Super Special Singapore

Posted November 19, 2018 by Abra Bennett
Categories: French Letters Visits America

There’s something about Singapore, and I can’t get it out of my mind. People laugh at the fact that it’s a crime to bring chewing gum into Singapore, and complain that it’s a nanny state, but I love it anyway, at least what I know about it.

For one thing, there’s a beautiful mix of cultures, and, at least according to what my guides there told me, they all get along. This wedding bed is a gorgeous example of Peranakan culture, often called nyonya, a local mix of Chinese and Malay, that specializes in joyous colors.

I kind of wanted to buy everything in this shop.

These houses are part of what was once the city’s red light district.

There’s Muslim culture, centered around the Arab Street neighborhood, although the people aren’t Arabs, just Muslims, usually of Indonesian or Malay origin.

There you can see everything from traditional dress, gorgeously tempting modern fashion, and school kids dressed for a festival.

There are Christians, who are already preparing for Christmas.

There’s Chinatown,

with a museum celebrating the samsui women, Chinese women credited with doing much of the construction work in Singapore in the early 20th century.

In this Chinese temple,

there are amazing decorative friezes made entirely of hand-stitched embroidery done in China, where a few artisans still master this craft.

There’s Little India, where the characteristic Indian love of glitter, color, and flowers is in evidence everywhere.

I stalked this lady down the street, to get a shot of how she twisted strings of jasmine in her hair. My guide Gee-Soo got some flower chains for me, and I hung them in my cabin, where they perfumed the air for two days.

I was curious about housing, about how all of the folks who aren’t represented in “Crazy Rich Asians” live. The answer is that over 80% of Singaporeans own and live in apartments in buildings known as public housing, which are built and subsidized by the government.

Gee-Soo took me high up in one public housing building, to have a look. The views were pretty spectacular, especially as an epic rainfall was brewing.

This is the nicely-customized front entrance of one apartment.

There’s lots of lovely modern architecture as well, although the knife-edged building on the left was considered to have bad feng shui, and so the building on the right was constructed to deflect any negative energy its neighbor might be emitting.

We walked out of the apartment building into a downpour the likes of which I’ve seldom seen,

and I realized why most sidewalks in Singapore are at least partly covered, as we all huddled together, trying to stay dry.

Water is a serious issue in Singapore, and Gee-Soo told me that two out of every three raindrops falling on the island is captured for purification and reuse. Even toilet water is cleaned until it’s completely pure and goes back into the system.

This is also the only place I’ve ever seen electric cars available on the street for rental, using a tap-and-go card payment system.

And pour finir en beauté, as the French say, saving the best for last,

there’s the stupendous National Orchid Garden, every inch of which is groomed to perfection, where I could have stayed for days, or even weeks.

So that was my little peek at Singapore, and I spent quite a bit of time fantasizing about how I could move there, or at least make an extended visit.

Except for the weather, a combination of heat and humidity that taught me a whole new understanding of the perspiration process, it’s my ideal environment in so many ways.  But for now, on to Indonesia.

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Singapore, Just For The Food

Posted November 17, 2018 by Abra Bennett
Categories: Cruising

Tags: , ,

There are so many reasons to go to Singapore. In fact, after two days I was seriously trying to figure out how to spend a year there. And not the least of the reasons is the incredible food scene. If you love Hawaii for its mix of cultures and their foods, you will think you’re in heaven in Singapore, except for the weather. But that’s a subject for the next post. This one is all about the glory of the food.

My first day there I did a walking/bus/subway food tour. And even though it was 90° it was worth all the walking, just to find the best foods.

At our first stop my guide, Daryl, taught me how to eat the classic Singapore breakfast, kaya toast with half-boiled egg. The kaya toast didn’t impress me a lot, just super sweet, and not a lot of the coconut and pandan flavors that are its trademark. But the egg was really good. You crack a soft-boiled egg into a saucer, douse it extravagantly with ground white pepper, and splash it with a kind of sweet and salty soy sauce. Then, as Daryl showed me, you turn away from your dining companion and slurp it on one gulp.

Why turn away? Because sometimes you inhale just as the pepper hits your throat and you spew it all out in a fit of coughing. So he said. Not even being a soft-boiled egg person, let alone an egg-spewer, I took it in three discreet gulps. And I have to say that it was delicious.

Then we proceeded to travel to four hawker centers. This was an eating marathon, although it took us about seven hours to make our way through it all, and I mostly didn’t take pictures as I was too busy marveling at the food, a lot of which was brown and non-photogenic.

