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Confessions of a lousy business traveller

We check our watches, lean back against the cushions and take a moment to gather our thoughts, watching from the window the milling crowds in the mall going about their weeknight shopping.

The restaurant has stylishly tall ceilings, ornate chandeliers with warm lighting and a pretty water feature bubbling alongside the plush fabric of  banquette seats and formally set tables with starched black napkins.

The waiter bustles about filling our glasses and arranging the appropriate cutlery for our orders in a manner so elaborate, it’s amusing to watch.
He places a platter of crispy pappadum topped with chopped onions, tomatoes and spices in the centre of the table and invites us to begin our meal.

It’s all wonderful.
But really, I’m pretty sure neither of us wants to be here.

It is 9.45pm, fourteen hours since we all first started out the work day, and the effects of being cooped up in back-to-back meetings is showing its toll on all our faces.

My female colleagues and I, we chat a little about how dinner times are different between Singapore and India and the United States – dinner is typically at around nine in India…this is bedtime to the Singaporeans and Americans.

Halfway through the conversation, one seated beside me, excuses herself to answer her mobile phone.
She speaks animatedly, and even though I don’t know the language, it’s not too difficult to make out that she’s assuring her little girl that she’ll be home real soon.

We turn our attention back to the business dinner conversation at hand.
But not before a candid, spontaneous exchange of smiles and words – from one working mom to another – about how culture and language and location may be different, but challenges are similar wherever one is, in the world.

Similar challenges of planning logistics and arrangements when having to leave home earlier in the morning to attend first-thing-in-the-morning meetings.
Similar phone conversations, in any language, of why we can’t be home yet and yes, we’ll be home soon as we can.
Similar polite excuses to leave the dinner earlier to attend to the needs of home and husband’s dinner and children’s bedtimes.

And in the pensive car ride back to the hotel, I think about these similarities.

About how I can’t be home yet and how badly I’m wanting to be, as soon as I can.

And the differences.

Hers, a twenty-minute commute. Mine, a thirty-three hour countdown and two thousand five hundred miles in between now and then.

Field Trip: Penang Butterfly Farm

I’m glad we made ourselves get out of our hotel room at 4pm to make the drive down to Teluk Bahang. We’d just checked in to our rooms after a rather sleepy and long car journey out from Taiping, and it was truly tempting to just sprawl on the bed and veg out.

Finding out that the Butterfly Farm closed at 6pm, we thought the timing was just about right, as we could leave directly from there to go for a hawker fare dinner on the beach afterward. 😛

It was a magical experience. DH and DD held butterflies on their palms for the first time.  This is a New Lacewing on DD’s hand.

I have to admit I was too chicken to try. Still am, haha.

Penang tourist attractions maintain a differentiated pricing structure, tourists pay a higher price whereas MYKAD and MYKID holders (Malaysian citizens) pay a subsidised price. So Malaysian citizens, do not forget to bring your MYKAD as there is a MYR 9 difference which can buy you a plate of char kuey teow, a bowl of curry mee and cendol for dessert with some change left over!

We arrived just in time to join a free nature guided tour which turned out to be an immensely educational experience. I wished I had brought a notebook but it was probably not possible to take any notes with DS clinging onto me, so I tried my best to remember snippets from the commentary. Tough…

The Penang Butterfly Farm was established in the 1980s, it is a live butterfly and insect sanctuary. Behind the scenes of the public exhibition, is a research and development facility dedicated to breeding, conservation and nature awareness of butterflies and insects, with particular focus on the conservation of the endangered Yellow Birdwing (Troides Helena).

On our tour, we were shown the four stages of a butterfly life cycle, from egg

to larva (this is a New Lacewing caterpillar)

to pupa (chrysalis)

and imago (adult butterfly, I forgot to ask which species this is).

Butterflies come from the order of Lepidoptera, which means “scaly wings” in Greek. Enlarged on a microscope, these are the scales on the wings of a butterfly, it is like what our human skin is to us.

This is the image of the scales under a microscope.

Image Credits: Penang Butterfly Farm

These scales can detach from the wings easily upon touching them, so we were told to not catch or hold a butterfly by its wings as the powdery substance left on our fingers are actually the scales fallen off, which can negatively impact the butterfly’s ability to fly.

Our guide also showed us an example of mating butterflies in the garden. The male attaches itself to the female and the two may remain coupled between an hour to overnight, depending on the species.

