Livin’ on a prayer

We’re halfway theeeeee-eeere

WOOOOOAH –

As so astutely stated by Bon Jovi lyrics, I’m now halfway through my exchange year in Singapore. I figure I should break my unintentional blogging hiatus and take the time to reflect on what I’ve done and what I’d like to do next semester.

So far it’s been a fantastic blur, with more friends and drunken nights than are reasonable to recount. I’ve started carrying around a little notebook and pen, both of which fit in my pocket. It was inspired by Richard Branson, of all people, after I read Losing My Virginity – a great book, by the way. Often mistaken for my passport, I bought a few of these notebooks and pens from Muji, a sort of Japanese IKEA – I love it. They’ve filled up with all sorts of funny little notes, signatures and promises of friends, comments from people I meet on nights out, daily to-do lists, bucket lists, even a signature from Owl Eyes (of Flight Facilities’ “Heart Attack” fame). I look forward to flipping through the accumulated volumes of these notebooks in a year or so and reminiscing. I highly recommend that anyone reading try this out!

For brevity’s sake, I’ll dot-point the things I’ve done this semester which I think are noteworthy:

– Travelled to Indonesia (Batam)
– Travelled to Malaysia (KL and Penang)
– Travelled to Cambodia (Phnom Penh and Siem Reap)
– Travelled to Thailand, three times (Bangkok, Chumphon/Koh Tao, Krabi)
– Completed two ‘Technopreneurship’ classes: New Product Development and New Venture Creation
– As part of the above, I’ve been part of two teams and taken ‘startup ideas’ from ideation to an investor pitch: J.A.N.E, a revolutionary medical endoscope, for the first class, and Rentle, a locker system for consumer-to-consumer rentals, for the second class
– Completed (tentatively, results not out yet…) Product and Brand Management, Consumer Behaviour, and Negotiations and Bargaining classes at NUS – a total of five in one semester
– Volunteered and attended Neon Lights Singapore, seeing Chic feat. Nile Rodgers, RIDE, Damien Rice, RUFUS, Mogwai, Ratatat, and FLIGHT FACILITIES – even meeting and getting a picture with Owl Eyes (the highlight of my exchange so far)
– Developed more of a taste for classic rock, especially the Rolling Stones
– Had more crazy nights out than I can count
– Turned 19 surrounded by friends, as they surprised me with a meal at Hooters… followed by getting very, very drunk
– Literally fallen asleep outside Ce La Vi (I know, that’s actually what it’s called..) on top of the Marina Bay Sands for a good 30 minutes
– Sung Bohemian Rhapsody at the top of my lungs at 4am in UTown
– Eaten a ridiculous amount of incredible food
– Finally started an Instagram account (part of a more overarching goal of becoming more active on social media)
– Swam in the Clarke Quay river outside Jimmy’s
– Started an internship at Sprooki, a ‘location-based retail marketing solution’ (simply put, we make smart apps for malls)
– Started planning my end-of-exchange trip: All roads lead to Noma – more on this later

Looking back at this list, I’m happy I’ve done so much this exchange, but there are still some things I wish I had done/regret not doing:

– I wish I had been on more group trips in the beginning: the Krabi trip during exam revision week is the only one so far with over 3 other people (this one was >12), and it was heaps of fun. I still made heaps of great friends this semester, but I wish I had met a lot of them sooner (i.e. on those early group trips). Next semester I’ll make an effort to go on group trips earlier – maybe I’ll organise one to Penang.
– I wish I had tried to improve myself ‘professionally’ a bit more: attended more startup events/consistently attended NUS Enterprise events/attended Startup Weekend Singapore (just happened last weekend…). This is, after all, the Silicon Valley of Asia. I’ll attend at least one event per month next year.
– I wish I had been more physically active: running a bit more, going to the gym occasionally. I can count the number of times I did this outside of ‘general activity’ (‘biking with friends’, etc) on one hand.
– Joined more local clubs/societies. I joined the German Club on an impulse at the beginning of the semester and never attended any events… I’d like to be in at least two clubs next semester, maybe a sport for one of them. Ultimate Frisbee, anyone? As part of this, I’d also like to meet more locals and have more local friends.

And stuff I want to do next semester (both distilled goals from above and other things):

– Travel to Vietnam and Myanmar, possibly the Philippines
– Travel to Malaysia again! Penang is just too good.
– Do ‘dedicated physical activity’ 2-3 times a week: sports training, gym, or running – whatever
– Join at least 2 clubs/societies
– Attend at least one startup/professional event per month
– Learn Russian via Duolingo: 5 sessions of 15 minutes per week
– Travel early with a group of the new exchangers – seek out the budget travellers! The best are those who make it a game to find the cheapest accommodation possible.
– Learn Chinese via an NUS class next semester
– Take some ‘alternative’ classes: something other than “Capitalism 101″/”How to make money”
– Read at least one hour per week. I have a bunch of good books in my room/on my e-reader, but I just need to stop watching Conan on YouTube.
– Write something at least once a week. This can be a plan, a weekly recap, a blog post to store away and post for my big trip when the time is right.