Each center looked more or less like this: a row of stalls lining narrow alleys, as far as the eye could see, and then, more rows just like this one, say 10-12 in each center. So hundreds of stalls, each with its own unique offering.

Along the way I tried to take surreptitious photos of people eating, but this lady caught me in the act, and didn’t look too happy about it. By the way, in case you’re noticing that the booths have English descriptions, English is one of the official languages of Singapore, so everybody speaks at least a bit and many people speak a lot.

Here’s a little food parade for you, a mix of prepared foods and market sightings, foods I ate and some that I didn’t. Because, although it seems like I ate everything in town, actually I didn’t even get to try the famous chili crab.

I did, however, eat chili frog legs, because they’re iconic, and because Daryl said I should.

I couldn’t decide between prawn noodles and live prawn noodles, so in the end, for noodle of the day,

I had laksa, with barbecued fish.

I didn’t have canned coffee, or these surprisingly Western-looking baked treats, but lots of people around us did.

The laksa came with eating instructions, and we dutifully used our spoons. I think it did taste better that way, because you get some of the spicy soup with each bite of noodles.

This crispy, baked char siu bao was probably the best I’ve ever had.

This “carrot cake” was what I would call steamed daikon cake, but in Singapore what we call daikon is called white carrot. It had a pudding-y texture, and when spread with the spicy sauce it was exactly what I wish I could eat for breakfast more or less every day of my life.

Wandering through the market made me long for a kitchen, the perennial desire of travelling cooks all over the world.

Perhaps you are thinking that Salted Egg Fish Skin doesn’t sound appetizing, but you have no idea. Daryl warned me not to eat them, “unhealthy, and addictive” he said. Right on both counts. I’m just glad I only bought one bag, because they absolutely impossible to stop eating. Trust me on this one.

All in all, I actually can’t think of a more interesting country in which to eat, with its culture of Malay, Chinese, and Indian influences. I just don’t know whether I could stand the heat enough to get into the kitchen. I’m still pondering that, though. It’s very tempting.

The Rise Of Saigon

Posted November 12, 2018 by Abra Bennett
Categories: French Letters Visits America

Tags: , , ,

I was nervous about going to Saigon, and have been having a hard time getting myself to write about it. In fact, it took two shots of espresso to get my fingers moving to tell you about this day.

I grew up marching in the streets against the war in Vietnam. I remember the fall of Saigon, and couldn’t understand how an American could be welcome there today, even 50 years later. But I went, and I’m glad I did.

We started at the Rex Hotel, on whose rooftop garden were held the infamous daily press briefings during the war, known as the “five o’clock follies,” the content of which fell generally in the category of fake news, fed by the military to a cynical press corps.

Today the rooftop is a bar, where you can drink a delicious Vietnamese coffee and almost forget that there ever was a war.

Except, see that low building almost in the center, in the deep shade? That’s the former CIA headquarters, on whose rooftop the famous photo of people scrambling frantically up a ladder into the last helicopter out of Saigon was shot.

Even though today the hotel sports a glamorous lobby

housing a Cartier shop, everyone remembers that the place had another, darker life.

We visited a Buddhist temple nearby.

where we wrote our names on pieces of paper and attached them to hanging coils of incense. In a few weeks, when the incense finally burns our names, we’ll have good luck. It’s a long game.

When I asked our guide how the Vietnamese can forgive Americans he said it’s because they’re Buddhists, believing in reincarnation, and because they’re Asian, believing in going with the flow and letting time pass. The wheel goes around, he said, and that was a long time ago.

We visited the post office, the first example of French Colonial architecture in Saigon. The French colonized Vietnam for more then 50 years. They’re long gone now, their main legacy being these beautiful buildings and the Vietnamese people’s enduring love of baguettes.

We visited a market, where you can have a suit made in just one day. Time flows differently here.

We visited a lacquer workshop. It’s an ancient art, but time has changed the artists’ perspective, and the subjects are vivid and new, touched by history.

And we went to the place no one wants to go: the War Remnants Museum. It was first called the Exhibition House for US and Puppet Crimes, then the name was changed to the Exhibition House for Crimes of War and Aggression, and now that we’ve somehow managed to establish a good relationship between our countries, it came into its present name. This museum, quite naturally, shows the war from the Vietnamese perspective. How could it be otherwise?

When I say that no one wants to go there, I mean that there were passengers on our cruise who refused to set foot in Vietnam at all, as well as some who went to Saigon but wouldn’t go to the museum. I know that I shuddered and took a deep breath before entering, and I saw others do the same.