When a mating couple flies, it is usually the female who bears the weight of the two, and does most of the work in the flying. Hmm, lazy males!

The farm also houses insects in both its greenhouse as well as an indoor education centre. Outdoors, we were shown a Mexican Redknee Tarantula

and a black scorpion.

And some 30 cm long millipedes that the Nature Specialist explained were really harmless and misunderstood.

Misunderstood I can understand, I won’t harm them but I’m still running far far away if I encounter any of these foot-long crawlies….brrr…I have shivers down my spine just writing about it…

Can you spot the stick insect amidst the twigs?

Here it is, on my mum’s hand!

In its indoor education centre, visitors can view a huge collection of spiders, beetles, bugs and frogs. Kept safely behind glass walls, phew!

At the end of our tour, we were each given a little container with a butterfly inside that had just freshly emerged from the pupa and was ready to fly. You can open the container and release the butterfly into the air.

DD was so excited about this, she was given a second container.  That was fun! 🙂

For the educational and informative value, I really would like to go back again, but I have to say the entrance fee is a rather prohibitive factor.

Whilst I acknowledge that I really shouldn’t complain given the favourable exchange rate between the SGD and MYR, hopefully in future, the farm could find a way to either provide more value in the experience, or lower the pricing a little more.

Getting there:

Penang Butterfly Farm
No. 830, Jalan Teluk Bahang, 11050 Penang, Malaysia.
Tel: 60-4-8851253
Web: http://www.butterfly-insect.com
Email: info@butterfly-insect.com

Field Trip: Taiping Zoo

We spent a few days holidaying in Malaysia during the December school holidays, and took a driving trip up to Taiping and Penang.

When my aunt, who lives in Taiping, heard that we intended to visit the Taiping Zoo, she laughed and said, if our kids had already visited the Singapore Zoo, what could a small town zoo offer in terms of excitement and new discovery for our kids?

Well, quite a lot, as we soon found out to our delight! 🙂

The first zoo to have been established in Malaysia, the Taiping Zoo is more of an unpolished gem – a little rough around the edges but with some really invaluable discoveries – as compared to the more tourism savvy Singapore Zoo which is very geared towards edutainment, shows and structured activities.

Admission is priced at MYR 12 per adult, MYR 8 per child (3–12 years) and the day zoo is open from 8:30am to 6pm.  From 8pm to 11pm, it runs a Night Safari which is priced slightly more expensively.

Commentaries and label descriptions are largely dispensed in local Bahasa Malaysia, which means either you understand it fully or you don’t understand it at all. Language challenge opportunity to figure out why a hippo is called badak air and a rhino, badak sumbu?

There were no maps available at the ticketing counter, so we had to find our own way around the place. In this respect, it is useful to take advantage of the free tram ride and go for it first thing, to gain your bearings.

With a compressed schedule, we didn’t quite get to walk the entire length and breadth as we would have liked so we personally found the tram ride that much useful in at least getting a brief overview of the different sights the zoo has to offer.

When we got off the tram, we stopped by the usual favourites of the children, like the giraffes and zebras, elephants, tigers and lions.

The animals appeared a lot livelier in Taiping than Singapore, and we think this could be because of the lack of shows in the former. There aren’t any scheduled shows, so there are no droves of people rushing for seats and spaces. I personally like this because each can then people or animal-watch at leisure and go about their own business. Sometimes I tend to feel that because we’ve paid an expensive admission into the Singapore Zoo, we need to make the most value of the price and see every show there is – which becomes a rather stressful undertaking!

We saw a tiny baby elephant nursing from its mother, surrounded by all the other elephants in the herd, who took turns to assure and protect the little one between their strong legs.

Majestic Malayan tigers enjoying a morning swim.

 

Cute but fierce little lion cubs gambolling around while their father and mother relaxed lazily in the shade in a neighbouring enclosure.

And an interesting “one-sided argument” between an antagonized ostrich and a nonchalant giraffe.

It was all very relaxed and pleasant, and a very enriching experience for the kids who had not to date, seen baby lions or baby elephants in the Singapore Zoo.

The zoo is located within the Taiping Lake Gardens, the gardens themselves valued for its deep historical worth as the first public gardens established during British rule in Malaysia.

There is always a constant hum of activity in the Lake Gardens with joggers and walkers traversing its paths at dawn, and cars passing through the busy roundabout throughout the night.

