Sunday, December 30, 2007

No Unpaid Tickets Here

I have to say that in several ways, Singapore has a leg up on the U.S. in terms of efficiency. This is most obvious when it comes to transportation. The public transport system here is spectacular, which is good because it's a tiny island with 4 million people and you can't have all of them running around in cars.

I've mentioned a few of their nifty systems before. This week I landed on the wrong end of one of them, but I'm still impressed by it. I got a ticket for "non-payment of ERP charge." Specifically, the letter sitting next to me says, "We would like to bring to your attention that on 18 December 2007 at 5:46 PM, you vehicle SFU2512U was detected passing through the ERP gantry at CTE Northbound before exit to PIE without a CashCard properly inserted into the In-vehicle Unit."

What that means is that I didn't pay a road toll. Our cars here have a box on the dash where you put a credit card that has money on it. As you drive into high traffic areas, there is a Electronic Road Pricing overhang that automatically deducts money from you. That is, if your card is in there. Mine was low on cash, so I had pulled it out because otherwise it beeps annoyingly. Plus, I was going north AWAY from the city, so I was surprised to come upon an ERP at all.

I've done this once before. It's a horrible feeling driving under that thing without a card. You hope that somehow they didn't see you, but within days you get a ticket in the mail, and you just can't argue with it. They KNOW it was you. If I don't pay the $10.50 within 14 days, my fine will increase to $70. If I pay it online it will decrease to $8.50. What a bargain! I don't imagine there is any issue with unpaid tickets here in Singapore.

Monday, December 24, 2007

The Brief Gingerbread House of '07

Gingerbread houses still make me twitchy. If you don't know why, you probably haven't read this post. And yet, here's another year where I found myself buying a gingerbread house for my kids to make. We made a treasure hunt of it, hiding the house out in our complex, then giving the kids GPS clues to find it (this was partly an attempt to make geocaching more exciting for Megan, because right now she's not down with this being a family hobby).

It started out ok, after the hiccup of realizing we needed to make our own icing. We knew we couldn't keep it up for long (see ant post of previous day). But we didn't realize how not long that would be. See for yourself.

Looks good so far doesn't it? No apparent structural faults.

But what's this? It appears the roof is beginning to cave in, and the side is starting to buckle. Must be the excess of icing making it soggy, or perhaps the weight of way too much sugar.

As I was writing the word "condemned" on the side, the roof gave in, making my statement rather obvious.

And then it collapsed completely. That lasted all of about 10 minutes. But the kids had fun and will eat as much of it as I let them (not much) later. Why do I do this to myself?

All the Lovely Losers

I lived in Mankato, Minnesota for two years of my life. You may have heard of Mankato if you watched Little House on the Prairie, because sometimes Pa would load up the lumber and haul it off from Walnut Grove to Mankato. Yes, those are real places. Once on the evening news I heard that Walnut Grove had beat Mankato in high school basketball. That was weird.

Why am I telling you about Mankato? Because it is where I first heard one of my favorite artists, Jason Gray. At the time he was Jason Gay, but as you can imagine that led to some undesirable sites when googled. So he changed his name. But I saw this guy when he was just starting, playing coffee houses and church functions. I was in love with his CD The Singer and the Song, particularly with the song Psalm 16, which led me to my favorite verses, Psalm 16:5-6.

I rediscovered him this summer with his new CD All the Lovely Losers, and I'm glad to see he's done well. I'm telling you, if you've never heard this guy, you need to buy this CD. I can't get enough of it. My favorite song, in terms of lyrics, is Blessed Be, (from which comes the above title "All the lovely losers") Here's a bit of it:

Not for the strong, the beautiful, the brave
Not for the ones who think they've got it made
It's for the poor, the broken and the meek
It's for the ones who look a lot like you and me
Blessed be the ones who know that they are weak
They shall see the kingdom come to the broken ones
Blessed be

Here's another, called Weak:
I was afraid to be weak
Afraid to be me
I was afraid because I didn't want them to see
What's broken in me
But I guess I was wrong
Should have known all along
When I'm weak You are strong
in me
You make up what I lack
You shine through the cracks
Where I was shattered
And You pour out your grace
Through my broken places

Cause if they're afraid I stand too tall
They'll burn all the bridges and build a wall
But if they know I stumble
The walls might crumble down

Most of the songs on this CD are on this theme - being broken and finding the blessing in that, seeing that when we are weak and broken, that's when God can use us. Ministry isn't about having what other people need, having the answers, having it together. It's about being able to say to someone, "I don't have what you need, I don't have all the answers, but I can show you where to find what you need, because He's given it to me." So give yourself a Christmas present and pick up All the Lovely Losers.

Friday, December 21, 2007

The problem of ants

I am something of a recovering sugar addict. I had quite a sweet tooth up until recent years. I still like to indulge in some good dark chocolate and other occasional goodies, but for the most part I've decided that my health is more important. And I've found that the less I eat, the less I crave it. But I am still a firm believer in the healing power of baking therapy. When I'm down, I like the peace and satisfaction of baking something good (and then passing it along to someone else to eat). This time of year calls to my inner baker, but in my new house, I'm finding a major obstacle: ants.