I think it’s good to occasionally sit down and make lists like these to both remind yourself what you’ve done and what you want to do. It’s easy to compare yourself to other people on exchange and get caught up in the mentality that you’re somehow inferior or falling behind. Most of my friends were busy this semester turning down Goldman Sachs internships in favour of Bain & Co or being an astronaut or something. But I can’t forget – all of my friends here are 2, 3, even 6 years older than me – hopefully by the time I’m their age I’ll be in a similar position. Or, better yet, maybe I shouldn’t compare myself to others in the first place!

 

Well, that got longer than I expected! Hopefully I can act on this list and have an even better semester next year. ..I’m already apprehensive about going back to Adelaide, though – I can’t imagine the transition back to normalcy.

‘Til next time!
– Alex

P.S. A word on my end-of-exchange trip:

In late April or early May 2016 I’m going to be travelling solo from Singapore to Denmark by land. Over 3 months this will take me 23,000km across 15+ countries. I’m doing this to eat at the world’s best restaurant, Noma, in Copenhagen. More on this soon…
Site building in progress at www.allroadsleadtonoma.com
Due to launch early February 2016.

Train Troubles

I actually wrote this one about a month ago, but for [not a very good reason] I’m only posting it now. I’ll post a more general Singapore/Uni piece soon.

5/8/15

As I write this, I’m squeezed into my second-class sleeper bed, listening to the rattle of the train and the stream of Hindi from the man above me. Getting here was an adventure in itself and now I have a little under seven hours until I arrive in Kuala Lumpur – it’s currently 12:44 AM. There’s no internet, I have no idea what I’m going to do once I reach KL, and my travelling companion got stuck in immigration – so I’m alone. And I’m having the time of my life!

I don’t remember when I decided to go to KL before semester starts at NUS; it started off as a joke, then morphed into a specific date via some beers. Me and a friend (Johnathan, from Texas) sat down at 5:30 this afternoon and planned the night’s itinerary. We agreed to campus shuttle to MRT, change a couple of MRT stations and end up in Woodlands, in the north, in time to catch a train over to Malaysia where we’d just booked a couple of sleeper beds. We realised the train from Johor Bahru (the station just across the bridge, in Malaysia) to KL was just four and a half hours away – 10:30!

Hasty plans were made and by 8pm we were on our way to Kent Ridge MRT station – Johnathan with his brand new, top quality mountaineering backpack, and me with a falling-apart brown bag I picked up from someone for free. Well, ‘bag’ is a bit generous, it’s more of a sack with string shoulder straps. ‘Endearingly shit’ is the appropriate term here, I think.

A few MRT transfers later we were on the bus crossing into Malaysia. The road was super jammed and the bus had slowed to a crawl when the doors flew open and people started getting off – you can imagine our confusion. Turns out it was the Singapore-exit checkpoint. Some passport stamps later I was through, but Johnathan was held up – he had used his Singapore passport to enter initially, and was now using his American passport, except he had no disembarkation card. That meant he’d broken a rule… not something you want to do in Singapore. That delayed us by 30 minutes, good thing we had planned a 30 minute buffer.

Back on the bus on the other side, we headed to “JB Sentral” where we apparently had to officially enter Malaysia before we could go to our train platform. Again, I made it through no problem, but Johnathan was held up. Five minutes later, still nothing. Ten minutes, it was 10:10, twenty minutes until the train departure. Johnathan was led away to the ‘office’… still waiting. At 10:20 I approached an officer and we found Johnathan – apparently it would take ‘much longer’ and that I should go to the train platform. We said reluctant goodbyes and made tentative plans to meet again in KL the following day.

It was 10:25 by the time we got back to immigration – “So, uhh… how long to get to train?”
“Ten minis.”

I can imagine the guy watching the CCTV having a great time watching me lope around the station, trying to keep my bag from spilling. At one point in my mad dash one of my flip-flops fell out of the bag, so I rocked up to the platform with 30 seconds to spare holding a solitary shoe. After the obligatory ticket issues, I must have looked quite the sight: a sweaty white guy who had clearly just held up the entire train walking down the nine carriages (mine was the last one, of course), wearing a bag just barely attached to its straps, holding one flip-flop, grinning like an idiot. People were peering out from their curtains, smirking at me – but I didn’t care. Good, clean fun.

The 47 Ringgit (~18 SGD) sleeper bed was actually quite nice, clean, with a light, curtains, long enough for me (6 foot). No power or WiFi, though – so be prepared. The toilets are rudimentary (think ‘ferry’), but refreshments are available: 5 Ringgit for fried rice or Nasi Lemak, 3 Ringgit or 1 SGD for a water, etc. Got talking to a Bangladeshi businessman in the sleeper across from mine, maybe he knows some good food spots in KL.