These over-hundred-year-old golden rain trees with their branches bent down towards the water are the most frequently photographed and admired residents of the garden.

Kids Say: Our scribbles

Now that we’re done with our scribbles, I thought you might like to see the kids’ scribbles on their view of our holiday. 🙂

Kailis at Fremantle

Fremantle Markets

Hillary’s Boat Harbour and Sorrento Quay

Sunflowers Animal Farm

Thrombolites at Lake Clifton

 Whiteman Park

Scribbles from our Travels: Day 11 – Perth – Singapore

Today is our last day in Australia and we have to be at the airport by 1:30pm. We decide to just drive around Swan Valley and see where the wind takes us.

DH sees the name Bell’s Rapids on the map and suggests we check it out.

Not very rapid, haha, but that’s to be expected in winter I guess. 🙂  [Bells Rapids is a popular viewing location for the annual Avon Descent whitewater race.]

While we’re there, DH and I spot a tiny hole in the soil where ants are crawling out. It’s fascinating, and we stand there for some time, observing them. They’re quite big in size… I imagine a bite from one of these fellows would probably sting something fierce.

So engrossed were we, little did we realise that the whole slope was swarming with busy ants until we suddenly turned around and saw that the slope appeared to be “moving”. Yeeeks! It was like a scene from a B-movie!

Ok lah, not really. They were big but they weren’t human-sized ants or anything of the sort. But it still gave me the heebie jeebies for a while.

Luckily the kids are safely in the car!

We also drive around Brigadoon, a township in the Swan Valley area.

It’s horse country, we drive past one estate after another, each with multiple paddocks and a horse or two in each of the paddocks. Out of curiosity, we also pop into the Equestrian Club. There was a girl dressed in full riding gear, trotting a horse around the field.  The kids wanted to watch for awhile, so we stayed for about 5 minutes before driving off.

We’ve been really fortunate to get a close-up view of horses this trip. 

That aside, in general, I think it’s been a very enriching experience for both ourselves and the kids – we’ve seen and learnt so much in the space of the 11 days spent in Western Australia.  

*****

When we reached the airport, we found out that DH’s clay bowl was broken. It was a shame, because we’d tried our best to carry the two bowls carefully all the way since Mandurah to here. 😦

I was disconsolate. But DH philosophically reminded me, that maybe that was just one more thing to learn from the pottery.

Unfired clay isn’t all that durable until it’s passed through the intense firing in the kiln. In a similar fashion, for us to be able to withstand the pressures of the world, “hard-pressed on every side but not crushed”, we, the clay, need to also be subject to the purifying fire of God’s kiln.

“But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.” ~ 2 Corinthians 4:7-9.

(In case you get the wrong impression that I am calm and spiritual all the time, let me say, I am not. 

I was really upset. I sat brooding for twenty minutes on a corner bench in the airport, with a face like thunder. In that space of time:-

I took out the broken pieces of the pottery to see if there was any chance they could be glued back together. Not a hope.

I wished so hard that it was mine that had been broken, and not DH’s because his was the nicer of the two.  Wishing and hoping and hoping and wishing – to what end?

I analysed to death every minute and every second, from the point I’d packed the bowls to loading the luggage in the car to see if I could pinpoint when it could have cracked. But I guess that’s why it’s called analysis paralysis…it doesn’t move a single nanosecond of time backward to reverse what has been done.

I tried to rationalise what DH said, to console myself – that without firing, the clay was still fairly weak and there’d be traces of powder in our palms every time we handled the bowls. And so, if the bowl hadn’t broken in the car, it may have broken in the airport, or in the overhead luggage compartment, or in the airport when we reached Singapore, or…

In short, it took me a looong while to get over it. So, I didn’t actually look this verse up and consider the life application, until some time after we’d reached home from the trip.) 

*****

We touched down in Singapore at 9:05pm. I always love coming back. Changi Airport has got to be the most efficient and friendliest airport in the world.
I don’t know of any other airport in the world where one can clear immigration and customs, pick up luggage from the belt, AND be in the car on the highway back home within 30 minutes.

It has been a fun and adventurous trip but it feels good…real good, to be home.  🙂

Scribbles from our Travels: Day 8 – Lake Clifton – Halls Head

Today we’re driving to Yalgorup National Park to see thrombolites.

A lot of place names end with “up” – Yallingup, Cowaramup, Meelup, Yalgorup. “Up” in Nyyongar Aboriginal language means “a place of”. “Yalgor” means “a swamp or lake”. So, a place of swamp or lake.

