hours of out of class work rather than UR’s “10-15”), and they’re all on Mondays and Tuesdays, so I expect I can use this semester to sleep in to catch up on all the sleep I missed in Beijing. Given my five day weekends and Singapore’s proximity to many of Southeast Asia’s tourist destinations – Bali, Vietnam, Thailand, or even a trip home to the Philippines – I wholly expect to drain my bank account by the end of the semester taking flights out to a few of these places.

For now, though, I plan on figuratively walking every street in Singapore. Strangely enough, a lot of students who study abroad in Singapore say that their biggest regret is not exploring Singapore enough, because the presence of all these other destinations makes the city-state a practical home base, and something that you can always say “next week” to, until there aren’t any weeks left. It’s only a little bit bigger than Manhattan, so the process shouldn’t take that long.

Anxieties. I think, given that this is my second semester studying abroad, that Singapore is often described to me as “An Asian New York,” and that I’m used to moving around a lot, I don’t have the usual fears of culture shock or “will I fit in?” or “will I find my group of friends?” Instead, I’m worried about people back home. A semester away isn’t too bad because just about everyone does it at some point. Two semesters, however, seems a bit too long, especially since I spent the holidays in the Philippines instead of New York. It’ll be a full year before I’m back in the United States. I already feel myself losing contact with many of my friends, even close ones.

But that’s something I should worry about after Singapore, I think. For now – enjoy the semester to its fullest.


Olivia in Sweden: Abroad at Last!

January 27, 2017

Hi! I’m Olivia and I am a junior at University of Richmond. I am majoring in Biology with a minor in Healthcare Studies.

plane

I’ve never been to Europe before and, as the baby of the family, never experienced much independence either. I set out to form new experiences by studying abroad in Uppsala, Sweden. Uppsala University is a leading international research university, and I was anxious to join its numbers.

Postponing the inevitable of being alone in Sweden, I was joined by my mom and aunt in Uppsala on January 11th. This was a sneak peak of my new home from the window of the airplane. Frozen ice and snow never looked so appealing!

train

Before I could move in, I had to explore Stockholm with my family. On a train, Stockholm is only 40 minutes away.

street

This is one of the many busy streets of Stockholm. We went on a Hop-On Hop Off, which is an all day bus service that provides tours of cities. My mom and aunt were too tired to explore the royal palace, libraries, and museums of Stockholm, but I imagine since the city is only 40 minutes away, I’ll be back soon to explore properly.

This is a peak into my room. At Uppsala University, the rooms for students are owned by different housing companies. You pay rent each month. It is typical to have a single room with each room having a private bathroom. Each hall shares a kitchen.

room

Classes started this week, and while many people feel comfortable biking (in icy cold weather!) I prefer the bus. The city buses in Uppsala are extremely punctual. They have an app that provides timetables, and if you enter your location and where you wish to go, there is always a bus ready. While it’s simple enough, I’m still getting used to it as I have fallen victim to being at the wrong bus stop many times!

app

Alas, practice makes perfect, right?


Olivia in Scotland: Peace of Mind

November 14, 2016

Hello everyone!

It’s been a crazy week. This is what they call “essay completion week” here; I’m in two honors English seminars and the term essays for both seminars are due this coming Monday, so they cancel their seminar meetings for the week before the essays are due to give students time to work. Strangely enough, though, this is the first real assignment that has been due all semester for these classes. The academic system here seems to me like it’s actually structured to encourage procrastination—it allows students to not do too much work for all but a couple weeks of the semester and then work like mad those weeks if they choose to do so. It’s an odd system to me, but it’s a good thing to be prepared for if you’re thinking about studying abroad here.

Anyway, since it is essay completion week, I’ve temporarily lost nearly all sense of my normal schedule. I only had a few class meetings for my Scottish ethnology course this week, but I didn’t get to attend all of those because, on top of all the essay work, I’ve been sick. That means that a lot of this week has consisted of me staying in my flat, eating soup, drinking tea, and taking cold medicine, all while trying to gather research and write two huge English essays. A lot of students know that frustrating feeling when your body gives out on you just when you feel like you most need to be healthy so you can concentrate on your coursework; that’s certainly been the case for me. The emotional and physical stress I have been under and that sometimes comes with going abroad made it not too surprising to me that I got sick.

You could say that the mid-semester burnout has hit pretty hard.

Fortunately, as hard as it has been there have also been some bright spots in this week. A big one for me was a really simple moment I had on Tuesday when I went out to turn in a hard copy for another paper that was due this week. The University of Edinburgh has several campuses throughout the city, but all of my classes are at the George Square campus. The center of this campus is the George Square Gardens, a beautiful, fairly large city square around with tall trees, park benches, and a circular path with greenery in the middle. Normally I just walk around it to go between the buildings, but on Tuesday I kind of arbitrarily decided to walk through it. I immediately felt more peaceful. It had just rained (quite an ordinary state of matters in this city), and the smell of petrichor from earth calmed my nerves a bit from my hectic week. For me, nature always reminds me of God—it reminds me that I’m a part of something bigger, that someone created all of this, and that God is right here beside me if I seek Him. I really needed that reminder this Tuesday, what with the stress of essays, of being sick, and of the election back home. A simple walk through nature reminded me that life is bigger than my current circumstances and that, while it’s not easy, I’m not alone. No election or essay will ever alter the presence of God in my life.

image1-6

Sometimes you don’t know you need to walk through a square until you walk through a square 🙂 #citylife 

As I muddle through academic, physical, and emotional challenges, I’m so thankful for the people God has placed in my life to help me through. I continue to be surprised and touched each day by the support that my people here and at home have shown me. I’m thankful for coffee dates with new friends, small group meetings with my church, and friends who will pick me up a box of tissues when I need it. 🙂

And now I’m off to attempt to sing in a choir concert! Till next time!


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