Ants like sugar, among other things. In my new apartment, there is already an army of ants waiting at my back door to scurry in and carry away any minute crumb we leave out. Erik left the wishbone on the front of our stove on Thanksgiving. A few hours later it had been moved to the back of the stove by ants, I kid you not. So me spreading sugar cookie dough on the counter is like a call to arms for them. Thinking about making a gingerbread house with the kids and leaving it out overnight sounds like a recipe for infestation. It's put a damper on my merry cookie making for holiday gift giving tradition.

On the up side, I am becoming an immaculately clean cook.

Monday, December 17, 2007


Something is happening in our house, the likes of which I thought only happened in China. Last night the air con in our dining room turned itself on and refused to be turned off. We had to leave it running all night. In the morning, I climbed up and manually switched it to off (which Erik tried unsuccessfully a number of times before) and it stopped. Five minutes later it started again. I finally figured out that if it starts on its own, I can turn off the main switch and make it stop for awhile. This is not a long term solution. When I called the AC guy he laughed and said he'd be by later to check it out.

This sort of quirky thing happened in China all the time - stuff that makes you scratch your head and say, "Oh well. What can you do?" Like the time my friend opened her window and it just fell out. When that happens on the 20th story of an apartment building you just yell "Four!" and hope for the best. Thankfully we lived on the back side of the building. Another time a friend's washing machine spontaneously caught on fire - just out of the blue, with no apparent instigation. My upstairs neighbor's tile floor buckled. We didn't have hot water for the first month or two in our bathroom. When they came to check it out, all they had to do was open a valve that had been covered when we first moved in. Not only was that keeping us from having hot water, but it was keeping everyone who lived below us from having it too. Oops - sorry. And my personal favorite - my neighbor turned on the shower one day, not knowing that they'd shut off the water that day (this happened often - usually there was a notice at the bottom of the building, but that's not helpful if you can't read Mandarin). She left to go shopping, but left the water on and a plunger over the drain (because otherwise the smell came up). Since her bathroom had no bathtub, when the water came on it poured out of the bathroom, down the hall, into the living room, and was making its way to the bedrooms by the time they returned.

Stuff like that happens there. It made life more interesting. So this quirky AC thing brings with it a bit of nostalgia for me. And after that quickly passes, I hope it will be fixed before our electricity bill goes up too much.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Merry Christmas!

What do you do when you're short on time, it's raining constantly outside, and you need to take a Christmas picture? You go to Spotlight, buy two and a half meters of black fabric and make your own photo studio is what you do! Or at least it's what we did. I did several test shots with just the kids - as you can see, they got a little wacky. I like the last picture of me better, but if you look closely (and I always do) you can see the effects of me leaning sideways over the camera to check the shot before jumping in - my hair is flipped the wrong way over my head. I didn't realize that until I was editing the pictures. I subjected my poor family to a second round of shots and the second to last shot in the post was the one was the best we got.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

It's Beginning to Look a lot like Christmas!

Well, we had to get a second set of lights and borrow a saw to hack off the bottom of it, but our tree finally looks and smells like a real honest to goodness Christmas tree! I have never seen the appeal in making a tree all matching and beautiful. To me, it's all about family and memories, and I could tell you a story about every one of these ornaments.

Here's the view of our window display. You can't see very well the fake snow we sprayed in the window per the kid's request. Now we just need a few more gifts under that tree.

I decided when I came to Singapore to start over with my Christmas decorating. I want to collect nativities from other countries. This is one Erik gave me a few weeks ago. It was hand carved in the Philippines. I think it might be my favorite.

This was sent to us from some friends in China. No, Jesus, Mary and Joseph probably weren't Asian, but they weren't white either! When I consider that God is every color and every culture and every language, it tells me how great He is.

This is from right here in Singapore, but I suppose technically you could claim it's from Malaysia, because it's made from cinnamon trees grown there. They hand make these at Tay Guan Heng, up in Ang Mo Kio. If you live in Singapore and haven't been there, it is a must see! I have a list of creations I want to buy there in the future. They are the nicest guys and it's fascinating to watch them work.

I told my mom I wanted to collect nativities and she said, "I think you should go open your Christmas present from us." It was this nativity from Chile! Very fun - now we're truly global. I'm opting not to show you our Playmobil nativity, but that's here too. If you're traveling to another country and see a unique nativity, would you pick it up for us? Ethan keeps asking me why we have so many "activity sets." He also wants to know where I've stashed all the baby Jesus figures (they'll come out at Christmas). Merry Christmas from the Butz house!

Monday, December 10, 2007

Embracing Weakness

Today I was reflecting on my past life, by which I mean, "Life before Singapore." It was quite different from my life now. Or rather, I'm different. At least I like to think so. Before Singapore, I thought I had it all together. I was balancing raising two preschoolers, learning a second language, living overseas, and having a personal ministry with joy. I thought I was a Super Mom. Turns out I was just a mom with a part time maid. So God in His mercy saw fit to shatter my illusions by bringing me to Singapore.

Coming to Singapore has been a continual and deepening lesson in seeing my own inadequacy, lostness, self-sufficiency (God's not impressed with that) and pride. He's slowly stripped away or added things into my life to make me feel my desperate need for Him. It's been one of the hardest and most frustrating lessons of my life. Many times I have had to side with Rich Mullins when he sang, "I can't see where you're leading me, unless you've led me here, to where I'm lost enough to let myself be led."