This is because Yalgorup National Park protects 10 lakes that run in a chain – Lake Preston, Swan Pond, Duck Pond, Boundary Lake, Lake Pollard, Martins Tank Lake, Lake Yalgorup, Lake Hayward, Newnham Lake and Lake Clifton.

Lake Clifton is a very elongated lake spanning about a quarter(?) of the length of the Old Coast Road that leads from Mandurah.

The thrombolites, which are found on the eastern edge of the lake, are rock-like structures apparently built by micro-organisms too small for the human eye to see. Within these structures are living communities of diverse inhabitants with population densities of 3,000 per sq metre.

It’s intriguing, but it also sends shivers down my spine a little.

DH says it looks like a scene from the movie, Alien. 😛

*****

After the visit to Lake Clifton, we drive to Miami Bakehouse for lunch.

This episode is so funny I just have to recount it.

We picked up these cards at the Tourist Information Centre in town.

They entitle the bearer to one complimentary cup of tea or coffee, so we took three of these cards, one each for the adults. We order our pies and when paying, furnish our cards to redeem the coffee.

Whilst they do give us our free coffees – one decaf flat white, one latte and one cappuccino, DH says that he overheard the cashier complaining about the cards.

Now isn’t that a strange business model – why print complimentary coffee cards and leave them freely at the tourist i-centre if you’re not happy for people to use it?

And even if you do, there’s nothing on the card that legally binds you to include premium coffees, I’d have had no issue if they had said the complimentary would only be a standard black coffee, any requests for premium stuff would require a cash top-up. 

There’s more – if one wanted to be thoroughly exacting, the card should state “limited to one coffee per person”, not “one coffee per card”.  Can you imagine if someone turned up with like, I dunno, thirty cards, and wanted to redeem all thirty of them! 

Okay, I think I’ve quite analysed the verbiage to death…

Anyway, these cards are stamped with a validity of up to 31 Aug 2011…so if you happen to be in Perth or Mandurah, and happen to be near the tourist i-centre, you know how and where to get a free specialty coffee. 😉

My personal opinion is that Dunsborough Bakery‘s pies are much better though. The difference between them is that the Dunsborough meat pies have more chunky meat pieces inside, whereas the Miami Bakehouse ones are mostly gravy.  Depends on what one’s preference is, at the end of the day. I like chunky. 🙂

*****

After lunch, we drive to Peel Pottery Studio in Darley Grove, Halls Head. The brochure says that they do demonstrations and allow children to make their own clay pieces to bring home.

It sounds like a promising and fun activity, so we rung up Murray Lewis, the owner, earlier today and have made an appointment for 2pm.

Murray meets us at the gate and we chat a bit about his garden. The hibiscuses, (Malaysia’s national flower) in his garden are way bigger than the ones in Malaysia. He also proudly shows us three pumpkins growing in the vegetable patch.

In the pottery studio, Murray hands the kids a blob of clay each to play with, and then he sets up the spinning base, draws a lump of brown ordinary looking clay from an amorphous pile in a bucket, puts the clay onto the wheel and starts spinning the base. How fast the base spins is dependent on the amount of pressure the potter puts onto the pedal – pressing down more speeds the wheel up.

We watch, mesmerised as a tallish bowl begins to take shape and results in a beautiful, refined vessel – ready to be left to dry and fired in the kiln.

Next, Murray offers DH a try at making his own piece of pottery. He tells DH that he’s very good for a first-timer. After that, it’s my turn. He tells me that I shouldn’t give up my day job. Ah, drat… 😉

Some things I learnt today about pottery (on its own as well as from the biblical angle):-

  • It’s not easy to shape the clay while the wheel is spinning. The potter has to apply a fair amount of pressure to get the starting shape he is looking for. Too little gets one nowhere. Too much causes the clay to go out of shape.
  • I had to focus and pay attention. If I got distracted just a little, my bowl would be history. It would just turn into another lump of clay. Which did happen – one side of the the rim of my bowl went completely out of shape, because I accidentally took my fingers off the side. So Murray stepped in and helped to reshape the rim again.
  • Pottery requires patience, patience and more patience. It takes a lot of patience to shape, refine, shape again, refine again, and keep repeating the process until the desired curvature, diameter and height are achieved.
  • It takes a few days for the clay to properly dry out and firm up. However, an air-dried clay vessel, although fairly firm is still very fragile as any very light pressure exerted, e.g. just carrying the bowl, will result in some clay residue or powder coming off in my hands.
  • For a clay vessel to be optimally hardy for actual usage, it needs to go through the fire of the kiln. Which is around 450-950 degrees Celsius.

~~~~~

Yet you, LORD, are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand. ~Isaiah 64:8

~~~~~

Am I glad that He is the master potter, and my life is in His hands, and not my own clumsy ones!