It’s mostly a photographic exhibit, with detailed historical accounts in the captions. For that reason you have to get very, very close to each photo, if you want to read about it. Often it’s the photographer who wrote the caption, although there’s a section devoted to photographers from many countries who did not survive the war.

It was all terribly painful to see,

but I knew I couldn’t leave without finding the section on the My Lai massacre. I won’t tell the story here; if you don’t remember it you can look it up. But here’s a tiny part of how it looked.

The photographer had provided the caption for this last shot. He said that he saw soldiers surrounding this family, and asked them to wait while he took this photograph. He then turned his back and heard the gunfire. What you see here is the very last moments of the lives of these men, women, and children.

So that’s Saigon today, risen from the ashes.

In the van on the way back I was sitting in the very front seat, so I couldn’t see any of the nine people behind me. I said, to no one in particular, not knowing where anyone fell on the political spectrum, “All that, and 58,000 American lives lost too, for nothing.” And behind me I heard several voices echo emphatically “For nothing.” Then I said “And we never learn.” And others said, one after the other, “Never….Afghanistan…..Iraq”

That was one day in Saigon, one day spent in the dust of a war fought so long ago that all is now forgiven. Let it not be forgotten.

 

Street-Level Saigon

Posted November 9, 2018 by Abra Bennett
Categories: Cruising

Tags: , ,

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Our guide said that in Saigon there are 2.2 million vehicles, and 7.5 million scooters. I haven’t fact-checked him, but I have no reason to doubt his numbers. Until the moment was upon me I had forgotten that our tour of Saigon was supposed to include a ride in a tri-shaw, or cyclo as they’re called here. Take a careful look. See how it’s just a flimsy frame, allowing a passenger to perch precariously in front of someone who’s pedaling? See how said passenger is sitting well below the level of the other traffic? What you can’t see is how the cyclo I had to endure was pedaled by a guy who looked about 70, and weighed about half of what I do. Or less.

I admit to being petrified. Saigon traffic is already in the “shut your eyes and hope for the best” category, and to be right in the middle of it with nothing between you and the scooter that’s only a couple of inches away, well, it’s a sobering experience.

I know that this shot makes it look like traffic is politely waiting for us to cross in front, but no, not at all. These scooters and bikes were rushing directly at me and all I could do was hope that my skinny old guy could out-pedal them.

Fortunately these guys were on the other side of the road, on a portion of road that actually had another side, as opposed to a complete free for all.

To distract myself from what appeared to be my impending demise I just pointed my camera away from me and clicked semi-randomly. There were lots of shops lining the streets

 

although it wasn’t always obvious what they were selling.

We saw brightly colored funeral vehicles, in which families accompany the coffin to the cemetery.

We got a ground-floor look at typical apartments,

and saw how their essential services are delivered, which gives a whole new meaning to bundling utilities.

We saw scooters used as delivery vehicles,

and the Saigon version of Uber, called Grab, which delivers people via scooter. And we saw them all up very close and personal, because no, I wasn’t using any sort of zoom or telephoto lens, this is how close to my fragile self all of this traffic actually was.

Finally freed from this torture, the first thing I saw was this little altar, complete with open flame, in front of a truck. I joked that it was an altar to all the cyclo passengers killed by the truck, but upon reflection, I’m not so sure that was a joke. What other explanation could there be?

 

 

 

 

Not Loving Hong Kong

Posted November 6, 2018 by Abra Bennett
Categories: Cruising

Tags:

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Let’s just say that if you love the built environment, Hong may be your dream town. With a population of about 7.5 million, it’s one of the most densely populated places on the planet.DSC01486.JPG

And there are certainly plenty of beautiful skyscrapers, although the skyline doesn’t hold a candle to Shanghai’s. I just couldn’t get in sync with the place.

Maybe it was because I was coming down with a cold, but didn’t know it yet. Maybe it was because it took exactly two hours from the moment we stepped off the ship until the moment we finally had the tickets to the hop on-hop off  bus in our sweaty little hands. Maybe it was because the friends I was with had different goals for the day than I did. In any event, it was my hardest day so far.

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The day started off auspiciously enough as we docked in Hong Kong’s supernaturally green waters. Fast-forward through two exasperating hours of waiting in one line after another, and we were finally seated on the top of the bus. From there we saw

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buildings. Lots of buildings, and an amazing traffic scene.

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Cute little trolleys,

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some cuter than others,

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as well as some with surprising slogans.