I have no illusions anymore about having it all together. Oh sure, I try to do my best, but I know at the end of the day that if I accomplished anything, it was because of God's grace. I don't want to be someone who is perceived as strong and put together. I want to be real and approachable. As one of the speakers said at our conference this summer, "People don't draw close to strength - they admire it, respect it, but don't draw near to it . . . When you're wounded, you're just getting qualified."

So my encouragement to those of you who feel like you can't keep it together, are feeling inadequate, or lost, is to embrace it. That's where we meet God and see that His resources are so much greater than anything we imagine. It's also where we become instruments of grace to others - not because we are strong, but because we understand weakness.

"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God." Mt. 5:3

It seems a little cruel . . .

There is a bathroom next to the gym in our complex that is for handicapped people. But there is a sign on the door that says, "This door is locked. If you need the key, please come to the guard house." To get to the guard house, you would have wheel your way up the circular ramp in that area, hang a left, then another left, then another - all uphill by the way. Then after rolling for about 100+ feet, you turn right and heft your way another 30 feet further up hill, around the barrier and up to the guard house, where the window might be too high for you to see in. Once you get the key, you'd have smooth gliding back down to the bathroom, provided you made it that far.

Does this strike anyone else as a bit cruel? At the least not exactly inviting to those physically restrained.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Lazy Winter Day

The sun is going down, though we never saw a peep of it today. I know this only because the light in our house is dimming. The candles and Christmas lights we've had lit are no longer sufficient light for reading books and playing games. It's been as close to a winter day as I've ever had here - the kind of day when nothing can induce you to go outside, and everything invites you to hunker down with a good book and a cup of something warm and stay til the storm blows over.

It hasn't been a lightning storm, but an unrelenting heavy rain that has poured since this morning. I'm glad we had nothing planned other than homeschool, because the laws of physics keep me bound here - I am an object at rest. After homeschool and lunch our kids vegged out with Scooby Doo (can I just comment that as an adult, you see your favorite childhood shows in a different light. How dull were those teenage sleuths that though they solved dozens of mysteries, they always began their operations on the assumption that ghosts were real?). I indulged in one of my favorite forms of therapy - baking. I made brownies, a failed attempt at apple cranberry oatmeal muffins (never mess with a recipe you haven't tried) and baked sweet potato fries. Our living room is scattered with half a dozen board games which the kids got out. They haven't made it completely through any of them - it was like game overload. We ate the fries, they splashed in the tub, and now Ethan is conducting experiments with ice and water (specifically how long it takes ice cubes to melt in different temperatures).

So that's as close as I'll probably get to a lazy winter day. When I talked with my parents this morning, they were holed in by winter weather as well, but significantly whiter and prettier. My upside is no shoveling.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Our Christmas Tree

It is a running joke in the Brenna family that I hate Christmas tree shopping. I may have described it before, but our memories have morphed into one recurring episode: We choose to hunt for a tree on the coldest day of the year. I am underdressed as usual. My parents choose a new Christmas tree farm that promises the best trees. When we venture into the lot, we discover one tree that we all love, but my mom insists we must look around to make sure it is the right one. Then my family starts to take sadistic pleasure in my negative attitude by throwing snow at me. My mom finds a "perfect" tree at the other end of the lot, but by the time we gather everyone together to assess it, someone else is cutting it down. Defeated, we go back and cut down the first tree we found.

It probably only happened like this once or twice, but I gained such a reputation that when we flew back for Christmas in 2003 and I was in a friend's wedding, my mom said, "Ok, so we'll take the kids to get the tree while you're at the wedding," to which I replied, "You can't get the tree without me!" No one was more surprised than me at that statement.

Well, our Christmas tree outing was quite different here. I might grow to like it. Our artificial tree that we purchased in Asia 8 years ago for the bargain price of $12 finally bit the dust last year. We decided to spring (and I mean spring) for a real one. The kids were thrilled. We went to one of the nurseries on Thompson Road where trees stood in rank according to their height. Even within height (we chose a 5-6') there was quite a variation. I think we got the best of the bunch.

Erik was a bit out of sorts (and if you know Erik, you know things have to be seriously wrong for that to happen) because the tree stand we bought leaked. He drove back and got them to replace it, and now our beautiful tree is filling the front window. This is the first year in Singapore that we've had space for a tree this size! I'll post decorated tree pictures as soon as I get my camera's battery charger back from its trip to a friend's house, and after we get more lights. You can never have enough lights.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Crazy Storm

There are two situations in which I am most grateful for my car. Both of those situations occurred yesterday. The first is driving to a faraway location only to discover it is closed for renovation. You'd be surprised how often this happens. Our venue of choice this time was the Reptile Park. Normally I'm frustrated by this, but the Reptile Park was long overdue for a tune up. I'm thankful for my car, because I fool myself into believing that it didn't cost me anything to drive that far and be turned away, even if gas is $5 a gallon right now. I know that's not true, but it feels true.

We decided instead to go to IKEA. I wanted to find a Swedish Christmas tree (if you don't know what that is, google it). Where else but IKEA? Yet they disappointed me. Only real trees with sparse branches. Upon leaving IKEA, we encountered my second great-reason-to-have-a-car: torrential downpour.

