Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Back in NYC

Yesterday I returned from a month in Singapore & SE Asia (with spouse & kids), responsible for the paucity of recent posts. Definitely an interesting experience.

Singapore, where we spent the first 2 weeks, is better as a place to live than touristically. But there are a few good sites there. Most memorable, perhaps, was a feature at their aquarium that my kids were not alone in liking. The Singapore aquarium has a petting tank (!) with various small sharks and rays, including sting rays (presumably juveniles from their size) that have had their stingers removed.

The sharks pretty much just sit there on the bottom of the tank - these apparently don't have to keep moving in order to breathe - and let you feel their skin, which feels a bit like that of a snake. But the rays, which feel amazingly silky and smooth, keep surfacing and butting their heads against you in the hope of being fed small bits of fish. Quite a novel experience.

The other activity in Singapore that I enjoyed most was going to neighborhoods such as Chinatown, Little India, and Arab Street to wander around & then dine in small restaurants with very good and authentic food.

The class I was teaching in Singapore ended up being a great experience. It made me a lot more anxious than teaching usually does, because I was going solo for 3-1/4 hours a day, 4 days in a row on successive weeks, trying to teach very complex economic and tax policy ideas to a class of 17 or so students who were very good, and also very engaged, but who had next to no background either in tax law & policy or in public economics. This made it feel, the evening before each class, like I was going to be high-diving without a net. Would I be able to explain things well? Would the class run too fast or slow? Definitely an intense experience, but one that worked out really well. I felt that I was in reasonably good form on 7 of the 8 days, with a couple going really well. And on the day that I thought went badly, it was clear that I was unhappy about this & not blaming them, establishing a bit of credit for good faith.

After that stage we flew to Ho Chi Minh City, aka Saigon. For an American who grew up during the Vietnam War, definitely a notable experience to be there. It's a hectic and chaotic place. Crossing the street is a bit like playing a video game, only lots more dangerous. Continual hubbub with cars and millions of motorbikes. No one yields more than an inch short of collision. Touristically not that great from the standpoint of individually memorable sites, although the War Remembrance Museum was interesting. But my wife and I have always liked the aspect of traveling where you are trying to navigate in a foreign city, e.g., just trying to find a travel agent's office, and thus dealing with the map, crossing the streets, seeing the life there, going to markets, etc. So from that standpoint it was quite good for us though not for our kids.

Our big mistake on the trip was falling between two stools, the one that would have worked for my wife & me and the one that was best for our kids. E.g., if you go Ho Chi Minh or Hanoi (which we did later, see below), a central touristic focus should be getting out of town to some interesting sites nearby. From HCM, the obvious place to go is the Mekong Delta. From Hanoi, Sapa (mountains and hill tribes) and Halong Bay (limestone caves). But these side trips didn't seem feasible from the kids' standpoint, so we ended up just going to HCM and Hanoi.

Anyway, from HCM we proceeded to Siem Reap, Cambodia, the access point for Angkor Wat. We saw lots of amazing temples in different states of preservation. We also had a riverboat tour, seeing very poor people who live on the river or near it. Cambodia is a desperately poor country, beyond anything we'd seen apart from hill tribes in Thailand some years ago, and our guide was telling us about the corruption there, which has led him to be a tour guide even though he has a law degree. Highly recommended as a travel site.

Hanoi was less ramshackle than Saigon, a bit more appealing aesthetically (e.g., it has a nice lake in the center of town, maybe a mile walk to circumnavigate). Crossing the street here is even harder than in Saigon, however. One memorable bit involved the marketplace where they sell roast dog. Think of a skinned & barbecued whole pig if you've seen that, only it's definitely a dog, the whole body, which they slice with a giant cleaver if someone just wants part ... Our kids declined to go see this, and I can't say I blamed them, but I myself wouldn't have missed it.

Our final stage, definitely chosen for the kids though we enjoyed it too, was a beach resort in Phuket. The place we went, Le Meridien Phuket, has a private beach, so you can avoid the insane hubbub that makes most of Phuket so unpleasant, although for dinner you pretty much have to deal with it. One high point, I suppose, was taking second place in the resort's weekly ping pong championship. 15-year old Abdul of Bahrain, a tall, gangly kid who had a devastating forehand slam and seemingly a 20-foot wingspan, was the winner, although I had two match points against him. Good PR for America that I lost?

It is a bit awkward to be an American abroad in the age of Bush. I kept introducing myself as from New York City, to which they would answer "Oh, you're American." I realized that hardly anyone out there would understand the cultural distinction that I meant to draw by identifying myself as a New Yorker, rather than as an American, but I kept on trying anyway.


AlfDaBruin said...

You can also pet the stingrays (with their stingers removed) at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey, California.

Daniel Shaviro said...

Thanks - that's good to know, a bit more accessible from here than Singapore.