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The crowds were epic, and this was a Sunday. We saw quite a few women in headscarves,

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in fact, hundreds of them were camped out on the ground in the park. And many hundred more women, sans headscarves, were camped out on the sidewalks and under overpasses. Later we learned that they are part of the 300,000 domestic workers, Indonesian and Filipino, who come to Hong Kong on two-year contracts. Evidently on their day off they gather together for chat and picnics, a taste of home, but alas, all too often it’s on a blanket on the ground under an overpass. It made me infinitely sad, to think of being away from home and family for two years and having to resort to the concrete solace of a sidewalk get-together.

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Personally, I was dying for some greenery. And for dim sum. I had enticed three fellow passengers with me for a dim sum lunch. What I didn’t realize was that they had no idea what dim sum entailed. So even though I took them to a carefully-researched place that I was sure they would love, because it’s the kind of place I love, the adventure was a total bust. They found the food too weird, and sorely lamented the lack of beer. Even though I found everything to be delicious, it was more or less spoiled by the fact that no one else was enjoying the experience. At least it was cheap, since I felt compelled to pick up the tab.

And to make matters worse, every single one of us had neglected to take a good look at where we had gotten off the bus, and we managed to get completely lost. It was very warm, the humidity was 90%, and everyone was thoroughly miserable, as you can imagine.

We ended up taking taxis home, thereby wasting the relatively stout fee we had paid for the bus, which didn’t help the situation.

One thing I found excellent was that people did speak English, and were willing to help. Two different people went out of their way to try to help us find our restaurant and later, our bus stop, a thing that wouldn’t have happened in, say, Beijing.

By the time I got back to the ship I was starting to realize that my nose was stuffing up and my throat was getting sore. That meant that I spent our second Hong Kong day napping and moping in my cabin, dosing myself with Sudafed, Advil, Ricola, and Eight Immortals Chinese herbal throat candy. Now that we’re in Asia, when we exit the ship we have to pass through temperature sensors. I don’t know what they do with people who have fevers, but I didn’t want to find out.

Who knows, maybe if I had dived back into Hong Kong on that second day everything would have gone swimmingly. But I really think that I’m just not cut out for traipsing around in big cities.

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See the pretty lights as far as the eye can see? Those are apartments. And I’m sure they’re coveted and hideously expensive, being right on the water. But to me living in a place like that would be pure hell.

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I have to admit, although it makes me feel like a Total Wuss and a Bad Traveler, that I was glad to see Hong Kong recede into the distance as we set sail for Vietnam.

Mysteries of Taipei

Posted November 6, 2018 by Abra Bennett
Categories: Cruising

Tags: , , ,

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When I was in Beijing’s Forbidden City I was told “There are no more ancient artifacts here, they were all stolen by Chiang Kai-Shek. You’ll see them in Taipei.”

So, when we got to Taiwan, I hopped into a taxi with a couple of my fellow passengers

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and headed to the National Palace Museum. It’s now home to about 700,000 of said treasures, some individual pieces of which are said to be worth 30 million dollars each.

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By accident we arrived just in time for one of two daily English-speaking tours, and if you go there, I suggest that you do too. There probably weren’t actually 700,000 people viewing the ancient beauties, but it sure felt like it. Everything is behind glass, and the line-ups to take pictures were sometimes seven of eight deep around each one.

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The museum holds what was formerly the Imperial collection, housed in the Forbidden City, which is now utterly bereft of treasure except for its architecture.

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As our guide pointed out several times, without actually addressing the question of whether the artifacts were stolen or not, it was the Imperial collection, and Chiang Kai-Shek was the head of the government when he, and a good part of the collection, re-located to Taiwan in the face of Mao Tse Tung’s onrushing army.

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So the treasures were either evacuated and rescued, or stolen, depending entirely on your perspective.

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This place is the absolute nexus  of the notion that history belongs to the story teller. My guide in Beijing and our taxi driver in Taipei were both 100% that their version of the events were correct, diametrically opposed though they were. Stolen or rescued, that is the question that history will not be able to answer.

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And since we’re on the eve of our own momentous election, I can’t help but reflect on how history will remember us.

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Of course, we leave behind our digital records. But as we have seen, even such sources of knowledge are ephemeral, can be erased, can be altered. These objects speak for themselves, wherever they may be, whatever they’re saying.

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Our museum guide did say that Taiwan and China are having discussions about whether to repatriate some of the collection,

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but in view of the “one China” policy, which holds that Taiwan is not an independent country but a part of China, it’s hard to imagine how those discussions will turn out.