We planned to drive down Jalan Bukit Merah to get to the Central Expressway. Theoretically IKEA to our house should take us about 25 minutes. After waiting at a light for 15 minutes before the CTE, I started thinking something was up. Ethan said, "Hey! Look at the flood!" Sure enough the ditch to our left was flowing with several feet of brown water. Then he said, "Hey! Look at Megan's side!" On our right, the water on the other side of the road was level with the median. The kids were thrilled, but I thought, "This might not be the best place to stay right now." Thinking that the stall probably meant deeper waters ahead, I turned the corner . . . only to find two of the four lanes completely submerged! I hadn't been there more than a minute when we were forced into one lane. The kids continued to think it was fascinating until I suggested we pray that God protect us and get us out of there. I took the next corner and realized that although I was out of the worst, I had no idea where I was.

I navigated back to familiar territory, but that meant I was downtown, nowhere near a fast street. I found myself stuck at another stop light because of a blinking light and what looked like three buses in an accident. After sitting there for 20 minutes, I took a left to what I hope was a faster way (still had to wait for the light to change 5 times). Of course to make the story more interesting, my gas light came on while waiting for the first stoplight. I know we can drive for awhile with the light on, but I wasn't sure how long my car could be running, sucking down that precious petrol, before we became another casualty of the rain.

It reminded me of driving through snowstorms in Minnesota - the same number of stalled cars and accidents, the same slight feeling of "I really shouldn't be driving in this." Yet as I drove by the 30 people long taxi queues at every store, I was still thankful for our car.

Altogether it took us an hour and a half to get home. You're hard pressed in Singapore to drive anywhere for an hour and a half. On a good day, I could be a fair bit into Malaysia with that amount of time. But to drive in one direction in Singapore for that long? Hopefully that will never happen again.

Friday, November 23, 2007

I tripped

I told Erik a few days ago that I felt like I was on a treadmill that was set just a little too fast. Do you know that feeling? Like you could sustain this for a few minutes, but eventually it's going to catch up with you and it's quite likely you'll trip, fall flat on face on the treadmill and slide off the end into a heap on the floor.

Today I think I hit that point. All week I've felt like I was just running from moment to moment, trying not to be overwhelmed by all I had to do, knowing full well I couldn't get it all done and feeling frustrated by all that I was letting go. Are my standards too high? Oh, quite often. I don't think that was the culprit this week. It was probably just the fact that I hosted about 20 people at my house for Thanksgiving and my life normally has very little margin anyway so that pushed me over the edge. Or off the end of the treadmill as it were.

I woke up this morning a full two hours later than usual, ate breakfast and went back to bed. If it weren't for the fact that I have two kids I simply can't ignore I'd spend the whole day horizontal. As it is, it looks like I just have to pick myself up and get back on that machine with a hearty "Help me Lord!" Thank God we decided not to do homeschool today!

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Pasir Ris

This week marks another holiday we don't celebrate (Deepavali, or Diwali as it's also known) but which affords Erik a day off. In the afternoon we drove up to the northeast coast of Singapore to Pasir Ris, which is what they call that area. We intended to go horse back riding, but found that for $10 we only got a ride around the corral. Megan was desperate to go, so we paid for just her. Ethan in the meantime petted a horse nearby. It began as an amicable relationship, but the horse took a nasty turn all of a sudden and nipped Ethan in the stomach. By bedtime he had a large swollen bruise there. I think the chances of us getting him near a horse again soon are slim.

Megan was thrilled though with her 5 minute ride. It would be great to do riding lessons for her, but they are US$25 for 45 minutes. We'll have to think about that one.

We ventured down to the beach and poked around, then did a quick geocache. We finished our outing at Pasir Ris Central, which is a big shopping area. Thankfully it was overcast (it's getting into the rainy season now) so it was "cool."

Sunday, November 04, 2007

I miss autumn

I am a cold wimp. Really, I always have been. I think living in Singapore just . . . set it free. I'd love to say it's because I don't have enough fat on me, but I think the more likely culprit is my ridiculously low blood pressure and flow. There's just not a lot of action inside my body keeping me warm. As Erik and I say, "I'm cold from the inside."

But this cold from the inside girl has been longing for some nice fall days lately. I've become so accustomed to constant weather that I am astonished to open my msnbc webpage and see that my hometown is 33 degrees right now. Granted, it's 4 in the morning there, but I don't even remember what that feels like. Right now, I want to remember.

I want to rake a pile of leaves and feel the dry stiffness of the grass as I do it, then jump in the leaves. I want to step outside and smell snow in the air. I want to huddle under a blanket at a football game with my hands wrapped around a cup of something hot. I even want to wonder at a sunset that starts before dinner.

In all my time in Singapore, this desire has been almost void, except in our first few months here when it felt strange not to have seasons. Now I feel like experiencing that would feel completely new to me.


Here's Ethan, in the back room of my parent's basement, doing what he does best and most. We finally set this up in the summer to avoid having Legos everywhere, under couches and inside dogs.

This is Ethan's obsession. Every morning it is the first thing he does. Whenever he's instructed to spend some time alone, he finds his Legos. Not only is it what he does, it's all he talks about (as he himself admitted earlier today).

On the one hand, I'm glad to invest in this. It's sparked his creativity like nothing else. Even though he has a lot of sets, he often combines them, or challenges himself to take all the pieces of one set and make something original. But when every conversation revolves around which set he'll buy next, what level he's on in Star Wars Lego computer game, what Exo-Force character can do what, it gets a little tiring. Still, there are worse things that could occupy him so for now, this is his world.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Thursday in Vietnam

I tried not to do it, but it was really hard to keep any images or quotes from Good Morning Vietnam from running through my head as we headed off to Hanoi on Thursday afternoon (sans children who were delighted to have a whole weekend with friends). That movie's the only impression I have of Vietnam, that and the sense that if I were Vietnamese, I don't know that I would like Americans very much.