I’m bowled over (pun entirely accidental, heh) – the kids have had fun and we got ourselves a free-of-charge but invaluable experience today.

We get to bring home the clay bowls we made (the larger one is DH’s), plus a life-lesson that has made the biblical analogy of God being the potter and us being the clay, more real to me. I will remember this for life.  🙂

Scribbles from our Travels: Day 7 – Busselton (finally!) – Mandurah

Today we have to drive north anyway, so we make one last attempt in Busselton to try our luck. What d’ya know – the jetty train is operating! Yay!

The UWO is still closed but on chatting with a staff member at the counter, I’m told, in reality it doesn’t really open in winter, the peak season when the UWO is open daily is really in summer time.  This is because, in order for the water to have sufficiently clear visibility to view the underwater reef, there needs to be several consecutive days of good weather.  Which you can get in sunny summer, but not in typically rainy winter!

Ahh.  So now, you know too! Nowhere on the internet has anyone has said anything about this and the website says it is open all year round.  Not true!  While it does caveat with the phrase “weather permitting”, this now gives us a little more clarity what the phrase really means. 🙂

We buy tickets for the 12pm train and since we have 45 minutes to spare, we quickly run to settle an early lunch.

There is only one restaurant within walking distance of the jetty, the other is an ice-cream café that sells regular white bread sandwiches at what I’d consider expensive prices for a small serving. 

So we walk into “The Goose”.  Cute name…I forgot to ask them why it’s called that.

The waitress informs us that lunch won’t start till 12, and currently they are offering only the breakfast menu. A quick glance at the prices shows the breakfast menu is cheaper anyway. Heh, even better – I love having an excuse to eat breakfast for lunch. 😉

Time flies and 11:50 creeps up on us!  Here comes the train returning from the other end of the jetty. Cue to settle bill!

While DH makes payment, I shovel the last mouthful of bacon and eggs into my mouth(I know, terribly unladylike…but I’ve a train to catch), grab a napkin, wrap my toast in it, and shepherd the kids out.

DS is so thrilled with the train ride, he can’t stop grinning. DD is busy experimenting with Daddy’s camera and taking pictures of us all – she’s getting to be a real pro photographer.

I cuddle the two of them and sigh happily as I lean back in my seat, munch my toast and hum the song, “It’s a happy day, and I praise God for the weather…”

After our train ride, we hang around the beach a little while, chasing seagulls and other birds, and picking up little pebbles, seashells, pine needles and other assorted treasures from the ground. All’s well and calm till DS puts his fingers into some bird droppings…eeeeeerrrggh!!

*****

After Busselton, we drive north to Mandurah. And we find out that the place where we’re booked in – Comfort Inn Crest Mandurah – is under acquisition by another motel chain. What this means:

  • The reception was closed. We drove round and round the city and marina area trying to find the acquirer’s reception to collect our keys. Grr.
  • The laundry facilities were locked.
  • The place was fairly deserted. Only a few other cars were parked outside the other self-contained units.
  • Although our unit had fairly large rooms with comfy beds, the heater unfortunately was not working properly, and neither were the hot showers. 😦 DS had a rude shock when the water suddenly turned freezing cold in the midst of his bath, and our nights were cooooold!

What an experience… I’ve never stayed in a place that is in the midst of being taken over. 

I hope they will repair the necessary – the place is really quite nice, barring the poor facilities maintenance, but I suppose that’s just part and parcel of the process of acquisition.

Looking on the brighter side though, driving round and round the marina gave us the opportunity to ooh and aah over the massive luxury homes in the canals, each with one, some with two, or three(!) boats moored in their own private berths. 

Talk about living in the lap of luxury – one driveway and garage to park your multiple cars, and one private jetty to park your multiple boats!

This trip has been full of adventure – date changes, weather unpredictability, fallen trees, motel takeovers – it’s our most eventful family trip to date! 😉