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On the way to a hasty lunch in a basement food court, where I had an excellent bibimbap to make up for the fact that we aren’t going to Korea, we saw this upsetting sign. I couldn’t get anyone there to give a clear answer to my questions about what it was doing there, but my understanding is that it’s a longstanding protest in front of the German embassy, complaining about money people lost after Germany refused to honor bonds issued back in the 1920s. Longstanding disputes seem to be a specialty in the region.

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And then, we went to a temple that was unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.

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This is the Sung Shan Tzu Yu temple, a riot of color built in the 1750s. If I understood correctly the religion practiced there is a mix of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism.

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It was impressively gaudy, but filled with people seriously praying, in what appeared to be a random fashion, since no organized service or ritual was apparent.

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Incense burned everywhere, and was sold at little stalls that lined the interior of the temple.

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This fire was burning, and at another little stall people could buy joss paper, a beautiful red and gold confection,

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to cast into the fire representing a monetary offering to the deities.

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Or you could buy flower offerings and lay them on tables scattered throughout the temple, where various plates of food also sat.

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I would have liked to hear these giant bells and the drum, but we had to content ourselves with trying to understand what we were experiencing with only our eyes. And you have to admit, the entire place is a feast for the eyes.

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I wish we’d had a real guide, instead of a taxi driver with limited English, to help us figure things out. But all in all it was a day filled with beauty and mystery. And that was Taipei.

Onward to Hong Kong.

 

Wet And Hungry In Keelung

Posted November 3, 2018 by Abra Bennett
Categories: Cruising

Tags: ,

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When you’re on a cruise ship and you want to go to Taipei, you have to dock in Keelung, about an hour away. We had a fire boat escort as we came into Keelung port, although it was so rainy that the water spray wasn’t as dramatic as it might have been on a drier day. Still, it was a friendly gesture.

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We passed some Taiwanese Navy ships as we came into port.

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The port itself is very unprepossessing, although the pagoda-topped skyline adds interest.

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However, this community band played their hearts out for us in the cavernous and echoing arrival hall, which took a lot of the sting out of our soggy arrival.

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I skipped lunch on the ship so that I could venture out to the night market, which actually opens around 2:00. There were lots of beautiful things for sale.

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But I was holding out for a Taiwanese specialty I’d read about, oyster omelette. And here’s where cats came back into the picture. Remember how I said that Japanese cats wouldn’t talk to me? Well, it turns out that Taiwanese cats will.

I stopped to talk to a pretty Taiwanese cat sitting in the door of a dress shop, and several young women gathered around and were all cooing at the pretty kitty. One woman, next to me, said in English “beautiful cat.” So right away I said “Yes, and he speaks English.” She looked puzzled, and I explained that American cats say meow meow, and she said that Taiwanese cats say miao miao, which is the same thing. I decided to take advantage of her language skills, and asked her about oyster omelettes.

She asked “How you know?” and when I said “Google” she laughed and escorted me into the market to the place she thought made the best oyster omelettes. She even ordered for me, before shaking my hand and leaving me to enjoy my lunch.

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When I saw this huge bowl full of tiny oysters and giant cakes of ice I was thrilled, not wanting to catch any icky mollusk-related diseases from warm oysters. Later I thought to worry about the ice itself, but decided not to. And that was a good call, because the omelette was delicious, and I lived to tell the tale.

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The vendor tossed a handful of oysters and a handful of greens on the griddle, doused them with a thin batter, then cracked an egg into it all and tossed and folded it together.

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As I ate it I watched her stoke her stove with shovelfuls of small pieces of coal.

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Still hungry, I browsed the market for a second course. I found these fried Chinese sausages, although I was concerned for a moment that they might be some sort of penises, and something like fish sticks. Again I worried momentarily about sanitation and bacteria and all that jazz, but the vendor cut up my order and flashed it through some spitting-hot oil before serving it to me, and all was well. And really good, too.

I’m amazed at how many, or even most, of my fellow passengers fear the delicacies that are all around them and only eat on the ship. Whereas I find the ship’s menu insufferably bland,and am so glad to eat on shore. Although, after a month of begging, I have finally convinced the dining room staff to serve me dinner from the Indonesian crew’s mess hall, and that has improved my dinners immeasurably.

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Walking back to the ship I crossed paths with this totally mysterious art installation. Little chairs, floating in the river, unless it’s a canal. I have no idea what it means – you tell me.