I expected something crowded, like Bangkok, but the airport was still, and the air outside smelled like a giant bowl of incense. We placed our fate, as we have done so many times now in Asia, in the hands of a stranger with a taxi, trusting that he would ferry us to our hotel by the most direct route and not swindle us. It was hard to get an idea of what we were in as we drove through the dark, seeing only a few narrow houses popping up here and there. It was strange to be driving on the right side of the road again - why can't we all just pick one side and stick with it?

At the airport we had changed some money into Vietnamese dong. We walked away with over 1,000,000 dong which made us feel quite rich until we handed over nearly 200,000 to our cab driver. Easy come, easy go.

We stayed at the Sheraton because we had lots of points that made it free. That was a blessing, but it stood in such contrast to its poor surroundings that it felt unreal. After a very warm welcome, we grabbed some room service dinner and settled in for our weekend in Hanoi.

Friday in Vietnam

Staring out our 15th story window, I couldn't see more than a mile because of the smog. Our view looked down on the InterContinental, where a steady stream of motorbikes brought workers three rows deep behind the hotel. The city woke up early, the streets dotted with pointy woven hats (they actually wear those? I thought only tourists did!) and motorbikes fighting for the roads.

Our objective for Friday was to explore the city and buy some paintings as a 10th anniversary gift to ourselves. The concierge looked dubious when we told her we planned to walk to the Old Quarter - the recommended area to see in Hanoi. She was right to have her doubts, as it was a few miles from our hotel. But along the way we were able to take in the feel of it - the buildings 4 to 5 stories high and one room wide, each a different color from the next, like it is against the law to have the same as your neighbor; the massive amounts of wiring hanging over every street; the people selling everything from kleenex to plastic bowls to snacks along the road. My personal favorite was the women carrying fruit balanced on two large flat baskets, hanging from a pole over their shoulders. A man in a pedicab hounded us to take him for a ride. He even showed us a sign that said, "The money is not the important thing. It is the pleasure of giving you a ride," or something close to that. We didn't bite - it was too interesting to take it in slowly.

Once in the Old Quarter we booked a tour to HaLong Bay for the next day, and were given assurances that we would have the "superior" tour with a comfortable, air-conditioned bus for the 3 hour ride and that our boat would have lovely lounging chairs. We also rented a motorbike from the same agency so we could look as much like locals as possible (though me clutching my Lonely Planet Vietnam in one hand while we rode might have given us away as tourists). Then, on the recommendation of our concierge, we headed to the south part of the Old Quarter to see if we could find a camera. Yes, I know, we have a wonderful camera. But that camera stopped at the Hang Ten clothing store counter at the airport in Singapore and did not continue on the journey with us. I can't tell you how many times I kicked myself during this trip because I didn't have my camera. Erik said he couldn't be mad at me for leaving it there because my self-punishment was more than enough.

No cheap cameras to be found, we gave up and went to Hang Trong street where there was rumored to be lots of good shopping. We spent the better part of the day looking at paintings, trying to decide which was best. In the end, we decided to think it over and found a place for a good cheap massage (gotta love Asia for cheap massages). Our dinner was next to a beautiful Catholic church where they were holding a wedding. Can you imagine a priest chanting in Vietnamese?

Our ride home was a little harrowing, since we weren't familiar with the one ways. Thank God for Erik's aunt and uncle who got us into geocaching this summer so that we now own a GPS. If not for that, we might still be driving around lost in Hanoi. Thanks Bill and Jan! So our GPS guided us back to the Sheraton where we watched 3:10 to Yuma, which is a good movie. I won't mention how we obtained said movie. A very full but enjoyable day in Hanoi.

Saturday in Vietnam

Erik and I ate an early breakfast at a little place we found outside our hotel called The Kitchen, which served western breakfast. We changed a little money at the desk (if you call 1,600,000 dong a little, which it kind of is), then we scooted as fast as we could down to the travel agency fearing we would miss our bus. Then we waited for 1/2 hour. The bus wasn't the luxury vehicle we imagined, and we were stuck in the back seat with a Vietnamese family for 3 hours, but seeing the Vietnamese countryside was interesting. If you've ever seen the famous picture of the little girl burning from napalm during the war, you have an idea of what it looks like - open fields broken by cement buildings, usually 3 or 4 stories high. We passed several villages before we stopped at a large store run by the children of war victims. I wondered a lot while I was there how the Vietnamese feel about Americans. There were few of us there - most foreigners were from elsewhere. Every old person made me wonder what memories were stored up in their minds.

We landed at HaLong Bay around noon and climbed aboard our ship, which did not possess the white lounge chairs we were promised. Still, we were able to enjoy the view and the breeze from the top as we navigated through "so many beautiful islands" as our guide kept reminding us, jutting out of the sea. HaLong Bay means "descending dragon bay" for reasons that aren't clear to me due to our tour guide's heavy accent. He said he was previously a college professor, now he's a tour guide, but next year he'll be a lawyer. Being a lawyer pays about the same as tour guide he said - roughly $1,000 US a month.

We docked at one larger island and took a cave tour. Then the best part, we turned around and stopped at a floating fishing village - these people live on the water all the time! - where we spent an hour sea kayaking around the islands. I love my life.