I plugged in my earbuds and listened to Tame Impala’s new album “Currents” – it’s excellent. Great songs to pull out of the station to. Under the light of the half-moon I can see the silhouettes of trees rolling by, the train comfortingly noisy. So now, for the next day at least, I’m alone and without plans heading to KL. I wonder what I’ll do…

Singapore awaits

Seventeen days.

Seventeen days until I leave for Singapore – departure: 29th July.

I was recently accepted into the National University of Singapore on a year-long exchange, and I can’t wait to go. It’s an odd place I’m in right now, preparing to depart, getting affairs in order, saying goodbye. There are so many opportunities in Singapore, it seems like this is my shot, my chance to meet people from all over the world in the intellectual capital of South East Asia. For a whole year, I have the opportunity to do something awesome – I can’t wait to jump into the Singapore startup scene and see what happens.

Yet, the more I think about it, the more I realize I still have to do! It’s going to be a crazy few weeks.

For any of my family or friends reading this, I was lucky enough to get on-campus housing and so will stay in the imaginatively named “Residential College 4” for my first semester – second semester as of yet unknown. Past the pictures of the room and the cheesy promotional video, I really have no idea what to expect in terms of roommates (all 5 of them!), culture, or anything else. I’ll find out soon enough, I’m sure.

I’ve done my share of research about Singapore but I’ve heard all sorts of things from various people: a fellow dishwasher who is… shall we say ‘fond’ of sex, drugs, and rock and roll said it was too ‘regimented’, another told me it was just “Bloody hot, mate”. I expect that – like in Kuala Lumpur – I’ll be pleasantly surprised with my own judgments, but as an outsider, Singapore seems like the only real choice for exchange – even if you have to travel a few hours to ‘party hard’. It’s got excellent standards of living, diverse population, very smart people, and fantastic food. Or maybe I’m just overthinking it. I hope I can find some likeminded Singaporeans who want to start a business or get involved in something like that; I’ve been told by previous exchange students that the locals just keep their heads down and study (that said, their grades have a much higher weighting for them!).

I discussed this recently with a friend on whether or not she should stay in a room with locals or other exchange students: think of the people you’re going to be with. If you’re with other exchange students, that means you’ll be with people who want to be there, who have got out of their chair and put their hand up – there’s every chance you’ll make good friends with Markus from Germany, Tony from America, Piotr from Poland, or Sakura from Japan (excuse the stereotyped names). These are going to be people who want to explore the region, try the food, do ‘stupid things’ the locals might not have time for. What’s more, after exchange you’ll have friends all over the world, which is no small benefit. If you stay with locals, on the other hand, only one in ten might be adventurous or bond well with you. It’s a tricky decision, but I think by keeping in mind that you want to specifically meet locals, it will happen regardless of where you stay. The kind of person you become friends with is much more important than where they’re from.

It’s 3:23 am now and I should sleep before my midday dishwashing shift – the last one ever. I can’t wait to get it just over and done with. Hopefully it won’t be so long between posts again.

Seventeen days…

Porcini mushrooms – the King Bolete

A few days ago, I – literally – stumbled across some Porcini: Boletus edulis, cep, the King Bolete. Highly prized across the culinary world ($100/kg is not unreasonable!), the Porcini originates from Italy and the south of France, where it’s foraged for in the mountains. I was, therefore, understandably ecstatic about my finds. Before these, the only mushrooms I’d been game enough to even try cooking were some I thought to be regular field mushrooms. They turned out to be the hospital-disinfectant A. xanthodermus – I’m just glad it hasn’t put me off wild mushrooms for good.

One of the porcini nestled amongst some oak leaves

One of the porcini nestled amongst some oak leaves

Continue reading

Satay Celup

Satay Celup at Capitol Satay in Melakka is a coveted meal, even by Malaysian standards. Satay Celup (pronounced che-lup) is one of the many hotpot-style, cook-it-yourself experiences very popular in that part of the world. From Korean barbecue to Japanese Sukiyaki (hotpot) to traditional Chinese steamboat, we ate this way more times in a month than I have in probably my whole life in Australia.

I suppose there’s something appealing about seeing the fresh, raw ingredients in front of you and being in complete control of your food. At least, that’s what it seemed like. Personally, I’d rather have the chef cook it the way he wants us to eat it – whether it’s smothered in ghee or glazed in a special sauce or seared for just the right amount of time. Anyway, you might as well just buy the ingredients yourself and do it at home, right?

Seriously - "what the hell is on this thing?"

Bristling with sticks of mystery meat

I think I’m about to eat my words, or at least my thoughts: Satay Celup is the best cook-it-yourself experience I’ve had yet, and it’s utterly impossible to imitate in your own home. Continue reading