The ride back felt longer, especially since when we pulled into Hanoi we saw the bus pass our street, then proceed to drop off everyone else except a man and his son, which took more than 1/2 hour. Using our trusty GPS we found our way back to the hotel and collapsed into bed. All in all, a fascinating day. I'm glad we took the time to see something outside of the city.

Sunday in Vietnam

Our first order of business/pleasure was to enjoy the facilities at the Sheraton, which stands in sharp contrast to its surroundings. We worked out on the treadmills, then grabbed a bite at The Kitchen, despite Erik's desire to try something new. We spent the rest of the morning by the pool. I took a nap! It was glorious. Those of you who know me know that napping is not my forte.

Erik managed to find the one geocache in Hanoi so we set off on the motorbike to find it. It's hard to blend in when you have a map in one hand and a GPS unit in the other. Also the white skin gives us away. This cache was an "earth cache" where you just take a picture or answer questions. It was the crash of a B-52 bomber in the dirtiest excuse for a lake I've ever seen.

Erik got his way with lunch - we found a place whose name is escaping me, but the seats are all old rickshaws. The food was ok, but the atmosphere was fun. We had a few more items to buy - I wanted a set of bamboo serving bowls and a few gifts for family. It was sad to drop off our motorbike, but we felt enjoyed the feeling of a safer mode of transportation as we walked back to get our paintings. Back to the hotel to pick up our bags, where Erik tipped the bell boy a whopping 10,000 dong. I mention this because as much as we appreciated his help, we were exactly 10,000 dong short for our taxi ride back to the airport. I ran inside with a Sing $2 bill. I went to the first store I saw and said, "Change money?" She looked at me and said, "2?" Then handed me 20,000 dong, making it the easiest transaction ever. I did get shafted a bit on the exchange, but that's ok.

So what are my impressions of Vietnam? I was surprised by how undeveloped it was, but delighted by the many ways people still use old modes of business and transport - the women with their balanced baskets, people selling things along the road, makeshift everything. I kept trying to imagine living there, but it was hard because I'm used to seeing the whole spectrum of living standards, from "Never in my wildest dreams could I afford that" to "Lord, thank you that I don't have to live there." This was mostly all the latter.

On our way back through the airport we picked up our camera, no hard done aside from the agony of missing so many photo ops. It will just have to exist in my memory.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Singing the Praises of the Paint Man

The reason I haven't posted pictures of our new place is because I wanted to wait until it is painted. This has been a long process for me because when it comes to paint I am a psychotic, uber-particular freak about getting the perfect colors. The poor man, Jason, who owns the Jotun paint store in Holland Village here has had to bear the brunt of my psychosis (with my husband Erik a close second).

I first brought him paint samples (Pumpkin Patch, Lavender Veil, Summer Day) from the U.S. which he scanned and reproduced for me. One out of three worked. Then I went back with Pottery Barn books and new paint samples. He patiently made more. Then I brought back the 6 different liters of paint he'd already made and he spent 2 hours fiddling with them to make them just what I wanted. This man is stellar. He laughs at me because I drive down there all the way from Upper Serangoon, but what can I say? The guy is a color genius. He stared at a green he had made for the homeschool room which I wanted to look more like the green in the Pottery Barn book for some time until he declared, "I know what you need! (a Valium?) You need more red!" And voila - my perfect color.

He came over yesterday to inspect our place and give us a quote. I would happily pay him whatever he asked since he's been so helpful, but his quote was quite reasonable and he's coming in a week to paint. He commented that we have huge cracks in our walls that will need replastering. He offered not to do it to save us money, but not doing it means it will require more paint. Doing it also may help appease our landlady when she sees I've painted my bedroom Pumpkin Patch.

This kind of personal service and accommodation are somewhat rare in Asia. I guess that's a by-product of capitalism which doesn't have as much of a stranglehold here as it does elsewhere. All I know is that if someone in Singapore wants to paint, I know just the guy.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

The Smell of Death

I should have acted when Ethan commented to me, "This part of the kitchen smells." He was by the toaster. Certain parts of our new kitchen have a strange smell, something like mold or dust, despite my best cleaning efforts. I dismissed it.

Tonight while Erik and I were doing the dishes, I said, "It really does smell over here." Then I discerned the source of the smell.

When we first moved in, we discovered that there were several small house geckos who already lived here. They were quite bold, too bold in fact. I decided we didn't want any squatters so I bought two gecko traps. I put one in the kitchen and one in the living room. Then I forgot about them.

Guess what - they work! I picked up the one in the kitchen tonight and saw two sets of blank, lifeless eyes peering out at me. As is my custom when I encounter small harmless critters in my house, I squealed and threw it at Erik. He said, "Ah, so this is why it smells like rotting flesh in here."

I vow to listen to Ethan the next time he says something smells.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Leaving Eden Prairie

Our last day in Eden Prairie, MN, we did a little photo shoot with Erik's family (minus Andrew, who's in Japan).

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Mid-Autumn Festival

We've always wanted to go to the Chinese Garden down in Jurong (southwest part of Singapore). Since Saturday was one of the last days of the Mid-Autumn Festival, we thought we should celebrate there. First we went in the morning, thinking to avoid the crowds. What crowd? We convinced the girls at the ticket house (after walking around seeing that all the rides and vendors were closed) that we could come back that evening and use the same tickets.

We headed back that evening, had a great Thai dinner under a big tent, and met up with the Oliver family. The park was filled with lanterns in an underwater theme. They were beautiful during the day, but they were amazing at night.

This pagoda greets you at the entrance to the park. It was beautiful at night - look below.

We thought these giant people were cool during the day but at night they were even better.

They gave out these free lanterns with little birthday candles that were meant to stand up by means of little pieces of metal. Martha brought along tea lights, so those worked much better - less chance of catching fire.

This beautiful lantern was created by fusing three candles together. It later perished in a spectacular ball of flame that happened so fast I didn't catch it on camera. Trust me, it was a sight to see.

You can buy the objects you see in the tree - two large gold coins attached with red ribbon. You throw them in the tree for good luck or prosperity or something. I really should research that. This woman may have cursed herself a little because on her first attempt she hit a woman about 20 feet away.

This is the seven level pagoda at night in all its glory. Martha, Erik and the kids walked to the top, but I just wasn't motivated. Maybe next time.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Same Same . . . but Different

There is a phrase that pops up in Southeast Asia, "Same same." Really this means, "It's the same" - why they repeat it I can't figure. What I've learned though is that what seems the same to shopkeepers here is not the same to me.

For example, I tried to buy paint the other day at a new store. I had this beautiful light slate blue picked out called "November Sky" from a Nippon paint book. When I asked the woman for it, her response was, "Special order. You choose something else" and proceeded to pick up another paint book, open to a random page, and point to the first blue she saw.

"But that's not the same color," I said.
"Yes! Can! Same same!"
"No, that's not the same color."
"Yes, same same."

We went through this ritual a few times, her selecting other blues for me while I insisted they were not November Sky or even close. And I had to think, "Does she really not see the difference, or does she think I don't care enough?" I mean, if you're going to call all blues the same, why have other options?

It happened again later at the clothing store. I was looking for some 5T shorts for Megan. I found some size 7 shorts and asked the shopkeeper if she had other sizes.
"This one finish already. Only small sizes. Have 3T."
"So you don't have any 5T?"
"Have 3T" while offering them to me. I declined. This is something I still fail to understand, even after 8 years after in Asia. There are things like this that used to bother me until I understood the reasoning behind them. If someone has some insight I'd appreciate it. Meanwhile, I'm still looking for November Sky.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Singaporeans really do speak English

I was surprised this summer to discover how difficult it was convincing people that Singaporeans speak English. And when I say they speak English, I don't mean in the way that you could go to say, Germany, and find that people there speak English. I mean they speak English in the same way that you go to the United States and people speak English. Yes, other languages are spoken - in some parts more than in others - just like in the U.S. And that is as should be - here, and in the U.S. too (I've got a bit of a gripe against people who think it's wrong that more and more people in the U.S. speak Spanish). But English is the primary operating language.

I've done a little observing the past few days of signs and conversations. While it's not uncommon to hear languages other than English spoken here, every sign I saw was in English. Occasionally it was also in another language, but if you don't speak English here, you'd have a tough time. I often encounter the clerk speaking Mandarin to the person in front of me, then switching to English for my sake. I even saw a young Indian girl speaking Mandarin with the older gentleman before me yesterday which I thought was unusual. She must have learned it in school.

I've heard from Singaporean friends that the government has gone through phases regarding what it encourages its citizens to speak. So depending on the generation, there are some who speak primarily Mandarin or some other Chinese dialect. Case in point - the elderly lady who helped me tonight at McDonald's. It became clear to me that we would have been better off speaking Mandarin, but my McDonald's vocabulary is rusty. At other times, people have been encouraged only to speak English. Now I believe the trend is to remain bilingual, or even trilingual if possible.

I feel like this is the 10th post I've written about language here. I hope I've made it clear - no, I'm not keeping up my Mandarin here (though I am going to brush up on my fast food vocab) and, aside from different accents, we're all speaking English.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Where I Am

Every Christian I know says they want to be spiritually mature. I know I do. I just want it without the hardship. Unfortunately, that's just not how it works.

I'm listening right now to Rich Mullins' "Where You Are" (Rich Mullins is a great comfort in times of trial). "And where you are ain't where you wish that you was - your life ain't easy and the road is rough - but where you are is where He promised to be - from the ends of the world to every point of need." There are so many reasons to rejoice in where we are, but things have changed - primarily in regard to our friendships and community - and it isn't the way I'd choose for it to be. But the theme of my life since coming to Singapore has been "dependence" - God slowly stripping away the things that I depend on besides Him. I thought He'd done a pretty good job up to this point, but coming back just feels like He said, "Nope, not enough - we're going to have to take this away too." I was talking with some friends the other day about how ruthless God can be to prune us from all the hinders us from knowing and relying on Him. He is relentless, but He is good. So while I grieve the loss of the way life was, I am strangely thrilled to see what comes of this. I am excited for the opportunity to trust Him more, to see how He provides, how He "satisfies our needs in a sun-scorched land" (Isaiah 58:11).

As difficult as this time has felt to me, I am convicted of my obvious addiction to comfort. I spent some time reading a magazine for missionary women recently, and considering their situations, (living in jungles without any modern conveniences, far away from other women who speak their language, no phones, no internet) I realized that I am fairly weak when it comes to "suffering." Not to diminish how I feel, but it puts perspective on my life. Am I really going to complain when I have SO much? It was a good reminder to choose to focus my attention on the blessings I have, not the things I am called to do without right now.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Set to Music

Playing Dora Go Fish is fun. Playing Dora Go Fish by yourself probably isn't as much fun. But playing Dora Go Fish by yourself while singing about it to the tune of Sing to My Lou is entertainment for a good long time. Or at least it was for Megan this morning.

Monday, September 17, 2007

32 Hours In

We have been in Singapore for 32 hours, and many of the boxes are unpacked. (Erik and I hate leaving them so we dive right in after every trip). The kids are rediscovering their toys, although right now using all the empty boxes to built a giant fort is the coolest thing ever to them. I am staring at this new place wondering how long it will take to feel like it is my home, and trying in vain to rid it of the mothball/musty smell. It reminds me a little of the cabin we went to when I was growing up, but without all the fun memories.

Of course 6 hours after arriving I went to Mustafa. I think the clerks who helped me were a bit amazed at how much I bought, but I'll never really know unless I take it upon myself to learn Tamil.

When I left and passed the street I normally take to go back home, I was terribly sad. Then I remembered how several of our good friends left in the spring, and I was struck with how much adjusting this new chapter will involve. So much of me wants to go back to life as it was, but this is where God has us, what He has given us, and I will rejoice in it.

Frequent Fliers

You know how they say you should get to the airport 2 hours before an international flight? Actually, it might even be 3 hours now. We've always thought that was a little silly. We were wrong. We arrived at the airport at 7:45 a.m. for our 9:30 flight. We walked onto the plane at 9:27. Along the way, we were foiled by: the new curbside check-in rule that doesn't allow international check-ins, the cancelled United flight and subsequent 100 people in front of us in line, our 9 bags which magically all weighed either exactly 50 pounds or 1/2 pound over (except the one we intentionally overpacked) the 200 people going through security, and the suspicious looking bag of craisins in Ethan's backpack.

And then we waited on the runway for an hour, because it's more exciting to make connecting flights when you have less time.

We waited for about 5 minutes in Chicago to board our next flight which we assumed was going to Tokyo. Sad to admit, I was looking forward to the selection of movies on the plane. United's in flight entertainment isn't up to Northwest's, as Ethan will be quick to tell you, but at least you have some choices. Or should I say, normally you do? No individual viewing screens on this flight, which caused Ethan some moments of intense grief. On top of that, our headsets didn't work and the screen was messed up so it was like watching a negative of something. Good thing we brought books.

About an hour into the flight, Erik and I had this conversation:
"Hey, I thought we were going through Toyko."
(Erik) "We are."
"Well, why do they keep talking about Hong Kong?"
"We get off in Toyko and this plane goes on to Hong Kong."
(Me, pause.) "Then why are they passing out arrival cards for Hong Kong?"
(Erik, pause.) "Yeah, um, I guess we're going to Hong Kong."
Well, we knew we were on the right flight obviously, but now we had to make the mental shift to a 15 hour flight instead of 12. Partway through I became so overwhelmed by the idea that I would be on a plane that long that I considered freaking out and demanding that they land the plane. Then I thought better of it because something like that would be known around the world and I would be forever shamed. That was 8 1/2 hours in. We had 6 1/2 to go.

Why not sleep, you ask? Ah, well, I am genetically programmed to only sleep horizontally in a comfortable, quiet, and dark environment. That's why I would like to fly Air Force One, so I can sleep in that big bed they show in the movies about it.

No flight to or from Asia would be complete without at least one American male who tries to teach someone else Mandarin in a cringe inducing, toneless way. We got that out of the way during our layover in Hong Kong.

All of our luggage arrived safely, we piled into a Maxicab (a large taxi here that they really need to rename) and drove to our new apartment. Our friends had pulled out bedding for us and stocked our fridge a bit so we could just drop into bed, another 6,000 miles logged.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Fun with Uncle Christopher

One of the easiest toys to operate is an uncle. This one comes specially equipped with various noises and impressions sure to delight children and adults alike. This skill is employed well when reading aloud to children (as demonstrated here doing the voice of Scooby Doo to perfection). His above average intelligence combined with his off beat sense of humor results in quick wit and clever tales that will never be doubted by children, though they should be. He is also physically strong enough to bear the weight of several children and willing to be used as a jungle gym at any time. Unfortunately, this model is not portable and will have to remain in the U.S., much to our disappointment.

Just plain cute

How willingly do you think these two dogs posed for this picture? (Yes, I realize the dog on the right looks more lik a carpet - she's since lost about 5 pounds of fur). The kids love the dogs at my parent's house, but the love is not mutual.

Another Joyous Reunion

Ethan once said of his friend Jackson, "Mommy, you know my friend Jackson? God gave him to me, to be my friend." Jackson and Ethan have known each other since the day Ethan was born and despite the miles between them, Ethan still claims Jackson as his best friend. Megan says the same about Jackson's sister Emma. In fact, we just love their whole family! They lived near us for our first five years in Asia - our best times of true community have been with them, doing life together and having a great time.

The kids haven't seen each other for a year and a half, but when the boys first saw each other on Tuesday, they shouted each others' names and ran for a huge hug. The girls were a little more hesitant, but within a few minutes they were back to old times. I thought I'd show another old/new comparison like I did with Ethan and Ellee. The first picture was taken in April 2004 before we moved to Singapore, when the boys were 4 and the girls were 2. The kids are already asking, "When can we see them again?"